George Szirtes

In one of the Forward poetry books, possibly the ‘best of the first ten years’ one, I found a poem by George Szirtes called Backwaters: Norfolk Fields. When I read it I had a strong reaction of ‘this is how I would like to write’.

That was a little while ago, and I don’t think that I would still single out Szirtes as a model. But the reaction is still worth recording. I really like metrical, rhyming poetry, and the excitement was reading fresh, contemporary language in a metrical framework – Backwaters is a poem made up of twelve sonnet-stanzas, but the language didn’t have the stilted, backward-looking quality I associated with a lot of contemporary formal verse. Looking at it now, the use of language seems less radical than it seemed at the time, but I still think this is a fabulous poem. I might give a fuller response to Szirtes’s work later, but for now, here’s S1, 4 & 5 of that first poem I encountered:


Backwaters. Long grass. Slow speech. Far off
a truck heaves its load of rust into a yard
next to a warehouse full of office furniture
no one will ever use, unless to stuff
some temporary room when times are hard.
Across the fields the sweet smell of manure.

We’re years behind. Even our vowels sag
in the cold wind. We have our beauty spots
that people visit and leave alone, down main
arterials and side roads. A paper bag
floats along the beach. Clouds drift in clots
of grey and eventually down comes the rain.

We’re at the end. It might simply be of weather
or empire or of something else altogether.

[… two stanzas omitted here …]


The WI stall. Jams, flowers. White
hair scraped back in the draught of an open door.
The butcher’s. He knows you by name. He calls
your name out. His chopping block is washed bright
by the morning sun. The solicitor
down the street. His nameplate. War memorials

with more names. Rows of Standleys, Bunns,
Myhills, Kerridges. Names on shopfronts: bold
reds, whites and blues in stock typography.
Names on labels tied with strings to shotguns.
Names on electoral registers. Names in gold
in the children’s section of the cemetery

by the railway cuttings. Willows, faint blue
in the afternoon, light gently whistles through.


Too easy all this, like a fatal charm
intended to lull you into acquiescence.
think karaoke. Sky. The video shop.
Broken windows. The sheer boredom. The alarm
wailing at two am. The police presence.
Pastoral graffiti on the bus stop.

Think back of the back of beyond “beyond”. End
of a line. The sheer ravishing beauty
of it as it runs into the cold swell
of the North Sea, impossible to comprehend.
The harsh home truisms of geometry
that flatten to a simple parallel.

This is your otherness where the exotic
appears by a kind of homely conjuring trick.

[… another seven stanzas omitted here …]