Sunday, 28 September 2008

Seamus Heaney

A friend - a fellow student - lent me her copy of Seamus Heaney's New selected poems, 1966-1987 (1990, Faber and Faber). This cross-fertilisation is one of the ways in which the class expands one's horizons. Heaney is a pleasure, and a challenge - so many new words.

We talked in class recently about the fact that we tend to write re-using the same words, without being aware of it, one person uses 'gonna', as in 'I'm gonna do...', and Hinemoana told us of a poet who often has 'teeth' in her poems. Most of us would need friends to point out these repetitions.

Seamus Heaney tends to include mud in what he writes, and he has a hundred words to describe its consistency, colour and the sound it can make...I am sure that he is very conscious of doing this.

The first poem is the one that has affected me most so far, so powerful. It is called Digging , it describes his father and his grandfather digging, and how he (Seamus) digs with his pen. The first stanza in that poem has a nice little trick in it, the pen "...snug as a gun".

Read Bill Manhire's Hotel Emergencies last night to friends over dinner, as an example of modern poetry. It is such a pleasing poem. Another favourite is Stevie Smith's Oh Pug!.
There was still someone who pointed out, It does not rhyme, and, Is that poetry, then?

Hinemoana, if you read this: There's a wonderful poem about a dog! Or it might be - really - about something else - anxiety, maybe, the way it arrives and attaches itself randomly to situations ? It reminds me of the on-going competition for a sonnet about Wellington: it seems impossible to write about Wellington without sounding like a gushy travel guide. The only way might be to write ostensibly about Wellington, while underneath it is about something else.

Tuesday, 23 September 2008


A fellow student kindly lent me Yevtushenko's A Precocious Autobiography, (1963, Collins and Harvill Press, translated by A.R. MacAndrew) which starts with a bang, though it tends to rant towards the end.

Strong first paragraph, including the line
"...a poet is only a poet when the reader can see him whole as if he held him in the hollow of his hand with all his feelings thoughts and actions."
(No commas.)

When I read his poetry for the first time in the 60s, I was enthralled.

Reading up about Y and his work so many years later, re-reading Babyi Yar, I am less impressed. Some of what he writes seems facile.

Still struggling with Lowell. In his book Yevtushenko writes about reading Pasternak and not understanding him, at first.

Monday, 22 September 2008

Review of last week

Only heard half of the MA reading last week, having to run off somewhere else...

Library visit, resolutely chose a number of poetry books, including Stevie Smith. Practiced reading her poems out loud and have had an insight about rhythm and sound...something to work towards, now. The poem was in Scorpion and other poems (1972, Longman, with drawings by the author and an introduction by Patric (sic) Dickinson). Like the poems, the drawings are fluent, naive and expert simultaneously, little pencil sketches almost like doodles, immensely expressive.


The lines cannot be found now. To do with sin and a half-rhyme with sin - something obvious like bin, and yet neither the poem nor the sentiment were obvious. To read more of her would be good.


Am struggling with Robert Lowell: An introduction to the poetry by Mark Rudman (1983, Columbia University Press) in the hope that it would show me more of what is needed in what I write. I should try reading aloud here too.

The Net produced the list of poems and poets on the CD of the Caedmon Collection of poetry, though have not had the time to listen to much so far.

Not much writing in the last week, shall do better now. Early to bed and early to rise is really the only way.

Monday, 15 September 2008


Have drifted away from poetry again, reading prose. So silly, I should focus on poetry for the moment.

Found a lovely poem by Elizabeth Smither on the web, in The Listener, (July 21-27, 2007, Vol 209, No 3506) entitled Plaits:

I had two plaits: one thick,

an anaconda plait, and the other

more like a thin grass snake.

For copyright reasons, I can't put the whole thing, though it is not very long. Here are the last one and a half lines: though I could not see justice,

I could feel how it was distributed.

For the full poem, go here.

* * *

Last Monday, attended the annual reading of poetry and prose by creative writing students of the MA programme at the International Institute of Modern Letters at Victoria University (commonly known here as "Bill Manhire's programme").

Lynn Jenner read two impressive poems, both anti-war. One of them is about her thoughts after the birth of her son, thoughts of cutting off part of his index finger to ensure that he may never be able to shoot - "a Russian thought". People were impressed.

The second half of the readings is today.

* * *

Listening to a recording of Bill Manhire reading his poetry at Whitireia on Thursday was a stimulating exercise - was able to write four poems in succession immediately afterwards - no idea what they are worth at this stage. The best stimulus for writing poetry is to be exposed to it, again and again.

So searched for and found a collection of 3 CDs of poetry read by the poets themselves, including Dylan Thomas and May Sarton, from the central library in Wellington.

Central Library at night
Wellington Central Library - photo from their website

I love the central library, not just the books, but the building and the service - time and again I have taken out a book that was a "Librarian's Choice", and it has proven a joy - think Per Petersen's In the wake - so I now trust them (almost) completely.

Wednesday, 10 September 2008

Elizabeth's Award

Elizabeth Smither has won the 2008 Award for Literary Achievement for poetry. You can read her extended biography (which includes photos and some of her thoughts on writing) here.

I am engrossed in her novel The sea between us (2003, Penguin). It is rich and poetic, as you'd expect. The biography (listed above) hints at the origin of various aspects of the story.

The sea between us is a family saga, spanning about a century in Australia and NZ. Four sisters are at the centre - a challenge, all these characters needing to be kept individual. The details are abundant, but things are not over-explained, so that sometimes you wonder about something - did they marry?- and then find out some pages later, in an indirect and satisfying way.

I haven't finished it yet - can't wait to get back to it.

I had been reading East of Time, a holocaust memoir by Jacob Rosenberg, who emigrated to Australia after surviving the Lodz ghetto. He was about 5 years old when the invasion of Poland took place so he must now be about 83. The writing is occasionally rocky, but the overall effect is powerful and to me, heart-rending. The sadness - as usual - took me by surprise, and so I left it half finished for The Sea.

He included a few useful things about writing - but that'll be for another time.

Monday, 8 September 2008


This week feels like a new start.

An email from Elizabeth in response to some questions about achieving depth of meaning in writing poems:

...There are no real prescriptions - except, I think, concentrate hard on the subject (the sofa, the dog, the children reading etc) - but never should poetry be deliberately obscure. (If the Casanova poems seem difficult it is because the concept (Casanova's mind games and dialogue with himself) was difficult.) The 'difficulty' of a poem should match or equal the difficulty of what the poet is trying to say. Obviously William Carlos Williams' poem about a red wheelbarrow is very different, in difficulty level, from say a poem by Robert Lowell. It's getting this as near right as we can that is part of the fascination of poetry.

(The text of the William Carlos Williams' poem and an analysis are here)

Re-reading Elizabeth's Casanova poems, (Elizabeth Smithers, Casanova's Ankle, 1981, Oxford University Press), I found them difficult to understand. I am also not at all sure that I 'understand' the Wheelbarrow poem and have yet to read poetry by Robert Lowell. A lot of catching up to do.

Wednesday, 3 September 2008

More Oz

Here is the quote, from p. 99, (in Don't Call it Night, by Amos Oz, 2004, Chatto & Windus):

..A girl or a young woman would come in the night to share his hammock, bringing huge earthenware cups of coffee from somewhere for them both. Past and future appeared to him on such nights as two common diseases, slow, destructive plagues that had infected most of mankind and were gradually causing all sorts of strange frenzies in their victims. And he rejoiced that he was not afflicted, and considered himself immune...

I had forgotten that he mentions it in the context of sex. It makes sense there, but in a limited sort of way - unless of course the sex is a metaphor for life...

Here's another noticing: the quote extends from the last line of page 99 to the first line of page 100. The last numbered page - including the list of characters - is page 200. This puts the quote at the heart of the book. The book is divided into chapters without any numbering, so I counted - it is in the middle of chapter 15, though there are only 26 chapters in all. Fifteen in Hebrew is yod he, one of God's many pronounceable names: since numbers are represented by letters, one can 'read' them. (This sort of play is common in the Bible, and in Kabbalistic and Judaic literature.)

Just in case you find this is far-fetched: the character's name is Theo.
And here is a link ( to a review in the New York Times, entitled God is in the details...
Worked on the Chinese Olympics poem: two versions - one with long lines, one with short ones. Shall wait for a day or maybe a week, before showing it to anyone.

Added much later:
Re the Hungarian cantor who was in the book for no apparent reason. I found the following reference in Wikipedia, when looking up Bloomsday in Dublin:
Bloomsday has also been celebrated since 1994 in the Hungarian town of Szombathely, the fictional birthplace of Leopold Bloom's father, Virág Rudolf, an emigrant Hungarian Jew. The event is usually centered on the Iseum, the remnants of an Isis temple from Roman times, and the Blum-mansion, commemorated to Joyce since 1997, at 40–41 Fő street, which used to be the property of an actual Jewish family called Blum. Hungarian author László Najmányi in his 2007 novel, The Mystery of the Blum-mansion (A Blum-ház rejtélye) describes the results of his research on the connection between Joyce and the Blum family.

Tuesday, 2 September 2008

Hungarian cantor?

Various commitments all suddenly need input at the same time, nothing can be put off; my brain veers off in several directions, thoughts incoherent, and not a word written since the poem about the Olympics. Today found my cellphone and my watch again. Misplacing them is always a sign.

Read Amos Oz as if meeting him for the first time - Don't call it night (Chatto & Windus, 2004 - Al tagidi laila) only $12,- hardback copy from Quilters' on Lambton Quay - not a second-hand book shop, an Antiquarian bookshop. Heaps of poetry books.

Amos Oz, May 2005

Back to Amos Oz: here's a question - the novel ended too soon for me, so read what was on the next page, curiously, a list of the novel's characters, like in a play, including near the end "Hungarian Cantor".

I can't remember a cantor of any kind in this book- did Oz just pop him in the list to keep things interesting?

Needing to read more Oz, took The Same Sea (Vintage, 2001, Oto HaYam) from my shelf: what I thought of as my copy turns out to belong to a friend.(I feel guilty, but I'll read it again first.)

The format of The Same Sea is different from usual novels: chapters often only a page long or less, prose poems, non-prose poems, lots of work for the reader, satisfying though at times obscure, not to say impossible to understand. ( I'd wish I had a Hebrew version, to read them side by side). The excellent translation by Nicholas de Lange, as usual.

Perceived recurring themes: the impossibility of truly knowing anyone else however close, the great suffering caused by love, and as part of the canvas he paints on, ordinary people grieving losses incurred in the Conflict.

In Don't call it night, he writes a wonderful sentence - about people's obsession with the past and the future, how they shouldn't. I'll re-read that book, find the sentence for posting here, and check about the cantor.