For years, poetry was a very stop-start affair for me. I was sufficiently inspired by what we did at school (the World War One poets, Eliot, Larkin, Hughes and Heaney) to start trying to write my own, but in all honesty it was every bit as dire as most teenage verse. I did have just enough sense to realize that, though, so stashed it away somewhere and instead turned my attention to writing song lyrics for countless bands that didn’t exist.
I went to Newcastle University to study history, concentrating on the early medieval period, and that brought more inspiration. Poems like The Wanderer, The Seafarer, The Battle of Maldon and of course Beowulf got me reading poetry more generally, and there was also a happy accident involving the library search computer, which threw Geoffrey Hill’s Mercian Hymns my way during research into eighth century monasticism.
The final push came a little over ten years ago, through Radio One, of all things. It had a regular poetry slot on the Mark Radcliffe Show in the evenings. Not only did I start reading the poets who were on there (Ian McMillan and Simon Armitage were regulars, I seem to remember), but also the poets they raved about, and reading anything I can get my hands on is a habit, or obsession, that has stuck with me since.
When I finally did start writing poems I wasn’t entirely ashamed of, I was back in my hometown in Leicestershire, after periods working in Cardiff and Lincolnshire, and found myself slightly at a loss as to where to turn for advice and help. Luckily, I found an online workshop, The Pennine Poetry Works, absolutely invaluable, and winning the 2004 Plough Prize was another major confidence booster. In fact, it was through the prize that I met Helena Nelson, who invited me to submit poems to her new chapbook press, HappenStance. The result was my first pamphlet, Making The Most Of The Light (2005).
It’s probably not surprising that history often raises its head in my poetry, as do two other obsessions – cricket and birds. I’ve finally managed to make the latter collide with my day job as a journalist (I work at Bird Watching magazine), so I suspect the bird poems will keep on coming, one way or another. In the meantime, though, I’m writing a sequence of poems dealing with a little-known (in fact, deliberately suppressed) event in 17th century England.
My blog is Polyolbion.
If you ever
created an imaginary country as a kid
& elected yourself president for life, in an uncontested
contest, & charted every contour
in dried-out Woolworths felt-tips,
then named lakes, mountains & towns in your honour,
& wrote & rewrote history to show yourself
founder, victor & visionary, & ruled
with the arbitrary hand of the middle-aged & incurably lazy,
watching suns go down beyond the blue woods
from your summer palace in the piedmont;
if, during those balmy salad days
following the grand opening of the first permanent
high-speed link into the interior
you ever called together
your most trusted confidantes to admit
that the years of plenty & prosperity
were built on shifting sands,
that the hordes were massing on your mountain borders
& a towering wave was poised to drown
the rich alluvial plains, but that
you’d called shotgun on the final seat
in the eccentric inventor’s lighter-than-air life’s work
then you’ll know exactly how he feels right now.
but we were stuck in 2000AD,
dystopia being no more
than a half-mark in Friday’s spelling test.
Half the Met were camped behind the chapel
at Battleflat, their riot shields and batons
scattered on the scorched grass,
waiting for flying pickets who never showed,
while the Dirty Thirty settled for awkward silences
and the vindication of history,
but we were talking Judge Dredd
and Future Shocks. The coming apocalypse
was inevitable, but not without its attractions.
If we were scared, it was by what
Malcolm Marshall could do to an unprotected skull
on a late-season flyer. If we had questions,
they were about hosepipe bans, average rainfall,
the type of temperatures you’ll never see again.
About what Frankie said, and why the girls cared.
On diamond days like today, everything
seems much closer. The city’s toytown
towers shimmy nearer,
nearer, through the merest haze. The arms
of a wind farm you never noticed before
turn just beyond burnished woods. The beacon
on the TV mast blinks in the sun
and you read the name on the tailplane
as an airliner makes its last approach.
When two fires in the next postcode
send great gouts of smoke
blossoming into the cornflower sky, you swear
you can feel the heat reach out to grab
at the back of your neck. But no nightfall to speak of,
just a deepening of the blue backcloth,
and sunset spreading like a red stain,
the towns on the horizon lighting up one by one.
Nebulae, the death throes of countless spent stars
streaming towards our low lookout.
Here in Oncology West,
lights flicker on and curtains are drawn
in time to watch the rush hour,
but no one and nothing here has slept.
And mornings might drag,
if it wasn’t for the chance to master
this new language. The phrase for today
is “poor outcome”.
Once said, then the rest of the day
to echo round the head. Lunch is lost
to “pain management” (see also “quick fix”)
but boxes must still be ticked
for the next meal we won’t eat,
before the cortege of faces, eyes that cannot meet,
prayers unheard, tears that seep
into the spaces between words.
Early evening is cocktail hour –
methadone, codeine, immodium – a chance to discuss
the many meanings of “serious”, before they come
to make us “comfortable”,
and we can watch the sun go down,
red and furious.
It is unbearable.
Vocabulary is from Making The Most Of The Light (Happenstance, 2005)
Poems on this page Copyright © 2005, 2008 Matt Merritt
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Last modified: March 6th 2008