Archive for the Poetry Category

Dust, by Phyllis King

Posted in Poetry with tags , , on May 19, 2015 by telescoper

I do not know what dust is.
I do not know where it comes from.
I only know that it settles on things.
I cannot see it in the air or watch it fall.
Sometimes I’m home all day
But I never see it sliding about looking for a place to rest when my back is turned.
Does it wait ’til I go out?
Or does it happen in the night when I go to sleep?
Dust is not fussy about the places it chooses
Though it seems to prefer still objects.
Sometimes, out of kindness, I let it lie for weeks.
On some places it will lie forever
However, dust holds no grudges and once removed
It will always return in a friendly way.

by Phyllis April King

Benjamin Appl and James Baillieu

Posted in History, Music, Poetry with tags , , , , , , , , , on May 16, 2015 by telescoper

Yesterday evening I crossed the border from Brighton into the Labour stronghold of Hove (actually), All Saints Church to be precise. The purpose of my mission was to attend a recital of songs by German baritone Benjamin Appl accompanied at the piano by James Baillieu. This was my fourth Brighton Festival event in as many days, but the shows I have attended have been very different so I have no regrets about booking this particular sequence.

This recital was performed in the nave of All Saints Church in a sideways configuration so the musicians were on one side rather than at the end towards the altar. I have never been to this venue before but it’s quite a regular one for musical events. I suppose they use this arrangement for the more intimate kind of music-making, such as the singing of Lieder, so the performers can be as close as possible to the audience.

The programme consisted of songs either from or inspired by Eastern Europe. The concert began with three fairly well known songs by Franz Liszt based on poems by Heinrich Heine but then continued with six Heine settings by Anton Rubinstein (his Op. 32) which I’d never heard before. These songs are direct and uncluttered and I found them rather charming. The first half closed with The Biblical Songs by Antonín Dvořák, his Opus 99. Based on extracts from the Book of Psalms these very touching works were written when the composer heard his father was gravely ill.

After a short interval and a quick glass of overpriced Pinot Grigio, we continued with Six Songs Op. 90 by Robert Schumann, who also provided the finale with his intensely moving Requiem which was written later but subsequently added to the Opus 90 collection. In between these works by Schumann we heard a selection of songs from Terezin (German name Theresienstadt) the site of a concentration camp. These pieces are much lighter than the art songs surrounding them in the programme, but are invested with a deep sense of tragedy by the circumstances in which they were composed and also performed. The song Wiegala, for example, is a lullabye written by Ilse Weber, a Jewish lady who worked for some time as a nurse in Terezin. She sang it for countless children destined for the gas chambers, and when the time came for her and her son to be murdered she sang it for him too as they walked together to their deaths.

As an aside here I thought I would plug a CD of music from Terezin I bought a while ago that features Anne Sofie von Otter singing some of the heartbreaking songs written by the inhabitants of Terezin. It’s highly recommended, though I have to admit I find it hard to listen to it without bursting into tears.

What struck me most about this recital is that the greatest Lieder are often very simple and often very brief. Some of the greatest songs by, for example, Schubert areas simple that only a genius could have written them
I think it’s the focus that gives each its power and the variety within each collection means there’s always something to hold the listener even in a long programme. Yesterday I complained about the limitations of a programme featuring only one voice, yet this one also featured only one voice but was an unqualified success. The difference, I think, is that these songs were meant to be performed the way we heard them last night…

I really enjoyed this concert. Benjamin Appl has a wonderful baritone voice, and very few vocal mannerisms or affectations. He just lets the music do its stuff. It was an amazingly mature performance for such a young man.I shouldn’t forget the flawless accompaniment provided by James Baillieu either.

Apparently Benjamin Appl was the last private pupil of the late Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. That provides me with an excuse to include this version of the song Morgen! (Tomorrow!) Opus 27(4) by Richard Strauss, which was performed last night as an upbeat encore to an evening of intensely emotional music.

Und morgen wird die Sonne wieder scheinen
und auf dem Wege, den ich gehen werde,
wird uns, die Glücklichen sie wieder einen
inmitten dieser sonnenatmenden Erde…
und zu dem Strand, dem weiten, wogenblauen,
werden wir still und langsam niedersteigen,
stumm werden wir uns in die Augen schauen,
und auf uns sinkt des Glückes stumme Schweigen..

The first line translates as “And tomorrow the Sun will shine again…” Here is Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau singing it:


The Beautiful Cosmos of Ivor Cutler

Posted in Music, Poetry with tags , , , , on May 14, 2015 by telescoper

Now fully in Brighton Festival mode, last night I went to the Theatre Royal for the first night (and indeed the English premiere) of The Beautiful Cosmos of Ivor Cutler, which continues until Saturday at the same venue. The show is a collaboration between Vanishing Point and the National Theatre of Scotland and continues at the Theatre Royal until Sunday (17th May).

If you don’t know who Ivor Cutler was, he was a Scottish poet and songwriter who gained a cult following through his many appearances on BBC Radio programmes, notably with John Peel. I was introduced to him by an undergraduate friend of mine, Richard Allen, himself a Scot, who loved Ivor Cutler’s poetry and had many cassette tapes of performances by the poet in which he either spoke the poems or sang them to a musical accompaniment, often a harmonium. I loved listening to Ivor Cutler’s voice on these recordings, which added an extra dimension of lugubriousness to the whimsical and at times downright bizarrely comic verses. Many of his poems are about the various bizarre ways in which people try (and usually fail) to communicate with each other. Some of these are joyously silly but they also, like the very best jokes,  convey quite profound things about the limitations of language. Here, for example, is Ivor Cutler’s inimitable hymn to the joy of Morse Code:

Little Black Buzzer is one of the pieces included in The Beautiful Cosmos of Ivor Cutler, but the show is far more than a collection of the poet’s work. It’s also an exploration and celebration of the life of one of the great eccentrics, from his impoverished childhood, through his period of critical and popular success, his long relationship with another poet, Phyllis King , and his old age in which he suffered from dementia, arthritis and Parkinson’s disease. Music and poetry, life and death, joy and sadness, comedy and tragedy are all woven together in a fitting tribute to a unique individual who lived an extraordinary life.

I don’t need to describe the production in detail because there’s a video trailer that gives a very accurate idea:

My verdict on The Beautiful Cosmos of Ivor Cutler is that it’s the best thing I’ve seen in a theatre for decades. If you’re in Brighton then get yourself to the Theatre Royal and see this show. You won’t regret it.

P.S. The Beautiful Cosmos of the title comes from this poem, which I have posted before:

You are the centre of your little world
and I am of mine.
No one again we meet for tea
we’re two of a kind.

This is our universe…
cups of tea.
We have a beautiful cosmos,
you and me.
We have a beautiful cosmos.

What do we talk of whenever we meet:
nothing at all.
You sit with a sandwich,
I look at a roll.
Sometimes I open my mouth,
then shut it.

We have a beautiful cosmos,
you and me.
We have a beautiful cosmos.

You are the centre of your little world
and I am of mine.
No one again we meet for tea
we’re two of a kind.

This is our universe…
cups of tea.
We have a beautiful cosmos,
you and me.
We have a beautiful cosmos.

There will come soft rains

Posted in Poetry with tags , , on May 13, 2015 by telescoper

There will come soft rains and the smell of the ground,
And swallows circling with their shimmering sound;

And frogs in the pools, singing at night,
And wild plum trees in tremulous white,

Robins will wear their feathery fire,
Whistling their whims on a low fence-wire;

And not one will know of the war, not one
Will care at last when it is done.

Not one would mind, neither bird nor tree,
If mankind perished utterly;

And Spring herself, when she woke at dawn,
Would scarcely know that we were gone.

by Sara Teasdale (1884-1933)


The Lads in their Hundreds

Posted in Music, Poetry with tags , , , , on May 6, 2015 by telescoper

So last night I had my first experience of this year’s Brighton Festival when I went to the Theatre Royal in Brighton to see a show called The Lads in the Hundreds, performed by a group from Comédie de Picardie which is situated in Amiens, capital of the Somme region of France. The cast for yesterday’s performance consisted of just four people: Tchéky Karyo (actor); Edmund Hastings (tenor); Michael Foyle (violin); and Edward Liddall (piano). The performance consisted of dramatic recitations by Karyo (mostly in French) interspersed with music, mostly settings of English poems by English composers such as Ivor Gurney and George Butterworth, as well as a couple of instrumental numbers including a beautiful pared-down version for piano and violin of The Lark Ascending by Vaughan Williams which  was, apparently, how it was first performed. The title The Lads in their Hundreds is taken from a poem by A.E. Housman which was among those set to music and included in this show.  Young Edmund Hastings performed this and the other songs with a bright clear and very English tenor voice, dressed in the uniform of a British soldier of the period. Overall the poetry and music create a very poignant blend that brings together moving expressions of loss and remembrance for the fallen of the First World War with stark descriptions of the horror and brutality of conflict.

I particularly wanted to see this show because I had studied (and much admired) the British poets of the First World War when I was at school, especially Wilfred Owen, but knew nothing of French war poetry of the same era and was very keen to find out more. Although I haven’t studied French since O-level, I am glad these verses were performed in their original language. Poetry can be translated, of course, but it rarely gains anything in the process and often loses a lot. Despite being at pains to drink French wine before the performance to assist my powers of recall, I did struggle a bit to follow some of the poems with my schoolboy knowledge of French, but that difficulty was far outweighed by the expressive sound of verse that can only be achieved when spoken in the language in which it was conceived. A couple of the poems were performed in English, including one with a musical accompaniment in the form of an arrangement of the beautiful Andante movement from Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony for violin and piano. That combination took me completely by surprise and had me at the brink of tears.

It’s interesting that the poems echo the savagery and futility of war in much the same way as the poems of Wilfred Owen or Siegfried Sassoon, but the music chosen is quite different in that it draws greatly on English folk music and is consequently quite nostalgic in character. Perhaps the “English Pastoral” style particularly associated with Vaughan Williams was an attempt to cope with the trauma of the First World War by evoking an idyllic representation of the English countryside as a world apart from the horrific realities of the Somme. French poetry and English music together created a whole that was much more than the sum of its parts. It was an evening that was both fascinating and deeply moving and I’m glad I made time during a busy week to attend it.

To end with I thought I’d include the poem I mentioned earlier that was performed to music by Beethoven. The poem is called The Andante and is by Albert-Paul Granier, an officer in the French artillery, whose name was completely unknown to me until yesterday but who wrote poetry which bears comparison with that of any other poet of the Great War. He was killed in action in 1917. To prove that there are exceptions to every rule, this poem is exquisite even in translation (by Ian Higgins):

The rain, endlessly unravelling;
the rain, shovelling at the mud the whole sullen day;
the rain, unendingly sobbing its toneless chords;
and the whispering wind, crumbling the cloud into drizzle . . .

Why, this evening, am I haunted so
by that majestic andante
from the Seventh Symphony?

Its chords, as magnificently simple
as the triumphal arches of the ancients,
hold me in a vast enchantment.

Its harmony is velvet to my soul,
its murmur a caress that soothes
the melancholy as we pick our way
along the bank of this canal.

The rain has never stopped . . .

The mud is all long, snaking rivulets of agate
and clouded onyx, chopped into splashes
with every drawn-out hoof-fall of my horse.

The rain has never stopped, the whole lead-blue day.

The andante
gently eases my resentment
with its divine serenity . . .

Ah, those Sundays, not two years ago —
the Sunday afternoons,
the lamp-lit hall,
the huge orchestra a single mind and spirit
in every flying bow-tip:

The miraculous fluid
a fountain spreading up to the galleries, then
falling like snowflakes onto souls laid bare,
like springtime sunlight through stained glass
on a girl’s communion veil.

The andante,
the andante is gentle, with a touch of sadness,
like an autumn evening over ponds,
or the voix céleste of an organ;
and my chrysalid soul
weaves itself a wonderful cocoon
from this aching blessedness,
on the purple silk weft of the rain.

We have a Beautiful Cosmos

Posted in Music, Poetry with tags , , on April 27, 2015 by telescoper

On the bus coming up to campus just now, I was looking through the Brighton Festival (which starts on 2nd May) and found that there is a show called The Beautiful Cosmos of Ivor Cutler, which is on at the Theatre Royal. As a devout fan of Ivor Cutler I’ll definitely be going, but in the mean time here is the title track (set to video…)

And here be the lyrics:

You are the centre of your little world
and I am of mine.
No one again we meet for tea
we’re two of a kind.

This is our universe…
cups of tea.
We have a beautiful cosmos,
you and me.
We have a beautiful cosmos.

What do we talk of whenever we meet:
nothing at all.
You sit with a sandwich,
I look at a roll.
Sometimes I open my mouth,
then shut it.

We have a beautiful cosmos,
you and me.
We have a beautiful cosmos.

You are the centre of your little world
and I am of mine.
No one again we meet for tea
we’re two of a kind.

This is our universe…
cups of tea.
We have a beautiful cosmos,
you and me.
We have a beautiful cosmos.

Spring Giddiness

Posted in Poetry with tags , , on April 22, 2015 by telescoper

Today, like every other day, we wake up empty
and frightened. Don’t open the door to the study
and begin reading. Take down a musical instrument.
Let the beauty we love be what we do.
There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.

The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you.
Don’t go back to sleep.
You must ask for what you really want.
Don’t go back to sleep.
People are going back and forth across the doorsill
where the two worlds touch.
The door is round and open.
Don’t go back to sleep.

I would love to kiss you.
The price of kissing is your life.
Now my loving is running toward my life shouting,
What a bargain, let’s buy it.

Daylight, full of small dancing particles
and the one great turning, our souls
are dancing with you, without feet, they dance.
Can you see them when I whisper in your ear?

All day and night, music,
a quiet, bright
reedsong. If it
fades, we fade.

by Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī (1207-1273)



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