When I asked him to come again, something my returning guest wrote set me off musing on the way I (and others?) can’t leave a poem alone. Not even when it’s out there, with its spotty bundle and faithful cat, seeking its fortune. I’ve got all sorts of poems out for competitions or submitted to magazines, or already proofread and about to be published…and I keep re-reading them, tweaking line breaks, deleting whole lines and stanzas, changing line order. And then I forget to make a copy, and I save the changes, and I’ve no idea what the original was like, or whether it’s been improved, or should have been left very well alone. Which is why I was intrigued by Roy Cockcroft’s musings about a prizewinning poem of his, and about the changes he made or may have made…and which, very shortly, you can read. If you go to poetry readings around the East Riding, you may already know Roy and his work. Or if you follow the cobweb you could well have met Roy before. On January 11th 2015, in fact. You might like to read that post, too. Here’s the shorter version.
Leeds 1961: a boy sets himself the task of describing that universe, of painting a new mythology. 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. During those 32 years I had the pleasure of teaching with him. For the full story, head back to January 2015 in the archive.
Subsequently, this is what the Driffield Post Times wrote 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’.
Which will now take us to Whitby by circuitous ways. And the winning poem.
I wrote about the poem, Wet harvests:
“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.”
So what about ‘tinkering’? I’ll leave the rest of this post pretty well to Roy…….who writes:
In 2008 I wrote this. Or something like this.
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.
And 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 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 safely in the swell of the mourning parish
By a slab of stone.
But when the tides objected,
Holding them back,
Letting the strict currents carry them miles
From their home,
Strangers would wash up on the beach,
Men without names –
Except, of course, 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 worsteds and hefty needles,
Clacking post-codes into ganseys,
Thinking the shroud into 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.
Is a poem ever finished? The fact that, (as you may have noticed), I have recently made changes mostly to verse three would suggest not. Once changed, is it the same poem? Possibly not. Or is it now the poem it was always going to become? This particular poem has had many lives; isn’t this merely another? Am I the same author, the one who was there at its conception, or am I just a sympathetic but ruthless editor making judgements about another man’s poem?
Its conception? The chance discovery of a piece of local history in a wool shop in Whitby, printed on a brown paper bag. A gull on the roof of the Seaman’s Mission. A church bell. The strength of wool when it pulls against itself in a mysterious sequence of knots. The question of identity; the contrasting anonymity of the sea. The way knitting becomes a metaphor, a figure that stands for the way women have networked the coastline. A feeling of constraint in the first half to be followed by a sense of achievement in the second. All of these ideas emerge gradually until I finally discover what it was I was trying to say. That process, as you can see, is still going on.
Apparently Degas was notorious for this refusal to accept that a painting was ever finished, often removing them from the wall when he visited his buyers’ houses and taking them back to his studio where they would remain for months. I can identify with that on occasions.
To use an art metaphor let’s look at some of the earlier sketches of this poem. In 2006 the first verse looked like this
Here on the East Coast
The wives and mothers wanted their men back
To dry out under their own rafters
Once the sea had dropped its (bold) claim
On their inheritance
And so when a coble sank
Was it too much to ask of the (obdurate) waves
To return the (hapless) dead
To the shores of the towns that bred them
For burial in calm graves
Under slack soils (2006)
Looking at this I can see how ‘inheritance’ needed to be adjacent to ‘wives and mothers’ or now ‘mothers and wives’. I also remember deciding to reduce the adjective count and let the verbs do the work.
To keep that continuous thread of ‘mother’ ‘women’ and ‘girl’ I appear to have cut out a whole section of verse three –
And all the sisters and all the sweethearts
Who have the sea-salt flowing in their tears
And bigger tides rising in their own breast
Than ever ripped keel and deck apart
Or shook the arrogance of piers (2006)
I seem to remember trying to retain those lines and get rid of the unfortunate metrical carnage, but deciding instead that it added little to the poem. And so it went. ‘deck’ was meant to anticipate the cluster of hard ‘k’ sounds in the next few lines that simulate the clicking of needles, but I must have decided there were enough of them to make the point.
Is the poem finished now? Well, since you ask, I’m thinking that we could do without ‘safely’ in line 15.
But perhaps, finally, the time has come to let it rest.
That was then, Where are we now? As a writer I am still fascinated by the same ideas as I was then; the way the past emerges in the present; finding the heroic in the domestic; the landscapes in my head; but now that I do more painting than writing, it is becoming clear that the two art forms are affecting each other; my painting is abstract to the point where the marks I make on the canvas can be called visual metaphors and I’m more conscious of rhythm and ambiguity in my compositions than I used to be ; by the same token my writing is now I believe more stripped of explication than ever before, while in my landscape poems colours bleed into the other senses in a kind of synaesthesia. Here are two examples.
The sheep have made thin, brown paths
In the melting snow –
White porcelain fragments
To make a hill.
Last week they were plunging through drifts,
To get at the grass,
Sheltering in hollows,
Always looking towards the gate.
Once, with snow still falling,
The farmer brought hay –
Three bales of it steaming in the dark of his truck –
Wrestled them out of its gaping back
And knifed them open,
Spilling their warm guts
Across the field’s slab.
Standing by the trough,
He clubbed the ice, till it caved in,
Scooping the biggest lumps
From the water with his bare hands,
Before driving off.
The sheep have abandoned
One patch of thawed ground
For another. Rooks angle their long, grey beaks
Into the turf.
Ice floats in the ditch like a dead seal.
A robin claims what’s left
Of the ruined hedgerows with his red shout.
Already there in the hazel,
Before the cold arrived,
Have just remembered
What their soft, green quivering was all about.
No one knows exactly where the river ends
And the sea begins,
But there are signs
that things have changed –
After the comfortable dialects
Of dapple and glide,
The river finds new voices –
Herons shuffling around
On smeared branches, coughing
Or going hysterical,
Dredging their vowels
From sluice-gates –
And there’s the slow grinding of rock
In the bed’s unstoppable machinery
And the guarded whisperings of sedge.
And features change –
Boats hang skewed on cable,
Or stretched out,
Exposing their keels on a wet slab;
Fences of reed split water
Into shallow lakes;
Banks are uncertain;
Every day the tide invents a new channel;
And later, when the fog clears,
We notice the wading of submerged roots,
A twist of wire fishing for its own reflection,
Low branches watching for hours
Before they stab.
And now the river has a new name.
And new colours –
Traces of black –
A suspicion of red –
Browns, purples and yellows leaking from ancient storms.
Levelling out, the greasy current slows,
Dithering in blocked drains,
Smelling of salt and ammonia,
Muttering to itself,
Revisiting the same places.
I was prompted to include this last example by Yvie Holder’s recent contribution to John’s blog , Alzheimer’s being a subject to which I regularly return. The poem also brings us back to where we started – the sea. I’ll resist the temptation to deconstruct my poem; there is of course a tradition of critical theory which says it is not my job anyway, that it is for critics to provide the context for such analysis. I am reminded of the words of a fellow artist who dreaded the thought of critics picking over his work, even though some of them ‘couldn’t paint a fence’; he said it was like fearing psychoanalysis, coming to terms with the notion that someone else knows more about the workings of your mind than you do. In a way I agree; you can hear the critical voice as soon as you see the poem in print – Is this ‘the deep sea swell’ of Phlebas the Phoenician, ‘a fortnight dead,’ or is this Lowell’s drowned sailor who ‘clutched the drag-net … his matted head and marble feet…’ ? On the other hand I claim the right (and will possibly exercise that right) to come back to these poems and finish them at some point in the future. Or I may just leave them as they are.
Roy Cockcroft August 3rd 2016.
It’s an absolute joy to have a guest who does all the work, does the painting, and leaves me a post I can keep coming back to, turning over the business of making, drafting, tinkering. Thanks Roy! Another Gem Revisited next week. Come early to be sure of a seat.