Archive for April, 2012

There’s been a lot of noise about Dickens’ bicentenary this year, but it’s also Robert Browning’s (he was born on the 7th of May 1812), which for poets should be equally important.  Victorian poetry’s reputation has never recovered from Modernism, and most people still think of interminable tum-te-tum poems about Empire and Guinevere.  Actually though, I love the Victorians – from Christina Rossetti’s sinister ‘Goblin Market’ to ‘Dover Beach’; ‘The Lady of Shalott’ to ‘The Jabberwocky’; Hopkins’ aching Terrible Sonnets to Oscar Wilde – all those strange, overheated imaginations and the ways depression, absurdity, atheism, desire and a creepy infatuation with childhood strained against polite society.

Robert Browning is perhaps the most distinct and modern of them all.  The dramatic monologue is a form I’m endlessly fascinated by, and he’s obviously the master – everyone knows ‘My Last Duchess.’  But you should also read his creepy childrens’ poem ‘The Pied Piper of Hamelin’, with lines that have haunted children’s dreams for almost two centuries: ‘Rats! /They fought the dogs and killed the cats, / And bit the babies in the cradles, /And ate the cheeses out of the vats, /And licked the soup from the cooks’ own ladles, /Split open the kegs of salted sprats, / Made nests inside men’s Sunday hats.’

And my favourite poem of all is ‘Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came’.  Browning declared himself an atheist (and vegetarian) aged 13 after reading Shelley, and this is a godless text, a kind of proto-version of ‘The Waste Land’ where the knight’s quest through a foul, war-torn landscape is exposed as meaningless.

In one queasy stanza he crosses a river where he fears: ‘To set my foot upon a dead man’s cheek / Each step, or feel the spear I thrust to seek / For hollows, tangled in his hair or beard! / —It may have been a water-rat I speared, / But, ugh! it sounded like a baby’s shriek.’

For the anniversary, Wellesley College have put Browning’s love letters to his wife, Elizabeth Barrett-Browning online, and they are a lovely read – alert and intelligent and charming, letting you see their relationship develop and deepen:

New Cross, Hatcham, Surrey. [Postmark: 10 January 1845] I love your verses with all my heart, Dear Miss Barrett,-and this is no off-hand complimentary letter that I shall write,-whatever else, no prompt matter-of-course recognition of your genius and there a graceful and natural end of the thing: since the day last week when I first read your poems, I quite laugh to remember how I have been turning and turning again in my mind what I should be able to tell you of their effect upon me…

Why not mark his birthday by reading them?  He might get under your skin.  Browning was definitely an influence in my latest collection Changeling, which a friend has suggested is a very Victorian book.  If she means drawing on myth and folktale in dark, off-kilter ways, I’ll concede (and to be truthful, it even has poems about Empire and Guinevere).

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See Naples and Dry

So, last weekend I went to Naples with Richard.  Unfortunately, it wasn’t quite the trip I’d dreamt of – there was no sipping coffee in piazzas or strolling along the Lungomare at sunset with Capri and Vesuvius in the distance – because it absolutely poured for three days.  I mean, really, really pissed it down, as though Jupiter was angry or something.  Still – it was interesting to finally visit Pompeii.  I’ve read so much about it, researching Ovid, and use some of its graffiti as an epigraph in my new version of Heroides:

Marcus loves Spendusa.

Serena hates Isidore

Sarra, you’re not acting very nicely, leaving me all alone

Restitutus has deceived many girls many times

I have f          many girls here

I came here, I f              , I went home

Let him who loves, prosper. Let him who loves not, perish. And let him who forbids love to others perish twice over.

                                                      Graffiti from Pompeii, trans. Jo-Ann Shelton

Pompeii itself was even bigger and stranger than I’d hoped.  To step back in time – to actually be able to stroll around an ancient Roman town, nosing in their gardens and temples and kitchens – was totally absorbing even though the streets had turned to rivers.  I loved the House of the Tragic Poet, with its Beware of the Dog sign; the ampitheatre where gladiators fought; the baths; the tiny bunks in the brothel; shop-fronts; the urine pots which they soaked their laundry.  And then going to the shelter of the Naples museum and seeing all the mosaics and filthy paintings and weird, flying-penis charms they hung off doors.

The weather meant we spent a lot of time eating and drinking too: fresh, deep green olives, warm buttery sfogliatella, bruschetta, truffle-cheese, grappa, buffalo mozzarellas that glugged out milky juice like severed arteries when you cut them, octopus, spaghetti alle vongole, pizza at Da Michele (Supposedly the best in the world – Julia Roberts eats there in Eat, Pray Love.  They serve only margheritas or marinaras: surprisingly thick bases and lots of rich tomato sauce. Very juicy.)  I drank loads of Campari: both negronis (my favourite cocktail) and those little ready mixed bottles you can keep in your handbag and crack open every time you’re sheltering from a storm.

I came back stinking of damp and with welts on my feet from them sloshing round in my inappropriate footwear. Not to mention the Campari headache.  So not the most relaxing weekend, but I’m all fired up about Ovid and Ancient Rome again, ready to put together a show for the festivals this summer. (By the way, I really recommend Mary Beard’s Meet the Romans on the BBC at the moment. It’s full of brilliant details.  And so nice to see a normal, smart, cool fifty-something woman on TV.)

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It’s always a question I dread getting asked in Q&A sessions or interviews.  Where to start? Should I be speaking out for contemporary poets – the peers I most admire (such as Jen Hadfield or Alice Oswald) or think are most unfairly neglected (Mark Waldron or Tim Turnbull)?  Should I mention my biggest influences – Plath, Sexton, O’Hara, Yeats, Ovid?  But what about Keats, Coleridge, Browning, Dickinson, Hopkins, St Vincent Millay, Eliot, Pound, Auden, Ginsberg, Hughes, Jozsef, Akhmatova, Cavafy and Seidel?  And do Homer and Shakespeare go without saying?

One answer I usually manage to blurt, anyway, is John Donne, whose poetry I fell in love with as a teenager,  so it was lovely to be asked to write something about one of his poems – ‘The Good Morrow’ – for the Writer’s Hub’s ‘Poets reading Poets’ series.  The mini-essay is now up here.

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A quick calendar for the forthcoming months – looking forward to the festivals and weeks at Arvon and in Crete. Hope to catch some of you at these events…

Wednesday May 16th – Launch of Lung Jazz: an anthology for Oxfam, at Goodenough College, London

Friday 25th of May – Neu Reekie in Edinburgh

Friday June 1st – Stoke Newington Literary Festival After-Party at Maggie’s Bar

Tuesday June 5th – Beyond Words in London

Saturday 30th June – Workshop for The Wordsworth Trust, Cumbria

July 13th-16th – Latitude Festival

July 16th-21st – Starting to Write with Courttia Newland at Arvon Totleigh Barton

August 10th-12th – Wilderness Festival (with The Idler)

August 24th-26th– Voewood Festival (with The Idler)

September 18th-25th – Loutro Course in Crete

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Sunny Swansea

On my (kind of) holidays – term ended last week which means 3 weeks without night-classes – so have been writing and enjoying my free evenings.  It was lovely to go to the National Poetry Competition awards on Wednesday and catch up with lots of friends I hadn’t seen for a while, particularly Antony Dunn, who got a commendation for his moving poem In Vitro.

On Thursday night I read at the Dylan Thomas Centre in Swansea, where there’s a permanent Thomas exhibition full of interesting objects: the suit he wore the week before he died (borrowed because all his were dirty), letters, sketches…  I did end the evening watching Embarrassing Bodies with a Nandos on my knee (hotel rooms do bad things to me), but made up for it by exploring the city the next day: laverbread and cockles for breakfast (the laverbread was interesting though rather salty), then a walk through the marina to the super-soft beach, backed by dunes.  Paddled (it was wincingly cold), read a bit of Dylan Thomas and collected some shells, getting in tune with my Welsh blood (I’m an 8th Welsh, I realized at Christmas. My Granny Pollard was called Eirlys, which apparently is Welsh for snowdrop).  Liked the city a lot anyway.

Here’s my favourite Thomas poem – a writer’s manifesto, always worth rereading. (‘Sullen art’ is such a brilliant description of poetry isn’t it?)

 In my craft or sullen art

In my craft or sullen art
Exercised in the still night
When only the moon rages
And the lovers lie abed
With all their griefs in their arms
I labour by singing light
Not for ambition or bread
Or the strut and trade of charms
On the ivory stages
But for the common wages
Of their most secret heart.

Not for the proud man apart
From the raging moon I write
On these spindrift pages
Nor for the towering dead
With their nightingales and psalms
But for the lovers, their arms
Round the griefs of the ages,
Who pay no praise or wages
Nor heed my craft or art.

By Dylan Thomas

This weekend Sian, a friend from high school, stayed with me in London and we saw the wonderful Jeremy Deller exhibition at the Haywood.  I dined with him once at the Chelsea Arts Club and he’s a modest, brilliant man (he also picked the guest poem when I edited Magma 50, opting for a Neil Young lyric).  Loved it all – the hunt for Bez that took in Affleck’s Palace, quotes from Morrissey in the style of evangelical posters, a recreation of a Bury café serving free tea, his restaging of the miner’s strike at Orgreave and 3D bats.

Makes Damien Hirst (who opens just down the South Bank at the Tate in the next few weeks) look like the thoughtless purveryor of corporate tat that he is…  We also had the best burgers at the Lucky Chip pop-up at the Seabright Arms -I went for the ‘Kevin Bacon’, Sian went ‘Tom Selleck’ (involved a pineapple ring).

Now I’m off to teach a school for Arvon at Lumb Bank, followed by a Windsor wedding and a few days in Naples.  Freedom!  Enjoy Easter….


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