Villanelles and Villains

Earlier this year I came across an excellent television documentary on the life and work of Dylan Thomas, and was reminded of his splendid poem, ‘Do not go gentle into that good night.’ (https://poets.org/poem/do-not-go-gentle-good-night)

The poem is a villanelle, a French verse form consisting of five three-line stanzas and a final quatrain, with the first and third lines of the first stanza repeating alternately in the following stanzas.

I spent some time in looking at further examples of poems that use this organisation, and, as I had never tried this before, set myself the task of trying to write one of my own.

As I cast around for a suitable subject, my attention was somewhat distracted by political events in the United Kingdom, and my own reactions to them. I used these reactions as the basis for my villanelle.

At about the same time, I noticed a call from a print journal for submissions of new poetry, and, having nothing else ready to go, I sent off my political piece.

I heard nothing from the journal for some months, and presumed that the work had been rejected. I was therefore pleasantly surprised to receive a copy of the current edition in the post, with my poem included.

So quickly had events in Parliament galloped onwards that the Prime Minister, whose shenanigans had inspired the original outburst, had been replaced twice-over during the gap between my submission and publication.

Fortunately, my reactions to those in power during the period remained (and remain) pretty much the same. Here is my attempt:

Villanelle for Boris and Friends

.

Hold back the tears, stifle the rising sigh.

Now is a time emotion must be shed.

Anger remains. Let softer feelings die.

.

We saw the crooked smiles; we heard each lie,

And knew that honesty had gone, and truth had fled.

Hold back the tears, stifle the rising sigh.

.

A hapless leader sought to justify

His faults, and promised golden days ahead.

Anger remains. Let softer feelings die.

.

In crowded streets we heard the homeless cry,

In crumbling flats saw children go unfed.

Hold back the tears, stifle the rising sigh

.

And yet they still continued to deny

Dishonesty, and disown all they’ve said.

Anger remains. Let softer feelings die.

.

Until they all admit we were misled,

And call back every falsehood that they spread,

Hold back the tears, stifle the rising sigh.

Anger remains, let softer feelings die.

.

(First published in The Journal, Issue 67, ISSN1466 – 5220, November 2022)

Copyright © Gordon Gibson 2022

Advertisement

Distracted!

For anyone interested in language (sub category: political statements to pacify the public), the performance by the current UK Chancellor of the Exchequer, speaking on this morning’s BBC radio four Today Programme was a masochistic delight.

Having had to initiate a government U-turn by withdrawing the proposed 45p tax cut for the nation’s highest earners, The Chancellor set out to explain away the roles played by the Prime Minister and himself in the near collapse of the pound and the pensions system.

His choice of key word was ‘distraction.’ He tried to explain how the relatively minor reduction in the taxes of the super rich had become an unreasonable distraction for commentators and those who run ‘the markets’. While asserting that the important innovations brought about by the new government involved much larger tax cuts elsewhere, and that most people would benefit from government help to see them through the financial/fuel crisis (the word ‘handouts’ was never used), he also tried to explain that last week’s financial collapse had nothing to do with his ideology-driven ‘mini-budget’ (not officially called ‘a budget’ because it had not been independently checked by The Office for Budget Responsibility) and that he intended to continue with the approach to the economy that he and she had promised during the Tory Leadership Election.

The Chancellor is an articulate politician. He is also regarded by many of his party colleagues as a highly intelligent one. Yet, on radio, he was reduced to repeating a number of times that his plans (when revealed) would bring about economic growth, a smaller state and a rising standard of living for the UK population in general. This despite the fact that, during the Prime Minister’s campaign to win the leadership of the Conservative party, she and her allies were repeatedly warned by economists from around the country and around the world that their plans for tax cuts to the rich, funded by borrowing, were a recipe for certain chaos, if not disaster.

Fascinating linguistic somersaults continue today as I write. The Conservative Party Conference has begun, and my television screen is full of loyal party members trying to explain that The Chancellor is still correct, while others (perhaps distracted) bemoan the fact that after only a few days in office, the UK’s two most powerful politicians have made themselves appear incompetent. This would be the week’s best comedy viewing if it were not so catastrophically serious.

Publishing: Paranoia and Perseverance

(Lithograph, Edvard Munch)

I can remember a time when editors would send a rejection slip, or even an encouraging note (saying, in a kindly way, ‘Keep trying.’) Nowadays it’s usually a standard e-mail (Thank you for your submission. We had an unusually large number for this edition, and unfortunately . . .), and sometimes not even that. (‘If you have not heard from us by six months after submission . . .’).

All the people who write advice for aspiring writers keep telling me not to be put off by rejections, and my skin has certainly thickened over the years, but I must confess that it is still a downer when a piece of work that I felt to be one of my better attempts comes hurtling back to me unpublished..

I try to submit at least one piece every week, again taking advice from some online pundit I have read, but this can result in a whole string of submissions being rejected, or unacknowledged over a seemingly interminable period of time. This is when the paranoia kicks in. Has it been a mere fluke that I have had stuff published in the past? Have I lost any skill I used to have? Is what I write simply the rambling of an old fogey?

Yet someone (it may have been Margaret Atwood) suggested online that it is essential to keep going, keep submitting, for every piece will surely find a place of publication eventually.

So, following this advice, more in hope than expectation, I have persisted in sending off a poem I wrote about 10 years ago (Hospital Appointment), which I quite liked. It has been rejected by 20 different publications! Along the way, it has been severely tweaked, shortened, lengthened, and had the tense changed. Latterly, submitting it to publications has become a kind of sour joke with myself.

There is, consequently, a particular pleasure in seeing the poem printed in The excellent Bangor Literary Journal, Issue 17. You can download the entire issue for free at https://thebangorliteraryjournal.com/

The poem appears on page 15. Critical comments welcomed.

The 70s and All That

(A short reflection, published in a friend’s blog.)

It was hardly remarkable that the right wing press (and other Unionist commentators) rushed, at the first whiff of industrial action, to drag out comparisons between the present state of the UK and the way things were in the 1970s. At the same time, I could not help but wonder how many of these self appointed guardians of Common Sense and Economic Probity were actually around at the time.

Being suitably long in the tooth, I can remember those days very well. I was a newly qualified teacher. My family struggled to exist on what I was paid, my daughter qualified for free school meals and I had to seek extra sources of income. These varied from private tutoring (despite the fact that it contradicted all my beliefs about education), playing guitar in a pub (only once, not asked back), to working in London as a builder’s labourer during my summer holidays. I left teaching after two years for a job in a voluntary organisation with slightly better pay. Two years later I was back teaching, after the organisation where I worked lost its Urban Aid funding. Inflation reached 30%.

Across the decade, UK politics were in a state of chaos. A surprise Conservative election victory in 1970 installed the Heath government. They were in immediate conflict with strong Trades Unions, mismanaged the disputes and lost power to Labour after two general elections in 1974. The Tories blamed Heath for being ‘defeated’ by striking miners, and Thatcher became party leader in his stead. The so-called ‘Winter of Discontent’ and Labour’s Callaghan premiership, savagely attacked across the media, paved the way for the first Thatcher Government in 1979.

I cannot make up my mind whether today’s Tory media are afraid that Unions are regaining strength or are hoping that obvious government ineptitude may lead to the party throwing out Johnson, replacing him with someone even farther to the right. Or perhaps, with talk of ‘Union Barons’ and ‘impossible wage demands’ they are seeking to convince the British public that only the Conservative Party can save them from the ever-worsening economic situation.

What seems clear to me is that neither a continuing Conservative government, nor a victory in the approaching general election for lacklustre Labour, will be able to steer Scotland away from the problems that now confront the UK.

I am reminded of the cry of a former colleague in times of trouble: ‘An Albatross! Cut the rope!’

(First published 30/6/22 at

Family Misfortunes

I have read, and it seems to me highly likely, that ever since human beings first developed the capacity to use language, they have employed it for purposes beyond the merely functional, concerning the daily necessities of naming and explaining,

I believe that from earliest times, humans have also employed language in creative acts: the making of stories and chants, plays and poems, speeches and songs. These things, which I have actually heard dismissed by cynics as ‘mere entertainments’ or ‘irrelevancies’, are so embedded in the nature of being human that they are among the criteria that define our species.

From the most ancient examples of creativity in language, such as myths and legends, right up to television soap operas and novels in the present day, some contexts appear repeatedly, indicating areas of abiding human preoccupation. Among these is The Family.

Most people, when you get to know them, will speak about their families: descriptions of quirky characters, anecdotes about unusual events, humorous or dramatic incidents. When an acquaintance does not discuss their own family, others may well comment on this as something strange.

As someone always on the lookout for material for my writing, I am an avid listener when anyone shares details about their family and its doings. Such details, (suitably adapted of course, in order not to breach confidentiality), may find their way into my attempts to produce readable fiction.

This is the case with my most recently published work. A number of years ago, I was told a reminiscence about the teller’s family which I found very moving. Since then I have attempted a number of times to use the events narrated to me in the form of a short story. Only recently did I manage this to my own satisfaction. It was accepted for online publication by Fairlight Books.

You can read this fiction-based-on-fact at ( https://www.fairlightbooks.co.uk/short_stories/the-birmingham-story/)

Birmingham in the 1930s

Lives and Works

All through my life, from primary school to the present day, I have been drawn to literature, as a source of enjoyment and also as a way of gaining insight into the lives of others. Along the way, many teachers and many critics have offered their advice on how to evaluate the works of writers I had read.

I have often found that background information about writers has been a source of fascination and also of help in understanding fiction and poetry that, on first reading, has seemed challenging or obscure. I can clearly remember encountering poetry by T S Eliot at secondary school, and finding it impenetrable until I was able to find some critical and biographical books in the local library that helped me make some sense of what had at first been an insoluble puzzle.

Later, I came across the work of critics who insisted that such background material, on the lives of writers, should be ignored – readers should give their entire attention to the works themselves, basing their judgements on close textual analysis.

It is certainly true that, in recent times, revelations about the private lives of some writers have resulted in reappraisal of their work, and decline in their reputations. Philip Larkin and Ted Hughes come to mind.

On the other side of the coin, where verifiable biographical details may be lacking, the work of writers from the more distant past may provide opportunities for barely sustainable speculations by critics seeking to impose their own beliefs and values on the existing works. Shakespeare’s plays are regularly cited as supporting contemporary conservatism, imperialism and English exceptionalism.

Recently, while looking through my files for something to send off in response to a call for submissions, I came across two poems that, each in their own way, seemed to be grappling with these two approaches to evaluating writing and writers. They were both accepted for publication.

You can read them below.

The first poem concerns my own changing response to Larkin’s poetry.

Larkin on the Wireless

A half-heard couplet on the radio

has sent me back to his Collected Works.

I prise the volume from the shelf, dust off

the years and hunt the long forgotten lines.

When young and seeking to invent myself,

I read the famous poems, and admired

that cool, morose facility with form.

Critics, advising caution, pointed out

his distaste for the world, his misery.

Youth is judgemental; how could I condone

the sad, crammed cupboards of pornography?

Then prurient obituaries leaked

a drip of details, petty and banal:

a life of sneering from behind closed doors.

He stumbled from my reading list, exiled

with fascists, anti-semites and the like,

my gallery of disenfranchised writers.

But I am older now. Those half-heard lines

were all it took to stop me in my tracks,

and spark, if not forgiveness, then regret,

and pity, tinged with envy for his skill.

Age brings on reappraisal with the dusk.

The second poem came about from involvement in a writing workshop where the task given was to write in the persona of an inanimate object.

Second Best

When first the crowds began to know his name,

and fill the playhouse, he had gold to spend,

(though not as much as he would later have,

when he forsook his dearest love for trade).

Small luxuries at first: a decent wine,

clean rooms, an ornate doublet, laundry done.

(He took great care with comfort, and with rest).

And I moved in, his servant from then on.

But always hidden from the public gaze,

I never stirred beyond the chamber door.

Yet there I heard each line as it was writ,

and every secret confidence: with friends,

with fellows of the company, with Anne

(on her infrequent visits), with young wives

of swollen-bellied burgesses, with blond

and perfumed page boys who had caught his eye,

and even with Southampton, though, God knows,

there was a patronage that cost him dear.

I much preferred the stolen afternoons

with his dark mistress: honeyed tones, sweet deeds

and sunlight, born of words midst winter’s gloom.

But leaving London was like leaving life.

Stratford is quaint, but quiet. Death ensued,

and tears, and testament. You know the rest.

Entailed to Anne! How could he mark me so,

my swan, my poet, burden that I bore,

ten thousand nights? His bed- his second best?

Both poems were first published in The Cannon’s Mouth (Cannon Poets Quarterly) Issue 83, March 2022

Copyright © Gordon Gibson 2022

Young Readers, Old Tales

A couple of years ago, I took a short online course about the origins and first publications of fairytales. When I was a primary school teacher, I was always fascinated by the way the pupils responded with such enthusiasm to these ancient stories, despite the fact that so many of them dealt with dark and frightening topics.

However, over the years, the underlying meanings of many of these tales have come to be seen as deeply problematic in the ways they represent societies, and particularly the roles of women within them.

The short course looked at a number of well-known fairytales and explained how they perpetuated the values current in the communities where they originated. When they moved from oral tradition into the sphere of literature, these values often remained embedded in the stories, even where societal change had taken place.

One of the stories analysed was ‘Blue Beard’. Although I had a rather vague knowledge of the content of this story, I realised that I had never read any version of it. The course directed students to the first publication.

Originally a folktale, the story was written down and published in 1697 by Charles Perrault. This French author, regarded as the father of the fairytale, was the first to record many stories such as Cendrillon (Cinderella) and Le Chat Botte (Puss in Boots). Despite Blue Beard’s grisly plot, the tale has remained hugely popular through the centuries. (You can read a translation of the original at https://sites.pitt.edu/~dash/perrault03.html )

One of the course activities asked students to write an updated version of Blue Beard, presenting its key features in a contemporary context. I tried to present the story as a narrative poem, and kept it on file, although sure in my mind that it would never be suitable for publication.

At the end of last year, to my surprise, I saw on Facebook a call for submissions to a forthcoming anthology ‘of horror poetry’. Although this is not a genre with which I am familiar, I wondered if the ancient tale retold might fit the bill. The poem was accepted and published.

A Fairytale Romance

A widower. She should have known,

or listened to her heart.

Too old to be a lover,

his beard too long, blue-black, unkempt,

his gait ungainly, like an ailing priest.

Her mother praised his patience, his civility, his charm.

His wealth was too conspicuous to mention.

Gifts came to her in downpours,

she visited the best of his estates.

She married him. She should have known.

Their main home was his mansion.

Redecoration, left to her choosing

kept her occupied. He ran his businesses,

the honeymoon could wait. At his suggestion,

her family and former friends were asked to dine

to witness the extent of her good fortune.

Out of the blue, an unexpected text

called him away – a meeting in the south.

Before he left he issued his instructions, and his keys.

There was, he said, one confidential storeroom

she should not enter when he was not present,

the room beneath the stairs, the smallest key.

He made her promise, and she gave her word.

She should have known.

Her fingers itched to try the lock.

He left, her guests arrived, she played the hostess,

but still the mystery preyed on her mind.

The guests departed (all but her younger sister),

she could deny herself no longer.

The horror, the despair!

Beneath the stairs, the carnage that she found:

the slaughtered wives, a floor awash with blood.

She fled, locking the door behind her,

hands and dress, even the key

all stained with gore.

No matter how she scrubbed,

the bloodstained key would not be clean.

And then his voice, calling from the hall:

‘The meeting’s cancelled, sweetest love, I’m home.’

His anger was insane.

Her broken promise sentenced her to death.

She begged for pity, and he gave her leave to pray.

Her sister overheard, and called her brothers,

Invited, late, but surely on their way.

Her vile husband, out of patience,

clutching a cruel blade,

would have dispatched her

had the tardy brothers not arrived

and put an end to him, once and for all.

She has another lover now, and all the wealth,

and has rewarded those who saved her life,

and now warns every maiden she encounters

never to wed

regardless of all pleasantries or riches.

Copyright © Gordon Gibson 2022

First published in:

O. Hasanov (ed.) Hidden Realms, A World Anthology of Dark Poetry, Horrorscope Press 2022.

James Joyce and Urban Camping in the ‘ 60s

As a teenager, in the mid-1960s, I was obsessed with folk music. I was trying to teach myself to play five string banjo, mandolin and guitar, listening to everything I could discover that was being marketed as ‘Folk’ and considering myself to be an authoritative judge of what was ‘authentic’. Such is the naivete of youth!

Even more naïvely, when my best friend and I decided that Dublin was the place to spend our summer holiday, on account of it being where we could find especially authentic folk music, we planned our accommodation by borrowing an ancient, two-man tent. Travel would be easy: we would hitch-hike.

A train to Stranraer, a ferry to Larne and the pilgrimage began. Surprisingly, it rained. The drivers of Ulster did not seem inclined to take pity on two sodden adolescents. The tent leaked. It took two full days to reach the border, but at least by that time we had become more in touch with reality: stand where the drivers can get a good look at you, and can stop without causing an accident; don’t even try to find a camping space in the middle of a town; never turn down the opportunity for a wash. When we eventually made it all the way to Dublin, we thought of ourselves as characters straight out of Kerouac – cool, wise beyond our years, Bohemian.

After spending the day of our arrival sightseeing, at dusk we took a local train out of the city, choosing Sandycove as a destination (‘We’ll camp on the beach’). It was dark by the time we got there, but we found the beach and pitched the tent.

In morning sunlight we discovered that we were camped beneath the walls of a small tower. After a breakfast of singed bacon, we went to have a look. An unobtrusive signboard informed us that this was the Martello Tower which provided James Joyce with the setting for the opening of his novel Ulysses.

As bookish youths, we had both heard of Joyce, but knew only that he was the disgraceful author of books that our local library would not allow us to borrow. However, that brief moment in the Dublin sunshine was enough to awaken a lifelong interest in the man, the novel and the city.

In the next couple of years I read what I could find of Joyce’s fiction, and found the early work enthralling, but couldn’t get my hands on a copy of the novel with which I now felt some kind of personal link.

In 1967, with the same friend, and much the same naivete, we took the tent to London. Lifts were easier to come by, and by a further stroke of luck, we discovered a campsite near Denham Village, a short train ride north of the city. For a fortnight, we posed as hippies, commuting from the green belt into the West End, visiting folk clubs and familiarising ourselves with English beer.

One afternoon, passing a cinema in Tottenham Court Road, we saw a poster advertising the newly-released film of Ulysses, starring Milo O’Shea as Leopold Bloom. Recalling our tenuous link with the Dublin saga, we went in to see the movie.

Having no knowledge of what the novel was about, nor of its modernist construction, we were amazed and excited by the film version. Even better, when in 1968 Penguin Books published a paperback edition, and I was at last able to read the book with a prior grasp of its narrative shape, I did not find it quite so daunting as it had been for many readers who came to it without advanced assistance. That is not to say it was an easy read! But it has repaid regular revisiting over the more than 50 years during which it has adorned my bookshelves.

Ulysses by James Joyce was first published 100 years ago this week. Happy birthday.

Radio Realities

Despite the incredible speed of development in information technology, I find myself still a devoted fan of radio. I attribute this to early childhood experiences when we did not have a television and the radio played in the background for most of every day.

I can still recall the programs: Mrs Dale’s Diary, Housewives’ Choice, Listen With Mother, The McFlannels, Forces Favourites, Take It From Here and many others. Snippets from these still sometimes turn up from BBC archives, the sounds of a distant, departed world.

Through teenage years, radio provided an alternative diet to available television: chaotic comedy from The Goon Show to I’m Sorry I’ll Read That Again, and the inevitable pop music from pirate broadcasters and eventually Radio One.

Advancing age meant that my tastes in music were better satisfied by Radio Two or Radio Three, and now I find myself, almost shamefacedly, a regular listener to Radio Four. Although this can often be infuriatingly conservative (not always with a small C), it can also be a provider of ideas sufficiently challenging to prod me out of over-rigid patterns of thought, and force me to acknowledge the necessity of trying to keep up with the times.

The week just past came up with a number of such examples. On Monday, Start The Week explored the potential (for good and ill) of Virtual Reality, asking whether the computer-generated world of The Matrix might already exist, or in the future might offer greater happiness for humans than the reality that we currently accept.

Later in the week, one of this year’s Reith Lectures continued to outline the progress in development of artificial intelligence, and to assert the need for control of how it is used in production of weapons of war.

Both of these programs pushed me beyond my own comfort zone, requiring more reflection than my standard response of ‘Rubbish!’ and alerting me to my own ignorance of the topics.

Thank goodness that, each day throughout the week, in Book of the Week there were also excerpts from a new critical biography of Seamus Heaney, examining the Nobel Laureate’s life and work, and reminding me of how his poetry illuminated and examined many aspects of the reality that we so often take for granted. Not always comfortable to hear, but grounded in the more familiar features of the human condition.

All of these programs may still be available on the BBC i – player.

Image from Wikepedia.

Another Bugle Call

When I began this blog back in October 2018, I was encouraged to pick a name other than simply calling it after myself, and I eventually chose one that emerged from reflection on the much quoted phrase from Yeats: ‘The foul rag and bone shop of the heart.’ I wrote in the blog about the reason for my choice at the time. [Why The Rag Man?]

This set me rummaging in my own memories of the rag and bone men who were frequent visitors to the tenement streets of my childhood, and inevitably it started me writing. A short poem finally took shape, and I was pleased when it was accepted for publication in this year’s anthology of writing by members of the Federation of Writers (Scotland): Sea Change, New Voices Press, 2021.

The Rag Man’s Bugle

The slightest hint of love

brings us running, breathless,

as once the children came

at the call of the rag man’s bugle,

drawn from their preoccupations

into the dusty street,

arms full of tattered garments

to barter for a cheap balloon,

a windmill on a stick.

Again and again we come,

faces aflame with hope,

expectant of gifts and wonders,

forgetful of disappointments,

forgiving of all past deceits.

Copyright © Gordon Gibson

mural by Banksie