No 34 - Spring 2006
Presiding Spirits: David Harsent
Redefining the Borders
In Presiding Spirits we ask a contemporary poet to write a poem which draws on writing from the past. In this issue, David Harsent has written a poem based on an Old Cornish narrative poem which, he feels, has many of the attributes of the Border Ballads which first inspired him to write poetry. David Harsent was born in Devon in 1942. He left school at 16 to work in a bookshop and later worked in publishing. As Jack Curtis and David Lawrence he has published a number of crime fiction novels.
His poetry collections include Selected Poems 1969–1989; A Bird’s Idea of Flight which was a Poetry Book Society Choice and was shortlisted for the Forward Prize; Marriage which was a Poetry Book Society Choice and shortlisted for both the Forward and T.S. Eliot Prizes; and Legion which won the 2005 Forward Prize and was shortlisted for the T.S. Eliot Prize and the Whitbread Award. David Harsent has also worked as librettist with the composer Sir Harrison Birtwistle on operas and song cycles including Gawain (Royal Opera House) and The Woman and the Hare (South Bank Centre and Carnegie Hall). He lives in Barnes, south-west London, with his wife, Julia Watson, and their daughter, Hannah.
Here he talks to Vicci Bentley.
The Death of Cain
From the Cornish of William Jordan, circa 1611: an adaptation of a passage from Gwreans an Bys or The Creacion of the World.
Lamech, violent and venal, polygamist and adulterer, braggart and glutton, son of Methushael, descendent of Cain, goes hunting though he is all but blind. A creature covered in a black pelt breaks cover. With the help of his servant, Lamech lines up on it and looses an arrow. The creature is mortally wounded. It is Cain. Lamech is torn by regret, though Cain curses him and his children. Cain then laments his life as an outcast, but allows that it was punishment for killing his brother. Intrigued, Lamech asks Cain why he murdered Abel.
Because he had a mouth on him like sulphur;
because he gave me no respect;
because I was ever brother and no other;
because he smiled even as he slept
(or so she said); because my heart
carries a weight of hatred that will never
lift nor leave me even when I’m dead.
Although in all the world I stand apart
and live within the shadow of my name,
God’s curse on my head and on my head
the curses of my mother and my father,
although I lie here at your feet
speaking through blood and bile, I don’t regret it;
each night I dream of even blacker fame,
then bad luck wakes me and I rise to greet it.
Lamech, I’m close enough to smell your sin.
I’ll see you in hell where all the unforgiven,
the unforgiving, are sworn to come together
bare-headed under a murderous sun
or naked in never-ending winter weather.
For Presiding Spirits, I wanted to invoke the spirit of the Border Ballads, but all attempts ended up as cod ballads. This adaptation of a passage from The Creacion of the World takes considerable liberties with the original, but the notion of a piece brought into English from Old Cornish – and having many of the attributes of the Border Ballads – appealed to me as a way of having my cake and eating it.
What interests me about the passage I’ve called The Death of Cain is the sheer depth of antipathy it displays. This prototype murder in some ways seems to exemplify the world’s lode of hatred; a starting point for the ninety or so small wars that afflict the world at present. In The Hunting Hypothesis, Robert Ardrey talks about man having fashioned a weapon for the first time:
Of necessity a weapon in the hand became a
biological part of us … we could not go back,
whatever our wish. And the weather continued to
Whether or not Ardrey intended it, that last line has such a telling weight and tension. The murder of Abel by Cain is the moment from which there’s no step back.
Thinking about Presiding Spirits for Magma took me back to when I was ten or so. Someone bought me a book of stories and poems, some of which were Border Ballads. I was completely swept away both by the narratives and the intensely lyrical language. That combination – of events violent, heroic, supernatural or romantic, the spare, haunting lines, and the (to me, then) intriguingly arcane dialect – became, at once, part of my secret life. Think of the elfin knight Tam Lin, as he tells his pregnant, mortal lover Janet that although he’ll be changed by his captor, the Queen of the Fairies, into different, terrifying, shapes and forms, she must hold on to him to save his life:
They’ll turn me in your arms, ladye,
An aske but and a snake;
But hauld me fast, let me na gae,
To be your warldis mak.
They’ll turn me in your arms, ladye,
But an a deer sa wylde;
But hauld me fast, let me na gae,
The father o’ your child.
They’ll shape me in your arms, layde,
A hot iron at the fire;
But hauld me fast, let me na gae,
To be your heart’s desire.
They’ll shape me in your arms, Janet,
A mother-naked man;
Cast your grene mantle over me,
And sae will I be won.
or that heartbreaking deference to decorum in the tale of trans-class adultery and revenge-murder involving Little Musgrave and Lady Barnard:
“A grave, a grave” Lord Barnard cryd,
“To put these lovers in;
But lay my lady on the upper hand,
For she came of the nobler kin.”
There’s something about the drive and simplicity of a ballad line that’s so compelling. Since I began to write primarily in sequences, my aim (with the example of the Border Ballads at the back of my mind, for all I know) has been to produce a broken narrative that trades off a lyrical vocabulary. For a long time I didn’t use rhyme much. I favoured short, controlled lines – edgy, bite-sized couplets or tristichs most often. Then Ian Hamilton suggested that I try to loosen and maybe lengthen my line, the terrifically productive upshot of which was A Bird’s Idea of Flight. It also seemed to release me into rhyme or, more often, half-rhyme: an irregular scheme that also made use of assonance. Not that I made a conscious decision about this. The rhymes and slant-rhymes just seemed to fall into place and pick up, almost like picking up a stitch – as if a longer line and a slightly looser rhythm somehow called for greater musicality.
The poems in Legion came fairly quickly. I had been commissioned by Jo Shapcott to contribute to an anthology she was editing for the Royal Institution. The idea was to write a poem that in some way developed the subject of one of several lectures that had been given at the RI. I misunderstood and thought I had to use the exact title, so I chose ‘From metals with a memory to brilliant light- emitting solids,’ because it sounded so impossible. I was going to write an amusing little technical exercise about just that impossibility, but the poem changed under my hand. That was a real ambush – I had no idea it was going to happen. We were bombing Afghanistan at the time and images of that conflict were everywhere. In the commissioned poem (which isn’t in Legion) those two examples of commercial technology – metals with a memory (spectacle frames that snap back into shape, for example) and brilliant light-emitting solids (everlasting light-bulbs, say) – somehow morphed into smart bombs and their human targets.
Not long after that I found myself writing the poems that became the sequence Legion. As I’ve said elsewhere, these were poems that I neither willed nor resisted. I didn’t really know what to make of them for a while; it wasn’t until they started acquiring titles that I had a clear idea of what was going on. Then I could see how they fell in sequence.
The intermittent ‘Despatches’ poems that punctuate the sequence are fragmentary but weren’t conceived that way. The first was going to be an unbroken piece, but it just broke itself. The poems have been described as “voices from a war-zone”, though the voice in ‘Despatches’ seems to have to do with reportage, not experience. I came to see that these were communications from the front that had been part-destroyed or defaced in some way. I’ve been asked if I wrote complete poems first then deleted bits. I was really quite taken aback by that question – it had never occurred to me to do that. I left air when the voice seemed to break off and picked it up again when the voice picked up. Perhaps there’s something to be said about how much is missing and what text might have been there. But I ‘edited’ them only for the extent of the lacunae. In effect, I was editing blank areas of page.
It’s been suggested that Legion is, in some way, a protest against the war in Iraq. It’s not; on the other hand, it must, I suppose, be connected with that event. It was after the invasion that I found myself writing these short, intense poems, but the truth is they simply fell to hand. I didn’t set out to write ‘anti-war poems’; I dislike protest – or overtly issue-based poetry; it reeks of propaganda.
In the past few years, I’ve been somewhat involved in translation (a nifty trick for someone who’s monolingual). I made versions of the Somali poet Maxamed Xaashi Dhamac for the SOAS / Poetry Translation tour last year, then there are the Yannis Ritsos ‘Tristichs’ which appear in Legion, and my versions of poems written during the siege of Sarajevo by the Bosnian Serb, Goran Simic. My work on Goran’s poems might well have had an effect on the poems in Legion – there’s quite a lot of Bosnia in it – though Legion is not about any specific war. One poem, The Piss-pail, makes use of an incident that happened to my father in World War Two.
So, Legion is not an anti-war polemic, though it might, I suppose, say something about what Owen called “the pity of war”. Incidentally, at about the time of the launch of the book, there was an announcement on the internet of an event where “Harold Pinter will be reading poems by the First World War Poets Wilfred Owen and David Harsent.” My wife said, “You wear it well.”
Vicci Bentley is a women’s magazine journalist and writes poems for light relief.
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