Friday, 26 March 2010

Getting off the Hook

Last night Paul Muldoon gave the opening address for the DLR Poetry Now 2010 Festival. I use the term address because its primary sense, as a verb, is to make straight, to put things right, in order. This was a man with things to say, things of poetry, things of family, of suffering. Of pain. It was one of the most exhilarating evenings I have had in a very long time and I would like to write about it.

The title of the evening's contribution was 'Go Fish: Six Irish Poems'. These poems were: Louis MacNeice, 'Sunday Morning'; W.R. Rodgers, 'The Net'; John Montague, 'The Trout'; Seamus Heaney, 'The Guttural Muse' and 'Limbo'; Medbh McGuckian, 'The Flower Master'; Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, 'The Shannon Estuary Welcoming the Fish'. Just as Muldoon got up to speak before an eager audience a gentleman stood up and demanded to know where he stood on Provisional IRA violence in Northern Ireland. The room froze. Muldoon stood for a moment awkwardly and said that on a good day he stood for himself and there was a nervous laugh, nervously hoping it was all over. It wasn't. The man would not be satisfied with this and persisted. 'I am from Northern Ireland and you represent me, so I want to know where you stand'. Muldoon explained that politics changes, in a way that makes it a difficult subject-matter for poetry. With a bit of heckling from the audience who were saying to the gentleman that it was not the occasion, Muldoon managed to get started.

When it came to read the first poem he paused, looked up and invited the gentleman to read Louis MacNeice, 'Sunday Morning'. It was a stunning move, generous, comfortable, from a man who wanted to involve his audience, every one of them, in his task for the evening. The politics might not be settled and remain divisive, but reading a poem together. Yes, we can do that. The man got up and you know what, he read it rather well. There was a solidity and robustness to his reading that actually worked most unexpectedly. The man finished reading and walked out. It was a pity he did. He would have heard a lot had he remained.

Another gentleman was invited to read Montague's 'The Trout', but he had forgotten his reading glasses on the train from Limerick. His reading was difficult, stilted and halting. It was a powerful and apposite reminder that reading is difficult. And that reading a poem with ease can really not be how it is in the poem at all. Muldoon stood behind him like an angel at St Jerome's shoulder, prompting him when he fell. It was heartbreakingly beautiful and I am filled with emotion even remembering it.

The work of two other poets were read by the poets themselves, Seamus Heaney and Medbh McGuckian. Heaney got up and said: "The Guttural Muse, by Seamus Heaney". As usual claiming no special place, no special right.

Muldoon continued to speak and outlined with a dazzling display of learning and deep reading his sense of a theme running through these poems of fish and water, used in a whole variety of ways with very different effects. It was an extraordinary soundscape of Irish poetry, with Muldoon pausing over words with the delicacy of a carpenter touching a piece of fine wood, a man aware of what it is, of what it was, and of what it might be.

The address was punctuated with autobiographical details. As my medievalist readers will know, and any editors surely do, punctuation can change everything and so this punctuation was everything and changed everything. He spoke about child abuse, something of which as a child he was vividly aware. And he spoke about his sister and her experience. (I couldn't stop re-reading in my mind Muldoon's poem 'The Misfits', from Moy Sand and Gravel.) The abuse of power on the part of the Church is so widespread, so terrible, dreadful—in the sense of one being full of dread. He spoke of the Pastoral Letter issued by Papa Ratzinger, of its inadequacy, its sheer utter inadequacy.

Muldoon's address was marked by a sense of a fullness of time, a timeliness, of καιρός. It was political, social, and yes, it was poetic. The time is now. Muldoon's time is now. Us readers, our time is now.

Last night the poetry belonged to the audience; it was empowering. It was special.

Thursday, 25 March 2010

DLR Poetry Now 2010

Questions of Travel, by Elizabeth Bishop

There are too many waterfalls here; the crowded streams
hurry too rapidly down to the sea,
and the pressure of so many clouds on the mountaintops
makes them spill over the sides in soft slow-motion,
turning to waterfalls under our very eyes.
—For if those streaks, those mile-long, shiny, tearstains,
aren't waterfalls yet,
in a quick age or so, as ages go here,
they probably will be.
But if the streams and clouds keep travelling, travelling,
the mountains look like the hulls of capsized ships,
slime-hung and barnacled.

Think of the long trip home.
Should we have stayed at home and thought of here?
Where should we be today?
Is it right to be watching strangers in a play
in this strangest of theatres?
What childishness is it that while there's a breath of life
in our bodies, we are determined to rush
to see the sun the other way around?
The tiniest green hummingbird in the world?
To stare at some inexplicable old stonework,
inexplicable and impenetrable,
at any view,
instantly seen and always, always delightful?
Oh, must we dream our dreams
and have them, too?
And have we room
for one more folded sunset, still quite warm?

But surely it would have been a pity
not to have seen the trees along this road,
really exaggerated in their beauty,
not to have seen them gesturing
like noble pantomimists, robed in pink.
—Not to have had to stop for gas and heard
the sad, two-noted, wooden tune
of disparate wooden clogs
carelessly clacking over
a grease-stained filling-station floor.
(In another country the clogs would all be tested.
Each pair there would have identical pitch.)
—A pity not to have heard
the other, less primitive music of the fat brown bird
who sings above the broken gasoline pump
in a bamboo church of Jesuit baroque:
three towers, five silver crosses.
—Yes, a pity not to have pondered,
blurr'dly and inconclusively,
on what connection can exist for centuries
between the crudest wooden footwear
and, careful and finicky,
the whittled fantasies of wooden footwear
and, careful and finicky,
the whittled fantasies of wooden cages.
—Never to have studied history in
the weak calligraphy of songbirds' cages.
—And never to have had to listen to rain
so much like politicians' speeches:
two hours of unrelenting oratory
and then a sudden golden silence
in which the traveller takes a notebook, writes:

"Is it lack of imagination that makes us come
to imagined places, not just stay at home?
Or could Pascal have been not entirely right
about just sitting quietly in one's room?

Continent, city, country, society:
the choice is never wide and never free.
And here, or there . . . No. Should we have stayed at home,
wherever that may be?"

It was with this poem that Belinda McKeon, in a lecture entitled 'One More Folded Sunset: Mapping the Poem' opened the 2010 DLR Poetry Now festival, offering an extended meditation on the place of poetry and the poetry of place in the work of Bishop and in the work of this year's amazing selection of poets. She is a very powerful reader and brings sensitivity and intellectual rigour in equal measure to her reading; these qualities and skills are much in evidence in her curatorial stewardship of the Festival.

The line-up of poets include a keynote tonight, at 8.30pm, with Paul Muldoon delivering an address entitled 'Go Fish: Six Irish Poets', and Muldoon will read his own work, alongside Anne Stevenson and Homero Aridjis on Saturday evening at 8.30pm. On Friday night, at 6.30pm, Justin Quinn, Luljeta Lleshanaku and Philip Gross will read, which I am very much looking forward to, while at 8.30pm, Derek Mahon and Rosanna Warren will read. On Saturday at 6.30pm Vona Groarke, Kevin Young and Joan Margarit will read, and on Sunday at 4pm John Burnside, Sylva Fischerová and John F. Deane will read.

It's going to be a great festival. Hopefully I'll blog again about it if I can sit down for long enough.

Wednesday, 17 March 2010

Charles Muscatine (1920-2010)

The great Chaucerian scholar Charles Muscatine has died. Read obits here, here , here, here, and here; read about his anti-McCarthy stance here. Fixing higher education never seemed so urgent.

Sunday, 7 March 2010

Boccaccio visualizzato, ed. Vittore Branca, 3 vols (Einaudi, 1999)

The eagle-eyed amongst my devoted readers will have noticed that a little change has occurred on the side-bar listing those Books I Dream of Owning. That is because I no longer dream of owning Boccaccio visualizzato but now, in fact, possess the said wonder. I have been working on the visual traditions surrounding Boccaccio for a while now and will continue to do so for another piece of work I'd like to complete. So when the chance presented itself to acquire a copy of Branca's great catalogue, frankly I jumped at it. It was a great price too, but I shan't be so vulgar as to talk about such things.

The work was published in 1999 but it had been long awaited, and a series of publications throughout the 1980s and '90s signalled what goodies it was to contain. (For reviews, see those of Christopher Kleinhenz in Speculum 79 [2004], 455-457; and Evelyn Lincoln in Heliotropia 1/1 [2003], available here). The basic idea was to publish a catalogue of images based on Boccaccian texts; these images appeared in manuscripts, on panels (cassoni etc), in paintings, and other media, from the middle ages right down to the modern era. It is a veritable cornucopia and remains a foundational resource.

The first volume contains a set of more general essays. They are: Vittore Branca: 'Introduzione: Il narrar boccacciano per immagini dal tardo gotico al primo Rinascimento'; idem., 'Interespressività narrativo-figurativa e rinnovamenti topologici e iconografici discesi dal Decameron'; Paul F. Watson, 'Architettura e scultura e senso della narrazione: Guido Cavalcanti e le case dei morti'; Victoria Kirkham, 'L'immagine del Boccaccio nella memoria tardo-gotica e rinascimentale'; Creighton Gilbert, 'La devozione di Giovanni Boccaccio per gli artisti e per l'arte'; Andreina Griseri, 'Di fronte al Decameron: L'età moderna'.

The second volume contains works of art of Italian origin. The first section is on Tuscany and northern Italy, and contains: Maria Grazia Ciardi Dupré Dal Poggetto, 'L'iconografia nei codici miniati boccacciani dell'Italia centrale e meridionale', with the relevant schede; Massimiliano Rossi, 'I dipinti - Introduzione: la novella di Sandro e Nastagio', with the relevant schede. The second second treats of the Veneto, and eastern Padania; Susy Marcon, 'I codici illustrati nell'area veneta', and schede; Giordana Mariani Canova, 'I codici dell'area padana orientale: tra Bologna, Ferrara e Mantova', with schede; Augusto Gentili, 'Boccaccio e la cultura figurativa veneziana fra Quattrocento e Cinquecento', and schede. The third and final section of this second volume treats of Lombardy, and western Padania: Antonio Cadei, 'I codici lombardi', with schede; Marichia Arese Simcik, 'I dipinti - Gli affreschi di Roccabianca (la novella di Griselda: Decameron, X 10).

The third volume deals with material produced outside Italy, concentrating on French, Flemish, English, Spanish and German manuscripts. The first section, on French and Flemish territories: Marie-Hélène Tesnière, 'I codici illustrati del Boccaccio francese e latino nella Francia e nelle Fiandre del XV secolo'; Brigitte Buettner, 'Il commercio di immagini: i mercanti, i Rapondi e il Boccaccio in Francia', with schede. Then the other geographical areas are covered in a section called 'Altre aree europee': Catherine Reynolds, 'I codici del Boccaccio illustrati in Inghilterra', with schede; and 'I codici di Spagna e Germania', and schede. A section on incunables ends the volume with Gianvittorio Dillon, 'I primi incunaboli illustrati e il Decameron veneziano del 1492'.

In a work with this much archival work being presented by such a variety of authors (the individual schede are by several different scholars), it is perhaps inevitable that there will be problems, but some are a little more serious. For example, the very famous catchwords in the Berlin autograph, Staatsbibliothek - Preussischer Kulturbesitz, MS Hamilton 90, are described in the scheda of that manuscript (Vol. 2, p. 62), prepared by Maria Cristina Castelli, with incorrect transcriptions of the catchwords themselves. It is a puzzling problem considering how famous this manuscript is, how often it had been described, and how easily available such transcriptions are, not least in Branca's own Cruscante edition. The coverage is by no means complete either and there are several interesting illuminated manuscripts not included. Branca himself was conscious of these problems and went into print subsequently lamenting how rushed the production process was and how he would have addressed them with more time.

Problems apart, however, it is a monumental publication and a testament to the editor's extraordinary energy and capacious learning that he even conceived of such a catalogue, let alone executed it. I am delighted to have it, and it is a delighted to open it.

Friday, 5 March 2010

Principles of the Weighty Tome, or How to Write Fat Books

Principles of the Weighty Tome, or How to Write Fat Books

  1. The whole composition must be permeated with a protracted and wordy exposition of the initial plan.
  2. Terms are to be included for conceptions that, except in this definition, appear nowhere in the whole book.
  3. Conceptual distinctions laboriously arrived at in the text are to be obliterated again in the relevant notes.
  4. For concepts treated only in their general significance, examples should be given; if, for example, machines are mentioned, all the different kinds of machines should be enumerated.
  5. Everything that is known a priori about an object is to be consolidated by an abundance of examples.
  6. Relationships that could be represented graphically must be expounded in words. Instead of being represented in a genealogical tree, for example, all family relationships are to be enumerated and described.
  7. A number of opponents all sharing the same argument should each be refuted individually.

in Walter Benjamin, 'One-Way Street' (selections), in Reflections: Essays, Aphorisms, Autobiographical Writings, trans. Edmund Jephcott, ed & intr Peter Demetz (New York: Schocken Books, 1986; orig. Harcourt Brace, 1978), p. 79.

Thursday, 4 March 2010

World Book Day, 2010

To celebrate World Book Day, I print a poem from a collection entitled Flood Song by a poet called Sherwin Bitsui (Copper Canyon Press, 2009, untitled poem on p. 6).

I am unable to pry my fingers from the ax,
00000unable to utter a word
0000000000without Grandfather's accent rippling
around the stone flung into his thinning mattress.

Years before, he would have named this season
0000000000by flattening a field where grasshoppers jumped into black smoke.

A Single Man, dir. Tom Ford (2009)

Tom Ford is a god in fashion. He stunned everyone when he decided to leave the Gucci group in 2004 and delighted everyone when he developed his own line. He is a man of apparently endless creative energy and has now turned his hand to film making.

I am writing this review because I find myself a little uncomfortable with many of the reviews I have read so far: these have generally been a bit snippy about the cinematography, calling it variously 'tart' or 'air-brushed'. Peter Bradshaw, in the Guardian, writes that the film looks 'like an indulgent exercise in 1960s period style, glazed with 21st-century good taste, a 100-minute commercial for men's cologne: Bereavement by Dior'.

Ok. Fine. This is nicely expressed, but I think hugely unfair and if I may be so bold, somewhat misses the point. I would really like to read a review written by a fashion expert, because there is clearly another kind of language being used in the making of this film and it is one that has thrown a lot of the film reviewers.

The story is based on Christopher Isherwood's novel, published in 1964, and tells of George Falconer (Colin Firth) who is in the midst of a deep, sad, quiet grief at the death of his long-time partner Jim (Matthew Goode). George wakes up that morning and decides that today he will commit suicide: the pain is just too much.

The day is spent saying nice things to people who had never really noticed him before, and silently observing his surroundings. That is, his last day, because of this terrible decision, becomes filled with significance. George is a college professor teaching English to a class of students who are trying to make sense of the Cuban missile crises. Rather, they are trying to make sense of the crises as it is being presented to them by their parents, and, in turn, by their government. George takes the opportunity to run over time in a class that is dragging on to explain that fear is really what is at stake, not the threat itself. He goes around to his friend Charlotte (Julianne Moore), talks about the old days and the disappointments their lives have become and despite this closeness, even Charley doesn't understand what he is going through.

This is such an important aspect of the film. Nobody understands what George is feeling, the depths and the scale of his grief, his bereavement. And everything that Ford does reinforces it. The nostalgic glaze, the beautiful beautiful images throughout the film are all inextricably linked with the impossibility of George's life and the inevitability of his death.

Another critic complained that we are held at arm's length from George, that we never get to know him and that we never feel his grief. Well, not feeling his grief will vary from person to person, but being held at arm's length is very much the point. It is what he does with everyone, because he has to, and what presents his grief with such a terrible aspect of closed-ness, or inexpressibility. It is expressible because of its scale, but also because it is in the first place.

There is great sadness in this film, but it is not an emotional film. And that for me was its most powerful feature. I found it all the more powerful because I was not weeping at the end of it. Enough of the film assures me that Ford knows what he's doing, and in this too I believe he knew what he was doing. As viewers we are denied participation in the grief, and this denial is so subtly and delicately negotiated.

Quite unlike a cologne, this beautiful film has stayed with me.

I am bereft.


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