Thursday, 30 April 2015

Alas, Poor Yolek!

Anthony.Hecht.02The US-Jewish poet Anthony Hecht never sparkled at school! He often referred to his ‘conspicuous’ lack of talent as a boy and explained that it was only when he began studying English at Bard (liberal arts) College, where  he discovered Modernist poetry that he decided that he wanted to be a poet.

But the Second World War intervened and his experiences fighting in Europe and helping to liberate Flossenbürg Nazi concentration camp, later became central to his work.

Two of Hecht’s most famous pieces are Holocaust-based and one of them, The Book of Yolek was the subject of the opening lecture at this week’s Voices Israel Western Galilee Poets' Workshop. The other, More Light! More Light! is generally considered to be the best English language poem to discuss the Holocaust. For my part, I’ve never read one finer than The Book of Yolek. 

It was chosen by new Voices president, Susan Olsburgh as an example of a sestina. This is a tightly structured, complex verse form comprising six stanzas of six lines plus a concluding three line ‘envoi’ – ‘tornada’ - or ‘tercet’. The trick is for the writer to  repeat the six words ending each of the poem’s first six lines in a particular pattern throughout the subsequent five verses while the final three lines include all six recurring words.

Mrs Olsburgh also noted the sestina’s ‘nod’ to the acrostic, a popular form in Jewish liturgy and she pointed out that the  letters for the name ‘Yolek’ are spelt out in the final words of five of the lines in the first stanza of Hecht’s poem.

“The Book of Yolek

‘Wir Haben ein Gesetz,
Und nach dem Gesetz soll er sterben’.

“The dowsed coals fume and hiss after your meal
Of grilled brook trout, and you saunter off for a walk
Down the fern trail. It doesn't matter where to,
Just so you're weeks and worlds away from home,
And among midsummer hills have set up camp
In the deep bronze glories of declining day.

“You remember, peacefully, an earlier day
In childhood, remember a quite specific meal:
A corn roast and bonfire in summer camp.
That summer you got lost on a Nature Walk;
More than you dared admit, you thought of home:
No one else knows where the mind wanders to.

“The fifth of August, 1942.
It was the morning and very hot. It was the day
They came at dawn with rifles to The Home
For Jewish Children, cutting short the meal
Of bread and soup, lining them up to walk
In close formation off to a special camp.

“How often you have thought about that camp,
As though in some strange way you were driven to,
And about the children, and how they were made to walk,
Yolek who had bad lungs, who wasn't a day
Over five years old, commanded to leave his meal
And shamble between armed guards to his long home.

“We're approaching August again. It will drive home
The regulation torments of that camp
Yolek was sent to, his small, unfinished meal,
The electric fences, the numeral tattoo,
The quite extraordinary heat of the day
They all were forced to take that terrible walk.

“Whether on a silent, solitary walk
Or among crowds, far off or safe at home,
You will remember, helplessly, that day,
And the smell of smoke, and the loudspeakers of the camp.
Wherever you are, Yolek will be there, too.
His unuttered name will interrupt your meal.

Prepare to receive him in your home some day.
Though they killed him in the camp they sent him to,
He will walk in as you're sitting down to a meal”.

* ‘We have a law, and according to the law he must die’.            Anthony.Hecht





© Natalie Wood (30 April 2015)

Saturday, 18 April 2015

‘This Ghastly Masquerade’

Peterloo.MassacreI guess there’d have been something akin to a nuclear fall-out if the fictional Thomas Gradgrind had met the real-life poet Percy Shelley.

The Dickensian doyen of utilitarian facts and figures would surely have had an apoplectic fit if, for example, he had read Shelley’s The Masque of Anarchy, whose revolutionary sentiments went on even to influence Mahatma Gandhi’s non-violent campaign for a free India.

So while the Gradgrinds of society are thick dolts unable to comprehend the power of Art to wreak huge social change, Shelley’s poem, written after the Peterloo Massacre of 1819, has been described as “perhaps the first modern statement of the principle of nonviolent resistance”. Percy.Bysshe.Shelley

Some commentators even say it is the greatest political poem ever written in English. Certainly, it helped the push for universal suffrage in England and resulted in the establishment of what became today’s Guardian newspaper.

So it is no surprise that Salford-raised film director Mike Leigh (he was born in Welwyn, Hertfordshire) should choose that paper to disclose his intention to make a film about the massacre and I suggest that his announcement was timed to coincide with the preparations for next month’s U.K. Parliamentary General Election.

Mike.Leigh“Apart from the universal political significance of this historic event”, he said, “the story has a particular personal resonance for me, as a native of Manchester and Salford”.

I close here with an excerpt from Shelley’s famous verses:

“As I lay asleep in Italy

There came a voice from over the Sea,

And with great power it forth led me

To walk in the visions of Poesy.


“I met Murder on the way—

He had a mask like Castlereagh—

Very smooth he looked, yet grim ;

Seven blood-hounds followed him :


“All were fat ; and well they might

Be in admirable plight,

For one by one, and two by two,

He tossed them human hearts to chew

Which from his wide cloak he drew.


“Next came Fraud, and he had on,

Like Lord Eldon, an ermined gown ;

His big tears, for he wept well,

Turned to mill-stones as they fell.


“And the little children, who

Round his feet played to and fro,

Thinking every tear a gem,

Had their brains knocked out by them”.


“Clothed with the Bible, as with light,

And the shadows of the night,

Like Sidmouth, next, Hypocrisy

On a crocodile rode by.

And many more Destructions played

In this ghastly masquerade,

All disguised, even to the eyes,

Like Bishops, lawyers, peers, and spies.


“Last came Anarchy : he rode

On a white horse, splashed with blood;

He was pale even to the lips,

Like Death in the Apocalypse”.

© Natalie Wood (18 April 2015)

Thursday, 16 April 2015

She Will Never Be Silenced!

Anne.Frank.1942No-one is sure of the exact date of Anne Frank‘s death.

We know only that the young diarist died 70 years ago - shortly before the liberation of  Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in April 1945.

As a budding writer, the teenage Frank could not – would not – be silenced. So Tuesday 14 April 2015 was chosen to commemorate the 70th anniversary of her passing, coinciding with the date of the camp’s opening by the Allies.

Here, as my contribution to Yom Hashoa 2015 and the #NotSilent social media campaign to remember Frank, I post the lines she jotted in her friend, Eva Goldberg’s poetry album on January 29 1939:




‘Dear Eva,
Share your joy with many,
fun and pleasure with everyone,
your sorrow with only a few,
and with those you love your heart.
In memory of your friend
Anne Frank’


© Natalie Wood (16 April 2015)

Thursday, 9 April 2015

A Poetic Gift From a Shah – Fit for a Queen!

So Queen Elizabeth II is not impressed with the present crop of royal party loot bags!

While touring the digitised archive of royal papers, Her Majesty was shown an illuminated manuscript of poetry presented to the Prince Regent in 1812 by the Shah of Persia and remarked to guests: “You don’t get gifts like that any more.”

Indeed, the British monarch is said to have been ‘stunned’ by the beauty of much of the material in the archive but found the Persian book of poetry to be especially appealing.

I was most intrigued by which shah may have been then in power and the sort of poems that the book may contain.

Fath ‘Ali Shah QajarSuccess! I  found some lines written on a ‘cartouche’ - a drawing bearing an inscription – against a window opening in a portrait of The Sultan Fath ‘Ali Shah Qajar by the celebrated Persian Court painter, Mihr ‘Ali  and conserved under supervision by Sotheby’s.

The Encyclopaedia Iranica states that the Shah (1769-1834), was the “second ruler of the Qajar dynasty. He transformed a largely Turkic tribal khanship into a centralised and stable monarchy on the old imperial model which brought to the Guarded Domains of Persia (mamālek-e maḥrūsa-ye Īrān) a period of relative calm and prosperity, secured a state-religious symbiosis, and fostered a period of cultural and artistic revival”.  Fath ‘Ali Shah Qajar.02


The poem,  translated by Persian scholar Manijeh Baiyani-Wolpert reads thus:


“The Sultan, Fath ‘Ali Shah Qajar.

As You desired, O pure Omnipotence,

You created this celebrated king,

As You embellished this creation,

You created as You wished”.

© Natalie Wood (09 April 2015)

Tuesday, 7 April 2015

The Afterlife of a Wandering Sailor-Poet

Libby.PurvesBroadcast journalists, Paul Heiney and Libby Purves are still trying to come to terms with the death by suicide of their son, Nicholas although it happened nine years ago.

Indeed, I am sure everyone reading this will be acutely aware from  other public figures, relatives or personal friendships how enduring to a parent is the pain caused by the death of a child at any age for whatever reason. To put it simply: it goes against the natural order of life. Parents do not expect to bury their offspring.

Paul.HeineyI have been musing on this since reading about Heiney’s  book, One Wild Song, which charts an 18,000 mile  round voyage  he made trying  somehow to recapture his son’s presence; to find the same  “intellectual depth in going to sea” as Nicholas had achieved as a  sailor and a  poet when he died aged only 23.

Before I look at an example of Heiney junior’s unusually mature verse, I must state a circuitous personal link to his father. I’ve discovered that like me, Paul attended High Storrs Grammar School in Sheffield, U.K. when, as the son of a Polish serviceman who had settled in Sheffield and then married a local girl, he was still named Paul Wisniewski. For a reason I’ve not yet ascertained, he changed his surname in 1971. His original family name rings a bell and I think a relative -  perhaps a sister – was one of my classmates (circa 1968-72).

An outsider may think that an individual like Nicholas Heiney would have enjoyed all that life had to offer. He was part of a loving, successful, well-known family; apparently physically robust - quite romantically good-looking – and a gifted writer whose talent was beginning to flower when he died. Nicholas.Heiney

But there’s always a ‘however’: Nicholas was most horribly depressed; a condition that was exacerbated, if not triggered by  labyrinthitis. This is an infection of the inner ear whose symptoms may include tinnitus and vertigo. If Nicholas suffered either of these I consider it remarkable that he continued sailing on tall ships as the routine includes climbing very high rigging. Moreover, the symptoms of tinnitus – as I know from personal experience – may include unsettling continual sounds like a low roar – similar to being on windswept moorland – perhaps  a motorway with the car windows open - or more congruent here - at open sea.

To have such noises tormenting you at intervals night and day must be an exquisite torture. So as a fellow writer, I suggest that Nicholas coped for a time by turning the phenomenon in on itself, not only by writing about his experiences visually but by penning a writer’s aural seascape worthy of someone far more celebrated than he.



The Silence at the Song’s End

"The morning runs

on, a springtime secret

through the avenues

and avenues which lure

all sound away


“I sing, as I was taught

inside myself.

I sing inside myself

when wild moments

slice some tender evening

like a breeze

that rattles gravel

and digs in the dirt


“I sing, as I was told,

inside myself.

I sing inside myself

the one wild song, song that whirls

my words around

until a world unfurls


“my ship’s new sail

I catch the dew

and set a course amongst the ocean curls


“The silence at the song’s end

Before the next

Is the world"

The Silence at the Song’s End  by Nicholas Heiney is edited by Libby Purves  and Duncan Wu (Songsend Books, hardback  - £12.95). Paul Heiney’s One Wild Song (Bloomsbury - £16.99).


© Natalie Wood (07 April 2015)

Monday, 6 April 2015

Talking - Eating – Poetry!

National.Poetry.Month.PosterJust in time for National Poetry Month, James Berkowitz, a US-based poet, writer, and multidimensional artist was yesterday interviewed on by  Gypsy Poet Sophia E. DiGonis.




James.BerkowitzBerkowitz, who has published two books, The Angels are Watching (2003) and Canteen Trumpets at Noon (1997) was also behind two poetry festivals in the United States. His latest poem,  Beyond the Eternal Line, may be found at
  • The National Poetry Month poster was designed by New Yorker cartoonist, Roz Chast and features a line from Mark Strand’s Eating Poetry 

“Eating Poetry

“Ink runs from the corners of my mouth.

There is no happiness like mine.

I have been eating poetry.

The librarian does not believe what she sees.

Her eyes are sad

and she walks with her hands in her dress.

The poems are gone.

The light is dim.

The dogs are on the basement stairs and coming up.

Their eyeballs roll,

their blond legs burn like brush.

The poor librarian begins to stamp her feet and weep.

She does not understand.

When I get on my knees and lick her hand,

she screams.

I am a new man.

I snarl at her and bark.

I romp with joy in the bookish dark”.

© Natalie Wood (06 April 2015)