Occasional Poetry

Do you write occasional poems?

When I was first asked this I felt offended, taking it to mean, ‘Do you only write poems from time to time?’

No, I wanted to reply, writing poems is what I do; it’s not a hobby. But then I realised: ‘occasional poems’ are simply those written for particular occasions, such as weddings, births, graduations, even funerals.

One of my responsibilities as Poet Laureate for Cheshire years ago was to write what were called Core Commissions – poems to celebrate important events within the Cheshire county calendar. I was suspicious of this at first: I didn’t want to be scribbling motivational doggerel or advertising jingles. I insisted that I’d write only poems that felt like real poems to me, not flimsy bits of light verse. To its credit, the County Council accepted this and I was allowed free rein.

Such commissions were examples of ‘occasional poetry’, and since then I have written other pieces inspired by events or special occasions.

The obvious ‘occasion’ this month is Christmas, but since this is already well documented I’ll concentrate on New Year instead.

Thomas Hardy wrote ‘The Darkling Thrush’ on the occasion of the New Year that opened the twentieth century. In it, he listens rather glumly to a mistle thrush singing its heart out in the gathering darkness and hopes its song presages better times in the new century.

Here in the southern hemisphere where New Year happens at the height of summer, Hardy’s gloomy outlook appears a little strange. But in England it was deep mid-winter, with darkness descending in the freezing late afternoon, so the notion of anyone – even a bird – feeling “joy illimited” must have seemed improbable.

The Darkling Thrush

I leant upon a coppice gate
When Frost was spectre-grey,
And Winter’s dregs made desolate
The weakening eye of day.
The tangled bine-stems scored the sky
Like strings of broken lyres,
And all mankind that haunted nigh
Had sought their household fires.

The land’s sharp features seemed to be
The Century’s corpse outleant,
His crypt the cloudy canopy,
The wind his death-lament.
The ancient pulse of germ and birth
Was shrunken hard and dry,
And every spirit upon earth
Seemed fervourless as I.

At once a voice arose among
The bleak twigs overhead
In a full-hearted evensong
Of joy illimited;
An aged thrush, frail, gaunt and small,
In blast-beruffled plume,
Had chosen thus to fling his soul
Upon the growing gloom.

So little cause for carolings
Of such ecstatic sound
Was written on terrestrial things
Afar or nigh around,
That I could think there trembled through
His happy good-night air
Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew
And I was unaware.

Thomas Hardy

Now a poem that I wrote for my son, Liam, whose 31st birthday it will be on Christmas Eve. He lives in UK and we haven’t really been in touch for some time. But it is his birthday and he will be marrying his fiancée, Katie, in the New Year. I wish them both – and all of you – every happiness.

(for my son)

We are connected,
there is something here.
It’s not a rope, there is no strap,
no chain, no plastic tie,
we are not tethered
across these continents.

It’s possible to dream
that we float free,
that we are plankton,
krill, single cells adrift
in an ocean of ice.

But this thread, this thread,
this thing that is not a thing,
this invisible blood:

I cannot doubt it.

(Grocott’s Mail, 19/12/2014)