Monthly Archives: October 2012

Watching the Feet

I have written, recently, about how coming across a memorable phrase can instill thoughts that lead to a poem.  Occasionally, the memorable phrase in question just happens to be a line in a well-known poem.  If that is the case, and you then go on to create a poem of your own, inspired by the line of a previous poet, then questions of “plagiarism” obviously come into play.  This happened to me when I first came across the poem “Counting the Beats” by Robert Graves (1895-1985).  Graves was famous for his novels (e.g. “I Claudius”) and autobiographical memoirs (e.g. “Goodbye to All That”) as well as his poems.  He was also the author of a fascinating, though perplexing, book about the origins of poetry: “The White Goddess”.  I admit to more than one attempt to read “The White Goddess”, but I found it impenetrable, and eventually conceded defeat.  His poetry, however, was much more accessible; he was one of the great love poets in the language.

“Counting the Beats” has a hypnotic rhythm.  It has a second verse that Graves repeats at the end:

Counting the beats.
Counting the slow heart beats.
The bleeding to death of time in slow heart beats.
Wakeful they lie.

Like “Counting the Beats”, my poem “Watching the Feet” is a love poem.  Anyone familiar with the Graves poem will immediately recognise the similarities in my poem.  I would deny the charge of “Plagiarism”, however.  I’ve only used the rhythms from his poem to create phrases and ideas of my own – and isn’t that what happens in the vast majority of poems?

Watching the Feet:

Watching the feet.
Watching the crow’s feet.
The tracks of experience she can’t disguise.
The wandering crow’s feet, around your lover’s eyes.

Thinking of her smile.
Her smile.  Oh, God!  Her laughter!
Intoxicating peals; enough to make you feel
immune to all disaster.

Thinking how you’d meet.
Excuses, pretences, untoward expenses.
It was all worthwhile, for her smile.

Watching the feet.
Watching the crow’s feet.
The tracks of experience she can’t disguise.

Wiping your eyes.
Trying to be wise.
Thinking how, like all things,
it starts, it stops, it dies.


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A Memorable Phrase (2)

A couple of weeks ago, in “A Memorable Phrase”, I wrote about how such a phrase could generate thoughts and ideas leading to the creation of a poem.  Another of my poems was inspired by the phrase “Noli me tangere”.  Explaining the gestation of this poem, however, is slightly more complicated – due to the fact that, initially, I had no idea what “Noli me tangere” meant!

I can’t recall how or when I first encountered the phrase, but it was definitely long before the onset of the internet.  Nowadays, of course, if you are curious about the meaning of any phrase or saying, you can just type it into a search engine and hey presto!  That means of instant knowledge was not available to me, at the time.  Had I been a proficient Latin scholar, the meaning would have instantly disclosed itself to me; but I was hopeless at Latin at school, and so remained in ignorance.  Over a period of time, the phrase started to hint at images and ideas, which I began to form into a poem.  The sort of images I was conjuring with were exotic and sensual.  I suppose “tangere” suggested “tangerine” to me and – somehow or other – I connected it to Paul Gaugin’s paintings of Tahitian women.  Gaugin often gave titles to such paintings in broken Tahitian, and I was convinced –  erroneously, as it turned out – that he had entitled one of these paintings “Noli me tangere”.  At some point, whilst I was still in process of completing the poem, I managed to find out that the phrase translated as “Don’t touch me” or “Touch me not”, and I then incorporated that meaning into the poem.  It was only after the poem was completed that I discovered there was a long cultural history  relating to the phrase.  It was, apparently, the phrase attributed to Jesus, talking to Mary after the Resurrection, and many paintings by famous artists explore the subject.  My poem makes no reference to that theme, which may perplex some readers; but I think it works in its own right, suggesting images and feelings that had their own meaning for me, at the time.

Noli me Tangere:

One of those phrases,
emitting a resonance,
glimmering, gleaming.
I knew not its meaning,
but felt it entrance,
heard it breathing.

“Touch me not.
Touch me not.
My skin seeps softly.
My blood is hot…”

Relentless whispering
unsettled the night;
tormenting, impinging
on dawn’s early light.

Entangled, threshing,
musk of tangerine.
Her presence flickering,
haunting my dreams.

Our bodies rhythmically,
tangentially come and go.
Linked, hypnotically,
in sinuous tango.

“Touch me  not.
Touch me not.
I come from a land
that time forgot …”

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Incomprehensible Verse

When you spend time – as I try to do – reading poems of all sorts and varieties, you are bound to come across the odd one or two that don’t seem to make any sense.  Sometimes, although you can’t really make head nor tail of it, a poem will still make a striking impact upon you.  This was the case, for me, when I encountered William Empson’s poem “Missing Dates”.

Empson (1906-84) was an eccentric genius.  Having been a child prodigy at mathematics, he suddenly switched to literature and – at the age of twenty-four – became famous as the author of “Seven Types of Ambiguity”.  This was regarded as the most important work of literary criticism of its time.  In the 1968 film “The Magus”, you first see Michael Caine (ridiculously miscast as a student of literature) reading a book.  You then get a close-up of the title of the book: “Seven Types of Ambiguity”.  That this film turned out to be one of the worst films ever made is beside the point; it shows how well-known Empson’s book had become.

The poem “Missing Dates” has a compelling first stanza:

Slowly the poison the whole blood stream fills.
It is not the effort nor the failure tires.
The waste remains, the waste remains and kills.

After four more compelling, yet puzzling, stanzas, it concludes:

It is the poems you have lost, the ills
From missing dates, at which the heart expires.
Slowly the poison the whole bloodstream fills.
The waste remains, the waste remains and kills.

With my own poem “The Wrong Side”, I was, originally, trying to replicate the compelling, rhythmic repetition of “Missing Dates”.  It finished up being nothing like as complex as Empson’s poem (which was, technically, a “villanelle”), and the only repetitive line is the final line of each stanza.  The only other similarity it has to “Missing Dates” is that the meaning of it might remain obscure to some readers.  I’m not too bothered about that.  I quite like the poem as it stands; and I know what it means, if no-one else does.

The Wrong Side:

Invisible barriers are broken.
Nemesis governs the tide.
Dreams of chaos haunted the night.
I got out of bed – the wrong side.

Pathways forged in the ether.
Laws unwritten applied.
Tossing and turning in torment,
I got out of bed – the wrong side.

Silent entities rule these spheres.
Their will cannot be denied.
Visions of love prove deceptive.
I got out of bed – the wrong side.


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A Memorable Phrase

Sometimes a phrase suddenly lodges itself in my head and immediately starts generating ideas for a poem.  I don’t know where I came across the phrase “Everyday life at the end of its tether”; I seem to remember seeing it in a book review a while ago, but I can’t remember who the reviewer was, or which book he/she was reviewing.  Anyway, the phrase took hold of me, and I started jotting notes for a poem, which eventually was to be entitled “Tether”.

I was reminded of the phrase by a fascinating book I’m currently reading: “Now All Roads Lead to France – The Last Years of Edward Thomas” by Matthew Hollis.  Devoted followers of this blog will know of my liking for the poems of Edward Thomas, who was killed in the First World War.  Thomas’s most well-known poem is “Adlestrop”, which I affectionally pastiched in my poem “Cricket at Adlestrop”.  Matthew Hollis’s book is a biography of Thomas, focusing on the last four years of his life, and his friendship with the American poet Robert Frost.  I knew very little about Thomas, before reading this book, so I had no idea that he suffered from chronic depression, and attempted suicide on more than one occasion.  Reading Thomas’s comments about how family life with his wife and three children had become unbearable, the phrase “Everyday life at the end of its tether” inevitably sprang to mind.


No fun anymore, only sadness and pain.
Dust infiltrates into cracks in the leather.
Nothing exceptional, all is mundane.
Everyday life at the end of its tether.

The haunting horror lurches down the lane.
Just a nightmare, but with you forever.
The thought of it chills you, drives you insane.
Try as you might, you can’t hold things together.

No point anymore, only losses, no gain.
Whatever the day, whatever the weather.
Spirit dissolves into cells in the brain.
Everyday life at the end of its tether.

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