Wednesday, October 17, 2007

I’ve got a poem and I’m not afraid to use it

I've just finished reading Stephen Fry's dissertation on the art of writing poetry, The ode less travelled, and it set me rustling among the hard drives for my own piss-poor performance at poesy (I may not be able to do poetry but I can do alliteration). I didn't find many poems - and several of those were shockers - but I did find this unpublished piece which I composed upon Westminster Bridge ... exactly 200 years to the day that William Wordsworth did the same thing. This is what he wrote:

Composed upon Westminster Bridge September 3rd 1802

Earth has not anything to show more fair:
Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
A sight so touching in its majesty:
This City now doth like a garment wear
The beauty of the morning; silent, bare,
Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie
Open unto the fields, and to the sky;
All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.
Never did sun more beautifully steep
In his first splendour valley, rock, or hill;
Ne'er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!
The river glideth at his own sweet will:
Dear God! the very houses seem asleep;
And all that mighty heart is lying still!

I've always liked the poem as, unusually for the period in which it was written, it shows London in quite a good light. Wordsworth was a man of the countryside - the Lake District being the place he called home - so it seems somewhat paradoxical that he’d write about the largest city in the world in such glowing prose. However, that may have had something to do with the time of day. We know from Wordsworth’s sister Dorothy that the two of them were crossing the bridge between five and six in the morning when he wrote the poem. They were on their way to Dover to sail for France. Dorothy wrote in her diary:

‘It was a beautiful morning. The city, St Paul's with the river and a multitude of little boats made a most beautiful sight as we crossed Westminster Bridge. The houses were not overhung by their cloud of smoke and they were spread out endlessly. Yet the sun shone so brightly with such a pure light that there was even something like the purity of one of nature's own grand spectacles. We rode on cheerfully.’

Wordsworth writes of the beautiful clear morning as a ‘garment’ being worn by the city, but he was all too aware that once industry awoke, the garment would be ripped off revealing the soiled undies beneath. Wordsworth did not like London and is pretty scathing about the place in his other writings. But here, at this particular time, he was allowed a transient, ephemeral view of how beautiful the city might be and he chose to mark the moment in verse.

I couldn't quite get there for six o’clock in the morning but I did get there for seven. And so, on the morning of September the 3rd 2002, I stood on Westminster Bridge with pen and pad in hand. It wasn’t the same bridge that Wordsworth stood on – this new one was only opened in 1862 – but it was built on the site of the older 1750 bridge. And I didn’t know where Wordsworth stood as he wrote the poem either, so I took a central position equidistant between the Gothic madness of the Palace of Westminster on the North Bank and the Edwardian Baroque of the County Hall buildings on the South. I looked up-river for inspiration and could see the City and the dome of St Pauls. Wordsworth probably did the same thing when he wrote of ‘towers and domes’. And I started to write, using the same number of lines and the same iambic pentameter that he used. After some tweaking and re-writing, this is what I eventually wrote:

200 Years later ... Composed upon Westminster Bridge September 3rd 2002

There is ugliness in every line of
Smutty crowsfeet carbon ground hard into
The faces of these old and trusted friends;
The skyline's filled with blistered glass and steel
And giants stalk the Golden Mile; Their hands
grasping as they reap their crops of silver
Making rich men richer while the poor man
Smokes lungs to ash on riot burned estate.
That mighty heart is never still but beats
Arrhythmic; arteries clogged with working
Men and women trapped within anginal
Jams of daily working monotony.
The splendour of this City cannot breathe
And the nightingales choke in Berkeley Square.

I’m not a poet. But you may have guessed that. The closest I ever get to poetry these days is writing song lyrics. But I was pretty pleased with this one, dismal and doom-laden as it is. That's just how I saw it on the day (the weather was rotten).

Would William have liked it? Your guess is as good as mine.

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