Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘poetry’

The payers, grown lean of late,
Fall to the myriad blades,
Of this, their unfortunate fate.
They perish in great number,
Rule takers, not breakers,
While the players, and rule makers,
Wrapped in capital colours,
Prance, booze faced, and hearty.
They make large and party.

Meanwhile, in the hollow land,
A bare tree claws the last warm rags
From a sinking sun.
A kestrel shoulders air,
But – nothing worth the dive –
Moves on.

Read Full Post »

To be a genius poet. To be considered profound. To be considered in touch with the very pulse of life, the universe, and everything. To be like John Clare, or Wilfred Owen, or William Wordsworth. How? Well, get your poem published, of course. Enter it into competitions and win! Who knows? And good luck to you.

Poetry is one of the most sacred of the creative arts and, judging by the amount of poetry on here, it is practised by many, myself included. But, along with the rest of the publishing world, the route to print is a bit of a dimly lit labyrinth, and not something I’ve the stomach for groping about in any more. You might spend years getting your piece into an obscure journal, much to your delight, but you’ll be paid in washers, if at all, and unless you’re attractive in some way, unless you are a story in yourself, unless your persona either chimes with or indeed seriously offends the mores of the day, you’ll find yourself an also-ran, and an awfully long way from the front page.

So, why bother with Visual Verse? What’s different about it? Well, Visual Verse is a sort of online poetry magazine. At the beginning of each month it puts out an image and invites a response – prose or poetry, it’s your choice. They want between 50 and 500 words. Also, to enter into the spirit of things, you’re supposed to spend no more than an hour on your creation. I’ve had a few goes at it, because I like to see what the image triggers, and I’ve had some responses accepted. They take about a hundred pieces a month, which is around half of the submissions they receive on average. So, whilst they won’t publish absolutely anything, they’re not as choosy as a paid literary journal. In short, Visual Verse won’t make you a famous poet. Oh, and of course, they don’t pay. But apart from that, what’s not to like?

Not all the images work for me. Indeed, many leave me stumped, and I certainly don’t respond every month because, well, there’s only so much altitude to be gained, and I’ve other stuff on the go that’s more important. But if you’re a poet, as I know many of you who follow me are, and you’ve not come across Visual Verse yet, why not give it a go? If nothing else, it’s a good way to trigger the creative juices.

You have until the fifteenth of the month to submit.

Read Full Post »

I want to write poetry,
just like in olden times
with a notebook, and a fountain pen,
and a book of common rhymes.

I want to watch the sunset,
across this folded dale,
with a lantern at my elbow,
as the light begins to fail,
and the sash taps out in whispers,
the ciphers of the muse,
dot-dot dash, dot-dot dash,
at the rising of the moon.

And if I pay attention,
yet resist that grasping urge
the pen might yet decipher
an authentic string of words,
a pattern in the ink strokes
on this smooth vanilla page,
a thing we can hold onto
at the fading of the age,
a string of understanding,
timeless and complete,
indelible and indifferent,
to control, and alt-delete.

Read Full Post »

I’ll take the ticking of my father’s watch

And the tales my mother told,

And I shall pack them safe with fragrances,

In the pocket of my soul.

There shall be sandalwood and cinnamon,

For days beneath the sun,

While for the moon I’ll ride on lavender,

Until the dreaming has begun.

And there I shall encamp myself,

In a meadow by the sea

And from the shore I shall take pebbles,

As round as round can be.

And I shall plant them in that dreaming earth,

A dreaming circle wide,

And wait upon the morning,

And the coming of my guide.

I shall know him by his wisdom,

And the feeling I am blessed.

Then we shall wait upon the sunset

And a boat, into the west.

Read Full Post »

philosophersWe start with Nietzsche and a few pop quotes, like: “god is dead” and “I am dynamite”. I don’t understand him, so I go back to his influences, namely Schopenhauer. But I don’t understand him either – plus he’s deeply morose and repulsively nihilistic. So I go back to Kant. Kant’s a bit more optimistic, but he’s also a life-time’s study. Even the Kant scholars are still arguing over what he wrote, and you’d think they would have settled him by now. So I step back to Aristotle, but I’m in a bit of a muddle, so rather than stepping back in time even more to Plato, I take a breath. Maybe philosophy’s not my thing at all.

The philosophers are certainly a breed apart. They don’t seem to add much to the ordinary life, but if you’re at all interested in what life’s about you can’t avoid them. They’re about “epistemology”, which is the theory of knowledge, and how we know things. And they’re about “ontology” which is the theory being, or meaning. They use a lot of other unfamiliar words as well, and when they run out of actual words, they make words up. Then they all have their take on “ethics” – that’s to say, how should we behave towards one another, and what is “good”?

They approach all this through logic. The Kantians tell us the faculties we’re born with are linked to what is knowable, and this comes out in language. So, by a process that resembles a cross between a word game, and basic algebra, they arrive at a story about what it means to be alive. More than that they try to get a handle on what it is we are alive in. I mean the universe – the nature of it, the nature of space and time, and being – in other words a creation story.

So it’s a big subject, but to the layman it’s difficult, or at least to me it is. Or maybe I’m too set in my ways now to squish my calcifying brain into a new way of thinking. I’m just this old engineer, steeped in deterministic ideas. I’ve always known they’re an incomplete model of the universe, because my teachers told me so. But they work at a practical level, so we use them to do things. And I’ve really liked being an engineer. We put a man on the moon – well not me – I was only nine at the time, but you know what I mean? There’s something satisfying about doing things, making things. As for proving something you can neither see nor touch, like the philosophers do, nor use in the process of making things, or doing things,… what’s the point of that? Well, it’s interesting. And if I have to wait another lifetime to be a philosopher, then so be it, and for now I’ll just skim this stuff, pick up what bits I can and make do.

If we skim Kant, we get the idea we can’t grasp the true nature of reality at all. All we’ve got are our senses, and a mind that’s structured in a certain way to intuit the universe. We can see things as they appear to us, but not how those things are in themselves. But the most challenging idea of all is what Kant says about space and time. He plays his word-game and deduces that space and time drop out of the equation altogether. They’re part of the perceptual toolkit we’re born with, which means we can never get a handle on the way things are when we’re not looking. This is not to say the world is an illusion. It’s just that the way we see it is the only way we can see it, while its true nature is hidden and unknowable.

This sounds like the opening of Dao De Jing, written in China two thousand years before Kant. It says what we can see and touch and put names to is not the same as the essence of those things in themselves. Chinese ideas were floating around in Europe at the time Kant was writing. They’re sophisticated philosophies because the Chinese got themselves organized into a literate culture early on. But to the semi-theocratic west, these were pagan ideas and it was dangerous for philosophers to make too much of them.

Still, I think it’s an important thing to know, this link, that two cultures, isolated, and thousands of years apart could come up with the same basic idea. It suggests they might have been on to something. But its also frustrating I’ve not the nous to make any more headway with it than that. I did try reading Kant’s “Critique of Pure Reason” once. I wanted to understand it, word for word, like I once understood fluid dynamics. But I couldn’t follow it in any meaningful depth. I was probably in my late thirties then, and no point trying again now.

Carl Jung read it when he was seventeen. He’d read Schopenhauer’s “Will and Representation” too. He understood both well enough to think he’d spotted a flaw in Schopenhauer’s reasoning. It’s schoolboys of that calibre who grow to influence in the world of thought. All laymen like me can do is hold on to their coat-tails, hoping for a line or two of poetry that will stick and sum things up for us.

Most of us don’t bother of course, and are no more enlightened in the philosophical intricacies than mud. Or maybe the essence of life and living are so obvious anyway, we don’t need to learn it from the philosophers, or perhaps it just doesn’t matter. Or should we be content to leave it to those cleverer than we are to make a difference in the world? But when you look at the way the west is disintegrating – our leadership and our key institutions – and how China has undergone repeated convulsions down the centuries, finally to evolve into an authoritarian techno-surveillance state, you wonder if more of us, east and west, shouldn’t be making a better effort with those philosophers after all.

Read Full Post »

tree on fireHow do you define yourself? What’s your nationality, job, class, ethnicity, religion,… your sexuality? But be careful, for in seeking a label for your group, you also define your peers, those you look to for support. Why? Because, they’re of your chosen tribe and it’s natural to seek protection in numbers. It’s natural to settle where we do not stand out because, throughout history, we have scorned the “other” and banished them to the wilderness.

Writers obsess over labels too. They ask at what point they can call themselves a writer, or a poet, or whatever. My view is that if you write, then you’re a writer, but then we hit this peer-group wall and wonder if we’re allowed in, we wonder if we’re to spend our whole lives dying of thirst in the desert of obscurity.

Will other writers and publishing types recognise us as birds of a feather? Well, don’t count on it, for among the literati, all writers who are not one’s self, are “the other”, all of us then by definition outsiders. Sure, we’re an odd bunch, our labelling systems are complicated, cryptic even. Is it any wonder then aspirants to the ranks obsess over the nuances of a writerly identity, and in doing so miss the point? And the point is this: in striving to be a writer, do we not risk closing ourselves off from the experience of life, from which the writing comes?

I remember sitting with a notebook while looking after my kids when they were small. They were having a great time in a playground, mucking about on the slides and swings. It was my job to keep an eye out, to prevent banged heads but without stifling their play. Now that’s an annoying thing to have to do when what you’re trying to do is be writerly,… when you’re trying to tease out the poetry from your soul while the kids are screaming:

“Dad, dad, look at me!”

“Yea, yea.”

Thinking of the mundanity of life as an impediment to one’s art, we risk resenting its intrusion. So then we seal ourselves off from life to better nurture the writer within us. But then we fail to see how the poetry is reflected in the lived experience. We do not find poetry on the blank page, or in the tweed jacket, or the fancy pen. It’s in the sunshine and the laughter, and the funny way people behave sometimes. It’s even in our quest for identity, but only if we have the presence of mind to question the question: how do I define myself? Because what we all are, regardless of the labels, is human, and the rest is merely the feathers we dress ourselves in.

So if you find yourself asking am I a writer yet, put down your pen and live a little. And while living ask the world how it sees itself through your eyes. What drama, what beauty, what lesson is imparted through the lived experience? Then the pages fill of their own accord and we miss nothing from having our head bent in writerly pose.

I dislike the politics of identity. I dislike labels for their limitation. For in striving so to label what one is we also define what we ignore of our potential to be. My labels tell me I’m a white, British cis male. I’m also a myopic, middle-class, introverted, lapsed Anglican. I’m a husband, a father, a Cappuccino socialist and, yes, a writer. I suspect there aren’t many who fit those exact parameters, and certainly not enough to put up a fight when oppressed by a bigger tribe. So it’s best to go about our business quietly, and be friendly with everyone.

What insights into the lived experience did that moment in the playground with my kids offer me? Well, you don’t always see it at the time. It might come decades later, when those same kids have gone through the wringer of college and university, when they’ve left the formative playground and are setting out on their first day at work. The poetry in that moment is a complex and giddy vortex of emotion. It’s all about time and one’s own mortality, and that can be a frightening thing. It’s like a clock ticking down, but only if you’re so bound up in the notion of your limited, mortal identity you fail to grasp the beauty at the heart of humanity which aspires to shed its labels and to simply be.

 

Read Full Post »

pier sunset.jpg

August Bank Holiday
And the messy wash of summer
Ebbs into this evening’s silty sea,
While the little bulbs strung out
Along the promenade
Ape starlight
And a sleepy sun sets
As figures, faded,
Colourless as ghosts
Walk serene these echoing boards,
Towards a stricken west.
We hold our breath,
Speak softly now,
As night tiptoes in and hides the worst,
Smears all into one soft, sleepy blur,
The lovers, and the lonesome
And the weary, and the cursed.

Read Full Post »

cropped-girl-with-green-eyes.jpgIn this, the circle of my time,

I see the world for what it is,

these petty things arrayed,

and how the mind perceives,

through its filter of a fractured brain.

And all it is, is dust upon our fingertips,

Trailed loose upon a plain

Of imperfect understanding.

So blow the dust away

Then, clean fingered come

Closer to my lips, that I might

Whisper it to you;

What the circle of my time

In time reveals.

Read Full Post »

writer pasternak

Well, if you’ve made it this far you probably already are a poet, though you may not know it. But wait, let’s check! Do you know what iambic pentameter is? How about an Italian quatrain? A Shakespearean sonnet? Yes, okay, they’re definitions of poetic structures; beats per line, order of rhyme, number of lines, that sort of thing. How about a foot? That’s the basic unit of measurement of accentual syllabic meter. Of course it is! There are different types of feet too: iamb, trochee, dactyl, anapest, spondee, and pyrrhic, all to do with the stress on the syllables.

Still want to be a poet? A poet would be well up on all that stuff wouldn’t they? Except, I write poetry, which makes me a sort-of poet, but to be honest I had to look all that terminology up on Wikipedia. If I’d been a Lit student having to field questions on it, I’d surely have failed. Well, I did fail actually – not that I was ever asked those questions, specifically. Log tables made more sense to me, but I still liked writing poetry. Log tables are obsolete now, while poetry remains pretty much a constant throughout time. And do you really need to know about all that structural theory stuff anyway? Well, the poet Robert Frost thought so. He said: there can be no fair tennis without a net, that without proper structure, poetry seldom yields works of beauty.

And he may have a point:

He watched with all his organs of concern
How princes walk, what wives and children say;
Reopened old graves in his heart to learn
What laws the dead had died to disobey;

That’s W H Auden writing in 1940. Plenty structure and rhyme there, and a silken beauty in the flow of it.

But then how about:

A shattered army, Thames’ filthy tonnage, tumbrils of carrion,
Not a beautiful spectacle
For the drinkers of history, or for me
Or my friends, this island’s parallel issues.

That’s Ted Hughes, writing in 1963. No structure, no rhyme, like being hit in the face with a plank of wood, leaving you with multiple splinters to pick at, which I presume is what he intended. So, maybe Frost was just an old fuddy duddy traditionalist and you can play tennis without a net after all, that indeed certain poetic themes demand a freer form if they’re to achieve their desired impact.

I used to strive for structure in my own poetry, but sometimes the struggle took over from what I was trying to say. Rhyme and structure are satisfying to achieve, like completing a literary puzzle, but they can also cheapen a poem, so why push for rhyme if you don’t have to?

How about this:

I remember sitting together in parks
leaning over bridges
counting trout and swans
holding hands under arches
kissing away suns
and moons into darkness.

I remember platform good-byes
last-minute trains
slamming us apart
and my non-self walking back alone.
I remember smaller things:
a pebble in my shoe
and you throwing a match-box on the Serpentine

That’s Phoebe Hesketh. No structure, no rhyme except for that last poignant hook between “shoe” and “you”. A friend of Herbert Edward Palmer, an English poet and critic, his advice to her was never to let the conscious mind force a poem into shape. That’s important, I think. It can be pleasurable exploring traditional patterns in poetry, and good practice trying them out, and if a poem falls into such a pattern, then let it be, but if doesn’t want to, don’t make it.

According to certain psychological theories, we exist upon a seething mass of unconscious energies that seek to become conscious through us. They are our life’s work, whether we know it or not. And poetry, indeed any form of creative expression, is a good way of achieving that, and it’s not like we have any choice in the matter. For a creative person to ignore the pressure from within is a very bad thing, and will backfire with more neuroses than we know how to handle. But to sit a while with pencil and paper, jotting the lines that are offered up, seemingly from nowhere, is worth years of therapy, whether you know an iamb from a trochee or not.

Poetry has always been an important aspect of any civilised culture, and not just for the professional – if indeed there’s such a thing as a professional poet any more. But can anyone really write poetry? Well, okay, not everyone wants to, not everyone gets it, but I suspect if you’ve a hankering for it, you can write it well enough. As a way of expressing the seasons of your life, there’s no finer way of honouring your self. How to start? Start with your life. Imagine you are a bit of the universe seeking to discover the meaning of itself through your eyes. So you capture a moment in time as if to bookmark it, and you say to the universe, okay mate, this bit’s important. Let’s remember this. Then you look back over the stuff you wrote twenty, thirty years ago, and you can see the change in yourself, the smoothing out, the growing up.

However we should beware the trap of thinking poetry is a road to fame and fortune because of course it’s not. Even the Poet Laureate only makes £6000 a year, which doesn’t get you much of a mortgage, does it? Fame and fortune are their own path, with their own rules, and only about one in ten who seek it, by whatever means, succeed at it. But in the business of writing poetry what we’re really looking for are glimpses of meaning, which boil down to those occasional and all too often elusive personal gifts of insight from the unconscious. Sometimes those insights are beautiful, sometimes they’re ugly, and mostly they’re of no interest to anyone else. But as always, in the writing of anything, the person most served by the effort is you, the writer. Poetry, however you define it, helps us grow a little. It’s just occasionally we’ll hit upon something that’s of a more universal appeal, so it’s not always true we should give up on the idea of publishing altogether. But as ever my advice these days is just to blog your stuff, thus calling it “sort of published”, and be done with it. Poetry can heal all wounds, but pursuing, through poetry, the eternally precious bane of fame and fortune is pretty futile, and worse, it will tear your heart wide open again.

Read Full Post »

childhood

He lost the Faery tongue aged five,
Lost it to chalk boards
And vague threats of God.
It was the Gulag then for him,
His life now frozen for want of sun
And green. And where, when
He was not afraid,
Boredom was the name
Of his routine.

Bare-toothed and baying,
Grey wolves circled and chastised
All vestige of the Faery from his eyes,
Their faces hard, but for those times,
And times again, of false grace,
When he observed they bowed
At every mention of His name.
This God, beneficent of the angry
And the cruel, but no friend to the reticent
Or the cowed.

So, he sought solace
In the prettiness of girls a-while,
And pined.
And thinking what he felt divine,
Put all his hopes in Love,
And thereby came to see,
Amongst all flesh, at least,
The fact of his invisibility,
This Faery child,
Alone among the chained
And shuddering freaks,
Trapped in the darkness
Of an all too swiftly run mortality.

Thus one by one they fell.
The reticent, the cowed,
The lovers, and the wolves, and all.
All into the abyss were swept.
While he, invisible to the last,
Unknown and untouched still,
Watched each one fall in turn,
And wept.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »