Remembering Jack

JACKCARD

Since my early twenties, I've owned a little brooch, a gold 'true love knot' dotted with tiny pearls. My mother gave it me, but it belonged to my father's mother, and was given to her by her first boyfriend Jack. Jack went off to the war and didn't come back.

So that was the end of Lizzie Wray's boyfriend Jack's story. I never knew his second name. 

Meanwhile, Annie Wray, her younger sister (my great-aunt) also had a boyfriend who went off to fight. He was called Hamlyn Radford, and he went to France and did come back. He came back because he was shot through the chest in 1916. He survived that, and mustard gas, which he told me had made his hair fall out. He was indeed entirely bald.

Lizzie married someone else: Joseph Curry. And when her son to that someone (my dad) was ten, that husband died too, though of natural causes. And she married for a second time: Harold Essex (I have a silver lapel button with a tiny photo of Harold inside it). 

But she kept Jack's brooch, because I have it now. I've just cleaned and polished that little eternity symbol for the first time in nearly half a century. It seemed appropriate on Remembrance Sunday.

But recently something else happened. I was going through photographs of my mother's (she died at 91 in 2015) and I came across a yellowing card: a sort of postcard with an embroidered panel, and the lacy panel has a flap, beneath which something presumably once went.

The card is marked and dirty. You couldn't wash the embroidered section because it's firmly fixed to the paper frame. Should I keep it or ditch it? I was in the mood for throwing things out. Then I turned it over and saw the handwriting (I have never noticed it before). It says, in faded letters, Yours Jack.

Do you ever feel as though you've had a little nudge? As though someone, not here, is sending a tiny hint that you should pay more attention?

Of course it could be any Jack. Any Jack could have written this on the card. But he's also dated it, and the date is 26/7/17.

Does that mean he was killed at Ypres not long after? Maybe. 

In tiny print, I can see the card announces its provenance as Paris, though the red, white and blue of the embroidery makes me think it was made for the British. I always assumed Jack had bought the brooch in England and gave it to her before he left. But perhaps he bought it in France and posted it to her. Either way, I think the brooch may once have been pinned to the card, and may have sat beneath the flap that says BEST LOVE.

Who were you Jack? How old were you when you died? What was your second name? You might have been my grandfather – or at least somebody's grandfather – had you only survived.

All the people who might have known about my grandmother's first boyfriend are long dead, and Jack even longer. I would have shared this with my sister, but since last year she's gone too. So here's to the memory of Jack. To Jack, and all the other Jacks.

If I were to wish anything for my own grandchildren, and for all the other children in the world, it would be for human beings to find a way to stop making war, to put all that behind us. Isn't war the single most stupid thing an intelligent species could ever make?

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IN PRAISE OF THE 'OCCASIONAL' MUSE

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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. 


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BORING

BOXES

So it's not all reading windows, and competitions, and new publications. Or whatever else people think poetry publishers (even little ones) do.

Much of the necessary and time-consuming stuff is too ordinary to talk about. It makes for a boring blog.

But I'm not averse to boring people. Otherwise they might think it's all FUN here.

So my August was sorting out the archives in the roof, and getting some of the boxes ready to send to the National Library. It involved dust and cobwebs, ladders and trips to the dump – sorry 'recycling centre'.

And then there was the self-assessment return and updating the accounts. Lord knows, this takes days and days and days.If I would only do it every month it wouldn't be so bad, but I start well each year, and then suddenly I'm five months behind.

And then there's stock-taking. And taking stock.

Ordering new envelopes, all sizes, for despatch and for cards. More boxes!

Ordering new labels, new toner, new pencils, new batteries. 

And letter writing (some people do still write them, by hand, and on paper).

Reading poems for non-window people (promises are promises).

A bit of tidying my desk, and in this case ordering a new one, since this one can't be moved without collapsing. And a new chair, since the current one is the polar opposite of ergonomic.

Getting hair cut. Visiting old friends. Some of them very old.

A funeral or two. Review of black or grey clothes.

Getting teeth scaled and polished (*grins and flashes teeth*).

Working on one small poem of my own. Slowly.

Bramble picking and making jelly.

Watching the crab apples ripening. (Crab apple jelly soon.)

Reading Peter Main's excellent biography of Ruthven Todd.

Reading Matthew Walker's rather worrying book about sleep.

Making ice cream.

Clearing and cleaning the freezer.

Making bread.

Drinking Pact coffee.

Thinking.


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THIRTY POEM SNAGS

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​Here goes. These are points that 'snag' my reading because of the frequency with which they occur. Of course, a poem could contain any of these features and still succeed in spite of them.

1. Breaking a line on a hyphen. (I thought this went out decades ago, but it is apparently back with a vengeance. I have seen more hyphen-broken lines this July than you could shake a stick at.)

The name of the shop shone bright in red-
gold lettering.

2. Breaking the line mid phrase. (Ok, it can be done. BUT a great many people are doing this for no apparent reason other than to create a kind of contemporary 'poem' feel. Lots of breaks on 'and' and 'the' and prepositions like 'of' and 'to'. Are the lines even interesting without the line breaks?)

The clock struck
one and the mouse ran
down. Why are the
two of them so
predictable and
what is the point of
the mouse?

3. Breaking a phrase across a line or stanza to re-enact some action also taking place. (Although this may have some justification, it can be less than subtle.)

The magpie clacked and flapped
in alarm. A squirrel shot down

the tree and into the bushes.

4. Forming a stanza round a sequence of leaning verbs, then ending with a discrete sentence with subjectless verb,

I sorted out the washing, put the whites together,
jumbled the dark clothes into a pile,
scrutinised the options on the washing machine,
selected 13 for Mixed Load, threw in two laundry capsules,
shut the door, pressed START.
Poured myself a mug of sweet strong coffee.

5. Using a line break to substitute for a comma. I have written about this before here.This is actually part of a bigger issue, which might be headed 'how to punctuate your poems'. A number of prize-winning poets in recent years have published poems with no punctuation at all. Some use gaps between words instead. Others use punctuation here and there in their own coded system. Let them do what they do. But unless you are very sure and consistent in your own system, try punctuating poems in the same way as prose. It will help the reader understand what you mean.

6. The word 'then' used as turning point in the action. Sometimes more than once. Sometimes 'Then', then 'then', then 'finally'.

7. Frequency of certain words (sorry!) : heft and shard; shard and heft, also weft and filigree.

8. Too many adjectives.This is easy to check in your own work. If you have an adjective (or two, or three) accompanying nearly every noun, you have a problem – unless you're deliberately going for over-kill. Make nouns and verbs work harder, even if they don't want to. 

9. Certain kinds of 'trendy' titles, leading into list poems eg 'Reasons for having a secret name' 'What I learned from my sister before she died' A lot of first line titles too, some working better than others.

10. Titles that use the best phrase in the poem and therefore steal the thunder later.

11. Sentences that go on a very long time and the reader gets lost on the way to a full stop and there are semi-colons; often several of them; and line breaks that make it even more difficult: sometimes the sentence even lasts the whole length of the poem, which is not inconsiderable and may include gaps and jumpy phrases that leap off to the right and then back to the left, and when you get to the end (IF you get to the end) you have forgotten what you thought the poem was about. 

12. Chunking stanzas into even sizes.Three-line stanzas. Quatrains. A lot of couplets. Lines about the same length to make a nice rectangle or square. This often leads to significant cross-stanza enjambment because the stanzas (verses) are not verse paragraphs so much as divisions forced on the words by rule of two, or three, or four. The reader starts to wonder about the relationship between the form of the poem and its subject. Is there one? 

13. How fragments. They work like this:

She thinks of him, leaning against the gatepost
in the evening sunlight. How his brows furrowed.
How he would clench his jaw. 

14. Rhyming for closure at the end, but not anywhere else.

15. Formatting complex layouts for an A4 page.This can include elaborate spacing or verbal collage, including some lines justified left and some right to the right of A4. 

16. Formatting prose poems in a blocks that run the full width of an A4 page with narrow margins. Length of line is a key factor in readability.

17. 'Yet' or 'And yet' towards the end of the poem

18. 'For' used instead of 'because'. (Some poets will defend this to the death.)

19. Colons used to control the reader into seeing that the next bit extends the previous bit, although this is self-evident.

20. Frequent semi-colons. (When I was at school Mrs Clarke said we were not to use more than one per page. How things have changed!)

21. References to Edward Hopper (and especially 'Nighthawks') appear more often than any other painter, film-maker or author.

22. Double spaced poems.I think this may be because people follow the default of Microsoft Word. When you hit the 'return' key, Word thinks you want to start a new paragraph. So you need to change the default setting, or learn how to do 'soft returns' (hold the 'shift' key at the same time as 'return'). 

23. Capitals at start of every line, or irregularly (nothing to do with starting a sentence). Obviously there is a choice. There are still poets who choose to have a capital letter for the first word in every line. It is retro, but you can choose to be retro. But there are also poets whose Microsoft Word program defaults to a capital letter each time they hit the Return key (see point above). If this is the case, they need to change the default setting. 

24. Poems structured round a set of instructions, a list of imperatives to the reader. eg 'How to kill your bee orchid':

Water the plant daily. Talk to it.
Polish the leaves with a cloth soaked in honey.
Play music to your orchid. Touch its leaves one by one
with the tip of your tongue. Take it outside at night
when there is a full moon
and leave it in the middle of the lawn.
Take it in the bath.

25. 'And I think ....' or 'And I remember', or 'Do you remember?' Memory is hugely important in poems, and the question 'Do you remember...?' is a great trigger. But once it has fired the poem onto the page, remove the trigger.

26. Mingling the narrative perspective: I, you, we. I'll try to illustrate that.

Taking my coffee out in the sunshine,
I tripped over a yellow watering-can. I cried out
in pain, as you do. But no-one came. You know
how it feels to be ignored, you know
how the pain stabs worse when you're alone.
We're never more alone than when
in pain. Do you remember, last year,
when we were in Spain and I fell?
You were the one with the pina colada
and cold compress. 

27. The poet knows what is going on but.... There is a context. The poet knows the context and thinks it's obvious what's happening. In fact, the poet thinks it's obvious enough to develop the idea using surreal metaphors or elaborate similes. But the reader is confused, and feeling increasingly anxious in case it IS all obvious and she just can't see it....

28. A lot of 'as' sentences. I hate 'as'. It can mean three things: while, because and like. That means it could be used three times in one poem meaning three different things. It is often at the start of a line, and often followed by 'I' ('... as I write as on the page, as if I were a an Aztec, as indeed, on Sundays, I am.') 

29. Ellipsis. Dots. Very occasionally there is a case for them. But if they are there for vagueness, that's not good. Vagueness in poetry is not good.

30. A line or lines (often near the beginning) where the reader has good reason to read it wrong. There's a word in a key position that could be a noun or a verb (and sometimes even an adjective) and the reader reads the wrong function and then never quite recovers, even after going back to check how it should have been read. The poet is not aware of this because the poet knows how the word is intended (possibly the only person to know in some cases). Here's an example (where 'fingers' is likely to be read as a noun but needs to be a verb):

This night is bitter for the head and the cold fingers
the soul as it withers and shrinks. 


A last thought. I like to see how the complex-sentence poets construct sentences in their covering letters. Some of them write beautifully there – not a word out of place, and an engaging, personal tone. But when that same writer puts on poem-mode, suddenly the sentences are formed in a different way – far more difficult to follow, and the difficulty compounded by line (and stanza) breaks. I wonder whether we share a subconscious instinct that poems should be complex and a little 'difficult'. Otherwise, they might not be saying anything of value.

A good friend sent me an antidote to this idea – a bit of Seamus Heaney. One can write a stunning poem in straightforward sentences. Here is a bit from 'Clearances' to prove it (even the punctuation is entirely unremarkable).


Polished linoleum shone there. Brass taps shone.
The china cups were very white and big –
An unchipped set with sugar bowl and jug.
The kettle whistled. Sandwich and tea scone
Were present and correct. In case it run,
The butter must be kept out of the sun.
And don't be dropping crumbs. Don't tilt your chair.
Don't reach. Don't point. Don't make noise when you stir.

Recent Comments
Helena Nelson
There are exceptions to everything, John. Helpful, I think, to write both for the eye and the ear if you can.
Sunday, 29 July 2018 13:15
Eleanor J Vale
Thank you, i find this type of guide really helpful. I still have an earlier list of "contemporary poetry hates" which has often h... Read More
Sunday, 05 August 2018 15:13
Helena Nelson
Thanks, Eleanor -- I do wish I could provide a link to James Thurber's short story 'Here Lies Miss Groby' but you can't find it on... Read More
Monday, 06 August 2018 12:30
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CLOSING THE READING WINDOW

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July has been busy. Probably the busiest reading window ever. I think I have just about reached the limit of what it is possible to manage. I was away twice for two days, and each time the whole thing got out of hand and I returned to a small mountain. During the windows, it's necessary to be at home with several hours each day to spend on nothing else.

This window closes on Saturday 28thJuly, when I will also be at the Scottish Poetry Library in Edinburgh taking part in a pamphlet fair. Envelopes that arrive on Monday, July 31st are out of luck. I am packing and leaving. Literally.

How does it work during a reading window? The post here arrives between 11 and 12, so that sets up the workload for the day. The largest number of reading envelopes this month has been 11 in one day. It has averaged about 7 i.e. roughly 42 poems of varying shapes and sizes. A couple of years ago, during reading windows, it used to average 3 per day. So quite a big difference.

Each set takes about an hour. Some a little less; some quite a lot more. (I can't do eleven in a day. I can manage up to six if I work the whole day with no interruptions.) I sharpen the pencils, open the first envelope, read the poems carefully (starting with a short one), scribble in pencil on each one, get out my fountain pen, write a reply to the poet (lengths of this vary: some are quite short, some two sides of A4), then I log the name of the author, the number of poems, and a brief summary of my thoughts on my laptop. 

Most poets remember to include an SAE so that bit is quick. Occasionally they forget, or just send stamps, so I need to get up and find an envelope and write out the address etc. Even the ones with SAEs usually need a bit of sellotape since the quality of stickability is highly variable.

I am not reading the poems in order to find new work to publish, though very occasionally the process indirectly leads to that. I read the poems to see what's going on in them. I'm very interested in poems, their authors (I like the covering letters) and also the trends – what seems to be going on in the poetry in general. One can't help noticing trends.

This year I commented on punctuation a lot. The whole business of punctuating poems seems to be causing increasing problems. Should we do it sometimes? Always? Never? There are no absolute rules, but if I start to notice the punctuation (or absence thereof), there's usually an issue. I call this snagging and I've written about it before.

The leaning verb is not quite so ubiquitous as it used to be, I think, but I come across poets who are apparently unaware how often they use this style feature. Yes – you see it in published work too. Trends have to come from somewhere.

More 'new' subscribers sent me poetry to read than ever before. So most of those people didn't know that I don't like villanelles, hate sestinas, and would really rather not read pantoums. I am starting to find prose poems increasingly hard to warm to, as well – the more they arrive, the less I like them.. C'est la vie!

This July, certain features particularly stood out for me, because of their frequency. So I'll list them, for interest in a separate blog entry (tomorrow). There is no necessity to agree with what I think, of course, or even to read this list.

It is the frequency that is the problem. For a poem to work well it needs to sound fresh and new, and somehow surprising. If it sounds rather similar to most of the poems you read lately, well ...I rest my case.



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OPENING THE WINDOW AGAIN

WINDOWA

Sometimes the catch sticks a little. This window hasn't been open in a long time. A bit of tugging and scraping may be involved. Gently ... gently ...    

Lord knows – I don't want to break the window.                       

But what, as a friend in peril wrote recently on FaceBook, is the point? And what is this 'window' anyway?

For me, it's a publisher's reading window, and it serves two purposes.

First, I spend a lot of time in the house, producing poetry publications, editing this and that, brooding over current poetry hype, drowning in emails, trying not to be depressed by social media and so on. I want to keep my finger on the pulse of what's happening out there among the extraordinary unhyped writers. What poems are you writing and why? What's really going on?

Second, this small press (HappenStance) values its subscribers almost above all else. They are a unique reading resource. Many of them are also poets. So for the poets, it is a kind of payback. I ask them to read some of the publications I make. In return, I offer to read some of their own poems as well as I can. 

Do I ever offer to publish a person's work on the strength of six poems encountered in a reading window? Hardly ever. But that's not necessarily the reason people send them, and certainly not the reason I read them.

It's more likely that a relationship develops over time, over several windows. It could be a publishing relationship. It could be a friendship.

And in that time, the poet tests whether I am a good reader for them. My feedback is constructive and heartening for some. But there are also people who (quite reasonably) think 'what planet is this woman on?'

This is absolutely not just about publishing. Nor is it a secret and fiendish way of making money out of you (the HS subscription costs at most £12.50 and I spend at least an hour on each person's poems – twice a year).

But if you are thinking of publishing your work, perhaps you need to risk the feedback of an honest reader, a critical friend, and here is a low-risk, toe-in-the-water test.

You might not think you have any choice of publishers. Wrong. As I said in my book How (Not) To Get Your Poetry Published, 'Consider all your options – there are invariably more than you think'.

But publishing poetry is not the most important thing. It's simply a means to an end.

What is the most important thing? First: writing the best poems you can, the poems that (as Larkin said) only you can write. Second: finding a few good readers for them.

Precisely one week from now, I'm opening that window so I can see to read. 

It will be absolutely wide open. Let the light come in.

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