Wednesday 9 October 2019

Jonathan Davidson, "On Poetry"

Jonathan Davidson was born in 1964 and grew up in the Didcot, South Oxfordshire. He has lived for many years in Coventry and now lives in Birmingham. He won an Eric Gregory Award from the Society of Authors in 1990 and his first collection of poetry, The Living Room, was published by Arc Publications in 1994. This was followed, seventeen years later, by Early Train (Smith|Doorstop, 2011). He has also published three poetry pamphlets, Moving the Stereo (Jackson’s Arm, 1993), A Horse Called House (Smith|Doorstop, 1997) and Humfrey Coningsby: Poems, Complaints, Explanations and Demands for Satisfaction (Valley Press, 2015), and an e-book Selected Poems (Smith|Doorstop, 2014). His combination of memoir and criticism, On Poetry, was published by Smith|Doorstop in 2018. He has had eight radio plays broadcast on BBC Radio Three and Radio Four, along with radio adaptations of Geoffrey Hill’s Mercian Hymns and W.S.Graham’s The Nightfishing on BBC Radio Three. His stage adaptation of Mary Webb’s novel Precious Bane was produced by Interplay Theatre and toured extensively in 2008 and 2009. He has produced six poetry-theatre works, his most recent touring shows were The Hundred Years’ War (touring in 2014/15) and Towards the Water’s Edge (touring in 2016/17), both co-productions with Bloodaxe Books and the Belgrade Theatre Coventry. He is director of the project management company Midland Creative Projects Limited, Joint-Founder of the Birmingham Literature Festival and Chief Executive of Writing West Midlands. He is Chair of the National Association of Writers in Education.

Featured below is an extract from Jonathan's wonderful book On Poetry (Smith|Doorstop, 2018). Further details about the book can be found on the publisher's website here

From On Poetry 

In the mid-1980s the Yugoslavian poet Ivan V. Lalić came to the city of Leicester to give a poetry reading.[1] It was arranged by the poet Catherine Byron and by her then partner, the poet Michael Farley.[2] Ivan V. Lalić died in 1996. I haven’t heard of Catherine for a while and I long ago lost contact with Michael.[3] Wherever they are this little event that they engineered still resonates with me. It was unusual. It was typical. Poets and others gathering in a city in the English Midlands to listen to poetry in its original Serbian and in English translation was unusual. That there were only about a dozen of us there to listen was typical. I was in my early twenties and it was my first experience of poetry in translation and the first time I had met a poet from an alien poetic culture. Had I known more about poetry I would have known that there are no alien poetic cultures but my diet had up until then been exclusively the poetry of the English language, and mostly the poetry of English poets. And mostly dead English poets. Lalić was a poet working beyond the range of my experience. Despite this, I remember watching him take off his belted fawn overcoat at the start of the reading and turning to look at us as if we were already his part of his world, as if we were citizens and contributors to a Poetry Commonwealth. And we were. Both. 

Lalić was a gentle, quietly spoken man. He was the object of our intense attention but he presented himself modestly, aware that he was a dignified curiosity. If he was concerned about whether his poetry would mean much to us in its English translation he didn’t let on. Carefully he read the translations and carefully we listened. Each poem was let loose into the room as if at its moment of creation. And for those of us who hardly knew this poet existed, it was as good as hearing the poems at their making. The translations may have been particularly fine, his introduction to each poem may have given us just what we needed, or the background hum of the Leicester inner ring-road may have been the perfect incongruous detail. Or perhaps it was that Lalić’s poems had something that carried them easily across the disputed kilometres and through the dangerous century. They went from the past into the future. None of us knew then what a broken future it was to be. 

I have comes across his poems now and then over the decades that followed, most recently “The Spaces of Hope,” translated from the Serbian by Francis R Jones.[4] This was published in the UK a few years after Lalić’s reading in Leicester, but he may have read it in manuscript form. It is a deceptively direct and simple poem. It does not, in translation anyway, rely on poetic sleights of hand or obtuse references – although the details are not entirely universal. It is not a work of imagination so much as a work of reflection. The title, despite being rather abstract, echoes through the poem and gathers meaning. There are some agile phrases. “A starless night lit only / By a book on the table” is a lovely idea and a lovely image. The poem is a perfect meshing of the facts of the matter with precise analysis of their potential implications. 

The Spaces of Hope 
by Ivan V. Lalić 

I have experienced the spaces of hope,
The spaces of a moderate mercy. Experienced
The places which suddenly set
Into a random form: a lilac garden,
A street in Florence, a morning room,
A sea smeared with silver before the storm,
Or a starless night lit only
By a book on the table. The spaces of hope
Are in time, not linked into
A system of miracles, nor into a unity;
They merely exist. As in Kanfanar,
At the station; wind in a wild vine
A quarter-century ago: one space of hope.
Another, set somewhere in the future,
Is already destroying the void around it,
Unclear but real. Probable.

In the spaces of hope light grows,
Free of charge, and voices are clearer,
Death has a beautiful shadow, the lilac blooms later,
But for that it looks like its first-ever flower.

Lalić was never a familiar name, despite his reading in Leicester, and since his death it is all too easy to assume that his poetry has stopped emitting light. This poem proves this is not the case, it is so powerful still. Sometimes, I think, it is important to read the poems that are furthest from us – in age or geography or cultural background – because what manages to be transmitted across time and space and from language to language, that will be poetry. This is what I want as a reader and listener, from out of the static and white noise, to suddenly receive poetry. However distant the galaxy – a poem can take hundreds of years for its light to reach us – reach us it may. It demands some work. It can be terribly inconvenient to have to have our receiving dishes constantly turning day and night and to pick out the verse from the interference and static. 

It is an exaggeration to say that as a reader I have preferred to travel on foot and across open country with nothing but the stars for guidance but I do like to take the back roads. Which is in itself somehow fitting as poetry can be at its most powerful when, having offered us the ambiguity of metaphor and simile, and the formlessness of abstraction, and the beguiling clatter of consonance, and all the many other doors and chambers through which a poem passes, the road rises and the mist suddenly clears and we find ourselves on a hill top staring at a star we didn’t know existed.[5] Re-reading “The Spaces of Hope” I imagine how Lalić must have set out to discover what this almost gauche abstraction might mean for one who had lived through the Second World War, who had grown up in a country within a country, who knew the bloody uncertainty of history. He might have written a memoir or a history book, but he chose to write poems. And in this instance, he focussed on a street in Florence and the railway station at Kanfanar.[6] And, most tellingly, on little lilac flowers.[7] Things both particular and universal. The poem, created so many years ago, is received. Still. Like light. 

Although it was Anvil Press Poetry in the 1980s who were making the work of Lalić available to readers in the UK, it was Bloodaxe Books who did most in my 20s to introduce me to poetry in translation. I was slightly too young to register the impact of the Penguin Modern Poets in Translation Series but Bloodaxe continued the work of this series by intercepting and making public the poetry of poets from a politically volatile Eastern Europe. They published, for instance, the Czechoslovakian poet Miroslav Holub and the Romanian poet Marin Sorescu, both of whom wrote from within political systems that seemed to simultaneously celebrate and frustrate poets and poetry. While at Leicester Polytechnic I helped make a performance of the poetry of Russian dissident poet Irina Ratushinskaya, drawn from the collection No, I’m not afraid, published by Bloodaxe in 1986. Her story, we reasoned, would be more powerful if her poems were performed. The audience, the performers, the poems and the poet, would all have made a connection. Even if she were imprisoned – as she had been – her poetry could be released. Poetry can make its own moments. It can at least help to change the world.[8]

In the early 1990s I was in the position to invite poets to give readings.[9] The details are hazy, but somehow I arranged for Miroslav Holub to visit the steel making town of Scunthorpe in North Lincolnshire. He read the English translations of his poems and they seemed at the time to be perceptive and wise. Perhaps he wrote with the knowledge that for his work to have an audience beyond that of his small country he would have to be translated, and there is a sense in his best work that nothing has been lost in translation. Here is his poem “The Door,” translated by Ian Milner:[10]

The Door 
by Miroslav Holub

Go and open the door.
         Maybe outside there’s
         a tree, or a wood,
         a garden,
         or a magic city.

Go and open the door.
         Maybe a dog’s rummaging.
         Maybe you’ll see a face,
         or an eye,
         or the picture
                  of a picture.

Go and open the door.
         If there’s a fog
         it will clear.

Go and open the door.
         Even if there’s only
         the darkness ticking,
         even if there’s only
         the hollow wind,
         even if
                           is there,
go and open the door.

At least
there’ll be
a draught.

As with so many poems by Holub, it speaks with a clarity which makes the ambiguity of his intent more powerful. We can assume that for much of his writing life Holub was having to say one thing and mean another.[11] And perhaps his career as a scientist ensured that he wrote with a certain detachment, the better able to present his observations. Certainly this poem is a long way from the personal introspection that marked so much poetry written in the same period in Western Europe. His personality is absent. With good reason. The poet, perhaps, had been asked to step into a side room to have a word with some gentlemen from the Ministry. So we are alone with the poem. Just us and the words. We hear footsteps in the corridor outside and doors opening and closing, but there is just enough time to appreciate the suggestion that the poem offers, that other ways of living are possible and that a country – that individuals – should have the nerve to find out what they might be. 

Not long after that reading by Miroslav Holub I went to see the film Manon des Sources, screened at the Scunthorpe Film Theatre, then run by my friend Tony Whitehead.[12] This was still the days of films arriving from wherever they had been last shown in a series of shallow tins, each numbered so that the projectionist knew in which order to screen them. Shortly after the opening credits and a bit of Gallic action, we witnessed one of the lead characters, Ugolin, committing suicide by hanging himself from a tree.[13] But that can’t be right, we thought, surely that’s part of the grim denouement? And then what must have been the next reel was screened and we were somewhere in the middle of the story. We did our best but couldn’t make head nor tail of it. Then the screen went dark. Tony came on the address system to say that the reels had been mixed up by the clots at the Grimsby Film Theatre so he was just going to have to screen them one by one and could we give him a shout when it all made sense. It took four hours but it was an oddly profound experience. Which is what writing poetry may be about, just giving a shout if we think, even momentarily, that it all makes sense. Which was what Ivan V. Lalić was doing, that evening in Leicester. And what I still listen out for. 

[1] This was before the Yugoslavian wars of succession in the 1990s. 
[2] Catherine Byron was the first published poet I met, at the age of 21. She was also the first person to refer to me as ‘the poet…’ Michael Farley was the second published poet I met. They ran a poetry workshop for the Workers Educational Association in Leicester. I went when I was a student at Leicester Polytechnic. I told none of my friends. Poetry begins in secret. 
[3] When I last spoke to Catherine, a few years ago, she had given up writing poetry and left England. She sent me a book, Salmon: A Journey in Poetry, 1981-2007, as part of a dispersement of her library. So poetry is passed around. Michael Farley I lost track of many years ago – this was before social media – but occasionally I meet people who knew him. He was beautifully serious.
[4] From The Passionate Measure, Ivan V Lalić, translated by Francis R Jones, Anvil Press Poetry, 1989, and included in Centres of Cataclysm, edited by Sasha Dugdale, David Constantine & Helen Constantine, Modern Poetry in Translation/Bloodaxe Books, 2016.
[5] Or, “Silent, upon a peak in Darien,” as Keats suggested in his poem “On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer.”
[6] Kanfanar is a small village in Croatia and lies at the interchange of the Istrian Y expressway/motorway B8 and A9, as well as on the Divača to Pula railway, and was formerly the junction of a branch-line to Rovinj, so I believe.
[7] Oh, and odd that “lilac” should be an anagram (minus the accent on the ‘c’) of Lalić. Odd, irrelevant, but apt.
[8] Irina Ratushinskaya was released from a Soviet labour camp in late 1986 and the poetry she had written while in prison added to the mounting pressure on Mikhail Gorbachev to introduce Glasnost which led eventually to the end of the Soviet system.  
[9] I was Literature Development Worker for South Humberside based in Scunthorpe, with Grimsby as the other jewel in my crown. I had a small budget and a telephone on a desk in Scunthorpe Central Library opposite Brigid, the Dance Development Worker, and with the Music Development Worker, Dan always off somewhere banging cans and singing, and the Film Theatre just downstairs run by my dear, late friend Tony Whitehead, who loved Carry on Films and Avant Garde French Cinema, and could tell the difference between the two. 
[10] Poems Before & After: Collected English Translations, Bloodaxe Books, 2006. 
[11] Although he was not overtly political, after the Prague Spring of 1968 Holub became a non-person in Czechoslovakia. 
[12] A film released in 1986, directed by Claude Berri and adapted from the novel by Marcel Pagnol. 
[13] And so apparently ending the long line of the Soubeyran family. 

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