Play up, play up and play the game!

Operation-Overlord-Wiki

6 June 1944, and the Battle of Normandy begins as Operation Overlord gets underway. The news coverage of the seventy-fifth anniversary has been unsurprisingly extensive and has featured some remarkable veterans, most inevitably in their nineties now, and some extraordinarily moving testimony. And, of course, several commentators and columnists have remarked on the painful ironies of the occasion, that vast military operation to liberate Europe marked by cooperation, expansion and alliance—apart from Britain, the United States and Canada, there were also service personnel from Poland, Greece, Norway, New Zealand, Australia, the Netherlands, Czechoslovakia, France and Belgium—set against the assumptions and values currently espoused by many in Britain and the United States, of separation, closure and isolation.

Our local D-Day connection is with Bristol’s Clifton College, founded in 1862, which became, for part of the Second World War, the British headquarters of the United States First Army. In October 1943, General Omar Bradley moved to Clifton and the college Council Room became the centre of invasion planning.

Clifton College boasts an extraordinary list of old boys (mainly boys: its co-educational history is relatively brief), from Trevor Howard, Michael Redgrave and John Cleese to Roger Fry, Peter Lanyon and Henry Tonks. Ford Madox Ford’s Christopher Tietjens, in Parade’s End, has attended Clifton, together with his friend Vincent Macmaster – but then Arthur Marwood, Ford’s friend and the partial model for Tietjens, did go there. Other Clifton-educated writers were Joyce Cary, L. P. Hartley, Geoffrey Household – and Henry (later Sir Henry, knighted in 1915) Newbolt, born 6 June 1862 (he died the year before the Second World War began). Among his contemporaries were Arthur Quiller-Couch (‘Q’, editor of the Oxford Book of English Verse among many other volumes), Francis Younghusband and Newbolt’s ‘lifetime friend’ Douglas Haig, the revered and reviled Field Marshal Haig, commander of the British Expeditionary Force from 1915 until the war’s bloody end. Paul Fussell, in his seminal The Great War and Modern Memory, remarks that, ‘To Newbolt, the wartime sufferings of such as Wilfred Owen were tiny—and whiny—compared with Haig’s’.[1]

Clifton-College

(Clifton College, via https://www.tes.com/)

Newbolt became head of school in 1881 (he was called to the Bar in 1887 and practised for a dozen years). His poem ‘The Chapel’ presents a father talking to his son; the second stanza runs:

To set the cause above renown,
To love the game beyond the prize,
To honour, while you strike him down,
The foe that comes with fearless eyes;
To count the life of battle good,
And dear the land that gave you birth,
And dearer yet the brotherhood
That binds the brave of all the earth.[2]

Newbolt attended the initial meeting that Charles Masterman held at Wellington House, first home of the War Propaganda Bureau. It took place on the afternoon of 2 September 1914 and the writers gathered there included James Barrie, Arnold Bennett, Robert Bridges, G. K. Chesterton, Arthur Conan Doyle, John Galsworthy, Thomas Hardy, John Masefield and H. G. Wells. Kipling and Quiller-Couch, though unable to attend in person, sent messages offering their service. Ford Madox Ford didn’t attend but subsequently wrote two idiosyncratic propaganda volumes for his friend Masterman.[3]

It’s hardly a surprise that, to literary men returning from the trenches or the ‘theatre of war’, who had seen and heard and suffered the devastating effects of mechanised warfare as well as the tactical and strategic policies pursued by those who had such weapons at their disposal, Newbolt was a handily compressed version of all they had learned to reject, mistrust and disbelieve. Wilfred Owen, who fought and died in France, wrote ‘Dulce et decorum est’; Ezra Pound, though a non-combatant, wrote in Hugh Selwyn Mauberley (1920):

Died some pro patria, non dulce non et decor . . .

walked eye-deep in hell
believing in old men’s lies, then unbelieving
came home, home to a lie,
home to many deceits,
home to old lies and new infamy;

usury age-old and age-thick
and liars in public places.[4]

Newbolt3

(Henry Newbolt via http://historywebsite.co.uk/)

Newbolt’s most famous poems now are probably ‘Drake’s Drum’ and ‘Vitaï Lampada’, the latter ‘a public-school favourite since 1898’, Fussell observes, and one that demonstrates the classic equation between war and sport. ‘Fox-hunting, the sport of kings with only twenty per cent. of the danger of war!’ a character in Ford’s Last Post reflects, perhaps remembering R. S. Surtees’ Handley Cross (1843), ‘it’s the sport of kings, the image of war without its guilt, and only twenty-five per cent of its danger’, and even William Somerville, ‘The Chase’ (1735), ‘the sport of kings; / Image of war, without its guilt.’[5] Newbolt opts for cricket:

Gore, Spencer, 1878-1914; The Cricket Match

(Spencer Gore, The Cricket Match, 1909: The Hepworth Wakefield

There’s a breathless hush in the Close to-night—
Ten to make and the match to win—
A bumping pitch and a blinding light,
An hour to play and the last man in.

The second stanza switches to war in the Sudan, the unsuccessful attempt to relieve Gordon at Khartoum:

The sand of the desert is sodden red,—
Red with the wreck of a square that broke;—
The Gatling’s jammed and the Colonel dead,
And the regiment blind with dust and smoke.
The river of death has brimmed his banks,
And England’s far, and Honour a name,
But the voice of a schoolboy rallies the ranks:
“Play up! play up! and play the game!”[6]

Abu-Klea
(https://www.britishbattles.com/war-in-egypt-and-sudan/battle-of-abu-klea/ )

And, in the final stanza:

This is the word that year by year,
While in her place the school is set,
Every one of her sons must hear,
And none that hears it dare forget.
This they all with a joyful mind
Bear through life like a torch in flame,
And falling fling to the host behind—

“Play up! play up! and play the game!”

Newbolt’s career was marked by literary popularity, eminence in public service and significant governmental influence, including on the policy pursued in Ireland. He became Controller of Telecommunications at the Foreign Office and was made a Companion of Honour in 1922. Still, I like to recall Ezra Pound’s account of a conversation he had, pre-1914, of course, with Maurice Hewlett, poet and novelist, who had likened Newbolt’s poems to ‘The Ballads’.

E. P. BUT (blanks left for profanity) . . . it, Hewlett, look at the line:
‘He stood the door behind’,
(blanks for profanity) you don’t find lines like that in Patrick Spence.
Hewlett: But, but I don’t mean an OLDE ballad, I mean an—eh—eighteenth-century ballad.
E. P., But (blanks left for profanity), Hewlett, the man is a contemporary of Remy de Gourmont!
Hewlett: Ungh!! Unh nnh eh, I don’t suppose he has thought of that. (Long pause)
Hewlett: (continues very slowly): I don’t suppose, eh, I had either.’[7]

 

 
References

[1] Paul Fussell, The Great War and Modern Memory (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975), 26.

[2] ‘Clifton Chapel’, The Oxford Book of English Verse, 1250-1918, edited by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1966), 1066 (yes, really).

[3] Peter Buitenhuis, The Great War of Words: British, American and Canadian Propaganda and Fiction, 1914-1933 (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1987), 14.

[4] Ezra Pound: Poems and Translations, edited by Richard Sieburth (New York: Library of America, 2003), 551.

[5] Ford Madox Ford, Last Post (1928; edited by Paul Skinner, Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2011), 12fn.

[6] Fussell, Great War and Modern Memory, 25-26.

[7] Ezra Pound, ‘Harold Monro’, in Polite Essays (1937; Plainview, New York: Books for Libraries Press, 1966), 11.

 

‘Gather the welcome signs’: Whitman, Joyce, Kafka

walt-whitman

Given that it’s Walt Whitman’s two hundredth birthday, I meant to write about that ‘good gray poet’; but then, hundreds if not thousands of people will be commenting on Whitman, stressing his concentration on democracy and America, even quoting a bit of his poetry; and, in any case, I’ve been distracted today by the machinations and opaque absurdities of banks – and also by the important business of settling in Harry,  a recent addition to the household.

Cat-stareBirdwatching

Quick, quick, said the bird. Here’s a bit of poetry:

Warble me now for joy of lilac-time, (returning in reminiscence,)
Sort me O tongue and lips for Nature’s sake, souvenirs of earliest
summer,
Gather the welcome signs, (as children with pebbles or stringing
shells,)
Put in April and May, the hylas croaking in the ponds, the elastic
air,
Bees, butterflies, the sparrow with its simple notes,Blue-bird and darting swallow, nor forget the high-hole flashing his golden wings[1]

I was thinking, anyway, of James Augustine Aloysius Joyce and Franz Kafka. On 2 February 1926, Sylvia Beach, proprietor of the Shakespeare & Company bookshop and first publisher of James Joyce’s Ulysses, held a party for the fourth birthday of the novel (and its author’s own forty-fourth birthday). Both she and Joyce wore eye patches for the occasion. Joyce suffered consistently from eye problems for many years; Sylvia, more specifically, was suffering an obstruction of the lacrimal ducts, having strained her eyes while working, with Adrienne Monnier, on a translation of Walt Whitman’s unpublished speech, ‘The Eighteenth Presidency’. Sylvia, a member of the newly formed Walt Whitman Committee of Paris, had suggested a Whitman exhibition at the bookshop, with manuscripts, photographs and early editions. At the Ulysses party, Joyce had quoted some Whitman. Now he announced: ‘I am going to Stratford-on-Odéon’, before attending the opening of the Whitman exhibit, to a private audience, on 20 April 1926.[2]

Sylvia’s Aunt Agnes had once visited Whitman in Camden, where manuscripts, letters and much else was strewn all over the floor.[3] Her aunt was with a friend, Alys Smith, who later married Bertrand Russell. ‘Whitman was anything but the style’, Sylvia wrote later. ‘“The Crowd” couldn’t put up with him, especially after T. S. Eliot aired his views about Walt. Only Joyce and the French and I were still old-fashioned enough to get along with Whitman. I could see with half an eye Whitman’s influence on Joyce’s work – hadn’t he recited some lines to me one day?’[4]

Kafka-via-Guardian

(Franz Kafka via The Guardian)

As is often noticed, ‘old Whiteman self’ turns up in both Finnegans Wake and—‘Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself’—Ulysses.[5] If Mr Eliot was unconvinced, and Messrs Pound and Lawrence conflicted, there were, quite apart from the French and Mr Joyce, admirers everywhere. In Prague, Franz Kafka gave a copy of the German translation of Leaves of Grass to his young friend, Gustav Janouch, praising Whitman as one of ‘the greatest formal innovators in the modern lyric.’ He went on: ‘The formal element in Walt Whitman’s poetry found an enormous echo throughout the world. Yet Walt Whitman’s significance lies elsewhere. He combined the contemplation of nature and of civilization, which are apparently entirely contradictory, into a single intoxicating vision of life, because he always had sight of the transitoriness of all phenomena. He said: “Living is the little that is left over from dying.” So he gave his whole heart to every leaf of grass.’[6]

beachandjoyce-newyorker

(Sylvia Beach and James Joyce)

Four years after the Whitman exhibition, another American arrived in Paris, who was also an enthusiast. Henry Miller would later write: ‘For me Walt Whitman is a hundred, a thousand, times more America than America itself’; and, of Dostoievsky and Whitman: ‘for me they represent the peaks in modern literature.’ To the photographer Brassaï, Miller remarked: ‘You know that one of my gods is Walt Whitman. The cosmological scope of his vision no doubt owes a great deal to the “vastness” of the American continent. Whitman was dreaming of a new race on the scale of that land, an earthly paradise. Despite everything about American life that’s been spoiled, that potentiality still exists. I’m convinced of it.’[7]

Happy-Rock.jpg

Paul Zweig registered the noticeable trait among leading modern poets of bringing ‘the unpoetic’ into poetry, pointing to Pound, Rilke, Eliot and Williams: ‘But in this area, Whitman is the master. Apparently there was nothing he could not use: his personal knowledge of house building, Italian opera, Olmsted’s lessons on astronomy, the world atlas.’[8]

Master Whitman posed a problem for many poets, especially American poets. How to avoid and evade the legacy of ‘the great American poet’? Interestingly, in an essay on Wallace Stevens, Hugh Kenner observed that: ‘Nonsense freed both Eliot and Stevens from a poet they longed to be freed from: Whitman. It permitted an American to manipulate the rituals of certified Poetry (the resonant turn of phrase, the mighty line) without sounding the way Whitman had made Tennyson sound, provincial. Whitman’s was no longer the only way around an Anglophile provincialism.’[9]

In a 2008 lecture, the poet Michael Longley said that, throughout fifty years of writing, ‘when the creative buzz comes on, I have felt sizeable, capacious like Walt Whitman; but when I’ve written the poem and typed it out I realise that I am still Emily Dickinson – the pernickety Emily who, when asked for her opinion of Leaves of Grass, said of Whitman, “I never read his book ­ but was told that he was disgraceful.”’

Emily-Dickinson

Longley went on to say that he had worshipped Emily Dickinson since his university days. He had read Whitman ‘of course’ but ‘the penny has only recently dropped. How could I have managed without him for so long?’[10]

Well, yes. How could anybody?

A line in long array where they wind betwixt green islands,
They take a serpentine course, their arms flash in the sun—hark
to the musical clank,
Behold the silvery river, in it the splashing horses loitering stop to
drink,
Behold the brown-faced men, each group, each person a picture,
the negligent rest on the saddles,
Some emerge on the opposite bank, others are just entering the
ford—while,
Scarlet and blue and snowy white,
The guidon flags flutter gayly in the wind.

‘Whitman’s excitement carries weight because he realized that a man cannot use words so unless he has experienced the facts that they express, unless he has grasped them with his senses.’[11]

 

 

Notes

[1] ‘Warble for Lilac-Time’, Walt Whitman: The Complete Poems, edited by Francis Murphy (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1986), 400.

[2] Noel Riley Fitch, Sylvia Beach and the Lost Generation: A History of Literary Paris in the Twenties and Thirties (New York & London: Norton, 1983), 225-231.

[3] Guy Davenport, ‘Horace and Walt in Camden’, in The Death of Picasso: New and Selected Writing (Washington: Shoemaker & Hoard, 2003), 196-197.

[4] Sylvia Beach, Shakespeare and Company, new edition (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1991), 20, 128.

[5] James Joyce, Finnegans Wake (New York: The Viking Press, 1945), 263; Ulysses (1922; London: The Bodley Head, revised edition, 1969), 19.

[6] Gustav Janouch, Conversations with Kafka, translated by Goronwy Rees, second revised and enlarged edition (New York: New Directions, 1971),167.

[7] Henry Miller, The Books in My Life (New York: New Directions, 1957), 104, 221; Brassaï, Henry Miller, Happy Rock, translated by Jane Marie Todd (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002), 55.

[8] Paul Zweig, Walt Whitman: The Making of the Poet (Harmondsworth: Penguin 1986), 93.

[9] Hugh Kenner, ‘Seraphic Glitter: Stevens and Nonsense’, in Historical Fictions (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1995), 165.

[10] Michael Longley, ‘A Jovial Hullabaloo’, in Sidelines: Selected Prose, 1962-2015 (London: Enitharmon Press, 2017), 314.

[11] F. O. Matthiessen, American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman (1941; New York: Oxford University Press, 1968), 518.

 

Making Hay: a visit to The Poetry Bookshop

Hawthorn

Midway through our week in the Anglo-Welsh border country—wonderful setting, indifferent weather—we take advantage of the fact that we are less than twenty miles from Hay-on-Wye (‘the Book Town of Wales’) where we stayed a couple of years ago and brought home an alarming number of secondhand volumes needing shelf space.

The main event is going back to The Poetry Bookshop. I say ‘back’ but since we were last there, the shop has moved, to a more central position in Hay. The owners, Christopher and Melanie Prince, now stock new titles as well as secondhand. Theirs is the only specialist poetry bookshop in the country. There may be others elsewhere in the world, I don’t know, nor do I feel any need to since the stock here is astonishingly good, ranging from the obscure contemporary to the major classic and modern—I think books by and about William Blake, for instance, take up three shelves. But, not having planned this or prepared for it, I fidget, exhale noisily, pick up and put down a dozen volumes, from George Barker to Alun Lewis, browse the Pound shelves and lapse into staring blankness. Then I remember James Merrill.

A while ago, in the course of an unearthing, I turned up an old stray copy of The Hudson Review, dating back to 1972. It led off with poems by Octavio Paz, included four translations of Osip Mandelstam by W. S. Merwin and Clarence Brown and, the reason for its being in my possession in the first place, a twenty-page essay by Richard Pevear, ‘Notes on the Cantos of Ezra Pound’. I had no clear memory of it—my reading must have coincided with thesis research—but my pencil marks are in evidence: ‘Pound’s poetry has its source in “the noblest of the senses,”, the eyes’, ‘The Greek word for truth, aletheia, means unveiling’, ‘there is nothing fictional, nothing mythological, nothing allegorical in the Cantos’, and the remark that, while Homer makes use of the devices of oral poetry (as have many writers of literary epics since), Pound, ‘on the other hand, makes use of the devices of print, not only in the lay-out of the page, but in his basic technique of the suppression of narrative links, which presupposes a fixed text.’ This looked back, I suspect, to an earlier statement that, ‘There is a feeling of wholeness in the Cantos that is very hard to explain.’ I must have frowned over some of this a good deal at the time but the item that struck me when I brought the journal back into the light of day was Merrill’s ‘Days of 1935—a long poem’. The narrator remembers himself as a child, the news on the radio about the Lindberghs’ kidnapped and murdered baby—Richard Hauptmann’s trial took place in early 1935—and imagining his own kidnapping in a long, detailed narrative:

On the Lindbergh baby’s small
Cold features lay a spell, a swoon.
It seemed entirely plausible
For my turn to come soon,

For a masked and crouching form
Lithe as tiger, light as moth,
To glide towards me, clap a firm
Hand across my mouth,

Then sheer imagination ride
Off with us in its old jalopy,
Trailing bedclothes like a bride
Timorous but happy.

HR

Elegant, accomplished, the form seeming very traditional—regular and capitalised lines, rhymes!—in contrast with most of the stuff I was reading at the time. Then too, the main influences or affinities – Henry James, Proust, even Stevens – were not quite the usual suspects for my favoured poets then either. Reviewing Merrill’s Selected Poems in the New York Times (7 November 2008), August Kleinzahler observed: ‘Many readers will find the poetry mannered. It is, by design. The poet is an aesthete, a dandy in the Baudelairean sense, unabashedly so.’ He added that Merrill ‘enjoys creating the sorts of atmospheres found more often in novels than in poetry, and a number of his poems are narratives in miniature, tiny blank verse novels of manners.’

Your village touched us by not knowing how.
Even as we outdrove its clear stormlight
A shower of self-belittling brilliants fell.
Miles later, hours away, here are rooms full
Of things you would have known: pump organ, hymnal,
Small-as-life desks, old farm tools, charter, deed,
Schoolbooks (Greek Grammar, A Canadian Reader),
Queen Mary in oleograph, a whole wall hung
With women’s black straw hats, some rather smart
—All circa 1915, like the manners
Of the fair, soft-spoken girl who shows us through.
Although till now she hasn’t heard of you
She knows these things you would have known by heart
And we, by knowing you by heart, foreknew.

Merrill-CP

Merrill cropped up several times in the course of other reading: in the letters of Elizabeth Bishop and a biography of her—the lines above are the opening of one of the poems that Merrill wrote to her, the elegiac ‘Overdue Pilgrimage to Nova Scotia’—and in Timothy Materer’s Modernist Alchemy, picked up for the sake of Yeats and Pound but which also pays attention to Merrill because of the famous use of an Ouija board in the making of his enormous poem, The Changing Light at Sandover. And I came across other poems of his, mainly in anthologies, which showed a wide range of styles and forms. So a few relevant facts had lodged in my mind: he’d written a lot, some of it very impressive – and I didn’t have any of his books. Until now.

So, the Librarian having snagged a couple of posters by Jackie Morris—and a few Virago titles in Addyman Books later—I was also pretty restrained, limiting myself to the Peter Russell collection of essays on Pound, read decades ago but not previously owned – and the Merrill Collected Poems, a modest volume of a little under 900 pages. Even so, it still excludes The Changing Light at Sandover. Another time, perhaps. . .

 

 

Radical calendar, pronouns, rats’ alley

March-poster

It’s a Radical Calendar for us this year, each page headed by a stirring quotation to put fire into the bellies of those fighting for justice, equality and other unfashionable things. (I have an exhortatory poster on the wall behind me, come to think of it: that particular ‘March’ is not the name of a month.)

https://www.radicalteatowel.co.uk/

January’s legend was from Percy Bysshe Shelley’s ‘The Masque of Anarchy’, written in 1819, after the massacre at Peterloo:

Rise like Lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number,
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you –
Ye are many – they are few.

That last line is now more widely familiar because of its adoption as a Labour Party slogan. It’s also one that I’ve tended to misremember as ‘We are many – they are few’. A little risky for the eldest – legitimate – ­ son of the MP Sir Timothy Shelley to designate himself one of the many, you might think. But of course he doesn’t, distancing himself from both the ‘Ye’ and the ‘they’, reasonably enough given his belief that poets, as the unacknowledged legislators of the world, can’t easily be positioned within any conventional constituency.

But then – who can? ‘The others’, no doubt. The deployment of such pronouns – ‘we’, ‘you’, ‘they’, ‘us’ – has probably never been a simple matter. It sure as hell isn’t now. Ironically, as this country becomes more conformist and more tribal and more wedded to willed simplicities, the issue is becoming thornier by the day.

February boasted a mention of Benjamin Lay (1682-1759), the four feet tall Anglo-American Quaker humanitarian and abolitionist, vegetarian and author of around two hundred pamphlets. And that chimed in nicely with the book I was reading at the time, Madge Dresser’s Slavery Obscured: The Social History of the Slave Trade in an English Provincial Port, the port in question being Bristol, of course.

Calendar

March offers a sliver of John Dryden’s Absalom and Achitophel:

Nor is the people’s judgment always true:
The most may err as grossly as the few.

Indeed. Then under 29 March is printed the notice: ‘Brexit Day’. The news has now come through about how well it all went this afternoon. It was diverting to learn that, before that particular piece of parliamentary business, Liam Fox, urging his Westminster colleagues to vote the prime minister’s deal through, was warning that they would undermine faith in mainstream politics by creating a ‘chasm of distrust’ if they failed to do so. Yes, really: that Liam Fox; and ‘would undermine faith in mainstream politics’ and would create distrust. There’s a man with his finger on the pulse of current attitudes towards ‘mainstream politics’.

So where are we (them, us)? One speaker in T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land remarked:

I think we are in rats’ alley
Where the dead men lost their bones

That’s definitely a possibility. Or is our whole planet a speck of dust beneath the fingernail of a trickster god unimaginably vast? There’s another one.

Will we ever come back from this, whatever happens now? Probably not. Still, I do enjoy having people with mad eyes explain to journalists that if X, Y or Z doesn’t happen, there’s ‘a risk of no Brexit at all’.

I think that’s a risk we’re—me, us, some of them—prepared to take. So why not just revoke Article 50? That, by the way, is called ‘a clean non-Brexit’.

 

Soil, bones, grass

Buson-narrow-road-deep-north

(Yosa Buson, Narrow Road to the Deep North)

I was reading Bashō, who wrote: ‘I went to see the Atsuta Shrine, but it had been reduced to utter ruins. Walls had crumbled and dry grasses were standing among the falling blocks.’[1]

Grass as witness to decay, deterioration, disappearance. Or grass signifying growth, fertility, recovery. Times, circumstances, characters.

For A. E. Housman, born on this day in 1859, it could be positive, as in ‘Spring Morning’:

Now the old come out to look,
Winter past and winter’s pains,
How the sky in pool and brook
Glitters on the grassy plains.

But, as Nick Laird writes in the introduction to the Penguin edition of Housman’s poems, ‘Like Webster, Housman was much possessed by death’—death and lads would cover a lot of it, in fact—so there is also:

The sigh that heaves the grasses
Whence thou wilt never rise
Is of the air that passes
And knows not if it sighs.[2]

Robert Frost, also born on this day, in 1874, published one of his most famous poems, ‘The Road Not Taken’, in August 1915. It is, as Frost himself said, ‘a tricky poem – very tricky’, and the poet seems to have had his friend Edward Thomas in mind when he wrote it.[3] The narrator of Frost’s poem looks down one path as far as possible before it bends into the undergrowth:

Then took the other, as just as fair
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that, the passing there
Had worn them really about the same.

‘About the same’ – and both paths covered in freshly fallen leaves anyway.[4]

One more: on this day, in 1892, Walt Whitman died, the great poet of Leaves of Grass, thinking not only of graves but also of growth, expansion, burgeoning power.

Buson-Basho

(Yosa Buson, Matsuo Bashō)

For Ezra Pound’s Li Po, in eighth-century China, grass grows over the piled bones of the dead:

Bones white with a thousand frosts,
High heaps, covered with trees and grass;
Who brought this to pass?
Who has brought the flaming imperial anger?
Who has brought the army with drums and with
kettle-drums?
Barbarous kings.[5]

Lucille, in A Place of Greater Safety, Hilary Mantel’s novel about the French Revolution, looks to a future which will evidence recognisably similar signs: ‘With all the desperate passions in our heads and bodies, one day these walls will split, one day this house will fall down. There will be soil and bones and grass, and they will read our diaries to find out what we were.’[6]

rousseau-portrait-of-pierre-loti

(Henri Rousseau, Portrait of Pierre Loti, 1891)

In his translator’s note to Pierre Loti’s 1917 pamphlet, L’Outrage des barbaresThe Trail of the Barbarians (1918), Ford Madox Ford disagreed with Loti’s use of the word ‘irreparable’, believing that the land in France would indeed recover, thanks to its ‘little industries’ and its traditions of husbandry: ‘ . . . I am more sure than Mr Loti that the grass is already moving that shall cover the graveyards and the rusty heaps of recovered provinces.’[7]

Still, circling back to Bashō, I find: ‘When a country is defeated, there remain only mountains and rivers, and on a ruined castle in spring only grasses thrive. I sat down on my hat and wept bitterly till I almost forgot time.’[8]

As we know, not all a country’s defeats are military – nor even caused by external forces.

 
References

[1] Matsuo Bashō, ‘The Records of a Weather-exposed Skeleton’, in The Narrow Road to the Deep North and other travel sketches, translated by Nobuyuki Yuasa (London: Penguin Books, 1966), 59.

[2] A Shropshire Lad and Other Poems: The Collected Poems of A. E. Housman, edited by Archie Burnett, with an introduction by Nick Laird (London: Penguin Books, 2010), 102, xi, 114.

[3] As discussed by Matthew Hollis, Now All Roads Lead to France: The Last Years of Edward Thomas (London: Faber, 2012), 233-236.

[4] The Poetry of Robert Frost, edited by Edward Connery Lathem (London: Jonathan Cape, 1977), 105.

[5] ‘Lament of the Frontier Guard’, in Cathay (1915): Ezra Pound: Poems and Translations, edited by Richard Sieburth (New York: Library of America, 2003), 254.

[6] Hilary Mantel, A Place of Greater Safety (London: Penguin Books, 1993), 722.

[7] Ford Madox Ford, War Prose, edited by Max Saunders (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 1999), 191.

[8] Bashō, Narrow Road to the Far North, 118.

Gentleman farmer, amiable grouch, Jonathan Williams

JW

(JW via http://thisrecording.squarespace.com/today/tag/jonathan-williams)

Today is the birthday of Jonathan Williams (1929-2008), poet, publisher, photographer, essayist, ‘gentleman farmer and amiable grouch’, as Thomas Meyer phrased it—he would have been 90. His last unpublished manuscript, Walks to the Paradise Garden, has just been released by Institute 193, the non-profit arts organisation based in Lexington, Kentucky—yes, Guy Davenport country—which collaborates with artists, musicians, and writers to produce exhibitions, publications, and projects that document the cultural landscape of the modern South. The 240-page book chronicles Williams’ road trips across the Southern United States with photographers Guy Mendes and Roger Manley ‘in search of the most authentic and outlandish artists the South had to offer.’

Walks-Paradise-Garden

More information here: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/801455684/walks-to-the-paradise-garden-a-lowdown-southern-od?ref=email

The exhibition associated with the book has just opened: Way Out There: The Art of Southern Backroads at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, March 2 – May 19, 2019.

https://www.high.org/exhibition/way-out-there-the-art-of-southern-backroads/

A post about Williams last year brought me into contact with the poet Jeffery Beam, co-editor with Richard Owens of Jonathan Williams: The Lord of Orchards, (Wesport: Prospecta Press, 2017).

Here—and why not?—is a Williams poem, ‘An Omen for Stevie Smith’, which caught my eye earlier today.

this is your aunt, Stevie,
and oh you must hurry!

The Man in Black
who waits tonight along the Lyke Wake Walk
has a gown for you
the colour of rowan berries;

a gown borne in air by hornets,
hagworms, and ants, riding
the backs of great bustards and herons. . .

your cats,
Brown and Fry and Hyde,
yes, Stevie, they too
shall come at last
to Whinny-Moor. . .

the five of you
shall dance that heath
to Death!

Stevie Smith has a poem called ‘My Cats’:

I like to toss him up and down
A heavy cat weights half a Crown
With a hey do diddle my cat Brown.

I like to pinch him on the sly
When nobody is passing by
With a hey do diddle my cat Fry.

I like to ruffle up his pride
And watch him skip and turn aside
With a hey do diddle my cat Hyde.

Hey Brown and Fry and Hyde my cats
That sit on tombstones for your mats.

Spectral-Pegasus

Jeffery Beam has a new book out, which I’ve just begun reading, a collaboration with the Welsh painter Clive Hicks-Jenkins, Spectral Pegasus / Dark Movements: Poems by Jeffery Beam; Paintings by Clive Hicks-Jenkins (Higganum, Connecticut: Kin Press, 2019, ISBN 9780998929316) A limited edition CD of the poems and songs is included with the first 500 copies and available thereafter through Beam’s website: www.jefferybeam.com

Jeffery has a series of readings and launch events coming up, mostly in the United States, but he’ll be at MOMA, the Museum of Modern Art in Machynlleth, Powys, Wales on 15 May 2019.

 

Positive Blossoming

Blossom

A large bumble bee, having perhaps misread the calendar, veers about in our small garden. The plump, intellectually challenged grey cat, perched on a stone pillar, dabs in its general direction with an ineffectual paw. The grey cat is still in recovery mode, having all but fallen from the fence just now, scrabbling frantically, clutching and scraping, hauling itself back only to be plunged into embarrassment by finding me watching its antics from the kitchen table, where I sat over a fat volume.

‘“I’ve seen fire and I’ve seen rain,” I recall James Taylor singing over and over on the news radio station between updates on the 1978 Mandeville and Kanan fires, both of which started on October 23 of that year and could be seen burning toward each other, systematically wiping out large parts of Malibu and Pacific Palisades, from an upstairs window of my house in Brentwood.’[1]

Oddly, I’d been thinking of James Taylor myself the previous day, when I passed trees in the park already in blossom. I say ‘already’ but, if they were autumn cherry, they’d be blossoming fitfully from November to March. Almond blossom? Not sure.

Blossom, anyway. Meteorologically, spring has started, psychologically not so much, though, when the breeze quickens and becomes something else, the Romantics among us murmur: ‘O, Wind,/ If Winter comes/ Can Spring be far behind?’[2]

Sweet-baby-James

James Taylor’s ‘Blossom’ was the second track on the second side of his second album, Sweet Baby James, melodic and, as they say, reassuringly unthreatening, though not without its darker tints. It’s one of two tracks on the album—the other was ‘Country Road’—on which Randy Meisner, founder member of The Eagles, played bass.

The word ‘blossom’ is one of those whose syllables seem to act out the actions and qualities associated with it. Ivor Gurney wrote of his beloved Gloucestershire, ‘where Spring sends greetings before other less happy counties have forgotten Winter and the snow. Where the talk is men’s talk, and eyes of folk are as soft as the kind airs. The best roads in England, the finest cider, the richest blossom in the most magical orchards, beauty content in security, strength quiet in confidence controlled, blood mixed of plain and hill, Welsh and English; are not these only of my county, my home?’ Though he added—he was writing to Marion Scott from near Tidworth in March 1916—‘And yet were I there the canker in my soul would taint all these.’[3]

Blossom fits with sweet reasonableness into contexts of ironic undercurrent and ambiguity, say, the final stanza of Henry Reed’s ‘Naming of Parts’:

They call it easing the Spring: it is perfectly easy
If you have any strength in your thumb: like the bolt,
And the breech, and the cocking-piece, and the point of balance,
Which in our case we have not got; and the almond-blossom
Silent in all of the gardens and the bees going backwards and forwards,
For today we have naming of parts.[4]

And here is the narrator of V. S. Naipaul’s The Enigma of Arrival, blossom a part of his learning to read the English landscape and its complicated history:

‘When I grew to see the wild roses and hawthorn on my walk, I didn’t see the windbreak they grew beside as a sign of the big landowners who had left their mark on the solitude, had preserved it, had planted the woods in certain places (in imitation, it was said, of the positions at the battle of Trafalgar – or was it Waterloo?), I didn’t think of the landowners. My mood was purer: I thought of these single-petalled roses and sweet-smelling blossom at the side of the road as wild and natural growths.’[5]

Brett, Dorothy Eugenie, 1883-1977; D. H. Lawrence

Dorothy Brett, D. H. Lawrence
© National Portrait Gallery, London. Photo credit: National Portrait Gallery, London

For D. H. Lawrence, it seems a symbol of a stage on the road to moral growth: ‘You have to suffer before you blossom in this life’, Lettie tells George in The White Peacock. ‘When death is just touching a plant, it forces it into a passion of flowering.’[6] His short story, ‘The Last Laugh’, centring on an encounter with Pan ends with a faint scent of almond blossom in the air[7]—and Pan is not only a recurrent element in Lawrence’s work but crops up all over the place at that time: from E. M. Forster to The Wind in the Willows. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, what Lawrence sees as our separation from the natural world finds blossom on the casualty list as he gets into his stride in the last year of his life:

‘Sex is the balance of male and female in the universe, the attraction, the repulsion, the transit of neutrality, the new attraction, the new repulsion, always different, always new. The long neuter spell of Lent, when the blood is low, and the delight of the Easter kiss, the sexual revel of spring, the passion of midsummer, the slow recoil, revolt, and grief of autumn, greyness again, then the sharp stimulus of winter, of the long nights. Sex goes through the rhythm of the year, in man and woman, ceaselessly changing: the rhythm of the sun in his relation to the earth.’ [ . . . ] This is what is the matter with us. We are bleeding at the roots, because we are cut off from the earth and sun and stars, and love is a grinning mockery, because, poor blossom, we plucked it from its stem on the tree of Life, and expected it to keep on blooming in our civilised vase on the table.’[8]

Cherry-Blossom-Japan-Guide

(Via www.japan-guide.com )

When it comes to national obsessions, some Western countries might do better to look to Japan: ‘Residents of Kochi Prefecture in the Shikoku region will be the first to see cherry blossoms of the Somei-Yoshino tree this year, as early as March 18, according to a forecast by an Osaka-based meteorological company that predicts Japan’s iconic sakura may bloom earlier than usual’, the Japan Times reported:
https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2019/01/15/national/cherry-blossoms-across-japan-forecast-arrive-earlier-usual-2019/#.XH-WyFP7RQM

I don’t pitch my own interest and enthusiasm quite that high but I’ll still lean towards the positive side: new growth, new life, new beauty. Some news as good news. ‘The positive side’—here, now, England, March 2019.

Remarkable.

 
References

[1] Joan Didion, ‘Fire Season’, in We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live: Collected Nonfiction (New York: Knopf, 2006), 656.

[2] Percy Bysshe Shelley, ‘Ode to the West Wind’, The Complete Poetical Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley, edited by Thomas Hutchinson (London: Oxford University Press, 1909), 574.

[3] Ivor Gurney, Collected Letters, edited by R. K. R. Thornton (Mid Northumberland Arts Group & Carcanet Press 1991), 75.

[4] Henry Reed, ‘Naming of Parts’, in Collected Poems (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2007), 49.

[5] V. S. Naipaul, The Enigma of Arrival: A Novel in Five Sections (1987; London: Pan McMillan, 2002), 20.

[6] D. H. Lawrence, The White Peacock (1911; Cambridge University Press, edited by Andrew Robertson, Cambridge 1983), 28.

[7] D. H. Lawrence, ‘The Last Laugh’, in The Collected Short Stories of D. H. Lawrence (London: William Heinemann, 1974), 587-602.

[8] D. H. Lawrence, ‘A Propos of “Lady Chatterley’s Lover”, in Phoenix II: Uncollected, Unpublished and Other Prose Works by D. H. Lawrence, Collected and Edited with an Introduction and Notes by Warren Roberts and Harry T. Moore (London: William Heinemann, 1968), 504.