Thursday, 31 January 2013

William Carlos Williams - snap shot imagery


I was talking about this dude I see on my way from work who lives on Maitland Road and how when I catch a glimpse of him I’m reminded of the style of some of William Carlos Williams snapshot poems where he captures in perfect word the circumstances and scenes of everyday life.  Possible content for a poem is all around us, and like a photographer, I’ve got to be alert to the perfect shot – the frozen image and the emotion.  But, unlike the photographer, I’ve only got words in which I can preserve and present the scene.  To me, this is the difficulty but also the beauty of poetry over other art forms.  The beauty is that each individual, without necessary study, without natural talent has the skill to try immediately to express their emotion through the written word.  Try that with music or oil painting or bronze sculpture!  This is not to say that our hero poets aren’t talented in a worthy art.  It is to say there can be a lot more bad poets out there than there might be bad sculptors.  We might not have to do classes to start, but we do have to study to get better.  I find William Carlos Williams a good poet to hold influence over me when I realise I’m not that spiritual sage, nor a prophet with gifted sight into the meaning of life, or a learned academic steeped in clever phrase, or a man well travelled among the whole of the world’s most interesting and quaint cultures.  Williams writes poetry at the edge of my imagination.  Being at the edge, I sometimes have to come back and read it, and read it – but I do understand, and I feel so clearly what he has observed through his eyes and in his emotion.  That’s how it is with one of Williams’ poems I’ve selected for this post, view of a lake.  I read this and I’m twelve or thirteen years old again, me and ‘chook’ Richards with our bikes abandoned, jumping off the side of the hospital bridge into high tide water with cars rattling over loose wooden planks.
 
view of a lake
(William Carlos Williams 1883 - 1963)
 
from a
highway below a face
of rock
 
too recently blasted
to be overgrown
with grass or fern:
 
Where a
waste of cinders
slopes down to
 
the railroad and
the lake
stand three children
 
beside the weed-grown
chassis
of a wrecked car
 
immobile in a line
facing the water
To the left a boy
 
in falling off
blue overalls
Next to him a girl
 
in a grimy frock
And another boy
They are intent
 
watching something
below ----?
A section sign:  50
 
on an iron post
planted
by a narrow concrete
 
service hut
(to which runs
a sheaf of wires)
 
in the universal
cinders beaten
into crossing paths
 
to form the front yard
of a frame house
at the right
 
that looks
to have been flayed
Opposite
 
remains a sycamore
in leaf
Intently fixed
 
the three
with straight backs
ignore
 
the stalled traffic
all eyes
toward the water

Following from my poem, On Maitland Road, I look for the dude who stands in the doorway of his rental, still on Maitland Road.  In a quick glimpse I try to sum up what I see, what I feel and what I think – then I develop it; yeah, that’s something like how I saw it …………

2012.  I take the same route home from work every day, for three years.  And there’s a ‘dude’ lives in a rental on Maitland Road.  I’ve told you about him before.  Thanks Dude.
 
still on Maitland Road
 
I turn right
into Maitland Road
and,
I’m looking for the Dude
sits in his doorway
that opens
straight on the traffic,
and, bang!
there he is,
and he’s working
on a sixteen, twenty inch
pedestal fan,
right there on the footpath,
business men
sucking in their lunch guts
trying to snig by,
not to get tangled up
in the grease
and
crap off the fan,
women detouring strollers
out on the street,
inquisitive toddlers
frozen
in mid lick
of their ice-creams,
eyes and mouths open
to a never before happening,
brains over-loaded
with explanation,
heads oscillating
on slow speed,
from the Dude
back to the mum,
and the Dude’s
got the fan bent over
in an under-arm hold
like you would put
on a Latin dance partner,
and you can see
by the way he’s working
the six inch shifter, and
the multi-grips,
that the Dude senses
a hot summer coming on.
                                    J. O. White
 

Monday, 28 January 2013

Observation of everyday life.

 
The American poet William Carlos Williams was one person who made a successful career out of writing poetry while at the same time practicing medicine as a local doctor (see, you can write and work!).  What I like about some of his poems is the observation of everyday circumstances and ordinary life that he captures with a minimum amount of words – brevity – less is best; write four words – delete three.  I believe it was poets like Williams and T.S. Eliot who introduced a style of free verse and imagery that was then picked up by others, giving us the modern forms we know today.  Williams’ influence on me is an awakening to ‘quick observation’ – observation of the simple unfolding of events around me in everyday life – like a snapshot, still-frame from a camera; bang, captured a scene, and this is what it says.  Williams’ The Sun Bathers is such a snapshot.  That poem was taken so long ago, but I can still see the image clearly in old black and white, clearer than if it had been captured in a photograph.
                                                         The Sun Bathers
(William Carlos Williams 1883 - 1963)
 
A tramp thawing out
on a doorstep
against an east wall
Nov, 1, 1933:
 
a young man begrimed
and in an old
army coat
wriggling and scratching
 
while a fat negress
in a yellow-house window
nearby
leans out and yawns
 
into the fine weather

In my poem, On Maitland Road, I’m aware of Williams’ quick observation (except I get to repeat this quick observation over many days).  The subject is everyday circumstance.  It is what I experience and I want to capture it like a still photograph.  I’ve still got things to learn about cropping and reducing the image.
 

2009.   I travel the same route home every day.  People crammed into the suburbs live pretty ordinary lives.
 

                                                   On Maitland Road

 

There’s a dude
lives on Maitland Road
right on Maitland Road,
the front door of his rental
opens out
on pedestrians
pushing along the sidewalk,
that’s all there is,
a building front
and a door
with graffiti all over it,
he must hear their permanent pen markers
working on his door
middle of the night,
and drunks urinating
and whores getting screwed, and
dogs sniffing
and covering scent,
traffic up each other’s arse,
braking, engine revs,
tyre hum squealing in the wet,
I’ve seen the dude
I look for him every afternoon
soon as I turn right
into Maitland Road,
he’s there,
two door’s down,
sitting on a kitchen chair
propped up in his doorway,
the building fa├žade
facing directly into the afternoon sun,
4pm daylight saving time,
you can feel the heat
coming off everything covered in concrete,
radiating out of dull coloured walls,
the dude sits like he’s posing
in the front row
of an academy graduation photo –
class of 84,
except he’s got a can of beer in his hand,
and his face is flushed,
that’s his thing,
sitting direct on the footpath
watching the fucking parade
pass by.
 
I don’t get to see
inside the rental,
I don’t think
anybody does,
it’s a black cavern,
right on Maitland Road.
                                                                                     J. O. White

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Kipling - Naval ballads.

When you look at poems that Rudyard Kipling wrote, you realise poetry is continually evolving and reflects the social beliefs of it’s time.  Kipling definitely captured the Queen Victoria age of Empire, solid Christianity and the English ‘gentleman’ made up of courage, dignity and sacrifice.  But now his work is such a thing of the past.  Who would try to write in his style and content (who could write like him, not having experienced the Victorian age)?  I must admit I’ve used Kipling as an influence for some of my attempts.  One Kipling poem from which I borrow the first line and rhythm is, The Ballad of the Clampherdown.  This is a great naval poem that you can recite.  It tells of a passing era and tradition – sailors learning to fight with cutlasses and putting ships alongside to board in hand to hand combat.  I believe the Clampherdown was the last British ship in which the crew boarded with cutlasses.  It’s a long poem but here it is complete:
 
The Ballad of the ‘Clampherdown’
(Rudyard Kipling 1865 - 1936)
It was our war-ship ‘Clampherdown’
Would sweep the Channel clean,
Wherefore she kept her hatches close
When the merry Channel chops arose,
     To save the bleached marine.
 
She had one bow-gun of a hundred ton,
     And a great stern-gun beside ;
They dipped their noses deep in the sea,
They racked their stays and stanchions free
     In the wash of the wind-whipped tide.
 
It was our war-ship ‘Clampherdown’
     Fell in with a cruiser light
That carried the dainty Hotchkiss gun
And a pair o’ heels wherewith to run
     From the grip of a close-fought fight.
 
She opened fire at seven miles -
As ye shoot at a bobbing cork -
And once she fired and twice she fired,
Till the bow-gun drooped like a lily tired
     That lolls upon the stalk.
 
‘Captain, the bow-gun melts apace,
     ‘the deck-beams break below,
‘Twere well to rest for an hour or twain,
And botch the shattered plates again.’
     And he answered, ‘Make it so.’
 
She opened fire within the mile –
     As ye shoot at the flying duck –
And the great stern-gun shot fair and true,
With the heave of the ship, to the stainless
     Blue,
And the great stern-turret stuck.
 
‘Captain, the turret fills with steam,
     ‘The feed –pipes burst below –
‘You can hear the hiss of the helpless ram,
‘You can hear the twisted runners jam.’
     And he answered, ‘Turn and go!’
 
It was our war-ship ‘Clampherdown’,
      And grimly did she roll;
Swung round to take the cruiser’s fire
As the White Whale faces the Thresher’s ire
      When they war by the frozen pole.
 
‘Captain, the shells are falling fast,
      ‘And faster still fall we;
‘And it is not meet for English stock
To bide in the heart of an eight-day clock
      The death they cannot see’.
 
‘Lie down, lie down, my bold A.B.,
      ‘We drift upon her beam;
‘We dare not ram, for she can run;
‘And dare ye fire another gun,
      ‘And die in the peeling steam?’
 
It was our war-ship ‘Clampherdown’
      That carried an armour-belt;
But fifty feet at stern and bow
Lay bare as the paunch of the purser’s sow,
      To the hail of the Nordenfeldt.
 
‘Captain, they hack us through and through;
      ‘The chilled steel bolts are swift!
‘We have emptied the bunkers in open sea,
‘Their shrapnel bursts where our coal should be,’
      And he answered, ‘Let her drift.’
 
It was our war-ship ‘Clampherdown,’
      Swung round upon the tide,
Her two dumb guns glared south and north,
And the blood and the bubbling steam ran forth,
      And she ground the cruiser’s side.
 
‘Captain, they cry, the fight is done,
      ‘They bid you send your sword.’
And he answered, ‘Grapple her stern and bow,
‘They have asked for the steel.  They shall have it
      Now;
‘Out cutlasses and board!’
 
It was our war-ship ‘Clampherdown,’
      Spewed up four hundred men;
And the scalded stokers yelped delight,
As they rolled in the waist and heard the fight
      Stamp o’er their steel-walled pen.
 
They cleared the cruiser end to end,
      From conning-tower to hold.
They fought as they fought in Nelson’s fleet;
They were stripped to the waist, they were bare
      to the feet,
As it was in the days of old.
 
It was the sinking ‘Clampherdown’
      Heaved up her battered side –
And carried a million pounds in steel,
To the cod and the corpse-fed conger-eel,
      And the scour of the Channel tide.
 
It was the crew of the ‘Clampherdown’
      Stood out to sweep the sea,
On a cruiser won from an ancient foe
As it was in the days of long ago,
      And as it still shall be.
 
I’m thankful to Kipling for showing me the way to a rather lengthy naval ballad I wrote, Fate of the Konigsberg.  This is another experience where finding the first line was a breakthrough for me – the rest flowed and I could complete the poem in a matter of days.  I was fascinated by this story when I did some research on the ships my wife’s grandfather (Fred) served in during his time in the Royal Navy (he served in both World Wars).  I’ve got a copy of his service record and a few old photographs of matelots out in Africa, socialising with white ladies and eating watermelon from the back of a flat-bed truck – then war broke out.  Fred was on HMS Astraea – that led me to the story of the German cruiser SMS Konigsberg and how she was blockaded and scuttled herself up the Rufiji River.  We hear a lot about the German pocket battleship Graf Spee and the battle of the River Plate (1939), but little do we know that a similar event occurred twenty odd years earlier in WW1.  Thankyou Rudyard Kipling:
 
2007.  Linda’s grandfather, Fred Johnson served on HMS Astraea which was an aging cruiser on the East Africa station at the start of WW1.  SMS Konigsberg was a more modern cruiser based at Dar es Salaam capital of German East Africa.  Konigsberg’s fate was due mainly to lack of good maintenance facilities available to the Germans.  It is an historic event that shows the role maintenance can play in tipping the balance of win or lose; succeed or fail.
 
                                             Fate of the Konigsberg
 
It was the German cruiser Konigsberg put on a turn of speed,
When she saw the City of Winchester steaming into the First World War,
Gave chase for the coal which she soon retrieved,
Ere The City was sent to the Gulf of Aden floor.
 
But the coal burns quick in the Konigsberg and soon she must take more,
From the crew of the collier Somali somewhere on the open sea,
Where Astraea waits and the Pegasus hunts to even up a score,
Between a willing foe and aging ships of the British Admiralty.
 
Not only coal but a home free port was the German cruisers need,
But panic reigns in Dar es Salaam where Astraea’s shells now fall,
And decisions made give the ship no heed,
Sink a barge to block the port entry becomes the harbour master’s call.
 
Loss of home is a bitter blow for the Konigsberg to share,
As Captain Looff along with his crew search the African coast for shelter,
Which they find in the form of a jungle lair,
Five miles up where the waters shelve in the Rufiji River delta.
 
The Konigsberg hides but her killer urge in days must be relieved,
So she slips one night from her fetid lair to run with the moon and stars,
And is drawn by bow to an ambush scene the killer can’t believe,
Pegasus tied to her berthing lines in the Port of Zanzibar.
 
It was the German cruiser Konigsberg stood off ten thousand yards,
Brought the barrels of her four inch guns on the British ship to bear,
And Pegasus sitting calmly still completely caught off guard,
Is never a match for a killer rogue hunting from a jungle lair.
 
With duty done bold Captain Looff plans escape for his ship and crew,
So the course he sets is around the Cape and on to Germany,
Then death rattled up from the engine room and the Konigsberg captain knew,
The plan is doomed we are condemned escape will now not be.
 
Away to the north race three fine ships best of the British kind,
The Weymouth, Chatham and Dartmouth too led by Drury-Lowe,
With orders fresh to shape due south the Konigsberg to find,
And when she is found to act with haste and crush the dreaded foe.
 
It is cunning keeps the Konigsberg out of her searcher’s reach,
Safe in the delta draped in vines acting out repairs,
Until Lowe brings Cutler in his flying boat hired from a Durbin beach,
To fly the Rufiji River mouth, find the German from the air.
 
Though Cutler is a daring man and the Curtiss a top machine,
Neither was ready for the deadly reach of the guns of the German raider,
Or the Konigsberg crew who took fine aim from off the starboard beam,
Shot out of the sky, the plane is destroyed and the pilot taken prisoner.
 
Days become months for the Konigsberg as sailors count them by,
Trapped in a land where biting flies and fever death abounds,
Each man waits in the stifling heat the moment he must die,
For their ship in the river so far up is almost run aground.
 
A fate is planned for the Konigsberg across the world in Malta,
Where sits the river gunboat Mersey and her sister ship Severn,
Two shallow drafted monitors made fit for work in the Delta,
Now taken in tow and on their way with a wish for safe return.
 
July at the end of a long snail tow and the Konigsberg lookouts sight,
Two black shapes that appear to be off the point Gengeni Island,
The news sweeps through the German crew and their captain makes to fight,
Remember men the Fatherland, of us, our ship, and all that we have planned.
 
When morning comes the ships engage their cordite burning hot,
Guns crews toil in darkened holds with fear and mighty strength,
Ere the Konigsberg in due course takes a fatal ranging shot,
And then the monitors make their gunfire walk along the cruisers length.
 
It was the German cruiser Konigsberg settled on the river bed,
When she sunk herself with a scuttling charge preference to surrender,
Abandoned yet still battle proud for the merry chase she’d led,
Whereupon the British raised their caps on high,
cheered death of the German raider.
                                                                                            J. O. White