Monthly Archives: February 2014

Poems as Cryptic Puzzles


“Airs!  Airs!  Look!  Airs!”
The dumpy woman next to me tugs my sleeve,
insistent.  I must turn in my seat;
try to follow her gaze.

What is this, now!  This nightmare journey!
Should have been home hours ago.
But I should have known.  To travel by train
in England, on a Sunday, is, simply, inane.

No trains, it transpires, just this ancient,
battered bus; trundling through towns, villages.
Stopping, incessantly, stopping . . .
Now, it trundles through open countryside.

“Look!  Look!  Airs!”  What on earth is the woman . . .
Airs?  Heirs?  Ayers? . . .  I look.  I stare.
Nothing.  But wait . . . There!  Stock-still; next second
a pale brown streak across the shimmering field.
Those ears!  Quicksilver motion; thrilling, so rare . . .

I chide myself.  Her shabby clothing,
garish earrings . . . but I have no right
to rank myself above this woman,
whose eyes shine with delight.

And I shouldn’t be so jaded!
The world out there is rife
with teeming, leaping,
misunderstood . . . life.

“Airs” was  written, partly, as a result of my frustration at being unable to decipher some of the poems I’d been reading in the anthology “The Best British Poetry 2012”.  I am irritated by the fact that some modern British poets seem to think that a poem should present a puzzle, as fiendishly difficult to crack as the most enigmatic cryptic crossword.  A feature of “The Best British Poetry 2012” anthology is that each of the poems has an “Afterword” – written by the poet – in which the poet explains what he/she was trying to achieve.  After being baffled by a particular poem, I would turn to the Afterword, hoping for elucidation.  What I often found was that the poet was explaining references in the poem that had particular, personal resonance for him/her – but these references could have no meaning for the reader, coming to the poem for the first time!  One of the poets, in his Afterword, described how he refined the poem over a number of versions, and his feeling that the earlier versions “. . . gave too much of the game away”.  I felt like screaming at him “It’s supposed to be a poem, to be enjoyed, as a piece of literature, by the general reader; not a Cryptic Crossword!”

Anyway, to return to my poem “Airs”.  It started off as an attempt to create a poem as puzzling as some of those I’d just been reading in the anthology.  After showing it to a few friends, for feedback, however, I realized – from the response of total bafflement – that I’d made it a bit too cryptic.  The version you now see is, I think, much more accessible.  If anyone is still puzzled by what the “dumpy woman” is trying to communicate to me, I can tell you that the word is “Hares”.


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I could never explain, to my ageing mother,
the meaning of the word “logistics”.
She would see these huge trucks, whizzing past our car
at dangerously high speed, on the motorway,
“Logistics” emblazoned on their sides.
“What is it?  What is Logistics?” she would ask,
her eyes gleaming with curiosity.
She thought, perhaps, that the trucks
carried the entity “Logistics” itself,
within their enclosed, secretive interiors.

I would try to explain, but, next time she saw one,
she would turn to me again: “What is Logistics?”
I thought: this is the onset of Alzheimer’s.
I thought: the circuitry of her brain
is not configured to receive
the speedy delivery of “Logistics”.
I thought of Samuel Beckett’s dictum:
“Try again.  Fail again.  Fail better.”
I tried again, each time.  I failed again, each time.
Was I failing better?  I couldn’t honestly say.

I can look back, now, and admit
that I refused to convey a simple fact
to my own stubborn head.  A simple fact
that could be the simple truth:
that I was just a lousy teacher.

At any rate, due to my incompetence,
she was still unaware of the meaning
of “Logistics” when she was conveyed
to her final destination.
I hope it didn’t bother her.
I hope she was conveyed speedily, and smoothly.

I got the idea for “Logistics” during the Christmas holiday, but I couldn’t think of a way of writing it, until I read Nicholson Baker’s novel “The Anthologist”, a few weeks ago.  “The Anthologist” tells the story of Paul Chowder, a middle-aged poet, and his struggles to edit an anthology of rhyming verse.  It is very funny, and very knowledgeable and informative about the writing of poetry.  As I was reading it, something to do with the wry style of the novel seeped into me, and I suddenly saw how I could express what I was trying to say in the poem “Logistics”.

I can recommend “The Anthologist” as a highly entertaining and informative read for anyone with an interest in poetry.  You’ll find out all you need to know about The Four-Beat Line and Iambic Pentameter.  You’ll also come across a number of 20th century American poets virtually unknown to British readers: Louise Bogan, anyone?  How about W.S.Merwin?  Sara Teasdale?  Stanley Kunitz? . . .


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