Thursday, 6 October 2011


It's a good job you made it here today. This is a free service aimed at ensuring that nobody is left wanting when the question is asked: "What did you read on National Poetry Day 2011?"

Perhaps it's because I turned it into a (terrible) song but this portion of The Walls Do Not Fall by Hilda Doolittle is one of the few I can recall on demand.

But we fight for life,
we fight, they say, for breath,

so what good are your scribblings?
this - we take them with us

beyond death; Mercury, Hermes, Thoth
invented the script, letters, palette;

the indicated flute or lyre-notes
on papyrus or parchment

are magic, indelibly stamped
on the atmosphere somewhere,

forever; remember, O Sword,
you are the younger brother, the latter-born,

your Triumph, however exultant,
must one day be over,

in the beginning
was the Word.

Hilda Doolittle (1946)

I have always been partial to that phrase: In the beginning was the Word. Most likely this is a throwback to a Catholic upbringing. It reminds me of the church social club on a Sunday afternoon and pestering those around me with the same question again and again: "What is the word?" Of course nobody could tell me what that word was but hearing that phrase convinced me that there was a word, an idea made communicable, that would unlock some essential key to existence. This, in part, is why I write.

Another favourite poem of mine, because Regina Spektor embedded it in a song, is Fevrale by Boris Pasternak:

February. Get ink, shed tears.
Write of it, sob your heart out, sing,
While torrential slush that roars
Burns in the blackness of the spring.

Go hire a buggy. For six grivnas,
Race through the noice of bells and wheels
To where the ink and all your grieving
Is muffled when the rainshower falls.

To where, like pears burnt black as charcoal,
A myriad rooks, plucked from the trees,
Fall down into the puddles, hurl
Dry sadness deep into the eyes.

Below, the wet black earth shows through,
With sudden cries the wind is pitted,
The more haphazard, the more true
The poetry that sobs its heart out.

You can hear it read in Russian here:

My partner's father has been learning Russian for some time and he assures me that the English translation does not accurately portray the emotions of this poem. Hearing it read in Russian, I have to agree. So much about the way language is used in poetry is about an emotional connection to the words and a feeling for the sounds. It is close to music I think.

The poetry that matters to me is the poetry that forces me to stop. Both of these pieces had the power to do that to me. Ideas flow so easily through the brain when they are familiar. Living by the sea I appreciate how something as spectacular as an ocean can become commonplace when seen every day. Occasionally, however, the light is just right or the wind gentle enough that I remember the vastness of the water, the strength of a single wave. In this analogy poetry is elemental. It is the light or the wind which forces us to stop and notice an ocean; forces us to open our eyes and see something essential.


Ashley R Lister said...

I would urge everyone reading this to follow the link. There are few things sexier than a Russian voice and few things more mesmerising than a foreign voice delivering impassioned poetry.

Great post Vicky,


Ste said...

Hi Vicky - hope this works (on my phone as college computers block me from commenting) Great post - really enjoyed the first poem - recalled to me the relation between the verb 'to spell' and the noun 'spell' - the written word used to be very much accepted as magic - in a way I think it's a shame we've lost that bit when you look at how those with the education used that knowledge to further their own power by mystifying language (Latin & the church anyone?) I think we may be in a better state of affairs now (till our kids are priced out if education anyway - if Cameron gets his way the written word may very well be mystical to whole areas of our society)

Sorry, rant over - really thought provoking post x

Anonymous said...

Good stuff. I always disagree with those who think poryty needs reading. To me it's an aura; / oral art.

Dave R.

Barbara said...

Hi Vicky
I enjoyed this post. The part that got to me was the church social club and 'pestering those around me with the same question again and again' I could really identify with it up to there but I thought the question was going to be: 'Can I have another bottle of pop and a packet of crips please' You can certainly tell from observing the child how the adult is going to turn out!