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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!

SMALL POEMS FOR WASHING UP WITH

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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. 


SO WHO WROTE ‘FERISHTAH’S FANCIES’?

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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....

THE PROOF OF THE PUDDING

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 I've always thought poems and recipes have much in common. The list of ingredients in short lines. Lots of space on the page. The method of making, sometimes in numbered steps with energetic and commanding verbs.

Weigh, mix, stir, simmer, bake, cool, eat.

So when Alison Brackenbury suggested a collection of poems based on hand-written recipes (her grandmother's) the idea appealed immediately—but the recipes themselves, or some of them, had to go in too.

Then it got more complicated. If the book was recipes, as well as puddings, we would have to test them—otherwise some of them might work for Dorothy Eliza Barnes (Dot), but not for us, or future readers.

Alison had vivid memories of Dot's delicious cooking, which was a grand incentive. She set about trying and testing a method for some of her favourites, including 'Aunt Margaret's Pudding', an old-fashioned steamed affair. Who eats steamed pudding these days?

The answer is—Alison and her husband, and then, last December (when Alison had written down the method) me and my family too. You see, Dot's recipes (she had worked as a professional cook in the early part of the twentieth century) were just a scribbled list of ingredients. She knew how to make them—she didn't need to record that bit.


Page one: Aunt Margaret's Pudding.
Take half a pound of flour,
three ounces lard (or butter), egg,
milk, sugar, baking powder.
Spread jam in basin, summer gleam.
Poke fire! For ninety minutes, steam.

    [ From 'Start' ]

This was a whole new approach to publishing. Not just proof-reading poems but proving the puddings, cakes and scones. My favourites turned out to be Raspberry Buns and Quaker Oat Scones, which disappeared in hours—the ultimate test of a good recipe.

This was a book with wonderful ingredients: poems, recipes (Dot's version and Alison's version), photographs, memories. Knowing Alison to be also a first-rate prose writer (not all poets are), I suggested she do a brief memoir too. She came up with a fascinating narrative—a story of rare determination and creativity in tough times. 

So the book—Aunt Margaret's Pudding—is fully cooked. I gave a copy to my old friend Tony (he is not far off 90). Tony has never understood why I should want to publish poetry, and regards the genre as plainly unnecessary. But I knew for a fact that his mother made steamed puddings: he used to talk about them hungrily. Once a pudding lover, always a pudding lover.

All the same, I didn't particularly expect Tony to read the book, so was rather pleased when he phoned to say at last I had published something he had really enjoyed. 'And the bit at the end,' he said, 'the prose pages about her grandmother—well, that's more poetry than the poems.'

Hurray! The book can, as I hoped, appeal to a wider audience than the usual poetry people, though I feel sure they will like it too. It's the ingredients that really make it different—recipe, then poems, recipe, poems, recipe, poems, memoir. And it's a most moving tribute to Dot, who might otherwise be as lost as 'The Lost Farm'.

Which is not entirely lost. It's in the book.


Quaker Oat Scones
Raspberry bun and tea
Quaker Oat Scones

SNOW-PO BLIZZARD FORECAST IN THE WEST

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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. 

HOW NOT TO LOSE YOUR POEMS

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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?