I’m writing this from my old friend Michael’s flat in St Leonard’s, which is by far the furthest I’ve been since before Lockdown. It’s lovely to be able to see (and hear) the Channel, though that view isn’t always so rosy: Michael says you can sometimes see boats full of migrants drifting towards the shore and the whole damned heart-breaking sadness of the migrant experience makes you feel helpless, knowing that some of them have travelled for two years to get here and will end up incarcerated in Yarl’s Wood after they arrive. How insane it is that politicians can’t just see, and loudly say, that nobody has a choice about where they’re born? Back in the ’80s Norman Tebbit suggested that unemployed people in Britain shouldn’t moan about their lot and should instead move to find work and a better standard of living – ‘Get on yer bike’ and all shit – yet when people born outside Britain have done just that and made their way here from countries which, in many cases, our Air Force and/or bombs manufactured here have helped to ravage, they’re treated with a desperate and blatant lack of humanity by those in power and the officials who do their dirty work.

It’s been good to have a week off work, to forget about Covid outbreak control planning and recharge. I’ve some books to review and, moreover, poems to write; and the more I read, the more ideas for poems I get, which is as it should be.

I’ve also been re-reading Michael Donaghy’s Collected Poems. He’s as much an influence on my poems as anyone – up there with Donne, Robert Lowell, Matthew Sweeney, Sarah Maguire, Thom Gunn, Sylvia Plath, Paul Farley, etc. You don’t have to look any further than the opening stanza of the first poem (‘Machines’) in his first collection, Shibboleth, to know that he was a poet of genius who wore his learning on his sleeve:

Dearest, note how these two are alike:
This harpsichord pavane by Purcell
And the racer’s twelve-speed bike.

The comparison is reminiscent – deliberately, I presume – of Marinetti’s lines from the Futurist Manifesto (1909):

We declare that the splendour of the world has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed. A racing automobile with its bonnet adorned with great tubes like serpents with explosive breath . . . a roaring motor car which seems to run on machine-gun fire is more beautiful than the Winged Victory of Samothrace.

If it is deliberate, then, given Marinetti’s cheerleading for war as being the ultimate Futurist experience and, afterwards, for Mussolini, it’s in keeping with the echoes of the past which are scattered through Donaghy’s sadly curtailed oeuvre, the Fascism and Santi-Fascism of the Spanish Civil War in particular.

The poem ends beautifully, with a Donne-like flourish: ‘[ . . .] So much is chance,/ So much agility, desire, and feverish care,/ As bicyclists and harpsichordists prove// Who only by moving can balance,/ Only by balancing move.’ Note the careful punctuation, the use of the anachronistic ‘bicyclists’ rather than the standard ‘cyclists’ and, above all, the delightful closing couplet.

I’ve spent a lot of time lately on my perpetual playing about with the order of the poems in my almost-finished second collection. Glyn Maxwell, in On Poetry (I think), advises strongly against ordering poems chronologically, and I get what he means; yet when poems are collected, I want to see not just that individual poems shine on their own terms, but also that they have some interplay with other poems, thematically and/or chronologically. I’ve been toying with reversing the chronology of my poems, so that those set in the present come first and those set furthest back in time close the book. I daresay it’s been done plenty of times before. On the other hand, I might just take Maxwell’s advice and mix them up, by theme or not, and see what happens. As ever, the problem – which admittedly is a nice one to have and isn’t really that huge in the grand scheme of things – is that I find it so hard to look at my own poems with the requisite degree of objectivity. In the Zoom launch of her Nine Arches collection The Unmapped Woman a few months ago, Abegail Morley revealed that she hung a washing line across her living room, pegged all the poems along it and then shifted them about until she achieved a steady state. It certainly sounds easier than putting them all on the floor and moving them around, because, as I’ve found before, you need a room the size of a small dancehall to be able to do that.

6 thoughts on “Channelling

  1. Excellent post, Matthew.
    I’ve just come back from Aldeburgh – no poetry but lots of swimming in the sea, fish and chips and long walks – so I completely understand how refreshing it is to be by the sea. But seeing people trying to reach the UK in tiny boats must be heart-wrenching. While i was away I read The Pianist of Yarmouk about a young Syrian man who eventually makes his hazardous way to Europe. True and harrowing.

    I love that poem by Michael Donaghy – so perfect. I was always a big fan of Donne too.

    Interesting idea to place your poems in reverse chronological order… the washing line sounds good. Rather than crawling about on the floor!

    All the best, Ali

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