Great lines!

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Don’t quite know why I chose that photo for this post. It looks good. It looks mysterious. Good poetry is sometimes mysterious. A false syllogism is lurking here somewhere.

It’s a picture of a blue moon. Good poetry comes once in a blue moon? Anyway.

I thought I’d post a few of the lines of poetry I most admire and love, that excite me most. Not precisely one line each, because natural snippets may be less than a whole line or as much as five-and-a-half lines. I’ll not give the name of the poet right away and see if you can get any of the names right (by sure knowledge or guess) WITHOUT GOOGLING THE QUOTE, AND THAT MEANS YOU, SIMPKINS! Then we can return to them and maybe discuss why they’re so good or why they’re not good. So here goes.

1: In theory they were sound on Expectation

Had there been situations to be in.

Unluckily, they were their situation.

2: Wiry and white-fiery and whirlwind swivelled snow

Spins to the widow-making, unchilding unfathering deeps.

3: With beaded bubbles winking at the brim

And purple-stained mouth

4: The earth of shells and friends is covered in flowers.

5: Far, far around shall those dark-clustered trees

Fledge the wild-ridged mountains steep by steep

6: though now it seems

As if some marvellous empty sea-shell flung

Out of the obscure dark of the rich streams

And not a fountain, were the symbol which

Shadows the inherited glory of the rich.

7: Neither the magical smith nor the carver

Of mythical fish on soft stones will answer a call.

8: But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make

Of beaten gold and gold enamelling

9: Cold blows the wind on my true love

And a few small drops of rain

I never knew but one true love

And in greenwood he was slain.

10: It came to me on the Nile my passport lied,

Calling me dark who am grey

11: I saw Willie Mackintosh burn Auchendoon.

12: Remember me to God

And tell him that our politicians swear

They won’t give in till Prussia’s rule’s been trod

Under the heel of England…are you there?

Oh, and the war won’t end for at least two years,

But we’ve got bags of men.

12: Life, like a dome of many-coloured glass

Stains the white radiance of eternity

Until death shatters it to fragments

OK – comments are welcome.

Suggest who the poets are and maybe even name the poems

Give us some of your own favourite lines

Say something about the lines I’ve chosen!

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Snape Poetry Festival

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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.

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Mildly Irregular

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Spirit Mountain

 

“Said to be haunted”

“Source of strength and madness”

Alone on the night mountain

I wait, curious.

 

Screeches and groans

Tear the night, only I

Know they’re ravens

Not demons.

 

Harbour lights, town lights, wandering

Headlights shine and

Are gloved into mist

 

Pale flame of sunrise

Seascape afire

Ghosts? Then within us

 

But a trickle of

Welsh blood speaking:

Perhaps in the soil

Out of time, sleeping.

That was the poem that started me writing poetry again.  Note that it isn’t regular in any conventional sense: it doesn’t rhyme and although the rhythm is such as to make it easy to read aloud, it doesn’t follow a set pattern. So this is free verse?

Not entirely. Notice how similar-sounding words are spaced out – ravens/demons, speaking/sleeping and arguably (in the endings of two successive verses) mist/within us. The speaking/sleeping pair end the poem, giving it something of an air of finality and completion. It’s the first, exploratory verse that has no such links.

Here’s another.

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WOLF

 

Cry in the night

A wavering yearning wail

Remembered

 

The pack all know their part

The smell of sickening deer

Bloods their comradeship

Torn flesh is life

 

Wolf dreams the voices in the leaves

The running of a long-lost mate

The tumbling play of cubs and then

Midwinter snowlock, icy breath

 

Fairytale devil

Hiding in homely things

Better to eat you, dear

Ravenous, clever

 

A chalice for our wish to kill

For rape and for rebellion

To turn the world right upside down,

Of chaos, and the homeland’s milk

Of law and lace for all time spilt

 

Wolves ride our dreams

In each dark wood

A half-remembered beast

Down each sharp slope

They wait, or wander like the wind

To fall on anywhere they wish;

The fearful grope

Of climber on the alp falls short

Because the wolf waits just beyond

But at his fall the wolf will stand

And soon have sport

 

A child is missing

Sheep are torn

A travelling brother never comes

Folk knew the wolf must be the cause

 

So hunted it with dog and gun

Until one lonely wolf was left

Searching for any of its kind

Into a trap and hung to rot

 

So who had killed the lost child now?

Some human wolves must roam the night

And must be burnt to break the curse

 

To wolves the random rage of men

Is like a maddened hurricane

That picks this up and sets this down

Safety and death in hands of clown

 

That wail again: no devils of dream

Unearthly through the forest stream,

But wolfpack hunting in the night

And not a tiger burning bright.

There are a number of pairs of similar-sounding words here (leaves/breath, devil/clever and the actual rhyme short/sport) but it’s significant that rhyme or near-rhyme comes in when the poem reaches a greater intensity in the fifth verse (milk/spilt to end the verse) and at the very end ( men/hurricane, down/clown and finally night/bright, imitating William Blake’s epigrammatic style to disagree with him). The poem as a whole is irregular, but if all that remained of it was the last two verses, people would think this was a fragment of a regular poem.

I do this to create a sense of coming together and intensification as the poem progresses. It usually happens without conscious planning: as my mental state intensifies, I find myself rhyming and using more regular metre.

Third and last:

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ESTUARY

 

The church is early 12th century. Some two miles from here

The Romans crossed the estuary by a ford

Now long impassable

The shades settle

 

I am confused by their weight, my questions muffled

By their insistent conversation

As though wings beat in dissonance, we struggle

 

Before they leave for the drowned land, the sky darkening,

One with a hidden face leaves me a thing

Carefully carved from wood, now pocked by seaworms living

 

I put it to my mouth, it makes a sound

And at the calling, all the shades turn round.

You can see the same thing happening here. The first verse is almost chatty, not weird at all except in the last line, and free of any such pairs of words. Then as the poem gets stranger there is a process of growing echoing: muffled/struggle; darkening/thing/living (which somehow doesn’t sound like rhymes) and finally, a rhymed couplet (sound/round).

I’ll come back to this and look at how poems can hide internal links and echoes.

copyright Simon Banks 2012 and 2013

 

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

An Imperious Poem

No, I don’t usually self-promote quite so blatantly. I’m punning as usual – or not quite punning, because the word “imperious” comes from the words for empire and emperor. An imperious voice is the kind of voice you’d expect an authoritative emperor to have.

This is a re-posting of just one poem because it’s a long one – called

EMPIRE

1

The empire’s heavy with scented blooms

A thousand scents, a thousand shapes

Umbellifer and ornate lily

The darkest iris, palest rose

The old Recorder of the Flowers

Each month in leather and brass bound book

Records the new varieties

The rich museums have many rooms.

The empire sings a thousand songs

Each city sang a different tune

Last year, each temple has its own.

The imperial gardens’ vibrant birds

Cannot outsing ten thousand choirs

The Emperor hears each song that flowers

Remembers one his mother sang:

Though blurred with power and wine, he longs.

The book of all the empire’s guards,

The armies, fortresses and fleets,

Defeats the sourest minister

Who’d number them and set their place

The sun on ranks of helmets shines

And blinds the eyes of tired bards.

The queen is in her carven tower

With silver and ebony interwoven

With jumping deer and dolphins’ play

With measured mark of rose and clover

And all the screens that ring her bower

Show everything that grows and dies,

The struggle of a sandy farm,

A somnolent priest’s ingenious lies,

Regiments changing hour by hour.

2

A restless baby cries as though

It never cried before, the cock

That rules a servant’s smallholding

Triumphant marks the dawn’s return.

The bells sound out from tower to tower

Seas in the dawn may seem to burn

To those without the power to know.

The clocks grind slow, sand on the wind

Has clogged them, the astronomer

Has lost the stars in clouds of dust

The birds sing less, the attentive guards

Along the watchtowers of the walls

In sandstorms see the ghosts of men

In dust devils the shaking heads

Of trampling horses of the dead

And nothing when the blur has thinned.

The famished horsemen, lifeless shacks,

The starving women, rag-held bones,

The baglike carcases of goats

The drying up of ancient wells

In the uncounted and unflowered lands

Reported by the empire’s spies

And clients set moving old replies

The walls grow thicker, more patrols

Search for the early warning cracks.

The warning sirens came too late

The mechanisms were at fault.

The gates did not shut as they should

In just one section of the line.

The desperate barbarians swarm

Through corridors rising rivers of blood.

And through the crumbling walls of thought

The tangling of all intricate forms

Of gold and music crushed, a roar

Rises: the unformed world’s in spate.

3

The gardens are all overgrown

The bells are silent; silent cage

Abandoned where the bird once sang

Is crushed with buckle, bugle, crown

And all that rose up high is down.

The children play with sceptre and skull

A rose ascends the temple wall

The smallholding is burnt, and burnt

The servant of the emperor’s will

This wonderful lady’s smile is fixed

Her sparkling brooch is grown dull.

The queen still sits in living tower

The images of deer and dance

Still play on all the watchful screens

Comforting the wondering queen

With aching song and shimmering flower,

But nothing outside the tower survives

That she would dare to recognise

And nothing is seen but dust and death

By all its hundred thousand eyes.

4

The wandering girl has found a thing

Untwisted, goes around her wrist

And polished, sparkles in the light;

The wandering girl begins to dance

And as the tower crumbles down

The wandering girl begins to sing.

This paints a picture of a rich empire full of marvellous art. It’s at peace, it’s governed in an orderly fashion and its inhabitants seem to be quite prosperous. This isn’t a history or sociology book, of course: any rich civilisation has its poor and its power-struggles. So you could say this is not a real empire.

The empire is protected by great walls and many soldiers. Outside the walls are poorer, less fertile lands and barbarian tribes who present a threat to the empire, though if the walls hold the threat is minimal. The empire does not appear to exploit the barbarians, but it does not help or benefit them.

Something changes – apparently the weather, perhaps a failure of rains, so the lands of the empire are clogged with dust. Outside its walls the effect is much worse and people starve. The imperial authorities predict that this will lead to invasion attempts and strengthen the defences. Something in the defences doesn’t work and the empire is overthrown in a bloodbath. All its culture is destroyed.

At the end in the figure of the wandering girl who finds an old bracelet and who dances, we find the beginnings of new culture.

A central figure is the queen. I realise she should be the empress, but maybe they had queens too! She is a mysterious figure, unlike the realistic emperor. She lives in an enchanted (or hight-tech) tower where she sees everything that is happening, but with a bias towards beauty. When the empire collapses and its people die, she does not see that at all and the outdated pleasant images continue, though perhaps she is suspicious. When the wandering girl dances, the tower collapses. I don’t want to interpret this too much, but the collapse of the tower, the old beauty, marks the beginning of the new beauty.

Technically the poem is an experiment. With slight variations, each line is of eight syllables, with a stressed syllable following an unstressed one – a traditional metre good for telling a story. However, although the stanzas (or whatever you call them) are of varying length, the opening and closing lines rhyme in every case.

I’ve played with the sound of some quite long and uncommon words here – umbellifer, ornate, imperial, somnolent – which I think expresses the complex culture of the empire.

Of course the collapse of the empire could be other things – the death of an artist, the fall of a tree, a surge of unconscious urges into an ordered, rational world (suggested by “the unformed world’s in spate”).

As someone politically fairly left, instinctively sympathising with the dispossessed, I guess this is about the most favourable portrait of an empire I’ve done. I do show its fall as a tragedy, but not a tragedy without a hopeful ending, and I think the poem makes the point that the empire is collectively selfish. I think I’ve been influenced by Yeats’ idea of and portrayal of Byzantium.

This is, I think, my second longest poem and my own view is that it shows a long poem can keep up intensity.

 

Copyright Simon Banks 2012

The Meaning of Life is 43

It was 42, but we’ve improved it.

As for the meaning of these poems, well, this is as likely as anything.

I’m continuing to reblog some poems with a bit more discussion.

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 refers to the English Civil War. Actually there were conflicts within and between all of England, Scotland and Ireland in the 1640s and 1650s, but the voice of this poem is an English one.

A “forlorn hope” was a term for a small unit of cavalry, but of course in the poem it has two meanings.  The “Good Old Cause” was a name used for their cause by supporters of Parliament, continuing long after the Civil War: “That Good Old Cause, in which I was from my youth brought up…” (speech on the scaffold by Sidney of the Rye House Plot against Charles II).  The first verse contains the mainstream Parliamentary idea that the King was subject to the laws, not standing above them, but also the more readical idea that spread during the war among the Parliamentary soldiers and others, that the People were sovereign. This was often associated with the idea that the English people had been conquered in 1066 by foreign oppressors and the kings and great lords since then were the descendants, spiritual if not necessarily genetic, of those foreign conquerors – so the Civil War was a war of national liberation – hence the “Norman yoke” at the start of the second verse.

Levellers and other radicals felt they had won the war but then been betrayed by the senior officers and MPs, though they, of course, mostly had less radical ideas all along. Cromwell and others weer christened “the Grandees”.

The third verse refers to the Restoration of the monarchy. It seemed to many that all they had fought for had been lost, or at least postponed. Many of the radical ideas, though, were not lost: for example, the American Declaration of Independence and the American constitution have many echoes of Leveller beliefs and their draft constitution for England, “The Agreement of the People”.

 

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.

 

This poem describes climbing a small, steep valley in the hills to a watershed and seeing lower land beyond. It can be taken quite literally and was heavily influenced by two actual places, Black Sail Pass in the Lake District and a route over a watershed in Torridon in the North-west Scottish Highlands. However, it can be taken to describe any exploration, any effort to discover or achieve something new.

 

The climber thought there must be a valley on the far side of the heights. The mystic thought there must be another world. The valley on the far side could even be another human being.

 

This is a poem where I’ve made a lot of use of the sound of the words: the broken impatient river, the shattered smoothing rocks, the hiss and sparkle, the low glittering lake. I stretch the bounds of scansion and use near-rhymes (monument/inconsistent; trickle/sparkle; still/hills).

 

Copyright Simon Banks 2012

To Rhyme or not to Rhyme

To rhyme or not to rhyme, that is the question:

Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer,

Seeking a rhyme for rhythm or for orange

Or to throw rhymes into the sea untroubled

And write free verse forever. Rhymes are for sheep.

No, but the poem without rhyme may drift

And if we seek to give the thing some shape,

Half-rhyme, alliteration, ordered feet,

Internal rhymes, those clever diamond shapes

May drive us mad. To rhyme is not too hard

But maybe trite and most unfashionable

But what’s unfashionable now may shortly be

The very latest thing – so I don’t know.

 

The question of whether to rhyme or not keeps coming up on LinkedIn poets’ groups and opinion seems fairly evenly divided. Most poets who have a clear answer for themselves don’t try to force it down the throats of other poets, but some do, believing unrhymed poetry is an abomination or that rhyme went out, out, out, at some unspecified point in the fairly recent past.

 

Both these ideological positions are rubbish. Some excellent poems continue to be written with rhyme and others without. In the U.S. particularly there seems to be a belief held by a significant minority that rhyme is outmoded, but good modern poets like Roger McGough and Benjamin Zephaniah continue to use it at least some of the time.

 

I guess I use regular rhyme in about one third of my poems. In some of the others, there is no rhyming scheme, but as the poem gathers force and coherence, rhymes begin to appear.

 

I do believe that a poem should be held together as an entity by some kind of pattern or glue, but that need not be a pattern found in any formula. I find that when I do not use a regular rhyming scheme I generally tie the poem together with internal rhymes (rhymes within the lines rather than ending them), half-rhymes, alliteration and other means. This I do unconsciously and naturally as I compose.

 

Not all cultures have used rhyme regularly. Anglo-saxon poetry, for example, relies on alliteration and scansion. But if those had continued to be the main organising principles, people would now be glorying in abandoning them.

 

Many bad poets produce bad rhymes. Many people who dabble in poetry have no understanding of rhythm (scansion) but believe a poem should rhyme, and produce forced rhymes which sound faintly ridiculous. This is probably one reason why rhyming poetry may suffer a slight disadvantage. But I’ve found my rhyming poems have had about the same level of success (getting published) as the unrhymed ones.

 

Apart from giving a poem an obvious structure, then, why may it be a good idea to rhyme? Rhyme is brilliant for irony, the neatness of the rhyme contrasting with the controlled anger of the poet. Some rhyming shemes, like ABBA, throw a lot of emphasis on to the last line – and if you can write last lines that stand the stress, the rhymes make them stand out more like the last line of an orator’s speech spoken much louder to stick in memories. The danger, of course, is that a weak line then sounds horribly bathetic. The neat predictability of the structure can be used to highlight by contrast something very different, chaos, anguish, injustice. Rhyme plus rhythm in a ballad-like form can achieve a kind of mesmerising force like an incantation.

 

But not rhyming not only avoids those mind-wringing halts searching for a rhyme, but can bring out natural shapes and patterns as your organising mind searches for other organising principles. My advice is – let both come.

 

Apparently anything can be poetry, so it seems safe to say this is

So it’s important and you ought to look at it seriously. OK, I’m being ironic: putting something boring, uninspired, mannered or prancingly self-indulgent in short lines in a nice shape and calling it poetry and art doesn’t make it any more worthy of attention than anything else anyone writes or says.

 

Still, you might find these interesting – more re-posted poems with discussion. Do join in!

 

SPRING MIGRANTS

 

When the pack ice cracks

When hostile green shoots break through the hard earth

Snow whisks off like a white sheet to reveal

Grassy mound, ruin, bare rock or field

The wanderers’ ship will come

Taking soundings slowly

They will unload their cattle, cloth and pulleys

Build their stony church and wooden houses

When the short days are lit by pallid snowfall

Only the white beasts roam the land again.

 

The strangeness of this poem is that it talks as if the changes of the seasons take place over many years. I suppose one influence was the Science Fiction series by Brian Aldiss (I think – I haven’t read it but have seen it referred to) on Helliconia, where each season lasts hundreds of years. Thus states and cultures could be adapted to a particular season and could die when the weather changed and people and other life-forms would carry out migrations not unlike those that happened when an ice age was beginning or ending. Another was a TV programme on the Norse settlement of Greenland, that flourished for a while but died out when the weather became long-term colder. Cattle, cloth, stone churches and wooden houses would fit the Norse culture of the time very well.

 

When the snow vanishes it reveals mounds and ruins, suggestive of earlier vanished settlements. When the snow and ice return, so do the “white beasts” (polar bears?).

 

LINKS

 

Sometimes if you stand in just this corner of the car-park

Soft fronds will caress your face from the yew-tree forest

That grew on the flattened hillside here; your hand stretching out will encounter

Twisted, hair-cracked and creviced roughened tree-trunks.

Sometimes a plastic bag will waft across like a ghost

Through the enchanted long-dead forest and out again.

 

 

Here where the stabilised ferry hums through grey-green waters

Under that crazy-angled floating box

The mastodon fell and was butchered, the people rested from hunting

Wolverine waited and watched and the warning snowflakes

Silently fell on the skins and the lichens and lips.

 

 

The exiled unbroken woman drops a stone in the glade

That she found on the shore where the boat bumped in and grounded

Her feet make a pattern like a broken necklace

Through the green grass and unfolding ferns and last year’s leaves.

Perhaps she returned to the marks she left or even

Perhaps she will return when the old leaves grow green

And the order of things that we knew is thrown up in the branches

And falls in a different pattern we knew all along.

 

 

The poem describes two worlds existing in one place, with communication between the two possible. This idea is at the root of many myths from shamanistic beliefs to the European belief in “elfland”. Here, though, in the first verse it seems that one – the yew-tree forest – existed in the past. Since then the forest has been felled, the hill has been levelled and now there is a car-park, but the forest can still be reached.

 

The second verse describes a similar situation: where the ferry now ploughs through the sea (North Sea?) was once land where humans, mastodons and wolverines existed. I may be unhistorical here as I gather European mastodons died out before they encountered humans, unlike American ones. The “warning snowflakes” may warn of a snowstorm or of a new advance of ice.

 

The third verse is less clear. There is no longer a distinction between the past and the present of a location. An exiled woman has landed, has left marks and may return. The woman seems to be some kind of messenger or to have magic powers (but maybe that’s a way of seeing all of us).  There is again something strange happening with time because the old leaves will grow green, as though time is reversing (but this could also mean when the rotted old leaves turn into green new ones in spring). At the end is the suggestion that the way we understand things, the pattern, will be fundamentally altered into a new pattern that we somehow already suspected.

 

This poem uses a lot of alliteration (sometimes, stand, soft; wolverine, waited, watched, warning) and achieves effect by the sound of the words: contrast the soft sounds of the first two lines with the harsh sounds of the fourth, conveying the roughness of yew bark – or the way “bumped in and grounded” suggests the thump and grind of a small boat grounding.

 

copyright Simon Banks 2012

 

SEA MIST WITH RAIN

 

The sky in infinite shades of grey

Wraps the weather-quiet town

Cool-silenced Sunday afternoon.

Ships blur

To ominous, mysterious castles.

Over towards the point the mist is thicker.

 

As the blue side of a great ship, stacked high

With giant boxes coagulates from the mist

A veil of rain drives in.

 

And now a nice simple one! Everyday sights in a port become mysterious in the mist. It describes familiar sights for someone living as I do in the Harwich area, seeing ships coming in to Felixstowe and Parkeston from the North Sea. Again I’ve used alliteration (all the Ss and Ws in the first verse) and soft sounds to convey blurry mist and soft rain. The word “coagulates” for a large shape appearing from the mist is unusual, but I think apt.

 

And now I fancy a mug of tea. Back in a day or two.

 

 

 

What is Poetry?

I’ve seen it recently said on LinkedIn that it’s wrong to limit poetry through any kind of definition, wrong to say that anything isn’t poetry.

 

I understand the thinking behind this – and maybe at times I’ve been too willing to make absolute statements about poetry. But if anything can be poetry, why can’t anything be a telescope or a burp or an ideology? In which case, what’s the use of words?

 

Can a boiled egg be poetry? Yes, we might say a boiled egg was poetry if we particularly liked boiled egs, or were exceptionally hungry, or if the egg had been boiled to perfection (no easy task). But that would be a figure of speech, like saying it was a jewel or an angel. I submit that a boiled egg cannot be poetry, though it could have poetry written on it. Poetry is an art of words. For something to be a poem it needs words in it. In other words, it’s literature.

 

Two discussions I’ve seen have made a great deal of a poem by William Carlos Williams about a wheelbarrow, which was seen as revolutionary in America and perhaps had rather less impact in Britain. It’s a straightforward description of a wheelbarrow set out in poetic form. I’ll agree that’s a poem, though not one of my favourites, but what about this?

 

PROMOTING YOURSELF

 

Effective self-promotion tells

The market who you are and what

Service you offer. A first step

Should be to create

An individual portfolio

Of images tailored

To appeal to the target

Market.

 

(“Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook, 2012”: The Freelance Photographer, Ian Thraves)

 

Now why am I inclined to think this is not a poem? It’s set out like one. It starts with perceptible rhythm and ends with a half-rhyme. But it lacks intensity. It’s an ordinary wodge of prose text set out in short lines (in case the penny hasn’t dropped – I set it out like that). I’d suggest that any poem should be capable of making us stop and pay attention – should have an impact beyond the normal. I’d suggest also that the poem should at the very least be capable of being effective when read aloud. The roots of poetry are in songs and rhythmic chants, both of which can for example be heard at a football match. I personally believe poetry which loses this connection with sound, with meaning conveyed through sound, has lost a large part of what makes poetry special. The poem can be – I just hold back from saying should be – conveying a message both through the meaning of the words and through their sound.

 

What about Williams and the wheelbarrow? It seems to me what he was doing was fixing our attention on something apparently unimportant, just as a visual artist might put a pile of bricks or an unmade bed in an art gallery and in effect say, “Stop and look at this. It’s worth it.” And so it might be, though the effect on our life may be small, as we can’t react to everything we see in this intense and reverent way or we’d never get from one end of the street to the other. I’ll not question that this is art, though I’ll spend more time with Turner and Kandinsky, with Yeats and Hopkins, who are connecting the immediate to something profound and hidden.

 

Oh, and there is a word which includes something set out as poetry but lacking intensity or depth. It’s called verse.