Much is taken, much abides…

I’m revisiting Babylon 5 at the moment, just into season four. A man Earth president who schemed to get power, who conspired with dark forces to get that power, who establishes a cabal to enforce his rule, suspecting anyone who offers criticism of being disloyal, harping on about alien influence ruining the purity of Earth and of “fake news” spreading anti-government propaganda. Twenty two years old and it seems very sadly relevant to today.

This evening I just reached the point where, preparing for a final battle he may not return from the captain quotes from Tennyson’s Ulysses: “Though much is taken, much abides; and though We are not now that strength which in old days Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are, One equal temper of heroic hearts, Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”

It’s a harkening back to previous generations, measuring ourselves against their historic deeds and considering ourselves unworthy of them, not their equals. And yet this looking back to a lost, golden age of great heroes who strode through all problems with their mighty deeds is a peculiar faculty of humans that we have had going right back to at least the time of Homer – the Iliad and Odyssey are replete with those ancients even then looking back to the centuries before them, marvelling at great heroes and deeds with a “we shall not see their like again” feeling for their own era. And yet each of those eras too had their own great turmoils, and usually those generations too overcame them. Which gives us hope for our own troubled times. We must not yield.

The poetry of war

The very fine wordsmith and Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy approached several contemporary bards to write a piece of poetry inspired by some of the poems which came out of the Great War, to mark the impending centenary of the start of that awful carnage which has scarred the collective psyche for generations now. The poets in the Guardian piece include the late Seamus Heaney, his poem appearing for the first time, posthumously, and Duffy herself, whose lines, written in response to The Send Off by Wilfred Owen, I found especially moving, as I have always found Owen’s.

I think on Owen and his friend and fellow wartime poet Sassoon sometimes as I walk near my home, strolling along the Union Canal and seeing just a short walk further away the stone facade of Craiglockhart, now part of Napier University, but back then pressed into service as a place to treat shell-shocked officers (the regular ranks of ordinary men had somewhat rougher ‘treatment’ to deal with this new psychological injury caused by the intensity of prolonged mechanised warfare), where he and Sassoon were treated (a fictionalised account can be seen in Pat Barker’s novel – and the film adaptation of it – Regeneration)..

Remembering the fallen 02
(a night-time photograph of the Garden of Remembrance in Princes Street Gardens I shot last year, serried ranks of tiny crosses and poppies in the cold, dark, winter night, only a few feet from busy rush-hour Princes Street, a small, quiet spot to contemplate loss, sacrifice and not to forget hard-learned lessons)

“An Unseen”, Carol Ann Duffy

I watched love leave, turn, wave, want not to go,
depart, return;
late spring, a warm slow blue of air, old-new.
Love was here; not; missing, love was there;
each look, first, last.

Down the quiet road, away, away, towards
the dying time,
love went, brave soldier, the song dwindling;
walked to the edge of absence; all moments going,
gone; bells through rain

to fall on the carved names of the lost.
I saw love’s child uttered,
unborn, only by rain, then and now, all future
past, an unseen. Has forever been then? Yes,
forever has been.

Poetry: Lies I’ve Told My 3 Year Old Recently

This is just a lovely, although quite bittersweet piece of poetry by a father of a young child, Raul Gutierrez, the final line is especially moving:

Trees talk to each other at night.

All fish are named either Lorna or Jack.

Before your eyeballs fall out from watching too much TV, they get very loose.

Tiny bears live in drain pipes.

If you are very very quiet you can hear the clouds rub against the sky.

The moon and the sun had a fight a long time ago.

Everyone knows at least one secret language.

When nobody is looking, I can fly.

We are all held together by invisible threads.

Books get lonely too.

Sadness can be eaten.

I will always be there.”

We tell children wonderful fibs to help make their childhood a magical space, and so we should, because when they grow up and have to face the bitter winds of later life that magical, glowing time when the world was full of mysterious enchantment and your mum and dad could answer you about it all and there was no problem so big they couldn’t take care of it and you, will still be in them, when they need it. Especially when that last line in the poem proves to be a desperate lie, that they can’t be there for us forever, that one day we lose them and it will hurt so much more than any pain we’ve ever known, and they know that, chance are they have been through that pain themselves earlier in life and they so desperately want to protect their child from it as they want to protect them from everything else bad in the world. And they know they can’t, worse still they know when that pain of loss comes the person they most need in the world to comfort and support them is the very person they have lost. So we tell them we’ll be here forever, because what else can we tell them? And because we so wish we could be. (via BoingBoing)

National Poetry Day

Today is National Poetry Day in the UK, a day when we celebrate one of humanity’s oldest forms of art and expression. Many of our greatest stories, such as the Iliad, have come down to us through poetry, preserved against millennia in verse, a form which helped the original oral bards to memorise astonishing amounts to recount, long before anyone was able to write down those tales into the forms which we still know and revere today, cornerstones of our culture.

Sadly when I mention poetry with all too many people I see the eyes glaze over and comes the almost inevitable phrase “I don’t like poetry”. No matter how often I have heard this it always makes me sad that so many people – including a lot of my fellow booksellers, I’m ashamed to say – make such an ignorant statement. Ignorant because I don’t think most of them really know what they mean by that – what I think they mean is they hate what little poetry they have been exposed to, more than likely something they were forced to learn at school. Regretfully these experiences often put people off exploring more and so they cut themselves off from one of the earliest and richest forms of human expression. Me? I’m a book person, a wordsmith; I love words and imagery and the way words can be woven like a magic incantation to call forth vivid descriptions of people, places, wring emotions from us, touch us deep within, in the inner places of our essential selves.

The best prose writing does this. The best poetry does it even better, especially in the realms of emotion; poetry, like jazz, has a way of weaving around the mind and soul. It requires the cognitive faculties of the brain to process and analyse and understand the words, the rhythms, the meanings, but it also bypasses the waking mind to speak directly to the subconcious mind. The best poetry speaks to both the active mind and at the same time to the deeper, dreaming mind. Throughout earlier history words and writing were seen as a form of magic. They were right. We’re built on words, on stories and phrases, we construct all the events of our lives into narratives and words. And the ability to put words together into special sequences marked out someone as special – the bard who wandered from city to city in the days before mass printing, telling stories, words that spoke to people, that cast illumination over what it is to be human. The coming of mass printing by Mr Gutenberg spread literacy and books across the world rapidly. The wandering storyteller gave way to the printed author (although poetry spoken out loud remains the best way to experience it, really), but the book and the words became even more important in our culture.

Which is why my favourite poem is Tessa Ranford’s The Book Rediscovered in the Future. It speaks of the wonder not only of words but of the actual book itself, the feel of it in your hand, the simple delight in being able to carry your words with you, of finding an old book that belonged to someone else before. That feeling you get when you look inside an old book and see that someone before you had written their name and maybe a date into the inside page. Sometimes it is only a few years ago, sometimes a few decades; in a few old ones I have it’s almost a century. In a couple it is also personal for me – a book my grandpa had given to him as a prize as a young boy, still on my bookshelves, a physical and emotional connection to a loved one long gone but a part of him, from his younger life, still here, the pages he touched, the words he read, his name on the page… As publishing faces the changes of the digital age Tessa’s poem seems even more relevant than when I first read it several years ago. This is a feeling a digital book simply cannot give you; an e-reader or iPad may be a clever toy, but it feels to me like it reduces a book to a mere consumable, ephemeral, untouchable, not like a real book to feel, to touch, to pass on…

Edragil 1745 03
(inner page of a book given to my grandfather when he was just a boy, still in my possession)

One day in the future

A child may come across a book

And say: “Imagine being able to hold

In your hand what you read,

To carry it with you and wear it out

With your life; to pass it on

Bearing your marks, your name,

Written in ink, your signature:

Your wavelength in letters.

Tessa Ranford, “the Book Rediscovered in the Future”

Goodbye to a Scots Makar

I was very sad today to hear from Ian Rankin’s Twitter that the man who had been my favourite living Scots poet, Edwin Morgan, had passed away at the age of 90. He was writing to the end, a new collection published just this year to mark his 90th birthday, a bard who could shape verse in diverse ways and style, across many different subjects from everyday life to love to the creation of the universe, that important kiss, science fiction and of course his beloved Glasgow and Scotland. Poet Laureate of Glasgow then the first National Makar of Scotland, respected in dozens of countries and translated into many languages, one of the great figures of 20th century Scottish writing.

There were never strawberries
like the ones we had
that sultry afternoon
sitting on the step
of the open french window
facing each other
your knees held in mine
the blue plates in our laps
the strawberries glistening
in the hot sunlight
we dipped them in sugar
looking at each other
not hurrying the feast
for one to come
the empty plates
laid on the stone together
with the two forks crossed
and I bent towards you
sweet in that air
in my arms
abandoned like a child
from your eager mouth
the taste of strawberries
in my memory
lean back again
let me love you

let the sun beat
on our forgetfulness
one hour of all
the heat intense
and summer lightning
on the Kilpatrick hills

let the storm wash the plates

Poetry in motion

I’ve been on a bit of a poetry kick this month; Edinburgh City of Literature’s annual campaign this year (previous years have seen Conan Doyle and Stevenson used to boost interest in reading) is in collaboration with the Scottish Poetry Library. Carry a Poem is encouraging people to find ways of taking poetry around with them and sharing it; as well as giveaways of books and cards it also includes projecting verse onto public monuments and buildings, such as the National Library of Scotland on George IV Bridge (an institution which, coincidentally, digitally archives this very blog):

carry a poem - national library of scotland 02
I love this idea; in our northern kingdom night falls very early in the winter months and I think it is rather wonderful that as darkness steals across the land the very fabric of the city becomes a page for the poet’s art. For an ancient city such as Edinburgh it seems most appropriate; it’s a city of history and culture, part real, solid buildings and streets, part fantastical, drawn from the imagination of painters and writers and photographers and others and the written word is as much Edinburgh’s foundational fabric as her native stone and volcanic rock, from scholarly treatises penned by kings to the centuries of endless writers who have lived and scribed away inside her, their words shaped by the city but also shaping the city itself, re-imagining it, be it Burns or Stevenson or Hume or modern authors like Rankin. Even her streets have become pages, home to the written word:
Carry a poem - Royal Mile
How sad then that so many people walked past as I stopped to look at these scenes, words written in light and displayed on ancient stone, most of them oblivious to these little gems of art and life the city was offering up to them as they hurried home after the day’s labour. Even when these schemes are not running there’s so much that draws the eye, little stories beckon, little glimpses of history and lives and small delights and wonders if you but pause for just a moment. Look, here carved in stone it tells you Scott once lived in this building, that Stevenson drank in this howff. Sometimes my walk home may take ten minutes longer than usual as I pause to look at something (and usually try to photograph it too), but what’s ten minutes? Who cares if it’s home ten minutes later when those moment were spent not in the dull, mundane every day of work, home, dinner, washing up but in looking at something beautiful that most people are too blinkered to notice, a tiny splash of magic that made me smile.

Their loss. The city speaks if you have eyes to see and ears to hear and you haven’t closed off that sense of wonder that first is stoked in childhood but so many seal off in adulthood, letting it atrophy, assuming it a childish thing and always left afterwards with a tug somewhere inside for something they know they have lost but they don’t know what it is let alone how to recover it. Pity such people; they like to project an aura of being capable, practical, down to earth; often they affect to pity the dreamer as one who is a little addled perhaps or merely too indulgent, even childish. But they are the ones who are hollow within, closed, lost, stumbling through the world with their most important senses blinded to the wonder around them.

I think it’s why I love poetry; it’s like jazz, it stands outside of prose, although kin to it, it touches directly on sensation, experience, emotions in a way no other artform does, although many borrow from it for their own medium, which becomes richer for it. Poetry is one of our most ancient artforms – long before we wrote them down they were told orally (still the best way to experience a poem) and passed on, from the short to the truly epic, the longer ones memorised in verse because it helped the cadences of the storytelling and for the storyteller to recall it for their audience. Words, especially the written word, were seen by the ancients as being akin to magic, a symbolic way of interpreting and reworking some part of the universe. They were right. Since I’m on a poetry jag, here’s a lovely little animation by Julian Grey I found which accompanies former US Poet Laureate Billy Collins reading his poem Forgetfulness:

Burns Night

A happy Burns Night to you all; its the night Scots and millions of others around the world celebrate our national bard, Robert Burns. Burns Suppers will be held from the Highlands of Scotland to the sunny climes of Australia, from America to Russia (he’s very popular with the Russians, who see him, correctly, as a man of the people). I think its rather wonderful that the life and work of a poet from centuries past brings people together the world over each January 25th to recite verse and song and enjoy food and another great Scottish contribution to world culture, the fine single malt. Here’s a wonderful rendition of one of my favourite Burns works, A Man’s a Man For ‘a That, sung by Sheena Wellington at the opening of the newly devolved Scottish Parliament here in the heart of Edinburgh:


I especially liked when she got the normally boring old politicians to join in towards the end, not something you see in the House of Shame at Westminster. There were some cringeing royalist toads who whined that the choice of song could be viewed as an insult to the Queen as its a well loved libertarian anthem, explicitly celebrating the equality of all and pointing out the be-ribboned aristocrat may have rank and station but he’s no better than anyone else and his estates and rank and status are worth far less than the words of the man who is free in thought and deed. Amen to that. Just remember please, if you are having haggis tonight, to make sure its a free range haggis, given the run of highland slopes and not some battery farmed haggis.

Rhythm song

As Britain (finally) after several centuries appoints a woman (and a Scot) for the first time to the post of Poet Laureate (which has until now been unremittingly the preserve of white, English males, despite being supposedly a post for the whole of the UK) the BBC is embracing verse, with a special poetry season across its various networks, with, as is now almost the standard practise, a good web site to support the programming. I know, I’ve banged on about poetry before and realistically I’m probably wasting my breath (or typing) as people mostly polarise into those who embrace poetry and those who say they can’t stand it.

Now I say they can’t stand it, but for most of them what they actually mean is they’ve never really tried and have written off one of our oldest art forms, a magical form of writing, which has spaned millennia of human development. Perhaps they were put off by a bad English teacher at school, perhaps they simply assume that its not for them without trying, but either way it shuts them off from a huge swathe of human culture. Bards have been a vital part of our cultural heritage literally for thousands of years; long before the written word and the novel and the play were commonly available using verse as a method to memorise tales was the method that was used, its probably how huge epics like the Iliad would have been transmitted across the centuries before it was written down.

I love the written word; its a magical power, to be able to communicate thoughts and ideas and feelings across time and space; it links people. And in the realms of metaphor and literary structure and notional worlds that the written word embraces, poetry is a special case all its own, a unique way of talking to the world and to the heart and to the soul in a way few others can. Writing was once seen literally as magic – Egyptian priests casting spells to protect the dead pharoah in the afterlife through the use of words, pictograms drawn on cave walls of Lascaux to drawn on the power of what they represent, the use of the exact, written form of a person’s name to give power over them. We’re so surrounded by communication media today we’ve forgotten how remarkable the act of being able to articulate thoughts and feelings in the written word, in a way that can go beyond ourselves to many others and even outlast us, actually is. Poetry is a direct link to that time when few could read and write, to magical incantations, but not to cast spells or summon angels or demons, but to draw and share emotions directly. And to hear poetry read aloud, by the light of candles and fire as it was for millennia is to partake in a ceremony of magic.

Anthem for Doomed Youth

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle? Only the monstrous anger of the guns. Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle Can patter out their hasty orisons. No mockeries for them; no prayers nor bells, Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs, — The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells; And bugles calling for them from sad shires. What candles may be held to speed them all? Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes. The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall; Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds, And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.

Anthem for Doomed Youth, Wilfred Owen

Probably the best known of the poets of the Great War, Owen was treated for shell shock at Craiglockhart, just a few moments from where I live in Edinburgh, where he met fellow poet Siegfried Sassoon (events fictionalised in Pat Barker’s novel Regeneration and the film adaptation of the book). Owen was killed on November 4th, 1918, just a week before the Armistice. He was 25 years old; much of his poetry was published posthumously.


(the eternal flame and the tomb of the unknown soldier under the Arc de Triomphe; the legend reads “ici repose un soldat Francais, mort pour la patrie, 1914-1918. It stands in stark contrast to the more bombastic militarism of the Arc de Triomphe above it and the triumphant, processional way of the Champs Elyssee in front of it; the larger version is on my Flickr)

Happy Burns Night

It’s January the 25th when Scots at home and the many-times that number of Scots and those of Scots blood abroad celebrate the life and art of our national bard, Robert Burns. Actually more than Scots – Burns is one of that handful of writers, like Austen, Borges and Cervantes, who cross the centuries, national boundaries and language to become a writer who belongs to the world. A Makar, as we would say, an old term which implies more than a writer, but a maker of words, ideas and worlds, one who translates notions, symbols, thoughts and feelings into that magical form we call words so others can share them.

There’s nane that’s blest of human kind,
But the cheerful and the gay, man,
Fal, la, la, &c.

Here’s a bottle and an honest friend!
What wad ye wish for mair, man?
Wha kens, before his life may end,
What his share may be o’ care, man?

Then catch the moments as they fly,
And use them as ye ought, man:
Believe me, happiness is shy,
And comes not aye when sought, man.”

“A bottle and friend”, Robert Burns, 1787

This year the city of my birth, Glasgow, has taken this day to mark another great Scots poet as well, the bard I personally consider the greatest living Scots poet and my personal favourite, the quite wonderful Edwin Morgan. Sadly Eddie, now in his mid 80s and suffering from cancer, isn’t up to taking part but nonetheless some 15, 000 free copies of one of his collections of poetry is being given out over a 24 hour period in Glasgow with poets doing readings all over the city and ordinary folks in the street being encouraged to explore a part of their culture and heritage that many of them perhaps don’t think about too much.

Actually, even among many book folks I often hear the ignorant “I don’t like poetry” response from people all the time. That’s usually from people who never bother their arse to actually try reading some different types of poetry. Its like saying I don’t like jazz, I don’t like Indian food, I don’t like… Well, you get the idea – dismissing a whole and very diverse area without exploring it, or rubbishing it on perhaps one or two tiny looks. Its a sign of a closed mind and that’s a shame because poetry is one of the finest ways I know to open minds and expand not only the imagination but the senses and the ability to perceive more with them; good poetry reaches beyond what even the best prose can do (and some of the best prose feels poetic), it interacts with our intellect but also our spiritual side and connects us, ideas, dreams, the world and the other worlds behind the one we see with our ordinary eyes.

Still say you don’t like poetry? Think about it next time you are listening to some beautiful piece of music that moves you in a way you didn’t think anything could and then realise you’re listening to another form of poetry, told in notes and beats. Poetry is music, its words, its rhythm, its life.

But now, if you will excuse me, my personal Burns Supper awaits – something a little different this year, vegetarian haggis samosas in chili sauce! (if you are wondering how you get a veggie haggis, you take an ordinary wild haggis and feed it on tofu) Thus combining two great Scottish traditions, the haggis and Indian food, on one meal and of course a very fine single malt to toast the Bard. Slainte!

Bitesize

The BBC asked if they could borrow one of my photographs from my Flickr stream recently, to use as part of their Bitesize revision guides, in this case to be part of a audio-visual slideshow to accompany a reading of “The Field Mouse” by Gillian Clarke – my pic of a harvest-time field, taken just outside North Berwick near Tantallon Castle is the first one in the presentation. No money, sadly, but the feel-good factor is quite rewarding, especially since I’m so fond of poetry.


Greyfriar’s Kirkyard 10
Originally uploaded by byronv2

Since it is Halloween, the night when the realms of the living, the dead and the supernatural intersect, I thought I’d stick up one of my more Gothic images from my Flickr set.

Ah broken is the golden bowl! the spirit flown forever!
Let the bell toll! — a saintly soul floats on the Stygian river;
And, Guy De Vere, hast thou no tear? — weep now or never more!
See! on yon drear and rigid bier low lies thy love, Lenore!
Come! let the burial rite be read — the funeral song be sung! —
An anthem for the queenliest dead that ever died so young —
A dirge for her the doubly dead in that she died so young.

“Wretches! ye loved her for her wealth and hated her for her pride,
“And when she fell in feeble health, ye blessed her — that she died!
“How shall the ritual, then, be read? — the requiem how be sung

“By you — by yours, the evil eye, — by yours, the slanderous tongue
“That did to death the innocent that died, and died so young?”

Peccavimus; but rave not thus! and let a Sabbath song
Go up to God so solemnly the dead may feel so wrong!
The sweet Lenore hath “gone before,” with Hope, that flew beside
Leaving thee wild for the dear child that should have been thy bride —
For her, the fair and debonair, that now so lowly lies,
The life upon her yellow hair but not within her eyes —
The life still there, upon her hair — the death upon her eyes.

“Avaunt! to-night my heart is light. No dirge will I upraise,
“But waft the angel on her flight with a Paean of old days!
“Let no bell toll! — lest her sweet soul, amid its hallowed mirth,
“Should catch the note, as it doth float — up from the damned Earth.
“To friends above, from fiends below, the indignant ghost is riven —
“From Hell unto a high estate far up within the Heaven —
“From grief and groan, to a golden throne, beside the King of Heaven.”

“Lenore”, Edgar Alan Poe, 1845