Poem of the Month, October 2014: Similarities


(thoughts on a great poet)

Written in the Thalys bar,
Bruges-Paris, 5 August 14.

Guido Gezelle, the Breughel
of Kortrijk and Brugge, where he preached,
the Flemish Hopkins he much admired
and in many ways resembles,
commanded my curiosity and respect
from the moment I noticed his statue
outside that station in Flanders
when my journey from Paris was done.
Actually, I was hoping for some fun
with a girl I had met in London
before my divorce case had begun.

It was clear from that statue by the station
(the one in Bruges is the spitting image)
that this man was not to be confused
with Cavalcanti and the Girls,
a book I peeked at as a boy in Sarratt,
too young to understand or to enjoy,
and that he had a heavier cross to bear
than other poets of his generation.
His broad brow was furrowed with care
and the book in his hand was the missal,
which he grasped with a delicate air.

(I’m returning to Paris to see my grandchild
with the woman I met when she was twenty
who lived a bus ride from Kortrijk station).

Gezelle, Gezelle, Gezelle, Gezelle! The train
gallops through fields past distant villages
no-one has ever heard of or painted in song.
I suppose they have their kermesses too.
Not much that English pictorial art can muster
compares with Breughel’s scenes of country life,
a feeling for nature accurately echoed in poems
describing the vanishing farming world
of tumbledown homesteads and creaking stables.
Barnes, in his Dorset dialect, comes close to this
but is overshadowed by Hardy.

World poets! Who are they? And how do they get
the P.R. men, the advertising behind them?
Do they teach us anything we do not know?
Have they got something better than God to show?
Do they guide us to where we dare not go?

As life historians are Dickens and Tolstoy “greater”
than our almost defrocked priest who wrote
a love poem, The Rose, to a student in his class,
that easily stands up to Burns? Who reads Chaucer
in the original? In less than one hundred years
Gezelle suffered Chaucer’s fate. “Dutch”, you say,
“has produced nothing that can be called great.
It sounds like barking dogs. It’s a big mistake.”

The train rolls on relentlessly, the pylons stretch
across the horizon, while I drink my tea.
The villages I see from here, half way to Paris,
must boast old houses with “crooked doors
knocked out of balance by history and war.”

Who am I scribbling these messages for,
if not Miltiades the Greek of Sint-Andries,
on the transient windowpane of travel?
Our utterly opposing views of verse
make Milton memorable – or else the curse
of English language, left for ever worse.

Wouldn’t I love to be translated after death
by an unpublished girl I know of twenty-one
into an unintelligible West Flemish dialect
spoken by nineteenth century country bumpkins
in village cafés with crucifixes over the bar –
Paris, London and Brussels far away, forgotten
and disconnected by the Eurostar.

Pushkin in Russian is heavenly, I am told.
Gezelle’s Flemish is worth its weight in gold.