Friday 30 November 2007

The Borders: Poet in the City - W. H. Auden, 'Eye Rhymes' Book Launch, Brompton Oratory, & Armani’s ’Privé Boi d’Encens’

At nights I weep and cannot sleep
Moonlight to me recalls
I never saw her waterfronts
Nor she my waterfalls
I decided to set off for the Poetry Library in the Royal Festival Hall where I spent a bit of time browsing through the small but splendid bookshop and the very good second-hand bookstall outside.

The South Bank seems to be territory mostly for couples, as is the nearby Trafalgar Square with almost everyone taking photos I found uploaded to Flickr later that night, scary! They had installed a huge statue to promote the Tutankhamen Exhibition at the O2 (formerly known as the Millennium Dome) but it is not of King Tut. It is actually Anubis the dog-god, several of whose species guard the underworld. He also appears in The Holy Quran as the unnamed gatekeeper of hell.  I sat by the ever-flowing fountains before heading off to the Poetry Café (which I hadn't visited in ages).

I've always loved Covent Garden and the Covent Garden night life is definitely something worth seeing. The atmosphere is particularly unique, an unchanging Genius Loci specific to this locale that one does not see or find anywhere else in London.
The Poetry Café was empty, relief, just a gentleman immersed in his writing. I read through an old copy of the Poetry Review in which Tony Harrison's Collected Poems and Collected Film Poems had been reviewed. The writer was clearly unfamiliar with Harrison's work and I even spotted a good few mistakes in it. When I visited the Poetry Café a few years ago with a friend I was just showing him an article that the editor of Poetry Review had written that was up on the wall where they have current poetry-related newspaper cuttings, when Ms Sans-Souci herself trotted suavely in for lunch at a table exclusively reserved!!

‘Poet in the City’ is really doing some marvelous work in promoting poetry in London. They also invite the top people to speak and participate in the events held at venues not generally open to the public. I was invited to the Auden evening through the Auden Society of which I am a member. Past the glitzy Ritz Hotel into Christie's where the event was to take place.

The foyer was bathed in enticing purple light but sadly my name was missing from the guest list and mine was not the only one either – I told the lady I was a member of the Auden Society which seemed to alleviate her worries a bit (she looked me over as if I were wearing a bomb) and she took my name down and allowed me inside.  Auden's poem 'Funeral Blues' featured in the film Four Weddings & a Funeral which the actor Simon Callow recited later that evening along with 'Night Mail', 'Epitaph on a Tyrant' and 'August 1968'.

I introduced myself to Professor Mudford who has now retired. He was the husband of Auden's niece and Auden wrote his poem 'Epthalamium' for their wedding. He remembered my face but not my name! He asked what I was doing now and I said I was writing about the Agapemonites and explained who they were. He was one of the kindest and best lecturers at Birkbeck rivalled only by Dr. Dutton, his lecture on Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest (which roused my interest in Oscar Wilde).  He also delivered a lecture on Tom Stoppard's Arcadia.

The first speaker was Katherine Bucknell who originally co-found the Auden Society and has edited his Juvenilia. She recited 'The Watershed' and mentioned the various types of hats that Auden wore throughout his life, representative of the Chameleon Poet.[1] Among them a working class flat cap (Tony Harrison's mother made him wear one, saying it made him look more working class),[2] a wide-brimmed felt hat, a shop-keeper's bowler hat.

John Fuller spoke next who recently brought out an updated edition of his commentary on Auden.  At Birkebck, Professor Inglesfield recommended that we buy the new and "Fuller, if you excuse the pun, commentary".  He started off by reading from The Age of Anxiety and then recited the poem 'As He Is' which he describes as another Quest poem that "leads to a state of anxiety at which one becomes what he called in theory receptive to religious conversion".  There is a phrase in this poem 'defeat of grief' which Aleem also uses literally in Urdu as شکست یاس and perhaps both terms are unique to the poets and the languages they wrote in. John Fuller said that Another Time was "possibly his best collection" and also quoted Auden as saying that "Really, to appreciate archdeacons, you must know some barmaids, and vice versa. The same applies to poetry".

Lachlan Mackinnon then recited 'Streams' and wondered how serious Auden was. Of course for Auden the truly serious was also the truly frivolous. He pointed out the lines describing Auden's vision of Eros in his chariot:
Suddenly, over the lawn we started to run
for, lo, through the trees, in a cream and golden coach
drawn by two baby locomotives,
the god of mortal doting approached us,
     flanked by his bodyguard, those hairy armigers in green
who laugh at thunderstorms and weep at a blue sky:
He thanked us for our cheers of homage,
and promised X and Y a passion undying.
Professor Mudford said that he first met Auden in 1959 and one immediately recognized that "one was in the presence of genius" in his company.  He related an incident when he and his ex-wife Rita were driving him around London and asked "Where would you like to have dinner?" Professor Mudford said that his heart sank when Auden replied "I'd like to go to Simpson's-in-the-Strand". On the way he started to recite from his latest volume of poems Academic Graffiti. What they heard in one of the (over 60) clerihews from the book went like this "When the young Kant / Was told to kiss his aunt, [typically pronounced 'ant'] / He obeyed the Categorical Must, / But only just. I think you went through a red light my dear".  He shuffled in in his usual trademark carpet slippers and daunting t-shirt, refused to look at the menu and said "I'll have a large trout" then proceeded to sing loudly ‘in a squeaky Brooklyn accent’[3] (much to the bemusement of the clientele):
Take back your mink,
Take back your poils,
What makes you think
I'm just one of dem goils?
Professor Mudford recited 'Miss Gee' with its classic, inimitable lines: 
She passed by the loving couples,
She turned her head away;
She passed by the loving couples
And they didn't ask her to stay.
He then read 'The More Loving One' and 'As I Walked Out One Evening'.  Auden, with his theory of the Good Place (the chief focus of my own writing on him) was, he said "very much aware that we were products of different localities and places":
England to me is my own tongue,
And what I did when I was young.
Auden's niece Anita Money was there but I didn't see her. There was a man from India seated to my right who asked me if I was a poet. Around 230 people attended the evening.

To the Poetry Library then to get Lady Mary Wilson's Selected Poems and New Poems and Stephen Watts' new book The Blue Bag. I sat in the foyer with Mary Wilson's brilliant poems and began reading. I was particularly touched by the lovely motherly cadence of 'To Robin, when a Baby':
Soundly he sleeps, heavy upon the pillow
Knees bent in comfort, fingers tightly curled
Gently quiescent, helpless, unprotected
Trusting in slumber to a clement world.
                 Strange that this child once linked with me so closely
Born of my body, nourished at my breast
Is now a separate entity, a Being
Remote, apart from Me, his thoughts unguessed.
                And that within this little quiet body
Unknown and sleeping, lie his future years:
His dreams, his hopes, his longing and ambitions,
His loves, his hates, his heartaches and his tears
       Soundly he sleeps, heavy upon the pillow,
Knees bent in comfort, fingers tightly curled
Gently quiescent, helpless, unprotected,
Man of the future, heir to all the world.  
Another verse I liked was: 
Just for a moment, time is overset
The past is now, the present is not yet

All, all is changed, and yet, it cannot be!
Now is the dream - Then, the reality!
Behind me were a lady and gentleman that had apparently met after a long time, man single, catching up, chatting about their lives, about what their mutual friends were up to, very arresting convo, the lady: a nurse. I suddenly felt extremely drowsy (probably due to the tablet I had taken earlier). Never felt this sleepy before, I'm otherwise an insomniac (curse of the poets) and unable to coax Morpheus in my own bed let alone in a public place – Took my 'exorbitant' spectacles off, held head in hand and dozed for a few minutes. The man on the sofa opposite was also asleep. It's actually a dream-place is the RFH – I woke just in time for a quick coffee. A very posh-hatted man was there with a Harrods bag who I couldn't resist snapping up on my phone. Was he waiting for a girlfriend? A mistress, perhaps?

Also on the way there I saw a newspaper on the train open bizarrely at a crossword which somebody had filled with swearing, clearly not having had a very happy day.

Behind me in the Purcell Room of the Queen Elizabeth Hall at the South Bank (where last I attended the Poetry International in 2002 at which Frieda Hughes also recited her poetry) were 2 girls seated – I overheard "I loved The Bell Jar. Was in tears all the way through it, terrified because I understood it" said one and her friend agreed to how acute Plath's description of femininity is in that novel and that not only was she terrified by it but so was her mother and that it was so subtle that it was scary how definitely Plath understood human emotions.

Some short films were shown based on Plath's life, bizarrely one of the names in the credits to one of the films was Ella Marshall-Dutton, which struck me ...

Sally Bayley, co-editor of the book which this whole event was convened to plug, considering Plath's (largely early) art work and how it influenced her later work – Eye Rhymes: Sylvia Plath's Art of the Visual, began her talk by saying how her fellow Plathians were at the number one event taking place in London that evening, beating Frank Skinner.  (Frank who?)

There then followed a discussion with Elisabeth Gray whose play Wish I had a Sylvia Plath was commissioned by Sally Bayley.  She had read only the journals and practically none of the poetry until asked to do the play, she also never liked Plath for a long time and explained why. Clare Pollard whose poetry I confess not having read but will do now if only because she mentioned Plath as her first and major influence – She could also quote her liberally from memory which was quite impressive. It is worth looking into whether Plath's landscapes really do get smaller and smaller. From the vastness of Yorkshire (recognizable to natives) to the landscape of her mind:
This is the light of the mind, cold and planetary.
The trees of the mind are black. The light is blue.

       'The Moon and the Yew Tree'.
To the precise blackness and constriction of the coffin in 'Edge' her last poem. There was also much talk of her colours: red, blue, black, blue-black. I've always been interested in this aspect of her poetry and hope to take it up sometime in my writing. It is also worth checking whether red really is always a positive colour of power and triumph. Especially in the light of 'Red', Hughes’ final poem in Birthday Letters, she herself says it had changed to a rather unusual type of blue –
BLUE is my new colour, royal, midnight (not aqua!). Ted never liked blue, and I am a really blue-period person now. With lilac and apple green accents.[4]
Or her reds are usually just reds her blues just blues her yellows just yellows, her blacks, blacks. Clare also mentioned the image of the lidless eye not being able to shut, taking in all visuals.

Afterwards there was to be presented some music by Sally's friend Jack Harris (who also asked a question I didn't understand to which Sally replied "I asked for easy questions Jack Harris!" And to which the panel gave fairly vague answers too). The music was really great and I met him afterwards. A dancer called Natalia Thorn danced amazingly in a revealing bright red dress, a dance based on Plath's poppy poems. I asked Sally if she could sign the book. There were no pens there yet so she had to use the red one which she thought was "Very Plathian".  She signed it 'Dear Rehan. With very best wishes'.  I told her that I agreed with her in that the poet is never the voice or character in the poem but alchemically becomes it in the process of composition, as Keats explained in his notion of the Chameleon Poet. Elisabeth Gray thought otherwise and that all Plath's characters were Plath herself. She said I should have said so (but I never do).  They also mentioned that it was significant that Plath herself recited her new poems to her friend before she died and had recited 'Daddy' in a tone that was cynical, comical or sarcastic and said how funny it was whilst he himself (the friend) was taken aback and pretty terrified by its sheer power and force.[5] 

I also visited the Brompton Oratory – A side door (church entrances nowadays are usually through an unseen backdoor or an obscure side door) opens into an antiquarian library.  A kind old lady led me in through the front door into a strange vast place of aura, mystery and magic. It was completed in 1884 and has a nave wider than that of St. Paul's. Its chapels and altars amaze. A tramp (or a saint) was sitting in the pews.  A lady knelt at the altar to Our Lady of Fatima, the Black Madonna. Don't think I've seen one in a London church before. The resplendent dome which I took several pictures of had an astonishing light coming through to the ground beneath whilst the side isles were dark and daring.

I then went up the ancient lane to the right of the oratory going up to the church of the Holy Trinity, Brompton but found all its doors locked shut. A small flight of stairs led down to a new office that looked like a children's nursery with a sign on the door.

It is such a shame and a reflection on our society when so many of the old churches are long locked and bolted, probably for good. So many of the new ones are being put to use by being renovated into dull, drab charity offices or meeting venues of the Society for the Protection of some sort of vulgarity.

Next I went to Harrods to see if I could find the incense-based scent by Armani that my local perfumist (insisting on her expertise) outright denied even existed. It's called Privé: Bois d'Encens and cost me £140 with a second bottle for £60.

[1] John Keats.  To Richard Woodhouse, 27 October 1818.  The Letters of John Keats 1814 - 1821. 2 volumes, Edited by 
     Hyder Edward Rollins, (1958).
[2] Tony Harrison.  'Turns'.  Collected Poems.  (Penguin, 2007).  162. 
[3] Humphrey Carpenter. W. H. Auden: A Biography. (1981). 261.
[4] Sylvia Plath. To Aurelia Schober Plath. 21 December 1962. Letters Home. Edited by Aurelia Schober Plath. (Faber & Faber, 1975).
[5] Clarissa Roche.  'Sylvia Plath: Vignettes From England'.  Butscher, Edward.  Sylvia Plath: The Woman & the Work.  (1977).