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This item is taken from PN Review 253, Volume 46 Number 5, May - June 2020.

News & Notes
Script of Storms · Marius Kociejowski reports: On 14 February 2020 Michael Hersch (PNR’s composer in residence) had his premiere of The Script of Storms, his setting for orchestra and soprano of poems by the late Fawzi Karim whose two collections Plague Lands and other poems (2011) and Incomprehensible Lesson (2019) are published by Carcanet. Tito Muñoz conducted the BBC Symphony Orchestra at Maida Vale Studios with soprano Ah Young Hong taking on the extreme challenges of a work that was not exactly Valentine’s Day fare. Hersch, the most poetry-driven of composers, set some of the darkest passages in Karim’s work including an instance of sahel, ‘The Iraqi Revolution’s guillotine’ – a scene the poet witnessed as a child in Baghdad – which comprises dragging a mutilated corpse through the streets. Almost dead centre in the 20-minute work are two short lines where both poet and composer simultaneously fix their respective positions: ‘Me this, isolate sculpture. I’m cold. / My plinth is the void.’ Attending the concert was English composer David Hackbridge Johnson who in PNR 250 wrote an appreciation of Hersch’s Zwischen Leben und Tod. Johnson, although he comes from a wholly different sonic world, spoke deeply of The Script of Storms in a series of visual images – the gift seems his alone – in which he notes ‘a landscape that appears still and blanched. And then flocks of birds rise up in a paroxysm of cries and frantic wings… The way the double basses suddenly have a two-note tune that aches gutturally as if straining from a swamp; its neck taut with the effort of utterance. Those twisted fanfares in the brass as if an entire regimental band is being crushed in a fist. And the voice, like a mother at the foot of a bloodstained wall.’ Prior to the performance, Hersch spoke movingly of his friendship with the poet and how, upon hearing Ah Young Hong for the first time, Karim, perhaps the only Arab to have written extensively on western classical music, became obsessed with the progress of a composition that would serve as a vehicle for her remarkable voice. It was striking to observe how the most painful moments in his poems were delivered in high, piercing notes that seemed to obliterate the words themselves as if their fullest expression were not allowable. Sadly, Fawzi Karim did not live to hear the work, but his family was in attendance.

A National Poetry Centre · On 27 February the Poet Laureate, Simon Armitage, announced ambitious plans for a National Poetry Centre in Leeds. Andrew Motion’s legacy was the wonderful Poetry Archive. This will be Armitage’s legacy, to his native Yorkshire and to the nation. He intends that poetry should be recognised in line with other national art forms that have physical headquarters and venues, for example the National Theatre and the National Gallery. The National Poetry Centre will be a collaboration led by Leeds City Council, Leeds 2023, the University of Leeds and other partners. It will provide a public space that includes an extensive poetry collection with research facilities, rehearsal and performance spaces, a café, and gatherings and events. One hopes it may also accommodate a dedicated Poetry Bookshop stocking books, journals and other poetry publications.

‘In my view,’ the Laureate declared, ‘the centre needs to be outside London and Leeds is an ideal location: accessible, central, dynamic, contemporary, future-minded, people-oriented, community-aware, committed to cultural regeneration, and building momentum towards 2023. […] Poetry is one of our most ancient and proudest artistic endeavours, steeped in tradition, history and ritual; it’s also undergoing,’ he declares, ‘an incredible renaissance at present, particularly in relation to new generations of writers and performers across diverse backgrounds who have found in poetry a way of articulating their concerns and expressing their feelings.’ Leeds 2023 creative director Kully Thiarai set a target: ‘We intend that the new centre will be open in time for our spectacular year of culture in 2023.’

Further news on the Laureate · He began (on 11 March) presenting a series of Radio 4 podcasts on BBC Sounds entitled ‘The Poet Laureate has Gone to his Shed’, taking with him a range of artists (one hopes the shed is sufficiently large to allow for social distancing). We are enjoined to, ‘Listen in on BBC Sounds as some of the best creative talents share their writing secrets and life lessons with Simon, nestled at the bottom of his garden. […] Over 12 episodes guests include acclaimed spoken word performer Kate Tempest, Turner Prize recipient Antony Gormley, model and actress Lily Cole, DJ and Elbow frontman Guy Garvey, actress Maxine Peake, poet Jackie Kay, and world-record beat-boxing champion Testament. Sam Lee – Mercury Prize short listed folk singer – tries to get Armitage out of the shed to join one of his trips in the woods to sing with Nightingales, and Trinidadian judge Melanie Plimmer casts a judicious eye over the arguments of the two poetic birds.’

Struck by history · The Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Lisel Mueller (born Elisabeth Neumann) died in Chicago in February at the age of ninety-six. One of her themes was her flight from Nazi Germany with her family when she was fifteen. She was awarded the Pulitzer in 1997 for Alive Together: New and Selected Poems. By then she was thirty­two years into her career as a university teacher and published poet, writing in what was, after all, a second language which she mastered with a kind of deliberate precision that makes the writing unusually defined. In one of her best-loved poems, ‘Bach Transcribing Vivaldi’, she writes:
One asked the road to the land of the golden lion
whose eyes never weep, whose lifted hand scepters
the seasons of stars and the grafting of generations;
the other searched from the kingdom of the lamb
with the trembling fleece, whose live unreasoning heart
consumes the mortal treasures of his loves.

Late in 2019 she was awarded the Bundesverdienstkreuz – the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany. In her powerful prose poem, in numbered paragraphs, ‘Curriculum Vitae’, she remembers how, ‘My country was struck by history more deadly than earthquakes or hurricanes.’ Later, arriving in the new country, ‘In the new language everyone spoke too fast. Eventually I caught up with them.’ Later still, ‘One day, on a crowded elevator, everyone’s face was younger than mine.’

Sometimes Gladness · John Kinsella wrote in the Guardian of Australian poet Bruce Dawe, who died in April at the age of 90. Les Murray had dubbed him ‘our great master of applied poetry’, and he was regarded by some as the most influential poet Australia had produced, partly because of his place in the curriculum, so that few Australians remain innocent of him. Kinsella stressed the diversity of Dawe’s readership. ‘This diversity would have mattered to him. His work was widely honoured in his lifetime, including with the Patrick White award and a Christopher Brennan award for lifetime achievement in poetry. From a working-class background with broken schooling in Melbourne, then later ongoing commitment to part-time education, through to receiving a PhD, he eventually became a teacher and academic in Queensland. Dawe’s earlier work experience (his many jobs included being a postman, working in a battery factory and serving for a long period with the RAAF) provided the “lived life” feel of social familiarity in his poems.’ And Kinsella remembered how, ‘For decades, when you went into a second-hand bookshop in Australia, even if there was no poetry section, you’d find at least one book of poetry, and that book would be Bruce Dawe’s Sometimes Gladness. It wasn’t simply about a discarded book looking for a new owner, but the inevitable circulation of a school standard across the country. Innumerable copies of the many (updated) editions of this timeless classic were in high-school kids’ bags, lockers, bookcases, desks and maybe scattered on their floors after a heavy study session.’

The Brazen Plagiarist · Evan Jones writes: The poet Kiki Dimoula has died. Born in Athens in 1931, she met the poet Athos Dimoulas (1921–85) while in high-school and they had two children together. She worked for many years at the Bank of Athens before quitting in 1974. Her books began appearing in the 1950s and she became that rare thing: a popular, well-read poet. Her individual poetry collections sold regularly in the area of ten thousand copies, and in 2002, she became the first woman elected to the Chair in Poetry at the Academy of Athens (only a handful of women have been elected to the Academy since its founding in 1926 – Dimoula was the third). Her discreet, metaphysical poems, full of sharp syntactical switches and energy, focus on the quotidian – very different from the mythopoetic world that readers associate with the major Modernist Modern Greek poets – even as they engage deeply with the history of the Greek language. Yale University Press published a dual-language selection of her poems, The Brazen Plagiarist, in 2012, translated by Cecile Inglessis Margellos and Rika Lesser. And Gallimard published a French translation by Michel Volkovitch in 2010, making Dimoula the first female poet ever to be included in their poetry series. She died aged eighty-nine in hospital, Saturday 22 February 2020, after a long illness.

This item is taken from PN Review 253, Volume 46 Number 5, May - June 2020.

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