Archive for April, 2021

Earlier Western writers used to make the claim that for a poem to be a ‘true poem’ it must admit the possibility of death.
You find this in the writing of Spanish Poet Federico Garcia Lorca, and a great many British and European poets of the 20th Century.

There are many points here that need clarification, here. The main two are – 
 -what is a ‘true poem’?

– what does ‘the possibility of death’ mean in reference to poetry?

These are both ways of valuing, of giving relevance. They are ways of putting a poem into a system of importance, immediacy. This in turn reflects a temporal need for engaging with contemporary political and cultural concerns, and for pressured expression.
Not many lived up to the injunction, of course, but the point is that it was an aspirational claim.

A ‘true poem’ was a poem that worked wholly as a competent and professional piece, as well as having the emotional and psychological impact of its subject and its parts. It was a poem that could stand by itself, beyond autobiography. What is implied here, also, that it is a poem that would have wide cultural relevance. How wide that is/was is another matter. This was still the period of Western cultural hegemony.

The ‘possibility of death’ was a way of saying that the poem addressed and also expressed wholly contemporary fears and dreads. Its competence was its ability to transcend, to go beyond, these fears and dreads, into a possibility of redemption or even calm.

– The Norse skald Egill Skallagrimsson, in Egill’s Saga, wrote a series of what he termed ‘neck verses’. (see Ian Crockatt’s The Song Weigher: complete poems of Egill Skallagrimsson, tenth century Viking and Skald (Arc, 2017).

In an earlier skirmish he had killed Erik Bloodaxe’s son. He later found himself forced to seek shelter and sanctuary with the family.
His wife demanded his death. What saved his life, so the saga goes, was his renown as a professional skald, and as such his work was highly valued. He was able to write a series of new-form verses for the occaision.
This, of course, could well be a bragging, a fiction engrandising his abilities and person.
But we read hear the valuing of the work, of putting it into a greater system of relevance than personal expression. 

Earlier generations of writers to this, called on the valuation of God, that a poem had to be worthy of addressing God. Of course, very few were, and so that failure to do so reflected the failure of mankind to live up to religion’s demands, and instead to address our basic humanity as the true one, and the calling on God or valuation through reference to God as aspirational and ultimately beyond human competence.

But this valuing concentrates expression, energises content, and captures the relationships between competence and aspiration.
Both of these are found in the Sonnets from the Portuguese.

The first point to be made about the Sonnets from the Portuguese, is that they were not… from the Portuguese. Nor were they translations from other literatures.
Wiki tells us:
Browning proposed that she claim their source was Portuguese, probably because of her admiration for Camões and Robert’s nickname for her: “my little Portuguese”. The title is also a reference to Les Lettres Portugaises 

The title was suggested, strongly, by Robert Browning as a publication title. He had learned bitterly from his own experience. His first published book, Pauline, an emotional autobiography, had been savaged.
This is not the same as the ‘telling it slant’, of Emily Dickinson, but of deflection.

The Sonnets from the Portuguese were autobiographical. They were originally written as personal responses, private, and yet with professional competence and skill.
The title eschewed personal claims, however, and put them in the realm of public expression. As far as the chosen form, language tropes of the period, and spheres of reference allowed, thy were recognisable and accessible, of their time. They went beyond the abilities of the accepted codes and modes of expression, however, and owned their own place in the canon of majorly male writers

The series charts a growth in awareness, from a state of apparent utter dejection, spiritual or/and existential, to one of uplift, fullness, emotional renewal.

The form used is that of the Italian/Petrachan sonnet: ABBA ABBA CDCDCD.
This falls into an octave followed by sextet. If we look at Sonnet 32 we can see how this works:

The first time that the sun rose on thine oath
To love me, I looked forward to the moon
To slacken all these bonds that seemed too soon
And quickly tied to make a lasting troth.
Quick-loving hearts, I thought, may quickly loathe;
And, looking on myself, I seemed not one
For such man’s love! – more like an out of tune
Worn viol, a good singer would be wroth
To spoil his song with, and which, snatched in haste,
Is laid down at the first ill-sounding note.
I did not wrong myself so, but I placed
A wrong note on thee. For perfect strains may float
‘Neath master-hands, from instruments defaced, –
And great souls, at one stroke, may do and dote.

The change-over from octet to sextet is seamless. The ‘turn’ takes the tone of a critique of itself, it answers objections, off-sets contrary arguments. What it does is state the case for the legitimacy of the state of mind/being, and of its depicted working-through to a place of resolution.

It may not be comfortable reading at time, especially for our own sensibilities, but the sonnets demand to be taken on their own terms.

We can read the sonnets as they are in themselves, but we wrong them not to read them as personalised expression, as autobiographical.
The self-doubt, for instance, and then the self-defamation. Why so? Are they over-stated, as a device for exploring responses to the experience?
At the time of writing, 1845-6, she was aged thirty-nine to forty, unmarried, and long an invalid, cut off from ‘society’ and shut in with few though devoted friends, an over-protective very Victorian father, and her books. Not forgetting her devoted maid. Her pet dog, Flush (who cleaned up after him?).

Her age, as well as her long illness, weighed heavily against her as a woman in the marriage mart of society. Self-doubt melded with self-blame (her favourite brother she had begged to visit her by the sea in convalesce, had drowned on his visit. For which she blamed herself).
The tone of her writing was becoming very sombre; after the hugely prolific writing phase of 1841 to 44 she was bound to hit a rocky time.
Stalled, and ill, when out of the blue came this younger writer to her door. He had not the acclaim of readers that she had just gained; he had been publishing as long, but the public did not warm to his works very readily.

And yet this lack of self-esteem in her writing was one aspect of the required ‘demure demeanour’ required of women of the period, especially women of standing. Her father was on the wealthy side of the very strict social divide.

What I am asking here, is how we now read the extremes of emotion she portrays here, in the sequence as a whole, and in this poem.
This is one of the great strengths of the writing, that she can, indeed, express that range of emotion.
It is this interiority, the closetted atmosphere, that gives authenticity, and raises the sonnets above facility, above experiments in form, language, and ‘playing the writing game’ .

The self she portrays in her writing is how she envisaged her real self. We, as outsiders, would probably see a very different person. But that vulnerable opening, admittance, to the inner self these sonnets allow, was a huge act of revelation from one so closed off, and shut away.
The self she saw was the image through which this sequence of sonnets came.

Sonnet 7

The face of all the world is changed, I think
Since first I heard the footsteps of thy soul
Move still, oh, still, beside me, as they stole
Betwixt me and the dreadful outer brink
Of obvious death, where I, who thought to sink,
Was caught up into love, and taught the whole
Of life in a new rhythm. The cup of dole
God gave for baptism, I am fain to drink,
And praise its sweetness, Sweet, with thee anear.
The names of country, heaven, are changed away
For where thou art, or shalt be, there or here;
And this … this lute and song … loved yesterday
(The singing angels know) are only dear,
Because thy name moves right in what they say.

Two long sentences, joined together by the shorter central one, lines second half of seven, through to line nine. She expresses the effects of the emotions, and also discriminates between them.
Throughout the series she is constantly being overtaken by the emotions of the courtship, and also reigning herself in. She denies – not the power of the love, but her own deserving.

All her writing charts this growing into herself as a person in her writing: we hear her distinctive tones and moods through the conventions of the accepted tone, range, and subject matter, of Victorian women’s writing.

These conventions constitute an attempt to gloss over the very distinctive voices that were becoming heard in women’s writing of the period. And that glossing is itself an attitude of publishers and reviewers, part of their assumed role of tutors in sensibility, morality.
And then here was the strong current of women’s writing stirring up the calm waters of the Empire’s (sluggish?) seas.

She wrote many other sonnets around this period.
What followed was a whirlwind of emotion, and, as we see in the sonnets above, her strong hand handling the reins, of courtship, marriage, elopement, Italy, and motherhood.

Then came the great poems: Casa Guidi Windows; Aurora Leigh.

There is the question of whether we can approve psychopathology for the sake of the work. It follows a very fine line.
The character of Aurora Leigh was not an invalid as her author, but a woman exploring and using her power and position as a woman to gain self-determination. She struggled to support herself, and was willing to struggle.
The romantic gain at the end… I was unhappy with. Was it a kindness to her reader’s expectation of a kind of happy ending, a la Jane Eyre?
Is the argument that the spirit was allowed to emerge from the maimed man, when earlier the physicality of his aggressive masculinity was blinding him to his true nature?
As the generous introduction to the Wordsworth edition of Collected Poems of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, by Dr Sally Minogue (2015), draws to our attention Elizabeth Barrett Brownings’ used explicit breastfeeding imagery within Aurora Leigh.
She had not the Victorian physical fastidiousness that we have come to expect of the era.

She ended her sequence:

Beloved, thou hast brought me many flowers,
Plucked in the garden, all the summer through
And winter, and it seemed as if they grew
In this close room, nor missed the sun and showers.
So, in the like name of that love of ours,
Take back these thoughts which here unfolded too,
And which on warm and cold days I withdrew
From my heart’s ground. Indeed, those beds and bowers
Be overgrown with bitter weeds and rue,
And wait thy weeding; yet there’s eglantine,
Here’s ivy! – take them, as I used to do
Thy flowers, and keep them where they shall not pine.
Instruct thine eyes to keep their colours true,
And tell thy soul, their roots are left in mine.

The self-doubt is still there, but meliorated by the certainty of being wholly loved.
I admit to being rather taken with all the flowers. The two named, her own, are eglantine/honeysuckle, and Ivy. In Victorian flower language we have: ‘generous and devoted affection’, and ‘Fidelity. Marriage’ (see

Her own shaded and shadowy self, combined with the physically blinded, aggressive male of Aurora Leigh: all failed people? Yet these were the characters also of Robert Brownings ‘dramas’. These can be read as attempts to round out the empire-builders and hugely successful characters of Victorian expansionism. The reality behind the images; the ugly inside of the statues.
The great foundations of Western thought are found wanting in Robert Browning’s poems. If not ‘found wanting’, then too capable of abuse. The casuistry of his characters shows a great wasting of talents, of knowledge, education, for a selfishness, a littleness of mind.

Without the aspiration, the struggle for expression, for wholeness, the poems would appear sentimental, vapid, an example of a facility with language.
Did she really mean death when she wrote of it?
There are many kinds of death; I think we can safely say she felt she was dying inside. To dismiss that as a personal crisis-experience would be a terrible arrogance.

To come back to the Sonnets: the discovery of oneself as loved by another, though, not out of duty, but romantically, in the body, and wholly, is all expressed in this sequence.
It is no small thing.
For that the sonnets won fame, were revered highly, and deserve our appreciation still.

Ok, here’s one from my secret chamber of cherished writers: Dominique de Groen.

She is a Belgian poet. She is also another poet who featured in the High Road to Culture – Lowlands Friday Verses slot.

There is also a generous translation of her work, plus great introduction, on the Poetry International site:

From High Road to Culture – Lowlands

Dominique De Groen (b. 1991, Jette) is a writer, artist and co-founder of Marktkorruptie, a label that publishes magazines and DIY booklets. Her debut collection Shop Girl (het balanseer, 2017), was nominated for the poetic debut prize Aan Zee and the LZWL trophy. In May 2019 her second collection, Sticky Drama, appeared.

Dreaming of the Sacrificial Lamb

Dream #1

No one wishes bad things on the sacrificial sheep
in itself
but everyone wants to see it shiver
stripped of its perfect fleece

see how its perfect belly is torn to shreds
quartered by market forces
endless lengths of entrails pulled out
on its glittering navel ring.

Interpret this nightmare for me? Here is the money I don’t have.
I put my cards on the table but they’re unreadable.
On my smooth palms no lifelines but barcodes.

In the dream a rainbow trout swam
downstream along the till roll towards me.
It looked at me with sad eyes and glittered hard and cold.
Between us endless stony deserts of interpretation.
The kiss changed us both for good.

Is this enough?
The sky is bare and without auspices.
The innards black and without symbols.
The sacrificial sheep bleeds dry, alone on the chopping block.
Cold, hard blood trickles down the centuries. I shiver.

Against the generations of empty men I have my weapons.
The dry blood poisoned with copper.
No life possible here. But not there either. So.

Pull the plug out of the sacrificial sheep and the universe will
bleed dry, as above
so below.

No, this dream is too insubstantial
to be interpreted.
It is an impenetrable thing
that has nestled in me.
Leech that sucks the sickness from me
to which I cling.

The colour drains from the trout.
It becomes ghastly and white.
Resists the evil eye of my analytical mind.
The awful blondness of the pop princess.
Drag her by the navel ring to the chopping block
but in her realm the moon never sets.

When the water of the world was on fire
and all animals were boiled alive
and all suns rose at once

lonely whale in grey channels of this hinterland
a premonition of what was to come…

Spirals of life thinner and thinner.
Beings that warm each other till the end of time.
Till we too reach melting point.

In me, a soft lamb, evil spirits move
of toxins and trans fats
detox an expensive exorcism
I am draining
under a sky without birds
filled with entrail without microbes.

Demonology of a purified body.
The lamb primed with laxatives.
The anus raw and inflamed.
On the eve of the sacrifice.

And the animals burn in the night sky
like sulky supernovas
till we all become liquid
in their embrace.

Once again, Tom Christaens, sub-editor of High Roads to Culture, has given permission to reproduce Dominique de Groens’ Friday Verses. Translation by Paul Vincent.

See also her own page:

And, on YouTube:

I would love a copy of Shop Girls.

ON Friday 8th April, the ‘High Road to Culture – The Low Countries‘ site published in their Friday Verses slot, a poem by the Belgian poet Jens Meijen.

Jens Meijen is almost unknown in the English-speaking world, which is a great shame.
His poem Luxe/Luxury took me by surprise with its reach, its implications, and its assured style. And also by its humour.
Translated by Paul Vincent, I have now gained permission to share it here, and have also included their biographical support details.

This week’s Friday Verses are written by Jens Meijen. We translated Luxe (Luxury). This poem first appeared in Dutch in Het Liegend Konijn, a magazine for contemporary Dutch-language poetry.

Jens Meijen (Beringen, b. 1996) holds Master’s degrees in Literature and European Studies and works as an assistant and postgraduate researcher in political science at the Catholic University of Leuven. His first poetry collection, Xenomorf, was published by De Bezige Bij in 2019, and in 2020 won the C. Buddingh’ Prize for the best debut in Dutch. His first novel, De Lichtjaren (The light Years, De Bezige Bij), will appear in August 2021. Besides pursuing his creative writing, he works as a journalist and literary reviewer for Humo, a freelance translator, and member of the central editorial committee of the literary magazine Dietse Warande en Belfort. He has published previously in literary periodicals such as De Revisor, Kluger Hans, deFusie, Hard//hoofd and Deus Ex Machina. In 2016 he was elected as the first young Belgian National Poet.


the customer knows that the paris fashion store where the customer
buys clothes channels all its income
into tax havens: where the palm trees are green with
the sun a lump of gold, the moon a lump of gold, the nipples
little lumps of gold
the birds long opulent tails
waving in the wind
and tax-deductible balance-sheet items are unloaded
onto the windscreen of an azure Maserati

the customer puckers its lips
diverts the air currents to its mouth,
cash flows, tangling roots
the riparian motions
that flow along the seabeds of the mouth

the customer complains about the careless stitching on the hem
of the cut-price trousers
and hence complains about the lax child labourer who sewed it
out of shame the customer eats the chemical granules that
are supposed to remove damp from the trousers and so
unexpectedly finds damp after all in the crotch

the corporation selling clothes channels
the streets rot underfoot
as if the customer steps in hot chocolate
the cut-price moccasins get stuck
in the chocolate
now the customer has to continue barefoot
and travel along mountain trails, meandering
paths, bays overlooking the ocean
the sun squeezed under its armpits
the moon wrapped in a cloth and held close
like a baby

suckling, stroking, a sweet rough skull
and so on the way to the edge of the world
to undreamt-of secrets, hidden under blushing bushes
looking for jewels, salty shells with ribbed rims
the world a Rubik’s cube
the customer forgets it is a customer
and thinks a final thought: I could serve as
an ash tray-holder make a career of it 
build a life out of it would be cool
so fucking cool

Enjoy reading.

Further information:

Mobile laundramat for the homeless

Excellent idea.

Shared blog:

Laverie mobile pour les sans-abris Rennes : elles lancent un projet de laverie mobile pour les sans-abris A Rennes, Camille et Alexine, deux étudiantes, lancent un projet de laverie mobile pour les sans-abris. Elles mettent au point un camion équipé de lave-linges et sèche-linges qui va au contact des SDF. Un projet sélectionné pour un…

Projet de laverie mobile pour les sans-abris — Le journal des Jum’s

The New Twenty Years’ Crisis, by Phillip Cunliffe. Published by McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2020.
ISBN 978 0 2280 0102 7

The subtitle is: A Critique of International Relations

This is not a comfortable read, mostly because of the polemical tone. But also because it calls into question how we are living.
This has been a long time coming – many of us pre-Covid were desperate for our present phase to end/move on – but change is never easy.

As you can see from the title, it references E H Carr’s classic and seminal The Twenty Years’ Crisis, of 1939, covering the interbellum period 1919 to 1939.
This book purports to cover the period 1999 to 2019. I write ‘purports’ since for some, the argument covers the period 1919 to 2019 in reality, because, it is argued, that crisis has remained with us.
It is the crisis of Liberalism.
It is still with us, they argue, because its failings have not been addressed.

It is also a crisis of the discipline of International Relations.
E H Carr was the head of International Relations at its first chair with Aberystwyth University, Wales.


Liberalism had never resolved its realism-utopianism fracturing. For Phillip Cuncliffe these transform into Neo-Liberalism – Eutopianism (he likes these coinings of phrases).
Yes, there is a lot of this positioning of argument. And, yes, it is best not to get bogged down in argument-structures, language-images, or games… or generalisations.
I was a little dismayed at the generalising going on: so, ALL Liberalism and Neo-Liberalism has been at fault, and at all times?
The arguments of the book are metonym-heavy, too. There is a lot of bandying-about of propositions and terms, like ‘unipolarity’. Some phrases are even more baroque.

Agreed, Neo-Liberalism carries its weight of colonialism, its Westernisation, its Eurocentrism.
How do we understand the term, now? How was it understood, earlier? And which earlier?
Do we understand it through its effects? On its propositional stance?

Also on this list is Globalisation.
How foreseeable were the tragic outcomes of Globalisation? Is this all hindsight?
And so, by implication, did global traders intentionally only trade with outlets who exploited workers? Where do domestic policies and issues, processing checks, come in, and how do they connect with with global traders and tradees?
I would like to see some breakdown into what and why, rather than this generalised statement.

Is it part of the job of International Relations to make predictions on outcomes? Or is it to analyse current and past relations? To extrapolate from those, though, there has to be strict methodology.
So much depends on predictions: trade especially, and internal security, international cooperation….

There does not seem to be any recognition of process. The long, slow, working out of operations over time, and responding to all the foreseeable and unforeseeable, the ad-hoc, and the planned.

Take the crisis within the discipline.
Take the analogy – and remember it is only an analogy; there are no perfect fits, no patterns, except where imposed – of 19thCentury Physics, where all was considered practically done. Until Einstein.
History was thought almost dead by 1900, until the French Annalles School, Marxist history, Social and Economic history, broke open the stifling towers.

International Relations, as a discipline, is just over 100 year’s old. A youngster, then… and thinking itself finished.

It could well be that this book is part of the process of discipline-growth.


In his Conclusion he writes:
How many wars against fascism have been fought since 1945? and then answers himself in true rhetorical fashion:

Soviets refighting Nazis in the Berlin uprising of 1953… crushing Hungarian fascism in 1956… failed British attempt to crush Egyptian fascism in 1956… wars against Serbian fascism in 1995 and again in 1999… permanent war against Islamofacism… Iraqi fascism … Syrian fascism… Georgian fascism… Ukrainian fascism etc etc

Which leads him to conclude:

Anti-fascism has launched more wars than fascism ever did.

Then we get another list of instances, this time of where the term ‘fascism’ was used against others. Followed by:
Such is the intellectual debasement wrought by anti-fascism.

And you think… What?
He bases all this argument on what is basically tabloid-level definitions?
Each of those listed conflicts had its own identity, nature, and operation, that changed, melded, and was effected by all the methods of conflict-management that had developed by that time. Added to this were, or were being tried-out, new methods for future conflicts.
Leaders may have used these ‘fascism’ arguments in order to back up their claims, to fight; but what a Leader may claim, and what actually is, are very different.

No, the intellectual debasement, surely, is this kind of argument,
where historical events are used to score points in academic discipline wrangles, where competition for funding and credibility has become critical, where publication and attention-engendering become the sole end.

There is much of true value here, but the presentation of the arguments, the tone, the academy-centred stance, do not help.


Liberalism and its… cousin?… Neo-Liberalism.
What were the workable alternatives on offer at the times? Any form of socialism was too deeply interpenetrated by Stalinism.
Liberalism was re-instated as a response to the authoritarian regimes of WW2, rather than superseded as a model. And re-instated as a vehicle for revival of economies, after WW2, through opening wider markets. Once again, rather than superseded. The market had to be strengthened against the Soviet sphere.

Then it all starts to eat itself, because it is poisoned from within – its wanton destruction of cultures and smaller states. Backlash, and there is always backlash.
And Western perpetrators thought they were untouchable by this? Short-term thinking, always.

Can there be blame when there are no workable alternatives? And there does seem to be blame here, especially in E H Carr’s analysis.

Ok, so what are our alternatives now?
– Western states the new distant end of the telescope (an image he uses) of a new Asian-Pacific market and economic centre?
Would this just be continuation of a bad model by different forces?

Is there a new model?
Is what we are now experiencing, its birth pains?

Let’s hope so. It has to be for something.
Or has it?
Realism as opposed to utopianism, again:
– to build something from the ruins;
– to expect our down-turns to have purpose, future value.

And using the same building blocks for each?