Don’t be afraid: “Seamus Heaney & the Music of What Happens” (Arena, BBC2; dir. Adam Low)

This splendid documentary was released in 2019 on what would have been Seamus Heaney’s eightieth year. It was repeated on BBC4 last St Patrick’s Day. For various reasons, I’ve had a hiatus from Heaney’s work since reading Stepping Stones, a book of interviews with another late Irish poet, Dennis O’ Driscoll, considered his unofficial autobiography. (The writer Fintan O’Toole is said to be working on an authorised life of the poet). Heaney is never far from my mind, though, and this seemed like the perfect invitation back into the world of his work.

The documentary opens with his daughter, Catherine, talking about his death and in that sense is structured like a traditional obituary. She recounts that his final text to her mother (his wife, Marie), ended, Noli Timere. Don’t be afraid (a Latin phrase that comes down to us as a kind of refrain in the Gospels). It’s now painted in huge letters on a gable-end wall in Dublin.

This programme achieves a sense of closeness with the poet, and therefore a sense of loss, largely through interviews with his loved ones. As well as his immediate family, three of his brothers appear, as do his friends, Michael and Edna Longley, and his protege, Paul Muldoon. Each poem starts with someone close to him reading, and merges into sound recordings of the poet himself, which both lifts the poems and creates a sense of Heaney as a kind of revanent, haunting the living – a theme which runs through his own late work. An exception is the short poem, ‘Song’ where old footage from the 1970s shows Heaney introducing the poem’s origins in Irish mythology, then reciting the poem which ends, “And that moment when the bird sings very close/ To the music of what happens.” Later, Helen Vendler, his friend and Harvard scholar Emerita, explains that it serves as a manifesto of sorts for his work as a whole: a capsule or miniature.

The documentary then follows the contours of his life, his widow reading an early love poem, ‘Tate’s Avenue’, which locates their relationship in pre-Troubles (“locked-park Sunday”) Belfast; then back in time: his youngest brother Dan Heaney reads from a late poem, ‘Out of the Bag’ in which the child Seamus takes literally the story his mother tells him that the family doctor brings his brothers and sisters. He imagines them being carried in in doctor Kerlin’s leather bag. One of his most famous poems ‘Digging’ follows, then the wonderful ‘Mossbaun: Sunlight’ in dedication to his aunt Mary, about her baking bread, which his brother Charlie names his favourite poem: “Here is love/ like a tinsmith’s scoop,” it ends, “sunk past its gleam/ in the meal bin.” This is followed by ‘Midterm Break’, about the tragedy of his four year old brother Christopher dying in a road accident in the early 1950s. “You don’t forget things like that,” Charlie Heaney recalls.

The programme then moves to his Belfast years, meeting his wife, Marie, and friend, Michael Longley. She reads ‘Twice Shy’ (an early love poem); he ‘Personal Helicon’, dedicated to Longley, who recalls going on civil rights marches with the Heaneys who he says were their first Catholic friends. He describes the first five years of the Troubles (1968-72) as “almost unendurable to remember.” Marie Heaney tells a similar story; Belfast really was in flames, she says. It was at the end of this period, in 1972, that the Heaneys moved from the city to Glanmore Cottage in County Wicklow, which became for Heaney what Dove Cottage in Cumbria was to Wordsworth. Old footage runs of Heaney’s television work in 1970s in which he describes the place as “an elemental power-point plugged into the landscape”. It is clear that he is also describing his own relationship with Glanmore Cottage. Marie Heaney reads from ‘Glanmore Sonnets: III’, in which he sets them up as ‘Dorothy and William’, and “She interrupts:/ You’re not going to compare us to…?”, keeping him grounded, or as he might have said himself, ‘earthed’.

There is still debate about why the Heaneys left the North. They are on record saying that they were looking for a place in Northern Ireland when they were offered Glanmore by Ann Saddlemyer for a peppercorn rent (she later sold them the place). Probably the reasons were mixed. Their oldest son, Michael Heaney comments that “a four year-old and a six-year old had registered that the place was going to hell in a handcart”. My feeling is that Heaney needed the distance to really start writing about the North with his characteristic humane, but clear-eyed precision. His landmark collection, North was published in 1975. Paul Muldoon reads ‘Punishment’, and Marie Heaney, ‘Exposure’, which she describes as one of his most important poems. A poem about his leaving the north, in which there’s a brilliant flash of self-portraiture, “an inner-emigre, grown long-haired/ And thoughtful; a wood-kern escaped from the massacre.” The director, Adam Low (or perhaps his editor), expertly synchronises images from the troubles with the lines of the poem, so that “feeling/ Every wind that blows” and “blowing up these sparks” accompanies documentary footage of a huge car bomb exploding, or “what is said behind backs” is matched with small children throwing stones at soldiers on patrol.

The section on the Troubles ends with Heaney’s elegy for his second cousin, Collum McCartney, killed returning from a football game in the Republic. Night-time shots of the border roads segue into those of Cambridge, Massachusetts to cover Heaney’s years at Harvard. Two prominent African-American poets, Kevin Young and Tracy K. Smith talk about his influence on their work and read a poem each, ‘The Skunk’ and ‘Alphabets’. If this film has shortcomings, it would be difficult to name them without descending into quibbling. If anything, it would have been nice to have seen a longer film, but then this would change the shape and rhythm of the piece. There is nothing on his translations, but then the film is essentially a personal one by those who knew and loved him, and it’s more affecting for it. There’s a good balance of the personal lyrics and more public poems, although there is plenty of evidence for Heaney’s vocation, “when I do write something,/…I’ll be writing for myself” (‘The Flight Path’).

There are gifts to be gathered that sometimes seem to have a life of their own beyond the poems. The apprehension that opens his poem ‘Wedding Day’, “I am afraid”, becomes his exhortation, noli timere: don’t be afraid. The tragedy of his cousin Collum McCartney returning from a football match becomes transposed into a standing ovation at the all-Ireland final at Croke Park on 1st September 2013. “I can think of no other country where a football crowd will have a minute’s silence and cheer a poet,” his wife says. A poet born fit for it.

I have previously written on Heaney here:

Known and Strange Things: Two poems by SH:

Exposure: the personal and collective voice in SH’s poetry:

The Translations of Seamus Heaney, edited by Marco Sonzogni is out in hardback (Faber, 2022)

© Benedict Gilbert 2023

The Lord of Song: “Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, a Journey, a Song”

This new documentary is based on the book, The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley and the unlikely ascent of ‘Hallelujah’, published a decade ago by the music journalist, Alan Light (Atria Books, 2012). In it he charts how Cohen worked with producer John Lissauer on his 1984 album, Various Positions, after his disastrous experience with Phil Spector on Death of a Ladies Man (in which Spector is said to have held a revolver to Cohen’s head saying, “I f___ing love you, Leonard!” / “I hope you do, Phil”), and before his resurgence with I’m Your Man in 1988. Various Positions was ultimately rejected by the record label, Columbia, effectively ending Lissauer’s career in music production. “We know you’re great, Leonard,” Cohen himself was told; “we just don’t know if you’re any good!” The documentary (Daniel Geller, Dayna Goldfine, 2022) tells the story of a single song and its unusual life (and afterlife), the way that, for example, Matthew Hollis has just written a single study, or ‘biography’ of T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland.

Before Cohen and Lissauer went into the studio to record, the song had already had an early life of its own – a kind of painful adolescence. Light recounts the story of Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen meeting in Paris. “Dylan asked me how long it took me to write,” Cohen reported. “I told him a couple of years. I lied, actually. It was more than a couple of years. Then I praised a song of his […] and asked him how long it had taken and he said ‘fifteen minutes'” (The Holy or the Broken, p. 2). ‘Hallelujah’ was said by Cohen to have as many as eighty verses, and by one (probably apocryphal) estimate to have one hundred and eighty. This struggle for the song to come into being lyrically is significant, I think.

Both the documentary and the book it is based on chart the life of Cohen’s song and the album itself, from rejection, to John Cale’s cover; to Jeff Buckley’s rendition based on Cale’s version. In fact, Buckley didn’t hear Cohen’s original until after he had created his own haunting interpretation of the song. Each added something to the life – or lives – of the song. Alan Light goes into some detail about Buckley’s rise to fame, or perhaps cult status is closer to it, and his tragic early death, drowning in a tributary of the Mississippi in late May 1997. Like another 1990’s adventurer and outsider, Chris McCandless – who disappeared into the Alaskan wilderness in John Krauker’s factual account, Into the Wild (1996) – mystery surrounds the death of both men.

In any case, Jeff Buckely’s demise contributed to the cult status of his only studio album, Grace (1994). Light points out that Leonard Cohen had retreated to the Calfornian Buddhist monestery on Mount Baldy by the time Jeff Buckley’s fame was breaking. By the late 1990s, when he came down from the mountain, Cohen had been defrauded by his manager and some-time friend, Kelley Lynch, a personal calamity that sent him back on the road – although he seemed to take it as one who in suffering all, suffers nothing. In the meantime, Jeff Buckely had died tragically and the song, Hallelujah continued to gradually seep into the culture, although not yet the mainstream. Buckley’s version of the song is certainly beautiful. I think it is telling, though, that in an interview, asked if he thought Leonard Cohen had heard the song, he replied, “I hope he never hears it.” Explaining that he feared his rendition was a boy’s version.

But you don’t know what you’re singing, do ya?

In the late 1990s, Hallelujah was picked up by the production team on the animated film Shrek (1997). Following the popularity of the film, Alan Light points out that a new generation was introduced to the song, and crucially that different versions of the lyrics were in circulation at the same time. Post-Shrek, the song featured in the US music channel VH1’s 9/11 tribute and from there it could be co-opted by the music talent shows in the UK, Europe and the US – Britain’s Got Talent, The X-Factor, American Idol, etc, with a notable ‘Witney-fied’ version by Alexandra Burke. Light suggests that the proliferation of the song tends to privilege “sentiment over meaning”, draining the song of its more complex textures. This raises the question of what the song does in fact mean.

Even though it all went wrong:

Despite the process of writing Hallalujah clearly being a protracted struggle, Leonard Cohen himself describes the creative process as gift, a grace. Talking about what songs and poems mean “frightens the muses,” Cohen has said. According to Harry Freedman, “[he] has described Hallelujah as a song about a conflicted world in which there are things that cannot be reconciled” (p. 58). Certainly the song has been adopted for different purposes: romantic, tragic, religious, sentimental. For Jeff Buckley, the song was fundamentally an erotic-romantic one – “a youthful vision of romantic agony and sexual triumph” (Light, p. 66). However, Alan Light observes that Buckley’s version loses the humour and irony of the original. So, for example, the third line of the first verse, “…But you don’t really care for music, do you?” loses its bathos – where irony deflates the seriousness of the opening lines (“I heard there was a secret chord,/ That David played and it pleased the Lord…”). Something like Philip Larkin’s line in his poem ‘Wild Oats’, “…and her friend in specs I could talk to” – both poets puncture the sense of their own gravity.

This is something most cover versions lose – whether intimate or operatic. In his original, however, Cohen can ride both horses, and the song quickly recovers its strong romantic strain, “Your faith was strong but you needed proof,/ You saw her bathing on the roof;/ Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew you…” It seems to me that his song is essentially about the contradictory drives of physical and spiritual desire – hence his identification with the two Old Testament Jewish patriarchs, King David and Samson, both undone by their worldly desire for beautiful women. This tensile relationship can be felt in the shift from the triumphant chorus to the tormented verses, perhaps reaching their zenith with the lines, “I did my best, it wasn’t much,/ I couldn’t feel, so I learned to touch./ I’ve told the truth, I didn’t come to fool you.” Here, years of the singer’s messy personal life are distilled brilliantly into a few lines – part confession, part artist’s credo. “In your work,” he says, “you can refine your character, that’s where you can order your world. You’re stuck with the consequences of your actions, but in your work you can go back” (in Sylvie Simmons, I’m Your Man, p. 337).

Key cover versions of the song tend to omit certain verses (“You say I took the name in vain;/ I don’t even know the name…”) and also follow the structure of Jeff Buckley’s seminal interpretation. That is to say, ending on the verse, “Maybe there’s a God above,/ but all I ever learned from love,/ is how to shoot at someone who outdrew you.” This suggests a more agnostic ending to the song. While it’s certainly a song about doubt, Cohen’s Hallelujah – and certainly his late live performances – all end on the lines: “and even though it all went wrong,/ I’ll stand before the Lord of Song,/ with nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah” – aligning the final verse with the chorus – and as close as one can get to the Psalms in contemporary culture.

Alan Light’s book, and the documentary based on it are certainly welcome additions to the material that has grown up around Leonard Cohen’s music. A slight weakness of the book might be that it spends as long following the cover versions and those who made them, quoting them extensively. This can be slightly awkward where the song knows more than the singers. Cohen himself recorded Hallelujah in his early 50s. He struggled to write it, it was then rejected, covered, and re-discovered, before taking off into the stratosphere of popular culture where most of its subtleties inevitably vaporised. After all, what T.S. Eliot would call a “raid on the inarticulate” had to be made understandable to a very wide audience. It also arguably took until Cohen’s 70s to really learn to master the song, even tweaking some of the lyrics from the cover versions. Hallelujah appeared on the same album as ‘If it be your will’, which Leonard Cohen described on stage as “…a song; well, it’s more of a prayer…”


Alan Light, The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley and the unlikely ascent of ‘Hallelujah’ (Atria Books, 2012)
Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, a Journey, a Song, directed by Daniel Geller, Dayna Goldfine (Sony Pictures, 2022)
Harry Freedman, Leonard Cohen: the Mystical roots of Genius (Bloomsbury Continuum, 2021)
Sylvie Simmons, I’m Your Man: the Life of Leonard Cohen (2012; 2017)

I’ve previously written about Leonard Cohen in the links below:

For my money, the best version of the song, after LC’s is Daniel Kahn’s Yiddish-language version, available on YouTube

“When they poured across the border:” Reflections on Leonard Cohen & Ilya Kaminsky

I’ve just finished reading Sylvie Simmons’ excellent biography, I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen, and have been reflecting on the magnificent sweep of his career. In the last few years, I’ve been listening almost exclusively to his late work, especially the live albums, so it’s been good to revisit how his writing developed.

In the middle part of his career, Leonard Cohen’s work took a dystopian turn in the albums I’m Your Man (1988) and The Future (1992). He continued to perform some of the songs from these albums in his live shows – ‘Everybody Knows’, ‘The Future’, ‘Anthem’. But in fact, tucked in among his more personal lyric songs, there were hints of this political strain in his writing in his early rendition of the Resistance song, ‘The Partisan’ on his second studio album, Songs from a Room (1969).

‘The Partisan’, live in Helsinki (2008)

Cohen learned the song aged 15 at summer camp. In the sleeve notes of his 1975 album, Greatest Hits, he comments that “I developed the curious notion that the Nazis were overthrown by music.” In his late concert in London in 2008, he tells the audience, “Friends, we’re so privileged to be able to gather at moments like this when so much of the world is plunged in darkness and chaos. So, ring the bells that still can ring…” He segues into the song ‘Anthem’, with its refrain, there is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in. Despite his change in outlook six decades later (that the world can’t be saved by music), there’s a certain continuity here – searching out light in the darkness. This is a song that has come into sharp focus for me in these last terrible weeks: “The wars, they will be fought again…”, he tells us. And:

“I can’t run no more
With that lawless crowd,
While the killers in high places
Say their prayers out loud.”

‘Anthem’, The Future (1992)
‘Anthem’, live in London

Another is ‘In My Secret Life’:

“Look through the paper, makes you want to cry,
Nobody cares if the people live or die.”

Lines that one can innocently hum along to while relaxing at home – making coffee at work, looking out of the window on a train – one moment, can suddenly come alive and seem prophetic the next. Or, as he says himself: “A riddle in the book of love,/ Obscure and obsolete,/ Till witnessed here in time and blood,/ A thousand kisses deep.” (Recitation / A Thousand Kisses Deep).

In a time when political statement is very fashionable in poetry, there’s something about serious art that resists being reduced to rhetoric, ideology, but is also deeply responsive to quiverings and shifts in the inner compass. What Seamus Heaney called the Republic of Conscience. Great writing, of course, is firmly on the side of humanity. Take the heavyweights Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky; the poet Anna Akhmatova, all with their concern for moral and physical suffering, the dignity of the lone human person – the “naked man and woman” (‘Everybody Knows’).  

In early 2020 I saw the Ukrainian-Jewish-American poet Ilya Kaminsky read at the T.S. Eliot Prize readings in London. (He didn’t win the prize, although it seemed to me that he should have done). Kaminsky read from his second collection, Deaf Republic (2019), a drama in free verse which tells the story of an imagined town, Vasenka, traumatised by occupation. When a deaf boy is shot in a protest against the occupiers, the town falls silent and communicates solely in Sign Language as a form of resistance. The poems are interspersed with signs for: Hide. Soldiers. Story. Be good. The town watches.

In the opening poem, which the poet read that evening, the speaker tells us: “we protested/ but not enough.” And, “I took a chair outside and watched the sun.” The poem ends: “…in the street of money in the city of money in the country of money,/ in our great country of money, we (forgive us)/ lived happily during the war.”

In his first collection, Dancing in Odessa (2004), the parallel opening stand-alone poem ends with a kind of Cohen-esque prayer:

“For whatever I say/ is a kind of petition, and the darkest/ days I must praise.”

© Benedict Gilbert 2022


You can hear ‘We lived happily during the war’ read here by Padraig O’Tuama:

Sylvie Simmons, I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen (Vintage: 2012; 2017)
Leonard Cohen, Greatest Hits (Columbia, 1975)
Live in London: 17th July 2008 (Sony Music)
Leonard Cohen, Poems & Songs: Ed. Robert Faggen (Everyman)

Ilya Kaminsky, Deaf Republic (Faber, 2019);
Dancing in Odessa (2004; Faber, 2021)

Featured image: Pexels free images

I previously wrote about Leonard Cohen below:

‘I only am escaped alone to tell thee’: Bob Dylan’s Tempest

With Bob Dylan turning 80 last month, when I thought of a song to revisit, my mind went almost immediately to the title track on his penultimate album of original music, Tempest (2012). The song charts the sinking of the Titanic a century earlier in April 1912, and is based on a ballad by The Carter Family.

He captures a sense of the inevitability of the tragedy: “the promised hour was near,” he sings. It is the prophetic figure of the watchman who first intuits that something is wrong, while Leo (a painter), sees “water on the quarterdeck,/ Already three foot deep.” The force of the sinking then overwhelms the story.” With great narrative economy and elegance, we are told simply:

The engines then exploded
Propellers they failed to start
The boilers overloaded
The ship’s bow split apart.

Bob Dylan, ‘Tempest’, (Tempest, 2012)

They tried to understand:

Into this well-known story of terrible destruction, Dylan introduces a series of mainly fictional characters who seem to represent by turns heroism, innocence, self-preservation. In this way, the song presents a kind of Blakean vision of the disaster, marked by intense visual imagery.

Dylan introduces Wellington, whom he describes as valiant, the bishop (“turned his eyes up to the heavens,/ Said the poor are yours to feed”), and Jim Dandy who gives up his seat to a “little crippled child” – suggesting a sense of transcendent grace in these acts of self-sacrifice. This is reinforced by the idea of innocence: “Mothers and their daughters/ Descending down the stairs/ Jumped into the icy waters / Love and pity sent their prayers.”

Where Dylan describes acts of panic or violence, they tend to be associated not with individuals, but whole groups of people and perhaps function on a more archetypal level: “Brother rose up against brother/ In every circumstance…”; “There were traitors, there were turncoats/ Broken backs and broken necks.” There’s a clear focus on the horror of the event, but he also suggests the selflessness or desperation of loved ones clinging to each other in the freezing water.

But there is no understanding:

He also makes careful use of ambiguity. For example, the brothel-keeper, Davey, “came out dismissed his girls/ Saw the water getting deeper,/ Saw the changing of his world.” Aside from the surreal image of a brothel on board a luxury Edwardian liner, Dylan does not say what this transformation entails: on one level, it seems to be a kind of Sodom & Gomorrah-moment (worldly lust swept aside by approaching death), but into this silence could move other possibilities. Dylan also reserves comment on “the rich man, Mr Astor,” except to say that he “kissed his darling wife,” a moving image of a protective, uxorious man. Accounts record that J. J. Astor, the richest man on board, asked to remain in the lifeboat with his (much younger, pregnant) second wife, Madeleine, but was declined. According to witnesses, he was last seen smoking on the starboard bridge with another man – contemporary writer, Jacques Futrelle). Astor’s wife survived the sinking.

Others were not so lucky: “They drowned upon the staircase,/ Of brass and polished gold.”

Finally, Dylan describes three men: “Calvin, Blake and Wilson,/ Gambled in the dark,” a brilliant image which conjures their hands and the playing cards without so much as mentioning either. Again, this line has the ring of the richly symbolic about it. It also typifies Dylan’s lyrical style in this song, one characterised by chiaroscuro – the play of dark and light. For example, when Jim Dandy gives his seat to the disabled boy, we are told: “he saw the star light shining/ Streaming from the east…” which lifts the song with a sense of mysticism – perhaps suggesting the stars seen through his tears or even the bending of time itself. Dylan weaves these patterns of religious or visionary language throughout the ballad; the angels turning aside at the beginning of the song; at the end, the Captain is described:

In the dark illumination
He remembered bygone years
He read the book of Revelations
And he filled his cup with tears

‘Tempest’ – Dylan’s Blakean vision of the tragedy.

The song is more or less in twelve-eight time, with a melody both jaunty and mournful. Within this, Dylan uses a steady poetic trimetre (“The pale moon rose in its glory…”), fitting for a ballad. Interestingly, Thomas Hardy uses the same metre with three prominent stresses in his poem written just after the tragedy, ‘The Convergence of the Twain.’ Both suggest what, in retrospect, seems like the inevitability of a catastrophe that has already happened. Layered over this, the violin and accordion in ‘Tempest’ suggest both tragedy and the slightly comforting distance of the ballad’s narrative form – ‘a sad sad story.’ In this way the song could be seen as a romantic view of the tragedy, a story of horror and emptiness, or a religious parable about redemption, not to say the now-standard readings of the disaster (one of social injustice and human arrogance). What should we make of the penultimate verse, for example? “News came over the wires,/ And struck with deadly force,/ Love had lost its fires,/ All things had run their course”?

However we receive the song, Dylan seems to descend into the wreckage of the ship’s final hours in a way that resurrects the awful lived-moment of the sinking within the consoling warmth of a song altogether lit from within.


Lyrics available at:, © 2012 by Special Rider Music

I previously wrote about the songs Key West and Murder Most Foul from Bob Dylan’s most recent album, Rough & Rowdy Ways (links below).

A big thank you to the editors at Expecting Rain for re-posting my article on Key West this month (17/06/21).

The Carter Family, ‘The Titanic’

Featured image: Pexel free photos.

Content: © Benedict Gilbert 2021

Give me your arm, Old Toad! Larkin Revisited

I. What else can I answer? “Both conversational and lyrical,” the biographer Claire Tomalin has said. And elsewhere: “he wrote in a tradition that valued formal structure, but his voice is entirely his own.”

She was writing not about Philip Larkin (1922–1985), but Thomas Hardy, whose poetry was the greatest influence on Larkin’s mature work. All these things could be said of Larkin himself, though, despite the differences between the two poets. In fact, it was arguably Hardy who enabled Larkin to write most like himself by allowing him to write directly about his own experiences and to do so in a vernacular key. Consider this from near the end of ‘Toads Revisited’ (a poem about how we need work for the shape, meaning and distraction it provides us in our lives). The tone is honest, rueful, knowing; the symbolism naturalistic, with a dash of quirky surrealism:

“What else can I answer,

When the lights come on at four,
At the end of another year?
Give me your arm, old toad;
Help me down Cemetery Road.

‘Toads Revisited’, The Whitsun Weddings (1964)

Larkin was a complex man often over-simplified – not least by the public persona he helped to encourage. A kind of strategy to retain his privacy and most likely guard the sources of his writing – a fragile, irregular thing. He was a prolific author of letters and diaries, yet his poetic output was slight (four slim volumes in as many decades). Accused of misanthropy and misogyny, but capable of great affection and tenderness; death-obsessed, melancholy, an occasional bon viveur. Very funny, but often unkind in his private comments. A lover of jazz (pre-Charlie Parker). A progressively heavy drinker. Larkin was quietly rebellious, somewhat reclusive; an outsider, a reactionary anti-modernist. A poet shy of publicity but unafraid of controversy.

Philip Larkin at the Brynmor Jones Library, University of Hull, 1969

II. A Writer’s Life: In his superb biography, Philip Larkin: A Writer’s Life, Andrew Motion charts his development as a sometime novelist, and young poet (influenced by Yeats and Auden) – to the growth of his mature style. The two men were friends towards the end of Larkin’s life.

Motion points out that rather than turn his back on the lyrical, symbolist influence of W. B. Yeats, he instead learned to control this impulse, which breaks out at key moments, creating instances of ‘lift off’, often at the end of poems (Our Life in Poetry). He points to notable examples, such as the end of ‘The Whitsun Weddings’, with the newly married couples released, “like an arrow shower […] somewhere becoming rain.” And also to ‘High Windows’, a poem fuelled by sexual jealousy of the young, which ends with “the thought of high windows/… the deep blue air, that shows/ Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless.” Commentators variously dispute whether these windows represent the Brynmor Jones Library where he worked in Hull, a tower-block, a hospital, or the stained-glass windows of a church (“the sun-comprehending glass”). And further, what the emptiness beyond might signify (something to fear or celebrate?) Since Larkin rarely discussed the meaning of his work or gave public readings, this remains pleasingly unresolved.

Motion also considers what fired Larkin’s writing, arguing that his work is as much about life and relationships as it is about death. Despite several close friendships with men (most notably the writer Kingsley Amis at Oxford in the 1940s), all Larkin’s most important relationships, he points out, were with women: his mother, Eva, and the principal women with whom he conducted simultaneous affairs – Monica Jones and Maeve Brennan. These relationships can be traced through his writing. What is interesting, though, is that despite the vernacular language and clear references to lived experience, the direct origins of these experiences remain deliberately vague.

Being interviewed by John Betjeman, Monitor (BBC, 1964); the rabbit at Larkin’s elbow a likely private reference to Monica Jones.

III. Veiled Autobiography: Larkin wrote a number of poems about the women with whom he was intimately involved. In ‘Wild Oats’, written about his first girlfriend, Ruth Bowman, he describes “a ten guinea ring/ I got back in the end,” and concludes dryly, that he was “too selfish, withdrawn,/ And easily bored to love./ Well, useful to get that learnt.” The final line here suggests a veneer of self-protecting irony. He wrote ‘Broadcast’ for Maeve Brennan (“Your hands, tiny in all that air, applauding”). ‘Talking in Bed’ is about Monica Jones, in which he struggles to find words “not untrue and not unkind” – although he also wrote plenty of very kind words to her in their private letters (addressing her as Dear Bun, or Dearest Rabbit).

For Eva Larkin (whom he affectionately called Mops, or his ‘old creature’), he wrote poems such as ‘Love Songs in Age’ (about her sheet music), in which he describes how “she kept her songs, they took so little space.” He employs the same traditional iambic pentameter for the poem ‘Maiden Name’, with the beautifully lyrical, “Its five light sounds no longer mean your face” (written for Winifred Arnott of whom he was especially fond in his 20s). These poems reveal, as Sean O’Brien says, “a remarkable sympathy for women’s lives” (The Firebox, p. 83), which challenges the view of Larkin as simply misogynistic. Nevertheless, he could behave shabbily when it came to his intimate relationships, especially regarding Maeve Brennan, with whom he conducted a seventeen-year affair only to finally leave her for Monica Jones. Motion observes that by sustaining two relationships simultaneously, he kept himself free of commitment to either woman. He suggests, rather brilliantly, that if Larkin was slightly too happy or unhappy, he couldn’t produce poems: “rarely did his life attain the right emotional temperature for writing,” he says (p.278).

There was obviously a reason Larkin kept the origins of his poems obscure (as poets often do), and although this kind of biographical trowel-work is interesting, there must be more to the poems than uncovering personal revelation, or why would we still read them so closely? It was clear that Larkin both wanted and needed a carefully guarded private life in order to write. Poetry that was both a slim and a rich harvest. Tellingly, in ‘Forget What Did’, he writes (of the things recorded in his diary) that when he stopped writing, he:

wanted them over,
Hurried to burial,
And looked back on

Then the poem flashes brilliantly:

Like the wars and winters
Missing behind the windows
Of an opaque childhood

‘Forget What Did’, High Windows (1974)

Again, windows signal something unknowable. Interestingly, it was these diaries that Monica Jones destroyed after his death, at Larkin’s request.

Looked back on, what stands out about Larkin’s mature poetry is the versatility of his writing, from the discursive thread of private thought (as in one of my favourite poems, ‘Dockery & Son’), to the near-visionary (like ‘Livings II’ – although these moments seem always transitory in Larkin, fleeting); to a close, if personal documentation of post-war Britain into the 1970s. Despite his preoccupation with death and emotional failure, he can display a surprising range, with “remarkable combinations of scale and detail” (O’Brien, p. 83), spanning his modest oeuvre. As in ‘The Whitsun Weddings’, he was the great observer, “on the edge of things” (Monitor). He combined an almost cinematic sweep with extreme close ups of familiar, often difficult feelings which he unfolds to the reader in a nuanced, if irresolute way. Larkin’s view of life may be bleak, but his poetry provides a certain consolation through recognition of our common failures. His voice remains inimitable and instantly recognisable. He was a kind of secular suburban Psalmist of the mid-Twentieth Century. And as T. S. Eliot said of him: “He makes words do what he wants.”

© Benedict Gilbert 2021

References in this post:

Featured image: Philip Larkin by Fay Godwin, 1969. © The British Library Board (Wikipedia: Assumed Fair Use)

Claire Tomalin, Thomas Hardy: the Time-Torn Man (Penguin, 2007); xviii
Poems of Thomas Hardy (Selected and Introduced by Claire Tomalin), (Penguin, 2007), xiv—xv
Andrew Motion, Philip Larkin: A Writer’s Life (Faber, 1993; 2018)
Philip Larkin, Collected Poems, (Anthony Thwaite, Ed.), (Faber, 1998)
Our Life in Poetry: Motion on Larkin (Youtube)
Sean O’Brien, The Firebox: Poetry in Britain & Ireland after 1945 (Picador, 1998)
Anthony Thwaite (Ed.) Philip Larkin: Letters to Monica (Faber, 2010)

Of the documentaries about Larkin, the Monitor/BBC, Down Cemetery Road (1964), was made during his lifetime, as was The Southbank Show (1982). Of the more recent documentaries, Love & Death in Hull (2003) is an interesting if slightly generalised look at his life and work, although it does have some very valuable interviews, for example with Maeve Brennan. A. N. Wilson’s Return to Larkinland (2015) is a compassionate look at Larkin’s legacy, by another old friend. The most comprehensive is Philip Larkin: Bookmark (1993). Philip Larkin reading his poems is available in The Sunday Sessions (recorded in 1980; released by Faber in 2012). Martin Amis’s Philip Larkin, Selected Poems (Faber, 2011), is a good place to start with his work.

Stolen light: some highlights of 2020

Last week, I hoped to see the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn, below the moon at dusk in the south-western sky. Cloud cover prevented this, which seems an appropriate end to a year of frustrated hopes.

Late 2019: I’ve been thinking about the highlights of 2020. 2019 ended promisingly with the exhibition, Rembrandt’s Light at the Dulwich Picture Gallery. Thieves were foiled trying to steal one of the paintings. The gallery wouldn’t say which – perhaps the keystone, ‘Girl at a Window’ (1645). In the final few days of last year, I also picked up a last-minute ticket to Death of a Salesman with Wendell Pierce, a brilliant production of Arthur Miller’s play (Marianne Elliott, Picadilly Theatre, 2019). For my money, Miller is the great playwright of the American family and the intimate connection between public and private suffering. It felt like a great end to the year, and – I didn’t know then – a somewhat prophetic one. When great economies shake, it is Miller who comes to mind.

2020. Novels: I found the first lockdown, surprisingly, a time of reading and writing less poetry. Certainly, I turned to more novels. Of these, Luke Brown’s new work, Theft (2020), is a social satire set during the Brexit referendum of 2016. I also thoroughly enjoyed the historical novel, Laurus (Oneworld, Trans. Lisa Hayden, 2015), by medievalist, Eugene Vodolazkin, as well as other authors I was new to, like Sally Rooney’s first two titles. I reviewed the televisation of Normal People (BBC, 2020), here.

I think the best novel I read was Anna Burns’ brilliant work about the Troubles in Northern Ireland, Milkman (Faber, 2018). An experimental book set in the 1970s. The story concerns the insular life of the unnamed eighteen year-old narrator whose only escape is into distance running and the eccentric practice of reading nineteenth-century novels while walking alone in public. Both of which place her ‘beyond the pale’ and attract the attentions of the sinister paramilitary character, Milkman. Burns taps into ambiguity, rumour, suspicion, implication. Little is stated directly, sometimes with frightening consequences. By turns gripping, claustrophobic, menacing and touching, even playful – Anna Burns has created her own language for the Troubles, just as Seamus Heaney found his central emblem of Iron Age human sacrifice in his landmark collection, North (1975). Burns now lives in Sussex, the way Heaney himself left the north for County Wicklow in the Republic of Ireland in the early 1970s.

Music: I missed Nick Cave at the O2 Arena in April. Early this year, I was listening to his haunting requiem for his son, Ghosteen (AWAL Recordings, 2019). An incredible album. Followed by Bob Dylan’s new work, Rough & Rowdy Ways (Columbia, 2020), which dominated my listening after its release. In many ways both albums are meditations on the role of art – and especially music – in the healing process (individual grief and cultural trauma, respectively). Art as consolation, I think, runs through all great work. I reviewed Dylan’s two ballads, ‘Murder Most Foul’ and ‘Key West’ on this blog.  

I also greatly enjoyed Jim Causley’s, Cyprus Well (WildGoose Records, 2013), folk versions of his relation, Charles Causley’s poems. These ballads also featured on the documentary about Causley, Cornwall’s Native Poet (BBC4, 2020). Jim Causley recorded the album in the living room of the poet’s house, Cyprus Well, using his (Charles Causley’s) old upright piano. When the CD arrived, it came with a postcard and the note, “I was once taken for a memorable night out to the Star & Pebble!” (A pub with a reputation for extravagance, round the corner from where I live – not its real name).

Titian, The Death of Actaeon

The visual arts: Between lockdowns, the best/only exhibition I saw was Titian: Love, Desire, Death at the National Gallery. Two rooms with half a dozen of Titian’s masterpieces – based on Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Large-scale canvases painted for King Philip II of Spain in the 1550s, brought together for the first time. In his great diptych, ‘Diana & Actaeon’ and ‘The Death of Actaeon’, we more or less share Actaeon’s view of Diana and her nymphs in the first canvas (featured image) – in which he stumbles upon them bathing. This shifts to her view in the painting in which he is torn apart by his own hounds (above). In the first picture, Actaeon is essentially depicted as taking an image, an impression of her. (I think of the more down-to-earth tone of Philip Larkin’s poem ‘Lines on a Young Lady’s Photograph Album’ – “I wonder if you’d spot the theft/ Of this one of you bathing.”) In the second painting, above, the goddess Diana takes back this image as the cerulean blue of the sky has become drained of light; the muted browns of dusk in the forest.

Reduced numbers meant that I had the real pleasure of being left almost entirely alone with these paintings in the half hour before the gallery closed. When I left, it had grown dark outside. Though, unlike Actaeon, I escaped with the light.

I reviewed a BBC4 documentary about Titian here. I’ve also written a short poem, ‘Diana & Actaeon’, about this diptych in the Poetry Section of this blog.


Andrew Motion, Philip Larkin: A Writer’s Life (Faber: 1993; 2018)

Featured images: Public domain, Wikimedia Commons

Content: © Benedict Gilbert 2020

“That Bleeding-Heart Disease:” Bob Dylan ‘Key West’ – Review

Who but Bob Dylan could write a song at once so pre- and postlapsarian whilst barely registering a change in tone? It seems to enter us from a quirk in its own brilliance, or a chink in our own fallen nature, and expand to fill the troubled times in which we move.

Time-shifts: ‘Key West’ – the penultimate song on his most recent album of original music, Rough and Rowdy Ways (2020) opens with an evocation of nineteenth-century American violence:

“McKinley hollered, McKinley squalled,
Doctor said, ‘McKinley, death is on the wall,
Say it to me, if you’ve got something to confess…’”  

Key West (Philosopher Pirate), Rough & Rowdy Ways

I think of Dan Cody from The Great Gatsby, whom the narrator Nick tells us brought back “the savage violence of the frontier brothel and saloon.” It is testament to the economic powers of Dylan’s story-telling that he can suggest a “pioneer debauchee” (Gatsby, p.97) in so few words. He quickly shifts, mid-verse, into the Twentieth Century:

“I heard all about it, he was going down slow,
Heard it on the wireless radio,
From down in the boondocks – way down in Key West.”

Before shifting again to later in the century: “I’m searching for love, for inspiration/ On that pirate radio station…” The signal becoming “as clear as can be” as we approach his own time; the idealism, the troubled politics, the consolations of music.

In this way, he instinctively weaves time, voice and perspective into neat six-line verses. The rhyme-scheme – which also resembles something nineteenth-century (squalled, wall, confess; slow, radio, west) – creates a cycle of hope and renewal, decay and death. The setting of Florida – ground which is contested both historically and culturally – is telling. Both paradise, and the place where the dream might flicker and die.

Key West – contested ground

Voices: As with his other albums, Dylan plays around with autobiography, feeding us reflections on his life and work:

“I was born on the wrong side of the railroad track
Like Ginsberg, Corso and Kerouac…”

And again:

“I’ve never lived in the land of Oz
Or wasted my time with an unworthy cause.”

Nevertheless, he also experiments with this wandering first person narrator, stating variously to be “so deep in love, I can hardly see,” and “I don’t love nobody – gimme a kiss!”

In Why Dylan Matters (p. 96), Richard F. Thomas points out that the singer’s memoir, Chronicles (2004), alternates between autobiography and fiction in different chapters. In ‘Key West’, he switches to an imagined historical narrator, coerced as a child into marrying a prostitute – “there were gold fringes on her wedding dress,” he remembers, in another brilliant touch of story-telling. Certainly Dylan is no stranger to shifting voices, something we have often seen across his body of work. If we listen closely, we might catch oblique glimpses of the man.

Touch of Southern Gothic: The chorus promises that the “sunlight on your skin/ And healing virtues of the wind” will cure mortality and madness: “Key West is fine and fair,/ If you’ve lost your mind, you’ll find it there.” But the ballad also warns that the very natural world itself which is so restorative also has a corruptive power, almost through its hypnotic beauty – ponds, trees and blossoms all contain the power of decay.

The repetition of the chorus at the end of the song promises ‘paradise divine’, while Key West itself remains elusive as the song fades out. Meaning is not ironic in this ballad, but elegiac and full of pathos. Alexis Pedritis describes the song as ‘lambent’ – and lyrically it is saturated in light. The warm bass and plaintive accordion – above all Dylan’s living voice – give this ballad its haunting air.


I previously reviewed Dylan’s song ‘Murder Most Foul’, from the same album (8 May 2020), here:

Some commentators have suggested that McKinley refers to President William McKinley, assassinated in 1901, which might suggest that the song is a kind of forerunner for ‘Murder Most Foul’, the final song on the album.

Lyrics: © 2020 by Special Rider Music:

Richard F. Thomas, Why Dylan Matters (Williams Collins, 2017)

Alexis Pedritis,, 13 June 2020

Feature image: Pexels free photos

© Benedict Gilbert 2020

“Pass Crow” – ‘Ted Hughes: Stronger than Death’ – documentary review (BBC4)

“More controversy attaches to his name,” says Hughes’ biographer, the scholar Jonathan Bate, “than that of any other figure in literature, with the exception of Lord Byron.”

This documentary was originally broadcast in 2015 following the publication of Bate’s Ted Hughes: The Unauthorised Life. The programme also marked another first in that it included a substantial interview with Frieda Hughes, Hughes and Plath’s daughter. She speaks openly and movingly of her father’s life and work, the way he kept his mother’s presence alive for her children. She also describes how he taught her to skin a badger at the kitchen table as a child.

Much of the story is well-known, although Frieda Hughes states that her parents at times became so fictionalised as to be unrecognisable to her. The programme describes Hughes’ youth and scholarship to Pembroke College, Cambridge in the early 1950s. His friend and biographer, the late poet Elaine Feinstein, remembers his charisma – roasting meat over an open fire in his rooms – and his poetry as “totally unsentimental about death.” Key episodes in his early life were, of course, meeting Plath – she famously bit his face, which he described later as:

“the swelling ring-moat of tooth marks […]
The me beneath it for good”

‘St Botolph’s,’ Birthday Letters (1998)

Another major evident in his writing life was his famous ‘visitation’. Unable to write his English essay late one night, he immediately went to bed and dreamt that a part man–part fox appeared to him, saying: “You’ve got to stop this. You’re destroying us!” Uz, he says in the West Yorkshire accent that informed the earthy music of his writing, just as his native Elmet often provided the landscape. After the dream, he changed course and took up Anthropology. This led to the poem ‘The Thought Fox’, and to his first collection The Hawk in the Rain (1958).  

The documentary then goes on to narrate his working and family life with Plath and their seven-year marriage ending with his affair with his mistress, the uncommonly striking Assia Wevill. When she phoned pretending to be a man, Plath is said to have pulled the phone out of the wall – an image that reappears in her poem ‘Daddy’:

“The black telephone’s off at the root,
The voices just can’t worm through.”

‘Daddy’ Ariel (1965)

The posthumous publication of Ariel lent ammunition to certain feminist voices a decade later to blame Hughes for Plath’s suicide. Robin Morgan in fact appears on the programme and unrepentantly reads her poem in which she accused Hughes of effectively murdering Plath. Freida Hughes expresses her real anger at these ‘outsiders’, and no one needs to point out that the poem is also fairly dreadful, as well as reprehensible. What really led to the idea that Hughes was responsible was the fact that Wevill also killed herself in much the same way – along with their young daughter Shura. Elaine Feinstein in her own biography, Ted Hughes: The Life of a Poet, depicts Wevill, whom she knew, as deeply troubled.

After these tragedies in Hughes’ life, and sustained heckling at readings, he largely withdrew from the public gaze and refused to speak about his private life or about Sylvia Plath at all. The documentary follows the trajectory of his writing from his early nature poems, to his brilliant, but sometimes excessive, mythopoeic Crow poems of the early 1970s – from which the programme takes its title (“…But who is stronger than death? Me, evidently/ Pass, Crow” – ‘Examination at the Womb-Door’). And finally, to later excesses, and his final late flowering, Tales from Ovid (1997), and Birthday Letters (1998). The former is a turning away from biography to the classics, but nevertheless embraces the extremes of human experience and suffering; the latter directly embraces the memory of his life with Plath and addresses her intimately in the first person.

This is an excellent documentary. Many of the contributors were also first-hand witnesses: the critic Al Alvarez; Elaine Feinstein, Ruth Fainlight, Fay Weldon. Jonathan Bate describes it as a tragedy that Hughes died just nine months after the publication of Birthday Letters. But this was a private man who came to avoid the public eye and had finally put his own story on record. The real tragedy seems to be the huge toll of suffering, both his own, and those around him; in particular the unspeakable death of his third child, Shura – perhaps why so little is said about her. When Hughes won the Whitbred Prize for Birthday Letters in 1998, his daughter Frieda read from a letter he’d written to a friend:

“How strange that we have to make these public declarations of our secrets; but we do. If I’d done so thirty years ago, I might have had a more fruitful career, certainly a freer psychological life.”

Freida Hughes reading her father’s words at the 1998 Whitbred Prize awards

Coda: the Stone & the Egg

There’s a wonderful documentary about the Cornish poet Charles Causley. In it, Simon Armitage (who appears in both programmes), relates a story that when Hughes undertook a reading tour with him, Causley would read exactly the same poems and introductions each night. Armitage remembers: “Ted said it was like a stone and an egg in the same bag!” The remarkable thing about Hughes seemed to be his endurance. That he was at once egg and stone, metamorphosing, Ovid-like, agonisingly from one to the other and back again unseen; but never unseeing.


First broadcast on BBC2, 10 October 2015; available on the BBC iplayer until 17 September 2020. Also available on YouTube, above.

Sylvia Plath, Ariel (Faber, 1965); Ted Hughes, Crow (Faber, 1970; 1972), Birthday Letters (Faber, 1998)

I previously wrote about Hughes’ Tales from Ovid in a review about Titan:

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© Benedict Gilbert 2020

‘Like a root in arid ground’: what poems about trees might tell us

Walking in south-east London last weekend, I found myself looking up at a magnificent Dutch elm tree. I’ve been looking for elms for years. Mature elms are rare in the UK, of course, having been all but wiped out by the Dutch elm disease of the 1960s and 70s – said to have destroyed around 20 million trees. Seeing this living tree, I thought of the lost medieval town of Dunwich, which W.G. Sebald describes disappearing into the sea in The Rings of Saturn. Like the lost bell of the church ringing outwards into our present.

A Dutch or possibly white elm

Recently, I’ve been reading the twentieth-century Russian poet, Anna Akhmatova. Looking back on her youth, she wrote:

“Man’s voice held no sweetness for me,
but I understood the wind.
I loved the burdock and the nettles
But above all the silver willow. […]
Strange – I outlived it.
A stump grows there now…”

Anna Akhmatova, ‘Willow’ (1940)

This put me in mind of other poems about trees. In her poem, ‘The Black Walnut Tree’, the late American poet Mary Oliver debates with her mother whether to sell their old walnut tree to the lumberman. For the sake of their “fathers out of Bohemia/ filling the blue fields/ of fresh and generous Ohio,” they can’t bring themselves to have it felled, “so the black walnut tree/ swings through another year/ of sun and leaping winds […] and month after month, the whip-/ crack of the mortgage.”

Seamus Heaney, in the sonnet cycle ‘Clearances’ – written after his mother died in 1984 – describes an old chestnut he had grown from a jam-jar as a child: “…the crack and sigh/ And collapse […]/ the shocked tips and wreckage of it all” (‘Clearances 8’). In a visionary poem ‘The Wishing Tree’, from the same collection, he imagines his mother as a tree lifted into heaven:

“Trailing a shower of all that had been driven

Need by need by need into its hale
Sap-wood and bark: coin and pin and nail
came streaming from it like a comet tail

New-minted and dissolved…”

Heaney, ‘The wishing Tree’ from The Haw Lantern (1987)

If it dies, it brings forth much fruit’:

What might we learn from these poets? From Akhmatova (the most tragic, and in some ways romantic of the three), a sense of the hard cycle of her own life set against the tree; from Mary Oliver also, independence and doggedness of spirit. And from Heaney, his great gift for elegy. From all three, the restorative power of the landscape; a love of the natural world for its own sake. All seem to prefer to see a tree standing, but should one fall, it will deliver up certain secrets, a full measure shaken together and pressed down, in proportion to the gifts of each poet.

At times it seems there’s a certain synchronicity or grace that sustains us – the way trees are not entirely singular, but essentially live in communities. It is now known, for instance, that groups of trees can feed each other through their root systems.

This poem is for my sister on her birthday.   


After Anna Akhmatova

Strange – I outlived it.

You came back, all seemed
re-arranged. Familiar cherries
no longer standing. The reddish

glossy bark – a brief synaptic-
flash. Where you moved –
the mirror was heavy, but not the light.

The North Sea is not the Atlantic.

Still, a child now is dreaming | through
the face you held at five.

The saplings we planted
in late-adolescence – the birch
and mountain ash – are thick-

set now, less easily swayed. Though

the Atlantic is not the Pacific:
the mirror is heavy | not the light.


I previously wrote about Seamus Heaney here:

Anna Akhmatova, Selected Poems, Trans. Richard McKane (Penguin, 1969)
Mark Strand & Eavan Boland (Eds.), The Making of a Poem (Norton, 2000)
Seamus Heaney, The Haw Lantern (Faber, 1987)

Further reading: Elaine Feinstein’s excellent biography, Anna of All the Russias (2005), is well-worth reading.

You can find the tree here:

© Benedict Gilbert 2020


Home Movie (1980)

In Uncle Paul’s old cine super-eight,
The Norfolk summer light an endless loop
Of clucking farmyard, jumping silent frames.

Zanna new-born, Mischa on the gate.                          
I’m wild with the chickens and the goats –
To star in Paul’s new cine super-eight!

Great-aunt Sylvie smoking night and day,
Grandma laughing at forgotten jokes –
In the farmyard’s clicking silent frames.

Then cut to Buba (touching ninety-eight),
All her daughters’ close-up secret hopes –
In Uncle Paul’s old cine super-eight.

In the Shtetl, snow and silence framed 
The dream of Eastern-European Jews:
To reach old age in peace and health. And make

A shawl of more than simple woven prayer.
The year before he died – his tread moves
Sturdy through the farmyard’s silent frames –
Uncle Paul behind his super-eight.

Autumn 2018

Traditional form and family memory

In my first year of writing, I experimented with traditional forms, testing myself within and against the boundaries of things. Here, I wrote my first villanelle. The form is said to have originally developed from peasants’ songs (villanella) in the fields of medieval Italy, and was later popularised in France (The Making of a Poem, pp. 6-7). Famous twentieth-century examples are Dylan Thomas’ elegy ‘Do not go gentle into that good night’, Auden’s ‘If I could tell you I would let you know’, and Elizabeth Bishop’s masterful, ‘One Art’ (“The art of losing isn’t hard to master”). And it still exerts a pull for contemporary writers. Mark Strong and Eavan Boland point out that the villanelle contains “the absence of narrative possibility” – it “refuses to tell a story.” Instead, “the formal properties of the villanelle address the idea of loss directly” (p. 8). Ideal for a memory-poem in other words. The form uses a 19-line aba rhyme scheme and sets two alternate refrains going (here super eight and silent frames), which are brought together in the final couplet. An ending, but not the conclusion you might expect for example from a sonnet – despite the shared lyricism.

About ten years ago, my father had reels of his eldest brother Paul’s home movies translated to DVD – footage from the 1960s to the early 1980s (vignettes of old family holidays – Bournemouth, Amsterdam; a brief close-up of the 1966 World Cup England squad, celebrating). He was in the army after the War, worked in the London hotels as banqueting manager, was a part-time projectionist and keen photographer. In this poem, each stanza represents a snapshot of some of the things captured silently starting with a visit to my parents’ small-holding. Things, therefore, of great interest to us as a family – re-animated thirty years later.

I knew I wanted to write in the villanelle form, and I suppose the circular pattern of the rhyme scheme suits the threading and spooling of film; the inter-play of a robust craft and a certain light flickering within. It also seems to echo the tug and loop (even obsession) of memory itself. The poem came fairly quickly – as it were, more or less in a single take. I adapted the form in the penultimate stanza where the two refrains are in reverse order. I hope this is where the poem opens up – and perhaps starts to catch a little.


Mark Strong & Eavan Boland (Ed.), The Making of a Poem: A Norton Anthology of Poetic Forms (2000)

Buba or Bubbe: (Yiddish, from Russian/Slavic: grandmother) – in this case, my father’s maternal grandmother; Shtetl: Jewish town in Eastern Europe before the onset of World War Two: Leo Rosten, The Joys of Yiddish (1968)

Last month I wrote on rabbinical thinking and Leonard Cohen:

© Benedict Gilbert 2020

‘Known and strange things’: two poems by Seamus Heaney

I. Postscript:

“I always felt you earned your living,” Seamus Heaney has said, “and your poetry was a grace” (Out of the Marvellous). The poem ‘Postscript’ is the final in his first collection written after being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995. It seemed to come as a gift to the poet: “Now and again a poem comes like that, like a ball kicked in from nowhere. […] before I knew where I was, I went after it” (Stepping Stones, p. 366). The poem opens as if mid-thought, the tone gently assertive:

“And some time make the time to drive out west
Into County Clare, along the Flaggy Shore,
In September or October when the wind
And the light are working off each other…”

‘Postscript’, The Spirit Level, 1996

He seems to catch the ‘speedy feel’ (Stepping Stones) of the wind, the lake, the Irish west-coast (“wild with foam and glitter”), the swans (“their feathers ruffed and ruffling, white on white”). The opening eleven lines, of what is essentially a poem in blank verse, form a single sentence in which Heaney opens up his gift for marrying the lyrical and the vernacular. His metaphors are so effortless as to seem almost organic, and to grow out of his physical descriptions: “The surface of a slate-grey lake is lit/ By the earthed lightning of a flock of swans.” The poem shifts and becomes weightier at the point at which he pauses to counsel:

“Useless to think you’ll park and capture it
More thoroughly. You are neither here nor there,
A hurry through which known and strange things pass…”


The very physicality of words is at play here like the plosive sibilance of the Atlantic – the soft boom and wash. As is his gift for idiomatic language slipping and losing traction in the mouth, even as it is spoken. In seeking out new meanings, the often throw-away phrase neither here nor there is given new life. The self he addresses is both emptied, then filled, with the experience of the natural world. The poem ends as Heaney describes the “big, soft buffetings” that “catch the heart off-guard, and blow it open.”

II. The Blackbird of Glanmore:

A decade later Heaney wrote another poem in which his experience of the natural world is mediated from inside a vehicle. The closing poem of his collection District & Circle (2006), ‘The Blackbird of Glanmore’ describes a more domestic setting (the Heaney family home of Glanmore cottage in County Wicklow). He addresses the blackbird directly: “On the grass when I arrive, filling the stillness with life… It is you, blackbird, I love.”

The poet moves effortlessly from the present moment (“I park, pause, take heed./ Breathe. Just breathe and sit”) into the past of his own writing-life:

“And lines I once translated come back:
‘I want away to the house of death, to my father

Under the low clay roof.’”

‘The Blackbird of Glanmore’, District & Circle (2006)

This association then allows him to remember his four year-old brother, Christopher, killed in a road accident in the early 1950s when the young Seamus was away at grammar school. “And I think of one gone to him,/ A little stillness-dancer…” The allusion ‘I want away to the house of death’ is to his translation of Sophocles’ Philoctetes, although Heaney may have also been thinking of his own on-going translation of Virgil’s Aeneid, in which Aeneas visits the spirit of his father in the underworld:

“Let me take your hand, my father, O let me and do not
Hold back from my embrace. And as he spoke he wept.
Three times he tried to reach his arms around that neck.”

Aeneid, Book VI, lines 940—42, p. 38

Heaney’s own father died in 1986, and the poet describes his life-long love of Virgil’s poem as intensifying from this time onwards.    

Again, he moves effortlessly through time. This time from the past back to the present by remembering the superstitious words of a neighbour about a bird on the shed roof, ‘I said nothing at the time/ But I never liked yon bird.’ This archaic voice from the past (and with it the bird as ill-omen) are silenced in a near-cinematic moment: “The automatic door clunks shut.” Back in the present, the speaker gets out of the car and describes the aerial or ‘bird’s-eye view’ of himself as “a shadow on raked gravel/ In front of my house of life.” The poem, then, is one of life and death. Of breath and shadows. But far from an ill-omen, the blackbird is a sign of life and renewal.

Interestingly, when Aeneas enters the underworld, he does so at a place called Avernus, ‘place without birds’ (Aeneid, Book VI, lines 320—21). It seems natural that Heaney would associate birds with life. But we don’t need the classics to tell us this. In a strange moment of synchronicity, it is Sunday afternoon and a blackbird appears down among the cobble-stones and gravel as I’m writing. And again this morning after a heavy summer storm last night. A bird I’ve not seen here before. Or perhaps I’ve not been paying close enough attention. Heaney’s lines come back with their undaunted bird-like animation:

“Your ready talk-back,
Your each stand-offish come-back,
Your picky, nervy goldbeak –
On the grass when I arrive,

In the ivy when I leave.”

‘The Blackbird of Glanmore’

References in this post:

Seamus Heaney: Out of the Marvellous (Produced by Charlie McCarthy), An Icebox films production for RTE, Ireland.
Stepping Stones: Interviews with Dennis O’ Driscoll (Faber & Faber, 2008)
Seamus Heaney, The Spirit Level (Faber, 1996)
S.H., District & Circle (Faber, 2006)
Virgil, Aeneid, Book VI (SH. Trans., Faber, 2016 – published posthumously)
Sophocles’ Philoctetes, The Cure at Troy (SH, trans., Faber, 1990)
Heaney wrote about his brother in the poem ‘Mid-Term Break’, in Death of a Naturalist (1966), his first collection

NB. I previously suggested that Heaney’s father died in 1987. However, a haiku the poet wrote entitled I.I.87, suggests that he died in 1986.

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Blog content: © Benedict Gilbert 2020

A Gift and a Theft: Thinking Rabbinically in Troubled Times

In The Great Gatsby, Nick Carraway forgets his thirtieth birthday, distracted by the climactic events to which he is witness. Unlike Fitzgerald’s fictional narrator, I did not forget when the time came. I celebrated with a small party in the modest flat I shared with my friend – just off Pottergate (a street which leads west out of the city and is as cobbled as it sounds). It was not to be the “menacing road of a new decade.” In fact, it was a good decade, one to be thankful for. As the evening climbed to its heights, and offered what music it could, I danced around the small living room to the Yiddish album, Cantors and Cantorials (Chazanim & Chazanut). My favourite song on this album (and the only one I can really remember now) was the darkly jaunty, ‘Rich Folk, Poor Folk’. According to the sleeve-notes, in this folk song a layman asks the rabbi to explain the Hebrew verse: “Let us all sing a ditty of bread, meat, fish, and all fine things.” The rabbi replies:

“Bread for the rich is a freshly baked roll, and a dry crust for the poor.

Meat, for the wealthy is a roast duckling, but for the impoverished, liver and lights.”

‘Rich Folk, Poor Folk’

Something like, The poor are always with you; a kind of philosophy of acceptance, endurance or perhaps even gratitude in the face of suffering. It also exists within the long rabbinical tradition of scriptural exegesis, interpreting the Torah and other sacred texts. One lesson from this way of thinking is that there are always at least two ways of understanding our experiences. Last month I wrote on Leonard Cohen, and recently the parallels between this folk song and his ballad ‘Bird on a Wire’ have grown more apparent to me. At the key-change, he sings:

“I saw a beggar leaning on his wooden crutch
He cried to me, ‘you must not ask for so much,’
And a pretty woman leaning in her darkened door,
She cried to me, ‘hey, why not ask for more.’”    

‘Bird on a Wire’, Songs from a Room (1967)

The lines may be somewhat of their time, but the voice of the poet remains one caught between poverty and plenty; between suffering and desire. This is pure rabbinical thinking. Even the origins of the song are disputed, with two different versions (Cohen said that his then-lover, Marianne Ihlen, gave him the idea; Joni Mitchell claimed that her painting of three birds inspired the song). It’s interesting that both songs concern a response to wealth, or its lack. In the Gospels both poverty and riches are potentially seen as a prison of sorts (the man at the pool at Bethesda; the rich young man – both of whom move in their shackles. Or, cast differently, have tried in their way to be free).

Leonard Cohen simply presents us with two alternatives and asks us to consider the question of what we may ask of life, or take from it. When Cohen himself was defrauded by his ex-manager, he seemed to receive his near-bankruptcy philosophically. A kind of worldliness—other-worldliness seldom seen in most people. “I don’t recommend this as a spiritual exercise,” he half-joked in interview, “but if it does happen to you, a lot of very important information is delivered to your heart.” Something like Miguel de Cervantes who was said to become more generous the more impoverished he grew. Leonard Cohen was forced out on tour again which, in part, led to his extraordinary late flowering. A gift transfigured out of a theft.

In a time when we seem to swing wildly between division and cohesion, and division again, it might sometimes be worth thinking more rabbinically about things. To consider the possibility that not every question can be answered immediately or definitively. That it is okay (sometimes even wise), to suspend our judgement and learn from our experiences in the fullness of time. To let opinion or reaction cool into something more considered. As the young Irish writer Sally Rooney says in her debut novel, Conversations with Friends (2017), “You live through certain things before you understand them. You can’t always take the analytical position.”

I previously wrote on Leonard Cohen (June 2020), here:

Poet of suffering and desire
‘Rich folk, poor folk’ (“Die Negidim un die Kabzonim“), a song of poverty and plenty

References in this post:

Chazanim & Chazanut, (Pearl; Pavillion Records), 1988; (the song and was recorded by the tenor Mordechai Hershman in 1920, the year he emigrated to the United States)

Allan Showalter reports the story about Joni Mitchell’s influence on ‘Bird on a Wire’:

Interview with Leonard Cohen in 2007 (SVT/NRK/Skavlan, 2016):

William Eggington, The Man who Invented Fiction: How Cervantes ushered in the Modern World (2016), an excellent blending of biography and literary criticism, Copyright © 2009-2020 Sony Music Entertainment Canada Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises – in search of Leonard Cohen

Joni & Leonard:

I have just discovered that Joni Mitchell wrote two songs for Leonard Cohen: ‘Rainy Night House’ (1970), and ‘A Case of You’ (1971). This is not news, but is thrilling nonetheless. I’ve carried both these ballads with me for a good twenty years, and suddenly the lyrics come back in sharper focus. Better known, I think, is that Cohen wrote ‘Chelsea Hotel’ (1974) for Janis Joplin, and more obviously, ‘So long, Marianne’ (1967) for Marianne Ihlen, when the couple lived together on the Greek island of Hydra in the 1960s.

The temptation is to enter the cool shuttered room behind the sun-lit threshold; to raise the latch of biographical intent. Last summer I met my sister in Athens. She was leaving early the next morning, I was heading on to Hydra (Idhra). Although slightly sceptical about literary tourism, there is something about the act of pilgrimage that I sometimes find hard to resist. I would hike into the hills, take a donkey ride (there are no vehicles on the island), and read a book about what really happened to Van Gogh’s ear. And visit Leonard Cohen’s house. That was the plan. But it wouldn’t be a pilgrimage exactly…

Marianne & Leonard:

Shortly after I returned, Nick Broomfield’s documentary Marianne and Leonard was released. I stepped off the sunny pavement into the Picturehouse theatre. Would the latch be lifted behind the dark shutters? The film is well-worth watching for its interviews and archive footage of Cohen and Ihlen, and for the music, of course. It is beautifully shot, although (I thought) somewhat self-indulgent on Broomfield’s part. The opening voice-over comes close to self-parody. It seems to reinforce the myth of the poet-muse dynamic that Polly Samson is said to unspool in her more recent novel set on the island, A Theatre for Dreamers (2020), in which the couple appear as minor characters. Clarisse Loughrey has it perfectly when she writes of Marianne and Leonard, “It’s as if the film wants you to think of Ihlen as Penelope, waiting faithfully for Odysseus to sail home.”

Broomfield seems to dwell on the excesses of the 1960s and 70s, although he ends the film with Cohen’s letter to Ihlen on her deathbed, which shows his (Leonard Cohen’s) real care for Marianne: “Know that I am so close behind you that if you stretch out your hand, I think you can reach mine.” The final frames of the film, the sea lapping a sailing boat, are overlain with Cohen’s voice, reading from his poem, Days of Kindness:

“I pray that loving memory
exists for them too
the precious ones I overthrew
for an education in the world.”

Leonard Cohen, Days of Kindness (1983)

If this demonstrates his regret, there was worse to come. By far the most tragic event for me was Ihlen’s son, ‘Little’ Axel’s fate – abandoned by his father (the novelist Axel Jensen), given hallucinogenics at 16, and confined to a psychiatric institution – the real tragedy of the film.


Back on Hydra, I take a day-trip on a boat to a small cove called Bisti. Onboard, I befriend a Greek woman, Josie. Or, she befriends me. (She shows great hospitality by buying me a delicious dinner of grilled squid despite being between jobs, and next day helps me find Leonard Cohen’s house). We climb above the port-town, paved alleys full of half-stray cats stretching themselves out in the heat behind the large ochre-coloured house (a museum). Behind that, the Greek painter, Tetsis’ old studio. Finally, behind the studio, an empty white-washed alley, the scarlet-bright bougainvillea. Leonard Cohen Street, the blue plaque says at the end of the alleyway. The house shuttered-up and giving away no secrets in the strong light where morning gives way to afternoon.

The sun-lit threshold: Leonard Cohen’s Hydriot home

Leonard & Joni:

There are stylistic differences between Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell that are worth noting. Joni Mitchell has long been known for her confessional style; observed, open. Jenny Stevens describes her song, ‘A Case of You’ as “a dialogue with her former lover.” It opens:

“Just before our love got lost you said,
‘I am as constant as the  northern star.’
And I said, ‘Constantly in the darkness. Where’s that at?
If you want me I’ll be in the bar.’”

Joni Mitchell, ‘A Case of You’ (Blue)

(And biographically speaking, there was no doubt wisdom in her turning away). Cohen could also write directly from experience himself: ‘The Famous Blue Raincoat’, ‘Suzanne’, ‘Chelsea Hotel #2’, but he more often wrote in an abstract, symbolic style. In poetic terms, he was more the descendant of Yeats or Lorca (after whom he named his daughter), than, say, Robert Lowell. His song, ‘Waiting for the Miracle’ shows a typical kind of veiled autobiography:

“I know it must have hurt you,
it must have hurt your pride
to stand beneath my window
with your bugle and your drum,
while I was up there waiting
for the miracle to come.”

Leonard Cohen, ‘Waiting for the Miracle’ (The Future)

(Not to say, his knowing Jewish humour, a certain resigned melancholy). It’s a kind of confession, although what is being confessed remains opaque. It could serve as a description of his relationship with a number of women – perhaps especially, Marianne Ihlen foremost among them.  Crucially, in his late work, he distils the kind of excesses Broomfield exposes, into something beautifully honed, transfigured, and at times near-Psalmic (‘If It Be Your Will’).  

I did not reach the island’s heights, or ride the donkeys (they looked worn out and forlorn – I felt for them); or see behind the shutters. Nor did I wish to, really – though I’m glad I made the trip to the island. As I looked around one corner, he seemed to disappear around the next. It’s as well in these moments to turn back towards his golden voice. As he said himself:

“You’ll be hearing from me, long after I’m gone.
I’ll be speaking to you sweetly from my window in the Tower of Song.”

‘Tower of Song’ (I’m Your Man)

References & links in this post:

Jenny Stevens, Joni Mitchell: Where to start in her back catalogue, The Guardian, 20 May 2020
Clarisse Loughrey, Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love review: Too wrapped up in the old obsessions with male genius, The Independent, 25 July 2019
Nick Broomfield, Marianne and Leonard: Words of Love (Key Media distribution; Lafayette Film production, 26 July 2019). 
Polly Samson, A Theatre for Dreamers (Bloomsbury, 2020)

Leonard Cohen, Poems & Songs (Everyman, 2011) Copyright © 2009-2020 Sony Music Entertainment Canada Inc. All Rights Reserved. © Siquomb Publishing Company

The point about poetic style is based on Andrew Motion’s observations about Philip Larkin’s poetry

‘The darkness within; or else the light’: Normal People – Television Review

Normal People: Intelligent, organic story-telling

There’s something of the fairy tale about this Irish series based on the novel by Sally Rooney. During the summer of their final school exams, Marianne Sheridan (Daisy Edgar-Jones) and Connell Waldron (Paul Mescal) fall into an intense affair. She lives in a large, loveless house with her mother, a solicitor, and older brother, while Connell’s mother Lorraine (Sarah Greene) works as a cleaner for the Sheridans. There are echoes of Ian McEwan’s Atonement about the set up. This is modern Ireland, though, and the obstacle is not so much social class as other pressures – she is defensive, spiky, vulnerable; he is popular, both masculine and diffident. Both are drifting, and drawn towards each other.  

Episode One opens with the intimate style that characterises the early episodes. We follow the back of Marianne’s head as she walks quickly down the school corridor. The pair are seen together early in the episode (framed separately through the glass door of her mother’s house), but take only oblique glances at one another in school. She acts out in class and is unpopular. He is one of only a few students to show her kindness, though mostly when alone with her. Marianne takes most of the close-ups at first. They begin to orbit one another, while other students at times blur into the background. The structure, too, can be dream-like – cutting from them sitting together on the school bus, to him emerging from his car on her stately cedar-lined driveway – as one thing leads to another.

I would lie down here – and you could do anything you wanted to me. Do you know that?

The series is co-scripted by the novelist, Sally Rooney

They begin their affair in Episode 2. The series has attracted some criticism for the sexual content, but also praise for its sensitive handling of young romance. We might expect this level of nudity to be more typical of the big-screen. Personally, I thought the tenderness and intimacy somewhat reminiscent of Nicholas Roeg’s 1973 film, Don’t Look Now. Daisy Edgar-Jones, in particular has a great expressiveness that suggests a real tender vulnerability; versatile and self-assured, like a younger Saoirse Ronan. As things develop between the characters, her eyes become more child-like, her dialogue is all soft assurance-seeking; insecure, articulate (“I hope you don’t find it too hard trying to resist me,” she asks him, and “Is there anyone you have a crush on in school?”) In a careful touch, Marianne is seen reading Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel, Never Let Me Go, a haunting tale of orphaned-love.

Paul Mescal and Daisy Edger-Jones as Connell Waldron and Marianne Sheridan

Paul Mescal too delivers a great performance as Connell. Caught between his friends and her, he is hopeless and lost – out of depth in his own feelings. His speech becomes more clipped as his character withdraws; only his eyes and slightly down-tuned mouth suggest his inner-conflict. His dialogue is stilted (“I would miss you if you didn’t want to see me anymore. I would be upset, alright?”), and becomes at times little more than swallowed syllables. By contrast her articulations, “I’d never pretend not to know you,” and stronger still: “I would lie down here – and you could do anything you wanted to me. Do you know that?” have the ring of Wuthering Heights about them. Some beautiful photography of the Atlantic west-coast captures this allusive quality – by turns gently sun-lit and overcast – as the couple’s relations subtly shift.

Who among us hasn’t done something shameful? As Episode 3 built towards an inevitably betrayal, I thought of lines I’d written myself: Crouching, I warmed my outspread hands, like Saint Peter, quietly. As Dickens pointed out, we often let ourselves down for the sake of those whom we don’t much like anyway. This is an excellent series, with the ring of truth about how intense, generous, and cruel youth can be; how conservative, and forgiving. It credits the audience with enough intelligence to let the story develop organically. Both characters are fatherless, but it is up to viewers to decide what significance, if any, this might have for them as these stories remain largely untold.

My only caveat would be that Normal People loses some unity of time and place, and with it the intensity of the first three episodes. From Episode 4 onward it becomes, at times, more soap opera than independent film – a kind of war of attrition between the characters, charting the ups and downs of their undergraduate affairs. This might better suit the BBC3 target audience of 15—25 year-olds than an older demographic. But then, it follows the narrative of Sally Rooney’s novel across several years of the characters’ lives. As the series goes on, the nudity dramatises a certain innocence and its loss. But the early episodes are beautifully shot. Overall, it’s a great series with superb central performances, and brilliantly scripted in dialogue awash with its Irish idiom (“What was going on there – with yourself and herself?) It will more than repay the time spent watching it.


From my upstairs window I see the post arriving. It’s the upbeat Polish woman. She seems to enjoy life, and does not bother with gloves. The front cover befits a bestseller and shows an illustration of two young people embracing inside a half-opened sardine tin; Sally Rooney looks out from the inside back-cover with the pensive face of a young Angela Carter. This bodes well, I think. I peel back the pages, the first line echoes: Marianne answers the door when Connell rings the bell.

Links, credits, references:

The early episodes are directed by Lenny Abrahamson. The series is produced by Catherine Magee, and written by Sally Rooney & Alice Birch, based on Rooney’s novel, Normal People (Faber, 2018).

The series was produced by the Irish Film Industry and Screen Ireland; an Element Pictures Production for the BBC in association with Hulu (2019). First broadcast in the UK on BBC3 (26 April 2020).

The title of this post is from The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood.

Featured image: Wikipedia, (Title Card) Fair Use: Owner: BBC Studios, Hulu

“The Blood-Stained Banner:” Bob Dylan review – ‘Murder Most Foul.’

Bob Dylan’s recent release, ‘Murder Most Foul’ (March 2020), tells the story of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in November 1963 (a time when Dylan was just setting out on his own mercurial career). The song seems to echo his elegy for John Lennon, ‘Roll on John’ – the closing song on his most recent album of original music (Tempest, 2012). He describes how America went from the “Aquarian Age” to “the Age of the anti-Christ”, and cuts between flashes of the shooting itself, to a bewildering catalogue of Twentieth-Century Americana, likening the country to a dog with no master.

Kennedy: A revenant king returned to haunt the living (Image: Wikipedia)

In his book, Why Dylan Matters, Richard F. Thomas argues that Bob Dylan continues the classical tradition – especially of the Roman writer, Ovid – in his late trilogy Time Out of Mind (1997), Love & Theft (2001), and Modern Times (2006). He points out that both Ovid and Dylan were forged in empires on the edge of decline. Ben Beaumont-Thomas in The Guardian describes ‘Murder Most Foul’ as “a ballad set to piano, strings and light drums.” The song is driven by Bob Dylan’s voice more obviously than the loose musical time-signature (“a recitation set to music” as Alexis Petridis has it). In fact, Dylan seems to favour something like the metre of the classical-epic poets Homer, Virgil and Ovid. To speak technically for a moment, he uses hexameter, a line of six main stresses that traditionally signals heroic or elegiac subject matter – reinforced here by the relentless rhyming couplets sustained for the whole 17-minute duration of the song. Consider these driving rhythms in lines from the song’s opening:

            President Kennedy | was a-ridin’ high,
            A good day to be living | and a good day to die

A line of such equivocal suggestiveness that it could easily have come straight out of the mouths of the witches in Macbeth. The song title itself asks us to recall Hamlet’s suspicion that his uncle has murdered his father to assume the crown: murder most foul, strange and unnatural. Dylan varies this poetic rhythm to suit his needs – as he will – opening up the line at times, but this metre remains more or less the heartbeat of the song.

In the first half of the ballad, he shifts from a third person narration of events to inhabit Kennedy’s voice directly. Like Hamlet’s father, Kennedy is the revenant king come back to haunt the living. And like Old Hamlet, is only fleetingly present to us in snatches of dialogue:

            Wait a minute boys, do you know who I am?
            Of course we do, we know who you are

And again, he returns to speak later in the song. His voice is heroic, both steady and tragic:

            I’m riding in the back seat, next to my wife
            Heading straight on in to the afterlife
            I’m leaning to the left, got my head in her lap
            Oh Lord, I’ve been lead into some kind of a trap

He seems to relive the harrowing moment of death without actually describing it, as if not grasping exactly what is happening to him. Dylan then describes the aftermath in grotesque detail: “They mutilated his body and they took out his brain./ What more could they do, they piled on the pain.” (Curiously, F. Scott Fitzgerald uses a very similar strategy to narrate the tragic collision in The Great Gatsby­ – a sort of looking away, followed by explicit detail). Dylan perhaps does this here to mark the lasting trauma of the event – “I’m never gonna make it to the New Frontier.” He then shifts into a wider voice. He laments the loss of a more hopeful, compassionate post-war America. The America he dreamt of in the early folk music he was writing around this time:

            We ask no quarter, no quarter do we give
            We’re right down the street from the street where you live

A pitch-perfect summary of the contradictory American longing for self-reliance and cold economics, set against the lost dream of folksy goodness. Dylan has described this new release as a gift to his fans. The final part of the song becomes an invocation of the American Songbook. Ben Beaumont-Thomas suggests that this America in decline is “offered salvation of sorts in pop music: the Beatles, Woodstock, Charlie Parker…Stevie Nicks.”

And of course in the song itself – Dylan’s dirge for the 1960s and for our own time, does exactly that – consoling his fans; certain to take up its place in his own late songbook. It’s a great song – an expansive song that won’t stop growing in our own troubled minds.

The song is available here:

I also review Dylan’s song ‘Key West’ from the same album, here:


Richard F. Thomas, Why Dylan Matters (William Collins, 2017)

Ben Beaumont-Thomas, “Bob Dylan releases first original song in eight years, 17-minute track about JFK, The Guardian, Friday 27 March 2020:

Alexis Petridis, “Bob Dylan’s 50 greatest songs – ranked!” The Guardian, Thursday 9 April 2020:

Lyrics available at:
© 2020 by Special Rider Music

Photo credit: (Wikipedia), Stoughton, Cecil, Oval Office 1963 (Cecil William), 1920-2008, Photographer – U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Public Domain, Link

The Burgermeister’s Daughter (Young Rembrandt’s Love Song)

My steps ringing the flagged square at Leiden.
A hurried sky of quickening cloud – you know
How we Dutch adore the fleeting light.
A touch of brushwork. My long apprenticeship
Of wooden, ungilt frames: these heavy fumes,
My sweet alchemic paints. Out of this
Coarse, oak-green world and harvest fields,
I’ll ring the dark gold light: guilders
For the Burgermeister’s daughter. I’ll tease and pry

His fingers from my Saskia’s shoulders.
That sable, fur-lined cloak. I’ll shape his likeness,
Claim his loss, when – please God – her fingers
Will soften, with the work of man and woman.
And gently stroke her rounding smock. I
Remember, then, my Oma – a baker’s wife.
Still girlish. Her downy cheek abrush with dust and light.

This poem was written for my brother and sister-in-law’s wedding in October 2019.

Sighting foxes and meteor showers

In the prison of her days

A ‘half-tame’ young vixen has taken up residence in the now-closed flower garden of my local park. Passing, I stopped to look. In broad daylight, she was being kept in food (peanuts and sausage meat) by an Italian couple, while a Japanese woman produced a half-packet of Jacob’s cream crackers from a bag folded in her hands. Watching closely, you could see the fox adapting – each quizzical tilt of the head rewarded. As I watched, though, my interest cooled at the gradual depreciating-creep as she gave up a corner of her wildness for trinkets. Even the nearby pigeons looked plump and sanguine in her presence; only a sceptical magpie kept its distance.

A ‘half-tame’ connoisseur of sausage meats

In his book, Being a Beast, Charles Foster points out that foxes and dogs belong to different genera, having “parted company about 12 million years ago.” Dogs, he says, have spent the last 50,000 years adapting to human beings. He contends, however, that foxes have the “raw mental processing power of dogs.” Foster goes on to say that adult foxes are “aggressively possessive about food.” Arguably, it is this huge appetite to survive that drives all mammals. In The Odyssey, Odysseus and his men seem to be able to endure everything except hunger. The historian Yoval Noah Harari suggests that human beings did not so much domesticate crops, as were domesticated by them, as farming lead to a shift from nomadic existence to permanent settlement. And therefore, a more traditional theory runs, to the city; to civilisation itself.

And I sometimes see a falling star…

The near-certainty of seeing something can sometimes seem to diminish its value. For two nights running last week, I searched for the Lyrid meteor shower. I followed advice to gaze into the north-eastern sky after midnight, towards the constellation Lyra. Some remaining light pollution one night; cloud-cover the next. With almost no other human company at that hour on the heath, I circled home – looking for a sign. Into that night-walk appeared six foxes. Urban foxes are common in London, but I’ve never seen so many in one dark hour. And out of this stillness, I heard new sounds. The first, a real bark – whether dog fox or vixen, I couldn’t say. (The poet Alice Oswald describes the vixen as “a woman with a man’s voice.”) The second noise, two cubs ‘play-fighting’ under a streetlight – yelping. Imagine! And, for the first time a few weeks ago, I heard the unearthly electric wail of coupling foxes in the long grass (nature’s other great hunger). I stumbled onto the plaintive scene like young Actaeon on the sight of Diana bathing. A human voyeur on a kind of vulpes interruptus.

I will have to wait until next year to see the Lyrid shower – her bright eye – the sudden brush between Hercules and Cygnus. But I’d sooner wait and be caught off-guard. Perhaps because we know we must give ourselves up – to all in life that would tame us.

Venus in the clean night air; and, strangely, something I missed at the time, top right…

All of this brought to mind a poem I’d written in the winter, Starveling. It’s posted in the POEMS section of this site:

References in the post:

Charles Foster, Being a Beast (Profile Books, 2016)
Yoval Noah Harari, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (Harper, 2014)
Alice Oswald, ‘Fox’ in Falling Awake (Jonathan Cape, 2016)
The sub-headings are from Auden’s elegy for Yeats, and Seamus Heaney’s poem ‘Exposure’ (more on this later…)