Voice

of the Villages

The Poetry Page

Poetry has been a lifetime source of joy for me and the aim of this section of the newsletter is to share some of that joy with you. I will present some poets to you that you will recognise as the “greats”, but also some newer poets that you may not know very well, if at all. I hope you find something moving or joyful here.

Stevie Smith

April 2024

Born Florence Margaret Smith in Hull, Yorkshire in 1902, Stevie Smith moved with her family to the North London suburbs when she was three, then lived in the same house the rest of her life. She graduated from the North London Collegiate School and went on to work as a secretary. She published several collections of short prose and letters as well as nearly a dozen volumes of verse. Although the nursery-rhyme-like cadences of her poems and the whimsical drawings with which she illustrated them suggest a child’s innocence, Stevie Smith was a sophisticated poet, whose work was much concerned with suffering and mortality. Her rather macabre sense of humour can shock, as in her most famous poem, “Not Waving But Drowning.

Not Waving but Drowning

Nobody heard him, the dead man,
But still he lay moaning:
I was much further out than you thought
And not waving but drowning.

 

Poor chap, he always loved larking
And now he’s dead
It must have been too cold for him his heart gave way,
They said.

 

Oh, no no no, it was too cold always
(Still the dead one lay moaning)
I was much too far out all my life
And not waving but drowning.

It is, I think, surprising to learn that Smith, although considered as a candidate for Poet Laureate in 1967, on the death of John Masefield, was turned down after comments from esteemed poetry critics that she “wrote ‘little girl poetry’ about herself mostly”. “Not waving but drowning” certainly is about herself but is hardly the writing of a little girl!

You can listen to Stevie Smith reading this poem (and giving some explanation of why she wrote it) on this Poetry Archive page.

Stevie Smith was definitely a melancholy person – her poems can never be described as ’happy’ – yet she rarely lapses into real depression. I suspect it was her sheer love of language which kept her from that. As an example, read “The Face”, where she is deliberately self-deprecating, but shows her joy in a well-turned phrase.

The Face

There is a face I know too well,
A face I dread to see,
So vain it is, so eloquent
Of all futility.

It is a human face that hides
A monkey soul within,
That bangs about, that beats a gong,
That makes a horrid din.

Sometimes the monkey soul will sprawl
Athwart the human eyes,
And peering forth, will flesh its pads,
And utter social lies.

So wretched is this face, so vain,
So empty and forlorn,
You well may say that better far
This face had not been born.

I, for one, am VERY glad that Stevie Smith was born, and left us such approachable and thought-provoking poetry.

Poetry can break your heart

March 2024

Poetry can be uplifting or joyful: it can help you see the world in a different, fresh way. But sometimes, I am afraid, it can be just heart-breaking. This month is one of those occasions.  I cannot apologise for this. And I freely confess that this poem brings tears to my eyes every time I read it.

The poet is Dr. Refaat Alareer. Refaat was a Palestinian writer, poet, translator, university professor and activist from the occupied Gaza Strip in Palestine. On December 6, 2023, he was murdered by an Israeli airstrike along with his brother, sister and their children in Israel’s ongoing genocidal siege of Gaza.

Refaat Alareer

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Just five weeks prior to his killing, he shared his poem titled “If I must die”.

If I must die

If I must die,
you must live
to tell my story
to sell my things
to buy a piece of cloth
and some strings,
(make it white with a long tail)
so that a child, somewhere in Gaza
while looking heaven in the eye
awaiting his dad who left in a blaze–
and bid no one farewell
not even to his flesh
not even to himself–
sees the kite, my kite you made, flying up above
and thinks for a moment an angel is there
bringing back love
If I must die
let it bring hope
let it be a tale

Go to the “I must die” website https://ifimustdie.net/ and see the dozens of languages into which this poem has been translated — in less than 3 months— and listen to Brian Cox read the poem aloud.

I’m sure that your tears, like mine, will form, but remember Refaat’s words:

 

Let it bring hope

Accidental encounters with poetry

February 2024

One of the mistakes people sometimes make with poetry is to think of encounters with it as needing to be deliberate – the notion that you have to mean to pick up a book of poetry and read verses as if you needed to study them for whatever purpose. But my experience has rarely been like that. I did “study” poetry when I was at University, and some of those poetic encounters have certainly stuck with me ever since. But for most of my life encounters with poetry have been accidental, and fortuitous. I read a few lines, or hear them sung, and I find I need to hear more of that particular poet because something in what he/she wrote or sung has triggered something in me.

As an example of this, like many people, I was completely captivated by a fairly recent TV series about people searching for ancient artefacts using metal detectors. Mackenzie Crook and Toby Jones were the stars in The Detectorists, which I suspect is the most archetypal English comedy series ever – gentle and thoughtful and episodes you want to watch dozens of times to relive the warm feelings of English understatement. A highlight of the series was the theme music, a haunting song beautifully played by a newcomer to me – Johnny Flynn.

Will you search through the loamy earth for me

Climb through the briar and bramble

I’ll be your treasure

 

I felt the touch of the kings and the breath of the wind

I knew the call of all the song birds

They sang all the wrong words

I’m waiting for you, I’m waiting for you

(Mmmmmm)

 

Will you swim through the briny sea for me

Roll along the ocean’s floor

I’ll be your treasure

I’m with the ghosts of the men who can never sing again

There’s a place follow me

Where a love lost at sea

Is waiting for you

Is waiting for you

 

Because you only get a snatch of this during the TV show, I didn’t quite realise just how poetic this was but it seems to me now to be an almost perfect matching of words and music and the themes of the TV series. I think I could listen to it for hours!

But who was this Johnny Flynn? Where did he come from? A

And what else has he done?

Well, recently I’ve been watching Digging for Britain – a series in which Alice Roberts (of the pink hair) takes us around some of the many important archaeological projects in Britain. The background, intermittent music to this sounded familiar so I did some research. And there again, it’s Johnny Flynn (this time in partnership with Robert Macfarlane) singing poetry accompanied by the most distinctive and haunting guitar playing. The theme song is called “Coins for the Eyes“.

 
Coins For The Eyes
 

We dig for the gods that leave no bones

For the ship that sailed in the sunken sea

The vessel aloft in a sky of storms

The famine road, and the merchant’s quay

 

Come and search, for we who search

And looking for us scar the land

Turn the soil, weave the dream

Thread the river, rake the sand

And dig for those whose stories lie

With buried pasts and futures won

And dig for us as we have done

To lay the dead out in the sun

To lay us dead out in the sun

 

Coins for the eyes and keys for the door

Fortress, grave goods, chambered tombs

Abandoned villages, rumours of war

We dig for pattern, read the runes

 

And so a clue to who we are

And where we were and why we will

Inheritors of knowledge now

And ancestors to those who still

Might dig for those whose stories lie

With buried pasts and futures won

And dig for us as we have done

To lay the dead out in the sun

To lay us dead out in the sun

As a song for a set of TV programmes, this is remarkably apt and thought-provoking. But it’s more powerful than that. Poetry indeed! Lovely!

Johnny Flynn

 

 

 

 

Johnny Flynn

 

Talking about accidentally reading poetry, I bumped into the following Linda Pastan poem and it seems to me that she has captured my life here in a few short lines. I’ve spent my life trying to be perfect – and always not quite making it.

THE MYTH OF PERFECTABILITY

I hang the still life of flowers
by a window so it can receive
the morning light, as flowers must.
But sun will fade the paint,
so I move the picture to the exact center
of a dark wall, over the mantel
where it looks too much like a trophy—
one of those animal heads
but made up of blossoms.
I move it again to a little wall
down a hallway where I can come upon it
almost by chance, the way the Japanese
put a small window in an obscure place,
hoping that the sight of a particular landscape
will startle them with beauty as they pass
and not become familiar.
I do this all day long, moving
the picture or sometimes a chair or a vase
from place to place. Or else
I sit here at the typewriter,
putting in a comma to slow down
a long sentence, then taking it out,
then putting it back again
until I feel like a happy Sisyphus,
or like a good farmer who knows
that the body’s work is never over,
for the motions of plowing and planting continue
season after season, even in his sleep.

 

It has been a really bad couple of months for British poetry!

January 2024

Firstly we learnt that Shane MacGowan, the former lead singer and songwriter for the Irish punk band The Pogues, died in November, aged 65. Given his lifestyle, it was, perhaps. remarkable that he lived as long as he did!

MacGowan was often considered a poet in the musical sense. While he was primarily known for his contributions to music, MacGowan’s songwriting was characterized by vivid and often poetic storytelling. His lyrics, especially those penned during his time with The Pogues, are known for their literary qualities, rich with narrative, imagery, and emotion. His main legacy will always be “Fairytale of New York”, sung with the late Kirsty MacColl and probably destined to be played every year and everywhere at Christmas. MacGowan’s writing often drew upon his Irish heritage, blending traditional folk influences with punk energy.

Even worse was to follow as we heard that Benjamin Zephaniah, a poet of profound depth and cultural resonance, passed away aged 65 in December. Zephaniah was much more of a mainstream poet than Shane MacGowan although he would probably have been horrified at being called that! He was a distinctive and influential voice, particularly in the realms of poetry and spoken word.

One of the most striking facets of Zephaniah’s work was his unwavering commitment to social justice and human rights. His poetry is a powerful testament to his advocacy for equality, anti-racism, and the rights of marginalized communities. Zephaniah fearlessly confronted societal issues, urging readers to question the status quo and envision a world of inclusivity and understanding.

His ability to fuse the rhythm and energy of performance with the poignant themes of his poetry set him apart. I was privileged to hear Zephaniah perform twice and I can testify that his words came truly alive when spoken, creating an immersive and engaging experience for his audience. His work spanned various forms and genres, showing his versatility as a writer and his use of language was both accessible and profound, making his work accessible to a broad audience while maintaining a depth that invited repeated reading and reflection. For him poetry was not something you would put in a book, it was all about communication. He once said that he started writing poetry because he didn’t like poetry.  “Of course I liked using words, but I wanted to change the image of poetry. I wanted to bring it to life and talk about now and what was happening to us”.

A brilliant example of Zephaniah’s stage performance is his hilarious Talking Turkeys vegan anthem. Just go to YouTube (www.youtube.com) and search for “Talking Turkeys”. There are videos of at least 3 different performances there.

A similar approach to dealing with a serious issue through comedy and wit is seen in his anti racism hymn, The British.

The British

 

Take some Picts, Celts and Silures

And let them settle,

Then overrun them with Roman conquerors.

 

Remove the Romans after approximately 400 years

Add lots of Norman French to some

Angles, Saxons, Jutes and Vikings, then stir vigorously.

 

Mix some hot Chileans, cool Jamaicans, Dominicans,

Trinidadians and Bajans with some Ethiopians, Chinese,

Vietnamese and Sudanese.

 

Then take a blend of Somalians, Sri Lankans, Nigerians

And Pakistanis,

Combine with some Guyanese

And turn up the heat.

 

Sprinkle some fresh Indians, Malaysians, Bosnians,

Iraqis and Bangladeshis together with some

Afghans, Spanish, Turkish, Kurdish, Japanese

And Palestinians

Then add to the melting pot.

 

Leave the ingredients to simmer.

 

As they mix and blend allow their languages to flourish

Binding them together with English.

 

Allow time to be cool.

 

Add some unity, understanding, and respect for the future,

Serve with justice

And enjoy.

 

Note: All the ingredients are equally important. Treating one ingredient better than another will leave a bitter unpleasant taste.

 

Warning: An unequal spread of justice will damage the people and cause pain. Give justice and equality to all.

 

Benjamin Zephaniah was truly one of contemporary poetry’s most distinctive voices, with the ability to tackle a wide range of topics with a unique blend of humour, social commentary, and cultural insight. He will be truly missed for his ability to lighten the mood in the darkening times in which we find ourselves.