Skip to main content

Posts

Very Rich and Dishevelled

‘Always rich and dishevelled, it (English) is fast becoming very rich and dishevelled.’ William Empson (Seven Types of Ambiguity p 236).
Dishevelled – what a wonderful word!It’s one of those pleasant-sounding English words we all use from time to time, readily understood and unquestioned, which refers to an absence, disruption or diminution of a quality described by a never-, or hardly ever, heard adjective.I mean, have you ever found something hevelled, appointing, traught or even ruptive?  And as for combobulated...
I was reminded of the richness of our language when reading an interview with the admirable Judith Kerr, who's just died.  I've admired her and her books for a long time, thanks yet again to my children for introducing me to someone I wouldn't otherwise have known.  Surely one of the most shevelled of people and fluent in three languages, she was comparing French and English, the former distinguished by its precision, the latter by its wealth of synonyms – wel…
Recent posts

The Green Man

There are so many Green Men – so many sorts, in so many places.
The strange image of greenery – not just leaves, but stems and stalks, tendrils, roots, branches and even hawthorn berries and bunches of grapes – growing from a face continues to intrigue.
Some authorities try to classify them. Here’s one that describes four types.
First and most simply, the (normal) head that peeps through foliage – which might be thought of as Jack in the Green, Puck or even Pan himself. Next, the face from whose mouth greenery emerges. Then, the one in which eyes, ears, nostrils are also exit points for vegetable growth. And lastly, the foliate head, where the whole face turns into, has become leaves.
But such classifications tend to break down under unstoppable green power.
There are faces with leaves growing from the forehead or sides of the nose, heads whose luxuriant hair is turning into twigs and branches, or beards become leaves, happy and tranquil faces along with the tormented (how would I feel if pla…

Do you remember an inn, Miranda? Do you remember...

Of course I knew that poetry can short circuit.
That’s the point of it really – to go straight from the centre of one’s being – the deep heart’s core – to another, perhaps not needing even to think.Like music, poetry can fly: cut directly through clutter – all those habits, pretence and assorted nonsense and trivia of everyday so-called grown-up life, to ancient memories, deep-seated experiences and relationships, and love itself.
I’ve been reminded of this vital ability of poetry by the recent happy experience of working with an amazing National Memory Day Project.Literature Works at Plymouth University, in partnership with the Poetry Archive, supported by the Alzheimer’s Society put out a call to train and commission poets to use poetry to help people living with memory loss.
The idea was that by reviving memories through the shared recollection of much-loved poems, confusion might be alleviated, conversation encouraged, speech difficulties eased and creativity stimulated.
Learning…

Landmark

Landmark
Some miles before reaching home, we see that familiar black topped hill, away to the west. Nearly there, we think – or at least, this is our country now.
The landmark, Bampfylde Clump, is actually just a clump of trees – densely planted beeches, mature, but not especially ancient.It’s said that a certain Bampfylde, one Baron Poltimore, established the tautological Round Ring (another of its titles), so that he could look around in all directions over the land he owned.
More interesting, is the deep-rooted awareness of this natural high-point, and the celebration of it over the centuries, in various ways – secular and sacred.Certainly, many coming into north Devon – be they resident or visitor – must have raised their eyes to the hills: Round Ring – there it is, Round Ring, as it’s always been, awaiting our arrival.
Who knows what lies in, among and under those beech tree roots?Earlier burial places, perhaps even barrows, invisible now, will have been disturbed by the later p…

Some art work is like poetry...

Some art work is like poetry.
Of course, much isn’t – at least obviously.Many a huge oil painting is closer to drama – perhaps even better, opera.Most portraits are more or less representational, especially in pre-photographic times.Landscapes are records, as are Still Lifes…
But realising that all these may have emotion imbued or expressed, indeed that the very reason for painting or drawing is to offer a unique individual’s point of view, I appreciate that I’m arguing against myself.
Still, when pictures strive to be succinct and every line has to count, when a whole story is told with deceptive simplicity, when so much is expressed in a compressed form and when there’s an acute awareness of a sense of balance, harmony, even rhythm (I can’t pretend rhyme has a place in visual art) – well then they share much with poetry.
And none more so than Hans Holbein’s sequence of The Dance of Death.
41 tiny images – each no bigger than a match box – depict Death in the form of a skeleton, ca…

A Long Passage

Looking at the banks and hedgerows at this time of year, I wonder how anything small – or even large – that lives there manages to survive.  Everything’s withered up or simply gone.  Of course, there’s no expectation of leaves or flowers, but where are the fruits and berries, the smaller creatures lower down the food chain essential to survival… just what is there to live off?  It’s a bare and empty larder, hardly even offering any shelter.


And yet, deep under layers of moss, beneath bark, beyond and out of sight, sleep seeds and eggs, cocoons, life in shells, little wrapped-up tangled bundles of creatures, even slumbering, hibernating animals tucked up to weather the winter.
It’s always been like this.  Many must perish, but a few – a select few – live on, to carry the colony, the tribe, the clan – perhaps even the species – into better times. Yet despite its regularity, predictability, even necessity, such a slaughter is hard to comprehend.
So, we tell our own stories. For us, there has…

Now you see them, now...

There’s a lot of them about at this time.Along with the cribs and holy families, stars and shepherds, Magi and assorted animals – not to mention the robins, lit up churches shining across the snow, reindeer, stage coaches, drunken mice and yule-tide logs – here they are, singing, blowing the occasional quaint instrument or just standing around looking decorative.Not often flying in fact – perhaps even the most credulous find it hard to imagine those wings extended and in action, least of all in a windy night sky.But they’re certainly around.
Yes, the angels.
Angels – those hybrid creatures like the centaurs, combining – quite unrealistically, even if desirably – elements of different creatures. How on earth could that horse body support the upper half of a man instead of its own, properly balanced, head and neck? And imagine the massive pectorals required to provide the downward pull on those necessarily huge wings! Yet, at least since the winged Nike of Samothrace, those wonderful winge…

Did we really do that?

Did we really do that?
It’s easy to ask this question as we look back and see what terrible things happened in the past. Not just happened – but were thought of as normal, unexceptional: what people like you and me were quite happy to countenance, if not actually do. Well, perhaps some people sometimes felt that was a bit harsh… who knows? But for the most part, decent folk like you and me just accepted it – that’s how it is, life goes on, why change how we do things and I’ve got quite enough to do already.
Slavery’s an obvious example of course.
I recently wrote a poem about another: the scold’s bridle, an iron helmet with a plate pressing down on the tongue, used on (what were considered to be) vociferous women – yes, almost invariably women.I was of course pleased that my poem won a prize, but my consequent revisiting the writing of it and the research stirred me up all over again, with a renewed and heightened sense of astonishment and anger. (The poem’s on the Poetry Society Website, if…

A plague on all these houses

It's a great poem, Lowell's For the Union Dead.
I only recently came across it - at least, that's what I thought - but it's been grunting (I choose the word advisedly) away in my head ever since, especially that fourth verse.

Behind their cage,
yellow dinosaur steam shovels were grunting
as they cropped up tone of mush and grass
to gouge their underworld garage.

It took a little while for me to realise why.
Before (I thought) I'd read it, I wrote a poem about the new housing estates springing up round our little town. I was thinking about the various creatures that had lived on the field that was to be covered with houses - sheep primarily - and then those that were to follow.

The first were, well, a sort of dinosaur.

Here's my second verse:

At first it was the one-armed monsters,
set free within their caged arena
to trundle round, and gently paw
the ground, then pile up mounds of earth
accompanied by Lego men.

I was pleased with my trope, so muc…

The Unexpected

I like September.


It's not just that it feels as though the effort of keeping summer going can be given up, almost with a sense of relief.


No, it's more than that - here's a new season, fresh in its own special way.


As September contains a quarter day (itself relating to the solstice) I read that it was a time when people were hired, land was exchanged and debts paid.


So various things start now, like the academic year, making it a month for new beginnings -  although it draws heavily on recent growth, sometimes hardly noticed.
And then there's all the fruit, of course, only too often celebrated poetically...
But much more interesting are the arrivals that startle.
I mean the fungi - extraordinary things which literally spring up overnight.
Not things though - they're living plants.   No, not plants - organisms - but that doesn't sound right. As for the proper term 'fruiting body' - well, that suggests something quite different.  They are worlds away from all thos…

The Natural is Unnatural

Frank Sutcliffe photographs Whitby Fishermen


It's quite a famous photograph, I gather.  But I hadn't seen it before.
Perhaps you know it?  I can't show it here as it's copyright, but I'll try to describe it.
So there they are, those nine sea-booted, variously-hatted traditional fishermen, naturally disposed on the quay.
By which I mean, well, they're just there - as if they'd arrived a moment ago.
There's a central group, close together, another smaller group to the right, two of them looking across the picture, and on the left, a chap leaning against the railing and peering over the edge.  For a backdrop there's a fishing boat, all sails set, and on the far right, a statuesque figure with a basket hoisted over his shoulder.
It looks for all the world as though they'd just returned. Or, on second thoughts, perhaps they're waiting to go out?
Once the question's been raised, you find yourself looking more carefully.

That basket's empty, and why…