Putting poetry in its place(s)
By MICHAEL CAINES
If you should find yourself cooched on your plock, eating your bait under a tree, as the mizzle of a blackthorn winter comes down, your bagging hook beside you – well, you've perhaps had the misfortune to have been transported to thirteenth-century England. (Sorry about that.)
It was in this period that St Katherine's Hospital for the poor and aged, the sick and distressed, travellers and pilgrims was founded in Ledbury, by Bishop Hugh Foliot of Hereford. The Bishop's aim was to take care of people's spiritual as well as their material needs; and the poet Adam Horovitz, in his role as Herefordshire's Poet in Residence over the past year, has written a quatrain that sums up this dual purpose neatly:
Keep your crusades. Here is the real
work of God: an end to hunger;
the repair of holes in the hedgerow;
nurture of soil and of soul.
I found that the "Here" of Horovitz's poem caught my eye – perhaps because it suggests a contribution to the poetic map of the world. . . .
The term "occasional poetry" puts the emphasis on time while perhaps obscuring the fine, countervailing tradition that puts the emphasis on place. The "in residence" role for poets formalizes the tradition, you might say; and although the poetic "place" in question can be a vaguely platonic as well as a specific, easily enough has been written about, say, identifiable English country houses to fill out a modern anthology.
Shift back to sacred ground: it's with no particular occasion in mind that Philip Larkin's "Church Going" shuffles around the archetypal Anglican House of God, a building empty of people yet full of history and ritual paraphernalia, "not worth stopping for" – "Yet stop I did". Here the poet's indifference ("brass and stuff") meets the awful lore of the past ("this accoutred frowsty barn") and the undecided future (those "dubious women" making their children "touch a particular stone"). I'm perhaps not the only reader who's taken a while to read more than one meaning into Larkin's innocent-sounding title, which could be taken to refer to this kind of occasional pottering around, to regular attendance (the church-going of old) and, more tenuously I admit, to the Church itself "going", declining, leaving us to it. . . .
Vicki Raymond describes being likewise brought to an uneasy stop by the Chapel of St Mary Magdalene in Buckinghamshire, pictured above, in her poem "Boveney Church":
Ahead in the mist, a squat church
has suddenly appeared,
like a bully lying in wait
at the edge of the tow-path. . . .
If I should ever forget
myself so far as to marry,
and in church too, it might
well be a church like this one:
so suited to departures
into regions of mist, so flint-faced
in promising so little
and expecting even less.
Larkin's poem asks "When churches fall completely out of use / What we shall turn them into". The Grade I listed Boveney of Raymond's poem hasn't been turned into anything else yet, as many a place of worship has been; instead, it's under the care of the admirable Friends of Friendless Churches. Apparently, concerts and exhibitions take place there, but weddings are "rare exceptions".
Both "Church Going" and "Boveney Church" appear in a new anthology edited by Kevin J. Gardner, called Building Jerusalem: Elegies on parish churches, in which poets such as Fleur Adcock, John Betjeman, Adam Horovitz's mother Frances and Rowan Williams describe specific encounters with specific churches. Despite the urban pilgrimages, such as Betjeman's to St Saviour's in Highbury, the isolation of the church Anne Ridler describes in "Edlesborough" seems emblematic here: "A lighthouse in dry seas of standing corn".
Contrast the mood here – misty melancholy – with that of Wattle and Daub: Poems celebrating The Master's House, Ledbury, a verse leaflet resulting from Horovitz's residency – the Master's House being a Grade II listed building on the St Katherine's site in Ledbury. (It houses, among other things, the John Masefield Archive and the local library, which has apparently seen a marvellous increase in usage of 164 per cent since moving in last year.) It is from Wattle and Daub's glossary I learn that to cooch is to crouch down, a plock is a plot of land or a small field, and a farm worker's bait is lunch; a bagging hook is an "implement for cutting hedges or thistles". Perhaps it would be wise to find a better time of year to trim the hedges of your field than the "very cold spell at the end of winter", especially in a "light rain". If the Master's House is a success story, it was also, as Horovitz notes in "Just a Building in the Car Park", "Brought nearly to ruin / by time and lack of care".
Lastly: there is even more local poetry for local people – northerners rather than southerners this time – in a recently published volume called Among Woods and Water: An anthology of poetry from Northumberland inspired by the Northern Poetry Library. Poets have been working with the elderly residents of a care home and schoolchildren alike, in places such as Morpeth, Hexham and Alnwick, but also at the Northern Poetry Library itself (which holds "the largest collection of post-World War II poetry in England outside London"). The anthology takes its title, for example, from Lisa Matthews's "Villanelle for the Library":
among woods and water
between words and meaning
a story prepares to be heard
in the telling, voices wait
birds fall below quiet clouds
among woods and water . . . .
For those who like their poetic forms short and sweet, Among Woods and Water also introduces the novelty of an "anchored terset" (sic; the "s" instead of "c" apparently alludes to the word "terse"): three words over three lines, weighed down by the anchor of a full stop on the fourth. Note the acrostic element, too, in this example by Jo Currie:
Or this pleasingly pointed one by Pat Hallam:
Perhaps, as Matthews admits, this isn't really a form of poetry at all; whatever it is, it got people thinking about the letters "NPL".
And it's an advance, in terms of concision if nothing else, on TLS limericks.