I looked for an apocalyptic picture of The End, but strangely, they’re hard to find on the net. This is actually the Great Fire of London, but it looks pretty apocalyptic.

Actually, this isn’t about that kind of End, or about this kind.


It’s about the end of a poem.


When I started writing poetry again, I felt for a long time that endings were a weak point for me. Just as the Monty Python team found they often didn’t know how to end a sketch (hence those sudden shifts to And Now for Something Completely Different), I was aware that the last line of a poem had huge impact but struggled to find words that were up to the task.


Secretly, without realising it, I’ve changed. Last month I took part in an organised poetry reading at the Poetry Cafe in London, set up as a Colchester team against a London team (though actually there was no competition). Thinking about my own selection later, and also some poems I shared in a poets’ group not long after, I realised some of the endings worked particularly well (I think).


Here are some examples from the Poetry Cafe event. These are all poems I’ve posted here before.



After a month of night, a reddish moon
Illuminates a new world, smoothes
The slivers of metal, softens the swathes
Of jagged concrete to
A pebble beach. The clumps of bodies become
A silvered sleeping army of dancing elves.
Nothing human moves,
But deep rats scrabble towards the surface
In the wounded rivers
Dragonfly larvae wait, and where the great trees stood
Fern spores survive. There will be
Another turn.
Tomorrow the relentless sun will rise.

The moonlight over the sea in a narrow, shimmering dark-speckled band
Links the horizon with the stony beach
To the left the town lights strung along the esplanade
In yellow and red do not shift
Being precise, defined; round the dark sea are the sounds of a town night
A drunken argument, a covey of old people chattering
Taxis’ irregular engine rumble;
A few late white gulls flap and swivel;
The glittering causeway is untrodden.


Dark shape of a man against the drifts of white
The pale watching lights on concrete walls
The crump of boots in the untrodden snow
The short scream of an owl in the hidden wood.

No lights show in the sky, but the steady throb
Of a heavy heaving plane in the opaque air;
The dogs begin to bark; a light goes out.


Looking out over the silent sea
Knowing of another hidden country
She dreamt of unicorns and fiery dragons
(The island in the bay was Avalon)
And when the sailors laughed, cursed them to be blind.

Older, more cautious, richer, more powerful,
She bought the island, poisoned all the rats
And built a tower like one that might have stood
To watch for pirates in the China seas
And spent some few nights there watching whales and slow-burning
Stars that spread eerie magic over the black waves.

But when a dying dragon came to her in a dream
Dragging smeared scales over the revengeful rocks
She left the island and the tower fell slowly into ruin
Peopled by spiders and by mad-voiced seabirds
Haunted by silent, searching unicorns.


So what works about these endings? I should say I read some other poems whose endings I didn’t feel were so strong.


In the first poem, “Tomorrow, the relentless sun will rise” reminds us of the title “Tomorrow”. It marks the first time the sun will be visible after a month of night. But the key word, I suggest, is “relentless”. The sun is relentless. “Relentless” suggest cruel and ruthless as well as strong and persistent. Most life forms, including humanity, have been destroyed by some cataclysm, but “There will be another turn”. The sole word “relentless” raises the question, “Do we want another turn, when it may be no better?”.


In “Weymouth Bay” the last line again relates back to the beginning, this time to the first line instead of the title. It reminds us of the glittering band of light from the moon shining on the dark sea. But whereas the first line describes this fairly straightforwardly, the last line turns the band of light into a causeway people could walk on, but choose not to, setting off the magical against the mundane (a drunken argument, chatter, idling taxi engines, street lights).


In “Night Vision”, I think the reader begins to realise what is being described is a prison, a concentration camp or a prisoner of war camp. There is an atmosphere of menace, even in the big bomber or transport plane being hidden in cloud. “The dogs begin to bark” could suggest an escape attempt has been discovered. “A light goes out” could be just another piece of atmosphere – or it could mean the light of a human life has been extinguished. People seem to get this double meaning quite easily.


The last line of “The Tower” appears just to introduce more mythical things (we’ve had unicorns before, in the third line, and also dragons and the island of Avalon). But the poem describes the death of a dream. The woman dreams, becomes able to implement her dream, enjoys it briefly, then is shocked by the dream becoming threatening and retreats. But not only does the tower fall into ruin – her dream creatures do not die, but continue on the island searching for her. I think that comes as quite a shock.


Next time I’ll look at a few endings from other poems I read recently.


Sorry, by the way, for being silent for some time. Usual excuses.


Take care.








Snape Poetry Festival


I’ve just come back from the annual Poetry Festival at Snape Maltings, Suffolk. This was the 25th such, but formerly they were held a few miles away in the small town of Aldeburgh by the sea, a fishing settlement turned to tourism and music. Snape Maltings is a site by a river and reedbeds, consisting of beautiful industrial buildings turned to use mainly for music events.

Last year I made my first visit, staying just for the one day. I don’t live so far away that a day trip is problematic. But it did mean I’d have been unwise to stay for the poetry open mic, which finishes just before midnight. This time I booked into events from Friday evening to Sunday morning and had a go at the open mic. I stayed in a very friendly and convenient bed and breakfast on the main road at Stratford St Andrew, about a twelve-minute drive away.

This could be a very long blog, but it won’t be. Here’s just a few impressions.

At the start, it can be a bit intimidating. It’s a big venue and a big event. I found myself thinking it was a bit like arriving at secondary school aged eleven and having to cope with an alien organisation, a confusing multiplicity of rooms and a tight timetable. It didn’t help that it was raining heavily and dark. Moving from place to place withing the site involves going outside and in places the lighting is minimal. That helps deliver marvellous starscapes when it isn’t raining or cloudy, but also helps deliver you into potholes and puddles.

People were all friendly. That wasn’t always so the previous year when the “ushers” at the doors for the events were some of them rather forbidding. I met a lot of people including some of the featured poets. I bought poetry books by two of those, Kim Moore and Robin Robertson. I’ll blog about them when I’ve finished reading their books. There was much thought-provoking discussion and lecturing: the only pity was that this never involved the audience. I suppose that becomes difficult when so many people are present and the timetable is packed – difficult, but not impossible.

It seems to me that much contemporary poetry is thoughtful, compassionate and rational. It’s also in its main thrust quite different from the main thrust of what I write. I use common words and images of common objects, but I’m rarely chatty in poems. I use mystery more and observation of characters less. No problem: I learnt long ago in poetry to do my thing, not someone else’s.

One thing that does bother me a bit, taking in both Snape and recent browsing through a lot of poetry magazines (what I could find on-line) is that some poets seem to think their main task is to think up unusual ways of describing things, and then if they string together a few such descriptions with some light twine such as “Mother used to” or “In Manchester”, there’s the poem. I can see the inspiration this comes from, to see mundane things anew as Craig Raine said, but it can become a sort of competition exercise: “Find a new way of describing an ATM/someone drinking coffee/a bus stop/a poodle”, or “cram as many unusual metaphors and similes into the poem as possible”. Such ingenuity is fine, but if it’s valued too much, it becomes confetti without a wedding or even a wind to make it swirl.

The open mic was fun. I read “Death and the Magician” and “Night Vision”. One young female poet read a piece about refusing intimate shaving and it was very, very funny.

More soon.


Right and Wrong

Keats criticised poetry that had a “palpable design” on us. Poets debate at length to what extent poetry today should carry a political or moral message and whether it changes anything anyway. For re-posting and discussion, I’ve selected three poems written roughly around the same time that all raise moral issues, that is, issues of right and wrong.

I’m not afraid to talk of right and wrong. I’m what philosophers call a “soft relativist”, which sounds like an insult, but actually means the position which I suspect most people in the Western world take if they think about such things – that there are very few if any absolute statements of right or wrong actions (that it is never right to lie, to kill, to eat pork, to accept blood transfusion and so on) but this does not mean that anything goes and different actions in different circumstances may be said to be right or wrong by a standard that is not purely related to my own benefit or comfort or the survival of my genes.

I think, though, that poetry ought commonly to confront moral issues by asking questions or drawing attention powerfully to consequences rather than by laying down right answers.

So here’s the first poem and the most politically and morally engaged:


On 6 March 1987 the car ferry “Herald of Free Enterprise”, owned by Townsend Thoresen (later P&O) capsized outside the Belgian port of Zeebrugge, causing 193 deaths. A number of safety measures that would have prevented the disaster had not been taken because they were seen as low priority or would have reduced profits.


In December 2009 the Copenhagen climate change talks ended without countries’ leaders agreeing to Carbon emissions limits, after aggressive campaigns by commercial interests attacked the whole idea that humans were causing global warming.


The Herald of Free Enterprise

Proclaimed a message of hope and joy

In words that could be painted gold

And deep vermilion in a book.

He blew a long note on his horn.

When from the sea there came a scream

From trapped and drowning passengers

And from the writhing, poisoned earth,

The herald turned the speakers off.

In looking back at this I see immediately that the gloss or introduction makes political points much more directly than the poem, but this is because poetic language uses images rather than syllogisms or platform bullet-points.

The poem is very political and moral, though. It charges the profit motive and unchecked capitalism with 193 deaths and with untold suffering and extinctions through global warming. As it happens I am not a socialist and believe attempts to do without private enterprise are pointless. I don’t see it as the role of a poem, though, to suggest and debate the political action that could be taken (some of it is pretty obvious in these two cases).

I use the name of the ship to develop an image of heraldry and hence bright colours and impressive ceremony – and then suddenly introduce reality and, in poetic form, the way powerful interests control information.

Here, by contrast, is the next poem.


The great detective, pantherlike,

Prowls round the web of traps and mirrors

Constructed by the lord of crime

The lord waits sentient inside

He does not need to move to strike.

The great detective makes his maps

His diagrams and brilliant plans

Each trap is tested by the lord

And nothing’s what it first appears

Even the great detective’s word.

The great constructor sits inside

The marvellous complexity

Of art and thought and warm routine,

Watches the prowling of the wolf

And studies the compelling lie.

The wolf has broken through the web

The city of light alarms and screams

The great detective meets the lord

And who should live and who should die

Lies in your hand and lies in mine.

The character of the Great Detective is a recurring one in my poems. He’s dedicated, determined, rational, intelligent and narrowly-focused – in deliberate reference to Sherlock Holmes.  The poem starts by presenting such a detective locked in battle with a Moriarty figure, the lord of crime. No moral ambiguity here. But as it progresses we find the perception shifts. Now we’re seeing the organisation of the lord of crime as a beautiful city threatened by a destructive force, a wolf that is also the Great Detective.

The prowling nemesis breaks in and comes face to face with the lord. Now, says the poem, you choose who should win. This represents the fact that we can influence the outcome of social struggles, but which side we should take is often unclear and there are different perceptions. But the poem is unforgiving: the difficulty does not absolve us of responsibility for taking a decision and acting.

Here’s the third poem.


It will not be all new when we meet again

The blood will still be on the old stone steps

The man at the corner will still be glancing after

The drunken girl who retches beyond the railings.

We recognise the smears, you and I

We know the use of bleach on the grimy standard

Will wreck it beyond loving, and the raising

Of a pure standard is a call to killing.

But where the stray cat wolfs the fallen burger,

Where up the bloodstained steps you come by night

There is the cancer that will grow and scatter

The knowing of the dark, the love of light.

You could say this poem lies between the other two. It suggests an attitude but leaves a lot unclear. The world is dirty, messy, often unpleasant and damaged. But to react with a wish to reject the world for something pure and perfect is dangerous: that way lie fanaticism and mass murder. Robespierre, the Inquisition, the Fascists and Al Qaida were all obsessed with purity. So accept that the world is imperfect – but don’t walk off indifferent.  Know the dark and love light.

Copyright Simon Banks 2012


My very own archetypes

Which if you’re a Jungian (Carl Gustav Jung invented the term “archetype”) is contradictory because archetypes aren’t just personal: they’re images or types that recur through different people and indeed different cultures.


Maybe these are Jungian archetypes. Anyway, I’ve noticed certain characters crop up repeatedly in my poems, not as identical, but as recognisably closely similar. So I thought I’d have a go at making a guide for them.


THE BEAST: A threatening absence (and occasionally presence), something powerful and frightening that visits only at long intervals. Generally its interventions are seen as destructive, but the destruction can lead to new life.


THE DETECTIVE: A rational, dedicated figure, an analyst and pursuer, perhaps for justice, perhaps for destruction.


THE EXPLORER: Often in a group of explorers, he/she is fired by a wish to discover new things, sometimes to the extent of being insensitive to what his/her interventions result in. The Explorer is restless and takes risks.


THE IGNORANT SOLDIER: A soldier who is trying to do his duty but has no clear idea of what he’s fighting for or who the enemy is. There’s an overlap with the Watcher (see below).


THE RIDER: Not any rider, but a mysterious figure, sometimes a messenger, coming and going. Sometimes he/she is hooded and sometimes carries a bag with mysterious contents. The hooded messenger could sound like Death – and the Rider can be Death, but that’s only one possible guise. The Rider brings change.


THE WATCHER (or Guard): Someone who has the duty of waiting and watching for someone to come or something to happen. Sometimes he (it tends to be a man) is guarding something, but has no idea of if or when it may be threatened. What the watcher waits for may never come, but he has to watch for it.


THE WOMAN AHEAD: A female figure, possibly not human, who is always just out of sight, always leading, always sensed but not found. She inspires but remains elusive.


THE WOUNDED MAGICIAN: A magician (an exceptional, creative person) who is ill, dying, wounded or hunted. The magician creates, but can be destroyed.


I may think of more and if so, will post them.


Copyright Simon Banks 2012

Wandering between worlds

Here’s three more reposted poems with a bit more comment. In one way or another they’re all about travelling between worlds. “The Immigrant” has left his old country for a new one, but although he tries, he cannot leave behind the old country in his mind. “Expedition” is about a scientific exploration, but as the poem progresses, it seems they may be travelling through more than semi-desert. “Fathers” is more or less about the formal settling (rather than foundation) of the Christian religion, but implies a need to be in contact with what could be called two worlds in addition to the material one.


The immigrant adjusts his hat

Squints at the unfamiliar words

Tests the new land with his shoe

Some casual abuse

Is partly understood

The hat is wrong but not the shirt.

Wrapped in the now familiar streets and shops

Handling the hard language less well than he thinks

He seems to be at home

A diligent Roman

Following the new-found rules

But then a haunting tune, words said in drink,

Recall a half-remembered clouded place

That maybe never was

It’s hard to say

Easier to drive the thoughts away

Than enter that unbounded space.

I was thinking particularly of a Jewish immigrant to England from Eastern Europe around the beginning of the twentieth century, but this could be almost any immigrant, especially if his clothes and manner, rather than his basic physical appearance, pick him out from the locals and if he faces some dislike and abuse. The poem is quite naturalistic. The immigrant is trying to fit in and quite expects the locals to be hard to please. He makes good progress. But at the end we find he has a yearning for his homeland, though the picture of it he now has in his head may not accurately represent how it was or is.


It is a long way home from this last camp

We have found the inland sea we planned to find

Though it is smaller than we always thought

And seems to shrivel in the relentless sun.

We found some creatures that were good to eat

And others that entranced our sand-sore eyes

With the incredible sheen of many feathers.

We did not, though, catch fish in this strange sea;

The water is unpleasant to the tongue

Though in the crumbling rocks up this low hill,

Here on the spiny bushes warted slope,

Our cook found this strange scaly fossil that

Must once have been a fish when the sea was higher.

On this loose stone strewn hilltop overlooking

This sparkling sea, we have seen the stumps of trees

And we have heard the comments of our keen

Geologist: these pebbles are black glass

Incredible heat has forged them out of sand

But there is too much here to understand

We are returning what we’ve missed

We will leave this silent land.

On the way back we have kept these chiselled samples,

Relying on the streams we passed and used

On the way out: but now the streams seem smaller

And here is one that has dried to windblown sand.

These yellow fruits resist the hungry teeth

With a tough skin but a sharp knife will do it:

Inside is watery pulp and teasing sugars.

Finally we straggle to the crest from where

You can see the singing valley we started from

Thunder beats a dry drum

But the trees and houses are gone.

The spark for this was reading about early exploration of the Australian hinterland and the irrational fixed idea the early explorers had that a vast inland sea must lie in the interior. My explorers set off from a settlement through dry and inhospitable land and do indeed find an inland sea, but a dead and declined one. They find evidence that it was once much bigger.

They set off for home again but the land which just about supported them on the outward journey has now changed through a rapid desertification and when they arrive back where they started, there is no sign of the settlement. The implication is that they have travelled through time as well as space. In this poem I use the sound of words a lot to convey extra meaning: seems to shrivel in the relentless sun; spiny bushes warted slope (ie, the slope warted with spiny bushes); must once have been a fish when the sea was higher; these yellow fruits resist the hungry teeth.


A congress of the faithful ruled

That heresy, this solid right

The darkness was defined and named

They drew the boundaries of light

But in the dark a light still shone

And in the land of constant light

The forests shrivelled, streams ran dry

Until the coming of the night.

Christians particularly use the image of light to stand for the positive, loving, “enlightened”, seeing. The implication is that the dark is a dark of ignorance, danger and evil. This is powerful imagery, but awkward for someone who loves actual dark as much as light. The yin/yang symbol comes to mind and also Jungian psychology: the relationship between dark and light is creative and attempts to abolish the dark are disastrous. I recognise that the dark as I envisage it may not be the dark someone like St Paul or George Fox referred to. They may have been using “dark” as a metaphor for something quite different. But in this poem I suggest that defining and abolishing the dark led to aridity until the valuable light was reconnected with the dark.

That’s it, folks

Copyright Simon Banks 2012

Images and Symbols

I want to think and talk a bit about images and symbols. I’m posting this on my poetry blog and not on sibathehat on blogspot, so I see this as leading hopefully to some perceptions about images in poetry, but I’m going to start by looking at some images outside the literary world in the hope this will shed some light.


In Britain there are three major or fairly major political parties operating across Britain (Northern Ireland mostly has its own local parties). They all have badges or logos which are extensively publicised.


Symbols or badges in politics are nothing new. The first in England, as far as I know, were the sea-green ribbons worn by Levellers during the Civil War and early Cromwellian period and revived by the Whigs of Charles II’s reign (in other words, mid to late 17th century). As far as I know, no-one else wore ribbons then as a mark of political allegiance, so you could argue that the ribbon AND its colour stood for the political movement; but by the 18th century rosettes (descended from the ribbons) were in wide use and the message was conveyed by the colour. In the early 19th century, for example, Byron wrote in a poem “I still keep my buff and blue”, meaning he was a Whig at a time when the Tories (using red) were in the ascendent. By the late 19th century Liberals (mainly descended from the Whigs) mainly used yellow, and Conservatives (Tories) blue. The Labour Party, when it rose in the early 20th century, used red, which had socialist and revolutionary connotations.


So here’s one point of interest: a colour itself can have a figurative meaning. Red = action, strength, warmth, but also danger and conflict; blue = safety and coolness (even though in the U.S. the POLITICAL meaning of these colours is reversed); green (as in the Green Party) = nature, restfulness (it’s the most restful background colour) and life. So mention of a colour in a poem might not be a straightforward description, but might indicate a mood, or danger, renewed life, or whatever. Also some of these meanings may be hard-wired into all humans, but others are culturally determined: red among Chinese suggests good fortune and prosperity, while white in south-east Asia generally is the colour of death (as black is among Westerners) and is not, I think, associated with purity.


The Labour Party used to have a torch (enlightenment, education, leading people somewhere, but a bit dangerous) but now has a red rose. The red appeals to Labour traditions, but a red rose is a powerful and common image in literature and painting. It can mean sexual experience as opposed to the virginal and pure white rose (not, I think, what Labour had in mind) but it is also a traditional image of England with any number of references to the English rose: an “English rose” is usually an attractive English girl, but English rugby players have red roses on their shirts and Rupert Brooke wrote, comparing England and Germany, “There roses grow as they are told/ Unkept about these hedges blows/ An English unofficial rose”. The rose suggests attractiveness and tradition, but is not a very dynamic image (roses, after all, stay still unless they’ve been cut). There was also another problem for Labour: the rose being a traditional ENGLISH image, it annoyed Welsh people and even more, Scots.


So use an image in poetry, as in politics, and you can find others reading things into it you may not want. Tough.


The Liberal Democrats (descended from the Liberals mainly) made do without an image for a long time, though their striking orange and black posters were widely recognised (dynamic, distinctive, but if it was an insect it would have a sting), but more recently adopted a stylised bird known as “the bird of Liberty”. The image is a bit complicated (perhaps not instantly recognisable as a bird and also a bit like the Barclay’s Bank symbol) but it does look dynamic – the bird appears to be in motion and birds can mostly fly. As a symbol of liberty, change and independence it’s quite effective. It could have been a more naturalistic bird, but then it might have been unhelpfully associated with particular kinds of bird (pigeon or crow, not always popular, duck or sparrow, slightly ridiculous; hawk – definitely not). So here’s another link to poetry: make your image vague and it may confuse people; make it very specific and it may carry associations too specific for your meaning. If there’s an unfortunate subliminal message, it’s that the bird looks just a bit disorganised and more than a bit like it’s just been blasted with a shotgun.


At one time both Labour and the Conservatives were using torches as symbols. The red Labour one was tilted at a dynamic but possibly unsafe angle and the blue Conservative one stood safely, uprightly but slightly boringly upright. The Conservatives ditched that in favour of an oak tree. At this time their new leader, one David Cameron, was trying to present them as an environmentally-friendly party, and they are strong in rural areas and the “leafy suburbs”, so choosing a native British plant (shown in summer with a green, leafy top) made sense. So it suggested nature. The oak, like the rose, is a very old English symbol associated with the Royal Navy, but it doesn’t have quite the English nationalist tinge the red rose has and Wales has famous and extensive oakwoods (the Scots have a few oaks too, though they cut most of them down). So the symbol suggests traditions, as Labour’s does and the Liberal Denocrat one doesn’t. Oaks are solid, safe (relatively) and long-lived. Like the Liberal Democrat one (but not Labour’s) it’s stylised and might puzzle people for a moment. Probably the biggest unintended message is that Conservatives are thick, immobile and rather boring. That may not matter much except that a party symbol suggesting immobility (more strongly than Labour’s) may be a minus.


Used in a poem other than straightforwardly to describe the wildlife of an oakwood, mention of an oak by an English poet might suggest national pride (“hearts of oak”), age, tradition or solidity, but modern urban, computer-attached Britons don’t mostly think much about trees, less than they think about birds or flowers. So – another thing for the poet to consider. Is your chosen image widely understood and does it hit a gong, a bell or something much les noisy? There, I was using images and ran into a problem because I couldn’t think of something insignificant you could hit to produce a very slight noise. Well, I can, any number, but U.K. libel law is notoriously friendly to the supposedly libelled.


More perhaps on images some other time.



Crossing Borders

As I’m less than a week back in England from Hungary, it seems quite timely to resurrect a poem called “Passport”. As I’ve done before, I’m saying a bit more about this poem than I did first time round. If that invades your readerly purity to make what you like of the thing – you had the chance. It was already posted. So there.

This poem is a kind of extended metaphor. The second one is lyrical and philosophical (have I put you off yet?) and the third is very simple, a succession of a few images without explanation (until now). So here goes.


Half down a long smooth corridor I turned to check

Who I was supposed to be meeting, what I should plead

As the purpose of my visit, length of stay,

And my destination. But there was no-one to ask.

So I just carried on

Hoping someone would tell me, or I’d find a clue

In the codes on my documentation

Or the false heel of a shoe

Anyway, they let me in

Stamping my passport with “indefinite stay”

And then I wandered round the streets making notes

And taking photos to elucidate

What I should do and who I was.

Finally I’ve come to a door

That looks familiar, and the signs on it, though damaged,

Could be a reference to shining shores

Where travellers in the past have managed

To find a boat, to watch the moving oars.

Obviously I’m using the image of a traveller going through passport control, probably at an airport. But it’s unlikely a real traveller, unless (s)he had Alzheimer’s or something similar, would arrive at the border not knowing why (s)he was entering the country or how long the stay might be. I suggest this is actually a person being born and developing self-awareness, asking what (s)he is here for and aware both of some idea of a previous existence and of the destination or gate called death.

I play with familiar images – the information missing might be encoded on a document or (in the worlds of spies and smugglers) hidden in a false bottom.

The person arrives (given an “indefinite stay” as we all are) and wanders round trying to make sense of the world and his or her situation. Finally, he or she arrives at a door which seems decayed and damaged but which may lead to a boat which will take him or her to other shores (an old image for death), as is going through a door.

The sense that I’m here FOR something but I’m not sure what is one very real to me.

Note that the vocabulary I’ve used here is simple and everyday except for official words familiar from immigration and passport control.


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.

Like “Wolf”, this is a poem which reproduces a conversation between two voices. I’ve tried to reflect this by layout but don’t know if this will work on thi site. One voice is more critical of rationality and science than the other.

What am I trying to say? I’m not rejecting science or rationality, but saying we need more to be complete. We’ve engineered and analysed out all the myths and fears, only to find them returning in more destructive form (“the sabre-toothed beasts…the giant wings”. We’ve exterminated the dangerous beasts, but we are not safe. Do you find the line “I can tell when a star will disappear” sad? I’m fascinated by astronomical science, but our reaction to stars cannot be encompassed in it. Did Western civilisation lose as well as gain at the Renaissance and Enlightenment?


Dark shape of a man against the drifts of white

The pale watching lights on concrete walls

The crump of boots in the untrodden snow

The short scream of an owl in the hidden wood.

No lights show in the sky, but the steady throb

Of a heavy heaving plane in the opaque air;

The dogs begin to bark; a light goes out.

This last poem contains images suggestive of war and oppression. With my background, it suggests to me the Second World War, prisoner of war camps and concentration camps. An atmosphere of menace is built up by apparently neutral images, the short scream of an owl (or a person?) and the invisibility of the heavy plane overhead. When the light goes out, is that just a switch being pressed, or a death?

Like a lot of poems rich in images and little else, it reads as if it were heavily influenced by the experience of watching TV and films, but it does something these more rushed and immediate media struggle to do – except perhaps there is something of Hitchcock in the poem.

Copyright Simon Banks 2012

Of course, no-one, not even the “writer”, can “know” what the poem “means”, but still…

…academics can tie themselves in some fascinating knots and, it is even rumoured, disappear up their own theories.

Here’s some more commentary on poems I’ve already posted:


The fruit slipped ripe into the hand

The hunting hard, but always good,

The trees made shade to sleep within

That was the Eden we once knew


They say. Then a hard awkward seed, hard won

Out of a rasping husk whispered to Eve:

I am a million. You’ll be rich

Your children’s children will be many.

She took the seed and planted it.


The trees were felled, the game was killed

The seed told truth, but the new life

Was sweating hard, and then the rains

That always held back, always came

Did not come. Eden’s loss

Could not have been through a grass seed,

And so it was a snake instead.

I’ve long had a theory (which may well be wrong) that the myth of the Garden of Eden, which apparently has similar versions in other traditions than the Jewish, reflects the transition from a hunter-gatherer to an agrarian lifestyle. This first happened, it seems, in present-day Turkey, not at all far from Israel.  Hunter-gatherers existed in very small numbers, but their diet was varied, their tasks and life quite varied too, and in places where food was abundant they had plenty of spare time. Agriculture allowed much bigger and more settled communities to develop, which tended to be more hierarchical and to have a quite limited diet, with a huge amount of time taken up by repetetive tasks such as grinding corn. Moreover, some of the easiest places to farm were vulnerable to over-farming and becoming unsuitable for crops quite quickly, and loss of tree cover to make space for fields and villages may well have contributed to reduction of rainfall. Of course, agriculture was the future and necessary for cililisation, but it will have seemed a hard transition to many and might well be reflected negatively in myth.

In this poem, Eve is the first farmer. She sees the potential of the edible grass-seed. The result is the desertification of the Garden of Eden. The farmers cannot face the truth of what they’ve done, so create a myth of the evil snake leading Eve astray.


In the eternal city

Brilliantly planned

The pavements stretch forever

Covered, smooth, safe

Here and there the off-white

Changes to mid-grey

Or the palest of yellows

Interesting, bland


The planning is now wiser

The people aren’t dwarfed

Turned into clumsy figures

Unruly shape and smell

Now they fit in

Piazzas or plazas

Though someone cries in them

Are welcoming


Underneath the pavements

Coursing, unseen,

Suppressed creek and stream

And the bones of sea-monsters

Turning, not quite dead,

Swim into dream.

I suppose this poem is about urban landscapes and town planning, and behind that, our wish to control and belief that we control when we don’t, as well as maybe the fragile victory of the rational, conscious mind over the unconscious and the spiritual. The “eternal city” is not Heaven, but an idea of urban landscapes lasting forever. It’s well-planned, to do it justice, and ought to be comfortable. Dangers have been eliminated (reflected by the soft colour tones). “Piazzas or plazas” – same word in Italian or Spanish, meaning a town square) have been planned in to encourage people to mix and have fun.  But people are left unsatisfied. One who cries may not be comforted. Suppressed undercurrents survive unrecognised, things we thought we’d done away with – and they can emerge.

Be specific

Recently I got into an on-line debate, which at times became a little sharp, about whether poems could come fully formed into the world without need for revision, or whether revision was always required. I do revise my poems, but usually on very small points, and was concerned to question an implication that high-quality, serious, “professional” poems must emerge from a process of revision, since some of my best published poems did nothing of the sort. I think with the help of others in the discussion we reached a degree of common ground.

The person I was debating this with, a lecturer, poet and editor, made a number of very useful points about common faults in poetry and how to improve work. I thought this very helpful and agreed with most, but had reservations, which I expressed, about her advice to be specific. She gave the example of referring without description to a fish. I suggested that a fish could be a symbol (like the Christian fish symbol) or could appear in a dream – and only fishermen dreamed about chub or rudd. That seems quite a good line, so I might use it some time. She had a point, though, and it got me thinking. I pursued this by two examples, one prose and one poetry.

Let’s say someone writes, “He carried her limp, lifeless body back into the house and laid it gently on the cherrywood table.” I’d suggest that telling us the table was cherrywood distracts from what should be the centre of our attention, the man and the body. We shouldn’t be paying much attention to the table at this point. It would be different, though, if the woman had remarked earlier to the man with delight that the table was cherrywood and it reminded her of one in her parents’ home. If the table was topped with green baize, though, this would give us a powerful visual image especially if combined with our awareness that the woman was dressed in a contrasting colour such as white or red. It still might be best, though, to concentrate on the human tragedy.

Now here’s a verse from a poem of dreamlike quality. Let’s see if being more specific and helping the reader to see things more vividly helps. I apologise that I couldn’t preserve the rhyme or scansion of the original. I also apologise if I misquote, because I’m quoting from memory.


O, what can ail thee, wretched knight

Alone and palely loitering?

The sedge is withered from the lake

And no birds sing.

Now the improved version, more specific in description:


O, what can ail thee, wretched, short, broad-shouldered knight with a hooked nose,

Alone and palely loitering, repeatedly walking a few steps up and down?

The pale brown sedge is withered from the calm, shallow, kidney-shaped lake

And no birds sing within half a mile.



By the slow-flowing river running full

I saw a soldier slump and slide

By the old ruined farmhouse wall

I smelt the smell of burning oil


If I have trouble to tell a dream

And dreams invade the dreamless land

Nothing is quite what it once seemed

The water wavers, soil is sand.


Here’s an example of the recurring images I talked about a little while ago. In fact, it’s not just an image but a phrase: “Dreams invade the dreamless land”. It came to me, I included it in a poem, then another poem – I just felt I hadn’t fully worked out the riches of the words.