Books I read this June

IMG_1352As an English Literature PhD, you can expect that I read a fair bit. Eighteen books this month, in fact. Here’s the full list from my journal:

An Irish Navvy: The Diary of an Exile by Donall MacAmhlaigh, trans. Valentin Iremonger

Colourful and insightful diary of a working-class immigrant from Kilkenny to Northampton. Interesting insight into how important talk and storytelling were in the absence of TV and radio, and how much the navvies lived a life of the mind even after a day of backbreaking labour.

The Bramble King by Catherine Fisher

Poetry collection that’s more like the material for an autobiography and several fantasy novels, laid by and preserved. Full review here.

Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan

I fell in love with this for the footnotes, but despite the abundance of local colour and fascinating glimpses into a closed society, there wasn’t enough plot to urge me to seek out the sequel, and the central couple were considerably less interesting than the supporting cast. Would be tempted to seek out the film, however.

Aladdin, or The Wonderful Lamp, trans. Sir Richard Burton

Enjoyed reading this Arabian Nights original and noting its many variances from the Disney movie, but rather missed Burton’s lengthy and eccentric footnotes, not included in this edition.

Nets to Catch the Wind by Elinor Wylie

A recommendation from Jo Walton’s Tor blog, which I read on Project Gutenberg. Lush Yeatsian verse. Discovered the last line of ‘The Falcon’ has been haunting me since first I read it in some anthology or the other. Ordered the collected works.

In Search of Sir Thomas Browne by Hugh Aldersey-Williams

Not a biographical study, but a meditation on what unites and divides two science writers across 350 years. Both are genial company, and Aldersey-Williams has some intriguing thoughts on how Browne’s worldview differs from his own.

The Birthplace by Henry James

Enjoyable novella where the Jamesian style is distinctive but not laid on thick enough to suffocate, coupled with an insufferable smug introduction by Mark Rylance.

Doctor Who: Interference Book One by Lawrence Miles

I got into Doctor Who in the years prior to RTD’s big 2005 relaunch, when BBC books were still printing an Eighth Doctor novel every month or so. They were meant to be read sequentially, but as an impoverished teen I was limited to what I could get out of the library and the occasional remaindered stock that turned up in the works. The effect was rather like being introduced to the Steven Moffat era through Let’s Kill Hitler, only worse.

There’s a hardcore completionist still lurking in me fifteen years later, so spotting this book in a secondhand bookshop for half what it goes for on eBay, I took a pop at this famous novel from the enfant terrible of the range. It’s brimming with ideas and well-written, with a pleasantly period tinge of the nineties, but it suffers from the BBC author’s habit of putting the Doctor through as much torture as possible. I’d be tempted to go on to Part Two–but have you seen what that goes for on eBay?

Lud-in-the-Mist by Hope Mirilees

An English fantasy novel, drawing from Goblin Market and The King of Elfland’s Daughter, and influencing Neil Gaiman’s Stardust. Deals with the lives of folk who live on the borders of fairyland, and the attractions and dangers of luscious contraband fairy fruit.

Doctor Who: The Taking of Planet Five by Simon Bucher-Jones and Mark Clapham

Interference tempted me to return to old Doctor Who novels, and this crossover with H.P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness was less solemn than the last book but very successful at presenting a huge-scale science-fiction adventure–entire universes hang in the balance–without drowning in technobabble. A very satisfying munch, and a surprisingly good entry-point to the arc.

Poirot’s Early Cases by Agatha Christie

Eighteen stories makes this collection overstuffed–I would have liked fewer stories of greater length–but Poirot and Hastings are charming, and some of the stories are little masterpieces, particularly ‘The King of Clubs’, ‘The Third Floor Flat’ and ‘How Does Your Garden Grow’. They need to be read over a course of evenings, however, because all at once is too much.

Solon and Alexander in Plutarch’s Lives

Two very different men–one a lawgiver so ambivalent about power he left Athens for ten years in order to give his laws time to bed in, and the other the conqueror of one of the greatest empires known to man. Solon’s is the more endearing story but Alexander’s is the most marvellous. I may steal some details of the Siege of Tyre for a short story.

The Philosopher Kings by Jo Walton

The sequel to The Just City, a book that enthralled me but ended unsatisfactorily, The Philosopher Kings ends with a literal deus ex machina so complete that seeking out the third volume, Necessity, hardly feels necessary. I still find the plain, unsensuous philosophical style a great draw, even as its attention to torture and sexual violence repels. I still enjoy the long stretches of conversation and debate, and still skip ahead to read the sections narrated by Maia, unquestionably the best character–the two others, Apollo and Arete, start to sound the same after a while. Where the previous book made me eager to read more Plato, however, this book with its long sea voyages made me keener to reread Homer. With the Platonic cities removed, at the book’s conclusion, from the pre-historic Aegean to a far-future planet, my enthusiasm for the series drops off.

To Catch A King: Charles II’s Great Escape by Charles Spencer

Read over a period of several months. A compelling history borrowed for a mooted historical novel I will likely never write. I already knew more than most about Charles II’s famous sojourn in the Royal Oak, but the book is particularly good on the background of the Battle of Worcester and the details of the escape, narrated in a moment by moment fashion. The final forty pages of wrapping up are rather dull.

Phaedrus by Plato

A brisk short dialogue, by no means as intimidating as The Republic, covering love, virture, reincarnation, the use of rhetoric, and the translation from an oral to a textual culture. Socrates is wonderfully sarky throughout (a modern translation helps bring this out) and it has a pleasing outdoor conviviality to it, rather than some of the more public, competitive dialogues.

Murder Must Advertise by Dorothy L Sayers

My first Lord Peter Wimsey, a whodunnit set at a 1930s ad agency, like a British version of Mad Men. Surprised it isn’t the highlight of ITV’s autumn schedule–like Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop, it speaks strongly to our own times and is more than ripe for adaptation.

Doctor Who: Festival of Death by Jonathan Morris

A past Doctor adventure with the Fourth Doctor and Romana II, the novel faithfully recreates the feeling of a 1970s serial right down to the retro-futurism and the bungling bureaucrat. An interesting exercise in story-telling in reverse, but lacking a little in atmosphere. Made a good beach read.

Theseus and Lycurgus in Plutarch’s Lives

On the borders of history and legend, Theseus is not Plutarch’s most vividly drawn subject, though his theories on the real-life inspiration of the minotaur myth can be fascinating. With Lycurgus, the Spartan lawgiver, details of his life are thin on the ground, but the details of how he reformed the Spartan state are fascinating, and rich material for young-adult authors looking for a new dystopian society.

And that’s it for June; more next month!

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The Best (And Worst) Poems of Thomas Hardy

220px-Thomas_Hardy_by_William_Strang_1893The collected poems of Thomas Hardy is a brick, even by the standards of collected works. An average edition runs to 947 separate poems across 1002 pages, counting the index and the notes. It’s an incredible body of work from a Victorian author far more renown for his novels, even if he did devote the later part of his career exclusively to writing and publishing poetry.

Most readers of poetry have never gone further than the handful of poems that have become anthology favourites, but over four months last year I worked through the whole book from cover to cover, at the rate of ten poems a day. What I discovered is firstly, that Hardy’s poetry is remarkably consistent, and secondly, that he returns repeatedly to the same themes. This consistency means that while deciding which is the best Thomas Hardy poem is almost impossible, the absolute worst poem, Genoa and the Mediterranean, is easy to spot, and plumbs a depth of pompous silliness never thereafter attainted. The repeated themes mean that many poems that rarely see the light of day are as good or better than usual representative pieces that get printed over and over again. Anthologies of Hardy’s love poems used to be popular, but it would be just as easy to make up anthologies on the subject of War, Nature, Ghosts, or Religious Doubt. By limiting our reading to a trimmed slimmed selection we do the poet wrong, for it is his enthusiasm to engage with the big themes and explore them from many angles that forms Hardy’s greatest achievement. Here below are a few of the lesser known poems exploring these themes.

Religious Doubt

Living an age when Victorian science was beginning to dismantle many of the key props of the Christian worldview, much of Hardy’s poetry wrestles with the dismaying Victorian experience of losing one’s faith. The most famous examples are The Oxen, a touching elegy for an earlier era of belief, and God’s Funeral, a formal mourning procession for the deceased deity. A Drizzling Easter Morning and the late bitter epigram Christmas 1924 make great, neglected companions for The Oxen. God’s Funeral is best followed by one of Hardy’s favourite subgenres, the many poems where the narrator harangues God, and/or God harangues humanity (one might call them deitribes). Examples include Doom and She, A Plaint to Man, By the Earth’s Corpse and (perhaps the best of them) God-Forgotten. A late discovery in my reading was the innocuously named Drinking Song, printed in Hardy’s last collection of poetry, a poem which narrates the triumph of science all the way from Copernicus to Darwin… and beyond.

And now comes Einstein with a notion—
Not yet quite clear
To many here—
That’s there’s no time, no space, no motion,
Nor rathe nor late,
Nor square nor straight,
But just a sort of bending-ocean.

I had no idea Hardy and Einstein overlapped, and something in the idea of the ninety-year old poet sitting up late at nights puzzling over the theory of relativity delights me.

Ghost Stories

I love a good Edwardian ghost story, and some of Hardy’s chillers are as good as anything by M.R. James. Something Tapped, a title well worth stealing, distills the shudders down into three verses of four lines each.

Something tapped on the pane of my room
When there was never a trace
Of wind or rain, and I saw in the gloom
My weary Beloved’s face.

“O I am tired of waiting,” she said,
“Night, morn, noon, afternoon;
So cold it is in my lonely bed,
And I thought you would join me soon!”

I rose and neared the window-glass,
But vanished thence had she:
Only a pallid moth, alas,
Tapped at the pane for me.

The Glimpse and The Second Night are eerie tales of men haunted by their dead lovers, while The Dead Quire, The Choirmaster’s Burial, No Bell Ringing and The Paphian Ball are no less effective because they use the supernatural to point a Christian moral, despite the author’s own religious disbelief.

Love

Hardy’s best love poems are in the elegaic mood, and for once here I have to agree with the anthology wisdom; he wrote a whole suite of poems following the death of his first wife, but nothing can touch The Voice for sheer musicality and depth of emotion. Triple rhymes, usually employed for comic effect, serve to give the poem a haunting, diminishing rhythm that perfectly suits the poem’s tone.

Woman much missed, how you call to me, call to me,
Telling me you are not now as you were
When you had changed from the one that was all to me,
But as at first, when our day was fair.

Perhaps less satisfying is another fixation of Hardy’s: the story of a young man journeying to visit an sweetheart he remembers from the halcyon days of his youth, only to find she is old, ugly, or—horror of horrors—a barmaid. Like it or loathe it (and I don’t like it much) they’re a fixture of the works, from Amabel in his first collection to The Woman Who Went East in the last.

You could probably assemble from the works a collection of sunny poems for besotted lovers to read to one another whilst punting, poems like I sometimes think or To a lady playing and singing in the morning, but most of them are like a pailful of cold water in the face. In Hardy, the course of true love never does run smooth.

 

Tragic Ballads

As a novelist, Thomas Hardy put his characters through the wringer with a willingness that rivals George R.R. Martin. Neither are his poems rosy tinted: some of my content notes read ‘Dog drowns’, ‘Woman goes mad’, ‘Dark as all hell’ and ‘Crabs on his face’. For tragic endings, there’s little to beat A Sunday Morning Tragedy, a tale of botched abortion, or San Sebastian, a character study of a rapist’s remorse. Both guaranteed to make the reader shudder.

Others poems lay the blame more squarely at society’s door, such as The Vampirine Fair, in which a scheming woman steals her lover’s estate out from under him, and which has some fine passages of brutal irony.

And while I searched his cabinet
For letters, keys, or will,
‘Twas touching that his gaze was set
With love upon me still.

And when I burnt each document
Before his dying eyes,
‘Twas sweet that he did not resent
My fear of compromise.

The steeple-cock gleamed golden when
I watched his spirit go:
And I became repentant then
That I had wrecked him so.

Meanwhile, The Ruined Maid is reminiscent of George Bernard Shaw in its send-up of Victorian attitudes to prostitution. Hardy’s earlier career as a novelist is perhaps most evident in these novels in miniature, each presenting in a few dozen lines the kind of scenario that could easily fill a three volume novel.

War

Hardy is fascinated with the Battle of the Waterloo in the same way we’re fascinated with 9/11. It changed the course of whole nations, and yet, had any of the circumstances been different, the whole outcome might have altered. His obsession with the Napoleonic Wars would eventually develop into the unperformable 131-scene verse drama, The Dynasts, but a brief song from that play, The Eve of Waterloo, coupled with The Peasant’s Confession from Hardy’s first collection will probably suffice for all but die-hard Hardy enthusiasts.

The Boer War broke out during Hardy’s emergence as a public poet, but his war poems are equivocal in the extreme. He comes closest to exhortation in the likeable bluff officer presented in The Colonel’s Soliloquy, but dwells most often on the fears of the women left behind. Drummer Hodge, the most famous poem of the sequence, anticipates Rupert Brooke’s famous lines about there being ‘some corner of a foreign field / That is forever England’, but the transformation Hardy describes is much richer, stranger and more Shakespearean.

Young Hodge the Drummer never knew—
Fresh from his Wessex home—
The meaning of the broad Karoo,
The Bush, the dusty loam,
And why uprose to nightly view
Strange stars amid the gloam.

Yet portion of that unknown plain
Will Hodge for ever be;
His homely Northern breast and brain
Grow to some Southern tree,
And strange-eyed constellations reign
His stars eternally.

World War One found him officially called upon to join the patriotic poetry movement urging men to join up and do their bit. The poems from that era are an odd mixture of on-message propaganda, such Men Who March Away and A Call To National Service, and moments where the pity of it seems to catch hold of him, such as the (still relevant) His Country and the bitterly self-accusatory I Looked Up From My Writing. Unlike Wilfrid Owen or Siegfried Sasson, he never fought in the army, and his disillusionment is not equal to theirs. He sees the War not as a crisis point where the horror of modern mechanised warfare became apparent, but as the continuation of old foolish habits of struggle, a worldview best expressed in Channel Firing, where the guns are heard roaring ‘As far inland as Stourton Tower, / And Camelot, and starlit Stonehenge.’

Nature

Hardy’s verse flowed best at midwinter, peaking around new year, and accordingly there’s a pronounced winteriness to his best nature verses. Though Hardy may occasionally venture as far as The Later Autumn, most of his poems are as the title of his last collection would have it, Winter Words. Snow in the Suburbs, A Light Snow-Fall after Frost and Winter Night in Woodland are perfect verses of their kind, poems that keep the narrator, the moral and the self as far out of it as possible and aim entirely at description. The poems that dare to poach on Wordsworth’s grounds and present the poet in his relationship to nature are rarer and more celebrated: we have to turn to The Darkling Thrush or Hardy’s delicate elegy on himself, Afterwards.

When the Present has latched its postern behind my tremulous stay,
And the May month flaps its glad green leaves like wings,
Delicate-filmed as new-spun silk, will the neighbours say,
“He was a man who used to notice such things”?

If it be in the dusk when, like an eyelid’s soundless blink,
The dewfall-hawk comes crossing the shades to alight
Upon the wind-warped upland thorn, a gazer may think,
“To him this must have been a familiar sight.”

The poem’s season may be May, but the mood throughout is autumnal, its subject being the autumn of Hardy’s own life. He may not be a poet for the whole year, but as a poet for the darker seasons he has rarely been surpassed.

Writing a High Fantasy Ballad

the_fortress_unvanquishable3Many stories aspire to the condition of ballads, to the roots of folk storytelling. After reinventing myself as a writer of pirate ballads, I decided to go in search of one such story, preferably out of copright, in order to test my ballad-mongering craftsmanship.

I alit on ‘The Fortress Unvanquishable Save For Sacnoth’ by Lord Dunsay, freshly republished in a Penguin anthology of his shorter works. Dunsany, an Irish peer, belongs to the tradition of pre-Tolkien fantasy before it calved off into a whole genre. He had a prickly relationship with the Irish Literary Revival–a less than effusive introduction by W.B. Yeats makes it pretty clear that the future Nobel Prize winner hated his guts–but there was a strong public following for his plays, short stories and novels, the best of which are still in print.

Fortress is a simple tale, yet an eerie one. It tells how the villagers of Allathurion become plagued by nightmares, which the village mage determines to be the work of the evil wizard Gaznak. The only way for these nightmares to cease is for the Lord’s son, Leothric, to slay Tharagaverug, the metal crocodile, and forge from its spine the legendary sword Sacnoth. Only then will he be able to force an entrance to Gaznak’s fortress and face the wizard in single combat.

Appropriately for a story about the vanquishing of nightmares, ‘Fortress’ leans towards the nightmarish and dreamlike rather than Tolkien’s grounded worldbuilding or Lewis’s homely anthropomorphism. There maybe something silly about naming a dragon Wong Bongerok or a metal crocodile Tharagaverug, but Dunsany deploys the names carefully, using them to heighten the rich, melodious rhythm of his prose. Leothric and the sword Sacnoth have about the same depth of characterisation between them, but as in many fairy tales or stories from the Arabian Nights, the emphasis is not on the hero but on the strange and terrible marvels he encounters. Fantasy here is the last true refuge of the tall tale, and it ends with the frame story itself merging into the doubtful realm of dream, with the possibility that the defeat of the nightmare wizard was itself a long and terrible nightmare.

This is the tale of the vanquishing of The Fortress Unvanquishable, Save For Sacnoth, and of its passing away, as it is told and believed by those who love the mystic days of old.

Others have said, and vainly claim to prove, that a fever came to Allathurion, and went away; and that this same fever drove Leothric into the marshes by night, and made him dream there and act violently with a sword. And others again say that there hath been no town of Allathurion, and that Leothric never lived.

Peace to them. The gardener hath gathered up this autumn’s leaves. Who shall see them again, or who wot of them? And who shall say what hath befallen in the days of long ago?

It’s also, I feel, an invitation to future adaptors, which is partly why the concluding verse were among the first parts of the ballad I wrote, not knowing I would spend months inching towards them, verse by verse.

Alas, it seems all splendid dreams
in morning light must fade.
The sweetest songs must have an end,
like this ballad I have made
of The Fortress Unvanquishable
Except Through Sacnoth’s Blade.

Yet fair things gone do linger on
as phantoms of delight
to charm away the dullest day;
sweet be your dreams this night.

I wanted, in my retelling, to capture the quality of a healthy bed-time story–something that thrills and scares but ultimately sends you to sleep reassured. I had in mind G.K. Chesterton’s words, “Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.” And so I set to work.

Many of Dunsany’s grace notes and side-details are an absolute gift to the versifier. The village-mage’s spell, for example, ‘had in it the word wherewith the people of the plains are wont to curse their camels, and the shout wherewith the whalers of the north lure the whales shoreward to be killed, and a word that causes elephants to trumpet; and every one of the forty lines closed with a rhyme for “wasp.”‘ I followed this description closely, with a ‘rasp / grasp / wasp’ off-rhyme had often qets a chuckle in my recitations. On the other hand, I thought some of his structure could use a little polish and rearrangement. In the first part of the story, the mage tells Leothric exactly what he must do to kill Tharagaverug, and Leothric goes off and does it like someone ticking off a to-do list. I decided to split the exposition between the village mage and an old man at the gate of the marsh people’s village, which had the multiple advantages of giving the poem a different voice, and giving the marsh people a modicum of agency in their own deliverance. Likewise, once inside the castle, I decided to reorder events to follow a more allegorical scheme: before he can confront Gaznak, Leothric is threatened first by an ambush of naked power, then by his feudal overlords, by a giant spider who represents fatalism and depression and finally by a vast abyss. My castle descends more slowly into the surreal that Dunsay’s original, where elephants flee trumpeting the moment Leothric forces and entrance. I also cut, with a twinge, the ball-room full of beautiful women who turn out to be Gaznak’s fever dreams. There were some lovely details, such as the wolves gnawing at the wainscot and the flames flickering in the sockets of their eyes, but I was determined to keep the episodes from overwhelming the forward thrust of the poem as a whole, and the seducing temptress angle seemed a little overtired.

In the final duel with Gaznak, I faced the age-old problem of making a sword-fight interesting on the page, but as Dunsany had already done it in prose, it wasn’t too difficult to pull off in verse. The traditional motif of the wizard’s castle dissolving into air after his death was satisfying to perform.

Sacnoth laid all his magic waste
and sundered every spell
and with a sound to rival all
the screaming choirs of Hell
in ruin unimaginable
the vanquished fortress fell.

RUIN UNIMAGINABLE!!! would probably be a more accurate representation of the way I bellow it out.

When the last rhyme was honed and the last verse polished, I had the longest poem I’d ever written: 575 lines and 132 stanzas, across two separate parts. The poem had taught me how to merge versifying with storytelling, bringing the much slighted arts of narrative back into the rhythms and images of verse. For me, composing and revising a poem is synonymous with memorising it, so I also had a half-hour long performance piece, and I’ve taken my staff and sword to venues across Cardiff and the valleys to tell me tale of dreams and magic, giant spiders and metal crocodiles. It’s a story now lodged in my head until the day I die, which is the best tribute I can offer to Lord Dunsany, that grand pioneer of fantastic fiction.

A Sestina for the Huntington

Something I wrote for the AHRC about my time in Los Angeles studying at the Huntington Library, and the poem that came out of it.

Research beyond borders

In this latest Guest Blog, Thomas Tyrrell talks about his experience of the AHRC International Placement Scheme, and ultimately, his “Sestina for the Huntington”.

On my first day at the Huntington Library,Los Angeles, I was allocated a shelf for my books beneath a bust of Lord Byron. Madly jet-lagged but wide-eyed and vibrating on American coffee, I was here on the AHRC international placement scheme, which gives British PhD students the chance to travel abroad and access collections they couldn’t reach on their own budgets.

A bust of George Gordon, Lord Byron, from the Ahrmanson Reading Room in the Munger Research Centre - Photo Credit Thomas Tyrrell A bust of George Gordon, Lord Byron, from the Ahrmanson Reading Room in the Munger Research Centre – Photo Credit Thomas Tyrrell

After a previous fellowship at the Chawton House Library, Hampshire, I had thanked my hosts with a country house poem. Suitably inspired by Byron, I set myself the challenge of writing a poem for the Huntington

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Upon Chawton House: A Poem

What would you have done if you had invented one of the key components of the internet and promptly become very rich indeed? It would be hard to think of a better solution than that of Sandy Lerner, co-inventor of the router, who bought up a rundown manor house in Chawton, Hampshire, which had once belonged to Jane Austen’s brother, Edward Austen-Knight. After a decade of extensive restoration, Chawton House reopened as one of Britain’s newest research libraries, specialising in women’s literature.

Last year, I fulfilled a dream of mine from my MA days, and got to spend a month there as a visiting fellow, researching my PhD. From the Steinway grand in the living room to the shiny copper pans hanging over the kitchen table to the four-poster bed, I’d never lived like it before and never will since.

This must be what it was like to have an aristocratic patron, I thought to myself. The idea sprang into my head of a modern take on the country house poem, in the tradition of Ben Jonson and Andrew Marvell, that would thank the staff for my unforgettable month here. I daydreamed of being appointed Chawton House’s poet laureate and being given my own tiny office in the eaves of the house, where I would write poems to Sandy Lerner’s cats and subsist solely on sherry. Alas, it was not to be—but I did manage to see my poem printed in the library’s newsletter, The Female Spectator.

Now that Hampshire’s poet laureate has paid a visit and written a sequence of poems about her time there, I thought it high time I gave my poem a new airing.

Fruitful October’s been and gone
And drear November’s drawing on
At Chawton House, so much renowned
For wholesome air and fertile ground
As every fruit tree here evinces,
Weighed down with apples, pears and quinces.
Though roses droop and leaves may fall
Before the threat of frost and squall,
From every pamphlet, every tome
A harvest has been gathered home,
From every essay, poem and story:
And still the grounds are in their glory
Of gold and brown and yellow green
And mixtures hardly sung or seen.
To stroll amid the wilderness
And see the woods in autumn dress
Adds a fresh pleasure to the store:
Then back into the house once more!
For there are concerts to applaud
Upon the polished harpsichord,
And morning light that gilds and graces
The panelled rooms and fireplaces,
And portraits splendid in their frames
Of gay coquettes and haughty dames,
And Knights of centuries gone by
Who gaze with an approving eye.
Plush window seats, where I am certain
To hide behind th’embroidered curtain
And read for hours like Jane Eyre
Or even – dare I? – take the chair
Where Austen used to sit and write.
There is no end to my delight,
For there are shelves and stacks and hoards
Of Books en dishabille in boards,
Or paperbacks – pert springy nippers,
Or grave octavos in their slippers,
Or volumes – three or four together
All bound in fine Morocco leather,
Whilst slim selecteds – bold young turks –
Vie with august collected works
To entertain me with their art:
How sad that they and I must part!

Elegy of the Anglo-Saxon Cyclist

Every cycle tour has a nightmare day. On my first tour it was Day 2, the short leg between Bristol and Bath midway through my journey from my university at Cardiff to my parent’s house in Winchester. The rain poured down unrelentingly as I slogged along the old railway track between the two cities, the first bike path of a national network that now threads through most of the country.

I had spent the last couple of weeks on my sofa revising Old English adjectives for an exam, testing how well I could understand and translate the language of Beowulf and King Alfred. One of the key texts had been ‘The Seafarer’s Elegy’ a long and mournful poem where a sailor laments that the weather is awful, the ship comfortless, his feet are ‘forste gebunden’ or fettered by frost, and everyone on land is having a much nicer time.

As the rain dripped off my nose and my shorts reached saturation point, I wondered what ‘The Cyclist’s Elegy’ would sound like.

I decided it would sound pretty much like this.

https://soundcloud.com/user998852738/elegy-of-the-anglo-saxon-cyclist

I will tell my story, such as it is,
A short and a soggy one. At cease of exams,
I undertook a taxing journey,
A cycle trip from Cardiff home.
I disregarded railway lines,
Trams, taxis and all transport links,
And through the force of thighs and calves
I made my way through Wales and England
To Hampshire and home. Hardly he guesses,
For whom the miles pass unremarked,
Cocooned in cars, comfortable dwellings
Away from the wet, how the weary cyclist,
Remains by the roadside. Rain never ended;
A daylong drizzle, drenching and cold,
Soaks into my shorts; sagging tyres,
Flat and deflated, force me to spend
Aggravating hours, alone in the rain,
Patching the puncture. Appalling weather,
The bane of the British, brings no relief.
My ankles ache with every motion,
Chainwheel and sprocket clank and groan,
And hunger harries the heart of the engine.
And yet, in the morning, I yearn to continue,
To take to the saddle, sore as I am,
Put foot to the pedals and push myself onwards.

While his bike is whole and sturdy
The cyclist is unstoppable,
An entire engine in himself.
And come the crash, when his bicycle hurls him
Headlong over the handlebars
To a painful impact, plastered in mud,
Face down in the dirt, his dignity gone,
His body bruised and bloody-kneed,
Still he will stride on, stronger than ever,
Firm in his frame, a fearless traveller,
Dreadless, undaunted. Durable men
Will live to outlast the little systems
Constructed to keep them. The cyclist knows
When after all this he arrives at his doorstep
Bloody, mud-splattered and spent with exertion,
His is a hero’s homecoming.

Thanks to everyone at the Cycle Touring Festival at Clitheroe, whose enthusiasm and kind remarks at the open mic night inspired me to put this post up.

And full credit to Ezra Pound, whose unique performance of his 1911 translation has been the inspiration for my own strange growlings.

Reclaiming Valentine’s Day for Poetry

It’s Valentine’s Day. People’s reaction to this seems to vary sharply between the blissful and the bitter, depending on a variety of factors including whether or not they’re in a relationship, their tolerance for public displays of affection and how well they respond to a traditional holiday whose rituals have been totally erased and rewritten by the forces of capitalism.

See? I’m sounding bitter already, and I’m not even trying. In fact, I’m in clover; this is only the second Valentine’s Day of my life I’ve spent in a relationship. Unfortunately, the lovely lady concerned is five thousand miles away with the whole continent of North America and the Atlantic Ocean in between us, so we’re going to have to content ourselves with a Skype date.

I also sent a card, which I don’t usually do. I worked for nine months in a branch of WHSmith, and daily exposure to their rack of greetings cards, which varied from the nauseatingly crude to the nauseatingly saccharine, put me off sending any kind of birthday, valentines or mother’s or father’s day card for the next several years. I sent letters and phone calls instead.

So, for much of my life, this day has been marked by no cards and no girlfriends. But I’ve had fun anyway, because I’m a practicing poet, and I have a mission – to reclaim Valentine’s Day for poetry.

Looking at my files, I’m surprised to discover I’ve written at least two sonnets every year since 2009. I knew I had a habit, but still… In 2010 I wrote four for Valentine’s Day – one for a good friend, two on spec. for other friends where I thought things might go further (they didn’t) and a silly one for a woman where romance would have been wildly inappropriate, because I came up with an amusing rhyme and couldn’t resist. It’s actually, looking back on it, the least embarrassing of the set, as the one least inflected by the phase of Miltonic grandiosity my poetry was going through.

Beatrice – or should I say Beatrice?
No, I’ll use English, not Italian stress;
The former one offends the ear the less,
The latter makes this sonnet far from easy.
Beatrice – in your jacket warm and fleecy –
O God! This octet really is a mess!
I wish I’d never started, I confess…
Yet still, I’ll come out of it in one piece, eh?
Beatrice, since my mania for rhyming
Has put this poem in utter disarray
And left me desperately short of timing
To tell you what it was I want to say…
No, I’ll leave off. The midnight bells are chiming
And I shall write again some other day.

In 2012 and 2013, I flipped through my poets and anthologies a few days before and matched my friends to poems: Michael Donaghy’s ‘The Present’ for an astrophysicist, Richard Lovelace’s delightful ‘Song to Amarantha, that she would dishevel her hair’ to a particularly gorgeous Irish blonde who had much to forgive me, Christopher Marlowe’s splendidly over-the-top ‘The Passionate Shepherd to His Love’ for an old flame I’d moved away from – and maybe three or four others. On the day, I posted each poem publicly on their Facebook walls, without any comment other than a ‘Happy Valentine’s’ at the bottom. I never got a lasting relationship out of it, but I was surprised how much love and appreciation got channeled my way. I’d do it again, and recommend it to any single poet with a few good anthologies to hand.

I was going to dedicate Valentine’s Day 2015 exclusively to feeling miserable and sorry for myself, but at the last moment I copied out the first stanza of Byron’s ‘She Walks in Beauty’ onto good notepaper, folded it, sealed it with wax and posted it to a fellow PhD in Newcastle I’d been nursing a crush on. She guessed it was me.

This year things are going so rosily that I actually have the chance to write a full-on, bona fide love poem without bothering with the tiresome unrequited bit. This is an interesting challenge. Usually I try to write poetry that’s beautiful and complicated without being wildly obscure; now I had to switch gears and write something simple and beautiful without being saccharine.

Without further ado, this one’s for Valerie:

In the night sometimes I reckon
All that keeps us two apart,
All the dry and dreary distance
In between each sundered heart.
All the deserts and the mountains,
All the empty, silent plains
Stretching out into the twilight;
The wide, wide ocean that remains.

Every desert has a well
And every mountain has a spring;
Every trickle gets its chance
To growl and gurgle, roar and sing;
Every raindrop finds a river;
Every stream leads to the sea,
And brings my lover back to me,
And brings my lover back to me.

Cycling USA

FullSizeRenderOn my fourth day in Los Angeles, I bought myself a bicycle. Before that, I’d borrowed the one my AirBnB host, Albert, keeps for the guests, but it was the sort of deathtrap people who know nothing about bicycles buy for $30 off Craigslist and congratulate themselves for being such savvy consumers. The rear brakes didn’t work, along with most of the gears, and the front wheel wobbled worryingly between the two forks. It was heavy as a sledgehammer, and so old there wasn’t an allen key socket on the whole thing, never mind a quick release.

A little research and $145 later, I got my hands on a white fixie with red wheels and bullhorn handlebars, much like my ride back home. LA has turned out to be a hillier city than I reckoned on, but the two mile sprint from my house to the Huntington is pleasantly level.IMG_0548

LA, as everyone knows, is built for the automobile, but this far I’ve been pleased with the cycling provision in Pasadena. After years in Britain duking it out for priority with Chelsea tractors – or actual tractors – in lanes originally designed for medieval haywains, it’s surprisingly relaxing to be somewhere that actually gives you space. Some of the roads even have a bike lane that isn’t a little patch of red paint in the gutter with five cars parked in it, but a whole extra lane between the traffic and the kerb. You can take bikes on trains and buses, you can ride on the sidewalk and no-one gives a damn, you can work up a good head of speed on the long straight boulevards and, of course, you can turn right on a red light. For me, at least, it’s a great alternative to hiring a car and having to ease my way onto one of those scary scary freeways.

In other news it was raining this Sunday in Los Angeles. Rain! In California! Who knew? IMG_0553Apparently LA hasn’t seen this kind of cloudburst in years. Before the rain it was easily as warm as an English summer out here, and now in spite of the constant sunshine there’s a definite chill in the air. Mine host downstairs has switched on his heating, but I’m calling on my reservoirs of student grit and doing my reading and writing wrapped up in duvets.

While I’m spending three months away from my girlfriend, I have decided to fill the some of thetime by trying out wildly experimental facial hair. This Friday I lopped off the moustache and went down to a chin beard. I’m not sure whether I look like a Quaker or a 70’s Marvel villain – certainly nothing like Lincoln – but I kind of like it. I think I’ll try out mutton chops sometime in March.

Next week I’ll write you something about the Huntington Library, and the photos will be gorgeous.

Coming to America

In the last year and a half of my PhD, I’ve discovered the Visiting Fellowship – a means by which generous subsidies allow scholars to travel to new and exciting libraries, to research fascinating material neglected and long overlooked, and write like they’ve rarely written before. The only thing that excites me so much as a new library is a new place to explore, and my applications have largely been smiled upon. I spent October 2015 at Chawton House, a woman’s studies research library in a small, perfectly-formed country house that used to belong to Jane Austen’s brother, Edward Austen-Knight. Now, I’m spending the first months of 2016 studying at the Huntington Library in Los Angeles, on a palatial estate dating back to a point when Pasadena and the whole Los Angeles basin was mostly thought of as good grazing land. Of which, more in later entries.

IMG_1065I was asleep while my plane was going over Las Vegas, so the approach to landing in Los Angeles was the first time I enjoyed the lightshow of an American city at night. Most people who get any kind of perspective on LA are struck by how close it seems to the opening titles of Blade Runner. That’s science-fiction, but it ceases to seem very far-fetched after any time in a city where the constellated grids of neon and tungsten spread across the earth, casting a grey and purple glow into a great blank sky illuminated only by the passing comets of airplanes and the shiny silver dollar of the moon. It’s a feeling augmented by the dog-eat-dog techno-futurism of the freeways, where I was heartily glad to have a shuttle driver doing the navigating to my door. It’s a feeling that made it doubly disconcerting when I was dropped off beside a darkened house that looked like something from the cover of a Stephen King novel.

The owner let me in and showed me around the place, which was a Queen Anne house, built in the 1890s and beautifully bought up to date. I cadged myself a room with a balcony, a high wooden headboard to the bed and closet space which would be £500 a month in Central London on its own. This was good, since my jet-lag manifested in under rather than oversleeping, and I spent most of the small hours of the morning reading in bed.

I’ve always loved the morning after a night time arrival, when you finally get to see what the place looks like in daylight. 433 Martelo Avenue didn’t disappoint when I walked out into the new day at 8am. There were the palm trees lining the road whose shadows I’d glimpsed before, and there was the freeway to the south which I’d heard all through the night. There were also rugged, new, exciting mountains to the north of me, and streets and streets and boulevards and avenues of cinematic American suburbia which I wandered through, lost and marvelling. I scrumped an orange from a neighbour’s fruit tree, and it was perfectly ripe and fresh. Further down the road, I took the opportunity of hailing one of Pasadena’s occasional dog-walking pedestrians.

‘I’m sorry to bother you, but this is my first morning in your country, and I wonder if you might direct me to somewhere I can get some breakfast?’

Another ten minutes, and I was sitting down to a bran muffin and a mug of earl grey at Jameson Brown Coffee Roasters on Allen Avenue. It was a good start.