christopher james

Poems and prattle

Tag: auden

The Waste Land

Now that poetry is so popular, it is welcome news that a poetry theme park is to open. I was one of the few to be asked to visit before the official opening. This was my review, also available in England Underwater.  

You enter by driving through the legs

of an eighty foot statue of Cecil Day-Lewis.

Priority parking is reserved for Forward winners.

New for this summer is the John Ashbery Simulator

where you sit inside a darkened room

waiting for a thought that never comes.

At the Stephen Spender Bungee Catapult,

you will be attached to a giant recreation

of the poet’s braces, stretched back and hurled

ninety foot into the air; please note that 

there is a long waiting time for this attraction.

After lunch, why not try the Walt Whitman Waltzer,

where you can control the speed and direction

of your own whisky tumbler? During the ride

a picture is taken of you at the precise moment

you realise you will never write anything as beautiful as:

I am he that walks with the tender and growing night.

In the Medieval English Poetry Zone,

You will be asked to construct a single line

containing three words beginning with B

while being chased by Grendel’s Mother.

Under construction is Iceland on Ice,

where you will enter a perfect recreation

of the frozen landscape, paired with a slightly

lazier poet and asked to write letters home. 

In the London Zone, you climb into a carriage

which resembles a 1963 Ford Zephyr,

with a copy of Ariel on the back seat.

You are pulled through a dimly lit tunnel

and arrive at a party where a man in a beard

and polo neck is reading from a thick folder.

Meanwhile the woman with the black eyeliner

and leather mini skirt who has been staring

at you, moves across the room and whispers:

Keep your hands clear until the safety barrier lifts.

The Poets Join the Tour

One of my great childhood memories is watching the Tour de France on Channel 4 with my elder brother. We’d sit inside while the blazed outside, eating Skips, listening to the pop-snyth perfection of its theme tune, watching the beautiful French countryside roll past and the rake thin cyclists climb hills in terrible agony, all accompanied by the nation’s ‘true poet laureate’ Phil Liggett.

Known for the unusual lyricism of his commentary, a chap called Doug Donaldson eventually compiled a book of poetry based on his quotes: ‘Dancing on the Pedals,’ after hearing the commentary: ‘He’s dancing on the pedals in a most immodest way.’ Here are a few more from the great man.

“Once you pull on that golden fleece, you become two men..”

“There’s no reason to rush into hell.”

“Its only a mountain, one of many you can see on this French Country morning, but for 171 young men it would be a place where they would dare to ask themselves the questions of greatness”

It all got me thinking about how the great poets would fare in the Tour de France, with the following results:  


The former Laureates make up an early breakaway pack

Robert Bridges at the head of the Peleton, a canvas satchel

of sardines and eggs bouncing softly behind his back.

Betjeman and Hughes have yet to reveal themselves

preferring to let their thin jackets flap in the streets of Dunkirk.

At the end of the first stage R.S.Thomas is the unlikely

wearer of the yellow jersey; less plausible still in that

he has yet to discard his duffel coat or red woollen tie.

He glares at the spectators lining the curbs of Gant.

The race is not without scandal; Manley Hopkins enlists

the support of some Jesuit priests who bundle his bicycle

into the back of their Citroen hatchback ply him with

altar wine and roll him out the other side of Tignes.

At stage four, the Liverpool poets are the last ones out

after a long evening on the Brie and Cavernet Sauvignon

while running an impromptu workshop on French rhyming slang.

The prospect of the Champange valleys of Joiny is enough

To revive them, although Elizabeth Barrett Browning

shines in the sprint, bolt upright in her bonnet and ruffles.

The journalists report her embroided cuffs and lupine eyes. 

In the support vehicle, Robert Browning throws her hankies

dipped in lavender and flasks of hot, Camomile tea,

Last in is Tony Harrison in a woollen jumper with holes

at each elbow; he doggedly steers an old Triumph Twenty

pressing down on one knee, his other hand steadying

a volume of Philip Gross laid open on the handlebars. 

Through the leafy woods that cool the scorched roads

from Chablis to Autun and the riders reach the hills.

Nonetheless, buoyed on by the wind, MacNeice makes

an attack pressing at the heels of William Carlos Williams,

who has been impressive from the start; then at the crossroads

at Gimont, Philip Larkin emerges like a sunbeam from a cloud

and cuts a line between them tucked into the wind. 

Up in the peaks, Motion and Muldoon battle for the Polka-Dot.

The stretch from Cognac to Angouleme is almost too much:

beautiful sections of unbending road, allowing liberal

sampling of the produce; in the woods of Plaisac, some

reported the ghost of Ern Malley up ahead in the heat haze.

By the Cheauvreuages Valley the favourites have made

themselves known, although Thomas Hardy squanders

an early stage lead by taking tea and cake in Bonneville.

As the leader enters Paris, a hush falls on the crowd like rain

on the Loire; then as the river mist recedes, he appears

grinning wide, John Betjeman on a Raleigh Sprinter, his arms

outstretched, riding naked down the Champs Elycees.

MacNeice and the City

The last time I was in Belfast I got a lift from a taxi driver with a typical gift for the blarney. He was thinking of relocating to the south, but what was keeping him back was a cherry tree in his front garden. He planted it himself and now it was ten feet tall, he couldn’t bear to part with it. It would not, he insisted, survive the shock of the transplant.

Louis MacNeice


By contrast, Louis MacNeice’s roots survived the move from Belfast – “my mother-city” – but with a residual yearning that was to underpin his entire emotional and literary life. Home and the notion of the city becomes a recurrent theme in his work, alternating in meaning between idyll and nightmare. “I was born in Belfast between the mountain and the gantries,” he recalls in Carrickfergus. But his mother’s death, when he was just seven, was to scar not only his memories of Belfast, but also his outlook on life.

For MacNeice, the idea of the city holds endless fascination; it embodies his famous epithet: “the drunkenness of things being various”. It is the melting pot of people and cultures, cars and trams, brand names and shop girls, drunkards, killers and priests. It is also the continuation of a cultural experiment begun in classical civilisation.

But the city also represents work and routine, an impersonal existence and hollow commercialism – it is the holding pen where the living use the bright lights and cheap goods to distract themselves from the certainty of their extinction.

MacNeice’s interest lies in both antiquity and modernity, seeing the modern world through the eyes of the ancient. He sees links between classical civilisation and language, current behaviours and usage, and this lends his poems an extraordinary quality – a stage removed from reality. When MacNeice the great classical scholar and aesthete finds himself teaching in Birmingham – “this hazy city” – he also feels himself slightly above it. He confides to his Autumn Journal that classical texts were never meant to be read with the flat vowels of the Midlands’ vernacular (his ear resists “Homer in a Dudley accent”).

That distance is detectable in Birmingham, his great sprawling work of observation, movement and colour. His technique is that of the film camera, swooping in on what interests him, pulling out for a wide shot. We arrive by train in the industrial heartland as the smoke “blunders upward”. In the street, we hear the “brakes of cars” while a “policeman… raises his flat hand” to the traffic, with “his figure of a monolith Pharaoh”. He enjoys the collision of this with the ultra modern references of “triplex screens… electric mops”. Ultimately it is a shallow experience – the shop girls’ faces are as “empty as old almanacs” – and the commuters return, sheep-like, to the suburbs.

Buses, trains, trams and taxis crisscross the cityscape of so many of MacNeice’s poems (notably Taxis, Birmingham and Reminiscences) and MacNeice’s biographer, Jon Stallworthy, interprets “the image of the bus as a potential hearse” – an unexorcised reminder of his mother’s early death and an extended metaphor of life as a journey towards it. In Birmingham MacNeice sees: “On shining lines, the trams like vast sarcophagi move.” In Charon, it is the greasy rumble of a London bus taking its passengers – the living dead – through the London fog to the Thames where the ferryman awaits.

London was to become MacNeice’s city of choice – it was where the work was (at the BBC), where his women lived and where poets drank. The Stag’s Head in Portland Place was a magnet for BBC writers partial to an early ale (including Dylan Thomas) but, having sampled its atmosphere recently, I can report that its decor seems more likely to herald 1971, not 1941. However, it was here that many of MacNeice’s most important ideas, transactions and liaisons occurred, rather than inside the BBC itself.

The London of Autumn Journal is charged with the dread and excitement of the impeding war and he is fascinated by the way the people continue their everyday lives. “Today they are building in Oxford Street” – but now “it seems futility”. “Nelson is stone” and powerless this time to help the nation. And yet, MacNeice cannot help but succumb to the sensory intoxication of the city with “the electric signs as crude as Fade” and the smell of the mortar. His brings London to life with his scattergun impressions: the smell of “French bread in Charlotte Street”, and even the warning bark of the sea-lion in London Zoo. His senses are heightened by the prospect of war and the possibility that all of this could vanish. Paradoxically, he never sounds more hopeful or alive.

MacNeice returned to Belfast several times in his poems, as if restlessly searching for resolution or absolution. But his poem Belfast is as bleak as Birmingham; while he feels the ties of his home city, he feels no sentimentality towards it. This work is shot through with religion and death – the city’s two strongest associations for MacNeice. “Like crucifixes the gantries stand”; a church is a “cave of gloom”.

Again, MacNeice is seen peering into shop windows, at the “painted ware… parchment lampshades – harsh attempts at buyable beauty.” Just like the cheap cosmetics and flash cars of Birmingham, these are trappings to disguise the drudgery of city life.

And yet, is there a faint nostalgia detectable in Carrickfergus? Initially the tone is as hard as usual. He remembers himself as the outsider – the Anglican who could never share “the candles of the Irish poor”. But far away, in the drab confines of Dorset public school, he is overwhelmed by the city’s powerful associations: “the mill girls, the smell of porter, the salt mines and the soldiers with their guns”. The suspicion is confirmed in Carrick Revisited when, on his return, “the green banks are as rich and the Lough as hazily lazy”. He feels the pull and draw of Ireland, his roots aching to return to their home soil – and yet there are so many barrier and contradictions; with his “foreign voice” he is neither “western Ireland nor southern England”.

Strangely, it is only in Dublin (“never my town”) where he feels freedom and release. “Not Irish, and Not English”, he feels its unique status as an international city of passing traffic, most closely mirroring his own status. It is a city that lives with its contradictions, with the “porter running from the taps”, while “Nelson on his pillar” (again) watches “his world collapse”. His descriptions of the city could almost be of himself – he admires her “seedy eleganc and “the bravado of her talk”. The city is untroubled by the ghosts that walk its streets – they only add to its strangeness and attraction. It is like meeting a soul as troubled and lost as he is. Writing about the city, his tone is for once lyrical: “the sun comes up in the morning like barley sugar on the water”. It is, at last, the place where he can finally finds his peace:  ‘But oh the days are soft,/Soft enough to forget.’ (‘Dublin’)

‘Between two fires’ – Poetry and the supernatural

In poetry, special effects are standard kit. From the moment the Green Knight removed his own head before an astonished Sir Gawain, the walls of reality dissolved forever. Poets realised they could pretty much do as they pleased (and still turn a sestina with a flourish). Not only did the potent imagery of the supernatural give their work an ethereal glow, it allowed them to cast themselves as alchemists and propagators of ancient myths. It underlined the unbroken lineage between them and the early mystics; the language of poetry and the rites of pagan ritual.

Poetry has a natural affinity with supernatural idioms: think of Auden’s ‘Funeral Blues’ – it’s an incantation, a high style that poets deploy freely. And the art of poetry has always drawn on alchemy, conjuring the wondrous from the mundane. Prospero commanded the supernatural world to serve his own ends: “Spirits, which by mine art / I have from their confines call’d to enact / My present fancies.” Poets continue to work the same magic, often calling upon players from other worlds to reveal the essential truths of this one.

For Elizabethan playwrights, the supernatural presented a heady brew of art, magic, science and religion, as rational minds applied themselves to inexplicable things. Faustus wonders if it is within the realms of his science “to make men […] live eternally / Or being dead raise them to life again”.

His curiosity leads to a rejection of God for magic: “Divinity Adieu / these metaphysics of magicians are heavenly.”

Ghosts and angels

In the centuries that followed, religion and the supernatural formed an uneasy alliance. Metaphysical poets like Henry Vaughan drew from both traditions to articulate the relationship between the spiritual and physical worlds and the sense of humanity being trapped between the two. He describes an epiphany in ‘The World’ in oddly modern terms: “I saw eternity the other night / Like a great Ring of pure and endless light.” It is a visionary moment of clarity but a transitory one – as if this magical realm, this glimpse of heaven and perfection is just beyond the reach of man.

Later, ghosts and angels became the predominant supernatural presence in poetry, and dreams the gateway to the supernatural world. In Leigh Hunt’s poem, Abou Ben Adhem wakes from his dream of peace to find “an angel writing in a book of gold” and from there negotiates his way into God’s favour (‘Abou Ben Adhem’). By the time of Coleridge’s ‘Christabel’, begun in 1798, Gothic melodrama has sunk its fangs into poetry. The poem’s opening, “’Tis the middle of the night by the castle clock” is pure Hammer Horror and the apparition Christabel sees is the archetypal ghost: “a damsel bright / Drest in a silken robe of white.” There is something horrific about the mysterious Geraldine: “her bosom and half her side / A sight to dream of not to tell”, the intimation that she may indeed be the living dead – a simultaneously beautiful and terrible vision of sex and death. Perhaps because of its B-movie plot and hackneyed mysticism, Wordsworth considered ‘Christabel’ too sensationalist to earn a place in Lyrical Ballads. And yet, in its dreamlike framework and lack of a resolution (Coleridge, characteristically, never finished the poem), ‘Christabel’ continues to beguile – and of course is replete with enough supernatural imagery to keep Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee in long and gainful employment.

There is an implication in the work of the Romantics that the poetry itself is channelled from another dimension. In their séance-like writing sessions they see themselves as mediums as much as poets.

Echoes of the Gothic continue into Hardy’s ‘The Shadow of the Stone’. He finds himself in “the shifting shadows” of the garden with the sensation of someone standing behind him. He admits he dares not “turn my head to discover there was nothing in my belief.” He is reassured rather than repelled however by the idea of a spirit world; he feels warmth and company from ghosts of loved ones – and does not wish to dispel this illusion by looking round and finding the garden empty.

Family ghosts

The supernatural allows an escape from the rational world. Poetry does not always have to explain itself. It can move more freely through time and nimbly from the real to the unreal; the living and the dead mingle easily.

When Hamlet receives information from his father’s ghost (the supernatural as plot device), they temporarily inhabit the same realm. This had a ghostly echo in reality when Daniel Day-Lewis fled the stage during a National Theatre production of the play, after finding himself face to face with an apparition of own father, Cecil Day-Lewis. Haunted by their unresolved relationship, Daniel Day-Lewis identified similar traits in them both – by turns reticent and attracted by danger. Some of this generational tension is pre-figured in lines from his father’s poem, ‘The Conflict’: “For where we used to build and love / Is no man’s land, and only ghosts can live /Between two fires.” W.H. Auden, you feel, would have had much to say about this incident, given his interest in ‘family ghosts’ – the potent, invisible effect of preceding generations on your psychological make-up.

In Louise Gluck’s brilliant and unsettling ‘Gretel in Darkness’, the mythic framework of the fairy tale underpins the psychological entrapment of the adult world. While Hansel denies the memory of the “witch’s cry” in “the moonlight through a sheet of sugar”, Gretel recalls how she ‘killed’ for him and is haunted still by the “spires of that gleaming kiln”. For her adult brother, the admission of a supernatural dimension is too much to bear, compounding the guilt and moral desperation of an incestuous relationship as “in our father’s hut we sleep”.

In a post-supernatural age

In a secular age, with the universe seemingly explained in the hula-hoop of a Large Hadron Collider, (the scientific successor to Vaughan’s “ring of pure endless light”?) we are more relaxed about solving religious and spiritual conundrums. The playful behaviour of ghosts is now the prevalent motif. “The spirits of chance and chaos” in Roddy Lumsden’s ‘My Limbo’: “stand in doorways: / quaint, foul allies, swivelling their ghost hips, /tugging at their gowns of transparency / and mischief.” Billy Collins meanwhile muses on the secret life of angels who “fly through God’s body and come out singing”. They are hip, and carefree. He singles out one “dancing alone in her stocking feet, a small jazz combo working in the background” (‘Questions About Angels’).

The poet as magician is the enduring image, the writer summoning forth apparitions from the world of the imagination to create enduring symbols of truth. Ultimately, the world of the imagination is deeper and richer than the spiritual world, which by definition is a human construct. In ‘Transgressing the Real’, Robert Duncan reveals the poet’s art: “under the cloak of his poem he retires / invisible”. And yet if we are wise, warns James Merrill in ‘Voices from the Other World’, we should not discount the supernatural entirely:

“Last night the teacup shattered in a rage. / Indeed, we have grown nonchalant/Towards the other world.”