Poetry: Practice of Life

It’s often said that, like acting, you have to live in order to be able to write. I loved poetry in my youth, but then decided I needed a lot more living to be able to appreciate it. In fact, living took up so much time there felt like none was left for poetry at all. Now at the beginning, at least, of the fading years, it feels like I might have enough experience accumulated to attempt a poem or two.

Enter a lovely and intimate Creative Writing course provided by Northumberland County Council, at which nobody is less than 50 years of age (only by default, every age group is welcome of course!), and at the outset of which we oldies were challenged to compose our thoughts according to any of a variety of poetic formats. Who knew there were so many poetic structures? The Writer’s Digest lists some 100 formats.

I thought about writing a piece on poetry for the diary because of my search for information about the Allendale Wolf. Leafing through the pages of Nora Handcock’s Allendale: Twentieth Century Memories, I found the image of the dead wolf, and beside it a contemporary poem about the beast and its demise. It seems that poetry, even rough-handed doggerel and poorly scanned versifying, was practised more assiduously at the beginning of the last century than it is now.

But I was stimulated, in the Creative Writing class, by the way that poetic structure seems to inform the flow, the content of any poem. Think of Dylan Thomas’ Do Not Go Gentle, perhaps amongst the most famous of poems, and how the repeating rhymes, all with the same sound, and the reiteration of the lines in the final quatrain, contribute to the lilt, the heft of the piece. That’s a ‘vilanelle’ and I thought, why not try one for yourself? So I did. But I was too lax on my first attempt! The classic ‘vilanelle’ form maintains the 1st and 3rd lines of the first stanza throughout the entire poem in specific placings throughout the stanzas, unlike what I had done which was to keep the rhyme scheme and add new lines, so apparently I loosened the form a bit.  If I hadn’t played fast and loose with it, the structure would be more like this:

Creativity is such a funny thing. After a hard week of work on our stubborn track, I never thought I would develop another poem, with an even harder structure, as a sort of ‘hymn of praise’ to that beastly road, and yet I did! This is a ‘Trenta-sei’ a poem of six stanzas with six lines each, in which each of the lines of the first stanza form the first lines of the succeeding verses. To make things more challenging, and, it turns out, to encompass the rhythm of our travels up and down our potholed track, I tried composing with twelve syllables per line. Such fun!

I learned that this meter is called ‘iambic hexameter’ as opposed to the more well-known pentameter version. Well, anyway, perhaps there’s poetry (no, certainly there’s poetry) in everyone — it just needs to be revealed somehow. It would be my absolute pleasure to hope that my efforts (I think that creativity fosters more creativity, doesn’t it?) might stimulate someone else to contribute a poem or two to the diary, on the broad topic of life in this deeply rural patch. Choose your format, and have a go!

Here’s just one more I made earlier; the assignment was to write something moving about a hat!

 The Man Who Mistook His Hat For His Wife*

It was there at the old village auction
A decade ago, perhaps more.
Infected I was with the vigour, 
Vivacity, vim and some ardour
In the calm steady hands of the porter
A gentleman’s felted top hat!
The auctioneer eager for bids from the floor.

He caught my eye first;  and I nodded
All right then.  Okay.  I will bid then.
A fifty pence bid as he said.

Sure, I’ll bite then, at life then,  I’m in.

But he garnered a friendly pound bid 
From the far other side of the room —
On my next nod of one pound and fifty.
The gavel came down with a boom.
The hat was now mine — but oh why man, 
Oh why?  

Really, truly, I could not have said.

It perched on the shining brass bed post
Indulgent through  soft gentle sleep
A metaphor growing, symbolic
Of life and excitement, of vigour and vim —
A sense of a passion arising.  

So — maybe a kind of a notching
On the bed post, a man sort of thing.
It shook and it trembled, it fell!
Many times, countless times, every time
Through the years intervening, 

Just marking my life in my head.

The auctioneer, one day rememb’ring
Asked me for the loan of the hat.
His young son so needed it, twirling
Pizzazz in a pantomime turn.
I handed it over,  quite doubtful
It ever would make its return.

Life carried on then just as normal.
That’s just how it goes, don’t you know.
We all know.

The bed rocked at times as it happens
Though I missed that old hat for a while
Got sick, and got treated, felt worser
Fell into a post-treatment sadness
Got old, and then older, and frail —
My wife, my true love my true  lover
Afraid that our lives would soon fail.

And sooner or later, they will.
Sooner or later we’ll fail.

One night at a lively,  pre-auction meet
The auctioneer balanced its brim
On a finger outstretched, and he smiled
Your hat sir!  And winked.
Now I couldn’t  detail the rush that set sail 
The pleasure I felt, but I blinked.

I don’t quite know why, but I did.
Tears flow beyond understanding.
In a twinkling erupting through lashes
Before I can manage to think.

I wore it to porter that auction
To show off the dross and the gloss
In bright dinner jackets we porters
Bedazzled the crowd with aplomb.
The hat was the  crown of my efforts
It felt rather odd on my head —
A trustee snapped off a quick photo
I looked like a wax-work of dread.

Now it’s back on the bedpost so jaunty
And sometimes it trembles anew.
I don’t quite know why but I love it.
Can’t think why I do but I do.

To be fair as I think back upon it,
I love it, that hat, like the living
I have lived, all together,  with you.

The vim and the vigour, the spark!
That comes with it
The joy that we’ve seen on the way
The sadness we’ve had both together
The pain that life has yet to bring.
And I hope when the time comes to leave it

I hope when the time comes to leave it
I’ll pass it along with my heart.  
I loved it like you from the start.  

Larry Winger, 9/10/19
* With apologies to Oliver Sacks

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