from BARDO

The stars are in our belly; the Milky Way our umbilicus.

Is it a consolation that the stuff of which we’re made

is star-stuff too?

– That wherever you go you can never fully disappear –

dispersal only: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen.

Tree, rain, coal, glow-worm, horse, gnat, rock.

Roselle Angwin

Saturday, 5 November 2011

mirror poems

One of the big joys of my life is working with groups. This week I've been involved in three poetry groups, and I find this work so enlivening and enriching.

Today was my regular monthly Two Rivers group of poets. We've been meeting for nearly twenty years now, though the line-up of course does change. Today we were looking at Ezra Pound's wonderful little 2-line poem 'In a Station of the Metro', and how part of its success depends on juxtaposing two images that are sufficiently different as to be surprising in conjunction, but not so dissimilar as to seem contrived or clever-clever self-conscious.

On Thursday I was part of an invited group of poets exploring the whole field of poetry in some depth and breadth. These are all very able poets, mostly unconventional in their approach, and the debate is very lively and very illuminating. (It helped that it took place in an C17th manor house – a former owner of which was supposed to have been the inspiration for The Villain in Hound of the Baskervilles – at the end of a very long woodland track on Dartmoor, with excellent food and wine; and that the hosts were very welcoming to the recently-ill-and-still-not-quite-right She Who Wears Her Grey Matter on the Outside, whose houndly bearing was exactly right for a baronial hall and its huge fireplace.) I came away remembering how easy it is to fall into conventional syntactically-correct modes of expression in poetry, and how a little experiment and disruption of this, a little holding-back, can help the imaginative process in both reader and writer.

Both these approaches are to do with how little we need in a poem (or a life), rather than how much, for it to be successful; and a reminder that a lot of what happens for a reader happens in the gaps between words:

It's not the words that count
it's what flickers in the quickening ground
between them.

Mondays are my regular Poetry School sessions in Exeter. This last Monday I used Julia Copus' mirror poem in the Staying Alive anthology (p202): 'The Back Seat of My Mother's Car' as a model. (I believe she invented this form, which she called 'specular'.)

The poem unfolds one way, and then  folds itself back in a mirror image the other way. (In effect you are reading the poem a second time, from the bottom line up to the top, but in the usual left-to-right of the English language.) Because of syntax, it's harder than you would think to get this right; her poem is particularly successful because it's long (and therefore harder), and because, by altering the punctuation just a little, she changes the emphasis in the second version.

Below is an example, written in the session (Samhain), of my own; not as successful as JC's by a long way, and I have not managed her trick. This is just a first draft, as an example; it will no doubt change.

I have an interesting dilemma with this one: maybe it would work better turned inside out? That is, with the current middle line/s going to the beginning and the end?

On the Day of the Dead

What we want is not too big:
to love and to be loved, to belong;
to not be the crisis behind that passing siren.

This evening as I left –
thin red bleed of sunset
rimming the moors to the west –

I thought of ancestors,
of the day of the dead,
of all things lost or missing or gone.

I thought of my friend and his sorrow,
the decay in the falling leaves,
the shortening days.

The old year fading away.

The shortening days,
the decay in the falling leaves.
I thought of my friend and his sorrow,

of all things lost or missing or gone;
of the day of the dead.
I thought of ancestors

rimming the moors to the west.
A thin red bleed of sunset
this evening as I left.

To not be the crisis behind that passing siren;
to love and be loved, to belong –
what we want is not too big.

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