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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.

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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?

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]

‘Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in’

The line is from Robert Frost’s narrative poem, The Death of the Hired Man. Statements like this, which, even when uttered by one of the ‘characters’ in his poems, seem like observations by the author, are a major element in what makes Frost’s poetry so enjoyable for me.

In this poem, as in many others of his, there is a narrative voice that seems partly Frost himself, yet carries the hint of a put-on rural characteristic. Frost was, up to a point, a New England Farmer, but that was not all he was, and the seemingly colloquial voice that he uses in many of the poems could well be part of his strategy for drawing us in to the poetic killing zone of these pithy one-liners.

In another rural poem, The Tuft of Flowers the first person narrator is scything grass, following a fellow worker who, unseen has gone before him. He finds the eponymous blooms, spared by the other man’s blade, and realises that their common activity, and sensitivities, binds them in a more than physical way. This is neatly expressed in the final couplet, which is a reversal of a couplet used earlier on in the poem:

 

‘”Men work together” I told him from the heart,

“whether they work together or apart.”’

 

A less rural story, but one that also brings us to a single revelatory statement, is Tree at My Window. Here the two asymmetrical lines are:

 

‘You have seen me when I was taken and swept

And all but lost.’

 

As in Blue Butterfly Day – blogged about recently – the reference to human passions is oblique and almost slips by us, but the line gives us the point and purpose of the poem. It is not the closing line though, as it might need to be if this were a short story, and a further verse makes what seems more of an aside, than a summation, as the observer notes that ‘Fate had her imagination about her’ to connect tree and man, which of course the poet has done! He goes on to tell that the one deals with ‘outer’ and the other with ‘inner weather,’ closing the poem, and perhaps nudging the unobservant reader who might have missed the significance of those two earlier lines.

Not every poem, of course, contains such stand-out lines, but look at the short poem, short lined and short on lines, Fire and Ice. Three sentences powerful in their simplicity, the first two of two lines each, the third stretched out over the remaining five lines of this single verse poem, carry a meaning couched in logic, but virulent with emotion. The poem sets out a position in its first sentence, and an acceptance of it in the second. Then it sets out the opposite contention, followed by the reasoning for accepting that too. It ends:

 

‘To say that for destruction ice

Is also great

And would suffice.’

 

That couplet of four syllables, and three of them in each, stressed, imbues the poem with great power. It is almost as if Frost has dispensed with the setting, and gone for punch-line on its own. The structure is there, but the balance between context and statement has changed. This poem is almost wholly the assertion of its point. I first encountered it being performed by Jonathan Pryce, as part of a play shown on TV. At that time I still thought of Frost – as I had been taught to at school – as a sort of ‘nature poet,’ which meant, effectively, one who wrote about how pretty the flowers were. When I realised that this was in fact a Robert Frost poem….well…when I came back, my eyes were open to the emotional intensity, and human passion that lurks in the seemingly prettiest of his poems.

On a comic note there is the stunning ending to A Considerable Speck. The eponymous speck, is in fact some sort of creature that Frost, the writer, has momentarily mistaken for an ink blot. As it makes its escape across his unwritten page he recognises that it has intent, if only to survive. But the poem takes an unexpected turn with its closing couplet, perhaps the most satisfyingly unexpected, and perceptive, of all these punch-line blows that I have found in Frost:

 

‘No one can know how glad I am to find

On any sheet the least display of mind.’

 

Ouch!!  Worth reminding ourselves here, perhaps, that Frost’s advice to poets (and by extension to all writers) was to NOT do it, unless you had something to say….to which, apparently, he would add the exhortation, that if you hadn’t got it, ‘Go and get it!’

Regular readers of the blog will know that I’m a fan of the French short story writers – a friend recently gave me a copy of Alphonse Daudet’s Lettres de mon Moulin so I can have a go in the original! I’ve already found La Chevre de Monsieur Seguin (where’s that blasted accent key?), which, in English, is in Hammerton’s Thousand Best Short Stories along with two volumes of French writers stretching back to the Medieval period!

The French do some pretty mean poetry too, and I’d like to draw your attention to Louis Aragon, and the poem Ballade de celui qui chanta dans les suplices. You can find this, with an English prose translation – the best way with translations of poetry I suspect – in The Penguin Book of French Poetry (1820-1950), which is as good a feast of poetry as you’ll find anywhere. Aragon’s poem, built around a single statement repeated – though not as a chorus – throughout the piece, is resonant and powerful, and based on, as we say, ‘a true story.’ That striking line, by the way, is ‘Et si’il etait a refaire/Je referais ce chemin…’ which sends a frisson down my spine whenever I recall it.

Having read it again, I recalled something from many years ago, about a quarter of a century in fact, and was moved to write a poem of my own (a rare thing these days); Here, for what it is worth, it is:

Rappelle Toi

I remember walking a camp-site lane

in the Belgian Ardennes a long time back,

where under hedgerow trees I found these stones

engraved with names of some who had been shot

in the last few weeks of war.

 

They were not forgot – fresh flowers lay.

Written there too, this message:

 

mort pour vous

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