stand-up: a polished gem (3) Keith Hutson

ancoats-c-1870

It’s grim up North. Well, bits of it undoubtedly are. As are bits of everywhere else. All through the 60’s if you watched ‘Coronation Street’ (of which more later) the opening credits reinforced an image of terraced roofs and smoking chimneys, as though Manchester had remained unchanged since this photo of Ancoats was taken in 1875, and would remain unchanged hereafter. Of course, it’s not like that. It’s not like that at all. There’s another lazy trope which goes on the lines that we live in an overcrowded island. But every Sunday night 3 or 4 million people tune in to watch ‘Countryfile’ , which may be like Blue Peter for the terminally nostalgic, but whose opening credits present a Britain from the air which is entirely rural, beautiful, and almost entirely unpopulated. It makes me feel much the same way as any flight  into Leeds/Bradford, or into Manchester….that I live in a rural island punctuated by bits of urbanisation. Maybe that’s why I find London so alien, so relentlessly and endlessly built-up.

Warley_Road-Wainhouse_Tower-20000000002088941-500x375

This picture’s taken from Wainhouse’s Tower in Halifax, not far from where this Sunday’s polished gem, Keith Hutson lives, and where he keeps several acres of hillside, and a small flock of sheep.In my part of Northern England, industrial towns are interpenetrated by field and woodlands and moors. The street of the mill town where I grew up had a dairy farm at the top (surrounded by a prefab council estate, and old pit spoilheaps) and a blankfaced mill at the bottom. One of the barns in the farm was actually something built by the Knights of St. John in the 12th C. It got knocked down. Beyond the mill, up the opposite hillside was a farm, and the woodlands of Wilton Park, and beyond that, in the next valley, opencast mines, woods, farms, brickworks, and so on all the way to Leeds, ten miles to the north. And the thing is, you never have to travel too far for views like this (which is pretty much like the view from Keith’s house, and hundreds of others on the hillsides of the Calder valley)

calder-valley-near-todmorden-600x400

And your point?..I hear you thinking. Well, the sharp-eyed poetry blog fans among you will have noticed that Keith was the guest poet on Kim Moore’s Sunday poem,  [ https://kimmoorepoet.wordpress.com/ ] a couple of weeks ago and that she chose a poem about a bath set in a field on a hillside not unlike this; if she’d not beat me to it, it’s one I would have asked for myself. Basically, I’m after a context for the poems Keith sent me…because it’s always a surprise to get his next new poem. Part of the biography he sent me will set you up for the poem that follows:

Keith  was born in Manchester in 1957. He cut his writing teeth in the 1980s, writing and performing in plays, sketches, pantos and reviews for the amateur stage. He was also writing poetry and had 12 poems published in the Outposts Modern Poets Series, edited by Howard Sergeant. His output led him to become a script and storyline writer for Coronation Street, and his agent Roger Hancock (the late, great Tony’s brother) got him work writing material for many well-known comedians, including Les Dawson, Jasper Carrot and Michael Barrymore. Keith also collaborated, with Leslie Darbon, on a Channel 4 Sitcom called First Nights.’  It is, I think, a background that accounts for the eye for situation, for the sense of the nub of a story, and for the economy of telling that I think is one of Keith’s signatures.

The Family

At the bottom of a street gone bust
– even the bookies boarded up –

I saw them: mum, two kids, no coats,
standing on the corner. Soaked.

It was the lad who came across
– bigger than his sister – ten, perhaps.

Could I tell him where the Shelter was?
I could. He thanked me very much,

then I took off my glove and shook
his gloveless hand. Good luck.

When he went back, she waved, his mum.
They each picked up a bag, held hands, carried on.

 

Keith adds a footnote to this which typifies the empathy that runs through all his poems, and equally, his lack of sentimentality:  ‘THE FAMILY: This poem was first published by Pennine Platform and pays tribute to a family I encountered when I was doing a landscaping job in Whalley Range, Manchester. The ten year old boy would be about thirty now, and I often think about him and still wish him good luck.’  And there’s our urban landscape. What I like is that economy, the short sentences, the careful punctuation. It’s a poem that comes with its own spare stage directions.

Keith is  a landscaper – apprenticed at sixteen. His poetry mines a deep vein of manual labour and he is proud to have worked physically all his life. He does regret having to put most of his efforts into running the family landscaping and nursery business when his father became ill, but he is now able to write full time and is grateful for the experience a lifetime of outdoor work has given him. And, I guess, the small pleasures of physical work, especially at the end of a day. Pleasures like the one he records in this poem.

Coal Tar Soap

Stink with zing, this bitter little blister by the sink,
but every working sunset since the work
began, you’ll find me sunk, up to the elbows
in the stuff. I’ve come to love the twilight scrub;

carbolic lather sending heavy sessions
down the drain. Drudgery and me decanted
to the stark nirvana of a straight-backed seat,
no company, a book of poems interrupted

only by a spot of splinter-picking
through tobacco smoke, the quasi-comfort
of familiar aches and pains: by-products
of a life that, like the soap, has never changed.

I like the way the simple fact of the ritual of washing off the day’s grease and grime,  its sharp smells and textures and comforts, is sustained; the conceit of the day’s graft gone down the drain, the distraction of ‘splinter-picking. And although it’s not precisely the role of poetry (is it?) it’s nice to remember that soap. Its translucence, that ‘bitter blister’ like an amber tear.

Keith’s third poem sits us down in one of those carefully nurtured and landscaped and manicured spaces that I imagine in the middle of industrial towns. And in this case, I have to admit that, for me, the word ‘bowls’ can only mean the crown green variety, played by dry-witted laconic men; men who were very sparing of movement and of conversation. This poem for me is every game of bowls I ever sort-of-watched.

Bowls

Fine for an hour, then dull, despite a summer sun.
Green tedium. But do beware,
if nudged a bit, this game is good
at slowly rolling on and on.

Little genuflections – bows, knee-bends,
cupped hands, unfolding arms – weave
in the dying light their latticework
of shadows and perpetuate

the minor knocks, near misses, clusterings
and calls of Way too heavy, Jim!
into a never-ending winding-down,
a loop of letting go.

It becomes a metaphor for all the lives of retired working men I knew, a slow decline into dusk. I want to shout at them: rage! rage against the dying light! I doubt they’d listen, absorbed in their slow rituals, winding down.

Now, I had a sort of rule of thumb that ‘polished gems’ would be p0ets who have had a collection published, but I need to make an exception for Keith, who is certainly no ‘undiscovered gem’. Although he has only seriously started to submit his own work since January last year, encouraged by his friend Clare Shaw**, he has so far been published by The Rialto, The North, Butcher’s Dog, Prole Magazine, Pennine Platform, Ink Sweat and Tears, Hark, Meniscus (the University of Canberra) and Hinterland where he is now Submissions Editor. He has recently been commissioned by The Prince’s Trust to provide poetry and performance workshops to schools in Calderdale. Ian Parks, the founding editor of Hinterland, says he finds Keith’s poetry ‘interesting and exciting’. Keith is currently doing a BA in Creative Writing through the Open College of the Arts. He hosts the monthly WordPlay event at Square Chapel, Halifax, and runs (with Winston Plowes) the Square Chapel Creative Writing Group. I reckon that counts as ‘discovered’ .

I should also say that I was hoping he might have let me have one his poems that draw on the world of the music hall; it turns out that Widow Twankey is currently seeking employment elsewhere, as is another I wanted …Frankie Vaughan at a lad’s boxing club in Ancoats.If you want a taste of the world of the music hall comedian in the dying days of the craft, you can find three sonnets in The North 53, and make the acquaintance of Sandy Powell,Tommy Trinder, and Robb Wilton who each apparently built a career on profoundly unfunny catchphrases. Keith’s Uncle would take him, as a young boy, to see all the comic greats who appeared at Blackpool and other theatres in the North, and a lot of his recent poetry pays tribute to the performers he loves. He is working towards a collection of these poems, called Troupers. (Any offers anyone?)

posters and playbills 2 copy

There you are.   Say ‘thank you, Mr Hutson.’  Next week we’re having a half-term break while I go the Lakes to do some writing with the multitalented Peter Sansom. And the week after that, we’re asking the question. ‘The past. Another country?’

** Clare Shaw: Straight ahead [2006], Head on [2012] …both published by Bloodaxe

breaking point

just a couple of edits since yesterday

The Great Fogginzo's Cobweb

wave 1

Contrary to the truth universally acknowledged that British children aren’t taught standard English and the conventions of writing it down, here’s the actual truth.. What they HAVE to be taught has been there in black and white in the Framework for the Literacy Hour for years. Politicians don’t trouble themselves with this kind of detail. Maybe they should. So spare a thought for the teachers of 4-7 year olds who have to make sure that young children know how to use a full stop correctly. And, as a corollary,that they have grasped the concept of a sentence sufficiently for them to recognise one when they’ve written it. Think for a moment about that. You know a sentence when you see one. You just read some. Now tell yourself what a sentence is, or what it has to do to be a sentence. Maybe you say it has to have a…

View original post 2,352 more words

breaking point

wave 1

Contrary to the truth universally acknowledged that British children aren’t taught standard English and the conventions of writing it down, here’s the actual truth.. What they HAVE to be taught has been there in black and white in the Framework for the Literacy Hour for years. Politicians don’t trouble themselves with this kind of detail. Maybe they should. So spare a thought for the teachers of 4-7 year olds who have to make sure that young children know how to use a full stop correctly. And, as a corollary,that they have grasped the concept of a sentence sufficiently for them to recognise one when they’ve written it. Think for a moment about that. You know a sentence when you see one. You just read some. Now tell yourself what a sentence is, or what it has to do to be a sentence. Maybe you say it has to have a finite verb in it. Forget for a moment how you’d set about explaining that to a 6 year old. Now get a copy of Bleak House, open it at chapter one and read the first 30 lines or so. Lots of full stops.

London. / Implacable November weather. / Fog everywhere.   

Not a finite verb in sight. Why does it work? Because these are oral sentences, written down. All grammars leak. So keep this in mind while I spend a Sunday ruminating on the business of when a poem is or isn’t a poem, and how curious and puzzling and endlessly shifting is this business of lines and line breaks. And I’m going to start with (and maybe stay with) punctuation.

jane austen

Think about this handwritten draft. I assume it’s in sentences….Jane Austen wrote it. I wouldn’t like to proof read the punctuation, though, because the words are close together. You don’t just need space around words, but space between them. White space is punctuation, and you need white space to put those visually insignificant punctuation marks in. The more white space you have, the easier it is. Here’s a thing. 5 and 6 year olds have to learn how to write instructional texts, and the easiest way to to get them started is to write recipes.

What’s the first thing?

Ingredients. And equipment.

You will need.    

What comes next?    A colon.  You will need:

What next?

A new line.

And then you can write a list.

What comes between items in a list?

Commas.

Or, even more fun,

*Bullet points.

A new line for each.

See how the white space lets you see clearly. And what next? Instructions. A numbered list, and a new line for each number.

1. Take three eggs, and separate the yolks and the whites. (Full stop)….and so on.

You don’t need to define a verb (and I can’t anyway. I can tell you what it does). In each line, it’ll be the first word in the sentence. But the text you produce will be easy to read because there’ll be a lot of white space. The space shows you how to read.  The text will look a bit poem-like, because it it’ll have a justified left margin and a raggedy right-hand margin.Hold on to that.

Now, a different kind of thought. Here’s a couple of pages from Dickens.

dickens-charles-bleak-B20122-15

One thing I used to tell A level students (and, indeed, undergraduates) who were daunted by 500 page novels, was that dialogue moves the narrative and the plot along, so you can’t ignore it. On the other hand, a densely printed stretch of text is likely to be reflective or descriptive, and if you’re reading a 19thC novel in particular, the first sentence of the paragraph should tell you what’s in the paragraph, and you can ignore the rest. (This is just for a first reading, to get the shape and sweep in your mind, you understand…I never did synopses or Coles notes). What you rely on is the amount of empty space. If there’s a lot of it, you can’t ignore the text. This is hard on Thomas Hardy, but there you go.

‘And your point….?’ I hear you ask. I guess it’s that poetry is largely empty spaces round not a lot of words, and that there’s no hiding place for any word that’s not doing a job. And also that you become very conscious, as a reader, of the curious tension between what your eye tells you and what your ear tells you, and , for me, this is one of the great pleasures of poetry. One the other hand, as a writer, it’s one of the things that frightens me, because I can hardly ever explain to myself why I make a line break where I do, except that it sounds right. ‘Sounds’ rather than ‘feels’, although that’s at work too. Whatever it means.

You have to admit that working in traditional forms can often solve that problem, whatever other technical problems it creates. Iambic pentameters/ blank verse…wonderful. Close to natural speech rhythms, di DUM di DUM …five of them…and end on a stressed syllable. Line breaks? Sorted. Syllabics? Haiku? Sorted. Any rhyming poetry and you have the line-breaks for every rhyming line. Then along comes Modernism, with its ears finely attuned to the strict rhythms of all the traditions that fed it, and careful craft apprenticships of its inventors, so it knew just which rules it was breaking, and why. Along comes Free Verse. There’s a seductively misleading name for you. Same in the visual arts, of course. Picasso and Braque and Matisse and the rest could all handle paint and line and perspective. They served their time and knew what the rules were stopping them doing and just how to break them and why.

If you want an impassioned and wholly idiosyncratic take on this you could do a lot worse than spend 20 minutes with Bob Dylan’s musings on 50-odd years in the business of singer-songwriting. It’s a sort of ‘Tradition and the individual talent’ lecture, but a lot more fun than T S Eliot. Just Google Bob Dylan Musicares speech. You will not for a second regret it. What he constantly returns to is the trope that everything he ever created he learned from repeated absorption in other writers’ work., in older traditions. Here’s a flavour of what he said…it’s even better to listen to

These songs didn’t come out of thin air. I didn’t just make them up out of whole cloth. Contrary to what Lou Levy said, there was a precedent. It all came out of traditional music: traditional folk music, traditional rock ‘n’ roll and traditional big-band swing orchestra music.
I learned lyrics and how to write them from listening to folk songs. And I played them, and I met other people that played them back when nobody was doing it. Sang nothing but these folk songs, and they gave me the code for everything that’s fair game, that everything belongs to everyone.
For three or four years all I listened to were folk standards. I went to sleep singing folk songs. I sang them everywhere, clubs, parties, bars, coffeehouses, fields, festivals. And I met other singers along the way who did the same thing and we just learned songs from each other. I could learn one song and sing it next in an hour if I’d heard it just once.
If you sang “John Henry” as many times as me — “John Henry was a steel-driving man / Died with a hammer in his hand / John Henry said a man ain’t nothin’ but a man / Before I let that steam drill drive me down / I’ll die with that hammer in my hand.”
If you had sung that song as many times as I did, you’d have written “How many roads must a man walk down?” too.

Here’s a legend (yes he is) who is clear about what’s obvious. The more you listen, the better you hear. The more you practise, the easier it will look. There’s no short cuts. Problem is, of course, you may not have fifty years to spare; I certainly don’t. And that still leaves us with the business of the free verse most of us are wedded to in one form or another, or unrhymed irregular stanzas, or whatever. And line breaks. I’ve honestly tried to get to grips with it, to get beyond the intuition of the ear, and the feel of internal rhythms. Pasted into the back cover of one of my workbooks is a photocopy of an article by Dana Gioia (I Googled him).

‘Thirteen ways of thinking about the poetic line’.

Every now and then I have the feeling that I sort of get it, but more often I have the same sense of hopelessness I got from Euclidean geometry when I was 11. I ‘got’ the first couple of axioms, but when I tried to see how they all interacted they turned into wool. It’s still worth struggling with it. Line by line it all seems like commonsense. Have a go. See what you think. I like Number 4.

There should be a reason why every line ends where it does.

Yup. I’ll vote for that. Also for number 13.

The line break is nearly always audible (and always visible) even if only as a tiny pause or echo.

I really ‘get’ that..it’s that business of the tension between what your eye and your ear are simultaneously telling you. It says you have to listen. Who else? I’ve had workshops with Mimi Khalvati and with Jane Draycott, both of whom seem exquisitely at ease with the technicalities of form and line. Mimi even startled me by counting the lines of one of my poems, and declaring herself happy to find there were 26. I still don’t get it. At the end of the day, for all the elegance of their analyses, what I carried away was the awareness that it was coming down to the fact that they had more finely attuned ears than mine, that they could spot the tiniest of bum notes when I couldn’t. And perhaps that Dylan has it right. You just have to get on and do it and listen as hard as you can to as much poetry as you can.

But here’s a game you might like to play. It comes out of my genuine puzzlement about prosepoems, about my inability to see what they’re for. And one of the reasons for this is that I’ve been reading a lot of Hilary Mantel of late, and being struck, again and again and again, how much of her prose actually seems to be veined with what feel and sound like poems. (Whatever that means). How about this from ** The giant, O’Brien.

The Giant: ‘If only I could get a good poet. Somebody to recite at him. A good poet can recite a man to death. A poet takes a person’s earlobe between his finger and thumb and grinds it, and straight away that person dies. With a wisp of straw and a cross word they drive a man demented. They chew flesh and set it on the threshold and when a man steps over it he drops to his knees and expires.

The poet has his memorial in repetition, and the statesman in stone and bronze. The scholar’s hand lies always on his book and the thinker’s eyes on canvas travel the room to rest on each human face; the rebel has his ballad and his cross, his bigot’s garland, his wreath of rope. But for the poor man and the giant there is the scrubbed wooden slab and the slop bucket, there is the cauldron and the boiling pot, and the dunghill for his lights; so he is a stench in the nose for a day or a week, so he is a no-name, so he is oblivion. Stories cannot save him. When human memory runs out, there is the memory of animals; behind that the memory of the plants, and behind that the memory of the rocks. But the winds and the sea wear the rocks away, and the cell-line runs to its limit, where meaning falls away from it, and it loses knowledge of its own nature. Unless we plead on our knees with history, we are done for, we are lost. We must step sideways, into that country where space plaits and knots, where time folds and twists: where the years pass in a day.

Just take that first paragraph, and think what happens if you put line breaks in it. Like this:

A good poet

can recite a man to death.
A poet takes a person’s earlobe
between his finger and thumb                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         and grinds it,
and straight away that person dies.
With a wisp of straw
and a cross word
they drive a man demented.
They chew flesh and set it
on the threshold
and when a man steps over it
he drops to his knees
and expires

Why those line breaks?  (apart from the fact that when this goes out via Facebook, the line ‘and grinds it’ gets right-justified, rather than left-justified. I can do nothing to change its mind about this. Soz). What changes if you make the lines longer? What have you got that the prose hasn’t? Or try the second paragraph, or at least part of it:

But for the poor man and the giant
there is the scrubbed wooden slab
and the slop bucket,
there is the cauldron
and the boiling pot,
and the dunghill for his lights;
so he is a stench in the nose for a day or a week,
so he is a no-name,
so he is oblivion.
Stories cannot save him.

Maybe it’s because most of my first drafts come from writers’ workshops where I write flat-out in continuous ‘prose’ that I feel comfortable with this kind of game. Except that it isn’t prose, any more than these extracts from Hilary Mantel are prosaically prose. There must be some kind of governing rhythm in there that comes from things like repetitions of all kinds. Maybe it’s a question of learning to listen for it and its tricks. Anyway, if your Sunday is lacking spice, have a go with this game. At least, unlike Milton and Browning and all the other indefatigable toilers, you’ve got a word processor that lets you create version after version at the touch of a key. Aren’t we the lucky ones?

Next week we’re having a guest, and you can lie back and be entertained rather than lectured and hectored. OK. Put the chairs away, and off you go. No running.

Oh, and if you’re wondering why this vanished from Facebook on Saturday night, only to reappear this Sunday morning, it’s because I took a piece of reasoned criticism to heart and made a couple of changes. x

 

**Hilary Mantel, The giant O’Brien  [Fourth Estate. London,. 1998]

A polished gem (2) Wendy Pratt….and a hostage to fortune

hare flippedpsd

One of my fictional heroes is Esther Summerson in ‘Bleak House’. Most of the students I’ve ‘taught’ on A level and on degree courses disliked her or dismissed her as wetly pious. I argued long and hard for her courage, her moral strength;  I always believed in her genuine humility rooted in a sense of her own worthlessness. It takes a lot for her to believe that she can truly be loved, as opposed to being relied on. I’m not sure if this is germane to this week’s cobweb strand. Who knows where we’ll end up. But, like Esther, ‘I have a great deal of difficulty in beginning to write my portion of these pages, for I am not very clever.’ She adds: ‘I always knew that’. I wish I could, hand on heart, say that. And let me clear up what I mean by clever here. I’m not talking about smart arse clever (I always knew that) or clever-clogs clever. What I have in mind is ‘knowing’; the knowledge of the heart and the imagination, and the knowledge of the physical self. That’s what’s been preoccupying me for weeks, and while the point of this week’s cobweb strand is to celebrate poems by my friend Wendy Pratt, I’m concerned that it’ll get tangled up with ideas I’m wrestling with as I try to write a review of collections by Wendy, and by Clare Shaw. I first tried to clarify it in a post on December 28 [The other side of silence]. This what I wrote about poems by Wendy and by Fiona Benson:

‘There’s a physicality about these poems that’s unanswerable, and a synthesis of the solid worlds of absolutely imagined birds and wild creatures, of weathers and the leaching of soils and the decay of rocks with the intensely particular personal lifeof the poet that makes this collection so wonderful and distressing. She [Fiona Benson] reminds me of Wendy Pratt, not just because of the coincident experience, but their way of somehow living on level terms with it, and their way with words. Like this from ‘Nan Harwicke turns into a hare

I will tell you how it was. I slipped

into the hare like a nude foot

into a glorious slipper. Pushing her bones

to one side to make room for my shape

so I could settle myself like a child within her.

In the dark I groped for her freedom…..

There’s that physicality, that sensuality, again, and again infused by the unspeakable loss of a child that has to be spoken and spoken for.’

 

What I hung back from was something I’ve been trying out in not-very-coherent conversations; this is the idea that it’s not an accident that some of the poems that have moved me most of late are written by women. It’s not an accident, either, that I’ve been absorbed in stories of metamorphosis, particularly in retellings of Ovid. What has been consistent in this is the feeling that women have access to knowledge that men can’t have. The feeling that women are metamorphic and tidal, that they go through changes that a man can’t imagine, and that this makes them capable of different modes of imagining. It doesn’t mean that all of them can articulate it, or are necessarily consciously aware of it. But when they are the results are powerful and unnerving. When I re-read Ted Hughes’ retellings of Ovid, and even Robin Robertson [in ‘Swithering’] what I think is that these are external. Powerful, but externally dramatised. I’m struggling to articulate it. What I find in, say, Fiona Benson, and in the passage from Wendy Pratt’s poem I just quoted is a kind of emotional fluidity and in Hughes and Robertson a sort of epic stiffness, like renaissance paintings, like this artwork I found, mooching around the web.

hare 1

Do you see what I mean? It’s an analogy at best. Just for now, it’ll have to do. A hostage to fortune. But I’d like to know what readers think, before I dig myself any deeper in what may be a misconceived notion. I’ll leave it at that, for now, take a deep breath of relief, and get on with letting Wendy Pratt introduce herself:

Wendy Pratt was born in Scarborough, North Yorkshire in 1978. She now lives just outside Filey. She studied Biomedical Science at Hull University and worked as a Microbiologist at the local NHS hospital for thirteen years. She recently completed a BA in English Literature with the Open University and is now studying towards her MA in creative writing with the MMU.

She has enjoyed publication of her poetry in many journals and magazines and her first poetry pamphlet, Nan Hardwicke Turns into a Hare was published by Prolebooks in 2011.It was well received, being reviewed favourably in the TLS. Her first full size collection, Museum Pieces is also published by Prolebooks. It was launched in Leeds, in January 2014.

Wendy is the poetry correspondent for Northern Soul, where she writes a regular column called ‘Northern Accents’. She is also part of the womentoring project. Her third collection, a pamphlet entitled Lapstrake will be published by Flarestack Poets in 2015.

What she modestly doesn’t mention is her absorbed interest (no, it’s more passionate than interest) in the archaeology of her part of the East Coast, in its Viking past, in urn burials and antlers, in handled stones and bone fragments. And she understandably doesn’t mention what is central to her most lyrical and elegiac writing…which is the loss of a child and the metamorphoses of fertility and infertility. But you should buy her books and read that for yourselves. She’s sent me two poems for the cobweb. The first she calls her ‘headline’ poem. It’s from her Nan Hardwicke pamphlet

Bag
Stop playing the fool, bag,
spooled round the wind, in the corner
of my yard. Stop teasing me.
Stop folding the sky through the creases
of your polythene skin, stop inhaling the breeze
with your single billowed lung.
You act like you’ve only ever known the air
but I’ve seen you lumped with your brethren
on the back seat of a Volvo, or slung
on pushchair handles, your belly hung low
like a dead deer between two poles.
Stop touching the leaves like you love them, bag,
they are not for you.
Yes, you’ve been passed around
and done your duty as a rubbish bin, lunch box and
wet trunks receptacle, but, bag, I love you.
Don’t spurn me now, for a few weightless seconds.
Come home, where you are loved for your humble willingness,
your honest shape. I’ve seen the simple pleasure
that you take in caressing the meagre shopping of the old,
the loose testicular swing of a pair of oranges
or mandarins. Bag, I’ve let you carry my own.
I’ve folded you over my secret purchases, we’ve shared
our half truths, bag. You’ve slipped into the pocket of my jeans
on those long dog walks and risen, brimming with bottles
on a Friday night. We’ve forgotten the world together, bag.
Don’t leave me now, for imaginings of flight.

 

There’s cheek, that riff on MacCaig’s toad….stop looking like a purse…….and sheer improvisational verve, all the play with a plastic bag in a windy backyard. I love that. But I think it goes beyond homage and playfulness and exuberance. It morphs does this bag, like ghosts, like undersea things, like ectoplasm, and the poet’s in a collusive morphing relations ship with it. ‘Bag, I love you.’ They share secrets and half truths. The last two lines make the whole poem into something quite different from what I thought it was going to be, or mean. Think on the resonance of that line:

We’ve forgotten the world together.

Because Wendy Pratt is a serious poet who takes on seriously important issues. So much of her poetry really is a matter of life and death. I’m delighted that she sent this new one for me to share with you. I have an image of the tiny shoes of a child wrapped in faded tissue, and it has coloured the way I read the poem. That’s what reading is. Every implied reader becomes an implicit and collusive co-writer. Maybe I should have kept this comment to the end. But I’ll leave it as it is, say thank you to Wendy, and finish with her poem. And a hare for Nan Hardwicke.

 

Danse Macabre

You wear your death like dance slippers,

taking them out of their coffin-box

at the barre, while you arabesque and plié,

allegro lightly round the room, touch the mirror,

turn, feel your feet bleed into the blocks,

assemble on your own edge, bitter

and full of remorse. The dance becomes a quick-step,

a flamenco, a stream of soft tap, a fox-trot.

The slippers lead. But you are no black swan.

Someone needs to stop you, pull you back, help,

step quicker.

 

 

 

What is the Truth 036

‘There’s something eerie about a hare, no matter how stringy and old……..into your dreams she waltzes strung with starlight’  [Ted Hughes: What is the truth]

 

Wendy Pratt’s books:

Nan Hardwicke turns in to a hare :  (with a preface by Alison Brackenbury)  Prolebooks  [2011.] £4.50

Museum Pieces (with a foreword by Abegail Morley)       Prolebooks  [2013] £6.50

 

(the stunning image of the golden hare at the top of the page is one I found in a random Google image search. The artist is Jackie Morris. The woodcut of the hare is one of many illustrations that R J Lloyd did for What is the truth. Buzzing with energy.)

Glencoe massacre: 300th anniversary (and a short postscript)

a small update

The Great Fogginzo's Cobweb

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Everything I know, or think I know, about Glencoe (apart from driving through it) I know from John Prebble’s work. The same is true of The Clearances and of Culloden. Shortbread-tin-and-tartan history likes to paint the perfidious English as the villains of the piece. It chooses to ignore the major part played by the Lowland Scots. It chooses to ignore the fact that McIan, the clan chief of the Glencoe Macdonalds was essentially a bandit and cattle thief whose depredations had driven Campbell of Glen Lyon to such straits of penury that he had to enlist in the army in order to make a living. So it was maybe no surprise that Caampbell was quite happy to lead the raid on the MacDonalds of Glencoe.  ‘Massacre’ conjures up notions of annihilation. Thirty-seven** of the Clan MacDonald were killed. Decimation would be a more accurate word. But it was a cowardly…

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Glencoe massacre: 300th anniversary (and a short postscript)

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Everything I know, or think I know, about Glencoe (apart from driving through it) I know from John Prebble’s work. The same is true of The Clearances and of Culloden. Shortbread-tin-and-tartan history likes to paint the perfidious English as the villains of the piece. It chooses to ignore the major part played by the Lowland Scots. It chooses to ignore the fact that McIan, the clan chief of the Glencoe Macdonalds was essentially a bandit and cattle thief whose depredations had driven Campbell of Glen Lyon to such straits of penury that he had to enlist in the army in order to make a living. So it was maybe no surprise that Caampbell was quite happy to lead the raid on the MacDonalds of Glencoe.  ‘Massacre’ conjures up notions of annihilation. Thirty-seven** of the Clan MacDonald were killed. Decimation would be a more accurate word. But it was a cowardly and bloody business that violated all the unwritten laws of Highland hospitality. Prebble’s chapter on the night of the attack is rightly titled ‘murder under trust’. Popular Scots ‘history’ likes to simplify and sentimentalise, but nothing detracts from the horrible business of the murder of men, women and children in the snows of a winters night in a glen that is gothically brooding at the best of times.

glencoe

What has always moved me, despite his murderous reputation, is the story of MacIan’s desperate attempt to stave off the outlawing of his people. Prebble recounts a terrible journey of three days and nights, through snow and blizzards, from Glencoe to Inverary in the heart of Campbell country, where he hoped to swear a loyal oath to King William and Queen Mary. The Sheriff, Sir Colin Campbell was away. Three days later, after the expiry of the deadline for the taking of the oath had passed, he returned and refused to take MacIan’s oath. And so the fate, one way or another, of the Glencoe MacDonalds was sealed. I think that MacIan’s journey is the story that has always affected me, simply because it’s the very stuff of broadsheets and ballads. It has a Shakespearean quality too. It has a tragic irony. I’ve tried for a long time to write something that would say how I feel about it all. Something that’s not sentimental, or pointlessly rhetorical. This is the best I’ve managed. Three hundred years is a long time, and history is a shifting business at best. But I wanted to write something for the ones we know nothing about at all.

** PS. Wikipedia tells me that the death toll in and around the various houses of the scattered settlements was actually 38. More important is the fact that I omitted to   record that over forty others, mainly women and children, died of exposure in the following day or so. They were the ones I was thinking of.

A kind of history

[Glencoe has no melancholy except that which men
bring to it, remembering history : John Prebble]

MacIan of MacDonald of Glencoe
comes to Inverary; three bitter days
of blizzard at year’s ending;
three days from the Fords of Ballachulish,
the Narrows of Creran by Benderloch,
the Pass of Brander below Bheinn Cruachan;
by Loch Fyne and Glen Aray to the sea.

In sodden plaid, and blind with snow,
his oath denied, Macdonald of Glencoe is weeping.
History does not tell what for.

At the Falls of Glencoe lay-by, these days
the piper jingles coins in his bonnet;
skirls Flower of Scotland for the one in ten
hacked and harried in the reek
of each small house, and for the rest
shrinking into the snowy night of the Glen
where contour lines are packed like fingerprints
where there is a name for every burn,
for every corrie, ridge and bealach.

Valley of Slate and Churn. Corrie of Capture.
Ridge of Eagles
Aonach Eagach.
Sgurr na Fonnadh, Bheinn a Creachin, Achriachtan,

As though they staked their claim with a language
thistly with scratchy consonants.

When they fled through black snows
into a white dawn, half-dressed, unshod,
they melted into the screes
of high corries where they’d penned their rustled herds,
and everywhere they hid, they’d named and knew.

Who can tell where they went, after.
Who can say who they were.

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Relevant books by John Prebble.  Glencoe [1966], Culloden [1967]. The Highland Clearances [1969]. All in Penguin Books

 

The next instalment of the great fogginzo’s cobweb will be on Sunday Feb 15th. A special treat, and a polished gem. Poems by Wendy Pratt. On no account miss it.

 

 

Judging the Red Shed …

a real feather in the Red Shed’s cap!

Julie Mellor - poet

This year, I’ve been asked to judge The Red Shed Open Poetry Competition (deadline for entires 25th April). It’s made me think about what I might be looking for when the poems are handed over to me. Of course, the judging is anonymous, but it would be great to think that this post might prompt a few of you to enter. John Irving Clarke at Currock Press does a phenomenal job of promoting live literature in Wakefield and entering the competition is a great way of supporting the work he does.
Click here for the rules and entry form.

Visiting the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, January 2015, in search of inspiration - hence the rather pensive expression! Visiting the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, January 2015, in search of inspiration – hence the rather pensive expression!

So, what am I looking for?
I’m a keen reader of poetry, especially contemporary poetry. Often, I read a line that stops me in my tracks and I write it in my notebook (okay…

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