Spellcheck

Ex-ecutionerSpellcheck can save us from embarrassing errors – as long as the mistake isn’t a real word. But its vocabulary is quite limited. It’s American, for a start, and although I’ve finally convinced it that I want British English, its knowledge of this foreign tongue is limited.

Words that are common in some areas of life and work are unknown to it. If you’re involved in any kind of academic or public sector discussion about politics or administration, you’ll be familiar with the word DISEMPOWER (take power away from some people, usually with the implication that they have a right to the power). I’m writing a philosophical sort of book about Liberalism, UK version. I wrote something like,

“Unresponsive bureaucracies sometimes disempower citizens”. Spellcheck didn’t like “disempower”. It didn’t believe the word existed. It offered just one alternative: DISEMBOWEL.

 

Not in the UK, surely?

 

Now just a short poem I wrote recently on a short break in Norfolk.

 

THE STAR INN, LESSINGHAM

Over the vast pub fireplace hang the horse-brasses
So many I have never seen
Figures of horse, fox, crown
Snowflake, cross, shapes I do not know
All glinting from the light, wavering from the fire.
Cunning and care made them
Clever thought, steady hand
The landlady polishes them.

Outside the night sky is stark
Slow-burning bright in black
And I am off the land and out of time
And speak with a voice of others who saw the stars.

These things together tell me
I am human.

Horse brasses

 

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Gates and Reeds

OK, there’s not much in common between those two words (the letter E, yes, and four other letters each), though it would be a good poets’ competition to find something that linked them. Poets are good at linking one improbable thing with another – one poet with another, for example.

 

Here’s two poems I’ve written recently and I thought I’d share them together even though they don’t have a lot in common (my conscious mind says).

 

THE GATE

 

Mordor

Pearly gates

The high walls steady.
They are topped with clawing black wire.
Around me the ground is featureless
But the dark gate is wide open.
An empty watchtower stares down dully.
That is all except for a dim light inside.

But here comes one who has gone to the entrance
And stopped at a line on the surface, hearing music
And reports that from there the watchtower changes,
A fountain of colour and shapes, red-jewelled, craft-gilded, live.

I stand looking up at the old brutality
Of the bare, angular tower.

I have seen it before, that gate.
It was on the shore as the salt tide came slithering in
It clanged open the moment I fell asleep
And grunted on runners as I, puzzled, woke again.
I saw it where the stream ran from the rocks.
I have thought I’ve seen it in eyes.

Nothing is what it seems to me
But then, neither am I.
If the gate was of gold and silver, of agate, would I go?
The gate stands open.

 

Illustrating poems does risk stressing one interpretation above another, so please consider the words before the pictures.

 

And then, in a different mood:

 

REEDBED

Reedbed

As I lay sick I had a vision of a reedbed
Waving gently in the wind, naked of birdsong now
Only a few sharp calls.
A great heron lumbered into the air
From the edge of the water I could not see, but cherished.

 

By the way – I was sick for a couple of days, now well recovering. Ear infection threw my sense of balance into chaos – frightening till it was diagnosed and extremely limiting and exhausting for another day and a bit. No big deal now, but I thought I’d better explain “as I lay sick” was not complete invention and should not be a cause for worry.

 

I expect I’ll post again before Christmas, but if not, Happy Christmas!

 

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…

 

 

 

 

Water, water

Drop Falling into Water

 

I sort of promised to come back and talk a bit about those two poems about water, or maybe I should say “with water”.

 

So I’ll sort of do that.

 

The first one, “Dead Water”, runs through a number of changes involving water. The Sahara was once not a desert, but grassland, so had much more water than today. Rising water levels and subsidence led to much of the great ancient city of Alexandria on the Egyptian coast disappearing into the sea. The area now occupied by the Black Sea was once fertile, low-lying land which was inundated quite quickly when the Mediterranean broke in, perhaps sparking the widespread legends about a great flood in the Middle East. Mars once had both standing and running water. But as I go, I’m becoming less descriptive and more visionary.

 

All these changes lead me to the thought a lot of people push away – that the human race itself, and its planet, are mortal. But I end with imagining rebirth.

 

Water has an obvious and literal presence in this poem, but it’s also probably an image standing for life.

 

“Beach at High Tide” is more straightforward and literal. It’s about a beach at high tide – the one near my home, mainly. Most of the people I meet there have dogs. The dogs lead the people – or they give the people an excuse to walk by the waves without seeming odd. My “justification” is not a dog, but a pair of binoculars.

 

Then I turn from the people and their nervousness to the sea itself. There is change – “the new sun”, suggesting it’s early in the morning – but also changelessness. The sound of the waves is old.

 

Now here’s one more water poem. I fear I am becoming epigrammatic. An epigrammarian? Epigrammatician?

 

WATERCARRIER

I carry water: my body is mostly
Made of it.
Squeeze me to remember
The sea.

Two short poems about water

Or are they?

 

DEAD WATER

When the Sahara was green this was a river.
The statues of wonderful Alexandria
Stare in salt water.
Under the Black Sea are valleys,
Flooded settlements.
I have seen the lost rivers of live Mars.
Humans will end, and the Earth that made them.
I sense the rise of new rivers.

 

BEACH AT HIGH TIDE
The dogs on the narrow beach race or pad
The dog-walkers have their dogs to take them for walks
I wear binoculars round my neck
That also is a justification.

The new sun glints on wave-crests and shallow still water
The sound of the waves is old.

 

I think I’ll leave those for now without comment or explanation and come back to talk a bit about them.

Lands End

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.

 

Over Rannoch Moor

Image

Rannoch Moor in the Western Highlands of Scotland is a wild and bleak place, bleakly beautiful on a day like this above, but a killer in bad weather.

But is this just about the Moor?

OVER RANNOCH MOOR

I wandered over Rannoch Moor in my mind

By an old track where dragonflies veered and hovered

Round the boggy margins of a lochan

Past the last stones of a long-fallen shieling

And there was nothing to do, nothing to fear

The wide and shifting sky was blue and grey

Only a single unseen skylark singing.

Lochan: a small loch or lake.

Shieling: a summer shelter for herdsmen and maybe animals; a small farm building in upland Scotland and Northern England.

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?

The Wall

A response here to a poetry group challenge. I’m usually reluctant to write poetry to order, but I think this isn’t bad on the subject “walls”.

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THE WALL

 

Perhaps a straggly hedge; a random pattern of bushes

Our inkblot eyes form into a rough finger,

Blackthorn-barbed, elder and bramble tangled

Stronghold of spiders, ant home, breeder of birds

Only cutting or clear deduction from shape

Would show the wall it was.

What wall, though? Did it divide warring families,

Mark the boundaries of a morose feud,

Shear off the rich estate from stubborn farmers

Or shelter sheep against the harsh March wind?

Perhaps a law, a rule, stopped here, on the other side strangeness

Darkness and a different light to be dowsed

Perhaps two lovers held hands across the roughness

Rasping their wrists, or maybe a farmer forswore it

Broke holes for his plotted purpose

A generation from its loving building.

It fruits and flowers like a spiny Eden

It holds its secrets like a deep, dark millstream.

Copyright Simon Banks 2013

 

 

Estuary Shore

ESTUARY SHORE

Where river suspects salt, land shakes the sea

Revealed expanses lie

Out of the lifeborn mud, worms rise

Ribbon weed aligns, rigid heron stalks

Woman cries, crews die

Remember the dragonflies in the winter

After the last bright body, shimmering wing dies

Under the dark water, waiting, rise

Man gathering shells, sharp stab in the chest

Like a bugle-call, clock struck

Is that the hour?

Turmoil of voices

When shall we hear, where shall we hear,

Now, here?

Rain slants, seeds rebel, green grows

The earth of shells and friends is covered in flowers

Under the pale moon, what cries?

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

Boat bumps against the jetty with the waves.

Copyright Simon Banks 2013

I’m just going to leave this one for you to make of it what you will.