Glow-Worms

‘In effect the single word is a new reading process; like electricity – instant and continuous.’
Aram Saroyan to Vito Acconci, Sept. 1967

When I was asked by Julie Johnstone and Greg Thomas to contribute to their ‘101 Words for Edwin Morgan’, marking the end of his centenary celebrations, I was at a loss for words. Suddenly, as I stared at the invitation, one came to mind: ‘glow-worm’.

The more I thought about it, the more luminous it became. There was a subterranean connection to Eddie, happily. When he visited New Zealand in 1992, Marshall Walker and Alan Riach took him to the Waitomo Caves to see the glow-worms. He later wrote:

you descend by a series of roughly cut staircases to a large underground lake and are taken in boats over the dark still waters, gliding in silence so that no conversation or other noise will disturb the thousands of fireflies shining in the roof of the cavern. It is a remarkable and beautiful sight, and like any other visitor I found it thrilling, but somehow it was more than thrilling, it was moving, it was saying things that only things can say, and my mind kept recurring to it for days and months afterwards, and I can feel a tingling even while I write about it now. But if what I said could be put in a letter, I was not going to open the envelope.*

For me, there’s a connection with my Wellington days. The Botanic Gardens were at the bottom of our road – Glen Road, a neat intimation of Scotland there – and on the mossy bank of the left-hand path leading down to the duck pond, the glow-worms would flicker and shine if you crept up on them, silently. I suppose that I was taken by my mother first, as a night-time treat (as I took my daughter); later it was part of a romantic itinerary in spring. There was no gate to forbid entrance: you could simply wander in and wait for the bank to be strung with ‘courteous lights’.

That’s Marvell, of course, in his ‘Mower to the glow-worms’. In my first term at Oxford I wrote an essay on his mower poems that – amazingly, reassuringly – was liked by my tutor. I can’t recover what I wrote, but I still love that poem, particularly for its quietly despairing close. It is Marvell’s 400th anniversary this year, and a few weeks ago I found this very poem prompting responses from three poets in the TLS. Julie replied to my suggestion with Ian Hamilton Finlay’s ‘Mower is less’: years ago I used to have it pinned up on my wall in its one line of green, looped handwriting. It seems to resonate with Morgan’s thought that the less written about glow-worms, the better.

Just let the word glow.

*Reprinted in Edwin Morgan: In Touch With Language: A New Prose Collection 1950–2005, eds John Coyle and James McGonigal, ASLS, 2020.

Added to the library

The beginning of October: sunshine and a treat. Kay Ryan’s selected prose, Synthesising Gravity, has just made its way into the house, compact and solid. The type is quite large, the leading is generous. The titles are enticing: ‘Notes on the Danger of Notebooks’ – the first pages of that essay yield at least three thoughts one would want to copy into a notebook, but they’re in the book, there for the finding. ‘No Time for Anything but Repetition’: a crisp two pages. ‘Inedible Melons’ is followed by ’Fidget and Gnash’: no clue as to literary content in those titles. ‘I Go to AWP’ is here, which made me laugh out loud when somebody circulated it – or a link to it – surely not 15 years ago? I think I caught up with it some years after its original publication.

How did this come into the house? I’d seen it mentioned on Lit Hub, and my friend J told me she had it. I was envious, but it’s a Grove Press publication; I don’t use Amazon; postage was probably prohibitive. Then someone wrote to me from Epiphany magazine (their name was Miracle, appropriately) saying that they were going to publish a poem by the genial, inventive Gökçenur Ç, which I had co-translated with him from the Turkish. That was back in the days when we could meet in Istanbul (thanks to Literature Across Frontiers); indeed before that, he came over for a SPL translation workshop at Crear (LAF again) that I’d facilitated. His plaintive poem, ‘You’re far away from the country where I am’, seems to cast a slant light on our Covid distancing, although written long before.

The magazine offered a fee in US dollars. By the time I’d paid bank charges here, it wouldn’t have been worth cashing the cheque. I wrote to Miracle, saying that I’d really like Kay Ryan’s essays, and by the time they’d bought it and paid for postage, it would probably be a bit less than the fee. It has taken some weeks, but Miracle lived up to their name, and now I have it, sent from a bookseller in the Netherlands, apparently.   

Chairing Kay Ryan on her first visit to Scotland was one of the highlights of my time at the SPL. I said at the time that I loved the New York Times’s comparison of reading her poems to consuming freshly made cocktails: first the smile and then the bite. Myself, I’d say that her poems are like stones skimmed across water: we admire the skill and skip, the wit and elegance of the launch and landing – and then we see the ripples slowly expanding, and feel the effects reaching unexpected places. It will be the same with the prose. I’m going to ration my consumption (of cocktails, too, I suppose) to take my pleasures slowly.

Podcasts and poetry

I’ve participated in two podcasts over the past few months, which I’ve been slow to note here. One was about Nicolas Bouvier, in conversation with Rose Baring, the Eland editor without whose enthusiasm his work wouldn’t have been republished in the UK. You can find this on the BookBlast podcast site (‘Dividing the World’ #3.) The other was about the Edwin Morgan centenary, which has taken a lot of my time and energy this year; this was part of the Wigtown Book Festival’s podcast series, hosted by the irrepressible Peggy Hughes.

In relation to EM100, I’m so delighted to add to the home library Hamish Whyte’s new memoir, Morgan & Me, published by HappenStance a couple of weeks ago, and just out from Tapsalteerie, a sampler of the translations undertaken by Scottish and Hungarian poets in the Edwin Morgan Trust translation workshop last year, Hunger Like Starlings. If we can’t see small press productions at the usual venues, we can still savour them.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                               

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                

                                                                 

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                     

Week 6

I was looking at the Royal Mail site last week, as my friend J suggested that I could order stamps rather than going to the Post Office. ‘Why I live at the P.O.’ is an extraordinary story by Eudora Welty; it used to feel like the caption for my life in publishing, before editing was done onscreen. I’ve always enjoyed the sense of completion that comes with stamping and posting, a physical relinquishment much more satisfying than merely pointing the cursor at ‘send’.

Remember when beautiful commemorative stamps were issued regularly and were available for more than a fortnight? I’m bored by the red and blue definitives. So I was excited to find online the new ‘Romantics’ set, with their linocuts and quotations, some predictable (Keats and Wordsworth), others less so, like Clare, and then Letitia Landon, unknown to me. I couldn’t buy them as loose stamps (shame), so I bought them as postcards.

Romantics postage stamp

What a thought! I don’t even want to look her up – though I will – but simply relish those lines: absence and moonlight, both sharper these days.

On Tuesday evening I was taking a holiday from Edwin Morgan, having been so thoroughly immersed for weeks in work for the celebration of his centenary. Yet on picking up Lydia Davis’s Essays, there he was, an entirely unexpected presence. She’s written about his one-word poem, ‘Homage to Louis Zukovsky’, reflecting on titles, and on how much we need to know to ‘receive the full impact of a piece of writing’. (And she slipped in a fine short piece of her own.)

from Lydia Davis essay

He would have been so pleased by her rejection of footnotes; I insisted on them for the cast of A Book of Lives, although his friend H said Eddie wouldn’t really approve. I wanted to make the poems ‘accessible’, I suppose, and for Lydia Davis, that’s no concern of the poet. She ends, ‘It’s not necessary to try to appeal to everyone, or even to explain oneself.’ I found that refreshing.

Week 2

You haven’t missed anything, faithful few, but it is week 2 of the lockdown here in Scotland, and I thought I’d share something I’m reading. Reading is prescribed for this period of isolation, yet it proves to be more difficult than I thought to find the right book (always with the exception of the blessed Hilary Mantel, who provided just the book on 5 March). Some people keep a tottering pile of unread books by their beds, I keep them shelved – overflowing the shelves – beside my desk, so that was where I turned. There’s a lot of poetry waiting there. I picked up Ronald Johnson’s The Book of the Green Man, republished by admirable Uniform Books, and this afternoon enjoyed wandering with him in the Lake District (‘I lay on the sublime motions of the grasses…’) and in the footsteps of Francis Kilvert and Henry Vaughan in Wales. Just half the book, winter and spring; it seems too soon to anticipate summer, let alone autumn.

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Continue reading “Week 2”