Lorca and Dalí: the Unfaithful Wife

The Unfaithful Wife

And so, I took her to the river
Thinking she was a maiden,
But she had a husband.
It was the night of Santiago
And almost like a date.
The streetlights went out
And the crickets came on.
On the last of the corners
I touched her sleeping breasts,
And they opened up for me sharpish
Like branches of hyacinths.
The starch of her petticoat
Sounded in my ears
Like a piece of silk
Scratched by ten knives.
With no silver light on their trunks
The trees have grown,
And a horizon of dogs
Barks far distant from the river.
Having gone past the brambles,
The rushes and the thorns,
Under that thicket of hair
I made a dip in the earth.
I took off my tie.
She took off her dress.
I took off my belt and gun.
She her four underskirts.
No tuberose or seashell
Has skin as fine,
Windowpanes in moonlight
Don’t shine with that glow.
Her thighs escape me
Like surprised fish,
Half full of light,
Half full of cold.
That night I ran
The best of races,
Mounting a mother-of-pearl filly
Without bridle or stirrups.
As a man, I won’t say
The things she told me.
The light of understanding
Makes me hold back.
Dirty with kisses and sand,
I took her to the river.
In the breeze the backs
Of the irises were beating.
I behaved like what I am,
Like a true gypsy.
I gave her a gift of a big
Sewing kit of yellowy satin,
And I didn’t want to fall in love
Because, having a husband,
She told me she was a maiden
When I took her to the river.

 

A few years ago, in a cold theatre in Salas, Asturias, a Mallorquín friend and actor, Amand, performed this poem on a winter night of readings and short plays.  It demands to be read with an actor’s modulation of voice: the changes from past to present call out for performance; the telling pause, the gesture that will bring to life the meaning in the words.

The Poet

Lorca_(1914)Federico García Lorca is one of the most famous poets in the world and this poem, from Romancero Gitano (1929) is one of his most famous poems.  It was certainly the most popular of his poems when he went to Cuba and he triumphed with it again in Argentina, where it fit with the image he projected of himself as the poet of duende, the spirit of flamenco inspiration which he invoked in conferences that he also gave around the country.  In Argentina Lorca was a superstar.

Today’s post is about the paradox of fame and the difficulties of reading it.  This poem, for all its instant recognition and world-wide fame, was heavily criticized by Lorca’s close friend Salvador Dalí (1904-1989).  Dalí, like Lorca, hardly needs introduction.  He is the Surrealist painter from Spain who wowed the Parisian scene when he descended in all his eccentric extravagance in 1926.  His most famous painting is The Persistence of Memory with its soft clocks, although he is well-known for his obsessive painting of his wife Gala, his visual tricks where the shadows of a figure appear to make a different figure, for example, and his reworkings of scenes around his home town of Cadaqués on the Costa Brava in Catalonia.clocks

When Lorca published the Romancero Gitano Dalí sent him a long letter of critique and praise (translated at the end of this post).  The poem he singles out as the worst poem in the whole collection is The Unfaithful Wife.  He criticizes its costumbrismo: anecdotal, prettified paintings showing regional costumes and typical scenes from history; literal story-telling and close attention to detail; a tugging at the sentimental heart-strings.   Costumbrismo comes from the word costumbres, or customs, and in this context, calls to mind paintings of gypsy types in traditional outfits hanging around outside windows where sloe-eyed maidens flutter their eyelashes behind fans and tasselled scarves.  It is the irruption of sentimentalized folk elements into art.

It is worth reading Dalí’s critique thoroughly.  It is not easy because his writing has many “errors” in spelling and the punctuation is erratic.  gibsonHowever, as Ian Gibson says, he reveals himself to be a sharp reader and critic.  You may not agree with his position but it is a real one.  Dalí suggests that Lorca is dancing with the old poetry but that the old is spent and the new breaks forth in ways that make the old irrelevant.  The old is “incapable of giving us emotional reactions now or satisfying our present-day desire.”

Words and Pictures

Think of the traditional poetry and painting of Europe as an exercise in producing technically-competent renderings of scenes and stories.  Look backwards from Dalí and you see a succession of pictures going back into history.  Look forward from Dalí and you see a bewildering breaking of the concept of what art is to modern people: paintings that cease to tell stories, becoming ever more abstract, eventually breaking with painting itself; fewer and fewer pictures; a different vision of what art is.  Poetry that sheds the old poetic language like dead skin.

flamencoDalí rejects Federico’s word pictures.  He has clear ideas about the kind of images that make sense in the new world:

You maybe will think that some images are daring, but I can tell you that your poetry moves within the illustration of the most stereotyped and conformist commonplaces-  o great Federico, you – precisely I am convinced that the effort of working in poetry today only makes sense by evading the ideas that our intelligence has gone about artificially forging.

He seems to be saying that it doesn’t matter if you do it well if it is flawed in conception by being stereotyped and conformist.  He wants the artist to free himself from the grasp of the past and strike out in a new direction.  He wants artistic intelligence to break with the old.

Fathers

I can’t help thinking about my father.  He is a traditional artist who has worked his life carving figures, often for churches.  His artwork grows from roots in traditional practice.  Not only that, but it is well-crafted: when he carves a hand, it is a good hand.  Yet, under Dalí’s gaze that work would not be good enough because it is not sufficiently modern.  He seems to want to throw the past away and replace it with a newer, sharper world: he repeatedly uses the word “precisely” as a kind of mantra.

tpreater

Tom Preater Sculpture

My father never liked Dalí.  When I was seventeen I had a book of Dalí on loan from the library and remember his dismissive comments.  Dalí saying that he could have been a minor Venetian painter of the fifteenth-century: “Oh no, I don’t think so.  Look at that technique.  The hands are all wrong and the figures don’t stand properly on their feet.”  You may not agree with this.  In fact, people who like Dalí often find that it is the “perfection” that they like the most, meaning that they like that basket of bread that looks like a basket of bread and they like blue skies with carefully graded skies that go down to a rippling sea.  This would sicken Dalí himself and he might even have called such fans “putrefactos”- one of his favourite words.

Surrealist Psychology

If you like Dalí without thinking about it, if you swallow the whole genius crap, you are dancing with the devil.  Dalí, after all, fell out with his own father after saying to a Parisian newspaper that he regularly spat on the portrait of his mother.  When his father demanded he apologize he presented him with a used condom, giving back what he owed him, as he thought.  What do you think of this?  Is it really so wonderful?

Dalí aligned himself with the Surrealists.  He read psychology.  His rebellion against his father almost reads like a script invented after reading about the Oedipus complex in Freud.  In this light Dalí’s critique of Federico seems to be a rejection of the poet because Lorca aligns himself with this father.  Lorca was an obedient son.  He was a mummy’s boy who admitted that he belonged to his mother and would never “grow up” and leave her.  So Dalí’s condescending worldliness with relation to Lorca almost seems to be a kind of envy.

However, when you come back to the words of that letter, you see how deeply he has got inside Lorca’s head:

I have seen you, the beastie that you are, erotic beastie with your eyes and your little eyes of your body, and your hair and your fear of death and your desire that if you die the gentlemen should know of it, your mysterious spirit made of little, stupid enigmas of a tight horoscopic correspondence and your big toe in tight relation to your cock and the dampnesses of the lakes of spittle of some species of hairy planets there are.

Lorca the homosexual is a peculiar vehicle for a poem that is about a macho gypsy.  Dalí goes straight for the hidden side of the poet and conjures up his fear of death in strange prophetic words, considering Lorca’s death at the hands of the fascists in 1936.

Duende

Lorca Duende

Lorca talking about duende

Let’s return to duende, the feeling that imbues flamenco cante.   In his presentation Teoría y juego del duende, Lorca says that Germany may have its Muses and Italy may have its Angels but Spain has its duende, which reflects the touch of Death:

In all countries Death is the end.  It comes and the curtains are closed.  Not in Spain.  In Spain they are raised.  Many people live walled in there until the day they die and they are taken out into the sun.  A dead person in Spain is more alive when dead than in any other place in the world.

Romancero-gitanoHe tells the story of La Niña del Peine who, singing with all her art and mastery, has to take a chug of spirits to make her voice raw before she can sing with duende:

The arrival of duende always presupposes a radical change in all the forms made on old plans, it gives completely unheard-of sensations of freshness, with a quality of a recently created rose, of a miracle, which succeeds in creating an almost religious enthusiasm.

This is not what Dalí was talking about, even though it seems to echo what he said.  Even though he says that faculties and technique and mastery do not matter here.  It is not a question of faculties but of a real, living style; “that is to say of a very old culture, of creation in the act.”  The hidden spirit of suffering Spain.

You would have difficulty making pronouncements like this today.  Who believes in the souls of peoples?  We will return to this when we come to consider the Celticism of Galicia in my next post.  No, today’s Spain is not a country in love with Death, but struggling to be a modern economy in a modern Europe.

Make Up Your Own Mind

So where does that leave Lorca and Dalí?  You have to make your own mind up.  You have to go and see The House of Bernarda Alba, or read it if you cannot see it performed.  You have to struggle with this idea of duende.  It is still there in the flamenco culture of Jerez de la Frontera or Cádiz, but will it survive mass tourism?  Will it survive being turned into a commodity to sell modern Spain.

I am not smart enough to say.

Read this website for more information about García Lorca: Centro Federico García Lorca

 Dalí’s Letter

Dear Federico:  I have read your book calmly and cannot resist making comments on a few things.  Naturally, I find it impossible to go along in any way with the opinion of those great putrefying pigs who have commented on it.  Andrenio (Eduardo Gómez de Baquero in La Vanguardia, Barcelona 12 Aug 1928) , etc, etc but I believe that my opinions, which every day are getting clearer with regards to poetry, might be of some interest to you.

I The best of the book seems to me to be the last, the martyrdom of St Olalla, bits of incest-  Rumour of enclosed rose–  these things already lose a good part of costumbrismo (picture of quaint manners and styles), and are much less anecdotal than the others etc.  The worst seems to me to be the one about that man who takes her to the river.   Grace resulting from a state of spirit based on appreciation sentimentally by anachronism.  All that about the petticoats of the little saint in his niche (San Gabriel) for me today it is that in any production I only allow rage in its making, a kind of immorality-  that is what has been used by the French by the- French- spirit- of the disgusting and inadmissible – Cocteau etc and by whom we have all been contaminated.

II  Your current poetry falls completely within the traditional, in it I notice the thickest poetic substance that has ever existed: but! not at all tied to the norms of old poetry, which is incapable of giving us emotional reactions now or satisfying our present-day desires-  Your poetry is tied feet and arms to the art of old poetry-  You maybe will think that some images are daring, but I can tell you that your poetry moves within the illustration of the most stereotyped and conformist commonplaces-  o great Federico, you – precisely I am convinced that the effort of working in poetry today only makes sense by evading the ideas that our intelligence has gone about artificially forging [about reality [being?] unreality], to the point of giving these its exact real sense.

In Reality, there is no relation between two dancers and a honeycomb of bees, unless it be the relation there is between Saturn and the little worm that sleeps in the chrysalid or unless in reality there exists no difference between the dancing pair and a honeycomb of bees.

The minute hands of a clock (don’t look at my examples which I do not try to make, precisely, poetic) begin to have a real value in the moment they stop telling the time on the clock and lose their circular rhythm and the arbitrary mission to which our intelligence has put them (to tell the time), they evade that clock to articulate themselves on the site that would correspond with the sex of breadcrumbs.

You move around within accepted and anti-poetic notions- you talk of a rider and you suppose that he goes on a horse and that the horse gallops, this is saying a lot, because in reality it would be good to determine whether it really is the rider who goes above, whether the reins are not an organic continuation of his very hands, if in reality the little hairs on the rider’s bollocks turn out to be faster than the horse and whether the horse is precisely something immobile stuck in the ground with vigorous roots… etc, etc.  Consider then what it means to come, as you do, to the concept of a Civil Guard-  Poetically, a Civil Guard in reality does not exist… unless it be a happy and pretty silhouette alive and shining precisely because of its qualities and its little peaks that emerge on all sides and its little leads which are a visceral part of the same little beastie etc etc.

But you…  putrefyingly- the civil guard- what is he doing?  So, so- so, so.  Unreality, unreality.  – Anti poetry-  formation of arbitrary notions of things: one has to leave the little things free of conventional ideas to which intelligence has wanted to submit them-  Then these pretty little things they alone work in agreement with their real and consubstantial way of being-  Let them decide for themselves the direction of the course of the projection of their shadows! And maybe what we believed would cast a thicker shadow will not cast a shadow at all-  Ugly.  Pretty? Words that have stopped making any sense – Horror, that is something else, that which gives us, far from all style, the poetic knowledge of reality, since lyricism is only possible within more-or-less approximate notions our intelligence can perceive of reality.

And a rose is a beast etc etc] an article dedicated to you will come out in the Gazette in which I talk about these things, and beyond the importance of the strictly objective fact obtained anti-artistically by a rigorous analytical method.

But let’s leave it, every day that goes by I am able to write this kind of letter less, whereas I write long and substantial articles full of ideas.

Little Federico, in your book which I have taken with me to these mineral places around here to read, I have seen you, the beastie that you are, erotic beastie with your eyes and your little eyes of your body, and your hair and your fear of death and your desire that if you die the gentlemen should know of it,  your mysterious spirit made of little, stupid enigmas of a tight horoscopic correspondence and your big toe in tight relation to your cock and the dampnesses of the lakes of spittle of some species of hairy planets there are.

-I love you for what your book reveals you to be, which is completely the opposite of what the putrefied have made of you, a dark gypsy with black hair and a child’s heart etc etc all that Nestorian Lorca [alluding to the painter Néstor Martín Fernández de la Torre, a friend of Lorca’s] decorative anti-real, non-existent, only possible that it was created by the pig artists who were far from the fishies and the little bears and blond, hard and liquid silhouettes that surround us etc etc.

You beast with your little nails- you whom Death grabs at times by half of your body, or climbs up your arm to the little nails to the shoulder in sterile effort; I have experienced Death on your back in those moments when you went away from your great arms which were nothing more than two pillow covers curled up in the unconscious and the useless fold of the ironing of the soft furnishing of the halls of residence… I love and admire you, the Flatfish seen in your book, that fat flatfish who, on the day he loses his fear, you shit yourself with the Salinas, give up rhyming, in sum art as it is understood amongst the swine- you will do things that are fun, horrifying, sharp, poetic- things like no other poet has ever done.

Farewell, I believe in your inspiration, your sweat, in your astronomic fate

This winter I invite you to throw yourself into the void with me.  I have been there for a few days already, I never had such security now I know something of Statuary and of real clarity now far from all Aesthetics

Hugs Dali

Surrealism is one of the means of Evasion

It is that Evasion that is important

I go along with my own ways at the edge of surrealism, but that is something real-  You can see that I do not talk about it like before, I have the happiness of thinking very differently to the way I did last summer, how fine, eh?

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Ammiel in the Mountains

Ammiel and the Mountains

Ammiel-Alcalay

Ammiel Alcalay

In the early eighties a friend went to Greenham Common to protest against the cruise missiles. When she got home, Mel told me about the mixture of experience: serious women sharing ideas and feelings in a community of tents outside the missile base.  She was alive with contemporary readings.  She read feminist discourse going back to Simone de Beauvoir and coming up through Sylvia Plath, Greer, Dworkin, Paglia and a host of pamphlet-writers, independent voices from around the country and the world.

Next to her I felt provincial, with my nose stuck in the seventeenth-century.  I spent my summer walking the Quantock hills and sniffing out the trail of Coleridge, who appealed to me more than Wordsworth as a teenager.  A hick, yes, stuck in the past, turning away from the big things happening in the present.  The sensation that I am somewhere up a by-water feeling the lapping wavelets of major explosions in the distance has stayed with me into the present.  Not only am I far from the city in the village, but the local city is a provincial one and the province itself is hidden behind mountains.  I can imagine Mel asking, “Whatever can you possibly achieve there?”

What can you achieve in the mountains?

IMG_2846

That is me in the trees

I don’t want to come to a quick conclusion to that question.  It seems to me that there are so many dimensions to it that it splinters in my head: achieve what and for whom and in what context and why?  Me?  What can I achieve without plumbing the roots of what I am, which may be essentially provincial?  And the mountains themselves, don’t they give themselves up to reading?

If you have been following the blog you will know that I have been wandering mountains in my reading, from the Galician poet Novoneyra to the saudade of Galician tradition, and other poets that seem to me to strike up resonances:  Wordsworth, Basho, R.S. Thomas and Edward Thomas, amongst others.  Although John Clare never got to the mountains, he joined us too.  If reading has to have a point, then I would say that the range and variety of what I am reading reflects a lifelong linking of reading and life, experience and text.   I am still a geeky provincial kid who sticks his nose into books.  The question, “What can you achieve?” almost shrinks to irrelevance.  I do what I must.

When I was a teenager, writing long letters to Mel, who lived in the north of England, I put on a provincial pose.  The fall of the Berlin Wall?  No, I was not there and I did not watch it on the TV either.  I fantasised about Stoic indifference when, I guess, the reality was that I was trapped by my environment, my upbringing and my own native diffidence.  Right now, I am scared for the world.  It really is screwed by our technological/scientific/political culture.  Perhaps reading helps.  But it doesn’t achieve anything, does it?  Unless it helps us to think.  And I really do not know what to think about the warm winters and dying trees, except to watch as things change- there will be spectacular sunsets at the end of the world.

a little history

a little historyToday I want to consider the American writer Ammiel Alcalay.  It was Alcalay who brought to mind my Greenham Common friend, Mel.  In his book a little history, he unpicks with the dedication of a true reader threads of thought and feeling that go back through the twentieth-century.  He grabs you by the collar and gives you a good shake:

I think reading is an encounter that can be life changing, consciousness changing.  It is absolutely necessary for sustenance… The key is not to make the separations that society wants us to make.  Books are real, books are part of the world.  Un-branded, unexpected, non-commodified experience is rapidly becoming a thing of the past.  Books and poems may serve as some of the surest and last pathways back into experience, back into the values of experience, and so back into the world we actually live in.

This is exactly what I mean when I say that I make no separation between reading and life, between my reading of poetry- or any other text- and the world in which I find myself.  It seems to me that to do otherwise is to commodify yourself.  Ammiel, however, is much closer to Mel than he is to me: he writhes with contemporary understanding.

warring factionsAlacaly is a poet and a translator.  He spent six years in Jerusalem where he translated Syrian poets and has written his own poetry reflecting the experience of living through the first intifada in the eighties:  from the warring factionsDiane de Prima in her introduction to the book tells how it forced her to redefine her life by bringing the intimate and the political into a single arena where neither could be defined as itself.  The willingness to approach the world comes from a life of reading in the tradition of Charles Olson: that powerful affirmation of the poetic mind as being capable of seeing connections in a unique and convincing way; the writing of a reader who is aware of the deletions, the subtractions and the substitutions that political life effects.

No One Cares If You Are Good Or Bad

vietnam protestI have read a little history twice now.  I come back to the sections that deal specifically with the relationship between history and reading with a quiet frisson.  It is as though I had Mel with me again, showing me how flawed the canon is and encouraging me to loosen up and spread out.  Alcalay comes back and back to Olson, challenging me to think what it might mean to be here, now, with everything that is going on around me.   For example, in the seventies and eighties there were countless Vietnam movies.  How sick we got of the constant reworking of those themes!  And we never got to read the poem The Gift by Timothy Clover, a soldier who died in the war, containing these powerful words:

No one cares if you are good or bad
When you’re a gook and I’m a white man
Who preaches ideals and takes what he can.

 

Detroitposter2-206x300The blockbuster narratives of the Vietnam war, with their loathsome colonialist objectification of the gook and their sentimentalization of every maudlin feeling of whatever American soldier was “brutalised” by the experience, ought to have challenged me to find more authentic texts.  But they didn’t.  They induced a kind of stupor.  Perhaps that is the unwitting intention of imposed narratives.  Read the cracking good review of the phony shock movie Detroit by Kathryn Bigelow in the Baffler to get a much more elegantly expressed articulation of these ideas than mine.  You realize that poets don’t just fall through the cracks, but are busily shuffled off behind the scenes.

The “public” only gets to read the “geniuses”, who are not allowed to be relevant.  (I am going to come back to this in a post about Lorca and Dalí.)

Corruption and Pollution Shall Drag Us to the End

Ammiel knows this.  He writes about Vincent Ferrini, whose nephew Henry made a documentary about Olson you can see on Youtube, with loving affection.  Ferrini fell through the cracks like others due to “suppression and imposed narratives”.  Yes, I think.  And, yes, to Ferrini who says this:

Gloucester is catering to the tourists, all the big guns are going full blast, a sickening sign.  A backlash against the conservation ‘obstructionists’, especially by one Mueller who hates us for defeating his dream of a mammoth condominium on the Back Shore.  Corruption and pollution shall drag us to the End, but we’ll give them a headache on the way, and perhaps take away all their power, that, or humanity will have to start from scratch again.

Yes, I think, in Spain where the numbers of tourists do nothing but increase, the government puts its greasy fingers in, invests in more of the same, and the small people gape at the destruction: new roads, hotels and cheesy businesses selling Spain in the regions.  Flamenco in Asturias- why not?  It’s all Spain, isn’t it?  The village filling up with functionaries while the old farmers die off, their fields turn to bramble patches and, late in the day, a project for rural regeneration that won’t work, but will give another functionary enough money for a foreign holiday, screwing up another corner of the world with his trash and bucks.

Corruption and pollution: two words that describe modern Spain in a nutshell.

Some Kind of Nuisance

Reading seems an ineffectual response to the sheer awfulness of what is happening in the world.  And, no, for all his stature and claims, Olson did not stop the godawfulness happening.  Nor did Mel and her friends turn the cruise missiles around.  Nor will I, puffing about the environment, make a difference to the migration of people to the cities, their unhappy people, their sadness.  Yet, there is something uplifting in reading Ammiel that gives me a kind of hope.  “School was just a nuisance of some kind,” he says of himself age 13, “a backdrop to the things that really mattered.”  And I think that I can take that message forward and pass it on to others:

You can read.  And, when you do, the rest seems to fall away as some kind of nuisance.

If you want to read some more, try out the CUNY Lost&Found page.

 

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What Light Can Do

What Light Can Do

hass

Robert Hass

I have been entertaining myself with Robert Hass whilst I wait for a book to arrive in the mountains.

Hass has something to say to me.  I want a poesy that responds to the hard grain of the world.  He does not shut himself away in the small particular.  He doesn’t just make pretty objects in exquisite form.  His friendship with Czeslaw Milosz and his work as a translator show that he crosses boundaries and frontiers, as a translator should, and lets in the big issues to his poetry and his prose.  He pushes at the boundaries of “something not sayable”, Winged and Acid Dark.  In that poem from Time and Materials (2008) a guard prizes the woman’s mouth open and there is a six line excursus by Basho who says “if the horror of the world were the truth of the world, there would be no one to say it and no one to say it to”, before spitting in her mouth (from Time and Materials).

timeandmaterialsYou may have read my musings on Basho.  Placing a quotation from Basho up against horror is appropriate because there is horror in Basho.  The question of what poetry can do is at the heart of Hass’s work.  The answers that come back are never clear.

What Can Light Do?

What can light do?  The phrase comes from the author’s note at the beginning of the collection of essays in a reading of Robert Adams’s photography.  “It is as if he thought his subject was the earth, when in fact it was the sky,” he says.  This leads him on to reflect on the themes of his own life’s work:  poetry of course; the violence of the century; an interest in the writers of his place; photography and landscape.

There may be other things as well that I am not noticing.  If there is a sky for me in this collection, it is the act of attention itself, trying to see what’s there, what light can do. (What Light Can Do, 2009)

The act of attention itself is not entirely to be trusted.  In The Dry Mountain Air, a long poem that describes a visit from his Grandma Dahling, I was completely fooled by the details, the attentive and loving description of the old lady removing her hat whilst the poet’s father moved her cases up the high steps to the entrance.  At the end of the poem, the poet’s brother, four years older, says this never happened and Hass finishes:

I thought it might help to write it down here
That the truth of things might be easier to come to
On a quiet evening in the clear, dry, mountain air.

So, the three pages of delicate description including not only the act of removing the hat, but the little presents that came from the train and the poet’s obscure terror of the Grand Canyon depicted on a paper mat from the dining car, which goes to his brother, is all something else.  It is literature and demands to be read, as does the fifth and last mat which shows the brooding angel, Shasta.  His memory is unreliable.

 The Truth of Things

The “truth of things” is a deceptively difficult phrase.  In Novoneyra the truth of things is taken so literally that he proclaims he will only talk about the things that he knows directly.  Normally we put the emphasis on truth and let things fold away.  But poetry does the reverse.  It gives us images where there really is something like truth in things: instead of the truth of things, we have the truth of things.  And if those things, so tightly described and rendered are imaginary, we are left with another consideration: that the literary text itself is the thing we need to attend to.  This, then, is reading: unpicking the truth of the things, the words, in front of us.

 

the-emperor-of-icecreamAs a reader I appreciate a writer who is also a reader: someone who can play with my expectations in this knowing way.  Everyone, it seems, writes, but readers are few.  When Hass talks about returning to Wallace Stevens’s The Emperor of Ice Cream, I feel at home with someone who has allowed the depth and texture of a poem to filter into the soil of his life.  First, he reads it as a young man on the beach with his friends, delighting in the sounds of the words, then he comes back and back to the words at different stages in his life.  They have not changed but he has, and the changes in his life allow him to see the words in different lights.  He falls away from them when he feels that history demands something more serious of his attention and returns with a mature understanding.IMG_2833-0

 

I am fifty-two.  There are poems that have followed me through my life in a similar way.  I go back to them with new eyes, shocked by the familiar and surprised by the details I did not see when I was seventeen, twenty-five, forty or fifty.  Are the readings better?  It could certainly seem so when, in moral indignation at Ted Hughes as a poet laureate, I rejected outright the poet who accompanied me through my teenage years.  Then I return with the biography by Jonathan Bate in my hand and unpick something more: the words have not moved, but I can see more connections; and I have grown in compassion towards the man.

 

An Oak Grove

The final essay in What Light Can Do is called An Oak Grove.  The subject is a grove of oak trees at the University of California at Berkeley, which was cut down to build a new sports facility.  Hass starts by saying that his subject is “thinking about nature and thinking about thinking about nature, and my thesis is that we don’t do it very well.”  This bald statement drew my attention because, if any subject demands attention today, the subject of our relationship to nature is crying out for revaluation.

 

If you are expecting a typical Romantic poet’s vindication of the natural world, you will be disappointed.  Hass shows that he has sympathy and understanding for the hippies, as the sports fans call them, who include some of the most venerable protesters, such as Sylvia McLaughlin, ninety-years-old and founder in the sixties of Save the Bay.  Yet, his investigations into the history of the foundation of the university, the planting of live oaks and their protection from dry rot that comes on the winds, leads him to see the trees of the campus as a garden.  Not wild nature then?

 

He turns to Theodor Adorno, who said that “Nature” was a concept developed by the middle class in the Enlightenment and early Romantic era: “an evocation of frankness and simplicity in manners, freedom and diversity in social arrangements, unstoppable force in social movements” and that, later in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, nature had returned to “its previous role as an irrefutable standard by which to justify various forms of racial, gender, and sexual discrimination.”  Adorno, it seems, makes scholars in the humanities tend to poo-poo the very idea of the natural.

 Nature and the Wild

To avoid sinking into radical scepticism he turns to a “wildlife biologist’s definition of ‘wildness’”: “an organism living in an ecosystem among most of the processes in which it evolved.”  The protesters thought they were defending nature but the grove was not wild, it was a garden.  “There might have been very good reasons for preserving it, but they were not the reasons in those young people’s hearts or on their posters.”

 

I imagine students coming out of the lecture where he declared the necessity of a “sense of urgency and patience, and a sense of complexity and everything they can learn about the processes of the natural world” with perplexed indignation.  Here a senior scholar folds poetry and history into a narrative that tells the story of an oak grove in the heart of the university, telling them that they have got it wrong, that the trees are not wild, they are a part of a carefully constructed image of the university.  It may be a shame to get rid of a garden, but it is not the same as getting rid of wilderness.  They are told that their teachers can give them the “gift of seeing what’s there.  They can give them some of the skills of distinction, discrimination, and description and give them concepts of enormous power to refine and organize their seeing.”

 

I imagine those students bridling at the mandarin pronouncements of an academic who, by his own admission, paid little attention to the issue in the beginning because, like the rest of the faculty, he was overburdened with work.  “Yeah, right,” they would say, “you have a vested interest in supporting the institutional way of seeing, don’t you?”

 DMZ Korea and White Cranes

He ends his piece by going back to the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea, which he had already described in Time and Materials (2008) in a prose poem that talks of the “sheer number of bodies” of dead in the Korean War, struggles with how to think about the young soldiers who efficiently herd them to look and get them back on the civilian bus.  Then finally, he sees a “flurry of white” “cattle egrets nesting in the willows.”  In the essay, he writes this out.  The DMZ has become “an immense, accidental game preserve” because no human being has entered it for fifty years (2009).

 

If there is ever peace between the Koreas and the threat of nuclear war is lifted, the DMZ will probably be developed and those two species, the white-naped and red-crowned cranes, will be that much nearer to being gone from the kinds on earth.

 

What is the DMZ?  Is it wild nature?  Or is it another kind of garden, albeit accidentally created?

 

Hass is a poet.  In his poetry and his writing on poetry there is none of the self-confident professorial tone of the speech about the live oaks.  The poems tell us that there may be a truth to things, but that truth is nowhere near as evident as we at first assume it to be: the narrator may not be reliable, themes may come from a deep well of reference, the text itself is the only truth and it may be fatally flawed.  In some of his poems he goes so far as to half-obliterate words to make the point clearer.  Turning this perception back on his speech about the oak grove, I can’t help but tweeze out the contradictions in the paladin certainties, masked as complexity, in his discourse.

 

death tractatesThe strongest image- and the one that I wish he had left at the end of the piece, instead of at the beginning- is the image from his wife Brenda Hillman’s poem Death Tractates:  “As an egret fishes through its smeared reflections”

 

“Every creature,” the entomologist E.O. Wilson has remarked, “lives in its own sensory world.”  And this must especially be true of humans, who have had the capacity to articulate this idea, though I have often wondered if it is not something that all mammals know about each other instinctively.  Still it must especially be true of human consciousness, which emerged in this world rather late to radically alter it, and to invent ingenious ways in which to study it, and to piece together the story of how human consciousness came to be the instrument through which the world thinks about the world that in the past century has come into the care of humans and their consciousness and unconsciousness entirely.”

 

This could be a comment on his own very ingenious ways of studying what was happening around him.

 The Cold Mountain Air

Here I am in a mountain village witnessing changes in the environment around me.  Some of these changes come on the tailwind of global problems- climate change, pollution in the oceans, economic crisis- and some of them are local- rural depopulation, an increase in tourism, the building of new roads and supermarkets.  The old paths choke up with fast-growing ash trees and untended fields become bramble patches.  Busy government employees devise ineffective plans to stimulate the rural economy.  They tout the region as a “Natural Paradise” and are happy to see more incoming tourism.  Old houses collapse under the weight of their own roofs.

 

What is the truth of these things?  What can light do?  How can thinking about nature and thinking about thinking about nature be done better?  I do not find the answers I would like to find in the story of the oak grove at Berkeley.  I feel, in an admittedly subjective way, an ululating sadness at the passing away of one world to be replaced by another that lacks the charm of the one it replaces.

 

The story of how we got here is beginning to seem irrelevant.

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Noriega: trees and language

It is a rivulet running
Sheltered through the shade
Of some dense pine wood:
Take this cover and it dies
Before it can reach the valley.

I am thinking about this verse today.  Noriega is talking about his own language, Galician.  Look at these two photographs of Galicia from the air and draw your own conclusions:

On the left you can see native woodland.  On the right you can see eucalyptus plantation.

Maybe I am a sentimentalist but I was affected by reading this blog:  esmola

https://esmola.wordpress.com/2015/12/09/eucaliptos-la-desaparicion-del-bosque-atlantico-emergencia/

Noriega tells us that language is tied to the landscape.  Can we repeat this picture around the world.  With every hardwood forest that is felled from Papua New Guinea to Brazil, what more is being lost besides the trees?  It is not just natural diversity that is destroyed but language, customs and culture.

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Our Language: Novoneyra and Noriega Varela

Our Language

The mountain man is coming now.noriega001
Why?  Oh dear heart!  He is blind-
He cannot see past the veil:
He is coming to speak Gallego
He is coming so that Gallego can live.

Our language is a little bird
The child will usually see
In the sky of the shaggy mountain;
Whether on a wild rose branch
Or the border of a fountain.

It is a flower you can’t take
From the heath, and well tricks
The one who goes after it
If, amongst the mountain gorse
Collecting, he gets pricked.
noriega varela

It is a rivulet running
Sheltered through the shade
Of some dense pine wood:
Take this cover and it dies
Before it can reach the valley.

It’s what dawn’s lustre breaks
Lit by trembling light;
And Our Lady sings to Jesus
in Gallego when he cries,
Lulling him to sleep.

Gallego is a whispering-
The most magical thing there is!
It is the loving language
In which to hear, “My son!”
From the lips of your mother.

Antonio_Noriega_Varela_1919
It is a speech that illumines,
Moving our hearts
To take the shortest route
To the sighs of the poor
With the grace of charity.

It is such a restless language
That it manages to overcome
The yearning sorrows
Of the replete star
And the moonlit night.
May devotion and pain
Be always on your side
I revere you deeply, believe
That only in heaven
Could there be a better tongue.

 

When Novoneyra was doing military service with Manuel María in 1952, Noriega Varela was one of the poets they read together.  Noriega went to school at the seminary in Mondoñedo, a school for poets.  When he left he became involved in anti-cacique social protest and spent some time in exile from the landscape that gave him life.

 

If Novoneyra is indissociably associated with the Eidos of O Courel,  Noriega is similarly associated with Mondoñedo and the mountains around.  He was not a professional writer.  He worked as a teacher for most of his life, but his job doesn’t define him any more than your job defines you.  He was a man who walked in the mountains and enjoyed going to village fiestas.  He wrote out his poems in meticulous long-hand and was so scared by the Nationalists that he dropped the rebellious ideas of his youth.

 

The magic of Noriega’s poetry is timeless, even though the things he describes have passed away.  That image of the rivulet running through the centre of the poem is protected by the shade of the deep, pine wood.  It is sadly ironic that there are few pine woods around Mondoñedo now.  The town is trapped in the past- like Villafranca del Bierzo and countless other places in Spain that face backwards when the world is rushing forwards.

 

I was walking through Mondoñedo with my daughter admiring the old buildings and fantasizing with her about moving there and setting up a school.  When I mentioned the idea to a friend in Lugo, she laughed.

 

“What kind of school are you going to have there?” she asked.  “A school for old ladies?”

 

The Seminary where Noriega stayed is now a kind of hotel where you can rent out the basic rooms.  The rural economy has disappeared.  It is the same picture where I live in Grado, where I eventually did set up a school and suffer for my obstinance:  I refused to go to a city; refused, even knowing that I would have fewer students.

 

That metaphor is haunting.  You cut down the wood and you lose the stream.

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An Afternoon in Spring

IMG_2859An afternoon in spring
Murmured these words to me:
If you are seeking paths
With flowers in this world
Then put to death your words
And let your old soul speak.
Let the same white linen
That you are wearing now
Clothe you in your mourning
Clothe you at party time.
Cherish your happiness
Cherish your sadness too,
If you are seeking paths
With flowers in this world.
I spoke then my reply
To that spring afternoon:
You have told the secret
That is spoken in my soul:
I abhor happiness
Abhorring suffering.
But before I ever tread
Your flower-strewn path,
I would like to present
My old soul to you: dead.

Antonio Machado Soledades. Galerías. Otros Poemas (1907- I used the edition edited by Geoffrey Ribbans (Cátedra, 1993)).

 

I am returning to this poem by Machado.  When I wrote about it before, I said that Machado was concerned about being just a “useless poet” and was proud that he could earn his way in life once he got a job as a secondary school teacher: “I go to work and pay my own way”.

 

In a letter to Unamuno of 1903, Machado says, “I am beginning to believe, even at the risk of falling into paradoxes, which I dislike, that the artist should love life and hate art.  Quite the contrary to what I previously believed.”  And one year later he says, again to Unamuno: “We should not create a separate world in which to enjoy in egotistical fantasy the contemplation of ourselves; we should not flee from life to forge for ourselves a better life that is sterile to others.”

 

The relationship between life and art is something I live with.  Do you?

 

Machado, in both the poem and the letters, sets up the opposing forces of life and art that give him his contradictions.  He is hardly to be trusted when he says he does not like paradoxes!

 

Look at the poem:

 

Spring afternoon

Tells the secret of the poet’s soul

Poet Says
Put to death your words death = soul
Let your old soul speak Secret spoken in my soul
Cherish happiness Abhor happiness
Cherish sadness Abhor suffering
Seek flowery paths Dead soul before flowery paths

 

The poem as a literary object is elusive and paradoxical, arising from the Symbolist tradition that sometimes evades clarity on purpose.  I struggle to understand exactly what it means.  What is the “old soul” the poet should let speak?  And how will it speak if it does not use words?  The spring afternoon itself is murmuring words and the poet recognizes that the spring afternoon really does understand his soul: “You have told the secret/That is spoken in my soul.”  Tell and speak again.  So, when the spring afternoon says, “put to death your words” its meaning is not at all clear.

 

In these two documentaries there is some good guidance on Machado.

 

It cannot be that the spring afternoon is saying “love life and hate art,” though that was my first thought on reading it.  What is that tension between the spring afternoon, the poet and the old soul?

 

I showed the poem to Carmen.  The first part made some kind of sense to her and she wanted to explain it to me, but when the poet replies to the spring afternoon a frown came across her face.  “You’re right,” she said.  “Es enrevesado.”  The curiosity and the strength of the poem is the poet’s resistance to Spring, that eternal literary trope.  It reminds me of a poem by Auden, which starts with quaint songs and ends with despair:

If you have an opinion on the meaning of this poem- what it meant to you- I would be interested to hear it.

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You See, You Hear

In this Christmas post, I am thinking of you sitting at home with a brandy in your hand.  I want to share with you some of the sounds of the poetry we have been talking about.  And with that in mind, I have been researching some of the poets on You Tube.

First Novoneyra:

Cousos do lobo!
Caborcos do xabarín!
Eidos solos
onde ninguén foi nin ha d’ir!

O lobo!  Os ollos o lombo do lobo!

Baixa o lobo polo ollo do bosco
movendo nas flairas dos teixos
Ruxindo na folla dos carreiros
en busca da vagoada máis sola e máis medosa…

Rastrexa
párase e venta
finca a pouta ergue a testa e oula cara o ceo
con toda a sombra da noite na boca.

(Domain of the wolf!// Gullies of the wild boar!// Lonesome places// Where no one goes nor should!//// The wolf! The eyes, the back of the wolf!//// The Wolf goes down through the eye of the wood//moving the branches of the yews//rustling the leaves on the paths//looking for the most lonely and most fearful stream…////It tracks along//stops and sniffs//pushes in its claws stretches out its head and howls with its head to the sky//and with all the shadow of the night in its mouth)

Now, R.S. Thomas:

 

And here is Richard Burton reading John Clare:

 

And, finally, a fascinating documentary by Llorenç Soler called The mountains are ours, which shows that the processes that enclosed the countryside and expropriated the peasants from communal lands in England were unrolling in Spain in the twentieth-century.

 

 

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Shakespeare’s sonnets

young_man_roses_hilliardThis week I took a rest from considering Novoneyra, the mountains and the countryside and gave myself up to

Reading Shakespeare

The sonnets start with a series in which the poet argues with a young man who is wasting his beauty by not having children.  The imagery seems appropriate to this time of year, as the poet’s talk of time passing and I see the trees around me losing their leaves.  I have put the readings with images.

Have a look and see if you like them:

 

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Novoneyra and the Shepherd’s Calendar

johnclareI left R.S. Thomas last week grumpily considering the distance between himself and the hill farmers of Wales.  I suggested that Novoneyra could represent that hill farmer.  It was certainly a part of the image he put out to the world: the man who is happy in the hills, the man who talks to farm labourers.  This week, however, I want to get closer to the ground by considering the English poet John Clare.  This consideration will allow us to see Novoneyra in another light: as an educated intellectual who rides the wave of modernist thought into the twentieth century.

John Clare is a unique poet.  He was born in the eighteenth-century in Northamptonshire just when the Enclosure Acts were transforming that landscape for good.

John Clare was a peasant farmer.  He is unique because peasants do not usually write poetry.  Our view of the countryside is overwhelmingly given by people who have an education, live in the same community as farmers, but are alienated from them.  The generations of peasant farmers that lived and died before John Clare do not speak to us in their own words.  They are given voice in curiously artificial creations like the “passionate shepherd” or in the melancholy observations of the lettered poets who were able to put words into their mouths.  They were often priests like R.S. Thomas (see previous post).

Clare was taken up by the Romantics.  Across Europe nineteenth-century Romantics showed a new interest in local traditions, languages and cultures.  (Regional languages, like Galician, were revived and brought into literary prominence.)  Peasants and their customs had always been the subject of poetry, but they were not thought of as artists or art.  Country people had songs, peasant dances and quaint customs that could be used by artists, but their creations were craftwork or handiwork: good when they followed traditional patterns; marred by anything approaching invention.   Clare then was exceptional.  He never moved up a social class.  He was always a peasant farmer.

I was drawn to think of the comparison of Clare and Novoneyra for several reasons.

  • They both write about things that are real, focussing on lived experience.
  • The poetic world of both writers is tied to specific places and both Os Eidos and The Shepherd’s Calendar follow the full cycle of the year through in one location.
  • They are both social critics who live through changes in the landscape that affect them deeply.

Clare’s poetry gives us a rich variety of linked images that show his close connection to the land.   Each month of The Shepherd’s Calendar is pricked out with details that bear the unmistakeable tint of direct experience.  They trot off the page one after the other in a succession of detailed observations.  In November, for example, the rainstorm catches a boy in the field:

[he] in hurry weaves,Shepherd's Calendar
Beneath an ivied tree, his sheltering seat,
Of rushy flags and sedges tied in sheaves,
Or from the field a stock of stubble thieves.
There he doth dithering sit, and entertain
His eyes with marking the storm-driven leaves;
Oft spying nests where he spring eggs had ta’en,
And wishing in his heart ‘twas summer-time again.

 

This is not the shepherd boy of pastoral who seems to exist in a rosy dreamland.  Even compared with Basho, whom we have looked at previously, this writing has a quality of unique lived experience; he identifies with the people in his verse; he is not a distant moon-figure.  There is an arresting sharpness to the picture of the child sheltering from the rain, making himself a seat of rushes under an old ivy-decked tree.  He can see the birds’ nests because the trees have lost their leaves and his meditation about the eggs he took in the springtime is wholly believable.  Clare is at his best when we get the vivid sensation that he is writing about experiences culled directly from his own life.

Compare this to Novoneyra:

Brilla a agua nas beiras…calzas do cuco
As calzas do cuco polas uceiras
I as bouzas dos outos boscos
Nos tesos núos e foscos
/
Viñeron os ventos de cara a Rodela
Viñeron as feiras
De ir a meniña insinala canela.
(Water sparkles in the eaves/cuckoo socks* on the moors/ and clumps of high woodland/on the naked and gloomy peaks.//The winds came into Rodela/the fairs came/so the young girl can go and sell cinnamon.  *Cuckoo socks: petticoat daffodils (narcissus bulbocodium) although my edition says this refers to the last snows of the winter.)

Novoneyra is more economical in painting his word picture than Clare.  Although he uses rhyme, rhythmically his line is more varied than Clare, who uses a predictable iambic rhythm and a regular syllable count for each line.  This shows that he lacks the literary sophistication of Novoneyra: he looks for that ti-TUM, ti-TUM rhythm and inserts extra words to preserve it; dithering, entertain his eyes.  Novoneyra does not shy away from rhyming, but his fragments carry the weight of a greater awareness of pre-existing literature.

He explicitly aligns himself with troubadour poets to construct his identity as a Galician bard of the mountains.  Clare does not.  The contrast between the two is striking and revealing.  Novoneyra works in an educated poetic tradition.  Clare, by contrast, seems strikingly naïve.  When I first read The Shepherd’s Calendar as a teenager I was disappointed.  I suppose I was hoping for something a little more like Novoneyra.  I wanted to believe that there was an authentic poetry of the people.  I imagined it would be less artificial than educated poetry, but the simple artifice of Clare’s poetry is declared in every line.

Consider this fragment, in which Clare is talking about enclosure:

The spoiler’s axe their shade devours,enclosure
And cuts down every tree.
Not trees alone have owned their force,
Whole woods beneath them bowed,
They turned the winding rivulet’s course,
And all thy pastures plough’d

The rhythms are ponderously poetic with their 8,6,8,6 syllable count, conventional rhymes and heavy iambic feet:

Ti-TUM ti-TUM// ti-TUM ti-TUM
Ti-TUM ti-TUM ti-TUM

Popular ballads and children’s rhymes use the same heavy structure.

The same would be true of ballads in Galicia, in the Courel.  Have a look at this verse:

Maruxiña, Maruxiña,                  das montañas de León
Sete fillos que tuveche                e ninguno che foi varón
¡rebenteras tu con eles               xunto do teu corazón!

(Maruxiña, Maruxiña from the mountains of Leon/you had seven children and not one of them a boy/ you will burst with them along with your heart.)

 

This section of a verse from Flor de Romances de Cervantes e Pedrafita (Frouma, Santiago de Compostela, 2001, p.85) continues in the same manner for another 13 lines. Anabel Amigo, who went through the villages of the Courel collecting these verses, dutifully transcribes the different variants that she found.   You will immediately notice the heavy rhymes, the rolling rhythm and the caesura systematically placed in the middle of the poetic line.

 

These poems are part of an oral tradition.  The rhythm is essential to the mnemonic quality of verse that will be recited, learnt and passed on through generations.   Clare is faithful to the rhythms of popular poetry in a way that Novoneyra is not.

 

It was due to the fact that traditional poems were so easy to remember that they survived until the Romantics of the nineteenth-century discovered them.  When they did so they used the source material as building blocks for a different kind of poetry: authored poetry; poetry that connected to broader political ideas about the language.  They ignored the bilingual quality of the popular verses- many of them are in Castilian Spanish- and reframed them as essential components of a Galician identity.  They added in Celtic themes to promote this sense of identity.

 

clare

A rare photograph of Clare

Let’s return to Clare.  Clare writes with the naïve rhythms of a poet who has had no formal literary training.  He cannot work at the level of Wordsworth whose ability to create a sustained argument over the course of The Prelude, putting the poet’s experience of the immanent Sublime in powerful and flexible lines that swell from conversational to ecstatic, is in a different league to Clare’s manner of proceeding.  Clare writes according to his own conception of what poetry is and should be.

 

The rhythms and the rhymes are one part of that.  The images are the other.  Clare explicitly says that the poet’s gaze is turned towards beauty.  In October, for example:

Nature now spreads around, in dreary hue,
A pall to cover all that summer knew;
Yet, in the poet’s solitary way,
Some pleasing objects for his praise delay.

He says that “every trifle will his eye detain.”  There is an obvious difference with Novoneyra here.  The Galician poet steers away from trifles and has set themes that run through Os Eidos, almost as though he were trying to build up a philosophy around the few concrete experiences that come to his senses.  There is a powerful metaphorical undertow with the wolf, the distant road, dreaming and the constant feeling of dissolution of the ego throughout the collection.   The few people that appear are rarely given much to do or say.  Clare walks through a populated world; Novoneyra is sunk into existential solitude.

 

Courel abandoned villageI will reflect on Novoneyra’s connection to modernism, Heidegger and fifties angst in my next post.  I want to finish this one, however, by considering the curious parallel between the experience of Clare, living uncomfortably in a world of change, and the experience of Novoneyra in the latter part of his life as he moved away from the mountains and towards Santiago.  Here is what he says in Antón Lopo’s A Distancia do Lobo:

 

Now the Courel is not even the way I remember it.  I prefer not to go.  Not to see it.  The seventies and the eighties ripped the heart out of the villages at a vertiginous rate.  The empty houses of Parada, of Moreda, of Meiraos, of Romeor, of Mercurín, of Esperante… There are even villages that ended up with their tendons exposed, anorexic and bloodless.

 

John Clare did not have the same options available to Novoneyra.  He was bitter about the effect of the enclosures on the traditional village life that he knew.  He refers to the commons as “the sweetest of gardens… loved as an Eden by me.”  Yet he was persuaded to cut out lines in his writing that implied social criticism so as not to offend wealthy patrons.

 

The rural economy ceased to revolve around village communities and coalesced around larger landowners and country houses.  Farming moved away from small-scale trading and self-sufficiency to farming as a business.  Some land was suitable to arable, some to stock.  It was more efficient for cattle to be moved around from field to field so that they were always eating fresh grass; it was more efficient to grow corn in large fields and not in strips.  The peasant farmer suffered in this reorganization of the countryside because self-sufficiency is not rational on a large scale.

Whole villages disappeared.

When I was a teenager and first picked up The Shepherd’s Calendar I hoped to find something different in its pages to what I encountered there.  The pretty and charming scenes seemed like a betrayal of what could have been a sharp and angular vision of a real countryman, like the taciturn woodsmen I met on my walks up onto the Blackdown Hills.  I could sense that there was a historical injustice in the very prettiness that I walked up those hills to survey and, in my own naivety, I imagined that the voice from the other side would be muscular in rage and condemnation.   Clare, on the other hand, seemed to be struggling hard to look for the pleasant, the pretty and the scenic.

 

It did him no good.  He went insane and finished his days in an asylum.

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R.S. Thomas: Wales and Galicia

ContactPhoto-IMG_20170813_225802

R.S. Thomas- by Kyffin Williams

What makes a nation?  Ethnic identity?  Language?  Common values?  Or, is it just the peculiar result of accidental forces through history?  The questions are at the forefront of my mind, not because of Scotland or Catalonia or Kurdistan, but because of that grumpy old Welsh poet, R.S. Thomas.  Thomas is today’s lens for looking at the work of Novoneyra in Galicia.

 

Galicia and Wales have a lot in common.  Both have deep connections with a more powerful and arrogant neighbour: Castilla and England respectively.  Both have been sucked up into an imperial project: the Spanish Empire; the British Empire.  Both have mountains and coastline and look out onto a western sea with a longing for the return of legendary heroes who will right wrongs and restore justice.  Both have their own language.

 

somerset-mapI grew up in Somerset.  From the north coast you could look out and see the industrial towns of South Wales across the Bristol Channel.  Our little black-and-white television picked up HTV with some programmes in Welsh.  The language was impenetrable in both its written and spoken forms, but the lilting sound of it was unique.

 

In the comics I read and the action films I watched there was usually a Welshman who was called Taffy or Davies: devoted to his mum, good with a gun and with a charming provincial simplicity.  Not one of the officers; one of the men.  I knew that the Wales I could see was the industrial fringe of a land that rose up to mountains and valleys where the people increasingly spoke their own language, tended their sheep and resented the English.  They resented the reservoirs that were built to give water to the English Midlands.  They resented the holiday cottages that their richer neighbours bought in that sublime landscape.

 

Thomas grew up in the north of Wales where the Welsh language is more widely spoken.  Yet he did not grow up speaking Welsh:

 

England, what have you done to make the speech
My fathers used a stranger at my lips?
The Old Language p.25

 

He was a middle class child, not a hill farmer, and his parents thought it better for him to be brought up in English.  It was a source of pain to him through his life.   He became a country priest and spent his life serving parishioners I imagine to be a little like Galician hill farmers.  An Acre of Land  was published in 1952.  In this book Thomas develops themes that remain consistent throughout his subsequent poetry.  I am going to focus on this one collection even though I am using Collected Poems 1945-1990 (Phoenix, 1993) because it provides a direct parallel to Novoneyra: Os Eidos  was published in 1953.

 

Men of Wales… How I have hated you…

 

Thomas says this as a country priest whose attempts to bring an appreciation of poetry and culture to his flock wash against the flint faces of the hill farmers he has to deal with.  Yet he comes to realise that they have something that he lacks:R.S.Thomas

 

…I know, as I listen, that your speech has in it
The source of all poetry, clear as a rill
Bubbling from your lips
A Priest to His People, p.13

 

The Welsh language then is one of the founts of his respect for the nationhood of Wales.  Yet, he cannot participate.  This emphasis on the language makes for another point of comparison with Galicia.  Novoneyra might be one of the countrymen that Thomas is talking to: distant from the claims of the city and the town; heir to a tradition of lyricism in his own language that is as clear as that country rill.

 

Wales compares with Galicia.  For centuries Galician was seen as a language spoken by peasants in the hills and villages.  Even today it is more likely that you will hear Castilian Spanish on the streets of Santiago or Coruña.  Gallego is the language of the people in the villages by the sea or in the mountains.  The same is the case in Wales in spite of legislation making it obligatory to learn Welsh in school and to have mastered it for a government job.  In Cardiff or Swansea it is English you hear.

 

The old ways were hard.  People want to move to the cities.  As the traditional way of life in the countryside shrinks what is left of the roots of identity that made the idea of a nation?  We see that language is just one part of something bigger.  A way of life is fading and the language is going with it.

 

Thomas was witness to the depopulation of the villages in the hills.  In The Welsh Hill Country (p.22) he says it is  “too far for you to see”  the death throes of an old farmer with “the embryo music dead in his throat.”  He says we should “leave it, leave it” because these are the “last survivors”  (Depopulation of the Hills, p.28).

 

Or we can turn to Welsh Landscape:

 

Thomas Furious

Justin Wintle:  on my reading list

There is no present in Wales
And no future;
There is only the past,
Brittle with relics,
…an impotent people
Sick with inbreeding,
Worrying the carcase of an old song.

Thomas is pessimistic.  He is famous for his identification of the Machine as the bringer of the ills that he sees around him.  The machine is not a single thing, but a multi-facted symptom of all the forces that drive the way of life that he comes to cherish to extinction.  In An Acre of Land the machine is represented by the tractor of Cynddylan:  “emptying the woods// of foxes and squirrels and bright jays.”  Thomas’s rejection of the machine has made him a saint of environmentalists (see Paul Kingsnorth or Dark Mountain Project).  Yet he lays the blame clearly on English industrialists:

 

…burrowing
in the corpse of a nation
for its congealed blood.  I was
born into the squalor of
their feeding, and sucked their speech
in with my mother’s
infected milk, so that whatever
I throw up now is still theirs.

There is no hope of reconciliation in his view of Wales.  He tries to emphasise common humanity- “listen, listen, I am a man like you” (The Hill Farmer Speaks, p.31) but there is scant comfort in that.  In the end he resigns himself to something that approaches the presence in Nature of Novoneyra:

 

We will listen instead to the wind’s text
Blown through the roof, or the thrush’s song
…   For nature’s truth
Is primary and her changing seasons
Correct out of a vaster reason
The vague errors of the flesh.

 

Thomas and Novoneyra follow different paths.  Thomas writes out his concerns in a way that Novoneyra does not.  I come back to the feeling that the Galician is one of the hill people that Thomas envies and admires.  Yet Novoneyra ended up in Santiago whilst Thomas never surrendered his rejection of what the machine offered him: he lived in a cottage with no central heating or modern appliances.  He pulled out.  He pulled back even though in grander terms he knew that it was useless.

 

What does it mean?  What does it mean for me, an Englishman living in a mountain village in Asturias?

 

Both Thomas and Novoneyra have something to say to me.  Here in the village the older people are dying off and the younger people do not want to live with cows and cowdung.  No one is a hill farmer like Thomas’s Prytherch.  The landscape is depopulated.  There are houses going for a song.  Even today a woman came from Oviedo asking about a house she wanted to buy for 15000€.  She probably paid more for her car.  There are elegant ruins in all the villages, testimony to a time when more people lived off the same land.  With the advent of the machine you cannot even live poorly off twice the land the rich people had in the past.

 

People slip a few words of Asturianu into their speech to sound like they belong but it is an affectation: they all have jobs where they speak Castilian and earn the money that allows them to own the privilege of this place.

 

And I imagine this dynamic repeated around the world.  Small communities of people with their own customs and language compelled by the logic of the times to surrender and head to the cities.  There, in the city, they have available all the good things- doctors, internet, shops and restaurants.  It is the great bonanza of modern life, for which we have to make the sacrifice of the old ways, which anyway come to seem unattractive and harsh.

 

What fool raises his cattle on the hard mountains?  There are vast barns where the animals wander over to troughs where the feed is laid on for them.  Mechanised milking makes the hand on the teat a thing of the past.

 

I don’t exclude myself.  I am writing a blog.  I will go down into town to put it onto the internet.  And you, dear reader, will have read it on a device that implies the same contraction of the variety of past lives.  So what is a nation?  What is a people?  What is a language and a culture?  I seem to myself to be a sad remnant of a Romantic tradition in my searches through literature to find a richer life that brings in the words and feelings of- what?- redemption?

 

Just as Novoneyra found his spirit reflected in the old songs of Galicia, Thomas looked back to the old literature of Wales and spoke about Abercuawg. I shall transcribe the poem of the same name below so that you can get the full texture of his thought without my comments.early welsh saga poetry

 

Abercuawg

Abercuawg!  Where is it?
Where is Abercuawg, that
Place where the cuckoos sing?
I asked the professors.
Lo, here, lo, there: on the banks
Of a river they explained
How Cuawg had become Dulas.
There was the mansion, Dolguog,
Not far off to confirm them. I
Looked at the surface of the water,
But the place that I was seeking
Was not reflected therein.
I looked as through a clear
Windw at pebbles that were the ruins
Of no building, with no birds tolling
Among them, as in the towers of the mind.

An absence is how we become surerabercuawg
Of what we want.  Abercuawg
Is not here now, but there.  And
There is the indefinable point,
The incarnation of a concept,
The moment at which a little
Becomes a lot.  I have listened
To the word ‘Branwen’ and pictured
The horses and the soil red
With their blood, and have opened
My eyes on the sickly child, sticky
With sweets and snivel.  And: ‘Not
This,’ I have cried.  ‘This is the name,
Not the thing that the name
Stands for.’  I have no faith
That to put a name to
A thing is to bring it
Before one.  I am a seeker
In time for that which is
Beyond time, that is everywhere
And nowhere; no more before
Than after, yet always
About to be; whose duration is
Of the mind, but free as
Bergson would say of the mind’s
Degradation of the eternal.

And this seems to me to be a pretty good definition of saudade as defined by Ramón Piñeiro!

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