Both one thing and another?

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

 

faceoff

 

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

 

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

 

SANDPIPER

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

WATERSHED

Did you see, there where the cloud broke
Between the high grey ridges an angled cleft
Roughly in line with the uneven river
Which might be a pass? A great bird soared over it
Now nothing shows but cloud and the warning of rain.

The broken impatient river carved the way
We leave the many-angled rocks behind
And the last twisted tree, the last glimpse of a roof;
And the hidden ravens call in the grey mist.
With cunning and husbanded strength
We drag from the circle of sweat to the circle of icy wind
Recovering from a slip is hard
Recovering from the task impossible.

There is never a point where you can say “that’s it”
No throne or light or monument
Only the slope is inconsistent
The shattered smoothing rocks lie in no order
There is no river
These barren pools are the only water

And then the ghost of a trickle
A few thin fingers feeling
Trying to come together, the hiss and sparkle:
We have passed the watershed
We have seen the birth
Of a new river.
Somewhere there is a new land
But it is hidden and the mist rolls in.

There is no warning
No sign, no new music
Just the realisation and the standing still
The dropping, blocking hills
The unknown, long suspected
Alien valley ahead
But half-familiar, like a dream
The hidden end
You feel you ought to remember.

The descent from the murderous heights
To the soft valley is always more dangerous
Than the struggling up:
The sight of meadows and bushes can lead like a mirage
To the eggshell-crushing fall
And the way to the low glittering lake
May be many miles round.

But at least the first task of the explorer
Seems to have been fulfilled
To show what he wanted to explore
Was there at all.
America is found
Mars glows dully but more clear
In the dark waters, something moves after all
Down the strange valley our suspected
Alive waters fall.

 

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

 

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

 

UNDERWATER

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

There’s a lot more to think about here…

 

 

 

 

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History seeps into poetry

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

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

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Trapped in the hills and hunted down

By hidden bog and avalanche

By haunting wind and wolf, survivors

Stumble beside a clattering stream

Down to the valley of their dream

 

Where cupping hands bring out bright gold

Trees offer fruit of no known tang

And vivid song as no bird sang

Wakens the travellers from the cold

 

They name the valley, import the skills

To mine the gold and lay the roads

Till someone heads for other hills.

 

When no dark ridge is left, the wise

Explore the forests of the mind

And stare in one another’s eyes

 

Now out of mist on broken lands

What new and treacherous hills will rise?

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

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STONE STEPS

 

They found some stone around this place:

The pale steps worn by constant feet

Are buried in the wiry grass

And no-one knows who walked on them.

 

One end is by the river bank;

No sign of other end is left.

Perhaps this curious find is best

Donated to the town museum,

 

But somehow it seems better still

To leave them where they worked and wore.

Maybe they’re still a bridge of sorts,

Though what to what no-one can guess.

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

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CITY

 

Something started here

For a reason: the river was fordable

The tracks of cattle drovers drew together

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

A governor found the distance from his palace

Just right for horses. Growth has a beginning.

 

Those origins are hidden, bulldozed, built on

Reinterpreted in guide-book and in myth

Slums and fine houses grow and are destroyed

The stonework of the bridge lies underwater

The factory’s become a heritage centre

From crumpled streets the tanners and the whores

Have gone but left their memories for a while

In street-names till some government

Dedicated to the pure and nice renamed them after

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

Old stinking alleys strangled for office blocks

Ghostly survive in sections of quiet close

Or shopping trolley dumps round parking lots.

 

The city forgets; flexes; reinterprets.

People are born and die, the language changes

Suburbs seep out. Some time the city will end

Inventiveness, sweat, tears, frescos swallowed up

Slipping into decline, houses left empty,

Grass in the streets, but here and there a core

Churning more slowly and uncertainly;

Or suddenly in a fire that by scorched shadows

Commemorates the impertinence of daily life.

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

In humps and ditches against the flow of land

By rumour, legend and a blackened buckle.

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

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Dust in marble halls, dust of marble halls

Ground jewels, rose roots strike

Lustre withers, slow-burning amethyst escapes

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

 

Out of the deathborn mud, worms rise

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

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

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

 

Poems and Treks

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

Here’s one for a start:

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WATERSHED

 

Did you see, there where the cloud broke

Between the high grey ridges an angled cleft

Roughly in line with the uneven river

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

Now nothing shows but cloud and the warning of rain.

 

The broken impatient river carved the way

We leave the many-angled rocks behind

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

And the hidden ravens call in the grey mist.

With cunning and husbanded strength

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

Recovering from a slip is hard

Recovering from the task impossible.

 

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

No throne or light or monument

Only the slope is inconsistent

The shattered smoothing rocks lie in no order

There is no river

These barren pools are the only water

 

And then the ghost of a trickle

A few thin fingers feeling

Trying to come together, the hiss and sparkle:

We have passed the watershed

We have seen the birth

Of a new river.

Somewhere there is a new land

But it is hidden and the mist rolls in.

 

There is no warning

No sign, no new music

Just the realisation and the standing still

The dropping, blocking hills

The unknown, long suspected

Alien valley ahead

But half-familiar, like a dream

The hidden end

You feel you ought to remember.

 

The descent from the murderous heights

To the soft valley is always more dangerous

Than the struggling up:

The sight of meadows and bushes can lead like a mirage

To the eggshell-crushing fall

And the way to the low glittering lake

May be many miles round.

 

But at least the first task of the explorer

Seems to have been fulfilled

To show what he wanted to explore

Was there at all.

America is found

Mars glows dully but more clear

In the dark waters, something moves after all

Down the strange valley our suspected

Alive waters fall.

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

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

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

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

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CROFT

 Here between the tumbled stones was the door:

Tired men passed seeking warmth, hot broth or a spade

Woman with a sickly baby in hope

The occasional visitor for a dram and stories.

Now the tourist wanders inside

The wet wind flails without a whimper.

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

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

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MOUNTAIN

 

Little grows here. A scratch of stunted grass

And one surprising flower almost hidden

Simple and small like man, one shrill small bird

Breaks from a tumble of rocks and disappears.

 

Everything starts from here. A drop of rain

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

Will join a field or a burial ground.

 

Standing alone here on a better day

You can see steeple, orchard, river, inn

A sharp blue lake with bare scree shores,

But touching nothing, all’s another land.

Now the false friend of cloud is sidling in

Whispering to forget the distant things

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

It’s time to go.

 

FOREST

 

From a distance you can see the tracks, well beaten

Or largely abandoned, curving to the edge

And disappearing in the forest cover.

(and later:)

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The curve and cleft of the land speaks of the river

Before you see it. Straggles of bush and tree

Mark out the living and the long-dead streams

That struggle towards the river.

(and later:)

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

In humps and ditches against the flow of land.

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

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

 

Travellers and Magicians

From time to time I re-post poems that appeared here some time back but with some discussion or explanation. When I post a poem for the first time I try to keep such added text very short or totally absent in order not to direct people’s reactions. But discussion of poets’ own poems seems to be quite rare on the blogosphere and many people welcome it.

The most recent such posts have chosen a theme such as time or right and wrong and selected three or so poems that illustrated different approaches. That’s hard to keep up if only because it gets very hard to remember which poems I’ve re-posted. Besides, choosing a theme like that can lead to bias or misrepresentation in how I talk about the poem. Imagine if Keats had blogged some of his poems, chosen “birds” as a topic and entered “Ode to a Nightingale” in it.

So here goes with two poems that are vaguely related and were written around the same time.

 

JOURNEYMAN

 

Some day the rain shall tell me I should leave

Or the shortening days set off a bell

Quiet at first, insidious in the blood

So I will pack

Searching the sky for clues

The distant shimmer and blur that might be rain

Glance at the house

And set out by a route that gradually

Creates itself but will not turn on itself

Though I don’t know the city at the end.

 

I am a journeyman, I learn my trade

From hints and shallow inscriptions on low stones

And from the linking of the bones.

 

I am used to wandering

I travel light, I know the signs

The questioning cat, the blackened oak

The broken bridge, the river in spate

The posts turned round, the embered fire

Light in the sky and razor wire.

 

And so the stages wait, or maybe indifferent

I mark them with my feet for a few minutes

But swimming with a river in the mind

I grope and stumble, being alive and blind.

 

 

The first thing is to explain what a journeyman was, especially as the word has come to mean an uninspired plodder. A journeyman was a young craftsman learning his trade by travelling around the country taking on jobs as he went, learning from established people in his craft. A “journeyman piece” of furniture, for example, would be like an apprentice piece – possibly very good, but likely to show mistakes the experienced skilled worker would not make.

So in this poem I (or the person speaking) see myself as a journeyman – of what? Of poetry? Of life? Some of the lines are really quite straightforward: for example, “a route that gradually/ Creates itself but does not turn on itself” = a route that is not pre-set, but emerges gradually as I make my way – and does not lead me back where I came from. The journeyman is not learning from seeing carpentry or ironwork done, but from signs that may seem magical along a route that seems rural. I’m not aware of any special significance to the signs I’ve specified. His journey is partly in his mind “swimming with a river in my mind” and he is “blind” – aware that many things are hidden from him.

 

OUTWARD BOUND

 

Only one vessel, outward bound,

You need not change your course.

The dead gull goes round and round,

Looking for the source.

 

The waves are broken on the wall

The angular land is blind

No salt invades the marbled hall

Nor sails in the mind.

 

The sun is shining as it shone

But the words you talk

Are bronze untaught, of Eden gone

And a broken hawk.

 

Only one vessel, outward bound,

Turning of the tide,

The unknown sea is lost and found,

The rolling sky is wide.

 

 

This one draws on an image from my then recent memory – seeing a dead gull going round and round in an eddy of an estuary. Like “Journeyman” it’s about journeying and leaving. The possibilities, fluidity and uncertainty of the sea are contrasted with the cut-and-dried land, especially in the second verse. Like “Journeyman” the tone is quite optimistic: I expect to go on the journey and find new things. There are lines here I can’t explain: they seemed to make sense when I was composing it! Maybe they do. “Bronze untaught”, for example: I have a feeling that meant something, but search me now! Note the extra syllable in a generally regular poem in “The angular land is blind”: this emphasises the gawky, hard word “angular” and hence what I’m saying about the land.

 

 

 

Danger: Loose Poems

Not loose in the sense of dissolute, but in the sense of a “loose cannon” (which is not a churchman of dubious morals).

 

From time to time I repost some poems with more explanation or discussion. Here goes.

 

SLEEPING

 

The beast in the mud has gone to sleep

It hasn’t moved for three years now

Only the wind makes shallow waves

Only the workmen shake the ground

 

I don’t think that the beast is dead

It’s slept for several years sometimes

But studies of the warning signs

Have not much helped predict the next

 

The sudden knowledge “this is it”

The change of shape, the sudden crack

The haunting song, the sense of loss

The settling fragments of the map.

 

I remember very well the circumstances of composing this poem: it began to come to me as I was driving back from Maldon to Harwich along a B road, quite twisty in places. Obviously I couldn’t stop to write it down, so I made up a few lines, repeated them to myself several times and then went on to invent more. By the time I got home I’d revised the poem as if I needed it for an exam.

 

The Beast reappears in similar forms in other poems, but here it’s clear that while destructive and frightening, it isn’t entirely negative. After its interventions the old order has been destroyed and a new one is forming. So what is the Beast? Chaos, the collapse of civilisations, death, mental breakdown or a mythical beast probably based on our ancestors’ experience of African predators? Maybe.

 

In this poem I use particularly everyday language to express something strange.

 

THE FLYING DUTCHMAN

 

You have a kind of faith I cannot share,

Thomas my saint, the doubt of a darkening sky my glory

And in the wonder of the half-heard things

I march on a stumbling track not for the faithful.

The Flying Dutchman is my dream

But in the end to reach another harbour

Insinuated by the alien forms

Brought on the currents from the unknown shore

Which even then I felt I knew before.

 

I suppose the subject of this is fairly obvious – religious faith and the possibility of life after death. Thomas was Jesus’ disciple who doubted his resurrection until he’d put his fingers into the nail-holes in the “stranger’s” arms. What I’m trying to express here is not just a kind of religious agnosticism, but a sense of things half-known and suspected.

The Flying Dutchman was the ship (and captain) condemned to range the seas forever after (I think) the captain cursed God. I’m not suggesting that I’ve cursed God, but that I sense a constant wandering – though then I suggest a finding and a coming to shore. I think the last three lines refer to the arrival on European shores of strange flotsam from the Americas, suggesting that a different land existed.

The words “the doubt of a darkening sky my glory” resonate especially for me and the whole line is one of my favourites.

 

I’ll stop there because the next poem in sequence I want to talk about is “Empire”, which is LONG.

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

Death, imagination, magic, money, reality, human nature and a few other things

Time to repost a few more poems with more discussion. I dothis because I dislike serving up a poem complete with instructions on how to interpret it, but some time later I might make tentative suggestions.

 

INSTRUCTIONS

 

I bought this thing quite a long time ago

But never needed it, so never assembled

The impressive confusing parts

But now I’ve started to read the instructions

And as always, I suppose,

They don’t quite make sense.

“Stand on the bank of the river

Summon the ferryman and give him silver

And he will carry you over.” That makes sense.

But then apparently the other side

Is somewhere underneath us. Then again

It says, “Flow into the distant stars

Towards a light that is not quite a star.”

You can’t go down, across and up at the same time!

Though in the depths of this black silent pool

Which shimmers with the lights of star and moon

Maybe I’ve seen the answer after all.

 

This is a wry poem about thinking about death. It uses a sustained metaphor (quite unusual for me) of someone trying to understand the instructions booklet for some newly-bought gadget. So I quote several myths and ideas about death. The ferryman of course is Charon in Greek mythology ferrying the dead over the river Styx.  That seems to be a journey across, but it’s to the Underworld (in several mythologies), so presumably the Underworld is under this one. So what about myths of the released soul travelling amongst the stars and the idea that Heaven is above us? Well, really these are images, metaphors themselves, but I’m assuming the persona of a literal-minded person struggling to understand the myths literally. In the last three lines, though, I reconcile all three versions: in black water (the Styx) if you look down (Underworld) you see the stars reflected.

 

Maybe I’m suggesting a reconciling of light and dark.

 

ALCHEMY

 

Wandering the world, the witch brings cold

Where there is light she snuffs it out

Her wings obscure the distant stars

Her breath fills palaces with gold

 

The kings and courtiers count and plan

The heavy castles rise and spread

They dance a new and heady tune,

The merchant and the artisan.

 

The witch has taken to the night

Again, and cupped her smothering wings

The starving people try to eat

The blocks that seemed so strong and bright

 

The robes and sceptres rot or twist

The castles’ windows are all dark

When the witch lands, the stars are born

And with the dawn comes gentle mist.

 

An internet friend interested in magic commented, “This is a new kind of witch”. Well, the figure of the witch has long carried implications of evil and of healing, but this witch is rather special. What does she do? She obscures the light and chills the land, but she fills palaces with gold. She brings economic development and prosperity which cannot last. I’m not going to seek a political or religious moral here beyond what I think I was thinking, but this is a very material and materialist kind of witch. But she cannot control the world indefinitely and light comes back.

 

On a technical level, this is a regular poem with four-line verses of the same number of syllables and a rhyming plan of the first and fourth lines rhyming but the second and third not rhyming. I’m not sure I’ve used this system elsewhere.

 

I THINK BECAUSE I AM NOT

 

“I think because I am not,” the wise man said,

“If I were fully in the material world,

The tease of rain, the anger of a rock,

The taste of apples and of fertile woman

Would leave no room for a philosophy

And doubt would be a slipping on the scree.”

 

“I think, therefore I am,” the lecturer said.

“This itch of questioning and of making patterns

Says who I am, and if I plant it here

And simply give it water and tough skin

To give the grazing deer a nasty bruise,

There is no way the human spirit can lose.”

 

I think because I cross a borderland

Where shadows may be real and real things vanish

As thought and dream and shivering in my scalp

Circle and blend like warriors or mating cats

And somehow show a way I should not tread

According to the mighty and the dead.

 

Obviously this draws on Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am”. Descartes is simply drawing a conclusion: because I know I think, I must exist. But his words could be taken to mean “the raison d’etre of my existence is to think” and in fact his formulation leads illogically but predictably to a view of human nature which stresses intellect and reason. I’m playing here in quasi-philosophical mode with other formulations.

In the first version, thought itself is a product of (or a cause of?) our separation from direct experience, being at one remove from the animal. In the second, Descartes’ statement is extended (maybe twisted, though Descartes was a rationalist who probably wouldn’t have minded this development) so that human thought is presented as the highest, most advanced thing in the world. The third expresses more of my perception: I think on the borderland between reason and feeling, spirit and measurement, and the more I venture into the dark and the misted, the more I think and the more I am alive.

 

It’s worth noting that the first and third poems here use humour to approach very serious subjects. Very English.

 

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

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.

EXPEDITION

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.

FATHERS

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

Four Stations

A long poem now, with a few familiar images, in four parts which I feel to be linked but can’t quite explain how.

 

FOUR STATIONS

 

THE WANDERER

To be a wanderer is to have bad feet

And to know the signs of rain.

The abandoned home keeps leaving messages.

But though there’s a routine of moving on,

Of saying goodbye or not, of setting out,

And the hills and the valley-hugging villages

May seem almost the same, they are different.

To be a wanderer is to not return.

 

Sometimes the villagers fear you’ve brought the plague,

Heresy or the unwelcome news of shortages:

You should watch out for a sameness of the eyes

And a roughness of the rope. Sometimes you are a magus,

Which can be dangerous too, but sometimes merely welcome.

You carry a store of rivers, skies and crows,

Of flat rocks where you ate the last long valley’s

Rye bread and cheese, and even carry faces,

Though they may cluster and threaten on the breeze.

Sometimes the villagers fear you’re marked by madness.

 

To be a wanderer is to intervene,

To complicate, to save for another falling

And then the wandering, wandering, wandering.

 

THE CONTROLLER

 

The controller is known by every local, surely,

And to a stranger by a sure solidity

An evenness of gaze, the dull glow of gold,

The heaviness of the crown or the bag of helmets.

You are the point the world revolves around

Adhesion gives you family and friends

But ties you to a ship you thought a castle

So when it sails again

Your heavy crown and titles clatter and spin

In the whirlpools of the turns without a centre

And you are not who you were built to be

And who the locals did not know by touching

But as the controller who was stepping surely.

 

THE PLAYER

 

You have heard her many times but named her never

She was on the tip of your tongue and the edge of sunlight

As the drowning orange-red ball turning brick

Descended behind the vitrified sea and shut out dance,

The conversations of the busy merchants

Even the robed priests’ chants

You have seen her many times and touched her never.

 

She is the absent jewel in the crown,

The last and uncertain ray of light,

The song you almost manage to remember,

The whistling of the wind, the arabesque of ember,

The flickering of the fire in the rick.

You have heard her many times but answered never

But what you said was shot with alien fire.

 

THE KEEPER

 

You can see here if you try the paler grasses

Which grow on the stone of the road which used to run here

This angle of wall had another forgotten purpose.

Here where the sheep sheltered till the last hard winter

The kingdom of a stoat, the throne of a raven,

Were windows like eyes, and walls, a hearth and singing

So I have kept it under the dead lord’s orders

Here is the sealed letter and the sword

The old map marked with a word

The old lord thought one day might be deciphered

And though the dragon has not come nor the knight

I have seen ten thousand dawns and the patterned clouds

Shadow the paler grass with a thousand meanings

Until the traveller comes up the road that ran here.

 

 

Copyright Simon Banks 2012

 

 

This isn’t the first time I’ve written of a wanderer, a mysterious female figure just ahead or someone who has the duty of waiting for a momentous event he can’t define precisely and which may never happen – or the first time I’ve pointed out in a poem that being different can get you killed or that gold and power weight you down but provide only limited security.

 

As often, the background seems to be northern hill-country.

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