Grevel Lindop

Poet, biographer, critic, essayist and writer on just about everything

KEATS’S FIRST WATERFALL

In Ambleside a few days ago to give a lecture, I decided to spend the afternoon walking up to Stockghyll Force, the lovely small waterfalls in the woods uphill behind Ambleside. The weather had been rainy so the Force was full and quite spectacular.

Stockghyll has always been a favourite of mine, and especially so because Keats wrote about it so wonderfully. He came here with his friend Brown, when they were on their walking tour to Scotland in 1818. In a  letter to his brother Tom, Keats wrote:

“The different falls have as different characters; the first darting down the slate-rock like an arrow; the second spreading out like a fan – the third dashed into a mist  –  and the one on the other side of the rock a sort of mixture of all these. We afterwards moved away a space, and saw nearly the whole more mild, streaming silverly through the trees. What astonishes me more than any thing is the tone, the coloring, the slate, the stone, the moss, the rock-weed; or, if I may so say, the intellect, the countenance of such places. The space, the magnitude of mountains and waterfalls are well imagined before one sees them; but this countenance or intellectual tone must surpass every imagination and defy any remembrance. I shall learn poetry here and shall henceforth write more than ever…”

What I had not realised until I revisited the passage is that Keats described this as ‘The first waterfall I ever saw’! He had been to the country around London before, and to Sussex, previously, but not travelled widely; and had never previously visited mountainous country. So Stockghyll Force was his ‘first waterfall’.

And I love the way the passage shows Keats feeling that the landscape is alive, that it speaks to him and has a consciousness: ‘the intellect, the countenance of such places’.

And the sense that the place, and nature itself as manifested here, will enable him to ‘learn poetry’. Coming from Keats, that is deeply impressive.

If you visit the Stockghyll yourself, you can see how your impressions of the falls compare with Keats’s. Their different ‘characters’: arrow…fan…mist…or however you see them for yourself. Keats is teaching us how to look!

Walking back from the main falls along the bank, I noticed a point where a smaller beck came out to join the main one, from under a mysterious archway in the rocks:

So I climbed up into the ‘tunnel’, fascinated to see where it would lead, even at the cost of getting some water in one of my boots. And guess what? Turned out the beck was just passing under the path I’d previously climbed, and I’d walked over the top of it half an hour before without noticing. Never mind, I had the excitement of seemingly exploring that mysterious tunnel into apparently mysterious unknown territory!

When you’re out for a walk, everything can be an adventure.

Ian Marriott: Touched

Sometimes a book of poems comes along that I really want to draw attention to. Such a book is Ian Marriott’s pamphlet collection Touched, just published by the excellent Cinnamon Press.

Ian Marriott’s poems are remarkably economical: invariably he uses very small brief stanzas, each one provoking thought before you move on to the next. There is something haiku-like, or at any rate contemplative about his stanzas: you feel the need to pause an reflect on each one before you move on to the next. The title Touched seems to refer to this quality as much as anything. The poems touch us, or require us to touch them in reading.

Not that the touch is necessarily comforting. Marriott’s poems can be bleak, and have a way of using unsparing and even harsh images from nature to communicate human experience.

For much of Touched, this seems to be experience of trauma. The book opens with a nine-page sequence (but don’t be alarmed: that’s nine small pages of nine tiny stanzas…) –

The abandoned child
plays and replays
his loop of pain
until in the end
there’s little else…
Both oppressor
and oppressed –
in a single body
the bully, and abused.

Those lines tell – or show, rather – something I’d never seen before but which makes perfect emotional sense. I guess we can all identify with it, and many of us find something inside us that answers.

Images from nature are offered which are both exact in themselves and psychologically acute, as in the section called ‘Pond Skater’:

A Fön wind
from the wrong quarter
upends me –
or the slow dark
of a rising trout.
So perilous
this thin meniscus –
six legs splayed out.

Yes, I had to Google ‘Fön wind’ too: more often spelt foehn or Föhn, it’s a dry downhill wind off a mountain (it’s called the Chinook in the Rockies); maybe Marriott was a bit unwise to use this unfamiliar term, but at least we’ve learnt a new word and fact. But more important, it’s a lovely piece of natural observation; but we realise that the pond skater is also the emotional human self – so easily thrown, disturbed, or plunged into depression. we all know the feeling.

Later in the same sequence I found an unforgettable section, odd, grotesque and cheerful – at least, I think cheerful and find it so, ultimately – like something straight out of a Lowry painting:

Front leg missing,
one hundred percent dog –
he loped towards us
without an ounce
of self pity –
that whole, un-whole body,
muscled and twisting
against its loss.

An image to contemplate, unforgettable. And there are the quiet observations of nature and people, each small stanza a thing that yields more each time you ponder it:

INVERARY, SEPTEMBER

A grey heron
hunched on the tide,
shoreline always
a sense of becoming –
day-trippers slip
from city buses,
here to measure
their lives.

Ian Marriott is a writer to enjoy – and to contemplate. Order his fine pamphlet from Cinnamon Press here: https://cinnamonpress.com/image/  and his previous book The Hollow Bone here: https://www.poetrybooks.co.uk/products/the-hollow-bone-by-ian-marriott

Ian will be reading at Manchester Poets – Chorlton Library, M21 9PN, 7.30 pm on Friday 22 April. Or if you’ve missed him, why not follow one of those links and buy one of his publications?

Selecting Jeremy Reed

Good news today: at last, the Selected Poems of Jeremy Reed, on which I’ve been working for more than three years, will be published by Shearsman – probably in 2020. It’s a big, generous selection – maybe some 300 pages – but it isn’t a page too long, or a poem too many.

Jeremy Reed – An elusive figure, but an exciting reader if you can catch him!

Jeremy Reed (born 1951) is quite possibly the most talented poet of my generation, and certainly the most prolific, with something over fifty published collections to his credit. He has won many awards. But his reclusive nature, and the sheer vast number of his publications, mean that he’s unfamiliar to the present-day poetry public, and even if people are interested, they don’t know where to start in his vast oeuvre.

The plan of Collusive Strangers: Selected Poems 1979-2020 will be to provide a map to this amazing poet’s development, with a selection of his very best work.

It was a close thing. I prepared the book for publication by Enitharmon Press, who went bust just as I was submitting the text. But the news that Shearsman will take it on is a huge boost and a great delight. Hopefully Reed’s work will again find the readers it deserves.

Jeremy Reed has been a poet of huge variety. In the 1970s and ‘80s he was famous for writing the best nature poems since John Clare, and received accolades from the likes of Seamus Heaney. Later he wrote with unexampled vividness about the AIDS epidemic, about the cultural phenomenon of British pop, about drugs and cyberspace. In the Blair era he wrote scorchingly about politics. His poems have taken in Sci-Fi (he was a friend of J.G. Ballard) and many aspects of sexuality. He is an unexampled modern writer on landscape and the street life of London.

Reed is also a poet other writers should learn from. His vocabulary is enormous, his range of forms protean. If you haven’t heard of him, it’s time you did. If thought he’d stopped writing, you were wrong. If you heard he was eccentric, uncooperative, troublesome, you were right; but he’s an important poet. This selection will prove it, and show you where to start appreciating perhaps the most remarkable poet of our time.

A STORY OF FIVE LEMONS

In the past few days I’ve been contacted by quite a number of students from Texas, who told me that my poem ‘Five Lemons’ was set as an essay subject for their IB exam (I’m guessing that’s International Baccalaureate?). They mostly seem to have liked the poem but they also ask for interpretations of it. Since it isn’t possible for me to discuss the poem with everyone individually, I’m writing this to tell the story of the poem and offer a few comments. I hope they’re helpful!

Free stock photo of food, healthy, nature, water

But first, here’s the poem for those who don’t know it:

FIVE LEMONS

Here are five lemons from the poet’s garden,

the colour of white gold and icy sunshine,

flooded with green around the pointed nipples.

My younger daughter cuts one into quarters,

careful of fingers, bites the white-furred pith out,

devours the quartz-white segments with her eyes shut,

sighing and swaying in the sharp enjoyment.

 

Here are four lemons from the poet’s garden:

one perched on three, a perfect tetrahedron.

The poet’s widow showed me where to pick them,

kindly and shrewd, helping me find the best ones,

holding the branch down while I snapped the stalks off,

the cold breeze in our faces from the mountain.

We’ll halve this one and squeeze it over couscous.

 

Here are three lemons from the poet’s garden

still in the bowl, turned in a neat triangle,

yellower now. My elder daughter chooses,

after long thought, one for her still-life painting,

the twisted leaves like green airplane-propellers

with a Cezanne pear and a Braque violin,

fractured into art-deco Cubist slices.

 

Here are two lemons from the poet’s garden

below his tall house on the terraced hillside,

red earth black-pitted with his fallen olives

between the gnarled trunks trailing silver foliage,

beside the boulders of the dusty torrent

rainless above that sea of sparkling turquoise.

The juice is perfect for a tuna salad.

 

Here is a lemon from the poet’s garden,

the last of them. Long is the poet gone,

silent his grave on the hilltop under the cypress,

long the shadows drawn by moon and sun

out from the low walls and high gate of the graveyard.

I press the waxy peel to my face and breathe it.

There are no words for what the fragrance tells me.

 

So here’s the story. In 1997 I was asked to edit The White Goddess, Robert Graves’s wonderful book about myth and poetic inspiration, for a new collected edition of Graves’s writings. Graves (1895-1985) had died twelve years earlier, and though he was an English poet and novelist (best known probably for I Claudius), he had lived in the village of Deya in Majorca. His son William invited me over there, to see Graves’s own copy of the book, which had many corrections and alterations that needed to be put into the new edition.

I was hugely excited because it was reading Graves’s work that had first turned me on to poetry, something which changed my life and has dominated it happily ever since.

La Casa de Robert Graves

So I went to Deya. Robert Graves’s house, where his widow Beryl still lived, was on the hillside just outside the village. It had a sloping garden with fruit trees and olive trees. Beryl welcomed me into the house, where nothing had changed since Robert Graves’s death. His hats were still on the hatpegs, his coats were in the closet in the entrance hall. Beryl said ‘You’d better work in here!’ and took me into Graves’s study.

Everything was just as he’d left it: his pens and pencils, coins and little pebbles and other trinkets were on the desk, his books were on the shelves, there was an unfinished letter which he’d never signed lying on one of the surfaces. The atmosphere was electric: completely magical. So I sat in Robert Graves’s chair, at his desk, surrounded by his books and possessions, and Beryl brought me his copy of The White Goddess with all his markings in it, and I began work.

Each day Beryl would give me lunch. Although she was living out in the Majorcan mountains, her household was completely English. She had two cats and a little dog, she had the Times Literary Supplement delivered every week, she had an ‘Aga’ stove, and for lunch she made things like scrambled eggs on toast, and bananas and custard. She was delightful.

At the end of the week I had finished my work on the book, but before I left Beryl took me down into the orchard below the house and helped me to pick the lemons, just as I’ve described in the poem. (The ‘dusty torrent’ is one of the ‘torrents’ or watercourses which run down the parched Majorcan hillsides between the olive groves; they fill up with water at certain times of year, or in summer at certain hours when the limited water supply is opened up to flow in that direction – the neighbours take turns to have the water, because it’s so scarce – so the ‘torrent’ is really more of a ‘channel’.)

I took the lemons home, and the poem describes what happened to them.

Now, about interpretation. Some people have asked me what the poem means, or to give them an interpretation, or to explain it to them. I don’t think that is really possible, because a poem doesn’t have just one meaning. It means different things to different people. Obviously we can all agree that a lemon is a lemon, and that turquoise is a colour we recognise; but once the poem is written it becomes an object, a thing that people can look at from different angles and turn over in their minds and reflect on. And everyone will come up with a different interpretation. There’s no single ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ interpretation, and I love it when people see things in my poems that I didn’t know were there!

That’s as it should be. A poem isn’t a riddle that has a single correct answer. It’s more like a painting: everyone can look at it, and each person can find something different there. And as long as what you find fits with the words, then it’s right. The more meanings the better!

I can add few details. Obviously the poet’s garden – for me – is Robert Graves’s garden. (But maybe it could be any poet’s garden!) The grave is his (sorry about the repetition of the word ‘grave’, it can’t be helped!) – a very simple village grave in the small churchyard at Deya on the hilltop, which does have a low stone wall and then a tall gate which sticks up. But again it could be any poet who has died.

In the poem I think I’m a bit sad at the end as I smell the fragrance of the last lemon. It’s my final contact with the place and the experience, and with Beryl, and it’s like a gift from the poet himself; but there are some things you can’t put into words, so the poem ends maybe with a touch of sadness, a memory that’s valuable but also admitting that even in a poem you can’t say everything.

So my warmest thanks to all the people who wrote to me, for your generous appreciation of the poem. I hope you really enjoyed it even though it came to you as part of a test – maybe not the best way to meet a poem! I hope it left some happy pictures in your minds, and also a pleasant scent of lemons!

If you ever want to visit the the house – La Casa de Robert Graves – the website is here:

http://www.lacasaderobertgraves.org/en/

In the garden at Deya – with some more lemons!

 

COLERIDGE: SPIRITUAL MARINER

The poet, critic and Anglican priest Malcolm Guite is writing a new life of Coleridge. It’s going to be called Mariner, and it will focus on Coleridge’s inner life – his spiritual quest. Malcolm’s idea is that Coleridge prefigured the pattern of his future life in ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’, and the book will take its shape from the poem. A brilliant idea, I think.

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Malcolm Guite on the shore of Ullswater: October 2014

 

There have been excellent lives of Coleridge before – Richard Holmes’s wonderful and readable two-volume biography, and Molly Lefebure’s books on Coleridge’s opium addiction and his family – but none of them has really been deeply interested in Coleridge’s religious life and ideas. Yet this aspect of life was, for Coleridge himself, the most important of all, and it conditioned everything else.

In October I spent a few days exploring the Lakes with Malcolm, visiting some of Coleridge’s haunts; and this post is going to be an unashamed flashback because I’m recalling that time, and want to put some of the pictures from it on my blog. So here we go.

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Aira Force waterfalls – maybe the most spoectacular torrent in the Lakes

 

Malcolm and I met at Penrith rail station and went south along the shores of Ullswater to Aira Force with its amazing multilevelled waterfalls. We explored the network of footpaths that wind up into the woodland around the falls. We also relaxed on the shores of Ullswater, where Malcolm – though not I – ventured into the water for a paddle.

We went on to Keswick, where we stayed at the Queen’s Hotel – only realising after we checked in that this was where the John Hatfield, the conman who posed as an aristocrat and seduced the famous Maid of Buttermere, had also stayed, in 1802.

We visited Greta Hall, where Coleridge lived from 1800 to 1803 – not usually open to the public, though you can rent self-catering accommodation there,  – see www.gretahall.net – and it has the most amazingly interesting and beautiful house with wonderful views over the Vale of Derwentwater. Profound thanks to Jeronime, who welcomed us there and told us all about the house’s history.

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Greta Hall, Keswick

 

Malcolm, a keen waterman, insisted we go out in a boat on Derwentwater, and generously did all the rowing, so I was able to enjoy the views and the fresh air without effort.

We stayed the next night at How Foot Lodge, my favourite hotel in Grasmere, and visited the Wordsworth Trust, taking a tour of Dove Cottage and the Wordsworth Museum, including the Jerwood Centre, where Jeff Cowton, the Curator, had with enormous generosity arranged to have a number of Coleridge manuscripts out for Malcolm to examine, as well as one of the several fine portrait drawings the Trust owns.

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Bravely, Malcolm prepares to paddle in Ullswater!

 

From there we went on to Rydal Mount, Wordsworth’s home in his later years, and wandered around the gardens as well as exploring the house: not quite as dramatically atmospheric as Dove Cottage, but a fine, comfortable Victorian family home, with Wordsworth’s study right up in an attic looking south towards Windermere.

Altogether a wonderful few days in what was, I think, the last spell of fine golden autumn weather during 2014. Very good to look back on from a bleak chilly January; and of course on the other hand I am now looking forward to Malcolm’s book about Coleridge which, from what I know of Malcolm’s work, will be beautifully readable and also very profound.