Unsuitable blog and HappenStance news
There are recipes for certain kinds of poem. Villanelles, for example.
Ingredients: one rhyming couplet, each line sufficiently persuasive to bear four repetitions and bake on its own with strong flour. If you have any iambic pentameter, so much the better. Select a third line that's easy to rhyme with, since this pudding (I mean poem) only has two rhymes throughout. Pre-heat your oven to approximately 180°C.
But you don't want to make a villanelle, surely. I know they're fun to concoct, but so rarely sustaining. They remind me of Dr Johnson's unfortunate but memorable observation on women's preaching: 'like a dog's walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all'.
But I digress. I am thinking really about poems with recipes rather than recipes for poems. I am working on Alison Brackenbury's forthcoming HappenStance publication, which was to have been a pamphlet and has grown into a delightful book. It is called Aunt Margaret's Pudding and contains a mixture of poems and recipes, as well as a brief account of the life of the woman who inspired them – Alison's grandmother, Dot – who worked, at one time, as a professional cook.
As a recipe lover myself, I have often been struck by the similarity, on the page, of poems and recipes. They both often resemble lists, but they're a little unpredictable. They can sprawl unexpectedly, and contain little asides that have nothing to do with the food. You can make of them what you will.
Either way, it strikes me as an excellent combination. Alison's poems are particularly good if read in combination with a cup of tea and, say, a raspberry bun. (I especially like Dot's raspberry buns and my other half, Matt, who almost never eats cake, has developed an interesting partiality for them.) So this is a little advance puff for her book, though there will be much more about it later.
I once tried to combine a recipe and a poem. That is to say I converted a recipe into what seemed to me at the time to be poetic form. I am not sure the results would have pleased the T S Eliot judges, but at least it has saved the recipe from getting lost – another use of poetry, if you like. Before it became a poem, I once lost it, and my friend Barbara, to whom I had passed it on, copied it out and gave it back to me. It is called 'Pain de Campagne' and when Barbara returned it to me, she had subtitled it 'Tired of Living in the Country'.
So whether or not it's good poem, I know it's a good recipe. It is tried and tested by more than one of us and will not let you down. Here it is:
Pain de Campagne
Mix these things in a roomy bowl:
8 ounces of strong white bread flour
A scant dessertspoon of table salt
8 fluid ounces of tepid water
A little dried yeast (a scant half teaspoon)
Cover with a plate and leave till next day.
At night dream richly. Record your dreams.
Return to the bowl.
Add 4 fluid ounces of luke-warm water
and then 4 ounces of whole-wheat flour.
As you stir the mixture, remember your dreams.
They will rise to the surface in tiny bubbles.
Cover and leave. Sleep well that night.
Record your dreams.
Back to the bowl.
Beat in more water—4 fluid ounces
and then add 12 ounces of strong white flour—
enough to make a workable dough.
Knead at length, remembering your dreams.
Add flour if needed. Continue to work
until the dough is beautifully smooth.
Leave to rise till doubled in size.
Sleep, if you wish, while the bread rises.
Later the same day
Punch back the dough.
Knead briefly and form a long oval.
Place on a baking tray covered in flour.
Shake more flour on top of the loaf.
Lightly cover and let it rise.
This loaf will grow.
The crust of this loaf will be domed and firm,
the crumb dreamy.
It will make great sandwiches, keep well
and prove that poetry can be useful.
 Or perhaps a little longer, at 180°
How much lovelier an old poem may seem if the original spelling, or something approximating to it, is retained. It takes me back to my early years of reading, when the children in books by E. Nesbit (or Enid Blyton) find an ancient manuscript or a treasure map. They know it's old because all the 's's are 'f's.
What mystery is in that idea — what glory in deciphering the words and phrases and finding they are not so far — not so far at all — from what we might say even now.
When you're young, you tend not to think an awful lot about the meanings of the words. You can like them, thankfully, without analysing them. You can welcome things that are different and odd. So each December, I remember the time we did Benjamin Britten's Ceremony of Carols in the school choir. Both my sister and I sang in it, and we loved it all our lives.
That Britten stuff – it was weird, right? We'd never sung anything like that before. What we usually did was the descant to O Come All Ye Faithful. But the more we sang the Ceremony, the more we got to like it, and its strange words. I don't recall anybody explaining what they meant – only how we had to sing them.
So in 'I synge of a mayden', 'Goddes moder' was three syllables, with mother as mudder. (We were not to sing God's mother, even though we all knew that was what it meant.)
We did not reinvent the words. We just sang them. With relish.
We sang most carols with relish, whatever the words were, which was just as well. Hymns to us were all a kind of mystery with a good tune, and fair game for creative interference. So the repeating phrase from The Angel Gabriel from Heaven Came – 'most highly favoured lady' – was invariably rendered as 'most highly flavoured gravy'. I still can't hear that carol without thinking of good quality turkey stock thickened with just a little cornflour.
The year after A Ceremony of Carols, I started a degree in English Literature in the University of York. I didn't go to all the lectures, but I went to all the lectures by one R.T. Jones (Bob Jones) because they were a revelation to me.
He would take just one poem and talk about it for a whole hour very quietly and very carefully. Actually, he didn't talk. He read slowly from whatever he had written down on the papers in front of him. Little, if any, eye contact with his students. He had an intensely bookish, closed-in manner, as though everything he was sharing was a secret. So you tended to lean forward and listen more carefully.
One of the poems in his series was a medieval lyric from Britten's Ceremony, and it was 'I syng of a mayden'. I hadn't thought of a carol as a poem till this point, or considered the relationship between song lyrics and 'lyric' poetry.
This was over 40 years ago, so my memory of what he said is partial. The main thing I took away with me was an understanding of the power of repetition when each repetition is connected to a tiny change. That, and the idea of an experience getting close, and closer, and closest.
I think I had thought (because we sang it at Christmas) that the song was about the birth of Jesus. But it's not. It's the annunciation – the point at which Mary – without having sex with mortal man – meets the angel Gabriel, accepts the invitation to be the mother of God, and. becomes quietly and mysteriously with child. Most highly flavoured gravy, in fact.
But I believe this carol is as much about a spiritual change as anything else. Here are the old words, from the Sloane Manuscript in the British Library, thought to date from about 1400.
I syng of a mayden þat is makeles,
kyng of all kynges to here sone che ches.
He cam also stylle þer his moder was
as dew in aprylle, þat fallyt on þe gras.
He cam also stylle to his moderes bowr
as dew in aprille, þat fallyt on þe flour.
He cam also stylle þer his moder lay
as dew in Aprille, þat fallyt on þe spray.
Moder & mayden was neuer non but che –
wel may swych a lady Godes moder be.
So the maiden that is 'makeless' is matchless – beyond compare – and a 'mayden' means a virgin. If you lost your maidenhead, that meant you had had sex with a man. Here, Mary is a woman with a choice, not meekly bowing her head.
Bob Jones took us through the structure of the piece, the way it's bookended with couplets about the holy maiden – mudder and mayden, Godes moder – all those 'm' sounds and 'd' hammering away. Bob was the first person ever that made me aware of the small sounds and their connection with sense.
And then the direction: the way new life approaches and then gets closer, and closer and closer. He comes 'also stylle' – very very quietly – first where his mother was, then to his mother's bower, and finally where his mother lay. Something delicate and beautiful about it all, and increasingly intimate.
The dew in April (lovely idea in itself) is there three times, but first the dew falls on the grass, then the flower (with all its fertility associations), and finally the spray. It is an insemination, of sorts – but as quiet and innocent as morning dew.
And then suddenly there's the last couplet which is a triumphant assertion. In the Britten version, it was enormously satisfying. You get to sing 'was never none but she' – such a wonderful phrase, with each of its syllables belting out the message, and the music suddenly scored to zoom from very quiet to as maximum forte. There is a YouTube recording of a girls' choir that sounds very much as we did.
Bob would have pointed out the three monosyllables at the end of the line 'none but she'. I can remember his mouth making the word 'syllable'. I can remember realising the syllables had something to do with the intense heart of a poem, whatever that might be.
I have only just noted that Carol Rumens had this lyric as her Guardian poem of the week in 2010. She's a similar age to me. A Ceremony of Carols must have been doing its round of the English schools when we were both busily being educated. She read the words then and now, she says, as an 'erotic myth'.
Odd how strong a word 'erotic' can seem in the context of this lyric with all its subtlety and sweetness. But that's newspapers for you. They have allowed someone (I am sure not Carol) to introduce the ghastly subhead: Set to unforgettable music by Benjamin Britten, this strangely erotic Nativity is even better on the page. Heavens above! It's not a nativity. It's the arrival of the first thought of a baby.
I found it both pure and intimate, and still do. There seems to me something odd about a baby coming to his mother in an erotic way. Obviously people could argue about this till, as they say, the cows come home.
The cows are on their way right now. The stable is just around the corner. One more ƒleep
Children learn about rhyme probably before they can speak, but certainly they start to be able to do it – for fun and with relish – as soon as they can talk easily.
My granddaughter and I used to go for walks and do rhyming. I would say, 'What do you want for Christmas? Do you want a mat? .... Or do you want a cat? Or do you want a ....' and she would roar HAT (or RAT or BAT), and fall about with delight. She would even invent words that rhymed. TAT! WAT! DAT!
Create a space and a rhyme falls into it. Goodness knows why rhyming sense is fun. But Dr Seuss, Lewis Carroll, Edward Lear, A A Milne, Lynley Dodd and Julia Donaldson are just a few of the names that have profited and continue to profit from this fact. They have entertained children and parents for over a century and a half.
I think it's something to do with knowing what's coming while at the same time being slightly surprised. If I read aloud from A. A. Milne's The Christopher Robin Story Book, or happen to say to you
Weatherby George Dupree
Care of his Mother
Though he was only ...
won't you leap into the fray with THREE? Can you resist saying 'three'? And
Said to his Mother
'Mother,' he said, said he;
'You must never go down to the end of the town, if you don't go down
You will finish the line for me, won't you? Me. Me. ME!
But some of the rhyming verses you learn as a child don't rhyme properly. The old ones, the authorless ones that get passed down over generations – some of them have terrible rhymes.
Jack and Jill, as I feel sure you know, went up a hill to get a pail of water. When Jack fell down, he bumped his crown, which rhymed nicely, but 'Jill came tumbling after' is miserably disappointing. 'Water' absolutely does not rhyme with 'after'.
And this happens a lot. Look at Ding Dong Bell / Pussy's in the well.
Little Johnny Thin and Little Tommy Stout rhyme neatly. But what about the cat who 'ne'er did any harm'? 'Harm' does not rhyme with the farmer's 'barn', except for the purposes of this ditty (which by the way is grossly modernised on Wikipedia and not the version I grew up with). Still – harm/barn? You can make it rhyme. You can hear the similarity. You can hear a similarity between 'water' and 'after'. But it's not a full-blooded, satisfying, click-into-place rhyme.
As a child I knew the difference. Everybody knows the difference.
But where are we now? Contemporary poets are nervous about rhymes and go to all sorts of lengths to avoid the delicious neatness they might offer. Perfect rhyme is looked down on, with much the same raising of eyebrows as goes with the word 'Georgian'.
But poets still pair words like 'sleeping' and 'walking'. Or they may slant-rhyme 'cat' with 'pot' (Philip Larkin being the grand master of brilliant slant rhyme). They rhyme in the middle of lines instead of at the end. They rhyme without a metrical pattern to drive the rhyme home. They rhyme singular with plural (hope / envelopes). Or most commonly they rhyme not at all.
It has been suggested to me on more than one occasion that contemporary magazines reject certain poems because they rhyme. I do not think this is true. It is more likely that the editor felt the poem weak for other reasons. But rhyming is both easy and hard to do. That is to say anyone can rhyme with certain words (the balladeers exploited that to the full by regularly ending lines on sounds like 'lie' and 'say', for which there are many matches). But rhyming with the panache of Hilaire Belloc or Roald Dahl or W H Auden or is a true art.
Most of the rhymers I have mentioned here wrote for children or humorously, and it is in humorous writing that rhyme still flourishes. The fortieth edition of Lighten Up Online is proof of this alone, and Martin Parker's 'Ermyntrude and the Higgs Boson' offers a number of inspired rhymes for the Hadron Collider. It can still be done.
And not just in light verse. Ruth Pitter, who lived into the last decade of the twentieth century, continued to rhyme all her life. She rhymed through modernism, post modernism and beyond. Olive Dehn loved rhyming, and it worked for her. And of course, Charles Causley, whom I wrote about last week – the man could rhyme.
'New' poets often go to considerable lengths to flout convention, as artists are supposed to do. They drop punctuation. They spatter words across the page. They right justify. They put things in boxes. They put things in columns. They superimpose text with other text. They cross things out. They invent symbols and signs to substitute for words. (They don't, usually, write for children.) Despite all of this, most contemporary poems look, at first glance, remarkably similar to one another. For example (as I have pointed out elsewhere) the practice of writing in (unrhymed) couplets is currently so common as to be a contemporary convention, as well as frequently associated with poems that win competitions.
But rhyme is no longer a convention in non-humorous, contemporary, literary, page poetry. (In performance work, it's a different story, though I might say something about that another time.) Not-rhyming is the convention in page poetry (except at weddings and funerals), even though readers appear to continue to enjoy it, from childhood onwards. I wonder how long it will be before use of rhyme will radicalise the page. It hasn't been in fashion now, except in light verse, for a very long time. It's hard though. It's hard not to sound like a greetings' card. It's hard to do it well.
And hard to write good poems – has been from the year dot.
(Hard to write good poems, whether they rhyme or not.)
So I was listening to the radio – not properly listening – but it was on in the background, and suddenly 'Timothy Winters' came through.
There's something incomparably satisfying about a poem you can join in with, because most of it has stuck indelibly in your mind decades ago – without your ever having to learn it. That's 'Timothy Winters' by Cornish poet Charles Causley, who died in 2003, and whose poems will be remembered – or this one most certainly will.
Poets are highly preoccupied with the idea of being overlooked while alive, and forgotten when dead. You can mention the name 'Charles Causley' in a group of younger poets and see blank faces. But not in poets of a certain age. And not in those who studied his ballads at school. And even those who aren't sure about the name 'Charles Causley' – you see them fumbling through the memory files when you mention him – try them on a line of 'Timothy Winters', and see what happens. 'Ears like bombs and teeth like splinters: / A blitz of a boy is ....'
I think I met Causley in person once, but I was only in my teens, and now I can't be sure. But I met 'Timothy Winters' before that, and he has always stayed close.
What a poem! And it illustrates another thing about poetry: its ability to educate – and I don't just mean educate about socio-historic human deprivation. Who had ever heard the word 'helves' before they encountered
At Morning Prayers the Master helves
For children less fortunate than ourselves
My Picador Collected footnotes the word helves as Cornish dialect 'the alarmed lowing of cattle (as when a cow is separated from her calf); a desperate, pleading note'. I always inferred it meant 'appeals for help', which suggests the sound of the word in context led to not inappropriate interpretation. I have never read the word elsewhere, but I've always remembered its strangeness, and its curious rightness in this poem. Not just there for the rhyme, I think, though rhyme it certainly does.
But most importantly of all, the poem ends 'Amen'. To the many generations of UK children who were once closeted in daily school assemblies and enjoined to pray, 'Amen' meant the closing of something formal and the opening of doors. We had no idea of the meaning of 'Amen' in Hebrew, or that it was originally Hebrew at all. We just knew it signified the end, and the bit we could join in with, agree with – joyfully – if it meant getting on with something else that we hoped wouldn't involve praying.
You can know what words mean without knowing what they mean.
But you can never write (or hear) a poem that ends on the word 'amen' without remembering Timothy Winters, and therefore Charles Causley: humane, metrical, melodic and haunting.
So come one Angel, come on ten:
Timothy Winters says 'Amen
Amen amen amen amen.'
Timothy Winters, Lord.
The HappenStance website has a free competition flagged on its home page. It is supposed to change every two months, though this year it has really been every three. To begin with, it was a kind of quiz, but there were few entries. Latterly, it has invited poems, and this attracts more interest, it would seem, though the prizes are modest.
The entries are anonymised before being passed to a judge, who is usually one of the HappenStance poets taking on this role for no fee, though much appreciation. The most recent competition invited poems about dreams (not more than 18 lines). It was judged by J.O. Morgan, and his comments on the competition and the winning poem were detailed – too detailed to fit easily inside the competition page. So here they are as a kind of guest blog.
J.O. Morgan's comments on the Dream Poem Competition, 2017
The subject of dreams seems apposite for poetry, or so it would appear to me, since the somewhat elusive nature and tumbled imagery of many poems I read does seem to have a sort of dreamlike quality.
Also, the way in which poets read their poems aloud often has a similar dreaminess to the tone of delivery. Had I not known the subject before I began reading the submissions, it might have taken me a while to realise what they all had in common.
And yet many of the poems did capture the sense of dreaming remarkably well; that stream-of-conscious-craziness where the unlikely seems wholly possible, even expected, and what might at first sound metaphorical is in this case simply real – at least in dream terms.
That then could be a problem: a poem's metaphors have clear meanings, whereas a real dream's imagery may have a meaning so muddled that it is in essence meaningless. As such, do you stay true to the dream and have a meaningless poem, or stay true to the poem and in so doing tweak the dream to give it a false profundity?
Both approaches were evident in the poems submitted, and both with interesting results – some with the sheer delight in dreamy weirdness, others with dreams of sometimes worrying portentousness.
'Formication', the poem I chose as winner, did something else again. It stood out at once for its shift in perspective. But also, in particular, for how much it achieved through suggestion, while actually saying very little and in so few lines. There seems to be a great deal going on beneath the surface, as well as an interesting take on how the anxiety produced by nightmarish visions bleeds through into waking activities.
I'll share some thoughts about it shortly, but first here it is:
The Dictionary for Dreamers says insects
are worries, at least in dreams. Therefore
all those ant poisons, the Raid and Nippon
under the sink, are there to calm me.
I loathe their collective mind, the purposeful lines
that trickle from my ears onto my pillow.
I hate how once you get one, you get more,
lofting bitten dreams in their leaf-cutter jaws.
The dream itself is only hinted at in the first half of the poem, but the hint is enough to put us on our guard. Later the dream is still only mentioned from the perspective of the waking world, but it's a dream we can immediately recognise, even if for us – thankfully – it's not a recurring one. There's subtlety in how a real-world, almost off-hand, reference to the dream suddenly becomes the dream, even if only for a single line.
And then again, following a reference to dream-architecture, how the brain won't be satisfied with a small cast of antagonists, there's the sudden description of tiny delicate mouthparts, which – closer-in, and arrayed in multitudes – might be a lot more concerning for the dreamer.
I also loved those simple phrases 'I loathe' and 'I hate', which seem so controlled, almost polite, in their expressions of dislike, but which have a sense of annoyance, of frustration, of helplessness, of resignation.
Of course we have already been told of the familiar brand-name products that may have no effect on dreams, but which will certainly help in the moment of waking, when the imagined world and its unassailable army lingers for a while in the dark of the bedroom, and then beyond into the daylight hours.
And does the consultation of a dreambook ever really help? Probably not. But when the products of your own mind trouble you this much, what else is there to do?
If it seems that I've analysed this poem partly backwards, that's because it made me read it that way. I read it down, then back up, then through again. It was the poem that made me want to do that. And poems so rarely make me want to do that. A clear sign, for me, that it was something just a bit special. And that last image, both in the dream and out, is really rather marvellous.
Sometimes you don't realise you've learned a word somehow wrong.
Then someone, or some thing, pulls you up and makes you think about it.
Like.... swashbuckling, for example.
There's a lot of stuff these days about pirates. Kids love pirates.
My understanding of pirates evolved long before Johnny Depp. Pirates for me were Long John Silver and Captain Hook.
So it's a very long time since I first met the word 'swashbuckling'. It must have come in somewhere back then, because I know it well, and like it as well as most people. Swashbuckling pops up whenever pirates are mentioned—for example, Ten of the most swashbuckling Puffin pirates.
I never looked 'swashbuckling'up (I never looked anything up as a kid—my sister and I read voluminously and picked up the meanings of things as we went along). So somehow I developed the idea that 'swashbuckling' was something to do with the pirates' giant buckles on their belts. At the same time, in my mind some of those belts were more like huge sashes (or 'cummerbunds', another word I like).
As a result, I sort of made swashbuckling into sashbuckling. I certainly had no idea what the word actually meant, though I knew it was fiercely piratish.
It was a cartoon that made me think long and hard. Cartoons work like poems, I find. Often they hinge on a single word combined with an image, and it creates an intense cluster of associations and meaning and fun and joy.
This time it was Savage Chickens on September 13th: a chicken with an eye patch is applying for a job, and the interviewer is looking at his CV: 'Hm... I see from your résumé that you've done a lot of swashbuckling'.
It made me laugh. And I started to think about swashbuckling and what it actually was. Had I myself ever done any?
I looked it up. And it's not what I thought at all. Well, it is and it isn't.
It means 'acting in the manner of a swashbuckler'. Ha. What is a swashbuckler?
'A swaggering or daring soldier or adventurer.'
Okay, yes, Swaggering, yes (I won't go into how I've always visualised a swagger, but fortunately we all know what swag is.)
But still—buckling what! And why? And what is a swash?
It seems there is no swash. There is 'to swash', which is to strike something violently. And the 'buckle' is nothing to do with the belt. It's a small, round shield.
A swashbuckler is someone who strikes his opponent's small round shield violently. In battle. Or maybe while boarding his ship.
Or maybe via Twitter.
Swashbucklers are not subtle.
They are all boys.