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).
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)
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.”
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)
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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 Lightat 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).
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)
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.
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…”
“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 ofSouthern 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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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)
“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.
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.”