Sunday, 13 November 2011

Library presentation on the theme of 'The Gift', 2005

The presentation referred to here was the Haddon Library's contribution to the Cambridge University Alumni Weekend, 2005. The poem was written, around the time of the 2008 Alumni Weekend, for the Sefton poetry competition. The Sefton theme that year, reflecting the status of Sefton's neighbour Liverpool, was 'culture'.


That year, instead of readings, and to match
our theme, I thought we'd stage our own potlatch.

The anthropology curator, knowing
Canada by research and her own growing,
said no: cross-cultural representation
was strung in certain trouble and vexation,
and the destructive potlatch, as a seam
of thoughts I longed to throw at such a theme,
was controversial: far from all would show
that potlatches meant that, or happened so.

Back to the trusted pattern, then, instead.
Mauss on the potlatch was one thing we read;
and Thorstein Veblen's sneers; and Titmuss' blood;
and a Toronto matron's giverhood;
and Malinowski on the kula ring,
and in more recent women's questioning;
and while the readings went on at the front,
a pass-the-parcel game as running stunt,
every stopped sheet unwrapping one more quote --
Oscar Wilde, Monty Python, Henry Root,
and Miss Manners, and, for one lucky player,
museum postcards wrapped in the last layer,
seeing they were a gift whose best use lay
in the receiver's giving them away.

And all the time, throbbing, the things I did
to presents I had had when younger: presents
I had not thanked for, presents I had sold,
presents I had misused, broken, wholly destroyed.
How stage a potlatch? Who does what to whom?
Better the script, the readings, and the wrapping,
the shelter, the diversion, the cooling, the keeping.

On the poem's allusions: a web search will lead you to far more than I can tell you about the potlatch, the kula ring, Marcel Mauss, Thorstein Veblen, Richard Titmuss, and Bronislaw Malinowski. (And, come to that, about Monty Python, Oscar Wilde, Henry Root and Miss Manners.) I first came across the potlatch, many years ago, in a journal article -- possibly this by Lloyd DeMause -- which linked it with the sort of hang-up that makes you distrust your own good fortune, and destroy what is valuable for fear it goes bad. That, as the poem says, is a controversial view of what the potlatch is about, but it was what stayed with me.

Another of my entries in that Sefton competition won a prize. True to form, my prizewinner had been specially written for an earlier competition, and had no success there. The present poem, specially written for Sefton, has now appeared in Sunrise 3, November 2011, p. 5.


Monday, 7 November 2011

Science whimsy

This poem was written in 2005, evidently for a competition, though I can find no details of the competition other than the entry

"Universe, 2.2.2005 No"

in my poetry card index and

"Submitted sci and Strokestown poems"

in my diary for that date. It's more whimsy than science -- not one of those where I attempt to stumble along behind Clare's work in the field with talk of evidence, statistics etc. -- and it found success the following year, when it was highly commended in the Torbay competition. It didn't get published, but some competitions now rule out even the 'placed' poem from eligibility to enter. So I think this one merits the blog treatment.

The prediction in the final lines proved false. The new kettle needed replacement in a very short space of time.


OK – lines on Space, Time and Energy,
viewed through a chronic shortage of all three.

Space is our kitchen, with its working ring
of cupboard, cooking, table, sink, draining
and back to cupboard; Energy down metal
has water throb and pound inside the kettle;
and Time's the tale. Where shall I find the words,
kettle of eighteen years now burning cords?
Oh, since a kettle has no feelings, in
consigning cords and kettle to the bin,
and learning the new kettle, swiftly bought,
is hampered by a cord that is too short.
Not shorted, not short-fused, just short of length
to reach the power-point and draw down strength.
Moving the kettle to another place
would interrupt our working ring of space.
So I have gone and bought a longer cable,
greyed for hi-fi not kettles, this, and able
to blank out interfering signals. Well,
the kettle doesn't notice them, can't tell
the worth of this strong silence, maybe hears
discretion as obtuseness. So, for years,
the flex will serve the kettle watts, and dream
of music, pictures, data in the steam –
but know that as a keyboard's power cord,
mere muscle, it would be no less ignored.

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

The blurtmeter

When I posted the Blurts poem a couple of months ago, I mentioned another poem that I had posted on Facebook. The Facebook post was to a poetry competition run by the British Science Festival 2011. Not for the first time, I account publication of that sort as excuse enough for inclusion in this blog. Here comes the poem in question.


(first weeks of an experiment)

Motivation. To count the blurts
jabbed by the jangle of bad memories;
to make them less by x percent;
to unstep the cycle of embarrassment.

Method. A stopwatch on one finger,
with lapcount button in stretch of my thumb.
I set it running when I start the day,
thumb it for every blurt, then write the tally;
and the percent reduction that I seek,
twenty, a moving target week on week,
will be rewarded, on the days it's met,
by an entitlement to chocolate.


20 June 2006: 945 blurts in 7 days
Target for 27 June 2006: 756 blurts in 7 days
27 June 2006: 643 blurts in 7 days


I play at science. How define a blurt?
How can my self-reports be verified?
What if repeated thumb-stretch comes to hurt?
What if the madness stacks up more beside?

What are the benefits? I reckon three:
first, something new each time I look. The art is
to wear the stopwatch unobtrusively
(though guaranteed to break the ice at parties).

Second, think fifty blurts for twelve hours eight.
The jabbing jangle of remembered gaffes
is sidelined by the urge to calculate,
its importuning baffled in the maths.

Let's make the third rhyme ho, throw, go, grow, glow:
to have planned anything and found it so.

The poem was written for the Keats-Shelley Association competition in 2006, the theme of which was 'The experiment'. I found myself treating the competition brief as a kind of miniature research project. The experiment described in the poem is one I had long wanted to try. I continued it, with a succession of lap-counters, over three years, and it generated several further poems. But I intend to stick to my rule with these, and not blog them until they have achieved publication elsewhere. Any editors willing to give them a go?