Accounts of Evenings Nov 08 - Jul 09

In the Shadow of the Bomb

anne berkeley The icy edge of the Cold War provided a telling sharpness to many of the poems read by Anne from her recent publication, The Men from Praga [Salt 2009]. The daughter of an airman who served on missions at a time when the world seemed to be on the verge of a terrible catastrophe, her poems recall with great clarity the disturbance felt by a sensitive child in a large and often desolate house in Lincolnshire and the memories her father shared with her. The house itself with its abandoned gardens seems to serve as a metaphor for a young life where the common experiences of childhood become heightened by the insecurity that threatened the peace of the world, a childhood lived in the deep shadow cast by the Bomb and vividly conveyed in the poem, 'Yellow Sun, Green Grass'. It was refreshing to be in the company of a poet with the capacity to see in the small things of life the reflection of more momentous human common concerns, well illustrated in the vivid description of such a humble item as her father’s hold-all:

Let me take some weight from you now.
Let me listen to the long yawn of your zip
as you spill out your puzzling odours

And I will try not to resent your shared journeys,
The long absences and whispers, the crises.

'Hold-all' [Aircrew] from The Men from Praga 

The title poem (first published in TLS, 2001), set in what is clearly regarded as a ‘no go’ area across the river Vistula in Warsaw illustrates her gifts as an award winning poet whose talent extends beyond the powerful evocation of imagery from the Cold War- an eye for what might pass unobserved, the telling phrase which brings a moment of time to life, and the capacity to leave the reader wondering about the nature of others’ lives:

I watch them. They’re quite at home
Out there in the channel. Smoking, fixing bait.
The wind flicks Polish at me. It’s all beyond me-
their Sunday morning ease, their ice.
the fluent fish at large below their feet.

Anne suggested 'The Individual and the State' might be a theme which members of the society could reflect on and in the second half of the evening they rose to the challenge when over half the audience of some twenty or so produced a varied, lively and often very humorous interpretation of the topic.

Richard Hancock

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Hancock's Hour

dick hancockIt was a great pleasure to have Dick Hancock, now our genial chairman, present to read his poems to us.

Dick’s plan was to show how events from boyhood onwards had stimulated a creative nerve which found its outlet in writing poetry. Included in the process were the influence of his immediate family, war, newspaper items and people generally; and he concluded his talk by reading his poem printed on the reverse of the June Newsletter. . In a way that poem encapsulates the tone and manner of Dick’s personal style. More of that later but it does raise the point that it is enormously helpful to have a text to look at to see on the page the shape and varied uses of language

As regards the reading, a large part of our enjoyment derived from the way Dick introduced his poems. They emerged as seamlessly integrated with the accounts of his personal experience. He began with his boyhood dreams after reading teenage magazines of the 1940’s such as ‘The Rover’ in which the hero ‘glossy with Brylcream’ achieved heroic impossible feats. Thus Dick imagined himself as hero on various occasions and finally bringing Scott back alive from the Pole.

There were moving poems about his parents who kept their dreams ‘closed in’ because they never owned a motor car; about his sister in ‘A Tablet in Tall Grass’ whose early death was, he said, probably responsible for his own existence; about another sister ‘Your world this little room’ because she suffered from Alzheimers.

On a more cheerful and decidedly witty note Dick gave us a pair of poems about love in which there were incidents showing why for one lover ‘He Never Got the Girl’ whereas for the other ‘He Got the Girl’ because in the end ‘The MG clinched it’.

Dick’s knowledge of literature and his fascination with words and phrases enable him to use a wide variety of techniques. Again in witty mode he gave numerous examples where the phrase ‘F-ing and Blinding’ was appropriate, after which came the shock of its surprising application to land erosion and, sadly, ‘Norfolk villages slipping into the sea’.

Highly entertaining was ’The Gas Fitter’s Philosophy’ in which the gasman assumed - correctly as it turned out - that he need not carry material to fill in the holes caused by his work because every household in the land could produce ‘ten bricks’ to complete the job. The repetition of ‘ten bricks’ built up very effectively as again in ’City Hospital’ did the refrain ‘You must take the treatment’ addressed to all patients.

This is poetry which embodies an easy conversational tone and movement, often with rhyming highlights, sharpened in places to make an arresting point, as in the poem ‘Who is Sylvia’ where the man whose occupation was to trap rabbits ended by ‘snaring her too’! And in ‘Echoes of Dresden’ the memorable line ‘showered a city with a deadly rain’ catches precisely the horror of carpet bombing.

To my mind the subtlety and apparently self effacing yet assured nature of the poetry is most clearly evidenced by ‘On The Edge of Things’ where we can actually view and share the experience of being the odd person out at a wedding, fading into the background ‘by gravestones lichened in green’. The understated conversational tone makes a devastating point of the overheard remark ‘It’s some friend I think’ of the writer ‘sitting at the end of tables’. With the poem in front of us we are even more powerfully struck by the impact of the concluding couplet with its melancholy

‘Unconscious, while somewhere consummation brings
A young bride's cries and you're on the edge of things

The meeting was predictably packed and Dick’s invitation to his audience to talk about their own interest in poetry provided a most fascinating variety in the second half. It made the whole evening an auspicious beginning to his time as TPS chairman.

Peter Stileman

Members' Hour

In response to this invitation to consider how their interest in poetry started, several people said that their earliest memories were influenced by the verse they had learned when they were young. One member (Martin Cook) ventured as far back as the nursery rhymes he had read as a very small child, saying that his favourite verse was frequently read over and over again when he had nothing else to read. It was a truism that applied to many a youngster, avaricious for the pure magnetism of sound and the magical power of words. Enthusiastic children, at some stage in their early linguistic development, will read almost anything that falls before their eyes, from shabby cigarette cards to cornflake packet on the breakfast table, and quite naturally, as Martin pointed out, those favourite books that can be read with one's eyes shut provide the perfect ammunition.

Other members also emphasised the subtle guidance of parents and friends. Ann Biddle, for example, tugged at the heart strings and must surely have provoked the memories of several of the overgrown kids in our ranks when she recalled her delight at learning the little ditties of Pooh Bear by heart. Whilst John Godfrey, reading from The Naughty Boy, by Keats, light-heartedly blamed his parents for giving him an anthology on his fifth birthday containing this long, fascinating rhyme that has intrigued children for almost two centuries; though in this case, one suspects, rarely learned by heart.

Several other people also recalled the rote learning of their early schooldays as a powerful introduction to poetry during their formative years. Sue Godfrey learned, "Going Downhill on a Bicycle," by heart in those happy days, because it captured the free-wheeling frisson of childhood bravado. Susan Browne recollected that poetry was employed in elocution training during her school days and Veronica Gudgin found great delight in action poems when she was young, and it is interesting to note that although learning by heart is not held in such high regard in modern educational circles, action poetry is still widely used in many schools.

Others invoked classic pieces and established masters of verse as reasons for their love of poetry. William Greig attributed much of his enthusiasm, and his constant search for clarity, to the sibilant sounds and intriguing word play of Dylan Thomas, whilst it is easy to see in the work of Hamza Ishmail how he was influenced by the elegant, passionate tones of Shelly. Ann recalled the clever use of rhythm and form of Wordsworth and Tennyson. Duncan found his poetic voice with the reediscovery of Larkin. Peter Stileman, our past chairman, cited Shakespeare and promptly parodied The Bard in most amusing fashion.

Brian Biddle eruditely explained that even snatches of poetry have a way of influencing practically everyone. "Those ineradicable bits of poetry," he eloquently cajoled, "those opening lines .... where do they all come from?" George A Knight, in his own inimitable style, with punchlines delivered like a German verb, showed why humour was a strong catalyst in writing poetry. Barry explained how the use of figurative devices and the pure sound of words stimulated him to write and Edna Davis paid all of the assembled company the greatest compliment when she suggested that one of her big influences was Toddington Poetry Society itself. How nice it was of Edna, and what a remarkable insight she has.

Frank Batt

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mike b-biggsIt was lovely to welcome Michael Bartholomew-Biggs back to T.P.S. He started writing in the late 80s and was a member of Toddington Poets until he moved to London. These days he and his wife, poet Nancy Mattson who read at TPS in March, run Poetry in the Crypt in Islington. Mike has had 4 chapbooks published.

He read from several of these and from his first full collection Tell It Like It Might Be (Smokestack Books 2008) and Tradesman's Exit (Shoestring Press) due out later this year.

Mike grouped the poems he read under headings. His first section was mainly love poems including Close enough for jazz which is all one sentence. Some of the poems in this section were an ironic look back at his younger self. In Zone two after he’d drawn the scene he cleverly refers to himself in the third person. The poem also mentions “a slant cut ticket” that indication of a half-fare ticket for under-14s. This was one of the three poems in the evening which referred to trains one other being Signals, the poem printed on the back of the newsletter. The third, the title poem of Tell It Like It Might Have Been, describes a steam engine passing as “a punch of wind and warmth”. This section ended with some poems from a series Mike is working on Blossom and Fred concerning the love story of Blossom Freeman-Thomas who divorced her husband to marry Fred Miles. (Fred was connected with the Martlet and the Magister, both light aircraft.)

Having looked at the aircraft industry we were then treated to The British aircraft industry circa 1966 which reflected on Mike's time at Hatfield.

Then we heard a series of poems from Mike's forthcoming book Tradesman's Exit. Here we were reminded of the days in which coalmen delivered the coal (Led by the nose) or we visited the butcher's to buy meat (At the butcher's palace of varieties) while the men in the audience had their memories jogged by Barbershop fantasy. Call Centre cleverly posited a world in which you could call "the Supplication Hotline" and included all those phrases we've come to hate such as "To help us deal effectively with your requests" and "mission statement".

He then moved on to a section concerned with poems involved loosely with the theme of Imagination. Out of reach contains the wonderful image “Evening flung a flock of birds against the sky”. Mike finished with a couple of poems about churches.

It was a reading shot-through with musicality, a poet who uses language and rhyme and imagery to good effect.

After the interval T.P.S. members had been invited to read their poems on the subject of Marks. It seemed to me a difficult subject but produced a wide variety of interpretations including two poems about Karl Marx.

The evening ended with a short question and answer session and a final poem, Bleak, about the poet R. S. Thomas. Mike told us that he usually works on computer, if there is one available. He said that as with his former day job as a research mathematician, you know when you've got it right and it sometimes takes a long time to get there. He described himself as "a bit of a sourpuss" when it came to reviewing but stated that a desire to write a novel when he retired had not yet born fruit.

It was one of those evenings which sparkled, when two hours passed so quickly you were brought up suddenly when you looked at your watch.

Suzanne Godfrey

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Moving poetry, spanning continents and cultures with skill and warmth

nancy mattson

The intriguing title of Nancy Mattson's collection "Writing with Mercury" suggested we were in for a feast of mythology with the messenger god interweaving his poetical messages with subtlety. I should have read the back cover of the collection. I would then have known Nancy meant the elusive quality of quicksilver. Well, the subtlety was there in all of her work, coupling a tenderness and lightness of touch with a narrative thread and a little nostalgia.

I made another error when anticipating Nancy's poems. I assumed that only cold winter wind from the plains of Saskatchewan, where she was brought up, would permeate the poems. I should have known better for her poems span cultures, from the Americas to the Karelia and Russia, from Italy to London, with warmth and vivacity, and hint at the oneness of humanity in spite of outbursts of international rivalry and internecine strife.

"Writing with Mercury" (published by Flambard Press, 2006) is an accurate picture of the difficulty of writing poetry, not just churning out the sort of bland verbiage so common in many poetry magazines. Yes, it is difficult just like-

	Pressed between thumb and forefinger 
	mercury skims across the page: 
	silverfish escaping from a torch, 
	twenty-six seductive drops of toxin. 

	Mercury freezes at minus forty, 
	where Celsius and Fahrenheit meet. 
	All I need is Canada in winter 
	and ice can be my medium, my weapon. 

	All I have is London in grey rain 
	that never freezes hard enough to matter. 

"Chesterfield of Doom" seems to be a metaphor for the enduring quality of family values in spite of distances of time and space:

	Rigid as whalebone, tougher than horsehair,
	it will last longer than mammoths in permafrost,
	smirking at moths and crusting scissors with rust. 

"Ubi Sunt Rotae" is a nostalgic picture of a lost time in the Canada of Nancy's youth with Studebakers, Packards, Chevrolets ...

	Where are they now, those boys in ducktails, 
	girls in panty girdles? Last seen cruising 
	towards the suburbs without seat belts, 
	trusting in bits of rubber and dumb luck. 

This suggests a yearning for a world without political correctness or controls and, perhaps regret, in the chosen title for the passing of the linguistic discipline of Latin.

Ice Fishing: Well I had to look up pickerel ( North American pike), but I loved:

	the fluid habit of fish 
	the dark liquidities sealed by ice 
	like paraffin on jelly .. 

Here Nancy seemed to be saying something was beyond control by our cash-obsessed world.

"Kimonos" is a beautiful poem that rejoices in ancient skills, and reminds me of the timeless elegance of a Basho haiku.

"Written in the Name of Rose" is a wonderfully evocative poem about Nancy's grandmother, whose name was Anna, but who called herself Ruusa, and spoke no English, ...

	but oh she could hold 
	a kitchenful of visitors with stories 

	longer than the rugs she wove from old clothes 
	in eloquent symmetrics, wide stripes 
	in colours to match desire with design. 

In another section of Nancy's reading, we were treated to a scintillating preview of some poems reflecting her interest in the Russian language, and particularly Russian women painters of the avant-garde period.

Nancy read more poems, all of them admirable, which I trust TPS members will explore for themselves. I am left with the impression of a poet with a very warm personality, who has a strong feeling for and command of language, which she uses with sensitivity and intelligence. Angela and I thoroughly enjoyed her reading. Thank you, Nancy, Thank you.

Martin Cook

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Coming to terms with the phenomena of Time

hugh underhill The sixteen or so members who braved the gloom of a November evening were rewarded by the company of a writer seriously committed to the art of writing poetry. Hugh Underhill used the occasion to launch his latest collection of poems, ‘Found Wanting’ (Smokestack, 2008) written over a period of ten years. A university lecturer for much of his career, Hugh has also written extensively on poetic theory and his own poems show a very well read and allusive writer intensely grappling with form and content. He states unequivocally that Time is the recurring theme of his work and most of the poems in this collection are a detailed exploration of the concept’s complexity. Characteristic are Deliberation, the very first poem, which shows the history of a Victorian dwelling mysteriously suffusing the lives of its inhabitants, and the second poem, Flown Time, which explores the devastating impact of the passing years on a youthful man, now an aged father. Drawing on philosophy and artistic theory, many of Hugh’s poems are very challenging and require the unremitting attention of the reader but there is no doubting the firm and true steadiness of his gaze and his very precise use of language, well demonstrated by the opening of ‘A Lake’s Progress’:

Ice does up the lake, tight. On top,
snow wool-gathers. Reeds stand firm, woodcut 
-inked against the white
And the low light.

Fortunately, Hugh is himself a fine reader of his own verse, the diligent listener being greatly helped by the deliberate pace he adopts and the clarity of his diction. A surprising and attractive feature for local readers is the recurring invocation of the Bedfordshire connection, its writers and characteristic landscapes, with John Bunyan and Robert Bloomfield featuring prominently.

Richard Hancock

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