On Friday 19th March 2021 it will be one calendar year since I lay on a sofa, phone in hand, and had the idle thought that one could tweet about the impending coronavirus pandemic, and the lockdown that had just started, in the form of a mash-up with / homage to / pastiche of Louis MacNeice’s ‘Autumn Journal’. I created a new account (that’s one of the things I love about Twitter as a creative platform; you can put ideas into action with no planning or forethought), grabbed my MacNeice Selected Poems paperback from the shelves, to copy those famous opening lines, and posted two tweets, that same evening. Here they are:
And here are the corresponding opening lines from MacNeice:
Close and slow, summer is ending in Hampshire,
Ebbing away down ramps of shaven lawn where close-clipped yew
Insulates the lives of retired generals and admirals
And the spyglasses hung in the hall and the prayer-books ready in the pew
And August going out to the tin trumpets of nasturtiums
And the sunflowers’ Salvation Army blare of brass
And the spinster sitting in a deck-chair picking up stitches
Not raising her eyes to the noise of the ’planes that pass
I carried on Tweeting my version of MacNeice in sporadic bursts over the next few weeks (I particularly remember standing in the aisle at Sainsbury’s Tweeting about standing Tweeting in the aisle at Sainsbury’s) and maybe the whole thing would have fizzled out if David Collard hadn’t asked if would like to feature the poem on his online salon A Leap in the Dark, which ran on Friday and Saturday evenings right through lockdown, on Zoom. It was a typically generous offer, but David’s stroke of brilliance was to invite, or persuade, Northern Irish novelist and actor Michael Hughes to do the readings – a canto a week, starting in early April, and running through until I had matched MacNeice’s 24 cantos. Michael read the final canto as part of a full read-through of my poem on Friday 28th August.
As it happens, the anniversary of the poem’s inception coincides with the first review of the book of the poem, which was published by CB Editions in December, after a typically nimble quick turnaround by Charles Boyle.
Tristram Fane Saunders in the Times Literary Supplement starts by setting the poem against the responses from more famous names (Don Paterson, Paul Muldoon, Glyn Maxwell), and is generous in his estimation of how my poem measures up to its inspiration and model:
aiming somewhere halfway between cheap pastiche and serious homage, Gibbs hits his mark. He nails Autumn Journal’s casual, yawning metres and late-to-the-party rhymes, its balance of didacticism and doubt.
You can read the whole review here.
(And if you have the print copy of the paper, you can have the additional thrill of turning the page to find, recto to my review’s verso, a review by Michael Hughes himself, of Anatomy of a Killing, by Ian Cobain.)
This anniversary also coincides with the vigil for Sarah Everard and protest against male violence on Clapham Common, so appallingly handled by the Met Police, which I mention only to point out the obvious fact that the pandemic only brought to the surface frustrations and inequalities that had been brewing and burning for much longer. And that if it felt like the six months during which I wrote the poem happened to have given me material to bounce at MacNeice, as it were, as a sounding board, then that’s missing the point. Whenever this had happened, these things or something like them would have happened, because they’re always happening.
The lines that Charles Boyle chose to put on the back of his edition of ‘Spring Journal’ were these:
Too many are dead, but jobs are dying too, all over.
The virus reveals the flaw
In our way of living: the rich fly it around the planet
And dump it on the doorsteps of the poor.
And the fact that the murder of Sarah Everard, and the way it triggered deep-lying anger about structural misogyny in our society, seems to repeat what happened last year when the murder of George Floyd did the same for structural racism, only goes to show that we are stuck in a cycle. The anniversary puts us no further forward in the kind of world we want to live in, and nothing to show for the lesson of so many dead.
As I wrote in August, in the penultimate canto of my poem, addressing MacNeice:
And then autumn will come,
And I’ll pass back the baton,
Let you handle your natural season,
And I’ll be there waiting, in March, when you’re done.
For as long as there’s something vicious looming
Beyond the horizon, and just as long
As we keep on getting things hopelessly wrong,
We can keep this thing turning, from poem to poem.
I read something in a piece in the TLS today – by Henri Astier, writing on two French books by Antoine Compagnon – that included an observation on translations that was so obvious I was astonished it had never occurred to me before:
Montaigne needs modern champions even more in French than he does in English. New translations are always available. The French, however, are stuck with an original that has become obscure, even with updated spellings.
It’s such a startling point – that our Proust, our Dante, our Cervantes are periodically given a coat of fresh paint, while the native readers of these classics must deal with language that may well be many centuries distant from their own. Think of the constant flow of translations of Dante into English, then think of The Canterbury Tales – of course, you can buy parallel texts, and even ‘novelisations’ like Peter Ackroyd’s, but I feel pretty sure there are plenty of non-academic readers who would be far more likely to pick the Italian than the Englander were they to see them side by side in a bookshop.
Other ‘of courses’ of course also apply: that spruced-up contemporary translations risk losing much of the colour and tenor of the original by smoothing away its period features; and, on this side of the fence, that it is precisely by keeping ourselves well acquainted with the archaic roots of our own language that we keep it vivid and alive today. Continue reading