March 2nd 2017
It has long been mooted, out East Lothian way, to restore the ancient ferry route across the Firth of Forth to Fife. Still lost in idle burearocratic musings, I had to instead spin all the way west to the Queensferry Bridges, zip high over the waters, & hang a right into Glenrothes. From here, the modern road system tapered into something from the 50s, as the one-lane roads wound me to the ancient & most reverend ecclesiastical capital of the Scots. Fife was as lovely as ever, a maroon landscape of recently ploughed fields under a crisp, blue sky. Crisp would also be an understatement – as would brisk – for the infernal furnace of cold which bit into my face & through my clothes as I arrived in Saint Andrews. Still things were hotting up in the poetry festival, I found, as I arrived at the towns refined town hall for my first sampling of this year’s StAnza festival. Like bees to the first crocuses of the year, poets & poetry lovers from Scotland & beyond were flocking to the fragrant blooms planted over the winter by Madame Eleanor Livingstone, including Harry Giles, who the Mumble had recently interviewed.
The first hour was to be filled under the monicker of Past & Present, two talks on members of the pantheon within living memory & long since ceased. We began with Neil McLennan – not a poet per se, but historian & historical detective with an ambitious passion to discover as much as he could about Wilfred Owen, admitting that this noble war poet had become almost a part of his family. For me, a poet’s life is just as vital to the account as their works. Poets are like ornate fountains, out of whose mouths gurgles the spiritus of an age – & it was quite an age in which Wilfred Owen found himself.
2017 sees the anniversary of Owen’s 6 months stay in Edinburgh’s Craiglockhart, which during WW1 had been transformed into a hospital for officers who’d been turned crazy by the horrors of the trenches. ‘Craiglockhart is my Oxford,’ wrote Owen, who loved to roam the nearby Pentland Hills, the routes of which have been traced by McLennan & shall be revisited with a party of keen Owenites later this year. Mclennan also described his international search for information, including finding Owen’s poems scribbled down on the back of Edinburgh Café company bills, & delighted in telling us how he believed Owen made the near-final draft of Anthem for Doomed Youth a few hours after he had taught English Literature to 39 boys at the Tynecastle School: a remarkable rumination. He also left us with a cliffhanger, saying that yes, Graves, Owen & Sassoon all met on a golf course in Edinburgh that year, but not on the course everyone thinks they did. He has actually discovered the true belt of blasted green & will be revealed in his book on Owen in Edinburgh later this year. I, for one, was not that bothered beforehand, but after witnessing McLennan’s infectious banter I cannot wait for the answer.
Following McLennan was the reputable Alice Oswald, a contemporary poet with a classical mind, she is the creator of some of our own epoch’s truest poetry. A few years ago she produced an amazing condensing of the Iliad called Memorial, & so was perfectly placed to sing her love of Homer to us. Her introduction in that book reads; ‘Matthew Arnold praised the Iliad for its ‘nobility’, as has everyone ever since — but ancient critics praised it for its enargeia, its ‘bright unbearable reality’ (the word used when gods come to earth not in disguise but as themselves.
Oswald’s patter was purely poetic, abstract in places, keen as a Danaan spear in others, flowing through her talk as breathlessly as the wind she described in both Santarini’s Minoan frescoes & the works of Homer himself. Her dreamlike, metaphysical mind conjured up phrases such as, ‘the Beautiful silence of the Minoans,‘ while at the same time she made a pleasant attack on the stuffy cloisters of classical academe. A Classics student herself, one found as she went on that Oswald had found her own paths through Homer, & was delighted to share them, pouring great disdain on the monotone & sterile translations of Homer – including the one by her hero, Ted Hughes – which had turned the Grecian Swan-words into flightless Dodos. I especially enjoyed her vivisection of Homer’s use of colour, which he had presented in a more intensely descriptive than factual fashion. Dark blue, for example, was used to describe a crowd helmets in battle. She even took time at the end of the talk to point my own studies in the direction of Gladstone, who made the first formal accounts of Homer’s colours.
A couple of frothy coffees later, among the students with faces as fresh as St Andrews in early March, I took my seat in the local parliament, where just like in Estonia one steps in off the street. It was time for the day’s ‘Five O’Clock Verses,’ where from oak-paneled wall provosts from the past looked down on our proceedings painted in their military garb or haughty civilian regalia. Two Bloodaxe Poets were the order of the day, AB Jackson & the highly esteemed Catalan poet, Joan Margarit. First up was Jackson, who read at first from his new book on St Brendan’s voyage across the Atlantic in a little coracle boat, a vividly crafted cycle full of devious literary allusions – ‘Godless cynocephali’ springs to mind – & portrayals of sea-sick priests. Listening to the rest of his poetry it seemed as if puff clouds of description were floating across the mind’s canvas, such as golf balls being truffles waiting to be picked up on St Andrews golf course.
First Love (Primer Amor)
In the dreary Girona of my seven-year-old self,
where postwar shop-windows
wore the greyish hue of scarcity,
the knife-shop was a glitter
of light in small steel mirrors.
Pressing my forehead against the glass,
I gazed at a long, slender clasp-knife,
beautiful as a marble statue.
Since no one at home approved of weapons,
I bought it secretly, and, as I walked along,
I felt the heavy weight of it, inside my pocket.
From time to time I would open it slowly,
and the blade would spring out, slim and straight,
with the convent chill that a weapon has.
Hushed presence of danger:
I hid it, the first thirty years,
behind books of poetry and, later,
inside a drawer, in amongst your knickers
and amongst your stockings.
Now, almost fifty-four,
I look at it again, lying open in my palm,
just as dangerous as when I was a child.
Sensual, cold. Nearer my neck.
Reviewer : Damian Beeson Bullen