This week’s random poetry recording is of Sylvia Plath reading one of her most famous poems. She was a brilliant reader of her own work. Whether or not you’ve heard it before I’d be interested to know your thoughts.
Incidentally, there’s a close reading of the poem on the British Library website here if you want to find out more.
Having struggled with my own mental health issues in the past, I’ve not really been drawn to her writing, (I appreciate that for others the opposite is the case), but I really do need to read more of Sylvia Plath’s work. The technique, imagery and language used is astonishing.
It’s 7.40 PM and I haven’t posted anything today. Family around and football on the TV. Lots of work to do on my side business – I have a licence to sell UEFA final memorabilia on eBay , Amazon and my own website. It’s not as profitable as you’d think, but it does help with the general finances. A little.
So an opportunity to mention Daniel Gray’s prose books about football. Full of nostalgia and quirks of the game, I really enjoyed reading them when I got them for Christmas last year.
They are described as prose poetry. I don’t know. Truth be told, I’m confused by what is, and what isn’t prose poetry. Where does poetry end and prose begin? I have friends who say that poetry can’t exist without line breaks. That poetry and prose do not mix.
With the utmost respect I think they are talking bollocks. I’ll side with Ginsberg, Bly, Simic, Rilke and Rimbaud etc. myself.
As for Daniel Gray’s books, (I have three), whether prose poetry or prose with poetical flourishes, does it really matter? If you love football, you’ll find something to appreciate. The first three pieces in Saturday, 3 PM focus on such important issues as Seeing a ground from the train, watching an away end erupt and getting the fixture list. There are 47 similarly titled pieces in this book.
The review from When Saturday Comes states;
Each is a precision-tooled delight. even apparently obvious subjects are described with such lyricism that the everyday is routinely transformed into the sublime. here is a book that contains nothing but pure, unadulterated joy
and a BBC Radio review states that ‘Gray writes like Lowry paints. Superb.
This is a book of love-letters to the beautiful game, it’s quirks and obsessions, moments of humour, joy, family and community spirit. Gray has written others – Extra Time and Black Boots and Football Pinks, both of which I own, and have added to my poetry bookshelf
My poem is entitled Sea Life Centre Confessional and is 33 words long. I’ve written shorter, but a lot that are longer! It’s one of my Portsmouth island running poem sequence that I one day hope to get published (the whole sequence is about 65 pages long as things stand).
This poem captures the experience so well. We used to go on holiday as a family to the Pembrokeshire coast, and it was the third, or fourth time that we went out that we finally managed to encounter a pod of dolphins. Truly magical. You don’t need to travel halfway around the world to experience something special in nature.
A bit later than normal, this week’s from my poetry bookshelf post is a (brief) introduction to the work of John Glenday.
John Glenday was born in Broughty Ferry in 1952. He has said in interview that his mother was a reader, his father not at all. She gave him the words, his father the silences, a Glenday-like formulation. His ambition to be a poet was first fired in his teens. ‘A lot of people do [want to be poets in adolescence], but I never grew out of it…. Every job I’ve had is really something I’ve had to keep me while I’m writing.’ He studied English at the University of Edinburgh, and after graduating became a psychiatric nurse. Currently he lives in Drumnadrochit and works for NHS Highland as an addictions counsellor.
The above paragraph was taken from the Scottish Poetry Library’s introduction to John Glenday, which can be found here:
I first came across Glenday’s poetry at a zoom reading hosted by Walthamstow based Forest Poets. Incidentally their next event is a reading by George Szirtes, which I’m sure will be excellent – another poet who I shall have to write about at some point. if interested, you can buy tickets here:
I thought John Glenday’s reading was great, and was compelled to go out and purchase a copy of his collected poems afterwards. Those of you reading this who are familiar with his poetry will know that he is a superb, lyrical poet, with a beautiful and clear use of language and the space between words.
Take this, the title poem of his second collection, Undark, written about the Radium Girls;
And so they come back, those girls who painted the watch dials luminous and died.
They come back and their hands glow and their lips and hair and their footprints gleam in the past like alien snow.
It was as if what shone in them once had broken free and burned through the cotton of their lives.
And I want to know this: how they came to believe that something so beautiful could ever have turned out right,
but though they open their mouths to answer me, all I can hear is light.
The Selected Poems is a very good starting point and includes poems from four collections, and others that were not, until then, available in a collection. They are uniformly excellent, with a diverse range of subjects and forms – there is a lot of rigour and structure underpinning the lyrical quality of language.
A lot of the poems have a strong connection to the sea and sky, to the landscape and ecology, but also there are poems of love, of family history and a range of other subjects.
You can hear Glenday reading a short selection of poems on the Poetry Archive website, including Tin, which uses the fact that the can opener was invented forty-eight years after the tin can as a starting point for a whimsical and yet poignant poem.
To quote the blurb on the back of the Selected Poems, Glenday shares with W.S. Graham and Denise Riley an obsession with speech, silence and limits of knowledge, and with what form the energies that flicker along the border might take.
I’ll finish with the last stanza from The Skylark , which originally appeared in his fourth collection, The Golden Mean
one cloud, one thread of wind, one song to hang like nothing over everything.
If this brief (well it is 10.15 PM as I write this) introduction has whetted your appetite then you won’t be disappointed if you explore his writing further.
If you haven’t heard this yet then it’s well worth a listen. Recorded on wax cylinders in 1890, it may be the oldest recording in the Poetry Archive. Yes it’s crackly, but you can hear the cadence and power of Tennyson’s diction. I bet he would have done pretty well at a poetry slam if such events had existed in late victorian England!
I’ve shared the poem below the audio link in case you want to read it before clicking through (it is also shared in full on the Poetry Archive page).
The Charge of the Light Brigade
I Half a league, half a league, Half a league onward, All in the valley of Death Rode the six hundred. “Forward, the Light Brigade! Charge for the guns!” he said. Into the valley of Death Rode the six hundred.
II “Forward, the Light Brigade!” Was there a man dismayed? Not though the soldier knew Someone had blundered. Theirs not to make reply, Theirs not to reason why, Theirs but to do and die. Into the valley of Death Rode the six hundred.
III Cannon to right of them, Cannon to left of them, Cannon in front of them Volleyed and thundered; Stormed at with shot and shell, Boldly they rode and well, Into the jaws of Death, Into the mouth of hell Rode the six hundred.
IV Flashed all their sabres bare, Flashed as they turned in air Sabring the gunners there, Charging an army, while All the world wondered. Plunged in the battery-smoke Right through the line they broke; Cossack and Russian Reeled from the sabre stroke Shattered and sundered. Then they rode back, but not Not the six hundred.
V Cannon to right of them, Cannon to left of them, Cannon behind them Volleyed and thundered; Stormed at with shot and shell, While horse and hero fell. They that had fought so well Came through the jaws of Death, Back from the mouth of hell, All that was left of them, Left of six hundred.
VI When can their glory fade? O the wild charge they made! All the world wondered. Honour the charge they made! Honour the Light Brigade, Noble six hundred!
In addition to books on my poetry bookshelf, I also have a lot of pamphlets, including this one by Cliff Forshaw, published by Happenstance Press in 2011.
Pamphlets are a great way for poets who haven’t had a collection in print to pull together an initial selection of work, or for other writers to create a smaller thematic collection of poems.
Tiger falls into the latter category. It is 22 pages long, and themed around the now-extinct Tasmanian Tiger. I ordered this, partly due to an interest in the subject, and also due to wanting to see what the Happenstance Press publications were like, since I was planning on submitting a pamphlet’s work of work myself.
This, like the other Happenstance press pamphlets I own, (I haven’t ordered any for some time, but will do at some point when funds permit), is very elegantly put together, with a crisp and clean layout.
Tiger comes out of a writer-in-residence period in Hobart in 2004, (memo to self to check whether the Tasmanian Writers Centre are still offering these!), and starts with the following poem;
Loop 62 seconds of the extinct Thylacine or Tasmanian Tiger on film.
Within the box, it growls, it twists, scowls through its repertoire of tricks, ignores the camera — or gurns up close, turns again, to flop, to gnaw that paw-trapped bone.
It paces out its trap of light; one hundred reps while hindquarters zither bars of sun; claws cage’s mesh, hangs stretched as if to take the measure of itself.
You saw. You see. And what we’ve got is what was shot: short clips, fragments caught and stitched together in a loop of black and white.
Nine lives? Not quite. It’s down. It’s out. It’s on its feet and born again. Like a repetition compulsion, like… like reincarnated light.
You can watch Forshaw introducing and reading the poem on YouTube, shared by The Poetry Archive, through the following link;
There’s also a Guardian article which goes into this particular poem in detail here;
and you can watch the clip that inspired Loop here;
It’s one of the strongest poems in the pamphlet, and the one that has been shared the most online – presumably as a result of the Guardian choosing it as one of their poems of the week.
The second poem, Barcode, brings us up to date with the Tasmanian Tiger’s contemporary relevance;
Extinct, this creature’s everywhere from CD sleeves to bottled beer. With trademark stripes, it zebras out between the gums’ abstracted light. They’ve even tigered my hired Mazda’s plate. Everything’s branded. Tasmania – your natural state.
Now you see them. Now they’re gone. Did this tiger’s go-faster stripes aid recognition in the loping pack?
Eucalypts, eucalypts at speed, late sun flickers through those trees: at the tarmac’s edge, off-cuts of fur, strange weeds.
Billboards, stores along the newly-metalled road: ironic ads, that hide’s barcode.
I’ll not reproduce anything else from Tiger, as it is still available for sale from Happenstance Press here;
The other poems, also mostly in the form of sonnets, expand on the themes of man’s interaction with this now mythical ghost of an animal. There are poems about museum specimens, roadkill, shadows glimpsed beyond headlights, and a jaunty final poem which connects the Tiger with another long-dead Tasmanian, actor Errol Flynn – I’m not 100% sure about this last poem – I can understand the desire to lighten the sequence, but I wonder about how it fits with the rest of the poems. But that’s a minor quibble and more a reflection on my personal taste.
Both Barcode and Loop , which have been shared elsewhere online, are also available in Vandemonian, a full length collection about the inhabitants of Van Diemen’s Land, (an earlier name for Tasmania), which was published by Arc in 2013. I don’t own it yet.
You’ll not see anything from me there – my submission was, rightly, rejected. It was disjointed and simply not good enough. Most of the poems I submitted needed serious editing, and that’s being kind. Only one, (Bird in Hand – which you can find elsewhere in this blog), made it into my first collection.
But what I did receive from Helena Nelson, who owns and runs Happenstance Press, was a very thoughtful and detailed rejection letter, with notes on most of the poems I had submitted. She summarised by saying that there ‘was something there’ with my writing, but I was ‘trying too hard’.
If you happen to stumble across my blog Helena, then thank you. Your rejection letter had a lot of influence on a writer who was still trying to find a voice, even back in 2011/12.
And that brings me to my final point. Poetry publishers need support. They need people to buy books, pamphlets and magazines. Without this they cease to exist. So if you haven’t bought any books for a while, or subscribed to a magazine, then please bear this in mind! Small-press independent publishers of poetry in particular need our support right now.
I thought I would start delving into the marvellous poetry archive of audio recordings. Something to share regularly on a Tuesday night perhaps? If so, let me know your favourites, and I’ll share them here to this blog’s gradually widening audience.
Here’s Charles Causley reading Eden Rock. That last line. Phew.
Charles Causley (1917-2003) was born and brought up in Launceston, Cornwall and lived there for most of his life. When he was only seven his father died from wounds sustained during the First World War. This early loss and his own experience of service in the Second World War affected Causley deeply. His work fell outside the main poetic trends of the 20th century, drawing instead on native sources of inspiration: folk songs, hymns, and above all, ballads. His poetry was recognised by the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry in 1967 and a Cholmondeley Award in 1971. In addition to these public honours, the clarity and formality of his poetry has won Causley a popular readership, making him, in the words of Ted Hughes, one of the “best loved and most needed” poets of the last fifty years.
The above paragraph was lifted directly from the Poetry Archive website.
Repeat that, repeat, Cuckoo, bird, and open ear wells, heart-springs, delightfully sweet, With a ballad, with a ballad, a rebound Off trundled timber and scoops of the hillside ground, hollow hollow hollow ground: The whole landscape flushes on a sudden at a sound.
Gerard Manley Hopkins
I heard a cuckoo yesterday. I can’t remember how long ago it was that I last heard one. It prompted me to revisit this brilliant collection of bird poems. Repeat that, repeat sits alongside other Cuckoo poems by Auden and Wordsworth.
The Poetry of Birds is organised by bird rather than poet, which makes it easy to see different writers’ approaches to the same subject. Here’s a couple of poems about crows as an example;
How peaceable it seems for lonely men To see a crow fly in the thin blue sky Over the woods and fealds, o’er level fen It speaks of villages, or cottage nigh Behind the neighbouring woods — when march winds high Tear off the branches of the hugh old oak I love to see these chimney sweeps sail by And hear them o’er the knarled forest croak Then sosh askew from the hid woodmans stroke That in the woods their daily labours ply I love the sooty crow nor would provoke Its march day exercises of croaking joy I love to see it sailing to and fro While feelds, and woods and waters spread below
This is followed , after a poem by Thomas Lovell Beddoes, by Ted Hughes’ Crow and the Birds, which ends with the following lines;
While the bullfinch plumped in the apple bud And the goldfinch bulbed in the sun And the wryneck crooked in the moon And the dipper peered from the dewbello
Crow sprawled head-down in the beach-garbage, guzzling a dropped ice-cream.
With eighteen poems, John Clare features heavily in this collection, hardly surprising, for a poet noted for his observations of nature – his biographer called Clare “the greatest labouring-class poet that England has ever produced. No one has ever written more powerfully of nature, of a rural childhood, and of the alienated and unstable self”.
But this book has an excellent variety of poems and descriptions of birds. I loved Paul Farley’s The Heron, which open’s with the lines;
One of the most begrudging avian take-offs is the heron’s fucking hell, all right, all right, I’ll go to the garage for your flaming fags cranky departure…
or how about this two line poem by Paul Muldoon?
The plovers come down hard, then clear again, for they are the embodiment of rain.
Of course there are plenty of poems where the bird is an extended metaphor for something else;
When night comes black Such royal dreams beckon this man As lift him apart From his earth-wife’s side To wing, sleep-feathered, The singular air, While she, envious bride, Cannot follow after, but lies With her blank brown eyes starved wide, Twisting curses in the tangled sheet With taloned fingers, Shaking in her skull’s cage The stuffed shape of her flown mate Escaped among moon-plumaged strangers; So hungered, she must wait in rage Until bird-racketing dawn When her shrike-face Leans to peck open those locked lids, to eat Crowns, palace, all That nightlong stole her male, And with red beak Spike and suck out Last blood-drop of that truant heart.
There are excellent notes at the end of the book on each species described, which can add significantly to an understanding of a poem’s true meaning. For those that don’t know, a shrike is a small, unassuming-looking bird that hunts insects and rodents, often spearing them on sharp branches so as to eat them on a piecemeal basis at a later or more convenient time. I’ll let you guess who, or what, The Shrike is really about.
The Poetry of Birds contains a nice mix of famous and less well known poets and poems, and finishes with a group of more abstract / mythical bird poems. The final poem in the book is, fittingly, this one;
‘ ”Hope” is the thing with feathers’
“Hope” is the thing with feathers – That perches in the soul – And sings the tune without the words – And never stops – at all –
And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard – And sore must be the storm – That could abash the little Bird That kept so many warm –
I’ve heard it in the chillest land – And on the strangest Sea – Yet – never – in Extremity, It asked a crumb – of me.
I was a bird-watcher as a child. Like most who took up this hobby, it hasn’t really left me. If you are of a similar mind, then you probably already have this book. If you don’t get hold of a copy. You won’t regret it. And if ornithology isn’t of interest? This is still an excellent collection of disparate voices that will expand your knowledge and breadth of reading. You can’t go too wrong with a book like this.
The Poetry of Birds is now perched on my virtual bookshelf at Bookshop.org