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Writing can be an alarmingly fragile activity.  It’s all I ever really wanted to do, and even I was blocked for a decade and more. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to write. It wasn’t that I had nothing to say. It was something to do with confidence. i was like a horse refusing a jump (apart from the four legs, of course).

So one of the issues I’m aware of when working with other writers is how easy it is to put people off, by saying the wrong thing, or too much, or not enough. I don’t always get it right! Everyone will have something to say, even if they don’t realise it, and anyone with any sort of language has a tool for saying it, however crudely.

The issue came to mind recently. I’d been recalling a meeting with the poet R.S.Thomas (I recalled him as gaunt, grey and fierce), and that brought to mind my old friend and poetry mentor, Geoffrey Holloway, who died back in 1997. I wrote an article about Geoff, comparing him and Norman Nicholson: two poets writing in Cumbria when I was a young man, and who seemed a generation apart though they were only four years different in age. The essay is in Steve Matthews anthology Nicholson at 100 (Bookcase, Carlisle, 2014).

It was Geoff who saved me from that ‘block’. Shortly before he died I attended a celebration of his life and work, re-connecting after a gap of several years. He’d heard from mutual friends about my situation, and not quite metaphorically had me up against a wall. He talked about ‘back then’, and in the collection I bought that night, wrote ‘for Mike, and the old days in the vat bar’.

The ‘vat bar’, at Kendal’s Brewery Arts centre had, and may still for all I know, round tables and seats in each of two or three old beer vats. That was where our tiny audience had sat to hear R.S.Thomas read! That was where ‘the Brewery Poets’ met, to share their work. Your stuff, he told me, had been among the best.

You could interpret that, but I took at as I’m sure it was meant. It was the right time. Other prompts, life threatening, and life expanding, were already pushing me towards breaking the block.

Sometimes it doesn’t take much to discourage, but equally a little encouragement goes a long way. (and having written this, I find myself reading that old collection once again. – And Why Not?, Flambard 1997)

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Robert Frost famously, well, perhaps not famously but certainly reportedly, in the biography of him that I read a few years ago, advised his students not to write ‘unless you have something to say.’ I’ve cited the quotation before, but I come back to it again and again. It has a rider that changes what you might have thought of as its rather unhelpful finality: if you haven’t got something, he would, apparently, add, ‘go and get it’.

Having something to say seems to me to be an entirely laudable reason for writing, and trying to get it said might well be a long job, involving many attempts that either end up saying not quite what was intended, or failing completely. But there comes a time, I’ve found, when, only occasionally, one finds oneself, or to put it more bluntly, when I’ve found myself feeling that I have said what I had to say, and that consequently the tank is dry, the larder empty, the cupboard bare, and all other similar metaphors.

It’s an unpleasant place to find yourself, especially after that moment of euphoria when you first begin to think that you’ve nailed something (other than your literary thumb). I’ve experienced it in a couple of genres, I think – one can never be sure about these things – and certainly in poetry. It hasn’t stopped me writing poems, but it sure did slow me down. It was nearly ten years ago when the drowning of three boys in Ullswater challenged me to be a poet who wrote about something that mattered, or not. The Ullswater Requiem took several months to evolve, and I’m sure I’ve told the story elsewhere. But after it was finished, far from being the spur to a flurry of other poems, it created a sort of hiatus. I came to a stop. What else was there to say that I could say that would stand up to comparison with it?

To feel like that didn’t require anybody else to endorse my assessment of UR. It was, I knew, whatever reception it got, or whatever anybody else thought about it, simply the best thing I had written; the best thing that I had conceived of writing. I still feel like that about it, whatever level the poem stands at in relation to other people’s best or worst. It took some time to recover any sense that it was worth me trying to write anything else.

A similar thing happened to me on the way to this blog post. Nearly two years ago now, I wrote a couple of flash fictions, and then a short story (short enough to be regarded as flash fiction by some definitions) which had a similar resonance for me. One of the flash fictions (perhaps the starting point, and the least developed) has been published. The other pieces still have not, and, I suspect, might be impossible to place for a variety of reasons. A good friend and valued critic panned absolutely the one that I see as the pinnacle of the trio, yet, yet, for me it remains a high point: the high point when it comes to what I might have to say.

I’ve suggested to students before now that success as a writer is something that has, or has not, already happened when you put down the pen, or close the keyboard. Public, or private approbation, publication, is only the recognition of that already accomplished success. Success in sales, or celebrity is an entirely different matter, as Gerard Manley Hopkins or Nathaniel West might testify.

So.

At the moment I’m wondering what to write that will advance what I perceive as my writing trajectory. I’d be tempted to say that it is ‘no easy place’, but I said that back in 2004, in a poem that provided the title of a now out-of-print 2005 collection (the poem, In My Claude Glass, was included in the Maryport Writers anthology New Stories for Old Stones).

Ah! A beer in Vetters Bar in Heidelberg, just off the Haupt Strasse at the Cathedral end. Bliss.

Yesterday reminded me I must watch Bad Day at Black Rock again, but in the meantime here’s some news about a poetry anthology under preparation in Cumbria and to which I was offered the chance to submit.

I was lucky enough to have one poem accepted. It’s one of several poems I have written over the years touching on the subject of dry-stone walls. The first two were written back in the mid seventies and picked up by The Countryman magazine (which actually paid for publication!). It was a theme I returned to for a number of reasons. One was that the stone wall has a high profile in the culture of the north of England, and does so even as far south as where I grew up. The Derbyshire stone-walls are as ubiquitous as those of Yorkshire, Lancashire and the Pennine country and of the Lake District Fells. They differ in building styles and techniques, some being of the dark – Satanic – millstone, some of the sharp, irregular limestone. But here in Cumbria too there is a similar variety – Limestone on Orton Scar, Slate and granite on the central Lakeland fells, sandstones on the fringes to the north and west.

It’s not just their appearance in the landscape that draws the poet’s attention though. Walls themselves, Hadrian’s or the Emperor of China’s, and later Stalin’s, Israel’s, and perhaps one day Trump’s, make political and racial statements about who they are walling in and walling out. Since schooldays Robert Frost’s poem has reminded me to ask ‘to whom’ they were ‘like to give offense.’ That poem, Mending Wall, appeared in the 1914 collection North of Boston. Decades later, in a collaborative publication with retired miner and embroiderer Kenneth Dow Barker, the Cumberland poet, Norman Nicholson’s Wall, inspired me with its lyricism. That poem focussed on walls in the landscape and how they were built, but it contained a simple idea, ‘built it to stand’, that became the core of my later poem.

I heard Nicholson read his poem along with others from Stitch & Stone (Ceolfrith Press, 1975) at the Brewery Arts Centre in Kendal, soon after, or probably at its launch and I recall him introducing the two long poems – Wall and Beck – with the explanation that he hadn’t had the time to write shorter ones.

Writer and stone-waller, Joe Smith, writing in Southlight  #13, cited one of my wall poems – quite a compliment, for I believe he can’t have seen it in print, but must have remembered a reading somewhere. That might have been at the Burns Centre in Dumfries, where I read as a warm-up poet for a mildly famous ‘named’ poet, whose name I have forgot. He reassured me during the after show hospitality, that I had been lucky that he had ‘not caught fire’ in his own reading. I have wondered since if he was the lucky one, as I would have had to hand only beer or urine to douse him in – and would have considered it a waste of beer (nobody can beat a poet at nursing a grudge).

To be published in early October by Handstand Press, This Place I know will feature poets living in the county. There will be launches as part of the Borderlines Festival, and at the Wordsworth Trust.

I was at a public rehearsal of Patchwork Opera’s Footstep a couple of nights ago. A multi-media group, of poets, songwriters and film makers, they had put together a story based in Carlisle (England), and which featured a poem by local writer Kelly Davis. A full performance scheduled for August 29th at Carlisle’s Old Fire Station.

In particular this caught my ear, because it was written in the Valanga form. I devised and named the form about ten years ago, whilst working towards an M.Litt at Glasgow University’s Crichton Campus.

The exercise wasn’t appreciated by my assessors, it must be said, but it served the purpose of allowing me to write a poem I wanted to write in a particular style. I had been looking at the pantoum form, and the way that lines repeat in a sort of ‘ripple’ down the length of the poem. That wasn’t quite what I was looking for. I wanted a repetition that would build, expand, like…I thought, an Avalanche! The poem was called Avalanche (originally, The Avalanche of Emotion…which was too much, and most of it wouldn’t need saying if the poem did its job!). I called the form Valanga, as a bit of a dig at the British (English? Establishment?) preference for Arts that aren’t home grown.

Kelly’s, to my way of thinking, successful use of the form, had resulted in her poem being taken for publication…but the editor had asked for some shortening…saying it was a bit ‘repetitive’. The editor, Kelly told me, was ‘forthright’: a good quality in an editor, especially if you are going to disagree with them!

The use of repetition is traditional in poetry (and elsewhere), but that doesn’t necessarily mean that that use must be for tradition’s sake. Repetition can be used in several ways (some of which, I’m sure I’m not yet aware of!). It can render a phrase, clause, or sentence (or even a single word for that matter) meaningless, comic even. It can add emphasis on each subsequent usage. It can fade like an echo, or like someone leaving, or crying in a wilderness. It can explode, like an avalanche, progressively filling our consciousness. It can test a form of words against a variety of background contexts that will give them meanings totally at variance with each other. It can make music, beat, and rhythm.

In poems like Louis Aragon’s Ballade de celui qui chants dans les supplices it can be heart-breakingly powerful, where the opening refrain becomes an assertion of human courage, endurance, hope and intention against the certainty of death:

 

“Et s’il etait a refaire

Je referais ce chemin….”

 

….Which I translate as:

 

‘And if it was to do again

I would do it the same…’

…which I know is not a word for word translation. You can find the poem, with a word for word translation in The Penguin Book of French Poetry 1820-1950, which I strongly recommend to anyone wanting to write poetry influenced by our European tradition.

A similar power, in a quite different context can be found in Josephine Dickinson’s lament for her late husband. From the collection Scarberry Hill (Rialto,2001), comes the profound and moving Instead of Time .

Again it is the opening lines that are repeated, this time with a slight variation to end the poem:

 

Do you not hear the sea?

Snow still falls on your grave

(I threw a red rose)

The wind still blows.

 

This stark quatrain of simple, single syllable words beats like a muffled drum, and I have testified before to feeling the hair stand up on my neck when I have recalled it to mind, let alone read it again. The first time I heard Josephine read it (she stood tall, slim, silent and motionless as a pillar of dark slate) not only did I listen in stillness and in silence, but without breathing for fear of breaking the spell; and that spell was woven to a large extent by the repetitions of these words.

At the other end of the scale, the repetition of a single word or phrase ad nauseam can reduce an audience to hysterical laughter.

Perhaps somewhere in the middle lies that tradition I mentioned, in the provision of choruses to both songs and poems. Choruses bring us back and send us round again, like a merry-go-round fun-fare ride, like a marching song. But it’s not only verse, lyrical or otherwise. I’ve even attempted a ‘chorus’ short story, though it didn’t quite work out that simply (Last Chorus in Burton on Trent, from Second Time Around, 2006). Repetition is a powerful tool of more general oratory. Can you remember Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock asking his members if they were ‘ready for power’, and by that repetition generating a storm of response that some commentators suggested he himself was not ready for?  And what about the Shakesperian repetition that undermines its own ostensible meaning in Mark Antony’s famous eulogy…Brutus is an honourable man…?

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.

 

DIGITAL_BOOK_THUMBNAILThere were 14 poems in the first projected version of An Early Frost, but they were whittled down to ten and then had to be boosted again for technical reasons – giving me the chance to bolt on the Ullswater Requiem, which was written in the same time period, and from literally the same perspective.

What surprised me when I finally got around to publishing them, was how many years had passed since they had first been written. In fact, it’s a decade now since the first of them was completed, and just over a decade since it was begun.

Over the years all except one of them has been published, or won prizes, or both (and that one, I think, appeared in A Gatehouse of Fleet window during the recent Big Lit weekend!). Then I was invited to contribute to a reading at Dumfries Theatre Royal (on May 5th!). I sent the collection in and said, I could read a couple from this, ‘as yet unpublished collection’. It was only after I’d made the submission, that I told myself it was time to do something about that.That’s what gave the impetus to self-publish. What I think of as the core poems of the collection were too few, I thought, to interest a small press, and perhaps they are too old now! It’s always possible to perceive as a problem the question of what to do with a poem that has been published already, and here was a whole group of them: written from the same place, facing the same view, and dealing with similar themes, in a similar tone of voice. Though they were written individually, they always seemed, among other writing of the same period and the same place, to hang together. The ones that were pruned out were pruned, not so much because they hadn’t been published, as because they didn’t have that tone of voice. These poems sound as if they belong together, at least to my ear.

The poems have appeared in several magazines and journals, among them Acumen, and the south-west Scotland magazine Southlight. A couple appeared in the Templar Poets anthology Octopus. Curiously, they have been taken as pairs and trios, as well as single poems, so perhaps it’s not only me who thinks they belong with each other! Ullswater Requiem was one of a different group that won a Sir Patrick Geddes Memorial Trust award, back in 2009, the first time the award had been made to a piece of creative work. It was written in response to a triple drowning in the lake, which I did not witness, but felt that I could not fail to respond to. I still have somewhere the handwritten couple of pages of A4 paper upon which the earliest draft of this poem appeared. I took it along to one of Chris Pilling’s poetry workshops at Keswick, where poet Meg Peacock identified some lines of blank verse in the middle of its half formed ideas. It was this that gave me the sense of the structure that it needed, and became the opening ‘sonnet.’ First three, and then five,six, and finally seven sonnet-like verses, borrowing from the structure of the Requiem Mass, took shape over the next few months. Each step in the process seemed a journey finished, but with something missing, that only longer reflection could, and did provide.

What surprised me, reading through the collection to look for typos and spelling errors – but not to correct – was how fresh they seemed to me, though the years have left them behind. It’s three years now since I worked on the garden that overlooked Ullswater and Howtown Pier, and looked out towards Steel End and Hallin Fell. I haven’t been back, though I’ve seen it from a distance. The place offered a grandstand view of the world it encompassed: water, earth, and sky, and the flames of my frequent bonfires. Sounds flew in along with the birds that carried them. People came and went. The Ullswater Steamers ferried their passengers to and from the pier, and wrote their passages in those ripples, as regular as Marion Richardson handwriting.

I feel as strongly attached to these poems as I did the day I wrote them, which gives me a confidence – perhaps misplaced, as confidence can be – that they are worth the reading: I have a file of some three hundred poems written in the nineteen seventies, and would struggle to pick out more than four I would still put before you (and some sixty of those have been published).

The cover photo was taken from the bonfire place in the old rose garden, looking to the north of west. The collection, An Early Frost, poems named and un-named written above Ullswater, by Mike Smith is available on Amazon, in print form or for Kindle.