Tuesday, 31 December 2013
The problem with the blog has been that I expect to write brief essays and there hasn't been the time recently. But I do resolve to write something on every possible day henceforth, however brief, however minor or fragmentary.
Meanwhile a short farewell note on teaching.
I have retired as a teacher. In fact today is my last official day of employment. My teaching career is over, in a salaried institutional capacity at any rate.
Teaching has been forty years of my life from 1973 on, for the first year as a part-time Art teacher in Cheshunt, the next as a part-time English teacher at a Hitchin school. After that six years first as full-time teacher of Art then as Head of Art in Hitchin Girls' School, followed by twelve years as Director of Art and Art History at St Christopher's in Letchworth, a progressive, independent, vegetarian school where Clarissa also taught and where our children did their own schooling. In 1991 I was asked to draft a poetry course for a new BA in Cultural Studies at what was then Norwich School of Art. I started teaching it on a contracted hours basis in 1992, then, two years later was offered salaried half-time work (I had already opted for a fractional post at the school) and we moved address to where we live now. In the meantime Tom read Computer Science at Bristol and Helen read English at Magdalen College, Oxford. After 1992 I taught poetry and ran the creative writing part of the Cultural Studies degree (which changed its name two or three times in the period) until 2006 when I was asked to apply as a Reader in Creative Writing at UEA, regarded at the time as the leading university for creative writing in the UK, possibly in the world. That is where I have just finished.
In the rest of my life I was writing. I have been publishing books of poetry since 1978 and have been translating from the Hungarian since 1984. But that was independent of teaching and, mostly, nothing to do with it apart from the fact that between 1975 and 1991 I wrote a play or libretto a year, usually as a production for school. Those things may continue to blow about as dust in the desert but I enjoyed writing and producing them and some of them, by no means all, had something to recommend them.
Teaching was mostly exciting: the roll call of those I taught (along with colleagues of course, chiefly Peter Scupham and Andrea Holland and, latterly, Denise Riley and Lavinia Greenlaw) who have become widely published and recognized poets is considerable, on average close to two a year. If one can be proud of the success of others I am very proud of them. There are still others who were and continue to be outstanding writers who should be better known. I wish them luck and am just as proud of them.
I think what I chiefly taught was close listening and close reading, which is of far greater use to a developing writer than any amount of theory, however valuable that might be as an informing discipline. The rest was a perpetual willingness to laugh, a good deal of patience and simply a keen curiosity about what might have been going on in the words of young potential writers. There were times I was hands-on in a way not generally approved ("Why not scrub this, why not move this to there, why not raise or lower stakes here or there, have you tried this or that word…" etc). But the writers all turned out differently. I don't think there is a recognizable spawn of Szirtes, and if there isn't, it is probably because of a personal curiosity. I never consciously preferred one way of writing - or, perhaps even more importantly, one way of feeling - over another. Somewhere in the text I was reading I assumed there was some reason for its existence, or at least an opportunity within it that might lead somewhere.
That is what tutorials were about. The class teaching was not a matter of teaching tricks - there are few tricks that are worth teaching - it was, with the postgraduates, the encouragement of a culture of generous but intense listening (don't immediately tell us whether you like the writing, first try to describe what it is and what it seems to be doing), and, with the undergraduates, a strong interest in discussing the principles of poetry and language, and in introducing works that demonstrated a reasonable range of options.
The original undergraduate course involved five semesters of reading and writing with terms devoted to Poetry as Song, Poetry as Narrative, Poetry as Ideas, and Poetry as Reports on Experience. So there were ten divergent selections of song, ten of idea, ten of narrative and ten of essentially descriptive verse. Not that these were clear distinctions in themselves, but that they were useful ways of entering discussion. Today I would probably extend this with a course in Poetry as Register, and Poetry as Voice.
Shaw told the world that those who can, do and that those who can't, teach. It was a cruel thing to say. Almost everyone has taught: all the great masters of visual art had their schools, most writers had friends to whom they looked for criticism and advice. That is, in essence, all teaching is. It is a sort of friendship based on common interest within a framework. The friendship may well continue once the framework falls away. It is a human exchange based on curiosity, generosity, wit, and close attention.
As for the institutions, they exist as frameworks that facilitate such human exchanges. It is their only proper function. The current drive towards an ever more corporate business model is the opposite of learning: it operates on the lines of the nineteenth century mill glossed by twenty-first century public relations. The UEA is fine at the moment - long may it continue to be. I am leaving at a point when that drive is ever more in the ascendant in many places. It is to be resisted and ridiculed. The human spirit can do better than that.
Tuesday, 10 December 2013
Someone asked if we were happy back in, what was it, 1951? I certainly wasn't unhappy. I suspect my parents were as happy as one could be in a poor totalitarian state. If this is indeed c. 1951 then my father is thirty-three or -four and, for the first time in his life, enjoying his work in the Ministry of Building after years of lowly manual work, forced labour and near extinction. My mother, not in the picture because she is taking it, is twenty-six, six years out of concentration camp, working as a photographer, albeit restricted because she is registered as a class alien and under surveillance, as was my father, as was everyone, but class aliens more than most. My father had lost his father, my mother had lost everyone. If this is 1951, my brother is not yet born. We do not even dream of a car, a TV, a fridge, a vacuum cleaner or any mod com except a radio with very restricted reception. Dad walks to work. We have a flat on the edge of the 7th district opposite the Liszt Music Academy which stands in a square that is still barren. The city is still partially in ruins, but I suspect this might have been the happiest period of their lives. So, surely the answer must be yes, we were happy and our lives were OK.
This is mid-sixties, say 1965, in north west London and we are all dressed up to go for our Sunday meal, probably at Schmidt's in Charlotte Street which was our favourite proper restaurant. On alternate Sundays we ate out at an Italian cafe, served by a beautiful young Italian woman called Filomena, with whom I was probably shyly and morosely in love. I am about fifteen, going on sixteen in the picture. If this is 1965 my father is forty-eight, my mother forty. Ask me that question about happiness again. I am not happy, nor do I look happy in the photo. Why would I be at that age? Who is? I vaguely remember that we had exchanged a few cross words before leaving and had stopped by a car, probably our car, a Morris or an Austin, probably a company car, to allow someone I can't now remember, who might have arranged to come to Schmidt's with us, to take this photo. We're too smart for the Italian cafe. My mother insists on smartness. Are they happy, my mother and father? It's not a bad life, surely. My father has given up a potentially exciting if dangerous career back home for a steady job in England. My mother has no real hope of being a press photographer now. Too ill, she might still be working as a retoucher in Oxford Street, but might already be working from home. This isn't our last family house in London, it's probably the penultimate one, in Kingsbury. My brother and I are at school, of which more another time.
The question of happiness
The way such a question is posed always leads to confusion. We start by considering our conditions and trying to work out whether we were moving up or down, were stable or unstable, well or ill, fulfilled or not fulfilled, and balancing these things up leaves us flummoxed. Was there more happiness than unhappiness? I would not say my school days were happy or fulfilled. My brother's were troubled and very difficult. My father was at least keeping the ship afloat. My mother was probably the least happy of us all. What does that add up to?
Consciousness of happiness does not take into account all the factors that might make us so. What is certain is that things might have been a great deal worse but we didn't spend time thanking our lucky stars for that. No, we are transient beings in transient times. There we are standing by a car on a foggy winter day, well wrapped up, presenting a face. My parents put their backs into the moment and try to make it work. I love my mother's outfit in the second picture. I love my father's hat and coat. I love his hat and his expression in the first. The curious little figure that is me stands beside him looking frightened. What is there not to be frightened of? I wear my hat the way my mother has arranged it. Cute! she might be thinking. And I have to admit it does look cute. Cue the conditions for happiness.
Tuesday, 3 December 2013
Peter Zollman has died.
Who was he? A remarkable man. Born in Hungary in 1931, a scientist in the first place, then an industrial scientist, and then, after he retired, an extraordinarily gifted translator of Hungarian poetry into English.
That in itself is something of a miracle, partly because he believed in form-for-form translation and practised it with great skill, but even more because a man of Peter's age, that is to say someone who did not enter the English language very early as I was fortunate to do, usually finds it impossible to develop a keen ear for English language poetry. Peter went through a period of 'apprenticeship' as a verse translator but over the last twenty years or so could 'hear' English verse, feel its balance, and shift gracefully between registers while keeping true to form.
He was a dedicated and copious translator. He translated all the major Hungarian poets from the 16th century to the present, and in considerable quantity. His work rarely appeared in the English publishing world, but it did appear in book form on many occasions, often through Hungary-based publishers but also through the US.
We sometimes translated the same poem and there are a good number of occasions on which I would recommend his rather than mine.
I am looking to write a proper obituary for either the Guardian or The Independent if I can persuade them. He certainly deserves it.
He died in his sleep last night. His widow, Denise, rang this afternoon to give us the news.
Saturday, 23 November 2013
From the digest of that year's TW3. Millicent Martin singing Herbert Kretzmer's words
23 November. But who is the poet? I'm pretty sure it's P J Kavanagh. Confirm if you know.
I was at home in Kingsbury, a none-too-smart North West London suburb.
I was a week short of fifteen - we'd been in England almost seven years - and remember it quite clearly as it came through on our B&W TV on Friday, interrupting programmes, then amplified into a long news item on the later evening news.
It was an enormous and disorientating shock. I don't imagine I grasped the full significance at first but was aware that we regarded him as a heroic figure, someone who was handsome, glamorous and oddly unpresidential - not a grey man like most politicians - someone who had spoken out in Berlin and had faced down Khrushchev in Cuba. I too found him exciting.
There was a very popular pioneering satirical programme on TV that came late on Saturday, That Was The Week That Was. That day, the 23rd, it was only fifteen minutes long, no laughs, entirely about JFK, the programme itself dark and shocked. Millicent Martin is singing a little unsteadily and out of key on it, her own emotions on edge.
It was possibly the first time that I thought, 'Oh the whole world is like that, even in America.'
I had already understood from the revolution in Budapest that the world could be violent, perhaps even that violence was not an abnormal state of affairs, but the news lay oddly on top of my own broken fragments of memory, like a fallen hoarding.
Friday, 22 November 2013
The current editor of the Hungarian Quarterly tried, and for some reason failed, to post this as a comment on my own postings on the subject. I give his reply more prominence because I want to address his points in this slightly more visible space of a private blog. His comment:
As the person you are badmouthing I would like to post a comment. You write: "The latest editor ... had begun his defence of the new regime at the HQ by bad-mouthing some of my translations in order to demonstrate that the old editorship was far from perfect." I do not want the non-Hungarian speaking world to have to trust this ridiculous distortion, so allow me to clarify. I wrote in an article in Élet és Irodalom that I would not characterize one issue of the journal as bad just because I found a few translations in it less than perfect. The relevant passage is: "I found the translations of poems by Dezső Kosztolányi problematic in several places, though they were the work of internationally recognized poet and translator George Szirtes." I explicitly acknowledged your renown as a translator and the former editor in chief, Zsófia Zachár's excellence as an editor. My article had nothing whatsoever to do with the current regime, not a thing. The contention is utterly unfounded, as anyone who could read the original would know.
Regarding the website, which you note has vanished, the website was gone when I inherited the HQ, the company that had managed it was out of business, and all the material that had been uploaded was no longer available online anywhere. I have been working very hard to upload old issues to a new website currently under design. You write on another page: "It may be that the site is simply being revamped, but it wouldn't surprise me if it was taken off for much the same reasons that it was taken over." Since you and I have communicated by email, why not ask before posting a baseless conjecture?
In any event, as far as I can tell you are the person the most determined to kill the Quarterly. I simply don’t know why, except you don’t seem to be able to let go of the idea that I am somehow a stooge of the government. You say you know nothing of my politics, which is true, yet you argue I defend the present regime. Please, be so kind as to substantiate that. Find one citation in my article in Élet és Irodalom that makes any reference whatsoever to the present government. You published in a journal that included writings by György Aczél. I would not have characterized you as a stooge of the Kádár regime, and of course I would do anyone the professional courtesy of letting them know if I am accusing them in a public forum.
I will be curious to see if you publish this post. Perhaps you will censor it. At least I will see if you are actually supportive of open discussions.
I have italicised and emphasised in bold the substantive points the writer makes. I reply to them, not in the order they appear, but in order of what seems to me their importance.
First of all - here is your post, uncensored. All I have taken off is your name since I did not mention you by name in my original postings.
Secondly, this is not a public forum but a private blog with a very restricted readership. Having said that, I would in fact be happy to say the same things on a public forum if I thought anyone would consider it worthwhile publishing. At this level, I doubt it. For most of my anglophone readers - and I am first and foremost a poet in English - this is a skirmish about an obscure if honourable magazine in a far away country of which most know little. In any case, I stress, it is a private blog. Not like Élet és Irodalom, Hungary's equivalent of the TLS.
Thirdly, I certainly published in both the NHQ and the HQ in the past because I knew and grew to love the literary editor, who later became the editor. I was fully aware of the history of the periodical and understood the magazine, specifically the literary and cultural wing of it, as doing its independent best in the circumstances. The current editor - I mean you - has been in Hungary a while but has never made the least effort to contact me before.
Fourthly, the disappearance of the archive was brought to my attention by those who worked at the HQ. They didn't seem to know of any problem with the website, and what I say above - and what you quote me saying - is that I allow it may be being revamped, but that I have some doubts that is the full reason. Those doubts remain.
Fifthly, and least importantly, there are two aspects of your remarks on my work that strike me. The remark appears in the context of a counter-charge against the Hungarian Quarterly (as to say: look, they let this happen, which reflects badly on their judgment), in other words I am a means of criticising the previous editors. I don't like being a means. That is what I mean by bad mouthing. As for what you actually say, it is you, personally, who criticise a specific work, and, as your quotation shows, it is others - not you - who you admit have spoken well of my work generally. I am not stupid or vain enough to fret about your views of this or that particular work of mine, and if you were to point out what were the problems with the work I would consider them, as I consider any rational view. I am as capable of making mistakes as anyone and have never replied to a review, good or bad. It is simply poor policy to do so. Nor did I or will I reply to yours. I suspect this may be difficult to understand but it is not your views of my work that rankle, it is the context of those views.
The fact is I respond the way I do on the blog - really the only reason - because you then go and ask me for work. Since you do not give your own view of my work at any time, only that of others, and since, in our correspondence, you have actually worried that not having me in the magazine will make it look as though you had shut me out for political or other reasons, I think it reasonable to assume that it is the look of the thing that matters to you.
I am not prepared to be part of 'the look' of things, because the look of things is how I have perceived the current government - which is financing this magazine, as previous governments have done, for purposes of their own - to be proceeding in its appropriation of as many channels of cultural communication as it can.
I am perfectly prepared to believe that you have no political affiliation (I have said so on the blog), and that as an individual you may hold any views you like and want the best for the magazine. The fact is there was a Hungarian Quarterly with people I actually loved. Those people are gone. There was a hiatus in the publishing of the magazine, and here it is now, with new people. This happens in a political climate of which I am not ignorant and I doubt you are either. So, lastly,
My article had nothing whatsoever to do with the current regime, not a thing.I am sure no-one was dictating your article to you. I believe you have not consciously considered the views of the government in writing it. But you know the context as well as I do. The Hungarian Quarterly is an English-speaking face of Hungary. The magazine was founded for political reasons and it is pointless telling people it is without political significance. The context matters.
Sunday, 17 November 2013
Friday, 15 November 2013
Apropos of my post about the reasons why I will not be writing for The Hungarian Quarterly in the foreseeable future it is very much worth noting that the HQ, whose archives used to be open online, has now disappeared from the net.
It may be that the site is simply being revamped, but it wouldn't surprise me if it was taken off for much the same reasons that it was taken over.
Best tuck it away and out of sight. It never happened. Everything is for the best in the best of all possible worlds. As in (from Bad Machine)
The Best of All Possible Worlds
The best of all possible worlds is asleep
having turned in for the night.
It is dreaming of snow a mile deep.
The best of all possible worlds contemplates
its own reflection in the mirror,
its eyes two enormous plates.
The best of all possible worlds is at the bus stop
in a steady shower of rain
watching water fall, drop by drop.
The best of all possible worlds is tired
of waiting for the promised improvements.
It has run out of things to be desired.
The best of all possible worlds becomes
a nervous, clumsy abstraction
all fingers and thumbs.
The best of all possible worlds is a dark star
in a universe of its own making,
muttering: things are fine as they are.
Things are fine as they are, says the sun on the wall
Things are fine as they are, says the cold in the bones
Things are fine as they are in the best of all possible worlds.
One needs to watch such spaces. I expect to see more of them.
A little madness - or what might seem madness - is good beyond the age of 60. You're going to be buried anyway. You might as well be buried mad and dancing.
Monday, 11 November 2013
This piece was written by the literary scholar Tibor Keresztúry and appeared today on the Hungarian literary website Litera. I give a quick, almost complete translation. The reader will get the gist.
There are times a man thinks: surely we cannot sink any further, there is no lower depth, but then life produces something new, something extra, that exceeds the imagination. This time it is a fellow human being, a certain G Fodor Gábor, the strategic director of the Századvég (Century’s End) Foundation who, on his blog, suggests that a notable Hungarian writer should shoot himself in the head. The author, who describes himself not as ‘a literary scholar’ but ‘a political thinker’ doesn’t bother offering reasons, doesn’t say what books, what pieces of writing, in what manner forced him to conclude that László Krasznahorkai should shoot himself; it is enough, the political thinker decides, that his vision is too bleak. He accuses the writer of self-pity and concludes he must find the country unbearable, that he regards its citizens as pigs wallowing in mud, and that he doesn’t even have a longing for life elsewhere because he feels dreadful wherever he is. G Fodor Gábor further predicts that the writer will leave nothing [of value] behind him.
The works of László Krasznahorkai - very like the works of other successful Hungarian writers with an international reputation - are naturally a subject of literary debate. It is possible, however, to suggest that his name - much like the names of other internationally prominent Hungarian writers - will be remembered after the names of many political figures and thinkers are long forgotten. It is also worth adding that Krasznahorkai - much like other internationally prominent Hungarian writers - has never in fact compared the Hungarian people to pigs wallowing in mud and that the purpose of his work is not to condemn ‘Hungarians’, his actual purpose being - like the purpose of other internationally prominent Hungarian writers - to write novels rather than to blacken the reputation of his native country. Those who regularly report writers for crimes such as this to the - so far only virtual - Bureau of Hungarian Identity, do of course know that all this is nonsense but they like to remind us now and then who really runs the country and where the God of the Hungarians has his true dwelling. This time it is this political thinker, of whom I have never heard, who has taken on this popular role and one wouldn’t even notice he had done so had the idea of the gun not appeared as a new element in literary discourse.
It is an old demand that those dissatisfied with things should get out of the country, but the suggestion that they should shoot themselves because they are ‘solitaries’ or because their vision is bleak is so far unprecedented. What’s next? Will they provide the gun?
It's Orwell's animals and farmers again. The totalitarian instinct is the same whether it comes from the far right or the far left.
Fodor's political organisation, according to sources, gets huge commissions from the government.
This will be of relatively little interest to anyone who is not Hungarian but recently I was asked to translate three poems by a fine Hungarian poet for a magazine titled The Hungarian Quarterly. I have translated the poems but have refused permission to The HQ. It is a magazine to which I will not be contributing in the foreseeable future.
The magazine had a record to pre-WWII and had survived both fascism and communism. Under the new regime it was temporarily closed down, its old editorial team departed (or was sacked, I don't know which), there was a hiatus, then it reappeared under a new editor who left it after one issue and the present one has now taken over. I believe the changes were politically motivated and are part of an intensive cultural campaign or kulturkampf to control cultural thought.
The latest editor - who may be a perfectly decent person - had begun his defence of the new regime at the HQ by bad-mouthing some of my translations in order to demonstrate that the old editorship was far from perfect. I don't care whether he thinks those particular translations were good or bad, he has a right to think so - he might even be right - but I object to the criticism being used in the political context of the take-over of a magazine.
Having said what he said, the editor's next action was to ask me for translations. Why would he want anything from me? I think it is - he more or less says so - to look inclusive. I think it is a form of literary money-laundering. The text of a part of my reply:
I know nothing of your personal politics. What I know is that there was an HQ that brought me up as a translator, whose editors I loved. They commissioned my very first translations in 1984. I know I have seen that HQ closed down and that, whoever the previous editor was, you are now the editor. I know that Fidesz has worked successfully to take over insitutions, to starve people, organisations and institutions of money and to replace them with their own appointees. I know that it has terminated contracts where it didn't approve of incumbents, I think the Orbán government is determined to control anything it can lay its hands on and that its hands are getting stronger all the time. I think the HQ is in its hands but that, being aware of its history, they would not want to make it appear so.
Cultural pressure is being applied with a heavy hand in Hungary. The government is keen that there should be only one ideology and that the rest should be criminalised or simply crushed.
All our singular
voices were joined in the choir
of the vanishing.
We were not ourselves.
We were a single body
and so we vanished.
It was a single
We could not know it.
Out there the planets
were counting themselves. Their eyes
were looking away.
The terror out there
was happening inside us
We had dreamt it all
before. It was quite common.
It was what joined us.
We were united
in our singularity,
our dreams and dying.
We dream all the time
of this commonality,
the wild singular.
So when the water
rose and the wind gathered
we knew it as dream.
The wind was wailing
with us. I too was wailing
with others as choir.
So things vanish: we,
our invaluable dreams,
our terrors, our lot.
We can't grieve ourselves.
The water and wind will have
to do it for us.
We are the dreaming
congregation. Our voices
are yours now. You grieve.
There is the question of propriety. I myself have violently disliked those moments when poets rushed to write about a war without first-hand experience, so why might this be all right? Two reasons occur to me.
1. The poem isn't 'about' the disaster in The Philippines. It is chiefly about my own thoughts, dreams and memories. I have sometimes dreamed of mass disasters - nuclear attacks, cataclysms - and there were always great crowds, not in the moment of happening but in the minutes before it. I am sure such dreams are common. Why? Because that is the world we live in, a world of great undersea anxieties. The poem doesn't mention The Philippines. The disaster is in us, triggered by events there.
2. Natural disaster (and I don't discount the possibility that human actions in terms of climate change might have been a contributing factor) are different from war. In war there are sides. There are no sides in natural disasters. We are all on the same side. It is not this or that human action we are looking to enter, but the great familiar yet unknown: our sense of being in a world that is not comprehensible to our consciousness.
The speed of writing might be wrong in some way. But I have always written fast, and have said, several times, that writing is a form of momentum. If I wanted to illustrate this with an image I would compare this to setting out on a tightrope. Put the foot down on the rope, feel the weight, the wind, the tension and set out. For me it's run-stop-run. I can't help that, never could. It is not the production but the editing that is at issue. But one edits on the run. The act is both productive and reductive: it is the balancing act.
Who could possibly produce anything serious in a format so apparently flippant as Twitter? The very name gives it away. It's inconsequential chat. - Maybe, but I don't care what it is called. For me it is primarily a form and I have always lived through forms. In terms of a given form 140 characters is no different from 14 lines, from the 17 syllables of what we in the West have tended to regard as the form of the haiku. It is simply a chance 'given' with a developing history. Frankly I am not much interested in chatting or twittering. From the beginning I was fascinated not only by the brevity but by what kind of literary space it opened up. The haiku form is one, among others, that fits. Not that I am haiku devotee as such but it is fascinating to explore the kind of space we have made of it. I don't really think of my 17-syllable sequences as haikus. They are what the are: a length and a shape. They may stand alone (and in one way, they have to stand alone even in a sequence, because they appear alone) or link in a narrative or cumulative way.
The question of evanescence. Why bother with a medium that eats itself as soon as arrived. Why insert these texts (poems, anecdotes, enigmas, proverbs, incidents) into the fabric of general conversation? This perhaps is the most pertinent question in respect of literature. I would argue that evanescence is our human lot and that even literature takes its place among the other activities of life. I can save the texts of course, but their very nature is to be born out of immediate obsolescence. It is not so much a question of what it is like to be within that immediate obsolescence but what it is to have been within it then moved out. I don't really know the answer to that.
Lastly, the question of the place of such work in the context of other, more conventionally produced and published work? I think the two domains have been edging closer and there is material that appears here that might reasonably appear in a book among other poems. We shall see.
Friday, 25 October 2013
Why should we be interested in a group of poems written in the thirteenth century by a man of whom hardly anything is known, who was not necessarily one of the great poets of the age (that is as far as we can tell) and whose expulsion from his home was hardly unique in the history of the world?
It may depend on who we are. If the reader is Jewish the poem, as translated, is of deep intrinsic interest: it is a voice out of a distant yet familial past, witnessing to a history that has a worrying tendency to recycle itself. Look, the reader might exclaim. We did not know this voice existed: it is now alive and speaking to us, as if in our present, as members of a tribe, a family even. The reader recognizes quotations, references, tropes, the very quality of voice as it addresses the deity and the universe. The losses, furies, anxieties and ecstasies strike an echo, something at the very deepest levels of identity. Those anxieties have never faded, they are always there beneath the skin, and here is the very cause of them, a moment among other such historical moments, the most recent of which is still vivid in the experience of last generation. The fierceness and argumentation are aspects of the anxiety. There is both fierceness and argumentation in the book. On the other hand there is not only the ecstasy, but the warmth and tenderness of those images of dress and wine, in the terms of endearment reserved for the God that is the source of light.
At the first launch by invitation of Into the Light the audience was swollen by many writers attending the Worlds Literature Festival. They came, as the name of the conference suggests, from all parts of the world and filled Dragon Hall, listening intently, deeply appreciative of the occasion, in many cases moved. To those among them who were Jewish it was, as they told me, a moment of great significance: it was the first such voice they had heard in this country, the first time that the expulsion of the Jews had become an occasion. It was a kind of statement, like the unlocking of a door.
Norwich is such a civilised city. It is a UNESCO City of Literature, one of the very few such in the world. Norwich is pretty, beautiful even. It has no great slums. Its medieval street plan - one that Meir might still recognise in places - offers stability if not quite permanence. It is not the kind of city where people are massacred and from which people are expelled without a penny. It is indeed an official City of Refuge. We are good people. We are nice people. We are a more-or-less comfortable people. We don't massacre or expel. We are not racist. We are certainly not anti-Semitic. We are a reconciled community.
But all cities are like that before they turn. And who knows what brings on the turn? I have seen people at wrestling matches in Norwich, their faces transformed by manic energy, the sort of energy we all possess, myself included. These turns at the ringside are partly theatre and self-aware to some degree, but not entirely. The spectacle would be nothing if it drew on nothing within us.
But what does Into the Light mean for the non-Jewish reader. It is, in some ways, simply a group of poems, that is to say a piece of literature that may be read (as I have read it) in terms of style and voice, located in the area where all literature is located, at that radioactive distance where we need not touch to be irradiated. That is how art acts on us. It is at an intellectual elsewhere that is, at the same time, a psychological within.
But it is also a human document that tells us what happened and how people responded to events, particularly a people with a specific history and cultural identity, and how one figure among them gave form to this response at both a social or liturgical, and a personal or lyric level. To the outsider it is just another human story to which he or she will find analogies: Gypsies, Armenians, the Tutsi, the African, the Native American. These histories might not be quite so cyclic but they are certainly tragic and devastating. General human sympathy goes out to them. The general reader - that is one who gets so far as to read this book - will respond with the pity, anger and tenderness of which our culture is still capable. It also challenges our sense of justice. Why do societies act unjustly? Why do societies pick on people? What urge in us requires scape-goats and sacrifices?
It may be that, in one respect, the general reader feels a certain ambiguity. That ambiguity will be centred on Israel, the country that, since 1948, has been the Jewish homeland, the Jewish state, and which may therefore be regarded, at least potentially, as a crucible of whatever is perceived to be the Jewish 'character'. Here the tables are reversed and it is the Palestinians who are regarded as 'the Jews'. This perception will be presented with absolute symmetry, to the extent that Israel is Nazi Germany, or, at the very least, apartheid South Africa.
Under these circumstances it is hard to make what many declare to be a hard and fast distinction between betwen Israel and Jews elsewhere. It seems clear to me from the discourses available that the language and terminology applied to Israel is exactly the same as was applied to the Jews in that cyclical past. Now and then the terminology leaks, as one may find in articles and cartoons in the press. The old stereotypes occur with ever greater blatancy.
The members of the Norwich Jewish community who came to the public launch ten days ago will be aware of that. They probably won't speak of it because it's hard. They may or may not approve the actions of any particular Israeli government. They may support or reject this or that policy. Whatever they do think it is unlikely that Israel can be cut from them with a knife, like a pound of flesh, or that they can be completely cut out of Israel. That is not the way the world has ever worked. It is certainly not the way Jewish history has worked.
They might have lived in Norwich for as long as Meir did, their families even longer. For them the publishing of Into the Light gives them a light to gather around. Thank you to Keiron Pim for initiating and taking the project through.
Wednesday, 23 October 2013
There is a particularly fascinating introduction to this group of poems. It refers to Genesis 15 and the covenant God makes with Abram. The source is Meir himself, from a poem he added to the sixteen. where he recounts that Abram cut his sacrificial animals in two, arranging the halves opposite each other. Having done so Abram falls asleep and "a smoking brazier with a blazing torch" passes between the pieces. Meir proposes to replace the animals with portions of his name in a complex combination whereby:
[E]ach portion consists of two letters and the four letters can be combined in sixteen different ways. In each of the sixteen poems one of these combinations is used to open and close its four lines so that the first word on each line begins with the two letters and the last word ends with them. The reader proceeds through the portions as in "a covenant of pieces"
The obsessive complexity of this process is clearly mystical, right from the dream through to the numbers that enact the covenant. I am not too concerned with the mystical as such, that can remain a closed book for now, but the psychological compulsion of figures, forms and systems is something else.
My own instinctive preference is to establish a relationship with language in which language, with all its accidents and coincidences, is an active, often directing partner. The poem works against the constraints that constantly deflect it into potentially fruitful directions, so, instead of the poet declaring: I have something to say and am saying it, the poet works on the principle that there is something to be said, but what that is is to be discovered. The poem itself is not random or in thrall to its form but it does show an awareness of the arbitrary and unknown. The poet is not in full charge. Language is not passive.
In Meir's terms the poem is the flaming torch that is carried between the half of language that appears conscious and the half that appears arbitrary.
Nothing of Meir's original system is translated here. Even if it could be its significance to us would be lost. A gesture towards the idea of constraint is the best we can do. We read the sixteen poems as individual but connected, lyrics. It is, at the same time, good to bear in mind that these lyrics were not produced in a vacuum, but are the product of formal decisions. One of these formal decisions is retained in most of the translations: the poems were written in quatrains in Hebrew and are rendered as such in English.
The first poem addresses God as a royal Guardian, numbered with stars and refers to its own plain and upright words. As with Put a Curse on my Enemy there are many Biblical references, but it is what moves between them that fascinates me. So, here we have:
As my eyes catch light from the holy face
I brighten, wrapped in light, and glow with warmth.
Catching light from a face is a powerful idea that doesn't seem to come with too many Biblical strings attached though I could be wrong. It strikes me as an act of the imagination. Lyrical poems are primarily acts of the imagination.
From light we move to images of water and drought in the second poem but there is a subtle shift to erotic terms in with dew drops of desire the folk are fed, / I too, perhaps, will sip a lover's cup. We know, above all from the Song of Solomon, that religious feeling may be expressed in terms of sexual desire. We may think of Bernini's St Teresa as, by now, a pretty ripe illustration. The ambiguity in the case of the secular reader tends to lean to the erotic rather than the sacred. It is certainly not a puritan way of writing.
From images of thirst it is natural to move to "limpid wine" in the third poem, though the complaint is that there is "no such wine" and that from my sea no clear liquid can be drawn.
From here the imagination begins to take wing. The image of my Love strikes me with awe, begins the fourth poem, and the light of that image is seen sparkling and falling like an arrow-shower. These arrows can wound a heart of truth.
We have now established arrows as one of the elements of the poem. They introduce not only the idea of wounding but of conflict.
The fifth poem speaks of my Beloved, speaks of family and move on to animal imagery.
If pain is a he-goat, then I am a lion
or if as a bullock, then I a wild ox.
This seems a slightly confusing menagerie - the message is 'I will overcome pain' - but the animals are certainly there and appear as with a certain familiarity They are not merely spoken of: they are present.
The sixth poem is a leap. We are reminded of "Egypt's bondage" but expand into "a garment of song", a unique garment entire and incomparable and a place to store it, a palace furnished with courtyard and galleries, which is derived from Ezekiel, nevertheless appears here as a new term, an expansion of the poem. The seventh returns to the idea of the face and preserves the idea of clothing in I'll dress myself with finest speech. Earlier elements are being picked up here as they are in the eighth poem where thirst reappears as a motif working alongside light.
The ninth is particularly beautiful and strikes out in another new direction. The Lord digs a hollow in the heart. The water is now the sea, complete with sea-wind and a ship without decking.
As if my ship lacks decking, he hews off
my inner feelings to serve as shipboards.
Imagery, however complicated, works best when it is conceivable as presence. This is, in some ways, a laboured metaphor but the details are seen with such intensity that their particularity carries conviction. Then the sea is set on fire.
The tenth brings back the arrows, the storehouse, the wounds and the creatures but introduces a wonderful image at the end:
Like a lion he tears us apart,
but our tears he weaves into his shield.
The idea of tears woven into a shield is complex but effective. It hints at something just beyond the solid reach of comprehension but well within its range of vision.
The eleventh poem persists with the sea. The beloved rocks the poet in the sea and covers him with waves, his head decorated with snowy flakes. Ice and hoar-frost will be my ornaments he says. The twelfth talks of purgation and returns us to fire - the words occurs three times in eight lines.
The thirteenth introduces pomegranates while reminding us of wine. It brings in a fowler that ensnares us in his net, before returning to arrows but now bones are being broken too. New ideas appear as part of a developing narrative to the poet but he is always trying to keep the poem together, (I think this is the way most longer poems proceed.)
In the fourteenth Meir picks up the image of decoration this time in terms of corals and crystals, but asks why his soul still seems loathsome. The fifteenth is full of Biblical references as if Meir wanted to re-establish a firm footing in the known, The sixteenth declares the poems to be a coronal of joyful songs and prays that the Lord take pleasure in his precious meditations, these songs of exultation and of awe.
That exultation and awe come at the cost of great tribulation. The passage from the light of the holy face, through thirst, water, wine, desire, arrow-showers, shields of tears, animals, splendid garments, palaces, a sea-voyage, a potential wreck, a drowning, ice and snow, corals and crystals, never quite losing sight of the beloved face whose light Meir has caught.
It is the progress of the narrative in terms of imagery that thrills and assures us we are dealing with an individual figure who thinks beyond liturgy. The liturgy is communal: in the sixteen poems we discover ourselves as single creature before the God of our imagination.
I want to write one more piece on the book, reflecting on the whole and on its meaning for us.
Saturday, 19 October 2013
Anything I say about the poems of Meir ben Eliahu is, of course, about the poems as presented by the translators Ellman Crasnow and Bente Elsworth. That having been considered in the last post I will talk about the poems as though they were in English. This will sound a little shocking knowing how distant in every respect - language, time, context, conditions - the English text is from the Hebrew, but it is pretty common practice in reading and reviewing. Translation, and very often the translators, vanish into a hole in the imagination. They are assumed to have become as transparent as the glass of the window you look through in order to see what is beyond the glass. Believe me, it ain't so. But this much is true: in the end the foreign laguage text will be read as an English text, by English reading standards.
Enough caveats. Let us be glad we have an English text at all.
The two works read from at both the invited and the public launch were Put a Curse on My Enemy and the Sixteen Poems set. I'll concentrate on those. Put a Curse on my Enemy first.
The actual title of Put a Curse on My Enemy is A Liturgical Poem on the Burden of Exile, Suffering and Ruin which tells you a great deal. It tells you the poem's purpose was less personal than social, that its form is ritualistic as is usual in an act of worship, and that it had a very particular subject.
The Book of Lamentations in the Bible may be described in the following terms:
Lamentations consists of five distinct poems, corresponding to its five chapters. The first four are written as chapters. 1, 2 and 4 each have 22 verses, corresponding to the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet, the first lines beginning with the first letter of the alphabet, the second with the second letter, and so on. Chapter 3 has 66 verses, so that each letter begins three lines, and the fifth poem is not acrostic but still has 22 lines. The purpose or function of this form is unknown.
So we have acrostics and we have number-and-alphabet-coding, that is to say a deep concern with structure and symbolism. These passions are in the root pattern of Jewish history and sensibility.
The poem begins with a curse:
Put a curse on my enemy
for all are deceivers...
Curses are proper to poetry. If fetishes have power, so have words. Naming things implies control and to be cursed by a poet was (and may remain) a dangerous thing. There was much to curse in this case, of course, nevertheless it shocks us. Elisha cursed his enemies: Smite these people, I pray thee, with blindness.
It is not very New Testament is it? Those vengeful Jews with eyes for eyes and teeth for teeth. It sets our own teeth on edge a little. But that is something that may happen after massacres, pogroms and exile. People get cross.
The tone immediately changes. The figure addressed - God - is not so much instructed as entreated to bring the suffering house of Jacob to the light.
There are three distinct tones in the first verse: the desperate cry for vengeance; the sound of entreaty, as of a child nagging his parent; and, finally, the chorus to be repeated after each verse:
Majestic are you and luminous, you irradiate our darkness with light.
The cry of praise, which is also a desire for mystical light is beautiful and affirming, especially in conditions of such darkness. Irradiate is not a word you will find in the old scriptures but it has a powerful spring that sets the line shooting towards the stars. The first verse sets our limits: we are to move between the desperate curse on the one hand and the cry of belief on the other.
The poem shifts temporally between the between reflections on the past (Every seer's words were rash), the immediacy of the danger (they are finishing us off) and the praise of light as in the chorus.
Not so much chorus in fact as response. The poem is, after all, liturgy. So the congregation that, throughout all this is dancing in a circle, is confirmed in its communion with itself as also with God. It is the rabbi that does the intimate negotatiating and arguing for which Jewish prayer is famous. In that relationship God is addressed in tutoyer terms and is presumed to be reasonable and willing to listen, much as a real father might. This is the personal God to whom Christians too address their prayers but with whom they are less inclined to wrangle (though George Herbert wrangles all the time.)
So we move through the poem, all seventeen verses of it, bringing up instance on instance of humiliation and peril. Give it a limit, cries the fifteenth verse before the sixteenth rises in rapture through majestic, awesome heavenly. And the light remains and is constantly reiterated.
I don't think I can talk about the Sixteen Poems in this post. Space and time is short and I am setting off to Bath in an hour or so. The next post will be set side for the Sixteen Poems.
Maybe there is just enough time to think a little, not so much about the poetics of Put a Curse on My Enemy, but about the heart from which the poem arises and the heart to which it is addressed. Heart is not a respectable literary term but we have reasonable agreement on what it means. We think it means something like the deepest-seated feeling or sense of being.
These people are always complaining, someone might complain. Can't they just shut up? They say that about those famous events generally referred to as the Holocaust. It is simply bad manners to refer to sufferings that were not directly yours, they think, the past is past, the dues have been paid, and we will not stand here to be regularly clubbed with guilt (cf Norman Finkelstein's The Holocaust Industry) especially when some people suggest it never even happened.
It would certainly be nicer if it hadn't happened, and it might be comforting to agree with those who suggest as much. Besides, there is Israel and doesn't that prove what a bad lot they are underneath?
Enough. Game Over.
Speaking for myself, I can quite see that claims of victimhood are annoying to those who have to hear them. They are annoying to me. Cries of victimhood humiliate the victim. I think that of all claims of victimhood. One gets on with life and tolerates no special pleading. Isn't that right?
The cry of Meir ben Eliahu, poet, is very much in its own urgent present tense. Its plea for God to punish his people's enemies is not uncommon among the beleaguered. As for us readers we read both historically and in the eternal present tense. That is the paradox of taking any reading to heart.
The only tense of art is 'is'. Meir's present arrives very belatedly in our own present.
More on Monday, I hope.
Wednesday, 16 October 2013
Someone at last night's launch asked whether translating poetry was possible. I answered that it was impossible, yet we translate it and, by doing so, help expand the roots of the poem into other languages. What is translatable? the questioner asked me afterwards. The spirit, I replied, which was not a satisfactory answer since the spirit is nothing without the flesh, that flesh being comprised of all the formal qualities of the poem, which are, after all, markers of the process whereby the original poem developed. I tried to add this to the simple and misleading answer and I think we understood each other.
In Emily Dickinson's terms the poet constructs a house - the poem - hoping to entice a ghost - the spirit. The translator's job may be described as the building of a house likely to entice the same ghost, that is in so far as ghosts can be identified.
Certain poem-houses are international: the sonnet for example, as well as the ballad, the couplet and certain other forms. These forms spread from place to place. They may start in Italy or Provence or the Middle East or even the Far East. Everyone interested in poetry has a broad understanding of what a haiku is. We know when the term, along with versions of the form, first entered English, but time has passed since then and we have grown familiar enough with it to write English language haiku with some sense of what we are doing. We know perfectly well that we are not writing haiku as they were written in their original languages, nevertheless the form - as we have it - has developed its own history, its own dynamic, and makes sense to us. It has built its own house. We have built it. The sonnet was an import once after all, in fact most of the verse forms we know were devised for other languages, but they have become our own.
In the same way we know that the alexandrine is much more common in French than in English where it is the iambic pentameter that is most commonly employed. We can transfer material from one to the other by referring to their roughly similar positions in poetic tradition. That does not mean that the pentameter is precisely the equivalent of the alexandrine. Once we understand that we may choose the pentameter to translate into.
Even when there are no direct similarities in the receiving language - as seems to be the case with Meir's Hebrew poems - there remain the manners and uses of form since form is not only a process but a way of speaking. What we know is that Meir's Put a Curse on My Enemy is a liturgical poem and we have our own liturgies - Jewish or Christian - in common practice. The shapes of liturgy are embedded in our memory. Liturgy too is a house. The priest says something: the congregation replies.
There are various ways of translating a historical liturgical poem. All of them involve compromise especially a liturgical poem that was actually danced. A certain air of dancing has to be built into the rhythmic pattern of the translation. The very first lines of the English translation of Put a Curse on My Enemy declare a dancing purpose: Put a curse on my enemy / for all are deceivers sounds a neat trala tumtumtum tralala / ta tum trala-tum-ta. It skips while being declarative. One dances vengeance and sadness, the sadness transformed into energy. And so it goes on dancing.
There is also the sense of historical distance. This can be created by the use of phrases that have a faintly archaic sound but retain familiarity through contemporary liturgical use. For example They make heavy our yoke echoes an ancient formula in a known Biblical pattern. One has to take risks to make this work, to allow it to cut through our ears into the living present. The necessary risk is to bring the phrase up against something utterly modern that nevertheless fits. In this case the translators offer the next line, they are finishing us off, a cry that will not be found in the Book of Common Prayer, though it might be in a poem by, say, Paul Celan. The way these two lines brush up against each other without throwing each other off balance is the key. Of course there are echoes of earlier scripture that may set the unconscious memory into motion. The line He has rent the heart's enclosure is in fact a direct quotation from a particular translation of the Book of Hosea, but we needn't know that; we just need to catch some faint echo of the grandeur of figurative speech.
Sheer accumulation of physical effect, which is not the same as alliteration or onomatopeia, can render the passion of the piece, as, for example:
In the land of the heavy-hearted and exhausted
we have heard the people's reproach
Here, those heavy breathing sounds that insist on panting through the first line and leave us gasping echo on into the second, where they are replaced by the lip-popping p sounds of people's reproach.
All these examples are from the first five stanzas of Put a Curse on my Enemy. It would take a long time to point out other examples of the way the English version looks to capture what is, presumably, the spirit or ghost of the original Hebrew.
I think the translators have done a very fine job generally. The poems register as poetry. The liturgy sounds liturgical, the dancing continues, and the two languages call out to each other.
But what are the poems like as poems? That will require a third post. Maybe tomorrow, though tomorrow is busy. I am going to London to record more poems for the Poetry Archive, mostly children's poems in this case but some adult ones too. The last time I recorded for the Poetry Archive was about seven years ago.
I wanted to write about this book before and also something about the two events that launched it, the second just last night.
What is the book?
It is a collection of the known poems of a thirteenth century Jewish poet named Meir ben Eliahu, of whom hardly anything else is known. Some of the poetry was discovered in the Vatican Library by a Jewish scholar called Abraham Berliner who published it in a tiny edition in the original Hebrew in 1887. Other work was found in Russian manuscripts. The texts were available to the few who were interested in such things. This is the first translation into English.
How do we know the poems are by Meir ben Eliahu? We know that because he signed them, not by scrawling his name underneath, but by the use of acrostics embedded in the poems. The fullest of those acrostics tells us:
I am Meir, son of rabbi Eliahu, from the city of Norgitz which is in the land of isles called Angleterre. May I grow up in the Torah of my Creator and in ferar of him; Amen, Amen, Selah.
Norgitz was an unusual spelling of Norwich even at the time, but Meir was certainly from Norwich and his father, possibly one Elyas, was mentioned in a deed of 1293 as having lived next door to the synagogue. Meir himself (his name means Light) is not recorded.
The expulsion of the Jews in England took place in 1290, at the climax of a long period of trouble for Jews, particularly in Norwich. In 1144 the body of a twelve year old boy called William was found on Mousehold Heath, now in Norwich, then just outside. There was a hue and cry and the Jewish community was accused of ritual murder. William was quickly canonised and there were pogroms, punishments and executions. In 1190 most of the Jews in the city were massacred. Some forty years later those that remained were, as the Introduction to the book puts it, 'burned out of their houses'. Between and after there were repeated efforts to get the Jews to convert. Accusing Jews and executing them was a good way taking possession of their property. And then, under Edward I, came the full expulsion, only reversed, after much negotiation, by Cromwell, who needed the trade, in 1657.
That is the background. Meir's poems are a direct response to the 1290 expulsions.
The book itself is beautifully produced by a Norwich press with a full introduction by the editor and instigator of the book, the writer and journalist, Keiron Pim. The translations are by Ellman Crasnow and Bente Elsworth both of whom used to teach at the UEA, who provide a very useful Translators' Note.
It seem, in many ways, to be a very local matter. The poems are by a citizen of Norwich and relate to the history of Norwich. They are published and translated in Norwich and launched there. What gives it more than local prominence is because the William case in Norwich is the very first recorded blood Blood Libel. That is enough to render it of much more than local interest.
Being the very first English translation of these seven hundred year old poems, the book's appearance also has a distinct place in English historiography since the poems - which predate Julian of Norwich, -are the only works of their kind relating to the expulsions.
The golden age of medieval poetry in Hebrew is collected in Peter Cole's marvellous anthology, The Dream of the Poem, that covers Jewish poetry in Muslim and Christian Spain from 950-1492. Meir's poems are to the north of that great period in every sense. They are not as rich or lyrically diverse as the poems in Cole's anthology and are perhaps a little cruder than the best of the work in Cole nevertheless they bite and hold firm where necessary and soar when opportunity affords. That is if we go by the English translation. I myself have no Hebrew.
We have essentially five poems if one counts the set of sixteen poems at the end as a single work. As concerns the translation, the poems are given in facing versions: English on the verso, Hebrew on the recto. English clearly requires more words since the stanzas in English are generally longer but that is often the case in verse translation. I'll discuss the translation later.
Of the five poems three are particularly interesting: A Liturgical Poem on the Burden of Exile Suffering and Ruin (Put a Curse on My Enemy) which is a lament in response to the expulsions; the longest poem, Who is Like You, which runs through the Torah from Genesis to the Exodus and contains the long acrostic quoted above, and the final group of Sixteen Poems.
Of these three the Sixteen Poems are the freest and most lyrical expressions of Meir's imagination though they too involve acrostics and a complex symbolism whereby sacrifical creatures are replaced by various combinations of the letters of Meir's name.
I will continue this piece in the next post, coming straight up.