Poetry is when
the language of the soul
the common tongue.
©Andrew James Murray
Poetry is when
the language of the soul
the common tongue.
©Andrew James Murray
I was sat in a café, reading a great poem about my home city of Manchester.*
The opening lines read:
Queen of the cotton cities,
nightly I pick you back into existence:
the frayed bridal train your chimneys lay
and the warped applause-track of Victorian rain.
You’re the blackened lung whose depths I plumb,
the million windows and the smoke-occluded sun.
A couple took the table behind me. The lad never spoke, but the girl:
“I’ve always had weird drinking habits. I used to drink the vinegar out of cockle and muscle jars. I think it’s the cause of my leaking bladder.”
All of this was underscored by a female cover of Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s The Power Of Love. Haunting and ethereal. Alchemical.
All of these things merged and mingled into one tributary, collaborative moment, leading me to the page, transcribing slowly.
*Manchester, Adam O’Riordan.
These are a few lines that I wrote the other night. Needs a lot doing with it.
Night Poem The loneliness of distraction; a question of language. Cravat pirate, hogging the turntable. Wait — to see the shooting stars tearing holes in the firmament. Name a rose after that velvet queen lost in the garden, painting portraits and hustling the elite for a pound. Taste the names of those gone before, their unfinished manifestos staked to scarlet trees. ©AndrewJamesMurray
For me, my poems serve as a diary. When I look at them I can remember where I was when I got the idea for each one, and what it was that acted as the initial inspiration. The opening poem in my book, Heading North, is called Midnight, July.
The title indicates the when, but not the where and why.
The words for this one came when I was sat in the back garden with a coffee. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky, and I was looking up at the stars and wondering whether we could be alone or was there life somewhere out there?
We writhe with a rage to know the unknowable, blind to great masses that dance in dark orbits. And a soft, summer wind on a night beneath stars is no balm.
While I was sat there, neck craned in the quiet of the night, the stillness was broken by the sound of somebody passing by the front of the house, their presence announced by their whistle as they went.
From somewhere a whistle casts a line, a fragile camaraderie in a world fell silent, where white moth-wing is riotous and a spider's touch carnal.
That faceless person, whoever it was, initiated the close of this poem. Sometimes we go about life oblivious of the effect we have on others, positive or otherwise. And writers can be voyeuristic vampires, stealing in secret what they need from those around them.
I had half of another poem entitled Old Town. When writing it I had the idea of an American-type run down town in the middle of the desert, with people eking out a life in a place where unknown others lived long before them.
As is their wont, the ancestors speak of nothing, just leave their handprints on rock, drying in shadow. In sterile dust we kick careless trails, tracks opening up in animal minds. In towns we lay our markers down, watering holes within arid charms. The rats have our number, wait us out, sandstorms filling our lungs like egg timers.
I wanted to add a second part to the poem.
Regular readers of City Jackdaw will no doubt know of my love for old photographs. There is one in particular that has featured on my blog a few times before. It bears the legend Mary and her Grandfather Jasper. Around 1900. In many cases we never know who the people are in photographs such as this one, but with this we know enough to give it a personal dimension.
I wanted to somehow include this in my book, and so for the second part of this poem I envisaged somebody using it as a bookmark, reading a Truman Capote book (I had The Grass Harp in mind) while, in contrast to the whole ‘heading north’ theme, thinking of the south where the author came from and set his stories.
On the porch she reads Capote. Turns her face to the south. Her bookmark is an old photograph of an old man; a girl; a dog: 'Mary and her grandfather Jasper, around 1900.' He: sat, stern and saturnine, wearing the dust. She: stood, hand lightly on his shoulder, glaring at the camera, facing down posterity: Not yet. Not yet. The dog is unnamed. The birdcage in the window, empty. In the book there are voices on the wind. Here, just the parched whisper of turned vellum.
Just weeks before Heading North was to be published I went to stay for a few days in Sweden. It being the furthest north I’d ever been I thought it an ideal opportunity to write something as a last minute addition to my collection of poems.
And thus was born Three Poems In Stockholm.
The first poem came about when I was staying on a boat that served as a hostel and I was woken early by the sound of a foghorn. On looking out of the cabin window I was greeted by the unexpected sight of a Stockholm blanketed by thick fog.
Anchored mists hold down the grey waters of Saltsjön. The mournful baritone of a foghorn splinters the hull, grinds the bones, raises us up from our slumbering wooden berth, to climb high above the city's fitful dreams.
I got dressed and went for a walk. Wandering around there was hardly anyone else around: it was a Sunday morning and the shops were still closed, even in this capital city.
I found myself on an empty street, myopic in the cataract effect of the fog. Suddenly a girl came into sight. Perhaps in her twenties, she wore a bright chequered dress, and beneath her arm she carried around half a dozen sunflowers.
The contrast between her and her surroundings struck me, and I immediately knew that this encounter would feature in the poem I was writing.
In Södermalm, shining in a multicoloured, chequered dress, a girl breezes along with an armful of sunflowers, creating a fissure of brightness in the milky gloom, ploughing a passage of light right through to the warm facades of Gamla Stan. Blind to all else, we follow her down.
Although another two Stockholm based poems followed, this is the one that reminds most of my time there. It was that image I can still see now: within a fog-bound scene a flame-haired girl in a bright dress, clutching yellow sunflowers. A centre of colour in a colourless landscape. It was like a painting.
Of course if I’d have approached her and said I was going to write a poem about her I could have been hit with a restraining order or something much more painful.
So somewhere out there, probably still in Stockholm, there is a girl who inspired a poet and is immortalised in a poem that featured in a book.
And she will never know.
I don’t know about you guys, but I think that’s kinda sad.
As I said in my previous post, I’m not normally one who gives explanations about the poems that I write as I prefer readers to take from them what they will. I don’t think my stuff is obscure enough to warrant that.
But, after the publication of my collection Heading North, I’ve been interested to hear about some of the interpretations that readers have deduced from the poems within.
I used to be a postman, and on my round I had to deliver to several blocks of flats. While I was moving up and down the stairs in these flats, the graffiti on the walls would often catch my eye, particularly the humorous and the unique.
A lot of it, though, were candid (or perhaps false) disclosures of who was doing what to who. I think you can gather what I mean. From these squalid revelations was born the poem News On A Stairwell:
Sated on the stories of others, fed in passing on casual affairs. On stairwells, glancing, their legible wares are traded second hand for faltering steps, and behind hand murmurs of shallow cares, where dead unions play on, play on, laughing. In salacious nooks their small town shagging goes on, on walls, spread everywhere.
My wife, bless her, was not too impressed by my use of the ‘s’ word. But, as I told her, the people who wrote these things didn’t use words like fornicate or copulate, so to be authentic it had to be either the ‘s’ word or the ‘f’ word.
A reader commented about this poem, asking if it was referring to Facebook. As I’ve already explained it wasn’t, and this poem had its roots before Facebook existed, but I liked that idea. Things have evolved — these days that type of gossip and dirty laundry are indeed shared on Facebook walls for all and sundry to feast upon Same shenanigans, different walls.
That works too. I’m cool with that.
Another poem, called Summer Boys, has its roots in a childhood memory of the place I used to live. A blazing hot summer in the seventies, I was playing with a couple of other now nameless and faceless children upon a croft, weeds growing amongst the red brick. I can still smell the breeze and the flowering thistles, feel the sun shining down on us, when we suddenly heard the music and fanfare of a passing parade. We dropped everything and shot off excitedly after this blaze of movement and colour. The poem ends with:
. . . only to be banished when a passing parade calls them, flying over stony croft. They follow behind in a winding line, lost and in thrall to the piper's call.
A reader took this to be a comment on all of the young people today who feel the call to join the military, being led away to these war torn places.
All of us live in context — both the writer and the reader. To me it was a fond memory from a moment in my life, to the reader it was a reference to current affairs in her life.
A similar interpretation took place with the poem called New Year, Morning. The poem begins with the lines:
Half the world is hurting, turning its face to shadow.
These lines came to me when I was walking my dog early on New Year’s Day. The streets were empty, not a soul in sight, hence also:
The sky is leaden. The streets are all unchartered lanes.
A reader deduced from those two opening lines about the world hurting a comment, again, upon the state of things at the time, what with all of the conflicts and natural disasters that were ravaging the world. She mentioned Iraq, Afghanistan, etc. The truth is that I had no such global thoughts in mind. I was actually thinking of all the hidden people inside those houses still in bed, struggling with the effects of over-drinking on New Year’s Eve.
But I do have to say that I love all of these interpretations. People make connections with poetry, lines conjure images and emotions in the hidden parts of our being. Rather than feel the need to correct the interpretations given (even though I’ve mentioned them here purely to highlight the point), I feel that I have made the right decision.
These are my words, my conjuring. Breathe them in and see what you will.
I’m going to break my own rules, self-serving rebel that I am.
I don’t normally give much away about my writing. I don’t like to explain my poems, or give insight into their meaning.
It’s not that I’m secretive, or have anything to hide. It’s just that I prefer readers to take from them what they will, as long as they aren’t too obscure.
The poems, I mean, not the readers 🙂
But, after a couple of discussions on here, I’ve decided to make a couple of posts about some of the poems in my book, Heading North.
One about inspiration. One about interpretation.
Cause and effect.
You may find them of interest. I shall post them early next week.
In the meanwhile have a good weekend. Hope the muse plays game.