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In Praise of Trains

A new anthology of train related poetry was published by Faber last week. You can read about it here and here.

A personal train related favourite of mine is Paul Farley’s ‘From a Weekend First’, the poem that opens his collection ‘The Ice Age.’

Traveling, as I do, for several hours per week, I have ample opportunity for people watching and eves dropping. I listen in to telephone and face to face conversations, observe the unstinting politeness of train service staff in the face of those who don’t know their pleases and thank you s. I can gaze across fields, hills and fat brown rivers, over tagged and graffitied walls into breaker’s yards and empty factories. I can listen to that English particular to the train announcer; nowhere else can you hear the word ‘alight’ being used, as in ‘please take care when alighting from the carriages.’ The wonderful marriage of ‘alight’ and the equally arcane ‘carriage’ has survived unscathed  for a couple of hundred years.

I am lucky enough to generally find train travel (at least train travel in the absence of celebrating football supporters) conducive to writing.  This is partly due to the specific journey I take. Heading North from the midlands is a different matter from the cattle truck rush hours of my Southern past.

My i-pod recently stopped working and I don’t carry a tablet or laptop so I am restricted to the old-fashioned pleasure of scribing long hand in a notebook. My poems ‘Dying Arts’, which features a train, and ‘The Sun Bathers’ were both written on such journey’s.

The other thing I do on trains is read poems.
On a recent journey I was accompanied by several slim volumes and the new New Walk magazine. In New Walk I was absorbed by a great piece by Tony Roberts on Randall Jarrell. I was aware of Jarrell’s status as a critic but did not know his poetry and am shortly to rectify this by purchasing his ‘The Lost World.’

On this trip I also dipped in Kathleen Jamie’s ‘The Overhaul’. I don’t know of anyone currently writing who can produce such arrestingly beautiful short lyrics.

In contrast, I also re-acquainted myself with Maurice Riordan’s wonderful long poem ‘The Sloe’ from his collection ‘Floods.’ I think I must have heard Maurice read this on the radio  many years ago, and the poem has that quality that many of his poems have of being strangely familiar and brilliantly surprising at the same time.

When this part of my life reaches its last and final destination and I gather personal belongings and travel documents to alight from the carriage I hope I’ll soon find another excuse to climb aboard and enjoy the ride.

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