Poetry-related posts



So last week it was small poems for washing up with, but I forgot to mention one.                                                                            

Not sure how I forgot, but maybe it's because it's in the middle of the puddings, when actually it has nothing to do with recipes or cooking. Except possibly a connection with one of the ingredients not being there.

By 'the puddings', I mean Aunt Margaret's Pudding, Alison Brackenbury's book full of more than just poems and more than just recipes.

Somewhere in the middle of this book there is a very tiny poem. But a tiny poem can punch above its weight.

It's called 'Lincolnshire Water' and goes like this, and this is all there is – shortest poem in the book:

Here is strong land, whose grass
does not spill foaming milk,
where I still hear, in February,
taps hiss cold silk.

That's an old poet's trick – starting with a statement that says what something is not.

No dairy farming in Lincolnshire, then – no crying over spilled milk. No, this little poem is building towards something else – a last line that's perilously hard to say out loud. Try it. 

Taps   hiss   cold   silk.

Your mouth has to make each of those monosyllables separately. Each makes its own clear sound, with 's' and 'k' the loudest consonants. It's a line of only four syllables, but long long long on sound and resonance. Each word carries its own full stress and weight ('spondee', if you like the proper metrical term).

Taps   hiss   cold   silk.

Now there's a poem for washing up with!

Recent comment in this post
Guest — Tristan Moss
Hi Nell, Good rhymes not only highlight a shared sound but also a link in meaning between two words: words that rhyme can modify ... Read More
Monday, 30 April 2018 10:27
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There's something special about small poems – the ones that slip into your head so you can take them round with you invisibly....       

I find washing up with a poem in my head particularly satisfying. Poems are also good for dusting, polishing, hoovering, and long walks over the hills.

If I'm cross, and don't want to speak about it, a bit of a poem will do it for me. Usually the end.

For example  – 'we should be careful of each other, we should be kind / While there is still time.' That's Larkin, of course (the end of 'Mowing'). 

Or 'In Nature there's no blemish but the mind. / None can be called deformed but the unkind' from Twelfth Night.

But a whole small poem has a special something, like a little fish alive and wriggling.

This one has been following me around lately. It's by Elinor Wylie (from Angels and Earthly Creatures, 1929) and full of grief, though doesn't leave me feeling exactly sad. More moved by a sadness shared.

Perhaps, in fact, it's a love poem, rather than a grief poem. Or perhaps they're one and the same. Because whoever it was written for – there they are in the poem about their absence! 

In fact, there they are forever, or for as long as this little poem slips into people's heads.

Little Elegy

Withouten you
No rose can grow;
No leaf be green
If never seen
Your sweetest face;
No bird have grace
Or power to sing;
Or anything
Be kind, or fair,
And you nowhere. 

Recent Comments
Guest — Davina
It's also the last poem in the collection, and that gives it a special significance. She'd finalised the order of the poems in Ang... Read More
Sunday, 22 April 2018 12:01
Maria Castro Dominguez
Thanks Helen for your beautiful post and sharing such a poignant love poem. I´ve always loved small poems and they work wonders wh... Read More
Sunday, 22 April 2018 14:40
luigi coppola
I love Kay Ryan (Token Loss, Silence, Dog Leg come to mind), Tennyson's The Eagle, AR Ammons' Sad Song, Ogden Nash's Fleas, My Own... Read More
Wednesday, 25 April 2018 18:08
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Nearly all the poetry I read these days is based on the poet's personal experience. I know we're not supposed to assume that 'I' is 'me', but mostly, actually, it is.

So much so, that one could conclude the main purpose of poetry is, and has always been, to share personal experience, mend the heart, shed the anguish, spill the beans.

Except it isn't. For most of history, poetry was much more likely to be fiction or historical non-fiction. Yes, there were short lyric pieces – songs and sonnets – which might be personal. But the long ones, which represented the more ambitious work, told (and re-told) fictional or historical stories.

Chaucer took Troilus and Criseyde, as well as the linked narratives of pilgrims on their way to Canterbury.

Shakespeare (forget the sonnets) did plays in iambic pentameter, and Venus and Adonis.

Edmund Spenser spent more than six years of his life failing to finish The Faerie Queene.

Milton? Paradise Lost,of course (recently adapted for Radio 4 by Michael Symmons Roberts). He also tackled Paradise Regained (I dare to suggest this will never be adapted for radio).

Longfellow? Hiawatha, of course.

Keats (forget the odes) wrote elaborate narratives – Endymion, Hyperion, The Eve of St Agnes.

Shelley did the same (The Revolt of Islam, The Witch of Atlas), as well as entire plays in verse. Who reads The Cenci now?

Byron? Don Juan.The Siege of Abydos. The Bride of Corinth.

Browning (not Elizabeth, Robert) wrote one verse novel after another (The Ring and the Book), as well as the shorter narratives (My Last Duchess) that school students still study. 

Coleridge? The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

Tennyson? The Lady of Shalott and Ulysses.

Wordsworth was the odd one out with The Prelude, which was indeed about his own life, but don't forget The White Doe of Rylstone (subtitled, irresistibly) The Fate of the Nortons).

Even Christina Rossetti had Goblin Market, allegedly for children.

Then we get into the twentieth century and the age of the lyric anthology, and suddenly it seems almost everything's personal and mostly no longer than a page. Magazines feature short poems in verse and short stories in prose. We have forgotten now that T S Eliot wrote no fewer than seven verse plays (The Elder Statesman was published as late as 1959).

Okay – there are, even now, exceptions. Occasionally lengthy fictional verse narratives do pop up, even if they don't win the T S Eliot prize. This is the territory of J.O. Morgan (At Maldon and In Casting Off). And even novelists occasionally tiptoe into narrative poems: Vikram Seth (The Golden Gate), Anthony Burgess (Byrne).

(I am struggling to think of female authors of long narrative poems. Is there a gender issue here? Suggestions, please, in the comments boxes below.)

Anyway, let me get back to where I started. During the reading 'windows' that I manage in July and December, I suggest poets don't send more than 6 poems. This, of course, assumes they are not writing the equivalent of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage (though if they were, they could send 6 pages).

The poems that arrive usually sit somewhere near the middle of a page, surrounded by white space. Often people feel obliged to include a prose poem (square boxes surrounded by a similar amount of space). The white space these days is creeping into the poem itself, so it may spread out like a wide paper hanky with holes. Either way, 98% of the poems are short. If I get one that's three pages long, to tell the truth, I take a deep breath and sigh.

Except last year something different happened (yes, my entire blog has been building to this point, and I'm grateful if you made it this far).

Joan Lennon, best known for her children's fiction but also a true poet, sent me some verse narratives, of varying lengths. Stories. Some were biblical, some were classical. One was just slightly futuristic.... I found them fascinating, beautifully made, and unusually pleasurable to read.

Then in the December window, one Michael Grieve (whose name was entirely unfamiliar to me) apologised for sending a longer poem. I took a deep breath, began to read and did not look up until I finished, at which point I did – yes – sigh. A sigh of satisfaction.

It suddenly occurred to me I had been reading fictions. Short stories in verse form, beautifully executed. Such a lovely change from the personal piece (which I do not wish to rubbish: it is my bread and butter).

So I asked permission to publish one of Joan's story-poems, and I asked Michael for his (it turns out to be a debut publication in his case). They have materialised: Granny Garbage and Luck.

These are slender one-poem pamphlets. They are utterly readable and great fun. I can't tell you much about them without giving away detail that you need to find out for yourself. I suggest you buy them (they cost very little), read them, and then give them to a friend, someone you can talk to about what happens in the end....

ps I forgot to tell you who wrote Ferishtah's Fancies. Robert Browning, of course. Don't tell me you haven't read it....

Recent Comments
Guest — Davina
Kate Tempest? And what about Carole Coates' Jacob? OK, it's in sections but it's really one long biographical poem.
Sunday, 15 April 2018 13:06
Helena Nelson
Kate Tempest. Yes -- oral tradition -- and maybe some of the ballads singers (more fictional/historical narratives) were female. W... Read More
Sunday, 15 April 2018 13:10
Guest — Linda Goulden
I suppose Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s are more historical polemical than fictional? And Charlotte Mew’s ‘The Farmer’s Bride’ too ... Read More
Sunday, 15 April 2018 13:46
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 We are onto our fifth day of snow. The mail was picked up yesterday from the local post office for the first time since last Tuesday. You know what this means?                                                                       

There will be snow poems. The somewhat slushy ones will arrive right away. Editors will be greeting them as soon as next week. About six months later, the good ones will have matured like cheese. They'll arrive in good time for next winter.

Snow still makes us stop still and marvel. It musters awe. It stops the traffic. In the UK, where snow these days is a rarity, it manages to stop everything. Just as long as you live in a warm building with plenty to eat, and can look at it through the window, it is a rare treat.

Poets swap their favourite bits of snow-po.The one by Michael Laskey, for example, 'Nobody' ('a whole / day of snow nobody's trodden'). Or Wallace Stevens ('One must have a mind of winter') or Edna St Vincent Millay ('... close to earth like mice we go / Under the horizontal snow'), or even Mary Oliver ('...once again the storm has passed us by').

But I'm going for Elinor Wylie, because she was once well known, seems to have got a little lost, and her snow poem, 'Velvet Shoes', made it into Walter de la Mare's anthology, Come Hither which is where it found me. It is not her very best poem, but it must have something because crunching softly to the post office yesterday, I thought 'velvet shoes'.

        Velvet Shoes

Let us walk in the white snow
   In a soundless space;
With footsteps quiet and slow,
   At a tranquil pace,
   Under veils of white lace.

I shall go shod in silk,
   And you in wool,
White as white cow's milk,
   More beautiful
   Than the breast of a gull.

We shall walk through the still town
   In a windless peace;
We shall step upon white down,
   Upon silver fleece,
   Upon softer than these.

We shall walk in velvet shoes:
   Wherever we go
Silence will fall like dews
   On white silence below.
   We shall walk in the snow. 

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They WILL get lost if you let them. Some of them may have gone into my paper bin yesterday. Why?

I've been tidying. The debris and clutter of papers that builds up round here is astonishing! Every three or four years something has to be done or you wouldn't get in the door.

Imagine me sitting on the carpet surrounded by cards, photographs, sheets of paper, prints, drawings, poems, letters. It's lovely in a way but in another intensely panic-inducing.

What do you keep? What do you discard? How do you file them all?

I try to file HappenStance correspondence by year – for posterity or something. It goes in plastic wallets that eventually find their way into the roof in boxes. I'm not sure why, to be honest, but it seems a good idea to keep records, just in case. Fragments shored against something.

And yet, I end up throwing masses of it away. When the lovely card from MS arrived, I knew who MS was, of course. But that was a couple of years ago. Maybe even longer. Now I have no idea.

The sweet letter from Tony isn't dated, and I know (or have known) five Tonys. Which one, and when?

And, most importantly, what about the poems?

All sorts of people send me poems. Not just for feedback during the reading windows, but at other times for other reasons. When my sister was dying, numerous people sent me poems (written in not dissimilar circumstances) as a form of empathy or consolation. So of course, I kept them.

But I was in chaos at that time. I just piled stuff up. When things arrived signed by Sarah, (I know nine Sarahs) I wailed 'Which one?' and then stopped thinking about it because other things took over. I know several Susannas, lots of Stephens, Davids, Emmas and Johns, a number of Jameses, Michaels, Martins and Jennys. HappenStance alone has had, so far, nearly 900 subscribers, and that's without other friends and acquaintances.

When my mother had Alzheimers and she couldn't remember who her correspondents were, I learned how important it was to write on cards not only the first name, but the second (in brackets) and possibly 'your niece' as an explanation. But I don't have Alzheimers (yet) and it's just as bad!

On the HappenStance submissions page, it reminds people (twice, because I've just doubled the instruction) to put their name and address on every poem sheet. But many people either don't read this, or ignore it. In the 2017 December reading window I had more unnamed poems than ever before and found myself wearily scribbling in pencil, again and again and again, 'put your name and address on each poem sheet'.

There is only one of you. You know who you are. You write to me with an SAE (though many people forget this too) so you know I know to whom the poems should be returned. Why would you need to put your name and address on each individual sheet?

Because the individual sheets may not stay with your envelope. Because if I particularly like one, I might lift it out to show someone or to copy out. Or I might just drop the whole shebang while having a bad cracking-up day. Poems get separated from their poem-set. They get separated from their authors. If the author's name and address is on the poem, it's no big deal. But often it is not. Trust me, often it is not.

You may think it is poet novices who forget to identify themselves. Not so. Often it is the most experienced, widely published poets. Often it is my friends!

Yesterday I found poems in all shapes and sizes that I had kept over the years. Many, of course, had identifiers, or signatures in handwriting I know well. But some had no identifier whatsoever. Once I knew precisely who sent them. Now I have no idea. Some of them were even laminated!

If they're sent electronically, it's even worse. I file them in a digital folder – maybe under Submissions, or Poems of Friends, and at the time I know who they came from. But later, years later, opening up a Word or text document with no identifier – who wrote it? Where did it come from?

People worry about copyright theft – and yet they don't identify their work....On good days, when people send me poems electronically with no identifier, I add one – put a header or footer in for them. So some days I remember but haply may forget.

So – is a small habit to get into but a good one. Put your name – and an address if possible – somewhere on your sheets of poems. Create a footer and put details in there so it's neatly out of the way but easy to find when needed.

Your poems are important to you, or why would you write them? And having written them, why would you disown them? 

Recent Comments
Antony Mair
A classic example of your straightforward and practical advice, Nell. Some magazines specify that one should put one's name on ev... Read More
Monday, 12 February 2018 14:33
Guest — Nell
Thanks, Anthony. I just came across a lovely set of laminated postcards, a lovely job, with photographs on one side and poems on t... Read More
Monday, 12 February 2018 16:22
Guest — Simon R Gladdish
Dear Nell Please don't tell me that you've thrown Michael Schmidt's lovely card away! Best wishes from Simon... Read More
Friday, 23 February 2018 12:03
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This week an old friend sent me a copy of a poem, cut out of a magazine. It ended, or appeared to end, on a stanza that was somewhat appropriate to him. (My friend lives alone and, like many who are lucky enough to live a long time, has found his former cronies have vanished one by one.):

But the years, that take the best away,
Give something in the end;
And a better friend than love have they,
For none to mar or mend,
That have themselves to friend.

It's from 'The Chilterns' by Rupert Brooke and if you follow the link, you'll find there are actually three more stanzas.

But that's by the by. This piece of Rupert Brooke set me to thinking about him. I've always loved some of his poems, even The Soldier, which has fared so badly compared to Wilfred Owen's Anthem for Doomed Youth.

'The Soldier' has come to be seen as a slightly embarrassing piece of patriotism in an age when patriotism is a dubious virtue. I'm sure the poem was used in its day (1914, when war was new, and people and poets didn't see what was coming) to stir up battle-hungry youth. But actually, the title is the only part of the poem that mentions war, and the last line celebrates peace. If you set it next to Robert Browning's Home Thoughts From Abroad, or some of the things Edward Thomas said about his reasons for going to France to fight, it is very much in a tradition.

Also, poor Brooke did die in another country. Not of a gunshot wound or a shell explosion, but nevertheless, in Greece on his way to Gallipoli, of an infected mosquito bite. Nothing heroic about that, but fearfully sad.

Anyway, I still haven't got to the point.
Which is that I started to think about Rupert Brooke, whose poems I learned to like from my mother, who had the Complete Poems with the lovely frontispiece photo of Brooke looking irretrievably handsome in 1913 protected tenderly by a sheet of tissue paper.

She had told me how she started to read Brooke at the start of another war, the Second World War, and it was because of a man she met while watching a military parade. He had given her a volume of Brooke. I knew there was a story to this, and I remembered there was a mysterious inscription at the front of the book, but for the life of me I couldn't remember what she had said about this chap.

This gave me one of those little stabs of grief that you get when you know the people who knew the answers are all gone. My mother died over two years ago. My sister, who might have remembered something of this, died last October.

So I picked up my mother's copy of Brooke (I have my own copy too, and it's in better shape, so I rarely look at mum's) to reflect on the inscription I remembered at the front.

How mysterious it is!

    A tribute to your
charming, vivacious personality
& recalling our very happy
companionship – though of
short duration.
    Sincere wishes for a very
Happy Future,    from   
    Just an ordinary

I recalled her saying she thought he was probably married, that's all. What had happened? What happened to that ordinary Englishman? In 2016, I published a book of my mother's stories and anecdotes, her attempts to recover memories from the past before Alzheimer's removed them permanently. But this story wasn't in that book.

I turned idly to the back of the volume. There was a thin sheet of paper, folded and sellotaped inside with tape that had gone dark orange with years and dust. There were also two quotations in red biro, written in her own hand:

Love is like a hyacinth, it must strike root in the dark before it can produce a vigorous flower. Strindberg.

This is the measure of the love that warms me to you, that I forget one nothingness, and out of shadows make reality. [No attribution]

I unfolded the piece of paper. It was the story of the man she met who gave her the book. Typed in her own slightly wonky fashion, there it all was. I hadn't even known this existed, but then perhaps it was her secret. But she had written it down. Thankfully, she had written it down.

And so I learned that this man – the man who had given her the book – came from Sussex and that he knew H.G. Wells, who was his 'neighbour'. At that time, Wells would have been living not in Sussex, but in London. But his childhood years were certainly in West Sussex, at Uppark where his mother was in service, and later in Midhurst as a young apprentice. Midhurst, where my mother spent the last 16 years of her life. She always loved a coincidence.

The story of the man who gave her the Rupert Brooke is below. I am quite certain every word is true, and equally certain that had she not written it down, it would all have been lost forever. 

A sunny morning at the beginning of September. There was a war on, and a girl with a dog stood beneath a low copper beech tree, waiting for a parade to pass, on its way from church. She was in her Sunday best, happy and seventeen, and desperately wishing ot be older, to be part of the drama taking place in the world. Then the bands came nearer, and the Territorials, the Home Guard, the Nurses and the Civiil Defence marched bravely past, heads high, arms swinging, and the sun shone and the world sang.

There was a man watching the parade, too, under the beech tree. Something that he saw in the face of the girl moved him to speak to her – the weather  –  the parade  – the war – and in minutes they were carried into a conversation which swept them along, of books, of music, of life....

After that, they met often. They went for long walks in the crisp Autumn evenings, and she showed him the Cheshire countryside. he told her that he came from Sussex, where the soil was red instead of black ... that he was in the Army ... and that he knew H.G. Wells, who was his neighbour. But she never knew his name, or rank, or whether he was married, though she suspected that he was. Or his age, but then she never told hers, hoping that he would think her older than her seventeen years. Nor did he know her name or address. They met and parted in the same place always, and neither asked any questions of the other.

But he took her to her first opera, The Barber of Seville, and they sat in the very best seats, and she had a huge box of chocolates in spite of the war.

It was a fine Autumn, and the nights grew colder, and the leaves fell. 

One evening they were walking across the fields towards Rostherne, and a bright Hunter's Moon made a path for them to walk on. Suddenly, and for no reason that she could ever explain, a cold terror seized the girl, a primitive aweful dread which froze her. The man was gentle and courteous as always; they turned round and made their way out of the fearful fields, through the dark streets, and at last into a pub where he insisted that she had a whiskey.

But it was the beginning of the end  – after that she was afraid to go walking in the dark, and besides, in a small town her anonymity could not last much longer.

They had one last evening together at the ballet, and as a parting gift he gave her a book of poems, this book, with special reference to a poem called 'The Wayfarers'.  It was November 1941.

Recent Comments
Guest — Mary Thomson
Thank you Nell. It is a beautiful story and has that ring of absolute truth that makes it so powerful. Whenever I am drawn into ta... Read More
Sunday, 28 January 2018 11:32
Guest — Helen Ashley
What a beautiful story! And so different from my own mother's story, which I didn't know about until after first she, then my fath... Read More
Sunday, 28 January 2018 14:18
Guest — Jill
So pleasing you discovered the letter, and through it the heart stopping story of how your mother came to have the book. There ar... Read More
Sunday, 28 January 2018 14:49
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