Monthly Archives: April 2012

Bathtime Reading

“I read the great verses, in the bath. . .”  Yes, I could have used the first person pronoun, instead of the third, in the two following poems.  I think they work better, however, using the more impersonal form.  I do read poetry outside the bath as well, of course, but I particularly enjoy settling into a nice, warm bath with an anthology of great verse.

The Great Verses:

He reads the great verses, in the bath.
The time, for him, they become more real.
There is time to think, time to feel.
Buoyant with bubbles, suffused with steam;
time to slumber, time to dream.

That one is good; but its truth is above me”.
This one is good; but its beauty goes through me”.
“I could do one like this; but would only fake it”.
“I’d love to do that one; but I cannot make it”.

Here’s one that sings, siren-like, to his brain.
Sinks into it smoothly; no struggle, only gain.
Transcends all tragedy; purges all pain.
Refreshes his soul, like soft, sprinkling rain.
“I like that one” he whispers.  “Let me read it again”.

The Great Verses (2):

He reads the great verses, in the bath.
Floating in fragrance; harmonious haze.
He envies their magic, strives for the path;
ever-elusive, evading his gaze.

At times, frustration incites his wrath.
Patience!  Perspire and pray, they preach.
He has drifted, it seems, in delusory daze.
So near, he thought, yet so out of reach.

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Urban Fox

In my previous post “Ted Hughes and my Pigeon”, I mentioned that the pigeon appeared while I was waiting for a bus at Huntingdon Bus Station.  The fact is, I spent an inordinate amount of time, during my working life, travelling to and from work by means of public transport.  I never got around to learning how to drive, and working at MOD bases hidden away in inaccessible countryside only exacerbated the problem.  My poem “Urban Fox” derives from a typical situation when I was getting up at 4.45 a.m. and walking a mile to the nearest bus station for the six o’clock bus.  The animal I encountered was more tangible and less mysterious than Ted Hughes’s “Thought-Fox”, but still made quite an impact upon me.

Urban Fox:

 

Dankness, darkness, all around.
Orange lights glimmer, scant is the sound.
Sleep-heavy eyes, mouth stiff from yawning.
I walk into town, this workday morning.

 

Leaves underfoot, turning to sludge.
Rain falling softly, onwards I trudge.
Mind locked in neutral, only dimly aware,
at the side of the pavement, the creature is there.

 

Walking straight past it, dull, robotic pace.
Only then registering its snout, eyes and face.
Thoughts slowly stirring, mired in a bog.
Something strange about it; this is no dog.

 

I stop and stare.  It is relaxed, at ease.
Familiar with the street, away from fields and trees.
Before this, the only foxes I had ever seen
were glimpsed, at distance, in vistas of green.

 

In the early-morning silence, we are alone.
Creatures of circumstance, far from home.
Driven by necessity, that omniscient power,
to wander the streets at this unearthly hour.

 

Our eyes meet briefly, fleeting survey.
Tail swishing jauntily, it goes on its way.
It would have mouths to feed, vital prey to snatch.
I must walk briskly; I have a bus to catch.

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Ted Hughes and my “Pigeon”

Ted Hughes first made his name with startling poems exhibiting a unique vision of the beauty and violence of nature.  His “Hawk Roosting”: “. . . I hold creation in my foot/Or fly up, and revolve it all slowly – /I kill where I please because it is all mine/There is no sophistry in my body:/My manners are tearing off heads – /. . .  His “Thrushes” have a “. . . bullet and automatic purpose” he compares to Mozart’s brain.  His “Pike”: “. . . Killers from the egg: the malevolent aged grin . . .”

I was waiting for a bus at Huntingdon Bus Station one morning, when a particularly portly pigeon suddenly flew down and joined me.  The bus was late, as usual, so I had ample time to observe the pigeon’s manoeuvres.  I’m not foolhardy enough to ask for the resulting poem to be compared with Ted Hughes’ great verses; but I hope it has some merit, in its own way.

Pigeon:

 

Loud “clack!” of wings
announces landing.
This portly gauleiter
wastes no time;
asserts authority
upon all in its ambit.

 

Beady eye fixed upon
nearest crumb.  Waddles
plump body towards it.
Jabs beak, impatient;
tosses aside the less
than satisfactory.
Muscles gravid with
purpose, moves
to the next crumb.

 

What ancestral dreams
sing through its veins?
Dim memories of forbears,
wings beating steadily;
metal canister of grave
import on ankle.  Navigating
home, unerring, by lie of land.

 

All this now suppressed
to immediate task.  This
inveterate yea-sayer;
will to power evident
in sheer strength of  neck muscles.
There WILL be food!
There WILL be food!
Eyes gleaming with
Zarathustrean zeal.

 

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Larkinesque?

Philip Larkin (1922-1985) is one of my favourite poets.  He had a deceptively simple style, using striking imagery and a conversational tone, underscored with a wry humour.  He wasn’t afraid to tackle huge questions relating to morality, death, work, love, religion; but it was all done in a plain, direct manner – no high-faluting waffle!  In two of his best-known poems: “Church-Going” and “Aubade”, he commented on religion – “That vast moth-eaten musical brocade/Created to pretend we never die” (“Aubade”).

My poem “The Facilitators” is one of the few I’ve done that has religion as its subject.  It was inspired by walking past a church recently and seeing people sitting in cars, waiting patiently for their loved ones to appear after the church service.  I also remembered how my father – who had no interest in religion at all – used to take my devoutly Roman Catholic mother to church every sunday, then drive away to the golf course.  I’d like to think Philip Larkin might have approved of the poem; and, of course, if anyone sees anything Larkinesque in it (if there is such a word?), I’d be absolutely delighted!

The Facilitators:

Every Sunday morning, there they are,
patiently waiting.  The respectable car
neatly parked, in its allotted place.
These days, plenty of parking space.

In the church, the loved ones participate
in rituals they link to their ultimate fate.
Genuflect, pray, unite with the laity.
Chant words of joy and praise to their deity.

In the car, idling in the shade of the spire,
the drivers are content; they have no desire
for mystical communion, or celestial fire.
Happy playing the part of taxi for hire.

It is admirable, tolerant, civilized,
but discounts the drama of those earlier lives,
when all revolved around one’s spiritual creed;
the passion inspiring every thought, every deed.

Service concluded, the loved ones appear;
exiting the church, their consciences clear.
Saying their goodbyes, eyes immediately darting
to the cars, awaiting; the engines, starting.

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Delius and the Cuckoo

I have tried, on at least three occasions, to write a poem about a piece of music that has moved me.  I’ve not been too happy with the finished products, and it should have been no surprise to me, because what’s the point in trying to write a poem about a piece of music, in the first place?  Surely I should have realized that it’s not possible to describe, in words, what the music is expressing!  Nevertheless, that is what I was trying to do in a short poem about Debussy’s “Claire de Lune”.  In another poem, I wrote about how my feelings of sadness – after the death of my father – were deepened, listening to a Norfolk Rhapsody by Vaughan Williams.  That poem wasn’t a complete failure, I think; probably because I was writing about my own feelings, rather than trying to describe the music itself.  The height of my folly came when I was so obsessed by Satie’s “Gymnopedies No’1” that I ended-up writing a poem where each word stood for a separate note of music!

A few days ago, I happened to hear, purely by accident, Delius’s orchestral tone poem “On Hearing the First Cuckoo of Spring”  twice on the same day, on the radio.  Inevitably, I was overcome, again, by the impulse to write a poem about it.  This time, I’m relatively happy with the end-result.  I think it’s because the simplicity and repetitive nature of the cuckoo’s call is a useful stabilising factor.

Delius and the Cuckoo:

Delius heard the first cuckoo of spring.
He sat, enraptured, hearing it sing.
Hypnotic call, from invisible bird.
His spirits lifted, his sentiments stirred.

Plain, yet plangent; simple, yet strong.
The lilting rhythms of a cradle-song.
In silent repose, he began to hear
soft strings, lush woodwind, in his inner ear.

Rippling waters, fluttering breezes.
Momentum gathers, then slowly eases.
Cyclical patterns, round and round.
Fleeting, yet recurring, that haunting sound.

“Goodbye!  Goodbye!” it sings, from on high.
Sadness wells up; a tear in his eye.
He must hold its message; capture its cry.
Like all living things, it is doomed to die.

Moments in time; staves on a page.
Transient memories, frozen with age.
All is stillness, now; he himself long gone.
Only the music, the music lives on.

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Home-Thoughts from Abroad

There are some great poems that instill in me the perverse impulse to produce my own, slightly deviant, version.  Robert Browning’s “Home-thoughts, from Abroad” is one such.  It’s not an attempt to make fun of the original, in any way.  So I don’t see my versions as parodies, more as affectionate pastiches.

Robert Browning

Home Thoughts, from Abroad

O, TO be in England
Now that April ‘s there,
And whoever wakes in England
Sees, some morning, unaware,
That the lowest boughs and the brushwood sheaf
Round the elm-tree bole are in tiny leaf,
While the chaffinch sings on the orchard bough
In England—now!

And after April, when May follows,
And the whitethroat builds, and all the swallows!
Hark, where my blossom’d pear-tree in the hedge
Leans to the field and scatters on the clover
Blossoms and dewdrops—at the bent spray’s edge—
That ‘s the wise thrush; he sings each song twice over,
Lest you should think he never could recapture
The first fine careless rapture!
And though the fields look rough with hoary dew,
All will be gay when noontide wakes anew
The buttercups, the little children’s dower
—Far brighter than this gaudy melon-flower!

And my version:

Pub-Thoughts, from a Reluctant Abstainer:

Oh, to be in a pub,
now that it’s opening-time.
Enticing aromas of homely grub,
first hit of chilled vodka and lime.
Cornish Pasty?  Or Steak Pie and Chips?
Tankards are raised to glistening lips.
While the trembling priest breaks his latest vow.
In a pub — now!

And later, in the warm, companionable fug,
see friend and foe re-united, in a hug.
A muttered request, for double measure of gin,
goes unheeded, amid the boisterous din.
That’s the ageing alkie; he drinks ever-faster,
on a futile quest.  He can never recapture
the long-lost haze of golden rapture.
The pinched looks, tense glares and worried frowns
mutate into smiles, as the drinks go down.
Each drink imbued with such resonance, for me.
More meaningful, by far, than this tasteless cup of tea!

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Hello world!

Welcome to stewartstanzas.  This is going to be a poetry blog; primarily about my own poems, but also about poems and poets that have inspired me.  Philip Larkin, Wendy Cope, John Donne, Andrew Marvell, Edward Thomas, George Mackay Brown, S.T. Coleridge, Seamus Heaney, Rochester, Thomas Hardy, Roger McGough . . . to name but a few.

I think I’ll leave this as a brief statement of intent, for now.  This blogging business is a completely new venture for me; I’ll have to go and find out more about what I can and can’t do!

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