Archive for the ‘Poetry’ Category

Derek Walcott by Clive James.

May 22, 2009

Over the last couple of weeks, the poetry-loving public has been exposed to the a rather ugly campaign in which the favourite for the post of Oxford Professor of Poetry, the West Indian poet, Derek Walcott, was forced to drop out of the race because of a vicious whispering campaign against him. Supporters of Walcott’s female opponent, and the person eventually elected to the post, Ruth Padel, are accused of anonymously spreading rumours about a twenty-year-old allegation of sexual harassment. The whispering campaign culminated in the circulation of a dossier accusing Walcott of being a sex pest.

 Click here to listen to Clive James – in a podcast for The Guardian – talk of his admiration of Walcott’s work, and read a poem he wrote in tribute.

Stuff no longer posted to the Pete Atkin Web Forum.


Clive James on teaching poetry.

May 11, 2009

During last Friday’s edition of A Point of View, (BBC Radio 4) Clive James, who was talking about what the new Poet Laureate  Carol Ann Duffy, means to us,  at one point turned his thoughts to the  subject of teaching poetry and how it should and should not be done. He acknowledged that there was a time he thought that poetry couldn’t – indeed, shouldn’t – be taught in schools.

That was until he recollected that in his youth he and his contemporaries “were made to memorise a poem or we couldn’t go home.” He readily conceded that though he personally benefitted from it,  this was far from being an ideal way of teaching or being taught.

…the best way, surely, is for the teachers to read out one of the phrases that drew them into a particular poem in the first place. Every good poem has at least one of them, the phrase that makes your mind stand on end.

I heard one of these yesterday, on a marvellous website called Poetry Archive, a creation for which Andrew Motion was partly responsible. On Poetry Archive you can hear the famous poets read out what they wrote. One of the poets is Richard Wilbur, the American poet who helped, fifty years ago, to do for me what Fanthorpe did for Duffy – provide an example. The Wilbur phrase that caught me this time, and took me back to when I was first under his spell, came from a little poem about mayflies. He visualises millions of them rising and sinking in the light, and he calls them “the tiny pistons of a bright machine”.

I was knocked out, and I couldn’t imagine anyone hearing that and not wanting to know more about Richard Wilbur. When they look him up, they will find that he was a soldier throughout the last campaigns of WWII from Cassino onwards, but when he came back from the slaughterhouse he hardly ever wrote about it. He preferred to write about mayflies.

For anyone who has read thus far, and has remained sufficiently engaged, here is Mayflies by Richard Wilbur read by the poet onThe Poetry Archive.

My own realization that poetic language did not have to be high-flown or unlike the language I spoke in everyday life came not from reading the school approved texts of poets by poets whose experience I could not, for the most part, fathom, so remote were they from my own, but from my first hearing, and then committing to memory these lines from The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock by T.S. Eliot.

The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes,

The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes

Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening,

Lingered upon the pools that stand in drains,

Let fall upon its back the soot that falls from chimneys,

Slipped by the terrace, made a sudden leap,

And seeing that it was a soft October night,

Curled once about the house, and fell asleep.

It has taken me years to figure out what the whole poem might be about, but throughout those years I have been convinced that any poem in which what the fog does – or on occasion appears to do –  is described in such a way had to have more gems to yield.

Seamus Heaney at 70 ..on the day

April 13, 2009


1) Clearances 3, from The Haw Lantern. read by the poet.

Clearances 3

In Memoriam M.K.H., 1911-1984


When all the others were away at Mass
I was all hers as we peeled potatoes.
They broke the silence, let fall one by one
Like solder weeping off the soldering iron:
Cold comforts set between us, things to share
Gleaming in a bucket of clean water.
And again let fall. Little pleasant splashes
From each other’s work would bring us to our senses
So while the parish priest at her bedside
Went hammer and tongs at the prayers for the dying
And some were responding and some crying
I remembered her head bent towards my head,
Her breath in mine, our fluent dipping knives–
Never closer the whole rest of our lives


 2) See Internet Poetry Archive for Clearances 5 and other writings by Heaney


3) The Irish broadcaster, RTÉ, has produced a 15 CD box-set celebrating the poet’s 70th birthday which it is broadcasting in a marathon 12 hour on RTÉ Radio (RTÉ Radio 1 Extra, available on LW, DAB, Online and UPC Channel 940). as I write this.
Seamus Heaney: Collected Poems is a unique commemorative publication celebrating the 70th birthday of Ireland’s Nobel Laureate. Presented in a stunning 15-CDbox set, Heaney reads his 11 poetry collections from Death of a Naturalist to District and Circle in their entirety, accompanied by a 68-page booklet on the poet’s life and work. Written by fellow poet Peter Sirr, the booklet is illustrated with images of Heaney taken throughout his life


Seamus Heaney at 70

April 12, 2009

Tomorrow Seamus Heaney celebrates his 70th birthday. It’s a day to celebrate if only for the reason that John Banville gave in the introduction  to No 6 in ten series of Great poets of the 20th century which Faber & Faber in association with The Guardian, published in 2008.

Few poets find a way into the inner ear of the multitude. Mere rhymesters can do it, bards of the birthday card, bluff wearers of the heart on the sleeve, but who would have imagined that an artist of Seamus Heaney’s seriousness, range and subtlety would appeal so directly not only to the sternest tenders of the groves of academe, but also to the simplest hearts. From his first published volume, Death of a Naturalist, which opens with that most tender and determined of manifestos, Digging, Heaney has had a wide and more than enthusiastic following, for whom the awarding of the Nobel prize in 1995 was merely the international community’s due recognition that here was one of the greats.

In the next forty eight hours or so the media are likely to be full of tributes to Heaney, so by way of my contribution to all the activity, here is something you are only likely to get on the internet,  the man himself, introduced by William Corbett, doing what he does best before  an audience in October 2002 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.



Writing what he called “auto-critique” of an essay on Heaney for the 1995 reissue of his first collection of essays, The Metropolitan Critic, Clive James remarked:

 One of my earliest notorieties was obtained by mentioning Seamus Heaney in the same breath as Yeats. I was certainly right not to regret it; because sooner rather than later, everyone was doing it.


The certainly were, and still are some fourteen years later. Long may they continue to do so.

The Shield of Achilles – a poem of our time?

April 1, 2009

I have posted a handful if poems to this blog, but I note, with no a little puzzlement, that The Shield of Achilles by W. H. Auden is the one most often visited in recent times.

Here is the original entry

The Shield of Achilles (which for copyright reasons cannot be reprinted here) is one of my own personal favourites from among the later poems of W. H. Auden. Although poem, written in 1952,  alludes to scenes from Iliad, it is actually a depiction  of the contemporary world as Auden saw it. In the Iliad, Achilles lends his armour to Patroclus who is subsequently killed Hector. Achilles has new armour made for him by Hephaestus

In the poem Thetis, Achilles’ mother, notices that contrary to her expectations the shield has scenes that horrify emblazoned on it. The world Thetis sees is not what she expects. Instead of an ordered civilized world where there is harmony in everything, what she sees is a cruel and uncaring world. Read on

I wonder why so many people search out this poem.

The Poetry Archive & me

September 20, 2008

In today’s edition of The Guardian the Poet Laureate, Andrew Motion, uses the This Week in Books column to report how and colleagues developing The Poetry Archive  – the web-based collection of poets reading their own work they set up two years ago – have been working with Poetry Foundation in Chicago to add American voices to those already audible on the site. The first dozen, T. S. Eliot and Allen Ginsberg   went live this week, and a hundred or so more are earmarked to be added over the next three years.

The Poetry Archive is a web-based collection of poets reading their own work, which also contains a great deal of educational material, that my friend Richard Carrington and I launched with a small team of helpers a little over two years ago at ……. over 125,000 people now visit the site each month, and each month they read more than a million pages of poems. The “problem” with poetry is not to do with declining appetite; the problem is to do with delivery. The Poetry Archive is helping to solve that. ……[read on]

I quite like dipping into this archive, for the very good reason that it quite often has me reading poets I might not otherwise have encountered.  

A Gesture towards James Joyce by Clive James

September 17, 2008
Today’s Poetry Daily poem of the day is A Gesture towards James Joyce  by Clive James.


 Today’s Poem
A Gesture towards James Joyce
by Clive James • from
Opal Sunset: Selected Poems, 1958-2008

• W.W. Norton & Company
Featured Poet
Clive James
Clive James, the author of
Cultural Amnesia and As of This Writing, writes for Slate and the New York Times Book Review. His poetry and criticism have appeared in The New Yorker. He lives in London.

Featured Book
Opal Sunset: Selected Poems, 1958-2008
“At the writing desk, many poets are on their best behavior, but not Clive James, who allows his inner Byron to emerge—satiric, scathing at times, and keenly attuned to the frivolities of the day.” (Billy Collins)


A Gesture towards James Joyce

          My gesture towards Finnegans Wake is deliberate.
                     —Ronald Bush, T. S. Eliot: A Study in Character and Style

The gesture towards Finnegans Wake was deliberate.
It was not accidental.
Years of training went into the gesture,
As W. C. Fields would practise a juggling routine
Until his eczema-prone hands bled in their kid gloves;
As Douglas Fairbanks Sr trimmed the legs of a table
Until, without apparent effort and from a standing start,
He could jump up on to it backwards;
Or as Gene Kelly danced an entire tracking shot over and over
Until the final knee-slide ended exactly in focus,
Loafers tucked pigeon-toed behind him,
Perfect smile exultant,
Hands thrown open saying ‘How about that?’


The gesture towards Finnegans Wake was deliberate.
Something so elaborate could not have been otherwise.
Though an academic gesture, it partook in its final form
Of the balletic arabesque,
With one leg held out extended to the rear
And the equiponderant forefinger pointing demonstratively
Like the statue of Eros in Piccadilly Circus,
Or, more correctly, the Mercury of Giambologna,
Although fully, needless to say, clad.


The gesture towards Finnegans Wake was deliberate,
Its aim assisted by the position of the volume,
A 1957 printing in the yellow and orange wrapper
Propped on a sideboard and opened at page 164
So that the gesture might indicate a food-based conceit
About pudding the carp before doeuvre hors—
The Joycean amalgam in its ludic essence,
Accessible to students and yet also evincing
The virtue of requiring a good deal of commentary
Before what looked simple even if capricious
Emerged as precise even if complex
And ultimately unfathomable.


The gesture towards Finnegans Wake was deliberate,
Being preceded by an ‘It is no accident, then’,
An exuberant ‘It is neither accidental nor surprising’
And at least two cases of ‘It is not for nothing that’,
These to adumbrate the eventual paroxysm
In the same way that a bouncer from Dennis Lillee
Has its overture of giant strides galumphing towards you
With the face both above and below the ridiculous moustache
Announcing by means of unmistakable grimaces
That what comes next is no mere spasm
But a premeditated attempt to knock your block off.


The gesture towards Finnegans Wake was deliberate
And so was my gesture with two fingers.
In America it would have been one finger only
But in Italy I might have employed both arms,
The left hand crossing to the tense right bicep
As my clenched fist jerked swiftly upwards—
The most deliberate of all gestures because most futile,
Defiantly conceding the lost battle.


The gesture towards Finnegans Wake was deliberate:
So much so that Joyce should have seen it coming.
Even through the eyepatch of his last years.
He wrote a book full of nothing except writing
For people who can’t do anything but read,
And now their gestures clog the air around us.
He asked for it, and we got it.

Clive James
Opal Sunset: Selected Poems, 1958-2008
W.W. Norton & Company

 Stuff no longer posted to the Pete Atkin Web Forum

The Shield of Achilles by W. H. Auden.

August 4, 2007

The Shield of Achilles (which for copyright reasons cannot be reprinted here) is one of my own personal favourites from among the later poems of W. H. Auden. Although poem, written in 1952,  alludes to scenes from Iliad, it is actually a depiction  of the contemporary world as Auden saw it. In the Iliad, Achilles lends his armour to Patroclus who is subsequently killed Hector. Achilles has new armour made for him by Hephaestus

In the poem Thetis, Achilles’ mother,  notices that contrary to her expectations the shield has scenes that horrify emblazoned on it. The world Thetis sees is not what she expects. Instead of a an ordered civilized world where there is harmony in everything, what she sees is a cruel and uncaring world. Read  on

Auden, America and Christianity.

August 4, 2007

Over the years, there has been a great deal of discussion about whether the poet W. H. Auden’s departure from Britain for the United States in January marked the end of his career as a great poet Auden was a major poet – some would say the major poet – the late 20s and thirties but, after his move to America and his subsequent conversion to the Episcopal Church, both his poetry and standing as a poet went into irreversible decline.

In a June the 4th  posting to Christianity Today the American Christian writer and academic Alan Jacobs makes strong case for a revision of this view. 

Naïve though it may sound, for Auden this country really was a place to start over. And he came to believe that in shrugging off the expectations others had for him, he also had to shrug off his own self-understanding, his own formation as a person and a poet. Auden had always been a critic of Romanticism and an aficionado of earlier and less fashionable poetic movements: from the beginning he had drawn on medieval literature—which he had come to love after hearing some lectures at Oxford by an Anglo-Saxonist named Tolkien—and had celebrated Alexander Pope and Lord Byron—the one Romantic poet Auden admired, in part because everyone else treated him as a minor poet who had been over-celebrated in his lifetime. Auden despised Shelley especially, often singling out for scorn the notion that “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” It was a model of poetic power that, he saw, many of the great modernists had accepted as well, for all their vocal anti-Romanticism.

But as he settled into life in America, and into Christian belief, he came to think that he had absorbed more of the Romantic model of the poet as isolated genius than he’d realized. Superficially his verse had not looked Romantic, but deep down, he had accepted distinctively Romantic ideas about the singular power and unique insight of the poet.

………………………………………………………………..Auden’s breaking of his own style now looks like one of the key moral gestures of 20th-century English literature. Auden was one of the first great writers to recognize that, after World War II, the modernist vision—with its abstractions and myths, its glamorizing of danger and sacrifice—was no longer sustainable. Poetry, to be credible in a new world, had to be ethical in a new way: scrupulous about its claims, its concepts, even its language.

……………….. the later poems can be hard to read. The earlier poems are often obscure, but after modernism we’re used to obscurity. (A friend once wrote to James Joyce, puzzled about some passages in what would become Finnegans Wake, to which Joyce gave an incomprehensible reply capped with a jaunty sign-off: “If I can throw any more obscurity on the subject, let me know.”) We know how to read obscurity. But Auden’s later poems, though grounded in public language and public concepts—Greek and Roman mythology, European history, Christian doctrine—are knotty and complex: they demand a distinctive kind of thinking from us. Auden wrote this way because he demanded difficult thought from himself; he resisted easy answers and comforting assurances. He explored forgotten resources from poetry’s past: the medieval love for allegories of the inner life, the essayistic or letter-like meditations of the great Roman poet Horace. But these are resources that readers must struggle to reclaim, and for many it’s not worth the effort.

Above all, and most unusually, Auden saw his poetry as a means of building community among his widely scattered friends. When, a decade ago, I first investigated the trove of Auden’s letters held by the New York Public Library, I was struck by how often Auden turned over a sheet of stationery and, on the back of a letter to a friend, typed out a draft of a poem. And in most cases the published version of that poem would be dedicated to that friend. How many of our great modern poets do such a thing? It is a touching gesture, but also—especially for those of us with an exalted view of poetry—a challenging one.

Let us pay tribute to this remarkable man. He was deeply, deeply flawed—though no more so than I—and his model of the Christian life is, generally speaking, not one I should choose to follow. But he paid (and still pays) a great price in reputation for his embrace of Christianity, as he does for his bold and fearless rethinking of what it means to be a poet. One of the wiser decisions of Auden’s later years was his selection of Edward Mendelson to be his literary executor: among many other activities on the poet’s behalf, Mendelson maintains the website of the Auden Society, where you may find biographical information and many links to the texts of poems and recordings of Auden reading them. Please, go there.

W. B. Yeats’s The Second Coming.

August 2, 2007

This is one of most haunting and disturbing poems ever written by the great Irish poet William Butler Yeats. While it is a far from comforting poem, it is a poem that rewards every reading. 


Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand
Surely the Second coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in the sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle.
What rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards
Bethlehem to be born?


Wikipedia on The Second Coming 

The Second Coming is a poem by William Butler Yeats first printed in The Dial (November 1920) and afterwards included in his 1921 verse collection Michael Robartes and the Dancer. The poem uses religious symbolism to illustrate Yeats’ anguish over the apparent decline of Europe’s ruling class, and his occult belief that Western civilization (if not the whole world) was nearing the terminal point of a 2000-year historical cycle…………….. 

The discussion that follows should not be read until the poem has been read, and maybe even memorised.