Poem of the Month, Poetry

Poem of The Month – Naming of Parts, by Henry Reed

This month’s poem of the month came to me during a work meeting recently; it was a somewhat attenuated review of some annual targets, and the use of jargon and corporate buzz words led my gaze to fall from the screen and out of the window to the street below. Students from the nearby university were strolling along the road; it was a bright but cold day, and the trees had just the merest suggestion of buds, but still, I could feel Spring; if not in the air, at least on the way.

The corporate terminology continued; lots of standardized acronyms and phrases you would hear in similar-sized organizations.  The students laughed, and moped, and headed for the pub and the express supermarket. The sun shone and the wind whipped the tree branches. My memory presented a poem I had studied for my “O” level English exam; Henry Reed’s “Naming of Parts”, an ode to the mechanical and regimented horrors of wars endured by the flower of often-conscripted young men.

I was fifteen and attending a Catholic secondary school when I first read the poem. I surreptitiously googled it and had a re-read, while the presenter of the financial performance presentation flipped onto slide seventeen.

And it was a revelation! I remembered being taught that Reed’s poem contrasted the regimented, dead language and efficiency of the military with the living, reaching beauty of nature in Springtime, but I hadn’t realised how sex-filled the poem was! But that makes sense – Henry Reed was conscripted when he was 27, and wrote the poem the next year; he was still a young man, and many of his peers would be in their teens, or barely out of them;  young men becoming proficient killing and destruction machines, when they should, like the birds, bees and flowers, be busy fulfilling their natural destiny; making love in fact, not war! This was a side of the poem not taught to me by my Catholic teachers, and it was a beautiful surprise, like a bonus poem hidden behind the one I already knew.

Reading the words that narrator used  – the swiveling, easing, glistening, using the finger and strong thumbing, and rapid backwards and forwards – it was clear that this particular soldier, like many of his peers, rejected the philosophy of dealing death on the orders of old men, and chose life and its beautiful, natural and erotic perpetuation.

NAMING OF PARTS

BY HENRY REED (1942)

Today we have naming of parts. Yesterday,
We had daily cleaning. And tomorrow morning,
We shall have what to do after firing. But today,
Today we have naming of parts. Japonica
Glistens like coral in all the neighboring gardens,
And today we have naming of parts.

This is the lower sling swivel. And this
Is the upper sling swivel, whose use you will see,
When you are given your slings. And this is the piling swivel,
Which in your case you have not got. The branches
Hold in the gardens their silent, eloquent gestures,
Which in our case we have not got.

This is the safety-catch, which is always released
With an easy flick of the thumb. And please do not let me
See anyone using his finger. You can do it quite easy
If you have any strength in your thumb. The blossoms
Are fragile and motionless, never letting anyone see
Any of them using their finger.

And this you can see is the bolt. The purpose of this
Is to open the breech, as you see. We can slide it
Rapidly backwards and forwards: we call this
Easing the spring. And rapidly backwards and forwards
The early bees are assaulting and fumbling the flowers:
They call it easing the Spring.

They call it easing the Spring: it is perfectly easy
If you have any strength in your thumb: like the bolt,
And the breech, the cocking-piece, and the point of balance,
Which in our case we have not got; and the almond blossom
Silent in all of the gardens and the bees going backwards and forwards,
For today we have the naming of parts.

Poem of the Month, Poetry

Poem of the Month – The Journey, by Mary Oliver

I’ve just created this new regular feature for 2019, after re-reading some of my favourite poems; it occurred to me that I’d discovered many of them by browsing around online on all sorts of sites, literary and otherwise. Some of these poems have become touchstones in my life,  and I revisit them regularly to refresh my dry and jaded sensibilities, or maybe my thirsting goals.

So I want to pass on some of these favourites, in the hopes that you, constant reader, will discover a new gem of your own.

So to kick us off, I’ve chosen a poem by Mary Oliver, who isn’t exactly an obscure name; she’s one of America’s best-selling poets, and you can find many a quote from her works on Pinterest and Instagram, but I discovered her only a few years ago.

Her style is accessible; it’s not “clever”, full of obtuse words and hard-to-follow metre, but for all its simplicity, her poems, through their worship of nature, give us access to what is fundamental, divine and even sacred in our lives, or perhaps, what should be if it isn’t already.

Having said all of the above, the poem I’ve chosen to start this new series isn’t really an essay on the essence of nature, or at least, not on the surface level. The journey that Mary Oliver speaks of isn’t one perhaps that we all need to undertake; for those who do, however, it is fraught, perilous and painful.

The seeds of my own journey can be found strewn throughout the budding family dynamics described in And The Buntings Flew, but as this is still a work in progress, perhaps I should just state here that I have had to undertake a journey of my own, perhaps several, although it took me many years in some instances to step out the door and start my journey of a thousand miles.


THE JOURNEY

BY MARY OLIVER

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice –
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do –
determined to save
the only life you could save.

My writing, Publishing and Self Publishing, Writing

They Loved My Writing – But Turned it Down. When Constructive Criticism is More Valuable Than Publication

I’m not going to list out all the famous authors who had to persist through dozens of rejections until their magnum opus was snapped up. And I’m not going to name that Decca manager who rejected the Beatles as a passé guitar group on their way out. I’m not even going to dwell on Stephen King’s much-quoted wall spike; the spike that replaced the nail on which he hung his initial rejection slips. All of the above finally triumphed; their talent shone through and was acclaimed by all. I’m not there yet!

I recently wrote a short story, about 6,500 words, and I think it’s great. I put my heart, soul, and lots of editing and revisions into the story and was really pleased with the result. Imagine my excitement when I received an email from the editor of the respected publication to which I submitted, who agreed with my humble self-assessment!

There in the email were words that sang to me:

This story was magnificent…
The plot and language were incredible and I really enjoyed reading it…
This was one of the most enjoyable stories I’ve read this period thus far…

High praise! But I’m telling you the story the wrong way round. This was the PS to the main body of the email, which briefly started with the dreaded words; my story was up against stiff competition, there was an amazing response, hundreds of great entries, and mine didn’t quite make it this time etc., etc.

Of course, I was crushed, and had to work through the feelings you must come to terms with as a writer; the sting of rejection, the rush of anger that your creation has been judged wanting. I didn’t even properly read the email at first, just skimmed the first couple of sentences, then left it be to lick my wounds for a day or so and gain some distance. I was that certain my story was really good, you see!

This would have been my longest short story published to date, in a genre I both love as a reader and enjoy writing in. I saw it as a foot in the door of audiences that would be interested in the Sci-Fi novel I’m writing. So I wallowed in hopelessness for a day or so.

Then I sat down to read the response properly. I realised that this wasn’t an outright rejection, and more importantly, it held both the awesome praise I’ve quoted above, plus, most importantly, some SOLID AND JUSTIFIED EDITORIAL SUGGESTIONS AND ENCOURAGEMENT.

I lapped up the words of praise, but STILL didn’t fully take in the suggestions and feedback. It was great news that this editor encouraged me to make a few tweaks and resubmit the story, it truly was. Yet I was internally nodding along, thinking, “Ok, if that’s what you want me to do to publish my story, I agree, they’re not major changes, I can live with them etc.”

I still hadn’t really absorbed the wisdom of the feedback, but I got there in the end! Here’s the thing – if my story had been published as it was, it wouldn’t have been the absolute best I could do – I saw that the improvements suggested by the editor were valid, and I quickly jotted down some ideas to make it a tighter, more focused story, a better read and a better piece of writing.

The suggestions improved the pace of my story,  which would also be stronger if I didn’t switch POV towards the end. This editor, bless them, had taken precious time out from judging hundreds of 5K plus short stories to write me an invaluable paragraph, and also left the door open, no, encouraged me to resubmit, and to submit more work!

I wrote back, thanking that editor, promising to make some tweaks and resubmit. I’m very grateful for their time and experience, and for the reminder that the real common denominators amongst successful artists, including the ones I mentioned at the start of the post, are persistence, refinement, and continuous improvement.

In Danse Macabre, Stephen King refers to the “dull knife” of talent – we all need to whet our “talent knife” continuously, honing it with persistence,  sharpening its dull edge with practice and feedback. We are all born with a knife, it’s down to us to make it sharp and useable for our art.  Very few of us are born with their artistic knife pre-sharpened, King tells us,  “..although a few are handed almighty big ones; the name we give to the artist with the big knife is “genius.

So, I’m sharpening that knife and rewriting my short story this weekend. Watch out for the sparks from the whetstone!

My writing, Reading and Books, The Battle of Watling Street, Writing

Successful Historical Fiction – Interview with M.K.Tod

The themes and tropes that interest, inspire or worry us are timeless”

At her historical fiction blog, A Writer of History, author and blogger M.K.Tod (Mary) recently posed a series of questions to readers, and bloggers on the subject of what constitutes successful historical fiction.

The questions posed by Mary were:

  • What’s your definition of successful historical fiction?
  • What attributes are most important to you when designating a novel ‘successful historical fiction’.
  • Which authors do you think create the most successful historical fiction? (please restrict yourself to a small number of authors!)
  • What makes these particular authors stand out?
  • In your opinion, what aspects prevent a novel from being designated successful historical fiction?
  • Are famous people essential to successful historical fiction?
  • Does successful historical fiction have to say something relevant to today’s conditions?
  • What role does research play in successful historical fiction?
  • In your opinion, how are these elements critical to successful historical fiction? Characters. Setting. Plot. Conflict. Dialogue. World building. Themes.
  • Do you judge historical fiction differently from contemporary fiction?

I took up the challenge, and you can read my interview here.

If historical fiction is your thing, it’s fascinating to read the other responses to Mary’s questions, from a range of historical fiction authors. Such a seemingly simple question as “How do you define historical fiction?” is so difficult to pin down; my answer boils down to, “it depends!”

Mary has promised to pull together some insights from her series of interviews, which I look forward to reading and will post a link to here.

Writing

Flash Fiction October 2016 – “Between”

frombeyond
“From Beyond” artwork by Mike Dubisch at http://www.hyaenagallery.com/dubisch/frombeyond.jpg

I admit it, I’m currently on a real kick for Horror fiction in general and HP Lovecraft in particular. Maybe it’s the time of year; the evenings draw in, there’s a catch in your breath from the cold air, it’s Halloween season, and your thoughts turn to cosmic horror and undying gods beyond the stars and under the sea…

I love that there’s such a rich HPL vein to mine these days; I remember having to order a copy of HPL’s collected works from another library, upon first discovering him as a teenager; I’m happy that his genius is more widely recognised now, and there’s a plethora of books, websites, artwork, (see the top picture for a great example from Mike Dubisch) graphic novels and podcasts, as well as a few interesting films based on his stories in the pipeline.

I recently discovered a great podcast that discusses Lovecraft’s literary output, it’s really worth a listen: The HP Lovecraft Literary Podcast; Chris Lackey and Chad Fifer have some great readers and special guests and I can really recommend it; most of the HPL podcasts are on iTunes for free.

I also tracked down (in the US) a yellowed and battered paperback copy of a collection of short stories called “The Shuttered Room”, supposedly completed from unfinished HPL notes and ideas, but in reality probably wholly written by Lovecraft’s literary champion, August Derleth. I’m enjoying the stories so far, adding as they do to the Lovecraftian mythos. There’s even a 1967 creepy British film based on the title story featuring the late great Oliver Reed!

All this cosmic otherworldliness got me thinking,and my submission to the 101fiction’s Halloween edition had to be an HPL tribute – I plumped on an homage to “From Beyond“, an unsettling tale of a mad scientist’s (mad in both senses of the word, the guy has a grudge!) quest to see and interact with the unseeable things that inhabit the air, unbeknownst to mankind.

I’m really pleased to announce that this 100-word story, “Between“, is featured in the special Halloween edition 13 of 101fiction; please do have a read of it and the other great short fiction published by John Xero.

I hope you like the story! You don’t need to have read Lovecraft to (hopefully) enjoy it, but if you have, I hope it adds a small extra frisson to your reading experience…

Cesare Maccari [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Reading and Books

Robert Harris Goodreads Q&A January ’16

One of my favorite authors, Robert Harris is doing a Goodreads “Ask the Author” Q&A mid January and I’ve just posted a question about his latest novel “Dictator”; fingers crossed that he answers!

My question is about the historical character, Roman lawyer, politician, orator and consul Marcus Tullius Cicero, who is the central character in Harris’s latest trilogy, although he is surrounded (and intrigued) by historical heavyweights such as Julius Caesar, Augustus, Mark Antony and Pompey the Great.

Would an enormously clever and talented, but relatively humble orator like Cicero rise to the top echelons of government today?

Cicero was a very talented, largely self-made man in a key period of history  that was dominated for the most part by men with an aristocratic or very wealthy background. My question to Robert Harris was, does he think that there is, or could be a public figure like Cicero today, and if so, is there someone he would identify as being that person?

One of the main themes for me in reading Robert Harris’s historical first century BC novels is that politics is timeless, as are the scheming, betrayals, uneasy alliances and real-politik that dominates it today. Would an enormously clever and talented, but relatively humble orator like Cicero rise to the top echelons of government today, or as in the time of the Roman republic, would that require huge financial backing? Has much changed? The 20th century featured one or two very ambitious orators who had humble beginnings, and that didn’t work out so well for humanity.

If I do receive an answer I’ll post it here, and if this type of historical/political fiction is your thing, please do check out Robert Harris’s novels if you haven’t already.

Margaret