The truth is that there comes a time
When we can mourn no more over music
That is so much motionless sound.

There comes a time when the waltz
Is no longer a mode of desire,  a mode
Of revealing desire and is empty of shadows.

Too many waltzes have ended. And then
There’s that mountain-minded Hoon,
For whom desire was never that of the waltz,

Who found all form and order in solitude,
For whom the shapes were never the figures of men.
Now, for him, his forms have vanished.

There is order in neither sea nor sun.
The shapes have lost their glistening.
There are these sudden mobs of men,

These sudden clouds of faces and arms,
An immense suppression, freed,
These voices crying without knowing for what,

Except to be happy, without knowing how,
Imposing forms they cannot describe,
Requiring order beyond their speech.

Too many waltzes have ended. Yet the shapes
For which the voices cry, these, too, may be
Modes of desire, modes of revealing desire.

Too many waltzes – The epic of disbelief
Blares oftener and soon, will soon be constant.
Some harmonious sceptic soon in a sceptical music

Will unite these figures of men and their shapes
Will glisten again with motion, the music
Will be motion and full of shadows.


Having read today’s new poem, I picked Stevens off the shelf this evening to read something outside the current handful of volumes I’m working through, to dip in to read a couple I don’t remember and I couple I certainly do. I had expected to post ‘Men Made Out of Words‘, and still might in the future, but instead tonight it was this poem that grabbed me again. Its disruptive third stanza is one reason to remember it, but the cloud-crowd, freed of suppression, is what brings me back. Perhaps also today the idea of the ‘harmonious sceptic’ seems fitting, following the revelatioTTn of popular philosopher Alain de Botton’s attempts to found a secular temple, and get beyond the ‘destructive’ atheism of Dawkins.

[Read in Selected Poems by Wallace Stevens, published by Faber & Faber]


Everyone commits injustice. When we condemn and when we praise, when we lead and when we follow, always injustice committed. Each step is a great injustice.
Each step is a great injustice and injustice revolt and revolt injustice. So life is one big chain of injustices that avenge one another and never end, ever.


Pretty thorough, like a pasteurised version of the opening of Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal – the first two stanzas of ‘Au Lecteur’, beginning ‘La sottise, l’erreur, le péché, la lessine, / Occupent nos esprits et travaillent nos corps…’* (before Baudelaire gets on to Satan Trismégiste, and all that).

But thinking back to such astounding angst isn’t the only way of thinking about Kosovel’s poem. Last week I read an article in the Financial Times by Robert Reich, US secretary of labour under Clinton, on the extent to which our role as consumers makes us complicit in the present economic crisis, rather than being able to pin the blame entirely on the super-rich. It’s an interesting article, and an idea that has interested me for a while – from an environmental perspective, or in terms of our (i.e. the West’s) prosperity having much of its foundation in colonial exploitation, do we have the modern equivalent of blood guilt, as individuals who are members of a certain civilisation?

Such ideas require subtle analysis, whereas Kosovel’s poem is all about force. But it is distilled, and as such makes clear an idea that can be pursued more subtly for a long, long time.

[‘Injustices’, from Look Back, Look Ahead: The Selected Poems of Srečko Kosovel, translated from the Slovenian by Ana Jelnikar and Barbara Siegel Carlson]

* ‘Stupidity, error, sin, meanness / fill up our minds and work upon our bodies,’ in the translation of Carol Clark for Penguin.

Memo, by W. G. Sebald

19 January 2012

For Christmas I was given Across the Land and the Water, a selection of poems by W. G. Sebald, translated by Iain Galbraith. I am a real admirer of Sebald’s prose work; the release of this selection last year, however, had passed me by. None of these shorter pieces have appeared before in English. I got stuck into it this week, and none of it so far has been a real surprise in terms of content or imagery: ‘place-y’; concerned with travel, borders and exile; grey, drizzly landscapes (if you haven’t read any Sebald before, this might not sound all that appealing… but I shan’t now try and explain why I find him so exhilarating). The poem below, however, interested me for its imperatives for the performance of an unknown ritual – imperatives aren’t often the trade of the ever-tentative Sebald. Typically jolly, though.


Build fire and read
the future in smoke

Carry out ash and
scatter over head

Be sure
not to look back

the art of metamorphosis

Paint face
with cinnabar

As a sign
of grief


And if you want an imperative in the context of something all borders-and-places, try Schattwald in Tyrol, with its final instruction to the wanderer: “Hang up your hat / in the halfway house”.

Pines, by Srečko Kosovel

15 January 2012

Slovenia is 58% covered by forest

Kosovel: "Pines, pines, pines, pines!"

I’m lucky enough to spend some time in the mountains and valleys of Slovenia most years, and was recently given Look Back, Look Ahead, a translation of a selection of Srečko Kosovel’s poems by Ana Jelnikar and Barbara Siegd Carlson, which I’m currently working through. Kosovel is apparently regarded as Slovenia’s finest avant garde poet of the last century – having no idea who his competitors are, I can’t really make any judgement on this claim. He died aged 22 in 1926, from tuberculosis.

Slovenia is still 58% covered by forest. This selection presents ample evidence of Kosovel’s observations of urban squalor, proper material for a ‘modern’ poet, even if Ljubljana wasn’t the most bustling metropolis of the ‘2os (though Trieste, which he often visited, would be another matter). But it is the poems recounting the landscape of the Karst valley that are interesting to see in the context of modernist work. Meanwhile, though Kosovel embraced constructivism in his last years, a lot of the work in the selection is real heart-on-sleeve stuff that, at least in English, might also tie him back to the Romantic tradition. The piece below is by no means my favourite in the volume, but it is representatively manic, and is an unexpected treatment of something you can’t fail to notice in Slovenia.


Pines, pines in silent horror,
pines, pines in mute horror,
pines, pines, pines, pines!

Pines, pines, dark pines,
like sentries of the mountain
swaying over the rocky woods
in heavy, exhausted whispers.

When a sick soul stoops
on a clear mountain night,
I hear the muffled sounds
and can’t go back to sleep.

“Pines exhausted in dreams,
are my brothers dying,
is my mother dying,
is my father calling me?”

No answer, only the swish
of dead dreams,
as though my mother were dying,
as though my father were calling,
as though my brothers were sick.

[‘Pines’ is available in an alternative translation by Bert Pribac here:; or a syntactically accurate but non-poetic translation by Boris A. Novak on p.140 here: Photo by the blogger.]

Barley, by Ted Hughes

14 January 2012

Each grain is like seeds of gold bullion.
When you turn a heap with a shovel it pours
With the heavy magic of wealth.
Every grain is a sleeping princess –
Her kingdom is still to come.
She sleeps with sealed lips.
Each grain is like a mouth sealed
Or an eye sealed.
In each mouth the whole bible of barley.
In each eye, the whole sun of barley.
From each single grain, given time,
You could feed the earth.

You treat them rough, dump them into the drill,
Churn them up with a winter supply
Of fertiliser, and steer out onto the tilth
Trailing your wake of grains.

When the field’s finished, fresh-damp,
Its stillness is no longer stillness.
The coverlet has been drawn tight again
But now over breathing and dreams.
And water is already bustling to sponge the newcomers.
And the soil, the ancient nurse,
Is assembling everything they will need.
And the angel of the earth
Is flying through the field, kissing each on awake.
But it is a hard nursery.
Night and day all through winter huddling naked
They have to listen to pitiless lessons
Of the freezing constellations
And the rain. If it were not for the sun
Who visits them daily, briefly,
To pray with them, they would lose hope
And give up. With him
They recite the Lord’s prayer
And sing a psalm. And sometimes at night
When the moon haunts their field and stares down
Into their beds
They sing a psalm softly together
To keep up their courage.

Once their first leaf shivers they sing less
And start working. They cannot miss a day.
They have to get the whole thing right.
Employed by the earth, employed by the sky,
Employed by barley, to be barley.
And now they begin to show their family beauty.
They come charging over the field, under the wind, like warriors –
‘Terrible as an army with banners’,

Barbaric, tireless, Amazon battalions.
And that’s how they win their kingdom.
Then they put on gold, for their coronation.
Each one barbed, feathered, a lithe weapon,
Puts on the crown of her kingdom.
Then the whole fieldful of queens
Swirls in a dance
With their invisible partner, the wind,
Like a single dancer.

That is how barley inherits the kingdom of barley.


Perhaps it’s seeing heaps of barley recently, in a rather different context, at the Cantillon brewery (where I met the wonderful term ‘spontaneous fermentation’), that has made this stand out among the Hughes I’ve been reading recently. Is there any poet more fond of the full stop than Hughes?

[The Faber website is down so I can’t link to the book I read this in unless I direct you to a popular bookseller – anyway, it’s the Poems selected by Simon Armitage]

I read this poem at some point in late 2011, and it gave me the germ of the idea for my resolution: something short like this can be fitted into any day, and it makes the day better. In turn, the wish to share it has resulted in this blog. The poem is from  Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s Pictures of the gone world, the first in the ‘Pocket Poets’ series from City Lights Books that would later include Ginsberg’s Howl and Frank O’Hara’s Lunch Poems. It follows a longer poem that offers a mild sense of panic about both the proliferation of world affairs and local, moving surface detail, before settling down to focus on a single, still point. This poem mirrors some of the last poem’s context, but is beautiful in its suggestion that the true intention of the world is something joyful (and incidentally how I saw the new year in).


———————–and we stood about
————————————–up in Central Park
——dropping coins in the fountains
————————————–and a harlequin
———————–came naked among
—————————————the nursemaids
and caught them picking their noses
—————————-when they should have been



[Posted on breadandwaterjournal; I’ve tried to trick WordPress into letting me replicate the original typography. I picked up Pictures of the gone world in the Maelstrom bookshop in Brussels.]