Smart Devices: 52 Poems from The Guardian 'Poem of the Week'
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Importantly, many of the Watershed poems engage with the human psychology that’s so frequently, and so foolishly, ignored at the present tumultuous “watershed” moment. Padel uncovers the mirror, reveals the universality of climate denial. She allows us a small smile towards our inner Mrs Noah, who tries operatically to resist boarding the Ark, and has to be “dragged up the gangplank / waving a goblet / shouting I will stay with my gossips.” (Rehearsing Noye’s Fludde). On the other hand, there’s the “blast / of climate terror,” the sudden, equally incapacitating sensation “as if a pub in that crystal cave at the end of the world / held a darts match for the blind / and the boards were our bodies … our hearts.” (Lady of the Lake). Few of the poems are as painful as that image, but they all dramatise the loss we face. Sunlight’s a thing that needs a window Before it enter a dark room. Windows don’t happen.’ So two old poets, Hunched at their beer in the low haze Of an inn parlour, while the talk ran At first God wanted just himself. And this huge output of light whirled in horror Throughout the heavens with nothing very much to do. Knowing evil and good he was bored. Knowing life he was really fed up, So he set up like an artist to fulfil his daily needs, And wandered from the first day and entered the second.
His poem, Le Crapaud, an inverted sonnet, has its own sour fun with voice and tone, but Forshaw goes further, seizing the opportunity for a rich brew of English and American-English slang, with terms such as “gob”, “dekko”, “buggered off”, “old toady-boyo”, clobbering the ear with melancholy-merry gusto. There’s an ominously placed line-break between the third and fourth lines of the second verse: “tolled” takes the emphasis, and is repeated in the first line of verse three. The bell seems solidly installed “between the cold and dark”. But something changes. The narrator comments on the quality of the bird’s song (“a clear true voice he had”) and perhaps it’s envy that prompts the bell’s response. We’re not told how its pitch or pace are altered – only that the narrator “knew it” (the bell) “had gone mad”. By now we know how closely clouds and snowfall have cohered with the poem’s emotional centre. There was a secret strength in Longfellow’s treatment of pathetic fallacy and metaphor, a deeper trope. The poem becomes a release of grief – not, of course as a poet today would make it, in intimate detail, perhaps naming names, places, times – but as a poet of Longfellow’s era might present it, through figurative and rhetorical veils, and in the restraining “music” of grammar and cadence. The third day God saw what was emerging beneath him. The green mist and undulation of land and water: Its modulated rhythm and irritability of split forms Spitting up from the earth's face massed fronds And circular prisms of light. These he watched, startled, until there evolved The springing, active branches of varied leaves, Plants, shrubs and trees. A dishevelled array; A residue of years impelling change of growth. The reptiles unknown to him but already in birth Peered at his curiosity and their own under a Blanching light. The mammals also secure on The tree of life and hidden by its enormous branches of Passing mystery, clutched the young to their breasts.
Second Sleep is an evocative phrase: it could connote death, the post-death sleep some religions believe occurs before resurrection, or an uncanny, perhaps magical, daylight doze. Hannah’s explanation chimed with my own experience: I often “sleep off” my first tiredness for a couple of hours, then feel fresh enough to start a mini-day. The second sleep brings the most interesting dreams. For me, they often dramatise a long-term fear, and have a mysteriously shadowy public setting – railway station, airport, concert hall, classroom. I have some control of these spaces, being simultaneously lost and in a determined kind of hurry. Escalators, corridors and occasionally a gigantic computer screen (aaaaaargh) may feature. It is the first poem in a delightful new 12-poem collection, A Map of Love, which Wynn Thomas has edited for the University of Wales Press. The bilingual collection hops across the centuries from Gwilym to the present, and includes stylish linocuts by the artist, Ruth Jên Evans. It would make a good Valentine’s Day gift, and, if you’re Welsh, you’d only be a little late to offer the collection to a loved one in honour of St Dwynwen, the patron saint of love, whose day was celebrated on 25 January. Into Euclidian cubes grid air is planed. Propellers scudding up grit and kerosene, braid Hulls waled 5 miles hollow, spidering each man stark On steelweb, hammering in rivets ambuscade Interrupred by sirens screaming tirade.
The speaker for Spontaneity begins. Perhaps he’s invoking the famous letter from John Keats to John Taylor (1818) in which the young poet announced his view that “if Poetry comes not as naturally as the Leaves to a tree, it had better not come at all”. Now other metaphorical shapes appear. The sun is “God’s ball”: it also has a mysterious, special “fringe”. The metaphors are given more space and separation in the original, but there’s something to be said for the clustering in the shortened version. The sun after all is no simple object. No one can hold it steady. It can change shape radically as the eye perceives it at different times of day and through various kinds of weather. The above poem was the second of fourteen by Tagore in the June 1913 issue of Poetry magazine. Tagore won the 1913 Nobel Prize for Literature, "because of his profoundly sensitive, fresh and beautiful verse, by which, with consummate skill, he has made his poetic thought, expressed in his own English words, a part of the literature of the West". Alexandrina begins the poem with a moment of dramatic recognition, so that we immediately hear the first of the two voices and recognise the oral nature of the composition. The orality is underlined by the supple free-range rhythmic movement, and the variety of stanza structure and metre. As a poem, The North Wind is a kind of Ode – one with two singers. Perhaps Anne had read Shelley’s Ode to the West Wind (published in 1820) and decided a less compact and formal style than Shelley’s would best embody the North Wind’s declamations, although she may be sounding her own political note when the prisoner commands the wind, “O speak of liberty”. “Liberty” is a term, after all, that implies something more humanly pertinent than the freedom of the mountains. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, born in Portland, Maine in 1807, was an enormously popular poet in his time, and, notwithstanding, a serious one. His translation and editing, as well as his popularity, were intellectual bridges linking America and Europe. He died in 1882 and modernism soon overtook what many would see as his essentially 19th-century poetics. His reputation now seems unequal to his achievement.This week’s choice is an abridged version of another great Dafydd ap Gwilym poem, Morfudd Like the Sun (Morfudd fel yr Haul). With this commentary by the scholar, translator and editor, M Wynn Thomas, the Morfudd sampling would be an ideal introduction for readers new to Gwilym’s work. Literary allusion takes on a typographical turn when the tadpoles in the water’s “sandy shallows” are seen as “hundreds / and hundreds of fat commas swept / from the compositor’s workbench …” The metaphor may connect the double life of the amphibian with the coexistence of type and text, print and language. It may also allude to one of the translations in Rowan Williams’s collection, In the Days of Caesar by Waldo Williams. The latter is a beautiful poem, intensely of and for Wales and the Welsh people, but suggesting a transformation that seems boundless. This is the last stanza: Prose poetry is a genre that particularly interests the poet-theologian Hannah Stone. Her passion for the genre is reflected in previous anthology publications, a chapter in the essay collection Prose Poetry in Theory and Practice and three unpublished pamphlets in preparation – among them, the enticingly named Twenty-Nine Volumes. Then we’re lifted into a Romantic register again, with “cloudy fancies” and “divine expression.” This initial comparison is vague because it’s difficult to attribute meaning to the phrase “divine expression”. It’s a somewhat Wordsworthian idea: nature as a source of “intimations of immortality” perhaps. The implication could include prayer itself. Longfellow’s next comparison, the “white countenance” as the “confession” of “the troubled heart” is contrastingly specific: the effect is powerful. It carries us to the nub of the verse, the word “grief” in the last line. The emotion is attributed to the sky, of course, but by now the sympathetic reader might suspect something more is going on. Although the adjective “lunar” is ambiguous, it’s difficult for the reader not to imagine the presence of either the moon or a moonlit object. If an object, what could it be, since it “has no history / is complete and early”? Some extremely ancient artefact? A stone? A very youthful face? A poem from two decades later, Nocturne 1, is an interesting subject for comparison. This is definitely a poem with a moon in it, and an argument about whether the moon is best seen as “goddess” or “faceless dynamo”. Auden in his maturity seeks balance: he reduces the lyricism, and some of the magic, but powerfully finds a counter-image, with the power to banish “my world, the private motor-car / And all the engines of the state”. The moon in “this lunar beauty”’ – if we insist on one “– is certainly not the woman she is in Nocturne 1. Imagine it embodied, and we might see the unusual figure of a moon-god.
There wasn’t love but there was what love becomes —”. This is an enticingly authoritative opening statement: who doesn’t want to know what love is and isn’t and what it sometimes becomes? In which direction will the speaker send us? Love poetry is a long-lived, heavily worked genre: queer love poetry is part of that tradition, but, if not always silenced, it has been muffled and narrowly boxed inside it. Now, if a queer poet has Olayiwola’s skill, passion and daring, they can re-launch reader expectations and alter the gravitational forces that bind us. Yet this estrangement when examined in a poem can become a different and sharpened way of seeing. Williams’s characteristically laconic wit and casual tone are apparent in the poems of Lines Off, but the vision is at times more surreal, perhaps closer to that of the 20th-century poets of eastern and central Europe, such as Vasko Popa.When the speaker’s gaze takes us, via the balcony, beyond the cosy inner sanctum of “sufficient booze / and shabby furniture” the view is presented objectively. The person who is the place has a long-sighted perspective on their own geography. Bennet’s angle is to blend the aesthetic and informative. Watery inlets are turned from pewter to bronze by the evening sun, “a habitat where rare / plants learn to live with salt, and birds nest on the ground”. A reader might be tempted to identify a seascape of the mind: it’s remote and the wonders are hard-won. Salt-water has forced difficult evolution on the “rare plants”: birds that nest on the ground face particular dangers. Trespass and, more fearfully, “death by erosion” threaten the arcadia, its creative freedom and pleasant sense of decline. In the place’s view, sketching, photography and note-making become environmental threats. Practical concerns may replace the artistic. The poem was probably written in April 1930. Among the subsequent small changes he records, Mendelson notes that in Auden’s lover Chester Kallman’s copy of Poems (1934), Auden revised the first line to “Your lunar beauty”, but that this change isn’t made in any further printings. The initials JC appear in Kallman’s copy: the identity of JC is unknown. Pool is from the New Poems section of Rowan Williams’s Collected Poems. As well as the Waldo Williams translation mentioned earlier, Poem of the week has previously featured Rowan Williams’s poem about the Russian iconographer Andrei Rublev.
This week’s poem, recalling the experience of wild camping on Dartmoor, was Sean Borodale’s response on 13 January to a local landowner case against the use of the moorland for this purpose. In a prose-note to the poem, Borodale wrote: “Wild camping is a frail, frayed remnant of deeper engagement, and the writing of this poem is an appeal against the belief that powerful landscapes are only for the wealthy, to be reserved for specific kinds of recreation – hunting, shooting – or as passing photo opportunities.” Note: in print, Second Sleep has the right-hand marginal justification usual to the prose poem, but impossible to reproduce here. The italics have been added for this online text with the author’s permission.) Stone’s prompt, the editorial call-out for poems on “seconds”, coincided with her interest in a concept that apparently preceded the introduction of street lighting. She explains: “I was aware from a poem I wrote about Pepys that in the 18th century it was common for people to conduct all sorts of business, in and out of the bedroom, in the intervals between sleeps. As an accomplished insomniac, I have plenty of experience of night-time lucidity, and I have observed that the majority of my most vivid dreams happen in the pre-dawn slice of somnolence. I wrote this poem in the aftermath of my mother dying, just after Christmas 2021, which coincided with me getting Covid, which is still with me in its postviral state, and produces a lot of very weird mental processes and sleep issues, among other things.”
Mahabharata: A Modern Retelling was shortlisted for the Ted Hughes award and was joint winner of the inaugural Roehampton poetry prize. As Satymurti said, the Mahabharata is fundamentally concerned with “questions of the moral life in action”. This concern impels her own recent collection The Hopeful Hat, the universe of moral action being transposed to a smaller contemporary arena than that of Krishna and Arjuna. The collection reflects as well the imaginative expansion in Satyamurti’s writing when her cancer diagnosis was followed by a laryngectomy and the removal of part of her tongue. The need for “voicing the void” still brings moral obligations but there is plenty of hard-edged realism, and a dash of irreverent humour in the approach. Observation and detachment, sympathy and distaste, forge the inner conflict the poem confronts in its last lines. “I want them gone. I want to be absolved” is a line hard and glittering in its frankness, and in depicting the incompatibility of the two desires. This is followed by an immediate shift to the niggling practicalities – “Shall I give some coins to each of them?” It is at the level of finding an answer to this kind of question, moral and pragmatic, that the urge to action begins to die of exhaustion: “If it were only one, or just one day … ” To a Sparrow should certainly please an admirer of John Clare. It has both the bright earthiness of observation and the political edge. The latter is immediately apparent in the poet’s announcement of solidarity with the bird: “Because you have no fear to mingle / Wings with those of greater part, / So like me …” The internal half-rhyme (“song”/ “single”) dodges around the obvious verb, “sing” – which would be too fanciful for this poem and for this bird-call. Ledwidge can be fairly accused of poeticism in some of his writing. Here, his diction and images are firmly grounded. Allison isn’t generally considered to be a war poet. Not having read the collection, and knowing only a handful of his poems from other sources, I am not in a position to argue. Conflict is an important focus in No Remedy, but it seems to be a personal one. The shadows of actual warfare are metaphorical. Such ambiguities make it a compelling couplet, in which the silences are themselves mirrored. The underlying thought regarding the mirror is that it can’t tell tales, as it doesn’t keep any impression of what it reflects, in this case the “realities” that “plunge” nearby. The verb “plunge” implies turbulence, probably sexual. Silence in the sense of “not telling” conceals but doesn’t suppress the “realities”.