Tag 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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‘Like an enormous yes’

Sidney Bechet. Pic: William P. Gottlieb

Sidney Bechet. Pic: William P. Gottlieb

The words ‘jazz poetry’ are enough to make any sane person reach for their Revolver.

The mental image is the old stereotype of a turtlenecked beatnik, rambling at a dozen pals in a basement coffeehouse, as his roommate attempts to accompany him with some beginners’ clarinet.

But poetry about jazz is a different proposition, and something that’s likely more palatable. This occurred to me recently when Sidney Bechet’s recording of ‘All Of Me’ shuffled onto my speakers, showcasing the New Orleans native’s soprano sax lines, loud and clear.

The same sound prompted the British poet Philip Larkin, a jazz record reviewer in his spare time, to pen an ode to Bechet, and the New Orleans sound and scene that he emerged from.

‘For Sidney Bechet’ is not unlike one of jazzman’s own solos – compact, emotive, perfectly poised. It pays homage to the front (and back) rooms of The Big Easy, and recognizes the voice that Bechet and his contemporaries gave to its community a century ago.

What’s more, Larkin also provides the single best description of jazz in words – a sound which falls “like an enormous yes”. Play that thing!

‘For Sidney Bechet’

That note you hold, narrowing and rising, shakes
Like New Orleans reflected on the water,
And in all ears appropriate falsehood wakes,

Building for some a legendary Quarter
Of balconies, flower-baskets and quadrilles,
Everyone making love and going shares—

Oh, play that thing! Mute glorious Storyvilles
Others may license, grouping around their chairs
Sporting-house girls like circus tigers (priced

Far above rubies) to pretend their fads,
While scholars manqués nod around unnoticed
Wrapped up in personnels like old plaids.

On me your voice falls as they say love should,
Like an enormous yes.  My Crescent City
Is where your speech alone is understood,

And greeted as the natural noise of good,
Scattering long-haired grief and scored pity.

_____

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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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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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Across the short years

(In memory of Elva Looney)

We will light a candle for you tonight,
Though we’re apart.
A light that will shine across the short years,
That will light the days and nights
When we couldn’t turn to you, see you, or hear your voice.
And we’ll know that, from somewhere peaceful, looking on,
Your light shines back.
_____

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‘We have to seize earth by the pole’

Robert Frost, 1959.

Robert Frost, 1959.

My mental image of the poet Robert Frost is of an elderly man shuffling through autumn leaves on a New England laneway, staring over a broken fence, or picking an apple and dropping it to the ground.

His work has always struck me as dense and a little too didactic, with life lessons deeply embedded in every stanza. I’ve long since passed him over in favor of other poets whose writing on the natural world seemed more attuned to my own ear.

Two of these are Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes. To my surprise a joint work of theirs, the 1982 anthology ‘The Rattle Bag’, led me back to Frost this week.

Cometh the hour, cometh the curators. ‘The Rattle Bag’ is a collection of Heaney and Hughes’ favorite poems, and among the 350 or so are seven works by Frost.

One in particular spoke to me, and speaks to anyone undergoing changes and dealing with the occasional adversities that accompany them.

‘On A Tree Fallen Across A Road’ is a reality check, a sonnet which reminds us that, regardless of the circumstances, people will always find a way past. “The only thing I knew how to do was keep on keeping on,” Bob Dylan once advised. From one of those autumnal New England laneways Frost says something similar.

‘On A Tree Fallen Across A Road’

The tree the tempest with a crash of wood
Throws down in front of us is not bar
Our passage to our journey’s end for good,
But just to ask us who we think we are

Insisting always on our own way so.
She likes to halt us in our runner tracks,
And make us get down in a foot of snow
Debating what to do without an ax.

And yet she knows obstruction is in vain:
We will not be put off the final goal
We have it hidden in us to attain,
Not though we have to seize earth by the pole

And, tired of aimless circling in one place,
Steer straight off after something into space.

_____

 

 

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