From Encyclopaedia of Trees—a collection of 19 poems on a theme of time and memory, set to music.
In Life After Life, Kate Atkinson takes familiar themes of family and history and tells the many lives of Ursula Todd.
The novel begins at a stutter—how much can you write about a life that ends at the moment of its birth? The chapters expand as Ursula’s lives get longer and longer. This pulled me in right from the start—I was intrigued by these short, cryptic lives and abrupt deaths, all the while deepening the characters of Ursula and her family.
Ursula dies a lot. I did wonder if life is so precarious that it takes so many attempts to even make it to middle age. Fortunately, Atkinson doesn’t hit the reset button each time and take us back to her birth—most of Ursula’s lives start a couple of steps before her previous death and her new choices take her along a different path. This gave me the impression of the author having fun with her own plot choices and instead of planning one narrative and writing it from start to finish, she imagined ‘what if’ at different stages of the story and then incorporated all of these branches into the novel.
But these life resets (which the writer hints are partially recognised by Ursula—a sort of reincarnation déja vu) are not narcissistic methods of getting Ursula to a better life: they are variants of lives she would have had if she’d turned left instead of right. Despite her many lives, I never stopped rooting for her even though many of her choices in her previous lives were questionable—she, of course, never has the benefit of hindsight to correct her mistakes. The only time this didn’t quite work for me was when Ursula, working in Germany as an English teacher, makes friends with Eva Braun and ends up spending time at Hitler’s alpine hideout, Berchtesgaden. Despite this unbelievable set up, I did still find myself yelling at the curiously innocent and innocuous Braun—knowing, like everybody reading the book (but nobody in it) about her historical fate.
And the attention to detail… I read an interview with Atkinson in which she described the scale of historical research that went into Life After Life. Each sentence, especially in the wartime chapters, just drips with precise description that puts you right there. And isn’t that a hallmark of a great writer to be able to do that?
I recently learnt what commonplace books are and realised that I have been keeping them since I was a teenager. I’d always assumed that the notebooks I filled were just aborted journals, filled with random pieces of text. But no, they are a thing with a long history of famous scribbles, doodles, random thoughts and profundities.
Commonplace books are personal collections of words but they’re not quite journals. They are gradually filled with spontaneous inspiration and as such are rarely on a single topic. Historically, people kept them to jot down ideas: Leonardo da Vinci’s called his a ‘… collection without order, which I have copied here, hoping to arrange them later…’
For centuries, people have filled theirs with quotes, sudden flashes of inspiration, recipes, sayings and proverbs, funny observations. Lewis Carroll and John Milton’s are famous examples. Thomas Jefferson kept one for his legal ideas and one for his literary and philosophical readings.
Commonplace books can be filled with whatever piques your interest. They may have fallen out of fashion with the arrival of the internet and online documents (think note-taking apps like Evernote and OneNote) but I still use them for many reasons. One big reason is copying sentences or paragraphs from novels that I read (I filled an entire one with extracts from Proust); there is something about the physical action of copying a perfect passage using pen and paper that makes it more profound and memorable.
I also fill my commonplace books with quotes, titles for poems or songs, fragments of poems that pop into my head and need to be recorded and hopefully used later, observations I’ve made, general stuff that’s on my mind but too short to want to flesh out into a journal entry.
Now I think about it, they’re a little bit like a Twitter account made physical, where instead of retweeting something interesting you found, you pull out your dog-eared commonplace book and scribble it down. Which leads to an important point about commonplace books—tweets may disappear down a timeline, never to be seen again, but whatever goes in your notebook needs to be reviewed later and trawled for good ideas.
I don’t think I’ll ever stop filling in my commonplace books, especially now I know what they’re called…
When I was a teenager, people who were much older than me would tell me how the songs of Bob Dylan were poetry set to music. This annoyed me no end—I couldn’t see the genius in the few words of his that I could make out and, as I prided myself on already loving music with poetic lyrics, found it quite offensive that this old dude was still considered a paragon of the written word (sung badly). Many years later, I did indeed go through a ‘Dylan’ phase and eventually got it, coming to love many of his lyrics which I now accept to be, well, genius.
What makes a lyric more poetry than simply a vocal accompaniment to music and giving the singer something to do so he doesn’t have to fill the song with contemplative dance? A few rules:
• No clichés. This goes for a difference between good and bad poetry too.
• Words that fit the music, that inhabit the same mood. (Imagine the lyrics to Barbiegirl sung to the tune of As I Sat Sadly By Her Side by Nick Cave. Actually, that would be pretty interesting…)
• Lyrics that are about something concrete. Just like good poems, a great lyric needs to be about something and be cohesive in its delivery.
• Sung with passion, knowing the words so well that the right words are stressed at the right moments. Note, passion is not the same as vocal talent. (See Bob Dylan again.)
• As good on the written page as through your speakers.
Here are a few of my favourite lyrics from bands and artists (artist in the truest sense of the word) that I know. They are perfect lyrics and, if you pull them out and read them without knowing they are part of a song, stand up in their own right on the page.
There She Goes, My Beautiful World, by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds
‘I look at you and you look at me and
Deep in our hearts babe we know it
That you weren’t much of a muse
But then I weren’t much of a poet.’
Nick Cave’s entire oeuvre is a vast collection of beautiful words so picking just one song is difficult.
In There She Goes, My Beautiful World, Cave tackles the bane of every writer that has ever lived— writers’ block. The lyric starts with a list of natural features (names of trees, flowers) trying to summon beauty back onto the page. In the second and third verses he gives a list of historical figures who created despite their circumstances; it’s like he is trying to shame himself into writing something, anything.
4st 7lb, by Manic Street Preachers
‘I want to walk in the snow and not leave a footprint.’
Any lyric from their flawless 1994 album, The Holy Bible would do. For me, it is the zenith of poetry set to music. 4st 7lb refers to what, at the time, was considered the absolute cut off point for someone suffering from anorexia; any less than this weight and you were gone. The song details in excruciating detail the process of anorexia, with a kind of count down of weights as the first person anorexic gradually watches herself disappear.
Ys, by Joanna Newsom
‘While the river was twisting and braiding, the bait bobbed
And the string sobbed, as it cut through the hustling breeze.’
An entire album of lyrical delight. The music is so gorgeous—the complex harp melodies, the lush orchestrations by Van Dyke Parks—that if you heard it without the vocal and not knowing each song had words attached, you would think it was the greatest thing ever.
But that’s only half of it! Newsom’s words are as expertly rendered as the musical arrangements themselves. Her focus on the natural world, her turns of phrase that not once drift towards cliché despite the sheer length of each song.
A Lady of a Certain Age, by The Divine Comedy
‘You chased the sun around the Cote d’Azur
Until the light of youth became obscured.’
Although the weight of their back catalogue falls on the side of whimsy and wry humour, every so often (I think about 3 songs per album, but I haven’t tested that with science) band leader Neil Hannon creates something so riveting and moving that it floors you.
This ballad tells the story of an ageing heiress and socialite, telling strangers her life story with all the wonderful and elegant people she has met. Her life has certainly seemed blessed, but as the song progresses Hannon throws in the occasional hint that things weren’t as good as she remembered them. Now, an old lady, she pines for a young, handsome man to comment on her youthful looks, with the heartbreaking line: ‘“You wouldn’t think that I was seventy.” And he’d say, “no, you couldn’t be.”’
Dark Eyes, by Bob Dylan
‘I live in another world
Where life and death are memorised.’
My favourite Dylan lyric comes from arguably his worst album: Dark Eyes, from the much-derided Empire Burlesque. Trust me though, it’s worth wading through the mire for this, the last song on the album.
Bob strips everything back and it’s 1963 again; a children’s song in its simplicity. But the words, oh the words, that posit these fantastic and often dark images in your mind that linger long after you’ve heard/read them.
This was written more than a thousand years back in the Tang dynasty by a eunuch called Liu Zhen Liang. It’s not the greatest poem ever written about tea (it reads a bit like the side-effects warning on a modern box of medicine) but it has its moments and gives an insight into why tea became so popular in China at that time. (Translation by myself.)
The Ten Virtues of Tea
Tea disperses your gloomy mood
Tea drives away sleep
Tea fosters vitality
Tea casts away illness
Tea is the beginning of courtesy and humanity
Tea represents respect
Tea increases sophistication
Tea nurtures your body
Tea helps you follow the Tao
Tea refines your ideals
It’s four years since the Syrian archaeologist Khaled Al-Asaad was murdered for refusing to give away the location of antiquities in Palmyra as Daesh tore down the ancient city.
I wrote this poem then, and the song which you can listen to below.
At what point can one say:
‘Preservation is complete’?
which pitted surface smoothed?
which sand-filled tomb exhumed?
at a closed junction
between life and death
man and bird wrestle
above traffic lights. You are
no Roman house arrest
in exchange for a life’s
surrendered empire. And so
finally you kneel,
a final thought for
chipped faces off sarcophagi
your final restoration
Digging is the first poem from the very first collection (Death of a Naturalist) by one of my favourite poets—Seamus Heaney. This is Heaney’s ars poetica – his reason for writing poetry. Not many poets start their careers with this type of poem, and here Heaney passionately tells us why he must be a poet. Digging is a call to arms from and to the young Heaney; it is respectful for tradition but without permitting tradition to choose the course of his life.
The first two lines of Digging, though short, are brilliant: ‘The squat pen..’ suggests he’s ready to go, to attack his life’s work. ‘Snug as a gun’ with the juxtaposition of the two seemingly different words makes the reader pull up and re-read before going any further.
Why a gun? Perhaps Heaney is saying that the pen has power to him; the snugness is his way of saying it fits him perfectly, unlike the tool of his antecedents, the spade, which we discover fitted them equally well in later stanzas. The poem’s first two stanzas rhyme at the end of each line, but Heaney doesn’t continue this through the rest of the poem. His meter changes and we are in free verse territory; this has the effect of jolting the reader, making him stop and start again, thrusting the poem’s language and meaning into the foreground.
Throughout the poem Heaney writes with short, consonantal words like slap, cuts, nicking, sods and lug—all sharp, coarse and cutting to the ears and, not coincidentally, all from the Germanic side of the english language’s family tree. The language of the poem is earthy and simple and doesn’t jar with the subject matter, particularly when Heaney is describing his grandfather’s work. (‘The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap of soggy peat.’)
The rhythm of his Father and Grandfather’s spades is beat with alliteration (‘Spade sinks’, ‘gravelly ground’, ‘tall tops’) and assonance, particularly with the vowel sound in ‘snug’ which thuds across the entire the poem. (eg cut, gun, thumb, lug, rump.)
Towards the end of the poem, Heaney writes: ‘But I’ve no spade to follow men like them’. This is an interesting line—he obviously could have a spade and continue the family tradition but has chosen a different direction, a different craft; one that is more suited to the person that he is.
Yang Wan Li was a Chinese official and Zen Buddhist in the 12th century. It’s said he wrote over 20,000 poems (of which, around 4000 survive). This poem was written in Hangzhou, a city I used to live in many moons ago and have many fond memories of.
(Note on translating: Most old Chinese poems don’t have standard translations, so there is no ‘fixed’ version in English)
Seeing off Lin Zi Fang from Jingci Temple at Dawn
At last, the West Lake in June
Its grand, incomparable view
Leaves reach skyward, their endless green
Lotus reflect different shades of red
Most of my favourite poets are those that have a story behind them—not just technically skilful writers, but those that ‘have lived’. John Berryman certainly falls into this category with his backstory of suicide, loss, alcoholism, depression and more suicide.
His most famous work is the sequence of 385 three-stanza poems called Dream Songs. In #14 we meet the protagonist of many of these poems, Henry. Henry is semi-autobiographical but Berryman uses him, through his use of the first, second and third person, as a way of exploring the extreme parts of a life (and death)—the effect is a kind of poetic hall of mirrors which is simultaneously exhilarating and confusing.
Berryman’s choice of language in Dream Songs is curious too—flirting between archaic and slang—the combination of this and the identity-crisis of Henry makes the poems feel like we are witnessing a one-man stage routine.
The focus of #14 is boredom, and its key line comes between the first and second stanzas, which we can all remember our parents saying a version of: ‘Ever to confess you’re bored means you have no inner resources.’
But Berryman fully accepts this diagnosis – he is bored, really bored. How much is Henry, how much is himself, how much is he bored of Henry? (Presumably not much as he’s got most of his Dream Songs left to write.) Interestingly, he compares Henry to Achilles whose sulky and petulant demeanour in The Iliad reinforces the adolescent in us that we return too when faced with a period of boredom.
The language of the poem reinforces his boredom too—Berryman doesn’t consult his thesaurus for synonyms of ‘bored’—he rams home the message by using the word a good seven times. Other words are repeated too, particularly at the end of lines which gives the poem a rhythm, albeit one that emphasises the monotony he is describing.
It’s fair to say that Don Paterson is a modern master of the sonnet; he’s experimented with them in his previous works (especially in Landing Light) and even written two books on the subject.
In 40 Sonnets, Paterson continues to use the Petrarchan and Shakespearean forms of the sonnet masterfully but also continues his evolution, and in some of these poems, revolution of the form. As he wrote himself, the sonnet is ‘one of the most characteristic shapes human thought can take’.
The poems range from the philosophical The Air to the sardonic and sarcastic To Dundee City Council in which he lashes out at local council policy and bureacracy. There is also a heavy tenderness, particularly in the poem Mercies in which he details the putting down of his pet dog. (That sounds like a dreadful idea for a poem, but somehow Paterson avoids it becoming sentimental and glib.)
Then we get to the odd sonnets in this collection. The experimental Shutter keeps to the sonnet’s 14 lines but each line only contains a word or two, a phrase, allowing the reader to mentally fill in the gaps. Incantation is a very modern sonnet about a stunted, circular conversation with a cold caller. The most difficult poem to read in this collection is Séance, with its unreadable ‘unwords’ that are spat across the sonnet. Finally, The Version is a prose poem that begs the question—what exactly is a sonnet if this is one too?
On the way back home from the camp/school, a scene from Miracles of Life came back to me; I say ‘came back to me’ but in truth, it was such a harsh and defining moment in Ballard’s mythology that it was never far away from thought during my search.
After the war ended and the Japanese waited for the Americans to arrive in Shanghai, Ballard would leave the camp and walk back into Shanghai, especially to see what had become of his family home. One such time as he was walking along the railway track he came to a guard house where he witnessed the torture and (he expected) death of a Chinese man who had been tied to a chair by a Japanese soldier outside, despite the war being over. I won’t re-write the whole scene here but I had an urge to find where that true experience had happened.
I thought about the railway line I’d been along on my way out to the camp – that was the original Shanghai-Hangzhou line which the young Ballard had walked along in the days after the war.
So I retraced my steps and went back to the walled-off segment of track. At one end near the old airport terminal was an old building standing right by the track; it had a platform in front of it and I imagined the Chinese man seated and tied up, in despair and knowing his life was about to end, as a young white boy stared and slowly walked by, too scared to do anything. Could it have been right there? Who knows, but it was a reminder of another, brutal, terrifying world that Shanghai had once been, and in my own interpretation of events decades before and involving people I had never even met, this was the spot.
As I cycled back past Longhua temple and to Xujiahui an air-raid siren started whirring. It was only when I got back home that I found out it was the anniversary of the end of the war—when Japan finally surrendered and Ballard would soon leave war-torn Shanghai behind and move to an even more alien land—England—and the great writer he would become, inevitably affected by the first 15 years of his life in Shanghai.
One September morning many years ago I got up early and cycled away from my flat in search of JG Ballard’s childhood.
I was armed with a 1930s map of Shanghai as well as a modern version. I’d watched a BBC documentary following Ballard back to Shanghai in the early nineties the day before and had watched Empire of The Sun again so it would be fresh in my mind.
The streets were fairly empty as I pedalled towards my first goal—Longhua Temple, which was just the other side of Xujiahui from where I lived. During Ballard’s internment Longhua Temple’s pagoda had been converted into a flak tower, each of its levels holding anti-aircraft guns. It was well signposted and simple to find as the site now also holds the Longhua Martyrs Memorial, commemorating the Chinese resistance of Japanese occupation. The pagoda itself had been moved and rebuilt a good kilometre from its original position which to me negated its significance. An entire book could be written on the subject of China’s historical memory, but suffice it to say at this moment—if something old or ancient is bulldozed and even forgotten about, all that needs to be done is for it to be rebuilt with modern means and materials and its historicity is continuous and undeniable: a bit like if Hadrian’s Wall was knocked down and rebuilt from scratch and people said it was nearly 2000 years old…
Nearby the pagoda, I cycled through bare alleyways—everything around had been demolished and lay waiting for developers. I saw a row of makeshift houses and huts offering scooter repairs and recycling (common services in old areas of Shanghai for some reason!) and made my way towards them over the canal. To my surprise they had been positioned on top of railway tracks which were visible between the huts; I followed the line as best as I could make out and came out onto a busy road. In front of me lay the former terminal building for Longhua Airport—its distinctive shape and tower long-since converted into shops.
Longhua Airport will be familiar to readers of Empire of the Sun as the airport where the young Ballard would watch from the camp the Japanese fighters taking off, and where he began to dream of flying himself. When I first went there, the airport runway was blocked off and being used as a place for coaches to park; in the years since I’ve seen it completely developed with office buildings and shopping centres being built over it. Today, names like Airport West Rd and the distinctive shape of the terminal are the only indication that an airport was ever there.
I continued following the partially submerged train tracks past the terminal building and along Longheng Rd. From here, the tracks were completely sealed off. I could see the tracks over the wall which were overgrown and rusted—it must have been a long time since they’d been used. At the end of the road the tracks went over a closed bridge across the busy Longwu Rd—on the opposite side someone had hung their washing across the unused train line. But I didn’t want to continue exploring the tracks—that was for later in the story—that was for after the war. I turned left onto Longwu Rd and went in the direction I thought the POW camp would be.
I don’t why I had gone out so unprepared—perhaps I wanted the feeling of discovering something for the first time—but in the case of the camp where Ballard had spent most of the war and that served as a backdrop to the events of Empire of The Sun, I knew its approximate location (past the airport) and that it had been returned to its original function as a school. In my mind I had the image of the school as it appeared in the BBC documentary 20 years earlier. The 1930s map I had of Shanghai didn’t go this far out so I had no idea how long I’d be cycling around before (if ever) I found it.
I cycled past Shanghai Botanical Garden which was one landmark on my route and which told me I was at least going in the right direction. A few turns, wrong turns, u-turns and then I saw it—the gates of Shanghai Middle School with its conifer-lined avenue leading to the familiar image of the old camp headquarters. In front, the flower bed that flew the Japanese flag was still there (minus the flag, of course).
Being a Sunday, the school was closed; not that the guard at the gate would have let me in anyway. I cycled along the perimeter and peered in where I could, imagining the young Ballard being on this spot more than 60 years ago…