Sunday, 1 November 2015

Mabel Harrison's "When Buzzers Blew - Poetry and Reminiscences of the West Riding, Yorkshire"

Published in 1984, Mabel Harrison's When Buzzers Blew is now scarcely available except through libraries and online sources such as Amazon, but remains an engaging portrait of West Yorkshire life in the early decades of the 20th Century. I first read the book more than eleven years ago, and it is one that I can highly recommend.  Just twenty two pages long, it is described on its cover as Dialect poetry and reminiscences of the West Riding and contains some sixteen poems, several prose pieces and a story - all of which relate to life in the mill towns of West Riding, a now defunct administrative region of West Yorkshire north and west of Leeds, later absorbed into that city and nearby Bradford). Of particular focus is the town of Yeadon - today the location of Leeds and Bradford Airport. The blurb asks, Its a different world - but is it a better one? Were they the bad old days or the good old days? Perhaps these questions need no further answer then the opening poem, in which the author's earliest employment at the mill machines on leaving school are depressingly recalled:

no future but to work int' mill,

fate hed decided what hed t' be.

Tears an' tantrums made noa mark,

on mi muther's frame o' mind,

mill wor th' natural place t' work,

mi laikin' days left behind.

Apart from the at times unnecessary commas it is poetry as natural as human speech. Though the dialect poetry may seem over done, if I close my eyes it might almost be my own grandmother - also a mill girl in the inter-war years and after - who is speaking. My own disgruntlement with dialect poetry is that it often seems an affectation, whose laboured clunkiness can prohibit rather than deepen comprehension - but Mabel Harrison's language makes her poetry as revealing as photographs. The age-old predicament of many working peoples is evidently expressed in the poem - on the one hand resenting the mundaneness of the job, on the other afraid of losing it:

Less hope, less work, mooar strife.

Less brass, short time, an' then

on t' dole. Such a waste of life.

Lasses tramped thro' t' snaw in tears,

beggin' jobs, feet frozen raw,

'til at last new industries

gave hope, no mooar th' dole t' draw.
I grant that some of that second stanza may seem over-written, or a lapse into the Dickensian Picaresque ... but the combination of its harsh imagery and authentic words enables a vivid visualization.

The portraits of the era, though, are not all steeped in gloom. In Nowt so Queer as Fowk, Mabel paints a humorous picture of a loveable local rogue:

Bugger Afloat lived in Ells Square.

An owd sailor, he wor a reight owd soak.
Various eccentrics are remembered before the poet observes:

Today some fowk might be quite as odd,

but each tries to be like t' other one,

they all lewk like peas in a pod.
With the passing of a further three decades, this complaint seems all the more appropriate.

Mabel Harrison is unafraid of sentimentalizing the past, or of expressing - as in the book's first poem - genuine sadness at injustice. Yet her general overview of the era she describes is one of happiness. The piece The Year of Mi' Life is about 1926, year of the General Strike. Too young to understand the complex political situation, she simply enjoyed having her parents both at home. It was a year I wouldn't have missed. She romanticizes silent films, playing Cowboys and Indians, dancing to scout bands. I shall always be glad my childhood was spent before the roads were crammed with motorcars, that I could ride on tradesman's carts, behind the big grey horses, and smell the new baked bread from every house.

The poetry is mainly written in rhyming couplets, but the occasional charge of parochialism is offset by such gems as Sunrise at Scarbrough - the poem which first took my attention when discovering the book in a library:

I will awaken when the wings of dawn,

swim across the sky, and keep watch

until the dark sea lightens

...I await in eager anticipation

longing for the one enchanting moment,

when in crimson glory gleams

the rising sun.

There is a spiritual feel to the worshipping of sunrise:

Ascending now,

fusing sea, sand and sky together,

in an all consuming flame.

The metaphors are at times dramatic:

The rough sea rages,

challenging the armour of the cold cliff sides

At others laced with subtle melancholy:

Waves discarding driftwood wash the sands,

tossing Neptune's treasures.

I feel that, as strange as it may sound, the dialect poetry is best suited not to being heard out loud, but to being read from the page and mentally embraced. The risk of unintended comedy, of deadpan bathos or exaggeration, is averted when lines like the following are processed purely with an internal voice, which may aid the processing of the intertwined imagery and raw accentuation:

Ah breeath in deep as t' heather breezes blaw,

from th' high purple mooars araand.

Unseen ah gaze at t' morning's glow

of sunleet on t' bronze an scarlet ground.

Of all th' year ah think ah d' choose

these Autumn mornings, cobweb-kissed.

There are also reflections of urban life, particularly in Christmas Shopping in the 1920's, where childhood trips to Leeds are recollected:

Ah skipped wi' joy along Boar Lane,

an' Woodbine Liz stood by a wall...

Growing up in Leeds sixty years later, I can well remember talk of Woodbine Liz - a "gentlewoman of the road" found in the city, puffing on an endless supply of Woodbine cigarettes.

After passing through City Square, where the tramlines shone wi' frosty gleam and admiring the toyshops with their dolls, horses, trains and teddy bears, following a visit to Santa Claus and tea-and-cakes, the family take a walk through the Grand Arcade:

The Arcade clock soa high above

waited ready t' strike th' hour,

we saw th' magic figures move,

then stand motionless as before.

The magic figures - statues in mediaeval dress who take turns to bang a huge bronze bell, were still there when my mother would show me, as a child myself, and certainly on Christmas shopping trips, the very same mechanical enactments. As far as I know, they are there still.

Less reassuring is the fate of the market. Walking among the stalls, Mabel Harrison notes We smelt th' flowers an' fruit soa sweet / an' walked on sawdust for a carpet. Until recently, my mother kept a bric-a-brac and clothes stall, on which I l also often worked, on the same market. Nowadays, the description might more accurately read We smelt the cannabis and ciders o stale, / walked on needles for a carpet.

As to the debate between good days and bad, Harrison does not ignore the difficult issues of her day, either. Th' Little Black Boy is about encountering a child on a train to Manchester.

Little Black Boy, why soa sad?

Tha' art such a tiny lad.
No concrete reasons are given, but the writer is very much aware of how the child

Watches the white world whirl along

wi' eyes so raand in his solemn face.

Discerning solemnity and having the boy listening and watching the world, rather than just seeing or hearing, is demonstrative of empathy. After all, the poet's own poverty-stricken childhood could be said to have had many parallels with that of a black boy in Britain in the Twenties. An unrepentant optimist, however, and seeing in the young man's future a wealth of possibilities that may transform his present circumstances, she is eager to point out:

Tha' cud be doctor, lawyer, judge

an' t' world wud not then howd a grudge.

There is further social realism in Th' owd Dog Strike, an account of industrial action in 1909. That November, Yeadon dye workers took industrial action on account of what were felt to below average wages. It was seven years before the birth of Mabel Harrison, but clearly a story that still evoked strong feeling in her local area. As the strikers clashed with men who had remained at work ("blacklegs"), the house of one of the dye work's directors - Mr F Watson - was attacked, with all the windows broken and much of the furniture damaged. At Yeadon Town Hall, archive papers document the strike, and a local newspaper reported:
The riotous scenes in Yeadon on Saturday & Early on Sunday morning were the subject of much discussion in the locality yesterday; & there is still a great deal of feeling among sympathisers with the men who have come out on strike at the works of the Yeadon Dyeing Company.   Mabel Harrison's re-telling is unbiased and objective, but certainly shot trough with a painful authenticity which imprints upon the reader's mind the grim injustices, and sad rivalries, of the time:

Three hundred fowk stood in t' snaw,

booin' the blacklegs goin' hoam,

...A violent battle raged fower days,

blood spilt on th' snaw so white.

Men, women an' bairs, all wor brayed

an' still cam; back again t' fight.

The unflinching account would be well worth reading by those people who - themselves often comfortably off University lecturers or journalists - to this day prefer to celebrate strikes and the scenes that oftentimes accompany them - the violence and division, families ruptured, children harmed. While making clear her sympathy with the strikers, the author later reflects that, ultimately, despite all the different efforts of workers to improve their lot, in her experience working people

Seldom won their struggle for decent living conditions.

Life was hard for Mabel Harrison herself, who was born just three years after the Yeadon Hunger March. In June 1913, 130 men marched from Yeadon to Blackpool to highlight the plight of workers during a lock-out of their clothing works. Demanding better pay, their Unions faced a stand-off with the management, who temporarily closed the works - a kind of strike in reverse. Desperate for money and food, the men passed through Bradford, Liverpool and other towns and cities, raising a banner which read Collecting for the Yeadon and Guiseley General Lock-out Fund. On behalf of 8,000 men women and children. Subscriptions Earnestly Solicited" and Mabel Harrison describes how:

The mills in Yeadon were locked out. A lot of people were on Poor Relief. Shopkeepers were good in allowing people to owe money for food and giving vegetables ... to a group of women making soup ... a soup kitchen was opened for the families of the men who were locked out.
She could do worse than recounting this to today's comfortably-off University lecturers who pour out platitudes blaming "economic deprivation" for today's social disorder, where groups and individuals - many of whom wear expensive clothing, go on foreign holidays, own mobile phones and splash out on consumer goods on credit cards - mug and maim the innocent or vandalize bus shelters smashed on booze.
As for the family of Mabel Harrison, they reached their lowest economic ebb in 1926, the year she so fondly recalls, and of which her father spent the majority unable to find work:

We had to cope with the shortage of food and coal as best we could. It made a big difference when the Miners struck. Houses had only a cold water tap. Few people had even a gas ring so it was imperative to get coal. We children were sent every day to the railway at Esholt, to pick up bits of coal that had dropped from the trains before the strike.
It is worth wondering just what the Yeadon Hunger Marchers, families subsisting on soups made from donated ingredients, or the children left to salvage fallen coal on railway lines, might have given for an ounce of the privileges enjoyed today by so many of the people regarded as deprived. Deprivation, though, may well have been said to have been the lot not only to Mabel Harrison, but also to many of her contemporaries, as they struggled through the Twenties amid hunger, strikes, mind-numbing labour, and social unrest. But despite this, When Buzzers Blew is far from being a desultory or dispiriting book. With delicate portraits of nature, evocative re-kindlings of daily life in the inter-war years, and a deft injection of warm wit, the collection is distinguished by its author's affectionate and perceptive style.

When Mabel Harrison died, on the 10th of January 2008, the Aireborough Local History Society paid tribute to her memory:

Aireborough's artistic community is in mourning for a poet from Yeadon who has died at the age of 91.

Mable Harrison was a prolific writer of both verse and dialect who wrote about the hard times as well as the lighter side of life.
She left at 14 and reluctantly went to work in the local mills, later she worked at Crompton Parkinsons, Carter and Parkers and Silver Cross.

During the war, after her marriage to Fred, she worked at the Silver Library in Otley, followed by 20 years of office work at Cartwright's and Dacre Son and Hartleys and Legal and General.

As well as writing she broadcast many times on Radio Leeds and made two local films for Yorkshire TV.

She contributed articles and poems for the Dalesman and several other magazines and local newspapers.
She wrote forwards, features and local history for books on Aireborough.

When Buzzers Blew is one of several collections Mabel Harrison produced, which can still be found in libraries, and which I recommend to anyone who is interested in local history, West Yorkshire dialect, and well written, acutely observed poetry.

Saturday, 31 October 2015

Devils and Miracles - Crows, Ravens, Jackdaws and Rooks in Poetry

With over one hundred and twenty species worldwide, the corvids (Corvidae) are a diverse family of bird, whose presence in poetry is nearly as old as poetry is self. Although the family includes such gently coloured birds as nuthatches and jays, these are birds I would look into at a later date, and whose literary impact is quite different to that of most corvids - the crows, ravens, jackdaws and rooks , which we recognize for their black feathers, sharp or often bulbous looking beaks, and croaking, doomy song. Given their prominence in churchyards, or as winter woodland birds haunting leafless trees or frosty forest floors on cold, dark mornings, it is unsurprising that - from their role in Celtic folklore as harbingers of war, to the ghoulish tales and poetry of Edgar Allen Poe - the corvids are a family almost always tainted with the imagery of danger.

Get thee back into the tempest and the Night's Plutonian shore!
Leave no black plume as a token of that lie thy soul hath spoken!
Leave my loneliness unbroken! - quit the bust above my door!
Take thy beak from out my heart, and take thy form from off my door!'
(Edgar Allen Poe, The Raven, 1845).


Of all corvids, surely the most familiar and frequently seen are crows - the Corvus genus - and these feature in Classical poetry thanks to Ovid's Metamorphosis.

Like the raven (Corvus corax), the unlucky crow crops up repeatedly in an observational capacity, noticing various liaisons by particular gods and betraying these to their unsuspecting other halves - and almost invariably suffering from the wounded pride of the latter. Crows and ravens are shunned and degraded, or abused for sexual pleasure - or in the case of the female crow, described by the poet as initially being white, who reveals the secrets of Coronis to her lover Phoebus. But on learning of his lover's infidelity, the sun-god aims his anger at the crow, shooting him with an arrow through the heart. The crow was carrying a son at the time of her death, which the remorseful Phoebus bids Chiron, the centaur, to raise. The bird is born black - a foretaste of the new identity of all of his descendants. I will turn again to the crow shortly, but it is interesting that in the myth above, it is the raven who, although embodying its image as a harbinger of misfortune, warns the crow from its risky intention of inciting Phoebus in his anger. It is an example of the raven as a kind of veteran messenger, trying to dissuade or enlighten others on reflection of its own experience and hard-learned lessons. It is also worth noting that the crow refuses to take heed - and suffers consequentially. In mythology, those who follow the raven's advice often reap the benefits. Those who shun the bird's entreaties tend to live (or die) to regret it.

Although in North American mythology the raven often features as a liberating creature bringing light to the world (though at times also as a Loki-type character who excels in trickery and self-interest), and in Germanic, Scandinavian, Siberian and Asian myths the bird is revered for leading victorious armies in overcoming foes, or in guarding the deceased (hence the American term "Jim Crow", a name which would later take on distasteful associations of racial prejudice), the animal's appearances in poetry have not reflected it so heroically. An exhaustive assessment of ravens in mythology is far beyond the scope of my intentions here and surely food for future thought, but in general its significance is negative or deathly, or serves as a cautionary tale. In Native Canadian folklore, the raven's destiny comes close to mirroring that of Icarus in Greek mythology: having delivered sunlight to the world, the corvid flies too close to its fiery warmth and its snow-white feathers are forever charred. In another Greek myth, Phoebus penalizes the raven for a different crime - that of disobedience: ordering the bird to pluck out the eyes of his rival Ischys, the god - incensed by its refusal - inflicts the same punishment as above, a story that was also supposed in Ancient times to account for the raven's sable plumage. What is especially interesting about this account is that in Greek mythology, the raven is said to have plucked out the eyes of anyone insulting its father, suggesting that the bird was considered a child of the gods (or at least of one god in particular), and that s/he was prepared to risk its wrath by refusing to enact its orders.

The raven's revenge might be said to have been documented in the anonymous Scottish folk ballad, Twa Corbies, first anthologized by Thomas Ravenscroft in 1611 but known to have originated earlier.

An unnamed narrator chances upon two ravens ("corbies") and has the dubious pleasure of "hearing" them speak:

As I was walking all alane,
I heard twa corbies making a mane;
The tane unto the t'other say,
'Where sall we gang and dine to-day?'

The second corbie's answer implies a withering mockery of misguided vanity - in a passage some have interpreted as a cynical response to contemporary human hierarchies and social systems, the supposed sanctity of marriage and Man's relationship with animals:

'In behint yon auld fail dyke,
I wot there lies a new slain knight;
And naebody kens that he lies there,
But his hawk, his hound, and lady fair

'His hound is to the hunting gane,
His hawk to fetch the wild-fowl hame,
His lady's ta'en another mate,
So we may mak our dinner sweet.

All the sweeter, one assumes, for this acknowledgement of the fragility of life - for here is the raven, that maligned, symbolic bird, so mercilessly pilloried and persecuted in Classical verse, revealing how Man's supposed companions have deserted him, and how his newly dead form lies ready for the picking:

'Ye'll sit on his white hause-bane,
And I'll pike out his bonny blue een;
Wi ae lock o his gowden hair
We'll, theek our nest when it grows bare.

'Mony a one for him makes mane,
But nane sall ken where he is gane;
Oer his white banes, when they we bare,
The wind sall blaw for evermair.'

Indeed, the raven's love of flesh and devouring of the dead prefigures its relevance in poetry as a penchant of demise. In 1899, the Scottish writer and illustrator Jane (Jemima) Blackburn produced her Crows of Shakespeare, featuring her vivid, Pre-Raphealite-like paintings of the birds. Shakespeare employed the raven more than any other bird throughout his known writings, but perhaps most unsurprising of all the book's quotations are these from Macbeth - firstly from before Macbeth's ascension, when he metaphorises the bird in a foretelling of the act that may bring it about:

The raven himself is hoarse
That croaks the fatal entrance of Duncan
Under my battlements

while later, he observes:

Light thickens; and the crow
Makes wing to the rooky wood:
Good things of day begin to droop and drowse;
While night's black agents to their preys do rouse.

In Hamlet, during the performance of the fictional drama The Murder of Gonzago, we find a grotesque evocation when Hamlet, eager to assess the effects of imitated killing on the uncle he suspects of fratricide, harasses the actors to hasten to the murderous conclusion of the play:

Begin, murderer. Pox, leave
thy damnable faces, and begin! Come, the croaking raven doth
bellow for revenge.

In Dickens' Barnaby Rudge, it is a raven that sits atop the shoulder of the central character, a plot device that directly inspired Edgar Allen Poe's The Raven.

Poe's poem is one of the greatest in the language, and I do not propose to dissect at length the uniquely chilling, terrible, magnificent and even at times quite humorous elements that combine to imprint it's subject on the popular imagination, every bit as vividly as such modern-day nocturnal fantasy heroes and villains as Batman or Darth Vader. But foremost in the poem's allure is surely the deathly blend of emotional longing with the acutely described darkness of the bird, captured in Poe's typically addictive rhythm:

Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing,

Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before;

But the silence was unbroken, and the stillness gave no token,

And the only word there spoken was the whispered word, "Lenore?"
This I whispered, and an echo murmured back the word, "Lenore!"
Merely this and nothing more.


Once the narrator's midnight ponderings, in the bleak December, have been disturbed by the tapping of his unwelcome guest at the chamber door. Once he has opened it to reveal the visitor's identity, we are at first introduced to a stately Raven of the saintly days of yore. The regent evocation this ignites, however, is speedily diminished:

Then this ebony bird beguiling my sad fancy into smiling,

By the grave and stern decorum of the countenance it wore,

"Though thy crest be shorn and shaven, thou," I said, "art sure no craven,

Ghastly grim and ancient Raven wandering from the Nightly shore

Tell me what thy lordly name is on the Night’s Plutonian shore!"

Quoth the Raven "Nevermore."

If the raven is portrayed in poetry as a dark or dangerous creature, its cousin the jackdaw (Corvus monedula) has fared quite differently. Though very similar in appearance to ravens, these slightly awkward looking birds seem to wobble along on woodland floors, too clumsy to look sinister, too slow and gentle to be anything but friendly - or at least this has been the general style of its poetic interpretation. Consider, for example, Richard Harris Barham's unusual, early 19th Century, poem The Jackdaw of Rheims, in which the eponymous avian manages to slip into an ecclesiastical court and, in a setting not dissimilar to The Flight of the Bumblebee, completely disrupts the official goings-on - subverting hierarchies in the process.

From the very onset, Barham the poet makes his humorous intentions clear, with the opening line explaining almost exasperatedly:

THE JACKDAW sat on the Cardinal’s chair!

The capitals, and the exclamation mark, provide a sense of pompous outrage, whose impact is only heightened by the descent into farce:


In and out

Through the motley rout,

That little Jackdaw kept hopping about;

Here and there

Like a dog in a fair,

Over comfits and cates,

And dishes and plates,

Cowl and cope, and rochet and pall,

Mitre and crosier! he hopp’d upon all!

Like the gallivanting gapes of some Benny Hill comedy, the scene flaps and crashes from one palaver to the next - until the incorrigible jackdaw has thrust himself into the very face of power:

With a saucy air,

He perch’d on the chair

Where, in state, the great Lord Cardinal sat,

In the great Lord Cardinal’s great red hat;

And he peer’d in the face

Of his Lordship’s Grace,

With a satisfied look, as if he would say,

"We two are the greatest folks here to-day!"

The reactions of his Lordship's next-in-line are predictably sensationalist:


And the priests, with awe,

As such freaks they saw,

Said, "The Devil must be in that little Jackdaw!"

So here, again, we see the corvid relegated (or elevated) to the status of the devilish - though clearly far less seriously than in poetry concerning his less comedic cousins. Indeed, the unlikely tale takes another twist into the realms of silliness, when it emerges that the Cardinal's ring has now gone missing in the furore:

They turn up the dishes,they turn up the plates,

They take up the poker and poke out the grates,

They turn up the rugs,

They examine the mugs:

But no!no such thing;

They can’t find THE RING!

It does not require a detective to work out who the godly gathering will hold to blame for the ring's disappearance:

The Cardinal rose with a dignified look,

He call’d for his candle, his bell, and his book:

In holy anger, and pious grief,

He solemnly curs’d that rascally thief!

There follows a rampant reel of cursing, in which the flustered prelate appears to damn the jackdaw amid every conceivable activity -

He curs’d him at board, he curs’d him in bed,

From the sole of his foot to the crown of his head!

He curs’d him in sleeping, that every night

He should dream of the devil, and wake in a fright;

He curs’d him in eating, he curs’d him in drinking,

He curs’d him in coughing, in sneezing, in winking;

He curs’d him in sitting, in standing, in lying;

He curs’d him in walking, in riding, in flying;

He curs’d him in living, he curs’d him in dying!

But, just as we are presented with this priceless image of the Cardinal - lamenting the mischief-making bird even as he breathes his last - comes the poem's hammer blow - illuminating the ground-breaking truth made apparent by the jackdaw's knavery:

Never was heard such a terrible curse!

But what gave rise To no little surprise,

Nobody seem’d one penny the worse!

Barham has employed the thieving jackdaw in relation to church politics much the way that Burns made us of the fly in response to Scottish social class - prompting author George Sala to pen a satirical report of a royal wedding, from the point of view of an observing jackdaw. The responses of contemporary religious authorities to Barham's poem, though, might be easily imagined!


A writer less likely to invoke the clergy's chagrin was William Cowper - poet, evangelical Christian, rector, and composer of fifteen hymns in The Church Hymn Book 1872. The originator of the phrase "God moves in mysterious ways," Cowper was a celebrated translator of Classical verse - a talent he put to great use also in translating the Latin verse of his former schoolmaster Vincent Bourne - whose poetry was often playful and animated, not least in his treatment of the jackdaw.

Bourne's poem, in which the jackdaw nips this time not into the lap of an angry Cardinal, but the convenient nest of a steeple, nonetheless reflects the same philosophical territory as that of Richard Harris Barham, but underscored in a gentler manner:

There is a bird who, by his coat
And by the hoarseness of his note,

Might be supposed a crow;
A great frequenter of the church,
Where, bishop-like, he finds a perch,
And dormitory too.

Above the steeple shines a plate,
That turns and turns, to indicate
From what point blows the weather.
Look up -- your brains begin to swim,
'Tis in the clouds -- that pleases him,
He chooses it the rather.

Fond of the speculative height,
Thither he wings his airy flight,
And thence securely sees
The bustle and the rareeshow,

That occupy mankind below,
Secure and at his ease.

You think, no doubt, he sits and muses
On future broken bones and bruises,
If he should chance to fall.
No; not a single thought like that
Employs his philosophic pate,
Or troubles it at all.

He sees that this great roundabout,
The world, with all its motley rout,
Church, army, physic, law,
Its customs and its businesses,
Is no concern at all of his,
And says -- what says he? -- Caw.

Thrice happy bird! I too have seen
Much of the vanities of men;
And, sick of having seen 'em,
Would cheerfully these limbs resign
For such a pair of wings as thine
And such a head between 'em.


The jackdaw's literary presence might be said to mirror that of his cousins in a somewhat more down-to-earth way - for while the crow is chosen to guard the dead in Hellish myths, the jackdaw's role is rather more prosaic: Pliny has him gobble grasshoper eggs, and thus win the thumbs-up of farmers; while in European folklore the crow reveals unpalatable truths and distorts the destinies of gods, the jackdaw is easily bribed from eating crops; throughout poetry, the raven is fabled as an omen of death, yet the jackdaw is said by Ovid to signify the likelihood of rain - seemingly the perfect bird, then, for English poetry.

Now that the loveable jackdaw has alerted us to the presence of rain, I will turn to a poem in which that very substance forms the basis of a poem about corvids - not this time a jackdaw, but a Corvus frugilegus - the rook.


Sylvia Plath's Black Rook in Rainy Weather:


On a stiff twig up there

A wet black rook

Arranging and rearranging its feathers in the rain.

Right from the start we are in the moment, as the haiku-like opening places the animal as somehow both tangible, and beyond reach. I will look in more detail at Black Rook in Rainy Weather shortly, but what always strikes me in the poem is an ever-present vitality - the neighbouring of words like miracle, fire and incandescent - even the "sound" of the rainfall plashing and almost stabbing down ("wet black rook") - hum with life. Much colder is the vision of the corvid in the poetry of Plath's husband.

Corvids were significant in the work of Ted Hughes. Crow: From The Life and Songs of The Crow is one of the poet's bleakest works. Published in 1970, after the decade which saw the suicides of Hughes' first wife, and lover, and the death of his four-year-old daughter, the collection frames the bird in settings much in keeping with its time-honoured representations, but brings it into a brutal, real-world focus, as God bled, but with man's blood.

Many centuries earlier, in what might almost be a kind of mythical prefiguring of Hughes' use of the crow in measuring human guilt, Chaucer would revisit the white-to-black, adulterous theme of Ovid's Metamorphosis and other myths, in The Canterbury Tales - though in his rendition, the raven is a crow, and can hardly be painted as an innocent party, and Phoebus serves the messenger with a similar but more complex fate: incensed at his companion's betrayal, when the bird splashes details of the god's illicit love affair, Phoebus' first act is not to blame the bird, but his wife - whom he promptly murders. Stricken with remorse, he turns his anger not against himself, but against the crow - who having been turned black is condemned to speak forever in a croaking voice.

Hughes' imagery, though, is ugly and at times Apocalyptic, amid the mutual "disgust" of God and Man, it is the crow flying the black flag of himself which nails heaven and earth together, but only in so far as the joint of the two dimensions becomes gangrenous and stank - A horror beyond redemption.

If Hughes' grim poem reflects the crow's mythological morbidity, Sylvia Plath's poem, as we have seen, Black Rook in Rainy Weather is a quintessentially innocent bird, simply Arranging and rearranging its feathers in the rain. While Hughes was apt to see - or re-impose - his own violent visions onto nature, perhaps rationalizing a once suppressed habit, resumed after the death of Plath, for trapping, shooting and otherwise killing wild animals by means of an all-encompassing idea of nature as "red in tooth and claw", Plath's poetry is more chaotic, more rooted in emotion, less structured and without the sense of purposive anthropomorphism present in her husband's. Though relaying the neat image of the bird ordering its black feathers, she is keen to establish that I do not expect miracle / Or an accident. Plainly disavowing all suggestion of Creationist or spiritual design - this poet sees the heavenly and miraculous in earthly, everyday things: the light on a chair on in a kitchen, an incandescence in the most obtuse of objects. The sight of such a bird, though, still grants a brief respite from fear of absolute neutrality as, in departure from its usual employment as a token of impending doom, the rook is suggestive of good luck: it is like-affirming, "stubborn" and reminds her that

Miracles occur

If you care to call those spasmodic

Tricks of radiance miracles

From their shadowy emergence in the annals of Classical poetry as harbingers of death, as doomy portents and persecuted victims of Man's egotistical insecurities, to their plucky and mischevous turning of the tables and satirical significance, to the mindful and naturalistic observations of these mysterious black voyagers, in which their appearance is mystical and reassuring, and in which they occupy a Biblical prominence - but for good, rather than for ill - the corvids have traversed the spectrum of associations, revelations, damnations, and redemption - and our poetry has been all the richer for the influence of these unique, acutely beautiful birds.

Tuesday, 20 October 2015

Emily Bronte, Sylvia Plath and the Legacy of Top Withens

Top Withens, the ruined 17th Century farmhouse that stands among the rolling uplands of Haworth Moor, has long been thought the inspiration for Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights - the moorland home of the dysfunctional Earnshaw family in the novel of the same name.  In my previous post, I assessed how Emily Bronte's former workplace - the school at Law Hill, Halifax - has been said to have influenced her novel, especially in terms of its location and the quarrelsome characters of her immediate neighbours. But it is also extremely likely that the visions in the author's mind when developing the setting of the story stemmed from closer to home.

The first known suggestion that the farmhouse, whose depleted but sturdy remnants have the look, with their uneven walls and edges and squared window-like openings, of some borderland battlement or outpost, may have been envisaged as the Heights, came from Charlotte Bronte's friend Ellen Nussey, who is thought to have informed the artist Edward Morison Wimperis - commissioned to produce an illustrated volume of Bronte novels in 1872 - that the building was the model for Heathcliff's "perfect misanthrope's Heaven," and there is good reason, considering its proximity to other known Bronte landmarks such as the bridge and waterfalls at Sladen Beck, to credit the idea of Top Withens being at least among the author's reflections when creating the imaginary premises more indelibly impressed on the popular imagination than virtually any other fictional dwelling.

I want to look at the literary legacy of Top Withens, and in particular its influence on both Emily Bronte, and another great poet to have spent significant portions of her life in West Yorkshire: Sylvia Plath, whose own response to the area was partly influenced by the Brontes.

This is certainly a beautiful country! exclaims Mr Lockwood, the circumspect narrator, or joint narrator, of Wuthering Heights, at the commencement of the story. In all England, he surmises, I do not believe I could have fixed on a situation more completely removed from the stir of society. The name of this remote dwelling is explained by Lockwood, who tells us of its distinctive prefix that Wuthering being a significant provincial adjective, descriptive of the atmospheric tumult to which the station is exposed in stormy weather ...

The similarities between "Wuthering" and "Withens" are noticeable, and the latter also seems to be a product of the local dialect - its earliest reference being Fourteenth Century - with a corresponding meaning. Noticeable also is the magnetic power of the slight, unspectacular ruin - which despite its scant size somehow draws the eye from miles around, just as in Emily's turbulent 1847 book, all focus is inevitably sucked towards the Earnshaw abode, all characters seemingly tempted to its taciturn allure.

Top Withens is the dominant image in its landscape, this small, huddled mass of dilapidated stone, shadowed by two hunched sycamores, a tumbledown relic at once diminished and defiant. On a late summer or autumn day it stands stark against a sweeping infinity of crimson heather and weatherworn, brown moorgrass - picture how, in winter, this skeletal structure echoes with the wind whistling through its crumbled stone ledges, inks its self in raven-black against billowing swathes of snow.

Sloping at each side are the purple hills - grouse and rabbit-peopled as described by Sylvia Plath, in her essay A Walk to Withens. My own Withens wanderings have yielded no sight of rabbits, but grouse, crows, goldfinches, and hardy, black-faced sheep were far from scarce in the fading glow of the October sun.

Two sizeable trees, Plath goes on to explain, rise like natural pillars ... oddly tall in the lea of the windswept hill where nothing else grows higher than a gorse bush.

Written and published in 1959, the article provides a valuable insight into the American poet's relationship with Top Withens, and her own evaluation of its connection to Wuthering Heights. Fifty years later, poet and novelist Owen Sheers - in his acclaimed television series A Poet's Guide to Britain - would profile Plath's attachment to Top Withens, reflecting on how alien the moorland must have seemed to an American whose predominant experiences of England had been the cloistered respectability of Cambridge University. The open vastness of the moors, Sheers argues, presents a direct contrast to the introverted world of the troubled poet's own mind, and it is perhaps illustrative that Plath's primary reaction to Top Withens centres on her own, internalized perceptions of a fictionalized reality. Producing a sketch of the ruins and their setting, she was to find herself imagining the housewives of a century ago as they tended their kettle and roasts over fires within the bricked enclosure, and conscious of a powerful, pervading presence:

So strong were my impressions of the book that I felt at Withens that presence that endows places so loved in and lived in with a radiance subject to no alteration or ruining by wind or rain.

Note how the identity of Top Withens - seemingly the natural landscape and the ruins intertwined - as a place that has been "loved in" precedes in importance the fact it has been "lived in." But it is not only the human relevance of Top Withens that prompted her to document its windswept radiance:
The sheep know where they are, she tells us in Wuthering Heights, her poem composed in September 1961, contrasting harshly the elemental certainty and strength of nature with her own human instability, as she struggles to maintain a sense of personal direction, drawn to horizons of fine lines which singe the air to orange / Before the distances they pin evaporate. But human comprehension and context are rendered unintelligible and alien among the Wheel ruts and water / Limpid as the solitudes / That flee through my fingers within valleys narrow as black purses.

The strange currencies of the valleys have no need of human transaction; Plath's distances which begin the poem "ringing" her reassuringly, prove treacherous:

But they only dissolve and dissolve

Like a series of promises, as I step forward.

Anyone who has visited Top Withens will recognise the sense of vital purity to which the poem pays tribute:

There is no life higher than the grasstops

Or the hearts of sheep, and the wind

Pours by like destiny, bending

Everything in one direction.

Yet for Sylvia Plath, the overriding emotion is one of alienation and powerlessness against the invincibility of nature, as the wind persists:

I can feel it trying

To funnel my heat away.

If I pay the roots of heather

Too close attention, they will invite me

To whiten my bones among them.

Undoubtedly, the words employed to depict the poem's location - "limpid," "solitudes," "hollow" - echo with a sense of isolation, and the imminence, the immutability, of death, is inescapable:

The air only

Remembers a few odd syllables

It rehearses them moaningly

Black stone, black stone.

However, the poem is not entirely pessimistic. The Pennine environment is further brought to life via the observations of sheep, browsing in their dirty wool-clouds. Such language signals a change of tone, and this stanza contains what award-winning English poet Jo Shapcott regards as the poem's most potent imagery: in the Owen Sheers documentary, she praised the section for revealing a kind of wit, a great humour that really expresses itself wonderfully in the sheep. Although the sheep are sinister, they’re also a bit silly and old womanish. And she characterises that beautifully. It’s deft, wonderfully deft.

In contrast to Humanity's paradox as trapped wanderers, sheep are symbolic of a kind of natural neutrality, somehow casual and self-aware, foreboding yet alluring, obvious and uncomplicated, and yet "hard".

In a passage undoubtedly informed by this section of Wuthering Heights, Jo Shapcott herself gives full vent to the imagination in her own homage to the ovine: in Lies, lambs are demented white spuds boiling in the pot, which eventually grow trousers / and a blast of wool / which keeps them anchored to the sward.

But humour and stoicism in Sylvia Plath's poetry and prose rarely detract from the ultimate impression of negated control - and nowhere is this more apparent than in Wuthering Heights, where the poet acknowledges the intractable gulfs between human understanding and the external world, exemplified by the thin, silly message of the hardy moorland sheep, their symbiotic belonging carved out over a thousand generations:

The black slots of their pupils take me in.

It is like being mailed into space

Top Withens is a place of undeniable natural magnificence, and the two literary works with which it is most directly associated certainly convey strong impressions of its wild beauty - but underscored by affirmations of the fear and loneliness, and the cancelling-out of Anthropocentric norms or understandings, substantiated by its remote position and tough, violent aspect. To embrace a fully-formed idea of this alienating, organic, greatness, let us look at Sylvia Plath's Wuthering Heights:


The horizons ring me like faggots,
Tilted and disparate, and always unstable.
Touched by a match, they might warm me,
And their fine lines singe
The air to orange
Before the distances they pin evaporate,
Weighting the pale sky with a soldier color.
But they only dissolve and dissolve
Like a series of promises, as I step forward.

There is no life higher than the grasstops
Or the hearts of sheep, and the wind
Pours by like destiny, bending
Everything in one direction.
I can feel it trying
To funnel my heat away.
If I pay the roots of the heather
Too close attention, they will invite me
To whiten my bones among them.

The sheep know where they are,
Browsing in their dirty wool-clouds,
Grey as the weather.
The black slots of their pupils take me in.
It is like being mailed into space,
A thin, silly message.
They stand about in grandmotherly disguise,
All wig curls and yellow teeth
And hard, marbly baas.

I come to wheel ruts, and water
Limpid as the solitudes
That flee through my fingers.
Hollow doorsteps go from grass to grass;
Lintel and sill have unhinged themselves.
Of people the air only
Remembers a few odd syllables.
It rehearses them moaningly:
Black stone, black stone.

The sky leans on me, me, the one upright
Among the horizontals.
The grass is beating its head distractedly.
It is too delicate
For a life in such company;
Darkness terrifies it.
Now, in valleys narrow
And black as purses, the house lights
Gleam like small change.

Both this emotive poem, and the brilliant novel from which it takes its name, evoke an unrepentantly pessimistic, Gothic portrait of the moorland heights of Northern England.

 Yet just as the true, dark - at times grotesque - quality of Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights is often overlooked by those who market the book or its mass-market merchandise as one-dimensionally romantic (or "passionate" - an adjective which is certainly accurate, though often in a different way to which those yet to read the book may have been given to expect), so too is the occasionally delicate and loving tenderness of Sylvia Plath's poem often overlooked, or overshadowed by the brooding weight of its black stone and destiny-laden winds.

 For there is a kind of valedictory defiance to be found among the roots of heather and the high grasstops, where the true, wild life knows its own identity and power, where the sturdy, reliable sheep persist, sustain, and survive, and where beyond the dissolving horizons the warmth of distant house lights gleams like small change.  In both these towering, triumphant works, is the spirit of a place preserved, and within them we discover the somehow mythic yet physical, corporeal essence of a place "loved in lived in" and embodying a radiance subject to no alteration by wind or rain.


Monday, 28 September 2015

The Brontes in Halifax


The first book to bear the family name of Bronte was printed in Halifax - the Reverend Patrick Bronte’s Cottage Poems, published in 1811.

My food is but spare, begins The Cottager’s Hymn,

And humble my cot,

Yet Jesus dwells there

And blesses my lot.

Such is the theme and style of the poetry. In the introduction, Patrick is forthright in his explanations of its purpose: Cottage Poems … is chiefly designed for the lower classes of society … For the convenience of the unlearned and poor, the Author has not written much… has aimed at simplicity, plainness, and perspicity, both in manner and style. The poems are fairly simple, their arguments easy to grasp, perhaps na├»ve in parts, yet coloured by a personalised conviction:

Though thinly I'm clad,

And tempests oft roll,

He's raiment, and bread,

And drink to my soul.

The Reverend, having travelled from Ireland to Shropshire and eventually to Yorkshire, was an accomplished writer, being the author of a great many letters to, among other papers, The Leeds Mercury, in which he wrote earnestly on subjects such as education, labour rights and the need for decent housing, and in his poetry he just as zealously rebuked the slipping standards of society, material greed and vain hopes - comparing the latter to spiders’ webs blown apart by winds.  

In 1810 came his first poetry publication, a poem composed and published in a newspaper while he was living in Dewsbury, near Bradford, where he worked as a curate.  In keeping with its author’s firm belief in Christian modesty, Winter Evening Thoughts, appeared anonymously, but its vivid depictions of the lives of the poor are clearly intended to make an impact:

Where blinking embers scarcely glow,

And rushlight only serves to show

What well may move the deepest sigh,

And force a tear from pity's eye.

You there may see a meagre pair,

Worn out with labour, grief and care.

A year later, and now happy to gain recognition for his writing, Bronte produced his Cottage Poems, written in his leisure hours while pursuing his duties as a curate, and including a re-written version of his earlier published piece.  In a newspaper advertisement he delightedly described how When released from his clerical avocations, the Author was occupied in writing ... from morning till noon, and from noon till night, his employment was full of real, indescribable pleasure such as he could wish to taste as long as he lives.
"Indescribable pleasure" seems almost anathema to such a straight-laced man of traditional values, whose advice to a younger man urged restraint, forbearance and a plea to 

Remember still to fear the Lord,

To live, as well as preach, His word,
And wield the Gospel's two-edged sword,

(Epistle To A Young Clergyman)

Religion, clearly, formed the chief concern in Patrick Bronte’s view of life, and his political beliefs were accordingly built around this central anchor.  While instrumental in the installation of a new irrigation system designed for healthy drinking, he also worked as a school examiner, organised the building of a Sunday School, and felt it his duty to inculcate his Christianity into the young. His most overtly political poem, Epistle to the Labouring Poor, begins, much like Shelley’s Song To The Men of England, with a descriptive overview of the poem’s collective subjects, as defined by their daily work: 

All you who turn the sturdy soil 

or ply the loom with daily toil 

And lowly on through life turmoil 

For scanty fare

but there are few further similarities with Shelley’s impassioned plea for Revolution. Instead of encouraging the workers to "forge arms", he urges them to attend to his advice, which is, he assures us, 

freely penned, devoid of art,

In homely style, '

Tis meant to ward off Satan's dart,

And show his guile. 

The general message of the ensuing poem is that those labouring to make money for those in all the pomp of wealth and pride should realise that the rich are rarely happy anyway, for the more they get the more they want. The poet ends by reminding the lumpen-proletariat that though you dwell in cots obscure, All guilty, ragged, hungry, poor, their lot is actually a good one, since the love of God can be counted on throughout the years of hardship.

 The focus on patient endurance chimes with the writing of his wife - in 1812, Patrick married Maria Branwell, a Cornish lady who met him on a visit North, and whose sole published work was to be a pamphlet mirroring many of her husband’s attitudes, entitled The Advantages of Poverty in Religious Concerns. Against the flaming backdrop of the Luddite riots, the turmoil of Revolutionary Europe, and the fight for Catholic Emancipation - a cause to which the Anglican was sympathetic as his letters to the papers show - it is perhaps not surprising that this compassionate, yet nonetheless characteristically cautious and unobtrusive man might take a somewhat more guarded approach to politics than young radicals such as Shelley.  Although supporting industrial legislation aimed at stemming the exploitation of the infant poor, and educational schemes designed to boost the chances of their betterment, the churchman was less concerned with ameliorative assaults on poverty, than with encouraging his readers to accept their lot, at least in the short term, and see their suffering in the context of faith:

Christ says to all with sin oppressed,

'Come here, and taste of heavenly rest,

Receive Me as your friendly guest

Into your cots;

In Me you shall be rich and blest,

Though mean your lots.

And yet, not all of the clergyman’s poetry was dominated by piety, at least not overtly. The poet who describes almost threateningly how 

God in thunder spoke

His fiery Law, whilst curling smoke,

In terror fierce, from Sinai broke,

Midst raging flame!

Could also celebrate the wonders of the natural world:

Throughout the cloudless sky

Of light unsullied blue,

The larks their matins raised,

Whilst on my dizzy view,

Like dusky motes,

They winged their way

Till vanished in

The blaze of day.

The linnets sweetly sang

On every fragrant thorn,

Whilst from the tangled wood

The blackbirds hailed the morn;

For the most part, though, Patrick Bronte was a poet concerned with temperance and self-restraint:

And dress nor slovenly nor gay,

Nor sternly act; nor trifling play;

Still keep the golden middle way

Whate'er betide you;

And ne'er through giddy pleasures stray,

Though fools deride you.

It is difficult to imagine Patrick’s son Branwell, known for his sociable, pleasure-seeking lifestyle, conforming to these puritanical suggestions.  Branwell’s tragic life was cut short after several torrid years struggling with illnesses, thanks to which he eventually succumbed to opium, a substance that, along with his addictive need for alcohol, battered him both physically and mentally. One of the happier periods of the young man’s life, though, came in the early 1840’s, when he lived and worked as a railway clerk first at Sowerby Bridge, and then at Luddenden.  In The Brontes, Juliet Barker writes how the chief merit of his new job was his proximity to the literary, artistic and musical circles of Halifax, a town long renowned for its culture.  John Frobisher, the organist at Halifax Parish Church, was a prolific organizer of concerts … there were regular, if bizarre, lectures in the town and, in December, a newly refurbished and reorganized Halifax Theatre opened …

As for his father before him, Halifax proved a significant place for Branwell Bronte, but his presence in the area was preceded by that of his sister Emily, whose experiences were somewhat different.

My sister Emily, wrote Charlotte Bronte to her friend Ellen Nussey in September 1838, is gone into a situation in a large school of nearly forty pupils, near Halifax.This school, presided over by the sister of a Halifax banker, was Law Hill, Southoworam, a girls’ school which opened in 1825 on the site of a former warehouse.  Emily Bronte, aged nineteen, arrived at Law Hill to work in a senior capacity, replacing the sister of its Headmistress, who had helped in the running of the school but had left to marry.  It was to be a most fortuitous appointment.

Law Hill, writes Juliet Barker, stands in glorious isolation high on a hillside with panoramic views across miles of open moor and farmland. From Southworam can be seen the famous Shibden Hall - home of 18th Century gardener and diarist Anne Lister.  Halifax lies directly below, and in 1838 would have spread out like a chequer-board of Yorkshire stone buildings, viewable from some of the higher outposts along the hills which climb its edges, far enough away not to clog the moorland air with soot or fumes, but near enough to give the school’s pupils - and by extension their teachers such as Emily - an enviable proximity to exhibitions and museums. Rich on the spoils of their industries, the powerful families of Halifax enjoyed the good life, and unlike bigger Northern industrial epicentres, the town did not grow into a combustive glut of over-crowded slum lands and smog-swaddled squalor. Juliet Barker refers to it as the wealthy and cultured town of Halifax,and points out that Halifax attracted eminent musicians from all over Europe. In terms of location, therefore, Law Hill had everything to please Emily.

Elizabeth Patchett was in charge of the school, and by all accounts controlled it with a rod of iron.  Someone living near the school is reported to have said she was "stately and austere … she knew how to keep things in order," but this orderliness did little for the spirit of the poetic Emily, who told her sister Charlotte in a letter that the school’s regime involved hard labour from six in the morning until near eleven at night, with only one half hour of exercise in between.  It is scarcely to be wondered at, then, that she remained in post for only around six months, returning to Haworth the following spring.  
Yet whatever the hardships of the job and culture at Law Hill, the period spent there appears to have had an inestimably positive effect on Emily Bronte’s writing.  For a start, several poems were composed which offer stirring insights into their writer’s mind, as well as demonstrating an acute proficiency of style. In The Bluebell, the poet sets the stage with scenes as cold as the climate, metaphorical and physical, in which she found herself at Law Hill:

The trees are bare, the sun is cold;

And seldom, seldom seen;

The heavens have lost their zone of gold

The earth its robe of green;

And ice upon the glancing stream

Has cast its sombre shade

And distant hills and valleys seem

In frozen mist arrayed


How do I yearn, how do I pine

For the time of flowers to come,

And turn me from that fading shine

To mourn the fields of home


And elsewhere we find a longing for the onset of the spring, 

Where the lark - the wild sky-lark was filling

Every breast with delight like its own.

In the very grip of winter, on the 12th of January 1839, when she would have been in the midst of her work at Law Hill, Emily Bronte composed the following, one of the starkest and most bitingly detailed of her poems thus far, blending the fairytales of "Gondal" - the mythic land of fantasy narratives concocted between the poet and her sisters and brother as children - with richly Gothic undertones:


THE night was dark, yet winter breathed 

With softened sighs on Gondal's shore; 

And though its wind repining grieved, 

It chained the snow-swollen streams no more. 

How deep into the wilderness 

My horse had strayed, I cannot say; 

But neither morsel nor caress 

Would urge him farther on the way. 

So loosening from his neck the rein, 

I set my worn companion free, 

And billowy hill and boundless plain 

Full soon divided him from me. 

The sullen clouds lay all unbroken 

And blackening round the horizon drear, 

But still they gave no certain token 

Of heavy rain or tempest near

I paused, confounded and distracted, 

Down in the heath my limbs I threw; 

But wilder as I longed for rest, 

More wakeful heart and eyelids grew. 

It was about the middle night 

And under such a starless dome, 

When gliding from the mountains height, 

I saw a shadowy spirit come. 

Her wavy hair on her shoulders bare, 

It shone like soft clouds round the moon; 

Her noiseless feet, like melting sleet, 

Gleamed white a moment, then were gone. 

What seek you now on this bleak moor brow, 

Where wanders that form from heaven descending?

' It was thus I said as her graceful head 

The spirit above my couch was bending. 

This is my home where whirlwinds blow, 

Where snowdrifts round my path are swelling; 

'Tis many a year, 'tis long ago, 

Since I beheld another dwelling. 

When thick and fast the smothering blast 

I’ve welcomed the winter on the plain, 

If my cheek grew pale in its loudest gale, 

May I never tread the hills again. 

The shepherd had died on the mountain-side, 

But my ready aid was near him then; 

I led him back o'er the hidden track 

And gave him to his native glen. 

' When tempests roar on the lonely shore 

I light my beacon with seaweeds dry, 

And it flings its fire through the darkness dire 

And gladdens the sailor's hopeless eye. 

' And the sea-birds noisy I love to keep, 

Their timid forms to guard from harm; 

I have a spell, and they know it well, 

And I save them with a powerful charm. 

' Thy own good steed on his friendless bed 

A few hours since you left to die; 

But I knelt by his side and the saddle untied, 

And life returned to his glazing eye. 

To a silent home thy feet may come, 

And years may follow of toilsome pain; 

But yet I swear by that burning tear, 

The loved shall meet on its hearth again.'

Sprites, the ghostly, the undead, convey semblances of hope, familiarity, reunion. One thinks of the multitude of graves at Haworth, of the snowdrifts and impenetrable moors, witness to a thousand generations, the poet’s "native glen," laid out like a memory beyond the hills of Halifax.  Up at Southowram, even on a summer’s day the winds and rain can make one feel detached from the metropolis below, as if perched upon some island in the sea. Almost two centuries ago, this element of seclusion must have been yet more pronounced, intensifying loneliness and sequestering the author in a distant, unforgiving world, cut off from everyday society. In such environments, the imagination might run wild.  In her 1986 book about Patrick Bronte’s extraordinary children, Joan Rees comments on the Walker family - erstwhile owners of the Law Hill building - and their adopted nephew, Jack Sharp, whose family dynamics provided her with the bare bones of the plot she was later to expand on with such consumate skill in Wuthering Heights. 

Tired, ill, and taking few happy memories, Emily Bronte was to leave Halifax in the spring of 1839, going home to Haworth, where she recuperated, undertook the management of the parsonage, and, after months of creative inactivity, began once more to write.  

The time at Law Hill was short-lived and for the most part hardly happy. Yet, imprinted on her mind,  it provided Emily Bronte with a building block for something neither she, nor her family, could ever have expected.  Almost as if the experiment at Southworam had never happened, it was to the safety, the security, the oddly sanctifying wildernesses of Haworth that she returned to refuge, consigning Law Hill, its school and people, to the past.  Yet  some years later, Charlotte Bronte was to promote the creation of  a story rooted in the wild moors of the North of England composed by her sister, "a homebred country girl". The lonely days on the snow-choked lanes and wintry hills which survey the outskirts of Halifax, the very town from which the phenomenal Bronte family’s first literary mark was made in the form of the unsophisticated but impassioned poetry of an idealistic clergyman more than thirty years previously, had finally come to roost. In December 1847, Wuthering Heights was published.


Sunday, 27 September 2015

Poetry Magazines - A Personal Reflection (Sept 15)

There is a distinguished history of poetry magazines in England, which have brought pleasure to numberless readers. In one sense, poetry magazines are part of a long chain of innovation which arguably began with the radical essayists and pamphleteering poets of bygone centuries, and in their different ways, the magazines of the last hundred or so years have had considerable influence, from the pre-War formal compendiums, to scholarly anthologies such as The English Society's Modern Poetry, and Poems of Today, which provided platforms for experimental voices such as ASJ Tessimond, Dorothy Wellesley and Ruth Pitter, through the avant-garde mags of the 60's and the fiercely independent Littack - bullishly edited by a young William Oxley - to the politically charged DIY culture of the 80's, the emergence of sophisticated international journals, and the jostling for prominence between print and e-zine publications today.

My own association with poetry magazines begins around the turn of the Millennium. Home after an ill-fated few months studying English in Huddersfield, I headed to the library and turned as millions had before to the Bible of aspiring poets, The Writers' and Artists' Handbook. The book fed me page after page of potential addresses to which my naive poems, scribbled in tatty notebooks and bashed out in my bedroom on an electronic typewriter, might be sent, and as I journeyed through the rainy lanes and avenues to photocopy my poems at a newsagents and post them off, it was to journals such as Outposts, The Interpreters House and The London Review of Books to which I would entrust them. I lacked the cash to purchase any of these titles, and my submissions were always returned with polite rejections - or not returned at all.

Over the following couple of years, busy working in Mental Health, I had little time for literary aspirations, and attempts at being published were largely kicked into the long grass - give or take the occasional rejection (These seem very old fashioned: what are you READING?!)

The early 2000's, though, was a period when British poetry magazines enjoyed a renaissance, and in the summer of 2002, now working with homeless people in west London, and subsisting in a draughty east-end flat, I began sending work out again - this time armed not only with the Yearbook, but with a fat, bright yellow book I had come across on a late night shopping trip to the Charring Cross Road Borders. Edited by Barry Turner, The Writer's Handbook was an earthier entity than the W and A, and instead of lengthy sermon-style columns, was arranged in snappy lists according to genre. It is thanks to The Writer's Handbook that I first learned about magazines such as Iota, Smoke and Tears in the Fence.

In September, a letter arrived from Bonita Hall, editor of The Black Rose, and was quickly blu-tacked on my wall as a memento of my first acceptance. The Black Rose was a stylish softback, A-4 and sleeved in felty green, published in Loughton, Essex. Bonita had selected my poem The Gypsy's Farewell, which would appear in my collection Random Journeys (The Unpretentious Arts 2014), to be published in The Black Rose the following February. This was followed by inclusions in the newly devised Decanto - a glossy booklet of mystical and spiritual poetry, published in rural East Sussex and edited by Lisa Stewart, herself the author of some fine Gothic poetry, which she wrote under the pen name of Elise. The booklets featured Italianate-style cover art, reviews and interviews, and the debut edition contained a profile of Shelley. 

Unruffled by my darkening of its doors, Decanto appears to be going from strength to strength, and is introduced on the website for Masque Publishing (Lisa Stewart's press, which prints the magazine) as an independent, totally self-funded poetry magazine, who wish to offer poets the freedom to write in whatever style they wish.

Undoubtedly, had such liberal editorial policies not existed, I would have struggled even more than all poets inevitably do when making those first in-roads on the quest of publication.

These early acceptances from places like Decanto were important milestones as they helped me foster confidence, while opening my eyes to the styles and voices of almost limitless numbers of other, better poets - the list of whom grew rapidly as I began to delve further into the plethora of poetry magazines on offer - a dazzling array of attractive, affordable publications. These included writers whose works continue to interest and at times delight me - such as Liz Atkin, Miriam Darlington, and Lynne Wycherley - poets I may never have come across, or would have taken many more years to discover, if not for such splendid entities as Awen, Iota, Other Poetry, Parameter, (a print zine, despite its internet-implying name), The Journal, The New Writer and Quattrocento - an elaborate, double-sleeved quarterly produced in Wales whose theme and decor were inspired by 15th Century Italian art.

Poet in the Round was an altogether different animal - one of the few poetry journals that managed to appear in A4 size without seeming cumbersome or cheaply made. On the contrary, this elegant, occasional feast of poetry and pictures was lovingly wrought by Olivia Mannion-Daniels and featured impressionistic black and white illustrations accompanying the poems, which tended on the atmospheric and surreal often printed in concrete style and, as when this happens in Burnside, in a way that mirrored the ethereal or dreamlike nature of the words and concepts.

During the mid 2000's, I racked up a sizeable collection of small magazines, established pen-friendships with editors and with poets whose writing I first found within them, and built up a regularity of submissions, rejections and occasional acceptances. Looking back at the styles of poetry prevalent in those days, there seems to have been a reasonably equal balance between the descriptive and declarative, the rural and the urban, the witty and the grim. One theme highly noticeable was the Iraq War and its offshoots - almost always in opposition, or drawing to mind the loss of life. Other than this fairly pivotal issue, the richness of the poetry magazines during that decade must surely be in no small way attributed to their thematic diversity. Emboldened by this blank canvas atmosphere, I found myself trying my luck with more established, larger journals, as well as the highly experimental, and even one or two which could afford to pay their poets, which ultimately meant widening my scope in the direction of three magazines in particular. The first with which I was to have any success in terms of placing work to be published, was Birmingham's Obsessed with Pipework, an eclectic little bundle of top quality poetry.

OWP was edited by Charles Johnson, a somewhat elusive, intriguing poet whose characteristically minimalist, at times dark, poetry is represented only by a few slim volumes, and whose editorial policy traversed the spectrum: edgy, erratic, sometimes surreal - all these words might apply to the poetry he chose for his lo-fi, stapled editions of Obsessed with Pipework. Spring 2004 featured a startling poem by Cheshire-based Pat Winslow - Man Carrying a Pig, inspired by the Peter Coker painting of the same name. Coker's picture shows a smudge-faced man in butcher's smock, with an abnormally sized hand, trying to uphold or maybe lift a pig hanging from a hook. He is recalled in the poem by his apron glowing with blood, and the scene is compared to

the moment when a dancer

hoists his partner onto his shoulder,

this is more about him than her.

A "vegetarian" since the age of 16, I had around this time grown lazier in my resolve, and in my twelve hour stints on psychiatric wards, where the only food available was that served to patients from a penny-pinching catering firm, I had begun to allow certain morsels of meat to pass my lips. As might be expected of one of Jewish background, I had rarely tasted pig skin, but this powerful poem - like Liz Atkin's Tongues - pulled me up and forced me to review my blase outlook on eating dead animals, hitting me hard with unflinching, punishing truths, as when Pat gruesomely tells us, A murderer loves his victim eyes closed. It was genuinely life-changing - among the main triggers for my renewed abstention from dead flesh.

Pipework introduced me also to such powrful poets as Geraldine Green, Jessica Harman, Rhiannon Hooson, Rowena Hulton, Ruth Smith and Louis Bourgeois. In those days, wanting to somehow pepper up my letters with something that might cause an editor to remember me, I would habitually add a short note to my submissions saying such pedestrian things as "I would love to learn more about the magazine," or, in the case of Obsessed with Pipework, enquiring after the meaning of the name. To this last question, Johnson told me that he "may touch upon the title in a future issue."

Rejections came in thick and fast from OWP, and Johnson proved a fastidious editor - paying close attention to my poems, rebuking me for casual mistakes or sloppy grammar, and remarking of my six-poem sequence Dream Sequence, composed around this time, that he was "dissatisfied" - it hinted but never went anywhere, the different dreams were neither sufficiently autobiographical, nor so strongly focused on their subjects as to detract from an authorial clunkiness. Exactly the kind of constructive criticism that is helpful to a poet. I followed his advice, and a decade later Dream Sequence was published as a print copy.

Finally, I hit the jackpot with OWP. In a handwritten note from August 04, I note with a smile his typical hard-to-please, bathetic congratulations: Thanks for persisting with us, he says in loopy purple - and after an almost grudging acknowledgement that the poem he chose to print was "good", he goes on to list his thoughts on the three unsuccessful poems I submitted in its company: interesting (underlined), okay, and for the final poem a simple, unequivocal no!

Vegetability, which appeared in Obsessed with Pipework 31 (summer 2005) is as yet unpublished elsewhere, but I hope to find it a suitable home in a future collection. Suffice to say, though, that visions of trees as wicked stepfathers and reincarnated Hippopotomai seemed to fit the bill for OWP. Though Charles Johnson never did enlighten me on the origins of his magazine's improbable name.

Acumen is of course one of the strongest and best established poetry magazines in existence, and its editor Patricia Oxley is well known for her broad-church policy. Patricia Oxley is not herself a poet, but her husband William, with whom I established a brief but very helpful correspondence some years ago, is a well regarded man of letters: a poetic agitator and innovator, a rebel who became an unlikely traditionalist, a champion of free expression, and to date the only English poet to have given a reading in Kathmandu. In the 1970's, Oxley had been a contrary figure, who having begun his own output with fairly unthreatening works, used the small press and magazine scene to champion what he saw as the outsiders of poetry - his self-produced magazine Littack ("Literature-Attack") gaining fame (and infamy) far and wide. "This magazine is pleased to acknowledge the NON-ASSISTANCE of the Arts Council," its header would proclaim, with Oxley arguing that accepting money from State-sponsored bodies would leave any artist to some extent dependent on, and in consequence an agent of, that State. Littack aimed to do away with outmoded forms and concepts, and to lionize the confrontational or strange. At the same time, he refuted - and refutes - the wilful ignorance of poets who ignore the heritage of poetry, and the time-honoured and long-crafted forms and metres of former generations - whether or not they choose to use them. On his website Lynx, Douglas Clark recalls how Oxley was notorious for his controversial and anarchic editing of his 70's magazine ... he is somewhat shunned by the London Poetry establishment. Himself shunning genres he considered bordering on irrelevant, such as the Martian Poets ("poetry reduced entirely to metaphor"), realism ("a celebration of the obvious") and most political poetry ("a second rate subject given first rate treatment"), his Littack endeavour was a seminal episode in the history of English poetry magazines, and is still fairly available via sources such as ebay. It is fair to say that Acumen, in which the poems are selected entirely by his wife, could hardly have been more different.

I had several poems in Acumen, and one of them was Closing Quarter. I will republish the poem in full below, because for me it represents the kind of personal triumph that can be gained by patiently ploughing on with magazine submissions. The poem was originally written in the autumn of 2001, when I was composing the earliest of my Little Creatures poems, but remained unpublished and difficult to place. It had been scribbled down one evening while sitting with my family eating tea with some soap opera or another in the background, and hovered around in my consciousness the whole of the following year - somehow surviving in a small, bedraggled notebook.

One evening in late 2002, working in a hostel for the homeless on a terraced street near Wormwood Scrubs, I returned to the poem. It was bitter cold, and I sat in the office during a break from my duties, which usually consisted of lengthy discussions and debates with residents on subjects ranging from pop music to politics - and indeed poetry. I rewrote the poem as it then stood. Inwardly pining for home turf, my loneliness seemed to crystallise into the line which floated into my head, like a leaf sailing to the ground in autumn wind. But it was, I knew, a Northern wind that I was thinking of, it was the Northern winter, and the North, that rattled through my memories on that dark, chill night. Miles from home, amid the crowded maze of London, it was the poem's Northern origins, then that supplied the missing link, the line - as hard as any northern winter - that completed the puzzle. As such, the poem was newly finished, and again did the rounds of submissions for more than two years, eventually being accepted in the summer of 2005. It appeared in Acumen that September, and was featured on their website in November as one of their Poems of the Month.


Watching stray leaves fall,
sliced yesterdays buffeted by wind
hard as any Northern winter
to die upon a concrete bed;

the true spirit of late autumn:
farewells to days deceased,
pondering next year under smoky sky
curling thickly through the alleyways and fields.

Other Poetry was the first magazine to pay me for my poetry, in late 2005, and this seemed a vindication, as we headed into the second half of a decade whose exciting literary scene showed no sign of fading. Many of the other magazines I read during the 2000's, including the Welsh periodicals Planet and Seventh Quarry, the incredibly helpful The New Writer and the Liverpudlian Smoke - in which avant-garde or even erotic line drawings accompanied some of the poems - played important parts in my writing and reading development, occasionally publishing my efforts. Another tool at my disposal would be Light's List of Literary Magazines, brainchild of retired scientist John Light. Joseph Hemming's Dial 174 was a jamboree of cluttered pages - poetry which ran the gauntlet of amateurish greetings-card style to the confrontational and advanced, essays on environmentalism, and photographs of Joseph's cat lounging on his desk.

Inevitably, the width of my perusals narrowed over time, as the necessities of choosing small numbers to regularly read were imposed by time and finance - but in any case, as the decade neared expiry, I was beginning to find that the anticipation which greeted me on unveiling some new arrival on the scene, was fading. While the established magazines still flourished, depressing numbers came coated in Arts-Councilized respectability - and the poetry within them was often predictable, or even dull. A lot of the poems finding favour at this time, as mentioned earlier, related to continuing hostilities in Iraq, Afghanistan and other troublespots. Sometimes these veered towards the lazy, with limericks and silly rhymes about Blair and Bush that failed to centralize their authors' ire on any specific target, or to honour the subject's importance with suitable seriousness.  Instead, they were trotted out dutifully - hackneyed rhymes of "Tony" with "phoney" and "baloney," together with a predictability which no doubt sat well with the consciences of those who wrote, and many who would read, these polemical bulletins, but which did nothing, in a poetic sense, to stimulate debate, breathe new ideas, or even pay significant homage to older ones.

Many of my former favourites began to topple into nonexistence. I remember certain magazines being subject to continual price rises, due not to proprietorial greed but the simple problem of rises in the price of paper. As letters pages, and even sometimes editorials, became more and more predictably full of complaints about the lack of inclusivity in poetry - the general implication being that, as poets, we were failing to do our jobs unless the work we produced was as commercial as possible (and presumably helped increase the marketability of their struggling publications) - so, I felt, did the general sway of poetry magazines grow increasingly social and politically minded. It seemed an insoluble problem - on the one hand, editors and correspondents proclaimed "the poetry scene" was too elitist, and failing to attract a wider audience; on the other, it was said that many editors lacked the risk-taking nerve to publish the unfashionable or cerebral.

I recall with sadness the lamentably short lifespan of Ely's Inclement (whose editor Michelle Foster would send xmas cards to all published by the magazine that year), the perfect-bound, bookish Seam and Smiths Knoll, and to a beautiful entity that glimmered for brief moments before fizzling into the ether - the West Midlands quarterly Amber Silhouettes, published by Vicky Stevens.

Like so many of the former friends described above, all traces of Amber Silhouettes evade pursuit. However, this all-but forgotten gem gathered up for me my first encounters with the sublime poetry of Vivien Steels, which is widely available online, and the enchanting retrospection of Mervyn Linford - described in the magazine as a "romantic renaissance poet." Indeed, trends such as Neo-Romantic, Pagan, Gothic and spiritualist poetry by such that by Pauline Charlton seemed to drip from the pages of the magazine and small press market in those days - Upon Night's Pewter Wings; Beneath Orion's Shadow; I am a captured, spellbound, enchanted thing!

The highlight of Amber Silhouettes, though, was the inclusion of the editor's own poetry - simply crafted haiku sparing in their detail but rich in empathy and feeling:

On bonfire night

The stars play hide and seek

Behind smoky clouds

and the startlingly simple Bombs, following the Madrid suicide bombing in March 2004:



Cries tears of blood.

At the time of writing, the future still looks bright for poetry publications that have weathered the storms of the financial crash, recession, and the ebb and flow of poetry's popularity. Undoubtedly, a challenge remains in the form of online zines, but personally (and as perhaps evidenced by the existence of this site!) I have never seen a reason to abandon one in favour of the other. Online publications provide an instantaneous proximity to poems, but for as long as they are printed I will always seek magazines of poetry as a means of discovering new poets, for something to read on the train or on a lunch break, or to become lost in on a rainy afternoon. Nothing quite comes close to the peculiar intimacy offered by a poetry journal - be it a newspaper sized pull-out, a hard-spined anthology style compendium, or a stapled A-5 chapbook that will slot into a pocket. Perhaps there will never again be a poetry magazine "scene," but the poetry magazines in print today are as innovative and rewarding as ever, parts of a rich tapestry of literary heritage stretching hundreds of years, and integral to our reading, understanding, and love, of poetry.

September 2015.