Tag Archives: Poetry

10 Photos From Hungary

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In Hungary people don’t clink their glasses and cups together. Apparently this is because of the Revolution of 1848, when 13 generals were executed by the Austrians. The story goes that after each execution the Austrians would clink their beer steins together, and so that is why the practice does not exist in Hungary. It’s all about honoring the memory of those men.

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“Hungarians are well renowned for their love for freedom, their noble and generous hearts, and their heroic courage. Their hospitality is legendary.” – CHARLES-LOUIS MONTESQUIEU

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I only have three regrets from my trip to Hungary:

  1. I never got to sample some Tokaji- Hungary’s sweetest wine.
  2. I never touched the pen on that anonymous statue in Heroes Park that looks like a grim reaper. Supposedly, if you touch it, you become a great writer. Which explains a lot, because Hungary has produced a lot of awesome poets and novelists.
  3. I never got to see a Mangalitsa pig. They’re a special breed of Hungarian swine that are famous for their wooly coats. They honestly look like pigs wearing a sheep-disguise. I want one…

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“Hungary is a thousand-years-old state, a historical and geographic whole, welded together by centuries, and held together by internal attractions. This unity cannot be torn apart in a moment, neither by weapon, nor by pen.” – G. FERRERO

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In Hungary, the lucky number is 96. Buildings in Budapest are required by law not to exceed 96 feet, and the Hungarian National Anthem- if sung at the proper tempo- should last 96 seconds. This is all because the first king of the Magyars, Arpad, was crowned in 896- which marked the birth of the Hungary as a nation.

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“Hungarians are of Turk race and their leader goes to battle with twenty thousand horsemen. The land of the Hungarians is filled with trees and waters. They have a lot of croplands. These Hungarians are handsome and beautiful people, tall, and wealthy – which they owe to trade. Their clothes are made of silk. Their weapons are laid with gold and silver and pearls.” – AHMED IBN RUSTA

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Here’s a haiku I wrote in the hotel bar while drinking Soproni:

views of the Danube
I watch the clouds plunge into
a moving charcoal.

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“I admit I have a Hungarian temper. Why not? I am from Hungary. We are descendants of Genghis Khan and Attila the Hun.” – Zsa Zsa Gabor

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The first thing I did in Budapest was check out a small park named for my favorite singer of all time. It turns out Hungarians love Elvis Presley almost as much as I do. Just a few years ago, Elvis was posthumously made an honorary citizen of Hungary and the small square I visited was renamed for him. The reason for this was a performance of “Peace in the Valley” that Elvis gave on the Ed Sullivan Show, which he dedicated to the Hungarians in the wake of Bloody Thursday. Elvis was appalled at the brutality of the Soviets and wanted to raise awareness of the 1956 Hungarian revolution. Back then, there were only a few TV channels and Elvis was the most famous human being on Earth, and so millions of people became aware of the suffering in Hungary and a lot of money was raised for relief efforts.

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“The Hungarians bear labor, toil, searing heat, cold, all kinds of necessity well. They love freedom and splendor.” – LEO the WISE

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My Study Abroad Overview: Nothing Gold Can Stay

My last exam at the University of Wisconsin- Eau Claire was held at noon on Friday, December 21st 2012, the day before I flew back to London. Even though I lived in the dorm room adjacent to 459 where Aaron and Akbar stayed, I spent my last night on campus sleeping on their futon. I grabbed my duvet (comforter) and pillows, and had an old school sleepover.

In that last week I was a total mess. I completely prioritized my social endeavors, and academics were a mere afterthought. My semester felt like everything I had ever known, as though I couldn’t remember anything in my life before it. America was no longer a novelty- the initial incredulous shock of “Holy shit, I’m actually in America. This place is real. There are people that live here,” that I felt upon my arrival in August had vanished. Now America felt like home, as though I had always been here. The mythic image of movies and TV was now just that- a myth- and it had become something real, tangible, normal. I was distraught at the idea of leaving my friends behind and the life I had built in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. They say time flies when you’re having fun and all that, but that one semester seemed longer than any other period of my life. It contained within it more memories than all my semesters at Winchester put together. I cursed the way time just moves forward, and I wanted more than anything for time to stand still. With every fiber of my being I was a UW-Eau Claire Blugold, and this is exactly what the student exchange coordinators warned us about back home. Ultimately, this wasn’t a transfer. Technically, I wasn’t a Blugold at all. I was still a University of Winchester student, and there was no evidence or documentation to prove otherwise. In fact, there’s no record I was ever at UW-Eau Claire in the first place. Within weeks my student e-mail account was expunged and the whole experience felt like a blurry detour to the Twilight Zone.

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Studying abroad for a semester in the USA in many ways encapsulates what America is. It’s a dream. And dreams end. Every one of us that departed Winchester for the USA was warned that we would fall in love and forget where we came from. We did. The pain we felt at leaving was guaranteed from the outset. It was the price to pay for simulating American life for a few months.

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During one of my Creative Writing Workshop classes, I wrote a story about an American college boy that, in a chance encounter, has sex with the girl of his dreams. I called her Emmaline Smits, the “Lady of the Bay” from the Green Bay area of Wisconsin. The guy idealizes the girl, but ultimately realizes he meant nothing to her and that the dream that came true didn’t do anything for him long-term except hurt him. My professor said that she thought I should change the main character to a British exchange student, because she thought that he was me. The Lady of the Bay, she said, represented the American Dream, and that my story was about how you can fall in love with America and everything it offers, but then it can take it away from you, and leave you in the dark. I never thought about all that as I was writing it, so it must have been subconscious. It’s interesting that I wrote that story, because it kind of foreshadowed the pain I went through when my semester ended. Emmaline was my semester abroad.

Anyway, I woke up on the morning of Friday the 21st and started to study for my exam. It was the first time I even looked up what the exam was about, if you can believe it. I had to read a poem by Robert Frost. Here it is:

 

“Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.”

 

Nothing gold can stay. Nothing perfect can last. Frost juxtaposes images of heaven with the intrinsically flawed nature of the human world. Heaven and Eden are a dream. God is love- perfect love. And to me the invention of God and heaven by humanity have always represented our desire for perfection in a world that hurts us. Religion is born out of the realization of our flaws; it is a reaction to the glaring imperfections of our world, which seem overwhelming when they hurt us. Now, I don’t want to get hyperbolic about the emotions I felt as the curtains of my semester abroad were drawn. Frost’s poem is way more complex than the issues I want to discuss in this post. But I can’t help but think of the immortal line at the end of this famous poem when I think of my student exchange coming to an end.

America is a dreamy place. And the reality is that it can hurt you, whether you live there as a citizen or at the grace of a student visa. It represents the best we have to offer and the absolute worst. It’s easy to fall in love with its sheer variety of ice cream flavors, its powerful showerheads, and its excellent urban planning. But within this romantic framework there is so much potential for heartache. America will always be a place that is of endless fascination to me; a land where the real world and the dream world live side by side.

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Before I left for my exam, Aaron and Akbar presented me with the best gift I could have ever asked for- a t-shirt signed by everyone I met. Aaron even added a signature that read “L.O.B” meaning Lady of the Bay. I remember being paranoid about how the goodbye would go. It had to go absolutely perfectly, I thought to myself, or I’d be anxious for days. I had to go to the bog to answer nature’s call, and as I sat on the cool porcelain of the toilet seat I texted Aaron “Don’t leave without saying goodbye” and he texted back “I won’t” which I instantly realized was the last thing Elvis Presley said before he tragically passed away in 1977. It was the last message Aaron texted me on my TracPhone, and I vowed to never delete it. I liked the idea of looking at it years from then.

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I rushed down several flights of stairs and found him and Akbar loading his things into the trunk of a car. Beside them were Aaron’s mom Sylvia and his sister Elizabeth. I was very nervous and unsure what to say. Then Akbar said “Here he is. Almost missed Aaron because you were taking a 30-minute dump.”

At that moment I blushed as red as I have ever blushed and froze. Sylvia said “Thanks, I really wanted to know that,” and I worried that everything was ruined. I ended up hanging around with them for longer than I should have- since my exam was in ten minutes and on the other side of campus- trying to think of a way to say something cool or funny. No such thing happened. I wished Aaron a Merry Christmas, told Akbar I’d see him later, I tried to make it to Hibbard as fast as I could without slipping on the ice.

I entered the classroom just as the exam started, and quietly took my blue book and started writing. When the exam was finished, I shook the professor’s hand and wished him a Merry Christmas, feeling very emotional all of a sudden. I left the building and found that the campus outside was almost deserted. Most folks had left. I took the long way back to Towers North, stopping by the bookstore to sell my textbooks, and pausing to admire Little Niagara and the silent, imposing buildings around me. Now that Aaron was gone, the semester was over. I felt like a tourist again, an outsider, walking among buildings and trees that did not belong to me, but which just an hour earlier passed in the periphery of my eye without a second thought. There was something so cold about the buildings and trees that would endure long after I’d gone.

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The snow had stopped falling, and the winter sun bathed the campus in white light. That was the moment my semester ended. In spirit, I was already back in the UK. I was British again. Everything between that moment and the plane landing in Heathrow was just my body going through the various motions of transporting myself back to Nailsea. Throughout the whole trip home- a long sequence of cars, shuttle-buses and planes- I was very impatient. I just wanted all this dead time to be over, since I was already switched off from America. My mind and my heart were blank. Whatever had connected me to the America around me was gone; whatever interface that allowed me to feel and consider the trees, the animals, the road signs, the slang, the body language, the sunsets- the vast details that constituted the life force of the America I had fallen in love with- was no longer working. It was like seeing it all in pictures and movies, even though I was still there. It’s one of the strangest sensations I’ve ever had. And it’s the one I want to end this study abroad series on. Thank you to everyone who has read these little essays since the beginning. Hopefully it was interesting to you. I will still write about the USA, but the story of my study abroad is over. Come next week, I will have started a new project, so stay tuned…

10 Reasons Why I Love “Birches” By Robert Frost

I love “Birches”: 10 Reasons Why. This is starting to sound like a Netlfix Original Series, and it’s one typo away from sounding like a rap song. I’ve been meaning to write this post for a while. Robert Frost is one of my favorite poets, and I usually give “Birches” as my favorite poem. What I want is to outline for you why I love this poem and why it’s special to me. I want this post to be a celebration of the joy of poetry, so I’m going to avoid getting too much into the analytics. I’ll leave the sober essays on the poem’s themes to the good folks at Sparknotes. Today I want to leave the world of academics behind and just write from the heart. So here it is, 10 Reasons Why I Love “Birches” by Robert Frost.

  1. I first discovered Robert Frost when I was studying as an exchange student at the University of Wisconsin- Eau Claire in 2012. I was taking a class in American Literature and we had a selection of his poems to study for Finals. By that point the campus was covered in snow and ice and I remember walking very carefully to Hibbard- the building where I had my English classes- because it felt that at any moment I might fall. I distinctly remember not even being able to see the big, red-brick building because the snow was so thick. I can still feel the weight of flaky white clumps on my eyelashes and how I had to blink and rub my eyes constantly just to see where I was going. Of all the poems we read of Frost, “Birches” was the one that stuck with me. It’s the link between the present and the time I spent studying American Literature in December of 2012, with the wintry images of the poem bearing a striking resemblance to the campus at the time of my reading it.
  2. I feel like I can relate to the narrator of the poem. At one time or another we have all looked at birches bent over in the wind and imagined that some boy had been swinging them. I am drawn to the idea that he “likes” to see them that way, and that even though he realizes that it’s all because of the ice storm, he later goes on to say he still “prefers” to think of them as being swung by children. I often find myself in a similar mindset, and I think that’s why this poem struck such a cord with me at the time. My reading of the poem was that the speaker is not so interested in truth in the empirical, literal sense of the word, but in the truths we create for ourselves by attaching significance to things. It pleases the speaker to think of the birches as bent by children at play because it takes him back to his youth, to a time of innocence. The narrator seems weary and weighed down by the adult world and the hard, sad truths of life. He longs for the blissful way a child perceives the world, but he wants to return just long enough to escape the complexity of the real world for a moment. I’m often thinking about how I like to see the world in a lyrical or poetic way, imagining things to have a greater significance than they do.
  3. The poem for me also exists as a kind of textual painting of the New England rural idyll. It makes me think of the paintings of Winslow Homer, and the winter scenes of Currier & Ives. Like a painting, it has the power to encapsulate a time, a place, and a way of life with a single image- the swinging of birches. This was a popular game for children in rural parts of New England, and something that both Frost and his children were fond of doing.
  4. Of course, one of the big draws of this poem is the wintry imagery. I’ve never been to New England, so the only picture I have to accompany this post is a photo my roommate took of a birch tree in the Wisconsin northwoods in the summer. As my professor read this poem to us I found myself hanging on his every word. Everyone in the room was silent and I could imagine that each of us had a clear image- not dissimilar to that of a painting- of the birches bent over in the shrill winds of winter. I love the way he describes them as “trailing their leaves on the ground/Like girls on hands and knees that throw their hair/Before them over their heads to dry in the sun”.
  5. The images were so powerful to me that they influenced my own writing of poetry. A year later, in the fall of 2013, I began writing poems again for a class I was taking in Winchester, England. My style had changed. I was reinventing myself as a nature poet. I was obsessed with images and I wrote a whole bunch of vivid poems about the Wisconsin landscape. In “Birches” the freezing rain causes the branches to become coated in glaze ice, which then cracks in the sunny morning and falls to the snow below. It’s funny, because during the fall of 2013, I called Aaron and asked how things were back in Wisco. He told me about going on dates with Anne-Marie and explained to me the concept of freezing rain- which they were suffering that week. I took the two pieces of information and wrote a poem about a young Wisconsinite couple trying to find each other in freezing rain. I was inspired by how the weather was at once beautiful and terrible.
  6. “Birches” is written in blank verse; that is so say, poems written in unrhymed metrical lines. I’ve always preferred poems that don’t rhyme, because I love the way the sentences just seem to hang in the air and stay in the thoughts of the reader.
  7. What’s so great about this poem is the beauty of its language. It makes your ears happy. Frost uses sibilance to create a visceral, onomatopoeic effect in the lines “Soon the sun’s warmth makes them shed crystal shells/Shattering and avalanching on the snow crust”. I remember hearing the admiration in my professor’s voice as he read it. He had clearly read this poem countless times, but it still took his breath away.
  8. “Birches” was the gateway drug that got me hooked on the skag of poems like “Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening”. It established Frost as one of my go-to poets, alongside Wallace Stevens, Robert Lowell and James Dickey.
  9. Although I discovered Frost in 2012, I would not return to him until 2014. “Birches” remained in my subconscious but it wouldn’t be forgotten for long. It all came flooding back to me when Anne-Marie told me that Robert Frost was her favorite poet and “Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening” and “The Road Not Taken” were her favorite poems. She had studied them in high school and fallen in love with them. There’s a special joy I take in sharing the passion of words with my friends. One time I even caught her reciting the lines “and miles to go before I sleep…” as she drove us across Wisconsin in the night. When I got back to the U.K in the fall, I then picked up a book of his complete works, which I always keep within reaching distance of my writing desk.
  10. The last reason why I love “Birches” so much is in many ways a culmination of reasons 1-9; it’s a great poem to be read aloud. Despite my phobia of public speaking I do enjoy reading poems aloud when I can. It’s a fear I dream of overcoming. And I’d love to read Frost’s poems to people with the same passion that my Literature professor had back in Eau Claire. It’s a timeless, enduring body of work that I’d take a great pleasure in sharing with others. Reading “Birches”- or any great poem- is really only half the fun. Share it with those you love and those you want to inspire.

You can read the poem here: Birches

Billy’s Rain: How One Book Changed My Outlook on Poetry

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Hugo Williams might be my favorite modern poet. I keep a copy of Billy’s Rain close by my writing desk, and I never hesitate to consult it, whether I’m looking for inspiration or for pleasure. It’s actually a funny story how I ended up with the book, and how it came to form such an important part of my library.

I touched on this in last week’s post “Notes on Productivity and Procrastination”; I had trouble getting inspired at school. I was always more interested in reading the books I bought for myself on the weekends than the ones assigned to me in class. I could never get disciplined enough to read them, and it reached a point where I just sort of accepted it and stopped buying the assigned reading altogether as a matter of course. I know, I was a twat (see, I admit it so it’s okay!). In my time spent at school, college, and two universities, I never once read a full length book that was assigned to me. I tried sometimes, but I could never concentrate. I had the attention span of a newborn pug at a Polka Dance.

In my third year of university, after giving up any idea of becoming a poet and thinking instead that my best bet was with fiction or screenwriting, I ended up taking a class in poetry writing largely because of my disinterest in the other options. I think it was called Modern Poetic Writing or something like that. Anyway, the class was being taught by my favorite professor and I figured I would give it a go for a semester. At first my expectations were low; the reading list was set, I didn’t buy any of the books, and I had to do the embarrassing routine every week of searching through my bag and going “Well, I must have left the blasted thing at home”. I would have felt less guilty if it weren’t my favorite professor I was deceiving. But there was always some kind person that let me share their copy. The theme was decided to be Confessional Poetry. We started with Robert Lowell (whom I have also since come to appreciate), and then moved on to Williams.

I remember being in a sort of haze one day, thinking about something far removed from the room I was in. It could have been anything. At the time I was mutilating the same short story every week to please another professor (only for the original version to get published as a winning entry of a competition months later), just getting hooked on The Walking Dead, and I had a Skype date where I was set to be introduced to my best mate’s girlfriend- a larger than life personality I was sure I was going to disappoint (she’s now my BFF). All this was on my mind and I was really just trying to get by with my classes and stay afloat. Then, I remember being suddenly snapped awake by my professor’s reading of “Blindfold Games” from Billy’s Rain. I was all of a sudden existing in the present. I was captivated by the words. Something about it just seemed to ring true. The feeling I got, listening to that reading, was of being inside someone’s head, seeing out of their eyes and feeling what they felt. Jealousy. Plain and simple. That was the theme of the poem, and in a very simple yet very profound way it resonated. I wasn’t particularly infatuated with any one lady at that point in my life, but it nevertheless seemed like such a universal and timeless part of the male psyche that was being communicated through that poem. Perhaps at some point I would feel about a girl the way that narrator did, I thought.

The book as a whole chronicles a love affair, which ends, and the aftermath of it. You can read the book like a novel, from front to back, if you want. As you get further into the book, you see William’s emotions and anxieties laid bare, as he goes from being the recipient of this woman’s affections to an observer of it. “Blindfold Games” is, roughly speaking, in the middle of the book, and details the narrator imagining his ex-lover going off to bed and making love to her new boyfriend. There’s just something very human and engaging about the narrator’s insecurities, and something very male about his keen interest in her sharing the intimacy that was once his, with someone else. I read an article a while back, which reported on a scientific study that examined the different ways men and women recover from the breakup of a relationship. The study found that women, at some point, are better equipped at putting it behind them, whereas men- even if they do find a new partner- will be troubled with it for the rest of their lives. I’ll put a link to the article below in case you are interested.

Anyway, you want to know how the story ends, no? I couldn’t get the poems of Hugo Williams out of my head, and “Blindfold Games” in particular. I wanted to write poems like that. During that semester I fell in love with poetry again, and it was all down to that class I almost didn’t take, and that book I never bought. My entire outlook on the genre had changed forever. I started to write poems that could be described as “Confessional” en masse, and I was extremely excited about the end of semester assignment where we had to produce our own portfolio of poems. My confidence soared in my ability not only to write poems, but to share them as well. I was always the last person to contribute in class, and I tried to get out of it any way I could- even if it meant skipping. But I reached inside of myself, the way Lowell and Williams had, and wrote this personal poem about being sad and lonely one time during an intramural soccer game at the University of Wisconsin- Eau Claire. The response I got from my fellow writers was great, and one girl even said it tugged at her heart strings. My professor said in a private chat that I was finding my voice as a poet.

The poems stayed in my head long after that class ended in the winter of 2013. They laid dormant in my subconscious for a while, as I became focused on writing my dissertation and then heading off to Wisconsin for a summer of eating ice cream, snuggling with that pug, and tubing on the Chippewa River. But afterwards, when I got down to writing again, the poems came back. So I ended up going out and buying Hugo William’s Billy’s Rain about a year and a half after it had been assigned to me! And now it forms a core part of my writer’s library. It’s a book I often return to, reading the same poems over and over again. Here’s “Blindfold Games” for you to enjoy:

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References

http://www.cosmopolitan.com/uk/love-sex/relationships/news/a48019/scientific-study-men-never-get-over-breakups/