Sunday, April 26, 2015

Warrior Lore ~ Ian Cumpstey

Warrior Lore is a collection of Scandinavian folk ballads, translated by Ian Cumpstey. They would have formed part of the oral tradition of storytelling that has probably been part of human nature from the very early days of speech, with our ancestors huddled around open fires gaining an understanding of the world around them, expressing their fears, their beliefs, and their ideals of heroism through the recasting of their experiences in this narrative form. These narrative songs would have been sung for centuries before ballads of this nature were formalised on paper sometime around the sixteenth century and as such would have been known throughout Northern Europe.


There are ten Ballads in this collection:

Widrick Waylandson's fight with Long-Ben Reyser.
Twelve strong fighters.
Sir Hjalmar.
The Hammer Hunt.
The Stablemates.
Sven Swan-White.
The Cloister Raid.
Heming and the Mountain Troll.
Heming and King Harald.


Each ballad starts with an introduction by Ian Cumpstey, explaining what the ballad refers to - setting the scene and also some of the history of the narrative, alternate versions etc. There is also a preface to the collection giving some background detail to the works featured and a notes section providing information on which versions of the tales he based his translations on.
Most of the collection is based on the Swedish tradition, with one exception Heming and King Harald, which derives from the Norwegian. The form of the verse is predominantly in a four-line format in which the second and fourth line rhyme (ABCB), which may or may not be followed by a chorus line or lines.


King Diderick he sat in Bern,
And he gazed out so wide:
"I never knew a fighter,
"Who'd challenge me to fight".
There stands a castle at Bern
And there lives King Diderick.

Answered Bernard Wifaring,
He'd travelled far and wide:
"There is a fighter in Bortingsburgh,
"Who you'd not dare fight".

King Diderick took him by the throat,
And then took out his knife:
"You'll show me who that fighter is,
"Or it'll cost you your life".

(Extract from Widrick Waylandson's fight with Long-Ben Reyser.)


Confession time, my knowledge of these warriors, Gods and heroes is quite limited - beyond the obvious ones such as Thor, Freya & Loki my understanding falls drastically short. Which is quite pitiful especially as I consider myself to have a reasonable knowledge of Greek & Roman mythology & yet as a Northern European, I seem to have missed out on what is part of my own heritage, add to this the fact that Hollywood seems, through Marvell comics, to be co-opting certain Gods & heroes for its own mythology - making this book a welcome addition to my library. By giving me an understanding of this world and its heroes with all their characteristics, all their love & hate, all their foibles, their bawdy or violent nature intact and before they have been face-lifted or photo shopped beyond recognition. This is also a great book for dipping in and out of, erudite enough to make one want to learn more and yet still light enough that you can just dip in when the urge takes you.




Thursday, April 23, 2015

World Book Night


World Book Night is an annual celebration of reading and books that takes place on the 23rd April. It sees passionate volunteers give out hundreds of thousands of books in their communities with the aim of spreading their love of reading, to those that don't read regularly or own books. WBN is run by The Reading Agency, a national charity that inspires people to become confident and enthusiastic readers.

World Book Night took its lead from the well established and successful children's reading celebration in UK & Ireland called World Book Day. So as day is for children, then night is for adults.

 2015 will be the fifth World Book Night celebration.

Wbn covers with logo

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Salad Anniversary - Machi Tawara (Translation: Juliet Winters Carpenter)

The fact that "Salad Anniversary" sold over two point five million copies in Japan on its initial publication in 1987, would raise the eyebrow of any lover of poetry, add to this that it also created a phenomenon comparable to writers such as Banana Yoshimoto or Haruki Murakami, in the process turning a shy & retiring school teacher into a celebrity, hosting shows both on TV & Radio that promoted poetry. Now write into this tale that it was written in a format (Tanka) that can trace it's roots to the eighth century (Waka) and that it also received critical acclaim, winning 32nd Kadokawa Tanka Prize and the 32nd Modern Japanese Poets Association Award, Got your attention! – Good.

Tanka* (短歌 "short poem") is a genre of classical Japanese poetry,
originally, in the time of the Man'yōshū (latter half of the eighth century AD), the term Tanka was used to distinguish "short poems" from the longer chōka, or long poems (
長歌). In the ninth and tenth centuries the short poem became the dominant form of poetry in Japan, and the originally general word Waka became the standard name for this form. Japanese poet and critic Masaoka Shiki** revived the term Tanka in the early twentieth century for his statement that "waka should be renewed and modernized" with the Man'yōshū (Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves) as the reference point. After the 2nd world war it fell out of favour again, considered out of date, although this changed during the late 1980s after it was explored and revived by contemporary poets such as Machi Tawara

Jazz concert

The guitarist's mouth,
Half open as he plays –
Jazz, a downpour of sound and rhythm.

The drum beats on, never knowing of the
Staves pounding rhythmically into my flesh

Standing on the amplifier
Where horizontal and
Vertical sound waves converge –

a can of beer
By the end of the musicians second number
I am drenched in notes.

The above is part of a poem with the title Jazz Concert, and that is my dilemma in writing about this book, for example the opening section "August Morning" is a fifty poem sequence and it was this that got her the original attention and that received the 32nd Kadokawa Tanka Prize, also these poems would originally have been written as a single vertical line, three to a page. This means that what appears here on my post, is what I've chosen to place, arbitrarily ending the sequence at a place I've deemed fitting. All I can state is that these poems work as a whole and read like a diary and, like a diary they are full of emotion, the writing comes off the page with an exuberance, a sparkle and an honesty that draws you in, lines like:


Like getting up to leave a hamburger place –
that's how I'll leave
that man

resonate and show how by combining a classical, almost derided format, with modern language and imagery, Machi Tawara woke up a nation to its own poetic history and in the process reinvigorated it. What is also amazing, is the response she received back from her readers. Inspired by her words, by her poetry - they sent her thousands of letters and in these letters were well over 200,000 tanka composed by her fans in acknowledgement to how she had affected them. She went on to choose 1,500, which were published in book form - the oldest contributor was a 91 year old man and the youngest an 11 year old girl.


The Day I left for Tokyo
Mother looked older by all the years of
separation ahead



Machi Tawara, one of Japan's most popular tanka poets is also well known as a critic, author and translator of Japanese classic literature into contemporary Japanese. She was born in Osaka, and raised there and later in Fukui. In 1981, as she entered Waseda University, she began to write tanka under her mentor, the respected poet Yukitsuna Sasaki. After graduating 8Waseda with a BA in Japanese Literature in 1985, Ms. Tawara started teaching at Hashimoto High school in Kanagawa, where she taught Japanese until 1989. 
Juliet Winters Carpenter is an award-winning translator from Japanese. Her translation of Kobo Abe's Secret Rendezvous was awarded the Japan-U.S. Friendship Commission Prize, and she has won the 2014 Next Generation Indie Book Award's Grand Prize in Fiction. She lives in Kyoto, where she is a professor at the Doshisha Women's College of Liberal Arts.


Pushkin Press

Tawara Machi's Chocolate Box

A n g l o - J a p a n e s e T a n k a S o c i e t y

American Tanka

*Edward Hirsch also writes about the epic in his book A Poet's Glossary (Harcourt, 2014): 
Tanka: Also called uta or waka. The character for ka means "poem." Wa means "Japanese." Therefore, a waka is a Japanese poem. Tan means "short," and so a tanka is a short poem, thirty-one syllables long. It is unrhymed and has units of five, seven, five, seven, and seven syllables, which were traditionally printed as one unbroken line. In English translation, the tanka is customarily divided into a five-line form. The tanka is sometimes separated by the three "upper lines" (kami no ku) and the two "lower ones" (shimo no ku). The upper unit is the origin of the haiku. The brevity of the poem and the turn from the upper to the lower lines, which often signals a shift or expansion of subject matter, is one of the reasons the tanka has been compared to the sonnet. There is a range of words, or engo (verbal associations), that traditionally associate or bridge the sections. Like the sonnet, the tanka is also conducive to sequences, such as the hyakushuuta, which consists of one hundred tankas.

**Haiku is also a term of his invention, used for his revision of standalone hokku, with the same idea.


I received this from the wonderful Pushkin press after seeing it on Netgalley, and as it covered various interests of mine I was keen on reading, researching & writing about it, with the aim of learning more – Which I did, in the process I discovered a new to me writer, and learnt a lot more about a subject I had minimal knowledge of, to which I offer Pushkin Press, my heartfelt thanks.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

White Hunger ~ Aki Ollikainen

The Famine of 1866–1868 was the last famine in Finland and northern Sweden, it was also the last major naturally caused famine in Europe. In Finland the famine became known as "the great hunger years" (suuret nälkävuodet) and it is estimated that about 15% of the entire population died, with this figure rising to 20% in the hardest-hit areas. One of the reasons that this famine hit particularly hard, was that various parts of the country had suffered previous poor harvests, with 1862 being an exceptionally bad year, that combined with the summer of 1866 suffering severe downpours - causing the staple crops (root vegetables, potatoes etc.) to rot in the fields and creating poor conditions for the autumn grain sowing. 

In addition to this the government was ill-equipped to handle it & was also slow to recognise the magnitude of the crisis. With no money to import food and a Finance minister, Johan Vilhelm Snellman, not wishing to borrow in case it weakened Finland's recently introduced currency (the Finnish markka), due to the very high interest rates that the Rothschild bank of Frankfurt were asking. When the stored food ran out, thousands took to the roads to beg, in a winter that was harsh and the following season was no better, as May was the coldest on record, and in many places lakes and rivers were still frozen in June. By the autumn of 1867, people were dying by the thousands.*


This is the background for a bleak yet beautifully written book by Aki Ollikainen and translated by that remarkable family team of Emily & Fleur Jeremiah. In this story we follow the decimation of a family, Juhani, Marja & their two kids Mataleena and Juho, the book starts in summer, although this could by no stretch of the imagination be described as a time of plenitude it will be as good as it gets. By October Juhani will be dying of starvation, having foregone food to make sure his family ate & his wife will be left with the horrifying decision to abandon him, so as to save herself and the children. She, as will thousands of others, takes to the road in search of sustenance, in search of that one chance that could save her and her family.

She sets off with the idea of making her way to St. Petersburg*, a distance of around 400km, or in other words a distance unfeasible by foot in what has been described the harshest winter then known, by someone with two children and who are all starving. In fact after a couple of days travelling she is lost, in a landscape that admits no other colour but a crystalline white. Marja, will meet the rawest elements of humanity as she struggles, lurching from place to place, a harsh reminder to those that had, and unwanted competition for food for those in the same position as herself & her family. Although there are moments of kindness they are few and far between and often come with a price.

This is only half the tale because Marja's struggles are counterpoised by the lives of two brothers, one a doctor and the other a government official. Although they are touched by the relentless poverty & humiliation stretching like an ocean around them, they sit safe, secure & warm floating above it. Their views & conversations are also our point of reference to the political machination of the day that will have such dire consequences and yet will set Finland on a path to eventual nationhood.

As stated above this is a bleak tale, it is unrelenting in it's depiction of the plight of Marja & her family, and yet there is a beauty here, even in the harshest of descriptions a poetic quality shines through the writing with phrases like "hunger is a kitten in a sack, scratching away with its claws" or the description of a snake with "eyes the colour of frozen berries, its twin teeth like icicles" all pointing to a writer with a mastery of words and yet this is a début novel.

 This is another fantastic choice by the wonderful people at Peirene Press, and I still don't know how they manage to pick such a consistently high quality of reading material – I'm beginning to suspect witchcraft or something similar.


Aki Ollikainen, born in 1973, has taken the Finnish literary scene by storm with this extraordinarily accomplished debut novel, which has won the most prestigious literary prizes in Finland. A professional photographer and reporter for a local newspaper, the author lives in Kolari in northern Finland.


*The total death toll was estimated at around 270,000 in three years, about 150,000 in excess of normal mortality. The worst-hit areas were SatakuntaTavastiaOstrobothnia, and North Karelia.

During this period of history Northern Finland was controlled by Russia.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

20th Century French Poems edited by Stephen Romer

The first poem in this anthology was written in 1903 the last in 1999 and with around 200 poems in the collection it provides an interesting overview of 20th century French poetry. The editor happily admits in the preface, that it can be no more than that & the collection should be seen as though it were a wine tasting, with the idea that a little of each can go a long way to inspiring you to try those you like in greater depth, to explore them further.

 A personal example of this would be my recent discovery of the writer Jules Supervielle, a writer I liked but knew nothing of beyond a couple of poems, this lead me to investigating more & writing a post about him, purely as a way of learning more about this individual. Stephen Romer also goes on to say that the emphasis in this anthology is on the poems not the poet, meaning that there is no significance into how many poems a particular poet is represented by. Another point raised in the preface is that this is not a bilingual edition.
 Romer’s reasoning on this is lack of space, and that to have made it so would have doubled the size of the anthology, so he chose to concentrate on the quality of the translation, following Antoine Berman’s criteria for evaluating translation of éthicité and poéticitè, that is, faithfulness to the original and the poetic quality of the translation. Stephen Romer follows this criteria by seeking out versions that work as poems in English and where he couldn’t find then commissioned them, he also states that the majority of the translations were made by practising poets.

The Man of Glass ~ Paul Valéry (1871- 1945)

“So sharp is my vision, so pure my senses, so pathologically
complete my knowledge, so clear and clean my image, so
keen my expertise that I know myself from the ends of the
world to my innermost speech: and from that inchoate
“thing” to the rising desire, I follow my progress along
familiar fibres and ordered centres – self-answering,
self-reflecting, self-echoing – I quiver in the infinity of
mirrors – I am made of glass.”                   (Trans: Stephen Romer)

In the introduction to 20th Century French Poems, Romer uses Paul Valéry’s diminutive & amusingly titled “Complete Poem”(1903)* as his starting point  and then goes on to chart the rise and fall of the different movements in French poetry of the twentieth century. Ranging from those that he sees as heralding in the century such as Valéry, Jarry & Roussel, who he deems as the precursors through fourteen categories such as the “Modern Age” Apollinaire, Cendrars & Reverdy through the likes of “Dada” Tzara, Breton and the “Surrealists” Eluard, Aragon, Desnos, Artuard & Prévert, and onto those he defines as “Poets of being & presence” Char, Bonnefoy, Jacottet & Dupin, working his way through the century & the schisms that developed during that period.

Features and Shapes ~ Pierre Reverdy (1889 – 1960)

A break in the clouds, with blue in the sky; in the forest,
The clearings all green: but in the city where the design
Holds us prisoner – the semi-circular arch of the porch, the
Rectangles of windows, the lozenges of roofs,
   Lines, nothing but lines, for the commodiousness of
Human buildings.
   And in my head, lines, nothing but lines; if only I could
put a little order there.                            (Trans: Martin Bell)

The last poet featured in this anthology, Valérie Rouzeau was born in 1967 & the last poem (I put on my walking shoes*) was written in 1999 which nicely rounds off the century & also, according to the editor, is seen as a “return to the lyric” or even as a return to the world, an idea that had been considered remote and attenuated during the intellectual severity of the 1970s. The group defined as “The New LyricRéda, Kaddour, Rouzeau, Goffette, Ortlieb, & Le Jéloux, although a diverse bunch, owe their prominence to one man, Jacques Réda, who during this period was editor of the Nouvelle Revue Française (1987-96) and who in rejecting “textuality” sought for  the wonderful, the magic in the face of passers-by or in the change of light reflecting off surfaces. He saw in this idea a return to the earlier ideals of the “flânerie” whose greatest exponents were Baudelaire and Rimbaud.

Breakfast ~ Jacques Prévert (1900 – 1970)

He put the coffee
In the cup
He put the milk
In the cup of coffee
He put the sugar
In the café au lait
With the coffee spoon
He stirred
He drank the café au lait
And he set down the cup
Without a word to me
He lit
A cigarette
He made smoke-rings
With the smoke
He put the ashes
In the ash-tray
Without a word to me
Without a look at me
He got up
He put
His hat upon his head
He put his raincoat on
Because it was raining
And he left
In the rain
Without a word
Without a look at me
And I  _.  I took
My head in my hand
And I cried.         (Trans: Lawrence Ferlinghetti)

As stated previously the editor sees this anthology as no more than a wine tasting, merely a small representation of French poetry in the 20th century, making this post at most, a quick trip round the French wine section of my local supermarket. There are many big names, important poets that I’ve not included due to this being a post on a small poetry blog, hence no Genet, Césaire, no Beckett, Jacob, or Queneau, these and many more are represented in this collection and as such serves it’s ambition admirably & serves it with a passion that is almost asking you to argue the selection, knowing that it has the subject well and truly covered. In fact my only query is minor as I don’t speak French &  Stephen Romer, has already answered it & that is this is not bilingual, minor quibble, in what is a great introduction to a fascinating subject.

The Offended ~ Anne Hébert (1916-2000)

By rank of hunger, the indigents were lined up
By rank of anger, the seditious were examined
By rank of good conscience, the masters were judged
By rank of offense, the humiliated were interrogated
By rank of mutilation, the crucified were considered
In this extreme misery the mutes came to the front lines
A whole nation of mutes stayed on the barricades
Their desire for the word was so urgent
That the verb came through the streets to meet them
The burden it was charged with was so heavy
That the cry “fire” exploded from its heart
Disguised as a word.              (Trans: A. Poulin. Jr)

Stephen RomerFRSL is an English poet, academic and literary critic. He was born in Hertfordshire in 1957 and educated at Trinity Hall, Cambridge. Since 1981 he has lived in France, where he is Maître de Conferences in the English department of Tours University. He has been three times Visiting Professor in French at Colgate University, New York. Stephen Romer has four published collections of poetry with the Oxford Poets imprint of Carcanet.

* Complete Poem ~ Paul Valéry

The sky is bare. The smoke floats. The wall shines.
Oh! How I should like to think clearly!   (Trans: Stephen Romer)

*I put on my walking shoes - Valérie Rouzeau

I put on my walking shoes
I had shown you with the soles retreaded
from old tires.
In pilgrim boats I floated to you
petals stuck to the leather as proofs
of my wishes on the way.
I know you've a good pair too
on your cold feet I know that
better than you and how does it help you.
I wanted to see you to empty
the sand eternally in my shoes to be your
little sand girl for a bit but you have
shut your eyes too tight.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

The Man in a Hurry by Paul Morand

You often hear that the modern world is too fast, that everything is travelling at breakneck speed without a chance to pause, to relax and to take in your surroundings. What if your experience is the opposite? What if as far as you are concerned the world is going too slow & that all your dealings with it could/should be done far quicker, so that you could move on to the next thing, before your patience, or boredom levels reach crisis point.

The Man in a Hurry, tells the story of Parisian antiques dealer Pierre Niox, a man who sees the idea of relaxing as something akin to being buried alive. His life is spent rushing from one deal to the next, moving on before the ink has dried on the contract, flitting impulsively from obsession to obsession with little thought to the consequences of those around, until all those around leave even - his cat. However a lifeline is thrown to him in the shape of Hedwig who is as relaxed and laidback as Pierre is frenetic and fast paced, but to win her heart he will have to learn to slow down. As you can imagine, this is not as easy as it sounds especially for a man whose whole life has been governed by the motto "quickly and badly", who thinks that everything can be sped up regardless of the consequences, and by god are there consequences!

The Man in a Hurry (L'Homme pressé) is a 1941 novel by
Paul Morand
, who was admired by both Ezra Pound and by Marcel Proust as a pioneer craftsman of Modernist French prose. Paul Morand was born in Paris in 1888. After studying at the École libre des sciences politiques, he joined the diplomatic corps, serving in London, Rome, Berne and Bucharest. Tender Shoots his first collection of stories was introduced by Marcel Proust. He wrote poetry, novels, short stories and travel books. Due to his collaboration with the Vichy government during WWII, he was refused admission to the prestigious Académie Française three times before being finally accepted in 1968, despite the protests of Charles de Gaulle.

This is a wonderful, funny book that moves at a frantic pace, almost as fast as Pierre Niox but, unlike Pierre, the writer is fully in control. What surprised me about this book is this is the first English translation, ably done by Euan Cameron, who has also translated other books by Paul Morand, such as Venices, Tender Shoots and The Allure of Chanel, all for Pushkin press. He has also translated biographies on Marcel Proust and Iréne Némirovsky.


The Man in a Hurry, is also Pushkin press's first hardcover & although it's not essential to the reading of the book, they have created a wonderful looking book that still manages to follow the elegant style of their previous titles, I'm looking forward to seeing where they go with this.