Anthony Howell: Three poems

  Anthony Howell

  A Clutch Of Primes

  Three poems
Atheism’s youth
Doesn’t mean it merits the reproof
It offers no such thing
As consolation — wine in
The chalice faith has wrought.

Say you read a line in
A madrigal by Drummond.
Following his thought,
You let the words release their lyric spring,
Your very being summoned

To pursue his track,
Just as Milton’s was a while back.
Reading how his rhymes release their ring
You hear what he heard too;
His senses, wit, intent alive in you.


No one has much use for me today.
Social intercourse demands I toe its
Line regarding what I choose to say.
But the mediocre poets

Nominate the most
Mediocre among them for the prize.
I dream about a threesome with the prettiest of these
Whose poetry lies pooled between their intertwining thighs.

But who am I to boast?
Haven’t got a hope of screwing one.
I’ll prosper when I’m dead,
When all is said and done,

And then the tribe of bards will beg forgiveness on its knees.
But not today, today my hopes are sunk.
The dregs are truly drunk.
Only the cat’s prepared to share my bed,

And she employs me as a cross between
Her mother and an exercise machine.


Although I write in many a genre, to be honest

      I have never really found my voice,

‘Really’ — that’s a word you should avoid.

And ‘to be honest’ is an empty phrase.

Like others I have toyed

With sonnets, villanelles, sestinas, every type of form,

But I’m unsure of what I may have actually achieved.

Once I hoped to find a way of writing that was mine alone,

      as if I had no choice.

But am I even warm?

I’ve never found that voice.

The phrases that I’ve used are all received.

As if I had no clue,

Were lost within a maze.

But what am I to do?

I wouldn’t want you calling me ‘inviting’.

I wouldn’t want you calling me ‘absurd’.

And why should I not heed your feedback? Merely a mortal

      after all, responding well to praise,

But not some lyric bird,

I think I’m unexciting,

And there are times one hears another’s voice

In every line one writes.

I’ve never struck that sheer compelling tone

That conjures out of language something more than words alone.

One read me till the pleasure cloyed and after that

      she never chose to read my book again.

Her poetry delights!

And now I hear her voice’s cunning way

Transforming the design

Of every line I’d like to call my own.

She’d read me and re-read me, but I was envious of her,

      and rubbished what she had to say.

She read me and re-read me every day,

Or I would bawl my poems down the phone.

She’d listen till her ears were sore, but I’d read more and more

      without a single pause or break,

In search of my own voice inside the writing:

A voice I felt should last forever, yes.

But now I must confess

My verse was hard to take.

It could not be enjoyed;

A poet out of touch,

Bathed in another’s lighting.

I never thought this lack of voice would bother me so much.

But she was one who loved me for my words,

One whose words had flavour more distinctive than my own.

Yet I’d disparage what she did, undermine her confidence

      and tear her poems down.

So many nimble birds

Fell victim to the winter of my frown

She told herself she’d never write again.

But what was in her could not be dismembered or put down.

The poetry welled up in her, and nothing that I said was going

      to stop it pouring out,

Contaminating mine,

Infecting what I wrote

And what I write and may intend

To write tomorrow, yes, I hear her voice in every line.

Call her my muse: my very best being merely an echo

      of her far more fascinating note:

A woman once my friend,

To whom I dedicate this serpentine.

Author’s note: The Serpentine is a form I have hit upon, developed from the madrigal. The madrigal uses mixed rhythms, trimeter and pentameter (3 and 5 stresses per line), any rhyme scheme, any line order — that is, you can have a couplet of pentameter, then one trimeter line, or any other order. The madrigal as a poetic form was pioneered by Drummond of Hawthornden, based on the pioneering experiments of Della Casa in Italy, and I go into more detail about this in ‘A Paean to the Pioneer of the Madrigal’, published in the Fortnightly Review at, where Drummond’s conversations with Ben Jonson are mentioned. Note that 5 and 3 are both primes. Mixed metre works well with primes because they don’t divide into each other. The Serpentine extends the concept of the madrigal to include the fourteener (a line with seven stresses) and a line with eleven stresses (twenty-seconds?). So the poet may use 3, 5, 7 and 11 stress lines, in any order with any rhyme scheme. I have called this form a Serpentine, because the prime numbers spiral, so there is something ‘serpentine’ about the form. One can also employ 3, 5 and 7 only — I call this a Lizardite — not quite a Serpentine. These early primes are part or very nearly part of the Fibonacci sequence, which in turn is associated with the golden rule.


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