Seasons

four-seasons

In the richer countries, people live largely protected from the seasons. Food supplies don’t fail in winter, central heating is pretty reliable and when a village is cut off by snow for a few days it’s big news. We (I mean the majority, not people who are poor) can get summer any time we like at the end of a flight. Spring means longer daylight and maybe some green shoots in the garden. Autumn means leaves on the pavements. August means school summer holidays and the start of the football season.

All this of course is from a temperate zone, northern hemisphere perspective, but the same sort of thing can be said anywhere. A rainy season means less if the road surfaces are good and you’ve got a car.

Yet the succession of the seasons is dug deep into the language and consciousness of most peoples.

Here’s a poem I posted a long while ago.

AUTUMN

At the completeness of the year
Yellow, scarlet, claret, orange flare
One dissolves in the other, unique colour,
Beech, dogwood, spindle, aspen, elm
Blazing dead fronds of bracken. Robins still sing.
Last swallow lingers.
Soft damp, a hint of fertile rotting
Cold, sharp, a sense of winter’s hardening
Tumult of migrants misted in the air.

Past the long changing wood
The road runs fast, cars jockey,
Schedules are met, business done
And the computers speak
Of golden beaches in the sun.

Like other seasons, autumn looks back and forwards.

I was thinking about the seasons recently because suddenly, in late July, a whole lot of birds suddenly stopped singing. They were singing and a few days later they were all silent, yet I knew even the summer visitors wouldn’t have left yet. They were there, but silent, and therefore largely invisible. At about the same time the common small butterfly the Gatekeeper went from none to dozens round most bramble bushes.

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And for once I was more interested in the cricket than the opening football matches (I prefer cricket, but the start of a new season is always fascinating). To save Australian blushes I won’t mention what was holding my attention at Trent Bridge…

Next time, a new poem. Promise.

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Both one thing and another?

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

 

faceoff

 

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

 

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

 

SANDPIPER

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

WATERSHED

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

UNDERWATER

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

There’s a lot more to think about here…

 

 

 

 

Something on my mind

You know that experience when a piece of music gets embedded in your consciousness so it keeps cropping up every moment your attention isn’t fully fixed on a task or a conversation? It can be any kind of music according to your tastes.

 

Some years ago a classical orchestral tune got into my mind while I was on a long-distance trail (the English Coast to Coast). It was quite repetitive and went well with the steady walking. I tried analysing it, working out what kind of music it was, what period and who might have written it. I though possibly Sibelius. Then suddenly after days it came to me – not Sibelius but Beethoven, the March Funebre from the “Eroica”. In that instant the music vanished and I could not recall it. When I got home I played the CD and there it was. It was replaced at the time by an Irish folk song (The Two Sisters) from a Clannad collection with the very appropriate line “so then she sank in the rushy swamp”.

 

In the last few days I found myself trapped with Joan Baez singing “Silver Dagger”. I hadn’t listened to a Joan Baez recording for ages. I found the CD and played it. That took “Silver Dagger” out of my mind and replaced it with “Fare thee Well” (“Ten Thousand Miles”). After a couple of days of that in the background came a change. “Silver Dagger” came back.

 

Poems from Wales

I’m a week back from a week walking a section of the Wales Coast Path, which now goes all round the coast of Wales from the northernmost point of the English border to the southernmost, taking in the spectacular coastlines of the North-wet and South-west corners of mainland Wales.

 

Image

 

As you can see from the picture above, Welsh people are characteristically black with round heads and one arm thicker than the other.

 

The section I did this time was between Fishguard (Abergwaun) and Aberystwyth. This is a fantastically beautiful section, mostly cliffy and tough walking because of many little streams that reach the sea directly through deep gulleys (steep down, steep up).

 

So hold on – this is a poetry blog. Well, I usually manage to write something on such holidays and these three were all written while killing time in Llanrhystud village. Two relate obviously to Wales, the other less so. One is definitely a sonnet and another arguably an aberrant sonnet.

 

LLANRHYSTUD CHURCH

Those who returned to the earth left stone often carven
In the language of their ancestors, beloved daughter, husband;
The postmaster, a position held with pride,
Succeeded to the honour by his brother.
The dates – 1890, 1908 –
Moving blindly with precision towards horror and Flanders.

Now the church is quiet, its simplicity startling;
Sheep graze around; a sign advises visitors
Not to leave the door open for fear of birds being trapped.
The hand-lettered signs say “God is Love”, “Christ is Risen”.

A WELSH VILLAGE

The low hills, whether clothed in oaks or sheep,
Always looked down on the village where merchants’ trail,
The track of drover and pilgrim, strove to keep
The low route over rivers while the winds brought sail
And strange news travelled fast with brooch and salt;
Babies were born, made some mark and grew old,
And dying, left some memory of a fault
Or of a flame of passion now death cold.
Their world was overturned, yet some hung hard
Through war and coming in and going out,
Indifference replacing faith and doubt
And left a hint of love and love long scarred.

THE LAND

We were brought up that God had made the land,
And all that breathed or rooted, for our kind.
We took God at his word and by our hand
The woods were felled and the high hills were mined.
We drained the marshes to extend the fields
So we could do God’s will and multiply.
No more contentment came from growing yields;
When birds fell silent we did not ask why.
Then wise men came who spoke of Reason’s rule,
Of laws of science that must drive our thought.
Who did not multiply was just a fool,
To risk life for a stranger, a fool’s sport.
But here’s the truth they smudged and sneered and fought:
We’re but a part, our task the land’s renewal.

 

Enough for now. Next time, perhaps, the best and the worst of William Carlos Williams.

 

Wonderful History

One more post on History before I get back to the poetry!

Last time I set out some common arguments against spending time on History:

History is boring.
Whenever someone says something is “boring”, they’re merely saying “this doesn’t interest ME”. So “I’m not interested in History because it’s boring” is not a powerful argument. However, it’s a shame many people have come away from school thinking History is boring. I’m not going to blame the teachers, though a few may lack passion for the subject. I’ll just point to how many well-watched TV programmes are about historical events (such as Hitler’s rise to power) or rework and fictionalise historical events (such as the Jack the Ripper murders) or use and convey historical understanding (such as family history programmes like the BBC’s “Who do you think you are?”).

That’s the past. It’s over now. I want to know about the future!

So how are you going to predict the future if you have no idea how things change over time?

Who needs/wants to know about a lot of dead kings/dead white males?

Apart from the point that people are not uninteresting because they’re dead (or white, or male, or royal even), History isn’t just about a long list of kings, queens or presidents. History basically is the study of whatever in the past we think is important – so take your pick. The history of the impact of the printing press or of the Black Death is not mainly about rulers.

It won’t help you get a job.

Unfortunately there’s some truth in this, more in some countries than others. But a good degree from a highly-rated university isn’t worthless because it’s in an unpopular subject – it’s just less saleable than some. What’s clear to me is that History can help you DO many jobs, and not just History Teacher.

Consider: History teaches you a huge amount about human motivation and the impact people’s actions have over time. It teaches you how major changes can occur almost unnoticed. It teaches you to ask of someone’s account or presentation not only “Is this factually true?” but “What is this person’s angle? What does he or she want others to believe?”. It teaches you how different other people, other societies, can be. Where historical facts are vastly numerous, as with most 20th century History, it teaches you how to select and marshal facts in a coherent argument. Where factual information is sparse, as with the 5th to 8th centuries AD in Western Europe, it teaches you how to read between the lines.

It’s propaganda.

Anything open to argument can be propaganda and it’s true that in totalitarian societies, history is written to support the rulers. Deeply patriotic or nationalistic historians write history that glosses over cruelties and injustices made by their beloved country and unduly stress its positive characteristics. A Catholic historian (to take just one example from the field of religion) is unlikely to argue that the papal claim to succession from St Peter is bogus even if he or she has come on evidence that might point that wayand an anticlerical atheist is quite likely to underestimate the church’s role in, shall we say, limiting the oppression of conquered peoples. But history is international and it gets harder and harder to wall out the voices undermining the propaganda. History teaches us to question propaganda.

It’s unfashionable/ not cool.

This is a bit like “it’s boring”. There’s no answer because it’s not really saying anything. If you thought History was important or interesting, but saw it was unfashionable, what should you do? If you always think unfashionable things are uninteresting or unimportant, what does that say about you?

In any case, while History in schools and at university has declined, there’s more and more History on TV.

It’s all very well, but it mustn’t crowd out Maths/English/foreign languages/computer skills/sport from the syllabus.

Well, yes, you can make a case for all subjects, but isn’t your main language advanced by using it to read and write about History, and isn’t the use of statistics to illustrate points in History practical Maths teaching? The same sort of argument applies to computers, though not to sport unless you count vigorous disputes between academics who don’t like one another.

History is bunk (Henry Ford).

If it weren’t for History, we’d have forgotten who Ford was. History is full of examples of the sort of hubris Ford displayed as soon as his attention shifted from making cars. History analyses what the effects of Ford’s business success and production methods were.

 

So the arguments FOR? I listed a few popular ones.

 

We should understand how our nation arose, the main events in its history and how its values developed and were demonstrated.

Well, yes, except nation, country and state are not the same. It makes sense for all citizens, whether born there or not, to know something of the origins of the place and society they live in. BUT with this sort of history there are two big risks – that the course of events that could have gone very differently is made to seem inevitable; and that the story of the nation or state is sanitised so the best is stressed and the worst is ignored or belittled. I’d also argue that British history for Britons (or American for Americans or Indian for Indians) is not enough: we should come to understand something about the history of a different place and people.

History helps create a sense of nationhood.

“Patriotic” history can do this, and understanding the roots of a national culture and identity is important. But if the AIM of history teaching is to promote a national identity, it becomes propaganda and inevitably lies if only by omission. For example, the “myth” of Dunkirk (not actually a myth, as it actually happened) is important to at least some people’s sense of Britishness – but how many people know the evacuation would have been far less successful without a French army fighting to hold off the Germans while the British evacuated? It wasn’t for nothing that Churchill sent back the Navy for one more night to get the French off too.

History repeats itself.

Up to a point it does. It is useful to be able to recognise in a situation something that has happened before. But as with any patterning and classification by our minds, we often get it wrong. It isn’t only generals who are always fighting the last war.  But maybe that’s a good example of how history does repeat itself. Over and over again we apply the lessons from the last big mistake too literally.

History demonstrates great trends which are eventually unavoidable.

Marxists think this and so do many religious people. Certainly you can see great trends in history, but are they really unavoidable?

History is value-free and non-ideological.

Nowadays historians generally hold back from passing moral judgements, but this is relatively new. Ideologies clearly do affect how historians write history, both in influencing judgements on the effectiveness or benefits of something and in influencing what we think is important. As History is the study of WHAT WE THINK IS IMPORTANT in the past, your values and structure of belief clearly must influence what you think noteworthy and what you stress. But falsify the facts and you’ll be rightly challenged.

Now what is missing from these arguments?

Well, understanding the complexity and variety of human motivation and mindsets. Understanding just how DIFFERENT humans can be from our own society (which is why the history of your own country is not enough). A sympathetic understanding: ultimately statistics and ruins can take you so far, but you need to apply your own human experience and get into the mind of someone very different in order to understand actions and cultures that seem very strange to us.

And that’s close to literature, even to poetry. History is a sort of science fiction, but based on truth.

 

Unpoetic History

Well, it can be poetry in a sense. But I thought having posted about historical subjects in my poems and subtler influences on my poems of having a History degree, I’d say a bit for History as a subject to study.

The arguments against it mostly go like this:

History is boring.

That’s the past. It’s over now. I want to know about the future!

Who needs/wants to know about a lot of dead kings/dead white males?

It won’t help you get a job.

It’s propaganda.

It’s unfashionable/ not cool.

It’s all very well, but it mustn’t crowd out Maths/English/foreign languages/computer skills/sport from the syllabus.

History is bunk (Henry Ford).

Now you may have noticed that some of these arguments are contradictory: for example, propaganda that’s boring is highly incompetent propaganda. It might also occur to you that since the future hasn’t happened yet, there is a major question about how to predict it or prepare for it (and if you can’t predict it, you’re at some disadvantage in preparing for it).

If it weren’t for History, broadly understood, we wouldn’t now know who Henry Ford was or that he said it was bunk.

Now here are SOME arguments used FOR History:

We should understand how our nation arose, the main events in its history and how its values developed and were demonstrated.

History helps create a sense of nationhood.

History repeats itself.

History demonstrates great trends which are eventually unavoidable.

History is value-free and non-ideological.

Now again you might notice some contradictions: the first two arguments, for example, make assumptions about values to be promoted, which runs against the last argument. The third and fourth points also appear to contradict one another, or at least to concentrate on different aspects.

I’m going to stop there and come back to this. In the meantime, you might want to comment on some of those points, for or against.

Normal poetic service will be resumed as soon as possible.

CLUE: I’ve actually NOT stated any of the arguments that are to me the most powerful in favour of History.

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.

 

Robin song

I’m a birdwatcher. You can tell that because I make it one word. Anyone who writes “bird watcher” isn’t one.

In a temperate country like Britain, there are huge movements of birds in spring and autumn. People are most aware of the summer visitors (arriving in the spring after spending the winter in Africa), but we have winter visitors too – birds that come from the Arctic or at least much further north, anywhere between Greenland and western Russia, to spend the winter in milder Britain. In a northern country like Finland, almost everything moves out in autumn. In an equatorial country like Kenya, you notice kinds of birds appearing that aren’t there all year: these have come from further north where winter is approaching. I’ve lived in both those countries.

Events like the first cuckoo call in spring or the arrival of flocks of winter thrushes on the East coast in October/November are conspicuous and quite well-known. But there are less well-known seasonal variations.

Robins (the European Robin, not the much bigger thrush called “Robin” in North America) stop singing for a while after the breeding season ends. But they’re highly territorial birds, the song tells other Robins the territory is taken (and is beautiful to our ears) and they start singing again in autumn. For some weeks Robins had been very hard to find round where I live. Then suddenly, yesterday, they were singing.

Now this is a poetry blog. For someone so interested in wildlife, I don’t directly write about birds, mammals and so on as much as, say, Ted Hughes did, but they do appear.

Here they play a part in a story (Spirit Mountain):

(but here, I fear, formatting will insist on appearing: though I’ve followed the instructions of my internet friend Neelima and also done the obvious thing of selecting “remove formatting”, it keeps jumping up on the Preview. This may be because of how I’m copying text from a word file. Well, I’m going to post this now and will try to fix the problem next time!

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Screeches and groans

Tear the night, only I

Know they’re ravens

Not demons.

In this poem I’m spending a night on a supposedly haunted/holy mountain, as I did, and realising that the strange noises come from those big crows, Ravens.

Here’s the start of “Breaking Time”:

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TREASURE ISLAND

The pirate sails through swivelling seas

And gains his goal through knife and trick

He lands at dawn with craftsman’s skill

The island’s multicoloured birds

The heavy scent of hanging flowers

Hold his attention for a while

It comes naturally to me in imagining a tropical island, to think of the birds!

Maybe because I know a lot about birds as birds, I don’t use them much as images suggesting something else, but here I do:

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LOST ISLAND

I don’t know whether the man at the gate has blundered,

But when I arrived I thought I was going to

An island no-one else remembered

But here the flesh has covered up the sand

And made a picture postcard of the sea.

I don’t know whether the island I remember,

The gap-topped tower you could climb to watch the sea,

Exists; the ferry timetables no longer mention it

But maybe the envelope I left on the floor

Contained an invitation or a feather

From that white bird that soared above the tower.

I’m not a “nature poet”, but I do write a few things of that type:

MERLIN

Mud slurries, sparkles in blue sky’s snatches

Wormholes wither and dry

Salt sea recedes, Grey Plover stalks

The tide is out.

Suddenly a shape, dark in the sun

Sharp-winged, intense over the swivelling saltmarsh:

Merlin!

A Merlin is a very small, fast falcon. Grey Plover is a wading bird that breeds in the high Arctic and arrives with us from August.

I did find one mention of Robins in a poem about autumn. Their mellow, sad-sounding song seems appropriate to the season. But the biggest influence of birdwatching on me as a poet is that it’s taken me to moors, estuaries, islands, forests…

Finally an apology. An internet friend (step forward, Neelima) pointed out that the formatting was showing on my recent posts. She gave me advice on sorting it. Let’s see…


		

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??

 

Treks

Last time I said a bit about long-distance trail walking, having just come back from doing the West and East Highland Ways. I set myself the aim of relating posts like that to poetry.

Well now, one thing at a time…

Here’s a brief Q and A on long-distance trail walking, bearing in mind that more poets than hill-walkers will be reading this.

Q: What’s long distance?

A: I wouldn’t call anything under 70 miles a long-distance trail. Even in Britain trails extend up to 630 miles (The South-west Coastal). In bigger countries it can be much more, like the 2,200 miles of the U.S.’s Appalachian Trail.

Q: What can you do in a day?

A: It varies person to person – and according to the nature of the country. My view is that pushing yourself to extremes like 40 miles in a day must mean you can hardly enjoy the sensations on the way. The most I’ve done on a trail in mildly hilly country is 27 and 30 in flattish country, but 20 in hill country is a good session. Take into account, as far as you can, not only the ascents, but the nature of the paths. You can make much quicker progress on a broad cart-track up a hill than on a narrow path going up and down between rocks, strewn with tree roots and rocks at all angles.

Q: They’re all in hill country, right?

A: A lot are, both because the scenery is impressive and because you encounter fewer areas you can’t walk through, fewer roads and fewer towns (navigating a trail through a built-up area of any size is really complicated). But most of the hill trails have lowland stretches and Britain has several coastal trails.

Q: Is it right you can have sherpas carrying your bags?

A: It’s not illegal, but in Britain sherpas of the sort that assisted Himalayan mountaineers it would cost the earth. The “sherpa” services contract to carry your pack from one day’s walking destination to the next by van, relying on the fact that many people will be walking the same stages and staying in the same places. This leads to fun walking, but to me it’s cheating. If you say you’ve walked the Pennine Way, you should mean you’ve done it carrying everything you needed on your back. As a Dutch businessman said to me at the end of the Coast to Coast, “It’s good to know that everything you really need in life you can carry on your back.” Deciding how you can cut the weight you carry, deciding what’s too important to leave out, is part of the challenge. And keeping the weight low is VITAL!

Q: Where do you stay overnight?

A: Some people camp (mainly “wild camping”, a term that’s quite new in Britain, though the reality isn’t). That gives you lots of flexibility and a nearness to nature, but it means you have to carry more food plus the tent. Crucially, it also means that if you finish the day with wet boots, they’ll be wet next morning (and this leads to foot problems). I prefer to stay in bed and breakfast, guest houses, inns or reasonably-priced hotels. Inns are my first choice and on many routes they’re quite numerous.

Q: What do you take with you?

A: NOTHING you don’t need – so I recommend no reading material other than maps and a guide book. I wouldn’t take a kindle either unless you can enter the guide book and maps on it, the display is really clear, which it wouldn’t be in black and white, and it doesn’t mind getting wet. On any walk of more than five days, count on washing some clothes and re-using them, but properly-washed socks are important. Even pared to the minimum, the list is too long here, but take insect repellent, sun screen and disinfectant (in the smallest, lightest versions possible) and two hats. Hats are useful against sun and rain, but they’re easily lost and it could be four or five days before you come to a place where you can buy a replacement.

Q: I’m pretty fit and can walk 25 miles in a day. Am I ready to take on a trail like the West Highland Way?

A: Probably not. You need to know what you can do over several days. If you count on repeating day after day for a week with a full pack what you know you can do for a day with a half-full pack, you’ll come unstuck. I always fit in a bit of practice before taking on a serious long-distance trail, ideally one or two weeks before. That might mean four days’ tough walking in similar country with a similar weight and the same boots.

Q: Are you a masochist?

A: Not quite. On every trail I’ve done (except the West Highland this time – the low point came when I took on the East Highland straight on from that) I’ve paused for sweaty breath on a gruelling climb or retraced my footsteps having gone wrong on a particularly long stretch, or pulled myself upright from a glutinous fall in a bog, or forced myself forward into driving rain, and said to myself, “You don’t have to do this – so why ARE you doing it?”. But the answer always came in a day or two at most. The scenery is fantastic, the sense of moving from one kind of country to another by the power of your own legs is marvellous, reaching the end of the day’s stage with a soft bed to snooze on, a bar to have a beer in and the prospect of a good meal is wonderful, the sense of achievement on reaching the end is unrivalled – and there’s something more than that, particularly on the longer trails. You’ve become a nomad. Your home is not in Birmingham or Bremen, but in your pack and in your head. You move on each day. It begins to seem like a way of life.

The quiet, the beauty and the lack of much else to do at the end of the day can help produce poetry too!

Next time I’ll look at a couple of my poems and see how long-distance walking might have influenced them. Then maybe I’ll find a relevant poem or two by other people (Wordsworth?). Any suggestions for that?