Tag Archives: Great Verses



Here it stands;
a monument to time
(which doesn’t
actually exist,
by the way;
or so the particle
physicists say).
Imposing edifice,
coated in grime.

Admiration and wonder
are compelled;
how medieval
masons understood.
The cavalcade
of blood and thunder
it has withstood.

Symbol of what
still, stubbornly, persists;
Larkin’s “brocade”:
patterns of belief,
transcending mortality,
love and grief.
All for something else
that doesn’t exist.

My views on the immense subject of belief in God could be summarised as essentially atheistic, with a tinge of agnosticism.  I am basically convinced by the scientific, rationalist explanations of the workings of the universe, without the necessity for the idea of a God, and am not convinced by the arguments of any religion I have so far come across.  There remains, however, a vestigial sense of awe and bafflement; a feeling that we simply don’t know the answers to the “how?” and “why” of the universe, and that anything is possible.  Also, of course – as Professor Joad* used to say – it all depends on what you mean by “God”.

All this came into play in the composition of the poem “Cathedral”.  Living in Peterborough I have always had, at the back of my mind, the need to write a poem about the cathedral, but have lacked the particular inspiration to do it.  I finally got around to it – curiously enough – due to a combination of a reinvigorated interest in local history and some recent books on particle physics.  Lovers of Philip Larkin will recognise the line “Larkin’s brocade” as a reference to his wonderful poem “Aubade”, where he compares religion to a moth-eaten brocade.

(* Professor C.E.M. Joad was a prominent member of The Brains Trust: a highly popular programme on BBC Radio in the 1940’s and 50’s.  He became famous for prefacing his answers to almost any question with “Well, it all depends on what you mean by . . . “, which became one of the first modern catchphrases).   


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Yet More Bath Time Reading


He reads the great verses in the bath;
his relaxing mind absorbent, he hopes,
as the sponge, nestling next to his soap.

T.S.Eliot: Little Gidding, The Wasteland;
another heroic effort to understand.
He gets glimpses, at times; signals, from afar.
Chinks of light glimmer, from a distant star.

It seems to make sense; meaning coheres;
bubbles in his bath foam swell, become spheres.
But, just moments later, it is as he feared:
sense now non-sense, bubbles disappeared.

The water turns chillier; more time passes.
Words fade and blur; he should wear his new glasses.
No good, he can’t grasp it.  Frustrated, he sighs.
Why deceive himself, believe his own lies.
He must grasp some of it, before he dies!
But his brain now less pliant; he’s getting too old.
(“Too old. . . too old. . . trouser-bottoms rolled. . . “)
Mind rambling now, focus difficult to hold.
He clambers out, slowly, shivering, cold.

I thought I had done with the subject of my habitual reading anthologies of verse in the bath, but, it turns out, the subject has not done with me!  T.S. Eliot’s “Four Quartets” and “The Wasteland” are poems that have often enticed me and then frustrated me with their opaque imagery.  It was while I was making yet another attempt at the “Four Quartets” recently that the entity I like to think of as “my muse” stirred into life, and I thought: ok, I’m struggling to understand this, but I can at least try to write a poem about my struggles to understand these undoubted masterpieces. 

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Bath Time Reading – Again



You read the great verses, in the bath;
an improving way to sustain a soak.
Two wonderful poems by Philip Levine.*
How does he do it? So much emotion,
profundity, in such plain, simple lines?
He writes about his sister, his brother.
You’d love to write about your brother:
how he looked after your mother
for all those years, while you frittered away
your life, dreaming of writing masterpieces.
How she died, and left a void, into which
he fell.  How he is still bravely clambering
out of it.  But how can you write about him,
while he’s alive?  And he’s several years
younger than you. . .
You’d love to write about your sole
surviving uncle.  Just how and why
he is The Most Irritating Man in The World.
The eccentricities, peculiarities;
the leech-like existence.  But how can you
write about him, while he’s alive?  He’s well
into his eighties, but you just know he’ll
outlive you, out of sheer, malign perversity. . .
So, here you are, the first weeks of January;
a new year beginning.  Here you are,
still frittering your life away, dreaming
of writing like Philip Levine.  Yes, here you are:
a man who writes poems about
a man who reads poems, in the bath.


  • * “Listen Carefully” and “What Work Is” by Philip Levine.

Followers of this blog will be familiar with my habit of reading anthologies of poetry whilst relaxing in a warm bath.  They will also be aware of how this led to me writing a sequence of seven poems, all entitled “The Great Verses”.  Although the sequence could have continued indefinitely, I decided to bring it to an end, towards the end of last year.  “You Read The Great Verses” is a new poem, intended to stand alone, although it obviously has a tangential relationship to the sequence of seven poems.  It is partly a tribute to the American poet Philip Levine, and fans of his work may notice a similarity of style.  This is deliberate, on my part, reflecting the fact that the man in the poem is “. . . dreaming of writing like Philip Levine”.




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Saved by John Berryman


So often it comes down; it comes down to this.
Depression looms, sadness, madness, even worse,
as I thumb through this Faber Book of Modern Verse.
Geoffrey Hill, Wallace Stevens – oblique, opaque;
my patience, my tolerance, so tested, may break.
George Barker, Robert Lowell . . . for me, not so hot.
The pointless puzzles of John Ashberry – “WHAT?!”
The smooth paper slips and slides in my hands.
“I don’t . . . I can’t . . . I DON’T UNDERSTAND!

I flick through the pages, desperate to hear
a voice singing out to me; vibrant and clear.
Then I turn the page to his “Sonnet 115”.
The words, suddenly, make sense; are alive.
“Henry” . . . “Mr Bones” . . . such clever interplay.
I should learn how to do that, but do it my way.
Biting, self-mocking, humour, despair;
the world of John Berryman suffuses the air.
Maybe, just maybe, I am not so thick.
I get it! All of it!  I get his shtick!

So often it comes down to this, you see.
Is it just, do you think; could it just be . . .
I suspect, I fear, he was rather like me?

No regular reader of this blog will be surprised to find me reading a book of modern poetry; but they might be surprised to read about the struggles described in my poem “Saved by John Berryman”.  The fact is, I bought a copy of The Faber Book of Modern Verse many years ago, at a time when I was not nearly as interested in poetry as I am now.  I browsed through it, found myself repelled by really enigmatic, oblique, difficult verse by such people as William Empson, John Ashberry, Wallace Stevens. . . and, feeling intensely frustrated, put the book aside.  It has been gathering dust on my bookshelves until fairly recently, when, strengthened by the knowledge that I have spent much of the last ten years steeped in volumes of verse, I picked it up again.  Imagine my surprise, and my frustration, at finding that many of the poems were just as difficult for me to understand and appreciate now as they had been ten years earlier!

I was on the point of flinging the book aside in despair, when I stumbled across the selection of poems by John Berryman.  Berryman (1914-1972) was an American poet who had problems with alcohol and depression throughout his life, and – like Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath, often associated with him – ended up committing suicide.  Having never read him before, I was amazed to find the poems not only immediately approachable, but amusing, moving, enlightening, absolutely compelling!  More than that, I found myself empathising with the overall tone or “feel” of the poems, and realizing that what we appreciate in a work of art often comes down to the artist having a similar sensibility to our own.


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Bathtime Reading (7)


He reads the great verses, in the bath.
The lines, the words, that delight and inspire,
may ignite – who knows? – creative fire.

Images in Edwin Morgan’s “Trio”
effervesce, instil a sparkling brio.
Buchanan Street, the trio, Christmas lights.
Clarity of vision; piercing insight.

Bubbles of thought rise and soar in his mind.
He must catch them, or they may float away;
capture them, store them, for fresh light of day.

A line of verse comes to him, full-blown;
a line of verse hitherto unknown.
First line, perhaps, for a poem of his own?
He holds it in mind; sure he’s on the right path:
“He reads the great verses, in the bath . . .”

“He reads the great verses, in the bath.” turned out to be the line I would use as the first line of a sequence of seven poems.  All were entitled “The Great Verses”, and all were inspired by my habit of reading anthologies of poetry whilst relaxing in a warm bath.  I would often refer to the actual poems I was reading at the time – in the one above, for example, it was Edwin Morgan’s poem “Trio” – and sometimes I took the liberty of quoting lines from the poems I was reading.  I finally decided the sequence would have to come to an end – although I was tempted to continue it indefinitely – and “The Great Verses (7)” is the only way I could think of finishing it.  I still continue to read anthologies of poems in the bath, though; bath time just wouldn’t be the same without it. 


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Bathtime Reading (5)


He reads the great verses, in the bath.
His body unwinds, thoughts fill his mind.

Denise Levertov savours plum and quince;*
tells of tasting, living, in “O Taste and See”.
Peach blossoms intoxicate Li-Young Lee.*

Oh yes, he thinks, catch sensation on the wing.
Transfix it, preserve it, ever-anew;
that’s what he must try; what a poet should do.

He reads on; dogged, ageing, unafraid.
The fragrance of his bath foam disperses and fades . . .


*Denise Levertov: “O Taste and See”
*Li-Young Lee: “From Blossoms”

Having recently completed a sequence of seven poems on the subject of reading anthologies of poetry whilst relaxing in a warm bath, I realized – looking back at recent posts in this blog – that I had inadvertently omitted number five in the sequence.  The final one in the sequence – number seven – will appear in a few weeks.

Readers of this blog might be interested to know that I also write short stories, which are available at www.alfiedog.com

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Hold Back the Night


He reads the great verses, in the bath,

at his favoured time, as the evening begins.

It is the night when the clocks are changed.

The hands go forward; time rearranged.

As he enters the bathroom, it is still daylight;

a few weeks ago, it would already be night.

He gratefully sinks into fragrant warm water;

opens his book, stilling his mind,

for the chiming cadences, lyrical lines.


The poems sink in, at varying rates.

Some do, with words, what Vermeer does with paint:

create motionless moments, meditative states.

He reads on, engrossed; outside, darkness falls.

Inside the house, too, darkness encroaches;

his bathroom the only oasis of light.

He emerges into darkness; fumbles for switches.

It is not so easy to hold back the night.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  The brutal brevity of human existence, how fleeting our time is in this “vale of tears”; this is a subject that has fascinated many of our greatest poets.  Shakespeare, for instance, makes it one of the focal points of his sonnets.  How can we halt the inevitable march of time; how to “hold back the night” – to quote from a pop song of my youth.  One way is, perhaps, to capture certain magical moments, meditate upon them, and recreate them in poetry.

It’s a subject I’ve touched upon more than once in my own sequence of poems inspired by the many happy hours I’ve spent reading anthologies of poems whilst relaxing in a warm bath.  The poem above is the penultimate one in the sequence, and it came about due to a combination of changing the clocks at the Spring Equinox, after having watched a television documentary about the great Dutch artist Vermeer.


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More Bathtime Reading


He reads the great verses, in the bath;
his favourite time, now a hallowed rite.
The fate of mushrooms, in a disused shed,*
left on their own, for over fifty years,
strikes him as tragic; moves him to tears.
He wants the immortal words to sink into him,
as the fragrant bubbles soak into his skin . . .
“But no!  That’s not it!”  He exhales a sad sigh.
The bubbles, ephemeral, soon fade and die . . .
So hard, to be a poet!  But he’ll try.  He’ll try.
His petulant foot makes a turbulent “splash!”
He wants the effect of these words to last.
These wonderful words, when they settle, and sink,
should live forever in him; in the way he thinks.

* Derek Mahon:”A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford”.

My poem “The Great Verses (4)” is the fourth in a series of poems inspired by my habit of reading anthologies of poems in the bath.  I have written about the three earlier poems in the posts “Bathtime Reading” (2012/04/30) and “Reading Poetry in the Bath” (2012/09/27).

The anthology I am reading at the moment is “Essential Poems from the Staying Alive Trilogy” edited by Neil Astley, and the particular poem that inspired me was “A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford” by the Irish poet Derek Mahon.  It is, as Neil Astley comments, “. . . one of the great poems of the 20th century.  It doesn’t just make you pause for thought as you read and re-read it, it almost makes you feel more human.”  The mushrooms in the poem are symbolic, representing the marginalised people and mute victims of history.  It is quite a long poem, so I can only quote a few of the lines that particularly moved me: “A thousand mushrooms crowd to a keyhole./This is the one star in their firmament/ . . . A half century, without visitors, in the dark/ . . . They lift frail heads in gravity and good faith./They are begging us, you see, in their wordless way,/To do something, to speak on their behalf/Or at least not to close the door again./

I cannot recommend this anthology – and Derek Mahon’s poem – too highly.

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“Succubus” and “Lilith”

My poem “Succubus” fits into the well-established genre of poems, novels and stories based on the legend of a female demon or vampire who seduces men during the night-time and consumes their souls or bodies in some way.  “Succubus” was written quite a while ago, and I can’t recall whether it was inspired by a particularly vivid dream or nightmare or not.  I have a vague impression that I might have been thinking about Keats’s poem “La Belle Dame sans Merci” at the time, but “Succubus” is a slightly quirky take on the genre.  The only other poem I’ve written on the subject is “Lilith”, which is more traditional in tone and form.  I remember being struck by the phrase “she wore a gown of night”, that I had read or heard somewhere, and writing “Lilith” as a consequence.  “Lilith” featured in an earlier post in this blog, but I include it again here, so that, with “Succubus” you have two contrasting attempts at the genre.


It was the very pith of him,
the neverlasting quick of him,
the so so tender wick of him
she took.

Yet no vestigial rim of him,
no unconnected limb of him,
no loving kith or kin of him
she overlooked.

In short, a sorry tale.
The essence of the male
became her holy grail.

Leaving, in her wake,
drained remnants of a lake,
infused with bitter chill.
A bleak, abandoned place,
impossible to fill.


Her eyes were dark, her feet were bare,
she wore a gown of night.
Two ravens, hovering above,
obscured the lunar light.

She moved towards him soundlessly,
gliding through the air;
gentle breezes flickering,
tousling lustrous hair.

He could not meet her gaze; hopeless was the fight.
Timorous, enfeebled at this spectral sight,
he froze in place, his scattered senses
roaming where they might.

Her mantle closed around him,
infusing scent of wormwood.
Moths, fluttering from her mouth,
first chilled, then stilled his blood.


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The Garden

Gardens are a fairly popular subject in poetry.  They lend themselves to a variety of metaphors and imagery; The Garden of Eden, for example, often referred to in poems by Andrew Marvell, John Donne, George Herbert and other “Metaphysical” poets of the seventeenth century.  The changing seasons of nature and the life-cycles of plants also figure prominently in many such poems.  Although not immune to the various charms offered by gardens, I must admit to an almost complete ignorance of plants and flowers, and my own poem “The Garden” relates to the only garden I’ve ever got to know really well – the one created by my mother.  The main subject of the poem is, in fact, not so much the garden itself as the way she created, then re-created it.  It is, essentially, one of a whole stream of poems – inspired by my memories of her – that I’ve found myself writing since her death a few years ago.


In the beginning were the stones, the clay, the weeds;
unforgiving materials, unlikely seeds.
Then, transformation; beginning to mould
form and function.  Her vision took hold.
Grass planted, soil smoothed, first sprouting of lawn.
Then a cricket pitch, a tennis court; her sons were born.
Later, the rockery, bushes, flowers, trees.
Hours spent digging, churning earth, on her knees.
Pouring devotion, her love, in diverse ways;
as fervent, here, as at church on Sundays.
Feeding the garden, as she did her family,
instinctively, tirelessly, selflessly.
Plants rotated, recycled, instilled with life anew.
Meanwhile, the Giant Redwood just grew and grew . . .


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