I brought in Henry Reed’s masterly evocative poem from the Second World War – Judging Distances. This poem is the second in a cycle, which included the more famous and equally masterly poem, The Naming of Parts. What I love about Reed is that he manages to be antiwar without being either polemical or political. His rational appeals straight to the heart – this in turn, has a disorientating affect on the intellect. For me this poem is a poets poem – it breaks convention and artistic rules without being facetious or overtly experimental. It’s what you might call a quietly avant-garde poem and yet there’s no Joycean slight of hand, no pretentiousness or tricks to cover up ineptitude. This is a masculine poem tempered with gentleness, it’s about love and war – a work of art about the chaos which was the maelstrom of Fascist torn Europe during the 1940’s.
The poem is structured around seven sestets. I can’t help but wonder whether the author did that for numerological reasons – six being the number of man and seven a mystical, godly number.
Dead in the center of the poem, the poet suddenly and dramatically changes voices – this is a brave decision on behalf of the author – usually, it’s a huge “no-no,” which spells disaster – not in the hands of a master like Henry Reed though. He knows exactly what he’s doing. Thus the poet is asked to judge a rifle distance by the Sergeant Major. The protagonist answers back subverting the military speak. He puts his own twist on the Orwellian language of his Sergeant Major and replies to the question using the thematic tropes and the contrived voice of a poet. It’s unbelievably cleaver, intelligent, moving and thought provoking.
The narrator, answers his Sergeant’s question by answering how long he estimates it will take the men to retake enemy ground – ‘one year and a half.’ The unsaid implication is devastating – the whole war effort is a big waste of time and not worth the massive loss of life it will take to hold and retake the lost territory. By implication the Sergeant Major is shown up in front of his men as a liar through his deliberate omission of the relevant statistics i.e. the expected casualty rate. The poet answers the questions correctly, using poetical though de-personalised language. He catches some lovers in the bushes with his binoculars. The answer and the come-back by the embarrassed Sergeant is outrageously brilliant – the stimulus-response transaction is split between two stanzas and the line-break acts as an awkward pause or impromptu caesura. The heartbreaking use of wit in this work is masterly - it really is very cleaver. I’ll quote the stanza in full and the Sergeant’s reply:
And under the swaying elms a man and a woman
Lie gently together. Which is, perhaps, only to say
That there is a row of houses to the left of the arc,
And that under some poplars a pair of what appear to be humans
Appear to be loving
Well that, for an answer, is what we rightly call
Moderately satisfactory only, the reason being,
Is that two things have been omitted, and those are very important.
Everything about this poem is right – even the line-breaks and the cleaver use of punctuation show this work to be a minor masterpiece from the first half of the twentieth century. It’s very good, very accomplished.
Here’s a selection of lines that redeemed some of it’s tedium:
‘Pinning the human fly under the tumbler’
‘We are dwellers in the middle limbo’
'We are builders of small doorless houses'
And here’s the line that Tesamond should have written but never did. I’ve square bracketed the excess words, which in my opinion needed editing. Read it for yourself - first with and then without the offending words – I think you’ll agree with me that my version is far superior and scans much better:
We are a battlefield but cannot [clearly]
Remember [why] the fight or when it started
(There maybe an argument for keeping the word “why” where it is, but certainly not “clearly” which just makes the line linger and seem heavy-ended… I guess that’s the price you pay for having a rigid, 11 syllable line.)
We are the walkers in eternal circles
To whom the circle’s better than it’s breaking
I ticked that one as I thought it was OK. Give me a red pen, let me remove the syllable-count – allow me a more flexible polysyllabic line, give me permission and I’ll give you back a five stanza poem with 20 superior lines… Can’t say fairer than that!
The next poem by Muriel Sharp was a poem containing three quatrains. Again the perfect rhymes jumped out at me. However, that said there were some lovely images, which transcended the crossword puzzle mentality of the poem:
Predictable? Yes. However, the language is rather bewitching – thus it receives both my benediction and absolution. I’ll quote selections from the first and second stanza and the final quatrain as it’s so good:
Meadows and gardens running through my hand.
In this brown husk a dale of hawthorn dreams;
A cedar in this narrow cell is thrust
That will drink deeply of a century’s streams;
Here in there safe and simple house of death,
Sealed in their shells, a million roses leap;
Here I can blow a garden with my breath,
And in my hand a forest lies asleep.
Some truly stunning lines, nice images, compact verses and imaginative use of images.
We reviewed a poem by Hart Crane, Forgetfulness. This poem was not so popular with the group – I didn’t mind it so much, but Mr Crane finished his two quintains with a stand-alone line that was simply misplaced. I was surprised the editor hadn’t red penned it for him – it was the type of line T.S. Elliot would have written if he had been heavily sedated on whiskey and painkillers:
‘I can remember much forgetfulness.’
Sure you can Mr Crane but what does that add to the text? We can all remember loosing our keys or our train tickets at the back of the sofa. Sorry mate, I don’t believe you – you’re trying to be cleaver for the sake of it. I have no problem with cleverness – but this clearly is not an example of the aforementioned quality… I did however, like the bottom of the second stanza very much:
Forgetfulness is white…
And it may stun the Sybil into prophecy,
Or bury the gods.
Quit while you’re ahead – that’s the place to finish!
Me and my red pen: if only I could bear to use it on my own work!
Nigel brought in Mr Apollinax by the legendary T. S. Elliot. I always find Elliot difficult, he uses far too many big words for his own good, for example, he uses fragilion whereas I would have used the more common Anglo-Saxon word snail. That said, he can certainly create an intriguing metaphor or an unusual image, such as comparing the same man to a snail and a fetus; a nice use of poetic mirrors. I’ll quote a small selection of the things I liked in the text Nigel brought in:
‘His laughter was submarine and profound’
‘Drowned men drift down in the green silence’
‘His laughter tinkled among the teacups.’
The poem in general was a little obtuse, it was lucky we had Nigel’s superior intellect there to fill us in with all the important details and historic data. The snail-looking man was Elliot’s friend – the eminent philosopher Bertrand Russell. To be fair, Elliot had a point, he did look a little fragilion.
The poem, Land by Elizabeth Jane Burnett impressed everyone in the studio. I’d have only red-penned one offending line – some meaningless twaddle that ran on from the second stanza polluting the third. I won’t bother quoting the words as they are too tedious to be bothered with. I was fifty-fifty about the strange syntax at the end of the poem, it was like the writer had had a stroke mid sentence and couldn’t follow her original line of reasoning. All those artificial line spaces made me feel a little woozy, brought on the old childhood dyslexia, made my eyes hurt, when I had to re-read the line because my gaze had wondered onto the wrong paragraph. That said, the poem was cleaver with some beautiful imagery, mixed in with some cheep tricks – we were all happy and enriched by the reading of it.
Harri Web’s poem: iii. Synopsis of the great Welsh Novel (sorry to be antagonistic) was predictable. There was genuine wit in the piece but it all relied on a form of unimaginative stereotyping. My Synopsis: Average to Fairing.
To finish on an optimistic note, one of the better poems that were brought in was Michael Bayley’s: Estuary. His work was a ‘found poem’ – which used words, altered in several places from Graham Sutherland’s Welsh Sketchbook.
I liked the poem as it reminded me of the estuary near where I live – his descriptions were perceptive and accurate. I was seeing the visual theme through the narrator’s delicate use of Mise-en-scène. To quote a little of the poem:
Recedes, the black-
Of half-buried wrecks,
Phantom tree roots
To bone by the waves
Swans sing before they die – ‘twere no bad thing
Should certain persons die before they sing.
Somehow, I feel the often-overused exclamation mark would fit nicely at the end of this little observation. I wouldn’t have been surprised if this piece of wisdom had been uttered after a binge on laudanum and absinth.