Tag Archives: Poem

Cambridge: Culture

Cambridge (7): Culture

City of students,
professors, high, lofty thought.
Wisdom, sought eagerly,
imbibed as it’s taught.

City of colleges,
bookshops, cobbled alleyways.
City of eccentrics,
steeped in its ways.

Culture at its centre,
philosophy, art;
the vibrant, pulsing
beat of its heart.

A humble student
might even play a part.
I’d fallen in love with it,
right from the start.

This is the last – for the moment, anyway, – in the sequence of autobiographical poems I’ve been writing about my time as a student at Cambridge in the late 1970’s.  Having temporarily run out of ideas for autobiographical scenarios that might be of interest, I thought it might be an opportune moment to try to summarise, in a brief poem, what Cambridge had meant to me.  I still look back at that period with the greatest affection, and think how lucky I was to spend three years of my life as a student at Cambridge.  It’s also nice for me to realise that, living in Peterborough, I’m within easy reach of Cambridge, and still visit it frequently.

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How it Ought to Be

HOW IT OUGHT TO BE

After months of recalcitrance,
my W.C. now submits,
now obeys me.
My touch on the lever,
the prompt of my hand;
the waters flow
at my command.
The waters pour,
the waters rush;
the wondrous power
of a forceful flush.

Life has never been
like this, for me.
The simple day-to-day
should be easy,
but the simple day-to-day
I can’t get right;
the simple day-to-day
takes perverse delight
in obstructing my way.

This is, in truth,
a small victory.
But this is it;
how it should be.
Pressing the lever,
like turning a key,
to solve problems,
gain mastery.
The spray of the waters,
the surge of the sea;
this is it,
how life ought to be.

I seem to be one of those people who goes through life continually experiencing frustration and difficulty with processes that should be inherently simple.  Opening things, for example: packages, pre-packaged items from shops, bottles, cans, jars. . .  Should be simple, right?  Not for me.  Or unscrewing things, mending things that are broken, assembling things. . .  A set of bookshelves arrived, not so long ago, labelled “For Easy Home Assembly”.  First of all, just opening the packaging seemed to take hours, and then assembling the bookshelves themselves turned out to be a nightmare that lasted most of the day, and resulted in half the shelves being assembled the opposite way round from how they were supposed to be.  Simple tasks, to be done by hand, seem to create massive obstacles for me; and when I started to use a computer and a printer it was a gateway to whole new worlds of frustration and difficulty.

The flushing mechanism on the bathroom toilet started operating sporadically, recently.  Instead of yielding to the inevitable and calling in a plumber straight away, I first of all tried – and failed – to fix it myself, and then tried to survive, over the following few weeks, existing with a minimal flush, once a day.  The overwhelming relief I felt, after finally getting a plumber to come and fix it, was the inspiration for the above poem.

 

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Serendipity (Haiku)

Serendipity

Serendipity
could be synchronicity,
said Wolfgang Pauli.

Serendipity
and my upturned glass of beer.
A drenching. Oh,dear!

Serendipity
and my half-full cup of tea
forever haunts me.

It fell through the air,
onto a head with no hair.
I fled to my lair.

Serendipity;
a word of five syllables,
but no miracles.

I was a teacher of EFL (English as a Foreign Language) at a language school in central London – just off Oxford Street – for a period of nine years in the 1980’s.  One lunchtime, without really thinking what I was doing, I threw a half-full cup of tea out of the window of my room on the first floor.  Seconds later, I heard a cry of rage, and looked out of the window.  The contents of my cup of tea had landed on the head of one of the busy lunchtime shoppers walking below.  The man, who appeared to have a completely shaven head, looked up, saw me looking down at him, shook his fist in anger, and shouted some incoherent swear-words at me.  At this point, the reality of what I had just done finally dawned upon me.  I realised the man was almost certainly going to enter the building and come looking for me, with vengeance in mind, so I took evasive action, and hid in the nearest available toilet.  When I emerged, ten minutes later, and timorously returned to my room, one of the secretaries had scribbled a message on the whiteboard: A MAN CAME IN, LOOKING FOR YOU.  BROWN LIQUID WAS DRIPPING FROM HIS HEAD.  HE SAID, WHEN HE FINDS YOU, HE’S GOING TO KICK YOUR ARSE.

I’ve tried to write poems about the incident, without success, over the years.  It would probably work better as a short story.  Last week I was in a pub with a friend one lunchtime, and inadvertently knocked my glass of beer all over him.  It reminded me of the incident all those years ago, and I suddenly realised that one way of writing about it could be in the form of Haiku – two lines of five syllables, enclosing a middle line of seven syllables.  The poem above is the result.

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Accident

ACCIDENT

I’d just crossed to the other side
of the road, at the Zebra crossing.
The beeps had just stopped, when
the sudden sound of impact shattered
the air, like a crack of thunder.

I saw the shock on the faces,
the hands flying to the mouths;
heard the screams of horror.
Then, the rush of the crowd;
the mix of human concern,
human curiosity.

I turned my head, in fear
of what I would see. He lay
beside his bicycle, holding
his head, silent. I knew
that, a moment before,
he had been pedalling
across the Zebra crossing;
unique thoughts and feelings
cocooned in that head.
I knew the sudden, nightmare
sensation, as the car had hit
him; the incredulity, that this
could be happening to him.

Twenty yards ahead
of where he lay, a dented car
pulled to a ragged halt.
People rushed towards it,
fuelled by shock and anger.

I watched, for a few minutes.
I could feel, I could see
the brutal import of it all;
as it once happened to me.

I was walking along a public footpath one day, during Summer last year, when a man on a bicycle rode straight into me.  He was going at pretty much full speed, and the force of the impact completely knocked me over.  I fell on my face, my hands and my ribs, sustaining gashes to my lip and my hands that needed several stitches.  I was lucky not to have broken any ribs, but my ribs and chest were severely bruised, and the bruising took over a month to fade away.  The cyclist was thrown off his bike by the force of the impact, but he jumped to his feet, apparently unscathed, and proceeded to berate me, while I lay prostrate, bleeding onto the pavement.  “This is all your fault!”  he shouted at me “I warned you!”  He then remounted the bike and rode away.  I’m convinced he must have been either drunk or on drugs.

So, when a similar incident happened, a few days ago, in Peterborough town centre, it had a real impact upon me.  This time, however, I wasn’t the victim; it was a cyclist, crossing the road at a Zebra crossing, just behind me, and a car – trying to beat the lights – drove straight into him.  As soon as I got home, I sat down and wrote the above poem, while the incident was still fresh in my mind.

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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”.

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The First Tattoo

THE FIRST TATTOO

Like everything else, I left it late;
‘til the grand old age of thirty eight.
Adolescent rebellion running late,
I wanted to “epater la bourgeoisie”
with a large King Cobra;
hooded, menacing, poised to strike,
tattooed onto my throat.

But my wise tattooist was having
none of it.
“I ain’t putting it there, mate.
You might want to cover it up, see.”
Priming his weapon, ignoring my frown,
he insisted on putting it lower down.
The cobra would be etched upon my chest;
to be visible only in a low-cut vest.

So began the tortuous process,
searing the soul, like bare feet
trudging across burning coals.
My cobra began to communicate
with me; a disquisition on the nature
of pain. So much pain in life we tolerate,
we bear. It is necessary, inescapable;
part of the tissue of our existence.
But how to justify this pain,
this needle, sinking in, inscribing
its torture into my sensitive skin?
This pain was inessential, self-imposed,
masochistic frippery. So mused the cobra,
fangs sunk into my skin; its venomous
thoughts teeming through my brain.
Why open myself to this intolerable pain?
I must never, ever, invite it again.

So ended an hour of nightmare.
Twenty years would pass,
before I would dare
to contemplate returning there.

I acquired my two latest tattoos over the last couple of months, making a grand total of seven.  I think it doubtful, now, whether I shall get any more.  I am in my sixty-sixth year, and have always wanted my tattoos to be on prominent, easily-visible parts of my body.  As I already have them on my arms, chest and neck, that really only leaves my face as uncharted territory – and facial tattoos are a step too far, I think.  Getting a new tattoo has always been an intense experience for me, and the recent ones made me think about my whole tattooing history.  It seems rather odd that I got my first tattoo almost thirty years ago, and yet the last six tattoos have all come within the last six years.  How to explain the gap of twenty-one years in the middle?  That was the origin of the poem “The First Tattoo”.

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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.

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The Day After BREXIT

CATHEDRAL SQUARE; DAY AFTER “BREXIT”

The nation is divided,
but sitting here, in Cathedral Square,
jubilation is in the air.
And inebriation.
Union Jacks held on high,
emblematic against the clear blue sky.
A stubble-faced, hardened drinker,
beer can in hand, rushes up to a man,
slaps him on the back. “Cheers, mate!
We got our effing country back!”

As one of those who lost this fight,
I am bemused; the nature of our plight
is not grasped here. Fuelled by beer,
by blinkered enmity, by fear
of invading cultures,
different colours, different races,
a frenzy of ignorance escalates.
An alien presence in this jostling square,
I am adrift, in a sea of sun-reddened faces.
I turn away, impatient to leave,
to look for a quieter place, to grieve.

The day after the fateful European Referendum of June 23’rd, I happened to be at Cathedral Square, in the centre of Peterborough, around lunchtime.  Nothing unusual in that; I live in Peterborough, and walk through the square most days.  As the day was fine and sunny, I quite fancied sitting on one of the benches there for a while, and taking in the sights.  I soon realized that the unexpected result of the referendum had created  ripples of excitement, running through the people around the square.  The above poem is a fairly straightforward account of what I saw there, and my reactions to the events.

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The Fascination of Wheelie-Bins

BIN-RETRIEVAL

It scrapes, clatters, rumbles, trundles.
Irritating, ominous, yet somehow reassuring.
The hauling of a tumbril? No, just someone
retrieving their newly-emptied wheelie-bin.

No mystery here. So why is it that I
jump to my feet, rush to the window,
every time I hear it?

“Nosy Parker!”
Yes, guilty as charged, M’lud;
but I plead mitigating circumstance.
How else am I to track, to keep tabs on
the mysterious comings and goings
of the denizens of these flats?
How else to know who lives where?
By their wheelie-bins shall ye know them.

In this case, for example; this enigmatic,
hooded figure, who trudges back
to his flat so slowly, weighed down
by his own thoughts, not by
the freshly-emptied wheelie-bin
he lugs behind him.

By their wheelie-bins shall ye know them, M’lud.
Or not, as the case may be.
But beware, M’lud, have a care;
for there is much to be learnt
from just who lives where.

This is another poem in the continuing series of poems inspired by events and characters in the flats/apartments where I live.  The day of bin-collection is invariably punctuated, for me, by the sounds of the occupants of the flats retrieving their wheelie-bins.  I am open to the charge of sticking my nose into other people’s business, but I admit I cannot resist the temptation of having a look out of the window, every time I hear that distinctive sound.

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The Speed of Light

THE SPEED OF LIGHT

We look at a star, two thousand light-years
away from us; we see it as it was
two thousand years ago.

An intelligent being on that star
trains his high-powered telescope
upon our planet, and sees
the crucifixion of Jesus.

For us, it happened two thousand years ago.
He sees it live, as it is happening;
for, after all, it is happening now.

From a star much nearer,
another intelligent being observes
the Battle of Hastings.

It offends against reason;
it cannot be right,
that this be brought about
by the speed of light.

But the whole quantum world
affronts logic and reason.
Argue about it all day, all night,
but it exists; oh yes, it exists all right.

I think about the speed of light;
get a glimmer of an insight
into what is meant by physicists
when they claim Time does not exist.

For, depending where
you are in the Multiverse,
everything is always happening,
for better or worse.

I will always associate the British writer/philosopher Brian Magee (born 1930) with the most enjoyable three years of my life, spent studying for a Humanities degree (as a “Mature Student” aged twenty six) at Cambridgeshire College of Arts and Technology.  The main subject of my degree – European Thought and Literature – was exactly what I was passionately interested in, and Brian Magee became part of it all when, in 1978, he presented a series on BBC Television called “Men of Ideas”.  I remember watching the programme every week, fascinated by Magee’s conversations with some of the most eminent philosophers of the time. 

I have followed his literary/broadcasting career ever since, and so I was fully aware that his latest book “Ultimate Questions” is intended to be a final resume of the ideas that have obsessed him throughout his life.  I have yet to read the full book, but I immediately went onto Amazon to have a look, and found myself reading the first chapter.  I soon realized that what Magee was doing in this first section was compressing a vast amount of information about the speed of light into a relatively short space.  As I read, the full import of what he was saying started to sink in, and I have tried to express it in the above poem.

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