Slaves Who Wrestle to Be Free

Albus McInerney edits a literary magazine.


When Rami proposed an issue on poetry and urbanisation, there was a pause. Not an entirely apprehensive pause – but one that betrayed, perhaps, a certain weariness, as though malls and motorways might be too familiar, the alienation and angst of city life too well trodden for new discoveries.

Rami has lived in Tokyo and Sao Paulo and she made a documentary about popular poetry in Mozambique, which offered her an opportunity to spend three months in Maputo – so she is more than familiar with the myriad possibilities and pitfalls of concrete conurbations and their reflection in verse.

‘Industrial decline?’ Patrice asked.

‘And growth,’ Rami said.

‘Exploitation of city-dwellers?’ Dimitri suggested.

‘Opportunities too,’ Rami said.

‘I’m from a small town,’ Kim said, ‘picket fences and such. Cities were about freedom, or at least the idea of freedom. Our urban myths began at the Greyhound station.’

‘Whitman?’ Patrice suggested tentatively. ‘Celebrations of cities becoming cities – New York especially?’

Patrice travelled East after graduation and landed in Tokyo when a degree from the Sorbonne opened multiple doors (he was pals with Mishima for a while), so, I was surprised at this bee-line to the Atlantic coast rather than somewhere in Asia.

‘Migration,’ Dimitri said, ‘the city as a place of opportunity.’

‘It has relevance, certainly,’ Rami said.

I’ve noticed that, when Rami begins a discussion, she stands to one side to see how it will develop.

‘Patrice, you live in Hongkong,’ I said.

‘Past its heyday,’ he replied, rather quickly, ‘All the way down from here.’

‘There’s a whole school of poetry about urban decline,’ I said.

We seemed to be floating into unfamiliar waters – which, of course, is generally not a bad thing.

‘I’m from a city in the north,’ Patrice said – unexpectedly: he rarely speaks about France. ‘Haven’t been there for forty years. I’m told it’s nicer now. Wasn’t when I grew up.’

‘Which city,’ Dimitri asked.

‘Roubaix, next to Lille.’

‘I’ve been in Roubaix!’ Dimitri said. ‘With a bunch of literary types from my side of the continent – we ran a workshop for schoolkids, part of a cultural exchange. Some terrific architecture – fabulous textile mills. It was like landing in another world!’

‘When I grew up the factories were still sputtering,’ Patrice said, ‘and there was no place for poetry.’ A note of melancholy for the briefest moment pointed to an aspect of Patrice’s personality I hadn’t seen before.

We had poetry in our factories,’ Dimitri said, with a jovial and more familiar relish for absurdity. ‘The workers were encouraged to attend lunch-time readings – celebrating the achievements of the regime for the most part. I will leave you to judge whether the experience was one of mass appreciation!’

Our urban poets were genuinely popular?’ Kim said. ‘They still are.’

‘And we are speaking of . . ?’ I may have allowed a certain scepticism to bubble to the surface.

‘Blues,’ Kim said, ‘and all the things that came from it.’

‘What about you, Albus?’ Rami asked.

‘I’m with Patrice,’ I said, ‘exiled from another century, but there are lines that conjure up the city I remember. We could allude to them in our urban poetry edition.’

‘And they are?’ Dimitri asked, ever to the point.

Out of this ugliness may come,’ I began, without hesitation

some day so beautiful a flower

            that men will wonder at that hour

remembering smoke and flowerless slum

            and ask

                        glimpsing the agony

            of the slaves who wrestle to be free

‘But why were all the poets dumb?’

‘That’s it!’ Patrice said with an emphasis just short of vehemence. ‘That’s my town!’

‘Mine too,’ I said.

‘They weren’t dumb,’ Rami said. ‘And they aren’t dumb. We have a great deal of ground to cover. Our different cities have multiple voices.’

‘Including,’ Kim added gently, ‘our cities from long ago, Patrice.’

‘Distant worlds,’ Patrice said. His tone had become more thoughtful. ‘Slaves who wrestle to be free.’

‘Stories of exile, no doubt,’ Dimitri said, ‘and all that’s left behind.’

I’m looking forward to this issue. More than motorways and malls, clearly.


Words of Wisdom


Albus McInerney edits a literary magazine.


‘I’m getting a little concerned about the state of the world,’ Dimitri said.

‘Only now?’ Patrice asked. ‘There have been grounds for concern since round about 1914.’

It would be difficult to find two people whose temperament and intellectual method are more different than Dimitri and Patrice.

Dimitri is tall, thin, acerbic and a child of the 1960s who has never quite freed himself from the notion that Jim Morrison might actually have been a half-decent poet.

Patrice is short, round, and anxious, and also a child of the sixties – but he was studying Mao and Marcuse when others were making love not war.

‘It’s got worse since last week,’ Dimitri said, ‘and not just the pandemic – what about the forest fires.’

‘If I may,’ Rami began, in her characteristically courteous way (courtesy not to be confused with timidity), ‘the global state of things isn’t new. In one generation, we’ve experienced war and famine in Africa, and the conflicts have been mostly about who could steal the most.’

‘Very true,’ Kim said, ‘but doesn’t this just highlight the redundancy of art? Poetry isn’t going to put out the forest fires or find a cure for Covid.’

‘I think, perhaps, that’s a problematic line,’ I said. ‘We run a literary magazine.’

‘Two possible responses,’ Patrice said. Patrice has been unusually voluble this week, having gone off-line mid-debate at our last Zoom meeting. ‘The first is that art makes catastrophe more bearable, and the second is that bearing testimony to truth and common sense is especially important in the midst of crisis.’

‘I suppose you have a point, Patrice,’ Dimitri said. ‘The world was already well on the way to hell in a handbasket when Ringo advertised the joys of living in a yellow submarine.’

‘That’s not entirely persuasive,’ Kim said.

‘I think, perhaps, the underlying theme is that great art may be forged in the furnace of misfortune,’ I said. ‘The sixties were bleak as well as swinging – nuclear war being just a hair’s breadth away, and so on.’

True,’ Kim said. ‘Longfellow’s middle years were shattered by the slaughter of the Civil War.’

Kim’s doctoral thesis examined the metrical innovation of late Longfellow. I think everyone should be allowed to trot out their specialist subject from time to time – it makes those years of study seem worthwhile.

‘His response was simple but effective,’ she added, quoting:

Were half the power, that fills the world with terror,

      Were half the wealth bestowed on camps and courts,

Given to redeem the human mind from error,

      There were no need of arsenals or forts:

‘But how was he on forest fires?’ Dimitri asked, rather dryly.

‘Quite sound, as it happens,’ Kim said, quoting again. ‘“He is the greatest artist, then, / Whether of pencil or of pen, / Who follows Nature.” And he commends the one “who sets his willing feet / In Nature’s footprints, light and fleet, /
And follows fearless where she leads”.

‘Nature is fickle sometimes,’ Dimitri persisted.

‘It’s only fickle because humans have misbehaved,’ I said. ‘If I remember correctly, Longfellow was sceptical about “cunning alchemists” who tried to replicate the natural world.’

‘The trick, Dimitri, is to remember that catastrophe has been ever with us,’ Patrice remarked – rather unexpectedly, I thought.

‘And famine is more often than not followed by plenty,’ Rami said.

‘If I can slip in another quote,’ Kim said, perhaps gratified to find that her doctoral subject was unexpectedly topical,

‘Turn, turn, my wheel!  All life is brief;
What now is bud will soon be leaf,
What now is leaf will soon decay . . .’

‘Not exactly encouraging, though, is it?’ Dimitri said, his low spirits resolutely resisting a collective effort to lighten the mood.

‘Well, think of it in a different way,’ Patrice said. ‘When you find yourself in times of trouble . . . you know . . . Let it be.’

‘Oh Yes, indeed, Dimitri, let it be!’ I agreed with a fervor that may have verged on impatience.

‘Perhaps we could have an issue devoted to Longfellow,’ Rami said.

‘Or the Beatles, maybe,’ Dimitri replied, and for the first time his tone seemed almost on the sunny side.


An Enthusiasm for Dada

Albus McInerney edits a literary magazine.

Rami is Marianne’s replacement on the committee, but she is not like Marianne – temperamentally, intellectually, or chronologically.

Where Marianne was forthright, Rami is circumspect (though it’s early days, of course). Whereas Marianne is a specialist in the poetry of post-war Europe, Rami studies the literature of colonialism – some of the villains of her intellectual universe are Marianne’s literary lions.

And Rami is twenty years younger than Marianne, which means she is even more years younger than the remaining members of the committee, so – clearly – Rami represents an invigorating generational change.

Our next issue has a segment on Dadaism. Patrice had spoken at some length about how the enfantes terribles of 1920s Paris and Brussels and Berlin were keen in the matter of epater les bourgeois, but didn’t really concern themselves with broader issues of social injustice.

‘If I might interject . . .’ Rami said. She was speaking from Banjul but her internet connection was better than Patrice’s in Hong Kong.

We were discussing Kurt Schwitters’ An Anna Blume, specifically the line that goes Du trägst den Hut auf Deinen Füßen und wanderst auf die Hände, which Dimitri helpfully suggested was an allusion to the wisdom of the irrational, the poem’s subject electing to have a hat on her feet and to move on her hands.

‘The technical execution is . . . primitive,’ Rami said

‘It’s supposed to be primitive,’ Kim said. ‘Undermining the form supports the overall objective of undermining the social and political constructions it describes.’

Rami nodded enthusiastically (enthusiasm is very much part of her persona). ‘I understand that it’s intentional, but it is problematic nonetheless. It’s like removing the trigger from your revolver before you go into a gunfight.’

‘An excellent point!’ Patrice said, picking up some of Rami’s enthusiasm (and responding with appreciation, of course, to an apt and colourful metaphor).

‘Yet the Dadaists, the surrealists, the pataphysicists and so on – all had an enormous influence,’ Kim persisted.

‘The pataphysicists?’ I asked.

‘Ubu Roi,’ Dimitri said. ‘Paris in the 1890s, Alfred Jarry and the proto-surrealists.’

‘Oh,’ I said.

‘But their range was limited,’ Rami continued (and I detected a touch of metal beneath the velvet). ‘They were writing in the high noon of empire, yet their rebellion was against the shopkeeper at the bottom of the road – not because he stocked spices produced by the labour of children in another continent, but because he wore an old-fashioned tie and didn’t like jazz. They were as complicit in – or, at least, as complacent about – the evils that surrounded them as the people they claimed to despise.’

Patrice – his audio sticking repetitively and rather distractingly – asked, ‘Is there any art of the period that isn’t influenced by prevailing cultural assumptions?’

There was a bit of a hiatus. ‘Patrice, I can’t see you,’ Kim said.

‘Better that way,’ Dimitri quipped.

‘For authentic liberation from immediate social influence, perhaps – in this period – we might usefully turn to someone like Rilke,’ Rami said.

By now, I had recognised the kind of magisterial diffidence that used to be deployed with considerable skill by Marianne.

‘. . . und da triffst du deinen Blick im geelen,’ Rami continued,
‘Amber ihrer runden Augensteine
unerwartet wieder: eingeschlossen
wie ein ausgestorbenes Insekt.

‘Nicely done!’ Dimitri commented, with an enthusiasm that appeared to be catching. ‘From Rilke’s meditation on . . . a cat . . . and how we can see ourselves in other creatures . . . how we are reflected . . . like an ancient, like a prehistoric flying thing, an insect!’

Patrice had gone offline by then.

‘I see your point, Rami,’ Kim said, ‘though Rilke’s political leanings, when he indulged them, tended to veer excessively from left to right.’

‘A product of his place and time then, after all,’ Rami acknowledged.

‘For whom verse was a refuge. Dada and the Refuge of Art – there’s a title for the segment!’ Kim said, suddenly enthusiastic.

The others had gone by the time Patrice came back online.

‘What do you think?’ he asked.

‘It was a bracing discussion. It bodes well for the future.’

‘I entirely agree!’ he said.


Countries Parting Ways Like Lovers

Albus McInerney edits a literary magazine.

We have been lost without Marianne. The equilibrium of argument and opinion in our little coterie is askew. We haven’t experienced deadlock or actual ill feeling, but a certain dynamism has departed, and the disagreements that used to drive our decision-making have been replaced by diffidence.

Dimitri, who developed the strongest rapport with Marianne, has proposed a potential replacement, a specialist in colonial literature, who – from her academic perch in Banjul – has sent us a rather entertaining analysis of a poem by John Betjeman. Submitted for publication, it has also served as a sort of job application.

The choice of poem is perhaps a tad eccentric. The Irish Unionist’s Farewell to Greta Hellman in 1922 may not be everyone’s Betjeman cup of tea. It’s about a romantic path not taken: the poet unsparingly observes the wisdom and rightness of a rejection. This might conventionally have been rendered with the utmost melancholy and book-ended with a dying fall – but Betjeman goes at it at a hundred miles an hour.

Oh! The fighting down of passion!

Oh! The century-seeming pain –

Parting in this off-hand fashion

In Dungarvan in the rain.

‘That’s a gnat’s whisker away from doggerel,’ Kim said with uncharacteristic vigour.

The Dungarvan in the rain trope ends each of the five verses, which are dense with closely observed and creatively communicated detail – something our prospective colleague dealt with succinctly in her analysis.

Patrice wasn’t persuaded by her argument that the poem is about Britain and Ireland. The woman’s ‘golden hair’ described in the first stanza appears again at the end, as ‘streaming gold’. Her smile is “slow and sad” and her eyes are ‘slanting blue’.

‘She’s just a woman,’ he said. ‘She isn’t a whole country.’

‘Isn’t that a bit literal, Patrice?’ Dimitri asked. Sometimes Dimitri’s tone is more sarcastic than sardonic.

‘The country and the woman cannot be treated separately,’ Kim said. ‘Betjeman was threatened with assassination when he was posted to Dublin as a British diplomat in the 1940s. He sets the scene in 1922 – which offers a rather sinister context. Consider:

Gusts of Irish rain are sweeping

Round the statue in the square;

Corner boys against the walling

Watch us furtively in vain,

 I completed (no doubt redundantly) the rest of the verse:

 And the Angelus is calling

Through Dungarvan in the rain.

‘It’s a description of two people,’ Kim said, ‘but also a country at a particular stage in its history – immediately after separation from Britain.’

‘Which is the author’s point,’ Dimitri said.

‘She doesn’t make the point in a very rigorous way,’ Patrice sniffed.

‘I think she examines key themes very . . . competently.’ I might have chosen something more fulsome than ‘competently’.

‘Can you tell us more about her?’ Patrice asked.

‘She’s been in prison,’ Dimitri said.

There was across the Zoom-sphere a great silence, until Patrice asked, ‘Prison?’

‘She led a protest,’ Dimitri explained. ‘She got some of her students to follow her from the university down to the centre of town where they picketed the bus station.’

‘The bus station?’

‘The protest was about bus fares.’

And so, we considered the lady from Banjul’s choice of poem in a new light. Perhaps her perspective on a doomed love affair in the very south of the south of Ireland in 1922 was illuminated by experiences different from ours.

‘The metre is all wrong, though,’ Kim said, wrenching the discussion back to the mechanics of verse. ‘Once he sets off from the opening couplet, he simply can’t slow down. It’s a high-speed elegy for lost love – and speed doesn’t mix with heartbreak.’

‘It is the metre of a rainy afternoon,’ I said.

‘In a rainy country,’ Patrice added.

‘It’s about love in a cold climate,’ Dimitri said.

‘And our colleague from Banjul has thoroughly analysed the underlying themes,’ Kim acknowledged. ‘I do disagree with her conclusions, but I’d be happy to take that up with her in person.’

‘As would I,’ Dimitri said.

Patrice seconded.

‘Then, we have a new member of the team,’ I said.

After this, with a sense of considerable contentment, we moved on to other business.



The Utter Silence of the Untranslated Stars

Albus McInerney edits a literary magazine.


Marianne began this week’s proceedings with a bolt from the blue.

‘I’m afraid I have to tender my resignation from the committee,’ she said. ‘I’ve been nominated by my party to stand as a candidate in the next elections.’

I didn’t know Marianne had a party.

Patrice was better informed. ‘The regional assembly?’ he asked.

‘The European Parliament,’ she said.

Oddly, when Marianne specified her chamber of choice, I thought the viability of her candidacy somewhat enhanced – I imagine the EP as a place more at home with the theoretical than the prosaic and practical side of politics. If I have to think of her as a politician rather than a poet, then Strasbourg would be Marianne’s natural home.

‘It’s a bit far off, isn’t it?’ Patrice asked. I thought he meant geographically, but then he added, ‘Haven’t they just had an election?’

‘Networking,’ Marianne said. ‘Building support – and I have a rival from my own party. I will have to attend to her.’

Marianne has always seemed to me to be the most focused of our little coterie, a woman for whom the term ‘non-nonsense’ might have been invented. Yet, ‘attending’ to her rival sounded, well, a little chilling.

‘It will be a very great loss,’ Dimitri said, and then – in case anyone was uncertain as to the professional versus the personal nature of the loss – he added, ‘to the magazine.’

‘We will keep in touch, though,’ Marianne said. She spoke crisply, but I detected an undertone of tenderness.

Dimitri is a Modernist of the uncompromising variety, while Marianne’s affinity with the late nineteenth-century Symbolists entails (I think most people would agree) a certain incompatibility with Modernism. Yet, these two have warmed to one another across the universe of Zoom.

‘We should start thinking about a replacement,’ Kim said, which was a bit brash since Marianne was still, metaphorically, in the room.

‘I have one or two candidates in mind,’ Patrice said.

Patrice and Kim are not the most forthright of colleagues. Their swift apprehension of the main chance surprised me – I suppose you don’t really know people until you’ve served on a committee with them.

‘One is a graduate student from Hubei – unconventional but academically sound,’ Patrice continued

‘When I was in Namibia last year,’ Kim said, ‘I had the great good fortune to meet an exponent of jazz verse who works with traditional rhythms’

‘Shall we each submit one or two candidates?’ Dimitri asked, assuming a business-like tone. ‘The criteria should go beyond the practice of poetry. After all, what we actually do here is a bit more humdrum.’

‘Och,’ I said, ‘It’s not humdrum – though it will be less fun without Marianne!’

Some apt lines came into my head:

For whatever we lose(like a you or a me) 

it’s always ourselves we find in the sea,’ I said.

‘Is that your own, Albus?’ Patrice asked, with evident appreciation.

‘E.E. Cummings,’ I said.

‘Well selected!’ Dimitri said.

Marianne spoke in a voice that seemed to me to express agreement and regret at the same time. ‘It’s by sharing a little bit of ourselves,’ she said, ‘that we can pierce The utter silence of the untranslated stars.’

‘Cummings again?’ Kim asked.

‘Yes,’ Patrice said.

And the earth withers,’ Dimitri added, ‘the moon crumbles / one by one / stars flutter into dust.

We were, no doubt, going a little over the top – it was only a matter of a colleague venturing off in a new – and rather impressive – direction. But what’s the point of poetry if you don’t make use of it from time to time.

‘A bit of a Brahmin was E.E.Cummings?’ Kim asked – with syntax somewhat Cummingsesque.

‘Upper crust,’ Patrice said. ‘Radical by artistic avocation – but not a great fan of progress on other fronts.’

‘He has those lines,’ Marianne said ‘about the breaking of your soul upon my lips – so perhaps we can forgive him many things.’

‘The breaking of your soul upon my lips,’ Dimitri repeated with deepest melancholy.

Dimitri, as I said, will miss Marianne.

But if all goes well, the European Parliament will presently be graced by the presence of a bright and sometimes luminescent emigre from the rough and tumble of literary life – assuming her political rival is attended to in the interim.


The Poetic Art of Putting Up with Things

Albus McInerney edits a literary magazine.

Marianne has two children of school age, so, during our weekly Zoom call we touched upon the challenges facing parents and education authorities as children return to the classroom.

‘They’ll be fine,’ Marianne said. ‘They are climbing the walls at home. They need new walls to climb.’

‘Hmm,’ Kim said. Kim has a medical degree as well as a PhD.

‘Chekhov would have been against premature re-opening,’ I noted. ‘He had first-hand experience of typhus and . . . that sort of thing.’

As I spoke, I realized a knowledge of linguistics is no basis for the making of epidemiological pronouncements – but then I thought: everyone else is making epidemiological pronouncements and most of them know as little as I do, so I added, ‘He wrote a whole book about typhus in Sakhalin . . . I think . . .’

‘It was cholera that exercised Chekhov,’ Dimitri said, ‘in Moscow and thereabouts. His Sakhalin book is more about the evils of the penal system. But you’re right, he would probably have placed public health above other considerations. He was a conscientious doctor – very generous, didn’t charge.’

‘They call me and I go. / It is a frozen road / past midnight, a dust / of snow caught / in the rigid wheeltracks,’ Patrice said.

‘That’s not Chekhov,’ Marianne suggested a little uncertainly.

‘William Carlos Williams?’ Kim asked.

‘Correct,’ Patrice said. ‘On the limitations of the doctor’s art.’

As we were apparently on the topic of literary physicians, I was going to mention that Arthur Conan Doyle modeled Sherlock Holmes on his old anatomy professor at Edinburgh University – but I then I concluded that my inaccurate recollections about Chekhov might have dented my credibility in this particular field, so I remained silent.

‘Wasn’t Arthur Conan Doyle a doctor?’ Marianne asked.

‘He was,’ Kim said, ‘and so was Keats.’

‘Didn’t do him much good,’ Dimitri remarked, rather acerbically.

‘Well,’ Marianne said, ‘the medical science of the time had no response to tuberculosis.’

‘Chekhov was in the same predicament.’

‘So, they explored alternative responses to the problem of existence when they wrote,’ I said. ‘It was their way of sidestepping the limitations of their profession.’

It was, I felt, an eminently valid point.

‘Ah,’ Patrice said, ‘. . . for I will fly to thee, not charioted by Bacchus and his pards, but on the viewless wings of Poesy . . .’

Ode to a Nightingale,’ he added for the benefit of the rest of us.

‘What about Bulgakov?” Kim asked.

There was a silence and then Dimitri said, ‘Bulgakov?’

‘He was a doctor,’ Kim said. ‘Served at the front in the First World War . . .’

‘He did,’ Patrice said. ‘If memory serves, he was wounded and was given morphine. Is that what caused those grandiose flights of fancy in The Master and Master and Margarita.’

‘No, no, Patrice,’ Dimitri said, suddenly and uncharacteristically earnest, ‘He weaned himself away from morphine. The flights of fancy were his response to the Terror.

‘William Carlos Williams was a cardiologist, wasn’t he?’ Marianne said.

It occurred to me that we had drifted rather far from the original subject – the advisability or otherwise of sending children back to school in the midst of a pandemic.

‘A pediatrician,’ Dimitri corrected, and then he added, ‘But undoubtedly a heart specialist in the non-medical sense.’

‘Night is a room / darkened for lovers,’ Patrice said, ‘through the jalousies / the sun has sent one golden needle! / I pick the hair from her eyes / and watch her misery / with compassion.’

‘Patrice, you cannot possibly have that from memory!’ Marianne said, almost accusingly.

Patrice chuckled. ‘I looked it up when you were talking. But it’s from the poem I quoted before – about the doctor’s ultimate incapacity and the poet’s ability to see to the heart of the matter.

‘None of this helps Marianne resolve her dilemma,’ I said.

‘Oh, there’s never a resolution,’ Kim said with sudden but not unkind conviction. ‘Life is what happens – and poetry is about how we put up with it.’

For, lest o’ersaddened by such woes as spring

To rural peace from our meek onward trend,

What else more fit? We’ll draw the latch-string

 Kim said.

 And close the door of sense; then satiate wend,

On poesy’s transforming giant wing,

To worlds afar whose fruits all anguish mend.

‘Williams again,’ she explained. ‘And, yes, I do have that one by heart.’

Soon after this, we returned to the question of who should write the introduction to the next issue of the magazine.



You Are Many – They Are Few

Albus McInerney edits a literary magazine.

Dimitri has proposed a poem for the next issue written by a student from Minsk. It is a cogent and timely argument for democracy and the benefits it will bring, which Dimitri prefaced in his presentation with a quote from Shelley, about a lost country country bought and sold / With a price of blood and gold.

Patrice completed the Shelley quote – enunciating the lines with feeling – Declare with measured words that ye / Are, as God has made ye, free!

A resident of Hong Kong and an eyewitness to the 1989 events in Beijing, Patrice has first-hand and painful insight on how a popular desire for change may be resisted by those for whom such change would represent an erosion of power.

In Belarus (and elsewhere), change is bubbling to the surface. All around the world, it is in the air, literally – the virus is altering multiple aspects of human interaction, and the consequences will last well beyond the present unpleasantness.

When we began our weekly Zoom meetings, we imagined – like everyone else – that this would be a temporary means of maintaining the status quo, of continuing a dialogue that was already well established. But Zoom hasn’t maintained the dialogue, it has changed it fundamentally and sent it off in new directions.

This has been positive, overall.

For one thing, we have discovered romance! Well, two of us have. Marianne and Dimitri were once at daggers drawn (intellectually speaking). Now, when Dimitri makes one of his witty (often, it must be said, rather wicked) interventions, Marianne responds with all the prim disapproval of an infatuated teenager – and when Marianne makes one of her austere (perhaps even intolerant) aesthetic judgments, it is Dimitri who softens the tone and renders the argument more agreeable to everyone else.

Since we entered the Age of Zoom, Kim has earned a gratifyingly substantial sum of money from the unlikely sale of film rights to her epic poem about trans-Pacific migration at the end of the nineteenth century. The creative boost that this has given her has been amplified more strikingly in the virtual weekly meeting than would have been the case, I believe, if we had continued to communicate by email.

And, as his domicile has begun to change from a vibrant global hub to a sullen coastal outpost, with dispiriting consequences for the life of the mind, Patrice appears to have adopted a more combative approach to the uses of art (reflected in his quick and passionate deployment of the lines cited above).

Changes in the circumstances of our editorial board have been shared, analysed, managed and reflected in the collective engagement of our weekly call. In the beginning, I was nervous about how our disparate personalities would interact. As it turns out, the adjustment has been other than expected, and altogether more interesting. I imagine this has been replicated in millions of similar collegial encounters around the world in recent months – human beings do have a remarkable capacity to find ways of understanding one another. New possibilities emerge from even the most unpromising conditions.

Unpredictable change should make those in power tremble – especially those who have no business being in power in the first place. Whether corrupt or incompetent or simply bad, leaders who are unfit to rule are being found out in an era when adversity has driven change at warp speed. They will not put the genie of the people’s righteous indignation back into the bottle (in this respect, unfortunately, the virus serves as a bleak but informative metaphor). The people will, in Shelley’s words, Rise like Lions after slumber / In unvanquishable number.

The poem quoted by Dimitri and Patrice concludes with an observation that is, clearly, as valid today as when it was written two hundred years ago:

Shake your chains to earth like dew

Which in sleep had fallen on you –

Ye are many – they are few.

Change is in the air, and in the long run, if history is any guide, it is likely to be more positive for those who aspire to something better than for those who benefit from the status quo.


Rappelle-toi Barbara

Albus McInerney edits a literary magazine.

We were considering whether to publish an article on the politics of Jacques Prevert. However, in the week that marked the 75th anniversaries of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, I found myself wondering about the relevance or the power of poetry.

Marianne had questioned the academic rigour of the piece under discussion. ‘It lacks the fresh perspective that would make it more appealing,’ she said. ‘The author has read the poems but she hasn’t lived them.’

Which I felt was setting the bar for literary criticism rather high. Not the fault of the bright young graduate student who submitted the article that she was born long after the global conflict that shaped Prevert’s politics.

Dimitri, who has lived through some dramatic social and historical happenings, expressed the view that ‘an academic approach, fresh or otherwise, will miss the target.’ Dimitri has mastered the art of the effective Zoom entrance. Faces peered at screens a fraction more closely ahead of his next sentence. ‘The nature of Prevert’s poetry – like all great art – defies analysis.’

Which I felt was unhelpful, since literary analysis is what we do for a living.

Still, Dimitri’s whole persona somehow lets him get away with picaresque nuggets of nihilism – he would have been at home on the Left Bank circa 1957: a lifetime of smoking and drinking (and a moustache in the tradition of Emiliano Zapata) has left him with a wizened appearance of Bohemian proportions.

Patrice – undoubtedly the most academic of the academics on the editorial board and a man more comfortable with suit and tie than jeans and denim waistcoat – insisted that Prevert can only be understood in the context of his times. ‘The era – from the Depression to the Sixties – is crucial,’ he said. ‘When you grasp the context, the universality can be glimpsed underneath.’

Marianne had already expressed a robust scepticism about Prevert’s indulgence of ideological fashion. She replied to Patrice by arguing, rather stridently, that, ‘This saddles the work to a historical tradition that is obsolete.’

It has become Marianne’s practice to sneak into the opposite corner when Patrice enters the ring.

‘If I may?’ Kim said.

When Kim is going to put a spanner in the works, she enters the fray by asking permission to enter the fray.

‘Of course, you may,’ Dimitri said.

‘It isn’t binary,’ Kim said. ‘The artist doesn’t have to be consistent.’

She quoted Whitman: Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

I felt we were veering off topic (which Whitman would have liked).

‘The article focuses on one poem,’ I said, referring to Alicante, a staple of elementary French classes, ‘and it’s a poem that doesn’t make a political point, so . . . no real need to accommodate contradiction.’

Alicante begins with the famously limpid lines, Une orange sur la table / Ta robe sur le tapis / Et toi dans mon lit. A succinct and elegiac evocation of human intimacy.

‘But look at the date!’ Dimitri said, as though none of us had looked at the date. ‘It was written in the midst of conflict!’

‘Indeed!’ Marianne warmed to her theme. ‘It can be understood as a protest against the return of the old regime after the trauma of the conflict.’

‘Really?’ I thought.

But before I could articulate this thought, Kim said, ‘There has been an explosion!’

There was a flurry of split screens and eyes darting over headlines. I switched to my news platform and saw the mushroom cloud over Beirut.

I was reminded, in these moments, of another poem by Prevert – after the corruption and physical devastation of Occupation and Resistance – two lovers on the Rue de Siam, rain falling on the port. The poet asks what happened to them in the catastrophe that engulfed their world.

Barbara ends with a bleak acknowledgement of violence and the failings of humanity, but it also contains an affirmation of beauty and the survival of what is good:

Rappelle-toi Barbara                                   Remember, Barbara,

N’oublie pas                                                Do not forget

Cette pluie sage et heureuse                      The wise and joyful rain falling

Sur ton visage heureux                             On your happy face

Sur cette ville heureuse                              On that happy town

Cette pluie sur la mer                                 Rain falling on the sea

Patrice was right about the universality that may be glimpsed beneath. It’s important to remember such things, especially in times like these.




On Dover Beach

Albus McInerney edits a literary magazine.

In 1928, the Japanese-American artist and poet Lilian May Miller produced a wonderfully gloomy image of Rain Blossoms, kimono-clad figures sprouting umbrellas in a sudden squall. The figures are shown crossing a classical wooden bridge beneath willow trees, and the rain falls, in the Edo woodblock tradition, as a series of diagonal black lines. It’s an image mirrored in the haiku:

A spring squall surprises

In an instant, flowers bloom

Each its own colour

The painting and the poem celebrate a moment glimpsed – a point that was very succinctly made by Patrice during our latest Zoom conference. He had proposed that we use both on the cover of our next issue, which will be devoted to the spirit of place.

‘You are reading too much into the lines,’ Marianne said. ‘It’s in the nature of the form to eschew a broader philosophical meaning.’

‘Surely, it’s not about eschewing philosophy,’ Dimitri said. ‘It’s about offering the reader a blank page – to choose how much or how little they wish to read into the poem!’

Dimitri would have made the opposite point, I think, if he’d thought it would rile Marianne – this inclination to tease reflects an increasingly harmonious (I shudder to use the word ‘amorous’) relationship between two formerly more pointedly adversarial colleagues.

I like Rain Blossoms but for the sheer wonder of atmospheric gloom on a rainy afternoon I prefer Fudo Ritsuzan’s Squall. Painted in 1930, it is one of the glories of the Museum of Modern Art in Tokyo. The rain is miasmic rather than linear; in the distance there’s nothing but light, and the sodden serried rooftops have a dull grandeur that is quintessentially Japanese. Unfortunately, there’s just one umbrella in Ritsuzan’s melancholy masterpiece, so the poem’s riot of sudden blossoms is rendered somewhat nugatory.

Exploring the spirit of place is our response to the present global unpleasantness. We thought a meditation on geographical diversity, on interesting corners of the world, might offer some respite from the sameness of staying indoors.

‘There are different haiku traditions,’ Kim said. ‘In one tradition, Marianne’s point would be valid. In another, Dimitri would tend to be closer to the accepted convention.’ Then she added, ‘but that’s as much as I know: Japanese literature isn’t my field.’

Marianne agreed, rather vehemently. ‘I know what you mean! If I had a Euro for every time someone assumed I knew all about Rimbaud, I’d be . . . better off than I am.’

‘It’s the same for us in the Balkans,’ Dimitri said. ‘People imagine our literary tastes are defined by our place of birth!’

‘Well, surely they’re defined to some extent by where we choose to live?’ I said. (I live in Madrid and my field of literary investigation is Iberian.)

‘No, no!’ Kim said. ‘That’s precisely the trap we should avoid falling into! The essence of the poetic sensibility is universal. It’s not about where you’re born or where you live. It’s about – as Patrice put it – the moment glimpsed.  The poet sees with a distinctive eye: the spirit of place is not about portraits but about self-portraits.’

‘Like Matthew Arnold on his honeymoon?’ I said, aspiring perhaps to emulate Dimitri’s easy-going and entertaining aptitude for contrary eccentricity. I felt the spirit of place was becoming rather more contentious than anticipated – though this is not necessarily a bad thing.

‘That was a terrible choice for a wedding night,’ Dimitri said. ‘I’ve been to Dover!’

‘The poem’s not about the ferry terminal,’ Kim said, ‘It’s about the beach.’

‘Well, actually, it’s about the end of belief and the frightening prospect of humanity abandoned to the elements,’ I said, ‘illustrating rather neatly, I think, your observation about the subjective rather than the objective view.’

‘Which brings us back to the haiku!’ Patrice said. ‘We are not entirely vulnerable: we have umbrellas!’

‘. . . we are here as on a darkling plain,’

Marianne said. Marianne has an encyclopaedic memory for gloomy lines.

Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,

Where ignorant armies clash by night.

‘Can’t help feeling you’d want more than an umbrella,’ Kim said.

‘Or indeed a slightly lighter mood for seaside bliss,’ Dimitri added.

‘Two poems!’ Patrice said. ‘Two responses! Two places! It proves my point!’

And I think it does.



The Lure of the Big Screen

Albus McInerney edits a literary magazine.

Kim surprised us.

‘I had a call from a studio this week.’

‘A studio?’

‘A film studio.’

A film studio!’

Is it Zoom, or do poets lose the capacity to articulate when they have to speak words instead of simply write them down?

‘A film studio?’ I joined in the momentary vogue for interrogative repetition.

‘They’re interested in My Distant Fathers,’ Kim said. ‘They want an option on the film rights.’

‘An option!’

‘An option!’

I was surprised too!’ Kim’s voice was cheerful, but she may have been a little annoyed by how surprised everyone else appeared to be.

Our editorial meetings are often stimulating – sometimes fraught with the mighty clash of ideas and personalities – but we don’t normally cover anything as exotic as film rights for narrative poems.

Kim’s poem, My Distant Fathers, inspired by her grandparents’ journey from Shikoku to Kansai and then to California a hundred years ago, has already been a great success: almost the whole of the print run – 500 copies – has been sold. In our particular world, that’s a smash hit.

I enjoyed the poem, though I was surprised, because Kim hasn’t until now developed an artistic engagement with this transpacific aspect of her cultural heritage. Indeed, when we debate poetry politics (a theme for which On Lines is justly celebrated, if I may say so), she fairly reliably represents what could be regarded as an America-centric point of view.

Now, not only has she turned a cultural legacy into an artistic success, she stands to make the sort of money, it seems, that those of us in the poetry fraternity do not normally view as a likely dividend of our literary labours.

‘Big bucks?’ Marianne asked.

Direct as ever, I thought, while waiting expectantly for Kim to respond

‘Don’t settle for less than a hundred grand!’ Dimitri advised.

Are we so easily seduced! Perhaps my disapproval verged upon petulance.

‘Six figures?’ Patrice asked. ‘Is that the ballpark?’

‘Guys! We’re getting carried away!’ I said. It was little more than a half-hearted gesture in the face of a wholesale capitulation to market forces.

‘I’m sure a film version will reflect Kim’s artistic vision,’ Marianne said, asserting the value of high culture, and then getting back to the main point. ‘Kim, what are they offering?’

Kim named her price.

There was silence across the ether, a silence that was not without generous appreciation for the good fortune of our friend from Peoria, while at the same time being slightly tinged, I think, with an element of collective envy. All have laboured in the vineyard, but just one has emerged with a nice bottle of Mouton ’89.

None of us should really have been surprised. Narrative verse has a history of commercial viability. Scott’s Marmion and Byron’s Don Juan were the bestsellers of their day. And, in some ways, film has taken up where narrative verse left off – the imaginative excess, the rejection of realism. Pope and Shelley and Tennyson would have been entirely at home with the latest crop of cinematic superheroes; the character studies of Quentin Tarantino and Martin Scorsese would likewise have been comfortably comprehensible to Browning and Coleridge, both of whom were partial to oddball antiheroes and exuberantly unusual perspectives on reality.

‘I have a long piece, multiple voices, end of the last century, trouble in the Balkans’ Dimitri said, hopefully.

‘I think that ground’s well covered,’ Marianne intervened, ‘but, Kim, I’ve been working on a verse drama about three women who build their own spaceship?’

‘Would your studio fancy a Qing Dynasty love story, in iambic pentameter,’ Patrice asked. ‘Very relevant in view of developments in Hong Kong.’ The reference to current events was, I felt, convenient as well as valid.

Poetry people are often viewed as unworldly, but when the prospect of making movies heaves into view, it seems we are as easily dazzled as, let’s say, the writers of literary novels. Cinema consumes the other arts like a vacuum cleaner.

I brought the meeting to order and we began to talk about other things.

But afterwards I looked out an adventure story in rhyming couplets that I wrote a lifetime ago. It might still have legs. And now I have a contact in the movie business.


You Can’t Keep a Good Poet Down

Albus McInerney edits a literary magazine.

Patrice is French by nationality, a specialist in Comparative Literature by profession, and a poet (of the avant garde variety) by avocation; he lives in Hongkong. The present unpleasantness between China and the United States, together with domestic developments in both countries, may have a bearing on all of these things.

One might have expected poetry to be immune from the knee-jerk tit-for-tat of diplomatic disagreement, but the current geopolitical debate involves issues of principle as well as the insecurities of leaders in Washington and Beijing. Global power shifts have impinged on arguments about fundamental rights – the rights of ethnic minorities in China, for example, to maintain their own culture, or the rights of citizens in the United States to protest against their own government. The rather unattractively strident personalities of the respective heads of state have compounded the issue – reducing finely calibrated strategic calculation to the logic of the playground: he stole my teddy bear, so I’m going to hide his tennis ball, and so forth.

In the midst of this outbreak of Sino-American argie-bargie, Patrice has composed a lyrical and metrically disciplined celebration of Hongkong, a city threatened, among other things, with collateral damage from the dispute between the two superpowers. The poem is a meditation on collective creativity – a social dynamic that invariably baffles insecure rulers. Those who are familiar with Patrice’s present circumstances might view this as something of a retreat – from the barricades to the boudoir, as it were, since the focus is personal rather than polemical. Yet, I’m inclined to view it as an exemplary exercise in moral pedagogy, de haut en bas. When the bullies fight over teddy bears, the scribe celebrates the beauty of the playground.

The Chinese poetry tradition is filled with testaments to truth in the face of the unwise or unethical exercise of power.

Po Chu-I, a thorn in the flesh of the T’ang emperor, had the gift of getting straight to the point, as in:

Who does the weaving, who wears the robe?

A poor woman in the glens of Yueh, a lady in the palace of Han.

And his descriptions of human peccadilloes are so astute they could apply to military and paramilitary martinets in Xinjiang or Portland today:

A show of arrogant spirit fills the road;

a glitter of saddles and horses lights up the dust.

I ask who these people are –

trusted servants of the ruler, I’m told.

In the same poem, after painting a picture of smart suits on generous expenses dispatched to sort out uppity citizens in a distant province, Po Chu-I makes the incontrovertible point that restoring order isn’t a matter of stilling dissent but of addressing injustice:

This year there’s a drought south of the Yangtze.

he notes, adding with devastating simplicity that

In Ch-u-chou, people are eating people.

But literature doesn’t have to be overtly political in order to be to be politically relevant.  Cao Xueqin’s 18th century novel, The Dream of the Red Chamber, elegiacally celebrates the foibles of humanity under the mandate of heaven, undermining that very mandate by showing that the best ordered empire is riddled with disorder – because human beings will always be that way.

You can’t keep a good poet down, or as the Ch’u Tz’u of the Chou dynasty would have it:

The swift-winged bird does not travel with the flock;

from times past has this been so.

How can square and round be made to fit together,

How can those who travel different roads plan for one another?

Which validates, I think, just about every argument that has ever been trotted out in defence of poetry, its relevance and its power. Presidents may come and go, but poetry has a way of circumventing order from above – and this has certainly proved to be a very durable as well as a very necessary contribution to the common good.


Choosing Our Roles

Albus McInerney edits a literary magazine.

Marianne, I feel, may have gone a little too far – and I lay at least some of the blame at Kim’s door.

Marianne has always been a maverick. In the mid-1980s, she was behind the infamous series of “readings without words” at the University of Montpellier. A decade later, she went even further, with her ground-breaking (literally) haiku installation, embedding lines of poetry in the foundations of multi-storey carparks – written in concrete and buried in buildings, these wistful meditations on the seasons of experience will never actually be read.

Now, Marianne has composed a drama in iambic pentameters, that she wants us to make the centrepiece of the on line On Lines global poetry fest.

And her verse drama isn’t a paean to ethereal things, it’s a murder mystery – a Poirot-esque whodunnit. It is so bizarrely pushing at the envelope of the accepted form that when she first outlined her proposal I thought she was pulling my leg – except that Marianne is not at all given to leg-pulling.

Of course, the pandemic has led to a welcome a surge in ‘creativity of necessity’. In the poetry world, virtual readings, like premiership matches played to empty stadiums, have created a new way of enjoying traditional pursuits. The great technological and ecological re-set that we hope will accompany the return from lockdown to the new normal will be matched by similar recalibrations of existing practice in other walks of life – but I draw the line at Marianne’s pentameters: verse drama is, well, it’s perversely passé. Even if we all go green, post-pandemic, we are not going to go pre-electric.

I blame Kim because several weeks ago she shared with us the heartening news that a Hollywood film studio has paid her a substantial sum of money for an option on her long narrative poem about the journey made by her grandparents to the United States at the end of the nineteenth century. Kim’s unlikely commercial good fortune has rather upended the normally sober disposition of our poetry coterie. It may well be the case that some of us (I mean Marianne) have contracted a fit of the Hollywood vapours as a result of Kim’s soon-to-be-a-major-motion-picture glimpse of global recognition.

‘You’ve written the whole thing?’ Dimitri asked.


‘And there are parts for how many voices?’

‘Five,’ Marianne said. ‘Two female and three male.’

‘You have five actors in mind?’ I asked.

‘Albus,’ Patrice chimed in from Hongkong. ‘It’s as though the piece were specially made for us!’

‘But we’re not a theatre group!’ I said. ‘We are poets, not actors!’

‘There was a time,’ Dimitri said, ‘when this distinction was not generally recognized.’

‘By the ancient Greeks, for example,’ Marianne said.

I’ve noticed a thawing – I might even say a disconcerting thawing – in the hitherto somewhat frosty relationship between Marianne and Dimitri.

‘And the poets of the later Kamakura,’ Kim added, in my view not entirely helpfully, ‘often wrote with performance in mind – to be seen and heard rather than simply read. The poets themselves were regularly among the performers.’

‘Marianne,’ I asked, ‘did you really have the On Lines board in mind when you created the piece?’

‘Albus,’ Marianne said, with the gravitas that comes most naturally to her when she is expressing a view that she believes is securely based in academic rigour, ‘not only is this group well-suited to the task, it’s dynamic is exquisitely reflected in the substance of the work. Imagining us within the parameters of a verse drama is not only plausible, it’s natural. We are on different continents but we speak as though there were no physical distance between us. We are the drama.’

‘Bravo!’ Patrice said. I could feel the project taking flight as my enraptured colleagues pondered new artistic vistas.

‘And the subject?’ I asked Marianne.

‘A small troupe of travelling players consider fundamental philosophical questions as they move through the world, until a dispute arises that pits the group against their leader.’

‘And you have already allocated the parts?’

‘Oh,’ Marianne said, ‘I think they have allocated themselves.’


Our Poetry Party

Albus McInerney edits a literary magazine.

Our Poetry Party

Kim proposed that we organize a Zoom reading.

I’m obliged to admit that I responded with a soupçon of misgiving.

Not so, Marianne. ‘It will be a global event! We can divide it into sections – Poems of Resistance! Poems of Exploitation! Poems of Engagement!’

‘You’ve already given this some thought?’ I asked.

‘It isn’t rocket science!’ Marianne said. ‘It’s what we are already doing – but with a different platform!’ I noticed she was speaking in exclamation points.

And, she is right, of course. Zoom and other devices of relatively recent vogue lend themselves to performance – plays and concerts and all kinds of entertainment – so, why not poetry?

Perhaps it’s the word ‘performance’ that I had difficulty with. Poetry is cerebral, contemplative – isn’t it?

‘And we can have a competition!’ Kim said, adopting Marianne’s exclamatory manner. ‘We can have prizes!’

‘Prizes!’ My misgivings multiplied.

‘A poetry slam!’ Marianne said. ‘A global poetry slam! Why not prizes?’

‘But . . .’ I began.

‘A bit of a departure from our regular beat?’ Dimitri said. He has a cooler head than me, but he is often just as sceptical about things that are new and disconcerting.

‘Would the performers submit their work in advance,’ Patrice asked, ‘so that we can check the suitability of the poems they propose to read?’

I wondered if Patrice was showing an untoward though entirely understandable reaction to Hongkong’s new security law. In other matters – free metre and the imaginative deployment of sprung rhythm, for example – he is all for radical departures.

‘Albus?’ Kim asked.

‘It’s an interesting idea,’ I said.

‘That’s what you say when you think something’s a terrible idea,’ Dimitri said. This was true.

‘We don’t have to call it a poetry “slam”,’ Marianne said. I believe she may have identified the snobbery that fuelled at least a part of my scepticism.

‘It would certainly suit the current circumstances,’ Patrice acknowledged, ‘and it is a logical extension of what we’re already doing. It would be an opportunity for new voices to be heard.’

‘As long as we know in advance what the “performers” are going to say?’ I suggested, no doubt a little snidely.

‘No,’ Patrice replied firmly. ‘I erred on the side of timidity there. If it’s to have resonance, poetry cannot be muzzled!’ Despots ought undoubtedly to tremble in the face of statements such as this. I could see that Patrice was coming round to Kim’s idea.

‘What about practicalities? Logistics?’ I asked, taking refuge, I am ashamed to say, in the sort of territory where spurious objections live. ‘Do we even know how to organize an online poetry event?’

‘Well, we do publish an online poetry magazine,’ Dimitri pointed out with rather magisterial simplicity. ‘We should be able to manage a virtual reading.’

‘We’ll put out the word on social media and publish the link,’ (I’ve noticed that since she sold the film option for her verse epic about nineteenth century transpacific migration, Kim has become something of a dab hand at the jargon of today) ‘and if more than fifty people log on, we’ll have a smash hit! Fewer than that would come to a real event. I have some students who can set up the Zoom meeting. I’ll ask them.’

And so, On Lines is going even further online. Our first Global Poetry Party will not be competitive – no prizes. It will be open to all. And there will be no vetting, so we may get into trouble (if we’re lucky).

As I consider these things, it occurs to me that this project, about which I was initially lukewarm, is a celebration of the free and expressive creativity that makes poetry matter. I’m a little sheepish that I had to be persuaded in the first place. In this respect at least, the exercise seems to have blown away some artistic cobwebs. Another unexpected dividend in the age of Zoom.

New Subscribers!

Albus McInerney edits a literary magazine.

In 1914, WB Yeats published a poem entitled To a Wealthy Man Who Promised a Second Subscription to the Dublin Municipal Gallery if It Were Proved the People Wanted Pictures. It argues that art resides in a place above and beyond public taste and should be supported on its own merits – regardless of the popular will. Yeats’s aesthetic preoccupations were not ideally timed, as many were concerned in 1914 and in the years immediately afterwards with social and political issues that may have appeared more pressing. And in any case “the wealthy man” addressed in the title ignored the poem, while an entirely different wealthy man, imagining himself to be the subject, became an enemy of Yeats and launched a newspaper campaign against the Municipal Gallery.

Poetry, then, can have a somewhat scattershot impact (if it has any impact at all) and unintended consequences. A better known example of poetic misdirection is Every Breath You Take, the song that propelled The Police to global popularity in 1983. Generally taken as a catchy expression of loving commitment, it was written as a bitter meditation on psychotic possessiveness – and when you look at it in that light, I’ll be watching you comes over as less than cuddly and romantic.

I note these things in light of something that has mystified Patrice and me – and not in a bad way. More people are subscribing to our magazine.

Our circulation is moving from modest to slightly less modest. In the great scheme of things, where Instagram influencers are followed by millions and a single tweet can move markets, our subscription uptick is something of a blip (though it’s our blip and we intend to make the most of it). We are speaking about hundreds, not hundreds of thousands, of new readers.

Our sales graph has moved in the right direction just as graphs showing the spread of the pandemic are moving in the wrong direction, especially in countries where some thoughtless citizens and many disagreeable leaders have apparently abandoned common sense concerns about public health.

So, we can only conclude that in periods of crisis, things like poetry and fiction and art and film become more rather than less important – an argument that would certainly have gratified Yeats. This would explain the remarkable popularity of operas and musicals and plays that have (of necessity) been taken out of the theatre and repackaged for the internet. It’s not just because technology allows millions to watch Claire Foy and Matt Smith at the Old Vic online that their socially distanced drama has been a hit. It’s because in present circumstances drama is a salutary balm for the troubled soul.

Patrice takes the view that our new subscribers are seeking solace, and our next issue should therefore offer an alternative to uncomfortable reality.

But I think if readers are flocking to our magazine (and, yes, I know the connotations of amplitude in that verb may verge upon poetic licence of the irresponsible, perhaps even gratuitously misleading sort) in a time of global insecurity, we should take a more Yeatsian approach, and offer a measure of meditation on the difficulties as well as the consolations of the human condition. The point of the Dublin Municipal Gallery, in WB’s view, was to challenge

. . . what the blind and ignorant town

Imagine best to make it thrive.

It was to try and educate, rather than simply reflect the prejudices and preoccupations of public opinion.

The blind and ignorant town has not been absent from debates over how to protect ourselves and others from contact of the contagious sort. Facebook has been abuzz with dispiriting vignettes of people – particularly people in the United States – refusing on peculiar grounds to wear masks. Some of them have cited Big Brother concerns that few apparently identified in Sting’s cautionary tale about every breath you take and every move you make. Perhaps we can offer our subscribers, not an alternative reality but one in which today’s imperfect reality, complete with its flat-earthers, is better understood.

We need poetry that takes account of – but rises above – the vacuous inanity of dim but opinionated individuals who have managed to place themselves within reach of a municipal microphone. Perhaps lines, To the Lady Who Said She Would Not Wear a Mask for the Same Reason She Does Not Wear Underwear, ‘Because Things Gotta Breathe’.

Free Speech and the Principles of Poetry

Dimitri, our friend from the Balkans, has sent us an ode that is elegant and effective but which Patrice feels may be tinged with chauvinism, possibly toxically so. The poem is a series of deft vignettes about Balkan characters. The sixteen six-line stanzas are lively and well-observed.

But then there’s the chauvinism.

It sits like an unscanned line in a new translation of the Odyssey (and who among us hasn’t been jolted out of the ancient Aegean by just such an unexpected lapse?)

There is, of course, the standard defence that art is, or at least ought to be, above politics – Wagner: horrible ideas, sumptuous music etc., etc.

Except that it’s not above politics. We can’t claim on the one hand that poetry is relevant and then pretend we are too precious to be held to account for the opinions expressed (or hinted at) in a bundle of rhyming couplets.

So, Patrice has a point.

And yet . . .

We could be blundering into a new kind of puritanism. If we ban this portrait of Balkan life on the grounds that the characterizations in one or two cases tend towards stereotypes (objectionable not because they are negative but because they are stereotypes) then what else will we ban? Anything that Patrice and I don’t like? Anything that doesn’t correspond to our inclusive view of the world? To do that would be to make our own morality the standard for everyone else.

There is the free-speech view (to which I instinctively gravitate). We may not agree with what this fellow says, but we’ll defend to the death his right to say it, etc., etc.

Or the rather more ethereal defence – that the quality of the art redeems the views expressed therein. But I can’t buy this at all. The dalliance with various types of chauvinism that were casually advanced by celebrated literary lions of the 1920s and 30s can’t be wished away on the grounds that they had a wonderful turn of phrase. If it is true that after the Holocaust there can be no art, then it’s equally true that before the Holocaust, artists should have shown a bit more moral fibre.

And in many cases, one could argue, the seeds of later folly grew naturally out of earlier achievement. Yeats found terrible beauty in the sacrifice of soldiers and civilians at Easter 1916 and moved less than two decades later rather easily into mild sympathy for a very Irish sort of fascism. Perhaps the corruption was already evident in the transcendent and widely acclaimed poetry of the 1920s eulogising violence.

Art undoubtedly imitates life. And life undoubtedly is messy.

But none of this lets Dimitri off the hook. There’s tolerance and empathy and plenty of artists have championed these sturdy pillars of civic decency even in the most torrid of times.

Dimitri is an asset to our magazine – he is clever and energetic and original – but I’m inclined to exercise an editorial veto here. He can send us another poem, one that doesn’t deal with people as though they’re all the same because they come from the same community. Chauvinism is chauvinism, even when it’s wrapped up in fine lines and caesuras.

If he takes umbrage, we’ll know that the problem in this piece is more than a lapse. And if he doesn’t, we’ll know that we travel on the same broad road.

Patrice will be pleased, I think. He’s been preoccupied of late with the need to take a stand for fundamental human values. Living in Hongkong, he is inclined to view principle as the last bastion of the righteous. The bastion in this case being there to protect freedom of speech and other freedoms from the overbearing reach of the mainland authorities. The mandarins in Beijing are philosophically indisposed, of course, to tolerating independent thought.

Yet, when I think about that, I come back to the question of Dimitri.

And I am in a quandary again.

Boys and Girls

Kim, our friend from Peoria, joined the conference call late and apologized, as people sometimes do, profusely and at a length that rendered the apology more disruptive than the lateness.

‘I had to wait for ages at the store,’ Kim said, ‘and with social distancing the line went round the corner, and some guy cut in ahead and there was shouting, and security were in the parking lot.’

I wondered about the detailed description – which came by way of excusing an interruption. I was at the same time intrigued by a captivating, if gratuitous, glimpse of American life.

‘There was a shooting?’ Dimitri asked.

Either Dimitri believes that every altercation in front of a US supermarket ends with weapons drawn, or he had misheard ‘shouting’ for ‘shooting’ or ‘lot’ for ‘shot’.

And then he added, ‘Can’t you people settle anything peacefully?’

When Dimitri and Kim first met last year – at a seminar in Brussels organized by one of those Francophone organizations mandated to spread bonne volonté around the globe – they hit it off. They share an enthusiasm for the Belgian Symbolists and dragged us all to a boite behind Lemonnier to drink absinthe.

So, I gathered that Dimitri’s question was intended to amuse rather than offend.

‘The pot calling the kettle black,’ Marianne said, taking offence, apparently, in case Kim chose not to.

Marianne and Dimitri do not get along (she was not one of the party at the Brussels boite).

‘Shall we move on?’ Patrice asked.

‘I meant only that some parts of Europe rival the United States in the matter of trigger-happy citizens,’ Marianne said, not moving on.

Dimitri was – I am almost certain – being ironic, but Marianne is an earnest sort. She would, I fear, be comfortable with irony only if it were a symposium topic – Irony and the Ramifications of the Patriarchy, perhaps.

‘There wasn’t any shooting,’ Kim explained.

‘Excellent!’ I said, as though expressing collective and very heartfelt relief. ‘You hadn’t missed much. We are about to review Jasmin’s poem.’

Written by one of Dimitri’s most promising students, the poem, slated for pages 16 and 17 of the latest issue, contains the slightest hint of what may or may not be chauvinism.

‘I’m agnostic on the stereotyping,’ Kim said, displaying a commendable capacity to get to the point that had, I felt, been absent earlier.

‘What is your objection, Albus?’ Dimitri asked, in the manner of a professor challenging a slightly irritating tutorial student – affable but ready to pounce.

‘Perhaps Patrice . . .’ I replied with that species of awkward prevarication for which the adjective pusillanimous was invented. Patrice was the one who first raised the chauvinism issue, so it seemed to me appropriate that he should make the case.

‘My objection, Dimitri, is that the poem paints a picture of one particular group as though every member of that group were the same.’ Patrice said.

‘Like assuming all French people are fond of smelly cheese?’ Dimitri chuckled.

The conference lit up – electrified by a ray of indignation from Marianne.

‘But why wouldn’t we allow this to be said?’ Dimitri continued quickly.

A lesser literary pugilist might have carried on punching, but Dimitri knew better. The silence that filled the ether seemed somehow to make his argument for him.

‘We are committed to . . . an elevated view of human nature,’ Patrice remarked at last.

‘We could be sued!’  Kim said – making a characteristically north American reference to litigation that rather supported at least one stereotype.

Then Marianne surprised me.

‘Dimitri is right,’ she said. ‘The poem is effective. It expresses an authentic voice of anguish, even if it does so with a sometimes broad brush.’

Another silence, until broken by Dimitri’s voice: ‘That is very gracious. Thank you, Marianne.’

‘Albus, you have the deciding vote,’ Patrice said.

Damn! My natural habitat is very much on the nearest serviceable fence.

‘Well,’ I began, ‘I have been torn . . . Jasmin’s work certainly . . .’ I struggled for words.

Marianne was more direct. ‘She has put her finger on the pulse of the patriarchy!’ The alliteration was intentional, no doubt; but the pronoun was misplaced.

‘That is true,’ Kim said, about the patriarchy, apparently, rather than the pronoun.

I waited for Dimitri to clarify. But again he was silent.

‘Let’s publish the piece then,’ I said.

What is the point of poetry if it doesn’t undermine assumptions from time to time?

In due course Marianne will grasp that Jasmin is a boy. Perhaps Dimitri will enlighten her.

The Wrong Conversation

Clearly, the metrical innovation of mid-nineteenth century narrative verse is a bit of a minefield, particularly when you take into account the deconstructionist shenanigans of the 1970s, so, I found myself wondering about the Longfellow piece. Patrice, characteristically, had no qualms.

‘If you’re not prepared to take risks,’ he said ‘then the cut and thrust of literary discourse is not for you!’ He uttered the words with a sort of gentle melancholy, knowing, I think, that I would rise to the bait.

‘Then I’ll schedule a call with Doctor Parnell,’ I said.

Patrice is in Singapore, I am in Spain and Doctor Parnell is in the western United States, so scheduling was an issue, but we settled in due course for eight o’clock in Los Angeles, five o’clock in Madrid, and eleven o’clock in Singapore. Doctor Parnell would have to get up early; Patrice would stay up late and I wouldn’t have to do anything at all.

The moment Doctor Parnell came into view I sensed that the interview was to take an unexpected, perhaps even a bracing turn. Doctor Parnell was wearing rather striking eye shadow: indigo blue, I think. Her eyebrows were similarly assertive: they were painted a dark, shiny black and they rose to a point above her nose where they almost touched, like dislocated angel’s wings, or the carefully arranged tips of symmetrical autumn leaves. Her hair was arranged in a precipitous bun at the top of her head, kept in place by a bright yellow bandana. In addition to being about twenty-five years younger than her academic record – or, indeed, her prose style – would have suggested, Doctor Parnell was, to be blunt, disconcertingly glamorous.

‘Where the hell have you been?’ she demanded. ‘I’ve been waiting a whole hour!’

‘Hello, Doctor Parnell!’ Patrice began. ‘It is a great pleasure to meet you at last!’

I gathered that is what Patrice had intended to say before the doctor made her robust foray into the teleconference – and he had simply gone ahead and said it anyway. A film specialist, Patrice’s knowledge of cinema is prodigious; his knowledge of the world – not so much.

‘I got up early for this!’ Doctor Parnell said, ‘and you guys are an hour late!’

I wondered how I could possibly have miscalculated the time difference.

‘I do apologise,’ I said, concluding instantly that my supine tone rendered this a capitulation rather than an apology. I hadn’t mistaken the time.

‘About the work,’ she said, getting to the business at hand with breath-taking despatch, ‘how much are you going to pay?’

Patrice is undoubtedly more at home when musing on literary outliers: he was not the man to judge a correlation between advertising income and an article on mid-nineteenth century poetry. Doctor Parnell, I could only assume, was similarly adrift from the harsh realities of the market if she imagined a literary magazine might pay a sum worth discussing. We are very much in the Great Tradition that equates the spiritual rewards of the writing life with material penury.

‘We had thought we might begin by talking about your thesis,’ I said. ‘It’s certainly original!’

Doctor Parnell in her paper had advanced the view that Longfellow had made significant stylistic borrowings from the less well known early 19th century New England poet, H W Dangerfield.

‘My thesis?’ she said. ‘Do you want to do this or not?’

Patrice giggled. ‘Touché, madame!’ Patrice becomes more Gallic when he is rattled. ‘But we are an academic publication!’ he added, as though this were the killer argument. ‘We must observe a degree of . . . rigour!’

‘I charge the market rate,’ Doctor Parnell replied, a tad sourly, I felt.

Is this an imaginary market, I thought, but I didn’t say this. Instead, I said, ‘Doctor Parnell, we are not entirely sure that the parameters of your argument would find a ready audience, at least among our readers.’

‘Are you guys for real,’ she said.

At the top right-hand corner of the screen I saw that a new participant was asking to join the conversation. The name at least was familiar. I granted access.

‘Good morning!’ the new arrival said in a cheery, slightly patrician voice.

‘Who’s this?’ Doctor Parnell asked.

‘Your namesake, I believe,’ I said.

‘Doctor Parnell,’ I continued, addressing the younger of the two doctors. ‘Remind me of your specialist credentials.’

‘It’s all written down in the prospectus – coding, web design, digital marketing,’

‘Quoi?’ Patrice asked. I do not believe I have ever seen him revert so precipitously to his inner Gaul.

‘I believe we are in the wrong conversation,’ I told the tyro online marketing whizz. ‘You are speaking to the editors of “On Lines”, a poetry portal.’

‘Poetry!’ She uttered the word as though it were unsavoury.

‘You liked the Longfellow piece?’ asked the other Doctor Parnell still cheery.

Patrice, I think, would have lingered. He wanted to discuss a marketing plan with the digital doctor, since fate had delivered a rather exotic brand of expertise to our otherwise settled world, but she cut him off and hurried away to locate the people she had been scheduled to speak to.

Such are the perils of business in the age of Zoom.


Poetry and Policemen

Patrice is poised for a headlong dash to the barricades, as it were. Living in Hong Kong, he takes the view that lines of resistance may have immediate impact.

I am not convinced.

Patrice was present at Tiananmen Square in 1989 when liberation was dispensed by the people’s army of the same name. I understand the depth of his feeling about current events, yet I am mystified by his continuing belief in the power of the written word, especially the scanned and highly mannered written word, when it comes to confrontation with authority.

Of course, the well-turned phrase, the catchy aphorism, can rally support. A hundred years ago, the nationalist Lord Mayor of Cork, Terence MacSwiney, noted that victory belongs not to those who can inflict the most (he meant the British), but to those who can endure the most (he meant the Irish).  This pithy cri de coeur was later taken up by figures such as Nehru and Ho Chi Minh, but it was accompanied in Mayor McSweeney‘s case by imprisonment, hunger strike and death, so the concept of “victory” must surely be viewed with a certain amount of circumspection.

The issue of political engagement has been the subject of heated online exchange among the members of our editorial board. One faction believes that poetry – affording a measured appreciation of underlying truths – is properly a refuge from politics not an adjunct to it. Another argues that poets must be in the thick of the fray – if an art form can’t be deployed against injustice then what’s it good for?

I have some sympathy for both camps – which no doubt makes me an unreliable ally.

Wordsworth spoke of ‘emotion recollected in tranquillity’, celebrating the contemplation of dramatic events from a safe distance. On the other hand, safety and distance may be luxuries – the poets of the First World War jotted down verses to the accompaniment of small-arms fire and incoming shells; a generation later, Anna Akhmatova, Osip Mandelstam and others testified to the still sad music of humanity while listening for the sound of policemen’s footsteps on the stair. Even those fashionable troubadours who set protest to music in the 1960s made a decent stab at pointing up the merits of tolerance and peace in a fractious and occasionally violent atmosphere.

So, where does this leave us?

Patrice, understandably, wanted to mark the Tiananmen anniversary in a fitting way.  One of our editors, joining the debate from Peoria, suggested that developments in China pale in comparison to the unrest in the United States – reflecting, I feel, a dispiritingly familiar American tendency to view the US experience as uniquely significant. This does not, of course, diminish the power and pertinence of poetry on racism in America.

‘Why don’t we publish something about the changing season,’ Antoinette suggested. Antoinette is French, but lives in Jerusalem, where she teaches dance. ‘The beauty of the early summer is so often overlooked.’

Clearly, one of the Wordsworth camp.

‘Better to have lines about the plague!’ Dimitri’s characteristic bluntness is never entirely disagreeable. He is a professor of comparative literature in the Balkans, and he is blessed with a remarkable capacity to disagree with whatever opinions may have been articulated immediately before his own – hence, such short shrift for Antoinette’s fetchingly whimsical idea about summer blossoms. Dimitri is a character – and his poem on the fall of Constantinople, published in our last issue, was unexpectedly prescient:

The emperor’s fame

Is built on what was squandered

While he sat upon the throne

What was lost

To the Ottomans

To the allies in the west,

What was lost

By those who told themselves

The emperor guarded more

Than his own person

And the comforts of his gilded court.

But even if poetry can identify the problem and articulate a sound response – what good is it if policemen punching pensioners in Buffalo are not persuaded to read literary magazines?

The answer, undoubtedly, is blowing in the wind, which is not entirely helpful in these trying times.