Category Archives: inspiration

Calling the Poem: 4. ‘Of Gods’

What are the gods? Are they true? Fake? Wild? Tame?
They are in you, and/or you are in them.
They are the joy that apes feel in the storm –
They are the hearth that keeps the caveman warm –
Societies the shaman’s dreams create –
They are Fertility, Love, Hunting, War,
And tools, pots, crops that clutch the god-robe hem,
And Trickster’s tales and lies, the Path, the Door…
Conflicting aspects flesh the human frame,
Demand obedience to some inner Law
To which no individual can conform.
Changing and arguing, they made Rome great
Before the MonoFossilizers came.

*****

It’s difficult for me to express the comfortable balance I have between belief and disbelief. On the one hand, something is the Creator and Sustainer of All the Worlds – in rough numbers, a billion galaxies of a billion stars each, and who knows how many planets with billions of life forms. On the other hand, all the stories of Heaven and Hell, of Odin and Hel, are such simplistic preliterate nonsense that I have to be an atheist. On the third hand, that preliterate sensibility is who we are, how we evolved, and is the key to a holistic understanding of oneself. Therefore I try to pay respectful attention to the simplistic preliterate nonsense that wanders into my consciousness. “Primitive” religion is more useful than “advanced” religion because it is inchoate, formless, shifting, full of alternatives, ambiguous – and that appears closer to the forces that underlie Material Reality than rigid “advanced” religion can manage… and it is also closer to the unconscious that communicates with you through dream and intuition.

But as for exactly what the gods are, and what their relationship to the underlying Creator of the Universe… who knows!

This semi-formal poem is the 4th of 15 in the ‘Calling the Poem’ chapbook from Snakeskin.

Photo: “Greek Gods, take your pick” by dullhunk is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Calling the Poem: 3. ‘Self-Belief’

Can you handle the wild poem? Can you tame the thing, or kill?
The certainty, uncertainty, of writing as a skill,
The being told to “find your voice”, the crawling like an ant
Across the skin of Literature, that giant, to implant
Some token of your individuality, some pin
To jab into the giant’s vast and ant-infested skin,
To make your mark by scrawling words, tattoos, to claim a win…
You can’t succeed alone against such odds!
But there are gods…

*****

This is the third poem in the ‘Calling the Poem’ chapbook sequence in Snakeskin. The question of self-belief can be difficult for any artist – given the thousands of years of recorded paintings, sculptures, poems, music, etc, how can you know that your tiny ant-like efforts will be enough to make a mark in the world? Can you hope to succeed? The choice might seem to be between the hubris of Yes and the defeatism of No – but you have a secret ally, if you pay attention: the Muse. If you are self-aware and mindful, if you stay alert for scraps from the unconscious, the dream-world including daydreams, if you are respectful enough to try to capture the little hints you are given, then the Muse (She, or He, or Them, Yourself, your unconscious, God or Gods or Angels, however you visualise this force and process) will provide you with insights and material you never knew you could access.

Your Muse is available to you… if you stop and listen, remain open and respectful of the unexpected. Again, the learning and the workloads imposed by others tend to act against this attitude. Take heart from T.S. Eliot: “a poet ought to know as much as will not encroach upon his necessary receptivity and necessary laziness.” That was not a flippant comment of his: it goes to the heart of learning to work with your Muse.

Photo: 8/17/09 Houston – Fire Ant Bite by stefan.klocek used under OpenVerse license

Calling the Poem: 2. ‘Awareness of the Mood’

The possibility before the poem, the mood,
Is premonition more than vision: loath
To admit, like the repressed and skewed
Response on seeing god-like demon, or young witch…
Not even genitals’ light twitch,
But mere awareness of that energy, potential thrust,
That tightness in the chest,
A heart-tight feeling of both loss and lust.
Then don’t ignore that feeling, for you’re blessed:
A poem is lurking in your undergrowth.

*****

This series of poems, ‘Calling the Poem’, is about the process of writing poetry – an art for which some people appear to have an affinity, an intangible ability. My sense is that such creativity is available to all humans, but requires a certain mindset, an openness to the unconscious, an interest in unplanned internal upwellings and dreams and fortuitous images; in other words, it is not available to those who plan and schedule their lives rigorously, who meticulously follow the teachings imposed from the outside by others.

The process starts before the poem begins to appear. I find it starts with a mood that feels like… like a mixture of curiosity (whether filled with hope or despair), and of awareness of the vastness of the world (whether manifested in a sunset or an ant), and of some small but significant personal power even in the presence of the forces of the universe, and of that formless twitch of yearning desire when glimpsing an unconnected but desirable object for the first time.

My sense is that when you find yourself in this mood – and I trust you’re aware of having experienced it – you are entering a state of receptivity to the messages that your unconscious wishes to share with the conscious you; and those messages will come as creative images, or dreams, or ideas, or words and phrases. But they will only come if you are receptive to them. So honour the mood: relax, listen, observe, and be prepared to express in rough draft whatever occurs to you. The mood is not the creativity; but if you accept the mood, the creative communication of the unconscious can occur.

Photo: “14. Premonition of Concusia 2009” by Anne Marie Grgich is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Calling the Poem: 1. ‘Invocation’

O Odin,
Living outside me or within,
Share your mead of poetry you earned in night’s delight,
Spare me from the mead you shitted out in flight and fright.
By Thought and Memory, I swear
A poem needs your care,
For poems… magic poems… are nothing,
and come from your nowhere…

A poem comes in flurries:
A phrase that catches, sticks,
A rhyme that matches
With some thought that dog-worries,
And a verse that clicks.

*****

Just to be clear, I’m no more a believer in the Norse gods than I am in Yoruba, Hindu or Christian deities. Also, I’m not a white nationalist. But mythology has a couple of uses for me: pure enjoyment of the tangled tales; a way of looking at historical mindsets; and a tool for trying to communicate with the unconscious, i.e. to let the creative unconscious funnel ideas and images to the conscious mind.

What I do believe is that invoking the Muse, or a god, is a way of telling your unconscious that you are receptive to its comments… it is a fishing expedition, and you never know what you’re going to get. But I believe it is a system that works (sometimes), and I don’t practise another. (Various drugs are alleged to get results, too.)

So a few years ago I set out to describe the process that I follow to try to bring poetry to me. The result was a series of 15 poems, published by Snakeskin as an e-chapbook in January 2017. It was available as a free download from Snakeskin No. 236, and it should be again, when the Snakeskin archives are again operational. I named it ‘Calling the Poem’.

‘Calling the Poem’ starts by invoking the Muse – male, female, human, animal, I think the Muse can be however you choose to imagine it. But the Muse should be a dream-image, for the Muse, the unconscious, is as likely to communicate through dream as anywhere. Odin is a good figure, with his ravens of Thought and Memory who give him the news of the world, his eight-legged horse Sleipnir who can carry him through all the worlds, his ability to shapeshift and prophesy, the sacrifices he made to obtain wisdom such as gouging out an eye to put in Mimir’s well, and of course the mead of poetry that he stole and disburses as he feels.

And so the first poem – somewhat rough-hewn, semi-formal – is the invocation addressed to Odin.

Photo: “Odin on Sleipnir” by Hornbeam Arts is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.

Potcake Poet’s Choice: George Simmers, ‘Strip’

The pub’s old-fashioned, and is somewhat seedy.
The clientele, all male, look lumpish, needy,
And when the stripper comes, their eyes are greedy.

A smile fixed firm upon her painted face,
She starts gyrating with a teasing grace,
Smoothly undressing at a languorous pace.

She struts through routine choreography
Removes her bra, and lets her breasts go free
The silent men watch her impassively.

And still they stare unmoving as she slips
The golden panties from her mobile hips,
Pauses a sec, then sensually unzips

Her smooth pink skin, and flings it open wide, 
To show the flesh and beating heart inside.
Her audience observes all this, dead-eyed.

The flesh from bone she now expertly rends,
And now it’s just her skeleton bops and bends
Seductively until the music ends.

Silence. She picks up flesh and skin, and drawers
So often dropped before on grubby floors.
The men are stirred to offer mild applause.

She dresses quickly, picks up a pint glass,
And then begins the customary pass
Among the men, who goggle at her arse,

Say nothing, but poke fivers in the pot
Because that is expected. They do not
Even try to meet her eye, or speak of what

They’ve seen, but, weekly ritual complete,
Get up, and, bodies drooping with defeat,
They head out to the grey indifferent street.

George Simmers writes: “It must be thirty years ago that I was in a run-down district of some industrial city, looking for a pub that would sell me a pint and a sandwich. I passed one with a sign that said ‘Stripper: 1.30’ and I thought: ‘Why not?’
The audience was very much as described in the poem, though the performance was less extreme. It was a fairly melancholy occasion, and one that stayed in my memory. It was a long while ago, and the pot that day probably filled with £1 notes (maybe even ten bob) rather than fivers, but I thought £5 would be the appropriate donation today – if lunchtime pub strippers still exist. They’re an endangered species in the North of England, I gather, and lockdown has probably killed them off completely.
I wrote this in triplets because the first three lines came to me together, and I thought I’d see how well I could continue. I feel the form somehow suits the subject, or at any rate is better than couplets, which tend to be faster-moving. The triplets seem (to me at least) sluggish and a bit unusual.
I dimly remember years ago seeing an animated film in which a stripper goes on to unzip her skin, so to that extent the poem is not original. But it was the deliberately unimpressed audience I really wanted to write about, and making them still stolid even after watching the impossible made my point, I hoped.
This is one of a series of poems that I’ve written over the past couple of years, telling stories that are extreme or somewhat gothic. I may get some of them together into a short collection later in the year.”

George Simmers used to be a teacher; now he spends much of his time researching literature written during and after the First World War. He has edited Snakeskin since 1995. It is probably the oldest-established poetry zine on the Internet. His work appears in several Potcake Chapbooks.
https://greatwarfiction.wordpress.com/
http://www.snakeskinpoetry.co.uk/

Photo: “luchavavoom stripper” by ourcommon is marked with CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Poem: ‘The Entertainer’s Servant’

See the violinist
blocking, enchanting passing crowds with his bowing
and watch some ragged child, the very thinnest,
with held-out cap through those crowds coming and going.

Or the organ grinder
haunting the emotions and memories of all,
his songs life’s bittersweetness’s reminder….
but it’s his well-dressed monkey makes the coins fall.

And more: the child’s home work handed in
though mostly done by mummy;
and more: the wisecracks bandied in,
seemingly by the ventriloquist’s dummy…

This is the poet’s story:
somewhere some unseen Maker
wrings from a wild wand
magnificence, sadness, glory…
while the mere poet capers,
postures, and holds out a hand.

All of which is merely a complicated rumination on not knowing where poetry comes from. It feels like the initial impulse and the key words come from outside, from some muse or god of poetry… and the poet is merely a puppet: observed, apparently autonomous, but not the true artist.

This poem was published in The Road Not Taken: The Journal of Formal Poetry. It may not be as formal as you would expect, but it has a steady structure complete with rhymes. I make no apologies for its inadequacies – the poem itself allows me to blame the unknown puppeteer.

Short poem: ‘Every Little Mammal’

Every little mammal
Likes a little cuddle.
Man or mouse or camel,
Life becomes a muddle
If there is no cuddle
For the simple mammal.

There’s nothing much to this little poem. Sometimes an awareness of a rhyme or near-rhyme sparks a thought, sometimes a random thought contains words that rhyme, or nearly… and if it’s not a large thought, it’s not a large poem. But it’s there all the same. And if you’re really lucky, you can find an appropriate illustration…

This short poem was originally published, like a hundred others of mine, in Snakeskin. Thanks for all of them, editor George Simmers!

“Illuminated Manuscript, Collection of poems (masnavi), A mouse, clutching the reins of a camel, at a stream of water, Walters Art Museum Ms. W.626, fol. 94b” by Walters Art Museum Illuminated Manuscripts is marked with CC0 1.0

Odd poem: Margaret Mead(?), ‘Hogamus Higamus’

Hogamus, higamus,
Man is polygamous;
Higamus, hogamus,
Woman’s monogamous.

I’m going to go out on a limb here and say this is American anthropologist Margaret Mead‘s creation. I have a clear memory of reading the story many years ago, probably in ‘Male and Female’, of her waking up in the middle of the night with an understanding of the secret of the universe. She grabbed the pencil and paper she kept by her bedside and wrote it down, then went back to the sleep. And in the morning she found she had written the above verse.

I was so certain it was Margaret Mead that I began this blog post about her before trying to check which book the verse came from and if I had the wording correct. (I last read Mead decades ago, and I leave beyond the reach of bookstores and real libraries.) To my frustration, all I can find in Google is attribution to William James, Dorothy Parker, Ogden Nash, Bertrand Russell, Alice Duer Miller… and Mrs. Amos Pinchot, who allegedly denied authorship. According to Quote Investigator, “The first known evidence of this unusual anecdote appeared in the Cleveland Plain Dealer newspaper in November 1939. The article ‘Thanksgiving Nightmare’ by Claire MacMurray (…) presented a supposed episode in the mental life of a person named Mrs. Amos Pinchot”, and tells the tale as I remember it. Mead’s ‘Male and Female’ came out in 1949, so (if the poem was in that book) it may have been referring to the Pinchot story, or it may have been something that had happened more than ten years previously to Mead, and she had shared the story and it had spread by itself.

The poem itself is brief, witty, amusing. It is rhythmic, repetitive, well rhymed, very catchy. Those are all excellent qualities. As for the content, it seems very 20th century: it gives the impression of having broken out of the conventions of society and church, and to be saying that the two sexes have differing needs for propagating themselves successfully. It is also 20th century in being simplistic. Where does the concept of serial monogamy fall? How does the rhyme relate to the LGBTQ+ members of society? The verse is definitely not comprehensive enough for the 21st century. But Margaret Mead was a controversial opener of cans of worms in the early 20th century, and that is where this little poem came from. Her obsession with gender roles and her self-deprecating humour make her a good candidate for its author.

And where the poem came from, apparently, was a communication from the unconscious, a gift to the dreamer. Always respect and preserve what the Muse offers you – who knows, a couple of lines of verse may be treasured and quoted for a hundred years!

“Sex and Temperament in three primitive societies” by your neighborhood librarian is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Poem: ‘Body Surfing’

Standing hip deep in the sea
Is nice in itself, but the reason for being there
Is the wait for a big wave.

A wave rising, a sudden tower
Smooth with devouring power
But one you can launch yourself forward in tune with – and
Hurtle ecstatic, unseeing and breathless
For as long as breath can hold
Through the water and up along over and onto the sand,
Sand thick in your hair, jammed in every fold,
Scraped, battered and rolled,
Triumphant, beached, deathless.

For this the saint prays,
For this the artist stares open-eyed,
For this the poet lets wounds bleed unstanched,
For this: this hope of being launched,
Controlled and uncontrolled
By what can’t be withstood or denied.

(Or else you could duck under the wall,
Let it pass over while you count three,
Hear the boom of its crested fall,
Yourself unbroken, inactive, safe, free.)

The sea is always there
Whether or not you are in it
Standing hip deep in it
Waiting for the next big wave.

Another of my “Is it formal?” poems. How much rhyme, rhythm and consistent structure do you need in order to consider it formal? Where is the cut-off between form and free? I don’t know. But I felt the alternation – between quiet waiting sections and the breathless rush of a good wave – was an appropriate expression in itself.

The poem was originally published in Snakeskin. Thanks, George Simmers!

“Superman body position while body surfing” by benaston is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Poem: ‘Spring Sprang’

Spring sprang full force with sudden storms then stopped.
Of which vertu engendred were the floods. We mopped.
Summer so wet dried into humid dank.
Sweat dripped, dried, dripped, and as we worked we stank.

This little poem was published in The Asses of Parnassus, where poems range from the short to the very short. Epigrams translated from the Greek or Latin alternate with modern insults and with odd little observations such as this post’s verse. It is a site for people who enjoy the occasional small random thought.

Why I wrote the poem, I don’t know. It probably started with the evocative sounds of “spring sprang”. Spring rains always bring Chaucer’s Prologue to my mind, whence the “of which vertu engendred” phrase. The whole thing is inconsequential, except that in one very important sense no creative act, not even the most trivial, is inconsequential: your creativity speaks to you, and your decision of whether or not to act on it determines many aspects of your life: not just your creative output, but your sense of satsfaction, your happiness, your mental balance, even your physical health. When the muse speaks, listen and act – the output doesn’t have to be significant, but keeping the lines of communication open to the inner and unconscious (but in several ways wiser and more knowledgeable) parts of yourself is supremely important. Call it the soul, if you want. Call it God, for all I care. There is something essential there: honour it. Your happiness, maybe even your life, depends on it.

OK, rant over. Back to other inconsequentialities.

Photo: “025457:Floods Central Library New Bridge Street Newcastle upon Tyne Unknown 1966” by Newcastle Libraries is marked with CC PDM 1.0