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

Wednesday, 18 February 2015



Driver shifts into top and accelerates
as if time were dying on a fast fuse.

The lights
of the approaching cars are
blurs in the night.

Blurs passing blurs in the night.

Worlds of horizons
pass under their wheels.

30 April 1979

I’ve never regarded myself as much of a nature poet. Whereas I was inspired by the poems of Larkin and Owen we studied at school those by Ted Hughes that were included in the syllabus did little for me. The poems we ended up covering were, I have since discovered, all from Lupercal bar one, ‘The Jaguar’ which is from his first collection, The Hawk in the Rain. The much-anthologised later poems—‘Pike’, ‘Hawk Roosting’, ‘View of a Pig’—have never excited me and I’m not sure I’ve read anything by him after 1960; maybe one or two from Crow: From the Life and the Songs of the Crow but definitely nothing after 1970.

‘The Jaguar’ was the exception. It impressed me although not as much as like Larkin’s ‘Mr Bleaney’. Perhaps because both are about being trapped and I got that. The poem is five stanzas long and describes a visit to a zoo. The apes, the parrots and snakes are glossed over; that’s not why we’re here. We’ve come to see the jaguar:

On a short fierce fuse. Not in boredom—
The eye satisfied to be blind in fire,
By the bang of blood in the brain deaf the ear—
He spins from the bars, but there’s no cage to him

More than to the visionary his cell:
His stride is wildernesses of freedom:
The world rolls under the long thrust of his heel.
Over the cage floor the horizons come.

In 1954 Ted Hughes worked in the kitchens at Regent’s Park Zoo. Out of his window, in one of the transit cages, lived a jaguar and so he had time to observe him. The following year Larkin moved from Belfast to Hull to take up the position of librarian at Hull University; at first he stayed in a boarding house exactly as described in ‘Mr Bleaney’. They may have been contemporaries but they were very Ludd's Milldifferent men. Larkin, in a private letter (in pubic they were cordial enough), referred to Hughes as a ‘boring old monolith, no good at all—not a single solitary bit of good’. Hughes, at first at least, genuinely admired Larkin; later he complained that various newspapers “have prostrated themselves and finally deified” him. As different as chalk and cheese they were, nevertheless, quintessentially English poets: Larkin inspired by England’s “dark Satanic mills”, Hughes by its “green and pleasant land”. The narrator in ‘Mr Bleaney’ lies in what is, in effect, his coffin. The jaguar, on the other hand, paces his cell. I could relate to both.

You can see where I’ve pinched from Hughes in ‘Driver’. I actually thought I’d been more obvious—if you’d asked me I would’ve sworn I’d borrowed a complete line—but it seems not and that pleases me. Suffice to say it was a poem that stayed with me because here I am several years after leaving school still affected by it.

In 1979 I would’ve had my driving licence. Ironically by this time I no longer needed to drive because I’d moved away from home and lived literally across the road from my office but I did miss the car. Like most young lads I had lead boots and I have to be honest, I was lucky to reach eighteen. But I did love the impression of freedom that came with a set of car keys.

‘Driver’ first appeared in Ludd’s Mill No.18.


Kass said...

There's nothing wrong with using a word or two from another poem as a prompt for your own idea.

"Time dying on a fast fuse" is so good for the speed aspect of this poem.

Worlds? of horizons. Hmmm...? I'm still thinking about it, so it might be good.

Jim Murdoch said...

I don’t really have any problems borrowing a couple of words here and there, Kass. I do it all the time with my prose. There’s an entire sentence from an early episode of Star Trek in my first novel assuming I’ve not edited it so often it’s no longer recognisable. I’ve no idea what the sentence was but I do remember it was something Kirk said. Every word we use has been used by someone else. I’m always surprised when watching TV and a certain word of phrase jumps out at me and often one I’ve heard before but at that moment, in that place, it suddenly takes on a significance it never did before. When I decided to post this poem I was sure I’d included an entire line from ‘The Jaguar’; that’s how I remembered it. Maybe I did in a first draft.

vito pasquale said...

Jim - it’s so true that for many of us as teens, driving provides that first taste of what seems like real freedom. I’m sure it’s even better if we actually have somewhere to go! At one point I’d written a poem titled, "Aiming For Squirrels," which attempted to give that aimlessness: nowhere to go but wanting to get there fast, a purpose. (Thankfully, no squirrels were harmed.)

The “Worlds of horizons” phrase was recently used by one of the astronauts on the International Space Station to describe how rich with possibility life on earth can be. It’s an interesting and unique turn of phrase.

This poem, finished a couple of days after “Untitled” from your book, “This Is Not About What You Think,” is made all the richer (to me) by its connection in time to that poem. Those blurs passing blurs in the night come even more alive.

Jim Murdoch said...

My father started teaching me to drive just before I was seventeen, Vito, which, here in the UK, is when you can apply for your first provisional licence. I failed my driving test the first two times I sat it. I suspect part of the reason was I was driving daily after that with either my dad or someone else with a full driving licence in the front passenger seat. So I developed bad habits quickly. I wasn’t a bad driver; I was just like everyone else who’d been driving for years. When I started learning my dad had a Ford Capri so basically a sports car and a bit flash for the time when everyone else was driving wee boxes. He wasn’t an especially fast driver but as far as I was concerned the maximum speed limit on any road was the minimum speed limit.

When he retired he gave me his car—he’d moved onto a mini estate by then—and I got to ferry them wherever they needed to go but the car was mine and quite often my sister would turn up at my door wanting to go for a drive. Like me she felt trapped and getting in a car and heading off somewhere we’d never been felt like freedom even if we knew we had to return to our normal lives a few hours later.

It is interesting looking at the dates of the poems. I churned them out at a fair old rate back then. I miss that. I typed in that phrase “World of horizons” and discovered something interesting though. A copy of my blog at Odd. Wonder what that’s all about?

Gwil W said...

What is that all about. I just looked Jim and it is indeed a copy of your blog.

Jim Murdoch said...

I’ve no idea what it’s all about, Gwilliam.. I can see no one to contact to ask about it but it’s doing no harm if it’s doing me no good. Odd though, Sunday’s post isn’t there yet. Wonder how it works.

Gwil W said...

How it works? There's a guy called Edward Snowden who might know.

Gwil W said...

Maybe the title of your blog The Truth About Lies has something to do with it. Maybe their needle in a haystack search engine trawled you.

Gwil W said...

I experimented with typing the title of your blog into my blog's 'search this blog' search box and got 30 or more hits, none of which entries contained, as far as I know, the title of your blog or even a similar phrase. One was just a simple haiku, but it touched on Vaticanistic things . Now that's odd because I had an impression of an Italian touch in your doppelgänger blog.

Jim Murdoch said...

Italian, eh, Gwilliam? I didn’t pick up on that. I could report them but they’re not doing me any harm. I actually quite like their layout. Been a while since I changed mine. So many other things to do. I see Sunday’s post is not up on the cloned site.

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