A polished gem [1] Anthony Costello

Anthony-Costello

The more I get to know about the world of poetry, the less familiar it feels. A little knowledge can be a comfortable as well as a dangerous thing. And I certainly feel uncomfortable with the occasional squabbles and small jealousies I may encounter, when most of the time the bit of the poetry world I actually know is welcoming and generous. Thus it was that I was simultaneously taken aback and entertained by Anthony Howell’s ‘Fear and loathing in the Royal Festival Hall’ ( an article someone Shared on my Facebook page from The Fortnightly Review. Another bit of the poetry world I’d never heard of). Because I’ve always enjoyed the splenetic squabbles of the world of Pope, Dryden and Swift I suppose I felt a guilty pleasure at the sustained crossness of Howell’s piece. At the same time I was puzzled by the crossness. There’s a lot wrong with the world that’s worth getting more cross about than whose poems win what. Still. I was intrigued enough by bits of it to make notes about what he describes as the ‘generic British poem’ …’the poetic equivalent of a rather staid life-class’….’well-crafted….more or less free….more or less scanned…..decent’….’middle of the road, narrative.’ I put that together with something I wrote down in a workshop I was at last year. I wrote it down because its languid condescension made me very cross indeed. ‘The anecdotal, the bus-stop conversation has its own charm.’ And I thought, well, that’s me put in my place. Howell and the languid commentator probably sum up the level of where I, personally, am in poetry. But British poetry? All of it? Really? Is it really so insular, the default voice of the ‘successful’ British poem. Is it really so ‘nice’? This seems remarkably at odds with what I’ve been wrestling with for the last few weeks, the unnerving imaginative challenge of work by poets like Clare Shaw and Fiona Benson, for instance.

But let me go back to that phrase ‘middle of the road’. Well, pretending that metaphor is a substitute for sustained argument is a dubious trade at best, but surely, the middle of the road is by no means always the safest place to be. On the other hand, I do come across puzzlement and resistance in various workshops to things that are out of the familiar run of language and allusion…literary, biblical, scientific, historic, geographic references..even those to the world of popular culture, anything beyond a comfortable frame of reference seem problematic. Or  pretentious. Or seen as ‘showing off’. And I start to ask: where is the resonance to come from? I’m thinking of John Barton discussing how a complex Shakespeare speech could make sense to the chunk of his audience that was illiterate. Barton argues that the verse is carried by resonant keywords, packed with layers and levels of meaning..words like gold, iron, fire, lion, cur, sphere, sun,king, rebellion, tempest…that create the emotional colour and meaning of a stretch of text. Barton would tell his actors to locate them, make sure that if nothing else was heard that they would be. Shakespeare could assume how these words would work on a listener. The Metaphysicals and  the Stuart and Hanoverian poets wrote for coteries whose knowledge they could assume. 19th century poets, before universal education and literacy, seem to assume a shared knowledge of the Bible and, to a degree, of Classical literature.

I sometimes wonder if ‘The WasteLand’ was the first poem to be deliberately and bloodymindedly uncomfortable in its parade and assumption of literary and other knowledge …as opposed to experience. I used to resent trying to get to grips with it. And then, as with Shakespeare, learned to enjoy it, in the way you enjoy gradually coming to terms with a foreign language.Why shouldn’t we all have to be prepared to do a bit of work as readers?And isn’t Tony Harrison’s trademark lengthy introduction to a poem before he reads it part of the pleasure?

Maybe it’s because I grew up with set-books that sometimes seemed as remote and unattainable as Alpha Centauri. Shakespeare, Milton, the Metaphysicals, ‘The silver poets of the 16th Century’ (Championship), ‘Palgrave’s Golden Treasury of…’ (Premier league). There didn’t seem to be a Bronze Cert. for poetry. What there certainly wasn’t, when I was at school and university, was anything that came within passing distance of the 20thC. I (I should say ‘we’) had to find out about all sorts of problematic stuff, like pre-Copernican Universes, and medieval physiology, myth, fable, folktale, 18thC politics. From footnotes. Mainly. Gradually, it either did, or didn’t, cohere. The point was, you had to work at it. It was, of course, after University, a delight to encounter accessible texts, stuff that spoke to you in a familiar, or seemingly familiar, language…Heaney, Hughes, MacCaig, Larkin, the Mersey poets, Adrian Mitchell, Ferlinghetti, Ginsberg. And with the considerable help of anthologists like Geoffery Summerfield (oh! praise the lord for ‘Voices’ and ‘Junior Voices’, and BBC Education’s ‘Books, Plays and Poems’) we passed them on to our pupils. Contemporary, accessible and sassy poetry. And, I suspect, somewhere along the way, forgot about some of the harder stuff. This sounds curmudgeonly; it’s not meant to. It’s just that less and less I expect to come across brand-new writing that surprises me by its reference. I expect you’ll all tell me that I don’t get out enough. You’re probably right. I can only say how it feels.

It’s a roundabout way I’ve come to introduce tonight’s guest poet, Anthony Costello, and to introduce the cobweb’s new category of ‘the polished gem’. I’ve been caught out by calling some of my poets ‘undiscovered gems’ only to find out they are pretty well known. From now on, I’ll be more careful. The polished gem will be a cobweb category for poets who are reasonably well-known around my neck of the woods, but not necessarily in other parts of the country. They will be recent discoveries for me that I want to share. And thus to Anthony, who I met at the world-famous Puzzle Hall Poets when he signed up on the open mic., whose book launch I read a jazz poem at, and who invited me to guest at his own poetry venture at the Kava in Todmorden.

Three things struck me on that first meeting. The first was the silence that followed his poem ‘Feeling blue nr. Russell Square’ ( which follows shortly). The second was that Anthony didn’t read the poem. He didn’t recite it. He said it, almost as if it was extempore, improvised, an entirely natural way of speaking. I’ve seen/heard him do this several times since. It never fails to set me back on my heels; it’s impressive, without any intention of seeming so. The third was the conversation we had afterwards. But here’s the poem first. Anthony apologised in advance in case we would find it sentimental, and explained it was for someone he loved who had died.

Feeling blue nr. Russell Square

for an Essex girl

A good place to feel blue, Bloomsbury

all those bookshops, all those cafes,

 

I imagine a life

of the could have been a writer kind

 

with coffee breaks to be a kind soul

talking with a tourist about jazz

 

transporting America’s luggage

along a charming London Road,

 

the trail of blue plaques – Lenin,

Roger Fry, Jerome K Jerome,

*

I’d travelled by Tube to the weald

to sprinkle ‘Country Meadow’ on the grave

 

I sat under pines and sweet chestnuts,

the trees friends and the morning sun

 

the dappled seeds’ friend.

 

I spoke to the grave in the present tense.

I put a name to love.

 

What caught me when I heard it was the voice. What catches me now when I read it is the memory of the quietness that settled around that poem when Anthony said it, and the deceptiveness of what looks simple. You don’t notice the repetition of ‘kind’ in the time it takes to say the poem, nor the shift of meaning that happens. You don’t notice the odd syntax that disturbs the even surface like barely suppressed grief. Anthony quotes Fiona Sampson’s editorial in Poem where she writes about the way mediocre poems may be improved by being read aloud. Now, I think some accents, some voices, can make anything sound good, but I don’t think this poem is mediocre, and I think it grows with being seen on the page. He thinks this poem is sentimental. I don’t.

But, before we forget: three things that struck me. Third, the conversation. I’ve rarely had a casual conversation that involved German metaphysical philosophy and 19th C French poetry. But that tends to happen in Anthony’s company. Maybe his version of his biography may go someway to explaining the eclecticism of his talk and his poems. He wrote the 3rd person, but he says: ‘edit away’, and I’m editing some into the first person, because he’s not really an impersonal guy.

I was born in Halifax, and left school at 15 to work in a boiler-making factory. I left for the South-East aged 21, and for several years worked as a barman, labourer and salesman. Aged 25 , as a mature student I began a degree in Literature and Philosophy, then took a PGCE course in English and History, and taught in a Secondary school in Sussex. Later, I took an MA at the University of North London. After leaving teaching, I worked as a senior bookseller, and, after a 2-year horticultural course, as a self-employed gardener. I took a sabbatical from work in 2011 to travel the world; in the same year I started writing poetry.’

His travels were mainly in SE Asia, and for a time he lived in France. He has published widely in magazines and anthologies, and his first collection The Mask was published by Lapwing Publications, Belfast (more detail at the end). His collaborative translation of the Poems of Alain-Fournier, a project he undertook in 2013 while living in France, will be published by Anvil in 2015. Now he’s back in the West Riding, living in Luddendenfoot ( a valley at the foot of a valley) a saying poems at the Puzzle Hall Inn, the Square Chapel, and elsewhere.

Which brings me to The mask and also back to the point where I started and the business of reference and allusion and resonance. It’s a collection I don’t read sequentially, though there are thematic elements. And this, I think, is because as you wander through the pages you’ll come across Mark Gertler, Kandinsky, Neruda,Whitman, Larkin, Heisengerg, Schrodinger, Schubert, Coleman Hawkins, Morgane le Fay, Roger of Ockham, Dennis Hopper, the Brontes, John Cage,Stanley Spencer, Kant, Kraftwerk, Rothko, and all the cerebral lobes. Amongst others. Some of the poems may feel a bit rough round the edges, but the whole collection, for me, is like sitting round an assymetric dinnertable with lots and lots of clever, interesting people. Anthony gave me a free hand to choose, and though I was tempted to pick ‘Written on the eve of my 50th birthday’ which is a homage to Gregory Corso, in a sequence of homages, I’m going to pick Billy Ockham for its sardonic edginess, its wit and its wordplay. And, I guess, because there’s the ghost of Tony Harrison’s ‘Loiners’ in there somewhere, too. And because Occam’s razor is one of my favourite logical tools.

Billy Ockham

looked like he was at the end of his tether,

paced up and down – raged -got into a lather

 

decided to leave his Surrey village forever

with the curse of God, a sharpened razor

 

it wasn’t just the bawling of the butchered hogs

or the cartwheel squeaks or the barking dogs

 

the yeomen shouting, the pedlars peddling

the anvil twanging, and church bells ringing

 

that got Billy’s goat, or that he was ‘villein’

as earmarked by the Lord of the village

 

nor the hall-mote blackballing Billy’s

social climb to the lore of peasant yeomanry

 

more that the night before in a drunken state

he’d taken the blessed life of his namesake

 

a man Billy had envied from afar

a man revered as ‘good’ and bound for Oxford

 

the village Seer, a Latin speaker, logician

(a word Billy didn’t comprehend…..’Lodgeishtinian!’)

 

a Franciscan monk under Holy Orders

up to his neck in blood in Ockham’s latrines

 

Billy died. Same vein. Same blade. Intestate.

Entia non sunt multiplicanda sine necessitate

 

was sent down, in folklore, as Ockham’s Razor

 

I keep reading this, puzzled by oddities of punctuation, and enjoying the tasty linguistic relish of it. Thank you, Anthony, for being this week’s guest.

And, like I say, the rest of you can do much worse than spend time with the whole collection. The Mask by Anthony Costello is published by Lapwing Publications. It’s £10 well spent. It truly is.

Now, I am committed to writing reviews and to writing some stuff of my own for the next week or so. You may have to put up with a week off, or to an edited repost of an earlier cobweb strand. But thank you for your time and for your company. See you later

 

 

A very Bad hand at Righting 2 …Director’s Cut with special features

Well, it’s Sunday again, and it turns out I feel it’s a bit incomplete without a post. So, here’s the deal. If you read most of this on Wednesday, then you can whizz straight to the end and then crack on with whatever creativities enmesh you right now. If you didn’t, then you’ll just have to begin at the beginning, or the afterthoughts will make no sense.

ap_paris_shooting_vigil_2_kb_150108_16x9_992

I’m writing this early in the week, and possibly not in the right mind for balanced thoughtfulness.This morning I read Anthony Wilson’s post, After Paris … just follow the link, and read it for yourselves     http://anthonywilsonpoetry.com/   And then I read Bill Greenwell’s poem for this week. And then I had to write. Anthony Wilson writes about the responsibility on all writers to write in the cause of the reality and truth of how things are. Bill writes about the ways in which we are all being steadily imprisoned in the name of our freedoms. I’m writing out of anger. I am writing because meaning is being sucked out of language that’s used to justify the unjustifiable, and about the profoundly anti-social nature of the soi-disant ‘social media’. I am tired beyond belief of the 24/7 news reporting that is minimally concerned with informing and clarifying, and substitutes hypothesis and posturing for responsibly educating us all. I am angry at the universal and casual Bush-ism of a ‘war on terror’, and all the terrible errors that follow on the reification of an abstract word. A word. Words cause nothing. People with guns and bombs and emotional paralysis kill other people, and they do it in the name of more words. They do it in the name of democracy, without ever defining what that might be. They do it in the name of Islam, which is a short name for a splintered and internecine religion with as many warring factions as Christianity. A word used lazily and thoughtlessly without any reference to mutually exclusive and rhetorically inconvenient schisms, say between Sunnis and Shias. Like Christianity, and the sectarian rhetoric of the euphemistic Irish ‘Troubles’. Anthony Wilson is right to invoke Seamus Heaney in After Paris. Think of him and threats to his friends and his family because he wouldn’t let his language and his poetry be allied to the half truths of dogmatic opposition. I am writing because I’m tired of the easy and uncommitted emotionalism that can be loosed on the world at the touch of a Twitter ‘enter’ key, or on railings in all our towns and cities for the cost of a bunch of flowers. I am tired of the OMG of texting atheists and the post-Diana and post 9/11 righteousness that commits us to nothing at all.

On Saturday I was a Poetry Business Writing Day. One exercise grew out of a poem: Known to the guards. I should have made a note of the poet. Someone will tell me. It’s a poem about how a child might be frightened into an unshakeable belief in the omnisicience and omnipotence of the forces of law and order, even if it’s actually only a fat member of the Garda on a bicycle. Peter Sansom asked us to to reflect fast on early brushes with authority. Normally, this would have sent me into Stan Barstow/Dylan Thomas territory. But this happened instead. It has no title, and it’s not been tidied up.

I want no more nostalgia, for whatever reason;

how can I, in a week of hostage, sieges, men in black

with guns as big as wardrobes, Kevlar vests, black boots,

helmets like the eyes of flies, the chatter of static, the racketting

senselessness of helicopters, blue strobing convoys

barrelling through siling rain and spray

and the breathless wet-yourself excitement

of the newsmen endlessly recycling scraps of film and tape,

and sputtering phone-in answers and solutions

no one wants to hear, the bigotry the fury,

the fictitious facebook solidarities,

the cursor click that tells the world that now,

today Je Suis Charlie

and redfaced politicians photo-opping

their temporary indignation in between

their destruction of the welfare state

and growing fat with hedgefund managers and oligarchs,

how can I versify my childhood fears

when after all, our number’s up

and all of us are in the eye of millions of cameras

and all of us are known to the guards

who have the guns and the vans and the planes

and can guard none of us from anything?

TOPSHOTS-FRANCE-ATTACKS-MEDIA-POLICE

Like I say. I’m not in the mood for balance, and I fear for truth, whatever that is, so long as it has no capital letter. Tony Harrison says it better. The last four lines of ‘On not being Milton’. The quotation is from a plea for clemency. Tidd was hanged.

Articulation is the tongue-tied’s fighting.

In the silence that surrounds all poetry we quote

Tidd, the Cato Street conspirator who wrote:

Sir, I Ham a very bad Hand at Righting.

 

Sunday: An afterthought 

I was tempted to call it a coda, but that probably implies a degree of of structural or formal intent that it doesn’t deserve.

First up, I tracked down the poem ‘Known to the guards’. It’s by Martina Evans, ( check her out at http://www.martinaevans.com/about/ ), who I didn’t know about, but who grew up in an Irish country pub with lots of siblings,who has had published nine works of prose and poetry, whose poetry collection ‘Facing the public’ was a TLS Book of the Year in 2011, and who has a considerable reputation as a university teacher and workshop leader. I should get out more. I should certainly try to know more about this world of poetry and poets. It seems to grow exponentially, like Macbeth’s line of spectral kings.

Second is a bit more complicated. On Wednesday I wrote in reaction, and, as ever, there’s a lot of rhetorical over-simplification. I’ll stand by the wellsprings of it, but I didn’t want to give even the scintilla of an impression that words are the problem. What I wanted to say was that it’s what we do with them , and what we let them do to us that matters. I wanted to say my version of what Anthony Wilson meant to me. And also that words are what keep the world alive, and mapped and negotiable.

Most nights, on the edges of sleep,I dip in and out of Edgelands [Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts], because there’s not a page without a line or a phrase or an image that doesn’t make me see the world in a sharper and more interesting light. Last night I was just skimming through the chapter on Ruins. It’s about abandonment and the uses of memory, or about the memories  built into industrial structures even though there’s rarely anyone to articulate them. (which is, of course, the genius of this book).

These are the things that stuck and snagged. The authors are writing about abandoned warehouses and other empty structures in the wastelands of buddleia and fireweed and crumbling asphalt. ”they become non-places, quite literally off the map – ‘an impossible designation of space as terra nullius, which suggests they are spaces of and for nothing’ And they atrophy because their blood supply has been cut off.”  A laid-off warehouseman points out for them ‘a long, shallow, corrugated roof like metal horizon over the scrubby edgeland trees. That was his warehouse. Now it feels like the empty church in Philip Larkin’s ‘Church Going’:

‘A shape less recognisable each week/A purpose more obscure’

What I was not managing to say was that we can behave as though words are real, and wave them like banners or wear them like disposable Tshirts . Or believe that words should be what make the world real, make its shape more recognisable, its purpose less obscure.

Next week we’ll be having a guest, which I imagine will be something of a relief.

 

 

 

 

A very Bad hand at Righting

ap_paris_shooting_vigil_2_kb_150108_16x9_992

I’m writing this early in the week, and possibly not in the right mind for balanced thoughtfulness.This morning I read Anthony Wilson’s post, After Paris … just follow the link, and read it for yourselves     http://anthonywilsonpoetry.com/   And then I read Bill Greenwell’s poem for this week. And then I had to write. Anthony Wilson writes about the responsibility on all writers to write in the cause of the reality and truth of how things are. Bill writes about the ways in which we are all being steadily imprisoned in the name of our freedoms. I’m writing out of anger. I am writing because meaning is being sucked out of language that’s used to justify the unjustifiable, and about the profoundly anti-social nature of the soi-disant ‘social media’. I am tired beyond belief of the 24/7 news reporting that is minimally concerned with informing and clarifying, and substitutes hypothesis and posturing for responsibly educating us all. I am angry at the universal and casual Bush-ism of a ‘war on terror’, and all the terrible errors that follow on the reification of an abstract word. A word. Words cause nothing. People with guns and bombs and emotional paralysis kill other people, and they do it in the name of more words. They do it in the name of democracy, without ever defining what that might be. They do it in the name of Islam, which is a short name for a splintered and internecine religion with as many warring factions as Christianity. A word used lazily and thoughtlessly without any reference to mutually exclusive and rhetorically inconvenient schisms, say between Sunnis and Shias. Like Christianity, and the sectarian rhetoric of the euphemistic Irish ‘Troubles’. Anthony Wilson is right to invoke Seamus Heaney in After Paris. Think of him and threats to his friends and his family because he wouldn’t let his language and his poetry be allied to the half truths of dogmatic opposition. I am writing because I’m tired of the easy and uncommitted emotionalism that can be loosed on the world at the touch of a Twitter ‘enter’ key, or on railings in all our towns and cities for the cost of a bunch of flowers. I am tired of the OMG of texting atheists and the post-Diana and post 9/11 righteousness that commits us to nothing at all.

On Saturday I was a Poetry Business Writing Day. One exercise grew out of a poem: Known to the guards. I should have made a note of the poet. Someone will tell me. It’s a poem about how a child might be frightened into an unshakeable belief in the omnisicience and omnipotence of the forces of law and order, even if it’s actually only a fat member of the Garda on a bicycle. Peter Sansom asked us to to reflect fast on early brushes with authority. Normally, this would have sent me into Stan Barstow/Dylan Thomas territory. But this happened instead. It has no title, and it’s not been tidied up.

I want no more nostalgia, for whatever reason;

how can I, in a week of hostage, sieges, men in black

with guns as big as wardrobes, Kevlar vests, black boots,

helmets like the eyes of flies, the chatter of static, the racketting

senselessness of helicopters, blue strobing convoys

barrelling through siling rain and spray

and the breathless wet-yourself excitement

of the newsmen endlessly recycling scraps of film and tape,

and sputtering phone-in answers and solutions

no one wants to hear, the bigotry the fury,

the fictitious facebook solidarities,

the cursor click that tells the world that now,

today Je Suis Charlie

and redfaced politicians photo-opping

their temporary indignation in between

their destruction of the welfare state

and growing fat with hedgefund managers and oligarchs,

how can I versify my childhood fears

when after all, our number’s up

and all of us are in the eye of millions of cameras

and all of us are known to the guards

who have the guns and the vans and the planes

and can guard none of us from anything?

TOPSHOTS-FRANCE-ATTACKS-MEDIA-POLICE

Like I say. I’m not in the mood for balance, and I fear for truth, whatever that is, so long as it has no capital letter. Tony Harrison says it better. The last four lines of ‘On not being Milton’. The quotation is from a plea for clemency. Tidd was hanged.

Articulation is the tongue-tied’s fighting.

In the silence that surrounds all poetry we quote

Tidd, the Cato Street conspirator who wrote:

Sir, I Ham a very bad Hand at Righting.

 

 

 

 

Where can I send my poems? Part 1.

Roy Marshall

Part 1.

This post has nothing at all to do with the process of writing or with enjoying writing. But, regardless of whether you enjoy submitting to magazines or not, if you want to get your work published, you will need, at some point, to try and learn and understand as much as you can about the process. And you will need to become organised and methodical if you want to increase your chances of publication.
A few years ago I started to send my work out to magazines.
I was somewhat anxious.

Nervos person

I wondered if any of my poems were any good.  I was in love with one or two. I wondered which magazines to send too. Should aim high or low? Because my mate, Pete, thought my poems were great, perhaps the editor of Shoot the Moon would too? Not that I’d ever seen a copy of Shoot the Moon, or any other poetry magazine at that point.

I…

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an apology to the East Coast, and an (un) discovered gem: Roy Cockcroft

dundee April 2012 042

Irredeemable East coast,  light fading, warmth leaching out of the fabric of things as flat as the grey light and the grey North Sea, where the light is light that’s left behind, a used-up earlier light, the sun up and out of the sluggish sea and out of the east, leaving all the mud and shale, the suspended silt of cities, and the run-off of endless fields and darkening wolds, this soup, this dirty laundry rinsing, this used up stuff.

An apology for this is long overdue. I can’t even bear to type it with its original line breaks. I want to say sorry to poet Sally Goldsmith, on whom I inflicted it at a writers’ workshop. In mitigation, if mitigation there be, I should say I wrote it after a particularly miserable day in Arbroath with the dull queasiness of a hangover. There can be few more dispiriting places in March – sunless and dour, in its streets of blankfaced dark sandstone terraces that suck the light out of the air, and its wind-dragged shore and its sullen sea. Not even the pink and lemon and peppermint pastel-painted houses by the marina could redeem that day.

I must have felt bad. I lived for six years between Redcar and Saltburn in a house that looked over fields to the sea, and the buttress of Hunt Cliff , and a short busride from miles of clean sand. I lived with the skies that painters like Len Tabner and Peter Hicks make music and poetry from. The fantastic light that comes with sunset in the fume of steel works and the science fiction pipework of ICI, and the opera of light that comes from a sun that drops behind the pure line of moorland horizons. For four years I lived a short drive from Tynemouth and Whitley Bay (which, to be honest, can be out-of-season- depressing) but not that far from Dunstanburgh and Seahouses.

M931219

I wrote this a good while ago. Presumably not hungover and glum. You can’t feel glum on the Northumberland coast.

At Dunstanburgh the sand is white,

the sea so pure, so antiseptic clean

it hurts your teeth, a bowl of blades,

blue steel; the gannets dive and crash;

they fold their wings like paper bags

and smash the ocean into shards of glass,

grab gill and scale and herring muscle into air,

into a shocking sky as big as everywhere.’

There’s a lot of it, the east coast of England and Scotland, and while some it is undoubtedly dingy and grim (Withernsea is my idea of one of the circles of Hell, and Skegness, too. Sorry. I know it’s so bracing. It’s also made up of 20 million static caravans) most is wonderful. Spurn is wild and alien, Bempton Cliffs are stunning, and so is Holy Island, and….well. Choose your favourites. So sorry, east coast. Because you don’t exist as an entity. You’re a million particularities. One of which is Whitby, which eventually will bring me round to one of the poems I asked for from today’s (un)discovered gem.

This week, I’m delighted to introduce Roy Cockcroft. I met Roy in 1975 when I became Head of English at Boston Spa Comp. in Yorkshire. The late 60’s were a heady time to be a young teacher. The move to comprehensive schools opened up undreamed-of possibilities for us. After 5 years I was an acting H0D in Middlesbrough (see (un)discovered gem Andy Blackford), and then a senior lecturer in a College of Ed. in Newcastle for 4 years. They were heady days for English teaching, too. I met and came under the spell of Harold Rosen, John Dixon, Tony Burgess, Nancy Martin and all the London teachers they inspired, like the English Dept at Hackney Downs .. Ken Worpole, in particular. I joined NATE. I went to conferences. I believed we would change the world for ever. Then I went to Boston and learned I didn’t have a clue, particularly about what it means to be a head of department. I learned the hard way that I had everything to learn. What kept me afloat was the fact that Roy, then just starting his second year of teaching, seemed to believe in what I was trying to do, even if I didn’t really know what it was. I don’t know if he knows that he kept me sane in those first couple of years. Well, he does now. Thanks, Roy.

I’ll say a little more about what he taught me as a teacher, and then leave him and his poems to speak for themselves. Roy gradually moved to specialise as a drama teacher. It’s hard to describe his style. It’s quiet, organised, unobtrusive…very much in the (apparently) understated style of Dorothy Heathcote, who I admired and could never emulate. His planning was always immaculate, and the way he could create that belief in the drama that drew his students in was something to see. We taught as a pair for a time, and he would never tell me what my role would be until about 2 minutes before the session started. He taught me what belief in role is like, not least when my role turned out to be a quadraplegic who could only communicate by a widening of the eyes. I was not allowed to blink assent. It’s the longest I’ve ever been silent. After I moved on to become an English Advisor, he went on to become a head of drama in Norfolk. Lucky Norfolk, I say. This is what he says about himself:

Leeds 1961. Time stagnating like a blocked sink. Above the dismal ranks of terraced streets and the grey smoke and the clouds dripping like an old dishcloth, Yuri Gagarin is orbiting the earth, finding no evidence of God in the ionosphere, replacing God, creating a new universe, demanding a new mythology. In one of those drab streets a boy sets himself the task of describing that universe, of painting a new mythology. He begins with a new torch. He casts a planetarium of shadows on his bedroom wall – snakes, elephants, rabbits, swans, and a spouting whale. After the interruptions of secondary education, university, and thirty-two years of teaching, he resumes the task, picking up his pen, writing poetry, daubing canvasses with paint, trying to remember where he left off.

And this is what the Driffield Post Times said about him a few years ago. ‘Roy Cockcroft, from Langtoft, was awarded the Elmet Poetry Prize at a ceremony held in Mytholmroyd….on Friday. Roy.. was awarded a £300 first prize for his efforts……the competition was judged by Ted Hughes’ daughter, Frieda…and based on the theme of Remains’.  Pow! Which will now take us to Whitby by circuitous ways. And the winning poem.

knitting

Wet harvests

Here on the east coast

when the sea had given up its claim

on their inheritance,

the mothers and wives wanted their men back,

to dry out under their own rafters.

So, when a coble sank with all hands,

the cold waves would see to it,

returning the dead to their own shores,

leaving them out for close inspection

on familiar sand.

And then, if the corpse was known,

a grave could be dug in the churchyard’s fathoms —

a small berth

sheltered from the wind,

anchored in the swell of the mourning parish

by a slab of stone.

But sometimes

the tides would hold them back for weeks;

currents would swim them up and down the coast

till they were miles from home.

Strangers would wash up on the beach,

men that might be kin, or might not,

except that under their pale skin

all drowned mariners are spliced in the blood

with the shawled mother standing on the quay.

 

So, to sort Withernsea from Bridlington,

the women turned to worsted and to hefty needles,

clacking post-codes into ganseys,

thinking the shroud in to the wool,

teaching their own blend of rib and cable

to the black-fingered girls.

 

How their thick ply foiled the sea’s sick game.

Now the draggled fleece on the shingle

had a name. Now the shore-crabs and the gulls

might strip men to the bone,

but never pick the parish records

from their plains and purls.

wreck 1

No wonder it won. There are lines and phrases that make me catch my breath….the housewifely simple unspeakable wish of ‘mothers and wives who wanted their men back/to dry out under their own rafters’ and the wives and mothers ‘thinking the shroud into the wool’. Stunning. I want to let Whitby stand for all the North-East coast that this poem renews as a working coast of fishermen, and their wives and children, and a coast of indifferent sea. I have other poems of Roy’s like the ones about the clouds of birds like fieldfare that will descend on the big fields of the East Riding, and the carrion birds that farmers will string on the barbed fencing. But I’ll choose this one to remind me we’re all adrift in our ways on what is another kind of indifferent sea.

The demented

Opening a door

will sometimes make them smile,

but when the clowns and elephants are gone

the familiar tunes of their laughter

become bright fish wriggling in a statue’s throat.

 

On Sundays we take them out.

Their best coats

seem to have been made for someone else

as they sit in rooms

waiting for what comes next.

They are silent

but roaring

as the waves of a distant sea

may still roar inside a brittle shell.

They are like old pods

rattling with dry peas.

They sit decked out like ancient gods,

shrines to what they once did,

when they were definitely here,

cairns to their lost selves,

who occasionally stir their stones to laugh,

before they, too, disappear.

 

There’s an image to stick like a burr, and to snag and to worry. That roaring, like a sea in a dry shell. Yes. This is why we write, clacking our needles and stitching our codes against being forgotten. Lest you think, however, that all this is bleak for a January Sunday, I should say that Roy has been an enthusiastic club cricketer over the years. You can’t do that and not have a robust sense of humour.

Before I go, I want to remind myself that the cobweb has played host in various ways to Julia Deakin, Yvie Holder and now Roy. All prize-winners, all poets who move me, and all of whom worked at the same time in the same English Dept. That just leaves one more accomplished poet from that time. Malcolm Barnes. If anyone knows where he is and can persuade him to let me have some of his poems for the cobweb, I will be forever in their debt. For now, thank you, Roy Cockcroft, and thank you all for joining us. See you next week. I have no idea what we’ll be doing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wearing purple

2014-11-05 13.56.19

I’ve always been attracted by the notion of embracing irresponsiblity and eccentricity, but fight shy of their corollaries of physical and emotional and spiritual risk. But in last week’s post I think I was nailing my colours to the mast of those who take those kinds of risks in poetry, of declaring a preference for poems and poets that are courageous and unflinching.

For various reasons, I’m advised against eating processed meats, so sausages are out, and I’ve never been keen on wearing purple or rattling sticks along railings. Extravert behaviour has always come fairly easily, but  real risk-taking is something I’ve basically tried to keep at arms’ length, and without that, I see no way towards achieving the edge that I respond to so readily in other people’s poems.

I’m going to see if I can articulate better what I was trying to get at this time last week. It may be that I have to come at it obliquely and crabwise. Fingers crossed, then. First of all, let’s declare that when I rock up at various writers’ workshops I invariably react negatively to exercises in ‘form’. My writing mind responds well to pressure and strictures about time, and cues about, say, how many lines I’m allowed, and even about the imposition of keywords to plant in each line. But that’s about it. What I can’t do is sit down and plan to squeeze an idea or a feeling into a terza rima, or a sestina or a sonnet. I can’t see the point of it. I’m not saying there isn’t one, but I find it quite hard enough to find out what I think I’m thinking or feeling, and what it might mean, without things being edited out by form or rhyme.

What I need to think with is rhythm. All my first and early drafts are in flat-out prose that attaches to a particular rhythm…which will in turn attach to the feel of a line length that I can fine tune later. In fact, while I’m having a ‘wearing purple’ day, I want poems where the form follows the drive of meaning and feeling. I like the playfulness, the wit, the rhetoric, the memorisabilty of rhyme in other people’s poems, but much of the time, they get in the way of what I want to say or feel. I’m always pleased to add to the bag of tricks and techniques, but almost always they’re the ones that help me to cut out what’s inessential, that make what’s left feel surprising and inevitable. I want holding forms, but there are beautifully crafted poems out there full of beautifully crafted observations and reflections and images that seem to sit there just to be admired. Like Faberge eggs. Exquisite and pointless bits of showing off. Don’t ask me for examples. I have few enough friends as it is. I’m just inviting you to see where I am before I go on about where I want to be.

Another ‘wearing purple’ thought. My Facebook pages are full of poetry and things about poetry. And there are so many people posting about how many collections have been bought and devoured. There are so many of you out there, reading so many poems. And here’s the thing. I don’t. I can go for days and weeks with one or two poems that affect me. Poems like the ones I quoted last week , and the one I’m going to talk about later on. Art galleries have the same effect. I can take in maybe four images (if it’s a good show) and then I want no more. After that the rest will simply blur into unmeaning. Two or three examples. There was a Stanley Spencer retrospective at the Tate Liverpool some years ago. Wonderful images everywhere. But it was as much as I could do to sit in front of ‘The resurrection at Cookham’. Enough there to fill my mind for years. Same with Peter Blake. Fantastic canvasses, but just one of his Ruralist self-portraits had enough ideas to last the week.

lautrec

The Alte Pinakothek in Munich has a Rubens room that’s like walking through a celestial butchers’ cold room, but, tucked in a corner of a 19thC room, is a little Lautrec chalk sketch. It’s on a piece of torn card. It’s of a bone-tired,  redhaired prostitute. The intensity of his imaginative engagement and unflinching raw honesty and tenderness is worth a room full of  gilt-framed blowsy renaissance treasures. That picture is like the poems I want to write. Ones like the poems I quoted from last week. But trying to say what I mean is turning out to be like trying to describe vertigo. If you’ve ever frozen up at the top of a ladder, or on a rockface, or on seacliff path you know exactly what I mean. And if you haven’t, you don’t. Ah well. By the way, let’s be clear. I’m not for a second suggesting that there’s too much poetry around. Just that there’s too much for me to take in, and quite enough that moves me and excites me to be troubled about the rest.

There’s another thing I must say before I forget (that’s what happens when someone rings you up just when you’re getting in the swing. Persons from Porlock). What CAN’T workshops and exercises and boxes of tricks do  (well, for me, at least)? They may make you you more inventive, but they won’t make you more awake to what’s going on around you. If I’m not feeling, imagining the world, minute by minute, whatever will I be writing about? How do I grow more curious about, and more involved in, living and all its complexities. I know there’s a reflexiveness about being absorbed in creative works and being able to be absorbed in living, and being honest about it. But. Kim Moore gave me the keyword to hang on to. Value judgements about poetry are neither here nor there. ‘Good’ is irrelavent. What matters is whether it’s true or not. Don’t ask me to explain that. It’s like vertigo. But you know viscerally as well as intellectually when things are true or not. Don’t you? I don’t want to wear purple. I want to take the risks in engaging with the world ‘out there’  that end up with ‘true’.

And another thing (there’s no shape to this any more. Sorry). Curiosity. That ability to ask. What if? Why? About anything and everything. That would free me up, get the kinks and stiffness out of the way I write, I think. Couple of examples. I was at a workshop at the Orangery in Wakefield about 15 months ago, and strugglingling to concentrate, because I’d given up going to see Batley Bulldogs play Featherstone in a Championship play-off in order to go to the workshop. That’s commitment, that is. But two things made me sit up, and stuck like burrs. Kim Moore said both of them. The first thing was about an exercise in which we’d been invited to concentrate on a painting we knew, and to work with it. Kim said : have you ever wondered what it would be like to follow the painting round the edges to where it carries on. Something like that. The other was when she mused about geese being herded to market. Why would they walk when they can fly? she asked. Something like that. Both ideas still bother me. But I love and envy the idea of being able to think outside the frame, outside the obvious logic. The other example was yesterday in an email from Gaia Holmes. She said that maybe if you named all the bones in the body you’d call something up.  Wow! Just let that reverberate in your mind. Wonderful. I must learn to be free like that.

And I realise I’ve just managed a segue. Because what comes next is one of Gaia’s poems. I asked her for it specially, because it says far more about what I’ve been trying to say than all the stuff you’ve just waded through. It has two titles. The first time I saw it, it was called Shadow play. The copy she sent me yesterday is called The light-bearer. That’s the only change, but I’m intrigued by the different light and shade each throws on the poem. I’ll run with the latest title. See what you think.

The light-bearer

He came in winter

when the house was always dark,

brought red Christmas cacti

firecracking from their pots

and a suitcase full of candles,

thickened my gloomy rooms

with light.

 

I met the shadows he bred

without caution

and did not complain

when he followed me to my bed.

 

Outside, frost had edged the world

with spite.

The city foxes were howling,

cracking their teeth on the ice.

The sharp scent of January

scared me.

His big hands

cast wolves on the walls.

Fear made me knot myself

around him.

 

He had a bristled chin

and smelt of fathers.

‘Tell me a story’, I said

and he told me how lust

could turn an angel

inside out.

 

This takes me,for one, into darker places than Carol Ann Duffy’s Little Red-cap, but it seem to occupy the same universe of complicities, and the raw absolutes of the folk tale. It’s unflinching. It works because of its craft that just about contains dangerous energies. It unnerves and surprises. You couldn’t expect that ‘spite’ , that ‘firecrackering’, that ‘scent of January’. Certainly not that : He had a bristled chin/and smelt of fathers’ . It’s totally courageous, I think. It will stick. I’ll just leave it work, like yeast.

So, where are we. I think I’ll stop after a couple more short thoughts. My Facebook pages are full of other writers’  resolutions to write for an hour a day. Thank you for the post that seemed to set it off       http://josephinecorcoran.wordpress.com/      …it’s struck chords around the web, has that. But there’s a corollary. What will we use the other twenty three for? Because that’s where the work will come from. Say you take your photograph of the wing of a bird on shingly beach, and the wind blowing in from the Outer Islands. What does it mean to you? What do you mean to it? What does it mean? Why does it matter? Because if doesn’t, why did you take a photograph?

Here’s my new year’s wish for you. That things will matter more. And here’s one for me. For the awful daring of a moment’s surrender. Preferably, lots of them.

Next week: definitely less angsty and self-obsessed. An (un)discovered gem, and an absolute gem of a poem. Don’t miss it.