And so the poems on the second phase of the Polesworth Poetry Trail have been announced, and I was fortunate to have one included myself. I found it an interesting, enjoyable and rewarding exercise. I had never been to Polesworth before, and don’t frequent Country parks, as a rule, for leisure. So on the face of it, this was not for me. Yet it was that which attracted me. An opportunity to learn about somewhere of which I knew nothing, to take in new experiences, meet new popele, and to write about that which I would not normally consider. I was richly rewarded in all respects.
Of course the first meeting, in the Tythe Barn, was most interesting. The first time when everyone gets together. Some I knew, the majority I didn’t. By nature poets exude politeness, diffidence, and bonhomie. Yet underneath, there is an undeniable psychological jostling for position. “Who is good, and who isn’t ?” “Who is the competition?” As earlier poems were evaluated and comments made, the commentator would cast a quick glance to see the level of approval which was being signalled to their thoughts. No X Factor roar of approval here, just silent nods or sounds of approbation, but just as important.
The maths were evaluated. A dozen or so poems would be accepted for the trail, twenty two poets showed up for that first meeting, there were ten suggested topics, and entries were unlimited. Which topics were going to be the most popular? Who were the best poets in each category, and where did one’s personal poetic strengths lie?
Content and form was a further consideration. These poems will be on permanent display, but predominantly to an audience who is just passing by. So on the one hand it needed to be of sufficient quality to impress one’s peers and the judges. Yet on the other, it needed to be accessible to the family walking their dog who just happened to stop mid-walk. Although designed to be read, it wouldn’t really be a page poem. If it didn’t engage in the first few lines, those boots would be made for walking. Nor was it a performance piece. No poet would be on hand to read it out loud. Yet it might be read out by one of a family group to the rest. As such, I proudly pronounced a new poetic form – Trail Poetry!
The following two sessions were the meat in the four session sandwich. A succession of experts came to the Pooley Country Park Visitor Centre to impart their own knowledge. Park Rangers, Wildlife and Nature enthusiasts, Miners and Historians all painted their own rich and distinct patterns on an initially blank canvas. And as the twenty hours or so that we all spent together over the sessions unfolded, so friendships were forged and cemented by common interest and experience, and poetic tips traded. Most importantly the process afforded time. Time to learn from the experts. Time to walk the territory, to see the colours of the landscape, to touch the bark of the silver birch, to feel your heart beat as you climbed the old spoil heap, and to listen to the Plover’s call.
The guided group walks were a delight. I learned that silver birch are amongst our oldest trees and would have featured in the landscape for centuries past, what we see now is what our ancestors would have seen. I had been unaware that the oak tree population had been decimated by the Royal Navy’s requirement for wood in past centuries and that the New Forest had been created specifically to address their loss. The phrase “Standing dead”, which inspired a poem, was introduced to me, as was the PH of vinegar. But it wasn’t all hard work. Barry Hunt, Janet Smith and myself had a lively discussion on the respective influences of English and American songwriters on popular music in the 1960’s and 70’s as we walked along too!
The last session was the business end of proceedings. Poems already drafted were fine tuned, ideas and fragments fleshed out, and new work forged on the crucible of a deadline, all with the benefit of the benign, focussed direction of Project Leader Mal Dewhirst. Where was I placed at this point? Three completed poems. “Unbowed” about the standing dead oak tree which I regarded as being my best poem. “Listen” a call to arms about the history of the site which I liked very much, and “Passing Through”, a piece about the M42 which I was unsure of. I had the pleasure and fortune/misfortune to be sat next to Gary Carr on that last day who had also written on the M42. And there was only ever going to be one M42 poem, and upon reading his, I realised that it was not going to be mine! Which caused me to revisit some earlier fragments I had written on Pooley Hall.
Pooley Hall was of interest to me for several reasons. You can’t see it properly from the main road, and you can only view part of it from the far side of the canal. Nor can you visit it, it is in private ownership .It has a rich history of Kings , Knights and a hunting park, its wealth comes from the land and more recently from mining, yet that very mining caused much of the original structure to collapse through subsidence. Nature’s revenge perhaps. More recently the Coach House there had been owned by the Soul singer Edwin Starr, and had been visited by disgraced Tory Politician Jonathan Aitken. So there was lots to go on but no obvious theme for a concise coherent poem.
So I just played with the fragments of the ideas themselves. The Hall itself can only be physically glimpsed, yet metaphorically it is only glimpsed as well, as subsidence reclaims it. The grandeur of the hunt and of royal visits, the intrigue of the Wars of the Roses and Civil war is present, but unheard, with “War” itself playfully name-checking Edwin Starr’s greatest hit. The death in duel of a Cockayne not only recalls the surname of the Hall’s most famous family, it also playfully alludes to visitor Aitken’s notorious “simple sword of truth” speech. The final couplet? The Hall has survived physically for over 500 years through Civil Wars, family fortune and distress, economic advantage and decline both financial, and structural – it finds it’s place, it takes it’s turn in the cycle of fortune and has also taken its turn in financial benefit. I am delighted to have a poem which covers 500 years chosen to celebrate that history for future generations.
Burdened under it’s own weight
Remaining walls hunch tight,
No hunting hounds howl, nor boars squeal,
Words of war, knaves and knights lie
Collapsed seams groan no more, exhausted.
The Plover’s wings flutter where Kings’ Standards once flew
Only morning dew offers the hint of a glint of Cockayne’s sword
It’s simple truth vanquished in mortal duel
The Hall finds it’s place
And takes it’s turn.
I was fortunate to have two further poems commended, “Acid Lake” and “Listen”. In the Park itself is an Acid lake formed by the contaminated run off from the spoil heap. The chemistry of it is quite unpleasant. I liked the idea of combining the imagery of a bad hallucinogenic “trip” with these unpleasant waters. It was written quite quickly and after the formal sessions had completed which says something about the strange alchemy of the creative process. “Listen” is my favourite. It is aimed at anyone who arrives at Pooley Country Park for nothing more than a pleasant stroll. “Listen”, you can’t hear any of it- but it is there.
The coalers bow wave slaps the bank,
Winding gear groans and clanks,
Ponies whinny in man-made night.
Sweat drip-dropping to tolling blows,
Laden tubs rattle.
The next shift’s hobnail marching beat
Is there, as surely as
The coal beneath your feet
Crazed love child of the tip
From whose rotten corpse
Sulphuric acid flows
Spewing rusty liquid.
From punctured wounds
A scabrous puss seeps,
Wreaking silent retribution.
Laying waste as it too was wasted,
Redemption lies only
In the passing seasons ,
Balm to violated waters.
Where to now? All the 16 winning poems will be read at Fizz 7 at Polesworth Abbey Refectory on 17th May at 7.30pm. When I saw the winning poems it was the first time that I had read most of them. There was a sense of privilege at realising that I had been there when Jaqui Rowe had seen the swan thatmay have inspired her poem, and had been part of the experience which had produced the rest.
But the very process of selecting only one poem for each spot has meant that many fine poems were edged out by the excellence of perhaps one other piece, not damned by their own shortcomings, and I do hope that many of the 54 or so which were submitted overall will find their way into a collection of what was written for this project.
This is the first time that I have been involved in a project like this, I would certainly do it again. I came away enormously enriched with knowledge about an area for which I have acquired a newly won fondness. I have met new poets who have inspired me, and with whom I am sure I will stay in touch. I have also been exposed to a disciplined process of writing about new experiences. Poets often shun competition and decry qualitative evaluation of their work. Yet high quality writing is plain for all to see, and aiming to compete to that standard can only benefit individual poets.
Oh, and of course I came out of it with five new poems. And best of all ,from time to time, walkers will stop at the canal side, look at Pooley Hall, look at my poem, and think, or feel something, and I will have been responsible for that – even though I wasn’t there.