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Acts of Hope

Peter Sirr

The Music of Time: Poetry in the Twentieth Century, by John Burnside, Profile Books, 508 pp, £25, ISBN: 978-1781255612

A prolific poet, fiction writer and memoirist, John Burnside began this book with a large ambition: to write a personal history of twentieth century poetry. If what emerged is, by his own admission, “digressive and idiosyncratic”, it’s not because the ambition was reduced but because the project evolved into something less academically analytical and more urgent and personal. There are essays on a host of poets in multiple languages but the reflections on poetry are linked to personal narratives, placed in the poet’s own life and often growing out of physical journeys. Underlying it all is an argument for the importance of poetry, nothing less than “the central pillar of any nurturing culture”. In an essay on Spanish poetry he remembers an observation by Stephen Spender which he has carried around for many years:

Poets and poetry have played a considerable part in the Spanish Republic, because to so many people the struggle of the Republicans has seemed a struggle for the conditions without which the writing and reading of poetry are almost impossible in modern society.

For Burnside “the struggle of any society … is a struggle for the conditions in which the writing and reading of poetry are not only possible, but also prized”. That might seem like a utopian ambition but placing such an emphasis on the centrality of poetry allows Burnside to give himself a wider reach than a purely academic reflection would allow. This is no wide-eyed idealism either: Burnside’s belief in and commitment to the possibility of poetry is hard-headed. it’s all about close attention and hard-won craft, but it begins with hope: “Hope is of the essence for all poets. We might even say that to make a poem at all is an act of hope.” It’s a good place to start in what is at its core a defence of poetry, and a refusal to allow it to be consigned to the edges of culture:

I would still make the claim that poetry has a significant role in our communal life …
… all poetry is political, because it insists on the centrality of the imagination in daily life and on the necessity of rejecting the misuse of language practised by politicians, advertisers and the sorts of people who think that by calling a civilian massacre “collateral damage” they can disguise its criminal nature.

Appropriately for a book that features so much European poetry it begins in Berlin in a summer storm. Part of the reason he’s there is to register John F Kennedy’s 1963 visit and his famous if grammatically skewed declaration that he was, in spirit at least, a Berliner. Many of the poets Burnside most values are American and a byproduct of that interest is a fascination with the relationship between poetry and politics as he thinks of Frost reading at Kennedy’s inauguration or Kennedy himself declaring at the poet’s memorial service that the poet “saw poetry as the means of saving power from itself” and that “When power narrows the areas of man’s concern, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of his existence.”

It’s impossible to imagine presidential words like these today, and it’s a reminder of the shrunken discourse we inhabit, in inverse ratio to the ubiquity of communication technologies. So what can poetry, the thing that “makes nothing happen”, effect? Burnside fastens on what Auden says at the end of his poem on Yeats: “ … it survives, / A way of happening, a mouth.” By the time he gets to the end of that poem – “In the prison of his days / Teach the free man how to praise.” – Auden “is telling us that the poet is not a foot soldier in some predictable societal battle but an independent agent who, with craft and humility, can resonate .. with the music of what happens”. It’s one of many such moments in the book, stretching for a sense of what poetry can do and how far it can reach when properly harnessed. For me though, one of the most attractive parts of that initial essay is happening on Burnside’s enthusiasm for a poet I’ve long admired, the relatively overlooked William Matthews. Prompted by the ambulance arriving for a neighbour, thinking about loss and grief in his son’s Berlin apartment, he imagines offering him the closing lines of Matthew’s brilliant “The Buddy Holden Cylinder”:

There’s more than one
kind of ghostly music in the air, all
of them like the wind: you can’t see it
but you can see the leaves shiver in place
as if they’d like to turn their insides out.

There’s a nice moment later in the book when he meets a Singaporean poet, Kim Cheng Boey, who shares his enthusiasm.

Few enough English-language poets who write about poetry look over the hedge of the language. Burnside moves naturally from thinking about English “war poets” – a term he finds reductive – to Leopardi’s “L’infinito” or Ungaretti’s “Mattina”. If he doesn’t stray far from the expected and even over-familiar European poetic destinations his discussions are often interesting in how they range back and forth across traditions and work in the moments of his own discovery, describing for instance the effect on him of reading Sartre’s “le néant hante l’être” (“Nothingness haunts being”) in his college library on a sunny day. But his key realisation of what that said to him about the nature of the world came from reading Eugenio Montale’s “Forse un mattino” from Ossi di seppia. “It would be wrong to suggest that any single poem is, by itself, a turning point in the history of human perception, but ‘Forse un mattino’ comes close,” he writes. Here’s the poem in his own translation:

It might be, one morning, walking in dry, glassy air,
I will turn around – with a drunkard’s terror –
to see the miracle:
the nothing at my back, the void behind me.

Then, as on a screen, trees houses hills
will gather again for the usual illusion.
But it will be too late, and I’ll walk on in silence,
amongst men who don’t look back, cradling my secret.

Literal and poetic travel often overlap. The section on Rilke begins with him tramping with his son in the Swiss Valais and finding himself in the last resting place of the poet. The real subject is what’s at the heart of the Duino Elegies, “the sense that there is something beyond rational description”. He moves easily from Rilke to Einstein quoting Spinoza: “I am fascinated by Spinoza’s Pantheism … Spinoza is the greatest of modern philosophers, because he is the first philosopher who reads with the soul and the body as one, not two separate things.” He sees the Elegies as the supreme achievement and is drawn, like many, to the powerful Ninth Elegy. There is something beyond poetry in all of this. The Duino Elegies isn’t just a poem, it’s an event in the European imagination, complete with windswept castle, iconic wandering poet at the end of his tether, and the moment of inspiration plucked from what Princess Marie von Thurn und Taxis-Hohenlohe described as the “violent north wind”. In English Rilke has long been a cult poet, the one German-language poet guaranteed to be in stock in any self-respecting bookshop, known as much for the Letters to a Young Poet as for the poetry. He is, still, the most translated poet from German; there are well over twenty translations of the Duino Elegies alone.

And yet he is one of the most difficult poets to translate; his language is often dense, complex, abstract and open to multiple interpretation. To look at translations of key passages is, often, to be taken aback by the range of translational response. This, though, is because the work has become as much a part of the poetic imagination in English as Auden or Wordsworth and demands repeated attention. Burnside wishes he could find a way of handing it down to his son: “ … if I could make this child know anything, it would be what several years of reading and abandoning, and finally returning to the Duino Elegies can teach even the most haphazard of readers. It is there, expressed in surprisingly simple language, in the thick of the late elegies:

A time
for everything, but only once. Once and no more. And we too,
only once. Never again. But to have been here
this once, even if only once:
to have been earthly, this cannot be revoked.

Burnside journeys back in forth in time, letting us glimpse the life to which poetry is admitted and in which sometimes surprising discoveries are made. During a spell as an unhappy and somewhat disgruntled student in Cambridge he finds himself in a backstreet barber shop. An awkward attempt at tipping the barber leads to a conversation and the barber leads his customer into an adjoining room where he shows him photographs of his younger self and companions during the Spanish Civil War. After a conversation about his time in Spain, the barber offers a cryptic farewell: “El analfabetismo ciega el espíritu. Soldado, instrúyete.” (Illiteracy blinds the spirit. Educate yourself, soldier.) It’s an instruction the poet takes to heart. “He hadn’t been talking literally about the inability to read, however; he was referring to my political illiteracy and to that of the wider world ‑ but it took me decades to appreciate, in full, how important the Spanish Republic was, as fact and idea, or how grievous had been its loss.” The essay develops into a sustained encounter with the poets of the “Generation of ’27”, especially with Lorca, Miguel Hernández, Jorge Guillén, but also with the overlooked women poets of that generation, Ernestina de Champourcín and Maria Zambrano.

Zambrano, poet and essayist, he considers the most neglected woman artist, and he spends a good deal of time teasing out her vision of la razón poética, “a system of enquiry into the totality of human experience that not only allows for but demands the use of all our available faculties, and not just discursive reasoning.” A passage he quotes from an essay gives a sense of her position:
We do not find the complete human being in philosophy; we do not find the totality of the human experience in poetry. In poetry, we directly encounter the specific human instance, the individual. In philosophy we see “man” in his historical conceit, in his will to be. Poetry is serendipitous encounter, a gift, a matter of grace. Philosophy searches, but it must follow a method.

The distrust of the purely ratiocinative is a feature of the book; one essay finds him wandering through Argentina, exploring the mysterious expanse of the pampas and thinking about the work of Olga Orozca, a poet of the Generación del ’40 with Basque, Irish and Sicilian roots, for whom the landscape of the pampas was an enduring inspiration. She saw herself as a witness to what she described as “a deeper and darker law”. “For her, poetry comes from that deeper and darker order, where the named self has no jurisdiction.” She looks instead for the “someone in me who says that I am not me” and wants somehow to acknowledge the “incomprehensible extensions that reach into the beyond, / unnavigable regions where the footsteps of God may appear”. Burnside is interesting on her complex vision of time – she describes “time and memory” as the two fundamental presences in her work – which, for her, is compelling in that it “flows in all directions, that it happens, that it accumulates in reverse and that it returns transformed and dynamic”. Burnside compares her “architectural” vision of time to the structures created by a composer like Steve Reich. His urgent discussion of her poetry and thought makes the reader hungry for more of it, all the more welcome since she is, in English translation, still a very unfamiliar voice.

The subject of translation is explicitly addressed in “A Gift to the Future”, although Burnside doesn’t arrive at any startling conclusions about the dark art, other than to emphasise the fact that it is an art. Umberto Eco calls it the art of failure, he reminds us, and sees that as a realistic yet undisturbing assessment: “All art fails, but some of it fails so beautifully as to be breathtaking.” He quotes John Berger on the triangular nature of translation, “the third point of the triangle being what lay behind the words of the original text before it was written. True translation demands a return to the pre-verbal.” Thus the translator can be said to enter the same crucible of imaginative intervention inhabited by the original. And yet all translation is necessarily provisional – “Every translation is a hypothesis; at the same time no translation is ever final.” The original remains fixed, securely broadcasting from its permanent station. This is a challenge rather than a dispiriting fact. And there is always the possibility that that the translation might actually surpass the original.

There are also considerations of the relationships between poetry and politics, particularly when the politics follow the poet into the poems. Where the politics are loathsome, can we still rescue the poems? How do we read Pound in the light of the incontestably vile antisemitic rants? Burnside finds plenty of others who condemned usury, from Samuel Johnson to William Carlos Williams, and if we read it as a term for rampant capitalism it can seem perfectly respectable. But with Pound as with so many others it’s stitched in to an unforgivable prejudice compounded by the desired solution, as Burnside reminds us, that “only the surgeon’s knife of Fascism can cut it [i.e. usury] out of the life of the nations”.

“The Panic of the Adversary” takes its title from James Baldwin, a reference to the violence regularly inflicted on black people in the US. (His exact words were “Force does not work the ways its advocates seem to think it does. It does not, for example, reveal to the victim the strength of his adversary. On the contrary, it reveals the weakness, even the panic of his adversary, and this revelation invests the victim with patience.”) In the context of Black Lives Matter, Burnside considers some of the history of violence against black writers and performers – Miles Davis attacked and beaten by a black policeman outside Birdland where he had come to perform from Kind of Blue, the poet Henry Dumas shot dead by a transit cop in a deserted subway station. “In such circumstances,” he argues, “it surely is one of the roles of poetry to speak out about that violence, and the grief that it causes – and not only to speak out but to insist, over years and decades and even centuries, that this violence be acknowledged, for the greater good of all.”

He goes on to consider the work of Haki R Madhubuti, Amiri Baraka, Gwendolyn Brooks, June Jordan and others who laboured to create “a combination of an African aesthetic of cool with a ‘very hot’ critique of how whiteness works”. He quotes a 2004 poem by Madhubuti as an indication of the continuing need for poetic resistance:

where is the poetry of resistance
the poetry of honorable defiance

[ …]

where is the poetry of doubt and suspicion
not in the service of the state, bishops and priests,
not in the service of beautiful people and late night promises,
not in the service of influence, incompetence and academic clown talk?

To read this as if it only applies to the situation of black people in the US is a failure of imagination, Burnside argues, since the expression of justice is “intrinsically beautiful”. He returns to the theme in his final essay: we need to get away from “passive acceptance” and move to “a live critical culture in which poets and readers from many backgrounds might engage with one another, on as equal a basis as political systems and cultural trends allow”. That essay, ironically titled “The Poets in Ghana” after a throwaway reference in Frank O’Hara’s “The Day Lady Died”, is really about Mandelstam’s “nostalgia for world culture”, his famous definition of Acmeism and by which he meant a kind of alert openness and imaginative possession of other cultures, a feeling of being at home in an enlarged world of the spirit – felt all the more keenly by a poet in a state deeply inimical to that world. Poets can be parochial; powerful languages can encourage the sense that it’s not necessary to look beyond their borders. So what chance is there “of finally envisioning a genuine world culture, one that might exceed even Mandelstam’s wildest expectations”?

Burnside’s book is one example of how that might be achieved, with its constant and invigorating engagement with poets in many languages and from many cultural backgrounds and its equally important realisation that even within a single tradition there are faultlines of racism, prejudice and ignorance. He cites the example of Terrance Hayes grappling with the casual racism of Wallace Stevens in “Like Decorations in a Nigger Cemetery” while simultaneously recognising his genius:

Thus, I have a capacity for love without
forgiveness. This song is for my foe,
the clean-shaven, gray-suited, gray patron
of Hartford, the emperor of whiteness
blue as a body made of snow.

It is also salutary to be reminded of the force of poetry in an age when it is so often cheapened, when what’s held up for admiration is self-promotional, self-obsessed and trivial. Ideas of world culture are only interesting if the culture aspired to is challenging and enlightening, in the case of poetry “a lifelong discipline that trusts not to favouritism or the steady attrition of social media but to quality”. Readers interested in that kind of attentive quality should seek out this admirable book.


Peter Sirr is a poet.



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