One of the highest services [poets] perform is to reacquaint us with our true feelings which we put away in our need to manipulate our workaday world.
(Roger White from Poetry and Self-Transformation in The Creative Circle - page 3)
The combination of a butterfly mind, a long todo list and a busy calendar has made it hard for me sometimes to find a space for reading poetry. So, I made a resolution recently to choose unread books of poetry off my shelves, one at a time, to read from cover to cover no matter how long it takes.
The first poet to fall victim to this rather mechanical process is UA Fanthorpe (UA stands for Ursula Askham, by the way). I recently bought her New and Collected Poems. It’s not been easy to keep to my resolve. My creativity seems to find its most consistent expression in the fabrication of excuses over why I cannot do something so simple. I have stuck to it though. I’ve managed to stop production at the procrastination factory long enough to get to page 409 out of 508.
Along the way there have been deserts, pages and pages of poetry that failed to touch me either because my mood was not right or maybe the poems in question were less than her best. But her best poems become oases that more than compensate for the Saharan passages.
As one such oasis gives an interesting slant on my rant against puzzle poetry, I thought it well worth including.
When you understand that a river is a flowerYou have begun. Friday, of course, is a man,And a duck means nothing. Victim of ginIs not an alcoholic, nor revolutionaryPolitical. Cardinals, favourite standbys,Are always news. The Mayfair Railway’s wiry,And the 6-50′s found in the first three villains.Night’s a dark deranged thing. Possibly, we hear,Perhaps, can be, are warnings; damaged isn’t serious . . .(page 278: New & Collected Poems)
The simple ones at the start make sure we’re in no doubt about what she’s doing. Later, the clues get more testing. This group – “And the 6-50′s found in the first three villains./Night’s a dark deranged thing. Possibly, we hear,/Perhaps, can be, are warnings . .” – took a few re-readings to disentangle. Sadly I’m still stuck on the solutions to:
. . . . . . . . . . . . Cardinals, favourite standbys,
Are always news. The Mayfair Railway’s wiry . .
Any help forthcoming in the comments section below would be greatly appreciated.
Why would she include clues in this way?
Because the voice of the poem is a person with a dying child using crossword puzzles to console herself during the long hours of waiting in the hospital. The experience of the clues in the first stanza helps draw us into the this same state of mind.
This adds poignancy to such later passages as (pages 279-280):
. . . My baby’s local language
Is anguish. Shrieks are all she says.
I pray. Frank pays: neither does any good.
Only the reliable riddle that comes each morning,
Its answer the day after. (More
And more cavalry casualties? (8,6)
Mounting losses.) Although it comforts,
Each answer bears my darling’s dying too.
The reference to prayer is interesting. Though she mercilessly mocks superstitious and self-righteous piety along with other unappealing frailties, her ability to identify with deep and compassionate spirituality in even the most distant places is uncanny as is shown by her moving dramatic monologue in the voice of William Tyndale, whose early translations provide the foundations of the King James version of the Bible. The words are spoken as he waits for death in a cold and candleless prison cell:
But I watch too,
As once I stood on Nibley Knoll and looked
Out over moody Severn across the Forest
To the strangeness of Wales, Malvern’s blue bony hills,
And down on the dear preoccupied people
Inching along to Gloucester, the trows with their sopping decks
Running from Bristol with the weather behind them
And none of them knowing God’s meaning, what He said to them,
Save filtered through bookish lips that never learnt
To splice a rope or fill a bucket. So I watched,
And saw the souls on the road, the souls on the river,
Were the ones Jesus loved. I saw that. Now I see
The landscape of my life, and how that seeing
Has brought me to this place, and what comes after.
(Page 296: op. cit.)
Because a dying child and religious persecution are still part of our lived experience, these poems are deeply moving. The intermittent reinforcement of priceless gems like these will certainly see me to page 509 of this book and be enough to spur me on to the next, I hope.
- The Experience of Poetry (1/2): dimming the glare of language
- Brick-Wall Poetry (1/3): when does a puzzle wreck a poem?
- Seven Educators Sent to Prison amid fresh Persecution