At drop of dusk

It’s near-darkness on a placid autumn evening and I’m sitting in my sherbet-lemon car.  Floodlights towering over the pitch beyond throw their glow upon the burnished leaves of the birch tree in the car park.  A car pulls up next to the pitch and a woman with a baby harnessed to her chest walks up the lane.  The baby’s name is Max. They are wrapped together beneath her coat and she is talking to Max, kissing his hatted head. She watches for a while as the coaches shout to the boys who throw and catch, run and ruck.  She tells Max how well his big brother is doing, explains to him some of the simpler rules of the game and, even as she breathes in the milky sweetness of his forehead, she knows that the years will be short before it is him she is watching in the steaming pack of muddy boys on a still autumn night.

I sit back in my car seat and put my head against the rest.  A migraine is in retreat.  It is too dark to read – the floodlights don’t reach this far – so I take out my phone and find something to listen to.  Dylan Thomas shuffles to the front of the queue, he’s reading Over Sir John’s Hill.  I rest my head and close my eyes; I’m there with him and it’s bliss.

I think Dylan Thomas’ poems work on many levels, many points of sophistication; Thomas is to poetry what Abba is to pop music.  Listen to the poem (here, although I prefer the reading from ‘Dylan Thomas at the BBC’) and you will hear lively imagery animated by alliteration, assonance and repetition.  It sounds free and almost prose-like, but if you read it (here) you can see that, as in Don Paterson’s poetry, everything is held together by a solid frame of form.  Five stanzas of twelves lines with a syllabic pattern and rhyming aabccbdefegh.

As I’ve said before, poems seem to take on an added dimension when read aloud.  Donald Hall agrees.  In an article for The New Yorker, a series of anecdotes and thoughts on poetry readings, he says Thomas’ poems were ‘fabricated for his rich and succulent Welsh organ’.  He also says:

‘When my generation learned to read aloud, publishing from platforms more often than in print, we heard our poems change. Sound had always been my portal to poetry, but in the beginning sound was imagined through the eye. Gradually the mouth-juice of vowels, or mouth-chunk of consonants, gave body to poems in performance. Dylan Thomas showed the way. Charles Olson said that “form is never more than an extension of content.” Really, content is only an excuse for oral sex.’

But for me, as a listener, it is something purer.

Sitting there in the darkness, listening to Thomas examine his own mortality, it took me back to that moment of promise before a first kiss.


Oh, Donny boy

Oh, but isn’t Don Paterson just the dreamiest wee man?  Strong words softly spoken get me everytime.

I listened to an interview with him from BBC Radio 3, and he had some very interesting things to say about why he uses form in poetry –

“I can feel the pull back to cliché passed off as spontaneity very often, so  I’m trying to fight the thing that’s at the front of my mind to get to something that’s more interesting at the back of my mind, and very often with poetry I’ll use form as a way of getting to that stuff, you know, as a way of pushing through a wall.”

and about cautious use of sentimentality, including a fantastic analogy –

“It’s sentimentality.  Something that I learned, hopefully, from [Robert] Frost is the importance of going there, you know, and it depends on what you want to define as ‘risk’ in your poetry, and the risk for me is you have to risk looking like a sentimental buffoon, you have to risk looking stupid, you have to risk being understood, you know, that’s personal risks, the ones that might result in you looking ridiculous.  Because that’s where the good stuff is and I think that’s where the genuine emotion is that you can elicit from the reader is toward the zone that we might call sentimental.  It always reminds me, you know, of these guys who prepare the puffer fish, the fugu.  You got to train for ten years, in Japan, before you even get to sit the exam, and then there’s, like, 80% of them fail and the whole idea of it, of course, is that you have to cut it close to the poison sac, because if you cut it too close, you kill the diner, but if you cut it close enough, enough of the toxins seeps into the flesh of the fish to give the diner a fantastic, kind of, buzz, you know.  So that’s my relationship to the sentimental – I’m trying to cut it as close as I can without disgusting the reader.”

He really is my poetic idol.  I mean, I love Ted and Sylvia and Dylan, I do, and I am influenced by them but Don is real and now.  Just look here (and listen here):

The Lie

As was my custom, I’d risen a full hour
before the house had woken to make sure
that everything was in order with The Lie,
his drip changed and his shackles all secure.

I was by then so practiced in this chore
I’d counted maybe thirteen years or more
since last I’d felt the urge to meet his eye.
Such, I liked to think, was our rapport.

I was at full stretch to test some ligature
when I must have caught a ragged thread, and tore
his gag away; though as he made no cry,
I kept on with my checking as before.

Why do you call me The Lie? he said. I swore:
it was a child’s voice. I looked up from the floor.
The dark had turned his eyes to milk and sky
and his arms and legs were all one scarlet sore.

He was a boy of maybe three or four.
His straps and chains were all the things he wore.
Knowing I could make him no reply
I took the gag before he could say more

and put it back as tight as it would tie
and locked the door and locked the door and locked the door

When you listen, it sounds natural, only when you read closely do you notice the form (five stanzas of aaba followed by a ba couplet).  A subtle, yet sturdy framework.

Strong words softly spoken get me everytime.

In harmony

Wife warms milk, fills three small mugs,
husband drips opioid drops, stirs.

Each avoids other’s glances.

Trio of children, undressed
and cross-legged on their mattress,
drink their bedtime milk,
pledge their bedtime allegiance,
shut their bedtime eyes;
quicker, deeper than usual.

Husband and wife swap assenting glances.

She rolls back rugs,
he lifts floorboards,
they haul out the
chest, she hands him
the key, he turns
the lock, they lift
the lid, slowly, slowly, savouring the moment, as
familiar vivid treasures lying dormant within, are
awakened by the dulling light of dusk.

They each take their parcel as far from the other as the tiny room allows.
Each watches the other shed their formless overalls, trading smiles of comradeship.
They turn to stand back to back as they change.
Victor buttons his faded-white still-starched dress shirt, pulls on his hand-stitched evening suit.
Anna steps into a gown of brocade as deeply blue, shimmering, as remembered summer lakes.

They turn to face each other;
recognition settles in, as
they take each other’s hands.

And they dance.

Slowing the silent waltz to a close,
Victor smiles. ‘Happy Anniversary, darling.’
Anna whispers, ‘will these times ever return?’

They each undress the other,
wrap their treasure in
tissue, stow away the chest.

Wife fetches blankets from bench,
husband takes mattress from wall.
They lie down, face to face, by
three deep-sleeping children, and
each holds the other’s gaze.

Rambling through to springtime

Not written much recently; words just not been floating round my head ready for capture and taming.  Need to sort that out as new writing course starts soon.  Terrified, actually.  Will drink in stimulation online from stash of rainy-day bookmarks.  First on list is Polish poet Wisława Szymborska’s witty advice.

Follow the link above for a selection of Ms Szymborska’s replies (translated from the Polish by Clare Cavanagh) to questions submitted to her newspaper column.  They are honest –

“Your existential pains come a trifle too easily. We’ve had enough despair and gloomy depths. ‘Deep thoughts,’ dear Thomas says (Mann, of course, who else), ‘should make us smile.’ Reading your own poem ‘Ocean,’ we found ourselves floundering in a shallow pond. You should think of your life as a remarkable adventure that’s happened to you. That is our only advice at present.”

wise –

“You write, ‘I know my poems have many faults, but so what, I’m not going to stop and fix them.’ And why is that … ? Perhaps because you hold poetry so sacred? Or maybe you consider it insignificant? Both ways of treating poetry are mistaken, and what’s worse, they free the novice poet from the necessity of working on his verses. It’s pleasant and rewarding to tell our acquaintances that the bardic spirit seized us on Friday at 2:45 p.m. and began whispering mysterious secrets in our ear with such ardor that we scarcely had time to take them down. But at home, behind closed doors, they assiduously corrected, crossed out, and revised those otherworldly utterances. Spirits are fine and dandy, but even poetry has its prosaic side.”

and funny.

“Perhaps you could learn to love in prose.”

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60 years in 60 poems

I’m a little behind the times on this, but it’s worth a mention anyway.

In a project commissioned by Faber & Faber, poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy compiled a collection of poems for the Queen’s jubilee; sixty poets were each assigned a different year of the Queen’s reign to write about.  You can buy the book – Jubilee Lines – or you can read them here.

Or you can have them read to you here – a neat little page from The Space, a partnership between Arts Council England and techies at BBC.

I love hearing poetry read aloud, especially by the poet, which often brings nuances not apparent on the page.  Dylan Thomas springs to mind.  Almost always a poem is enriched by the voice of its creator.  Second best is often reading it yourself.  Listening to an actor read poetry is a little like having it translated – they should be chosen carefully to ensure that they enhance and enrich the voice of the poet.

The readers here are Samantha Bond and Dan Stevens, who have clear, pleasant voices more suited to classics rather than contemporary poetry; Lindsey Marshal reminded me of a primary teacher at story time, although this worked with some poems, particularly Gillian Clarke’s Running Away to the Sea (1955); but Alex Lanipekun has a voice that is deep and rich and brings the poetry to life.  Scroll down to 1962 and listen to him read Sixteen (1962) by Brian Patten.

I would have loved to hear Alex read Don Paterson’s awesome sonnet The Big Listener (1997), but as he didn’t I’m happy just to read it myself.  Here, you try it –

The Big Listener by Don Paterson

Midnight. Connaught Square. A headlight beam
finds Cherie just back from her speaking date.
She looks at you. Less animal of late.
You lose no sleep but wake within a dream.
Your favourite: that old divided dark;
the white square at your neck; your good ear bent
towards the long sighs of your penitent.
You rinse a thousand souls before the lark
and wake refreshed, if somewhat at a loss
as to why they seem so lost for words.
They are your dead, who still rose to the birds
the day we filled the booths and made the cross,
before you’d forced them howling to their knees
to suffer your attentions. Spare us. Please.

American poets for 4th July: Wallace Stevens

So, I’ve used American Poets as a prism through which to view my relationship with poetry.  This here is the future.  More exploration of the unknown, including pushing back from contemporary to modern.  See how it goes.

I was drawn to this one by the title – it intrigued me.  I read it once and was unsure, although I had a sense there was something there.  I reread it and kind of liked it.  By the time I’d written it out it had me.

Good Man, Woman Bad by Wallace Stevens

You say that spite avails her nothing, that

You rest intact in conscience and intact

In self, a man of longer time than days,

Of larger company than one.  Therefore,

Pure scientist, you look with nice aplomb

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American poets for 4th July: Sylvia Plath

OK, we’re going to have to agree to play nice and share here.  I mean she might have been born in the US, but she lived in the UK.  With Ted Hughes for goodness sake.  And she died here.

Anyway.  Enough about her, let’s talk about me.  Plath forms part of the reunification between me and poetry; the army who convinced me to give it another try.  I’d seen the odd poem here and there that I connected with, but reading a book of her selected poems was the first time I felt a connection with a poet.  I flickered through the book, my jaw dropping lower with each poem.  I’ve since discovered that my favourites are her poems about motherhood – Morning Song and You’re, which contains the best line ever in poetry.  But this one.  This one was the hooker:

Face Lift by Sylvia Plath

You bring me good news from the clinic,

Whipping off your silk scarf, exhibiting the tight white

Mummy-cloths, smiling: I’m all right.

When I was nine, a lime-green anesthetist

Fed me banana-gas through a frog mask. The nauseous vault

Boomed with bad dreams and the Jovian voices of surgeons.

Then mother swam up, holding a tin basin.

O I was sick.

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American poets for 4th July: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Right, let’s start at the beginning.  My beginning, with poetry in general and American poetry in particular.

When I was a brat, I collected poems.  Not like I loved poems and pored over them and learned them and precociously took on their wisdom.  No.  I collected poems like a trainspotter collects numbers.  It was all about the quantity and nothing about quality.  But…

… somehow Henry Wadsworth Longfellow cut through this and a couple of little excerpts from Hiawatha touched my nine-year-old soul.

I bought a beautifully illustrated copy of the poem when my son was nine and got a tingle when I read it to him.  He was so impressed he was asleep before the babe was out of his swaddling.  I hope you enjoy it more.  As an incentive, if you get to the end of this – my favourite few lines – you get my favourite Hiawatha joke, as a reward.

[from] Hiawatha’s Childhood by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

At the door on summer evenings,

Sat the little Hiawatha,

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