IPSI Festival Canberra – Poetry and Place – Simon Armitage

The International Poetry Studies Institute (IPSI) is part of the Centre for Creative and Cultural Research in the Arts and Design Faculty of Canberra University.

Last week (6-16 Sept 2016) IPSI was host to a Festival entitled ‘Poetry on the Move’. And poetry is certainly on the move in Canberra in an upward direction. There were quite a variety of sessions including launches, readings, workshops and lectures.

There were two international poets in residence for the Festival – Simon Armitage from the UK and Tusiata Avia a Samoan-New Zealand poet.

For this post I will concentrate on the keynote lecture given by Simon Armitage (Professor of Poetry at Sheffield University, and last year appointed Professor of Poetry at Oxford – a part-time position.)

His topic was Poetry and Place. The first-up poem he chose to demonstrate the link was the Ted Hughes poem – ‘Full Moon and Little Frieda’.

Full Moon and Little Frieda

A cool small evening shrunk to a dog bark and the clank of a bucket –
And you listening.
A spider’s web, tense for the dew’s touch.
A pail lifted, still and brimming – mirror
To tempt a first star to a tremor.

Cows are going home in the lane there, looping the hedges with their warm
wreaths of breath –
A dark river of blood, many boulders,
Balancing unspilled milk.
‘Moon!’ you cry suddenly, ‘Moon! Moon!’

The moon has stepped back like an artist gazing amazed at a work
That points at him amazed.

Ted Hughes

I was interested in the key word that SA chose in relation to ‘place’. It was the word ‘there’ in that long first line in the second stanza.

There’ telescopes the mind to a distinct familiar place – familiar to the poet Ted Hughes. TH wrote this poem at ‘Court Green’, Devon. If you are familiar with the English countryside and the narrow lanes and if you have experienced waiting for a long line of cows to wind their way to a place of milking you can readily visualise a specific place akin to that described.

If a poet knows a place intimately then description is authentic and, as in this poem, if personal detail is involved more attention is likely in the construction. That instance in the yard involving TH and Frieda is caught as a lasting memory of a valued moment between a father and the toddler daughter. Apparently Sylvia Plath had a liking for this text as she had kept the manuscript and it was in her flat at the time of her death.

I have discussed this poem in more detail in a previous post, which includes comments from Andrew Motion … http://richard-outoftheblue.blogspot.com.au/2011/09/full-moon-and-little-frieda-ted-hughes.html

A link to Canberra University and IPSI … https://www.canberra.edu.au/research/faculty-research-centres/cccr/ipsi

A link to Simon Armitage’s ‘Poetry and Place’ lecture will appear on the IPSI journal website … http://www.axonjournal.com.au/

Birds – Judith Wright – Analysis

Birds

Whatever the bird is, is perfect in the bird.
Weapon kestrel, hard as a blade’s curve,
thrush round as a mother or full drop of water,
fruit-green parrot wise in his shrieking swerve-
all are what bird is and do not reach beyond bird.

Whatever the bird does is right for the bird to do-
Cruel kestrel dividing in his hunger the sky,
thrush in the trembling dew beginning to sing,
parrot clinging and quarrelling and veiling his queer eye-
all these are as birds are and good for birds to do.

But I am torn and beleaguered by my own people.
The blood that feeds my heart is the blood they gave me,
and my heart is the house where they gather and fight for dominion-
all different, all with a wish and a will to save me,
to turn me into the ways of other people.

If I could leave their battleground for the forest of a bird
I could melt the past, the present and the future in one
and find the words that lie behind all these languages.
Then I could fuse my passions into one clear stone
and be simple to myself as the bird is to the bird.

Judith Wright (1915-2000) – from ‘The Gateway’ 1953

The stanzas have a rhyming scheme ‘abcba’. The first two stanzas deal with the nature of certain birds balanced by the next two which are a reflection on the shortcoming nature of humanity in comparison. This poem opens JW’s book of bird poems which contains many detailed and beautifully presented bird illustrations adjacent to the poem text. Clearly JW had a knowledge and respect for birds.

Considering her lamentation, and to put it poetically, we don’t find an eagle trying to convert a sparrow – except where an eagle is not an eagle. But although birds have evolved over many years to adapt to a changing environment they are not always nice to one another. A prime example is the cuckoo. And many birds are protective of their own space. But on the main I think JW is quite right in regarding a certain harmony in the life patterns of different bird varieties.

And of course there are no conversion attempts akin to humanity. And humanity has a mind of its own far beyond the predicable actions associated with bird life. She may have been talking about herself not being able to be herself – others from many different directions wanting her to walk their ways, as well as on the international scale of different countries and religions seeking prominence over one another with little tolerance.

But what she is saying in this poem was very applicable to the white response of her day in trying to change the life pattern of the aboriginal population. This is an ongoing issue when trying to progress economic advancement at the same time marrying an ancient culture into the ways of a dominant European existence.

Judith Wright was an Australian environmentalist as well as a poet and very much an advocate for the rights of the aborigine. Here is a link to her on Wikipedia.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Judith_Wright

In Church – Thomas Hardy – Analysis

In Church

“And now to God the Father”, he ends,
And his voice thrills up to the topmost tiles:
Each listener chokes as he bows and bends,
And emotion pervades the crowded aisles.
Then the preacher glides to the vestry-door,
And shuts it, and thinks he is seen no more.

The door swings softly ajar meanwhile,
And a pupil of his in the Bible class,
Who adores him as one without gloss or guile,
Sees her idol stand with a satisfied smile
And re-enact at the vestry-glass
Each pulpit gesture in deft dumb-show
That had moved the congregation so.

Thomas Hardy (1840 – 1828)

Thomas Hardy is known more as a novelist than a poet. Here is a poem which is a straight forward depiction of a church incident and quite typical of the way characters change face in his books. It could also be said that it is typical of his religious sentiments. Although somewhat disillusioned with religion in his youth he regularly attended his local church, read lessons, and had great respect for tradition.

S1 – The preacher has wooed a packed church with a brilliant sermon. It’s as though the congregation has bowed to his words rather than to God. The first line states the ending words of his performance – “And now to God the Father”, he ends. And after gliding to the vestry-door shuts the door on his satisfying achievement thinking he has his own private space to be himself – and thinks he is seen no more.

S2 – It takes a child to see a completely different preacher. To be disillusioned by the confronting vanity of a person who she adores – as one without gloss or guile. A preacher who a moment ago moved the congregation in dramatic fashion is now moving this young student in quite a different way. The child is left dumb and betrayed.

The poem makes no judgement. The reader is left to put interpretation and consider the nature of the two players. Reflecting perhaps how people and children in particular, become disillusioned when suddenly seeing the unexpected negative nature in a person. If it had been an older person viewing the vanity it might have been more acceptable and brushed off with a laugh – but for this child a different matter.

It is perhaps typical of Hardy’s religious sentiments for the church to give no consolation and for the church to play on emotions and be there for the benefit of itself. And of course quite poetic for a child to see through to what the church is really like – for the preacher to be brought down to earth with quite a thud.

Here is a link to Stinsford Church where Hardy worshiped.

Home After Three Months Away – Robert Lowell

Home After Three Months Away

Gone now the baby’s nurse,
a lioness who ruled the roost
and made the Mother cry.
She used to tie
gobbets of porkrind in bowknots of gauze–
three months they hung like soggy toast
on our eight foot magnolia tree,
and helped the English sparrows
weather a Boston winter.

Three months, three months!
Is Richard now himself again?
Dimpled with exaltation,
my daughter holds her levee in the tub.
Our noses rub,
each of us pats a stringy lock of hair–
they tell me nothing’s gone.
Though I am forty-one,
not forty now, the time I put away
was child’s play. After thirteen weeks
my child still dabs her cheeks
to start me shaving. When
we dress her in her sky-blue corduroy,
she changes to a boy,
and floats my shaving brush
and washcloth in the flush. . . .
Dearest I cannot loiter here
in lather like a polar bear.

Recuperating, I neither spin nor toil.
Three stories down below,
a choreman tends our coffin’s length of soil,
and seven horizontal tulips blow.
Just twelve months ago,
these flowers were pedigreed
imported Dutchmen; no no one need
distinguish them from weed.
Bushed by the late spring snow,
they cannot meet
another year’s snowballing enervation.

I keep no rank nor station.
Cured, I am frizzled, stale and small.

Robert Lowell (1917 – 1977)

S1 – While away the nurse has left the household. He remembers the porkrind put out on the magnolia tree for the birds to feed on during the Boston winter. I can identify with this as we did exactly the same thing during my childhood days during a Hampshire winter. In particular I remember blue tits feasting on bacon fat. Those were days when I was sick with whooping cough and measles so looking through the bedroom window to the birds acrobating as they fed was a distraction.

gobbets = drops

S2 – The current bathroom scene between father and young daughter is compared with a previous occasion. The child plays the same games as if his time away was nothing – just child’s play. They touch noses and she dabs her cheeks to initiate his shaving. But for him the time away has been significant magnified by the fact that he is is in fact a year older. But it is not time now to reflect.

levee = embankment

S3 – Perhaps he is dressing as he looks out from an upstairs room. He, like the tulips, has survived an ordeal over winter. In a way he has been in a coffin but he is recovering now. Will he, or will the tulips, survive another snowballing enervation.

enervate = weaken

This is a story of returning home after three months away for physciatric treatment which included shock therapy. The last two lines succinctly describe his emotional adjustment to normal life after being in hospital – ‘being cured‘ – but being ‘stale’ and without ‘rank or station’ at the bottom of the social scale – especially considering this was at a time when mental ilness was not well recarded by  general socieity as an illness.

Robert Lowell is a well known ‘confessional’ poet and his words are based on personal experience.

Details of Robert Lowell on wikipedia

 

Moors – Ted Hughes – Analysis

Moors

Are a stage for the performance of heaven.
Any audience is incidental.

A chess-world of top heavy Kings and Queens
Circling in stilted majesty
Tremble the bog-cotton
Under the sweep of their robes.

Fools in sunny motley tumble across,
A laughter – fading in full view
To grass tips tapping at stones.

The witch-brew boiling in the sky-vat
Spins electrical terrors
In the eyes of sheep.

Fleeing wraith-lovers twist and collapse
In death-pack languor
To bedew harebells
On the spoil-heaps of quarries.

Wounded champions lurch out of sunset
To gurgle their last gleams into pot-holes.

Shattered bowed armies, huddling leaderless
Escape from a world
Where snipe work late.

Ted Hughes

This is a poem taken from a series of poems based on a set Yorkshire photos given to TH by Fay Goodwin (a photographer and contemporary) … ‘Remnants of Elmet’ … The Calder valley west of Halifax … was the last ditch of Elmet, the last British Celtic kingdom to fall … an inhabitable wilderness which became the cradle for the industrial revolution … before the mills and chapels died and the population changed.

This is an example of ‘ekphrastic poetry’ where a poem is in response to another artistic form – in this case a photograph. It would be interesting to compare the imagery invoked by the words and Fay Goodwin’s photo.

What a wonderful first line … ‘Are a stage for the performance of heaven’ … the moors being a lonely land much untouched by man having the sky to itself and all the sky has to offer … very much in evidence on wild fury days … and ‘Any audience is incidental’ … a great place to encounter nature and to get away from the madding crowd.

The stones are displayed as a disordered set of chess pieces – again it would be interesting to see the photograph. They are all kings and queens so one might assume they are all large and of equal size. The stones obviously have supporting stones in the way they are presented. Stilted majestystilt = a long post or column that is used with others to support a building above ground level. And it appears they are seated on unstable ground – ‘tremble the bog-cotton’.

‘Fools in sunny motley’ implies that some visitors to the moor are ill-prepared for the nature of the moor. And the weather is likened to a witch brew the sky a vat. And as the weather intensifies with clouds collapsing it appears some rain touches harebells that grow near the discarded heaps from old quarries.

The last two stanzas give the impression of a disappearing moor as daylight swallows the stones … as they merge together without a leader. A time when snipe are busy … ‘snipe work late’ … I guess TH would know about this as he was very familiar with this part of the world. A nice closing line giving a sense of foreboding.

To a friend – Allen Curnow – Analysis

To a Friend

Old friend, dear friend, some day
when I have had my say, and the world its way,
when all that is left is the gathering in of ends,
and forgathering of friends,
on some autumn evening when the mullet leap
in a sea of silver-grey,
then, O then I will come again
and stay for as long as I may,
stay till the time for sleep;
gaze at the rock that died before me,
the sea that lives for ever;
of air and sunlight, frost and wave and cloud,
and all the remembered agony and joy
fashion my shroud.

Allen Curnow (1911 – 2001) New Zealand poet and journalist

Shroud – veil cover … burial cloth
Forgathering – formal assembly

Dissolving into the environment on an autumn evening as he himself comes to the final days of his life … when he has had his say … he was a distinguished and internationally recognised poet who won the Queen’s Gold Award and brought New Zealand firmly to the forefront by his poetry … he lived a long life and it’s nice to think that he is happy about his accomplishment and that his work is now complete … and the world has had its way … a somewhat philosophic contemplation on how the world has dealt with him in his lifetime … the world seen as a person of action in which he has to accept what ever occurs.

… then comes the finalisation of what needs to be done for his personal completion … when all that is left is the gathering of ends … resurrected into the living world of nature … remembering all life – the basic elements – air, sunlight, frost, wave, cloud – equated to the agony and joy of existence.

gaze at the rock that died before me … the rock was formed through process and died long ago … a completion of a process … he has now completed his process (poetically speaking)

… the sea that lives for ever … reflecting on the constant energy and movement of the sea … life will go on endlessly … and then he too is part of nature as he absorbs into the environment

remembered agony and joy … joy and sorrow were part of his life and will be part of his burial cloth … the common threads through all humanity

Allen Curnow was born in 1911 in Timaru, New Zealand. He was a fifth generation New Zealander. His father was an Anglican Minister and during his childhood Curnow moved to many parishes with his parents and lived in a succession of Anglican vicarages. Canterbury, Belfast, Malvern, Lyttelton and New Brighton to name a few.

A few years ago I watched a brilliant documentary on Allen Curnow entitled ‘Early Days yet’ which was recorded towards the end of his life. See … https://www.nzonscreen.com/title/early-days-yet-2001

He is perhaps regarded as the definitive New Zealand poet.

A link to Allen Curnow on Wikipedia

A Jet Ring Sent – John Donne – Analysis

A Jet Ring Sent

THOU art not so black as my heart,
Nor half so brittle as her heart, thou art ;
What would’st thou say ? shall both our properties by thee be spoke,
—Nothing more endless, nothing sooner broke?

Marriage rings are not of this stuff ;
Oh, why should ought less precious, or less tough
Figure our loves ? except in thy name thou have bid it say,
“—I’m cheap, and nought but fashion ; fling me away.”

Yet stay with me since thou art come,
sBe justly proud, and gladly safe, that thou dost dwell with me ;
She that, O ! broke her faith, would soon break thee.

John Donne (1572 – 1631)

John Donne survived the crackdown on the Catholic Church under Elizabeth I to eventually become an Anglican priest and Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral, London.

To really understand the wording you need knowledge of ‘Jet’ as a gemstone …

Jet is a black gemstone (the eponymous ‘jet black’), but not strictly a mineral: like coal, it originates in decaying wood fossilized under extreme pressure. It is relatively soft, warmer to the touch than regular rock, light, and easy to carve – though not in fine detail because it is very brittle.

S1 … Did John Donne send a ‘Jet Ring’ to a lover and was it the start of a deeper marriage proposal. We do not know. But the ring has been returned by the lady and the poet (perhaps JD) is now in reflected thought and asks the ring to speak. The ring possesses both properties of the two in question. Black – JD’s heart is blacker, and brittle – that of the lady in breaking the relationship. The ring is endless (JD’s love) – and because it is ‘jet’ easily broke and it was easy for the lady to be dismissive of his love and break him.

S2 … The lady is talking saying that JD has represented her as cheap and nought but fashion (as the ring) and Jette is French for throw and a pun is in evidence. So it is to be done as the ring suggests – for marriage is not made of this stuff – so it is sent back. In his earlier days JD was a womaniser and initial sending  of the ring may have been superficial – we do not know.

S3 … JD wants to keep the returned ring and he circles the ring with his thumb in the same way the lady must have held it – and the ring dwells proud and safe with JD in the same way his love dwells likewise. The ring will always be a reminder of that fact. It will not be broken though of brittle material for he will keep it safe.

This is a link to another WordPress site which gives an excellent analysis of this poem … https://yuliaryzhik.wordpress.com/2015/04/10/john-donne-a-jet-ring-sent/

And details of the life of John Donne on Wikipedia …
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Donne

The good thing was, of course, that Donne was not undone by this turn down – so to the lady perhaps.

Metaphors – Sylvia Plath – Analysis

Metaphors

I’m a riddle in nine syllables,
An elephant, a ponderous house,
A melon strolling on two tendrils.
O red fruit, ivory, fine timbers!
This loaf’s big with its yeasty rising.
Money’s new-minted in this fat purse.
I’m a means, a stage, a cow in calf.
I’ve eaten a bag of green apples,
Boarded the train there’s no getting off.

Sylvia Plath

Metaphor = the use to describe somebody or something of a word or phrase that is not meant literally but by means of a vivid comparison expresses something about him, her, or it, e.g. saying that somebody is a snake.

Riddle = a puzzle in the form of a question or rhyme that contains clues to its answer

Tendril = a modified stem, leaf, or other part of a climbing plant, usually in the form of a thread, that coils around and attaches the plant to supporting objects

The poem has nine lines and each line has nine syllables. It is a little unusual for a poem to be swamped by metaphors – so the title quite appropriate.

A pregnant lady can be an elephant (maybe the way she feels about herself in making movement) – a ponderous house (thinking about herself as containing life) – a melon on two tendrils (gives emphasis to a large round body with thin legs).

A red fruit, ivory, fine timbers – red fruit = ready to be picked, the elephant is valued for ivory – a woman for childbirth – fine timbers has sexual connotations perhaps … how the pregnancy was established (structured)

Pregnant body is a big loaf in the making or a fat purse containing a coin in the making (something of value, and kept safe in a purse).

The pregnant lady a means to production and a stage in the process and the bag of green apples implies a certain uncomfortable feeling in the stomach.

But the last sentence is all important – a decision and a commitment – the journey ahead unknown – perhaps a little trepidation in what lies ahead.

Note that this was written before SP became pregnant – perhaps at the time she was deciding – standing on the station so to speak … and the puzzle only solved with time.