Thank you for all the poems that have arrived and the scores still to come.
I started on a whim. It’s grown like Topsy, and I need to get much more organised and keep you all in the loop.
First off: I’ll be delighted for you to ask for a letter of the alphabet if you haven’t already done so
Second: I’m setting a deadline of April 30th, and I’ll read no more that come in after that.
Third: After April 30th I’ll be involving other people to help me organise a sequence …. it won’t be random. I want to think of it as a properly edited online anthology; you deserve it.
Fourth: Everyone who submits will be published. If I have a problem I may ask for minor changes BUT your poem will appear on the blog.
Fifth: can I remind you that The Swineherd gets part of it strength from being written in the voice of the swineherd. I sort of assumed that everyone would assume that the poems should be ventriloquial …..you take on your character’s voice. The ones I’ve already got that aren’t, well, they have been accepted. Don’t panic.
Sixth. About those ‘moments that get you in’
Clive James says that these are the moments that let you recognise ‘a real poem’, the turn of phrase, or image that memorises itself as you you read it, the ones that make you blink in recognition. I sometime offer a list of these in the (very few) workshops I’ve run, and I thought I’d share them here. It’s impossible to define how they work. Alchemy. There’s always some sort of surprise. Keep awake for them, let them come in.
Some moments that draw you in.
At my back I always hear /Time’s wingéd chariot hurrying near
..she was standing there/ silver bracelets on her wrists and flowers in her hair
….they’re selling postcards of the hanging
For five days and nights / the windows have worn veils of thin water.
The stars go out/ as though a bluetit the size of the world /were pecking them out / like peanuts out of the sky’s string bag.
He’s carrying a scythe/ but he’s young / he doesn’t notice symbols
That’s it, said the stag, and buckled his legs, and fell over
the mad, clever clown’s beak of a puffin
I think of Roddy drowned / off Cape Wrath gulping / fistfuls of salt
the road hemstitched on the skirt / of a mountain.
A fork of barnacle geese came over, with that slow / squeak of rusty saws
He went along the line / relaxing them / one after another / with a small knife
How fast the line of cold, dead candles grows.
Look how they put their wax heads in their hands
we were destined to live like stones / warming ourselves in the sun
to fall like Jessica / who fell down a well and watched / the the bright disc of the / sun and moon slowly passing
The village bell’s been broken for a month
Old honey wails for a mouth
I’ve been thinking too much about the night
I slipped and the coal scattered on a snowed drive
Three masts will grow on the green ship /before she leaves the quay
Up the slow hill a squabble of children wanders
He lies, his eyes quarried by glittering fish, Staring through the green freezing sea-glass At the Northern Lights.
He is the Sparrow, the Friday lord.
I hoped to be the watcher on the rooftop,
but he was first. I’m flake of his fire,
leaf-tip on the world tree
A woman bribed her way in/ with a bucket of meat, and fed them like fledglings
God says, Let there be no light.
Starlings think it night, celandines shut their petals.
trees in Westridge Wood stand frostily waiting.
(U A Fanthorpe)
Or you might find them in a prose text…like the start of Hilary Mantel’s “Bring up the bodies”
‘His children are falling from the sky’
Or in a nonfiction writer like Robert Macfarlane…these are from “The old ways”
The cold like a wire in the nose.
Snow caused everything to exceed itself
starlings…feathers sleekly black as sheaves of photographic negatives
big gulls…monitoring us with lackadaisical, violent eyes
a dolphin….a sliding bump beneath the water..like a tongue moving under a cheek
star patterns..the grandiose slosh of the Milky Way
gannets bursting up out of the sea…like white flowers unfurling…avian origami
(after a hard long hike)….feet puffy as rising dough
Here’s a treat. Before the poet Ian Parks understood the rules (mainly because he has no internet when the libraries are closed) he sent me this poem. I’ll post it again at the start of the online anthology after April 30. But you shouldn’t have to wait till then. And you won’t.
When This is All Over
While we were sleeping they were still awake. While we were hiding they were in the light. The cold dark angel passing over us left nothing but the flutter of its wings. We huddled in our places, locked from sight each waiting for the hush that daylight brings. So empty out the squares and thoroughfares, make criminal the handshake and embrace. There is no other future except this: the bolted door, the window and the face; all of our journeys cancelled or delayed – and if we meet we cough instead of kiss. When all of this is over we’ll creep out astonished by the new world they have made.
A short post, but since not everyone is on Facebook, I’ll be making sure that I reach everyone that needs reaching, and, possibly, people as yet unreached (in which case they’ll need to read the previous post, too).
71 people have claimed a letter of the alphabet! Five folk have already sent me poems! Wow!. But let’s be clear…there’s no rush and no pressure. We’ve still not filled all the available slots for three complete alphabets, and in any case, we can start another if we like.
Someone has sent me a poem and asked for another letter, and I’m thinking why not? . I was also thinking that the prompts I’ve sent out weren’t all that quirky or surprising, and I was delighted to be told that someone had decided to think of what a phrenologist might be looking forward to. I’ve been wondering what a psychic or an astrologer or a fortune teller might anticipate or eagerly wait for. And so on.
So here’s a call out for more poems, and maybe for some slightly off-the-wall occupations. In any case, we need Xs and Ys and Zs. Let’s see if anyone’s boat is floated by any of these:
Upholsteres, Quakers, ukelele players, violin- makers and violinists, umbrella-makers, coopers, fletchers, double-agents, tripe-dressers and pigs’ head-boners, cutlers, twitchers and vagabonds.
Pavement artists (or screevers), pickpockets and confidence tricksters, trulls and dollymops, wayfarers, vagabonds, escapologists, centurions and galley slaves, valets and valetudinarians, vampires, vapers, vegans, vikings and vestal virgins.
X-ray technicians and crystallographers, archeologists, and Xmas card designers, X-Men and xenophobes, yak-herders, yardbirds and Yardies, yeomen and yogis, zanies and jesters, zebra-crossing painters, zen masters, zitherists, zoetrope artists, zodiac designers and zombies.
Once you start, it’s hard to stop. I forgot sherpas and swamis. And trout farmers. Enough. Send me your poems. Just ask for a letter or tell me you chose one from these lists. Message me on Facebook or reply via the blog. We’re on a roll.
Well, hello again! And how nice it is to be back…sooner than planned, and the site has yet to be redesigned, but I’ve been self-isolating for 14 days, and I’m missing company. The garden and house have never been tidier, and I’ve got the time and the inclination. I was planning to do a bit of brick and stonework, but Wickes have just cancelled my delivery, so here we are. And I’m feeling ring-rusty, tongue-tied; I can’t quite remember how to talk in Cobweb. I can’t remember the rhythm. There’s nothing for it. Just do it.
Jane Clarke posted on Facebook this article from The Irish Times (29/03/20)
Eileán Ní Chuilleanáin wins Irish Times Poetry Now award
Former Ireland professor of poetry wins €2,000 prize for The Mother House
Eileán Ni Chuilleanáin. Photograph: Eric Luke
The winner of this year’s Irish Times Poetry Now award is Eileán Ní Chuilleanáin for The Mother House, published by Gallery Press. The winner had been due to be presented with the €2,000 prize at the Mountains to Sea festival in the dlr Lexicon in Dún Laoghaire today but the festival, like many other literary events was cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The other poets on this year’s shortlist were: Jane Clarke for When The Tree Falls (Bloodaxe), Vona Groarke for Double Negative (Gallery Press), Medbh McGuckian for Marine Cloud Brightening (Gallery), and Paul Muldoon for Frolic and Detour (Faber & Faber).
The three judges included the current editor of Poetry Ireland Review, poet Colette Bryce, Jackie Kay, who has been Scotland’s national poet laureate since 2016 and is chancellor of the University of Salford, and anthologist, broadcaster and author of poetry text books for students, Niall MacMonagle.
Speaking on behalf of the judges, McMonagle said that the panel had agreed that the poems in The Mother House “are rich and generous and rewarding. Reading them expands our understanding, they remind us of what poetry can do in terms of words and ideas. They sustain us.”
Describing the work in this, Ní Chuilleanáin’s 10th collection, he said it “explores those familiar themes of grief, loss, love and the past, a past both personal and historical; she writes of multiple lives, different lives, in richly-textured poems”.
Her words “come with insight, wisdom and a distinctive music all their own. These poems allow us enter worlds, worlds that reveal themselves slowly.”
MacMonagle quotes the words of President Higgins when speaking at Ní Chuilleanáin’s appointment to the Ireland Chair of Poetry: “Her poems have at their heart, an instinctive understanding of the importance of indicating the right of each individual mind to reflect on and see the world in its own way.”
Now, apart from my joy at seeing my poetry friend Jane Clarke in that sort of company, it was a delight to be reminded of one of my favourite poems (one of Anthony Wilson’s too..check out Lifesaving Poems). And here it is.
When all this is over, said the swineherd, I mean to retire, where Nobody will have heard about my special skills And conversation is mainly about the weather.
I intend to learn how to make coffee, as least as well As the Portuguese lay-sister in the kitchen And polish the brass fenders every day. I want to lie awake at night Listening to cream crawling to the top of the jug And the water lying soft in the cistern.
I want to see an orchard where the trees grow in straight lines And the yellow fox finds shelter between the navy-blue trunks, Where it gets dark early in summer And the apple-blossom is allowed to wither on the bough.
Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin
It’s one of those poems that turns up so often as a starter/prompt at poetry workshops that you can almost forget to read it properly. You can think, because it’s familiar, that you know it. Anthony Wilson points out that it goes on and on asking unanswered questions. It haunts. I offer it in workshops to illustrate what Clive James meant by the moment that gets you in, or what Jane Draycott will call the ignition point..
“When this is all over”. Where are we? I’ve always imagined the swineherd waving his arm at a despoiled landscape of rooted ground, the snuffling of rough-haired pigs, everything churned and grey-brown; you might just think of him in the shed he lives in, lying on a pallet, staring at a plank ceiling, talking to himself, or…..
What the poem invites you to do is to imagine the ‘this’ of the swineherd’s world. What he dreams of, is presumably everything that it isn’t. His dreams are apparently small but particular and memorable.
I want to see an orchard where the trees grow in straight lines
You see where I get my picture of uprooted shrubs and splintered stems and churned earth? It’s such a simple line, it’s so surprising; I cannot figure out the voice. Wistful? Angry? Frustrated? Despairing? They’e all possible.
It’s a moment that gets you in, like the polishing of the brass fenders, or the wanting to making coffee in that particular way. Or the utter lovely uforgettableness of
I want to lie awake at night Listening to cream crawling to the top of the jug And the water lying soft in the cistern.
And there’s this startlingly not-quite surreal image
And the yellow fox finds shelter between the navy-blue trunks
which is so painterly, like a passage in a Van Gogh, or a Rousseau.
Quiet, colour, peace, orderliness, routine, untaxing conversation. So many things that are missing in the ‘this’ that he hopes will be over, sooner or later.
So here’s the deal. It would be rather nice to make an on-line/virtual anthology.
If you want to be involved, leave a message in the reply box. Just say :Yes please, I’ll send you my When this is all over, said the X,Y orZ poem
The rules are simple:
I send you a letter of the alphabet. So if you get A you choose to be an aromatherapist or an astrologer or…..
The title should be simply the name of the trade or occupation.
Minimum length: 14 lines
Maximum length: 25 lines
It can be in any form, rhymed or unrhymed, with stanza breaks or not, anything from blank verse to couplets.
Aim to describe the job/occupation of the narrator by implication…keep reading Swineherd to remind yourself how it’s done at its absolute best
Set yourself a simple criterion. Can you recognise at least one moment that gets the reader in, something memorable and right?
Treat it as a submission.
When I get your message, I’ll send you your letter of the alphabet, with some prompts, and also how to send me your poem. It’s first come first served.
Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin sets the bar very high; I thought I’d just finish for now by sharing one of mine that doesn’t cut the mustard. Yes, it was a workshop job, but it’s never been redrafted.
When this is over. said the lighthouse keeper,
I shall spend my days in shopping malls
bus stations, airports. I shall pass the afternoons
with jostling strangers, never spend too long
in just one room, never buy a wedge of cheese
or a round cake. I shall hang pictures –
-Braques and Mondrians- use a spirit level.
I shall travel constantly, walk miles inland,
live near motorways listening enthralled
to the thrum and buzz of tyres, the doppler
wail of ambulances, fire engines. Relish
late night slamming doors, the sodium glow
of towns, the smell of burgers, onion, hot fat,
the scuff of litter. I shall paint my rooms cerise,
and violet, or amber, mustard, lemon,
emerald, chartreuse. Anything but white.
What’s wrong with it, apart from line breaks that make no sense, or its tendency to confuse invention with lists? Basically, it hasn’t spent enough time with the world of the narrator. Read Tony Parker’s ‘Lighthouse and you’ll see what I mean. There is nothing concrete or particular or felt or memorable in it. I wouldn’t publish it. You are all infinitely better than this.
Send me your jugglers, your excisemen, your magician’s assistants and sagger-makers’ bottom-knockers, your milliners and tinsmiths, your screevers and dollymops. We’ve all got plenty of time.
I’ve found myself missing the blog. Not the week by week pressure, but just occasionally writing a post because something has grabbed my attention, or surprised or excited me. I’ve still not got round to redesigning the site…though it will be done, eventually. Just for now I’m happy enough to rework old posts that seem relevant again.
What set me off this afternoon was the relief at coming to the end of a major project. We’ve had a painting studio built…..it’s taken about fifteen years to finally do it, and we are extremely happy. And I’m especially happy today because all the furniture and equipment have been moved out of the house and into the studio. It’s been backbreaking. And just now, apart from the odd snow flurry, I’m luxuriating in the feeling that I can put my feet up for a bit, before the garden starts to get insistent .
So what set me off on this particular post? Well, there’s another flurry…of poetry competitions. The Plough deadline just passed and so has that for the Hippocrates. But the Yorkmix comp is open, and coming up there are the Enfield, Artlyst, Newcastle, Ware Poets, Wakefield City of Santuary, The Frogmore Press (which is wonderful because the prize is in guineas), and the Indigo Dreams Geoff Stevens Prize for two winning collections is open till February 29.
And there are two competitions I’m fond of. There’s the Yaffle Competition in its second year. The closing date is March 30; the link is http://www.yafflepress.co.uk/competition-1 ; and The Red Shed (closing date March 31) which is celebrating its 12th year. The link is https://www.currockpress.com/about-us.html . This takes you to the page that explains how the competition supports the readings. Of which, more later.
So let me persuade you to enter at least one of them, and preferably more.
Let’s get something out of the way right from the beginning. The odds of your winning a poetry competition are dramatically increased if you enter. Simultaneously, so are the chances of losing, but not by the same amount. And I guess most of us don’t buy a Lottery ticket expecting to win. If you’re like me, you buy yourself a dream.
In earlier posts on the cobweb, I’ve riffed on my own reasons for entering competitions. First comes the dream. What next? I look out for competitions run by small publishers, because when you pay for your entry, you’re in a win-win situation. Your entry fee is going to keep these small concerns alive…I’m thinking of ones like Prole and The interpreter’s house And, of course, Yaffle, and The Red Shed . Or you may be helping to promote a small festival, like Havant. The point is, you’re not wasting your money.
Next thing is: who’ll be judging the competition. With the small presses, I don’t mind, but when it comes to medium and high-profile affairs then what’s important to me is whether I like that poet’s work. Why? Because part of the dream is not anything to do with money (and there’s often not a lot of that involved) but the thought that my work is going to be read by someone I admire and from whom I’ve learned. If the judge’s work is not the sort of thing that floats my boat, then I don’t enter, because I guess it’s more likely than not to be mutual. For example, if Pascale Petit were to judge a competition I’d enter like a shot, but not if it was someone who went in for avant-garde shapes on the page. It’s just how I am. I certainly think twice about competitions where the work is filtered by a selection committee before it reaches the star judge….The Bridport comes to mind….but they’re likely to be the ones with big prize money. Take your choice.
Is there anything else? I’m personally attracted to competitions which offer publication of your work as a prize. Some will guarantee that runners-up will appear in their magazine (as in The Rialto/ RSPB), but I’m thinking particularly of Indigo Dreams, where the prize is publication of a full collection.
Finally, some poets I know will tell me they would rather submit to magazines. My answer is always that it’s not an either/or choice. I do both. But I know I’m always less disappointed by not winning a competition than getting ‘sorry, but no thank-you’ emails from magazine editors. I get a lot of those. I suppose it’s because I don’t expect to win a competition, but I’m absolutely convinced that Magma, The Rialto and the rest would be mad not to jump at the chance of publishing my poems.
Anyway, let’s suppose I’ve persuaded you. What advice can I give?
I’ve thought hard and long about this, ever since John Clarke asked me to judge The Red Shed. a few years ago. I’ve had success in competitions. I’ve had poems chosen by Andrew Motion (twice), Liz Lochhead, Blake Morrison, Billy Collins, and Simon Armitage (twice). I have not caught the eye of Carrie Etter, Alison Brackenbury, George Szirtes or Roger McGough (though with the latter, he probably never got to see it…it’s a huge comp, The Bridport). It’s hard to see that they have much in common apart from being immensely talented, and being poets I love to read.
What about the poems? I can’t see any pattern there, either. I sort of thought that most of them had been narratives of one sort or another, but when I check, I find it’s not exactly true. It’s a variety of elegaic, historical/political, mythic, anecdotal, and biographical. Possibly it’s a list that’s light on the lyrical. There are poems about Ted and Sylvia, Milton’s daughter,selkies, suffragettes, cocklepickers, cutting hair, a 10thC princess, Everest, and the plumage trade. They’re not all in the same voice. One is in the voice of a witch, another of a crucifixion expert. They’re all shapes and sizes. What it comes down to, I suppose, is that there was something in each that caught the eye, or the ear and ‘stuck’. Carole Bromley, who judged the YorkMix Competition for four years, had to read 1800 entries in her last year, and tells me (and I paraphrase) it just jumps out, it’s an instinctive thing…but you know it when you see it
And that leads me to the one piece of advice that I’m totally convinced about. You don’t try to second-guess the judge. Because she, or he, simply doesn’t know. I could tell you who my favourite poets are, but I doubt it would help. Vernon Scannell, Charles Causley, Tony Harrison, John Donne, Milton, Pope, Bob Dylan, Christy Ducker, Kim Moore, Roger McGough. Blank verse, free verse, quatrains, sonnets, rhyming couplets, multiple rhymes. It’s not a question of this or that form. But judges all know when something jumps off the page. So what sort of things are we talking about?
None of this will be unexpected, I think, or new. I can only tell you what makes me pause as I look through a collection, what makes me want to buy it.
They don’t win competitions but they can snag the attention. Ones that explain exactly what the poem is about don’t do that. But this one does:
Sometimes you think of Bowness
It holds your attention even more because it’s also the first line. And it begins a list of the things that you remember. And each line of the first stanza begins with ‘and’. It’s just a poem that grabs you visually and puzzles you just enough to give it your attention. She can do that, Kim Moore (for ’tis she). She does great titles. If we could speak like wolves. When I was a thing with feathers. A previous Red Shed judge, Julie Mellor, does, too. Speaking through our bones. Yes. Check out her pamphlet of the same name. So..think about titles.
First lines (which may also be the title).
It may not have been where the poem started in its first or later drafts. Basically you know what the poem’s ‘about’, so you’re playing to get an uncommitted reader’s attention. At the same time you don’t want to give the game away. A good first line will certainly make me pay attention. Like The first hymn is Abba: I believe in angels.
What’s going on? Must find out.
Or this one: They lashed him to old timbers / that would barely float. Him? who is he? A game with a pronoun to create a little hesitation, a suspense.
Or this from Pascale Petit: Since I was six my right foot /has been bandaged in a boat
Or this: Isn’t it enough that I’ve yanked out my heart? A question will catch the ear, especially if we don’t know who’s asking it or why. I’m not offering recipes or nostrums. Just saying: look at the title. Listen to the first line. Ask yourself: why should anyone bother?
Of late I’ve found myself going again and again to Clive James’ beautiful Poetry Notebook and his insistence on the memorable, the hard-to-forget. Here’s the thing that strikes me as the heart of the memorable poem, the one that sticks, the one that may just win the prize. ‘Everything’ says James
depended on, and still depends on, the quality of the moment……whatever kind of poem it is, it’s the moment that gets you in.
That moment has to be brought alive and bright in language. It will often be an image, but it could be a startling turn of phrase, or a beautifully placed rhyme. Trying to explain it is like trying to explain a tree or a table. It’s easier to point at some, and say: there’s a table, and so is that. And that. Here, then, are ‘moments’ in poems that persuaded me to buy collections. There might be a lot. It’s enjoyable tracking them down.
How about Robin Robertson’s At Roane Head
He went along the line / relaxing them /one after another / with a small knife
It’s the shock of that last line that nails you. Well, it does me.
Or this, in a different way, from Clare Shaw’s Ewe in several parts..about the imagined(?) loss of a baby, taken by sheep, unprotesting, because
She must have liked it
the way she likes dogs
her hands to its mouth and stamping
like she does when she’s pleased
I kept the line breaks here because they’re part of the way the moment is made to work. Think about it.
Sometimes the moment can declare itself as an image- metaphor or simile- as this does in Wendy Pratt’s Nan Hardwicke turns into a hare.
An odd feeling this, / to hold another’s soul in the mouth like an egg
That stops me in my tracks. What would carry an egg in its mouth? And how full would that be. Awkward and fragile. It’s packed, isn’t it.
The important thing is that they will lodge themselves in my mind. They stick at a first hearing. There’s one like this that I heard when Kim Moore was reading at the Chemic Tavern a couple of years ago. I can’t remember it precisely or exactly, but I can’t forget it. She’s writing about an old boyfriend, how twice a week they would lie together, and apart, on or in a bed, not touching, asexual, like unlit candles. And I know I can never forget it.
Just in case you get the idea that ‘moments’ are necessarily emotionally fraught or traumatic, the apparently funny and inconsequential will do it, too. Like this opening moment of Mike de Placido’s Diktat song (great title, too)
Some people are bad for the soul. Avoid them.
I quote granddad: Never wrestle with chimneysweeps.
You can’t legislate for it in your own poetry, but when it works, it WILL be recognised.
Technique, form and structure.
Clive James talks about ‘the spectacular expression that outruns its substance’. It’s not about formal structures or freeform or rule breaking or experiment. It’s a question of whether the words and their arrangement are doing their job, that they have to be as they are, rather than being flaunted to make an impression. I have no preference for one kind of poem or another. Sonnets, sestina, terza rimas, rhymed quatrains, couplets, tercets, villanelles. Just so long as they’re not like that to be decorative. Sonnets really do need to be about a particular kind of ‘argument’ don’t they? Sestinas deal happily with the obsessional..otherwise, what are those repetitions for. And so on.
This is a personal thing. But I like to know that a poem’s finished. And it’s not always the case. It doesn’t have to be a rhyming couplet. And I like to be brought up short by endings that surprise, that turn the poem on its head, that make you reconsider what you’ve just read. In the way that the end of that four line satanza of Robin Robertson’s does…’with a small knife’. The way it subverts what you expect ‘relaxing’ to mean, the way it throws a frightening light on the cold calculations of the man who, you realise, has just casually slaughtered his sons. There’s an art to an ending that encompasses and goes beyond the neat sign-offs of the rhyming couplet, or the rhetorical tying-off of a well-crafted sonnet.
And one more personal thing. A year or so ago I spent some time selecting poems for an anthology. Like competitions, all the entries were anonymous, but it taught me something I’d not explicitly acknowledged to myself. I can’t be doing with pretentiousness or sentimentality or ego, or writing that’s out to impress. This is not the same as being esoteric, or having a wide range of reference, or writing poetry that expects the reader to do a bit of work to follow an allusion or reference. It’s just that if it looks hard, you’re not trying hard enough.
So there you go. Buy that ticket.
Robin Robertson: The wrecking light [Picador Poetry 2010] £8.99
Clare Shaw :Head On [Bloodaxe 2012] £8.95
Wendy Pratt : Nan Hardwicke turns into a hare [Prolebooks 2011] £4.50
Mike de Placido : A sixty watt Las Vegas[Valley press 2013] £7.99
Kim Moore : The art of falling [Seren 2015] £9.99
Pascale Petit: What the water gave me [Seren 2010] £8.99
I hoped never to see last night’s news about the flooding of the Calder Valley, to see Mytholmroyd inundated again, to read posts on social media describing the despair of folk with shops and restaurants in Hebden Bridge, trying to deal with the flooding of their cellars, and the destruction of their stock and storage.
I’m not clear what I feel most at the moment; pity or anger, though I’m feeling both. Anger at a government that declined millions of aid from the EU to alleviate flooding, and also at their complicity in the degradation of the surrounding moors in the interests of grouse shooters. Pity for the people, of course.
Pity and anger you’ll find in abundance in Clare Shaw’s Flood that is her hymn to the people of her town and her valley, devastated by the floods of Christmas 2015. And here we are again. Which is why I’m reposting this tribute to Clare’s book and the people of the Calder Valley
In popular belief, we are 90% water; this is untrue…in fact, we’re about 65% water. We cannot live without it; we cannot breathe or live in it. The sea is where we came from, and we cannot quite leave it behind. The idea of flood is in our collective unconscious, a great cataclysmic flood that every culture recognises in its myths. Genesis, Gilgamesh, the Greek’s Deucalion. Flood as divine punishment, a great scourging and cleansing that spares only the pure in heart. The Australian Aboriginal Dreamtime reverses the idea in the story of Tiddalik the Frog who drinks up all the waters of the earth so that nothing can grow, and can only be got to release them by being made to laugh.
No wonder that the idea of flood permeates the language, breeds metaphor.Flood as release and healing. We can be flooded with relief and with love; counter-intuitively, with heat and passion. Flood as invasion: a constant trope in the whipping up of fear of immigration. Newspapers may be inundated with complaints, that come ‘pouring in’, and charities with offers of help, always with the sense of being overwhelmed, which may be welcome or unwelcome. Language is ambivalent about flood. We can see it as absolution or cleansing (as D H Lawrence was prone to see it); we tend to discount or forget the aftermath of flood…the detritus, the filth, the stink of drowned things under the sun. In one way or another you’ll find all these in Flood which is constantly aware of it contradictions and paradoxes…. the forces that destroy and save us…flood runs through the book in different forms – bereavement and trauma, the Savile scandal, life in an asylum..ultimately, a story of one life as it is unravelled and rebuilt.
Clare says in an interview: ‘I revel in the texture and echo of words; I love their dance. There’s something about the physicality of the spoken word that delights me. For me it feels like the meeting place of human and landscape; a sort of landscape of mouth and air and page. I enjoy the physicality of my own language; and I’m drawn to poems that foreground the dance and swoop of conversation, as well as the music of form and rhythm; alongside meaning and content.
Think of that as you listen to the poems. Don’t look at them, say them. They’re so often incantatory; listen for the rhymes and slant rhymes, the assonance, the urgent rhythm that may or may not grow out of repetition. And also keep in mind one more thing. If you follow Twitter or Facebook you’ll be aware that that Clare’s writing explodes into your message feeds via NaPoWriMo, and if you check carefully you’ll find that a lot of the poems in the collection came in that flood, or gush, or geyser of 30 days of writing. You have to assume that all these themes and ideas and phrases and verses have been hanging around, have been toyed with, inchoate, and then suddenly respond to pressure, which give it form.
I’ll settle for sharing three poems from the collection, for trying to give you the quality and flavour three main threads or strands in Flood.
The first thread is the core story of the Calder Valley floods of 2015 which ruined Clare’s adopted home of Hebden Bridge ; it has a role in reconciling her struggles with identity, it gave her a place to stand, and to be; she celebrates it in Who knows what it’s like:
I grew up outnumbered, one hundred to one /I found my own people. My kin.
(just in passing, I love the way she ends on a couplet with its near rhyme, the assonance of one / kin ). She gives thanks for that kinship in Measures of goodness, for:
Those swilling for others.
Those who form armies of buckets and brushes;
those bailing water from fast-filling cellars.
Those making cuppas for neighbours and strangers:
those who would see no one cold.
Just listen to the the rhythm and dance she talked about in the interview, the dance that’s made by swilling /bailing/fast-filling/making and cuppas / armies / buckets / brushes / neighbours / strangers. It’s a rhythm that comes from speech, so it seems effortless for all its artfulness.
The second thread is that of the dark current of child- and sexual abuse which she frames in the context of folk tales, of orphans and forests and wolfy predators, in poems like Grim, Who said and Telling tales. But notice how their darkness is set against the light and tenderness of poems about her mother and father and grandmother. It’s a beautifully organised / curated collection, Flood.
The third thread, that of survival whether in psychiatric wards or in difficult relationships, uses flood and harsh weather as a metaphor for separation in poems which explore the difficulties of love, and the breakdown of a relationship…. particularly in this poem where flood brings no cleansing or absolution, and where the width of a bed is impassable as a river in spate.
The weather’s all wrong
and nothing can right it. Wherever I am,
there’s a sound in the background
like threat. The wind knows
all of my secrets.
It hates that it cannot speak.
All night, it rages. The garden is battered,
the small path is lost to mud.
Slates have slipped. There’s damp in the bricks
and the floors are dirty.
No matter how high the heating,
I cannot get warm.
When I sleep, I dream in yellow;
sun pouring down me
like rain. Then I’m naked
and everything I touch is hot.
Sky glares; flowers are open.
Bushes are loaded with fruit. I’m a shit.
Morning. You’re on the bed’s far side.
The room smells of something hidden.
The river is angry with rain.
Roads are blocked and the lines are down.
I stretch out my arm
but can’t reach you. I cannot reach you at all.
In this breakdown of communication, all roads are blocked and the lines are down. There are no emergency services. Dreams of sun and warmth are yellow, and warmth is a feverish heat. Waking is awful. It’s a stunner of a poem. They stick in the mind, those moments that draw you in. The wind knows all your secrets.
Two more poems. The biblical flood is unavoidable, isn’t it? In this version though, the survival is that of the wife and mother, and the survival is that of her self. Mrs Noah can say at the end : this is my voice. And it’s been hard-won. (I should say in passing that I like the device of using the stages of developing flood as described in a kind of Beaufort scale of inundation as titles for poems; I like the way that this one conflates and elides her personal story with the story of the valley, and its flood with those of myth).
Low lying regions inundated. Large objects begin to float
My man was not blameless but he knew his own mind. He loved his sons, his God, his goats. We were solid as wood, as steady as bread. It was not perfect: it was what I had. I brought up boys in a time of war. I loved them. I had no choice.
And this is my voice:
you would not believe the violence; how the ground was covered in minutes; how quickly our valley was Nile.
When the river came with a sound like battle and when all the waters were one
then we knew how angry we’d made him and it was too late to run.
When I tell you I feared for my life
for my children – you cannot imagine. When I say, I saw people drown, they looked in my face and I could not help them – ours was the only boat on that ocean;
a boat the size of a zoo, a mansion; a sea the size of the world.
I lived to see what I loved destroyed and all my world was unmade.
Forty days. The boredom and stink and the darkness. No wonder
the birds pulled out their feathers and the bear banged his head on the wall. And when the rain stopped,
then the silence.
The mountains a dream in the waters beneath us. I think, that day, there was sun.
When floods recede, they don’t leave a world made shiny
and bright. For years, I’ll be cleaning up shit. No bird nor branch can make this right. No trick of the light. No I’ll-never-do-it
again. No god or man.
I loved him. I had no choice. And this is my voice: it takes more than a dove and I will not forgive.
That note of defiance, truculence, even, sounds like a trumpet. It’s the voice of a survivor. Which brings us to the last poem I asked for. This featured in a previous post when Clare was the guest, but WordPress corrupted all the line breaks, and I wanted it in all its pristine glory.
I came back
to the sound of birds in the morning, to heavy rain falling. Back to the holding of hands. I came back from the storm to shelter. Though they said there was no way back I came back in a taxi, by darkness and no-one could see my face.
I came back from the brink,
from Broadoak. There was screaming
inside my ears. I came back running,
back from not speaking. I made the same noise for years.
I came back by grafting, back
with my arms open wide and laughing.
I was brought back by daisies. I was brought back by doctors. Saved by a surplus of air because somebody needed to breathe it; I came back to the feeling of mud, I forgot I forgot how to cross the road.
I was not brought back by love. I was brought back by stone and by falling. I was brought back by hitting the floor. I was wrapped in a blanket, brought back by hurting, by the sight of my own insides and I did not like it and I could not stop it but back is the way I came.
I was brought back by words though I didn’t believe them, I came back to a yard in the sun. I was brought back by pain that I could not escape. When they stitched me, I could not run
I was sweating. I will never forget them.
I came back to my mother’s eyes
and the sound of the telly left on.
I came back the long way round and I did not mind about distance. I was brought back by violence, my own. I came back for vodka, I came back for fire, for your animal breath in my ear. For the colour of leaves in the darkness. I came back for your eyes in the darkness;
to houses that did not care. For tracing the flames with my fingers, how you parted my knees with your hands and when the fires had all lost their voices I came back from the page’s blank stare. I was brought back to words: moon, falling. I was right I was right all along.
I came back. I lived through thunder. And I did not come back for the sun.
There you are.. When you buy the book, please read I came back and then I Woz here just to savour the defiance it takes to survive, the resilience. And then go on to savour the dance and the images, the moments..
yes I saw the river rising / but I did not see this coming
the river is a story / that can’t be believed
nobody intended this story / but I have written it on my arms
And then finish with this one
It has stopped.
You lifted your sea on blocks.
You saved some stock.
You did whatever you could.
You worked hard.Your daughter was never afraid.
The sun has come back,
hedges are heavy with light.
and though sheep are still waiting
they will be saved.
As will you.
Light a candle and say a prayer for the people of the upper Calder Valley.
Check out earlier posts featuring Clare Shaw via these links. Oh, and buy all her books
This week I gave up my ‘job’ as resident blogger for Write Out Loud, and I’m also going to take a break from the cobweb; I don’t know how long it will be. I’ll probably get withdrawal symptoms and find myself one Sunday afternoon wondering why I’m not tense and anxious, and also why I wish I was…because it’s one of the accompaniments to writing. And I like writing. On the other hand, as I’ve said before, you’ve no business writing if you’ve nothing to say, and just at the moment, I haven’t. I have at least three reviews that I could/should be getting on with, but I can’t do them justice, and until I can, I’m better keeping quiet. It’s time to get the batteries recharged.
In the meantime, there will be a redesign of the great Fogginzo’scobweb, to make it more user friendly, and to let me showcase some of my own work if I feel like it. It needs an index, too so, so you can access specific poets from the archive. And so on. Tinkering. Displacement activity. Faffing about.
We’ve just taken down the Christmas tree, packed away all the baubles, all the angels and stars, all the bright lights. Christmas over, New Year gone. Just another year, nearly one week in. Time to repost something I do fairly regularly at this time of year. A post in praise of wind-up mice and their quest for self-winding status.
Is there a book that you’d run into a burning house to save? I think this might just be the one I’d choose. If I could have more, along with Middlemarch I’d probably choose Riddley Walker.
Russell Hoban changed the way I think about the world. It started when I met him at a NATE Conference some time in the 1970s. Breakfast. He was smoking roll-ups, Old Holborn, and eating All-Bran, was Mr Hoban. He was fulminating about the teachers in his writers workshop who had asked if they could have a coffee break. “What do they think writing’s about…a leisure pursuit?”…I’m paraphrasing. He was wonderful company.
Will Self wrote a tribute to him in 2011, the year he died, the 25th anniversary of the publication of Riddley Walker, which I go on arguing is one of the great novels of the 20th C.
A few years ago, charged with writing a new introduction to a 25th-anniversary edition of Riddley Walker, I called the author, Russell Hoban, at his behest. A frail-sounding voice answered the phone, and when I explained who I was, Hoban fluted: “Would you mind calling back in half an hour or so? My wife and I are about to watch Sex and the City.” I put the receiver down chastened: here was a man in his 80s who had more joie de vivre than I could muster in hale middle age.
After I met him, I discovered The Mouse and his Child. I’ve read it dozens of times, often when life feels unbearably bleak. It never fails to relight your faith in the human condition and the power of hope combined with love and endurance. It’s a story of a quest for self-winding, undertaken by a clockwork mouse and his child. You’d think it would be twee and sentimental. It isn’t. It’s profound, layered. Magic realism doesn’t do it justice. It sits very comfortably (or uncomfortably) alongside Angela Carter’s The magic toyshop. Saved by a tramp from the dustbin (where they’ve been thrown after being broken by a cat) they’re sort-of-mended and wound up, set down on the road and left to find their destiny. Just buy it and read it. Your life will be better.
You may even find yourself, as we did, collecting wind-up toys and bringing them out every Christmas. You might even find yourself making special boxes for them. And writing poems. So here we are, taking down the Christmas tree and the angels and lights and tinsels, and maybe lighting a candle for Russell Hoban and for the Mouse and his Child. Happy New Year
lifted on the stroke of midnight
on some special Eve,
midsummer, say, or Christmas.
Then, it’s said that stones, or foxes,
trees, or owls can speak.
Or toys piled pell-mell in boxes
kept in lofts, in attic cupboards,
and things that hang in Christmas trees,
like fairies, snowmen, angels,
and wind-up clockwork toys.
What is it, do you think, they say
just once a year, just for one day?
The dark that lasts all year,
the silent dust that settles
clogs their tongues.
In truth, they’re mad as stones
and deaf as owls. They’re let to speak.
Have forgotten how, and what, to say;
stay silent till Twelfth Night
and then, once more, are put away.
(But actually, I do believe they are articulate, fluent, funny, wise and occasionally as cross as Russell Hoban could be. I believe they will become self-winding and live rich and loving lives).
I shall see you again. When, I don’t know. But I shall.
Mr Greg Freeman, my prodigiously hardworking and inspirational editor at Write Out Loud, is having a break, and so I find I have a free Sunday.
To be honest, I need it. For various reasons I spent the first 9 days of December at residential poetry courses in Derbyshire and Cumbria, and managed to squeeze in two readings along the way. I got ridiculously tired, but the batteries are gradually recharging, the black tragedy of the GE notwithstanding. And I think that the run up to Christmas is invariably more fun than the thing itself
There are rituals in our house (as there will be in yours ) …including using a lot of wire wool and BriWax. It’s just what we do, along with the business of trees and sparkly lights and baubles and wind-up toys. Last year it was mildly disrupted by a glut of late apples that I was picking two weeks before Christmas. There’s one ritual that began via the accident of a glut of small green tomatoes some years ago, and now is expected. It also involves lots of hot vinegar. Good for the sinuses.