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.)

Featured Anthology: Oxford Poets 2007 – Kieron Winn

Today’s poem comes from Kieron Winn, a freelance teacher and poet. He says of ‘Mountain Water’, “the final rhyme would have been a full one for Wordsworth” (and a nod to Tony Harrison‘s brilliant poem ‘Them and [uz]’, I am informed). Winn’s poetry is rooted in the dramatic landscapes of the Lake District and alludes to both Wordsworth and Coleridge, not so much in style but in them as subjects: their location and their relationship to one another. His superb evocation of landscape, from the smallest, “of beach streams/ Where individual flying grains are seen” (‘The Unforgetting’), to the grand, “To a prehuman valley in the mountains/ Networked by veins of thin and plashable streams”, creates a sense of our surroundings having their own palpable and strong life force.

Sitting in an office in the middle of a city, surrounded by the hum of computers, the whirring of printers and the roaring of passing cars, I read Winn’s poem and am transported to the rugged landscape of the Lake District and the image of crystal clear water tumbling down a mountain. Some may say I’m romantic… I say, just enjoy it. Then head to the nearest mountain.

Mountain Water

Lucid stream,
Travelling light,
Itself and open,
Black and white,
Cold on the palm,
Chilly burn,
By mossy rock
And thriving fern,
Salt and poison
Clouds remade,
Ancient freshness,
Undecayed,
Fluid muscle,
Inner chatter,
Flowing, constant
Mountain water.

(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 – Hilary Menos

Hilary Menos is the second poet we’re highlighting in this feature. Previously working as a journalist, Menos now runs an organic farm in Devon.

As to ‘why poetry’, I can think of three possible reasons: My mother read me poetry as a child; My father spent hours every night drafting and redrafting technical documents, publicity material, minutes from meetings – he would worry for hours over the meaning, and placement, of one word; and when I left my junior school at eleven, Mr Sutcliffe told me to never stop writing poetry. We all have a Mr Sutcliffe.

The influence of rural Devon is felt in her poetry through recurring themes of nature and traditional life but avoids the idealised and romantic forms, “I hope my poetry is firmly rooted in the real”, Menos says, “No herons, no buttercups, no fluffy lambs – I’m more of a slaughterhouse and slurry pit poet.” She also writes about global environmental damage – in a way that’s oblique but not obscure, only political in the broadest sense – and the wider, more general themes of poetry: community, death, and our lost faith in society. “There are lots of different ways to say something and poets might as well say it in as interesting and entertaining a way as possible. And, generally, brevity is a good thing.”

‘The Gift’ presents to us a unique perception of the creative process: starting with the infinite, spiraling down into a physical landscape only to then unfurl itself into its own possibilites and boundless space again. This charts the process of the poem’s creation but also, how once formed, the poem is then open to its reader’s interpretation and to soar once more.

The Gift

I want to write you a small square poem
that starts with space and a vague notion of form
then pitches in headlong – not holding its nose
at the pull of another body – to atmosphere,
the curve of coastline, a fjords fold and wrinkle,
borders, boundaries, the abrupt hyphenation of dams,
and hurtles through the sprawl of domes and spires
of a small Italian town to a piazza where,
between candy-stripe carts of ice-cream sellers,
past lunchtime chatter, waiters bringing Lavazza
and orange juice, it finds firm ground,
lands on the page like a flag, like a map of a world
impossible to resist and, catching the wind,
unfurls and soars like a bird circling the square.

(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 – Grace Ingoldby

The first of our featured poets in the first of our featured anthologies is Grace Ingoldby. A novelist and poet with an ear for domestic and sectarian violence – she lived in Northern Ireland during the 1970s – Ingoldby’s perceptiveness to the world around her is demonstrated in her writing through stylish humour and original responses. She died in 2005, after a two-year battle with cancer. She faced her struggle with the same vigour and vivacity that she poured into her creative life; laughter was always to be heard but beneath this lay profound personal sorrow and unjustified self doubt. Of Grace’s unique interpretation and spirit for life, Mary Ingoldby says, “Discuss an idea with Grace and and you always came away with something entirely new. She was clever, extremely amusing, and quick to cut through the pretentious and the worthy.” Her poetry was “vital to her”, she would “work and rework”, through different genres in order to get the rythym and tone just right.

The sense of movement that is conveyed in this poem, through the grand expanse of sky and the hunched figure, demonstrates the detrimental power of introspection and insisting the need to throw ourselves open to be rid of pain and sorrow.

Morning be salve to you

On a clear night let the stars be your alibi
Save yourself from yourself by throwing your
Head back, gazing at something many light
Years away, for whatever happens in
This position it is impossible
To cry. Cryers bend forwards, they hug and
They hide themselves, tears leave them ragged, their
Sadness seeps inwards to what’s already
Sodden. At dawn the cocks crow from the grey
Of the orchard you’re leaving; morning be
Salve to you, day be square with you, fair with
You, remember to throw your head back should
Sadness still have its hand on you, for in
This position only the cockerels can cry.

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

Mary will be reading Grace’s poetry at an event for the launch of Oxford Poets 2007: An Anthology at Foyles Bookshop, London on Monday 29th October.

Featured Poem: The Sun Rising

Today’s featured poem is John Donne’s ‘The Sun Rising’, which really needs no introduction other than to say that on a grey autumn day Donne’s poem, like love, is a better match for the rags of time than the heat of summer.

The Sun Rising

Busy old fool, unruly sun,
Why dost thou thus,
Through windows, and through curtains call on us?
Must to thy motions lovers’ seasons run?
Saucy pedantic wretch, go chide
Late school-boys and sour prentices,
Go tell court-huntsmen, that the king will ride,
Call country ants to harvest offices;
Love, all alike, no season knows, nor clime,
Nor hours, days, months, which are the rags of time.

Thy beams, so reverend, and strong
Why shouldst thou think?
I could eclipse and cloud them with a wink,
But that I would not lose her sight so long;
If her eyes have not blinded thine,
Look, and tomorrow late, tell me,
Whether both th’ Indias of spice and mine
Be where thou leftst them, or lie here with me.
Ask for those kings whom thou saw’st yesterday,
And thou shalt hear, All here in one bed lay.

She’s all states, and all princes, I,
Nothing else is.
Princes do but play us; compared to this,
All honour’s mimic; all wealth alchemy.
Thou sun art half as happy as we,
In that the world’s contracted thus;
Thine age asks ease, and since thy duties be
To warm the world, that’s done in warming us.
Shine here to us, and thou art everywhere;
This bed thy centre is, these walls, thy sphere.

Featured Anthology: Oxford Poets 2007

In a new feature at The Reader Online, we’re going to be featuring a recently published poetry anthology, bringing you some of the best contemporary poetic writing over a week each month.

The first of our featured anthologies is Oxford Poets 2007: An Anthology (eds. David Constantine and Bernard O’Donoghue), which includes work by Jemma Borg, Hugh Dunkerley, Grace Ingoldby, Olivia McCannon, Jo Roach, Damian Walford Davis, Lynne Wycherley and many others. From Monday, we will reproduce a poem from this collection each day (with thanks to the publisher Carcanet), plus some information about the poet and a few thoughts about the day’s poem from us in The Reader office.

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