Episode 41

9th December (Sunday) by Quentin S. Crisp 

Quentin S. Crisp reads ‘9th December (Sunday)’ and discusses the poems with Mark McGuinness.

These poems are from:

Autumn and Spring Annals by Quentin S. Crisp

Autumn and Spring Annals book cover

Available from:

Autumn and Spring Annals is available from:

The publisher: Snuggly Books

Amazon: UK | US

Bookshop.org: US

 

9th December (Sunday)

by Quentin S. Crisp

Ivory tower.
A pejorative term. Yet
It’s quiet up here
And you can see, centuries
Away, other towers, lit.

          *

I was born during
A long peace, but soon enough
Normal service is
To be resumed. Unfinished
Business of apocalypse.

          *

From a single piece
Of ivory these towers
Have been carved. Their source?
The tusk of an elephant
On whose back the world rested.

          *

Look down to the plain
Below these towers and see
Volcanic flowers
Bloom and blacken. What a view!
History itself ablaze.

          *

So the Last Judgement,
I seem to see, is a fount
Eternal, leaping
In each moment with colours
Of unique revelation.


 

Interview transcript

Mark: Quentin, where did these poems come from?

Quentin: This whole collection that they belong to, December, is part of a larger project in which I am using poems as a kind of diary, these tanka poems, and a diary of one month in a year, and each year, it’s the next month. So, these December poems were written in 2018, and then there’s January poems in 2020, and so on. And we are up to April now, which was 2022. And so, in this actual collection, the meta collection, Autumn and Spring Annals, we have six collections from November to April. So, this is from the December collection. To a large extent, the poems come from the concept of this project.

Mark: So, basically, every year, for the last six years, you have been spending one month writing quite intensively a set of tanka. Is that right?

Quentin: That’s almost correct, for the last eight years. Because the first two in the project were published independently, September and October.

Mark: Ah, okay.

Quentin: Yeah. But apart from that, that’s correct. Yes.

Mark: And tanka, I know we will talk about that a bit more later on, but that’s basically a Japanese verse form, isn’t it?

Quentin: It is. And it’s the form that preceded the haiku. In other words, that haiku is an offshoot from the tanka.

Mark: Okay. So, you set yourself this task of really focusing quite intensely, it sounds, one month a year writing. And in the collection, you’ve got several days. I mean, these were all written on the same day, and it’s not even all the ones you wrote on the 9th of December. So, you wrote…

Quentin: That’s right.

Mark: You were writing at high pressure. I mean, what was that process like?

Quentin: Well, I actually enjoyed it. Have been enjoying it quite a lot, and it is interesting. But I had what might be called a dry run many years back in about 2013 when I decided to try and experiment and every day I sent at least one tanka to a friend of mine by email or text over the phone and then I would delete what I’d sent from my sent folder. So, she had all the tanka to do with as she wished. In fact, some years later, she presented me with the bound hand-stitched book of them.

Mark: That was very nice of her.

Quentin: When it came to the month project, the month poems, at first, I wasn’t sure whether I’d just do September, because I’ve always liked the month of September. But even as I was doing that, I had the idea for doing every month, one month a year. And I decided to go for it. And I just try to, whatever thoughts, or observations, or so on, manage to catch my attention as I sit in the morning, and make it all the way through to the tanka form, I include it. There’s only been one or two that I haven’t included out of hundreds.

So, it’s partly the morning, that kind of morning feeling where you are sifting through your morning thoughts, crystallizing stuff out of that. But not all of them were written in the morning. But in the mornings, I want at least one or two, and then that gets me going for the rest of the day, and it’s turning over and over in my head, you know?

Mark: So, the form is kind of ticking away in the background as you go through your day?

Quentin: Yeah.

Mark: And did you have any rules of what you would be writing about? You said it was whatever came into your mind. Was it really as open as that?

Quentin: Yeah. Yeah. The only rules I had were formal rules; in terms of subject matter, I didn’t have rules. I had vague sense of, it might be nice if I can include this or that theme or so on. And I’ve wanted to include seasonal things if possible. But no real rules in terms of the subject matter.

Mark: I mean it, or rather, they, the sequence of collections, they do range quite widely, don’t they? I mean, the ones we’ve heard today are quite lofty and apocalyptic, and we’ll talk about that in a minute. But you also have some very down-to-earth, day-to-day, pop culture.

Quentin: Yes.

Mark: Daily bread. There’s even some bread in it. Would you like to say anything about that?

Quentin: I suppose maybe there are two obvious influences at work here, and no doubt others. One of which is, in relatively recent years, I’ve become more interested in philosophy and have made formal study of that. And some of the ideas that I’ve been studying and thinking about are coming out in the poems. And it’s handy for me to have the ideas in a compact form like this that I think it’s all there compact, and I can unpack this more later. It’s a bit like a memo in a way. And so that’s one influence, which I can possibly talk more about, if necessary. But another influence is very much the Japanese influence. And one thing that I’ve taken from Japanese literature, which I’ve studied, and I’m very… well, interested in, is not the right word. It’s, I’ve become very immersed in over the years.

One thing I’ve taken away from Japanese literature is the focus on everyday things. And it’s funny, it’s almost romantic, not quite, but there’s a line somewhere in Okakura Tenshin’s Book of Tea where he talks about the eastern or oriental, he might have said, romance of the everyday. And this is what tea represents for him. So, if you think of a cup of Japanese tea, and that is everyday, but there’s also something very aesthetic about it…well, it’s especially aestheticized in the tea ceremony, for instance.

So, from that, I think you can extract the idea of a kind of romance of the everyday. I suppose what I’m saying is there is a little bit of the English kitchen sink kind of thing in there, and certainly quite a good dose of Larkin. But I think there’s still a Japanese thing of…it’s not quite just down to earth, it is a little bit of ethereality, I think. I mean, this is my opinion, and readers might think differently, but that’s how I approach it.

Mark: And just to underline, when you say you’ve been immersed in Japanese literature, you’ve actually studied the Japanese language at a high level, you’re pretty well fluent in the language. So, you have read tanka, haiku, so on, in the original Japanese.

Quentin: Yes. Yes.

Mark: And, you mentioned Philip Larkin, obviously the great 20th-century poet of the mundane. And it’s interesting because there isn’t really much of a sense, ocasionally, there’s a bit of a sense of the ethereal, I think, in Larkin, but he’s very much about the grimness, or the down-ness of the everyday. But what you’re saying is in, and I know you respond to that in Larkin’s verse, but you are saying in Japan, that there’s maybe a little more uplift, or translucency, or ethereality…

Quentin: Yes. Yes.

Mark: …in the way they treat these everyday details?

Quentin: That’s right. Yeah. And that’s right. Yeah. I mean, something comes to mind now. Couple of things come to mind. My favourite author, Nagai Kafū, in one of his stories called ‘Quiet Rain,’ it opens with him just talking about his house, how it’s been raining a lot recently, repairs he’s done. And, like, he couldn’t sleep the other night, and he went through to one of the rooms. And if I remember correctly, he found his father’s old spectacles there on top of a chest of drawers or something like this. And it’s just this sort of image of these spectacles, just the placement of that image, although it seems like nothing in a way, it’s somehow very evocative. And I don’t think it’s quite the same as…I mean, Larkin’s actually a bit more lyrical than people give him credit for, but…

Mark: Indeed, he is. Yes.

Quentin: Yeah. I don’t think it’s quite the same as the more dour deflationary aspect of Larkin.

Mark: Okay. And then maybe moving on to these five tanka that you’ve read today, in a way, this is the very opposite, isn’t it? You start with that quite provocative phrase, ‘ivory tower’, and then you come out with this amazing kind of fantasia on those two words.

Quentin: Well, yeah. So, I was actually doing my MA at the time that this collection was written. With November, December, and January, I was doing an MA. And so sometimes… It was a part-time in my MA, so I was in the evenings, and so on, in the ivory tower. Well, as the poem says, it is a pejorative term. But I just wanted to re-examine that a bit. And I liked being in the library of the university, huge library, and seeing all these books on the shelves.

And, of course, you can never in a lifetime read so many books, but there were particular books that you’d be looking for, you pick them off the shelf, and there’s a voice, when you open the pages from, it could be centuries ago, and you’re there continuing a conversation with them as you’re using them for citations, and so on, and so forth. And so the people, when they use the phrase, ‘ivory tower’, what they’re saying is that it’s not reality. You are sheltered from the real world, but the conversation that’s going on is in these towers, a bit like beacons lit on hills, you know?

Mark: Yes, yes, yes. It really reminded me of this, of the Spanish Armada story about, the beacons being lit across England from one hill to another. And the extraordinary evocative image you’ve got, you can see centuries away are the towers and this lovely comma lit. And you just see the lighting of the beacon with that little syllable.

Quentin: Well, yes, I mean, that’s it. So, these towers are actually, of course, there is sense of haven, and I don’t think that’s such a bad thing, actually, but it is a conversation taking place across history, and it is going on in the middle of all sorts of things. I mean, I don’t want to pin it down too much, but I suppose I just wanted to bring out a bit more of the idea that there’s not a complete separation between these towers and, history. The towers are seen as a universalizing and the universal is seen as unhistorical. But the tower is, of course, rooted in the earth, and that’s the history you know.

Mark: You know, the next one you read begins, ‘I was born during a long peace’. And this one doesn’t directly reference the tower, but this is more kind of, well, this is what’s going on at the bottom of the tower. I mean, this was written in 2018. Was there any specific thing in the news that prompted you to say that? Because it feels a little, you know, given what we are living through in 2022, we are really aware of what a luxury it was to have that long piece, at least in Western Europe.

Quentin: It’s hard, actually, to retrieve the specific reference for that, but I do tend to think about these things. So, there were probably a whole number of things that I’ve had in mind. But I can’t think of a specific news item for that one.

Mark: Okay. And then you’ve got this delightful thing where you take the metaphor of ivory and say that they were all carved from a single piece of ivory and the source is the tusk of an elephant on whose back the world rested. Is that Hindu cosmology with the elephants holding up the world?

Quentin: It’s supposed to be, isn’t it? I think the story actually comes from, I read recently that, is it John Locke, one of these early modern philosophers recounts this story as a way of illustrating some problem in philosophy. And I think he ascribed it to the Hindu cosmology. But I don’t know how accurate that is. But yeah, so the old thing about the world being on the backs of elephants and the elephants being on the back of a turtle. And then the question is, what is the turtle resting on?

Mark: And then the final two that you’ve read, you’ve got this extraordinary image of the volcanic flowers. ‘Look down to the plane below these towers and see volcanic flowers bloom and blacken.’ And then later on in the last one, you say, ‘The last judgment I seem to see is a found eternal leaping in each moment with colours of unique revelations’. So, I don’t know, it makes me think of those old Hieronymus Bosch paintings of hell where, from a distance, it kind of looks a bit picturesque with all these flames, and colours, and oranges, but, of course, the implications are quite horrifying.

Quentin: Yes. Yes, that’s right. Actually, just yesterday, I was listening to an audio recording of Mishima Yukio making some address in English. And he was talking about his life during the wartime, and he was excused from military service for health reasons, but he had air raid duties and so on. And when there were air raids, well, he described watching the air raids, the bombs, and so on, he said it was like the most brilliant firework display, you know?

But, yes, that’s right. I mean, when we look at history, and often enough it’s described as nothing but sequence of wars, and crimes, and so on, I mean, I think that’s a simplification, but you can understand why people describe it in that way. You know, that’s also, funnily enough, our entertainment, a lot of it is precisely turning that into an action film, or a historical novel, or something like that, and we have this kind of double attitude towards it. Maybe it’s more than double, but it’s at least double, where it’s both unacceptable and it’s a narrative that gives meaning to our life, those two things together.

Mark: Okay. So, moving back to considering the tanka form and its role in this whole project, you said that you felt quite at home with the tanka. Could you say what you mean by that?

Quentin: Yes. Well, it’s something I discovered, in a way, because my BA was in Japanese studies, and part of that was studying classical Japanese, which means the language and literature. Well, specifically the literature, before the Japanese language was modernized. It was modernized around the Meiji era.

Mark: Which was, what, the 19th century?

Quentin: Yes. That began in 1868, if I remember correctly. So, in studying classical Japanese, a large part of that was studying tanka, and specifically, poems from the anthology, the Ogura Hyakunin Isshu, which has 100 poems by 100 different poets in it, which was compilation made in the 13th century, I believe, but many of the poems were much older than that. For instance, some from the Manyoshu, which was an 8th, I think 8th-century anthology, and so on.

So, we studied these tanka, and it was linguistic and cultural analysis of the poems. Especially, we had to learn the grammar and conjugation, and so on, which is very, well, quite different to modern Japanese. And so, there was a lot of… it was almost like these things go into sort of a psychic muscle memory, when you are looking at the nuts and bolts like that. And with a kind of repetition to it, you know?

When I was first studying these poems, I almost got the feeling like they petered out, and I didn’t quite get them, but there were many interesting images in them. And later, I read the whole thing and tried as much as I could to understand completely the whole thing. I mean, there’s a lot of archaic verbiage, and so on, so it’s not always easy. And a lot of the poems really stuck with me, and despite the fact that it’s culturally a very different world to the one I grew up in.

And that’s a kind of interesting thing about poetry, is that, I think it’s not all about abstract universals, is it? Partly, you enter a localized environment of the poem, and that comes to life if you are in sympathy with it and if the poem is good. So, anyway. So, I think I’d kind of absorbed these poems and there was a delayed effect that I didn’t realize how much I’d absorbed them until much later.

Mark: And having had such a kind of deep relationship with this form, what do you think it is that makes the tanka special?

Quentin: Well, it is compact, obviously, and I think that compactness gives it two seemingly opposite things of lightness and density. It’s light because it is easy to read in one go, and it’s almost like a quip or something like this, you know? But it’s dense because, actually… well, traditionally, you get a lot of ideas overlapping within this density, and often, there’s literal overlap. Like, there’s a thing called the kakekotoba, which is used very much in tanka, in the original tanka, which is when two words overlap. It’s like a pun, basically. The only example that comes to mind, to illustrate it in English language, poetry, or, well, it’s ‘Space Oddity’, by David Bowie, ‘Space Oddity’ right at the end where he sings, ‘Can you hear… am I’. That ‘hear’ is a kakekotoba.

Mark: Right. Because it could be ‘hear’, H-E-A-R, or, H-E-R-E.

Quentin: Yeah. So, you have this device used a lot in the original tanka, and this is part of their density actually. Although they’re light, they’re very dense.

So, a great example of this is a very famous example, which is in the Ogura Hyakunin Isshu, is Ono no Komachi. I mean, they’re just like top-rate puns, really, top draw puns, you know? [Laughter] It won’t come across that well-explained, but the whole poem is about growing old, and so the flower has faded. A literal reading would be something like ‘The flower has faded while I have watched the long rain’, this kind of thing. So, there’s a phrase, ‘yo ni furu’, which means passing through the world. ‘Furu’ is the verb used for ‘fall’, when rain falls. Yeah. Then it has the phrase, ‘nagame’, which sounds like ‘nagame’, which is ‘long rain’, but it is also ‘gaze’, you see? So, passing through the world, long rain, falling rain, and gaze, is all tied together there.

Mark: It’s all blended in.

Quentin: Yeah.

Mark: That’s wonderful, isn’t it?

Quentin: Yeah. Yeah. So, although I haven’t used that kind of density, I think that… Because I wouldn’t mind trying the kakekotoba at some point, but what comes more naturally to me are things like internal rhymes, and there’s all sorts of word play, and use of metaphor, and so on, going on. So, I think I get a similar density with that in that way. Yeah. I mean, there are other forms of compactness and density in the original tanka as well, all sorts of illusions to previous poems, cultural references, and so on. Yeah.

Mark: Okay. Well, maybe this would be a nice point to listen to your five tanka once again. Thank you, Quentin. That’s been enlightening on several fronts, linguistically, as well as poetically, and culturally.

Quentin: Thank you. Thanks for having me on.


 

9th December (Sunday)

by Quentin S. Crisp

Ivory tower.
A pejorative term. Yet
It’s quiet up here
And you can see, centuries
Away, other towers, lit.

           *

I was born during
A long peace, but soon enough
Normal service is
To be resumed. Unfinished
Business of apocalypse.

           *

From a single piece
Of ivory these towers
Have been carved. Their source?
The tusk of an elephant
On whose back the world rested.

           *

Look down to the plain
Below these towers and see
Volcanic flowers
Bloom and blacken. What a view!
History itself ablaze.

           *

So the Last Judgement,
I seem to see, is a fount
Eternal, leaping
In each moment with colours
Of unique revelation.


 

Autumn and Spring Annals

‘9th December (Sunday)’ by Quentin S. Crisp is from his collection Autumn and Spring Annals published by Snuggly Books.

Autumn and Spring Annals book cover

Autumn and Spring Annals is available from:

The publisher: Snuggly Books

Amazon: UK | US

Bookshop.org: US

 

Quentin S. Crisp

Quentin S. Crisp portrait photo

Quentin S. Crisp (not to be confused with the author of The Naked Civil Servant) was born in North Devon. He took a B.A in Japanese Studies at Durham University, graduating in 2000. More recently, he completed an M.A. in Philosophy at Birkbeck College. He has written fiction, essays, diaries, poetry and song lyrics. His novella Shrike was shortlisted for the Shirley Jackson Award. He was co-founder and submissions editor of Chomu Press. Recent publications include Binturong Time, a novella published by Zagava Books, and a novel, Graves, and the poetry collection Autumn and Spring Annals, both published by Snuggly books. 

Quentins Patreon Page

 

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