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Poets, Poetry & Rhys Hughes

My Favourite Poem

I am not sure it is wise to choose a favourite poem out of the millions that exist. It would seem to exclude all the others from the imaginary summit of a fictional pillar. The circumference of that pillar means that there is only room for one poem up there and it might be better not to erect the pillar in the first place and leave the literary landscape unobstructed.

But it is too late for me. I have already chosen a favourite poem. In fact, I have chosen a favourite several times. The first poet I read in any depth, Edgar Allan Poe, provided me with my first favourite, not ‘The Raven’ but a slightly less famous work called ‘The Bells’. How I loved the tinkle, jangle and crash of the cadences in the stanzas of that piece!

I read it again recently and found that it retains great musical power and it is still a poem I regard with intense fondness, but it is no longer my favourite of all. That is hardly surprising considering I was reading Poe when I was 15 years old. Our youthful tastes change not only according to our experiences but also as a result of all the other literature we consume. There is surely a tendency to prefer narrative poems when we are small and a diminishing reliance on actual stories as we grow older. Yet it was the music of ‘The Bells’ that fascinated me rather than the febrile images it contains.

Jabberwocky. Courtesy: Creative Commons

I think my love of euphony has always meant that I relish the way a poem sounds more than I appreciate any meanings it might convey. This is why it was easy for a nonsense poem to become my new favourite and to gently push aside the Poe piece. Lewis Carroll’s ‘Jabberwocky’ became for me the supreme poem and I learned it by heart. It is a poem that makes contextual sense despite all the meaningless neologisms with which it is sprinkled. Somehow, we understand the new words coined by Carroll and there is no need to have them explained. It is a poem that we absorb through osmosis rather than through the normal process of everyday communication. A masterpiece!

When I was 18 years old, I began reading Byron, Shelley, Coleridge and a few other English Romantics, and I discovered ‘Ozymandias’. Now this seemed to me to be a perfect poem. It had music, imagery and a moral, and furthermore it was ironic, an archaic episode with timeless relevance. Again, I learned it by heart, and I found myself in the not uncommon position of reciting it to myself whenever I happened to be confronted with an ancient ruin, whether the blocks of a tumbled castle or shattered torso of a fallen statue. It is a poem that turns a reader into an actor, an introvert into a declaimer. It became my new favourite but only for a short while. The poem that caused it to fall in my estimation was another in the same anthology I was reading.

An Illustration from Kubla Khan. Courtesy: Creative commons

Kubla Khan’ struck me as especially appealing because it has a wildness about it that balances out its sense of control. I am not sure why Coleridge affected me to a greater extent than Shelley (and Byron affected me hardly at all) but I was enthralled by the imprecise exoticism and the intimations of doom among paradise in this poem, which is as menacing as it is delightful, as frantic as it is magical. Coleridge himself regarded it as a work in progress, a frustrated potential, unfinished, a burst dream bubble. I wonder if a continuation might have diminished it? The fragmentary nature of the piece adds to its allure by increasing its strangeness. There is atonality here as well as smoothness, like troubling chords inserted in a serene nocturne.

A few years passed and I discovered a new favourite and had to topple poor old ‘Kubla Khan’ from the apex of that idealised pillar and replace it with The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám in the first Edward Fitzgerald translation, but whether this series of seventy-five quatrains can be regarded as just one poem is open to debate. Personally, I regard the quatrains as linked inextricably by mood, metaphors as well as theme, and there is a mini-sequence within the whole that gains significant momentum by being treated as a single creation. My ambition once again was to learn the work by heart and recite it at moments that were appropriate but despite my efforts I failed in the endeavour. There was simply too much wordage for me to succeed.

I tried reading more modern poetry, serious and mature work that I failed to understand at first and had to consider very carefully before I could tease out any meaning. I read Akhmatova, Rilke, Pound, Eliot. I tried (but was generally defeated by) Ginsberg, Olsen, William Carlos Williams. This was all well and good but my candidate for new favourite turned out to be something light, an insignificant ditty dashed off by a poet who wrote it as a gift for a friend, and once again it was the music that won me over, the jangling, tinkling, tingling, clipping, clopping, jingly rhythms. ‘Tarantella’ by Hilaire Belloc imitates the sound of a guitar and clapping hands, it clatters along merrily, nostalgically, a tribute to an ephemeral occasion in a mountain tavern that can never be lived again, and the words and their phrasing evoke much of the atmosphere of that night with an appreciable impetus. A candidate for new favourite, yes, but it ultimately failed to displace the Rubáiyát.

That was in my early twenties and soon after I lost interest in poetry, I have no idea why, and rarely read any. Occasionally I would browse an anthology and discover something interesting, but only a few poems made any impression at all on me, and none became my favourite. The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám remained at the summit of my appreciation by default. My return to poetry was slow and uneven. The work of Federico García Lorca caught my attention and I chose ‘Canción de Jinete’ to learn by heart, which I did, probably poorly (my Spanish was never fluent). A little later I discovered the precocious genius of Arthur Rimbaud and taught myself ‘Le Coeur Supplicié’ because its torrent of fantastical words appealed to my inner ear.

Unfortunately, what I believed poetry had to offer was something I had no great use for. I misunderstood what it had to offer. That is no great crime, but I did miss out on its delights for a long time. Not until my mid-thirties did I start to return to the pleasures of poetry, and it was the humourist Don Marquis who ushered me back into the heaven I had forsaken, yet it is too much to claim that any of his poems became my favourite. I adore his cycle of poems about the cockroach Archy and the cat Mehitabel, but they must be taken as a whole in an evolving mythos. No individual poem of the cycle is worthy of special attention at the expense of the others. All are good, but together they are brilliant and thus they disqualify themselves from the game.

Now that I was reconciled with poetry, my tastes widened, and I read from a broader set of cultures and times than before. Sappho, Ovid, Catullus, Tagore, Basho, Tu Fu, Housman, Holub, Mandelstam, Eliot, Yeats, Edward Thomas, Dorothy Parker, Ai Ogawa, Ogden Nash, Derek Walcott. I was very enthusiastic about the novels and short stories of Richard Brautigan, so I read his poetry too and found a poem called ‘All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace’ that neatly summed up my own hopes for the future of the world. Did it become my new favourite? Not quite. I continued reading. Pessoa enthralled me, Cendrars and Queneau dazzled me. Complicated poetry dealing with the human condition and experimental verse based on mathematics made me nod my head sagely in a close approximation of a deep appreciation.

The City’ by C.P. Cavafy became my new favourite. I had heard his name often mentioned but felt no great desire to explore further. Then by chance I saw this particular poem. What a terrific piece! Hard, bleak even, wrenchingly bitter, but it does not depress the spirits of the reader despite its melancholy message. On the contrary it seems to inspire the reader to action. The poem is quietly and relentlessly insistent that you will never change your life for the better, that you can never escape the circumstances that have trapped you. It issues a challenge to the reader. Prove me wrong, the poem seems to say! I immersed myself in as much of Cavafy’s poetry as I could find. I went out of my way to visit his house in the city of Alexandria in Egypt, so wonderful did I now regard his work. Was this the final destination on my poetic voyage?

Not quite. There was another poem by another poet sunk deep beneath the surface of my awareness and it had been there for a long time. I can say that it had probably been my secret favourite from the beginning. I must have read it in an idle moment and forgotten about it, or thought I had forgotten about it, but it remained on the seabed of my subconscious, and ultimately it wrecked all the poetical vessels that followed, for I was never fully satisfied with any of those I called my favourites. I rediscovered it one unexpected day and it returned with unstoppable force into my affections. It was written by a poet who went to sea and saw the world, who travelled rather aimlessly for a number of years before the urge to write poetry took hold of him.

‘Cargoes’ by John Masefield is evocative and beautiful. It is heady and a little regretful at the same time. It contrasts the supposed splendours of the past with the drab present, and yet ironically in our own age we perceive romance even in the grime and smoke of Masefield’s ‘present’. Three ages are given to us for contemplation, a pre-classical time, the golden age of the Spanish Main, and the very start of the 20th Century, and three ships loaded with merchandise to represent those ages. The ships of Assyria and Spain are loaded with exotic and tropical treasures. They are floating envoys of a pair of widely spaced but equally fabulous cultures. The British ship is grimy and ugly and it wallows through a drab sea on a blustery day, carrying cargo that is practically an insult to the taste of the aesthete. The language employed is perfect for Masefield’s purpose. I know of no poem I like better.

Quinquireme of Nineveh from distant Ophir,
Rowing home to haven in sunny Palestine,
With a cargo of ivory,
And apes and peacocks,
Sandalwood, cedarwood, and sweet white wine…

Cargoes (1903), John Masefield (1878-1967) 

Rhys Hughes has lived in many countries. He graduated as an engineer but currently works as a tutor of mathematics. Since his first book was published in 1995 he has had fifty other books published and his work has been translated into ten languages.

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Interview

Rhys Hughes Unbounded

In conversation with Rhys Hughes

I have always wanted to interview Ruskin Bond who lives in Landour, near the hill-station of Mussoorie in India. Bond, now 87, grew up in Dehradun, tried a stint in England and returned to the country that had nurtured him to write stories that make us laugh and yet bring out the flavours of love and kindness in the Himalayas. Sadly, no one seems to be able to get me an online interview with him. So, I did the next best thing…

I interviewed Rhys Hughes.

Rhys Hughes in Srilanka

You have to see it from my perspective, here was a humourist migrating from UK to India, just like Bond. Both their names begin with R — Ruskin wrote of monkeys conducting a fashion parade in colourful pyjamas borrowed from him, perhaps permanently and Rhys wants to interview a monkey who took a bottle of coconut oil from his current home. Only, Hughes’ monkey happens to be in Sri Lanka and Bond’s monkeys were in India. In fact, I told Hughes he could be the next Bond and could perhaps get into an apprenticeship. He has the basic compassion and humour in his writing that endears Bond to so many hearts. However, Hughes has not made it across to India as yet. He waits on the lush shores of Sri Lanka to make a landfall on the Coromandel Coast or … maybe the Himalayas… as the pandemic continues to upheave in tsunami-like waves. Maybe, Rhys Hughes will become the Ruskin Bond of Sri Lanka! Let us tread into the world of Hughes to check out what he thinks.

Tell us since when have you been writing? What gets your muse going?

I began writing when I was six years old or so. My earliest stories were inspired by films and comics I enjoyed and mostly were about monsters, adventures, space travel, robots, dinosaurs and ghosts. I doubt if any of them made much sense.

The first short story I wrote with a plot I remember was about a man who jumps off a cliff so that he will turn into a ghost and can create mischief in his village, which he does, but the twist is that he survives the fall and only thinks he is a ghost. The enraged villagers chase him back over the same cliff, and he isn’t frightened because he believes he can float on air, but he can’t and this time he doesn’t survive. I was about ten years old when I wrote that. But I didn’t begin writing short stories in earnest until I was fourteen. That was the real beginning of my writing career. I have been writing regularly ever since. I don’t require prompting to write these days. It has become a habit, a reflex, something I just do. I still write about the same old things as always, monsters, adventures, space travel, etc, but I have added a few more themes since I was a young child and my style has improved considerably. At least I hope it has!

That story you wrote as a ten-year-old definitely has potential! And we enjoy your writing as we read it now.  Now tell us why do you write?

Ideas come unbidden into my mind and they won’t leave me alone unless I put them into stories. The moment I embody these ideas in a work of fiction they stop bothering me. I get ideas all the time, especially when I am walking or travelling somewhere, but also in the middle of the night. I try to make notes so I can use them later but sometimes I neglect to note them down and I forget them. Then the ideas go away temporarily but return days, weeks, months or years later and bother me again. Only when I pin them down into a narrative of some kind will they go away forever. So writing is a compulsion for me as well as a voluntary activity. It wasn’t always like this.

In the beginning I found it difficult to come up with original ideas. I had to work hard at it. I would say that most of my ideas back then were fairly ordinary ones and only occasionally truly original. But I persisted and exercised my mind, and just like muscles do, the parts of my mind responsible for the invention of original ideas got bigger and stronger, and now the ideas come without effort. As it happens, not all these ideas turn out to be as original as I like to think they are. Sometimes I get excited that I have come up with a totally new concept only to later discover that some other author beat me to it years ago. But I do believe that originality is possible.

The oft-repeated maxim that there are no new ideas simply isn’t true. If originality is impossible, how were any ideas generated in the first place? I don’t mean to say that originality is the ultimate objective of writing, of course not, there are a great many other reasons to write, but I am talking about it from my own particular point of view. And all I am really saying here is that practice is the most important thing, the only essential thing. I write a lot and the very act of writing regularly seems to make writing in the future easier and smoother.

What is your favourite genre for writing and for reading?

The genre question is a difficult one to answer but I am going to say that if I had to choose only one genre to describe my own writing I would answer “comedy”. This doesn’t mean that everything I write is comedic, but a large percentage of it certainly is. And I don’t necessarily mean laugh-out-loud comedy but other types of comedy too, whether subtle irony, philosophical farce, absurdist and surrealist works. There are many grades of comedy, from wit to parody, and I enjoy most of them. When it comes to reading, I still have a focus on comedy, I suppose, but I will read very sober and serious works too. If I made a list of my favourite works of fiction, comedic works would be at the top of the list.

Broadly speaking there are two types of humorous literature, one in which incidents are funny and one in which it is the telling that is comic. Writers who combine both types tend to win my deepest admiration. Yet quite a few of my favourite books have no comedy in them at all, neither in subject nor in style, for example The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll by Alvaro Mutis ( 1993, translated by Edith Grossman, 2002) which is a sequence of tropical and troubling narratives, often sombre in tone, that nonetheless remains an enthralling and uplifting read.

Which writers have influenced your work? Are you influenced by other art forms?

I wanted to become a professional writer because of Robert Louis Stevenson. It was Treasure Island (1883) that opened the gates into the entire world of literature for me. I still admire him hugely but I have had much bigger influences since then. Delving deeper into the novels and short stories that were available to me, I was lucky enough to find authors who resonated with some deep part of my being and made me not only want to continue trying to be a writer, but to be a writer who wrote as they did. Of course, it’s better to develop one’s own style, but I suspect that ‘distinctive’ styles are really the result of amalgams of influences, a blend of prior styles. Italo Calvino (1923-1985) has been my favourite writer for more than thirty years, with Donald Barthelme (193i-1989), Boris Vian (1920-1959), Flann O’Brien (1911-1966) and Stanislaw Lem (1921-2006) not far behind. At the moment I am a keen reader of the work of Mia Couto (1955-2013). Alasdair Gray (1934-2019) is another favourite.

To answer the second part of your question, I have definitely been influenced by art forms other than writing, in particular music and visual art. I might even say that the paradoxical imagery in the artwork of M.C. Escher (1898-1972) has been at least as big an influence on me as the prose of any author. I was astounded and captivated when I first saw his graphic designs and have loved them ever since.

You have travelled to many places. How many countries have you visited? Has travel impacted your writing? How?

I have lost count of the number of countries I have visited. I used to keep a map and colour in the countries that I had been to, but I lost the map years ago. The truth is that probably the total isn’t as high as I think it is. Most of my travelling has been done in Africa and Europe, and I have only really dipped my toes into the vastness of Asia, and I haven’t even been to the Americas at all. No one is so well-travelled that they really know the world.

Travel has certainly impacted my writing, though. I can state that with confidence. I am often inspired to write stories set in the places I have visited and I guess I probably wouldn’t do so if I hadn’t been there. Having said that, I do occasionally set a story in a location I have never visited. Such stories can work well but there is nearly always a vital element missing, some immediacy that a certain level of familiarity gives to a work of prose. It’s far easier to create a convincing atmosphere when you are writing from experience rather than from research. Little details will give some solidity to the evocation of scenes, details that can’t be easily imagined without first-hand experience. This doesn’t mean that I think travelling is necessary for the creation of good fiction. Good fiction can be centred in nowhere, almost in no space or time if the author is talented enough. And there’s a paradox in the nature of travel, which is that even though the particulars of your surroundings might change, the essentials remain the same. We can put a lot of effort into the act of travelling only to discover that people are people everywhere. And would we have it any other way?

Tell us a bit about the world you grew up in — we have an interesting piece by you called ‘Dinosaurs in France’ — which claims you grew up in a world of different value systems. Would you see those as better or the present as better?

The past is another country. That’s one of the pithiest and truest maxims anyone has devised. In only half a century I have seen many changes, but in fact most of these changes came so gradually I didn’t notice that things were changing at the time. Only now, looking back, do I see the vast gulf between the present and my past. I was youthful in a world where information was much more difficult to obtain. There were rumours and suppositions and often no way of confirming or refuting them. People believed strange things and adjusted their attitudes to match these odd beliefs. People still do the same now, of course, but it somehow feels different. One can more easily check assertions now than before and learn much more quickly if they are true or false. The world I grew up in was one in which you had no choice but to take another person’s word at face value. So if a supposedly responsible adult, like the postman, told you with a straight face that he lived in a house made entirely from marshmallows, there was no easy way of disproving the claim. You had to take his word for it. I can’t say it was a better world and I don’t want to suggest it was a worse one. It was simply different, a world lacking ready access to information.

You have written a lot of humour. Not too many people do that nowadays. Could you tell us why your funny bone is tickled to create humour as it does? Do you think humour is a good way to address major issues?

Humorous writing has gone out of fashion to a certain extent in the anglophone world, yes, but it’s still there, in the background. There was a great tradition of British humorous writing that lasted about a century or so, and I was fortunate enough to grow up at the end of that phase. I am talking about a particular type of humour, dryly ironic but also theatrical, a sort of blend of surrealism and the old musical hall routines. J.B. Morton (1873-1979) was one of the masters of the form, and he was an influence on many of my favourite comedic writers, such as Spike Milligan (1918-2002), Maurice Richardson (1907-1978) and W.E. Bowman (1911-1985). These humorists also took the language and played with it a little, transforming it into something new, though I feel ultimately that such comedy derives more from the rhythms than the melodies of wordplay.

The entire range of comedic devices might be used but new ones invented as well. There can be over reaction to minor incidents and under reaction to major ones, constant misunderstandings, amplification of repetition, parody of existing forms. W.E. Bowman’s The Ascent of Rum Doodle is my favourite humorous novel, and its sequel, The Cruise of the Talking Fish, is also high on my list of best comedic literature. Bowman apparently wrote a third volume in the series that remains unpublished and is in the safe keeping of his son. If this is true, I hope it will appear one day.

Are you influenced by any specific humourist? If so, who?

Flann O’Brien is probably my biggest influence in terms of comedic prose. His work is quirky, inventive, curiously erudite, absurdist and often metafictional. I am staggered by the wealth of invention in his novels, the supremely silly but also highly ingenious conceits and concepts, and the bone-dry irony contrasted with farcical exuberance, the light touch and the dark tone. W.E. Bowman and Maurice Richardson are another two favourites. That is prose but when it comes to poetry I love Don Marquis (1878-1937), Ogden Nash (1902-1971) and Ivor Cutler (1923-2006) best, all of them with radically different approaches to comedy. Marquis in particular pushed humour in his free verse to a point where it often became profound, serious and socially critical. You asked if humour can be used to address major issues. Yes, sometimes it can, even with great force, but it doesn’t have to.

Tell us the extent of your work. How many books have you written?

I have published many books. The question is how do I count them. I tend not to count the self-published books. It seems to me that self-publishing is too easy. On the other hand, traditional publishing is maybe too difficult. I have forty or so traditionally published books and twenty self-published books out there, so I am going to give forty as my answer. Most of my books are collections of short stories. I have only written a few novels. My poetry collections so far have been self-published with the exception of one single volume called Bunny Queue.

It is one of my goals to have all the short stories I have ever written appear in my books. At the moment there are many of my short stories that exist in magazines and anthologies that have never been collected. And there are many unpublished short stories in my files too. My plan is to write exactly a thousand short stories and consider them as part of one big story-cycle. This project is almost done. In a few more months, with luck, I will finish writing my thousandth story. Thirty years in total it has taken. When that last story is finished I will devote myself entirely to novels, plays, poetry and articles. No more short stories! So, in reply to your question, I can say that I have written a great deal of work, maybe too much, but as I said earlier, writing has been something of a compulsion for me.

What are your future plans?

I plan to finish my big story-cycle of one thousand stories. Then I will write a few novels that I have been planning for a long time. One of these novels will be called The Hippy Quixote and will be about a young, deluded fellow who in his mind is living in the 1960s. He takes a guidebook written in that decade and follows the old hippy trail to India, blissfully unaware that so many things have changed in terms of societal attitudes and geopolitics. This idea seems to me to be a fruitful one for the creation of comic scenes.

I also have to finish a novel I began a long time ago, The Clown of the New Eternities, sections of which have already been published. It’s long overdue for completion. This novel is about a highwayman who has accidentally outlived his own age and is forced to adjust to the modern world. Another variant of Quixote, I suppose. I think that many or most of my longer narratives are a blend of the Quixote and Candide models with a bit of Gulliver thrown in. We can talk about our future plans all day, of course, but whether we are lucky enough to have a chance to make them real is another question altogether. I intend to do my best, as I have always done, but nothing is certain in this world of ours.

Thanks Rhys Hughes for your time and lovely answers.

Click here to read prose & poetry by Rhys Hughes.

(This is an online interview conducted by Mitali Chakravarty.)

PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL