Tuesday, 12 April 2022

A Manchester chaplain


(to the tune 'Manchester' by Thomas Ravenscroft https://bit.ly/3AN0foh )

The writer stressed how like they were --
the antiquated pile
with weathered points and mouldering stones,
the chaplain in the aisle.

Obituary fondness for
the chaplain's gaffes and rage.
It seems the chaplain read the tale;
he marked the printed page.

The chaplain died within the year.
The church lived on to do
its work among the things that set
its city with the new.

This poem was my entry in Manchester Cathedral's 600th Anniversary Poetry Competition.  Before Manchester Cathedral was a cathedral, with a dean, it was a collegiate church with a chaplain, and the Rev. Joshua Brookes was of that line.  He was something of a character, the subject of what you might call a 'pre-obituary': a profile article entitled 'Brief sketch of the Rev. Josiah Streamlet' in Blackwood's magazine 8(48), 633-637, March 1821.  That's the starting point of this poem.

And it has now been sung in public!  By me, at an event to raise funds for rebuilding work at St Martin's church in Cambridge.  They let me sing several of my hymn tune retextings, and these benefited much from accompaniment by Mike Cole.

The tune 'Manchester', by the way, is also known as 'Ely'.  In time I will find out which came earlier.  But I felt its qualities well suited Joshua Brookes.  Synaesthetically, it made me see bushy eyebrows.

Sunday, 10 April 2022

Three tree poems


Picture by Clare Sansom


Vexed by the appeal's

planting banana seeds line,
our botanist friend
would donate no cash that year.
Someone wrote to Christian Aid.

'Banana' discoveries,
rich like one per line:
seeds spiky, hard, cracking teeth,
genes too same, vulnerable,

nomenclature skein,
name-calling for republics,
handy for preaching,
sometimes hanged to make a point,
sometimes matter for fair trade.


Since Kilmer knew he’d never see
a poem lovely as a tree,
and trees get felled, and poems penned,
why have a contest that will tend
to make the skew worse?    Bards, why bother
competing to compose another?
The answer is that words are good
for people who have missed the wood,
or seen the wood and missed the tree.
Maybe you see them both.    Not me.
Faced with a woodland scene, I need
programmes, subtitles I can read.   


Earth-wild: a tangled query when she'd heard
of fennel children but not seen the word,
and wanted books from this fool who had read
assuming fear in how the word was said.

Earth-soiled: a soiled sheet brought Wilde down.  They cleanse
soil from carrots by acid.  Changing lens,
you see the carrots in their acid skin
endangering the eat of what's within.

Earth-rooted: what I mean by this is not
the waste of being rooted to the spot,
but roots to anchor, roots to store soil food,
roots you can almost hear grow in that wood,
holding the earth as deep as making height,
trees striving from it into air and light,
proud in a mode of growth those who know tell
plants came at independently and well,
neat, robust way through eco-stress.
I'll stop before I wish the trees success.

Earth-bound: not -using, as in house- or bed-;
serious earth, cue Larkin's many dead.
The end of all that rootedness and growing.
Let's call it homeward bound, but it's a going.

I read this set of three poems at an open-air event in Cambridge University's Botanic Garden.  This had originally come to my attention via my wife Clare, who'd seen an announcement on one of her science journalism email lists.  

'Having bananas' is new,  and was written specially for the event.  

'Since Kilmer' was written in 2004, for a competition celebrating the 90th anniversary of Joyce Kilmer's poem 'Trees'.  

'Touches of earth' was written in 2014 for the Keats-Shelley Memorial Association competition, whose theme that year was the Tennyson quotation "Who loves me must have a touch of earth".  Guinevere, in the Arthurian romance Lancelot and Elaine, is scorning Arthur's perfection.  But I made no reference to the original context in the poem.

'Since Kilmer' and 'Touches of earth' were previously published in the booklet for the 'Remarkable world of trees' exhibition at St Albans Museum.

The Botanic Gardens event was the brainchild of Anne Thomas, and others whose work featured there were Rosalind Moran, Ann Gray, and Matt Howard.  An illustrious company to find myself in!

Friday, 14 January 2022

The statue



The panels round the plinth, to shield
the sponsor's vanity,
embed his moving in the herd,
confer impunity,

say Bristol citizens erected
Colston's memorial.
But Arrowsmith had to make up
fifteen percent shortfall.

A longer fall had it come down
to cheers and denting crash,
be rolled along the street logwise,
bigger than common trash,

to railings of the waterfront
and river-plunging shock.
It lies on wood with perspex shield
now, and some tried to block

the show with human shield no-show.
Deleted tweets distil
that phase.  Others, not blockers, wish
the fall were longer still.

The above was written in June 2021 for a competition on the theme of shielding, and then not entered, possibly from a misreading of the competition rules.

It has found publication in the online journal _Sledgehammer_.

It owes something to Thomas Ravenscroft's hymn tune 'Bristol', though I don't advise singing it to that tune.  It owes rather more to Roger Ball's post 'Myths within myths -- : Edward Colston and that statue' and Dan Hicks' 'Let's keep Colston falling'.

Thursday, 13 January 2022

The forgettory



Prove they were in, twelve years ago, a craze

they claim they've always shunned? Or let the phase

lie back? “I never went there” was more sad

than “You won't let that go” after I had.

This is another poem whose only claim to publication is that I threw it into a Twitter conversation.  That was in 2019, and I have already forgotten what circumstances triggered the action. 

I wrote the poem in 2010, and I've forgotten the reasons for that now, too.  My half-memory is that it was for a competition, and written on a bus journey with the rules out of sight, so that the poem turned out to be in some way unsuitable when I looked at them again.

My memory is not what it was, but I don't see much value in a forgettory. I grew out of nostalgia a long time ago; I regard state-sponsored nostalgia as an abomination; and I consider memory to be a valuable corrective.

Tuesday, 28 December 2021

Admonition to a goat




Goat.  Your tether's outside -- not here indoors

among the canine, feline, rodent loves.

They can be mostly harmless with their paws.

Please do not clamber on me. You have hooves.

This is another poem written in response to a prompt from Jo Bell's book 52: write a poem a week. Start now. Keep goingChapter 51 -- the penultimate chapter -- noted that very few poems had been written on the subject of goats, and encouraged readers to make good that deficiency.  It is now six years since the book was published, and we may hope that the deficiency no longer exists.

I have very little experience of goats.  I met one in 1979, whose behaviour was as reproved in the poem.

The poem's washed up here on the blog, having been deployed by me in a Twitter conversation in March 2021.  I can't remember what that was about, but it renders the poem ineligible for entry in most competitions, and thus entitled to this present place.

Monday, 27 December 2021

Four songs by Samuel Barber



Arpeggio flare. The nun's high cry that springs not fail. The swell quietened, the unseen swing of the sea.

A jaunty solitude. Madge and what her friend dared not think when young. Margery with them, tight-lipped at the knowing.

A smaller rolled chord. Weep for wonder, in a life disputed decades afterwards, at the kindness, the wholeness, of this shining night.

The fourth song has a lot of sharps and naturals all over it. Sometimes, to be clever, I've compared our diet to music with a shifting tonal centre, "like something by Samuel Barber". I was surprised that the first three songs of the set, when I looked at the music, didn't have that many more key changes than songs by other people. Barber said the music for this fourth song just popped out – not laboured, then – but admitted he wasn't all that keen on the text.

The first three songs are jaw-dropping.

The above was written in 2018, when I was working my way through Jo Bell's 52: write a poem a week. Start now. Keep goingThe brief for this particular one was chapter 22, calling for a prose poem.  It was a new departure for me, who use rhyme and scansion as a rule, but there's no law of nature dividing prose from poetry.  I had a go.

The piece was published in the online journal RICThey used another of mine, at about the same time, which has also appeared in this blog; one with similar origins to 'Four songs by Samuel Barber' above, and of the same kind, which I haven't made a habit of in the years since 2018.

Are you familiar with Samuel Barber's 'Four songs', op.13?

Sunday, 26 December 2021

New words to old tunes

Here are two campaign songs I wrote during 2021 and sang at demonstrations.

The first was in connection with Global Justice Now's campaign for the dropping of patents on vaccinations against Covid19.  The demonstration was outside AstraZeneca's Cambridge premises, during their AGM in May.  The tune is Vaughan Williams' 'King's Lynn', which became for me the signature tune to Lockdown 1 in March 2020.  I wrote an article about the tune's story for the online news outlet East Anglia bylines, and am following that up with explorations of other hymn tunes.


(to the tune King's Lynn)

We call on AstraZeneca

to make their patent free.

It's funded by the taxes

of folk like you and me.

The firm met the occasion

to get the vaccine done.

Now let it be their doing

but not a thing they own.

We call on AstraZeneca

to make their price pledge fair.

We hear what's outsourced to Pune

gets higher prices there.

We hear of countries with three times

their needed vaccines stored,

and others where vaccine's a thing

nobody can afford.

We call on AstraZeneca --

they're short of engineers --

to have more sharing of knowledge

in world health with their peers.

Think COVAX and its makers,

think Salk who long ago

gifted his treatment to the world

and conquered polio.

We call on AstraZeneca

to take Joe Biden's lead

and waive their rights in the vaccine

according to the need.

We see the Covid-19

Technology Access Pool.

We ask big pharma, ask this firm

to let the pool be full.

We call on AstraZeneca

and others in the field

to see more in their drugs than

the profits that they yield,

to listen to the protests

today outside their door.

Poor sort of wealth it is consists

in keeping others poor.

For Cambridge's demonstration on the Global Day of Action for Climate Justice, in November, I wrote a song to a tune by the seventeenth-century composer Henry Lawes.  It's a fine, strong, angular tune. The link at the tune's name, below, will take you to its entry in hymnary.org , and you'll find a recording there.  I took it somewhat faster than that at the demo (50’28” in the film).

The song lists the outcomes we hoped for from the COP26 in Glasgow, which was running at the time.

Anyone who can tell me how the tune came by its name will be listened to with great interest.  Farley Castle near Reading was built about two centuries after Henry Lawes' time.  The name might refer to Farleigh Hungerford Castle in Somerset, which saw action and changed hands during the Civil War.  Was Lawes ever there?  Or was the tune named retrospectively by a hymnbook editor?  Or is there some other story?


to the tune 'Farley Castle' by Henry Lawes 

COP26, here's what we want to see.

Unblock the route to cleaner energy!

Corporate courts must never own the rules!

Cut them away, those harmful bosses' tools!

COP26, wherever oil is found,

coal, fossil gas, let them stay underground.

Earthquakes and fires have been the warning signs --

fund the transition, all who funded mines!

COP26, we want more jubilee!

Debt locks the global south's dependency,

debt saps green work, saps every healthy spend,

some debts are bad and doubtful. Have them end!

COP26, unmake the harm we made,

hold the UK to useful climate aid,

rich countries' reparations and our share,

small to our GDP and only fair.

COP26, write new rules that will bind.

See those with power hurting humankind,

see how their years have left the planet scarred,

hard work to tie them, work to tie them hard!

CC BY-SA 2.0
Arising from campaign demands presented at https://www.globaljustice.org.uk/our-campaigns/climate/

Earlier fruits of my interest in places that have given their names to hymn tunes are my Google Maps list of those in the British Isles and my retextings of 'Trentham' and 'Little Cornard'.  Another person who shares this interest is Mark Browse, whose book O little town: hymn-tunes and the places that inspired them I strongly recommend.