The Gleaning

I follow mother’s crooked
path beyond the giant privet hedge
where once I found blackbird eggs. Perfect
spheres of eau de nil slipped through careless
fingers and smashed on paving stones set by father
years before. On the hill, the shed cowers beneath the apple tree
where once I found God. Perched up top, he was singing
Bowie songs and watching the neighbours through binoculars.
Ashes to ashes; Jennifer Jones kissed the coal man.
Dust to dust; Marjorie Moony hoovered nude.
I never done good and I never done bad.
I wanna come down right now and try
mother’s apple pie
but never
say why
never say
never say
………………….

 

The Gleaning is an example of a concrete poem where the shape of the page echoes the theme.  This one is supposed to represent an apple tree.

 

 

E7E6F225-1130-4549-8E24-946CAC5C1F3F
Image by the author

 

Spot the Difference

Here are some beautiful words penned by a charismatic young man named Hamish Hawk from Edinburgh.  Is this a poem or the lyrics of a song?  What do you think?

Catherine Opens a Window

So you turn over,
Whisper into my shoulder
That you’re not clever enough to be sleeping with me.
But it’s not about schooling.
It’s more about using what you’ve been given, what you’ve got
And what you’ve got is more than enough.
I remember when cancer was just a constellation,
A starry-eyed crustacean with nothing to say of whether you and I live or die.
I don’t remember Glasgow until I was fourteen.
It’s where people I know tend to let themselves go when they’ve got something to bring to an end.

Well, it’s one, two, three
Steps in the cul-de-sac
You and me,
Your feet on the ground, mine hitting your back.
We’re running so fast that we smash into the bins
And we tumble over.
Catherine opens a window,
‘Now boys, that’s not how you play’.
Catherine, just wait,
What a peculiar thing to say.

I remember Maxwell.
I remember his mum too.
Her hands in the cool drawer of the fridge and her man’s fists on the window ledge.
I remember Michaela.
I remember her last name.
I know she could dance, I know she could hide, and that she won a netball game.
But she’s gone now,
Sticks in the corner.
There’s a bus ticket in the breast pocket of her green blazer.

Her mum has hung it up to dry in the airing cupboard
In the hope that she might need it the morning after.
Just once, maybe forever, again.

Well, it’s one, two, three
Steps in the cul-de-sac.
You and me,
Your feet on the ground, mine hitting your back.
We’re running so fast that we smash into the bins.
And we tumble over,
Catherine opens a window,
‘Now boys, that’s not how you play.
Catherine, just wait,
Well, you know
You’ll both have jobs one day.’

 

D4CF3764-5B28-4DB6-B239-15B453103A71
Photographic image created by the author

 

So have you decided? Is this a poem or a song?

Song lyrics and poetry have much in common.  They both use rhythm, rhyme, repetition, refrain.  They both work through the building up of images and utilize metaphor.  But song lyrics have the advantage of music to help communicate emotion, atmosphere and meaning.  Poetry has to work that much harder because it exists in an empty space either as typed words on a white page or spoken aloud in a silent room.  Poetry has to look good on the page, it has a visual element as well as aural. This is particularly the case in concrete poetry.  Line endings are more important and can make all the difference to interpretation, to create pauses, to aid the flow of words.  In song, music takes care of these things.

There used to be a lot of snobbery about poetry.  It was seen as the superior, intellectual cousin to song lyrics.  Fortunately, this ridiculous distinction is fading and song is now considered just as worthy an art form.  Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016, an event that officially gave lyrics the same status and gravitas as poetry.

Well, did you guess right? ‘Catherine Opens a Window’ is actually a song from Hamish Hawk and the New Outfit’s latest album called From Zero to One.  It’s a terrific album with a full band sound and every track is special.  Hamish is a young musician who reminds me of early David Bowie crossed with Morrissey from The Smiths  with a touch of Ray Davies.  Here is a YouTube link of Hamish singing the song solo in his living room.  Listen carefully, does hearing the words set to music alter your understanding….?

 

For Your Eyes Only

These found poems are based on the real letters of Annie Mackay.  She spent her brief life working the small family croft in a remote area of the Highlands.  Sadly, she developed cancer and died at the age of 21 in 1957. Her orphaned six month baby boy was left to be raised by an aged uncle.  At the time illegitimate children were considered social outcasts.  No-one ever discovered the identity of the baby’s father which might be hinted at in these letters.  They were written to Annie’s married sister Violet who had moved to Edinburgh.  I love these letters because they are full of joy and humor even though Annie was already aware of her illness. They also paint a picture of the preoccupations of a country girl and life in the 1950s.

December, 1956.

Dear Violet,

I sold eighteen turkeys
so we can have a night
out in the pub,
going from bad to worse (puff).
Ronald says Ray is a born lunatic,
that was his opinion when he saw
the photos and then the blue jersey.
Your hair looked very nice,
is that a new dress you had on?
I hope it’s nylon
I’m not in favor of wool.

Lots of love and kisses,
from Annie

 

January, 1957

Dear Violet

I can tell you about it. There was turkey for dinner, then at 3 o’clock tea.
I had my cake with 21 candles. All the family were there listening to Lux
and singing The Railroad Runs Through the Middle of the House.
I think its super, don’t you?  Lena brought the record Walking in the Rain.
I like it do you?
Jesse gave me £5 and Connie £2 and Grandad two aprons and Mary a nylon underset
and Margaret a necklace, sparkles all colors and Donald a mohair scarf (awfully warm)
and Sheena nylons and Jane a cameo brooch and Granny a Terrylene blouse.
I’m not in favor of blue.
And from Julie a ‘Le Page’ compact and from Johnny, Black Rose perfume,
very good of him and from Lynn a Coty lipstick, nearly ruby and from Alan a purse.
What a present, not much use with no money and then of course, your presents.
Johnny stayed till midnight… everyone else went off at six.

Lots of love and kisses,
from Annie

 

PS  A Separate Special Instalment for your Eyes Only:-
BURN AFTER READING

[                                                                       ]

                        [                                                                       ]

 

 

DC59A75A-BFE8-4912-9BE6-D7FCBD19F3DE
Photograph by the the author

 

Initiation

My first experiences of poetry happened early in childhood.  My maternal grandfather wrote a poem for me each year to commemorate my birthday.  It would be penned carefully on the back of his birthday card.  I am sad today that I did not keep these special tokens of his love.

My first poetry book was A Child’s Garden of Verse by Robert Louis Stevenson.  A beautiful blue leather bound copy with gilded page edges was presented to me at Primary School as an Attainment Prize.  I was nine years old.  Again it reinforced the idea that poetry was something precious.  I began to write my own poems.  I recall a gem that began with the lines, “I was playing in the dairy/when I first saw the fairy”!

At the age of sixteen I was initiated into contemporary poetry (together with sex) by my Glaswegian boyfriend.  He introduced me to the music and poems of Leonard Cohen.  As a Christmas present he bought me a little book of his poetry and I still have the battered copy on my bookshelf.  Cohen’s poetry is often overlooked as he is best known for his songs.  I like his short poems which seem to have a mysterious  double meaning.  Here is one of my favourites called I Heard of a Man:-

I heard of a man
who says words so beautifully
that if he only speaks their name
women give themselves to him.
If I am dumb beside your body
while silence blossoms like tumors on our lips.
it is because I hear a man climb stairs and clear his throat outside the door.

 

I read Cohen’s romantic and political poems over and over again, learning some of them by heart.  At the time I had no idea poetry would become such a vital element of my life as it is now.  For me, poetry is therapeutic but more importantly, a way to communicate difficult emotions and experiences to others.

What were your first tastes of poetry?  Were they positive or negative?  Did you learn poems by rote in the classroom?  Or did your parents read to you?  Do you remember your first ever poetry book?  I would love to hear how you were initiated into the wonderful world of poetry.

 

04716AE8-5A2B-4C93-B913-287706FD8948

 

And here is a YouTube video of Leonard Cohen singing one of his most famous and poetic songs:-

Whisky and Red Roses

4790811D-2259-423A-8277-774B52C313B6
Photo of eighteenth century whisky bottle label taken by the author at Timespan Museum, Helmsdale.

 

On the 25th January each year Scottish people celebrate Burns Night with whisky, haggis and bagpipes. It’s a special day to honour Robert Burns, the eighteenth century romantic poet, lyricist and political commentator.  Most of Burns’ writing was in Scots dialect and he is revered in Scotland as national poet and cultural icon.  He was a man of the people, an early socialist and is sometimes referred to as ‘the ploughman poet’. As a non-Scots living in Scotland I find his poems fascinating but a little impenetrable.   His songs are more accessible and to commemorate Burns Night I’m posting a YouTube link of Eddi Reader (former lead singer of Fairground Attraction) singing a beautiful version of My Love is Like a Red, Red Rose.  I’ve seen Eddi perform several times and she has tons of charisma and a great voice.  Hope you enjoy.

And for those of you who don’t know what haggis is – it’s a traditional Scottish dish…not for the squeamish or vegetarians as the main ingredients are offal (sheep’s heart, lungs and stomach) and oatmeal.  I’m ashamed to admit I’ve never had the courage to try haggis as I’m not much of a meat eater.  Apparently it’s delicious…