BAD!

Bad

Some bloggers pretty much blog as if they’re talking to their best friend. This seems to be much more common among women than men. So some personal conflicts, hopes and fears, some things about relationships and childhood memories, come along with whatever that person is most interested in. Their readers can feel they’ve got a pretty rounded picture of the blogger. Quite possibly they haven’t really and one thing life has taught me is that if one person gives you a picture of a relationship or an argument, it’ll look different from the other side. To tell it how you see it is entirely honest, but how someone else sees it might be worth looking at too.

Some bloggers, women or men, talk about the things they’re interested in – maybe only one of them, travel, golf, heavy rock, politics, poetry, science fiction, cars, Buddhism, gardening, architecture. You learn very little about the rest of that person.

This is a poetry blog. I had another blog until I lost access to it after my last computer crashed, but it was a blog of satirical writings mixed with arguments about moral and political issues. So I’m very much in the second camp. I don’t feel a need to open myself out to people I’ve never seen. On the whole, I don’t want to. You can argue that poetry is about all sorts of things, the whole world (so is politics) and it’s intensely personal, but it’s feelings and perceptions through a prism. Not sure if that’s a good image or rubbish. Anyway, a poem is not a confession.

Nonetheless, I thought I’d widen the scope of this blog a bit and say a little about myself. So here are some of the things I HATE, with the things I really feel passionately negative about left out. In other words, these are big dislikes.

THE LIST

Tomato ketchupketchup

champagne

tinned tomatoes

penguin suits (aka formal dress)

people who laugh at their own jokes (I did that once myself and nearly killed myself – a story for which this blog is not quite ready)

jargon that has no clear meaning (e.g. “the modernisation agenda”)

belching (I have a more nuanced attitude to its sister sound)

foreign holidays where foreigners are kept to a minimum

people who drive at forty miles an hour along a good road without passing opportunities when the limit is sixty, but then pass a 30 limit sign and proceed at forty miles an hour and out of sight.

gushing introductions, spoken or printed, to poets, which on reflection tell you absolutely nothing to distinguish poet A from poet B.

toilet/washrooms in semi-public places (restaurants, cafes, pubs, meeting halls, offices, sports venues) that offer you an opportunity to wash your hands in a washbasin, provide a soap dispensers that works and covers your hands in a soapy gel, but also provide taps that then turn out not to dispense any water.

I think that’s enough for now. I might even list some big likes. What are your big dislikes (similarly leaving out things people genuinely feel passionate about)? Let’s hear them!

In the Dark Wood

Dark_Forest

IN THE DARK WOOD

Cross over the steep-sided stream in the dark woods
Where three thick branches offer a dry passage;
There’s little understory and the trees’ green leaves
Are high. The chaffinch’s jangle is distant. Follow the track.
Climb. The shadowed pond will be on your right. Then left
Past the almost-dead great oak and where the hollies grow
Find it: a broken square of smoothed brick, an odd hump.
Here when the hornbeam and cherry were young
You lived.

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.

Gatekeeperc2b0d42da4e1fd839ff2192fcc42c214

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.

The flexible villanelle

I’ve written before about the villanelle, that very strict verse form (all lines rhyme, only two rhymes used, two lines repeated many times) that sounds ridiculous but is extremely powerful in Dylan Thomas’ “Do not go gentle into that good night” (that’s one of his repeated lines; the other is “rage, rage against the dying of the light”). I tried out one myself and commented that it ended up rather more mournful and fatalistic than I wanted.

Well, I’ve written some more villanelles. CAUTION: WRITING VILLANELLES CAN BE ADDICTIVE. There’s one other serious one. But I thought: someone saying the same things over and over again. What does that sound like? Three of the answers I came up with were:

# A politician of a certain sort (Fascist, say) making a speech.

# An old-fashioned comedian with his familiar stock-in-trade phrases.

# A bore in a pub who has cornered a listener.

I’ve written villanelles to fit all three. Here’s the bore in the pub. For reasons of credibility and verisimilitude, there’s some bad language.

17925253-drunk-man

DID I TELL YOU I USED TO BE IN OIL?

Did I tell you I used to be in oil?
You don’t mind if I scratch this awkward itch?
It literally makes your blood to boil

The way they treat the sons of their own soil.
She had it in for me, the snooty bitch.
Did I tell you I used to be in oil?

I used to be the right-hand man of Doyle
But last year I slept one night in a ditch.
It literally makes your blood to boil.

They used to say, “It’s him!” like I was royal
That stuff was really mine, but some cheap snitch…
Did I tell you I used to be in oil?

The shit who sacked me looked like a gargoyle,
I told him about her and queered her pitch!
It literally makes your blood to boil.

What did I get for all my fucking toil?
You know me, right? I should be fucking rich.
Did I tell you I used to be in oil?
It literally makes your blood to boil.

I’m guessing not many villanelles are like that. It turned out less light than I’d planned: here’s a guy who’s obviously brought about his own downfall, but he lacks the saving ability to admit it was his own fault and remains consumed by resentment – which he visits on anyone who can’t get away. So it is a kind of tragedy.

A Serious Concern

In a village I often drive through, there’s a sign advertising CANINE BARBER.

Dog face

Dog face

Now I’m one of the least prejudiced people around, but I’d rather my hair was cut by a human.

The Politician Bites Back

Canvasser

THE POLITICIAN BITES BACK

You’re not interested?
If someone demolished your house, perhaps then
Yes, OK, but not your neighbour’s house
Seeing the properties are all detached.

We’re all just in it for ourselves? Correct.
Promotion gets turned down, the kids complain, but
It makes me happy when what I did
Makes someone less likely to die
When injustice falls
And we chisel through lies.
So like the others I’m in it for myself.

We’re all the same?
Right on the nail.
My opponent attacks
Immigrants and scroungers;
I attack
Making of poverty and deserts.
Much the same.

We don’t tell the truth?
You couldn’t be more right.
We half-say, suggest, hedge.
We’re smooth: we tell half the truth.
But if I roughly told the whole truth,
Would you hear?

Aunt Ellie and Miles Kington

Miles Kington

The wonderful Miles Kington, jazz musician and humorous writer, died in 2008. One of his last columns featured pairs of sentences that sounded just the same but had completely different meanings. I went away thinking about this. Soon after, he died; but I had my own example, which I would have loved to share with him:

“Aren’t telly plays extremely meretricious, Ed?”

Telly is British slang for TV and this sentence could also be an editorial comment: “Aren’t telly plays extremely meretricious? – Ed.”

and, where the speaker has an actress relative:

“Aunt Ellie plays sex dreamily,” merry Tricia said.

Villainy, Villanelle

The villanelle is one of the most tightly-constructed of poetic forms. Some might think such forms were archaic, but there has actually been a movement back towards tight forms as a minority pursuit.

I rarely try anything like that because the amount of planning, of conscious direction of the development of the poem, is alien to my normal way of doing things. Nonetheless, what we haven’t tried we want to try. Somehow it came to me yesterday to try my hand at a villanelle.

The most famous English-language villanelle is relatively recent – Dylan Thomas’ “Do not go gentle into that good night”. Here it is – to show how tightly constructed and difficult the form is and also how it can flow and burn with passion.

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on that sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Dylan Thomas

So, you see, a poem of 19 lines relies on just two repeated rhyming sounds, in this case -ite (night, height) and -ay (day, pray). The rhyming scheme is ABA ABA ABA ABA ABA ABAA (sorry if that makes you think of sheep; or on further reflection, why should I apologise for making you think of sheep, especially if you’re Welsh?). Two lines are repeated regularly in a set sequence: the first verse uses both and then they alternate as the end line of each verse until in the last four-line verse they both appear. The positions are set.

Difficult! On the basis of having written one of the things myself, I offer this advice to aspiring villanelle writers. Because the two rhyming sounds are worked so hard, it’s essential to select ones that provide plenty of rhymes. -ite and -ay do; and so do -ie and -o as in die or go. But if you started a villanelle with the final word “burnt” you’d be in big trouble. Earnt, learnt and that’s about it. Also the two regularly repeated lines absolutely must be strong – that is, bearing repetition, memorable, emotive. If possible I suggest they should also be flexible, capable of subtle changes in meaning or emphasis depending on the context (the previous line). For my money Dylan’s two lines don’t achieve this, but it’s still a great poem, much better by far than mine.

Well, here’s my experimental effort. I will say that it isn’t quite what I would have wanted to write, that it stresses fate more and awe and joy less than I would have done in a freer-form poem; but that’s one aspect of tight forms. They’re like ruts in a track. Drive along and you may find your tyres in the ruts and the car going not quite where you want.

Here goes.

THE CLOUDS SWING SLOWLY ACROSS A STAR-BURNT SKY

The clouds swing slowly across a star-burnt sky
And I am in a land I do not know
For I have books with many reasons why.

It seems impossible to laugh or cry
It seems disloyalty to turn and go
The clouds swing slowly across a star-burnt sky.

There are no words and so there is no lie
The wind is steady and the wind is slow
For I have books with many reasons why.

So standing here there is no need to fly
Though I have flown, the day is for the crow
The clouds swing slowly across a star-burnt sky.

So will the stars burn steady when we die
And burn as steady when the new things grow
For I have books with many reasons why.

What we build up, erosion will deny
This word will rule that we set always low
The clouds swing slowly across a star-burnt sky
For I have books with many reasons why.

Some would argue that the first repeated line is wrong because it has too many syllables. I rely on elision (slowlyacross). I think it helps to convey the smooth movement of the clouds across the starry sky; and too much regularity becomes mechanical. By the way, I’d have added more tags and categories but WordPress has mucked up this function.

Maybe I’ll try this form again.

Book review: Stephen Done, “The Last Train”

I’ve been posting very rarely for a while. Partly that’s because I’m not writing much poetry at present and have gone through all the old poems I wanted to post, but partly it’s because of the U.K. general election – I’m a political activist – and that may also help to explain the shortage of poetry. It’s not a matter of time but of mental space to get into the right mood.

I think in my next post I might talk about different aspects of people that may seem to be separate and may surprise other people, and quote a few points about me that might get other people doing the same. But for now here’s a book review.

I’d not come across Stephen Done before, but the blurb told me this was one of a series of British detective novels and that it involved a ghost appearing. The fictional detective works in an equally fictional Railway Detective Department a few years after the Second World War. I imagine Done’s core audience combines detective story enthusiasts with railway buffs: at least, there are trains and railway lines even where the story doesn’t seem to need them, described in loving detail.

The story involves a disappearance during the war, the ghost (apparently) of a young woman who looks and sounds like a live human but is just not there when someone stumbles into her, the discovery of body parts and an Indian jewel that apparently brings disaster to anyone who has it. This probably sounds like melodramatic pap. It’s actually done with skill. The reader is given information that pretty well rules out the ghost not actually being a ghost and it’s quite rapidly clear who the villain is, so in that sense it’s an odd detective story, but there is plenty of room for speculation about what exactly happened.

There is surprisingly vivid and poetic descriptive writing. I’m not entirely sure that this kind of fast-paced detective story is the best place for it, but I admire the author not only for his skill but also for his readiness to break away from bald, pared-down prose. The characters are entirely credible, but the dialogue, while it cleverly reflects  people’s preoccupations, character and misunderstandings, is sometimes rather stilted. The police detectives talk among themselves as if they were writing official reports.

I enjoyed it.

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