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E.E. Cummings: Someone who “always wrote poetry”

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”.

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Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop: “Together till life’s end”

It must be almost five years ago that I read Robert Lowell’s letters, and ever since then I have been meaning to read his complete correspondence with Elizabeth Bishop. I was given Words in Air several years ago for my birthday and only just recently finished the colossal tome. It is now impossible, at least for me, to think of one poet  without the other, or write about them in that vein, as their friendship, which lasted three decades, survived wars, revolutions, failed marriages, breakdowns and supernumerary love affairs and influenced both their lives and their work more than any of the other tribulations. The two were bound by an ineffaceable connection fortified by a “love that was more than love”, which Lowell once surmised in a letter by saying: “You and I are simply one”. Albeit their love never took form in a physical sense, Bishop was the only constant female fixture throughout Lowell’s life, and for his part, he envisaged the two of them together, “till life’s end”.

Many have viewed Bishop’s life and career, independently of Lowell, through her longstanding relationship with Lota Soares, her “secret problem” with drink, and “the smallest of oeuvres”, a mere 70 poems which saw her status elevated to one of the greatest “20th-century poets” on par with the likes of “T.S. Eliot, W.B. Yeats, Wallace Stevens and W.H. Auden”. Even more ascribed this framework of interpretation to Lowell, whose canon burgeoned with fervid alacrity and gathered readership with every volume while Bishop’s remained exclusive compendious and obscure. But for me the two poets have almost always been intrinsically linked together, not only through a lifetime of letters and personal histories but also by an incomparable “conjunction of the minds,” parallel and infinite. Bishop was an alcoholic, Lowell a manic depressive; both were consumed by their craft and an unshakable “dry loneliness,” often finding solace in one another and the thought of freeing themselves from the manacles of social-reality and people’s “universal good-will” by fleeing to Paris or Italy to spend their “declining years”.

The two wrote to one another with great verbal finesse and enthusiasm, whether about their mutual friends, commenting on the deeds and misdeeds of Marianne Moore, Randall Jarrell, Ezra Pound, Allan Tate, Robert Frost, Dylan Thomas and many others; their work and intertwining artistic endeavours; their lives tinctured by disorder and early sorrows, and everything from the profound to the everyday. Lowell always had the capacity to incite antagonism in orthodox strongholds but was a brilliant, indefatigable, talker and incredibly amusing despite his obdurate frankness. His letters are full of incisive wit, elation, ecstasy, disillusionment, despair, sympathies and admonitions, genuinely vernal raptures, occasional bouts of malice and capricious episodic ellipses, transections, changes of tempo and grammatical errors. Lowell begins one letter with the following: “I was just making my bed (if you could call it “making”) when I became aware of a dull burning smell. ‘God, I must have left a cigarette burning.’ I rush into my other room; no cigarette. Absentmindedly I feel in my pocket. There, a lighted cigarette in holder consuming a damp piece of Kleenex. The pocket was also stuffed with kitchen matches. Oh my!” To which Bishop replies in her customary linguistic lambency and unique vernacular of jocularity: “I am mailing you a SAFE if not particularly aesthetic ashtray – I got two of them a while ago. They’re the only ones I’ve ever found that will really hold the cigarette while you write or scratch your head, and yet if you forget it, the cigarette automatically goes out…I was going to give one to Lloyd Frankenberg for Christmas, but they didn’t come in time and now you’re going to get it instead.”

Elizabeth Bishop was introduced to Robert Lowell in January 1947, at dinner party in New York hosted by Randall Jarrell. An exceptionally reticent woman with a, “round face and very thick, unruly, greying hair,” Bishop felt immediately at ease in Lowell’s company and the “backward and forward flow” of supererogatory correspondence commenced immediately, ending only with Lowell’s death in the late 70s. When Bishop wrote the innate shyness which beset her in public was cast aside and thus Lowell was one of very few people cordially inaugurated into this very private woman’s inner life and imagination. Shortly before his passing Lowell wrote to Bishop, “you [have] always been my favourite poet and favourite friend,” and the feeling was wholly mutual. Reminiscing about Lowell looking a “bit rumpled and unkept” with a “large smear of ink across his chin,” Bishop simply concluded that she “loved him at first sight”. In the early years of their friendship the two passed through a shifting and ambiguous phase of mutual attraction, which never developed into anything other than a near proposal of marriage on Lowell’s part during a “long swimming and sunning Stonington [Maine] day” in 1948 when Bishop disclosed to Lowell otherwise uncharted key aspects of her early life.

Almost a decade later, after a manic “harsh frenzy”, Lowell recalls that day, saying: “…our relations seemed to have reached a new place. I assumed that it would be just a matter of time before I proposed and I half believed that you would accept. Yet I wanted it all to have the right build-up. Well, I didn’t say anything then…I was so drunk that my hands turned cold and I felt half-dying and held your hand. And nothing was said…I wanted time and space, and went on assuming, and when I was to have joined you at Key West I was determined to ask you. Really for so callous (I fear) a man, I was fearfully shy and scared of spoiling things…Let me say this though and then leave the matter forever; I do think free will is sewn into everything we do; you can’t cross a street, light a cigarette, drop saccharine in your coffee without really doing it. Yet the possible alternatives that life allows us are very few, often there must be none. I’ve never thought there was any choice for me about writing poetry. No doubt if I had used my head better, ordered my life better, worked harder etc., the poetry would be improved, and there must be many lost poems, innumerable accidents and ill-done actions. But asking you is the might-have-been for me, the one towering change, the other life that might have been had.”

Neither Bishop nor Lowell mentioned the matter again, but their correspondence moved forward year by year. Lowell would send fresh batches of poems in wait of critique from his “unerring Muse,” but the letters were equally and mutually influential in both their individual artistic development and their personal lives. They emerge in a swirl of vividly-recorded quotidian experiences, full of impromptu snapshots drawn from the casual, peculiar, maudlin and happy domestic moments. Such moments punctuate the letters throughout, their tone often wry and witty but always and consistently sympathetic and longing, and of a literary genre in themselves. The interchange records an unfolding intimacy, a colloquial brilliance and a wealth of literary and social history of the American poetry scene and its outstandingly talented mid-century generation. But above all, they unveil a remarkable connection between two lives inexorably linked together till death, which came to Lowell in a form of a heart attack in a New York taxi in 1977 and two years later for Bishop who died of a cerebral aneurysm. Their legacy remains characterised by two people who wrote exclusively to and for one another until the “imperfect end”.

Charles Bukowski: “There’s a bluebird in my heart”

Having spent most of the morning trying to fend off an incredible hangover and a mounting sense of loneliness I picked up The Pleasures of the Damned and headed down to Hyde Park. Sat on a bench, the book in my lap, I watched orgiastic crowds partake in various forms of revelry.  In a bid to discourage anyone from invading my solitude I stretched myself out to the length of the seat,  flipped the book open and began to read, my eyes darting from poem to poem, each incomparable yet sibling to the next in theme and tone and matter. Each one dashed off, no doubt, in haste in between bouts of drinking, longing, loathing and fucking in his shabby one-room Hollywood apartment. It is incredible to think that Bukowski spent his life imbibing rotgut beer and actually managed to write but he once confessed he’d never “written a poem sober”. Perhaps daunted by the prospect he preferred to write while recklessly inebriated or “under the hammer of a black hangover,” unsure “whether another drink or a blade would be the best thing”.  It was usually another drink.  Bukowski began the lifelong habit in the late 1930s “during the last semester of the school year” and carried on throughout his life.

Sitting sedately in the depressingly bright midday sun I turned the pages to a poem called For Jane – a paean to Jane Cooney Baker, Bukwoski’s lover of 10 years who died when he was 38. Addressing her he says: “When you left you took almost everything,” and yet the “hours of love” spent together “still make shadows” impinging on the present. Writing about her later in his novel Women Bukowski simply said: “I had been in love only once. She had died of acute alcoholism.” The other two poems written in Baker’s honour appear simple yet sting you like a sudden throng in the bicuspid. It takes a very argute kind of simple to make that sort of impact. In For Jane: With All the Love I Had Bukowski explores grief by inciting “all the gods” to give her back to him before concluding “they will not”. While in Eulogy to a Hell of a Dame he reminisces, saying: “You’ve been dead/28 years/yet I remember you/better than any of/the rest.” The sense of sadness in these works pulsates through every beat, besmirching Bukowski’s belief that what he prized most “could never die/in the common variety of dying”.

There are many reasons why I love Bukowski, but perhaps the most pertinent one is that he had the knack of a thaumaturge to express the variegation of every emotion effortlessly. There has been a lot of contention about his writing credentials throughout the years, his tawdry gutter-friendly scribe and carefree vitriolic disregard of the literary establishment. Bukowski was adamant, however, that the bombastic marmots expectorating their elitist catechisms never bothered him and in a poem entitled “Scene from 1940”, says “praise was the only thing I couldn’t handle.” Notoriously self-deprecating and acutely conscious of his own shortcomings he once noted: “It takes a lot of desperation, dissatisfaction and disillusion to write.” Bukowski had all three in abundance – a result of a turbulent childhood spent in the shadow of an iconoclastic heavy-drinking father, his own dependence on alcohol, physical self-disgust fuelled by a severe case of acne vulgaris and a sense of alienation in the “wasted landscape” of middle class America. Bukowski chose his subjects accordingly and filled his poetry and prose with “saints, heroes, beggars, madmen…banality and booze”. He documents his fatidic disenchantment with modern day life in “Putrefaction”, asserting that “We have/More than ever/The selfish wants of power/The disregard for the/Weak/The old/The impoverished/The helpless” and have become so benumbed “We can’t even cry”, as well as in The Genius of the Crowd (There is enough treachery, hatred/Violence/ Absurdity in the average human being/ To supply any given army on any given day), and in Hug the Dark when the poet declares with a fixed conviction: “There is no god/There are no politics/There is no peace/There is no love/There is no control/There is no plan/Stay away from god/Remain disturbed/Slide.”

And for his part, Bukowski always did slide from one bar to another, from love to lust, from job to job, boozing, fighting, gambling and collecting rejection slips from numerous publishers. In his 20s he wrote a great number of short stories, one of which was published in Story Magazine. Nevertheless, Bukowski became increasingly disheartened and consoled himself with thoughts of suicide – a theme which features heavily throughout his work, as do his other lifelong fascinations conveyed in scabrous odes to nocturnal Hollywood and its characters, masturbation, whores, brawls, isolation and beer. Albeit the poetry came later, the themes remained the same – “the pleasures of the damned” and their “brief moments of happiness”.  In this collection Bukowski invites the reader into his world by saying “Welcome to my wormy hell” and keeps him captive, immersed in the poems which he himself describes as “as bits of scratchings/on the floor of a/cage”. Ralph Waldo Emerson once observed that there must always “be a man behind the book”.  Bukowski made himself an open one and thus whatever happened to Bukowski – love, sex, heartbreak, impotence or flatulence – inevitably snaked its way into his work.

This particular collection, which heaps together four decades worth of toil, contains the poems of senescent resignation as well as those written in the throes of life, in constupration  of whores and liquor bottles. The former is best captured in this snapshot from It Is Not Much when Bukowski exclaims: “I suppose like others/I have come through fire and sword/Love gone wrong/Head-on crashes/Drunk at sea/And I have listened to the simple sound of water running/In tubs/And wished to die,” fought against it only to realise that “Some god pissed a rain of reason/To make things grow/Only to die.” Near the end of his life many poems revolved around the theme of mortality. Bukwoski ruminates over the subject saying “It bothers the young most, I think/An unviolent slow death,” while the idea of it makes the old consolable, accepting. Many of his poems are pessimistic, sardonic in tone, but resolute in extracting most of what life has to offer before “death gets as close as any love has”. The poems also emphasize the puissance of catharsis, its place in literature and the ability it has to redeem even the most sordid, second-rate life. Bukowski’s observations range from the shallow to the etiological in almost one sweep as he talks about the makings of true friendship before relaying the debauchery of yielding, blue-eyed odalisques.  And yet there’s something truly heart-wrenching when he notes: “I’ve always said/If you want to know who your friends are/Go to a madhouse/Or jail/And if you want to find out where love is not/Be a perpetual/Loser.” Perhaps because he really knew what he was talking about.

The self proclaimed “dirty old man” was driven by some divine eleutheromania, a need to break from the cultural and social status quo, elitist attitudes in art and academia and the capitalistic conventions of booming 1960s America. In doing so he often and unashamedly depicted himself as a congenital loser trapped in a dead end job pinpointing the oppressiveness of the workplace and thereby contradicting all the antecedent, romantic notions of the American Dream. Before walking out on his one and only long-term job with the US Post Office, Bukowski weighed up his options by saying: “I have one of two choices—stay in the post office and go crazy . . . or stay out here and play at writer and starve. I have decided to starve.” Despite his reputation as a proto-slacker, Bukowski was a working man, an underclass one, with sweat on his brow and calluses on his hands, who obdurately laboured at his typewriter and never lost the drive.  That’s not to say he didn’t toil in uncertainty. He opens One More Good One for example by saying: “To be writing poetry at the age of 50/Like a schoolboy/Surely I must be crazy.” And that he was, but not where writing was concerned – his body of work is testament to that. Bukowski was the genuine article, a visionary, a complicated man engrossed in simple pursuits interspersed with “working stiff” for eight hours straight in front of the typewriter.  Thus when a man like that implores you to read what he’s written and “then forget it all” I personally know there’s no chance because “there’s a bluebird in my heart” and I don’t think he’d go for that.

Gérard de Nerval: Even though he asked for criticism he deserves nothing but praise

It has recently occurred to me that to be really great at the art of writing one must be afflicted by either love or madness. Gérard de Nerval was afflicted by both, and yet his greatness eluded widespread acclaim. Although apotheosised by the likes of T.S. Eliot, Charles Baudelaire, Victor Hugo, Marcel Proust, Théophile Gautier and Andre Breton, he remains almost unknown and eclipsed by the stentorian voices posterity bestowed on his own admirers.

Gérard Lebrunie, later known as Gérard de Nerval, published 12 books before the age of 20, including a translation of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust which garnered a compliment from Goethe himself who confessed: “I have never understood myself so well, as in reading your translation.” Nerval peaked early and continued to do so intermittently throughout his brief life between manic whirls of insanity and subsequent institutionalisations. He wrote poetry and prose, collaborated on plays with Alexandre Dumas and Victor Hugo, helped Heinrich Heine translate his poetry into French, founded a performing arts periodical and travelled extensively throughout Europe and the Middle East documenting the milieu of each place with the insightful precision of an expert cicerone. At home, among his Jeune-France literati friends of 1830s Paris, Nerval was known as a nocturnal flâneur and is said to have walked about the streets with a live lobster on a length of a blue ribbon while singing verses to himself. Reading the introduction to Les Chimères, a collection of seven of Nerval’s most acclaimed sonnets published by Menard Press, I learned a wealth of autobiographical information essential to the understanding of these works.

Writing about Nerval, French critic Eugene de Mirecourt said: “Gentle as a lamb, timid as a young girl Gérard never spoke of himself. He blushed when anyone spoke of his works with praise. He thought himself the humblest and the last among the combatants in the great arena of letters.” And it seems that he was, for his clothes were always said to be inconspicuous and his manner free from the affectations of a dandy or a Bohemian. Forever kind, gentle and modest, Nerval never permitted himself to impose on his friends, not even towards the end of his impecunious life when he slept in common lodging houses and bedsits for the homeless. On 26th January 1855, Nerval was found hanging in the sordid rue de la Vieille Lanterne. It is generally believed that he committed suicide.

Born in 1808, Nerval was entrusted to a great-uncle in the bucolic rural region of Valois, while his father, a surgeon with the Napoleonic army, worked in Germany. His mother died, when he was two years old, assisting her husband on his tours abroad. After Napoleon’s defeat Nerval’s father, Dr Lebrunie, returned to Paris. Nerval joined him there in 1816 and lived with him until 1834. After short travels around Italy and the Provence, Nerval returned to Paris that same year and fell in love with a small-time theatre actress Jenny Colon. He founded a review, La Monde Dramatique, devoted largely to her praise and for a while Colon was the cynosure of Nerval’s life, although his feelings were unreciprocated. Eventually, Colon married a musician and died some years later in 1842. Colon’s hex on Nerval never ceased nor did his profound infatuation. He etherealised and panegyrised her in his work and reveries in various guises as unattainable embodiments of ideal femininity, as the belle morte, and the reincarnation of his first love Adrienne, who also died. Speaking about his feelings for Colon with some retrospection, Nerval said: “Nothing is more dangerous for people of a dreamy disposition than a serious passion for a person of the theatre; it is a perpetual lie, a sick man’s dream, the illusion of a madman. The whole of life becomes attached to an unrealisable chimera which one would be happy to maintain at the stage of desire and aspiration but which fades away as soon as one wants to touch the idol.”

Often regarded as a precursor of the Symbolists and the Surrealists, Nerval was one of the first writers to explore the subconscious or as he called it the “overflowing of dreams into real life.” Remembered for his vivid delineation of illusory mental states and for the far-reaching influence of his artistic vision, Nerval presented images in his works that originated from varied yet syndetic sources such as mythology, religion, illusion, hallucination and the occult. His themes were dominated by several continual personal obsessions and his greatest creative energy was fuelled by the insanity that beleaguered him for much of his adult life. Les Chimères draws on a wide scope of orphic influences most notably Greek mythology, medieval folklore, alchemy and symbolic lore. The collection opens with El Desdichado, which was composed in a “state of supernaturalist reverie” and denotes the wistful tone of the anthology with the opening lines: “I am the brooding shadow – the bereaved – the unconsoled/Aquitaine’s prince of the doomed tower/My only star is dead and my astral lute/Bears the black sun of melancholy.” Nerval makes clear from the start that it is “we the living who walk in the world of phantoms”, referring to himself as the “bereaved” and Colon as his “only star” who is indeed dead in every sense except the poet’s memory and imagination. Nerval travelled to the Middle East shortly after Colon’s passing and upon his return to Paris was institutionalised several times. Noting that his increasingly disarrayed psyche impeded his work, he once wrote: “I set off after an idea and lose myself; I am hours into finding my way back…I can scarcely write 20 lines a day, the darkness comes about me so close.”

The Les Chimères collection first published in 1854 is intensely personal, unique as madness itself, and possesses all the elements later seen in the works of the Symbolists. The second sonnet called Myrtho is more apocryphal than the first, thus the notes in the back-pages are eternally helpful. Myrtho stands for an image of classical antiquity, a “divine enchantress” and follower of Bacchus, the narrator is a disciple of both, “a son of Greece” who addresses Myrtho: “In your cup too I drank of ecstasy/And in the furtive flash of your smiling eye/When at the feet of Bacchus you saw me pray.” The poems waver among reasoned deliberation, vision, spiritual mysticism and implacable despair. The delicacy and subtlety of the “rime riche” is melodious without exertion. And despite first impressions of mystery the meanings slowly ferment in the mind, emerging in distinctive lucidity. In Anteros, for example, Nerval exclaims: “You ask why I have so wrathful a heart/And on pliant neck an untamed head/A descendant of Antaean blood/ I hurl spears back at the conquering god.” Clearly assuming the role of Anteros, the avenger of unrequited love and twin brother of Eros, he voices his personal experiences of unreciprocated affection (“wrathful a heart”), madness (“untamed head”) and its effects upon him described as “Cain’s ruthless flush”. There are also other connotations in the mythical allusions to gods and associative religious meanings but I have read the collection from my own perhaps somewhat parochial perspective, drawing parallels between Nerval’s life and its impacts on his work.

The poem I read and re-read and chose as my favourite is one that’s most open to interpretation. It is also one that’s been said to be the most highly influential in the craft of Stéphane Mallarmé and Paul Verlain through its fluid rhythm, repetitions and echoes, foreshadowing the styles of both poets. Artemis is something of a vision which appears to have occurred to Nerval beyond, if not against, his will. Unlike most Romantics, Nerval did not make his poetry a slave to beauty nor a vessel through which to extemporise it, focusing instead, if subconsciously, on capturing something that’s volatile and intangible without losing its mystery or charm. In Artemis Nerval seems to be addressing the concrete and the ethereal, “the only one or last lover”, saying: “Love who loved you from cradle to brier/She whom I alone loved, loves me tenderly still/She is death or the dead one…O rapture! Woe!/The rose she holds is the rose mallow.” Death and love are closely intertwined with the beloved dead as Nerval laments loss while lauding “the saint of abyss”, and the inevitable end. The obscurity of all the sonnets reflects Nerval’s state of mind, which he described in La Reve et la Vie: “I then saw vaguely drifting into form, plastic visions of antiquity, which outlined themselves, became definite, and seemed to represent symbols, of which I only seized the idea with difficulty.” And to some extent the reader is faced with that same difficulty, but I think the notion that “often in the obscure being, dwells a hidden God” is rather fitting in regard to Nerval’s work, even though he never would have conceded to it, as he once said: “It will be my last madness to believe myself to be a poet: let criticism cure me of it.” Fortunately his call was never answered, because even though he asked for criticism he deserves nothing but praise.

John Keats: “There is nothing in the world so bright and delicate”

Like Aristotle’s theory of tragedy, John Keats’ life unravelled in a climatic procession of dramatic events steeped in universal trappings of love, loss and thwarted happiness. Having spent most of his life obsessively fixated with the idea of death, Keats’ tragic poverty-stricken end arrived at the vernal age of 25. He passed away in a foreign land, torn from the woman he loved, believing he had left no footprint in the world, no “immortal work”. Flicking through the beautiful Salt Pocket Classics’ edition of Ode to Psyche and Other Poems I was reminded why Keats had always been my favourite elegiac potentate of lovelorn verse. It is impossible to mistake his work with any one of his contemporaries, for not a single one was capable of scribing in that consummately melancholic vein or gleaning “beauty in all things.”

Some critics have hypothesised that Keats’ end was, in part, brought about by savage criticism when in fact it was his irreversibly failing health.  Keats and his friend, the painter Joseph Severn, sailed to Italy in September 1820, hoping that the climate would be more salubrious for the poet’s well-being. Alas, Keats “sank into death” from tuberculosis in Rome on 23rd February 1821, with Severn by his side playing Joseph Haydn on the piano as Keats had requested. The story of Keats – his working-class genesis, the lacuna in formal education, poor critical reception and premature death constitute a perfect tabulation for a popular archetype of the Romantic Poet. The myth, however, detracts somewhat from his influence on the Romanic Movement and the precedent he set in regulating poetic life by principal aesthetic tastes.

Shortly after Keats’ passing, Severn painted a portrait of his late friend. Recollecting the process, he said: “I made an effort to call-up the last pleasant remembrance…at the time he first fell ill and had written the ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ (1819) on the morn of my visit to Hampstead. I found him sitting with the two chairs as I have painted him and I was struck with the first real symptom of sadness which Keats so finely expressed in that poem.” Ode to a Nightingale is one of six Odes which Keats penned between 1818 and 1819, while residing at Wentworth Place in Hampstead Heath with his friend Charles Armitage Brown. That winter marked the beginning of Keats’ annus mirabilis in which he wrote his most sophisticated work. The Ode traces the inception, temperament and decline of the creative mood, and expresses Keats’ attempt to comprehend the disparity between the ideal and the corporeal, the inextricable affinity between pleasure and pain, and more particularly, the desire to escape earthly imperatives and “fade away” into the idyllic world as represented by the nightingale, until eventually Keats concedes defeat and bids the bird to: “…quietly forget/ What thou among the leaves hast never known/ The weariness, the fever, and the fret/ Here, where men sit and hear each other groan”.

The theme of the melancholic, the sensual, the cultic and the moral, binds the Odes together. Ode to Melancholy is equally as lyrical and affecting yet one of the most overlooked. Here Keats attempts to express the “anguish of the soul” through reference to nature, saying: “But when the melancholy fit shall fall/ Sudden from heaven like a weeping cloud/ That fosters the droop-headed flowers all/ And hides the green hill in an April shroud.” The poem rejects conventional preoccupations, of the gothic imagination with the macabre, in favour of the meditations which interested Keats in the Ode to a Nightingale, namely beauty and its transience, melancholy and its relationship with mirth, encapsulated perfectly in the following lines: “She dwells with Beauty – Beauty that must die/ And Joy, whose hand is ever at his lips/ Bidding adieu; and aching Pleasure nigh/ Turning to poison while the bee-mouth sips.”

The title poem of the collection, Ode to Psyche, was the one that started the series, although according to some sources Ode to Indolence was written first. The original version of Ode to Psyche was recorded in a letter Keats wrote to his brother George. The epistle ends with a transcript of the poem, of which Keats notes: “I have for the most part dash’d of[f] my lines in a hurry – This I have done leisurely – I think it reads the more richly for it and will I hope encourage me to write other thing[s] in even a more peaceable and healthy spirit.” The poem, regarded to be the most puritanical, despite its ripened metaphors and imagery, aims at a complete and lasting annihilation of the sensuous in favour of the cerebral, with Keats exclaiming: “Oh for a life of thoughts…instead of Sensation!” and later vowing to the Psyche: “Yes, I will be thy priest, and build a fane / In some untrodden region of my mind.”

Most of Keats’ poetry written during this period was influenced predominantly by him falling in love. Keats first met Fanny Brawne in 1818 while she was visiting Wentworth Place. A year later, Brawne and her widowed mother moved there and the couple’s relations began to transform into “huge cloudy symbols of a high romance”. It proved an impetus and an inspiration, inculcating Keats’ craft with the vibrancy of his new-found feelings. Coquettish and of “elegant, pure, aerial” mind, endowed with natural bonhomie and a fine wit, Brawne soon had Keats “entrammeled” and “careless of all charms” but hers. On his part, Keats took the monadic representation of his beloved “sweet creature”, and turned it into a vivid image in Bright Star which he later gifted to Brawne as a declaration of his intentions, making pellucid his desire to live with her forever or “else swoon to death”. The concept of the poem is echoed in one of Keats’ letter when he says: “You dazzled me – There is nothing in the world so bright and delicate.” It was a sentiment reiterated in many of his epistles, alongside his unyielding, prehensile, yearning for her with confessions such as: “I want to believe in immortality…If I am destined to be happy with you here – how short is the longest life. I wish to live with you forever,” and “I cannot exist without you – I am forgetful of every thing but seeing you again – my Life seems to stop there – I see no further. You have absorb’d me.”

In the beginning, however, Brawne both confused and exasperated Keats as much as she fascinated him. Keats wrote to his brother George on the subject: “Shall I give you Miss Brawne? She is about my height with a fine style of countenance of the lengthened sort – she wants sentiment in every feature – she manages to make her hair look well – her nostrils are fine though a little painful – her mouth is bad and good – her Profile is better than her full-face which indeed is not full but pale and thin without showing any bone – her shape is very graceful and so are her movements – Her arms are good her hands baddish – her feet tolerable…. She is not seventeen – but she is ignorant – monstrous in her behaviour flying out in all directions, calling people such names that I was forced lately to make use of the term Minx – this I think not from any innate vice but from a penchant she has for acting stylishly. I am, however, tired of such style and shall decline any more of it.”

But, of course, he could not decline. It was already too late. Having previously declared that any creature in love “cuts the sorryest figure in the world”, he became a new man, one for whom love was a “religion” and a thing so sacrosanct he was ready and willing to “die” for it. These biographical developments coincide with new directions in Keats’ craft, denoting an allegiance to his newly found amative convictions and a tentative exploration of the interrelation between mythology, experience and the imagination. La Belle Dame Sans Merci, considered to be one of Keats’ finest ballads and penned in medieval tradition with classical, biblical and historical references, draws on the destructive nature of desire which Keats himself knew firsthand through the petty jealousies and insecurities that made his love both his “pleasure and torment”. La Belle Dame Sans Merci relays a tale of a knight enthralled by an elfin woman, an innocent yet obdurate seductresses charming the male to his proverbial end with doleful “wild wild eyes” and promises of love.  The poem is both sensual and emotional, and pays homage to Brawne, who like La Belle Dame had Keats “in thrall”, as following lines attests: “I met a lady in the meads/Full beautiful—a faery’s child/ Her hair was long, her foot was light/ And her eyes were wild…She found me roots of relish sweet/ And honey wild, and manna dew/ And sure in language strange she said/I love thee true.”

Everything Keats wrote in that year was a far cry from his earlier work, which impenitently questioned the sweet encomiums of amour and their facile undertones, most notably in Modern Love when he queried mockingly: “And what is love? It is a doll dressed up/For idleness to cosset, nurse and dandle,” or proclaimed in winsome verse, like some jejune hellion, his “beloved Trinity” to be: “women, wine and snuff”. There’s little doubt that Keats’ personal life played a pivotal part in his work, epitomised succinctly but aptly by the following line in a letter to Brawne: “My Creed is Love and you are its only tenet.” The Salt Pocket Classics’ collection, selected and introduced by Chris Hamilton-Emery, contains Keats’ most celebrated works including all the Odes, and some of my personal favourites such as: Fancy (Oh, sweet Fancy! let her loose/Every thing is spoilt by use), To Autumn (Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?/Think not of them, thou hast thy music too/While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day/And touch the stubble plains with rosy hue), When I Have Fears (When I have fears that I may cease to be/ Before my pen has glean’d my teeming brain/Before high piled books, in charact’ry/ Hold like rich garners the full-ripen’d grain/ When I behold, upon the night’s starr’d face/ Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance/ And think that I may never live to trace/Their shadows, with the magic hand of chance) and To Sleep (O soft embalmer of the still midnight!/ Shutting with careful fingers and benign/Our gloom-pleased eyes, embower’d from the light/ Enshaded in forgetfulness divine). Reading Keats’ work again, contemplating his life, its “sorrows and delights/passions and their spites”, I realised that his name is not only “writ in water” but also in the minds, the hearts and the notebooks of millions of old romantics like me.

Ted Hughes: The male lead dressed in veteran RAF black asserting his voice over the dead

Sylvia Plath met Ted Hughes in 1956 at a student party in Cambridge. Overcome by some libidinous caprice Plath bit Hughes on the cheek, an incident which Hughes immortalised in St Botolph’s by recollecting “the swelling ring-moat of tooth marks/That was to brand my face for the next month/The me beneath it for good”.  For her part, recording the evening in her Journal, Plath described him as the only man there “huge enough for me…the one man in the room who was as big as his poems”. Later, she wrote to her mother in a distinctly mythologising vein describing Hughes “as the strongest man in the world…a large, hulking, healthy, Adam, half French, half Irish, with a voice like the thunder of God – a singer, storyteller, lion and word-wanderer, a vagabond who will never stop.” She was right, at least in part; he never did stop not until death got the better of him. I read the Crow a number of years ago and found the satanic folktale impenetrable. This bias, however, did not affect my decision in buying Birthday Letters. The collection of 88 poems was published in 1998 and documents Hughes’ professional and personal relationship with Plath in a startlingly and markedly confessional tone, a tone which Hughes had previously eschewed from his work.

I never really thought of Ted Hughes as a poet, but rather the handsome yet slatternly scholar dressed in “veteran RAF black” playing the inconsonant husband to Plath’s staunch wife. The two met at University, she a Fullbright scholar and the daughter of New England intellectuals, he a working class boy from Mytholmroyd, West Yorkshire; marriage, mortgage, children followed and later infidelity, despair, abandonment and Plath’s suicide.  The plateau of their connubial life was firmly protected by Hughes’ silence thus Birthday Letters came as a momentous turn – apparently propelled by Hughes’ need for “inner liberation”. Writing at the time to his friend Kathleen Raine, Hughes said: “Those letters do release the story that everything I have written since the early 1960s has been evading. It was in a kind of desperation that I finally did published them – I had always thought them unpublishibly raw and unguarded, simply too vulnerable. But then I just could not endure being blocked any longer…If only I had done the equivalent 30 years ago, I might have had a more fruitful career – certainly a much freer psychological life.” And later defending his decision he said the grief had “gagged my whole life, arrested me, essentially, right back there at that point. Like those First World War survivors who never climbed out entirely out of the trench.”

The collection is marked by a mixture of humility, self-aggrandizement, self-liberation and love and gives a profound insight into the crippling sense of guilt, anger, sadness and chastisement Hughes’ experienced after Plath’s death. It paints an intimate portrait of their torturous relationship from that initial encounter, when he was still oblivious of “being auditioned for the male lead” in her drama. The poems are characterised by long, un-rhyming lines, few stanza breaks and little distance between the speaker and the poet offering the most emotionally palpable work of Hughes’ career. Candid, tensile, accusing, vulnerable they recapitulate all the major preoccupations that characterised Plath’s own writing – death, survival, love, loss, the self – revealing the extent of her influence on Hughes and his work.  And yet his voice, is never submerged, looming over poems such as Fullbright Scholars (The picture: The Fullbright Scholars…/Maybe I weighted you up, feeling unlikely/Noted your long hair/loose waves/Your Veronica Lake bang…/Your exaggerated American/Grin for the cameras), Portraits (What happened to Howard’s portrait of you? I wanted that painting…/Molten, luminous, looking at us/From that window of Howard’s vision of you), Perfect Light (There you are in all you innocence…/Perfect light in your face lights it up…/Among your daffodils. In your arms/ Like a teddy bear, your new son)  and Drawing (Drawing calmed you…/I drank from your concentrated quiet/In this contemplative calm/Now I drink from your stillness that neither/Of us can disturb or escape) where Plath is nothing more than a memory, a static image, as Hughes asserts his living voice over the dead.

Hughes’ authority, however, is transient. He shifts it toward Plath by naming her as the dominant party in their relationship, at first covertly in A Pink Wool Knitted Dress when he describes the contrasting reactions to their wedding day, saying: “You shook, you sobbed with joy, you were ocean depth/Brimming with God/You said you saw the heavens open/And show riches, ready to drop upon us/Levitated beside you, I stood subjected/To a strange tense: the spellbound future.” This characterisation becomes more overt in Trophies when he describes Plath as a “big cat” and himself in a “shock attack of a big predator”. In 18 Rugby Street Hughes emphasises Plath’s role as the hunter, saying: “I can hear you/Climbing the bare stairs/Alive and close…/That was your artillery; to confuse me/Before coming over the top in your panoply/You wanted me to hear you panting.” And again, in The Shot, when he engages in a proverbial combative struggle with his wife, comparing her to a hit: “Your Daddy had been aiming you at god/When his death touched the trigger/In that flash/You saw your whole life. You ricocheted/The length of your Alpha career/With the fury of a high velocity bullet/Till your real target/Hid behind me. Your Daddy/The god with the smoking gun/For a long time/Vague as mist /I did not even know/I had been hit/Or that you had gone clean through me/To bury yourself at last in the heart of the god.”

A lot of the poems ruminate over Plath’s lifelong preoccupations with her father and death, and the fibrous roots of one in the other.  Occasionally, Hughes intimates that she used her writing as a weapon to not only to hurt herself but also her family. Her poetic achievements, which a traditional elegy would commend, are muted and tinged with her husband’s regret. In Moonwalk Hughes says: “You carried it all, like shards and moults on a tray/To be reassembled/In a poem to be written so prettily/And to be worn like a fiesta mask/By the daemon that gazed through it/As through empty sockets – that still gazes/Through it at me”. Later he laments the destructive potency of her work by saying her poems followed her with their “blood-sticky feet” and in Apprehensions he relays Plath’s own worries: “Your writing was also your fear/At times it was your terror, that all/Your wedding presents, your dreams, your husband/Would be taken from you/By the terror’s goblins.” The tentative bridge between fact and self-contained symbolic image, between Plath’s exploration of the relationship with her dead father and death itself, becomes a world. And even when she “had stripped the death-dress off/Burned it on Daddy’s grave,” it’s never for long. Hughes observes in Dream Life that despite it all: “You descended in each night’s sleep/In to your father’s grave/Your sleep was a bloody shrine it seemed,” and in Being Christlike he says almost accusingly: “You did not want to be Christlike. Though your father/Was your God and there was no other, you did not/Want to be Christlike. Though you walked/In the love of your father.”

The poetic terrain of Birthday Letters is multifaceted, revelatory and contains a magnificent fusion of private and universal motifs giving a voice to Hughes’ piercing impression of the life he shared with Plath. Between the poems of guilt, accusation and blame, and the poems of life and death, are poems of love; tender, lachrymose, retrospective, sad. Hughes recollects their first meeting in St Botolph’s, for example, with great tenderness, saying:  “Taller/Than ever you were again, swaying so slender/It seemed your long, perfect, American legs/Simply went on. That flaring hand/Those long balletic monkey-elegant fingers/And the face –  a tight ball of joy/I see you there clearer, more real/Than in any of the years in its shadow/As if I saw you that once, then never again”. And in 18 Rugby Street he surmises that Plath was “a new world. My new world/So this is America, I marvelled/Beautiful, beautiful America!” Hughes never really explores the breakdown of their marriage or their mutual literary influence on one another’s work, preferring to concentrate on Plath’s inner issues and his feelings of subverted rejection. But perhaps he felt no need to state the obvious, because in Birthday Letters Hughes’ voice is undeniably intermingled with his wife’s to the point where these two individual poets become inseparably one.

W.H Auden: His “gift survived it all” and made intelligible “every human love”

Rummaging through my modest library I was surprised to find a beautiful Faber and Faber edition of W.H. Auden’s works. It was given to me at Christmas last year and has remained untouched ever since. Spellbound by the magnificent hardback I sought to rectify this at once and turned the virginal pages to a poem called Musée des Beaux Arts which opens with the following lines: “About suffering they were never wrong/The Old Masters: how well they understood/Its human position; how it takes place/While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along.” The Old Masters were hardly ever wrong about anything, not least about the art of suffering.

I was quite young and still at school when I was introduced to Auden’s work. Funeral Blues was on the Curriculum and thus we were expected to learn it and fathom something that, at the time, was beyond us. It took me about a week to memorise it, and funnily enough I can still recite it to this day. I didn’t realise then and up to until quite recently that the poem was originally written as an ironic pastiche of an elegy to a fallen political figure, but even that does not detract from the fact that it must be one of the most eloquent exclamations of grief ever penned.

I have read Auden intermittently throughout my life, occasionally chancing upon his poems in a public library or more often a private one of some friend or acquaintance, and I have always admired his ability to mesh poetic vigour with intellectual gasconade and technical virtuosity. Above all I have always associated Auden with some of the most memorable and most quoted lines in the English language: “Stop all the clocks cut off the telephone/ Prevent a dog from barking with a juicy bone,” or “I’ll love you, dear, I’ll love you/Till China and Africa meet/And the river jumps over the mountain/And the salmon sing in the street” or “Lay your sleeping head, my love/Human on my faithless arm”, or more controversially, the line from September 1, 1939, “We must love one another or die”—which Auden had removed from his own catalogue.

Flicking through the slender selection I was also reminded of his lesser known works such as If I Could Tell You (Time will say nothing but I told you so/Time only knows the price we have to pay/If I could tell you I would let you know), Walks (I choose the road from here to there/When I’ve a scandalous tale to bear/Tools to return and books to lend/To someone at the other end) and In Memory of W. B. Yeats (You were silly like us: your gift survived it all/The parish of rich women, physical decay/Yourself: Mad Ireland hurt you in to poetry) all of which display an overwhelming variety of subjects and ideas that pay homage to Auden’s questing intellect. It would be facetious to say that all the poems in the selection are good, because Auden, like any poet, fluctuated from the superb to the obtuse. But even “bad poetry springs from genuine feeling” and what distinguished Auden from his contemporaries is the emotional tone; its resonance and potency.

Auden decided on a career as a poet in his early teens having abandoned hope of becoming a mining engineer. Speaking about his early years, he once confessed: “I was going to be a mining engineer or a geologist. Between the ages of six and twelve, I spent many hours of my time constructing a highly elaborate private world of my own based on, first of all, a landscape, the limestone moors of the Pennines; and second, an industry—lead mining… Later, I realized, in constructing this world which was only inhabited by me, I was already beginning to learn how poetry is written. Then, my final decision, which seemed to be fairly fortuitous at the time, took place in 1922, in March when I was walking across a field with a friend of mine from school who later became a painter. He asked me, “Do you ever write poetry?” and I said, “No”—I’d never thought of doing so. He said: “Why don’t you?”—and at that point I decided that’s what I would do. Looking back, I conceived how the ground had been prepared.”

Poetry quickly became a vocation which Auden believed aligned itself with Freud’s philosophy that art often manifests out of one’s struggle with personal unhappiness. In Auden’s case this often sprung from feelings of guilt over his homosexuality, documented as early as his adolescent verse. Auden was always very prolific, never wrote when drunk, lived by his watch and travelled extensively throughout his life to Belgium, Switzerland, Czechoslovakia, Denmark, Portugal, France, Spain and even Hong Kong, which for a while complied with his desire to “live deliberately without roots”. Eventually, though, he settled in New York where he did some of his best and worst work. He became more contrary, more philosophical, more formally traditionalist and more openly gay; transforming into a boozy, wizened, loquacious Auden who wrote more journalism and composed the four poems that remain at the heart of his canon: For the Time Being, New Year Letter, The Age of Anxiety and The Sea and the Mirror. Auden’s work has always been described as somewhat ambiguous; Edith Sitwell once noted that “the meaning of Mr Auden’s poetry is frequently so obscure, that it defies detection, and it is this obscurity, I imagine, which has frightened certain critics into this excessive admiration.” This lamentation was soon seconded by Philip Larkin who referred to Auden’s later poetry as “rambling intellectual stew”.

But even Auden’s own attitude to his craft, as to his sexuality, was often a mixture of high and low – which is precisely why his work is difficult to sum up – but, as he himself once noted, understanding poetry is “not a logical process” but rather a miraculous one. For me personally Auden will always remain a true contrarian whose demiurgic vision sidestepped the norm, and more importantly a poet who understood and made intelligible “every human love” to a girl who spent hours in the school library reading his work.

Leonard Cohen: The ladies’ man, his “lawless heart” and the emotion which “has found words”

I have always loved poetry despite its lack of widespread appeal compounded by the likes of Martin Amis who proclaimed it dead several years ago due to lacklustre sales at a particularly turbulent time in the publishing trade. Perhaps the best retort to counteract Amis’ claim would be that of Robert Graves who, when questioned about the subject, some 40 years ago, surmised it with the following: “There’s no money in poetry, but then there’s no poetry in money, either.”

In a somewhat ironic twist of fate I was actually given the Book of Longing, having once made a gift of it myself. Funny, how these little ironies have the potential to evolve into portents of unforeseen and even momentous significance; but the less about that the better. The Book of Longing is Leonard Cohen’s first collection of poetry since the Book of Mercy written two decades ago. Already somewhat familiar with the material I couldn’t wait to reacquaint myself with the beguiling bundle which entails lyrics, neoteric sonnets, discursive monologues and breviloquent verses accompanied by Cohen’s own charcoal drawings. The collection boasts 150 works written during Cohen’s 12 year sabbatical spent as a Buddhist monk on Mount Baldy thus many of the little Zen squibs document this period of his life – sometimes light-heartedly, sometimes profoundly but always with a rubrical hook: “The road is too long/the sky is too vast/the wandering heart/is homeless at last.”

And while these poems offer an interesting glimpse into Cohen’s life as a monk, the only poems for me are those of actual longing which read like existential odes to love, desire and loneliness suggesting that despite his pursuit of inner harmony and cosmic tranquillity, the once infamous ladies’ man hasn’t quite mastered how to transcend his “lawless heart” and mortal carnality. In many of these poems Cohen finds himself recollecting his romantic feats, but more often defeats, thus the overall tone is frequently one of rueful melancholy. Some of Cohen’s best works of this nature are the ballads of simple quatrains that evoke the atmospheric expediency and balance of the poet’s desire and self-deprecation: “What can I do/with this love of mine/with this hairy knob/with this poison wine/Who shall I take/to the edge of despair/with my knee on her heart/ and my lips on her hair.”

There’s little doubt that Cohen is at his best when he writes about the inevitable yet nevertheless excruciating culmination of love, charted in poems like Alexandra Leaving, Love Itself, You Have Loved Enough and my personal favourite A Thousand Kisses Deep. He wryly records his melodic lamentations without self pity but with a sense of foresight as he announces: “I know you had to lie to me/I know you had to cheat/To pose all hot and high behind/The veils of sheer deceit/Our perfect porn aristocrat/ So elegant and cheap/I’m old but I’m still in to that/A thousand kisses deep.” He also reflects on the women who have been “exceptionally kind” to “his old age” and those who haven’t, and intersperses dolour with jaunty rhymes such as “need your hand/to pull me out/need your juices/on my snout.” Amid all the poignant apophthegms and bittersweet reflections, the poems strike a surprisingly ludic chord while Cohen explores his relationship with the self, and the kinship between eros and death.

In doing so, his work appears less fatalistic than it had previously been yet Cohen manages to exert the same emotional astuteness as before, with the added ripeness of experience. The Book of Longing has the personal feel of a poet’s journal while the disparity between the spiritual undertakings and the physical urges, between the hunger of youth and the satiety of old age, gives it much of its variety and appeal. It may not be my favourite of Cohen’s collections but it is one that paints a highly personal portrait of the poet and his remarkable artistic vision. And yet by Cohen’s own admission his poetry may only “refer” to “everything that is beautiful and dignified” while being neither, however, I would argue that the poetry’s not in the beauty but in the emotion which “has found words”. And that it definitely has.

Dorothy Parker: “Speeding bullets through the brains of the folk who give me pains”

I was once told by a friend that if Dorothy Parker was still alive she would buy me a big martini. I don’t know whether or not that’s true but I know that if I had the opportunity I’d buy her several. I discovered Parker very early on in my life and have returned to her writing time and again. A couple of months ago, I purchased her selected works in an Oxfam on High Street Kensington and have been meaning to flick through them since. Trying to review someone I admire as much as I do Parker is always somewhat daunting, but to hell with it I might as well impart my very own “Pig’s-Eye View”. Born in West End, New Jersey, on August 22nd,1893, Parker began her career at Vogue writing by-lines and captions, such as: “This little pink dress will win you a beau.” Irremeably bored with the corseted muliebrity of the editorial collective, she moved to Vanity Fair and took over from P. G. Wodehouse as a theatre critic before being sacked for panning a couple of plays. Later, speaking about the precarious start to her career she said: “Vanity Fair was a magazine of no opinion, but I had opinions. So I was fired.”

Parker signed nuptials twice; both of her husbands died. The first, Hartford dandy and Wall Street broker Edwin Pond Parker II, was often the butt of her jousting as a somewhat maladroit character forever falling down manholes and breaking his arm while sharpening pencils.  As was her second husband, screenwriter Alan Campbell, of whom she once noted: “Don’t worry about Alan.  Alan will always land on somebody’s feet.” Campbell was found dead in their home from a barbiturates overdose. When Parker was reportedly asked by a friend if there was anything she could do, the poetess replied: “Get me a new husband.” Parker’s facetious attitude to death was reflected as much in her personal life – one prematurely dead mother, two deceased husbands and a quartet of failed suicide attempts – as in her work. So much so, that in her early 20s she penned her own epitaph and brandished it with slipshod equanimity.  And later, in her senescence, when asked what she was going to do next she told an interviewer: “If I had any decency, I’d be dead. All my friends are.”

A consummate overachiever Parker defied society’s mandates by muzzling the misogynistic literati with quips as sharp as a needle-tip and vitriolic spitfire comebacks to rival those of Oscar Wilde. Recollecting her heyday, she once said: “A ‘smartcracker’ they called me, and that makes me sick and unhappy. There’s a hell of a distance between wisecracking and wit. Wit has truth in it; wisecracking is simply calisthenics with words. I didn’t mind so much when they were good, but for a long time anything that was called a crack was attributed to me…” She never quite managed to jilt her public person and her reputation as an Algonquin “smartcracker” preceded her, but unbeknownst to herself Parker was the greatest female wit in America. Her literary canon boasts an array of genres but my favourite has to be her poetry; grandiloquent, flippant, sagacious, nihilistic, hedonistic, unnerving, macabre, silly, and of a nonpareil Herculean capacity to leave the reader in a head-spin. There is nothing like the rhymes inked by this “pampered heir to Hell” with her emerald green eyes, her sable-like hair and a boa in her hat so imposingly baronial that it became a fire hazard around cigarettes. But the real hazard was, of course, Parker herself. She would perennially shock polite society with her caustic repartee, such as “One more drink and I’d have been under the host,” or remarking about a strapping but panurgic lover who had ditched her, “His body went to his head,” and speaking of another who died of tuberculosis, “I don’t see what else he could have done”. But the most infamous of her one liners, however, was directed toward a society lady, Clare Boothe Luce, who Parker encountered in a doorway at literary saloon. Luce suggested Parker go first, saying “Age before beauty,” to which Parker replied, “Pearls before swine.”

Under Prohibition, Parker would frequent bohemian speakeasies for preprandial drinking which would continue well into the night, resulting in missed deadlines and nonchalant excuses such as: “Someone else was using the pencil.” In her view, editors were “idiots” and the staff at Vanity Fair consisted of valetudinarian “young men who go to pieces easily. Even when they’re in the best of health, you have to stand on their insteps to keep them from flying away”.  She left the magazine in 1920, and became a household name as one of the members of the Algonquin Round Table, where along with Robert Benchley, Robert Sherwood, George S. Kaufman, Heywood Broun, Alexander Woollcott and Franklin P. Adams she lunched all day, imbibed martinis and honed her picric tongue. With a poodle under her oxter and a wide brimmed hat, Parker wrote her verses in classical form, but with a caustic, rueful note. Her work, gravid with cynicism, disillusion, and the disappointing quest for love, also features an abiding symbolic and metaphysical preoccupation with death.  Like the Romantics, she longed for the ecumenical ever-lasting amour, the true, the real, which she nevertheless attempted to denigrate at every opportunity with open disdain for her own emotions.  Themes of failure, abandonment, self-deprecation and death are isolated and interwoven together in Parker’s verse, and always remarked upon in sardonic tones. In Inventory for example she says, “Four be the things I’d been better without/Love, curiosity, freckles, and doubt”,  while in Pour Prendre Conge she records her hurt: “I’ll never again like a cub lick/My wounds while I squeal at the hurt/No more I’ll go walking in public/My heart hanging out of my shirt”, and similarly in “Little Words”,  “When you are gone, there is no bloom nor leaf/No singing sea at night, nor silver birds/And I can only stare and shape my grief/In little words/There is no mercy in the shifting year/No beauty wraps me tenderly about/I turn to little words – so you, my dear/Can spell them out”. In Cherry White her attention moves to the theme of suicide, “I never see that prettiest thing/A cherry bough gone white with Spring/But what I think ‘How gay`twould be/To hang me from a flowering tree”, later the theme is more overtly vocalised in Coda when the poetess declares: “There’s little in taking or giving/There’s little in water or wine/This living, this living, this living/Was never a project of mine.” Parker also dashed of many philippic little verses and limericks such as Godspeed (I’ll not be left in sorrow/So long as I have yesterday/Go take your damned tomorrow!), Frustration (If I had a shiny gun/I could have a world of fun/Speeding bullets through the brains/Of the folk who give me pains), News Item (Men seldom make passes/At girls who wear glasses), Oscar Wilde (If, with the literate, I am, Impelled to try an epigram/I never seek to take the credit/We all assume that Oscar said it) and Unfortunate Coincidence (By the time you swear you’re his/Shivering and sighing/And he vows his passion is/Infinite, undying/Lady, make a note of this/One of you is lying). My own favourite Parker poem, however, is Résumé which goes thus: “Razors pain you/Rivers are damp/Acids stain you/And drugs cause cramp/Guns aren’t lawful/Nooses give/Gas smells awful/You might as well live.” Indeed.

Speaking to Paris Review in her 70s Parker noted: “My verses are no damn good…terribly dated—as anything once fashionable is dreadful now.” She was of course right, at least in part, some of her work seems anachronistic, musty, but her ability to dispense with circumlocution and give naked emotion direct and with unparalleled wit is what makes her one of the greatest minds of her generation. A brutal emendator of her own work, she often threw away what others would have laboured over, and once prescribed that in order to write: “There must be courage, there must be no awe.  There must be criticism… There must be a disciplined eye and a wild mind.  There must be a magnificent disregard for your reader, for if he cannot follow you, there is nothing you can do about it.” She had all the “musts” in abundance, and as Ogden Nash once said Dorothy Parker’s “trick about her writing” was simply that “it wasn’t a trick”. She was just that good.

W.B Yeats: “In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart”


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.

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