Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Dylan Thomas - On War

Among those Killed in a Dawn Raid was a Man Aged a Hundred: longer than a newspaper headline, this poem (pg. 112) has a title that tells you everything you need to know of the subject matter before you even start reading it. It is a deliberate shock tactic in its bluntness and the reader's eyes move down to see how Dylan is going to handle the matter.

Well, there is no sweetness in the first two lines which are matter of fact and end with 'he died.' Then the poem explores the horrifying sight of the old man knocked off his feet in the street by focusing on the broken aspects of the physical scene: 'the burst pavement stone,' 'the slaughtered floor,' and the man's broken body: 'the craters of his eyes.'

The sonnet, for that is what is is, continues with imperatives: 'Tell his street on its back he stopped a sun' and 'Dig no more for the chains of his grey-haired heart.' It cries  ('O') a wish that the man is spared from a pauper's grave and ends with a repletion of morning and on an uplifting note that humanity will continue: 'A hundred storks perch on the sun's right hand.' A wonderful and striking image that.

One of the finest poems written about the war? Probably.

Monday, 20 January 2014

Ian McEwan - Maison de la Poesie

Shameful though it is, I have never darkened the door of La Maison de al Poesie until now, which is of course ridiculous as it's just ten minutes from my house, but that's largely because they have few anglophone guest writers - surprisingly enough this is France - and I can only just about cope with bi-lingual things.

Ian McEwan was in town last night to promote his newly translated latest novel Operation Sweet Tooth or in French, Operation Sweet Tooth (acute accent on the e in operation), which, as you can guess by the title, is a spy novel. a genre he has written before and might again. In response to a question (from me) he explained that emersion into the genre involved reading Somerset Maugham and Le Carre (acute accent on the e) in order to learn and follow the conventions. On Le Carre he hopes that he will be considered a major literary novelist eventually and gave a lovely vignette of him when working at MI5 and never being sure of whether his colleagues were brilliant or totally stupid.

The novel is set during the Cold War, a period in time, he thinks has become sufficiently contained by its effluxion in order to be written about in the way he does. Little of the plot was given away, and certainly not the ending, instead McEwan talked about the activities of the CIA. The agency was paradoxically funding culture, like concerts of A-tonal music in Paris, the Boston symphony orchestra and exhibitions of abstract expressionism, in order to have free and open culture, whilst at the same time the Soviets were busy elevating the importance of writers by incarcerating them.

For McEwan Orwell is the most effective anti-totalitarian writer and Animal Farm and 1984 are the most eloquent writing in this cause.  He went on to question our love affair with irresistible and addictive machines, which have the capacity to change human consciousness and give us two enemies, the state and ourselves, as we are becoming more vulnerable to being watched and listened to, and which have banished our capacity for solitude. These are the kind of machines of which Orwell never dreamed.

Sound bites to take away and chew over:

I don't create literature, I am the inheritor of literary tradition. 

In a free society, writers should be free to do what they want.

Writers are spies - we all try to read each other all the time and control our own narratives.

History is the construction of narrative.

To the question as to whether McEwan reads poetry, he replied that the poets he reads most are Auden and Larkin. Nothing contemporary then, which rather disproves his claim to be an avid reader of the form. Pity, but an interesting evening with a writer whose work I much admire.

Monday, 13 January 2014

Dylan Thomas - Childhood, Religion and Countryside

Yes, probably Dylan's most beloved poem, Fern Hill, (pg 134)  and read here by Richard Burton, has all these elements. It is both hymn of praise and love song to a rural upbringing 'Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs.'
Apple tree related images are just one of a number of motifs that repeat themselves throughout the poem, as does the colour green, green also in the sense of innocence in this paradise, emphasised, as if that were necessary, by his mention of 'Adam and maiden' and indeed the apple tree itself.

Other religious imagery also appears in every stanza ('his eyes,' 'the mercy of his means,' 'blessed,' 'fields of praise,' 'follow him out of grace,' 'lamb white days' and so on).

But the poem changes tack in the last stanza with the lack of foreknowledge that 'time would take me' out of innocence and to the final couplet: 'Time held me green and dying/though I sang in my chains like the sea.' What exactly does Dylan mean? It seems to me that this is the adult reflection of the illusion of childhood as not as idyllic as we might remember, green but a kind of death to the will perhaps, and happy enough to ellicit song, but still be enslaved. Perhaps that's why he called it a 'poem for evenings and tears.'

Things to be enthralled by in this poem are, as always, the lush and beautiful imagery. Who doesn't wish that they had thought of 'the sabbath rang slowly/ in the pebbles of the holy streams,' or describing a farm on a winter morning as 'like a wanderer white/with dew?' Lovely.

Saturday, 4 January 2014

Dylan Thomas - On Childhood

Dylan is famous for many things, one of which is his fond, tender and playful writings about childhood, especially his own, or more specifically boyhood, since girls are those other creatures with whom snowball throwing boys waiting for cats to appear on the garden fence have little to do. See the stories in Quite Early on Morning, for example.

Dylan's memorial Stone in Cwmdonkin Park
The Hunchback in the Park (pg.93), does what it says on the tin. Here I want simply to point out the imaginative, original and arresting nature of Dylan's descriptive powers:

- in stanza one, the notion that the unlocking of the gates 'lets the trees and water in'

- in stanza two, the accuracy of observation 'the chained cup that the children filled with gravel'

- in stanza three, the simile 'like the water he sat down'

- in stanza four, the image of the park  as a 'loud zoo'

- in stanza five, the brilliance of 'the boys among willows/made tigers jump out of their eyes'

 - in stanza six, the simile 'straight as a young elm'

 - in stanza seven, the simile 'the wild boys innocent as strawberries.'

A fellow poet advised me once that all you need for a really good poem is one astonishing image, metaphor or simile. I am glad to say that this is otiose here.

Read the poem too quickly, blink, and you will miss Dylan's sparkle and might be in danger of dismissing this poem as a piece of over-sentimental froth. Not so, I say, not so.

Wednesday, 1 January 2014

Dylan Thomas - On Writing

In my craft or sullen art (pg. 106) Dylan expostulates on writing. He explains the thankless nature of his solitary, nocturnal labours (alone being one of the meanings of 'sullen' here), with what has to be his tongue firmly in his cheek, that is not for 'ambition or bread,' of ' the strut and trade of charms/ on the ivory stages,' but the 'common wages' of lovers' hearts. It is on the one hand a piece of unreliable autobiography and wishful thinking if ever I read one, yet the fear of going unremarked surely haunts all writers, especially the egotists amongst us.

Laugharne Castle
Structurally I find this poem interesting in that it has the feel of a palindrome. This is not precise in any sense of course, but is by way of inventive repetition in the phrases, objects and images; a working over and around of the limited palette: moon, lovers, griefs, arms, wages whereby form aligns with argument; as well as the rhyme scheme, which although irregular, is approximately similar between the two stanzas, and the opening and closing lines being very close. Note the word sullen disappears at the end.

Images that especially appeal are 'singing light' as I could certainly do with one of those when I am working; 'spindrift pages' because it is an interesting one - the idea that pages are either waves or snow being blown by the wind, either way they are white and unfilled with ink; and I enjoy the side swipe at his predecessors: 'the towering dead with their nightingales (Keats, presumably) and psalms.'