I’ve written poems as well as songs for almost as long as I can remember. The two don’t mix at all. They are very different processes, subject to very different rules. My songs tend to spring more-or-less fully formed from the brow of the goddess. Just a little bit of brushing-up: change a word or two, insert a middle eight before the second refrain and Roberto is your mother’s brother.
However, the poems are contrary and downright awkward at times. No matter how inspired I might feel in the instant of creation, I come back again and again to edit and review, making finer adjustments each time. Thus they absorb enormous amounts of energy and care, far beyond any literary justification and certainly far beyond the needs of a posterity for which I have precious little regard. Yet I rephrase the same passage a dozen times, polishing, burnishing, cropping and peeling it back to its roots until the rhythm flows just as it should, the language sits exactly right and the verse delivers whatever dose of truth I feel it should ... at least to me. For when I speak of an “audience of one” in “Mr Heaney’s pen”
, I’m referring more to myself than to some other real or ideal lector.
My verse is unfashionably formal. “By any other name”
is in sonnet form and many of the others – in particular “Nicky’s window”
, “Bread on water”
, “Sofia Central”
, “The water stone”
, “The prodigals return”
, “The Ethiopian”
, “The inheritors”
– are strict in their respect for rhyme and metre. “The inheritors”
is textbook neo-formalism, although I have never read anything, anywhere with such a 6 – 6 – 7 – 5 – 5 iambic footprint to every verse, while “The water stone”
is a work of pure neo-classicism, right down to the way it winks at Donne and Milton in its use of images and significant (ergo capitalized) metaphysical nouns. It even boasts an introduction in the best rhetorical tradition, which I chose not to include here.
Concerning anything that may seem obscure: “On falling into Casablanca ...”
of course refers to the film. “By any other name”
should send you running to your Shakespeare. For “Arnheim at the Tate”
consult the works of René Magritte. “The Beeching Report”
concerns the unforeseen effects on my childhood of a government White-Paper that heralded the closure of Britain’s branch-line railways in the 1960s. If “The prodigals return”
reminds you of the first stanza of “Winkin, Blinkin and Nod”, this is not an accident. “Wire”
and “The inheritors”
are both about the existential fears inherent to life in Belgium in the late 1990s: “Wire”
referring to the pervasive sense of paranoia surrounding the Dutroux case, while “The inheritors”
deals with the limits of compromise as a political panacea and the limits of apathy as a form of resistance. To understand the phrase “the pallid empire of the meek” I suggest Matthew, chapter 5, verse 5.
My heartfelt thanks go to my other “audience of one”, Bahiyyih Nakhjavani, who patiently read, minutely commented and even, to my great delight, actually enjoyed this entirely gratuitous task. She has been an encouragement and an inspiration throughout, teasing out those finer skeins from the mounds of wet wool left lying in the corners of my life after years of habitual gathering from fences and hedgerows. Thanks also, belatedly, to my dear mother, who commented most of these verses in their raw state back in 1999. Her advice was not ignored, as a mother’s advice so often is. It generally saved me from my meandering self and brought me back to the essentials.
I have used “Mr Heaney’s pen”
and “Of love and language”
as bookends. The former as it serves to set the tone, and the latter as there is not much that could possibly come after it.
Hugh Featherstone, November 2012
You can read the lyrics of many of Hugh's songs at www.featherstone.co.nr