I have written about sonnets many times; Hannah Lowe’s “The Kids” is a striking volume written entirely in that particular poetic form. “The Art of Teaching II” will resonate with every teacher in the land. You can read it here.
I have written sonnets for 35 years. Nothing much…one or two that work, a couple play with the form. The obsessions with the passage of time and love and death thread through them. Lowe’s book prompted me to collect just ten together. Here they are.
November’s mellow rays yellow my face
To terminate another working day –
Home time. 3:20. Adolescents race
To flee this place: can’t wait to get away!
I sympathise with them and feel quite sure
If questioned (just once more) they would with me –
Tomorrow we’ll return to all endure
Tomorrow’s academic drudgery.
And yet today’s seen Hardy, Frost and Blake –
My luck their work and mine should coincide;
Poetic fervour stirs, alive, to make
These ill-considered sentiments subside.
Sun-beamed birches spread amber disarray –
One could do worse than work with verse all day.
Each Sunday afternoon she stayed
Behind her daughter’s board ’til tea.
Her worn palm pushed the hot, flat blade –
A ritual kept religiously.
This willing skivvy would insist,
Then grin in mumbled mock complaint
And claim that she’d be sorely missed:
Who else could keep these creases straight?
She died soon after we were wed,
And now her daughter is our guest
For Sunday lunch. No sooner fed,
The board goes up without request.
The hot flat blade moves steadily,
In tacit continuity.
His choice of pen remained the same
From undergraduate Cambridge days
To signing his headmaster name –
A Waterman in mottled beige.
The cursive blacksmith’s art had honed
The ink-filled gold into a tool
For use by him and him alone –
His hand made them inseparable.
Gold outlasts all. The pen was left
A legacy, bequeathed to her
Whose writing pleased the family most:
But straining through the unknown curves
It snapped, to leave the nib’s new host
Mourning afresh, doubly bereft.
I’ve got the Customer Original –
A portrait, circa 1975,
Of dad dressed up all smart but casual
In dog-tooth Harris Tweed and kipper tie.
With eyebrows Healeyesque and flash-bulbed eyes,
His shaven face looks freshly polished clean;
His smile’s all cheeks and jowls, and, no surprise,
The ’70s hair’s swept back with thick Brylcreem.
And once he’d died we all received a print.
I’ve not much else. Sometimes I feel bereft
When given too much time to sit and think.
A photograph? The godless ones are left
Behind with ink arranged on glossy paper;
The age-old trick – Art defeating Nature.
Summer of Love
No rutting stags or first-light pistol duels,
Just sun-tanned Romeos with wooden bats
Enacting summer’s mating ritual;
The thump of tennis balls made to attract
The girls, who peer up at the tattooed fools
And play their part in this engaging act.
Amongst the young flirtees two marrieds pass
Their adult son between them in the surf.
Without him serving notice, an aimless grasp
At nothing sees him stumble and then lurch
From dad to mum, a break, then mum to dad;
When he’s received they haul him high above
The swell and kiss his vacant, palsied head –
A tennis match, whose only score’s to love.
His old man crossed the landing to his room
And, careful not to wake the eldest son,
He whispered to the youngest through the gloom
The needless exhortation, John, come on.
The weather’s good. And like two guilty thieves
They rode unnoticed through the early dawn;
A getaway on bikes along York’s streets
To Puncture Bridge. The morning mist adorned
The slow, resplendent Ouse – just like this June,
Fifty years on. Those stolen early starts,
Sat with his dad beneath the fading moon,
Were where he learnt the expert angler’s art:
When to strike, how to read the river’s flow –
Such things that only fishermen can know.
You stood, alert, at deep square leg,
White shirt, blue top, short pleated skirt.
A batter’s ‘thwack’ rang round the rec
And off you flew – kingfisher blur –
Eyes fixed upon the Stoolball ball
Which smacked into your fearless hands
And stuck. Not once, but five more times
You caught the opposition out –
The last, at dusk, to clinch the match.
Dubbed Sticky Fingers by the team,
You won a jet-black, plastic shield
With ‘CATCHES’ simply scribed in gold;
No bigger than your palm, you hand
It me, to hold when you have gone.
Note: Stoolball is a sport that dates back to at least
the 15th century, originating in Sussex. Traditionally
it was played by milkmaids who used their milking
stools as a ‘wicket’.
I don’t want to be known as a war photographer – I hate that phrase.
Death confronts us all. I steal past slaughters.
Cruel tortures. Tiptoe round our country’s dregs.
Skirt a foreign father, his dead daughter.
Amputees. Spent beggars on their last legs.
Protruding ribs. Unwarranted arrests.
Executions. Slain bodies gape, unsewn.
Lost souls. The dispossessed. McCullin’s best.
His greatest hits. Shot after shot rips home.
He haunts each room. His liver-spotted hands
Birthed every print. In reverential awe
I stand, transfixed. This gentle artisan,
For one last time, displaying what he saw.
Here is my work, he seems to say. Enough!
And injured, there, beneath the gore, breathes love.
Boy, could he run! An athlete’s graceful stance
And, oh, those slim Calypso hips which threw
The finest shapes the Inter-Racial Dance
Had ever seen. She caught his eye and knew,
Right there, he was The One! But dad did not,
And forced their fledgling love into the sun
Of Crystal Palace Park, where they forgot
Themselves and kissed between his training runs.
Damp winters took their toll and she fell ill.
A Christian man, he prayed to God above;
Defied the Priest’s Last Rites through force of will.
When she pulled through, her dad had seen the love
Of one who’d stayed bedside both night and day –
And blessed this Windrush son, young Vera’s Clay.
On reaching the same age as my dad when he died
At 4 a.m. each working day you rose,
Awoken by your Baby Ben’s alarm
Whose tyrant-ring the grind of work imposed
And clanged you out into the breaking dawn.
A life dictated by that jarring note,
Your thirties schooling meant no choice for you;
Though you could read quite well, you barely wrote –
The collar of your Postman’s shirt was blue.
Your clock sits on a shelf above my desk,
Its bell long stilled; arms stuck at five past three.
And as I write or chat or sit and think
I feel its presence frowning over me.
The oval face looks down and seems to ask,
What granted you such untold liberty?
17 November 2021