{Thu 8 March 2007}   Examination Meditation
Well, I’m thinking of applying for this wonderful-sounding Online MA in Creative Writing and New Media.
I haven’t studied formally for so many years; I wonder how I’ll fit in to the whole uni thing again. Considering this makes me think of a poem I wrote in futile protest once when I really ought to have been doing something more strategic for my end-of-year exams:

Examination Meditation

The weight of that which must be learned
Forbids the enjoyment of a single word
Which probably, if dwelt upon
Would yield a richness like the one
That’s sought in all this wild attempt
To gather all things known or meant
In a holy list of date and time,
Falsely to cry “This knowledge is mine!”
For once the pen has hit the pad,
It really is so very sad
How quickly all the marshalled facts
Just fly the grey cells; turn their backs
And I, their erstwhile master, then
Become degreed, with no more ken!

Well, there’s been some discussion on this blog about whether my poetry is “accessible” or not… the jury’s still out on many related issues, such as which poems we’re talking about, to which audience/s one should aim to be accessible, and whether “accessible” is always good, for instance. I think most people would agree that the following is an example of an accessible poem that is puke-inducingly ghastly. I wrote this at the age of thirteen, obviously during one of my weaker moments…

(Warning: this might make you feel that you’re covered in icky stuff that just won’t come off for the rest of the day…)

Roses of Life

My heart is full of roses,
Of soft petals and cruel thorns.
Life and living it makes these posies:
Happiness the petals and sadness the thorns.

Light pink are the mem’ries of loved ones,
Deep red the embraces of lovers.
Soft yellow are my childhood companions,
Sweet orange are all the others.

Sharp, short, are innocent childhood hurts;
Long and curved the unfaithful friend.
Cruel, hooked, are the many “light-hearted” flirts;
Sword-sharp is youthful contempt for old men.

But through joy and grief has been growing
The flower of experience and wisdom:
She now her pure white petals is showing,
And her thorns are mere decoration.

{Tue 6 March 2007}   The Nameless Thing
The Nameless Thing

What is this great horror?
I pad around it silently,
Catfelt in the dark.
It is not nervous.
Nor am I.
But it sits.
And I pace.
And that’s the way things are.
For now.

{Mon 5 March 2007}   The Ageless Call

I’ve been thinking a lot over this weekend about goals (or, more specifically, about my lack of clearly described, time-limited, achievable goals). I have wanted so many things over my life time, and many of those desires still remain, and yet it seems that I settle so easily for less than fulfilment, or for situations that are almost guaranteed to prevent fulfilment.

This morning I’m wondering about the (as yet unfulfilled) passion that I see in another childhood poem of mine, The Ageless Call (see below), which I wrote when I was thirteen. It speaks of my desire to go to Scotland, a land I knew only through my imagination and the very many Scottish activities I was exposed to in South Africa. Blood-wise, Scotland has no greater claim on me than the other strands of my origins, which include Irish, English, Lithuanian Jewish and others not explored. However, my parents met at Scottish Country Dancing in Johannesburg. My father used to teach (he developed several innovative new dances of his own), and had also done a bit of Highland Dancing while younger. As a family, we went often to weekly dance sessions and dancing holidays (although my brothers felt this was distinctly uncool and were rather reluctant participants). While at high school, I danced in competitions and demonstrations for a Scottish Country Dance group. I had also taken up Highland Dancing very young and competed in Highland Gatherings several times over the years. Although I did receive medals for exams and competitions, I never developed the dedication of two of my cousins who were South African champion dancers.

I also started bagpiping (to the consternation of almost everyone at the very prim girls’ boarding school I attended, and the fascinated incomprehension of the boys’ pipe band whose Band Master reluctantly allowed me to practise—but not to march officially—with them). After high school, I spent a brief period with the Transvaal Irish Regiment, but I was very naive and found it a bit rough being not only a teenager amongst adults, but the only female in a very masculine environment again, and this one much more macho. My enthusiasm also cooled fairly sharply as I began to realise the hours of commitment in practice and performance time needed to maintain the required standard and attend all the official functions. I left shortly after being measured for my kilt! However, my love of the pipes remained.

When my father died, I arranged for a piper to play at his funeral. It was a very appropriate send-off, but intensely emotional for almost everyone there because it brought him to mind so strongly. After his death, the Jewish side of my identity gradually took more and more focus. Eventually I emigrated to Israel, but I kept my practice chanter (I still have it) and took it with me on all my travels. When I eventually moved to the UK, I craved a reconnection to aspects of my culture that had been completely absent from my life for four years. One of the first things I did was to find a bagpipe teacher here. However, I stopped within a few months because work pressure made it difficult to find time for the necessary practice and I felt ashamed and undeserving before my very brilliant teacher. I also couldn’t fathom what I would do with my reinvigorated skill—an apartment in London is not exactly the best place for chuffing away on the bagpipes, and the practice chanter is a less-than-thrilling substitute. Also, my ever-patient husband, who is willing to give most things a go at least once, found it hard to work up any enthusiasm! I suppose it’s a lot to ask of anyone, but especially of an Israeli sabra with absolutely no exposure at all to any culture from the British Isles. At least he’s learned to love some Irish drinking songs…!

Nowadays, there’s not much Scottish in my life at all. I’ve only been to Scotland once, a few years ago. I did love it, but it was only for a few days. I wonder how to make sense of all the passion and all the experience over the years that seems to have come to nothing. My dad’s mom was Scottish and his dad Jewish, so in a way I suppose I explored my relationship with him via the former while he was alive and the latter after he died, but neither exploration yet feels complete.

The Ageless Call

The pipes, the pipes are calling me
To come to the highlands wild and free.
The swishing kilt, the marching feet,
Echo the time of the drummer’s beat.

The thrilling notes of victory
Running in my blood are part of me.
The glorious, triumphant battle cry
Lingers in the air from days gone by.

Oh, misty mountains of my Scotland,
Live forever against the bitter wind!
Wrapped in memories, your majesty
Reminds your folk of a proud country.

I want to dance the victory dance
Of the ancient Scots, in warrior stance.
If only I could return to the land
Where my heart beats to a Scottish band.

Great Scotland I have never seen;
To my own land I have never been.
Yet my spirit the distance spanned,
Linking me to my heather-clad land.

Born and bred in a southern place,
Scottish Jew with an Irish face:
A varied ancestry in all,
But the strongest cry is the piper’s call:

“Land of my high endeavour,
Land of the shining river,
Land of my heart forever,
Scotland the Brave!”

{Sun 4 March 2007}   panther in my living room

Blackjack with Flowers

panther in my living room

coiled energy hiding,
elastic power biding
lithe in silent limbs,
waiting for release;

luxuriantly stretching,
claws briefly etching
love or simply whims,
revelling in caprice;

kittensoft, purrplaying, strokesensing, growlgrowing;

slinking toward synthesis, self-aware, knowing.

{Sat 3 March 2007}   Poetry and specialised vocab

Today I came across an interesting article called Mathematics in Poetry by JoAnne Growney. It’s aimed at people interested in maths, of course. I’m one who protests an interest in maths, but in whom maths is not interested, having given up on me a long time ago. Therefore, although I’m drawn to it, I lack some of the necessary vocabulary to make the best sense of some of the quoted poems. However, I remember enough from high school to recognise the cleverness and humour of some of them.

I recall being enthralled at school by Donne’s compass conceit in “A Valediction: forbidding mourning”. On reading it, I picked up the coldly functional and somewhat dangerous geometry instrument that lay inert in my pencil box and suddenly felt connected to this poet of another era. I imagined him sitting at his own desk, picking up his compass to create a circle as part of some practical or conceptual investigation and then becoming momentarily fascinated and distracted by the smooth ease with which he created a perfect circle. Perhaps he repeated the movement several times, warming the compass with his hands as he did so. Perhaps he entered a slightly altered state as he contemplated the startling perfection of its creation on the page, suddenly aware of the supernatural certainty that it gave the human hand. Did he also think about how the best circle comes with the lightest touch, and how hard it is to draw anything other than a circle with a compass—how one must bear down on the pencil tip and tear the page in order to vary the line? How this is so contrary to the nature of the thing that one desists in shame after the first attempt to break free? I’m not a mathematician, but there were aspects of this conceit that I could relate to, and which were enough to make me look up implications or inferences that I didn’t know as I sought a richer experience of the poem.

These musings took me back to my discussion of the use of vocabulary in my poem “On deciding not to marry a priest“. In response to a frustrated question about its perceived difficulty, I defended my use of a style, register, vocabulary, etc. that seemed appropriate to the content and the context of this poem. Admittedly, the context is only available to the reader by inference from clues in the title and the content, and these will be more easily read by people familiar with that context (and there are, believe it or not, many such), but I think there’s enough there for comprehension by anyone prepared to spend more than five minutes reading it.

The point is that I think it’s quite legitimate to write poetry that requires specialised knowledge for a full understanding of it. I’m quite irritated by the constant demand for accessibility requiring the exclusive use of an ill-defined “contemporary” vocabulary and forms. It seems to be driven by a requirement to communicate with a, by necessity, lowest common denominator-type audience who are not expected to put any effort into their part of the writer-reader contract. I believe that a writer has a responsibility to put an internally consistent piece before her readers. However, as a reader, I must recognise that each poem has its own language (in the broadest sense of that term). I need to be open to the potential beauty of any poem I encounter. Then, without resentment, I can seek to fill any gaps in my fluency in the poem’s language in order to plumb its depths. Of course, I won’t bother if there’s nothing in it to attract me initially, but if I scent beauty in it, I won’t petulantly demand to be spoonfed every puréed morsel so that I can make my date with the TV on time.

{Fri 2 March 2007}   Hmmm…. well that’s one way…

I’ve a bee in my brain this morning, buzzing about “interactive poetry”. I looked and found several interesting and several, er… interesting ideas.

One of them was this site that provides the line and grammatical structures of simple poems, with blank fields to be filled in with appropriate words by the user. Some of the poems created via these “poetry forms” teaching tools are, well, just atrocious. On the other hand, I can see that it could be an enabling step…

Just for the fun (or the hell) of it, check it out at: Educational Technology Training Centre

{Thu 1 March 2007}   My Ball-and-Chain

My Ball-and-Chain

I swung it daily,
my ball-and-chain,
around and around
the tea trolley,
hoarse with hoping
it would hit someone.

You, sipping,
with your eyes,
gently disengaged it.
You poured me some tea,
cuffed me to myself
and bid me walk free.


et cetera