Category Archives: Poetry

The Essential Goethe

goethe

The Essential Goethe
Edited by Matthew Bell
Princeton University Press – £27.95

He was committed to empirical observation, but he disliked the mental and physical apparatus that accompanied science: contrived experimental conditions, doctrinaire theoretical models, and arid mathematical methods, as he saw them. His allergy to the formal scientific method limited his progress but also inspired some of his more interesting ideas.

The above, rather like much of this inviting and at times, complex anthology of one of Europe’s most influential thinkers and writers, reads like a modern day assimilation of the most acute comprehension. It’s as if Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe, perhaps the most profound artist of the German Romantic period, were waxing lyrical only yesterday – for such is the translation, not to mention the interpretation of (t)his vast body of work.

And what an unquestionably vast, cohesive and pertinent body of work it continues to remain. As given its sheer dexterity and enormity, is what fundamentally accounts for the work itself successfully alluding to the fact that The Essential Goethe is a one-off.

A one-off, definitive representation like no other.

One of the prime reasons being, it provides English language readers with easier access than ever before, to the widest range of work by ”one of the greatest writers in world history.” Amid these 1007 pages, Goethe’s work as a poet, a playwright, a novelist and an autobiographer, is more than confidently and comprehensively revisited by Matthew Bell – himself a Professor of German and Comparative Literature at King’s College, London, whose previous books include Goethe’s Naturalistic Anthropology and Melancholia: The Western Malady.

As he has written in the book’s Introduction: ” The volume has been produced first and foremost with the general reader in mind, though we hope it will also prove useful for students of European and comparative literature, where Goethe is an important but often inaccessible figure. Readers will find many of Goethe’s canonical works here.”

Indeed, from ‘Selected Poems’ to the Shakespearianesque Egmont (translated by Michael Hamburger), from Faust. A Tragedy (translated by John R. Williams) to the second of Goethe’s novels, Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship; from ‘On Literature and Art’ (which includes ‘Shakespeare: A Tribute (1771),’ ‘Simple Imitation, Manner, Style (1789),’ ‘Response to a Literary Rabble-Rouser (1795),’ ‘Winckelmann and His Age (1805)’) to ‘On Philosophy and Science’ (which among others, includes ‘A ‘Study on Spinoza (c. 1785),’ ‘Observation on Morphology in General (c. 1795),’ ‘The Influence of Modern Philosophy (1817),’ ‘Colours in the Sky (1817-20),’ ‘Problems (1823),’ ‘Analysis and Synthesis (c. 1829)’ and ‘A More Intense Chemical Activity in Primordial Matter (1826)’); this utterly breath-taking appreciation, can only be described as something to behold, appreciate and what’s more, be inspired by.

Where else might one read: ”For all that he abhorred chaos, he knew it could be creative. For an opponent of the revolution, he invested a remarkable amount of creative energy into trying to come to terms with it. What alienated Goethe most from his fellow Germans was the advent of Napoleon, whom Goethe admired and the young generation of German nationalists demonized. But Goethe had long since abandoned any thoughts of German nationhood or even a unified national culture. After Italy, Europe and the wider world mattered more to him.”

Whether ‘drunk on exaltation’ or ‘brimming [with] tears’ amid ‘the mordant storm,’ the Frankfurt-Am-Main born Goethe, was a both a poet and a philosopher of pristine brilliance and, given the era, urgency; a facet I believe the opening quote of this review rather substantiates.

There again: ”Like his father, Goethe took academic study and scholarship very seriously, and both were avid art collectors. Goethe was well read in art history and aesthetics, philosophy, theology, and science. He firmly believed that any creative work, even the very direct and life-orientated poetry that is one of his hallmarks, had to be informed by ideas from these fields; in this broad sense he was a determinedly philosophical writer. This is the Goethe whom the reader will meet in these pages: a lover, a thinker, a scholar, a practical man, a controversialist, a writer of very diverse moods and urges.”

David Marx

The Letters of T. S. Eliot.,

eliot

The Letters of T. S. Eliot.,
Volume I: 1898 – 1922 (Revised Edition)
Edited by Valerie Eliot and Hugh Haughton
Faber and Faber – £35.00

As the English language becomes ever increasingly ingrained within the rancid fibre of acute simplistic-speak; signed, sealed, delivered and ultimately designed for a dumbed-down society of nothing other than moronic moguls – should it be at all surprising that the art of letter writing, essentially died decades ago?

Just so long as (hordes of) white males continue to replicate the switch-blade nuance of many a Camberwell gangsta, and their female equivalents, the saccharine, cloying annoyance of those (s)advertising carpets and/or motor-car-insurance as if on a penultimate edition of Strictly, then we may as well kiss the English language goodbye.

Indeed, the rich and varied language of the likes of William Shakespeare, Thomas Hardy, Samuel Beckett and Richard Burton et al, is moving ever further aside to make way for The Eastenders- Sun-Speak of folly induced, cretinous, turgid, wank, innit?

All the more reason to remind ourselves of how very potent and powerful, inspiring and influential (not to mention wondrous and majestic), language actually can be. And this revised edition of The Letters of T. S. Eliot., Volume I: 1898 – 1922, is as good a place to start as anywhere.

Home in on almost any of these 817 pages (excluding List of Illustrations, Acknowledgements, Introduction, Preface to the Revised Edition, Biographical Commentary, 1888-1922, Abbreviations & Sources, Editorial Notes, Glossary of Names, Index of Correspondents & Recipients along with a General Index), and one will be immediately reminded of what I write.

I would hasten to add that it might help if one is actually interested in the subject matter and the rather magnificent work(s) of T. S. Eliot; but to all intents and linguistic purposes, much of the language herein is of a f-a-r higher standard than that which would nowadays, be hurriedly dashed off by text.

Furthermore, it is surely an indicative sign of the times, that there are so many letters. There again, we are talking of someone who made (some of) their living by way of being an outstanding writer. There again, Valerie Eliot, has since 1988, continued to gather material from libraries and private sources in Britain and America for use in subsequent volumes. Of the correspondence that has come to light, a good many letters date from before 1923, so a revised edition of Volume One has been prepared to take account of approximately two hundred new items.

It might thus be said, that the new letters fill important gaps in the record, notably enlarging our understanding of the genesis and eventual publication of The Waste Land. Valuable, too, are letters from the earlier and least documented part of Eliot’s life, additional correspondence with family members in America along with an ever widening circle of friends and contacts.

Assimilated together, they undoubtedly give a far more detailed picture of not only the poet’s engagements, friendships and daily movements in London during and after the First World War, but they also shed much light on that of his reading materials: ”I received last night by the post a package bearing a label which indicted that it came from the offices of The Dial. When opened, it was found to contain The House of Dust by Conrad Aiken, and nothing else. There was no enclosure or inscription to indicate why the volume was sent to me. It occurred to me that it might be intended for review; and if so, I fear it was a piece of naughtiness on your part at Conrad’s expense.”

Naturally, it might be said that it is with reference to quite possibly his greatest work, The Waste Land, that will invariably invoke and trigger the most enthusiasm among readers.

This, alongside his wanton debt to the equally brilliant poet, Ezra Pound, are mentioned throughout a number of letters in the final quarter of the book, with, as the letters flood by, ever increasingly clarity: ”My only regret (which may seem in the circumstances either ungracious or hypocritical) is that this award should come to me before it has been given to Pound. I feel that he deserves the recognition much more than I do, certainly ‘for his services to Letters’ and I feel that I ought to have been made to wait until after he had received this public testimony. In the manuscript of The Waste Land which I am sending you, you will see the evidence of his work, and I think that this manuscript is worth preserving in its present form solely for the reason that it is the only evidence of the difference which his criticism has made to this poem” (to John Quinn, September 21st 1922).

With exquisite letters written entirely in French by his friend, Jean Verdenal, there are also a number of doodlings and drawings by Eliot himself, that, along with two wonderful sections of black and white photographs; all in all account for The Letters of T. S. Eliot., Volume I: 1898 – 1922, being the masterful tomb of regal recollection that it is.

David Marx

Man With Bombe Alaska

man-with-bombe-alaska-front-cover-96x150alaska

Man With Bombe Alaska
By Kate Behrens
Two Rivers Press – £9.99

I came across Kate Behrens whilst studying the Future Learn course, Literature and Mental Health. She read out a poem called ‘Madonna Blue,’ segments of which at the time, I found laden with profound imagery that struck me as having evolved from something other.

Something beyond explanation, beyond painful:

Misfits on the tufts, stiff,
ant-bitten, we listen
as our battery-driven
Bach Violin Concertos
lift off. We have ptsd
undiagnosed, pencils,
paints, the up-rush when
Madonna blue accedes
Bach’s warping phrases.

That the poetess read it out loud, goes some way in reinforcing the thinking that poems read aloud, really do take on a whole different meaning; especially when they’re merely read off the page. Reason being, I have read and re-read the above lines, but am yet to be transported to the place I originally was – upon first hearing it.

‘Misfits on the tufts’ and ‘Bach’s warping phrases’ still home in, although the remaining seven lines remain a little stilted and disjointed – regardless of imagery.

Suffice to say, of the fifty-two poems throughout Man With Bombe Alaska, there are one or two that do endeavour to ever so quickly, encapsulate the hit and miss and hit and remain scenario of transient, poetic power.

I use the word transient, simply because, although there are lines of astonishing beauty:

on spines of orange lit snow (‘Relief)

where insolent skies gleam eyeball-white (‘We Tread Forwards’)

a birthplace of crippled pines (‘Christmas Ghost’)

I don’t remember every failure (‘Selective Memory’)

Asymmetrical lines
feed the heart salt truths (‘Some Things I Know Tonight’)

they remain nevertheless, one off, and somewhat isolated. Isolated within their own contextualised emphasis of pin-prick brilliance.

It’s a mighty shame most of Man With Bombe Alaska’s poems aren’t surrounded and substantiated with much, much more of the same.

David Marx

An Unbecoming Fit of Frenzy

frenzy

An Unbecoming Fit of Frenzy
By Bruce McRae
Cawing Crow Press LLC – £8.50/$13.00

A pawn shop loaning out midnight
and the musty quiet of tombs.
Where all that’s unwanted goes.
Where dreams die and rainbows end.
And something else, too, you can’t pit your finger on.
                                                                                                                                                                        ‘Lost Ticket’

And something else, too, you can’t put your finger on,” shivers amid the sublime possibility that it could just as well have been penned by the ever great, Ingmar Bergman. As its literary, life-like propensity for silence, along with an abundance of beauty and foregone conclusion, ensures it is a (life)line; far more capable of merely detonating the inner sanctum of long-forgotten bile, belief and betrayal.

Not to mention, faith.
Faith, as in the tiniest, of tiniest, humanistic umbilical cords which, ‘Unashamed in his nakedness,’ substantiates that poet and all round sage-like-being of profound, philosophical persuasion, Bruce McRae, still happens to believe in the human condition.

And all things that continue to sparkle amid the tableau of truth.

That’s right. And thank fucking fuck.
For where else within this increasingly dire and dishonest world of redundant humanity, this ‘swastika of smoking ashes,’ would one even have the audacity to reflect upon the ‘soul’s sweetened annihilation’? Facebook? The X-Factor? The (unfortunate) world according to that utter, out-and-out of very large cunts, Robert Mugabe?

From a mere absinthe induced acceptance of Rimbaud’s Illuminations and perhaps Bergman’s Wild Strawberries, An Unbecoming Fit of Frenzy traverses every appalling, yet beautifully lit abyss that ever was:

The actual second you said something
so profound it was impossible to comprehend.
Or I couldn’t understand because I hadn’t heard.
Or I’d heard, but I did not listen.

‘This Too Passes’

Like smoke, I mow down a hallway.
Like fog, I embrace the chill measure
of a life lived after death-in-life.
An ether, I am wholly spiritual in nature.

One of the lost. One of the living.

‘Haunted House’

Undeniably inherent throughout each of these eighty-two, rather magisterial poems (of which ‘It Is Our Nature,’ ‘Sonnet Despairing’ and ‘Lost Ticket’ are simply out-standing), is their all-round, uncompromising, regal resonance. They can and could after all, only have been written from a life lived. A heart pierced. A dream dashed. A tsunami of books read.

A soul drenched beneath a cornucopia of life’s sorrows.

As Charles Simic once said: ”Poetry is an orphan of silence,” and McRae knows this all    t-o-o well; which, for all intents and idiosyncratically inspired purposes, is something we need to be eternally grateful for.

So buy this book.
Read it.
Embrace it.
Totally devour it.
Absolutely love it.

David Marx.

The Country Of Lost Sons

thomson150

The Country of Lost Sons
By Jeffrey Thomson
Parlor Press – $14.00

In light of the recent hideous and pointless terrorist attack(s) in Paris, this book’s second poem ‘Design’ resonates with all the urgency and poignancy that such an act of indiscriminate, appalling cowardice might warrant:

with snow. It is written that the fulfillment
of the prophet is in the slaughter of the innocents,
streets swimming with black damask,
[…]

As is so oft the case with regards death; words, memory, love, and in the pertinent instance of this book review, poetry, is all that so many of us often have left. If we allow it.

And within the parameters of what these thirty-seven poems convey, we are neither let down nor disappointed, which Terence A. Hayes more than substantiates: ”In the midst of so many fast-talking contemporary poetry books comes Jeffrey Thomson’s lovely The Country of Lost Sons. Here is a book that chooses tender, meditative music over electric chatter. Here are the poems that tell us poetry can still explore and heal earnestly. More than praise, I want to offer gratitude for such an intimate book. After reading it, you will want to offer gratitude too.”

To openly bequeath gratitude, would surely suggest embracing the vision and the words that Thomson has herein bestowed.

So again, returning to ‘Design,’ one cannot help but
be somewhat slightly amazed by the trajectory of human (in)pertinence:

inconsolable women, In Breughel,
[…]
women raking the glaze-faced soldiers
[…]
like grief as a wet wind unravels

Equally so, the juxtaposition of such delicate, fraught benevolence in ‘November Conversation’

and violet, a delicate lemon
with black tears like the eyes
of dogs. The roadside blooms
and trembles in the cold wind.

Or the raw, unabashed power that is ‘Goodnight Nobody,’ a poem, so poignantly anchored within the terrible trauma of what was the Kosovo Crisis of the late nineteen-nineties:

”Outside this room the world is all Kosovo. Mass graves and the arms of children in the rubble. In Lastica, the radio correspondent reports, Serbian militias were looking for one special girl. The town beauty. Unable to get their hands on her, ”They took a 13 year old instead,” remarks NPR.

It’s the instead that gets me, really, the marking of of one life for another, that child taken and torn into beneath the wound-blue moon of her eye.”

Stunning? Harrowing? Beautiful?

It’s not really for me to decide; all I can do at best, is ponder upon, and hope to come to terms with the shimmering raw sadness that is The Country of Lost Sons.

David Marx

The Poetry of Ted Hughes

ted

The Poetry of Ted Hughes – A reader’s guide to essential criticism
By Sandie Byrne
Palgrave Macmillan – £15.99

There are a number of invigorating ways in which The Poetry of Ted Hughes – A reader’s guide to essential criticism can be understood, discussed and indeed, embraced.

There’s obviously, the Early Work, where Keith Sagar classifies ”Hughes’s wildlife work as both of the real and of the unconscious: the life which has been killed off and now marauds in the underworld of the unconscious” […] where Hughes’s thrushes becomes a lesson in the vital difference between humans and animals [….].,” a place ”where humankind has the ‘doom’ of consciousness and choice, which becomes the burden of not knowing what to do, and therefore perpetually questioning, and peering into the darkness for a sign.”

For many, the above alone, could well be deemed ample literary food for thought, debate and analysis. Not to mention the Nature Poetry, where monoliths and lintels were, perhaps still are: ”menaced by demonic protean crow-shapes and God’s voice in the wind – a landscape where the poet ”wanders among ruins, cut off from consolation by catastrophe.”

But for me (and I am sure I’m not alone here), it’s the fourth chapter ‘Hughes and Plath’ which resonates the most profoundly and the most poignantly; the rivalry of which, Susan Van Dyke and Heather Clark write: ”[…] in an article published in The Guardian in March 1965, Hughes insisted that there had been no rivalry between him and Sylvia Plath, as poets or in any other way. He did, however, say that living together led to mutual influence, and writing ‘out of one brain.’ Nonetheless, Van Dyke asserts that ‘Plath’s dialogue with Hughes’s poems is always competitive and her strategy revisionary.”

Now that both poets are no longer with us, all we have to go by so far as any form of poetic rivalry is concerned, is, in all honesty, the astonishing amount of work left behind (by Hughes especially) and books such as this.

That said, when, on page 106, Gayle Wurst quotes from a letter to Anne Stevenson of November 1989 (where ”Hughes reference to having been dragged out into a bullring and pricked and goaded into vomiting up details of his life with Plath, and his preference for silence, even though it could seem to confirm every accusation and fantasy”), all and sundry are to make of it what they invariably will. An insight, which, in and of itself, does make one wonder about the degree to which time has influenced vitriol and/or perhaps benign opaqueness. Especially the sort of which continues to both exist and persist betwixt essential criticism, favouritism and analysis.

Either way, this overtly lucid and insightful book, is a more than valid contribution to the guided/introductory work(s) of the late, great, Poet Laureate.

David Marx

Lines Of Defense

LinesofDefenseWeb

Lines Of Defense
By Stephen Dunn
Norton & Company – £9.99

As is so often the case with a lot of modern day poetry, there is more often than not a few, if not a short burst of one great liners; rather than one elongated great piece of work in the vain of say W.H. Auden or T.S. Eliot.

Quite why this is so, is nigh impossible to tell. Let alone communicate. That said, it certainly isn’t wrong and it certainly doesn’t demean any of today’s actual poetry itself. But it does perhaps suggest that the current poetic bar at least, is, to varying degrees, reams lower than it once was.

However, Stephen Dunn, author of seventeen poetry collections and recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for his collection Different Hours, is an astute observer of the modern world, for whom such urbanity as captured throughout Lines Of Defense, perfectly reflects the home-grown, wit and grit of so much of today’s oft cold, lacerated society:

What’s one to do who has no money
and a hatred of other people’s rules?
A leather jacket helped for some,
and for others a neckline that promised
a descent into a dreamland,
                                                                                              Tracks

For me, the above, fourth poem in this collection of forty-three, stands-out. Whether this is so, purely because it casts something of a cinemagraphic net (through which it’s all too easy to ascertain the ruinous spoils of another), or because ‘Tracks’ wonderfully captures the worldly expendability of myopic, bovine neurosis – is thankfully hard to tell.

Thankfully, because it is the poem itself that works, rather than the subject matter that the poem so eloquently depicts:

Let’s steal a Lexus, one of the boys said.
Let’s take it for a wild ride, and Yes,
let’s paint it piss-yellow, said the girl alive
with anger. Let’s break a few windows, too.
And the man with the credentials,
as if suddenly remembering the viscera
of his part, got quiet, realized nothing
he would say could complete with how good
self-destruction sometimes feels.

There’s a philosophical simplicity throughout much of Dunn’s work, which, once embraced without question, without prejudice or expectation, truly works wonders. And I for one, am wholeheartedly looking forward to his next collection.

David Marx