Categories
Poetry Travel

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.

yeatsgrave

Categories
Poetry Propoganda

What place has poetry in a post-truth world?

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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.

 

Categories
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.

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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.