History seeps into poetry

Last time I blogged about writing poetry about historical events. I admitted to having a History degree and a continuing fascination with the subject. It’s fairly obvious to anyone who knows that Marston Moor was a battle in the English Civil War, that a poem titled “Marston Moor” is historical. I wrote another poem called “Marie Antoinette”, and that’s a bit of a giveaway too.

But there are more subtle influences, ways in which historical awareness affects what I write just as awareness of landscape does even if the poem is not about landscape.

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Trapped in the hills and hunted down

By hidden bog and avalanche

By haunting wind and wolf, survivors

Stumble beside a clattering stream

Down to the valley of their dream

 

Where cupping hands bring out bright gold

Trees offer fruit of no known tang

And vivid song as no bird sang

Wakens the travellers from the cold

 

They name the valley, import the skills

To mine the gold and lay the roads

Till someone heads for other hills.

 

When no dark ridge is left, the wise

Explore the forests of the mind

And stare in one another’s eyes

 

Now out of mist on broken lands

What new and treacherous hills will rise?

That’s from the poem “Explorers”. The explorers go through great dangers to find they know not what. They find wonderful things, destroy them over time and move on. I can’t see that I could have written that without awareness of European exploration of other continents – and of the influence of the American West and the impact of the West (in the sense of a borderland of promise and danger for the settlers) ending.

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STONE STEPS

 

They found some stone around this place:

The pale steps worn by constant feet

Are buried in the wiry grass

And no-one knows who walked on them.

 

One end is by the river bank;

No sign of other end is left.

Perhaps this curious find is best

Donated to the town museum,

 

But somehow it seems better still

To leave them where they worked and wore.

Maybe they’re still a bridge of sorts,

Though what to what no-one can guess.

Well, this is a mysterious poem and no doubt not really about what it appears to be about, but the starting point is the historian’s or archaeologist’s curiosity about some remnant or ruin.

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CITY

 

Something started here

For a reason: the river was fordable

The tracks of cattle drovers drew together

The lie of the land and the weather were right for spinning

A governor found the distance from his palace

Just right for horses. Growth has a beginning.

 

Those origins are hidden, bulldozed, built on

Reinterpreted in guide-book and in myth

Slums and fine houses grow and are destroyed

The stonework of the bridge lies underwater

The factory’s become a heritage centre

From crumpled streets the tanners and the whores

Have gone but left their memories for a while

In street-names till some government

Dedicated to the pure and nice renamed them after

Generals, or trees that once were said to grow there.

Old stinking alleys strangled for office blocks

Ghostly survive in sections of quiet close

Or shopping trolley dumps round parking lots.

 

The city forgets; flexes; reinterprets.

People are born and die, the language changes

Suburbs seep out. Some time the city will end

Inventiveness, sweat, tears, frescos swallowed up

Slipping into decline, houses left empty,

Grass in the streets, but here and there a core

Churning more slowly and uncertainly;

Or suddenly in a fire that by scorched shadows

Commemorates the impertinence of daily life.

Unpeopled, not quite dead, the city will still be seen

In humps and ditches against the flow of land

By rumour, legend and a blackened buckle.

That’s from “Six Strands”, my longest poem: I used another bit of the same poem to illustrate how being a long-distance walker had influenced my poetry. The strand here on the city is pretty much all history: an awareness of processes by which cities grow up, change and die, but leave remains that can be interpreted even if all memory of the city has been lost. The picture of decline, for example, owes something to what I know of the last years of the Roman empire in Britain.

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Dust in marble halls, dust of marble halls

Ground jewels, rose roots strike

Lustre withers, slow-burning amethyst escapes

A lost note cries in the dark and I cannot find it

 

Out of the deathborn mud, worms rise

That’s from “Estuary Shore” and the point here is the intense sense of time, time over such a long period that marble halls are turned to dust, but a sense of renewal and rebirth as well.

I might add some comments next time about History and why I think Ford was wrong (“History is bunk”) about this as well as most other things except how to make money from making cars. But that’ll do for now. Oh, and if that dratted (or mysterious, intriguing) formatting has appeared again – sorry. The controls that should remove it do not work. It appeared one day and will not leave.

Now that is an idea – a poem pretending to be a load of formatting instructions.

 

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The Poetry of History

I’ve got a History degree – apparently one of those unsaleable degrees, which is stupid since History teaches you so much about human motivation, how people behave in groups, how societies and organisations change, how people can change things, how to assess and marshal evidence, how someone’s perception of things subtly or grossly changes the account they give…oh, and the origins of countries, customs, beliefs…

 

No, we just want to think one year ahead and five minutes behind.

 

So how does my knowledge of and interest in History influence my poetry?

 

Well, obviously in some cases because I have written historical poems. My particular interest was in the English Civil War and Commonwealth period – Oliver Cromwell and all that – and over some years I wrote two poems about that period.

 

One apology at this point. as before, I’m hitting “remove formatting” and the unspeakable formatting is still appearing in the post. It is not experimental poetry. It’s a nuisance. But if you think it’s marvellous poetry, enjoy it!

 

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MARSTON MOOR

 

On Marston Moor the rubbish grows

Beside the road, great pile on pile

And those who choked on their own blood

If they could see, would wryly smile,

 

If they could smile, at this New World

Which marks their death with rusty iron,

Snapped plastic, aluminium;

And those who tried to build their Zion

 

Or serve their King, may hear the chant

“Behold, we’re making all things new:

The bloody rout on Marston Moor

Is no concern of me or you”.

 

The Yorkshire soil is doing its job:

Fed deep by Scots and English blood

It brings forth cabbages and beans

Where shattered horses writhed in mud.

 

The moorland’s gone, the muskets too,

But over flat and docile land

A harsh wind blows and voices call

Of hopes we would not understand.

 

Marston Moor was one of the most important and bloody battles of that civil war. Outside York on 2 July 1644, forty thousand soldiers in two armies clashed and at the end over 4,000 were dead. The decisive victory for the combined Scottish and English Parliamentarian forces over the Royalists helped decide the outcome of the war.

 

The poem grew from my experience visiting the battlefield. The land was once a mixture of farmland and moorland, but is now all flat, fertile farmland. I found a 19th century memorial surrounded by a wrought iron fence, against which the farmer had stacked bales of hay. On the other side of the small road was a big rubbish tip. This shocked me. Could we find no better memorial?

 

In the poem I use ideas and vocabulary from the time. This was a time when the American colonies were being developed and many people in England were fired with the idea that these colonies represented a new start, a chance to do things better. So to describe the modern world of the rubbish tip as a “New World” is bitter irony. “Zion” does not refer to the political and philosophical movement  behind the state of Israel, but to the immediacy and importance of the Bible to 17th century English and Scots, especially on the Parliamentarian and Scots Covenanter side where some saw the political turmoil as a chance to build an ideal state in harmony with God.

 

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FORLORN HOPE

 

Stand firm behind the Good Old Cause

The King is subject to the Laws

The People are the true sovereign

Though they were robbed, to great lords’ gain

 

The fight is won, the Norman yoke

Is in the dust, the crown is broke

But now the new lords stand on high

For what, then, did we fight and die?

 

The Cause is down, the free are sheep

The Spirit does not die but sleep

Those who are blind will one day see

And those in chains will soon be free.

 

This is a more personal poem about the same period, written as if from the mouth of a Parliamentarian soldier with Leveller or similar radical beliefs. Each verse stands for a period: during the first, the Civil War is being fought; the second represents a later time when the military struggle has been won but the radicals face political disappointment; while the third speaks of the restoration of the monarchy, the crushing of such people’s hopes but also a survival. Again I’ve used language of the time. The Good Old Cause became the name used by Parliamentary supporters for their cause, continuing into the 1680s (a plotter against Charles II referred on the scaffold to “That Good Old Cause in which I was from my youth brought up”). That the King was subject to, not above, the Laws was common ground on the Parliamentary side, but the idea that the people were the source of power and the true sovereign was much more radical and new. The Levellers believed traditional English freedoms had been crushed by the Norman Conquest in 1066: royal and lordly power were “the Norman yoke” and the Civil War was a war of national liberation. Cromwell and his senior officers were nicknamed “grandees” and accused of acting like the lords they’d defeated.

 

This is getting quite long, so as Hilaire Belloc might have said,

 

“I’m getting tired and so are you.

Let’s cut the blog into two”. Or three even.

 

I’ll return to this and look at how I’ve reflected other historical subjects and also how History has had a subtler influence on what I’ve written.

 

Robin song

I’m a birdwatcher. You can tell that because I make it one word. Anyone who writes “bird watcher” isn’t one.

In a temperate country like Britain, there are huge movements of birds in spring and autumn. People are most aware of the summer visitors (arriving in the spring after spending the winter in Africa), but we have winter visitors too – birds that come from the Arctic or at least much further north, anywhere between Greenland and western Russia, to spend the winter in milder Britain. In a northern country like Finland, almost everything moves out in autumn. In an equatorial country like Kenya, you notice kinds of birds appearing that aren’t there all year: these have come from further north where winter is approaching. I’ve lived in both those countries.

Events like the first cuckoo call in spring or the arrival of flocks of winter thrushes on the East coast in October/November are conspicuous and quite well-known. But there are less well-known seasonal variations.

Robins (the European Robin, not the much bigger thrush called “Robin” in North America) stop singing for a while after the breeding season ends. But they’re highly territorial birds, the song tells other Robins the territory is taken (and is beautiful to our ears) and they start singing again in autumn. For some weeks Robins had been very hard to find round where I live. Then suddenly, yesterday, they were singing.

Now this is a poetry blog. For someone so interested in wildlife, I don’t directly write about birds, mammals and so on as much as, say, Ted Hughes did, but they do appear.

Here they play a part in a story (Spirit Mountain):

(but here, I fear, formatting will insist on appearing: though I’ve followed the instructions of my internet friend Neelima and also done the obvious thing of selecting “remove formatting”, it keeps jumping up on the Preview. This may be because of how I’m copying text from a word file. Well, I’m going to post this now and will try to fix the problem next time!

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Screeches and groans

Tear the night, only I

Know they’re ravens

Not demons.

In this poem I’m spending a night on a supposedly haunted/holy mountain, as I did, and realising that the strange noises come from those big crows, Ravens.

Here’s the start of “Breaking Time”:

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TREASURE ISLAND

The pirate sails through swivelling seas

And gains his goal through knife and trick

He lands at dawn with craftsman’s skill

The island’s multicoloured birds

The heavy scent of hanging flowers

Hold his attention for a while

It comes naturally to me in imagining a tropical island, to think of the birds!

Maybe because I know a lot about birds as birds, I don’t use them much as images suggesting something else, but here I do:

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LOST ISLAND

I don’t know whether the man at the gate has blundered,

But when I arrived I thought I was going to

An island no-one else remembered

But here the flesh has covered up the sand

And made a picture postcard of the sea.

I don’t know whether the island I remember,

The gap-topped tower you could climb to watch the sea,

Exists; the ferry timetables no longer mention it

But maybe the envelope I left on the floor

Contained an invitation or a feather

From that white bird that soared above the tower.

I’m not a “nature poet”, but I do write a few things of that type:

MERLIN

Mud slurries, sparkles in blue sky’s snatches

Wormholes wither and dry

Salt sea recedes, Grey Plover stalks

The tide is out.

Suddenly a shape, dark in the sun

Sharp-winged, intense over the swivelling saltmarsh:

Merlin!

A Merlin is a very small, fast falcon. Grey Plover is a wading bird that breeds in the high Arctic and arrives with us from August.

I did find one mention of Robins in a poem about autumn. Their mellow, sad-sounding song seems appropriate to the season. But the biggest influence of birdwatching on me as a poet is that it’s taken me to moors, estuaries, islands, forests…

Finally an apology. An internet friend (step forward, Neelima) pointed out that the formatting was showing on my recent posts. She gave me advice on sorting it. Let’s see…


		

Poems and Treks

So I promised I’d try to relate all that trudging over moors and hills to some poetry, starting with my own.

Here’s one for a start:

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WATERSHED

 

Did you see, there where the cloud broke

Between the high grey ridges an angled cleft

Roughly in line with the uneven river

Which might be a pass? A great bird soared over it

Now nothing shows but cloud and the warning of rain.

 

The broken impatient river carved the way

We leave the many-angled rocks behind

And the last twisted tree, the last glimpse of a roof;

And the hidden ravens call in the grey mist.

With cunning and husbanded strength

We drag from the circle of sweat to the circle of icy wind

Recovering from a slip is hard

Recovering from the task impossible.

 

There is never a point where you can say “that’s it”

No throne or light or monument

Only the slope is inconsistent

The shattered smoothing rocks lie in no order

There is no river

These barren pools are the only water

 

And then the ghost of a trickle

A few thin fingers feeling

Trying to come together, the hiss and sparkle:

We have passed the watershed

We have seen the birth

Of a new river.

Somewhere there is a new land

But it is hidden and the mist rolls in.

 

There is no warning

No sign, no new music

Just the realisation and the standing still

The dropping, blocking hills

The unknown, long suspected

Alien valley ahead

But half-familiar, like a dream

The hidden end

You feel you ought to remember.

 

The descent from the murderous heights

To the soft valley is always more dangerous

Than the struggling up:

The sight of meadows and bushes can lead like a mirage

To the eggshell-crushing fall

And the way to the low glittering lake

May be many miles round.

 

But at least the first task of the explorer

Seems to have been fulfilled

To show what he wanted to explore

Was there at all.

America is found

Mars glows dully but more clear

In the dark waters, something moves after all

Down the strange valley our suspected

Alive waters fall.

I guess it’s pretty obvious this was written by someone with experience of walking the hills. A watershed is the point at which watercourses divide: in other words, step one way and you have a trickle going one way; step the other way and the water runs in a different direction and the two do not unite, at least for many miles.

This poem was actually influenced most by a day’s walk over a watershed in Torridon in the Western Highlands of Scotland – not on a long-distance trail – and by climbing Black Sail Pass in the Lake District, most recently during training for a long-distance trail. But the experience of seeing a pass, of seeing great distances from the hills, of the fascination of seeing the nature of the country change as you trudge forward, and the excitement of seeing the start of a new valley down which you will go – all those are influenced by long-distance walking.

Of course the poem makes this stand for other difficult, risky  and exciting discoveries.

Now just a short excerpt from a rather long poem (“Shadowlands”):

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CROFT

 Here between the tumbled stones was the door:

Tired men passed seeking warmth, hot broth or a spade

Woman with a sickly baby in hope

The occasional visitor for a dram and stories.

Now the tourist wanders inside

The wet wind flails without a whimper.

This was provoked by an actual ruined croft a little off the old drovers’ road which is now the line of the West Highland Way round the edge of Rannoch Moor and the Black Mount. What is particularly poignant is the still-clear track that leads off the main track to the remains of the croft (small hill farmer’s dwelling).

And some bits from my longest poem, “Six Strands”, written bit by bit while on a long-distance trail journey (the Wye Valley Walk):

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MOUNTAIN

 

Little grows here. A scratch of stunted grass

And one surprising flower almost hidden

Simple and small like man, one shrill small bird

Breaks from a tumble of rocks and disappears.

 

Everything starts from here. A drop of rain

Will find its way to a river, a grain of grit

Will join a field or a burial ground.

 

Standing alone here on a better day

You can see steeple, orchard, river, inn

A sharp blue lake with bare scree shores,

But touching nothing, all’s another land.

Now the false friend of cloud is sidling in

Whispering to forget the distant things

But if you do, you’ll lose the near things too

It’s time to go.

 

FOREST

 

From a distance you can see the tracks, well beaten

Or largely abandoned, curving to the edge

And disappearing in the forest cover.

(and later:)

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The curve and cleft of the land speaks of the river

Before you see it. Straggles of bush and tree

Mark out the living and the long-dead streams

That struggle towards the river.

(and later:)

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Unpeopled, not quite dead, the city will still be seen

In humps and ditches against the flow of land.

All of these depend on a practical understanding of scenery: where there must be a river, for example, or how mountain environments differ from the valleys.

Enough, I think! Anyone else out there whose wild walking influences their poetry??

 

Treks

Last time I said a bit about long-distance trail walking, having just come back from doing the West and East Highland Ways. I set myself the aim of relating posts like that to poetry.

Well now, one thing at a time…

Here’s a brief Q and A on long-distance trail walking, bearing in mind that more poets than hill-walkers will be reading this.

Q: What’s long distance?

A: I wouldn’t call anything under 70 miles a long-distance trail. Even in Britain trails extend up to 630 miles (The South-west Coastal). In bigger countries it can be much more, like the 2,200 miles of the U.S.’s Appalachian Trail.

Q: What can you do in a day?

A: It varies person to person – and according to the nature of the country. My view is that pushing yourself to extremes like 40 miles in a day must mean you can hardly enjoy the sensations on the way. The most I’ve done on a trail in mildly hilly country is 27 and 30 in flattish country, but 20 in hill country is a good session. Take into account, as far as you can, not only the ascents, but the nature of the paths. You can make much quicker progress on a broad cart-track up a hill than on a narrow path going up and down between rocks, strewn with tree roots and rocks at all angles.

Q: They’re all in hill country, right?

A: A lot are, both because the scenery is impressive and because you encounter fewer areas you can’t walk through, fewer roads and fewer towns (navigating a trail through a built-up area of any size is really complicated). But most of the hill trails have lowland stretches and Britain has several coastal trails.

Q: Is it right you can have sherpas carrying your bags?

A: It’s not illegal, but in Britain sherpas of the sort that assisted Himalayan mountaineers it would cost the earth. The “sherpa” services contract to carry your pack from one day’s walking destination to the next by van, relying on the fact that many people will be walking the same stages and staying in the same places. This leads to fun walking, but to me it’s cheating. If you say you’ve walked the Pennine Way, you should mean you’ve done it carrying everything you needed on your back. As a Dutch businessman said to me at the end of the Coast to Coast, “It’s good to know that everything you really need in life you can carry on your back.” Deciding how you can cut the weight you carry, deciding what’s too important to leave out, is part of the challenge. And keeping the weight low is VITAL!

Q: Where do you stay overnight?

A: Some people camp (mainly “wild camping”, a term that’s quite new in Britain, though the reality isn’t). That gives you lots of flexibility and a nearness to nature, but it means you have to carry more food plus the tent. Crucially, it also means that if you finish the day with wet boots, they’ll be wet next morning (and this leads to foot problems). I prefer to stay in bed and breakfast, guest houses, inns or reasonably-priced hotels. Inns are my first choice and on many routes they’re quite numerous.

Q: What do you take with you?

A: NOTHING you don’t need – so I recommend no reading material other than maps and a guide book. I wouldn’t take a kindle either unless you can enter the guide book and maps on it, the display is really clear, which it wouldn’t be in black and white, and it doesn’t mind getting wet. On any walk of more than five days, count on washing some clothes and re-using them, but properly-washed socks are important. Even pared to the minimum, the list is too long here, but take insect repellent, sun screen and disinfectant (in the smallest, lightest versions possible) and two hats. Hats are useful against sun and rain, but they’re easily lost and it could be four or five days before you come to a place where you can buy a replacement.

Q: I’m pretty fit and can walk 25 miles in a day. Am I ready to take on a trail like the West Highland Way?

A: Probably not. You need to know what you can do over several days. If you count on repeating day after day for a week with a full pack what you know you can do for a day with a half-full pack, you’ll come unstuck. I always fit in a bit of practice before taking on a serious long-distance trail, ideally one or two weeks before. That might mean four days’ tough walking in similar country with a similar weight and the same boots.

Q: Are you a masochist?

A: Not quite. On every trail I’ve done (except the West Highland this time – the low point came when I took on the East Highland straight on from that) I’ve paused for sweaty breath on a gruelling climb or retraced my footsteps having gone wrong on a particularly long stretch, or pulled myself upright from a glutinous fall in a bog, or forced myself forward into driving rain, and said to myself, “You don’t have to do this – so why ARE you doing it?”. But the answer always came in a day or two at most. The scenery is fantastic, the sense of moving from one kind of country to another by the power of your own legs is marvellous, reaching the end of the day’s stage with a soft bed to snooze on, a bar to have a beer in and the prospect of a good meal is wonderful, the sense of achievement on reaching the end is unrivalled – and there’s something more than that, particularly on the longer trails. You’ve become a nomad. Your home is not in Birmingham or Bremen, but in your pack and in your head. You move on each day. It begins to seem like a way of life.

The quiet, the beauty and the lack of much else to do at the end of the day can help produce poetry too!

Next time I’ll look at a couple of my poems and see how long-distance walking might have influenced them. Then maybe I’ll find a relevant poem or two by other people (Wordsworth?). Any suggestions for that?