Monday, 28 March 2016

Tuesday, 9 February 2016

Chinese Poetry: Su Shi

Su Shi, also known as Su Dong Po (Detail, Fei Lai Temple, Qingyuan)

I had not really read much Chinese poetry until I went to China earlier this year - just some by Du Fu, and a couple of really well-known ones by Li Po - but obviously, if I visit somewhere, I've got to get to know at least a bit about its literature. So I bought the Penguin Classics edition of the poetry of Li Po (also known as Li Bai) and Tu Fu (also known as Du Fu), searched out my copy of Jonathan Waley's Spring in the Ruined City, translations of Du Fu, and bought Chinese Literature: A Very Short Introduction. I was glad I had read a bit, because when our hosts found out I wrote poetry, they were very keen to discuss the subject with me, and having done a bit of research I was able to not come across as entirely ignorant!

It was on a trip to the Fei Lai Temple, near Qingyuan, that I was introduced to Su Shi (1037 - 1101 CE), also known as Su Dongpo or Su Tungpo. I loved the frieze that depicted him reading his poetry among the mountains and the winds, so when I returned home, I added him to my reading and research list.

As I read more about Chinese poetry, I became more and more excited by it. As far as I understand it, Chinese is an almost totally uninflected language, so the relationships of words to each other in a poem are far more fluid than in English and other European languages. This allows a translator a lot of freedom in the rendering of a poem into their own language.

Here is Su Shi's Mid-Autumn Moon in Chinese and in Pinyin:

Text from
And here is the literal translation from the excellent website Chinese Poems:

Sunset cloud gather far excess clear cold
Milky Way silent turn jade plate
This life this night not long good
Next year bright moon where see

I am now working on my own version of this almost thousand year old poem, and will post it here when it's done. In the meantime, I would encourage anyone with the slightest interest to have a look at Chinese poetry. I certainly wish I'd known more about it sooner.

Su Shi,(Complete panel, Fei Lai Temple, Qingyuan)

Poems, Li Po and Tu Fu, tr Adam Cooper, Penguin Classics
Spring in the Ruined City, Selected Poems of Du Fu, translated by Jonathan Waley, Shearsman
Chinese Literature: A Very Short Introduction, Sabina Knight, Oxford University Press

Monday, 30 November 2015

Ekphrastic Prompt 7 - The Rucksack by David Inshaw

DAVID INSHAW The Rucksack (Anticipation) 1994 1995
The Rucksack (Anticipation) by David Inshaw

Today's prompt is a picture by the British artist David Inshaw. Inshaw was a member of the Brotherhood of Ruralists, a group which included Peter Blake, Jann Haworth, Graham and Annie Ovenden, and Graham and Ann Arnold. It was formed in 1975 and placed itself 'in opposition to the scholarly nature of contemporary art which believed that paintings were only really valid if they addressed social questions' (Peter Blake).

I first came across the Brotherhood of Ruralists when in the late '70s my parents bought a pencil drawing by Graham Ovenden, but I know a lot more of their work from the front covers of the second edition Arden Shakespeares that I still have on my shelves.

But back to the image. There's a lot here that could grow into a poem. The rucksack of the title which is barely in the picture; those gulls all looking in the same direction; the white towels; the hidden face; the strangely claustrophobic landscape. 

Perhaps you'd like to bounce this image off another poem. Have a look at Matthew Arnold's 'Dover Beach', or Les Murray's 'On Home Beaches' where 'You peer, at this age, but it's still there, ridicule,/ the pistol that kills women, that gets them killed, crippling men/ on the towel-spattered sand.' Think about the contrasts and the potential confluences. Think about your own experiences around beaches and coastlines.

You can see more of David Inshaw's work, his intense, often erotic and sometimes almost surreal pastoralism, on his website here; and an article about him in The Guardian, here

Happy viewing, and happy writing. 

Image Credit: The Rucksack. By David Inshaw (the artist) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Sunday, 29 November 2015

Poem: Schrödinger's Cat

On 29th November 1935, Erwin Schrödinger published his famous thought experiment about the cat. That famous cat in the in the steel box, the cat which is at the same time dead and alive until the box is opened and the cat is observed. I can't say I fully understand it at a scientific level, but at a poetic level, it's just my thing!

I started thinking about how surely, unless the cat were asleep, it would be able to observe itself. And if it did, what would happen? Would the 'psi-function' collapse and, in effect, the cat kill itself via its own consciousness? Let's hope it's asleep, I thought, so there's no danger of that happening...

So, to celebrate its 80th birthday, here's my ode to Schrödinger's Cat, complete with suitably unscientific 'footnotes'. Imagine it with a bit of a rap feel...

Apparently, in later life Schrödinger wished he'd never mentioned the darn cat. I bet the cat wished so too.

If the picture's a bit small, here's a larger version. But I like the picture better, so it's staying despite the observer difficulties it poses...

Schrödinger’s Cat[1]

‘A cat is penned up in a steel chamber…’ (Erwin Schrödinger)

Random cat, fractured cat, epitome of cat/not-cat,
who cannot die till the observer’s eye
reconstitutes you from that unclear smear[2]
do you sleep and dream like Einstein[3] in his box?

Sleep white thoughts, safe/unsafe
suspended in your steel creel half-life-hanging
neither-here-nor-there life. Don’t wake,
don’t look, don’t trigger by the cracking of an eye that
cyanide dispenser’s bleak potential.
Don’t let it Geiger-click you to another state.∞

Stay sleeping, don’t go quantum leaping
into certainty. Dream white, no wanton peeping,
no Death[4] to speak in capitals
and fix your future saying NOW I SEE.

[1] Or: ‘Don’t Look Now!’
[2] ‘The psi-function of the entire system would express this by having in it the living and dead cat (pardon the expression) mixed or smeared out in equal parts.(Erwin Schrödinger).
[3] Einstein is my white cat, and also the Father of Relativity.
[4] Death, personified in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels as  a lugubrious but secretly quite jolly (well he tries) old skeleton, always speaks in SMALL CAPITALS .
∞ Coincidentally, perhaps, my cat is also now deceased, although he was alive when I started the poem. In true quantum fashion, the reference is to both Einsteins, cat and Albert,  until you, as observer/reader, do your job and decide. 

                                                                                              Sally Douglas

Saturday, 28 November 2015

The Sound of Silence Reblogged

As Christmas is approaching, I was reminded of this piece I wrote in 2010. It was only the third post on this blog, and has had the most page views over the years, so I decided that, with a few minor edits and updates, it was worth sharing again. 

John Cage, Edwin Morgan and the finding of meaning

Christmas is coming. I can read the signs. There are sparkly decorations in the shops and department stores have started displaying bizarre ‘gifts’ such as electronic talking monkeys that you can clip to your shoulder. (Thank goodness there weren't 'gifts' like that 2000 years ago, or the Three Wise Men might have arrived bearing Gold, Frankincense and Talking Shoulder Monkey...)  What else? Oh yes, X Factor fans are thinking about the Christmas Number One. And on Facebook, a campaign against anodyne manufactured pop is once more underway.  There’s a group which wants to try and get John Cage’s 4’33’’ onto the Christmas Number One spot. I have to confess, I’ve clicked the Like button.

Born in 1912, John Cage was an American composer, philosopher and artist who became famous for stretching the bounds of music. His 4’33’’ is probably his most famous work. It was composed in 1952, and is for any combination of instruments. The score basically instructs the musicians to not play during the piece’s three movements – it is four minutes and thirty three seconds of absence of instrumental playing. However, it is not four minutes and thirty three seconds of silence, but of environmental noise, of expectation, of aural space.

Cage had been considering the idea of silent music for a while, but was pushed into writing the piece by the example of the artist Robert Rauschenberg, who had produced a series of paintings which were basically large white squares. The point of this was that even if they just looked like blank canvases, they would change according to the conditions in which they are viewed: the quality of the light, or what other colours there might be in the room in which they were displayed. In a similar way, Cage’s 4’33’’ uses the silence as a background canvas for the ambient sound and atmosphere: the sounds to which we are usually too distracted to pay attention. Both Rauschenberg’s pictures and Cage’s music required the audience to pay hyper-close attention in order to experience them. Viewers and listeners had to make an effort: it wasn’t all laid out there in front of them. In fact, this requirement of effort meant that they had to become part of the creative process themselves.

White Painting (seven panel) by Robert Rauschenburg
Source Credit: Guggenheim

John Cage said ‘I have nothing to say and I am saying it and that is poetry’. Edwin Morgan, the Scottish poet who died this year, and whose tribute event, organised by the Poetry Society is taking place at the Southbank Centre, London, on Nov 3rd, took those fourteen words and made his own poem of them. The poem, 'Opening the Cage', is a fourteen line variation of those fourteen words, each line creating new meanings through new combinations.

It takes effort to tease meanings out of these lines, and I’m sure different people will find different things. To me, the first line seems to state the poet’s need to write, his uncertainty about whether that writing has any worth, and the fact that this dilemma is what he is considering:
I have to say poetry and that is nothing and I am saying it
By line 7 the words seem to have assembled themselves into an invitation to strip away all the fripperies of life and perhaps also of language to get to the bare bones:
To have nothing is poetry and I am saying that and I say it
And after a sonnet’s worth of variations, the poem concludes (if a conclusion it is) with the decisiveness of a manifesto:
Saying poetry is nothing and to that I say I am and have it
John Cage was very interested in aleatoric music, the music of chance. Morgan’s poem is very much in that spirit – the randomness of word-shuffling produces chance combinations from which meaning can be derived. Morgan chose the fourteen he felt made the meaning he wanted. It’s an interesting paradox, however, that while the poem is punningly entitled ‘Opening the Cage’, implying the freeing of language and meaning, Edwin Morgan might be considered to have imposed a cage of his own by using the sonnet form. (If it is a sonnet – certainly Don Paterson includes it in his 1999 Faber Anthology 101 Sonnets.)  However, a more controlling poet might have added punctuation to clarify the meanings he wished his reader to derive. Morgan does not do this. He lets the meaning of each line stay fluid and free. (Have a look at the similarly constructed 'The Uncertainty of the Poet' by Wendy Cope, a poem also derived from another artist's work, to see how punctuation pins down meaning.) It seems to me, also, that implicit in the poem are all the other possibilities which Morgan did not use. For these reasons the sonnet-shaped cage is only an illusion. It’s a poetic Tardis: the inside is bigger than the outside.

If one accepts this notion, ‘Opening the Cage’ is a poem that could continue, inside the reader’s head, for a lifetime. With 14 words there are 14! (that is, 14 factorial: 14 x 13 x 12 x 11 x 10 and so on down to x 1) possible combinations – in other words, 87,178,291,200 different ways of arranging those words. Well, you might say, some of those combinations will just be gobbledygook. Okay, let’s go for a gobbledygook one: the purely alphabetical
am and and have I I is it nothing poetry say saying that to
Is there any meaning to be found in that? Of course there is, of you look hard enough. The ‘am’ separated from its implied ‘I’ has a plaintive, questioning tone, while the repeated ‘and’s and ‘I’s reinforce this feeling of uncertainty. Then we have the question around which this line revolves, the shaky, inverted ‘is it nothing, poetry?’, followed by an imploring ‘say’ – tell me the answer. Next comes a phrase that implies no confidence in the received answer, ‘saying that to…’. This seems to me to question the motives of the unheard speaker: You’re just saying that for some other motive. Whatever it is, it means I can’t rely on your answer to help me in my search for whatever I’m searching for.

And I’ve derived that ‘meaning’ from listing those fourteen words alphabetically. You, dear reader, might derive a completely different meaning – it’s up to you. All it takes to derive meaning is a reader with the willingness to do so.

Edwin Morgan by Alex Boyd.jpg
"Edwin Morgan by Alex Boyd"
Licensed under 
CC BY-SA 4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 via Commons.
This kind of poetry, poetry that demands so much of the reader’s participation in the act of creativity, reminds me of the writing of someone I once met in a critique group. She was severely dyslexic, and had come to poetry, and literacy in general, quite late in life. For her, her poetry was mostly therapeutic, but for her readers, it became something quite exciting by virtue of her dyslexia. I can’t give any actual quotes, because I’m not in touch with her now, but, for example, in a poem about domestic violence, she might write things like ‘meating’ instead of ‘meeting’, and ‘burned’ instead of ‘born’ – changes which often added a startling and completely unintended complexity to her poems. When she was alerted to this, she was often delighted with the effect that she had created, and would let it stand. Her meanings were created in an aleatoric way, and the initially chance significances found by her readers were then fed back into her later revisions of the poems.

I’m not sure that Cage’s 4’33’’ will make the number one spot*. Nearly sixty years after it premiered it still provokes angry responses, as can be seen by some of the comments on the Daily Mail's coverage of the Facebook campaign. One person even rants about how the people who support the campaign should be locked up. What amuses me, though, and would probably have pleased both John Cage and Edwin Morgan, is the fact that the Cage piece must have suggested itself for this year’s campaign simply because of its chance sonic relationship with last year’s successful campaign band. Rage Against the Machine – Cage Against the Machine. A chance rhyme from which such appropriate significance and meaning has been derived. How could it have been anything else?

The making of Cage Against the Machine, 2010.

*In fact, Cage Against the Machine made it to number 21 in the UK Chart Singles. X Factor's Matt Cardle took the Number 1 spot with When We Collide. Hey ho, never mind. 

Opening the Cage’ can be found in 101 Sonnets, ed Don Paterson, Faber 1999.

Friday, 27 November 2015

Christmas Recommendations - Poetry for Children

As December is bounding towards us with tinsel between its teeth I thought I might get into the festive spirit and recommend a few books for Christmas presents. Today's selection is for children, but any sensible adult would also enjoy any of these!

The Day I Fell Down the Toilet was my oldest daughter's favourite poetry book when she was at primary school. Funny, thoughtful, great illustrations - and nearly twenty years after publication, still in print! Published by Lion Books, who have also published two more collections by Steve Turner, Dad You're Not Funny, and The Moon Has Got His Pants On - both equally appealing.

Ted Hughes' poetry for children is just as good as his 'grown-up' stuff. In his Collected Poems for Children there are people and animals (Crow makes an appearance), and a series of Moon Poems which are absolutely stunning.  The illustrations by Raymond Briggs seem completely organic to the text - it's like he's just sat down with each copy and drawn them on specially for each individual reader. This is a beautiful book, which I have just discovered is currently out of print. But I'm still going to feature it. Faber, what are you doing? Get it back in print asap! In the meantime keep a look out for it in charity shops... or find the individual collections by Hughes such as Meet My Folks and Nessie the Mannerless Monster.

Ring of Words features a fabulous selection, chosen by the inimitable Roger McGough. Poets range from Walter de la Mare to Stevie Smith, Wendy Cope to Donald Justice, George Szirtes to Grace Nichols. This is an inspired selection. If some totalitarian regime passed a law that a child should only have access to one poetry anthology, I would say let it be this! Give it to them while they're at primary school and they'll still be reading it when they moving up through secondary.

Update: I have just discovered that this is also no longer in print. Faber, what are you doing - again? However, there are lots available at the moment for mere pence at a certain online book retailer's 'marketplace'...

This one, thank goodness, is still in print. Edited by another Liverpool poet hero of mine, Brian Patten, The Puffin Book of Utterly Brilliant Poetry features a selection of poems from ten different poets, plus an interview with each of them. Poets featured are Spike Milligan, Kit Wright, Michael Rosen, Charles Causley, Roger McGough, Benjamin Zephaniah, Brian Patten, Jackie Kay, John Agard and Alan Ahlberg. Apart from the gender imbalance - which is made rather obvious because of the small number of poets featured - I think this is a great representation of a range of poetry for children. The illustrations are bright and stylish, with a different illustrator for each poet, and here the gender imbalance is the other way, since more than half are female. Great for primary school aged children.

Okay, slight failure on the recommending books that people can actually buy front. Sorry about that.

But there's some brilliant children's poetry out there. One I'm going to give to someone this Christmas (shhh! Don't tell!) is Carol Ann Duffy's 101 Poems for Children: A Laureate's Choice, (Macmillan, 2013) with poems ranging from Emily Dickinson to Alice Oswald and ee cummings. However, before I wrap it I'm going to have to read it myself. I have to test it out, don't I?

Thursday, 26 November 2015

Ekphrastic Prompt 6: The Mask of Agamemnon

Mask of Agamemnon

Isn't this an amazing image? A golden mask, life-sized, flattened, with eyes which are at the same time open and closed. Beard, eyebrows, ears, hammered and chased into fine detail - simultaneously naive and strangely sophisticated.

This mask was discovered in 1876 by Heinrich Schliemann, a C19th German businessman who became a famous treasure hunter/archaeologist, and is now in the National Archaeological Museum of Athens. Schliemann had previously excavated the remains of Troy, where, as told in Homer's Iliad, an epic ten year war was fought between the Greeks and the Trojans. The leader of the united Greek armies was Agamemnon, the king of the Mycenaeans, whose brother's wife, Helen, had been abducted by the Trojan prince, Paris.

When Agamemnon returned from the war, the legend is that he was killed by his own wife's lover, Aegisthus, or perhaps even by his wife Clytemnestra herself. This mask was found in a royal grave at Mycenae, and Schliemann was convinced that it was the death mask of Agamemnon himself, although some have claimed it to be a fake, and some archaeologists now believe it pre-dates the Trojan War by several hundred years. It is made of beaten gold, with the fine details chased out using a sharp tool. It is an amazing artefact. I saw it in Athens nearly thirty years ago when backpacking around Europe and it remains an iconic memory for me.

Today's prompt is to take this mask as a starting point for a poem. There are so many directions in which it could take you! You could just think about masks in any or all of their forms; you could concentrate on Agamemnon and his story; you could think about Schliemann; you could explore ideas of real and fake. You could even link back to what is often considered the first piece of ekphrastic writing: the description of The Shield of Achilles' in Book 18 of The Iliad.

If you are interested in some background, there's an interesting discussion here, and an article about the authenticity question here.

If you fancy reading or rereading The Iliad the translation by Richmond Lattimore is the one to go for.

And here's what Google has to say about the word 'mask':

noun: mask; plural noun: masks; noun: masque; plural noun: masques
  1. 1.
    a covering for all or part of the face, worn as a disguise, or to amuse or frighten others.
  2. 2.
    a covering made of fibre or gauze and fitting over the nose and mouth to protect against air pollutants, or made of sterile gauze and worn to prevent infection of the wearer or (in surgery) of the patient.
    synonyms:mattephotomaskshadow mask, masking, masking tape
    "a mask that blocks out part of the image"
    • a protective covering fitting over the whole face, worn in fencing, ice hockey, and other sports.
      synonyms:face mask, protective mask, gas maskoxygen mask, fencing mask,iron mask, ski mask, dust mask; More
    • a respirator used to filter inhaled air or to supply gas for inhalation.
  3. 3.
    a face pack.
    "this exfoliating mask helps clear your pores and leaves your skin feeling soft and healthy"

  4. 4.
    a likeness of a person's face moulded or sculpted in clay or wax.
  5. 5.
    a manner or expression that hides one's true character or feelings.
    "I let my mask of respectability slip"
    synonyms:pretencesemblanceveilscreenfront, false front, facadeveneer,blind, false colours, disguiseguiseconcealmentcovercover-up,cloakcamouflage
    "de Craon had dropped his mask of good humour"

  6. 6.
    a piece of material such as card used to cover a part of an image that is not required when exposing a print.
  7. 7.
    a patterned metal film used in the manufacture of microcircuits to allow selective modification of the underlying material.
  8. 8.
    the enlarged labium of a dragonfly larva, which can be extended to seize prey.
verb: mask; 3rd person present: masks; past tense: masked; past participle: masked; gerund or present participle: masking

  1. 1.
    cover (the face) with a mask.
    "he had been masked, bound, and abducted"
    synonyms:hideconcealdisguise, cover up, obscurescreencloakcamouflage,veilmantleblanketenshroud
    "people carried herbs to mask the stench"
  2. 2.
    conceal (something) from view.
    "the poplars masked a factory"
    synonyms:hideconcealdisguise, cover up, obscurescreencloakcamouflage,veilmantleblanketenshroud
    "people carried herbs to mask the stench"


  3. 3.
    cover (an object or surface) so as to protect it during painting.
    "mask off doors and cupboards with sheets of plastic"
    synonyms:mattephotomaskshadow mask, masking, masking tape
    "a mask that blocks out part of the image"


mid 16th century: from French masque, from Italian mascheramascara, probably from medieval Latin masca ‘witch, spectre’, but influenced by Arabic masḵara ‘buffoon’.

Image Credit: "MaskOfAgamemnon" by Xuan Che - Self-photographed (Flickr), 20 December 2010
Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Commons.

Definition Credit: Google