Monday, March 28, 2016

Philip Larkin is far from forgotten in Hull

 The Philip Larkin statue at Hull Paragon station.
Photograph: Alamy

Philip Larkin 

is far from forgotten in Hull

Monday 7 December 2015 19.38 GMT

What a pity that Mike Godwin (Letters, 3 December) spent the 30th anniversary of Philip Larkin’s death on a lonely pilgrimage to Larkin’s grave in Cottingham. If only he had thought a bit about it, he might have found his way to the Brynmor Jones Library at the University of Hull, where Larkin was librarian for 30 years. There he would have discovered more than 150 members of the Larkin Society, including his biographer James Booth and his formidable secretary Betty Mackereth, enjoying wine and food in their annual celebration of the great poet, surrounded by a wonderful exhibition of Larkin photographs.
As chair of Hull City of Culture 2017, I was invited to speak about “Larkin in the light of 2017”, and did so with the assistance of my cherished first edition copy of  The Whitsun Weddings. The night was a joyous and totally unforlorn occasion, held in the building he loved. I suspect Larkin would have revelled in it. Next December, we shall all be at Westminster Abbey for the unveiling of Larkin’s plaque in Poets’ Corner. I suggest Mike Godwin comes along.

Rosie Millard
Chair, Hull City of Culture 2017

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Jhumpa Lahiri / Closing the Circle

Jhumpa Lahiri

Closing the Circle

Alberto de Lacerda, one of Portugal's greatest poets in the second half of the twentieth century, died this past August at the age of seventy-eight. I met Alberto in September 1993, when I was a graduate student in literature at Boston University. He was teaching a seminar about Fernando Pessoa, and I was the only registered student (there was also one auditor). I had no prior interest in Pessoa, had never heard of him, in fact. But Alberto came recommended. 

When we crossed paths he was a small man in his sixties with a gentle sing-song voice and white wispy hair, but he made a formidable first impression, enough to make me consider dropping the course. My staying made the class possible, but Alberto seemed, in those early weeks of the semester, suspicious of my reasons for being there. He lectured without notes, an intense, virtuosic delivery peppered with occasionally condescending asides. In the course of making a reference to a painting by Picasso or a passage from King Lear, he would turn to me and ask, "Do you know whom I mean by Picasso? You are familiar with Lear?" 

The first of the many things I learned at Alberto's table was not to let these remarks bother me. We dove, our modest party of three, headlong into Pessoa, but in spite of the seminar's singular focus, Alberto's lectures knew no bounds, his mind skipping from Mozart to Duchamp to Dylan Thomas. I brought a pen and a notebook to class, but mainly I just listened. By the middle of the term the class was no longer a class but rather an escape from the ordinary, and I approached our weekly three-hour sessions with the pleasure of visiting a dear and exceptionally learned friend. 

Though Alberto's creative life was no secret, he was quiet about the fact that he was an acclaimed, working poet. Like his hero, Picasso, he believed that artists were born and sustained in the process of studying other artists. His attitude toward Pessoa and the other geniuses he loved was pure, visceral, inexhaustible, devotional. Alberto's mission was not to explain a poem or a painting, but to absorb it. He approached art matter-of-factly, ritually, as one approaches a meal, as if his very existence depended on it. Ever the aesthete, he was also a great gossip. Tea with Edith Sitwell, sitting next to T.S. Eliot at a dinner party—these were among the anecdotes he mentioned now and again. (On Sitwell: "She was a snob, but wonderfully generous to me. And had fabulous hands.") 

He gave me a bilingual edition of 77 Poems, his first published volume (translated by Alberto with Arthur Waley and published in 1955), without fuss one day, inscribing it with a ballpoint pen as I sat across from him in a pizza place that doubled as his public office, on Boston's Commonwealth Avenue. By then we had been friends for four years. Before handing over the book, he turned to a page that was in Portuguese and corrected an error in the text, even though he knew that I did not understand Portuguese and that my eye would never fall there. Alberto seemed shy on his side of the table, as I did on mine. It is always strange to experience, for the first time, the creative work of a friend. And it is rare to know a friend for so long and not encounter the work. In a way, I knew that it was irrelevant to Alberto whether or not I liked the poems. I did. They were transparent in the best sense: they hid nothing. They were fearless and vulnerable, the two things, I was beginning to learn, that an artist must be. I was haunted by the frank expression of melancholy and loneliness, by the combined detachment from, and desperate connection to, the world. Rereading 77 Poems after Alberto's death, I was undone, because so many, written when he just in his twenties, seemed uncannily to predict the course of his life, and to articulate beliefs he held into old age. "The only usefulness of the poet/Is to exist" he wrote in "Poem 75," a credo that distills so much of Alberto's essence to me. Here are the first two stanzas from poem 24, titled "The Shore": 

My song dies away beyond this life 
Because it does not belong to it entirely; 
Facing death, and lonely, 
I am going to close the tragic circle. 

Friends I had not, and that loving 
Vision which Love forbade me here— 
I slowly suffered their absence 
In my agony of interrupted Wing.

Though Alberto in fact had many friends and delighted in their company, there was an impenetrable aspect to him, a privacy he ferociously guarded. He could be remarkably hospitable but invited next to no one into his home. In 1996, he retuned to London, the place he considered his center. For the next eleven years he continued to write poems, and during that time he wrote me a number of letters. He quoted Blake, told me to go see the Ingres exhibit at the Metropolitan, warned me of the tyranny of editors. In 1998 he wrote: "I've written quite a bit since I returned [to London]. Not lately. It doesn't matter. I've done enough; anyway, I never had that kind of anxiety." 

In 1999, three years after Alberto gave me 77 Poems, I, too, shyly presented him with my first published effort. Before then, I never mentioned to Alberto that I was an aspiring fiction writer. If he intuited anything, which most likely he did, he never pried. It was better that way. And yet he influenced me deeply. "I've just, this very moment, finished writing a poem," he began one letter. "If you knew Portuguese, I would send it to you. It may survive; maybe reading it tomorrow, I'll tear it up." He never opened the door of his apartment to me, but from that declaration of camaraderie and trust, that cold, clear-eyed appraisal of a writer's process, I glimpsed something more precious. 

Anyone who knew Alberto, even briefly, understood that he was an idiosyncratic, outspoken, in some senses anachronistic man. He was not afraid to say what he thought, not afraid, now and again, to make an enemy. But I believe that in the most profound aspect of his life—his work—he found peace. He understood the importance of art and the mystery of it, accepted the inability, ultimately, to control what is produced and what becomes of it in the eyes of the world. The point, he knew, was to stay inspired. It is an awareness that, I think, grounded and accompanied him throughout his life.

Originally Published: January 2, 2008

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Dorothy Parker / A Very Short Song

A Very Short Song 
by Dorothy Parker
Once, when I was young and true,
Someone left me sad-
Broke my brittle heart in two;
And that is very bad.

Love is for unlucky folk,
Love is but a curse.
Once there was a heart I broke;
And that, I think, is worse. 

Thursday, March 10, 2016

José Asunción Silva / Tropical Landscape

Tropical Landscape
By José Asunción Silva

The river spills its soporific magic
Into the journey’s calm monotony,
And in the distance vistas are erased
As shadows lengthen toward infinity.
A lone thatched hut slips past, glimpsed
Through a matted jungle tapestry
That casts designs of tangled leaves and vines
Worked in tones of dusk’s variety.
Venus comes to life in purest space,
Below, a native hollowed-out canoe
Grooves the drowsy current, swift and sure,
As in the west, the fiery setting sun
Forges a second green and rose-tinged sky
In the lazy river’s liquid mirror.
—Published in El libro de versos, 1923

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Philip Levine / Something Has Fallen

 by Jean-Baptiste Huynh
Something Has Fallen

by Philip Levine

Something has fallen wordlessly
and holds still on the black driveway.

You find it, like a jewel,
among the empty bottles and cans

where the dogs toppled the garbage.
You pick it up, not sure

if it is stone or wood
or some new plastic made

to replace them both.
When you raise your sunglasses

to see exactly what you have
you see it is only a shadow

that has darkened your fingers,
a black ink or oil,

and your hand suddenly smells
of classrooms when the rain

pounded the windows and you
shuddered thinking of the cold

and the walk back to an empty house.
You smell all of your childhood,

the damp bed you struggled from
to dress in half-light and go out

into a world that never tired.
Later, your hand thickened and flat

slid out of a rubber glove,
as you stood, your mask raised,

to light a cigarette and rest
while the acid tanks that were

yours to clean went on bathing
the arteries of broken sinks.

Remember, you were afraid
of the great hissing jugs.

There were stories of burnings,
of flesh shredded to lace.

On other nights men spoke
of rats as big as dogs.

Women spoke of men
who trapped them in corners.

Always there was grease that hid
the faces of worn faucets, grease

that had to be eaten one
finger-print at a time,

there was oil, paint, blood,
your own blood sliding across

your nose and running over
your lips with that bright, certain

taste that was neither earth
or air, and there was air,

the darkest element of all,
falling all night

into the bruised river
you slept beside, falling

into the glass of water
you filled two times for breakfast

and the eyes you turned upward
to see what time it was.

Air that stained everything
with its millions of small deaths,

that turned all five fingers
to grease or black ink or ashes.