Poetry Worth Hearing: Episode Five
Welcome to the fifth episode of Poetry Worth Hearing. The first part of this episode is devoted to the conflict in Ukraine. There is an edited version of a discussion by a group of poets, mostly from Oxford, on how we should write about the war in Ukraine, or indeed, if we should be writing about it at all. The discussion is followed by a selection of poems.
The second part of the episode is more general and includes new work by a range of poets as well as a short reading by Alan Buckley from his recent collection, Touched.
A number of poets met on Zoom to discuss responses to the war in Ukraine. I had asked people, by email, to think about a range of issues:
‘Poetry makes nothing happen’ (W.H.Auden)- so what’s the point
The importance of bearing witness
The difficulty of writing about the suffering of others and the risk of schadenfreude
The problem of quality in such rapid response work
In the event, we condensed these points into three main topics:
On the first issue, purpose, I was reminded, in an email from Caroline Jackson-Houlston, that Auden in his elegy for W.B. Yeats developed the idea of what poetry does beyond the rather bald statement I had quoted. Sections II and III of the poem, 'In Memory of W.B.Yeats', seem particularly relevant now.
You were silly like us; your gift survived it all: The parish of rich women, physical decay, Yourself. Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry. Now Ireland has her madness and her weather still, For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives In the valley of its making where executives Would never want to tamper, flows on south From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs, Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives, A way of happening, a mouth.
Earth, receive an honoured guest: William Yeats is laid to rest. Let the Irish vessel lie Emptied of its poetry.
In the nightmare of the dark All the dogs of Europe bark, And the living nations wait, Each sequestered in its hate;
Intellectual disgrace Stares from every human face, And the seas of pity lie Locked and frozen in each eye.
Follow, poet, follow right To the bottom of the night, With your unconstraining voice Still persuade us to rejoice;
With the farming of a verse Make a vineyard of the curse, Sing of human unsuccess In a rapture of distress;
In the deserts of the heart Let the healing fountain start, In the prison of his days Teach the free man how to praise.
(W.H.Auden, In Memory of W B Yeats, 1939)
When we considered the second issue, we were particularly conscious of the difficulty of writing about the sufferings of others when most of us have no direct involvement; there was also the question of why we felt a greater need to response to this conflict than to other horrors, for example, in Syria, Chechnya, Afghanistan or even to Allied atrocities in the First and Second Gulf wars; in addition, we worried about the dangers of partisanship, seeming to promote war or inciting hatred against Russians. We talked about the relief we might feel that we were not undergoing these horrors while at the same time the dread there might be of a potential nuclear escalation and how these feelings might condition poetic responses.
The participants made a strong link between the issue of quality and ethical considerations. There was a sense that a 'good' poetic response needed to be authentic, not an indulgence in sentiment or a play for attention or publication. The question of adapting form and style to audience was discussed, and there was some consideration of whether devices like strong rhyme patterns or powerful rhythms might give a poem more public impact, as in the final section of Auden's poem or even Shelley's Mask of Anarchy. Merryn Williams who is an expert on the writing of the First World War made reference to the quantity of dross which was written then, particularly by non-combatants or those writing propaganda verse.
The participants in the discussion, which I hosted, were, in no particular order:
Jennifer A. McGowan
The discussion was followed by some of the participants reading their own poems. On the podcast, I have prefaced these by Jennifer A. McGowan's reading of a poem by Dmitry Blizniuk, a Ukrainian living in Kharkiv, which she had found in the online magazine.
Jennifer A. McGowan took her PhD from the University of Wales, and taught there (and at several other universities which began with a W, including Warwick) until her disability became too severe to work. At time of writing she is in her 25th month of Long Covid as well. Her sixth collection comes out in October 2022 from Arachne Press. She has won several competitions and been commended in many more. She generally prefers the 15th century to the 21st, and is an early Tudor re-enactor. Here is the link to Dmitry Blizniul's poem: https://www.rattle.com/?s=Dmitry+Blizniuk
I have also included a couple of poems which were not actually read on the night.
Here are all the texts and poets:
Kharkiv -Ash Wednesday, 2022
What will remain when the dust settles
on the rubble, graveyard of truth,
and wailing sirens yowl their peace?
Where will they find themselves,
emerging from underground shelters,
shaken, sleep-starved, hungry?
The world they knew, the familiar sights
incinerated, in a flash of missile strike,
cluster-bomb tirade. Uneasy silence.
Is it safe?
They carry their heavy hearts in bruised
caskets, stumble over boulders and stones,
lintels and ceilings draped over the road.
A teddy bear lies abandoned.
The pages of a book turn in the wind.
Ragged cries fill the air.
Anna Avebury was born in Bradford of Ukrainian parents, where her earliest experience of poetry was through the recitation of Ukrainian poems at the Ukrainian Cultural Centre. She read English at Oxford University and became an English teacher. Her interest in writing poetry developed during a career break in the 90’s when she joined Ver Poets in St Albans, where she now lives. Her work has been published in various magazines including Obsessed with Pipework, The Interpreter’s House and Artemis, and in the anthology, Locked Down, published by Poetry Space in 2020.
He said they must be punished, they defied.
Our name is ours they said, and he replied
I’ll punish you for that, but they were fortified
by faith that right was on their side. So, did
this whirlpool of insanity gain strength.
All those who watched it grow,
at length drawn into it.
What words to speak?
what actions take?
Andrew Dixon is a retired scientist. He contributed a poem (in the voice of a child) to ‘Poems for Grenfell Tower’. He sings in a choir which he feels has taught him to listen, really listen, to sound associations and rhythms. He is also a strong believer in learning good poetry by heart in order to understand how it works.
In Ukraine swallows have a strong homing instinct
I hear a prayer in the tread of tanks;
as they flatten borders their ridges
print earth into possession orders.
A bridge is a prayer the colour of smoke,
amen is the end of a prayer and yet
Z is not the end of the alphabet.
I hear prayers in clangs of masonry
as it holds a building in its arms,
in the crump as it falls,
hear a small bird of a girl sing
‘Let it go, let it go, can’t hold it back any more’
like a wound opening its door.
Notes: Z as a symbol is an abbreviation of the phrase "for victory" in Russia
The Ukranian girl, Amelia, sang ‘Let it go’ from ‘Frozen’ in Ukranian in a shelter
Sarah Macleod lives in Abingdon. She worked for nine years at Wadham College in Oxford and is now retired. She has had poems published in Mslexia, Inclement, Ver Poets, Iron Press, a prize in Grey Hen, two poems in Edward Thomas Fellowship, commended for Indigo pamphlet and longlisted twice in Cinnamon Press pamphlet competitions.
(Ruth Bidgood, poet, 20th July 1922- 4th March 2022)
You told me how, in 1941, you
walked with your boyfriend quietly through Port Meadow
not far from Thames, and watched the nesting moorhens,
not talking much, not asking what came next.
You vowed you’d write, you did exchange long letters,
and he survived, but married someone else.
And now it’s 2022, and war
again, not that it ever stopped, or will.
I see them, lovers clinging to each other
in tears, before just one gets on the train –
the young men not allowed to cross the border –
and time winds back, the scene is just the same.
Two students walk, him with his call-up papers,
and you a girl the age of Sophie Scholl,
across a field of memory, and it darkens,
and I’ll remember, though your light grows frail.
Merryn Williams is the author of several critical works and five volumes of poetry; the latest is THE FRAGILE BRIDGE: New and Selected Poems (Shoestring Press). During the pandemic she collected as many good poems about the Plague as possible, and the result is POEMS FOR THE YEAR 2020: Eighty Poets on the Pandemic (also Shoestring). A revised version of her translation of Federico Garcia Lorca's SELECTED POEMS will be published in autumn 2021.
моя маленька донечка
(Kramatorsk, Eastern Ukraine, 11th February 2015)
‘моя маленька донечка
my little daughter –
it was not working late
not the long queues
not the snow
not a cancelled train
not a broken bridge
not that I forgot –
why I must stay here
on the rough ice-patched grass
outside the railway station
where I always crossed to our street
where everyone walks home in the evening –
why I must stay here now
my boots resting
my face covered with newspaper by a stranger.’
Hanne Busck-Nielsen is Danish. Her poems, translations and reviews have been published in Interpreter’s House, Corbel Stone Press, Albion Beatnik Press, White Rat Press, The Poet’s House, Oxford; ‘POEM, International English Language Quarterly’ and The Alchemy Spoon. In 2015 she received the Special Commendation in Oxford Brookes University International Poetry Competition and was a finalist in the Cinnamon Press Pamphlet Competition, 2021.
This Poem Does Nothing Much
If I just started walking
a bag of bread loaves in my left,
a six-pack of clean water in my right,
if I stood facing the Russians,
saying to the soldiers:
Look at yourself!
Think of your mother!
(Think of your mother,
my grandmother said to the Russian soldier,
who did not rape her,
because he had listened to what she said—
but he was not an army.)
If we all started walking,
if we stood, all of us,
between the army and Mariupol
with our bare hands—
would they not stop shooting eventually?
At least run out of ammunition?
How long could they continue thinking
it is we who are the enemy?
(I think this has been tried
and the answer is: too long.)
Whoever walks to Mariupol
must be prepared to shatter
like those who are in Mariupol:
bodies, lives, dreams, minds.
If I were to walk to Mariupol,
I should have started walking decades ago,
for there are other places like Mariupol,
more than one,
I will not walk to Mariupol.
I have weak ankles;
I am very afraid
of the things people do to other people.
I wept for you;
my tears were nothing,
Inge Milfull is half German, half Australian. She grew up in Germany and has lived and worked in Oxford for most of the last two decades. She now writes mostly in English. She has been involved with the long-running local group Back Room Poets almost as long as she has lived in Oxford and runs one of their poetry workshops.
This was written before I saw the news about the endemic racism amongst the people running the evacuations, who would not let Africans, students in the Ukraine, board the evacuation busses. “Ukrainians only,” they were told. But before then. I saw a picture of a Ukrainian soldier wearing a mask whilst helping people flee. Holy cow, I thought. It’s a literal war zone, and here he has the consideration to mask up. And then the news about the Don’t Say Gay bill in Florida struck, and the denial of trans rights in Texas.
The soldier who has lain planks to cross
the water because they blew up the bridge—
the one whose language has become ammunition—
the one who helps Mama Nataliia across
because they can see her ankle is dodgy—
that soldier, who went to school with Dmitry
and helped him with his English homework—
who now lifts your dog over that last ditch
because it has a broken leg but the vet is dead—
that same soldier who cradles the baby
in their arms, humming it to sleep—
even they, in the thick of it,
wear a surgical mask
because death has many guises
and they may live in a city no longer on the map,
but at least it’s not Florida or fucking Texas.
Jennifer A. McGowan
References made by participants in the discussion.
Andrew Dixon referred to Seamus Heaney. Here he expands on these references:
In an interview in the Paris Review Heaney talked about his poem Punishment. which, he says, is about standing by as the 'IRA Tar and Feather...young women...and the British torture people...' He then says (full quotation) 'the poem's concerns are immediate and contemporary, but for some reason I couldn't bring army barracks or police barracks or Bogside street life into the language and topography of the poem. I found it more convincing to write about the bodies in the bog and the vision of Iron Age punishment. Pressure seemed to drain away from the writing if I shifted my focus away from those images.'
Second, about Heaney writing for himself.
This comes from his poem The Flightpath. In a separate interview Heaney confirmed that the incident did actually occur but he made the speaker 'a bit more aggressive than he was at the time'. The Stanza is as follows
So he enters and sits down
Opposite and goes for me head on.
'When for fuck's sake are you going to write
Something for us?' 'If I do write something,
Whatever it is, I'll be writing for myself.'
And that was that. Or words to that effect.
(The speaker was a Sinn Fein spokesman)
Jennifer A. McGowan made reference to bearing witness and talked about Carolyn Forché who is best known for her poem, "The Colonel'. She also referred to the work of the Central American writer, Claribel Alegria and her works, They Won't Take Me Alive, which is about the struggle of Sandinistan women in the Nicaraguan revolution, and Ashes of Izalco, a short novel c0-written with Darwin Flakoll, a love story set against the events of 1932 when thirty thousand Indians and peasants were massacred in Izalco, El Salvador.
It must be the girl’s fault.
Look at what she was wearing.
And how she moved.
She was asking for it. Slut.
I haven’t told anyone except my sisters,
but everybody knows. He’s been boasting.
They say I’m damaged goods, and worse.
They can’t bear to look me in the eye, it seems.
My sisters are the only ones who stand by me.
What did she think she was doing, anyway,
going off with an older man?
He took her down behind the sheds
down there where they clean the fish.
She must have wanted it.
I should never have agreed to meet him.
I was stupid.
I’d even heard something of his reputation.
But I thought I’d be alright.
He was my dad’s friend, almost an uncle.
We all come from the same area down by the docks.
I hate myself. So hurt, so hurt.
I’m all screwed up inside.
His hands on me, the terror, oh god,
and he wouldn’t stop, though I screamed,
then pleaded. And he hurt me.
I said, “You’re hurting me”.
He just went on.
Well, I’ve been punished alright.
No one blames the man.
But look at me now. I’m ugly.
It’s how I feel, anyway. Hideous.
And, oh, my beautiful hair hangs
tangled now in greasy ropes.
Everyone says I’m a monster.
But I’m the monster rape has made.
Men fear and loathe me.
It’s only a matter of time
till someone tries to kill me,
some hero. Handsome, no doubt,
a real heart-throb. Someone like Perseus.
But he’ll be afraid. He won’t dare look at me.
I’ll turn him to stone.
Brighid Schroer has been writing poetry on-and-off for about 35 years. and has attended various poetry workshops in the US and the UK. She has had work published in magazines and anthologies in the United States and in the UK, not much so far, but she’s working on that.
Powder coatings are high performance finishes which protect and decorate. For twenty years I was involved in a business which applied these coatings to steel and aluminium components. The application process begins with the removal of surface contamination from the components. These are then prepared for coating by using chemicals or abrasives to develop a uniform clean surface which is receptive to the powder. The components are hung (jigged) on conveyor lines and the powder is applied using spray guns. Then they pass through an oven which cures the powder, creating a strong bond with the metal surface. Most of us encounter powder coated items every day. They are found throughout the built environment as window frames, cladding, and solar shading. The process is also used to coat components for railway carriages, stairlifts and street furniture.
When my pamphlet publisher tells me
she’ll send a copy to the British Library, I grin.
I’m beside myself that copyright
will hide my name in gloomy stacks
where, let’s face it,
it’s going to gather dust.
Like the anonymous presence,
of my colleagues and me
in that aging skin
of brick-red paint
clinging to soffits and louvres,
cladding this barrack façade,
which has me beside myself again
as I wander down Euston Road.
Two hours into Tate Modern
I’ve got to the ‘I could have done that’ stage.
(In my defence, we’ve just watched a film
of a bloke with no keks gyrating round a plastic T-Rex.
I’ve been to those parties…Forgive me, I digress)
I stare through the window
soothe myself with the Thames
and – spurred by idle habit - check the finish
on the curtain wall.
mirror flat, the fleck completely uniform.
No orange peel, no build-up at the edge.
No brown; heavy sections like this need extra heat,
too much can scorch the flake. I could not have done this.
In thirty years I peeled, pre-treated, jigged.
I tested panels in the lab. Once I crashed a van.
I quoted, schmoozed, and sealed some deals.
I hired and fired. My word held sway.
Finally – too tired to stay – I had to walk away.
But I never learnt to spray.
Carl Tomlinson lives on a smallholding in the North Oxfordshire countryside. His poems have been published in South, Orbis, and in competition anthologies. Known to many for his hosting of reading in the Aboingdon Arms and Live in the Time of Coronabirus. He has just published his first book, Changing Places, with Fair Acre Press.
Hormonal Sentience (Bush walk, South Africa)
Trees are telling tales –
murmuring to the neighbors
in ethylene, to fill their leaves with tannin,
make themselves distasteful
to hungry browsers.
Trees speak, as they did
when man’s mimicry
was all but animal.
In the days of stone shapes
and fire miracles. When language
rolled in with the wheel.
Mopane trees; added their tongue
to the clicking consonants
of Khosian, the long Dutch vowels.
When the first ship anchored
at The Cape and unloaded its cargo
of dubious futures.
Acacia trees; wept with
The Abolitionists, mused
on the passing of mules and wagons,
the death of each warrior,
every red-coated column
and debated the true price of gold.
Trees, in yellow-flowered frocks,
gossiped and prayed each summer
long, sang anthems, cast
their ballots in the breeze.
As freedom was islanded
in the time of monochrome.
Trees, with rebel pheromones,
collude at sunrise.
When shots ring from the mines
and each thrumming shanty
surrenders its contents
to the needs of the sparkling towns.
Hormonal Sentience: Information exchange between plants
‘There has been a number of instances of criminal damage to trees in this park…caused by dog owners training certain breeds to attack trees…trees are now dying as a result of this’
Extract from a sign in a London Park
Do you miss the birdsong from the Crabapple?
Remember the confetti from the Hawthorn
and Cherry, proclaiming Spring,
before the Mastiffs stripped them bare?
I have packed away the picnic rug,
the wicker basket and the paper cups
since the Hounds took to hunting the Ash and the Elm
under which we shared sandwiches and wine.
I knew when the Lap-dogs came
out from under the skirts of dowagers,
jumping and swinging from the burnished branches,
there would be no more Chestnuts on the fire.
And by the time you read this the Bull Terriers
will have warred with the Holly and Mistletoe.
There will be no greening of mantels this Christmas -
our kisses will flounder under distressed pine.
Sue Johns originates from Cornwall where she started performing as a punk poet, in the 1980’s.
She has published 3 pamphlets and 2 full collections, including Hush (Morgan’s Eye Press
2011) , Rented, Poems on Prostitution and Dependency (Palewell Press, 2018) and Track Record (Dempsey & Windle, 2021). She was highly commended in the Prole competition and the Amnesty International competition. She has an MA in Writing Poetry from Newcastle University/ the Poetry School.
All publications available from https://www.suejohns.co.uk
THE AGE OF GOLD
Imagine a world where pester power
rarely delivers the goods and a dawdling
hike to school’s the norm. You have fresh air,
your friends, and a small coin burning
a hole in your pocket. Spend it now
or do your best to make it last the week.
In class Rosanna Ferrario likes to sit
beside you. All the others make you blush.
They seem to know you like her too.
Give her a Love Heart with your message
so at least she’ll learn it’s true,
even though the taste is sour.
Your best friend Jan eats salami.
How can anyone like that stuff?
Does he like bacon boiled with cabbage?
The day you both forget the milk,
singing Beatles songs, Mr Murphy canes you
to help you mend your ways.
“The permanent entity is water”
As elements are meant to, earth, air or fire appear true
to themselves. The dull ground we’ve charted
– tilled, scarred or wasted to cornfield, battlefield, desert –
seems solid enough; while always invisibly there,
the air is soft or wild for as long as lungs
can breathe it. Confined to a hearth, the fire seeks
escape, its horde of sparks despising verticals.
Only water tames it, that soothes and then deceives –
the veiled source of everything.
Brought to a halt at the edge of its world,
the bear scans unswimmable distance.
One day for water we’ll tear ourselves apart.
David Cooke was born in 1953 in Wokingham although his parents came from the West of Ireland. He received a Gregory award in 1977 while he was a student at Nottingham University. Since then, his work been published in the UK, Ireland and beyond. He has also published nine collections of his poetry, most recently Sicilian Elephants (Two Rivers Press, 2021) and The Metal Exchange(Littoral Press, 2022). In 2023, to coincide with his seventieth birthday, Littoral Press will be publishing his Collected Poems. He is the founder and editor of the online journal The High Window
A damp shared flat in Streatham
Sad wallpaper, dark green
and Leonard Cohen on the gramophone
on endless loop for someone’s broken heart.
Above the rust stained bath an Ascot water heater
the pilot light gone out
and I the only one to volunteer
to strike a match to light it.
And so I find myself, no eyelashes, or eyebrows,
but alive. Indignant though to find
the science I’d avoided when at school
was waiting here in London’s chilly heart.
Sunday morning – London
I’m walking the pavements alone, for something to do
past the little shaded cafes, where we did not sit,
down streets we’ve never quarrelled in, or kissed,
Victorian houses we have never just moved into
and painted together a daring feature wall -
pausing only to make love on our new kitchen island.
Past the theatres we’ve never rushed to, and all
the parks where we’ve never wandered hand in hand.
Where are you my future lover? Speak to me
from London’s dismal acres, dun and grey.
Console me now. One day we’ll laugh at this, you’ll see.
And turning in bed sometime I’ll idly say
‘I roamed the streets – and tried to call your name.’
And you: ‘My love, I did the very same.’
The afternoon in the art gallery
might of course lead on to other things
the eventual requirement to remove your clothes
end up as naked as the paintings on the wall.
No longer the safety of your duffel coat
and in spite of all your preparation
he will find out
about your bulgy thighs
your waist that’s hardly there
deficiencies you’ve seen before
reflected in the mirror of the changing room.
And so you brace yourself and hope
and pray he won’t run screaming from the bed
(the tragic loss, the end of everything).
Perhaps – oh god – perhaps the guy won’t mind?
Out in the miracle morning afterwards
(he didn’t mind) What’s more he’d like
to do it all again. And so would you.
you turn each moment over.
He even wants to paint you
draw each limb and line
of you again.
Just as you traced each other
all last night.
Meg Barton's poems have appeared in magazines including Orbis, Snakeskin, The Interpreter's House, and Lighten Up Online, and the anthologies Earth days numbered (Grey Hen Press), Poems for the year 2020 (Shoestring), and Poems for Grenfell Tower (Onslaught Press). Her first pamphlet, I'd still have been annoyed about the plums, has just been published by Poet's House Pamphlets.
The pamphlet is available at Blackwells, and the Woodstock bookshop, or direct from the author at email@example.com. (£7 + p&p)
The last part of the podcast is provided by Alan Buckley, reading from his collection, Touched. Alan read these poems on a Stanza 2 Zoom Open Mic event in March, when he was the guest reader. Touched was published by Happenstance Press in 2020.
Alan Buckley is the author of two pamphlets, ‘Shiver’ and ‘The Long Haul’, and his first collection Touched (HappenStance Press) was published in 2020. He was a founding editor of ignitionpress, and for many years was a school writer-in-residence for First Story. He works as a psychotherapist for a refugee charity in Oxford.
I hope you have enjoyed this episode. If, by any chance, you came here first, you can find the audio podcast at anchor.fm/kathleen-mcphilemy , or you can search for Poetry Worth Hearing on Google podcasts or Apple podcasts or, now, on Audible.
If you would like to submit your work to Poetry Worth Hearing , please send a recording of up to 4 minutes with the texts of your poems and a short paragraph of biographical information to firstname.lastname@example.org. Poems should be previously unpublished.
More details on how to make your recording can be found on this site in the post for December 7th,2021.
Feedback on episodes and suggestions for future episodes should also be sent to email@example.com