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This item is taken from PN Review 207, Volume 39 Number 1, September - October 2012.News & Notes
As Olympic fever swept the UK during summer 2012, poetry - from Shakespeare to Jo Shapcott - enjoyed its moment in the spotlight. The French, predictably, took gold for most cultured athletes; their new swimming superstar, Yannick Agnel, reads Baudelaire to relax between events. Poems have been visible across the Games, from the Winning Words installations engraved around the Olympic Park (featuring poems by John Burnside, Lemn Sissay, Caroline Bird and others) to Caliban's 'The isle is full of noises'delivered by Kenneth Branagh and the Miltonic Pandaemonium of the Opening Ceremony. Athletes crossing the Olympic village are confronted by the final line from Tennyson's 'Ulysses': 'To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.'
This well-meaning 'Cultural Olympiad' public art is an easy target for mockery (one might imagine the hapless 'Deliverance team' from the BBC's Olympic spoof Twenty Twelve coming up with the scheme). As Tom Payne paraphrased in the Telegraph (26 July 2012), 'poetry isn't there to be Lucozade when you need a spring in your step, or Ovaltine when you don't'. Critics, however, might remember that the ancient Olympics were a cultural festival as well as a sporting one. The Olympic poetic spirit is rooted in Ancient Greece (see the editorial of PNR 206 for a discussion of Pindar, rugged sportsmen and epinicean odes), yet poetry remained part of the Olympics well into the modern era. Between 1912 and 1948, at the behest of the founder of the modern Games, Pierre de Coubertin, medal competitions were held in five artistic disciplines: architecture, musical composition, painting, sculpture and literature (admittedly, they had to be inspired by sport). At the Stockholm Games in 1912 Coubertin anonymously entered his own poem, 'Ode to Sport', which won the gold medal with the rousing lines 'O Sport, you are Beauty! ... O Sport, you are Justice! ... O Sport, you are Happiness!' Understandably, poetry dropped off the Olympic roster in 1948.
So while no poets will 'podium' or 'medal' (the two having become verbs this summer) during London 2012, it is heartening that poetry still plays a role in this hyperbolic international extravaganza. Most enjoyably, the Scottish Poetry Library's The Written World radio project broadcast poems from every competing country, with Richard Price's gently anarchic 'Hedge Sparrows' a welcome choice to represent Team GB. Visit BBC Scotland website to hear actor Jim Broadbent read the poem.
More sporting news. The poetry of Bolton Wanderers reached the US news site The Huffington Post, with John Lundberg asking, 'England has Poetry Police?' (22 July 2012). Atherton resident Dennis Swift, a would-be poet and lifelong fan of Bolton Wanderers, earned a visit from local police after having a spat with the football club's management. Swift had grown angry when the team refused to sell his poetry collection, Football Rhymes of Passion, in their official store (despite alleged promises to the contrary). Heated words were exchanged online - some in verse - and Swift found himself questioned as to whether he wrote poems. When he affirmed that he did, one officer reportedly threatened, 'Well don't go writing any more.' It seems Bolton takes literature (like football) very seriously. While the club cited their 'zero tolerance policy' on abusive language, Swift was left wondering why he had been singled out for reprimand on a forum brimming with choice expressions (the Wanderers were recently relegated from the Premier League). Swift insists that the Bolton management was upset about a series of poems criticising the team which he had published online. So, how scathing are Swift's poems? His satire hardly rivals Pope's. One of his best couplets took Bolton's manager to task in something like iambic heptameter or 'fourteeners': 'You came to Bolton Wanderers as our saviour and Messiah. / Your interviews are hilarious and your signings are utter dire.''Now,' writes John Lundberg, 'if there really were a poetry police, using fourteeners might get you a warning. C.S. Lewis once said of them, “the line dances a jig” - and not a good jig.'
The PEN Pinter Prize 2012 will be awarded to the Poet Laureate CAROL ANN DUFFY at a ceremony at the British Library in October. The annual prize is given to a British writer who, in the words of Harold Pinter, casts an 'unflinching, unswerving' gaze on the world. According to Lady Antonia Fraser, Pinter's widow, 'Carol Ann Duffy is a great poet: in addition we were all struck by [her] propensity for being independent and sometimes awkward, to make important points through her work. She comments on contemporary events directly in a way we do not believe a Poet Laureate has done before.' The highly titled judging panel included Sir David Hare, Dame Margaret Drabble, Lord Melvyn Bragg, Lady Antonia Fraser and President of English PEN, Gillian Slovo. Lady Duffy, perhaps? You read it here first.
The shortlists for the 2012 Forward Prizes for Poetry were announced in July. Press coverage focused on two names on the Best Collection shortlist: Pulitzer Prize-winning former US laureate JORIE GRAHAM (for P L A C E, published by Carcanet) and Oxford Professor of Poetry geoffrey hill (for Odi Barbare, published by Clutag Press). The celebrity of the two front runners, described respectively as 'perhaps the most celebrated poet of the American post-war generation' (the Poetry Foundation on Graham) and 'the English language's greatest' (the Guardian on Geoffrey Hill), should not obscure the rest of the shortlist. Graham and the now spectacularly prolific Hill are joined by two other Hills, Barry (with Naked Clay: Drawing from Lucian Freud from Shearsman Books) and Selima (with People Who Like Meatballs, from Bloodaxe). It is gratifying to see PN Review contributors Beverley Bie Brahic and Marilyn Hacker recognised as well; the former in the Best Collection category for White Sheets (CB Editions) and the latter in the Best Single Poem category for 'Fugue on a line of Amr bin M'ad Yakrib' (The Wolf magazine). The winners will be announced on 3 October.
A poetry prize of a more futuristic kind has been launched by the indefatigable pioneer MARGARET ATWOOD. (In 2006 the Canadian caused minor ripples in the publishing industry when she invented the Long Pen, a device enabling authors to 'sign' books virtually via a computer screen.) The catchily titled Attys have been devised by Atwood in collaboration with the 'social reading site' Wattpad specifically to recognise the new 'genre' of 'digital poetry'. 'Poems can be submitted from anywhere, and we anticipate that some entries will be written on mobile devices,' says Allen Lau, co-founder of Toronto-based Wattpad. 'We want to create a digital-first opportunity for poets to share their work and for audiences to discover the genre.' Atwood, who shares her own poetry via online platforms, declared herself 'very honoured' to be the prize's namesake and inaugural judge. Visit www.wattpad.com/attys for information.
CLIFF ASHBY, the British poet and novelist once described as 'a poet quite as good as Larkin, and perhaps better', died in June. A reticent figure, Ashby began publishing poetry in his forties and achieved little recognition during his lifetime. A conscientious objector, Ashby was conscripted into agricultural work and spent some years at the Peace Pledge Union's Essex community farm established in 1936 by the critic John Middleton Murry and the pacifist poet Max Plowman. During this period Ashby met his future wife and several poets and artists who encouraged him in his own work. He continued to work the land until 1956, when in Yorkshire he began writing in earnest. Poet-critics C.H. Sisson and David Wright became close friends of Ashby's and championed his work. His first collection in 1968 was followed in 1976 by The Dogs of Dewsbury (Carcanet). Many of his poems reveal his take on modern life and what he saw as its spiritual bankruptcy. The Larkin comparison came from Martin Seymour-Smith in 1985 in his Guide to Modern World Literature; he favoured Ashby over Larkin 'because he has had more experience of life'. Several more collections and a Collected Poems appeared during the 1980s, before the death of the poet's wife led to a cessation in writing. Ashby had a late flowering in 2008 with the publication by HappenStance Press of A Few Late Flowers, a volume which his friend, the poet and critic Robert Nye, described as 'the most remarkable swansong offered by a writer in their 89th year'.Cliff Ashby: A Sampler appeared in 2009.
PN Review was saddened to learn of the death of PATRICIA WOOD(1942-2012), who died at The Christie Hospital, Manchester, in June. In a long life as a teacher and educationalist in higher, adult and continuing education, she made constant and original use of her deep knowledge of poetry and literature, relating it in often surprising ways to science, medicine and medical training. As one friend and writer put it, 'she had a place in poetry much larger than she realised'. During the 1980s and 1990s she became well known for her hospitality at her house in Bolton where she provided supper for visiting writers after readings at Bolton Institute and the Octagon. Her grace, laughter, insight and good conversation were at the heart of these evenings and will be remembered by the many writers who enjoyed her company. A good many became and remained her close friends. The poet Christopher Middleton paid tribute to her generous spirit after one such reading and supper in November 1992. His poem ends:
There were strangers: exchanging gifts,
They invited the voices to come back home
For a moment, a moment, then waved them off
Into the blue again. Libellum recipi: I took
A little book away, a sense of having let go
With such abundance of being, lightness,
That now I taste again the golden
Crust of quiche, harken to the voices,
And by the shape of forgetfulness,
Singularly round, am nourished.
The poem was published in PN Review (1994).
The Dutch poet RUTGER KOPLAND has died, aged 77. Gerry McGrath writes: A psychiatrist by profession, Kopland drew no distinction between the process of scientific research and the art of writing poetry, and his verse, often a combination of scientific rigour and emotional attachment, existed on the cusp of novel experience, haunted by the possibility of new encounters. In a career that spanned nearly fifty years Kopland published eleven volumes of poetry, including the masterful Memories of the Unknown (2001), as well as two essay collections, The Mechanics of Emotion (1995) and Beautiful but that's not the Word (1998), and a collection of travel and translation notes, Young Lettuces in the East (1997). It was for his poetry that he was best known, however, gaining popular and critical acclaim in his native Holland. In 1997 he was awarded the P.C. Hooft Prize for poetry. Kopland's reputation in the Anglophone world as a poet of quiet, thoughtful wistfulness can be traced to those poems that appeared in English translation by James Brockway in Stand in the 1980s. Brockway's translations communicated the complexity of Kopland's lyric, an achievement replicated recently by Willem Groenewegen for Waxwing Press in Dublin. Kopland's world was one of strange familiarities, deployed with enormous skill and warmth. As J.M. Coetzee noted, 'a Kopland poem is instantly recognizable as a Kopland poem. It is international, Dutch and English at the same time, and even when anecdotal, universal in its themes.'
Robyn Marsack remembers Michael Snow (1930-2012): We are very sorry to hear of MICHAEL SNOW'S recent death. He was a good friend to poetry and one of W.S. Graham's friends and champions. Matthew Francis, editor of Graham's New Collected Poems, said of Michael and Margaret Snow that their 'ceaseless and devoted work has surely been the biggest single factor in the steady growth of Graham's reputation since his death'.
Michael was born in Manchester, and worked as a librarian there but moved to St Just in Cornwall in 1952, inspired by the work of the St Ives school of painters that he'd seen in Manchester. He became a painter, and was welcomed by the St Ives artists. Despite having no formal training, he developed apace and had a solo show in Manchester in 1957. That year he also married Margaret, who began teaching English at the Penzance Grammar School for Girls. Michael left St Ives in 1965 to begin his twenty-year teaching career at Exeter College of Art. They had one son, Justin.
The Snows met Sydney Graham and Nessie Dunsmuir in 1955, and became close friends. After Graham's death, they worked with his widow to collect his poems and as his Literary Executors they edited a brilliant selection of Graham's letters, The Nightfisherman, published by Carcanet in 1999. In the catalogue for his Rowan Gallery solo show in 1964, Michael wrote: 'Any sort of painting matters if it is honest - a live experience as opposed to fashionable rhetoric or propaganda.' It was the absolute authenticity of Graham's work that engaged Michael, and his persistent, encouraging kindliness and his intellectual curiosity sustained Graham. On New Year's Eve 1977, Graham wrote to him: 'Time we are always in, Michael. I don't suppose we can say - How is Time dealing with us? It is how we grow or journey towards the end. What have you done to have put on you in a letter such heavy homespuns? Never mind, my slightly Northern sweety, maybe do you think we will be all right if we are good boys and have our black puddings and chitterlings? We must keep our helmets buzzing and our curiosities alive and have courage in the times we drop and miss a step. ... I have always loved you according to my cut.'
STEPHEN COHN, the artist and celebrated translator of Rilke for Carcanet, has died. Cohn's version of Rilke's Duino Elegies (1912-22), one of the great monuments of modern literature, appeared in 1989 and was praised by John Bayley, Sir Stephen Spender (an early English translator of Rilke with J.B. Leishman in the 1930s) and Peter Porter, who wrote: 'Cohn has added a natural eloquence of his own which makes his version of the Elegies the most flowing and organic of those I have read.' Upon the publication in 1997 of his Neue Gedichte / New Poems, a Poetry Book Society Recommended Translation, John Bayley declared that 'we feel that not only has Rilke emerged in English with his personality unaltered, but that something new has been added to English poetry itself.' (Neue Gedichte was reissued by Carcanet in 2004.) Cohn's translation of Sonnets to Orpheus, the late sequence composed in 1922 over just thirteen days that which Rilke referred to as a mysterious 'dictation', appeared with Letters to a Young Poet in 2000 and is perennially popular. Higher-profile editions such as Don Paterson's 2006 Orpheus (which Paterson himself described as a 'version' rather than a translation) owe a significant debt to Cohn's. Demonstrating a creative empathy for the subtlety and complexity of the original and a rare instinct for diction and cadence, Cohn's translation was praised by Porter in his preface for managing to 'catch the marvellous twists of Rilke's imagination'. Cohn was also a distinguished sculptor, painter and printmaker. His Rilke translations remain in print from Carcanet and are available in ebook format.
This item is taken from PN Review 207, Volume 39 Number 1, September - October 2012.