Sunday, 13 December 2015

Working on a libretto: an account 2

What I immediately wrote was three pages of more or less one-line colloquy preceded by an introductory prologue:

Prologue: The Story of the Resident of the Black Pavilion

A: Once upon a time a king in China travels to a town
the residents of which dress exclusively in black.

B: Why are they in black?

A: After living a year in that city without disclosing
his own identity,  he gains the confidence of a butcher
who agrees to disclose the mystery of the town to him.

C: He takes the king to the outskirts of the town
to some ruins. There, he places the him in a basket
and lets him be transported to the land
of the Queen of Magical Beings

D: The queen welcomes the king with embraces
but when he wishes to make love to her
she offers him one of her handmaidens instead.

A: He enjoys the handmaiden and returns to the queen,
wooing her again but once more she rejects him
and offers him another of her handmaidens.

C: Returning to her again the Queen seems to promise
him satisfaction but when he moves to touch her
she disappears into thin air along with her attendants

B: and the king finds himself in the same basket
descending to the butcher?

A: In memory of his unrequited love, from then on
he, too, dresses  himself in black,
even after he returns home.”

Nothing had to come of this but it would introduce the Black Dome / Queen of Enchanted Beings theme. It gave me four speakers / singers. Because the idea was to dispense with dramatic narrative we could use the cast of four for exchanges like the following:

Episode 1: It exploded in my hand

A: When I opened my hand it exploded…

B: Was that yesterday?

A: No, some years ago, I forget now.

C: I was there with him.

D: The walls were covered with it.

A: It exploded right there on the wall

B: Like graffiti.

A: But black.

C: I was there with him.

D: The walls were covered with it.

Episode 2 could follow and begin to home in on the central figure of the writer and the idea of guilt.

Episode 2: It is only fair

D: We were elsewhere, altogether elsewhere.

A: It was my book. My words.

C: They made him eat his words.

B: It is only fair one should eat one’s words

A: It was a dark country.

C: The room was dark.

B: It was night. It was only fair the room should have been dark.

C: I was there with him.

D: We were all with him.

A: It was, some said, a good book.

D: I told you it was good.

B: Then it is only fair someone should eat it.

That's very brief but it gives an idea of context. The figures are not yet prisoners but they coule be. Then we return to the idea of the Queen:

Episode 3: The Queen of Magical Beings

A: The Queen invited me into her chamber

D: Her pillows, her curtains, her carpets, her scent.

C: I was there with him.

A: I sang her clothes, her eyes, her hair, her body

D: You sang her voice, her hand, her foot, her gesture of welcome and command

B: You wrote of pleasures promised and removed

A: I wrote of the king in his black gown. Of the city of black gowns

C: I was there with him.

B: But when you opened your hand…

A: When I opened my hand it exploded.

B: It is only fair that your hand should have exploded.

None of this was to provide a text as such but to explore ways of fragmentation and recapitulation and to see if anything caught Richard's eye. He liked it all as a first stab - as a technique - but what caught his eye was the idea of the writer being made to physically eat his words.

So there we had an image we could return to - and might yet.  But nothing for music yet.

Wednesday, 9 December 2015

Working on a libretto: an account 1

Lorenzo da Ponte 1740-1848

As with all blog posts one has an odd sense of keeping a private diary but with a reader over one's shoulder. Hello, reader. Welcome. Here are some one-line thoughts on being a librettist among composers, conductors, singers and players of various musical instruments.

A poet among musician is an electrician among plumbers.

Hearing your words treated by musicians is like becoming silence.

A librettist is not a poet but dots on a page.

A librettist is not a producer of words but an occasion of sounds.

A librettist is not a presence but a room filled by other people.

I have yet to see the advertisement: DON GIOVANNI by LORENZO DA PONTE,  music by W A Mozart

For well over a year now I have been engaged on a project run by the English National Opera (ENO for short) in which they put together a composer they admire, one who has not previously written an opera, with a poet, so that together they might produce some fifteen minutes of a potential opera, enough at least, to attract a commission. There were at some, stage, so I understand, four such pairings. I was paired with Richard Causton who is currently University Lecturer in Composition at King's College, Cambridge and whose music, readily available on YouTube, is rich, lyrical and - so it sounded to me - Romantic at root. We hadn't met before so I took a train  and we had some preliminary discussions.

Richard, who had, I think, had some two years contact with the ENO before this point, already had a source text, the late Iranian writer, Hushang Golshiri's The King of the Benighted but he was also excited by the work of another Iranian, Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis, originally a graphic novel but then a film. It was reading Golshiri's obituary rather than the book that first excited his interest. We talked  good deal about style and scope but the core subject remained unclear. Was it Iran? No. Was it the Ayatollah Khomeini regime that imprisoned Golshiri just as the Shah's had done earlier? No. Was it about the not-uncommon phenomenon of being punished - imprisoned, tortured  - by one side then being punished all over again by the other side? No. Was it a way of reconceptualising The King of the Benighted as an opera? Closer, but no. Was it about political freedom? Not exactly. About religious freedom? No. About the freedom of the imagination? Probably. In a way.

Manuchehr Irani was Golshiri's prison psudonym

I left with a clear idea of what certain specifics were to be. The whole was to be a set in a prison and include an interrogation, maybe several interrogations. The interrogations would be attempts to crush the imagination but the imagination would survive.There would be certain visual images. Some specific noises and effects. There would certainly be a Golshiri figure. We could have five or six on-stage singers / actors, perhaps an off-stage female choir (that might have transpired later). The setting would be bare with not much grand dramatic / operatic action (it shouldn't be too much like 'opera'). It would all be in black and white.

But would there be a story? Maybe. Not at the moment. Not for now. Seeing that Golshiri was to appear should we at least follow some of the lines in The King of the Benighted? An interrogation is not an opera, is it? No plot, no direct political or religious reference. Then why is one man interrogating and beating another in prison? What does he want from him? What has the prisoner got that is valuable? Is it the story of the legend within King of the Benighted?

But what is the signficance of the legend? Why is it important? Do we know why it is important? In what way is it a symbol of something central to the imagination? Could that significance be an opera that is not exactly an opera? Perhaps it is.

Let's see. Richard's instinct, it seemed, was meditate, meditate: mine is write, write.

Fair enough. I had to go away and write something. Some germ of an idea. Early days.


Saturday, 5 December 2015

The Poetry of Eastern Europe:
A talk at The Athenaeum Club, 2 December 2015

This is the list of poems read and talked about.  The talk was about 45 minutes long plus about 20 minutes of questions.

1. Zbigniew Herbert: The Rain
2. Tadeusz Rozewicz: Pigtail
3. János Pilinszky: Fable
4. Zbigniew Herbert: The End of a Dynasty
5. Gyula Illyés: One Sentence on Tyranny (excerpt)
6. Vasko Popa: The Nail
7. Vasko Popa: He
8. Vasko Popa: The Hunter
9. István Vas: The Translator’s Vote of Thanks (excerpt)
10. Daniela Crasnaru: Orphic
11. Zbigniew Herbert: Pebble
12. Ágnes Nemes Nagy: Winter Trees
13. Vasko Popa: The Rose Thieves
14. Vladimir Holan: Glimpsed
15. Miroslav Holub: Wings
16. Miroslav Holub: A Boy’s Head
17. Miroslav Holub: The Door
18. György Petri: Gratitude
19. Ottó Orbán: A Roman Considers the Christians

It was, of course, a very small selection from the material available, but even so it was a squeeze for the time available. As it turned out, since most of the poems were short, it was just right, given the introduction to each poem.

The introduction to the poems was intended to provide a frame or map for seeing them together.  It presented them, as and when translated, in terms of 'cold war poetry', the poetry of a bipolar world that has since passed and might not make much sense to those born after the period ended. That period might be defined as 1945 or a few years before, up to 1989. In terms of theme there were four main phases: the war / the Holocaust, the era of Stalinism, the post Stalin period (including 1968), and around and beyond 1989. Most of the poets were born in the 1920s, a few earlier, two or three later. 

The poems were all in translation of course and a good many were taken from volumes of the Penguin Modern European Poets series. The interest in the unofficial poetics of Eastern Europe was partly political, partly a matter of assumed public interest, partly literary fascination. The early work of Danny Weissbort and Ted Hughes was vital in begetting the Penguin series. Hughes's introduction to the Vasko Popa volume of 1969  makes strong reference to humanism, politics, precision, the sense of direct witness and to the west's own sense of "civilised liberal confusion". He compares 'their' world - the world of Popa, Holub and Herbert - with the world of Beckett and, for him, "theirs seems braver, more human, and so more real". As to Popa "No poetry could carry less luggage than his". There was, I think, (and I have argued this in print before) a sense of moral envy. Iron curtain poets carried moral authority because their pressures were direct.  Their work therefore had greater tension, greater urgency.
There were certain shared characteristics of the period that were not specifically the product of the cold war as such. There was still a belief in modernity, indeed in Modernism as a redemptive idea. Associated with it was a shared, left-leaning intellectual humanism. It was a world in which (unlike today) theology had no place. It was a world in which you could appeal to European values as embodied, say, in the School of Paris, in Sartre, Camus, Beauvoir and the rest. It was a world that had first hand communal experience of extreme violence in the name of totalitarian ideological systems.  

As to differences, the nations of Eastern Europe did not suffer from post-colonial guilt though they had (and have) yet to deal with war guilt. The first years after the war  the pressure of officially approved socialist realism - often traditional in form - meant that 'unofficial' art and poetry was best expressed through modernism: no formal prosody, no rhyme, disposable punctuation or capitalisation, no ornate metaphors, no declamatory first-person singular. The freedoms offered by surrealism also offered complex ways of addressing politics. This encouraged a belief in codes, in secret complicities, in a common energy. Under repressive conditions certain fields remained open for play. These include the grotesque, the folk tale, the erotic, the fantastical, the indirect elegy.

The first four poems were primarily about the war, the next four about conditions under arbitrary and savage totalitarianism, the next four about ways of surviving under those conditions, and the rest about hope, erotics,and scepticism. The Crasnaru was out of chronology but circumstances in Ceausescu's Romania were not dissimilar to those under early Stalinism.

I think this made a decent, not unrealistic package for a one-off talk to a privileged, highly intelligent but non-specialist audience most of whom would not have heard of most of the poets - or may not have read much poetry at all.

Monday, 30 November 2015

Three poems by Chandramohan S:
Politics and Poetry

Image source

Does poetry, as Auden wrote in In Memory of W, B Yeats, make nothing happen? It is frequently a bone of contention. Auden himself says far more in that great poem, such as that poetry is "raw towns that we believe and die in" to be dismissed on the basis of a line. In any case I don't think he was suggesting that poetry is naturally quietist, or that it has nothing to say about politics and public life. He was in reaction to the Spanish Civil War and the imminent outbreak of World War II. But as for making things happen, being an instrument of something else, he was sceptical and maybe more than sceptical, in fact morally distrustful as any believer in raw towns might be.

I had much sympathy for that view. Like Keats I distrusted and hated poems that had a palpable design upon us. Surely poetry did not instigate action: it was action. I am not so sure of that now, at least in this sense: that poetry addresses the human condition and that such a condition cannot exclude anything that is a part of it. I still have some difficulty with the idea that poetry should be partisan (surely poetry comes from a place of profound ambiguity) but if partisanship too is part of the human condition, or, rather, if we appeal to the human condition that embraces the partisan rather than renders itself a servant to it, the profundity, grace and precariousness thatn are the essential qualities of poetry can be maintained and explored.

That's a long introduction to give to three fine political poems by a young Indian poet, Chandramohan S, who sent them to me by email. They strike me as powerful, intelligent, witty and sharp. I asked if I could post them here and he said yes, so here they are.

Life has to go on
(For the Paris Terror Attack)

Who are the suicide bombers sneaking into a poem?

Maybe it was the vernacular river
Buried deep under a sign board
That had seceded from the poem
To become a landmine.

Maybe it is the tongue
Spoken by the vanquished minority
Bend like a question mark
To touch the feet of the despot
Before triggering a fireball.

Maybe the loud explosions were
The shrieks of vowels and consonants 
Perennially silenced in the national anthem.

More poems have to be written.
Life has to go on.


Surveillance poetic 
“In my rear view mirror is the motherfucking law” –Jay Z -99 problems

The camera tells us.
Keep your hands where I can see them.
Write your love letter.

You are under surveillance when chalk scrapes
On the black board,
When we walk in straight lines, march in tune
To the drum beats of uniformed discipline ,
While lip syncing to the national anthem.

A procession becomes a mime
Pretending its hands are tied,
Blank placards-invisible chains.


Elegy for the slain bloggers
(Also P.Murugan)
You see some people are afraid
of darkness

You heard what happened to him?
So we have decided to collectively
Scream against this darkness,
Our sound waves collide.

If we are in sync
The troughs bottom up
The crests add up
We are heard loud enough.

If our screams are
Not in sync
We cancel each other out
Our shadows intersect,
The void of the Umbra.

We become him.
Conform or perish.

Monday, 16 November 2015

Video Interview with Benjamin Novak for Budapest Beacon

George Szirtes from Budapest Beacon on Vimeo.

An edited version of a roughly hour long interview. Very good to meet the Budapest Beacon team in person. They do such important work it is a privilege to be asked to contribute. I am not an expert of the sort they tend to interview but the interview was a pleasure.

It is always worth checking out the Beacon website as well as the consistently outstanding Hungarian Spectrum of Eva Balogh. The reason I write less about Hungary on the blog than I used to is because she does it so much better, with so much more information to hand.

These critical perspectives are vital, especially for those reading from the outside. Hungary moves ever further to the right. It is hardly recognisable as the country I visited with such passionate interest in the late 80s and early 90s.

Tuesday, 10 November 2015

Learning to walk the Cinquain 1:
Soft Lyric, Hard Lyric

Adelaide Crapsey

Looking for short forms other than the haiku I returned to a forgotten one, the cinquain, as patented by Adelaide Crapsey (1878-1914). The cinquain is a five line poem with a fixed syllable count in which the order is 2-4-6-8-2, that is to say not so much a dying fall as a sheer drop. As with the haiku the strict syllable count may be ignored but it is interesting what may be done with it.

Here are two examples of what Crapsey did with it.


How frail

Above the bulk

Of crashing water hangs,

Autumnal, evanescent, wan,

The moon.

The Warning 
Just now,
Out of the strange

Still dusk…as strange, as still…

A white moth flew. Why am I grown

So cold?

It does seem to prefigure, and is contemporary with, the Imagism of Pound, T E Hulme, AE and so on. Mostly she writes about nature and how it affects the senses, but also about time and loss.  The effect is always lyrical, of a single first-person figure situated in nature, observing it but slightly ill at ease in it. She doesn't try to place it in a world beyond the self the way William Carlos Williams did. World and self are mutual experiences.

One should always imagine saying poems aloud (why not just say them aloud?) particularly lyric poems, not flattening out but adding a little subtle extra in breath and articulation. In Niagara one should feel the slight fizz  of 'frail', its firming up in 'bulk', then follow the build from the downstroke of the heavy 'crashing' to the suspension of 'hangs' and the three adjectives all grunted, all breathless, dangling in the fourth line, the breath mounting again until, in the last line 'the moon' constitutes the 'oooo' of the sheer drop I talk of above. It is beautiful made, every part in place, and I only slightly regret the moon produced, as it were, from the pocket of the poem. The moon, the stars, the sea, the night, the waterfall…I know these things are beautiful which is precisely whatI feel we ought to resist them a little. They shouldn't come easy and I worry about them as climaxes and stage exits. That is what I mean by the soft lyric. It plays - plays very well - to the expected.

The Warning is, for me, harder lyric and more lasting. Crapsey takes a chance with 'strange' and 'still' - should we not feel the strangeness rather than be told of it? - but then she does a brave wholly productive thing, she damn well does it again, and this time with ellipsis either side. Is that just cheap creepiness? But the effect is different. It is an affirmative that puzzles at the same time.  It is just clearing space for the moth. Her ear is good again. She could have written 'flew the white moth' but having 'flew' at the end the moth's irruption into the scene is more dynamic. We have to compose ourselves after the verb with its full stop. The last question, broken over two lines, is now a genuine shudder. There is no anticipated drop in the last line, there is instead the deathly chill of the completion of the question: 'Why am I grown…'

Crapsey was only thirty-six when she died. Some of her other cinquains may be found here.

As for me I will be experimenting with cinquains to see whether they will adapt to contemporary diction and angularity of feeling . Here, once again, is the rule:

begin with two

syllables, move to four,

then six, then eight but finish with

just two.

Friday, 9 October 2015

This is the House the Word Built:
A recording of the poem

This is my own home recording of the poem commissioned by Writers Centre Norwich on the occasion of the official opening of Dragon Hall, Norwich as their new home. It was written in the second half of September and performed yesterday, National Poetry Day on 8 October 2015

The text of the poem is in the previous blogpost. It was very much intended for oral performance. Hence the recording

Thursday, 8 October 2015

This is the House the Word Built

This is the house the word built

And the word was with God and was God
    and the word was the house where the priest was,
      where the friars, the abbey, the earth and the river,
         the town and the sea and the sky was - 
           where the river reflected the town and the sky
               and the house the word built.

This is the rich man who built his house where the word was, 
   his hall-house, his passage, his arch and his doorway, 
      his windows, his attic, his fireplace and screen-wall,
          all in the house the word built.

This is the house the word built.

This is the smokehouse, the fish, the wherry and staithe
   behind the house the word built,
      the staithe that was built on sea and sky and river and music
         in the town with the house the word built.

This is the trading hall, this the undercroft,
   these are the dragons, the witches, the roofbeams,
      the house of the treasurer, the property of the businessman
         the house of the mayor and mayor again
            that was built with the money and fabric
               the word built.

This is the house the word built.

And this is the property - the valuable rentland the trade-hall became
   when the trader-the mayor-the businessman died
      and sold it for the sake of his soul that he might ~
         not be bound too long in purgatory
            in the house the word built

And this is the slow descent into poverty - into multiplication -
   into tenements and foul yards - into cottage and labour -
      into industry and intimacy - into river and sky -
         into shoes into dresses into vests into brickstacks -
            into one-hundred-and sixty five adults and children
                in the grounds of the house the word built.

This is the house the word built.

And here’s the first pub, The Three Merry Wherrymen - and here The Old Barge ~
   with its boozers and braggers, its buxom and ballocky, its bread and its bacon,
      like all the great barges or ships of dead fools whom God the great word 
        sént on their way into broad bucking waves ~
           of the night with the scurvy, the syphilis, the TB, the ague
             all brewed in the house the word built.

Here’s Agnes Palmer aged ten in mid-century, still here at eighty in 1911
   and here’s her dead father, and brothers: William, Samuel, Ellis, Edmund & John,
     and here are the rags for rag-pickers, and here are the women waiting in doorways 
         in the house the word built.

This is the house the word built.

And here are the poor - stumbling dead-drunk down the alley - 
  here’s crowds for the football, shopkeepers, bulldozers, slumclearers, developers, 
     the Old Barge still floating~down the river of the word, into Dragon Hall -    
         the city all changes, surviving in squares and streets 
            and houses the word built.

And this is the art that we live in and walk on and breathe in and pass through,
   these are the doors of the word, and the words that pass through them, 
      this is our barge and our wherry and staithe and the words that we owe  ~
         to those who first spoke them, since that is what art is,
             the speaking of the house, the listening of the house ~
                to the voice of the house that’s the voice of the river,
                   the sky, the sea, the music, the town ~
                      of the house that we live in,
                         the house the word built.

This is the house the word built.

*This celebratory poem was commissioned by Writers Centre Norwich and read on National Poetry Day for the official handover of Dragon Hall to WCN
The historical background was provided by Richard Matthew. The poem traces the history of the original site through its buildings but chiefly the people who inhabited them, from the Church through to business in the 16th and 17th centuries, to a slum, to a pub, and into the present. The italicised lines were said by the audience.

Monday, 5 October 2015

At Dromineer:
Between languages


The very last event of the Dromineer Literature Festival was an hour or so of Irish love poems performed and partly written by two Irish language poets, Ailbhe Ní Ghearbhuigh and Caitríona Ní Chléirchín, introduced by Dave McAvinchey with harpist Laura Hogan. This was in the keep of the castle, one floor up and open to the cold so we were all advised to dress warmly.

The poems, ancient and modern, were all written, and read, in the Irish language to an audience of Irish speakers, some being also read in English translation, but all glossed and introduced in English. I don't think the English was a piece of courtesy to Clarissa and I, possibly the only non-Irish speakers in the place. Some of poems were even given out on sheets with some English translation - not fully poetic translation - but close enough to follow.

At first I followed the sheets as best I could but slowly, as the programme moved on, I spent more time simply listening to the sound, looking to discern rhythm, dynamic, pace, alliteration, rhyme: in effect the music of the verse. The more I listened the more it communicated. The evening, having been introduced by a harp piece and the Irish poems having occasional harp accompaniment, ended with the harp, first with a beautiful and delicately played solo piece, and at the end with a song, a love lament, sung in English by the harpist, Laura.

I was a little tearful at the end of it all and wondered what exactly it was that moved me. The answer to that is as complex as the occasion itself, and indeed as the situation that produced the occasion and all other such occasions.

It is rather too much to think about in a form as small as this but some thinking is useful, starting, in reverse order, with the situation and the occasion, then moving back to my own self at the end.

The obvious starting place is the relationship between history and language. Like all small languages - meaning spoken by relatively few people, and I include Hungarian among such languages - Irish is and has been vulnerable for a long time. That vulnerability is a product of political power. Just as Hungarian might have disappeared as a written language in the eighteenth century so Irish might have disappeared because colonial power in both cases has always demanded control of language. Control the language and you control thought. Besides, it makes everything so much simpler in administrative terms and always has done. A lingua franca is necessary for cohesion. But of course it oppresses. Irish is a survivor language because people have given their passion and energy to help it survive, and it could only survive in face of the controlling power language, in Ireland's case, English.

So when Billy Ramsden's almost first words to us were: I hate English, it made sense in that context while constituting a kind of challenge to us, visitors from the hated enemy. The irony is that Billy writes his poems in the hated language, a language that, as I remember, Michael Hartnett once said was "fit only to sell pigs in". Chaucer sold pigs, Shakespeare sold pigs, Donne, Herbert, Marvell, Milton, Pope, Swift, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Byron, Shelley, Keats etc were all, by that token, merely sellers of pigs.

However, it is hard, if not impossible, to write poems in a language that one does not love and distrust, and indeed love must come first, distrust second.

How to do that when the language is the instrument of your historical oppression? One ought perhaps to ask the various Latin poets of the Roman Empire the same question. Billy's - and Hartnett's - statements are evidence of conflicted love in that sense. The political is at war with the poetic and, because the political is intensely felt, the gesture of hatred must be stated to precede the engagement with the language, just so that the listener, if from the territory of England, should know where he is regarded as potentially standing.

It was fascinating and moving to hear that strange conflicted-love articulate the desire to tear itself away from it. Both languages were moving together but it was the Irish that was being rightly celebrated and uttered. English was a functional prop most of the time.

It was I think, an important part of the emotional power of the evening that the poems read were love poems, poems of the sufferings and pleasures of love, which are much the same the world over, for however we attribute the establishing of romantic love as a tradition to the Troubador poets of the Crusades, it is impossible to feel that no romantic love existed before, that no one felt the pains, regrets, delights, ecstasies and losses of desire and attachment before the identifying of a form that embraced its realm of feeling in terms of rules, manners, language, and rites of passage.

Love poems are not the same as rebel songs. They are not anthems of the tribe: they invite individual identification with individual, if archetypal, experience. You do not have to be of the tribe to love, and indeed many tragic love stories are those of love across conflicting tribes. And because the poems we heard were love songs they included us all. So we, Clarissa and I, from our own very different and complex historical perspectives, felt enabled to share the poignancy of both the music and poetry. The modality of the music was not strange, after all. We have heard and continue to hear traditional Celtic song. Most nights on BBC Radio Three will include a few tracks based on such modality and they sing to us too, in our own displaced bones.

Fierce patriotic feeling has always been a problem for me. I feel its exclusion wherever I am, whether in Hungary, England, Ireland or anywhere else. I am nervous and edgy in its presence. It smells too much of self-mythologising and self-pity. It offers a cosy version of hatred. But it stands for something else too, for the familial, for the capacity of the family to welcome strangers. It sings the hearth and the community of families.

Nevertheless, patriotism and tribal loyalty carry the sense that our enemy's enemies become, perforce, our friends. We go to see Norwich City play their home games and are in some way part of a family in doing so. We note that the most hostile reception is reserved for our nearest rivals Ipswich Town. We are aware that the hostility is partly play, partly the positive channelling of conflicting emotions. There is no political tension between Norwich and Ipswich but the Norwich crowd is pleased to hear of an Ipswich loss to any other team at all. It is tribalism on a psychological level. In Ireland though, because of the unequal historical power relationship with England, there is both political and psychological cause for tension and the cause lives on through the creation and perpetuation of identity. 'We are who we are by definition against the enemy: that is the comforting fire of our cohesion'.

Those of us who, through long historical circumstances, are never quite to be included in the tribe - and there are growing numbers of us, we train-travellers of the unrooted soul - find the insistence on clear identity and clear antagonism problematic.

Every language articulates the diversity and intensity of a specific human social experience. The death of a language is the death of a part of the human race, an element of its soul. To hear Irish as something loved, articulated, moved into music, fully echoing with human fate, is bound to be moving even for an outsider - even for an outsider from the hated place - because it echoes a deep longing. But the singing of the last song, in English, also meant something and not just to us outsiders: it moved the Irish audience to the degree that some of them sang along with it.

What are they to do with this feeling?

Straight after, one local man - a very nice man - reminded me of Billy's words, repeating them exactly. Why remind me, I thought. Why right now? I had been moved by the experience of Irish. We had actively chosen to come to hear it. No one made us come. We weren't even fully English (Clarissa is half Scottish and was born and brought up in the Far East). Was this a statement, a challenge, or a kind of question? If it was to be regarded as a form of question ('So what do you think, eh?) what answer could I possibly give that might satisfy him or me?

So what did move me about the evening? It was, I think the glimpse of the psychological point at which two languages might exist in one place. How, after all, to sing a song that moves you in a language you hate? The very act is a reminder of pain. Which leaves the idea of hate. The hate was in one pocket, the song in the other. You could take out either. You could flash me the first before producing the second, but just to be sure you could flash it again after.

Saturday, 3 October 2015

At Dromineer:
Distressing the bones

It has been busy since the last entry. Last night was the reading with Billy Ramsell, Pascale Petit and I. Today it was my workshop in the morning, and, as they say, my pleasant task to introduce the launch of new publications by Breda Wall Ryan, Victoria Kennefick and Maeve O'Sullivan in the afternoon. It all went very well indeed, but me telling you so without you being there is not of much value.

Let me ask myself questions instead. Were Billy and Pascale and Breda and Victoria and Maeve, and the ten poets in my 'masterclass' (essentially a workshop) - including Victoria and Breda - really good? Yes, of course they were. (They really were.) And was the welcome and organisation of Eleanor Hooker (also in the workshop) and all her volunteer team marvellous? Yes, you can bet your life on it. Really. I could give more detail on Billy's energetic, coiled recitation by heart of his strongly lyrical but tough work, or say, as I have done before, that Pascale is a sui generis poet of the magical, animistic and tragic with a brilliant visual imagination, but adverting to this so briefly and lightly will seem somewhat like blowing kisses into the air. Nevertheless, these things are true, so please assume them.

I could say more - and did - about Breda's work where emotional intensity presses through richly detailed lines that lodge in the ear and about her sense of the world as bitter and dark but full of verbal pleasure and close observation. I could tell you that Victoria is an exciting and thoroughly blown-through poet whose work feels fresh on the pulse, but also carries a lightly-registered but deep apprehension of what can lie below. I could perorate on the haiku as a form that has established itself in the English language as a medium of meditation in which perfectly ordinary and apparently incidental things hold still and allow us to look through them as in Maeve's poems. And, there! I have made a gesture towards it and I mean it, and you will see I am registering something that is - at least as far as I can gauge - really does exist.

I hope you will forgive me if I now return to what has concerned me directly, in so far as it was part of my own reception. That takes me back to the reading on Friday.

It was back in the Nenagh Arts Centre theatre and was introduced by the poet Thomas McCarthy who is one of the great men of Irish poetry and literature generally. We each answered a few questions from him before our individual introductions and readings. Thomas is a great poet of great reading, knowledge and understanding, so it very much interested me what he would say about me. It turned out that, in his view, I am primarily a European rather than an English poet. He was very generous, beyond hostly obligation, in his evaluation.  I was, naturally, flattered and delighted with the generosity and it gave me to think on the difference between being an English and a European poet.

I think what Thomas meant was that my sensibilities were formed by experiences outside England, which is probably true. Although I have spent close on fifty-nine of my years in the country of my family's refuge and only eight in that of my birth, no doubt the lives and expectations and some of the deepest instincts of my parents were passed on to me: the family house remains the family house even when it is far removed from home, which was probably why that first return visit to Budapest in 1984 made such a huge impression on me.

What were my parents' expectations and instincts? The world had behaved savagely to them: the world might therefore be expected to act savagely again. What precisely was the world? It was the urges, prejudices, passions and furies of those around them; of societies, try how they might, they could not be a full part. It was an unstable world whose grip on order was tenuous. What once seemed to be solid buildings were lying in ruins around them. What were once families were now bloody severed  or missing limbs. They felt, if not quite alone, part of an entity they did not fully want to claim. The very language they spoke was spoken against them: it imprisoned and tortured them so when they escaped its clutches they were relieved yet bereft. It was their individual strength that saw them through, not their societal strength, but there were other individuals, some even stronger perhaps, who did not make it. That which offered security was perhaps overvalued  if only because its supply was short.

As a child one resists the values of one's parents but one cannot help learning and internalising them so they become the walking spectres of the imagination. The instincts one consciously resists are all the more real for being knowingly resisted.

And is this so with me? I don't know but I do recognise something of the spectral as I describe it above. In describing it I make it real. The time accumulated since then, the good life stored in the bank of security takes precedence, of course. One has a life to live and obligations to the immediate necessities of the world and all one has learned to love in it.

One question that has arisen a few times here at the festival was whether it is possible to write happy poems - poems of, or about, happiness? I think the question first arose out of Billy's work but did so in the course of the book launch. It is a hard task, Billy had said when Thomas asked him about it in public. After the reading, in the pub, we talked about the idea that happiness wrote white, a thought I attributed to Paul Valéry, wrongly, since it was Henry de Montherlant. What if, I suggested, one wrote white on dark paper? What if happiness was to be seized because that which is not seized does not convince us that it is happiness? What if happiness was not something one wrote about - although one might - but what the achievement and shaping of some response to life actually was. The poem then was not about happiness: the fact that such a thing as a poem can exist at all is the happy thing. The awareness of brevity is embedded in the poem about happiness in the same way mortality is embedded in poems about life and vigour.

The very fact that I speculate about such things is, in its way, evidence that what I psychologically inherited from my parents continues on it spectral rounds and produces instincts and values that are the ground out of which poetry might spring.

And perhaps does so. The Europe of Central Europeans, of Central European Jews particularly, of which Thomas spoke, and at more of which he hinted, means something like that. It is a field of expectations and values that point to an unattainable security. It is, necessarily, a spectral place: fugitive ground on which good is something seized and lost. It is a harsh, erratic disciplinarian that can disorder the bones of Paul Celan should it see fit.

But we all know that, don't we? In our different places, at our various points on the map and the clock we recognise it. Some of us will have some more recent historical experience of it.  Or if not the experience the memory trace of it.

There is no hierarchy of dread. One does not deserve, or get, medals for one's apprehensions.  A Europe of apprehensions seems intensely real to me. Maybe it disorders my own bones in a much smaller way than it did Celan's.

But let me, since I work out of England, in English, be less dramatic about this. Let us agree, not on the grand term 'disorders' but on something more delicately poised, more modest, something more like 'distresses' perhaps. Something there is that distresses the bones. Yes, I think that is probably fair.

Friday, 2 October 2015

From the Dromineer Festival:
Peter Sheridan and community

In Nenagh Art Centre Theatre

I have made many visits to Ireland and was the first International Writer Fellow at Trinity College in Dublin for three months, of which I am very proud - and, needless to say, I had a very good time, as indeed I have with all my other literary trips here, from Clifden, Sligo and Galway through to Listowel, Limerick and Tralee, not to mention Dun Laoghaire and Gort. It was as if I had a relative in the country, and maybe, in someways, I have.

I wouldn't say it was a relative I knew well, nor do I now, but Ireland has always been a hospitable and warm-hearted welcoming relative. I sometimes think being Hungarian by birth has helped: two small countries with some similarity in their histories. So here I am again for the Dromineer Literary Festival where I am to read with Pascale Petit and Billy Ramsell, be interviewed by Thomas McCarthy tonight, run a masterclass tomorrow, and introduce a poetry launch of publications by Victoria Kennefick, Breda Wall Ryan, and Maeve O'Sullivan tomorrow.

Arriving last night we were met by Eleanor and Bernie at the airport and driven to Nenagh, which is the noise our children made, and now our grandchildren make,  when playing at police and ambulance cars. In that sense it is doubly familiar. The wide streets, the small shops with the dark rich colours and Celtic style signs, the stone, the dark green of the grass, the morning mist, the shops that go back and back, as I remembered from previous visits when, in a different place, in another inn, about four rooms back from the main bar Ciaran Carson was singing and playing.

Brian's B and B where we are staying is very comfortable and the food is angelic, Brian's daughter being home from Florida where she is a top pastry cook. Brian himself makes bread. We are the only guests here at the moment but others will arrive this afternoon.

Last night we were offered the option of seeing Peter Sheridan perform his one man play, '44 Seville Place', which is based on his memories of living in a poor part of Dublin and runs the chronology from the early fifties to 1970, preceded by prologue involving a missed movie production that would have starred Sean Penn, and involved a drive across the US with him.

The theatre is a very simple affair with far too high a stage so Sheridan performed, unamplified, from floor level. He doesn't need much, just a cardboard guitar and a real one. He is a very assured performer and raconteur, seamlessly weaving together anecdotes of early and late childhood, the amusing and the tragic, full of cultural resonance for an audience who were mostly of the right vintage and well prepared for a performance as intimate yet as bold as this. The local references mostly lost me, all I remember is that Dublin looked one way to me in the 1980s and quite different by the late 90s. Dublin had become an international city quite different from the relatively monocultural place it had been some dozen years before.

Intimacy and monoculturalism are twins: we trust what we know, we know what we trust. It tends sometimes to have a slightly excluding-while-welcoming sense to me if only because I know - as I do in England too, though in a different way - that being in a place is never quite the same as being of it.

So Sheridan's virtuosic trawl through Dublin life, and by that token Irish life too, was familiar to me in the sense that I already had the general picture and have had it for some years. The characters step out of a landscape I have visited before. They rise and perform. There's the church cracking down, the school with its harsh ways, the dodges, the whispers, the bawling, the early death, the first love, the family (always the family) and the singing (always the singing) though in this case the songs are by Lennon and McCartney. And, while Sheridan sings snatches of songs in a fine baritone voice, we end with community singing, everyone joining in with When I'm Sixty-Four.

It is what the tribe has been through and survived. It is what has held it together and kept it going. In the film of the tribe this is the scene from It's a Wonderful Life when the suffering gives way to the close warmth of true friends.

Life is myth: but what else is there?

Sunday, 20 September 2015

Some Notes on Ai Wei Wei;
screen and trace path

Straight, 2008-2012
Steel reinforcing bars reclaimed from buildings collapsed in the Sichuan earthquake.

Yesterday we met Sam at the Royal Academy. We have cards that would get us in free anyway but he, being editor of the RA magazine, offered to take us in to the Ai Wei Wei show on its very first day. The privilege of knowing Sam came through his commission of a poem for Anselm Kiefer, after which I asked him for space to write about the forgotten Polish artist, Felicia Glowacka, about whom more later. That article is done now and waiting to appear.

We had, of course, read Sam's fascinating article on the now world-famous Chinese artist in the magazine and since I link to it now I don't think it is necessary to write any thing particularly informative in this post. We know something of the scale of his work, of his arrest and imprisonment, of his tense relationship with the Chinese state. In any case Sam was very generous to show us around (and I hope he forgave me having forgotten details of the article)

These then are just brief observations.

The sheer physical scale of the work is as overwhelming as the earlier Kiefer exhibition was in some respects but is so neatly divided into specific pieces that most rooms comprise a single project with related supporting work, which allows the mind to rest and gather itself. The scale, nevertheless, is industrial. The work requires more or less an industry to produce, employing not just assistants but top crafts people. We don't know their names but we are in no danger of forgetting them.

Balancing craft, concept and context
The balance between craft, concept and context is the most dramatic aspect of the show. Handcraft has been derided and excluded from fine art for a long time with few exceptions apart from Grayson Perry, the comedy and irony of whose work have helped make it bombproof, so to produce an art that rehabilitates and adapts craft  - in the form of joinery, casting, carving and modelling - on a conceptual level is a bold and refreshing move.

The Chinese context
The context is China and, increasingly, as he grows ever more famous, Ai Wei Wei himself becomes a kind of screen on which China continues to write. But that writing is crude graffiti on beautifully made objects that disdain them. The work prefers its own commentating. The artist is so located in relationship to the work and to what it references that he becomes intrinsic to it. That ambiguity of status, the line of tension between personal history, art history, and political history, is the fault line Ai Wei Wei treads with ever more flamboyance.

Concept without chat
Given all that, the conceptual element is remarkably simple. It is conceptual art without the art bollocks that generally accompanies it. No specialist language, no cloud of theory, no reference to the usual concerns of contemporary western art is required to gloss it. The art actually has a subject. There is, for example, the destruction of several badly constructed school buildings in an earthquake in Straight (see top image). Rusted steel rods, salvaged from the ruins, constitute the floor while the names of the dead schoolchildren (never officially published) run right round the same room. The formal element of the rods is as important as the fact that they are there - the actual rods, the actual names. The whole is not only monumentally simple: it is, in effect, a monument.

Beyond the void
The melding of highly crafted traditional form with rough material (such as you can find to a far greater extent in Kiefer) raises the role of irony to a humane dramatic level in the same way that post-modern techniques were adapted by Eastern European writing of the seventies and eighties to the social realities of their own human situation. There was no void at the centre of it. The game was about something that was really there. The rough in Ai Wei Wei is seamlessly joined to the crafted, through craft.

Dioramas and self
Different from the rest of the work, the set of dioramas at the end is a sort of Stations of the Cross recording Ai Wei Wei's own imprisonment. The temptation to present one's own life as martyrdom is never too far from the autobiographer. But even here we are invited not so much to observe a personal martyrdom as to note the working through of a system.

China as contradiction
China is immensely complex, of course. Our first contact last time in China (we are going there again next month) involved an entirely informal call on an artists' quarter full of vast studios and big modernist works that had already found a global market. The artists had monographs, catalogues, the lot. On another occasion we visited an artist in a much smaller studio who was frowned on by the state because of his figurative satirical subjects. The small studio was in an art college where he was not allowed to teach. So much happens side-by-side, one side the ghost of the other. On one hand the Waldorf Astoria in Shanghai with its cocktail-bar and girl pianist: on the other the dirt-cheap labourers sleeping rough and raising still more exclusive buildings.

A very early work by Ai Wei Wei, The Hanging Man, a joke (in silver) based on the profile of Marcel Duchamp, illustrates one key experience of the exhibition beyond the specific context of China. It is the global context. Modernism was the first movement that may be described as genuinely international even in its early days, extending well beyond Europe into India, Africa and South America. We are beyond internationalism now: we are all globalists within easy reach of a keyboard. Ai Wei Wei is clearly a product of late technology but, at the same time, retains Chinese motifs as well as referencing events in China. It is another part of the complex layer

Person and scale
There is, at the same time, a certain niggling concern about the sheer scale of both the enterprise and the persona. Each of the monumental works on show would have occupied an army of people. That costs money and know-how. There is the apparatus of global success. We are a suspicious sceptical lot. But our scepticism is the product of circumstances quite unlike Ai Wei Wei's. He is running real risks: the dioramas are a public witness to that.

The bubble and the questions
 We live in a complex, sometimes contradictory world of which China is a kind of emblem. What is the meaning of the authoritarian state in a wildly free market? How can we be global yet local? How can a society venerate both Mao and cash? Outside the bubble we live in, the world has been showing signs of cracking, particularly in the Middle East. Questions are being asked, even in Europe, of values we assume are necessary to a good society. Those questions are bloody and absolute. They make grim shapes and haunt the bubble.  China remains a high and ancient civilisation but it too is at tension with itself. Ai Wei Wei thinks the younger generation will look to resolve that tension in its own fashion. His art is delicately made yet monumental in both scale and ambition. It is itself part of that tension.

Monday, 14 September 2015

A letter on gender and generational relations

Victorian family


I think the relationship between the sexes / genders owes a great deal to the fact that before the second half of the twentieth century, and certainly in times before, most women had babies, a great many babies when they were poor, partly because they couldn't help it for lack of reliable contraception, and partly because having a lot of children offered some economic security through the extended family when the children turned into adults and the state wouldn't provide. It should also be added that a good many of the babies, and often the women themselves, died in giving birth. During her lifetime a woman might have been pregnant ten times or more.

Under the circumstances the role of the husband was to provide by any means, and the vast majority of men who did so did not do that through 'careers' but by means of a job, often a very hard one. Even in the lower end of the middle class, hours were long and jobs tedious or dangerous. Manners, sometimes crude, sometimes courteous (because courtesy, like, say, dancing, was a welcome change from the harshness of work) sprang out of that.

With older men like my father, who really did work very hard to provide for us (six days a week, seven to seven back in Hungary, with night classes on top) the manners he regarded as courtesies were by no means patronising or belittling. They were what helped him, and the very hard working women (including my mother), make the world go round. His own father worked on the shop-floor of a shoe factory. His mother took in sewing, as did her sisters.

As to 'power', beyond my father's very limited power at work I did not think he had more power than my mother, indeed rather less, since she made all the important domestic decisions. His work was never brought home. We never saw it but it was he who had the industrial accident that meant he had to walk with painful pins holding his ankle together for the rest of his life. We did see the results of his work.

I sometimes feel that younger, educated middle-class women have no idea of what life was like. All they see in their own lives and their idea of gender relations is the potential indignity and disadvantage to themselves. They are full of self-righteous anger - which is a form of idealism - and can be arrogant and bullying in their language without realising this.

I myself am now getting on for sixty-seven, have retired from teaching (though not from writing, of course) and have no stake in permanent employment. Besides all that I have been very happily married for forty-five years and have two grandchildren so have decided not to allow myself - or indeed my father (especially not him!) - to be verbally chastised by someone younger than my own daughter, who has lived a great deal less and seems to have little historical perspective.

I am of course glad of the changes. I am thoroughly glad that women have many more options than they once had, and am sorry indeed to see them patronised or mistreated. I have both a son and a daughter and wish the very best to them both.

Beyond that life goes on as it does. I am very fond of our women friends and they seem to like me. I don't behave like my father who, as far as I know, never made a pass at anyone but whose ideas of courtesy now appear quaint to some and offensive to others. I don't behave like him because I was born later among different circumstances.

I wish sometimes younger people realised this, or were a little more charitable in their thoughts and imaginations. I realise I now sound very old indeed. There I go again, 'mansplaining'. And somehow I don't care. I really don't care.

Yours, etc…

Monday, 7 September 2015

Budapest Diary 6/7 September
Saying goodbye

One of my photos taken yesterday at our meeting with Gy.
 The woman in the foreground seems to be fleeing and repeating
the gesture of the man behind. The  building in the back is
Ödön Lechner's great Art Nouveau Museum of Arts and Crafts.
It seems to be shouting. Maybe that is what the woman,
who is simply holding her hair back, is fleeing from.

I am writing this on Monday, the 7th, when we are due to leave. Our flight is quite late so the day remains. Yesterday we met, Gy, another old friend who used to be a radio journalist in the English language section of Hungarian radio back in the previous dispensation, in the eighties. She lost her job in the changes chiefly as a result of political pressure. The media in Hungary are always being seized by whatever government happens to be in charge though Fidesz has exceeded previous post-1989 norms not so much by direct take-over but by shifting money, licences and permits around so much that its people are in charge of all the most prominent radio, TV and newspaper organisations.

Our journalist friend does voluntary work now. She helps to feed the hungry of the VIIIth district, one of the poorest in Budapest. Her group is responsible for twenty-five families, some Roma, some just very poor. In fact she has just finished her shift. I know the district. The grand old buildings are rotten, the streets are like Skid Row. Some streets and squares here are distinctly underclass territory.

Over a light lunch by the Corvin cinema (a great centre of armed resistance in the 1956 revolution and well marked as such) she tells us that some four and half million people in the country are under the poverty line. That is almost half the population. Other estimates might vary but the government has banned research into poverty so it's hard to know. Gy is very apprehensive about the future, particularly about the prospect of far-right Jobbik forming a government.

Knowing that we are part of a privileged, intellectual circle when we come, I continue to be curious about the Hungarian populace at large. Why would they vote for a fascist party? I ask.  Jobbik is very well organised, she says. They send out volunteers to help with daily tasks in the rural areas and the smaller provincial towns. They act like scouts. Local people are not interested in politics and still less in ideology, they are simply grateful for help so they vote Jobbik. Other parties have been incapable of grasping this and have no clear leading figure.  Jobbik has toned down the rhetoric without toning down the ideology. They are still a quasi-military force.

So much hatred in people, she sighs. She has seen them in the street. Ugly to look at, she says. There were the louts who set out to attack the migrants at Keleti station. And there are the respectable looking middle-aged malicious ones. But it is the young she fears, the young who are intelligent and educated, but work for Jobbik. She too feels she is surrounded by people who are sympathetic to her own views, so she feels alienated from the potential Jobbik voter. The average Hungarian, says Gy, is mildly anti-Semitic but that latent anti-Semitism and anti-Roma feeling is there to be exploited.

And Fidesz does this too, she says. Orbán's talk of Islamic hordes swarming through Hungary to take over Christendom is a story that plays well in a country that had a century and a half of Ottoman occupation and feels itself isolated and vulnerable. Both Fidesz and Jobbik rely on raising fears they can then claim to address. Orbán won't care that liberal Europe loathes him: he glories in it. He could turn to Putin for help and Putin might give it, not because of any sentimentality towards Hungarians but because it might help him extend his power base. The irony is that the Hungarian state makes far more of Russian tyranny than it does of the German in its official House of Terror.

It demonstrates how confusing modern geopolitics is. Left and Right are interchangeable on some issues and diametrically opposed on others. I wouldn't be the first to suggest that in the contemporary world ideology is a post-modern parlour game, a way of seizing, maintaining and directing power. I wouldn't be the first either to suggest that our emotions are intense but thin, our talk is of humanity but our tempers are frayed and ever ready to scream blue murder. We are natural prey for demagogues and quick-fix radicalism.

What would Gy do if Jobbik took over? Where could she go? She is seventy years old and alone. She is a EU citizen until Hungary decides to leave the EU. But how could she afford to move? Her English is excellent. She has no Swedish. Perhaps there will be Hungarian refugees flowing across the borders again. And indeed there may be as many as 700,000 Hungarians abroad right now, young, intelligent, highly-trained people, who may decide not to return.

In the evening we return to our closest and dearest friends and go for a meal at a favourite Buda restaurant, the Szép Ilona (La Belle Helene). It is pretty full and we spot of a couple of diplomats and politicians among the diners. We are soon joined by J, the poet Ottó Orbán's widow. She is in her eighties now but is always out at exhibition openings, and theatre and cinema premieres. She goes to every event she can. She has just returned from a Joyce and Yeats tour of Ireland led by a mutual acquaintance, a retired Hungarian scholar. Though her voice is quieter than it was - it can be hard to hear her - she is absolutely full of life. Her attitude is that if you leave life, life leaves you.

Today the temperature is more like England. We are under 20C for the first time. A nice day for flying home. Meanwhile the refugee crisis goes on. Nothing is 'solved'. Temporary measures are everything. The old empires continue to fall and reassemble themselves over the bodies of the dead and fleeing.