Local poets

I’ve been following local Bristol poetry group The Spoke since I reconnected with my former school friend and current Spoke member Lizzie Parker a few years ago. I’ve always read poetry but it’s never been a major part of my reading diet, so it’s been a learning curve for me to experience more of this most flexible of media. At the start of May, Lizzie and fellow Spoke member Claire Williamson published new collections with Seren, an independent publisher based in Wales. I went to their book launch at Waterstones in Bristol and was pleased to see such a big crowd for poetry. It’s reassuring.

Now I have read both their books I’d like to share my thoughts.

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Poetry book launch: Elizabeth Parker, Paul Deaton and Claire Williamson

Many moons ago and not so far from here, Lizzie Parker and I were at secondary school together. We were close friends, sometimes best, sometimes not, in that way that friendships fluctuate when you’re young. After leaving school we lost touch for many years, and then recently reconnected in Bristol. But once someone has been your best friend, however briefly or long ago, they’re tied to you in a way.

Which is my long-winded way of saying that I can’t be objective about the first of the three poetry pamphlets I went to the launch of on Monday night. For the record, I think it’s very good. And Lizzie has been shortlisted for multiple prizes so it’s not just me who thinks that. But if you need convincing, watch the above video of Lizzie performing.

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To really see the state of things is lethal

hold your ownHold Your Own
by Kate Tempest

I bought this poetry collection when I went to see Kate Tempest as part of the Bath Festival of Literature, and like her live performance, the book is inspiring.

Tempest’s words fizz with righteous anger and passion, but they are also highly intelligent, filled with classical references and political insight.

Just take this collection’s premise. It centres on the myth of Tiresias, who as a young man disturbs a pair of copulating snakes and is punished by the goddess Hera, who turns him into a woman. Years later, she is “allowed” to return to the form of man, but then another encounter with the gods leaves him a blind clairvoyant. Tempest takes this story apart into four chapters – childhood, manhood, womanhood and blind profit (see what she did there?!) – each of which is a sequence of poems about Tiresias and the myth’s parallels to modern society and her own life. This gives her a natural route to discussions of gender, sex and relationships, but also poverty, community, age, politics and the future.

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Cornwall reads in brief

Yes, I’ve been on holiday again. This time a long weekend in Cornwall. It wasn’t what most people might consider beach weather, but that just provided an excuse to stay indoors reading while looking out at the sea and listening to the waves crash. (It’s a comforting noise, which possibly doesn’t make any sense.)

It was a lovely holiday with old friends in a place we have visited many times, so it’s like a home from home. I didn’t actually have my nose in a book the whole time – there were beach/clifftop walks, games to play, crosswords to complete, a whole lot of tasty food to eat and even (in my case very briefly because brrr) swimming in the sea.

porthcothan-beach

But I did get a lot of reading done too.

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For what is lightness but inconsequence

aurora leighAurora Leigh
by Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Yes, I read an epic poem, or novel in verse, and it wasn’t just to tick something off my Classics Club list. I really like Browning and had been meaning to read this for years.

Aurora Leigh is born in Italy but when her beloved parents die she is sent to England to be raised by her aunt. At every step she chooses her own way in a manner that to a modern reader might appear progressive and feminist. She is self-taught (aside from a few years when she is taught by her aunt) and chooses her career over a man; she argues for the contributions of women to the arts, and poetry in particular. From the day Aurora declines a marriage proposal because her suitor denigrates her chosen career and her gender, I was in love with her.

“We get no good / By being ungenerous, even to a book, / And calculating profits – so much help / By so much reading. It is rather when / We gloriously forget ourselves and plunge / Soul-forward, headlong, into a book’s profound, / Impassioned for its beauty and salt of truth – / ‘Tis then we get the right good from a book.”

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My love is a suicide bomber

i am the beggar of the worldI am the Beggar of the World: Landays from Contemporary Afghanistan
compiled by Eliza Griswold and Seamus Murphy

This is a collection of landays, which are a traditional two-line Afghan poem mostly written/performed by women, many of whom are illiterate. Some are historical, some are modern, often reinterpretations of the old ones. The landay’s apparently simple form often hides great complexity – symbolism, history, politics and so much else.

“A landay [is] an oral and often anonymous scrap of song created by and for mostly illiterate people: the more than 20 million Pashtun women who span the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Traditionally, landays are sung aloud, often to the beat of a hand drum, which, along with other kinds of music, was banned by the Taliban from 1996 to 2001, and in some places still is.”

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Ted Hughes: a Tribute

Ted Hughes March 1993
(CC-BY-SA Breakingthings)

Bath Literature Festival
The Forum, Bath, 28 February

I confess that I mostly chose this event to go to because it included Kate Tempest and I keep missing her Bristol shows. But I also like Ted Hughes’ poetry and was interested in what a tribute to him would be like. The answer? A bit uneven and yet also staid. But Kate was really good.

The audience had been expecting Melvyn Bragg and Jonathan Dimbleby, which perhaps explains the make-up of the crowd (largely older than me, and very white upper middle class, but then it was Bath) – they actually groaned when the panel change was announced. Personally I bought my ticket after this change was made. It might have been enough to put me off even the chance to see Kate Tempest. I know Bragg and Dimbleby are supposed to be beloved national icons but I find them very dull.

The event was hosted by Bel Mooney, a writer who co-founded the festival 20 years ago, which was when she first met Ted Hughes, who opened that year’s festival in the Forum, the same venue hosting his tribute. She spoke warmly of him as a man and as a writer, hitting all the right notes of celebration and admiration.

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You’re just a totalitarian angel

AmorousDiscourseSuburbsHellAn Amorous Discourse in the Suburbs of Hell
by Deborah Levy

This is a long poem (ish – it’s no Faerie Queen) in the form of a dialogue between a couple, “He” and “she”, alternating having their say in this argument/conversation. It’s different from anything else I’ve read, wonderfully surreal and packed with references to everything from Shakespeare to pop songs. I read it in one sitting and immediately wanted to read it again.

The poem works so well because it could be read in many ways. Is this an ordinary human couple living in suburbia? Or are they angels fallen to hell? Is one of them fallen and the other trying to save them? Is one human and one God? The many religious references (to the Bible, to Dante, to the language of faith) are woven in such a way that they could just possibly be the twee fondnesses of a couple in love, or they could be wholly serious.

Best of all, it’s funny. Genuinely, laugh-out-loud but also cleverly, funny. It’s profound and profane, full of meaning and simple, pure entertainment.

“i try to introduce you
to the way i see things
and all you want is a wife
a wife and a second-class stamp and a bath
a bath and a donut and a product to kill moths

“You’re just a totalitarian angel
Full of self-rapture
I thought you were a divine messenger
In fact you’re a glutton
With wings”

First published 1990 by Jonathan Cape.
This edition, with revisions, published 2014 by And Other Stories.

Source: I subscribe to the publisher.

Order will come to your distracted mind again

Faces of Love

Faces of Love and the Poets of Shiraz
by Hafez, Jahan Malek Khatun and Obayd-e Zakani
translated from Persian by Dick Davis

This book was a bit of a serendipitous find. I was in West Hampstead to meet friends and had arrived early, so I thought I’d pop into West End Lane Books. I wasn’t looking for anything particular, just enjoying a good browse, and I spotted this book on a shelf of beautiful books. Clearly, I don’t need more books right now, but this was poetry, in translation and beautiful, all of which are things I’d like to have more of! Not only is it well designed (like all Penguin Classics Deluxe Editions) but the pages have been roughly cut in an old-fashioned style – I can’t tell if this is deliberate or a binding error, but I like it either way!

However, that’s not enough for me to consider it truly serendipitous. On the train home, I was reading this book (not that I hadn’t brought any with me, but new book often trumps old, let’s face it) and the guy sat next to me asked if I was reading Persian, as he recognised the style of art used on the cover. He seemed to know a thing or two about Iran and we had a really nice conversation about the book, even reading a couple of the poems together and discussing the oddness of Hafez’s style. Which was rather lovely.

“O sorrow-stricken heart, your fortunes will revive,
Order will come to your distracted mind again
– do not despair

And if the heavens turn against us for two days
They turn, and will not stay forever in one place
– do not despair

Sweet singing bird, survive until the spring, and then
You’ll tread on grass again, deep in the flowers’ shade
– do not despair”
Hafez

As for the book itself, there’s a chance it was more educational than a discovery of a new favourite poet, but I’m not averse to a little learning. Hafez, Jahan Malek Khatun and Obayd-e Zakani were mid-to-late 14th century court poets from the city of Shiraz in Persia (now Iran). Shiraz is near Persepolis and at that time was not especially important politically but was home to some of Persia’s most famous poets – despite the spread of Islam, which then as now discouraged the music and wine that tended to accompany court poets (indeed much of their verse would have been sung). Most of the 14th century rulers of Shiraz generously patronised artists, including poets, so it was a safe haven for them.

Hafez is the most famous of three poets featured. His work is still studied today and many an academic has tried to unravel the layers of meaning in his work. In his time he was famous and well respected. Jahan Malek Khatun was a princess of Shiraz – her father and later her uncle ruled the city. While not the only female poet whose work has survived, it is likely that she had an easier time of being a female poet because of her royalty. Obayd-e Zakani wrote much more satirical work than the other two, often political, and though he enjoyed fame in his lifetime, he also made great enemies.

“How long will Heaven’s heartless tyranny
Which keeps both rich and poor in agony

Go on? The dreadful happenings of these times
Have torn up by the roots Hope’s noble tree,

And in the garden of the world you’d say
They’ve stripped the leaves as far as one can see.”
Jahan Malek Khatun

As you can tell from my ability to give you these summaries, Davis has written a good (extensive but not dull) introduction to the history and the poets, as well as the poetry. There are also end notes giving plenty of further analysis of the poems without interrupting the reading of the poems themselves.

I especially appreciated Davis’ notes on his translation, with explanations of the challenges (such as recreating the ancient styles of verse used), the things he was able to recreate in English and the things that are lost. I also enjoyed the appendix of three tongue-in-cheek poems Davis wrote about the difficulty of translating Hafez! I learned a lot, for instance that Persian pronouns do not distinguish between male and female, so most of the time it isn’t clear whether the subject of a poem is male or female. (From historical records and those poems that do make it clear – by referencing body parts, for example – we know that it was common for poets of the time to write admiringly of attractive youths of both genders.) It was also common (as with some western poets of a similar era) for references to a person to mean both a flesh-and-blood person and God, or to switch between the two.

“Here with our souls’ companions, bored to death
With hypocrites and all they claim they’ve done,

No pompous pride disturbs our minds, no thoughts
Of purity – no, not a single one!

We’ve drunk the poison of our indigence
And don’t want antidotes from anyone.”
Obayd-e Zakani

And my reaction to the poetry? Some I loved, some was okay, some I disliked. Hafez was my favourite – I see why he is the most famous of these three by some way. I wanted to like Jahan Khatun more, as the one woman featured, but there was a single-notedness to her verse, mostly talking about unhappiness in love, though that’s not to say I disliked it. Obayd I liked politically but not his sexual stuff (which there’s quite a lot of). I’m not a prude, I just didn’t find the verses sensual or sexy at all, instead they were distasteful – this might be the translation but as Davis did such a good job elsewhere I tend to think it was the original that I disliked.

I’m really glad I followed my whim and picked up this book. I’ll certainly re-read the Hafez, and maybe if I give the others a chance I’ll get something more from them as well.

First published in the US in 2012 by Mage Publishers.
This edition published in the UK in 2013 by Penguin Books.

Source: West End Lane Books.