MARCH 2ND, 2017
It has long been mooted, out East Lothian way, to restore the ancient ferry route across the Firth of Forth to Fife. Still lost in idle burearocratic musings, I had to instead spin all the way west to the Queensferry Bridges, zip high over the waters, & hang a right into Glenrothes. From here, the modern road system tapered into something from the 50s, as the one-lane roads wound me to the ancient & most reverend ecclesiastical capital of the Scots. Fife was as lovely as ever, a maroon landscape of recently ploughed fields under a crisp, blue sky. Crisp would also be an understatement – as would brisk – for the infernal furnace of cold which bit into my face & through my clothes as I arrived in Saint Andrews. Still things were hotting up in the poetry festival, I found, as I arrived at the towns refined town hall for my first sampling of this year’s StAnza festival. Like bees to the first crocuses of the year, poets & poetry lovers from Scotland & beyond were flocking to the fragrant blooms planted over the winter by Madame Eleanor Livingstone, including Harry Giles, who the Mumble had recently interviewed.
The first hour was to be filled under the monicker of Past & Present, two talks on members of the pantheon within living memory & long since ceased. We began with Neil McLennan – not a poet per se, but historian & historical detective with an ambitious passion to discover as much as he could about Wilfred Owen, admitting that this noble war poet had become almost a part of his family. For me, a poet’s life is just as vital to the account as their works. Poets are like ornate fountains, out of whose mouths gurgles the spiritus of an age – & it was quite an age in which Wilfred Owen found himself.
2017 sees the anniversary of Owen’s 6 months stay in Edinburgh’s Craiglockhart, which during WW1 had been transformed into a hospital for officers who’d been turned crazy by the horrors of the trenches. ‘Craiglockhart is my Oxford,’ wrote Owen, who loved to roam the nearby Pentland Hills, the routes of which have been traced by McLennan & shall be revisited with a party of keen Owenites later this year. Mclennan also described his international search for information, including finding Owen’s poems scribbled down on the back of Edinburgh Café company bills, & delighted in telling us how he believed Owen made the near-final draft of Anthem for Doomed Youth a few hours after he had taught English Literature to 39 boys at the Tynecastle School: a remarkable rumination. He also left us with a cliffhanger, saying that yes, Graves, Owen & Sassoon all met on a golf course in Edinburgh that year, but not on the course everyone thinks they did. He has actually discovered the true belt of blasted green & will be revealed in his book on Owen in Edinburgh later this year. I, for one, was not that bothered beforehand, but after witnessing McLennan’s infectious banter I cannot wait for the answer.
Following McLennan was the reputable Alice Oswald, a contemporary poet with a classical mind, she is the creator of some of our own epoch’s truest poetry. A few years ago she produced an amazing condensing of the Iliad called Memorial, & so was perfectly placed to sing her love of Homer to us. Her introduction in that book reads; ‘Matthew Arnold praised the Iliad for its ‘nobility’, as has everyone ever since — but ancient critics praised it for its enargeia, its ‘bright unbearable reality’ (the word used when gods come to earth not in disguise but as themselves.
Oswald’s patter was purely poetic, abstract in places, keen as a Danaan spear in others, flowing through her talk as breathlessly as the wind she described in both Santarini’s Minoan frescoes & the works of Homer himself. Her dreamlike, metaphysical mind conjured up phrases such as, ‘the Beautiful silence of the Minoans,‘ while at the same time she made a pleasant attack on the stuffy cloisters of classical academe. A Classics student herself, one found as she went on that Oswald had found her own paths through Homer, & was delighted to share them, pouring great disdain on the monotone & sterile translations of Homer – including the one by her hero, Ted Hughes – which had turned the Grecian Swan-words into flightless Dodos. I especially enjoyed her vivisection of Homer’s use of colour, which he had presented in a more intensely descriptive than factual fashion. Dark blue, for example, was used to describe a crowd helmets in battle. She even took time at the end of the talk to point my own studies in the direction of Gladstone, who made the first formal accounts of Homer’s colours.
A couple of frothy coffees later, among the students with faces as fresh as St Andrews in early March, I took my seat in the local parliament, where just like in Estonia one steps in off the street. It was time for the day’s ‘Five O’Clock Verses,’ where from oak-paneled wall provosts from the past looked down on our proceedings painted in their military garb or haughty civilian regalia. Two Bloodaxe Poets were the order of the day, AB Jackson & the highly esteemed Catalan poet, Joan Margarit. First up was Jackson, who read at first from his new book on St Brendan’s voyage across the Atlantic in a little coracle boat, a vividly crafted cycle full of devious literary allusions – ‘Godless cynocephali’ springs to mind – & portrayals of sea-sick priests. Listening to the rest of his poetry it seemed as if puff clouds of description were floating across the mind’s canvas, such as golf balls being truffles waiting to be picked up on St Andrews golf course.
First Love (Primer Amor)
In the dreary Girona of my seven-year-old self,
where postwar shop-windows
wore the greyish hue of scarcity,
the knife-shop was a glitter
of light in small steel mirrors.
Pressing my forehead against the glass,
I gazed at a long, slender clasp-knife,
beautiful as a marble statue.
Since no one at home approved of weapons,
I bought it secretly, and, as I walked along,
I felt the heavy weight of it, inside my pocket.
From time to time I would open it slowly,
and the blade would spring out, slim and straight,
with the convent chill that a weapon has.
Hushed presence of danger:
I hid it, the first thirty years,
behind books of poetry and, later,
inside a drawer, in amongst your knickers
and amongst your stockings.
Now, almost fifty-four,
I look at it again, lying open in my palm,
just as dangerous as when I was a child.
Sensual, cold. Nearer my neck.
Following Jackson, my final slice of StAnza for the day was served up in tandem, with Juan taking to the altar with his translator, Anna Crowe. This was interesting to witness, for as Alice Oswald had so perfectly demonstrated earlier on, poetry almost always becomes impoverished through translation. Yes, Juan’s words were good & noble, but it was only when he read them himself in his native tongue after Anna, clenching his fists, face lit up with truth & spitting his passion, that they truly came to life. Returning to the words, they simply ripped at the loose veil between reality & conformity, & it came as no surprise that he had been awarded Spain’s top poetry prize twice in his lifetime. He was even reading in English by the end, & took the time to thank his ‘one & only Joan’ for all her help. A moving moment.
MARCH 6TH, 2017
Like some dandified arriviste in the throes of burgeoning womanhood, StAnza retains a sprightly ebullience every year. I think this is down to the policy of not asking poets back to perform or lecture until five years had passed. This helps keep the festival al fresco fresh, & tho’ the faces may seem familiar, one is always guaranteed a certain newness to the bill. So a second slice of StAnza for me this time round would be rather like sampling one of the splendid Taster Menus at the Castle Terrace in Edinburgh, where plate after delectable plate is served up full of aesthetic glory & supreme tastes. Rather like a very good poem.
It was the weekend & so the wife was free, & off we pottered on the Saturday night, a thick haar covering both East Lothian & Eastern Fife. Inbetween, of course lay the clearer Forth Bridges, but it wasn’t a long drive at all, arriving just in time for the slam in the main auditorium of the modernistic Byre’s Theatre. Ten poets had two minutes each to impress the judges, all ushered into place & eventual silence by the brilliant Paula Varjack, a young, internationalist poet, who set the scene & dictated both pace & rules with the elegance of Virginia Wolfe at some High Tea soiree. ‘This is how it works, & we’re gonna have fun doing it,’ was her mantra, & we were all hooked from the off. The winner was Kevin McLean, one of Edinburgh’s famous ‘Loud Poets,’ who’d saved his best piece for the final, blowing away the opposition with his speed of thought, his philosophical realities & intrinsically musical wordplay. A close second was Jill Abrams , who chose something with more pathos for her final piece, at which end an ‘O My God,’ from the audience reflected how deeply she moved us.
It was midnight by now, & me & the wife parked our car up a few miles down the coast by the sea. We’d taken the seats out of the back & stuffed the car with duvets, & it was comfy enough for a pleasant night’s sleep. On waking, we parked up at the local leisure centre for a jacuzzi, swim & sauna, & when we found ourselves upstairs at the Byre’s Theatre at 10AM drinking coffee & nibbling on some fruity pastries for the morning’s breakfast lectures, our B&B in St Andrews had cost us £7 each. The sixteen-year-old Rimbaud would have been proud. There then followed a delightfully informal, but highly informative talk from four translators on the nuances of their chosen aspect of poetrology.
Asterixesque Jean Portante & the well-preened Zoe Skoulding are bosom-buddies. Jean is from Luxemburg, whose native language is Italian, & whose chosen linguamedia is French. He explained how he was importing the smooth-flowing Italian river-phoneticism into his French verses, with Zoe explaining how her English presentation of his poems were trilingual, having to accommodate Italian rhythms & French vocabulary into the register of her own native speech. Equally fascinating was Aurelia Lassaque, a speaker of the rare Occitan tongue, who spontaneously creates her own poetry in both French & the language of her mother, writing a single poem in tandem between the two languages, letting them flow into & bounce off one another.
Finally, we had the most erudite Jacques Darras, who could have talked for hours, & indeed wanted to, but instead gave us an anecdotal sweep through his time with Ezra Pound’s Cantos, finishing with a moving pilgrimage to Pound’s secretary, Basil Bunting, living in a shed near a pub, a couple of months before he passed away. “Translation, basically,” said Jacques, “is an act of love… you have to love, you have to be in love, with a poem you happen to chance upon,” a statement which perfectly captured the essence of the hour.
It was now potter time; a meaty cappuccino at Costa Coffee, photo-ops with the wife in the time-capsule streets, before buying a translation of all of the Gawain Poet’s works (if indeed he did write them all). Then it was back to the Byre’s for a pie, a pint & Mr Steve Pottinger, a gentle though political soul, who glided through his lunchtime recital with a perfect rectitude to his muse. The West Midland accent never sounded so good, as the breeze of Parnassus blew through his poems, all of which ended with an epithetical flourish & an almost Elizabethan bow. Yes, Mr Pottinger was good, very good. Both before & after his performance, I’d noticed the morning’s translator posse were sat in the Byre’s, pontificating & all that, & I am sure that on our exit from Mr Pottinger’s pearly sphere, Jaques was telling the same story I heard him begin when we first went upstairs for our pies.
Our final port of call was in the cellar-like confines of the intimate Undercroft at St John’s House, where two ‘Border Crossings’ poets would read through their work. The first was Tess Taylor, a Fulbright scholar & direct descendant of Thomas Jefferson. Reading with poise, posture, & the occasional touch of humour, she delivered excellent renditions from her folklore-laden, landscape-littered work, especially the long poem which had her exploring her ancestors house, peering into his copy of Virgil, & displaying an oboe-pitched sentiment which tweaked & twanged with effortless grace on the listening sensibilities. Finally, we had Michelle Cahill, a young Australian of Indian heritage in love with Scotland, who eked out the vibrancy of the land in her recently acclaimed book, The Herring Lass. I especially liked her sonnet to the heroine Black Agnes, defender of Dunbar Castle a long time ago, & a place we headed in the direction of at the climax of her deliciously engaging readings.
StAnza… fino alla prossima volta