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Friday 31 July 2009

a parrot in the church

Peering between my fingers -
same sense of guilt
as torch-lit reading late at night.
The prayer's fault, not mine,
the priest intoning
(Ah, the things
that prayers do Lord, that priests
know nothing of!)
"Lord thou hast openéd
mine eyes that I may see..."

there above the rood screen,
high in the chancel
(where the deity should be),
a green bird. First
                         a hawk.
Then clear enough, a parakeet,
silent and unmoving -
or else a green sponge
soaking up our prayers.
A stream of golden photons
like a rafter forms its perch.

Something deep inside
(the prayer perhaps)
makes us expendable, says
parrots will inherit
what we leave of earth.
I'm thinking it's asleep - until
I see the fear etched in its face.
Perhaps it is God after all!
Or maybe prayer created it,
like fire creating smoke.

Or could it be pure prayer,
flawless and more spiritual
than ours. Could be
the incense in the air
sustains it... Wonderful,
the way it spreads its wings now:
deep green feathers,
golden eyes,
more like a peacock
than a parakeet.

But prayer takes many forms
as words detract from meaning,
as the creature folds its wings again,
becoming sleek and streamlined
as a fish, its ocean
                   Eureka! When
I move my fingers it will morph.
It's final form:
a plume of green smoke
slowly thinning.

Monday 27 July 2009


The Weaver of Grass has issued a challenge for this week to anyone interested - a meme: a post on those people who have been the greatest sources of inspiration. As most of you will know, my main interests are painting (and the visual arts in general) and poetry. The question therefore resolves itself into: who, in these two areas particularly, has most inspired me.

I think it might help if I said straight away that I have never been inspired to paint a particular picture by another painter. Similarly, no poet has ever provided the inspiration for a particular poem. I have occasionally been inspired by a painting to write a poem - and less often by a poem to paint a picture, but apart from a couple of exceptions (the second of which I will get to later) that has been the whole extent of it.

The first exception has to do with child art. At various times during my teaching career I was inspired by a young child's painting to put brush to canvas, nearly always with predictably frustrating results. Never did I get within a million miles of what the child's painting had inspired me to attempt. Whoever first discovers what it is that the child artist loses as s/he matures and then first discovers how it may be preserved will be responsible for enriching the world immeasurably.

Of course, poets and painters whom I admire have helped me along the way, though I do not think I would go as far as to call it influence, let alone inspiration. I will give you an example and you can judge for yourself. One of my heroes from the world of poetry is Seamus Heaney. Some years ago I was inspired to write some poems about my father who had just died. He had been a golf club-maker by profession, beginning in the days when they were made by hand. He could take a block of wood and shave it away to be left with, not just a club head, but a particular club head for a particular professional, capable of lifting the ball into a desired angle of flight. Later, when machines took over, he made the prototype for the machines to copy. He was also much in demand among professional golfers whenever they would require repairs or modifications to be made.

During the drafting of the poems I recalled some of Seamus Heaney's early poems. Digging was one. In it he spoke of his father's use of the spade as if it had been the tool of a craftsman, which of course it had been. He contrasts this with his own determination to be, not a farmer, but a writer. It ends:

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I'll dig with it.

Another such poem was Follower. in it he compared the way as a child he had followed his father at his ploughing, admiring his skill with the horses and his eye for a straight furrow. The poem went on to compare that with his own awkwardness (I stumbled in his hobnailed wake an d how later, in his father's old age, it is he, the father, who keeps stumbling / behind me, and will not go away. There were other works by Heaney that sprang to mind: poems conveying the characters of various craftsmen and the flavours of their crafts or describing their skills. I did not consciously use these, but, as I say, I remembered them and they helped. Certainly I would not claim to have been inspired by any of them. The inspiration came from my father.

Taking another slant, there are a few poems I would dearly loved to have written. (That might make an interesting meme: which works do you wish you had written - or painted or composed or whatever.) The one above all that I would dearly love to claim for myself is Hugh MacDiarmid's fabulous long meditation, On a Raised Beach. Never could it be said though that it had inspired me - or ever would. Quite the reverse, in fact. Let me put it this way: if I had lain on that inland beach as MacDiarmid did and had I been inspired as he was to write a meditative poem about it, my knowledge of his poem would have killed stone dead (pun not intended) any inspiration that the experience might have produced. His poem is so out beyond and far above anything I might contemplate attempting that the thought of doing so would never occur.

And now to my second exception (the one I said I would come to):- As a lad of eleven or twelve or thereabouts i had a passionate interest in cycling. Touring to begin with, the cycle speedway: stripped-down bike, saddle low over the rear wheel, handlebars up-turned like backward-facing horns, one foot on the cinder track, slewing round makeshift tracks on bomb sites and the like. Then came time-trialling, and finally the beginnings (in this country) of what we then called massed-start racing, mainly on disused airfields and private estates. Somewhen about that time I discovered Masefield, I can't remember how or where, maybe at school, maybe not. Specifically, I discovered Reynard the Fox, a long, rather Chaucerian (as I remember it) poem about a fox hunt, told from the point of view of the fox. I think I can truthfully say that it inspired me to write ... but what I wrote, Oh dear, it was a dreadful parody purporting to tell the story of a massed-start cycle race. The really dreadful thing about it is that I can still remember whole sections of it. It was that bad, it was unforgettable. Worse yet, it was published. Only in the club magazine, nothing national, but for that to have been my first published work...

Here, in an act bordering on total abasement, are the opening lines:-

Don Boyd had broken from the pack
of milling wheelers all intent
on doing their best to bring him back,
now spurred by his clubmates' frantic cries
he thrust with his aching, unwilling thighs...

See what I mean! Not wishing to turn embarrassment into humiliation, I will leave it there. Inspiration means different things to different people. To me it simply means having been given a workable idea. I think I was given a workable idea, even though I didn't get the idea to work. Can you be inspired to write a dud? I think you can. I think I was.

But there is a higher form of inspiration, I would suggest: there is the artist or the work of art that inspires you, not to produce a particular painting, poem, piece of music, whatever, but to go that road, to take up that art-form and to follow where it leads. Unbelievably, perhaps, the poem that did that for me was Plato's Dialogue The Republic which I had, also around the age of eleven or twelve in E. V. Rieu's translation (Penguin edition). I was totally thrilled by it and I attribute my passion for poetry to... well, I don't know, should it be Plato or Rieu?

Meanwhile I was incubating a passion for art, without really being aware of it. A good deal of bad health meant that I was often confined to bed for longish spells. Drawing was a life-line. But then I went - probably was taken, but if so I can't remember by whom - to the Tate Gallery. There I was introduced to William Blake (his Beatrice is shown above), Samuel Palmer (the first image below is of his In a Shoreham Garden), Graham Sutherland (a typical image is shown below right), Henry Moore (his war drawings of people sheltering on the London Underground - penultimate image) and John Piper (final image). I suppose the big three were Palmer, Sutherland and Piper. They have never lost their magic. They took me to art school and on to college, confirming me in my desire to teach art - which I never did, but that's another story.

Saturday 25 July 2009

Writer's Block - and how to beat it.

A brick wall. Shutters slammed down in the mind.
Apathy. A white-out in a snow-storm.
Arranging dead geraniums on graves.
No ideas to play with. Metaphors. All
heard invoked describing writer's block. For
me its different: less like a block, much
more like boggy ground: it pulls and sucks to
drag the heels until all movement ceases.

Last time attempting a new poem... those
great paintings by Cezanne of Mont Sainte-Victoire -
long the object of a strong desire to
write its story, how he had constructed,
stone by stone from deep within, a wonder so
confectionary-soft and succulent, the
joy of architects and chefs alike, of
engineers, of milliners and florists.

Words oozing from a verbal quagmire shook
themselves like dogs to dry - and
in the course of doing so, arranged them-
selves in rough-and-ready matrices. But
for a dose of writer's block they would have
morphed into a warp, which would in turn have
spun a weft, with arrows linking word with
word and hitting new words off them. Fabric
for a poem taking shape. Alas, the
block ensured no magic drove them on; the
words remained just words and failed to morph; the
poem was still born. The lines seemed torn from
other and quite unrelated poems,

I have a strategy for such - I've several.
All variations on a Break the Pattern theme.
Something's out of kilter? So you push it further out,
make it more extreme, more experimental,
more avant garde: see what I mean?
See where it leads.

Forget about Write what you know. Do the reverse.
Write about whatever has escaped you totally.

Translate a poem from Old English - or from
Middle English, come to that. No matter that they're
not familiar. Let the words suggest what they
suggest, and write it down. Or simply play around with

style and lineation. Or choose a register not yours.
Try the vernacular if that seems strange, or
break lines short
                                and start some centre-page.

Choose a poet you find
to fathom
                                abstruse perhaps

become your model.
                                This often frees the pen
before it runs aground


Then finally, when all else fails
(last throw of the dice), try this:
write a poem about writer's block - it
hardly ever fails!


Wednesday 22 July 2009

These having caught my eye...

David Crystal (always worth a read or a listen to, especially when when he's talking about language), writing in last Saturday's Guardian Review, reported on the Ledbury poetry festival, introducing his remarks with a small modern parable:- A spaceship is approaching a planet on which two races are known to exist, one being beautiful of countenance and friendly to us humans, the other being very ugly and hostile. One is known as the Lamonians and the other as the Grataks. But which is which, we do not know. The point of it is that most people assume that the Lamonians are the nice guys and the Grataks the baddies, it all being all a matter of sound associations - or as Crystal had it, of sound symbolism. The l,m,n sounds in the word Lamonians, together with its long vowels or dipthongs and its pollysyllabic rhythm are interpreted as being nicer than the harsh sounds and abrupt rhythm of Grataks.

At the festival poets were asked to say which words they hated most and why. Which I now invite you to do, either here in the comments box or at The Guardian books blog or both.

Now two snippets from The Independent last Friday:-

Arifa Akbar reorting a conversation with Alain de Botton concerning the latter's School of Life, a modern day literary saloon, an idea that he derived from a conversation with Kylie Minogue's father. Something Mr Minogue (who is also her manager) said about performance caused de Botton to realise that the future for lterature too, lay in live performances. Their business had fallen by 60%, Mr Minogue said, because of internet downloads - and the same was about to happen to books. Writers should: Do what musicians do, start a new revenue stream.... maybe there's a community for books, rather than it being a solitary thing.

My other Independent snippet is of a 16 year old Graffitit artist named Cartrain who, it seems, nicked a rare packet of pencils from Damien Hurst's Pharmacy exhibit at Tate Britain. He had intended to replace them with a packet of genuine Tesco pencils, but the security was too tight and he was unable to do so. Hurst was not a happy bunny about this and Akbar was asking whether this should go down in the annals as a) an act of vandalism, b) guerrilla art or c) a shameless publicity stunt. What thinkest thou?

From the TLS (July 10): a review of Lawrence Ferlinghetti's book Poetry as Insurgent Art (a book of aphorisms (and some poetry) such as Don't slip on the banana peel of nihilism, even while listening to the roar of nothingness. and Poetry is the anarchy of the senses making sense) rephrases the old question What can poetry do? as What are poets for? He is thinking of them in terms of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts. His answer (which I like) is the the poet should be: a reporter from outer space, filing dispatches to some supreme managing editor who believes in full discourse and has a low tolerance of bullshit.

And from the same paper one week later, A N Wilson reviewing two books on Isaiah Berlin relates a Greek fragment by Archilochus told to him (Wilson) by Lord Oxford: The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing. There follow two lists, one of poets and thinkers classified by Berlin as foxes and one of hedgehogs. Shakespeare, Goethe and Aristotle, for example, are among the foxes. Plato, Ibsen and Proust weigh in as hedgehogs. I wonder who your favourite(s) might be for each group... and if you agree with Berlin?

Saturday 18 July 2009

The Ammonite's Lament

Out of my oyster world when you took blade
to pop the sepulchre apart that held
and had held me for aeons - stone within
a stone, you might say - only to release
me then into this altered world to find
the chambers at the closed end of my spiral
ringing emptier than ever. Water
was my element, and so it was that
sailing it, I came to find my métier.
Perched at my spiral's open end, I rode
the waves and all that nature threw at me
like some intimidating figurehead
Beelzebub had carved. But I was King
among the species that the world bred then.

Now I, who have been flesh and blood like you,
am stone, more shell-like than my shell was then,
no longer buoyant - hence the hollow ring.
No use these cells, they're surplus to my needs.
There is no buoyancy for them to give.
Just beauty, I suppose, but what is that
to me? My soul does not respond to it -
nor did it ever, no not even then
before the great upheaval changed my form
to stone. What's that you say? I was not King?
That there were higher forms of life than !?
Not so, though lowly were my family
four hundred million years ago - just flecks
of plankton floating on a shallow sea.

Slow time allowed their growth, the cells they formed,
at first in-line behind, then hairpin-shaped
before they flowered into this, the form
I know as perfect, the plane spiral. Then
was I the predator, voracious and
as deadly to all fish and molluscs in
my path as are my modern cousins, squid
and such, to crabs and other well-built prey.
I do not overstate - but if I should,
did you not know that even stones may dream -
particularly one that once had life?
Out from that claustrophobic vein, re-
interred then in this fusty study's reek
of love and polish... this, I'll settle for.

The way that iron enters a man's soul
its pyrites forced their way into my shell,
pushed out its carbonates, its building blocks,
and thereby changed its nature, making it
less tender to decay. But that was just
the coup de grâce, preserving what had been
the thick-skinned part of me. Before that, all
my softer tissues had been leached from me
the way an art thief might replace a work
with something of his own. The rocks made good
my loss, but in the making made of me
a sterile monument to what had been.
I've heard my owner say I stimulate
his thoughts - not bad for plain and thought-less stone!

Thursday 16 July 2009

For the Hell of IT

How d'you fancy bashing something out in one giant slog, just for the hell of it? To be more precise, a novel. Did I say giant slog? Well, again to be more precise, three days. You have, many of you, been these last few days reassuring me about my tribute poem. More than one has mentioned the temptation to (as Tara put it) overthink some things and change the fabric of the weave to the point that the piece doesn't resemble the beauty it could have. A virtue is being made of the absence of any rewrite time - in which situation the writerly subconscious drives things on a journalist has written.

So here's the deal, my friends. The competition (for surely you must have guessed that such it is) challenge is for you to write your novel during the weekend of September 5 - 7. You then pack it off to the Annual International 3-Day Novel Contest, along with your $50 entrance fee and a witness statement from your mum or other responsible adult to the effect that he or she knows without doubt that you wrote the whole thing between the approved dates, bla, bla, bla.

The winning novel will be published in 3-Day Books next year. For info' and an entry form consult the 3-Day Novel Website.

And how will they know you have written all during the specified period? Well, because you are a writer and can therefore be trusted: because they will have the letter from your mum; and because they will point out that if you cheat you will be cheating yourself - of the experience. Of course, we all saw that from the off, did we not?

I do really hope that one of my good Blogger friends cleans up!! Good luck to those who try.

P.S. There's stuff on Wikipedia and elsewhere on the web to help you. Tips like use short names, Tom, Jim etc an d three letter place names - and be sure to have a man enter holding a gun. To say any more, I'd be doing it for you, would I not?

Belonging to: For the Hell of IT (above)

Somehow the post got duplicated. I have retained this much to preserve the comments.

Monday 13 July 2009

What to put in, what to leave out...

These two questions arise in the course of almost any piece of writing - or, come to that, painting or any other art form. They arose in somewhat different form, though, after I had completed my previous post, my tribute poem to Dean. Several things to do with the writing of it were unusual - for me. But what had seemed merely unusual at the time began to feel like reservations as I thought more about it and him - a feeling that was confirmed to some extent by the many kind compliments and expressions of support, as well as by the odd remark - mostly in the emails - asking about Dean or obliquely giving the impression that more information would have been appreciated. Rather than explain repeatedly, I thought a further post might be in order.

To begin with, I awoke on the morning after the funeral with several lines and part-lines running through my mind, just asking to be written down. Unusual because that does not happen unless I have been working on a poem beforehand, and in this case I had not previously had any thought of writing a poem. Unusual also, because there were nearly a dozen such, mostly disconnected fragments. Three or four lines would be a good haul normally, plus they would tend to be continuous, not disjointed.

I managed to get them all down on paper. Unusual, because more typically, in writing out the first one, others would have faded slightly from my memory. Each such line in written form becomes for me another visitor from Porlock. On this occasion that did not happen. Here they are, in the order, and as I wrote them at the time:

Music from his vast CD collection filled the air

By request: no mention of religion
......... therapy and operations

Here we remember him, the pastor said,
It seemed unreal, the fact that he was dead

He'd spoken deeply with her of life's themes

A father, son and very recent friend,
A five-week uncle..........

A gadget man, if ever there was one.

I'd wanted to include the future tense:
to me, if not to him, it would make sense

To refresh your memories, here again is the final poem:

His wide and varied tastes in music filled
the crowded chapel, and became a thread
of silk for memories of things he'd said;
things suffered, hoped, endured; things he would build
without religion's comfort, he who'd willed
for none of that. Resilience seemed bred
in him. Unreal, I thought, him being dead,
with all that life, those plans still unfulfilled.

That wild conglomeration in his brain,
prognoses, chemo', surgery: the strain
itself was killing some. He knew the score,
but was determined always for one more
small triumph. Here I'd use a future tense -
to some, if not to him, it might make sense.

But to resume: I looked at the lines and fragments I had written, and two thoughts occurred: that it seemed to be shaping up as a sonnet; and that as a sonnet, not all the lines would get to be included. These were the first decisions made, decisions that I am not now sure about. (I seemed to have made the decision to write the poem by default.) At the time the sonnet seemed to me to be a highly appropriate form for the purpose of the poem, and from that thought another decision seemed to follow: that it would be a rhyming sonnet. Not one with near miss rhymes, but having the full dong. For better or for worse, most of what followed would follow from those three key decisions.

I have always regarded the question of what to put in and what to leave out as one of the most important of issues, and for me, so far as poetry is concerned, it all goes back to the famous question posed by Basho, the seventeenth century Japanes master of the haiku who famously asked: Is it necessary to include everything? Well, certainly not - usually. But does that apply in the case of a poem written as a tribute? What might he have liked included? What might the family?

The next step was another list, this time of all the factual information that could be included. (Again, unusual, not at all my normal way of working.) The list looked like this:

  • He was in his thirties.

  • He had three sons, the eldest being 11.

  • His marriage broke up when the diagnosis of brain tumour was made.

  • His younger brother and sister-in-law had a daughter five weeks before the funeral, a niece had seen only once.

  • He had had the tumour for 8 - 9 years.

  • More recently he had begun to suffer convulsions.

  • I had known him for only a relatively short time - maybe a year or two.

  • He was passionately interested in cars and computers.

  • He loved gadgets and - something I found out only at the funeral - he loved fiddling with them, and particularly with car radios. He would, for instance, take the radio out of a car and remove those wires he considered unnecessary!

As you can see, not a lot from there actually made it into the poem either. Some that did were revamped. To have included much more would have changed the poem completely, not just in shape, but in feel, would have made it more poignant, for example. Was that what I wanted? Not at the time. But was it something I owed Dean - or the family? I don't know. I began with the lines that were in my head when I awoke, and from those the sonnet developed (I think, I hope)organically, as poets like to say. Almost under its own steam. With that aspect of it I was satisfied, but maybe I should have thrown it all in - or most of it - and jettisoned the sonnet form altogether. Or maybe it could have become a double sonnet? I did feel that Dean would have appreciated the attempt to give his life and memory some definite shape, but I think the important questions with which I started - what to put in, what to leave out - are all but unanswerable at times.

Sunday 12 July 2009


His wide and varied tastes in music filled
the crowded chapel, and became a thread
of silk for memories of things he'd said;
things suffered, hoped, endured; things he would build
without religion's comfort, he who'd willed
for none of that. Resilience seemed bred
in him. Unreal, I thought, him being dead,
with all that life, those plans still unfulfilled.

That wild conglomeration in his brain,
prognoses, chemo', surgery: the strain
itself was killing some. He knew the score,
but was determined always for one more
small triumph. Here I'd use a future tense -
to some, if not to him, it might make sense.

Thursday 9 July 2009

Bogs, Bombs and a Glaciers

Seamus Heaney's District and Circle was published in 2006. I bought it soon after publication and was overwhelmingly impressed by it, thought it his best. There were three reasons for that, or so it seems to me now. One reason was that it contained the poem, The Tollund Man in Springtime. Heaney's fascination with the bog people (which I share) is well known, and this imaginative extension of them into modern everyday life was an absolute delight. The second reason was the inclusion of the poem Höfn about a melting glacier. The third and maybe most significant reason for my enthusiasm was the District and Circle poem itself. I admired pretty much the whole collection, but these were the highlights. I have to say, though, that the collection did not get under my skin. I did not enjoy it to the extent that I had thought I would.

In April I reviewed Dennis O'Driscoll's biographic interview with Heaney (here). Foolishly perhaps, but enthusiastically too, I did so before I had finished the book. Later their conversation was to turn to a more detailed discussion of Heaney's books, how he came to write some of the poems and his thoughts about various aspects of the writer's craft, his own methods of working and many other fascinating areas. One of the books discussed at some length was - you've guessed it! - District and Circle. Inevitably this sent me back to the poems and now, maybe with more distance from the current political and environmental problems under discussion, I found the read altogether different, still as impressive, but now far more enjoyable.

Let me take my big three one at a time: here they are , discussing The Tollund Man in Springtime, O'Driscoll first:-

"The Tollund Man in Springtime", too, seems to relate to contemporary conditions.

A quarter-century after I had written The Tollund Man, The Tollund Man in Springtime imagines the Iron Age man who had been found preserved in a bog in Jutland coming-to in his display case in the museum and coming out to walk "like a stranger among us" in the new world of virtual reality and real pollution, a world of violence and polluted public speech.

Then after I had resurrected him and set him on his way through the "virtual city", I had the idea of sending him down into a London tube station, and that eventually produced two sections where he was back underground, going into the tunnels and then riding along in the hurtling train. But I came to feel that in these bits - and especially in the episode where he meets the busker - there was something more specific and autobiographically weighted than in the other sections, so my instinct was to detach them and make them a separate unit.

After which they plunge straight into the title poem, which is actually a poem of five sonnets.

Was any thematic link intended between the title poem of "District and Circle", the "separate unit" to which you refer, and the London underground bombings of 7 July 2005?

The figure who speaks in the five sonnets is at a remove from the people among whom he finds himself . This is partly because I am remembering the other, younger person I was when I first journeyed on a London tube train; somebody who was much less at home, more anxious and 'out of it' than I would come to be later on.But the feeling of unease is also there because the figure in question is haunted by all kinds of new awarenesses; awareness of the potential danger of a journey nowadays on a London tube train and awareness of the mythical dimensions of all such journeys underground, into the earth, into the dark.

The double sonnet was there in May 2005; but after the July bombings, a poem called District and Circle was going to have to bear additional scrutiny. So I added one section, then another, then a third. Not particularly to do with the atrocity, more an attempt to convey the actual experience of an ordinary journey by tube, which almost always has something oneiric about it. When I had the Tollund Man meet the coin-collecting busker at the entrance to the station, it wasn't intended to suggest a mythic parallel. In the first instance it was a direct reportage, a recollection of something that happened and keeps happening - not just to me, but to everybody who travels by tube in London. Inevitably, however, the classical echoes were going to be heard, and the underground/underworld/otherworld parallels come into play.

Finally, speaking of Höfn:

"Höfn" too, with its melting glacier, could be included among the environmentally aware poems in District and Circle.

Liam O'Flynn and I were in Iceland for a performance of our "Poet and Piper" programme, flying in a small propeller plane from Reykjavik to Höfn in the south-east, and we crossed over this stony grey scar of ice. The original "cold star" couldn't have been scaresomely neuter. I felt a wild primitive fear that the plane would go down and we'd perish in the absolute frigor of the place. But then when we landed at our destination, we learned that the ice is actually melting. As "a child of earth", I've rarely felt more exposed.

Time, I think, to give you a few extracts from the book I'm supposed to be reviewing!

This, then, the second of the six sonnets comprising The Tollund Man in Springtime

Scone of peat, composite bog-dough
They trampled like a muddy vintage, then
Slabbed and spread and turned to dry in sun -
Though never kindling dry the whole way through -
A dead weight, slow burn like lukewarmth in the flue,
Ashless, flameless, its very smoke a sullen
Waft of swamp-breath... And me, so long unrisen,
I knew that same dead weight in joint and sinew
Until a spade-plate slid and soughed and plied
At my buried ear, and the levered sod
Got lifted up; then once I felt the air
I was like turned turf in the breath of God,
Bog-bodied on the sixth day, brown and bare,
And on the last, all told, unatrophied.

And here the first sonnet from District and Circle

Tunes from a tin whistle underground
Curled up a corridor I'd be walking down
To where I knew I was always going to find
My watcher on the tiles, cap by his side,
His fingers perked, his two eyes eyeing me
In an accusing look I'd not avoid,
Or not just yet, since both were out to see
For ourselves.
As the music larked and capered
I'd trigger and untrigger a hot coin
Held at the ready, but now my gaze was lowered
For was our traffic not in recognition?
Accorded passage, I would re-pocket and nod,
And he, still eyeing me, would also nod.

And finally, finally, an extract from Höfn

I saw it, ridged and rock-set, from above,
Undead grey-gristed earth-pelt, aeon-scruff,

And feared its coldness that still seemed enough
To iceblock the plane window dimmed with breath,
Deepfreeze the seep of adamantine tilth

And every warm, mouthwatering word of mouth.

Two reviews for the price of one, I suppose, but I have tried to show both the depth and beauty of District and Circle and the degree to which Stepping Stones sheds light on this, and, indeed, on Heaney's other collections.

Monday 6 July 2009

A Love Poem

A Photograph

Torn from a Sunday Supplement,
The Cuckmere and its Haven by the sea.
The water calm, though not that day,
not where the three tides met
beyond the river's mouth.

More photo-fit than photograph:
features enough to recognise
(I recognised it straight away),
but not the essence of the place,
not as we knew it then.

So much was missing,
so much changed
(taken from above, you see):
the shady woods beyond the bridge,
the sea kale by the path -

Or was it? I was sure, but maybe not. -
you dressed to kill,
a splash of green -
all tucked away between the hills
and nowhere to be seen.

And so I wondered: what if we
could gain, from some high
point above, a bird's-eye view
of hills and valleys carved in us
by the torrential force of human love?

What would be there to see?
What would we recognise?
What would we not? That day
the sun-drenched cliffs and beach
unleashed a burn of feral beauty.

Off shore, the tides and river clashed,
canoes capsized, and men we'd lately
followed from the bridge
were stayed - like us, all balance lost -
bare inches from the water.

The gulls hung, poised like birds
of prey, on tiny cirrus threads;
the breakers froze, refused to break;
Creation seemed that it might take
a year to spend the day.

The sun poured wine upon the sea
as tides and Cuckmere whirled as one.
A silent and unmoving dance,
it seemed: one maelstrom,
one tranquity

My love, I saw this photograph
and heard, or so I thought,
our favourite song
as it might sound,
sung in a foreign language.

Thursday 2 July 2009

In Praise of Pedantry

My title points, not to my own attitude towards pedantry, but to that of Oliver Kamm, whose new column on the subject was launched in The Times on Monday. He is a nephew of Martin Bell and lists among his relatives such illustrious folk as Adrian Bell, the novelist and compiler of the first Times Crossword and Anthea Bell, translator of the Asterix Cartoon.

In his introductory article he described pedantry as an obsession with linguistic precision. It prizes form over style. In support of Pedantry he noted that: Language is constantly changing, and a common form of change is decline. He is correct on both points. In the slow evolutionary climb of complex life from the primal slime, for example, the many billions of random changes that must have occurred in the organisms involved were almost all of them dead ends or retroressive steps. Almost all, but the few and far between changes that bestowed an advantage outweighed the rest in importance. Those that led to decline had, perhaps, their few days and then died out. Those that conferred some improvement, thrived and strengthened the herd or the tribe.

Kamm gave a few examples of what he might be on about over future weeks:The useful word "disinterested", meaning impartial, he wrote, is now widely used as a synonym for uninterested. Furthermore: When you hear the phrase "there is no question that" you need to guess from the context whether the speaker means (wrongly) "it is certain that" or (correctly) the opposite. All these linguistic changes involve loss. Well they do, but he with his literary connections, I woud have thought, might be well placed to realise that more is required of a language than just accuracy, which seems to be his one big thing. Of course, there are forms of writing where accuracy is the one over-riding consideration, but there are others, poetry being one, in which ambiguity is the life blood. And if, as he says, these forms and/or meanings are now widely used, then surely it is the case that they have been adopted as valid forms or meanings by the common usage of which he complains. What worries me is that he stated in his column that This column will deal with language and will prescribe usage.

Kamm did concede at one point that although Conventions in the use of language encourage clarity, there is no merit in conformity for its own sake. For example, more people complain about split infinitves than can explain what is grammatically wrong with them. The reason is that there is nothing wrong with a split infinitive except (usually) avoidable ugliness. Even then there are exceptions: "to boldly go" is a more evocative phrase than to go boldly, as anyone used to reading aloud would recognise. He then went on to speak of the similar case of the final preposition, pointing out that: There are many sentences in English that naturally end with a preposition where it is part of a phrasal verb (to find out; to look up).

That last example reminded me of a story that is told of Winston Churchill. His secretary so the story runs, had had the temerity to correct one of his speeches, a correction that had involved the removal of a final preposition. Churchill reinstated the original text and then wrote in the margin: This is the sort of arrant nonsense up with which I will not put!

But as for his threat to prescribe usage, it has been tried before. Indeed, organisations dedicated to reforming English spelling have existed for at least four hundred years. In the 16th Century the Royal Society investigated the need for orthographic reform, and eventually formed a committee which included the poet John Dryden. In 1869 the Philological Society endorsed the cause; and the British Spelling Reform Association, which included famous writers like Tennyson and Darwin as well as philologists, was founded in 1879. Others, too, have tried, but it is not the way that the English language has developed and all attempts over the centuries to force it into that mould have failed. Many point to Webster as one who could have reformed the language, but in fact many of the more logical spellings attributed to him were current when he compiled his dictionary. He, too, was merely recording common usage. What happened next, though, was that the acceptance of his dictionary in America caused his spellings to be labelled American, and thus stigmatized, to drop out of use in England. English has always been governed by convention rather than formal code. We have never had anything equivalent to the Académie Française or the Real Academia Española, and the authoritative dictionaries (for example, Oxford English Dictionary, Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English, Chambers Dictionary, Collins Dictionary) all record usage rather than prescribe it. English has always gone its own way, and that is the strength and beauty of it. All that can be reasonably done is what Fowler did: set down the common usages as they exist at any one time. I have taken spelling as a fairly easily illustrated example, but in fairness should add that I have no way of knowing whether or not Kamm intends to be pedantic about spelling.

Maybe he is thinking of a Standard English. He will run into the same difficulty: there are no official rules for "Standard English" because, unlike some other languages, English does not have a linguistic governance body. Unless he is to set himself up in that role this could become a little repetitious. There is no set standard as there was, for example, a standard yard, kept available in London for the purpose of checking all other yards against it. This small illustration also makes the point that any standardisation would have to be in written form. For spoken English it would be impossible to construct a norm. Neither would a norm be socially or politically desirable, for it would acquire social (eg class) and political overtones as did BBC English, for example. It would inevitably be institutional. My last point is that in so far as there ever has been a standard there is now a double standard, English English and American English. Furthermore, English has become the lingua franca of the political and commercial world. It has been said that it is about to fragment into a very large number of international dialects. It seems to me that the tide is running against Kamm, but I shall watch his column (presumably it is to be every Monday) with great interest.