Dancing The Impossible: New & Selected Poems (Salzburg Poetry)
This book contains a new collection – Dancing the Impossible – as well as poems selected from I,Odysseus, Sunflower, Return to Zululand, and Jumping-Shoes. From 1994 to 1998, Leo was regularly commissioned by the BBC to create poems out of current news stories for various programmes on Radio 4. A number of these are included here: an astronaut on the first manned space expedition beyond our solar system, orbiting Pluto before taking off into deep space, the poem commissioned to mark the first British astronaut who took his space walk on the anniversary of Pluto’ s discovery; a disastrous expedition in the Borneo jungle, when two soldiers were rescued and cured by traditional medicine; a remote monastery in the Pyrenees, where a record of the monks singing their millennium-old chants became a smash hit; or, in a lighter mood, John Betjeman’s grandson caught by the police driving under the influence of Ecstasy.
Poet and Novelist, Alan Brownjohn wrote the following essay:
DANCING THE IMPOSSIBLE: NEW & SELECTED POEMS by Leo Aylen
To read Leo Aylen is to be aware at once of the wide range of interests and backgrounds which serve the endeavours of a resourcefully energetic talent. He had a classical training, and worked originally for the BBC. The classical scholarship is here — though ‘scholarship’ is too dry a word for his vigorous and sensuous treatment of his themes. His poems show us a passionate and venturesome traveller. And yet the London in which he works as a freelance writer and broadcaster is also rawly present in his verse, a rundown, menacing, metropolis, with many examples of deprived, marginalized humanity.
He derives pleasure from changing the scene and grappling with diverse experience. There is nothing safe and conventional about his verse. Vigour, enjoyment of playing with the fire of words and images, and an exuberant appetite for rhythms and sounds, are obvious characteristics of his poetry. Dance, movement, physicality — musicality — are other words that come to mind.
Before ‘performance poetry’ gained the prominence it now enjoys (the element of performance too often obscuring the weak quality of some of the poems) Aylen was already giving dramatic recitals of his poems in which lively physical presentation enhanced the message of the verse. It also sent listeners on to the poems on the page, where they were as vivid and gripping as they sounded when the poet delivered them from the platform.
Sureness of performance (it goes with necessary yet rare qualities like professionalism) is hugely helped by a sense of timing and structure in what is being performed. Aylen’s instinct for the suitable length and shape of a poem is very sure.
As a poet he is — would he agree? — unabashedly romantic, wholly unafraid of the bold, or the dangerously vulnerable, statement of feeling. The great American, Robert Lowell, once said that in order to write poetry it was desirable to have ‘courage and a merciful heart.’ In his poems of love and other deep emotions, Leo Aylen possesses both of these qualities — and a third: a sense of poetry as an act of celebration, an activity always to be pursued with zest and delight.
All the same, he acknowledges that it is also an art in which skill is won by toil, and in which experience, pain possibly, and — by implication — maturity (attained by Keats at twenty-three, and not achieved by some at seventy) have an essential part. A striking passage from his sestina ‘The poet’s sensuality’ can speak for him on these matters:
… we exist by loving
Each breath of air, each insect’s flight, each painful
Movement of muscle, and learn, and grow, and work
Everything through us, till our tangled, complex,
And warring, wants and feelings flow in easy
The fruits of the creative self-knowledge described in those lines are abundantly apparent in this selection of his poetry.
May the impossible
Skip on to your hand,
And may the holy fool
Guide our ship to land
Under a star of blessing,
And may the comet sky
Dare us to keep on guessing
Its batswoop riddles, till by
Never knowing any of the answers,
But by wrestling the questions, we’ll
Be invited to join the dancers
In the impossible’s reel.
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