Friday, 25 October 2013

Meir ben Eliahu: Into the Light
Here and Now

Medieval Norwich

Why should we be interested in a group of poems written in the thirteenth century by a man of whom hardly anything is known, who was not necessarily one of the great poets of the age (that is as far as we can tell) and whose expulsion from his home was hardly unique in the history of the world?

It may depend on who we are. If the reader is Jewish the poem, as translated, is of deep intrinsic interest: it is a voice out of a distant yet familial past, witnessing to a history that has a worrying tendency to recycle itself.  Look, the reader might exclaim. We did not know this voice existed: it is now alive and speaking to us, as if in our present,  as members of a tribe, a family even. The reader recognizes quotations, references, tropes, the very quality of voice as it addresses the deity and the universe. The losses, furies, anxieties and ecstasies strike an echo, something at the very deepest levels of identity. Those anxieties have never faded, they are always there beneath the skin, and here is the very cause of them, a moment among other such historical moments, the most recent of which is still vivid in the experience of last generation.  The fierceness and argumentation are aspects of the anxiety. There is both fierceness and argumentation in the book. On the other hand there is not only the ecstasy, but the warmth and tenderness of those images of dress and wine, in the terms of endearment reserved for the God that is the source of light.

At the first launch by invitation of Into the Light the audience was swollen by many writers attending the Worlds Literature Festival. They came, as the name of the conference suggests, from all parts of the world and filled Dragon Hall, listening intently, deeply appreciative of the occasion, in many cases moved. To those among them who were Jewish it was, as they told me, a moment of great significance: it was the first such voice they had heard in this country, the first time that the expulsion of the Jews had become an occasion. It was a kind of statement, like the unlocking of a door.

Norwich is such a civilised city. It is a UNESCO City of Literature, one of the very few such in the world. Norwich is pretty, beautiful even. It has no great slums. Its medieval street plan - one that Meir might still recognise in places - offers stability if not quite permanence. It is not the kind of city where people are massacred and from which people are expelled without a penny. It is indeed an official City of Refuge. We are good people. We are nice people. We are a more-or-less comfortable people. We don't massacre or expel. We are not racist. We are certainly not anti-Semitic. We are a reconciled community.

But all cities are like that before they turn. And who knows what brings on the turn? I have seen people at wrestling matches in Norwich, their faces transformed by manic energy, the sort of energy we all possess, myself included. These turns at the ringside are partly theatre and self-aware to some degree,  but not entirely. The spectacle would be nothing if it drew on nothing within us.

But what does Into the Light mean for the non-Jewish reader. It is, in some ways, simply a group of poems, that is to say a piece of literature that may be read (as I have read it) in terms of style and voice, located in the area where all literature is located, at that radioactive distance where we need not touch to be irradiated. That is how art acts on us. It is at an intellectual elsewhere that is, at the same time, a psychological within.

But it is also a human document that tells us what happened and how people responded to events, particularly a people with a specific history and cultural identity, and how one figure among them gave form to this response at both a social or liturgical, and a personal or lyric level. To the outsider it is just another human story to which he or she will find analogies: Gypsies, Armenians, the Tutsi, the African, the Native American. These histories might not be quite so cyclic but they are certainly tragic and devastating. General human sympathy goes out to them. The general reader - that is one who gets so far as to read this book - will respond with the pity, anger and tenderness of which our culture is still capable. It also challenges our sense of justice. Why do societies act unjustly? Why do societies pick on people? What urge in us requires scape-goats and sacrifices?

It may be that, in one respect, the general reader feels a certain ambiguity. That ambiguity will be centred on Israel, the country that, since 1948, has been the Jewish homeland, the Jewish state, and which may therefore be regarded, at least potentially, as a crucible of whatever is perceived to be the Jewish 'character'. Here the tables are reversed and it is the Palestinians who are regarded as 'the Jews'. This perception will be presented with absolute symmetry, to the extent that Israel is Nazi Germany, or, at the very least, apartheid South Africa.

Under these circumstances it is hard to make what many declare to be a hard and fast distinction between betwen Israel and Jews elsewhere. It seems clear to me from the discourses available that the language and terminology applied to Israel is exactly the same as was applied to the Jews in that cyclical past. Now and then the terminology leaks, as one may find in articles and cartoons in the press. The old stereotypes occur with ever greater blatancy.

The members of the Norwich Jewish community who came to the public launch  ten days ago will be aware of that. They probably won't speak of it because it's hard. They may or may not approve the actions of any particular Israeli government. They may support or reject this or that policy.  Whatever they do think it is unlikely that Israel can be cut from them with a knife, like a pound of flesh, or that they can be completely cut out of Israel. That is not the way the world has ever worked. It is certainly not the way Jewish history has worked.

They might have lived in Norwich for as long as Meir did, their families even longer. For them the publishing of Into the Light gives them a light to gather around. Thank you to Keiron Pim for initiating and taking the project through.

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Meir ben Eliahu: Sixteen Poems
A Smoking Brazier with a Blazing Torch

There is a particularly fascinating introduction to this group of poems. It refers to Genesis 15 and the covenant God makes with Abram. The source is Meir himself, from a poem he added to the sixteen. where he recounts that Abram cut his sacrificial animals in two, arranging the halves opposite each other. Having done so Abram falls asleep and "a smoking brazier with a blazing torch" passes between the pieces. Meir proposes to replace the animals with portions of his name in a complex combination whereby:

[E]ach portion consists of two letters and the four letters can be combined in sixteen different ways. In each of the sixteen poems one of these combinations is used to open and close its four lines so that the first word on each line begins with the two letters and the last word ends with them. The reader proceeds through the portions as in "a covenant of pieces"

The obsessive complexity of this process is clearly mystical, right from the dream through to the numbers that enact the covenant. I am not too concerned with the mystical as such, that can remain a closed book for now, but the psychological compulsion of figures, forms and systems is something else.

My own instinctive preference is to establish a relationship with language in which language, with all its accidents and coincidences, is an active, often directing partner. The poem works against the constraints that constantly deflect it into potentially fruitful directions, so, instead of the poet declaring: I have something to say and am saying it, the poet works on the principle that there is something to be said, but what that is is to be discovered. The poem itself is not random or in thrall to its form but it does show an awareness of the arbitrary and unknown. The poet is not in full charge. Language is not passive.

In Meir's terms the poem is the flaming torch that is carried between the half of language that appears conscious and the half that appears arbitrary.

Nothing of Meir's original system is translated here. Even if it could be its significance to us would be lost. A gesture towards the idea of constraint is the best we can do. We read the sixteen poems as individual but connected, lyrics. It is, at the same time, good to bear in mind that these lyrics were not produced in a vacuum, but are the product of formal decisions. One of these formal decisions is retained in most of the translations: the poems were written in quatrains in Hebrew and are rendered as such in English.


The first poem addresses God as a royal Guardian, numbered with stars and refers to its own plain and upright words. As with Put a Curse on my Enemy there are many Biblical references, but it is what moves between them that fascinates me. So, here we have:

As my eyes catch light from the holy face
I brighten, wrapped in light, and glow with warmth.

Catching light from a face is a powerful idea that doesn't seem to come with too many Biblical strings attached though I could be wrong.  It strikes me as an act of the imagination. Lyrical poems are primarily acts of the imagination.

From light we move to images of water and drought in the second poem but there is a subtle shift to erotic terms in with dew drops of desire the folk are fed, / I too, perhaps, will sip a lover's cup. We know, above all from the Song of Solomon, that religious feeling may be expressed in terms of sexual desire. We may think of Bernini's St Teresa as, by now, a pretty ripe illustration. The ambiguity in the case of the secular reader tends to lean to the erotic rather than the sacred. It is certainly not a puritan way of writing.

From  images of thirst it is natural to move to "limpid wine" in the third poem, though the complaint is that there is "no such wine" and that from my sea no clear liquid can be drawn.

From here the imagination begins to take wing. The image of my Love strikes me with awe, begins the fourth poem, and the light of that image is seen sparkling and falling like an arrow-shower. These arrows can wound a heart of truth.

We have now established arrows as one of the elements of the poem. They introduce not only the idea of wounding but of conflict.

The fifth poem speaks of my Beloved, speaks of family and move on to animal imagery.

If pain is a he-goat, then I am a lion
or if as a bullock, then I a wild ox

This seems a slightly confusing menagerie - the message is 'I will overcome pain' - but the animals are certainly there and appear as with a certain familiarity They are not merely spoken of: they are present.

The sixth poem is a leap. We are reminded of "Egypt's bondage" but expand into "a garment of song", a unique garment entire and incomparable and a place to store it, a palace furnished with courtyard and galleries, which is derived from Ezekiel, nevertheless appears here as a new term, an expansion of the poem. The seventh returns to the idea of the face and preserves the idea of clothing in I'll dress myself with finest speech. Earlier elements are being picked up here as they are in the eighth poem where thirst reappears as a motif working alongside light.

The ninth is particularly beautiful and strikes out in another new direction. The Lord digs a hollow in the heart. The water is now the sea, complete with sea-wind and a ship without decking.

As if my ship lacks decking, he hews off
my inner feelings to serve as shipboards. 

Imagery, however complicated, works best when it is conceivable as presence. This is, in some ways,  a laboured metaphor but the details are seen with such intensity that their particularity carries conviction. Then the sea is set on fire.

The tenth brings back the arrows, the storehouse, the wounds and the creatures but introduces a wonderful image at the end:

Like a lion he tears us apart,
but our tears he weaves into his shield.

The idea of tears woven into a shield is complex but effective. It hints at something just beyond the solid  reach of comprehension but well within its range of vision.

The eleventh poem persists with the sea. The beloved rocks the poet in the sea and covers him with waves, his head decorated with snowy flakes. Ice and hoar-frost will be my ornaments he says. The twelfth talks of purgation and returns us to fire - the words occurs three times in eight lines.

The thirteenth introduces pomegranates while reminding us of wine. It brings in a fowler that ensnares us in his net, before returning to arrows but now bones are being broken too. New ideas appear as part of a developing narrative to the poet but he is always trying to keep the poem together, (I think this is the way most longer poems proceed.)

In the fourteenth Meir picks up the image of decoration this time in terms of corals and crystals, but asks why his soul still seems loathsome. The fifteenth is full of Biblical references as if Meir wanted to re-establish a firm footing in the known, The sixteenth declares the poems to be a coronal of joyful songs and prays that the Lord  take pleasure in his precious meditations, these songs of exultation and of awe.


That exultation and awe come at the cost of great tribulation. The passage from the light of the holy face, through thirst, water, wine, desire, arrow-showers, shields of tears, animals, splendid garments, palaces, a sea-voyage, a potential wreck, a drowning, ice and snow, corals and crystals, never quite losing sight of the beloved face whose light Meir has caught.

It is the progress of the narrative in terms of imagery that thrills and assures us we are dealing with an individual figure who thinks beyond liturgy. The liturgy is communal: in the sixteen poems we discover ourselves as single creature before the God of our imagination.


I want to write one more piece on the book, reflecting on the whole and on its meaning for us.

Saturday, 19 October 2013

Meir ben Eliahu: Put a Curse on My Enemy

Anything I say about the poems of Meir ben Eliahu is, of course, about the poems as presented by the translators Ellman Crasnow and Bente Elsworth. That having been considered in the last post I will talk about the poems as though they were in English. This will sound a little shocking knowing how distant in every respect - language, time, context, conditions - the English text is from the Hebrew, but it is pretty common practice in reading and reviewing. Translation, and very often the translators, vanish into a hole in the imagination. They are assumed to have become as transparent as the glass of the window you look through in order to see what is beyond the glass. Believe me, it ain't so. But this much is true: in the end the foreign laguage text will be read as an English text, by English reading standards.

Enough caveats. Let us be glad we have an English text at all.

The two works read from at both the invited and the public launch were Put a Curse on My Enemy and the Sixteen Poems set. I'll concentrate on those. Put a Curse on my Enemy first.

The actual title of Put a Curse on My Enemy is A Liturgical Poem on the Burden of Exile, Suffering and Ruin which tells you a great deal. It tells you the poem's purpose was less personal than social, that its form is ritualistic as is usual in an act of worship, and that it had a very particular subject.

The Book of Lamentations in the Bible may be described in the following terms:
Lamentations consists of five distinct poems, corresponding to its five chapters. The first four are written as chapters. 1, 2 and 4 each have 22 verses, corresponding to the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet, the first lines beginning with the first letter of the alphabet, the second with the second letter, and so on. Chapter 3 has 66 verses, so that each letter begins three lines, and the fifth poem is not acrostic but still has 22 lines. The purpose or function of this form is unknown.

So we have acrostics and we have number-and-alphabet-coding, that is to say a deep concern with structure and symbolism.  These passions are in the root pattern of Jewish history and sensibility.

The poem begins with a curse:
Put a curse on my enemy
for all are deceivers...

Curses are proper to poetry. If fetishes have power, so have words. Naming things implies control and to be cursed by a poet was (and may remain) a dangerous thing. There was much to curse in this case, of course, nevertheless it shocks us. Elisha cursed his enemies: Smite these people, I pray thee, with blindness.

 It is not very New Testament is it? Those vengeful Jews with eyes for eyes and teeth for teeth. It sets our own teeth on edge a little. But that is something that may happen after massacres, pogroms and exile. People get cross.

The tone immediately changes. The figure addressed - God - is not so much instructed as entreated to bring the suffering house of Jacob to the light.

There are three distinct tones in the first verse: the desperate cry for vengeance; the sound of entreaty, as of a child nagging his parent; and, finally, the chorus to be repeated after each verse:

Majestic are you and luminous, you irradiate our darkness with light.

The cry of praise, which is also a desire for mystical light is beautiful and affirming, especially in conditions of such darkness. Irradiate is not a word you will find in the old scriptures but it has a powerful spring that sets the line shooting towards the stars. The first verse sets our limits: we are to move between the desperate curse on the one hand and the cry of belief on the other.

The poem shifts temporally between the between reflections on the past (Every seer's words were rash), the immediacy of the danger (they are finishing us off) and the praise of light as in the chorus.

Not so much chorus in fact as response. The poem is, after all, liturgy. So the congregation that, throughout all this is dancing in a circle, is confirmed in its communion with itself as also with God. It is the rabbi that does the intimate negotatiating and arguing for which Jewish prayer is famous. In that relationship God is addressed in tutoyer terms and  is presumed to be reasonable and willing to listen, much as a real father might. This is the personal God to whom Christians too address their prayers but with whom they are less inclined to wrangle (though George Herbert wrangles all the time.)

So we move through the poem, all  seventeen verses of it, bringing up instance on instance of humiliation and peril. Give it a limit, cries the fifteenth verse before the sixteenth rises in rapture through majestic, awesome heavenly. And the light remains and is constantly reiterated.


I don't think I can talk about the Sixteen Poems in this post. Space and time is short and I am setting off to Bath in an hour or so. The next post will be set side for the Sixteen Poems.

Maybe there is just enough time to think a little, not so much about the poetics of Put a Curse on My Enemy, but about the heart from which the poem arises and the heart to which it is addressed. Heart is not a respectable literary term but we have reasonable agreement on what it means. We think it means something like the deepest-seated feeling or sense of being.

These people are always complaining, someone might complain. Can't they just shut up? They say that about those famous events generally referred to as the Holocaust. It is simply bad manners to refer to sufferings that were not directly yours, they think, the past is past, the dues have been paid, and we will not stand here to be regularly clubbed with guilt (cf Norman Finkelstein's The Holocaust Industry) especially when some people suggest it never even happened.

It would certainly be nicer if it hadn't happened, and it might be comforting to agree with those who suggest as much. Besides, there is Israel and doesn't that prove what a bad lot they are underneath?

Enough. Game Over.

Speaking for myself, I can quite see that claims of victimhood are annoying to those who have to hear them. They are annoying to me. Cries of victimhood humiliate the victim. I think that of all claims of victimhood. One gets on with life and tolerates no special pleading. Isn't that right?

The cry of Meir ben Eliahu, poet, is very much in its own urgent present tense. Its plea for God to punish his people's enemies is not uncommon among the beleaguered. As for us readers we read both historically and in the eternal present tense. That is the paradox of taking any reading to heart.

The only tense of art is 'is'. Meir's present arrives very belatedly in our own present.

More on Monday, I hope.

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Meir ben Eliahu: Into the Light
The translations

Someone at last night's launch asked whether translating poetry was possible. I answered that it was impossible, yet we translate it and, by doing so, help expand the roots of the poem into other languages. What is translatable? the questioner asked me afterwards. The spirit, I replied, which was not a satisfactory answer since the spirit is nothing without the flesh, that flesh being comprised of all the formal qualities of the poem, which are, after all, markers of the process whereby the original poem developed. I tried to add this to the simple and misleading answer and I think we understood each other.

In Emily Dickinson's terms the poet constructs a house - the poem - hoping to entice a ghost - the spirit. The translator's job may be described as the building of a house likely to entice the same ghost, that is in so far as ghosts can be identified.

Certain poem-houses are international: the sonnet for example, as well as the ballad, the couplet and certain other forms. These forms spread from place to place. They may start in Italy or Provence or the Middle East or even the Far East. Everyone interested in poetry has a broad understanding of what a haiku is. We know when the term, along with versions of the form, first entered English, but time has passed since then and we have grown familiar enough with it to write English language haiku with some sense of what we are doing. We know perfectly well that we are not writing haiku as they were written in their original languages, nevertheless the form - as we have it - has developed its own history, its own dynamic, and makes sense to us. It has built its own house. We have built it. The sonnet was an import once after all, in fact most of the verse forms we know were devised for other languages, but they have become our own.

In the same way we know that the alexandrine is much more common in French than in English where it is the iambic pentameter that is most commonly employed. We can transfer material from one to the other by referring to their roughly similar positions in poetic tradition. That does not mean that the pentameter is precisely the equivalent of the alexandrine. Once we understand that we may choose the pentameter to translate into.

Even when there are no direct similarities in the receiving language - as seems to be the case with Meir's Hebrew poems - there remain the manners and uses of form since form is not only a process but a way of speaking. What we know is that Meir's Put a Curse on My Enemy is a liturgical poem and we have our own liturgies - Jewish or Christian - in common practice. The shapes of liturgy are embedded in our memory. Liturgy too is a house. The priest says something: the congregation replies.


There are various ways of translating a historical liturgical poem. All of them involve compromise especially a liturgical poem that was actually danced. A certain air of dancing has to be built into the rhythmic pattern of the translation. The very first lines of the English translation of Put a Curse on My Enemy declare a dancing purpose: Put a curse on my enemy / for all are deceivers sounds a neat trala tumtumtum tralala / ta tum trala-tum-ta. It skips while being declarative. One dances vengeance and sadness, the sadness transformed into energy. And so it goes on dancing.

There is also the sense of historical distance. This can be created by the use of phrases that have a faintly archaic sound but retain familiarity through contemporary liturgical use. For example They make heavy our yoke echoes an ancient formula in a known Biblical pattern. One has to take risks to make this work, to allow it to cut through our ears into the living present. The necessary risk is to bring the phrase up against something utterly modern that nevertheless fits. In this case the translators offer the next line, they are finishing us off, a cry that will not be found in the Book of Common Prayer, though it might be in a poem by, say, Paul Celan. The way these two lines brush up against each other without throwing each other off balance is the key. Of course there are echoes of earlier scripture that may set the unconscious memory into motion. The line He has rent the heart's enclosure is in fact a direct quotation from a particular translation of the Book of Hosea, but we needn't know that; we just need to catch some faint echo of the grandeur of figurative speech.

Sheer accumulation of physical effect, which is not the same as alliteration or onomatopeia, can render the passion of the piece, as, for example:

In the land of the heavy-hearted and exhausted
we have heard the people's reproach

Here, those heavy breathing sounds that insist on panting through the first line and leave us gasping echo on into the second, where they are replaced by the lip-popping p sounds of people's reproach.

All these examples are from the first five stanzas of Put a Curse on my Enemy. It would take a long time to point out other examples of the way the English version looks to capture what is, presumably, the spirit or ghost of the original Hebrew.

I think the translators have done a very fine job generally. The poems register as poetry. The liturgy sounds liturgical, the dancing continues, and the two languages call out to each other.

But what are the poems like as poems? That will require a third post. Maybe tomorrow, though tomorrow is busy. I am going to London to record more poems for the Poetry Archive, mostly children's poems in this case but some adult ones too. The last time I recorded for the Poetry Archive was about seven years ago.

Meir ben Eliahu:
Into the Light (1)

I wanted to write about this book before and also something about the two events that launched it, the second just last night. 

What is the book? 

It is a collection of the known poems of a thirteenth century Jewish poet named Meir ben Eliahu, of whom hardly anything else is known. Some of the poetry was discovered in the Vatican Library by a Jewish scholar called Abraham Berliner who published it in a tiny edition in the original Hebrew in 1887. Other work was found in Russian manuscripts. The texts were available to the few who were interested in such things. This is the first translation into English.

How do we know the poems are by Meir ben Eliahu? We know that because he signed them, not by scrawling his name underneath, but by the use of acrostics embedded in the poems. The fullest of those acrostics tells us:

I am Meir, son of rabbi Eliahu, from the city of Norgitz which is in the land of isles called Angleterre. May I grow up in the Torah of my Creator and in ferar of him; Amen, Amen, Selah.

Norgitz was an unusual spelling of Norwich even at the time, but Meir was certainly from Norwich and his father, possibly one Elyas, was mentioned in a deed of 1293 as having lived next door to the synagogue.  Meir himself (his name means Light) is not recorded.

The expulsion of the Jews in England took place in 1290, at the climax of a long period of trouble for Jews, particularly in Norwich. In 1144 the body of a twelve year old boy called William was found on Mousehold Heath, now in Norwich, then just outside. There was a hue and cry and the Jewish community was accused of ritual murder. William was quickly canonised and there were pogroms, punishments and executions. In 1190 most of the Jews in the city were massacred. Some forty years later those that remained were, as the Introduction to the book puts it, 'burned out of their houses'. Between and after there were repeated efforts to get the Jews to convert. Accusing Jews and executing them was a good way taking possession of their property. And then, under Edward I, came the full expulsion, only reversed, after much negotiation, by Cromwell, who needed the trade, in 1657.

That is the background. Meir's poems are a direct response to the 1290 expulsions.

The book itself is beautifully produced by a Norwich press with a full introduction by the editor and instigator of the book, the writer and journalist,  Keiron Pim. The translations are by Ellman Crasnow and Bente Elsworth both of whom used to teach at the UEA,  who provide a very useful Translators' Note.

It seem, in many ways, to be a very local matter. The poems are by a citizen of Norwich and relate to the history of Norwich. They are published and translated in Norwich and launched there. What gives it more than local prominence is because the William case in Norwich is the very first recorded blood Blood Libel. That is enough to render it of much more than local interest. 

Being the very first English translation of these seven hundred year old poems, the book's appearance also has a distinct place in English historiography since the poems - which predate Julian of Norwich, -are the only works of their kind relating to the expulsions. 


The golden age of medieval poetry in Hebrew is collected in Peter Cole's marvellous anthology, The Dream of the Poem, that covers Jewish poetry in Muslim and Christian Spain from 950-1492. Meir's poems are to the north of that great period in every sense. They are not as rich or lyrically diverse as the poems in Cole's anthology and are perhaps a little cruder than the best of the work in Cole nevertheless they bite and hold firm where necessary and soar when opportunity affords. That is if we go by the English translation. I myself have no Hebrew.

We have essentially five poems if one counts the set of sixteen poems at the end as a single work. As concerns the translation, the poems are given in facing versions: English on the verso, Hebrew on the recto. English clearly requires more words since the stanzas in English are generally longer but that is often the case in verse translation. I'll discuss the translation later. 

Of the five poems three are particularly interesting: A Liturgical Poem on the Burden of Exile Suffering and Ruin (Put a Curse on My Enemy) which is a lament in response to the expulsions; the longest poem, Who is Like You, which runs through the Torah from Genesis to the Exodus and contains the long acrostic quoted above, and the final group of Sixteen Poems.

Of these three the Sixteen Poems are the freest and most lyrical expressions of Meir's imagination though they too involve acrostics and a complex symbolism whereby sacrifical creatures are replaced by various combinations of the letters of Meir's name.

I will continue this piece in the next post, coming straight up.

Monday, 14 October 2013

On the Road News:
The Wind of Time Bloweth a Gale

A long time since the last post, chiefly because I have been very much on the road again. On the 5th, Saturday, we were in Snape for the Flipside Brazil festival, on the 6th, Sunday, it was football at Carrow Road and Norwich's 1-3 loss to Chelsea, Monday was quiet but lots of preparation and catching up. On Tuesdya it was the train to Cheltenham for the Literary Festival to read with Fred D'Aguiar (lovely, close to 150 people in the audience), travelled back most of Wednesday. On Thursday into Norwich to talk over a course I am to teach in July, on Friday it was Liverpool and the TS Eliot Twentieth Anniversary Tour, reading with Maura Dooley, Sam Willetts and Andy McMillan (some 80 audience), staying overnight, home all the next day to fall asleep on returning on Saturday while Clarissa baby-sat at Helen and Rich's.

Sunday was quiet, finally doing some writing on the updated Don Juan project (13 stanzas of the Byronics), as well as catching up with correspondence, some urgent, and preparing for the events of this week.

Today was writing letters, invoices, introductions, responding to collections of poetry,

Sometimes I believe in the concept of time, sometimes Time wonders whether it should believe in me.

Tomorrow this, (the wonderful Meir of Norwich at Dragon Hall)

On Sunday, this. A night in Bath, the Knight of Bath, the Wife of Bath, the bath of baths.

If I can I will say a little about all the events and write one piece on Meir.

Life will be less fraught, possibly less exciting. I may be able to get back to a proper daily blog.

Saturday, 5 October 2013

Guest post by Meirion Jordan
Reflections on Prize Culture

Laurel wreath

It's good to have guest posts, especially at busy times, so I am glad that Meirion Jordan has written a piece for the blog. It is on doubts about prize culture. 


I may as well come straight out with it: I'm not sure poetry prizes work.
This is perhaps a the worst time to get cold feet. I'm writing this on National Poetry Day, in the run up to the TS Eliot Prize, and with the Forward Prizes not far behind. I should be agog to hear the news about all the fantastic books that have made the shortlist, yet suddenly I'm not sure what it is that these shortlists accomplish.
On the face of it they accomplish a great deal. Prizes are about promoting books of poetry, about rewarding and raising the profile of gifted writers, about giving the poetry world an excuse to get together, giving the entire scene something of a public profile.
Yet I'm not sure that poetry has benefited nearly as much from these events as it could have. Prizes have been a major feature of the poetry landscape for over 20 years, and there's no doubt that the poetry world has changed for the better during that time. But 20 years isn't a long time in poetry. We tentatively hope that poets, let alone their books, will have careers of something more like 30 or 40 years; we've not even begun to see the long-term effects of our reliance on prizes to seek out 'excellence', the 'best' works published.
The problem is that, whatever the variations different judging panels introduce, such enterprises tend to be self-defining. Win one prize and you end up judging another; the bonds of mutuality between the work of the judge and that of the judged creep up on you, year on year. This isn't an accusation, by the way: I don't mean to suggest that prize-winning poets form a clique, but to say that if they were a clique the pressures that formed it would not be evident to us or to them. Once you start thinking that you, or indeed anyone else, is in any way equipped to judge between 20 poets at the peak of their craft you've already mistaken the social connections that draw your personal inclinations towards those of others for a benchmark of quality.
This isn't a deeply-held conviction, but it's a nagging misgiving that puts a damper on my enjoyment of the poetry community as a whole. In the 20 years that poetry prizes have proliferated, whilst much has changed for the better, I worry that the overall readership for poetry hasn't exactly exploded. Poets are still very much second-class citizens in a literary world dominated by novelists; to an outsider, does it seem that we have only a handful of titans (one less as 30th of August), but armies of dwarfs?
Are we too wedded to the notion of individual genius, perhaps? It seems odd that in spite of our beliefs regarding the social nature of our particular communicative enterprise, we still prioritise the lone voice of 'excellence' over the communality that shaped that voice. It's an uncomfortable statement, but ask yourself whether you could believe it: prizes are gatekeepers to our present mainstream. Doubtless it's an enlightened, brilliant mainstream - but its construction is such that if it were out of touch, we'd not find out until it was far too late.

*This piece may be cross-posted on the PBS blog.