THE ANSWERS!

“In theory they were sound on Expectation

Had there been situations to be in.

Unluckily, they were their situation”

CLUE: A Yorkshireman in America?

W.H. AUDEN – “THE QUEST”. Auden was a Yorkshireman who moved to the States.

Wiry and white-fiery and whirlwind swivelled snow

Spins to the widow-making unchilding unfathering deeps

CLUE: Socialising with Jesus?

GERARD MANLEY HOPKINS SJ (Society of Jesus) – “THE WRECK OF THE DEUTSCHLAND”.

With beaded bubbles winking at the brim

And purple-stained mouth

CLUE: Suffering from a kind of Thrush?

JOHN KEATS, “ODE TO A NIGHTINGALE” – the poem is about joy and suffering among other things and a Nightingale is a member of the thrush family. The quote is a reference to people in the South of France drinking wine.

The earth of shells and friends is covered in flowers

CLUE: Money is the source of some evil.

OK, I sort of cheated. This is one of mine – so SIMON BANKS (Moneybanks?), “Estuary Shore”.

Far, far around shall those dark clustered trees

Fledge the wild-ridged mountains steep by steep

CLUE: Hyperion to a satyr!

Which is a quote from “Hamlet”, but that’s a red herring. the poet is JOHN KEATS again, “Ode to Psyche”. Keats wrote, but never finished, the epic poem “Hyperion” and he wrote a lot about elements of classical Greek mythology such as Hyperion, satyrs and Psyche.

though now it seems

As if some marvellous empty sea-shell flung

Out of the obscure dark of the rich streams

And not a fountain, were the symbol which

Shadows the inherited glory of the rich

CLUE: Bill Gates?

W.B. YEATS, “Meditations in Time of Civil War”. If I could remember just one short passage of poetry, this would be it. The W is for William (informal form Bill) and Yeats and Gates are variants of the same word, what we now call a gate.

Neither the magical smith nor the carver

Of mythical fish on soft stones will answer a call

CLUE: The first pope?

Cheating again – another of mine slipped in. SIMON BANKS, “Callanish – Winter Solstice”. Allegedly the first pope was Peter (Simon Peter, Simon the Rock).

But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make

Of beaten gold and gold enamelling

CLUE: An Irishman in Istanbul

W.B. YEATS again – “Sailing to Byzantium”. Yeats was Irish and Istanbul used to be Constantinople, the capital of Byzantium.

Cold blows the wind on my true love

And a few small drops of rain

I never knew but one true love

And in greenwood he was slain

CLUE: What about Franz Fanon?

Rhymes with ANON. This is an anonymous late medieval ballad, quite a well-known one.

It came to me on the Nile my passport lied,

Calling me dark who am grey

CLUE: MacUncle?

No, MacNeice. LOUIS MacNEICE – “Beni Hassan”.

I saw Willie Mackintosh burn Auchendoon:

CLUE: Perhaps the most prolific of all poets.

ANON again, obviously – an anonymous 16th century Scottish ballad. It’s an example of a line that needs context to be effective: Willie and the Mackintosh clan are seeking to avenge the murder of the Earl of Moray in Mary, Queen of Scots’ time and in the ballad are repeatedly warned not to raid and burn the house of the man responsible. We know the raiding party will be caught on the way back and nearly wiped out. This is the last line: Willie ignores the warnings and goes to his death.

Remember me to God

And tell him that our politicians swear

They won’t give in till Priussia’s rule’s been trod

Under the heel of England – are you there?

Oh, and the war won’t end for at least two years,

But we’ve got bags of men

CLUE: Mad Jack

Which was the nickname in the First World War of Second Lieutenant Siegfried Sassoon (on the British side despite his first name). So – SIEGFRIED SASSOON, TO ANY DEAD OFFICER”.

Life, like a dome of many-coloured glass

Stains the white radiance of eternity

Until death shatters it to fragments

CLUE: Related to Frankenstein by marriage.

That should have been an easy one – P.B. SHELLEY (whose wife wrote FRANKENSTEIN): “ADONAIS”.

Oh, and one I meant to include but forgot:

She drove in the dark to leeward

She struck not a reef or a rock

But the coombs of a smother of sand. Night drew her

Dead to the Kentish Knock.

CLUE: A manly poem.

GERARD MANLEY HOPKINS again – and again that tremendous long poem, “THE WRECK OF THE DEUTSCHLAND”.

I was just a bit disappointed no-one actually had a go at this as a quiz, even for some of the questions, but this has been fun, so I think I’ll include single mystery quotes in future posts, some at least. That could give me a chance to redress one big imbalance, since all these poets were male. I think this is a historical thing: poetry until the mid-twentieth-century was much more male-dominated than novel-writing, for example. If I was picking out four or five of the best contemporary British poets and following personal taste, Julia Copus and Kim Moore would be in there; but they’re not yet well enough known to have been fair quiz questions. Earlier? Personally I’m not a Sylvia Plath fan, unpopular though that position is, and Emily Dickinson interests rather than excites me, though I need to test that more. I want to go back and look at Christina Rossetti’s stuff more, though.

Come on – have a go!

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Those lines

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OK, no-one has stuck their neck out to suggest names for those mystery poetry lines, though several poets follow this blog. There has, though, been a request for clues.

So here goes.

“In theory they were sound on Expectation

Had there been situations to be in.

Unluckily, they were their situation”

CLUE: A Yorkshireman in America?

Wiry and white-fiery and whirlwind swivelled snow

Spins to the widow-making unchilding unfathering deeps

CLUE: Socialising with Jesus?

With beaded bubbles winking at the brim

And purple-stained mouth

CLUE: Suffering from a kind of Thrush?

The earth of shells and friends is covered in flowers

CLUE: Money is the source of some evil.

Far, far around shall those dark clustered trees

Fledge the wild-ridged mountains steep by steep

CLUE: Hyperion to a satyr!

though now it seems

As if some marvellous empty sea-shell flung

Out of the obscure dark of the rich streams

And not a fountain, were the symbol which

Shadows the inherited glory of the rich

CLUE: Bill Gates?

Neither the magical smith nor the carver

Of mythical fish on soft stones will answer a call

CLUE: The first pope?

But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make

Of beaten gold and gold enamelling

CLUE: An Irishman in Istanbul

Cold blows the wind on my true love

And a few small drops of rain

I never knew but one true love

And in greenwood he was slain

CLUE: What about Franz Fanon?

It came to me on the NIle my passport lied,

Callign me dark who am grey

CLUE: MacUncle?

I saw Willie Mackintosh burn Auchendoon:

CLUE: Perhaps the most prolific of all poets.

Remember me to God

And tell him that our politicians swear

They won’t give in till Priussia’s rule’s been trod

Under the heel of England – are you there?

Oh, and the war won’t end for at least two years,

But we’ve got bags of men

CLUE: Mad Jack

Life, like a dome of many-coloured glass

Stains the white radiance of eternity

Until death shatters it to fragments

CLUE: Related to Frankenstein by marriage.

Oh, and one I meant to include but forgot:

She drove in the dark to leeward

She struck not a reef or a rock

But the coombs of a smother of sand. Night drew her

Dead to the Kentish Knock.

CLUE: A manly poem.

Come on – have a go!

Great lines!

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Don’t quite know why I chose that photo for this post. It looks good. It looks mysterious. Good poetry is sometimes mysterious. A false syllogism is lurking here somewhere.

It’s a picture of a blue moon. Good poetry comes once in a blue moon? Anyway.

I thought I’d post a few of the lines of poetry I most admire and love, that excite me most. Not precisely one line each, because natural snippets may be less than a whole line or as much as five-and-a-half lines. I’ll not give the name of the poet right away and see if you can get any of the names right (by sure knowledge or guess) WITHOUT GOOGLING THE QUOTE, AND THAT MEANS YOU, SIMPKINS! Then we can return to them and maybe discuss why they’re so good or why they’re not good. So here goes.

1: In theory they were sound on Expectation

Had there been situations to be in.

Unluckily, they were their situation.

2: Wiry and white-fiery and whirlwind swivelled snow

Spins to the widow-making, unchilding unfathering deeps.

3: With beaded bubbles winking at the brim

And purple-stained mouth

4: The earth of shells and friends is covered in flowers.

5: Far, far around shall those dark-clustered trees

Fledge the wild-ridged mountains steep by steep

6: though now it seems

As if some marvellous empty sea-shell flung

Out of the obscure dark of the rich streams

And not a fountain, were the symbol which

Shadows the inherited glory of the rich.

7: Neither the magical smith nor the carver

Of mythical fish on soft stones will answer a call.

8: But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make

Of beaten gold and gold enamelling

9: Cold blows the wind on my true love

And a few small drops of rain

I never knew but one true love

And in greenwood he was slain.

10: It came to me on the Nile my passport lied,

Calling me dark who am grey

11: I saw Willie Mackintosh burn Auchendoon.

12: Remember me to God

And tell him that our politicians swear

They won’t give in till Prussia’s rule’s been trod

Under the heel of England…are you there?

Oh, and the war won’t end for at least two years,

But we’ve got bags of men.

12: Life, like a dome of many-coloured glass

Stains the white radiance of eternity

Until death shatters it to fragments

OK – comments are welcome.

Suggest who the poets are and maybe even name the poems

Give us some of your own favourite lines

Say something about the lines I’ve chosen!

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More Snape

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First, an official announcement. If you got an email notification about my post yesterday, but on clicking couldn’t find it, there is a reason. I’d edited it and either failed to click on PUBLISH or the PUBLISH hadn’t worked (which is my story). Anyway, it’s back now. Please look at it as this post won’t make a lot of sense without it. On the other hand, that may be how you like things. Are you by any chance a poet?

Now one or two things I didn’t mention yesterday.

There was a long and interesting panel discussion about poetry and beauty. What is beauty? What is poetry? What is and? Poets from the 17th to the early 20th century often used the word “beauty” but it’s now almost a dirty word. It’s vague, of course, and saying something is beautiful doesn’t help much to describe it. We’re also clear now that there’s no obligation for poetry to concentrate on beautiful things, or what would we make of war poetry?

It seems to me we still write sometimes about beautiful things, but often with a kind of reservation, and we don’t use the B word. I don’t either – and the things I find most beautiful aren’t often the subject of poems, though they often appear as images within poems. The exception, for some reason, is dragonflies. Twice in the same long poem (“Dark Lady”), I apply the B word to them (one beauty, one beautiful) though in each case the dragonfly is an image suggesting something else.

Now the other thing. As last year, the poetry readings were a revelation (and only occasionally, a revelation that I didn’t think much of that poet), but I found some of the introductions jarred. These were sometimes very obviously read word for word from a book or script. We hear that this poet shows “startling humanity” or something like that, and very rarely does it give those who don’t know his/her work any idea what it’s like. Does it matter (s)he’s published six collections or seven? Why not just get on with the poetry? If (s)he wasn’t well rated, (s)he wouldn’t be at Snape about to read to us.

Oh, and the Macedonian poet Madzirov is great fun.

Snape Poetry Festival

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I’ve just come back from the annual Poetry Festival at Snape Maltings, Suffolk. This was the 25th such, but formerly they were held a few miles away in the small town of Aldeburgh by the sea, a fishing settlement turned to tourism and music. Snape Maltings is a site by a river and reedbeds, consisting of beautiful industrial buildings turned to use mainly for music events.

Last year I made my first visit, staying just for the one day. I don’t live so far away that a day trip is problematic. But it did mean I’d have been unwise to stay for the poetry open mic, which finishes just before midnight. This time I booked into events from Friday evening to Sunday morning and had a go at the open mic. I stayed in a very friendly and convenient bed and breakfast on the main road at Stratford St Andrew, about a twelve-minute drive away.

This could be a very long blog, but it won’t be. Here’s just a few impressions.

At the start, it can be a bit intimidating. It’s a big venue and a big event. I found myself thinking it was a bit like arriving at secondary school aged eleven and having to cope with an alien organisation, a confusing multiplicity of rooms and a tight timetable. It didn’t help that it was raining heavily and dark. Moving from place to place withing the site involves going outside and in places the lighting is minimal. That helps deliver marvellous starscapes when it isn’t raining or cloudy, but also helps deliver you into potholes and puddles.

People were all friendly. That wasn’t always so the previous year when the “ushers” at the doors for the events were some of them rather forbidding. I met a lot of people including some of the featured poets. I bought poetry books by two of those, Kim Moore and Robin Robertson. I’ll blog about them when I’ve finished reading their books. There was much thought-provoking discussion and lecturing: the only pity was that this never involved the audience. I suppose that becomes difficult when so many people are present and the timetable is packed – difficult, but not impossible.

It seems to me that much contemporary poetry is thoughtful, compassionate and rational. It’s also in its main thrust quite different from the main thrust of what I write. I use common words and images of common objects, but I’m rarely chatty in poems. I use mystery more and observation of characters less. No problem: I learnt long ago in poetry to do my thing, not someone else’s.

One thing that does bother me a bit, taking in both Snape and recent browsing through a lot of poetry magazines (what I could find on-line) is that some poets seem to think their main task is to think up unusual ways of describing things, and then if they string together a few such descriptions with some light twine such as “Mother used to” or “In Manchester”, there’s the poem. I can see the inspiration this comes from, to see mundane things anew as Craig Raine said, but it can become a sort of competition exercise: “Find a new way of describing an ATM/someone drinking coffee/a bus stop/a poodle”, or “cram as many unusual metaphors and similes into the poem as possible”. Such ingenuity is fine, but if it’s valued too much, it becomes confetti without a wedding or even a wind to make it swirl.

The open mic was fun. I read “Death and the Magician” and “Night Vision”. One young female poet read a piece about refusing intimate shaving and it was very, very funny.

More soon.

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History seeps into poetry

Last time I blogged about writing poetry about historical events. I admitted to having a History degree and a continuing fascination with the subject. It’s fairly obvious to anyone who knows that Marston Moor was a battle in the English Civil War, that a poem titled “Marston Moor” is historical. I wrote another poem called “Marie Antoinette”, and that’s a bit of a giveaway too.

But there are more subtle influences, ways in which historical awareness affects what I write just as awareness of landscape does even if the poem is not about landscape.

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Trapped in the hills and hunted down

By hidden bog and avalanche

By haunting wind and wolf, survivors

Stumble beside a clattering stream

Down to the valley of their dream

 

Where cupping hands bring out bright gold

Trees offer fruit of no known tang

And vivid song as no bird sang

Wakens the travellers from the cold

 

They name the valley, import the skills

To mine the gold and lay the roads

Till someone heads for other hills.

 

When no dark ridge is left, the wise

Explore the forests of the mind

And stare in one another’s eyes

 

Now out of mist on broken lands

What new and treacherous hills will rise?

That’s from the poem “Explorers”. The explorers go through great dangers to find they know not what. They find wonderful things, destroy them over time and move on. I can’t see that I could have written that without awareness of European exploration of other continents – and of the influence of the American West and the impact of the West (in the sense of a borderland of promise and danger for the settlers) ending.

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STONE STEPS

 

They found some stone around this place:

The pale steps worn by constant feet

Are buried in the wiry grass

And no-one knows who walked on them.

 

One end is by the river bank;

No sign of other end is left.

Perhaps this curious find is best

Donated to the town museum,

 

But somehow it seems better still

To leave them where they worked and wore.

Maybe they’re still a bridge of sorts,

Though what to what no-one can guess.

Well, this is a mysterious poem and no doubt not really about what it appears to be about, but the starting point is the historian’s or archaeologist’s curiosity about some remnant or ruin.

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CITY

 

Something started here

For a reason: the river was fordable

The tracks of cattle drovers drew together

The lie of the land and the weather were right for spinning

A governor found the distance from his palace

Just right for horses. Growth has a beginning.

 

Those origins are hidden, bulldozed, built on

Reinterpreted in guide-book and in myth

Slums and fine houses grow and are destroyed

The stonework of the bridge lies underwater

The factory’s become a heritage centre

From crumpled streets the tanners and the whores

Have gone but left their memories for a while

In street-names till some government

Dedicated to the pure and nice renamed them after

Generals, or trees that once were said to grow there.

Old stinking alleys strangled for office blocks

Ghostly survive in sections of quiet close

Or shopping trolley dumps round parking lots.

 

The city forgets; flexes; reinterprets.

People are born and die, the language changes

Suburbs seep out. Some time the city will end

Inventiveness, sweat, tears, frescos swallowed up

Slipping into decline, houses left empty,

Grass in the streets, but here and there a core

Churning more slowly and uncertainly;

Or suddenly in a fire that by scorched shadows

Commemorates the impertinence of daily life.

Unpeopled, not quite dead, the city will still be seen

In humps and ditches against the flow of land

By rumour, legend and a blackened buckle.

That’s from “Six Strands”, my longest poem: I used another bit of the same poem to illustrate how being a long-distance walker had influenced my poetry. The strand here on the city is pretty much all history: an awareness of processes by which cities grow up, change and die, but leave remains that can be interpreted even if all memory of the city has been lost. The picture of decline, for example, owes something to what I know of the last years of the Roman empire in Britain.

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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

That’s from “Estuary Shore” and the point here is the intense sense of time, time over such a long period that marble halls are turned to dust, but a sense of renewal and rebirth as well.

I might add some comments next time about History and why I think Ford was wrong (“History is bunk”) about this as well as most other things except how to make money from making cars. But that’ll do for now. Oh, and if that dratted (or mysterious, intriguing) formatting has appeared again – sorry. The controls that should remove it do not work. It appeared one day and will not leave.

Now that is an idea – a poem pretending to be a load of formatting instructions.

 

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.

 

Robin song

I’m a birdwatcher. You can tell that because I make it one word. Anyone who writes “bird watcher” isn’t one.

In a temperate country like Britain, there are huge movements of birds in spring and autumn. People are most aware of the summer visitors (arriving in the spring after spending the winter in Africa), but we have winter visitors too – birds that come from the Arctic or at least much further north, anywhere between Greenland and western Russia, to spend the winter in milder Britain. In a northern country like Finland, almost everything moves out in autumn. In an equatorial country like Kenya, you notice kinds of birds appearing that aren’t there all year: these have come from further north where winter is approaching. I’ve lived in both those countries.

Events like the first cuckoo call in spring or the arrival of flocks of winter thrushes on the East coast in October/November are conspicuous and quite well-known. But there are less well-known seasonal variations.

Robins (the European Robin, not the much bigger thrush called “Robin” in North America) stop singing for a while after the breeding season ends. But they’re highly territorial birds, the song tells other Robins the territory is taken (and is beautiful to our ears) and they start singing again in autumn. For some weeks Robins had been very hard to find round where I live. Then suddenly, yesterday, they were singing.

Now this is a poetry blog. For someone so interested in wildlife, I don’t directly write about birds, mammals and so on as much as, say, Ted Hughes did, but they do appear.

Here they play a part in a story (Spirit Mountain):

(but here, I fear, formatting will insist on appearing: though I’ve followed the instructions of my internet friend Neelima and also done the obvious thing of selecting “remove formatting”, it keeps jumping up on the Preview. This may be because of how I’m copying text from a word file. Well, I’m going to post this now and will try to fix the problem next time!

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Screeches and groans

Tear the night, only I

Know they’re ravens

Not demons.

In this poem I’m spending a night on a supposedly haunted/holy mountain, as I did, and realising that the strange noises come from those big crows, Ravens.

Here’s the start of “Breaking Time”:

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TREASURE ISLAND

The pirate sails through swivelling seas

And gains his goal through knife and trick

He lands at dawn with craftsman’s skill

The island’s multicoloured birds

The heavy scent of hanging flowers

Hold his attention for a while

It comes naturally to me in imagining a tropical island, to think of the birds!

Maybe because I know a lot about birds as birds, I don’t use them much as images suggesting something else, but here I do:

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LOST ISLAND

I don’t know whether the man at the gate has blundered,

But when I arrived I thought I was going to

An island no-one else remembered

But here the flesh has covered up the sand

And made a picture postcard of the sea.

I don’t know whether the island I remember,

The gap-topped tower you could climb to watch the sea,

Exists; the ferry timetables no longer mention it

But maybe the envelope I left on the floor

Contained an invitation or a feather

From that white bird that soared above the tower.

I’m not a “nature poet”, but I do write a few things of that type:

MERLIN

Mud slurries, sparkles in blue sky’s snatches

Wormholes wither and dry

Salt sea recedes, Grey Plover stalks

The tide is out.

Suddenly a shape, dark in the sun

Sharp-winged, intense over the swivelling saltmarsh:

Merlin!

A Merlin is a very small, fast falcon. Grey Plover is a wading bird that breeds in the high Arctic and arrives with us from August.

I did find one mention of Robins in a poem about autumn. Their mellow, sad-sounding song seems appropriate to the season. But the biggest influence of birdwatching on me as a poet is that it’s taken me to moors, estuaries, islands, forests…

Finally an apology. An internet friend (step forward, Neelima) pointed out that the formatting was showing on my recent posts. She gave me advice on sorting it. Let’s see…


		

Poems and Treks

So I promised I’d try to relate all that trudging over moors and hills to some poetry, starting with my own.

Here’s one for a start:

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WATERSHED

 

Did you see, there where the cloud broke

Between the high grey ridges an angled cleft

Roughly in line with the uneven river

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

Now nothing shows but cloud and the warning of rain.

 

The broken impatient river carved the way

We leave the many-angled rocks behind

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

And the hidden ravens call in the grey mist.

With cunning and husbanded strength

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

Recovering from a slip is hard

Recovering from the task impossible.

 

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

No throne or light or monument

Only the slope is inconsistent

The shattered smoothing rocks lie in no order

There is no river

These barren pools are the only water

 

And then the ghost of a trickle

A few thin fingers feeling

Trying to come together, the hiss and sparkle:

We have passed the watershed

We have seen the birth

Of a new river.

Somewhere there is a new land

But it is hidden and the mist rolls in.

 

There is no warning

No sign, no new music

Just the realisation and the standing still

The dropping, blocking hills

The unknown, long suspected

Alien valley ahead

But half-familiar, like a dream

The hidden end

You feel you ought to remember.

 

The descent from the murderous heights

To the soft valley is always more dangerous

Than the struggling up:

The sight of meadows and bushes can lead like a mirage

To the eggshell-crushing fall

And the way to the low glittering lake

May be many miles round.

 

But at least the first task of the explorer

Seems to have been fulfilled

To show what he wanted to explore

Was there at all.

America is found

Mars glows dully but more clear

In the dark waters, something moves after all

Down the strange valley our suspected

Alive waters fall.

I guess it’s pretty obvious this was written by someone with experience of walking the hills. A watershed is the point at which watercourses divide: in other words, step one way and you have a trickle going one way; step the other way and the water runs in a different direction and the two do not unite, at least for many miles.

This poem was actually influenced most by a day’s walk over a watershed in Torridon in the Western Highlands of Scotland – not on a long-distance trail – and by climbing Black Sail Pass in the Lake District, most recently during training for a long-distance trail. But the experience of seeing a pass, of seeing great distances from the hills, of the fascination of seeing the nature of the country change as you trudge forward, and the excitement of seeing the start of a new valley down which you will go – all those are influenced by long-distance walking.

Of course the poem makes this stand for other difficult, risky  and exciting discoveries.

Now just a short excerpt from a rather long poem (“Shadowlands”):

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CROFT

 Here between the tumbled stones was the door:

Tired men passed seeking warmth, hot broth or a spade

Woman with a sickly baby in hope

The occasional visitor for a dram and stories.

Now the tourist wanders inside

The wet wind flails without a whimper.

This was provoked by an actual ruined croft a little off the old drovers’ road which is now the line of the West Highland Way round the edge of Rannoch Moor and the Black Mount. What is particularly poignant is the still-clear track that leads off the main track to the remains of the croft (small hill farmer’s dwelling).

And some bits from my longest poem, “Six Strands”, written bit by bit while on a long-distance trail journey (the Wye Valley Walk):

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MOUNTAIN

 

Little grows here. A scratch of stunted grass

And one surprising flower almost hidden

Simple and small like man, one shrill small bird

Breaks from a tumble of rocks and disappears.

 

Everything starts from here. A drop of rain

Will find its way to a river, a grain of grit

Will join a field or a burial ground.

 

Standing alone here on a better day

You can see steeple, orchard, river, inn

A sharp blue lake with bare scree shores,

But touching nothing, all’s another land.

Now the false friend of cloud is sidling in

Whispering to forget the distant things

But if you do, you’ll lose the near things too

It’s time to go.

 

FOREST

 

From a distance you can see the tracks, well beaten

Or largely abandoned, curving to the edge

And disappearing in the forest cover.

(and later:)

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The curve and cleft of the land speaks of the river

Before you see it. Straggles of bush and tree

Mark out the living and the long-dead streams

That struggle towards the river.

(and later:)

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Unpeopled, not quite dead, the city will still be seen

In humps and ditches against the flow of land.

All of these depend on a practical understanding of scenery: where there must be a river, for example, or how mountain environments differ from the valleys.

Enough, I think! Anyone else out there whose wild walking influences their poetry??

 

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