John Berger’s new poetry book

This video from Britain says about itself:

John Berger / Ways of Seeing, Episode 1 (1972)

A BAFTA award-winning BBC series with John Berger, which rapidly became regarded as one of the most influential art programmes ever made. In the first programme, Berger examines the impact of photography on our appreciation of art from the past.

Ways of Seeing is a 1972 BBC four-part television series of 30-minute films created chiefly by writer John Berger and producer Mike Dibb. Berger’s scripts were adapted into a book of the same name. The series and book criticize traditional Western cultural aesthetics by raising questions about hidden ideologies in visual images. The series is partially a response to Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation series, which represents a more traditionalist view of the Western artistic and cultural canon.

By Andy Croft in Britain:

John Berger: ways of seeing extraordinary in the ordinary

Tuesday 26th August 2014

21st-century poetry with Andy Croft

JOHN BERGER is one of the major radical European intellectuals of our time — a novelist, draughtsman, film-maker, essayist, critic and poet.

For over 60 years he has been challenging the way we see the world and how we think about it in books like Ways Of Seeing, Permanent Red, To The Wedding, A Painter Of Our Time, Pig Earth, Once In Europa, Lilac and Flag and From A-X.

But although Berger has always written poetry, often smuggling poems inside books like The Seventh Man, The White Bird and Pages Of The Wound, this is the first time his poetry has been collected in English.

Collected Poems (Smokestack Books, £8.95) brings together poems from the early 1950s to the first decade of the 21st century, including over 20 never previously published.

Many reflect Berger’s longstanding concerns with history and memory, art and war — unavoidable issues perhaps for a writer of his generation, as he explains in Self-portrait 1914-18:

“It seems now that I was so near to that war.

I was born eight years after it ended

When the General Strike had been defeated.

Yet I was born by Very Light and shrapnel

On duck boards

Among limbs without bodies.

I was born of the look of the dead

Swaddled in mustard gas

And fed in a dugout… I lived the first year of my life

Between the leaves of a pocket bible

Stuffed in a khaki haversack…. I was the world fit for heroes to live in.”

In many ways it is a book about violence —

“Hands of the world

amputated by profit

bleed in streets of bloodsheds”

— and there are poems here about Ypres, Mostar, Iraq, Palestine and the murder of Berger’s Chilean friend Orlando Letelier:

Before the fortress of injustice

he brought many together

with the delicacy of reason

and spoke there

of what must be done

amongst the rocks

not by giants

but by women and men

they blew him to pieces

because he was too coherent.

But it is also a beautiful book, about the beauty of the natural world and of the people who work in it:

Perhaps God resembles the story tellers

loving the feeble more than

the strong

the victors less

than the stricken.

Either way

in weak late October

the forest burns

with the sunshine

of the whole vanished summer.

And it contains a number of exquisite love poems:

My heart born naked

was swaddled in lullabies.

Later alone it wore

poems for clothes.

Like a shirt

I carried on my back

the poetry I had read.

So I lived for half a century

until wordlessly we met.

From my shirt on the back of the chair

I learn tonight

how many years

of learning by heart

I waited for you.

The most recent poem in the book They Are The Last is about the slow painful death of the European peasantry:

Each year more animals depart.

Only pets and carcasses remain,

and the carcasses living or dead

are from birth

ineluctably and invisibly

turned into meat.


the animals of the poor

die with the poor

from protein insufficiency.

Now that they have gone

it is their endurance we miss.

As always, Berger demonstrates an enduring commitment to the extraordinary lives of ordinary people —

The mother puts

the newborn day

to her breast —

in perfectly framed still-life images. Sensual and plain, they are delicate sketches of hard lives caught between the provisional quality of language and the permanence of things, as in this hymn to the humble kitchen ladle:

Pewter pock-marked

moon of the ladler

rising above the mountain

going down into the saucepan

serving generations


dredging what has grown from seed

in the garden

thickened with potato

outliving us all

on the wooden sky

of the kitchen wall…Ladle

pour the sky steaming

with the carrot sun

the stars of salt

and the grease of the pig earth

pour the sky steaming


pour soup for our days

pour sleep for the night

pour years for my children.

5 thoughts on “John Berger’s new poetry book

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