Monday, 29 December 2014

Off by heart - halfway there

Well it seems my 50-year-old brain is still capable of learning some new tricks: I have learned 3 of the 6 poems I set myself in my last post off by heart.

I began with Wind by Hughes and then The Given Note by Heaney. Learning them was straightforward, taking a few days for each via a process of mentally repeating a small number of lines at a time.  I found it helpful in both cases to listen to others reading the poems so as to catch the rhythm. I have a recording of Heaney reading his own poem (in The Poet and the Piper) and I copied his intonations. For example, in the line:
The house throbbed like his full violin
my initial prononciation was Vih-Oh-Lin in three even syllables, whereas Heaney says it more quickly, Viah-Lin, which makes the line flow better I believe.

Learning Soir d'hiver by Nelligan was rather more complicated. First I went looking for some good translations so as to ensure I really understood it. I particularly like this translation by Clarissa Ackroyd. (Her blog, The Stone and the Star, is a revelation of fine poetic things, and I love the name Clarissa - reminds me of Mrs Dalloway...) Next I went looking for a reading of the poem to hear its music and I settled on this one by Gilles-Claude Thériault - I find the background music in the recording to be a bit distracting but his voice is wonderful. The final part of the process was subjecting one of my francophone children to my recital and Tristan was patient with me, correcting my errors in return for me setting up the laptop he got for Christmas. For some reason the following line took me a long time to say to his satisfaction:
Je suis la nouvelle Norvège
It contains the first accent grave in the poem after a run of accents aigu, and in combination with an "r" it gave me some trouble. Anyway I can now pronounce it to Tristan's satisfaction, even if he says I still sound like an anglophone...

I'm currently learning Bridge by Jim Harrison, which presents different challenges. More news on that shortly.

Monday, 15 December 2014

Off by heart

He may not be with us for much longer but, though very unwell, Clive James remains irascible and insightful with a seasoning of wistfulness, and it makes me happy just to think of him. His book, Cultural Amnesia, has been a companion on my bedside table for a few years now and last week I delighted in the sound of his twanging Aussie voice in an interview on RTE radio.

Asked by interviewer Sinead Gleeson to name a poem that influenced him, James, flirting no doubt, came up with a poem by Irishman Louis MacNeice, and recited it from memory: The Sunlight on the Garden.

I can also recite poems from memory, works by Yeats and Kavanagh mostly that I learned at school. They're poems with which I am intimate, the process of learning them by heart has somehow made me internalize them and understand them deeply. I've read and loved many poems since my school days, but never tried to learn another one by heart.

Until now. Inspired by the dying Clive James (who I hope will be dying for a few years yet) I'm learning the following poems I love off-by-heart, four in English and (gulp) one each in French and Swedish
  • Wind, by Ted Hughes
  • The Given Note, by Seamus Heaney
  • Bridge, by Jim Harrison
  • The Sunlight on the Garden, by Louis MacNeice (Thanks Clive!)
  • Soir d'hiver, par Émile Nelligan
  • Romanska bågar, av Tomas Tranströmer
Progress reports will follow, assuming my 50-year-old brain makes progress...

Sunday, 7 December 2014

The Dead

How many! All these here once walked around Dublin. Faithful departed.
(thought Leopold Bloom at Glasnevin Cemetery in Joyce's Ulysses)

The Irish republican Valhalla? Glasnevin cemetery is certainly that but it's a lot more than that too, this landscaped garden containing the last remains of 1.5 million Dubliners. My Grandfather (Edward Henrick, Irish Volunteer) is buried here in an unmarked grave and Mam has visited a few times in recent years to find the spot. Today, she and I have come to take the guided tour of the cemetery.

I've never been here before and I’m surprised at how many of the famous and infamous names of Irish history are here, old comrades and sometime foes buried within a few hundred yards of each other: O’Connell, Parnell, DeValera, Collins, Boland, Casement...

I recall the lines by Yeats from a poem I learned off-by-heart at school
Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone,
It’s with O’Leary in the grave
and here I am before that O’Leary’s grave.

The oration given by Padraig Pearse at the graveside of O’Donovan Rossa was (literally) beaten in to us at school, its call-to-arms to be acted upon in the Easter rebellion of 1916 a few months after he delivered it
the fools, the fools, the fools! - they have left us our Fenian dead, and while Ireland holds these graves, Ireland unfree shall never be at peace.
Today I stand where Pearse stood almost 100 years ago, at the graveside of Jeremiah O'Donovan Rossa.

We pass by the graves of Sean MacBride and Countess Markievicz and our tour guide gives them the full hero treatment: Madame, the first woman elected to the parliament in Westminster and a fearless combatant in the rebellion; MacBride, a winner of the Nobel peace prize, co-founder of Amnesty International and towering statesman. I could add some other thoughts about them, but standing in the shadows of their gravestones is no place for cynicism.

(But there’s no better place for cynicism than a blog! The series of lectures “Speaking Ill of the Dead” hosted by RTE a few years ago had two wonderful pieces challenging the official Ireland view of these two. Professor David Norris gave a typically witty talk on MacBride a great public man who was also mean-spirited and probably homophobic. And Ruth Dudley Edwards has a good old go at the snobby and silly Madame, a woman with a callous disregard for the deadly impact of her posing.)

It’s odd to think of a cemetery as a tourist attraction, but frankly this is one of the best experiences I've had in Dublin as a “tourist”. By chance, during my visit to Ireland the documentary about Glasnevin, One Million Dubliners, is broadcast on Irish TV. For any Irish person watching it is a moving experience.



The last person to speak in that trailer, Shane MacThomais, was a well-known Dublin historian, as was his father before him. At the end of the clip he says, with a catch in his voice, "it lifts my spirit to work here" - but as we viewers knew, Shane took his own life just a few weeks after speaking these words, and the last part of the documentary is of his funeral in Glasnevin cemetery. (The blog Come Here to Me paid him a fine tribute.)

The last thing Mam and I see on our way out is a simple plaque by the entrance gate in memory of Shane. We exit, and leave the dead behind us.