On the 75th anniversary of the death of John Jarmain, let us celebrate the immortal voices of two of our most cerebally gritty War Poets
O send me great opponents! Day by day
The precious hours like vacant windows passed,
The petty vision & the soft delay.
These bring defeat & rust the sword we bear,
Diminish each bright purpose, till at last
All’s wasted, & the heart’s too dull to care.
On the 26th of this month it shall be seventy-five years exactly since the death of Major John Jarmain, killed-in-action in Normandy during the Allied reconquista of France. The major was a poet, & his death took place at Ste Honorine in Chardonnerette, a commune celebrated before the war as the most beautiful in the Calvados. His second-in-command at the time, John Paul Kaestlin, described the shared loss of one of English poetry’s succinctly sublime stars, at the tender age of 33.
I was awakened at 5 in the morning by his batman in a state of obvious agitation. The major had been hurt; he thought seriously. They had left together at 4 o’clock in his jeep. All was perfectly quiet as they drove over the crest & down the long incline to Honorine; but, as luck would have it, on arrival at the village they found the tanks still moving out into position. The noise had attracted the Hun & a mortar concentration had come over as they reached & were held up at the cross-roads. Jarmain, walking, had dived for a slit-trench by the roadside. He never got there. I got down to Honorine as fast as I could make it. By now, however, it was fully light, & I had to walk most of the way. When I got there he had been dead for some time, & there had evidently been no hope. A piece of shrapnel had entered the base of the skull & he had died, while being evacuated, without regaining consciousness.
Jarmain was buried in the 6th Airborne Cemetery at Ranville. He has been remembered since as a leader, a hero & also a poet of the purest calibre. He left the world a desperately slender collection, among which stand poems that should rank alongside those of Owen & Sassoon among those memorials from the front-line that present an unmisted eyeglass into what it was like to actually fight in those terrible two World Wars of the early 20th Century. For the Great War Poets, especially after 1917, war poetry was all about recording the awful bloodshed & senseless loss of life; when death flew over a battlefield in a thousand & one ways to ravage & maim- the sonic boom of a shrapnel shell was one, turning insides to jelly just before they are pierced by hundred slices of jagged iron hurtling through them at 7000 miles an hour. Asphyxiation is another, gripped by the throat by the fierce hands of an enemy soldier whose bullets had all been spent, & whose bayonet had snapped. By Jarmain’s poetry, the blood and guts had been replaced by a pathos even more effective at touching the reader’s spirit.
Men prove their purpose, in the dangerous hour,
Their brief excelling brilliance is disclosed:
When threatened most the soul puts forth its flower
Jarmain’s poetry flourished in the North African desert, distilling his experiences in the gaps between battle to the light of a doover’s candle. These magical lines were then sent back to England in numbered airmail letters to his wife. He served in the Eighth Army, with the 51st Highland Division, in whose ranks was a Scottish intelligence officer called Hamish Henderson. Jarmain would have attended Henderson’s lectures & briefings, but what they talked about together is unknown to us. We possess no Edward Trelawney here, jotting down the conversations of Byron & Shelley in Pisa, but what we do know is that Jarmain & Henderson are two supremely talented poets, whose works concerning the Desert War are priceless gems in the treasury of English poetry.
In John Jarmain’s work, the mud of the Somme is replaced by desert landscape. Jarmain becomes a connoisseur of sand as he studies its shapes and shifting colours under different climatic conditions
Professor Tim Kendall
Poetically, one can really feel the Italian influence in the anima of Jarmain – he had visited the country many times & spoke near fluent Italian. He also produced one novel in his brief lifetime, Priddy Barrows, published by Collins in the year of his death. If novels are an oblique window into an author’s mind, then the following passage could tell us all we need to know about Jarmain’s personality.
I don’t think he could explain himself, in fact I’m sure he couldn’t. I don’t believe he knows himself why he does as he does. But I’m perfectly sure that once he’s said he’ll do a thing he’ll do it, & no one on earth will stop him. He’s queer.
The best way to appreciate Jarmain is through James Crowden’s 2012 book, Flowers in the Minefields, which places a delicious biograph alongside the poems, with the whole being perfectly embellished by photographs, commentaries & contemporaneous biographical material. The overall experience of the book is like finding the body of a dead soldier blown apart by a land-mine, & putting the pieces back together in the most human – well Frankenstinian – way possible.
Among Jarmain’s poetical offerings, twelve poems in particular stand out as a momentous record of the soldier’s experience. Henderson is different, he survived the war & lived a long life, but it is in his war poetry that his best writings lie. There are two streams flowing from Henderson’s craft; his ballads were on the lips of every soldiers’ singing, especially one composed for the Christmas celebrations in Cairo, 1942, a skit on the ruling house of Egypt & the corrupt British colonial administration that supported it. Sung to the national anthem of Egypt, the Allied soldiers picked it up with fervent enthusiasm, & despite the phraseology appearing wildly ridiculous (&unprintable) to we 21st centuryites, it retains for erudite posterity the vernacular of the time, of how the soldiers communicated with words. Another ballad was the indignantly brilliant ‘Ballad of the D-Day Dodgers,’ composed in response to a condescending remark by Lady Astor about troops on the Mediterranean front. In an insane speech, she had suggested that those soldiers who were bogged down by the mountain fighting in Italy were in some way avoiding the invasion of Normandy.
We’re the D-Day Dodgers, out in Italy –
Always on the vino, always on the spree.
8th Army scroungers and their tanks
We live in Rome – among the yanks.
We are the D-Day Dodgers, way out in Italy…
Naple and Cassino were taken in our stride,
We didn’t go to fight there – we went there for the ride.
Anzio and Sango were just names
We only went there to look for dames –
The artful D Day-Dodgers, way out in Italy
Henderson’s ‘Elegies for the Dead in Cyrenaica,’ begun fragmentedly in Autumn 1942 & published in 1947, was his tribute to the war in North Africa. Composed in gluts within such recollective moments as when pole-axed by dysentery, the Eelgies are full of compassion for the victimisation of ordinary soldiers, constantly bubbling with an unvisceral, yet emotional truth. When the Elegies are lain beside Jarmain’s poetry, the comblended whole forms a concise reflection of what it was truly like to fight in the desert, a colourful diaspora of experiences to colour in the gaps on those grainy black & white cinereels from the 1940s. By cherry-picking the best of these – sometimes in passages, sometimes whole poems – & laying them by Jarmain’s sublime dozen, we may create the most valuable of poetical testaments to war, composed by the last of those to experience men murdering men on an industrial scale.
I’ve walked this brazen clanging path
In flesh’s brittle arrogance
To chance the simple hazard, death,
Regretting only this, my rash
Ambitious wish in verse to write
A true & valued testament.
Among Henderson’s Elegies, his 7th, Seven Good Germans discusses the backgrounds of enemy soldiers, those ‘seven poor bastards,‘ buried in the desert. The title bounces with deepest irony off the shadowy barrack-proverb, ‘the only good German is a dead one,‘ & Henderson yanks the humanity out of the indifferences of slaughter with such awesome poetry as;
The third had been a farm-hand in the March of Silesia
& had come to the desert as fresh fodder for machine guns
His dates are inscribed on the files, & on the cross-piece
Henderson had found it hard to get this particular poem published in the stuffy literary environs of the ‘Cairo Cage’ & the Salamander Oasis magazine. ‘My Elegy for the German Dead,’ he wrote in a letter to John Spiers, Spring 1943, ‘has been turned down by the Cairo censor – so I hear – from the editors of Orientations, because such morbid writings have a depressing effect on troops! What a laugh. However, it may be more expedient in every way to publish it after the war.’ That Henderson was kept out of the magazines shows how much his work really matters – for the truth suppressed is the greatest truth of all. Of his refusal to bend to the literary conventions of the day, Henderson scribbled a cutting paragraph is his personal copy of Orientations for May 1942.
When I gave them poetry that was neither Audenry nor Spenderish but coarse, sensual, numinous & song-like, acknowledging as influences Lorca, Heine, Clare, Dunbar & Burns & drawing much vigour from my association with Scots & Irish working class people, they squealed & scooted
Towards the end of the summer of 1942, General Bernard Montgomery arrived in North Africa to take command of the Eighth Army. Rommel, the ‘Desert Fox,’ had been running rampant all over the desert, but would be finally stopped in late October by the British & Commonwealth troops in a furious, world-hinging battle named after an obscure train station 40 miles from Cairo – El Alamein. The 51st Highland Division fought in the battle, & it is in the terrifying white heat of its slaughter that the English poet Jarmain & the Scottish makar Henderson became, one would say, true poets of war.
There are many dead in the brutish desert,
who lie uneasy
among the scrub in this landscape of half-wit
stunted ill-will. For the dead land is insatiate
and necrophilous. The sand is blowing about still.
Many who for various reasons, or because
of mere unanswerable compulsion, came here
and fought among the clutching gravestones,
shivered and sweated,
cried out, suffered thirst, were stoically silent, cursed
the spittering machine-guns, were homesick for Europe
and fast embedded in quicksand of Africa
agonized and died.
And sleep now. Sleep here the sleep of dust.
Jarmain was certainly ready to compose war poetry, for he had gone to school in Shrewsbury Owenlike Wilfred twenty years before him. A deep part of Jarmain’s spirit was aware of both his ability & sensibility to match that genius-bard of the Great War. Time, it seemed, had randomly chosen the period of his poetry’s burgeoning in which to enact a new great slaughter. Time had called him to be a witness poet, whose moral responsibility to speak for the dead would transpose into words, with articulate beauty, the brutality & discordance of war. He – & Hamish Henderson of course – now had a dual duty; to fight for the country & to sing for its dead!
I have read the poems with real interest & mounting admiration
Professor Jon Stallworthy
“If I must die, forget these hands of mine / That touched your body into tiny flames,” were two staggeringly authentic lines composed by Jarmain to his second wife, Beryl, in early 1939. In them we have this poet’s encapsulation – he would wear the tradition (Brooke’s ‘If I should die, think only this of me’) of the art, while carving his own beauties in the rock.
Let us now look focus on one moment in the historiography of the two poets; at certain poems, passages of poems & the odd bit of prose which tell a small sliver of the story of that famous battle at Alamein, fought in furnace heat, which prevented the Nazi flag being draped over the pyramids.
Opening of an Offensive
(a) the waiting
Armour has foregathered, snuffling
through tourbillions of fine dust.
The crews don’t speak much. They’ve had
last brew-up before battle. The tawny
deadland lies in silence
not yet smashed by salvoes.
No sound reaches us
from the African constellations.
The low ridge is too quiet.
But no fear we’re sleeping,
no need to remind us
that the nervous fingers of the searchlights
are nearly meeting & time is flickering
& this I think in a few minutes
while the whole power crouches for the spring.
X-20 in thirty seconds. Then begin
(b) the barrage
Henderson describes the intense bombardment of the German lines which marked the opening of the battle, an epic moment in which minute details would embed themselves into his receptive psyche. For Henderson, the sight of two searchlights crossing in the skies at the start of the battle evoked the saltire of Saint Andrew, & gave the 51st an almost hallowed role in the battle. Henderson would actually be wounded, leaping into a slit trench to avoid a stuka attack, a momentary dashing which damaged ligaments & vertebrae to plague him through the rest of his life. Another Scottish poet was also wounded at Alamein, Sorley Maclean, blown 30 feet through the air by a landmine going off in his vicinity. He was wounded in the leg and broke several bones in his feet, but would survive to become one of Scotland’s greatest 20th century poets.
Whatever his desire of mishap,
his innocence or malignity,
he showed no pleasure in his death
below the Ruweisat Ridge.
A bombadier during the battle, F.E. Hughes, submitted the following piece to a title called ‘Poems from the Desert,’ a World War II anthology of Eighth Army poems of which Monty introduced as compsed, ‘at the very time that the Desert Army was wholly engaged in hitting Rommel & all his forces “Right out of Africa for Six.”
There’s a Devil in the dawn –
Horrific spawn of last night’s hideous moon,
That hung above the gun’s inferno
And smiled on men who died too soon.
There’s a Devil in the dawn –
See him fawn on those who served him well,
Who, blinded, deafened, breathed the cordite reek,
Fed the ravening guns, and swore that it was hell.
The Devil will demand his pay
In blood to-day; but those who pass in sunlight will
not see the Moon
Serenely light a desert hell for men who live
And smile on those who die too soon.
The next brief masterpiece of a poem, ‘At a War Grave,’ was composed by Jarmain towards the very end of the battle, after visiting the grave of his good friend Ebenezer Ell, slain by an 88 shell.
No grave is rich, the dust that herein lies
Beneath this white cross mixing with the sand
Was vital once, with skill of eye and hand
And speed of brain. These will not re-arise
These riches, nor will they be replaced;
They are lost and nothing now, and here is left
Only a worthless corpse of sense bereft,
Symbol of death, and sacrifice and waste.
An even greater friend of Ebenezer Lee was Harry Garrett, a sergeant in the 51st Highland Division, who experienced the horror of seeing Ebenezer blown to bits beside during the battle. This near-miss was one of many which earned him the nickname, ‘Lucky Harry,’ among whose charming, grounded verses we may read;
I knew that death is but a door.
I knew what we were fighting for:
Peace for the kids, our brothers freed,
A kinder world, a cleaner breed.
I’m but the son my mother bore,
A simple man, and nothing more.
But – God of strength and gentleness,
Be pleased to make me nothing less.
Help me, O God, when Death is near
To mock the haggard face of fear,
That when I fall – if fall I must –
My soul may triumph in the Dust.
From the general wastings of life through war, the emotional explosions of Jarmain & Henderson have flown from the desert into eternity. Among them stands Jarmain’s rightfully widely-anthologized poem, El Alamein. It was composed 5 months after the events described, during a different battle, the mauling at Mareth in Tunisia. In an essay contained in Crowden’s book, by a battery captian called Joe Dean, we can see the poem being composed;
I remember an evening during the battle of Mareth when by the light of his parrafin lamp he was struggling with a poem on the battle of Alamein
One expects that the shock of Alamein had subsided, leaving fresh memories encrusting in his creative storehouses. It would only take the sounds of battle to shake them from their beds.
There are flowers now, they say, at Alamein;
Yes, flowers in the minefields now.
So those that come to view that vacant scene,
Where death remains and agony has been
Will find the lilies grow –
Flowers, and nothing that we know.
So they rang the bells for us and Alamein,
Bells which we could not hear:
And to those that heard the bells what could it mean,
That name of loss and pride, El Alamein?
– Not the murk and harm of war,
But their hope, their own warm prayer.
It will become a staid historic name,
That crazy sea of sand!
Like Troy or Agincourt its single fame
Will be the garland for our brow, our claim,
On us a fleck of glory to the end:
And there our dead will keep their holy ground.
But this is not the place that we recall,
The crowded desert crossed with foaming tracks,
The one blotched building, lacking half a wall,
The grey-faced men, sand powdered over all;
The tanks, the guns, the trucks,
The black, dark-smoking wrecks.
So be it: none but us has known that land:
El Alamein will still be only ours
And those ten days of chaos in the sand.
Others will come who cannot understand,
Will halt beside the rusty minefield wires
And find there – flowers.
I shall leave this essay with one final poem, which blew anonymously into a slit trench at El Afhelia during a heavy bombardment. It was only a couple of weeks after El Alamein, the Desert Fox & his Afrika Korps were still visciously snarling like a freshly wounded lion. It appeared as the closing piece in the ‘Poems from the Desert’ anthology.
A Soldier—His Prayer
Stay with me, God. The night is dark,
The night is cold: my little spark
Of courage dies. The night is long;
Be with me God, and make me strong.
I love a game; I love a fight.
I hate the dark; I love the light.
I love my child; I love my wife.
I am no coward. I love Life,
Life with its change of mood and shade.
I want to live. I’m not afraid,
But me and mine are hard to part;
Oh, unknown God, lift up my heart.
You stilled the waters at Dunkirk
And saved Your servants. All Your work
Is wonderful, dear God. You strode
Before us down that dreadful road.
We were alone, and hope had fled;
We loved our country and our dead.
And could not shame them; so we stayed
The course and were not much afraid.
Dear God that nightmare road! And then
That sea! We got there—we were men.
My eyes were blind, my feet were torn,
My soul sang like a bird at dawn.
I knew that death is but a door.
I knew what we were fighting for:
Peace for the kids, our brothers freed,
A kinder world, a cleaner breed.
I’m but the son my mother bore,
A simple man, and nothing more.
But—God of strength and gentleness,
Be pleased to make me nothing less.
Help me, O God, when Death is near
to mock the haggard face of fear,
That when I fall—if fall I must—
My soul may triumph in the Dust.
John Jarmaine & Hamish Henderson are two blooms of the same plant, a sweet-smelling desert asphodel whose wafting fragrance touches the souls of all who near it. Away from the sands, Henderson lived a long & fruitful life, reinigorating the Scottish folk music tradition & embellishing his nation’s striving for independence with his poetical insight. Jarmaine was not so lucky, but it in his posthomous life that still speaks to us all. In 2013, a cache of 150 letters written by Jarmain to Beryl hwas discovered in a family bureau. In them we see the originals of his poems, & also his voice as a man, who described his situation in the desert as being one with, “everything liberally sprinkled and intermixed with sand. Can you picture it all?” These letters can only serve to give the future a much wider insight to the one that we have to hand. James Crowden’s book is an excellent start, but I am sure as the decades & centuries flow by, that every word written by Jarmain’s hand will take on some form of quasi-religious status as we look back on one of the last true poets of the ‘archaic’ human dispensity for mass, murderous warfare.
BUY THE BOOKS
Elegies for the Dead in Cyrenaica
Flowers in the Minefields
Continuing a series of classic essays on literature. This month sees one of the greatest Victoria poets pontificate upon the poetic art – originally published as the introduction to T. H. Ward’s anthology, The English Poets (1880)…
The future of poetry is immense, because in poetry, where it is worthy of its high destinies, our race, as time goes on, will find an ever surer and surer stay. There is not a creed which is not shaken, not an accredited dogma which is not shown to be questionable, not a received tradition which does not threaten to dissolve. Our religion has materialised itself in the fact, in the supposed fact; it has attached its emotion to the fact, and now the fact is failing it. But for poetry the idea is everything; the rest is a world of illusion, of divine illusion. Poetry attaches its emotion to the idea; the idea is the fact. The strongest part of our religion to-day is its unconscious poetry.
If we conceive thus highly of the destinies of poetry, we must also set our standard for poetry high, since poetry, to be capable of fulfilling such high destinies, must be poetry of a high order of excellence. For in poetry the distinction between excellent and inferior, sound and unsound or only half-sound, true and untrue or only half-true, is of paramount importance. It is of paramount importance because of the high destinies of poetry.
The best poetry is what we want; the best poetry will be found to have a power of forming, sustaining, and delighting us, as nothing else can. A clearer, deeper sense of the best in poetry, and of the strength and joy to be drawn from it, is the most precious benefit which we can gather from a poetical collection such as the present. And yet in the very nature and conduct of such a collection there is inevitably something which tends to obscure in us the consciousness of what our benefit should be, and to distract us from the pursuit of it. We should therefore steadily set it before our minds at the outset, and should compel ourselves to revert constantly to the thought of it as we proceed.
Yes; constantly in reading poetry, a sense for the best, the really excellent, and of the strength and joy to be drawn from it, should be present in our minds and should govern our estimate of what we read. But this real estimate, the only true one, is liable to be superseded, if we are not watchful, by two other kinds of estimate, the historic estimate and the personal estimate, both of which are fallacious. A poet or a poem may count to us historically, they may count to us on grounds personal to ourselves, and they may count to us really. They may count to us historically. The course of development of a nation’s language, thought, and poetry, is profoundly interesting; and by regarding a poet’s work as a stage in this course of development we may easily bring ourselves to make it of more importance as poetry than in itself it really is, we may come to use a language of quite exaggerated praise in criticising it; in short, to overrate it. So arises in our poetic judgments the fallacy caused by the estimate which we may call historic. Then, again, a poet or poem may count to us on grounds personal to ourselves. Our personal affinities, likings and circumstances, have great power to sway our estimate of this or that poet’s work, and to make us attach more importance to it as poetry than in itself it really possesses, because to us it is, or has been, of high importance. Here also we overrate the object of our interest, and apply to it a language of praise which is quite exaggerated. And thus we get the source of a second fallacy in our poetic judgments—the fallacy caused by an estimate which we may call personal.
Both fallacies are natural. It is evident how naturally the study of the history and development of poetry may incline a man to pause over reputations and works once conspicuous but now obscure, and to quarrel with a careless public for skipping, in obedience to mere tradition and habit, from one famous name or work in its national poetry to another, ignorant of what it misses, and of the reason for keeping what it keeps, and of the whole process of growth in its poetry. The French have become diligent students of their own early poetry, which they long neglected; the study makes many of them dissatisfied with their so-called classical poetry, the court-tragedy of the seventeenth century, a poetry which Pellisson long ago reproached with its want of the true poetic stamp, with its politesse stérile et rampante [sterile and bombastic politeness—ed.], but which nevertheless has reigned in France as absolutely as if it had been the perfection of classical poetry indeed. The dissatisfaction is natural; yet a lively and accomplished critic, M. Charles d’Héricault, the editor of Clément Marot, goes too far when he says that “the cloud of glory playing round a classic is a mist as dangerous to the future of a literature as it is intolerable for the purposes of history.” “It hinders,” he goes on, “it hinders us from seeing more than one single point, the culminating and exceptional point; the summary, fictitious and arbitrary, of a thought and of a work. It substitutes a halo for a physiognomy, it puts a statue where there was once a man, and hiding from us all trace of the labour, the attempts, the weaknesses, the failures, it claims not study but veneration; it does not show us how the thing is done, it imposes upon us a model. Above all, for the historian this creation of classic personages is inadmissible; for it withdraws the poet from his time, from his proper life, it breaks historical relationships, it blinds criticism by conventional admiration, and renders the investigation of literary origins unacceptable. It gives us a human personage no longer but a God seated immovable amidst His perfect work, like Jupiter on Olympus; and hardly will it be possible for the young student to whom such work is exhibited at such a distance from him, to believe that it did not issue ready—made from that divine head.”
All this is brilliantly and tellingly said, but we must plead for a distinction. Everything depends on the reality of a poet’s classic character. If he is a dubious classic, let us sift him; if he is a false classic, let us explode him. But if he is a real classic, if his work belongs to the class of the very best (for this is the true and right meaning of the word classic, classical), then the great thing for us is to feel and enjoy his work as deeply as ever we can, and to appreciate the wide difference between it and all work which has not the same high character. This is what is salutary, this is what is formative; this is the great benefit to be got from the study of poetry. Everything which interferes with it, which hinders it, is injurious. True, we must read our classic with open eyes, and not with eyes blinded with superstition; we must perceive when his work comes short, when it drops out of the class of the very best, and we must rate it, in such cases, at its proper value. But the use of this negative criticism is not in itself, it is entirely in its enabling us to have a clearer sense and a deeper enjoyment of what is truly excellent. To trace the labour, the attempts, the weaknesses, the failures of a genuine classic, to acquaint oneself with his time and his life and his historical relationships, is mere literary dilettantism unless it has that clear sense and deeper enjoyment for its end. It may be said that the more we know about a classic the better we shall enjoy him; and, if we lived as long as Methuselah and had all of us heads of perfect clearness and wills of perfect steadfastness, this might be true in fact as it is plausible in theory. But the case here is much the same as the case with the Greek and Latin studies of our schoolboys. The elaborate philological groundwork which we require them to lay is in theory an admirable preparation for appreciating the Greek and Latin authors worthily. The more thoroughly we lay the groundwork, the better we shall be able, it may be said, to enjoy the authors. True, if time were not so short, and schoolboys wits not so soon tired and their power of attention exhausted; only, as it is, the elaborate philological preparation goes on, but the authors are little known and less enjoyed. So with the investigator of “historic origins” in poetry. He ought to enjoy the true classic all the better for his investigations; he often is distracted from the enjoyment of the best, and with the less good he overbusies himself, and is prone to over-rate it in proportion to the trouble which it has cost him.
The idea of tracing historic origins and historical relationships cannot be absent from a compilation like the present. And naturally the poets to be exhibited in it will be assigned to those persons for exhibition who are known to prize them highly, rather than to those who have no special inclination towards them. Moreover, the very occupation with an author, and the business of exhibiting him, disposes us to affirm and amplify his importance. In the present work, therefore, we are sure of frequent temptation to adopt the historic estimate, or the personal estimate, and to forget the real estimate; which latter, nevertheless, we must employ if we are to make poetry yield us its full benefit. So high is that benefit, the benefit of clearly feeling and of deeply enjoying the really excellent, the truly classic in poetry, that we do well, I say, to set it fixedly before our minds as our object in studying poets and poetry, and to make the desire of attaining it the one principle to which, as the Imitation says, whatever we may read or come to know, we always return.
At any rate the end to which the method and the estimate are designed to lead, and from leading to which, if they do lead to it, they get their whole value,—the benefit of being able clearly to feel and deeply to enjoy the best, the truly classic, in poetry,—is an end, let me say it once more at parting, of supreme importance. We are often told that an era is opening in which we are to see multitudes of a common sort of readers, and masses of a common sort of literature; that such readers do not want and could not relish anything better than such literature, and that to provide it is becoming a vast and profitable industry. Even if good literature entirely lost currency with the world, it would still be abundantly worth while to continue to enjoy it by oneself. But it never will lose currency with the world, in spite of monetary appearances; it never will lose supremacy. Currency and supremacy are insured to it, not indeed by the world’s deliberate and conscious choice, but by something far deeper,—by the instinct of self-preservation in humanity.
The essay continues with a historical survey upon famous poets
StAnza International Poetry Festival
‘Poetry Café’, featuring Harry Baker (8th March)
‘Poetry Café’, featuring Ben Norris (9th March)
Studio Theatre, The Byre Theatre, St Andrews
I’ve decided to roll two reviews into one, because in many ways the ‘Poetry Café’ experience at StAnza is of-a-piece. For example, your ticket entitles you to a drink, and a pie by Stuarts of Buckhaven – you get a choice between macaroni, scotch, steak-and-ale, and chicken curry, and believe me, they deliver more pie for your peso! The chicken curry pies are insanely delicious and, without fail, I’m in danger of regarding the poetry as an afterthought. You get a comfy armchair too.
However, the good folk at Stanza have a knack of picking poets for the Café that they know will deliver on a par with the pies. On the two occasions I was there this year, for example, they put up two Slam Champions for us. First up, on the Friday was Harry Baker, at one time the youngest ever World Poetry Slam Champion. The other amazing fact about him is that he is a mathematician, though really I don’t know why that should be amazing – the juxtaposition of poet and mathematician – because a love of numbers and patterns can manifest itself in both disciplines. In Harry’s case, it can result in poems that are actually about prime numbers. Equally it can result in alliterative displays about proper pop-up purple paper people.
Harry Baker delivers, somehow, with the air of a boy in Year 10, but a very clever boy. If he were wearing a blazer you would want to hate him, but you wouldn’t be able to, because not only would he be too clever he would also be too damn funny. You would let him hang out with you and the rest of the kids who think that school in uncool, he would take a sip of Relentless and say “Bloody hell, that’s strong,” and proceed to tell you the percentages of the ingredients, and then multiply the calories by the number of minutes in a week. He, and only he, could compose a poem about the number of birthdays there are every day, or how many hours he has been alive, or could say that ten thousand days equals 27.39726 years, unless you’re talking binary, and then it’s sixteen.
A panel of five random French people crowned him champion, true, but there is one thing that worries me rather than delights me in his delivery. He has a tendency to let his voice die away at the end of lines or phrases, to the extent that sometimes, regardless of the mic, one can lose an important word and thus fail to succumb to the force of the slam. High point, though, was the poem in which he taught us a brand new word in German: Falafellöffel. As I said to him afterwards, “Das war ausgezeichnet!”
Two slammers means more of the same, right? Wrong. For a start, have you ever had this nagging feeling that you recognise someone’s voice? That’s how it was with Ben Norris. “Who the heck is this bloke?” I kept asking myself. It turns out he plays Ben Archer in BBC Radio4’s The Archers. StAnza sure know how to pick someone for a middle-class, middle-aged audience!
Ben Norris is not as outright funny as Harry Baker, but then he doesn’t need to be and doesn’t try to be. Twenty minutes of his performance was dedicated not to a poem, but to a short story written from the point of view of a young man visiting his gran, who is hospitalised and in the grip of senile dementia. It is written in a style, and was delivered in a style, that demanded and held attention. For most of it the story had a solidity and a flow; towards the end it became more fragmented, but for the listener that was the part which reminded us that Ben is a poet, its fragments signaled ideas, breaths, images.
A Poetry Café performance, you see, does not need to be funny. As Ben launched into a series of poems about the time when his parents split up, and he learned that his mother had been having an affair that lasted six years, he told us there was no need to applaud. And indeed, they were moving, intense, and personal, so we didn’t. Not that they were full of angst or resentment – though he did refer to them as the poems he wouldn’t recite to his family – indeed the poem dedicated to his father’s subsequent partner, Sue, was a work of dedication and appreciation. Strangely enough, this was probably the point in the performance where the majority of the laughs came, if only because Ben forgot the opening words of the poem – ‘The Only Ethnic Minority Dentist in Boston, Lincs’ – and decided to do the millennial thing of reading it all off his phone. And why not. Hand-held devices are now part of the performance poet’s natural toolkit.
It’s marginal which of these two poetry lunches I liked best. I liked them both, I loved the poetry, I warmed to the poets. Ben, by a whisker, though. People slightly ahead of numbers. But do appreciate these two guys, and if either comes to your town, give him a look-see and a listen-hear.
The Mumble have recently, & rather happily, discovered there is something quite addictive about reading the bitter-sweet paeans of Glaswegian poet, Megan Mccorquodale.
I like it when a slim volume of poetry lands on my carpet with the one o’clock post, wee Daisy barking in recognition of the package-size, knowing we’ll be out in the hills soon enough as I ponder over this fresh bouquet of page-uncrimpled poetry. I also like it when I don’t know anything about the poet, which was the case for Megan Mccorquodale, described on her book’s blurb as;
but being as stable as the dust
in the kitchen draft
I was aimlessly thrown around the house today
as fickle as Glasgow summers
After reading Megan’s book, however, I now believe I know her a hell of a lot more intimately than when I first opened the pages of WHAT I TOLD FRANK, her debut collection published by Clochoderick Press. These fledgling poetry publishers have a keen, keen eye for quality, with the noble ambition of declaring their, ‘overall mission is to run Clochoderick as a non-profit service and to use any income to invest in new literary talent.’ So far so good, for WHAT I TOLD FRANK is an ethereally excellent book, in which the viscera of Megan’s voice – all bleeding & skin-gnaw’d – strips back the modern poetical psyche like the faded crumbling wallpaper of a condemn’d Glaswegian high-rise.
In fact the best sex we ever had
was after we argued about the existence of a god
and for a long time I felt like we
weren’t kneeling at the same altar
but in the end you told me no matter what
you had met your match with me
To begin with, WHAT I TOLD FRANK, is less a collection of separate poems, but rather one long unbroken piece of epyllia, like an Eve of St Agnes or something like that. The vast majority of the stanzas are in short, solid blocks of unrhyming free verse. In these Megan operates her mental music is if it were the drone of Milton’s epic organ, monotone but certainly not monotonous. She is gritty, & urban, but not in the cliched way of so many contemporary poets; for her angst contains beauty.
A product of youthful punkdom’s spit & distortion, the residues of those sweaty speed-fuel’d nights linger in her unglamorous lines, as does a woman completely aghast at the world she lives in – but is either too afraid, too drunk or too comfortable to escape. Some of her stanzas were brilliant, some were a little abstract – perhaps on purpose, like a diazepam dream – & it was rare that a complete poem had a full complement of those brilliant stanzas. Her efforts that did were, in the main, Megan’s more dramatic pieces, such as the fantastic I’VE NEVER BEEN GOOD AT PARTIES.
The poem has a final stanza which reads; ‘the shaking soul was the first / to answer the door / the most sober / but when it opened I sighed with relief / grabbed my coat / & followed Frank back out of the door.’ Frank, of course, is Megan’s muse, & companion through their shar’d Glaswegian half-life; & the whole collection is some kind of paean to her imperfect love for Frank who flutters in & out of her creative window like the Raven in Poe’s masterpiece & on the front cover of Megan’s book itself. In the next poem we gain an excellent flavor of her polluted love for Frank;
I can’t write today
when I wash my hands
waiting for the sting of bar work from the night before
I can’t feel the cuts on my fingers
As we wander through the moody, graphic, polaroid novel of Megan’s poetic art, we find her to be an uncomplicatedly natural poet. She extends her metaphors effortlessly. She is definitely neurotic, & obviously a chain-smoker – there seems to be at least one reference to cigarettes in every poem. She is also hypersensitive & hyper-accurate in her observations of the mundane & the marvelous, all of which intrigue Megan but ultimately bore her. But not us, by the way, we’re not bored at all; for she is blessed with the Bukowski droll, the melody melancholic of Barrett-Browning, polished off with the prettiness of Auden. A fascinating book which deserves several reads before, one hopes, the next collection is out. The bar is set very high now, however, so good luck Megan Mccorquodale!
Scottish Storytelling Centre
May 4th, 2018
Four diversely different characters, each with an important story to tell. Maybe too many are recaptured in the 90 minute performance; blink once and you might miss something. One has to keep in mind just how far these guys have traveled to bring such magical words to our attention, with the show taking shape at a residency in Mumbai earlier this year. Each of the stories could have been a full performance, especially the conversation between Sheena Khalid and Eilidh Firth, about the similarities between the industrial nature of both Mumbai and Dundee – in itself was a very interesting history lesson. One has to remember that this performance of stories is still in its conception stage, a work in progress. Four performance artists all with something valid to say.
Jumping from story to story was a bit like a mental dream after a weekend on Magick Mushrooms. Mohammad Muneem Nazir was spectacular, a very confident man, full of grace and musical sparkle. With a genuine spirituality and deep wisdom. A True Sufi. Eilidh is a quiet genius who came across as being more comfortable as a violinist. In a recent interview with the Mumble, she gave an excellent account of the essence of the piece;
A New Conversation has brought together two artists from Scotland and two from India to create new work based through storytelling and music. I didn’t have any experience of storytelling before this residency, so it’s been fantastic to push the boundaries of what I do. I’m particularly excited about part of the show that looks at the links between mill workers in Mumbai and Dundee. The stories from the other artists have been really inspiring and I’ve loved experimenting with music for the show. We decided to call the piece ‘Where I Stand’ and it looks at our connection to our land and place through ancient myths and a reimagining of contemporary stories.
Sometimes during the performance, it felt like I was eavesdropping. It was very captivating & the night flew by. I have known Daniel Allison for several years having shared the performance stage with him at prominent Scottish festivals. He’s one of the best didge players in Scotland and he has already built a solid reputation as a raconteur with a deep wisdom and understanding of Celtic mythology. Like I said, each of these performers was infinitely interesting. Sheena Khalid is a natural actress who delivered quite beautifully, so much so this beautiful Indian mystic has inspired poetry within my soul. Possibilities and ideas became inspired within me. But still it was too much take in. Like a collection of ideas waiting to unfold to their potential.
Brilliant art always works me, and this has not been an exception; it has taken a weekend to process everything that I bared witness to. I think it will work me for a bit longer. The conception of the collective and the merging of culture, the Pagan roots of both Mumbai and Celtic Britain brought to life.
Indeed, my performance poet has been inspired.
Mark ‘Divine’ Calvert
This Friday sees Edinburgh-based storyteller Daniel Allison, Dundonian fiddle-player and composer Eilidh Firth, Mumbai actor, writer and director Sheena Khalid, and Kashmiri poet and songwriter Mohammad Muneem Nazir begin A New Conversation. The Mumble managed to catch a wee blether with the Scottish contingent
Hello Eilidh, so when did you realise you were musical?
EILIDH: I started getting violin lessons at the age of five, but I definitely wasn’t up for practicing! When I was ten I joined a local group called the ‘Tayside Young Fiddlers’ when I began to enjoy playing and after that my playing improved more and more.
Hello Daniel. You are a true international troubadour. What is it about travelling that thrills you the most?
DANIEL: It’s very easy for us to get stuck in habitual ways of doing things, seeing things. Going to a place where nothing and no one is familiar frees you from outdated routines and perceptions, giving you the chance to experience the world and yourself anew. Unless you bring your phone…
You have worked as a chimpanzee tracker. What does that entail?
DANIEL: I worked on a chimpanzee habituation project in a developing nature reserve in Uganda. The job was to habituate chimps to human presence so that eventually tourists could come along and see them. So, we would walk through the forests listening and looking for chimps, in silence, all day, every day.
So Eilidh, you are a relatively recent graduate of the RCS; how did you find your studies there?
EILIDH: I loved my time at the RCS. It was great to be surrounded by people who were so passionate about traditional music. It gave me a grounding in the context around the music – the history, folklore and language – and they encouraged me to start writing my own tunes as well.
Back to Daniel. Creative Scotland have funded you to give four Scottish tours to date, visiting schools as if they were Dark Age courts & you were the travelling bard. Can you tell us a little about the experiences?
DANIEL: I love working as a modern-day bard, but I wanted to have a go at being a ye olden day bard, so I organised tours in which I would walk coast to coast across the country, wild camping and stopping to tell stories at schools along the way. The first one was very hard as I made my schedule too tight, so at one point I walked 28 miles in a day, slept and then got up at 5am to run for miles across the hills in the rain – with horrendous blisters – to get to my next gig. But I learnt from my mistakes and had wonderful experiences, like telling stories outside a chambered cairn on a hilltop on North Uist at sunset, and dancing Strip the Willow down Stornoway harbour at sunrise.
How does travel inspire your creativity & can you give us examples?
DANIEL: I love how people often begin creative practices while travelling, even if it’s just writing down what they’ve seen. I think somehow you can leave self-limiting beliefs at home. For me, I see or do things that stir my imagination, and then at some point they come out in a story. Based on that period in the forest, I wrote a story years later about a Tanzanian boy who is possessed by a chimpanzee, and a novella about an English girl encountering a local shaman while living in a Kenyan nature reserve.
Eilidh, you are in integral member of the Scottish folk band ‘Barluath.’ Can you tell us about the experience?
EILIDH: We formed ‘Barluath’ while we were still at university and I feel like we’ve really grown up together. It’s been wonderful to travel and perform and I love making new music with them.
What is it about traditional Scottish music that makes you tick?
EILIDH: I love traditional music because every player can put their personal stamp on the music. No two performers will play a tune in the same way. I also think it’s great that the music has so much history surrounding it but it’s still as vibrant and relevant today.
…& Daniel, which instruments do you use when you add music to your storytelling?
DANIEL: My main instrument is the didgeridoo, which I play in traditional and contemporary styles, but I also use Tibetan singing bowls, rattles, chimes, drums, jaw harp and a few other bits and bobs to give texture to stories.
What does Eilidh Firth like to do when she’s not being musical?
EILIDH: I love getting out into the countryside with the dog or up a hill – he keeps me fit! I’ve also recently taught myself how to knit so you’ll usually find me cursing under a pile of yarn!
Can you tell us about A New Conversation?
EILIDH: A New Conversation has brought together two artists from Scotland and two from India to create new work based through storytelling and music. I didn’t have any experience of storytelling before this residency, so it’s been fantastic to push the boundaries of what I do. I’m particularly excited about part of the show that looks at the links between mill workers in Mumbai and Dundee. The stories from the other artists have been really inspiring and I’ve loved experimenting with music for the show. We decided to call the piece ‘Where I Stand’ and it looks at our connection to our land and place through ancient myths and a reimagining of contemporary stories.
What will be your contribution to A New Conversation?
DANIEL: The meeting of the mythic and contemporary is a strong current in our piece; I think my job has been to hold the place of the mythic, choosing the right stories and presenting them in a way that shows their relevance to Scotland and India now, and to our own lives as individuals. One story I tell is the legend of a poet who went to live in the otherworld but returned because he missed th madness and sadness of this world. Mohammad and I worked together to explore how his own story of a growing up in and later escaping a conflict zone reflects this tale.
Are you finding connections between European music and stories & that of India?
EILIDH: I knew there would be links between our two countries and cultures, but I couldn’t have imagined how many similarities there would be. I think both countries are going through periods of change and in some ways uncertainties and it’s been fascinating to see the parallels reflected in the stories brought together in ‘Where I Stand’.
To which places will an audience member’s imagination be taken through the event?
DANIEL: A lot of places! Audiences will experience the murder of a giant, Iron Age warfare, industrial Mumbai, cosmic turtles, Urdu poetry, soul-stirring music and an erotic proposition from the goddess of war. I think that’s plenty to go on.
What does the rest of 2018 hold in store for Daniel Allison?
DANIEL: This year I’m going to be working hard to get my novel ready to send out into the world. It’s a dark and bloody adventure story for younger teenagers set in prehistoric Orkney.
What does the rest of 2018 hold in store for Eilidh Firth?
EILIDH: I’m really passionate about music education and when I’m not performing or composing I love to teach. Over the next few months I’m going to be taking some courses to give me some new approaches to working with young people and taking on some outreach projects to widen access to music. I also have a few jumpers I want to finish knitting and a couple of Munros to ‘bag’!
WHERE I STAND: A NEW CONVERSATION
Scottish Storytelling Centre
April 30th, 2018
The situation of the Scottish Storytelling Centre; half-way up the Royal Mile by the old Tolbooth where John Knox used to preach to the passing public, & the World’s End pub, which marked the edge of the medieval city walls; is one of the most historical places in Scotland. No better site, then, for the modern dionysia that is Tradfest, thrust annually upon a receptive public by the TRACS organisation, with TRACS standing for – Traditional Arts & Culture, Scotland. A Monday is as good a day as any for culture, & so I headed into Edinburgh for a double helping of story-hearing.
The occasion was to be two hour-long sessions, divided only by a quick dash of time between performing areas in the Centre. On arrival I noticed that one of Edinburgh’s finest storytellers would be in the audience, the irrepressible David Campbell. He had surrounded himself with a bevvy of intelligent, bonnie ladies, who spontaneously burst out into a rendition of que sera sera in the cafe. ‘Only at the Tradfest,’ I thought to myself, sipping on one of the rather especial speciality beers they have in stock.
The first session was called MARY RUSHIECOATS AND THE WEE BLACK BULL, which turned out to be a celebration of Bulls, Beltane & the Buddha’s birthday performed with highly praisable panache by American storyteller, Linda Williamson, & Japanese harpist Mio Shapley. Linda opened with a tale recorded in 1985 by her husband, Duncan, who sadly died a decade ago. He did leave behind some remarkable works in the passing, including a classically nerve-wracking, mind-bending starburst of fairy tale, the Mary Rushiecoats, all in iambic pentameter with the odd rhyme thrown in too.
Following the charming wicked ogre ending, Mio also told a tale, the Bamboo Cutter, a tenth century story full of treasures & human change, & the oldest survivor in the Japanese tradition. The third tale thrust us straight into the Buffalo Nation of America, a remarkable cross-species flourish of glorious storytelling. Throughout, the ladies made us feel extremely comfortable, & the harp was so hypnotic & that it projected into my mind the harp-use of the Celtic bards in the mead halls of ancient days. In thus mind, I was perfectly set up for the second half of my Tradfest outing.
The second part of my outing was downstairs in the Centre’s main theatre, & went by the rather elongated title that is A FLAME OF WRATH FOR SQUINTING PATRICK. The soul of this story is a Weegieland modernisation of a bardic tale, recited quite engagingly by snow-haired David Frances & accompanied through a theatrical splinter of the Pìobaireachd tradititon with the curiouser & curiouser music of Calum MacCrimmon, a direct descendant of the famous pipers to the Dunvegan MacLeods, & John Mulhearn of the ineffable Big Music Society. When Mulhearn said of the story that, ‘the underlying narrative is easily brought into the twenty-first century,’ he was completely accurate in his sentiment; & as I heard the madcap jauntings of Skelly Pat, Big Donnie, Devil MacKay and Mad Dog Mackenzie, I did rather take joy in the timelessness of a good story well told.
Damian Beeson Bullen