Poet Alan Price explores the genius of Wallace Stevens, ahead of our event on 17th November…

Wallace Stevens is often regarded as notoriously ‘difficult’.Yet Stevens’ ‘difficulties’ are all part of the challenge and appeal of this great poet. He is dense, rhythmically taut and playfully ambiguous. His poetry and poetic method can be best summed up by the opening lines of the poem Of Modern Poetry.

‘The poem of the mind in the act of finding

What will suffice.’

You really need to tackle Stevens head on and unpack the rigour of his word patterning. The patterns are meaningful and also wonderfully self sufficient. The contradiction between the musical power of his words, that resist full meaning, and yet invite so much interpretation, proves, for the reader, to be a lot more fascinating than exasperating. You have to trust Stevens. Flow with him and realise that his writing isn’t a loose or showy abstraction. Stevens has an incisively observed, if very interior view of the world.

By his detractors Stevens has been called, over-cerebral, obscure, a poet’s poet and ‘worse’ that he was unpatriotic, that the poems are un-American. All this is untrue and a smoke screen to hide his concerns. His poems have lots of Americana hidden, or obvious. He is no more forbidding than T.S.Eliot or Robert Frost – both poets perhaps more universally loved than Wallace Stevens.

I’ve been reading Stevens for many years and I still don’t fully get all of him, but maybe that’s the point. He is an irreducible mystery case. His poetic thinking is very much concerned with a pure state of being. Not being in an existential sense but more an aesthetic one. Stevens tends to view the idea of reality, as more interesting than the reality itself. Is he just being playfully, and seriously, philosophical? Yes, often. But he’s not a philosopher, but a literary guy.

‘The philosopher proves that the philosopher exists.

The poet merely enjoys existence.’

That’s from an essay called ‘The Figure of the Youth as a Virile Poet.’ It’s part of a book of collected essays called The Necessary Angel published in 1951. (I urge all poets to read this book. It contains, alongside the criticism of Coleridge, some of the most insightful comments on the relationship between poetry and philosophy ever written).

Let me make it clear, Stevens is not a cold poet. You will find much warmth and humanity behind his abstractions. He is tender, funny and deeply sensitive in his highly original attempt to comprehend things. One of his most well known poems is Notes Towards a Supreme Fiction. The first section called ‘It must be abstract’ has these lines.

‘You must become an ignorant man again.

And see the sun again with an ignorant eye.

And see it clearly in the idea of it.’

For me this echoes Blake’s powerful warning/declaration in The Auguries of Innocence.

‘We are led to believe a lie

When we see not thro’the eye’

I think Stevens is often saying that the creative mind is endlessly making images. Images that are meant not to pin things down as a fixed set of thoughts or reflections. But an opening up to multiple ways of observation that remain fruitful and expansive. This activity is beautifully expressed in these lines from The Sail of Ulysses.

‘In the crystal atmospheres of the mind,

Light’s comedies, dark’s tragedies.

Like things produced by a climate, the world

Goes round in the climates of the mind

And bears its floraisons of imagery.’

I love the use of the French word floraisons – meaning blossoming. It suggests a natural growth, or evolving, of the mind. It also makes me think of the old word floriated – having ornamentation based on flowers and leaves.

Stevens enters the mind a lot in his poetry. There is a constant looking at the world through the prism of his interior landscape. But this is a truism. It’s what all good writers do. Yet what matters to Stevens is also what you also imaginatively journey towards. How the idea of that perceived external reality is then shaped into words. And in the case of Stevens and Blake it’s a constantly new possibility or visionary shape.

‘The real is constantly being engulfed in the unreal… (Poetry) is

an illumination of a self in the rock.’

Wallace Stevens is illuminating, full stop. Read him. Penetrate the rock.

Alan Price© 2014




Wallace Stevens takes place at 7pm on Monday 17th November at Kings Place.


Tickets cost £9.50 online via: http://bit.ly/11CkTqe

or contact Kings Place Box Office on 020 7520 1490.



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Literary mystery and disappearing poets

The Disappearing Poet – Hall 2 at Kings Place – from 6.30pm on Wed 29 Oct


The poet Sophie Hannah is also one of the UK’s leading writers of crime novels, with titles including The Point of Rescue, Hurting Distance and The Other Half Lives. Only this year she published The Monogram Murders, a new Poirot novel, commissioned by the Agatha Christie Estate. As a crime writer she specialises in strange disappearances and disquieting changes of identity, meaning that her books are often as much about the existential dilemma of the characters as it is about the underlying reason for the murder or mystery. In a similar vein, the late great Roberto Bolano, famous for his epic novel 2666, also wrote a fabulous book called The Savage Detectives about two friends on a dark and sinister quest to find a vanished poet. Although full of threat, danger, sex and death in 1970s Mexico, their quest is as much a literary quest as a mystery story…

In this spirit we would like to invite fans of crime and mystery writing to a fabulous ‘whodunnit’ event comparing the strange disappearance of the poet Arthur Rimbaud in 1879 with that of the celebrated British poet Rosemary Tonks in 1979, exactly 100 years later. Expert speakers Neil Astley and Tim Matthews will explore why such famous poets might have chosen to disappear so suddenly, brilliant actors Lucy Tregear and Ben Lambert will read a revealing extracts from their wonderful poems, whilst the distinguished contemporary poets George Szirtes and Matthew Caley will provide their own take on these celebrated real life disappearances.

Hosted by the Rimbaud and Verlaine Foundation and its sister organisation Poet in the City, this fascinating event should appeal to all fans of crime and mystery novels, combining mysterious and strange disappearances with the psychological and poetic context which may have informed them. This unique event is taking place from 6.30pm on Wednesday 29 Oct in Hall 2 at Kings Place (the event itself starts promptly at 7.00pm). Tickets are available online at http://www.kingsplace.co.uk/whats-on-book-tickets/spoken-word/the-disappearing-poet

The Rimbaud and Verlaine Foundation is committed to using inspiration from the poets Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine to encourage audiences to engage with the arts. Its event programme is supported by Arts Council England Grants for the Arts. Charity commission number 1157063, Company limited by guarantee 07559463.


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Through the Door of St Paul’s Cathedral

Alia Cassam reviews the 2nd in the series of events as part of ‘Through the Door’ a collaboration between Poet in the City and Archives for London. In this event, poet Imtiaz Dharker launches new poems from the Cathedral archives.


As Imitiaz Dharker finishes reading ‘Channel of vision’, one of her new Through the Door poems, there is glint in her eye. In a stone room by the Crypt inside St Paul’s Cathedral, she is telling tales of unexploded bombs, near misses, fallen cherubs, acts of bravery, Bovril billboards in an ever-changing London skyline, watchful apostles. And despite the quiet of the audience’s rapt attention the Cathedral has its own ideas – Dharker’s first reading to the public, about the life and memory of this great building, is merrily accompanied by the sound of bells ringing, an organ playing. It’s an apt soundtrack to a brilliant new collection of poems.

Seven poets in seven archives, that was the premise for Through the Door, and in each case, the aim and the hope was to literally ‘open the door’ – both to poetry and to London’s incredibly rich treasure-trove of archive material. In the case of Imtiaz Dharker and St Paul’s, the pairing seems to have been serendipitous. When she was approached and asked if she would like to like to take St Paul’s as her subject, she had already started writing poems about London and the Cathedral – “I live just down the road” she says. Being part of her life and landscape already, it seemed obvious subject matter. In fact, during the evening she describes how if she leans far enough out from her balcony she has a view of St Paul’s looking back at her.


Dharker’s pre-existing relationship with the place was just part of it. The really interesting thing about Through the Door and the St Paul’s Archive, is the way it threw the spotlight on how poems themselves come about. As well as the collaboration between two different organisations, Poet in the City and Archives for London, there was also the collaboration between the poet herself and a host of others at the Cathedral: Archivist Sarah Radford, Cannon Mark Oakley, Simon Carter who looks after the Collections and Librarian Jo Wisdom. The dizzying proportions of the Project were not dissimilar to something from Alice in Wonderland, and without these guides to accompany her through a maze of material including a vast archive of objects, architectural plans, and a library which alone holds over 21,500 manuscripts, books and pamphlets, the poems could not have been written.

The Project has also proved to be a fascinating re-examination of the roles of poet and archivist, as well as their methods of working. In her Introduction to the poems, Dharker figures herself almost as detective rather than poet – “what I really did in St Paul’s was just eavesdrop” and “I was following clues”. In an interview with her before the event begins, she points to the creativity of the work of an archivist like Radford, which is not dissimilar to that of a poet in piecing together and imagining lives, scenarios, from a heap of objects and images.

And it is Sarah Radford who begins the evening with a succinct and comprehensive presentation about the array of documents and objects which inspired these poems. They range from newspaper reports during the time of the Blitz, haunting black and white photographs of London bomb-scapes, the Cathedral’s architectural plans, medals of heroism, and a cherub statue which was part of a high altar and fell hurtling into the rubble when the Cathedral received a direct hit during the Second World War. It was found displaced and dented, notably on the left side of its chest, leaving Dharker to write that seeing it fallen like this “dents the heart”. Such items lead themselves to become six new poems – the Cathedral Poems.

Interweaving past with present, and delivered with Dharker’s characteristic hypnotic warm tones, the opener, ‘Cherub, St Paul’s’, takes the statue of the bomb-damaged fallen cherub to be representative of the child caught in war, and of the destruction of the innocent – “The one it chose as prey was you, at play”, “Your ribs caved in where you took the blow./Fallen, you are statue still”. It is a heart-breaking poem. Rather than give a voice to the archive, here Dharker is instead speaking directly to it – “What are we to make of you?/A guardian, a miracle, thrown/into the nave or on to today’s front page” making these poems sing out with contemporary relevance. Lines such as “In the aftermath,/ the hesitant dust falls back to blanket you,/rubbles tries to cradle you” brings to mind MacNiece in Prayer Before Birth, with its humanity and its rhythmic poetry.

Dharker’s longstanding preoccupation with words (as in her well known poem ‘Speech balloon’ which she always reads with such relish) is again evident in these new poems, where she continues with a self-conscious interrogation and love of language as a material in and of itself, as powerful and wonderful as the bricks and mortar that create concrete structures and Cathedrals. The poem about the bomb which landed in Dean’s Yard and almost threatened to blow up the Cathedral, ‘Unexploded’, is followed by a simple yet powerful three-liner about the sermons of John Donne, the Cathedral’s famous priest-poet. Here in ‘Exploded’, she writes simply “A prayer is said,/a story told. Under the dome/the Word explodes”. This is a poetry and a world as much about the explosive power of language as of any bomb.

‘Ringing the changes’ and ‘Channel of vision’ are both great London poems, and it is a delight to see Dharker now turn to a poetic figuring of London in her work when in the past she has written with such imagination, eloquence and wit, about other cities close to her heart – Mumbai in particular (‘Tiffin Box Talks’ and ‘Living Space/One Breath’ are great examples) which convey a different kind of architecture and a different kind of hustle and bustle. ‘Ringing the changes’ is unmistakably London – “The market has lost its sound track,/…All the usual effing/and blinding has stopped for the day”. It is a London where “The Grocers sing out/on a note you could eat, seasoned by Salters”.

Whilst taking subjects such as war, words, and a city in the process of endlessly remaking itself, Dharker in these new poems also takes St Paul’s duel identity as spiritual centre and icon of the city, and deftly weaves them together to create a poetry that acknowledges both, especially in poems such as ‘Channel of vision’ and ‘Ringing the changes’. The Cathedral, with its long association with state occasions, and located as it is in the heart of the city, has become a barometer of sorts for our time. The recent Occupy Movement, which found itself on the footsteps of the Cathedral, is still fresh in the memory. Images about the past offer a recognisable present – “logos of banks” and “barefaced glass,/the rise and rise that eats the sky” (‘Channel of vision’).

But it is in her last poem, ‘The Fabrick’, which best brings together the personal and the public – the outer architecture with the inner human being, to present a poetry of hope, faith, humanity. In the final two lines, she asks us to “Find, inside the resonating space/the way to live, the living poem”.

Canon Mark Oakley, hosting the event, points out that what Dharker is doing here is an act of remembering of the best kind – a ‘re-membering’, a creative putting back together. If St Paul’s can be said to represent to some degree the spiritual, political, and social life of a nation, then Dharker’s looking at the Archive history is not just the re-membering of an iconic building, but as Oakley suggests, it is also a re-membering, a putting back together, of ourselves.

You can find out more about the poetry and the project here: http://throughthedoorproject.tumblr.com/tagged/Main

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WW1: poetic voices from across the conflict

On 13th October 2014 Poet in the City, in collaboration with Modern Poetry in Translation, presents a selection of poetry from around the world, alongside more familiar voices of Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon and Rupert Brooke. The range of international poets is broad and includes Japanese, Russian, Punjabi, Italian, and Flemish contributions. The evening will be presented by Andrew Motion, Patron of Poet in the City, Sasha Dugdale, editor of Modern Poetry in Translation, Stephen Romer, Amarijt Chandan and John Greening.

ww1 artwork

Sasha Dugdale will present ‘Moscow in the Plague Year’, poems by Marina Tsvetaeva written in 1917, in a new translation by Christopher Whyte, published in August 2014 by Archipelago books.

The Flemish work (also presented by Sasha Dugdale) is the concrete poetry of Paul van Ostaijen, whose ‘Occupied City’ was published in 1921. These striking modernist poems are a forerunner of the disconnected voices of Eliot’s The Waste Land, published just a year later. With French and German words mixed in with the Flemish scattered like shrapnel across the page the focus is less on the immediacy of the war in the trenches but the broken world the war has offered up in its margins – the seedy brothels outside which the soldiers stand in line, the emptiness of Antwerp on a Sunday where the trams are stopped, rosary beads lie scattered in the street and an uneasy silence reigns at a time of high tension.

In concrete poetry the layout of the text on the page is of course central to its meaning – a Zeppelin flying over London is partly echoed by the shape of the aircraft being captured in the layout of snatches of the song ‘Goodbye Piccadilly, Farewell Leicester Square..’ in this very short poem we have just an image and an echo of the song whose added poignancy lies our recognition that so few of the soldiers that sang it returned home. Much of this extraordinary poetry will be featured in the forthcoming edition of Modern Poetry in Translation.


The Punjabi folk songs offered by Amarjit Chandran are songs of lamentation of women whose men have gone to fight in the war as mercenaries. French poetry is represented by Apollinaire, who fought in and was wounded in the war. We will see a kaleidoscope of offerings during the course of the evening, reflecting the destructiveness and the sadness of a very disjointed, broken world. While some of the poetry may be less directly inspired by the trench warfare in France and Belgium, this is hugely important international work, which contains a very real power to draw out the tragic impact of the war and testify to its truly international reach.

This fascinating event will offer something truly different in this centenary year, and is a unique opportunity to experience previously unheard poetry from across the conflict.

By John Dixon


Tickets cost £9.50 online and can be booked here: http://bit.ly/1BM1bTU

Or call the box office on 020 7520 1490

The event takes place at 7pm on Monday 13th October in Hall One at Kings Place, 90 York Way, London, N1 9AG.

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Behind the scenes at Poet in the City

Royal Holloway student Charlotte Cole on her experience of coming back stage and getting involved in the workings of a busy two weeks of events….

When I came to King’s Place for the first day of my work experience with Poet in the City, I had a vague idea of what it was that I wanted to have achieved by the time it was complete, but I had no clue how invaluable the experience was going to be.

With the thriving environment of the city centre, I was not merely someone available to make coffee (I did not make a single cup!) but an individual keen to take up any of the tasks set for me, whether this was looking at the variety of social media that the organisation use and to come up with a marketing plan that can be put into motion or helping with front of house alongside the other volunteers. Sitting in meetings with potential collaborators, I saw what it took to present a new idea and create multiple ways in which it can work as an event, I promoted events through contacting listing agencies across multiple forms of media in order to get the best reception possible as well as designed promotional posters for future events.

I can definitely say that I attacked all that was given to me with enthusiasm and vigour. The highlight, however, throughout my entire two weeks there would have to be night of the Viking Sagas. As much as I enjoyed Andrew Motion and Friends or Seamus Heaney: A Tribute, it was this final event that topped it all off. Perhaps it was the flowers I received, the fantastic location, or the knowledge of a delicious Italian meal afterwards that contributed to my excitement for that Friday, or maybe it was the fantastic choice of texts that both intrigued me and stimulated some creative writing that I plan on pushing forward, either way, I had fun.

Now that the time has ended, however, I can now look back and see how much I have learned from Isobel, Gabby and Graham. Not only has it solidified my plan to work in Arts Administration, but it has ensured me that I will thoroughly enjoy this as a career path. So who knows? Perhaps you’ll hear my name soon enough as one of the top people to head up an event with, but no matter what I’ll be doing in this sector, I know that it all started with Poet in the City.

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Spoken Word in the City

Alia Cassam on Spoken Word moments, and why a pop-up Bowler Hat is the perfect place for a poetry performance…

My spoken word ‘moment’ happened some years ago, on an uneventful afternoon – television on, feeling absentminded and only half-watching what was flickering on the screen. Then a young woman called Kate Tempest appeared and my dull ears (until that moment anyway) opened up like satellite dishes to take in the amazing sounds that were coming from my small television in the corner of the room… The experience was new, visceral, the words were electric and crackled into the atmosphere. It was my first experience of spoken word, and I knew I’d just encountered something special.

Ever since, I’d been looking for more opportunities to find out about spoken word. This was poetry alright, but not as I knew it.

So when Poet in the City announced a new series of showcase events for this year’s City of London Festival, including one on spoken word, my ears switched on once again, satellite style. Living London, on Monday 7th July, will be bringing the artform right into the heart of the City, and into the Festival’s purpose-built pop-up Bowler Hat space, in Paternoster Square by St Pauls. It will be an evening of city tales, telling tall stories, revealing minute moments, and it will provide a unique linguistic encounter with that shape-shifting, ungraspable, and wonderfully charismatic character – London.


Spoken word performance has sometimes been dismissed as a less serious artistic endeavour, but as Melanie Abrahams, founder of Tilt, and partner with PinC on Living London points out, it’s more than just clever word play or a bit of ‘cool entertainment’:

“I feel that spoken word enables you to give a good account of yourself. Take for instance the importance of speech in everyday life – to get by, and to get on. Or, the ways that people have been moved to action by strong presentation – Obama being a totemic example. I’ve a passion for well-phrased, wise, funny and stirring words and their articulation and delivery.”

Spoken word is an artform in its own right, and it’s growing in popularity. This year’s Living London will be presenting three very different and very talented artists within the spoken word scene.


Antosh Wojcik is the youngest of the performers. A graduate in Creative Writing at Winchester University, he came across spoken word after finding conventional studies and approaches to poetry troublesome. He describes spoken word as a “gateway into poetry” which later led to an appreciation of poets such as Dylan Thomas and Seamus Heaney. While spoken word performances can often appear to be very spontaneous, he speaks of the process as one of constant and rigorous editing – “write it and explore it as much as you can on the page” he says, before describing how he works with the live experience and an audience’s reaction, in order to craft the work further. Wojcik is writing a piece especially for the Living London event, and is performing at the Glastonbury Festival later this week.


Femi Martin is best known for her flash fiction. These are stories which stick to a short, tight form, and have been described as ‘micro fiction’. Charles Dickens, one of London’s most famous residents, also wrote short fiction pieces and in 2012, Martin was the Dickens Young Writer in Residence at the Charles Dickens Museum. Ever busy, Martin has taken her work and workshops into various organisations around London including schools, libraries and hospitals. Earlier this month she ran a series of workshops in HMP Isis in London and according to English Pen, flash fiction is proving to be a particularly popular form among prisoners. In an interview with the TRC website she says, “I teach people how to get the most out of using just a few words and identify the pinnacle moment”. She is currently working on ‘The Breakups Project’, which explores the ways breakups can affect the body, and will be leading a flash fiction workshop at London’s Southbank Centre on August 5th.


The third and final contribution to Living London’s spoken word evening comes from Stacy Makishi. Makishi, who has worked with PinC before, describes herself as “a transplant from Hawaii who found paradise in Dalstan, East London”. Impossible to pin down, her interdisciplinary approach takes poetry, and also uses film, installation, and visual art. Makishi creates worlds which are rich with imagination, which are both humane and humorous (she was once a stand-up comic). Her most recent work, ‘The Falsettos’, was described as a “thrilling tale of filial-sleuthery” which explored “midlife, mobs, meatballs and moms via Barbra Streisand, E.T., and The Sopranos”. Makishi meets a Bowler Hat will be a fantastic encounter between a playful and searching artist, and a unique and surreal performance space.

There is something rather fitting (excuse the sartorial pun) about bringing spoken word performance, which is sometimes seen as edgy, still on the fringes, and which challenges and turns conventions on its head, to an icon of respectability and order – the traditional City Bowler Hat! If opposites attract, then this is a marriage made in heaven. I can think of no better place to explore the conundrum that is London, and I’m looking forward to yet another opportunity to have one of those unexpected and magical spoken word ‘moments’…

Living London takes place at 6.30pm on Monday 7 July in The Bowler Hat, Paternoster Square, London EC4M. Tickets are £8 INCLUDING booking fee, and can be purchased from the City of London Festival Website: http://www.colf.org/whats-on/1074-living-london


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A Soldier and a Maker – radio drama pays tribute to Ivor Gurney

‘A Soldier and a Maker’ – BBC Radio 3: Drama on 3, 22:00-23:30, 29th June

BBC Radio 3 will be broadcasting ‘A Soldier and a Maker’ on 29th June, based on the music, poetry and letters of Ivor Gurney. Poet in the City volunteer John Dixon spoke to the play’s author, Iain Burnside, about the fascinating man behind the story…


Ivor Gurney, born in Gloucester in 1890, fought in the Gloucestershire Regiment in WW1 but had already developed strong interests in both music and poetry before the outbreak of war. He published his first book, Severn and Somme, in July 1917. He had been wounded, not too seriously, in April of that year, but was gassed in September and sent to the Edinburgh War Hospital. He studied briefly with Ralph Vaughan Williams after the war, and produced another volume of poetry, War’s Embers in 1919.

Gurney had already had a mental breakdown in 1913, and the war only exacerbated his mental problems, and although he produced more musical and poetic works up until 1922 he was diagnosed as insane for the last fifteen years of his life. Despite this he continued to produce poetry and some music in the asylum – a further eight collections of verse, though his best musical work was behind him by this stage. He eventually died of tuberculosis in 1937 in the City of London Mental Hospital and was buried at Twigworth, near Gloucester.

Iain Burnside feels that the strongest outpouring of emotion came from the letters Gurney wrote from Dartford Asylum, tormented by his condition, and begging for release. Burnside’s play intertwines the letters, which were never sent, with Gurney’s poems and songs and his own dramatic material.

‘A Soldier and a Maker’ was first performed as a drama on stage with Iain Burnside’s students from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama at the Barbican Pit. Richard Goulding, a GSMD alumnus, played Gurney, with Stephanie Coles playing Winifred, Gurney’s sister, Jemma Redgrave as his friend Marion Scott, while David Shaw Parker played another friend, Herbert Howells. The songs are performed by the mezzo soprano Susan Bickley and members of the cast. Iain Burnside himself plays piano throughout.

Ivor Gurney described himself as a ‘maker’, not distinguishing between the music and the poetry or setting one above the other, and he will be remembered for both in equal measure. He set few of his own poems to music but the best known of these is Severn Meadows. The remarkable thing is that he was able to produce so much given the fragile state of his mental health even at the outset of war and the physical trials he endured on the Somme. Iain Burnside feels that the prolific artistic outpourings provided some solace to Gurney, even as his mind continued to deteriorate. Most of his poetry remains unpublished, though steps are being taken by Oxford University Press to rectify this, but most of his music is already known. The selected poems, edited by P.J. Kavanagh (OUP 1990) remains an important collection of his poetry, but a fuller picture of the man will surely emerge from publication of more of his work.

John Dixon

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