Canals

Canals are sometimes forgotten when we think of water habitats but they provide wildlife with opportunities that are just as valuable as lakes and rivers.

A lot of Britain’s canals were built in the 1800s with ‘Canal mania’ erupting after the Duke of Bridgewater built his canal in 1761 to move coal into the heart of Manchester.  When he opened it, the price of coal in the town was halved overnight.

More and more were built around the country to support the transportation of goods around the country.  They were a crucial network that provided people with food, fuel and livelihoods.  Once upon a time, when Queen Victoria was on the throne, barges transported vast amounts of ice into the capital for refrigeration, and, very importantly, for ice cream.

“Canals generate a degree of prejudice.  While rivers are seen as the life-giving arteries of our landscape, canals can been viewed as septic sumps accumulating the detritus of the industries that created them.”
– Hugh Warwick, BBC Wildlife

Weil’s disease cast a bad light over our canals along with the other pollutants that Warwick refers to.  But we have to see them through a contextual lens. Their existence is down to those industries which polluted them, down to the industrial revolution and once, these gentle currents were the motorways of our lands.  Unfortunately, as quickly as they arrived, they were abandoned.  Train travel took over and left the canals to decay, inevitably becoming derelict.  And this has coloured our view of them.

Canals are often slower paced than rivers and this can lead to a build up of litter but they also create wonderful wildlife corridors.  They connect habitats, provide a route for animals, and people, to leave or join a city.  In a world where habitat fragmentation comes up again and again, we should see the canals as opportunities.  They also provide a space for people living in urban areas to connect to nature living on their doorstep, sometimes literally as canal side buildings are converted into housing.

Canals are home to kingfishers, herons and toads and many other species including the water vole who has suffered badly in recent years and the otter which has a place in many of our hearts.

These spaces have also become home to poets.  The Canal Laureate programme, run by the Poetry Society and the Canal & River Trust, has been running for since 2013.  In that time, it has birthed a plethora of poems, artworks, films and events.  Previous Canal Laureate, Jo Bell, said of her experience:

“Waterways are such a big part of my daily life but I had mostly avoided writing about them, perhaps in case I didn’t do them justice.  The laureateship compelled me to write about my private environment… There’s a big body of work about the sea, or rivers – but not so much about canals.  What exists is often ‘folk’ poetry, or poetry about an imagined urban experience which is no longer quite true… Writing about water is often heavy with sentimentality and anthropomorphism, because writers seen it as mystical or symbolic.  In the inland network, water is vital and unglamorous.  I try to write it as it is, not as I wish it to be.”

You could write a poem based on canal boat’s names alone; ‘Piper At The Gates Of Dawn’, Blue Moon, Morning Mist, Dreamcatcher, Drifter, Halycon, Little Gem, Stargazer and perhaps my favourite so far – Unsinkable II.

And if names don’t grab your interest, perhaps you could write about the history, or take a trip along one and write a travel-esque piece about the geography of your trip and the nature you encounter.  Canals are excellent places to slow down and notice what normally passes you by.  And if you’re steering or navigating the locks, then you have the added bonus of being more deeply connected to the water itself.

Or instead, just head over to waterlines and see what other poets have written about these once vital water ways of Britain.

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One Wednesday Night, the Poem

I was talking to a friend about poetry and she’d generously let me read one of her pieces of writing.  When I did, I was reminded of advice that my old English teacher gave me.  He was the first person, offline, that I showed my writing to.  He taught me for four years and, unlike many teachers, he would talk to me like an equal.  It felt like he valued my opinions and we would debate the Shakespeare biased curriculum time and time again.  My stance being that he wasn’t the only playwright and we should get variety.  Anyway, come sixth form, when he was no longer my teacher, we shared poems we’d written and he’d ask for my thoughts on his and offered his thoughts, gently, on mine.  He played an important role in my life and in shaping who I became.

But back to the point.  One piece of advice he would give me time and time again was to use what I’d written but say it in less words.  Strip it back.  See what it becomes.  And in doing so, you learn a lot about what you’re saying, the point you’re making and the language you’re using.

Having offered this advice to my friend, I went through some of my old poetry and tried to find one to exercise brevity on.  But nothing caught my attention, none of the poems I returned to hooked me today.  And then I picked up a copy of One Wednesday Night which I’d printed to critique and that did hook me.  A poem about nosebleeds and tummies would be hard to pull off but I liked the starry sky part of it.  And so I picked out a few words and phrases and started to play with them:

A dusty sky; the stage is set.
Leading role – the crescent moon.
Venus; shining golden in the spotlight.

Before my tired eyes
Dots begin to glow

– the constellations of closed eyes?

The supporting cast step out
From hiding in the wings.
The starry queen holds court;
a dancing bear and timid cub perform.

Street lamps conceal stage hands
and then, like the curtain closing,
the cast, the stars and stage

All fall away.

The play is lost to sleep.


NB, the stars you see when your eyes are closed are called phosphenes.

The sexuality of the sea

I mentioned in my post about the symbology of the sea that sexuality is often associated with it.  We saw in that post that the sea is considered to be fertile, to be creative, to be the mother of all life.  And so it is only a footstep away from sexuality.

We have also seen that water is often considered to be feminine, tying in again with the maternal aspect but we also find bodies of water dedicated to women.  There are myths about water being created by women or gifted to women by deities.  And of course we have Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love and pleasure, who is born from the sea.

Many writers have made use of this construct including Emily Dickinson, using the sea to express wild sensual passion, but the poem I want to consider is by Mary Oliver:

The Sea

Stroke by
stroke my
body remembers that life and cries for
the lost parts of itself—-
fins, gills
opening like flowers into
the flesh—-my legs
want to lock and become
one muscle, I swear I know
just what the blue-gray scales
shingling
the rest of me would
feel like!
paradise! Sprawled
in that motherlap,
in that dreamhouse
of salt and exercise,
what a spillage
of nostalgia pleads
from the very bones! how
they long to give up the long trek
inland, the brittle
beauty of understanding,
and dive,
and simply
become again a flaming body
of blind feeling
sleeking along
in the luminous roughage of the sea’s body,
vanished
like victory inside that
insucking genesis, that
roaring flamboyance, that
perfect
beginning and
conclusion of our own.

Having written it out in word, got the formatting just right, I lost it when it came into wordpress.  I don’t have the patience to make it look right but I do encourage you to have a look at it formatted correctly.

I really like the way she has used line length and structure here to echo the crashing of waves on the sea and the ebbing and flowing of the body.  I read the poem on a blog initially where it was typed without form then turned to my book of her poetry and found it there in this structure.  That in itself was interesting as I’ve never been so moved by the way words are set out before and I think if I’d gone straight to the printed version I would have missed that.

My reading of this poem is that the narrator is experiencing an orgasm after a bit of a drought.  It also reminds me of the selkie and mermaid stories where women who lived in the sea were tricked into living on land, for example by men who stole their seal furs.  It is the longing to return to this former life.  And perhaps also the longing of women who’ve always lived on land to return to their ancestral roots, back so far in time that they were sea creatures, or even back so far that they were the sea itself.  The narrator is becoming one with the sea, echoing a sexual union.

As well as selkies and mermaids, we also find sirens living in the oceans.  All three have been portrayed as sexual, manipulative and dangerous creatures.  Perhaps it is not surprising they have a bad reputation given that they tend to lure men into their worlds and men tell the narrative of our world.

Mermaids and sirens charmed sailors and fishermen with their melodious voices and once they succumbed, they would be dragged down into the depths.  These ‘femmes fatales’ were said to shipwreck entire vessels to fulfil their sexual desires.  To see one would be an omen of disaster but also by being seen by a mermaid or siren, you could become the object of their malevolence.

The original version of Hans Christian Anderson’s The Little Mermaid does not provide the reader with the same happy ending you find in the Disney version.  Jen Campbell has a good video about this, but don’t say I didn’t warn you when it turns dark…

Mermaids sometimes fare better than sirens and in some cultures are considered lucky.  Mermen, perhaps unsurprisingly, also have a better reputation – in Trinidad and Tobago, they would grant wishes, transform mediocrity into genius and give wealth and power.

Whether they are kindly, evil, or somewhere in between, mermaids and similar sea people have featured in mythology around the world for a long time.  We find them depicted in Mesopotamian artwork, on a chapel in Durham Castle dating back to about 1078, later in a 15th century compilation of quotes from Chinese literature we find a mermaid who “wept tears which became pearls” and we still find them in our literature, art and folklore today.

Further Reading

A Natural History Guide To Poetry

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Using a natural history guide, pages chosen at random, and my jar of words, I have spun a series of metaphors which utilise different sensory aspects, excluding smell and taste as neither of those work especially well for me.

This was an exercise in creating metaphors but you could easily take one of the images and expand it and turn it into a larger poem.  I’ve adapted it from Susan Goldsmith Wooldridge and I highly recommend her book Poem Crazy for any creative writer.

I am…

I am a prickly cockle with a grain of sand gnarled in my foot.

I am a silky wall feather moss, collecting gossamer and rainbows.

I am a moustached warbler, and a longing, sweet ‘tu-tu-tu’.

I am the music played in the teeth of a dandelion, before time is wished away.

I am the sound of fish fins as they encounter the everchanging river.

I am a willow, weeping, leaves creeping, catkins dancing.

I am the grey-blue crown of a male chaffinch in summer.

I am the eyes of a peacock butterfly; mesmerised and mesmerising.

I am the shape of a mute swan’s neck, curving with the secrets of the self.

I am a migratory locust with a solitary path, soon I will plunge into a galaxy of my peers.

I am the perch formed by the spines of a gorse; stiff, unforgiving and deadly. 


To illustrate my take on this exercise I’ll dissect a sentence:

I am a prickly cockle with a grain of sand gnarled in my foot

I am… an animal was one of the prompts.

Prickly cockle came from the guide book.

Grain of sand, gnarled and toe were words I pulled from my jar, obviously I changed toe to foot as it made more sense with the chosen animal.

I particularly like the idea of the dandelion as a musical instrument and without Susan’s prompts I would never have considered it.  Similarly, I was using her furniture prompt when I wrote about the gorse bush.  By using a natural history guide, I have been able to include some precision in the name of the species and some detail, such as the call of the fantastically named moustached warbler.

I’m hoping I’ll return to some of these images and play with them a bit more deeply when I’m in less pain that I am at the moment (pain drains creative energy).

November’s writing

Death in the tarot is a 3 card, meaning he’s related to the Empress. If the Empress is the garden, a wealth of fecundity and creation, Death is what didn’t work out. And in that sense, it’s not a state, it is a process. You clear out what is dead or dying, you add it to the compost heap.  You allow it to break down. And hopefully, next season, you can use that fertilize the new round of crops or flowers or ornamental trees.
– Jessa Crispin

Autumn seems to be a time of memories.  A time of looking back to childhoods of newly sharpened pencils and fresh books of lined paper.  New starts and great hopes.  This year I promise I’ll keep my homework neat and tidy and do it all as soon as I get it.

Autumn is a time of reflection.  We look back on what we have harvested, we look back on the success of the year.  We go even further with Halloween, Sahmain or whatever you chose to call it.  We go further back than our own lives, we go back to the memories of ancestors, long gone, never known.

“Wild is the music
of autumnal winds
Amongst the faded woods.”
― William Wordsworth

There is something evocative of autumn which summons safety and warmth even though we are headed into the darkest time of the year.  The cosy aura of autumn defies the approaching winter.  The golden leaves and russet fruits, the amber sparks of fire.  Are we summoning the darkness with our lights or are we warding it off?

Every leaf speaks bliss to me 

Fluttering from the autumn tree. 

– Emily Dickinson

A tree in autumn

Branches slowly appear
Like the antlers of a stag,
Strewn with rich nutty velvet
And moss.

The scarred, dry bark
Feels the warmth of the dying sun.
Winter is almost upon us.
Another year has nearly passed.

Wearily, the tree performs
Her autumn duties;
Turning lush summer greens –
Shades of freshly cut grass and tart cooking apple –
Into copper and russet displays.

Feathers of fading sunlight
Now reach the forest floor
Casting gold lustre on all that lays there;
The midas touch.

She sighs and releases
Another scatter of leaves
To the decay below.
Turning fire to death.

Turning death to life.

***

There is a lot you can write about this time of year.  The fading vegetation, the migrating birds.  The abrupt weight of darkness as the clocks fall back an hour.  This is a time when the turning of the year feels much more noticeable.  We have halloween and bonfire night, christmas is coming along with other winter festivals.  You can write reflectively on the year that has passed, about hibernation and the joy of the harvest.  Or death and rebirth, or the return to school.

Find a warm and cosy spot, nestle up, pull a blanket around you and let that freshly sharpened pencil jot notes over the new book of lined paper.  Mistakes are allowed.  Rewrites are allowed.  For now, breathe in the crisp air and let your mind drift.

 

November’s reading

Naturally there was been a large element of fairy tales in this month’s reading!  And we’ve taken a look at plants and trees in literature, folklore, poetry and nursery rhymes already.  So here I’m going to look a little more closely at a few less well known poems.

What the trees do by Laura Scott

This might be the poem I’d have tried to write this month if it hadn’t already been written.  Of course, I ‘m not saying I could have pulled it off as well as Laura does – this poem was Commended in the resurgence prize 2017 awards.

“a long time ago
one of them
caught the heel of a girl”

Such a relatable opening, a moment we get drawn in by, we’ve all been there, our shoes caught by a tree branch or root.  But oh, how the tale continues, weaving us into the girl as the girl is woven into the tree.  The delightful, childlike, opening stanza becomes ominous in its repetition at the close.  A warning, a cry for help, a lesson to be learnt.  Be careful when you enter the forests, for you never come out the same.

Aside: When I did a search to refind the link to the poem, I came up with an article called Not All Trees Are Meant to Bear Fruit: Laura Scott on Living Childless by Choice.  I have no idea if it’s the same Laura Scott but it could be another lens through which to read the poem.

Don Paterson, Two Trees

Don Paterson reads ‘Two Trees’ from Faber and Faber on Vimeo.

 

Two Trees has a different structure to What the Trees Do and at first this makes the poem feel upbeat and positive and indeed, Don Miguel achieves the challenging task of entwining two trees.  Trees, which like lovers in old age, become tangled up and inseparable.  The poem could easily have ended there.  Miguel, master of a magic tree, infamous in the village.

But in steps an unnamed name.  And I think it’s important he is nameless.  We feel like we know Miguel, we have a sense of him and obviously his name.  The lack of name emphasises a sense of distance between us, the reader, and this man and his actions.  As the nameless man hacks away at the tree, separating what had grown so close, and on a whim, we mourn for the tree.  In the tree, we see a malicious man destroying strong relationships for no particular reason.

But the trees survive, against the odds, resilient, like we are.  They have weathered their particular storm and they live on.

The nameless man, who has no dreams, is clearly very different to Miguel who gets out of bed one morning with the idea.  Miguel is portrayed as a dreamer, but one with practical skills and perseverance.  The nameless man feels brutal and cruel.  He has no reason behind his actions and whilst the trees do not die, that may not have been the case.  One man is creator, the other destroyer.

I like the irony of the last two stanzas.  This poem is about trees, and it could well be all it’s about.  It could easily be an anecdote being shared but I doubt that many of us read it that way.

Covered by the Forest by Elizabeth Rimmer

I love this poem.  I’ve not really got a lot to say but I really enjoyed the way I felt when I read it.  It was like I was sinking into the forest, grounding myself, connecting with the moment and getting lost amongst the trees.  Whilst this echoes the subject matter, I think the careful choice of words and rhythm guided my transition from reader to tree.

She has another, seasonally relevant, poem called Naming the Autumn (at the bottom of the page, beneath an interesting sort of bio written by Rimmer), I also really like Slow Plant Crossing (a little way down the page).

October – my writing

Just in case you were going to comment unconstructively, I’m not in the mood… I shared a poem in an online context recently, with the note it was unfinished, to illustrate an idea I was discussing.  Instead of engaging with the idea or adding something constructive I got a fairly unhelpful comment about my assonance… Had this person given examples of what was meant and where in my work this was I would have found it very helpful but as they didn’t, it just felt rubbish…

Virtually nothing I post on here is a final version and if I tried to do that you’d not get October inspired poems in October.  Given the current structure of this project, I feel like it is more helpful for me to share unedited work that is relevant to the month’s topic as they will share ideas about approaches and exercises.

I also, inevitably, have some words about autumn but I’m going to look at that in a different post.

Prompted by the structure of Larkin’s ‘The little lives of earth and form’, I wrote a sextilla:

Granite strong and chalky soft
To this land, my hat I doff.
Jagged peaks and silky sands;
                A contradiction
                This composition.
A feat unmatched by human hands.

Whilst line two has issues, I like the contradiction in the poem and in nature and it fits with the idea of nature not being less than us.

One night this month, I lay awake.  Well actually, many nights this month I’ve lain awake.  But this particular night was raining and surprisingly my neighbours were quiet so I listened to it from my bed at 3am, thinking of rain words.

The crackle of rain
On the window pane

Tip tip tap
Tip tip tap

Each drip drop crashes
Into sleeplessness
Pittering
Pattering

Tip tip tap
Tip tip tap

Clock ticking, tocking
Droplets plip, plopping

Tip tip tap
Tip tip tap

Trashing in the night
Insomniac’s fight
Tossing and turning
Running from morning

Tip tip tap
Tip tip tap

Tip tip tap…

And we have to have one poem about humans and animals, after all, it is the theme of the month!!  Whilst I declared at the start these are all drafts, this one very very much is a draft.  I like the idea and I know it needs work so constructive criticism welcomed!

Roll up!  Roll up!
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Iguanas and jaguars!
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And lots of leaping leopards!

Meerkats standing guard, new newts,
Orangutans and peacocks.
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See the seals, snails, snakes and skunks
Turtles and terrapins too!

Umbrella birds, vampire bats
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