Auschwitz

Maybe not among my best poems, but I feel a duty to post it. I didn’t feel it proper to write anything about Auschwitz till months after my visit.

 

AUSCHWITZ

 

ON THE WAVES

 

Have you seen them bobbing on the waves,

The bright baby clothes and treasured old pan,

Flask, serviceable shoes and the old soldier’s

False leg?

They were dropped like confetti when the great grave

Opened and closed

The sea will not take them.

 

Sinking not below the unforgiving surface

They will be stranded some time on a shore

Among the cuttlefish and aerosols

For the beachcombing man and his dog to wonder on,

To root, make seed.

 

PEOPLE

 

Thousands of faces,

Most eyes glazed, defeated,

A few determined, defiant,

Hair cut short

Eyes too big, seeing.

People.

 

But on the regimented route

Other blank faces file in unison

Beneath the protecting helmets, taking pride

From a lack of holy tears and nightmares

Somewhere a child laughs from a fine house

What have you made,

People?

 

By the way: my internet friend and fine poet neelthemuse is blogging a series of interviews with blogging poets and here’s the interview with me: http://neelthemuse.wordpress.com/2012/06/27/simon-banks-the-poet-of-the-archetype/

The other interviews are well worth reading too.

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Rivers and estuaries

So here’s the last (unless I have afterthoughts) of my mini-series about environments or types of places that help to inspire my poems and feature in them. Hmm… maybe forest? We’ll see. Anyway, this is about rivers.

 

Many poets have been fascinated by rivers – fast ones, slow ones, big ones, small ones. They’re beautiful and varied. The habitat along the river keeps changing as you go up or downriver. W.H. Auden referred to “One of man’s oldest joys/ Exactly as it was, the water noise” and I suppose he was right: early humanoids would have liked the sound of flowing water because it meant drink and food. Rivers unite and create valleys but divide communities, even states. They require bridges – a recurrent image in my poems partly because I feel I’m a kind of bridge.

 

It isn’t true, as one poet had it, that the stream or river goes on forever: in geological time, all rivers have a birth and a death; but they’re long-lived even though the water is moving on. Rivers stand for life and for change.

 

To travel down a river can be a metaphor for living a life. So why have I enjoyed travelling up rivers – just because I love the hills around the source?

 

There’s something weirdly wonderful about the source of a river. Here is this small spring, this trickle, this undistinguished patch of boggy ground, this slight dip among high rocks – the beginning of a major river.

 

When rivers near the sea they become estuaries – the borderland between river and sea. Unless destroyed by development, these are marvellous places for birds and all kinds of wildlife. They change drastically with the tide. Nowhere for me can convey more strongly the sense of inhabiting a land between two worlds.

 

If I could Fly

Before I post another short poem – lyrical but written when I was quite mentally and spiritually tired – let me reord that I bewitched an audience this week. Harwich, the port town where I live, has been having a week-long festival. One item was a poetry reading on a moored barge. I hadn’t realised that it was organised by U3A, which organises educational things for older people (mostly women) and my first thought was that the audience and my poetry might not fit. Listening to what other people had chosen to bring – mostly work by recognised poets – and how the audience reacted, I began to suspect their tastes were quite wide. I’d printed a number of poems precisely because I had little idea of what the feel of the event or the audience would be like. So which should I read?

 

Something told me to read DEATH AND THE MAGICIAN, a lyrical poem in ballad form about coming to terms with death – not at all the obvious subject for the audience. But three lines in I knew I had them. A kind of spell had been cast; a kind of bond had been forged. When I finished there was a moment’s silence as of shock, but I knew it wasn’t a silence of confusion or indifference. Then came the applause.

 

Did I feel proud? No, humble. I’m not the kind of religious person to claim sightings of God very often, but I felt God in me.

 

Now for today’s offering:

 

 

IF I COULD FLY

 

If I could fly from a trapping tower

I’d land by night on the shifting shore

Where no man rules or knows the hour.

 

If I could fly from endless sound

I’d take my rest in a watchful town

Which listened for the music round.

 

If I could fly from a sentenced frame

I’d fly to the shifting shore again

And in the waves I’d drop my name.

 

copyright Simon Banks 2012

 

Just a hint of Christina Rossetti there?

The hills

I live in a county that’s famously one of the flattest in England (not the flattest: that must be Cambridgeshire). I grew up in Hertfordshire, not known for its ruggedness. When I was about 16 we had a family holiday in the Lake District. I still remember my amazed joy at seeing waterfalls running down sheer cliffs. I was hooked.

 

I do a lot of hill-walking on holiday, including long-distance trails: every day you move on and every day you get up on the tops.

 

Coleridge said of Wordsworth that even if you read his poetry with no knowledge of where he lived or was raised, you could imagine bleak, open hill country from it. I don’t suppose my poetry is more of the hills than the valleys in nature, but images of hill country occur all the time. My poem “Watershed” describes the experience of struggling up a high pass on to the hilltops, crossing a watershed and discovering a valley on the other side. It’s partly a metaphor for other kinds of discovery, of course, but the specific description would ring bells for anyone who’d crossed a high watershed, as I have. When I don’t write about a type of scenery, but need a setting for the poem, I find it’s often moorland and mountainsides with small, fast-flowing rivers.

 

There is less distraction, less detail, in such scenery. It bears the marks of history clearly – a ruined watchtower, an ancient stone cross marking a track, signs of a cart-track leading to a farm that no longer exists. These things are built over or hidden faster in the lowlands. So up in the hills it’s easy to have a sense of history and of past inhabitants and visitors. I often write about that.

 

It’s also easier to see a long way and to perceive how the land is organised – hills, streams joining a river, the valley, the point at which a road or track can cross the river. I think my long poem “Six Strands” contains a number of examples of this kind of thinking.

 

The hills are harsh. They can kill by fall, by snow, by exposure. Often they’ve been disputed borderlands racked by raids. Life exists by impertinence.

 

Up in the hills, you’re more aware of the sky.

 

 

A Sign

Another poem, a short one, about the significance of things that didn’t happen, missed signs.

A SIGN

So when the distant soldiers came around midday

To the curious building in the foreign fields

Planted with unfamiliar crops they saw a sign

And casually debated what the thing might mean.

But rain encouraged them to shelter inside the place,

Chapel or school, and the sign was just another strangeness

Among many, and so in time they marched away

To the slaughter next day on the watching ridge

And then artillery and fire destroyed the shrine

The words were not spoken and the slug river moved on.

 

copyright Simon Banks 2012

 

No-one took me up on the challenge about the poetic influence on my poem “Assembly”. It was Dylan Thomas – as I said, not for the language but for the subject and the choice of imagery. He was always writing about birth and childhood with an eye on death.

The Sky

I said I’d think aloud about some of the environments or backdrops that helped me compose poetry and appeared frequently in my poems. First was the sea and the shore. Now for the sky.

Often, especially when I’m alone and especially when I’m on a small island or other remote place, I look up at the sky and find fascination in its moods. There are practical reasons for this, of course, which mattered far more to my distant ancestors than they do to me, and more to me than to most people in rich, urbanised countries. The sky predicts the weather. You can see rain coming, distant mist, a hint maybe of snow, or blue sky approaching despite the rain in your face. We are warned of sunrise and sunset. Trees and clothing may give you some idea of the wind speed, but scudding clouds give a clearer message.

Even at night, the presence of clouds is instantly evident from the absence of stars.

As a hill-walker and a birdwatcher, I make use of these signs. But my reasons for staring at the sky are more powerful

The sea, the shore

I had the idea of posting with some thoughts about types of places or things in scenery that inspire me and appear in my poetry. So – number one: THE SEA AND THE SHORE.

 

The sea is mysterious for us because unless we dive, we see only the surface – so it can stand for our unconscious. It appears boundaryless and unlimited – so eternity, infinity and the experience of being in the womb. It sustains life and is where life began – but it’s a great killer. It divides nations and communities but it has been one of the great means of communication, of exploration and trade. Its colours change subtly depending on the weather, the time of day and solids held in it such as mud. The beat of waves is like the beat of a heart.

 

The shore fascinates me because it’s the meeting-place of sea and land. Shore creatures live half in one world and half in the other – like poets? The shore is subject to cyclical change, but it’s also been a great source of evolutionary change. The shore is always there, but its location changes as land is eroded or sea recedes. Sea things are thrown up on the shore like clues to a mystery; land things like bricks or trees are taken by the sea and are returned wonderfully changed.

 

The other features I’m thinking of discussing are rivers, the hills and the sky. What are your inspirations?

Assembly

Another newly-blogged poem here. I wrote this after reading a lot of poems by the same writer and without any intention to imitate, I think I’ve been influenced by that poet, though more in the subject and the choice of imagery than in the tone or the handling of individual words.

Anyone guess who the poet was? Come on, have a go!

ASSEMBLY

When a man came round to fit

The name and future face to it

The company saw that it was good

And all the neighbours understood.

When someone found that striking out

Would bring a pain, and shit brought shout,

It called the pain and letting free

The name of I, and This Shall Be.

The uniform of class and work

The steady torching of the murk

The conquering progress of the I

Denied the dead words When and Why.

A drowning loss in someone strange

A pulling back to set its range

A naming of the world unnamed

So something wild could count as tamed

A beating to a quickening drum

So all to one bare place could come

The flight again of It from I

And name and work and word will die.

copyright Simon Banks 2012

On Adverbs, America and the God Hemingway

What is wrong with adverbs? A Linked-in discussion still rumbling on made me aware that there are writing schools in the U.S.A. teaching their students to never use adverbs, to write them out when they slip in and to find alternatives. This seems a strange perversion: adverbs evolved to help us communicate. It does seem to be mainly a U.S. orthodoxy, though as many Americans post on international forums as if the rest of the world didn’t really exist (or was just the same as the States) you wouldn’t necessarily realise that from the posts that talk simply about “what we are told”, “the consensus”  and the like.

 

It seems to be part of a cult of pared-down, ultra-simple writing that appeals to Ernest Hemingway as its god, but rarely approaches his skill.

 

I started thinking about our use of adverbs. On holiday I noticed a road sign: DRIVE CAREFULLY. Delete the adverb and you have DRIVE. “Drive carefully” seems a succinct and helpful way of expressing the message and others like “Don’t risk causing an accident” are longer and would either be ignored by the driver or cause the accident. I looked in a book I was reading – an example of pared-down American writing – and found “he was breathing heavily” and “she drank directly from the tap” in one passage. “He was breathing” is hardly useful information unless you thought he was dead, “panting” as a synonym doesn’t have quite the same meaning, and while I’m not entirely (adverb) sure about “she drank directly from the tap” (does it mean mouth to tap, no cup or glass?) at the very least “directly” applies emphasis. So adverbs can convey useful information that would be hard to convey otherwise so briefly (adverb).

 

Just about everyone uses adverbs in everyday life. They may fail to use the correct grammatical forms (“the boy done good”, “come on out real slow”), but these are still adverbs, just as they are in German where adjectives and adverbs correctly have the same form (Der Zug ist langsam; er kommt langsam – the train is slow; he comes slowly).

 

Of course you can do with a minimum of adverbs and adjectives too for that matter, so let’s see the effect. Here is the situation for your book. A country is fighting bloody wars abroad and is running out of soldiers. A very young Lieutenant has been sent to the front after a minimum of training. Here he is:

 

He picked up his gun nervously. Of course he’d handled it before, but under the bored eyes of the instructor. Now he had to check and clean it. It would be humiliating if he somehow shot himself. He remembered the instructions he had learnt by heart and obsessively repeated them aloud. Then, cautiously, he began the operation, speaking each stage as he did it. Somewhere outside a strange bird sang loudly: it brought home to him how foreign everything was. He wanted to hear a familiar, reassuring sound instead.

 

So for some high priests of pared down writing this becomes:

 

He picked up his gun. He’d handled it before, but under the eyes of the instructor. Now he had to check and clean it. He did not want to shoot himself. He remembered the instructions and repeated them. He began the operation. He spoke each stage as he did it. Somewhere outside a bird sang. Everything was foreign and he didn’t like it.

 

To my mind, the first version is more vivid and tells us far more about the young man. There are short, simple sentences there too, but mixing them in with more complex ones makes them stand out more and have more impact.

 

Writing with a minimum of descriptive words is justified by some because Hemingway did it. I learnt from the discussion that many American writers revered Hemingway. In the U.K. he is not revered or quoted as the foremost authority on how to write, though he’s certainly still read a lot. To some in the U.S. he seems to be an Olympian authority not to be questioned.

 

Hemingway wrote in his chosen style very well indeed. Those who imitate him rarely achieve such vividness and while the action may be technically exciting, the colourless characters don’t engage us. Hemingway’s characters do engage us, but at what level? I thought back to his books I’d read. They were all easy reads in the sense that I wanted to read on, but it seemed to me that except in “The Sun also Rises”, which has genuine subtelty, the characters were superficial. The main characters of “A Farewell to Arms” and “For whom the Bell Tolls” seem like idealised, uncritically presented versions of how Hemingway would like to see himself:  in fact they’re both American action men abroad and the character in “A Farewell to Arms” is even doing the same job in the same circumstances. “The Old Man and the Sea” is a beautifully written fable with the force and simple beauty of a fable or ballad, but as with fables and ballads, the characters are little more than stereotypes.

 

Even with a writer of Hemingway’s skill, there are tasks of description and contemplation you simply cannot do within this style, and for the rest – I suspect Hemingway is so popular with some writers because he’s easy for indifferent writers to imitate.

 

Hemingway challenged the orthodoxy of his time. In the U.S.A. he seems to have become the orthodoxy. It’s easy reading and it’s easy not to notice an absence of thought.