A shape poem, after George Herbert’s Easter Wings.
A shape poem, after George Herbert’s Easter Wings.
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‘.
Love song of Iron
“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.
Lo, thus, as prostrate, “In the dust I write
My heart’s deep languor and my soul’s sad tears.”
Yet why evoke the spectres of black night
To blot the sunshine of exultant years?
Why disinter dead faith from mouldering hidden?
Why break the seals of mute despair unbidden,
And wail life’s discords into careless ears?
So begins James Thomson’s The City of Dreadful Night, a work with justifiable pretence to the title of the most depressing poem ever written. Throughout its 21 separate sections it fleshes out an urban nightmare – a lifeless city of perpetual darkness illuminated only through the baleful glare of street lamps, along the streets of which lost souls wander aimlessly, each weighed down by their own tragedies. It is a place where the poet’s own alcoholism and depression, interlocked with the poverty and inequality of Victorian London, becomes solidified in bricks and mortar. No resolution or glimpse of a happy ending is offered, and at the close of the poems alternating sections of tragic narrative and Gothic description, Thomson leaves us only with ‘confirmation of the old despair.’ As far as I know, it is the only poem ever to advocate mass suicide:
They leave all hope behind who enter there:
One certitude while sane they cannot leave,
One anodyne for torture and despair;
The certitude of Death, which no reprieve
Can put off long; and which, divinely tender,
But waits the outstretched hand to promptly render
That draught whose slumber nothing can bereave.
Perversely, I love it. I must have read it twenty times over, and no matter how miserable, worthless and forlorn I feel at the time I pick up the book, by the time I put it down I always feel that perhaps my life really isn’t quite that unbearable after all. The world seems a brighter place in comparison with the gloom of the City, and after bearing with the unnameable sins and sorrows of the characters for a thousand lines or so, my heart leaps with catharsis. Not only that, but much of the poem’s violent atheist rhetoric is enjoyable and intensely quotable.
“The vilest thing must be less vile than Thou
From whom it had its being, God and Lord!
Creator of all woe and sin! abhorred,
Malignant and implacable! I vow
“That not for all Thy power furled and unfurled,
For all the temples to Thy glory built,
Would I assume the ignominious guilt
Of having made such men in such a world.”
“As if a being, God or Fiend, could reign,
At once so wicked, foolish and insane,
As to produce men when He might refrain!
A more pungent antidote to the mellifluous platitudes of Victorian religious verse cannot be imagined!
Its extremism offends perhaps as much as it entertains, but it is a helpful extremism, a place which marks the far end of the scale of disillusionment on which we all have to live. Somewhere between the rose-tinted glasses, and Thomson’s ‘bitter, old and wrinkled truth’, we have to strike a balance. The City of Dreadful Night is a warning not to slide too far to one end of the scale, and let your worldview become an unbearable trap. Even Thomson himself was happy for a good deal of his life, and other’s among his collected poems, such as ‘Sunday Up the River’ are joyous celebrations of bourgeois domesticity. Unsurprisingly, they don’t exact the same pull as the great gloomy Gothic edifice of his most famous work.
I have never believed in Thomson’s City to the extent that I have been prepared to throw myself off a bridge, but I have found the scale of disillusionment has tipping his way more than once. Here, for example, is a recording of Part IV of The City of Dreadful Night I made some years ago while suffering from a broken heart and an extremely bad cold:
When I was hired to take in the harvest in the autumn, I used to dream every night that I was back in the orchard rows, picking apples. When I was working as a shop assistant, I used to dream I was serving customers all night. This was, as you can imagine, absolutely exhausting.
Now that work involves reading books, or in the worst case critics (O happy state of University life!) my dreams have taken a different turn. Sometimes, after falling asleep in the middle of Keats’ Endymion, or Wordsworth’s Prelude I end up dreaming in poetry, which is infinitely more interesting.
This is no new thing. Tennyson apparently composed a fifty line poem about fairies in his sleep, and forgot it all the moment he woke up in the morning. Coleridge worked out a three hundred line poem on Kubla Khan, of which he famously only wrote fifty before he was rudely interrupted by an anonymous person from Porlock and forgot the rest (though as his was an opium induced slumber, it shouldn’t, strictly speaking, count). My favourite is A.E. Housman, who woke in the small hours with these words on his lips:
When the bells justle in the tower
The hollow night amid,
Then on my tongue the taste is sour
Of all I ever did.
Which makes it look as easy as pie. It isn’t. Most of the time, the poetry gets forgotten the moment, or I gradually come to consciousness clutching to myself a golden and gleaming fragment of verse, which melts away to the profoundest nonsense in the morning’s rational light. One example which I did note down:
The Comte is the Comte
A most unhappy man
And these three creatures, strange and rare
Would cuckold him of his despair
And from her breed some bastard heir:
That seems to be their plan.
God (or Freud) alone knows what that means, except that possibly I’d been reading too much Byron. Yet I liked the idea of cuckolding someone of their despair so much I actually bothered to roll out of bed and fetch my notebook. There was one time where I did get a usable lyric out of a dream:
Are you cold? she asked me. I said I was
Though I was not really, for even then
I slept naked, beneath a thin duvet
And counted myself in the warm. But when
The voice seductive from the darkness calls
To ask you if you are not feeling cold
She wants the truth no more than you to tell it.
Go meet and warm her ere the night grows old.
I think the first verse is pretty much as dreamt, the second one mostly invented later. There was a lot of bizarre stuff about the sacrament of the snake which I had to cut out, and it took rather a long time to edit into a form where I was happy with it. I think it was either Pope or Swift who once made the lofty boast of never having excused a poem for the sake of a few lines, or a few lines for the sake of a poem. My notebooks are full of lingering, melodic lines without any context whatsoever, and it’s an unspeakable relief to finally hedge a poem around them. Dreaming up a few new fragments to puzzle over is no help at all.
While I was pouring over my files of snatches and doggerel for this, I also found this fragment, which I dug out of my 2007 diary, having completely forgotten about it since I was seventeen years old:
The lights go down, the music fades,
There’s silence in the aisles.
The first few frames begin to roll
Above the cinephiles.
It’s not a very remarkable poem. What spooks me slightly is that I wrote this almost two years before I developed any interest in writing poetry, and certainly long before I had any idea of iambics, and the metrical patterns of the ballad stanza – and yet this is a perfectly acceptable ballad verse. Odd, the things your brain can do while you aren’t really using it.
Last night, by contrast, I dreamt I was sharing my bed with an adder and a small baby leopard, which is much more typical. Of my dreams, that is.
Each morning, when I drag
Out of my sleeping bag
Into the cold dawn air, my languid limbs
I bless the bag that keeps me warm
In frost and sleet and thunderstorm
And all the English weather’s whims.
Each evening, when I crawl
Into its folds, and fall
Asleep the moment that my eyelids shut,
I bless the bag that lets me sleep
So long, refreshingly and deep,
Within the draughty mountain hut.
In January or June,
Within this warm cocoon
I know a long and restful night will pass,
Though I am far from home and bed,
Without a pillow for my head
And with no mattress but the dewy grass.
And this, you see, is the problem with writing in metre. You scribble, and strike through, and scribble, counting stresses on your fingers and muttering rhyme words to yourself, and suddenly you realise you haven’t produced a poem but a jingle – something full of symettry, and alliteration, and vowel patterning, but completely destitute of any of the thought or feeling that made you want to write a poem in the first place. As I cannot find it in me to burden this glittering, silly little fragment with any more serious reflection, the only thing to do is continue in prose.
My sleeping bag is a Lamina O, which I bought for £99 three years ago from Cotswolds. It may have been the best purchase I’ve ever made. Quite apart from all the camping and sofa-surfing I’ve done over the years, my sleeping bag is, first and foremost, where all the work gets done. In the dark, skint days of my undergraduate, where it once dipped down to eight degrees celcius INSIDE my room, it was a haven of warmth, a cocoon of quiet reflection. I would do my reading in it, and write my essays in it; eat my dinner in it, and watch TV in it. If it had actually had legs, like one I saw in a hiking shop in the Lake District, I would never have taken it off. The basic format of my evening in, for a number of months, would be to get into my sleeping bag and read for my course until I nodded off mid-sentence (they may be great things to work in, but they don’t keep you awake!). I would then wake up around three AM in an extremely muzzy state, throw off all my clothes and tumble into my bed, which conveniently was only three feet away from the sofa where all the reading happened. Yes, I could have done all this under the duvet and saved myself the trip, but my bedsheets were never so versatile, and even more soporific than my sleeping bag.
Besides, there’s a feeling of smugness unique to the sleeping bag (and this is what I wanted to work into the poem, but couldn’t find the heart). Unlike the duvet, where there is always the risk of sticking my foot out of the covers into a frigid zone, or at least a colder part of the bed, a sleeping bag gives me complete enclosure. And with it, the delightful consciousness that it’s my own body heat, reflected back on me, that’s keeping me so nice and toasty. Never mind the radiators, or the gas fire, or the snow outside – while I’m in my sleeping bag, I’m entirely self-sufficient.
I suggested to a friend that this made the sleeping bag a fitting emblem of the happy bachelor state – of complete self-containedness and contentment with one’s wants. She just laughed. You can too – but I’ll be snug and warm inside my sleeping bag, so don’t expect me to care.