Author Archives: robertrollison

Zombies, by Lavinia Greenlaw

Lavinia Greenlaw is an English poet. For an understanding of this poem, it is useful to know that she was born in 1962 and brought up in rural England. She now teaches creative writing at the University of East Anglia.

The poet is remembering a time in 1980 when she made an unaccustomed visit to the city, maybe for the first time without her parents. The clause ‘I was returned’ suggests that her visit was somehow dictated, just as much as her upbringing in the country was involuntary. The journey back to the city is along lighted roads – probably a freeway – where light and dark alternate as you drive along like the exposures of a series of photographs. In memory, the first thing they – the poet and a friend? – do when they arrive is find a bar; it’s down an alley and its brightness is both literally neon bright and shorthand for ‘the bright lights’. Then comes a list of the attractions of the bar. I like ‘a doll’s parasol’ because it relates both to childhood, which she hopes she is leaving, and to a common decoration for a cocktail.  As well as cherries on toothpicks, there are ‘actual limes’ – not the cordial of childhood. The word ‘actual’ expresses her almost incredulous pleasure at this abundance. The word ‘physic’ also carries a lot of freight; something or someone is wanting to be cured here, but this very literary word is probably also an allusion to studies she did in her A levels. Such bars open early and close late; you can get rum at any time.  The five lines up to the full stop after ‘rum’ are full of the physical titillation you get from alcohol.

The next line is more reflective and sober; she is remembering how it all happened. She was old enough to drink, and had some kind of allowance – possibly a student allowance – and was for the first time able to feel free to indulge. They knocked back the drinks, and the melting ice suggests not only the ice in the glass, but also the barriers in the relationship between the poet and her companion. It seemed like freedom. But then she wonders in retrospect what on earth they were doing? ‘What possessed us’ is a clever line because ‘possessed’ has the double meaning of alcohol and irresponsibility. The kick of spirits is both the alcohol and the spirit of newly found freedom. The ‘invisible syrup’ I have trouble with; probably it is part of the cocktail, but syrup is also associated with medicine in childhood. The alcohol gets them into their car, and driving back the way they had come.

I find it interesting that the first stanza ends here. It contains the experience of leaving, then of the bar, and then the reflection about why they had acted in this way. Why stop here? I think it is to highlight where they went –which is back to the countryside they supposed themselves to have escaped from. Perhaps their sortie into the world of alcohol didn’t really free them from the thralls of childhood, which is why the description of that world has references to childish things in it.

The second stanza begins with this return, emphasised as a new line: ‘to the fields of our years of boredom …’. To the young, boredom is a curse, but a state they spend a lot time in, watching paint dry, as it were. Sundays are especially bad; they ‘drank our blood’ suggests the not merely enervation but vampires sucking out life, making them zombies. ‘How people died bursting out of a quiet life’ sounds like youthful exaggeration, but there is a literal truth underlying it. Boredom leads to excess, leads to drink driving, leads to death. ‘Who can see such things and live to tell’ sounds like a cliché, but also has a deeper truth in the dangers of excess.

The next section of the stanza returns to a review of what happened after their visit to the bar. This recollection also seems heightened: did they really spend all night, or fall eight feet through a hedge? Are they still in the car? These lines seem shrill – striking, lurching, smashing – a tone perfect for the disjointed consciousness that comes with too much to drink. But then the tone changes again: ‘Of course we felt nothing’ – being drunk dulls the senses, and with these words she dismisses the whole experience as an overblown recollection.

What were they really escaping from? By going to the city bar they were trying to escape the boredom of home, but, the poet asks, wasn’t the problem really with themselves?  ‘As if’ such escape was really possible is the sad conclusion of an adult, looking back at the self-delusion of youth. By the title, the poet wryly suggests her younger self was still only partly living, a zombie whether bored or drunk.


1980, I was returned to the city exposed
in black and white as the lights went on and on.
A back-alley neon sign, the first I’d seen,
drew us sweetly down and in to brightness:
A doll’s parasol, a spike of green cherries,
the physic of apricot brandy, actual limes
and morning-to-night shades of rum.
Newly old enough and government-moneyed,
we knocked them back, melting the ice
between us and the unaccustomed looseness
of being legitimate and free. What possessed us?
Was it the kick of spirits or the invisible syrup
In which they swam that worked in our veins,
charming us into a car and forty miles east

to the fields of our years of boredom …
Did we not remember the curse of this place?
How Sundays drank our blood as we watched
dry paint or the dust on the television screen.
How people died bursting out of a quiet life,
or from being written into a small world’s stories.
Who can see such things and live to tell?
How we hunted all night for noise and love,
striking out across the ploughed and frozen earth,
lurching from rut to rut until at the edge
we smashed our way out through a hedge, to fall
eight feet to the road. Of course, we felt nothing.
Was it not ourselves who frightened us most?
As if brightness or sweetness could save us.

Introduction to Poetry, by Billy Collins

Billy Collins is an American poet; he was the US Poet Laureate from 2001 to 2003, and has spent a lifetime teaching literature to university students. The poem below comes from a collection called The Apple that Astonished Paris published in 1996.

The title of the poem is like that of an English course – Poetry 101. Collins is here contrasting two ways of reading a poem. One, he advocates in the first five stanzas; the other, which he deplores but fears is only too common, is found in the last two. 

The ‘them’ he is talking about in the first line is other readers, such as the students he has taught over the years, and literary critics. He would like them to explore a poem, and offers several images of experiential investigation, all related to physical sensations. First there is holding it up to the light, then listening to it. The word ‘hive’ suggests the poem is full of something you can hear buzzing if only you listen. The hive is also full of honey, a pleasure you can taste.

Dropping a mouse into a poem is a bit more problematic, but refers to an experimental mouse going through its paces in a cage, exploring its environment to find its way to a reward. This is a striking and unusual image for the rewarding exploration of a poem. Walking inside a room and finding a switch is yet another way of suggesting there may be a key to the poem – another physical image – which will flood it with light. We have thus appreciating colour, seeing, hearing and tasting as guides to reading a poem.

The reader can also skim across the surface of the poem as a skier does water, but must at the same time wave at – or acknowledge – the author of the poem; it belongs to him, not them. He wants a lightness of touch, a fun and pleasurable reading. Is there a pun here on immersing oneself in a poem?

But what Collins fears from some readers – not least some academic critics – is a heavy handed attempt to force meaning from a poem, which therefore comes out sounding tortured. This is underlined by the all too familiar images of tying up and beating. Of course the ‘meaning’ will be excruciatingly distorted by this process, just as truth is routinely distorted by torture.

This is a very conversational poem, an effect achieved with great skill through the punctuation and line breaks. The break after ‘slide’ ends the first stanza, but leads directly on to the single line making up the second stanza. This gives the reader another example of a sensual reaction, like a second thought, ending with a full stop. The third and fourth two line stanzas are two more examples, each a separate thought. This fifth stanza is another stand alone thought, ending with a full stop. The mood then changes for the last two stanzas, each of which is completed with a full stop, breaking the flow of the poem in a way that mirrors the images of brutality. The final couplet rounds the poem off with a sort of despairing finality.

Overall, Collins wants a lightness of touch, a response of the senses in reading, not a forensic dismemberment in a search for meaning. I hope you can’t see any rubber hoses in this post.

It may sound unlikely, but the one poet Collins reminds me of unavoidably is a seventeenth century poet: John Dryden (1631-1700). This is because of his minute attention to detail and scrupulous rhythms. 

 Introduction to Poetry, by Billy Collins

I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide

or press an ear against its hive.

I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,

or walk inside the poem’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch.

I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.

But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.


Going, Going, by Philip Larkin

Larkin wrote this poem in 1972. How much more evocative is it today?

The title ‘Going, Going’ is the key to the whole poem. In Larkin’s view, what is ‘going’ is the landscape of England as a green and pleasant land. It is being replaced by shoddy development, summed up by the auctioneer’s excited cry of ‘going, going’ as another piece of the old heritage falls under the hammer. Going, going, but not yet quite gone. Larkin once thought it would ‘last his time’. Now he doubts that.

The poem has a disarmingly conversational tone, which belies the bleakness of what Larkin is saying. This tone is partly contrived by the rhyming pattern of each six line stanza: A B C A B C, which makes for a more open quality than couplets, for example, would have done. Right from the start he has a disillusioned air about the future of England. ‘I thought’ – past tense – ‘it would last my time’. There is a comfortable public belief, which he once shared, that traditional England will not be overwhelmed by ‘development’; there will always be an England that even ‘village louts’ – not just those with special discernment – can enjoy. Note the play on the patriotic song: ‘There’ll always be an England’. But already Larkin signals danger in the words ‘such trees’ as were not cut down.  He knew there’d be alarms, but thought them false. It is important that this line ends the first stanza, as it ties in with Larkin’s half apologetic acknowledgement that he was wrong in what he thought.

The second stanza, continuing the sentence, names some of what is being lost to ‘progress’. The reader is surely getting nervous about what is happening, but Larkin ironically dismisses concern; after all, ‘we can always escape in the car’, a reference that prepares us for the impact of the car, later in the poem. Larkin then continues to outline the modern belief in development; that we aren’t doing any real damage, that things are tougher than we are. This is followed at the end of the line with another ironic usage; ‘just’ belongs with the next line, but qualifies the one it is on. Larkin has been talking about manufactured or built things, in contrast to the earth and the sea. These, it is said, will always adjust to whatever rubbish is thrown at them. But suddenly at the end of the third stanza, Larkin moves from this comfortable belief to what – doubt? Coming at the end of the line, this has added impact.

Or is it simply age? Here ‘age’ refers to his own advancing years, and also to the deterioration of things, as in the spirit of the age. Is this gloom merely a private reaction? The rest of this stanza is devoted to a sharply hostile vision of the ‘new England’ in which people want more, an adjective that Larkin uses five times in this stanza, giving an effect of dreary repetition. He clearly feels no affinity with the people who use cafes on the M1. But he equally despises those in society who promote and profit from development; ‘spectacled grins’ is a clever summary of the new businessmen and technocrats. ‘More’ is also being used to great effect here; its repetition builds a sense of urgency as more houses, pay and parking, and more profit, combine to ruin what was previously unspoilt. And escaping in the car just leads to gridlock at the beach. Here again is that conversational tone; you know what the traffic’s like. His lack of dogmatism, his air of bemusement – ‘it seems, just now, to be happening so very fast’ – give an added weight to his statement, as if after all, everyone must see that it is true.   

Larkin is beginning to think that it is all up with England. I take the word ‘boiling’ to mean ‘the whole damn thing’, but would welcome other interpretations. Think of streams, diverted into concrete culverts, and paved over. He fears that what he thinks of as England will become just another theme-park for tourists. There is real bitterness in his dismissive reference to England’s leaders as ‘crooks and tarts’. The idea that ‘first slum of Europe’ is a title that might be won is a reference to the sort of game show mentality that Larkin sees demolishing traditional culture.

And then he outlines what will be lost. ‘The shadows, the meadows, the lanes,/The guildhalls, the carved choirs.’ In just a few words he paints a picture of what he thinks is valuable about England; I think this is a wonderful selection. He’s probably wrong about the books (and don’t forget he was a librarian); there will just be e-readers.  But what there will be most of is the sort of parking lots around shopping centres that our reliance on the car demands.

Larkin isn’t really blaming anyone for this. It just happens. Weary fatalism is the over-riding mood of the poem. Greed and garbage – note the alliteration – go together; each causes the other and neither can be easily swept away. ‘Too thick-strewn to be swept’ is also highly alliterative. The rhyming of ‘greeds’ and ‘needs’ is particularly clever, as turning what people want into what they think they need is a feature of the consumer society that Larkin is bewailing. The last line gets its punch, I think, from the comma after ‘happen’, leaving ‘soon’ as the full stop.

This poem is forty years old. So much of what Larkin feared then, has happened. Nevertheless, I’m slightly uneasy about this poem. Decisions about where people live, and what their built environment looks like don’t in my view, just happen. They are a product of a set of choices made by people who control the resources of a society, with more or less input from the people who live in that society. Larkin despises both the young people in the M1 cafe, and the financial types with ‘spectacled grins’. But I don’t think they bear equal responsibility.

 Going, going

I thought it would last my time –
The sense that, beyond the town,
There would always be fields and farms,
Where the village louts could climb
Such trees as were not cut down;
I knew there’d be false alarms

In the papers about old streets
And split level shopping, but some
Have always been left so far;
And when the old part retreats
As the bleak high-risers come
We can always escape in the car.

Things are tougher than we are, just
As earth will always respond
However we mess it about;
Chuck filth in the sea, if you must:
The tides will be clean beyond.
– But what do I feel now? Doubt?

Or age, simply? The crowd
Is young in the M1 cafe;
Their kids are screaming for more –
More houses, more parking allowed,
More caravan sites, more pay.
On the Business Page, a score

Of spectacled grins approve
Some takeover bid that entails
Five per cent profit (and ten
Per cent more in the estuaries): move
Your works to the unspoilt dales
(Grey area grants)! And when

You try to get near the sea
In summer . . .
        It seems, just now,
To be happening so very fast;
Despite all the land left free
For the first time I feel somehow
That it isn’t going to last,

That before I snuff it, the whole
Boiling will be bricked in
Except for the tourist parts –
First slum of Europe: a role
It won’t be hard to win,
With a cast of crooks and tarts.

And that will be England gone,
The shadows, the meadows, the lanes,
The guildhalls, the carved choirs.
There’ll be books; it will linger on
In galleries; but all that remains
For us will be concrete and tyres.

Most things are never meant.
This won’t be, most likely; but greeds
And garbage are too thick-strewn
To be swept up now, or invent
Excuses that make them all needs.
I just think it will happen, soon.

Ratatouille, by Douglas Dunn

Ratatouille is the queen of vegetable stews, especially if you make it properly, removing the juice and letting the veggies stew in oil. Here is Douglas Dunn’s hymn to this wonderful dish, the very essence of which he sees as an antidote to war and strife.

In the first line Dunn physically presents the reader with an actual dish of ratatouille. Then he immediately personalises it, making the dish capable of thoughts and actions. The first is to abjure war. This poem comes from St Kilda’s Parliament, published 1981; it is interesting that in 2012 there is still a war in Afghanistan and that the Olympic Games are upon us – and continuing to be politicised.  (The competing national teams are as much a part of politics as sport.) The poet then presents other things for appetite, firstly the modernist French painter Raoul Dufy. He sees the dish is democratic; pleasing to all across classes and politics. Like a human being, it in turn feeds on wine and sun. Unlike human beings it has no enemies, not even a salad that uses many of the same ingredients and comes from the same region and might therefore be seen as competition, or ersatz food like that from an instant packet. It does not take sides between leaders at opposite ends of the political spectrum. He finishes the stanza back with the dish, cleverly reverting to the use of the sort of political slogan he has just repudiated, calling on friends to unite in celebration. But where Brezhnev and Reagan are polarising, the love of ratatouille brings people together.

The second stanza is basically a recipe for making Ratatouille, book-ended by comments about the sort of people (men) who don’t give proper attention to cooking. At the beginning of the stanza, he is contrasting a dream- like, or pseudo psychological approach to relaxation, with real focussed attention. Then follows some lovely lines like the one describing aubergines, which are indeed an imperial purple. I note, not approvingly, that he is addressing men, and assuming that their wives usually deliver the food. He thinks that men should help, which is not the same thing as doing it themselves. All the same, you might do worse than follow the recipe. The stanza ends contrasting the sort of things that men who don’t care about or respect cooking do, like going to war – which Dunn noted in the first.

The first four lines of the third stanza prepare you for the meal, and create an ambience for eating it. But then Dunn moves beyond ratatouille, or even cooking, and takes up the message of love, not war. ‘Prepare this stew of love, and ask for more’ – is not just about more food, but more love, in the hope of making the world a better place. The last line of the poem has an urgency, desperation even, in ‘Quick, before it is too late’; this is counterbalanced by the traditional ‘Bon appetit’, which is both soothing, and a call to arms.

A personal comment on Dunn. When asked which writers he felt most affinity with, he answered: ‘I find quite a close affinity with Derek Mahon’s concerns thematically and stylistically … And Michael Longley is another poet with whom I feel considerable affinity; the Scottish poet Stewart Conn; and Seamus Heaney too, to some extent. I can see the way their imaginations work more clearly than with other older contemporaries.’ (Quoted from Viewpoints: Poets in Conversation with John Haffenden. Faber, 1981) All of these poets share with Dunn a strongly Celtic view of things and are roughly the same age. My guess is that they also see things from a male point of view. But don’t let this put you off trying them.

Ratatouille, by Douglas Dunn

Consider please this dish of ratatouille.
Neither will it invade Afghanistan
Or boycott the Olympic Games in a huff.

It likes the paintings of Raoul Dufy.
It feeds the playboy and the working-man.
Of wine and sun it cannot get enough.
It has no enemies, no, no even
Salade Niçoise or phoney recipes,
Not Leonard Brezhnev, no, not Ronald Reagan.
It is the fruits of earth, this ratatouille,
And it has many friends, including me.
Come, lovers of ratatouille, and unite.

It is a sort of dream, which coincides
With the pacific relaxations called
Preferred Reality. Men who forget
Lovingly chopped-up cloves of ail, who scorn
The job of slicing two good peppers thinly,
Then two large onions and six aubergines –
Those long, impassioned and imperial purples –
Which, with six courgettes, you sift with salt
And cover with a plate for one round hour;
Or men who do care to know about
The eight ripe pommes d’amour their wives have need of,
Preparing ratatouille, who give no thought to
The cup of olive oil that’s heated in
Their heaviest pan, or onions, fried with garlic
For five observant minutes, before they add
Aubergines, courgettes, peppers, tomatoes;
Or men who give no thought to what their wives
Are thinking as they stand besides their stoves
When seasoning is sprinkled on, before
A bouquet garni is dropped in – these men
Invade Afghanistan, boycott the Games,
Call off their fixtures and prepare for war.

Cook for one hour, and then serve hot or cold
Eat it, for preference, under the sun,
But, if you are Northern, you may eat
Your ratatouille imagining Provence.
Believe me, it goes well with everything,
As love does, as peace does, as summers do
Or any other season, as a lifetime does.
Acquire, then, for yourselves, ingredients;
Prepare this stew of love, and ask for more.
Quick, before it is too late. Bon appétit!

The Conway Stewart, by Seamus Heaney

This morning I picked up Seamus Heaney’s Human Chain (Faber 2010), and read ‘The Conway Stewart’. You can read it below. I chose to start with this poem because of the wonderful irony of writing a blog on a computer about a fountain pen, a piece of technology for writing, just as intricate and to me and as beautiful as a computer. It is also a piece of my past, when a new fountain pen was a real treat. You can see a picture of a Conway Stewart fountain pen here.

The poem begins with a description of the Conway Stewart. ‘Medium’ is the size of the pen, but also suggests a sense of restraint, nothing excessive, though the three gold bands suggest elegance. On the other hand, spatulate is a somewhat awkward word – and the mechanism for filling a pen with ink with a lever is awkward. In his 2007 book How To Read a Poem, Terry Eagleton makes the point that an essential element of poetry is the way the poet ends lines and starts new ones. Here Heaney leaves the reader suspended after ‘thin’, somehow leading on to more forceful words ‘pump action’ at the beginning of the next stanza. This sense of being led along, shown a demonstration is emphasised by there not being any punctuation between the lever and the shop keeper, who is demonstrating this, as to a young person buying their first grown up fountain pen.  

This idea of the pen being bought as a treat is reversed in the next stanza, making the pen conscious, in the sense of it being treated to a drink, as an animal might be. The choice of the word snorkel suggests that the pen is breathing under water – or under ink in this case.  Then comes the word ‘guttery’, which has to do with emptying the contents of a gut, or tube. It’s a harsh word, perhaps because of its association with abattoirs, and I’m not sure why he’s used it, except that is seems to fit with the next word ‘snottery’ , an invented word suggesting a sucking sound like sniffle. The word ‘injest’ is another metaphor showing that something live is going on here.

From the pen as something alive – though we know it really isn’t – the poet then moves to the people involved. What I think these last two stanzas mean is it that the child receiving the pen is going away, quite possibly to boarding school. Under the excitement there is a sadness, conveyed by the looking first at each other and then away as if to hide uneasiness. The pen will be used to write home once parents and child are apart.

I would be very happy if readers could add to this interpretation. You can see Heaney reading this poem here.

The Conway Stewart

“Medium,” 14-carat nib,
Three gold bands in the clip-on screw-top,
In the mottled barrel a spatulate, thin

Pump-action lever
The shopkeeper

The nib uncapped,
Treating it to its first deep snorkel
In a newly opened ink-bottle,

Guttery, snottery,
Letting it rest then at an angle
To ingest,

Giving us time
To look together and away
From our parting, due that evening,

To my longhand
To them, next day.


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