A Profound Arbitrariness
A Worldly Country, John Ashbery (76pp, £9.95, Carcanet)
Raving Language: Selected Poems 1946-2006,
(Translated from German by Richard Dove, 216pp, £18.95, Carcanet)
A Book of Lives, Edwin Morgan (105pp, £9.95, Carcanet)
espadrillos: Mr Jesus Christ
on the little
wall in the morning sun
with his hat
between his knees behind him
Less and less
shoes you sent us yesterday
today with force, mouthing with precision
wisdom is printed on the wrapper's .......
And yet en
una noche oscura, as we know from the words of swarthy much-
buffeted John of the Cross.
darkest night, from a dungeon, a real one, rich in hideous shit and
chains and slime and moss,
Not that these little extracts are plainly Christian poets, not at all, I
have quoted selectively: but what fun they are, whatever they take on they
bring a smile to the world (if you will smile with them) and - to make this
heavy - this is what will be lost when the Apocalypse is upon us, as it is.
Not that I believe Christ will return, only that what has been made will go
down the drain, everything that we have been and are down the plughole. It's
one image, another is: will be burned alive. Of everything, these books, for
In order they are from Friedericke Mayrocker (b.Vienna 1924), John Ashbery
(b. Rochester, New York 1927) and Edwin Morgan (b.Glasgow 1920). I have left
their lines hanging in mid-flow because that precisely is what is there:
flow. It is something that happened this way in the 20th century: the voice
as if conversing but in quite other terms.
Any subject might turn up in these poets. They might reasonably be thought to
speak with a version of the collective voice of where they are, picking up
the vibes, celebrating, demurring, but they are beholden to no-one, their
subject, one might say, is consciousness itself. Or one might say they are
freelance poetry trackers.
Edwin Morgan does the important taking stock. His
poem commissioned for the opening of the Scottish Parliament is here (he is
that nation's laureate), he has a sequence beginning 20 billion BC and ending
2300 AD, taking in, among other moments, Copernicus, Darwin and 9/11. He
responds to paintings in Scottish collections, including Dali's Christ. His
poems are thoughts, he has things to say overtly, plainly and worth hearing.
The form varies as thought requires it.
I confess I keep forgetting Friederike Mayrocker is a woman. The translator
tells us 'some commentators in the German-speaking world have criticised
Mayrcker's work for its alleged hermeticism,' and the accusation has to do
with a form of surrealism rather than a more (female?) eccentric mysticism.
The translator mentions Hlderlin and commends us readers to 'go with the
rhapsodic flow.' Perhaps this is the hardest kind of poetry to translate; I'm
glad it's been done, much English-American poetry has been mere happy-clappy
Not Ashbery. I have said to my students, 'this is the flow, this is the
apparent ease that isn't easy but a life-time's achievement.' And it is an
interesting question whether he, too, chronicles, only not the way Edwin
Morgan does it; and he's not surreal, only matter of factly on a wander
through his life and such of the world as he knows or imagines. And, look,
listen, aside from the noise of language, language takes us on this walk and
this and this. Not without thought, of course, but listening in, not
overlaying but (if we can face this) with a profound arbitrariness.