As I say in my previous blog post, I owe my knowledge of ’8.06 p.m. June 10th 1970′ to the great Cliff Yates, specifically his marvellous book of teaching poetry and poetry writing Jumpstart (Poetry Society, 1999). Which means I took it seriously. He quotes the poem in full on page 6, in a section titled ‘What is Poetry?’
Cliff follows it up in the book with Ian McMillan’s ‘Sonny Boy Williamson is Trying to Cook a Rabbit in a Kettle’ and Wendy Cope’s ‘The Uncertainty of the Poet’ both of which, like Raworth’s, are playful with language, syntax and meaning. Not least among their pleasures is their explicit questioning of what a poem should do and be. (Jumpstart contains a great short piece by Raworth on his poem and the sequence it comes from which is well worth reading.)
Fool that I was and stung by Foal Failure I took in these poems to the class of nine and ten-year olds I was working with at the time. I had considered ‘Birth of the Foal’ to be a banker of a poem in the classroom. There was no way it could fail. It failed dismally. I had nothing left to lose.
The riot I expected never happened. I am not saying the lessons we did on ’8.06 p.m. June 10th 1970′, Sonny Boy Williamson and ‘The Uncertainty of the Poet’ were comfortable or easy, but I will go to my grave knowing those children engaged with them in a way that surprised and delighted me, taking us all into a place of deep discussion and debate I would not have thought possible.
The poems they wrote arising from these discussions were some of the most challenging I have read anywhere, by anybody. Overnight they transformed themselves into the most avant-garde group of writers I have worked with.
I spend a lot of my time reflecting on what we mean by ‘signs of progress’ in the creative work of young writers. I spend just as much time reflecting on what this looks like in the work of beginner teachers. One of my very tentative conclusions goes something like this: it is about risk. Now we can debate for the next ten years what we mean by this, so I am going to use a very narrow definition here to explain what I mean by risk in this instance. I take it to mean the capacity to proceed along a line of action (teaching, writing) knowing at any moment the whole thing could collapse around you but proceeding anyway in good faith with resilience and joy and tenacity. The poets I am drawn to (Jean Sprackland, Peter Carpenter, Andy Brown, Siân Hughes, Ann Gray, Deryn Rees-Jones, Christopher Southgate, Michael Laskey) do this time and again in their poems. Like the geese in Raymond Carver’s ‘Prosser’, I have the feeling they will die for it, to get to the place where they do not wholly know what they are doing.
In simple terms ’8.06 p.m. June 10th 1970′ saved my life one spring afternoon in a classroom in Exeter because it gave to me much more than I had dared hope possible. But it was more than that of course. Everything was suddenly on the line. I had nothing left to lose.
8.06 p.m. June 10th 1970
Tom Raworth (from Jumpstart, ed. Cliff Yates, Poetry Society, 1999)
I have said before that one of the most useful things I have done in my life was to be a member of a group of poets who would meet to workshop each other’s poems, between 2003-05.
Every five weeks or so the poets in the group would meet in my kitchen over coffee and Danish to discuss poems which we were drafting. Each poet would read out their poem and then listen, in silence, while the rest of us made observations, comments and criticisms. Only when the rest of us had finished were authors allowed to respond. The format never changed.
Rather grandly, we called ourselves the South West Writers group. The group comprised serious poetic talent and range, namely: Andy Brown, Ann Gray, Candy Neubert, Christopher Southgate, Hilary Menos and Julie-ann Rowell. The purpose was not become like each other, but to enable to become more like ourselves. Julie-ann writes differently from Ann and from Candy, who in turn is different from Hilary. There’s room for all of us.
I first read ‘Slaughterhouse’ at my kitchen table, in the company of these great people. There is always a special kind of hush, filled with nervousness and expectation, that descends as a new poem is brought to the table. In the cases of poems as rare and exciting as ‘Slaughterhouse’ it is especially freighted with anticipation.
Memory being what it is, this is far from reliable, but I think it may have been one of the especially rare poems from that time that we did not want to see changed at all.
What I love about the poem is the way it moves from warmth to coldness without ever raising its voice above a tone of voice which is closer to the intimate whispering of secrets across a pillow than it is the finality of a last will and testament.
I take great pleasure from the poem’s plain diction spiced with words like ‘rollicking’ and ‘striating’. I love the singsong music of ‘nudge’, ‘truck’ and ‘crush’; and ‘face’, ‘gates’ and ‘race’ masking the ‘necessary force’ and logic of the poem’s grim subject matter. There are also great phrases here: ‘the captive bolt’s blind kiss’; ‘the precise and subtle use of knives’; ‘couched in the companionable chill’.
I find the latter especially arresting, for it seems a summary of how the poem has created its effects upon the reader. For one thing, ‘couched in the companionable chill’ is extremely difficult to say out loud. It is as though the clot it creates in the throat mimics in the body the slow realisation to the mind the finality of its setting.
And what brilliantly odd words they are to put together. ‘Couched’ has a sense of something being put to bed, and of carrying extra meaning. ‘Companionable’ and ‘chill’ bounce off each other, rather like the carcasses the poem describes, each echoing the other’s ‘i’ and ‘l’ sounds, but incompletely, reminding us that however satisfyingly the poem serves up its pleasures, it can inevitably end only one way.
Let it be done here, here where death
is all in a day’s work, and by men who deal
in the thing itself. Spare me a slow decline,
years of pain and pills, months in bed,
weeks of too few visits, then too many.
Instead, give me a brief and rollicking rise
through Devon lanes, sun striating my face,
a gentle nudge out of the truck and into the gates
of the cattle race, the open arms of the crush
and the captive bolt’s blind kiss.
Roll me over the grid in the next room
into the warm and expert hands of these,
the last men on earth to hold me; men skilled
in the precise and subtle use of knives,
the exercise of necessary force.
Then winch me through to where the others hang,
trimmed and tagged, bumping haunch to haunch,
couched in the companionable chill.
Hilary Menos, from Berg (Seren, 2009)
I began writing the Lifesaving Poems series of blog posts in May 2010. The idea was to celebrate the poems that I had spent the previous year copying by hand into a notebook. This is a personal anthology of arbitrary tastes and rules: to include a poem I had to be able to remember where I was when I first read or heard it; and I only allowed myself one poem per poet.
Here are the next ten:
Derek Mahon: Everything is Going to Be All right
While I am inside what John Gardner calls the dream of its narrative I am once again prepared to believe and live it a little stronger.
Elizabeth Jennings: A Letter to Peter Levi
A masterful exercise in delayed gratification.
All that happens is a man helping his wife into her coat in a coffee shop. It is completely harrowing.
Patrick Kavanagh: Wet Evening in April
I broke the habit of a lifetime and discussed money with my wife.
Moniza Alvi: I Would Like to be a Dot in a Painting by Miro
‘But it’s fine where I am’.
Sharon Olds: Looking at Them Asleep
When you need poetry to breathe and make sense of who you are as much as you do food and a roof over your head.
Stephen Berg: Eating Outside
An almost Chekhovian sensibility, with its cataloguing of ‘beautiful women’, ‘talk about work and love’ and overt symbolism of the moon.
Naomi Jaffa: Some of the Usual
A kind of force-field of rapt inclusivity.
Raymond Carver: Prosser
The lines move from natural symbol, to simple action, to emotional discovery.
Hugo Williams: Tides; Douglas Dunn: Roofs of Terry Street
We were sitting on the balcony with coffee and the papers, having got up late one Saturday morning, when I began glancing through this little book of poems…
The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for this blog.
Here’s an excerpt:
4,329 films were submitted to the 2012 Cannes Film Festival. This blog had 16,000 views in 2012. If each view were a film, this blog would power 4 Film Festivals