Sunday Poem – David Constantine

Hello everybody.  I’ve just got back from an amazing weekend at a residential course at Rydal Hall near Ambleside.  This course was the culmination of the Writing School – an 18 month intensive course I’ve been taking part in, run by the fabulous Ann and Peter Sansom of the Poetry Business. I’m pretty shattered – the whole weekend has been really intense and full of poetry – I’m not fed up of poetry though, my head is still buzzing with ideas and poems which is slightly worrying as by tomorrow I need to be back in music teacher mode – but it feels like I’ve been away for a week rather than just a weekend.

On Friday I drove up to Dove Cottage for a two hour editing session with the Kendal Young Writers group.  It was the first time they had edited their poems and I was really impressed with the way they reacted to suggestions and took them on board.

I then sped up to Rydal Hall in time for dinner with the Writing School.  One of the instructions was to prepare to read for eight minutes as another poet that we admired.  I thought that we would simply be reading say, four poems by said poet – but what little faith I displayed in my compatriots on the course!  Like a poet-monster with fourteen heads but one shared gigantic brain, they all decided that they would not (after dinner) simply read four poems by another poet – no, they would become that other poet!  So we had Alan Payne arriving not as Alan Payne but as Miroslav Holub on Friday night to start us off.  It was an interesting exercise to see which poets people chose.  The most impressive was Noel Williams on Saturday night who appeared as Selima Hill – not only did he pick great poems to read but he also told us about a letter Selima had written to him after he reviewed her book in The North – which led to a really interesting, and useful chat about reviewing – useful for me because I’m about to start a review for Under the Radar magazine.

On Saturday morning we had a fry up for breakfast and then the first writing workshop started from 10am.  Halfway through the morning we found plates of tray bakes and I developed an out of control addiction to the caramel shortbread.  These tray  bakes appeared with alarming regularity throughout the day and I didn’t want to just leave them there after all!

On Saturday afternoon we had a few hours off and I think most people went for a walk but I decided that I wasn’t going to leave hotel.  Instead I was going to slob around in my slippers and spend the afternoon reading – this seemed like a bit of a travesty when I was surrounded by such lovely country side, but I do have to walk every day with my dogs normally, so laying about the place was much more of a novelty for me…

Today we have done another writing and editing workshop, eaten more tray bakes, collected pack lunches and made our way up to Grasmere to do our end of course reading at Dove Cottage.  Everyone read for five minutes each and although I was worried I wouldn’t be able to concentrate for so long, I really enjoyed listening to everybody, hearing some poems that I’ve seen develop in the course, or heard for the first time during the workshop.  So it’s been a great weekend and I would definitely recommend the Writing School if you are reading this and looking for something to keep you focused on your writing.

So today’s Sunday Poem is David Constantine! How exciting is that.  David Constantine is the poet I decided to appear as on the course – I don’t know his work very well, but I bought his new collection ‘Elder’ after spotting it in the Durham Cathedral gift shop a week or so ago.  What made me buy it was the cover image, which is beautiful and the title of the first poem which is ‘How will they view us, the receiving angels?’.  The poem is just as beautiful.  Which says a little about the importance of the first poem in enticing a reader to buy a book. The four poems I chose to read to the other members of the course was ‘How will they view us, the receiving angels?’, ‘Bad dream’, ‘As though…because…’ and ‘Envoi’.

‘Elder’ is divided into six sections.  I’ve only read it through once, so I’m not going to offer more than a few thoughts on it.  First of all, I love the way Constantine uses titles – he often has the first line of the poem as a title, which I know some people don’t like, but I really like it.  It does vaguely remind me of Emily Dickinson…the poem ‘For a while after a death…’ starts ‘For a while after a death I live more kindly’ and the poem ‘The makings of his breathing…’ starts ‘The makings of his breathing are still there’.  In these examples I think the title is part of an irresistible arcing phrase that is completed and developed by the first line.

The book is also very formally patterned – I really liked the way Constantine uses rhyme – you can see this in the poem that I’ve chosen which I think shows how subtle he is with it.  The other thing that I really enjoyed in the collection was the poems which were derived from Ovid – I think this is because I’ve been reading Ovid recently and I think I got more from the poems because it felt like I was meeting some old friends in the characters that he writes about.

I’ve chosen ‘Bad Dream’ because I admire the structure of the poem with its rhyming couplets.  Although I don’t normally like poems about dreams (or films or books where everything turns out to be a dream) in this case I think this technique works for it.  What is more this is a bad dream – maybe a recurring dream? In fact it feels more like a premonition.  I also really like the division of self which occurs in the poem – the exploration of this is handled really deftly – it could so easily become a confusion of you’s and I’s but it doesn’t because of the sure footedness of the poet – in fact these are two of the lines that I like best

‘And there you were, not you, nearest the wall
And there was I, not I, nearest the fall’

I think that is fantastic and exciting  – and this

‘I, less and less myself, halted with the almost you’

It is a masterclass in how to use punctuation to get across the meaning that you want.  The ending to this poem is fantastic as well – and explores the importance of naming – that names give power.  At the end of the poem the name of the other person has found her like a ‘swallow’ while the I of the poem can only try to hold his with cold hands and fail – the I of the poem, nameless disappears.

I would like to say a big thanks to Neil Astley of Bloodaxe.  I don’t have David Constantine’s contact details, so I contacted Neil directly to ask if I could have this poem.  I’m a bit behind with my Sunday Poem requests and only asked Neil tonight but superstar that he is, he got back to me within fifteen minutes.  You can’t ask for more than that really!

If you would like to order David Constantine’s book you can go to the Bloodaxe website to order the latest collection ‘Elder’   You can also find a biography of David here as well.

Hope you enjoy the poem!

Bad dream – David Constantine

There was a path, the familiar path, the one
I’ve very often not yet ventured on
Around a mountainside, cut level, a sheer
Fall right, a sheer wall left, a ledge a pair
Might amble hand in hand on round the contour
And there you were, not you, nearest the wall
And there was I, not I, nearest the fall
And you were your age, but the hair was wrong
I looked like me but many years too young
And on a bend where the path swung out of view
I, less and less myself, halted with the almost you,
And on the brink, for fun or she dared him to,
He balanced his arms dead level and stood there
On his left foot and over the empty air
Raised level his right and so he stood
Lean steady spirit level of my blood
Over emptiness.  You laughed, the pair of you
And laughing hand in hand passed out of view.
On hands and knees, the ledge very narrow now,
I shouted after us, your name, my own.
Yours fled my lips to claim you, like a swallow.
Mine fell between my cold hands, like a stone.

6 comments on “Sunday Poem – David Constantine

  1. David Constantine is reading for Poets and Players, Saturday 8th March 2014 at the John Ryland Library Manchester 2.30pm. You could come and see him, Kim.

    1. Hi David – I meant to say this in the post! Do you want to put the link up? I can’t come unfortunately as I will be reading at the XX Festival in Wales. I would have really liked to have seen him though.

  2. This poem is fantastic indeed. I have heard him speak a few times and did a short translation workshop with him once – all of which were great, but I haven’t read much of his poetry and now I really want to.

  3. What’s left to be said? I find this poem comes close and then too close, the way that universal experience of the nearly-waking-dream of helplessness has attached itself to an all-too-real-memory of separation, lost love and betrayal . That moment when the ‘I’ of the poem becomes the ‘he’ who will carry ‘you/her’ off (as it seems to me) is hard to read. I guess we read who we are. Should say: glad you had a great weekend. Knackering, Sansoms’ weekends/residential. And wonderful.

  4. Thanks for helping me enjoy this exciting poem. Yes, I agree with you about his use of punctuation. I like the caps to start each line. And that start of a new sentence “You turned…” in the middle of a line makes for a super turn.

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