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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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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Harmony of the Spheres

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This is an old poem of mine – my one and only attempt at a sonnet. The subject is the medieval idea of the harmony of the spheres, a timeless universe centred on the Earth, with incorruptible heavenly bodies contrasted with death and decay among us and heavenly music.

HARMONY OF THE SPHERES

They thought the stars shone from a sphere

Where nothing changed, death was unknown,

Eternal calm looked down on fear,

Lust, greed and rotting flesh and bone.

The stars were strung like diamond beads

On heavenly secrets’ velvet drape

But we below could only dream

Through pictures, words and creeds

How music gave the world its shape

And reeled in time’s chaotic stream.

Now this old picture is a wreck

And astronauts have not picked up

Music on a computer check

Or God’s blood in a plastic cup,

Now that we’ve learnt that change is good

And life is long, and pleasure stays,

We do not need the crystal spheres.

Correctly understood

A yearning for that world betrays

A fear of life, a life of fears.

We know they lived in fear and pain.

Who would not swap the Holy Grail

For wiping out a smallpox strain?

Heaven’s a light along a trail

And not a warlord’s massive tower.

Our flesh is not a shameful thing.

But when we let the old boat go

And slip from place and hour,

Perhaps the stars will seem to sing,

Perhaps the stars will seem to grow.

Two short poems

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WHO IS THE THING THAT DOES NOT CRY?

Who is the thing that does not cry?

Who marches through without a loss?

Who finds no shadows in the forest,

Lives on a rock where nothing dies?

I made a statue with my hands

To clamp down happiness and peace

But it turned a killing beast

And I was left cold-eyed to stand.

THE FIRST STEP TO PEACE

The first step to my peace is restlessness,

For knowing of something else is reaching out

Reaching out is wondering

Wonder is peace

Not wondering is death

A quiet death

And I would sing.

Now first of all, anyone who recognises the statue – nothing personal. This is not a comment about a particular country and political and religious divide.

Secondly, both these short poems were written during the same activity, same place, same day. I wonder if anyone might guess at it. Precise right answers are very unlikely but wrong ones would be interesting.

See you. Hear you.

Simon

Servants

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Another old poem from my collection – this time about fundamentalists. My apologies to the guy in the picture: I spent a long time looking for pictures to illustrate religious fundamentalism, but who’d have guessed it – all the pictures showed people who were identifiably Muslim! Now my contact with evangelising fundamentalists has mostly been with Christian ones because of my background.

They’re not all bad and my poem is about what is probably a particular sub-set, those who are determined to convert people and prepared to be dishonest and deceitful to do so (some undoubtedly wouldn’t do this) and who also are absolutely determined to appear to be happy because to cry or show depression would be to deny God’s power. The poem is an argument against this. In case it’s misunderstood, it absolutely is not an argument against Christianity or religion. I count myself religious and a Christian.

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SERVANTS

 

With fervent voice they praise the Lord;

The fundamentals of their choice

Wrenched from the Bible they enforce

And with a smile apply the sword.

 

They weave a web for passers-by

Of friendly chat and neighbour’s aid

Until the friendship is betrayed

And spider sucks another fly.

 

Into a gap they’ll pour such glue

No wind or wave will shift the wall;

Determined that they’ve heard the call

They’ll say they’re certain what is true.

 

They smile and sing and never cry;

Their outside dark has inside spread.

Who cannot laugh and cry is dead:

Knowing no deep, reach nothing high.  

Copyright Simon Banks 2014

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.

 

Right and Wrong

Keats criticised poetry that had a “palpable design” on us. Poets debate at length to what extent poetry today should carry a political or moral message and whether it changes anything anyway. For re-posting and discussion, I’ve selected three poems written roughly around the same time that all raise moral issues, that is, issues of right and wrong.

I’m not afraid to talk of right and wrong. I’m what philosophers call a “soft relativist”, which sounds like an insult, but actually means the position which I suspect most people in the Western world take if they think about such things – that there are very few if any absolute statements of right or wrong actions (that it is never right to lie, to kill, to eat pork, to accept blood transfusion and so on) but this does not mean that anything goes and different actions in different circumstances may be said to be right or wrong by a standard that is not purely related to my own benefit or comfort or the survival of my genes.

I think, though, that poetry ought commonly to confront moral issues by asking questions or drawing attention powerfully to consequences rather than by laying down right answers.

So here’s the first poem and the most politically and morally engaged:

THE HERALD OF FREE ENTERPRISE

On 6 March 1987 the car ferry “Herald of Free Enterprise”, owned by Townsend Thoresen (later P&O) capsized outside the Belgian port of Zeebrugge, causing 193 deaths. A number of safety measures that would have prevented the disaster had not been taken because they were seen as low priority or would have reduced profits.

 

In December 2009 the Copenhagen climate change talks ended without countries’ leaders agreeing to Carbon emissions limits, after aggressive campaigns by commercial interests attacked the whole idea that humans were causing global warming.

 

The Herald of Free Enterprise

Proclaimed a message of hope and joy

In words that could be painted gold

And deep vermilion in a book.

He blew a long note on his horn.

When from the sea there came a scream

From trapped and drowning passengers

And from the writhing, poisoned earth,

The herald turned the speakers off.

In looking back at this I see immediately that the gloss or introduction makes political points much more directly than the poem, but this is because poetic language uses images rather than syllogisms or platform bullet-points.

The poem is very political and moral, though. It charges the profit motive and unchecked capitalism with 193 deaths and with untold suffering and extinctions through global warming. As it happens I am not a socialist and believe attempts to do without private enterprise are pointless. I don’t see it as the role of a poem, though, to suggest and debate the political action that could be taken (some of it is pretty obvious in these two cases).

I use the name of the ship to develop an image of heraldry and hence bright colours and impressive ceremony – and then suddenly introduce reality and, in poetic form, the way powerful interests control information.

Here, by contrast, is the next poem.

THE LAST PROBLEM

The great detective, pantherlike,

Prowls round the web of traps and mirrors

Constructed by the lord of crime

The lord waits sentient inside

He does not need to move to strike.

The great detective makes his maps

His diagrams and brilliant plans

Each trap is tested by the lord

And nothing’s what it first appears

Even the great detective’s word.

The great constructor sits inside

The marvellous complexity

Of art and thought and warm routine,

Watches the prowling of the wolf

And studies the compelling lie.

The wolf has broken through the web

The city of light alarms and screams

The great detective meets the lord

And who should live and who should die

Lies in your hand and lies in mine.

The character of the Great Detective is a recurring one in my poems. He’s dedicated, determined, rational, intelligent and narrowly-focused – in deliberate reference to Sherlock Holmes.  The poem starts by presenting such a detective locked in battle with a Moriarty figure, the lord of crime. No moral ambiguity here. But as it progresses we find the perception shifts. Now we’re seeing the organisation of the lord of crime as a beautiful city threatened by a destructive force, a wolf that is also the Great Detective.

The prowling nemesis breaks in and comes face to face with the lord. Now, says the poem, you choose who should win. This represents the fact that we can influence the outcome of social struggles, but which side we should take is often unclear and there are different perceptions. But the poem is unforgiving: the difficulty does not absolve us of responsibility for taking a decision and acting.

Here’s the third poem.

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.

You could say this poem lies between the other two. It suggests an attitude but leaves a lot unclear. The world is dirty, messy, often unpleasant and damaged. But to react with a wish to reject the world for something pure and perfect is dangerous: that way lie fanaticism and mass murder. Robespierre, the Inquisition, the Fascists and Al Qaida were all obsessed with purity. So accept that the world is imperfect – but don’t walk off indifferent.  Know the dark and love light.

Copyright Simon Banks 2012

 

Book Review: Victor Sebestyen: Revolution 1989

Now I’m old enough to read about history I lived through! Iwas in relatively free, politically-stable Britain during the East and central European revolutions of 1989, but I well remember the sense of excitement, almost disbelief. The old certainties (well, they seemed old to someone who wasn’t even born till the Second World War had ended) had collapsed. The “Iron curtain” had broken like a rusty sheet of corrugated iron. Being a History graduate, the analogy with the revolutions of 1848 seemed compelling to me – when the old order crumbled in one place, it promptly came under intolerable pressure somewhere else – but the 1848 revolutions were for the most part no more successful than the “Prague Spring”.

I subscribed to “Marxism Today” in those days. I’m not a Marxist, but the magazine’s last flowering was radically revisionist and it fascinated me to get used to political thought from such different roots to mine. In “Marxism Today” the collapse of the old Communist order was covered sympathetically and knowledgeably by wise and skilled writers such as Neil Ascherson. But I was busy in those years and it was often two or three months before I got round to reading the magazine. By then I could often tell if their predictions about the changes in the East were right or not, events moved so fast.

I knew there would be a downside and that some new democracies would struggle or fail, but I also knew how thoroughly people had been repressed.

Victor Sebestyen’s book, then, brings back memories. He conveys the contagious rush of events well and has clearly done his research. The book is well-written with humour as well as drama – instance his description of the East German Stasi files: “Most of the information was mind-numbingly boring…(he quotes from a report from an agent):

“Rathenow then crossed the street and ordered a sausage  at a stand. The following conversation took place.

RATHENOW: A sausage, please.

VENDOR: With or without a roll?

RATHENOW: With, please.

VENDOR: And mustard?

RATHENOW: Yes, please.

Further exchanges did not take place.”

Sebestyan is a journalist, albeit an East European expert and of Hungarian origin. A historian writing the same book might have included a bit more analysis alongside the narrative, a discussion of the role of TV, of what contacts existed between Czech, Polish and Hungarian dissidents, of the role of universities in both propping up and undermining the regimes, of the social origins of dissidents and of security employees and so on. I would have been interested in that too.

It’s a good read, though. I can’t say I couldn’t put it down, but I kept on wanting to pick it up again, despite knowing the ending.

The Meaning of Life is 43

It was 42, but we’ve improved it.

As for the meaning of these poems, well, this is as likely as anything.

I’m continuing to reblog some poems with a bit more discussion.

FORLORN HOPE

Stand firm behind the Good Old Cause

The King is subject to the Laws

The People are the true sovereign

Though they were robbed, to great lords’ gain

The fight is won, the Norman yoke

Is in the dust, the crown is broke

But now the new lords stand on high

For what, then, did we fight and die?

The Cause is down, the free are sheep

The Spirit does not die but sleep

Those who are blind will one day see

And those in chains will soon be free.

This refers to the English Civil War. Actually there were conflicts within and between all of England, Scotland and Ireland in the 1640s and 1650s, but the voice of this poem is an English one.

A “forlorn hope” was a term for a small unit of cavalry, but of course in the poem it has two meanings.  The “Good Old Cause” was a name used for their cause by supporters of Parliament, continuing long after the Civil War: “That Good Old Cause, in which I was from my youth brought up…” (speech on the scaffold by Sidney of the Rye House Plot against Charles II).  The first verse contains the mainstream Parliamentary idea that the King was subject to the laws, not standing above them, but also the more readical idea that spread during the war among the Parliamentary soldiers and others, that the People were sovereign. This was often associated with the idea that the English people had been conquered in 1066 by foreign oppressors and the kings and great lords since then were the descendants, spiritual if not necessarily genetic, of those foreign conquerors – so the Civil War was a war of national liberation – hence the “Norman yoke” at the start of the second verse.

Levellers and other radicals felt they had won the war but then been betrayed by the senior officers and MPs, though they, of course, mostly had less radical ideas all along. Cromwell and others weer christened “the Grandees”.

The third verse refers to the Restoration of the monarchy. It seemed to many that all they had fought for had been lost, or at least postponed. Many of the radical ideas, though, were not lost: for example, the American Declaration of Independence and the American constitution have many echoes of Leveller beliefs and their draft constitution for England, “The Agreement of the People”.

 

WATERSHED

 

Did you see, there where the cloud broke

Between the high grey ridges an angled cleft

Roughly in line with the uneven river

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

Now nothing shows but cloud and the warning of rain.

 

The broken impatient river carved the way

We leave the many-angled rocks behind

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

And the hidden ravens call in the grey mist.

With cunning and husbanded strength

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

Recovering from a slip is hard

Recovering from the task impossible.

 

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

No throne or light or monument

Only the slope is inconsistent

The shattered smoothing rocks lie in no order

There is no river

These barren pools are the only water

 

And then the ghost of a trickle

A few thin fingers feeling

Trying to come together, the hiss and sparkle:

We have passed the watershed

We have seen the birth

Of a new river.

Somewhere there is a new land

But it is hidden and the mist rolls in.

 

There is no warning

No sign, no new music

Just the realisation and the standing still

The dropping, blocking hills

The unknown, long suspected

Alien valley ahead

But half-familiar, like a dream

The hidden end

You feel you ought to remember.

 

The descent from the murderous heights

To the soft valley is always more dangerous

Than the struggling up:

The sight of meadows and bushes can lead like a mirage

To the eggshell-crushing fall

And the way to the low glittering lake

May be many miles round.

 

But at least the first task of the explorer

Seems to have been fulfilled

To show what he wanted to explore

Was there at all.

America is found

Mars glows dully but more clear

In the dark waters, something moves after all

Down the strange valley our suspected

Alive waters fall.

 

This poem describes climbing a small, steep valley in the hills to a watershed and seeing lower land beyond. It can be taken quite literally and was heavily influenced by two actual places, Black Sail Pass in the Lake District and a route over a watershed in Torridon in the North-west Scottish Highlands. However, it can be taken to describe any exploration, any effort to discover or achieve something new.

 

The climber thought there must be a valley on the far side of the heights. The mystic thought there must be another world. The valley on the far side could even be another human being.

 

This is a poem where I’ve made a lot of use of the sound of the words: the broken impatient river, the shattered smoothing rocks, the hiss and sparkle, the low glittering lake. I stretch the bounds of scansion and use near-rhymes (monument/inconsistent; trickle/sparkle; still/hills).

 

Copyright Simon Banks 2012

Auschwitz (complete this time)

I realised I’d managed to post the first two parts of my poem about Auschwitz without the third. So here it is again complete:

 

AUSCHWITZ

 

ON THE WAVES

 

Have you seen them bobbing on the waves,

The bright baby clothes and treasured old pan,

Flask, serviceable shoes and the old soldier’s

False leg?

They were dropped like confetti when the great grave

Opened and closed

The sea will not take them.

 

Sinking not below the unforgiving surface

They will be stranded some time on a shore

Among the cuttlefish and aerosols

For the beachcombing man and his dog to wonder on,

To root, make seed.

 

PEOPLE

 

Thousands of faces,

Most eyes glazed, defeated,

A few determined, defiant,

Hair cut short

Eyes too big, seeing.

People.

 

But on the regimented route

Other blank faces file in unison

Beneath the protecting helmets, taking pride

From a lack of holy tears and nightmares

Somewhere a child laughs from a fine house

What have you made,

People?

 

CALM

 

On the Sargasso Sea of humans

Searching for an invisible stream

An old man rows a leaky boat

Watching the fishes like confetti shifting

Imagining, magician,

Drowned faces smiling.

 

 

Copyright Simon Banks 2012