Let me count the ways: the things that lists can do
I shall start a tad self-indulgently. Last Monday I was running an open mic at the Puzzle Poets Live in Sowerby Bridge. It was a special night with a guest poet of rare talent ... Peter Riley, the first guest we’ve ever had with a Collected Poems Vols 1 &2 to his name. It was a night of real quality, and made extra enjoyable when Bob Horne, publisher of Calder Valley Poetry *, read this poem:
The Cricketers at Keswick
On summer Saturdays they weave motifs across Fitz Park
between the River Greta and the pavilion boundary
where the ground swells to become Skiddaw.
Light on the wind and the eye,
in their mayblossom whiteness they seem like a newsreel
of something their grandfathers did in the thirties,
talking at tea of Larwood and Bradman, Verity and Voce,
or sitting beneath black drizzling crags waiting for play.
Norsemen came here, cleared the land of rocks
the last Ice Age left behind
so cattle could be kept, cricket can be played.
They passed the spot where Wordsworth would be born,
heard the water’s ceaseless music,
settled where Coleridge couldn’t.
Cricketers look up at close of day to see the same relief:
Latrigg, Lonscale, Carl Side, Dodd.
The sun loops through their lives in a faultless flight
over Derwentwater and Grisedale Pike
pitching, somewhere out of sight, onto the Solway.
They will wait all afternoon, weeks of weekends,
for the chance to become their quintessence.
The diving catch at deep extra cover,
the desperate second run to wide mid-on
that wins the match
is their vindication,
perfection in a perfect world,
as nothing else between birth and death can ever be.
(From Knowing my place, poems by Bob Horne, Caterpillar Poetry)
Everything about this is as deft as a glide through the covers or a square cut to the boundary, apparently effortless. I have no interest in cricket, but this poem might just persuade me otherwise. It’s a delight. And it also introduces this post nicely, because among other things, some of its rhythm comes from lists of things ... batsmen, poets, hills and summits. And it’s lists I’ll be celebrating. Here we go.
Thomas Edison’s list of Things to Do just goes to show that if you make lists, you’re in good company. It was probably in the late 70s that Myra Barrs, then the English adviserr for a London LEA, wrote an article in the National Association for the Teaching of English (NATE) journal, English in Education. It was called "In praise of lists". It was an oddly quirky article; even though it was based on research, it sat well to the side of the usual articles about literature-based learning. It stood out, and it stuck in my mind. It still does. Just to put it in a contemporary context, here’s where the making of lists stands in the pecking order of writing ‘skills’ which teachers are required to hammer into their children and then test them on.
Year 1 – (that’s five-year-olds, to you and me)
Write to communicate meaning – simple recounts, stories that can be re-read, with basic beginning, middle and ending. Attempt writing for various purposes, using features of different forms such as lists, stories and instructions. Write a recount or narrative. Begin to break up the series of events with connectives other than and.
Two things to notice: yes, children should write lists, but as soon as possible they need to be shifting away from the reliance on that pesky connective and. Of course, that’s quite commendable. Complex sentences do things that compound sentences can’t, and lists won’t get you everywhere you want to go. On the other hand, complex sentences rarely make for the kind of poetry that make you want to dance and sing, mainly because they’re the staple of what we like to call prose. But that’s maybe for a different post.
Today, I want to share Myra Barrs’ enthusiasm for the things lists can do. Just think ... alphabetic lists (phone directories, dictionaries, indexes); ingredients; things you will need to do sometime; birthday and Christmas lists, shopping lists, books of baby names, war memorials, to-do lists, bucket lists, league tables and bestseller charts. Just think. No dependent clauses, no verbs, no plot, nothing to hold you up. No explanation, no ‘why’, no rhetoric. Heading and bullet points. Or commas, or and … and … and. They speak for themselves and … and … and ... they’re theoretically limitless. You could put everything in the universe in a list. They’ve got a seductive appeal, lists. No wonder they’re one of the earliest writing structures that children grasp after the idea of a label, why their early stories are 'and/then' lists of events that can be as mundane or fantastic as you like.
Here's Nick Cave’s list of words that intrigued him. Aneurism and auto-eroticism, amongst others. Nice to know he liked alphabetical lists.
What’s all this to do with us? Isn’t this supposed to be a poetry blog? Bear with me. This all comes about because, while I don’t know much about contemporary poetry, I seem to come across more and more of what folk will refer to, sometimes dismissively, or condescendingly, as "list poems". And, to be fair, I seem to write a fair number of them myself. It could be that this post is little more than a bit of self-justification. Or not. Let’s see how it goes.
If you go to lots of poetry workshops, as I do, you may start to notice that a lot of starters for quick writing tasks are invitations to write lists. Like these …
things you bring back from holidays
things you never got round to throwing away
things you meant to do
things that stopped you doing the things you meant to do
things you can’t do without
(but never, for some reason … or maybe because Ian Dury got there first)
reasons to be cheerful
Now, a couple of things strike me. First of all, lists like these are full of things that resonate. They’re all memory joggers. Second: a list will build up a rhythm. It has musical and rhetorical possibilities. Like I say. Lists are seductive. The performers of early oral poetry liked a list. It kept up the rhythm, and it gave you a breather while you tried to remember the next bit of the narrative. It was always nice, I imagine, to arrive at a new character who needed introducing. Say, a king in Beowulf:
Often Scyld, Scefi’s son from enemy hosts
from many places seized mead-benches,
and terrorised the Heruli after first he was
found helpless and destitute he then knew recompense for that
he waxed under the clouds throve in honours
until to him each of the border tribes
beyond the whale-road he made submit
and to yield tribute that was a good king!
There you go, a list of attributes. That’s the sort of thing you expected – a catalogue of battles: who he killed, the largesse he handed out in the mead hall. Killers and givers of rings. That’s what you wanted in a king.
What about slightly different workshop exercises? You may be asked to think of places where: you said goodbye to someone, where things changed for the better or worse, where you might meet someone from your past. You might be prompted to think of bus stations, train stations, airports, places you worked, inbetween places like transport cafes. And, more often than not, you’ll be asked to think of three things you can hear, three you can see, three you can touch … and guess what. You’ve started a list. Sometimes you might listen to a poem or an extract before the exercise starts … poems like this.
Horses and Men in Rain
by Carl Sandberg
Let us sit by a hissing steam radiator a winter’s day, gray wind pattering frozen raindrops on the window,
And let us talk about milk wagon drivers and grocery delivery boys.
Let us keep our feet in wool slippers and mix hot punches – and talk about mail carriers and
messenger boys slipping along the icy sidewalks.
Let us write of olden, golden days and hunters of the
Holy Grail and men called “knights” riding horses in the rain, in the cold frozen rain for ladies they loved.
Song of myself
by Walt Whitman
The smoke of my own breath,
Echoes, ripples, buzz’d whispers, love-root, silk-thread, crotch and vine,
My respiration and inspiration, the beating of my heart, the passing of blood and air through my lungs,
The sniff of green leaves and dry leaves, and of the shore and dark-color’d sea-rocks, and of hay in the barn,
The sound of the belch’d words of my voice loos’d to the eddies of the wind,
A few light kisses, a few embraces, a reaching around of arms,
The play of shine and shade on the trees as the supple boughs wag,
The delight alone or in the rush of the streets, or along the fields and hill-sides,
The feeling of health, the full-noon trill, the song of me rising from bed and meeting the sun.
I just love the exuberance, the expansive limitlessness of it all. I love the rhythm. It’s American, I sometimes think, like country music and blues. And it’s ‘modern’ … or maybe what I mean is that it seems to speak to young contemporary poets who I like. Or maybe I like them because of the lists. Because of their energy, no question. The one who, for me, is probably responsible for the way lists have found their way, more and more, into my own writing is Kim Moore. She’s not unique, but she is the one I know best, and whose poems I love to read (aloud) and re-read (aloud). And they are invitations to perform. It’s no accident that a trumpet player wrote these poems you have to breathe through. Both extracts are from The Art of Falling … probably my favourite collection in years.
by Kim Moore
I come from people who swear without realising they’re swearing.
I come from scaffolders and plasterers and shoemakers and carers,
the type of carers paid pence per minute to visit an old lady’s house.
Some of my people have been inside a prison. Sometimes I tilt
towards them and see myself reflected back. If they were from
Yorkshire, which they’re not, but if they were, they would have been
the ones on the pickets shouting scab and throwing bricks at policemen.
I come from a line of women who get married twice. I come from
a line of women who bring up children and men who go to work.
I like the way repeated phrases create a scaffolding for the variations played on the underlying rhythm, and the way that lets the writer spring surprises, like "which they’re not, but if they were". It sounds artless, but it isn’t. It’s like jazz, that little shift of tempo.
Lists can be heartbreaking, too. If I only had one poem I was allowed to keep from the collection it would be this one.
In that year
by Kim Moore
And in that year my body was a pillar of smoke
and even his hands could not hold me.
And in that year my mind was an empty table
and he laid his thoughts down like dishes of plenty.
And in that year my heart was the old monument,
the folly, and no use could be found for it.
And in that year my tongue spoke the language
of insects and not even my father knew me.
(A Woody Guthrie list … New year resolutions. Write a song every day. Dance better. Beat fascism)
This isn’t the whole of the poem, but it’s more than enough to show what that undervalued ‘And’ can do. Every one of them is a hammered nail. I remember having a conversation … no, an argument … with a teacher in one of the primary schools on my patch. She was religiously convinced that you couldn’t, shouldn’t, mustn’t ever start a sentence with ‘And’. I’m not sure what she thought would happen if you did. The end of the world as we knew it perhaps. I pointed out that it was good enough for the Authorised Version:
‘And in those days Caesar Augustus sent out a decree that all men should be taxed’.
Apparently that didn’t count, because it was the Bible. But poets know how to tap into the resonance of that 17th century verse, don’t they? God bless them, I say. Here’s a thankyou for lists, for workshops, for Whitman and Sandburg and Kim Moore and everyone else who taught me that lists are great. And sometimes self-indulgent.
Psalm for lists
by John Foggin
of things on fridges – Ryvita, milk and matches, anchovies and mozzarella
of things to do - the damp patch, the bike chain, bread dough, Christmas angels
of scraps in pockets – names of debtors, and parking tickets
of the day to day- provisioning expeditions to the Pole, for holidays,
of bills of lading, tonnages of whale-oil and baleen, bales of plumage
of yesterdays - The Fallen and the fathers of The Fallen, the Glorious Dead,
of trawlermen, and those who fall from rigs, and those who choke in mines
of the goodness of kings, of deeds in battle, of valiant defeats
of the attributes of scornful lovers - nether lips, lustrous hair and unclasped pearls
A psalm for the makers of mnemonics which are the daily bread of here and now
and the pulse and heart of poems
and also of psalms
It occurs to me that I’ve not just been self-indulgent, but also (and it may be the same thing) schoolteacherly. I’ll put that down to the ‘exams are upon us’ feel of this time of year. On the other hand, next week, with a luck and a following wind, we’re having a guest. So, collars buttoned, ties straight, and no inapproriate hairdos. Off you go. No running.
* Nearly forgot. Calder Valley Poetry published its first title in 2016. In the last two years, one of its poets, Charlotte Wetton was the winner of the Michael Marks award, and last year another, Ian Parks, was shortlisted for the same. That’s pretty impressive for a small poetry publisher. Check them out here