National Poetry Month: Day 2

Metamorphosis: The Womb Years

When the interlocking lumps of proteins
too small for the eye to ever see
meet to form hydrocarbon chains, it seems

one has the basis of you, and me;
the signals sent inform a mass
of undifferentiated matter what to be

and over months there comes to pass
the first tentative shapes of  mankind.
From the start they’re lad or lass

but later some will come to find
that whatever genes have suggested
the body does not match the mind

and rather than live life arrested
in a body that just will not do
the original form is divested.

One factor which many people find off-putting about reading poetry for pleasure is that for many of us (including me) our first exposure to poetry is at school, complete with growling insistence that we’re reading it wrong, that we need to be examining it for this or that theme, and being told what to find beautiful or indeed how to feel about it all.

I fortunately escaped the latter part of that and, leaving aside the soothing lullaby of A A Milne that I barely remember from my pre-school days, my introduction to the world of poetry involved a teaching more or less pranging a volume of Allan Ahlberg‘s glorious, mischievous school-based poems (most likely Heard It In The Playground)  at me and shouting “please read this and be quiet“. And it was by this method that I discovered that poetry, rather than being an awful bore that is inflicted upon one in long passages of countryside, death, maidens, or righteous unrhyming needling of a vague and nebulous The Government, can also be good fun.

A short list: A A Milne dealing in utter absurdities as well as moments of quiet contemplation, Edward Lear, Adrian Mitchell, Roger McGough, Spike Milligan, and the incomparable and utterly opposed to A A Milne Dorothy Parker.

There is also Kit Wright, who came back to my attention recently while leafing through my copy of Staying Alive in order to find more poets to overzealously suggest to a stranger online who made tentative noises about wanting to maybe read more poetry. The poem which caught my attention was a zingy, vituperative satirical verse, but for the sake of this post I am going to link to another of his poems from the same book:

The All Purpose Country and Western Self Pity Song, by Kit Wright.

Please, please, please read this out loud. It trips off the tongue. It tugs you along with the relentless rhythm of a train. It almost commands a tune for itself in its own cadences. It is a marvellous, masterful example of how a choppy rhythm and a rhyme scheme which ricochets with concealed carefulness can drive a poem and make it a positive joy to recite.

He jumped off the box-car
In Eastbourne, the beast born
In him was too hungry to hide;
His neck in grief’s grommet,
He groaned through his vomit
At the churn
And the yearn
At the turn of the tide.
Try it. Just try it.

Throughout this month I will be nagging readers to donate to MSF.


National Poetry Month: Day 1

Leaving the City

When are my holy times
but the thrice-hourly spots
on the timetable: Moorgate
(after 10pm our destination
becomes elevated to Kings Cross);
God is the crackle over a poorly-
-maintained tannoy, a pre-
-recorded voice offering insincere
apologies and admonitions:
please keep your belongings
away from the closing doors.
When are the holy times but
morning, noon, night, and the
rattle of wheels over track,
each haunting whistle echoing
through the railway cutting
in an interborough call to prayer.

–Delilah Des Anges

Today’s discussion piece is Aristotle by Fahye.


You will not find the soul within my eyes;
no steady gaze or sunset-lidded glance
holds such a thing. And should you try to prise

apart my truer ribs, you’ll realise
the heart beats dumb and takes no eager stance
on poetry. Ask not if the soul lies

in molecules that mingle and enhance
the neuron’s power to fire and analyse,
the trembling of a shoulder turned askance;

distill me not to body parts. You’ll chance
upon the soul in no such bleak disguise;
the soul is not the feet: it is the dance.

Appropriately for a poem which makes the bold philosophical assertion “the soul is not the feet: it is the dance” (in itself a beautiful statement harking back to the concept of eudaimon, of the joy of doing as opposed to being), the rhythm of this poem is exquisite.

The rhyme scheme is a modified terza rima; in a traditional terza rima the pattern runs to:





… and so on. In Artistotle two changes have been made to the traditional schema, tightening what is usually employed for longer-form poetry (The Inferno was originally written in terza rima) into something reminiscent of a villanelle’s “obsessive” rhyming pattern (although without the repeated lines).

The first of these changes is the restriction of the end-rhyme patterns to only two sounds: “-ize” and “-ance”. This is a move as bold as the statement the poem concludes with, as restriction necessarily places a challenge upon the poet and can often lead to forced-sounding rhymes and an ugly end result. Fahye, being a clever poet, chooses a rhyme pair which have a healthy selection of partners in the English language, and with the benefit of a large and precise vocabulary creates a natural-seeming, formal piece of rhetoric that seems to merely happen to fall into this narrow, carefully-selected rhyme scheme.

The second change relates to the layout of the rhyme scheme: in traditional terza rima the interlocking is continual, a chain of rhymes loosely holding together the poem’s progression like a hydrocarbon chain. There is not the harkening back to earlier rhymes, words, or entire lines that are present in the sestina or the villanelle; like the ballad, it is intended for perpetual progression if needs be. In Fahye’s iteration, the terza rima becomes folded in on itself, a two-step: the prongs of “glance” and “stance” match up with the invaginations of  enhance/askance (another excellent demonstration of the poet’s vocabulary; these are not obscure words, but they are unusual ones chosen with care) and chance/dance, while, contrariwise, “analyse” and “disguise” fit into eyes/prise (an excellent pair as “prise” is what one does with eyelids which are wilfully shut) and realise/lies (another grand pair that carries its own meaning).

It is, in effect, as if the foot representing for “-ance” had stepped forwards, making the foot representing “-ize” step back, and vice-versa on the other side – like a couple dancing. It is rare to find such beautiful correlation between form and content.

The two central stanzas contain grand concepts: poetry, and science. They also double up on body parts (the body parts the poet asks not to be distilled to); while the first stanza carries only eyes, the second has both ribs and heart, the third neurons and a shoulder, and the fourth returns to the singular: the feet. This pattern of content – one, two-two, one – also follows a dancing couple’s feet.

Everything about the poem’s construction, therefore, builds up to the final declaration, and the closing argument is supported by that which as come before it: the soul, if not of the poet then of the poem (which is by the poem’s own admission the key thing), is indeed the dance.

Throughout this month I will be nagging readers to donate to MSF.

Poetry Post: Millennium Footbridge

Millennium Footbridge

Song birds detune as the clouds pass over,
and the bridge in her naked majesty skeletally looms;
traversing the river is hard enough while sober,

never mind when gin paints cheeks in red blooms.
‘Cross the water there lies a temple, vast
monument to piety or to arts, those huge rooms

given over to works of the recent or ancient past.
And I clutch my bag (slowly unravelling) at the zenith,
try to slip through tourists on feet native-fast.

Night daubs neon smudges on the sky and when, (if)
the sun returns it will claw their colours apart;
And I clutch my bag (torn and loose-hanging), then it

beats on my legs like a drummer waiting to start;
I try to think of the far bank, and be nobler
for the dirty brown river is reaching for my heart.

The Millennium Footbridge connects St Paul’s Cathedral/London School for Boys to the Tate Modern on the South Bank of the Thames. It has no proper sides and is windy as all hell and usually convinces me I’m going to lose all my belongings if not my life every time I cross it, while happy tourists lurk in the middle taking photos.

For more poetry, why not try Know Your Words (with Amy Kreines and Al Kennedy), for more poetry specifically about London there’s For The Love of A City, and for recent poetry there’s Year of the Ghost: Collected Poems 2011.