Poetry Travel

Yeats’s Tower and Coole Park


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, my 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.



Poetry Travel

Rattling locked doors

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.


Poetry Propoganda

What place has poetry in a post-truth world?

A supervillain for post-truth times? Loki, the trickster

In a post-truth world, poets can be superheroes. We have special powers to illuminate the truth, and prick the bubbles of lazy fiction. We can bend words to say the right thing. 

This week, ‘post-truth’ was declared international word of the year by Oxford Dictionaries. I like new words, so I doff my cap to folks like Oxford-educated Michael Gove, former Education minister, who managed to spin the word ‘expert’ into an insult. And to Donald Trump, whose airy assertions have swept away any sense of proportion or of being achievable: “I will build a great wall — and nobody builds walls better than me, believe me – and I’ll build them very inexpensively…”

But its only poetry right?  It’s totally ineffectual and harmless  

There’s an Eyoreish English view on all this that galls me. Here’s the nutshell: “For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives / In the valley of its making” .  Auden wrote this in his poem “In Memory of W.B.Yeats”. Confusingly, he wrote it about a man who sparked a nation’s literary renaissance, transformed the way people thought about Ireland, became an Irish senator and won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Makes nothing happen. Really?

Oppressive regimes must firmly believe poetry can make things happen. Poets have been locked up in droves over the years. People like  Osip MandelstamWole Soyinka or now  Ashraf Fayadh – accused of inciting atheism in his book Instructions Within.

Poetry changes hearts and minds, it allows people the ability to experiment with new ways of thinking

For example, Leopold Sedar Senghor and Aimé Césaire, thought something might happen. They set up the literary review L’Étudiant Noir in Paris in the 1930s, birthing a surrealism-inflected poetic movement Négritude which took ownership of blackness in literature, and gave black poets a strong new voice. Senghor went on to become the First President of Senegal, and Césaire became the highly influential mayor of  Martinique’s Fort de France. I’d call that something.

So if poetry can make things happen, what should we do?

I see an opportunity for poetry in a world where pernicious myths are taking hold, where toxic, half-witted fictions about people’s differences are taking root.

We live in a time when words are being weaponised to forge terrible myths. Luckily, poets understand myth and fiction, poets understand rhetoric and how to manipulate words. This is not the time for poetry to become despondent. We need to fight back with what we have, our words. We need to stretch our minds to imagine new pathways around the challenges to come. We have to remind everyone that despite the efforts of politicians to incite a hateful focus on people’s differences, humanity is universal.

This post-truth time should never be accepted, or normalised. It is not normal. Employing dog whistle racism is never okay. Humiliating the disabled is never okay. Litigimising mysogeny and violence towards women is never okay. Hatred towards LGBT or transgender people is never okay.  And anyone who voted for a candidate or cause, who decided that, although distasteful, they could live with any of the above needs to take a good hard look at themselves.

Time to climb off my virtual soapbox. One last thought…

Where politicians build walls, poetry builds bridges.


Poetry Reading

Poetry: reasons to be cheerful

An imaginary helicopter is a valuable possession. When I finally stop ignoring the helicopter in the room, I clamber in and rise vertically to peer down at life. (Google Earth has diminished the freshness of this metaphor for ever, of course, but you get what I mean). I did it this morning, and this is what I saw.

I find I’m grateful that I live in a country of poets. Right now there are people in their thousands sat at desks around these islands writing poems. Why? Because they want to be one of those poetry millionaires? *Guffaws* For celebrity? I don’t suppose even Carol Ann Duffy is molested by fans as she pops out for a jar of gherkins. No. Mostly people write poetry because they love it, and because quite a few people love reading it too. Just because it doesn’t seem to have the potential to generate much cash, poetry is the starveling of the arts. But that doesn’t mean that poetry should have an inferiority complex. Poetry has been, and continues to be, one of our greatest national treasures.

I’m grateful for all those people who in the face of indifference and pitiful funding, will willingly give up their time to run magazines and websites. These tiny cultural ecosystems are often incredibly fertile. In a few pages they provide a forum for more exciting, dangerous and beautiful ways of seeing the world than you’d get from a year of watching mainstream TV. So I’m grateful to all those people who do that because they love it, and people love what they do. Collectively they create an environment for poetry in this country.

Finally I’m grateful for the people I’ve met through poetry. This week I went to a Pighog and Red Hen reading at the Redroaster Cafe in Brighton excellently organised by Michaela Ridgeway. I found myself blown away by the work there, including from poets in the open mic spots. It’s even better when one of your mates is a featured performer and pulls off a blinder. Robin Houghton’s delivery was full of the compelling authority such strong work merits. While young Romanian animator and poet Andreea Stan fascinatingly wove stories in poems and film.

A sketch of Robin
Robin Houghton… Somewhere near you a poet is being amazing.

 For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives 

In the valley of its saying where executives 

would never want to tamper;

These oft-quoted lines from Auden’s poem In Memory of W.B. Yeats have been accused of a kind of defeatism (but then he was writing an elegy). Not only does this diminish the importance of W. B. Yeats in history, it overlooks the generations of persecuted poets in, say the former USSR, precisely because it was feared they could make something happen. While poets of the Négritude movement in 1930s Paris went on to change their societies. Léopold Sédar Senghor, became the first president of Senegal while Aimé Césaire was mayor of Fort de France in Martinique. (The poetry of both is extraordinarily good by the way and still little known in the UK.)

I believe poetry has made many things happen in my own life.  And more importantly I believe it can retain and grow its cultural significance. The beauty of poetry is that it can never be suppressed. It can sprout up like weeds from a bombsite. It’s one of the reasons I’m grateful to be alive.

Poets of the world unite. Grab a notebook and a pencil. Now change the world.


In search of a new language

Tomas Transtromer
Tomas Tranströmer

The poet Tomas Tranströmer died in March 2015. Six months before his death, I happened to buy New Collected Poems, translated by Robin Fulton and published by Bloodaxe. I immediately loved his writing.  Here is a poem from that book which succinctly expresses something I have tried to define for years.

From March 1979

Weary of all those who come with words, words but no language
I make my way to the snow-covered island.
The untamed has no words.
The unwritten pages spread out on every side!
I came upon tracks of deer in the snow.
Language but no words.

Tranströmer encapsulates what I find most attractive about poetry: the possibility that the poet can venture into the white of unwritten pages and there annex new territory from silence. The discovery of a language to convey what has not previously been spoken keeps me reading poetry and trying to write it.

The poem also helps me point to what I find less interesting in poetry. I dislike poems that are constructed to be some kind of language game, like a superior crossword, such as acrostic poems. Of course, noticing how certain words catch fire when placed next to another is one of the chief joys of writing. But poetry that describes nothing other than itself, that is “all words and no language” as Tranströmer might put it, leaves me cold. I like language that reaches out into the world and tries to describe it because there are still infinite things that have never been described.

‘Silence’ is my mental shorthand for these snowy fields, thanks to an early encounter with W.B.Yeats’s poem The long-legged fly whose refrain “Like a long-legged fly upon the stream/His mind moves upon silence.” has haunted me ever since.

Advertising Education Poetry

Among School Children

Inside the shelter underneath the playground in Downs Junior School in Brighton.

Last week I spent a day working with 32 more able 11-year old writers from schools in Brighton. This was organised by my friend Dawn Daniel with Clare Blencowe at Downs School.

The day was themed around contrasts, and I worked with them on poetry in the morning session. The warm ups were about locating words in unusual places, such as wrappers for chocolate bars, and finding words to describe a table of assorted smelly things and a series of boxes, filled with cold jelly and cold spaghetti, into which they inserted their hands through a hole in the side. Activities useful in getting the children to think of using all their senses when they are writing.

Then we were taken down into the labyrinthine reinforced concrete WW2 bunker that’s underneath the playground, and the children listened to sound effects of a bombing raid. Dawn and Clare explained that during the war children were sometimes kept down there for hours on end. We asked the children to imagine what this could have been like, and to contrast this with how it made them feel about the normal day they had left behind. The children shared some amazing vocabulary and ideas afterwards. One boy described the shelters as catacomb, for example.

In the afternoon we talked to them about advertising, asking them to meet a creative brief and to pitch us the idea saying what would be on screen and what would be heard and written. At the end I showed them an old TV ad I had made which answered that brief. I was struck by their instinctive understanding of how and advert should work. I also talked about how poetry is open to different interpretations and it makes you think about the world, while an advert is there to grab your attention then funnel it down on the product.

I returned home to read Among School Children by W.B. Yeats. Ever since I read W.B. Yeats for my A level at school, he pops back into my head at regular intervals. Among School Children is one of his poems I don’t know so well, where W.B.Y. wanders among school children “the children’s eyes/ In momentary wonder stare upon/ A sixty-year-old smiling public man.”

Yeats being Yeats, of course all this makes him think about Maude Gonne and what she must have been like a child. I did none of that sort of thing, but more resonant for me was when Yeats dismisses this thought: “enough of that,/ Better to smile on all that smile, and show/There is a comfortable kind of old scarecrow.”

For me being among school children, and seeing some of their natural creativity is humbling.

The rusty remains of buckets used as toilets in the school shelter.

On being an astrologer

I taught myself how to be an astrologer in my teens.

In Guernsey, with the endless summer holiday stretching ahead, I picked up a paperback about astrology. The book was, I think, my Grandmother’s. It should be noted she was not the normal sort of Grandmother, she claimed to have been a medium in her youth, had her 16th Century Guernsey cottage exorcised three times, and regularly danced in the back garden shaking a handful of silver coins and bowing to the new moon to ensure continued prosperity.

With this irrational influence it is not surprising that I soon mastered the simple calculations needed to cast birthcharts, which are like a snapshot of the astrological influences on you at the moment of your birth. For unlike the daily ‘Stars’ in newspapers, which absurdly categorise everyone into twelve signs, I learned that every person’s horoscope, and therefore every person, was unique. My younger brother also became good at astrology and went a step further becoming quite adept at reading Tarot cards.

Astrology gave me a sprint start in understanding symbolism. When I bluffed my way into university, astrological symbolism was easy to spot in the poetry I read, from Dante to Ted Hughes (read The Birthday Letters to see how densely astrology permeated his relationship with Sylvia Plath.) For many years my hero was the poet W.B. Yeats, who was a member of The Order of the Golden Dawn and dabbler in the magical and mystical. He infused all this into his work, especially his bizarre book A Vision based on the automatic writing of his young wife Georgie, which she did on their honeymoon.

WB and Georgie
W.B. and Georgie

Can you imagine a honeymoon in which your husband encourages you to go into a trance to channel the esoteric knowledge of strange spirits? Welcome to Mrs Yeats’s world.

I got my best marks at University for pointing out that the complex system Yeats had invented based on his poor wife’s work was modelled on an astrological template. To a rational mind what Yeats did is completely barking. But Yeats then produced years of poetry loosely based on this writing; the very same work he won the Nobel Prize for literature for, proving that creative inspiration can come from the unlikeliest of sources.

I must make clear at this point: I think following horoscopes is foolish for all kinds of reasons. But these are reasons I have investigated, rather than irrational ones. Even astrologers would tell you that reading your stars in magazines is pointless. For these stars are based on one thing only, the rough position of the Sun at your birth. While a real horoscope has hundreds of other things to take into account.

If following horoscopes is irrational, the only thing even less rational is the crazed antipathy people have to it. Take Theodor W Adorno’s relentlessly stupid essay The Stars Look Down to Earth: the Los Angeles Times astrology column.* Even the most superficial knowledge of astrology would reveal that the LA Times column he examines was not written by an astrologer and had no astrological content. Adorno uses an astrology-free newspaper column to rubbish astrology. It is the logical equivalent of examining a plastic Mickey Mouse, and inferring that mice cannot be living things.

Not content with getting almost a hundred pages of argument based on this schoolboy error, he also peppers his analysis with wild assertions like “indulgence in astrology may provide those who fall for it with a substitute for sexual pleasure of a passive nature”.

Adorno: a warrior against irrationality in culture.

Adorno was fascinated by the forces of irrational in society, and as someone forced to flee Hitler’s anti-Semitic madness he had every right to be. However this gave him a blind spot. At one point Adorno acknowledges there are other more “technical” publications about astrologers, but makes no attempt to understand them, “the only difference between them and the tribe of crystal gazers is their aversion to unqualified prophecies”. A quote which gives a great deal away. It illumines his loathing for the irrational, and how he is projecting weird stuff onto astrology. Astrologers become a ‘tribe’. Absurd. While crystal gazing, like the LA Times column, again has absolutely nothing to do with astrology.

When I left university I worked in a Casio warehouse for almost a year. At the time I was a half-baked Marxist, and also had by then a few poems published. My next move was completely irrational. I started to cast people’s horoscopes. This was my first entrepreneurial exercise, which became so successful I was able to stop working in the warehouse.

I would cast someone’s birth chart, draw it out, and then type a lengthy report. Then I would meet the person face to face and discuss their horoscope and their lives. This was the basis of some fascinating conversations, where the person I was speaking to would become completely frank. I noticed how people entirely suspended their disbelief while talking to me. The fact that I never abused this position is now something with retrospect I am very pleased about.

There were times when by casting someone’s horoscope I was able to pinpoint events in someone’s life. Memorably a woman’s chart clearly indicated a crisis with her father at the age of nine, and she told me he had died then, a coincidence perhaps but this transformed the rest of the encounter.

What made me stop was that people began to invest me with powers that I was not prepared to take. I was asked to do the horoscopes for an entire family whose father had died, for example, and who turned to me for comfort. This made me feel as if I were being asked to play God, which made me utterly uncomfortable. So I stopped doing people’s charts. Meanwhile my brother stopped doing Tarot at a similar time. The responsibility for other people’s irrational hopes and fears were for both of us impossible to shoulder.

So ended my career as an astrologer. But what I was left with was an immensely rich symbolism of the planets and signs. You see the thing is I am not afraid of the irrational. We do not live in a rational world. Millions sit down to watch the X Factor singing competition, for example, which is irrational. The economic forces that provoke recession are irrational. The sabre rattling between North Korea and the US is irrational. I could go on and on.

To accept the irrational is not to demean the rational, but to pretend the irrational is meaningless is absurd.

*See Theodor W Adorno The stars down to earth and other essays on the irrational in culture.