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This item is taken from PN Review 226, Volume 42 Number 2, November - December 2015.

News & Notes / Tributes
Inaugural World Poetry Festival of Indigenous Peoples
At the open market in Tlacolula, Oaxaca, visitors hear several dialects of Zapotec, Nahuatl and Mixtec being spoken, but mainly among the older people who still wear their regional outfits. The children understand without being able to answer back: education takes them away from their natal languages into the emollient colonial lingua franca, Spanish. The head of the University of Mexico’s Programme of Cultural Diversity and Interculturalism underlined the predicament of these languages when he announced the first world poetry festival of indigenous peoples, scheduled for October 2016, to be entitled (in Spanish, necessarily) ‘Voces de Colores para la Madre Tierra’, with an ecological inflection. It is organized by the Macuilxochitl Cultural Foundation, whose president is the Nahuatl poet Natalio Hernández, and will take place in various parts of Mexico, from Chiapas to Oaxaca, Puebla, Veracruz, Yucatán and México City. It will bring together eighty poets drawn from many countries. The idea was hatched at the 24th Medellin International Poetry Festival in Colombia. The connection with that great Festival gives this new initiative a chance of achieving audibility for the poetry of these endangered cultures. Most recently that danger has been expressed in the invasion of Oaxaca native lands by settlers from the state of Puebla whose armed militias dispossess the indigenes in the Baja Mixteca. The statistics of surviving linguistic diversity are eloquent: fifty percent of the population of the Yucatan peninsula speak versions of the Maya language, yet there is no Maya primary, secondary or university education available. In Spain, seven languages are spoken and taught at all levels: it is crucial to the irreducibly diverse culture of that country.

C. K. Stead, Poet Laureate
The poet and novelist C. K. Stead now wears the New Zealand laurel crown as the 2015–16 Poet Laureate and will enjoy the vintage rewards of office and his own custom-carved tokotoko of office. He will do much to help define and disseminate what he perceives as the best New Zealand poetry, past and present, with his characteristic directness.

Sarah Broom Prize for Poetry
In May the New Zealand poet and writer Diana Bridge won the second Sarah Broom Prize for Poetry at the Auckland International Arts Festival where Vona Groarke, the chief judge, spoke highly of her work. Earlier this year she was awarded a residency at Yaddo. In 2014 she won the Landfall Essay Competition for her memoir of her engagement with China, where she lived, her poetry and her translations.

The Muses have Gone for a Drink
On 25 September in Madrid, the Peruvian poet Nilton Santiago was awarded the coveted Casa de América Poetry Prize for The Muses have Gone for a Drink, which the jury, in pure jury-eze, described as outstanding for its ‘imaginative qualities, its lyric force, irony and the verbal quest implicit in contemporary life’. The purse is a modest €3000 but the prize entails publication by one of the leading houses in Spain and a readership throughout the Spanish-speaking world. Santiago, who lives in Barcelona, is no stranger to prizes, though this is an unparalleled accolade.

Posthumous Heaney
Seamus Heaney translated Book VI of Virgil’s Aeneid. He did not pass it for publication, but his publishers have done so and it will appear in 2016 as a new volume by the late Nobel laureate. There will be a limited edition and two trade editions, a golden bough proffered to them, however inadvertently, by the poet from the underworld Aeneas visited in Book VI. It will of course be interesting to see what Heaney made of the famous nekyia, but how much weight can it be made to bear? Matthew Hollis, Faber Poetry Editor, declared: ‘It is with deep respect and care that we proceed with publication of Seamus Heaney’s translation: respect, because a posthumous publication requires it; care, because, at his death, the author was still in a period of reflection. But the typescript that he left behind had, in the view of his editor and his family, reached a level of completion that suggested it would not be inappropriate to share with a wider readership.’ ‘It would not be inappropriate’ translates as ‘it would be appropriate’ and commercially opportune. And the book will be promoted in these excruciatingly pious terms: ‘It seems almost miraculous that it is possible to publish a substantial new work by Seamus Heaney now, as if, even after his passing, he were capable of offering his readers a gift. That the gift should be Book VI of the Aeneid only adds to the potence of his remarkable translation.’

Cynthia Macdonald (1928–2015)
In August the American poet Cynthia Macdonald died in Logan, Utah. She was eighty-seven. She published her first volume when she was into her  forties. It was unpromisingly entitled Amputations (she was encouraged by Anne Sexton in her first efforts) but her world while dark was marked by comedy rather than gore. Neither her language nor her subject matter is stable: her characters are as surprising as her turns of phrase. Mutilation is a way of becoming whole; the ordinary is never more than­—ordinary. Poems ‘have to do what is not intended as well as what is’. The scion of two artistic families, wonderfully well educated, a dramatic soprano in her first career, she married a Shell Oil executive (a turn reminiscent of Some Like it Hot – her father was a screen-writer) whose career involved postings abroad and made her own vocation impractical. So she took to poetry, wholeheartedly in the mid-1960s. Later she qualified as a Freudian psychoanalyst specializing in patients suffering from writer’s block. Some critics find her take on the dark side of the human condition flippant. It is certainly unsentimental and arresting, and it lacks the kind of investment in self that constrains the work of Anne Sexton, for example.

C. K. Williams (1936–2015)
C. K. (Charles Kenneth) Williams died in September at the age of seventy-eight. He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 2000, one of dozens of honours and prizes that recognized his considerable originality not only in the intensity of his themes but in the expansiveness of his forms. Bloodaxe, his British publishers, brought out (among others) his New & Selected Poems (1995), The Singing (2003), Collected Poems (2006) and Writers Writing Dying (2012; Bloodaxe Books, 2013). His study On Whitman was published by Princeton in 2010.

Juana Bignozzi (1937–2015)
Juana Bignozzi, the Argentinian writer born in 1937, died in August. She was a foe of writing schools which ‘manufacture clones’. And she was anti-sentimental: poets who play to the gallery were guilty of plain bad taste and bad poetry. She was one of Argentina’s notable writers, clear-sighted, candid and categorical. She enjoyed challenging nostrums. ‘I have always been concerned with the other, the outsider, the militant legacy and its transmission forward; today there is no longer militancy…’ In 2004 she returned to Argentina after thirty years’ exile, radical and disenchanted as when she left. Born of anarchist parents (her father a baker, her mother a textile worker), she made common cause with the Communist writers of the 1950s, in particular Juan Gelman who, in his later years, she said wrote as if he was his own disciple. She was an activist who refused to put her art to use. ‘I cannot sit down to write poems about El Salvador or Nicaragua, for example. My poetry is ideological, not political.’

Patrick Kavanagh (1931–2015)
As a young man, Patrick (Joseph Gregory) Kavanagh went to Ireland and sought out the celebrated poet of The Great Hunger Patrick Kavanagh. Finding his bibulous namesake in a hostelry, he introduced himself. The old poet said: ‘Why don’t you change your feckin’ name’, and settled back to his pint.

His father Ted Kavanagh wrote comedy, notably for wartime radio, It’s That Man Again (ITMA). When Ted was around, the house resounded with the clack and ping of the typewriter. ‘He lived by writing jokes and had a sort of quasi-rebellious attitude to society as anybody who makes fun of things does.’ P. J. did not live by jokes, though he could be hilarious company.

He addressed me as his ‘Dear Sedate Publisher’ because I published not only his poetry but his essays and seemed untroubled by the rate-of-sale. Born in 1931 and raised in London during the war, he had seen a lot of the world and suffered significant early loves and bereavements. The bereavements (particularly the sudden, early loss of his first wife Sally to polio, recounted in his classic memoir The Perfect Stranger in 1966) ‘must relate one to other people – rather than separate one from them’. He was a soldier (Korea, wounded), a disaffected student at Merton College, Oxford, an employee of the British Council in Indonesia, a teacher, broadcaster, actor (emerging with David Frost and Willie Rushton, including in his later credits Half Moon Street [1986] with Michael Caine and Sigourney Weaver, and the part of the mad Nazi priest in an episode of Father Ted ), a memoirist, poet, essayist and critic, a nature writer rooted in his beloved Gloucestershire, but able to see beyond its borders, an anthologist and editor.

He knew the value of what he wrote and that, like the quiet, formal, questing work of his beloved Edward Thomas and of Ivor Gurney (which he edited and revived), it would find its place. Life taught him that irony inheres in how the world treats us, what it gives and snatches away: it is an aspect of his themes, not of his style. This and his Catholicism set him apart from his ironical contemporaries. Larkin might almost have agreed that ‘Every response to a poet, or more specifically to a poem, is in a sense autobiographical. The work appeals to, or coincides with, some part of our own nature, or perhaps to some deficiency of ours, of which we are aware, and it supplies some lack.’

He did not like to be called a ‘nature poet’. In the poem ‘Nature Poet’ he speaks of himself in the third person: ‘He liked all the people he could and, more than is normal, / Cherished his dead, thought often of them, because they were still.’ He detects mercy, ‘Wafting, as though remembered.’ This is religious elegy of a high order, having more in common with Herbert and Hopkins than Clare and Wordsworth. Kavanagh has ‘a sense of two worlds: of us living simultaneously not just in this world, but in another too’. He tells transcendent truths without the fibbing one can get in Yeats. In ‘Resistance’ he evokes

A bridge of punctuation angels use
To balance on, when, soft as feathers
Stroking our dismay, they tell their weird,
Without complacence, grief-including jokes,
And sigh, at our resistance.

P.J. followed Patrick Kavanagh’s advice and changed, or abbreviated, his name. He found his own ground, his own great hunger, and in a tentative faith rooted in particulars, a way of transcendence. There is an old cat in a late poem who is about to die. He imagines her going to his dead beloved in the other world, moving against her legs. And a reply:

Warm and dry it alights, almost weightlessly, and
as light and as dry as this trusting bird on my finger
the weight of your hand curved round the back of my hand
I suddenly remember.

Joan Argenté i Artigal (1931–2015)
The poet and lawyer Joan Argenté i Artigal died in August in Barcelona at the age of eighty-four. He was a significant figure in Catalan poetry, publishing his first award-winning collection in 1959. In 2011 his collected works was published as Cycle Bicycle, Tricycle and other books. The poet left his personal archive to the city of Barcelona, where he lived all his life, mainly in the house in which he was born, and earlier this year the city opened a library in the poet’s honour.

Robert Conquest (1917–2015)
The historian and sometime poet Robert Conquest died in California in August at the age of ninety-eight. In the 1950s with Kingsley Amis he edited the New Lines anthologies that helped orchestrate The Movement, which included Philip Larkin, Amis and himself and, less securely, Thom Gunn, Donald Davie and Elizabeth Jennings. He became a radical and corrective historian best known for his work on Stalin and the Great Terror. His poetics were corrective as well, prompted by a hostility to the new romanticism of Dylan Thomas and other substantial writers of the generation before his. With Amis, he got his romanticism from sci-fi, editing Spectrum and experimenting in the field.

Stephen Rodefer (1940–2015)
contributed by Peter Hughes

You got to step aside sooner
or later for all those up
and coming younger fuckers
who gather reputation in the neighborhood

quickly enough, prized for love
and fatally hung,
making it in the aisles at church,
supple and sincere.

Stephen Rodefer, who has died in Paris, wrote those lines in his translation of Villon. There will be many tributes to his life and work. This is just a short note to record a personal debt. When I reluctantly returned to Cambridge, after some years in Rome, Stephen was a Judith E. Wilson Fellow. We met after one of his readings. His Passing Duration had just come out from Burning Deck and we found we shared a passion for the work of Paul Klee. Rodefer’s ‘Elkland’ is partly about Klee. At the time I was working on a sequence called ‘Paul Klee’s Diary’. We met several times and compared notes and beers. He gave me copies of his superb versions of Sappho and Villon. His poetry has a savvy vernacular intensity and you can never see what’s coming around the bend. It’s wiry, witty and reckless. I found it irresistible. Is his Sappho in print? I have a dog-eared, wine-stained photocopy only.

In public Stephen could be restless, uneasy and unsettling. Poetry events probably brought out the worst in him and he would stalk the margins of readings like a hungover bear, unable to stay or go. He disrupted gatherings and syntax with impatient lunges to get beyond habitual surfaces. But when he read from ‘Four Lectures’ with the text projected on the wall behind him, in the old gallery at the top of Gwydir Street, it was utterly compelling. He was something of a force of nature and once observed ‘True nature creates combinations to defeat naturalism.’

Stephen moved on, to Paris, and I stayed restlessly in Cambridge. I missed Italy and went back to my own attempts at translation. The example of his Villon and Sappho provided ways forward and I finished my versions of Petrarch’s sonnets in 2013. I completed my versions of Cavalcanti, dedicated to his memory, this summer. Some time ago I emailed him, asking him to do a pamphlet with Oystercatcher Press. He said, thanks Peter, I’ll see what there is.

‘We were born to this means and we must make more of our situation than at first it will seem ever to allow’ he wrote. Then, ‘One liberates oneself through work, even on the eve of catastrophe.’

Charles Tomlinson (1927–2015)
contributed by Ian Brinton
In March 1964 Ian Hamilton’s magazine, the Review, included a forty-page section edited by Charles Tomlinson: ‘The Black Mountain Poets’. Tomlinson’s introductory remarks heralded the work of another British poet who had made strenuous efforts to bridge the Atlantic, Gael Turnbull:

In conclusion, Gael Turnbull deserves mention, not only as poet but as the founder of Migrant Books which made available Creeley and other new American poets in the unresponsive England of the 1950s. The unresponsiveness, alas, continues and in compiling an anthology such as this my aim has been to register the characteristic tones of an area of American poetry which we have passed over in favour of writers who sound “more English”. The English reader grows lazy once he gets to the American-sounding W. C. Williams—indeed, it is possible for Kenneth Allott in his Penguin Book of Contemporary Verse to boast his indifference to Williams as though it were a matter for self-congratulation. The writers who follow are frequently developing a line out of this very poet.

Ezra Pound once referred to Louis Zukofsky and Basil Bunting as strugglers in the wilderness. Zukofsky wasn’t ‘discovered’ until the 1950s, when reprints of work completed twenty-five years previously began to appear. Bunting had to wait until 1968, when he was nearly seventy years old, for Fulcrum Press to publish his Collected Poems. The reception in England of the poetry of Charles Tomlinson may also have a touch of the wilderness about it; but for him there have been some generous oases in America and Mexico, in Italy and Spain.

Tomlinson is probably the foremost poet of truly international distinction writing in England today, and he has been engaged in a remarkable dialogue with Europe and the Americas for nearly fifty years.

These are words I wrote in a review published in the TLS in February 1999, soon after O. U. P. had brought out the Selected Poems 1955–1997. In a letter sent to me soon after the review’s appearance Tomlinson said, ‘I am, of course, a poet without a publisher now O. U. P. has abolished the poetry list. At a protest reading in Oxford last week I performed my final reading as an Oxford poet.’ The letter concluded with a reference to himself as a ‘shell-shocked veteran’. In the very same year Carcanet Press published his collection The Vineyard Above the Sea heralding a poet-publisher connection which was to include, over the years, a collection of essays on Metamorphoses, Poetry and Translation, a volume of American Essays and, in 2009, a New Collected Poems. Given this connection there can be little cause for surprise that Tomlinson’s words should be used on the Carcanet website referring to the publishing firm which had rescued a victim of that shell-shock as ‘our most courageous publisher’ that makes ‘so many other houses seem timid or merely predictable.

In his interview with Creeley, published in that 1964 Black Mountain issue, Tomlinson asked the American poet about the importance of Ezra Pound. The response was to say that the elder statesman of poetry had ‘always been intent to make a very clear demarcation between a symbol which in effect exhausts its references, as opposed to a sign or mark of something which constantly renews its reference’. This remark would have certainly registered with the English poet whose poem from the autumn of 1960, ‘The Farmer’s Wife’, contained the following lines, presented in a three-ply formation taken from the example of Carlos Williams:

that poet who must symbolize
          your stair into
                      an analogue
of what was never there.
                        has its proper plenitude
that only time and tact
           will show, renew.

Alongside the evident debts Tomlinson owed to the Americans there was always the haunting presence of the Wordsworth who could be ‘wedded to this outward frame of things / In love’ and who could ‘find these the growth of common day’. Tomlinson’s acceptance of objective fact, of the world’s singularity, can be traced back to the first lessons in recognition taught to him in a Midlands district which he went on to describe as one of ‘smoke and blackened houses, of slag-heaps, cinder-paths, pitheads, steelworks.’ In his autobiographical essays that go to make up the delightfully engaging Some Americans: A Personal Record, Tomlinson recalled being introduced to the world of Wallace Stevens and William Carlos Williams by his new tutor at Cambridge, Donald Davie. After graduating from Queens’ College in 1948 he re-read Stevens’s ‘Thirteen Ways of looking at a Blackbird’ and pondered ‘its sharp, discrete fragments’ before writing ‘Poem’ in which he started out along the path which American writing was leading him:

Wakening with the window over fields
To the coin-clear harness jingle as a float
Clips by, and each succeeding hoof fall, now remote,
Breaks clean and frost-sharp on the unstopped ear…

As he put it, this early piece, written in 1948, was ‘intended as a piece of Poundian syncopation’ and the unstopped ear, quoted from ‘Ode Pour L’Election de Son Sepulchre’, implied in his own variation that the ear was unstopped not to the sirens’ song, but to the sharpness of sense experience. Donald Davie provided the introduction to Tomlinson’s second collection, The Necklace (Fantasy Press, 1955) and highlighted the clarity of the poems from the outset:

These poems require no introduction. From one point of view this is the most astonishing thing about them, the way they build up for themselves their own poetic universe. And if the world they inhabit is conspicuously ‘their own’, it is not therefore a private world. On the contrary; we are offered here no private symbolism or ad hoc mythology, no projection of conflicts personal to the poet. The world of these poems is a public one, open to any man who has kept clean and in order his nervous sensitivity to the impact of shape and mass and colour, odour, texture and timbre.

The concerns of Charles Tomlinson stem from a recognition of singular encounters and verifiable terms of relation. In his own words ‘I think it was Liguria and Tuscany and then Gloucestershire taught me the way men could be at home in a landscape’ (‘The Poet as Painter’, a lecture given to the Royal Society of Literature, 1979). ‘The Return’, completed in 1984 and published three years later in a volume of that name, is a poem about the Ligurian coast and it opens with a section reminiscent of the quietness of movement and ruminative speech of Edward Thomas:

I could not draw a map of it, this road,
Nor say with certainty how many times
It doubles on itself before it climbs
Clear of the ascent. And yet I know
Each bend and vista and could not mistake
The recognitions, the recurrences
As they occur, nor where. So my forgetting
Brings back the track of what was always there
As new as a discovery.

We have just lost a major figure whose determination from the earliest was to make space articulate.

Tessa Ransford (1938–2015)
contributed by Iain Galbraith
If few would quarrel with Dorothy McMillan’s assertion that ‘no one has done more for the cause of poetry in Scotland than Tessa Ransford’, it is also indisputable that poetry for Tessa really was a cause rather than merely her preferred mode of literary expression. To her, all creative thinking was inherently poetic, and the reach of poetry was profoundly social. Influenced at Edinburgh University by John Macmurray’s rejection of mind-body dualism and inspired by George Elder Davie’s concept of a ‘democratic intellect’ as well as the ‘cultural ecology’ of Patrick Geddes, Tessa would later claim that poetry infused ‘the life and thought of a society in every aspect’. It was in this context that she called poetry her ‘practice in the community of the human’. A poetry ‘activist’ through and through, she could appeal to potential fellow-campaigners via her own translation of lines by Rainer Maria Rilke: ‘It is no presumption to play a part / in the complex ceaseless weaving of / Life’s patterning, ever more intricate – / to be carried along is not enough.’

Tessa never waited to be carried along. Prior to her compelling drive to establish a Scottish Poetry Library in Edinburgh, Scottish poetry had been widely neglected and was well-nigh absent from schools and libraries. In 1981, returning from a ‘liberating’ sojourn in the USA among Harvard poets and academics, she set her heart on combating the stifling gloom that had settled on Scotland following the failed 1979 Devolution Referendum. No mere collection of poetry books, the new library, whose directorship Tessa held from 1984 until 2000, would have to be ‘a milieu: a centre and an environment for poetry, for all Scotland’s various poetries, a focus and a manifestation, a ‘field’ or a base-camp for the poetic expedition’. Her fine sequence ‘In Praise of Libraries’ contains the lines: ‘Here is a country for the brave to explore. / Here be dragons: in this tiny library’. Today the ‘base-camp’ is an indispensible meeting-place and resource for poets and readers alike, attracting scholars from all over the world. A gem in the crown of Edinburgh’s successful application to become UNESCO’s first City of Literature in 2004, it is often cited as Tessa’s greatest achievement. On receiving an OBE in 2000 for ‘services to the Scottish Poetry Library’ Tessa declared her acceptance on behalf of the staff and volunteers who had made the Library possible.

Born in India in 1938 (her father was Master of the Royal Mint in Bombay), Tessa attended St Leonard’s School in St Andrews and Edinburgh University, where the Professor of German, Eudo C. Mason, encouraged her poetry. A skilful translator of German poetry (including Goethe, Hölderlin and Rilke, as well as work by ‘Five Poets from Saxony’ in The Nightingale Question), Tessa’s accomplishments as a cultural and poetry activist were legion. In 1981, she founded the School of Poets; from 1988–98 she was editor of the poetry magazine Lines Review; from 2001 until 2008 she was a Fellow of the Royal Literary Fund working at the Centre for Human Ecology. In 2001, in memory of her second husband, the distinguished publisher of Sorley Maclean, Iain Crichton Smith and Robert Garioch, she established the Callum Macdonald Memorial Award for an outstanding poetry pamphlet, and in 2003 she became President of the Scottish Centre of International PEN.

Tessa was the author of some twenty-five books and pamphlets. The discursive holism that imbued her diction linked her poetry with her activism, setting it apart from the visual emphasis of the contemporary lyric. Though often intensely personal, her poetry aimed to be ‘reasonable speech’ (Dryden) with a philosophical edge, combining clarity of thought and observation with universal symbols (rivers, trees, paths). Her volume When it Works it feels like play contains a startling sequence entitled ‘Conception’ whose second poem ends with a sentence that could stand above her life’s work: ‘We conceive ourselves anew, reform, rebuild / a common weal, an open plan, a wisdom field’.

This item is taken from PN Review 226, Volume 42 Number 2, November - December 2015.

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