Wednesday, 28 May 2008


Missed a day again. An old friend in hospital, sudden phone call from her husband. Took Coetzee along, instead of poetry. Didn't get to read anything anyway. Went again today. She'll recover well.

Am now reading my fellow students' sonnets for tomorrow's critiquing sessions. Ran into Kay unexpectedly at Aro Video, told her of our experience with a possum in the Cobb valley. I should write the story.

On my desk a book by Richard von Sturmer, entitled Suchness, Zen Poetry and Prose. Published in 2005, by HeadworX Publishers (NZ). Funded in part with the assistance of Creative New Zealand. Wonderful photo on the cover. Reminds me of the first photo I ever took, of snow and a river, one of my best photos. Beginners mind. Mysterious poems, interesting essays towards the back.

Have not had time to settle down seriously with this book, lent by Bill. Shall take it along tomorrow and see if I can keep it longer. Stupidly, instead of reading the book, phoned the Porirua von Sturmers in the phone book. He lives in Auckland.

My desk is swamped with bills, and other must-do things not related to poetry. The house has not been cleaned since we got back.

This morning lying in bed, cosy and warm, an almost perfect haiku formed itself in my mind - totally gone by now (it is evening). I wonder at the complete confidence I had then that the words and idea would remain, and at the equally overpowering certitude that they are gone forever, which is what I am experiencing now.

Monday, 26 May 2008


Outside events unsettling, upsetting. Spent today in a struggle to get back into routine. Writing a sestina is a significant challenge, not achievable within the time left to me, I think.

Read Essays by Coetzee, thought I was very lucky to find one on Walter Benjamin, contemporary of my grandfather's - very different thinking - no better than the book I attempted to read about him. One feels only impatience with WB, things started, not finished, yet he is deemed to be such a great thinker. Too hard for me, at this point. Nevertheless, some good ideas for The Book, reflections on, criticisms of German society of the time, I'll find a young someone to say them. Shall photocopy the chapter.

I must get back to poetry. Reading about WWII and Jews is not good reading at bedtime.

Jane returned Saramago to me unread, (she stopped at page 29) she has no patience with his long sentences. I have yet to meet a single person who likes him besides me, yet his books at the Central Library are worn from being handled and the latest one has a waiting list. Unity says that it is marching out the door. So far the only satisfactory explanation I can find is that the humour is Latin/Mediterranean, to me it is laugh-out-loud. I can hear his phrases in my mind. Maybe this does not happen to Anglo Saxons.

The rest of my week looks routine, so hopefully no more upsets and back to work.

Tuesday, 20 May 2008

Lost focus

Back last night late, a messy day. Managed to write a pantoum I was pleased with during the trip, constant effort and suddenly it was there.

Read some of William Carlos Williams. All the poems I read and liked were from the course, couldn't really get in to the others. Shall try again later.

Managed to catch up on feedback for the e-course. I am reading poems from Hinemoana's course tonight and shall respond tomorrow.

Read a whole book of prose, escapist stuff. I could see where the book would benefit from cutting. May I have the same pitiless eye for my own writing.

An electricity cut and two separate visitors, no wonder I didn't get much done.

Wednesday, 14 May 2008

Bye for now

Went to the library for David Whyte, whom I thought I'd find among the American poets (wrong, he's English) and was seduced by familiar names, so besides David Whyte's The House of Belonging, took a book of poems by Charles Simic, and by William Carlos Williams. Started on Simic, and loving him. A year ago, I'd never heard of these guys.

All men. What happened to my plan to read poetry by women?

I shall be away for a couple of days with friends. I might be able to access a computer, but then I may not have much to say when I do, as reading and writing may be difficult to fit in.

Back home on Tuesday.

Tuesday, 13 May 2008

Of human nature

Finished Allen Curnow's book last night and found to my delight that he has added notes at the end of the book which refer to the poems - not all of them, but then not all of them need explaining (in my view).

And one of the Notes is about St. Babel - a 200 m tower built by the immigrants who first arrived in Christchurch. The colonists of Shinar Curnow refers to were the original builders of Babel, Genesis Chapters 10 and11, he adds helpfully, so looked at the source, and to my surprise found in verse 10:10 - that Babel was built by Nimrod, son of Cush, son of Noah, the surprise being because Nimrod is a positive Biblical figure "... a mighty hunter before the Lord ..." (from the Soncino translation) "Tsaiad gibor lifnei Adonai".

And in chapter 11 verses 8 and 9: "So the Lord scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth ; and they left off (veYachdelu) from building the city (my translation, Soncino too Victorian) Therefore was it called Babel, because the Lord did there confound (confuse?) the language of all the earth...

Curnow establishes a parallel with the people who arrived in the Canterbury Plains in 1850, 'shaped by a long voyage in unknown waters'. The tower was to 'make us a name, lest we be scattered'. The poem ends neatly - the church man loves the bells, his companion hates the racket they make, those damned bells, which prevent him from hearing what the other has to say...

Watched a documentary on DVD, a lengthy and fascinating interview with Robert McNamara - The Fog of War by Errol Morris. Found it by chance, it had won an Oscar, Academy Award winner in 2003 for best documentary. McNamara is 85, and reviews his eventful life - sometimes tearfully. He was Secretary of Defence under Kennedy and Johnson. The interview is structured around his conclusions about life and how to live, some of which may seem a bit naive, surprisingly. One of them is "Human nature does not change". Which connects back to Curnow's poem.

Another surprise: the poison tree! It appears again - Curnow writes four poems after Pushkin, and the Upas Tree is one of them, the original being published in 1828. Curnow surmises that "...the story of the 'celebrated poison-tree of Macasser' could have reached Pushkin by way of Erasmus Darwin (grandfather of the more famous Charles)...From 15 to 18 miles round this living animal of any kind has been discovered." The original tree was supposedly in Java, Pushkin transplants it to the steppes. Curnow ends his Note with: "... A modern dictionary ...correctly mentions its 'poisonous milky sap', also indicated by its scientific name Antiaris toxicaria, and its known use for poisoned arrows." (p. 51)

Monday, 12 May 2008

New words

I read Allen Curnow last night, re-read in fact, and that was good. Did not finish the book yet (The Bells of St. Babel). I don't know if St. Babel exists. The book title is taken from a poem of that name. No St. Babel in my on-line encyclopedia search.

Re-reading an old (February this year) review of Saramago in The Guardian, there are two words I am not comfortable with ; "Death at Intervals begins with a striking conceit..." conceit in the sense of an idea, a notion, always sounds like something out of Jane Austen to me, and the writer using the word considered "up himself, or herself". The other word is trope "...the simplicity of the central trope..." My online dictionary says:
  1. A figure of speech using words in nonliteral ways, such as a metaphor.
  2. A word or phrase interpolated as an embellishment in the sung parts of certain medieval liturgies.
I am not sure the author (Ben Bollig) uses it correctly. It did get past the editor...Never mind.

I checked the requirements of the course - number of poems for the final work, but there were no specifications regarding the number of poems in the first draft. Went back to my own project description: I had specified twenty. It would be good to write more, but it does remove the pressure a bit.

Sunday, 11 May 2008

Of barking dogs and The Price of Petrol in NZ

Finished Saramago, the last sentence is also the first - "The next day nobody died." A surprise ending. The first 2/3 of the book keeps going smoothly, one's attention stays focussed, but he has trouble finishing the thing off. All his writing is familiar from his previous books, and the faltering ending is familiar too, though it falters less than many of his other books, and surprises more. It is still a wonderful read.
I have yet to meet in the flesh anyone else who enjoys him. I have lent my copy of Death at intervals to a friend, full of hope.

I've read more Simenon, and admired how he leaves space for the reader to imagine things. It is a relief : I struggled to get a character into a room, portraying him knocking on the door, waiting for an answer, opening the door, going in, when in fact all that was needed was, He knocked and went in, or even less, just start describing the other person in the room whose voice he had just heard, A young man was sitting at one of the desks...However, too much Simenon is depressing.

I still have a book of poems by Allen Curnow. I never did finish Bashevis Singer, read 3/4 of the book, then found it too long, enough already.

Went to the meeting of the online poets yesterday at Whitireia. I am glad I went and met some of the other people on the course, as well as the teachers.

I need to write poems for the face-to-face course - about two a week if I want to have forty by the end of the year. I realise as I write this that I am not sure whether that is the the correct number required, it may be less. I have another 4-5 weeks of the online course, and then life should be easier, though I shall miss the stimulation.

Lynn D said, I find it helpful [for the writing] to read poetry. I was comforted that she needs to do this too.

Today I was supposed to write poetry, but have not been able to, various reasons. Tomorrow.

I want to buy that Billy Collins book and learn the barking dog poem by heart

I could hear the dog barking, barking,barking.
and something like -
he could imagine...
the dog sitting in the wind section ...the rest of the orchestra turned to look in admiration at the dog performing the famous solo for dog, for which Beethoven's genius is justly recognised,
- better words than this, but wonderful humour, in verse.

Here is a joke I heard yesterday, a sign of the times:

A woman said to her husband, Take me out - to somewhere expensive, for a change.

So he took her to a petrol station.

Thursday, 8 May 2008

Memo to myself

A quick signing in early this morning, off to Whitireia today, and I still have to complete the Ondaatje review. Am seeing the bigger picture in his writing, the emphasis on scarring, suddenly realised that was what The English Patient was about too, of course, a person unrecognisable under his scars, they call him the English patient though he is Hungarian. Ondaatje's own wounds caused by his father's madness?

Am absorbed by Saramago's latest, Death at Intervals, (Harvill Secker, 2008,translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa) which is like one long prose poem, no intervals to that, funny and as always kind, about humanity's foibles and preoccupation with self.

His best to date, I think. I shall finish it today and that should free up my head, ready for more poetry.

In case I forget: let me review David Whyte next. (Just read a piece of his in a magazine.)

Tuesday, 6 May 2008


Went to hear Michael Palmer read his poetry at the City Art Gallery yesterday, very musical, flowing, and as most poets do, he gave an introduction to each poem, though when Bill Manhire who was running the show asked him afterwards about what he thought about introducing each poem this way in print, he did not think it was a good idea.

His last poem was very short, and memorable, The End of The War, "She lifted her arms and took the clips out of her hair", that is what I remember, it may not be exactly that.

Then he went and spoiled the whole feel of the event with bitchy comments about a colleague who had been made Poet Laureate, what bad poetry he wrote for the Queens' birthday. That is what I remember, the little poem at the end, and his bitchy comments and also rudeness to Bill, who made a little joke about doing a song and dance routine while MF was scrabbling through his papers looking for a poem, and MF said without pausing for a breath, Oh if you cannot tolerate the silence, and that was such an obvious taunt, and so stupid.

In the evening went to Ngaio Library where 6 local writers were being introduced, including one who was doing the Creative Writing course at Whitireia, 3rd year, and that took my breath away, though he has published a book...and there too someone was rude, so in the future I'll give these things a miss, which is what I used to think anyway.

Monday, 5 May 2008

Inspecteur Maigret

I confess: I have been reading prose again, Simenon. I remember reading his detective stories as a teenager and enjoying them. He writes simply and has poetic ways of describing things, like the weather or the way people move, the kind of relationships they have. On the other hand his writing is imbued with a middle-class disdain for the 'simple people' and so far the Jewish people in his books are off-putting and mostly criminal. Maigret's wife is a woman happily enslaved to his culinary needs. Fifties stuff.

He was amazingly prolific, 3 or 4 (slim) books a year, bestsellers, hard to put down. I tried reading his autobiography a few months ago, a huge heavy book, quite unlike his novels and detective stories - I stopped reading after the first chapter - self-indulgent and sentimental. Indigestible.

Am becoming preachy, Madame Je-Sais-Tout - must stop.

Sunday, 4 May 2008

On writing something worthwhile

Watched a programme about William Blake on the Arts Channel; an English poet, so I am ignorant. Very struck by the modernity of his artwork. Later, read a few of his poems in an Anthology and enjoyed them.

One poem was read out in full on the programme: The Poison Tree, about the importance of speaking out when bothered by something a friend does, and the evil consequences of not doing so. Coincidentally, the sermon I wrote and read out at Temple just yesterday was on exactly that topic. It is called Tochecha in Hebrew, and is, say the Learned Rabbis (Maimonides, Rashi et al) an absolute necessity.

Prior to researching the sermon, I hadn't known that. The Biblical verse which gives rise to this commentary and recommendation is in this weeks' portion, Kedoshim. In an antiquated translation: Thou shalt not hate thy brother in thy heart, thou shalt surely rebuke thy neighbour and not bear sin because of him, which a modern Rabbi paraphrases as: You must not keep a feeling of revulsion at your fellow to yourself. Instead you should rebuke your fellow so that you not become guilty by association (Leviticus 19: 17).

It seems that Blake endures because he had something to teach and said it beautifully. Two of the (older) poets interviewed on TV referred to him as a teacher.

This afternoon, mentioned Blake to a friend my age who said, You realise that he was all the rage in the 60s, don't you.

Friday, 2 May 2008

More Szymborska

Constant effort to keep to a routine. This morning, starting early, but already I can see my day unravelling , in terms of what I want to do. Higher priorities.

Reading Ondaatje: one book I've read is Running in the family, autobiographical and prose. I always want to know the background of writers I have to review, though did not find anything much about Szymborska when I reviewed View with a Grain of Salt.
Which reminds me: to my pleasure, one of her poems was read out at the Holocaust Memorial ceremony last night, a beautiful one entitled 'Could have'

It could have happened.
It had to happen.
It happened earlier. Later
Nearer. Farther off.
It happened, but not to you.

You were saved because you were the first.
You were saved because you were the last.
Alone. With others,
On the right. The left.
Because it was raining. Because of the shade.
Because the day was sunny.

You were in luck - there was a forest.
You were in luck - there were no trees.
You were in luck - a rake, a hook, a beam, a brake.
A jamb, a turn, a quarter-inch, an instant...

So you're here? Still dizzy from
another dodge, close shave, reprieve?
One hole in the net and you slipped through?
I couldn't be more shocked or
how your heart pounds inside me.
When I interviewed Dorah, who survived WWII in Holland working courageously for the underground, that was the refrain: I was lucky, just as Szymborska writes at the heart of this poem.

Time's up.