There are worse things than repeating oneself. Poets and lyricists do it all the time – on purpose. And sometimes unintentionally.
So I woke thinking about 'occasional verse', the joys thereof. And the poem that popped into my mind was Robert Herrick's 'Ternary of Littles', which I knew I had written about once before on this blog. And it seems it was the precise same experience that brought it to mind: the making of crab apple jelly. And here I am repeating myself, both literally and in the fact of making the preserve this very morning. It is still too hot to put the lids on the jars.
In the blog back on 2014, I said crab apple jelly was my favourite of the jellies, but I also mentioned its close rival – bramble. And I'm not actually sure crab is better. It's a close call. Both are wonderfully intense flavours and colours. Both 'gel' in an entirely miraculous way, and then melt into hot buttered toast like a dream. (In fact, blackcurrant is also outstanding, and better than redcurrant for flavour, if not for colour, but I have no supply of blackcurrants these days.)
But the crab apples this year were more plentiful than they have ever been before in this garden and on this tree. So much so that the slender branches started to break under the weight. I have thinned them out with my harvesting for jam, but there are more fruits than I can reasonably use. The rest will have to remain and decorate the bottom of the garden like Christmas lights. They shine brilliantly.
Back to Herrick's 'Ternary of Littles'. It's not the big and important kind of poem that everybody remembers because of its universal truth about life or death. It's just a little, affectionate and probably throw-away verse. Occasional verse, or verse written to suit an occasion, rather than inspired by the White Goddess.
I dimly recall when I first met the term 'occasional verse' and (as a child reader) didn't understand it. Were there 'regular' poems and 'occasional' poems, then? What could it mean? Eventually, I processed the fact that the 'occasional' kind was less special, and usually relegated to the back of the book, or perhaps not allowed in at all.
Soon I learned that laureates have to write it occasionally and on special occasions, as in verse (or probably they call it poetry) for Royal Weddings, Battles or Deaths. Some do it better than others, but they all do it. By and large (with a couple of noteworthy exceptions, 'The Charge of the Light Brigade' being one of them) these are not the poems their authors are remembered by.
Ordinary non-poet people write occasional verse too. Funerals, for example. The funeral director presents people with a choice of popular poems, but many people write one of their own. It doesn't matter whether they are 'good' or not. What matters is the unique act of making, and the intense emotion that finds an expression in shaped words.
'Occasional' verse sometimes slips into Collecteds, along with 'Juvenilia' or 'Early Work'. Risky to allow it in, of course. It might show a side to the poet that was unsubtle, or even sentimental. Poems for weddings, or christenings, twenty-first birthdays, deaths of dogs; divorce poems, new job poems; in-honour-of-my-god-daughter poems.
As for me, I often turn to bits of occasional work with relief. Things are so complex and ambitious and prize-winning these days. You never quite know whether you'll be up to the challenge as a reader. So it's a relief to know a first-rate poet can still write about the death of a pet, and do it especially well.
To prove my point, here's a delightful four-liner from Anne Stevenson's Poems 1955-2005
Epitaph for a Good Mouser
Take, Lord, this soul of furred unblemished worth,
The sum of all I loved and caught on earth.
Quick was my holy purpose and my cause.
I die into the mercy of thy claws.