Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Flags and Candles

I’ve been reading the latest Poetry Review and keep going back to two poems: David’s Harsent’s The Hut in Question, which sadly isn’t online, and Glyn Maxwell’s Flags and Candles (.pdf file), which is, except that no one seems to have noticed that the final two stanzas are missing. Here they are (I'm presuming the omission is an oversight and not deliberate!):

When I wave flags, flags think it's the world waving
while flags are holding fast. When I light candles,
the sense of something reverently bowing

holds me and I tremble like the shadows.
Flags again know nothing and they're flying.
Candles shed a light and burn to darkness.

I really like the poem, and it's a poem that would have been easy to write badly. The tercets and repetition give the vague impression of a villanelle-type structure but the poem doesn’t suffer from the rigidity that kills off most villanelles. Glyn Maxwell alternates between flags and candles two lines at a time to each, and this tension between the three-line stanzas and the two-line sentences gives the poem a dynamism – the flags and candles are woven together in the heart of the poem’s tercet structure, but the often dramatic stanza-breaks, due to the sentences-in-couplets, act against reconciliation between the two subjects.

If you were to rewrite the poem in couplets, it wouldn’t work anything like so well. Interesting in itself!

The contrasts aren’t the obvious ones. They are imaginative and surprising and appeal to the senses. The subtext of the poem is (I think) political, about two types of power, and it’s clear which side the writer is on without him having to beat his readers about the head. In particular, I love the lines:

Flags are picked out one by one. The others
group around the gap and say Gap, what gap?


apprentice said...

I like this very much. It makes me think of a photograph where you capture negative space to say something about an object.

BTW have you told Alan about your reeview, I'm sure he'll appreciate it. I like the Lammermuirs one too, again I think it's the clever reveral of what you'd expect in that situation that makes it. I think he did a lot of technical research at the Scottish Fishing Museum in Fife and he's a sailor himself, one of the poems refers to his own experience of going overboard.

Rob said...

Yes, I emailed Alan to say I'd posted the review. There will be some reviews I'd better hope the writers don't read!

apprentice said...

That sounds ominous! And sorry for the spelling in last post, I'm useless when I'm tired.

Anonymous said...

Is the new Harsent too long to post? I thought Legion was terrific and i'd like to check out The Hut in Question..