22 November 2010

Rattling the Bag

The Second-Hand Bookshop and the Poetry Anthology.

Last weekend I was in Durham, attending a fantastic Poetry School workshop with Don Paterson. Six hours on what it means to read  a poem. Bliss.

I did have a few hours to spare, though, and as well as being dragged (kicking and screaming - honest!) by my Durham undergrad daughter to investigate the Satanically tempting range of cakes at Cafe Continental, I paid a visit to the Oxfam bookshop. Three floors of second hand books, reached by uneven, Dickensian staircases: books in ancient bookcases, books on the floor, on the landings, piled on tables, on any available ledge; and to make the experience even better, chairs and squashy sofas on which to relax and peruse possible purchases. There was everything, from hardback copies of 1920s school stories complete with dust jackets depicting jolly girls with bobbed hair and lacrosse sticks, to Dan Brown, to Russian language novels and books on how to grow great tomatoes. And all the relevant props, too: antique typewriters sitting in corners, looking as if they were waiting for Agatha Christie or Ernest Hemingway to pick them up and bring them to life again; ancient gramophones and old guitars tucked between boxes of CDs, LPs and sheet music. I love the serendipity of a second-hand book shop. There is no purchasing plan, no central buying system, no beady eye on the populist. Everything depends upon what has been donated.

Not dissimilar to my house...

In the Durham bookshop I came across an almost pristine copy of The Rattle Bag, a book I’ve been meaning to buy for a while. First published in 1982, it is an anthology of poems selected and edited by those two greats, Ted Hughes and Seamus Heaney[i]. It’s a diverse collection, and what makes it a joy to read is not only the individual poems but the way in which they are arranged. Not by theme, or by poet, or by date, but simply in alphabetical order of title. So on the same double page spread, we have Thom Gunn’s ‘Baby Song’, in which the speaker contrasts existence within and without the womb, and John Clare’s ‘The Badger’ in which a badger is hounded out of his hole and baited by dogs.

'Baby Song', written in apparently simple rhyming couplets, starts
From the private ease of Mother’s womb
I fall into the lighted room.

Why don’t they simply put me back
Where it is warm and wet and black?
The John Clare poem is also in rhyming couplets, but these are compressed into five 14 line stanzas with no punctuation (although it has unfortunately been punctuated in the provided link), so the poem gallops onwards in a heady and horrible rush as the badger is hounded and baited and eventually killed. But almost from the beginning there are lines in ‘The Badger’ that speak to the Gunn poem. The womb is ‘wet and black’ and the badger’s ‘sharp’ nose is ‘scrowed with black’. Just finding that duplicated word, jumping out from line ends, makes me feel that there is a relationship between the two poems.  Suddenly I am aware that we are in parallel worlds: the badger’s world of dens and holes, where the ‘host of dogs and men’ lie in wait to trap him, forcing him to become part of their world of clamour and torment, with its hostility and lack of shelter; and the new-born’s world of cold, harsh light and noise, a world in to which he has been tipped unwilling. The impotent baby is ‘raging, small and red’, while the less impotent badger 'runs along and bites at all he meets/ They shout and hollo down the noisey streets’. He makes a break for it, and ‘tries to reach the woods a awkward race’, but is beaten down and dies.

I think many people might have finished the poem there (and indeed many versions I found on the internet cut the last stanza), but Clare now goes off into a bizarre aside, telling of how some people ‘keep a baited badger…/and tame him till he follows like the dog’. When I got to the end of this stanza I was pulled inexorably back to that baby. The baby that we left in its cot remembering that ‘A rain of blood poured round her womb’, while the badger died in a rain of blows ‘kicked and torn’, and therefore in a rain of its own blood.  

‘But all time roars outside this room’ says the baby. The rain of blood seems such a horrific image, bringing as it does connotations of war and slaughter, but it is actually the roaring of 'time', the coming future and all that it implies, that is the truly terrifying thing.

In a similar way, the badger’s fight and death, horrific though it is, seems to me not as horrible as the alternative. The badger’s battle with the people retains a dignity and almost a pleasure in the fight (‘The badger grins’, ‘The blackguard laughs’) which is completely lost in that final stanza where the it has become complaisant to men, a servile gladiator, a toy. And this makes me think of that baby: when it forgets its rage, when it becomes subject to time and the inexorable movement through it, when becomes subjected to the world outside, will also have lost something important. I’m still trying to discover exactly what.

My newly-purchased 1982 edition of The Rattle Bag

There are many other groups of poems where the juxtaposition has this wonderful serendipity. R.S Thomas’s ‘Here’ faces John Crowe Ransom’s ‘Here Lies a Lady’(no link I'm afraid, because the only version I could find online was very different the Rattle Bag one), so we have lines in which hands will not behave as the speakers feel they should. We can see
Why, then, are my hands red
With the blood of so many dead?
Is this where I was misled?

Why are my hands this way
That they will not do as I say?
in the same glance as
For either she burned, and her confident eyes would blaze,
And her fingers fly in a manner to puzzle their heads –
What was she making? Why nothing; she sat in a maze
Of old scraps and laces, snipped into curious shreds –
And turning to the next poem, Thomas Hardy’s 'Heredity', we also have death and embodiment, but in a 'face':
I am the family face;
Flesh perishes, I live on
and the next, Miroslav Holub’s A History Lesson, has
The dead like so many strained noodles,
a pound of those fallen in battle,
two ounces of those who were executed,

several heads
like so many potatoes
shaken into a cap -
and ends
And did it hurt in those days too?


Taking two poems (or indeed other types of writing) and seeing what sparks come out when you rub them together can be fascinating. But having them placed together by chance of alphabet makes it even more exciting that such sparks can be generated. There isn’t any need to analyse these glints of connection to get the pleasure out of them. One just needs the willingness to notice and to be pleased by the resonances, the extra significances to be found in both parallels and differences.

Andrew Motion is quoted as saying ‘What I try to do is lean two things up against each other and see what happens'.[ii] And Don Paterson, in the workshop I attended, talked about a term he has coined for the way in which a poet places things next to each other for the reader to make connections. He calls this ‘isology’ – from the root ‘iso’ meaning equal. Unlike analogy, it is not implying parallelism or correspondence, just juxtaposition and equality.

Andrew Motion and Don Paterson were both talking about leaning things up against each other within the space of the poem. But this is also what happens here, in the larger space of The Rattle Bag. The serendipity of an alphabetical arrangement (deliberately chosen by Hughes and Heaney) gives the reader space to see what happens for herself, to make her own connections, to hear the poems speak to each other across the page. Like people meeting, and sharing their experiences, their anecdotes: people finding they could be friends.


[i] See here for an article by Heaney about ‘The Rattle Bag’ and ‘The School Bag’. http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2003/oct/25/poetry.highereducation
[ii] Hugo Williams in Strong Words: Modern Poets on Modern Poetry (Bloodaxe) ed Herbert and Hollis.

9 November 2010

Children's Poetry

Fairytales, Lies and Rainbows

My poetry workshops for Year 4 and 5 children started again last week. Children seem to respond to poetry so easily, and in a world where they are assessed to death, it's rather nice to do something with them where they don't have to make sure they show a wide range of punctuation, or create complex sentences using a wide range of connectives, or indeed, make what is commonly described as 'sense'! Last year, inspired by Kenneth Koch's book 'Wishes, Lies and Dreams' I got a group of children to write a list of 'whoppers': things that could not possibly be true. Although some of the whoppers were rather prosaically grounded in reality (having lots of money, lots of ponies, and other things that were really wishes rather than lies) some of the whoppers were fantastic in all senses of the word. There were a lot of exclamation marks to make sure the reader didn't miss how enormous these whoppers were, but my favourite was this dead-pan tercet:

I can take out
My eyeballs and put them into
Cups and Mugs.
Different children respond to different types of prompts. Some love just being given free rein, while others produce their most powerful work from the confines of a strict framework.
One of my most successful workshops last year was quite structured: the children were given a framework for an interview with a fairy tale character, the notes from which they turned into a poem.

Here is the framework I gave them. It was photocopied onto an A3 sheet, so there was plenty of space for ideas.

Interview with a fairytale character

Choose a character from any fairy tale. It might be the hero or heroine, or an evil villain, or it could be a minor character who doesn't do much at all in the story, but sees it all happen.

Character name:    

Decide: when in the story are you interviewing them?
It might be at the beginning, sometime during the action, at the end, or years later. You need to decide this so you can imagine your character’s thoughts, feelings and appearance. You don’t have to tell us in the poem – we should be able to work it out!

Now, imagine you are the character you have chosen.
Here are some questions for you to answer.

Questions for your character

Describe your hands or feet.
What do they look like? How do they feel? Write your answer in the voice of the character.
My hands/feet are….

What temperature do you feel inside?  What geographical or weather feature is it like? (Choose one that’s not too obvious – eg don’t say ‘hot as the sun’
Inside my …                                     
I am…                                   
as …

What thing do you wish you were instead of yourself? (Perhaps something in the story, or perhaps something from another story? Something magical or something ordinary - you can choose.) And why?
I wish I were…

How do you move? (Think of some exciting movement words/action verbs)
Where are you moving?
If you were an animal / something else, what would you be, and where would you go? (If your character is already an animal, choose a person for your character to imagine being.)
What can you see in front of you? What is it doing?
(Choose an object that is part of the story, but make it be doing something that it doesn’t necessarily do in the story, or it hasn’t done yet…)

Use all these answers to make a poem. You don’t have to put them in the same order as the questions, and of course you can add extra things in.

Choose one section, and repeat it somewhere in the poem, changing it slightly if you like.

Choose a title that gives the reader a clue to the character but doesn’t say exactly who it is!     

A great variety of poems was produced: we had the Wicked Witch of the West talking from her grave, the Frog Princess in a lather about rising water levels, Snow White contemplating revenge, and Red Riding Hood's Wolf contemplating tasty little girls. Some of them were so gruesome I felt I had to go and explain to parents that there honestly had been no obligation to write Stephen King type horror.  Eight and nine year-olds seem to just love being a bit subversive with early childhood stories, and if they can get some rotting bones in there somewhere, they're in creative heaven.

I had to test the framework, and this was the poem I came up with:


My feet have no toes. Blood
drips on the floor.
My feet are small – but still not small enough.
Inside my head I’m hot as a hurricane.
In front of me the fire is turning to ash.

I wish I were a Barbie with her tiny tiny feet.
I’d have fitted my whole self
inside that sharp
glass shoe.

But now I hobble
from room to room – 
from window to fireplace, and back again,
a hundred times a day.
If I were a raven on the Castle tower,
I’d rap my beak against their window
as they sleep. Smash that perfect glass.
In front of me the fire has turned to ash.

The children weren't the only ones who got a bit dark...

On a more cheerful theme, we are, at the moment, working on poems about rainbows. We've imagined that a rainbow is something you can use, and we've brainstormed lots of wild ideas about possible uses. Rainbows seem to have magical qualities: we're getting a lot of variations on the themes of transformation and transportation, as well as the more mundane (if you can call them that) possiblilities of use as a slide or a bridge. The next step is to get the children to choose their favourite ideas, brainstorm some great 'rainbow words', and make a poem from them.

Hopefully there won't be a single dead body or vengeful heroine in sight! But you never can tell...