The incident described in ‘Swallows’ took place several years before I wrote the poem, but the memory returned insistently until it forced itself onto the page. At the time of the walk the poem describes, on a holiday in Somerset, my home was in a part of Cardiff where I never saw swallows. By the time I wrote the poem I was living in a village where swallows are common in summer, but I don’t think I have had such an intense encounter with them again, nor seen them so clearly. The poem is partly about the elusiveness of the sighting, though, since swallows move fast. When not moving they are usually at a distance, or in the dark, or silhouetted against the light. In this poem they feature in all these ways. They are also heard. I wanted to convey the sounds they made in their nest high in the dark rafters as well as the calls of the birds on the wing. While the time between going in to the barn and coming out of it is the core of the poem, such moments never happen in a vacuum and I think the walk before and after the central moment helps to throw it into relief. Octavio Paz quoted Paul Valéry as saying that ‘the poem is the development of an exclamation’ and Paz adds: ‘between development and exclamation there is a contradictory tension; and I should add that this tension is the poem.’ ‘O for a life of sensation rather than of thoughts!’ wrote Keats, and ‘Swallows’ is mainly focused on evoking sensations. Even the biggest ideas work better in poetry if they stay in touch with sensory experience. My poem contains a quotation which acknowledges this, as well as being a homage to its author. In a notebook Shelley transcribed a line from Sophocles which he translated ‘Coming to many ways in the wanderings of careful thought.’ In the Greek, Shelley notes, the choice of words for ‘ways’ and ‘wanderings’ make them literal, not metaphorical. The words imply real paths, real journeys; and this, for Shelley, gives the line ‘unfathomable depth.’ I don’t of course claim such depth for my borrowing, but I wanted to convey a parallelism between the act of prolonged mental attention – Shelley’s ‘careful thought’ – and going for a walk in late summer. There is contrast too, obviously, which makes the recollection of the walk refreshing. Apparently random memories can flash upon the inward eye with the surprise and speed of the swallows and the dazzle of the hot afternoon on which I saw them. Many poems, and certainly many of mine, are about the tension between mutability on one hand and everything we value, from the smallest epiphanies to our deepest relationships, on the other. ‘What survives of the beloved?’ is a universal theme (those words are Alun Lewis’s). I hope ‘Swallows’ makes a privileged moment perpetual by allowing it to be relived whenever the poem is read, even if you weren’t there the first time.
‘Giving Up The Keys’ centres on my last day as an employee of the university where I taught for four decades. It is difficult not to suppose that such turning points ‘ought’ to feel momentous, but in my experience they often don’t. It is this search for significance which motivates the personified ‘yesterday’ in its demand to ‘look into me… and say what I mean.’ The speaker of the poem baulks at the request, ostensibly because he is busy but also because the task of pronouncing meaning is beyond him. He settles for ‘enumerating’ the day’s events, of which the visit to the university is only one. The enumeration discloses that the speaker has improvised his own ritual of leave-taking. (I did, by the way, have several public farewells before and after the day the poem deals with.) It happened that the day my work contract ended was also the day of Dannie Abse’s ninetieth birthday dinner. I had met him several times, especially six months earlier at the presentations for the National Poetry Competition prizes, when I came third with ‘My Grandfather’s Hat’. We had got on well so it seemed right to go to his dinner, though it was a crowded event and I hardly had chance to talk to him. Although I say almost nothing about the dinner in the poem, I think readers will gather that it must have been a big occasion and that it serves as a substitute for any celebration of my own as well as a contrast to the lack of one. And it shows my participation in a public sphere outside the university. Abse’s long career, though alas he was to die twelve months later, helps make the point that retirement need not be the closing down of life, a point reinforced by my going home and planning a family holiday. (We did have the holiday, since you ask, and it was good.) I wrote more about that dinner in a memorial poem, ‘Dannie,’ contributed to a special issue of Wales Arts Review. ‘Giving Up The Keys’ is dedicated to Clare Potter, who took over some of my teaching, because she emailed to ask how my last day had gone. I had written the poem already but if Clare had not inquired it might have stayed in the notebook, untranscribed and unshared.
‘Don’s Present’ had its dedicatee in mind from the start. Without him this piece would not have been written, and the walk described would not have taken place. On Saturdays the only post near where I live goes at 9.30 and I had misremembered it as 9, so I was out even earlier than I needed to be. As the poem says, I am usually reading and writing around that time. ‘Don’s Present’ describes a customary walk round the village where I live, which had an unfamiliar aspect because of the earliness of the hour. It was this morning freshness that felt like a gift from Don to me. I knew that every year around the time of his birthday, which is in late February, Don looks out for the first celandine, hoping to be the first in his family to find one. In the earliest draft this piece had an extra sentence at the end of it. After ‘Next morning I made this, for Don, first thing, in my reading and writing time,’ I had written: ‘I am only sorry I didn’t find a celandine to put in it.’ As Don pointed out when he wrote back to me, by writing those words I had found one anyway. I am not sure if I was right to drop that sentence.
When is a prose piece a poem? I think prose works like verse if it is more heightened and condensed than we expect prose to be. Prose poems should read aloud in a way that does not make us impatient to be reading silently and faster than words can be physically articulated. They should maintain our interest at that human pace. The sound of the language, its music, should be intrinsic to the meaning. There should be due regard to rhythm, but the rhythms will be those that arise when the breaks signified by the line-endings of verse are not there to suggest pauses, however notional, in the delivery, other than those that arise ‘naturally’. Prose poems may also use language with more metaphorical inventiveness, reflectiveness and sense of heightened actuality than we may expect from prose. There are novels that are written like extended poetry, and there are good verse poems which are only subtly different from prose. I see literary writing as a continuum, a spectrum, without sharp divisions. The three pieces of mine in this issue of The Lonely Crowd are at different places on the spectrum. ‘Swallows’ is the most traditionally dense and crafted, with a slowed-down feel, whereas ‘Giving Up The Keys’ proceeds at a gallop. ‘Don’s Present’ is somewhere between the two in pace, but as prose its rhythms are freer, less constrained.
John Freeman’s White Wings: New and Selected Prose Poems appeared from Contraband Books in 2013. Previous collections include A Suite for Summer (Worple Press), and The Light Is Of Love, I Think: New and Selected Poems (Stride Editions). Stride also published a collection of essays, The Less Received: Neglected Modern Poets. He taught for many years at Cardiff University and lives in the Vale of Glamorgan.
John Freeman’s Three Poems can be found in Issue Two of The Lonely Crowd, which can be bought here.
Copyright © John Freeman, 2015. Banner image © Jo Mazelis 2015.