Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Wednesday, 28 January 2015


England Expects…

dead flowers

opium words
incensed like lambs
they to war go

acting out
pubic farmgirls
innate tensions

clinging corpses
hold guns like dolls

dirty bandages
bloody bits of men

bone white cross


2 May 1977

I only subscribed to one poetry magazine in the seventies. It was called Poetry Information and it never published poetry. By that I mean you couldn’t send your poems to it. It only published articles on poetry. And I loved it. It was exactly what I needed in my late teens and early twenties. They talked about poetry. Long essays on the likes of Pound and Basil Bunting (the whole of issue #19 was devoted to him). But the one that really got me was a 1976 article by Tom Leonard entitled ‘The Locust Tree in Flower, and why it had difficulty flowering in Britain’ which introduced Poetry Informationme to the poetry of the American William Carlos Williams. At school all I’d been given to read was English poetry; English, not British. A visiting student teacher read us something by Ferlinghetti once—‘Sometime During Eternity’ if memory serves right—but that was it. No Whitman. No Frost. No Dickinson.

The ‘Locust Tree’ Leonard’s referring to a poem entitled ‘The Locust Tree in Flower’. Two versions exist. You can read them both here but the one Leonard focused on was the second version, the streamlined one. Having read a great deal of Williams since I can tell you it’s a one-off. And it captivated me. I’d read nothing remotely like it. So shortly after I had a go and produced two poems. This is the first one and it was published in Street Games and Other Poems. The editor also fixed a typo: in the original I had ‘insensed’ and I recall a letter from another editor wondering if it was a verb coined from insensate. It wasn’t; it was a spelling mistake.

I know a lot of young poetry struggle to find their own voice and wind up emulating their heroes. I really never did that. There’s this poem and ‘Yesterday’ and then I dropped this approach and went back to what I was doing. This is the last poem too where you can see me being affected by Wilfred Owen’s work. I don’t think I wrote a war poem again for thirty years.

The bone-white cross comes from The Exorcist.


Gwil W said...

Lambs to the slaughter
Behind them the mEn
with the BANANAS.

Gwil W said...


Jim Murdoch said...

Sorry, Gwilliam, but you've lost me there. Is the capital E in 'mEn' important?

Gwil W said...

Sorry Jim, that E was typo. I refer to the Banana Republic mentality. Those who start wars should be made to have a banana symbol on their flag.

Jim Murdoch said...

Ah, I see, Gwilliam. I wonder how many wouldn't have a banana then? According to this article Britain has only NOT invaded 22 of the world's counties.

vito pasquale said...

Jim - The first poet to have an influence on me (we’re talking 40+ years ago) was e. e. cummings and it was his my sweet old etcetera that I recall reading first.

I’ve grown up thinking one can’t go wrong writing an anti-war poem that uses only lowercase letters. Yours is an excellent example.

A number of poems about war seem to be in my folders, including the one I’m fairly certain is the first of mine you read. It was titled “A Memorial Day Conversation With My Father.” It was published in 2009 on a site called “The Big Table” or something. . . which has disappeared.

So it goes.

Jim Murdoch said...

Cummings bothered me, Vito. I didn’t understand his rules and so I didn’t know how to decode his poems. Now I realise that he made up ‘rules’ as he went along and there’s no grand plan. That always annoyed me but I had read him by this time and my own experiments with odd punctuations I believe I picked up from him. But I’ve never really been much into anything that looked too avant-garde. They fascinate me but for me it’s a matter of balancing the pros and the cons and I’ve always felt that what Cummings did detracted more than it added. I read an explanation—by someone else, not Cummings—of his poem ‘mOOn Over tOwns mOOn’ saying that the capital O’s were there to suggest the full moon and I remember thinking: But what’s wrong with the word ‘moon’? Doesn’t it suggest a moon? Not very tolerant back then and I’d like to think I’m better now but not a lot if I’m being honest.

I’ve probably only written about a half-dozen anti-war poems even counting the juvenilia. The poetry of Wilfred Owen really struck a chord with me. Mostly they’re on the naïve side. I realise this now as an adult that it doesn’t matter that war’s wrong and killing’s wrong. There are other people whose ideals believe that it’s fine and dandy to war with us and that their war even has the divine stamp of approval. These people cannot be reasoned with. They need to be fought. Thankfully I’ve never been fit enough to get drafted so my ideals have never been tested. I do remember at the time of the Falklands Conflict—before it became an actual war—the attitude of some of the young men around me: “Oh, yes, let’s go to war and kill every Argentinian we see.” A week before most of them would’ve said the Falklands was an archipelago off the coast of Scotland possibly near Shetland or down by Arran. I thought: Did none of you do ANY history at school?

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