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Showing posts from March, 2006

Monk, step further off

Went to see Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, Bill Manhire and Adam Zagajewski reading at the Poetry Now festival in Dún Laoghaire. Ní Dhomhnaill gave an undertstated but quietly powerful reading, which included her versions in modern Irish of the poems of Gormfhlaith (died 947), the medieval Irish woman poet to whom twenty or so poems are attributed, and even though some of them are dated after her own life, there is a strong tradition of Gormfhlaith as a poet. She was the daughter of the Uí Néill king Flann Sinna and was married to three men, all of whom she outlived: Cormac Mac Cuilenneáin the king-bishop of Cashel, Cerball mac Muireacáin and the Uí Néill king Niall Glúndubh who was killed in battle and for whom she wrote the poem below, ‘Beir a mhanaigh leat an chois’. It’s published in Osborn Bergin’s Irish Bardic Poetry and Thomas Kinsella provides a translation in The New Oxford Book of Irish Verse, 1986), which I also give below. I’m not sure if Nuala’s versions have been published but I…

The Rain and the Glass


Listening silence in the glass
The listening rain against.
All in the silent house asleep,
The rain and the glass awake;
All night they listen for a noise
No one is there to make.

All in the silent house asleep,
The rain and the glass awake;
Listening silence in the glass
The listening rain against.
All night they listen for a noise
Their silence cannot break.

These lines were written by Robert Nye at the age of thirteen one afternoon in 1952 after he fell asleep ‘by a window in the front room of the house in an Essex resort where I was living with my parents’. The poem came to him in a dream; ‘It was after this dream that I knew what I had to do for the rest of my life’. The poem is published in The Rain and the Glass which contains all the poems Nye has written since his Collected Poems in 1995 together with his own selection from that volume, and his piece about the book is published in the January 2006 edition of Acumen. Many poets will sympathise with Nye’s sense that…

The Bacchae of Baghdad

How do you deal with the literature of the distant past? How do you make Greek tragedy comprehensible to a contemporary audience? How do you make the language of Greek drama performable? How distant is the distant past in any case? Is Beowulf nearer to or farther from us than Catullus? Is Homer more or less alien than Táin Bó Cuailgne or the Fiannaíocht? The sensibility shift between our slice of time and the many pasts doesn’t run in a nice vertical line, but loops and veers, sometimes intersecting with our world, sometimes sheering back and sometimes running in parallel. Other than the fact that your car might be more fuel efficient and your software more bloated, there’s no linear progression from era to era in anything that matters. Some art forms, though, don’t travel as easily as others. We might enjoy a jar in The Front Lounge with Catullus but baulk at extended conversation with the author of The Seafarer. We love Sappho now because all those intriguing fragments that constitu…

Sailor's Home

How long is it since poetry became public property? Today, poets write with the idea of publishing in our minds, and poetry books are published with the idea of sales in the publisher’s minds (however few!). Even poetry events seem to be organised according to the numbers of tickets that can be sold. The public has become an invisible hand, playing with and controlling the standards of the poetry world, and as such has transformed it into just as dull a field as any other directly commercial endeavour.

The above is from the preface to Sailor’s Home, a miscellany of poetry by Arjen Duinker, W.N. Herbert, Uwe Kolbe, Peter Laugesen, Karine Martel and Yang Lian, published by Shearsman Books . I suppose it’s true that poets write with the idea of publishing, though I’m not sure how primary a concern that is. Most poetry publishing is pretty fugitive. The tiny numbers involved mean that the act of publication is, in a sense, symbolic rather than real, or a kind of virtual reality, and I …

The rustling of the silk

Back after a long absence with three versions of a poem from the Chinese, for our edification, followed by a moral quandary.

The first is Ezra Pound’s.

Liu Ch’e

The rustling of the silk is discontinued,
Dust drifts over the court-yard,
There is no sound of footfall, and the leaves
Scurry into heaps and lie still,
And she the rejoicer of the heart is beneath them:

A wet leaf that clings to the threshold.

Much has been written about Pound as a translator or mediator of Chinese poetry into English. He didn’t speak Chinese, so his versions don’t have scholarly pretensions. In the Cathay poems he relied on the notes that Ernest Fenollosa compiled in Tokyo, and was quite happy to use the Japanese designation Rihaku for the Chinese poet Li Po. Arthur Waley, whose own translations of Chinese poetry were hugely influential, objected to many of Pound’s versions, though it’s hard to see how his version of, say, ‘The River Merchant’s Wife: A Letter’ improves on Pound’s. Pound’s great gift as a p…