The Lake In Winter

I always end up writing about the lake – I don’t know why. It’s only a minute from my front door – so perhaps it’s the easy access which makes me choose that dog-walking route rather than any other. And I always have something to write about.

The lake is constantly changing – for the last ten days it has had a crust of ice on it – sometimes three or four inches thick, sometimes transparent as cellophane

This is a diary poem – a marker for something I saw, which I don’t want to forget.

Lake – January 2018

Light leaks into the air;
clouds take their substance
from the the morning twilight.

The stripped trees hold
magpies  sneering,
clattering their wings.

The grass is blanched with frost,
puddles splintered glass
and the lake alive
with shifting rafts of ice

where a swan struggles

snake neck stretched,
webs strive for grip
as white wings thrash the water,
till it lifts, makes the air
sing with every wingbeat.

 

“Quantum Theory for Cats” available here

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College Green. 6.30pm. Urban fox

Bone white stone bleeds
shadow on the grass.The air dulls.
Outside the coffee shop, a girl
is stacking chairs. A scooter putters by.
The tourists have gone back to their hotels.

A shifting of the light. A slur
of movement, and he’s there,
trotting past the sundial.

No Reynard in a red coat.

Ash grey, sandy flanks
all smudged with mud,
his eyes ink black, cautious.

Rat-back snapper, chicken slasher,
worm chewer, sparrow splitter,
knocker down of bins,
lurking in the shadows
by the pub’s back door.

He stops there in the sunlight,
eyes me over.
Resolving I am neither threat
nor promise, trots away
down College Street and into Minster Yard.

Jane Nightwork

Jane Nightwork was one of Shakespeare’s characters who never quite made it on stage.
She’s mentioned briefly in ” Henry IV Pt 2.” Two old country lawyers, Shallow and Silence are looking back fifty years to the time when they were at university when they were roaring boys, drinking and wenching. Jane Nightwork was one of the ladies of the night, who relieved them of their money, as well as their virginity.

I decided to give Jane a voice.

Here she is.

Flat on my back
in the black grass,
daisies, like fallen stars
about my face,
and his hand
up my petticoats
and heading slowly north.

We haven’t got all night.

I am his first time.

He is fifteen.

Our clothes fall, rustling, to the ground
and he is on me, gasping, urgent,
shivering between fear and lust.
My fingers skim his chest, feel
the soft skin, the beating heart beneath.

Flat on my back
in the black grass,
open as earth
and he the plowman.

Afterwards he wept – they often do
that first time, then
I kissed away his tears
and we danced again.

Underneath his cloak we lay
and watched the circling stars until
dizzy with their reeling,
we fell asleep.

The moon tilted, tipped
her bowl of light
so the air shimmered,
each field was spiked with frost,
and the river slithered sleek
as quicksilver
through the sooty dark.

We dressed, backs turned
and took our separate ways,
each nursing our delight, and shame
like Eve and Adam
that first night in Eden.

Why can’t I write poetry any more ?

I wish I knew. Writing poetry has been a central part of my life since…well…my early teens. There have been ups and downs in the past – intervals when nothing much has come up- but for the past eighteen months I’ve been writing like a runaway freight train. Except that I’ve just crashed into the buffers..

I love the process of writing more than I can say. I pick up a line, an idea, and I spend a few days rolling it round my mouth. Larkin said that “ if it doesn’t sing, then it isn’t poetry,” so I wait until it sounds right in my mind. Then I write it down.

Then I write it down again, and again. I play around with it until a second line floats into my mind, and I start reconciling the two. Before I know it I’m playing with rhyme and rhythm and ambiguity, balancing one idea with another, testing all the time for cliche or mawkishness. As soon as I start to flag, I put it away.

The following day I start again, revising, altering, adding. I’m playing with the best Lego set ever invented. Look at me, Ma ! I’m building !

And yet there is no certainty until I’ve finished. The danger point is half way through when I suddenly think “ This is rubbish I can’t finish this !” It’s real fear I’m feeling here- and real relief when I find a way through the maze.

I know when it’s finished. If it isn’t finished I stick it in the file called “ Oddments” and swear to return to it one day. I never do.

For a couple of days I bask in my own brilliance, taking the poem out now and then to reassure myself is saying what I want it to say. And then I take a break. A week or ten days or so- and then I start looking for the next poem.

I’ve been looking for three months now and there’s nothing there. I’ve tried forcing myself to write – about anything. I tried to write poem about cleaning shoes ! Can you imagine !
I came up with four lines which shamed me by their pretentiousness.

I’ve tried writing prompts. Gimme a break ! I do not want to write poetry about “ A tropical Island” or “ A time I was scared.”

I’ve tried listening to music, looking at pictures, reading other poets ( I’ve used them before.) I’m looking for something shiny to pick up and there’s nothing there but sand.

Don’t talk to me about my Inner Critic either. You need an inner critic, and I’ve got one. I keep him chained to my chair and he’s only allowed to suggest improvements. He doesn’t have a power of veto.

I don’t know what’s happened. I don’t know what to do next. I’ve shut off the poetry switch and I’ve read- everything from “ Mapp and Lucia” to John le Carre. I still enjoy my reading, thank God, but it hasn’t helped me get back to my real joy – which is writing.

I’ve had plenty of rejections, including a big one which rocked me back on my heels for a couple of days – but that isn’t it. I believe in the stuff I write. I’m not going to pick up my bat and ball and run off home in a sulk. And it was the kindest rejection letter I’ve ever had.

I WANT to write. I just can’t.

Come on then, fellowship of the internet, help me out here. Do I keep sifting through the sand in the hope of finding a gold nugget ? Do I award myself a sabbatical from poetry ?

Help me.

dangerous liaisons between the living and the dead

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The last of three posts about metaphor. If you’ve missed the other two then you can find them here:
https://jackspratt823.wordpress.com/2013/10/20/the-compasses-revealed/

and here:

https://jackspratt823.wordpress.com/2013/10/18/your-most-useful-multi-purpose-writing-tool-is/

And here is the the summing up – the last word:

Metaphor

Opens the door to doubt,
pricks logic’s tight balloon,
lets light in, darkness out,
confuses silver pennies with the moon,
turns on lights in empty buildings
rips the covers from every bed,
offers dangerous liaisons
between the living and the dead,

treads the wires of contradiction,
turns lead to gold, makes truth of fiction.

If you have any comments on this three- stage post, then, as always, they are very welcome.

What do you do with all the bits left over ?

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I was talking to Maggie Mendus the other day
( see her work here:http://tinyurl.com/q7pr7a2) and I said that she was probably physically unable to write a bad poem- (she writes a lot- and all of it good) and she replied that I knew nothing of the starts that never finished, the odd ideas that trickled away into the sand and never came to anything.

So I looked at my own junk folder ( keep everything– throw nothing away) and I was amazed at the amount of false starts, stupid ideas, bad writing that was lying around. Most of it will never see the light of day, but I came across one recent effort and, aware of the need to recycle, I thought I would post it here as a writing prompt.

I had this dream about snakes. It happened on some distant planet where the moon only comes out once in ten years.I could see snakes uncoiling out of the rocks and raising their heads up to the moonlight ( I know it sounds silly-but it sounded like a good idea at the time, ok?) As the moonlight touches them they SING. I like the idea of singing snakes. I wondered what sort of a noise they might make. I wrote…something….and then it faltered and died. I had no idea where it was all leading me- I had no end in view- and the writing was mediocre. It was not for me.

But it might just be for you. Here it is- the hulk of a poem which didn’t quite make it. Take what you want- the idea, the language whatever you fancy. Use it as a starting point for your own journey.
Let me know how you get on.

I have seen them in my dream,
the singing snakes. Like ammonites
they seem, waiting for the touch of moonlight
to release them .

Slowly, they uncoil-
longer than a man can reach
and thicker than his wrist.
Scales rustle, whisper on the broken schist.

Blind, blunt heads lift
to the bonelight, jaws snap wide

and they sing

a thin, high note
unrelenting, folding on itself until
the air quivers, and blurs.

I see ice cliffs, stinging hail
and burrows hollowed from the frozen soil.

The day I beat Sylvia Plath at writing poetry

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Literary criticism is over. Finito. No more explanations of ” The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner”
(it’s about a bird, stupid.) No more tortured dissections of Gerard Manley-Hopkins.

Because literary criticism is now objective.

I came across this on the Poetry Society website the other day.

http://www.poetryassessor.com/poetry/

It is, of course, an algorithm. It’s an attempt to place any piece of poetry on a spectrum which has “professional” at one end and “ amateur” at the other. Copy your poem and paste it into the box, press the button and….you’ve got a score. Anything plus is in the professional range, anything in the minus,logically, is at the amateur end.

Obviously, there are problems- distinguishing professional from amateur being the first. The authors of this piece of research took a selection of modern, unpublished works and called them “ amateur” – the professional collection came from a selection of poetry magazines.

All the poems chosen were modern, so you can’t try out a chunk of “ Hamlet” to see how Shakespeare scored.

And what criteria did they set ? Rhyme and rhythm were important and, interestingly, perfect rhyme came out as an amateur indicator.

Complexity of vocabulary was important- the nature of nouns used – abstract or concrete. Concrete vocabulary was a professional trait; amateurs took refuge in woolly abstracts. The number of letters and syllables was also significant, as was the “ ease of definition “ – I’m not sure what that means but I suspect they’re talking about the use of ambiguity, double meaning.

Sylvia Plath’s “ Crossing the Water” scored 2.53.
Professional.

I had to have a go, didn’t I ? This is the poem I copied into the text box

Landscape

Shifting light
luminous opaque
everything provisional-
the hills tentative
the valley bottoms
indistinct uncertain
still settling into shape

Then,immersed in sunlight,
the day develops,
fixes the eye.
Stone walls grow
a coat of green velvet;
purple moors shake themselves
into a quilt, and in the village
a church spire’s shadow points
the way to sunset and the west.

And the score ? Only 3.9. Not bad eh ?

Of course the whole thing is nothing more than a bit of fun. Sylvia Plath is ten times the poet I am- and poetry, thank goodness, will always be intensely personal, passionate and elusive.

Still…3.9..

Have a go yourself and let me know how you get on.

John Donne 1572-1631

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Look at this man. Face like an axe blade, a sensualists’s mouth. What is he looking at, out of the frame ? A pretty woman ? Probably.

This is John Donne .
The shape-shifter. Born a Catholic in a time of persecution, he knew family members who had been hanged, drawn and quartered. Around the time this portrait was painted, he was toying with aetheism- which was also punishable by death. Later in his life he became an Anglican and ended up Dean of St Paul’s. He was The Man Who Loved Women ( “a great frequenter of plays..and ladies” said a contemporary.) His erotic poetry is so powerful, you have the feeling he’s just jumped out of bed to write it down, leaving the girl asleep under the covers.

When he did marry, he made an unfortunate choice- the niece of his master, Sir Thomas Egerton, who did not approve. Donne was put in prison until the marriage was proved valid. They were banished to to a village in Surrey, where he scratched a living as a lawyer, working at the kitchen table as a pack of children played around his feet.

Then he began a second career….this time as an Anglican priest. In 1615 he was made a Doctor of Divinity at Cambridge and by 1621, he was Dean of St Paul’s.

By this time, the libertine had turned into … a kind of mystic. The erotic passion of his early years had turned into something deeper. You could say that he began a love affair with God- full of joy and doubt, pleadings and exulations. His religious poetry still has the same passion and drive, intellectual toughness and theatricality- but he’s talking to, shouting at…God.

Remember that I said the two main subjects of poetry are sex and death ?

He did both, often at the same time.

Next time we’ll look at one of his sonnets. It’s tricky, contradictory, and hard to understand.

So be there.

Right ?

Stuck

I’m stuck. Haven’t written anything worth spit since before Christmas. I’ve got ideas, but when I write something down, I’m appalled  at its banality. In the middle six months of last year I wrote 46 respectable poems. I’ve looked back at them time and time again, looking for faults, and even the worst is good to fair. They’re all worth keeping.

But at the moment- nothing. I usually come up with a first line that has promise. I spend a couple of days rolling it round my tongue, trying it out- and then I put it down on paper. That’s where the fun begins. Writing a poem is like solving a crossword- only you have to invent the clues and the answers at the same time. You have to shuffle words around, lines around.  If you’re really lucky you come across rhymes you didn’t expect, a clever image that pops up out of nowhere. You’re in the zone. It’s almost as though the poem is writing you.

I’ve got an idea- I’m not telling you what it is- that might pop the balloon- but it won’t come out of hiding. It’s lurking there, in the shadows, and I can’t quite make out the shape.

Still, I’m not the only one with this problem. Alexander Pope ( a poet I respect rather than like) said ” I have been lying in wait for my imagination all week”- and he produced some quite respectable stuff in the end.

I’m going out to walk the dog, then I’m meeting my Swedish friend for lunch, and we shall talk about why England is such an odd place, and why  the Swedes are better at dealing with snow, and how to take better photographs.