Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Susan Watson’s ‘The Time of the Angels’ in 'Long Poem Magazine' issue 21

Susan Watson’s ‘The Time of the Angels’ (p.61-68 in Long Poem Magazine issue 21, spring 2019.)

Warning: Enthusing in progress…

Susan’s Watson’s poem, or sequence, is divided into pieces of varying length and form, each with its own title. The prose introduction states that in 1979 its author was writing an honours thesis on Sir Thomas Malory’s ‘Morte D’Arthur’. It also refers to ‘the‘end of an era’ marked by the election of Margaret Thatcher in May 1979. The poems are written in third person ‘because I wanted to distance myself from the nameless young woman reading.’

Literary criticism and autobiography made into public art.  It’s a very impressive balancing act.
Of all the poems in the magazine, I read this one first for a very superficial reason. If I were to take one book to a desert Island, I’d take an untranslated Malory. This is the only book I’ve written poems to and about. So, there’s an element of envy in the admiration that follows.

There’s also a personal irony; in 1980, I was planning to write an honours thesis on Malory. I was gently but firmly told to do something else. Had I been allowed to follow my obsession, A Presentment of Englishry (Shearsman 2019) might be about Malory, Lollards and the War of the Roses and not Laȝamon, Anarchy and the legendary history.

I start with this because I recognise the quality of Watson’s reading of Malory.  There are other fine poems in the magazine, but this one stands out. 

The first poem in the sequence is called ‘Why she began to fall in love with the works of Sir Thomas Malory’. It stands as an overture to the rest of the sequence. Each of its irregular, short stanzas presents a reason ‘why’, but each introduces ideas and images that are picked up, extended and passed on as the sequence unfolds. This means the intelligence is there, in the architecture, where it should be if a sequence is to be more than a collection of random pieces.
This first poem begins:

'Because of the narrative voice
a plain voice threading beads'

The first two lines announce the validity of the reading, and the writer’s skill: the unobtrusive metaphor is effective as a description of Malory’s style.  The idea of things in sequence, like beads on a thread, how they can be similar and yet vary, how repetition can be a form of variation, are all important ideas in what follow in the poem.

As a reading of Malory, the sequence provides interesting ways of rethinking the book. Malory’s knights eagerly fewter their spears and charge at each other before the hat has time to drop. Sir Thomas obviously loved to write about their endless foynings and slashings. But as Watson points out the ‘customary moves’ of this ‘courtly love dance’ repeated so many times, like those almost identical beads on the thread, lead up to the sudden shock of their disappearance in the combat between Mordred and Arthur.

At one point Watson describes the act of academic writing:

She’d already explained all the things
That blood meant and means
In those customary terms that she had borrowed  

which felt like a great sheet of iron
preventing things she really thought and meant

But the poems, not being essays, have the freedom to move around those sheets of iron, to explore and suggest possibilities, to make their own links.  

Initially, Maying reads like a reflection on one of Malory’s most famous passages, alternating its long lines, some about the passage, some evoke the physical reality of reading, but then the piece bends gently to suggest something about Malory himself while perhaps also suggesting something about the poet’s life and choices at that time. To get that many things happening coherently in a poem is a tribute to the writer’s skill.

Guinevere is perhaps Malory’s great creation. She is his great contributions to English literature. It’s hard not to wonder where she came from. And it’s hard not to occasionally feel the author is suddenly speaking in his own voice about things outside the story. In the post-modern world of dead authors and author functions one might feel awkward advancing such an idea in an essay,  but the Maying opens a space for reflection:

'Also she likes
the sudden subtle taste of cinnamon in the raisin cake, this voice, this brief scenting of a voice: Sir Thomas Malory Knight

Her idea of essayists:
men sitting in towers looking down, judging, but not like this. What had happened, what made those lines flow out just then?'

As Watson writes, ‘Contrition and sorrow lie lightly under the surface of those words’, leading to the final line, ‘ So he had forgiven her then’.

It’s done lightly, and well. The cinnamon in the raisin cake is another one of those metaphors you might miss if you weren’t paying attention.

The danger is that if the reader isn’t interested in Malory, the poem could sink. However that is not the case here because the sequence is more than just ‘a reading of Malory’.

Even in Maying there’s a feeling of life choices being considered by the narrator: ‘Adventures’ or the quiet of books; a withdrawal into the library or the risk of riding out.

People fall in love with a book. The academic essay rarely manages to capture the untidiness of recognition and obsession but ‘The time of the Angels’ as a whole, effectively conveys the way a book inflects the world of the reader, providing new ways of thinking and seeing, while the world inflects the reader’s way of seeing the book.
In ‘New year 1979’ the gothic arch on gothic arch, leading away down the corridor, is both a physical description of a place, but also an image of Malory’s narrative. Since everything is predicted at the start, the story leads inexorably to its final point, like the vanishing point in a drawing of perspective, but the doors leading off, opening and shutting, are like the strange sub texts that bubble under the stories.

The world in 1979, in England, was cold, and threatening. The poem is dusted with snow. Margaret Thatcher was about to come to power. Although Woods didn’t quote it, her description of going to the polls, and her feeling of frustration, evokes Malory’s denunciation of the English: Alas! Thys ys a greate defaughte of us Englysshemen, for there may no thynge us please no terme.

What I initially thought was my only criticism of the poem, on reflection, might be an example of how good it is.

The sequence ends:

'Was Merlin there in the polling booth?
He’d never have told her 

She’s taken the aventureset out on a quest, without knowing,
chosen the man she’d marry.'

 I initially thought the last two lines are the only point in the sequence where an ambiguity suggests something hidden and personal. ‘The man she’d marry’ has made no appearance in the poem, unless we’re still with metaphors and the man is Malory. But on reflection the stanza underlines the difference between the book and lived experience, and allows the subject to exit the sequence.

In Malory you know how the story ends from the start:

Because of the prophecies
Like setting books down on a table
Those things must happen[…]

But life isn’t like that. Merlin doesn’t turn up at the polling booth (though political pundits would like to pretend they have the power of prophecy). There’s no one to tell you how the story ends. Encounters are random and meaningless until they are given significance in retrospect.

The paragraph introducing the sequence says that ‘this is part of a longer poem’. I would very much like to read the whole thing.

End of enthusing

Monday, August 26, 2019

The Waste Land, a complete reading.

I recorded a complete reading of the poem for 'The Poetry Voice Podcast'.  For me an opportunity to enjoy the poem without thinking about it as something that has to be analysed or understood, which affirmed not only how good it is, but how entertaining it is as well.
He was good was Mr. Eliot.

Thursday, August 22, 2019

How to write a poem

The Irish Poet Austin Clarke:

Robert Frost had been given an honorary degree in Dublin, and after the conferring was introduced to Clarke.

'As we sat together on a comfortable sofa in Newman House, he asked me what kind of verse I wrote. Having been rarely asked such a question I was confused, and then suddenly, thinking of the 'strong man' whom I had often seen on his 'pitch' near St Martin's in the Fields, replied: 'I load myself with chains and try to get out of them'. 'Good Lord!" exclaimed the wise octogenarian poet, 'You can't have many readers'.

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

A Presentment of Englishry

Print extracts and sound files of me reading some of the shorter pieces are now available at

The Legendary History, which these poems are based on, is one answer to the question: What does it mean to be British, or English. And the Medieval response was not as simplistic as some of the more recent political attempts to answer that question. 

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Gerald of Wales, Three stories from the Journey through Wales.

On this week's The Poetry Voice Podcast my version of three stories from Gerald of Wales' 'The Journey through Wales' one of the most readable of 12th century texts.

You can hear them read here:

The first one is a brutal mini tragedy, it starts like this....

He stepped out into unobstructed wind,
shut and barred the door, half-dragged, 
half-carried the defeated child towards 
the parapet. His fumbling hand felt stone

felt for the edge and end of stone, found space.
Footsteps on the stair, pounding at the door.
A small crowd in the courtyard, pointing 
to a blind man and a child on the castle’s 

highest tower. The castellan was pleading: 
‘Give me back my son!’ and demanding 
to know how the prisoner had escaped.
Blinded and castrated, for a reason

no one could remember, he’d been there so long
he’d been allowed to grope his way around. 
No one thought he could be dangerous.
‘Give me back my son, my only son, my heir,

and I will set you free.’ ‘Castrate yourself,’ 
the blind man raged. ‘Castrate yourself or 
I will toss your son, your only son, onto the stones below.’
The gathered people saw the blade descend and groaned.

‘You’ve done it?’ called the man. ‘I have.’
‘Where does it hurt?’ ‘In my groin, ‘You lied.’ 
The blind man moved the child closer 
to the edge. ‘Wait,’ screamed the lord, ‘this time.’ doesn't end well....

The poems were first published in The High Window. They are now available in A Presentment of Englishry (Shearsman 2019) available from online book sellers and direct from www. liamguilar. com

Monday, July 1, 2019

The Poetry Voice Podcast is fifty!

Despite Illness, howling dogs, screeching parrots, unwanted door knockers, the Australian Tradesman's strange habit of trying to listen to his portable radio while operating power tools and wearing the compulsory ear protection, not to mention hail storms, gale force winds and other natural disasters....The Podcast has made it to fifty episodes.
You can subscribe on iTunes. Just search for The Poetry Voice in their podcasts, or you can hear it at 

You can also request poems.

So to celebrate being fifty,  this week's episodes will be ...different. Here's the first.

So far there's poetry from Old and Middle English, poems in translation from Poland to Palestine, well known poems, poems that should be well known, pieces so small I had to do more than one to make the podcast and some long pieces. Most enjoyable to read? 'The Rime of The Ancient Mariner' and David Jones's 'The Hunt'. Surprises? How awful some poems sounded. (They never made it to the podcast) and on a positive note how Bunting's 'Villion' and Pound's Canto ll swing.

A full list of the fifty episodes listed by Poet.

Anon (15th Century ) ‘I sing of a maiden’
Anon Old English, From The Battle of Maldon.
Anon. ‘Dom Niperi Septoe’ or ‘The Dairy Maid’.
Anon. From Old English ‘The Dream of the Rood’
Atwood Margaret ‘Marrying the Hangman’
Balmer  Jo ‘The Librarians’ power’
Boland Evan ‘Quarantine’
Bunting Basil ‘Villon’
Byron  ‘To Thomas Moore’
Campbell Joseph ‘Two Poems’
Carroll, Lewis  ‘Jabberwocky’
Carson Ciaran ‘Five sonnets from The Twelfth of Never’
Cavafy C.P ‘Ithaka’
Coleridge, Samuel, 'The Rime of the ancient Mariner' 
Daniel Sam to ‘To Delia’. The first sonnet.
Darwish Mahmoud ‘Lesson From the Karma Sutra’
Dawe Bruce  ‘And a good Friday was had by all’
Eliot T.S. ‘The love song of J. Alfred Prufrock’
Feaver Vicki   ‘Judith’
Guilar Liam 'Lute Recitals'.
Guilar Liam ‘Laȝamon Remembers ireland’
Guilar Liam ‘Presentment of Englishry’
Heaney Seamus ‘The Given Note’.
Herbert Zbigniew ‘The Envoy of Mr. Cogito’
Hewitt John ‘An Irishman in Coventry’
Hope A.D. ‘The End of a journey’
Jones David ’ ‘The Hunt’
Kavanagh Patrick ‘Kerr’s Ass’
Kipling Rudyard  ‘Danny Deever’
Kipling Rudyard ‘A Three part song’
Kipling Rudyard ‘In the Neolithic age’
Laȝamon ‘The prologue to Laȝamon’s Brut’. 
Laȝamon’s ‘Brut’, The conception of King Arthur.
Longley Michael ‘Laertes’
Macniece Louis ‘Cradle song for Eleanor’
Mahon Derek  ‘Everything is going to be allright’.
Meehan Paula 'My Father perceived as a vision of Saint Francis'
Mew, Charlotte  ‘The Farmer’s bride’
Milne A.A ‘Disobedience’
Pound Ezra ‘Canto 11’
Rossetti Christina  'A chily night'
S.Vincent Millay Edna, 'Bluebeard'
Saunders Lesley ‘Ephemera’
Saunders Lesley ‘Praise song for a pair of earings’.
Service Robert ‘The Shooting of Dan McGrew’
Shelley Percy 'Ozymandias'
Sidney, Sir Philip Sonnet 1 from ‘Aristophil and Stella’
Tennyson Alfred  ‘Ulysses’
Thomas Dylan ‘Lament’
Thomas Edward ‘The Gallows’

Saturday, June 29, 2019

Casket by Andy Brown

Casket by Andy Brown. Shearsman Chapbooks, 2019. (31 pages)

I like this short collection very much.

The Casket in question is the The Frank’s Casket, a ‘whalebone’ box dating from the eighth century, covered with Runic inscriptions and almost cluttered with intricately carved and often enigmatic scenes.

For readers interested in Old English Poetry, the Casket is accidentally iconic. The cover of the Penguin Classics edition of Michael Alexander’s ‘The Earliest English poems’ (1966), which contained those ground breaking translations of Old English,  was a slightly blurred image from one of its panels. It is a pleasure to see the thing in the British Museum. And astonishing to see how small it is.
Brown’s chapbook consists of five poems, or five short sequences, one for each of the side panels, one for the lid. It’s very good.  I like the way it ghosts Old English.

Each poem begins with the relevant runic inscription and takes off from there. A note from the author explains the runic alphabet. Each rune has an equivalent letter and what Brown calls a ‘pictorial’ value… the word for Fish in runic script also contains the values for ‘wealth’ ‘ice’ ‘sun’ and ‘torch’’.  ‘To write the following poems I determined the sequence of images yielded by each runic word, and then used these images or variants of them, to write the poems’ (p.5).

As a concept, it’s interesting, but it puts conceptual intelligence into the architecture of the poems, where I think it should be. Whether or not you can map the runes directly onto the poems, and how much latitude Brown allowed himself in that ‘variants of them’, would require far more time than I’m willing to dedicate to the effort of finding out. Unlike so much 'conceptualised poetry', the poems in this collection stand as poems.

The collection is thematically linked by the last line ‘…this shared and ever constant now’. The chapbook presents ‘the place where I live’ (coyly unspecified in a book about place)  as a palimpsest: modern golfers play where Britons and Saxons fought. On the water, New Foundland cod boats set sail and pass Danish raiders and ‘Dunkirkers’ coming home, while Flemish privateers have landed to burn the town.  Glimpses of history mingle with scenes from the present, graffiti’d bridges and frozen allotments, trail bikers and fishermen.

The poetry itself is skilfully written. The first sequence, ‘Whalebone’ picks up the echo of Old English alliterative verse. The Anglo-Saxon line with its triple crash and bang doesn’t sound good if sustained in modern English, so Brown’s handling of it here is skilful, evocative of Old English, giving the poem an onward movement but without sounding heavy handed:

This unforgiving trade, when the ice
Of February frets the core and fingers
And the sun’s declining disk smoulders
Barely bright enough to light the creek. 

The nod towards Old English is also beautifully done towards the end of the fifth section. One poem, beginning ‘I sing’ blurs the distinction between the Casket, its maker and the poet, since all three are ‘singing’:  the lines evoke the epigrammatic mood of Old English. 
This leads to that most Old English of poems, ‘the thing speaking’….(’prosopopoeia’ is not a word I get to type very often.)

Snatched from the creature’s warmth
And brought into the sun
I’ve made this voyage to artful box 

This sounds like the beginning of one of the Exeter book riddles. But ‘For month’s I knew the workman’s hands’ leads into the bone’s description of how it became a casket and we’ve moved from riddle to something more affecting. My candidate for ‘the best piece in the book’.
The last fourteen lines in the chapbook seem to offer some kind of conclusion, but I think they are perhaps the least convincing piece/s of the collection. The tendency of OE to epigrammatic, generalising is captured in

We have the measure of our lives all wrong
it’s not this time of flesh and blood alone,
but the slow millennia of dissolution,
when skin and bone return to whence they came

But the sudden shift from the previously specific ‘I’ to the vague ‘we’ and the equally generalised statement which slides off the fact the Casket has, after at least a thousand years, most definitely not returned to whence it came, might be the only flaw in the collection.. 

My only reservation may be irrelevant and whether you see it as criticism or observation depends on what you want from the poems you read.

As a reader of poems, and buyer of poetry, there are thousands of books to choose from. But increasingly I feel it doesn’t really matter. There are varying degrees of technical competence but at the end of some collections I wonder if life would have been any worse for not reading them. 

The problem facing writers and readers of contemporary poetry is that lurking, ‘Nice.. but so what? ‘

Bunting wrote ‘Then is now’ and produced Briggflatts . Eliot spun whorls with time past and time present being simultaneously present in time future. David Jones started with the idea of a past permanently present in the language and built In Parenthesis and The Anathemata. The idea of ‘a shared and ever constant now’ has been the starting point of some major poetic writing.

If you read Casket, you’ll never look at the Frank’s casket the same way again. Which is a good thing, though looking at the Frank’s Casket is not something most of get the chance to do very often.

If you live in Britain and don’t realise you are living in a place with a deep and varied history, some of it still visible around you, the collection might wake you up to that fact.

But if the last fourteen lines offer a conclusion, they are perhaps the least convincing piece/s of the collection. For all the verbal skill, there’s a step not taken, and ‘so what?’ is doing a passable impersonation of Grendel, lurking on the edges of the reading. Whether you let him or not depends on you. If you let him in, the effect is disastrous.

I don’t know if this is an observation or a criticism.