Tag Archives: literature

Teddy Bears’ Picnic

Teddy Bears’ Picnic

Raggle-taggle music,
straight from a funfair,
roller-coasters in,
as you mope in your lair,
sullenly grooming your
existential despair.

You look out the window:
a shabby white van,
Mr. Softee, the ice-cream man,
Orange Maids, Mivvis,
Strawberry Splits.
Your childhood comes back;
the rough magic of it.
Noddy and Big Ears, Rupert Bear,
Nutwood, the animals living there.

Your sins, deceits,
little white lies,
all swallowed up
By a huge pair of eyes,
silver coins held
in small, grubby hands,
the wonder of
those fairytale lands.
Enid Blyton’s Famous Five,
perhaps, after all,
it is good to be alive.

It smashes into
your self-imposed shell,
frees you from the stress
of your personal Hell,
for you know it betokens
that all will be well,
and all shall be well,
and all manner of things
shall be well.

Long-time followers of this blog will be aware of the fact that I frequently get ideas for poems whilst relaxing in a warm bath, browsing through anthologies of poetry.  I was engaged in this activity recently, when the joyful sound of an ice-cream van suddenly intruded into my musings, and immediately provided the inspiration for the above poem.  Please excuse the fact that the last three lines are a blatant borrowing from Julian of Norwich’s “Sixteen Revelations of Divine Love”.  I have always loved those lines, and have finally found an appropriate place to quote them; besides, T.S.Eliot quoted them in “Little Gidding”, and if it’s good enough for him, it’s good enough for me!

Leave a comment

Filed under Poetry

Cambridge: Greek Drama

CAMBRIDGE (4): GREEK DRAMA

Six of us, crammed into the intimate
interior of a portakabin; our first seminar
in Greek Drama. We are all unknown
to each other; anticipation, tension
simmers in the small space.

Anagnoresis:
We give our names to the tutor, and
a little, unexpected drama of our own
unfolds. The woman sitting next to me
appears to be twenty years older
than the rest of us. When she gives
her name, there is a slight intake
of breath by our tutor. He hesitates;
says a man’s name, questioningly,
and she is suddenly revealed to be
the wife of a prize-winning novelist.

I have never heard of the novelist,
but feel a thrill of awe. I am sitting
within inches of – I could actually
touch – the wife of one of those
fabled beings: a writer. And not just
any old writer – a prize-winning novelist!

 Hubris:
The novelist’s acolyte; could she
initiate me into the sacred rites?
With her as my guide, could I
enter those hallowed groves,
and walk with the gods?

Hamartia:
Yet she seems so normal,
so human, even slightly gauche;
laughing nervously, shaking back
the fringe that hangs, curtain-like,
over her eyes.

This is the fourth episode of my on-going autobiographical poem recounting my student days at Cambridge, back in the long-ago days of the late nineteen-seventies.  The main character in the poem – the “wife of a prize-winning novelist” – turned out to be Valerie, wife of Barry Unsworth, who was later to go on to win the Booker Prize for fiction, with his novel Sacred Hunger.  Valerie and I became great friends over the following three years, and I was a regular visitor to the family house on Garden Walk, where I also got to meet their three charming daughters.  Later on the marriage broke-up, I moved to London, and, eventually, lost all contact with Valerie and the Unsworths.

Leave a comment

Filed under Poetry

The Hemingway Toothbrush

THE HEMINGWAY TOOTHBRUSH

The Hemingway short stories:
such simple sentences, but unlike
anything else he had read.
He closed the book; it was time for bed.

He placed the electric toothbrush on its stand,
and flicked the switch. It immediately began
to flash its green light, as it charged up.
He watched the green light flashing
on and off, in its steady, repetitive rhythm,
for a few moments. Then he went to bed.

Five hours later, he got up, reluctantly,
to relieve his ageing bladder. All was quiet
and still, in the darkness of the early hours.
He came out from the bathroom, and saw
the toothbrush’s green light, still flashing,
in its steady rhythm. There was something
imperturbable, reassuring, about it.

He stood, in the darkness of the kitchen,
watching the green light. It was like
Morse Code, he thought. What message
could the toothbrush be sending out to the world?

I am pulsing out this message for you, Nick;
only for you. I care only for you, and your teeth.
You might think you are alone in the world;
that no-one gives a two penny damn about you,
that you are a cold, selfish bastard,
that your life, such as it was, is behind you,
that only dementia and death lie ahead,
that you had too much to drink again, last night.
But none of that matters to me. I want you to know
I am here for you, Nick; only for you.

 He smiled. This is what his world had come to:
a man and his electric toothbrush. He went back to bed.
The toothbrush continued to flash its green light,
sending its message, throughout the night.

Electric toothbrushes have been on my mind quite a lot, lately.  I was having problems with my old toothbrush, just before Christmas, and I finally bought myself a new one just after Christmas.  At the same time, I was reading a collection of Ernest Hemingway’s short stories.  I hadn’t read any Hemingway for many years, and I found myself impressed by the sheer literary art, compressed into simple, declarative sentences.  I was particularly impressed by the earlier short stories, featuring Hemingway’s altar ego Nick Adams.

In short, it was the conjunction of these two occurrences – my concerns about my electric toothbrush and my reading of the Hemingway stories – that led to the above poem.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Poetry

Dear Editor

DEAR EDITOR

Dear Fiona, thank you for your email,
rejecting my poems.
As always, when rejected, I scowled,
felt despair, wanted to howl.

Then I re-read your email;
repressed the anger, the bile,
when I saw your final comment:
““The Great Verses” made me smile”.

Twelve inches make up a foot;
thousands of feet make a mile.
Inching along in my writing,
one of my poems made you smile.

I’ve done little in life, I confess.
Life often seems pointless and vile.
I’ve done something, now. I’ve done this:
one of my poems made you smile.

I’ve always found submitting my poems to literary magazines and journals a frustrating experience.  When I first started out, I would try to read as many of the journals as I could, before submitting poems to them, in the hope that it would give me some idea of the sort of poems they were looking for.  But I soon found that there were so many to read that I was spending too much of my time trying to read them, and it still didn’t seem to help me in my quest to get my poems accepted.  I’ve since found that I seem to have more luck just submitting poems on the off chance, and hoping for the best.

All the writer wants is for his poem to be accepted, and, if it is rejected, to know what the reasons are for the rejection; but that hardly ever seems to happen, as the editors are too inundated with submissions to be able to respond adequately.  I recently submitted poems to a literary website, only to receive a reply stating that, although the editor “. . . found much to admire in the poems”, he regrettably didn’t think them “right” for the website.  I wanted to shout at him, to ask him what parts of the poems did he admire, and what parts did he think unsuitable; but I suppose I should have been grateful to have got a reply at all, as, nine times out of ten, all you get is a blank rejection and “Thanks but no thanks”.

Leave a comment

Filed under Poetry

Genghis

GENGHIS

Strange sights are liable to be seen,
at any time, on St. Martin’s Street.
This very afternoon, for example,
I looked out of my bedroom window
just as an elderly man on a motorized
single-person vehicle – designed,
presumably, for a physically handicapped
person – drew to a sudden halt,
right underneath my window.

Nothing strange about that, you
might say; but wait, just give me
a chance to explain, to elaborate.

I had seen this man before,
several times, in fact, walking
along St. Martin’s Street, but
never before on this
striking-looking silver vehicle.

He is a short, stocky man with a
distinctive, Asiatic appearance.
Narrow, slanted eyes gaze out,
fiercely, from a lined face toughened
and seasoned by many arduous years.
A bristling, dark moustache covers
his upper lip. He wore a furry,
Cossack cap, with flaps
hanging down over his ears.

As I watched, he pulled a half-bottle
of Vodka out of his pocket,
unscrewed the top, and took
a hearty swig. He then kicked
his silver steed into life, and
headed off, along the street,
for all the world looking like
Genghis Khan, on a Mongolian
plain, ready for his next exploit
of rape and pillage.

See what I mean, now?

Last Sunday afternoon, I was listening to an interview, on BBC6 Music, with the American film director Jim Jarmusch.  It was a fascinating interview, mainly about Jarmusch’s love for the music of Iggy Pop and the Stooges, but towards the end of the interview he spoke about his latest film, which features poetry by Ron Padgett.  Jarmusch said that Padgett was his favourite poet, and was a member of the New York School of poets.  I knew a bit about the New York School, but had never heard of Ron Padgett.  I went online, to see what I could find out about him, and soon came across a YouTube video of him reading one of his poems – Nothing in That Drawer.  I can recommend it, for light entertainment value, if for nothing else.  The first line of the poem repeats the title: Nothing in that drawer.  The second line is the same.  So is the third line.  And so it continues; fourteen lines, all identical.  Padgett himself comes across as a droll, very likeable individual.  He explains that he wanted the poem to have fourteen lines to emulate the classic form of the sonnet, and the way he read the poem gave slightly different meanings to each line – although the words were identical.

Anyway, the main point of all this is that the New York School of the 1960’s were known mainly for “freeing-up” formal verse; making it more spontaneous and free-wheeling.  Some of the poems can read like fun, fact-filled personal essays.  The next day – on Monday afternoon – I looked out of my bedroom window, onto St.Martin’s Street, and saw the events described in the above poem.  I just sat down and wrote it, spontaneously; just as if I were – like Ron Padgett – a member of the New York School.  I think it works ok!

Leave a comment

Filed under Poetry

Modern Verse

MODERN VERSE

Some modern verses I read
in fear and dread. They start
enticingly, at times;
pleasant rhythms, even rhymes.

The lines pellucid, meanings clear;
I suppress my mounting fear.
I await the non-sense,
into which they descend,
or the sublime heights
to which they ascend.

Then I reach it: a point
where all I think I knew
is suddenly, chaotically,
flung askew.

No matter how hard
I focus, how eagerly
I attend; I am, inevitably,
lost at the end.

The meaning flies away,
leaves me for dead;
wiping perspiration
from my obtuse head.

I’ve written before in this blog about how I find some modern poetry to be wilfully obscure.  I know that poetry is not supposed to be transparent and as easy to read as a nursery rhyme, but some poets seem to me to be deliberately enigmatic and elusive.  Poets like T.S. Eliot and Elizabeth Bishop tantalise me by hinting at clarity and meaning, and then pull the rug away from under my feet.  Other poets – Wallace Stevens, Ezra Pound, Geoffrey Hill and (my particular bête noir) John Ashbery, for example – are completely opaque from start to finish.

Leave a comment

Filed under Poetry

Lost Talent

LOST TALENT

A TV programme on Amy Winehouse’s death
re-animates his ghost, in the depths of my mind,
where it has slumbered, undead, over forty years.

I Google him now, he is not there;
vanished in the ether, into thin air.
It seems the universe does not care
that he lived, he wrote, he promised
to be a writer of some celebrity.

Cambridge, 1976, city of dreams:
fitting stage for his brief life of extremes.
Rumours of drugs, drink, depravity;
his squalid surroundings, his verbal dexterity.

At times, he gorged on cream cakes;
at times, he starved. At times he was
pudgy; days later, he was thin.
His eyes always sparkled, behind
delicate frames. Invariably,
there was the impish grin.

I only met him three times;
spoke to him twice. Can’t recall
exactly what was said. I remember
he admired that line of Pink Floyd:
“shine on, you crazy diamond.”
He lived a 1970’s version of
starving in a garret. Became another
Cambridge casualty, like Syd Barrett.

Time churns on; the clunk, the clatter.
Time grinds on; the spray, the spatter.
Does anyone count? Does anyone matter?

The last time I saw him was in
the Public Toilets, in Lion’s Yard.
In his brown Attendant uniform
he sat at a desk in the corner,
reading Rilke’s “Sonnets to Orpheus”.
A well-thumbed copy of Rimbaud’s
“Illuminations” lay on the desk.
His speech was slurred, but he spoke
of enjoying the job, and of how much
time it gave him to read. The next time
I heard about him, he was dead.

He will never enter the realms
of myth. He took on all the trappings,
but none of the pith. Perhaps it was
all bluster; perhaps it was all show.
The ultimate sadness: we’ll never know.

I had the best three years of my life – up to now – as a student at Cambridge from 1976 to 1979.  Whenever I tell people about getting my degree at Cambridge, they always look quite impressed.  I don’t usually go on to inform them that the degree course (in “Humanities”) was at Cambridgeshire College of Arts and Technology (now Anglia Ruskin University), and that I did it as a “Mature Student”, aged 26.  Anyway, the main point is that the course was wonderful, as far as I was concerned (European Thought and Literature, and Art History – exactly the subjects I loved and was fascinated by), and Cambridge was a wonderful place to be a student.  We actually got paid to be students, in those days; just imagine!

Alan McConville was one of my fellow-students, specialising in English Literature.  He was a small, rather pudgy individual, with spectacles, a mop of unruly hair, and the countenance of a cheeky cherub.  As I record in the poem, I never got to know him all that well, and only heard rumours of his literary talents; but I was shocked to hear of his death at the age of twenty two.

Leave a comment

Filed under Poetry

War and Peace

WAR AND PEACE

“Do I dare to eat a peach?”
Or should I, instead, read “War and Peace”?
In a few months’ time, it’s on BBC;
a series I shall be compelled to see.
Jim Broadbent’s in it: good enough for me!
But then, the book will forever be
an unread classic. I hang my head;
so many of these I should have read.
Now in my sixties, still I feel
lacking in resolve, the essential steel.
I identify with Ethelred,
forever unready, forever in dread;
this Tolstoyan epic, this massive tome,
a sword of Damocles over my head.
A man’s ambition should exceed his reach;
perhaps life’s too short to read “War and Peace”.

I recently read a highly entertaining, stimulating, amusing book: “The Year of Reading Dangerously” by Andy Miller.  It’s an autobiographical account of how he decided to read his way through a list of fifty books in the course of a year.  The fifty books on his “List of Betterment” are generally literary masterpieces or popular cult classics, and included Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina” and “War and Peace”.  It was partly reading Andy Miller’s book that made me think about whether I should read “War and Peace”.  Then, just a few days later, I saw that the BBC are planning to show a major dramatization of “War and Peace” early in the new year.  I suddenly realized that, if I didn’t read “War and Peace” before the BBC show it, then I would probably never get around to reading it.

My poem has two quotations in it; one correct and the other one deliberately incorrect.  The correct quotation is “Do I dare to eat a peach?”, from T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”.  This line has had many interpretations over the years, many of them with sexual connotations; but I just liked the sound of it, and the way it rhymes with War and Peace.  The incorrect quotation I used is Robert Browning’s “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp”, which – purely for the sake of the rhyme – I’ve changed to “A man’s ambition should exceed his reach”.

2 Comments

Filed under Poetry

Night Train to Seville

NIGHT TRAIN TO SEVILLE:

I was a lethargic late-developer,
hiding away from life in books.
Books were my world; they contained the world.
I scoffed at travellers; their vain hopes to win,
from mere outward forms, secrets within
the human spirit, the recondite soul,
when there were books that really had it all:
the inherited wisdom of the ages,
secreted within their rustling pages.
This delusion dallied within me.
I remained blinkered, until that first
journey abroad: that night train to Seville.

Dover to Calais failed to rouse me.
Paris was a greasy, inedible steak;
a fetid Metro, reeking of garlic.
The pages of my books remained
inviolate; refusing, even, to flutter.
Then, that train. All the way down,
through France, Spain. The “couchette”;
cramped, confined, but bursting with
joi de vivre. The golden young couple
opposite me: pouting, teasing,
jousting, squeezing. Their kisses, their
laughter, permeating, long after . . .
The crowded corridors, teeming
with gypsies, bohemians, travelling
without a care. Pungent aromas,
suffusing the air. I clambered
over bodies, stopping to stare.
Could I live like these people?
Would I ever dare? The train stopping,
starting. Even more people aboard.
Shouting, singing; loud guitar chords.
Passports examined; the border crossing.
Climbing into bunks; turning, tossing.
The chill of the night; yet a warm inner glow.
Waking in the morning, to the overnight snow . . .

The winds of life blew through that train,
tearing the books from my grasp.
A lesson learned, one I hoped would last;
my life could never be the same again.
The world offered itself; so much to give.
I left the books where they were; started to live.

I recently finished reading “A Time of Gifts” by Patrick Leigh Fermor.  An all-time classic of British travel-writing, it recounts how the author set off on foot for Constantinople; walking across Europe, as an eighteen-year-old, in 1933.  As I was reading it, my mind occasionally drifted back to when I made my first-ever trip abroad.  At the time I was growing up – my teenage years in the 60’s – foreign travel was a relatively novel idea to most British working-class families.  The only holiday I was accustomed to was an annual trip to “the seaside” at Blackpool or Bridlington.  I was a bookish, lazy, lethargic individual, who valued routine, privacy, and home comforts – particularly my mother’s cooking.  I associated “travel” with disorder, unease, strange people, in uncomfortable surroundings, wanting you to eat unfamiliar – and usually unpleasant – food.  Why people were supposed to enjoy the whole experience was baffling to me.  Even more baffling was the question of why would anyone want to undergo the experience in a foreign country, where, in addition to the fore-mentioned problems, one had the even more disorienting experience of being in a place where you couldn’t understand a word of what anyone around you was talking about! 

Fortunately, my closest friend happened to be a lover of foreign languages and foreign travel, and one year – having just spent a year teaching English in Seville, he inveigled me to join him for a week’s holiday in the south of Spain.  I went along reluctantly, but, by the time I got off the “Night Train to Seville”, my naïve attitude was beginning to change, and I was finally getting an inkling of what travelling abroad was really all about.

Leave a comment

Filed under Poetry

Beckett in Haiku

BECKETT IN HAIKU:

The sun rose, and shone,
having no alternative,
on the nothing new.

Sam sat out of it,
as though he were free,
and not captured in haiku.

The first two sentences of Samuel Beckett’s 1938 novel “Murphy” form one of the most resonant openings to any novel in 20th century fiction: “The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new.  Murphy sat out of it, as though he were free, in a mew in West Brompton.”

I recently read a charming novella: “The Peculiar Life of a Lonely Postman” by a Canadian writer, Denis Theriault.  The story is all about haikus, and the effect they have upon the main characters.  I learned quite a lot about haikus, as I was reading the novella, and the opening sentences of “Murphy” kept springing into my mind.  I realized that this was happening because those opening sentences – although they were written purely as prose – had exactly the same resonance as a haiku; or, to be exact, two consecutive haikus.  I decided to rewrite Beckett’s sentences, and cast them in the form of two connecting haikus, which required some slight, judicious editing, in order to satisfy the necessary syllabic structure.  I admit the resulting poem is a collaboration between Beckett and myself, and will probably be meaningless to anybody unfamiliar with haiku or “Murphy”; but, if it attracts more readers to “The Peculiar Life of a Lonely Postman” and/or “Murphy”, it will have served its purpose! 

Leave a comment

Filed under Poetry