This poem by Brian Patten from his collection ‘Armada’ resonates with me.
These Boys Have Never Really Grown into Men
These boys have never really grown into men,
despite their disguises, despite their adult ways,
their sophistication, the camouflage of their kindly smiles.
They are up to their old tricks,
still at the wing-plucking stage. Only now
their prey answers to women’s names.
And the girls, likewise, despite their disguises,
despite their adult ways, their camouflage of need,
still twist love till its failure seems not of their making;
something grotesque migrates hourly
between our different needs,
and is in us all like poison.
How strange I’ve not understood so clearly before
how liars and misers, the cruel and the arrogant
lie down and make love like all others,
how nothing is ever as expected, nothing is ever as stated.
Behind doors and windows nothing is ever as wanted.
The good have no monopoly on love.
All drink from it. All wear its absence like a shroud.
The poetry collection I would save from the metaphorical burning house would be ‘Armada’ by Brian Patten. Each poem is a gem. This one, perhaps, the most moving of all.
You never went to a ball, ever.
In all your years sweeping kitchens
No fairy godmother appeared, never.
Poor, poor sweetheart,
This rough white cloth, fresh from the hospital laundry,
Is the only theatre- gown you’ve ever worn.
No make-up. Hair matted with sweat.
The drip beside your bed discontinued.
Life was never a fairy-tale.
The Penguin poetry collection called ‘The Mersey Sound’ was published 50 years ago this year. That is staggering news since the poetry of all three is alive and relevant right now. Although it first appeared in 1967, I became aware of it in the 70s when I reached my teens and turned away from the poetry of school and towards poetry I found for myself. Obviously, I thought I was something of a pioneer when I discovered this volume and was nonplussed when an English teacher knew more about it than I did! He didn’t bring these poems to class.
I first heard Roger McGough live and in person in Oxford when I was a student and I have heard him in several other places since. It may be true that poetry is like rock n roll since I have found myself in the audience just hoping he will read my favourites. He has packed many venues. When I last heard him, the audience in Bath was terrific. But that first time, back in Oxford, there were only a few of us. I know tickets have to be sold, but this was the reading I remember most fondly.
I heard Brian Patten many years later in Bath at the literature festival. He, too, was fantastic and I would love to hear him again.
I also have a story about Adrian Henri! He gave a reading at the festival in Bath and I had a ticket. But I was ill! I decided to give the evening a miss with the thought that I could always hear him some other time. Oh, the ifs of history.
‘The Mersey Sound’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
This poem by Brian Patten back in the 60s is just one reason why I hold him in high esteem. His poem was a response to the awful, racist election in Smethwick in 1964 and the mood of certain sections in the population about immigration. The fact that this was a white man writing shows that allies are to be found everywhere. I like the poem but I love the fact that Brian Patten wrote it.
I’m Dreaming of a White Smethwick
(An old, never-to-be-forgotten song)
I’m Dreaming of a White Smethwick,
One I didn’t want to know,
Where they’ll have allwhite, allright children
And the White and White Minstrel Show.
I’m Dreaming of a White Smethwick
Where they’ll have a brandnew dance;
Teach their kids to close their eyes
And forget that once
Strange men came to Smethwick
With slogans whitewashed on their minds,
They campaigned about a while
And left their shit behind.
I saw black father christmasses
Burning in the snow,
Protesting to the Opposition
About what happened a while ago.
The last blackbird’s been shot in Smethwick
And the council’s doing allright,
The M.P.’s in the Commons
Making sure his words are white.
Chorus: May all your days be merry and bright
And may all your citizens be white.
Note: As in numerous folk songs, the words may be improvised on to suit the present.
I was fortunate enough to hear Brian Patten at a poetry reading some years ago. I hear his voice (or what I recall of it) when I read this poem. I love it!
What do cats remember of days?
They remember the ways in from the cold,
The warmest spot, the place of food.
They remember the places of pain, their enemies,
the irritation of birds, the warm fumes of the soil,
the usefulness of dust.
They remember the creak of a bed, the sound
of their owner’s footsteps,
the taste of fish, the loveliness of cream.
Cats remember what is essential of days.
Letting all other memories go as of no worth
they sleep sounder than we,
whose hearts break remembering so many
I am a fan of the work of Brian Patten. There are so many poems of his that I like that they must each take their turn to be my current favourite. Here is the latest to have that status.
One Another’s Light
I do not know what brought me here
Away from where I’ve hardly ever been and now
Am never likely to go again.
Faces are lost, and places passed
At which I could have stopped,
And stopping, been glad enough.
Some faces left a mark,
And I on them might have wrought
Some kind of charm or spell
To make their futures work,
But it’s hard to guess
How one person on another
Works an influence.
We pass, and lit briefly by one another’s light
Hope the way we go is right.
This poem by Brian Patten would make it into my personal anthology.
You lose your love for her and then
It is her who is lost,
And then it is both who are lost,
And nothing is ever as perfect as you want it to be.
In a very ordinary world
A most extraordinary pain mingles with the small routines,
The loss seems huge and yet
Nothing can be pinned down or fully explained.
You are afraid.
If you found the perfect love
It would scald your hands,
Rip the skin from your nerves,
Cause havoc with a computered heart.
You lose your love for her and then it is her who is lost.
You tried not to hurt and yet
Everything you touched became a wound.
You tried to mend what cannot be mended,
You tried, neither foolish nor clumsy,
To rescue what cannot be rescued.
And now she is elsewhere
And her night and your night
Are both utterly drained.
How easy it would be
If love could be brought home like a lost kitten
Or gathered in like strawberries,
How lovely it would be;
But nothing is ever as perfect as you want it to be.