Tag Archives: Reading

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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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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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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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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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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Green Water

Green Water

I lie in my bath
of grassy green.

Verdant green,
of youth, not age;

herbaceous green,
of parsley, sage.

The green thrust up
at pavement verge;

the green that grows,
with sway and surge.

A white-topped green,
that bubbles and blinks;

a sagacious green,
that tips you the wink.

A vibrant green,
that glimpses with glee

a harmonious haze
of bath gelee.

I murmur with merriment,
break into a laugh.

I rise, like a giant,
from my Badedas bath.

Long-term followers of this blog will be aware of my liking for luxuriating in a warm bath, reading poetry anthologies in the bath and often getting ideas for new poems in this way.  I normally like to use some sort of bath foam, and have experimented with different commercial brands, over the years.  I remember that, when I was in my early twenties, I became particularly fond of “Badedas Indulgent Bath Gelee”, despite it being considerably more expensive than similar products.  There was something exotic about it; it was supposed to contain extract of horse-chestnut, and I was impressed by the vivid green colour it produced, as well as the stimulating aroma.  I was a fan of the James Bond books at the time, and remember thinking that Badedas was the sort of bath foam that Bond might well have used.  Having forgotten all about it, and not used it for many years, I recently decided to try it again – and have now fallen in love with it once more, as the above poem testifies. (I feel obliged to comment, at this point, that OTHER BATH GELEES ARE WIDELY AVAILABLE).

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Old Scarlett

Old Scarlett
(Robert Scarlett, 1496-1594)

Enter the cathedral. He is still there,
painted onto a wall, above a door.
A bizarre, intriguing figure,
Robert Scarlett – “Old Scarlett”,
immortal grave-digger.

What a story he could have told,
what a life he must have led,
enduring to be so old;
yet living with the dead.
Like a leech, or vampire,
perhaps, sucking their blood,
for sustenance, as food,
a hunger that must be fed.
Unsurprising, perhaps,
his surname means “red”.

He buried Mary, Queen of Scots,
and Katharine of Aragon,
with hundreds of others,
their stories long-gone.
He had an unquenchable
lust for life; aged eighty-nine,
he wed his second wife.

Look again at the painting;
a tiny detail, almost unseen,
gives an edge to the image
of this man who buried queens.
Stocky in build, stout, not lean,
fierce character, pugnacious mien;
a direct gaze, sturdy in the hip,
there dangles from his waist
a slightly sinister whip.

As followers of this blog will know, I live in Peterborough, Cambridgeshire, and Peterborough happens to have a notable cathedral, which dates back to Norman times.  I constantly castigate myself for not visiting the cathedral as frequently as I should, but I do like to read about its history, and the local history of the area.  It was while I was reading a book about the history of Peterborough that I first came across Robert Scarlett, who was described as one of Peterborough’s most legendary residents.  Scarlett was born in 1496, worked as a gravedigger, and was employed as sexton by the cathedral.  His main claim to fame is that he buried both Katharine of Aragon and Mary, Queen of Scots after their funerals in the cathedral, but he is also notable for living to the age of 98, and for marrying his second wife – only a year after the death of his first wife – when he was 89 years old!  It is possible that Shakespeare based the character of the gravedigger in Hamlet upon Scarlett.

As soon as I read about him, I wanted to write a poem about “Old Scarlett”, but it wasn’t until I found out that there was a painting of him in the cathedral that I realized how I could actually do it. 

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KAB

KAB

The Kurdish contingent congregate
mid-day on Friday, at the corner of my street.
How the Kurdish populace propagate
is a miracle, for they are exclusively
male, and bearded. They meet,
they greet. Glossy leather shoes
adorn their feet.

The Kurdish contingent:
thereby hangs a tale
of innocent illusion,
and myself, in a state
of self-willed delusion.

“Kurdish Association
of Britain”.
So weak, the functioning
of my brain.

For months on end,
I would walk past, and see
the sign on the building: KAB.

That’s handy, I thought;
convenient for me,
next time I need
to call a taxi.

Months passed by,
before I would see
the small-case letters
underneath “KAB”.

“Kurdish Association
Of Britain”.
That took months,
to clarify, in my brain.

In a previous post (Local Knowledge, November 12, 2015) I wrote about my lack of attention to street names, as I walk about my locality, and the difficulties it causes when people ask me for directions.  I am afraid I am showing no signs of improvement, as regards to this.  Indeed, I pay so little attention to the sights around me that I seem to be walking around in a sort of self-obsessed mental fog at times.  Not the best of attributes for an aspiring poet, one might think!  The above poem was written when I finally realized – after a period of months – that the sign outside a building I walked past every day had a completely different meaning from what I originally thought.

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