All posts by Ken Cockburn

Ken Cockburn is an Edinburgh-based poet, translator, editor and writing tutor.

Miłosz 2011


30 June 2011 was the centenary of the birth of Czesław Miłosz. He’s a poet I’ve begun to read just in the past year, after the Krakow visit. I returned with a copy of his New & Collected Poems, bought on the last morning of the trip with the spare zlotys, and begun on the bus out to the airport.

Thumbing its pages, I made a couple of immediate connections: his appreciation of the Japanese haiku masters – Issa, rather than Basho, perhaps simply because he liked the coincidental link with the Issa Valley in his native Lithuania – and his ‘Notes’, a series of single sentences each under a short heading (‘The Perfect Republic’, ‘Epitaph’, ‘Mountains’), which are reminiscent of Ian Hamilton Finlay’s one-word-poems and monostichs, and Günter Eich’s (even briefer) ’17 Formeln’. Neither ‘Reading the Japanese Poet Issa (1762-1826)’ nor ‘Notes’ are entirely typical of his work, but they were useful landmarks I could start to navigate by.

I read him over the winter (in English, having no Polish). I read him aloud while sitting for my portrait, when Angus and I enjoyed enjoyed the discursive prose of ‘La Belle Epoque’, especially its closing section, ‘The Titanic’. When I proposed running sessions on his work for secondary schools, it became one of those rare and serendipitous projects everyone says ‘yes’ to.

In the summer term I visited schools in Edinburgh, East Lothian, Fife, Highland and South Lanarkshire, and will visit several more schools over the coming weeks. The poem I’ve come to focus on most is ‘The Dining Room’ (‘Jadalnia’) from the sequence ‘The World’ (‘Świat’), a seemingly straightforward description of an interior whose place and date of composition – Warsaw 1943 – soon open up deeper, darker layers of resonance.

The Scottish Poetry Library has produced a Miłosz 2011 poster, featuring the poem ‘Song on the End of the World’ (‘Piosenka o Końcu Świata’) in English and Polish, along with background information, weblinks, and a couple of photos of the poet in later life, craggy and bushy-eyebrowed.

There is also a series of Polish Poems on the Underground at the moment, including Miłosz’s ‘And Yet the Books’ and ‘Blacksmith Shop’, as well as poems by Zbiginiew Herbert, Wisława Symborska and Adam Zagajeweski.
I’m also running an event on Saturday 10 September at Macdonald Road Library, Edinburgh, for the Polish book group Zielony Balonik, focussing on Miłosz’s poems.

The Road North at the Scottish Poetry Library

Friday 5 August – Saturday 3 September

Below are photos of our ‘sampler’ of The Road North at the Scottish Poetry Library in Edinburgh in until 3 September – a display of poems written on the road, written on labels attached to whisky miniatures which we sampled while we travelled. And below the photos is a description of the project and the show. There’s also an article about The Road North in the current issue (no. 9) of Poetry Matters, the biannual newletter sent to all Friends of the SPL.



Bottles & hokku-labels

love is / a bridge // that / lives (Inver, Raasay) Alec Finlay

swallows skim ripples / on mirror-pond stillness / cup-and-ring marked rocks (Luing) Ken Cockburn

Nikka’s part / of our michi no nikki / on Mt. Nikko (Slioch) Ken Cockburn

pulling mussels / from a shell // parting the paired / tea-cups (the hidden gardens) Alec Finlay

 
The Road North is a word-map of Scotland, composed by Alec Finlay & Ken Cockburn as they travelled through their homeland in 2010 and 2011. They were guided on this journey by the Japanese poet Basho, whose Oku-no-hosomichi (Narrow Road to the Deep North) is one of the masterpieces of travel literature.
 
Following Basho and his travelling companion Sora, their journey took in 53 ‘stations’, from Pilrig to Pollokshields via Berneray, Glen Lyon, Achnabreck and Kirkmaiden. At each place they wrote and left poems in situ, as well as drinking a tea and a whisky, and leaving a paper wish. At several they met and wrote with other poets, including Meg Bateman, Gerry Loose and Angus Dunn.
 
This ‘sampler’ features the 53 (miniature) whisky bottles, each with a poem-label attached. These are complemented by a selection of books, word-drawings, texts and objects gathered and made on The Road North.
 
Scottish Poetry Library
5 Crichton’s Close, Canongate, Edinburgh EH8 8DT
t: 0131 557 2876
w: www.spl.org.uk
blog: www.scottishpoetrylibrary.wordpress.com
on twitter: @byleaveswelive
*New opening hours: Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday 10-5; Thursday 10-7; Saturday 10-4; Closed Monday, Sunday

As I cam’ in by Auchindoun

Ben Rinnes from Clunymore

I recently spent a week in Moray with Angus Reid, writing and walking. We stayed above the River Fiddich in the house of Mary Bourne, the sculptor who co-ordinated the Mortlach Storywalks project. The house has views west towards Ben Rinnes, the highest top in the area.
Auchindoun Castle

It also looks across the glen to the ruins of Auchindoun Castle, set on a low hillock above the River Fiddich. It was from Auchindoun that Adam Gordon rode out to Corgraff Castle; his burning of the latter is told in the ballad ‘Edom o’ Gordon’. The revenge attack is told in the shorter and less well-known ballad, ‘Burning of Auchindoun’ (Child #183).

As I cam’ in by Fiddichside, on a May morning
I spied Willie MacIntosh an hour before the dawning

Turn agin, turn agin, turn agin, I bid ye
If ye burn Auchindoun, Huntly he will heid ye

Heid me or hang me, that shall never fear me
I’ll burn Auchindoun though the life leaves me

As I cam’ in by Auchindoun, on a May morning
Auchindoun was in a bleeze, an hour before the dawning

Crawing, crawing, for a’ your crouse crawin’
Ye brunt your crop an’ tint your wings an hour before the dawning.

I made a few label-poems there.

last night the castle / drifted in and out of mist / samurai movie-set

above the settled land / we hear gulls and sheep / and gunshot

high summer / the thistles still await / their purple

Near the castle there are some ruined farm buildings – some are being renovated, but we looked round a particularly delapidated house.
delapidated downstairs

delapidated upstairs

We drove a few miles into the Cabrach to Rhinturk Farmhouse, still standing, still productive.
Rhinturk closed

Rhinturk open

Mortlach Storywalks

P2 looking towards Dufftown from Meg's Widd

P7 returning from The Giant's Chair

Earlier this year I worked at Mortlach Primary School in Dufftown, mainly with the P2, P4 and P7 classes. We walked – in snow and sunshine – some of the paths around the town, which the kids had already explored with Wild things!, and I got them to write about their impressions of the ground we’d covered. I collated, edited and wrote up their material as stories, which have just been published as three leaflets, designed by Glasgow-based artist Janie Nicoll. P2 collectively describe Meg’s Widd, P4 become Jimbo, a local boy showing visitors round The Toon’s Widd, while P7 encounter a shape-shifter who opens up the history and ecology of The Giant’s Chair. The leaflets are available from Dufftown Tourist Information Centre, and other venues in the town.

The project was co-ordinated by Mary Bourne, sculptor, and a member of the School Council. Her carved stones using poems by children from all classes have been placed along the three walks.

the river meanders beneath the spider spinning its fragile web while the buzzard drifts overhead as the river…

sLender whIte Noisy watErfall, tumbliNg And imPatient, Rushes tOwards dullaN (LINEN APRON)

rocks under water shaded by trees the heron nests in and flies down to stand on rocks…

Works made by P1, P3 and P5 with Janie Nicoll have been installed in Dufftown’s Cottage Hospital, Tourist Information Centre and at the local library. Additional works are in the school itself.

The P6 class prepared an orienteering route around Meg’s Widd, making a map and contributing words for the stones which serve as control points.

The nursery children worked with Vivien Hendry and Mary Bourne, making peg-fairies which they took to Meg’s Widd. I ‘interviewed’ them about their fairies’ skills and adventures, and Vivien has made a limited-edition book, The Magic of Meg’s Widd.

The Magic of Meg's Widd (photo: Mary Bourne)

Mortlach Story Walks is a partnership project between Mortlach Primary School, Dufftown, Moray and the Speyside Paths Network Group to produce arts-based interpretation for the countryside around Dufftown. It is initiated and supported by the school’s Parent Council.

Strathcarron

Sundial

Let others tell of storms and of showers
I’ll only count your sunny hours

In spring and summer 2011 I ran several writing sessions with day-care patients at Strathcarron Hospice near Denny. We talked and wrote about places, objects, gardens, people, sharing and affirming memories, and opening new conversations about previously unsuspected things-in-common. Here’s a group poem –

A Strathcarron Lucky Bag

Sheena Easton, Larry Marshall,
Billy Bremner, Walter Scott,
Taggart, Wallace, Tom Mackay,
Mary Stuart and a’ yon lot

munch Selkirk bannocks, jeely pieces,
Atholl rasps and Cullen Skink,
haggis puddings, drop scones, crumpets,
a pint of IPA to drink

in Denny, Falkirk, River City,
Balquhidder, the Necropolis,
the Tryst Golf Club, Loch Fyne, Loch Tay,
at Mrs Anderson’s, Bo’ness –

and aye a jaunt to Kirriemuir,
I hear yon Camera Obscur–
a there is fairly worth a keek – but that
we’ll have to maybe leave till next week.

At the final session, last September, we read the work to other patients and hospice staff in the day-lounge. and I thought that was that, until this week a bundle of booklets arrived in the post.

Who We Are and What We Like

Who We Are and What We Like collects the poems and prose we wrote last week in a simple, 12-page, A5 booklet, thoughtfully and carefully crafted.

The photos below show some ‘Garden Haiku’ in the hospice grounds.

Hosta – food for snails

Coloured poppies / at lunch-time the school-kids / came to hear you pop

Rhododendrons / in springtime / in the gardens at Bidduph

If you’d like a copy of the booklet let me know, and I’ll post one out.

The Road North: a matsuri festival


This May, join Alec and Ken Cockburn for a matsuri festival at the Hidden Gardens, Glasgow. For the past year Alec and Ken have been travelling through Scotland, guided by the Japanese poet Basho. On Sunday 15th May, their year-long journey will come to an end, and to celebrate they have invited some of the people they met along the way to join them for an informal afternoon in the gardens. There will be performances of poetry and song, paper wishes to tie, and teas from Japan and China served by the gardens’ cultural cookery group. The performances are scheduled for 3pm.

The Hidden Gardens, 25 Albert Drive, Glasgow G41 2PE

You can follow Alec and Ken’s journey on their blog, and there’s an e-invitation for you here.

Sitting (continued)

The finished portrait

After the drawing, Angus began a portrait in oils, which took several sittings. Again, I read my way through them – staying in the east with Pasternak and Herbert (Z), and going west with The New American Poetry 1945-1960, especially enjoying Gregory Corso’s ‘Marriage’. Above is the finished portrait, before the paint had even dried. Angus had been wondering about a title, and I wrote to him, ‘Lorna says it captures a lot of me and “it’s not going to be called Mr Fun” – ?! It was an interesting process for me too – to take that time for reading, the pleasure of reading aloud, and to observe your process, the struggle with the material, how that (relatively small) surface gradually became completed.’

Angus replied, ‘Reading Aloud is a very good title… that’s the point, and the thrill of it for me. It starts and anchors itself in the fact of your reading, and as such is a likeness of you and a kind of sketch; but it becomes an image when I began to be able to see that we were both involved (this was a shock, and perhaps the answer to a compositional dilemma). What interested me was to be able to see the exchange between us, the time it took and the process by which it was made… the daydreaming, the distraction, the concentration, the moments of frustration, the memorable line… all the points on the elastic scale of reading and listening…

‘So… whatever Lorna says, it’s the image of a special pleasure, and a celebration of it… And it’s good it’s two men I think. It’s not a parent and child (though it could be) and its not a younger person and an older person: just two men and a common ground we found to share. To me, that is something unusual and beautiful. Interesting too that it was the big expansive world of Milosz that offered the most space to stroll around.

‘I like it that you the sitter do all this active documentation and that there is the flavour of collaboration to it all. I hope other people can see that too…’

Here are some details from the picture.

Detail 1

Detail 2

Detail 3

Sitting

Angus Reid, 'Hendrix Chord', 2010

I have been sitting for a painted portrait recently. The artist is my friend Angus Reid, poet, film- and theatre-maker, architectural critic, composer… he painted years ago but has just taken it up again recently, when he persuaded his teenage son Mark to sit for him, guitar in hand. Now he’s taken a studio at the Arts Complex at Meadowbank, and I’m his first sitter.
Inside the Arts Complex

We decide, I can’t quite remember how, that I’ll read poems aloud while he draws and paints. I think this is mainly to stop me getting bored, but it means he’s seeing me with eyes downcast. (One day I play music instead, but this is far less interesting for either of us – I catch myself dropping off on occasion.)
Angus and easel

Reading poems aloud is a fine way of critiquing them – their strengths and weaknesses are thrown into relief. Neruda’s Book of Questions is a life-affirming delight despite its repeated interrogation of death (Neruda wrote it only months before his own death); W.S. Graham is harder work than I had imagined, abstract and angular, the specific setting of ‘Johann Joachim Quantz’s Five Lessons’ giving the most satisfaction; MacCaig keeps producing the most startling and exact images, often in otherwise imperfect poems; but it’s Milosz I most enjoy, the good company of his prosy, conversational, curious, wry, humorous tones, that open up further conversations once the poems return to silence.
Angus Reid, 'Ken Reading Aloud', 2010

I found Angus’s comments on the process revealing too:
“In the time we have spent together, the image has begun to reflect the pleasure we both take in spoken poetry. The work is still in progress, but one drawing was a break-through, coming after Neruda and Milosz and somewhere in the midst of W.S. Graham and MacCaig: in the face of a middle-aged man reading – a face I know well – there was suddenly a surprise, something unselfconscious, that I was able to observe: small flashes of patience, tenderness and appreciation. The image seemed to be able to go beyond likeness to capture something universal that is otherwise largely hidden by the Ego, and the everyday.”
Angus Reid, 'Ken, with hands crossed&#039

At one level sitting seems an egotistical exercise, spending time having an image made of one’s transient, imperfect self; but at another, like many activities where you give in to time rather than trying to manage it, it’s a way of losing yourself, losing track of time, and finding what else there is.

Hidden in Hilton

The Wildwood

Back in April I ran workshops with Year 5/6 pupils at Hilton Primary School in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, as part of a project by Alec Finlay about habitat and outdoor learning. The focus was on exploring and redeveloping an overgrown garden known as ‘the wildwood’.
cHerry rIpening, pLum bursTing, Oak flamiNg

hawtHorn growIng, appLe fruiTing, cOtoneaster twistiNg

Poet-botanist Colin Will spoke to the children about what was growing there. The visit with Colin gave them a lot of stimuli, and they made notes as they went round. What helped them differentiate the plants was a memorable detail – the ash’s ‘black fingernails’, making it a ‘goth tree’, for example.
tHe fruIting pLum, The lOnely rowaN

sHaking wIllow, fLowering blackThorn, smOoth rowaN

I showed the kids different ways to write about the plants they’d discovered and observed. The mesostic poems have a central stem-word, while embedded poems have a word hidden within it, like a cryptic crossword clue. The two below include tree names.
A shivering twig and a shiny key (3)

Servant to a king (3)

The poems have now been installed in the garden, as labels, bird-boxes and on barrel-seats.

Lewis horizons

Stornoway

Stornoway harbour

Last month I spent ten days on Lewis and Harris, running schools workshops around the Artist Rooms exhibition Ian Hamilton Finlay: Sailing Dinghy at An Lanntair in Stornoway. The centrepiece of the show was a real dinghy given to Finlay, but it was too big for the lochans at Little Sparta. So it was never sailed, and it’s also unamed.
Jon Macleod

I worked alongside artist Jon Macleod, and as well as working in the gallery, we were able to take some groups out to the beach. Most of the pupils we worked with were familiar with boats, having sailed themselves or, if not, seeing the array of boats in Stornoway harbour or at other moorings around the island.
Bon voyage / child of the sea

The Gliding Water

Horizon poem

At the beach we said sad farewells to a dead dolphin beached after a high tide, named and drew boats, and wrote ‘horizon poems’ – the line in the middle is the horizon, and above it you write a few words describing what you see above the horizon; and below the line, what you see below.
Adam's lost poem

Sometimes the waves got the better of us. When I asked Adam what he written, he cried ‘I can’t remember!’ So he got on with writing a new poem.
Ian Stephen on El Vigo

Wake

While there I met writer and sailor Ian Stephen, and one afternoon he took me out on El Vigo across a sunny and becalmed Stornoway Bay.
Carloway broch

Signpost on Harris

I also managed a couple of stations for The Road North, Dun Carloway on the west coast of Lewis, and Rhenigidale on Harris; the blogs about these will appear soon on the website.