As promised in my post of 27 Dec, here is a slightly fuller look at Elizabeth Bartlett’s Two Women Dancing.
I consider it one of the best books of poetry published in the last fifty years, yet on the first page, in the second poem, we read:
People need contemporary poetry like a hole in the head.
That depends on the poet. They certainly need these poems. We’ll come back to that later though, because the next poem is one of my favourites. “My Five Gentlemen”
Prostitutes have clients, wives have husbands, Poets, you will understand, have editors …
She describes the five editors whose hands she has been in, finishing up with:
Five is dead, of course. His failing health Was a comfort to me, though not to him, Naturally. His death removed one more market For battered goods, and proved a welcome release.
Rest in peace, I thought (for I always think kindly Of the gentlemen who direct me to the pages I am to sit in). I can only hope to be recycled And end up more useful than I would appear to be.
She frequently reminds me of Dorothy Nimmo or Sylvia Platt. Consider for example “Guitars as Women”, and “With My Body”:
With your hand, like that, he said …
and “There Is a Desert Here”:
Come, little creatures, walk on me, Come, little worms, slide on me, For no man ever will again. I watched beetles and ladybirds Long before you gathered birch twigs To beat me in a field – in fun, of course, And I will watch them again, And grow old ungracefully, barefoot And sluttish in my ways.
And she is always so human. Read “Ian, Dead of Polio” and “Farewell, Gibson Square“. Unforgettable pictures of people she has known and will never forget. Nor now shall we. “Farewell, Gibson Square”, for instance, is dedicated to Dr Susan Heath who, if this poem is anything to go by, you would probably fall in love with but certainly wouldn’t want anywhere near you if you were ill. She eventually left, and now, Elizabeth tells us:
Professional boredom has settled in Again, and patients go home whole.
Or “Government Health Warning”, or “A Plea for Mercy”:
For all the poor little sods who shoot themselves off in boarding schools and dormitories, jerking into sleep, and all the prissy girls who ride their horses bareback or wet their knickers and seats at noisy pop concerts …
Or “A Straw Mat”:
I am guilty, she said to me. I didn’t know what to say. We are all guilty, I said, of something, if it’s only living when turf rests heavy on all the people cut off in their prime, or buying this old cardigan from Oxfam instead of doing something real. She said, Like what? I didn’t know. I saw my tears fall on the leper’s foot. What a nonsense. Africa is thirsty for blood and yet more blood, and we wander round the Oxfam shop …
With poems like this around, why would anybody not be reading, not be needing, contemporary poetry?
And “Consumers”, another of my very favourites – but you need to read the whole thing. (In fact, you need to read the whole book.)
Ask me if I ever liked small talk, chit-chat, the smell of a new car, the fat freezers lingering like overweight virgins in shadowy garages. I have to say no.
Ask me if I ever liked the long silence, full of thoughtful emptiness, the bruised smell of geranium leaves, the thin edges of poverty like sides to middle sheets, thin and anorexic. I have to say yes.
Standing in Trafalgar Square I was pleased the skin-heads ate our iron rations. Shouting into the dark I felt at home, the candles in jam jars, the small group of word-spinners sheltering from rain, not ashes.
Ask me if I ever think the nuclear winter will be like a giant freezer full of damaged goodies. Lord, Lord, I have to say yes. After the feast of flesh and red gravy, there will be ice cream for afters, and then, we shall wish we’d said no. Lord, Lord, I tried to say no.
Do people need poems like this? I have to say yes.
Another beautiful poem by the late Kathleen Raine. “I asked of the rose only more rose, the violet more violet …”
Then, I had no doubt
That snowdrops, violets, all creatures, I myself
Were lovely, were loved, were love.
Look, they said,
And I had only to look deep into the heart,
Dark, deep into the violet, and there read,
Before I knew of any word for flower or love,
The flower, the love, the word.
They never wearied of telling their being; and I
Asked of the rose, only more rose, the violet
More violet; untouched by time
No flower withered or flame died,
But poised in its own eternity, until the looker moved
On to another flower, opening its entity.
I posted this five years ago but am reposting it now because it gives in a nutshell something of my approach to poetry – and poets!
I jotted down these thoughts last year while reading this wonderful collection of poems, then put it aside and … came across it again the other day. They don’t constitute a review as such but they are perhaps worth posting.
Is it perhaps, then, not the poetry – or poetry as such – but the poets?
Wendy Cope – like Elizabeth Bartlett, another very observant and sensistive modern poet herself – seems to thinks so.
I used to think all poets were Byronic – Mad, bad and dangerous to know. And then I met a few. Yes, it’s ironic – I used to think all poets were Byronic. They’re mostly wicked as a ginless tonic And wild as pension plans.
Why would Marilyn Monroe and Wendy Cope say things like that? But notice the adjective Byronic. It wasn’t people like Byron, and Chaucer and Shakespeare, Donne and Blake and Shelley, Browning and Tennyson, who gave poets a bad name. Or Robert Graves or George Barker or Peter Porter. Or Auden, who was gay but had balls. (Those of you who don’t read poetry often or much may recall Switch Off All the Lights in the film “Four Weddings and a Funeral”.) Or Eliot, who wore a veneer of respectability that could fool all except those who read and love real poetry, yet beneath the surface was seething with the mad, bad and wild. “I should have been a pair of ragged claws / Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.”
Real poetry. So perhaps after all, it is not just the poets but the poetry. Let me be honest. If a poem neither moves nor amuses me – nor even shock or arouses me – what use have I for it? Yawn, yawn – well-crafted – yawn, yawn – lovely alliteration – yawn, yawn – original rhyme scheme – yawn, yawn, yawn, zzzzz …
“A poet looks at the world the way a man looks at a woman.” Only a eunuch would look at a woman the way many modern poets look at the world!
Elizabeth Bartlett looks at the world the way a woman looks at a man.
No. Come on, Kanti. I’m writing these notes sitting outside a café in Paris – it’s October, and the weather is perfect – and every single male head, young or old, alone or in company, turns to watch every single remotely nubile female body walk past. It’s “a man thing”. Try again.
Elizabeth Bartlett looks at the world the way a real woman looks at the world: amused, aroused, awed, sympathetic, sometimes censorious, sometimes shocked, but always human. Passionately so. And never, ever boring. Apart from Bernardine Evaristo’s The Emperor’s Babe (which I must review!) this is the only book of poetry I have ever read on and on into the night and the following day, unable not to turn the page.
I challenge you to yawn while you are reading these poems!
I’ll write a better introduction to this wonderful collection of poems in another post next week.
The world into which François Villon was born in 1431 was one of extreme contrasts. On 30 May Joan of Arc was burned at the stake in the market square of Rouen. In the same year the newly crowned French king, Louis VII, was hiding from his enemies, shifting from castle to penniless castle. In December the nine-year-old English king, Henry VI, in cloth of gold on a white charger, rode triumphantly into Paris with his gorgeously apparelled retinue, the boy ‘staring for a long time’ at three lovely, naked girls representing mermaids in the fountain of St Dennis. Probably in the same year, but on the other side of the city, François Villon was born in the slums and alleys near the rue St Jacques.
The city was packed because the passage of army after army had left the countryside bare, anything that could be eaten eaten, anything that could be burnt burnt (and anyone who could be raped raped). One of the families taking refuge in the city was that of François Villon, but his father died leaving the family in extreme poverty when the poet was still only a child. That he received an education at all seems to have been due to the lucky chance that he would accompany his devout mother to church and in that way came to the attention of the priest, Guillaume de Villon, who later, probably in 1438, adopted the boy.
But, as Aubrey Burl comments, “there is a wise observation that an urchin can be taken out of the slums but the slums cannot be taken out of the urchin.” And Villon remained all his life a child of – and the poet of – the slums.
Burl is good on everything, but he is particularly good on the poetry. He begins by pointing out that it is much easier to write about Villon now than it used to be. “Censorship has relaxed. Earlier any faithful tranlation was unprintable.” As evidence, he translates for us, in a way that Swinburne was quite unable to in the late nineteenth century, some stanzas from La Vieille Regrettant le Temps de sa Jeunesse (the regret for her lost youth by the ageing but once beautiful mistress of a nobleman), and notes that “François Villon was never mealy-mouthed and he wrote as his old woman, the former courtesan, might have spoken.”
Long arms and groping fingers sly, Fine shapely shoulders, and the round Full breasts and heaving hips that fly Smooth, slick and firm in thrust and pound Against the place where we were bound. Above spread loins my pulsing cunt Between its gripping thighs was crowned With gardened curls across its front. […] But this is where our beauty’s sent, Scrawny arms, hands weak and sick, Crooked back and shoulders bent. My flabby tits? Won’t stir a prick. My arse the same. To tempt a dick, My cunt? No hope! As for my thighs Each one just skin, dry bone, a stick, A pock-marked sausage. Beauty dies.
Yes, beauty dies – a favourite theme of Villon’s and one he frequently returns to, as in the quite different and very beautiful Ballades des Temps Jadis, in which he asks where all the fair women of the past are and concludes each stanza with the line, “But where are the snows of yesteryear?”
Villon lived and died surrounded by death, in a world in which “for the penniless, the only affordable entertainment was a public execution”. “He had elegiac eyes,” says Burl, in a memorable phrase. Villon recorded, like any great poet – or painter – the world he knew.
By the time you finish this book, that world, the Paris of the late Middle Ages and the danse macabre, is home, and François Villon is family.