Thursday, May 29, 2014

Poetry from a Decade

I spent most of my life thinking of myself as a poet, and I worked really hard at it from the time I was about sixteen to my late twenties. (Not without interruptions, but my regimes of daily poetry-writing would have covered much of that time.) I started writing poetry seriously when my family got a computer around 1994. I was composing a collection called The Great Event, at first, and (subsequently)Ambiance Music. (If I were to publish a collection of poems tomorrow, I would call it Ambiance Music.)

I had a poem published in Books Ireland when I was in my first year of college. I remember how proud I was that my sister photocopied it as a beginning of a 'portfolio'. I didn't realize how rare such appearances were going to be. In fact, that and a subsequent poem in Books Ireland were the only poems of mine that ever appeared in what one might call a 'literary' journal. I had poems published in my college newspaper, poems in a community magazine that was edited (and mostly written) by my father, poems in other miscellaneous and obscure publications, and I won a few local poetry prizes, but all my submissions to 'serious' magazines were returned.

Am I bitter about this? Yes, I am. Without making any exalted claims (or any claims whatsoever) for my own work, I think the vast majority of contemporary poetry published by literary houses and literary magazines is garbage. I think poets have won Nobel prizes and places in anthologies for writing garbage. I think thousands of English professors and hundreds of thousands of college students are studying a lot of garbage. I don't think there has been a decent poet since John Betjeman in England, Patrick Kavanagh in Ireland and probably Robert Frost in America. I think the kind of cultural vandalism that has replaced poetry with pretentious rubbish is a grievous sore on the body of civilization, and one for which we pay a high price.

I even think poetic geniuses like T.S. Eliot and W.H. Auden and Louis MacNeice wrote a lot of garbage-- when they were in modernist mode. (For instance, Four Quartets by Eliot is a mixture of some of the most sublime poetry ever written, and garbage.)

It's taken me a long time to be able to say this openly, since it lays me open to the obvious accusation of sour grapes. But I don't care. It's true.

Anyway, here are some of the stronger efforts from a purple folder of poems labelled 99 Poems (1995-2004). I was an agnostic when I wrote all of these but that doesn't necessarily mean that they reflected my sincere opinions on religion, or anything else. I often wrote from the point of view of a fictional character within the poem. Having said all that, you can see (perhaps) what a dark view of life I had in my late teens and twenties. I think I suffered from depression for much of it, which is something I'm very glad has lifted. My personal favourite of these is 'Screen Five'.

Before the Operation (2004)

The nurses talk about a football match
That might never see. They're used to fear.
Next month will usher in another batch
When I am...somewhere else...away from here.

They sent a priest last night. They frighten me.
And long before these pains began, they did.
All of their incense, prayers, eternity.

I sat in chapel, when I was a kid
And felt the cosmos shrinking to that hall.
Nothing but God and angels, sin and good,
The sky stopped with stained glass. That can't be all.
I fear a universe so drained of blood.
All your anaemic angels, airy souls,
As milk-white and alike as plaster busts.
The thirst of God drowning all other goals;
No, leave me my littleness and lusts.

But-- why say lusts? That red-haired nurse...Louise...
How strange, a face can make the whole world glow!
Must all that pass, like brown leaves on the breeze?
Is God the only beauty I must know?
Soft lips and heavy eyelids...shallow joys....
But I could look on them for decades more.
For centuries! Why must I close my eyes?
There is so much here that I still adore.

Sometimes I hope there's more than what the priests say
That life's too vast to fit inside one book.
That all their talk of knowledge is mere hearsay
And somewhere else I may be thunderstruck
With all these worldly wonders...keener, deeper...
More lust, more wisdom, greater love and hate
While God dreams on like some eternal sleeper
Or far-off monarch none need celebrate.

Louise is saying that she thinks they'll steal it.
Her husky voice is beauty, here and now.
Is there another life? Let years reveal it.
I want as much as this one will allow.
For in my nightmares, every night's renewal,
An angel hovers with its vampire kiss
And light pours from all corners, hard and cruel.

I don't want Heaven, only more of this.

Blind Man's Bluff (2001)

Beyond the veil, the lure of voices calling,
Then hastening away just out of reach
Fills childhood games of Blind Man's Bluff, when each
Must serve his turn in seeking, turning, falling.
Lost without fear, wrapped in a dark, enthralling
Domain of doubt and softly-whispered speech;
One room made infinite; then light must breach
The magic, so that all is shrunk and galling.

Life without dark and doubt who could endure?
I do not seek to look within the grail
Of my own soul, or read life's runes for sure
Or see into men's fathoms without fail.
Leave truth for other men. Give me the lure
Of voices calling from beyond the veil.

Infinite Regression (2000)

You cannot remember the first time you saw the cartoon
Of the girl on the back of the cereal box who was holding
The same box raised over a bowl, but like some half-heard tune
It preyed on your mind, with its layers upon layers of unfolding
Depictions of girls and of boxes, regressing forever.
Although you examined the picture and saw that the chain
Barely made a third link, that in theory it never could sever;
And what could nag nearly as much to a juvenile brain?

And yet, even then, you felt more than just giddy distraction;
The infinite tunnel contained in a cardboard design
Brought to some recess of your mind a profound satisfaction;
A sign that some kind of perfection existed, a sign
That past all the chaos and change that the infant mind fears
There lay something deeper, stitched into the fabric of being,
An order of things that would not be brought down by the years
Or come to an end like the dawn that you half could feel fleeing.

And then there were holding two mirrors to face one another
And a corridor opening out, of reflected reflections
Of you, and of you, and of you; until images smother
Against one another, and shrink beyond any inspection
And always you felt, against reason, that your world was cutting
Itself in on others more real-- and there was the twist.
You felt the mirages knew things about which you knew nothing
And you were the one, amongst all these, who did not exist.

In the Sand-Pit (2004)

I can see Amanda's dreams from here.
She scrabbles dry sand, and dreams of gold,
And caverns unopened for many a year;
But she is young, and the world is old.
It is centuries since, to seek out surprise,
The last ship sailed to uncharted lands.
No voice has called to us from the skies.
The sands of knowledge are shallow sands.

Her five-year-old fingers tear through dust,
Her bright eyes shine like a rising moon.
What food is left for her wonder-lust?
There are worlds for discovery, late and soon.
The fairy-tale lands of her picture book,
The sea that sparkles in every eye.
Look up from your digging, Amanda, look;
There is no map of the morning sky.

Killing a Boy (2004)

I met him walking home from school near Summer's end
His brown eyes bright with tears that wouldn't fall.
Somebody had said something. He could never blend
Into their huddle of hardened hearts, for all
He tried to make fun of pain, not care about falling snow.
They called him things. He started blubbering, made me sick.
He told me everything (everything that would have to go
The world made free of his weakness with one lethal flick.)

Lying flat on the grass, the world a bright blue dome,
The wet scarves on the heater in the school,
The Eagle all but read when he got it home,
The echoes in the air of the swimming pool.
The secret words on the wall, the bus stop's cold,
The bread-crumb scent in the school's enormous hall
And a thousand things too babyish to be told.

I told him something that made his bright eyes fall.
He gazed at the dead worms on the ground, perplexed
To think of a reason I shouldn't end his life.
He knew as well as me what was coming next
And hardly tried to fight off my angel knife.

Nobody noticed he'd gone. I took his place.
(We looked so alike you couldn't tell us apart.)
But something was gone, or missing, in his face,
That silenced his mockers and broke his old mother's heart.

I didn't want to kill him, but he cried and cried;
What life has not begun with an infanticide?

Mother's Kiss (2003)

I kiss you goodnight, my darling boy,
And perhaps you silently wonder why
Our parting words are followed by this;
The wet of my lips on your cheek, a kiss.
Perhaps no words could contain my care
Or maybe the feeling itself's not there
And all of our mothers and fathers kissed
For the sake of a feeling that should exist.

My sleepy darling, I dread your touch,
And the bright eyes that trust me all too much.
For I cannot tell you the truth so stark,
That you really should be afraid of the dark
And the monsters you dream of at dead of night
Will walk our street by the morning light.
Dear, all of our promises have to fail
And love is just finding a kind betrayal.
You will learn before too many years go by
That Santa Claus was my smallest lie
But lies are the language of love, you know,
When truth is cruel; and it's always so.

Dear, bending over you, tucked in bed,
I think of the day you will see me dead,
And crouch to kiss me, as once I did,
Before they draw down the varnished lid.
Then please don't think that I wasn't fair
To promise you I'd be always there
For you yourself, my darling boy,
Have learned to lisp a pleasing lie
And well I know, when my hair grows white,
You will grow impatient to kiss goodnight.

There are years to come, still, before those years
And here we are now, conspirators
In tender falsehoods. I have to go.
You will hear me moving about below
And sleep come on you at last, like truth.
With the pain of age I have bought your youth
And with endless death, your existence brief;
But every good must be bought with grief.

I will teach you, before I fall to dust,
That the dearest words should not win your trust
So I truly say, as I've said before,
That I love you; but then I close the door
And switch the light off. So learn from this
That every kiss is a Judas kiss.

Rewind (2002 or maybe 2003)

This is the way he would have wanted to go.
Do you think he knows what we're saying? Passing water
Is hurting him. She says her father taught her
What's life about. She says he doesn't know
The first thing about life. His temper's shorter
Since June moved out. They've moved to Enfield Row.
Don't wrap her in cotton wool. She's got to grow.
They're going to call her June. You've got a daughter.

So they're getting hitched. I hear it's on the rocks.
He was playing football when he first saw Joy.
We're proud of you. You'd better pull up your socks.
Why are you sulking? Lads your age don't cry.
How can he know it's Nana in that box?
Do you think he knows what we're saying? It's a boy.

Screen Five (2004)

This is the place outside of place,
The never-ending room.
The scarlet curtain's clumsy grace
The hot dogs' thick perfume.
The nothingness of deepest space
The darkness of the womb.

In waiting here, within these walls,
A life from life apart.
A silence more than silence calls
like music to my heart.
The lights go down; the darkness falls;
A world's about to start.

Those Golden Years (1997)

With wistful thoughts of safety sheets
She shrivels in the morning cold
And though her mother still repeats
How school years should be years of gold
She knows how recollection cheats;
Escape is wasted on the old.

The night was one long spread of frost
And now the ground beneath is hard.
How much these golden years have cost!
And ten years old she's battle-scarred.
At ten years old her war is lost;
She stands defeated in the yard.

Come all you boys and girls so brave
A standing target must be hit.
She does not ape how you behave
So you ape her with gibe and skit.
Come, dance upon her spirit's grave;
You were the ones who shovelled it.

I watch her turn her face to jeers;
Her childish heart has grown too hard
To melt her anguish into tears.
Her path to liberty is barred
By railings and by ruthless years
Ahead of her inside this yard.


  1. I could have cheered aloud every word of this article. I feel just the same way about all this, and have felt just as alone in doing so. I could write reams on the subject (but it is your blog, and not mine, so I will try to restrain myself!).

    I just don't understand why we shouldn't have rhyme and metre and take it seriously, or why we can't praise verse that is easily understood, or that at least invites us to understand it. So much of modern verse is hard to follow, impossible to read aloud, and sits there defying us to draw near, and sneering at us if we just aren't clever enough to make sense of it. Really good poetry can surely be just as clever and just as full of literary references without turning away the uninitiated.

    And then there is the dearth of poetry that either lifts the heart, or upholds the worth of mankind. So many modern poets speak with a detached or a sarcastic voice - almost as if they don't want to mean what they say, or are speaking in brackets (which isn't the same as speaking with a character's voice, as you do sometimes). Their poetry is an academic or political exercise, of the intellect alone. Any trace of the soul - the movement and urgency of the voice as it is read - the preservation of a feeling - is pared away in the laboratory. So you often hear these poets read in a cold, dead-pan manner. It is enough or even essential nowadays for a poem to be 'problematic' and to 'challenge' and to 'unsettle' the reader.

    For example, our poet laureate here in the U.K., Carol Ann Duffy, whose job is to uplift the nation every so often with a poem, writes verse that is mainly sour and off-putting and angrily political (even if I suppose it is fairly plain-speaking). How far has our culture fallen if the heir to Tennyson, to Bridges, to Masefield (my favourite), and indeed to Betjeman, can write and have published nothing better than her cynical and just plain awful 'Twelve Days of Christmas'? (while the rest of us are cast out?)

    And yet we all need poetry to uphold us and to uplift us, just as we need music and laughter and friendship. And that we have lost it is, as you justly say, a 'grievous sore on the body of civilisation, and one for which we pay a high price'. So what a joy it is to read poems like yours (by a living poet!) at last - thank you for being so generous in posting them.

    1. You're welcome! I bought a collection of Masefield's poems about ten years ago, in a second-hand bookshop in Hampstead, but I never really got around to reading it.

      I used to post on the Philip Larkin Society Forum (this was back when it had a lively forum-- it's been more or less dormant for many years now). One lady who posted there, and who very obviously had a sincere love of Larkin and of many other traditional poets, also claimed to be an admirer of Carol Ann Duffy. I just didn't get it. I don't get how Larkin himself admired Conrad Aiken, for instance. Am I simply missing something? For so many years I believed that, but, as I get older, I supposed I'm less inclined to simply take someone else's word for it.

      I've been thinking what we actually lose when proper poetry ceases to be read and published. I don't want to make exalted claims. A person can be a good, intelligent, deep, fascinating person and yet hate poetry. But, if I would put a word on it, I think I would say "a grace, a mellowness". I'm thinking of the time I heard my French teacher in secondary school quote a snatch of Tennyson-- "Tears, idle tears, I know not what they mean". Somehow, the fact that she had quoted that single line seemed to make her seem more civilized, rounded, even whimsical. I think poetry softens the soul in the same way curtains and carpets and lamp-shades soften a room. I'm grasping to express it, but I think that will have to do for the moment.

  2. 'a grace, a mellowness' - yes, I buy that! It reminds me of that wonderful clip from the BBC's Question Time in which Peter Hitchens disarms everyone by reciting from Housman ('Into my heart an air that kills...') - and changes the whole studio's mood. His answer betrays a certain grace and a mellowness, and even wisdom, perhaps? I think (with the same caveat as yours of not making exalted statements) that there's a great deal of wisdom to be had from poetry - for instance, to quote or recite is hopefully to remember that the same thoughts have run through other minds as well. And the beauty of words is all bound up in wisdom and goodness - as Masefield said (or perhaps prayed), 'Let me have wisdom, Beauty, wisdom and passion, / Bread to the soul, rain when the summers parch...' ...Wisdom comes from beauty and I can't help feeling that he has poetry in mind. Not sure whether I've been terribly clear. But in any case I think there's precious little 'bread to the soul' around in modern verse!

    (Masefield wrote heaps and heaps so I wouldn't blame anyone for not getting round to him - I've hardly scratched the surface myself! What appeals to me is his habit of taking just plain and earthy words like 'bread' or 'bone' and and touching them to light by combining them - 'keen cool rush' or 'broad blue lift'. The line about wisdom and passion was from 'On Growing Old'. ( 'Being Her Friend' and 'Tewkesbury Road' are glorious too I think)).

  3. That is a wonderful clip and I greatly admire Peter Hitchens for constantly returning to the theme of poetry and its importance.

    It seems to me that poetry constantly needs writers like Masefield and Housman who aren't so much writing out of a tradition as much as responding spontaenously to the common, universal things. Poems about poems about poems become papery and unreal.

    I'm afraid the sad truth is that a lot of people are hoodwinked by contempoary poetry because they have never had a genuine poetic experience and they don't know the difference. I believe that whatever appeal they think they find in Ted Hughes etc. is simply projection-- any other text would serve just as well.

    I may sound utterly narrow-minded but I've skimmed through a massive amount of contemporary free verse during my thirteen years working in a university library, and one tell-tale sign, to me, is that the praise in the blurb and quotations from reviews are so vague they could apply to anything, really.

    I sometimes find a modern poet who is not bad, for instance, there is a guy called John Mole who is pretty good. But only pretty good.

  4. (I was a little unclear in that comment. Of course Housman and Masefield are writing out of a tradition. Everybody writes out of some tradition. For instance, Housman is very influenced by English hymns and ballads. But it's more a folk tradition than a 'high' literary tradition. I mean that they are not really part of the stream of English poetry, in terms of having obvious debts to immediate predecessors etc.)

  5. Yes, I see what you mean - even the modern poets, who supposedly reject tradition, have actually created their own - very inward-looking - tradition, which has only their own ideas to take root in. I think a 'high tradition' certainly has its place, and I suppose there is a place even for this kind of poetry, which we would call 'high' these days. But there is a huge gap - or wound - between that and most pop-song lyrics, which which seem to have been written just to provide something for the artist to sing, and haven't been mellowed as folk-songs have. These are all generalisations, but I think there is really quite a lot to them.