Archive for June, 2007

Poetry

Traveller asked me about my favourite poets. Well…

Poetry for me is about wonder. I was going to write that poetry for me is about language, but it is about more than this. What I love a poem to do is to prize open a space which had been closed, to turn a moment inside out. To shine with ‘Heracletian fire’, to borrow a phrase from one of my favourites. In the process, it can be joyful, or whimsical, or sad, or funny, but it needs to have this resonance to it, to make something inside you twist with recognition.

Poets who have made me catch my breath, or laugh out loud, or tremble inside, or smile, with awe and wonder: Hopkins, T.S. Eliot, Dylan Thomas, Seamus Heaney, e.e. cummings, Wendy Cope, Sharon Oldes, Miroslav Holub, Zbignew Herbert, Carol Ann Duffy. I like some Anglo-Saxon poems too: Beowulf, The Wanderer, The Wonders of Creation. My favourite medieval poet is the Gawain-poet, or, more specifically, the Pearl-poet. No one knows this person’s name – they are usually assumed to have written both these poems, but no one can be sure. Gawain and the Green Knight is the more famous, but Pearl is special. I’ll write more about it some time. It’s contemporary with Chaucer but a lot more difficult to understand, because it’s alliterative, and in an obscure dialect. The language is completely amazing, like great heaps of shining jewels.

My Phd is about four Australian poets: Les Murray, Randolph Stow (who writes novels too), Francis Webb and Kevin Hart. I love all of them, that’s why I chose to work with them. Other Australian poets I love include Judith Wright and Gwen Harwood. That’s it for now. I haven’t forgotten about Bookeywookey’s poetry challenge – I’ll get onto that soon.

Who are your favourite poets?

June 18, 2007 at 6:49 am 6 comments

Book Awards Reading Challenge

The idea is to read 12 prize winning books between 1 July 2007 and 30 June 2008. Click on the link above for more info. I’d been meaning to read many of these anyway:

  1. The New Life, by Orhan Pamok (Nobel Prize – Turkey)
  2. Hunger, by Knut Hamsun (Nobel Prize – Norway)
  3. Kristin Lavransdatter I: The Wreath, by Sigrid Undset (Nobel Prize – Norway)
  4. The Tin Drum, by Gunter Grass (Nobel Prize – Germany)
  5. Women as Lovers, by Elfriede Jelinek (Nobel Prize – Austria)
  6. Omeros, by Derek Walcott (Nobel Prize – Saint Lucia)
  7. Beloved, by Toni Morrison (Pulitzer Prize, Nobel Prize – United States)
  8. The Secret River, by Kate Grenville (Commonwealth Writers’ Prize)
  9. Midnight’s Children, Salmon Rushdie (Booker of Bookers)
  10. The Book Thief, by Marcus Zusak (2007 Book Sense, Children’s Lit)
  11. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, by Michael Chabon (Pulitzer Prize)
  12. Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson (Pulitzer Prize)

It may be subject to change as whim takes me. I wondered about including more Nobel Prize winners – but many of them looked very depressing. I thought I’d give Women as Lovers a go as it’s set in a remote Austrian village, something I’m quite familiar with. If I like The Wreath I’ll probably read the rest of the trilogy.

Prize winning books previously read in 2007

  • The Hours, by Michael Cunningham (Pulitzer Prize)
  • Disgrace, by J. M. Coetzee (Booker, Nobel Prize)
  • Randolph Stow novels (these have won a variety of Australian prizes)

June 17, 2007 at 3:59 pm 6 comments

Orlando

Kandinsky, ‘Winter Landscape’ (1909)

Orlando, by Virginia Woolf (1928), is about time, desire, and poetry. It is about shifting identities, both personal and national. It is a fairytale with baroque details, a historical novel and a dream. When I read this blurb, how could I resist?

His longing for passion, adventure and fulfillment takes him out of his own time. Chasing a dream through the centuries, he bounds from Elizabethan England and imperial Turkey to the modern world. Will he find happiness with the exotic Russian princess Sasha? Or is the dashing explorer Shelmerdine the ideal man? And what form will Orlando take on the journey – a nobleman, traveller, writer? Man or . . . woman?

It didn’t disappoint. At the beginning it reminded me a bit of Vathek (eighteenth-century orientalist fantasy), but it had a lighter touch than this (it is Woolf, after all). I love the way Woolf can weave a single sentence over a whole page, and you don’t mind. I love the bit where England is hit by a huge frost and the Thames freezes over. The new king turns it into a pleasure park:

Lovers dallied upon divans spread with sables. Frozen roses fell in showers when the Queen and her ladies walked abroad. Coloured balloons hovered motionless in the air. Here and there burnt vast bonfires of cedar and oak, lavishly salted, so that the flames were of green, orange, and purple fire. But however fiercely they burnt, the heat was not enough to melt the ice which, though of singular transparency, was yet of the hardness of steel. So clear was it indeed that there could be seen, congealed at a depth of several feet, here a porpoise, there a flounder. Shoals of eels lay motionless in trance. . .

Isn’t that great! Oh, there is a lot going on in this novel, and it builds to a wonderful, surprising, twisting climax, but it is easy to read, like someone telling you a fairy story. And it’s very funny too. I’ll leave you with this defense of the artistic temperament:

The true length of a person’s life, whatever the Dictionary of National Biography may say, is always a matter of dispute. For it is a difficult business – this time keeping; nothing more quickly disorders it than contact with any of the arts; and it may have been her love of poetry that was to blame for making Orlando lose her shopping list and start home without the sardines, the bath salts, or the boots.

June 16, 2007 at 9:32 am 3 comments

The Story of an Unknown Church


Last night I started reading a short story by William Morris, ‘The Story of the Unknown Church’. I didn’t get very far into it, because it was time to sleep. But a few sentences on the first page reminded me of one of my favourite places in all the world. The story is told in the voice of the master mason of a church built six hundred years ago, and destroyed two hundred years ago.

No one knows now even where it stood, only in this very autumn-tide, if you knew the place, you would see the heaps made by the earth-covered ruins heaving the yellow corn into glorious waves, so that the place where my church used to be is as beautiful now as when it stood in all its splendour.

The mason goes on to remember the church. He can only remember it clearly in autumn,

. . . yet it was beautiful in spring, too, when brown earth began to grow green: beautiful in summer, when the blue sky looked so much bluer, if you could hem a piece of it in between the new white carving; beautiful in the solemn starry nights, so solemn that it almost reached agony. . .

I too remember a church. The beautiful Bolton Abbey, in the Yorkshire Dales. I love walking around abbey ruins. Reivaulx Abbey and Whitby Abbey are also among my favourites. I love how crumbling stone arches frame the sky, how outlines of windows once decked with stained glass now show the dazzling patterns of cloud and sun. I love the ground, where the monks have walked and slept, and I love how the wind sweeps in. The sky seems an appropriate ceiling, and the shifting weather a worthy heir to the monks’ prayers. But I always try to imagine how it would have been – the windows glassed, the arches roofed, the walls painted. There is a melancholy about such open, broken places.


I was thinking these very thoughts as I wandered the ruins of Bolton Abbey, thinking how wonderful it would be to see this place as it was then. And then I turned a corner, and found a door, opened it, and stepped inside.

The nave of Bolton Abbey is still in use. You can attend church services. There is a roof and windows, paintings on the walls. I hadn’t known this, and it seemed like an apparition come to life, a fragment of history. The wall paintings aren’t old ones, but they are lovely. Twining stems of lillies cover the back wall. This seemed right, too – nature brought inside. The abbey is set in the most wonderful grounds – there is a river with stepping-stones, and thousands of trees. You can walk along the river and then up into the dales – truly a magical place, ‘as beautiful now as when it stood in all its splendour’.


Cross-posted at Northern Lights.

June 14, 2007 at 7:05 am 2 comments

Why I read what I read

It’s a mix, really. But there are three guiding principles: to get to know my academic field (margins as well as centres); to read the sort of books I’d like to write; and finally, for pure pleasure.

The first category is rather broad. It includes postcolonial fiction, especially Australian, anything written in the Middle Ages (5th to 14th centuries, as well as Classical works which influenced these centuries), anything written after the Middle Ages (any time up till now) which refers in some way to the Middle Ages, and of course academic books and articles about these topics. I suppose I should be catching up on the theorists too.

The second category, books I’d like to write, is veering towards young adult fiction of a magical nature. That’s sort of what I wrote the first time. I say sort of because I don’t think it fits neatly into a genre, which is partly why it took so long to write – 10 years, on and off. I’m currently seeking an agent – a painstaking process. This time I’d like to write something with a neater structure – a structure I have in mind before I begin. Books I’ve read recently in this category include Lian Hearn (Gillian Rubenstein)’s marvellous The Nightingale Floor trilogy. It’s an epic adventure set in a land reminiscent of medieval Japan. The story is gripping, the writing is beautiful, and I just loved them. There’s actually a fourth one waiting for me in Leeds – I’ll tell you all about it when I’ve read it.

The third category – pure pleasure – obviously overlaps with the first two. I love beautiful writing. I love a light touch. I love fantasy, of the Gaiman and Pullman kind. Of the novels I’ve written about so far on this blog, I’ve enjoyed The Hours the best.

So on my rather hazy to be read list are: 19th and early 20th century Australian literature (I haven’t read much of this and feel that I should), Beloved, by Toni Morrison (often is mentioned in postcolonial contexts, and I’ve a feeling it’s a great book), more Walter Scott (I read and loved Ivanhoe earlier this year), and oh, lots more. I want to read some Gail Jones. I want to start re-reading Chaucer, as my recollection of some of The Canterbury Tales is getting rather hazy. I’ve decided to bite the bullet and buy a second copy of The Riverside Chaucer (big lump of a thing that just will not fit in my bag and so must remain in Adelaide). Any recommendations? Why do you read what you read?

June 11, 2007 at 2:48 pm 4 comments

Les Murray

Okay, in response to popular demand – the marvelous, magical Les. Maybe writing a bit about him here will spur me on to my worthy task of finishing my chapter. What I like about Les (and you can’t help but call him this) is the brilliance of his language, and the way he builds and layers images, charging them with emotion and hope. He is Australia’s most internationally acclaimed poet, and I think this has something to do with the huge volume of his output, as well as its quality, and the way he often consciously writes about Australia, especially country Australia, thus appealing to international markets who want to think about Australia in this way. And he’s won lots of prizes. Above all this, however, is his poetry’s utter brilliance. Not all of it – not all the time. But reading his work, you often come across a poem, a stanza or a phrase which makes you gasp, or flips you inside out, or makes something inside you sing, or just astounds you, and you know – here is no ordinary poet. This is something special.

His early poems are perhaps the most accessible. ‘Spring Hail’, ‘Noonday Axeman‘, and ‘An Absolutely Ordinary Rainbow‘ are often taught in High School and are all incredible. Going on from there, must-reads include ‘Equanimity’, ‘Bent Water in the Tasmanian Highlands’, ‘Shower‘, and ‘The Quality of Sprawl‘ from The People’s Otherworld, and the heartbreaking ‘The Last Hellos‘ from Subhuman Redneck Poems. He has also written verse novels, and his recent Fredy Neptune is well worth a read. A special favourite of mine (because I grew up there) is ‘Cave Divers Near Mt Gambier‘, where ‘chenille-skinned people’ descend into sinkholes:

Here in the first paddocks, where winter comes ashore,
mild duckweed ponds are skylights of a filled kingdom. . .

. . . Crystalline polyps

of their breathing blossom for a while, as they disturb
algal screens, extinct kangaroos, eels of liquorice colour

then, with the portable greening stars they carry under,
these vanish. . .

I love the way he describes the sink-holes as ‘skylights of a filled kingdom’ – that’s just what they’re like – these vast underwater caverns with such harmless looking entrances.

But I could go on forever. My chapter is already 16,000 words, and that’s just on Les Murray and medievalism. For a concise introduction for my thoughts on this matter, you can look at Bard’s Venerable Vernacular, an article based on a conference paper I gave in February, that was (to my great excitement) published in the Australian. My absolute favourite Les Murray poems, however, are in Translations From the Natural World. That’s just what they are – voices of animals and plants, speaking. Such as Pigs: ‘Us all on sore cement was we.’ And ‘Migratory’:

I am the nest that comes and goes,
I am the egg that isn’t now
I am the beach, the food in sand,
the shade with shells and the shade with sticks.

In this collection Murray does really amazing things with language, tense, grammar and perspective. The ‘Cockspur Bush’ says: ‘I am lived. I am died.’ Murray records the voices of bats in Bats’ Ultrasound:

ah, eyrie-ire, aero hour, eh?
O’er our ur-area (our era aye
ere your raw row) we air our array,
err, yaw, row, wry – aura our orrery,
our eerie ΓΌ our ray, our arrow.

A rare ear, our aery Yahweh.

When I discovered this stanza I nearly died of amazement. And I really love ‘Possum’s Nocturnal Day’, which describes the possum’s exciting nocturnal adventures, then ends:

but then, despite foliage,
my cool nickel daytime bleaches into light
and loses me the forest genes’ infinite air of sprung holds.
My eyes all hurt branchings
I curl up in my charcoal trunk of night
and dream a welling pictureless encouragment
that tides from far but is in arrival me
and my world, since nothing is apart enough for language.

June 5, 2007 at 7:08 am 8 comments

New Books

I just arrived in Norway with a backpack stuffed full of library books and not as many clothes as I had hoped to fit in. Before I got here, I indulged in a bit of on-line book buying. Not all of them managed to fit in the backpack (or even arrived before I left), but here’s what I have to look forward to:

  • Monster Blood Tattoo, by D. M. Cornish (last time I was in Adelaide all my friends were raving about this new Adelaide writer. Unfortunately it’s a big heavy hardback so I’ll have to wait till I get back to Leeds before I read it.)
  • News From Nowhere and Other Writings, by William Morris
  • Hunger, by Knut Hamsun (apparently a Norwegian classic along the lines of Dostoevsky, but more depressing – better make sure I’m in a cosy place before I read it)
  • Kristin Lavransdatter I: The Wreath, by Sigrid Undset (a Norwegian novel set in the Middle Ages! When I came across a mention to this book on Books Are My Superpower, how could I resist! Unfortunately this one didn’t arrived till after I’d left)
  • The Green Knight, by Iris Murdoch (yep, more medieval references)

At the moment I’d reading Orlando by Virginia Woolf, and writing a thesis chapter on Les Murray, so maybe I’ll post a bit about him, too.

Oh, and here’s a link to the blogroll game – good fun if you want to meet other book-bloggers!

June 2, 2007 at 8:26 pm 5 comments


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