Cafe Writing Day 9th April

Exploring Modernism:TWO

How were poets of the early twentieth century – who were not ‘war poets’ and did not themselves have first-hand experience of the Great War – to write for the generations in England, Europe and America whose countries were implicated in that slaughter and whose lives were shaped and dominated by that dreadful history?

Cathay TwoThe second of this year’s Cafe Writing Days looked at early poems by Ezra Pound – ‘The Coming of War: Actaeon’ and poems from Cathay in particular – and considered Pound’s decision to universalise the experience and tragedy of the war by taking us into the distant spaces of imagined Hellenic and Chinese cultures rather than dwelling on contemporary particulars. We used editor HM Tomlinson’s 1917 article, “On Leave”  in The Nation to pose the questions to which Pound’s pieces seemed to be replies. Tomlinson puts himself in the place of an officer returning from France:

‘Coming out of Victoria Station into London again, on leave from Flanders, must give as near the sensation of being thrust suddenly into life from the beyond and the dead as mortal man may expect to know…You really have come back from another world… These people will never know what you know.’ Imagining an officer returning to the pleasant suburbs, he asks: ‘What would happen, if he uncovered, in a sunny breakfast-room, the horror he knows?’

Ezra Pound’s engagement with early twentieth century ideas about the primacy – almost the self-sufficiency –  of the visual image shaped much of his poetry.  The other poems we explored in this Writing Day, by two of Pound’s contemporaries, DH Lawrence and Rainer Maria Rilke, were all intensely visual and intensely imagined on the page.  They also shared Pound’s preoccupation in ‘Actaeon’ and Cathay with what is universal rather than local and time-specific in experience. We spent time with Rilke and Lawrence as they reached beyond the human into a world of creatures innocent of the atrocities by which our species has laid such waste to the potential paradise of the world.

Dream womanRilke found the subjects for ‘The Flamingos’ and ‘The Panther’ in the Jardin des Plantes in Paris where the French artist Henri Rousseau also found the subject matter for his powerful last paintings, ‘The Snake Charmer’ and ‘The Dream’.  The Parisian zoo, with its cruel architecture of narrow concrete pits and its forest of iron bars, was a tragic environment for its non-human inhabitants – as desolate as the city itself was for Baudelaire’s maimed human beings.  We are an impoverished and blindly destructive species. But out of the bleak landscape of the real, an artist can choose to conjure a vision for a moment of how things might have been, and through his vision try to create and nurture the sympathies  we need to redeem ourselves.

for here there is no place

that does not see you. You must change your life.

The 9th April ‘Anthology’ already contains homage responses by Mary Beddall, Nikki Kenna, Sara Butler, Dawn Gorman, Sarah Gregory, Caroline Heaton, Morag Kiziewicz, and Linda Saunders to Alice Oswald’s wonderful poem ‘Various Portents’. Mary Beddall, Dawn Gorman, Sarah Gregory, Ruth Sharman and Shirley Wright have all sent powerful poems prompted by Henri Rousseau’s paintings.  We are looking forward to receiving more!

All the remaining Cafe Writing Days in 2016 are now fully booked. Please get in touch if you would like to add your name to any of the waiting lists.

Cafe Writing Day 12th March

Exploring Modernism: ONE

The 2016 Cafe Writing Days series was prompted by requests from poets who wanted to spend the year exploring some of the formative writers and major texts of English poetry. The aim was to find a provisional pathway through the rich confusion of the terrain. I chose ‘modernism’ as the theme for the series, partly to limit the possible areas we might study and  partly because I thought it might help us concentrate on the relationship between poetries of past times and the poetries of our own, and in doing so encourage us develop our own practices in response to the challenges we would meet.

I knew the series would open doors. I knew that if we were lucky, some of those doors would be unexpected ones. I didn’t know that the first Writing Day group would be spending quite so much time with the voyeuristic images of Belgian semi-pornographic artist and printmaker, Charles Baudelaire’s  friend and illustrator, Felicien Rops.Rops Baudelaire

How did we get to such a startling place? ‘Be careful what you wish for’ is the cliché that comes to hand. You cannot explore ‘modernism’ very deeply – if at all – if you confine yourself to the polite pages of English poetry. English poets have often been quite voluble about their practices, but most of them have not been particularly brave. Starting our journey with the great exception to this, William Blake, it was impossible not to look next to America and to France, to  Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass and Baudelaire’s  Les Fleurs du Mal. Baudelaire – the flâneur, the poet of the modern city, obsessed with its horrors and above all with its decadent sexual underworlds – his vision is so alien to the polite English tradition that I thought the Rops’ image titled La Parodie Humaine might help us find our way.

The French poet is following a street walker, whose lovely young face is a detachable mask, behind which, but not hidden, we can see the truth of the death by syphilis which is who she really is . In the same year that Les Fleurs du Mal was published , appeared in England the Moxon Illustrated Tennyson with its sinuous and sulky  Lady of Shalott. Lady of ShalottThe comparison betwen the Rops and the Holman Hunt, as between Baudelaire’s Poem Une Martyre (which we read on the Writing Day in translation) and the Tennyson poem could happily prompt an entire Cafe Writing Day of its own.


Each Cafe Writing Day generates its own ‘anthology’ – poems written on the Day, or in response to the Day, and then circulated within the group. The Rops’ image provoked powerful and often difficult responses from several of the poets. What their poems had in common was their complete rejection of the moral ethos which made Baudelaire’s essentially  decorative treatment of his doomed men and women a genuine poetic possibility. TS Eliot claimed Baudelaire was the great poet of good and evil. Perhaps he was, in the sense that he deals with the subjects, but he seems so fascinated by the alluring poisons of decadence, debauchery and excess, and so disgusted by human disease, dysfunction and suffering, that it was hard to find the empathy with the human condition which would have given us a sense that Baudelaire was keeping company with the great English moralist whose poem had opened our Writing Day.

The 12th March ‘Anthology’ contains poems by Ruth Marden ( The Little Jockey ), Susan Jane Sims ( A Number of Things You Should Know ), Robin Thomas, John Waite, Trisha Waters and Shirley Wright ( The Last Green Field ).

You can find larger versions of these images on the Cafe Writing Days 2016 page which you can access through the menu bar. 


All the remaining Cafe Writing Days in 2016 are now fully booked.