Yeats’s Tower and Coole Park

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So having carried Yeats’s words about in my head for 40 years, it was amazing to finally get to look at Thoor Ballylee, a one time home of the poet, and a place which had an enormously powerful symbolic presence in his mind and his poetry.

I went there with Lorraine wife, and our friends John and Sue Lahiff. John comes from a family firmly rooted in this area. Finally arriving was an emotional moment for me, arriving out of season, when the tower is not open to visitors, was great. We were the only people there for some of the time. And it was exactly how I had pictured it (having seen photos and so on over the years). And still unchanged from Yeats’s description of it in the second section of the long poem Meditations in a time of civil war.

An ancient bridge, and a more ancient tower,
A farm house that is sheltered by its wall,
An acre of stony ground,
Where the symbolic rose can break in flower,
Old ragged elms, old thorns innumerable,
The sound of the rain or sound
Of every wind that blows;
The stilted water-hen
Crossing stream again
Scared by the splashing of a dozen cows;
A winding stair, a chamber arched with stone,
A grey stone fireplace with an open hearth,
A candle and a written page.

Nearby was Coole Park, where Yeats’s patron Augusta Gregory lived. We had to drive past Kiltartan to get there, mentioned in An Irish Airman Foresees His Death. Coole Park is now a nature reserve, and there is a lovely walled garden, where there was a quote from Yeats suggesting their shadows were still there in the gravel, with an Autograph Tree featuring the carved signatures of Lady Gregory, Yeats, Singe, Jack B Yeats, and many others. The house itself, according to Wikipedia, was actively demolished by the state in the 1940s.

A very misguided act in my opinion. For the house was very tied up with the Irish Literary Renaissance in which Augusta Gregory was a leading figure, as a folklorist, playwright and speaker of the gaelic tongue – but also as a mentor to younger writers. Evocative to find stone stairs leading up to a lost grand house.

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Madagascar in Eastbourne

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I snuck into the final dress rehearsal for Madagascar last night, in the final run through by The RHT Community Production at the Royal Hippodrome Theatre, Eastbourne which starts its run today. This is just the kind of initiative I love – seeing such vibrant community theatre gladdens the heart.

This production of the show Madagascar, A Musical Adventure was based on the Madagascar movie, is a high energy, all singing and dancing romp, really well directed and full of fine performances and strong voices. Even the sets were great, while the costumes were extraordinary.  Tickets have sold like hot cakes over the last few days and extra performances have been added. And after last night, I know that for kids on half term holidays at the moment (not to mention their parents) there’s no better way to spend a February afternoon. This show is just enormous amounts of fun.

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Rattling locked doors

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A page with pictures of gyres, from my copy of A Vision by W.B. Yeats, still with strangely neat annotations by my 21-year-old student self.

I’m having a bit of a fanboy moment. I am off next weekend to Eire, and I hope to have a look at Thoor Ballylee where my all time poetic hero, W.B.Yeats, once lived. Although it is out of season and The Tower is not open to the public I hope at least to be able to mooch about and take some photos.

I love poetry that rattles locked doors. One thing I love about Yeats was his engagement with the esoteric and the occult. He continually thought about what was hidden, and regularly wove symbolism he had derived from his esoteric investigations into his poetry to give it an electrifying charge. One such example is the famous poem The Second Coming.

Lines in the poem, ‘The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity’ seem particularly apposite whenever I think about politics right now. (Along with W.H. Auden’s phrase from Lullaby ‘fashionable madmen raise/Their boring pedantic cry’.)

The Second Coming has many roots, some are in Blake’s poem The Mental Traveller, others in his ideas about the cycles of history and how each cycle is the reverse of the previous one. So we are given an image of the anti-Christ, with Yeats’s theories of a repeating but inverted 2000 year cycle of history.

That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

I love the ambition here, the image is so crazily charged that it brands your memory. I love the fact that it has followed such strange pathways to become such an iconic piece of literature.

How I pored over Yeats’s A Vision, which is a book based on his young wife Georgie’s automatic writing conducted while on honeymoon. It is a system grounded on an adapted astrological model (or that was how I argued it in a dissertation once) of supernaturally inspired images and metaphors. I came out exhausted and thinking that Yeats was half charlatan, half genius. But that seemed to be his essential nature, a highly complex character with all kinds of interests.

As in architecture, an engagement with the occult is all over the place in poetry. The Birthday Letters by Ted Hughes is just one example.

Anyway I am looking forward to jetting off next weekend for a few days. I’ll be taking my collected W.B. Yeats with me, that’s for sure.

Below, a few years ago in another fanboy moment at the great poet’s grave at Drumcliffe.

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Stick or bust?

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Skelton Yawngrave, by Margaret Hamlin

When is it sensible to give up? Persistence we are told is a characteristic of success. Against this idea, I always think about sunk costs. An agency pal once explained to me there’s no sense pouring money into a project because you’ve already poured lots of money into it. Likewise, there comes a moment to cut your losses on an artistic project, and not pour any more time into it.

I have been writing a novel aimed at a 10-12 year old readership for almost ten years. Having set it aside for four years, I recently had a moment of clarity about how I could fix the problems that had previously stumped me. While I have felt that this story contains my best writing, it also didn’t all hang together. But at the beginning of the year, I bought myself some time and have decided to try again. Because I believe in the project, there can only be one answer – once more unto the breach it is then.

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Grace Brown, by Margaret Hamlin

This time, at least, I’ve a new weapon: the writing software Scrivener. My friend Catherine Pope told me about its ages ago, and I finally got around to buying it. It has been a revelation.  And thanks to Scrivener, moving blocks of text, reordering chapters, keeping tabs on the story flow, characters and so on, in a 60k text is all far, far easier. Something that would have taken me hours to sort out, can now be done in seconds. And the new (eighth) draft of the novel (now called The second kind of darkness) is becoming streamlined into something that seems to me to be much improved.

When I first started working on this, almost ten years ago now, I asked my mother Margaret Hamlin to quickly visualise some of the characters I’d created. One of them, Skelton Yawngrave, is above, and the girl is Grace Brown, the story’s heroine, is the smaller image. It’s nice to be back in their company.

* * *

Since attending the T.S.Eliot awards I sent off for several shortlisted books. The first one I received was Rachael Boast’s Void Studies and I have enjoyed dipping into her delicate, dreamlike work. Often the poem’s meanings are tantalisingly out of reach, but like dreams, convey a strange significance.  Coincidentally, while reading landscape-1448893172-trumpsleep Void Studies I’ve been going through one of those phases where I remember my dreams on waking. I’ve noticed again how dreams touch on things I’ve tried to sweep under the carpet. Reading Void Studies during the unfolding catastrophe of Donald Trump’s presidency, makes me think about Donald Trump’s dreamlife. Is all that gold compensating for slate grey dreams? What monsters must live there.

What is the relevance of a book like Void Studies in Trump world? None. But that is the exactly the point. A subtle and delicate work like Void Studies is an example of a culture that must be protected from the jackboot of ignorance that figures like Trump represent.

* * *

And while I’m on the subconscious, having decided to relentlessly focus on prose I found myself writing a series of 13 short poems this week. On Thursday morning I wrote eight eight-line poems in an hour. I have never written eight poems in a week before, let alone eight in an hour. It seems there’s nothing like deciding that under no circumstances will you think about something to make the opposite happen.

* * *

All being well, my play A Glass of Nothing will be having a five-night run in the Surgeons Hall during the Edinburgh Festival, in August. More about that later in the year.

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T. S. Eliot Award readings

Just a quick note about the T.S. Eliot readings.  Luckily I met up with Robin Houghton, Charlotte Gann and Jess Mookerjee. The first phase of these readings is always the same, gathering in the long bar before and having to talk to people. It is good to have some pals with you, as this can be awkward. There is a tendency for poets, all pressed together on the ‘works outing’ (as host Ian McMillan said poet Jo Bell had called it) and there only being a limited amount of time, to be looking over each other’s shoulders for someone more influential to talk to.

Ian McMillan is a perfect host for this event, blending a down-to-earth (code for Barnsley) tone with some poetic flights of his own. This is the third successive awards I have been to, and I always enjoy the readings. I treat it like one of those old fashioned sampler albums, where you’d hear a track or two by lots of different bands. Vahni Capildeo mentioned Aimee Cesare, so had my attention, and I found her writing was ambitious and free.  J.O. Morgan performed his poems like dramatic monologues, and again was something I’d like to investigate further. Denise Riley‘s reading was full of excellent, dense poems that I look forward to seeing on the page, but I found her performance style mannered.  Rachael Boast has natural charisma, and her mysterious and musical poems were intriguing to me, although she professed to not knowing what they were about, a statement that I always take with a pinch of salt. Alice Oswald spoke her poems from memory very well with a clenched right hand. A reading that made me want to buy her book Falling Awake. I thought she was a nailed on favourite.

The eventual winner, however, announced the following day was Cumbrian poet Jacob Polley, whose reading I warmed to, despite a sinking feeling when I heard the central character in his poetry book was called Jackself, which made me think of John Self in Martin Amis’s Money (1984) and other self-insertions. Still he’d won me over by the end of it, and I think he is as worthy a winner as anyone. Who wins the thing is not something that bothers me much. Only time will tell who the winners are, if any.

So I have half a dozen shortlisted books on order, and I am looking forward to dwelling with them properly. If you bought all ten of the shortlisted books each year, you’d have a pretty interesting poetry library. A nightmare journey home followed, thanks to train cancellations and so on, but it was well worth it.

My view of the readings. Here is Ruth Padel, who introduced the event with a reading of Journey of the Magi, by T.S.Elliot. I didn’t take snaps of the others, as I didn’t want to distract myself and the others around me, for what weren’t going to be particularly good shots.

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In praise of nothing

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Li Yuan-chia, ‘Monochrome White Painting’ 1963

 

I  wish you every happiness for the new year.

On the last day of the year I attempted a deathless piece about 2016. But in trying to write it, I kept descending into pompous windbaggery. My conclusion was that kindness is good, and that treating people with common decency is a rebellious act. And blah, blah, blah-blah… I spare you the long version.

Sometimes saying nothing is okay, isn’t it?  Preferable when what you have to say is barely worth saying. Often I read things in social media, and blogs like this, and I literally would rather have read nothing. It happens with poems sometimes too. It’s quite a good test.

I discovered through the power of google that someone called Sheridan Simove has made lots of money from selling a book with blank pages called What Every Man Thinks About Apart From Sex. I might think this is a pretty weak joke, but I expect Simove laughed all the way to the bank thanks to nothing.

Is laughing at nothing, the same as highbrow art that frames nothing? Such as John Cage’s 4’33”or the Chinese born UK painter and poet Li Yuan-chia’s 1963 painting above. I know people who have found John Cage’s piece to be hilarious.

One reason I am still under the spell of Samuel Beckett is that his work is full of people in various kinds of limbo doing nothing. In Waiting for Godot or sitting in dustbins like in Endgame or just mouthing into the void in Not I. As Beckett said, in possibly my favourite quote of all time (from Malone Dies), “Nothing is more real than nothing”.

*   *   *

I really liked Robin Houghton’s recent blog post discussing Facebook. She is going on a Facebook detox for at least a month, and gives good reasons.

For my part, when a social media platform becomes an intermediary, with algorithms I don’t understand, it may be time to reassess. Robin talks about having more face time and actual connections with her friends, and I couldn’t agree more.

*   *   *

Curmudgeon that I am, I find January bleak. So imagine my surprise when on January 1st the pleasingly austere postmodern site E·ratio  went live and included one of my, ah-hem, postmodern poems  An explication of three Light Age texts. Also on January 1st I heard from J.K. Shawhan, the editor of an interesting Irish site called The Basil O’Flaherty  who kindly took four poems to be uploaded in March.

All very weird. Could 2017 turn out fine after all? I hope so.

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The magnetism of the mise-en-scène

In The Cinema by Stephen Bone, published by Playdead Press

screen-shot-2016-12-17-at-15-21-00I bought a copy of In The Cinema at the end of last year, and find these poems have lingered in my mind longer than most. It was the careful mise-en-scène in several of the poems,  which first began to intrigue me. Stephen Bone’s choices of objects lends the poems a distinct, slightly down-at-heel 1960s atmosphere. There’s a Baby Belling cooker discovered in an attic, a woman’s ‘perspiration dampening her Yardley powder’ we glimpse a mouth ‘full blown with Victory Red’, or Victory V liquorice lozenges and so on.

Of course care in the description of objects is a characteristic of good writing. But there is something especially charged about this technique in In The Cinema;  noticing objects as a displacement from something disturbing, or how anxiety makes us map subjective anxieties onto external objects. For me it is the first poem in this collection, Coal Tar, which best condenses this aspect of Stephen Bone’s work.

Coal Tar

Still available. A throwback
to cigarette cards and iodine
Victory Vs. Spit and polish.

The soap, my aunt, who wasn’t,
scrubbed herself with
as if she were a stain.
Her water hard and scalding.

Used to ease her father’s
signet ring from her finger
on hot airtight days

and on me the time I slipped up.
I have never forgotten
the froth, the taste

or the way she set down
a tablet in the lodger’s bathroom
beside the copper taps,
like an unwritten house rule.

An orange threat.

(Coal Tar)

This also nicely demonstrates the poet’s ability to pose more questions than he answers. If she’s not ‘my aunt’ then who is she? And why does she scrub herself like a stain? What had been said to warrant such a mouth-scrubbing punishment?

In  Attic, meanwhile, one of the objects literally contains the essence of another person, ‘A yellow beach ball//still limply holding/his father’s breath.’

In Picnic, the trigger objects are photographs that ‘turn up now and then‘.  A typical example of In The Cinema’s understated but pervading sadness:

you standing on your hands
claiming you were holding up the world;

and the other moments,
the wasp attack, the freak shower.

Have you your photos somewhere?

(Picnic)

This polite understatement acknowledges the hurt below, but also represents the coping mechanism. This sort of thing is unfashionable at the moment. We live in a time when some much of the focus of politics is on the  personal, which permits many to shout louder and louder in a hierarchy of suffering.  But I find this understatement refreshing.

In Rain, in the middle of a heatwave, and a time in the UK when water was rationed. This rare event comes to stand for an unrepeatable summer.

Water precious as silver we shared baths
where we stopped or dipped flannels into feeble streams;

at night our skin a layer too much
as we sprawled or tangled on sepia grass.

Set To Continue, the news stands read.
The forecast held. In part.

(Rain)

I hope Stephen Bone is set to continue too, as I enjoy his quietly-persuasive work.

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