Week 183: The Death of Peter Esson, by George Mackay Brown

Another craggily individualist elegy by the Orkney poet George Mackay Brown.

The Death of Peter Esson
Tailor, Town Librarian, Free Kirk Elder

Peter at some immortal cloth, it seemed,
Fashioned and stitched, for so long had he sat
Heraldic on his bench. We never dreamed
It was his shroud that he was busy at.

Well Peter knew his thousand books would pass
Grey into dust, that still a tinker’s tale
As hard as granite and as sweet as grass
Told over reeking pipes, outlasts them all.

The Free Kirk cleaves gray houses – Peter’s ark
Freighted for heaven galeblown with psalm and prayer.
The predestined needle quivered on the mark.
The wheel spun true. The seventieth rock was near.

Peter, I mourned. Early on Monday last
There came a wave and stood above your mast.

George Mackay Brown, 1959

Week 182: Kerr’s Ass, by Patrick Kavanagh

Another of my favourite Patrick Kavanagh poems, that shows his extraordinary gift for the transmutation of the mundane.

Kerr’s Ass

We borrowed the loan of Kerr’s big ass
To go to Dundalk with butter,
Brought him home the evening before the market
An exile that night in Mucker.

We heeled up the cart before the door,
We took the harness inside —
The straw-stuffed straddle, the broken breeching
With bits of bull-wire tied;

The winkers that had no choke-band,
The collar and the reins . . .
In Ealing Broadway, London Town
I name their several names

Until a world comes to life —
Morning, the silent bog,
And the God of imagination waking
In a Mucker fog.

Patrick Kavanagh


Week 181: Masters of War, by Bob Dylan

‘Just how good a poet is this Bob Dylan chap?’, I have sometimes been asked by those wanting my ‘professional opinion’. Not an easy question – there is a lot of Bob Dylan, and indeed it could be argued that there are a lot of Bob Dylans. And how do you separate the words from the music, and how fair is it even to try? I can only say that the question seems to me well worth asking, and that personally as a poet my preference is for Bob Dylan the apparently sober writing under the influence of ancient ballads over Bob Dylan the apparently stoned writing under the influence of Dylan Thomas. So, for example, I take ‘Masters of War’, ‘The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll’ and ‘Girl from the North Country’ over ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ and ‘Visions of Johanna’, tunefully compelling though the latter two may be. So where does that leave us? With lyrics a bit rough-hewn in places, and sometimes having all the subtlety of a sledgehammer, but maybe none the worse for that, and I for one can never forget being stopped dead in my tracks one afternoon in the early sixties by my first encounter with Dylan in the shape of ‘Masters of War’. Popular music with content – whatever next? As it turned out, there was quite a lot next.

Masters of War

Come you masters of war
You that build the big guns
You that build the death planes
You that build all the bombs
You that hide behind walls
You that hide behind desks
I just want you to know
I can see through your masks

You that never done nothin’
But build to destroy
You play with my world
Like it’s your little toy
You put a gun in my hand
And you hide from my eyes
And you turn and run farther
When the fast bullets fly

Like Judas of old
You lie and deceive
A world war can be won
You want me to believe
But I see through your eyes
And I see through your brain
Like I see through the water
That runs down my drain

You fasten all the triggers
For the others to fire
Then you sit back and watch
When the death count gets higher
You hide in your mansion
While the young people’s blood
Flows out of their bodies
And is buried in the mud

You’ve thrown the worst fear
That can ever be hurled
Fear to bring children
Into the world
For threatening my baby
Unborn and unnamed
You ain’t worth the blood
That runs in your veins

How much do I know
To talk out of turn
You might say that I’m young
You might say I’m unlearned
But there’s one thing I know
Though I’m younger than you
That even Jesus would never
Forgive what you do

Let me ask you one question
Is your money that good?
Will it buy you forgiveness
Do you think that it could?
I think you will find
When your death takes its toll
All the money you made
Will never buy back your soul

And I hope that you die
And your death’ll come soon
I will follow your casket
In the pale afternoon
And I’ll watch while you’re lowered
Down to your deathbed
And I’ll stand o’er your grave
‘Til I’m sure that you’re dead

Bob Dylan

Week 180: July Evening, by Norman MacCaig

I find this poem by the Scots poet Norman MacCaig (1910-1996) very satisfying for the way it combines practical observation with transcendent vision in a way perhaps reminiscent of Patrick Kavanagh’s poems of rural Ireland.

July Evening

A bird’s voice chinks and tinkles
Alone in the gaunt reedbed –
Tiny silversmith
Working late into the evening.

I sit and listen. The rooftop
With a quill of smoke stuck in it
Wavers against the sky
In the dreamy heat of summer.

Flowers’ closing time: bee lurches
Across the hayfield, singing
And feeling its drunken way
Round the air’s invisible corners.

And grass is grace. And charlock
Is gold of its own bounty.
The broken chair by the wall
Is one with immortal landscapes.

Something has been completed
That everything is part of,
Something that will go on
Being completed forever.

Norman MacCaig

Week 179: At Grass, by Philip Larkin

In the introduction to his 1962 anthology ‘The New Poetry’ the critic Al Alvarez called this poem ‘elegant and unpretentious and rather beautiful in its gentle way’ but saw it as too genteel and went on to compare it unfavourably with the Ted Hughes poem ‘A Dream of Horses’, which he praised for its greater urgency, its reaching back to ‘a nexus of fear and sensation’. Now, if we must turn poetry into some kind of slugfest there are indeed Hughes poems that can go toe to toe with good Larkin, but I really do not think ‘A Dream of Horses’ is one of them, and surely only a very blinkered adherence to an ideological preconception of poetry could have allowed Alvarez to think that it was. Yes, Larkin’s horses are, as Alvarez says, social creatures, seen through a prism of human association, but rightly or wrongly that is the way most of us, genteel or not, see horses, and I can only say that fifty years on, I can’t remember a line of the Hughes poem, but ‘At Grass’ is still there, elegant and elegiac, full of Larkin’s exquisitely precise verbal play – consider that ‘distresses’ – and moments of what Seamus Heaney called Larkin’s ‘Shakespearean felicity’.

At Grass

The eye can hardly pick them out
From the cold shade they shelter in,
Till wind distresses tail and mane;
Then one crops grass, and moves about —
The other seeming to look on —
And stands anonymous again.

Yet fifteen years ago, perhaps
Two dozen distances sufficed
To fable them: faint afternoons
Of Cups and Stakes and Handicaps,
Whereby their names were artificed
To inlay faded, classic Junes —

Silks at the start: against the sky
Numbers and parasols: outside
Squadrons of empty cars, and heat,
And littered grass: then the long cry
Hanging unhushed till it subside
To stop-press columns on the street.

Do memories plague their ears like flies?
They shake their heads. Dusk brims the shadows.
Summer by summer, all stole away,
The starting-gates, the crowds and cries —
All but the unmolesting meadows.
Almanacked, their names live; they

Have slipped their names, and stand at ease,
Or gallop for what must be joy,
And not a fieldglass sees them home,
Or curious stop-watch prophesies:
Only the groom, and the groom’s boy,
With bridles in the evening come.

Philip Larkin