Of saints and martyrs

Here to Eternity: an anthology of poetry

Selected by Andrew Motion <em>Faber and Faber, 402pp, £16

"O dear white children casual as birds,/Playing among the ruined languages,/So small beside their large confusing words,/So gay against the greater silences/Of dreadful things you did." Thus St Cecilia responds to the prayer of mankind to be redeemed by music, by the power of the aesthetic, in W H Auden's "Anthem for St Cecilia's Day". St Cecilia, patron saint of music and musicians, has been a presiding spirit for poets, too. Dryden's song to the Roman martyr extols the classical ideal of art imposing order on chaos, presenting the image of God as the ur-musician whose "compass of notes" provides the necessary instrument to chart a safe passage through a disordered universe. Human passion is harmonised with universal order, and a means of expression is granted for the diapason of human feeling.

As with music, so with poetry. A good poet is a master musician, because he is someone who knows the right weight of words. Not for him the jurist's forensic equivocation, or the politician's pragmatic elision. Thursday 4 October is National Poetry Day and, at a time when a war of words rehearsed at full volume on television and in the newspapers can so easily presage a war of missiles and bombs, it's worth considering that skill, and accustoming ourselves again to the slower flow of poetry and its quiet infusion of intelligence.

Poets make words work; they know their specific valencies, understand their catalysing potency, and the array of compounds that can be created through judicious mixing. The adolescent Shelley, for all his youth and mad excess, knew this well enough to write (in "Queen Mab") that "Power, like a desolating pestilence,/Pollutes whate'er it touches; and obedience,/Bane of all genius, virtue, freedom, truth,/Makes slaves of men, and of the human frame/A mechanised automaton." Virtue, freedom, truth: these are indeed large, confusing words, yet one hesitates to use them. They are tender currency, too easily debased with the frequent careless handling they have received of late.

Yes, Shelley's bane and pestilence have been all too apparent in recent days. In our vernacular wisdom we glibly contrast the might of pens and swords, yet words do supply a means for power to extend its grasp when hurled about like the weapons they stand surrogate for. So much spilled ink: competing meanings collide, pile up one upon the other, and metastasise into something fearful. Journalism commodifies language as "information", which, like any narcotic, exists chiefly to create the conditions of its own enjoyment. Thus the sly confession of a senior editor of one of our national broadsheets, telling a colleague in the days after the American imbroglio: "I've had a most enjoyable week - the best for ages." Sometimes, this can be a truly degrading profession.

But poetry is a more salutary pool, in which we see a clearer version of ourselves and our horizons. Poetry breathes in "amicable weathers that bring up the grain of things" (in Seamus Heaney's phrase); it follows smaller, quieter paths, and (Auden again) "survives in the valley of its saying where executives/ Would never want to tamper; it flows south/ From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,/ Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,/A way of happening, a mouth."

So here we have three books to embody that survival, and to celebrate it. The first is a pleasingly idiosyncratic selection - as such things should be - by Andrew Motion: poems from Chaucer to the present (though with the preponderance coming from the past 100 years), arranged around ten overlapping themes ("self", "home", "land", "war", and so on). The pleasure of such selections is partly in seeing the canonical stand alongside the neglected, and partly in the curious pairings the pages throw together: Stevie Smith rubs up against Christina Rossetti; Wordsworth against Thom Gunn. Then there is the ever-excellent Forward anthology, the collection of shortlisted poems for the annual prizes in the categories of best poem, best collection and best first collection. The Forward prize never fails to turn up outstanding work, and this year is no exception. The list of nominees for best collection alone - Anne Carson, Douglas Dunn, Matthew Francis, James Lasdun and Sean O'Brien - is indicative of the strength and vigour of the competition. And, as a bonus, there's also a selection from the anthologies of the previous ten years, chosen by the prize's founder, William Sieghart.

Poetry, a poet once told me, is what is left when you take the poetry out: that is to say, it doesn't deal in big issues and grand abstractions. Rather, it's in the use of unselfconscious words to talk about simple, inalienable things; it is a mouth, a way of happening, a shaping of the lips to breathe or speak. These books are proof that the spirit of poetry is not just alive, but flourishing, and without any need for the intercession of saints and martyrs. A good thing, too; we don't need any more of those just now.

Adam Newey is the New Statesman's poetry critic

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2001 issue of the New Statesman, What would you do?

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Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide