Friday, 31 January 2014

Breaking Bad:
A few more notes in passing

The Temptation of St Anthony by David Teniers, the Younger c 1645

All stories, however 'realistic', are driven by the motor of myth, that is to say by a mechanism of associations that provides a passing view of experiences beyond the immediate story. These myths follow certain formal patterns that we sometimes refer to by names such as genre. I don't mean exactly what Barthes does in Mythologies, but that too when all is said and done: the Marxist along with the Freudian and its variations.

In so far as we follow certain protagonists we travel with them on a journey through a universe that has its own genre rules. Incidents assume significance either because we know the rules already or because we can relate the new rules, as we come across them, to the shadows of other rules that we recall from other situations.

One of the salient features of Breaking Bad is that it operates by several rules at the same time. From Tarantino through the Coen Brothers we have become accustomed to a series of interpenetrations where broad comedy, subtle psychological nuance, direct violence, and even horror, are presented, sometimes in succession, sometimes simultaneously, in ironic, semi-detached terms.

We tend to refer to such works as examples of postmodernism if only because we understand that irony is an important element in them and that our normal categories, including those we consider most solemn, are being treated in a playful manner. The first effect of postmodernism then is an apparent removal of substance if only because we associate substance with the known, that is to say we supply our own learned backlog of depth to help us navigate. It is harder to navigate the postmodern journey.

The second effect, and I don't want to investigate this line further now because we still haven't finished watching, is that, having grown accustomed to the manner of shifting perspectives and story levels - the playfulness - we are left with a sense that there is in fact something intensely serious going on and that  such seriousness is, after all, to do with us. That is the mythic level.

Given that, I want to note three almost random items, for my own sake as a kind of memo so I can think about it later and maybe return to the themes. All three are symbols of sorts.

1. Desert. 
The visions of the Desert Fathers have been depicted by various Flemish and Italian artists. The mind is prone to fantastical demons and temptations. This is partly because of solitude, partly because of sensory deprivation, and partly because of the intense pursuit of an ascetic ideal. The New Mexico desert is the image we keep returning to in Breaking Bad. It is a place of death and isolation and evil. It is ascetic and it does produce demons. 
2. Disability 
Walter's son is disabled from birth. Walter is disabled by his character's inability to assert his own identity and, more crucially, by cancer. Hank is disabled by shooting. Jesse is beaten up more than once. All the male characters are reduced in their capacity for action. The irony is that the more Walter seems to be reduced the more transgressive and more active he becomes. 
3. Demons 
Demons specifically from Mexico. I doubt whether Breaking Bad is an advertisement for Mexican tourism. Granted we have heard of the highway of death, of drugs barons, of gang warfare and decapitations, but the demons that emerge from this Mexico of the enhanced imagination have a metaphysical quality. Tuco, the two brothers killed by Hank, and all the other stony-faced maniacs and killers offer a dimensionless depth that is pure myth.

One myth that constantly comes to mind is that of Faust who makes a pact with the devil and is finally dragged down to hell. Walter's pact is not quite so clear cut, nor does he desire infinite power, not at the beginning anyway, but he does have a Faustian gift. Eliot's Fisher King, crippled by a magical wound, also fits the bill in some respects. These myths are not monolithic or exclusive; they play in and out of any narrative along with other equally potent myths.

The myth mechanism - the engine - is a compound. The playing out of any single myth in contemporary terms would be banal and reductive. Interplay demands complexity and unpredictability of detail. Of Walter's final destination we are in no doubt but how he gets there is constantly surprising.

All this fits into the reading whereby masculinity and its problematic role in an insitutionalised and domesticated world is the main dynamic.

Heisenberg is no joke. Heisenberg has genius and agency. His potential is Faustian, Promethean even! But this is the early twenty-first century. This is postmodernity. The future, as has long been claimed, is female. There are no Clint Eastwoods left. There is irony, subservience, and more irony. And Heisenberg.

Yo bitch! as Jesse tends to say.

Thursday, 30 January 2014

To Heaven in a Push Chair
or to Hell in a Handcart (with a small spider)

Walter White at the start of his spiral

I am sitting at my desk by the desk light watching a small spider stay perfectly still just under the window. His body is a compact mass, two of his legs spread like antennae the rest curled in. The curtain folds away from him. He is not entirely in shadow but the desk light isn't directly on him. He has a sort of cunning, or maybe stage fright. There is only half a metre between us, if that. I doubt he registers me at all: we don 't impinge on each other.

Most nights for the last couple of weeks we have sat down together to watch more of the box set of Breaking Bad, which, as everyone knew a year or more ago, is an epic work of cinematic brilliance with a script that is even better. As everyone therefore knows, it is the story of a shy failure of a man, Walter White, who works partly as a chemistry teacher at school and in a car wash the rest of the time to support his paraplegic son and his wife, Skyler, whose lifestyle requires this extra work from Walter. He isn't much. He gets patronised by everyone.

Then he gets cancer, is given a short time to live and his life changes. As everyone knows (I am trademarking this phrase as 'aek') he discovers a way of making very high quality crystal meths, goes into partnership with small-time druggie, Jesse, and things spiral on from there. When I say 'spiral on' it really is a Dantean descent into hell in ever decreasing circles. Walter's character changes, as does Skyler's and, aek, it is alternately very funny, tragic and horrific. Most of all it is gripping and generally convincing in terms of terrain, symbolism and psychology.

One of the readings of Breaking Bad - and I'd go along with it - is as a study of the collapse of masculinity. Walter is emasculated. He has to sit and listen while his extended family decide what he should do with what is left of his life.  He is close to impotent, hesitant in his speech, incapable of asserting what he feels is his identity. It has been lost somewhere along the way, perhaps when his friends stole a business that his work with a Nobel Prize winning scientist, to whom he was an important colleague, had enabled him to propose. The friends have made a fortune: he has made a pig's ear. Nevertheless his family loves him in its own way but in the way they would love an invalid - which his son already is. Symbol echoes symbol, which is one of the great pleasures of the series.

Then Walter breaks out. He does so in order to 'provide'. It is the one thing he should be able to do for his family. His potency returns. He undertakes acts of ever greater courage, foolhardiness and evil. His one concern, as he keeps saying, is his family. But it is also his pride. He must find himself even if he must go to the jaws of hell in order to do that.

The old Walter's problem was that he was too nice. He was being killed by kindness, his own and his wife's. She had control of the situation. Hers was the domestic empire and he was killing himself for it. He had no control, except in the class at school, and the class was way below his level. We can see he is a fine teacher, but the class can't.

In order to find himself, to locate the provider within himself, he must move out of other people's control and exercise his own. He both can and can't. That balance of control and lack of it l leads him into evil.

That is the proposition. For a man like Walter you either go to heaven in a pushchair or to hell in a handcart. He is compelled to choose the latter or suffocate. He chooses the handcart and burns.

This, gentlemen, is the alternative with which the modern world of the imagination presents you. In real life there are many choices, but in the psyche, in the flaming hotel rooms of the heart, the binary burns with an intense energy.

Meanwhile the small spider is exactly where he was half an hour ago. Nothing has changed for him.  Life is OK for now.

It's a marvellous series, a myth played right through with wit, lyricism and just the right kind of fierceness.

Wednesday, 29 January 2014

At Carrow Road:
Among the crowd

Being season-ticket holders and having been to most home games we went to Carrow Road last night to watch Norwich play Newcastle. It was our first evening game of the season and we were looking forward to it. Everything feels different under floodlights: the ground is more theatre than pitch, it's colder, noises arise out of the dark of the terraces, the far end of the pitch looks further away. The rain, which was heavy at times, and the swirling wind were effects we saw illuminated, the dimpling of small pools, the rain swept in this or that direction. The stand is a mixture of rough and delicate music.

You have a numbered seat as a season ticket holder so you are mostly among the same people. Clarissa and I are next to each other. On her side is a friendly early-middle-aged man who likes to chat. Sometimes he chats to his friends on one side, sometimes to Clarissa. He is cheery enough except when it comes to the team itself about which he is endlessly gloomy. This doesn't mean his expression changes: he still smiles it's just that the words coming out of his mouth are constantly portending disaster. He is, I think, not untypical of a certain sort of supporter, probably male, who actually enjoys complaining as a form of bonhomie. It is stoicism-as-social-style. I rather like it. It is the natural way of the underdog, and - to my mind - one of the marks of the English working class. There is a distinctly benign aspect of it. The more aggressive aspect is to be seen at pro-wrestling where the suppressed sense of injustice is given full rein.

The season ticket for the seat next to me must be shared because it is occupied by different people at different times. What these people have is common is that they are all huge. They are silent, uncommunicative, grim, deeply emotionally involved, frowning men. Maybe they are members of some  Glum Giants Club. None of them makes any noise except occasionally to mutter some words of fury, frustration or grief.  I have tried addressing a remark to them to be met with an uncomprehending glare. Their shoulders and elbows extend into my space but they can't help it, it's just their size. As a result I am forced to sit at a slight angle.

Many people wear an official Norwich scarf or shirt in glowing yellow and green. I have never much liked the colour combination but this is rather nice, sort of electric. I have long had a green scarf of a slightly different shade that I wear to matches but it is clearly not official merchandise. To any fervent supporter it is a proof of half-heartedness.

And it's true. I am half-hearted. I am not so much a supporter as a sympathiser. I would rather like Norwich to play beautiful, imaginative, attacking football, and what is more, I would like them to win on all occasions but one. I would like it because I live close to the city - it has been the physical and intellectual hub of my life - and buying a season ticket is a form of loyalty to it. It is support by attendance.

By attendance, not by voice. I am rarely part of any crowd. Crowds make me feel I am on another planet. I rarely partake in the fury or ecstasy of the crowd. A happy crowd is deeply moving providing it is your own crowd. Seeing the opposition celebrate makes few people happy. But I am not even part of my own happy crowd. Psychologically I am up with one of Wim Wenders's angels in Wings of Desire, perched on a rooftop or balcony of the spirit. Only occasionally - at one or two political or quasi-political events - have I felt angry enough to shout and demand anything. I have Canetti's Crowds and Power somewhere in this house and well remember my sense of revealed truth when I first read it. The crowd animal is fancy dress costume for me, not a shamanistic identity. It feels odd to put it on. It feels like a lie. So I don't.

Maybe I might if I were watching the first team of my childhood heart, Manchester United. Maybe I would be roaring them on, not thinking, not up on the roof with Bruno Ganz. Maybe I could change places with the woman taxi driver who drove me home one night last week and who has a season ticket to Old Trafford (costing her twice as much as next season's Norwich season ticket would cost me, plus the cost of the coach up every fortnight).

One of the great truths of football is that you don't change your allegiance. Your team is your team from the moment you start supporting them until you die. Anything else is soul-treason. My feelings are deeply wound in to this strange production of my own imagination, this particular team and all its associated realms. Bruno Ganz and I, we're devoted fans.

still from Kind Vidor's The Crowd (1928)

Tuesday, 28 January 2014

A Condition of Flickering Madness

My hand aged 64

We are both sixty-five now, an age I once thought was the threshold of death or at least the beginnings of a steep disastrous descent into senescence. The consolations of not having to go in to work would be balanced by the consciousness of why it is that one was not going in to work. And now, of course, we have the prospect of a further twenty or more years, maybe even more, like Clarissa's father, or like my Argentinian grandmother who were both centenarians.

I am trying to work out how it feels. There are physical changes. Walking fast while carrying a weight can leave me painfully short of breath at first, but then I get used to it. Bending down is no problem but it is a little more conscious. I have always had a good head of hair but it is going at the back and slowly receding at the front. Nevertheless I look, as people say, young for my age and could maybe pass for mid-fifties on a good day. Clarissa looks even younger - much younger - a beautiful woman of forty or so. We are all getting to look younger, unless, that is, we are worn down by dull repetitive work or broken by subservience and low self-esteem. We can erode and yet cling on.

Women, I think, have clear natural landmarks in life: first period, the end of virginity with the breaking of the hymen, childbirth, menopause, widowhood. This either grounds them or sends them into fury and madness, a second energy. So much hangs by the body, that presentable piece of self-image which is also an extension of the spirit. The landmarks loom then pass. One accepts them or rebels. It is perfectly possible to be beautiful in old age, but it's a state of grace and seen as such. Forgive me, women readers, it is how it seems to me. Clarissa's state of grace is incalculable.

Men slip into successive conditions without quite knowing it. The sexual act in itself is not invested with the deepest significance. It is a necessary function like other bodily functions. It can, of course, be associated with love, commitment and fidelity, but it need not be. Men live in a condition of flickering madness, never quite knowing whether they are stone-cold sober, or semi-intoxicated and lost. That is a constant. Boyhood is an extended terrain that never quite meets its dead sea. It is fixated on focusing energy at distinct objects. It can be fixated to the point of madness. Eternal boyhood is both men's curse and their saving.

My father was constantly surprised by how old he was. He was never that age in his mind, always hovering somewhere inside himself, aghast at processes going on beyond his control. Both he and Clarissa's father would mutter confidentially now and then: Don't get old. I would smile and say: I'll try not to. The advice was either a suggestion that I should die first, by risk, by suicide, by overwork, who knows, or a form of complaint that didn't want to venture into gross details. The latter, I believe.

And how does it feel? 'Quite unreal' is the answer. I am a pensioner. Not that I have had full time salaried work for some twenty-five years now, so it isn't the change in working pattern; it is a certain kind of knowledge seeping into the bones, a mild late autumn damp. So I keep working, neurotically fiddling with words, my distinct objects, knocking them into shapes of life, hoping to make ever new shapes in ever more distinct ways. Even these words stumbling into their place on the blog are a kind of struggle. I have made them. Now I feel better.

Sunday, 26 January 2014

Central Europe

How admirable they are, these sober gentlemen
with their silver hair and patriotic moustaches,
their straight backs, their handsome, faintly malicious
smiles, their authority, their quiet gravamen.
They are assuredly the very soul of the nation,
who look to assure us and strive to look reassuring,
exemplars of uprightness, objects of admiration,
who have always been there and are the enduring
face of the people for which the nation has fought.
You couldn’t imagine them with a gun by a ditch
surveying a row of corpses, perish the thought!
They wouldn’t murder their despicable enemies,
they’d simply tidy them up like an unfortunate glitch
in the programme then straighten their sober grey ties.

Saturday, 25 January 2014

On Clarissa's Birthday:

In the Hotel Room
for Clarissa

In the hotel room, in the dim lamplight, in her black slip, 
she turned her head this way and that in the soft glow.
It was all too fragile: the darkness, the faint curve of her lip,
the slant cut of her hair, since nobody could know
just when the hard light of the corridor might burst
into that tenderest space and prove the space illusion.

Whether it was his hand or the bedside light that came first
to define what she felt like, such moments of vision
were rare, with most blossoming suddenly out of  so little.

It is hard being in darkness and light all at once,
to be sheltered yet vulnerable, now solid now brittle,
to be subject of both self-construction and chance.

Everything remains in its stillness while also in flight.
Love and the skin. Love and the nerves. Love, time, and night.

It is a birthday she shares with our next door neighbour who, at ninety-three, is now in a care home. A little party of tea and cakes has been planned with three other neighbour friends. 

Clarissa and I drive over to fetch her. She is in the big sitting room which is full of sleepy old people. She herself is somewhat withdrawn, huddled into herself, dozy, unsteady and confused but agrees, hesitantly, to come with us. 

In the car she expresses a new fear of being driven. Within a mile of the tea-place she decides she wants to go back, that it's too much for her, but then agrees to go as far as the tea-place and then to return. The friends are already there with cards and presents, but she won't go in so they come out and present her with their gifts.

Back at the home she feels frail at first but there is an empty room with armchairs and a drinks machine. We sit down and start talking She grows brighter and brighter. The conversation engages her: it is joky, full of observations, news, memories and has nothing particularly to do with her. It is a normal conversation, just a little louder. We are back in the normal world and she is almost as we remember her before she went in. We think we must go more often.

Then we drive home in a torrent of rain. The meal isn't till later.

It's good to be alive. It doesn't last for ever. So we celebrate and dress up and are glad we are born and that those we love have been born.

Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Haiku by Magda Kapa

Image by Magda Kpa taken from her website

The set of love haiku underneath are by a Greek-born poet who writes under the name Magda Kapa. She lives in Germany and blogs poems and notes at her website, I Was Not Born in English. I made her acquaintance - we have never met in person - via Twitter where, sometimes, a few of us would co-operate on a stream of short haiku-length poems on some common theme, developing it as we went along. Kapa is usually one of this group of five or six.

Haiku form, in the 5-7-5 syllable sense, is one of those readily fitted for Twitter with its 140-character limit. I rarely thought to write haiku before going on Twitter, but once on there I experimented a good deal, writing about the form itself before going to write seriously in it. I do now and compose ever more frequently in series treating each haiku as a self-complete poem that then joins with others in some narrative or dramatic form. The writing of haiku has brought out something in my work, possibly a kind of plain-spokenness and a greater willingness to engage with the abstract. I save the absurd and the tangentially poetic for prose.

For Kapa the form offers an extension of the lyric in its traditional guise of the poetic as direct emotion. Born into one language, living in another and writing in yet another, she takes advantage of the brevity and its clear symbolism.

Her invention, which is considerable - I note the boneless world, the ironed white Sunday shirt, and the sense of seeing others seeing - can underwrite the more familiar Schubertian images of prisons, winter and moonlight.  The inventions direct our emotions to life as well  as to literature, to the shock of sensations of love, desire and loss beyond the known language of love, desire and loss.

I have quoted before the maxim from Rochefoucauld in which he wonders who would ever love if they did not already know the discourse of love. The poet's task then is to write poems of love - if love is the subject - that move beyond the known language or 'discourse' of love. The language of love does not normally deal in boneless words and white Sunday shirts but it needs them.  These haiku carry off that task while allowing for the archaic tropes that underlie most deep feeling to remain in place. I was given permission by her to choose those I liked best from the long series. Here they are.

 My dear, late at night,
almost midnight, and banned words
escape from prisons.

My dear, a cold day,
one more winter, then one more…
Never is so long.
My dear, last dream was
a boneless world where one could
change the shape of all.

My dear, clear moon night,
an ironed white Sunday shirt
on a wooden chair.

  My dear, it happens
without a warning, at night,
sleep leaves and you’re there.

My dear, people try
every day to remember
how it is to be.

My dear, when we see
we also see the others
seeing us seeing.

My dear, my hand writes
and your eyes follow the lines
because you can see. 

My dear, we search for
traces of others, long lost;
we dream of footprints.

My dear, the year ends,
last letters must be written;
 no lists, no wishes

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

Stories in and out of Hungary:
Police Action against Aliens, etc

This weekend Jobbik are meeting Golden Dawn and the British National Party in Holborn. Vultures of a feather flock together and are generally looking for carcasses to strip. Ladies and gentlemen we are not yet carcasses. Go strip yourselves and may the god of the vultures go with you.

Budapest now has a Horthy statue, grace of Jobbik. The Fidesz government, in the meantime, has declared 2014 Holocaust Year while splendidly downplaying it as a Hungarian affair, dating the Holocaust from 19 March 1944, the point at which the Germans took over.  In the light of that it is interesting that it has also set up a historical institute called Veritas whose director Sándor Szakály has neatly legitimised the deportation in 1941 of Jewish refugees from persecution by calling the act 'a police action against aliens', the reference protested by the major Hungarian Jewish association, Mazsihisz.

Mazsihisz demanded the resignation of Veritas Director Sandor Szakaly, who in a recent interview called the 1941 deportation of Jews to Kamenets-Podolsk, Ukraine “a police action against aliens.” In July and August 1941, about 18,000 foreign-born Jews who had sought refuge in Hungary at the outbreak of World War II were rounded up and deported to German-held territory in what is now Ukraine. Most of them were among the more than 23,000 Jews murdered by the Nazis at Kamenets-Podolsk at the end of August 1941. “After the failure of [Szakaly’s] past efforts at falsifying history, we expect him to resign from his position,” the statement said.

More interesting still, with the elections coming up this year, is the following statement by President János Áder (my capitals) at the Friends of Hungary Conference yesterday:

The fact that the participants have defined themselves as friends of Hungary commands respect, and friendship equally means faith, self-sacrifice, belonging together, striving for common goals and values, BUT IT ALSO INDICATES WHO CAN BE TRUSTED IF THERE IS TROUBLE, Áder said.

Áder also welcomed those WITHOUT HUNGARIAN ANCESTORS who are “nevertheless considered respectable and honorary Hungarians.”'

I would like you to smell that statement very carefully and note its fine bouquet. This is not the fascist Jobbik, but the government, in fact the president. It's how they talk there. Ancestors, you know. Who are you going to trust at times of trouble? Who stabbed you in the back last time? Not the ancestors, you can be sure of that.

In the light of Prime Minister Orbán's message to the effect that "Hungary should not be afraid of learning new experiences" and that "the epoch of changes" in the country was not yet over we can see, as never before, what kind of experiences he means, though they are not quite as new as he suggests.

Sunday, 19 January 2014

Notes from a Discussion
on Indeterminacy in Poetry

Image from Deviant Art

A couple of days ago there was an interesting and, at times, quite passionate discussion initiated by the American poet, Alfred Corn, on his Facebook page. It began with a posting by Alfred in which he notes:

...the increasing frequency of a certain poetic mode in recent British poetry: a brief, dreamlike or surrealist narrative, with unspecified location where odd and quirky events occur. And the overall meaning indeterminate.'

Soon, another poet commented that he distinctly disliked such poems and found them repellent. I was drawn into the conversation, wanting to defend the indeterminate. What follows is an edited form of my comments that sketch out the poetics I am currently (and in fact always have been) interested in. Really they are just notations.

One can develop a distaste for 'comment' and direct statements 'about' things in poems. One may look to discover the poetic in fragments of musical narrative that seem partly familiar, a recovery of story and myth by other, enigmatic means. I am myself interested in this form of writing. It derives from Kafka, Calvino and Schulz.

I have never quite known what the next line will be, nor do I think the poet should know. A poem that does not feel as though it is being discovered line by line is inert. A poem that carries through its programme is not a poem.

I am not looking to paraphrase poetry into 'sense' but to understand its way of saying, to discover its poetics. There are more ways than I know of being competent. I hope to know more.

Poetry is more intense listening than great ideas.

I doubt whether any poem has determinate meaning. What is the determinate meaning of La Belle Dame Sans Merci? I suspect meaning is the wrong word. Meaning suggests to me a paraphrase that would, in effect, eliminate the poem or substitute for it.  Poetry, for me, is precisely those extras to meaning that render meaning multiple and indeed indeterminate; indeterminate yet meaningful in that we can construct distinct possibilities and hierarchies of meaning as we read and re-read. 

The act of interpretation in terms of 'meaning' is extraordinarily complex. What we actually have, not just in poems, but in a great deal of communication, is the SENSE of meaning. In simple transactions the sense of meaning might be validated by action (I'd like a loaf of bread please) but even then there are potential problems. See Steiner.

What there usually is, rather than 'determinate meaning' is consistency of location. A landscape is set before us and while we know that walking through it will reveal new features (what's behind that rock? for instance) we are nevertheless assured that the mountain ahead is not a sparrow pretending to be a combine harvester. 

The poem sets its own landscape in that sense, and even more importantly, it sets the terms of that landscape. If the terms of that landscape include the possibility that the mountain is in fact a sparrow pretending to be a combine harvester, we can accommodate that peculiar condition providing the poem remains consistent to its terms. So a man may wake to find he is a beetle. So a boy in a story might find himself becoming a wild goose, a man becoming a Golden Ass, or any number of Wonderland or Looking Glass encounters for the Alice reader.

The distance between Keats and Ashbery is considerable. The distance between Donne and Ashbery perhaps less so. It is a matter of degree. Ashbery's best work seems to me essentially philosophical in nature, but teasingly so, a process of attracting then rejecting contexts, the poetry lying precisely in the tension between the attracted and the rejected, between the romanitic image and its ironic reversal, somewhere between ballet and burlesque. We can't tell what the man is 'really' feeling, but we sense that he feels with remarkable delicacy.

The poetics I am defending work something like that, but with less literary lingerie.

Wednesday, 15 January 2014

Translations, Commemorations, Launches
(And Child Helga)

Peter and Deníz Zollman

No sooner back than away again. Tomorrow evening there is the evening for Peter Zollman at the Hungarian Cultural Centre in Maiden Lane, at 7pm, with the Hungarian writer, Mátyás Sárközi (no relation to the French ex-president) and the poet / translator Stephen Watts, who worked with Peter on The Audit is Done, a bilingual selection of Peter's translations.

On Friday evening to take part in the Asymptote evening on translation at 6:30 at The Free Word Centre, 60, Farringdon Road, which should be lively and fun and part of Asymptote's world tour.  See Facebook for masses more. And there's the launch trailer

I am trying to perfect the art of perpetual motion while reading PhD dissertations, correcting proofs, answering letters and writing references.

Plus the poems and other texts. Here is Child Helga, Waking.


Where are my eyes, asked Child Helga. Down the rabbit hole where the light takes shelter, said her father.

What is a river, asked Child Helga. Time drifting towards sleep, said her father.

What are my ears for, asked Child Helga. For hearing the gaps between words and letting them settle, said her father.

What is grief, asked Child Helga. Leaves on the path, said her father.  The dog at the door.

What is decay, asked Child Helga. Newsprint blown along the shore, the waves lapping at the pebbles, said her father.

What is that noise, asked Child Helga. The moon muttering curses behind clouds, said her father.

What is an image, asked Child Helga. My shadow on the wall beside you talking to you,  said her father.

What is sleep, asked Child Helga. The road up a mountain you can't see, said her father.

What is guilt, asked Child Helga. The mud on your shoe screaming blue murder, said her father.


What is perfection, asked Child Helga. The pillow at right angles to the night, said her father.

Thus pass my days in the empire.

Tuesday, 14 January 2014

From Eliot to Daumier and back 3

I had slept badly the previous night so, after Daumier, I felt quite exhausted. We had lunch at the RA, small but beautifully-cooked helpings, and Helen came to join us. From there we walked over to the National Gallery where I collapsed in the cafe while Helen and Clarissa went to visit the Italian Early Renaissance. I didn't exactly go to sleep but dozed until woken by a man who asked if I was George Szirtes. He had been at the reading last night and he sat down and we started talking. His name was Chris Beckett, a poet himself. It turned out we had mutual friends in Moniza Alvi, Helen Ivory and Martin Figura. We had a good chat and that woke me up. Then Helen and Clarissa returned and, after some cakes and drinks, we caught the bus to Bond Street and walked up towards the Wallace Collection for the prize giving.

There is a pub just before Manchester Square where we have occasionally stopped in the past and we did so again. Soon enough there were others we knew or recognised, some joined us some had friends of their own. I had to go over early at 6pm with the other poets. We had just missed a downpour, complete with thunder and hailstones,. The pavement was wet but it had stopped raining.

There is a moment of uncertainty when you reach the gates because they are still locked at that time and it depends on the presence of the doorman whether you have to hang about outside or not. This was fine. He came quickly and let me in. Other poets were already there, some smartly dressed for the occasion, I in the same clothes as I had worn the night before.

Our photographs are taken as we pass through into the covered hall which is empty at first but soon fills up with poets and friends of poets.

Some people say that poets are waspish company. I haven't ever found that to be so - perhaps people are less waspish with me, but I doubt it. We drift through the crowded hall and recognise each other, stop for brief conversations and are swept on by others to more brief conversations. Inevitably, by the end, there is a good number of people we should have said hello to but now there is only time to say goodbye.

And who are these people? Who are we?

I am going to generalise now.

Few of us live by poetry alone. Being poets means we are temperamentally thin-skinned and alert to all kinds of nuance but are rarely aloof, haughty or cold if only because our economic condition is unlikely to impress anyone, and, because, outside the world of poetry itself, we enjoy no particular status.  Our neuroses, our obsessions, our slight touches of madness, are socialised and under control. Most of us are not noticeably vain or of such delicate sensibility as to be floored by a stray remark. Mostly we are other people. Mostly we are anyone. There are poets hiding inside many people besides us. We do not own the realm of the poetic. Who knows where the next poet is hiding?

Are we jealous of each other's status? Not as much as people might think. Most of us understand the brittle nature of the world that awards us whatever small status we might enjoy. I know no self-satisfied poets if only because no poet can afford self-satisfaction. The poetry would dry up. There is instead a kind of anxiety and thrumming energy as well as pleasure in production which is rather life-enhancing. The room is, in efffect full of various flickering lights of various colours and intensities.

I wrote earlier of how I enter these situations with zero-hope. That may be because I still can't quite believe I am one of these 'poet' creatures. Surely I am a foreigner who hasn't even been to university. I have a constant background apprehension that, one day, I will be unmasked as an impostor who has bummed his way in. So you go on like that till your life is over.

From Eliot to Daumier and back 2

The current Daumier exhibition is the only one I can remember where I have both laughed out loud and been moved to tears (yes, really). If Daumier (1808-1879) hadn't been a cartoonist as well as a painter, I suspect we would recognise him as the great artist he really is. And yet it is precisely the fact that he was both a political cartoonist and a painter of street life that defines his greatness. He bridges the gap between humour and tragedy.

There have been other artists who were, occasionally, caricaturists. Annibale Carracci and Bernini were predecessors as was William Hogarth, and Hogarth's suites of engravings are certainly social satire, but Daumier was a journalist cartoonist who worked as a commentator in the daily press (and was imprisoned for it.) His cartoons function in a different sphere from the paintings - the cartoons are by definition yesterday's news, evanescent, their occasions forgotten or, if remembered, as themes in specialised books or as footnotes in more general ones - but partake of the same vision.

Cartoon art retains, at best, some independence - for example the work of, say, Gillray and Rowlandson in the 18th C - but it arises out of contingency and is remembered as part of a totalising vision. Late twentieth century cartoons of the savage school, from  Scarfe and Brookes and Rowson through to Steve Bell, show brilliant draughtsmanship and are, no doubt, art works in their own right, but are oddly one dimensional, mostly in one gear. Everything gets splattered from some nominally ne plus ultra point of moral outrage: everyone's a monster or a victim. Brilliant as the cartoons are, they are in essence a kind of demagoguery.

Daumier is different. Few of his figures in the cartoons are wholly monstrous. Monstrosity is not his stock-in-trade. Those figures that do approximate to the monstrous move through symbolic events as actors and offices, but are depicted not very differently from the good, and neither is more than a shade away from the real as seen in the paintings. The humour in the best of them is removed both from the specific event and from the totalising vision of the Scarfe / Bell world. They are funny because the perfectly pinpointed human situation continues to be funny and free of a mannered generality.

I must be careful not to make this a long essay. I don't have the scholarship for that, so let me pass on to that which moves me.

It is, I think, the grasp of the whole human situation, which, in Daumier, is funny, brutal, noble, ridiculous, heartbreaking and heroic, often all at the same time. He is a wonderfully vigorous draughtsman whose vigour is as evident in the cartoons as in the paintings. His figures are often shown at full stretch, in looping but tense diagonals, or else shrunk into the darkness of themselves, their body weight convincingly planted on the ground, pressing in or out of it. They seem, at times, to have sprung out of earth, like plants possessed and driven by sheer living energy. The washerwomen, the Quixote figures, the crowds that foreshadow those of Edward Münch and Van Gogh, but are somehow less frenetic, less hallucinatory, are energies rendered out of the ordinary.

Nor is the vigour of the draughtsmanship an affected form of display. It comes from within.  Daumier's handling of paint, especially in those apparently half-finished studies and variations, establishes mood, volume, movement and empathy. His palette is like Rembrandt's, his brushwork a cross between Hals and Goya. His understanding of the body is very much like Goya's in fact, with an implied low centre of gravity. It is not that his furiously established solid figures resemble human beings: it is that we, as human beings, are part of the same fury and trudge of living. The drama is broad and elemental - you can pull back from the paintings and see, all the more clearly, the structural energy at play - yet the figures are still singular and fully characterised.

Technically he is one of the greats. Beyond that, yet integrally a part of that technical greatness, his vision is comprehensive - I have already mentioned how he bridges the gap between the comic and the tragic. He is a moral and political artist one can trust. The art of the Soviet era copied some of the formal aspects of Daumier - I think of those diagonal masses pressing towards some ideal goal - but they had no humour. They were, for the most part, technically competent dull propagandists.

Not so with Daumier. In Daumier the technique and vision are one. The morality is as much in the paint as it is in the head or heart. The yearning for justice is as much in the vigour of line as in what the line depicts. In Daumier the art and the man are of the same fabric.

If socialism is to have a great representative artist I would go for Daumier above anyone else. Daumier's justice springs neither out of loathing nor out of sentimentality: it arises out of an understanding of what we are, which is neither splatter-gun monsters (though of course we are that too on occasion) nor puny puppet-like victims (and we can be that too). In Daumier's world we are human energies, neither beautiful nor ugly but crowded, striving, various.

Hence the laughter and the tears.

From Eliot to Daumier and back 1

Sinead Morrissey, Winner of 1012 T S Eliot Prize

Ladies and gentlemen, I did not win. It was Sinead Morrissey what won it at fourth time of listing. She is a superbly gifted poet and it's a good thing. Any of the books would have been a good thing and to those who did not win on this occasion I sincerely wish all fortune on their next. I loved some particularly but that is beside the point. I was not a judge, though I was in 2003 (indeed chair) and the judges must have had a very hard time. Ian Duhig, as chair, made the speech and it was, as you'd expect from him, perceptive, humane, generous, and to the point. He should certainly win it some time himself. I hope he does.

The readings at the Royal Festival Hall were the best I've yet heard. The audience numbering over 2,000, the place was full, warm, responsive: a glorious place and occasion on which to read. Part of the pleasure was the variety because none of the poets was particularly like another on the list.  Ian McMillan was an ideal host because of his wit, intelligence, energy and sheer hard work in genuinely reading everything. Dannie Abse stole the show, with thunderous applause and affection pouring towards him from every part of the great auditorium. For me, personally, it was marvellous to have Clarissa, Tom and Helen there and, after the signing, I could join them and we made our way back together to Tom's house in Stratford by tube.

The full audio of all the readings is available here, my own in particular is here - and should you want the blessed actual vision of me reading for some 25 minutes at Poets and Players in Manchester on 9 January, that, I now discover (they don't tell you these things) is here.

The Poetry Book Society does a marvellous job of the Eliot Prize, the whole thing from finding judges and taking the event through to the remarkable success that it is. I am proud to be associated with it with Dave and David and James, and expecially Chris Holifield, the director who works her heart out.


Sunday was beautiful and sunny and we decided to go to the Royal Academy to see the Honoré Daumier exhibition. I didn't quite know - hadn't really thought - why I was so looking forward to this. Years and years of galleries had taken some of the edge off my pleasure in paintings, certainly in big blockbuster exhibitions.

It is like a pot full of your favourite jam. I thought I had extracted all the jam to be had under the circumstances, especially from the blockbusters, feeling that all big exhibitions were like coach tours or dashes through great cities, a desperate effort to cram in all the sights - in other words, largely pointless. There would, I thought, be instead the odd dart into this or that permanent exhibition, the National Gallery for instance, or any of the Tates, to sit or stand and stare at two or three particular paintings, when all the pleasure would come seeping back, but no vast crowds, no major playschool narratives of the Great Masters or the Great Civilisations.

A few weeks ago I dropped into the National Gallery just to look at three Goyas, because I knew that Goya would never fail me and would always go straight into the bloodstream. Goya is in any case my intravenous drug of choice. What that man doesn't understand about human character, the human predicament, and the too too solid flesh of humanity is not worth knowing. It is not the horror I love,  not the Black Paintings at the end, but those shimmers and premonitions of the early and middle work, the raw vulnerability yet overwhelming presence of his portraits and the foreshadowings of darkness of the genre paintings that seem to me what life  - historical life - actually is. And it is there as material - as paint, line, gesture - the fresh horror and beauty of which is just as much the message as the images themselves, the two being inseparable, one the twin life of the other.

But it is Daumier I want to think about, so will write a new post starting with him, and maybe end with a little more about the Eliot prize giving, about the society of poets, not The Society, just the society. People. So, onto part 2.

Sunday, 12 January 2014

To the Eliot Prize

Later this morning we'll start for London. As a performer I am to be at the Royal Festival Hall at 5:15 which means getting a 2pm train from Norwich. The readings start at 7.

This will be my third shortlist reading. I go, as I did the last two times, with zero expectation of winning, in fact I was so surprised to have won nine years ago that I was utterly lost for words. Zero expectation is quite nice. It means I am not holding even a soupçon of hope in reserve and that I will be genuinely pleased if any of those poets whose books I have properly read and admired wins it.

Do I feel nervous? Under the circumstances, definitely not, but I don't feel nervous about readings anyway. The poems are what they are - the way I read them is not going to change that. Ultimately poems live in the reader or listener's head not in the performer's mouth. People will either like them or not. Ingratiating oneself is loathsome. Playing up to an audience is loathsome. Treat the audience as you would any one single previously unmet human being. Be courteous, friendly, intelligent and no more expansive than you need to be. If that means being brief, then be brief. The RFH is no different.

Big audiences don't faze me: small ones are slightly more likely to do so, especially those with current students. It is, I think, more difficult to be 'a poet' when the relationship with the people in front of you has been as 'a teacher'. This suggests that both roles are performances, and indeed they are, and different, but that is saying no more than that one behaves differently in different circumstances. The advice to 'just be yourself' implies that there is a single all-purpose 'you'. The self is more various and being true to it is more a matter of being aware of its history than of some ever fixed mark. Your wardrobe is an extension of you. You wear it to occasion.

Prizes are great blessings if you receive one but to claim them as matters of deserving is putting it too strongly. All the judging panels I have been on have veered between choices during discussion and the winner that emerged was the product of a particular feeling at a particular moment. Speaking for myself I never thought I 'deserved' the Eliot for Reel. What I felt, intensely and clearly was: 'Heavens! They've chosen me!' I felt gobstoppingly lucky.

Prizes are both blessings and bollocks. To be considered at all is a thrill, not because it makes you great, but because those who had the power to choose at the time, chose you. Somebody thinks you're worth it. Lucky for you it's that somebody and not another. You don't write poetry to win prizes but to write the best poems you possibly can. Let what will come of that.

The abbey bells are ringing. Radio 3 is playing Schumann's Carnival. The sky is quite bright and there is hardly any wind.

Friday, 10 January 2014

To The Verb and back

Ian under the table, Ruby Dolls, myself, and Kevin pre-recording.

It's a longish journey of some five hours to Manchester Oxford Road and slightly longer back, so altogether almost eleven hours travelling in the day. My nights have been a little rough over the last week so, having been down to London the day before, I was tired to start with, but a train is good for reading, looking, thinking and scribbling as I wrote last time, so it is not so much tiredness as a semi-soporific state one attains from which arrival and the concomitant weather conditions pluck you. From Wymondham where we live it is a train ride to Thetford, then a change to the two-carriage rough-and-ready Liverpool train that trundles all the way to Nottingham without refreshments proceeding then to Sheffield and Manchester, so it's best to take a thermos and something to nibble.

Manchester Oxford Road was damp rather than wet and the taxi sent by the BBC arrived within five minutes or so. The friendly driver gave me a fragmentary tour of the city, pointing out Old Trafford once we were in Salford. He himself had been a season ticket holder some years but had given up a few seasons ago because of the distance to his home. He had seen Best and Charlton, just as I had. Unfortunately he didn't quite know where to drop me, so instead of Dock House in the dauntingly named Mediacity he stopped at Dock Adminstration. Wrong Dock. Then he thought he should drop me at Holiday Inn, because that was where he was originally told, and we finished up at Costa Cafe from where it was a short walk.

Mediacity in the rain looked rather bleak to me, as though it had torn itself away from the Industrial Revolution to enter a postmodernity that wasn't quite going to work with the full chutzpah a name like that implies. Dock House itself is spectacular enough and the entrance hall has three or four gizmo-like booths displaying the latest technology though two of them were switched off. Almost everyone passing through the security doors looked very young so it felt like being in a sixth-form college.

Once upstairs it was decidedly more fun. Everyone was already there: Kevin Jackson and The Ruby Dolls (only three of the usual four), with their instrumentalist, Ben and of course Ian McMillan who does a wonderful job of the programme every week. Lucy Hughes Hallett was not in the studio but in London to talk about her prize-winning biography of D'Annunzio, The Pike. The Dolls were appropriately vivacious and bubbly, Kevin, whom I had met before (we had done a programme about Humphrey Jennings and possibly something of mine a few years ago), was delightful and encyclopaedic, carrying a whole library of books with him. The photograph above shows Ian under the table. We didn't put him there. It's just the way things happen.

In the studio we took our turns starting with The Ruby Dolls, then Kevin's imagined funny and moving scenario of a meeting between Proust, Rilke, Akhmatova, and D'Annunzio, then Lucy on The Pike, then me on Rilke and Békássy with a little Langoustine thrown in. The Dolls sang two songs from Frank Wedekind. You can see a clip here. They were marvellous, sharp and buzzy.

Afterwards there were cakes and tea, Ian remembered I had been on the pilot show for The Verb,  years ago, talking about George Barker on a programme that, being a pilot, was never broadcast. (Last time I was on it I had written a special short film-script in iambic pentameters about 'the numbers game' - the things one does!)

Then taxis. Or it should have been but they didn't turn up so we hung about outside The Holiday Inn. Eventually, after about half an hour,  one arrived and, because I had a specific reservation, was urged on heading for one station and one line, while the others all required the more frequent London train.

The ride back was long and slow, the train ever later with every stop, so by the time it got to Peterborough it was over 20 minutes late and I thought I'd be sure to miss my connection, but we made it with two minutes (rather than over twenty minutes) to spare. One the very last leg, at the very last station before Wymondham, two tall, glamourously dressed working girls got on, both drunk, one more than the other. The very drunk one was swearing profusely and was clearly in a mood to engage everyone's attention. We exchanged a few pleasantries, then she reeled off towards the toilet. Her friend, a very pretty blonde girl,  turned to me and apologised for her friend. 'She hasn't been out of Attleborough for ages.' I sympathised and wished them well.

Clarissa was waiting for me at the station. Just as well. I had very little energy left. I had started sniffling and sneezing.

On Sunday the Eliot Prize readings.

Wednesday, 8 January 2014

Travelling on trains:
amusements, intrigues and threats

Tired after a poor night - up two hours or more - then the trip down to London and back for meetings. Train journeys are generally somewhat dreamlike, between alertness and fantasy, and I am now in the habit of writing brief notes for much of the way. These may be simply descriptions - I must have seen Ely Cathedral a hundred times and seen it differently each time - or thoughts, or snippets from what I am reading (today it was Jenny Diski's marvellous What I Don't Know About Animals) or a set of absurd fantasies such as:


1. He wished he had an interesting face. He turned his head upside down. Promising. 
2. Two dogs on the pavement in the rain. Where's your umbrella, asks one. Up yours, the other retorts. 
3. The sun was lower than expected, the fields brighter. Life was an altogether different planet.
4. The sense of well-being is a phantasmal condition, wrote the desert father. Come in and finish your damn tea, the desert mother shouted.
5. His nose was growing like Pinocchio's yet he had told the truth all his life. Someone else must have been lying.
6. A horde of lemmings at the cliff edge. Don't worry it's all a cartoon, says one. Go for it, boys! You can walk on air!
7. The secret of long life is dread, he whispered. You can never have too much in our climate.
8. Are those frozen wastes, the stranger asked the goatherd. How should I know, the goatherd replied. Ask the goats.
9. Lugubrious and Censorious were standing at the bus stop when the Tartar hordes arrived, two at once again.
10. A solemn row of lampposts were contemplating the pavement. Life is hell, one remarked. Lighten up, another replied. It's not all lollipops.

I have hundreds of them now. I don't know whether these are particularly good but this is as they came out today. I write in sets of ten, usually very fast. Why do it? I aim to amuse, intrigue and threaten myself.  I cannot quite tell what they add up to but it doesn't really matter now. My reputation is such as it is and ventures into tangential territory won't make any difference to that.  I publish the series on Twitter and Facebook and a lot of people seem to read and like them. More than buy my books in fact. Some will become booklets.  I suppose they are vignettes of a sort, tiny windows onto other worlds that have haunted my earlier poems but were rarely given space to themelves. 

In any case, who knows how long life is to be? Why stand around pretending to be yourself when you could pretend to be someone just as interesting, maybe stranger and more surprising.

I have no great trust in British trains and have often missed connections. The service is not exactly what would once have been called 'third world' but it isn't leading technology either  - nothing like China or Japan - and there are frequent problems with signals. The railway staff remain resiliently good natured as if the whole service were a chummy version of the Blitz. The result is that most travelling is done in the head. 

Meanwhile the train rushes on and I look out of the window or read or do a crossword. I buy a hot drink at Cambridge where I change trains.

- Now then, Mr Norris, where are you going?
- Home, dear fellow. 
- Comfy train? 
- Functioning.
- The world's your oyster then.
- All pearls.

ps In the Tenniel illustration above my avatar is the man with the paper hat on the left.

Monday, 6 January 2014

Lukas's Birthday

He is two. The world is beginning to look familiar and challenging. He wants to run. He wants to be swung. He wants to decide what he will eat and he will not. His latest love is Thomas the Tank Engine so his mother has made him a birthday cake in the shape of an engine bearing two candles. He blows them out and the engine gets sliced up.

Cake is one of his favourite words at the moment, but also car and cat. He doesn't yet realise that all these words begin with the same sound. That is not part of his concern. He will run to his grandfather, whom he calls Papa, or to his grandmother, whom he also calls Papa although he knows that she is really Nudgie, the phonetic version of the Hungarian nagyi, meaning granny. He will point out Nudgie but won't say her name. Papa must feel more appropriate for him.

Cars are good news. You can never have too many. They are, after all, not just in the house in a big box, but out in the street too, so this act of accumulation through the good will of others is a way of keeping a tab on the real world, especially those parts of it that move. Cars are good things.

So are cats. There is a ginger cat called Cosmo at home (another k sound) and here there are two more, though he only ever sees the stumpy one called Pearl. Naturally he chases her and want to stroke her. Pearl's ears flatten which is not a good sign but she remains patient for a while before finally scuttling off, miffed, through the cat flap.

It's exciting having a birthday but he is not quite sure what it is. He is coaxed to help unwrap presents and suspects the things inside are now his. Who knows what he thinks is his? He can claim anything he wants to but knows there are limits to claiming. His sister, who is only a year and a half older is, naturally, interested in his presents and has immediately absorbed them into her own realm of activity. She has a better understanding of the meum-tuum world but he's only little and his attention strays, so if the gift is genuinely interesting she can appropriate it for a while, he won't mind.

His biggest present is a small tent that is easy to set up, but it is sister who crawls into it first. He is absorbed in cars and cats but eventually enters the tent and points out the toy animals she has brought in. A toy gazelle is a goat. A hen is a chicken.

At one point he has an accident and bangs his jaw which is a shock - a moment of silence is followed by distressed bawling There is a little blood where he bit himself but a cuddle from father quickly fixes it. He is like a wind-up toy that comes to grief but is then righted, re-wound and soon sets off again.

We go for a walk. Having walked and run happily enough he suddenly decides he wants to run in the opposite direction and is cross when he has to turn round.

Because he calls Nudgie Papa he gets this poem from the Papa in question.

for Lukas, aged 2

Which is Nudgie, which is Papa?
Daddy Rich, make us a cuppa

And let’s decide this if we can.
Papa is, we think, a man,

Nudgie’s status is less shady,
She is, decidedly, a lady.

In that case it can hardly be
that both are Papa as you see.

Ask Mummy H, ask Daddy Rich:
They will tell you which is which,

And if they don’t, you could just go
to Nudgie and Papa. They both know.

Both of them might be a blessing
Once you know who you’re addressing