Four Minutes in May 2020
A strip of light splashed onto laminate floor;
trace the source through net curtains
to the road outside where a car too fast goes
Weeds are growing strong in the always new weather,
no blue sky is ever the same as the last.
The strip of light has shifted; shrunk.
It will not last much longer.
I don’t recall the exact day I wrote this – but it was a Sunday, I think. Now, a year on as the country starts to open up again, it all seems so removed, and yet we did live through it, didn’t we?
Thanks to Atrium Poetry who recently featured this poem on their site.
The poem comes from Like This, my next pamphlet, due in August.
Ministry Of Waiting
Of course there are no clocks, or windows, that might allow guests to track time. And these days only people over forty wear a watch, and we’re less concerned about them. Mobile devices? We block network signals so that guests can go unbothered by distractions. The décor is always neutral; if anyone asks, which they don’t, we tell them the colour is August Wheat, but you and I can see it’s beige. A pastel shade here or there, a couple of abstract pictures, nothing too involving, nothing too fussy. New arrivals are the most tricky to placate, a lot of pacing often occurs, they fret about why they are here, and for how long; adjustment can take time, but every guest comes round at some point: notice how their bodies mould themselves to the shape of the furniture. Now, let’s leave this Department to look at another Ministry; Suffering is near-by, or perhaps you’re interested in Broken Promises? Truth be told it could be some time before anyone is called from Waiting.
A new name arrived on the poetry landscape last week. I’m not referring to Marvin Thompson, winner of the National Poetry Competition 2020, but to Jason Lee, who is at the centre of the winning poem.
Jason Lee… anyone? I remember him well, but I have seen plenty of comments from readers of the poem who did not know the name and had to go to Google. I bet Lee’s Wikipedia page has never been so busy – and here is the link – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jason_Lee_(footballer)
Yes, Jason Lee was a footballer, he most famously played for Nottingham Forest in the mid-90s. The poem in which he features is titled The Fruit of the Spirit is Love (Galatians 5:22) and it was chosen from 18,000 entries as the winner. I like the poem, though I think opinion of the judges’ choice has varied. It is a complex piece that, in the words of the judges, asks “What is it to raise dual-heritage children in the UK, and specifically in Wales?”
What I find interesting is the use of a reference (Jason Lee) that a large number of readers will not grasp. Marvin Thompson has taken a risk, but it has paid off in a big way. If you don’t get who Lee is and crucially, why he features in the poem, then the poem can slip away from you.
The gamble is that the poem is strong enough that a reader will spend time looking the reference up. Granted, looking things up on your phone is pretty quick these days, but Marvin must have known that Jason Lee was not top of everyone’s list of famous footballers (not at the top of anyone’s list).
I have written before about the use of names in poems – because I think there is the likelihood that the poem’s lifespan is shortened by the inclusion of someone who burns brightly for just a short while. I have used names in some of my poems – I have a whole poem that is based on David Attenborough, but generally the names I’ve used are very well fixed on our consciousness. A previous post on the subject is here https://neilelderpoetry.wordpress.com/2019/05/26/cheggers-plays-poetry/
Congratulations to Marvin Thompson. Perhaps his poem proves that readers of poetry are patient, and they will give time to following up on something they are unsure of. Interestingly, the judges are of an age that they may well remember Jason Lee (younger readers are less likely to recall). However, a further interesting point is that in the winning poem the term “cwtched” is used – and two of the judges happen to be Welsh – so they would not have had to double-take on the meaning of that word (it means to cuddle). Cuddle up to Jason Lee by reading the winning poem here: https://poetrysociety.org.uk/competitions/national-poetry-com
Lockdown is long – but Billy Collins and his Poetry Broadcast has brought joy and and a sense of belonging to many. So here is the A – Z of all things that you may just be wondering about when you watch the broadcast. I’m sure I’ve missed some – feel free to let me know…
A – Address or adress (you decide), ‘After The Inauguration’
B- Billy’s Birthday Girl, Blackwing
C- Cotton Tail F***er, Cool People The Night People, Cicada (just don’t)
D – DFFD, Dogs (and especially dogs in poems – get him every time)
E – Elephant in the room (this Broadcast won’t go on forever, will it?)
F- Freaky Blast (have one)
G – Google it up!
H – Handsome Bastard Studios
I – Insurrection / Inauguration – they got their approach to the Broadcast right every time
J – Jazz & Jamesons – is all you need,. Oh, and juke box poems.
K – Key cards – that is a mighty collection.
L – (This) Lime Tree Bower
M – Mould remediation and the Minor Third
N – New poem – those two beautiful words.
O – Oxymoron
P – Professor Bebop, “the paint is still wet on this one”
Q – Questions About Angels – he’s read that and all the rest.
R – (the) reader is central
S – Suzannah – without her we wouldn’t be here. Shovel – if you have to ask, well …
T – Triscuits & Tom Thumb’s Thumb
U – Unauthorised use of music – it’s Billy’s flirtation with the the popo
V – Value for money – you’re getting all this for free for the duration of a whole pandemic
W – WPD, “wouldn’t want to live on the difference”, Whale Day is ours
X- Let X stand for what it will
Y – You’re not double parked, are you?
Z – “why does z, which looks like the fastest letter, come at the very end?” (The Long Day)
Catch Billy and his Poetry Broadcast on Facebook — you can watch it live at 10.30 pm (MT) or see the recording next day.
The picture in the banner of this page is the artwork of Johnny Eaton – thanks to him for allowing me to use it.
The year is still young enough to decide on new ways of doing things. One promise you might make is to read more widely. In the last year, during lockdown, I discovered a couple of terrific poets I wish I’d known about before. The way I found them was simple – scroll through a couple of the big poetry sites and read a poet who is new to you – no mystery.
One of my finds (perhaps I am years behind everyone else) was Marion Strobel. An American writer who was producing poems about a hundred years ago that remain sharp and fresh and still able to reposition the world for the reader. Yes, one or two perhaps have not stood the test of time or seem a little contrived for modern tastes, but there is still plenty to be knocked out by – like this surprising piece called ‘Spring Day’. Consider the title – what do we expect – familiar territory for poetry, flowers and all that stuff, right? Wrong:
I felt a fool When you caught me smiling at myself In the oval mirror; But later in the day A six-legged bug, 5 Taking ten minutes to climb across The muscles of my arm, Convinced me of my greatness.
The poem whose title, ‘Spring Day’, is conventional in topic so that the reader may think they know what is in store, surprises us and moves from embarrassment or shame (we are plunged into the moment), to feelings of confidence via an insect, in the space of just eight lines.
IF I suck the flame into my mouth, Will it warm the places You have left so bare? I lean over the fire, Flutter my fingers— 5 Dare my fingers down toward a spark. I am cold—and tired: Push me a little … Yes?
At work we have a system of sending a Poem of The Week to all staff. I can only imagine how many of those emails remain unopened in deleted files, but I know from feedback that every now and then a poem really lands, and it makes a difference. The difference might be someone smiles at their desk on a Monday morning, or they will send a reply saying how much they liked/appreciated it, or the difference is I have a conversation with someone about a poem – someone I might not normally have much to chat about is talking to me about poetry – that’s a win! Let me declare now – the idea of doing this simple thing was not mine – but I really enjoy being part of it.
I have looked back at the poems I sent this year and I was wondering if they tell a story, perhaps a story of how I was feeling, or of bigger things. Looking at my list I think these poems say a lot about 2020. Note there are only ten poems here because I share the scheme with others in my department, plus it is a school and so poems were not sent in holiday time, or indeed, in the white heat of switching to remote learning overnight.
How I Select
I take quite a bit of care over the choice of poem – there are a few guiding principles. Firstly I have to like the poem – this is my chance to impose my taste on the world – what an opportunity. The poem will not be too saccharine, too flowery or from on high. It must be reasonably short and accessible – people have a million other things to do and 98% of the recipients are not in the English Dept. Therefore the poem has to work pretty immediately. I avoid anything too controversial – why bother with upsetting people or having to defend your choice? I try to send something most will not know by a writer they may not know. I want the poem to capture the mood of the school, the season, the state of the country or at least have a connection that goes beyond my taste. Generally I go with one I can get on the internet – that’s me being lazy and avoiding the fuss of scanning a perfect copy etc.
The poems I sent …
Days Billy Collins.
Collins deceives with his light touch – there is more than you think going on in the poems. But this is accessible and bright and what we need as we struggle to enjoy January.
11th February, 1963 Paul Farley.
This would have been sent as close to the date as I could get it – the poem is a fantastic collision of two events that took place on that one day. (To say more would be unfair to those who are about to read the poem for the first time).
But These Things Also Edward Thomas
Spring and Winter overlap – where is the join?
Pandemic Lynn Ungar
I sent this poem in March. It demonstrates how the list of poems ends up as a kind of diary. Little did we know what we were about to get into.
A Study of Reading Habits Phillip Larkin
Across the country there is something called National Book Week and there is also World Book Day. Either way, this is my cheeky choice for Larkin’s last line, “Get stewed: / Books are a load of crap.”
Yes William Stafford
Here is a short and fantastic poem that is instantly accessible and yet endlessly yielding new insights. I sent this in July, as school was ending for the academic year. I said it could be Poem of The Week or Poem of The Year – and now we get to the end of December I still think that holds.
Praying Mary Oliver
This poem was one I heard Billy Collins read on his Poetry Broadcast – another that is deceptive in its simplicity and of course relevant to where we were in the Autumn.
Graduates of Western Military Academy George Bilgere
Here we were in November, Remembrance day upon us. Too easy to go with Owen, Sassoon et al. So yes, I repeated Bilgere (another Billy Collins tip I picked up). Again this poem got a reaction – it really is a poem to make you think and it expands the usual parameters of Remembrance Day.
Instant Karma Roy Marshall
My last poem for the school year. Schools closing early (well, moving online) because of the virus and things beginning to spiral again. So a poem that embraces the cleaners of our work places.
So there it is… ten poems that say something about the year we just had. I recommend doing this at a work place – if nothing else it’s something to ponder on the journey to/from work – what shall I send next week? Let’s hope we’re sending poems that celebrate life and its wonder next year – and perhaps a poems about the joy of being able to hug each other.
All the poems mentioned here are available online – just search the poet and title.
This is the year of World Poetry Domination, and Billy is at the helm.
Lockdown has loomed large this year and whichever version you are in, whichever tier you are in right now, it is miserable. I’m not going to detail the way we discovered walking, cycling baking et al as ways of finding respite from the relentless bad news, and we all know nature is the great healer. Instead, I’m celebrating the unlikely hero to many people throughout this time, Billy Collins, and his Poetry Broadcast.
In March, when life became so strange and my work moved online, I discovered via Facebook that Billy Collins was reading a few poems online. I watched, and I’ve been watching ever since. The readings began when Billy’s numerous engagements were cancelled and his wife Suzannah suggested he do something online for a day or two. Reluctantly he agreed, and here we are nine months later – Billy broadcasting Monday to Friday for about 30 minutes each day, giving a sense of balance, calm and joy to life. People comment and Billy picks up on the comments the next day, thus fostering a two way relationship. Suzannah acts as director, producer, lighting designer and makeup artist.
Billy said way back in the Spring, “The pandemic is slowing everything down to the speed of poetry”, and at the peak of lockdown it really did feel like the world was slowing down, letting us take in the things we often miss. I was able to kick-back after work and enjoy Billy’s poetry half hour. I must point out, that while Billy’s work is at the core of the broadcasts, there is so much more – we have had Billy analyse Colerdige’s ‘This Lime Tree Bower My Prison’ (Billy’s favourite poem), we’ve been treated to examinations of Emily Dickinson’s work, and analysis of Sharon Olds poems, for instance. We go from an anecdote about meeting Paul McCartney to an academic study of a poem right back to what the cat did that day.
However, the sustaining element of the broadcast is the sense of community, the shared interest and the warmth that Billy and his wife exude. In the main there is no mention of the virus, the news and there was certainly no mention of Trump. Though these rules are sometimes relaxed, such as when Billy and Suzannah send sympathy to someone ill with the virus or when they celebrated the election result. Another notable exception to the absence of politics was the broadcast for Juneteenth, when Billy read a number of poems by black writers as a way of marking events. Billy did also mark, in brilliant and moving fashion, 9/11 by reading his poem ‘The Names’. That poem was written when Billy was the Poet Laureate, and it is striking how reluctant he is to capitalise on the poem; it seemed he read it only after persuasion, and that was true of its publication too.
Viewership keeps growing, with people from all corners of the globe watching: Egypt; Ireland; Belgium; Scotland; and Japan, and of course Florida where Billy is. And, as is his habit, Billy covers other poets’ work in addition to his own, doing his part to keep poetry viral, vital and invincible. I need to mention also that at some point Billly added a bit of music to start and end with – this has become an integral part of things and if you want a crash course in jazz then Billy, or Professor Bebop, as he is with his shades on, is the man for you.
It is, above all, the humour and sense of intimacy that sustains things. We’ve lived through the birth of grandchildren, Billy’s health scare, updates on house renovations, and we have been treated to some fantastic anecdotes that include Heaney, Obama, and Bob Dylan (though not all in the same story!).
During the period we have heard new poems from Billy, the “paint still wet” as he puts it. Who else of such stature is reading poems written that day, then giving us the second and third drafts as the work takes shape? Billy even wrote a poem, ‘The Minor Third’ inspired by a discussion that came about from the broadcast. The genesis of the discussion was Billy’s contention that a dog needs a two syllable name so that you can call it home in a minor third. We heard versions of the poem right up until it was published in his latest collection, ‘Whale Day’. The publication of that book is a story in itself, too long for now, but the upshot was personal messages in copies sent far and wide by Billy when there was a giant cock up by the publisher/seller.
When I was growing up, the thought of the year 2020 brought the future to mind – some kind of exciting world of flying cars or space age living. Instead, it brought a pandemic, a dark kind of sci-fi, but it also brought poetry and the quiet brilliance of Billy Collins, keeping so many around the world sane and connected. I didn’t expect to love Billy Collins any more than I did last year – but these are strange days, mama, most peculiar.
Look up Billy Collins, Poetry Broadcast on Facebook to see what it is all about.
The news appeared online mid-morning, catalyst for change, and like fire or flood it spread across the office. We sat dazed at our desks, searching for words or ways of understanding. After an hour or more of silence we left our workstations, making sure to turn off all the lights.
Days later I heard that in almost every school across the land classrooms emptied when teachers broke the news, and the kids held hands in circles rippling with tears. Factories halted production; mushrooms and strawberries were left to go round and round on belts, plastic punnets stood empty. And pilots quit their cockpits, refused to fly again; that was the start of the Heathrow Nature Reserve.
By noon all cars had been abandoned, most have been left to rust where they stood; strange totems from the past. And as I walked the six miles home I passed people who needed to talk or share their thoughts; some just needed a hug.
And on that night, it’s said, fireflies across the globe turned out their lights, while howler monkeys howled for hours and in the Congo gorillas sat and reminisced.
That day has turned into a decade. We still dream of his voice echoing across the blue planet.
Yes, Elton John comes from Pinner, but Michael Rosen is also one of the best known people to have grown up here, and he is now a patron of the Heath Robinson Museum. The museum honours the artist and illustrator, who was a Pinner resident for a number of years. I was delighted then, to learn that those who run the museum were sending Michael Rosen a copy of And The House Watches On , as he makes his recovery from Covid19. I do hope he liked it, and that it had the cheering effect hoped for.
And The House Watches On, the book Charlotte Harker and I produced, has been very well received, and that’s lovely. However, the publication and any real ability to gain traction was hit by the lockdown – the book was published almost exactly as the situation became critical and then things closed. Ah well… We had to cancel (hopefully just postpone) our launch/reading at West House, the focus of the book. Our wonderful local bookshop, Brook’s, had to close of course, and we would have read there. The Heath Robinson Museum had to close and that was a shame because the book celebrates the Museum and Heath Robinson himself, and the launch/reading was to encompass the building.
Thankfully we are slowly moving back to some normality – the book is available to buy in Brook’s and also the Heath Robinson Museum.
The park itself, Pinner Memorial Park, where West House stands, was clearly something of a lifeline for people during the lockdown – I think we were all reminded of how vital our parks and open spaces are. West House, as the book documents, has seen so much during its lifetime, but this year added another chapter, or rather poem, to its story of the role played within the community. Now I wonder if I should add another piece to mark this period – but perhaps that is for the second print-run!
I thought it was time to share some of the comments people have kindly expressed about And The House Watches On – and there are links to two reviews we received in poetry magazines.
What Readers Say …
GB Clarkson : I delight at the actual finished product, which is indeed exquisite. Yes I love the landscape – house-shaped – format and production.
It’s such a gorgeous, calming, book, I love its shape production as well as the unique conversation going on between the images and written words, past and present, high fortunes and low. A fine landscape pamphlet of 10 poems.
Ruth McNeill : I thought it was lovely – understated, gentle, sad in parts and uplifting at the end. Beautifully drawn and appropriate pictures with the poems, Charlotte, altogether delightful.
Anthony Pinching : This is a delightful book, which is magical and an ideal blend of words and drawings, capturing the past and the present of West House, and its people. I have thoroughly enjoyed it and will return to it regularly.I have no doubt that when WHRM re-opens there will be lots of interest.In the meantime, this is a lovely way of re-thinking our sense of that place
Beverly Peter : The poems and drawings are absolutely excellent .