Poem of the day: A. E. Housman: “Far in a western brookland…”

woods

Where the tress whisper but the wind doesn’t blow: Let AE Housman be your guide.

 

 

Poem lii from A Shropshire Lad. 

 

Far in a western brookland

That bred me long ago

The poplars stand and tremble

By pools I used to know.

 

There in the windless night-time,

The wanderer, marvelling why,

Halts on the bridge to harken

How soft the poplars sigh.

 

He hears: no more remembered

In fields where I was known,

Here I lie down in london

And turn to rest alone.

 

There, by the starlit fences,

The wanderer halts and hears

My soul that lingers sighing

About the glimmering weirs.

 

 

A change of season brings a change of mood, and though it’s still not coat weather during the day round where I live, I did see a tree starting to drop its leaves this morning. If anything’s going to set me off thinking about Autumn, it’s that.

Time for that most melancholy of poets, then, Alfred Edward Housman, the ‘Shropshire lad’ himself (albeit one from Bromsgrove in Worcestershire).

I chose the above poem completely at random, and to be fair it could be set at any time of the year. Added to this is that whenever Housman does mention a particular season, he more often than not plumps for Spring. For me, though, there’s always a melancholy about his work that fits the season of Autumn. I’ve always thought of Housman as a great poet of the emotions, and he does crystalise in verse the rueful melancholy that a lot of people feel, however fleetingly, when the nights start drawing in. He is a poet of dark nights.

This poem may not be to everyone’s tastes. Personally I like it, although I’ll readily admit that there is a contrived element to it. The key words at play in the verse, however, are in stanza two, where despite the “windless” conditions the poplars are animated by some power, leaving the passer-by “marvelling”. And with that Housman takes what might be another routine lyric of loss and disquiet, and gives it an unsettling element, bordering on the supernatural.

As I say, some might find that Housman overdoes this. However, I don’t mind writers taking liberties like this in order to stir the emotions. After all, this is also the time of year when I like to go back to my books of ghost stories.

This is also the perfect kind of poem to give to schoolchildren: With skillful guidance from the teacher they’d be able to make personal sense of it in minutes, followed by an exercise where they could produce a personal response (a poem, a picture, a story)  based on the verse. There could also be a lot of interesting discussion as to the identity of the poem’s speaker.

 

Poem for the day: Gary Snyder “Changing Diapers”

gary snyder

The great Gary Snyder: Never a man to be afraid of kicking up (or even picking up) a stink.

Gary Snyder’s a poet that I don’t read enough of, but I really ought to. His work can be serious, since it covers a lot of weighty and complex issues (for instance he was in the vanguard of writers who were taking up themes of environmental concern). However, I’ve always found the dominant tone in his writing to be a good humoured openness, which allows him to convey the significance of everything from the wonders of nature to more domestic joys. Here’s  good example which I picked at random today. It’s called “Changing Diapers” (or ‘nappies’ where I come from).

What I like most in this poem is that it deals with an everyday domestic occurrence in tender language. In so doing this allows him to subtly convey his underlying serious point about how you define being a man.

He knows that if you want to make a convert, you’ve got to make them laugh and smile first.

Changing Diapers

How intelligent he looks!

on his back

both feet caught in my hand

his glance set sideways,

on a giant poster of Geronimo

with a Sharp’s repeating rifle on his knee.

I open, wipe, he doesn’t even notice

nor do I.

Baby legs and knees

toes like little peas

little wrinkles, good-to-eat,

eyes bright, shiny ears,

chest swelling drawing air,

No trouble, friend,

you and me                and Geronimo

are men.

Seneca on the pleasures of receiving a letter from a friend.

seneca

“They’re doing WHAT to the Royal Mail?!” Not even that old stoic Seneca can hide his concern.

Thank you for writing so often. By doing so you give me a glimpse of yourself in the only way you can. I never get a letter from you without instantly feeling we’re together. If pictures of absent friends are a source of pleasure to us, refreshing the memory and relieving the sense of void with a solace however insubstantial and unreal, how much more so are letters, which carry marks and signs of an absent friend that are real. For the handwriting of a friend affords us what is so delightful about seeing him again, the sense of recognition. 

Seneca, 40th letter to Lucilus, written in the first century CE.

 

There is a great deal of food for thought in Seneca’s letters to his young friend, but it was this passage that leapt out at me when I read it the other day. With the Government planning the sale of the Royal Mail into private hands, I for one can only see this as hastening the decline of the personal letter. Such is the way of British privatisations that consumers often ending up paying more to get less. It won’t be long before we’re paying £1 to send a letter. Once we’re through that barrier expect price rise upon rise, as the Royal Mail concentrates on the real cash generator of parcel delivery.

That said, I will always set great store by a personal letter. I can’t add anything of value to the great man’s words, apart from to add that with all the different ways of communicating now available to us, I see a personal letter as being even more valuable than the other forms. If you’re anything like me, writing a letter takes the most effort: setting aside the required amount of time, thinking of the right words, making sure your handwriting is consistently neat, having to go to the post office if you haven’t already got the stamps, and paying to send it off. If anything comes near it for bridging the gap between you and a loved one or a friend, then it’s a video call via Skype or something similar. But even then once it’s finished that’s it. At least with a letter it’s a physical object in your hand. That, together with the knowledge that someone’s gone to that extra effort to get in touch, will always mean a lot to me.

Whatever price the cynics may make me pay to send a letter in the future, at least I’ll have the old stoic Seneca to remind me of its true value.

 

 

 

 

 

Evelyn Waugh: Decline and Fall: Gibbon it ain’t but there’s plenty of monkeying around.

evelyn waugh

Bad hair day: It seems that Boris Johnson copped a lot more than just his political attitudes from the young Evelyn Waugh.

The title of Evelyn Waugh’s first novel echoes Gibbon, but there the similarity ends. Gibbon’s book was a long account of what happened to the Roman Empire after the death of Marcus Aurelius, right up until the fall of Constantinople. It put forth the whole story and attempted to draw attention to the significant patterns in the fabric of time.

Waugh’s book by contrast is the equivalent of a young fogey taking a look at the social fabric of his time (1920’s Britain) and scrawling “balls to all this” across it with a large permanent marker pen.   The novel is the ‘history’ of an unfortunate young mug at Oxford by the name of Paul Pennyfeather. One night he has the misfortune to encounter the Bollinger Club (the Bullingdon Club in other words) who true to form are on the piss and on the warpath. They debag Pennyfeather and chase him  around the Quad, resulting in his unfairly being sent down for lewd and immoral behaviour.

From here Pennyfeather’s life takes a variety of odd twists and turns. Yes there is a plot, but it’s fairly basic and more of an excuse to present a series of comic set-pieces. I could summarise it, but the book’s so short you could almost read it in less time than I could take to describe it.

I liked the book and I did laugh out loud in places. Ultimately it was an agreeable way of passing the time, but dare I say that’s about it for me. I recently watched an old BBC “Face to Face” interview with Waugh, and something he said about his books made me think most of Decline and Fall.

Interviewer: You say all that is good in the world comes from God; you don’t seem to find very much which is good in the modern world – you’ve seen it consistently as a decadent world, have you not?

Waugh:  But there’s good in a decadent world.

Interviewer: Yes, but your purpose in life is what? To castigate or to chronicle the decadent world? Do you see a purpose in your books – are you trying to scourge us into reform?

Waugh: Oh no, no, no, no, no. No, I’m just trying to write books.

Interviewer: Yes, but nonetheless no-one who is as intellectually coherent as you are can write books even just as finished polished objects without having a certain purpose in mind, I suspect.

Waugh: Quite unconscious. It wouldn’t occur to me to sit down and say ‘I will now write a book to reveal the horrors of the gangs in this district’ or something like that.

“I’m just trying to write books”. I tend to take that comment more or less at face value. I think that in Decline and Fall he set out his stall pretty well for the rest of his career, at least where his writing in a comic idiom is concerned. In other words he was just trying to make people laugh. No more, no less, and in Beckett’s phrase “make sense who may”.

Is there any other apparent motivation behind the book? I suspect his intent was broadly to satirise and to mock. Although it’s a very funny book, the humour is often described as black. I’d go further than that and say that it’s caustic to the point of being corrosive. Taking the mick out of almost everyone in the book, regardless of race, creed, colour or class, often makes for very funny writing. Ultimately it doesn’t really get you anywhere either. Hogarth would go down as a satirist with a moral purpose. Waugh by contrast has more in common with the Marx brothers. In other words, any one is fair game and damn the consequences.   Writers like Waugh in Decline and Fall mode, I suspect, don’t give a monkey’s about that, and just want to poke fun. Again something that stood out for me from “Face to Face”:

Interviewer: Looking at yourself, because I am sure you are a self-critical person, what do you feel is your worst fault?

Waugh: Irritability.

Interviewer: Are you a snob at all?

Waugh: I don’t think.

Interviewer: Irritability with your family, with strangers?

Waugh: Absolutely everything. Inanimate objects and people, animals, everything.

In other words this was a man who appeared to get wound up and stressed by the slightest thing. Fortunately for him, and for some of us, he was able to take that negative energy and make it into caustically funny prose.
In conclusion it’s worth pointing out that contrary to his denial, I think he was a snob, and a dreadful one at that if Decline and Fall be considered Exhibit A. However, it is precisely this contempt for the lowly, the snooty, the inadequate, the banal and the silly that invests Decline and Fall with its manic and angry energy.
 

Robert Graves Pt. 3: Another reason why he defies simple categorisation.

copse

The Suicide in the Copse

The suicide, far from content,

Stared down at his own shattered skull:

Was this what he meant?

 

Had not his purpose been

To liberate himself from duns and dolts

By a change of scene?

 

From somewhere came a roll of laughter:

He had looked so on his wedding-day,

And the day after.

 

There was nowhere at all to go,

And no diversion now but to pursue

What literature the winds might blow

 

Into the copse where his body lay:

A year-old sheet of sporting news,

A crumpled schoolboy essay.

 

[Poem ends, blogger’s rant begins].

gravesathisdesk

To the Editor. Dear Sir, In a recent review your publication had the sheer brass neck to categorise me as just a…

So only the other night  I blogged in anger about an Economist review of the new Graves selected poems that tried to pigeon hole the writer as ‘just another’ war poet. Since then I’ve read another more positive review, but still rather tangled, in The Independent. Here the writer acknowledges that “Graves’s range is wide”. However, there is still some pigeon-holing evident because the critic asserts that Graves essentially “espoused a single subject”.

What was this subject? Here I have no option but to let the critic have his say.

“For Graves the imagination was not a framer of secondary worlds but an inhabitant of an underlying reality where a fundamental narrative, “one story and one story only”, was always in progress: the poet’s enchantment in the service of the White Goddess, in the worldly form of a Muse.”

What the critic does here is to take Graves’s own lead in asserting that “all true poetry” is in its way a representation of the poet’s relationship with The White Goddess, or of some aspect of her story. To explain exactly who the Goddess was, and what Graves’s Muse-based poetic system consisted of, is the subject of another blog to follow in due course.

In the meantime it’s worth pointing out that Graves’s Goddess system, expounded in book form in 1948 (The White Goddess) had been some years in the making. But once set down in print it gradually came to inform the bulk of his verse. Hence his later poetic phase where love is perhaps the dominant theme, and his working method whereby he felt he could only really write true poetry if he was in thrall to a real muse (i.e. an attractive, much younger woman, assumed to be the living invocation of the Goddess at a given point in time).

From my point of view, if you really want to add an extra level to your understanding Graves’s verse, you really need to have a basic knowledge of what the Goddess mythos consisted of. It’s worth mentioning, however, that even after he’d developed his Goddess mythos, his poetry continued to reflect the wide range of his lively and enquiring mind. Though the Goddess took over to some extent, he was by no means as love-struck or muse-fixated as the critic seeks to assert above. (I’ve written before about Graves’s immensely varied output: https://alliread.wordpress.com/2013/08/04/robert-graves-part-one-never-mind-goodbye-to-all-that-try-saying-hello-to-all-his-other-writing/)

As I also wrote the other day (https://alliread.wordpress.com/2013/09/11/robert-graves-part-two-try-to-pin-this-writer-down-at-your-own-risk/) you can’t blithely state that Graves is a war poet and leave it at that. And neither can you just maintain the critical assumption that he is a muse-driven love poet (even if Graves did more than most to give that impression!).

For me, one of the reasons that Graves remains one of the greats is because he defies simple categorisation. Look through any edition of his verse and you will find gems like the one I chose at random above (it was written in the late ’30’s). Have a look at it again and, if you’ve time, have a think about what the poem means to you. The Great War and the Goddess might somehow be factored into some people’s reading of the poem at some stage. No doubt, though,  this will occur far later than a host of other themes will have become apparent.

Robert Graves Part Two: Try to pin this writer down at your own risk.

 

 

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“Just a war poet am I? Step outside sunshine…”

 

So first the good news. There’s a new Selected Poems of Robert Graves out, published by Faber and Faber. The bad news is that some reviews might not succeed in inspiring people to actually check out the book.

I don’t mean that the reviews of the poems themselves are bad. I mean that the reviews are actually badly written. Chief among them has to be this review from The Economist magazine (a journal not really noted for its insight into the arts, however hard they try. Stick to money, lads). This review is probably the worst review of anything by anyone since the A and R man at Decca records thought to himself “Those Beatles. Just haven’t got it have they?”

See how uninspired the review is for yourself here: http://www.economist.com/news/books-and-arts/21583612-timely-reminder-overlooked-war-poet-after-trenches

Where to begin. The subheading for a start: “A timely reminder of an overlooked war poet”. War poet? Robert Graves? Well yes he wrote about war, but pigeon holing him thus is like trying to claim Ted Hughes is ‘just’ a nature poet, or Byron wrote only of doomed and sorrowful young men. See my other blog post on Graves’s poetry, where I try to give a flavour of the sheer range of his poetic interests.

While I’m at it I’ll have a go at the first sentence of this review. “Robert Graves is not remembered for his poetry”.

“Not remembered?” What a complete load of bollocks. As my own post of a few weeks ago, as well as a steady stream of other posts on WordPress and other sites attest, many people know and love Robert Graves’s poetry.

And so to counter the lazy cliches of British reviewers everywhere, I’d like to end by quoting Graves’s own poem “Flying Crooked”. In it Graves compares himself to a butterfly. While they appear to flit from place to place, surely few creatures get to know their territory so well or cover so much varied ground.  In like manner, here is a writer whose career progression and range of subjects may seem random and haphazard to some, but who certainly  can never be pigeon holed into one category.

 

The butterfly, a cabbage white,

(His honest idiocy of flight)

Will never now, it is too late,

Master the art of flying straight,

Yes has- who knows so well as I?-

A just sense of how not to fly:

He lurches here and here by guess

And God and hope and hopelessness.

Even the aerobatic swift

Has not his flying-crooked gift.

 

 

 

Lord Halifax’s Ghost Book.

ghost book

Strangely, the cover of my edition of the Ghost Book has a photo of David Cameron during his Bullingdon club days, but it’s good to see the PM has put on a bit of weight since then and has a ruddier complexion. 
 

I’ve always enjoyed Lord Halifax’s ghost book. There’s probably a current Lord Halifax, and the one most people have heard of was Foreign Sec in the 30s and a general political bigwig. The Lord Halifax who wrote the ghost book was the poltician’s father. There’s a reasonable Wikipedia entry on him, which is chiefly devoted to detailing M’Lord’s work in Church, in which he was both active and high up. It makes perfect sense to me, therefore, that he should have been interested in ghosts. After all, wasn’t it from an Archbishop of Canterbury that Henry James heard the germ of the idea that became The Turn of the Screw ?

The book consists of accounts of hauntings that Lord Halifax collected. It seems that he was well known for having an interest in the uncanny and supernatural, and therefore some of these tales are his own versions of what had been told to him by friends and acquaintances, while others are letters that people sent to him detailing their own weird experiences. What they all have in common is that they all purport to be true encounters with ghosts and apparitions.

This makes the book a nice companion volume to have on your shelves if you like classic ghost stories, especially those from the British Isles.  Like the works of Le Fanu, Jameses Henry and M.R., and so on and so on, Halifax’s tales don’t present you with a gore-fest. Instead they are often subtle tales of unsettling events in otherwise familiar surroundings. As with great ghost fiction, however, read these alone on a winter’s night, or out loud to family or friends, and the effect is chilling, thought-provoking and lingering.

One thing that a lot of us like to do is sit around from time to time and swap our own strange stories, and this book is a compendium of such tales as you might tell to your friends. As I say, they’re all understated but I think that’s the nature of events that normal people deem to be uncanny. Listen to any of the classic recordings of Art Bell’s Ghost to Ghost shows (a sort of modern counterpoint to a book like this) and you’ll know what I mean.

The introduction by the peer’s son makes it clear that Halifax’s children loved it when their father got out the ghost book to read a few tales before bedtime, and it’s that kind of work: the sort of thing you probably won’t read in a sitting, but will want to come back to again and again. With the nights quickly drawing in it’s about this time of year that I like to dip into the Ghost Book myself.

Such a shame it seems out of print. Someone is missing a trick here.

Look on this list of works ye mighty, and despair…

I did something I rarely get the chance to do last Saturday, and got to browse among some second hand books (this was on one of the second hand book stalls near the NFT on London’s South bank). I came away with one book, a 1937 Penguin copy of Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall. I paid an arm and a leg for it, but I’d been meaning to properly re-read this book for ages, and  I do like the old original Penguin books. At the risk of coming over all Obi Wan Kenobi on you all, these old Penguins seem to me to be reminders of a more civilised age. Certainly they were produced during a less corporate and more soulful one.

Anyway, a short review of Waugh’s book will be to follow, but in the meantime I couldn’t resist posting a PDF file of the book’s back cover (see link ‘New Doc’ below). It’s the 1937 list of Penguin titles in print. I can’t claim to have read more than a few of them, but the striking thing is just how many of the titles and authors I’ve NEVER heard of at all. An Ozymandias moment indeed.

If you’ve read any of the more obscure titles, or even own an original 30’s Penguin copy, drop me a line. I’d love to hear from you.

New Doc

Is “To Have and Have Not” Hemingway’s worst book?

Papa

Papa made sure that the next time Social Services called to check on the kids’ welfare he’d be ready…

I know received opinion is that Across the River and Into the Trees is the nadir, but I wish to make a case for To Have and Have Not

The 1930’s saw Ernest Hemingway get more overtly politically engaged. If For Whom the Bell Tolls was the high water mark of this mode of writing, then To Have and Have Not must rank as the low ebb. This, his third novel (fourth if you include The Torrents of Spring) is not an unmitigated disaster, but if any book epitomises his uneven 1930’s output then this is it. On the one hand it’s Hemingway at his most fluent and slick. But on the other it’s a lumpen, stodgy and unedifying affair. 

I read this book first in my late teens. After re-reading part one of the novel this time around I was thinking that the book wasn’t quite as I remembered it. By the time I’d finished I realised that I hadn’t remembered it at all. For a start I seemed to recall that it was just about main character Harry Morgan, a gruff anti-hero of the sort who is initially hard to like, but who shows himself to have some sort of moral compass when there’s a choice to be made between self interest and the common good.

In truth, what I’d remembered was Humphrey Bogart’s portrayal of Harry Morgan in the book of the film. By contrast, the Harry Morgan of Hemingway’s book is an out-and-out sociopath. What’s worse is that while Morgan’s story makes for a simple enough tale of action, exciting in parts, what force it has is diluted by Hemingway’s burying it amid heaps of social commentary and invective as the book wears on.

At the risk of over-simplifying things (but then again this is a pretty over-simplified novel) I suspect this book was written during Hemingway’s fishing and drinking phase, when he lived in the Florida Keys but was also feeling the pull of Cuba; when he spent a lot of time on his fishing boat; and he liked a drink or ten at Sloppy Joe’s and other establishments of that kind. Since even some of the great writers stick to the dictum of  ‘write about what you know’, it’ll come as no surprise that the novel is set in the Florida Keys with the odd Cuban interlude; that Harry Morgan is skipper of a boat; and that virtually everyone in the book likes a drink or ten in the kind of cavernous establishment where they now hold Ernest Hemingway lookalike competitions.

The book does get off to an exciting start. Part one is set in Cuba and is narrated in the first person by Morgan. It’s the Depression era, and he is in dire financial straits.  Previously he made a good living chartering his boat to rich tourists for fishing expeditions. Now he’s reduced to getting money any way he can. This means grubbing a living by hiring the boat to dud clients who can’t fish and don’t pay; agreeing to get illegal immigrants in the US; running guns and alcohol; and finally (and unwittingly) acting as skipper of a getaway boat for Cuban revolutionaries who have robbed a bank.

But then in part two things take an odd turn. The novel’s action shifts to the Florida Keys, and with it the point of view. With the exception of one chapter ‘guest narrated’ by Albert, sometime mate on Morgan’s boat, things are now told in the third person. From here the story of Morgan’s run of bad luck continues through a series of increasingly dangerous and illegal jobs. But the whole thing takes an abrupt left turn with the arrival of  a new set of characters who come with their own emotional and intellectual baggage, which Hemingway’s new narrator goes into at length. These people are in the main tourists from elsewhere in the US, chief of whom are a Professor, a writer of socially engaged novels, and the novelist’s wife. I couldn’t help get the feeling that Hemingway parachuted these characters in to juxtapose them with Morgan, as if to say “look at this poor son of toil trying to make an honest living in a dishonest world, while these pampered intellectual types get into trivial romantic tangles of their own making”.

To give Hemingway the benefit of the doubt, it wasn’t as if he lost all sense of the structure of his book from part two onwards. I think what he was attempting to do was use shifting points of view in order to provide insight into the lives of different kinds of people at all levels of society. This could even have worked if the plots were more carefully woven together. However, given that the book started out as basically a thriller, such a change of gear is grating. It’s as if Raymond Chandler had written part one, given up and handed it over to John Steinbeck for part two, who in turn let  John Dos Passos do some experimental narrative tweaking. There’s even a bit of sub-Joycean internal monologue type stuff going on, but mostly this consists of Morgan and then his wife musing on how horrible their lives are, and what a drag it is to have daughters.

It doesn’t help that  Hemingway seems to have been writing from a position of scorn and spite when it comes to the Professor, the writer and others in part two.  Had he certain people in mind when describing these characters?Perhaps it’s no surprise that this novel was among the first to contain the disclaimer that any resemblance to any person living or dead was purely coincidental.

The paradox of this book is that the fabled Hemingway style, which gave his best writing such strength, actually lets him down here. In his earlier books he made virtues of carefully choosing words to vary the amount of detail for maximum emotional effect.  He also wrote razor sharp dialogue that avoided extraneous description. And of course he mastered withholding information so that maximum power was released as the reader imagined what was going on for themselves.

To Have and Have Not is terse and we still have scenes largely driven by dialogue. But the effect of all this is rather flat, since the plot is not as strong as his previous novels and stories, and he tries to hard and to obviously to make political points. We also get a lot of clunky interior monologues. If you want a better example of how he wrote about the kinds of people he did not like, try “The Short Happy Life of Francis MacComber”. If you you want a great example of how he wrote of the interior world of a character, try The Old Man and the Sea.

Luckily, Hemingway was to come back to the concept of the honest man trying to make a stand in a dishonest world in his next novel, “For Whom the Bell Tolls”, where he cut the pseudo intellectual content, wrote from the heart and consequently made a far better job of it.  As for “To Have and Have Not”, I’m tempted to say that had Hemingway spent less time in Sloppy Joe’s he’d have written a far less sloppy novel.

The verdict: Nasty, brutish and thankfully short.