Sway

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How poor the man who’d love
and not increase by it.

Sway comprises poems from the troubadour tradition and a number of Peter Sirr’s responses to them. With their source in southern France almost nine centuries ago, and in the language called Old Occitan, this confluence of word and music helped pave the way for European poetry as we know it. It had a conspicuous influence on poets from Dante to Pound.

Already highly commended by the judges of the Forward prizes these poems are recovered and remade in Peter Sirr’s adroit and nimble versions. Sway conveys the wit, passion and invention of work that speaks still with the energy invested in it when the originals were composed and performed all those years ago.

“Sirr shows us the possibility for a form of re-tooled, re-energised poetry inspired by the Troubadour tradition

Longstanding personal connections to the Languedoc meant that I approached Peter Sirr’s new collection with some degree of enthusiasm. I was not disappointed. His ‘Versions of Poems from the Troubadour Tradition’ plays fast and loose with elements of the originals whilst retain­ing their spirit in an attempt ‘to find a matching music in English’. This has to have been a good decision, since Sirr has also managed to reinvig­orate his material with the patina of contemporaneity in a dynamic rendi­tion of twelfth- and thirteenth-century skull candy. Ezra Pound’s rediscov­ery of Troubadour poetry sits well with Sirr’s claims for its origination of European lyric poetry as we know it, but, in practice, there is something altogether more skittish and enjoyable abroad here, closer to Nick Cave than Modernist experiment. Nowhere is this more evident than in those pieces celebrated in Sirr’s Afterword as ‘meta-poems’, which play comfort­ably with the idea of poetry in a manner entirely familiar to the twenty-first century reader: poems like Bernart de Ventadorn’s ‘Time comes and goes …’ or Arnaut Daniel’s ‘When the leaf falls …’ Here the lorn lover’s hopes for his song to ‘do your thing’ put me in mind of nothing so much as Cave’s ‘Love letter Love Letter / Go get her Go get her’. And Sirr’s greatest achievement here is the general spirit of song and freestyling which pervades this collection, literally allowing it to take ‘flyte’ in places. Not that all this precludes some impressive translation work from Old Occitan, nor success in retaining that original spirit of the Troubadour flowering in the latter part of the twelfth century There is, too, some deft handling of its matching music in twenty-first century English, apparent also in Sirr’s original poems inspired by the tradition, such as the book’s ‘Coda’, or ‘Lines for the poet Macabru’, who ‘shivers in the meadow / ice on his tongue, bitter his song’ Here, Sirr shows us the possibility for a form of re-tooled, re-energised poetry inspired by the Troubadour tradition, though not so sonorous and self-consciously archaic as Pound’s translations, more trimmed to contemporary registers.

Like John Le Mesurier, the Troubadour poets suffer beautifully, their courtly tradition demanding its riffs on unrequited love and performative fortitude on the part of the spurned suitor, ‘who can’t help loving her / from whom I’ll have nothing’ There is an interesting distinction between this trope and that which characterizes the few female voices here present, such as Clara d’Anduza and Beatriz de Dia. Where the men gild their existential plight with big abstractions, these women tend to lament an actual physical separation, which makes their verses both more poignant and somehow more carnal. Perhaps what I like most about this collection, however, is its vibrant translation of the dominant rhythms of Troubadour poetry• the natural world and seasons turning in an age unencumbered by quite so much trivial materiality The book is alive with birdsong and trees shedding or coming into leaf, as lovers find natural correlatives to their own rising sap, or as Benart de Ventadorn has it:

When the woods and the hedgerows put on leaves and the flowers
come out and spring greens gardens and meadows again and the
mournful birds cheer up, likewise I too find my voice and my
greened spirit comes into leaf.

In moments like these the influence of Troubadour poetry upon the later English music of Chaucer becomes most apparent, and Sirr succeeds in illuminating his case for them to be regarded as the founders of much that came after. His achievement in doing so is considerable, never less than entertaining and their ‘torch flaring / down the centuries / to where it all began’ is re-ignited in some style.

— Martin Malone, Poetry Ireland Review

Publication Date: 2016
Details: 104pp
ISBN PBK: 978 1 85235 687 3
ISBN HBK: 978 1 85235 688 0

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