Tag Archives: poem

‘The Spirit is too Blunt an Instrument’ by Anne Stevenson

The spirit is too blunt an instrument
to have made this baby.
Nothing so unskilful as human passions
could have managed the intricate
exacting particulars: the tiny
blind bones with their manipulating tendons,
the knee and the knucklebones, the resilient
fine meshings of ganglia and vertebrae,
the chain of the difficult spine.
Observe the distinct eyelashes and sharp crescent
fingernails, the shell-like complexity
of the ear, with its firm involutions
concentric in miniature to minute
ossicles. Imagine the
infinitesimal capillaries, the flawless connections
of the lungs, the invisible neural filaments
through which the completed body
already answers to the brain.
Then name any passion or sentiment
possessed of the simplest accuracy.
No, no desire or affection could have done
with practice what habit
has done perfectly, indifferently,
through the body’s ignorant precision.
It is left to the vagaries of the mind to invent
love and despair and anxiety
and their pain.
We looked at this poem in a poetry workshop I went to recently, and I found this a fascinating piece. In it, the poet expresses the notion that the spirit is “too blunt” or vague a thing to create the intricate perfection that is a human baby.”Nothing so unskilful as human passions” could have “managed the intricate/exacting particulars”, writes Stevenson. This statement puzzled me, when I first read it. I think it is true (but also untrue!) and ironic, because human passions are exactlywhat create new life… Of course, something other than human passion is needed to create a baby (and the poem goes into great, clinical detail about “meshings of ganglia” and “neural filaments”) but you still need passion in order for two people to come together (whatever passion that might be — lust, love, or something hateful).The poet talks about “the body’s ignorant precision”. This line really stood out for me, and I think it sums up what Stevenson is saying about the body in this poem. She is presenting the body to us as an unthinking, efficient machine. It is something quite miraculous, and I find it very interesting that she goes into such detail about its inner workings in the medical, scientific language that is so seldom found in poetry. I think Anne Stevenson does this because, although she is praising the great machine of the body, she is also subtly hinting at the coldness or pointlessness of a perfectly working body if there is no passion or love.Any “passion” — any “desire or affection” — is depicted as vague and imprecise in the poem, and incapable or creating anything so useful as the human body. For me, this evokes the conflict between science and religion. Perhaps I’m taking it too far, but this poem reminded me of a person trying to disprove God’s existence by saying how precise the body’s chemical reactions are, and insisting that the “spirit is too blunt an instrument” to be the cause of life. It is not love that creates life, but rather the ignorantly precise and obliviously diligent chemical reactions in the body. It is left to “the vagaries of the mind to invent/ love and despair and anxiety/ and their pain”.I haven’t really come to a conclusion about what Stevenson wants to say in this poem. I suspect her intention is to provoke thought, rather than to offer any definitive argument. It certainly made me think! I am fascinated by the conflict in the poem between the forces of “vague love” and “ignorant precision”. But I don’t  see why they should necessarily be mutually exclusive.

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh

‘The Bright Field’ by R. S. Thomas

I have seen the sun break through
to illuminate a small field
for a while, and gone my way
and forgotten it. But that was the
pearl of great price, the one field that had
treasure in it. I realise now
that I must give all that I have
to possess it. Life is not hurrying

on to a receding future, nor hankering after
an imagined past. It is the turning
aside like Moses to the miracle
of the lit bush, to a brightness
that seemed as transitory as your youth
once, but is the eternity that awaits you.

I hope you all enjoy this beautiful poem by Welsh poet, R. S. Thomas. Thomas was an anglican priest, as well as a poet, but I think this piece is full of profound wisdom for everyone, regardless of creed.

The Bright Field speaks about those shining moments in life — moments of grace, beauty, inspiration, epiphany — where we fleetingly encounter the divine or feel a deep connection to the universe. This image of the bright field evokes for me various ideas: the moment you see your child’s face for the first time, the moment you realise you’ve fallen in love, or when you read and understand some complicated scientific theory about the universe, become transfixed by Shakespeare or an incredible piece of music… or, of course, when you pray or meditate, and feel a connection to the divine.

The poet confides that he has often seen the sun “illuminate a small field” for a moment, and continued on his way and “forgotten it”. But, says Thomas, he knows that that field was “the pearl of great price”; that moment was something rare and beautiful, to hold on to and spend your life searching for. He is admitting here that he has experienced moments of profound connection to God, but that he has proceeded to move on, without dwelling on it. However, he has now come to realise that he must “give all that I have/ To possess” that moment — that “bright field” — again.

Another quality of these “bright” moments becomes clear as we enter the second stanza; the poem says that life is not “hurrying on/ to a receding future” or “hankering after/ and imagined past”. These lines deliver to me the notion that these bright moments of grace are in fact moments where we are intensely present. These are the moments we are most alive, and when we feel most connected to life, the universe, and/or God. This is as relevant for prayer and meditation as it is for all the other instances I have mentioned where one might experience a moment of exhilarating and glorious connection to the universe.

The poem ends with the beautiful image of the burning bush from the story of Moses. Thomas tells us that life — and these moments — is about “turning/ like Moses to the miracle/ of the lit bush”. Again, there is a real sense of intense presence in this image. I think the way the bright light — which is God, and grace — is described in the final lines is just exquisite: though it had once seemed “as transitory as your youth”, it is in fact “the eternity that awaits you.”

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh

‘Napoleon’ by Walter de la Mare

‘What is the world, O soldiers?
It is I:
I, this incessant snow,
This northern sky;
Soldiers, this solitude
Through which we go
Is I.’

I love Walter de la Mare for his capacity to conjure such startling images with clear, plain language. There is also, I think, a greatly musical quality to his poems, and Napoleon is full of all the lyrical simplicity that I admire so much about this poet’s work.

This poem seems to me to be a exquisite expression of the loneliness that can surround power and aggression. The mention of the “incessant snow” and the “northern sky” put me in mind of Napoleon’s Russian campaign, which led to his downfall and ultimate exile. The imagery in the poem evokes the disastrous Russian winter (the best weapon against invaders) and the Russian tactic of continuous retreat (each time Napoleon and his troops advanced, they met with only deserted, burnt land). The Russians burnt the land to prevent Napoleon from feeding his soldiers (he had anticipated a relatively short campaign), and this eventually forced Napoleon’s greatly diminished Grande Armee to retreat.

For me, these images deliver the idea of the ego’s aggression being met with icy (and an ultimately more powerful) silence. Napoleon’s pursuit of empire through war and conquest is a perfect example of the force and violence of the ego (the poem is certainly not a condemnation of Napoleon in particular, but rather uses him as an example for all those who seek power through aggression or conquest). In the end, nature, in the form of the Russian climate, dealt with Napoleon; the Russians did not have to. I think this is such a powerful image, and one that I think de la Mare captures beautifully in this short poem.

The speaker (Napoleon) begins with a question for his men; “What is the world?” he asks. Of course, he does not wait for their response, but answers himself: “It is I”. There is such clear confidence in this answer, and this seems perfectly befitting of the power-crazed, arrogant character that has been ascribed to Napoleon.

De la Mare’s Napoleon is a wonderfully dramatic piece. It seems to capture the legendary quality of the man, with its grand, heroic tone, but it also illustrates the way in which ego and violence will always reach a point of burning out, or a point where there is no one left to conquer. I think the image of the “incessant snow” is a beautifully poignant one. I just imagine Napoleon staring into the silence of the snow falling — deserted, and the ground burned — and realising that there was nobody there to fight. Violence is a force that must be spent, apparently, but once it is spent; once you have slaughtered and fought and conquered — however much ground or wealth you may have gained — you still have to face the deafening silence and the emptiness of the world you have created.

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh

‘Flood’ by Gillian Clarke

When all’s said, and done,
if civilisation drowns
the last colour to go
will be gold –
the light on a glass,
the prow of a gondola,
the name on a rosewood piano
as silence engulfs it.

And first to return
to a waterlogged world,
the rivers slipping out to sea,
the cities steaming,
will be gold,
one dip from Bellini’s brush,
feathers of angels, Cinquecente nativities,
and all that follows.

I think this is a wonderful poem, and a gorgeously beautiful homage to Art in all its forms. It speaks about what might be our world’s most lasting and essential legacy; “If civilisation drowns”, writes Clarke, “the last colour to go/ will be gold”.

Flood is clearly set in Venice, and we can be sure of that with the expressed notion of civilisation ‘drowning’; it is a commonly-known fact that Venice is sinking and will one day be under water. Of course, there is also the mentioning of the “prow of a gondola”, and the Venetian painter, Bellini, which helps to paint this image of Venice. Italy, with its history of the Roman Empire, and so much enlightenment and brilliant art during the Renaissance, is the ideal symbol for Western civilisation. It is also an obvious religious centre, and I think that amplifies this idea of the holiness of art. Gold is certainly a colour that I connect with Italy.

So, the poem talks about what would be the last thing “to go”, should civilisation be destroyed, and what would be the first thing to “return” if we had to rebuild civilisation from its ashes. Clarke’s answer to both of these questions is simple: “gold”. For me, this gold in the poem represents Art (every form of art: painting, sculpture, poetry, music etc). Man needs Art to express what Keats called “our deep eternal theme”; we have a need to express ourselves and our experience of beauty, truth, and all that is sacred. There seems to be a distinct aura of the sacred surrounding the idea of Art (i.e. the “gold”) in the poem, hence the references to the “feathers of angels” and the “Cinquecente nativities”.

I just love this piece. It reminds me of what a glorious thing Art can be.

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh

‘Cezanne’s Ports’ by Allen Ginsberg

In the foreground we see time and life
swept in a race
toward the left hand side of the picture
where shore meets shore.

But that meeting place
isn’t represented;
it doesn’t occur on the canvas.

For the other side of the bay
is Heaven and Eternity,
with a bleak white haze over its mountains.

And the immense water of L’Estaque is a go-between
for minute rowboats.

This poem is about a painting by Cezanne called ‘The Gulf of Marseilles seen from L’Estaque’. You can see the painting below.

I think Cezanne’s Ports is a fascinating poem. Ginsberg fascinates (and often troubles) me anyway, but here I love how he finds such a poignant significance to this beautiful painting — significance that I admit I would not have found myself without nudging.

So, the poet starts by talking about the foreground of the painting, and describes it as “time and life/ swept in a race/ toward the left hand side of the picture.” I love this description, because there is a sense of the bustle of triviality (which I certainly get from the sand-coloured puzzle of roofs), and how it is always on its way to “Heaven and Eternity” (which the poet next tells us is represented by the far grey shore of hills, with their “bleak white haze”.)

The “meeting place”, where “shore meets shore”, is not represented in the painting; it “does not occur on the canvas.” Why does it not occur in the picture? Is it because “Heaven and Eternity” are impossible to depict in art? Because they are impossible to comprehend in life?

In the final verse, Ginsberg talks about the sea — the “immense water of L’Estaque” — as a “go-between/for minute rowboats.” I like the curt manner of this ending because it amplifies the sweetness and triviality of the tiny rowboats (I think the term “rowboat” is significant because he is using an almost childish word to describe the boats, and of course “minute” ensures that we visualise them in a certain way.)

For me, these little rowboats represent our human efforts to understand the divine — our attempts to understand “Heaven and Eternity” in life. These attempts are not futile, but they are perhaps, as I said before, sweet and trivial, when you consider how the whole of the foreground is being inescapably “swept” towards the left of the painting, and Heaven. Ginsberg was a Buddhist for much of his life, and I think that this may have influenced this poem a great deal.

P.S. Ginsberg was also greatly influenced by Blake and Whitman. From Whitman, in particular, he inherited his love of free verse, and his long lines that are ‘single breath units’. I love this style, and I would like to share with you some enlightening extracts from “When the Mode of Music Changes, the Walls of the City Shake”, which Ginsberg wrote in 1961:

“one must verge on the unknown, write toward truth hitherto unrecognisable of one’s own sincerity, including the avoidable beauty of doom, shame and embarrassment, that very area of self-recognition (detailed individual is universal remember)”

“For if we write with an eye to what the poem should be (has been), and do not get lost in it, we will never discover anything new about ourselves in the process of actually writing on the table, and we lose the chance to live in our works, & make habitable the new world which every man may discover in himself, if he lives — which is life itself, past present & future”

“The only poetic tradition is the Voice out of the burning bush. The rest is trash, & will be consumed”.

I think that final quotation is true and beautiful, and I also think the influences of Blake, and Buddhism are very evident there.

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh

‘Education for Leisure’ by Carol Ann Duffy

Today I am going to kill something. Anything.
I have had enough of being ignored and today
I am going to play God. It is an ordinary day,
a sort of grey with boredom stirring in the streets.

I squash a fly against the window with my thumb.
We did that at school. Shakespeare. It was in
another language and now the fly is in another language.
I breathe out talent on the glass to write my name.

I am a genius. I could be anything at all, with half
the chance. But today I am going to change the world.
Something’s world. The cat avoids me. The cat
knows I am a genius, and has hidden itself.

I pour the goldfish down the bog. I pull the chain.
I see that it is good. The budgie is panicking.
Once a fortnight, I walk the two miles into town
for signing on. They don’t appreciate my autograph.

There is nothing left to kill. I dial the radio
and tell the man he’s talking to a superstar.
He cuts me off. I get our bread-knife and go out.
The pavements glitter suddenly. I touch your arm.

This is from Carol Ann Duffy’s 1985 collection, Standing Female Nude. Blake’s poem, The Fly, from yesterday, reminded me of this because Duffy’s poem also has a reference to that line from King Lear (“As flies to wanton boys are we to the Gods/ They kill us for their sport.”)

Education for Leisure is written from the point of view of a young person, who has presumably left school and is on unemployment benefit (every fortnight, he goes into town for “signing on”). I find the speaker’s voice at once frightening and heartbreaking; I can see that this person is capable of doing terrible things (he squashes a fly with his thumb, he wants to kill the cat, and he flushes the goldfish “down the bog”) and yet his voice also seems to contain hues of a wounded child, with lines like “I have had enough of being ignored”, and the bit about Shakespeare being “in another language”.

An obviously frightening aspect to this character is that he is clearly deluded and probably a psychopath. He begins with the statement, “Today I am going to kill something. Anything.” This person is destructive, angry, and desperate. But why does he feel this need to “kill”? Why does he want to “play God”? I think one reason is that he is afflicted by “boredom”, which seems to be a result of his neglectful education. The other reason, I think, is a need to take control of a life that seems so far beyond his power to change.

The second stanza is the one that breaks my heart the most. He squashes and kills a fly with his thumb, remembering Shakespeare’s King Lear from school. “It was in/ another language and now the fly is in another language”, he says. The speaker is extremely bitter about not having understood things at school, and perhaps not being given enough attention or time to improve himself. He feels like a victim, with no control over his future. So, as revenge, he imposes the same thing on the fly.

The speaker tries to convince himself that he is worth something more than he has apparently been told. “I breathe out talent,” he writes; “I am a genius”. He wants to change the world — “Something’s world”. He knows that the only power his has is physical, violent power, and so the only way he can change the world is to destroy it. The poem follows his desperate search for something “to kill”. The cat hides from him, flushing the goldfish is not enough, the budgie is “panicking”, but that is not enough, either.

This person, like all of us, wants to be heard, to be listened to. He is seeking approval and human contact just as any of us. I think this is also why he phones up “the radio” in the final stanza, and tells the man “he’s talking to a superstar.” The man cuts him off. This is yet another blow for the speaker, who told us from the start that he has “had enough of being ignored”. Since nobody takes notice of him, he moves on to hurting people. The poem ends with the ominous line, “I touch your arm.”

I think the final line to this poem is brilliantly clever. If we do not care about the  speaker by this stage of the poem; if we are still thinking to ourselves, ‘this person has nothing to do with me’, well, he now turns on and actively addresses the reader. The speaker in this poem is an example of a very real problem (though it was written in Thatcher’s Britain, I believe it is still very relevant), and I think it is very dangerous to ignore him.

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh

‘The Fly’ by William Blake

Little Fly,
Thy summer’s play
My thoughtless hand
Has brushed away.

Am not I
A fly like thee?
Or art not thou
A man like me?

For I dance
And drink, and sing,
Till some blind hand
Shall brush my wing.

If thought is life
And strength and breath
And the want
Of thought is death;

Then am I
A happy fly,
If I live,
Or if I die.

I read The Fly today and it reminded me of a line from King Lear, when Gloucester says: “Like flies to wanton boys are we to the Gods,/ They kill us for their sport.” Like that line from Shakespeare, Blake’s poem (from his Songs of Experience) explores the idea that man lives constantly under the shadow of the “blind hand” of death, just as a fly is subject to the whims of the “thoughtless hand” of man.

The way Blake creates a parallel between the fly and the speaker, by likening the fly’s “summer’s play” to his own merriment of dancing, singing and drinking, creates (I think) a powerful sense of the fleetingness and fragility of life. In the face of the ephemeral nature of existence, the fly and the speaker are equal. There is something very egalitarian about this poem, because it seems to suggest that all creatures are equal in the face of mortality.Below is the etching that Blake did for this particular poem, (he created these for all his poems in Songs of Innocence and Experience.) This etching seems to me to fit the poem perfectly. Like the poem, the image of the children and the mother figure seems perfectly innocent, just like the sing-song, nursery-rhyme tone and rhythm to the written piece. However, on closer inspection, the image becomes more sinister, and we can see that the children playing are very fragile; one plays merrily with a racket and shuttlecock, and the other needs the help of the mother as he attempts to walk. The trees that frame the image are bare, skeletal and oppressive, as if to remind us that death is never far away.

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh

‘Le Mistral Gagnant’ by Renaud

A m’asseoir sur un banc cinq minutes avec toi Et regarder les gens tant qu’y en a Te parler du bon temps qu’est mort ou qui r’viendra En serrant dans ma main tes p’tits doigtsPuis donner à bouffer à des pigeons idiots Leur filer des coups d’ pieds pour de faux Et entendre ton rire qui lézarde les murs Qui sait surtout guérir mes blessuresTe raconter un peu comment j’étais mino
Les bonbecs fabuleux qu’on piquait chez l’marchand
Car-en-sac et Minto, caramel à un franc
Et les mistrals gagnants

A r’marcher sous la pluie cinq minutes avec toi
Et regarder la vie tant qu’y en a
Te raconter la Terre en te bouffant des yeux
Te parler de ta mère un p’tit peu

Et sauter dans les flaques pour la faire râler
Bousiller nos godasses et s’marrer
Et entendre ton rire comme on entend la mer
S’arrêter, r’partir en arrière

Te raconter surtout les carambars d’antan et les cocos bohères
Et les vrais roudoudous qui nous coupaient les lèvres
Et nous niquaient les dents
Et les mistrals gagnants

A m’asseoir sur un banc cinq minutes avec toi
Et regarder le soleil qui s’en va
Te parler du bon temps qu’est mort et je m’en fou
Te dire que les méchants c’est pas nous

Que si moi je suis barge, ce n’est que de tes yeux
Car ils ont l’avantage d’être deux
Et entendre ton rire s’envoler aussi haut
Que s’envolent les cris des oiseaux

Te raconter enfin qu’il faut aimer la vie
Et l’aimer même si
le temps est assassin
Et emporte avec lui les rires des enfants

Et les mistrals gagnants

My Translation:

‘Le Mistral Gagnant’
(A note about the title: the ‘mistral’ is a well known wind that blows in the south of France. ‘Gagnant’ gives the idea of a wind that is gaining ground — advancing and taking things from the singer… it is difficult to express this with just one word as in French and so I have translated it in the song as “the advancing winds”.)To sit down on a bench, five minutes with you
and watch the people while they’re still there;
to tell you about the good days that are gone, or that will return,
while holding your little fingers in my hand.

Then to feed the stupid pigeons,
and pretend to kick them,
and to hear your laugh that crawls up the walls
and that, most of all, knows how to heal my wounds.
To tell you a bit about when I was a kid,
the fabulous sweets that we nicked from the shopkeepers,
Car-en-sac, Minto, and caramel for a franc.
And the advancing winds.To walk in the rain, five minutes with you,
and watch life going by, while it’s there;
to tell you about the World, while scaring you with my eyes,
to tell you about your mum a little bit.And to jump in the puddles to get her annoyed,
to wreck our shoes, and laugh about it,
and to hear your laugh like one hears the sea –
it stops, then starts off again backwards.To tell you especially about the carambars of the past
and the coco boheres (these are all sweets; so are roudoudous)
and the real roudoudous that cut our lips
and screwed up our teeth.And the advancing winds.To sit down on a bench, five minutes with you,
and watch the sun going down;
to tell you about the good times that are gone, and I don’t care,
and to tell you we’re not the bad guys.That if I’m crazy, it’s only about your eyes,
because they have the advantage of being two;
and to hear your laugh fly off as high
as the cries of the birds fly.To tell you at last that you must love life,
and love it even if time is a murderer;
and takes with him the children’s laughter,

and the advancing winds.
and the advancing winds.

My thoughts:

This is a song that I completely fell in love with the first time I heard it. I was also fascinated by the lyrics, because they have a strange beauty and are full of French slang. I didn’t understand the slang the first time I heard it, but these words have now become very familiar to me, and I think they are so cleverly used in this piece. It is about fatherly love, and it’s so sad and sweet and (I think!) wise.

Lyrics are extremely important in modern French music, and I think that is perhaps why some of the great singers like Brel, Brassens and Gainsbourg have not travelled so well to the UK and elsewhere. It makes me sad because for me these songwriters are poets, just as much as Bob Dylan is a poet, and their lyrics are incredibly rich and rewarding.

I have tried to translate ‘Le Mistral Gagnant’ to the best of my ability, but of course, the lyrics are great in French because of the assonance and the rhyme etc… So you must listen to it, too. My favourite thing about this song, (and I think this is the great appeal of many of Renaud’s lyrics) is how very common slang expressions have been made poetic… I find it quite wonderful.

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh

‘Minority’ by Imtiaz Dharker

I was born a foreigner.
I carried on from there
to become a foreigner everywhere
I went, even in the place
planted with my relatives,
six-foot tubers sprouting roots,
their fingers and faces pushing up
new shoots of maize and sugar cane.

All kinds of places and groups
of people who have an admirable
history would, almost certainly,
distance themselves from me.

I don’t fit,
like a clumsily-translated poem;

like food cooked in milk of coconut
where you expected ghee or cream,
the unexpected aftertaste
of cardamom or neem.

There’s always that point where
the language flips
into an unfamiliar taste;
where words tumble over
a cunning tripwire on the tongue;
where the frame slips,
the reception of an image
not quite tuned, ghost-outlined,
that signals, in their midst,
an alien.

And so I scratch, scratch
through the night, at this
growing scab on black on white.
Everyone has the right
to infiltrate a piece of paper.
A page doesn’t fight back.
And, who knows, these lines
may scratch their way
into your head –
through all the chatter of community,
family, clattering spoons,
children being fed –
immigrate into your bed,
squat in your home,
and in a corner, eat your bread,

until, one day, you meet
the stranger sidling down your street,
realise you know the face
simplified to bone,
look into its outcast eyes
and recognise it as your own.

This is another wonderful poem by Imtiaz Dharker. I think Dharker is one of the most exciting poets writing in English today; her work is so fresh and relevant, and I love the way she doesn’t shy away from subject matter that is politically taboo. I particularly love the way she explores identity in her poems.

Minority gives a very insightful depiction of what it feels like to be “foreign” in many places. The poem begins with the line, “I was born a foreigner”. How can you be born a foreigner? Well, sadly today in many of our Western societies (including in the UK and in my adopted country, France) the children of immigrants can be made to feel this way. The poem says, “I was born a foreigner… and “carried on from there/ to become a foreigner everywhere/ I went”. The speaker in the poem seems to belong nowhere – “even in the place/ planted with my relatives”. On returning to the country of her parents, this speaker feels like a foreigner, too. In this situation, many people understandably feel incredibly displaced and victimised, as they find themselves facing prejudice from both the country they were born in, as well as the country of their parents and relatives.

The speaker tells us “I don’t fit”. She compares herself to “food cooked in milk of coconut/ where you expected ghee or cream” or an “unexpected aftertaste/ of cardamom or neem”. I love this use of taste to describe a feeling of being foreign; it’s so evocative. A country’s cuisine is essential to its culture and so I think this is a very clever inclusion here. I also find it very interesting that Dharker imports flavours from her own very multicultural identities, which are (as well as British) Pakistani and Indian.

The subject of the next stanza if language, and this is something that I can relate to personally, having lived, studied and worked in abroad for several years now. The speaker talks about “that point where/ the language flips/ into an unfamiliar taste”, and words become a “tripwire”. Is she talking about accent here, where the language might “taste” differently on the tongue? Or is she talking about being unable to find the words for something? I have heard many people say this about being bilingual; it is incredibly frustrating when you cannot think of a word in the language you are trying to speak, because you are afraid that you might be better at one language than another. This only adds to the feeling of not-belonging that runs all the way through this poem.

The penultimate stanza explores the act of writing, and its role in the creation of identity. Dharker uses beautiful language to describe herself (or the speaker) going “scratch, scratch” at the “growing scab on black and white”. I just love this description of writing as a “scab”. She is writing to make sense of a wound, or even to heal it. Dharker encourages the notion of the transformative and healing power of literature here, and then she remarks upon its democracy. “Everyone has the right/ to infiltrate a piece of paper”, she writes; the page is not prejudiced; it “doesn’t fight back”. Poetry becomes a medium through which the speaker can freely express herself — a way she can communicate. And perhaps the message will get through to people; literature is a great teacher of empathy. “Who knows”, writes Dharker, perhaps these lines will “scratch their way/ into your head” — break through the prejudices that “community” and “family” can breed.

Perhaps one day, she writes in the final verse, you (the reader) will meet “the stranger sidling down your street” and recognise that face “as your own”. I just love the way the poem suddenly turns on the reader, near the end, with that very direct “you”. Dharker is putting the reader on the spot; these questions are now directly put to us. This poem beautifully displays its author’s belief in the power of literature to transform, educate and create understanding, and I think it’s a wonderful piece.

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh

‘On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer’ by John Keats

Much have I travell’d in the realms of gold,
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
Round many western islands have I been
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.
Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
That deep-brow’d Homer ruled as his demesne;
Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star’d at the Pacific—and all his men
Look’d at each other with a wild surmise—
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

This sonnet is a typically Keatsian feast of glorious sounds and luxurious rhymes. It is based upon Keats’ first experience of reading Chapman’s translation of Homer, and explores notions of the power of literature and the imagination. The poet tells us that Chapman’s work has inspired him to write; he intimates that he had never created “pure” poetry until “bold” Chapman encouraged him to “speak out”. On first looking into Chapman’s Homer is a tribute to Homer, to literature, and also, I think, to the genius of the poetic mind.

From the opening line of the poem you might notice a connection to many of Keats’ early sonnets. It begins with a beautiful, mysterious, alluring statement, akin in tone to “Great spirits now on earth are sojourning” and “The poetry of earth is never dead.” As with so much of Keats’ work, the sheer music of his words is enough to entice and delight.

The speaker begins by equating the act of reading with travelling. This metaphor extols the glory of the imagination, the “realms of gold”, where the narrator has journeyed, symbolising the great literary works of man. Keats had a great fascination for the imagination; in fact, he once wrote that he was “certain of nothing” but the “truth” of the imagination. The sonnet depicts the travels of Odysseus around the “goodly states”, “kingdoms” and “islands”, which are described in Homer, and which Keats, through reading Chapman’s translation, has experienced himself. Keats often alludes to his belief in the potency of literature, and does so notably in his other sonnet ‘Keen, fitful gusts’. In that poem, he remembers the great works of Milton and Petrarch as he confronts the harshly critical literary world. These memories inspire him, and give him confidence, ensuring that he feels “little” of the “bleak air”.

For me, the fact that Keats mentions so many great names from the distant past in this poem (Apollo, Homer and Cortez) highlights his burning ambition for recognition as a poet, and his concern for the writer’s role in society. He often refers to great poets of the past such as Milton and Shakespeare, as well as to fellow Romantic artists like Wordsworth and Haydon. I feel like he was continuously comparing himself to the masters, reminding himself of that which he dreams of achieving. The reference to Apollo here prefigures the more important role that the god of poetry will play in Keats’ later works such as Hyperion.

Within the octet there is an unmistakable impression of restlessness. The speaker is seemingly wandering from book to book, with no purpose or direction in mind. I think this reflects Keats’ early difficulties in finding poetic confidence. He speaks of how he had oft “been told” of “deep-brow’d Homer”. Perhaps Keats is acknowledging a feeling of inadequacy here — of being dwarfed by such a literary giant as Homer (often venerated as the first poet). This is consistent with much of Keats’ early verse, where there seems to be evidence of self-doubt and self-consciousness with regard to his credibility as a poet. For example, returning to ‘Keen, fitful gusts’, he acknowledges his youth and inexperience as he admits “I have many miles on foot to fare”. Likewise, in On first looking into Chapman’s Homer he infers that he had never created anything of beauty until he was inspired by this translation of Homer; (“never did I breathe its pure serene/ Till I heard Chapman speak”.) It is as though Keats had felt like an intruder in the closeted world of literature — that poetry was strictly the “demesne” of Homer and such. But Chapman encourages Keats, urging him to speak out “loud and bold”.

In the second half of the poem, as we enter the sestet, the verse completely alters in tone. The speaker is now inspired, empowered, and purposeful because of what he has read. Keats has created an intriguing connection between himself and the reader in this piece. The poem is a result of his inspiration from Chapman, and by writing his own beautiful sonnet, Keats seduces his reader into his poem in the same way that he was originally enthralled by Homer. The writer and reader share in the same experience. Keats compares himself to an astronomer and a famous explorer; since reading Homer the poet’s confidence has clearly grown rapidly! He also becomes more poetic here, as he likens the discovery of his own creative genius to an astronomer’s discovery of a new planet, and to Cortez discovering South America. The caesura in the final line “Silent, upon a peak in Darien”, is wonderfully dramatic, and seems to echo the awe that the poet feels at realising his poetic potential, and the vast landscapes of beauty that his imagination is capable of conjuring.

Another thing that I find really interesting in this poem is that it seems to show Keats’ ambition. It is hard to read it and not derive from it some notion of the immense task that Keats seems to have set himself. This is something that I have noticed in quite a lot of Keats’ work (perhaps it is most obvious in the piece ‘When I have fears’). Keats’ endeavours to perfect ancient and difficult poetic structures such as the ode and sonnet also seem to support this idea of ambition; he mentions it himself in a letter to Hessey, which he wrote while writing ‘Endymion’. He writes that through attempting to master these challenging forms he had “ leaped headlong into the Sea” of poetry, and so become “better acquainted” with it than if he had “stayed upon the green shore” and taken “tea and comfortable advice.” Keats was uncompromising; he refused to take heed of the criticism of anyone but himself. And I think it’s a very good thing that he didn’t!

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh