Category Archives: Poetry

The Working Men’s Club

Working Men’s Club, Barnsley, 1968

I enter the W.M.C. under false pretences;

I am not a working man, for a start.

I am an eighteen-year-old schoolboy,

only here because my best friend’s dad is here.

 

My best friend is the same age as me,

but his head is full of intelligence,

ambition, French, Spanish and Latin.

My head is full of fuzziness,

The Man from U.N.C.L.E.,

and Jethro Tull on Top of the Pops.

 

He is just about to start

a languages degree at Bangor University;

I’ve had to re-sit my “O-Levels”.

Fast-forward four years, and he’s

living in Seville, teaching English;

I’m struggling to be Assistant Credit Controller

at F.M.C.(Meat) in Sheffield.

 

I hate the W.M.C. The gassy, fizzy beer,

the loud music, the Barnsley dialect,

which I don’t speak; my mum thinks

it’s “common”, and has brought me up

speaking “proper” English.

 

A lot of the men in here are miners,

or ex-miners. They are real men; hard men.

I am soft, and fuzzy at the edges.

We sit down next to my friend’s dad

and a few of his friends. I don’t know

these people; don’t know what to say.

 

With most people, alcohol liberates

the tongue. With me, it impedes it.

Knowing I will stutter if I speak, I decide

it is safer to sit in silence, and smile.

 

My friend’s dad is a Dracula-like figure;

unnaturally pale skin and glossy, black hair.

His glittering, dark gaze fixes upon me.

“Don’t say much, do you.” I sit and smile.

 

“What are you smiling about?

All he does is smile. Look at him!

Cheese! Say it! Cheese!”

 

I’ve never felt so alien. Never felt

such unease. I wish him death

from some deadly disease.

Leave me alone, I silently plead;

Leave me alone! Please!

 

“Here he goes again! Cheese!

Say it! C H E E S E!”

I seem to be going through a phase, at the moment, of recollecting moments from my early life, re-visiting them, mentally, and trying to write poems about them.  Working Men’s Clubs were fairly popular in South Yorkshire, at the time when I was going through my teenage years, and this poem recounts an episode that I found excruciatingly embarrassing at the time, but now, in hindsight, seems more amusing than anything else.

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Debussy’s Arabesque

Arabesque

Arabesque No.1, by Debussy,

stops me in my tracks, with its beauty;

stills me with its simplicity,

softens me with its fragility,

infects me with its poignancy.

And every time it does it to me,

my mother comes alive in my memory.

 

My mother, who played piano proficiently,

in spite of lack of opportunity.

Who became a dutiful housewife,

and devoted domestic slave, to her family.

Who spent her days toiling in the kitchen,

while we were dozing, or watching TV.

 

My mother, who sold her piano,

and never forgave herself for doing so.

Who loved flowers, and gardens, and trees.

Who loved Chopin, and paintings, and poetry.

My mother, who would have loved

Arabesque No.1, by Debussy.

The inspiration for this poem is simple enough to explain.  I listen to classical music most mornings, on BBC Radio3, and every time I hear a solo piano piece by Chopin, Debussy, Brahms, Schumann, or Grieg, memories of my mother automatically come into my mind.  Chopin was her particular favourite, and I don’t think she’d heard that much by Debussy; but I feel sure she would have loved his Arabesque Number One.

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Endless Rejection

Despondency

Classical Music, Philosophy,

Art, Science, History,

Literature and Biography

are all grist to my intellectual mill.

 

The problem is, the wheels of my mill

are dulled at the edge, and grind exceeding slow,

producing poems and prose

that no-one wants to know.

 

Week after week, anxious, tense;

week after week, steeped in suspense.

The vain hope my luck will change; this time I won’t fail.

Then the curt dismissal: the rejection email.

 

After so much failure, I cannot respond.

I just sink deeper in my slough of despond.

Readers of this blog over the last few years will be well aware of my struggles and frustrations with getting my poems published in magazines and journals.  Apparently it’s generally accepted that most poets submitting to literary journals will have around a 90% rejection rate.  The only reasonable way of looking at it, I suppose, is to adopt a stoical, philosophical attitude to the rejections, and to rejoice when you get the occasional acceptance.  The problem for me is I find it very difficult to adopt such an attitude, and I still tend to treat each rejection I get as a personal affront.  I was provoked into writing the above poem by the latest rejection, after having built up my hopes, yet again.  I suppose I shall recover, eventually.

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Hokusai

Hokusai

“From the age of six, I had the desire to copy the form of things. From about fifty, my pictures were frequently published; but, until the age of seventy, nothing I drew was worthy of notice.”

So inured to defeat, to rejection, am I,

these days, I can barely muster a sigh

of resignation. No tear brims my eye.

“At seventy-three years, I was somewhat able to fathom the growth of plants and trees, and the structure of birds, animals, insects, and fish.”

These days of defeat, it’s a wonder why

I don’t pack it all in; stop living a lie.

 “Thus, when I reach eighty years, I hope to have made increasing progress, and, at ninety, to see further into the underlying principle of things.”

These days of dejection, I can’t even cry,

but I summon my forces, and I try

to think of my hero, Hokusai.

“So that, at 100 years, I will have achieved a divine state in my art, and, at 110, every dot and every stroke will be as though alive.”

 What’s not to love, about Hokusai?

His images, his words, will never die.

He is 79 years of age, at home with his artist daughter, when his house catches fire. He grabs his paintbrush, and jumps out the window. His daughter grabs her paintbrush, and jumps out after him. They lose all their possessions, clothes, and painting materials. They are nearly naked, and look like homeless beggars. Hokusai’s greatest works still lie ahead of him.

 As long as there’s life, there’s hope, so I

summon my strength, and think of Hokusai.

He was born in a Dragon Year. On a Dragon Day, in his 90th year, he paints his last great work: a dragon flies into the sky around his beloved Mount Fuji, and disappears into the heavens…

In June last year, BBC4 showed the premier of a film entitled “Hokusai: Old Man Crazy to Paint”.  It was a documentary/biography of the Chinese artist Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849).  I watched it, and was fascinated and enthralled.  I didn’t know much about Hokusai at the time, apart from the fact that he was famous for his painting The Great Wave, which must be one of the best-known images in world art.  I had no idea that he had continued to paint until his ninetieth year, that he was also famous for painting whole series of views of Mount Fuji, and that he had a daughter who was also a significant artist in her own right.  I found his unquenchable optimism endearing and admirable.  About a year later, I watched Simon Schama enthusing about Hokusai, in one of the BBC2 “Civilizations” programmes, and my fascination with Hokusai was re-invigorated.  I started having ideas about writing a series of poems about Hokusai’s life, linked to his series of paintings of Mount Fuji, but then realised it might be a bit ambitious for my meagre talents.  I ended up producing the poem above, which attempts to summarise what Hokusai means to me. 

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The Misconception

Felski Knew

Felski knew it, he always knew:

working in a library, that’s what I would do.

A librarian; he knew that’s what I would be.

Anthony Felski, Form Lower 6C;

he always knew that’s what I would be.

 

Every time we met, after having left school,

we’d say hello, how are you, we’d run the rule

over what’s happened to her, what’s happened to him,

the friends, the relatives, the kith and kin.

Then “How’s things at the library?” he would say,

and I couldn’t deny it; there was no way.

Somehow, he divined it, he always knew:

working in a library, that’s what I would do.

 

So I could never tell him of the misconception;

he could never get to hear about the rejection.

It would devastate his mind, his soul,

to find that I was, simply, on the dole.

So I said it was boring, but, as he well knew,

it was the only job, really, that I could do.

 

It never happened. They rejected me;

I never was to work in a library.

A tragic rejection, a real tragedy;

perhaps not for Felski, but a tragedy for me.

It was destined for me; what I should do.

As it turned out, it was all I could do.

And it was Felski who knew it; he always knew.

I fell in love with reading very early on, mainly through discovering the wonders of the Children’s Section in our local public library.  My love of reading, and of public libraries, has continued throughout my life.  I am fortunate enough to live within a fifteen-minute walk from Peterborough Public Library, and fortunate, also, in that Peterborough City Council seem intent on keeping our wonderful library going, in the face of numerous library closures throughout the country.

As I went through my teenage years, and approached school-leaving age, I had to start thinking about what I was going to do after school, and working in the local library seemed an obvious choice.  I remember my mother taking me to see the Chief Librarian (mothers used to do that sort of thing, in those days), with a view towards my starting work there – but, for some unknown reason, it never transpired.  I ended up doing a Business Studies course (which I hated) and, eventually, drifting into Teaching English as a Foreign Language.  Despite my failure to get a job at the library, however, one of my acquaintances at school – a boy called Anthony Felski – somehow got the idea that I was working at the library, despite all evidence to the contrary.  It became a running joke among my close friends, who were well aware of the fact that Felski was labouring under a delusion.  I’ve always thought that Felski was right, in a way; that I should, really, have become a librarian, and my working life has been one long mistake ever since.

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Vermouth

Vermouth

She’s a regular, at Waitrose.

No messing about;

straight for her bottle,

then the checkout.

 

Clickety-clack, the heels go;

brisk strut across the floor.

Mere moments later,

she’s out, through the door.

 

Frizzy, blonde hair;

bright, strappy shoes.

The crimson cheeks,

the broken veins,

of one in love with booze.

 

Cheap brand of Vermouth;

the Dry, not the Sweet.

Just the right strength, for her;

I bet she swigs it neat.

 

A large glassful,

with her chicken and chips.

That’s the stuff! Glug, glug, glug;

she’s licking her lips.

 

The cushioned curtain closes again;

eases the problems, the pain.

She closes her eyes, floats above

the loneliness, the absence of love.

 

She needs someone to give her a hug;

to meet her glittering gaze.

Someone to give her a reason

for her to change her ways.

 

Someone to save her,

before it’s too late.

Before she succumbs

to her sad, seductive fate.

Long-time followers of this blog will be aware of my liking for, and interest in, wines, spirits, beers, ciders. . .  – alcohol, in most of its myriad forms and varieties.  My interest also extends into what sorts of alcoholic beverages are popular with other people.  This poem started out purely as an exercise in observation, and then developed elements of speculation.  I haven’t seen the central character of the poem in Waitrose for quite a while now; I hope she’s not succumbed to “her sad, seductive fate”.

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The Old Man and the Ice

The Old Man and the Ice

It’s the confidence that counts, that you won’t slip or slide,

come a complete cropper, land on your backside.

It’s always a gamble, walking on ice;

almost as if you were rolling a dice.

It could be a game, a bit of good fun;

but you need the confidence that belongs to the young.

 

I still remember the old man, on our street.

A harsh winter’s day; snow turning to sleet;

the ice, covering both sides of the street,

a shining, shimmering, endless sheet.

 

I heard cries of fear, went to my window;

looked out, onto the street below.

The old man, who lived further down the street;

stuck, motionless, afraid to move his feet.

Crying out in panic, clinging to the wall;

convinced his next step would lead to a fall.

A frail old man, in freezing cold weather;

trapped, alone, at the end of his tether.

 

Across the street, ignoring his cries,

a group of teenage boys passed by.

With shouts of joy, whoops of merriment,

sliding effortlessly along they went.

The energy, the confidence, the ignorance of youth;

I witnessed an eternal, depressing truth.

 

A sobering scene, in vivid tableau;

I watched it all, from my window.

Today happens to be a gorgeous day of clear blue sky and sunshine, here in Peterborough, Cambridgeshire, England.  The enticing hints of Spring are somewhat deceptive, however,  as it remains surprisingly chilly, for the time of year.  Nothing like as chilly as it was a few weeks ago, when we had the last of three blasts of wintry weather directly from Siberia – nicknamed The Beast From the East.  It was the first appearance of “The Beast”, back in February, that inspired The Old Man and the Ice.  The actual incident described in the poem happened a couple of years ago.  It made an impact upon me, but I made no attempt to write about it, at that time, and it was only when the brutally cold weather returned in February that I was reminded of the incident.  I always find narrative poems like this quite difficult to do – compressing a lot of information into a brief format – but I hope I’ve finally managed to convey the essence of the situation.

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Soap-Star Philosophy

Soap-Star Philosophy

I heard him, on the radio;

soap-star, icon of the nation,

talk of his belief in reincarnation.

 

Over fifty years a central character

in the soap-opera beloved

by the nation.

 

In his eighties, now, but looks

thirty years younger.

He must know his onions;

not the sort to make a blunder.

 

“Of course I believe in it” he said,

to his doubting inquisitor.

“After all, it’s the only way

it all makes sense.”

 

And, for a brief moment,

I understood what he meant.

That our lives are not freely given;

our lives are merely lent

to us, like books; on loan,

from God the librarian.

 

And who knows what could happen,

what could befall those books?

They could be lost, forgotten,

accidentally dropped in the bath.

And what happens then?

What aftermath?

 

A measure of fairness, surely;

there must be some recompense.

For, after all, it’s the only way

it all makes sense.

British actor William Roache is famous for playing the part of Ken Barlow in Coronation Street, which is the most popular soap-opera on British television.  He is the only actor who has remained in the series from the very first episode, in December 1960.  I happened to hear an interview with him on the radio, a while ago, in which he discussed his belief in reincarnation.  What particularly struck me was the calm, matter-of-fact way he said that anyone with common sense should realise that reincarnation was “the only thing that made sense of it all”.  I have recently become aware of the fact that William Roache is quite notorious for holding some rather outlandish beliefs, but, at the time I heard the interview, I just thought of him as quite an intelligent, articulate individual.  Of course, it would be nice if everything to do with “Life, the universe, and everything” did make sense.  I have a sneaking suspicion, however, that, unfortunately, it doesn’t. 

 

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Cognoscenti

Cognoscenti

I started to read poetry.

Some of it made no sense to me;

I could not see how this was poetry.

 

The poetry that made sense to me

had rhythms and imagery;

had meaning, and beauty,

and this came to be

what I thought of as poetry.

 

I started to write poetry;

what I thought of as poetry.

 

The poetry that made no sense to me

was acclaimed, widely,

by the cognoscenti.

 

This was dispiriting for me.

It meant that my own poetry

would, in all probability,

be ignored by the cognoscenti.

 

And so it proved to be.

All aspiring poets, sending their poems off to literary magazines and journals, must get used to receiving rejections.  But there comes a time, when you have periods of endless rejections, and nothing ever seems to be accepted for publication, that the whole business just seems depressing and futile.  I’ve always known that my poems can be seen as “old-fashioned”, in that most of them use conventional rhyme-schemes, and that doesn’t seem to go down well with the editors of poetry magazines these days.  It’s not surprising, then, that most of the poems I submit for publication are invariably rejected.  It does get depressing, but, just when I’m starting to feel really desperate, the occasional acceptance will suddenly come out of the blue, and that’s enough to keep me going.  I started this year feeling optimistic, as usual, only to get rejections from my first two attempts.  What really frustrates me is when new, young poets come along, writing what seems to me to be meaningless gibberish, and they are praised to the skies, go from success to success, and, within a few years, are themselves presiding over literary prizes and awards – all because they are instantly recognised by “the cognoscenti”. 

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The Best Way to Cook an Egg?

Perfect Poaching

You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs.

But why would you want to? It seems such a waste,

no matter how good the omelette tastes.

 

An egg, the perfect package, so simple, so neat;

wholesome nutrition, a delight to eat.

But how best to cook it; in so many ways,

the pros, the cons, leave your mind in a haze.

 

To fry, to scramble, to coddle, to boil,

can all be messy, or entail use of oil.

Calorific consequence, excessive fat;

to be avoided, no need for that.

Simple poaching is not free from troubles;

the white can fragment, amidst seething bubbles.

So, how to cook it? Aye, there’s the rub;

but my proposal goes to the nub.

 

Poach perfect eggs, in a poaching pod.

It floats on the water, cooks gently, in steam;

safely delivers the egg of your dreams.

A free gift of nature, from Mother Earth;

another page, in the oeuvre of the oeuf.

Eschew wasteful omelettes, be kind to yourself;

think of the clutter, the calories, your health.

Be at ease with the world, in peace with your God;

poach perfect eggs, in a poaching pod.

I’ve always liked poached eggs – as long as they’re cooked by somebody else.  Whenever I stay at a hotel, I invariably opt for Poached Eggs on Toast for my breakfast.  Yet I’ve always found poaching an egg to be quite a tricky procedure, with the result that, when cooking eggs at home, I usually end up frying them, as a quick and easy option.  I saw a TV programme recently in which eggs were said to have an ingredient that was effective in protecting your eyes against age-related problems such as cataracts – but you had to eat at least six eggs a week, to bring this about.  Inspired by this news, I suddenly became obsessed with finding out the easiest way to poach an egg, with a view to having a poached egg for breakfast every day.  The final outcome of my researches resulted in my purchasing a couple of “Poaching Pods”, which also was the inspiration for the above poem.

 

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