Monday, December 8, 2003

A ten pound weight of poetry

“… the world crossed the wet courts, on Sunday, politely,
In tourists’ tentative shoes.
All roads lay too open, opened too deeply
Every degree of the compass.
Here at the centre of the web, at the crossroads
… the see-saw bustling
Atmospherics of higher learning,
And lower socialising …”

Ted Hughes, “Caryatids (2)” from Birthday Letters

It started because on Friday evening I discovered that my bike, after I'd been drinking at the Pickerel and eating noodles at Don Don, would not unlock. My key half-snapped in the stiff, weather-bitten lock.

I walked home, and was caught up en route by a flatmate.

Returning on foot Saturday morning (spare bike key now on my ring, disgraced key remnant binned), I passed Brown’s bookstore and went in for the first time. Oh, the second hand treasures buried at the back!

In a tough, close-fought contest over a £10 splurge, the selected Les Murray was inched out of the final three by the Oxford Book of Australian Poetry (my favourite title belongs to Clive James: “My enemy’s book has been remaindered”) for £6.00. Getting a gurnsey for being a mere £1.50 was a yellowing “Treasuries of English Verse” – still, it had my favourites from Keats, Eliot, Larkin, and Auden (how can you pass by “lay your sleeping head my love/human on my faithless arm”?).

The gem, the complete show stopper, though, was the US paperback edition of Ted Hughes’ Birthday Letters, his story of his life with (and after) Sylvia Plath. My favourite single volume of poetry. I had been missing my hardcover with an occasional ache since arriving, and here it was for £2.50. (Half a shelf away, the UK paperback edition was a mysterious £4.00.)

I took my loot, and have been happily dipping in and out ever since.

Hughes was right, of course, about the tourists, the rain, the bustle, the occasional sense of overwhelming – paralysing – possibility, and (that ever present university sense) that “the world” is elsewhere, something that visits, not something that’s present.

Things are a little calmer with classes over, but not necessarily peaceful. I can feel a mounting tension about my mountain of as yet unassailed reading and research.

Have not been out in two nights (a rarity in this party town), but the dinner-party season among those of us who are “staying up” for the holiday season commences this evening at my place. I hope we have enough food for the horde of Greeks, Italians and Australians that will be descending on us …

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