The day when we post war poems

November 10, 2013 at 11:23 am (poetry, Rosie B, war)

As the Team’s Head- Brass

As the team’s head-brass flashed out on the turn
The lovers disappeared into the wood.
I sat among the boughs of the fallen elm
That strewed the angle of the fallow, and
Watched the plough narrowing a yellow square
Of charlock. Every time the horses turned
Instead of treading me down, the ploughman leaned
Upon the handles to say or ask a word,
About the weather, next about the war.
Scraping the share he faced towards the wood,
And screwed along the furrow till the brass flashed
Once more.

The blizzard felled the elm whose crest
I sat in, by a woodpecker’s round hole,
The ploughman said. ‘When will they take it away? ‘
‘When the war’s over.’ So the talk began –
One minute and an interval of ten,
A minute more and the same interval.
‘Have you been out? ‘ ‘No.’ ‘And don’t want to, perhaps? ‘
‘If I could only come back again, I should.
I could spare an arm, I shouldn’t want to lose
A leg. If I should lose my head, why, so,
I should want nothing more…Have many gone
From here? ‘ ‘Yes.’ ‘Many lost? ‘ ‘Yes, a good few.
Only two teams work on the farm this year.
One of my mates is dead. The second day
In France they killed him. It was back in March,
The very night of the blizzard, too. Now if
He had stayed here we should have moved the tree.’
‘And I should not have sat here. Everything
Would have been different. For it would have been
Another world.’ ‘Ay, and a better, though
If we could see all all might seem good.’ Then
The lovers came out of the wood again:
The horses started and for the last time
I watched the clods crumble and topple over
After the ploughshare and the stumbling team.

Edward Thomas

In Memoriam (Easter, 1915)

The flowers left thick at nightfall in the wood
This Eastertide call into mind the men,
Now far from home, who, with their sweethearts, should
Have gathered them and will do never again.

Edward Thomas



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Warsan Shire: Young Poet Laureate for London

October 3, 2013 at 8:53 pm (culture, Jim D, language, literature, London, poetry)

On National Poetry Day, Warsan Shire has been appointed Young Poet Laureate for London.

She’s a very fine writer and a moving performer of her own work:

Also today, Lauren Williams became the new Young Poet Laureate for Birmingham: more about her shortly.

Who says the young don’t care about poetry?

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Seumus Heaney

August 30, 2013 at 3:54 pm (Ireland, Jim D, literature, poetry, RIP)

Seamus Heaney  13 April 1939 – 30 Aug 2013

Most of his poems can be found here. One of my personal favourites is below:

Seamus Heaney



He would drink by himself
And raise a weathered thumb
Towards the high shelf,
Calling another rum
And blackcurrant, without
Having to raise his voice,
Or order a quick stout
By a lifting of the eyes
And a discreet dumb-show
Of pulling off the top;
At closing time would go
In waders and peaked cap
Into the showery dark,
A dole-kept breadwinner
But a natural for work.
I loved his whole manner,
Sure-footed but too sly,
His deadpan sidling tact,
His fisherman’s quick eye
And turned observant back.

To him, my other life.
Sometimes on the high stool,
Too busy with his knife
At a tobacco plug
And not meeting my eye,
In the pause after a slug
He mentioned poetry.
We would be on our own
And, always politic
And shy of condescension,
I would manage by some trick
To switch the talk to eels
Or lore of the horse and cart
Or the Provisionals.

But my tentative art
His turned back watches too:
He was blown to bits
Out drinking in a curfew
Others obeyed, three nights
After they shot dead
The thirteen men in Derry.
PARAS THIRTEEN, the walls said,
BOGSIDE NIL. That Wednesday
Everyone held
His breath and trembled.


It was a day of cold
Raw silence, wind-blown
Surplice and soutane:
Rained-on, flower-laden
Coffin after coffin
Seemed to float from the door
Of the packed cathedral
Like blossoms on slow water.
The common funeral
Unrolled its swaddling band,
Lapping, tightening
Till we were braced and bound
Like brothers in a ring.

But he would not be held
At home by his own crowd
Whatever threats were phoned,
Whatever black flags waved.
I see him as he turned
In that bombed offending place,
Remorse fused with terror
In his still knowable face,
His cornered outfaced stare
Blinding in the flash.

He had gone miles away
For he drank like a fish
Nightly, naturally
Swimming towards the lure
Of warm lit-up places,
The blurred mesh and murmur
Drifting among glasses
In the gregarious smoke.
How culpable was he
That last night when he broke
Our tribe’s complicity?
‘Now, you’re supposed to be
An educated man,’
I hear him say. ‘Puzzle me
The right answer to that one.’


I missed his funeral,
Those quiet walkers
And sideways talkers
Shoaling out of his lane
To the respectable
Purring of the hearse…
They move in equal pace
With the habitual
Slow consolation
Of a dawdling engine,
The line lifted, hand
Over fist, cold sunshine
On the water, the land
Banked under fog: that morning
I was taken in his boat,
The screw purling, turning
Indolent fathoms white,
I tasted freedom with him.
To get out early, haul
Steadily off the bottom,
Dispraise the catch, and smile
As you find a rhythm
Working you, slow mile by mile,
Into your proper haunt
Somewhere, well out, beyond…

Dawn-sniffing revenant,
Plodder through midnight rain,
Question me again.

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Words rule

August 18, 2013 at 11:42 am (poetry, Rosie B)

It’s Edinburgh Festival time, and we know it because the buses take 45 minutes to go along Princes Street (1 mile), the locals moan “bloody Festival” but still go in masses to the shows and the population, now increased 10% by actors, acrobats and dancers, is noticeably better looking, better dressed and in better shape.  As usual, everyone complains that the Fringe has gone corporate and expensive, it costs £10,000 to put on a show in a reasonable venue but then people come back with stories of going to a genuine Fringe show in a makeshift venue because their mate had a part, and what a bad experience that was.


Jem Rolls

So far I have been to one show, in the true and original spirit of the Fringe. That is, it was very good, and in a venue not really fit for purpose, The  Banshee Labyrinth.

This was Jem Rolls‘ show. Jem is a performance poet and a livewire who set up a successful slam show in Edinburgh called Big Word.  He’s been away from Edinburgh doing well on the Canadian festival circuit and it’s great to see him back.

The difference between performance poetry and just spouting poetry? Well, that’s like the difference between song lyrics and poetry – it’s blurred but it exists. Performance poetry or, more accurately, spoken word, shades into stand up, into story telling, into doggerel, into James Joycean word play, into haranguing.  Jem’s delivery is pent up utterance pouring out and his material is anecdote, observation, fantasy (eg birds remembering when they were dinosaurs). He can do a clever piece of virtuosity where every 2 lines are spoonerisms.  Two blokes go on a bad night out:-

so, amongst the movers and shakers
the shovers and makers
the chewed up and spat out
the spewed up and shat out
for the boozer he oozed breezily
and winless?
he bruised easily
for he had a dream upon a
prima donna
and went for the pretty girl
who looked slightly nutty
while the boozer he went for
the gritty pearl
who he said was nightly slutty

This piece is enjoyable performed but its cleverness can really only be admired on the page. (Full text here).

Jem Rolls on being ephemeral

Spoken word/performance poetry makes a virtue of the fact that it is ephemeral, like a gig or a happening rather than a poem on paper. Most of Jem’s pieces do work best performed, but a new one of his I wanted to read as a description of writng. This is called The World’s First Backstage Poem. The premise is that there are backstage musicals, i.e. where the musical is about people putting on a musical, and this is a poem about writing a poem. Anyone who writes beyond practical ends will know how the words will not do what you want to do but start pushing you somewhere else, like a kayak in an out-going tide.

when its hard to find a word you can trust
they fray at the edges
they blur
they arrive with all manner of baggage
and then they change their costume

And if one word alone is a bit of a handful
then when there’s a few of them
it quickly gets to be a nightmare
they gang up against you and start to
do their own thing
its like The Lord Of The Flies in there
and I’m hiding in the jungle from my own poem

Or they sashay into the
far reaches of
high pretension like an
existential French movie…
and come back to haunt you like
the Bastard Sons of the Mongol Bleedin’ Horde
and it’s like all the bits they’ll cut from the
next Tarantino because they’ll be
too violent
. .. .

Or they get an overly high opinion of themselves
and start claiming descent from the Latin or the Greek
and start adding extra syllables just to be poncy
Luck stands up one day and pronounces
from now on you can call me Serendipity
Complicated gets all Social Realist and says from now on its TOUGH

Then you come in one awful day to find they’ve got all
purist and earnest and Hemingway
and they’ve thrown out all the adjectives
who picket me
malevolently and
on the way in

And you know that in German the nouns are capitalized?
well my nouns suddenly do
because I was just saying
Go out there and do your best nouning…
When they say
German nouns are capitalized
why aren’t we?
We demand capitalization

But the verbs
are the verbs having it?
they say
We are the words of action
We are the workers
Down with the capitalist nouns
Verbs of the world unite and march to the front of the sentence

That is Jem – who is clever, witty, fantastical and brilliant in performance.

He’s on at the Banshee Labyrinth, 29-35 Niddry Street, EH1 1LG  up to 24th August at 08:40pm.. The show is free but he deserves a donation. He got a 4 star review in The Scotsman.

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Hoagy’s ‘I Get Along Without You Very Well’

February 13, 2013 at 8:38 pm (humanism, jazz, Jim D, love, poetry, song)

On 13th or 14th February each year I invariably post a YouTube clip of a love song – all too often ‘My Funny Valentine.’

Well, here’s a different love song: ‘I Get Along Without You Very Well,’ an almost agonisingly poignant number (the lyrics partly contradict the true meaning of the song), described on Wikipedia thus:

I Get Along Without You Very Well” is a popular song composed by Hoagy Carmichael in 1939, with lyrics based on a poem written by Jane Brown Thompson. Thompson’s identity as the author of the poem was for many years unknown; she died the night before the song was introduced on radio by Dick Powell

It was performed last November at the Whitley Bay Classic Jazz Party by the great young US singer Cecile McLorin Salvant, whose performance was captured on video by Michael Steinman of the Jazz Lives blog. Tom “Spats” Langham on guitar, Martin Litton on piano:

I get along without you very well
Of course, I do
Except when soft rains fall
And drip from leaves
Then I recall
The thrill of being sheltered in your arms
Of course, I do
But I get along without you very well

I’ve forgotten you just like I should
Of course, I have
Except to hear your name
Or someone’s laugh that is the same
But I’ve forgotten you just like I should

What a guy
What a fool am I
To think my breaking heart
Could kid the moon
What’s in store
Should I phone once more
No, it’s best that I stick to my tune

I get along without you very well
Of course, I do
Except perhaps in Spring
But I should never think of Spring
For that would surely break my heart in two

What’s in store
Should I phone once more
No, it’s best that I stick to my tune

I get along without you very well
Of course, I do
Except perhaps in Spring
But I should never think of Spring
For that would surely break my heart in two


There’s an additional reason for posting that particular clip: very bad news about Mike Durham, the great guy who organises the Whitley Bay event …

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Sylvia Plath: A Life

February 11, 2013 at 9:59 am (literature, poetry)

Sylvia Plath (October 27, 1932 – February 11, 1963):

A Life

Touch it: it won't shrink like an eyeball,
This egg-shaped bailiwick, clear as a tear.
Here's yesterday, last year ---
Palm-spear and lily distinct as flora in the vast
Windless threadwork of a tapestry.

Flick the glass with your fingernail:
It will ping like a Chinese chime in the slightest air stir
Though nobody in there looks up or bothers to answer.
The inhabitants are light as cork,
Every one of them permanently busy.

At their feet, the sea waves bow in single file.
Never trespassing in bad temper:
Stalling in midair, 
Short-reined, pawing like paradeground horses.
Overhead, the clouds sit tasseled and fancy

As Victorian cushions. This family
Of valentine faces might please a collector:
They ring true, like good china.

Elsewhere the landscape is more frank.
The light falls without letup, blindingly.

A woman is dragging her shadow in a circle
About a bald hospital saucer.
It resembles the moon, or a sheet of blank paper
And appears to have suffered a sort of private blitzkrieg.
She lives quietly

With no attachments, like a foetus in a bottle,
The obsolete house, the sea, flattened to a picture
She has one too many dimensions to enter.
Grief and anger, exorcised,
Leave her alone now.

The future is a grey seagull
Tattling in its cat-voice of departure.
Age and terror, like nurses, attend her,
And a drowned man, complaining of the great cold,
Crawls up out of the sea.

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Richard III found in car park

February 4, 2013 at 1:53 pm (BBC, history, Jim D, Monarchy, poetry)

They say he wasn’t as bad as Shakespeare and others made out. But still, a Leicester car park seems a good place for royal remains…

Someone from the Reduced Shakespeare Company was on the Today programme this morning, with a rather jolly poem about it all, including the lines “Richard spent his winter of discontent / Buried beneath three feet of cement.”  You can hear it here.

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The Christmas Life

December 25, 2012 at 7:08 pm (poetry, Rosie B)

“If you don’t have a real tree you don’t bring the Christmas life into the house.” Josephine Mackinnon, aged 8

Bring in a tree, a young Norwegian spruce,
Bring hyacinths that rooted in the cold.
Bring winter jasmine as its buds unfold -
Bring the Christmas life into this house.

Bring red and green and gold, bring things that shine,
Bring candlesticks and music, food and wine.
Bring in your memories of Christmas past.
Bring in your tears for all that you have lost.

Bring in the shepherd boy, the ox and ass,
Bring in the stillness of an icy night,
Bring in the birth, of hope and love and light.
Bring the Christmas life into this house.

Wendy Cope

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Gig for Pussy Riot

November 17, 2012 at 9:26 am (gigs, poetry, protest, Rosie B, Russia)

Gig for Pussy Riot
Sunday 18th November 7pm
Parlour Bar, 142 Duke Street, Edinburgh.

A night of satire, spoken word, punk poetry and stand up comedy. With DJs.

Two spoken word sets from Kevin Williamson, Rodney Relax, Jess Hopkins,
Stewart Hogg and Rachel McCrum, Maze McPunklet, Rosie Bell, Rebecca

Music and comedy from Tommy Reckless McKay, Liz Cronin, Frank Discussion and Robert Murphy.

Compered by Andy ‘Mad Dog’ McFarlane.

Free gig. 10% of bar donated to the Pussy Riot Defence fund.

(Parlour Bar is a really nice pub with a good vibe.)

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Occasionally Wrong

August 16, 2012 at 9:33 pm (poetry, politics, Rosie B)

Carol Ann Duffy does rise to her job as Poet Laureate by turning out occasional  poems, though she doesn’t always rise to the occasion.  In her poem for the Olympics she sank like a Lib Dem poll; like Tony Blair’s credibility; like the brotherly love in the Coalition – insert your own political metaphor.

Enough of the soundbite abstract nouns,
austerity, policy, legacy, of tightening metaphorical belts;
we got on our real bikes,
for we are Bradley Wiggins,
side-burned, Mod, god;
we are Sir Chris Hoy,
Laura Trott, Victoria Pendleton, Kenny, Hindes,
Clancy, Burke, Kennaugh and Geraint Thomas,
Olympian names.

We want more cycle lanes.

Or we saddled our steed,
or we paddled our own canoe,
or we rowed in an eight or a four or a two;
our names, Glover and Stanning; Baillie and Stott;
Adlington, Ainslie, Wilson, Murray,
Valegro (Dujardin’s horse).

(No we aren’t and we didn’t.  Speak for yourself.  “We” mostly sat on the sofa.)

She has received a lot of derision for it , and nowhere more than at That Place, where some commenters complained that Betjeman would have done it better, and inquired how would Larkin have done it?

“Lamia” produced this fine pastiche, which caught the Larkin mood (glass three quarters empty and a fly drowning in the remaining liquid).

Prize-giving MMXII

by Philip Larkin

With a stern blazered smile the judge draws near,
Headmasterly, to where I loiter, bald
Bowing my head, and blinking behind my specs.
And then a velvet fumbling, a falling into place
As something heavy slithers round my neck
To hang in awkward gaudiness. A cheer,
And then the National Anthem strikes up gold.

Gold? Or something else? Stepping down slowly
From the podium to piss, I wonder
What it was all for. ‘Run for Team GB’
They said. But where does one run from here?
The crowds will quietly drift away,
The stadiums will crumble into pieces.
The asphalt lanes will gather weed and leaf.
This cycling Kraut, that weightlifting Bolivian,
That crew of sailing Japs, each year will sink
A little further into blank oblivion.

And poised between my thumb and finger
This cold token of autumnal grief.
In a bare wintry drawer it will linger,
for a while, gathering dust, unsold,
Among dead stamps and a leaflet about wine.
An old wives’ charm to ward away new failure.
Something to please the nephews and the nieces.
Something to taunt those pricks in Australia.

In the Olympic bar I stand a drink
For a Danish woman and some ass from Spain.
The hot triumphant evening turns to thunder,
And somewhere out beyond the finish line
The first small medals of rain. Strange to think
We will never be so happy again.

The theme “Lamia” has taken, that no happiness endures, is in the tradition of Pindar, the poet who wrote poems to celebrate the victories of the original Olympic athletes.  Here are the last verses of his Ode to Aristomenes of Aegina, the winner of the boys’ wrestling contest:.  He speaks of the humiliation of the losers as well as the joy of the winners:-

Now from on high on four young bodies
You hurled your strength with fierce intent.  For them
No happy homecoming from Pytho was decreed,
As that of yours, nor at their mother’s side
Could pleasant laughter ring a joyful greeting
For their return.  But shunning hostile eyes, they creep
By quiet paths, o’erwhelmed by their ill-fortune,

But he to whom is given new glory
In the rich sweetness of his youth, flies up,
Aloft, high hope fulfilled on wings of soaring valour,
In realms that brook no dullard cares of wealth,
But man’s delight flowers but for a brief moment,
And no less swiftly falls to the ground again, shattered,
By destined will that may not be gainsaid.

Creatures of a day!  What is man?
What is he not? A dream of a shadow
Is our mortal being.  But when there comes to men
A gleam of splendour given of Heaven,
Then rests on them a light of glory
And blessed are their days.

(Translated by Geoffrey S Conway)

Duffy of course is entitled to write about the Government’s economic policy with the fiercest anger – but a poem about the Olympics is not the best place to start, at least not in this tone – Yay Hoy! Boo Cameron! Inserting a local political message jars with the events and sounds ridiculous.  “Lamia” as Larkin and Pindar describe an event which becomes haloed with a universal theme.

When Larkin did write an occasional poem it was for the opening of the Humber Bridge, which became part of a broader theme of isolation and joining. If he’d been in Duffy mode he would have added something about more money should be spent on cycle paths, and damned transport policy generally.

The winds play on it like a harp; the song,
Sharp from the east, sun-throated from the west,
Will never to one separate shire belong,
But north and south make union manifest.

Lost centuries of local lives that rose
And flowered to fall short where they began
Seem now to reassemble and unclose,
All resurrected in this single span,

Reaching for the world, as our lives do,
As all lives do, reaching that we may give
The best of what we are and hold as true:
Always it is by bridges that we live.

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