Category Archives: poetry

31 Jul

Rite me a poim, Megan

“Now then Megan, I want you to write a poem. And when you’ve finished, please compose a forty-part motet, cook me a cordon bleu supper and show me your designs for a new cathedral.”

If it weren’t so depressing, it would be risible to note that anyone – borderline illiterates included – are expected to be able to write poetry. What is a poem? I recall C.H. Sisson’s definition of its meaning today in the schools: “A composition in which the words do not quite extend to the margins.”

But never mind the dumb schools, this is what The Spectator offers us as an example of a poem:

“None of the teachers who taught us

Were around that final afternoon at

Grammar school – probably frightened

Of being assaulted after giving us so

Much grief for five years, no more of

That though. We sat around unsupervised

Playing cards and smoking a bit and then

It seemed so simple, so absurdly easy to

Just walk down the drive and out of the front

Gate for the last time.”

I thought it must be by poor Megan who is troubled by learning difficulties and dyslexia issues, but it turns out to be by Paul Birtill, a contributor to The Morning Star. Before we get started on thinking about your “poem”, Paul, do you mind if we just deal with something pretty basic? I mean it’s not frightened of but frightened by. It’s afraid of, as any poet no. They don’t teach you that at grammar school – ‘cos it’s grammar, innit? And, while I’m at it, none takes was not were. 

There’s no call for dogmatism when it comes to saying what counts as poetry. There is room for all sorts: for Homer, for Alexandrian metre, Augustan austerity, lyrical ballads and Uncle Tom Eliot’s inability to make connections on Margate Sands. And the sentiment doesn’t have to be hifalutin or sham antique, as in gay Hesperion’s golden whatsit. It can be slight, light-hearted, whimsical. Let me cast the net as as widely as possible and say that a poem is just a few words in a particular rhythm.

Birtill’s poem has no discernible rhythm. Dare I suggest that a poem should also be about something? It doesn’t have to be the Trojan wars or the salon of Madame Sosostris but, for crying out loud, it shouldn’t be utterly banal. Birtill’s poem doesn’t say anything except the blindingly obvious. It’s a ten-lines cliche.You go to school for a few years and then you leave.. There is no insight, nothing produced by an actual imagination, no verbal facility. In fact, it isn’t a poem. It’s prose pretending to be verse – and lousy prose at that.

Poetry is not, as the modern educashernists vainly believe, about expressing yourself. You have no self to express until you have ingested something, until you have been taught something. The true poet is usually to be noticed with the works of the great  poets of the past in his hands, not filling notebooks with verbal trash. The composition of poetry requires also concentration and, above all, practice.

You can no more write a poem without at least some understanding of what will go into ordinary English than go out and score a century against the Aussie pace bowlers when you’ve never wielded a cricket bat in your life before.

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09 Nov

The cloud of witnesses

I have never been much  of a one for praying to the saints. Not that anyone should pray to the saints anyhow, but instead ask for their intercession. I do say the Marian prayers, such as the Ave Maria gratia plena. And I take much encouragement from the verse in the Epistle to the Hebrews which says, Wherefore, seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses.

And when I seek help from this cloud of witnesses, I don’t confine my search to the saints who occupy the Red Letter days. I talk to a great variety of dead people and I believe they talk to me and that:

The communication of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.

I have talked to Mozart since I first heard one of his piano sonatas when I was thirteen. And the music answers. I feel certain that Mozart is always close by and that he has been very close on many occasions in my life, for example at my Ordination in 1970. This took place in my own parish church of St Bartholomew, Armley, Leeds with 800 people in the congregation including many of my family and friends, people I had grown up with. It was, to say the least, an affecting occasion. All the more so then when I was handed a chalice brimful and told to administer it to a section of that vast congregation. I had to walk from the altar, down through the chancel and into the nave. I was doing pretty well until the choir began Mozart’s Ave Verum K.618 – the motet he composed in Baden, where his wife was taking the waters, in the afternoon of 5th July 1791. Fear and trembling. I managed somehow not to spill the sacramental wine.

I talk to St Augustine and he answers in the words of his Civitas Dei which are as pertinent to our age as they were in his for, as C.H.Sisson wrote, Augustine  attracts us because he lived through times which were very much like our times – and rejected them.

Dr Johnson tells me about the fear and love of God. R.G. Collingwood taught me metaphysics. Coleridge reassures me regularly that I am not alone in feeling frail. Schopenhauer comes along now and then and shows me how to make philosophical jokes. Shakespeare for terror and pity. Giotto for making visible what otherwise would have remained invisible: Christ on the cross. Eliot for holy dread in the rhythms of the English language: Come with me under the shadow of this red rock… 

Eliot for pretty much everything actually.

By the way, the original Greek word translated as witnesses in that Epistle to the Hebrews is marturwn – martyrs.

And not one of them a suicide bomber.

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23 Jun

Prophets & Visionaries, a new book by Peter Mullen

Prophets & Visionaries: Writers of Judgement by Peter Mullen (Published by RoperPenberthy £9.99)

Prophets & Visionaries consists of eight extended critical essays on eight acknowledged thinkers and masters of English prose: Samuel Johnson; S.T Coleridge; John Henry Newman; G.K. Chesterton; T.E. Hulme; T.S. Eliot; R.G. Collingwood and C.H. Sisson. (2014 is the centenary of Sisson’s birth). Each chapter is an introduction and commentary on its subject’s contribution to English literature, philosophy and theology. But these essays are not merely historical studies detailing things which belong in the past. Rather they bring out the extraordinary relevance of these great writers to contemporary life, thought and politics.

“This is a book written by one who has so mastered the material that he can go to the heart of the matter. In truth, learning worn lightly” – Rev’d Dr Aidan Nichols OP

“In his own perceptive and inimitable way, Peter Mullen has produced a compendium of British thinkers of the first rank. All of these, in one way or another, have upheld the vital importance of the Judaeo-Christian tradition for all that is true and good about these islands and the people who live in them. The distortions of the tradition, over the course of history, and its more recent abandonment, should not blind us to its reality as the ground and informing principle of the State, Law, values and virtues in this nation. Its reaffirmation is undoubtedly needed for the moral and spiritual renewal which is so necessary if we are to resist the dangers with which we are beset” – The Rt Rev’d Dr Michael Nazir-Ali

“The kind of modernity here scrutinised through the eyes of some of its most mordant and insightful critics, from Coleridge to Sisson, claims to be self-consciously reflective, creative and boundary-breaking, whereas it is in practice a new Establishment peddling its own taken for granted assumptions by rote and setting limits on the things one is allowed to think and say. The word for this is hegemony and Peter Mullen’s lively and engaging study, by judicious selection and wide-ranging quotation, provides a thematic index or aide-memoire on how to puncture its pretensions” – Professor Rev’d David Martin

Rev’d Dr Peter Mullen in a Church of England priest with experience in town, country, schools and university, most recently as Rector of St Michael’s Cornhill in the City of London. He is Chaplain to several City livery companies. The author of more than forty books, including poems, novels and short stories as well as theology, philosophy and music criticism, Peter Mullen is available for interviews and may be contacted through his publisher or directly at: 3 Naomi Close Eastbourne BN20 7UU

Phone: 01323-655832 peter77mullen@gmail.com

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01 May

Not much life in Llareggub

The BBC are making a great fuss about Dylan Thomas’ centenary. Well, he is their sort of poet: a sort of confused flashiness which causes innocent readers – in Thomas’ and the BBC’s case, more likely to be hearers – a great deal of excitement. C.H. Sisson says of him, “Words are hurled around in a way which does not make much sense, and the confusion is attributed to poetic force. He was boring. A creator of deliberate wonders.” I think we should take Thomas at his own self-assessment: “I’m a freak user of words, not a poet.” The harbinger of much subsequent pretentiousness. One of his most admired stanzas is:

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the lig
ht.

Upon which fatuity D.J. Enright comments gloriously: “Like saying, ‘Now father, pull yourself together, get out of bed and stomp around the bedroom even if it kills you!’”

So much fuss about…well, Llareggub really.

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10 Apr

Heaven & Hell

Heaven & Hell

I seized the crimson threads of dawn

And strolled all through the April morn;

The white cliff’d shore, the whispering sea,

I thanked the Lord all silently

That he’d allowed me to be born.

Then lumbering towards me though the mist

There comes the Electronic Solipsist,

Disdained the joy of being alone

Jabbering into his wretched phone:

I wish the bastard would desist.

It is a plague throughout the nation,

Nihilistic contamination;

Loud technology’s recompense,

Ubiquitous speech but lacking sense:

This is audible damnation.

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