Moments from a parallel universe

1.
Isac ! Your lunch is ready.
Stop moping in that orchard !
Go and wash your hands !
Unheard unseen
the apple falls.

2.
It’s a message, Will,
from the Queen.
She likes the play
but could you make Hamlet
a bit more cheerful……
and alive at the end..

3.
I shall call her Luisa.
If it had been a boy, my husband
would have called him Adolf.
4.
Honey, I got to stay late at the Oval Office tonight –
can’t make the theatre.
Okay Abe

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Re-cycling

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Down the dusty, data-blown back streets
of my computer’s hard drive lies
the dumping ground-
the place
where failed poems go to die,
and fragments too, which make me feel
embarrassed or ashamed-
lines leading nowhere, overgrown
with lush, excessive, choking adjectives;
a rusting heap of mis-matched metaphors;
a rhyme scheme spray-canned on a concrete wall.
And that’s not all
that festers here-
a ballad that would put a saint to sleep;
a cinquaine that’s correct, but deadly dull.

The place is full
of junk.

Yet often when I’m stuck
I wander here
to browse the trash
(it’s happened many a time.)
I pick up some soiled phrase and rub it
on my sleeve
and sometimes- you won’t believe this-
I can see a gleam of gold beneath the grime.

KISS and LIM and Triple A

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Have a look at this poem:

In a flowered dell the Lady Venus stood,
  
 Amazed with sorrow. Down the morning one
 
  Far golden horn in the gold of trees and sun

Rang out; and held; and died…. She thought the wood

Grew quieter. Wing, and leaf, and pool of light
  
 Forgot to dance. Dumb lay the unfalling stream;
  
 Life one eternal instant rose in dream

Clear out of time, poised on a golden height….

Dreadful, isn’t it ? How about “ flowered dell” ? Dell ? Who the hell says “dell” ? It’s a Poetic Word. It’s a signal that what follows is Great Art. Look at “down the morning…to.. Rang out.” First of all the main verb “ rang out” comes at the end of a long sentence. It’s meant to be mannerly, stately. And what about “ Down the morning” Down ? what on earth does the phrase actually mean ? Top marks for poshness Rupe ( it’s by Rupert Brooke) but an F- for common sense.

Let’s have more fun. “Wing and leaf, And pool of light/ Forgot to dance” I beg your pudding ! What is the wing attached to ? A bird perhaps ? And do leaves and pools of light have bad memories ?
Had enough ? I certainly have. I’m sure you get the point. This is poetic language, which is different and far more beautiful than the language mere oiks like us use. Cobblers. Time for our first acronym:
KISS (Keep It Simple Stupid)
Use the shortest word you can find to do the job. Use the smallest number of words you can. If a word is not paying the rent- then cut it. Be cruel to the little devils- make one word do the work of five if you can. It’s a well known law of nature that poets are incapable of using a simple noun without slapping an adjective in front of it. You need adjectives, yes- but ration yourself . Which leads us to our second acronym.

LIM (Less Is More)
Go Minimalist but give them Story Plus . Make your poem into a puzzle. Draw the reader in by making the surface meaning easy to get hold of. Keep your reader by hinting at something below the surface. Remember- ambiguity is your friend here. Play with it. Have fun.

And now the third
AAA ( no- not anti-aircraft artillery) Avoid Awkward Abstracts
Love. Hate. Anguish. Desire. Loss.Ecstasy.
Don’t use them. They mean nothing on their own. Borrow a phrase from fiction writers-
“ Show- Don’t Tell.”

There. Now you know the rules I try to stick to when I’m writing poetry.
But you may have an entirely different, and equally valid, way of writing.
Put down the quill and unfold the keyboard. Tell me about it.

I got rhythm

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I got rhythm.
So has everybody. It’s built into us. We’re tuned to the rhythm of light and dark, the beating of our hearts, the in-and-out of our breathing.So it’s no surprise that rhythm is a crucial tool in the poet’s toolbox. I use that simile quite deliberately, because writing a poem is making something just as much as someone making a chair, or a carving, or a painting. In fact the early Scots poets were called “ Makars” for that very reason.

OK – what does this miracle tool do, then ? It gives shape to the poem. By and large prose is a continual stream of thought, structured into sentences and paragraphs. But poetry needs rhythm to mark out a territory, indicate a change of mood.

There are plenty of other tools of course- rhyme ( obviously) imagery ( metaphor and simile) and all those tricksy little things you can do with the sound of words -onomatopoea, for instance. ( I only put that in to show you that I know how to spell it.) But we’re not going to deal with all that stuff in this post. Maybe later.

We British poets write a five stress line.

Hang on a minute. Look at that again.

We British poets write a five stress line.

Do you get it ? A line of ten syllables with five of them stressed.

The posh name for this is iambic pentameter (“pent” as in five- yes ?)

French poetry tends to add a couple of syllables and an extra beat. Actually some people say that we have the five stresses line because that’s about the length of a single breath. Maybe the French breathe more deeply. But I digress.

We use iambic pentameter all the time. Every day.

I’m going to the shops to buy some bread.
My bike has broken and I need some help.
My sister’s got the measles ! Fetch the nurse!
Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York.

Haha ! you weren’t expecting Shakespeare in there, were you ?

In fact Shakespeare is the King of the iambic pentameter. He writes prose- sure- but always for a reason. And his iambics don’t plod a long like a trotting horse. He riffs on the idea of the five stress line; he plays around with the pause (caesura) in the middle. And his audience loved it. They didn’t think his plays were written in a posh inaccessible way- they recognised that he wrote in their ( and our) daily speech. And the five stress line was a real help to the actor too- easy to learn, flexible- you could play around with pauses, and yet come back to the beat at the end of a line.

And yet…and yet…there’s no law saying you’ve got to write in iambic pentameter. You can play around with rhythm. Try changing the rhythm when you change the mood. Try a four stress line ( I find it clumpy, but give it a go)- or challenge the French at their own game and roll out might alexandrines.

That’s about it for now- on rhythm. But I’m going to stick one of my poems at the bottom here. The rhythm is largely three stresses- but it isn’t regular. But there are other things going on which we will discuss some other time.

Only the heart

Sky so cold it could
crack like an eggshell,
clatter to the ground
in shards.

Earth so hard it hurts,
ridged and rutted,
treacherous, bruising.

Air so sharp,so full
of pins,it stings the throat,
turns to steam
before your face.

Only the heart ,so old and full of winters,

still burns for love.

The sound of silence

Turn off the tv.

Go on. Do it now. Turn off the radio. Turn off the central heating- just for a few minutes.
Can you still hear the outside world ? Children shouting ? Traffic in the street below ?
Pull the curtains across and try to muffle the noise.

Sit down for a while. What can you hear ? At first you’ll strain to hear noises from outside- anything. Then you’ll start to hear your body- your rumbling tummy, the steady thud of your hear, the in-out whistling of your breath.And when you listen beyond that you will hear…nothing…silence…or as near silence as you can get. What is it like ? Is it comforting ? Frightening ?

No two silences are ever alike.

I think that we have become frightened of silence. There is music everywhere- in shops,in cafes and restaurants, on the phone, in airports. It is as though we have to move from one island of noise to another. Notice the number of people in town who are plugged into their MP3 players. Are they music buffs, desperate to listen to their favourite composer every minute of the day ? Or are they frightened of listening to their own thoughts ? Or are they afraid of having to actually speak to someone ?

This comfort blanket of noise is quite a recent thing-a hundred years ago most people didn’t have access to recorded sound, or the radio. It was noisy when they went to work- the clacking of typewriters, the ear shattering roar of machinery, but the background of their private lives was human speech. There was music- yes- but it was a special treat, and it was always live. I think that maybe music has lost some of its power because it is so instantly available.

No two silences are ever alike.

Silence is more than an absence of noise. It is what happens in the gaps between your words and the gaps between your thoughts. Listen to this piece about silence by the French writer Jean Anouilh:

“Every kind of stillness. The hush when the executioner’s axe goes up at the end of the last act. The unbreathable silence when the two lovers, their hearts bared, their bodies naked, stand for the first time, face to face in the darkened room, afraid to stir. The silence inside you when the roaring crowd acclaims the winner- so that you think of a film without a soundtrack…and you, the victor, alone in the desert of your silence.”

Silence. Makes you think, doesn’t it ?

That’s the point.

That cinquaine feeling

Writing is a tough row to hoe, and don’t let anyone tell you different. Perhaps the worst thing is when you’ve started a poem and somehow can’t finish it. You try all the usual tricks…leave it in your desk drawer for a couple of days, switch it round so that the first stanza becomes the last…and it still hasn’t come out right. It doesn’t taste right in your mouth when you read it aloud.

You’re probably writing it too soon. The poem hasn’t quite taken shape in your sub-conscious. The best thing to do is leave it in the desk drawer, or park it in the “ Bits and Pieces” folder on your computer. Never throw anything out. You’ll be able to cannibalise what you’ve got and use it in something you’re going to write in a couple of months time.

There is a way of avoiding that situation, though – warm-ups. You need to get your writing muscles into shape with a few practice runs. I used to write a couple of haiku to get the my brain in gear- they were dreadful haiku- but they did the job.

Now I think I’ve found something even better- cinquaines. Forgive me if you’ve been writing cinquaines for years and know all about them- but for the novices who don’t- try this link:

http://hrsbstaff.ednet.ns.ca/davidc/6c_files/Poem%20pics/cinquaindescrip.htm

You can see they come in various flavours, but the 2,4,6,8,2 structure remains roughly the same.

You’re writing a small, concentrated poem which has to follow a set of rules- and yet have some impact when you’ve finished it. It’s a challenge- but a limited one. You have to play meaning off syllable or word numbers and squeeze out a good last line. Write a couple of cinquaines before you start your next big project and they’ll make the road a whole lot easier.

Here are some of mine. Not great poetry – more like circuit training for the mind. They might amuse you. Try them yourself- let me know any interesting results.

Fans

Bald heads
bull necks swelling guts tatts
like inflated babies they bawl
for beer

Lake

Still,flat
as a mirror.
The air softens, blurs. Mist
shadows its edge, clouds its surface
like breath.

Wild Geese

Wing beats
measure my dreams;
ink black eyes meet mine.
The water shivers as they pass.
Silence.

Getting on

My bones
ache each morning.
Fuddled,slow, I stumble
grunting, farting, still drunk with sleep.
Older.

John Clare – the poems

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You there ? Good. Last time I gave you a quick outline of Clare’s life and the kind of time he lived in- the class system,lack of mass communication etc.

It’s time to have a look at one of his poems.

The wild duck startles like a sudden thought,
And heron slow as if it might be caught.
The flopping crows on weary wings go by
And grey beard jackdaws noising as they fly.
The crowds of starnels whizz and hurry by,
And darken like a clod the evening sky.
The larks like thunder rise and suthy round,
Then drop and nestle in the stubble ground.
The wild swan hurries hight and noises loud
With white neck peering to the evening clowd.
The weary rooks to distant woods are gone.
With lengths of tail the magpie winnows on
To neighbouring tree, and leaves the distant crow
While small birds nestle in the edge below.

It’s a sonnet- you might have noticed. And it’s about birds.I don’t know how good you are on bird recognition- but can you tell the difference between a jackdaw and a crow ? Have you ever seen a heron ? If, like me, you live in the town, you might have a problem.

Clare lived in the country and knew wild birds the way a town boy can recognise motor cars. He knew the way they flew, what they lived on, and this poem shows off his knowledge and his ability to differentiate them.

The answer lies in the verbs he uses – “startles” “flopping” “noising” “whizz” ducks fly as sudden as thought; crows flop through the air.

But it’s not just verbs.
“The weary rooks to distant woods have gone”
Eight words paint a picture- an autumn evening, the rooks flapping away in the dying light.
I’m not sure about the magpies “winnowing” – that usually applies to sorting the wheat from the chaff- I think maybe he’s describing the way the magpies thread their way through the trees.

And what about the larks who “thunder”- their song echoes down from a height, and then they”suthy” (flutter) back to the stubbly ground. Literally a rise and fall.

Fourteen lines- and ten birds named and described in detail- and notice, he doesn’t tell you what they look like- he tells you how they move..
Not bad for a frail, lonely farm boy.

If you’ve found this piece interesting, then get hold of some John Clare. He’s disconcertingly simple at first reading- but there’s a lot beneath the surface.

I think John Clare deserves a place on the Desert Island..don’t you ?