Earlier this month I had the pleasure of reading with Jo Dixon at the Nottingham poetry festival. There was a lively, enthusiastic, mostly young audience at the event and I thoroughly enjoyed the evening. Jo’s Melos press pamphlet, ‘A Woman in the Queue’ was published last year. It was great to hear Jo read, and I’ve asked her permission to share one of her poems here. As both a service user and an ex employee of the National Health Service, I have an interest in poems that deal with our experiences within it, which will often be among or most intense and extreme we will have to deal with, sometimes holding ourselves ‘together’ through the most emotionally trying times. Hospitals are the places where we or those we love are often at our most vulnerable; where fear, trust and faith often come together in strange and sometimes rarefied atmospheres with their own specialist language and ritual (the initials of the first poem bellow stand for Neonatal Intensive Care Unit). I chose this poem – finely controlled, precise, moving and instantly memorable because it manages the delicate balance required to convey something of this experience.
buzzed in at nine
through the porthole
a boy with wrinkle- sag
knees shelters his fingers
in the antiseptic furrows
of your cupped palm;
from your perch
on next door’s vacant
stool, you anticipate
four hours later
litmus paper stutters
in your fingers – is pink
red? and your milk tubes
down into his stomach
now a sodden slippery nappy sags
on the cannula impaled
in his gauzy vein; cotton
wool and titanium ointment
jumble around his legs
your lullaby keeps time
with his heart’s
buzzed out at nine.
It’s just in case.
A Polaroid, 2″ by 3 1\2 ” :
tangles of tubes and white wires snake to a body frozen
in the position of his foetal scan
air pushes down the endotracheal tube and he breathes
the right pattern.
Tuck him under your pillow.
A woman in the Queue is published by The Melos Press
and you can read a review of Jo Dixon’s pamphlet here.
The poem Adlestrop by Edward Thomas is often included in lists and anthologies of favourite poems written in English. Part of the poem’s popularity might lie in its appeal to those nostalgic for a lost England of steam trains on branch lines. Where the lines still in place and operable, such a stop might now result in a backdrop of cell phone conversation and overspill from headphones and laptops rather than birdsong and a hiss of steam. This ‘lost’ England was also a place in which, lest we forget, there was no universal suffrage, child mortality was high and many lived lives of unrelenting hardship.
Thomas’s poem, now over a hundred years old, is easy on the eye and ear. It’s rhymes and rhythms are subtle and supple, its charm is enigmatic, its construction apparently effortless. And in contrast to many of Thomas’s other poems, there is a lack of the darkness and intimations of mortality that shadow much of his work.
The critic Adam Philips suggests that Thomas has remained popular partly because he offers ‘an alternative, more accessible tradition of English poetry to the more ‘difficult’ cosmopolitan Modernist poets.’ However the man behind the poem was himself ‘difficult’, complex and conflicted, and a sense of this complexity imbues even his most apparently simple work.
Aldous Huxley, R.S Thomas, Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes, among others, considered Thomas to be one of England’s most important poets. Andrew Motion says that Thomas occupies “a crucial place in the development of twentieth-century poetry”. Thomas does occasionally use the archaic diction of his Victorian and Georgian contemporaries. However, it is what John Lehmann described as the ‘intensity of his vision’ and his personalized voice that gives his poetry what Motion calls ‘a modern sensibility.’
This ‘modern sensibility’ may be also be in part due to the profound sense of solitude that arises from Thomas’s work. With regard to Adlestrop, we know that Thomas was accompanied on the journey that gave rise to the poem by his wife Helen. Yet the only human presence acknowledged in the poem is that of the invisible person who clears his throat. Solitude has been identified by the critic J.P Ward, as one of the principal themes in Thomas’s poetry. Ward suggests that Thomas might be described as an early existentialist. Regardless of whether one might consider this label to be accurate, it is probably true to say that the sense of an awareness of individual isolation in Thomas’s poetry is a factor in its enduring appeal.
The man who wrote the poem had a long apprenticeship, not as a poet, but as a writer of literary criticism, descriptive prose, stories, biographies , and an autobiographical novel. Some ten years before he wrote his first successful poems, Thomas was ruminating on poetics and writing comments such as these, published in the Daily Chronical. ‘The best lyrics seem to be the poet’s natural speech’ and, this from 1904 ‘About matters of the spirit, men are all engaged in colloquies with themselves. Some of them are overheard, and they are great poets.’
Unlike an aspirant poet of for example, eighteen or nineteen years of age, Thomas began to concentrate on writing poetry when he was thirty-six. His life experiences gave him something to write from. A year or so earlier, his low self-esteem and depressive illness (Thomas apparently considered committing suicide more than once) had led Thomas to seek medical help. Matthew Hollis suggests that the resulting period of early psychoanalysis as a trial patient encouraged Thomas ‘in a method of self-inspection that would prove essential in his development as a writer’.
In his essay Feminine Influence on the Poets, from 1910, Thomas writes ‘The Chief influences of our lives are unconscious, just as the best of our best work is.’
Though Freud’s psychoanalytic theory was relatively new, Thomas would have been receptive to the idea of accessing the unconscious mind, perhaps via his study of and admiration for Coleridge, who had been interested in the emerging German philosophy of his own time and is credited with introducing the term ‘unconscious’ into the English language.
Also vital to Thomas’s technical skill as a poet was the extensive knowledge of literature in general (and specifically poetry) gained during his work as a literary critic. In addition, he had the vocabulary of the expert in the natural and rural landscape at his disposal, as well as his experience of immersion in that landscape during his many long walks and cycle rides, some of which are recorded in his recently republished travelogue In Pursuit of Spring.
In 1913 he wrote
‘For the last hundred years, ideas and the material of ideas have come to the reading classes mainly through books and bookish conversation. Their ideas are in advance of their experience, their vocabulary in advance of their ideas.’ When he eventually began to write his own poems, Thomas was able to draw on the great trinity of ideas, life experience and specific vocabulary. However, it was a combination of self-belief (engendered by the poet Robert Frost) and hard work that finally enabled Thomas to combine these attributes and produce an extraordinary number of poems between 1914 and his death at the age of 39 in the spring of 1917.
Early 20th century railway carriage
‘Spell’ seems to be a good word to use when considering the poem. While maintaining an enigmatic quality, the poem is not obscure but ‘spells out’ an experience in clear, plain, mostly ‘everyday’ language. Concentrating on sound, sight, and sensation, it evokes a spell or brief period. The time span in question is not only the stop between stations in midsummer 1914, but is also a symbolic pause between peace and the outbreak of world war one, approximately a month later. It is a pause in which there is nothing much happening, although the war that will mean disaster for millions, including the poet Edward Thomas, is on the horizon. The narrator is suspended between places and through his description the reader is invited to pause too; to be still for a short spell; to fall beneath the same spell that Thomas fell under. The poem gives a sense of consciousness; of a mind at rest but receptive, unengaged in thought but open to the sensations of the moment. The poem might be described as a series of moments where the reader is able to share what in modern parlance might be described as a state of ‘mindfulness’. I think the poem’s greatness lies beyond nostalgia and sentiment, although these elements certainly help; instead it lies in the capture of moments of ‘being’.
Yes.I remember Adlestrop —
The name, because one afternoon
Of heat the express-train drew up there
Unwontedly. It was late June.
The steam hissed. Someone cleared his throat.
No one left and no one came
On the bare platform. What I saw
Was Adlestrop – only the name
And willows, willow-herb, and grass,
And meadowsweet, and haycocks dry,
No whit less still and lonely fair
Than the high cloudlets in the sky.
And for that minute a blackbird sang
Close by, and round him, mistier,
Farther and farther, all the birds
Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.
What is happening in these sixteen lines?
The title is a good place to start. Adlestrop is a memorable and interesting name. Scholars, biographers and readers, fascinated by the poem and keen to examine its origins, have poured over period timetables and debated the reason for the train’s apparently unscheduled halt. Much of this conversation and debate over the journey has been inspired by the word ‘unwontedly’ in the poem. Setting this aside for a moment, lets return to the title. Try this – ‘Yes, I remember Campden’. Is this as striking as the awkward to say (and therefore perhaps more memorable) Adlestrop? I don’t think it is. Whatever the facts of Thomas’s journey (and many people regard the poem as verbatim reportage,) he decided to use the name ‘Adlestrop’ in his poem three times; once as the title, and twice more in the body of the poem. What factors might have influenced this choice? Maybe it is because there is an echo or suggestion of the word ‘stop’ in ‘strop.’ Consider, also the ‘o’s’ which run through the poem from title to end. These are pronounced both ‘o’ as in ‘throat’ and ‘o’ as in ‘Gloucestershire’. Some contribute their rounded sound of the poem when read aloud, and others to its ‘knitting together’ when viewed on the page. In order of appearance these ‘o’ words are;
Adelstrop, one, afternoon, unwontedly, someone, throat, no one, no one, on, platform, Adlestrop, only, willows, willow-herb, meadowsweet, haycocks, no, lonely, couldlets, for, close, round, Oxfordshire, Gloucestershire.
These constitute approximately a quarter of the words in the poem and I feel they contribute to a ‘slowing down’ in pace, since both pronunciations have ‘long’ sounds when read aloud.
The poem begins with a one word sentence. ‘Yes.’ Some versions have a coma after ‘Yes,’ but my copy of Edward Thomas Selected poems, edited by Matthew Hollis, has a stop after ‘Yes.’ And this is certainly, an arresting start, being not only a start but also a stop. A stop at the beginning to reflect the content of the poem.
It is as if the reader is allowed to listen in on a conversation that the poet is having with himself. By means of that opening ‘Yes’, we have the sense that a recollection is being shared, but not necessarily with ‘ us’ . The line ‘I Wandered Lonely as a cloud’ tells the reader what ‘I’ was up to. ‘Yes’, on the other hand, removes the self-conscious separation that comes with that opening ‘I’. In Wordsworth’s poem (and Thomas was a great student and admirer of Wordsworth) their is a sense of being told something rather than of discovering or entering into it. The ‘Yes’ at the beginning of Adlestrop seems to me to crucially alter the relationship between reader and writer, allowing an intimacy that would not occur if the poem simply begun ‘I remember Adlestrop’.
The next line is ‘The name’. Thomas doesn’t write ‘I remember Adlestrop, or at least, the name.’ He is remembering ‘the name’ and later ‘only the name’ (reiterated like ‘the truth and nothing but the truth’.) Thomas doesn’t want to hammer the point home, so he reinforces, in a subtle, conversational tone the image of the stilled train and its sign. The poem continues
‘…because one afternoon
Of heat the express-train drew up there
Unwontedly. It was late June.’
After the tentative opening that suggests a recollection in progress, the ‘reporting’ element begins here and continues at pace. Note also, the word order; it would be more usual to write ‘one hot afternoon’ or ‘in the heat of afternoon’ but instead we have ‘one afternoon / of heat’. This word order is not only more interesting, concise and unusual; it also seems to make the heat more tangible – to allow us to experience it more vividly.
The line breaks serve to speed things along. Thomas doesn’t opt for the possible ‘one afternoon of heat’ (new line). Instead, he uses the more dynamic ‘one afternoon/ of heat the express-train drew up there’ . A languid feeling is conveyed by the words, but the fluidity and rapidity of the poem’s movement and our processing of it is dictated by that line break.
Here are Thomas’s original notes, written on a train journey on 24th June, 1914 and kept in the Berg collection in New York Public Library.
A glorious day from 4.20 am & at 10 tiers above tiers of white cloud
with dirtiest grey bars above the sea of slate and dull brick by Battersea
Park- then at Oxford tiers of pure white with loose longer masses above
and gaps of dark clear blue haymaking and elms.
Then we stopped at Adlestrop, through the willows could be heard a
chain of blackbirds songs at 12.45 and one thrush & no man seen, only a hiss
of engine letting off steam. Stopping outside Campden by banks of long grass
willow herb and meadowsweet, extraordinary silence between two periods of travel –
looking out on grey dry stones between metals and shiny metals and
over it all the elms willows and long grass- one man clears
his throat-and a greater rustic silence. No house in view. Stop
only for a minute till signal is up.
Here, indisputably, is the genesis of the poem. Once the belief that he too could write poems, nurtured and encouraged by Frost, Thomas often returned to prose writings to ‘find’ a poem. Notebook entries would often be rewritten as prose, and then converted into drafts of poems. Later, Thomas missed out the intermittent phase of writing up his notes into prose, and utilised his notebooks directly to shape their detail in his poems.
This notebook entry is typical of Thomas, with its precise language and close attention to detail such as cloud shapes and colour, flora, fauna and birdsong. The notes also contain a feeling of distance, travel and of time passing, and it seems an increasing sense of wonder and immersion in the landscape as the train leaves the city behind and Thomas experiences his moment ‘between two periods of travel’ . There is also that clearing of the throat that is so clearly audible above the ‘extraordinary silence’.
The Campden Thomas refers to is the station at Chipping Campden in the Cotswolds, which together with Adlestrop station, was closed in 1966 as a result of Dr Beeching’s controversial reconfiguration of the British railway network. Returning to the poem, we find the word ‘Unwontedly’. Thomas’s use of this word has been much examined and debated. In an early draft of the poem, Thomas uses ‘Unexpectedly’. Perhaps the word ‘unwonted’ is an unexpected word. It is an unusual choice, and perhaps was rarely used, even a hundred years ago. It certainly does the job of stopping the poem in its tracks, appearing quite awkwardly at the beginning of a line . ‘..the express train drew up there/ Unwontedly.’
It is possible that Thomas chose ‘unwontedly’ over ‘unexpectedly’ partly for its sound (see ‘o’ sounds above). I suspect that the two ‘ex’ s in ‘Express’ and ‘Unexpectedly’, his original choice, make for a lot of ‘s’ sounds that alter the pace and mood of the poem and make it perhaps more impenetrable to both eye and ear. They seem to me to act together to give the poem a ‘shiny surface,’ that might cause the eye and ear to skate over them. ‘Unwontedly’ forces a pause. It is not only a more interesting and unusual word, but also allows Thomas to avoid the problem of the double sibilant ‘ex’ sounds, whose louder acoustic energy occurs at a higher frequency and perhaps would act against the idea of a brief peaceful idyll that Thomas is trying to evoke.
There has been much speculation (some of it bordering on the obsession) over the reason for the train stop. Some argue that it may have been to do with schedules not listing every stop, others suggest that signals at crossings or the need for a steam train to take on water may have been the reason. Ultimately, I don’t think the reason for the stop affects our enjoyment of the poem.
The fact the stop is ‘unwonted’ certainly brings a little mystery. Perhaps if Thomas had expected the stop he may have paid less attention to its elements. And the stop placed Thomas in his favourite time-setting, one which he explored in his poems again and again, namely, the period of transition.
As Michael Schmidt points out in his book ‘Lives of the poets’, Thomas poems are often set at the point of change; ‘ twilight, the point of change between seasons, or the present rendered vivid as the point between past and future, one felt as history, the other as potential.’ Schmidt continues ‘The poems mark transitions between emotions as well- the almost dark and almost light, the almost lost and almost found.’
Returning to the draft versions of Adlestrop, it is interesting to see that Thomas discards ‘T’was June’ from his first draft, instead opting for the modern ‘It was late June.’
In the third stanza we have this marvellous list. The ‘and’s’ between herb and grass and meadowsweet and haycocks perhaps serve to isolate and extenuate each item in the list, drawing attention to them in a way that separation by comas would not.
‘..willows, willow herb, and grass,/ And medowsweet, and haycocks dry’
Farm labourers beside a haycock, early 20th century.
Thomas had been making prose notes of his observations of countryside for many years.
This, from The Woodland Life (1897) reveals that Thomas precise attention to the English landscape made him aware of its state of constant flux.
June 5 The first wild rose of the summer.
Several nightingales have ceased to sing.
At one time sand-martins built at the very edge of Swin-
don old town in ‘ the Quarries’ ; but frequent blastings and
the invasion of starlings and sparrows have exiled them.
Thomas was not a pastoral sentimentalist, but a highly knowledgeable realist with an appreciation of human interaction and its impact upon nature. It might be argued that his writing has more in common with contemporary ecological concerns than with most of the work written during his own time and perhaps in the intervening period. In his book ‘In Pursuit of Spring’ Thomas writes of his admiration for the way a Coleridge poem ‘ unites richness and delicacy, sweetness and freshness, sensuousness and wildness, spirit and sense.’
In the third stanza of Adlestrop
The haycocks are
‘No whit less still and lonely fair
Than the high cloudlets in the sky. ‘
These two lines are the most self-consciously ‘poetic’ and perhaps ‘Victorian’ or ‘Georgian’ in the poem, and perhaps stand out a little in contrast to the more modern conversational language and cadence surrounding them. An earlier draft of the poem has ‘were not’ in place of ‘no whit’. ‘No whit’ sounds concise and bright to my ear; a little more sprightly than ‘were not’, which is perhaps a little dull and static. ‘No whit’ is a phrase now replaced in English speech and writing by ‘no less’ or ‘not at all’. I suspect Thomas’s reasons for using it were partly to do with the way it chimes with the ‘I’ of ‘still’ and partly because it looks a bit like ‘white’, which of course readies the mind for the ‘cloudlets’. It is also possible that in using ‘whit’ Thomas is planting another association in the readers head; namely the ‘whitter’ of birds. If ‘No whit’ seems a little archaic now, it is worth remembering that the poem was written only
sixty years after Matthew Arnold began a poem with ‘Others abide our question. Thou art free.’ Interestingly, when I was looking for examples of archaic language to contrast with Thomas’s ‘modern’ verse, I notice another of Arnold’s poems ‘To Marguerite’ begins ‘Yes!’ A much more definite affirmation than Thomas’s opening ‘Yes,’ but a ‘yes’ nevertheless.
The poem concludes
And for a minute a blackbird sang
Close by, and round him, mistier,
Farther and father, all the birds
of Oxfordshire and Gloustershire.
After ‘Close by’ there is a broadening out, an expansion of the poem’s scope. The distant birdsong brings an awareness of the landscape beyond the small frame of the carriage window. Effectively, the perspective is widened from close up to panorama. This expansion allows the reader to gently enter or re-enter a wider reality, to leave the stopped train and its spell just as a film might end with a gradually ascending aerial shot or slow wide-angle sweep.
According to biographer Matthew Hollis, ‘The length of time from notebook to typewriter could be a few days or many months’, so it is quite possible that Thomas drafted the poem after his enrolment in the British army. ‘Adlestrop’ was published in the New Statesman three weeks after the poet was killed by a shell blast at Arras. Prior to his enlisting, Thomas had suffered from a well documented internal battle as to what his course of action should be. An awareness that the poem is set rural England on the brink of war undoubtedly adds to its impact. The context or subtext for all Thomas’s poetry is war. Unlike Rosenberg, Owen, Sassoon and so many others, Thomas didn’t write about the trenches or the front. Instead he wrote poetry of the ‘Home Front’; poems that connect obliquely to the war and with concerns about the nature of ‘home’ of those left behind and their profound sense of a world altered by absence. Philip Larkin’s poem MCMXIV (1914 written in Roman numerals such as might be carved on a memorial) is in many respects a sequel to Thomas’s Adelstrop:
The place-names all hazed over
With flowering grasses, and fields
Shadowing Domesday lines
Under wheat’s restless silence;
The title poem of Larkin’s 1964 collection ‘The Whitsun Weddings’ which includes the poem can also be said to owe much to Thomas’s own ‘train’ poem. Larkin’s ‘three-quarters-empty train’ pulls out, ‘All windows down, all cushions hot’.
Another facet of Adelstrop’s appeal lies in its subtlety. Thomas wrote of Rupert Brooke, before his untimely death, that he was a ‘ rhetorician, dressing things up better than they needed’, and criticised his 1914 sonnets as an ‘attempt to connect with himself the very widespread idea that self-sacrifice is the highest self-indulgence’.
Thomas was older and more worldly than his friend or acquaintance Brooke, and certainly less susceptible to connecting with prevailing idealism and notions of heroism. He had his own (typically complex) reasons for enlisting, and in his essay ‘This England’ he says: ‘Something, I felt, had to be done before I could again look composedly at English landscape’. Thomas’s interest in developing poems that arose out of ‘natural speech’ combined with ability to evoke his experience of the countryside made his own work the opposite of the rhetorical style of many of his contemporaries. Adlestrop seduces and overtakes the reader in a way that seems almost covert.
The lack of ostentation and quiet understatement of ‘Adlestrop’ as well as its ‘heart of England’ landscape mark it out as a quintessentially English poem, although of course, both of Thomas’s parents were Welsh. Ivor Gurney perhaps described the poem most accurately and concisely when he called it ‘nebulously, intangibly beautiful’.
Anyone interested in Thomas and his work should certainly read ‘Now All Roads Lead To France’ by Matthew Hollis. Hollis concentrates on the final five years of Thomas’s life, in particular
his relationship with Robert Frost.
Jean Moorcroft Wilson’s 2015 biography From Adlestrop to Arras sheds further light on the man and his troubled life and difficult relationships. In the course of her research Moorcroft Wilson uncovered a letter from Thomas’s commanding officer revealing that the poet had died after being ‘shot clean through the chest’ . Up until the publication of the biography it was generally believed that Thomas had been killed when a shell exploded nearby and the blast left him without a mark on his body.
The Annotated Collected Poems perhaps provides the greatest sense of the poet and of his motivations and is essential reading for anyone interested in Thomas. It is Edited by Edna Longley and expertly reviewed here. You can also read Longley’s excellent article on Thomas’s ecological relevance here
Reading Helen Mort’s fascinating piece on the male and female gaze in poetry this afternoon and the distinctions between the approaches of two male poets, I was reminded of my own ‘male gaze’ poem which appears in the new book The Great Animator.
The John Burnside poem Helen quotes is not dissimilar to my own; the narrator is an older man (in Burnside’s case sixty) looking at a young woman.
Reading my poem again I was briefly uneasy about my use of the word ‘girl’ for a young woman, but then I’m fairly sure I’d consider and refer to a teenage male as a ‘boy’. I suppose my own poem features the male gaze twice, since a comparison is made between the young woman and the ‘qualities’ conveyed in portraits by Da Vinci painting, another instance of the male gaze. In his paintings Da Vinci tended to depict women as ‘fully rounded human beings’ as this article suggests.
I remember looking at several Leonardo Da Vinci paintings after I decided to make the comparison between the young woman in the train carriage and a Leonardo painting.
I wanted to check this what I really meant,wanted to look at the paintings and rediscover what the nature of their ‘beauty’ seemed to be based upon.
I decided that serenity and assurance were the two main qualities that seemed to emanate from the work, and that these were the words I was looking for, or perhaps more accurately, these words were looking for the poem.
After the Gallery
Heading north again, yellow and orange leaves stream past
like dots freed from a Seurat painting.
We pass a plump brown river, the promise of another flood
held under its skin.
A horse in a green coat
rolls in a field; a wash of mist
softens a ridge. Outside Chesterfield
I try to look away from a girl
who studies the Highway Code. You’re almost old, my eyes tell
One of the readings to launch ‘The Great Animator’ was recorded at Leicester’s States of Independence festival. You can listen to it as well as readings by American poets Mihaela Moscaliuc and Michael Waters by clicking this link.
Here are some photos from my recent travels to launch ‘The Great Animator’.
As you can see I am fortunate to have spent time with some lovely people (and animals) and to have visited some fabulous places.
First stop was Yorkshire
For the Manchester Waterstones bookshop reading I visited poet and shepherd Keith Hutson. On the left is Keith laying out food for his flock.
Here is Keith’s puppy, Eric, who took me for a walk.
Keith Hutson reading in Manchester
My publisher and editor, the writer Professor John Lucas introducing the readings.
American poet Mihaela Moscaliuc reading from her collection ‘Imigrant Model’. And American poet Michael Waters.
Yorkshire sculpture park. A quick stop on the way home to visit my favourite Henry Moore, ‘Two Forms, 1966-1969’
Also new exhibition of Tony Cragg’s incredible work.
And some geese and a Heron by the river
I was also lucky to see a Kingfisher nearby.
London, Bloomsbury. The white plaque is on the Foundlings Hospital.
And a quick stop at the British museum
Including an exhibition of British watercolours. Paul Nash, Eric Ravilious, and new to me, Ralph Maynard Smith.
This piece has the fantastic title ‘Better be yourself; better make your own music.’
Met John Lucas before the evening reading
with Michael and Mihaela at Bookmarks, Bloomsbury.
Who knew that the child, screwing up his face
at that first sip, would find this a necessity;
the aroma suffusing mornings where a radio plays
extracts of bombing runs, gunshots outside a café
as he stands by the humming machine’s twin streams,
flicking the switch when the last drops pock the crema.
He might down it on the spot, or sit on the step to watch
sparrows dust-bathe. Often, he’ll carry the cup to the room
where he pours memories into a book, looking up to find
his reflection floating in a black sky. Maybe if all the cups
he’d drunk were stood in line they’d stretch to Ethiopia
where the kaffa plant grew among the first humans.
His heart, once as easily excited by this dark syrup
as by a lover’s touch, has grown steady, accustomed.
From The Great Animator, Shoestring Press, March 2017.
I’m delighted to announce a short series of readings to promote my new collection, The Great Animator.
March 11th – 1 pm at Leicester States of Independence, with Mihaela Moscaliuc, author of the poetry collections Immigrant Model (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2015) and Father Dirt (Alice James Books, 2010) and American poet Michael Waters,- Celestial Joyride (2017) and Selected Poems (2011) from Shoestring Press.
March 14th– Manchester Waterstones, Deansgate 6 -8 with Keith Hutson, Mihaela Moscaliuc and Michael Waters
March 16th– London Bookmarks bookshop, , 1 Bloomsbury Street, London WC1 3QE , free admission and free wine. 6.30 -8.30 h Michael Waters and Michaela Mosaliuc
March 27th – Leicester Shindig.
Further events are to be found on the Readings page.
“Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes).”
Walt Whitman, ‘Song of Myself’ from Leavesof Grass
‘.. a poetic sequence is a whole that, however beautiful its parts, becomes something greater because of the connections, either explicit and logical or resonant and psychological, between its sections.’- Keith Taylor, Sequences and Symmetries: Michigan Quarterly Review
The quotation directly above is something to aim for, at least.
I’ve written three sequences (two have been published). The first, Leonardo, appeared in my book ‘The Sun Bathers’. The second, Traces is a twelve-poem sequence reflecting on my time as a nurse working in coronary care and is at the heart of my new book.
Each sequence provided its own challenges and rewards. Each allowed me to revisit and explore a theme and its associated images; to gradually apply layers of meaning in a bid to build a partial picture. Or to utilise another metaphor, to lay down roots. In Traces I definitely wanted to revisit and consolidate my experience; to define a territory in which to travel emotionally, to cover the ground within its borders (and to occasionally transgress or blur them by bringing in imagery or metaphor from other areas of my life) in order to investigate aspects of the terrain that could not possibly be covered in a single poem, unless of course it were the length of Homer’s Iliad.
A poem sequence can be viewed as an exciting opportunity to write in different ways about the same subject, to approach it from a multitude of angles, to use different forms in order to take differing perspectives. It might be regarded as a chance to play multiple variations of a tune in styles ranging from jazz to rock to orchestral to plainsong. It is also a chance to play every instrument in the band. A quick internet search reveals that, as with most topics in poetry, there are differing ideas as to what constitutes a poem sequence. A glance at the list of synonyms above shows how even the word ‘sequence’ provides a chance to interpret. For example, an ‘array’ seems to suggest something very different from a ‘track’. And of course a track can be linear or circular. A ‘skein’- a length of thread or yarn, loosely coiled and knotted- would provide a very different metaphor for a group of poems than a ‘procession’.
As a reader, I have often enjoyed the sense of progress, development and interaction between pieces when reading a cluster or sequence of poems. We can learn the terminology of the poet’s ‘sequence world’ – for example, a sequence might be in a setting, such as a hospital, that has its own specific language. We can absorb this setting, feel and think ourselves into a sequence much in the same way we can become absorbed in a film.
However, writing a sequence has its own pitfalls. Repetition, or rather, unnecessary repetition perhaps being the main one. By their very nature sequences are likely to utilise a certain amount of repetition. The challenge lies in approaching a subject from various angles and in achieving that fine balance between fortifying and over-engineering. .
When reading sections of my own sequences or listening to other poets read theirs, I’ve perceived a deepening of engagement from the audience; a sense that the listeners are charged with an awareness of the subject matter through the repetition or reinforcement a theme.
There is no ‘correct’ way to write or order a sequence of poems. Sequences can approach themes in a linear fashion in order to unfold a story or events in time,
or they can play with perspective and memory in order to create collages or impressions.
My own sequences came about in different ways. Most of the twelve poems that make up Traces were written in a kind of trance and with the sort of flow that poets, including me, dream of. One evening a couple of years ago, I wrote several interlinked poems in quick succession. Once I had these poems I added others over a period of a year or so, sometimes consciously identifying what I considered to be ‘gaps’ in the story or narrative of my experience. It felt important (and unavoidable) to restate and revisit themes, and it seemed only right to try to cover as many aspects of the experience as I could in order to do it justice. I can liken this process to walking beside my own tracks on a beach, occasionally stepping on a previous imprint. Looking at the sequence now I can see that each poem makes sense when isolated i.e, the subject matter of each is clear and can stand alone. This is probably a reflection of my own style and tendency to try and make poems that can be read in isolation. I am aware that many sequences contain poems which rely on those around them in order to provide context and meaning. I’m thinking particularly of some of the poems in Karen McCarthy Woolf’s ‘An Aviary of Small Birds’ which are all the more moving and powerful because of their relationship to the poems that come before them in the book.
The sequence in my first book was very different to Traces, although there were similarities in that I had to keep asking myself (after the initial flurry of writing) if I’d approached the subject with enough variety of form and perspective to maintain interest. I mention form because personally I found using a range of forms helped me to find the variety I was seeking. But it isn’t necessary to vary form in a sequence. Sometimes the power of a sequence is enhanced by its utilisation of, for example, a single form such as the sonnet. Sonnet sequences enable the poet to challenge themselves to work within the criteria and constrains of the form. The uniformity of a sequence such as Nick Drake’s ‘Boxes’ from his Bloodaxe collection, From the Word Go, enhances its impact.
Each of Drake’s ‘boxes’ is exquisitely made. The subject matter (his relationship with his father and his illness and death) is explored with great subtly and craft. The poet has used all his skill to create a set of sonnet ‘artefacts’ in remembrance of the relationship . The sequence in this instance, is a labour of love.
My own sequence about Leonardo Da Vinci differed from Traces in that it required some research and was a much more conscious effort to synthesise historical information. I hesitate to say it was less personal since all my poems are in some way personal. However, it did not draw directly from my own lived experience in the way as Traces did . Having read a biography of Leonardo and travelled to his birthplace, I was originally interested in writing about his whole life. But after visiting an exhibition of his anatomical drawings I became focused on a smaller canvas, namely an imaginative exploration of Da Vinci’s anatomical drawings and the processes and circumstances surrounding their production. It was important to scale down the scope of the sequence in order to make the project manageable.
In my experience sequences can provide the writer with the feeling that they are rich in material; that they have ‘something in the bank’ and that even when not actively producing poems, there is a subject to return to an explore.
Once a number of poems have been written, the next challenge is to select poems and lay them out in the order that works best. One absorbing aspect of assembling a sequence is deciding which poems to include and to work out the relationships between poems so they work together to their collective advantage. While it is undoubtedly hard to write a batch of poems that maintain a consistently high quality, it is important to try and recognise any weaker poems and remove them or risk weakening the impact of the whole sequence.
I can think of a few reasons for writing a sequence of poems. A desire to achieve closure; to visit or revisit a subject repeatedly and from different angles. To attempt, as we often do in individual poems, to make sense of a subject. To honour a subject and try to capture some of its multiple facets. To build a monument in words (see definition of ‘perpetuity’ in the list of synonyms above. )To challenge our skills, ingenuity, and stamina. To experiment with different ways of working around a theme or subject.
A box containing copies of my new collection ‘The Great Animator’ arrived today. Officially launching with readings in March, it’s not yet available from my publisher Shoestring Press, Amazon or other outlets at present, but you can buy a copy directly from me if you go to this page and click the Paypal link. I had some trouble setting up the button, but a twelve year old friend of my son assisted me. The cover price is £10, but I’m offering it for £9.50 including postage and packing. I’ll be reading from the book in London, Leicester and Manchester next month. Please see Readings page for details. Thank you.
If I’d looked it up later that day
I would have found the hollow bone edge
is called the wrist; that a slope descends
to forewing, that overlapping coverts
are lesser, greater, median, and scapulars are where
the back begins. If I could have looked beyond
the raw, torn joint, and stood at the mouth
of my coppice den, to let it fall open
like a satin fan, I’d have seen the perfect shoulder
of the bastard wing, full flush secondaries
and mantel of the hind, each quill
blue black and slickly primed.
But what it lacked was all I saw so I ran,
as rooks mocked and raved
in the ruin of trees.