Thursday, January 22, 2009

Snow and Fire

Perhaps it is the temperature hitting 41 a couple of days ago, or today's news that Lake Wendouree is on fire - the lake has been dry for a while (see the No Swimming sign), but I have been thinking of snow - one of the many things I miss about living in Europe - les neiges d'antan! Louis MacNeice uses this phrase from Villon as a title of one section of 'Out of the Picture', but it is a short poem of his, written a few years later, that came to mind. It directly captures the dreamfeel in the clarity and surreality of the image:

The Brandy Glass

Only let it form within his hands once more --
The moment cradled like a brandy glass.
Sitting alone in the empty dining hall...
From the chandeliers the snow begins to fall
Piling around carafes and table legs
And chokes the passage of the revolving door.
The last diner, like a ventriloquist's doll
Left by his master, gazes before him, begs:
'Only let it form within my hands once more.'

There's a recent review in The Times by Paul Batchelor
of George Szirtes Collected Poems. I first came to Szirtes via the book Reel, which I found myself returning to many times, and have since worked my way backwards with An English Apocalypse and The Budapest File. The 520-page Collected is a real treat. Batchelor's review makes special reference to snow: "Snow invariably wakens something special in Szirtes; he is drawn to its transience" and quotes the following lines

Snow takes form: the shapes it makes mount up
and vanish against sky, a paler more transcendent
cloud, a broader emptiness, briefly dependent
on whatever it clings to, fit for the hands to cup
and pack solid.

And I am reminded of an Alan Brownjohn poem, 'Snow in Bromley' which appeared in the October 1958 issue of Poetry and Audience, and the July/August issue of New Left Review and discussed and quoted at some length by Roger Garfitt in his essay 'The Group'. I first came across it in the Brownjohn / Hamburger / Tomlinson Penguin Modern Poets #14, purchased around 1981 secondhand for $2.80 on the way home from school.

Snow in Bromley

As of some unproved right, the snow
Settles the outer suburbs now,
Laying its claim unhurriedly
On gnome and monkey-puzzle tree.

Observe its power to shape and build,
Even in this unfruitful world,
Its white informal fantasies,
From roofs and paths and rockeries.

And swayed by such soft moods, I fall
Into forgiving nearly all
The aspirations of the place,
And what it does to save its face:

The calm and dutiful obsession
With what is 'best in our position',
The loyal and realistic views,
The rush-hours with the Evening News --

The snow fulfils its pure design
And softens every ugly line,
And for a while will exorcize
These virulent proprieties.

Within one mile of here there is
No lovelier place to walk than this,
On days when these kind flakes decide
That what it boasts of, they shall hide.

Reading it now I am struck by the 17th-century poise and wit of the ending ... the fleeting conceit of snow 'deciding', the parenthetical syntax, the full end rhyme. And this reminds me too of early Thom Gunn, take for instance the final stanza, and especially the final line, of the poem 'Lerici' from his 1954 collection Fighting Terms ...

Byron was worth the sea's pursuit. His touch
Was masterful to water, audience
To which he could react until an end.
Strong swimmers, fishermen, explorers: such
Dignify death by thriftless violence --
Squandering with so little left to spend.

Saturday, January 17, 2009


I recently heard an interview with Woody Allen on his latest film, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, which has been called a comedy by some. Allen said it started out as purely a drama, with - to his mind - no comic elements, but when the film was finished he could see that there were elements of humour in it. None of the characters end up happy or fulfilled, he said, and that the film had comic elements in it by accident. This reminded me of something Anthony Burgess observed in an essay called 'What Makes Comedy Comic?': 'Comedy is more of a technique than a genre"

Friday, January 2, 2009

Walking ghosts

It is wonderful to see some work from Clive Faust in the latest number of The Merri Creek. Eleven short prose statements are collected.

Here is #8: "In age you are treated as a walking ghost well before you die. And you see the world like one too, with its distant affairs of not much interest to you." ... which has a classic grace to it, although I am a little troubled by "walking ghost" ... partly I suppose because walking is what ghosts typically do. Herrick in a poem spurred by the approach of death ...

Age calls me hence, and my gray hairs bid come,
And haste away to mine eternal home

gave Perilla a sequence of detailed instructions, the end of which was to prevent his ghost from walking ...

Then shall my ghost not walk about, but keep
Still in the cool and silent shades of sleep.

Another part of my trouble with "walking ghost" is the clear echo of John Todhunter's 'Maureen' ...

O, you plant the pain in my heart with your wistful eyes,
Girl of my choice, Maureen!
Will you drive me mad for the kisses your shy, sweet mouth denies,
Like a walking ghost I am, and no words to woo,
White rose of the West, Maureen.

That repeated one word refrain 'Maureen' reminds me of an ad for Arnott's Assorted Cream biscuits that used to be on the television; the inept ditty went something like this:

There are Monte Carlos and Shortbread Creams
There are Orange Slices and Delta Creams
And there are Melting Moments and Swiss Creams
In Arnotts Assorted Creams.

In the first of Faust's small statements he takes a retrospective view on youth & reflects on the conversations of young poets, solving the world's problems together "... Yes, I know that scene, and it's very attractive. Wouldn't particularly want to re-hear the conversations ..." The old man not wanting to interfere with the forward-looking enthusiasm of those remembered young men. "I don't like sniffing out hope --even past hope."

Dreamy youth and walking ghosts, its all in Yeats' 'Song of the Happy Shepherd' which ends ...

I must be gone: there is a grave
Where daffodil and lily wave,
And I would please the hapless faun,
Buried under the sleepy ground,
With mirthful songs before the dawn.
His shouting days with mirth were crowned;
And still I dream he treads the lawn,
Walking ghostly in the dew,
Pierced by my glad singing through,
My songs of old earth's dreamy youth:
But ah! she dreams not now; dream thou!
For fair are poppies on the brow:
Dream, dream, for this is also sooth.

The most fantastic language conveying the most trivial thoughts

In a recent post Don Share quotes an excerpt from a letter from Jack Spicer in which he asserts: "Invention is merely the enemy of poetry". There's a passage in one of Drayton's Idea sonnets, which Coleridge calls 'odd' ...

As other men, so I myself do muse,

Why in this sort I wrest invention so;
And why these giddy metaphors I use,
Leaving the path the greater part do go;
I will resolve you: I am lunatic!

Coleridge brings this up in the context of his thoughts on the faults of poets:

the characteristic fault of our elder poets is the reverse of that, which distinguishes too many of our more recent versifiers; the one conveying the most fantastic thoughts in the most correct and natural language; the other in the most fantastic language conveying the most trivial thoughts. The latter is a riddle of words; the former an enigma of thoughts.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

A more substantial & true air

Clive James, in a recorded conversation with Peter Porter, remarked upon the way that words magically give the strength of reality to what they are expressing: "Words are magic, that's the problem. It doesn't matter how violent a drawing of you - a caricature could be as violent as you can imagine and you'll still want to buy the original because the drawing doesn't matter. Words matter, and sometimes people say something about you and it's very hard to get it out of your head."

Charles Darwin put it elegantly in his Beagle Diary, in an entry dated 26 May 1832. He was in Rio de Janiero at the time and rereading Alexander von Humboldt's Personal Narrative of Travels to the Equinoctial Regions of America, During the Year 1799-1804: "I know not the reason why a thought which has passed through the mind, when we see it embodied in words, immediately assumes a more substantial & true air."