How many children now read printed poetry for pleasure? Did they ever? Or is it just one of those things that has to be got through at school and then forgotten forever? I don’t think so. Poetry is part of all our lives. We start off as babies being sung to—not all of us, but most. Lullabies, nursery rhymes—all poetry. All of us can remember some of those, and we probably pass them on to our own children. They are part of the fabric of our family lives. But what happens later on? Certainly there are many excellent teachers who inspire and encourage children to write poetry, and it is taught to GCSE and A level (though the curriculum collections are not terribly exciting according to my son). However, most children I talk to find conventional written poetry totally irrelevant to their daily existence, even though they’ll listen to songs (poetry and music) all day on their i-pods—and maybe even learn the lyrics. They would read a book for pleasure—but a book of poetry? Forget it! That’s, like, homework or something. As a poet myself, writing for both children and adults, I find this deeply discouraging, and yet I will not stop writing poetry because of it.
For me, writing a poem is the most sublime of literary experiences in miniature. Every word—where it goes, what it is next to—every comma and full stop and colon or the lack of them, matters to me, whether it is ‘fun’ poetry such as limericks and modern nursery rhymes, or something more serious and deep. But—and this is important—what matters to me as a poet is not necessarily what matters to my readers. When I was doing my MA at Edinburgh, we did something called ‘deconstruction’ as a form of literary criticism. This was supposed somehow to give students an insight into the mind of the poet and his or her meaning. Deconstructing John Donne ruined his poems for me for years (and I think that Jacques Derrida, the inventor of deconstruction, should be consigned to Purgatory, but that is another discussion!). In my opinion (and please feel free to disagree), the essence of a poem will be experienced differently by each and every reader. However the one thing that will be held in common if it is a good poem is that the heart or mind have been touched by some sort of recognition, some sort of ‘oh yes—I have felt/seen/done (or whatever) that’ moment. My own adult poetry writing is triggered by all sorts of things—a walk, emotions high and low, a heard word, the colour of grass, the lines on my mother’s hand to name but a few. I write it for me, because I simply have to get that particular part of me down on paper. I fiddle and wrestle and reformat and layer meanings one on the other until I feel it is perfect of its kind—whether triolet or sonnet or free form. I no longer have to make it rhyme—though I do sometimes. What matters is the baring of my soul, and very often these poems are private and never shown to anyone. They don’t necessarily need any audience except me. My children’s poetry is different. That’s what I have fun with, play with, and hopefully sell. But it’s just as important to me to get it as perfect as I can. This applies to all my writing of course—but because a poem is shorter by its nature, every word is weighed and balanced, every syllable must count or out it goes.
In my own small way I do my best to get a very ancient form of poetry over to the next generation with my bardic poetry workshops
—and I am eternally delighted with the incredible creativity shown by the many children I work with in schools. I know that Michael Rosen, Benjamin Zephaniah and a myriad other poets both sung and unsung do a fantastic job on the road, and that poetry is manifested in many other ways—listen to rap lyrics for some very good modern examples of ‘non-conventional’ poetry. But I do despair that our children are not reading, discovering and enjoying some of the older stuff—or even the more modern—for themselves outside school. I don’t want to sound like a Grumpy Old Writer (though I fear I do), but I’d love it if the next book of poetry published could cause as much noise, gossip and fanfare and receive as much coverage as Byron’s ‘Don Juan’
did when it appeared in 1819. It’s ‘a thousand pities’ that it probably won’t.
(Venice, Italy) I nominate Andrea di Robilant for American Ambassador to Italy, or Italian Ambassador to the United States, whichever position becomes available first. He is an international treasure and should be paid a pot of gold and a rainbow to bridge the gap between the cultures. Son of an American mother and an Italian father, Andrea's ancestors also include two of the most ancient noble families in Venice, the Memmos and the Mocenigos. Most importantly, he has a tri-cultural sense of humor.
That image you see is of Palazzo Mocenigo, and was shot by Carlo Naya back in the mid-1800s when photography was in its infancy. "The Lives of Spaces" was the name of Ireland’s participation at the 11th International Architecture Exhibition at La Biennale last year, and inspired my thought that Palazzo Mocenigo -- the space itself -- is a fertile backdrop for many Venetian stories right up until the present day. There's a whole lotta ghosts running around over there.
Last Monday, I heard Andrea speak in English over at UNESCO about his latest book, Lucia in the Age of Napoleon. (Sitting next to me at the lecture were the current tenants of Palazzo Mocenigo, which made it even more surreal, though I do believe they were human beings, not ghosts:) This past Monday evening I caught the end of Andrea's talk in Italian, Lucia nel tempo di Napoleone, over at Ateneto Veneto. The first talk was so entertaining, I immediately read the book (in English). Andrea had some fascinating ancestors who also happened to be clever writers.
This is from the Prologue:
When I was growing up I sometimes heard my grandfather mention Lucia Mocenigo, my Venetian great-great-great-great-grandmother, who was known in the family as Lucietta. Her name usually came up in connection with Lord Byron, to whom she rented the piano nobile of her palazzo during his scandalous time in Venice. I learnt more about her many years later, while doing research on her father, Andrea Memmo, whose epic love story with the beautiful Giustiniana Wynne in the 1750s was the subject of my last book, A Venetian Affair.
You regular readers might remember hearing about Andrea Memmo and Giustiniana Wynne (another fab female writer) in the Venetian Cat Views on Venice blog. Perhaps you might want to have a look at that blog again so you can get a sense of just how small this town is, not only in space, but in time. In fact, you might want to get yourselves a pencil right now and keep a score card:)
If you've read Andrea's first book, A Venetian Affair, the second, Lucia, about Memmo's daughter, is even better. Andrea began his talk, and his book, Lucia in the Age of Napoleon, wondering why the enormous statue of Napoleon is inside the entrance of Palazzo Mocenigo. And that is everyone's first reaction: what in tarnation is that thing doing there? Then you sort of don't notice it anymore, the way you wouldn't notice a pink elephant if it were always there. Here is Andrea's description:
The statue, wedged into a corner, faces a damp wall in the androne (water-level entrance) of Palazzo Mocenigo, the venerable old palazzo on the Grand Canal which once belonged to my family. The emperor is clad in a Roman toga. His left arm is extended forward, as if he were pointing to a luminous future, though in fact he stares vacuously at the peeling wall in front of him. A mantle of dark grey soot has settled on to his shoulders, and a slab of roughly hewn marble links the raised arm to the head, giving the statue an unfinished look. It is hard to imagine a more incongruous presence than the one of a youthful Napoleon standing sentinel in that humid hallway to the sound of brackish water slapping and sloshing in the nearby canal.
Back in 2001, when I was writing for the IHT-Italy Daily, I saw the statue for the first time. I had just submitted a piece about Vivaldi, and was on vacation in Croatia, splashing sweetly in the sea by Rovinj, when my editor in Milano called. He said my editor in NYC was not happy with the piece, and could I please rewrite it? Vivaldi was too old, too dusty; he wanted something more contemporary. "Oh, sure. No problem," I said, and tossed my cell phone to a baby shark.
Seriously, I think I had two days when I got back to Venice to tweak the piece, and I decided to write about composers in Venice in general (subtitled: The Music of Vivaldi and Many Modern Composers Attest to the Serenissima's Rich Musical Tradition -- and no, I did not write that!). A friend said he knew a Spanish pianist who lived in Lord Byron's former apartment. Enrique Pérez de Guzmàn graciously granted me an interview inside the very rooms you see there. I mixed the story into the previous Vivaldi piece, tossed and served. My slave-driving editor in NYC, Claudio Gatti, was pleased. This is from the IHT-Italy Daily September 7, 2001:"I was bitten by Venice," said Pérez de Guzmán. "I fell in love with the city. You establish a rapport -- it gives you a peaceful feeling so that you can create. You absorb all the beauty and peace that Venice gives you, and incorporate it into your own work, then give it back to the world. To create your own music, to find peace of mind in order to create a new repertoire or to get ready for the season, Venice is ideal.For centuries, artists and musicians have come to Venice for inspiration. Wagner composed the second act of 'Tristan und Isolde' here for many of the same reasons, I imagine. Tchaikowsky was here, Mozart, Goethe, Ezra Pound and John Ruskin. Lord Byron wrote the first two cantos of his masterpiece 'Don Juan' right here in these rooms. Benjamin Britten and Arthur Rubinstein have played the piano in my drawing room. Some of the greatest talents in the world have held private concerts in this palazzo."
A few years later I had a regatta party at my house -- it could have been for the Vogalonga because I vaguely remember Enrique wearing something stripey inspired by that theme. Pierre Higonnet, who then owned the Galleria del Leone over on Giudecca, brought Andrea di Robilant as his guest. And that, folks, is how Andrea met Enrique, who was living in Lord Byron's apartment inside Palazzo Mocenigo, and that is how I met Andrea.
Andrea writes about Lucia Mocenigo's most famous tenant, Lord Byron:Lucia and Byron parted on very unfriendly terms, yet in a way the poet never really left Palazzo Mocenigo, or Venice for that matter, and still today his spirit hovers over the city he helped to resurrect. Venice was dead when he arrived in 1816, and the Austrians had no intention of spending money or effort to revive it... It was Byron, a stranger to Lucia's Venetian world, who gave the city a new life by turning those sinking ruins into an existential landscape -- an island of the soul...
What Lord Byron wrote upon exiting Palazzo Mocenigo:I have replenished three times over and made good by the equivalent of the doors and canal posts any little damage to her pottery. If any articles were taken by mistake, they shall be restored or replaced; but I will submit to no exorbitant charge nor imposition. What she may do I neither know nor care; if they like the law they shall have it for years to come, and if they gain, what then? They will find it difficult to 'shear the wolf' no longer in Venice. They are a damned, infamous set... a nest of whores and scoundrels.
Even today, palaces and artistocracy hold a great fascination for travelers to Venice, as does the Age of Napoleon. During Carnival, guests plop down hundreds -- if not thousands -- of euro to dress up as aristocrats and reinact the balls, a curious phenomenon to American eyes, since it is not part of our system. Gilbert von Studnitz, a German nobleman, begins his precise explanation of European aristocracy with this sentence: The German system of nobility, as indeed the European system in general, is quite different from the English system with which most Americans are familiar.
I will confess as to being completely confused myself, since there seems to be all sorts of creatures running around Venice with titles at any given moment, behaving in the strangest fashion. This is where Lucia in the Age of Napoleon comes in handy. Not only was Lucia a Memmo herself, descended from one of the oldest families in Venice, she had married a Mocenigo, a family who had produced a whopping seven Doges for the Venetian Republic, plus she had lived through the Venetian Republic's collapse, through Napoleon, through the Austrian Empire -- all the way through to Lord Byron -- and she kept notes! For example, after she became lady-in-waiting to Empress Josephine's daughter-in-law, Princess Augusta, this is what she wrote in a letter to her sister, Paolina:
I lead the dullest existence, rushing from my apartment to Court and from Court to my apartment. What does one do at Court? Well, the evenings in which we have Grand cercel (Large Circle) we tend to sit around for about an hour before moving to the gaming room. When the card-playing is over the Princess rises, says a few nice words to us and I run back home as fast as I can. When we have Petit cercle ( Small Circle) only those attached to the Court are invited. The evening usually begins with a session of baby-watching: we crowd around ten-month-old Josephine, Princess of Bologna, as she plays in her pen. Very interesting...
It was educational to read how the family routinely switched loyalties and languages between France and Austria, depending on which was more prudent. Even more enlightening was how intelligent, enterprising and educated Lucia was. In general, Lucia led a lonely existence, since her husband, Alvise, left her alone for long periods of time. She had several miscarriages before they finally produced an heir, a son, Alvisetto, who also died young.
But then, Lucia did something extraordinary -- she fell in love with a dashing, daring Irish-Austrian Colonel with the Hollywood name of Baron Maximilian Plunkett. They began a secret love affair, which produced a secret son! Maximilian died gloriously in a rain of French bullets two days after his son was christened. Lucia's husband, Alvise, didn't find out for four years; of course, he was furious when he did. But, ultimately, he was pragmatic. Being without an heir himself, he decided to change the boy's name (which was Massimiliano) to Alvise, or Alvisetto (I guess we can call him Alvisetto Due
), and turn his wife's lover's son into a Mocenigo. Oh, those wacky aristocrats!
This is from an interview that Andrea did with Robert Murphy for W Magazine
:Most stunningly, perhaps, di Robilant's book blows the cover off a two-hundred-year-old family secret. While examing archives in Venice, he discovered that Lucia's only son to survive infancy, theretofore presumed legitimate, was actually the fruit of an illicit union with an alluring Irish-Austrian officer. "For a long while I wondered why my father had red sideburns," said di Robilant. "Everything that brings out the truth is good. It puts into perspective all this crap about blood and legitimacy. Who would have figured that I was part Irish?"
(That gorgeous image you see of Andrea di Robilant was taken by Pamela Berry http://www.studiopb.com/.)
Ciao from Venice,
Venetian Cat - Venice Blog
A NOTE ON UNFAITHFUL ENGLISH SPELLING AND THE HISTORY OF THE WORD GIAOUR
By Anatoly Liberman
Today hardly anyone would have remembered the meaning of the word giaour “infidel” (the spellchecker does not know it and, most helpfully, suggests glamour and Igor among four variants) but for the title of Byron’s once immensely popular 1813 poem: many editions; ten thousand copies sold on the first day, an unprecedented event in the history of 19th-century publishing. Nowadays, at best a handful of specialists in English romanticism and reluctant graduate students read it or anything else by this author—an unfortunate development. Yet if the word is still familiar to the English speaking public, it happens only thanks to Byron.
At the end of the 19th century, there was a heated discussion about the pronunciation of initial g- in giaour, and, as usual in such cases, conflicting suggestions about the origin of the word turned up. The OED had just approached the volume with giaour, and its verdict was eagerly awaited. Alas, no dictionary will save us from the ambiguity of initial g in Modern English. Only j can be relied upon: no one doubts how to pronounce jam, jet, jerk, jitters, Joe, or jumble, even when for historical reasons that make little sense to modern speakers j- renders what should have been y-, as in Jerusalem, Jericho, Jordan, and the like. But g- before i and e is a nightmare. We have begin (and Shakespeare often used this verb without the prefix and wrote gin, appearing in some of our editions with an apostrophe:’gin) and gin (the beverage), get and gem (alongside Jemima); gill (in a fish), gill “ravine” (both with “hard” g) and gill “half a pint,” as well as gill “lass,” that is, Jill (both with “soft” g). To increase the confusion, we are offered gild, guilt, age, ridge, wedge and Wedgwood (for completeness’ sake, compare rajah and the odd-looking transliteration hajj “pilgrimage’). It was deemed necessary to abbreviate refrigerator to fridge: frige, on an analogy with rage or fringe, did not suffice. If I received the mandate to reform English spelling, one of my first executive orders would have abolished this mess. Not hungry for power, except for power over words, and shirking administrative duties to the extent it is possible on a modern day campus, I think this is the one post I am longing for. But the coveted mandate will never come my way, and judging by what is happening in this area, nobody will. With regard to spelling, we are doomed to remain in the17th century at the latest.
There is no way of finding out how Byron pronounced giaour, though he probably said it with j-, as was more comm
This is my old school. Posh, eh? (Oh all right, it was a comprehensive by the time I went, but it looks very smart.)
And out front, that's its most famous alumnus, Lord Byron. I passed him every morning and afternoon for six years (except during holidays and illness) and sadly, never appreciated him. All I knew of the man was that extraordinary sheet that makes him look not unlike Sally Bercow, and the fact that he was responsible for one of the songs on my mother's Alexander Brothers LPs. (Dark Lochnagar. If you know anything of the Alexander Brothers, you'll know that's no way to get to know a poem.) Oh, and the fact that I didn't get to be in Byron House (bunch of jessies).
Why didn't they tell us? Why didn't they tell us he was a rake, a rogue, a soldier of fortune, probably bisexual and incestuous, and that he actually looked like THIS?
Nom. Anyway, if I'd known he was as interesting as THAT, I wouldn't have walked past him every day with a roll of my eyes and my nose in a Marvel comic.
Maybe nowadays the students get, to paraphrase Horrible Histories, literature with the babe-a-licious bits left in. I hope so. Anyway, I remembered the old stone bloke the other day when reading Leslie Wilson's terrific post
about language and sex in young adult books. If he'd been around today, I'm sure the young scoundrel would have been a proud presence on many a banned books list.
Anyway, I wish I'd discovered Byron a lot earlier. I think I would have, if they'd left in the language and sex.
What's not to like?