Category Archives: Poetry

When Everywhere Closed Down on Sunday

Sad Sunday

School kids, teenagers, alive today,
can have no conception of the Sad Sunday.
Those Sundays in the sixties, my teenage years,
deepened my depression, fomented my fears.

Shops closed, libraries closed, cafes closed,
cinemas closed, theatres closed, pubs closed.
Everywhere closed, and everywhere around,
the unsettling silence of a gloomy ghost town.
No trains, no buses, nothing to do
but go to church, join the dwindling few
wriggling in discomfort, in an unforgiving pew.

I was miserable at school; in the bottom class.
I couldn’t please the teachers, could never pass
examinations; never learnt the trick.
I felt I should do better; knew I wasn’t thick,
for on my own, at home, purely out of choice,
I’d read Camus and Sartre, Beckett and Joyce.
And I knew what they meant, what they were saying:
no point to religion, no point in praying.
Existential Angst; just another way to say
what I was living through, every Sad Sunday.

Sisyphus’s boulder, every seven days
loomed nearer and nearer; became huge in my gaze.
Saturday night, it rolled down the hill;
Sunday morning, it settled into place.

I would read The Myth of Sisyphus,
think of next morning’s dreaded school bus.
In depths of despair, I’d let out a groan,
huddle under the sheets; start pushing the stone.

I was a teenager in the 1960’s, and I still vividly remember how every Sunday seemed like a day of doom and depression for me.  As I detail in the poem, just about every place of interest or entertainment seemed to be closed, and I was left with little to do except to brood on the impending horrors of starting back at school the next day.  Having somehow managed to pass the “Eleven-Plus” exam, I was attending a grammar school run by black-robed Roman Catholic brothers, who were strict disciplinarians – and I hated it.  These days, I have no sympathy at all for the minority of people who bemoan the fact that Sunday is no longer a “special” day, and, remembering those “Sad Sundays”, I can’t help thinking how lucky teenagers are today.

 

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Fish Friday

Fish Friday

What cook worth his salt could contemplate

putting such an array on a plate?

 

A dribble of peas, a pitiful puddle;

his mind must be a mushy muddle.

 

The cod in batter is so dry,

it petitions a tear from my eye.

 

And what can be said of the chips?

Triple-fried? Just read my lips.

 

St. Peter risked life on the seas,

for victuals so different to these.

 

This shrivelled, misshapen cod;

a fist in the face of God.

 

How can I bring myself to eat

this farcical Fish Friday Treat?

Regular followers of this blog will know that I frequently write poems provoked or inspired by food and drink.  Recent examples of this are poems about cherry tomatoes and peach schnapps.  The Song of the Cherry Tomato was intended to celebrate the delicious nature of such miniature tomatoes, and the ease of eating them.  Fish Friday, on the contrary, was provoked by one of the most disappointing meals I’ve ever been served in a restaurant.  I’ve always enjoyed eating fish and chips, and have written poems on the subject before.  There’s something about the connections with fish and the Christian religion, together with the habit of eating fish on a Friday, that tend to generate poetic imagery.  I would have liked to have written in a more celebratory tone, but the food that was offered to me on this occasion was so awful that I was left with no alternative.

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The Age of the Universe

109

(“The age of the universe is about 109 years.” Rupert Sheldrake – The Science Delusion.)

How can this be right?
Three little digits,
so tiny, so tight.
To compress energy,
dark energy,
the speed of light,
matter,
dark matter,
all things bright
and beautiful,
all things
in our sight,
all things that we hear,
go back to the year,
go back to the minute,
the vertiginous limit,
the moment,
the instant,
it all began,
the Big Bang.
How can they do it,
those digits,
from Big Bang
to NOW?
Three little digits,
so tiny,
so tight.
How can they do it?
How can this be right?

The last book I read in 2017 was also, I think, the most stimulating, most interesting, most provocative book I read all year: The Science Delusion, by Rupert Sheldrake.  I found the arguments in the book – basically an attack on the materialistic, mechanistic views of Richard Dawkins – so convincing that I shall no doubt be returning to the book in future posts.  Suffice it for now to mention that just one of the fascinating facts I came across in the book was that the age of the universe could be expressed in the three digits signifying ten to the power of nine.  I did a double-take, looked again at the three tiny digits, and suddenly the ideas for the above poem came flooding into my head.

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The Poem I’ve Rewritten the Most

Airs

 “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.

This is a nightmare journey:
trying to travel by train
in England, on a Sunday.
No trains, it transpires,
just this ancient, battered bus,
stuttering through towns, villages;
stopping, incessantly, stopping . . .
Now, it trundles through open countryside.

“Look! Look! Airs!”
What on earth is the woman . . .
Airs? Heirs? Where? . . .
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 . . .

The woman’s eyes shine with delight.
My spirits lift, with sudden insight.

It was back in April 2013 that I completed what was to be the first version of a poem with the title “Airs”.  I went on to post the original version in this blog in February 2014.  Since then, it has undergone innumerable alterations, and I’ve never been completely happy with it; but I think this latest version is probably as near as I’ll come to being satisfied with it.

The genesis of the poem is quite simple.  I was sitting in a crowded bus, travelling through open countryside – it was supposed to be a train journey, but, due to the inefficiency of the train service on Sunday, I found myself on a slow, antiquated bus instead.  The woman sitting next to me suddenly tugged on my arm, and started repeatedly saying the word “Airs!” – that’s what it sounded like, to me, anyway.  It was only after a few minutes of concentrated gazing into the surrounding countryside, trying to follow what the woman was looking at, that I finally realized what she was actually saying – and it’s taken me over four years, trying to express it in a poem.

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Song of the Cherry Tomato

The Song of the Cherry Tomato

Welcome me, greet me;
it’s so easy to eat me.

Smell me, feel me,
admire my compact shape.

Then pluck me from my vine,
just as you would a grape.

Stroke me, preen me;
the best way to clean me.

Place me, with my friends,
in a plain, white bowl.

The colours, the arrangements,
are good for the soul.

Paint me, write poems to me,
if such art is your goal.

Or just pop me in your mouth,
and devour me, whole.

While eating some cherry tomatoes recently, I suddenly got the urge to write a poem about them.  I had previously written a poem about tomatoes in general, and it hadn’t worked out  particularly well, but this time I was inspired by the beauty and simplicity of these tomatoes – and how ridiculously easy it was to eat them.  I started out with some ideas about how easy it is for us these days, compared to our ancestors having to hunt, kill, and labour with their hands to provide food for their families.  But the whole thing started to become over-elaborate, until I suddenly got the idea to write it in the “voice” of the tomato.  After that, the poem flowed along quite easily.

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Books do Furnish a Room

Books do Furnish a Room

Penelope Lively borrowed
the above quote from Anthony Powell,
to write about her “relatively meagre”
personal library of 3,300 books.

Of course, she is an eminent,
prize-winning author. She is not
living in my tiny, one-bedroom flat,
where my personal library of 1,100 books
seems far from “relatively meagre”.

I look at my thirty-three bookshelves
– I don’t have any option;
there isn’t much else to look at,
in my tiny, one-bedroom flat.

Those ramshackle, odd-looking shelves,
that I bought “for easy self-assembly”,
that took me half a day to assemble,
and I still ended up screwing the shelves
in the wrong way round.

Those huge, handsome, blonde
shelves I got from the charity shop,
that I thought were so capacious
I would never fill them in my lifetime:
now they are overflowing.

I can’t help thinking that too much of my life
has been consumed in populating these shelves;
that too much of my life has been spent in reading,
instead of the life I should have been leading.

But it’s not the fault of the books,
or the shelves. I don’t want to be unkind;
for, as well as my tiny, one-bedroom flat,
these books have furnished my mind.

In my last post, about second-hand bookshops, I mentioned that I had recently completed two contrasting poems about bookshops.  After those two poems, I liked the idea of writing a third poem, to complete a trilogy of poems about books, and I thought I could write the next poem about my own books and bookshelves.  This was fine in theory, but I then had a few problems in trying to find a starting-point for the poem.  I was familiar with the phrase “Books do Furnish a Room”, and thought I could use that as the title of the poem.  I then looked the phrase up on the internet.  It confirmed that the quotation was from one of Anthony Powell’s novels, but I then came across an article by Penelope Lively, in which she used the quotation to write about her own “personal library”.  As soon as I started reading her article, and saw her description of her collection as “relatively meagre”, I immediately got the idea for the above poem.

 

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Second-Hand Bookshops

Second-Hand Bookshops

For a browser, like me, such bookshops should be
of a size to investigate thoroughly,
in an hour or so; any longer, I know
all sense of self, of meaning, will go.
A feeling of unease turns into fear;
I begin to question what I am doing here.
So many shelves searched, and so many more;
but what, exactly, am I looking for?
Books have always formed my identity,
the act of reading is a necessity,
but I drift, I flounder, in a surging sea;
how shallow my interests appear to be,
as the ocean of books cascades around me.
Don’t know what I want; don’t know what I’ve read.
The waves converge, and cover my head.

Books, and reading, have always been a pivotal part of my life, as have bookshops and libraries.  In my student days at Cambridge, there used to be Brown’s Bookshop, only a few minutes’ walk away from the college.  It was a fairly small bookshop, which used to sell both new and second-hand books.  The second-hand section was at the back of the shop, and I used to relish browsing through it, looking for my next “find”.  It must have been Brown’s Bookshop that turned me into a lover of second-hand bookshops, but I’ve had a few chastening experiences in such shops in recent years.  I visited a friend in Carlisle, who took me to the largest second-hand bookshop in the country, and I found the experience completely alienating and unsettling.  It resulted in generating two contrasting poems, the first of which is the one above.

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Red and Grey

Red and Grey

In the beginning, nature was red
in tooth and claw; life-force fed
on blood and gore.

We all know the tale that was read
to us by our parents; the deadly
battle of the Reds and the Greys.

Channelled from hearsay to history;
how the vibrant, vital Reds,
in the shirts of United,
succumbed to the wiles, the grim,
gruesome guiles, of the Greys.

Outwitted, outplayed, by the over-priced
mercenaries; betrayed, by the dubious
mechanisms of free-market capitalism,
outmanned in midfield, overrun
by sheer work rate, the scintillating
surges, the spontaneous urges
of the Reds were stifled, slaughtered,
by the prosaic purges of the Greys.

Every so often, a rumour is spread
of the long-awaited return of the Reds.
They will regain their kingdom,
or so we are told, like the all-conquering
mythical heroes of old.

Misinformation, I suspect;
we are being misled. Or items
of news that we have misread.
For when I search, in woods, or parks;
striding in sunlight, stumbling in the dark,
in evening twilight, or brightness of day,
I see no Reds; all the squirrels are Grey.

I was recently reading “On Balance”, a highly-acclaimed collection of poems by Sinead Morrissey.  I was reading it in the bath, as usual, in the relaxed state of mind that often seems to generate ideas for poems, and this proved to be the case again.  Some of the main themes of “On Balance” are economic and ecological instability, gender inequality and our inharmonious relationship with the natural world.  I found myself reading a series of poems in which colours featured strongly (one was called “Colour Photographs of Tsarist Russia”), followed by several poems featuring wild animals.  In my relaxed state of consciousness, I probably started mixing these ideas together, and, the next thing I knew, I had the basic idea for “Red and Grey” – so, many thanks to Sinead!

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Denying the Dealer

Denying the Dealer

A hand on my wrist, two eyes fixed on mine.
He was scrawny, dark-skinned, in a loose-fitting shirt.
He’d seen life in the raw, clambered up from the dirt.
“Come ‘ere, mate.” He whispered; looked quickly around.
He had the edge, now; I’d already lost ground.

He showed me his boxes; watches on display.
“Best quality, mate; yours for five quid today.”
Harassed, all my life, by encounters like these;
my heart was now hardened; immune to such pleas.
My demeanour proclaims me a mild-mannered mug;
but in these scenarios, I am more like a thug.

I was firm, unmoved by his confident spiel.
He persisted, still sure of sealing the deal.
He pushed three boxes into my bag, with a grin.
I pulled them out, gave them straight back to him.
He pleaded: his family, his kids, their needs.
I walked off, impassive, taking no heed.
He pursued me, wildly, eyes now confused.
Again the three boxes; again I refused.

He stood, despairing; looked up at the skies.
I’d seen the look of disbelief in his eyes.
“I had you nailed as a mug, and I’m always right.
You were sure to roll over; no hassle, no fight.
You had the full treatment; the best I could do.
You weirdo! What is it that’s wrong with you?”

I started this blog in April 2012, which means that I’ve been publishing a new poem, every two weeks, for over five years now.  It’s not so easy, to come up with a new poem every two weeks.  From time to time, the wells of creativity run dry, and I admit that I am going through one of those periods at the moment.  I plead this in mitigation for the fact that the above poem – Denying the Dealer – bears a marked similarity to an earlier poem, entitled Dodging the Dealer, that I published in this blog on February 7th 2013.  Following on from my comments in my previous post about how much I admired the comic poems and parodies of Wendy Cope, I started looking back through some of my own attempts at comic poems, and came across Dodging the Dealer.  I thought it could do with quite a bit of revision, and, by the time I’d finished, I thought I’d modified it and stripped it down so much that I could justifiably call Denying the Dealer a completely new poem.  Well, almost!

 

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Trend

Trend

i read
the quarterly bulletin
from
the poetry society

first one poet
then another
then another
and yet another

no capital letters
no indentation
no punctuation

just words
and spaces

is this
a trend

it must be
a trend

perhaps i should start
doing it

before they all start
doing it

words in space
humble art

how it was
at the start

I live in Peterborough, Cambridgeshire, and often visit Cambridge, to meet friends there, and indulge in nostalgia for my student days.  The city of Ely (the second smallest city in England, apparently) is considerably nearer to Peterborough than Cambridge is, but I rarely go there.  I don’t have any friends who live there, and it’s always been a bit of an unknown quantity for me, despite having a wonderful cathedral that is even more impressive than Peterborough Cathedral.  I finally paid a visit there, a few weeks ago, and found it to be a fascinating place; the only criticism I could make is of the extortionate prices charged in the pubs there for a pint of real ale!  By coincidence, one of the first books I read, after visiting Ely, happened to be by the poet Wendy Cope, who – I found, to my surprise, –  actually lives in Ely.

Wendy Cope is one of my favourite poets, and is famous as a writer of humorous verse and witty parodies.  So, when I received the latest issued of the Poetry Society Bulletin, and found myself reading poem after poem written with no capital letters and no punctuation, my immediate response was to write a parody, as I thought Wendy Cope might do.

 

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