Floodtide in the heart: vale Seamus Heaney

The world of letters is in shock to learn that Seamus Heaney, Ireland’s best-loved poet, died on Friday at age 74.

“The death has taken place of Seamus Heaney,” publisher Faber and Faber said on behalf of the family. “The poet and Nobel Laureate died in hospital in Dublin this morning after a short illness.”

Heaney was awarded the Nobel prize in literature in 1995 “for works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth, which exalt everyday miracles and the living past.”

In his Nobel lecture he described his “journey into wideness of language, a journey where each point of arrival – whether in one’s poetry or one’s life – turned out to be a stepping stone rather than a destination.”

A lifelong advocate for poetry, Heaney credited his art “for making possible a fluid and restorative relationship between the mind’s centre and its circumference.”

Heaney was born a Catholic in Northern Ireland in 1939 and raised in a thatch-roofed farmhouse called Mossbawn. Drawing heavily on his rural beginnings – which would remain his spiritual home long after he left – he published his first book of poems, Death of a Naturalist, in 1966 at the age of 27.

The opening poem, “Digging,” introduces the spade-pen metaphor that would become definitive for Heaney. In its concluding lines the poet, who has been watching his father dig potatoes in the garden, rejects the life of toil known to his forefathers and announces his vocation as a poet:

The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head
But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.

Heaney’s early books “wanted to be texture,” he reflected in an interview in The Paris Review, “to be all consonants, vowels and voicings, they wanted the sheer materiality of words.”

There is a sense, in reading these poems, that Heaney would prefer to write language-driven poems of love, inward reflection and deep wonderment at natural beauty: “I loved the dark drop, the trapped sky, the smells / Of waterweed, fungus and dank moss,” he recalled in “Personal Helicon.”

But Heaney was a poet afflicted with a sense of history, and soon his country had him writing with a knife.

As Northern Ireland descended into violence – “a quarter century of life waste and spirit waste” – Heaney was forced to become a poet of public as well as private life. Not infrequently his state of being was at odds with the political state.

“In his writing, the public and the private compete for space,” critic Helen Vendler observes, “and the tragic and the quotidian contest each other’s dominance.” The pressures of Heaney’s public role found grim expression in works such as North and Station Island.

His later works reveal a desire to write a kind of poem that could not be ensnared in cultural debate. “This has become one of the binds as well as one of the bonuses for poets in Ireland. Every poem is either enlisted or unmasked for its clandestine political affiliations.”

Alongside his work as a poet, essayist and translator, Heaney enjoyed a distinguished career as a teacher and professor. From 1985 until 2005 he spent part of each year at Harvard as a visiting professor, and from 1989 to 1994 he was professor of poetry at Oxford.

In addition to the Nobel prize his many honours included the
Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize, the EM Forster Award, the Commandeur, de l’Ordre des Arts et Lettres, the Saoi of Aosdána, the Golden Wreath of Poetry, the TS Eliot Prize, and The Griffin Trust for Excellence in Poetry Lifetime Recognition Award.

Heaney’s thirteenth and final book of poems, Human Chain, was written in the aftermath of a stroke he suffered in Donegal in 2006. Forward Prize judge Ruth Padel described the winning collection as “painful, honest and delicately weighted.”

Steeped in memory, the poems are marked by loss and a sense of an impending end. In a poem called “A Herbal” the speaker has stepped into the future to witness himself in past tense:

I had my existence. I was there.
Me in place and the place in me.

The place inside Heaney that granted him a sense of home – even if at times it was a troubled home – was the wild beauty of Ireland. At a poetry reading at Silkeborg Museum in 1996 Heaney shared a childhood memory of a peat bog, which for him was the source of all Irish memory and ancestry:

>I loved the mystery and silence of the place when the work was done at the end of the day and I would stand there alone while the larks became quiet and the lapwings started calling, while a snipe would suddenly take off and disappear.

Seamus Heaney is survived by his wife, Marie, and children, Christopher, Michael and Catherine Ann.

The Conversation

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Ambiguous agnes: hannah kent’s burial rites

Review of Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

A novel that can be summarised in a single, captivating sentence is a publisher’s dream. Not that ease of marketing is a reliable measure of excellence. Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse (1927), for instance – which could be described as ‘the story of a mother who dies before taking her son to visit a lighthouse, and later a woman completes a painting’ – achieved classic status despite an unpropitious précis. Woolf’s genius aside, it is difficult to imagine a sentence like that sparking an international bidding war of the kind that erupted last year over Hannah Kent’s first novel. Burial Rites – ‘the story of the last woman to be beheaded in Iceland’ – reportedly netted Kent a considerable advance.

Burial Rites by Hannah KentA novel that can be summarised in a single, captivating sentence is a publisher’s dream. Not that ease of marketing is a reliable measure of excellence. Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse (1927), for instance – which could be described as ‘the story of a mother who dies before taking her son to visit a lighthouse, and later a woman completes a painting’ – achieved classic status despite an unpropitious précis. Woolf’s genius aside, it is difficult to imagine a sentence like that sparking an international bidding war of the kind that erupted last year over Hannah Kent’s first novel. Burial Rites – ‘the story of the last woman to be beheaded in Iceland’ – reportedly netted Kent a considerable advance.

Kent’s novel has immediate appeal. Beyond the ghoulish fascination of beheadings, it taps into the prevailing hunger for historical fiction. Based on a true story, its cast of characters would seem implausible, were they not based on real people: Agnes Magnúsdóttir (1795–1830), a housekeeper who struggles, like Thomas Hardy’s Tess, against harsh and indifferent fates; Natan Ketilsson (1792–1828), a Rasputin-like herbalist and farmer who is Agnes’s employer and sometime lover; and Rósa Gudmundsdóttir (1795–1855), another of Natan’s lovers, who also happens to be one of Iceland’s most famous poets of the early nineteenth century.

Behind Agnes’s execution lies a double murder and a complex love triangle. This much is known: on a spring night in 1828, Agnes woke a neighbouring household to tell them that the Illugastaðir farmhouse was on fire. Natan and his friend Pétur Jónsson, she said, were trapped inside. Unfortunately for Agnes, the fire was quickly doused and it became clear that the two men had been stabbed before the blaze. Agnes was arrested, along with an avaricious farmhand named Fridrik and his sixteen-year-old girlfriend, Siggi, who was later sent to a Copenhagen textile prison. Agnes and Fridrik were beheaded by Natan’s brother on a small hillock in Húnavatnssýsla on 12 January 1830.

Kent has built her narrative around a small trove of historical documents associated with the murders: a public notice announcing an auction of Natan’s valuables (variously a cow, a few horses, sheep, a saddle, a bridle, some plates), a list of Agnes’s assets (among odds and ends, ‘an old blue skirt with a blue bodice of plain-woven wool, with a red collar and eight silver buttons’), extracts from the Supreme Court trials of 1829, and various contemporaneous eyewitness and character testimonies.

There is also an Icelandic Burial Hymn and an extract from the Laxdæla Saga, whose protagonist, Guðrún, laments: ‘I was worst to the one I loved best.’ Especially powerful is the exchange between Agnes and Skáld-Rósa. Although married and living with another man at the time, Rósa loved Natan passionately and reportedly bore him two children. In June 1828, following the murders, Rósa aired her heartbreak in a vindictive poem addressed to Agnes:

Don’t be surprised by the sorrow in my eyes
nor at the bitter pangs of pain that I feel:
For you have stolen with your scheming
he who gave my life meaning
and thrown your life to the Devil to deal.

Agnes, who was herself educated and literate, responded in verse:

This is my only wish to you,
bound in anger and grief:
Do not scratch my bleeding wounds,
I’m full of disbelief.

Agnes’s shock is palpable, yet the precise source of her disbelief is unclear: is it triggered by her grief at the death of the man she too loved, by an accusation of a crime she didn’t commit, or by fear at her impending death? It is the task of the novelist to decide.

Agnes and Fridrik were not permitted Christian burial rites: their heads were exhibited on sticks as warnings, and their bodies buried on site without markers. Nearly two hundred years later, Agnes now shares a modest grave with Fridrik in the churchyard at Tjörn. During the relocation of their remains, fragments from Agnes’s dress – she had dressed in her finest for her final moments – were found among her bones. They are exhibited in Iceland’s national museum, along with the axe that was sent to Iceland especially for the executions. It was used only twice.

Kent’s instinct for story is on bright display in Burial Rites. Over the years the murder case has been the source of much discussion in Iceland. Several books have appeared on the subject, and in 1995 a film entitled Agnes appeared by director Egill Eðvarðsson. Not that this would preclude yet another Holly-wood remake of a Scandinavian film.

Kent’s skill in driving the twin narratives of the murders and the executions to their ghastly inevitabilities demonstrates that she is a writer of great promise. Burial Rites is not a particularly challenging read, and it leans heavily on devices associated with genre fiction. But it does challenge the idea that Agnes is, as one source described her, ‘an inhuman witch, stirring up murder’. In the author’s note, Kent states that she wrote her novel ‘to supply a more ambiguous portrayal of this woman’. But Burial Rites is more than thisit is a love song to a woman who lived and loved with the odds stacked against her.

Review of Burial Rites by Hannah Kent. Originally published in Australian Book Review (May 2013).

Lest we forget: binyon’s ode of remembrance

First published in The Conversation

On an autumn day in 1914 Laurence Binyon sat on a cliff in North Cornwall, somewhere between Pentire Point and the Rump. It was less than seven weeks after the outbreak of war, but British casualties were mounting. Long lists of the dead and wounded were appearing in British newspapers. With the British Expeditionary Force in retreat from Mons, promises of a speedy end to war were fading fast. Against this backdrop Binyon, then Assistant Keeper of Prints and Drawings at the British Museum, sat to compose a poem that Rudyard Kipling would one day praise as “the most beautiful expression of sorrow in the English language”.

laurence_binyonOn an autumn day in 1914 Laurence Binyon sat on a cliff in North Cornwall, somewhere between Pentire Point and the Rump. It was less than seven weeks after the outbreak of war, but British casualties were mounting. Long lists of the dead and wounded were appearing in British newspapers. With the British Expeditionary Force in retreat from Mons, promises of a speedy end to war were fading.

Against this backdrop Binyon, then Assistant Keeper of Prints and Drawings at the British Museum, sat to compose a poem that Rudyard Kipling would one day praise as “the most beautiful expression of sorrow in the English language”.

For the Fallen”, as Binyon called his poem, was published in The Times on 21 September 1914. “The poem grew in stature as the war progressed”, Binyon’s biographer John Hatcher observed, “accommodating itself to the scale of the nation’s grief”.

Nearly a century on, Binyon’s poem endures as a dignified and solemn expression of loss. The fourth stanza – lifted to prominence as “The Ode of Remembrance” – is engraved on cenotaphs, war memorials and headstones in war cemeteries throughout the English-speaking world. Recited at Remembrance services in Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, the poem serves as a secular prayer:

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn;
At the going down of the sun, and in the morning,
We will remember them.

These lines, situated at the heart of the poem, lay out an argument for consolation in which the dead are immortalised in the memory of the living.

Binyon died on 10 March 1943, and his ashes were scattered on the grounds of St Mary’s Church in Aldworth. His name is commemorated on a stone plaque in Poet’s Corner at Westminster Abbey, alongside 15 fellow poets of the Great War. Wilfred Owen – who died in action at age 25, exactly one week before the signing of the Armistice – provided the inscription: “My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity.”

the handwritten “ode”

BINYON, LAURENCE (1869-1943) AUTOGRAPH MANUSCRIPT OF THE IMMORTAL FOURTH STANZA OF HIS POEM 'FOR THE FALLEN',Earlier this month, “an autograph manuscript of the immortal fourth stanza”, signed by Laurence Binyon, came up for auction at Bonhams. The manuscript is a mere four lines, written in Binyon’s hand, on a single octavo page of ruled notepaper. The header contains a YMCA symbol and the imprimatur of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF). Small letters at the foot instruct: “To economise paper, please write on the other side, if required”.

Binyon did not date the manuscript, but he likely penned it before the war ended in 1918. The BEF notepaper adds a particular poignancy, as the poem was written to honour British soldiers who died on the Western Front – many of whom Binyon, as a volunteer medic, would have served alongside.

controversies

Every year, after ANZAC Day and Remembrance Day, the Department of Veterans’ Affairs in Australia receives scores of letters about “The Ode”. The issue of greatest concern, according to the DVA, is whether the last word of the second line should be “contemn” – meaning to despise or treat with disregard – or “condemn”. Both words fit the context.

Despite all official versions of the poem using “condemn”, some people have suggested this usage is a typographical error.The British Society of Authors, executors of the Binyon estate, is adamant that “condemn” is correct. Likewise the DVA assures: “Binyon was very precise in his use of words. There is no doubt that had he intended ‘contemn’, then it would have been used.”

The condemn/contemn issue is considered a distinctly Australian phenomenon (oddly, the Academy of American Poets uses “contemn” in its publication of “For the Fallen”). Perhaps now, with confirmation coming from Binyon’s own hand, the issue may be put to rest.

But that’s not the only anomaly. In the Bonhams manuscript, Binyon has used an alternative construction of the famous second line. Instead of “weary” he uses “wither”, which echoes Enobarbus’s compliment to Cleopatra – “Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale / Her infinite variety” – in Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra. “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal”, so TS Eliot posited in The Sacred Wood. “For the Fallen” might be uneven in quality, but in turning his theft “into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different than that from which it is torn”, Binyon proves himself to be a great poet.

the sale

Bonhams expected Binyon’s manuscript to fetch around £5,000, but the poem once again exceeded expectations when an unnamed buyer parted with £10,000 (AU$15,000) for the honour of holding history in his or her hands.

The Conversation

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The wrap: poetry in the news (w/e 25 apr 2013)

In Los Angeles, a Harvard poet wondered ”Is this too loud, is this too soft, am I going on too long?” while Sharon Olds put the ideal of her husband to rest and won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. Anne Carson published a poem composed using a random integer generator in the London Review of Books, and James Franco released a poem on the occasion of his 35th birthday. Bollywood heartthrob Farhan Akhtar penned a poem after hearing a five-year-old girl in Delhi had been raped and tortured by her neighbour. Dresden Dolls singer Amanda Palmer penned “the worst poem of all time“ in her musings on the younger Boston Marathon bomber. Historians noted 397 and 189 years have passed since Shakespeare and Byron, respectively, died of fevers.

newspaper-icon-thumb10559428In Los Angeles, a Harvard poet wondered “Is this too loud, is this too soft, am I going on too long?” while Sharon Olds put the ideal of her husband to rest and won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. Anne Carson published a poem composed using a random integer generator in the London Review of Books, and James Franco released a poem on the occasion of his 35th birthday. Bollywood heartthrob Farhan Akhtar penned a poem after hearing a five-year-old girl in Delhi had been raped and tortured by her neighbour. Dresden Dolls singer Amanda Palmer penned “the worst poem of all time” in her musings on the younger Boston Marathon bomber. Historians noted 397 and 189 years have passed since Shakespeare and Byron, respectively, died of fevers. The only known poem by Winston Churchill, “Our Modern Watchwords“, failed to sell at an auction at Bonhams. The priest who found Malta’s earliest poem died at age 97, and Irish rare-book collector Rick Gekoski prayed that the poem James Joyce wrote as a little boy – “Et Tu, Healy” will never be found.

The blood became sick: luke davies’ interferon psalms

Review of Interferon Psalms by Luke Davies

In 1914 Apollinaire encountered a beautiful young aviator – he called her Lou – and launched one of poetry’s legendary, if doomed, love affairs. Lou fuelled and participated in his erotic fantasy life and stoked his hope for domestic happiness. Unfortunately a significant discrepancy arose between his view of the relationship and her own, and Apollinaire soon felt himself compelled to enlist in the 38th Artillery Regiment at Nîmes.

AVT_Luke-Davies_4298In 1914 Apollinaire encountered a beautiful young aviator – he called her Lou – and launched one of poetry’s legendary, if doomed, love affairs. Lou fuelled and participated in his erotic fantasy life and stoked his hope for domestic happiness. Unfortunately a significant discrepancy arose between his view of the relationship and her own, and Apollinaire soon felt himself compelled to enlist in the 38th Artillery Regiment at Nîmes.

From the Front he sent Lou a torrent of love poems and letters – unrelenting, savage, sexully explicit – before a shrapnel wound to the temple forced his discharge. Apollinaire never fully recovered from his injuries and died in the Spanish flu pandemic two days before the end of the First World War. He was 38.

Nearly a century on and a world away, fragments of Apollinaire’s great longing – “I think of you my Lou your heart is my barracks” – have surfaced with small distortions in a tour de force by Australian poet, Luke Davies, who earlier this week was awarded the inaugural $80,000 Prime Minister’s Award for Poetry.

Just as Apollinaire’s poems and letters to Lou yoke the theatre of love to the theatre of war, Davies’ new collection of poems, Interferon Psalms: 33 psalms on the 99 names of God, is a double drama played on two stages: the drama of heartbreak and the drama of physical affliction.

The collection opens with the poet living in California in vivid sway between presence and bewilderment. The beloved has absented herself, and he is “sick with shallow corpuscle”. An earlier heroin addiction – “a black-bottomed spoon” was his “boon companion” – has made a wasteland of his liver and from the ravages of interferon treatment, a type of chemotherapy, he is “learning all about suffering”.

Weekly injections of interferon deliver his body – and mind – to the peripheries of death. Red and white blood cells are razed and the body declines into anaemia. His “skin turns to scale” and bandages stick to his skin. “I began to drift down to my death like a ship heading ocean floorwards,” he writes of the blankness borne of an oxygen-starved brain.

If only I had a sister, to hold her hand, then I would protect her, and forget about my fear, and we would walk under water, where the light shines.

The blood became needy. Everything that could sting, would sting. He went to bed sick. The injections had put him in shock but he was eager to love: “Eros come melt in my mouth”, he pleads, “Eros sit heavy on my shoulders”. Emerging from the “glaciation” of his distress he tries to “climb into” the beloved but “she gave no traction”. The relationship’s end – “A warning sign of any sort? God no” – leaves him in “earthquake-addled desolation”:

                                        … I’d picture coming home,
Across the welcome mat and through the open door.
I’d crawl into your open arms, for sure.
That’s just not
Going to happen, I told myself. Pockets of realisation
Floating stateless and neutral like tiny planets. The bricks
All structureless and recently aflutter. Shock waves
Past their use-by date. The utter exhaustion
Of trying to maintain one’s dignity amid one’s pain.

There were no stop signs, he writes, no planets, nothing smaller than galaxies: “just an endless plummeting away from her.” At night he cried in dreams – “those private myths of plaintive distress” – yet of necessity he sought to “bless the utter desolation” that fell upon him.

It was never going to be a long love affair,” he concedes, “but in my yielding I became a mystic.

Davies doesn’t so much write his psalms as pray them. He leans on biblical vocabulary and awe-inspired apostrophe – “O Witness, O Word, O Diadem of Beauty” – to support his body reduced to basics and drag his mind into a longer perspective. His is not the time of clocks – “Winter rolled in for ten thousand years” – but psychological time:

Chronology was never my finest hour
But only because I came to know time
Both inside and out so that
Reverence became a given;
And all, when all was good, was now.

With this eye anything can be filled with grace: “How to elevate to first position”, he muses, “Honey Smacks or Fruit Loops”. Davies, like his old master Apollinaire, finds resonance in linking the old to the new and roping modern imagery to traditional tropes. Likewise, the juxtaposition of imagination and reality – the sacred and the secular – helps collapse divides and widen the world. As this particularly gorgeous passage illustrates:

The world received us into its citizenship. I trod the road to Jericho. We lay down. We wept. The buildings all fell down. And even my blood, O Thou my Redeemer, was yearning for water, as usual.

Parched. The desert parched. The parched lips on the flower buds. The cactus yielded syrup on the mind.

I imagined lying between her legs.

Certain thoughts were sustaining. It had always been like that.

Her fine, hard, bared crotch.

Plus, on your death bed you would not remember any particular tax return over another.

Of the many lessons the poet acquires on his great odyssey back to health – for as long as it could, his blood would be fine – one is to dwell in “the gap between oblivion and memory”. Another is to “find kindnesses, even in goodbyes, for everyone was weary and surely she not least”.

In one view of contemporary poetry – which might prefer drier conclusions, or perhaps none at all – Davies is behind the fashion. In my view, Interferon Psalms – an abundantly uttered memory of great goodness – has catapulted him ahead of the crowd.

The Conversation

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Ted hughes: she sent him a blade of grass

Review of Ted Hughes: The Life of a Poet by Elaine Feinstein

Nothing would ever be the same. Ted Hughes, still married to poet Sylvia Plath, fell in love with Assia Wevill’s marvellous, unnaturally huge, grey eyes resembling, as he put it, those of a “Black Forest wolf”. He wrote her a letter, and, as he recounts in one of his most beautiful poems, by way of reply: “She sent him a blade of grass, but no word / Inside it”. The affair, which began in June 1962, six years into the Hughes-Plath marriage, is often held responsible for Plath’s suicide by gas poisoning in February 1963. Six years later, fearing rightly that her beauty – “slightly filthy with erotic mystery” – had lost its hold on Hughes, Wevill killed herself and their four-year-old daughter, Shura.

TedHughesNothing would ever be the same. Ted Hughes, still married to poet Sylvia Plath, fell in love with Assia Wevill’s marvellous, unnaturally huge, grey eyes resembling, as he put it, those of a “Black Forest wolf”. He wrote her a letter, and, as he recounts in one of his most beautiful poems, by way of reply:

“She sent him a blade of grass, but no word / Inside it”.

The affair, which began in June 1962, six years into the Hughes-Plath marriage, is often held responsible for Plath’s suicide by gas poisoning in February 1963. Six years later, fearing rightly that her beauty – “slightly filthy with erotic mystery” – had lost its hold on Hughes, Wevill killed herself and their four-year-old daughter, Shura. Although Elaine Feinstein points out – a wry understatement – that Hughes “was not the only man in England to commit adultery”, he has undoubtedly paid the highest price.

Hughes lived most of his adult life as the target of vicious gossip and feminist rage. As Plath’s cult status turned legendary after her death, accusations against Hughes of domestic abuse and Nazi proclivities abounded, as did violent threats of revenge. Wevill’s death only confirmed his detractors’ misgivings.

His instinct in the face of the wildest accusations was to remain silent, just as his instinct in the face of physical threat was to refuse confrontation. Rightly, he did his best to avoid Plath’s native America. But his 1976 visit to the Adelaide Writers Festival was just as rancorous as any American encounter might have been. Women in the audience held up placards accusing him of Plath’s murder and hurled abuse at him.

Hughes’s reading was notably more stilted than usual, but none of these humiliations stopped him from initiating an affair with the festival’s then press co-ordinator, Australian novelist Jill Barber. His literary reputation in England, however, remained high, and Hughes was appointed Poet Laureate in 1984, an honoured position he held until his death, and Andrew Motion succeeded the post.

There’s no getting around Hughes’s womanising, but Feinstein doesn’t try to. Hughes made it plain that one woman was not enough for him and he maintained his multiple “entanglements” throughout his second marriage to Carol Hughes. Feinstein hints, but goes no further, at misogyny as a possible basis for Hughes’s philandering when she cites the lyrics to his favourite Irish ballad: “If it wasn’t for my mother I’d hate all women”.

To her credit, Feinstein debunks many of the myths surrounding the Hughes-Plath marriage. She stresses, for instance, that Hughes happily took care of his children for four hours every morning so that Plath could write, and she takes pains to remind us of how atypical this was of a 1950s husband. She also rejects the allegation that Hughes left Plath and their two children with no money in a freezing London flat the year of Plath’s suicide. It is true that 1963 was England’s worst winter for 150 years, but Plath was not poverty-stricken as her many biographers have imagined. Hughes had given her all the money in their joint saving account, and he had not frittered away their savings as some had charged: He had the cheque stubs and statements from the period, he assured Plath’s mother, to prove it.

Feinstein also defends Hughes against critics who accused him of making money out of his dead wife’s work. As Plath’s literary executor, Hughes changed the order of the poems in the carbon typescript of Ariel that she left behind (a not unusual editorial practice) and published the collection posthumously. In addition, he republished two more collections, Crossing the Water and Winter Trees, as well as a Collected Poems, which won for Plath the Pulitzer prize in 1982.

His detractors were further incensed when Hughes allowed The Bell Jar – Plath’s “queer, slangy novel” as she described it – to be published in the US. Feinstein argues that Hughes had been reluctant to permit this as he was sensitive to the book’s hurtful portrait of Plath’s mother, Aurelia.

However, Feinstein explains that his hand was forced when he learned that US copyright law gave only seven years protection to a book published abroad by an American citizen. It was likely that a pirated US edition would soon appear, so Hughes decided that it was only common sense to secure future royalties for himself and his growing children. He could not have foreseen the royalties that The Bell Jar would bring him: a sum in excess of ₤50,000, an astronomical fortune in 1970.

But why did Hughes not defend himself and tell his side of the story sooner? Feinstein guesses at a couple of reasons. One is that Hughes went numb. The death of Plath, followed by the deaths of Wevill, Shura and then his mother only a few weeks later left him in a torpor he compared to a lobotomy.

But regardless of the reason, Hughes saw himself as a survivor. And although his own tragedies were domestic rather than political, he aligned himself with Eastern European poets who understood the damage that human beings inflict on one another in a cruelly indifferent world: Vasko Popa, Yehuda Amichai, and Miroslav Holub. These poets were not, in Hughes’s words, “the spoiled brats of civilisation, disappointed of impossible and unreal expectations. They [had] got back to the simple animal courage of accepting the odds”.

Feinstein’s biography is eminently readable, but how could it not be with a plot like this one? All told, its most disappointing aspect is that we are left with little more insight into Hughes’s psychology than we could gather from his poetry.

Although Feinstein knew Hughes for nearly 30 years, she writes with more conviction about the inner worlds of Plath and Wevill than that of Hughes. Perhaps it is because Hughes’s deep interest in astrology, spiritualism, and the occult – he regularly consulted the ouija board and astrology to schedule appointments and used numerology to structure his collections – is difficult to discuss without a working knowledge of the arcana.

Nevertheless, Feinstein does offer a balanced view of Hughes. While many biographers fall in love or hate with their subject – either of which can make for engaging reading – Feinstein sees the complexity of Ted Hughes. She rejects all “Heathcliffe” comparisons and characterises Hughes as a Yorkshire lad who loved the countryside: a generous, large-spirited, and brilliant poet struck down by naivete, sexual philandering and bad luck.

Feinstein’s critical analyses of the poems are lightweight, but they do tease enough to make you want to read more. Most of Hughes’s poetry is readily available, particularly his best-selling Birthday Letters, which chronicles his troubled but loving marriage to Plath. Unfortunately Capriccio, the poems in which Hughes recalls his love affair with Wevill, was printed in an edition of only 50 copies. At $US4000 ($7850) a copy, it will never reach more than a small audience.

Hughes died of a heart attack on October 28, 1988, in London Bridge Hospital, a private clinic close to Guy’s Hospital where he had been receiving treatment for metatastic cancer of the colon. He was 68.

Review of Ted Hughes: The Life of A Poet by Elaine Feinstein first published under the title ‘Poor Sylvia, Poor Ted’ in the Courier–Mail 16 Feb 2002: BAM 5.

Gilgamesh: carved in stone

Review of Gilgamesh by Derek Hines

It’s a story about love, sex and friendship. It’s about nature and civilisation, the simple joys in life and about our desire to accomplish great things. It’s about our fear of death and the impossibility of escaping it. It reminds us that thousands of years ago, thousands of kilometres away, people were people. Everyday, ordinary human beings. The Epic of Gilgamesh is one of the world’s great poems. And the oldest. It originated in ancient Sumeria and was carved on to clay tablets about 2400 BC, but it is highly likely that the most important elements of the story existed as separate poems long before they were written down.

gilgameshIt’s a story about love, sex and friendship. It’s about nature and civilisation, the simple joys in life and about our desire to accomplish great things. It’s about our fear of death and the impossibility of escaping it. It reminds us that thousands of years ago, thousands of kilometres away, people were people. Everyday, ordinary human beings.

The Epic of Gilgamesh is one of the world’s great poems. And the oldest. It originated in ancient Sumeria and was carved on to clay tablets about 2400 BC, but it is highly likely that the most important elements of the story existed as separate poems long before they were written down. The tale spread throughout the Middle East, and the version we have today has been reconstructed from Akkadian, Babylonian, Hittite and Hurrian translations.

The discovery of the poem is a story in itself. Gilgamesh lay lost for thousands of years, until in 1839 a young Englishman, Austen Henry Laynard, unearthed the buried library of Nineveh. But it wasn’t until 1872, when George Smith announced that he had discovered among the tablets an account of the Old Testament flood, that the importance of the discovery was fully understood. Since then many more tablets have been found and reassembled, the pieces of which sometimes, due to various expeditions, ended up on different continents.

The cycle of poems centres on Gilgamesh, the (two-thirds god, one-third human) tyrannical ruler of the walled city of Uruk. At the poem’s opening, Gilgamesh has angered his subjects by insisting on his royal right to the first night with any Uruk bride. So to appease the people and distract the king, the gods create from clay a companion for Gilgamesh — a “strong man from the wastelands” who is named Enkidu. The two become friends, despite an initial squabble, and they set out on a series of adventures, encountering among other things heavenly seductions and cosmological battles.

But it is the death of Enkidu that arouses Gilgamesh’s latent humanity and leads to one of literature’s most despairing laments. Here’s a taste from Derrek Hines’s version: “This blorting thing I am; this broken hive swarmed with grief. Yet absurdly, dawn clatters up its ramshackle geometry to erect the city again; a butterfly limbers in its warmth”.

Which leads to the topic of translation. Today we are awash in an abundance of translated texts that would have been the envy of many earlier readers. The classics of every age and every culture — or at least those that have survived the hazards of time — are freely available in all kinds of versions. Successful translations of our time include Christopher Logues’s Iliad, Ted Hughes’s Ovid and Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf.

For The Epic of Gilgamesh, translations range from productions of outstanding scholarship (such as Andrew George’s), to prose translations that privilege meaning over poetics (such as NK Sandar’s); all the way through to adaptations and reworkings of non-specialist enthusiasts, some of whom can also be very scholarly in their approach. Derrek Hines’s Gilgamesh falls into this last category.

Hines’s poetic adaptation uses all the conventions of contemporary free verse. At best his verse is studded with breathtaking pyrotechnics and resounds with genuine sentiment. Here’s an example from a section titled “The Humbaba Campaign” in which a soldier describes a battlefield:

… dying into grass; all those souls whistling
past our heads, homewards.

Beautiful. Or one of my favourite stanzas in which Enkidu is initiated by the “sacred harlot” Shamhat into the “civilised” ways of women:

After seven nights of love,
as a man might,
Enkidu lost his understanding of animal speech.
But it was a fair trade.

Working on the premise that every generation must translate the classics for itself, Hines has set out to “recapture for the modern reader some of the vigour and excitement the original audience must have felt”. Hines’s text is strewn with contemporary idioms and references to modern technology: he talks about “tram rails”, “X-rays”, and “submarines”. Manhattan becomes a metaphor for Uruk, and accordingly Hines talks about a “Niagra of fear” and describes a fight in which Gilgamesh and Enkidu “topple into each other like the Empire State and Chrysler buildings”.

In a 5000-year-old story, this sort of contemporising is no small matter. I can imagine an argument in which it makes perfect sense. No doubt it would rely on a postmodern view of time – something like Robert Bly’s idea that “after the industrial revolution all things happen at once” or similarly that the past is embedded in the present. But for more traditional readers like me, Hines’s anachronisms are distracting.

The Epic of Gilgamesh needs none of it. It speaks to the modern reader, not through high-tech metaphors but through its themes of friendship and love and the doomed search for immortality. From Uta-napishti (the Sumerian Noah), Gilgamesh learns the brutal lesson of time: that there is no permanence. It sounds simple but, as Hines’s narrator asks, “who can console us for dying?”

Review of Gilgamesh by Derek Hines was first published in The Courier-Mail (9 Mar 2002): BAM 7.

Foreword: Best Australian Poetry 2004

The Best Australian Poetry 2004 is the second of our projected annual surveys of contemporary Australian poetry published in literary journals and newspapers. Guest Editor Anthony Lawrence has established himself as one of Australia’s premier poets with a passionate and distinctive voice celebrated for its lush undulating movement, kaleidoscopic vision, and musical complexity.

Guest Editor: Anthony LawrenceGuest editor: Anthony Lawrence
Series editors: Bronwyn Lea and Martin Duwell

The Best Australian Poetry 2004 is the second of our projected annual surveys of contemporary Australian poetry published in literary journals and newspapers. We are encouraged by the over-whelming reception of the inaugural edition, The Best Australian Poetry 2003, (pre-sales made necessary a second reprint before the book was officially released) and this has given us confidence in the future of the series. Already we can see the benefits of a policy of engaging a different Guest Editor each year — this year, poet and author Anthony Lawrence — in that this selection feels radically different to last year’s. Rather than attempting a magisterial overview, we have always felt that the varied perspectives of changing Guest Editors will make, in the long run, for a rich and more accurate portrait of what is happening in poetry in Australia. At the practical level, this second edition has enabled us to think more carefully about those matters of policy which seem commonsensical in the abstract but which, in practice, come down to irritatingly minute decisions. Matters of nationality for eligible poets comprise one set of thorny examples, as do the list of journals from which the poems will be selected. In both cases, we have reconsidered but decided to continue our policy of including only poems by Australian citizens and residents published in Australian print journals and newspapers. In the case of the former, we learned its stark consequences when Lawrence returned his selection of his ‘best forty poems’ which included a poem by a well-known American poet who had somehow slipped through our filter: jettisoning the poem and requesting a replacement was a decision made not without considerable pain. In the case of the latter, we felt our decision was a bit harsh on journals such as Antipodes — the journal of the American Association for Australian Literary Studies — which has, for a number of years now, done a magnificent job of bringing Australian literature into the North American ambit and which, at the same time, continues to publish a number of fine Australian poems in each issue. But as well as celebrating Australian poets and poetry, we had decided at the outset to celebrate those journals and newspapers which, in the difficult climate of Australian culture with its attendant problems of lack of financial resources and lack of broad community support, nevertheless continue with a commitment to the poetry of Australia.

In a year in which Australia went to war, albeit as a small component of the ‘Coalition of the Willing,’ it is perhaps not surprising that one of the issues raised during 2003 involved poetry’s commitment to the public sphere. The positions of poets, as always, covered a span. At one end is an essential, though sometimes despairing, quietism inevitably invoking Auden’s ‘poetry makes nothing happen: it survives / in the valley of its making,’ though perhaps missing Auden’s point that, although the overarching cultural and physical conditions do not change (Ireland remains mad and its weather remains terrible), poetry’s survival as ‘a way of happening, a mouth’ is itself a cause for hope. At the other end is a belief in poetry’s capacity to be at least a component of protest. In March 2003, a collection of poems by 119 Australian poets was delivered to Australia’s Prime Minister as part of an international Day of Poetry Against the War. The poets included ten associated with this year’s Best Australian Poetry anthology: Robert Adamson, Adam Aitken, Judith Beveridge, Peter Boyle, MTC Cronin, Anthony Lawrence, Emma Lew, Les Murray, Thomas Shapcott and Chris Wallace-Crabbe. Speaking on behalf of Australian poets against the war, Alison Croggon’s comment that the collection was a ‘flotilla of poems which matches [Australia’s] military presence in the Middle-East — small, but symbolically significant’ perhaps strikes the right note for poetry in its engagement with the world’s macro-events: ambitious but realistic.

It is sad to have to record, in this introduction to our second volume, the passing of one of the contributors to the first volume. Norman Talbot, who died in January 2004, was a fine, if underrated, poet and a thoroughly distinctive voice in Australian poetry. His first two books, Poems for a Female Universe (1968) and its whimsically named sequel, Son of a Female Universe (1971), contain poems that one remembers fondly after more than thirty years. Talbot’s prize-winning poem sequence, ‘Seven New South Wales Sonnet-Forms,’ is included in this volume, and it was our sad task to inform Lawrence who, tucked away in Hobart, had not heard news of Talbot’s passing but had nonetheless selected this poem on merit. Another passing of importance was that of Clem Christesen, a Brisbane poet and prose writer who began Meanjin Papers as a small magazine in late 1940 in Brisbane. After the war the journal moved to Melbourne, contracted its name to Meanjin, and established itself as Australian premier cultural journal in the post-war period.

As we’ve stated, one of the many aims of this series is to celebrate those journals, such as Meanjin and the new and impressive literary journal Salt-lick Quarterly, which continue to publish quality Australian poems, as well as to celebrate those editors who devote immense stretches of time and infinite energies to produce quality magazines. On a more coercive (though suitably muted) note, we hope that the series will also encourage poets to renew contact with these journals. While emerging poets derive immense support and confidence from publication in small magazines, established poets sometimes withdraw while preparing book-length manuscripts and contribute poems to magazines not as a matter of course, but only when asked. There is a certain irony in the fact that the Guest Editor of this volume did not appear in the inaugural issue, having published no poems in literary journals in 2002. While he did publish poems in journals in 2003 — perhaps inspired by this series? — we are grateful that he agreed to forego possible inclusion in The Best Australian Poetry 2004 and agreed to be its Guest Editor instead.

In a series of books, beginning with Dreaming in Stone (UQP, 1989) and now his most recent The Sleep of a Learning Man (Giramondo, 2004), Lawrence has established himself as one of Australia’s premier poets with a passionate and distinctive voice celebrated for its lush undulating movement, kaleidoscopic vision, and musical complexity. Lawrence’s poems and collections have won just about every prestigious poetry prize in Australia, including the Newcastle Poetry Prize (1997) and the Josephine Ulrick Poetry Prize (2001), as well as the Judith Wright Calanthe Poetry Prize (1991) and the New South Wales Premier’s Kenneth Slessor Prize for Poetry (1996). His poetry is rightly admired by many for its exploration of the immense drama of the Australian landscape, capturing not only the harshness of rural life but also meditating on the intricate and startling details of native birds, fish, and animals. But Lawrence is also intensely interested in the human animal and, in this aspect, his poems are often set into continual motion, converging and dispersing in a kinetically-charged human drama. It’s perhaps not surprising, then, that his selection here contains not only many poems about animals — dogs, horses, birds, bats, fish, and the platypus — but also many poems about love — romantic and familial — with all the violence and tenderness that these relationships incite and demand. There are poems too that explore the human at home in the body — a body that oozes, bleeds, and aches, but one that also loves, desires, and heals — as well as poems that are intensely interested in language, another of Lawrence’s own interests, and in how poetry might effectively address the cerebral and political dimensions of creative life. Lawrence’s selection is not only intelligent but also dramatic and flamboyant, revealing an unquenchable and quirky passion for life immersed in the magnificent clutter of lived reality.

During the proofing of this introduction we received word of the death of Bruce Beaver at the age of seventy-six. He was one of Australia’s greatest poets, an indefatigable writer and a great celebrator and lamenter. His most admired book was his fourth, Letters to Live Poets, published in 1969, but the volumes that followed it — Lauds and Plaints and Odes and Days — as well as the volumes that followed these books, are really major contributions to Australian poetry. Beaver showed Australian poets how it was possible to be wide-ranging and international in one’s reading and one’s concerns while writing in a way that seems absolutely Australian. He was always concerned with poets and his two totemic poets were Po Chu-I (whose unstoppable ability to turn life into poetry was something he admired) and Rilke. One of the best poems in Beaver’s first book, Under the Bridge (1961) is ‘Remembering Golden Bells…and Po Chu-I,’ which retells the story of the Chinese poet’s loss of his little daughter, Golden Bells. It seems fitting that in one of his final poems — from his postumous collection The Long Game and Other Poems (UQP, 2005) — Beaver recalls his Chinese mentor:

Late Afternoon

A last radiance of sunlight
illuminates an empty chair, an empty couch.
Visitors are few and when they come
I don’t wish them away
but do hope they won’t stay too long
for my closest friends are books and blank paper.
My fingers itch for the pen and later
my eyes focus on the pages of others.
It’s understandable: I’m in my seventies
and though the days moving into summers
are growing longer, my years are growing shorter.
Like Po Chu-I, I have been away from the Capital
a long time; though I have not lost any children
I watch the faces of acquaintances
and see in them a lost child here and there.
Surely parenthood is a vocation
like poetry, unlike poetry.

Kate jenning’s moral hazard

Review of Moral Hazard by Kate Jennings first published in The Courier–Mail. 22 June 2002: BAM 7.

Kate Jennings_B&WThe release of Kate Jennings’s second novel, Moral Hazard, comes at a time of highly emotive and politicised debate about euthanasia in Australia. Also fitting to its subject matter, Moral Hazard arrives on the heels of Iris, a film about the late Iris Murdoch who had Alzheimer’s disease in the last few years of her life. Jennings, whose novel takes on both euthanasia and Alzheimer’s, couldn’t have hoped for a more opportune release date.

One can only speculate as to how much of the story is autobiographical. Jennings, like her protagonist Cath, is an Australian who worked as a speech writer in several Wall Street banks during the early 1990s. And Jennings’s husband Bob Cato died of complications of Alzheimer’s disease aged 75.

Cath commutes between two worlds of dementia. By day she works as a speech writer at Niedecker Benecker, a fictional Wall Street investment bank; and by night she looks after her much older husband, Bailey (a likely allusion to John Bayley, author of the controversial Murdoch biography), who is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. Both worlds are awful.

Early in the story, we learn that Bailey’s mother had been an outspoken member of the Hemlock Society, the oldest and largest pro-euthanasia organisation in the US. In fact, she had taken her own life rather than enter a nursing home. Before he developed Alzheimer’s, Bailey too had expressed his commitment to “dignity in death”.

But his Alzheimer’s presents a Catch-22: Bailey would need to make his “exit”, not in the extremity of the disease, but early on, while he still has the ability to carry out his own wishes – while he is still mentally competent. But Bailey’s illness progresses swiftly, before Bailey or Cath can contemplate such an action, and the window of opportunity closes.

Still, it takes about seven years for Bailey to “erode like a sandstone statue becoming formless and vague, reduced to a nub”.

Luckily, or so Cath thinks, Bailey has a living will – an advance directive stating he does not want to be connected to life-support merely to delay an inevitable death. Also, Bailey’s medical charts list him as DNR (do not resuscitate), and he has a “health care proxy” nominating Cath to make health care decisions on his behalf. Even so, Bailey’s doctors ignore these instructions and keep him alive with transfusions and antibiotics. Cath, feeling herself responsible to Bailey’s wish for “dignity in death”, is faced with a “moral hazard” she cannot ignore.

Of course, this is not the only “moral hazard” she has to contend with. There’s also Wall Street where, reflects Cath, “women are about as welcome as fleas in a sleeping bag”. Cath, who distinguishes herself as a ’60s-style feminist on page one by quoting from Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, is not enamoured, to say the least.

The result is a schizophrenic sense of disconnection between Cath’s two worlds. There is a sense that the novel needs to be longer to fully explore these rich and harrowing territories.

Life’s tragedies are rarely how we imagine them: they are simultaneously more awful and easier than we anticipate. Nevertheless it seems that, on an emotional level, Jennings’s novel is just short of the mark. She tells her story with an Australian fear of emotion, a detachment bordering on insensitivity that quite often is difficult to comprehend. Stoicism makes Moral Hazard a strong novel, but lack of vulnerability precludes it from being a great one.

 

Review of Moral Hazard by Kate Jennings first published in The Courier–Mail. 22 June 2002: BAM 7.

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