Featured Poem: On Wenlock Edge

A.E. Houseman’s poem ‘On Wenlock Edge …’ (1896) is one of my favourite poems, not least for its description of submission to the weather and the ‘anger’ of the wind. That sensation is one of the most exhilarating. In this poem Houseman makes a point of connecting his own moment with a continuity of human life around the Wrekin, but he avoids soft-hearted sentimentalism, choosing instead to focus on transitoriness. The ‘wind through woods in riot’ is no less than life itself. After a weekend in which Britain has been battered by wind, rain and, in my case, pantomime, here is a poem that celebrates our need to be rooted in place, yet takes a clear-eyed view of what good it will do us. It also contains one of the best first lines in all of English poetry.

‘On Wenlock Edge the wood’s in trouble’

On Wenlock Edge the wood’s in trouble
His forest fleece the Wrekin heaves;
The gale, it plies the saplings double,
And thick on Severn snow the leaves.

‘Twould blow like this through holt and hanger
When Uricon the city stood:
‘Tis the old wind in the old anger,
But then it threshed another wood.

Then, ’twas before my time, the Roman
At yonder heaving hill would stare:
The blood that warms an English yeoman,
The thoughts that hurt him, they were there.

There, like the wind through woods in riot,
Through him the gale of life blew high;
The tree of man was never quiet:
Then ’twas the Roman, now ’tis I.

The gale, it plies the saplings double,
It blows so hard, ’twill soon be gone:
To-day the Roman and his trouble
Are ashes under Uricon.

___

Posted by Chris Routledge, Powered by Qumana

Featured Poem: William Blake, ‘I saw a chapel all of gold’

By Jonathan Roberts 

This poem is quintessential Blake.  It comes from one of his notebooks known as ‘The Rossetti Manuscript’ which was bought, twenty years after Blake’s death, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti from Samuel Palmer’s brother. The intellectual independence of the work in the notebook was an inspiration to the nascent Pre-Raphaelite movement.

‘I saw a chapel all of gold’ was probably written around the time of Songs of Experience (1794), and like ‘The Sick Rose’ explores the human impact of social and religious systems that simultaneously idealize and denigrate sexuality.  The narrative is brief: mourning worshippers stand outside a golden chapel.  Without announcement, a serpent bursts down the chapel doors, slides up the aisle, and vomits onto the altar, onto the sacramental bread and wine.  The narrator, appalled by this scene, turns away from it, preferring to lie down among the pigs in a sty – the abject state reached by the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32).

What is Blake up to?  The genital symbolism of the poem is clear: the serpent is phallic, the chapel pristine and virginal.  The event is a figuration of a transgressive sexual encounter.  The ejaculation of the final stanza could harldy be more offensive given the context.  When female sexuality is idealized, the poem suggests, repression and denigration will follow.

To secular eyes, Blake’s concern with the religious idealization of female sexuality may seem a thing from another age.  Not so – the issues remain though the framework has changed: in terms of (principally female) sexuality, religious idealizations have simply been replaced with the idealizations of commodity culture.  Christianity, Blake argues, should mean human liberation, not dehumanizing repression. Idealization – his work asserts – is a dangerous abstraction that ultimately leads to the denigration of all those involved: subjects, agents, and spectators.

‘I saw a chapel all of gold’

I saw a chapel all of gold
That none did dare to enter in
And many weeping stood without
Weeping mourning worshipping

I saw a serpent rise between
The white pillars of the door
And he forcd & forcd & forcd
Down the golden hinges tore

And along the pavement sweet
Set with pearls & rubies bright
All his slimy length he drew
Till upon the altar white

Vomiting his poison out
On the bread & on the wine
So I turnd into a sty
And laid me down among the swine

__

Jonathan Roberts is Lecturer in Romantic Literature in the School of English, University of Liverpool. His book William Blake’s Poetry was published by Continuum in 2007.

Featured Poem: Sonnet to William Wilberforce, Esq.

On November 26, 1731 the English poet and hymnodist William Cowper was born. Cowper trained as a lawyer but became increasingly troubled. He suffered from several bouts of depression, attempted suicide more than once, and was declared insane for a short period in the 1760s. He is now best known for his hymns, which include some of the best-known lines in the English hymnal, including this from the Olney Hymns:

GOD moves in a mysterious way,
His wonders to perform;
He plants his footsteps in the sea,
And rides upon the storm.

Cowper was a fine poet and though he was often didactic to the point of sermonising, like many evangelicals of the time he was unafraid of confronting authority and siding with just causes. This sonnet to William Wilberforce demonstrates his non-conformist sympathies:

Sonnet to William Wilberforce, Esq.

Thy country, Wilberforce, with just disdain,
Hears thee, by cruel men and impious, call’d
Fanatic, for thy zeal to loose th’ enthrall’d
From exile, public sale, and slav’ry’s chain.
Friend of the poor, the wrong’d, the fetter-gall’d,
Fear not lest labour such as thine be vain!
Thou hast achiev’d a part; hast gain’d the ear
Of Britain’s senate to thy glorious cause;
Hope smiles, joy springs, and tho’ cold caution pause
And weave delay, the better hour is near,
That shall remunerate thy toils severe
By peace for Afric, fenc’d with British laws.
Enjoy what thou hast won, esteem and love
From all the just on earth, and all the blest above!

Posted by Chris Routledge, Powered by Qumana

Featured Anthology: Staying Alive – Brendan Kennelly

As the end of the week arrives and the last poem from our featured anthology Staying Alive is posted, it seems somehow appropriate to have a poem about new beginnings. Moving forever forward, not backwards. As ‘Begin’ by Brendan Kennelly, one of Ireland’s most distinguished poets, so eloquently captures. Kennelly has said of himself, “If I’m anything, it’s open” and this is sustained in his writing, which has space for the virtuous, the merciless, the beautiful and the hideous.

Begin

Begin again to the summoning birds
to the sight of light at the window,
begin to the roar of morning traffic
all along Pembroke Road.
Every beginning is a promise
born in light and dying in dark
determination and exaltation of springtime
flowering the way to work.
Begin to the pageant of queuing girls
the arrogant loneliness of swans in the canal
bridges linking the past and the future
old friends passing through with us still.
Begin to the loneliness that cannot end
since it perhaps is what makes us begin,
begin to wonder at unknown faces
at crying birds in the sudden rain
at branches stark in the willing sunlight
at seagulls foraging for bread
at couples sharing a sunny secret
alone together while making good.
Though we live in a world that dreams of ending
that always seems about to give in
something that will not acknowledge conclusion
insists that we forever begin.

(This poem is reproduced with permission from Staying Alive: Real Poems for Unreal Times (2002, Bloodaxe Books), edited by Neil Astley.)

Featured Anthology: Staying Alive – Miroslav Holub

The fourth poet to feature from Staying Alive is Miroslav Holub, who was one of the Czech Republic’s most important poets and also a leading scientist (specialising in immunology). He died in 1998, leaving behind a legacy of work in both the artistic and scientific worlds. The scientist’s logic undoubtedly informs his poetic work, sometimes mathematical in their analogies but maintaining a bond with humanity. It is also characteristic of his poetry not to rhyme, lending itself to be easily translated (his work has been translated into thirty languages).

Scientists and poets share a similar curiosity about the world around them. Holub expects his readers to be curious in every direction, to leave nothing unquestioned and take nothing for granted. ‘The Door’ is typical of Holub’s sense of irony, an openness and wit that is contrasted with ethical severity, his insistence that we learn humility and above all an awakening of ourselves.

The Door

Go and open the door.
    Maybe outside there’s 
    a tree, or a wood,
    a garden,
    or a magic city.

Go and open the door.
    Maybe a dog’s rummaging.
    Maybe you’ll see a face,
or an eye,
or the picture
                        of a picture.

Go and open the door.
    If there’s a fog
    it will clear.

Go and open the door.
    Even if there’s only
    the darkness ticking,
    even if there’s only
    the hollow wind,
    even if
                 nothing
                               is there,
go and open the door.

At least
there’ll be
a draught.

translated from the Czech by Ian Milner

(This poem is reproduced with permission from Staying Alive: Real Poems for Unreal Times (2002, Bloodaxe Books), edited by Neil Astley.)

Featured Anthology: Staying Alive – David Constantine

As well as being a regular contributor to The Reader, David Constantine is a freelance writer, poet and translator. Possessing self-aware sensuality and an ability to combine mythological and Biblical narratives with ordinary, understandable emotion, Constantine’s poetry voices urgent themes of our contemporary world with a sense of rich, human acceptance.

The third poem to feature from Staying Alive is ‘Watching for Dolphins’, a poem that looks at what people seek in dolphins and the ephinany when discovering them. It is one of his most admired poems, evoking in unadorned, chaste diction, the bittersweet nature of human experience for all its dreams and disappointments.

Watching for Dolphins

In the summer months on every crossing to Piraeus
One noticed that certain passengers soon rose
From seats in the packed saloon and with serious
Looks and no acknowledgment of a common purpose
Passed forward through the small door into the bows
To watch for dolphins. One saw them lose

Every other wish. Even the lovers
Turned their desires on the sea, and a fat man
Hung with equipment to photograph the occasion
Stared like a saint, through sad bi-focals; others,
Hopeless themselves, looked to the children for they
Would see dolphins if anyone would. Day after day

Or on their last opportunity all gazed
Undecided whether a flat calm were favourable
Or a sea the sun and the wind between them raised
To a likeness of dolphins. Were gulls a sign, that fell
Screeching from the sky or over an unremarkable place
Sat in a silent school? Every face

After its character implored the sea.
All, unaccustomed, wanted epiphany,
Praying the sky would clang and the abused Aegean
Reverberate with cymbal, gong and drum.
We could not imagine more prayer, and had they then
On the waves, on the climax of our longing come

Smiling, snub-nosed, domes like satyrs, oh
We should have laughed and lifted the children up
Stranger to stranger, pointing how with a leap
They left their element, three or four times, centred
On grace, and heavily and warm re-entered,
Looping the keel. We should have felt them go

Further and further into the deep parts. But soon
We were among the great tankers, under their chains
In black water. We had not seen the dolphins
But woke, blinking. Eyes cast down
With no admission of disappointment the company
Dispersed and prepared to land in the city.

(This poem is reproduced with permission from Staying Alive: Real Poems for Unreal Times (2002, Bloodaxe Books), edited by Neil Astley.)

Featured Anthology: Staying Alive – Anne Stevenson

Anne Stevenson, a critic of Sylvia Plath and Elizabeth Bishop and a poet herself, was born in Cambridge in 1933 but grew up in America. She settled back in Britain in 1964 and has published widely and successfully in a creative career that spans over fifty years. Embedded in close observation of the world and sensitive pschological insight, her poetry questions how we see and what we think about our external and internal world.

‘Poem for a Daughter’ demonstrates Stevenson’s ability to amalgamate acute perception, personal feeling and sharp wit in her poetry. Heartfelt and sincere, yet entertaining and accessible, she brings out the humanity from our often complex and incomprehensible lives through the landscape of her intelligent, natural and sometimes angry words.

Poem for a Daughter

‘I think I’m going to have it,’
I said, joking between pains.
The midwife rolled competent
sleeves over corpulent milky arms.
‘Dear, you never have it,
we deliver it.’
A judgement years proved true.
Certainly I’ve never had you

as you still have me, Caroline.
Why does a mother need a daughter?
Heart’s needle, hostage to fortune,
freedom’s end. Yet nothing’s more perfect
than that bleating, razor-sharped cry
that delivers a mother to her baby.
The bloodcord snaps that held
their sphere together. The child,
tiny and alone, creates the mother.

A woman’s life is her own
until it is taken away
by a first particular cry.
Then she is not alone
but part of the premises
of everything there is:
a time, a tribe, a war.
When we belong to the world
we become what we are.

(This poem is reproduced with permission from Staying Alive: Real Poems for Unreal Times (2002, Bloodaxe Books), edited by Neil Astley.)

Featured Anthology: Staying Alive – Denise Levertov

The first poem to feature from our second featured anthology, Staying Alive: Real Poems for Unreal Times, is ‘Living’ by Denise Levertov. Born in England but living most of her adult life in America, Levertov was influenced by the Transcendentalism of Emerson and ThoreauEzra Pound‘s experimentation with the poetic form, and in particular, the work of William Carlos Williams. She would become one of the most important voices in the American avant-garde, gaining immediate and excited acclaim for her poetic works in the fifties and sixties, both by the public and fellow poets.

In ‘Living’, Levertov describes how time passes when you stop to notice the finer, natural details in life. She shows that time and nature, although seeming to come to points of conclusion in our experiences, actually remain endless.

Living

The fire in leaf and grass
so green it seems
each summer the last summer.

The wind blowing, the leaves
shivering in the sun,
each day the last day.

A red salamander
so cold and so
easy to catch, dreamily

moves his delicate feet
and long tail. I hold
my hand open for him to go.

Each minute the last minute.

(This poem is reproduced with permission from Staying Alive: Real Poems for Unreal Times (2002, Bloodaxe Books), edited by Neil Astley.)

Featured Anthology – Oxford Poets 2007 – Hugh Dunkerley

The last poet to feature in this series is Hugh Dunkerley, a teacher at the University of Chichester and currently West Sussex Poet Laureate. We move back to nature and the organic with Dunkerley’s poetry, how we are connected to nature and how we are also completely separated from it. However his work takes on an idea of there being something beyond, “for me a poem usually begins as something almost physical, a feeling of excitement which coalesces into a few words or lines”, a sense that his writing has to expose what it is that the poem is trying to say.

I believe poetry is still relevant and important because it retains the ability to replicate the complex nature of experience without giving in to the kinds of explanations that ideology and mass consumerism push on us every day. It is a space in which we can contemplate the ultimately mysterious nature of existence.

Ominous in its communication of desertion and unknown threat, ‘Early Warning’ conveys the the sense of humanity being both a part and apart of nature, here in a detrimental manner, with a delicacy that we would not normally associate with such a dystopic image.

Early Warning

Suddenly the bees deserted the air,
the hives fell silent
and the garden filled with an absence.

Meanwhile the numb flowers
went on offering up their sweet surfeit
to nothing and no one

and he scoured the skies
for some dark unseen threat.
Later, as he was planting the first

of the new potatoes,
the rain came, running in rivulets
down his back, soaking his shoes,

drumming on the hives like hail.
That evening, on the news, he heard
about the stricken reactor,

thought of the potatoes in their darkness
ticking with danger,
of his own wet skin, how by morning

the bees would swarming
at the hive entrances,
yearning for nectar.

(This poem is reproduced with permission from Oxford Poets 2007: An Anthology, edited by David Constantine and Bernard O’Donoghue, published by Carcanet Press.)

Featured Anthology: Oxford Poets 2007 – Saradha Soobrayen

Saradha Soobrayen is a literary facilitator and Poetry Editor of Chroma: A LGBT Literary Journal. She received an Eric Gregory Award in 2004 for her work. Most creative at night, Soobrayen finds the “unquestioning nature of the dark comforting”, where her concepts of time and certainties change. There are ambiguities surrounding tense in her writing but there should be enough clarity in the sincerity and distinctness of feeling conveyed to “infect the reader”.

In ‘What is Art?’, Tolstoy discusses the distinction between ‘counterfeit art’ and ‘true art’, and describes how the reader becomes infected with the author’s state of mind only when the work emerges from the inner need to express. What often resonates for me in the work is the need for something or someone, a sense of language not fully arrived at. The writing becomes a form of waiting.

The poem featured here, ‘I will unlove you’, is haunting and bleak in its imagery and tone but is a powerful perception of emotional ties (and the falling apart thereof). The writing of the poem and the repetition of “will”, seems to act as a form of therapy here but within it is the knowledge of the impossibility of forcing yourself to ‘unlove’ someone. In the hollowness, emptiness and coldness of this state, there is a sense that to push something away that is natural will only lead to this sense of nothingness. You can stop loving but you can’t ‘unlove’; it’s willing over emotion and reason over feeling.

I will unlove you

I will unlove you and become hollow,
undo every feeling from its hold.

I will restrict blood flow and circulate the cold,
deflate my heart and become shallow.

I will numb my tongue and choose not to swallow,
tie up my larynx, let love go untold.

I will scrub sensation from every fold.
and squeeze the tenderness from my marrow,

But will I still be your Saradha tomorrow?
What becomes of us when love lets go?

(This poem is reproduced with permission from Oxford Poets 2007: An Anthology, edited by David Constantine and Bernard O’Donoghue, published by Carcanet Press.)