Maxwell’s Voice

Glyn Maxwell

Poet Glyn Maxwell reading from W.H. Auden, whose photo hangs behind | Photo: Bob Hewis

Sunday evening, June 17, was extremely warm. At the Café Kafka on Capistrangasse, all the windows had been thrown wide open and voices in French and Croatian blended with the broad vowels of the Viennese, floating back inside over the sills from the tables on the street. Within, much of the talk was in English, as members and friends of the Labyrinth English Poets settled into the faded comfort of the Café to hear British poet and playwright Glyn Maxwell read from his work.

Maxwell was in Vienna for the celebration of the 100th birthday of W.H. Auden the day before in nearby Kirchstetten [see story, Auden at 100, Page 1] and had agreed to stay on for this special reading.

Anticipation was high.  While Labyrinth meets regularly, they rarely have a visiting poet of this distinction.  A graduate of Oxford and student of Nobel Prize poet Derek Wolcott, Maxwell was awarded the 1997 E. M. Forster Award by the American Academy of Arts and Letters and is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. He was appointed Poetry Editor of the New Republic in 2001, and has taught at Amherst College, in Massachusetts, Columbia University and The New School in New York City.

Among the listeners were a number who had heard him the day before in Kirchstetten, had been impressed and were curious to hear his own work. Their presence was not lost on Maxwell.  Tall, ruggedly handsome with a tousle of russet hair, he has a shy physicality unavoidably reminiscent of another Welsh poet, Dylan Thomas.  With out preamble, he began to read:


In the age of pen and paper

  when the page was a snow village

and days the light was leafing through

  descended without message…


The room was completely still, no breath, no movement. Many listened with eyes closed, sometimes a head nodding to hypnotic rhythm of the words, round and resonant, the meaning as much of sound as sense. Good poetry is a physical pleasure, even when it seems next to impossible to grasp at a first hearing. The room was alive with the strain of concentration.


…though the snow erase all traces

   of his passing through the village,

though his step become unknowable

   and the whiteness knowledge. 


“It’s so wonderful to be here this evening,” Maxwell looked up, scanning the packed room, as if over the glasses he doesn’t wear. “Yesterday in Kirchstetten had such an effect on me,” he paused, “that those of you who were there feel like old friends.” Smiles passed contagiously from face to face, as the waiter slid inconspicuously through the tables with orders of a Melange, or a großes Bier.

There is something of the feel of a Secret Society about the shared world of poetry. People recognize they are on to something that most people know little or nothing about, a sensual pleasure of the mind that is seductive, ritualistic and clearly subversive.

Maxwell used the occasion to read several of his recent poems, as yet unpublished. Among the most moving was a post 9/11 piece, “Flags and Candles,” that reached for the heart of disconnection between symbol and reality. [See Box]


Candles dream of something that will change them,

That is the making of and death of candles.

Flags don’t dream of anything but more flags.

The wind is blowing; only the landscape changes.


For Maxwell, political moods and events are the proper material for poetry because they are the stuff of life.

“The wind blows through everything and takes you on,” he said during the break. In New York, “I began to think about what was true for people; they began to feel it was a monolith. There’s a new strain of certainty that’s really frightening. It’s a case of the actuality of human life undermining people’s attempts to take part in it.

“It’s not reportage, what I’m doing. It’s asking why this idiocy is happening, it’s trying to show it for what it is. These dogmas will actually crucify someone who tries to say what they want.”

On the second half he read from a new play adapted from the novel Les Dieux ont Soif of Anatole France, set during the French Revolution, with parallels he sees today.

“There has never been a time in history where such beautiful ideals, such revolutionary ideals, have descended into such carnage, like the violence against the U.S. Constitution in the last 6 years,” Maxwell said.

“To me, it’s like Madame Roland’s words on the guillotine, “Oh Liberty, what crimes were committed in your name!”

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