incensed like lambs
they to war go
hold guns like dolls
bloody bits of men
bone white cross
2 May 1977
I only subscribed to one poetry magazine in the seventies. It was called Poetry Information and it never published poetry. By that I mean you couldn’t send your poems to it. It only published articles on poetry. And I loved it. It was exactly what I needed in my late teens and early twenties. They talked about poetry. Long essays on the likes of Pound and Basil Bunting (the whole of issue #19 was devoted to him). But the one that really got me was a 1976 article by Tom Leonard entitled ‘The Locust Tree in Flower, and why it had difficulty flowering in Britain’ which introduced me to the poetry of the American William Carlos Williams. At school all I’d been given to read was English poetry; English, not British. A visiting student teacher read us something by Ferlinghetti once—‘Sometime During Eternity’ if memory serves right—but that was it. No Whitman. No Frost. No Dickinson.
The ‘Locust Tree’ Leonard’s referring to a poem entitled ‘The Locust Tree in Flower’. Two versions exist. You can read them both here but the one Leonard focused on was the second version, the streamlined one. Having read a great deal of Williams since I can tell you it’s a one-off. And it captivated me. I’d read nothing remotely like it. So shortly after I had a go and produced two poems. This is the first one and it was published in Street Games and Other Poems. The editor also fixed a typo: in the original I had ‘insensed’ and I recall a letter from another editor wondering if it was a verb coined from insensate. It wasn’t; it was a spelling mistake.
I know a lot of young poetry struggle to find their own voice and wind up emulating their heroes. I really never did that. There’s this poem and ‘Yesterday’ and then I dropped this approach and went back to what I was doing. This is the last poem too where you can see me being affected by Wilfred Owen’s work. I don’t think I wrote a war poem again for thirty years.
The bone-white cross comes from The Exorcist.