Douglas Clark: Waffle -- 3

There has been a squabble going on in the British-poets mailing list over the theory of rhythm in poetry. I must confess that it doesn't interest me very much. Thirty years ago when I started writing I used to count religiously but after six months I had had enough of that and launched myself into free space. Here are a couple of poems from that time which I feel are my answer to the theorising:


The lack of a song in the soul
Is the cause of a celibate curse
The loss of spring in the vine
Taints the rhythm of verse
The freshness the thrill of before
Is repeated as memory plays
The records the hope of young heart
Relayed thru some innocent face
But the fire in the heart is all still
The wine to the head no more
What was there by right in the past
Is dredged from the depths as a chore
The pen so easy skips its beat
But whereof is its reason
Are all singers doomed to play mechanic
When love moves on in season
Drinking pubs dry is an art my friend
To which I have given much attention
But when the old body says no more
Must seek out a new direction
Face the world stick out your chin
Go out and sniff at the sun
And as for life that wondrous thing
Pretend it's just begun
Love and women and sex are no good
They only cause you pain
So be a boy just ten years old
And summer come again
You and I we played by a stream
Watching the horses trot
Those were the days of bracken green
Before the trees were cut
The lawns were great for a croquet bash
But I preferred the woods
There's something magic there in the green
In silence with the rooks
Nettles and thistles and midges that sting
The smell of a festering pool
Are lost in the image of bird in tree
Come to conduct his school
But the horses best I remember the meet
The height of black and pink
A chestnut pawing at her bit
A silver tankard's clink
And the fox we chased along with the car
Long hounds stretched in pursuit
Low hedges chopping up the hunt
As hunters changed their foot
And then the fox was away in the wood
The hounds had been too slow
We weren't to get our taste of the brush
Not for a year or so
When life's gone foul go back to roots
And find who you really are
For there is no sense in living out
An act for fifty year
If you give love then you'll get it back
That's what the fates decree
And sometimes throw in as bonus
The love that none can see
But where is the magic to forget the past
And repair the damage done
Must the record ever stick its groove
And the tankard drunk on the lawn

for Robert Frost

29 October 1967


Didn't see the hate before
Didn't know it was there
It's a hell of a shock to see what's writ
Was ever a soul so bare
But what's down there is but half the truth
The easier bit to rhyme
The magic that dances from silver lips
Is saved for a happier time
That purity the saving grace
Was smashed in the hammer blow
God grant it was only squashed flat
And the recovery's been slow
You can't be bad without plenty of good
Or else the mind is torn
But you seem to have played for keeps
And ripped the soul you adorn
Can't believe it's really true
That it's ugly and spiteful and trite
I always believed that underneath
The heart was warm still bright
The horrors are weighted so high in the mind
They can't be looked at straight
Verses only chew at the edge
The centre insane in state
The neurosis is known
The pattern well read
But how to be surgeon
Inside your own head
To be told you were Pound
When talking of Cecy
Was a warning that sound
Betrays fallacy
The silver tongue was my sport in the past
It took me through everything
But when can I ever risk that dance
And whisper words again
Somewhere deep is a heart I know
That promised in the sun
But the hate was so deeply set at the start
Nowhere left to run
You carry the cancer for twenty years
And try to be sweet and true
But God knows the moment you turn from heights
The filth eats right through
The only hope is to stick to the same
We really should never been born
We give you your moments of magic and mirth
And love you in spite of the scorn
Separate in ourselves
We love all the world
And hate it for what it has done
But the art that is bad
Is to break down and howl
Revenging for what was torn
The spirit of Shelley is there for us
And the fun of sleek old Cat
Thank God that Will he knew it all
What Burns instincted at
But the hate the hate
Am I too late
Do I start where others stop
For I know that life is but ten years old
Before the trees were cut


`Writing' takes place in my head over a period of time as I go about my everyday routine. The words pop into my head and slowly a structure emerges. Then one day I sit down in my chair, usually in silence but occasionally with the hifi or the tv or radio on, and just `write'. I usually get it down at the first attempt and make minor modifications as I word-process the result and post it immediately on the Internet. If there is something wrong with the poem I have written my subconscious will eventually notify me and I will put in some hard work to correct it. This doesn't happen very often. That's just the way I do it. I sift my poems very carefully when it comes to eliminating the dross, but I don't remove the weak ones from my Webspace. Sometimes my opinion of a poem I have rejected can change or I may cannabalise the `good' bit.

Now that was about me `writing' a poem. In the silence of my head. Now I will have to discuss the reading of someone else's poem as they `write' in my head.

I get nothing out of `performance' poetry. My stupid simple brain just cant absorb the information thrust at me when a `performance' poet `writes' his/her words before me. I know that most other people can take in performed poems so this is a peculiar disability I have. I `write' other people's poems in my head by reading them from print in the silence of my own chair where I am comfortable. I like to hear the spoken accent of poets I am interested in so I am prepared to endure a `reading' to hear what they sound like. It can influence my reading of the poem to myself. But basically I require a silent room to read a book of poems. I suppose I hear it in my own voice inside my head. Reading poems aloud myself to myself means nothing to me.

I suppose I have covered `reading' poems now. Silently in the silence of my head. Now I will mention recordings I have....

Basil Bunting reading `Briggflats', Eliot reading `Four Quartets'. My turntable has died of old age but these are marvellous recordings which I wish I could go back to again and again. I must know the words off by heart by now which helps. Tapes: I have Ezra Pound's Caedmon tapes and Dylan Thomas's original `Under Milk Wood' (thanks to a Swedish friend). But I never play these. What I love is John Cairnie's Robert Burns which is a brilliant tape which I must play again soon. But it is the folk music that really appeals to me (hence the Burns of which I have many CDs).

Now on to folk music. This has always been one of the great loves of my life and I have always felt the poetry in the folk songs to be superior to almost anything being written today. (I am looking for somebody to write me an article comparing Robert Burns and Bob Dylan.)

While I am on this egotistical binge it occurrs to me that a poem of ten years ago was relevant to my thinking on poets and poetry. So I will append it:

The Natural

gifts of all abundance were given him
but he had no time for that and reeked of sorrow
until the last challenge
when he threw off his cloak of doubt.
for he had loved beauty all the years of his life
and had fallen in love with the beautiful,
the animal that shared his torture,
she who gave nothing to no-one.
never been kissed and cuddled, never played ring-a-roses
an antiquated childhood without merit
preserved intact by his dreams
`Some day I am going to be somebody'
Mistaken footloose unheralded
he slips away into the night
an unknown celebrity who has attended
the formal closure of his deepset fears.
Now in the night of his days he knows greatness
But it is for himself not the world
Never again will be the sweet bloom of youth
when he transfigured a generation by his statements
for the natural it is over
his reward is himself
he fought eternity to a standstill
and takes his prize.

from Coatham (Benjamin Press, 1989).

I trust my ear entirely when it comes to writing poetry. The first six months when I started in Edinburgh in 1967 I used to count meticulously. But, to me, this was just apprenticeship and by the time I got to `Review' and `Woodlands' I had thrown away the instruction kit and launched myself in free fall.

Over the years, accompanied by numerous nervous breakdowns, my ability at rhythm and rhyme has seriously declined. I can hardly do it at all nowadays. I experimented 18 months ago and forced myself to write one but I think it best forgotten about. (It is in `poems97' on my Webspace, The title is `Et in Arcadia ego').

But what I am leading up to is that complicated or even simple verse structures detract from the poetry by taking weight away from the poetry in the words. I have the same feeling about `performance' where the poetry never reaches me and all I receive is the egotism of the poet. I prefer to avoid `performance', unless I want to hear the voice of the poet to assist my own private reading, which takes place in the quiet of my house.

In the same way that `performance' detracts from poetry I feel that conscious attempts at rhythm/rhyme have a similar effect. This is why people think William Carlos Williams a `great poet' whereas I only see him as a `great little poet' of the ilk of Thomas Hardy.

In this modern age I feel that the combustion engine and its rhythms have removed us from the rhyme and rhythm of our forefathers and that we respond to emotion in a less formal way. What matters is the poet's ear and you either have it or you haven't. I have just been sent an essay deploring Pound's breaking of the iambus. What isn't seen is that Pound had a perfect ear and so could do it. If you haven't got the ear it is very doubtful if you should be writing poetry in the first place.

So ends a little rant against `prosody and performance'. Twin evils in my opinion but they may be what gets bums on seats.

Silly me! I am totally forgetting that it was hearing Ezra Pound read the First Canto from Spoleto on the BBC Third Programme in, I think, the winter of 1965/66 made me decide that one day I would write poetry. My reaction was `I can do that'. For thirty years I have tried. But my health has never let me perform, if I could.

And one point I forgot. I would love to be able to perform my own poems aloud the way I can recite them to myself in my own head. I am a natural performer but ill health precludes. It would just be too much for me.

Now I have just spent 90 minutes listening to John Cairnie re-enacting the poems and songs of Robert Burns. And I was enthralled. As earlier this evening I was enthralled by Savourna Stevenson/Davy Spillane's new CD and Kate Rusby's `Hourglass' which are both new to me. They performed for me in my own room as though I was present in a theatre. In the same way when I read a book of poems a voice, my voice, performs in my head in my room as I read them. As many years ago I listened to Ezra Pound at Spoleto and realised that a year previously I had extemporised something similar for a girl I was in love with, when I was very drunk, and she had said `why don't you write'.

I think the problem here with me about poetry readings is that there is such little genuine talent about (to be very arrogant) that I just switch off and don't take things in. Then you have the brilliant readers who couldnt write a decent poem to save their necks. I am very upset how the quality of presentation in reading poetry can totally mask its quality. But that is a personal gripe. I am just too thick to tell the difference when I go along to the monthly Bath poetry meet. I much prefer words on the page where I can tell the difference.

I think music helps me a lot to appreciate words. I always get a lot more out of songs than out of spoken poems. Although I don't pick up all the words of songs. Usually just the key poetic phrases. But, as I said, I am steeped in the folk music. And I have followed Bob Dylan for 35 years now. He is 13 months older than me and I have always looked up to him. His new album set the mood for my last sequence of poems `Existential Angst', (a joking title) which I posted on the Internet a few weeks back. And that album is steeped in folk music. As was Rab.

What I must say is that with me when the original creative impulse for a poem dies and I am no longer `chewing' on required corrections that my subconscious or conscious has told me are necessary then I consider the poem `completed' and will never return to it. So there is a `final' version. [Like Geoffrey Hill I once re-published a poem in a later book in order to add one word to satisfy myself. And I understand why he did it for the `Jane Fraser' poem. It is a terrible thing to have something like that niggling you when the `wrong' version is printed in a book. It is not being egotistical]. I am not one of these people who considers that a poem is never finished and has to be worked upon.

I suppose I had better come clean about my ego-trip that I have been enjoying.

I self-publish my own books with my Benjamin Press, although I didn't want to do my last book `Wounds' for personal reasons so James Hogg at Salzburg University Press took it on and did a very good job for me. But I prefer doing my own books. Although naturally if the critics thought I was any good I would be published by Faber.

I sell few copies but give away gratis the best part of 200 of each publication. When you havent got distribution that is the best way to handle it. Although I only have a tiny number of the Salzburg book available which irks me.

An introduction to my work would be to request Selected Poems (1995), Cat Poems (1997), and Wounds (Salzburg, 1997). `Cat Poems' is a pamphlet written for adults with children in mind. My answer to Old Possum.

But the core of my work is The Horseman Trilogy: Troubador (1985), Horsemen (1988), Coatham (1989), and Disbanded (1991). An integrated set of books. To these can be added the pamphlet Dysholm (1993). It has been great fun doing these books but it may be a long long time before the next one.

My readership, about 40 readers a day, comes primarily from the USA on the World Wide Web. Almost all my work is available at

This readership staggers me and I don't know where it comes from or how they find out about my books, but it has been consistent now for two years, at which point it took off from the usual run-of-the-mill Web readership. They must think me some famous English poet, and I am Scottish.

The Web readership compensates me for the fact that my books don't sell and I probably wouldn't continue being so keen as to have started up this magazine if it wasn't there.