Thankfully, without Alan Hansen telling me my linebreaks are diabolical.
Overall, I’m pretty pleased. I copped out and wrote chaff – limericks, haiku, doggerel, whatever – more than I wanted (six or seven times, in fact). But there were several things I produced which I actually liked. The bathyscaphe sonnet and the Essex poem probably stand out as the ones which feel most successful.
Other than just producing some poetry, I had two main aims going into this – to write some formal poetry, including at least one sonnet, and to try and stretch myself stylistically. Both were only semi-successful. I did write four formal poems, even discounting the double dactyls and so on, including what I think is my first ever Italian sonnet. But I didn’t exactly produce reams of good formal poetry. I had to wrestle for hours to produce two eight-line poems (House and Crow), both of which I would have liked to be longer but just ground to a halt. ‘long is the albatross…’ is quite successful, but technically a fiddle. Only the sonnet was really pleasing.
On the stylistic side, I think that the exercise of trying to write something differently from usual was valuable, but I never felt I made any kind of mental breakthrough; it felt very artificial (which it was, of course) and the results turned out to be either less different than I intended, or just not very good.
I think the most interesting aspect of the whole exercise is the way it gives you an insight into your own work. The need to take the line of least resistance to produce a poem in time means it becomes very clear what you find easy and what you find difficult. You also find shortcuts – ways to produce something quickly which is superficially effective but perhaps not what you really would have wanted to do if you had more time. For example, I wrote several poems (the albatross one, This Poem is Not a Pipe, and the foody one) which are basically lists of separate images, rather than an attempt to evoke a place or scene. That’s what I meant when I said the albatross one was a bit of a fiddle – it makes finding rhymes a lot easier if the images don’t have to be related. I also found myself resorting to bits of phrasing or rhetorical flourishes chosen because they sounded good, rather than because they were what I really think is ‘true’. The clearest example is This Poem is Not a Pipe, which hints at some kind of metaphysical profundity or metaphor or symbolism. Actually, it’s just phrase-making. I came up with a kind of post-facto justification to do with the Magritte reference in the title, but when I was writing it, I was just picking things which sounded good.
So what have I learnt about my own poetry? Well, on the positive side, I find concision and clarity quite easy. I’m pretty happy about my use of sound, as well, and I was pleased by the number of strong images I came up with. And I was intrigued by the emergence of a voice in some of the poems which is lighter, more collquial, less sonically and syntactically dense than my work tends to be but still felt quite controlled and effective. I’m thinking mainly of the Essex poem, the gas poem, and Poetry in Motion. I wouldn’t want to write all my poems like that, but having produced them basically because of time pressure, I can see some virtues to them.
Negatives – people are really hard. There’s a great temptation to produce poems full of things instead, but real poetry is about people, and people are hard. Have I ever written a poem which features people interacting in a fully realised place? I can’t think of one. The Whistler poem was an attempt to do something of the sort, but even though W’s wife was unconscious on the sofa, it still felt like wrestling mud trying to write it.
More generally, nice though clarity and concision are, there are times when I would like to be able to do something more ambiguous, more stream-of-consciousness. I find that very difficult. In fact I find it difficult just breaking out of the habit of conventional grammar in a productive way.
I also notice a lack of metaphor in my work, in a line-by-line descriptive sense. And while I think that metaphor is overrated as a poetic technique by beginners, and good clear literal description is often better, a really good metaphor is a thing of beauty, and perhaps I need to consciously reach for them more often.
And I tend to produce a moment in time, then stop. The challenge would be something more narrative, or just longer – although napowrimo may not be the best time to try that.
I should probably avoid drawing too many detailed conclusions on the basis of a rather artificial situation, but I did find it interesting.
In the garden
playing Mario vs. Donkey Kong
I became aware the bee-hum
was louder, harder, more urgent
I could feel it in my teeth
and I looked up to see the sky
was thick with noise and swirling,
but before I got into the house
the swarm passed.
At the Malawi/Tanzania border
I stepped out of the bus
and saw dark wisps
moving across the sky.
They were birds, sparrow-sized,
and each wisp was hundreds
or thousands. As each wisp left,
another appeared, and another
and another and another.
While we were there, I thought
perhaps 500 000 birds
flew over us, give or take
a hundred thousand.
Not many species
can be identified
by numbers alone.
When I tried to interest my friends
in one of nature
| dawnlight shines on the webwet | a fur of globes – pricked with shimmer — cold to the sole – as the shade slips back to itself | throaty effervescence of blackbird – orange and black — agape | darkness marks the walked on | a contrail ghosts the thinblue – spreads to air | stilled nymphs — unflying – a damsel clings the lilybud |
Passing traffic lifts
a blizzard of cherry petals.
Poetry in Motion
but poetry is too slow to catch
the moment when a striker
sprints onto a pass, looks one way
to fake the goalie
and slides the ball
into the other corner of the net;
or when a batsman sees
the bouncer coming,
leans back, and lifts his hands
to crack the ball for six.
How odd, that combination
of adrenalin and calm;
Hector must have been like that
when, in the noise of battle,
he turned, and with a graceful sweep,
crashed his sword into the neck
I didn’t write a poem today –
I cooked instead
and it was better.
‘bathyscaphe’ (provisional title)
Slowly, a bathyscaphe begins to sink
into a world where everything is blue,
a gradual darkening from thrush egg through
cornflower, sapphire, gentian and squid ink;
and there in the blackness, indistinct
and fleeting, blobs of light come into view,
drifting across their sight as though the crew
had looked into a candle-flame and blinked.
The lights are being trailed by tunicates,
iridescent things of gauze and whiskers.
At depths no normal submarine could dive –
where water has become so dense and viscous
the hull would cave – they are so delicate
they offer no resistance, and survive.
Tourists always, smiling stiffly, their backs to Nelson –
200 years this year, of course;
the barge with a lead-lined coffin up the Thames,
the mourners in top coats – and 60 since VE Day;
grainy black-and-white people, uniforms and lipstick,
frozen mid-kiss, dancing, climbing on the lions –
the England fans, after the rugby,
Jonny looking embarrassed, Tindall like a prat –
and when Korea beat Italy, the sudden bloom of red shirts,
flag-waving and Korean chanting round the fountains –
pedestrianised now – the pigeons are back though,
cooing and clattering; even Ken can
And I will bring upon that land all my words which I have pronounced against it, even that which is written in this book, which Jeremiah hath prophesied against all nations. The sons of Benjamin; Bela, and Becher, and Jediael, three. Therefore say thou unto them, Thus saith the LORD of hosts; Turn ye unto me, saith the LORD of hosts, and I will turn unto you, saith the LORD of hosts. Wherefore it shall come unto pass, if ye hearken to these judgements, and keep, and do them, that the LORD thy God shall keep unto thee the covenant and the mercy which he sware unto thy fathers: and he will love thee, and bless thee, and multiply thee: he will also bless the fruit of thy womb, and the fruit of thy land, thy corn, and thy kine, and the flocks of thy sheep, in the land which he sware unto thy fathers to give to thee. There for thus saith the LORD; I am returned to Jerusalem with mercies: my house shall be built in it, saith the LORD of hosts, and a line shall be stretched forth upon Jerusalem. And the Philistines were gathered together in a troop, where was a piece of ground full of lentils: and the people fled from the Philistines. And not only this; but when Rebecca also had conceived by one, even by our father Isaac; (for the children being not yet born, neither having done any good or evil, that the purpose of God according to election might stand, not of works, but of him that calleth;) it was said unto her, The elder shall serve the younger.
Words have thou saith. Hearken unto thy womb, and give the troop lentils. Our God was younger. Bring all three, turn to the fathers. Land kine to line. Philistines fled not evil, but land. Against them I pass judgements and multiply; he returned a piece from children that serve.
And which of the saith judgements, covenant thee, corn, to house Jerusalem. ground Rebecca born, might the
that sons saith you, these the bless thy fathers my upon of when yet election serve
And is Bela hosts hosts them sware bless sheep LORD hosts was not the to The
that The them, will if God and womb, in the LORD Philistines and conceived having works
Bela Becher Jediael saith saith saith sware kine sware saith saith calleth
LORD LORD LORD LORD LORD LORD
yet another without a title. Ho hum.
Londoners, voting for a county flower, picked:
What crap. Let the bumpkin counties have
the nightingale, the bluebell and the mincing faun.
We should celebrate ragwort,
sodium yellow and full of hybrid vigour;
or rosebay willowherb, with its taste for ash,
which grew in clouds of pink across the gaps left by the Blitz.
Or how about the London plane, whose leathery leaves
and flaking bark have let it thrive in smoky air
to add some grandeur to our parks and squares
(and, for centuries of schoolchildren,
the seeds are itching powder).
But my choice is the immigrant buddleia,
which throws out gaudy flower spikes in any space it can
A garden spotlight shines
into the night;
insects fly through it
as bright spirals.
A woman watches
through a motel window
streaked with sand.
She pulls down the blind,
liked to use ‘Carlos’ as
part of his name,
slaved at his epic but
plums and a wheelbarrow
won him his fame.
The world is surfaces
reflecting one another –
a row of whisky bottles
held in a tangle of light.
A girl looks at the light
her face reflects
onto the mirror
and spreads chemicals
onto her skin
to tint and blur it.
If the image in the glass
reflect the images
she sees in magazines
which show her
what they think she wants to see,
perhaps she can affect
the way the world
reflects herself at her.
‘Eleven Ways of Looking at a Blackbird Killed by your Cat’
When a cat chews the skull of a mouse,
it makes the eyes pop out.
As Boris crouches down to stalk
the birds on the lawn,
he calls to them, low and inquiring.
Is he excited? playful?
Perhaps he hopes to talk them into his mouth.
A broken dragonfly
clattering on the floor
makes an excellent toy.
Delilah prances in, chirruping
through a mouthful of starling.
How pretty it is, in its spring plumage,
glossed with green and purple.
The little darts of white
are like a cartoon convict uniform.
This is the thirteenth young dead rat
in the last three days.
To the rat’s nest, Boris must seem
like a wrathful god.
If I was a cat, I wouldn’t be so quick
to stick my paw into dark holes
just to see what’s in them.
A furry thing underfoot;
cat toy, or dead mouse?
Posy, you have a spider leg
stuck on the side of your mouth.
‘This poem is so bad / it makes me sad’
O! my muse has gone away.
I can’t write a poem today.
I can’t find a rhyme
the metre’s broken
and I ain’t jokin’
so this poem’s not great
and it’s half an hour late
I can only hope that this will represent the low point of the whole month.
In Honour of Doctor Johnson, and the Anniversary of the Publication of his Famous and Much-Admired Dictionary, a Poem Composed Entirely of such Words as Cannot be Found* in that Celebrated Volume
chipotle hamburger shemale Messerschmitt
tartrazine Tanzania underclass
skyscraper reggae bicarb retrofit
ufologist Joycean supergrass
*Probably. No copies of Johnson’s dictionary were consulted in the making of this poem.
A day late posting because Freezope was down again. Yesterday was the 250th anniversary of the publication of Johnson’s dictionary.
‘An Essex Pome’
Most poets lie, then claim that their ‘poetic truth’
subsumes the normal kind.
Not me. When I write that I stabbed a frog
so I could watch it die,
or that my father had a special belt
or that I paid my way through university
every word is true. Even the little things,
the jays on the front of the house,
or the dolphin I saw in the Thames,
So when I tell you that I am the long-lost King
of Essex, you can know it is the truth.
I understand you’re sceptical,
so come and see the brown-stained vellum
with an Anglo-Saxon script
proclaiming Edwin Ruðe fford
the king of the East Saxons.
I have the family tattoo, as well,
the three entwisted eels of Essex.
My aims are modest; I don’t want to run
everything from Theydon Bois to Harwich.
I just want the ancient rights granted by the charter:
my weight in apples on All-Hallows Day,
first dibs on any whale or sturgeon stranded on the coast,
the right to drive a herd of sheep through Chigwell.
Jays are building their nest on the front of the house.
They are stucco-pink and chatter to each other.
Their wings have a flash of lucid blue.
Each time one swoops to or from the chestnut tree, the kitchen darkens.
Last time they built here, the fledgling fell from the nest.
It hopped around for three days before it was pecked to death by crows.
The Knight with the Sorrowful Face
A forest near Seville.
Enter PEDRO and DOROTHEA.
How slight a bauble is the intellect,
to crack so easily. But soft, he comes,
his antic mood still on him.
Enter QUIXOTE, mad, wearing a barber’s basin
Rocks and stones
and trees and grass and streams, oh hear the tale
of piteous Don Quixote, scorned in love!
I will approach him now. Art thou then he?
Art thou the great and noble Don Quixote?
Cardenio, Act 4, Scene 2
The old man was a nutter,
sure enough, with his talk of Roland and Amadís.
But he was a good man with it.
Before he lost his marbles
he often helped us,
when mildew spoiled the grapes
on the vines, or the rains failed
and the wheat-fields dried to dust.
That was why I joined him, not for fevered promises
of islands and earldoms, but because
he needed me. When, in the night,
he shook and cried out in his sleep,
I was the one to calm him,
use a wet rag to cool his face.
But that dick Cervantes
made me into a credulous oaf,
and now this windbag Shakespeare
has cut me from the story altogether.
It tears my heart to see Señor Quijote
made into a comic turn
for the drunken stinking London crowd.
A pox on writers.
I really need to spend more time on the titles.
I light the gas and wonder
how many specks of prehistoric life
died so I could fry
some bacon for my sarnie?
And if I died at sea
and was enfolded in the silt,
would there be enough of me
to boil the water
for a cup of tea?
‘This Poem is Not a Pipe’
There is a gap in the world where things fall through;
bicycle clips, and leeks, and off-cuts of astrakhan,
frogspawn, gravestones, and the lids from mustard jars.
There is a place in the world where smells wait;
asparagus-scented urine, coal-tar soap, and mould-spotted copies of Proust.
Salmon leap. Flames flame. Small girls feel the mud between their toes.