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LIDIA VIANU -- ELAINE FEINSTEIN
My voice finds me when I write.
Interview with ELAINE FEINSTEIN (born 24 October 1930), British poet, novelist, translator and literary critic
Published in LIDIA VIANU, Desperado Essay-Interviews, Editura Universitatii din Bucuresti, 2006
© Lidia Vianu
LIDIA VIANU: Your preface to your Collected Poems states that you have the sense of ‘being an outsider’. This is a major trait of what I call Desperado writers, who are never at home, even if they never travel abroad. Your poetry strikes me as a homeless poetry. You need a home but cannot really find it. Not in verse. Your lines are a constant tension and struggle. Does this make you feel part of Postmodernism/Desperado – meaning part of what has been going on in literature since the 1950s?
ELAINE FEINSTEIN: I feel at home in London, now, because I have a wide circle of friends, but my generation is aware of a kind of precariousness which (I think) my children largely lack. They have assimilated to British culture and way of life, while I still trail a residual knowledge of that Central European abyss which could easily have been my own. That knowledge used to make me rather impatient with the limited range of concerns of many English poets.
I began to write in the fifties. I was very conscious then of being an outsider but also rather proud of having roots elsewhere.
LV. Mother Love is a poem of Desperado directness. It is boldly personal and rendingly tender. Your tenderness handcuffs you. Most poets today hide their vulnerability. You and Ruth Fainlight parade it and prevail in spite of it. Your voice is strong in poems. Do you feel feminism would be an option in your case? When I told Ruth Fainlight I did not think she could ever be a feminist, she was upset. She said she was. I do not think you are a feminist either. Is that acceptable to you?
EF. There are so many strands of feminism. I am, truly, pre-feminist. In my generation of Cambridge graduates, I was the only woman to go on working after marriage and having children. I have always earned my own living—necessarily, since I do not have the usual domestic virtues, and needed to pay for a cleaner. Working did not make me independent of my husband though, even when I was financially an equal partner. In the Seventies I did find the women’s movement very sustaining,
LV. You end Buying a House for Now with the lines:
to the beauties
of now only
Your poems create a sense of beautiful in spite of ugliness. Your voice is frail, yet indomitable. You feed on the past, although you proclaim the beauty of now. The Desperado is a writer who is a slave to the past, to his memory and inevitable nostalgia. Would you accept being classified as a Desperado from this point of view?
EF. I like the word Desperado, though your definition is new to me. I think the poem you pick out is filled with what Vosnesensky calls ‘nostalgia in the present’.
LV. There is in your poems the image of a rather absent partner (‘I know how/ you want to be rid of us, you were/ never a family man’ – Marriage), whom you love in a painful way:
we share this flesh we
bring together it hurts to
think of dying as we lie close
Desperadoes as authors have never claimed love might be a major interest. They have pushed it to a small corner of the plot or the poem, yet, at the end of their text, we realize love is their main concern. You do not have love poems as proud statements of the feeling, yet all your poems are pervaded by tenderness. There is a Desperado paradox here: you write passionate poems about a discreet exile of the feelings. Do you consider yourself a sentimental poet?
EF. I suppose when my husband was alive I did think that love was on the sideline of the main thrust of my interest. Sadly I now admit that was never truly the case. We had a difficult marriage but a very intense one.
LV. Anniversary ends with:
I shall have to whisper it
into your heart directly: we are all
supernatural every day
we rise new creatures cannot be predicted
This amounts to a confession of hope. Your poems are all hopes for affection of one kind or another. What prompts you into writing them? Is it solitude, love, need for communion, desire to confess in an indirect way?
EF. he longing for love. No.... The wish to give love.
LV. A Prayer for My Sons reminds, in title only, of Yeats’ A Prayer for My Daughter. Desperadoes love rewriting, winking at previous texts. Did you have Yeats in mind when you used that title? You ask your ‘bright sons’ to forgive you for having ‘put my fear into you’. This would never have occurred to Yeats to do. It seems to me you delight in differing from him and you do it on purpose. I may be wrong, though. Am I?
EF. I confess I did not have Yeats in mind.
LV. I Have Seen Worse Days Turn ends with another memorable line: ‘How do you change the weather in the blood?’ Desperado poets love to write an apparently blank poem, and then, bang, end it with a rainbow line, like fireworks. You do that all the time. You save the best for last. Is it a conscientious act to end the poem strongly?
EF. I try to end all my poems memorably, sometimes even using a rhyme to make the ending stronger.
LV. Birthday: a Dark Morning reminds me of T.S. Eliot’s love seen as ‘the awful daring of a moment’s surrender’ (The Waste Land). You call joy ‘that impudence’. Your half-ironic, half-sad line seems to withdraw from Eliot while echoing him. Were Eliot or Yeats among your masters? If not, who was?
EF. Ah: of course I loved both Yeats and Eliot, but when I began to write they were the influences who had to be thrown off. I found the Americans – Pound, Stevens, Williams – helped me.
LV. Out of Touch is one of the sentimental poems, kind of post-Browning in tone:
don’t be lonely don’t let us
always be living singly on
some bleak journey wait for me:
this deliberate world is
rapidly losing its edge.
Dover Beach echoes close by. Yet what you write is unmistakably contemporary. There is no retro air to your poems. Your words are tragically up-to-date. Even love is a source of tragedy. If I had to choose between sense of humour and depth to characterize your verse, I would most certainly choose the latter. How would you characterize yourself?
EF. English poetry delights in irony as a way of keeping deep feeling at a distance.
LV. One of your poems is entitled like Ruth Fainlight’s cycle, Sybil. Are you a friend of Ruth Fainlight? You share the same feeling of guilt that is particularly Jewish. You do have a number of similarities, even though your voices are distinct from each other.
EF. Yes, Ruth is a friend.
LV. You have a courage that is very much your own, because it survives in the vicinity of fear, frailty, regret. You say ‘God punishes regret’ (Regret). We must do our best and go forward. Is that your philosophy of life? It seems to me you allow nothing to stand in your way, frail and vulnerable as you may seem. There is bravery to helplessness and you certainly have that.
EF. We are all vulnerable. It is the human condition. Now I am a widow I understand the full meaning of mortality.
LV. Photographs has a line that can be associated with the Desperado sense that the beautiful, brave hero is dead and has been replaced by the ordinary. Actually this started with Modernism, with Virginia Woolf explicitly, but she did not really accomplish what her essay Modern Fiction claimed must be done. The Desperadoes get to put into practice what she preached. You write:
‘Oh Daddy,’ I asked once
‘why aren’t I prettier?’ He was kindly but embarrassed.
I have found this admission of the opposite of beauty in poets as different as Alan Brownjohn, Ruth Fainlight, Selima Hill. It conveys far more than ‘She walks in beauty’, in fact. It goes straight to the core of pain in life. Is the pain of life your favourite subject for verse?
EF. I think it is. Alan Brownjohn is also a friend, by the way. Very English, but very frank about his own sense of himself.
LV. Homecoming states: ‘this city music and a few friends keep me sane.’ Actually I did have a feeling of precarious sanity while walking the tight rope of your despair. What is your favourite, courage (as a triumph over fear) or sanity (as a triumph over senseless defeats)?
EF. It is only through bravery that you can overcome inevitable defeats.
LV. I think age comes naturally with you. Getting Older states: ‘We all approach the edge of the same blackness/ which for me is silent.’ Youth is not one of your themes, but age is. It was for Yeats, too. In the same sense as it is for you – as a brave confrontation of what cannot be prevented. You have written about your children, but not so much about yourself when young. You seem to have taken youth for granted. You do not regret it. Which means age has its rewards. What I mean is, you are a very stable, well-balanced poet. Does this steadiness really come naturally or did you have to work at it?
EF. I found a sense of balance as I grew older... I was very febrile as a young woman.
LV. One more echo, Sylvia Plath, with Lady Lazarus, in your ironically different title Lazarus’ Sister. Did you meet Sylvia Plath? Ruth Fainlight was friends with her. Were you in their circle? Is this poem a real echo of her poem?
EF. I knew Ted Hughes but not Sylvia. (By the way, I have written Ted’s biography... do you know it? It came out in 2001.) No echoes of Plath here. This is a very private poem about nursing someone clinically depressed .
LV. Separations states clearly one reason of difference between you and your partner (I suppose it is your husband?):
But conversation was what you wanted,
some exchange of thought, while I
needed tenderness more than talk.
It puts the essence of your poetry in a nutshell. You do not write philosophical lines, you capture tenderness. The poetic mood for you is the tender mood. You avoid intellectual dryness, even though your poems are small essays on how to feel. Desperadoes hate the pompous Victorian poetic diction. Do you plan your voice or does it find you when you write?
EF. I like what you say here. And yes, my voice finds me when I write.
LV. Is it displeasing to you that a reader may look for your life in your poems? Bed states:
Now let these words be a loving charm
against the fear of loneliness
I cannot help wondering what the story of your existence is. Like any Desperado poet, you are good at avoiding confession. Why do you think contemporary poets are so unwilling to use biography as plot for poetry?
EF. I write novels, and they rather explicitly make use of my own experience. See The Border, Mother’s Girl, Loving Brecht , and Lady Chatterley’s Confession.
LV. In The First Wriggle you mention ‘a freedom// in which poems could happen.’ Is poetry freedom or bondage to you while you write it?
EF. Poetry is freedom.
LV. In several poems you mention Romania. I guess you must have visited the country and Bucharest. I understand your parents came from Odessa. Do you have any relatives in Romania, too? You have written nothing about Odessa. I remember Carol Rumens’ poems about Russia. Have you been there? Is that space of interest to you?
EF. I was in Romania on a British Council visit of about a week, a few years ago. I doubt there are any relatives there... I have been to Russia many times, and with Russianist help, translated the poems of several major poets, including Marina Tsvetaeva. (They are in the Collected Poems). I’ve just completed a biography of Akhmatova.
LV. I read in Allegiance:
— Kovno, Odessa, packing and running away—
But that is all you say. I cannot help thinking of Chagall and his pogrom imagery. Does this might-have-been which you escaped haunt your dreams?
LV. In Still Life I find: ‘the biology of tenderness is forgotten.’ In this world of ‘outsiders’ (a word you also apply to Roy Fisher in City Lights), you say, poets do not ‘fit’ (Modern Tower). This inability to fit or feel at home and sheltered, is typical for Desperadoes. They are the ill-loved. I think you are one of them. Your Hotel Maimonides, 2 very much resembles Ruth Fainlight’s The English Country Cottage. You write:
Why are my dreams disturbed
by crossing borders, hiding, stories
of angry peasants...
I have lived in a rare island of peace
As a last question: what race, religion, group of poets and type of poetry do you belong to?
EF. I think the emphasis of my Hotel Maimonides is VERY different from Fainlight, who is trying to imagine her own fitting in otherwise.
I am a British poet, of Russian Jewish origin. I belong to my family, and to a group of good friends, some novelists, some poets, who live as it happens on several continents as well as locally in NW London.
February 13, 2005
The Dilemma of Assimilation
Interview with ELAINE FEINSTEIN, British poet, novelist, literary critic and translator.
Published in Semnal, 116/April 2006, Toronto, pp. 28-29
© Lidia Vianu
This remarkable gathering of new work by senior British poets has been some months in the planning, but it seems appropriate to publish the poems over the weekend when we celebrate Mother's Day (though Father's Day would have been equally apt). "When I am old, I shall wear purple," wrote Jenny Joseph in "Warning", once identified as the nation's favourite postwar poem, and her beautiful but less well-known "Lullaby" is reproduced here. Roger McGough – perhaps the nation's favourite poet – revisits his own confidently youthful "Let Me Die a Youngman's Death" 40 years older and wiser. And poets we have all grown up with – Dannie Abse, Peter Porter, Roy Fisher, Elaine Feinstein, Ruth Fainlight – speak here as freshly as ever, not least Gillian Clarke, whose career was crowned recently when she was appointed national poet of Wales. The Scottish makar, Edwin Morgan, is absent because of illness, but I urge readers to make sure they own a copy of his Collected Poems, published by Carcanet. The Caribbean poet James Berry, too, would have been present but for bad health. Seek out his anthology News for Babylon (Chatto).
All of these poets have helped to define the nature of poetry in this country and are responsible for the rich diversity that now flourishes here. They may be contrasting poets – Porter and McGough at opposite ends of the spectrum – but collectively and individually they have made a difference. Some are charismatic performers of their own work – Abse, in particular, has helped to make the poetry reading a sparkling entertainment without ever compromising his art. Fisher, along with poets such as Michael Horovitz and Christopher Logue, has worked with poetry and jazz. McGough and the other Liverpool poets drew huge audiences. Poets who came after these world-class performers had to raise their game, and audiences who attend readings in their hundreds now will never have encountered a poet mumbling and shuffling next to a glass of water before fleeing back to his university with the cheque.
Porter, whose Better Than God was shortlisted for last year's Forward prize, has spent a lifetime making the difficult dazzle on the page. Fleur Adcock is one of the most formally skilled poets of our time and, along with Feinstein, Fainlight and Anne Stevenson, provided a role model for women poets at a time when sexism and tokenism were nastily predominant. Clarke is a tireless evangelist for poetry and founded Ty Newydd, the Welsh writers' centre, one of the most idyllic places in the UK for studying poetry in week-long courses. Anthony Thwaite and Alan Brownjohn share her sense of altruism, sitting on committees that give awards or support to much younger poets. Linda Chase runs the flourishing Poetry School in Manchester. Maureen Duffy, well known as a novelist, has always kept poetry close to the centre of her writing life. To see Nina Cassian perform her poetry is awe-inspiring. Gerda Mayer and Lotte Kramer are fine poets who should be better known.
I invited the poets here to write, in any way they chose, about ageing. Our society, I believe, is turning gradually away from its obsession with "yoof" and "slebs". We are beginning to realise that we face, at the very least, an uncertain future, one in which wisdom and experience – and respect – will need to be accorded a more important role. A good place to start is to read and listen to some of our most distinguished poets and, through them, to assert the importance of poetry in our culture. As poet laureate, it is a privilege to say to these poets, on behalf of their readers and the poets who follow on from them, a loud thank you.
Listen to a selection of the poets reading their poems
The Old Gods
By Dannie Abse
Listen to Dannie Abse reading "The Old Gods"
The gods, old as night, don't trouble us.
Poor weeping Venus! Her pubic hairs are grey,
and her magic love girdle has lost its spring.
Neptune wonders where he put his trident.
Mars is gaga – illusory vultures on the wing.
Pluto exhumed, blinks. My kind of world, he thinks.
Kidnapping and rape, like my Front Page exploits
adroitly brutal – but he looks out of sorts when
other unmanned gods shake their heads tut tut,
respond boastingly, boringly anecdotal.
Diana has done a bunk, fearing astronauts.
Saturn, Time on his hands, stares at nothing and
nothing stares back. Glum Bacchus talks ad nauseam
of cirrhosis and small bald Cupid, fiddling
with arrows, can't recall which side the heart is.
All the old gods have become enfeebled,
mere playthings for poets. Few, doze or daft,
frolic on Parnassian clover. True, sometimes
summer light dies in a room – but only
a bearded profile in a cloud floats over.
Born in 1923 and brought up in Cardiff, Abse has published 14 books of poetry; much of his work draws on his Welsh roots and Jewish inheritance. His most recent collection is New Selected Poems 1949-2009.
By Fleur Adcock
Listen to Fleur Adcock reading "Mrs Baldwin"
And then there's the one about the old woman
who very apologetically asks the way
to Church Lane, adding "I ought to know:
I've lived there since the war". So you go with her.
This comes with variations, usually leading
(via a list of demented ancestors)
to calculations of how much time you've got
before you're asking the way to your own house.
But it's not so often that you find the one
about how, whenever you hear of someone
diagnosed with cancer, you have to hide
that muffled pang that clutched you, at fifteen,
when you saw Pauline Edwards holding hands
with the boy from the Social Club you'd always
Born in 1934 in New Zealand, Adcock spent part of her childhood in Britain, where she has lived since 1963. She is the author of 10 books of poetry; a collection, Poems 1960-2000, was published in 2000.
What I Regret
By Nina Cassian
. . . never having heard the voice of the Dodo bird . . .
. . . never having smelled the Japanese cherry trees . . .
. . . never having punished the lovers and friends that
deserted me . . .
. . . never having asked for honours that I deserved . . .
. . . never having composed a Mozart sonata . . .
. . . never having realised that I'd live long enough to
regret all the above . . .
. . . and much, much more . . .
Born in 1924, Cassian is a Romanian poet, composer, journalist, film critic and translator. She has published more than 50 books of her own poetry. Having fled the Ceausescu regime, she was granted asylum in the US and now lives in New York.
By Linda Chase
Listen to Linda Chase reading "Old Flame"
He turns my hand in his hand
as if to catch the light,
separating my fingers
to see my rings, one by one.
Questions and answers follow –
country, stones, when, from whom
and then my other hand
because this ritual has been
going on for fifty years
and there are no surprises,
as he counts the parts of me
and the decorations I choose.
But today I wear a bracelet
he has never seen before,
knowing that it's to his taste,
that it will spark new attention
beyond his routine inspection.
Between the larger stones,
sit dashes of orange abalone,
keeping spaces in between
irregular chunks of turquoise.
He fingers them around my wrist
and I'm a girl again, fluttering
through her jewellery and her life.
Chase, born in 1941, is an American poet, living in Manchester, where she set up the Poetry School. The Wedding Spy and Extended Family are published by Carcanet; a new collection is due in autumn 2011.
Blue Hydrangeas, September
By Gillian Clarke
You bring them in, a trug of thundercloud,
neglected in long grass and the sulk
of a wet summer. Now a weight of wet silk
in my arms like her blue dress, a load
of night-inks shaken from their hair –
her hair a flame, a shadow against light
as long ago she leaned to kiss goodnight
when downstairs was a bright elsewhere
like a lost bush of blue hydrangeas.
You found them, lovely, silky, dangerous,
their lapis lazulis, their indigoes
tide-marked and freckled with the rose
of death, beautiful in decline.
I touch my mother's skin. Touch mine.
Born 1937 in Cardiff, Clarke is a poet, playwright, editor and translator. Her most recent book is At the Source (2008). She is the national poet of Wales and lives on a smallholding in Ceredigion.
"That time of year thou mayst in me behold ..."
By Maureen Duffy
Listen to Maureen Duffy reading "That time of year thou mayst in me behold ... "
Poets don't grow old gracefully:
recall old lusts with Hardy
or clamour like Yeats for new.
"How are you?" people ask them, meaning
"Goodness, you're still alive."
"Are you still writing?" signals
"If so, you're quite forgotten.
I haven't seen any reviews,"
and "Aren't you going gently yet
into your good night?"
Gower, his loins frozen by Venus,
piped of a king and his bounty of wine.
Did he who'd sung of every turn and twist
of love regret the arrow's sting he'd begged
Love's priest to tear from his heart
as he lay apart from his chaste wife?
Merlin the magus, besotted in old age
entombed in the rock by Nimue for his lust
must have been a poet too.
How else could he have cast such spells?
When David was old they brought him a virgin
hoping for a new Song of Solomon.
Help us all then Lady, Sappho's own goddess,
to sing your song until the last bittersweet note.
Born in 1933, Duffy, a poet, playwright and novelist, has published dozens of books, including five volumes of poetry.
By Ruth Fainlight
Listen to Ruth Fainlight reading "Ageing"
Since early middle-age
(say around forty)
I've been writing about ageing,
poems in many registers:
fearful, enraged or accepting
as I moved through the decades.
Now that I'm really old
there seems little left to say.
Pointless to bewail
the decline, bodily and mental;
not to me only but everyone,
and ridiculous to celebrate
the wisdom supposedly gained
simply by staying alive.
– Nevertheless, to have faith
that you'll be adored as an ancient
might make it all worthwhile.
Ageing means smiling at babies
in their pushchairs and strollers
(wondering if I look as crazy
as Virginia or Algernon –
though I don't plan to bite!)
Realising I'm smiling at strangers.
It means no more roller-skating.
That used to be my favourite
sport, after school, every day:
to strap on my skates,
spin one full circle in place,
then swoop down the hill and away.
When I saw that young girl on her blades,
wind in her hair, sun on her face,
like a magazine illustration
from childhood days, racing
her boyfriend along the pavement:
– then I understood ageing.
Fainlight, who was born in New York in 1931, is a poet, short-story writer and translator. She has lived in England since the age of 15. Her most recent book is Moon Wheels (2006).
By Elaine Feinstein
Listen to Elaine Feinstein reading "Long Life"
Late Summer. Sunshine. The eucalyptus tree.
It is a fortune beyond any deserving
to be still here, with no more than everyday worries,
placidly arranging lines of poetry.
I consider a stick of cinammon
bound in raffia, finches
in the grass, and a stubby bush
which this year mothered a lemon.
These days I speak less of death
than the mysteries of survival. I am
no longer lonely, not yet frail, and
after surgery, recognise each breath
as a miracle. My generation may not be
nimble but, forgive us,
we'd like to hold on, stubbornly
content – even while ageing.
Born in 1930 in Lancashire, Feinstein has worked as an editor, a university lecturer and a journalist. As well as 10 collections of poetry, she has written 14 novels, five biographies, short stories and TV and radio plays.
On Hearing I'd Outlived My Son the Linguist
By Roy Fisher
Two days since I heard you were gone
suddenly in your forties and with me still not quite
and hour by hour today with no whole word all
the emptied patterns of your talk come crowding
into my brain for shelter:
bustling, warm, exact. You'd be interested.
A British poet and jazz pianist, Fisher, born in 1930, has published more than 30 books of poetry. Poems 1955-1987 came out in 1988.
By Jenny Joseph
Only when we are in each other's arms
Babies or lovers or the very ill
Are we content not to reach over the side;
To lie still.
To stay in the time we've settled in, that we've
Like a gourd of its meat,
And not, like a sampling fly, as soon as landed
Start to our feet,
Pulling one box on another, Ossa on Pelion;
Getting the moment, only to strain away
And look each day for what each next day brings us:
Yet another day;
Pleased with the infant's health and the strength of
For the child it will grow to,
The house perfected, ready and swept, for the new
Abode we go to,
The town in order and settled down for the night
The sooner for the next day to be over,
The affair pushed straight away to its limit, to leave
and notch up
Lie still, then, babies or lovers or the frail old who
In dreams we carry
Seeking a place of rest beyond the crowds
That claim and harry.
We are trying to reach that island for the festive
Where our love will stay –
Waylaid, prevented, we wake as that vivid country
Mists into day.
Stay on this side of the hill.
Sleep in my arms a bit longer.
This driving on will take you over the top
Beyond recall the sooner.
Born in 1932 in Birmingham, Joseph has written poetry for adults and children, as well as fiction. In 1986 she was awarded the James Tait Black Memorial prize for Persephone.
By Lotte Kramer
She came in muttering to herself.
Old age had not destroyed
Her height and bearing.
"You walked across? Such a rough day."
The waitress in her chat
Showed slight concern.
"Roast beef today and apple-tart."
The plastic turban gone
Her face was naked:
The twist and movement more revealed,
Her bones, a brittle grate, with
Beauty burnt away.
Are these the only words each day,
The only other hands
Holding a plate?
And as the radio crackled jazz
her unheard, gutted mouth
Was never still.
Born in 1923, Kramer left Mainz in 1939 on one of the last Kindertransport trains. Her books include Heimweh-Homesick and Family Arrivals.
Lieselott Among the Blackberries
By Gerda Mayer
Caught on September's
her hands reach out
for the sweet dark fruit;
the blackberry spell.
"Hurry up, Lieselott,
it is late." (Plenty
of time! She
feigns deaf and dawdles.)
Old woman tasting
the last of the fruit,
in sunny oblivion,
in a still brightness.
Like Kramer, Mayer, born in 1927 in Czechoslovakia, was a Kindertransport child. Her books include Prague Winter.
Not for Me a Youngman's Death
By Roger McGough
Not for me a youngman's death
Not a car crash, whiplash
John Doe, DOA at A&E kind of death.
Not a gun in hand, in a far off land
IED at the roadside death
Not a slow-fade, razor blade
bloodbath in the bath, death.
Jump under a train, Kurt Cobain
bullet in the brain, death
Not a horse-riding paragliding
mountain climbing fall, death.
Motorcycle into an old stone wall
you know the kind of death, death
My nights are rarely unruly. My days
of allnight parties are over, well and truly.
No mistresses no red sports cars
no shady deals no gangland bars
no drugs no fags no rock'n'roll
Time alone has taken its toll
Not for me a youngman's death
Not a domestic brawl, blood in the hall
knife in the chest, death.
Not a drunken binge, dirty syringe
"What a waste of a life" death.
McGough, born in 1937, made his name as one of the "Liverpool poets" in The Mersey Sound (1967). He presents Radio 4's Poetry Please.
Random Ageist Verses
By Peter Porter
Here is the body fearfully beautiful
The pushy you of just nineteen –
How could you know, in shin or skull,
What's dead already in the sheen?
Immersed in time, we question time
And ask for commentators' rights.
The amoeba has a taste for slime
Among its range of appetites.
It's always too early to die – Oh, yuss!
Says Churchill, dew-lapped TV hound
To The Man on the Clapham Omnibus –
The ice-cap's melting; seek high ground!
The relief of growing old – it's easy
To take long views and shun the short.
Consult the frescoes in Assisi:
Ignore the Kinsey and the Hite Report.
Like Auden, I have always felt
The youngest person in the room.
His too too solid flesh might melt
And show him God. I'll need a tomb.
"Senex Scintillans" – we're bright
As glazing on a Peking Duck.
The Elderly insist Insight
Is not worth much compared to Luck.
Hers is a most convincing face,
"Col tempo" lightly in her hand –
Age lived-through need show no trace
Of lines time likes to draw in sand.
Who is this young architect
At work on death's blank inventory,
Correcting everything correct?
It is Thomas Hardy, OM, he!
"Gone is all my strength and guile,
Old and powerless am I."
So, Joseph Haydn – all the while
Comes "Laus Deo" in reply.
The greyness of the sky is streaked
Along its width with shades of red;
The pity of the world has leaked
But who are these whose hands have bled?
Born in 1929 in Brisbane. Porter's collections have won a host of prizes.
by Anne Stevenson
Memory, intimate camera, inward eye,
Open your store, unlock your silicon
And let my name's lost surfaces file by.
What password shall I type to turn you on?
Is this the girl who bicycled to school
A cello balanced on her handlebars?
Shy, but agog for love, she played the fool
And hid her poems in the dark of drawers.
First love of music bred a love of art,
Then art a love of actors and their plays,
Then actors love of acting out a part,
Until she'd try on anything for praise.
Siphoned to England, she embraced her dream,
With Mr Darcy camped in Hammersmith,
Bathed in a kitchen tub behind a screen,
Pretending love was true and life a myth.
Waking with a baby on her hip,
Yeats in her shopping basket, here she is,
Thin as a blade and angry as a whip,
Weighing her gift against her selfishness.
Three husbands later, here she is again,
Opposed to her own defiance, breaking rules.
Not mad, not micro-waved American,
She trips on sense, and falls between two stools,
Finding herself at sixty on the floor,
With childhood's sober, under-table view
Of how in time love matters more and more.
Given a creeping deadline, what to do?
Look at the way her wild pretensions end.
One word, its vast forgiving coverage,
Validates all her efforts to defend
Every excuse she makes, and warms with age.
Stevenson, is an American writer and poet, born in 1933. She has lived in Britain for over 40 years and is the author of more than a dozen volumes of poetry, books of essays and literary criticism, a biography of Sylvia Plath and two studies of Elizabeth Bishop.
By Anthony Thwaite
Listen to Anthony Thwaite reading "Silence"
This silence, with you away –
These silences, day after day –
Silence itself, pure and cold and grey –
Once I welcomed it, heard
Nothing but peace, even a bird
Disturbing it. Without a word
Silence welcomed me, took
Me in friendliness, shook
Melancholy out, thrust a book
Into my hands, so that I read
Hungrily of what lay ahead,
Not thinking of the dead.
Silence lies along the bone,
Grey, cold as a stone.
Thwaite, born in 1930, has published 15 volumes of poetry. He has been a publisher, the literary editor of the Listener and the New Statesman, and is an executor of the estate of Philip Larkin. He has worked for BBC Radio, and from 1973-85 was editor of Encounter. He is co-editor of The Penguin Book of Japanese Verse.
• This article was amended on 24 March 2010 to correct the inadvertent transposition of a verse by Peter Porter on to Roger McGough's poem