Kenneth Wain: Who Looks at the Sun Anymore?
Who Looks at the Sun Anymore? is Kenneth Wain’s collective in the field of poetry. His dedication: “To my parents… who conceived me a poet”, may sound to some readers a little presumptive, but I honestly believe there are no ifs and buts about it. Poeta nascitur, full stop. And, from his very first forays in this rather abused literary form, Wain struck a fresh chord which typified the age he lived in – the 1960s period, with its liberation from age-old norms and dogma which had come to stultify literature itself.
Wain’s first published work, Tall Buildings (self-published, undated, but definitely mid-1960s stuff) was a collection of short stories, one of which, Garcia Lorca, was, in fact, very aptly described by Ivan Callus, in his study for Wain’s festschrift, as “a poem in prose”. It was a time when Wain and I really got to know each other well. As I was then in charge of Il-Polz, the literary journal of the Moviment Qawmien Letterarju, and culture editor of Malta News, I was proud to present his works, particularly his magnificent A Concerto to You – and Giacometti.
It is a long poem in 10 parts which really needs a study all by itself. It provides a bird’s-eye view of the swinging London of the 1960s with its many faces and moods, as the poet watches “sedately” various objects and activities and reflects that “there is poetry in the city/ there is poetry in the greenery/ of the parks” before moving on to less pleasurable sights on “the shiny grey slime of the riverbank”, and thence to a realisation of a bare truth, often suppressed, of life’s basic needs: “every man expects/a meal/sex occasionally/a drink or two/the right to copulate in peace” – the lines that so fascinated Frans Sammut when he first saw the poem in Il-Polz.
As expected from a former art critic in this paper, Wain has always been strongly fascinated by the contemporary art world. This is witnessed by such titles as Homage to Van Gogh ending his “unacceptable life… in a cornfield at Arles”, as also by Twelve Thoughts on Hieronymous Bosch and the prosepoems on Mark Rothko and Josef Kalleya.
A book to have, a poetry collection to remember
The worlds of cinema, pop singers and prime authors are all fodder to the poet’s inquisitive mind – from the Russian film The Cranes are Flying; to the suicide of Luigi Tenco; to Ezra Pound and the two finely-tuned prose-poems, one of them dedicated to Solzhenitsyn and his “holy crusade for the truth”, the other to Ungaretti.“You know, Ungaretti, the Italian poet who wrote the shortest and most untranslatable poem Illumino d’Immenso – the boundless, the infinite.”
Always alert to happenings around him and in the world at large, Wain often wrought his poetry as witness to these turbulent events and to honour those who battled the system: “soul of lava erupting/from the core of the earth” is how he addresses Mayakovsky.
His searching mind is razor sharp to wherever injustices occur, hence the poem Polish Soldier (“children with bulletholes in their faces”) and to the protagonists of the Students’ Revolt” of 1968 whom he hails as “the new generation/ younger men with purer minds” through whom “the axe became plastic surgery”.
The same mood, teeming with anger, prevails in his Two Poems for Czechoslovakia, inspired by Jan Palach, the young student who torched himself to death in Wenceslas Square in protest against Soviet aggression. Wain celebrates him as “a torch burning in the sun/the internal haemorrhage of a/bleeding nation – a poet of action”.
In a book of 246 pages covering just over 150 poems of great diversity, an author is inevitably faced with the difficulty of setting: whether to go chronological or group his material in separate compartments. Wain decided to go for the latter, starting with the shorter poems followed by the longer ones, two sections which account for over half his total output.
We find here a variety of home themes spanning his childhood, youth and family, alongside such poems as Thoughts About Independence, where he chastises Malta for having prostituted her body “to the speculator/the new colonisers/who have set in” as he sadly “watched the/gathering storm of/a new era”.
Wain also sections in the poems published in three main anthologies, namely Malta the New Poetry (1971), Limestone (1978) and Crosswinds (1980). He then groups the Prose Poems, a genre he first worked and made popular in Malta, and, finally, the Concrete Poems, including The Lina Cycle, which he patiently set by hand, one by one, as a compliment to his then girlfriend, now wife.
In a different vein, these video-emotive ‘concretes’ include another level where imaginative word-play can convey the idea of moving trains, a river, city streets, an open sunflower, even a cheeky self-portrait.
This was innovative poetry that stormed the 1960s poetry scene on an international scale but began to tail off in the next decade. As I recently discovered with Malta: A Concrete Poem, a project finally published some decades too late, these visual communication poems may still have followers even if most readers prefer to stick to more traditional forms. But definitely a select few will find this section intriguing, to say the least.
Unfortunately, space prevents me from mentioning other gems too numerous to mention. Like A View of Apocalypse, inspired by two lines from Mayakovsky’s The Cloud in Thunder: “Look! again they’ve beheaded the stars/and the sky is bloodied with carnage!” Wain’s own seven-part poem is likewise penetrative and despairing: “When will they become/the laws of an honest humanity/when will the scientist/have his way?”
In a brief preface Kenneth Wain outlines some of the myriad names and events that helped shape the sociocultural poems that are his forte. One quickly discovers some main sources of his inspiration, be it beat poetry, jazz music, modern art and all that is best in contemporary culture. All is gist to his Catholic philosophy and his all-embracing outlook on life.
I can understand his absolute joy at finding a first edition of Ginsburg’s Howl at Better Books in Charing Cross Road, for that too was one of my favourite haunts. He says that he went straight to St James Park and read the whole long poem through: “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness…”.
Wain is consistently on the same wavelength, a deep thinker concerned with poetry and social analysis in equal terms. Content-wise and production-wise, this is definitely a book to have, a poetry collection to remember.
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