Terza Rima: Craft

I had no choice. This is my life. My trade
Was not in doubt. I was not pre-ordained
To take up hammer, chisel, brush or blade.
Long deskbound years I craved a craft; untrained,
Unmanned, I longed to work in wood or stone,
Thatch roofs, make flutes, shoe horses, hand-paint stained
Glass for cathedrals: I have never thrown
A pot (except in anger) wrought a wheel,
Felled timber, laid a hawthorn hedge or grown
A crop of winter wheat. Old ways appeal
To foolish heart, and fingers with no feel.

But what is this, if not a time-worn way
To work? Did men not celebrate in song
In times and tongues unknown – relive the day
Around the feasting fire? The ties are strong
Through generations. Just as some are stirred
By steel and brick, I know that I belong
To that long line who labour with the word.
Though fashion may, perhaps, not recognise
This métier, my voice remain unheard,
No company or office could devise
So grand a task, so glittering a prize.

And thus I find myself indentured, bound
Apprentice to the woods and fields: the sun
And scented air my salary; no pound
Pressed in my palm for pay when day is done.
My workshop is the world; my only tool
The pen; when ink hits paper, I’ve begun.
The iamb is my plumb-line, and the rule
Of rhyme and metre studied and obeyed.
I was enrolled in this exacting school
By higher powers. Their decision made,
I had no choice. This is my life, my trade.


As so often, I’m indebted to Thomas Davis, whose generous comments on a previous piece got me thinking about the whole notion of poetry as a craft. Haven’t tried the terza rima form for a while, and now I know why…the interlocking rhyme scheme (ABA BCB CDC, etc) can, in theory, go on forever, but for reasons that escape me now, I chose to do three stanzas, using a pair of ‘D’ rhymes to make the breaks. Drove me nearly demented, I can tell you. I don’t think it’s strictly necessary to start and finish with the same line, but it’s the kind of thing Robert Frost would have done, and that’s good enough for me. N.

Sonnet: Motley

Come, brand me fool: I will take no offence.
A motley coat is all that I aspire
To wear – no suit fits my uncommon sense –
The wild wind’s liberty my sole desire.
I have my charter, blow on whom I please
And speak my mind, unblushing, where I will.
I mock the world, not to insult or tease:
My jests medicinal, each barb a pill
To treat infection. What the wise ones call
Their sensible pursuits of status, wealth
And comfort, I’ll make light of; though it gall,
My folly is a physic for their health.
For if their Real World is sanity,
I’ll gladly live a fool, be mad – and free.


Lugubrious he may be, but Jaques is one of my favourite characters in probably my favourite Shakespeare play, As You Like It. This start-the-week sonnet is inspired by his famous speech in Act II, which follows his first encounter with the equally splendid jester, Touchstone. To my mind, we poets are the sane ones: it’s the rest of the world that’s crazy. And if anyone knows where one can get hold of a motley coat these days, do let me know! N.

Riddle IV

I’m everywhere and nowhere, constantly
In motion. There’s an air of mystery
About me; where I come from, where I’m bound;
They say that if you whistle, I’ll be found,
But though I may be harnessed, ridden, named
And farmed (or even trapped) I shan’t be tamed.
I will submit to touch and taste and smell;
You’ll hear me, too, but you will never tell
My whereabouts by looking; all you’ll see
Is where I pass, by weathercock or tree.
When I am One you’ll hardly know I’m there;
But when I’m Twelve, and fully grown, I’ll tear
The slates from roofs, bring trees down in the wood;
Yet I’ll be doing someone, somewhere good;
For when I have expended all my power
I’ll waft a seed or pollinate a flower.
I’m fickle, always rushing high to low,
My soft caress becomes a sudden blow.
Sometimes I’ll turn against you; in your face
I’ll slow your bicycle to walking-pace
And force your yacht or sailing ship to tack:
But you’ll be flying with me at your back.


Maybe too easy. But it’s been a tough day.


By day, I do not see them. No; they wait
Till midnight’s passed and silence lies like snow
Then come for me, on black, slow-beating wings
Like hunting birds. Yet there’s no bird that sings
Out in the wood with their look in his eye,
Or power to snatch me from my dreams to lie
In this suspended, caught-between-worlds state.

What thoughts are these that haunt the bounds between
Sweet rest and wakefulness? For even though
I run to distant hills or silver shore
They always track me down. No bolted door
Can keep them out, no wine or whiskey keep
Their calls from creeping through the veils of sleep
With warning tales of things unknown, unseen.

The work I’ve left undone, have yet to do;
How much I’ve earned and spent, how much I owe,
The threat of great events in distant lands,
The sense that time is running through my hands,
My rattling car. The aching in my knee.
My tiny pension pot. And suddenly
The night birds are assembling, right on cue.

Too long they’ve had their way. Their time is done.
I will rise up, rebel and overthrow
This tyranny. They feed upon my fears –
And I have fed them richly down the years –
But they will get no more from me. I’ll fight,
For action is the cure – take back the night,
And sleep till gently shaken by the sun.


The kings are dead, the castle walls they built
Thrown down, their deeds confined to histories.
And yet in books, ablaze with gleaming gilt,
Their world endures. Seven centuries
Have not reduced their lustre: serf and saint
Still work and pray; fair flowers and bright birds
Leap from the vellum; poetry in paint
Illuminating vanished lives, lost words.
What gracious days were these, when books became
The currency of princes! In our age
Of email, text and momentary fame
Shall we condemn to death the printed page?
And when the last e-reader battery’s dead
Will anyone remember what we read?


On Tuesday, we played truant and went up to the British Library in London to see its exhibition of illuminated manuscripts from the Royal Collection. Apart from their remarkable age – most were medieval, but some dated from Anglo-Saxon times – and extraordinary beauty, I was struck by the fact that books were once luxury items, commissioned by the nobility as signs of their wealth and status. Seems to me we have a great deal to thank William Caxton for.
I think the e-book is a wonderful thing (although I’ve yet to succumb to the Kindle’s undoubted charms) but I still hope that reports of the printed book’s death have been greatly exaggerated.

Ruba’i: Footprint

I found her footmark in the snow;
Though there were many, I would know
My lover’s imprint anywhere,
And where she wanders, I would go.

Beneath the birches winter-bare,
I walk alone. The clouding air
Is silent; birds are heard no more
Along the path we used to share.

And soon that single sign I saw
Will be erased; now comes the thaw.
That final trace will disappear
When Spring reclaims the forest floor.

But I will seek her, far and near
Through every season of the year.
For what is life when she’s not here?
It is no life when she’s not here.

Pirate day

Ho-heave-ho and haul away –
No tie required – way-hey!
For half-term’s here, and pirate gear
Is the order of the day.
With a yo-ho-ho it’s off you go
All rigged for the Spanish Main –
In your old ragged shirt and sword-belt girt
Ann Bonny walks again!

Fifteen men on the dead man’s chest –
These are the times that we love the best,
When you’re still young enough for this dressing-up stuff
But the day brings its own quiet warning:
For the time’s going by like the cannonballs fly
When the men-o’-war meet for slaughter
Then what shall we do for a pirate daughter
Ear-ly in the mor-ning?

May you always hold, like a pirate’s gold,
Onto all that you’ve done today;
May your flag always fly in a clear blue sky,
And fair winds blow you on your way.
May a fine, gallant crew sail along with you
To wherever the world may spin you;
With a yo-ho-ho, don’t you ever let go
Of the pirate spirit in you.


Our daughter’s school has just installed some new playground equipment, including a climbing-frame in the shape of a ship. To celebrate its inauguration, the children were allowed to go to school dressed as pirates; my wife conjured a costume out of charity-shop odds and ends, and the girl looked fantastic. She goes up to secondary school in September, which means there won’t be many more days like this, so I’ve marked the occasion with a sea-shanty. There’s a first time for everything!