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Lazy grey cattle dozed in the August heat, between sharp falls of rain from dark explosions of cloud, a half mile or so to the west of Crag Lough, where the Whin Sill marks the vertical edge of the old Roman Empire.

Nearby lay a dip to Turret 38, stuck in the bottom of a gulley with hills to the west, east, and north. What a stupid place, you can’t help thinking, to put a watchtower, when a hundred yards to one side or the other would have brought you to a hilltop with views 360 degrees around, and for miles in each direction. It tells us something about the men who made the wall, the men who planned it that is. It wasn’t a military mind, I think, that planted the watchtower there, but a bureaucratic one, marking off the right number of paces from tower to tower –there’s a mile castle on the Cumbrian coast does something similar, missing the hilltop viewpoint by a few yards. And that tells us something about the wall, and what it meant.

This wasn’t a line of passive, desperate defence. There are too many holes in it for that. This was a base line for attack – doors at the cavalry forts made two horsemen wide to get a unit through as quickly as possible, not to make it difficult to shore up under attack. Every garrison having its door to the north, so that they could get into the field at short notice, not so that an enemy could beat it down. The turret in its dip could pass it’s messages of smoke and fire, I expect, as well as necessary, but there are no doorways through to the killing grounds of the north at turrets, where pickets of two or three at most, passed the time with dice and Brigante girls until the next message has to be sent through. Nobody, I suspect, ever thought of storming this wall while it was being defended. It stood at the back of the tribes to the north, offering quick and powerful support against enemies further north still, not facing them.

Whenever I visit Hadrian’s Wall I remember a poem by Andrew Young, called simply, The Roman Wall. Norman Nicholson, the Cumberland Poet, told me that he had met Andrew Young when Young was a hale and hearty old man, still in love with the English countryside, though he was a Scot by birth, and lived most of his adult life in the South of England. He is associated with the Georgian Poets, and his nature poetry was always said to be written from direct contact with, and observation of his subject. I have the first four volumes of the Georgian’s, but his work is not included, presumably because he was younger, and slower to come to prominence than his contemporaries.

I have Young’s poem almost by heart, save for the second verse being so like the third that I always mix them up. It’s a simple, descriptive poem, reminding us how the wall evokes its past, ours. Five stanzas, each of four lines, the lines rhyming AB,AB, and with a short line of 6 syllables at first and third, a longer one, of ten, for second and fourth.

That sort of formality isn’t favoured by the cognoscenti nowadays, but this simple poem is a song. Read it aloud, and enjoy the rhythm, the music, of what is a reflection upon time passing and things changing, staying the same. There is a man in this poem whose experience you can replicate, and at the very same place. Two thousand years have not changed it.

A generation of state educated poets grasped the idea that rhyme belonged to poetry, and sacrificed the meanings and the sounds of words to it. Rhyme suffered as a consequence – being seen as something that turned poems into meaningless jingles. It has fought back over time, because it does have a lot to offer us, bringing emphasis to key words, and music to lines. Some have pointed out that we only know we have a rhyme when we get to the second sound-alike, but that’s not always the case. Where the rhythm is strong, a line can seem to demand a rhyme – hence that jingle risk!

In Young’s poem the rhyme scheme, allied to the long and short lines, gives a particular effect, particularly in the last two stanzas. In the fourth, for example, ‘once’ is not quite rhymed with ‘stones’, though both end words have a soft, rather than a hard consonant. So too in that final stanza, and here, perhaps the shortness of the first and third lines emphasises the sharpness of the single syllable rhyming words, while the longer lines, at lines two and four make their  effect from the softer endings of their rhyme words.

One rhyme in The Roman Wall always worries me. I’d like to have heard Young read the piece aloud, so that I could get the proper sound: He rhymes ‘thorn trees sough’ with ‘lapping on Crag Lough’ – did he sound them both like ‘cough’, or like ‘prow’, or am I way out in both cases? Certainly people these days, in my hearing, rhyme Crag Lough with ‘tough’, and ‘sough’ is a word I’ve never heard spoken. ‘Saughtree’, not far off across the Northumberland fells is sounded more like ‘saw’, but with a rougher ending than that ‘w’, and but a little tuning would bring it to rhyming with ‘trough’, but is it the same word?

  Here’s the poem, for your enjoyment.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Roman Wall, by Andrew Young (1885-1971)

 

Though moss and lichen crawl,

These square-set stones still keep their serried ranks

Guarding the ancient wall,

That whitlow grass with lively silver pranks.

 

Time they could not keep back

More than the wind that from the snow-streaked north

Taking the air for track

Flows lightly over to the south shires forth.

 

Each stone might be a cist

Where memory sleeps in dust and nothing tells

More than the silent mist

That smoke along the heather-blackened fells.

 

Twitching its ears as pink

As blushing scallops loved by Romans once

A lamb leaps to its drink

And, as the quavering cry breaks on the stones,

 

Time like a leaf down-drops

And pacing by the stars and thorn-trees’ sough

A Roman sentry stops

And hears the water lapping on Crag Lough.

 

[from Ten Twentieth-century Poets, ed. Maurice Wollman, Harrap,1965(1957)]

 

For me the poem has something of that question and answer quality that you get with a Petrachan sonnet, where the poem splits, not quite at the half way mark and takes a different tack. The change here is with that ‘Twitching its ears…’, which brings the poem back from a more reflective description, to an action of the moment. There’s a subtle change too, in the structure, for the meaning, and the sentence flows over from the end of the fourth and into the fifth stanza – the previous stanzas have all been complete observations – which begins with a present tense leap – into the past!

You might have noticed that three out of the last five lines begin with ‘and’. This might cause problems for some – it certainly did when I used about a dozen to kick off paragraphs in a short story – but one of the effects is to roll the meaning on at gathering pace, it is after all, unlike ‘but’, a joining word rather than a separating one.

The choice of words to end on, having to rhyme with the soft-ending ‘sough’ – however you sound it – means that the final line does not carry the punch of ‘A Roman sentry stops’, but it does echo the gentle lapping of the water it refers to, which is in keeping with the reflective quality of the poem, and its philosophical observation. I almost experience the silence and stillness of the sentry as he listens.

 

The poem, number four in John Berryman’s Dream Songs, shook me when I first read it (and still does), with its opening words: ‘Life, friends, is boring.’

You can’t say that, I thought, and read on: ‘We must not say so.’ That brought a chuckle, but the line is poignant, especially that ‘friends’, because Berryman was one of our literary friends who took himself away by self-murder. Yet he takes too, the words out of our minds, as he did here for me, and shows them to us. Of all jobs perhaps none is more the poet’s than that.

The ending of the poem is no less powerful: ‘…leaving/behind: me, wag.’ That double entendre, evoking the tail of the dog that has taken itself ‘considerably away’, but also casting the poet in the role of joker, echoes the poignancy of the opening ‘friends’.

In a quiet way this poem is all about isolation, and perhaps not of Berryman only, but of all of us who write, and wonder if can at all help us. The middle lines expand on that boredom. The poet’s mother charges that ‘Ever to confess you’re bored/means you have no //Inner Resources.’ And Berryman does confess to the charge.

Yet the very iconoclasm of what bores him amuses and well as challenges us, for it is ‘literature’, and ‘especially great literature’. But not only that, Henry bores him too, ‘with his plights and gripes’, and Henry is Berryman’s proxy in the written world, and we all, in one form or another, must have our own Henries, who gripe and plight, and love ‘people and valiant art.’

There are lovely sounds in this poem, the half rhyme of ‘drag’ and ‘dog’, the stately unrolling of the lines, even when short, that refuse to jingle, but come down on sonorous emphases: ‘…., because I am heavy bored.’ And throughout there are not quite repetitions, like distorted echoes: ‘Peoples bore me./Literature bores me,…’ and beginning the next line: ‘Henry bores me,….’

There would be something sour, I think, about this poem, something of the Malvolio – except that Berryman does not threaten revenge on any of us, but only on himself. And that dog, abandoning him at the end, not only gives us the weak pun of ‘wag’, but is, of course, man’s best friend. Leaving the poem we wonder, will it leave us too, and as what? Here’s ‘Life, friends, is boring’ on YouTube

 

BHDandME shorn

For those in the know, the pop-up bookshop provides an exciting alternative to the usual literary offerings. It gives a chance to see, and buy, what the national papers rarely bother to review – the books published by small independent publishers, and authors. Celebrity breeds commerce, and vice versa, but Indie publishers and sole authors don’t have big advertising budgets and extensive distribution networks. Their books often remain unseen, and unsold.

None of this has anything to do with the quality of the writing! It doesn’t matter how good your book is, even the local papers are unlikely to review it (though Steve Matthews does a fine job in Carlisle!), and the nationals almost certainly won’t, unless it has been published by a well known company.

Things are changing. The internet is providing a means of publishing, and of getting a global reach. A curious side effect of this is that a writer is more likely to sell copies abroad than in his or her home town. The pop-up bookshop comes in here, offering local authors the chance to show their work to local readers.

Remember, these aren’t the white-sliced bread and baked beans high sellers that is the usual bookshop fodder, the household brands that we all know and reach for without thinking. The pop-up offers the artisan bakers and craft brewers of the literary world a chance to sell their goods, if you’ve a mind to try them.

Thanks to the good offices of Waterstones

in Carlisle, local artisan writers will be offering their wares during the weekend of Carlisle’s literary festival.

Carlisle and the Borders local writers, facilitated by the Carlisle Writers Group and members of the Facets of Fiction Writers Workshop, will be able to bring their publications to a wider audience during the weekend of Borderlines Book Festival.

A pop-up bookshop, inside the WATERSTONES store will run on Friday 7th and Saturday 8th October, from 10.00am to 4.00pm.

There will also be short readings by local writers throughout the two days.

Many of the books on sale will have been published by small, independent publishers, which rarely get the benefit of reviews in the National and even local presses, despite the high quality of the work within – including prize-winning stories and poetry!

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BHDandMe got a freshly written poem into Acumen. It will appear in September, in Acumen 86. I don’t send off many poems these days: I don’t write many, but the last month or two has seen a small crop of half a dozen, which is cheering! Acumen, having encouraged me with publication several times over the years – including in their excellent 60th Anniversary anthology – always get first refusal, and you’ve probably got an inkling of how pleased I am that they chose not to use it on this occasion!

If you want to read some of Mike’s poetry, he has recently released the short collection, An Early Frost, available here.

If you want to read some of BHD’s stories, you could try, The Man Who Found A Barrel Full of Beer. Available here.

BFB coverDIGITAL_BOOK_THUMBNAIL

I ran a day-workshop for writers yesterday, as part of the Lanercost Festival. The subject of putting in, and taking out came up again. I’m a putter in by nature, rather than a taker out, but writing advice, and practice is often focussed on the ‘taking out’. Some years ago I worked as a dealer in second hand books, and many of my customers were gamers. This brought me into contact with sculptors of model soldiers. They had two basic ways of working : one was equivalent to ‘putting in.’ I think, and the other to ‘taking out.’ It seemed to me then, and does now, that the methods held more than passing metaphor for other meanings, and I wrote the poem you can read below. I can’t remember whether or not it was ever published, but it did get read out aloud on several occasions.

The Ways of Working

 

The sculptor will tell you how you can

If you wish to make a man

With some it’s what you take away

With others what you overlay

So start with wire

Or start with stone

I know a hundred ways to be alone

 

With wire you make an armature

To shape your man on true and sure

The stone you prize out of the earth

As much as makes a whole man’s worth

Wind the wire

Carve the stone

I know a thousand ways to be alone

 

Add the sinew mould the face

But of your fingers leave no trace

Gouge out a mouth chip out some eyes

Finely etch a skin of lies

Bury the wire

Polish the stone

There are a million ways to be alone

 

[Mike Smith, out of notebook 19 or 20]

Robert Frost wrote a poem called Blue Butterfly Day. It’s a neat eight lines in two quatrains. (nice to get the jargon out of the way early, don’t you think?)

It’s one of those poems I cannot recall ever hearing mentioned, or seeing referred to in books on poetry, but out of the several hundred poems in his collected works, it’s probably among the top five on my list of favourites, and certainly in the top ten.

I’m not sure how popular Frost is these days, and frankly don’t much care. The half a dozen poems that I go back to again and again – not five then, or ten? – are sufficient to put him in my internal playlist of greats. Frost’s style of writing is perhaps not ‘in your face’ enough for the modern world. It’s vehemencies are not obvious enough, but I like to be offered the flower of the rose, with the thorn left for me to do my finding. Frost’s Blue Butterfly Day has all the flower I could ask for, and the thorn sticks deeper into your palm the more tightly you grip the poem – (might as well get the poetics out of the way too).

The simplicity of the description disguises the bleak subtlety of the meaning.

 

‘It is blue-butterfly day here in spring.’ What could be simpler than that? But a distinction has already been drawn between the butterfly day of the title and the one of the first line, for that title has carried an implication that Blue-Butterfly Day might be a capitalised ‘Day’ of something – of Blue-Butterflies, say! Is it a celebration of them? Is it some local feast or festival? Does it have some sort of signifigance? Have we heard of it? Do we have the T shirt – well yes, we probably do, but not the one we might expect at the title. And by the first line it has lost that significance: blue-butterfly day, without capitals is just a description. And then, though this opening foursome is a pair of ABAB rhyming couplets, we get a BAB rhyming trio, separated out by that first comma, echoing ‘flurry’ and ‘wing.’ These three lines paint a colourful picture as the butterflies become ‘sky flakes’ that will outshow the flowers.

Short poems have to show their colours quickly: rhyme, rhythm and repetition, all used here, do just that, to bring us to Frost’s second verse. The first line here, following the pattern of the first verse, is separated from the rest, but this time by a colon. It is joined to the sentiment of the first verse, by appearing to continue it, talking of ‘flowers that fly’ and of song. But that colon points us directly at the contrasting theme of the last three lines, where some unexpected imagery awaits us – the thorn of my rosy metaphor.

‘desire’ is the first shock, made more shocking by the graphic ‘ridden out desire,’ which is, I suspect, something that we are not expecting of our colourful butterflies. And having ridden, they now must ‘cling’ and no longer in the sky, but ‘Where wheels freshly slice’ and in the mud.

Frost’s abrupt switch from air and light and colour, and a senseless show, to ‘mire’ and clinging, and slicing wheels, and that oh so human riding is the power and purpose of this poem, and the sharpest of thorns. The butterflies’ lives have run their entire course within this single day, and our lives too, he implies, will be no more than that.

Reading it again today- faced with that white page of my title, and my self-appointed blog schedule only hours away, it popped into my head!- I’m suddenly struck with the fact that this poem might be where I took, unconsciously, the model for the poems of An Early Frost where a similar, but clumsier juxtaposition might be detected.

I found Blue-Butterfly Day in The Poetry of Robert Frost, edited by Edward Connery Latham and published by Vintage, in 2001.