What would you have done if you had invented one of the key components of the internet and promptly become very rich indeed? It would be hard to think of a better solution than that of Sandy Lerner, co-inventor of the router, who bought up a rundown manor house in Chawton, Hampshire, which had once belonged to Jane Austen’s brother, Edward Austen-Knight. After a decade of extensive restoration, Chawton House reopened as one of Britain’s newest research libraries, specialising in women’s literature.
Last year, I fulfilled a dream of mine from my MA days, and got to spend a month there as a visiting fellow, researching my PhD. From the Steinway grand in the living room to the shiny copper pans hanging over the kitchen table to the four-poster bed, I’d never lived like it before and never will since.
This must be what it was like to have an aristocratic patron, I thought to myself. The idea sprang into my head of a modern take on the country house poem, in the tradition of Ben Jonson and Andrew Marvell, that would thank the staff for my unforgettable month here. I daydreamed of being appointed Chawton House’s poet laureate and being given my own tiny office in the eaves of the house, where I would write poems to Sandy Lerner’s cats and subsist solely on sherry. Alas, it was not to be—but I did manage to see my poem printed in the library’s newsletter, The Female Spectator.
Now that Hampshire’s poet laureate has paid a visit and written a sequence of poems about her time there, I thought it high time I gave my poem a new airing.
Fruitful October’s been and gone
And drear November’s drawing on
At Chawton House, so much renowned
For wholesome air and fertile ground
As every fruit tree here evinces,
Weighed down with apples, pears and quinces.
Though roses droop and leaves may fall
Before the threat of frost and squall,
From every pamphlet, every tome
A harvest has been gathered home,
From every essay, poem and story:
And still the grounds are in their glory
Of gold and brown and yellow green
And mixtures hardly sung or seen.
To stroll amid the wilderness
And see the woods in autumn dress
Adds a fresh pleasure to the store:
Then back into the house once more!
For there are concerts to applaud
Upon the polished harpsichord,
And morning light that gilds and graces
The panelled rooms and fireplaces,
And portraits splendid in their frames
Of gay coquettes and haughty dames,
And Knights of centuries gone by
Who gaze with an approving eye.
Plush window seats, where I am certain
To hide behind th’embroidered curtain
And read for hours like Jane Eyre
Or even – dare I? – take the chair
Where Austen used to sit and write.
There is no end to my delight,
For there are shelves and stacks and hoards
Of Books en dishabille in boards,
Or paperbacks – pert springy nippers,
Or grave octavos in their slippers,
Or volumes – three or four together
All bound in fine Morocco leather,
Whilst slim selecteds – bold young turks –
Vie with august collected works
To entertain me with their art:
How sad that they and I must part!
It’s Valentine’s Day. People’s reaction to this seems to vary sharply between the blissful and the bitter, depending on a variety of factors including whether or not they’re in a relationship, their tolerance for public displays of affection and how well they respond to a traditional holiday whose rituals have been totally erased and rewritten by the forces of capitalism.
See? I’m sounding bitter already, and I’m not even trying. In fact, I’m in clover; this is only the second Valentine’s Day of my life I’ve spent in a relationship. Unfortunately, the lovely lady concerned is five thousand miles away with the whole continent of North America and the Atlantic Ocean in between us, so we’re going to have to content ourselves with a Skype date.
I also sent a card, which I don’t usually do. I worked for nine months in a branch of WHSmith, and daily exposure to their rack of greetings cards, which varied from the nauseatingly crude to the nauseatingly saccharine, put me off sending any kind of birthday, valentines or mother’s or father’s day card for the next several years. I sent letters and phone calls instead.
So, for much of my life, this day has been marked by no cards and no girlfriends. But I’ve had fun anyway, because I’m a practicing poet, and I have a mission – to reclaim Valentine’s Day for poetry.
Looking at my files, I’m surprised to discover I’ve written at least two sonnets every year since 2009. I knew I had a habit, but still… In 2010 I wrote four for Valentine’s Day – one for a good friend, two on spec. for other friends where I thought things might go further (they didn’t) and a silly one for a woman where romance would have been wildly inappropriate, because I came up with an amusing rhyme and couldn’t resist. It’s actually, looking back on it, the least embarrassing of the set, as the one least inflected by the phase of Miltonic grandiosity my poetry was going through.
Beatrice – or should I say Beatrice? No, I’ll use English, not Italian stress; The former one offends the ear the less, The latter makes this sonnet far from easy. Beatrice – in your jacket warm and fleecy – O God! This octet really is a mess! I wish I’d never started, I confess… Yet still, I’ll come out of it in one piece, eh? Beatrice, since my mania for rhyming Has put this poem in utter disarray And left me desperately short of timing To tell you what it was I want to say… No, I’ll leave off. The midnight bells are chiming And I shall write again some other day.
In 2012 and 2013, I flipped through my poets and anthologies a few days before and matched my friends to poems: Michael Donaghy’s ‘The Present’ for an astrophysicist, Richard Lovelace’s delightful ‘Song to Amarantha, that she would dishevel her hair’ to a particularly gorgeous Irish blonde who had much to forgive me, Christopher Marlowe’s splendidly over-the-top ‘The Passionate Shepherd to His Love’ for an old flame I’d moved away from – and maybe three or four others. On the day, I posted each poem publicly on their Facebook walls, without any comment other than a ‘Happy Valentine’s’ at the bottom. I never got a lasting relationship out of it, but I was surprised how much love and appreciation got channeled my way. I’d do it again, and recommend it to any single poet with a few good anthologies to hand.
I was going to dedicate Valentine’s Day 2015 exclusively to feeling miserable and sorry for myself, but at the last moment I copied out the first stanza of Byron’s ‘She Walks in Beauty’ onto good notepaper, folded it, sealed it with wax and posted it to a fellow PhD in Newcastle I’d been nursing a crush on. She guessed it was me.
This year things are going so rosily that I actually have the chance to write a full-on, bona fide love poem without bothering with the tiresome unrequited bit. This is an interesting challenge. Usually I try to write poetry that’s beautiful and complicated without being wildly obscure; now I had to switch gears and write something simple and beautiful without being saccharine.
Without further ado, this one’s for Valerie:
In the night sometimes I reckon All that keeps us two apart, All the dry and dreary distance In between each sundered heart. All the deserts and the mountains, All the empty, silent plains Stretching out into the twilight; The wide, wide ocean that remains.
Every desert has a well And every mountain has a spring; Every trickle gets its chance To growl and gurgle, roar and sing; Every raindrop finds a river; Every stream leads to the sea, And brings my lover back to me, And brings my lover back to me.
For a few months now, I’ve been working as a seminar tutor for first year English Literature students. It’s really satisfying – they’re lively, engaged, and the teaching itself appeals to my theatrical side. I love getting to shout, wave my arms, say outrageous things to spark arguments, and demonstrate why poetry and literature matter. The only bad parts of the job are the long hours dedicated to marking and essay coaching – trying to get the students to understand the difference between active and passive voice, or master the particularly recondite subtleties of Cardiff’s referencing system.
I was preparing a seminar on Alexander Pope’s The Rape of the Lock the other week, and browsing through his Essay on Criticism, which is still the best – and funniest – introduction to his writing. Then I started wondering – what if the famous eighteenth century satirist had to write undergraduate essay advice? What would that sound like?
It was a slow weekend. The couplets sprang to mind in great profusion, and before long I had threaded them together in a coherent order and printed them out for my seminar, who were delighted. I share them here, edited for general use. If any fellow teachers stumble across this, feel free to use them and – if you have any talent for metre – adapt them to your institution’s own essay writing foibles. Altering the list of modern critics to flatter your academic supervisor/mentor is highly recommended.
On Undergraduate Essays. In Imitation of Alexander Pope’s Essay On Criticism. By Thomas Tyrrell
The Essay! The invention of MONTAIGNE,
With whose familiar style the form began,
Where BACON’s scientific method rose
Among the varied beauties of his prose,
Where JOHNSON’s pen, august and lucid still,
Surveyed mankind from China to Brazil,
And ORWELL, in a plain yet brilliant style
Exposed the flaws and glories of our Isle,
While GREENBLATT, WILSON, EAGLETON, and BATE,
Are modern critics of the highest rate.
To these heights, O my seminar, aspire!
Permit no mild critique to damp thy fire,
For academic essays stand alone,
Requiring a restrained and formal tone,
That demonstrates how well you understand
The complex meanings of the text in hand.
To science students it may seem absurd,
How hard we labour over every word,
But all will be rewarded! For, in sum,
Master the basics! And the rest will come.
Lest your assessors should be justly vexed
Be sure to match the author to the text;
Answer the question that you have been tasked
And not the one you think they should have asked;
And lest you should the Stagyrite offend
Have a beginning, middle and an end.
Show no false bias, but be circumspect,
Also incisive, learned and direct;
Spelling and grammar must be quite correct.
A semi-colon in its proper place
Will bring a smile to every marker’s face;
Misplaced apostrophes and comma splices
Will be regarded as the worst of vices;
In case, before the end, the reader drops
From want of breath, be generous with full stops,
Rather than hold them as your last resort.
No sentence is marked down for being short.
To use contractions is accounted bad;
Instead of ‘they’d’ make sure you put ‘they had’;
‘I used the active voice’ should be your plea,
And not ‘The passive voice was used by me.’
In introduction to your essay, lay
Out clearly all the things you wish to say,
And having set these limits, do not stray.
But now your argument begins at last!
Now analyse, unpick, compare, contrast,
Contend, defend, explain – but chiefly THINK,
Vague generalising is a waste of ink.
So never be afraid to quote at length,
Well-analysed quotations are a strength:
Essays are weary, parching, dry and bland;
Quotation are oases in the sand.
Yet every time you quote, within the course
Of writing out your essay, give your source:
Naught is more rare, nor pleasing to the sight
Than someone who has got their footnotes right.
Citation styles there are in wide array,
Harvard, Chicago, and the MLA;
To make your essay pleasing to the view,
Hold fast to these! And they shall see you through!
So ultimately, to conclude, therefore
In summary – conclusions are a bore;
A place to say again things better said before.
If these important precepts you obey,
And breathe life into them upon the way;
If all your arguments prove firm and just,
Your grammar faultless and your style robust;
High marks in modules you may hope for then,
Nor fear the wielder of the crimson pen!
Skirting the edge of an MoD firing range, I emerged on the very tip of the Laugharne estuary. Laying my bike down in the long grass, I walked out on to Pendine sands. To my left the sea swept in to meet the river Taf as it flowed past St Clears and Dylan Thomas’ Laugharne. Ahead of me across the waters was the split pyramid of Rhossilli Down and the long, rearing line of Worm’s Head. To my right, the bare flat expanse of sands swept along the coast as far as the eye could see. The monastic bulk of Bardsey Island was an offshore silhouette. Any human figures nearby were nothing but coloured dots on the great expanse of flat, hard sand.
At least I won’t have to change into my swimming costume underneath one of those awkward towel kilts, I thought approvingly. Then, inevitably: If the beach is this deserted, do I really need a swimming costume?
It wasn’t even the most unusual thing I’d done that day.
2014 is Dylan Thomas’ centenary year, and the whole of South Wales has been putting on events to celebrate the life of her most famous poet. I’d spent a fun weekend previously exploring the sites of his Swansea childhood, but the lack of easy public transport to Laugharne had always put me off exploring the famous house of his great late poems. I had a friend in the Dylan Thomas Boathouse, however, who’d offered to show me round, I’d been meaning to get back into doing a few long, exploratory cycle routes, and one Sunday I found myself with nothing to do. So I set my alarm clock for the perverse hour of 5:30am, and made the 7:10 train to Carmarthen.
It was a hilarious train, full of bleary drunken wrecks from Neath and Port Talbot who’d obviously gone into Cardiff to party on Saturday night and never gone to bed. They were extremely noisy, then comatose, then shambling suddenly out when we pulled into their station.
I emerged at Carmarthen, and set off promptly westward, towards St Clears. Typically of the consideration that road planners show to cyclists, there was a bike route running along the north side of the A40 for roughly three-quarters of the way to St Clears, and the Celtic trail on the south side – but did they meet in the middle? No, that would have been too easy. Instead I had the choice of a long and mountainous detour or a mile of unpleasant cycling along the hard shoulder of a dual carriageway. The detour was marginally the worse option, but once I’d made it into St Clears, it was a shorter, quieter southward haul. One more nightmare hill and I was freewheeling from Cross Inn downhill into shoreside Laugharne.
You know how sometimes you go to places you’ve read about, seen on TV and visited many times in your imagination? And when you get there it’s grey and drizzly and full of litter and unhappy people? Laugharne was nothing like that. Clouds scudded across the sun now and again, but the windfall light of the day was exactly that which gleams in Dylan’s poems. Sir John’s Hill, on the headland, was exactly as I’d imagined it; the Boathouse itself was exactly the ‘house on stilts high among beaks and palavers of birds’, ‘by full tilt river and switchback sea’. I went for an afternoon drink in Brown’s Hotel, one of Dylan Thomas’ favourite watering holes, and shared a pint with a group of men who appeared to have escaped from the pages of Under Milk Wood circa 1950, and defied all efforts to corral them in again. And there were surprises, too: Laugharne Castle, which no poem or memoir had warned me of, was a wonderful rambling boys-own ruin to scramble across.
I’m fortunate enough to have studied English Literature at University with Kieran, who works at the Boathouse. He bears such an uncanny resemblance to the Augustus John portrait of Thomas that one is tempted to enquire into the amours of his grandmothers. Thanks to him, I got to look around for free, a free espresso and a batch of welsh cakes wrapped in tinfoil. He subjected me to a Dylan Thomas quiz, which I failed miserably, and advised me to cycle further on to Pendine sands and take my swim there, rather than use the murkier waters of the estuary.
To the end of his life, Dylan Thomas was proud of his running prowess, having won the ‘Swansea Mile’ race when he was 14. It needs more research than I’m prepared to do for this blog to determine whether he was much of a swimmer, as well. One tends to imagine him with his limbs sprawling out of the bath, the typewriter plonked on his stomach and a cigarette lolling out of his mouth, not breasting the choppy Welsh sea with a strong front crawl. But his poems are full of the primal energy of the ‘tusked, ramshackling sea’ ‘that hides his secret selves deep in its black base bones,’ and in his short stories and memoirs you often find him beside Rhossilli, or Swansea Bay, exulting in the wildness of the waves or treasuring a sullen Byronic melancholy. The long horizons of Pendine Sands dwarfed and daunted me, too long and flat for my weak strain of poetry to take much purchase, but I felt sure Dylan would have struck an attitude fit for it.
Naked I plunged into the greyish, leek-and-potato sea, and did a few strokes out and back, secure in the opaque waves as a dog-walking jogger grew from a dot to a pin to a person and shrank back again to a dot. Once I was safe, I emerged and jogged speedily towards my clothes, foolishly left a good way out of the water’s reach, and part-buried in spindrift sand. After I’d shaken the sand from my cycling shorts, pulled on a t-shirt and munched a few welsh cakes, I set off back towards Carmarthen. As I left Laugharne behind me once again, I heard three shrill skyborne cries, and twisted my neck to see a hawk hovering above me. Like everything in Laugharne, it seemed to have leapt straight from Dylan Thomas’ imagination into the modern day.
Over Sir John’s Hill
The hawk on fire hangs still;
In a hoisted cloud, at drop of dusk, he pulls to his claws
And gallows, up the rays of his eyes the small birds of the bay
And the shrill child’s play
Of the sparrows and such who swan sing, dusk, in wrangling hedges.
One evening in 1816, a minor poet named Charles Cowden Clarke invited another minor poet friend of his to spend a few hours reading a new antiquarian book he’d recently purchased: an outdated Elizabethan translation of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. The translator was George Chapman, a man who, even in the Renaissance, boasted of being too obscure for the common reader. It was not a night out that seemed initially promising: but as it happened, Clarke’s minor poet friend was John Keats, and the sonnet he found on his breakfast table next morning commemorating their evenings reading is likely to last as long as the English language – and a good deal longer.
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies When a new planet swims into his ken…
It’s a beautiful, resonant image that has now become part of the common cultural currency, but modern reader of Chapman’s Homer, when faced with the same passages that inspired and electrified Keats, will probably experience something more like William Herschel’s original sensation of squinting down a large glass tube at a faint, blurry object he initially mistook for a comet.
In Keats’s day, Chapman’s translations were long out of print and hard to get a hold of, displaced and superseded by the trim, correct, neo-Augustan translations of Alexander Pope. Today, you can buy a cheap paperback edition for a couple of quid from Wordsworth Classics, a publishing company with a knack for getting a hold of the oldest, creakiest translations of any work of world literature. Their texts are often a century or so out of copyright, but by reaching back five hundred years to Chapman’s Odyssey and Iliad they excelled themselves.
Yet why should you read the Elizabethan version when there are excellent modern versions by Robert Fagles, D. C. H. Rieu and Robert Fitzgerald, doubtless for similar prices should you find the right second-hand bookshop? Is there anything remaining of that spark that electrified Keats?
Well, if you take it from the beginning and try to read it all through, it’s undeniably a tricky read. Chapman’s Iliad begins in magisterial form: Achilles baneful wrath resound, O Goddess, that imposed Infinite sorrows on the Greeks, and many brave souls los’d From breasts heroic; sent them far to that invisible cave That no light comforts; and their limbs to dogs and vultures gave: To all which Jove’s will gave effect; from whom first strife begun Betwixt Atrides, king of men, and Thetis’ godlike son.
Thereafter, it’s far too easy to become bogged down in the ghastly ingenuity required to force Homer’s catalogue of Grecian ships and captains into rhyme and metre, and in the intentionally confused syntax that is used to reflect the mayhem of the battlefield. The Odyssey is an easier read, and its episodic adventures are much more palatable than the continuous war of attrition the Iliad chronicles. It’s hardly surprising the imagery of the Keats sonnet draws heavily on the former while hardly featuring the latter. Still, a better bet might be to read one of the modern translators mentioned above, or start where Joyce started, with Charles Lamb’s The Adventures of Ulysses, to gain an idea of the plot, where the good bits are, and which bits you can afford to skip. It may feel like cheating, but skipping to the most dramatic episodes is probably the best way to enjoy the Odyssey and the Iliad – and probably Joyce’s own masterwork, too.
Things are complicated in The Odyssey too: Odysseus is referred to throughout by his Roman name of Ulysses, except where Chapman decides the metre or rhyme require he be called Ithacus (man from Ithaca) or Laertiades (son of Laerties), confusing matters somewhat. Things get even more complicated when he starts calling Odysseus’ son Telemachus as ‘Ulissides’.
Chapman’s freewheeling couplets are a delightful experience and an obvious inspiration for Keats’s own loose couplets in his long poem Endymion, but Chapman does occasionally come out with doggerel like: But his decrees, That holds the earth in with his nimble knees, Stand to Ulysses longings so extreme, For taking from the god-foe Polypheme His only eye – a Cylop, that excell’d All other Cylcops…
The god with the nimble knees is Poseidon, by the way – not one of his most renowned characteristics. (Fitzgerald translates ‘Only the god who laps the land in water.) Then again, those of us inured to the rigours of Shakespeare, Chaucer and Spenser will have little difficulty ingesting Chapman’s archaic language, and our reward is the experience of reading a unique version of the Odyssey with none of the neoclassical coolness of Pope, the plain novelistic narration of D.C.H. Rieu, or the beautiful, spare modern verse of Fagles or Fitzgerald. It’s the kind of tale Odysseus’s crewmen might have told themselves, if any of them beside the hero had endured being eaten alive by the Lestrygonians, drowned in the whirlpool Charybdis, or waking with a bit of a start and falling off Circe’s roof (way to go, Elphenor)! It’s a delight to read aloud, a rollicking, freewheeling, anarchic collection of adventures with plenty of tall stories thrown in and plenty of swagger. It’s hard not to love Chapman for the moments where the Anglo-Saxon vernacular breaks through in ways no modern translator would dare. Most dramatic is this passage, in which Odysseus finally reveals his true identity to the suitors who have been wooing his wife while feasting and drinking at his expense, and exacts a bloody revenge upon them all. The upper rags that wise Ulysses wore Cast off, he rusheth to the great hall door With bow and quiver full of shafts, which down He pour’d before his feet, and thus made known His true state to the wooers: ‘This strife thus Hath harmless been decided; now for us There rests another mark, more hard to hit, And such as never man before hath smit; Whose full point likewise my hands shall assay And try if Phoebus will give me his day.’ He said, and off his bitter arrow thrust Right at Antinous, that struck him just As he was lifting up the bowl, to show That ‘twixt the cup and lip much ill may grow.
But for a sample of Chapman’s verse at its most intense and characteristic, it is hard to fault the passage which Cowden Clarke tells us Keats was most struck by. It is in Book Five, where Odysseus has been shipwrecked and tossed in a storm for days, at the mercy of Poseidon’s wrath. Finally, spent and all but drowned, he makes landfall on Phyrigia. Then forth he came, his both knees falt’ring, both His strong hands hanging down, and all with froth His cheeks and nostrils flowing, voice and breath Spent to all use, and down he sunk to death. The sea had soaked his heart through; all his veins His toils had rack’d t’a labouring woman’s pains. Dead weary was he.
Sleeping in summer, the stars of winter night
Blaze with a cold clear blaze in his dull dreaming.
Sirius arises, the hard-to-see hare,
Lepus, lies plain at the feet of Orion,
Bright as Taurus, Auriga and Cassiopeia,
In the untinted ink of a sun-deserted sky.
Who would prize those months of midnight haze
Over the cold crispness, when the air catches
And bites cleanly, steaming as it leaves the lungs
Like the breath of the dragon, wound between the lesser bear
And the greater? He groans for it, stewed in his night-sweats,
Suffering his sky-lack, his star-thirst.
Meantime, at four in the muggy morning
The day’s dawned a dull blue-grey.
Sometimes I dream in verse, but all that ever seems to leave me in the mornings is a few maddening, strange fragments of poetry. This one is the other way around – a dream I had one extremely hot, muggy summer night, where I hadn’t seen the night sky for days, and which I worked into a poem when I woke up.
Since then, I’m glad to say the sky has cleared a bit, and I recently spent a pleasant hour stargazing in the middle of a dark cricket pitch. During that time I learnt a few new constellations and spotted one of the Aquarid meteor shower streaking through the southern horizon, so it hasn’t all been as bad as the poem makes out.
When I was cataloguing marginalia and provenance information in the Cardiff University Rare Books Collections, I discovered many interesting things – not least how dirty three century old books could be. Inside a tiny duodecimo copy of The Whole Duties of a Communicant, I found a beautiful hand-drawn map of Bath that someone had tucked away for safe-keeping. There was a wonderful, lavishly illustrated 17th century book on The Buccaniers of America that I would have given my whole months wages to walk off with, and plenty of the marginal annotations I’d been told to catalogue – some learned, some argumentative, some very funny.
One of my favourite discoveries were the book rhymes. They were the precursors of bookplates, lines of catchy doggerel that interested readers would scribble inside their front covers along with a few personal details, to mark the book as theirs and remind recalcitrant borrowers to return it promptly. The first one I came across was:
If thou art borrowed by a friend, Right welcome shall he be To read, to study, not to lend, But to return to me. Not that imparted knowledge doth Diminish learning’s store, But books, I find, when once they’re lent, Return to me no more.
A nice enough piece of doggerel, but my favourite book rhyme is somewhat shorter, snappier, and more punchy:
If this book you steal away What will you say On judgement day?
Which summons the pleasant thought that when Christ descends from Heaven on the Last Day, to judge the quick and the dead, he will be particularly harsh on the subject of stolen books. Let the unrighteous tremble!
As to a book rhyme for the title page of my own volumes, I gave the matter five minutes of thought while I was in the shower the other night, and came up with the following attempt:
Steal this book away from me; You are my enemy. Drop it idly in the bath And taste my wrath. Tear or dog-ear any page And feel my rage. Break the spine, or spoil the story And know my fury. Return it safely to the shelf; And stay in perfect health.
A little over-protective, perhaps – but no more than any of my treasures deserve.
The monkey-puzzle tree tosses its boughs
Like great green fishbones swimming on the wind,
The wind that swept the high Welsh hillside bare
And tumbled every stone from stone to ruin
Where once a farmhouse stood beneath its shade,
Now roofless, roomless, shelterless and lone.
Made fanciful, I wonder at the cat
That stripped the fishflesh from these kippered bones
And who would hang them up and let them grow
So mouldering and green – so dead and full
Of life. This might have been a home of giants;
These branches might have been the skeletons
Of salmon, spawned from him that secret lies
In Llyn Llifon, the Ancient of the World
That once bore Arthur’s knights upon his shoulders.
The family that planted first the seed
Is vanished into history or myth,
Yet still the Chilean pine remains and thrives.
You might have thought it swam its way across
The wide Atlantic on its own, so strong
And agilely the branches tailfins flick
With stroke on stroke upon the fluid air.
From my diary of the time: ‘Sunday [29th May 2012] I dared the rain and high winds & set off to Neath with the ramblers. We had an interesting walk on the Afan forest trail. I enjoyed the windswept ridge, & the ruined farmhouse where we stopped for lunch, with the wildly out of place monkey puzzle tree tossing its branches above us, like great green fishbones trying to swim on the wind. Unfortunately, by the walk’s end my arms were stinging with the cold, & my toes wet in my boots, so it was a relief to reach the minibus & be back to James and Julie’s house for tea and biscuits.’
The first image of the fishbones was with me from the start, but the rest of the poem was slow in coming. The tree was stuck in my imagination. Flourishing and verdant and completely out of place, it seemed to have a mythic power that was completely disproportionate to its origins. It reminded me in some ways of the dragon bones I once saw, which they still keep chained up outside the Wawel Cathedral in Krakow, Poland. The guidebook said that they were probably bones of a mammoth, or a rhinoceros, or a whale, but it was impossible to believe they were anything other than a dragon. Equally, it was impossible to believe that such a tree had been so prosaically carried across the ocean and planted here, as the noticeboards said, and I began to think of other explanations.
The salmon of Llyn LLifon is one of the most fascinating figures in the surviving Welsh mythology. He first appears in the magnificently bonkers tale of How Culhwch won Olwen, in the Mabinogion, where Kei and Bedwyr (Kay and Bedivere) ride upon his shoulders to the rescue of the imprisoned knight, Mabon son of Modron. I borrowed him from a wonderful early R.S. Thomas poem, ‘The Ancients of the World‘.
“Like a blacksmith the Love God has hammered me and crushed me
on his anvil, and has plunged me in a wintry torrent”
Anacreon of Teos, translated by Richmond Lattimore
Blacksmith girl, bright sweat pearled, copper skin flaring red,
Seizing me up from the flames of your forges, you
Held me in tongs as you hammered me, moulded me.
Pinned on your anvil, by hot fires made pliable,
Slowly I yielded, I bent to your rhythmic strokes,
Took to the shapes that your great strength impressed on me;
Ornamentations and stamps of your craftsmanship,
Bent to your blows, till at last you were satisfied.
Then when you took me and plunged me in cold water,
Hissing and spitting around me in spitefulness,
Chilling my heart till I set hard, unchangeable;
No longer flexible, fluid, mercurial;
Lumpen and cold with a frigid solidity.
Now as I lie here forgotten and purposeless,
Rusted, decaying and crumbling to uselessness,
Buried in scrapheaps in desolate wastelands, I
Yearn for the forges, the touch of high temperatures,
Scorching away at the tarnish of centuries,
Rending me down and restoring to purity
My mundane metal, recasted, reborn again
Reshaped anew at the hands of the blacksmith girl.
As a self-taught poet, the hardest part of learning the craft was iambic pentameter. No-one could seem to make it clear. They would say “It has ten syllables, and goes “dee-dum dee-dum dee-dum dee-dum dee-dum”, and I would be as in the dark as I ever was. Fortunately, I had a job on the tills at WHSmiths at the time, and had taken up memorising poetry as something to do to keep my brain alive and prevent me from becoming a check-out zombie. Halfway through Tennyson’s ‘Ulysses’, iambic pentameter simply decoded in my head. Like the proper union of gin and vermouth, it was a great and sudden glory.
It was still a long while and many scratched out lines of verse before I could write confidently in metre. ‘Love song of Iron’ is only the second poem I ever wrote that I am prepared to exhibit, and dates that my learning period. Yet this ended up somewhat to the poem’s advantage. It was not written in iambic pentameter, but in a spondaic metre I devised from scratch while I was trying to get my head around the difficult metres of Ancient Greek poetry. If it ever sounds forced, it’s because it was written to the sound of hammer on metal – a repetitive three-beat DONG-DONG-dong. That beat rang out in my head for years, and made it impossible to read the poem properly. I was reading to the hammer blows, not to the natural rhythm of the words, and under those impacts the poem shattered to pieces in my mouth. Much later, when the hammer beat had faded, I came back and read it again, and – to my surprise – found it satisfactory. This is a natural, unforced reading of the poem – yet I think you can still hear the hammer beats beneath it, the relentless rhythm that is driving the poem on.