Monday, 15 June 2015

BARN BOOKS AND A MISCELLANY OF ODDITIES

I admit I'm attracted to oddities. They've provided me with some of the best material for poetry and stories. Yesterday was no exception.

Barn Books, on Pear Tree Farm, deep in the heart of the Shropshire countryside near Whitchurch,
offered us many delights on Sunday, despite rain and gloom. First we couldn't find the place, even though we've been there dozens of times before, because one of the signs was missing and the driver of the party wouldn't take instruction from his missus. However, when we did arrive Mary, the owner, made us welcome and we spent a delightful hour edging round stacks of books, poring over shelves and boxes and emerging triumphantly with a number of volumes.

Mary entertained us with memories of Barbara Hepworth, whose studio she had visited often as a child, despite Barbara making it very clear she disliked children and would not allow her own inside her studio.

Hearing this, I felt the same secondhand thrill I felt as a child when our neighbour told us she had seen Anna Pavlova dance and an even older neighbour recalled seeing Queen Victoria. The arm of memory stretches further and further back until the seven degrees of separation- or is it connectedness? - begins to make sense.

Among the book titles at Barn Books were such gems as:

Farming Made Easy
The Manual of Injurious Insects
The Complete Fox
Whores of the Devil (a lurid, battered paperback)
The Boy Through the Ages (not a title one would choose today) and
Building the Wooden Fighting Ship.


I defy anyone coming across the Injurious Insect book not to have a peek inside, but Whores of the Devil was a disappointment, as it promised a lot and delivered little, except for the lurid cover. I can imagine local farmers opening the first book on the list and throwing it on the floor. People are struggling here.

As ever, my trusty notebook will be raided for future stories, possibly to include a fox, an injurious insect and a fighting ship, crewed by whores of the devil. You never know.

Tuesday, 9 June 2015

ROUGH SLEEPERS AND CHINESE FARMERS

According to the Government, we all have a lot more disposable income now than previously. Oh yeah? What about the cuts you've told us are going to come? Don't you know that you can't get money out of people who have none? So that's me off the hook.

So if it's true...

Any day now they'll be closing the food banks because everyone will be able to afford to eat well.
Any day now they'll offer the people sleeping in shop doorways and on benches in the middle of Shrewsbury in January somewhere to stay.
Any day now.

So what's gone wrong?

I remember a little story I heard once:

A hard-working Chinese farmer called Heng lived with his family on their farm. His father lived with them and helped his son and daughter in law with the work that needed to be done. After some years, Heng's father became infirm and needed to sit down a good deal of the time in the porch, from where he could watch his son working.

Heng began to think to himself: The old man's not good for anything now. He can't work, he can't even really look after himself. Look at him up there watching me; criticising what I do. Here am I, slaving away for the family and what use is he? Resentment grew.

Heng went to the shed behind the farmhouse and got out some wood. It was expensive, good quality timber. That night he stayed out late, making a large wooden box with the planks, sawing and nailing them until it was just right.

Next morning he took it round to the front porch on the wheelbarrow. Stony-faced, he told the old man: 'Father, get in.' The old man was surprised, but with difficulty he managed to climb on to the wheelbarrow and sit inside the long narrow box. Heng balanced the lid across the handles and slowly trundled the barrow, the box and his father, all the way down to the cliff's edge. And all the while the father never said a thing.

Heng put down the barrow at the cliff's edge. 'Lie down,' he ordered his father, and his father obeyed. Heng put the lid on the box. He took some nails and a hammer from his knapsack and began to hammer the lid on.

Then the old man spoke:

"Heng, " he said. "My son, I have an idea. You have used your best wood and taken many hours to make this box. Why do you not take me out of this box and throw me over the cliff? Then you can keep your fine box. After all, you will need it for yourself some day."

The story finishes there, so we don't know whether Heng went ahead with his plan or not. I like to think he sat there, head in hands, deeply saddened, and that the old man might have comforted him. Maybe that's wishful thinking. But the old are able to give something to the young - encouragement, sympathy, the long view, acceptance, a listening ear, even advice. It's got to be worth something.

Wednesday, 3 June 2015

Help! I'm a prisoner in Market Drayton...

Help! I'm a prisoner in Market Drayton. Trapped in an ageing body, without a proper bus service, with limited income and very little chance of escape. And I'm not alone. I bet there are thousands of us all over the country, with our bus passes that we can't use (here anyway) after six o'clock (oh, all right, after 18.00 hours) because there are no buses after that time. Taxis? Yes, of course. Do you know what a twenty mile taxi ride costs? No I didn't think you did. Right. Rant over. Settle down now. I claim to be a poet, as well as a writer of short stories and novels, so I'd better get on with the poetry thing, though since it's my blog I can write what I damn well like. Gavin Maxwell wrote about an exercise he gives his students. He asks them to write the first line of a poem, and a student called Wayne wrote "This is the end of the poem." Maxwell chose this line for his students to respond to and asked the group to carry on writing this poem. They struggled with the whiteness of the blank page, the meaning they could give to these words, the setting, the authorship. He really made them think. Investigating a similar idea, I chose a line from one of the notebooks I keep with me. The line runs like this: "Outside Macy's and I haven't bought a thing." I wrote this in New York, just before our son married an American girl, and it was my first trip to the US. It was also my birthday. I took notes and my children (all adult now) watched me for signs of - what? I thought about it some more and realised that they understood the significance of the birthday and were aware our time together was running out. But I loved New York. The buzz, the energy! Here's the finished poem. It won a prize, which was great! MANHATTAN, AUGUST My children are watching me. West 35th Street, outside Macy's and I haven't bought a thing. I sit in the lime green chairs provided by the management, by the pyramids of orange flowers, ditto, and watch a hungry man sell newspapers to indifferent passers-by. A man in shorts, with broken trainers, sings loudly to himself. I remember where I am. The roar of the roads. Manhattan, August. Heat, dust and unbreathable air and I am old, I tell myself. I'm old now. I look about me. I take notes. I talk to people. My children are watching me to see how I manage growing old. I buy stale pretzels in the street. Hear conversations: 'Doesn't work that way', 'Who knew?' 'Never saw that one coming.' I never saw it coming. Seventy. Manhattan. August. My children are watching me. Inside I'm dancing. It's okay.

Tuesday, 2 June 2015

ON POETRY ABOUT GETTING OLDER AND NOT MENTIONING PURPLE

Last year I had a significant birthday celebration in Dorsey's Oyster Bar on Broadway, New York, with people I love. Reaching three score years and ten has been no mean feat, but I'm really glad to be here, now, with most of my teeth and a roof over my head.

People are more precious to me now and there's a sort of desperate intense joy that overtakes me at times, which I hadn't fully recognised before. Time passing, Beloved, Donald Davie's moving poem about love, loss and the acceptance of mortality, explores this ground more thoroughly:

Time passing, and the memories of love
Coming back to me, carissima, no more mockingly
Than ever before; time passing, unslackening,
Unhastening, steadily; and no more
Bitterly, beloved, the memories of love
Coming into the shore.

Poets have not shied away from their own mortality in the past, though present day poets are less inclined to dwell on old age and decline. When I was nobbut a lass I wrote a poem about old age, and although I left a biscuit-tin full of poems behind in the attic of a rented flat in Wandsworth when we were evicted, somehow I kept hold of that one. It serves as a reminder of something.

I grow old ... I grow old ... I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled, wrote T.S. Eliot in the voice of J Alfred Prufrock, realising that the tantalising mermaids he could hear singing would not be calling to him in the future. Yet Eliot was only twenty-two.. Do we detect resignation in his voice? There's certainly an acceptance there, but I think it's more than this. Rolled-up trouser bottoms on the beach might be inappropriate for a young man, like the sensible shoes your mother insisted on.  Form or function? Practical comfort or fashionable inpracticality? Eliot, always a neat and tidy man in his photographs, has looked into the future and decided: What the hell? If I'm going to be old one day I may as well be comfortable.   Eliot is one of those poets, like Auden, who was born middle aged.

(There was a superb discussion on Radio 4 this morning about Prufrock - here's the link.

Monday, 1 June 2015

FASHIONS IN POETRY

Every child in the land knows a poem or two. It might be a simple child's skipping rhyme, a nursery rhyme, counting game or song, but the chances are that it will rhyme, and if it rhymes it will be remembered. But...horses for courses, as they say, and there are some beautiful, poignant and memorable words being penned today that have no truck with rhyme, metre or punctuation. It's fine if you can pull it off, but I want to argue a bit for the other side of the coin. I suppose I have to really, since I do write metric and rhyming poetry if the subject seems to call for it.

Although many of today's poets never touch rhyme and some never use metre, rap artists and performance poets know the value of the insistent beat, with or without rhyme, and the fabulous Elvis McGonagall or Attila the Stockbroker give performances that will still light up a room in years to come with combinations of metric and rhythmic firecrackers of verse. Memorable, energetic, clever, these word mongers certainly know how to put across a point. If I contrast that with some other 'minimalist' (my word) poets writing today, I find myself wanting more. I feel short changed. What is there to hold onto and remember? Haiku and tanka are all very well, and the finest examples by Basho are very beautiful indeed but they are like Persian miniature paintings, exquisite in their expression, but we also need variety - large landscapes, bigger perspectives, a new way of looking at things.

Poets who flout fashion and write in metric forms are not as common as they should be. Where are the Charles Causleys of today? But older people, or ordinary people who claim not to like poetry, like and remember the rhyming couplet, the rude limerick, the epitaph. They remember that 'the highwayman came riding, riding,' and that 'In Xanadu did Kublai Khan a stately pleasure dome decree,' long after their schooldays are forgotten. Poetry is a large boat and is taking on new passengers all the time, who arrive with experimental baggage and proceed to jettison tried and trusted lifeboats of metre, rhythm and verse. There's room on board for us all. Move over.