WEDDING SHOCK!

No, it’s not me. I’m turning aside from poetry for a moment to talk about TV programme magazines – the ones that tell you what’s on TV for the next week and when.

 

tv-pilot

Inside the magazines is masses of well-organised information. The covers give a different impression, screaming at you to try to get you to buy. Apparently what most people are interested in is the soaps. As I don’t watch any, this just mystifies me. A big picture of a woman I don’t think I’ve ever seen comes with a headline like “DEBBIE IN TERRIBLE CRASH – WILL SHE LIVE?” It may seem callous, but I don’t care.

 

This week it was

WEDDING SHOCK

WE’RE GETTING MARRIED!

BUT WHAT’S PETER HIDING?

(1): Getting married is what people tend to do at weddings, I’ve noticed.

(2): What’s Peter hiding? I don’t know. Female sexual parts? A teddy bear? An obsession with model railways? A season ticket for Manchester United? Body odour? Genital warts? The bodies of his six previous partners? A woolly bobble hat?

 

Any suggestions?

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Both one thing and another?

One of the things about poetry that most puzzles literal-minded people is that one set of words can mean two or more things. A description of snow falling can be a description of death or of sleep or, just possibly, a  description of snow falling.

 

faceoff

 

Going to the Snape Poetry Festival earlier this month got me thinking about this a good deal, particularly because of listening to an American poet, Paula Bohince, reading, interpreting and explaining what she liked about the poem “Sandpiper” by another female American poet, Elizabeth Bishop.

 

I found myself interested but uneasy. Here’s the poem:

 

SANDPIPER

 

The roaring alongside he takes for granted,
and that every so often the world is bound to shake.
He runs, he runs to the south, finical, awkward,
in a state of controlled panic, a student of Blake.

The beach hisses like fat. On his left, a sheet
of interrupting water comes and goes
and glazes over his dark and brittle feet.
He runs, he runs straight through it, watching his toes.

– Watching, rather, the spaces of sand between them
where (no detail too small) the Atlantic drains
rapidly backwards and downwards. As he runs,
he stares at the dragging grains.

The world is a mist. And then the world is
minute and vast and clear. The tide
is higher or lower. He couldn’t tell you which.
His beak is focussed; he is preoccupied,

looking for something, something, something.
Poor bird, he is obsessed!
The millions of grains are black, white, tan, and gray
mixed with quartz grains, rose and amethyst.

 

Western Sandpiper, Cattle Point, Uplands, Near Victoria, British Columbia

 

Now clearly this is a very good poem, with vivid and accurate language, well-organised and thought-provoking, if only to find me American support for spelling FOCUSSED, which my American-dominated spellcheck thinks is wrong. There are lines here which are memorable for the beauty of the image and/or the words like the last two lines or “he stares at the dragging grains”, which is not only vivid but reproduces the sound of a spent wave hissing back over coarse sand.

 

In reading it before Paula Bohince expounded, I suspected there was a half-hidden agenda to it but didn’t know what. I was seriously bothered by the words “a student of Blake”, which interrupted clear and vivid description with what seemed to be a crossword-puzzle-maker’s clue. Paula Bohince especially liked those words, explaining they referred to Blake’s “To see a world in a grain of sand”, which makes plenty of sense; but I still think this is an awkward break and a too clever insert which will distract most readers from the picture that’s been building up.

 

By the way, as a European birdwatcher, I was also slightly bothered that the sandpipers I knew rarely fed on sandy shores, but judging by online photos of American sandpipers, some of their sandpiper species do.

 

Paula Bohince talked about Elizabeth Bishop’s approach to writing poetry and interpreted the poem from start to finish as the poet describing herself writing poetry. That does make sense: in particular, it would be downright silly to describe a bird as being “obsessed” (“Poor bird, he is obsessed!”) in his or her pursuit of a successful feeding strategy without which (s)he would die. It leaves me uneasy, though, because at the end of Paula Bohince’s talk there seemed to be nothing left of the sandpiper. It was a kind of disrespect.

 

Maybe what leaves me uneasy is more in Paula Bohince’s mind than the poem, though I am unhappy about that line “Poor bird, he is obsessed”.

 

Now let me try putting in this light two of my own poems that seem to be attempting something similar – “Watershed” and “Underwater”.

 

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 don’t want to analyse this poem in the round here or this would be an impossibly long post, but there is an obvious extended metaphor. The poem is a realistic description of a climber or hill-walker ascending a pass to reach the watershed and it actually draws extensively on two real climbs, one in Torridon in the Western Scottish Highlands and the other in the English Lake District (Black Sail Pass). But it’s also about any adventure, any risk-taking, any exploration. There’s plenty of detailed description of rocks, rivulets and so on, but to reinforce the exploration theme I’ve made the climber unaware of what’s beyond the watershed, so (s)he obviously wasn’t carrying a decent map!

 

Nonetheless, the whole thing could be a poetic description of a climb and nothing else until that last verse (from “At least the first task of the explorer”), about which I have reservations though a poetry magazine must have been happy because it was selected for an anthology. In that last verse I talk not of mountains and fells but of America and Mars. The analogy becomes clear. Was that a mistake? At least by this final shift I avoid the weakness of “Poor bird, he is obsessed” – the point at which what the poet wants to say about herself (if Bohince is right) clashes with what can truthfully be said of the bird.

 

UNDERWATER

When you slip under
The long lying line of waves
Strange shapes will come
Silently propelled by waft of flipper
Or sinuous pulsing of a streamlined torso
And some maybe you knew and had forgotten
Dirt shovelled over the well has been removed
Remember the time before you broke the surface
Gasped, fumbled, burrowed
And survived by stratagem?

Now you return to them
Learning to be like a fish
Wander and linger
Here where the pearly nautilus waves unchanging
Here with the ammonite and plesiosaur
And where squat fish that never see the sunlight
Thread through great feathery banks of frond
Of hidden sting and jaw

Do you rise up towards the scattered sunlight
The crushing waves, the inconsistent wind,
The seabird that will fly to a rocky island
Drawing life from the depths, their crowded night?

When you are playing with the waves
Will you remember
Here on the fine-grained shore (maybe imagine)
Beneath the corals and the painted fish
Down with the vents, the eyeless creatures
Some heavy hidden box
That had an answer,
Where you will return?
Will you return?

 

This is more complicated because there are at least three associated half-hidden meanings. The sea can stand for death, time or the unconscious. The poem is much less realistic than “Watershed” and it would be difficult for someone to read it and think it was just about underwater exploration, though there are bits that describe underwater habitats pretty accurately –

And where squat fish that never see the sunlight
Thread through great feathery banks of frond
Of hidden sting and jaw

(which could certainly be a deep-sea, ocean-bed habitat) or

Here on the fine-grained shore (maybe imagine)
Beneath the corals and the painted fish
Down with the vents, the eyeless creatures

(which describes a sandy shore, shallow tropical waters and the ocean bed). But this ocean contains long-extinct creatures side by side with surviving ones, suggesting something either dreamlike or timeless. There is a kind of subtext which says, “Beneath the water surface you change into something else and time as you have known it vanishes. In the deepest places there are dangers but also something valuable. The life of things above the surface depends on life beneath the surface (the fish-eating seabird). Humans travel between the different levels, rather as we evolved to leave the sea and live on land (the last five lines of the first verse).

 

It seems to me to work and one reason is that I didn’t pretend to be talking about real seas. If I’d done that, some things I wanted to say would have disrupted the metaphor.

 

There’s a lot more to think about here…

 

 

 

 

What I have left

swirl

 

I’m still going to talk about poems that appear to be about one thing but arguably are actually about something else – extended metaphors, if you like. But here first is something that came to me driving back from a poetry and music evening in Colchester. When I say come to me – it started to come as if of its own accord and then I composed (the form is quite strict) but in a state of excitement from the first inspiration.

 

 

WHAT I HAVE LEFT IS WORDS

What I have left is words
To sing the wind
To wet the sea
To warm the fire
To leaf the tree
What I have left is words

What I have left is muscle
To crest the hill
To cross the stream
To track the path
To fashion dream
What I have left is muscle

What I have left is eyes
To see the wind
To star the dark
To fish the sea
To ground the ark
What I have left is eyes

What I have left is words
To run the river
To shape the fire
To draw the frown
To cut the wire
What I have left is words.

 

 

 

A day by the reedbed

On Saturday I was at the Snape Poetry Festival, England’s number one festival. I live about an hour and twenty minutes’ drive away, so I could go up just for the day, the main day of the three. Last year I stayed bed and breakfast and sampled the whole experience from Friday to Sunday, but this time I thought one day was enough (and saved money).

 

It’s a pretty intensive experience. Why “a day by the reedbed”? Snape Maltings, the arts (mainly music) centre where it’s now held, is by an estuarine reedbed on the Suffolk coast. It’s a beautiful place. Last year but one, my first attendance, an aged Korean poet guesting there referred to the beauty of the reedbed and then said the Maltings was full of poetry – “maybe more poetry when it was industrial”. That wry comment hit a button for many people: there is no such thing as a cathedral of the arts.

 

There are many things I could write about, but I want to choose two. The main one is about comparisons and extended metaphors – whole poems that seem to be about one thing but are also (or instead) about something else. I think I’ll leave that till next time and do it properly, talking about Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “Sandpiper”, Paula Bohince’s talk about the poem, which left me with reservations, and by way of comparison, a couple of my poems that try something similar.

 

So I’m just going to say I was struck like lightning by the last event. Two young female poets read some of their work. One, an American, left me cold with a kind of word-association exercise that might have appealed to me if I’d been into crosswords. The other

karen mccarthy woolf

 

was Karen McCarthy Woolf. A poem about dead animals by the roadside on Dartmoor. A poem about a stillbirth. Immediate, vivid, precise, painful, exciting. Superb poetry: I’m not quite going to place it with the best of Keats or Hopkins or Yeats, but I’ve never heard anything read aloud with so much impact – which obviously implies that she reads well.

 

Tell me poetry is dead.