Poem of the week

This week, Basil Bunting.

This Monday’s poem comes courtesy of Billy Mills. It is, he tells me, “the coda to Basil Bunting’s long autobiographical poem Briggflatts (1966), described by Thom Gunn as ‘One of the few great poems of this century’. I love it because of the sound patterns Bunting creates through his use of assonances and alliterations. Although he has never been as popular as contemporaries like Auden and MacNeice, I think that Bunting has the best ear of any English poet of his generation.”

Now, it shames me to confess that Bunting is one of the gaps in my poetry reading – I’ve scarcely read anything by him, despite the fact that he’s a fellow Northumbrian (even the most tenuous local connection resulted, in the normal run of things, in at least a term’s-worth of lessons. Our school kept the Kielder Water visitor centre in business). This fragment, though, sent me scurrying around the internet looking for the full text of the poem (thus far to no avail: if anyone knows where it can be found, do post a link below). The brief lines and strong simple words create a feeling of spaciousness and hush that I found intensely beguiling.

Coda to Briggflatts by Basil Bunting

A strong song tows us, long earsick. Blind, we follow rain slant, spray flick to fields we do not know.

Night, float us. Offshore wind, shout, ask the sea what’s lost, what’s left, what horn sunk, what crown adrift.

Where we are who knows of kings who sup while day fails? Who, swinging his axe to fell kings, guesses where we go?


Full article: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/booksblog/2007/may/21/poemoftheweek2

Poem of the week

Thanks to Anna Dickie, who sent in a poem by Jen Hadfield.

Thanks to Anna Dickie for sending in this week’s poem, a short piece by Jen Hadfield. Born in Cheshire in 1978, Hadfield is half-Canadian, and studied creative writing at the Universities of Glasgow and Strathcylde. Her first collection, Almanacs, was published by Bloodaxe in 2005.

Anna Dickie found this short poem on Hadfield’s blog, and sent it in because “it’s based on such a lovely notion”. I like the suggestion that the sunlight has something to do with wind – though speaking as a Lea, there’s a whole lee/lea thing going on that I haven’t quite got my head around yet. And it’s probably only me, but the last line puts me in mind of a brilliant moment in Complicite’s A Minute Too Late, where Marcello Magni makes a gas hob with his hand.

Thanks again to Anna Dickie for this one – keep sending your suggestions, and we’ll keep posting them.

Every Blue Thing by Jen Hadfield

if the teaching about the chakras is true then every blue thing’s a voice – the monologue of the shady tarmac, the shadow in the lea of each rock a locket of speech to be broken and heard, the speaking sky and the speedwell sea,

and in the night, the sotto voce of the pilot light


Full article: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/booksblog/2007/jun/04/poemoftheweek3

Nonsense, or anti-capitalist allegory? Decide for yourself as Lewis Carroll leads us through the looking-glass.


Lines from The Walrus and the Carpenter have been inexplicably running through my head all week, and eventually I had to leave my oyster-bed, go Through the Looking-Glass and find the whole poem. Whereupon, dear readers, as Alice might have said, I decided that it was so beautifully versified, so funny, so horrible and, in the year 2007, so politically resonant, that it deserves to be our Poem of the Week.

John Lennon apparently wrote I Am the Walrus after an acid trip during which he thought he was one, being under the mistaken impression that the Walrus was the goodie. All children, I suppose, enjoy a little debate as to which is the worst villain. Alice, at first inclined to agree with John Lennon, finally concludes, “Well, they were both very unpleasant characters…” As indeed they are, though one makes a slightly creamier, slicker spin doctor. There is also that senior Oyster who sits back smugly in the oyster-bed while his siblings hurry to their doom: he will surely go far in whatever profession he chooses. Even the moon and sun are at loggerheads in this nightmare little universe of exploitation.

Could The Walrus and the Carpenter have an anti-capitalist subtext? Does it evoke the early effects of industrial pollution (“There were no birds to fly”)? Some have read the verses as a protest against the ruthless greed of the British empire. Who knows what maverick thoughts may slip through the net when poetic invention beguiles the conscious mind (and Lewis Carroll, AKA the mathematics lecturer, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, possessed a meticulous, even pedantic, conscious mind), or when fantasy guarantees disguise? Nonsense poem, parable, satire, even parody (The Rime of the Ancient Mariner comes irresistibly to mind), no genre entirely accommodates this poem. Enjoy the superlative technique – and watch out for the oyster-beds.

The Walrus and the Carpenter

The sun was shining on the sea,
   Shining with all his might:
He did his very best to make
   The billows smooth and bright--
And this was odd, because it was
   The middle of the night.

The moon was shining sulkily,
   Because she thought the sun
Had got no business to be there
   After the day was done--
"It's very rude of him," she said,
   "To come and spoil the fun!"

The sea was wet as wet could be,
   The sands were dry as dry.
You could not see a cloud because
   No cloud was in the sky:
No birds were flying overhead--
   There were no birds to fly.

The Walrus and the Carpenter
   Were walking close at hand:
They wept like anything to see
   Such quantities of sand:
"If this were only cleared away,"
   They said, "it would be grand!"

"If seven maids with seven mops
   Swept it for half a year,
Do you suppose," the Walrus said,
   "That they could get it clear?"
"I doubt it," said the Carpenter,
   And shed a bitter tear.

"0 Oysters, come and walk with us!"
   The Walrus did beseech.
"A pleasant walk, a pleasant talk,
   Along the briny beach:
We cannot do with more than four,
   To give a hand to each."

The eldest Oyster looked at him,
   But never a word he said;
The eldest Oyster winked his eye,
   And shook his heavy head--
Meaning to say he did not choose
   To leave the oyster-bed.

But four young Oysters hurried up,
   All eager for the treat:
Their coats were brushed, their faces washed,
   Their shoes were clean and neat--
And this was odd, because, you know,
   They hadn't any feet.

Four other Oysters followed them,
   And yet another four;
And thick and fast they came at last,
   And more and more and more--
All hopping through the frothy waves,
   And scrambling to the shore.

The Walrus and the Carpenter
   Walked on a mile or so,
And then they rested on a rock
   Conveniently low:
And all the little Oysters stood
   And waited in a row.

"The time has come," the Walrus said,
   "To talk of many things:
Of shoes--and ships--and sealing-wax--
   Of cabbages--and kings--
And why the sea is boiling hot--
   And whether pigs have wings."

"But wait a bit," the Oysters cried,
   "Before we have our chat;
For some of us are out of breath,
   And all of us are fat!"
"No hurry!" said the Carpenter.
   They thanked him much for that.

"A loaf of bread," the Walrus said,
   "Is what we chiefly need:
Pepper and vinegar besides
   Are very good indeed--
Now, if you're ready, Oysters dear,
   We can begin to feed."

"But not on us!" the Oysters cried,
   Turning a little blue.
"After such kindness, that would be
   A dismal thing to do!"
"The night is fine," the Walrus said,
   "Do you admire the view?

"It was so kind of you to come!
   And you are very nice!"
The Carpenter said nothing but
   "Cut us another slice.
I wish you were not quite so deaf--
   I've had to ask you twice!"

"It seems a shame," the Walrus said,
   "To play them such a trick.
After we've brought them out so far,
   And made them trot so quick!"
The Carpenter said nothing but
   "The butter's spread too thick!"

"I weep for you," the Walrus said:
   "I deeply sympathize."
With sobs and tears he sorted out
   Those of the largest size,
Holding his pocket-handkerchief
   Before his streaming eyes.

"0 Oysters," said the Carpenter,
   "You've had a pleasant run!
Shall we be trotting home again?"
   But answer came there none--
And this was scarcely odd, because
   They'd eaten every one.


Full article: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/booksblog/2007/oct/29/poemoftheweek14

Photo: http://www.alice-in-wonderland.net/alicepic/disney-movie/walrus-and-carpenter-1.jpg

This week, some bracing satire from the Earl of Rochester.

Earl of Rochester

James Wilmot, second Earl of Rochester … and monkey.

Hello all, back from two weeks’ intensive poetry reading in the run-up to the Forward prizes – a fascinating experience which I plan to blog on at more length later – reading nothing but poetry has a very interesting effect on the mind, I think …

Anyway! From poetry to more poetry … today’s choice is from our own dear liberaldogooder, who offers for discussion a passage from Rochester’s ‘A Satyr Against Reason and Mankind’. There are, he explains, two reasons behind this choice:

“Firstly, I think satiric poetry has been underrepresented in poem of the day/week so far and, as I’ve bored about before, it can be as enjoyable to see language being used for a good caustic blast as for an ardent expression of sick-bag love. Secondly I think as well as literature being about the best that has been thought, it is also about the worst; the most evil, the most apathetic … Great poets can use rhetoric to express very unfashionable views, very strongly. I’m reminded of modern scientific debates in these lines, and the way people in a debate create an idealised opponent whom they will, of course, easily defeat. What about someone who doesn’t care? What about someone who thinks the other person is wrong because they’re tedious? Normally easy to dismiss, but what if they’re doing it with wit and grace?”

And ’tis this very reason I despise This supernatural gift that makes a mite Think he’s the image of the infinite, Comparing his short life, void of all rest, To the eternal and the ever blest, This busy, puzzling stirrer up of doubt That frames deep myst’ries and then finds them out, Filling with frantic crowds of thinking fools Those reverend bedlams, colleges and schools, Borne on whose wings, each heavy sot can pierce The limits of the boundless universe; So charming ointments make an old witch fly And bear a crippled carcass through the sky. ‘Tis this exalted power, whose business lies In nonsense and impossibilities, This made a whimsical philosopher Before the spacious world his tub prefer, And we have modern, cloistered coxcombs who Retire to think, ’cause they have nought to do.

But thoughts were given for action’s government; Where action ceases, thought’s impertinent. Our sphere of action is life’s happiness, And he who thinks beyond thinks like an ass.

I have to confess that satire isn’t my poetry-of-choice. After encountering Juvenal’s satires at A level, I found myself agreeing with whoever it was said that reading them was like listening to Ian Paisley shouting at the top of his voice for three hours – definitely works to be admired, rather than loved. But I’ve had a soft spot for Rochester ever since coming across the splendid ‘Song of a Young Lady to her Ancient Lover’ years ago, despite the fact that his satires make no attempt whatever to conform to Lady Mary Wortley Montagu’s excellent diktat, “Satire should, like a polished razor keen,/ Wound with a touch that’s scarcely felt or seen.” And as liberaldogooder points out, this passage has just as much relevance for today’s readers as it no doubt did for those alive in Rochester’s day.


Full article and photo: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/booksblog/2007/jul/02/poemoftheweek6

Poem of the week

This week, something from Robert Frost.

Stone wall, New England

‘Something there is that doesn’t love a wall … ‘

Good afternoon, poetry fans. Let me begin by apologising for the tardiness of today’s blog – it’s been ridiculously busy here since I got in this morning. Another weekend would be very welcome at this point …

It was with not a little relief, therefore, that I finally turned to today’s poem, Mending Wall by Robert Frost, nominated by joedoone, who says of Frost, “he has always been one of my favourite poets, ever since I came across Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening at school. I love the way he writes about the physical world, making it seem both fresh and timeless, and Mending Wall is one of his best.”

I’m inclined to agree. I’ve always found Frost’s poetry soothing; his spare, clean New England landscapes join with the lilt of his lines and encourage the reader to slow down, listen and reflect. In this poem, Frost uses the image of the boundary wall – forever disintegrating, forever being rebuilt – to explore the paradox created by our desire to protect ourselves and our simultaneous longing for connection. The image is such a simple one that in the hands of a less skilled poet it would almost certainly have drifted into banality; Frost, however, sustains it effortlessly, turning its simplicity into a virtue. Here it is, in full.

Mending Wall by Robert Frost

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun,
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
The work of hunters is another thing:
I have come after them and made repair
Where they have left not one stone on a stone,
But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,
To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean,
No one has seen them made or heard them made,
But at spring mending-time we find them there.
I let my neighbor know beyond the hill;
And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again.
We keep the wall between us as we go.
To each the boulders that have fallen to each.
And some are loaves and some so nearly balls
We have to use a spell to make them balance:
‘Stay where you are until our backs are turned!’
We wear our fingers rough with handling them.
Oh, just another kind of out-door game,
One on a side. It comes to little more:
There where it is we do not need the wall:
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, ‘Good fences make good neighbors’.
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
‘Why do they make good neighbors? Isn’t it
Where there are cows?
But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down.’ I could say ‘Elves’ to him,
But it’s not elves exactly, and I’d rather
He said it for himself. I see him there
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.
He moves in darkness as it seems to me~
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
He will not go behind his father’s saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, “Good fences make good neighbors.”


Full article and photo: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/booksblog/2007/may/14/poemoftheweek1