In my Beginning is my End

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OK – I wrote about poems’ endings. How about the beginnings? Can I find any lessons from my own opening lines?

 

I’ve reversed Eliot’s well-known line here, but his was deliberately contrary. All beginnings imply some kind of end and the characteristics of a beginning – whether it’s a poem, a revolution, a product launched or a child conceived, carry information which can determine how it will end.

 

DEATH AND THE MAGICIAN

 

One day the magician came to me and said,
The fish are leaping in the yellow stream
The oak has turned into an acorn small
And I saw Death in dream.

And I saw Death in dream, he said,
And Death was very kind
He showed me where the roses grow
Though I’m old and blind.

I’m old and blind and lame, he said,
The sea is out of sight
The shell is empty on the shelf
Through the woken night.

The night is all around, he said,
It closes hour by hour
The voices make me fear, my friend,
Should a proud man cower?

But should a proud man cower, my friend,
I think perhaps he should
The wine is turning sour, my friend,
But the bread is good.

The bread of death is good, my friend,
The bread of life is fine
And now I’ve understood, my friend,
Will the starlight shine?

And will the starlight shine, my friend,
And will the starlight shine?
Now let us touch the vine, my friend,
And we will drink the wine.

 

How does this beginning work? Well, in fact you could say the beginning is actually the title, which tells you death will feature and suggests something rather archetypal. Then the first line is in ordinary language and chatty, quite misleading really for a poem that becomes ballad-like and rather distant from everyday speech. But that’s a way of as it were luring the reader in. Compare with a Hitchcock thriller. It normally starts with things seeming ordinary.

 

VISITORS

Here are the shoes and here the photographs,
The shaven heads, expressionless eyes or defiant.
These are the notices: washroom, joy, be honest.
Joy was the brothel. Here the camp commandant’s children played,
Getting used to the occasional screams.
We are done now. Ten minutes’ rest break: the toilets are over there,
Hot drinks and snacks in that corner. The coach is ready.
Thankyou for listening, thankyou for coming here.

The people are quiet in the coach until a phone rings.
The old Jew answers it. “Yes, we’re fine. No, you’re joking.
It’s raining here, just like Manchester.”

 

Once you’ve realised this poem is about a concentration camp, the first line is very specific and plummets you right in. These are shoes piled up from people who were gassed. The title is ambiguous: is it about the visitors to the modern exhibition, to present-day Auschwitz, or does it describe the murdered people as visitors, perhaps because they didn’t stay long? The first line is straightforward and there is no twist from first line to second, just progression.

 

Here there is a twist though:

 

DISENCHANTMENT

The world is disenchanted
We have walked in the dark places
And found no ghosts or elves
No dragons roam the forests
The real fearsome beasts
Of the forest we have shot
And made a diagram of their bodily systems.

But now the sabre-toothed beasts from the forest myths
The giant wings, the parallel cunning people
With their invisible cities and hidden spells
Are coursing through the streets of the flooded city.

Come with me to the sea.
We know the source of its power, waves and tides
There’s not a grain of sand disturbed
By the last thrash of the wave
I cannot analyse;
I can tell when a star will disappear.

Hunting elusive messengers in your mind
You may find useful this neat chart
We can identify
The electromagnetic impulses for love or hate
We’ve come a long way, you and I
Perhaps it is too late
To search back for some thing we have forgotten.

 

The title and the first line introduce the words DISENCHANTED and DISENCHANTMENT, which normally mean serious disappointment (“He became disenchanted with his leader,”), but immediately you wonder how the WORLD can be disenchanted. Gradually you realise the word is being used perversely if logically to be the opposite of ENCHANTED. We’ve lost enchantment.To me too the very sound of DISENCHANTED is right: it has a kind of mournful music.

 

I don’t mean this as self-praise – just picking out some openings I believe work quite well. Maybe I’ll do this for poems by better-known poets – but that’s harder work as I have my own poems all on one word file!

 

See you.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Are You Regular?

I’m not posting many poems now. There are three reasons for this:

* I’m not writing so many now as I did, say, a couple of years back.

* By posting my old poems here bit by bit, I’ve got up almost to the present with the poems I think are best. I could go back and post poems I don’t think so much of, but that doesn’t greatly appeal.

* I want to hold back a few good new ones as possible competition entries (not that I’m a great admirer of poetry competitions).

Instead I want to post more ABOUT my poetry. This has gone down well in the past. Now I’d like to try to be a bit deeper and more systematic. I might post now and then about other poets’ writings too.

For a start, I’d like to look at why I write some poems in regular form, some in irregular (“free verse”) form and some starting irregular but beginning to rhyme as they proceed.

Regular rhyme and rhythm can create a dreamlike state. They probably arose out of rhythmic chants at rituals and before battle. At football matches today you can still hear rhythmic chants aimed at uniting those on one side and intimidating or ridiculing those on the other before and during battle. Although rhyme and rhythm are the most familiar tools for this partial hypnosis, the repeating of images or words can have the same effect. Consider the repeated cries of a Fascist crowd: “DUCE, DUCE!” or “Sieg Heil!”

That example points to the dangers of dream-creation, but rhythmic chanting is also used in the most peaceful religions.

At worse, though, rhymes can be predictable, trite, even a little ridiculous, especially if the rhyme seems forced or – perhaps even worse – as soon as you read the last word on one line, you know what its rhyming partner must be.

So let me look at an example of where I think rhyming and regularity work effectively in my poems:

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DEATH AND THE MAGICIAN

 

One day the magician came to me and said,

The fish are leaping in the yellow stream

The oak has turned into an acorn small

And I saw Death in dream.

 

And I saw Death in dream, he said,

And Death was very kind

He showed me where the roses grow

Though I’m old and blind.

 

I’m old and blind and lame, he said,

The sea is out of sight

The shell is empty on the shelf

Through the woken night.

 

The night is all around, he said,

It closes hour by hour

The voices make me fear, my friend,

Should a proud man cower?

 

But should a proud man cower, my friend,

I think perhaps he should

The wine is turning sour, my friend,

But the bread is good.

 

The bread of death is good, my friend,

The bread of life is fine

And now I’ve understood, my friend,

Will the starlight shine?

 

And will the starlight shine, my friend,

And will the starlight shine?

Now let us touch the vine, my friend,

And we will drink the wine.

 

copyright Simon Banks 2012

 

I wrote this deliberately imitating ballad form and imagery. Ballads use a lot of repetition, but sometimes with slight changes which move the action on.

The second and fourth lines rhyme throughout. This is a familiar structure. The first verse has longer lines than the rest: the first three lines have ten syllables (assuming “magician” is elided or slurred). The fourth line though has only six syllables and this marks a change of mood and increase of intensity. From then on the poem becomes a kind of incantation and I have seen what an effect it can have on people. For the remaining verses the first and third lines have eight syllables, the second six and the fourth six or five. These variations help to avoid monotony.

The first line (after the ranging first verse) ends repeatedly with “he said” and then with “my friend”. The latter appears first ending the third line, but then is repeated at the end of the first and third lines. This is another form of repetition. The first and third lines contain internal rhymes – rhymes that don’t come at the end of the line such as “good” and “understood”.  “And will the starlight shine?” is said twice in succeeding lines of the last verse. The rhythm is regular. Words or images are repeated in the body of the poem – bread, wine and starlight, plus arguably water.

The repetition increases as the poem nears its end, conveying a sense of realisation, or completion.

Don’t try this at home, kids…this kind of method could fall horribly flat. It needs mystery and emotional intensity to work. Very few of my poems are structured anything like as tightly as this one. But then no other has had such dramatic effect every time I’ve read it aloud.

Next time I’ll go on to look at irregular and semi-irregular poems and why that can work too.

 

 

 

And now for the Magicians

Anyone spot the non-deliberate mistake in my last post? No? Hello? Anyone there?

It was called “Travellers and Magicians”. The poems certainly dealt with travellers, but not particularly magicians. That was because when I entered the title, I expected to be discussing four poems, two about travellers and two about magicians. I found the discussion as getting long enough so I stopped at the first two poems, but failed to change the title.

So now for the magicians. This post, by the way, is another in the series of re-blogging poems of mine with some discussion or explanation.

 

DEATH AND THE MAGICIAN

 

One day the magician came to me and said,

The fish are leaping in the yellow stream

The oak has turned into an acorn small

And I saw Death in dream.

 

And I saw Death in dream, he said,

And Death was very kind

He showed me where the roses grow

Though I’m old and blind.

 

I’m old and blind and lame, he said,

The sea is out of sight

The shell is empty on the shelf

Through the woken night.

 

The night is all around, he said,

It closes hour by hour

The voices make me fear, my friend,

Should a proud man cower?

 

But should a proud man cower, my friend,

I think perhaps he should

The wine is turning sour, my friend,

But the bread is good.

 

The bread of death is good, my friend,

The bread of life is fine

And now I’ve understood, my friend,

Will the starlight shine?

 

And will the starlight shine, my friend,

And will the starlight shine?

Now let us touch the vine, my friend,

And we will drink the wine.

 

I posted this recently on a poetry discussion group and instantly someone asked if it was a ballad. Well done, that woman. I’d hesitate to call it a ballad because that for me implies something about its environment, but it does deliberately mimic ballad style, especially after the first verse. Signs are the large amount of repetition (but sometimes with slight changes), the strong rhythm, definite and simple rhyming plan, lack of detailed description, reliance on a few powerful, often archetypal, images and that it is in some way narrative. If you’re not into ballads, especially if you’re British, think “Sir Patrick Spens”, very much a ballad. Many American Country and Western songs are essentially ballads, for example “Long Black Veil”.

It’s probably fairly obvious that this poem is about coming to terms with death, which is personified as often in folk art. Who are the other two characters, though? There is a Magician (old and dying) and a narrator who is a friend of the magician. Is it actually the magician himself? Maybe. Maybe the narrator is me, but maybe I’m the magician – in my imagination and predictions. Maybe the narrator is God. Maybe (a radical suggestion) he or she is a friend. The Magician is a creative individual who has difficulty reconciling himself to death, but accepting he’s afraid is a long step to accepting death while still loving life (the bread of death and the bread of life).

I wouldn’t want to set out meanings for the key images as if this was a phrase book, so I won’t comment on the roses or the wine. I will comment on “the shell is empty on the shelf/ Through the woken night”. Old people often have difficulty sleeping, so “the woken night” is obvious enough, though the Magician’s fears may contribute to his sleeplessness. But “woken night” could also suggest dark or frightening forces waking up in the night – his fears, maybe.  “The shell is empty on the shelf” is interesting because of the sounds involved (shell/shelf). But why a shell? A shell is empty when the creature that lived in it has died. People often collect shells and may put them on a shelf for decoration. Despite snails, we think of shells as coming from the sea, which has receded from the Magician: it’s a reminder of his failing powers or his loss of spiritual contact (because of his fears?).

In the end the Magician comes to terms with death.

Now another poem written soon afterwards. I actually wrote four poems featuring magicians in quick succession. This happens sometimes with me: an image rises from the unconscious and I can’t make full use of it or exorcise it in one go. the magicians are typically wounded or dying.

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THE SHADOWED WAY

 

I’ve been away ten thousand nights

But now, you see, I’m back.

You lived with a thousand fears

I carry in my sack.

 

You saw the wise magician fall

Emptied out by worm

And the turning of the tides

Come to a full term.

 

You heard the knocking in the night

No shadows cast by moon;

Waited for the morning light

To copy out the rune.

 

You saw the singer come by sea

With seven ships and gold

Felt the ageing of the tree

And the hand grown old.

 

The snows will cover all your songs

The dark will kill the flower

The bud will break, with new-born wrongs

And an unquiet hour.

 

Over the snow the song is sung

And dark gives birth to day;

Remember how the light is sprung

From the shadowed way.

 

 There we are – the magician appears now as a less central character, dying in the second verse. This poem also imitates ballads, though perhaps less obviously. Again, someone is struggling to come to terms with fears, but here, the bringer of fears has arrived on the doorstep.

The characters seem to exist across time or for a longer timespan than humans (“felt the ageing of the tree”. The visitor seems to predict annihilation (“The snow will cover all your songs/ The dark will kill the flower”) but immediately predicts rebirth, which is not always comfortable (“an unquiet hour”). The final message is that light comes out of dark (so accept the dark).

I think that makes sense…

Copyright Simon Banks 2013

Captain

 

When I was young, the captain said,

I climbed the twisted cherry tree

And clutching branches, I was free

Until the tree was dry and dead.

 

When I was older and was strong

Three broken bridges under stars

Were blocked by giants thick with scars

And it was mine to right the wrong.

 

When I was old, the captain said,

I sat beside the whispering waves

And heard their talk of opened graves

And wandered back to sleep in bed.

 

Now I have seen the tree in flower

And crossed the bridges that were banned

And felt a breath, and felt a hand

It is the place, it is the hour.

 

Copyright Simon Banks 2012

Mission

Here’s another poem written in the style of a ballad, with a hint of mystery.

 

 

MISSION

 

So when will we come back, she said,

So when will we stray?

The oaks grow round the shack, she said,

And the night kills day.

 

There may be no return, I said,

But we’ll stray for sure:

Or else the tower will burn, I said,

And the moon will lure.

 

So will we find the stone, my friend?

Will it brightly burn?

Or will we waste to bone, my friend,

Lying in the fern?

 

The stone may not be found, my friend,

Not in shack or sea,

Or in broken ground, my friend.

It may never be.

 

So let us rise and go, she said,

Calling in the night,

For what we do not know, she said,

And a dream of light.

 

 

Copyright Simon Banks 2012

 

 

The Shadowed Way

I think this one goes best with little introduction. It’s a bit ballad-like again and mystical, dark but ending with hope, and the dying magician figure appears again. The singer coming with seven ships and gold suggests the supernatural ballad “The Demon Lover”, quoted from memory here:

 

“Seven ships were on the sea

The eighth brought me to land

With gold and silver in great store

And music on every hand

 

She first set foot upon the deck

No mariners could behold

The sails were of the shining silk

The masts of beaten gold.”

 

THE SHADOWED WAY

 

I’ve been away ten thousand nights

But now, you see, I’m back.

You lived with a thousand fears

I carry in my sack.

 

You saw the wise magician fall

Emptied out by worm

And the turning of the tides

Come to a full term.

 

You heard the knocking in the night

No shadows cast by moon;

Waited for the morning light

To copy out the rune.

 

You saw the singer come by sea

With seven ships and gold

Felt the ageing of the tree

And the hand grown old.

 

The snows will cover all your songs

The dark will kill the flower

The bud will break, with new-born wrongs

And an unquiet hour.

 

Over the snow the song is sung

And dark gives birth to day;

Remember how the light is sprung

From the shadowed way.

 

 

Copyright Simon Banks 2012

 

Death and the Magician

Over a period, I wrote several poems which featured a dying or wounded magician, sometimes as the central character, sometimes mentioned in passing. This one was deliberately constructed to resemble a ballad, especially after the first introductory verse.

 

This is the poem that spellbound a group of 60+ people from the University of the Third Age group in Harwich when I read it at a festival event.  It has been published in “Troubador”.

 

DEATH AND THE MAGICIAN

 

One day the magician came to me and said,

The fish are leaping in the yellow stream

The oak has turned into an acorn small

And I saw Death in dream.

 

And I saw Death in dream, he said,

And Death was very kind

He showed me where the roses grow

Though I’m old and blind.

 

I’m old and blind and lame, he said,

The sea is out of sight

The shell is empty on the shelf

Through the woken night.

 

The night is all around, he said,

It closes hour by hour

The voices make me fear, my friend,

Should a proud man cower?

 

But should a proud man cower, my friend,

I think perhaps he should

The wine is turning sour, my friend,

But the bread is good.

 

The bread of death is good, my friend,

The bread of life is fine

And now I’ve understood, my friend,

Will the starlight shine?

 

And will the starlight shine, my friend,

And will the starlight shine?

Now let us touch the vine, my friend,

And we will drink the wine.

 

 

copyright Simon Banks 2012

 

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?

We will not meet again, my love

Sometimes I like to write in ballad style. This is one such.

WE WILL NOT MEET AGAIN, MY LOVE

We will not meet again, my love,

Till all the seas run dry

You will not be alone, my love

If only you should cry.

The woods have grown high, my love,

I cannot see the hill

Where you and I did part, my love

To find an unknown ill.

The forests have all fallen, love,

The seas have come to death,

But I have grown hard, my love,

And cannot feel your breath.

 

copyright Simon Banks 2012