Luck of the draw

wings 5

I’ve managed to build up a backlog of writing jobs and comittments, and I’m not feeling too clear-minded, so it’ll be a  shortish post this week, but (hopefully) an interactive one. There’s a poet I love who has sternly admonished me to concentrate on sending poems out, but then another competition appears on the horizon, and all my pious resolutions go out of the window. I like entering competitions.There are all sorts of reasons for it. I like the buzz. I like the possibility of a prize. I like the deadlines. Most of all, I like the idea that someone whose work inspires me will read my poems. I don’t write poems for competitions. I write them because it seems urgent to nail down an idea, and experience, to get at it’s meaning, its significance, its whatness. I write them because I like the wrestle with words. But once they’re written, I want someone to read them. When you enter a competition you’re paying your fiver, or whatever, for someone special to read them. I look at a competition and think: wow…Simon Armitage, or Carol Ann Duffy or Andrew Motion or Helen Mort or Liz Lochhead or Carrie Etter, or whoever, will look at a poem of mine, however briefly. And when you get on a longlist or a shortlist, or you are Commended or you win a prize, you know you’ve written a poem that has made this person you are in some awe of stop and think: mmm…this says something; this is worth reading again; this bothers me in some way. So, I pay for someone special to read a poem of mine. And I’m happy to do it.

Anyway. You’ll all have your own take on this, and on the business of submissions…..which remain a strange enigma to me. But here’s a puzzle for you all on this cool day in this cool month of May. Last week I found out that a poem of mine was Highly Commended in the Rialto/RSPB competition. Only the four winners are published in The Rialto which means I can do what I like with my poem. So I’ll publish it here and now. Here’s the interactive bit. I’ve been faffing about with all sorts of notes and scribbles about the plumage trade in the very early 20th.C. Why would that be? Because in the course of a writing day, my friend Carole Bromley workshopped a poem which had a line in it about the statistics of a plumage auction. It’s not left me alone since. I suspect that eventually it’ll end up as a cluster of poems. At the moment it’s one-and- a- bit poems and a lot of printouts and prose notes. But I did notice that the RSPB was founded precisely to fight for the abolition of the plumage trade, and having one more-or-less finished poem, I sent it off with my entry fee, and Simon Armitage liked it. So, here we go. There are three versions of the poem. One is the first draft. One is the Highly Commended. One is a version that I rewrote after I’d forgotten entering the competition in the first place. Which one is which? Which version do you prefer and why (although you may think all three are naff) ? Answers on a postcard, or at least, in the comments box at the end. Have fun.

2014-11-05 13.56.19

Pinioned (1)

I could tell you all the proper names: rachis, vane,
and calamus. I could tell you that the plumage of a bird
is three times heavier than its bones, or that
its heart, its brain, weigh next to nothing.
Why would you need to know, a feather being a lovely thing
blown along the edges of the sea and its running waves?

A grebe will ingest its feathers and feed them to its young.
Poultry are plucked for the oven. A goose quill may be cut
to make a pen. Feathers are single, lifting loose on the wind.
In 1892 a single order from a London milliner
bespoke the plumes of forty thousand hummingbirds.

Imagine the delicacy of the work, each tiny jewel feather.
In truth, they’re skinned, not plucked. Skinned
like a rabbit, peeled off like a sock, neat as you like.
Remember fallen nestlings at the foot of downpipes.
Little purplish horrors. Bug-eyed tiny pterosaurs. Like that.

Thick as a hedgehog’s fleas; busy as ticks in a fleece
the sparrows in the precinct shrubberies, all chit-chat,
racketting out like shook pepper, like dust off a rug,                                                                                                                                                                                                                       till the Council rooted out the laurels, potentillas.
When did you last see a crowd of sparrows? When
did the starlings leave the cities, and where did they go?

wing 1

Pinioned (2)

Three times heavier than its bones,
the plumage of a bird.
Its heart, its brain, weigh next to nothing.
Why would you know that, a feather being a lovely thing
ruffled on the edges of the sea and its running waves.
No need for proper names: rachis, vane, and calamus.

A grebe will ingest its feathers and feed them to its young.
Poultry are plucked for the oven. A goose quill may be cut
to make a pen. Feathers are single, blown loose on the wind.
In 1892 a single order from a London milliner
bespoke the plumes of forty thousand hummingbirds.

Imagine the delicacy of the work, each tiny jewel feather.
Fact is, they’re skinned, not plucked.
Like a rabbit, peeled off like a sock, neat as you like.
Remember fallen nestlings at the foot of downpipes.
Little purplish horrors. Bug-eyed tiny pterosaurs. Like that.

Thick as a hedgehog’s fleas; busy as ticks in a fleece
the sparrows in the precinct shrubberies, all chit-chat,
racketting out like shook pepper, like dust off a rug,
till the Council rooted out the laurels, potentillas.
When did you last see a crowd of sparrows?                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        A feather in a fancy hat?

wing 2

Pinioned (3)
You know this much about a feather : blown on a beach,
grey gull, most likely. You stroked your cheek with it,
liked its gloss, its flex, the softness of fine down.
How easily it tears. How it completes a real sandcastle.
No need for its proper names; rachis, vane, and calamus.

The plumage of a bird
weighs three times heavier than its bones.
Its heart, its brain, weigh next to nothing.
Why would you know that, a feather being a lovely thing
blown on the edges of the sea and its running waves.

A grebe ingests its feathers and feeds them to its young.
Poultry are plucked for the oven. A goose quill may be cut
to make a pen. Feathers are single, blow loose on the wind.
In 1892 a single order from a London milliner
bespoke the plumes of forty thousand hummingbirds.

Imagine the delicacy of the work, each tiny jewel feather.
But the fact is, they’re skinned, not plucked.
Like a rabbit, peeled off like a sock, neat as you like.
Remember fallen nestlings at the foot of downpipes.
Little purplish horrors. bug-eyed tiny pterosaurs. Like that.

Thick as a hedgehog’s fleas; busy as ticks in a fleece,
the sparrows in the precinct shrubberies, all chit-chat,
racketting out like shook pepper, like dust off a rug,
till the Council rooted out the laurels, potentillas.

racketting out like shook pepper, like dust off a rug,
till the Council rooted out the laurels, potentillas.
When did you last see a crowd of sparrows? When
did the starlings leave the cities, and where did they go?
When did you last see a crowd of sparrows? A feather in a fancy hat?

wings 4

I’ve noticed that the line breaks of ‘Pinioned 1’ and ‘Pinioned 2’ are wrong. The edit won’t let me do what I want. So here’s the proper layout of the ends of each..

Pinioned 1……………………

racketting out like shook pepper, like dust off a rug,
till the Council rooted out the laurels, potentillas.
When did you last see a crowd of sparrows?                                                                When did the starlings leave the cities, and where did they go?

Pinioned 2 ……………………

When did you last see a crowd of sparrows?
A feather in a fancy hat?

8 thoughts on “Luck of the draw

  1. My guesses: 1. First draft, 2. Third version, 3 highly commended ?

    They are all lovely and so original. Thanks for sharing. Let me know if I got it right – by message/email? Jx

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  2. I’d guess (and I thought this before reading other comments)
    1. first draft 2. final version 3. competition version

    But at the same time, I love the last line: when did the starlings…. However, I suspect the ‘feather in a hat’ ending focuses more on the original impetus of the poem. and works best for that (Derek Sellen) BTW your blog is a weekly joy

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  3. I’m guessing that (1) is the first draft, John. I’m torn between (2) and (3), but I really like that (3) immediately engages/addresses the reader. Stanza 1 feels really personal, the feather almost tangible. But then I prefer the line break between the final questions posed, in version (2)…

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  4. this gets more and more fascinating. I have to check which is which myself, and I’m less and less able to decide which I want to keep. I’d hate to have to judge a competition. Answers next week, Jayne. Thanks for following xx

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