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Posts Tagged ‘poetry’

A stinging thing, these waspish thoughts,
They built the castles, and dug the moats.
We churn them round, we thrust them out,
Those waspish thoughts, without a doubt,
They fell the mountains, burn the earth,
Stunt the spirit, and still the birth.


If only all could go our way,
Those waspish thoughts, to win the day,
Then they, who’d dare to do us down,
Would fall into our moat and drown.
Or so we’d think, but so it goes,
With never a day without some cause,
Some hook on which to puff our pride,
To dig our moat so deep, so wide.


We stand there thus, our pride to sing,
‘Mid clouds of wasps, to buzz and sting
When should we not, to be our best,
Heal first our selves, and forget the rest?

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On Spitler’s Edge

You catch up with me this afternoon, on Spitler’s Edge, in the Western Pennines. It sounds precipitous, like a mountain arête, but it’s not. That said, it’s still quite an airy aspect, in a dun coloured, tussocky, bog-cottony, sky-scraping, moorland sort of way. Indeed, the views are spectacular, from the hills of eastern Lancashire, to the west coast. Southwards, we have the porcupine ridge of Winter Hill, and its cluster of transmitters, while to the north we have Great Hill. The crossing from Great Hill to Winter Hill is always a treat, not to be underestimated in bad weather, but much easier now the route has been paved to spare erosion of the precious peat and bog habitat. The highpoint here is around 1286 feet.

I’ve not come over from Great Hill, though. I’ve come up by an unfamiliar path that snakes between Standing Stones Hill and Green Withins’ Brook. Early maps tell us there was always a track here, though aiming a little lower, for the coll, and the pass to High Shores, then down to Naylors. Naylors is a ruin now, and the current map shows the track petering out in the tussocks of Standing Stones. But there’s still a clear and well trod footway that carries on, though aiming more for the featureless summit of Redmond’s Edge.

It’s a hot day, down in the valley, with a dazzling, head-bursting sun. The sky is streaked with great fans of whispy, stratospheric clouds like white dendrites against the blue, and I’ve been photographing them with various foregrounds on the way up. There’s a cool wind on top, now, and a dusty taste to the air. The moors are ripe for burning, but so far so good, and the idiots have spared us their perennial pyromania. We’re a little later setting out, having waited in for the Tescos delivery man, so it’s getting on for tea time. The light is turning mellow, and a poem is gnawing at me, wanting me to remember it from way back.

I was crossing Spitler’s Edge,
With the sun touching the sea,
When a stranger on a dark horse,
From the distance came to me.

So I took myself aside a-ways,
To let the traveller pass,
And leaning on my staff, I paused,
Amid a sea of grass.

2002, I think. No strangers on dark horses today, though – just the occasional mountain-bike going hell for leather and with an air that suggests a supreme confidence I’ll be stepping aside for it. Although we’re in a post CROW access area, this isn’t a bridle way, so, strictly speaking, bikes have no place on the edge – walkers only. It could be worse, though. It could be motorcycles. You can’t police stuff like this, though. It relies on conscientiousness, hillcraft, and good manners.

So where was I? Standing amid a sea of grass? Okay,…

From there I watched the sky ablaze,
Above a darkening land,
Until I felt a chill and spied,
The stranger close at hand.

He stood upon the hillside,
While his horse about him grazed,
And with his eyes cast westwards,
On that same sunset he gazed,…

Yes, an old poem of mine, insisting on rhyme, at the risk of meter. It came out of an odd feeling, when crossing this way, late one evening, forty years ago. It was the antiquarian John Rawlinson, in his book “About Rivington” who wrote of the origins of the name “Spitler’s Edge,” it coming from the Knights Hospitaller’s of the Holy Order of St John, who had holdings in the district – this being in medieval times – and who, legend has it, would pass this way en route. So the guy I meet in the poem is a medieval warrior-monk. So what?

He wore a cloak of coarsest wool,
Around his shoulder’s broad,
And, across his back was slung,
I swear, the mightiest of swords.

But I did not fear the stranger,
When at length his gaze met mine,
For I knew we shared that hillside,
Across a gulf of time,…

And, speaking of time, the evening I’m thinking of was some time in the early eighties. I’d had a bad day at work, plus the realisation the girl I had the romantic hots for had the romantic hots for someone else – a colleague of mine, and a decent guy I was friendly with. So I’d driven up to Rivington, and set out to mull it over. And in mulling it over, I’d walked, and walked, and walked. Thinking about it now, I would have been better just walking home that night, which would certainly have made for a shorter walk, but I turned around and came back to Rivington over the edge, as the sun set.

It was a beautiful night, a perfect stillness across the moor, a faint mist rising after the heat of the day, and I was kept company by a long eared owl whose silent, broad winged flight was the most beautiful and eerie thing. All right, I didn’t actually meet a Knights Hospitaller, but if you believe in gaps in the fabric of space-time, that would have been an evening to encounter one. The walk did me good, cleared my head. There was no way I was going to fight over the girl, and I reckoned I had it in me to find a way of finally letting her go. As for the stranger,…

I nodded my slow greeting,
And he duly did the same,
Then he climbed upon his patient steed,
And ambled off again.

But turning back, he caught my eye,
Then slightly cocked his head,
And smiled to me a kindly smile:
“Fare thee well, pilgrim…” he said,..

Not as long a walk today, but then I’m forty years older, and I feel the miles differently. Just six miles round from the Yarrow Reservoir, to which we return with the sun sparkling upon it, and the oak trees of Parson’s Bullough, with their fresh leaves luminous against the blue. I still think about that girl from time to time. She’s still married to that guy and, in retrospect, she was always going to be happier with him, than she ever would have been with me. Sometimes it’s the ghosts, and the shadows who let us in on secrets like that, but you need a vivid imagination – a mind’s eye sort of thing – and the faith in it, even if it sometimes works backwards way, and is never any use to you at the time. Still, we get by.

Fare thee well, pilgrim, and thanks for listening.

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I am at the council recycling depot, wanting to recycle some books, but the book recycling thing is full. On enquiring, the high-vis man thinks me stupid. “Chuck them in the waste card and paper, then,” he says, like the answer is obvious, and I suppose it is. But he doesn’t understand; these books are important, and must be recycled, as books. I have no idea if that is indeed the function of the book recycling thing, but have persuaded myself it is for, though I do not want to see them on my shelves any more, I cannot have them actually, knowingly, destroyed. The knowledge in these books, though precious and hard won by the toil and intellect of centuries, is no longer relevant to me, though I have clung to them for forty years, thinking that it was. Destruction is, perhaps, the more powerful symbol, a truer sacrifice, and though I resist it with all my being, the fates seem to agree – I mean, the book recycling thing being full.

Here I am, then, adding my old engineering textbooks to a mountain of card and paper, which will go for pulp. Mathematics, Metallurgy, Principles of Engineering Production, Mechanics of Solids, Electrical Machinery, Thermodynamics, Hydraulics, Control Theory,…

In some cases, I knew the authors. They lectured in the technical colleges of the industrial towns, where I studied. They were remarkable men, at the top of their field, nearing retirement, and, it being forty years ago, I suppose they are all gone now. I was to use this knowledge to change the world. I was to design bridges, ships, aeroplanes. I was to work on hydroelectric schemes, and bring power to remote parts. I was to invent something that would save lives.

Instead, I settled into a big organisation, did a bit of this, and a bit of that. I did my time, commuted forty miles a day, day in day out, built a pension, and then I retired. But I was always going to come back to these books, one day. I was going to study them anew, do them the justice they deserved. I was going to lecture a little, part-time, bring on the next generation. But the world changed, grew strange and did not need me any more. The mould gathered upon them, and their knowledge atrophied for want of use, both by me and out there. There is always this perennial political waffle of building a high-skills, high-tech economy, but the truth is different and lacks the white-heat optimism of the nineteen-sixties. Engineering, and in particular, manufacturing engineering, always boils down to the price of a pair of hand, so engineering in the west became a case of getting someone else to do it for us, and why not, since they do it so well? And cheaper.

Our technical colleges don’t call themselves by that name any more. They prefer far fancier titles. Yet I had begun to notice how the graduates from these places could not communicate their ideas, had no aptitude for visualising three-dimensional space from the two dimensions of an engineering drawing, let alone create a drawing themselves. The fag-packet sketch, much maligned, but in fact a high bandwidth means of communication among its initiates, was a thing of the past, as were its initiates. But it is not a handicap now. Be you a graduate of anything, you are on the fast tracks to management, and the supervision of all things by spreadsheet and email which, I admit, is the way of the material world, and different to the one I knew and trained for.

And on a more personal level, I recognise these have always been books for the first half of life, which is about establishing oneself in that material world, or such as it was for me at the time. It is about education, work, relationships, progeny, house, home. The second half of life is about meaning, and entering now the last quarter of it, I feel I should be making more progress with meaning, than I am. I have inklings, but they are fickle, and too easily eclipsed by everyday narrowness. And these books are no help in that respect.

With the books gone, I drive a little way to a country park. It was once a piece of open country with a pretty river, lakes, and woodland. Now it is an amenity, replete with multicoloured signage, waymarkers and dog-poo bins. It’s a midweek morning, there are people, and the usual riot of dogs. I give them all the slip, and penetrate deep into the ancient parts of the woodland. I want to take pictures of anemones, in a place where I know they grow in profusion. Anemones grow slowly, and do not take well to the new-fangled. We have much in common.

I find the spot, and the sun comes out, as if to join in my enthusiasm. But then: “No memory card”, says the camera. I have left it in my computer at home. I do this a lot, so always carry a spare in my wallet. Feeling smug in my forethought, I slip the spare into the camera. “Cannot read memory card”, it says. “Choose another.”

The card is a dud. There will be no photography today. I will have to ride the present moment, instead of trying to freeze it. The anemones are beautiful, white, and an ever so delicate purple, trembling in the breeze. A line of poetry comes, unbidden:

Awakening to loss, we mourn the day’s swift run,…

I have checked Google-box, and it does not appear I have acquired the line by cryptamnesia. It is a genuine opening from the muse, and, on the face of it, somewhat morbid. But I sense it is not meant to be so. Indeed, I feel the challenge is that I should work it into something positive, something like the latch to a gate of meaning. Either that, or it is a chastisement for being so down in the mouth myself today.

A heron rises from the riverbank. It has no sense of mortality, lives in a permanent now, until the moment it doesn’t. We’re different. We awaken to self consciousness, to an awareness of the impermanence of things, including the span of our own lives. And our lives can seem as fragile and delicate, and trembling as the anemones. Then there’s this sense of the past filling up, and so much of it forgotten, like Newton’s laws of motion, like dust behind the settee,… And then the future getting thinner, as the present moment accelerates, towards our end. The philosophies I have read do seem rather pessimistic on this score, or at least as much as I understand them – philosophy not being my grounding, and possessing a vocabulary I find rather difficult to grasp. Poetry though? Yes, I was writing poetry, even as I studied engineering, and have always believed that only through poetry, or other genuine acts of creativity, do we approach the harbingers of true meaning. And then it is by disengaging from the narrowing structure of the material world, and the intellect, and allowing something else to speak, through us.

I do not like destroying books, which is why I still have too many, some of them from childhood. But in this case, a burden is lifted, I think. As for that first line, the best I can do is meditate upon it.

Thanks for listening.

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As I’ve grown old and hard,
She has softened sweet,
regressed to sleight of youth,
and dances now,
thin-veiled, in the forest of this,
the moon’s first crescent whim.
And she teases with her fluid hips.

I did know her, once,
when we both were of an age.
But she has grown so young,
of late, and wise,
and I can no longer enter in
that forest’s ferny shade.
For I am grown too slow,
to bide, and dance such fevered reels.
I must, alone then, brave
this slower time of turning, and
the wilderness within.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

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