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A niggle worried me, that I ought to have known all about Louis MacNeice a long time ago, as if I was less for not having known more. I shoved the niggle out. I have been enjoying discovering Louis MacNeice now and if I had known about him since then, he would not be new to me now. I came across a poem he had written, in another book, and bought a collection of his works, and read some more.
He died the year after I was born and was born in 1907 in Belfast, Northern Ireland, to a family that came from the south of the island. He was Anglo-Irish. Neither one thing nor the other, made up of a mixture of the West of Ireland, Northern Ireland and England. In the south of Ireland he was a “visitor” or a tourist and in England he felt a stranger. He did not visit his family home in Connemara until after he left school but it was a country that came alive in family history so that “for many years I loved on a nostalgia for somewhere I had never been”. He describes himself as a “bastard/ Out of the West by urban civilisation” and as being neither free of all roots nor yet a rooted peasant.
Yet ambiguity about his roots was only one of the shadows that he dragged along behind him, for his mother died when he was only five and her inadequate replacement – a dour-faced Puritan housekeeper – provided for his basic physical needs but no affection. His father, an priest in the Church of Ireland who became a bishop, “wore his collar the wrong way round” and frightened him with his faith that he was yet unable to deny yet taught him Latin which had the effect of liberating him from his love-lacking environment.
From the age of ten he was sent away to school in England, first to Sherborne where the poetry-loving headmaster inspired him, then to Marlborough where he held a classical scholarship. Here he got to know John Betjeman and Anthony Blunt, the future spy. He finished his education at Merton College, Oxford and went on to become a respected translator of The Agamemnon and other Greek classics as well as Goethe’s Faust. He was, unsurprisingly, an intellectual snob by all accounts.
He became friends with W H Auden and 1940 found him in America like so many other intellectuals – Auden, Christopher Isherwood, Aldous Huxley, Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears. He returned to England in December 1940 because “I thought I was missing History” and was a fire warden in the London Blitz. He married twice, once when he was twenty-three, and again twelve years later, during the war, in 1942. He was, as Anthony Blunt described him “totally and unredeemably heterosexual”.
His neither-one-thing-nor-the-other-ness left him comfortable with ambivalence and ambiguity and disliking political certainties. His poetry is not overtly political as the works of other poets were, yet he believed that “to shun dogma does not mean to renounce belief” and he was insistent that it was the duty of all of us to assert our hatred of hatred and assertion of human values, however minute our gesture.
“The poet is a maker, not a retail trader. The writing today should be not so much the mouthpiece of a community (for then he will only tell it what it knows already) as its conscience, its critical faculty, its generous instinct. In a world intransigent and overspecialized, falsified by practical necessities, the poet must maintain his elasticity and refuse to tell lies to order. Other can tell lies more efficiently; no one except the poet can give us poetic truth.”
He would also have the poet an all-rounder:
“I would have a poet able-bodied, fond of talking, a reader of the newspapers, capable of pity and laughter, informed in economics, appreciative of women, involved in personal relationships, actively interested in politics, susceptible to physical impressions.”
I suppose he was describing himself.
For me, the poems I like do not tell me something that I do not already know. For if I did not already know that thing, I doubt that the poet’s words would resonate with me. The poems that I like best are the ones that give voice to thoughts I have had, feelings I have experienced, things I have noticed, events that have happened to me already, even if some of those thoughts, feelings and experiences have not been made sense of before that moment. Poems make me feel less alone. The effect of the poem is like combing conditioner through long tangled hair until all the confused strands lie side by side in straight lines.
With a pert moustache and a ready candid smile
He has played his way through twenty years of pubs,
Deckchairs, lounges, touchlines, junctions, homes,
And still as ever popular, he roams
Far and narrow, mimicking the style
Of other people’s leisure, scattering stubs.
Colourless, when alone, and self-accused,
He is only happy in reflected light
And only real in the range of laughter;
Behind his eyes are shadows of a night
In Flanders but his mind has long since refused
To let that time intrude on what came after.
So in this second war which is fearful too,
He cannot away with silence but has grown
Almost a cipher, like a Latin word
That many languages have made their own
Till it is worn and blunt and easy to construe
And often spoken but no longer heard.
And this challenge to the internet written in 1957.
When books have all seized up like the books in graveyards
And reading, and even speaking have been replaced
By other, less difficult, media, we wonder if you
Will find in flowers and fruit the same colour and taste
They held for us for whom they were framed in words,
And will your grass be green, your sky be blue,
Or will your birds be always wingless birds?
If we could get the hang of it entirely
It would take too long;
All we know is the splash of words in passing
and falling twigs of song,
And when we try to eavesdrop on the great
Presences it is rarely
That by a stroke of luck we can appropriate
Even a phrase entirely.
If we could find our happiness entirely
In somebody else’s arms
We should not fear the spears of the spring nor the city’s
Yammering fire alarms
But, as it is, the spears each year go through
Our flesh and almost hourly
Bell or siren banishes the blue
Eyes of Love entirely.
And if the world were black or white entirely
And all the charts were plain
Instead of a mad weir of tigerish waters,
A prism of delight and pain,
We might be surer where we wished to go
Or again we might be merely
Bored but in the brute reality there is no
Road that is right entirely.
Louis MacNeice (1907-1963)
British Expeditionary Force, Friday December 25th 1914
My Dear Mater,
This will be the most memorable Christmas I’ve ever spent or likely to spend: since about tea time yesterday I don’t think there has been a shot fired on either side up to now. Last night turned a very clear frost moonlight night, so soon after dusk we had some decent fires going and had a few carols and songs. The Germans commenced by placing lights all along the edges of their trenches and coming over to us – wishing us a Happy Christmas etc … Some of our chaps went over to their lines. I think they’ve all come back bar one from ‘E’ Co. They no doubt kept him as a souvenir.
There must be something in the spirit of Christmas as to day we are all on top of our trenches running about … We also had some of the post this morning. I had a parcel from B.G’s Lace Department containing a sweater, smokes, under clothes etc. We also had a card from the Queen… After breakfast we had a game of football at the back of our trenches! We’ve had a few Germans over to see us this morning. They also sent a party to bury a sniper we shot in the week…About 10.30 we had a short church parade the morning service etc. held in the trench …Our dinner started off with fried bacon and dip-bread: followed by hot Xmas Pudding. I had a mascot in my piece. Next item on the menu was muscatels and almonds, oranges, bananas, chocolate etc. followed by cocoa and smokes. You can guess we thought of the dinner at home.
Just before dinner I had the pleasure of shaking hands with several Germans … I exchanged one of my balaclavas for a hat. I’ve also got a button off one of their tunics. We also exchanged smokes etc. and had a decent chat. They say they won’t fire tomorrow if we don’t so I suppose we shall get a bit of a holiday – perhaps… We can hardly believe that we’ve been firing at them … it all seems so strange.
With much love from Boy.
Letter from an unknown soldier bought at auction on 7th December 2006 by the singer Chris de Burgh.
A long time ago I learnt to throw pots on a wheel. More recently I have learnt again. I even have my own wheel now, in a shed in our garden, and a kiln that I am too frightened to use yet. My wheel was made by a local eccentric (I think he would approve the term) who lives in a converted barn surrounded by old boats, disused cars and kilns of every size and description. The wheel is made using a small electric motor from a washing machine or similar, and scraps of drift wood and offcuts from a local furniture factory. It is a special size for a small woman, small enough for my daughters to use if they were so inclined. The standard wheel has a longer distance from the edge of the clay tray under the wheel to the centre of the wheel itself. Since you have to lean on the edge of the clay tray to throw the clay properly, a standard wheel is very uncomfortable for me.
I had some lessons from a local potter who runs summer schools where you can spend ten or twelve hours a day trying to master the clay. Her lunches are legend, and accompanied by water poured from tall grey jugs. These jugs have been thrown by her from unadulterated clay dug out of our local river. For most of us, our clay comes in plastic bags: I love the idea of digging your own clay out of the river mud and making something of it.
On the Thursday evening of each course, all the would-be potters adjourn to the garden where her husband has constructed an open air kiln, fired by (more) wooden offcuts. This is used to fire Raku pots we have made earlier in the week and covered in glaze. Once the pots have become red hot and cooked sufficiently, they are taken out of the kiln while still hot and immediately doused in sawdust so that the pot is deprived of oxygen. The metals in the glaze combine in the reduced atmosphere with carbon produced by the burning sawdust to produce metallic lustres and intense colours in haphazard patterns. There is a huge amount of smoke from the burning, and then clouds of steam as the still hot pots are dunked in cold water to cool and to crackle the glaze.
Temperature changes with raku ware are much more extreme than with other methods of firing where the pots are allowed to cool down slowly in the kiln. As a result the construction has to be robust and the clay, usually stoneware, has to have a high percentage of grog in it. Grog is a grit, sand or pre-fired clay. Its inclusion in the clay makes throwing raku ware like holding your hand against fast moving sandpaper. Raku pots are rarely thrown but more usually formed out of simple thumb pots, balls of clay being gently eased out – using one thumb inside supported by the other hand outside – into the traditional tea bowl shape.
Raku results are very unpredictable but the spectacle of the molten glazes glowing make up for any disappointment if pots emerge broken or hopelessly blackened.
More about Raku
Most people I know are a) full of cold, b) exhausted and c) wondering how on earth they are supposed to do everything they have to do before Christmas. Is this how it is supposed to be?
So this is for all those who are dragging themselves along – a bit of Christmas cheer. It’s all over the internet already, but these are new versions :). Moi et mon mari.
After which you’ll get a chance to do the same thing yourself.
If the link doesn’t work first time, try again. I think the site gets overloaded.