Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Jack Gilbert

Painting by Jack Richard Smith  

I was sorry to hear of Jack Gilbert's death recently. Gilbert was one of those poets who are famous for not being famous. For most of his life he operated below the radar of critical attention, but this was by choice. After winning  the Yale Younger Poets Prize for his first book he lived a modest and peripatetic life, travelling around Europe and spending periods in England, Denmark and Greece. But there was more to his relative invisibility than that. He was an old-fashioned kind of poet, a muse poet who wrote obsessively about the women in his life -- the poems he wrote for his dead lover Michiko are among his most powerful. And he didn’t produce at the regular intervals reputation demands. He took twenty years to produce his second book, Monolithos (1982) and only published a further two books, The Great Fires (1994) and Refusing Heaven (2005) which brought him some late recognition, winning him the National Book Critics Circle Award.Bloodaxe published Transgression: Selected Poems in 2006. Here are two poems which can be found in that book, the first forseeing the disappearance, in him, of his birthplace, the second probably his best-known poem.

They Will Put My Body into the Ground

They will put my body into the ground.
Chemistry will have its way for a time,
and then large beetles will come.
After that, the small beetles. Then
the disassembling. After that, the Puccini
will dwindle the way light goes
from the sea. Even Pittsburgh will
vanish, leaving a greed tough as winter.

The Forgotten Dialect Of The Heart

How astonishing it is that language can almost mean,
and frightening that it does not quite. Love, we say,
God, we say, Rome and Michiko, we write, and the words
get it all wrong. We say bread and it means according
to which nation. French has no word for home,
and we have no word for strict pleasure. A people
in northern India is dying out because their ancient
tongue has no words for endearment. I dream of lost
vocabularies that might express some of what
we no longer can. Maybe the Etruscan texts would
finally explain why the couples on their tombs
are smiling. And maybe not. When the thousands
of mysterious Sumerian tablets were translated,
they seemed to be business records. But what if they
are poems or psalms? My joy is the same as twelve
Ethiopian goats standing silent in the morning light.
O Lord, thou art slabs of salt and ingots of copper,
as grand as ripe barley lithe under the wind's labor.
Her breasts are six white oxen loaded with bolts
of long-fibered Egyptian cotton. My love is a hundred
pitchers of honey. Shiploads of thuya are what
my body wants to say to your body. Giraffes are this
desire in the dark. Perhaps the spiral Minoan script
is not laguage but a map. What we feel most has
no name but amber, archers, cinnamon, horses, and birds.

Listen to Jack Gilbert read his poem here

Monday, November 12, 2012

The sadness of God

The sadness of God
('Tristesse de Dieu', Jules Supervielle)

Just as when it all began
I see you come and go 
on the trembling earth,
with one great difference:

my work is no longer mine:
I gave it all to you.
But if you're my people
misfortune is your own

and beyond my help.
All I could provide
to prove my warmth
was your tears, your strength.

The ache in your soul
is what’s left of me.
It was all I could do.
I can’t help the mother

whose son will die
but I can offer you light,
candles of hope.
If it were any different

do you think the narrow cot
would feel the weight
of the sickly child?
It’s as if my work

was someone else’s.
All that I made
slips farther away.
The stream that flows

down the mountain
has no thought of returning.
I have as much to say to you
as the potter to his pot:

one is deaf, the other 
speechless before his work. 
I can see you careening
towards terrible precipices

but I can’t point them out
let alone help you avoid them.
Like orphans in the the snow
you must save yourselves.

Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Songs of the earth (1): Yannis Ritsos


The Meaning of Simplicity

I hide behind simple things so you’ll find me;
if you don’t find me, you’ll find the things,
you’ll touch what my hand has touched
our hand-prints will merge.

The August moon glitters in the kitchen
like a tin-plated pot (it gets that way because of what I’m saying to you),
it lights up the empty house and the house’s kneeling silence–
always the silence remains kneeling.

Every word is a doorway
to a meeting, one often cancelled,
and that’s when a word is true: when it insists on the meeting.

(Translated by Edmund Keeley, published in The Greek Poets: From Homer to the Present, Norton, 2010)

Yannis Ritsos’ output as a poet was enormous. He published more than a hundred collections of poetry, and often wrote with great speed, sometimes producing three collections in a single year. Such protean fluency can interfere with the reception of a poet in his own culture, and it can also inhibit or distort the reception in translation. How do you choose? How much of the work can endure? Can we trust the judgement as well as the achievement of the translators? These are, of course, impossible questions to answer for those not immersed in his work and its Greek contexts. We can only respond to what we see and get a small sense of the greater project, a whiff of what made him such a vital and uncomfortable presence.

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

A Rebel Act: Michael Hartnett’s Farewell to English

Pat Walsh
Mercier Press
€14.99 (PB)
ISBN: 9781856359672
In 1974 Michael Hartnett made the decision to take his leave of English and from then to write in Irish only. Or did he? Well, he wouldn’t necessarily stop writing in English – if a poem presented itself in that language it would have to be accommodated. But he wouldn’t publish any more English poems. Ciaran Carson’s reaction, reviewing the volume which announced the decision, A Farewell to English, was to suggest, in a review quoted in Pat Walsh’s book, that the volume might have been more usefully titled A Farewell to Published Poems Written in the English Language. A number of things are at play here: on the one hand a decision – complicated, emotional, theatrical – to effectively abandon not just a language, but his achievement and potential development as a poet in that language, and to attempt to recreate himself as a poet in Irish, a language he would have to study hard to master. To have announced an intention to become a bilingual poet would have fulfilled the need to pay due homage to the Gaelic tradition and the side of his own sensibility that was enmeshed in the Irish language, but the unequal relationship between the two languages and cultures don’t easily accommodate such to-ing and fro-ing. Walsh quotes Eoghan Ó Tuairisc’s analysis of the predicament:

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Monday, May 28, 2012

Bracket bracket bracket

I’ve always loved radio drama, so am pleased to have had one of my own efforts at the form accepted by RTE. The play is called ‘Oblivion’, a love story and a mystery which moves between the present and the darkness of the Underworld. It features a kind of chorus of disgruntled lost poets, dead for thousands of years, whose works have been long forgotten (a warning to us all!). Here’s a bit from the opening. The play will be broadcast next Sunday, 3 June,  in the Drama on One slot at 8.00 pm, and will also be available on the site or as a podcast. The producer is Aidan Mathews and the cast are Des Cave, Emmet Bergin and Deirdre Donnelly as the three main characters and Kevin Flood, Paul Tylak, Hope Brown, Karl O’Neill and Lise-Anne McLoughlin as the poor lost poets, and Olwen Fouéré as the voice of Sappho.
Here's a taste from the opening scene: 

Bracket bracket bracket desire bracket bracket bracket sweet thighs my 
Bracket bracket I… 
Bracket bracket bracket bracket bracket bracket bracket bracket thunderbolt bracket bracket now the goatherd 
Now the goatherd… 
Now the goatherd sees the… ellipsis, conjecture– 
dawn’s rosy fingers– 
sweet maiden– 
VOICES 1, 2, 3
(CHANTING IN UNISON)Now the goatherd sees the maiden 
Your tender skin has lost its lovely bloom 
VOICE 1,2, 3
(CHANTING IN UNISON) your tender skin has lost its lovely bloom 
Former, actually, now that I think about it. 
Your tender skin has lost its former bloom. 
He’s right. 
On three. 
One, two, three. 
VOICES 1,2,3
(CHANTING IN UNISON) Your tender skin has lost its former bloom. 

Friday, April 27, 2012

Jaan Kaplinski: A Particular Sort of Ignorance

Published in Poetry Ireland Review 106, edited by John F. Deane

Jaan Kaplinski. Selected Poems. Translated by Jaan Kaplinski with Sam Hamill, Hildi Hawkins and Fiona Sampson. Bloodaxe Books, 2011. £12 stg

It’s hard to think of a poet besides Jaan Kaplinski who could write lines like

In the morning I was presented to President Mitterand,
in the evening I weeded out nettles under the currant bushes.

The lines remind us of the poet’s public life – he was a member of the post-Revolution Estonian parliament from 1992 to 1995, and is an active cultural commentator – but they also suggest where his priorities might lie. Meeting presidents is one thing but the real life is elsewhere. The nettles and currant bushes are not an escape but the proudly brandished crucial zone where poetry and the perceptive life are likely to flourish. A good deal of Kaplinski’s poetry opposes itself to the pieties and rhetoric of the public sphere; the poetry is, often, a careful deployment of silence, a recognition that ‘what/remains unspoken is always the most important.’ 

That’s to say that the poems, particularly the earlier ones here, often seem to want to approximate silence by seeing how much can be left out. They’re silent in the way classical Chinese poetry – a major influence on his work – is silent, in that they’re highly selective and restrained, but the silence is also a reflection of the keen realisation of the limits of human consciousness. In this way, maybe, the restraint of Chinese poetry fuses with the fractures of European modernism.

In some respects Kaplinski’s is an anti-poetry, a poetry which resists the poetic and at the same time is highly conscious of its own operations, something which aligns him with post-war poets like Tadeusz Różewicz or Günter Eich or with a writer like Beckett. As in their work minimalism is an aesthetic decision, in his case a kind of strategic withdrawal that may relate to his having matured in an Estonia still under the Soviets.  His own background is mixed -- his mother was Estonian, and his Polish father disappeared in the Gulag archipelago during the war, so the silences in his work are informed by a historical awareness. 

This books is a generous selection from his work, including poems written in English. He has a strong relationship with English and is actively involved in the translations with Sam Hamill, Hildi Hawkins and Fiona Sampson. The translations work forcefully, and it’s likely that Kaplinski’s pellucid style lends itself particularly well to translation, though the book only really seems to get going from The Wandering Border onwards. In the first section the poems’ embrace of silence can leave them seeming a little inconsequential and affectless.

From The Wandering Border on the poems sharpen and harden, they attach themselves to concrete subjects and mark out a territory whose borders are malleable, shifting, where shifting borderlines are, in fact, the point. In a typical poem the poet, taking out the rubbish, remembers that ‘there is/no difference between the common and the strange.’ In his poetry and prose Kaplinski turns a sceptical eye on the Western tendency ‘to think in words and see the world as a world of defined meanings.’ The Western mind, he suggests, is never so happy as when defining and drawing borders. In the real world though, ‘there are not many things, emotions and meanings clearly divided by borderlines. Defining the living world is violence, is a kind of a rape, butcher’s not philosopher’s or poet’s work.’

The poems of Through the Forest describe a retreat into a slowed down private world of home, family and contemplation. Small observation and resolute domesticity direct the eye inward towards the creating mind, noting the notation:  ‘. . .if there’s something I can do , perhaps it’s /observing that observation, grasping that seeing.’ As one poem puts it:

Perhaps, after all, poetry comes entirely from ignorance,
is a particular sort of ignorance. And that
is much harder to learn  than knowing.

That particular sort of ignorance is what animates these poems. Looking out his window at poplars, lindens, birches makes the poet want to do something with them but in the end he has to be satisfied with simply naming them and intuiting that beyond the ‘almost intelligible’ language of the branches is a knowledge somehow long known to him which ‘cannot be much different/from what can be read in books,/hands or faces.’ Likewise even in ‘the most disconsolate of landscapes’ ‘there is so much unintelligible light’.

‘Silence. Dust’ is a very typical sequence in its concentration on meagre resources. The silence in question is the inner silence from which, if absolutely necessary, poems might be drawn, and is allied to ever present dust which ‘comes and settles on piano lids in arts centres, old Bibles in attics, shelves, rugs, laundries, abandoned mills and old outhouses.’ Dust is an ever present image in the poems, linked in the poet’s mind with peace, slowed down time but also, as in a poem about the murder of Jews, pregnant with a sense of history, of what the landscape conceals, or what might be ‘hovering/ in the air as particles of ash. . .’

Kaplinski’s poetry thrives on the limitations it sets for itself. He rejects memories and dreams because he wants ‘to write/above all about what is.’ Out of the available possibilities he chooses a scrupulous meanness, a palate of quiet tones and unornamented gestures that seem to owe little to the pressures and quirks of a particular tradition yet are consonant with the landscape and history of ‘serious greyish Estonia’. It’s a frugal, doing-without kind of aesthetic, which deliberately holds language at bay. He sums it up in a prose piece he wrote for his website (

As I have grown up in a non-discursive culture, I don’t need words to think, and as I more and more often forget the words I want to use, I can do without them, even when I would like to use them.
(‘Philosophical Investigations’)

Again and again he comes back to the subject of writing itself. It’s as if all other subjects are too truly themselves and therefore inaccessible and writing the one true subject: ‘if you want to be honest,/ you must write about writing.’ Yet writing is for Kaplinski a contradictory impulse; the desire to write is also a desire not to write: ‘I ended up in literature because it seems, perhaps, closest to my proper place.’ But the proper place is elusive, or may be the kind of self suppression where the real desire is ‘to compose poetry without being a poet, to philosophise without being philosopher, to serve Christ without being a Christian; to serve Buddha without being a Buddhist; to express oneself without oneself being anyone.’ Given that life ‘cannot be contained in words, . . . cannot be explained or understood. . .’, why write? Why oppose the uselessness of language to what it can’t comprehend? Because that’s where the bite is, that’s where the poet most intensely lives. Nature is a constant presence in the poems, and the same tense, anxious scrutiny is brought to bear on it. ‘The Forest Floor’ is on the one hand a rhapsodic enumeration, full of long-lined litanies, and on the other ‘the yearning to see it all to the core, to crawl free of oneself, to crumble to dust in all those sky-keys, bird’s eye primroses, rushes, nettles and dandelions. . .’
Part of his fidelity to the actual is simply to register what is around him, including the persistent, ever-awake self:

The snow’s melting. Water’s dripping.
The wind’s blowing, gently.
Boughs sway. There’s a fire in the stove.
The radiators are warm.
. . .
I am writing a poem.
I’m writing that today is Sunday.
That the snow’s melting. That water’s dripping.
That the wind’s blowing, et cetera, et cetera.

There is about all this a clear-eyed unsentimentality. Humanity offers little consolation –  ‘I fear most of us are a badly played tune, a rattling, a rumbling, noise which is gradually extinguishing the great music of life’ – and there’s no evidence of a grand design: ‘There is no God,/there is no director,/there is no conductor./The world makes itself happen. . .’ Attending the world, and the mind’s restless shepherding of that attention is the only convincing option, and by limiting himself to it Kaplinski has created a remarkable body of work.

Featured post

Eastword Ho!

This is the latest from the Dublin essays I've been working on. This time I'm prowling the tangled history and contemporary rea...