Crowdfunding with Anthony Wilson: in praise of anthologies

Anthony Wilson’s crowdfunder is something you can really get behind. You can be part of a venture to launch a new anthology of poems that really ought to get more attention. All the details you need are available by following this link

https://unbound.com/books/no-one-you-know

Not only that, but in support of crowdfunding their new anthology of poems, No One You Know, with Unbound, Sue Dymoke and Anthony are starting a series of blog posts about anthologies which have influenced us as readers and writers. The first one is about an anthology that inspired me. Again…just follow the link

Discovering Geoffrey Summerfield’s Worlds

Anthony also writes

We would be interested to know which anthologies got you, our readers, going.

So here goes with a reworking of a post I wrote a couple of years ago. Your favourite anthology might be something like The Rattle Bag. Mine are ones that initially kept my head above water as a young teacher, and then introduced me to a world of poetry. Here we go:

 

The Best of…………..

……..punk, bluebeat, blues, rhythm and soul, Bob Dylan, the 80’s, Motown, Stax, Atlantic, Leonard Cohen, ska, Reggae Greats, Miles Davis. A flavour of my record collection. I reckon 80% of it is compilations. Very few single albums that hold my attention all the way through. Albums without a dud track. Cohen’s ‘I’m your man’. Paul Simon’s ‘Graceland’ (although you could argue that it’s actually a compilation of great artists). ‘Who’s next’. Tom Russell:’The man from God knows where’. I’m pushed to think of many more, off-hand. And I’m a bit like that about poetry, though that’s been changing over the last three or four years. Anthologies. That’s been my thing. Maybe that’s why I frequently go blank at poetry events when friends talk with great familiarity about poets I’m not sure I’ve heard of, and feel a bit gauche when poet friends post photographs of new collections they’ve bought in a retail frenzy at this or that poetry festival. So this week’s cobweb strand is in praise of anthologies and anthologists…or, at least, one particular anthologist. OK. Close your books, tidy your pens, sit up straight, look this way, remember it’s your own time you’re wasting and now…..

….let me take you back to 1972, when the then Education Minister, one Margaret Thatcher of blessed memory, ordered a review of the teaching of English. It was the first of a long series of attempts (which grew more successful over the years) to take political control of the school curriculum, and of English in particular. What it produced was hardly what she hoped for. The report was ‘Language for life’ (popularly the Bullock Report)…a generally humane and informed document, which you might have expected of HMI. It’s taken SATS, league tables and OFSTED to put the kibosh on that kind of subversive lefty nonsense. What we have in its place is government ministers sounding off about how we should teach the history of the First World War, and what poetry should be force-fed to the children of Albion, and how. And now…..

anthology 3

….as the wheel turns inexorably full circle, let me take you back another twenty years when I passed my 11+ and went to Batley Grammar School and was presented with Book One of a series of five English course books written by a man who sold at least 70 million copies of his prolific output by the time he died in some comfort in the 1990s. You might not remember just how drab and battered English course books used to be, but just to be clear, that jazzed up ‘contemporary’ later stuff was just as stuffed with clause analysis, punctuation exercises, comprehension exercises, jumbled proverbs and all the rest of the nonsense. Oh, and each chapter would begin with a bit of text, an extract of prose and, maybe twice in any one book, a poem. The one I remember from Book One was something by Masefield. Followed by exercises that sqeezed every last ounce of syntactic, grammatical, and vocabulary juice out of it.

anthology 2

 

Of course, we were offered books of poetry which contained no exercises. But generations of desperate pencilled marginal notes. Palgrave’s Golden Treasuries, and the deeply dispiriting, but jauntily alliterative Paths to Parnassus: The poet’s pageant. I remember the second one from the  stock cupboards in my first teaching job. Exercises and heritage. Whose heritage was never in question. Probably not that of the lads I taught on my first teaching practice at Wharrier Street Secondary Modern School in Walker on Tyneside..alma mater to the great Eric Burdon, as it happens. So the question would arise. If you don’t want this stuff, what’ll take its place? All my secondary and university education in English Lit. stopped dead round about 1916. I was well up on prose fiction…northern realists like Sillitoe, Stan Barstow, John Braine, Keith Waterhouse, and I was totally sold on the short stories of Dylan Thomas. And I was shortly immersed in a golden age of children’s fiction. Alan Garner, Joan Aiken, Robert Westall, all of them. But I simply didn’t know enough poetry to offer an alternative to what seemed to be on offer.. The Bullock Report noted it was still a problem in 1972.

‘The teacher is often faced with the task of showing that poetry is not some inaccessible form of utterance, but that it speaks directly to children, as to anyone else, and has something to say which is relevant to their living here and now.

BUT

It is exceptionally difficult for the individual teacher to keep abreast of all the new poetry that is published. Indeed, except for those with a particular interest in it there is often a time lag, so that the teacher is not aware of much of the work produced in the last two decades. A good anthology will do a great deal to introduce teacher and pupil alike to new and unfamiliar material, but it should not be a substitute for the extensive reading of poetry by the teacher himself.’

I remember reading that bit about anthologies not being a substitute for extensive reading. I didn’t know whether I felt guilty or indignant. Because what I believed then, and still believe, is that the best anthologies offer the shared experience of an committed enthusiast’s extensive reading. It’s taken me a long time to get round to standing up for anthologies. But here goes.

anthology 7

For years, the BBC ran a schools’ radio series called Books Plays and Poems,  lovely landscape format booklets that accompanied the programmes and in the mid 60’s they were the first source I had of an eclectic mix of poetry that included contemporary work (including the lyrics of Penny Lane). They had photographs in them, too! Imagine. And then, in my fifth year of teaching along came Geoffrey Summerfield’s Voices [Penguin. 1970]. It was the first of a series of four anthologies, and pretty soon accompanied by four more Junior Voices.

 

And here’s the thing; they not only didn’t look remotely like school books, but they didn’t read like school books either. They were full of surprises, and, in the case of Junior Voices, they had stunning imagery in colour. They were books you could sit and browse, and every page brought a fresh surprise, if, like me and the rest of the teachers The Bullock Report talked about, you didn’t know much about poetry and poets and poems (unless they were on O and A Level syllabuses).

What’s more, none of them seemed to have designs on a reader, other than to share a boundless enthusiasm and apparently encyclopaedic knowledge. They were eclectic and exciting. They weren’t overtly thematically organised, so there was none of that invitation to compare and contrast we were all programmed into. It was all done by smart juxtapositions.Let me tell you who they introduced me to. Roethke, Elizabeth Jennings, e e cummings, John Clare, Basho, Stanley Cooke, Norman MacCaig, Woody Guthrie, Elizabeth Bishop, Gary Snyder, Patricia Beer, Yevtushenko, Neruda. They sold me on Sylvia Plath’s ‘You’re’, and Ted Hughes’ Hawk roosting, and Auden’s Musee des beaux arts. There were medieval riddle poems, and playful stuff like ones from Alastair Reid’s Ounce, dice, trice. Haiku and and shape poems. Carlos Williams. Maybe it was Summerfield’s connection with NYU, but there were lots of American poets who I would otherwise never have come across. It was the inclusion of MacCaig’s I took my mind a walk that ended up with my reading his collected works, beginning to end. Years later. But that was the seed. Those anthologies opened my eyes and ears to world I had no idea existed.

And that wasn’t all. Hard on their heels, in 1974, came Geoffrey Summerfield’s Worlds

anthology X

And for me, as for Anthony Wilson, this one was truly a revelation.  ‘Worlds, says Anthony, ‘is one of the most important books in my life.’ I’ll second that. It will come as no surprise, I suppose, to discover that you can now only buy second- hand copies of these lovely books. Meanwhile, Coles Notes go from strength to strength, and supermarkets stock books of exercises to drill your children through their SATs and their phonics, and so the world turns,and the mills of Gove grind exceeding fine. Thank god for Geoffrey Summerfield and Michael Rosen and the rest, and whoever picks up their mantle in coming years

Now, it may well be that lots of you have parallel experiences. Anthony and Sue would be delighted to hear about them. But before I go, I want to say a word about about a different way of encountering an anthology. I’ve been going to Ann and Peter Sansom’s Poetry Business writing days for a good long time. In the process I realise they’ve assembled a very special anthology for me. Very often, a writing exercise will begin around, or from, a photocopied poem. I’ve religiously trimmed them down and stuck them in my workbooks so I know which poem triggered which draft or prose ramble. And now I have probably a couple of hundred, and in the process I’ve realised that these workshops have done for me now what Voices and Junior Voices and Worlds did, way back when. Without them I’d never have met Alison McVety, Thomas Lux, Billy Collins, Liz Berry, Martina Evans, Frank o’Hara, Tishani Doshi, Matthew Sweeney, Robert Van Dias, Claudi Jessop, Stewart Conn…and on and on it goes.

That’s what a great anthology is. The shared experience of folk who know more than you and who fill you with enthusiasm to know more than you do. To want more of the best of the best of. If that was all very teacherly, I guess it’s what I do. Certainly what I did for 40 years. Hard to shake off.

Not sure who’ll be the guest next week. But he or she will be stellar. Promise.

 

Bright star: remembering Gordon Hodgeon

Yesterday I heard that my friend Gordon Hodgeon had died in the early hours. He was one of the loveliest people I ever met. I wrote this appreciation of  him (and his poetry) over a year ago.

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In 1982 I was invited to be a visiting tutor on a weekend residential  course, in Goathland, for Teesside teachers of English. Talented teachers working in their own time, because they were excited by the possibilities of what children could learn and do. It happened quite a lot in those days. One of my newly-acquired enthusiasms then was for developing writing through the retelling of myth and fable. The books that inspired me were Betty Rosen’s And none of it was nonsense, Alan Garner’s The stone book, and a remarkable piece of work by Penelope Farmer:  Beginnings. Spare prose outlines of creation myths from around the world.

On one of the evenings, I got to read my own retelling of a Finnish fire myth. In the original, fire falls to earth through the inattention of one of the anonymous star maidens at the making of stars by the god, Ukko. The spark is finally captured by the hero Vainemoinen; he’s the one who gets the credit. But you never know where a retelling will take you. In my version, though I never intended it, the gift of fire becomes an act of rebellion by the star maiden, who pities the creatures of the earth in their blood-chilling winters. She becomes Promethean, a bright star, and the god Ukko just another divine and appalling tyrant.

I’d forgotten all about it till , the other morning, when I was waiting for a man to change two rear car tyres for ones that wouldn’t readily blow out on a motorway, and I was reading Robert Macfarlane’s ‘Landmarks’. There’s a chapter marvellously called The tunnel of stones and axes, and, just like that, I was reunited with Vainemoinen, and the Finnish Kalevala epic. The hero has been set to find the Lost-Words. For want of the names he cannot build his ship right. Without the thousand Lost-Words he cannot name the world to make it real.

‘Synonyms are of no use,’ writes Macfarlane. ‘ The power of each name is specific to its form.’

To understand this is to understand enchantment; we grow accustomed to the story of the enchanted castle, spellstruck, sleepstruck, drowning in thorn and briar, and to its cold, enchanted sarcophagus princess, white as marble. Macfarlane urges a truer meaning. To en-chant. To call into being. To summon by chanting, when only the true Lost-Words will do.

I thought of Ursula K. Le Guin’s The wizard of Earthsea and the hero Ged’s quest for true naming, and I thought of Gordon Hodgeon who was the driving force behind those Teesside English teachers’ courses

Somedays you simply have to accept that there’s a synergy in things, and life delights in it. Last week I opened an e.mail from a George Hodgeon inviting me to the launch of a new poetry collection by a man who I’ve known and admired for years and years. I supposed that George must be his brother. Anyway, this is it:

I wrote back to George Hodgeon, explaining that I wouldn’t be able to be at Gordon’s book launch….and then launched into a fulsome paean of praise, about how much I and so many others owe to Gordon, what a lovely man he is, and so on and so on. And I have to say it did feel a bit too much like a eulogy for comfort. The following day I got an email that reassured me that Gordon was more than capable of speaking for himself, and that it was, indeed, Gordon who had sent the email, and that it was Gordon who was writing this one. By way of explanation for the ‘George’ he attached this poem.

For George, Paternal Grandfather

You never reached your seventy third birthday,
I am struggling to reach mine, so let’s
get a few things straight. Through all my adult life
you’ve been a pain, kept slipping out
the shades, sliding your name into my affairs.
I have been George on conference lists and sticky labels,
on business letters, on hotel bills, once even on a poem.

Sometimes, so weary, I went with the flow,
so folk could go to the grave
thinking I bear your name. No chance of that.
Your only son, our father, wanted it grander,
landed me with that general’s name,
my brother with Lord Clive’s.
Not sure why. Dad read the News Chronicle.

But last Tuesday the ultimate put-down.
I was in hospital and gave my name and d.o.b.
to about fifteen nurses and my carer answered
the same questions to half a dozen doctors.
Then I got moved to my place for the night.
In comes a new nurse, greets me warmly:
“Hello George, I am Amanda, I’ll be looking after you
tonight.” How do you manage it?
Have you nothing better to spend your time on?

Given the state I’m in, quite soon
we might meet up. I warn you now,
just one more trick, I’ll alter every entry
in the eternal register, make sure that
all the angels and devils call you my name,
Gordon, your deserved reward.

But I’ll still love you, Grandad,
love how you have walked with me
all the way, more than sixty years
from Leigh Market to just now
when I stopped walking, stopped
being able to carry your basket.

You fed the children from that grid of streets
when their dads were on strike or had no work;
you lent money, thinking it would not come back,
it didn’t. You ran the Sunday School, you
made a gift to me of well-thumbed books,
Sir Walter Scott, Dickens, George Eliot.
You let me learn your sense of serious fun.
How you tormented the old ladies
reading their teacups, winking at me.

I am just as bad, laugh at my own jokes.
I never was as good at giving, never
as well-behaved, never as upright.
I should have been your namesake,
and now I see why you’ve been nudging,
dropping hints, not about names at all.
I let you down, still you raise me up,
George, Gordon, share this bittersweet,
this lifelong lovefeast cup.

First reading, you might skate over that matter-of-fact opening; it’s one of the things we say, not thinking. But what if you knew it were true. What if you were quadraplegic, breathing only with the aid of a ventilator; what if you struggled to speak and then, finally could not speak aloud; what if all your communication became a digital code of blinks at a Dynavox computer screen. Could you write that with the same wry stoicism, that wit? I’m pretty sure I couldn’t. Read this poem aloud, over and over. Its pace, its rhythm never lets you down. It’s totally without sentimentality, and brims with generosity of spirit. I love the ending, and how it en-chants heartsease.

I’ve always enjoyed Gordon Hodgeon’s poetry;  the first collections I had were ‘Behind the lines’ (which I’ve since lost; mea culpa, mate) and November photographs. Both  are full of the landscapes and townscapes of Cleveland where for many years he was, first,  LEA English Advisor, and later the Senior Advisor. These poems of the late 70s and early 80’s often occupy the same thematic and linguistic territory as the Ted Hughes of Remains of Elmet. Like these lines from ‘In the West Riding’

‘There is no fervency now,

nothing burning on the bought land,

God’s-yard, or in the dark house

pieced on the looms.

but there’s wordplay, too, in a poem like Nursery War. There are carefully crafted poems of artful rhyme schemes. Riches everywhere. I’ve always liked  one called Old woman, Skinningrove.

A strange place, Skinningrove  in the 60s; it always came as a surprise, as you came over the steep brow of  the main clifftop coast road from Middlesbrough to Whitby…there it was, that ironworks in the middle of nowhere, deep in a clough in the shaly coast, where the beck ran out into the North Sea. It was dying on its feet, that place. Gordon turns a more than documentary eye on the ‘old woman’. It’s a poem that Don McCullin might have photographed.

Old woman, Skinningrove

This was her wedding window.

Now the laced glass is gone

with salt wind, dirt in smoke,

turns round the sun.

Here she minded and mended

in one ironworks street

by a cold stained sea. A moth

in the folded blanket.

Don’t take my picture, lad,

I’m too far gone for that.

She sees the end of it all,

knowing what was, is not.

Her man and babies gone,

the days that drove her tough

leave stones for air to finger,

fray the fineries off.

I love the spareness of this, its stripped down precision, its unobtrusive rhymed formalities, and, above all, its tenderness. Uz can be loving as well as funny. And the later poems grow ever more layered, complex, challenging, without ever losing that tender clarity. If irreverence is more your thing, you’ll not be disappointed. Try Accomodation from Winter Breaks (2006). You get to an age where visits to the Crem. become uncomfortably regular, but not all of us handle it with such aplomb as in the extract from:

Accomodation

Now I am envying (you as well?) the sod

who’s made it to the safety of the casket

and wishing it was me in there instead,

the Roller, silk sheets, chicken in the basket.

No Vacancies and not Abide with me

the tapes’s repeating on the life machine.

Don’t hang about, piss off, and get your tea,

you’re at death’s door, though, keep your knickers clean.

I sometimes forget how often he’s made me laugh. Especially now. Some of the poems from  ‘Still Life’ (2012) are close to heartbreaking; poems like ‘Leaving: for Julia’ which records his situation when he and his wife were wheelchair-bound, in separate nursing ‘homes’, having sold the family home, visiting each other, tended by nurses, hoisted into minibuses, hardly knowing what to say:

Leaving   (for Julia)

………………………

And now there are new owners,

making the house their own.

Peter from next door telling me this,

first project, a room for their one-year old.

I think they will clear the garden

for the child’s first steps,

for balls to roll and bounce.

Under the grass, weak as worm castings,

our weary archaeology, the bones of buried animals,

one pheasant hit on the Sunday morning run

to the swimming pool; one rabbit banned from your school,

which would not dig its way out again.

Also, the procession of cats stalking through childhoods.

So next your turn to visit me,

our daughter driving, your carer by your side.

We did some talking this time, but dear me,

your anxious mind began its litany

of questions: is it time to go now?

And repetitions, till we set you free

to make your safe way home,

yet it was not your home.

Here, in the early hours

I often wake, hear the comfort,

your regular breath beside me.

But this is a single bed

and the breath I hear is the ventilator

filling and emptying my lungs.

And, ah, the resonances of that one word: home. The archaeology of a family house, overlain by new and other lives. I would find that unbearable. But Gordon writes it, en-chants it, unwaveringly, just as he contemplates the end of things, conflating and eliding the dark sonnets of Gerard Manley Hopkins with adverts for , say, a DFS sofa sale. This is ‘Closing down’….or, at least, parts of it, the prayer of an ardent atheist.

Closing down

The world is full of half-price sofas,

the universe getting that way, Cliffs of fall,

each hue of leather, fabric of your choice.

Between these mindless mountains, little me

in my wheelchair, doing my little wheelies,

reverse and forward, left and right,

thick pile carpet snags me.

……………..

I know, I know,

at the closing down of the sun, everything must go.

All of us caught, packed into bags, boxes,

white fish, cheap fireworks, shipped to another planet,

sprayed out like crummy birds-eyes, fingers,

squirting like Catherine wheels,

slithering like mice-droppings,

like the souls of our most loyal customers

through ever colder galaxies.

But not yet I pray you,

my land of lost contents, my lifetime bargains,

hide me in the shadow of your wings,

the detachable dry-clean shrouds, let me be,

my pale skin, my scored face, my limp limbs, my cracked wheels,

let me have one more turn of the sun, one last chance,

never to be repeated.

That’s the universe I’ll vote for. No entropy in the world of Gordon Hodgeon’s poetry. I remember the lesson learned by Ged in A wizard of Earthsea. That magic is the business of true-naming, and that until you can say your own true-name, you cannot say yourself. You en-chant yourself and the world into being. If that’s not the business of poetry then I don’t know what is. All his working life, Gordon championed the cause of creativity in Education, and the cause of a richer living through poetry, through his work as a teacher and advisor, through NATE, through publishing with Smokestack Books, and Mudfog Books. Five years ago a series of unsuccessful operations left him confined to bed and wheelchair, unable to move his arms and legs, unable to breathe without the help of a ventilator, unable to pick up a pen, and finally unable to speak except through a sequence of blinks at a machine.

Last year I sent him a pamphlet I’d produced…poems about my parents and grandparents. Shortly after, he wrote back. There were too many adjectives, he said; he wanted to know more about my grandma. There you go. Firm but fair. Thirty years ago he cast an eye over a poem I’d written: ‘Our David’s Pictures’ He suggested one simple reversal, and Bingo! The poem worked. For years, at critical moments, he’s unobtrusively put me right professionally and personally. I owe him a lot. There are other people who knew him so much better than I who will tell you about his life. I know I’ll  not come close to doing justice to the variety and range and textures of his writing, and I’ll leave it to one of his short poems (I think it’s from that lost copy of Behind the Lines …. which means I’m relying on memory)…….anyway, to this poem which sums up all the inexhaustibilities he’s written about for over 50 years.

Jack Robinson,

Jack Robinson; he’s the one;

before you can say him, the poem’s done.

Thank you, Gordon/George Hodgeon: Bright Star.

‘Still life’ (£7.95) can be ordered direct from Smokestack Books, and so can

Talking to the Dead’ (£4.95)…find them on  info@smokestack-books.co.uk

If you like everything under one cover, then you can get close to it by buying the handsome, chunky Selected Poems. ‘Old workings’ [mudfog 2013.] £8.95 .

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

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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.)

A way with words

mappa mundi

A few years ago, someone on ‘Desert Island Discs’ chose OS maps for his ‘book’…not just one, and not just the whole of England, Wales and Scotland, but a notional set of the whole world. And I thought: ‘Yes!’ I knew just what he meant. I love OS maps. The first time I flew in a plane (1981, Manchester to Belfast. Not the best time to go to Northern Ireland) I was spellbound a) by the fact of flying. Actually flying. The way you could leave the ground and stay up; b) by seeing that the maps were right. That what you could see out of the window was actually what the maps said you should see. I still haven’t got over it. Or over the fact that the maps were drawn without flying. How do they do that? Nothing short of miraculous.

Before I had new hips fitted, there were years when I couldn’t actually walk very far. Ten miles was a struggle, and then five, and then three…and then, finally, one. So I used to sit with maps of, say Upper Wharfedale, or South Skye, and imagine walks. You could figure out where it would be boggy, or hard-going and steep. You could stand on the top of a moor or a ridge and visualize what you could see. You could go everywhere, and not get lost. In practice, of course, it doesn’t quite work like that. Like the time on Skye when a large lochan seemed to have mysteriously vanished. It simply wasn’t where the map said it should be. Of course, it was. It became quite obvious when I got to the edge of a steep long drop. There it was, at the bottom. I’d just not paid proper attention to contour lines. I cannot understand why people are willing to give up their route finding to satnavs. How do they know where they’ve been, or how they got to where they are? Maybe it’s an age thing. But I stick to my maps.

Which leads me to thinking about how folks found their way when there were no maps. There were lovely speculative fictive maps, like the Mappa Mundi…but you would have to find your way to Hereford to look at it, and it still would be absolutely no use at all. And what if you were going where there were no well-found roads? I’m speculating myself, now, but just think…you ask someone how to get from a to b. At one time, if you were in a town, the reference points would be pubs. As Anthony Costello remarked when he gave a pub full of poets directions to the Kava cafe in Todmorden…it’s opposite Lidl. The times they are a changing. What happened to ‘The cock and bottle’, ‘The Duke of Devonshire’? Ah well. But, between towns and villages and hamlets?

I think it must have been done by names. I think that the names of places paint a picture, give directions. John Hillaby, in his wonderful book ‘A journey through Britain’ describes his distress at discovering the meaning of the word ‘larach’ in his OS map of part of the Western Highlands. It means ‘a place’. It means that it once had meaning; it once was populated or inhabited. Now it isn’t anything. Not even a proper memory. It doesn’t rate a symbol. A place. It’s never left me. I wrote a poem for it, and my new chapbook is called Larach (pub. Wardwood, December this year). It’s an oxymoron. The name of a place should tell you more. It should be helpful. I want to know what the names of places mean, so they should mean something. Let me explain.

If you drive from Shipley to Skipton you travel from Saxon to Norse. Both places are where sheep were grazed. Two similar, but different, languages. That tells you something. Now, I grew up in a street of houses built for mill workers. Pearl Street. The adjoining streets were Emerald Street, Ruby Street…a treasure house of a neighbourhood. Not surprisingly, this was totally misleading. I sometimes wonder at the warped inventiveness of the namers of streets, of the avenues and crescents in new housing developments…all the Grasmeres and Windermeres and Wharfedales and Braemars. There must people in planning departments who think them up. Where I lived there were streets named after battles (like Trafalgar Street and Jutland Street). In the older slums there were Yard No. 1, Yard No.2. No romancing or fancy there. But so many of them have no connection with the land or its use. Which makes the ones that do so much more precious. Like Tenterfields, on the Burnley road near Mytholmroyd, where Ted Hughes grew up. Have you ever been on tenterhooks? There’s a clue. Or Thrum Hall in Halifax. Near Gibbet Lane. Now we know what we’re talking about. They tell a story, names like this. I said last week that I’d riff on Calderdale placenames. So I will. (But, in passing, point out that Calderdale is not only home to Ted Hughes, and intermittently to Branwell Bronte, but also to the poets Gaia Holmes (my inspiration), Char March, Simon Zonenblick, Anthony Costello, and Clare Shaw…who, as I write, should have arrived in St Ives (surrounded by places with ‘pol’ in the name, and many with Z’s) to run a residential course with Kim Moore (my inspiration), and good luck to them both….

map-halifax

Last week we had Simon Zonenblick’s ‘Slitheroe Bridge’, which plays games with a false etymology. Before I forget, I should say that place names are no sure and certain guide. Slitheroe has nothing to do with slithering. My part of Batley was Carlinghow, and I still don’t know how that breaks down. ‘How’..well that’s a hill. ‘Carr’…a marshy woodland. ‘Ing’…people. That would give me, the place of the people of the marshy woodland by the hill. It would make sense, too. The topography would be right. But Wikipedia says it’s derived from ‘Carlin’ which could be a witch or a hag, or a commoner. Wikipedia goes for colourful: The witch’s hill’. I don’t believe it. I want to go for the description that would tell me I was in the right place. Go to Carlinghow, and then head up the hill and up another hill to Morley (the marshy settlement). Still, I should stick to the plan; Calderdale, that’s the plan.

Calder. Could be a problem. It’s Norse, but folk argue about whether it means ‘swift water’ or ‘stony river’. But it doesn’t much matter, because it’s going to be a deepcut river in a fairly steep-sided valley. A lot of places in the valleys of the Calder, the Hebble and the Ryburn have reliable names. There’s a horrible irony about Mixenden. A mixen was a rubbish tip..and also a sewage tip. Up at the end of the ‘den’ or pastureland. Where the rubbish and worse was carted from the town of Halifax, and dumped. They built a council estate up there, in that pleasant valley. It ended up as the place of last resort for ‘problem families’. I hope none of them are into placename etymology. But on we go. A dene is a small valley, usually an open river valley. A clough is as it sounds. A steep-sided valley. ‘Clough’ is derived from the same root as ‘cleave’ and ‘cleft’. Dene and den are open. Clough is hard and tight. You see where the poetry starts to grow. Thwaite is meadowland. There are words that tell you what trees you would have expected to find. ‘Birk’ is birch. There’s a place called Ling Bob where I used to go to tell stories at the Primary School. It’s actually Hollin Bob..it just got elided over time. There would have been a significant stand of hollies there at one time. You can head off to Illingworth from there. ‘Worth’ is an enclosed piece of land. Go careful. They might not care for trespassers. Or sheep stealers.

Let’s go up the valley that used to be full of pubs owned by long-defunct breweries, through Luddenden and Mytholmroyd, taking notice of hows and cloughs, and royds, towards Todmorden (an open valley pasture, maybe a bit on the marshy side, and possibly home to foxes), until we get to Hebden Bridge, and then go right, up and up until we get to Heptonstall, where the road runs on to the moor top, and shortly, cut off to the left and slant down the hillside track to Lumb Bank. That steep valley filled with lumbs –mill chimneys –pointlessly standing among the sycamores, and the pink, sour-smelling balsam that came all the way from the Himalaya, as seeds hitching lifts in bales of cotton heading for the cotton mills..some of the last, east of the Pennines. Sit on the terrace of Ted Hughes’ old house and look down into dark valley. Go when the light’s fading. Think about the orphans. I’m not telling you any more.

So I’m thinking

of Ted Hughes’ gritstone house,

that tunnel of a yard, it’s slippery flags;

 

of that valley of cold chimneys

knee-deep in brown leaf-litter,

an abandoned artillery

firing blanks at a Pennine moon

 

of the abrasions of time passing,

the world wearing down, till it’s bland as an egg,

to the soundtrack of years, the long, long

sustain of a cello, circling these cloughs

of defunct  chapels, mills and breweries,

Hammonds, Duttons, Websters, thin and bitter,

 

of all my Methodist aunts and uncles,

Leonard especially, whose drink

was Water Bright, from the Crystal Stream

of the Pledge he signed, aged six,

 

and of this film in Japanese I saw

at the Essoldo, where the whole of an army was killed

down to the very last one, the cannibal,

shot through stubble-smoke, by farmers

burning off the fields, clearing the last of war

that ended when I was two

and still isn’t done, seventy years on,

which is not to be laid at Ted Hughes’ door

any more than the orphans

walled in the sides of the valley

in the shadow of the sycamores and lumbs.

 

No telling where following place names may take you. Now, for the next two weeks I shall be without wifi, and there will be no cobweb posts. I shall be in Ord, on the Isle of Skye, where hills are bheinns, where beag is little, and mhor is big, inver is a rivermouth, camus is a beach or a shore, nish is a headland, ach is a field. Rather beautifully, drum is a wave, and also a ridge or spine . The Pennines are like that, the crest of a great long wave. Drum. I shall look across Loch Eishort of an evening and see the Clearance sites of Boreraig and Suishnish, and so many places that are now only larach. Somedays you see Boreraig, and half an hour later, you don’t.

skye march 2012 004skye march 2012 021

I shall miss you. Maybe I’ll bring new poems back with me.

 

 

the company you keep

True stories

Violent and vulgar as the Krays comes Zeus,

a white bull, miasmic with testosterone,

or in a shower of gold or a flurryof wings

and swansdown.

The whole pale mortal world

just asking for it.

A bit of blood and bruising.

No harm done.

 

Roman Ovid knew blood clogs scabbards,

stiffens  nets,

knew the blue-white shine of bone,

the gristly wet noise of a boy

spitted on a hunting spear.

 

Years and reverence

bleached greek myths white and silent,

censored severed hands and torn-out tongue,

the loud incontinent reek of death.

 

As if hyacinths, pale anenomes,

the liquid silver song of nightingales

would atone, somehow.

Birds and flowers and cold, bright stars –

archers, hunters, bear and plough.

 

Simpler, and more godlike,

to prick holes in the fabric of night,

let bits of heaven shine through.

 

 

Writers are always being asked: ‘where do get your ideas from?’ . I think that’s a harder question than: ‘why do you write poems?’ My answer to that comes in two parts. One is pragmatic: because poems are short. The other is that I can’t write stories. Novelists invent. Particularly, they invent characters; once they’ve invented the who of a story, the what and the when and the why have to follow from that. There’s something godlike about great novelists. And I can’t do it. This is winging it, but which poets do  you know who invent charcters in the way that novelists do? Dramatic monologues come to mind, but they live in the edgelands between poetry and drama. I think.

When I think about where poems come from, then it’s almost invariably from other poets. Certainly from ‘books’. They may be about what I know, what I’ve lived, but to become ideas they have to be turned into words, and most of mine come from books. We learn from the company we keep. Now, for years and years I didn’t write poetry. I taught it, and was fixated by the unacknowledged belief that poems have their existence on the page, that they are written artefacts. I nearly moved away from this notion when I realised that ‘The Waste Land’ made perfect sense when it was performed (thanks to an LP of Robert Speight reading T S Eliot that I found in dusty stock-cupboard), but still persisted in keeping poetry visual, on the page.

Later (much too late) when I moved into working in Primary Schools, and particularly with and for Key Stage One I was forced into the understanding that, at its root, poetry is oral. On the principle of ‘promises to keep’ I’ll dedicate a post to this in about 6 weeks time. Order your copy now. But while I was hooked on ‘the page’ there were always go-to poems to trigger/coerce children’s writing. Keith Douglas: ‘Vergissmeinicht’ (the dust upon the paper eye), Ted Hughes’ ‘Season songs’ (The chestnut splits its padded cell/it opens an African eye)…for the sharply focussed visual image; William Stafford ‘Incident on a journey’ …for the ‘do you remember?’ exercise; and always in school anthologies, Norman MacCaig: ‘I took my mind a walk’. And always and always, the aim was to have children write poems, when what they needed was to read them aloud and learn them by heart and show off with them. Ah well.

Here’s where we get back to the promise I made to talk about myths and why they have found their way into my writing, and what they have made me confront or discover, or admit. And MacCaig. A bit roundabout this, but I became more and more aware in poetry workshops (ah, The Poetry Business!) that I was falling into a default line and rhythm (mainly iambic blank-ish verse) and a default narrative way of writing. It was nice when someone told me I had a recognisable ‘voice’ , but you don’t want to be playing the same tune for the rest of your life. Well, I don’t. So I went to MacCaig to try in his company to learn something about ways of telling with short lines, varied lines, shorter poems. I read two MacCaig poems every morning for months. Aloud. Working my way through the house-brick of his ‘Collected Poems’, I think I began to hear his thinking, the way each line did its job; and I fell into his comfortable familiarity with the characters of Greek and Roman myth, the way they were companions to his thought, to his watching and listening. This sent me back to ‘The God beneath the Sea’ and its brilliant conceit of the Greek myths as a chronological narrative, told to Hephaestus by the nymph Euronyme who catches him when his mother, Hera, hurls him, newborn, from heaven for being malformed. Cared for by Thetis and Euronyme in the grotto under the sea, they tell him the story of where he came from when his nightmares of falling trouble his sleep. The why of the why of the why… I love it.

It’s interesting to tackle the business of translation, the retelling of stories, and since it would make no sense to invent a myth, it’s also very tempting. There’s a visceral gusto in Ted Hughes’ muscular, sexy, sensual, tactile translations of Ovid, and you can feel just how much he relished those long lines, all those hexameters. Ovid was where I went next. It’s all about the company you keep. In a chance email converstaion (does that make sense…as though you stumble into an email conversation? something not quite right there. ) Kim Moore happened to mention that she was getting all excited about reading The Metamorphoses (in a plain prose translation) and that it was opening up all sorts of ideas and feelings about the sequence she’s talked about in her own blog, and in her current role as Virtual Poet-in- Residence with the Poetry School Campus. If you’ve not signed up yet, then you should. For her it made connections with the morally and emotionally difficult business of physical and mental abuse. I wanted to see how. Nosey bugger. As it happened, different things happened as I read, and unexpected ones. One was that I conceived a passionate loathing for the Olympic Pantheon which revived the memory of Tony Harrison’s ‘Trackers’ and the flaying of Marsyas the Satyr because of Apollo’s arrogant abrogation of music to himself.  Which resulted in the poem I opened with .

And then there’s a twist. It happens that I’m sitting next to Kim at Poetry business day in Sheffield. There’s a task about finding yourself in a new place. Kim is on a beach under a huge sky full of seabirds whose cries are like memories that cannot stop hurting. I’m at the foot of a dark staircase understanding that the breaking of marriage is a stair into the dark that has to be climbed, in a house you never wanted. I thought of Orpheus. I thought I knew the story, and found it knew me. I still haven’t really got that poem nailed down. But there were others, as though windows had opened and there was a different sort of light. I’ll finish with one of them.Hephaestus. Maybe I should say that for 65 years I walked with something of a rolling limp. Not now. I have titanium hips. I like the Titans as much as I hate Zeus and Hera and Ares.

Hepaestus

ugly and lame, whose mother threw

all down the sky, you know how falling feels,

the pluck of the wind a tearing of thorns,

the spheres of heaven turning cobalt, indigo;

tumbled in cumulus, stripped by cirrus,

deaf and dumb with gravity you hurtle

from sleep, wrung out with falling.

 

You. The shining one,

who they mocked with a name,

with a gift from the sea in a dazzle of foam

and sea-fret lace, trailing a tang of salt,

her eyes remote as a gull’s for you all crooked,

crumpled and cracked like kindling

and soot-smeared from the smithy.

 

You fashion a filigree girdle, dress it with pearls,

you yearn for a gentle look, and she hammers

broken stars into your eyes.

You forge yourself blackened and burned

and what have you crafted..a cuckold’s horns.

You watched the whole world sink into her lovely loins.

 

Moony wanderer, Euronyme,

catch me as I fall, lay my head by the soft blue

pulse in the crook of your white arm.

Tell me a silvery story. Sing me to sleep.

 

 

Thanks for your company. You’ve put all the chairs straight, the board’s clean, the pens have all been counted. You can go early. Don’t run.

ps. next week I shall be at a writing workshop in Alicante. No teacherly stuff, then. Just a poem.

I said: No Running

 

And promises to keep

Being congenitally lazy, allied to a fear of starting a job, and to habits of procrastination, I discovered a long time ago that I need to make public promises that X or Y will be done. Add in a deadline, and the fear of breaking a pledge, and I will sit down at the last minute, and somehow get it done. Driven by guilt. Of course, this means that a piece like this will rarely be as orderly as the elegantly rhetorical pieces that come so clearly in the mind a nanosecond before you wake up.

So what have I promised? That I will share a poem by Gaia Holmes, and that somehow I will talk about myth and poetry. So, Gaia first. I love both her collections: Dr James Graham’s Celestial bed (2006) and Lifting the piano with one hand (2013) …both published by Comma Press. I tried to explain to myself what it was that I recognised as Gaia’s distinctive voice. Jane Draycott talks about the point where the poem detonates. I find that incredibly helpful when I’m trying to see why this or that poem isn’t working, isn’t taking off. With Gaia’s stuff, I’m put in mind of Chemistry lessons in the blissfully pre-Health and Safety 1950’s, when to demonstrate the meaning of the word crepitation a teacher would toss a slack handful of crystals (potassium?) into a sinkful of water and stand well back. Gaia’s poems do that, in line after line. Multiple detonations like dangerous Rice Krispies. And because many of her poems are about separation and loss of love or lovers, sometimes tender and sometimes vengeful,sometimes wistful and sometimes heartbreaking, they take me into dark woods and lose me. Folk tales. No getting away. Here’s her poem that I said, last week, that I wanted to change (slightly).

Road salt

Snow falls plumply, prettily,

whites out the dog-eared leavings

of Christmas,

dolls-up the ragged end of January,

mutes the road between us

with its whispering glamour

and we’re stuck –

you in the East and me in the West

with miles too thick and deep to cross

 

and, once again,

without you, I fall asleep

listening to the frost

patterning the insides of my windows,

laquering the edges of my bed.

 

If I could

I would send you

seal-skin boots and brandy.

I would send a sledge

and a savvy husky to guide you

across the blinded miles,

 

but instead I go out

into the bright, dumb darkness

with my pockets full of road salt,

toss it to the night

like chicken feed,

try to melt myself

a path to you.

 

I hope you’re like me, snagged and reeled in by listening to frost, thinking of its laquering, and being out in the bright, dumb dark. But I did want to change that ‘chicken feed’ to something like ‘breadcrumbs’. Because I bring my own luggage to a poem, and I’m in a folktale world of snow and lost girls, and chickens make me think of Baba Yaga and her  house on hen’s legs. And chicken feed takes me in a different direction from the one that I’m pulling towards like a demanding child.                            Anyway, that’s a promise kept. Thank you for letting me share your poem, Gaia.                                                                                                                                                                   Now I have to somehow get from folktales to myth and thence to goodness knows where. It was all clear when I started. Or just before I woke up.

When I was a lecturer in Primary English at Bretton Hall I had to make sure my students could go out there and ‘deliver’ (yes, that’s the kind of language that’s used in the world of Mr Gove and his ilk) the Literacy Hour, which requires, inter alia, that young children are taught about folktales, legends and myths. I think that comes in one term, and then they move on to greater things. So my students had to understand it first. I relied heavily on a transcript of a lecture given in Leeds by Marina Warner (I hope I’ve got that right) in which she essentially defines Myth as the stories of the gods, Legends as the stories of heroes, and Folktales as the subversive stories of the people. My take on this was to see that myths are about why the world is at is, about creation, about mortality, about the amazing gift of fire, about the archetypal flood. How was the world created? Why do we have to die? Why do we have language? Why, of all creatures, can we manage fire? These stories are the oldest, and they are oral stories. When the Greeks wrote them down they turned them white and silent. Legends are aristocratic, naturalistic and courtly; they have plots (though I guess Robin Hood lives in the edgelands of legend and folktale); they are, I think, irreversibly literary. The folktale world is ,I think, that of a plucky underclass of giantkillers and orphans. At all events, its winners start off poor.

Something just popped into my head, or tugged at my sleeve. Tons of great films have been made retelling legends. Jason and the Argonauts, Robin Hood, William Tell, King Arthur. And the Western made its own legends. They make great movies, legends do. But whoever made a great film about a myth? Or of a myth? I bet this new movie about Noah will make my point for me. Films of folk tales? There are some great animations, I think, and I’ll have to think about Angela Carter. Not now, though. There have been some horrible films of late that riff on folktales, but always seem to make them into jokes or CGI nasties. Pan’s Labyrinth ? Or does that take us off into the realm of fairy tales and fantasy and horror films? Tell me what you think. Fairy tales make good films, no question. But I’m just trying to reflect on why it’s myth and folk-tale that find their way into my poems, but not legends. Mm.

When in a hole, stop digging. Myth…that’s what I said I’d do. In 1970 Ted Hughes gave a lecture at the Exeter Children’s literature in education conference. It was called ‘Myth and Education‘. He reflects on the fact that while Plato couldn’t be doing with poets in his Republic, he thought it essential that young children, before they were old enough for a formal education, should know the great myths. Hughes argues that this is because without an education in imagination we can never be fully human. I’d like Mr Gove to be forced to learn the whole transcript by heart. And then to be sacked. If we want to understand what it is to be human we need myth. We need to hear it. We need storytellers. We need to constantly dream the world or it will die as we sleepwalk into the limbo of getting and spending.

Which myths dream me? Because of that wonderful book The god beneath the sea [Garfield and Blishen..illustrated by Charles keeping] ….and unforgiveably, out of print…. I find myself in the stories of Hephaestus, Promethues, Daedalus and Icarus, Orpheus, Demeter and Persephone, Pandora …those, especially. So here’s another promise. I’ll post a poem next week where I found one of these stories telling me what a significant moment in my life meant. And maybe why the squabbling bullies of Olympus make me so angry. But to finish this week, here’s a poem that came out of a 5 minute workshop task at the Poetry Business in Sheffield on Saturday, and without any thought on my part, it ended with something I threw into a ramble about folktales last week.

The uses of Literacy

(for Richard Hoggart)

‘The Daily Herald’. That went, long ago,

like ‘The Batley Reporter’ –

(both left-leaning, doomed) –

them and the outside lavatory

we shared with the three Armitage sisters,

all tiny and pinafore-d like Beatrix Potter mice.

 

In winter, the wooden toilet seat,

scrubbed all-year-round with non-conformist zeal,

and never dry, would wink

like diamante ballroom frocks.

Newspaper to sit on, or you frosted fast.

 

The tang of Dettol, coal-smoke;

damp newsprint that smelled like parsnips.

A little Kelly lamp against the cistern’s freezing up;

a library of squares of paper on a nail.

The sisters took ‘The news of the World’.

Tantalising. Scandalous.

 

…..shapely red-haired Walsall

housewife, Moira kershaw (43)

broke down in tears when

recounting her terrible ord….

 

Breathing grey, I learned to read between the lines

to fill in gaps, imagine worlds

that could have been ordained or ordinary,

and came to understand that sentences have full stops.

And stories don’t.

 

Thank you for your forbearance (oh, just one thing. There were 30 pencils on my desk when we started. No-one leaves till they’re all counted back in)