What I have left

swirl

 

I’m still going to talk about poems that appear to be about one thing but arguably are actually about something else – extended metaphors, if you like. But here first is something that came to me driving back from a poetry and music evening in Colchester. When I say come to me – it started to come as if of its own accord and then I composed (the form is quite strict) but in a state of excitement from the first inspiration.

 

 

WHAT I HAVE LEFT IS WORDS

What I have left is words
To sing the wind
To wet the sea
To warm the fire
To leaf the tree
What I have left is words

What I have left is muscle
To crest the hill
To cross the stream
To track the path
To fashion dream
What I have left is muscle

What I have left is eyes
To see the wind
To star the dark
To fish the sea
To ground the ark
What I have left is eyes

What I have left is words
To run the river
To shape the fire
To draw the frown
To cut the wire
What I have left is words.

 

 

 

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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.

 

 

 

The Wall

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

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THE WALL

 

Perhaps a straggly hedge; a random pattern of bushes

Our inkblot eyes form into a rough finger,

Blackthorn-barbed, elder and bramble tangled

Stronghold of spiders, ant home, breeder of birds

Only cutting or clear deduction from shape

Would show the wall it was.

What wall, though? Did it divide warring families,

Mark the boundaries of a morose feud,

Shear off the rich estate from stubborn farmers

Or shelter sheep against the harsh March wind?

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

Darkness and a different light to be dowsed

Perhaps two lovers held hands across the roughness

Rasping their wrists, or maybe a farmer forswore it

Broke holes for his plotted purpose

A generation from its loving building.

It fruits and flowers like a spiny Eden

It holds its secrets like a deep, dark millstream.

Copyright Simon Banks 2013

 

 

Travellers and Magicians

From time to time I re-post poems that appeared here some time back but with some discussion or explanation. When I post a poem for the first time I try to keep such added text very short or totally absent in order not to direct people’s reactions. But discussion of poets’ own poems seems to be quite rare on the blogosphere and many people welcome it.

The most recent such posts have chosen a theme such as time or right and wrong and selected three or so poems that illustrated different approaches. That’s hard to keep up if only because it gets very hard to remember which poems I’ve re-posted. Besides, choosing a theme like that can lead to bias or misrepresentation in how I talk about the poem. Imagine if Keats had blogged some of his poems, chosen “birds” as a topic and entered “Ode to a Nightingale” in it.

So here goes with two poems that are vaguely related and were written around the same time.

 

JOURNEYMAN

 

Some day the rain shall tell me I should leave

Or the shortening days set off a bell

Quiet at first, insidious in the blood

So I will pack

Searching the sky for clues

The distant shimmer and blur that might be rain

Glance at the house

And set out by a route that gradually

Creates itself but will not turn on itself

Though I don’t know the city at the end.

 

I am a journeyman, I learn my trade

From hints and shallow inscriptions on low stones

And from the linking of the bones.

 

I am used to wandering

I travel light, I know the signs

The questioning cat, the blackened oak

The broken bridge, the river in spate

The posts turned round, the embered fire

Light in the sky and razor wire.

 

And so the stages wait, or maybe indifferent

I mark them with my feet for a few minutes

But swimming with a river in the mind

I grope and stumble, being alive and blind.

 

 

The first thing is to explain what a journeyman was, especially as the word has come to mean an uninspired plodder. A journeyman was a young craftsman learning his trade by travelling around the country taking on jobs as he went, learning from established people in his craft. A “journeyman piece” of furniture, for example, would be like an apprentice piece – possibly very good, but likely to show mistakes the experienced skilled worker would not make.

So in this poem I (or the person speaking) see myself as a journeyman – of what? Of poetry? Of life? Some of the lines are really quite straightforward: for example, “a route that gradually/ Creates itself but does not turn on itself” = a route that is not pre-set, but emerges gradually as I make my way – and does not lead me back where I came from. The journeyman is not learning from seeing carpentry or ironwork done, but from signs that may seem magical along a route that seems rural. I’m not aware of any special significance to the signs I’ve specified. His journey is partly in his mind “swimming with a river in my mind” and he is “blind” – aware that many things are hidden from him.

 

OUTWARD BOUND

 

Only one vessel, outward bound,

You need not change your course.

The dead gull goes round and round,

Looking for the source.

 

The waves are broken on the wall

The angular land is blind

No salt invades the marbled hall

Nor sails in the mind.

 

The sun is shining as it shone

But the words you talk

Are bronze untaught, of Eden gone

And a broken hawk.

 

Only one vessel, outward bound,

Turning of the tide,

The unknown sea is lost and found,

The rolling sky is wide.

 

 

This one draws on an image from my then recent memory – seeing a dead gull going round and round in an eddy of an estuary. Like “Journeyman” it’s about journeying and leaving. The possibilities, fluidity and uncertainty of the sea are contrasted with the cut-and-dried land, especially in the second verse. Like “Journeyman” the tone is quite optimistic: I expect to go on the journey and find new things. There are lines here I can’t explain: they seemed to make sense when I was composing it! Maybe they do. “Bronze untaught”, for example: I have a feeling that meant something, but search me now! Note the extra syllable in a generally regular poem in “The angular land is blind”: this emphasises the gawky, hard word “angular” and hence what I’m saying about the land.

 

 

 

Estuary Shore

ESTUARY SHORE

Where river suspects salt, land shakes the sea

Revealed expanses lie

Out of the lifeborn mud, worms rise

Ribbon weed aligns, rigid heron stalks

Woman cries, crews die

Remember the dragonflies in the winter

After the last bright body, shimmering wing dies

Under the dark water, waiting, rise

Man gathering shells, sharp stab in the chest

Like a bugle-call, clock struck

Is that the hour?

Turmoil of voices

When shall we hear, where shall we hear,

Now, here?

Rain slants, seeds rebel, green grows

The earth of shells and friends is covered in flowers

Under the pale moon, what cries?

Dust in marble halls, dust of marble halls

Ground jewels, rose roots strike

Lustre withers, slow-burning amethyst escapes

A lost note cries in the dark and I cannot find it

Out of the deathborn mud, worms rise

Boat bumps against the jetty with the waves.

Copyright Simon Banks 2013

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

Led

 

You have assumed a number of forms, he said,

A great bird landing on the wall at night

A half-familiar voice in the swirling wind

Footfalls around the corner in the broken fort

Even the waves of the salt sea

But now you come to me

As a slim girl in dark blue clad with yellow hair

With flowers in your hair and eyes ringed gold

And beckoning because you cannot speak

And drawing on like music in the dark

Out of the scree-strewn lands to the carven ark.

 

Now when the ark has grunted down from the beach

Slithering and grating over shingle and mud

And slipped into the sea, you will run before

So it will follow you to another shore

And you will speak.

 

Copyright Simon Banks 2013

It’s reality, Jim, but not as we know it

Poems are full of ambiguity and mystery. Sometimes this is deliberately created, using words that could mean one thing or another, either to suggest both things or to seem clever by mystifying the reader. Sometimes the mystery, the uncertainty, the blur occurs because the poet isn’t sure of what (s)he’s saying. In an instruction manual for a machine this would be disastrous. But poets like religious visionaries are talking all the time about things they suspect they partly understand.

I’ve picked out here three of my poems where uncertainty is an important factor.

A SIGN

So when the distant soldiers came around midday

To the curious building in the foreign fields

Planted with unfamiliar crops they saw a sign

And casually debated what the thing might mean.

But rain encouraged them to shelter inside the place,

Chapel or school, and the sign was just another strangeness

Among many, and so in time they marched away

To the slaughter next day on the watching ridge

And then artillery and fire destroyed the shrine

The words were not spoken and the slug river moved on.

The poem is about missed opportunities, a sign that could have changed the world but didn’t. Unless we believe that everything is predetermined, the thought of how different the world might have been if the Buddha or Mohammed or Luther, or for that matter Lenin or Hitler, had died before making an impact, is disturbing and intriguing. For the soldiers, though, the crops in the fields, the building and the sign are all things outside their experience: they wonder a bit and move on, having a job to do, a job that will kill them. The soldiers don’t understand the sign, but we aren’t told what the sign is, or how to recognise a sign from noise.

RAINWASHED

I recognise them, the rainwashed places,

The shallow lakes across the demolition site

The passing vehicle’s short-lived water rising

Water-spots on the window, rainbright grass

On the playing-field fringed by uneven brickwork

That will be there another night

When the rain has not fallen, the dust rises and falls

On crumbling walls the fern and buddleia shrivel

And the window is smeared, and cannot be cleared by a fix

And the clouds in the distance, over the barren hills

Could be the coming of rain or could be the end of the trick.

This poem ends with uncertainty: are the rains coming to end the drought, or is it “the end of the trick”? And is the trick a false promise of rain or something more fundamental, an unreal world? The description of the environment during and after much rain seems to lead on to drought through an assumption that drought will follow rain, but is this a natural cycle of seasons or an irreversible change?

TIMER

In the dark tower at the top

A single light, dull glowing red

The tower is darker than the night

The lower buildings round the edge

Cluster in shadow from the red

The hunting waver of an owl

Behind the avenue of dead trees

Wakens a movement in the sedge

And slithering through the hidden ditch.

The moths have gathered round the light

And something old is not yet dead.

Time, our young friend and enemy

Writing we cannot erase

Though written on tablets that may crumble

And in a metre we find strange

The ship is down, we cling to you

The waves around, the water cold

And we were young, and we are old.

If I should meet what I have feared

Lit by the red light from the tower,

If opening the hidden case

I should not find another hour

But something strange I knew before

Recalling marks on that dull door

I shall be ready for time and space.

A golden clock stands on a marble shelf

The intricate workings move at even speed

If I should throw it far in a great arc

Into the waters of the silent lake

What would I think I was, what would I be?

Lianas interlink the blossoming trees

Inside the green confusion all birds sing

And shivering trills with low, slow warbles mix

And touch and mingle, wing to leaf to wing.

This one deals with themes of time and death, but it contains images and lines I don’t really understand myself. You tell me what the significance is of the dull light in the old tower, for I’m not sure myself. I might guess that the tower is a body – or the world. The light may be life and consciousness – or it may be a principle of life, a spiritual reality. So why is the tower darker than the night around? That time is friend and enemy is not a surprising thought, but why “young friend”? Maybe because time is the here and now as well as the distant? Or am I imagining myself outside time, so time itself might seem a blip?

Copyright Simon Banks 2013

The Flower Maiden

 

The flower maiden dances high

She dances through the silent wood

With yellow flowers in her hair.

 

She dances fast: the wood’s in song

The spluttering of a breaking bud

The rustling in a wildcat’s lair.

 

The flower maiden dances low

So all around is green and gay

With nightingales and flowers fair.

 

 

Copyright Simon Banks 2012

(and that’s the last time I’ll write that! Happy New Year! Happy Old Year for backwards time travellers.)

 

 

Lost

 

What we have lost cannot be found

By reading in a book

The stopped songs will not ring out

Nor the lost thoughts, not fallen flowers

That the dry wind took.

 

Stick in the current twists and bobs

Riding the river down

Until it snags and shallows drag

And the trip is done

Though the side currents swing around.

 

That short escape can’t happen twice

As fast the water travels

But it will rain and the river strain

Till all its banks unravel

 

But here the songs and here the ripples

Are almost in our sight

So we will climb and we will dive

Into the dark and light.

 

Copyright Simon Banks 2012

Captain

 

When I was young, the captain said,

I climbed the twisted cherry tree

And clutching branches, I was free

Until the tree was dry and dead.

 

When I was older and was strong

Three broken bridges under stars

Were blocked by giants thick with scars

And it was mine to right the wrong.

 

When I was old, the captain said,

I sat beside the whispering waves

And heard their talk of opened graves

And wandered back to sleep in bed.

 

Now I have seen the tree in flower

And crossed the bridges that were banned

And felt a breath, and felt a hand

It is the place, it is the hour.

 

Copyright Simon Banks 2012