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)..

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(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)

Angelheaded hipsters burning: poetry, censorship and animation – Howl

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,

dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix,

angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night,

who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat up smoking in the supernatural darkness of cold-water flats floating across the tops of cities contemplating jazz,

who bared their brains to Heaven under the El and saw Mohammedan angels staggering on tenement roofs illuminated,

who passed through universities with radiant eyes hallucinating Arkansas and Blake-light tragedy among the scholars of war,

who were expelled from the academies for crazy & publishing obscene odes on the windows of the skull,

who cowered in unshaven rooms in underwear, burning their money in wastebaskets and listening to the Terror through the wall...” from the opening of Howl, by Allen Ginsberg.

I was lucky enough to get an advance viewing of the upcoming film Howl, inspired by Beat poet Allan Ginsberg’s famous poem, one of the seminal verse works of the 20th century and a major counter-culture landmark (right back when even the idea of a counter-culture was a new thing). Interesting to the literati, I’m sure, but some of you might wonder why I’m talking about it on the blog here. Well the film by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman has an interlaced three-part structure, intercutting between 50s style ‘documentary’ footage of James Franco (Milk, Spider-Man) as Ginsberg and the court battle when reactionary forces in American society attempted to have Howl banned from print as ‘obscene’. Linking these two strands is the third element: some wonderful animation based on the artwork and designs of acclaimed artist Eric Drooker.

How much the resulting collage will appeal to you will, I suspect, depend to some extent on your appetite for poetry (I love it, but I know a lot of people don’t care for it, which is a shame, it’s a different way of looking at the universe, like magic is to science, or jazz to Classical music). Verse is always best read out; when it is read out the voice accentuates the rhythm and life inherent in good poetry. It floats like fine jazz, conjuring imagery and emotions out of your mind, linking them, making them flow and intersect and cross-breed to spark off more images and emotions. The faux-documentary scenes of young Ginsberg reading Howl for the first time to a live audience throb with creative energy (Franco does a terrific job), but for me it was the reading of the poetry over Drooker’s animation that really worked. Animation, poetry and jazz all combining, sometimes with literal (or at least semi-literal) interpretations of the lines, at other times more symbolic in nature, dreamlike, or sometimes a dark dream, semi nightmare (for some reason it occasionally made me flash back to some of the dreamlike animated scenes in Waltz With Bashir), the animated form offers up a far superior visual compliment to the poetry than live action ever could.

The court case scenes are based on actual records and alongside the famous UK court battle a decade later over Lady Chatterly’s Lover (also for ‘obscenity’) it marks an extremely important moment in the post-war Western world where artistic freedom and freedom of speech won out over the older, more conservative, reactionary forces in society; even if you’ve never read a poem in your life Howl and the victory publisher City Lights scored in those 1950s courts have had an impact on anyone who reads or who enjoys art, because it not only broke artistic boundaries, it helped secure the primacy of the freedom of speech, that element of any democratic society that any reader holds most dear. It’s an intriguing film and for me Drooker’s art (and the work of the rest of the animation team drawing from his designs) hold the other aspects of the film together, allowing the film-makers to indulge in something other than the straight biopic you might expect (and which would never have suited a work as unusual as Howl).

HarperCollins published a graphic novel of Howl with Drooker’s artwork recently with art similar to what you will see in the film; the film of Howl itself opens in the UK on February 25th.

Winter poem

A friend at LittleBrown publishers asked to use one of my photographs to go on a newsletter from Scots author Alexander McCall Smith, to accompany the Winter Poem:

That there should be winter, that this hard light
Should fall over a December Scotland,
Should make the sea gray, like steel, and the land itself
A rock rising from metalled water;
That there should be empty skies,
Free of protecting cloud, too cold
Even for that; that there should be
A vapour trail of some great jet heading west
To the colder shores of Greenland, Labrador,
Northern neighbours to us, distant cousins
In our marginality and our pursuit of fish;
That all this should be in a land that in summer
Is so soft and wet with drifting veils of rain
And filled with deer and clouds of midges
And the rich fecundity of ploughed fields
That will yield gold barley and whisky
Beyond the barley –

Scotland is a country of the north,
Everything here cries north; north the natural
Orientation of all our signs, our habits;
I sometimes wish, I confess, for a life spent
In the scent of wild thyme and olive trees,
For evenings when one might stroll
Slowly about a square and watch pigeons
Launch themselves into Italian air
From some tower dreamed up
By some High Renaissance imagination;
That, though, is not where we are from
Or where we are destined to be;
Our place is north, our natural gravity
That of a land that is an afterthought
To Europe, a land that comes late
To so many of the parties it’s been invited to,
But which we love with all our heart,
With all our heart.

Winter doesn’t make us better, then, or worse,
But enables us to find ourselves again,
Because it forces us to be quiet, obliges us
To listen to the coursing of our own blood;
Winter reminds us that warmth
Is not something we find naturally,
Some gift of munificent nature, but must be made;
That we should make in Scotland
A small place of warmth, a small country
Of kindness to others, of brotherhood,
Is what our poets have been striving to say
Since they first gave voice to song.
That we might find this, in winter,
In the ice and the cold is a local miracle,
Is a particular joy.

Iron road to the Highlands 20

The photo, by the way, was shot by me just under 3 years ago on my way to Inverness as the train moved up through the Cairngorms national park, past snow covered mountains, white-dusted trees and the occassional deer walking by the edge of the railway line. I shot some photos through the window glass, not sure if they would work or not. This particular on was taken as the train crossed a bridge and as I did a flock of birds soared into the frame for good measure. I got lucky and the shot worked, despite shooting through a window.

“They shall not grow old…”

For Armistice Day, one of Edinburgh’s smaller memorials, a little plaque in Edinburgh’s Waverley Stations, probably passed by and largely ignored by thousands of people every day as they go around their busy journeys, a tiny reminder of the past, of maimed and injured soldiers coming home from the War to End All Wars, resting here on their way, hopefully cadging a brew-up and a fag from some Red Cross volunteers. A little corner of history, if you care to look for the echoes of the past that still sound in the present.

Great War memorial, Waverley Station

As they at last comprehend all their sacrifice, all their pain,
All their sorrow, all their suffering, all the death,
Did not change or alter a thing, was not a lesson learned
Nor an experience not to be repeated..
Realizing their friend’s painful, brutal, ultimate sacrifice
Was only a necessary evil of Mankind’s political process
Which has never changed, and never will,
For each generation brings anew to the world
Its own self-styled madness of universal death, tragedy and suffering,
In wars to be fought by the young, bright-eyed children of the world
Unknowingly raised as sacrificial lambs of slaughter,
To be killed and gone forever, for nothing.
That is why, all Veterans cry.

In this hallowed place of the dead
The lonely graves of war’s youthful victims
Who died for a thought,
an idea, for a cause
Promulgated by selfish, insane men in power
These war graves and cemeteries are Harbingers
Of the eternal, mindless death cycle of war.
Young men killed by politicians’ words and mindless acts,
Their promise and existence forever ended too soon.
Now, forever sleep beneath the green muffled grass
Sharing the earth with the youth and victims of past wars,
Too numerous to count, to numbing to contemplate,
The dead, as powerless and impotent as the now living
To change or alter, or detour the inexorable course of madmen,
They patiently wait for the next generation to join them
.”

a fragment from Harbingers, a poem on the occassion of the Normandy landings anniversary by Curtis D. Bennett

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.

The eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month

Do not despair

For Johnny-head-in-air;

He sleeps as sound

As Johnny underground.

Fetch out no shroud

For Johnny-in-the-cloud;

And keep your tears

For him in after years.

Better by far

For Johnny-the-bright-star,

To keep your head,

And see his children fed.”

For Johnny, written by John Pudney on the back of an envelope as the bombs fell on London in 1941.

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The Remembrance Garden in Princes Street Gardens, right in the shadow of the Scott Monument; in the background were some anti-war protesters, although I should say they were quiet and not at all disrespectful; in fact I saw some talking to some old veterans. I don’t think they had anything against the soldiers or those paying respects to the fallen, just against the concept of war, and its hard to disagree with that.

remembrance 5
remembrance 1

Some of the markers in the Remembrance Garden are plain, many have names or regiments or ships or squadrons marked on them. This one touched me the most – it simply read “to dad”. I have no idea if the dad in question fell in one of the recent conflicts or half a century ago; I doubt it matters, the pain and loss and grief will still hurt as much.
remembrance 2

This one was marked to ‘Uncle Alex’ on HMS Hood; the Hood was a famous, huge Royal Navy battlecruiser. During a duel with the German pocket battleship Bismarck she was completely destroyed; its thought a lucky hit penetrated the weaker upper deck armour and set off a magazine. She exploded and sank almost instantly taking hundreds and hundreds of men with her to the bottom of the ocean; only three sailors from this enormous ship survived. Some say one of her turrets fired a last salvo as she sank. The comedic actor and former Doctor Who Jon Pertwee also served on the Hood and had transferred off her just shortly before the battle to train as a chief petty officer, or he may never have lived to become a famous entertainer.
remembrance - for all in Afghanistan

Not just historical battles remembered here but also the here and now as someone marks a cross for the men and women serving in Afghanistan right now.

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)