Titles

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I said I might put out something about titles – not Mr, Ms or Reverend, but the titling of poems. This is a problem for some poets. Somehow the relationship between the title and the content for a novel seems closer and more evident – probably wrongly, as novels are often given titles to get people to buy them, whereas the title of a poem will not be the title of a book unless you want it to be. On one of the LinkedIn discussion groups I belong to, there was quite a long discussion about poem titles – whether to use them at all and if you did, how to find one.

 

Some short poems for which a title doesn’t come naturally can be titled with the first line. I’ve done that sometimes. I know one poet who just numbers his poems. That seems to me to be missing a chance to use the title to good, though it is similar to the numbering of works of classical music (and when those classical orchestral works are given word titles, they often seem grandiloquent – Beethoven’s “Eroica”, Nielsen’s “Unextinguishable” symphony, a title which always suggest “Undistinguishable” to me: it’s the Fourth and I prefer his mysterious, ominous, triumphant Fifth.

 

If I think about some of the titles of other people’s poems I most admire, most of them seem pretty straightforward: Ode to a Nightingale, The Wreck of the Deutschland, The Wild Swans at Coole, or the often long and chatty, but informative, titles used by the Metaphysical poets. Some are less obvious – for example Louis MacNeice’s “The Wiper” and “Bagpipe Music”. The former does concentrate on a wiper on a  car windscreen, but the poem is more about the car’s journey through night rain (and about our journey through life to death) than about the wiper merely. The latter? I’m not really sure why it has that title. There are Scottish references in it, but perhaps it’s supposed to be a song that could be accompanied by the bagpipes. Maybe someone knows? It’s a very pointed, funny and wry poem anyway, with those fantastic lines “The glass is falling hour by hour, the glass will fall forever/ But if you break the bloody glass you won’t hold up the weather.” It sounds even better in a Northern Irish accent.

 

And Yeats’ “Sailing to Byzantium” and “Byzantium”? Without the title, the second poem anyway might not be related to Byzantium, but Yeats’ Byzantium is more a fantasy world full of meaning than a historical empire. For the importance of titles, though, note that “Sailing to Byzantium” was originally titled “Byzantium”, but Yeats felt he hadn’t reached a satisfactory conclusion, just made progress on the way – to the second poem -so the new title was highly significant.

 

Some titles, then, direct your attention to a key part of the poem, or work as a kind of clue to a puzzle. Above all, whatever the title does – IT’S PART OF THE POEM.

 

This discussion has made me just a bit uneasy that many of my own titles are clever-clever, unnecessarily obscure. Let’s look at a few, obviously with the whole poem, so keeping the choice to shortish poems. Here goes.

 

KNIGHT AT ARMS

Riding a jet-black steed
In snow-white armour clad
He aims for noble deed
In war of good on bad

He seeks the Holy Grail
In purity of thought
No failing on the trail
Will have him lured and caught

He’ll sacrifice his life
Or any other’s too
The outcome of the strife
Depends on being true

And noticing the stain
From some unlucky beast
Or villager’s loud pain
Would shamefully have creased

His shining banner and cause
So quickly he rides on
Ruled by his Order’s laws
But where the light has shone

It travels not with him
And all his noble death
It stays on blood and skin
Impure and loving breath 24

 

 

It is indeed about a knight in shining armour, on the face of it, so this title is quite straightforward, though of course the knight stands for anyone who is ruthless in the pursuit of high ideals, particularly of purity.

 

THE BLUE-BLACK SLOES

The queen has made a laurel wreath
For the new champion to wear
So he will not grow old and weak

The whisper of the brittle leaves
Is of a people falling down
And of a king that cannot breathe

The blue-black sloes have gathered round,
The blackberry and scarlet hip
They twine about the king’s own crown

Inside the castle nothing moves
The guests are frozen to the walls
And spears of ice hang from the roof

The withered wreath has taken root
And pressing through the embroidered cloth
Will resurrect the warmth and doubt.

 

It seems to me this case is rather similar to “The Wiper”. The sloes (fruits of the wild plum known as Blackthorn) are part of the poem, but I choose to draw attention to it.

 

THE ROADS TO ROME

I don’t say it’s a long way home
Because I don’t know home exists.
Wandering in forests, confused by mists,
I’ve heard that all roads lead to Rome:

Maybe that legend is a lie
And all roads lead to a silent shore;
But memories of a light, a door
Suggest there was a home, but why

The road to it will always twist
And turn away and run instead
Towards the city of powerful dead
I cannot say, but having missed

No pointing tree or flying crow,
No sudden cold or smear of blood,
No reddening sunset, opening bud,
Maybe I’ve found the home I know.

But carving on a rotten log
Tells of an easy way to rest
While still the broken branch points west
Over the river blurred in fog.

 

I’d say this title is similar to “Sailing to Byzantium”. My Rome is not the Rome of Cicero and Marcus Aurelius, not exactly, and not the Rome of the Vatican either, but more of a state of spirit which I characterise with reference to those two Italian Romes. But the title is a key part of the poem, hopefully helping with a fairly obscure poem.

 

COMING OUT

A gentle soup is around you
You belong to a circle and beat
At an alarm you struggle
In time of peace you sleep

Now the world is warped by a warlike
Beat from a tunnel of change
And the light at the end of the tunnel
Is the light of an oncoming train

But if you can grab a handrail
Hold on to the train if you can
For the scenery’s into this world, and
You won’t get a ticket again

 

Now that was naughty. The “coming out” is not at all about revealing one’s sexuality, but about birth, which is, though, of course a “coming out”. Did I mean to cause brief puzzlement? To catch attention? Can’t remember.

 

BRITISH NATIONALITY

Nobody gave me a choice
Of where I’d like to be born
Nobody set me a test
Nor asked me to swear allegiance
To a fixed smile in a dress

I feel as Irish as Scottish
I’m English and Welsh in the blood
How could they accept me as British
Who’d trade in the crown for the mud?

 

Obvious, straightforward, OK? It’s a thoughtful, irreverent poem about British nationality and my identity.

 

NEW THINGS

It will not be all new when we meet again
The blood will still be on the old stone steps
The man at the corner will still be glancing after
The drunken girl who retches beyond the railings.

We recognise the smears, you and I
We know the use of bleach on the grimy standard
Will wreck it beyond loving, and the raising
Of a pure standard is a call to killing.

But where the stray cat wolfs the fallen burger,
Where up the bloodstained steps you come by night
There is the cancer that will grow and scatter
The knowing of the dark, the love of light.

 

 

That’s less obvious. It refers to the start of the poem, the first line. The message of the poem, I suppose, is that things won’t be perfect but can get better and that grime and retching (as metaphors and as specifics) are part of life. Sounds trite now, doesn’t it? In my mind the title refers among other things to the idealism of the radicals of the English Civil War and Commonwealth with their bible quote “Behold, we are making all things new.”

 

I’d better stop there, because I’m churning out loads of words and just asking you to look at the first one or two. I’m somewhat reassured about my own titles, though.

 

 

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NONSENSE!

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This post is nonsense.

 

Recently I’ve discussed poem endings and then poem beginnings (the opening lines). An internet friend asked what I’d do next – perhaps discuss middles. I joked that maybe I’d look at a selection of line eights.

 

Well, why not? Occasionally random selections turn up something interesting. I still remember a school French grammar textbook which set French phrases in a series down the page alongside the English translations. I tried reading a bit of the English as a sequence and got:

 

She is sitting

He is kneeling

They are hanging from the ceiling.

 

Not quite a haiku, but a pointed little poem.

 

So here goes with a poem made up of the eighth line of every eighth poem from the earliest ones in my canon, ready to fire.

 

Of Saxon or Mordred may have built

Though Midas put the markets in a stir

As the breakers crumble?

After angle and curve into dark

Down the leat’s long scar

Until the monster in its den

So what has stayed with you?

I think he might be smelly

Whose summit shows signs of long-gone harm

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

Water, and when he’s drunk the stream

Till a light casual tap shatters it

So I can listen to its roar

Something begins to pulse, divide,

Satisfied. Only five quid,

And making self-effacing jokes are watching her.

And when a wandering “if” came on the wind

And a little lawyer beyond bribes dreamt of a pure Republic

Under that crazy-angled floating box.

 

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Hmm… I don’t think I’ll submit it. It doesn’t work as well as Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain”, reputed to be a string of first lines that were waiting for a song. There are a few couples of lines that could conceivably make sense, if that’s the intention.

 

But a semi-serious point: from that transect through my poetry, what could anyone say about the poetry as a whole? Anything? What if for a later age, only a jumble of a few lines of Shakespeare survived, no two lines that belonged together? How would he be characterised?

 

By the way, there were several poems in the sequence of one in eight that were seven lines long or shorter. I ignored them.

 

Next time, maybe: titles. Like Marquis or Lieutenant-Commander.

 

 

 

 

In my Beginning is my End

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OK – I wrote about poems’ endings. How about the beginnings? Can I find any lessons from my own opening lines?

 

I’ve reversed Eliot’s well-known line here, but his was deliberately contrary. All beginnings imply some kind of end and the characteristics of a beginning – whether it’s a poem, a revolution, a product launched or a child conceived, carry information which can determine how it will end.

 

DEATH AND THE MAGICIAN

 

One day the magician came to me and said,
The fish are leaping in the yellow stream
The oak has turned into an acorn small
And I saw Death in dream.

And I saw Death in dream, he said,
And Death was very kind
He showed me where the roses grow
Though I’m old and blind.

I’m old and blind and lame, he said,
The sea is out of sight
The shell is empty on the shelf
Through the woken night.

The night is all around, he said,
It closes hour by hour
The voices make me fear, my friend,
Should a proud man cower?

But should a proud man cower, my friend,
I think perhaps he should
The wine is turning sour, my friend,
But the bread is good.

The bread of death is good, my friend,
The bread of life is fine
And now I’ve understood, my friend,
Will the starlight shine?

And will the starlight shine, my friend,
And will the starlight shine?
Now let us touch the vine, my friend,
And we will drink the wine.

 

How does this beginning work? Well, in fact you could say the beginning is actually the title, which tells you death will feature and suggests something rather archetypal. Then the first line is in ordinary language and chatty, quite misleading really for a poem that becomes ballad-like and rather distant from everyday speech. But that’s a way of as it were luring the reader in. Compare with a Hitchcock thriller. It normally starts with things seeming ordinary.

 

VISITORS

Here are the shoes and here the photographs,
The shaven heads, expressionless eyes or defiant.
These are the notices: washroom, joy, be honest.
Joy was the brothel. Here the camp commandant’s children played,
Getting used to the occasional screams.
We are done now. Ten minutes’ rest break: the toilets are over there,
Hot drinks and snacks in that corner. The coach is ready.
Thankyou for listening, thankyou for coming here.

The people are quiet in the coach until a phone rings.
The old Jew answers it. “Yes, we’re fine. No, you’re joking.
It’s raining here, just like Manchester.”

 

Once you’ve realised this poem is about a concentration camp, the first line is very specific and plummets you right in. These are shoes piled up from people who were gassed. The title is ambiguous: is it about the visitors to the modern exhibition, to present-day Auschwitz, or does it describe the murdered people as visitors, perhaps because they didn’t stay long? The first line is straightforward and there is no twist from first line to second, just progression.

 

Here there is a twist though:

 

DISENCHANTMENT

The world is disenchanted
We have walked in the dark places
And found no ghosts or elves
No dragons roam the forests
The real fearsome beasts
Of the forest we have shot
And made a diagram of their bodily systems.

But now the sabre-toothed beasts from the forest myths
The giant wings, the parallel cunning people
With their invisible cities and hidden spells
Are coursing through the streets of the flooded city.

Come with me to the sea.
We know the source of its power, waves and tides
There’s not a grain of sand disturbed
By the last thrash of the wave
I cannot analyse;
I can tell when a star will disappear.

Hunting elusive messengers in your mind
You may find useful this neat chart
We can identify
The electromagnetic impulses for love or hate
We’ve come a long way, you and I
Perhaps it is too late
To search back for some thing we have forgotten.

 

The title and the first line introduce the words DISENCHANTED and DISENCHANTMENT, which normally mean serious disappointment (“He became disenchanted with his leader,”), but immediately you wonder how the WORLD can be disenchanted. Gradually you realise the word is being used perversely if logically to be the opposite of ENCHANTED. We’ve lost enchantment.To me too the very sound of DISENCHANTED is right: it has a kind of mournful music.

 

I don’t mean this as self-praise – just picking out some openings I believe work quite well. Maybe I’ll do this for poems by better-known poets – but that’s harder work as I have my own poems all on one word file!

 

See you.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The End Again

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I said I’d talk about some more last lines. That’s Land’s End in Cornwall above, by the way.

 

CULTURE SHOCK

The cat is serious
It has its ways
So do I.
It came miaowing to me; under the bed it went
Where it scrabbled and rushed around
I bent down and looked it in the eye
I said,
“Hello, puss-cat – what are you up to?”
In reply, the dextrous cat
Threw a rat in my face.

 

Well, that’s obviously a surprise ending, just as the real event was a surprise to me. Not much more to say except that this is much the same as a surprise twist at the end of a novel or short story.

 

But what about this?

 

APPROACH

As I came through the automatic door
And found that it was raining
As I paused to deal with that
This shabby man caught me.
“Do you want to see
The future? It’s amazing, genuinely squire,
Believe me, every customer is
Satisfied. Only five quid,
I’m ruining myself.”
I handed him the money
Went round the side and looked.
And he was right:
All customers were satisfied.
No argument!
No play of light and dark, no life.
Against the rain I pulled my collar up.

 

Here, I’d suggest, I’m imagining a bleak vision of the future, of nothingness. The last but one line might seem to be the punchline. But the last one shows me doing what people tend to do, retreating from something unwelcome into daily life and ordinary, comprehensible concerns. At the same time, I’m seeking protection from my clothes against something not stopped by rainproof clothing.

 

I don’t want to suggest that all good poems end with a final line that’s obviously strong, and there’s another issue about the ending – the conclusion it suggests. Here’s the poem that led to me returning to writing poetry, the first of my new poetic life:

 

SPIRIT MOUNTAIN

“Said to be haunted”
“Source of strength and madness”
Alone on the night mountain
I wait, curious.

Screeches and groans
Tear the night, only I
Know they’re ravens
Not demons.

Harbour lights, town lights, wandering
Headlights shine and
Are gloved into mist

Pale flame of sunrise
Seascape afire
Ghosts? Then within us

But a trickle of
Welsh blood speaking:
Perhaps in the soil
Out of time, sleeping.

 

I wrote this poem about a night out on a Welsh mountain said to be holy and haunted. A couple of hours later, the poem still running through my mind, I added an extra verse. The original ended at “Ghosts? Then within us.” Why did I change the ending? Because I was uneasy and increasingly felt it was too neat and promoted a firm conclusion where I was really unsure. So the last verse rejects a rational certainty for doubt.

 

Happy Easter!

 

Simon

 

 

THE END

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

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

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It’s about the end of a poem.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

TOMORROW

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

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

NIGHT VISION

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

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

THE TOWER

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Take care.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Poetry of History

I’ve got a History degree – apparently one of those unsaleable degrees, which is stupid since History teaches you so much about human motivation, how people behave in groups, how societies and organisations change, how people can change things, how to assess and marshal evidence, how someone’s perception of things subtly or grossly changes the account they give…oh, and the origins of countries, customs, beliefs…

 

No, we just want to think one year ahead and five minutes behind.

 

So how does my knowledge of and interest in History influence my poetry?

 

Well, obviously in some cases because I have written historical poems. My particular interest was in the English Civil War and Commonwealth period – Oliver Cromwell and all that – and over some years I wrote two poems about that period.

 

One apology at this point. as before, I’m hitting “remove formatting” and the unspeakable formatting is still appearing in the post. It is not experimental poetry. It’s a nuisance. But if you think it’s marvellous poetry, enjoy it!

 

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MARSTON MOOR

 

On Marston Moor the rubbish grows

Beside the road, great pile on pile

And those who choked on their own blood

If they could see, would wryly smile,

 

If they could smile, at this New World

Which marks their death with rusty iron,

Snapped plastic, aluminium;

And those who tried to build their Zion

 

Or serve their King, may hear the chant

“Behold, we’re making all things new:

The bloody rout on Marston Moor

Is no concern of me or you”.

 

The Yorkshire soil is doing its job:

Fed deep by Scots and English blood

It brings forth cabbages and beans

Where shattered horses writhed in mud.

 

The moorland’s gone, the muskets too,

But over flat and docile land

A harsh wind blows and voices call

Of hopes we would not understand.

 

Marston Moor was one of the most important and bloody battles of that civil war. Outside York on 2 July 1644, forty thousand soldiers in two armies clashed and at the end over 4,000 were dead. The decisive victory for the combined Scottish and English Parliamentarian forces over the Royalists helped decide the outcome of the war.

 

The poem grew from my experience visiting the battlefield. The land was once a mixture of farmland and moorland, but is now all flat, fertile farmland. I found a 19th century memorial surrounded by a wrought iron fence, against which the farmer had stacked bales of hay. On the other side of the small road was a big rubbish tip. This shocked me. Could we find no better memorial?

 

In the poem I use ideas and vocabulary from the time. This was a time when the American colonies were being developed and many people in England were fired with the idea that these colonies represented a new start, a chance to do things better. So to describe the modern world of the rubbish tip as a “New World” is bitter irony. “Zion” does not refer to the political and philosophical movement  behind the state of Israel, but to the immediacy and importance of the Bible to 17th century English and Scots, especially on the Parliamentarian and Scots Covenanter side where some saw the political turmoil as a chance to build an ideal state in harmony with God.

 

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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 is a more personal poem about the same period, written as if from the mouth of a Parliamentarian soldier with Leveller or similar radical beliefs. Each verse stands for a period: during the first, the Civil War is being fought; the second represents a later time when the military struggle has been won but the radicals face political disappointment; while the third speaks of the restoration of the monarchy, the crushing of such people’s hopes but also a survival. Again I’ve used language of the time. The Good Old Cause became the name used by Parliamentary supporters for their cause, continuing into the 1680s (a plotter against Charles II referred on the scaffold to “That Good Old Cause in which I was from my youth brought up”). That the King was subject to, not above, the Laws was common ground on the Parliamentary side, but the idea that the people were the source of power and the true sovereign was much more radical and new. The Levellers believed traditional English freedoms had been crushed by the Norman Conquest in 1066: royal and lordly power were “the Norman yoke” and the Civil War was a war of national liberation. Cromwell and his senior officers were nicknamed “grandees” and accused of acting like the lords they’d defeated.

 

This is getting quite long, so as Hilaire Belloc might have said,

 

“I’m getting tired and so are you.

Let’s cut the blog into two”. Or three even.

 

I’ll return to this and look at how I’ve reflected other historical subjects and also how History has had a subtler influence on what I’ve written.

 

Mildly Irregular

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Spirit Mountain

 

“Said to be haunted”

“Source of strength and madness”

Alone on the night mountain

I wait, curious.

 

Screeches and groans

Tear the night, only I

Know they’re ravens

Not demons.

 

Harbour lights, town lights, wandering

Headlights shine and

Are gloved into mist

 

Pale flame of sunrise

Seascape afire

Ghosts? Then within us

 

But a trickle of

Welsh blood speaking:

Perhaps in the soil

Out of time, sleeping.

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

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

Here’s another.

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WOLF

 

Cry in the night

A wavering yearning wail

Remembered

 

The pack all know their part

The smell of sickening deer

Bloods their comradeship

Torn flesh is life

 

Wolf dreams the voices in the leaves

The running of a long-lost mate

The tumbling play of cubs and then

Midwinter snowlock, icy breath

 

Fairytale devil

Hiding in homely things

Better to eat you, dear

Ravenous, clever

 

A chalice for our wish to kill

For rape and for rebellion

To turn the world right upside down,

Of chaos, and the homeland’s milk

Of law and lace for all time spilt

 

Wolves ride our dreams

In each dark wood

A half-remembered beast

Down each sharp slope

They wait, or wander like the wind

To fall on anywhere they wish;

The fearful grope

Of climber on the alp falls short

Because the wolf waits just beyond

But at his fall the wolf will stand

And soon have sport

 

A child is missing

Sheep are torn

A travelling brother never comes

Folk knew the wolf must be the cause

 

So hunted it with dog and gun

Until one lonely wolf was left

Searching for any of its kind

Into a trap and hung to rot

 

So who had killed the lost child now?

Some human wolves must roam the night

And must be burnt to break the curse

 

To wolves the random rage of men

Is like a maddened hurricane

That picks this up and sets this down

Safety and death in hands of clown

 

That wail again: no devils of dream

Unearthly through the forest stream,

But wolfpack hunting in the night

And not a tiger burning bright.

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

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

Third and last:

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ESTUARY

 

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

The Romans crossed the estuary by a ford

Now long impassable

The shades settle

 

I am confused by their weight, my questions muffled

By their insistent conversation

As though wings beat in dissonance, we struggle

 

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

One with a hidden face leaves me a thing

Carefully carved from wood, now pocked by seaworms living

 

I put it to my mouth, it makes a sound

And at the calling, all the shades turn round.

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

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

copyright Simon Banks 2012 and 2013

 

Are You Regular?

I’m not posting many poems now. There are three reasons for this:

* I’m not writing so many now as I did, say, a couple of years back.

* By posting my old poems here bit by bit, I’ve got up almost to the present with the poems I think are best. I could go back and post poems I don’t think so much of, but that doesn’t greatly appeal.

* I want to hold back a few good new ones as possible competition entries (not that I’m a great admirer of poetry competitions).

Instead I want to post more ABOUT my poetry. This has gone down well in the past. Now I’d like to try to be a bit deeper and more systematic. I might post now and then about other poets’ writings too.

For a start, I’d like to look at why I write some poems in regular form, some in irregular (“free verse”) form and some starting irregular but beginning to rhyme as they proceed.

Regular rhyme and rhythm can create a dreamlike state. They probably arose out of rhythmic chants at rituals and before battle. At football matches today you can still hear rhythmic chants aimed at uniting those on one side and intimidating or ridiculing those on the other before and during battle. Although rhyme and rhythm are the most familiar tools for this partial hypnosis, the repeating of images or words can have the same effect. Consider the repeated cries of a Fascist crowd: “DUCE, DUCE!” or “Sieg Heil!”

That example points to the dangers of dream-creation, but rhythmic chanting is also used in the most peaceful religions.

At worse, though, rhymes can be predictable, trite, even a little ridiculous, especially if the rhyme seems forced or – perhaps even worse – as soon as you read the last word on one line, you know what its rhyming partner must be.

So let me look at an example of where I think rhyming and regularity work effectively in my poems:

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DEATH AND THE MAGICIAN

 

One day the magician came to me and said,

The fish are leaping in the yellow stream

The oak has turned into an acorn small

And I saw Death in dream.

 

And I saw Death in dream, he said,

And Death was very kind

He showed me where the roses grow

Though I’m old and blind.

 

I’m old and blind and lame, he said,

The sea is out of sight

The shell is empty on the shelf

Through the woken night.

 

The night is all around, he said,

It closes hour by hour

The voices make me fear, my friend,

Should a proud man cower?

 

But should a proud man cower, my friend,

I think perhaps he should

The wine is turning sour, my friend,

But the bread is good.

 

The bread of death is good, my friend,

The bread of life is fine

And now I’ve understood, my friend,

Will the starlight shine?

 

And will the starlight shine, my friend,

And will the starlight shine?

Now let us touch the vine, my friend,

And we will drink the wine.

 

copyright Simon Banks 2012

 

I wrote this deliberately imitating ballad form and imagery. Ballads use a lot of repetition, but sometimes with slight changes which move the action on.

The second and fourth lines rhyme throughout. This is a familiar structure. The first verse has longer lines than the rest: the first three lines have ten syllables (assuming “magician” is elided or slurred). The fourth line though has only six syllables and this marks a change of mood and increase of intensity. From then on the poem becomes a kind of incantation and I have seen what an effect it can have on people. For the remaining verses the first and third lines have eight syllables, the second six and the fourth six or five. These variations help to avoid monotony.

The first line (after the ranging first verse) ends repeatedly with “he said” and then with “my friend”. The latter appears first ending the third line, but then is repeated at the end of the first and third lines. This is another form of repetition. The first and third lines contain internal rhymes – rhymes that don’t come at the end of the line such as “good” and “understood”.  “And will the starlight shine?” is said twice in succeeding lines of the last verse. The rhythm is regular. Words or images are repeated in the body of the poem – bread, wine and starlight, plus arguably water.

The repetition increases as the poem nears its end, conveying a sense of realisation, or completion.

Don’t try this at home, kids…this kind of method could fall horribly flat. It needs mystery and emotional intensity to work. Very few of my poems are structured anything like as tightly as this one. But then no other has had such dramatic effect every time I’ve read it aloud.

Next time I’ll go on to look at irregular and semi-irregular poems and why that can work too.

 

 

 

What poetry is not

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Here are two poems I wrote to make humour out of frustration and say something about what I think poetry is not. My suggestion is that it is not something that excuses the poet from treating other human beings like human beings. Also if something is claimed to be art, it shouldn’t be protected against being criticised for being, say, racist or personally mean and vituperative.

The second poem reflects my belief that poetry is first and foremost an art of the spoken word. Clever shapes may amuse or impress, but they tend to distract from hearing the sound of the words and thinking about their meaning.

I’M A POET

 

I have anger, sore opinion,

Nudge it and I go vermilion.

 

I am special, I’m a poet,

Folk revere me. You should know it.

 

These are my words on the paper:

Worship them, you brainless gaper.

 

What I hold you must not question,

Not by statement nor suggestion.

 

I am special, I’m a poet…

Keep your bile bottle. Stow it.

 

 

POEM

 

If I draw out

These words

Down the

Page

Like this

Someone may

Think it is a

Poem

And be

Impressed.

Copyright Simon Banks 2013

And now for the Magicians

Anyone spot the non-deliberate mistake in my last post? No? Hello? Anyone there?

It was called “Travellers and Magicians”. The poems certainly dealt with travellers, but not particularly magicians. That was because when I entered the title, I expected to be discussing four poems, two about travellers and two about magicians. I found the discussion as getting long enough so I stopped at the first two poems, but failed to change the title.

So now for the magicians. This post, by the way, is another in the series of re-blogging poems of mine with some discussion or explanation.

 

DEATH AND THE MAGICIAN

 

One day the magician came to me and said,

The fish are leaping in the yellow stream

The oak has turned into an acorn small

And I saw Death in dream.

 

And I saw Death in dream, he said,

And Death was very kind

He showed me where the roses grow

Though I’m old and blind.

 

I’m old and blind and lame, he said,

The sea is out of sight

The shell is empty on the shelf

Through the woken night.

 

The night is all around, he said,

It closes hour by hour

The voices make me fear, my friend,

Should a proud man cower?

 

But should a proud man cower, my friend,

I think perhaps he should

The wine is turning sour, my friend,

But the bread is good.

 

The bread of death is good, my friend,

The bread of life is fine

And now I’ve understood, my friend,

Will the starlight shine?

 

And will the starlight shine, my friend,

And will the starlight shine?

Now let us touch the vine, my friend,

And we will drink the wine.

 

I posted this recently on a poetry discussion group and instantly someone asked if it was a ballad. Well done, that woman. I’d hesitate to call it a ballad because that for me implies something about its environment, but it does deliberately mimic ballad style, especially after the first verse. Signs are the large amount of repetition (but sometimes with slight changes), the strong rhythm, definite and simple rhyming plan, lack of detailed description, reliance on a few powerful, often archetypal, images and that it is in some way narrative. If you’re not into ballads, especially if you’re British, think “Sir Patrick Spens”, very much a ballad. Many American Country and Western songs are essentially ballads, for example “Long Black Veil”.

It’s probably fairly obvious that this poem is about coming to terms with death, which is personified as often in folk art. Who are the other two characters, though? There is a Magician (old and dying) and a narrator who is a friend of the magician. Is it actually the magician himself? Maybe. Maybe the narrator is me, but maybe I’m the magician – in my imagination and predictions. Maybe the narrator is God. Maybe (a radical suggestion) he or she is a friend. The Magician is a creative individual who has difficulty reconciling himself to death, but accepting he’s afraid is a long step to accepting death while still loving life (the bread of death and the bread of life).

I wouldn’t want to set out meanings for the key images as if this was a phrase book, so I won’t comment on the roses or the wine. I will comment on “the shell is empty on the shelf/ Through the woken night”. Old people often have difficulty sleeping, so “the woken night” is obvious enough, though the Magician’s fears may contribute to his sleeplessness. But “woken night” could also suggest dark or frightening forces waking up in the night – his fears, maybe.  “The shell is empty on the shelf” is interesting because of the sounds involved (shell/shelf). But why a shell? A shell is empty when the creature that lived in it has died. People often collect shells and may put them on a shelf for decoration. Despite snails, we think of shells as coming from the sea, which has receded from the Magician: it’s a reminder of his failing powers or his loss of spiritual contact (because of his fears?).

In the end the Magician comes to terms with death.

Now another poem written soon afterwards. I actually wrote four poems featuring magicians in quick succession. This happens sometimes with me: an image rises from the unconscious and I can’t make full use of it or exorcise it in one go. the magicians are typically wounded or dying.

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THE SHADOWED WAY

 

I’ve been away ten thousand nights

But now, you see, I’m back.

You lived with a thousand fears

I carry in my sack.

 

You saw the wise magician fall

Emptied out by worm

And the turning of the tides

Come to a full term.

 

You heard the knocking in the night

No shadows cast by moon;

Waited for the morning light

To copy out the rune.

 

You saw the singer come by sea

With seven ships and gold

Felt the ageing of the tree

And the hand grown old.

 

The snows will cover all your songs

The dark will kill the flower

The bud will break, with new-born wrongs

And an unquiet hour.

 

Over the snow the song is sung

And dark gives birth to day;

Remember how the light is sprung

From the shadowed way.

 

 There we are – the magician appears now as a less central character, dying in the second verse. This poem also imitates ballads, though perhaps less obviously. Again, someone is struggling to come to terms with fears, but here, the bringer of fears has arrived on the doorstep.

The characters seem to exist across time or for a longer timespan than humans (“felt the ageing of the tree”. The visitor seems to predict annihilation (“The snow will cover all your songs/ The dark will kill the flower”) but immediately predicts rebirth, which is not always comfortable (“an unquiet hour”). The final message is that light comes out of dark (so accept the dark).

I think that makes sense…

Copyright Simon Banks 2013