Sunday, 27 January 2013

A SHOAL OF POEMS

I don’t like anthologies.
Don’t like anthologies?  Don’t like me? I don't believe a word of it, said the little blue book. *
OK, I give in, I said, I do like The Cockermouth Poets.

To start with there’s the rain-splashed cover with Derek Eland’s painting of the town in an ark, afloat on the flood.  The cover is an invitation to pick up and read.  Then there’s designer Karen Sawrey’s informal calligraphy for the title and the Celtic-style waves that wash over the foot of each page.   Good to have some pictures in a poetry book – there are two more of Derek’s atmospheric paintings at the beginning and end of the anthology, “Market Place” and “After the Flood”. 

Flood is appropriate because the idea for the book began a year after the 2009 flood which swept through the town with such devastating ferocity.  In 2010 local poetry activist Michael Baron commissioned the window poems which were displayed on posters in shop windows in the town on the first anniversary of the flood.  At that time the collection of poems were in a ring binder but there were tentative requests for a book.  Hmm - time, funding, people - would it happen?

Yes it has.  Michael Baron and Joan Hetherington and their team have done it.  The number of poems has been increased with the basic criteria that the poets included must have been born in (Wordsworth, to name the famous one), have lived in, read in, visited, or had a pub meal (Shelley) in Cockermouth between 1700 and the present day.   

There is a more or less watery theme (eg, an extract from Les Murray’s brilliant flood poem “Like wheeling stacked water”) but not entirely.  To me it is the sense of place that comes over strongly – in Helen Farish’s “Appellation” or Meg Peacocke’s “Working late on the wall”.  Though not all the places are in Cumbria - see Pascale Petit's extract from "The Book of Water".

What works particularly well is the sequencing.  Alphabetical order, one poem per poet.  No hierarchy, lots of variety.  A school student can rub literary shoulders with a professor, a housewife with Wordsworth. Robert Drake, who writes stone walls on the Cumbrian landscape with the same attentiveness and craftsmanship as he builds poems on paper, is followed by Carol Ann Duffy.  There are historical curiosities -  Thomas Tickell (1684 – 1740) who feuded with Alexander Pope over a translation of The Iliad, and Isaac Wilkinson (died 1837) who went to Cockermouth Grammar School with Bounty mutineer, Fletcher Christian (hence the pub in Main Street). 

It’s impossible to get bored with this anthology.  Chronological order might have been a more obvious choice – but it would have made a much less interesting read.  And for humour there’s Robert Crawford’s dry prose poem “Bond”.

Really good value at £8.50 for 100 pages.  Profits are shared between the local mountain rescue team and Save the Children fund.   Copies are in the beautifully restored after the flood New Bookshop in Main Street, Cockermouth info@newbookshop.co.uk

* With apologies to Katherine Mansfield.

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