Today I welcome John Atkinson as our guest poet of the month. I have known John for six years. I met him first at the 80th birthday party of a mutual poet friend. I was immediately struck by John’s depth of thought and application of the word. I have enjoyed countless roundtable sharing sessions with John and, to me, he ranks with the best of the ‘nature poets’ I have ever had the pleasure to read. John is a quintessential Yorkshire man and his ability with envisioning nature is enticing.
Enjoy ‘Lepus Becoming’ after the interview
What inspires you to write poetry?
No doubt you’ve heard the saying – ten percent inspiration and ninety per cent perspiration. I’m not sure that this is true all the time, and it does not take into account the little bit at the end, when you sit back, satisfied with a piece of work you feel ready to share with the world. However, before this can happen the first bits of the thought process have to make themselves known – the ideas needed to show the direction to take, searching for the poem – so even the perspiration can be enjoyable. Also I have a desire/ambition to write something that comes as close as I can muster to the writing of my favourite poets. And finally, sometimes I just want to have a communication with as many people as possible about how I have seen some aspect of ordinary life in a non-ordinary way.
What is a measure of success as a poet?
Can I widen your question to include the successes of individual poems. Being published by a well-known publisher, getting work out to a bigger audience, being in demand, these are things to be desired. But how do we measure our own success? Hard to say really; speaking as a little fish in a little pond I think it is important to write for oneself. Be true to your own experiences, keep working on the language as the poetic journey leads you from poem to poem, and look on each step forward as a series of small successes. Like so many things in life it is a journey of discoveries.
I have changed several of my early poems, poems I was pleased with when first I wrote them. One reason for this is, as I try to improve my skills as a writer of poetry, I hope to find better ways of saying – describing – finding the best sounds – and interesting, or unusual metaphors. Of course there can be a danger of overworking a poem. Some poems are started full of enthusiasm and then become difficult to resolve. We need to know when to put something down; come back to it later. And then some poems – hopefully not too many – will be destined for the bin. Norman MacCaig had his two fag rule. He would spend his summers walking in the Western Highlands, taking notes on the nature and places he visited. He took these back to Edinburgh to work into poems. If he couldn’t get the poem as he smoked two cigarettes he threw it away. I suppose any non-smokers who like this approach could boil two eggs. It would be no good for me however, Mr MacCaig was much cleverer than I am; I plod along at my own, rather slow, pace.
However, every once in a while, a poem seems to come out of – what, thin air, the recesses of the unconscious – wherever they come from, for me, these kinds of poems usually come as a piece, are written quickly and you just know you’ve captured something. This is the great payoff for me; it gives such a sense of satisfaction it’s hard to describe. When we create a thing that others relate to, and the words present a new view, a different way of understanding; that is when we have succeeded.
Who are some of your favourite poets?
Dylan Thomas was my first inspiration at age seventeen. I like Seamus Heaney and Sylvia Plath very much, also the above mentioned Norman MacCaig. Simon Armitage is a wonderful northern voice and I think Carol Ann Duffy has done great things, a first class poet laureate.
Nature appears in many of your poems. What inspires you to write about it?
I was brought up on a farm in the fifties, so I grew up steeped in a countryside more ancient than that of today. I am also knowledgeable about the ways of things natural. When I first read Dylan Thomas’s Fern Hill I too became the boy who, had the trees and leaves trail with daisies and barley down the rivers of the windfall light. Even now I am unable to read that poem without a great lump of emotion welling in my throat and seeing him/me revelling in the light on the magical waters.
What makes a poem good?
A hard question, isn’t it in the eye of the beholder? I envy those writers who come up with ideas I would never have thought of in a million years, but really wish I had.
What was the inspiration behind ‘Lepus Becoming’…could you say a bit about it?
The hare is one of my favourite animals, they have unusual proportions, their massive back legs enable them to gallop at great speed. They also have a sense of mystery: the moon-gazing hare, the March hares, boxing and chasing each other round and round – are they mad, or are they just revelling in the joy of being alive? A creature doesn’t have to be aware of an intellectual concept to be able to live it.
The writing of Lepus Becoming started with a little sonnet I wrote about a leveret (baby hare) that I found in a field many years ago. I never forgot the inky blackness of its eyes, or the softness of its fur as I touched it. I wanted to expand on it, build a few sonnets into a theme; at the time each one had its own title (please note; although the three sections of the poem have the correct number of lines for sonnets, and line breaks in places for the so-called turn, or volta, they do not have the strict rhyme scheme of the traditional sonnet form)
For the next one I delved into history: the Romans bringing rabbits, the hares natural enemy, to Britain(archaeology has now proved this as fact) then I went back to the end of the last ice age, when Britain was joined to the European land mass, then a reference to the mythology of Eostre, a Celtic fertility goddess whose name, and Spring festival, were taken over for the Christian festival of Easter (the same date, which, interestingly, is still fixed by the phases of the moon)
I stayed with the historical slant in the next section but brought it up to a more recent period, touching on the history and mechanisation of agriculture. At this point ,I realised that my little leveret sonnet didn’t fit into where I was going with the poem so I took it out. It is now a separate poem that I am very fond of.
I started on what became the third section, changed the title to Lepus Becoming, one poem in three parts, starting with the Romans. Another thing that happened at this stage, I came across a book called The Leaping Hare by George Ewart Evans. I can’t recommend it enough to anyone interested in hares and the folk-law surrounding them. As the final section took shape I used the names of the hare, from Evans’ book, coupled with my partial knowledge of the constellations and some interesting ideas, slightly modified, from Gnostic Christianity, to form a mythological synthesis about the beginnings, becomings and endings of my trains of thought on the splendid creature that is hare.
What advice would you give aspiring poets?
Read as much good poetry as you can, even poets you find difficult to begin with – I’m not very good at this – must try harder. My friend John takes his favourite poems for walks. When he visits a special place he will have selected a poem to read there – a special poem in a special place – what could possibly go wrong? One thing which we may find hard is criticism. It can be very useful if done well, so don’t be too precious about your “darlings” Poems, like everything in the perceived world, exist in a state of change, until they’re published that is. Just keep on reading and writing. Good luck.
The Glory that was Rome marched north and westward,
boarding boats to reach these shores. In addition to carnage
and death the legions carried a living larder of rabbits
and snails; also an idea there was one God only to rule
over Heaven and Earth, but he had a son made of flesh.
Hare, on the other hand, arrived before the North Sea gave rise
to shores, or a need for boats, so he loped across the lost land
from God knows where. Later, famously moon-struck,
becomes the favourite of Eostre, and who can blame her?
Beneath the face of a paschal moon he tries to forget
his many sorrows: the rabbits, who – like Romans –
permit no competition, kill and eat the brains of his young;
and equally multiplying, the followers of God’s son,
stealing his mistress’s birthday to mourn a singular death.
* * *
The swish of keen scythes could be heard when hand
followed hand, cutting swathes in successive arcs, each
described by the snaith’s wooden curves, bent around
the three dimensions. And gritty against peened edges, a rub
of carbide stones on thousands of blades, ends worn thin
by long summers of the mowers’ measured strokes; once
their grating sounds scraped across the fields of England.
Then the clatter-clat song of a reaper’s cutter-bar, then
the thrum of the combine’s deafening drum. All have sung
and turned about the falling stands of corn, where shapes
of men waited down the ages with sticks and guns.
Deep in a cover of crop concealed ears quiver.
A nose twitches to windward, smells the scent of danger.
Soon my timid friend your time to run will come.
* * *
Owd Sally, Grimalkin, Moll, Mawkin, Jack-o-the-stubble
Furze-cat, Swift-as-wind; there are places where his names
are not spoken lest it bring ill luck on those whose auguries
place him badly. Orion would invoke him, invite him
to the hunt, to race celestial hounds, outrun them if he can.
He’ll make a maze of his own scent in turns and sweeps,
retrace his steps, jump walls, dykes, hide in flocks of sheep
until the dogs have lost him. Chased and chasing across
the meat-eating Earth, his great heart pumps, to arteries,
muscle and lungs. But he must tire, and when he does, go
fetch a cooking pot, build a fire to roast a body,
mix blood and wine; after this feast he will become man.
If there is a familiar to guide us at our end I would like
mine to be hare, running beside me, leaping between worlds.