Skip to main content

The Barn Owl, Samuel and his pot, and me

The Barn Owl


I thought of the barn

as mine.  But as she lives there

it belongs to her


I’ve been reading Samuel Menashe’s poetry. His most famous poem is even shorter. 


A pot poured out
Fulfills its spout.


The distinguished academic Christopher Ricks spends several pages poring (sorry) over this wonderful poem, pointing out all sorts of poetic techniques in play, and indeed the more carefully and the more often one reads it, the more there is to find – that pot just keeps on pouring.

For example, it’s not the pot – it’s a pot, which is worth thinking about.

Similarly, the American spelling of fulfills has something extra to say about a full vessel; not to mention the alliterations, sound play, rhyme, internal symmetry (each line of four syllables perfectly balanced, as you’d expect from a pouring pot) and the sharing of contents (that pot’s ‘ot’ moving into the ‘o-t’ of out and thence finding its way into, or should I say out of, ‘spout’ – having re-found its ‘u’).

But this is not the place, nor did I want, to deep read someone else’s poem.

Rather, it was to explain how I came to want to write as short a poem as I could, to pack all that I wanted to say in as few words as possible.  And I wanted to say quite a lot.

The 5-7-5 of the haiku came to help me. As with other verse forms, here was an encouraging and supportive structure, well-used by so many poets over so many years. Of course, my poem doesn’t fulfil (sic) the strict criteria of the haiku, but the shape and in particular the line breaks brought something special and I felt a sort of an undercurrent assisting me…

 First, I wanted to say that I thought of the barn: simple as that – I often think of my/our barn when I’m away from it.  But I’ve used thought, not think.  That part of the poem is in the past, is elsewhere; the rest that follows is in the present tense.

Yes, the barn – not any old barn. Ours is half ruined, half dark – though often shot through with bright bars of light – with various piles of our bits and pieces in it.

Which brings me to my next thought – the first person: it’s mine/ours. That’s how I thought of it.

But it also happens to be someone’s home – someone who rests, sleeps, digests, excretes, brings up their young and has their being there.  Doesn’t that confer a sense of ownership far greater than my claim?  I only ever spend an occasional few minutes in the barn, and days can pass when I don’t go near it. So I was interested in the concept of ownership, and how our/my concept of possession is so limited – and unthinking.

The tiny word as is intriguing – powerful and ambivalent.  I’ve used it twice in one line, conscious of its several meanings.  The first time, it means that’s how I think of it.  The second, it means because, but also since, in a temporal sense.

As (sorry about that) for the next word – she… somehow, with all that nurturing and its preceding egg laying, it had to be she.  I spent a long time wondering about that word.

As (sic) I did about many others in this poem – like there.  Would here be better?  In that I wanted to suggest I wasn’t actually inside the barn at the time I thought about it, there seemed more appropriate. Besides, that word actually contains here.

In keeping with the brevity of the poem, I wanted to use only short words (and the barn owl is actually a surprisingly small creature under all that plumage). There’s only one two syllable word, which is belong – a word I mulled over; I liked the ‘b’ – I’ve got one in each line – and the ‘long’… well, it just belongs, the barn being very old.


Time now to stop, and resist the temptation to talk about the rhymes – or anything else that’s too clever by half.  Enough to say I spent a long time on this tiny poem – like that famous quote (attributed variously) of apologising for writing a long letter on account of not having the time to write a short one – in an attempt to follow the inspirational example of Menashe.

Concluding now, I’m struck by my writing this present gloss on a poem of mine, which has turned out to be one of the longer on (definitely) the shortest.

I’m amazed how Menashe found the time to write all those very small poems.

But he did live to be very old… like my/our/her/the barn.


Popular posts from this blog

We were all together there in a foretime

    I find myself attracted to certain words, and here’s one.  Not a word often heard in modern speech, but perfectly proper and well-used since at least the sixteenth century. I came across it in Seamus Heaney’s Section 3 of Keeping Going in his phrase – We were all together there in a foretime. I imagined hearing in my mind’s ear his attractive rich voice rolling it out.   Foretime. Not just, or simply, the past, but a   foretime . (Interesting, that 'a'.  Not 'the', but 'a'). Fore , from before, so it is of course the past, but with a slightly different twist – an added dimension arising from the other words which use fore, as in forecast, foretell or even forehead, when it somehow also looks ahead, to the future… what lies before us? Foretime, Aftertime… be all that as it may, we’ve been here before, it affected us all then, it’s doing the same now and it’s threatening to overwhelm us in the future.   We were all together there in a for

The Three Hares

  The Three Hares We continue on our way running, running, running around held together tip to tip so I can hear what she can hear as well as her. And the other follows me in front of her – we are joined up by our ears so we follow, lead and follow running, running, running around we continue on our way. Running, running, running around – no cause for worry – what's to come has already been. The future's past – watch us here – we're going nowhere – the last is first and first is last. Our present moment sees us still although we seem to race – running, running, running around we continue. On our way running, running, running around hearing your persistent questions – why do you keep on asking? We cannot tell you any more. May you share your senses and find soft silence at your centre which is so close, while you go on running, running, running around. The turning of the year, with the various thoughts about the past and the future that c

The Signpost

Here’s a signpost – originally distinctive, being unique and handmade, and now even more so, with the evidence of ageing.   … numbers, distances, which way? While all signposts are interesting in their duty to inform, their presentation of choices and their simple declarative presence, I find this one special. It’s not just that it has much to say in terms of where you actually are, in which direction you might choose to go, how far your destination is (down to quarter mile accuracy) and even if your chosen method of transport is suitable. It’s also special in the simple elegance of its design, with the arms’ supports and the bevelled edges of the main post rising to that unexpected point. But the specialness goes further.  My friend James Ravilious took me there just at this time of year, over twenty years ago.  It was then upright and brilliant white, with crisp black letters. He certainly thought it was special, photographing it lovingly, in May 1988 ( Chawleigh Week Cross –