Friday, 22 January 2016

The Australia Episode

The original idea of leaving Hungary was to go to Australia - we declared as much to the immigration officer on the day we landed in England - where my father had a cousin willing to accommodate and find employment for him. There was at the time a £10 assisted passage whereby approved immigrants could make their way there by sea.

The book is not a personal memoir but an attempt to understand my rather extraordinary mother by running her history backwards from her death by suicide in 1975 to her birth in 1924. She had had a heart condition since the age of fourteen and this was to be the deciding factor in what happened next.

Among my father’s papers after his death I discovered a sequence of letters that traced the process of application. The first is from Australia House on 13 March 1957. It informs my parents of the necessity of medical and x-ray examinations and covers the expense at least until permission has been received. The two that follow bear the same date, 13 May. Both are from the Jews‘ Temporary Shelter office in Aldgate. The first tells us that we have a berth on the SS Sydney, sailing on the 27th and advises us to apply for a visa. The second cancels the berth saying Australia house cannot provide a visa in time but assures us that as soon as the visa is issued “transportation to Australia will be arranged”.

Then there is a wait until 10 July when Australia House wants more medical information, and names the doctor who is to conduct the examination. This time it is we who have to pay for it.

By the 30 July the medical must have taken place because the letter from Australia House informs us that my mother’s application has been rejected. No reason is given. But the case has been referred to Departmental Headquarters in Canberra for a decision.

So hope, then suspense, then disappointment, now again a little hope. On 25 September we receive a letter from Canberra on blue airmail paper. Apparently there had been an objection to the permit on the 10th but now the objection has been withdrawn and we can go ahead. We prepare to leave.

But there is another long wait until 18 November when Australia House write again. They refer to a previous letter of 10 October rejecting our application but also to the earlier letter from Canberra. They tell us they were aware of the Canberra decision at the time of the 10th (a letter my parents must have queried) but have rejected the application anyway, adding:

I would advise you that it is not the practice for the Office to inform unsuccessful applicants of the reasons why their applications have not been approved.
And that would seem to be the end of it but on 3 April 1958 comes another letter from Australia House asking my father to come in for a discussion and telling him to bring all his ID papers with him. Nothing comes of it and there is no further correspondence.

It’s a cruel business. The tortuous process, the encouragements then the refusals, the way the whole thing drags out all witness to my parents‘ desperation. And it is her fault, she thinks. It is the state of her heart that prevents us. She wanted out of Hungary but now we are stuck. 

The house we are stuck in is the first proper house, the one in Kingsbury. We had been there since the second week of February 1958. The WVS Civil Defence office tells us:

We have been able to obtain some beds, bedding, floor covering, chairs and cupboards for your new house - also some china and saucepans.

So it could be worse.

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.