New poetry books reviewed


This video from Britain says about itself:

13 January 2014

Dannie Abse reads from Speak, Old Parrot at the T S Eliot Prize Readings, held at Southbank Centre’s Royal Festival Hall.

Dannie Abse is a poet, author, doctor and playwright. He has written and edited more than sixteen books of poetry, as well as fiction and a range of other publications, in a long and varied writing life. His most recent novel, The Strange Case of Dr Simmonds & Dr Glas (Robson Books, 2002), was long-listed for the Booker Prize and his diaries, The Presence (Vintage, 2008), won the Wales Book of the Year Award. He is president of the Welsh Academy of Letters and was awarded a CBE in 2012.

By Andy Croft in Britain:

Words of wisdom as old parrot speaks out

Thursday 27th February 2014

Andy Croft reviews some of the latest poetry

Dannie Abse has published over 30 books but few as satisfying or as enjoyable as Speak Old Parrot (Hutchinson, £15).

Now in his 90th year, Abse is naturally concerned with the passage of time: “profligate, I wasted time/- those yawning postponements on rainy days,/those paperhat hours of benign frivolity./Now time wastes me.”

There are some great poems here about the comedy of ageing, like The Old Gods – Trident has lost his trident, Saturn has time on his hands and Bacchus has cirrhosis of the liver – and some fine poems about youth and memory like Cricket Bat, Moonbright and Sunbright.

But best of all is the brilliant Winged Back, in which Abse recalls the “recurring decimal of calamity” of our age: “Famine. Murder. Pollinating fires./When they stubbed one out another flared./Statesmen lit their cigars from the embers./They still do. With every enrichment/an injury. They bicker and banquet,/confer and dally, pull on cigars that glow/with blood-light. And all my years,/like the arson of Troy, are elsewhere. Ashes.”

Rob Hindle’s Yoke And Arrows (Smokestack, £8.95) takes its title from “el yugo y las flechas,” the emblem of the 15th-century Catholic monarchs who expelled the Moors and Jews from Spain.

It was also the symbol of the falange militia who murdered the radical poet and playwright Federico Garcia Lorca in the first weeks of the Spanish civil war. Here is one of these Black Squads listening to the singing of the prisoners about to be executed: “The night goes quietly./In the stove’s red cowl the fire collapses/a little: a brief yellow light jumps into the room,/shocking the men’s faces, glistening teeth/and tongues. Through the floorboards come/voices like the voices of the damned, singing/lullabies and songs of the country.”

Kevin Powers served in the US army in Iraq. At the heart of his first book of poems, Letter Composed During A Lull In The Fighting (Sceptre, £12.99), is a series of meditations on the loneliness of the soldier in a strange landscape – “the unending sun, the bite of sweat in eyes” – and in a meaningless conflict: “war is just us/making little pieces of metal/pass through each other.”

There are no issues on a battlefield except survival: “for one day at least I don’t have to decide/between dying and shooting a little boy.” And Powers knows that there can be no survivors: “how scared I am still, alone/in bars these three years later.”

The strongest poems in the book, like Death Mother And Child and the Extraordinary Improvised Explosive Device are about the necessity – and the impossibility – of writing about the experience: “If this poem had fragments/of metal coming out of it, if these words were your best friend’s leg,/dangling… If this poem had wires for words,/you would want someone to pay./If this poem had wires coming out of it,/you wouldn’t read it./If these words were made of metal/they could kill us all. But these/are only words. Go on,/they are safe to fold and put into your pocket./Even better, they are safe/to be forgotten.”

The New York-Puerto Rican poet Martin Espada has worked as a bouncer, a door-to-door encyclopaedia salesman, a petrol attendant and a tenant lawyer. His new collection, The Meaning Of The Shovel (Smokestack, £8.95), is a celebration of work, of the emotional and often invisible landscape of labour, “the rude Mechanicals: the tailor, the weaver, the tinker, the bellows-mender.”

It is by turns grim, cynical, funny – and revolutionary. Here is Espada digging latrines in Nicaragua: “I dig because yesterday/I saw four walls of photographs:/the faces of volunteers/in high school uniforms/who taught campesinos to read,/bringing an alphabet/sandwiched in notebooks/to places where the mist never rises/from the trees… I dig because I have hauled garbage/and pumped gas and cut paper/and sold encyclopaedias door to door./I dig, digging until the passport in my back pocket saturates with dirt,/because here I work for nothing/and for everything.”

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William Blake poems set to music


This video from Britain says about itself:

Mike Westbrook ‘Glad Day’ – London Song, Let the Slave

Glad Day – settings of the poetry of William Blake by Mike Westbrook.

Texts arranged by Adrian Mitchell and Kate Westbrook.

Two extracts – ‘London Song’ and ‘Let the Slave’ (incorporating ‘The Price of Experience’) – from the Westbrook/Blake masterpiece ‘Glad Day’.

Concert presented by the Simon Community, a charity for the homeless, at London’s St Giles-in-the-Fields on February 8th, 2014.

Mike Westbrook: piano, speech
Kate Westbrook: voice
Phil Minton: voice
Karen Street: accordion
Billy Thompson: violin
Steve Berry: bass
with the Queldryk Choral Ensemble directed by Paul Ayres.

By Karl Dallas in Britain:

Music: Glad Day Live: The Poetry Of William Blake

Wednesday 26th February 2014

Gloriously glad day for William Blake

Glad Day Live: The Poetry Of William Blake

(Westbrook Records, £12)

5 Stars

That innovative and many-faceted British composer and musician Mike Westbrook – someone who shouldn’t be shoehorned into the limitation of being seen as just a jazzman – has been setting the poems of William Blake to music for nearly 50 years.

Some of these settings were originally commissioned by the National Theatre for the 1971 production of Adrian Mitchell‘s Tyger and the Blake. [These] settings, sung by Kate Westbrook and Phil Minton, were an integral part of the repertoire of the Mike Westbrook Brass Band from its formation in 1973.

Bright As Fire, a programme entirely devoted to Blake’s poetry, was first performed in 1980 and toured widely since throughout Britain, Europe, New York and Australia.

This truly marvellous revisiting of 10 of Blake’s verses was recorded by a small band consisting of four musicians and two vocalists, with a wonderful choral part conducted by Paul Ayres.

Westbrook has always supplemented his own musical brilliance with remarkable musicians, and this recording is no exception, from the gypsy violin of Billy Thompson to the accordion of Karen Street, who sounds like a bal-musette on acid.

Former trumpeter turned vocalist Phil Minton and Westbrook’s wife Kate, who’ve worked with him for the past half-century, are on top form here.

But the most powerful track is Westbrook’s recitation of The Price Of Experience as the choir echoes Minton’s earlier declaration that “everything that lives is holy.”

Most of the DVD tracks are duplicated on the CD where the mix, to my battered ears, sounded clearer than the video versions, although two of the CD tracks are of entirely different performances.

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Dutch poet Leo Vroman dies


This is a video of a poem by Leo Vroman.

Translated from NOS TV in the Netherlands:

Saturday 22 Feb 2014, 17:23

In his hometown Fort Worth (Texas) poet and biologist Leo Vroman has died at the age of 98 years. He was one of the greatest Dutch poets. In 1964 he received the P. C. Hooft Prize.

Vroman published ever since 1946 more than 50 books of poetry. In 2013 his book “Die vleugels (Those wings)’ still appeared, and another one will still be published. Many people know Vroman’s poem “Vrede (Peace)”, which begins with the words “Kom vanavond met verhalen (Come tonight with stories).”

As a researcher of blood Vroman became famous for the Vroman effect named after him, which refers to phenomena of coagulation. He lived in the United States since 1947.

Though he lived in the USA, almost all Vroman’s poems are in Dutch. He publisheed only two poetry books in English.

The Poetry International site writes on Vroman here.

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Edward Snowden, British writers on liberty


This video is called Edward Snowden | Chelsea Manning receives Sam Adams Award.

It says about itself:

Edward Snowden addresses the Oxford Union as part of the Sam Adams awards ceremony on 19th February 2014.

ABOUT EDWARD SNOWDEN: Edward Joseph Snowden (born June 21, 1983) is an American computer specialist, a former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) employee, former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor. He came to international attention when he disclosed a large number of classified NSA documents to several media outlets. The leaked documents revealed operational details of a global surveillance apparatus run by the NSA and other members of the Five Eyes alliance, along with numerous commercial and international partners.

Snowden is considered a fugitive by American authorities who in June 2013 charged him with espionage and theft of government property. In early 2014, numerous media outlets and politicians issued calls for leniency in the form ofclemency, amnesty or pardon, while others called for him to be imprisoned or killed. He lives in an undisclosed location in Russia and, according to German politician Hans-Christian Ströbele, continues to seek permanent asylum “in a ‘democratic’ country” such as Germany or France.

From daily The Guardian in Britain:

On Liberty: Edward Snowden and top writers on what freedom means to them

As the campaining group turns 80, Shami Chakrabarti, Ian McEwan, Tom Stoppard, Julian Barnes and others reflect on liberty

Friday 21 February 2014 14.01 GMT

Shami Chakrabarti

Writers have always been a big part of Liberty. Since our very beginnings, as the National Council for Civil Liberties (NCCL) in 1934, they’ve played a key role in our battle to protect civil liberties and promote human rights in Britain. HG Wells, Vera Brittain, EM Forster, AA Milne, George Orwell and Aldous Huxley are just a few of the authors who supported Liberty in the early years – and perhaps it’s not surprising that those who write feel a special affinity with Liberty’s values and ideals. Now on Monday we will celebrate 80 years of “the fight that is never done”.

Orwell’s observations on the power of language “to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable” is something that Liberty has witnessed throughout its history – “extraordinary rendition” wasn’t sweet singing, but a chilling euphemism for kidnap and torture during the “war on terror”. “Waterboarding” was never a seaside sport. Governments have twisted words to sanitise abomination and obscure outrage. But literature can sometimes change minds and behaviour more convincingly than the most forceful examples of political polemic or even legislation.

Shami Chakrabarti is director of Liberty.

Edward Snowden

Today, an ordinary person can’t pick up the phone, email a friend or order a book without comprehensive records of their activities being created, archived, and analysed by people with the authority to put you in jail or worse. I know: I sat at that desk. I typed in the names.

When we know we’re being watched, we impose restraints on our behaviour – even clearly innocent activities – just as surely as if we were ordered to do so. The mass surveillance systems of today, systems that pre-emptively automate the indiscriminate seizure of private records, constitute a sort of surveillance time-machine – a machine that simply cannot operate without violating our liberty on the broadest scale. And it permits governments to go back and scrutinise every decision you’ve ever made, every friend you’ve ever spoken to, and derive suspicion from an innocent life. Even a well-intentioned mistake can turn a life upside down.

To preserve our free societies, we have to defend not just against distant enemies, but against dangerous policies at home. If we allow scarce resources to be squandered on surveillance programmes that violate the very rights they purport to defend, we haven’t protected our liberty at all: we have paid to lose it.

Edward Snowden is a former NSA contractor and whistleblower.

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World War One in London musical


This music video is called We need recruits! – “Oh! What a lovely war!

The lyrics of the songs of this musical are here.

From daily The Morning Star in Britain:

Theatre: Oh What A Lovely War

Tuesday 18th February 2014

The revival of a classic play on WWI is a must-see, says JOHN GREEN

Oh What A Lovely War

Theatre Royal, London E15

5 Stars

How well has Oh What A Lovely War, that iconic collaboration between Charles Chilton, Joan Littlewood and Gerry Raffles, survived the ravages of half a century since its first production in 1963?

The answer is that it is as hale and hearty as ever and remains one of the most powerful anti-war dramas ever. This improbable collision of form and content still sends out an unexpected explosion of dramatic intensity.

At its opening, we’re greeted by a troupe of pierrots who banter and play lightheartedly and engagingly with us before we’re transported to the first world war front and immersed in the horrors of that conflict.

Simply by donning helmets and jackets over their pierrot costumes, they present us with Tommies, Germans or French soldiers, generals and businessmen. Making full use of creative lighting techniques and the sounds of gunshot and detonations, we are in the trenches with the troops on the Somme, at Ypres and Verdun.

The story of the war is told in short, snappy episodes, interrupted by the songs of the time – full of pathos, earthy humour and irony – and jolly cabaret routines. Even Michael Gove makes a fleeting photographic appearance as a donkey at the beginning.

In true Brechtian style, and despite tearful and poignant moments, we are not allowed to wallow in sentiment but forced to confront the harsh realities of an incompetent ruling class indifferent to human misery and mass slaughter.

On a moor in Scotland we see businessmen having a pop at grouse while discussing their war profits and expressing their fears of an early peace.

An army chaplain tells the troops that God is on their side and, despite mounting losses, the generals order the troops forward regardless.

In the background above the stage, rolling text on a panel gives the unbelievable numbers of dead as the weeks and months pass.

There is not a minute of boredom with this excellent ensemble in which there are no stars or main roles. They keep us transfixed with their bursting energy and enthusiasm, easy banter, dancing and singing.

The leader of the troupe at the end brings us back to the present by reminding us that this war game has continued since that century-old conflict and is still being played today.

A really must-see drama. It can’t be recommended strongly enough.

Runs until March 15. Box office: (020) 8534-0310.

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Shakespeare’s King Lear on stage in London


This video from Britain is called King Lear.

By Gordon Parsons in Britain:

Theatre: King Lear

Tuesday 4th February 2014

In its depiction of societal and personal breakdown, a new production of King Lear by Sam Mendes speaks directly and uncomfortably to our own times, says GORDON PARSONS

King Lear

National Theatre, London SE1

4 Stars

More than any other of Shakespeare‘s plays, this great symphonic drama of the human condition has mirrored each successive age, often unbearably, with its own self-image.

Our own nihilistic day, obsessed with media accounts of what seems the dissolution of both civilised society and personal relationships, finds its ugly reflection in Sam Mendes’s eagerly awaited production.

From the opening, when Simon Russell Beale‘s ageing dictator enters his conference chamber walled with his own military imperial guard, we recognise a common scene of power and insecurity.

Ordered to express the degree of their affection for their unlovable father, his older daughters, Goneril and Regan, outbid one another in their amplified, effusive offerings and are duly rewarded with his divided kingdom.

Only Olivia Vinall’s Cordelia refuses defiantly to play the game and consequently is violently cast off. This is the cue for the first of Beale’s frenetic rages, a state which constantly marks his downward spiral into a dementia fuelled by the treatment from his favoured offspring.

Beale’s Lear is a definitive portrayal of a man progressively stripped of power over others and control of his own identity – “Who is it that can tell me who I am?” he asks.

And, as he slowly loses his mind, with the pitiful plea of “Let me not be mad,” his is an increasingly shambling figure, nervously pawing at a troublesome hip.

The last vestiges of his authority are lost as his substantial personal bodyguard slip away into the night.

Unlike Hamlet, where we see events subjectively through the protagonist’s eyes, in King Lear we watch with a horrible objective fascination and even fear.

This is not only Lear’s world it is ours. The parallel Gloucester plot, in which betrayal and physical cruelty deny family bonds, make Shakespeare’s universal intentions clear.

Mendes squeezes the play dry of any comfort, with the normally moving conclusion rejigged to expunge any medieval heroics – no mummers’ challenge and barnstorming duel between good and evil here. Edgar simply stabs his bastard half-brother in revenge for his own and his father’s betrayal.

A huge cast gives the impression that at times Lear has all of his 100 knights on stage and there are excellent supporting performnces.

Sam Troughton‘s Edmund is the budding, suavely suited potential corporation man while his brother, Tom Brooke’s Edgar, is a student drop-out who shows perhaps an understandably muted sympathy for their blinded father, Stephen Boxer‘s naive Gloucester.

The demonic daughters, Kate Fleetwood‘s Goneril and Anna Maxwell Martin‘s Regan, are equally differentiated, the former cunningly calculating, while the latter comes across as hysterically high on cruelty.

Adrian Scarborough as the Fool for once makes the character’s often meaningless babble analytically clear as he dissects Lear’s condition, only to be unknowingly clubbed to death by his master in one of his demented frenzies.

If the production loses something in subtlety it certainly speaks uncompromisingly to its audience.

Runs until May 28. Box office: (020) 7252-3000.

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