Archive for November, 2010

Jonathan Franzen and Tolstoy

November 25th, 2010 No comments


Like everybody else at the moment I’m reading Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. 


There have been many references to it as being Tolstoyan in ambition, partly because of its length and scale – the intimate lives of his characters played out against contemporary events like 9/11 –  and because the author references War And Peace himself once or twice in the text. 

But I think it’s Tolstoyan in subtler, different ways:  Franzen seems to have the same ability to slip in and out of different characters’ heads, particularly his female ones.  Few male contemporary writers would dare to begin their book with a long testimonial from their heroine, ranging across issues from motherhood to sex to her fraught relationship with her own mother.  In a way what Franzen has done very successfully is to take territory usually occupied by such brilliant North American female novelists as Alison Lurie (The War Between The Tates), Carol Shields and Anne Tyler and give it a male twist while preserving the intimacy of detail. 

He’s also Tolstoyan in the way that when major events happen — one of his characters falls in love with someone they shouldn’t have, or someone dies – he just lets them occur baldly in the narrative rather than building up an elaborate scaffold of preparation, as a lesser novelist might do.  What interests him are not the large stones dropping in the water but the ripples that they cast – and that while his characters may often rationally know what they should do (which man to marry, what not to say), events and random emotions may somehow compel them to do precisely the opposite. 

File:L.N.Tolstoy Prokudin-Gorsky.jpg

Tolstoy in 1908

Are there any British novelists achieving a similar scale over here?  not that I can think of – although there is another question that interests me perhaps even more:  are there any that would want to? There is still a modernist agenda here which values formal ability – of the sort that David Mitchell for instance has so dazzlingly displayed – over the slow unweaving of characters’ lives against an uncompromising historical background of the sort that Tolstoy would recognise.  

Not that Tolstoy, at the time of the centenary of his death (November 1910), is that much of an influence still in Russia itself:  when I asked a young Russian novelist in Moscow whether his generation viewed Tolstoy as an influence, he laughed and asked, quite fairly, whether Dickens was still an influence in Britain.  Although the fairer comparison might be George Eliot….

A platform for the Incas

November 22nd, 2010 2 comments

After all the excitement of the Poetry Festival, am now off to a series of gatherings of a very different sort:  a conference at the British Museum on Peruvian ushnus, the raised platform structures often found in the centre of Inca plazas or on hill tops.

This may seem a slightly esoteric subject, but the ushnus are both at the centre of the Inca world and yet surprisingly little understood.  As one of the speakers plaintively noted, the Spanish chroniclers of the time did little to describe them.


One thing is immediately apparent: Andeanists, like poets and indeed like Incas, tend to celebrate their gatherings with many libations – at a party held by the Peruvian ambassador, the pisco sours were flowing freely and only copious amounts of black coffee provided by the British Museum allowed attendees to focus on the complex astronomical siting of the ushnus, which at sites like Huánaco Pampa are aligned to solstice and equinox risings of the sun.

My own interest comes from work we have carried out at Llactapata, with on-site help from Tom Zuidema (the keynote speaker at this conference),  which has buildings which are similarly aligned to the sunrises of both solstices – see The full report on the expedition.  There is also a large ushnu-style raised platform structure measuring some 60 feet by 40 feet, enclosed by a five feet high retaining wall – which like almost everything else to do with ushnus needs more investigation, but is the only known ushnu from which Machu Picchu is clearly visible.  With an alignment of 110 degrees, the platform is orientated almost dead on the December solstice line for the rising sun.  Read more…

Aldeburgh Poetry Festival Sunday

November 7th, 2010 No comments

some time on Sunday night  

I’m both exhausted and exhilarated by the end of proceedings.  The final poets’ dinner on Sunday night ends at about two in the morning. 

If there has been a noticeable intensity at Aldeburgh compared to other poetry festivals,  it derives from one unusual component — no poet is ever invited back.  

This isn’t because in some ways they might have failed a quality threshold.  A strict policy is in place only to invite those who’ve never read there before.  This lends the proceedings an intensity they would not otherwise have.  Poets have one shot at getting an Aldeburgh Festival reading right. 

The same goes for the organisers.  Every year they have to start at the bottom of the mountain and select new participants. 

I’m reminded of those Buddhist monks who spend months laboriously making sand mandalas from small grains and then blow them to the wind.


Sunday 18.00  Don Paterson’s earlier lecture on Frost proves a terrific curtain raiser for the later reading by Marie Howe, as it is noticeable how many of her poems are framed as dialogues rather like Frost’s.  The elegy for her missing brother is just one of many fine poems. 


She makes a striking figure on stage with her Botticelli hair.  Indeed this year’s ‘best poetic hair’ prize is awarded equally between her and the long-locked Matthew Caley.  I’d love them to do a shampoo ad double-act together, swinging their impressive tresses as they duetted on a country and western song, or pastoral eclogue.  Who says that all poets are bald and need to wear berets? 

Bill Manhire is less hirsute but still very effective.  He concentrates on those works of his that lend themselves to public performance, with strong rhythm and rhyme.  You might think that most  poets would follow this obviously sensible line.  Or series of lines.  But they don’t. 

His elegy for Charles Causley is just the first of a string of emotionally intense poems,  hypnotically delivered.  His voice has an attractive incantatory quality, whether listing his possessions as a small boy on New Zealand’s South Island, or howling at the moon down a lift shaft in Copenhagen. 

The perfect choice to close the festival, internationalist, accomplished and passionate as it has been.


Sunday 14.00     I’ve had 2 cups of 152’s excellent cappuccino and so am ready for the highly caffeinated lecture on Robert Frost by Don Paterson.  We are still at warp speed and every word is worth unravelling and playing back at 33 rpm. 

The bulk of his lecture is on Frost’s poem ‘West-Running Brook’.  While some critics have decried the rhetorical staging of this as a dialogue between husband and wife  as clumsy, Don admires what he sees as the resulting subplot of ‘how people in love talk to one another’.  Perhaps naturally, given that he has just published his account of Shakespeare’s sonnets, he finds Shakespearean echoes in some lines – like ‘And even substance lapsing unsubstantial’, while also being drawn to Frost’s nihilism and ‘the aphoristic, demotic and plain-speaking nature of his verse which omits the extraneous, leaving itself nowhere to hide’. 

He sees Frost’s  poetry as ‘an intellectual and emotional provocation to which we are challenged to respond in kind’. The same could be said of Don’s rigorous criticism.  

Not quite sure about his pronunciation of ‘contraries’ though.  Surely to rhyme with ‘Compare-is’? Readers with New England accents are invited to write in……..


Sunday am    It’s nine o’clock in the morning and I’m trying to move at speed to the White Lion to give my own talk on poetry and travel writing, together with Harry Clifton.  Unfortunately the wind is so strong that for every two steps I take, I’m one step back, and there isn’t any music playing. 

‘Fresh fish – anything fresher is still swimming,’ reads the logo on the side of the shack that sells them on the beach.  I can’t quite say the same about myself, but at least I haven’t got a hangover, and Maggie at the Poets House has fed me plenty of black coffee and bacon sandwiches, so the brain has started to kick in.  


Have 250 people gathered to hear us?  Well not quite.  But for early Sunday morning it’s a brave turnout, as Harry says.  We talk about how when travelling some experiences seem to lend themselves either to prose or poetry;  of how Byron was in some ways an early travel writer, appealing to the stay-at-home British public ( who had to stay at home – it was the middle of the Napoleonic Wars) with his tales of Mediterranean pleasures;  of ‘The Odyssey’ as the first travel poem;  of the celebration and exhilaration of travel but also of its own concomitant hangover, jet lag:


Jet Lag Blues

Two o’clock in the morning, punched
inside out,  jet-lagged  from Los Angeles
via London, face pressed against

the pillow with unnatural gravity,
like a safe-breaker listening
for the combination to give,

I feel the ground much closer,
almost moving,
and want to twist the world’s tectonic

spine, the way a chiropractor snaps
a patient’s back, so I no longer lie
divided on my own fault line.


The Aldeburgh Poetry Festival blog is sponsored by Writers’ Centre Norwich,a literature development agency for the East of England running workshops, competitions, events and more.

Aldeburgh Poetry Festival Saturday

November 6th, 2010 No comments

Saturday 23.30   The evening closes in the way all Saturday evenings should close – with a drink and a stand-up comedian, in this case the brilliant Elvis McGonagall, whose tales of love, loss, and David Cameron are just the ticket. The man is a lyrical genius, managing to find not just one but two different rhymes for Oompa-Lumpa.

Outside they are still sending up fireworks for bonfire night.  It’s been a long but satisfying day.

Saturday 18.00    By now I’m beginning to feel a bit like I’m travelling at warp-speed myself, bundling from talk to talk, with some blogging in between (Stardate 2011, Captain’s Diary… A strange poet with staring eyes has parked himself in orbit around me and is refusing to move….)

On to hear Marie Howe talk about one of her teachers and mentors, the late Stanley Kunitz.  It’s a much warranted appreciation as he is less well-known in the UK than some of his American contemporaries such as Bishop,  Lowell and Berryman.  He died in 2006, age 101.  He said of his later poems, “what is left to confront are the deep simplicities,’ and according to Marie he was working towards “an art so transparent you could look through it and see the world.”

She reads The Portrait, an extraordinary poem and very central to his work, which tells of the death by suicide of his father when Kunitz was very young,  and quotes something that he told her when she was his student, that poetry should exploit “the lyric tension of the fact that we are both living and dying at the same time”.

It’s a good reminder of the Aldeburgh support for American poetry over the years, as Neil Ashley of Bloodaxe points out to me when I chat to him after one of the earlier readings.  It was Aldeburgh who hosted Tony Hoagland a few years ago, who’s been emerging as one of the strongest American voices of recent years – certainly a favourite of mine  – and whose most recent work, Unincorporated Persons in the Late Honda Dynasty, Bloodaxe have just published.

This year as well as Marie, Dorianne Laux has come to Aldeburgh from the States and has not only given a much sought-after masterclass on ‘how to write an unforgettable poem’, but has read several of her own which are just that.  ‘Enough Music’, for instance, is a fabulous short poem.

Saturday 17.00  Some speed writing with Michael Laskey and Jeni Smith at the James Cable Room — the format feels a bit like bingo.  Everyone sits expectant at a table, eyes down to pen and paper.  Michael or Jeni reads a poem and sets a five-minute poetic task (like ‘Think of a sport.  Write out its keywords.  Make a poem’).

It’s fun and fast and goes down well with the participants.

Come back an hour or so later for a workshop that Don Paterson gives.  If the earlier class was like playing bingo, Don’s is more like playing Speed Go on the Internet:  extremely fast, extremely furious and demanding mental dexterity.  Don is packing the lecture he usually gives in two hours into a half-hour firework spectacular.

He boldly takes us into what he terms ‘deep trope’, at warp speed.  Some fascinating vistas flash by as we hang onto the spacecraft, metonyms and metaphors pinging off the side like meteorites.  The search is for autopoiesis, a sort of Gaia-style self –renewing poetical equilibrium where content and structure both balance and renew each other.

In Star Trek it would be found on those planets that have to teach Kirk and his men some simpler truths (and don’t you just know that Spock would be the one to have a problem with metaphor).

Don makes some good points about the process of composition being one in which you only find out what you think as you start to write, rather than simply printing a received opinion;  and that a poem has to intrigue enough on the first reading to bring you back for subsequent deeper ones.


Saturday 13.00

Some more fine readings this morning, this time from  Harry Clifton and Imtiaz Dharker.

Harry talks about the way that for his generation Ireland was almost ‘painted too green’ by nationalists, from its letterboxes to its literature,  in the decades after Independence and indeed for most of the 20th century.  He himself has always taken a more internationalist approach, with much time spent abroad in places like Paris or Italy, producing an impressive body of verse.  The Italian stay also gave rise to an excellent travel book, on the Abruzzi  Mountains.  We are giving a joint talk tomorrow morning on the connection between travel writing and poetry, but I’m not just being polite about his writing to ensure a smooth discourse:  the qualities of elegant concision that go into his poetry lend themselves well to travel writing, which can sometimes be prolix.

There is an emotional undercurrent to the following reading by Imtiaz Dharker, who is replacing Selima Hill at short notice after Selima was taken ill.  As the Festival announces,

We are hugely grateful to Imtiaz for stepping in at such short notice, and rather amazed at the extraordinary felicity of it all – given that Imtiaz herself had so sadly to withdraw from last year’s APF due to the untimely death of her husband Simon. We are all thrilled that she will, at last, get to enjoy the Aldeburgh experience.

Imtiaz gives a moving reading of “Honour Killing”, in which she takes off “the black coat of my country”, the veil, and the other garments that constrain the position of women in countries such as Pakistan.  It’s a fitting rebuke to those Western intellectuals who have recently flirted with the idea that somehow the burka and its variants are in any way empowering, and that we just fail to understand it because of cultural difference.  I made a film about the position of women in Afghanistan for Channel 4 a few years ago, so it’s a subject that I appreciate her strong feelings on.

And she makes the second good joke of the day: ‘ now that English is just one more Indian language….’


Saturday 10.30

from the programme:

Jubilee Hall 9.00 – 10.00am  :  DISCUSSION: THE POET’S TOOLKIT .

A meticulous eye for detail with an awareness of the bigger picture. Relevant experience. Excellent communication skills, verbal and written. Capacity to think outside the box. Passion, drive and ambition. Ability and willingness to work long and flexible hours unsupervised. Lars Gustafsson, Marie Howe, Bill Manhire and Don Paterson finesse the person specification.

9.00 in the morning?   what time is that to start a Poetry Festival.  One thing that rarely is part of a poet’s toolkit is the ability to get up early in the morning.  But Lars, Marie Howe, Bill and Don seem fresh as daisies.

Don kicks off by trailing the notion that poetry is a bit like dyslexia, a condition of the mind that favours certain abilities while hampering others: he points out that many of the male poets of his acquaintance can’t drive, swim or ride a bicycle safely, however impressive their scansion.  So “poetry is less of a calling and more like a diagnosis.”  As poets we have less dopamine receptors, so as more information is allowed to reach our cortex, we become over-wired (and, the hope is, inspired).

Bill reflects that poets should be obsessed with words themselves, building up what Maori poet Hone Tuwhare once described to him as a ‘word-store’;  Marie quotes Virginia Woolf’s essay on ‘The Angel In The House’, and suggests that women poets need to lose the notion of themselves as the constant ‘giver’ in a household,  to become instead more feral:  “there are dogs out at the gate — throw them some meat.”  And as Lars astutely notes, ‘it’s all very well to think out of the box, but first you must make your box.’

Best joke of the morning comes from Marie Howe, who quotes what someone said about Rilke as he left a party:  “does he have to be a poet all the time?”


The Aldeburgh Poetry Festival blog is sponsored by Writers’ Centre Norwich,a literature development agency for the East of England running workshops, competitions, events and more.

The Centre also runs the  Escalator Literature Writing Prize. Full details available at:


Aldeburgh Poetry Festival Friday

November 4th, 2010 No comments

Friday late:   It’s an attractive opening bill: the narrative directness of JO Morgan’s story about a wild boy on Skye;   Matthew Caley’s louche rock ‘n’ roll take on Illinois, breast-feeding and Yeats (and claim that Ezra Pound used to lie at languorous angles on chaise longues so that his semen could seep down to his brain and improve his poetry);  and then, to round it off, Don Paterson.

Writing one-line descriptions of poets for a programme is a bit like a wine critic’s job.  Sooner or later you run out of adjectives.  Once we’ve had thoughtful, acute, rigorous, playful, incisive and that old stand-by prize-winning,  you have to start reaching for the unexpected.

Not quite redolent of hay on a mid-summer evening (though I can think of a few poets who would fit that bill) , but something ambitious.

Hats off then for the description of the wonderful Don Paterson who according to the programme shoulders the responsibility to live and write the fully-examined life with wit, courage and exemplary formal skill.  That’s some day-job!

These days, Don hardly needs a strap-line under the billing, such is the impression that recent collections like Rain have made. He even has an ‘official website’.

If this were a rock gig it would be the Proclaimers, followed by the Dandy Warhols, followed by Tom Waits.  Not a bad line up.

Indeed the night showcases all that is best about the Poetry Festival: poets reading well and with engagement to an audience excited to hear them.  The Jubilee Hall as a space always has a sense of occasion.  It’s big enough to make the performers onstage seem both vulnerable and intense; small enough for a sudden and surprising intimacy with them when the poems start.

It’s also a good moment to step back and appreciate what a formidable achievement the Poetry Festival is.  Without now receiving a penny of Suffolk County Council money, it manages to keep an impressive wave of energy beating each year against Aldeburgh’s shingle shore.

But as Naomi Jaffa, the festival director, announces (“I’m going to do something very un-English:  I’m going to talk about money”), with the current cuts on the horizon, it will need all its  many supporters to rally round if it is to keep going.

All three poets read tremendously well.  Don Paterson has learnt his by heart, and his reading brings out both the underlying emotion and rhyme in equal, carefully weighted measure.  While apologising for the fact that he feels so much of his last collection dealt with ‘death and divorce’, he also reflects ruefully on the ageing process:  ‘ one no longer appears in one’s own poems – one’s presence is more of a heraldic affair.’  And he now takes siestas, although as a longterm hispanophile, we would have expected nothing less of him anyway…..

He reads several more recent, unpublished poems, including some from a sonnet sequence that he is beginning (he is at number eight or nine out of a planned 48),  He also reads ‘The Day’,  inspired by the DVD box set of Battlestar Galactica, no less, with a conversation between two aliens who have just got married:  it’s engaging, direct and funny, although the insistent little six-year-old boy inside me taps me on my shoulder at one point and asks, ‘ did that man just say the earth was a star?’


Friday 19.00  John Glenday gives a modest and intriguing Craft Talk, on the art of revising, for which he is well qualified,  running often to 30, 40, 50 drafts of his own poems.  It has taken him 15 years to fine-hone his most recent book, ‘filling the white grave of the page with words’.  Over the years he has come to recognise which early drafts will never respond to treatment, remaining ‘ghost poems’ and those which it is worth pursuing down the corridor.

It’s a fine-honed talk as well, with not a word wasted and some fine aphorisms (some quoted from other poets):  inspiration is an inclination to take notice;  poetry is a river that widens into silence; the poem as a balance between craftsmanship and intuition.

One question though.  Why is it always easier to sound modest if you have a Scottish or Celtic accent?  Something to do with the dying fall at the end of each inflected sentence, of which the great and under-rated Glaswegian comedian Arnold Brown is a master.


Friday 17.00   I enjoy giving a class on the crossover between poetry and travel writing, using Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘Questions Of Travel’ as a central text, from her book of the same name.  Writers in both prose and poetry when they travel can constantly criss-cross the borderline between detachment and engagement, observing the strange phenomena of a new country and taking part in them if they so choose.  It’s a process we all do in our daily lives anyway, but somehow heightened in a foreign country, and fertile territory, with its own tensions and ambivalence:

Should we have stayed at home and thought of here?
Where should we be today?
Is it right to be watching strangers in a play
in this strangest of theatres?

 (Elizabeth Bishop ‘Questions Of Travel’)


Friday 11.30   my own turn to get locked away comes around.  The festival has the use of an old lookout tower on the beach, and poets are encouraged to go up there for some silent meditation or even (and the organisers phrase this delicately) “possible writing”.

Writers can be both fussy and stringent about the conditions for perfect writing – not least because it is the perfect displacement activity for actually doing any.  Finding it hard to face that blank sheet of paper?  It’s all the fault of background noise, or stains on the wallpaper, or those bills elsewhere on the desk that need attending to.  No wonder writers need their sheds.

I’d noticed this just earlier in the morning when I realised that my small back bedroom in the eaves of the Poets House was, while perfectly clean and adequate, impossible to write in — all bed and no table.  In short, the perfect excuse.

But the lookout tower offers no such escape.  There are nine biros beside a block of paper.  The view is magnificent.  The waves break with a soft insistency.  The bleached wood is restrained and tactful.  Even the temperature is ambient.

I’m reminded of the problems I experienced at a Buddhist retreat last winter:


      Bad Pupil 


When I went to the Buddhist Centre retreat I found myself being continually distracted

by the soft, smoky runs of the boiler igniting  its regular puffs of disbelief

and by the distant catcalls of children

playing in the garden, while we sat inside,

in postures of graduated discomfort and in complete silence.


The practice of mindfulness is not one that comes easily to me. 


There is a ticking clock in my head, counting down the days, the hours, the minutes


and never quite reaching the present tense.


But then the Zen Master explains that it is like being at a drinks party

and only talking to the one person, yourself, rather than being distracted

by others.  ‘Make eye contact with yourself,’ he suggests.  Or ‘I contact’,

as I understand him to say in a moment of rare connection

that blows away when someone else speaks.


Friday 08.30    Can’t quite believe I’m blogging before breakfast but clearly a stream of consciousness blog will demand a dedicated approach.  Let alone all that stuff about Trollope knocking off a few thousand words before even having a cup of tea, and then doing a full 9 to 5 as a postie.

Now ensconced in the Poets House on the seafront where poets were gathering last night for a bit of pre-match banter and limbering up (over several bottles of excellent Chilean red) – The first person I see when I walk off the street is  J O Morgan at the kitchen table talking enthusiastically about Ted Hughes.  But then the man’s been locked up in solitary confinement for a week in Thorpeness as part of his winnings for last year’s Aldeburgh First Collection Prize (‘a week of writing space’), which would make anyone want to hold forth a bit.  Wonder what they do to you if you lose?   (Joe is reading this evening with Matthew Caley and Don Paterson.)

Topics on the agenda over dinner are:  whatever happened to (‘For Lizzie and’) Harriet Lowell after all those poems about her;  was Lowell patrician and snobbish about his Irish servants;  what mobile signal works here?  And a brief foray on Iraq, but as everyone was in complete agreement, we moved on……. 


(c) Peter Everard Smith


Thursday 15.00     Just off to the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival  – sadly not in the Oldsmobile on the right, as suggested in the festival e-letter, but a more sedate beemer – so watch this space as the Festival begins on Friday for posts, musings and comments over what promises to be a long and intriguing weekend: as well as giving a talk and class on the  relationship between travel writing and poetry, I’m to be their official blogger….


The Aldeburgh Poetry Festival blog is sponsored by Writers’ Centre Norwich, a literature development agency for the East of England running workshops, competitions, events and more.

Apple Day

November 4th, 2010 No comments

It’s a perfect recipe for a communal village activity:  bring your ripe and surplus apples to the green, have them pulped and pressed to juice, play various arcane games with apples (‘apple bowls’ – quite a few inswingers – , an ‘apple-shy’ with prizes if you can knock them off their perch), eat local pork with apple sauce.  And of course drink copious quantities of  the actual juice, which constantly changes flavour during the day as different types of apple are added to the mix. 

In this small Oxfordshire village by the Chilterns, almost every garden has an apple tree and few can be bothered to store the fruit over winter in newspaper and sheds, let alone juice them, so much would just rot on the bough.   The big communal apple press on the green is satisfying in its simplicity, with layers of pulp in crates, separated by sheets of coarse muslin and with a long lever that everyone from kids to adults can take turns in wheeling around to extract the frothing liquid.

Roger Deakin would have loved it.  The Common Ground group he helped found were some of the first to celebrate the variety of the English apple, so that we did not succumb to a Golden Delicious monoculture (what Roger called ‘Tesco’s Delight’).  He died four years ago, just after completing his wonderful Wildwood: A Journey Through Trees, and is much missed by his friends.  I wrote this in his memory:


Roger Deakin
(1943 – 2006)


The dark red windfalls from our apple tree

reproach me silently;  I never knew

their name or provenance until you died

so suddenly;  or cared about the orchard

with its Russets, Bramleys, old Charles Ross,

the quince tree pregnant with unwanted fruit,

a mulberry staining the cut-grass red; 


and now you’re dead;  and there’s no chance

to walk your coppiced woods again, or hear

that rich, smoked voice describing how

the railway shed has fresh clean linen

always waiting for you on its bed

in a bower of alder and ash.

Roger, I eat this apple for you:


The Devonshire Quarrendon Red.