Archive for the ‘poetical sketches’ Category


man writing

Eve of September at half past ten,
Dark at the window,
I see my face
Reflected in isolation again.
Withheld from grace and the subtle path,
Eluding with ease my inadequate craft.




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Sunday morning lost in bed,
Awake and aching toe to head,
Resisting hard the need to pee,
The will to move eluding me.

Monday whispers, colours grey
The day, like flies abuzz to spread,
Bad news: Alas, the weekend’s dead.


With apologies

But hey, it’s already Thursday tomorrow!

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henry cordierI’ve been struggling with a feeling of shallowness of late, as if all the poetry has died – not just the writing or the reading of it, but the more visceral seeing of it in every day things. The dark lake of the unconscious through which I sift my fingers in order to light upon its treasures has been drained, and like an old canal, reveals now only a muddy bottom strewn with rubbish, chucked in over the decades, and none of it amounting to very much.

I know this isn’t how it really is, only that I am seeing it this way through an habitual downturn in my vision. In past years, in my search for the meaning I have touched on some significant jewels, mysteries, shadowy doorways through which I have glimpsed gardens of delight, all bathed in the ethereal glow of what I believe to have been a genuine spiritual revelation. In my journeys of the mind I have explored the nature of existence, not just on the material plane, but in the deeper places, beyond life and time and death. I have not come up empty but, like pebbles, all lustrous when wet, the visions have dried out now to a less alluring, less tangible patina. I think I understand the process, and must not lose heart. It’s part of the cycle of the creative life.

In the alchemy of the mind we progress from a fledgling stage of intellectual turmoil and spiritual darkness, what they call the nigredo. We apply the heat of the mind’s furnace to the base material, the soul held captive in the alembic of our life’s experience. The impurities rise, the surface blackens, the base undergoes transformation through a process of sublimation to higher and higher stages of awareness and understanding. Or so the theory goes. But in my personal journey, after brief openings in the clag-caked surface, I return again to the nigredo. I glance back over my shoulder and the black dog is stalking, and no matter how startling and real the revelations of past cycles, the attitude becomes one more of: “So what? It doesn’t alter the fact I still have to get up at half past six every weekday morning, and go to work.”

It’s a question then of the way we see things. I understand, I think, the process is not one of aiming for a destination of the mind, a transformation to some kind of super-humanness. We are already at the destination, always have been, so the destination, if that is what we must call it, is simply the realisation we need not have left home in the first place, that home is wherever you are right now, and all you can ever gain, the greatest gift in life, is the vision that enables you to see things properly, see again the depth and lustre in the dried out pebble, and in the world about you poetry, everywhere.

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slaidburn nov 2014

Dark Midnight of the soul awakes to weary dawn,
Pale lightbulb of a miserable morn illuminates the new,
While six-thirty fingers to the nadir point, and state,
Get up, you fool, you’re going to be late!

The house glows feeble in a tired beige,
Stunned by this outrageous wrench from rest,
Smells of mould, old breath, and bread.
Levered gently upright now we test,
Our limbs, joints, feet, for steadiness,
Then pee out our first long whimpering complaint,
And fart.

Breakfast ritual, drinking down the news,
Between heaped spoons of porridge,
Sweetened against habitual morning blues.
Yes, yes the news.
Finger flicking through brevatious blatherings,
Picking at sores until they bloom raw,
Yet festering of an incoherence vast,
So each day borrows vagueness of delineation,
From the last.

Same old, same old then,
We begin.

Thin half-light and a grey car glitters in a cold cocoon of dew,
Air stung by smoke of autumn burning wood,
Wipe the shivering glass to a lesser opaqueness,
Blow away the mist, with roaring fan,
Then drive.

The house shuts back its eyes at the parting gate,
Reverts to sleep, and mellow moldiness.
It remembers not,
Nor waits.

Thus I, into black face of morning, stare,
Continuing a slow meander,
Into the dreaming, wakeful blur,
A place,
That is not truly awake,
More these days a soft cushion occasionally spiked,
With the shards of old longing,
Rendered docile now across the years,
Like lost boys.

Dawn deepens to the soporific rumble of the road,
Leading more into delusions of the day’s crass light,
From which we turn our thoughts,
And pray haste our treasured teatime tryst to keep,
That therein we might once more escape,
This melancholic life of sleep.

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Our vessel crossed an ocean far from land,
Black velvet waters wide that made no sound,
No ripples burst nor sparkling foam,
Nor wake of waters churned.

An old man at the tiller held our course,
A woman in the bows to scent the wind,
A glance aside was all she’d give,
To guide the old man’s hand.

The sky was clouded thick to gift no stars,
Nor yet a hanging moon to light our way,
No charts had we, nor almanac,
Nor compass rose to play.

Our only sail was raised and lightly taut,
A swollen dart it sped us on with ease,
Yet no wind nor motion did we feel,
Nor time to count the leagues.

All form and all dimension fell away,
All progress measured only in the mind,
Imagination for my eyes,
The dark to bring alive.

I fancied islands dotted all around
And leaping dolphins arcing from the sea,
But there was just the silent night,
My two crew mates, and me.

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waughEdwin (Ned) Waugh was born in Rochdale, Lancashire, in 1817, the son of a shoemaker. He worked first as an errand boy, then became indentured to the Rochdale bookseller and printer, Thomas Holden. He was self educated, picking up whatever learning he could from the books his father kept at home. As a young man he became a journeyman printer, his travels taking him all over the country. A rags to riches story? Not quite. By the age of thirty, he was back in Rochdale, his health shot to bits by addiction to alcohol and snuff. He was also broke, and his marriage was on the rocks.

After a promising start, his life was in ruins. Many in this position would not have made forty, but Ned began to write, and through his writing discovered not only solace and healing, but succeeded also in turning his life around. He kept a personal diary, also dabbled in prose and poetry, submitting pieces to the Manchester press. He met with only modest success at first, but in1856, he published a poem written in the Lancashire dialect, called: “Come whoam to thi childer an’ me”:

Aw’ve just mended th’fire wi a cob;
Owd Swaddle has brought thi new shoon;
There’s some nice bacon-collops o’th hob,
An’ a quart o’ ale posset i’th oon;
Aw’ve brought thi top-cwot, doesto know,
For th’ rain’s comin’ deawn very dree;
An th’hastone’s as white as new snow;-
Come whoam to thi Childer and me.

And so it goes on – a loving housewife’s lament, trying to entice her husband away from the pub and the company of friends, back to hearth and home where she and the children are missing him. And his eventual, equally loving reply:

“God bless tho’, my lass; aw’ll go whoam,
An’ aw’ll kiss thee and th’childer o’ round;
Thae knows, that wherever aw roam,
Aw’m fain to get back to th’owd ground;
Aw can do wi a crack oe’r a glass;
Aw can do wi a bit of a spree;
But aw’ve no gradely comfort, my lass,
Except wi yon childer and thee.

The poem was an instant success, and Waugh was suddenly making a tidy living as a man of letters.

Dialect does not always travel well beyond those regions in which it was written. The only dialect poet of any wide renown is the Scot, Robert Burns, who, like Waugh, wrote verse in the language as it was actually spoken in his day. Dialect is more than just a funny way of speaking – it possesses a quality that conveys the spirit, the individuality, and the character of a people, far more than is possible with standard English. To be English is one thing, to be from Lancashire is quite another.

I was introduced to Waugh by chance some thirty years ago, when rambling along the Rossendale Way, east of Edenfield – an area known as Scout Moor. This is a wild and windy spot, its shaggy, treeless hills scarred by old quarries and mine-workings. Atop the moor, close by the levelled ruins of Foe Edge Farm, there’s an impressive memorial. This is Waugh’s Well, dedicated in 1866. It’s an evocative spot, a place he’d come to write his verses, then test them for their lyrical quality by reciting them to the accompaniment of his fiddle.

When I first visited these moors I was impressed by their exhilarating outlook and their grand isolation, but things are rather different on Scout Moor today, the last decade having seen the area transformed by the erection of some twenty six giant wind generators. These awesome beasts now dominate where once there was only the wide open sky, and instead of the imagined strains of Ned’s violin we have the steady mechanical chop-chop chopping of blades wrestling energy from the wind.

Whatever the arguments for or against such things, they are symbolic of a changing world and a reminder nothing is immune to progress. Even the words we use, and the way we say them are subject to change. As populations become more mobile, our regional accents become diluted, and our dialects, our unique regional variation on the language itself, is lost, left only to a handful of revivalist entertainers in their quaintly parodic costumes of clogs, waistcoats and flat caps.

When I was a kid, the older generation spoke the dialect fluently, spoke it in the pubs, the workplace, in the streets and at the football grounds, but I don’t hear it spoken at all now. I’m losing what bit of it I had too. When I first read Come Whoam, I struggled with it.

The thing with dialect is it’s an oral tradition and doesn’t always translate well to text. Dialect poetry in particular harks back to an era when folk would turn out on a wet weekday night to attend public readings of poetry. Reading Waugh now stirs the ancestral memory, it loosens the frigid grip of standard English, it restores a sense of regional connection, but sadly mine is the last generation for whom spoken dialect will have any relevance at all as a living thing.

For me Waugh’s story is first of all a reminder of the healing power of creative expression. But it also reminds us the working man is not the ignorant, page three gazing buffoon popular culture would have us believe. Given an equal chance – or even sometimes denied it – anyone is capable of finding a means of expression that touches others, be it through writing prose or poetry, painting or music. It will not always bring riches, but it always adds immeasurably to the richness of life itself.

I leave the last word to Waugh:

“If a man was a pair of steam-looms, how carefully would he be oiled, and tended, and mended, and made to do all that a pair of looms could do.  What a loom, full of miraculous faculties, is he compared to these—the master-piece of nature for creative power and for wonderful variety of excellent capabilities!  Yet, with what a profuse neglect he is cast away, like the cheapest rubbish on the earth!”

Ned Waugh died at New Brighton on the Whirral in 1890, aged 73.

For the full version of “Come Whoam”, and a handy translation of those tricky words: click here.

For more on Waugh’s writing: click here.

Reet then. That’s me done.
Aw’ll be seein’ thi.

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man writingImagine a man who lives on a tiny island no one has heard of. He has a small pension from a lifetime of labour in the mills, but now spends his time in a little house, writing poems. When they are finished, he writes each poem out one last time in his best handwriting, on sheets of cream coloured Basildon Bond paper. Then he rolls them up, seals each in a beer-bottle and casts them into the sea. He does not put his name to his poems.

Old age catches up and the man eventually dies.  His notes, his books, are thrown out with the rubbish, his house re-let. No one even knew he was a poet.

Now, imagine another man who lives in the thick of the city. He’s worked at a long line of minimum wage type jobs by day, and by night he writes poems. When they are finished, he sends them off to literary magazines. All are rejected. None are published. He perseveres in the hope his name will eventually appear in print, but it never does. He does this not so much to court fame – poetry is hardly the best way of doing that – but rather because he feels seeing his name in a literary magazine would be to validate the legitimacy of his thoughts, his feelings, his way of seeing the world.

Eventually, like the other guy, he dies. His notes, his books are thrown out with the rubbish, his house re-let. No one even knew he was a poet.

Both of these are romantic stories, all the more for their ending in apparent failure – neither man’s name ever becoming known, each remaining obscure, their life’s labours amounting to nothing.

But let’s think about it for a moment.

Of the two, the first man, the islander, seems least concerned by obscurity. That he offers his finest to the sea has the feel of a spiritual act, an act that betrays a greater level of transcendence than the second man who seeks validation all his life, and never finds it. So whose is the greater failure? Can either be said to have failed at all? Can anyone actually fail at life?

So, the first man seems further along on the journey of self discovery than the second. The second man’s life is a journey of self discovery just the same, but one hampered by the mistaken belief that such a self can only be “discovered” in the approval of someone else – an editor, a publisher, a literary type.

The first man is not an undiscovered literary genius. He’s actually a less talented poet, technically, than the second. His poems are laboured and over-long. Had he sent them to the magazines they would most likely not have merited a second glance anyway. But, as anyone picking up one of his anonymous little bottles will tell you, his work was sincere. He asked questions of the universe, made attempts at answering. Sometimes the answers came, and he felt a tingle of revelation. Sometimes not.

It was the same for the other guy.

This is how most of us write. It’s a lonely business, but no different to anyone else. Everyone, writer or not, poet or not, artist or not, famous or not, is caught up in the riddle of their own obscurity, in the apparent meaninglessness of their lives – even the famous are unknown to all but themselves. How we solve the riddle is the secret to making peace with life. And writing.

When we write then, the ideas we work with must pass the test of satisfying first a need within ourselves. Our work is a question we pose, and for which no one else has an answer that’s going to mean anything to us. The answer must come of itself, through us, either literally as a revelation, or more subtly as a shift in consciousness, like a gate opening, allowing us to pass through to pastures new.

Of course some of us, by fluke, luck, unstinting application, or literary contacts, will have our work published, but it’s important to realise this does not alter the fact of our absolute obscurity, and no amount of successful work or books under our belt will ever satisfy the very human pining for self vindication. Between 1995 and 2005 I published twenty short fictions in Ireland, and they’ve made not a jot of difference to anything. I’ve published nothing since, and that hasn’t made a difference to anything either.

For the famous writer, what the reader will come to know of him is not the truth, only the pseudonymic myth. For the famous writer, obscurity is all the more galling then for there being any number of people who think they know you, when they don’t know you at all.

One’s life’s adventure can only ever be a personal journey, shared by none, known by none, not even from the journals we keep. Loneliness, emptiness – these are things banished only by the company we seek – friends, family, even the animals we care for. But the inner self, the self that has us write, is separated from something more than human. And it seeks reunion. It seeks the source.

The man who tosses his poems into the sea is not belittled by obscurity. He lives the imaginative life to the full and is kept company by it for as long as he lives, and writes. That is his meaning, his purpose, his journey. The second guy’s life is heroic, persevering in the face of rejection. It is the archetypal story of the writer’s life. But the second guy must take care not to lose sight of what he’s writing for. He must take care to avoid his craft descending to the level of a war against rejection and obscurity, because that’s a futile task, a lost cause, one that risks blocking access to the source. This too is his story, and though not a failure, it is a less than noble outcome to a life’s labours.

Without the imaginative life to support him, the writer risks having little worthwhile writing about.


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