Friday, 21 April 2017

Quartz in a Stone - Nature and Mystery in the Poetry of Geoffrey Grigson

The work of Cornish poet Geoffrey Grigson (1905 – 1985) is characterised by an idiosyncratically contemplative style which, just like his trenchant views of poetry, has often been known to divide opinion.  Working diversely as teacher, broadcaster, BBC radio editor and art critic, Grigson was an authority on botany and produced several highly acclaimed books about the natural world, yet it is surely as a poet that Grigson, who dismissed his years at Oxford (which resulted in a third-class degree in English) as “a profitless sojourn,” is best remembered.  His oeuvre might be taken as a kind of symphony of nature – a panoply in which Man is but one part.  The worst of his poetry is ordinary and uninspiring, the best looks beyond the horizons of the every day and attempts to pierce the layers of perception and interpret the mysteries of the Universe in a way which combines our understanding of different places, different things, different lives.  It is a poetry of unexpected unities, symbiotics and relationships:
Two are together, I tell you
A slope of a vowel, are a corner;
Grass short as a garden,
Uncoiling, Foxgloves, water

Grigson’s many books of poetry, are regarded as among the finest in the history of English literature by his many admirers, yet have never quite achieved the all-encompassing, widespread and barrier-defying popularity heaped on those by more “accessible” poets of his generation such as Betjeman, Hughes or Heaney.  One can hardly imagine Grigson, with his preference for visionary high-art, as a champion of poetry in education; his love of traditionalism would presumably preclude endorsement of the Martian poets or even the Revival, yet his own poetry can also be difficult and rooted in exclusive regional knowledge.  Seamus Heaney’s brilliance lies in his ability to communicate the spirit of his own native history and landscapes with wider society; Grigson’s in his habit of looking deep into a riddle and uncovering another riddle.  We might easily follow the gist of his descriptions, understand his writing in a linear, straightforward way, but instead of answers, we will be left with further questions.  In Before A Fall, he presents us, like a story by Italo Calvino or a meditation from the mind of Kafka, with this irresistible, revealing, vintage gem:

And what was the big room he walked in?
The big room he walked in,
Over the smooth floor, 
Under the sky light,
Was his own brain.

At the heart of Grigson’s reputation lies paradox.  As editor New Verse magazine in the late 1930’s, he steadfastly opposed the rising trends of ambiguity and imprecision beginning to colonize the world of poetry, yet also railed against the overly exclamatory and argued that his magazine ought not to become “an organ for left-wing politics.”  Grigson infamously claimed the use of a metaphorical “billhook” which he would use to drag up examples of what he felt was poetry lacking in any way, shape or form, and humiliate its author with derisory reviews:  “I attempt to be rude from a moral basis, a basis of differentiating between the fraudulent and inert and the active, genuine, and desirable.”  His approach to modern English poetry, even in the first half of the Twentieth Century, was unfriendly: “a jelly of mythomania, or self-deception, careerism, dishonesty, and ineptitude.”  And he extended his criticisms of poets to an overview of their apparently deficient moral fibre: “the scarcest quality among young English writers is integrity.”  Unsurprisingly, his work for New Verse made him many enemies – turning down submissions from John Betjeman, he lit the fuse for an enmity that would only partially thaw by the end of his life.  In 1944 the poet Roy Campbell, offended by Grigson’s scathing judgments of his poetry, dismissed in New Verse as “abysmal,” physically assaulted him in a London street. Yet for all the acrimony and even nastiness which seems to have gathered to the surface of his prickly reputation, there is at the heart of Grigson’s life a kind of provincial honesty largely lacking in the world of literature and intellectuals: On Desert Island Discs, asked if music played an important part in his life – and bear in mind this is a radio programme whose theme and format are entirely dominated by music – answered matter-of-factly, “No, I’m afraid it isn’t, not really. I am a musical ignoramus.”

Geoffrey Grigson made friends as well as enemies, and was as committed to exposing greatness as he was to denigrating the undeserving, as is evident in his enthusiasm for the artists he championed, from Samuel Palmer to his contemporaries and friends, Ben Nicholson, Paul Nash, John Piper, Wyndham Lewis. Grigson revelled in finding the extraordinary in the seeming ordinariness of a rural life that twentieth century short term thinking was beginning to eradicate.  But what, in the midst of all these difficult, contradictory, sometimes downright hostile relationships and circumstances, of Grigson’s own poetry?

Grigson’s is, by and large, a poetry of celebration – few could read his pastoral meditations and descriptions of the land and sea without detecting a Wordsworthian worship of the natural world – but also of defiance: it is the poetry of a man trying to make sense of an increasingly mechanised planet.  But Grigson is no a victim of the technological age, but a stubborn survivor.  Acknowledging animals and plants, and comparing them to works of major artists, he is less indulgent of the motorcar: this “creature of sexless metal” is “indifferent” to the touch of living things and “(fails) so very oddly to protrude a skull.”  The car, then, is little but an empty shell – its metal exterior conceals no firmer, deeper structure.  The car is neither animal, nor plant.  In Grigson’s twinning of the natural with the artistic, the car has failed to earn its place.  Its skull-lessness might be modernity’s failure – it is technology, not the poet, which fails to adapt, by standing sexlessly apart from the old, organic way of things.  For Grigson, a natural historian, man-made things are awkward, and their defined structures nullified and dull.  They are complications, unwelcome equations that he cannot solve.
In the natural world, there is no such confusion.  We are not expected to understand owls.  “Neither the boy nor hog needs sanction, you’ll agree.” In his substantial poem The Isles of Scilly, not one mention is made of anything metal, plastic or mechanical.  The isles are defined by their “wind-shivering fern,” the “cobalt sea,” the “grey holly in the drift,” or else the “wild black rabbits running across the longings of a yesterday.”  So skillfully, Grigson provides us not with “yesterday,” but a yesterday – endowing the animals with consciousness, and suggesting a psychology which differentiates between times and days, and feelings.  The rabbits are remembering a yesterday, one assumes, before the onslaught of civilisation squashed their islands with buildings and development, narrowing their horizons and rendering their home “the islands of dead hope.”  The closest Grigson comes to describing man-made structures is in the opening stanza, where “megaliths empty, on the headlands lie.”  The landscape is created by the elements, the land “manured by “sea’s red bitter weed, by sorrow’s grey-skied, endless hours.”  Historically, Man’s only incursion into the scenery, it appears, has been to grave the teeth of dolphins in the “scanty sand,” and the “wind-drunk tombstones” bordered by pine lilies.  Here, as ever, Man’s influence is funereal; his dimension, death.  Indeed, the tragedy of early death, young bodies beneath the tombs themselves, are looked on by the dry-eyed figurehead, not a Christian God in as many words, but an omniscient force, immobile but yearning for the helpless dead – like the poet torn between objective observation and this unending need to make sense.  The “flattened, huge and butter-yellow moon,” in contrast, “rises above the green-black sea to face the islands of goodbye.”  The moon “cannot care.”  Likewise, it cannot be blamed.  For Grigson, nature is the blameless force, which shapes the Universe.  In Consider the Clean Morning, an early work key to appreciating his world-view, the poet employs a biblical tone, implying scriptural inevitability to the workings of the world:

The storm described in the paper on my knee
lifts up the delicate mane of the horse
standing still on the road.

The delicately maned horse is yards from “the torn bag,” which “tears along the dirty pavement,” and amid this clash of news and nature, horse and paper – in which all devised by people are “torn” or “dirty” while the blameless horse remains at peace – the three remaining bathroom walls begin to break, leaving where a fourth should be, the vision of a morning’s clarity distilled in the appearance of the sun. At last, the breaking walls are able to feel “we are alive,” holding a mirror to the prevailing, and ultimately purifying, forces of nature. 

Meanings are diffused by shared effect: the flag set up by roadmen “experiences all the day,” shop window smudges are “counted by the sun.”  Like Sartre, his contemporary, Grigson chiefly recognises objects by virtue not of its design but of its use – roofs and buildings gradually become churches and shops.  Life is breathed into an event, a scene, or merely collections of unnumbered bricks, when nature and design collide.
This is not to suggest that Grigson is attempting to define, or explain anything - but the experiences described are not merely his own, or even those of other people.  Owls, plants, even flags, are capable of feeling – such as when the poet sees the clarity of nature revealed within the storm described above.  There is life beyond human comprehension, also – Grigson’s owls, for instance, may enjoy their “owl moment,” of mystery – and his choice of a singular rather than plural moment(s) suggests that he imagines for the natural world an unmappable unit of time, incomprehensible to the human mind.  Owls, he tells us, would seem to realise the fragility of life, each one accepting “it might soon fall dead” – hence its “round cry” giving it a sound “as if old, or not well.”  Yet even this uniform sound betrays distinctions: “hesitating to an uncertain thread,” the owl’s cry suggests “irreconcilable / policies of conscious / owls, a curtain between owls, propaganda / and prestige / of owls, sustained / unkindness of owls.”  Grigson has written of birds as “cruel” and his owls are presented almost reminiscently of politicians or secretive gangsters, yet the point of the poem, bound up in its closing lines, is to reinforce their mystery – “if owls live / in an owl moment / alone, it is / (not) emptied of delight.”  Typically, we are not to discover the source of this delight.  We are given no clues, told only what the owls want us to find out.  In Grigson’s poetry, nothing is ever over-analysed, or over-explained.  It is enough to know that life breathes through the miscellany of existences we know as nature, and that non-human animals, also, experience delight.
But death and the macabre – for all his love of beauty – are everywhere in Grigson.  Consider, his ambitous “Country Aplhabet,” the impressive compendium of rural terms and names, published in 1965, where he “aims to illustrate the things we come across in the countryside,” without attempting to steer clear of the unpleasant.  Stocks, mauseoleums, workhouses and even goblins all rub shoulders with beavers and horse chestnuts.  In its preface, he admits, “I cannot think of a word which covers (the attraction of) rainbows and gravestones and green men, dene-holes and mazes and mistletoe, or place-names and poets, or sham ruins and waterfalls and the zodiac.”  He confesses, “We accept familiar sights with only half the answer about them,” and stresses that the book is “about the visible.”  Yet Grigson’s poetry, however physical and concrete, is also a tool for exploring the less visible – the spiritual half-knowledge contained within the miraculous flaring of the sun, that great symbol of creation, of fertility, of power, frames the world in the focus of its own light.  Its only message, its only affirmation, is the proof of life.  It is this proof of life which runs through Grigson’s poetry.  He could be confrontational, spiky and unlikeable.  His poetry was as uncompromising as were his expressions of opinion, yet persevere with Grigson and he rewards you with a jewellery box of natural revelations, a mirror in which to view the oft-hidden life-affirming beauties of the world.  You will encounter myth, magic, tradition, occasional linguistic innovation, and as he slowly unveils his own peculiar narration of the globe, take the time to recognize, and to embrace, the
Foxgloves, water
Quartz in a stone.

Songs That Are Sung in the Night - The Poetry of Marc Almond

Although famous as a singer, songwriter and musician, Marc Almond is less known for his poetry, which features a kaleidoscope of scenarios and locations, together with a highly diverse cast of characters, from glamorous movie stars to burnt out strippers, somnambulists to drag queens, from Venus on a silver stage to the decadence and dreams of a lonely go-go dancer.

Lately I’ve been having dreams,
Strange kind of dreams,
Beautiful dreams
In the deep night

That he has shared some of these dreams through music has enriched popular culture for over thirty years; that he has also done so through poetry strikes some as surprising. One reason is the comparative slimness of his literary output – he has published few collections, the first via a now nonexistent publishing house. Those familiar with the records may notice similarities – like Leonard Cohen, Marc Almond has incorporated some poems, such as several in his first collection The Angel of Death in the Adonis Lounge, and his 1999 compendium Beautiful Twisted Night, into song lyrics, and vice-versa. Influenced by his life experiences, and by poets such as Baudelaire and Verlaine, some of whose verse he has set to music and performed on record, his poems often have a musical and rhythmic quality, and enchant the reader like infectious songs, full as they are of a very human vulnerability, an acknowledgment of pain and loss, and the need for love:

Searching eyes
And lonely faces
Looking for those soft embraces,
Needing just another moment’s understanding.

Marc Almond was born in Southport on the Lancashire coast, a place he remembers in his autobiography Tainted Life for its ragged tideline of bones and shells , the gaudy seafront and its rows of once-resplendent houses. It is a town, he writes, like Miss Havisham and her wedding dress, awash with a faded splendour that imbues it with a slightly seedy air of decayed decadence. He tells us how Southport remains within him, as the places that we come from always do, and anyone familiar with his work might easily appreciate the prevalence, however subtle, of this decadence and wistful beauty in his poetry and songs.
After an adolescence spent between Southport and West Yorkshire Almond, paying his way behind the bar of the Leeds Playhouse, moved to study Art at the Leeds Polytechnic (now Leeds Metropolitan University), where he was tutored by, among others, the artist, writer and cultural commentator Jeff Nuttall. Living not far from where Nuttall at times resided in the Calder Valley, I sometimes speak to those who knew him, and recently heard the raconteur described by a friend who taught with him in Leeds as “the last great Renaissance Man.”Given Nuttall’s counter-cultural status, it is not surprising that Marc Almond names him “the strongest influence on me,” at that point, and “a milestone in my learning.” Encouraging students to produce “extreme, shocking, visceral and disturbing” art, he must have been an enlivening influence on a young artist beginning to express himself, and it is no wonder that in those student days the future pop star would pen poetry about

A thousand pretty things
That’d make you sick,
Human ashtrays trying to turn a trick.

Arriving in the city, Almond lived in Chapeltown, once a leafy village that by the early 20th Century had become a major Jewish area. Coming from Leeds, and having through the years spent many stretches working at the library until earlier this year, I know the area well, and today it is a district blighted by problems such as burglary, heroin and inter-racial tensions – the scene of rioting at various points in the last thirty years. Originally a genteel suburb, its large houses were converted into rented dwellings in the early 20th Century and were popular with Jewish refugees; the area housed West Indian families in the 50’s and 60’s, who opened up their homes as unlicensed party venues, and was for the most part a fairly relaxed place, earning a reputation for licentiousness.   When Almond lodged there, it still hosted a red-light area, and a grey and sooty place, always damp, as he recalled in 1996, brightened only by shops selling glittering saris, scarves and brightly coloured Indian sweets. The brightness was obscured when a particular darkness descended over Chapeltown in the winter of 1976. It was the time of the Yorkshire Ripper, and a mood of insidious disquiet hung in the air…Two prostitutes had been murdered near Spencer Place, and now the remaining girls had fear on their faces as they walked the streets…at night Leeds turned into a ghost town. Against this fearful backdrop, then, his poetry of the period with its Businessman smell / Found in one-night hotels, its rent-boys and its Faceless figures / Trying to keep their pride assumes an air of pathos, of compassion, and of tragedy. As points out, the murderer might be anyone – someone known to us. All you ever talked about, or heard of, was the Ripper…Each night as I walked back from college I felt uneasy, nervous at the sound of footsteps behind me, and relieved when I reached the sanctuary of my basement flat. It was at this time that the poem Twilights and Lowlifes was composed, its addressee longing to Kneel down and shut your eyes / In the sanctuary, to be finally out of danger and out of sight.
A poem in Almond’s first collection – and appearing on an early solo album – recalls his flat, where he would sometimes hear prostitutes heading up and down the stairs. The following segment combines a stark realism with a nod to student bohemianism, before a hefty thud of Northern bathos:

All night the girls would clump
In heavy platform shoes
I painted all the walls flamenco orange,
One window in the doorframe
and the drains were always blocked.

The poetry of those days was for the most part rooted to the poet’s Northern origins, staging sub-cultural sensuality within a frame of “kitchen sink” simplicity:

My girlfriend’s pregnant                 Inside
Bashed a cop                                   Robbed a bank
Wanted                                          My girl
Get married                                   Girl
Girlfriend                                       I’m twenty-one
My girlfriend

The sense of feeling trapped, the fear of boredom and conformity raged against in early songs like Frustration and Babes in Consumerland, coupled with a contradictory urge for security, is delivered in cold, hard slabs of almost nihilistic sadness:

Twilights and lowlifes
Hiding from the daylight,
Trying to find
The dream inside,
Trying to find
The peace of mind,
Trying to find a car
And a holiday.
Trying to find a lover,
Trying to find a mother,
Who, it doesn’t matter –
One or the other.

But the biography also reveals despite it all, I personally never felt happier than during the time I stayed there, and as the orange bedroom walls suggest, his general state of mind was more colourful than grim, especially as the heady days of art school saw him progress to one-man shows and films. Inspired by directors such as Tod Browning and Fellini, films like Cabaret and The Damned, the art of Jean Cocteau, and the novels of John Rechy, Marc fired his energies into many artistic genres, giving rise to such strangely beautiful poetry as Fuchshia Flamenco, written in 1979, and describing an amorous frenzy between a wide-eyed flamenco dancer and the tender fandango of two olive-skinned boys . The images merge in a dazzling blur of cobras, broken Spanish dolls, castanets and Broadway tap rhythms, swinging from the sinisterly surreal, as two fuchsia scorpions advance, retreat and advance again, circling, to bizarre personification, as flamenco guitar works up an orgasm and cries out as crescendo subsides. The poem paints mend-bending pictures, yet despite his early interest in hallucinogens, Almond’s poetry from that time on seems to me not so much psychedelic as experimental, partly the stuff of cabaret and the 1930’s avant-garde. By turns gritty, surreal and confessional, it treads a fine trapeze between the macabre: A befouled raven / That sweeps and weeps / its way / Through my daylight nightmares (Star), the ugly: And this town is a pot-pourri of disease: / You can smell the herpes / From the scum-fucking fucks / That hand around the same / Suckers each midnight (Catch a Fallen Star), and the beautiful: He is as rich as hashish / Exotic and brown, / Dark as the earth, / Damp as the soil / Erotic and sweet, / Opiate, healer (The Angel of Death in the Adonis Lounge)

By the time the debut book appeared, its author had enjoyed more than half a decade of musical success. A more market-oriented artist might have produced a safe or straightforward book, or at least have splashed it in the public eye by extensive promotion. But The Angel of Death in the Adonis Lounge is not a typical suite of poems, either by the standards of pop musicians or of mainstream poets. Published in March 1988 by the Gay Men’s Press (two months before the Thatcher government prevented local authorities publishing material “promoting” – homosexuality), the book presents provocative, sensual, at times humorous poetry. Its author tells us the poems were written between the years 1980-87. They are explorations and observations , they part document my ever changing attitudes. The opening poem, Lonely, Lonely, begins Send me blue dahlias, and goes on to enticingly suggest:

Drifter in dreamland
Naked in your sorrow,
There’s danger on lips
In deep velvet of night

One sequence appears to recall an incident when, as a child, Almond, who has written of how he is drawn to the plight of animals, witnessed, after climbing over a wall, a calf being shot in the head to be turned into meat. The image remained with him, and in this first book he writes:

From the womb
Wet and anointed,
Slippery as a calf, half-born,
Hanging from the quivering guts:
(Not anticipating)
Impending misery.
To the slaughterhouse.

There is a sense of foreboding, such as in My Fateful Love, which may well draw its anxiety from the threat of AIDS that, like the fear of the Ripper earlier in the decade, had by 1988 overshadowed much of the country – the world, in fact – and was exploited by homophobic hate-mongers from the spheres of religion, politics and the press:

Trouble waits on near horizons.
Eyes crackling like a storm,
Send me down a bolt of thunder
To keep me warm:
The fingers of some ghastly hand
To grab me at the gate,
To test me of my faith in love
My love of faith.
My fateful love.

Elsewhere, love its self is presented as something that cannot be trusted:

And this precious jewel
I could give to you
Colour me red
When I’m feeling blue.
The colour of a kiss
In a young girl’s dream
The mark of the guillotine.

The tender sadness with which Almond writes captures something of the 1980’s, when for all the brash materialism, another Britain of unemployment, homophobia and division was reflected by such poetry as:

Tenements brooding….

Somewhere a battered radio
Croons a song of yesteryear,
Songs that only go to fuel
My bile-embittered heartaches.

The poem thus combines declinism with a sense of anger for the woes of former days, perhaps not yet expired, an idea enunciated even more firmly as:

Air eddies, like some undulating current
Wanting and wanting to pull me down
Pulsing full of memories that
Loiter round to meet me.

But later in the book, the decade is given lighter treatment; we see the thrills and spills of legendary nights out.   Almond has recalled the 80’s as times of fun and “living for the day” (to quote an early title), and rising above the “dark cloud” of Thatcherism by clinging to the silver lining of the flamboyant New Romantic scene, and once he had moved to London, the cutting-edge, ecstasy-fuelled hedonism of its clubland. Syph Gun and Taxi Cabs is a wry, grinning poem laden with innuendo and club references, crackling with youthful excitement:

On floors of dust we
And went.
The hot euphoria,
Heaven sent.
And how we lived those times
Of riot

while other pieces celebrate exotic foreign scenes, like the fruitful valleys of California. Saint Judy (which again appears elsewhere as a song) is laced with sad humour: And if I die before I wake up / I pray the Lord don’t smudge my make-up. Described by its writer as a hymn to destructive divas and drag queens, Saint Judy, which places its heroine a million miles from the magic of The Wizard of Oz, is truly empathetic, as behind the gloss and glamour of the movies, the tormented child-star is depicted in exploited pain and suffering:

Too many of my skeletons
In other people’s closets
Too many people taking
Without leaving deposits
Too many people bringing me down

The interplay around sexuality and language (“pun” seems too casual for writing so subtly clever) is impressive, and painful. How easy it would be to cast such a character in clumsy melodrama, to drench the writing in cliché. Yet this makes the reader think, and think again – Sometimes I feel like a moral-less child resonates like music on the brain, and is somehow deeply sad. The poem unites two factors in its author’s artistic motivations: glamour, and darkness. In the introduction to Beautiful Twisted Night, he tells of a twilight world of neon and secrets, of secret dreams and deals, of different morals and different codes. His skill as a writer enables him to peer into that world, to document some of its secrets, where the hustler is hero and the loser is saint, where the ugly is beautiful and the beautiful more beautiful, in the gutter where gold is found. His first collection is a glimpse into this world, and shines a torch on the lives that go on unnoticed, overlooked and under-loved, beyond the hype and heartlessness of the everyday mainstream:

Songs That Are Sung in the Night

Songs that are sung
in the night
are pitiful songs:
Themes for the lonely sleepless.
Woes to the blue of the heart
Songs that are sung
in the dark
Are haunted moans
For a hand in motion,
A mysterious song
For someone out there
in the dark.
My room turns on me,
Walls creep to eat me,
My bed sucks me,
Vented, and shallow,
Soured perspiration
Turns out to be made by me.

It would be more than ten years before The Angel of Death was followed, in the form of both poetry and prose, with a retrospective of lyrics thrown in. By now, having travelled the globe with albums bathed in international flavours, Almond was writing about New York, Barcelona and Paris as old friends (he would later record an album with lyrics translated from poems by Jean Genet, Eric Stenbok, Rimbaud, Gerard de Nerval, JeanCocteau and more), and brilliantly bringing Russia to life in his poem about St Petersburg from 1992. Galina Dances portrays a city struggling to survive, as after years of upheaval the country just about pulls through:

City of decaying dreams,
Where under a pink sky,
Gold spires gleam,
Glitter like
A dying fire,
Daring angels to fly higher,
Where the Czar
took a trip,
Hallucinogenic sinking ship
Of sad canals
And endless streets,
Dark canyons
Where young lovers meet.

Still with an eye for the surreal, he conjuors up the Gaudi-esque:

Striking drain slime,
Fluttering boys,
Sea rot and swollen sun;
Skull-faced moon,
fish ribbed, Gothic noon
The barriochino seethes

 And celebrates tattoos:

Detailed scrolls of winding ink
Like tendrils round a tree,
Declarations, observations,
Gleaming mysteries.

A long-time fan of body-art, Almond has many tattoos, and in Pushin’ Ink, he weaves a glamorous web:

A curl around a nipple,
A spear through a shoulder blade,
Two pulsing hearts, a diving swallow,
Anchors, ace of spades.
Needle-threaded reminders
Bravura crafted on the flesh,
A serpent in the crevices,
Writhing where its wet.
Paintings for his lifetime,
Decorations for parade,
A carpet for the Devil,
Coloured from the shades
Of hell.

Released in 2001, with a cd of the author reading his poems, The End Of New York sees Almond in nostalgic mood. His music had long contained elements of European (especially Spanish) sounds, along with the influence of American dance, and now, fresh from the success of two recent albums, and embarking on a direction which would further extend his already cosmopolitan sound to take in Russian songs and instruments, he delivered a collection anchored in the nightlife of New York, taking in visits to Puerto Rican clubs, the Gaiety Theatre, and The Eros on Eight Avenue- a beacon to lovers of male erotic dancing. Almond is reflective and matter-of-fact, non-judgmentally inviting us into a world of gangsters, hustlers and dealers, while all the while seeming to find the beauty among them:

Scintillating powdered crystal,
Diamente deity,
Diva Anita…

Each evening she rises
From a pile of star-spangled clutter…

Her night domain she rules
(Tongues hush),
That Crimson Diva comes.
What a woman!

Alternating early songs with newly written poems, The End Of New York is a burst of joy and sorrow, as Almond regrets the new, corporate “Disneyland” the city has by that time, he feels, largely become – in much the same way he would write of the white-washing of London’s West End a decade or so later, when famous – and infamous – places were replaced by mass-market fast-food chains:

The end of New York came on a day
That was as grey as the hair
Of the mayor of New York.
He turned off the speakers,
Turned up the lights
And the corners shone white…

No more dancing,
No more drinking…

We feel both irritated by, and sorry for, the taxi driver who bores with droning stories about having driven Frank Sinatra, Johnny Carson and Judy Garland, and who in his own way also laments the passing of the old into the new – They don’t make ’ em like that, not no more. – and slip easily into the comfort of an oily black limousine, / the rain melting the windows. These poems are a world away from the wintry backstreets of Leeds, where we first found Almond nervously writing through his nights in student bed-sits. And yet, the same vein of vulnerability, of admiration for the lost, the lonely and the outsiders of life, shines through. The same idealistic clubber who, living for the moment, dances in a blur of broken neon among housewives, troubadours and a ruined superstar in the elegiac Suicide Saloon is not far removed from the wide-eyed youngster looking for those soft embraces among the back-to-backs and Nineteenth Century terraces of Chapeltown, or indeed the young boy dreaming of a life of glamour and excitement among the sandy hills and lonely seafronts of the Lancashire coast.

Many thanks to Lucy Tucker of MA Management, and to David Caddy of Tears in the Fence for permission to re-publish - this essay first appeared in the Notes section of the Tears in the Fence website,

The Wonderfully Weird Debut Poetry Collection by Genevieve Walsh

Flapjack Press have published The Dance of a Thousand Losers, the debut collection by Halifax-based poet Genevieve L Walsh, and it is a book as engaging, funny, at times hard-hitting, often deliciously dark and wonderfully weird as one might expect from the host of Halifax open mic night Spoken Weird, and long-time member of cutting-edge poetry collective A Firm of Poets, who has, for the past half decade, delighted audiences with her own particular brand of performance poetry encompassing such subjects as The moon, the English rain, music festivals, predictive text, and the dream of enticing American grunge stars to live in Sowerby Bridge.

I am very glad to see TDOATL contains a lot of poems I've enjoyed at readings, but also many poems new to me entirely.  Habitat is one of my favourites, its absolutely stunning and perfectly compressed: one of the best poems I have seen in any poetry collection this year:

Our natural habitat's behind
this camouflage
of concrete.
Countless forlorn savages
replete with our signature weirdness,
simmering lust
and an unabiding trust in what's to come.

The stanza above is not dissimilar to the deathly beauty of the slightly surreal Nightcrawler - a bleakly cut-up trawl through nuclear rubble, piss-drenched steps and Twisted steel in the breath.  Although very much original in vision and style, it puts me in mind of those post-Apocalyptic landscapes Brett Anderson conjures up romantically in many of the best Suede songs, and seems frozen in a kind of spiky glaciality, 50/50 malice and charity:

Three short blinks and a beatless heart,
a handless clock and a nuclear atmosphere,
no more nails on the hands of Venus

The Rainbow and the Wrench is another of my favourites - a dryly exuberant love-letter to Manchester:

C'mere Manchester. I've got something to say.
And I'm not saying it because I'm pissed,
not because of the Mondays or the Roses or the Smiths
or the timeless clock on my wrist,
I love you
'Cause you're the worst.

It is precisely this sort of unexpected, inch-perfect punchline which makes the stanzas of this poem so thrilling - as Genevieve conjures up a gallery of ironic epitaphs for the sarcastic mate at a funeral which embody precisely the kind of insult-as-affection humour so endemic to that great city of Manchester - that lonely dude on the bench.  Gen once lived on the same street as the original Factory Records HQ, and I was thrilled to see that she had quoted New Order in the book, a testament to the influence of the city on her writing, but there are also many references and settings that are unmistakable Halifax, and one of the best is the lovely Contradiction.  This poem goes down a storm at readings, and I don't want to give away any spoilers, but suffice to say it is not for nothing that its author celebrates Women who are walking contradictions ... sharp of heel and wit.  It is a smart, funny tour-de-force, and one whose readers will easily endorse the poet's declaration:

Women of Yorkshire, you have my salutation.

I first saw Genevieve Walsh perform at a packed Puzzle Poets in August 2013, and I remember the poems she read that night almost word for word nearly four years later - such is the power and precision of her saw-sharp vignettes of bleak electric throes, synth-driven melodies, klaxons in vacuums, and salt-lunged, tainted, Warhol-painted Technicolor misery. I love how she balances the emphatic or anarchic, with poems like Transparency and Lass Grenade, with poems of quiet emotion such as Rain, enlivening and comforting at the same time - especially the ending.   Reading this scintillating collection has been uplifting and has helped boost my faith in the current poetry scene, I feel we are in the midst of a very encouraging poetry climate (one of the few great things about the current period of human history!) and this collection is beautifully inspiring -  "a brutally affectionate hug" as Steve Nash splendidly puts it in his introductory piece.  I was also moved at the inclusion of an old friend - Gen's poem Hour of the Wasters, an Octolune first published on this site, which she wrote after the launch of Steve's Caterpillar Poetry collection The Calder Valley Codex -

Moon, ready yourself,
for now is the hour of the wasters.
Those who waste the hours
assigned to shortcomings
with long games
of Shag, Marry, kill. 

They who kill the headlamps, marry silence
and fuck to the sound your voice.

The Dance of a Thousand Losers deserves to be bought, read, and read again - a perfect anecdote for troubled and uncertain times. As Genevieve says in her fantastic Introduction, when reflecting on the kind of poetry and creative environments she likes, and the poetic aesthetic characterising the poetry career she has built up "during this depressing half decade":
We were holding an outdoor A Firm of Poets gig for an arts festival, and a passer-by shouted "Its not normal."  Damn straight its not.  Its one of the least normal things ever.  And in a world of abnormal acts of malice, its exactly what some of us need.

I couldn't have put it better myself - as with so much else in this honest, subversive, sometimes angry and yet ultimately triumphant and uplifting collection.

Wednesday, 19 April 2017

House of Ladybirds

Opening the door, I am greeted by a small, black-spotted, blood-red blob, slowly
crawling along the carpet; a glance to the left reveals a clot of dotted shells glistening on the
skirting board.  And facing me like a tiny, glossy brooch, as if pinned to the white border of the door,
a lucent oval, purplish scarlet, darkened by two deep black blotches, like a pair of panda's eyes.  It is
early spring - and the ladybirds have returned.

When I moved into my current flat in 2015, I was warned by my neighbours who occupied the ground floor that "we're over-run with ladybirds here," and immediately entertained notions of a full-scale invasion: beetle battalions pouring through the letter box, a red-and-black menace gradually devouring the house and all its fixtures.  Would the insects gag and bind me in my sleep?  Would I return from work one day only to find that the building had been pounded into rubble by millions of writhing ladybirds, a Coccinellid calamity which carried no survivors? 

Little was I to know, in those early ladybird-laden days, that it would not be these diminutive, dominoesque, dotted domes who would pose problems at the house - but the neighbours themselves.  A population of ladybirds, I was to find, was a pleasant addition to the building.  It was like entering a fairytale house, the surprise of them winding their solitary ways across the door handle, or the occasional glimmer of a vermillion voyager tickling its way across the carpet on a hot summer's afternoon.  The ladybirds caused no trouble, unlike their chaotic human counterparts, who lunged from one cider-splattered brawl to another, and whose antics eventually earned them their marching orders. When these booze-brained vandals finally slunk off to wreak havoc on some other unsuspecting street, appropriately departing on Halloween, I was delighted to be left with ladybirds as neighbours.

Facing the canal, the pavements below my balcony attract scores of frogs; Red Admirals and Cabbage White butterflies sail through the garden, and my stone-straddling flowerbeds are home to wide diversities of slugs and snails.  But the ladybirds, seemingly addicted to the herbs alongside the frontage of the house, mill around the doorway and prefer to edge their way inside, establishing small colonies, or turning up on my kitchen floor like polished badges. 
My exposure to these unusual animals casts my mind back more than thirty years, to the glass tanks ranged upon a table of my primary school classroom, where I would watch with an uneasy mixture of anxiety and fixation the multi-coloured progress of dozens of ladybirds, climbing up the glass, bearing their thin, tinselly wings, oozing sticky substances which dribbled down the glass.  Nowadays, I would struggle, morally, to accommodate this sort of exercise, and prefer to admire these magnificent, jewel-like creatures in the great outdoors  - or in my own house, at their convenience.

Image result for LADYBIRD BOOKS

This newfound proximity to ladybirds has caused me to reflect on the poetry in which they have featured, not least the famous nursery rhyme, Ladybird, Ladybird, which can be taken as a sad, sinister, 16th Century allusion of persecution:

Ladybird, ladybird
Fly away home,
Your house is on fire
And your children all gone;
All except one
And that's little Ann,
And she has crept under
The warming pan.

According to the journalist Emma Clayton, The rhyme is said to originate from the practice of calling Catholics (ladybird being a derivative of "Our Lady") to Protestant services in the 16th century, when priests were burned at stakes for holding Mass.
In a less gruesome, contemporaneous variation, farmers were said to cry out the verse before burning fields after harvests, to protect the ladybirds which reduced pests in their crops.

Similar ladybird nursery rhymes and folk songs abound throughout Europe, and I have copied below a Polish variant, with the English translation:

Mała Biedroneczka siedem kropek miała,
Na zielonej łące wesoło fruwała.
Złapał ją pajączek w swoją pajęczynę
- uratuję Cię Biedronko, a ty mi coś przynieś.
Biedroneczko leć do nieba, przynieś mi kawałek chleba.
Little ladybird had seven dots,
She was flying over a green meadow.
A little spider caught her in its spiderweb
I will set you free, little ladybird, and you bring me something.
Fly to the sky, little ladybird, bring me a piece of bread

When I first watched ladybird larva massing on the stems of sedum in the rockier reaches of my garden, I wondered if I had stumbled upon some new species of Lilliputian reptile.  Slowly bending squiggles of black plates, they slowly twitched and twisted along the stems and soil, their bodies longer than would be their eventual carapace-cocooned forms as ladybirds. 

Surprisingly, given its prominence in folklore and the rhymes of old, the ladybird has featured little in
the literature of the last couple of centuries.  In DH Lawrence's First World War novella The Ladybird, the insect features ominously as the coat of arms of a German officer, arranged as the centrepiece of a thimble that he once gave to the married woman who would become his lover while he convalesces at the home she shares with her husband. Australian poet Clive Sansom declared that there was No tenderer creature on earth; but the best known poem to eulogise the ladybird is surely John Clare's Clock-a-Clay.  Taking its name from a common early 19th Century Northamptonshire term for the ladybird, Clare's poem perfectly evokes the ladybird's clandestine, grassy habitat, its mystery and surreptitious wanderings.  I can imagine Clare, the peasant poet, quietly passing through the hedge-lined farmlands of Glinton, watching the rooks and starlings pirouetting through the rain, or trudging, destroyed by love, ninety miles from High Beech asylum, all the way back to his childhood village of Helpston, unnoticed and quietly determined as the clock-a-clay, bending at the wild wind's breath


In the cowslip pips I lie,
Hidden from the buzzing fly,
While green grass beneath me lies,
Pearled with dew like fishes' eyes,
Here I lie, a clock-o'-clay,
Waiting for the time o' day.

While the forest quakes surprise,
And the wild wind sobs and sighs,
My home rocks as like to fall,
On its pillar green and tall;
When the pattering rain drives by
Clock-o'-clay keeps warm and dry.

Day by day and night by night,
All the week I hide from sight;
In the cowslip pips I lie,

In the rain still warm and dry;
Day and night and night and day,
Red, black-spotted clock-o'-clay.

My home shakes in wind and showers,
Pale green pillar topped with flowers,
Bending at the wild wind's breath,
Till I touch the grass beneath;
Here I live, lone clock-o'-clay,
Watching for the time of day.

And now, beneath showers of April rain, as the skies are slowly brightening and the fields and woods are glittering with bluebells, blossoms, ripening and dancing with the sunlit shimmer of buds and bugs, the ladybirds are back.  Back to colonize my home once more, to nibble and skedaddle along my walls and skirting boards, turn up uninvited along banisters and beam like blotchy bubbles along the woolly desert of the carpet.  Back to greet me as I turn my key into the door.  More welcome than the bills and bank statements, the local rags and Lidl leaflets hanging from the letterbox.  More welcome than the cavalcade of politicians now poised to explode upon me at the onset of seven weeks of torturous electioneering insanity, and infinitely more so than the hideous, inverted parody of a media which, as we speak, prepares to twist their every word as deviously as possible, and unleash a tornado of hatred and lies. All I can hope is to be left to make my choice in peace, and awake when the whole ghastly saga is concluded, alone, with the ladybirds that are slowly devouring my house and all within it.


This is a house of ladybirds.

On the doorstep
soot-and-lipstick-coloured balls,
each the size of a baby's fingernails
crop up in one's and two's,
gollywog faces glassy as the surfaces of ponds.

Twist the key and you'll see,
in the corners of the staircase,
little seven-spotted troupes,
baubly bubbles,
tiny solo voyagers
treading on wire-thin legs
into the mouth of the letter-box
or the black hole of the lock.

Our dreams are dotted with them,
in the early hours as we sashay through sleep
we see their rosehip domes
skimming through the fog, 
their eclipse-like discs 
murky-mottled by spider-black spots;
soft-crawling through the corridors of our cobwebbed minds.
We glimpse them, half awake, 
as we stretch into the polished glaze 
of lukewarm ladybird days,
as winter burbles into spring, we find them
clinging to the twigs of hardy shrubs
or lifting wings like dicey doodlebugs,
 slipping upwards in a silent glide.

We've come to expect them now,
as the larval-like months of moving in 
have melted into everyday normality:
we think nothing of noticing a ladybird
sliding over surfaces, dancing on a tap,
if we open up the bread bin, we expect
a ladybird or two to come rolling out,
like guilty drunks caught in the act,
and sure enough, out they tumble
tails between their legs,
all mumbles, fumbles and sheepish grins.
The other day I found one in the pantry
scoffing through the crumbs,
and even in the fridge we see them now - 
their black spots frosted over, 
wriggling polar-beetles, 
as if raindrops had frozen and the ice
was drizzled by trickles of blood.

Gone are the days we might have tried to stop them.
Indeed, the building seems more theirs than ours - 
the post arrives addressed to them - 
packets of pollen, drugged greenflies, postcards
from forests fat with fungi.
I'm sure I saw one, just this morning,
as I left the house - 
as I turned down the street towards the station
an enormous domino-spotted oval pulling the curtains
decisively closed, to shut me out.

Saturday, 15 April 2017

An Armful of White Blossoms - The Poetry of Swans

Did you too see it, drifting, all night, on the black river? asks American poet Mary Oliver in her celebrated poem Swan:
Did you see it in the morning, rising into the silvery air -
An armful of white blossoms,
A perfect commotion of silk and linen;
a snowbank, a bank of lilies,
Biting the air with its black beak?

One of the most iconic and evocative images of an English riverside, swans are actually found all over the world, and are the largest group within the Anatidae avian family, which also includes ducks and geese.  In the Northern Hemisphere, the birds we principally know as swans form the Cygnus genus, with the Mute Swan (Cygnus olor) the most frequent: in Britain there are between five and eight thousand breeding pairs - and about twenty thousand mute swans altogether. Believed to have evolved around six thousand years ago, these svelte, imperious birds are powerful, adaptable, and have played fascinating roles in poetry. 

Did you hear it, fluting and whistling, continues Mary Oliver's poem:

A shrill dark music – like the rain pelting the trees – like a waterfall
Knifing down the black ledges?

The poem is one of several I want to look at, in paying tribute to the majestic swan and its
relationship with poetry.  Swans seemed to glide and drift through my childhood, an almost constant
presence.  My introduction to bird watching came at the country park and bird reserve
Newmillerdam, Wakefield, where we would watch the great white beauties rise out of the water and
steal across the grass like silken supernovas; years later I would feed the swans at Roundhay, the park
close to where I lived in the leafy environs of North Leeds; on moving to the Calder Valley I would
follow the progress of proud parents as they herded fluffy, wobbly cygnets along the stony banks of
the Rochdale Canal, or watch the snow-winged swans of Shibden melt into the winter air in a milky
mirage of icy white.  As a child I loved again and again to hear Hans Christian Andersen's tale The
Ugly Duckling, where the unpopular duckling undergoes a transformation into a beautiful swan, and
was enchanted by the music of Swan Lake, to which I was introduced by a Headmistress who regaled
the school with re-tellings of the Russian folktale that inspired Tchaikovsky's ballet.   Later, on first
hearing the French composer Camille Saint-Saens' piece for cello and piano, Les cygne, from
his suite The Carnival of the Animals, I knew instinctively that its soft resplendence and slow,
sweeping grace could only represent the swan.  And yet, surprisingly, my own poetry has focused on
these gorgeous, glacial creatures only twice.  Half magnetized to their beauty, half afraid of their
reputed bone-breaking abilities, I have tended to admire them from afar, or to watch them with a
combination of attraction and uncertainty.  Research leads me to discover that other poets have felt
the same, like Marc Doty, who in his 1987 poem Turtle, Swan, explains:

the word doesn't convey the shock
of the thing, white architecture
rippling like a pond's rain-pocked skin,
beak lifting to hiss at my approach.
Magisterial, set down in elegant authority,
he let us know exactly how close we might come.

As I considered their presence in the poetry of Mary Oliver and the other examples I shall quote, I
began to reflect on the impressions they have made on  me, and to work on a short swan poem I had
recently begun.  Before that, though, I would like to share my earlier tribute to swans, which was
eventually published in my 2014 pamphlet Random Journeys: 


A frozen hulk of silver
occupies the water
like a continent.

Sliced husk of frosted glass
flecked with diamond dust,
crystal cave, pierced fruit,
water seethes within.

This thick slab of ice
encloses melded elements.

Edges fray,
thawing from inside
melting the veins and rivulets.

Here come the swans,
white coats drizzled
with the residue of rain,
backs like roadsides dulled with sludge.
They emerge from mists
phantom children
of the ice-floes.

Looking back at this nearly ten years after it was written, I'm struck at how unselfconsciously I
allowed myself to wax lyrical about the lake overall - dwelling on the diamond-like ice and
comparing its interior to veins and rivulets, and only introducing the titular swans until the fifth and
final stanza.  Its the sort of thing I'd be warier of nowadays and, I'm glad I wasn't at the  time.  For
me, there is always something quietly surprising about swans, the way they silently glide into view
without warning, the way their pace rarely seems to quicken as they float lazily along, a little like cats
in their unhurried nonchalance.  When the swans arrive, I find I have described them as wearing
"white coats," a description that fits eerily into the psychiatric territory of "the men in white coats,"
and again I sense a certain intimidation and unspoken, dangerous magic, and - considered alongside
the frozen but thawing continent, the seething water within, and the "frayed edges" of the ice - an
overtone of ecological dread, underwritten by the death-white emergence of the phantom swans,
whose rain-drizzled coats and backs like roadsides dulled with sludge might almost describe horses. 
Indeed, the poem, I realize now, is highly influenced by Edwin Muir's The Horses, one of the first
poems I studied for O Level, and which begins with the broodingly post-apocalyptic arrival of four
horses Dropped in some wilderness of the broken world:

Barely a twelvemonth after
The seven days war that put the world to sleep,
Late in the evening the strange horses came.
By then we had made our covenant with silence
    But in the first few days it was so still
We listened to our breathing and were afraid.

In WB Yeats poem The Wild Swans at Coole, we again find the introduction of the birds upon a rural

The trees are in their autumn beauty, 
The woodland paths are dry,
Under the October twilight the water
Mirrors a still sky;
Upon the brimming water among the stones
Are nine-and-fifty swans.

Yet despite, or perhaps because of, its melancholy calmness, there is something rather more
suggestive of change, and old age, than anything Biblical or Edenic in Yeats' autumnal scene.

The nineteenth autumn has come upon me
Since I first made my count;
I saw, before I had well finished,
All suddenly mount
And scatter wheeling in great broken rings
Upon their clamorous wings.

Typically, The Wild Swans at Coole has been regarded as a reflection of its author's sense of Ireland's
political problems, and personal decline, juxtaposed with the enduring constancy of fundamental
beauty.  As Yale University's Andrew Gates writes on the Yale Modernism Lab website:

“The Wild Swans at Coole” appeared during a significant moment in the poet’s life and stands therein as a crucial turning point. Daniel Tobin comments on the unhappiness of the poet during its 1916 composition; Yeats faced a rejection by Iseult Gonne after years of equally fruitless courtship of her mother, his beloved Ireland was in the midst of turmoil and rebellion, and, at the age of fifty-one, Yeats saw his autumn years rapidly descending upon him (Tobin, 57). Yet, although this melancholy looms throughout the poem, Yeats succeeds in establishing ... a response to it, transcending his individual despair through the creation of the poetic object itself. The first stanza, in its impersonal reflection on an idyllic natural scene, is reminiscent of Yeats’ earlier poetry and quest for the eternal and immutable. This is contrasted with the introduction of the poet’s voice in the second stanza,

I have looked upon those brilliant creatures,
And now my heart is sore.
All's changed since I, hearing at twilight,
The first time on this shore,
The bell-beat of their wings above my head,
Trod with a lighter tread.

...offering a forceful juxtaposition of his own experience of fleeting time with the permanence he
seeks... How can a mortal, defined by temporality, make beauty eternal a part of himself?

Gates comments on the folklorish "nine and fifty," and quotes Estonian academic Martin
Puhvel, who remarked in a 1986 paper that any reader who has ever paid even fleeting
attention to a flock of wild waterfowl can hardly avoid reflecting that the counting of such a large
number of wild swans would be no mean feat, and surmised that this numerical literalism serves
further to distance the poem from human reality.
Gates explains that Puhvel sees the poem as expressing a static contrast between the “fairy
immortality and immutability” of the swans and the strictly linear nature of the aging poet’s life, but
then goes on to contest this categorical bifurcation as one which:

fails to recognize that change is endemic to the poem as a whole. Even in the first stanza, we witness
the pall of mutability hanging over the bucolic scene; the water, at first mirroring a still sky, returns
with the epithet “brimming,” indicating that nothing on earth can wholly reflect that celestial
stillness of eternalized beauty that the poet seeks. Moreover, the beauty of the trees is their
“autumn beauty” glimpsed “under the October twilight”; Yeats has left behind the carefree days of
summer, illusorily endless, and now sees himself standing upon an unmistakable temporal limen. He
is in the autumn of his life.

Australian Literature Professor Raymond Younis has suggested that The Wild Swans at Coole
implies a certain empirical dualism, whereby the poet is able to contextualise his struggles by virtue
of his own insertion in the scene, and that Without interjecting himself—the aging poet—into the
contemplation of the eternal glimpsed through the swans, an infrangible gulf remains between his
reality and his ideal.

As such, we would have to conclude that the poem is far more of a philosophical than a nature poem,
and Andrew Gates comments that to view the piece through the prism of Younis' analysis is to
gauge  that the highly personal and local nature of the poet’s encounter with these swans—who
remain beautiful nevertheless—offers the possibility of reconciliation. Norma Hahn comments on the
nature of this encounter, asserting that

Yeats places himself here as representative of man caught in the flux of time, and of artist torn by the
exigencies of that ever-present theme of his poetry, the opposing values of being and becoming. From
the anguish of his experience, the poet turns, not for escape but for confirmation of the worth of such
suffering, to the opening image of the poem. He sees that the swans still ‘paddle in the
cold/Companionable streams or climb the air’…The swans—art images—retain beauty…Suffering is
a part of the experience of beauty.

Unwearied still, lover by lover,
They paddle in the cold
Companionable streams or climb the air; 
Their hearts have not grown old;
Passion or conquest, wander where they will, 
Attend upon them still.

For Gates, the poem's concluding stanza represents an appeal to the transpersonal nature of beauty,
whereby an eternal beauty of the human condition is extrapolated from the very vicissitudes of the
individual’s life.

But now they drift on the still water,
Mysterious, beautiful;
Among what rushes will they build,
By what lake's edge or pool
Delight men's eyes when I awake some day
To find they have flown away? 

Nearly a century earlier, Alfred Tennyson was to turn to it in a very different manner, but one in which this commingling of suffering and beauty would also be distilled into something symbolic.

It is interesting that Tennyson's 1830 poem The Dying Swan also, as if setting the mould for all swan poetry which followed, also commences upon a peaceful, if "doleful", rural scene:

The plain was grassy, wild and bare,
Wide, wild, and open to the air,
Which had built up everywhere
An under-roof of doleful gray.

Almost like a mirror image of the swan's muteness, Tennyson's river runs with an inner voice, as

Adown it floated a dying swan,
And loudly did lament.
It was the middle of the day.
Ever the weary wind went on,
And took the reed-tops as it went.

As if to freeze the image in our minds, the poet omits the swan from his next stanza. Like an author skilfully leaving the protagonist at some cliff-edge moment in a story, Tennyson turns his attention instead to some deceptively idyllic descriptions of blue peaks rising against cold-white sky, weeping willows, sighing wind and tangled water courses ... shot over with purple, and green, and yellow.

It is then that the focus is returned to the dying swan, whose silence is broken with a death-hymn, which, far from being presented tragically, took the soul / Of that waste place with joy.

Tennyson is making post-Classical poetry's first well-known use of the Ancient belief that an expiring swan will deliver a beautiful burst of song in its final moments of life - the so-called "Swan Song."  The joyfulness the swan pours forth is Hidden in sorrow:

The warble was low, and full and clear;
And floating about the under-sky,
Prevailing in weakness, the coronach stole
Sometimes afar, and sometimes anear

Such musical ends are the lots of swans in the poetry of Ovid and Virgil, in the natural philosophy of Socrates and Aristotle, in Aesop's Fables and multitudinously in the annals of Greek mythology, as well as being referenced many times in  Shakespeare:

I am the cygnet to this pale faint swan,
Who chants a doleful hymn to his own death,
And from the organ-pipe of frailty sings
His soul and body to their lasting rest

(King John)

Let music sound while he doth make his choice;
Then, if he lose, he makes a swan-like end,
Fading in music: that the comparison
May stand more proper, my eye shall be the stream
And watery death-bed for him.

(The Merchant of Venice)

I will play the swan.
And die in music.


Tennyson's swan, in acknowledging its death, soon sweeps into a magnificent celebration of life:

But anon her awful jubilant voice,
With a music strange and manifold,
Flow'd forth on a carol free and bold;
As when a mighty people rejoice
With shawms, and with cymbals, and harps of gold,
And the tumult of their acclaim is roll'd
Thro' the open gates of the city afar,
To the shepherd who watcheth the evening star.
And the creeping mosses and clambering weeds,
And the willow-branches hoar and dank,
And the wavy swell of the soughing reeds,
And the wave-worn horns of the echoing bank,
And the silvery marish-flowers that throng
The desolate creeks and pools among,
Were flooded over with eddying song.

I am reminded, in this elegiac images, of Mary Oliver's closing lines, where she envisages the swan in the context of another kind of departure, this time not mortal but migratory:

And did you see it, finally, just under the clouds -
A white cross
Streaming across the sky, its feet
Like black leaves, its wings
Like the stretching light of the river?

Yet also, in the way that Tennyson's unexpectedly life-affirming swan-song draws our attention to the beauty of the world as captured by its association with the swan, of Rilke's swan, which

infinitely silent and aware,
in his full majesty and ever more
indifferent, he condescends to glide

...and of Owen Sheers' icebergs of white feather, of Heinrich Heine's supposition that

The swan, like the soul of the poet,
By the dull world is ill understood

and of Milton's magisterial pronouncement:

The swan, with arched neck
Between her white wings mantling proudly, rows
Her state with oary feet.

Byron was to typically romanticize the swan's demise, and wish himself into its place:

Place me on Sunium's marbled steep,
Where nothing save the waves and I
May hear our mutual murmurs sweep;
There, swan-like, let me sing and die

While Coleridge, in a somewhat lighter moment, offered this observation on the swan's music of mortality:

Swans sing before they die -
't were no bad thing
Should certain persons die
before they sing

While Coleridge composed this whimsical jibe, his friend William Wordsworth was apt to see the swan in more poetic terms:

Let beeves and home-bred kine partake
The sweets of Burn-mill meadow,
The swan on still St. Mary's lake
Float double, swan and shadow!

an image mirrored by Wordsworth's contemporary Thomas Hood:

There's a double beauty whenever a swan
Swims on a lake with her double thereon

and which runs to the heart of the very territory I seemed instinctively to want to reach in my attention to the swan earlier this year, when I stood on frosty banks, watching how the glacial, silent swans, like Arctic mermaids sculpted out of quartz, swept over water in rippling reflections, and seemed also to bleed ice-spiked, pearly blood into the lakes and rivers, their dreamy downs melting and merging into snow-silvered waters.  My poem came in moments, the swan floating over the page as I sat within the comforting confines of a warm Manchester café, windows slashed by the sleet of a bitter winter's day, the shimmering swan blending into my memory like a soft white blossom on a field of snow, sinking into the mind in silent beauty.


Floating beside weeping willow
where sea-green tresses spill
like rain into the lake,
you drift in silky silence,
slit the water
with a sword of snow.