Monday, 9 November 2020

WHO IS THE PATRON SAINT OF HARES?

Saint Melangell

With a name like that you have probably guessed that she is a Welsh saint.   

A hare pauses in a field with every hair of her pelt pricked.

You can read my poem 'The patron saint of hares' on the Second Light Live website where  I'm one of the November poets of the month.  The poem is included in my recent collection Trace and was originally published in For the Silent, the Indigo Dreams League Against Cruel Sports anthology edited by Ronnie Goodyear.

Go to  http://www.secondlightlive.co.uk/potm/nov20f.shtml#p10

Thursday, 5 November 2020

IMAGINATION WALKING

 Every distance has an internal duplicate.

I've been thinking about these words by Thomas A Clark during the last couple of weeks when I've been limited to walks from home.  I'm fortunate to be surrounded by quiet, beautiful countryside and there is always something different to observe.  But in my head I've been going further afield - travelling those internal distances that I can picture in memory and imagination through walking poems.

One of my internal walks has been along the Lôn Goed [Tree Lane] in the company of R Williams Parry's poem 'Eifionydd'.  For years I had a poster of the poem bluetacked to the wall of my study.  I would like to know who the artist was.  The words are printed on the green grassy lane and the avenue of oak trees with their soft spring leaves casts strong shadows in the sunlight.  

I was on a course at Ty Newydd, the National Writers Centre of Wales, when one of the tutors gave me a copy of the anthology Cerddi Llyn ac Eifionydd*.  In it I found the poem again.  What, or rather, where is Eifionydd?  It's the bit you don't really notice when you drive along the A497 between Porthmadog and Pwllheli.  R Williams Parry describes it as an in-between land, 'between sea and mountain'.  To the casual observer it has neither the drama of Snowdonia nor the intricate coastal beauty of Penllyn.  But to the poet that little-known quietness is what gives the area its appeal.  

R Williams Parry was born in 1884 in the village of Talysarn near Caernarfon.  At that time the village was in the middle of the Nantlle Valley slate industry.  Slate quarries and spoil tips were altering the geography of the valley.  Rows of new terraced houses were built to accommodate the workers and their families.  Old photographs show the busy railway interchange in the village with wagons of slate waiting to go to the Slate Quay at Caernarfon and wagons of coal brought in for the steam-powered pumps and haulage gear needed in the quarries.  The village must have been busy, noisy and dirty.

The first verse of the poem begins, not with the Lôn Goed, but with the sight of 'ugly progress and the dreary face of work' which the poet contrasts with an undefiled Eifionydd, a place 'without stain or scratch'.  

The poem was written after the First World War (in which the poet served in the army).  The second verse begins with 'foolish contention and bitter, angry news' which he goes on to contrast with the age-old 'murmur of the village [Rhos Lan] between two rivers', the Dwyfor and the Dwyfach.

It is not until the third verse that we get to the Lôn Goed.  On a map (if it is shown at all) it is an unremarkable track which starts at the mouth of the Afon Wen and goes nowhere in particular for a few miles before stopping at some farm buildings.  It was made about 200 years ago to bring lime and coal from a wharf on the coast to the estate farms of the area.  Oak trees were planted on either side of the lane for the unilitarian purpose of absorbing excess water from the surrounding fields.   We now know that an oak tree is a miniature ecosystem, which can support over 280 species of insects.  

The poet describes the Lôn Goed as a place of perfect calm or stillness, 'from the arch of its braided roof to the grass under my feet' and there is no trouble in the fact that instead of leading to a town it leads to nothing.  When he wrote the poem the lane was over a hundred years old and had long been superseded by the railway line from Caernarfon to Afon Wen (which in turn was closed by Beeching in 1964).  

The last verse conveys the poet's wish to come from his 'industrial valley and the way of the world' and walk in the quiet peace of the place.  The poem reminds me of 'The Lake Isle of Innisfree', named from the place which Yeats visited and idealised in his imagination while living in London ('while I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey'). 

Jim Perrin wrote about walking the Lôn Goed in one of his Guardian counry diary columns.  'The only sound [was] a faint breathing of the wind among the trees.  Listening, I imagine it as the slow onward ache of time itself, that has left all behind.' 

* Cerddi Llyn ac Eifionydd, edited by R Arwel Jones (Gomer 2002)

Tuesday, 27 October 2020

GETTING LATE EARLIER

It's getting late earlier now the clocks have gone back.  There's a-packing-up-for-winter feel as leaves come off the trees and blackbirds and fieldfares strip haw berries from the bushes.

Last week I went for a walk at Morfa Nefyn, along the shore to Porth Dinllaen and back across the golf course.  Grey clouds, grey sea, a few spots of rain in the breeze.  I was the only person on the beach.  This is the kind of walk which clears and refreshes the mind. 

A few oyster-catchers were poking around on the edge of the water.  The storm earlier in the month had shifted more of the sand so that I was walking on small pebbles of myriads of different colours - the remains of rocks deposited as glacial moraine thousands of years ago.  A robin flew up from a clump of brambles sounding its repetitive metallic-sounding tic tic tic alarm call.  It seemed to strange to hear this characteristic garden bird so near to the sea.

The cliff is very unstable along this length of the coast and large clumps of earth have landed on the beach.  As I neared the point before Porth Dinllaen there was a strong smell of seaweed that had been washed up in the recent storm and the clumps of earth looked like strange hairy creatures, (a family of mammoths perhaps, snoozing on the shore). 

Beyond the point the beach was beautifully sandy - so that's where all the sand has gone.  A careful stack of crab pots had been put above high water for the winter.  A tractor was parked at the edge of the sea, its rear trailor wheels gently lapped by the waves.  A man was going out in a dinghy to one of the four remaining boats in the bay.  In the summer this sheltered anchorage is busy with fishing boats and sailing boats.  The well-known Ty Coch pub on the beach was shut up - 'Closed until further notice because of Covid'.  

I came back along the golf course as the light was starting to fade.  A pair of magpies were strutting the sward.  The club house was in darkness.  August's bucket and spade weather was only a memory.

Next day I walked along the lane from my house and caught sight of tiny bright flowers in the grass - violets!  A little foretaste of spring flowers.

The title of this post is stolen and adapted from John Burnside's 'It gets late earlier out here' ('Travelling South, Scotland, August 2012' in his collection All One Breath).

Sheenagh Pugh's poem 'Afternoons go nowhere' perfectly captures this time of year - you can read it at serenbooks.wordpress.com/2020/08/21/friday-poem-afternoons-go-nowhere-by-sheenagh-pugh/


Monday, 12 October 2020

THE AMBIVALENCE OF WALLS

 Looking at the dilapidated stone wall between my garden and the field and wondering what to do about it has set me thinking about walls.  

One of the most popular sessions in my many years of chairing at Words by the Water in Keswick was a talk on the art and craft of dry-stone walling by professional Cumbrian waller, Robert Drake.   Not only was it a sell-out event in the studio at Theatre by the Lake, but almost everyone who had bought a ticket queued up to buy the book (A Solitary Trade) and filled the foyer book signing area. 

One of the most well-known wall poems is Robert Frost's 'Mending Wall' in which the poet and his neighbour do their annual repair of the boundary wall between their land.  The poet reflects 

     'Before I built a wall I'd ask to know
      What I was walling in or walling out'. 

When I lived in Cumbria I sometimes used to go for a walk near 'the Wall' as we called Hadrian's Wall.  I could never quite fathom the motives for the Romans building this vast piece of civil engineering in a far-flung part of their empire.  The wall is important physically and metaphorically in Two Countries by Northumbrian poet, Katrina Porteous.  In 'Wall' she writes in the voice of the wall:

     'I, the Wall,
      Defend this place
      .....
      I am the edge
      The frontier
      This is where the world ends.'

Norman Nicholson's 'Wall' poem opens 'The Wall walks the fell'.  Immediately I picture those long snaking boundary walls of the remote Cumbrian fells, following 'each give of the ground, /Each creak of the rock's ribs'.  Robert Drake says that a ton of stone is needed for every yard of wall.

     'They built a wall slowly,
      A day a week;
      Built it to stand,
      But not stand still,
      They built a wall to walk'.

One of my favourite wall poems is Patrick McGuinness's 'Walls: Lleyn'.  It reminds me of the small stone-walled fields, some of them the remnants of Celtic field systems, on the lower slopes of Garn Fadryn: 

      'for mortar live air ...
     
      the day in pieces          irregular
      half stone          half hole
      half view           half held from view'

Walls are ambivalent - they confine and imprison but they also provide shelter, protection and shade.  

There is a soft domestic side to walls.  I remember a local woman who always put her teatowels to dry on the stone wall which separated a small house back yard from a large farmyard.  There is a an old photograph of one of the double farmhouses on Bardsey Island with adults and children on or by the wall at the back of their dwelliings.  I imagine them sitting there and chatting on a summer evening after their work has finished.  Walled gardens are special places - think of Ivy Compton Burnett's classic children's story, The Secret Garden, or those lush walled gardens in the Scottish highlands that flourish as soon as sheep and wind are excluded.  

I looked for more poems by women about walls without much success, though in 'Post-box in wall at Rosbrin' by Moya Cannon a freshly-pastered wall, / now blurred with yellow lichen' does put in an appearance only to be upstaged in the poem by the disused post-box and the ivy-leaved toadflax which has colonised it.  

My own poem, 'Wall', was published in Out of Time to accompany Horatio Lawson's dramatic photograph - a wild highland landscape with a dry-stone wall leading the eye into the picture.

     Wall

     What do you see
             as you lean against the stones?

     The light running at full tilt
             turning the rushes gold,
                     storm clouds
                             jostling for peak position
     and the mountain's darkening veil.

     You are not folled
             by the wall that takes us in.
     You remember
             your home, your town,
                    the familiar greetings 
                              in the street,

      Absurd here
             as a tea pavillion
                     in the wilderness.

© Mary Robinson 2015

 Robert Drake A Solitary Trade: the art and craft of dry stone walling (Bookcase 2008) 
Robert Frost 'Mending Wall' https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/44266/mending-wall
Norman Nicholson 'Wall' https://poetryarchive.org/poem/wall/


  

                     


Friday, 2 October 2020

DEPARTURES AND ARRIVALS

A jay is gorging on acorns under the old oak tree - Autumn is here.  

Hawthorn bushes are beaded with red haws.  Bracken is turning rust brown.  On Monday (28 September) the last of the swallows were gathering over the field, flying low and rapidly, as if agitated by a mixture of excitement and anxiety as they set off from Penllyn for Africa.  On the same day a friend tweeted a sighting of newly arrived redwings in Cumbria.  

The swallows reminded me of Keats' ode 'To Autumn': 'and gathering swallows twitter in the skies'.  Keats wrote the poem in September 1819.  He was celebrating a bumper harvest after the first decent summer since 1815 when the huge Tambora volcano eruption in Indonesia affected the world's weather and caused widespread crop failures.

Keats personifies Autumn as a female figure.  He sees her 'sitting careless on a granary floor', her hair 'soft-lifted by the winnowing wind'.  Or she is sleeping on 'a half-reaped furrow', while her 'hook' [sickle] 'spares the next swath and all its twinèd flowers.'  Or she is like a gleaner, carrying a heavily laden basket of grain on her head.

A romantic pastoral figure, created by an idealistic city-dwelling young man?  But Keats' Autumn is also a farm labourer (if a rather dilatory one!).  The labour-intensive process of harvesting had not changed much for thousands of years - cutting with a sickle, winnowing in a drafty barn, poor people gleaning the remaining grains in the field.

During the later 19th century the process would become increasingly mechanised with the invention of the reaper and binder (which cut and bound the corn into sheaves) and the steam threshing machine which did away with the laborious winnowing.  In Tess of the D'Urbevilles Hardy describes the labourers feeding the relentless threshing machine - it is like a scene from hell.

These machines have now become quaint agricultural relics with a romance of their own.  Though as a child I do remember one farmer on Penllyn who still used a reaper and binder up to about 1970.

Amy Clampitt in 'Stacking the Straw' (published 1983) writes about a more mechanised harvest than Keats, but the repeated 'in those days' emphasises that it is a looking-back poem, pre-combine harvester.  The poem is full of Amy Clampitt's original and exuberant use of language.  The threshing machine is powered by 'the stoked dinosaur of a steam engine'.  The 'strawstacks' beveled loaves' are 'a shape that's now extinct'.  The imagery of metal flows through the poem - oatfields are 'vats of running platinum', wheat and barley are a 'yellower alloy', grain is 'winnowed ore'.  As the machine spews out the straw 'a lone man with a pitch fork' crafts 'a kind of mountain'.  He has 'the aura of a hero' and ends the day 'black with the baser residue of that discarded gold.'  The last four lines of the poem are a most unexpected take on the straw theme (no spoiler - see below). *

In the field next to my house the monoculture maize crop is taller than me.  The cobs swell on the stalks.  Soon a forage harvester will shred the lot into heavy trailors and it will be carted away to be stored as maize sileage to feed cows on an intensive dairy farm.

It's far from the 'twinèd flowers' growing in the corn and the sound of 'hedge crickets' in Keats' ode 'To Autumn'.

*  Read Amy Clampitt's poem here:
https://www.blueridgejournal.com/poems/ac-stack.htm
It was published in her collection The Kingfisher (1983) and in her Collected Poems (Faber and Faber 1998) 

Friday, 18 September 2020

MAKE THE POEM NOW

I've just 'returned' from a poetry and art course, 'Voices of the Earth', with Philip and Zélie Gross.  

I originally signed up for a week's residential, but, like so many other things, it had to move on-line.  It then morphed into a six week course.  The result was a most creative and imaginative course with a cornucopia of stimulating material.  One of the many good things about the course was the opportunity to discuss and share work and ideas regularly with a small group of participants.

At the same time I've been reading the new Edwin Morgan Centenary Selected Poems.  I've enjoyed discovering new poems and revisiting old favourites.  I admire Morgan's virtuosic mastery of many poetic forms, his direct and accessible style and his enormous variety of subject matter.  

'Making a Poem' captures that moment of returning home with an idea for a poem in one's head:

     Coming in with it
     from frost and buses
     gently burning

He details the simple pleasures before settling to write - hanging up his scarf, talking to the cat, making tea, cutting a slice of 'white new bread', sharpening a pencil, and then -

     It comes, and the cat shines.
     And make the poem now.

Poems about poems.  

Dilys Rose's 'The Unemployable Poem' begins 

     A poem is not a rabbit's foot, a comfort blanket, a keepsake

and she goes on to undermine reductionist ideas of what a poem is for.  She ends

     though it may light up a dark day or draw the blinds on an abomination
     this is not its job.  A poem does not have a job.  A poem is unemployable.
     It is just a poem.  Take it or leave it.  Either way, it couldn't care.

In a similar vein is Blake Morrison's satirical sequence 'This Poem ...' - wonderful send-up of the way poets always introduce a poem with 'This poem is ...'  The first poem in the sequence ('Bonus') tells us that this poem 'is my annual bonus':

     Remember the value of the words I generate
     and all I contribute to the cultural economy.

He warns that poets may be forced to move abroad and 

      London will lose its place
     as the poetry hub of the Western world.

He ends:

     Go on, admit it.  We're bloody well worth our bonuses.
     Every stanza.  Every line break.  Every half-rhyme.

The last word has of course its half-rhyme (with 'cream').

My favourite poem about writing a poem is Naomi Shihab Nye's 'How do I know when a poem is finished?'  She uses the analogy of furnishings in a room - you could keep on altering the words but sometimes, like the blue chair with the red pillow, it just looks best that way

     so you might as well
     leave it that way.

(But I might change it in the future ... )

Now read on:

Edwin Morgan's 'Making a poem' is at:
https://gravyfromthegazebo.blog/2017/01/24/making-a-poem-edwin-morgan/

My blog post Is It Nearly Ready? (28 May 2015) explores Naomi Shihab Nye's poem further.

Edwin Morgan's New Centenary Poems (edited Hamish Whyte) has just been published by Carcanet.

'The Unemployable Poem' is in Dilys Rose's new pamphlet Stone the
Crows published by Mariscat Press.

Blake Morrison's sequence 'This Poem ...' was originally published as a smith/doorstop pamphlet in 2013, and a selection of the poems were included in his Shingle Street (Chatto and Windus 2015).