Workshop, 9th October 2018

Recent talk of manifestos has reminded us that the Pitshanger Archive’s collection has not been re-catalogued nor freshly indexed for many a-year.  Pulling down the dusty packing crates with the help of three interns to a corner has revealed that they were in a hopeless muddle, simply tossed in with little regard for alphabet, major theme or even spine colour – thus we found Ezzy Pound cheek-by-endpaper to Ginni Woolf, a most unnatural pairing, while poor retiring Emmy Dickinson forced into the boisterous company of Georgie Byron.  In another crate there were more Pounds sharing their berth with the jottings of Thomas Penny and Johnny Cash, while in a third Isaiah Berlin and Nathanial Hawthorne must host yet more Ezra Pound.

Slowly we are tallying a full stock-take of what is turning out to be a rather eclectic collection, ranging from the vellum-bound memoranda of the very Times New Roman John Betjeman, through the spiral-bound notepads of the impeccable-copperplate Muriel Spark, to the beermat and fag-packet collection of blotchy-biro Dylan Thomas.  As for their contents, this was as varied, from Gerry Manly-Hopkins’ rigid lists of unacceptable topics such as “smut, double entendres, or cats”, to Will Wordsworth’s vague musings about “flowers, trees, fluffy clouds, stuff like that”.

At least there were plenty of agendas on display at this week’s workshop (and yes, we are fully aware that agenda is already the plural of agendum, especially after reading the bullet points of John Milton).  Both Nick Barth and his muse, Frida Kahlo, have been in full agreement with the old adage that ‘the medium is the message’, while John Hurley’s poignant blackberrying with his late wife is very much from the school of ‘write what you know’.  Daphne Gloag offered us a revised take on the swifts and the spaces between them when an old poem received fresh polish, attesting to her lifelong dedication to ‘practise makes perfect’, while Peter Francis and his memories of childhood of shaving managed to ‘show not tell’ without getting into a strop.

Anne Furneaux avoided the cliches about older folk and Eastbourne by adhering to the strictures about ‘truth is beauty’, something disagreed by Niall Cassidy who’s boyhood scamp-dom lean more towards ‘warts and all’.  Alan Chambers, meanwhile, clearly subscribes to ‘keep it simple’ in his short tight piece about leery old men, leading onto Owen Gallagher’s latest draft documenting the touching deaths of his grandparents, now with added clarity thanks to his adherence of ‘if at first you don’t succeed’.  For Pat Francis, finding beauty in an overlooked tree is very much part of her ‘less is more’ philosophy, laying the groundwork for Martin Choules stipulating that we must never be stipulated to.

Looking through our newly-rediscovered piles of pamphlets and folders of flyers, there is a notable absence from Sir John’s days.  Hardly surprising, one may think, for those free-wheeling, come-what-may, don’t-tie-me-down,man Romantics.  But on looking more closely, we found an alarming number of screwed up paper balls.  After teasing them open under laboratory conditions and run them through the Archive’s X-ray machine (acquired in 1970 from Squaretoe & Sandall’s Shoe Shop, Stepney), their faded ink was finally made readable again.  What gems of lost instruction might we have here ?  What proscriptions to proper prose and potent poesy ?  The first to be deciphered and clearly in the crabby hand of Bill Blake had undergone much revision, with whole sections on ‘wine women and song’ and ‘the importance of smiling’ heavily crossed through to be replaced with ‘don’t worry about making sense’ and ‘spelling’s really not all that’.  Another ball in a more feminine script appears to be an exercise in crafting a signature in multiple columns of repeated attempts with slight variation.  Like all good signatures, the name itself is unreadable, but after consulting Parsonage (and parting with several pounds from our tea fund), we were able to run them through a clever algorithm which determined with a 48% probability that the moniker was ‘Mary Bysshe’, although sometimes rendered as ‘Mairee Bishop’, ‘Mare E Biscuit’ and ‘Marry me, Bysshe, for God’s sake !’ , though who can say who wrote it ?  But perhaps the most fascinating ball is the surprisingly brief and precise dictum we found on a piece of Lord Byron headed notepaper which simply reads ‘Think fast, Keatsy”.


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Caution: Poet on Song – Pat Francis

You don’t care if you’re right you don’t care if you’re wrong,
you forget to be cool when you’re spinning along
swinging on words like a hammock.

You thunder and cry, you plunder and lie,
you bluster and roar an’ lose all decorum
your politics distasteful, your grammar disgraceful.

You don’t know what is real, you don’t know what is true,
you don’t know who is who, you don’t care how they feel,
you just kick up your heels and go

swinging, swinging,
swinging, swinging,
swinging on words like a hammock.

N.B. If we weren’t carefree poets we might say ‘swinging on words as if they were a hammock’ but who wants to say that?


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Workshop, 2nd October 2018

Many years ago, in an episode I would rather forget, I found myself in a dark, oak-panelled room in a country retreat seated in a wing-backed leather armchair drinking port with a cadre of disreputable poets.  The poet sitting next to me, a man whose name I can only recall in the midst of my most terrifying nightmares, leaned over me to wrest the decanter from my hand, and with a glow in his eye which might have come from the pit of Hades itself forcibly stated that ‘every poet should have a manifesto’.  ‘You should burn to write, friend.  You should be writing now’ he continued, his hand getting ever closer to the Taylor’s Incredibly Late But Undoubtedly Fine If Somewhat Old Bottled Pre-Vintage which I had supplied to the gathering case by eye-wateringly exorbitant case.  Perhaps he was trying to help. I suspect he merely wanted to top up his glass, but as you can appreciate, such an experience runs deep and no matter how much I invest in counselling, it never leaves me.

What did this Ancient Wordsmith mean?  Why should poetry be bound by a defined set of rules or even aspirations?  How many poets actually have a manifesto?  Have any of them bothered to write theirs down, or is it enough to leave it up in the head with the boxes of song lyrics, family snapshots and old magazine articles?  Why did this poet have such a terrifying glow in his eye?  Why can I not recall his name?  Did I dream the whole thing?  Perhaps as a way of finally exorcising the ghost of this dread encounter, I determined to spend a little time looking at the concept of the manifesto, but first I should tell you about this week’s Workshop, since it’s probably why you are here.

Pat Francis gave us the closest thing to a manifesto we have seen for a while with her to-the-point Poets On Song, and on song it was.  Peter Francis gave us a traveller’s tale about not finding Innisfree, which many poets will only find reassuring.  Michael Harris looked back on ten years of poetry with a piece which must count as a retrospective manifesto.  Alan Chambers brought us one from the archive concerning the ear worms of our dreams in a poem more than fifty years old.  New-to-us poet Catherine, who clearly has a manifesto, gave us a closely-argued and heartfelt polemic on Grenfell Tower.  We hope Catherine returns to us as, apart from anything else, the Archivist carelessly omitted to make a note of her last name.  Doig Simmons brought us a characteristically romantic view of a relationship, from his wife’s point of view.  John Hurley has added an amendment to his manifesto to exercise his non-rhyming chops more often – this week with a piece exploring the dreaming of fish.  If Niall Cassidy has a manifesto, it surely includes an obligation to understand the present through reflections on the past, as he recalled collecting shellfish with his Grandfather.  We believe Daphne Gloag has a manifesto, and that poems like this week’s piece on Alpine Plants perfectly reflects her commitment to strive to craft meaning through metaphor.  We know that Owen Gallagher has a manifesto and that humanity’s dislocation from reality is part of it.  This week he was encouraged to bring in a poem from his archive on being elsewhere, which fits perfectly.  Finally, Martin Choules’s manifesto surely includes the invocation that poetry should rhyme, which never holds him back, as this week’s piece on the decline of the Anglo-Saxon given name shows so clearly.

The trouble with considering your own manifesto is that you cannot look at the subject for long before running into Ezra Pound, being a thing the man himself expressly forbade in his Manifesto of the Velocepiste of 1914.  Pound loved nothing better than to jot out a new manifesto on any given subject or for a jobbing poet.  He was known to offer manifestoes at the drop of a hat, for the very reasonable rate of farthing per line or shilling per injunction, laying down the law on everything from use of imagery to who to be beastly to next.  The point is of course that Ezra Pound was a lister.  He loved a list, whether compiling one or reading one out, and his manifestos were in all likelihood thinly-veiled excuses to come up with a really good list, a tradition which is followed to this day whenever two or more men get together in a Public Bar for a pint.  His visits to the Pitshanger Poets Workshop while he was living in London show that he was just as likely to turn up with critical reflection upon the state of the art of prosody as a ‘top ten’ of philosophers, poets, fascist dictators or psychiatrists.  On one occasion Pond arrived with a jacket pocket full of lists and the Workshop was subjected to for the butcher’s boy, items I simply must take to the laundry, gift ideas for Christmas, some ideas for Thomas Stearns, things I cannot abide and the people who do them, before realising that he had left aspects of great poetry composition no self-respecting writer should avoid at home.  Perhaps it was just as well that we never saw him at the manor again.  If you have been, thank you for reading.

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Workshop, 25th September 2018

As a deeply sensitive poet with a keen grasp of the futility of existence and my own inevitable and imminent mortality, I always have a song in my heart and a smile on my face.  Music runs through the blood of the poet and I know of few who are not frustrated songwriters, folk who likely came to the solitary art of prosody once musical differences, as they are euphemistically called, broke up the band.  The pressure of being on the road with the same small group of irksome personalities will always come to a head at some stage, leading to an altercation in which one member of the band sets fire to another member’s 1955 Gibson Les Paul solid-body guitar followed by a further rising of tension, during which a hugely valuable Steinway Grand gets pushed out of an upstairs window, falling through the roof of a derelict Pontiac Parisienne (rumoured to have belonged to Syd Barratt) parked in the street, where it will lie for three months while the remaining band member and sole council tax payer tries to persuade the authorities to remove it.  It’s an all too familiar sequence of events which has happened to us all, I’m sure.

Nevertheless, the distinction between lyric and poem can be subtle, and as historians never tire of telling us (aren’t you sick of tireless historians?  I know I am), quite recent.   Rhythm, repetition and some form of rhyme are key elements in both disciplines, just ready to be ignored when the writer happens to feel like it.  In my humble opinion some lyricists could make their songs deeper and more fulfilling to read from behind the LP liner sheet, just as some poets could focus more on how their work might sound echoing back at them from a room, typically a healthily lubricated room, in which some of the listeners are wont to get involved in the repetition.  We should not under-estimate the task of the lyricist, whose mission is to impart at least some meaning in a few listens.  However, poets will point out that the lyricist can miraculously inject a choice phrase into the listener’s head if they happen to be working with a tunesmith of sufficient talent.  As a result, I think that one is much more likely to find oneself doing the crocodile rock than sitting in the shadow of a red rock any day of the week.

At the Pitshanger Poets we do count some lyricists among our happy gang and we welcome the odd song.  Can you spot the song this week?  Alan Chambers as a fan of the syllabic form always keeps tight control of his stanzas – he was first out of the gate with an exploration of the wild currents of knowledge, or is it the weather?  John Hurley is a master of the regular four-to-the-floor rhythm, but this week chose to cast aside his traditional oeuvre for an enigmatic fourteen lines on nightfall at Glandore.  Doig Simmons kept strictly to couplets which could have been sung as he revealed the journey and relationship of a lifetime.  Niall Cassidy used a lyrical form to conjure a memory of his grandmother via his grandfather and his possessions.  Nick Barth brought back a piece which could not be described as a song, though it discussed a stop used by travellers, pilgrims and troubadours.   Michael Harris has found himself composing lyrics, and he tells us, performing them too.  However, this week he brought back three poems for a final polish.  Pat Francis brought us a poem about words, made of words but possibly too blank a verse to sit comfortably inside a tune.  Peter Francis is also a fan of free, blank, verse forms, but brought a spooky rhythm to a poem about a town by the sea, somewhere by the sea.  Martin Choules is happy to describe his work as lyrics looking for the right musical, in which case we are on the hunt for a composer fascinated with the subject of representative art amongst Islamic tile makers for this week’s poem – undoubtedly a sure-fire hit.  Finally, Daphne brought us a new take on an ancient Greek lyric concerning Persephone and the seeds she managed to consume in Hades, a character from the myths who would have benefitted from modern standards of food labelling.

Of course, from time to time a poet finds themselves moving the other way, towards the lyric.  If one happens to be a talented poet and novelist who also spends a significant proportion of ones’ life in folk music clubs the penny will eventually drop.  Fortunately for the Pitshanger Poets Leonard Cohen was still in transition to full time musical performer when he dropped in at a Workshop on a night off from a tour of the UK in the early Eighties.  According to our archives the poets were given an early version of Halleluiah, the words of which would eventually join forces with a tune strong enough to become a hit for Cohen and also for many covering artists.  However, back then Cohen was still in the process of distilling the 200-odd stanzas he had drafted down to the ones that would work well in performance.  In order to whittle them down Cohen delivered all of them at the workshop, together with a rating form and pencil for each listener.  Unfortunately, on that evening Cohen was the last reader in what had already been a long and fractious workshop.  The poets’ enthusiasm for the piece declined markedly as successive stanzas ate into post-Workshop drinking time and the later hallelujahs received short shrift, if they received any shrift at all.  Despite the desire to apologise for the unpleasant heckling Cohen must have received as the prospect of a pint at the Red Lion disappeared into the ether, the Pitshanger Poets are delighted to be considered one of the inspirations for what became a phenomenal musical career.  Leonard, you were welcome.

If you have been, thank you for reading.

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Workshop, 18th September 2018

In our regular diarist’s diatribe on the sonnet last week, he neglected to expand on its Hegelian dialectic.  Not his fault of course, he’s a busy poet-about-town with couplets to polish and commas to scatter, but here in the Archive we like to take the time to split hairs over such minutia.  So, briefly, the theory is that a sonnet isn’t a sonnet just because it has fourteen lines, but because it strictly follows the teachings of Georgie Hegel (and also has fourteen lines).

What teachings are these ?  His famous philosophical catchphrase of Thesis, Anti-Thesis, Synthesis !  So, the poet lays out their argument in the first eight lines, whether Petrarchan or Shakespearean.  But then comes the volta, the turning point where an opposing view is raised, a disquieting thought, a four-line wobble in the calm eulogising of summer day comparisons and remembering of those gone away.  How can we possibly resolve such a conflict before we exceed the legal limit of lines ?  Have no fear, for in the final couplet all problems are solved, all sins are forgiven, all lovers are married.

No sonnets at this week’s workshop, but in another sense it was full of them.  Peter Francis was remembering the many who departed Ireland, bound for the lamp beside the golden door, while Pat Francis has been watching the flight of the sycamore keys, as if by magic grown.  For Michael Harris, a volta comes like a ripple through his body, rather like how rough winds do shake the darling buds of May, while Alan Chambers has been in an abstract mood consorting with guttering butterflies, kettling becks and marriages of true minds.  Daphne Gloag has been retelling an ancient epic as told to her by a traveller from an antique land, before Doig Simmonds has been marketing his new smart phone prayer app to save our souls when we’d rather forget and smile.  Finally, Martin Choules has been bigging-up the latest fad diet – how much does he love it ?  Let him count the ways !

And that’s how you write a sonnet.  Which also explains why the rose-red city upon the lone and level sands beside the teeming shore are resolutely NOT sonnets.  Why ?  Where’s the volta ?  They are mere fourteen-line odes, unconflicted narraties, non-reflexive travelogues.  These are not poems that are challenged mid-flow, there is no creeping doubt in their scansion beyond whether they can really get away with ‘tempest-tost’.  Well, we expected some rule-breaking from old Percy ‘The Bysshe’ Shelley, and who the hell is Johnny Burgon anyway, but we must admit to expecting better from Emmy Lazarus.  But then again, must a sonnet always pivot ?  Ah well, perhaps we can have both kinds.  You see, that’s how it’s done !

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Workshop, 11th September 2018

Spend any time in the company of a poet and you will find that they talk an awful lot of guff about sonnets.  For some, the early de Lentini form, in the original rhyme scheme, in Italian, preferably discussing the relative merits of different grades of olive oil, pesto or nduja is the only thing that can truly be called a sonnet.  For others, the syncopated rhythms of the Shakespearean sonnet, together with the Petrachian volta on line nine is the classic, resolved form.  For many poets in this all too modern age, the mere fact that the poem appears to occupy fourteen lines on the page is enough, even if the last line is a slightly suspicious-looking single word all on its lonesome.  It is of course very rude to point out that the poet might be stretching things a little – the politest reaction is an encouraging; ‘and it’s a sonnet!’ as if meeting a proud new parent’s tiny offspring for the first time.  In response, no points are earned by the poet reacting with a surprised, ‘is it?  How can you tell?’

Perhaps this very versatility is the reason why poets continue to explore the form today, long after the Sestina, the Ballad and even the Limerick have faded as serious forms.  Parsonage was kind enough to insert a few queries into the Ferranti Pegasus’ busy workload concerning the longest sonnets that have appeared at the Pitshanger Poets.  Of course, no one likes to admit to have written a long sonnet – they’re all supposed to be the same length, more or less.  However, we suspect that some poets did do their best to smuggle longer works into workshops by turning the page to portrait and running on the lines to an inordinate length.  ‘How sophisticated, long lines, and how clever, an internal rhyme scheme’ would be among the most playful comments from the chair.  Robert Frost, WB Yeats, WH Auden, we are looking at you.

There were no sonnets in tonight’s Workshop, though it’s not been unknown.  Pat Francis pulled together a compact 21-line form for her celebration of elusive moments of pleasure that just appear in the day.  Peter Francis flexed his stanzas in a loose collective, gathering memories of the Reading Room in some enigmatic library.  This week Michael Harris revealed thoughts about his mother – we are almost certain that he has a sonnet or two in him, so accomplished is he at the short forms.  Doig Simmons is also an accomplished writer of poems which do not take up too much room upon the page, this one concerned itself with the great spirit.  Nick Barth regularly claims that he could write an epic or two if he had the time, but found only enough of it to produce five stanzas concerning a man whose greatest achievement is his use of hairspray.  Alan Chambers’ piece this week was written for an eightieth birthday celebration, did not out-stay its welcome and encapsulated the achievement of a long marriage.  Daphne Gloag, also commented on a long relationship, this time in twelve lines, while describing a trip in Concorde, an aeroplane which regularly bent time.  Anne Furneaux brought us one of her dearest childhood memories, that of travelling in her pram, in a mere eleven lines.  Finally, Martin Choules conjured up his local street preachers with their rack of comforting unread magazines in a mere twelve.  Surely tonight’s workshop represented something of a lost sonnet opportunity?

However, we are not the sort of gathering to issue directives, ask for poems on themes or guidelines on structure.  If we were, we might initiate a sonnet week, but my betting is that our members would find something better to do, like washing their socks in soda water or sorting their writing pencils in order of seriousness rather than be boxed in to a subject or format.  I personally find the sonnet a hugely useful form, if for no other reason than you know when you have damn well finished the damn thing.  If you have been, thank you for reading.

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Workshop, 4th September 2018

Time is not our friend this week, but then of all the allegorical concepts Time is always the loner.  Love and Beauty are busy holding hands, while Honour and Duty are off playing soldiers, but poor Time is the one left quietly stealing away.  Indeed, it is hard to imagine a suitable statue to represent her, unless it is one that is showing definite signs of erosion and verdigris.

This week’s workshop should have started promptly at 8pm, but before we knew it it was already ten past and not a single couplet had been uttered.  Determined to get us underway was Doig Simmonds and his musings on the soul and the afterlife before it was too late, swiftly followed by a requiem to supernovas by Martin Choules.  Pat Francis has been listening to the galloping morning from the last moments in bed, speedily accompanied by a light-footed Peter Francis dancing with the sun.  For John Hurley, the Art World is not repaying the time he invests, but Owen Gallagher is glad he has spent some of his to polish up his peon to the peatland.  Anne Furneaux has stored up a whole lifetime’s worth, and now has time to spend on her reminiscences of her previous names, and Michael Harris escaped from his metaphorical cage just in time before the chimes of ten brought the meeting to a close.

Jimmy Leigh Hunt, receiver of Jenny’s peck, spends an entire two lines of his scant eight to comment how Time keeps a list of treats.  What else is on this list, we might wonder, and to what purpose is it kept ?  Is it mayhap adding up the duration of each activity in a double-entry system against minutes paid out ?  What would happen if the two columns do not balance ?  Or is it to timestamp the last time such a treat was experienced, to enable the ever-expanding gulf between that last happiness and the present misery to properly weigh down on the conscious ?  After all, we each have never been as old as we are right now.  Mr L-H’s own thoughts on the matter are not divulged, as ironically in such a short piece he did not have enough time to elaborate.

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