Category Archives: Poetry

Songs about pints, pals, and public transport

Elbow, Portland, November 2017

Elbow, Portland, November 2017

It might sound a bit, er, poncey, to describe Guy Garvey as an heir to John Betjeman.

But, as the years pass, the more I listen to the Elbow front man’s songs, the more he strikes me a type of minor laureate, an increasingly-beloved back-of-the-commuter-carriage commentator on Modern Life.

Not that commuting is the only thing the two artists have in common (although, it must be said, some of their better known works concern travelling on the rails – see Elbow’s song ‘Kindling’, or Betjeman’s poem ‘Middlesex’). They’re both Englishmen whose lyrical writing highlights the everyday, sometimes banal yet occasionally sublime, aspects of Englishness.

John Betjeman, 1961

John Betjeman, 1961

And so Garvey will start a song by singing of “lippy kids on the corner again”, sounding like a middle aged grouch, only to shift the tune to a heartfelt cry for the loss of innocence: “Do they know those days are golden? Build a rocket boys!”

Betjeman, for his part, was adept at highlighting the ordinariness of life’s most profound moments:
“She died in the upstairs bedroom
By the light of the ev’ning star
That shone through the plate glass window
From over Leamington Spa…”

They have something else in common too. Just as I read Betjeman’s  ‘A Shropshire Lad‘ as a song, with it’s musical cadence and rhythmic lines, so many of Garvey’s lyrics read well as simple, heartfelt and heartworn, odes.

Not just to train stations, or home, or the north of England, but to a certain slightly awkward, and very male, mix of nostalgia, friendship, and affection.

Guy Garvey

Guy Garvey

Garvey and Co. showcased this at the Roseland Theater in Portland last weekend, with a stirring performance of ‘My Sad Captains’, a song about, having a few pints with the lads, and pushing the boat out a bit, like you used to do 20 years before.

Another sunrise with my sad captains
With who I choose to lose my mind
And if it’s all we only come this way but once
What a perfect waste of time…

There’s nothing rock and roll about the song, let alone sex or drugs – it’s really just a stirring musical account of a hangover. But in Garvey’s hands, even a hangover is a chink through which we can see some universal light.

For each and every train we miss
Oh my soul
A bitter little Eucharist
Oh my soul…

Trains, ales, and a few Northern lads having the craic? I’m sure Betjeman would approve.

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Power out, Stevenson WA

At 5am the Columbia River Gorge is mostly in darkness.

Returned to an earlier state.

But here and there the black is specked with lights

Driven by generators and engines, that assure us that we own the night

And that we control the darkness. That the gorge is ours.

But the fire-blackened hills and the tang in the morning air tell a different story,

Of how our control is an illusion,

And how we have been, and will be, here only a brief time,

And that our preoccupations don’t matter,

When cast against an enormous darkness.

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Finding Kavanagh in the canal bank rush

Patrick Kavanagh, 1963. Pic: NLI

Patrick Kavanagh, 1963. Pic: NLI

On a recent visit to Dublin I navigated through a Tuesday morning rush hour along Herbert Place, a few feet above the slow-moving waters of the Grand Canal.

As I did so, I wondered what the bard of Baggotonia, Patrick Kavanagh, would make of his old strolling ground.

The 50th anniversary of the poet’s death falls in November, and the Dublin that he left behind in 1967 is as dearly departed as the man himself.

The city of pubs and priests, holy hours and holy grail civil service jobs – the city Kavanagh knew, if not loved – no longer exists, thankfully. The 8am surge along Wilton Terrace moves with the same speed and attitude as that on lower Manhattan, or Canary Wharf.

Few wallow in the habitual or the banal in 2017, it seems. Why should they?

And what could a 20th century farmer poet from rural Co Monaghan have in common with today’s Baggotonians?

Canal bank walk, 2017

Canal bank walk, 2017

Little enough, I thought, until – days later – verses from one of Kavanagh’s later poems came to my mind.

‘Thank You, Thank You’ was written as an epilogue to a series of university lectures the poet delivered in the early 1960s. Part of the poem warns against nostalgia:

Don’t grieve like Marcus Aurelius
Who said that though he grew old and grey
The people of the Appian Way
Were always the same pleasant age
Twenty-four on average.

But, more to the point, Kavanagh’s poem celebrates the universal soul – whether it be in 1967 or 2017:

…what it teaches is just this
We are not alone in our loneliness,
Others have been here and known
Griefs we thought our special own
Problems that we could not solve
Lovers that we could not have
Pleasures that we missed by inches.

The words resonate across the span of a half century, from a poet seated by still canal waters to commuters whizzing by in 2017, yards from where he once rested. And whether we were there or are here, whether we were then or are now, we are not alone.

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Portland morning

I live with the small fear of the phone at 6am,
When something’s happened eight hours hence,
And has laid in wait through the night
To strike me at my bedside locker.

The clear, clinical bell often unnerves me,
I brace myself for news which doesn’t come –
Not today at least, but when?
Quickly, I resume my day.

But then it follows: the tired mix of relief and guilt,
The connected disconnect, and the small fear at the back of my mind,
That tells me ‘tomorrow, tomorrow’ –
The call of home.
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A wet morning at the Japanese Garden

Portland Japanese Garden, June 2017

Portland Japanese Garden, June 2017

Gulping June

Rains, swollen

Mogami river

– Basho

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PJ Harvey at the Crystal Ballroom

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Pale in winter black –
Rapid drum blasts open up
A path for her voice.

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A March morning in St Louis

 

Rust-colored and rust-rimmed,

Bleached by the winter snow and

Moving slow and sleepy,

St Louis shrugged.

 

Tired, tagged towers

Cast shadows of industry,

While the Mississippi, mighty in myth,

Seeped slowly past the Arch,

Its silver dull in the March light.

 

But, as dawn broke,

A row of daffodils blooming in Tower Grove Park,

Brilliant against the brown,

Silently showed me that

Spring is here.
_____

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No regrets – Raymond Carver and the rain

Raymond Carver

Raymond Carver

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the Oregon rain. More specifically, about the rain and a folk song it led me back too.

I’d previously written about music and rain. Back in Ireland, one particularly wet December led me to draw up a list of rain songs.

Write what you know, they say. And as an Irishman who now lives in Portland, I know rain – from the anticyclonic squalls that tear over Ireland in the winter to the 1.7 inches that fell on the Rose City in a single day this week.

This morning, as the rain fell on the window and the coffee brewed, I pulled a book from a shelf – a collection of poems by Raymond Carver.

Carver knew rain. Born in Clatskanie, Oregon, about 60 miles north of Portland, he spent most of his life in the Pacific Northwest. Along with his stories, some well known, and screenplays, he also wrote poetry. Inevitably, as an Oregonian, one of these poems features precipitation.

“Rain” is a short work about risks and the need to make mistakes, about giving over to chance. The weather may just be a framing device but, like an Oregon winter, it’s all around.

In lieu of songs about the weather, then, here’s a poem about it. Let it rain, without regrets.

‘Rain’

Woke up this morning with
a terrific urge to lie in bed all day
and read. Fought against it for a minute.

Then looked out the window at the rain.
And gave over. Put myself entirely
in the keep of this rainy morning.

Would I live my life over again?
Make the same unforgiveable mistakes?
Yes, given half a chance. Yes.

_____

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The Gallagh Man

Gallagh Man, National Museum of Ireland

Gallagh Man, National Museum of Ireland

Nothing speaks of mortality more,
Than a 2000-year-old body laid on the floor.
Or the brevity of our earthly years,
Than a hammered cavity where once was an ear.

Strangled and stabbed, though a princely rake,
Gallagh Man didn’t get much of a break.
Killed to appease his enemies’ hatred,
He’s now wound up in tourists’ gazes.

Yet his somber lesson speaks plainly still,
Of life and death, of good and ill.
But for all sober thoughts of mortality,
I’m mainly glad it’s him, not me.
_____

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An Adult’s Christmas in Oregon

dylanMy Christmas rituals are few. I tend to spend December 25 in different places – in recent times Wexford or Los Angeles; this year, Portland.

One of my seasonal constants is “A Child’s Christmas in Wales”, the Dylan Thomas short story. Every Christmas morning I take 20 minutes to “plunge my hands in the snow and bring out whatever I can find,” as the narrator puts it.

This year, for a change, I’ll listen to Thomas reading the story. The poet, ailing and alcoholic, made a recording of the piece in 1952. It’s a remarkable piece of audio, as Thomas, leaning on all the intonation and nuance of his Welsh accent, tells his tale of a young boy’s Christmas in a snowy, seaside village.

But while searching for the recording this week, I across the poet’s other great evocation of childhood, whose lines are probably more pertinent for a man in his late 30s, far from his childhood home (“the farm forever fled”), remembering Christmases past.

“Fern Hill” is not a seasonal poem. It’s set in a time of plenty, a period of huntsmen and herdsmen, when the grass is green and “the hay fields as high as the house”.

These years have passed, and Thomas remembers them with a mix of nostalgia and affection and fatalism. “I was young and easy under the apple boughs,” the poem famously begins, while, a few verses later, we read that “time allows / In all his tuneful turning so few and such morning songs / Before the children green and golden / Follow him out of grace”.

All of which seems oddly suitable for an adult’s Christmas in Oregon. Having long since strolled out of the fields of grace, I rarely run my heedless ways these days. Which is why the bittersweet reality of “Fern Hill”, and not the comforting nostalgia of “A Child’s Christmas In Wales”, is a more fitting read this year.

“Once below a time I lordly had the trees and leaves
Trail with daisies and barley
Down the rivers of the windfall light.”

Once is enough to be thankful for. Happy Christmas.

Portland, OR, December 2016

Portland, OR, December 2016

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