Nightingales: an addendum

January 12, 2022

Mr Bentzman has asked me to add an addendum to his essay this week:

According to my brother-in-law, Malcolm, far wiser than me in British ornithology, as poetic as it might have been to identify the singing birds in my essay as nightingales, these are, unfortunately, on the decline. The birds I heard were almost certainly robins. Indeed, it is very likely that Vera Lynn was actually singing about a robin in Berkeley Square. Robins are drawn to areas where there are street lights.

I have happily made the addition, and am quite happy to acept that the birds Mr B heard were not nightingales. There are not many of them about these days.

Hovever, I must contradict him to insist that Vera Lynn, and even more so Judy Campbell, who first introduced the song, in the revue New Faces, knew exactly what they were singing about. The whole point of Eric Maschwitz’s lyric is that the song of a nightingale in an urban setting is something so rare as to be miraculous – as miraculous as love, in fact. Maschwitz wrote a nightingale and he meant a nightingale.


January Snakeskin

January 2, 2022

Just a day late, after all.

January Snakeskin is now online. A very full and varied issue.

We’re especially glad to include three poems by Alison Brackenbury, as a preview of her new book Thorpeness, which will be published by Carcanet in February.

January Snakeskin contains a first announcement of the special theme issue planned for March. Fuller details will follow on this blog soon.


New Year

January 1, 2022

A Happy New Year to all our readers.

The January issue is shaping up well, but, because of the editor’s riotous lifestyle, may not be online until the 2nd. Or possibly the 3rd.


Susan de Sola

November 1, 2021

I am very sad indeed to hear that Susan de Sola, whose witty poems livened many issues of Snakeskin, has died.

Here is my favourite among her Snakeskin poems:

Punks

Ellipsis signals… hesitation, and exclamation, excitation!
To balance loads, a comma tows. To rehash — we hire a dash.
Capitals Lead and Emphasize, dwarfing letters half their size.
The sweet and small apostrophe averts plural catastrophes.

Punctilious, the blunt full stop is grammar’s tireless traffic cop.
The brackets (sanitation guys) enclose just what a phrase denies.
Quotation marks with tongs suspend the words you do not “comprehend”.
Should you desire to inquire, mark with question’s twisty gyre.
For heavy lifting take in hand a squat & muscled ampersand.
@ points to a virtual place, oils the wheels of cyberspace.

Humble marks of punctuation serve in every situation.
Every stroke, or well-struck key compounds their abject slavery.
Unpaid labourers for the word, couriers and serfs unheard;
If un-tethered from their master, it may intimate disaster.
If gathered in a restive mob, they will disdain to do their job.
Collectively a motley crew, they go on strike, and shout @()&! you!

We shall miss her greatly. Our thoughts are with her family.


On National Poetry Day

October 7, 2021

October 7th. Today is National Poetry Day, they tell me. I wrote a poem on that subject a long long time ago, and haven’t much more to say about it.
But then pretty well every day is Poetry Day here at Snakeskin headquarters, though some days are more poetic than others.
A good day was a Saturday last month when I was sniffing round Huddersfield’s open market as usual; Saturday is secondhand day, and there’s always at least one treasure to be found. As it happened, I had not come across much of interest that day, till I encountered a stall with a small pile of books. Mostly railways and military, as I recall, but there was also 33 Poems by Radnóti Miklós . It was a dual-language edition, published in Budapest, the Hungarian facing the English. I knew the name, of course (though slightly anglicised as Miklós Radnóti).
For years, Thomas Land sent translations to Snakeskin of poems from the Hungarian Holocaust, and Radnóti was one of the most treasured poets in his canon.
The book was cheap, and I bought it without looking far into it. It was only when I got home that I saw that the translator was Thomas Ország-Land – our Tom, by his more Hungarian name.
The book had been published in 1992, three years before Snakeskin was even born. Many of the translations appeared again in Thomas’s 2009 Snakeskin e-chapbook, Deathmarch – where there is indeed an acknowledgement to this little volume, a reference I had quite forgotten.
It reminds me of how much I miss Thomas, and his monthly submissions of versions, sometimes lyrical, often horrific, of translations recalling the poets of Jewish Hungary (many of whom had been killed during the war years).
Snakeskin is happy to frequently publish poems that are light, or humorous, or dealing with ephemeral issues. We like to think we cover the whole range of poetry (apart from the pretentious). But the poems Thomas sent us, reminders of the greatest crime of the twentieth century, were there each month to remind us of the worst facts of life, and of the role of the poet in speaking up in times of horror.
I miss him indeed.

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Poetry goes live – in Holmfirth at least

September 4, 2021

I moaned recently that in this part of the world at least, live poetry events just did not seem to be happening yet. Well, at least one public reading will be happening soon.

At the Holmfirth Arts Festival (September 17th-19th) there will be a live reading from Escape: Writing out of Lockdown, the collection the Holmfirth Writers’ Group has compiled from what they have written to cheer themselves up during the past miserable months. It will happen on September 19th at Holmfirth Technical College.

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Short Poems

September 2, 2021

The new Snakeskin is online, packed with short poems. Nothing over ten lines, I said (and note sadly that some good poets are actually unable to count accurately. Never mind.)

The editorial inbox bulged this month. I had plenty to choose from, and found myself reluctantly rejecting some competent pieces that would definitely have made it had competition been less tough.

I was particularly pleased by the quality of the serious short poems submitted. Don’t worry, we have clerihews and double dactyls in the mix for those who, like me, enjoy those classic comic forms. But the ones that stood out while I was editing were the shorties that made a poignant or disturbing point with economy. There are some very good ones. And I’ll make sure we have another short poems special issue soon.


Never Enough Already

August 19, 2021

I’m delighted to hear that Snakeskin poet Jane Blanchard’s new collection, Never Enough Already, is now published, and on sale.

Jane Blanchard’s neatly-crafted verse focuses on daily life, marriage, family, travel, gardens and social conventions. But there is much wry wit, from raccoons to royals, and deft use of such forms as haiku, villanelles and sonnets to make for a pleasingly thoughtful and varied collection. — Jerome Betts, editor of Lighten Up Online



Ralph Feinnes and ‘Four Quartets’

July 30, 2021

On Wednesday I went to the theatre in York, to see Ralph Fiennes present his version of T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets.

I had wondered how the poems would work on the stage. The first of them after all, contains much material that had been cut from Eliot’s play Murder in the Cathedral as being essentially undramatic. The poems are an extended meditation on Time. Eliot’s own reading of them is only intermittently dramatic.

Well, the poems do work in Fiennes’s version, and triumphantly. He does not just read the poems, and does not exactly perform them. He seems to be a man living them. A single figure, barefoot, in a bare prison-like space, he is forcing himself to think through complexities at the edge of what humans might understand. Often anguished and vulnerable, he is engaged in the ‘intolerable wrestle/ With words and meanings’, trying to explain to himself the difficult truths that he glimpses, constantly pushing himself to explore further. The danger with these poems is that they could begin to sound preachy (And Eliot had a fondness for preaching, as in the choruses from The Rock ).

Looking back on it, one admires the technical skill that Fiennes applies to the task, with variations of pace and mood, finding moments of humour and moments of desolation, with movements that never seem imposed as decoration, but always compelled by the poems – even the clod-hopping dance with which he enacts the rural rites of East Coker:

Lifting heavy feet in clumsy shoes,
Earth feet, loam feet, lifted in country mirth.

While it’s happening, though, you don’t analyse the technique. You listen, and you live through the poems with him.

At times, Fiennes seemed a character out of Beckett, whose ‘No matter. Try again . Fail again. Fail better’ is prefigured by Eliot’s ‘and every attempt is a new start, and a different kind of failure.’ But Beckett never lets his characters work through towards real insights; Eliot believes that humans can at least glimse intimations of truths worth knowing.

Other performances of the poems would be possible. (In The Dry Salvages, for example, finding more of the wonder as well as the horror of the ocean.) What I liked about Fiennes’s account of them, though, was that he faced the poems head on, and gave no easy answers at all. The moments of enlightenment or ecstasy had to be earned, and were few. At the end he had come to insight (‘And the fire and the rose are one’) but the moment is indeed momentary. After saying the words, his head lowers again into the position in which he began the evening. He is a man still puzzling, still wondering, in a world with no pat solutions.

Then a long pause before we burst into huge applause for such an achievement. Oh what joy it is to be back in a crowded theatre.


Freedom for Poetry?

July 25, 2021

Well, it’s a week now since Freedom Day, and what an anti-climax it’s been. We’re all still wearing masks on the buses and in most shops. Many people reamain nervous. The country has not cheered up.

Pubs are almost back to normal now, and the theatre is gradually getting reasserting itself ( I’m going to see Ralph Fiennes presenting Eliot’s Four Quartets on the stage of the Theatre Royal in York next week – hooray!). The institutions of poetry, though are taking longer to stagger back to normal.

The places where poetry readings happen are being cautious. Universities and libraries seem to be being very cautious indeed about letting even a small crowd in for a spoken word evening. The back rooms of pubs also seem to be in less than a frantic hurry to offer their hospitality again.

Maybe some poets have got too fond of Zoom, of reading and listening from the comfort of their own homes. I can testify to the fact that there have been some very satisfactory Zoom poetry sessions – and they’ve had the advantage of bringing together poets from far apart.

But live readings of poetry matter. For me, the test of a poem is how it connects with an audience. I’ve come away from readings knowing that that stanza needs to be snipped, and a better one added at the end, and so on. Hearing yourself read makes you listen to the poem. Zoom isn’t quite the same.

Soare poetic signs of life showing yet? I’d be delighted if anyone who knew of promising UK poetry events would mention them in the comment section of this blog.

And if any group in the North of England would like to invite this poet to give a reading from his collection Old and Bookish, please do get in touch.