Don’t talk to me of love. I’ve had an earful
And I get tearful when I’ve downed a drink or two.
I’m one of your talking wounded.
I’m a hostage. I’m maroonded.
But I’m in Paris with you.
Yes I’m angry at the way I’ve been bamboozled
And resentful at the mess I’ve been through.
I admit I’m on the rebound
And I don’t care where are we bound.
I’m in Paris with you.
Do you mind if we do not go to the Louvre
If we say sod off to sodding Notre Dame,
If we skip the Champs Elysées
And remain here in this sleazy
Old hotel room
Doing this and that
To what and whom
Learning who you are,
Learning what I am.
Don’t talk to me of love. Let’s talk of Paris,
The little bit of Paris in our view.
There’s that crack across the ceiling
And the hotel walls are peeling
And I’m in Paris with you.
Don’t talk to me of love. Let’s talk of Paris.
I’m in Paris with the slightest thing you do.
I’m in Paris with your eyes, your mouth,
I’m in Paris with . . . all points south.
Am I embarrassing you?
I’m in Paris with you.
In Paris With You – James Fenton
Lawrence Durrell was a prolific and protean writer. Unlike many of his contemporaries his livelihood depended exclusively upon his literary undertakings. Not only that, Durrell laboured in a variety of genres – criticism, translation, philosophy, satire, travel writing – to be able to sustain himself in “exotic squalor”. He also wrote poetry. And one of his biggest regrets, which he voiced throughout his life, was his failure to establish himself as a credible poet through the work which he regarded as “closest to his heart”. Yet the prodigious corpus he produced as a poet demands that he should be regarded as one. Durrell was a towering visionary philhellene who has left an array of ideas that have shaped not only literature but how it is read. His tremendous gift should have made him a beacon of English writ, but instead this tireless craftsman has been invidiously overlooked. Durrell was one of few major 20th century writers without university training, who aspired to the profession from the vernal age of eight after reading Charles Dickens and subsequently spending the remainder of his childhood “madly scribbling”. Following a rejection by Cambridge and a miscellany of jobs – a nightclub pianist, a photographer, an estate agent – Durrell decided to try and live by his pen. And I for one am very glad he did.
Durrell’s Collected Poems were given to me by a friend, and as we sat in the pub flicking through the compendium I felt myself beset by a sensory fever incited by Durrell’s words. His poetry shines with the shellac of a virtuoso modernist endowed with an enviably pitch-perfect ear and a knack for intense sensuality. Most of the verses describe sexual couplings, amatory intrigues and the complexities of the human condition in startlingly vivid, baroque syntax and febrile imagery. Reading his poetry one gets the distinct impression that Durrell was retooling convention, or at the very least bending it to his will. Poems such as Strip-tease reveal him as an apostle of the avant-garde, exemplified in the closing lines when talking about the “girls” he says: “So swaying as if on pyres they go/About the buried business of the night/Cold witches of the elementary tease/Balanced on the horn of a supposed desire/Trees shed their leaves like some of these.”
The greatest of Durrell’s distinctions is his originality, and his work should stand as an archetype for future poetic exertions. His observations, aphorisms and ideological pronouncements are abundant and judicious. They are also superlatively poignant. Yet Durrell shies away from romanticism. In a poem called Plea, for example, he refers to love as a “cruel apprenticeship” and concludes that “Pleasure is greatest pain so dearly bought/And love unfaithfulness.” In another poem, Repeat, he speaks along the same lines: “I would be rid of you who bind me so/Thoughtless to the stars: I would refrain and turn/Along the unforgotten paths I used to know/Before these eyes were governed to discern/All beauty and all transience in love.”
But Durrell could also be consummately quixotic. In Echo dedicated to his wife Nancy Myers and his new-born daughter Penelope, Durrell ostensibly celebrates the symbolist ideal. “Nothing”, he writes, “is lost, sweet self/Nothing is ever lost/The unspoken word/Is not exhausted but can be heard/Music that stains/The silence remains/O echo is everywhere, the unbecoming bird.” Similarly in another poem to his wife: “We have endured vicissitude and change/Laughter and lanterns, colours in the grass/And all the foreign music of the earth/Starlight and glamour: every subtle range/Of motion, rhythm, and power that gave us birth.” Despite the romantic nature of the two poems, Durrell somehow manages to strip his work of cloying sentimentality, yet he also, and more importantly, strips it of rhetoric and ridged precedents in order to present his ideal of a heraldic reality that is in keeping with his own defiant nature. Some of his best poems are the most seemingly labile, often set in symbolist Greece and full of mystic lyricism, references to the bucolic landscape, the sea and “foreign music of the earth capable of turning a key…in the heart”. His fascination with the Mediterranean is prevalent in much of his work; the campestral setting almost always the central point, the pivot, along with its “cities, plains, and people”. Another of Durrell’s fascinations was the Greek poet Constantine P Cavafy, who is a spectre – ironic, pained – in the sensibility of much of Durrell’s verse. In an eponymous poem dedicated to his hero, Durrell writes: “And here I find him great. Never/To attempt a masterpiece of size/You must leave life for that. No/But always to persevere the adventive/ Minute, never to destroy the truth/Amid the coarse manipulations of the lie.”
Another figure of great importance to Durrell was Henry Miller. The two were lifelong friends, maintaining an epistolary correspondence for over 40 years. In a paean called Elegy on the Closing of the French Brothels Durrell reminisces about their time together in Paris and nebulously mirrors Miller’s pleasure without compunction. He writes: “Of all the sickness, autumnal Paris/This self-infection was the best, where friends/Like self-possession could be learned/Through the mystery of a slit/Like a tear in an old fur coat/A hole in a paper lantern where the seeing I/Looked out and measured one/The ferocious knuckle of sex.” Durrell has a gift for dramatic traction and for combining irony and vulnerability, which strikes at the centre of human emotion. But, on occasion, he can also be obscure, fragmentary and opaque. He does, however, make up for his shortcomings with a number of rhapsodic verses which utilise modernist devises with alchemic valour.
His love poems, which pepper the collection throughout, are among my favourite. They reveal Durrell at his best, as a man of many passions, a lover of numerous women and someone who bravely unveiled and refracted his life on the page. Durrell’s poesy, magisterial in range, contains a great many influences from spiritual philosophy to Elizabethan dramaturges, and enjoys a synergy between fiction and reality: one knows when reading his work that every line has origins in some truth or emotion once felt. Love’s Intensity, one of my favourite poems in this vein, is of simple structure and arrangement but reveals Durrell as a spirited assertor of the soul. It seems to be at once joyous and melancholic: “In all the sad seduction of your ways/I wander as a player tries a part/Seeking a perfect gesture all his days/Roving the wildest margins of his art/I would drink this perfection as a wine/Leash the wild thirst that binds me more than taste/Hoard up the great possession that is mine/Not squander as a drunkard makes his waste/I will be patient if the world be wise/And you be bountiful as you are curt/Until a song awakes those distant eyes/And all your weary gestures cease to hurt.” Another favourite is Return. Here, Durrell reminisces about the past with eloquent intensity: “There is some corner of a lover’s brain/That hold this famous treasure, some dim room/That love has not forgotten, where the sane/Plant of this magic burgeons in the gloom/And pushes out its roots into the mind/Grown rich on the turned soil of days that passed.” Many of Durrell’s love poems are distinguished by a literal view, which is continually merging into the most rapturous or passionately abstract. His divergent voices testify to the endless experiments and the complexity of his poetic expression, to his talent as a modernist, and more importantly to his status as a poet.
Durrell’s multifaceted career and his genre-transforming prose represent the diversity of his contribution to literature. They also point to the fact that he was perhaps one of the first English writers to speak for the post-war generation, chastened and perplexed by a collapse of order and reduced to mindless boredom by decades of chaste parlour prose. Born in India in 1912, the first son of an engineer, Durrell developed his sense of the exotic through his Anglo-Indian upbringing. Yet according to his biographer Ian MacNiven, Durrell also thought of his self-elected lifelong exile as a “psychic burden” and of himself as “the lonely colonial child shadowed by the cosmopolitan writer.” He had a complicated relationship with England, where the family relocated after the premature death of Durrell’s father in 1928. In the early days, Durrell published a few poems between bouts of “drinking and dying”, and in 1935 an acutely autobiographical novel about life in Bloomsbury called Pied Piper of Lovers. That same year Durrell married Myers, the first of his three wives, and moved with his entire family to Corfu, where he wrote his second novel, Panic Spring, published in 1937 under a pseudonym of Charles Norden. His first book of real significance, however, materialised through his correspondence with Miller, who helped him get it published in 1938 by Obelisk Press. Reflecting on that period, Durrell said that The Black Book had a “special importance because in the writing of it I first heard the sound of my own voice.” By 1941, at the outbreak of World War II, Durrell was on his way to Egypt, where he served in Cairo and Alexandria as a British press officer. Exhausted by her husband’s philandering, his avuncular and long-suffering wife left him, making way for Durrell to openly cavort, and eventually marry several other women. It was in Egypt that he began working on the Alexandria Quartet, inspired by the decaying splendour and the seedy café nightlife of the once magnificent city and all its denizens. The Quartet is Durrell’s most remarkable accomplishment, eminently deserving of the Nobel Prize it failed to win. But his poetry is also an achievement of some import, and one which has been overlooked for far too long.
One of my colleagues – an avid reader of poetry – recently asked me why E.E. Cummings was never referenced by the Beat poets such as Allen Ginsberg. I think, as I explained to him, it is probably because his verse is more often than not regarded as frivolous. And yet, in truth, Cummings wrote quite solemn poetry. Posterity has had fun with his legacy, which is somewhat unfortunate. Edward Estlin Cummings was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on 14th October 1894, to parents of old New England stock. Cummings once described his mother, Rebecca, as “the most amazing person” he had ever met and someone who had a judicious facility to “to understand how people really felt.” Speaking of his father, Edward, Cummings said he had loved him with a love which was in fact “worship” but noted that later it turned into one which incited “battle” as he realised his father’s shortcomings. A Harvard sociologist and later a Unitarian minister, Edward Cummings died in a locomotive-automobile accident in 1926. Cummings was greatly affected by his father’s death, despite the growing schism between them, and later celebrated his life in a poignant expression of filial veneration called my father moved through dooms of love (“through sames of am through haves of give/singing each morning out of each night/my father moved through depths of height”). The poem is perhaps one of Cummings’ most explicitly sentimental ones in dealing with affirmative love (“because my father lived his soul/love is the whole and more than all”) as typically his themes revolve around the difficulty of love and the hardship of understanding it as “the mystery of mysteries”.
Speaking about his craft Cummings once stated, “I did not decide to write poetry – I always wrote poetry.” It is thought that he began as early as 1904, while still at Cambridge Latin High School. Strongly encouraged by both his parents, Cummings pursued his interest in writing when he enrolled in Harvard in 1911 to study Classics and Literature. Four years later, he graduated magna cum laude, staying on an additional year to earn his MA in English. Cummings published his first poem in The Harvard Monthly in 1912, and within a year was elected to serve on its editorial board. During this time he studied leading 19th century English poets such as John Keats, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Percy Bysshe Shelley, thus much of his early work was derivative of his idols. He later discovered the works of James Joyce, Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot and the modernist thinkers inspired him to take a new and more progressive direction, including typographical wordplay, which eventually became his pennon. In 1925 a critic by the name of William Russell Clarke berated Cummings’ collection, XLI Poems, saying: “To say that Mr Cummings is a modern would be adding insult to injury. He is a supermodern – a super supermodern. His poetry is so new – so dazzlingly green and uripe and so amazingly unreconcilable with anything – that to attempt to interpret it is as useless as would be the measuring of the Indian Ocean with a tape line. If there is method in his madness, the method is not obvious.” Incredibly scathing in retrospect, but yet today it seems subversively praiseworthy of Cummings’ originality and daring radicalism.
Cummings is someone I discovered later in life. I sometimes wonder how the discovery came about but have no recollection. Whenever I think of him, however, the poem that springs to mind is always one and the same, i carry your heart with me. It is the latent romantic in me that knows the poem by heart and swoons every time, upon recollecting the following lines: “here is the deepest secret nobody knows/(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud/and the sky of the sky of a tree called life; which grows/higher than the soul can hope or mind can hide)/and this is the wonder that’s keeping the stars apart/i carry your heart (i carry it in my heart)”. There is something immeasurably beautiful in the notion of everlasting devotion, which keeps one forever in someone’s heart unbeknown to the person or the world at large. In another poem, of the same theme, i love you much(most beautiful darling), Cummings simply says if everyone could feel the same about a beloved, as he does about his then “everyone certainly would (my most beautiful darling)believe in nothing but love”. A lot of Cummings’ poems on the subject matter resonate with distant echoes of Keats and the Romantic tradition, presented above with a modern take reflecting both the poet’s ingenuity and influences.
In his playful and more frivolous moments Cummings wrote lighter verse epitomised by the likes of may i feel said he (“cccome?said he/ummm said she/you’re divine! said he/ you are Mine said she”), the boys i mean are not refined (“the boys i mean are not refined/they go with girls who buck and bite/they do not give a fuck for luck/they hump them thirteen times a night”) and Me up at does (“Me up at does/out of the floor/quietly Stare/a poisoned mouse/still who alive/is asking What have i done that/You wouldn’t have”). Cummings moved to New York in 1917 after securing employment with P.F. Collier, a company that published a magazine called Collier’s Weekly. It also had a commercial book distribution service, where Cummings worked. The fledgling poet described the work as “warming the chair for three and four hour intervals” thus in between his duties scribbled verse and read newspapers. On one such occasion after reading that William F. Cody, aka Buffalo Bill, had died Cummings wrote Buffalo Bill’s. A poem which is both an elegy and a plangent confrontation: “Buffalo Bill ‘s defunct/who used to/ride a watersmooth-silver/stallion/and break onetwothreefourfive pigeonsjustlikethat/Jesus/he was a handsome man /and what i want to know is/how do you like your blueeyed boy/Mister Death.” A short time after that, and two weeks into his job, Cummings quit, and the rest became documented in his poetry and a flurry of biographies that followed his death of a stroke on September 3rd 1962, at the New Hampshire Memorial Hospital.
Irrespective of the general opinion about him, Cummings always made me contemplate the topics which I would not have done without him such as when he said in but if a living dance upon dead minds that “love everywhere exploding maims and blinds/(but surely does not forget, perish, sleep cannot be/photographed, measured; disdains/the trivial labelling of punctual brains…/-Who wields a poem huger than the grave?/from only Whom shall time no refuge keep/though all the weird worlds must be opened?” And opened they were, in a way that no other poet opened them and no other contemporary had the courage to. So, for that reason and many besides I will always remember Cummings as someone who wrote candidly, as someone who dared to use the word “fuck” in poetry, as someone who was an impertinent disciple and ploughed his own furrow but also as someone who penned something I only felt once towards another captured in the following lines: “your slightest look easily will unclose me/though i have closed myself as fingers”.
I have known the inexorable sadness of pencils,
Neat in their boxes, dolor of pad and paper-weight,
All the misery of manila folders and mucilage,
Desolation in immaculate public places,
Lonely reception room, lavatory, switchboard,
The unalterable pathos of basin and pitcher,
Ritual of multigraph, paper-clip, comma,
Endless duplication of lives and objects.
And I have seen dust from the walls of institutions,
Finer than flour, alive, more dangerous than silica,
Sift, almost invisible, through long afternoons of tedium,
Dropping a fine film on nails and delicate eyebrows,
Glazing the pale hair, the duplicate grey standard faces.
Dolor – Theodore Roethke
Drowning is not so pitiful
As the attempt to rise
Three times, ’tis said, a sinking man
Comes up to face the skies,
And then declines forever
To that abhorred abode,
Where hope and he part company –
For he is grasped of God.
The Maker’s cordial visage,
However good to see,
Is shunned, we must admit it,
Like an adversity.
Drowning Is Not So Pitiful – Emily Dickinson
“As she laughed I was aware of becoming involved in her laughter and being part of it, until her teeth were only accidental stars with a talent for squad-drill. I was drawn in by short gasps, inhaled at each momentary recovery, lost finally in the dark caverns of her throat, bruised by the ripple of unseen muscles.”
Hysteria – T.S Eliot
I once did a brief stint at a publishing house concerned primarily with the cookery, beauty and gardening type of paper-wasting exercises. I used to get dizzy just looking at the mercantile florescent sleeves and cover-jackets, and often found myself in the backroom sorting through old, discarded and out of print copies where I chanced upon a number of poetry collections published in the 1990s. One of them, now sitting beside me as I write this, was that of W.B. Yeats. I learned a lot about Yeats while reading other poets, who always and unanimously hailed him as the laureate of modern romance. In turn, I felt I couldn’t read him for fear of being disappointed, but when I chanced upon his selected poems in an Oxfam in Islington my curiosity got the better of me.
I remember starting out with the Second Coming and being struck by the gnosis of the following lines: “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold/The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere/The ceremony of innocence is drowned/The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity”. By the time Second Coming was penned, in 1919, Yeats was no longer the perfervid young man who would intractably recite aloud, without suspiring, his favourite verses in public places and gormandize on the romantics such as Percy Bysshe Shelley, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Lord Alfred Tennyson. Yeats had, by then, discarded the beautifully rarefied evocative tone of his earlier works for an obdurate sonority confronting reality and its imperfections. This was an altogether different Yeats from the one I would learn about later when reading his early works. William Butler Yeats was not a poet by nature – acutely short-sighted, purportedly dyslexic and severely tone-deaf, he showed a propensity for science rather than language, leaving school with “small Latin and less Greek”. He was, however, “egregiously the poet,” in temperament and in appearance, muttering “ends of verse to himself with a wild eye” sporting “seedy black clothes” and “a large black bow at the root of his long naked throat”. It is now almost impossible, for me at least, to think of Yeats in any other element, but his work remains the biggest testament to his role as one of the greatest arch-bards of the 20th century. Revered by everyone from W.H. Auden to Ezra Pound, Yeats began his craft with light but deeply heartfelt odes to Maud Gonne – a distant cousin he had fallen in love with – likening her to a “rose in the deeps of his heart” and later celebrating her beauty on a Homeric scale. Much of his early work is characterised by the paludal lows of unrequited love resonating in lines such as, “Pale brows, still hands and dim hair/I had a beautiful friend/And dreamed that the old despair/Would end in love in the end”.
Yeats’ despair, however, did not end in love in the end but was intensified by its “bitter mystery” and later Gonne’s marriage. Yeats continued composing poetry in Gonne’s honour despite her feelings which she made clear in a letter, dated February 1989, by saying that if the idea of an absolutely platonic friendship “which is all I can, or ever will be able to give, unsettles you and spoils your work, then you must have the strength and courage at once to give up meeting me”. Unnerved by the realisation that he may never be united in marriage with Gonne, Yeats immersed himself in his work, much of which lamented his predicament: The Sorrow of Love, A Dream of Death, The Wind Among the Reeds, He Wished for The Cloths of Heaven, in which he implores his beloved to tread softly on his dreams, and The White Birds, prompted by a thought of escaping with her to “numberless islands” where neither time nor the world would be of essence or import.
Gonne remained a constant factor in his imaginative and emotional existence and subsequently much of Yeats’ poetry during this time was populated by figures of woman as enchantress and agent of necromancy in the context of quest and death. His poetry had developed a nascent sense of disillusionment, grief and wariness which reached its peak after the news of Gonne’s marriage. He felt “deaf and dumb and blind with love” and recorded his sorrow in Four Unpublished Lines (My dear is angry that of late/I cry all base blood dawn/As if she had not taught me hate/By kisses by a clown) and further in Never Give All the Heart (Never give all the heart, for love/Will hardly seem worth thinking of/To passionate women if it seems/Certain, and they never dream/That it fades out from kiss to kiss/For everything that’s lovely is/But a brief, dreamy, kind delight/O never give the heart outright).
One is led to believe that Yeats never quite got over his first love despite numerous affairs, nuptials and attempts to extricate himself from the continuum of those unrequited feelings. In time, his poetry began to reflect the seismic shifts in his personal as well as his political life. Much of his later work adopted a bleaker, more disillusioned voice lamenting the state of Ireland’s cultural landscape and the emergence of the Irish Free State. Paradoxically, this antiquarian bard with a love of esoteric mysteries was the most contemporary of his peers and the one who still resonates most profoundly with our present anxieties and disillusionments. Yeats’ new take on things is most clearly encapsulated in September 1913, with the resounding refrain, “Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone, It’s with O’Leary in the grave.” Later still, Yeats’ work once again took on a more personal vein; his subjects began to include his children and the onslaught of senescence. In the poem The Circus Animals’ Desertion, published in his last collection, Yeats describes the inspiration for these works by saying: “Now that my ladder’s gone, /I must lie down where all the ladders start /In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.” All in all, Yeats was an incredible poet with an incredibly interesting but torturous life, which makes me think that John Berryman’s desire to be Yeats rather than be like him was somewhat misplaced, because I get the distinct impression that oftentimes even Yeats didn’t want to be Yeats.