Wednesday, May 28, 2008

VANCOUVER: A POEM by George Stanley


I took George Stanley’s new collection to New York in early May and read it on the subway, and propped up in bed. I spoke of it to my friends. I asked one to bring me a copy of Williams’ Paterson as Stanley pays homage to that major candidate for the last century’s long poem prize at the beginning of this first great urban poem of the 21st century.

In the end my friend forgot Paterson but no matter. We will read Paterson again, as we should Baudelaire’s poems about Paris, to appreciate fully aspects of Stanley’s master work.

I write of mastery because this poet beguiles us with puppetry whose strings we cannot see no matter how hard we try. We are enthralled by the light touch, the inviting language, the confidence. He starts the poem “there is more here than memory.” That line tricks with its apparent simplicity. What more is there? Ideas? Action plans? He then tells us: “I am not a man & this is not my city.”

If not a man, then what, whom? If not his city, then whose?

In this first entry about Stanley’s poem— I do not intend to distil all of my thinking in one blog post—I reproduce an amazing passage to give you an idea of Stanley’s approach and preoccupations. I am also re-reading the poem and find that almost every word and pause has become vital for me, something that happens very rarely in reading a book of poems.

I cite the passage from Section 10, page 72.

“Safe in the city. Safe because of being in the city, place, & knowing all these things to relate to other things, that don’t change, but of course they change & then in between what they were & what they will be there’s a vacant lot, but it’s not a vacant lot like in childhood, you could play in, & make part of the place you were, it’s behind a fence, & now you’re old, & you look through the fence that some younger people have put up, to make it safe for you, & you hope (& it’s an angry hope, & it’s a desperate hope), you hope that really will be (you, that pronoun you hope you are, hope that really will be, & you will be (& then you look sort of shyly away, up the Drive---& all the other old people are there too (where the bank, or the coffee shop, or the bookstore, or the social service agency used to be), next to the fence, standing in ones, look past them & the city goes on & on, outside time, up & down & over small hills, until it gets to the natural line, the water. “

There are a thousand ways to skin a blackbird. The most direct requires seizing a knife, tearing a hole in the skin and starting to peel. That knife appears in the phrase “a vacant lot.” Its tactile, desolate image follows dubitative this and that about place and change. Yet great poetry is made from yoking together the contrast between the music of thinking (this and that) and the graphic image (vacant lot). Stanley knows how to mix the ingredients.

Shall I put my lands in order, I am tempted to ask. There is a lot of Tom Eliot informing this passage. “Between what they were and what they will be” evokes Time Past, Time Present, Time Future from the Four Quartets….and from the Preludes we see old women gathering fuel in vacant lots.

Stanley would agree that Eliot lived still at a time when the poem had some weight, could tweak history. He also wants us to recall il miglio fabbro, the deluded old Lear, Ezra Pound, imprisoned, facing charges of treason, who wrote in 1948 in Canto LXXXI: " Pull down thy vanity/Thou art a beaten dog/beneath the hail/A swollen magpie in a fitful sun/Half black, half white/Nor knowst’ou wing from tail/Pull down thy vanity.”

For Stanley that plaintive cry becomes “& it’s an angry hope, & it’s a desperate hope.” An old man , he sits, in a dry month, among other old men, beside a fence, alone, The various buildings that once occupied the site have gone--the bank, coffee shop, bookstore, social service agency—leaving a vacant lot beside the old men and beyond the small hills, the natural line, the water.
Remember Williams:

so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

Who are today’s chickens? In what space do they cluck? How shall we disappear? By leaning against a fence encircling a vacant lot?
c) 2008 Indran Amirthanayagam Lines cited from Vancouver; A Poem, New Star Books, c) 2008 George Stanley.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

A LA PORTE DE LA FETE: Un Poeme de Indran Amirthanayagam

Avec l’édition de cet poème je voudrais souligner mon compromis avec la langue française. Une langue pourrait devenir raide pour la faute d’exercice. On doit se promener tes langues tous les jours comme si elles étaient tes chiens ou tes enfants ou tes idées. Une idée fermée dans la tête ne vaut rien. Une langue tuée par la faute de volonté de son être-humain est une perte d’éclairement pour le monde entier. Je vous salue en français.


Un jour
je déménagerai
sans aucune

je ne la
permetrai pas;

je comprends
qu’un être humain

a besoin
de fetes,
de rites

de passage,
pour dire
a ses amis

que c’est réel
la blessure
et la memoire,

que nous
ne devons pas
le laisser partir

sans un essai
de plus
contre la règle

de nos vies:
tout marche

l’eau change
sa forme,
le sang s’arrêtera

de couler
à la derniere fête,

qui pour certains
n’est pas si grave,
un moment

pour faire
la connaissance
d’une future copine,

pour boire
avec des amis
et passer la nuit

sans être seul
avant cette
présence étrange

qui nous ouvre
la porte
quand nous sortons.

-- Indran Amirthanayagam c) 2008

Sunday, May 18, 2008

WHEN THE WIND HURLS STONES (For Manik Sandrasagra, in Memoriam)

When wind hurls stones,

picks up straw houses,

When earth rumbles,

splits, buries buildings,

When bomb sends bus

flying in Colombo Fort,

When a good man,

precise thinker, reader

of ola leaves and

digital text, gives way

--his body opened

before surgeons--

and we try

to make sense

out of nonsense,

to understand

the boil on the brain,

the blocked artery,

the alarming message:

"surgery did not

go well. We must pray."

He told me

he missed an earlier

Fort explosion

by a minute.

He had just driven

through the round-about.

Today, another bomb,

and in a surgeon's ward,

I don't know where,

in Singapore or Colombo,

we ask for doctors

we can trust, but even

the trusted are not God,

are subject to human

vanity and uncertainty.

Perhaps there is no human

way to cope, except

with hands flailing,

to cut all parties down,

in grief's general cacophony,

in the general madness

of endless war and endless

explosions in the Fort,

and hearts blocked up

in millions of bodies

on all the continents,

and we're left with words,

funeral orations, memories

of the soul freed now

who made our lives

glad for a time.

-- Indran Amirthanayagam, May 17, 2008

Wednesday, May 7, 2008


The text of a speech delivered as an invited delegate to the International Writers Conference held in association with the Edinburgh Festival in Edinburgh, U.K. (August, 1962)

The problem posed by the title seems to me an artificial one. Whether the writer deals primarily with his inner life or the world around him, in so far as he is a human being, he is committed the moment he begins to write. The writer uses words, and since words have meanings, he cannot conceivably avoid saying something meaningful about himself or the world in which he lives, unless he chooses to write nonsense. This may seem an unduly banal or simplified way of putting it, but the writer is immersed in the human situation or predicament; that is, after all, the pre-condition of writing, pre-philosophical, pre-epistemological, if you like.

I think 'commitment' is a live issue only for academicians, professors of literature and the clearly minor writers who have the time to bother with issues divorced and separate from the fervid agitation of creativity which should generate their work. I don't think the great writers ever raised the problem in this form, or judged themselves in relation to the extent to which they were "committed." That we should busy ourselves with the question is itself a major sign of cultural decadence and moral confusion.

Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Dostoievsky, Dickens--how would you see them in regard to this business of commitment? The writer should speak the truth and if in the process he concerns himself with, say, politics and has said the truth about it, he is worth reading, at least for his acumen in affairs of state.

However, you cannot dismiss writers who wrote without the least shade of a political thought, Jane Austen, Emily Bronte, or even T.F. Powys in this century as uncommitted and therefore inferior writers. It is rather like the position of the neutralist nations in the 'cold war.' If we in Ceylon are not committed to one of the power blocs, this does not mean that we are not committed: on the contrary we are so fully committed to the human situation in 1962 that we feel the only way we can help avert or at least protest against the possibility of man's suicide, is by being aggressively neutral.

Should a writer express the spirit of his age? Of course, whether he likes it or not, he will be conditioned by the times in which he lives but the particular age of history in which he lived does not altogether determine either the content or the form of his art. If the age in which he lives is given to trivial and worthless concerns, we do not require of the writer that his work merely reflect his triviality and worthlessness: what is valuable in a writer is not merely what he absorbs from his age, but what he, deriving from his own imagination and inner resources, contributes to transform and embed the reality he has encountered. Historians of literature may read a novel in order to discover in it a faithful mirror of its time, but a man interested in the novel and in life will read it for what it has to say directly to him and for what is valuable in it for all time.

Last afternoon there was considerable discourse about 'roots'; it ws said that a writer's work would sicken and die if he cut himself away from his roots. It is healthy and stabilising to discover and ground oneself in one's 'roots' but surely the quality of the roots in question affect the quality of the work. A great writer should be able to grow his own roots wherever he goes and if he cannot, obviously he should not travel.

I was astonished that a great poet like Hugh McDiarmed should be such a stubborn simpleton as to advocate so passionately a complete commitment to an elementary ideology and an inhumane closed system. Shouldn't we learn to cope not only with international but even with cosmic man? The little white rose of Scotland is a beautiful flower and has inspired great poetry, but is that all there is to proclaim? Will it bloom in outer space?

The problem is as simple as it is profound. The writer is a human being, more gifted, more aware but also more normal than the human average. It is the balanced normality of the writer that I wish to stress: a writer is committed to his craft, to himself, to the woman or women he loves, to his family and friends, to his country, to the world, to God or the lack of God, to death--why then discuss this problem of 'commitment' in such an external, such a superficial way?

Great art is not propaganda, not escapism, not even accomplishment; it is an act of radical seriousness forged in passionate logic, wrought out of the mind, the emotions and the blood of man.

--Guy Amirthanayagam c) 2008, Estate of Guy Amirthanayagam.

In collaboration with my siblings, I am preparing a volume of Selected Writing of Guy Amirthanayagam under the title "The Unplanned Flower". I will write further about this as the book takes shape.

Monday, May 5, 2008


I have been walking and riding the subway in New York over the last few days. Have read from The Splintered Face and seen old friends. I have also noticed the orgy of lights at Times Square and am thinking we must find a way to reduce the footprint cast by those beams. The city has been sweet, sun lit and throbbing with its constant energy. The surprise meetings also by chance with Roberto Echavarren, the writer resident now in Montevideo, in town to lecture....we drank coffee in the Village and caught up with our lives since our last meeting at the Poesia de las Americas conference at College Station, Texas in April 2007.

I visited the Strand and picked up Allen Ginsberg's last book, a nice first edition, Death and Fame. I also met Valentine Daniel for the first time. Daniel is a legendary figure among the of Charred Lullabies, his study of nationalist violence in Sri Lanka. Daniel is revising a long poem. I was thrilled to find that we agreed on getting rid of false barriers between areas of expression, that poetry can be another way to truth, as valid as the fieldwork of the anthropologist.

Tomorrow I read at the Asian American Writers Workshop at 7 pm. I will greet you there.