Monday, 27 March 2017

Rilke's French Rose Poems in Translation: XIX and XX

Pilgrim in the Garden, or The Heart of the Rose - Edward Burne-Jones 

Here are my two latest Rilke 'Rose' poem translations from French. Only seven to go in the sequence... I can do this.

The French originals are below the translations.

THE ROSES (Rainer Maria Rilke, translated from French by Clarissa Aykroyd)


Do you offer your own example?
Can we be sated like the roses,
increasing our subtle substance
just to let time go as it goes?

Because you might say it’s no trouble
to be a rose.
God, while looking out the window,
cares for the house.


Tell me, rose, from whence comes
that which you enclose,
your slow essence imposing
on this space of prose
all these airy transports?

How many times does this air
act as though it’s cut,
or, with a pout,
look bitterly about.
Meanwhile, around your flower,
it plays ring-a-rose.



Est-ce en exemple que tu te proposes?
Peut-on se remplire comme les roses,
en multipliant sa subtile matière
qu’on avait faite pour ne rien faire?

Car ce n’est pas travailler que d’être
une rose, dirait-on.
Dieu, en regardant par la fenêtre,
fait la maison.


Dis-moi, rose, d’où vient
qu’en toi-même enclose,
ta lente essence impose
à cet espace en prose
tous ces transports aériens?

Combien de fois cet air
prétend que les choses le trouent,
ou, avec une moue,
il se montre amer.
Tandis qu’autour de ta chair,
rose, il fait la roue.

 Translations  © Clarissa Aykroyd, 2017

Sunday, 26 March 2017

In memory of Derek Walcott, 1930-2017

Derek Walcott, poet and playwright of Saint Lucia, died on 17 March at the age of 87.

I think I recall my first Derek Walcott poem. It was 'The Season of Phantasmal Peace' and I encountered it in a literary criticism class at university. I would have been 18 or 19. I don't remember what we said about this poem, or which angle we approached it from, but I do remember how it looked in my mind and I have some recollection of the sensation. It was a vision of a murmuration of starlings - those strange, almost supernatural flock movements - and the poem came with a sensation of power and lift-off that I found unusual and exhilarating.

I've read Derek Walcott on and off since then. I was at the 2010 TS Eliot Prize readings when he won for White Egrets, but sadly he wasn't present to read (Seamus Heaney was there to read from his own nominated collection, though. How amazing would it have been to see them on the same stage...). I correctly picked him as the winner out of an especially strong field, though. Amongst 20th century poetry, his work just might be the most outstanding example of how to unite far-flung influences. Walcott was mixed-race and as with his background, his writing brought together Caribbean culture, classical literary influences, and the various legacies of colonialism. I think of his poems as being like Rembrandt's paintings, or a seemingly effortless and flawless work of architecture. The craftsmanship is almost too good to be grasped. You just experience something of exceptional depth, beauty and clarity - which also stands up to extremely close analysis, if you want to go there.

Walcott was every bit as good as TS Eliot or Elizabeth Bishop or Seamus Heaney; often better, I think. He is the poet who reminds us that constant attention to craft and openness to the world's variety are powerful things.

Here are a handful of poems to start with, or to go back to.


Photo: Derek Walcott, VIII Festival Internacional, 1992. By Jorge Mejia Peralta. Used under Creative Commons license

Wednesday, 8 March 2017

Poems for International Women's Day

Anna Akhmatova, portrait by Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin. 1922

People are writing all sorts of interesting things for International Women's Day. I thought, belatedly, that I would simply share a few poems that seem appropriate.

I COULD NOT TELL (Sharon Olds)

LADY LAZARUS (Sylvia Plath)

WILLOW (Anna Akhmatova, translated from Russian by Jennifer Reeser)

Thursday, 16 February 2017

TE Hulme: Images at Play

I sometimes wonder why I don't come across more appreciation of and commentary on the Imagist poet TE Hulme (1883-1917). The answer is probably that he wrote only a small number of poems (around 25), and just a few were published during his lifetime. He is probably better known as a literary critic and a philosopher.

He established the Poets' Club and the School of Images (the latter including Ezra Pound), both of which explored new directions in English poetry. Hulme had a colourful life and was known as a strong (not always appreciated) personality. He died in World War I, in West Flanders, blown up by a shell he didn't see coming (those around him did, and threw themselves to the ground.) He was 34.

TE Hulme isn't exactly a household name. He has always seemed to me to occupy a particular niche. It is thought that if he had lived, he could have become one of the most influential literary figures of the century, but he didn't have a chance beyond what he accomplished before his death. I just love his poems.

Most of Hulme's poems were only a few lines long. I love short poetry (my own poems average about 10-14 lines - more than 20 lines is a long poem for me) and I don't think it gets enough credit. A poem leaving a lasting impression in six or twelve lines may stay with a reader forever. Hulme's poems are clear-eyed, balanced between warmth and dispassion, wistfully playful and very precise. I can't ask for much more in a poem.


A touch of cold in the Autumn night - 
I walked abroad,
And saw the ruddy moon lean over a hedge
Like a red-faced farmer.
I did not stop to speak, but nodded,
And round about were the wistful stars
With white faces like town children.

'Autumn' reminds me a little of Tolkien, to the extent that I wonder if the author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings might have been influenced by it. Perhaps because of that, it makes me think of much of the writing I enjoyed as a child: a mix of comfort, adventure and a slight eeriness.


(The Fantasia of a Fallen Gentleman on a Cold, Bitter Night)

Once, in finesse of fiddles found I ecstasy,
In a flash of gold heels on the hard pavement.
Now see I
That warmth's the very stuff of poesy.
Oh, God, make small
The old star-eaten blanket of the sky,
That I may fold it round me and in comfort lie.

'The Embankment' is especially evocative to me as it's a part of London I know well. The 'flash of gold heels' seems to spark, an irony considering the man's search for warmth. It's a whimsical, sad and (again) faintly eerie poem, and it always makes me think of how there are still so many homeless people looking for shelter around Waterloo and Embankment.

Hulme isn't really known as a "war poet", despite his dates and his death. But he left this poem on a return to England from the front. It was probably transcribed (edited?) by Ezra Pound, but there seems little doubt as to its authorship. The final lines leave me stunned. Indeed, the 'mind is a corridor' under trauma. He said it perfectly.


(Abbreviated from the Conversation of Mr TEH)

Over the flat slopes of St Eloi

A wide wall of sand bags.
In the silence desultory men
Pottering over small fires, cleaning their mess-tins:
To and fro, from the lines,
Men walk as on Piccadilly,
Making paths in the dark,
Through scattered dead horses,
Over a dead Belgian's belly.

The Germans have rockets. The English have no rockets.

Behind the line, cannon, hidden, lying back miles.
Beyond the line, chaos:

My mind is a corridor. The minds about me are corridors.

Nothing suggests itself. There is nothing to do but keep on.

Tuesday, 7 February 2017

Ivan Lalić: The Spaces of Hope

Croatia - photo by Kamil Porembiński. Used under Creative Commons license

Somehow, although I have been enjoying his work a great deal over the last couple of years, I have failed to write anything about the Yugoslavian poet Ivan Lalić.

Lalić's years were 1931 to 1996, which means that at the start and finish of his life he lived through some of the most tragic times in his region's history. He was from Belgrade, his wife was Croatian and he wrote in Serbo-Croat. His main English translator was Francis R Jones, and Charles Simic has also translated him.

Lalić's poems are so beautiful - even when taken out of their original language - that they make me wonder, helplessly, why all poetry can't be like this. It seems as though he achieves a perfect balance of formal beauty and meaning, of memory and presentness in the senses. He saw himself as a Mediterranean, more than a Balkan, poet, and his works often touches Byzantine themes, Greece and Italy. And there is a shadow over his work of the losses he experienced as a child in World War II. 

I haven't spent quite enough time with Lalić's work to engage with it really deeply, but having read quite a few of his poems, so far I have loved 'The Spaces of Hope' more than any other. You can read it here:

This is a poem whose images are obviously informed in a painfully intimate way by personal memory. The image of "wind in a wild vine" at Kanfanar is particularly piercing. But there is a generosity to the poem that leaves it wide, wide open, like a window onto the sea. The spaces of hope, Lalić says, aren't patterned into "a system of miracles". But whatever our life experiences, our beliefs or worldview, the poem invites us to find comfort in our own spaces of hope. I recognise the feelings conjured up by this poem.

You can read more of Lalić's work on the new Modern Poetry in Translation microsite, set up to commemorate the first issue of this great journal:

Also on this site, you can read this wonderful poem, 'Renderings', by Ian Duhig, in tribute to Lalić's work:

Saturday, 21 January 2017

The Dreamed Ones: Filming the Celan-Bachmann Letters

Anja Plaschg, Laurence Rupp
© Ruth Beckermann 

Last week I went to see The Dreamed Ones (2016, directed by Ruth Beckermann) at Institut Français in South Kensington. I walked for over half an hour in a sleetstorm to get there - it's only been showing for a few nights here and there in the UK, so I was determined to see it.

The Ingeborg Bachmann-Paul Celan letters were first published in German in 2008, and a few years later in English translation. Prior to the publication of the letters, not much was known about the relationship between two of the greatest German-language poets of the 20th century (Bachmann was Austrian and Celan was a Romanian/Bukovinian German-speaking Jew. He is the very definition of 'hard to label'.) Celan and Bachmann met in Vienna in 1948 when he was 27 and she was 21. He wrote the poem 'In Egypt' for her 22nd birthday. They had an on-off affair/friendship, and correspondence, for 20 years, during most of which time they didn't see each other or only occasionally. Celan was married to artist Gisèle Lestrange when the affair resumed in the 1950s.

The Dreamed Ones (in German, with English subtitles) dramatises the letters by placing the audience in a studio with the young Austrian actors Anja Plaschg and Laurence Rupp, as they make a sound recording of the correspondence. That's all that happens. We see them recording some of the letters and bits of poetry; in between takes, they smoke, chat, flirt, and discuss the events and emotions behind the letters (for instance, why Bachmann chose not to send certain letters.) 

That's all that happens, but the film was beautiful. The letters themselves are almost indescribable; passionate, tender, thoughtful, wistful, paranoid, hurt... 

In mid-August I will be in Paris for just a few days. Don't ask me why or what for, but be there for me, for one evening, or two or three... Take me to the Seine, let us gaze into it until we become little fishes and recognise each other again. (Ingeborg Bachmann to Paul Celan)

How far away or close are you, Ingeborg? Tell me, so that I know whether your eyes will be closed if I kiss you now. (Paul Celan to Ingeborg Bachmann)

It does seem as though the passion and the darkness of the letters could be spilling over into the interactions between the actors, although this isn't explored too far. The playfulness and the silences between them illustrate something about how flesh-and-blood people interact or even fall in love, beyond the words. But this film is really about the words. There is something about the studio, and the faces (especially the eyes) of the actors, which create a space in which these letters can really breathe and live. I don't know how better to put it than that. The letters, beyond the pain and misunderstandings and imperfection, and the paranoia that Celan especially fell into, seem to achieve a spiritual-sensual level that I can't imagine many correspondences reaching, especially today. I just know that nothing really happened in this film but I didn't want it to end.

Saturday, 7 January 2017

Anselm Kiefer's Walhalla and Paul Celan Encounters

A few weeks ago I went to the Anselm Kiefer exhibition at White Cube Bermondsey, near London Bridge. This new exhibition, called Walhalla, runs until 12 February and it's free.

Anselm Kiefer, the German artist who was born just as World War II ended, produces art which is in a continual dialogue with Germany's history, with poets and philosophers, and with the times of rupture that we are living through. I went to his retrospective exhibition at the Royal Academy a couple of years ago and was blown away - which is a rare occurrence for me with contemporary art. You can read my thoughts about that exhibition here.

Kiefer's work feels shocking in the way that visiting the site of a concentration camp shocks. It's not so much what you see before your eyes as what seems to be in the air. It's a feeling of living in aftermath. The first thing I saw at White Cube was a long, dark hallway of hospital beds dressed with lead sheets. There was a warning not to touch the installations, as the lead could be dangerous.

Huge paintings of burning, crumbling towers - a spiral staircase draped with robes - a library-cum-apothecary bleeding film reels and pages... I found, as with the previous exhibition, that I was having an almost physical reaction to Kiefer's work. It seemed as though the world around me was going in and out of focus in a very unsettling way.

I went to that 2014 exhibition at the Royal Academy mainly because I had read that Kiefer was strongly influenced by Paul Celan. I wasn't disappointed, because there were works specifically inspired by Celan's poems. In Walhalla, the influence wasn't signalled quite so clearly. But then, in the cluttered room of giant drawers and film reels, I saw this:

Mohn und Gedächtnis (written on the bottom drawer) means Poppy and Memory, and it is the title of Celan's second book of poetry. In an installation which reminded me very much of some crazed, broken apothecary, and in an artist's work which continually tries to deal with the worst of memory, it seemed very appropriate.

Later, on another work, I saw this:

I had an eerie feeling when I saw this piece of writing. I don't actually speak German, but I was sure I recognised the words. I was sure I knew the poem and the exact lines it referred to. And when I checked later, I found I was right:

ground into sperm
ran through the hourglass
through which we swam, two dreams now, chiming
against time, in the squares.

(from 'In Prague', translated by Michael Hamburger)

This happens to be one of my favourite poems by Celan, and the shock of recognising lines from it on the side of a work of art, in the original German, was considerable. I have to read his poems in translation, but usually I do so with the original on the facing page, and I do try to read and compare both. I was of course looking out for references to poetry and particularly to Celan, but it was a moment which brought home to me the intensity of my relationship with Celan's work.

You can read another review of Walhalla and find some good photos here:

Thursday, 29 December 2016

Richard Adams and the Rabbit World of Literature

Richard Adams, the author of Watership Down and other novels for children and adults, died on 24 December. He was 96 years old.

In a year where celebrity deaths seemed nonstop, his passing was overshadowed moments after it was announced, by the death of actress Carrie Fisher, who sadly was only 60. But it was particularly hard to hear that Richard Adams was gone, given the importance of Watership Down in my life.

As a child I loved talking-animal books, a genre which seems to have gone thoroughly out of fashion (for anyone older than picture book age, at least). It was inevitable that I would read Watership Down. My first attempt was when I was seven or eight and I didn't get very far. I found the style a bit heavy and the action a little too frightening, and abandoned it. When I picked it up again I think I was ten or eleven, and I was hopelessly lost in the best possible way. I followed Hazel, Fiver and their friends out of the Sandleford warren and never looked back.

Many books have moved me, but I think there are only a few (another important one being The Lord of the Rings) which on repeated readings have proved so emotionally overwhelming that they leave me physically drained. I read and re-read Watership Down with cold shivers, with the complete disappearance of the world around me, in tears. Again and again I seemed to find myself physically in the midst of scenes - 'racing through the ochre light' of a thunderstorm ahead of a murderous gang of thugs, trying to save my friend from the deadly snare, staring awestruck at the enormous, silent movement of clouds over the downs. I have finished it and started it again immediately. I have read it several times in a year, although not for quite a few years, I admit. Despite that, its words and images are always within me. My visualisations of the book play through my head sometimes, or I hear the words, or read them behind my eyes.

Watership Down can be read as a really great adventure story blending the fantasy of anthropomorphic animals and their society with accurate details about the natural life of the rabbits and the English countryside they move through. It also has elements of allegory, particularly about the dangers of totalitarian rule. I have, however, read many beautifully written adventure stories, or allegories about fascism (I was even younger when I read Orwell's Animal Farm). What makes Watership Down unique is the way it subtly draws the reader into a literary world. It contains so many literary references that reading it is a remarkable education.

The book is famous for its epigraphs at the start of each chapter, which range from Xenophon to the Bible to Joseph Campbell to Jane Austen to Dostoevsky to WH Auden - and many others. In subsequent years, every time I have come across one of these quotations within the work of literature it was taken from, I feel a kind of time-shock and I am in Watership Down again. I discovered the World War II poet Sidney Keyes through one of these epigraphs, and he has become one of my favourites. Robinson Jeffers' poem 'Hurt Hawks' also came to me in this way. But the epigraphs are far from being the only references. Within the text itself, Richard Adams compares the adventures of the rabbits to those of Odysseus. The poem recited by Silverweed, the eerie rabbit-poet who appears in one of the book's most sinister passages, contains the phrase 'the heart of light, the silence', which is a quotation from TS Eliot's The Waste Land. (The blunt Bigwig refers to Silverweed as 'that lop-eared nitwit of a poet'.) There are glancing references to Sherlock Holmes and Robin Hood, to 'Everyone Sang' by Siegfried Sassoon, to the Psalms, and more.

Watership Down has thus been a kind of slow-release of literature into my bloodstream throughout my life. I have finally realised that this, more than anything else, has made it so important to me. It has created echoes everywhere and has accustomed me to walking through a world where I see and hear literature in everything. It seems that this is how Richard Adams saw the world, or at least how he wanted his readers to see it. I am used to carrying quotations and stories and references and poems with me wherever I go, seeing and hearing them everywhere. And because of this book, I know that it's ok to do so. Some of us see the world in this way, and it enriches us. It makes life a little easier and a little more beautiful. It helps us to understand the interconnectedness of things, to see cause and effect, and to act with compassion and understanding. It shows me that understanding my connections to literature is a way of understanding connections to the world around me.

I don't think Watership Down, which first appeared in 1972, would be published now. If it were, it would be in a massively butchered form. The style would not pass an editorial team today. It would be viewed as too dense and difficult, too prescriptive of the pantheon of literature, too paternalistic. Most books aimed at adults today don't have a tenth of the complexity and beauty of Watership Down. But despite that complexity, it is also far less didactic than many books published now, which tend to hit the reader over the head with a dumbed-down style and a painfully obvious worldview. Richard Adams wrote this book at a time when authors still allowed their convictions and principles to imbue their writing, but not to overwhelm it. This is rare today, but it's good to know that so many people still love his work.

Goodbye and thank you, Richard Adams.