Thursday, 31 December 2015

Poems for the end of the world

I'm pretty sure the world will still be here tomorrow morning, but New Year's Eve always feels like a rush towards a terribly important global deadline. What if we don't make it? What if this is it?

 So here's a final reading recommendation from a student for the end of the year: Ray Bradbury's aptly titled short story 'The Last Night of the World'. It's short, simple and rather beautiful. I like the silence after the last line.

It made me think of Neil Rollinson's poem 'A List of Requirements for the End of the World' which takes a different approach to impending apocalypse. Rollinson is "one of our boldest and best contemporary writers" according to Jo Bell, who also says that "his poetry pulls no punches on any subject". In this poem, sensual details are heaped up around each other, like the living room after a very adult sort of Christmas, perhaps.

A List of Requirements for the End of the World

A barrel of beer, two glasses,
a coal fire, toasting forks
and muffins, a little bacon, sausages.
Near the fire, a bed, a double bed
with cool white sheets, preferably silk.
Marital aids, handcuffs, ointments
and perfumes for later.
A porcelain bath on its legs,
Shostakovich’s string
quartets, Northumberland pipes,
on LP (not CD).
Chocolate, lots, with a high cocoa
solids content. Waitrose is best.
Soft-porn movies, a Polaroid,
some good, clean speed, or coke
if you can. A broken television
stuck in the corner. A radio jammed
on Hilversum. A girl
I’ve never met before.
A Saturday evening, dusk falling
in a flush of reds, and winter;
make it cold outside, freezing.
Try some snow, high winds.
Don’t forget the radiation:
give it a long half-life, have it

come through the window in a day or so.

Monday, 21 December 2015

Poems about cutting down trees

It's time to switch on the twinkly lights, huddle round the log burner, and hope that Santa will bring you a Norwegian bestseller about chopping wood. But another student recommendation reminds me of the shadow side of all that cosiness. It's Robert Frost's poem 'Out, Out-' and it's a shocker.

It starts:
The buzz saw snarled and rattled in the yard
And made dust and dropped stove-length sticks of wood,
Sweet-scented stuff when the breeze drew across it.
So far, so bucolic, but things get worse from there (click for full text).

It got me thinking about other poems about chopping down trees. The idea that a felled tree leaves behind a "luminous emptiness" is a beautiful way of describing an unsettling absence and an unexpected space. It comes from story by the poet Seamus Heaney:
In 1939 ... an aunt of mine planted a chestnut tree in a jam jar. When it began to sprout, she broke the jar, made a hole and transplanted the thing under a hedge in front of the house. Over the years, the seedling shot up into a young tree that rose taller and taller above the boxwood hedge. And over the years I came to identify my own life with the life of the chestnut tree.
This was because everybody remembered and constantly repeated the fact that it had been planted the year I was born; also because I was something of a favourite with that particular aunt, so her affection came to be symbolised in the tree; and also perhaps because the chestnut was the one significant thing that grew as I grew. ...
When I was in my early teens, the family moved away from that house and the new owners of the place eventually cut down every tree around the yard and the lane and the garden including the chestnut tree. We all deplored that, of course, but life went on ... and for years I gave no particular thought to the place we had left or to my tree which had been felled. Then, all of a sudden, a couple of years ago, I began to think of the space where the tree had been or would have been. In my mind's eye I saw it as a kind of luminous emptiness, a warp and waver of light, and once again, in a way that I find hard to define, I began to identify with that space just as years before I had identified with the  young tree.
(This is from 'A Placeless Heaven' in Heaney's Nobel prize winning collection The Government of the Tongue.) Heaney makes that story into a metaphor for writing poetry - he describes a young poet writing about the tree itself, an older poet writing about the space the tree left behind. The chopped down chestnut tree makes an appearance in his sonnet sequence 'Clearances'.

Jennifer K Sweeney's 'How to uproot a tree' reflects on age and experience in a different way. A young couple attempt to pull up a tree, but it's not easy. The couple are naive, inexperienced, and expect everything is going to go their way smoothly. The tree proves a challenging adversary.
Stupidity helps.
Naiveté that your hands will undo
what does perfectly without you.
My husband and I made the decision
not to stop until the task was done,
the small anemic tree made room
for something prettier.
We’d pulled before, pale hand over wide hand,
a marriage of pulling toward us what we wanted,
pushing away what we did not.
We had a shovel which was mostly for show.
It was mostly our fingers tunneling the dirt
toward a tangle of false beginnings.
The roots were branched and bearded,
some had spurs
and one of them was wholly reptilian.
They had been where we had not
and held a knit gravity
that was not in their will to let go.
We bent the trunk to the ground and sat on it,
twisted from all angles.
How like ropes it was,
the sickly thing asserting its will
only now at the end,
blind but beyond
the idea of leaving the earth.

Wednesday, 16 December 2015

Write a poem a week with 52

cover of 52: A year of poetry writing prompts

"Write a poem a week. Start now. Keep going." That was the motto of the 52 project, a year-long online writing course led by poet Jo Bell, featuring one new prompt each week. Thousands of poets wrote tens of thousands of poems  - some of which have won prizes and been widely published.

What made the writing prompts really special is that each one featured two or three contemporary poems as inspiration - poems you might never have heard or read, but that represent the best of what's being written in English at the moment.

And now it's everyone else's turn to get in on the action. Nine Arches Press have just brought out 52: Write a Poem A Week Start Now Keep going: A Year of Poetry Writing Prompts It features prompts written by Jo Bell and guest poets from David Morley to Rachel Boast.

Get your copy quick before they all sell out.      

Tuesday, 15 December 2015

If only out of vanity/Warning

One of the things I love most about teaching is finding out what my students are reading/listening to. At this time of year, I hear all about the creative work that has most inspired them in their own writing, as they submit their assessed creative portfolios.So my next few posts owe everything to my students - thankyou to this semester's cohort of Creative Writing Workshop on Monday evenings. You guys are awesome!

Their first recommendation is performance poet Staceyann Chin, with her fine and fierce poem, 'If only out of vanity'.

Although this poem makes me feel very old indeed, my favourite part is:

“I want to be forty years old
and weigh three hundred pounds
and ride a motorcycle in the wintertime
with four hell raising children
and a one hundred ten pound female lover
who writes poetry about my life
and my children and loves me
like no one has ever loved me before
I want to be the girl your parents will use
as a bad example of a lady”

Check out the text of the poem here:

It's like a more angry and politically aware version of Jenny Joseph's famous 'Warning', written in 1961. You know it:

When I am an old woman I shall wear purple
With a red hat which doesn't go, and doesn't suit me. ...