Marching and metres

Poetry, both the reading and writing of it, is among my many interests.  As I find so many things interesting, and time is finite, most of my interests enjoy occasional periods of fairly intense activity on my part, interspersed with quite long spells of more-or-less complete inactivity. If you’ve been following my blog for a while (or have looked back through some of the old posts) you will probably have, correctly, gained the impression that poetry has been one of the things that’s been occupying my time and my thought over the last few months.

I was interested to discover fairly recently that Stephen Fry has written a book about the fine art of writing poetry, entitled The Ode Less Travelled (and subtitled Unlocking the Poet Within).  It was published (by Hutchinson) back in 2005 but had escaped my notice until the other day, when I came across a reference to it somewhere or other.  Although I’m not exactly new to writing poetry I decided that this book could still teach me a few handy tips for improving my poetry (helping me to become a well-versed poet, you might say) and should at least be an interesting and entertaining read, so I lost little time in procuring a copy.

I have been working steadily through the book over the past few days.  As it is intended to teach the writing of poetry, and as learning is best achieved by doing rather than just reading, the book includes a number of exercises and I have decided that I’ll get much more out of the book if I take it fairly slowly and actually bother to do the exercises, rather than succumbing to my temptation to just read through it as fast aied quite a lot ofs possible.

The book, at least in the early chapters, focuses on fairly traditional metrical poetry.  I think that’s partly on the basis that a certain amount of structure is generally a good thing in poetry (certainly Stephen Fry seems not to buy into the idea that “anything goes” in poetry and I’m strongly inclined to agree with him) and also on the fact that even if you do want to write “free verse” it helps to have a good understanding of the basic rules before you start to break them (in much the same way that Picasso established himself as an excellent painter in a traditional vein before going on to pioneer several schools of abstract art).

I have just finished working through the first two chapters, which focus on iambic pentameter, the most widely used metre in English-language poetry; it was the staple of most of Shakespeare’s work to pick one, albeit particularly significant, example and is described by Fry as “the very breath of English verse”.   I’ve quite often used iambic pentameter in my own poetry (including my sonnet to coffee, which I posted recently).  However, the book has introduced me to (or at least increased my understanding of) several techniques that I was previously only peripherally aware of, which are used to break up the regularity of the iambic line.

I won’t go into detail here about the poetic devices used to spice up iambic pentameter, since you can read plenty about them on Wikipedia (or go out and get a copy of Fry’s book) if you’re that interested.  Suffice it to say that enjambment, caesura, feminine (or hypermetric) endings and substitutions (both trochaic and pyrrhic) are all handy techniques for enlivening a passage of iambic pentameter.  It isn’t necessary, of course, to use any of these techniques to write perfectly good poems.  My sonnet to coffee (which I think is a perfectly good poem, though you are free to disagree) has one or two possible examples of enjambment (although I think they are borderline at best, as the meaning of the individual clauses does stay pretty well within the confines of the lines), but I’m glad to know about the techniques both for helping my understanding of other people’s poems and giving me a broader palette to use for creating my own.

All this is really a very roundabout way of mentioning what I got up to last Saturday (apart from some of the poetry exercises from Stephen Fry’s book):  I took part in my first march with the Menai Bridge Band.  Apparently marches, like competitions, are a fairly standard part of the brass band world.  They are particularly fun if you play a large instrument such as a Bb bass (aka tuba, as they are usually called outside the brass band world).  Fortunately I discovered that we had some nice compact marching basses in our band room.  They sound at the same pitch as a standard bass but are only slightly bigger than a euphonium (which is an octave higher) and are therefore much easier to march with.  The downside is that you don’t get quite such a full sound and they only have 3 valves instead of 4, so the intonation isn’t quite so good on some notes, but that’s not a problem for marching.  This particular march was for the opening ceremony of Eisteddfod Môn (the Anglesey Eisteddfod), which this year is taking place in Holyhead.

You may be wondering what this has got to do with poetry.    After I’d got back from the march, I had a go at doing a poetry exercise which was to write some lines of (unrhymed) iambic pentameter using the techniques that I was referring to earlier.   I used the march as inspiration for the first few lines of the exercise.  Note that this isn’t, and isn’t intended to be, a polished poem.  I counted 5 pyrrhic substitutions (hint: it’s one per line), 2 trochaic substitutions, 3 feminine endings, 2 enjambments and a couple of caesuras in these lines.  You may like to see if you can spot them:

Today I went to Holyhead, to march
with the brass band.  We started near the station.
The rain held off until we started walking
and stopped again just as we reached the end.
That was my first experience of marching.

Honey and lemon time

I seem to have a bit of an incipient cold at the moment.  It’s been hovering around for the best part of a week and so far hasn’t been any worse than a slightly blocked or slightly runny nose and a bit of a cough, so I’m hoping it will go away soon without getting any worse first.  Fortunately it didn’t severely impede my playing at yesterday’s brass band competition (we came 5th out of 9 in our section and were quite pleased with our performance, thanks for asking).

As a precaution, I’ve been making and drinking a few batches of my DIY honey and lemon mixture (essentially, half a lemon, a spoonful of honey and a bit of chopped ginger lobbed together in a saucepan with a pint or so of water and boiled/simmered for a few minutes) to soothe my throat and make me feel like I’m doing something pro-active against the cold, in the hope that I can persuade it not to get properly underway.

This also gives me an opportunity to dig out a poem I wrote about 7 years ago on another occasion when I had a cold, in November 2006.  That one was a lot worse than the one I’ve currently got, and I had lost my voice.   I’m fairly sure (although I can’t remember for certain) that I didn’t have the second half of the poem in mind when I wrote the first half.

Incidentally, if you’re of a sensitive disposition and are currently eating something you may want to finish your food and take a break before you read on (especially lines 3 and 4).

I have a cold.
I’m feeling pretty bad.
I feel like I’m slowly drowning
in a sea of my own snot and spit.
And if that sounds horrid, it is.
The back of my throat feels under attack
from a horde of tiny, malicious imps.
Arms and legs and head all ache.
Constant coughing gets me down.
Nostrils feel raw –
are those tissues or sandpaper?
To cap it all, I’ve lost my voice.
I can’t speak above a whisper
and, worse, I can’t sing.
Frustration, thy name is silence!

But wait a moment, whining one!
What gives you the right to moan?

Have you spent your whole life unable to see or to hear?
Are you missing your legs, never to walk again?
Is your voice gone for good, never to sing or talk again?
Does your whole family spend their life
labouring to provide food for the table?
Are you too stupid to see what I mean?

I have a cold.
Big deal.

Umber Nectar

My recent musings on coffee, inspired by a line from T S Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, reminded me of a poem I wrote on the subject a few years ago.

Sonnet to Coffee (February 2009):

All hail to thee, thou umber nectar sweet!
Unmilked, thou art to me as very milk,
And needst no sugar for to make thee meet,
But art the very finest of thy ilk.
Each morning when I rise, thou wak’st me up
And helpst my sluggish brain once more to start.
Each evening I take comfort in thy cup
While thou dost warm my hands, my head, my heart.
In truth, thou art a mistress harsh and cruel
Who to thyself a slave dost of me make.
Thrice daily I submit me to thy rule,
For, should I not, my head begins to ache.
O, coffee, thou art both the best and worst,
And with thy kiss I am both blest and curst.

Although not, I think, the original conscious intention, the use of the old-style language does help keep the tone of the poem light despite the fact that it is essentially about the subject of addiction.

Trying to cast my mind back to the thought processes involved in writing a poem nearly 5 years ago is hard work, even fortified by the cup of coffee I’ve just finished, but I think the initial impetus to write it came from the epithet “umber nectar” to describe coffee, which sprang unbidden into my head (doubtless while I was drinking a cup of the same – or possibly when I was painting a picture of one; in case you’re unfamiliar with paint colours, burnt umber is a shade of dark brown quite similar to the colour of black coffee).

Having come up with “umber nectar” and thinking it was a suitably poetic turn of phrase, I quickly decided to write a poem in praise of my favourite hot beverage.  The line “(All) hail to thee, thou umber nectar sweet” followed fairly quickly, as I recall, and because that sounded faintly Shakespearean I decided to aim for a sonnet and use vaguely archaic sounding language throughout (although there’s certainly nothing intrinsic in the sonnet form that requires it).   The poem grew more-or-less organically from beginning to end, as do most of my poems, and I didn’t have a clear end point in mind when I started it.  According to my old notebooks, I nearly finished a first draft, then scrapped it and started again once I realised it wasn’t in iambic pentameter (the standard meter for a sonnet, at least of the Shakespearean variety).  The rather abrupt switch from effusive praise to acknowledgement of the dangers of caffeine was beginning to take shape in the earlier version, although I didn’t get as far as the final couplet which brings the two strands together.

I mentioned earlier the possibility that the “umber nectar” idea came while I was painting.  I have, as I recall, painted two coffee-related pictures (both, as it happens, using the same mug as a model) and, looking back at them, the dates make it unlikely that either was the direct source of the inspiration as one was completed several years before the poem and one a few months afterwards.

You can follow the links (by clicking on the pictures) to see bigger images of these paintings on my Flickr page, and read the captions and comments if you want more information about them.

The first, from February 2003, is entitled Theorem Machine:

Theorem machine

This was probably hanging on my wall (as it is now) when I wrote the poem and may well have inspired (or helped to inspire) the poem even though I didn’t come up with the name when I was painting it (or at least, I don’t recall having held on to the “umber nectar” idea for 6 years – or even 6 hours – before turning it into a poem).

The second painting, from September 2009, is entitled Coffee Things:

Coffee Things

Hello Szeged

As I mentioned the other day, I recently came across a notebook containing some poems I wrote a few years ago.  I have already posted the poems written at Llandudno Junction railway station in June 2007 (or at least those that were fit for sharing), so now it is the turn of the other occasion represented in the notebook – my visit to Hungary in July 2008.  More specifically, these poems were written on the train as I was leaving the country.

I was visiting Hungary with my old friend Andy (one of the few friends from my pre-university days with whom I am still in touch) and his wife, Samm, whose family lived there.  At the time, Andy and Samm had just bought a farm near Szeged (and next door to Samm’s mum’s farm) and were preparing to move out there.  They decided to put on a British-style barn dance for members of the church they were moving to and invited me, as a fairly experienced barn dance musician, to go out and join them for it.  We turned it into a week-long holiday and then they stayed on to do some work on the farm while I travelled home alone (we had jouneyed out together).

The first leg of my solo journey was on the train from Szeged (right down in the south of the country) to Budapest (the capital, up in the north), where I was to catch a plane back to the UK. It had been a wonderful week and, naturally I was quite sad to be leaving my friends behind (not to mention slightly daunted as this was actually my first significant time travelling alone in a foreign country).  The weather, which had been beautifully sunny and warm for most of the week, was turning to rain and it was a grey, miserable day that complemented my mood fairly well.

The first couple of my poems (judging by their order in the notebook) were haiku, which seem to have been inspired by the scenery (in particular the sunflower fields which are one of my favourite features of the Hungarian landscape) and the weather.  The first one is:

Flatlands stretch away
golden yellow green and black
sunflowers in the rain

I think I deliberately left out punctuation (especially within the middle line) to be ambiguous.  And here’s a picture of one of the sunflower fields (taken on a brighter day; click on it to see it bigger):
Sunflower Panorama

The second haiku was probably written while the train was sitting in a station somewhere en route:

Summer lunchtime;
Soft breeze in station flowers,
Featureless grey sky.

After these haiku I next turned my attention to the limerick, another poetic form that I like to dabble with, although rather less often:

There was a young man on a train
Which crossed the Hungarian plain.
He sat wond’ring why,
In deepest July,
The weather was turning to rain.

I rounded off my days endeavours at very short poetry with a quick stab at a clerihew, which represents my second and (to date) final non-abandoned attempt with this genre.  I have ignored the traditional constraint that the subject should be a famous person (and that it should poke fun at them).  Instead, this one is about Samm’s younger sister, whom I met for the first time on this trip (actually, I may have met her at Andy & Samm’s wedding, as we were both there, but I don’t recall any contact with her then):

Kimberley D
Is as sweet as can be.
She welcomed me in
With a big hug and a grin.

After having warmed up with these shorter poems, I tried writing something a bit longer.  I have mixed feelings about this one, as I quite like the meter (which is vaguely inspired by the rhythm of the train) and the general sentiment expressed (the sorrow of parting, combined with the observation that it’s better to part from friends than never to have met them) but I’m not incredibly happy with most of the actual lines.  Perhaps one day I’ll rework it.  In the meantime, here is the poem as it currently stands (with a couple of minor edits from the first draft):

I’m sat on a train
Watching the rain
As we traverse the Hungarian Plain.
It seems that the sky
Is starting to cry
As the time has now come when we must say goodbye.
It’s terribly sad
And driving me mad
To come to the end of the good times we’ve had.
It’s always the same
And no-one’s to blame;
Though now I must go I’m still glad that I came.
It’s sad but it’s true
And there’s nothing to do;
Our ways now must part so farewell, dear, to you.
That’s how it must be
And I hope you can see
That I’m missing you, as I hope you’ll miss me.

By the way, in case you were wondering about the title of today’s post, one of the curious features of the Hungarian language is that they use the word “hello” (actually, I think it should probably be spelled “hállo”, although it’s probably more a feature of the spoken language anyway) as both a salutation and a valediction (i.e. a greeting for both ends of a meeting), rather like the Italian word ciao (itself evidently quite popular in Hungary, as well as a number of other countries).  As it happens, I wrote about this in my old blog.

A life measured in coffee spoons

Recently, I’ve been getting stuck into the poetry of T. S. Eliot.

As I mentioned  some time ago, his Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats is one of my favourite works of poetry.  It’s also the part of Eliot’s work that I know best, having read it many times.  I own two printed copies, one with illustrations by Edward Gorey and the other (the standard Faber edition, I think) illustrated by Nicholas Bentley.  Both are fine sets of illustrations (and the two are quite different in style from each other), which complement the poems nicely.

I have also had a copy of Eliot’s Selected Poems (Faber, 1954) for a few years, although I don’t think I’ve read quite everything in there.  This anthology, which was put together by Eliot himself, contains many, though not all, of the poems from his earlier published volumes.  It includes The Wasteland, which is probably his most famous poem.

Quite recently, I picked up an electronic copy of Eliot’s Complete Poems, mostly to get hold of Four Quartets (probably his second most famous work, which I particularly wanted to read after having read about it).  I also got a couple of commentaries on his work, some of which is quite obscure and benefits from a bit of study to understand what it’s getting at (although it is perfectly possible to derive much enjoyment from it without picking up on all, or indeed any, of the references).

Although I’ve mostly been reading my new electronic anthology (with a view to reading all of Eliot’s published poetry before too long), I have been dipping into my dead tree editions as well, mainly for the sheer tactile pleasure of handling real books.  I discovered a couple of passages I had underlined in The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, one of Eliot’s earlier poems (dating to around 1918, as I recall) and the source of the title of his first published anthology: Prufrock and Other Observations.  Evidently these underlined passages were the bits which most leapt out at me on my first reading of the poem, several years ago, and they are still amongst my favourite bits of it.

The first is a single line that I find particularly appealing:

I have measured out my life with coffee spoons.

I’m not sure precisely what Eliot had in mind when he wrote that line but, as someone who drinks quite a lot of coffee (and rarely goes for as much as a whole day without at least one cup), I like the idea of somehow using coffee spoons (or rather, the cups of coffee that you make with their aid) as a measure of the passing of your life.

I have no idea how many cups of coffee I have actually consumed in my life.  Based on a rough estimate of 2 cups per day for the last 25 years (since I was about 11), and assuming 365 days per year (i.e. ignoring leap years etc.), it’s something like 18,250 cups.  It’s not uncommon for me to only have one cup in a day (although, as I said, I rarely miss a day entirely) and I have been known to have a lot more than two cups, so I suspect that’s probably a fairly low estimate and it would probably be safe enough to round it up to 20,000.  That’s something to ponder next time I’m lying awake at night.

Anyway, back to the poetry symposium…

The other passage is slightly longer, and is an explicit reference to Shakespeare’s Hamlet (the play, not the character):

No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;
Am an attendant lord, one that will do
To swell a progress, start a scene or two…
Full of high sentence but a bit obtuse;
At times, indeed, almost ridiculous —
Almost, at times, the Fool.

I would guess that the attendant lords in question are probably meant to represent Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (who were such minor characters that Tom Stoppard felt inspired to redress the balance by rewriting the Hamlet story from their perspective in his excellent play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead).  This passage is quite apt for someone who used to dream of being famous (and preferably also rich) but is now quite content to live in relative obscurity and does his best not to take himself too seriously.  Not, of course, that I have anyone in particular in mind with that description.

I have missed out a few lines from the middle of that second quote.  If you like the bit I’ve quoted (or even if you don’t), I’d recommend reading the whole of The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.  This particular passage comes from quite near the end, while the coffee spoon one is near the middle (my edition doesn’t give line numbers and I can’t be bothered to count them).

Rediscovering lost time

The other day I came across an old notebook in which I had written a few poems on a couple of occasions several years ago.  It was fascinating to reread these poems not so much for the quality of the poetry (which isn’t great) as for the memories that they evoked, as they were all poems specifically related to and inspired by what was happening to and around me at the time of writing – no great world shattering events but just a few slices of everyday life.

It strikes me that this ability to record and communicate, and perhaps dig a bit deeper into and draw meaning from, relatively mundane events is a common characteristic of haiku, a poetic form that (as I’ve blogged before) I find myself particularly drawn to (both for reading and writing).  Of course, this is not unique to haiku and indeed only a few of the poems in my notebook were haiku.

One of the occasions on which these particular poems was written was my journey back from a visit to friends in Hungary in July 2008.  I will probably share some (or possibly all) of those poems before too long, but for now I’m going to concentrate on the other occasion, which was a wait for a train over in Llandudno Junction on 19th June, 2007.  I had been over there for a work-based event and I accidentally misread the train timetable, so I turned up at the platform just in time to watch my train pull out and I then had about an hour to wait for the next train, which I put to (I hope) good use by writing some poems.

The first is really no more than a fragment and represents one of my rare attempts to write poetry in Welsh:

Colli’r trên i Fangor wnes i.
Amser trên camddarllenes i.

(“I missed the train to Bangor.  I misread the train time”, to go for a prose translation.)  As I recall, I was planning to develop that into a longer poem but soon gave up and switched to English.  My next attempt was a painful bit of doggerel that I will spare you the agony of reading.  I was then inspired by the arrival and subsequent departure of a train to write a haiku, which is almost certainly the pinnacle of that day’s poetic endeavours and possibly one of my best haiku to date (or at least one of the ones I find most evocative):

All is at peace.
Rushing, roaring tumult.
Silence descends.

I then incorporated the same idea and my resultant ponderings on sound and silence into a longer poem (or quite possibly I had already begun this when I was interrupted by the train’s arrival).  This is one of my rare forays into non-metrical (or at least regularly metrical) and non-rhyming verse and I’m not convinced that it works especially well, although I quite like bits of it, especially the last few lines.  I entitled this poem “Llandudno Junction, 15:44” (I assume that was the time I started writing it, rather than when I finished):

All alone,
I sit and listen to the sounds encroach the silence.
The gentle breeze whispers in the trees
And the chatter of birds counterpoints the soft traffic drone.

A train pulls in the other side,
Its growling engine waits to be released once more.
A walking stick taps softly on the platform,
A bicycle is wheeled gently past.

All at once, a train arrives
And all is bustle and noise for a while,
Then silence descends once more.

I missed my train;
Instead I found a space,
A change of pace,
A chance to listen to the silence that is not silent,
Hear the rhythm of life.

Let me not lament the loss of time,
Because I turned up late and have an hour to wait.
Instead, let me rejoice at the opportunity
To hear the voice
I usually move too fast to hear.

El regreso del invierno

I’ve just looked out of my window and noticed that it is snowing.  I gather much of the rest of the country has been enjoying (or at least experiencing) snow for the past few days but round here we’ve just had rain (and a sort of rain/hail hybrid for a while last night).  The snow doesn’t seem to be settling, at least for now, but what’s falling from the sky is definitely snow rather than rain.

This simple meteorological observation brings me back to some poetical and (vaguely) philosophical musings that have been on my mind  recently.  I’ve just looked out of my window and noticed that it is snowing. I gather much of the rest of the country has been enjoying (or at least experiencing) snow for the past few days but round here, we’ve just had rain (and a sort of rain/hail hybrid for a while last night). The snow doesn’t seem to be settling, at least for now, but what’s falling from the sky is definitely snow rather than rain.

A couple of weeks ago my brother, Wulf, who is evidently a bit of a closet poet like me, blogged about a short poem he’d written on the return of winter.  The poem itself runs:

Who invited winter back to sup
At dawning summer’s promised cup?

It is, however, worth visiting the original blog post (which is also pretty short), as the sentence introducing the poem itself is also quite poetical in its imagery (albeit written in prose).  Incidentally, the title of my post is “the return of Winter” in Spanish, for no particular reason.

I’m not sure if it was reading that poem or talking to somebody else about the Canterbury Tales, or possibly a combination of both, that has led me to think several times over the past few weeks about the first couple of lines of the General Prologue.  Although I’m fairly familiar with a fairly large chunk of the Canterbury Tales (I’d estimate that I’ve probably read about half of them and know a handful of them pretty well), there are very few lines that I know by heart.  Amongst these are the lines which open the whole thing:

Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote…

As Middle English goes, those lines are fairly easy to understand but, in case you don’t dig the funky spelling, a modern paraphrase is “When April with its sweet showers / has pierced the drought of March to the root…”.  This suggests that in Chaucer’s time (the end of the 14th Century), March was a generally dry month in the South East of England and April was a wet one.  Of course, this same rule of thumb may not necessarily be expected to apply several hundred years later in North Wales (especially the dry part!) but we do often seem to get quite good weather in March.  This time last year, as I recall, we were going through a mini heatwave.  This year, we had particularly fine weather through much of February and it has turned quite wintry through March.  It had, however, managed to stay mostly dry until this last week but it seems that the sweet April showers have arrived a little prematurely.

Finally, I started reading an anthology of French poetry this morning and the very first poem, by Charles d’Orléans (who was roughly contemporary with Chaucer, though a few years younger), gives us something to look forward to (hopefully soon) once the current reprise of winter has run its course.  It begins like this:

Le temps a laissié son manteau
De vent, de froidure et de pluye,
Et s’est vestu de brouderie,
De soleil luyant, cler et beau.

Although that’s in fairly early Middle French (probably roughly to modern French what Chaucer’s English is to modern English), it should be reasonably easy to understand for anyone with a moderate grasp of French.  For the benefit of anyone else reading this, here’s a translation (the one from my bilingual anthology – Introduction to French Poetry by Stanley Appelbaum (Dover, 1969) – which doesn’t seem to list the translators; it could well be the work of Appelbaum himself):

The season has shed its mantle
Of wind, cold and rain,
And has clothed itself in embroidery,
In gleaming sunshine, bright and fair.