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She was only the ornithologist’s daughter, but she did it for a lark. Or, to bring it up to date, only the ornithologist’s offspring.

So much for the non-PC stuff. Somebody passed on to me three publications by the late Philip Larkin (High Windows, The North Ship and Required Reading). I can’t remember reading any Larkin, though I know what he said about our parents. That raises the conundrum, for people like me, of whether we should go for blaming the adoptive, or biological ones, and erring on the safe side seems to suggest both.

That’s not what this is about though. It’s about the realisation (which has crept in over years, rather than suddenly), that I don’t buy many poetry books. Partly that’s because I’m spoilt for choice, and most of them will be disappointing (and money has always been tight – at least in a local context). Over and again, magazine editors in the small press world have made the point that if everyone who submitted bought a (bloody*) copy they would be laughing. Hahahahahahahahahahahahahaha, ha!

We don’t of course, and all sorts of inhibitions, critical judgements and parsimonies prevent us. It occurred to me though, perhaps because of the time of year – when humbug is in season – that if we were to buy such publications (and not only poetry, but short stories too, or even books of essays, hmn?) and give one to our friends – two to enemies – we all might be laughing: Hahahahahahahahahahah, haha!

I shall look forward to reading the PL, especially the RW.

*in deference to the article on Radio 4 ‘this’ morning that told us swearing is good for us WTF? Ed.)

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I’ve got to that stage – I came across a handful of magazines not on the ‘boasting shelf’. How they’d been overlooked I don’t know. Perhaps because they were so ragged: covers off, staples rusted, pages dog eared – dog eared? Fighting dogs I suppose.

Even the names I’d forgotten, of the magazines, that is. The names inside sprang back to mind. Half of them must be dead by now, the others half dead. Radix, Muse, Raven. In one I was ‘Midland Poet of the Month’ with a half a dozen poems about Burton-On-Trent that I couldn’t remember writing, until I read them again.

I found also, two ‘Oakleaf Poetry Cards’, with front cover illustrations by artist Steve Muscutt – last seen running Fred Holdsworth’s bookshop in Ambleside – and inside poems by David Watkyn Price. Stockghyll in Autumn Flood ends with the couplet ‘fighting on the edge/to keep the earth.’ It’s a fitting pair of lines to remember David by, and he used it if I remember correctly, as the title of a collection, though I can’t recall the publisher. Perhaps there is a copy still lurking somewhere on my shelves. Here’s a glass raised to both him, and to Steve.

Poems come harder now than they did back then – the magazines date from the nineteen seventies – but the better for it, I hope. I remember faintly the excitement that publication brought with it in those days. It’s a different feeling now, more of gratitude than excitement; more to do with recognising a compliment being paid than with any sense of an opportunity being offered; a sense of acceptance, which of course in that obvious sense, it is.

I was a publication tart in those days. I sent my poems to every magazine I could find, and something like forty of them were accepted. It didn’t change my life, nor that of any reader I expect. I’m less promiscuous these days. I try the occasional ‘fresh’ magazine, but most of the poems I think of as worth having a go with are sent to Acumen. Few get a second chance if they are not taken there. Patricia Oxley has published perhaps a dozen of my poems over the years. She put me in the 60th, celebratory, issue. That earns a first refusal in my book.

Of course, some have gone elsewhere, mostly to local magazines, out of sense of neighbourliness. To be published locally is a privilege.

Finding those old poems reminded me that they have, or have not – and the poet is perhaps the last to know of it – a life of their own, quite disconnected from that of the poet.

In the midst of this unexpectedly re-kindled interest in my Valanga form, here are the first and third examples I wrote. The first, of course, is where the name came from:

The Avalanche

We cannot speak.

Our past is spoken for.

So we must keep our silences.

 

Don’t catch my eye.

We cannot speak,

and I will only look away.

Our past is spoken for.

There is no more to say.

So we must keep our silences.

 

Nothing will change.

Don’t catch my eye.

We have resolved to wait.

We cannot speak.

The distance is too great,

and I will only look away

across the field of years.

Our past is spoken for,

in forests where we lay.

There is no more to say.

I love you now as then.

So we must keep our silences.

 

Our love endures.

Nothing will change.

Only illusions fail.

Don’t catch my eye

while listening to this tale.

We have resolved to wait,

and you were always true.

We cannot speak

about this love we share.

The distance is too great.

Besides here’s not the place,

and I will only look away

to see you in imagination

across the field of years

with tears upon your face.

Our past is spoken for,

and we do not forget,

in forests where we lay,

on paths we walked together.

There is no more to say.

Make no mistake.

I love you now as then.

It’s only hearts we break,

and we must keep our silences.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Marooned

And I no longer look for ships.

We passed in darkness not in light

Where love falls unexpected in the night.

 

It seems so long ago,

And I no longer look for ships,

And leave the beacon fire unlit.

We passed in darkness not in light.

It’s pain that time from memory strips,

Where love falls unexpected in the night.

 

All loss lies in the past.

It seems so long ago,

And time slips by so fast,

And I no longer look for ships,

But sit with closed eyes on the beach,

And leave the beacon fire unlit.

The past is always out of reach.

We passed in darkness not in light.

Who learns the lesson this would teach?

It’s pain that time from memory strips,

Until we are alone at last

Where love falls unexpected in the night.

 

So keep the vigil on your side.

All loss lies in the past

Among the ones whom love divides.

It seems so long ago

We made our separate trips,

And time slips by so fast.

We’ve no regrets at all,

And I no longer look for ships

(There is no rescue yet)

But sit with closed eyes on the beach

To see what I recall,

And leave the beacon fire unlit

In case you see its signal flame.

The past is always out of reach,

And all fires burn the same.

We passed in darkness not in light,

But yesterday still grips.

Who learns the lesson this would teach?

By candle glow and lovers’ talk,

It’s pain that time from memory strips,

Beyond the sound of human speech,

Until we are alone at last.

I would be there if yet I might,

Where love falls unexpected in the night.

 

 

No Valangas here, but a collection of poems written overlooking Ullswater, and including the Ullswater Requiem.

 

 

 

I saw J— yesterday and later sent her the form for the Valanga along with my example. She was very taken with it, ‘loved’ my version and will be trying one of her own today…
S—- sent a message, ‘I took a valanga to Carlisle Writers Group tonight. They were intrigued by the new form and excited by it. And here is a description of it by my lovely friend and walking partner, J— G— “the valanga is a waterfall of words. Or a stream of consciousness. The repetition feels like the rills of water making the same chimes as they hit an outcrop of rock repeatedly’
Finally, K— has written one with the theme of ‘Dusk’ which she intends to send to the Solstice thing.
Seems that the word wants to live the meaning… or something like that.  – from Marilyn Messenger 190917.

 

When I invented the Valanga form, back in 2007/8 it was because I needed it for a particular poem I was trying to write. I was mid way through a Masters Degree at Glasgow University’s Dumfries campus at the time, and had been looking at poetic forms, and at the Pantoum in particular. I included examples of the Valanga form in my course portfolio.

It struck me that the ripple effect of the Pantoum didn’t enable the development I was looking for. I wanted a poem that got bigger, more powerful, as it went on; an explosive poem, but an explosion that had direction. The avalanche metaphor became the title of the poem I was struggling with. Originally, The Avalanche of Emotion, I think! The form was named after the poem, but I chose the Italian version of the word as a bit of sideswipe at the British habit of thinking something foreign is better than something home-grown.

The college authorities, at least their external markers, weren’t impressed with the form, nor, I think, with the temerity of believing one could, or should try to invent one.

I wrote about a half a dozen poems in the form. Having written that first one, I was intrigued to see if it could be made to work more generally. ‘The Avalanche’ itself I count as a success, but ‘An Instant’ is probably the best, – and it was later published and also included in a group of poems that won a Sir Patrick Geddes Memorial Trust Award in 2009. Ben Wohl published them all in a 50 copies only Free-Range Press series, along with one by Fiona Russell – another M.Litt student – plus a pantoum and a post-Valanga poem by me (I have only my reading copy left).

I ran the form past my Creative Writing students at Cumbria University, and one or two had a go at it. Marilyn Messenger, who went on to become a regular writing buddy, returned to her Valanga this year (2017) and took it along to Wigton Writers Group, where it was, apparently, well received. From there it spread to Carlisle Writers – hence the extract at the top of this article.

It’s good to see life breathed in to a writing experiment after so many years, especially after such a cool reception by the university. Quite by chance, on a brief visit to Rome, just outside the city gates, I saw the word scrawled, graffito, on a wall.

Outside the Pilgrims’ Gate, Rome

The form is simple:

The first stanza is of three lines. The second has the same three lines, but each with a new line inserted before it. The third has those six lines with six new lines inserted, one before each of the six. The fourth repeats the process, adding 12 new lines, one in front of each line of the 3rd stanza.

Length of line, rhyme schemes and the like are up to you. It’s worth noting that the first three lines are repeated most often, and the last twelve not at all, and that the third line of the first stanza ends all the stanzas, and will become the last line of the whole, 45 line poem.

I tell you all this not only because I am ridiculously pleased about it, but also because it just goes to show: the writing you did yesterday, and might do tomorrow and may have done today, might find and have its own day – like any dog – long after the ink has dried and the blood, sweat and tears have cooled.

Here’s the second, and to my mind, the most successful of the poems I wrote using the form:

 

An Instant

Suddenly we stop, the sheep and I,

Even the squirrel on the wall.

I’m carrying sticks. They’re in the field.

 

I heard nothing at all

But suddenly we stop, the sheep and I,

As if there were a distant call,

Even the squirrel on the wall,

Suddenly motionless eyes peeled.

I’m carrying sticks. They’re in the field.

 

Maybe there’s some message on the breeze.

I heard nothing at all.

Perhaps they’re more finely tuned than me,

But suddenly we stop, the sheep and I,

As if some deity had drawn us to a halt,

As if there were a distant call

From one who had authority over us all,

Even the squirrel on the wall.

For a moment we’re like a photograph,

Suddenly motionless eyes peeled,

As if something amazing had been revealed.

I’m carrying sticks. They’re in the field.

 

And the best of it is,

Maybe there’s some message on the breeze

That I can read too.

I heard nothing at all,

But we all know there are other senses.

Perhaps they’re more finely tuned than me,

Or can see more clearly,

But suddenly we stop, the sheep and I

And I’m included with them all,

As if some deity had drawn us to a halt,

Not with a command but

As if there were a distant call

Addressed to someone out of sight

From one who had authority over us all,

That we just overheard,

Even the squirrel on the wall,

That made us stop and realise.

For a moment we’re like a photograph,

Wondering if perhaps there is some deep intent,

Suddenly motionless eyes peeled,

Hiding behind this pure invention,

As if something amazing had been revealed,

Going about our proper business.

I was carrying sticks. They were in the field.

 

 

[An Instant first appeared in The Journal #22]

Did you know that Acumen #89 is now out? And it has a wee article by me on Thomas Hardy’s poem ‘Neutral Tones’ – now, hasn’t that got to be worth a peek?

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.

 

There’s a poem by Me, showing on the Acumen Website (a guest poem!). Guest people, it is said, are like dead fish…after three days, they stink. Hopefully the poem might hold up a little bit longer. Here’s the link: http://www.acumen-poetry.co.uk/richard-weiser-mike-smith/

You can find more poems by him, Here.

A recent editorial bemoaned the fact that poets ‘can’t’ read their own work these days – can’t read it well that is. If that’s true, might the reason be that we’ve been persuaded – or at least some of us have – that the poem is a thing of print and writing, rather than sound, and speaking.

Writing, that oh so useful recording system for saving the memory (dumbing down you might call it), has been confused with the practice of putting words together, and perceiving them that way. The solitary, silent imagined-voiced reader has (or perhaps had for a while) supplanted the hearer of the real voiced speaker. And as we consume our poetry that way, so we begin to think of producing it that way too. Gone is the voice music that made poetry memorable, and that brought emphasis and meaning in the right place, and in the right tone of voice and at the right volume, tempo and pitch. If you haven’t written with that in mind then you will have difficulty foisting it on whatever you have written. And if the rhythm, and the stresses are broken or absent, or inconsistent (or inappropriately consistent) then read out loud – never mind the whistles and bangs of a performance that will distract us from, rather than focus us on the words – the language will be broken too.

Norman Nicholson, the Cumberland poet, told me once, that the length of his lines was mostly controlled by the stretch of his breath. A reminder, perhaps, that poetry is of the body’s making as well as, and maybe more so than, of the intellect’s.

I’ve mentioned before in this blog, the experience of hearing someone attempt to read a Gerard Manley Hopkins poem as if it were a ‘rap’. It wasn’t a rap, though, and hadn’t been written as one, and it fought back, imposing its own rhythms and music on the reader. Though not the intended ‘liberation’ he might have been expecting, it was a useful lesson, at least for this listener, in the power of a good poem to fight its corner, and win.

It goes almost without saying that when I’m writing prose fiction, let alone poetry, I do so with the intention that it should be read aloud. Even when I’m writing essays I take account of how they ‘read’ – and by that I mean how they read out loud. Do they roll off the tongue smoothly, powerfully, and coherently? Or are they fragmented, disjointed, jerky. Do they stick in the throat and choke the reader? Do they run out of breath and mangle their meanings? If you can’t read out a piece of your own writing well, you’re taking a hell of a gamble on whether a stranger – who has no idea what you are trying to say, but only what you have said – is going to be able to, whether in a voice that is being imagined or one that is real. It’s not just about your competence as a reader, but about the piece’s readability.

When I get my copies of poetry magazines, short story collections and journals though, I have to confess, I don’t read ’em all out loud! Words in the mouth and in the ear might still be the home of language, but the ink mark on paper (or its digital equivalent) makes a good holiday residence.

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

 

I seem to have spent most of the day re-writing pieces of work. An essay for Vicki Heath at Thresholds, short stories for a long overdue Inktears Showcase. At least both re-writes seem to have worked. The essay just needed some additions, which I already had in mind. But the short story is a different matter. Though I’m a putter in, a short story remains like a metaphorical Jenga tower, a pile of bricks, a house of cards…add too much in the wrong place and it loses its balance, its coherence, its focus, point, structure. The whole thing falls to pieces in an instant, and the better story it is, the more fragile it is, the more vulnerable to overloading and collapse.

Cheer Up. Nobody’s Forcing You.

A friend of mine recently had an exceedingly good poem rejected (with positive comments) by a magazine. Rejection slips can tell you a lot more about your writing, and not all of it negative, than acceptances are ever likely to. You’ll never know, probably, why something has been accepted, but you might get an inkling of why it was rejected – and that might turn out to be an element you wouldn’t want to change!

I decided to do some statistics – I keep a submissions log, on an Excel spreadsheet, adding a new sheet each year. This year’s, 2017, had, on 15th June, 54 entries, which cover 47 pieces of work (some are duplicated, having been sent out more than once). Of these, 20 are ‘out’. 2 were longlisted, 1 shortlisted, and two taken for publication/performance. 1 special case had been brought forward from an earlier sheet because it had been included in somebody’s Top Ten Stories of the last ten years (Liars League), and I wanted to see it on the current sheet, for a bit of encouragement. 12 have not been sent anywhere. 16 were rejections.

I don’t how that compares with your submission log – a writer friend once told me she had never, ever had a rejection slip (I told her it was time she did…I mean, let’s do the thing properly, hey?). Neither do I know if what I’ve shared here helps, hinders, or just puzzles, but rejection is one of the things that most of us who write have to live with. I might also add that acceptance, when it does occur doesn’t bring with it any changes, or at least it hasn’t for me. I don’t expect it ever will. Nothing happens as a result of it. Except, perhaps, – and this is best pay-off of all, though you have to take it in faith – that somewhere, somebody reads something they wouldn’t have had the chance to read, and says to themselves, and perhaps to someone else too, YES! That’s how it is in the world.

I’ll repeat my writing buddy Kurt’s exhortation, quoted from I can’t remember who: You ain’t beaten till you quit!