The social evening was well attended. We were pleased to welcome people from the Woking Stanza group and others. There was discussion on the ways in which the groups worked and there was much good humour and enthusiasm in this sharing of ideas. Everyone brought favourite poems to read out and these were on many and varied themes. There was work from long established poets as well as those present.
Sylvia included work from a current and a past member of Mole Valley Poets in her selection of poetry written by women.
The first poet to be considered was Lotte Kramer who was born in Germany in 1923 and was helped by a Quaker teacher to escape to Britain via the Kindertransport in 1939. For years she kept a suitcase "stuffed tight with mother-love and heartache" and she began writing poetry in 1979. In "April Wind" the open spaces of the wide wheel of the sky and the stripping of apple blossom by bullfinches leads to a memory of the breaking of glass which stunned her grandfather's heart. In "Under the Stairs" a family crouch together waiting for the sudden explosions of an air raid and hoping for the thin shrill whine of the all-clear.
Kathleen Jamie was born in Scotland and studied Philosophy at Edinburgh University. During this time a pamphlet of her poems "Black Spiders" was published. She went on to win the Forward Poetry Prize for her collection "The Tree House" in 2004. She has held several writer-in-residence posts and now lives in Fife and holds the chair in creative writing at Stirling University. Her poem "The Glass-Hulled Boat" begins with luminous jellyfish that are like lost internal organs and columns of bladderwrack like half-forgotten ancestors. The image of being stalled in a taxi in a town at closing time takes us by surprise and then when the boat engine churns the jellyfish suddenly change direction unperturbed. In an extract from "The Queen of Sheba" an exuberant woman desires the keys to the National Library and beckons the lasses to join in with her in taking PhD's in Persian and support her in being president and a thousand laughing girls shout out in support.
Mary Oliver, an American poet, was born in 1935. Her first collection "No voyage and other poems" was published in 1963. She draws inspiration from a close observation of nature and a delight in little things. Going for a walk is an important part of her writing life and she commented in a rare interview "When things are going well, you know, the walk does not get rapid or get anywhere: I finally just stop, and write. That's a successful walk!" In "Look and See" the sight of a sparrow landing by mistake on the back of an eider duck and a gull scratching its stomach with one pink foot as it flew are both gifts there for the seeing if we were only to look. "The Summer Day" begins with a litany of questions asking who made the world, the swan, the black bear and then describes the grasshopper that sits on her hand in vivid detail. After the celebration of this small life we are asked "what is it you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life?"
Alice Oswald read Classics at Oxford. She then trained as a gardener and worked at the Chelsea Physic Garden and Wisley. She lives in Devon with her husband and her three children. Her first collection "The Thing in the Gap-Stone Stile" won a Forward Poetry in 1996. Her second collection, "Dart" tells the story of the River Dart in Devon in both poetry and prose and won the TS Eliot prize in 2002. "Weeds and Wildflowers" was published in 2009 and won the Ted Hughes Award. "Daisy" from this collection describes the flower as a quiet child with wiry strength and a halo of laundered frills. The daisy is "more meek / than I am" and this leads to the unexpected ending of the writer making a necklace out of her green bones. In "Snowdrop" the "pale and pining girl" is one among hundreds of "clear-eyed ghosts" and is no more than "a drop of snow / on a green stem".
Claire Crowther's first collection "A Stretch of Closures" was published in 2007. In the poem "Fennel" from this collection the plant is firmly established in her front garden, a legacy from a previous owner, and even though she is moving from this house and the new owners will be able to "scrape the taste of my house / off its surface" the fennel seeds "cranny in fissures / and plan a dynasty of yellow tang".
Helen Overell's first collection "Inscapes and Horizons" was published in 2008. In the poem "my gran", an apple is pared and "one long / green ribbon" tumbles into the waiting hands of the small girl. The sharpness of the juices brings tears to her eyes and she is given a dab of sugar in a saucer to dip the peel into before nibbling away at the "close-cut peel, tight-lipped words".
Gwyneth Lewis was appointed the first National Poet of Wales in 2005 and writes in both English and Welsh. In her poem "A Poet's Confession" she brings humour to the subject of her mother tongue – "I shouldn't have left her / there on her own" and tells of silence and lack of reproaches ending with a request for her lawyer "Until he's with me / I'm keeping mum."
This was an interesting and inspiring talk and introduced both "new" and familiar women's voices.
Sharon chose four Irish poets: Dorothy Molloy, Seamus Heaney, William Butler Yeats and Ciaran Carson.
Dorothy Molloy was born in Dublin in 1933. She studied languages and moved to Barcelona and then returned to Ireland in 1979. She worked as a journalist and painter and died in 2004 just ten days before her first collection 'Hare Soup' was published. Her poem 'Les Grands Seigneur' is from this collection. One of the 'great lords' in the title could mean master or land-owner, or one distinguished by dignity or rank. In the plural the title could refer to warlords. This poem, written in the voice of a woman, speaks in the first three stanzas of the courtly love of the troubadour, of men as buttresses, as peacocks and strutting pink flamingoes, as dolphins and hurdy-gurdy players. The woman is their queen. However, this changes in the last stanza where the woman, once wed, becomes a toy, a plaything, little woman, / wife, a bit of fluff. The relationship between men and women is illustrated with black humour.
Seamus Heaney was born in 1939 – a playwright, translator and lecturer who has won many prizes including the 1995 Nobel prize in Literature, the Faber Memorial Prize in 1968 and the TS Eliot prize in 2006. His poem 'The Blackbird of Glanmore' is from the collection 'District and Circle' which was published in 2006. This poem examines a single moment and remembers his 'lost brother' who died aged four – the blackbird present on the grass echoing the one on the shed roof reported by a neighbour in his childhood. The form alternates between 5 & 1 line stanzas and this brings the poem back to the present moment.
William Butler Yeats (1865 – 1939) won the 1923 Nobel prize in Literature. He campaigned against English rule. 'The Wild Swans of Coole' was written during WW1 having visited Coole many times. The five stanzas have regular rhythms. The swans seem to be unchanged by time, their hearts have not grown old, – a mysterious and beautiful delight – and yet the world is changing and he himself is growing older. There is a melancholy about this poem and a haunting quality of both continuity and impermanence – together with echoes of war.
Ciaron Carson was born in 1948 – a poet and a novelist from Northern Ireland and Professor of English at Queen’s University Belfast. He is interested in traditional music and in politics. He has published nine collections of poems and a translation of Dante's Inferno. His poem 'Belfast Confetti' is on the GCSE syllabus for English Literature. This poem describes the extreme emotion as the riot squad move in during the troubles in Belfast on what was supposed to be a peaceful protest. Exclamation marks of nuts, bolts, nails, car-keys rain down on the speaker. The explosion is an asterisk on the map and the streets are named after places in past wars. The scattering of names of punctuation marks throughout the poem is akin to confetti. The last line is a fusillade of question marks.
Sharon emailed Ciaran Carson to say that she was preparing this talk. He replied to say that when he wrote 'Belfast Confetti' some thirty-five years ago he had no idea that it would end up on a GCSE syllabus. He said that poetry is written by happenstance for its own sake and it is a happy happenstance when someone gets to read a poem and he is privileged that this should be so. He sent his best wishes for her work with Mole Valley Poets.
Helen and Sylvia visited the Capel Guides to talk about poetry. After a brief presentation and reading of poetry the girls were encouraged to write both individually and in groups. This was an enjoyable evening which gave rise to writing of a high standard.
Myra Schneider illustrated the journey of a poem with readings and discussion. A poem needs to travel from beginning to end. There is also the journey from first ideas jotted in a notebook to finished poem.
Sometimes one aspect of a poem seems to arrive 'ready made'. This was the case with the rhythm in the poem 'Bird' from the collection 'Circling the Core'. This poem moves from I am wings to the soar of flight and the mystery of the egg where the bird began to And I will be / here, there, within you, everywhere at the beginning of the last stanza.
A notebook is a useful base for any jottings or ideas for writing. This is then a valuable resource. Sometimes the notes may wait days or weeks or years before being used in a poem. Connections can be made between notes made at different times and so a sequence of poems may arise. The consolidated notes wait for the surfacing of a poem.
The poem 'Losing' from the collection 'What Women Want' draws on the problems of lost socks, a lost mug and a half-dead umbrella left on a bus before moving on to the elusiveness of the present moment, time as unstoppable sand falling / through a sieve and the importance of findings such as a sparrowhawk perched on your gate and words that toadleap from imagination, / from heart – to make sure every day is a finding.
Myra set a writing exercise to illustrate connections that can be made in writing about the familiar and then at a tangent. Triggers for a poem can be as varied as childhood memories of an old-fashioned kitchen mincer or seeing paintings in an exhibition. Connections can link the colour of the trigger to the colour of an image further on in the poem.
Myra examines the writing of personal poetry in her book 'Writing your self'. It is perhaps more difficult to transform material of this sort into poetry.
Flow writing can be used as a loosening up exercise and putting the beginnings of ideas onto the page.
This was a really helpful and inspiring afternoon.
This began with a short reading of poems on the theme of reflections. These included Self-Portrait by A. K. Ramanujan, Insomnia by Elizabeth Bishop, Multiplying the Moon by Myra Schneider and Some Herons by Mary Oliver. This was followed by an individual writing exercise after which there was time for discussion and feedback. The Whispers exercise then gave an opportunity for collaborative writing. There were six people in the group and one of the poems which arose from this used each of the six contributions:
Too good for a rental,
the mirror's eighteenth century elegant oval,
flowers and birds in the carving,
captures in its perceptive gaze
a brilliant white and flash of orange.
The half-remembered figment
flickers into being –
a shriek of seagull.
Again there was opportunity for reading and giving feedback. This was followed by another individual writing exercise making use of the small natural object which each person had brought along. After further reading and feedback everyone took part in a form of Consequences. This is one of the resulting "found" poems:
A tenement of cavities and corridors
the empty flats, once cells of humanity
decay into the gray concrete
and spring up anew as a daisy
bright-eyed, bedecked with dew,
a tiny diamond sparkle
like a dream realised at last.
The final exercise was based on photographs which had the theme of reflections – each person wrote in response to one of these.
By the end of the session everyone had beginnings of poems and writing ideas to take away and work on further.
This was a well-attended and successful evening. We are very grateful to the librarians at Bookham Library for all their work in promoting and hosting this event. There were readers from the floor as well as from Mole Valley Poets. There was poetry from both past and present. The themes were many and various and included that of Water which is the National Poetry Day theme for this year. This was indeed a celebration of poetry.
A poem is a journey from the known to the unknown, an act of communication which delivers anew on each re-reading. A poem is a memorable space with a particular shape. A poem sings.
Within a poem, line length, stanza size, metre and rhyme are used to convey meaning.
The auditory experience is a chunk of 3 seconds and so this is the rough wavelength of attention. Lines are 2 to 3 seconds long to fit this wavelength. Small lines draw attention to themselves and tend to be read slowly while long lines tend to be read faster. Short lines draw attention to words rather than phrases.
A stanza (or room) is a set of lines with a mini closure at the end. Shifts move through the poem with each stanza. A poem needs to end and not finish. A deictic shift is a shift of who/when/where.
Metre is the beat you tap your foot to. In English this tends to be 4 stress or 5 stress.
Rhyme can be at the end of a line and follow a particular pattern or can be within lines. There can be full or near rhymes.
Several poems were read and discussed:
In Sandpiper by Elizabeth Bishop there is great attention to detail. The sandpiper – Poor bird, he is obsessed! – runs in a state of controlled panic in a world of sea and beach, looking for something amongst the million grains of sand. This poem is in four-line stanzas with an ABAB rhyme scheme and uses repetition of words such as runs and world and watching. Each of the five stanzas gives new information about the sandpiper. The poem ends with lines describing the grains of sand as black, white, tan, and gray / mixed with quartz grains, rose and amethyst.
The Whale-watcher by Kathleen Jamie is written in the first person. There are four short-line stanzas of four lines each. The second stanza diverges from the ABAB rhyme scheme. The poem begins with When the road / gives out walking on a seashore with lichen-crusted bedrock. Then in the second stanza holing up the cold / summer in some battered / caravan watching for whales. In the third, being ready now to deal myself in. The last stanza ends with the movement of the whales likened to stitches sewn in a rent / almost beyond repair.
Trust by Kenneth Steven is written in the first person. There are four stanzas of four lines each which make use of repeated vowel sounds and alliteration. The first three stanzas move from five days of snow Deep as a boot to a robin making landfall on the speaker's crumb-filled palm to Till hungry, the beak stabbed fast. Then in the last stanza the robin finishes feeding and lets out one jewel of sound before flying off A skate on the frosty air.
St Kevin and the blackbird by Seamus Heaney is a poem in two parts each having four stanzas. Each stanza has three lines. The first part of the poem tells of the legend. St Kevin kneels in his narrow cell and, with his arms outstretched, One turned-up palm is out the window and a blackbird settles down to nest. The eggs are warm on his hand and linked / Into the network of eternal life, Kevin Is moved to pity and holds his hand like a branch Until the young are hatched and fledged and flown. The second part of the poem invites us, as the story is imagined anyway, to Imagine being Kevin and ask is he Self-forgetful or in agony all the time. Perhaps he no longer feels his knees. His prayer 'To labour and not to seek reward,' is a prayer he has made entirely, For he has forgotten self, forgotten bird / And on the riverbank forgotten the river's name.
Advice to myself by Louise Erdrich is in one long stanza with uneven line lengths. Internal rhymes and near rhymes give pace and flow. Alliteration echoes throughout. The advice is to disregard dust and clutter and untidiness so as to pursue the authentic and go after it with all your heart – that place / you don't even think of cleaning out. The growth of mould is to be accepted as new life as is the dust of the dead that drifts in through the windows and settles on on the tops of food jars and books. The advice continues with don't read anything / except what destroys / the insulation between yourself and your experience or what shatters / this ruse you call necessity.
Talking to myself by Dannie Abse is written in couplets – there are nine of these – and ends with a three line stanza. Some of the lines are only two words long. The opening couplet, In the mildew of age / all pavements slope uphill, is followed by the bleak observation slow slow / towards an exit. This line of thought is interrupted by that inner voice the ventriloquist bird who censors language and reminds the poet of Hardy and Yeats in inspired wise pre-dotage. The old man who, as a profligate youth wasted time on postponements and frivolities, finds that Now Time wastes me and an aspen trembles as he does. There is no way to halt this flow of time and yet the poem ends with a plea Quick quick / speak, old parrot, / do I not feed you with my life?
Rose led a very interesting discussion on The National: Prizewinning Poems. This was both intriguing and informative and included a close reading of each of the three prizewinning poems for The National Poetry Competition 2012. These involved memory – in the first two poems of the mother of the poet and in the third of the grandfather.
The winning poem Clothes that escaped the Great War by Patricia McCarthy is a haunting evocation of all those who did not return from the War and those who waited for them. The clothes heaped up on a cart are the most scary ghosts: Overalls caked in dung. The old horse plodding pulls the cart. We learn that lads were collected like milk churns and the cart is now returning with its harvest of dungarees with notes in pockets to sweethearts. The quadruple plod of the horse is an echo of men marching. Any catch in this rhythm becomes a missed beat in a heart. And the lads were new-dressed in the years never to be had and so the cart is piled higher than high.
The second prize was won by Jane Draycott with Italy to Lord. The title Italy to Lord could have come from the spine of one of her father's encyclopaedias. Knowledge and discovery of the world move from a London living room to Italy and Japan and Kabul, from the written information in the encyclopaedia to the clearing of forests and the gold / all brought to light. The mother reflected as a child in the bookcase glass becomes the poet there herself in dense shade, deep / and shadowy as on any wooded island.
The third prize was won by John Freeman with My Grandfather's Hat. This tells of Grandad in his dark room with blue gas mantles and then in the overheated lounge / of Aunt Nell and Uncle George's new flat / in Morden when in his nineties. The overriding memory is of visits made by the younger Grandad with his trilby hat Crowning himself slowly, his own archbishop, and making a grand and stately exit along the garden path to the front gate.
The Poetry Café event proved to be a lively celebration of poetry. Mole Valley Poets would like to thank the Arts Alive organisers for their support and encouragement in including this in the Arts Alive Festival. The playing of the two musicians enhanced this opportunity for participants to read their own poems to an enthusiastic and appreciative audience. The poems were many and varied. The themes ranged from ecology and education to politics and poppies. This was a most enjoyable evening.
There were eight poems presented for feedback in the extended workshop session. It was good to see both new and revised work. The themes were varied and included layers of the past as well as being in the present moment. There were images of poppies and oak trees, ashes and pebbles, birds and cathedrals. There were observations on a beach in Spain and on events in Kenya. There was an excerpt from a libretto on George and the dragon. This was an interesting and inspiring session.
Tony Earnshaw led a lively debate on the programme for 2014 together with discussion on what worked well this year. The topics and leaders for each of the Monday meetings next year were agreed and dates were decided for the summer school and the open-mike event. The sofa poet date is yet to be confirmed. Helen led the feedback session and there were four poems to be discussed. There were striking and memorable images of the light and colour of leaves in an autumn day, a milestone on a dual carriageway once a turnpike road, the journey of a well-cared for book won as a school prize and the flight and nature of swifts. The evening was both interesting and enjoyable.