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EILEEN ÒG

MUM-AND-DAD Kath & Howard Curry: The singers

In the olden days, before there were radios in cars, folk travelling on long journeys used to sing. As a child, I always liked story songs best. Our family of four used to rattle out Clementine and Walzing Matilda with gusto. Walzing Matilda has a ghost in it and ghosts are always good. I think of Clementine as our mother's song, Walzing Matilda as our dad's — I never learned all the words to Walzing M. because they were so mysterious — jumbuck and tucker bag and swagman. But it was great hearing dad sing it and joining in the chorus..

At bedtime, sometimes an adult would sing to my sister and me to get us off to sleep, especially our grandmother on dad's side (we called her 'Nanny'). As I get older, her songs draw me back, and I wonder about the world they came out of — music hall, perhaps, or old 78 records. Where did she first hear them? Inside what kind of life? How did she know all the words — because she did know all the words, and once I did too, and so did my sister, who had a fabulous memory. As we grew up and were assailed by contemporary tunes, the words started to disappear.

It's a very strange thing about being a granny-age yourself, though. You find yourself losing some bits of memory while other bits come back, like an onion unpeeling and rediscovering itself. Snatches of those old songs keep coming back to me in bits and pieces, phrases and flashbacks. Thanks to the wonder of the web, if I can remember even some of the words, I can find recordings, I can even find (what a joy!) all the words.

Here, for example, is one of Nanny's favourites — 'I wouldn't leave my little wooden hut for you'. And she often sang a lullaby — 'Sweet and Low', the words of which are by Tennyson (we were injected with poetry without knowing). I can hear her quavery voice now, and since I'm the age she would have been then, mine quavers too.

She liked strongly sentimental songs. Her repertoire included 'I'm forever blowing bubbles' and 'Sonny Boy'. And she particularly liked (and we did too) 'If those lips could only speak', which I'm betting she knew in the Peter Dawson version I've linked to. It's a music hall song and she told us this song was based on a true story — that the woman in the beautiful picture in a beautiful golden frame was shot by her husband in a hunting accident. Did she invent this?

But the song I loved best was one I could never find, and mum sang it. I thought it was called 'Eileen Orr', and I always remembered, and loved, the tune, and some of the words — but with gaps. A few years ago I looked for it on the web and failed to find it.

But this week I looked harder and there it was, in several recordings on YouTube. Where did our young mother first learn this song? Lord knows. Her version, as I remember it, was not wholly true to the Percy French lyrics. I think she did sing 'Eileen Orr', not the proper name in the Irish song, which is Eileen Òg

Eileen was the Pride of Petrovore, not (as I'm sure my mother sang and we sang with her) the Pride of Pethragar. 

The villain of the story should be 'the hardest featured man in Petravore' — not, as we sang, 'the ugliest looking man in Pethragar' — but we would never have understood 'hardest featured' — maybe she changed it. I'm sure we sang: 'Eileen Orr, sure that was what her name was, / Through the Blarney she was also famous'. 

In fact, the official version goes:

Well Eileen Òg, that was what her name was
Through the Barony her features made her famous

In whatever mode you sing it, it's a beautiful song, a cracking tune, and some of the lyrics are terrific. Boys oh boys, it's where I first learned how cannily words can fit to a rhythm and how utterly satisfying it is when they do. 

And 'Eileen Òg' is a story, sad and funny. To think that some of its words have been ringing in my head all my life and now — by some miracle — I find people still belting it out, making new recordings, passing it on. Cathy Jordan's version is a delight. I'm singing along at this minute. Eileen Òg — sure that was what her name was! 


POEMS ON TEA-TOWELS

WINDOW

The reading window here closed two weeks ago now, though it took a while to recover. There were 147 sets of poems in all. Thank you to all the poets who trusted me with their work. I know it must be scary to send them, especially for the first time.

I had more envelopes this time round than I could cope with. However, the process of reading and actively responding continues to interest me very much. What is this thing we are all absorbed in? What are people writing about, and why? One thing is clear to me: it is not done lightly. When people write something they call a 'poem', it matters to them, more than ordinarily.

At the same time, it is an unavoidable fact that editors have a love/hate relationship with poetic texts because of over-exposure. There is a point at which you think you can't bear to look at another one – ever. And then a poem breaks through, because a few – always a few – are magical. Or sometimes it is just one line, or one stanza, that does the trick. This moment makes it all worthwhile.

In between, undiluted poetry can, after three weeks or so, make a person crabbit, as we say in Scotland. Particularly crabbit about ubiquitous semi-colons and certain recurring forms. Thankfully, nobody sends me villanelles or sestinas these days, but I'm afraid I have become allergic to instruction poems too. For example, here's Neil Gaiman – he's famous enough not to mind taking pot-shots from me. His 'Instructions' begin:

Touch the wooden gate in the wall you never
saw before.
Say 'please' before you open the latch,
go through,
walk down the path.

This has only one effect on me. I want to shout: No, I won't!

Other recurring features are herons, allotments and migrants. I shift uncomfortably when I meet the words 'heft' and now (a new one) 'atop'.

One interesting issue is the poem formatted for an A4 page. Most of us word-process and print our work on standard A4 pages, but books and magazines (with notable exceptions like Poetry London, Artemis and The Rialto) use something closer to A5. Sometimes poets design an extraordinary piece – visually designed rather like a poster, with some lines right-justified, some left, some dotted around in the middle. It might even be a concrete poem – something in the shape of a bee-hive, for example – and the shape takes up the whole A4 sheet. But because I publish books and pamphlets, what I see immediately is something that won't fit on one of my pages. Whether or not it fits on one of 'my' pages does not, of course, matter in the greater scheme of things, but being aware of the factor does. It's important to consider where and how these poems are designed to be read: are they hoping to find a home in an A4 magazine, or will they be posters, tea-towels – or what? I am really not being rude. I think poems on tea-towels are a great idea (depending on the poem).

I scribble a lot on people's poems in pencil. During this 'window' I wrote many times: 'Writing simply is the hardest thing'. Often it occurs to me that people are afraid to write plainly, in case it wouldn't be a poem at all. But then, it might. And sometimes, it is. 


CLOSING THE WINDOW

PENCILS Sharpening pencils to death

The reading window is about to close. If you take a look at the photo, you can see how short the pencils are now but how very very SHARP. 

One is really too short to write with. I'm going to need a new packet.     

For those of you who have sent poems for feedback and haven't had them returned yet, I have about 55 envelopes stacked in waiting. I don't read them in the order they arrived. New ones are arriving faster than I can clear them. 

I tackle about six envelopes a day and each one takes about an hour. Today nine new envelopes arrived.

Most popular painter is still Hopper. Most popular Greek character Icarus. Most popular word 'heft'. Most popular window: shut!

Hurray for hardly any villanelles or sestinas. People more likely to send poems with lots of short numbered stanzas. Why do we do this again? (Don't answer that. I blame Wallace Stevens but since that gentleman died in 1955, the practice is hardly innovative.)

Yes, am getting tired, but plugging on. 

If you are planning to send work, and haven't done so yet, please regard Saturday 26th as the very last day for posting. No last minute high jinks. There is always July, and that will be here sooner than you think.

How did it start being 2019 already? I have no idea!

OPEN THE WINDOW AND WHERE IS RUMPELSTILTZKIN?

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The reading window is about to open. Look back, look out, look forward.

On HappenStance's sister website, Sphinx review, this year we OPOI-reviewed 92 pamphlets. They came in through the front door. But we received far more than we OPOI-ed. 

The stated aim is to write about each and every one that's sent in, but it's an impossible aim. 

Besides, who will read all the reviews? Let's be honest. Reviews are not top of the reading list for most people, unless the review is of their own book.

Sometimes it occurs to me to offer authors an OPOI review of their publication provided they write one (of somebody else's pamphlet). But then some of the authors might write thoughtlessly or carelessly because their hearts weren't in it. 

Still, a mammoth number of poetry pamphlets now appears every year. Of course the authors like critical notice. But how is it to be managed? We did 92. I have 68 more pamphlets sitting here right this minute unwritten-about. I need Rumpelstiltskin.

Besides, there are more, far more. We weren't even sent copies of all the pamphlets that were produced. There must be 200-300 every year in the UK, at a guess. How would anybody ever know the real number? Many of them don't have ISB numbers. 

But the OPOI reviews are (yes, I am biassed) rather interesting to read, and writing reviews (especially OPOIs) is good for poets. I really think that. And if you've never done anything like this before, it's good training. You have a couple of kindly hands-on editors here to help. They're nice. 

This one is also currently sharpening her pencils for another purpose.

The poetry reading window is open from January 2nd to January 29th. Yay!

The window for offering OPOI reviews is open all year round.

THE NEED FOR GRAVY

ALAN_DIXON Christmas card woodcut by poet and artist Alan Dixon

Christmas is not so O-come-all-ye-faith-filled these days. I note a great many llamas on the cards this year. Things change. 

I don't mind the llamas, even the ones in Santa hats.

Over half a century ago, I was one of a generation of children who spent quite a lot of time in a church around December 25th. But we were not as faith-filled as you might think.

Children have a way of getting round the hugeness of religion, side-tracking it with their own take on things. Irreverence is a great asset when it comes to staying sane—though irreverence, too, is learned.

My maternal grandmother, who died when I was three, used to say (I know because my mother told me) 'There's an end to everything. Two to sausages.'

And my maternal grandfather, not famous for wit, allegedly said to my father at his wedding (it may have been part of a speech): 'This is the end to all your troubles, son. The front end.'

Then there was my close friend Jenny Green at school. She taught me a lot about subversion. At our school, everybody was issued with a hymn book. We had to make brown paper covers to keep them clean, and re-cover them annually. We carried those books dutifully to assembly each and every school-day morning. On the front cover most of us had written, as expected, HYMNS. But Jenny (oh how I admired her cleverness!) had written HERS.

Our favourite Christmas carols (all to be found inside HERS) were the ones we could subvert. Lord, how we need to subvert! 

(It is one of my favourite features of poetry too: sending the reader off with one set of expectations only to find the poem has overturned every one.) 

Our Father which art in heaven, Harold be thy name (one of my grandfathers was called Harold).

This very morning on the radio I heard a church choir singing one of our all-time favourites—'The angel Gabriel from Heaven came'. It has an undoubtedly beautiful tune, and lovely words too. But that's not why we liked it. We liked it because of the gravy.

The best kind of subversion is liberating because it undermines everything but nobody knows you're doing it. So shepherds washed their socks by night, and the Virgin Mary in that beautiful carol was not 'most highly favoured lady' but 'most highly flavoured gravy'.

On Christmas Day, we even got the gravy. 


What to buy for Sebastian? And Robin? And Uncle Jock?

SHOP

There are four new HappenStance poetry pamphlets. Would your friends and relatives enjoy one of them as a seasonal gift? Which one? I don't know. love them all.   

But ever helpful, I thought I'd offer some buying tips. (All are the same price – £5.00, or £3.75 to subscribers.)

Bookmarks, D.A. Prince

A set of poems inspired by the markers we leave in books. It would appeal to the sort of person who loves reading, and leaves piles of books lying around (it comes with its own bookmark so that's a special touch). Poets should be inspired by it too: there's food for thought here about poem-stimuli. All D.A. Prince's poems have layers: you can read them for their surface meaning and immediate interest, and then go back many times over.

Honeycomb, M.R. Peacocke

This is a slender set, only 24 pages long. The poems inside are delicate, careful and emotive. The connecting theme may be age and ageing but the touch is light. It does make a good gift for the older reader, but I think those who love lyrical work would also take to it instantly, at any age. And for anyone who already knows M.R. Peacocke's work, it's a must.

The Lesser Mortal, Geoff Lander

This is a great gift for scientists —perhaps in particular scientists who don't think of themselves as poetry readers (also a good gift for artists who don't think of themselves as scientists) — or young folk planning on science degrees. The contents are beautifully formal (rhymed and metrical) and fun to read, though far from trivial in their preoccupations. Geoff Lander is meticulous in his footnotes too, added value and pleasure here.

Briar Mouth, Helen Nicholson

An unusual first collection by someone who hails from the west coast of Scotland —some of her more eccentric Scottish relatives feature here, as does her experience of growing up with a stammer. Helen Nicholson, (a founder member of Magma) writes with wit, subtlety and charm. An especially good gift for those with Scottish connections, or interested in communication (Helen is now afundraiser for a Dundee-based charity for children and young people with speech, language and communication difficulties).

And what about Now the Robin by Hamish Whyte, published earlier this year? There's a seasonal bird on the front cover, and two festive robins on the last page too (see illustration below). One of the finest feats for a poet is to write simply: Hamish Whyte does it with bells on. Now the Robin will appeal to anyone who loves sitting in a garden. And of course people called Robin.

Last but not least, there's a HappenStance poetry party next Saturday at the Scottish Poetry Library where you can see these publications and decide for yourself. Do come if you live near enough — but reserve a place because space is limited. There'll be cakes from Alison Brackenbury's Aunt Margaret's Pudding, something festive to drink, and of course some poets and poems.