MY LEAST FAVOURITE WORD IN A POEM

image4 Photocredit: Gerry Cambridge

It's very small. Unassuming, you might say. And can be found inside the word 'unassuming' and also inside 'assuming'.         

What a complicated way to reach the word itself! Namely: 'as'.

What has 'as' done to deserve my hostility?

Nothing much. It's not rational. Each of us develops different bees in different bonnets — as it were.

And I don't say I never use it (I just did). But I can't choose it without caution.

For me, the first issue is that although 'as' is so small, it has at least three or four meanings. (Merriam Webster has nine entries!) 

Each possible meaning has a different effect on the line. It can be hard sometimes to see which of them is intended.

The worst of the possible meanings of 'as' (in my book) is 'because'. When it means 'because', it sounds like a phrase book for someone learning to speak English.

For example, 'I ate every scrap of my dinner as I was ravenous'. 

Or 'As the bus was full, I caught the train.' 

'As' used in this way deadens a sentence. Nobody would ever say, 'I ate my dinner as I was hungry.' It's better to split the sentence into two, or use a dash: 'I wolfed my sandwich — I was ravenous.'

(I don't like the sound of 'as' either. The 's' sounds as 'z'. It reminds me of the word 'gristle', and gristle reminds me of cheap sausages.)

When 'as' means 'because', it functions as a connective, or conjunction. But even when 'as' connects two clauses, it can have more than one meaning, the other most likely possibility being 'while'.

'As I combed my hair, I thought of my mother', for example. Or: 'The surf glistened as the moon rose high above the waves.'

The third meaning is the one I least dislike. As fast as lightning. As white as milk. When used in a simile,'as' often pops up twice (once on each side of the adverb) and I don't mind this in the least. However, it means the number of usages quickly multiplies:

As the moon rose into the sky,
the boat slipped over the horizon
as fast as night. It was a slow boat,
a cold boat. As it had no sails,
so no sailors and no oars.
As it vanished, it left no sign.
As if it had never ever been.

'As' is so small — so unassuming — its repetitions slip past the most eagle-ish of eyes.

But it can damage sharpness of phrase. It can smudge clarity and precision.

I hate 'as'.

As I said earlier, it's not rational.

THE GOOD SIDE OF THE COVID YEAR

IMG_5531 Blue sky and clouds

I regularly talk to an old friend on the landline, a really old friend. He's 91 and lives alone. He doesn't have access to the internet. He says things now are worse than they were during the War. And he says it with feeling. Gloom pours down the phone line. I replace the receiver with a heavy heart.

It's so unfair. I haven't suffered badly this year. My house is warm and light. There are plenty of lovely walks round here. I'm in good health. I live on a pension (no need to worry about my job). I'm half of a couple, so there's always someone else in the house to talk to, or moan about Boris.

Still, there are huge absences. Children. Grandchildren. Friends. And listening to BBC News is like adding weights to the lid of a cosy coffin. Best not to put the radio on. Best not to watch TV. Best to stay safe. Stay well. Hide until it all goes away.

But the public anxiety's like fog trying to get in the windows. What can we do to counteract the gloom?

I've got into the habit of counting my lockdown blessings, some of which are a bit weird (spoiler alert). 

Often I've found myself guiltily happy, since I've done better than many of my friends, some of whom are not just isolated, but also ill or depressed. One has died. I miss her.

Anyway here's my list. If you have positives of your own, please add them in the comments box. Help to offset the dark.

Good things from the year of C

I've learned to make butter by shaking double cream in a large jam jar. Now I do this regularly. And I went back to making cakes. GREAT cakes.

I found some mung beans at the back of the cupboard. They must have been (no pun intended) there for years and years. The good news is that if you soak them in water and leave them in the dark overnight, and then bring them into the light and wash them gently three times a day, they still SPROUT. So we've had quite a few Chinese stir-fries with home-grown bean-sprouts. Strangely satisfying.

After a bout of sciatica, I began to do breathing and stretching exercises every morning. Lovely. So good for me. And walking every single day, sometimes as many as three walks. I limited desk work to three hours. So now I'm fitter than I was. More energy too (though alas not for desk work). (Yes, the sciatica gradually went away. It was a message.)

I started listening to science podcasts while doing the stretching exercises. Marvellously educational.

Sat and read. Sat and read. Sat and read. Sometimes sat in the sun and read.

Decided to stop drinking my two glasses of wine a night, not least because it was starting to become three. Discovered Marks & Spencer's alcohol-free G&T, an oxymoron in a can. After this, all sorts of mocktails and juices. Discovered I'm much calmer without my alcohol fix, and apparently fewer migraines. Definitely better sleep.

With the help of the sewing scissors, I removed the wires from my bras. What have I been putting up with all these decades?

I have learned to jog, though only for short stretches. I have finally experienced that endorphin kick other people talk about. Yay! 

Masks are a pain, but they help prevent chapped lips. Most useful. Also going through the freezing cold vegetable aisle in Aldi is much warmer when wearing a mask.

Cleaned the whole house for the first time in years. Poor spiders. I have even cleaned the windows! We can see the trees properly. And I've finally cleared all the weeds off the concrete block paving in the back garden. It almost looks respectable.

I've begun to talk regularly to my cousin Wendy on the phone. We've never really known each other, though we were born only a year apart. But now we do.

I have walked through the trees every single day. I started in spring, then summer. Then the amazing autumn golds, swishing through the leaves. Now the bare winter woods. Already fresh green spikes of grass finding their way through. I didn't know I liked walking in the rain.

New breakfast: oatmeal porridge every morning (so much better than the kind made with oats).Learned to love maple syrup. Good on the oatmeal porridge with a little cream (though my other half will only eat salt).

Good grief — I haven't had a head cold in a whole year!

I have practised the ukulele in the conservatory with rain beating on the roof. My time keeping isn't very good. I bought a metronome. I practised the ukulele with two metronomes: the rain and the actual metronome.

In all our twenty-three years (or nearly) together, my other half and I have never spent so much continuous time together. By some miracle, we still get on well. We were sorely tested in November when some pipes burst, and the repairs dragged on for weeks and weeks (still not finished). Adversity can drive people apart; it can also bring them closer.

I used to see my two grandchildren every week. I took it for granted. Since March, I've seen them only four times in all. But each time has been the quintessence of joy.

Have only filled the car up with petrol three times since March. More money to spend on coffee, poetry, and presents to post to the grandchildren.

The sky has been more beautiful this year than I ever remember: crisp, and clean, and clear. No vapour trails. Just amazing cloud formations. A free show every single morning. Never the same twice.

We have lovely neighbours. 


NOT SEEING THE WOOD FOR THE TREES

FRANKWOOD Frank Wood's 2012 pamphlet collection

Frank Wood died recently at the age of 95. HappenStance published a pamphlet of his work in 2012.    

So that's the 'Wood' in my title.   

We won't be seeing Frank again, though his voice — unapologetically plain-spoken — can still be heard in his poems. And always will be, for as long as such poems are heard.

But the 'trees' are also the poetries. Today, with dozens of poem-texts whirling round the globe every second, there are great forests of poetries, in which one could get lost for all time. Yes, I know that's a horribly mixed metaphor. Forests don't whirl round the globe, unless you think of Wordsworth's Lucy 'Whirled round in earth's diurnal course / With rocks and stones and trees' (I always felt for Lucy).

My point is that the writing trajectory of a poet like Frank might be seen as 'unimportant'. Poetry was a lifelong interest for him, but he didn't start writing it until he was well into his forties. He didn't win the National Poetry Competition. He didn't publish to popular acclaim. He had a modest circle of appreciative readers (and fellow writers).

Frank did succeed in placing poems here and there in the small press over several decades. He co-edited a small magazine for a while, played an active role in Suffolk Poetry Society, had modest wins in competitions, and there was a pamphlet: Racing the Stable Clock. He was a practising poet who kept practising.

His poetry 'career' might look like not much, as these things go. It was more than it seems.

He always sent me poems during the HappenStance reading windows, and latterly I encouraged him to send them whenever he wanted to — which was still about twice a year. It was rare to get a batch in which there wasn't at least one I thought outstanding in some way. He was a wit, with strong opinions. Often, he made me smile. But sometimes his poems opened out into sadness, and I would stare out of the window and think, and think some more.

I believe the writing of poems brought him joy. It wasn't about getting famous, or building a reputation as a 'player'. He found poems joyous things to make, worthwhile creations, like well-made chairs. They made him happy.

I won't forget him. Right to the end of his long life, he was writing self-critically and with acuity.

I'm appending one of the poems from Stable Clock below. It's short. And yet (to me) there's a whole world below the surface. The father who wrote the sermons was the same father who was gassed in the First World War, the same father who once 'killed a German face to face' and who, when it came to questions about that war, 'would never talk about it'. But his son wrote about him, a lifetime later.


Writing the Sermon


My father was known for his sermons.
He used to grade them according
to the number of pipes he smoked.

Three pipes spelt hell
for next day's congregation —
and that was only the notes.

As his neighbor, who kept hens, said,
When you go out to feed them,you don't
have to give them the whole bucketful.




FIFTEEN BOLD ASSERTIONS ABOUT POETRY

PHPN7673 Lino print by Gillian Rose

1.   There is no universally accepted definition of what a poem is.   

2.   There is no agreement on what a poem is not.   

3.   Prosody is the study of versification.   

4.   'Versody' is not a word.

5.   Versification is the art of making verses.

6.   A stanza is a verse paragraph. Sometimes it is called a 'verse'. 

7.   A verse is made of verse, and most verse comprises verses.

8.   The canon is not a weapon, and does not have balls, although it sometimes feels as though it is, and does.

9.   Alfred Austin succeeded Alfred Lord Tennyson as poet laureate in 1896. He wrote a verse autobiography, The Door of Humility,
      which nobody alive has read.

10.  The ink used in 99.99% of poetry publications is black.

11.  A list poem is usually formatted vertically and left-justified i.e. it does not list.

12.  If a list poem is entered into the National Poetry Competition, it could be said to have entered the lists.

13.  Writer's block is even in Wikipedia. But this is not a problem. A computer can write poems for you. Here is my latest.

14.  More poets are alive than dead. They thrive.

15.  More poems are dead than alive.

Lino print by Gillian Rose

THE LOST LAST POEM

NEWA0117 Painting by Gillian Rose

I put off finishing the poem a good while ago. There was a bit of a muddle in the middle. It needed plenty of time, and I didn't have plenty. I never have plenty.     

Today it occurred to me that it's been over a year — it might even be nearly two — since I last looked at it. But the last line keeps coming back to me. Gotta be telling me something.

It's the last poem in a long set. A long set that I want to make into a book. It's ten years since my last book of serious poems came out. You can put things off too long. 

I can put things off too long.

So I go to the electronic folder to take a look. Oh. It's not where I thought it was. 

Where is that folder?  I know what it's called. 'Find' comes up with four copies of a 2003 folder. Not the one I'm looking for.

But I'm cool with this. I'll find it.

Systematically, I search the usual places. My hard drive; the USB sticks I take on holiday; the desktop of the laptop; the Cloud. It'll show up.

Except it doesn't. Bummer.

The end of the poem is taunting me. It goes like this (the line breaks may not be right):

So now tell me, she says,
what you've done with my pearls.

This might not sound riveting. But I tell you there was a tricky back-story before those lines. A tale that was the last tale to be told in the bigger story of Mr and Mrs Philpott, who began in a Rialto publication in 2003 and might be finally at the end. Except I've lost the end.

I might once have panicked. But not these days. I know how things get lost. I know how to find them. (I know there are too many poems in the world already.) 

I go to my ring-bound paper files, where I print and file every poem. Well, nearly. It seems I didn't print this one. Or if I did, I didn't file it.

But I remember putting the poem into the large file I'd made of all the poems. The WHOLE SET, which amounted to a great many pages. And I printed that file. It's in a perspex wallet underneath the mountain of books and magazines on the table beside the stove.

And this turns out to be true.

Except when I printed that WHOLE SET, the last poem hadn't been added. I might have guessed, since the plastic wallet is dusty. But at least its physical existence proves I did create a file of more than 80 pages. Because here they are.

But I worked on several versions of the last (and longest) poem. I remember this absolutely clearly. It has to be somewhere.

Two hours later, I can confirm the Pearls poem is not somewhere. It is not even in the back-up drive of time-machine-saved files, most of which could be jettisoned with impunity. I must have been keeping it in the Cloud, in the same folder as the book file to which it was to be added. I must somehow have deleted the whole folder, no doubt thinking I had a copy on the backed-up hard drive. It happens. 

Nobody else has seen that poem but me. It might as well never have existed. They call it The Cloud for a reason.

Idly, I riffle through the stack of metal trays on my desk, where I keep all sorts of odds and sods. Letters, poems, bills, cartoons, pictures. I also go through them regularly and throw old poems away. But not this one. This poem is there.

Nearly three A4 pages. It's THERE.

It's not the last saved version, because a whole lot of stuff is horribly wrong with it. I fixed some of the muddle, I know I did. I'm not even sure it's a good poem, now that I read it again. Maybe I should end with the one before. Maybe it was meant to get lost.

On the other hand, one of the reasons for getting poems published (if you're lucky enough to be able to) is to save them from oblivion, at least temporarily. Or to ensure that they get lost in the right way, i.e. by being forgettable for most readers.

So now I had better help that to happen, if I can. It's time.


When Zoom is doom

ZOOM

'She left the web, she left the zoom'  ('The Lady of Shalott')

For poets inhabiting the online world, all sorts of virtual spaces (and opportunities) are springing up. Most publishers (I am no exception) are delivering online events to help promote books. We learn as we go.

People are using many different platforms. Zoom ('In this together. Keeping you securely connected wherever you are') has the most memorable name, and I think it might yet get into the dictionary, like hoover did – when a brand became the generic term. Wouldn't that please the Zoom people?

But all sorts of other platforms are on the go, with their various not very inspiring catchphrases. For example:

  • ClickMeeting ('We help you stay connected' — unambitious but at least short)
  • Zoho ('Your Life's Work Powered By Our Life's Work' — what's with the capital letters?)
  • Webex ('Webex is here when the world needs to connect, communicate and collaborate' —not a catchphrase, practically a paragraph!)
  • GotoMeeting ('WE'RE HERE TO HELP' — please stop shouting)
  • Microsoft Teams ('Nothing can stop a team'—oh YES it can!)
  • Periscope live streaming (developed by Twitter: 'See what the world is seeing' — ho-hum)

But yes, Zoom ('In this together. Keeping you securely connected wherever you are') is the best name, though limp catchphrase. And in the UK, at least, Zoom seems to be the most popular right now, at least for ordinary people as opposed to giant organisations, whose employees use the one they're told to use (which is frequently one they don't like).

All but one of the poetry events I've attended online recently have been Zoom affairs. I spent time exploring both GotoMeeting (and GotoWebinar) and Webex, but it seemed to me Zoom was easiest to use. Also it has the advantage of being the one I'm getting most used to.

Not that I like everything about it, by any means. And there are many things I don't understand. For example, having read carefully about headsets, I don't understand why the sound quality I get through mine is worse than my Imac's own microphone. Okay, so one of the headsets was cheap but the other was £25.00 and I thought it might have something to offer. Nope.

I have learned quite a bit about things that go wrong. 

Like that sometimes my computer's camera stops working, and I have to restart the whole shebang. 

Like that when I select 'record automatically' in Zoom settings, it doesn't record automatically. 

Like that Zoom is unhappy about screen-share when the document shared is set to 'full screen', though sometimes it's ok. 

Like that sometimes nothing works right, and it is not the user's fault. Sundays may be bad days. 

Today, for example, the Zoom website status indicated that all sorts of things weren't working. 'Our team is continuing to investigate this issue.' I can bear witness to the fact that there most certainly was an issue. 

When its good, it's very very good. When it stops working, Zoom is doom.

But for any virtual conferencing technology, watching poets' faces while they read poems, with variable sound quality, is a mixed blessing. Some events share the poem-text at the same time, though. That adds a little something that you don't usually get at a live reading.

Zoom events where attendees can use public chat are ... risky. Sometimes the contributions are, let's say, less than tasteful. And when chat comments pop up in the middle of a reading, it's distracting. Terribly tempting, too, to send a sarky message about the presenter to a friend (a bit like whispering during a poetry reading). Just wait till you find you've sent it publicly by accident.

It's distracting too, when some of the attendees visible in video windows are eating lunch or (as in one recent instance) applying moisturiser.

Having been to live open mic events where the poets left one by one after they had delivered their two minutes-worth, I suspect precisely the same happens online. A bit like Pass the Parcel, except the final one to unwrap the paper is entirely on their own.

Some attendees turn their video off so they can continue to listen while making dinner, without anybody seeing what they're doing. This is actually quite sensible, though maybe not ideal at a poetry event, when you're secretly hoping people might be concentrating.

But maybe the key issue for any of us at online events is motivation. We sign up because we think it might be interesting. But after the novelty of the first few has worn off, what's in it for us? When you go to a live poetry reading, you know you're going to see some friends, probably have a convivial drink and an outing. But on the web?

From a publisher-host's point of view, one reason for zooming is to sell books. So one could argue, that from the attendee's point of view, a reason for going is to find out whether or not you'd want a copy. Is that enough to offset Zoom-fatigue? What else can online events offer attendees?

I don't think it works to transfer the content of a typical poetry reading into an online event. It's a different medium and something different needs to happen. If it's a live event, it might include some conversation, some insights, a bit of background on the book, a bit of enjoyable gossip. There may be aspects of audience interaction too that would draw people in and make them feel involved. Something to be learned that you can't get any other way – that's what I most like in an online event. I like to leave the meeting feeling I know something I didn't know when I went in.

That's if the technology works!

Essential Zoom terms

  • Zoom-gloomlow mood after Zoom events
  • Zoomophobiafear of Zoom events
  • Inzoomnialack of sleep after too much zooming
  • Zoomo sapiensnew species of virtual human
  • Zoom-tombdeadly boring Zoom event
  • Zoom-exhumepost-Zoom analysis
  • Zoom-grooming (don't ask)
  • Zoombaa virtual dance
  • Zoom-Vrrrroomthe energy boost from an inspiring online event 
  • Rule of Zoomrough estimate of length of Zoom event
  • Nom de Zoomability to change one's name at Zoom event
  • Back to the Zomb Therapya new birthing technique
  • Bride and Zoomvirtual weddings
  • Zoominatingreflecting during a Zoom event; alternatively: eating grass during a Zoom event
  • Superzooman—Zoom participant with special powers

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