My kind of poetry: six new poems from David Constantine

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Well, I hope my recent post sent you off to buy David Constantine’s Collected Poems, and maybe his prose work, too, and possibly the published lectures. At the very least I hope it got you wanting more.

I chose the poems and samples of poems that I did because they were the ones that ‘got me in’ in the first place. What the post didn’t, and couldn’t manage, was to do justice to the scale and range of the work. I’m thinking of the monomaniac monologues of 'The Five Lost Géricaults' in one of which there’s a 31-line sentence (I’ve heard him read it, and never miss a beat, never run out of breath!), and of Caspar Hauser, a verse epic of rhymed three-liners in nine cantos. And also of the passionate and sensual love poems, and the poems of family, and of landscape. On and on. Words like cornucopia, and encyclopaedic and kaleidoscope come to mind

So, today, I’m absolutely delighted that he’s sent me six new poems to share with you. The first poem has me visualising the kind of landscape where you would climb long and hard, following a river into a high place, and the world of the wild sleepers, like Roger Deakin and Robert Macfarlane. It might be Wales, it might be the western Highlands, but it has to be below a major air traffic route to light on the strange connection that reminds us that none of us is an island.


      embedded image from entry 92684 Lake


     Sole self that day with a working pair of legs

     A beating heart, attentive senses, climbed

     High enough, far away enough, slowly

     Against the river’s hurry, quietly


     Against the din of it, keeping close to it

     And passing the highest shieling that an ash

     Had burst as thinking will a head, I came

     At dusk to a lake in its own terrain.


     There the hills backed off in a spacious horse shoe

     On that flat plane I was the only upright

     The banks were low, looped in a contour line

     The lake had nothing to mirror but the sky. 


     Sole self I bedded down close as I could

     To listen: lapping, birdlife homing, settling

     I watched the wind shunting the low black clouds

     In tatters, fast, under a pale still ceiling.


     Woke once or twice feeling a breath of rain

     Glimpsed, silver on black, bits of a star-figure

     Heard very high a flight of fellow humans

     Touching on dawn after the black Atlantic.


I like, too, the way it reminds me just how many poems he has written from high places, the ones that have their roots in a tradition going back to Wordsworth (I  wandered lonely /sole self that day) , that connect him to writers like MacCaig, and also the way that it shows David’s ability to craft a phrase that seems ‘odd’ because it’s not idiomatic, but is syntactically right:


     … passing the highest shieling that an ash

     Had burst as thinking will a head’


It makes you check yourself momentarily, read it more attentively, and realise what a true image it is, that sapling that grows and breaks out the roof of the shieling that can no longer contain it. I like the way his poetry unashamedly expects you to do a bit of work.

The next poem is one that I think takes us to the land/seascapes of the Isles of Scilly where oranges may wash up after a storm, and where men set sail in the early mornings. They can handle their craft. There’s a note there that reminds me of Heaney’s ‘Digging’. It needs no commentary. Just listen to the music:



      embedded image from entry 92686 For the love of it


     Black hull, two brick-red sails, full tide

     Not six o’clock yet on the soft breath of a southerly

     Under the clearing sky the first small boat puts out

     Down the quiet sound towards the continuous mêlée

     Of the whole Atlantic. You know this room


     At midsummer very early how the sun slants in

     And over the watcher’s shoulder flames up silver

     In the seahorse looking glass and rising

     Angles down across the dark blue length and breadth

     Of the waking sleeper’s bed. I see them side by side


     Standing quiet. They can handle their craft

     And read the charts and perhaps the stars and know

     The one thing certain about the weather is that it’s changeable

     And look: red sails, black hull, solely for love

     They put out into an ocean, for the risky love of it.


The next three poems may come as a bit of a surprise after the poems about, say Pompeii or Atlantis, and the range of reference of, say, Caspar Hauser, but among may other things he can be committedly ‘political’, and he can be funny, as well as righteously angry. So here are poems that reference ‘for the many, not the few’, that take you into the half-world of the early doors open mic, and heartbreakingly into the world of refugees who find themselves at a wasteland travelling fairground, somewhere in a European urban edgeland.



     Song: The way things are is the way things have to be


     I get Park Lane and Mayfair

     And you get the Old Kent Road

     I get the Four Utilities

     And you go to jail free

     And the jail belongs to me

     And that’s just the way it is

     So it is and it was always so

     And I have another go.


     If you ever come out of jail, friend

    Take a stroll round my end of the board

     Down Mayfair and Park Lane

     And lift up your eyes to the rain

     And give thanks unto the Lord

     That you don’t have the worry and the fret

     Of property you can’t let

     Because the price isn’t quite right yet.


     You’ve nowhere to lay your head?

     Remember what Our Saviour said:

     Give to them who’ve already got

     And from them that have nothing take that

     Take the last little bit, take the lot.

     And what else did the Good Lord say?

     The poor aren’t going away.

     No the poor old poor are here to stay.


     There’s a bank error in my favour.

     They’re selling off the Old Kent Road

     Next time I’m toddling round that end

     I’ll spend what I have to spend.

     It’s the least I can do for the town

     Knock it down, sit tight on the site

     Sit tight till the price is right.

     There’s a food bank opening near you.


     In the game of life, my friend

     Going round and round and no end

     I’ve found that what most helped me

     Is a sense of right and wrong

     I learned it as I went along

     I learned what’s wrong by what’s right.

     In the game of Beggar Thy Neighbour

     Right is when the price is right.


     You are many, my friend, we are few

     Oh indeed we are very very few!

     And few as we are we get more and more

     And there’s less and less for you.

     And now you’re in jail again:

     Well at least you’re out of the rain.

     It’s my turn, I’ll have another go

     And another and another go.




     Open Mic


     Sundays 3-7, the dead time

     Is Open Mic here, twenty-five slots, in the dark side room

     Where the piano stands and the posters

     (Some big names) from way back hang and all the old guitars.


     Few on in the first half stay till the interval

     And few on in the second turn up before it

     So there’s never a crowd, never more than a handful

     To be honest. In fact the last slot


     Tends to entertain itself. True there’s always

     Two or three regulars at the bar

     But by that time they’ll be the worse for wear

     And not paying attention. Bill himself does the intros:


     And now, Ladies and Gentlemen, please welcome

     The legendary, the one and only …

     But while they’re doing their best in the time allowed them

     He’ll be playing patience in his cubby hole. Me


     I’m fond of Elaine. And now, says our compere

     To tickle the ivories, a big hand for the lovely Elaine!

     I could kill the bastard for that. His piano’s never been

     Even half in tune. I feel for her


     How she bows so low over the keys, you’d say

     She must be hearing something nobody else can hear.

     I clap like mad, I don’t care who knows. Last Sunday

     A man from not round here blew in, he wore


     A red cap and sat at the bar with a packet of crisps

     And a pint of Bombardier. The show was nearly over

     You’d have thought in all his born days he’d never seen anything like it

     Got off his stool and moved in closer and closer.


     And now, said Bill, last but very much not least

     Put your hands together for Three for the Price of One

     Fran ukulele, Carol, bless her, the vocals, Jimmy, the beast

     Between two beauties, horn. It was Carol the stranger fixed on.


     She sings with her eyes shut and over the years

     Her voice has dropped a floor or two. That sound!

     We had a vicar in once, he covered his ears.

     She sang a Tom Waits number, ‘Cold Cold Ground’


     And then, with a smile: To cheer you up, here’s one of my own.

     The man in the red cap couldn’t take his eyes off her

     And when she’d done, he stood there quite alone

     Crying, Bravo! Took his empty glass to the bar


     Good night, he said to me. Then: ‘lacrimae rerum’.

     Brave name for a band that, said Carol when I told her.

     Eh, Fran? Eh, Jimmy? Lacrimae Rerum!

     Change our name and up our game? Whatever


     Said Fran. You’re the boss, Carol, said Jimmy.

     Gone seven, the crowd were arriving.

     Bill went back behind the bar where he belongs to be.

     The serious drinking starts as the last Open Mic lot are leaving.



      embedded image from entry 92687 Carousel


     November, early dark, and in the drizzle

     On wasteland strung with lights: the fair

     And at the heart of it, in all the glare and roar

     The tuneful measured anticlockwise-turning carousel


     Watchers encircling it. Here is a space

     To play at letting go, to try, having come thus far

     How many seconds separation you can bear

     After the desert and the sea, after the ice


     The hungering, the deaths and too much entering through

     The eyes into the kitty of bad dreams, at last

     They bid in this arena for another lease of trust

     And watch their kids go half a revolution out of view


     One sailing solo on a swan and then

     Two clutching tight on an elephant arrive

     And leave and you can see they do not quite believe

     The looping tune will bring them back again


     To grown-ups so long at the world’s mercy

     Without a tongue to plead who stand now silent in a ring

     And watch their flesh and blood within it orbiting

     And wager all on a quaint machinery


     And entertain the idea that in this pleasure ground

     Playing at severance is permissible

     And that the ancient music is reliable

     And keeping time against the clock will bring the children round


     Take and return the elephant and the swan

     Strew lost and found on that discouraged audience until

     They will believe it if the children will:

     You let us out of sight and, look, we come again!


     This travelling Babel, here three nights allowed

     To set up shop on out-of-town terrain

     Blessed be the flare of it, blessed be the soft rain

     So both the circles, those who stand and watch and those who ride


     The friendly animals in a fairy tale

     At every revolution on the fabulous flat earth

     May see through rain and tears beloved faces lit with mirth

     Haloed, here and now, and real.


The idea at the core of this brings me close to tears. I love the craft of it all, the compression of that phrase ‘quaint machinery’ , the understated rhyme that accords a due ceremony to the cause of the tongueless and dispossessed. It’s poetry that memorises itself as you read it, listen to it:


     To grown-ups so long at the world’s mercy

     Without a tongue to plead who stand now silent in a ring

     And watch their flesh and blood within it orbiting

     And wager all on a quaint machinery


     And entertain the idea that in this pleasure ground

     Playing at severance is permissible


Sixth and final poem, now. I wrote in the previous post about David that 

“Light and dark is a leitmotif in so many of his poems [that’s a clunky phrase … mea culpa] and it’s memorably so in the notion that the dead ‘glimmer for a generation’; unless we constantly attend to them they will lose their ‘luminance’”. There’s a doubleness, I realise, in that word ‘attend’; the lighthouse keeper tends his light, the acolyte tends the flame. What this poem reminds me is that we have a duty to our past and our parents, our grandparents, that is religious. We see better for them."


     I will hold you in the light


     Between long absences having met again

     Taking her leave she would say, I will hold you in the light

     And has gone now where there’s none.


     So for the time allowed we shall hold her in our light.

     More of the dark will come in if we let her go

     And there’s already too much of the dark where we are now.


     Fit to be looked at, that is what one wants to be

     Fit to be seen in the light of a friend’s thinking.

     And she always did have a look that enquired in a friendly fashion


     How are you doing in the things that need to be done?

     How’ve you been getting on with those things since I saw you last?

     And asked to be looked at herself like that.


     I remember watching my mother or her mother darn or sew

     And that if I stood watching too close she would say to me

     You are in my light, love, I can’t see.


     And remember also that if ever I came with a thing

     Needing seeing to or putting right

     Either one of the women would say, Bring it here, love, into the light.


     Our dead, though their company grows, are not in our light.

     We see better for them. And holding them in the light

     See better what needs to be done or mended and how.


So there we are. It’s been a joy and a privilege to share these poems. Thank you, so much, David Constantine. I hope you’ve all become as enthusiastic as I am. Look out for these poems coming out in a new collection Belongings, due from Bloodaxe in early 2020.



◄ My kind of poetry: David Constantine

Deadline nears for Foyle Young Poets competition ►


Linda B

Mon 22nd Jul 2019 11:18

Some stunning new poems here. I particularly enjoyed 'Lake' and 'Carousel', but 'I will hold you in the light' brought me to tears. Such varied and affecting poems. I will add them to my cache of favourites to re-read often. Thank you for your second instalment, John.

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Tim Ellis

Sun 21st Jul 2019 09:10

Interesting article John, and some great poems. I especially like The way things are is the way things have to be. I saw David Constantine giving a reading at Ilkley a few years ago, reminds me I should read some more of his poetry.

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