From time to time I re-post poems that appeared here some time back but with some discussion or explanation. When I post a poem for the first time I try to keep such added text very short or totally absent in order not to direct people’s reactions. But discussion of poets’ own poems seems to be quite rare on the blogosphere and many people welcome it.
The most recent such posts have chosen a theme such as time or right and wrong and selected three or so poems that illustrated different approaches. That’s hard to keep up if only because it gets very hard to remember which poems I’ve re-posted. Besides, choosing a theme like that can lead to bias or misrepresentation in how I talk about the poem. Imagine if Keats had blogged some of his poems, chosen “birds” as a topic and entered “Ode to a Nightingale” in it.
So here goes with two poems that are vaguely related and were written around the same time.
Some day the rain shall tell me I should leave
Or the shortening days set off a bell
Quiet at first, insidious in the blood
So I will pack
Searching the sky for clues
The distant shimmer and blur that might be rain
Glance at the house
And set out by a route that gradually
Creates itself but will not turn on itself
Though I don’t know the city at the end.
I am a journeyman, I learn my trade
From hints and shallow inscriptions on low stones
And from the linking of the bones.
I am used to wandering
I travel light, I know the signs
The questioning cat, the blackened oak
The broken bridge, the river in spate
The posts turned round, the embered fire
Light in the sky and razor wire.
And so the stages wait, or maybe indifferent
I mark them with my feet for a few minutes
But swimming with a river in the mind
I grope and stumble, being alive and blind.
The first thing is to explain what a journeyman was, especially as the word has come to mean an uninspired plodder. A journeyman was a young craftsman learning his trade by travelling around the country taking on jobs as he went, learning from established people in his craft. A “journeyman piece” of furniture, for example, would be like an apprentice piece – possibly very good, but likely to show mistakes the experienced skilled worker would not make.
So in this poem I (or the person speaking) see myself as a journeyman – of what? Of poetry? Of life? Some of the lines are really quite straightforward: for example, “a route that gradually/ Creates itself but does not turn on itself” = a route that is not pre-set, but emerges gradually as I make my way – and does not lead me back where I came from. The journeyman is not learning from seeing carpentry or ironwork done, but from signs that may seem magical along a route that seems rural. I’m not aware of any special significance to the signs I’ve specified. His journey is partly in his mind “swimming with a river in my mind” and he is “blind” – aware that many things are hidden from him.
Only one vessel, outward bound,
You need not change your course.
The dead gull goes round and round,
Looking for the source.
The waves are broken on the wall
The angular land is blind
No salt invades the marbled hall
Nor sails in the mind.
The sun is shining as it shone
But the words you talk
Are bronze untaught, of Eden gone
And a broken hawk.
Only one vessel, outward bound,
Turning of the tide,
The unknown sea is lost and found,
The rolling sky is wide.
This one draws on an image from my then recent memory – seeing a dead gull going round and round in an eddy of an estuary. Like “Journeyman” it’s about journeying and leaving. The possibilities, fluidity and uncertainty of the sea are contrasted with the cut-and-dried land, especially in the second verse. Like “Journeyman” the tone is quite optimistic: I expect to go on the journey and find new things. There are lines here I can’t explain: they seemed to make sense when I was composing it! Maybe they do. “Bronze untaught”, for example: I have a feeling that meant something, but search me now! Note the extra syllable in a generally regular poem in “The angular land is blind”: this emphasises the gawky, hard word “angular” and hence what I’m saying about the land.