Air, Land and Sea

This poem is inspired by the movie Dunkirk, which tells the story of the 1940 rescue mission from the seemingly condemned beaches of France. Told from three different perspectives, the end result is a piece of masterful film making, which is produced on an overwhelming scale.

Merciless waves career on to battered sand
As conflict rages across air, sea and land
Young men fighting for the country and ideals they cherish
Where nature decides which of them will perish

Planes hurtle across the beaten skies
One false move and everyone dies
While enemy forces arrive to drop their latest round
Explosives shower those on the ground

Cornered by a ruthlessly superior force
They’ll never be shown any remorse
But spirit lives untarnished and help is at hand
As an inspired rescue mission now takes command

Now comes the time for each unit to combine
As their schedules suddenly intertwine
Stranded boys scramble on boats
And a final air strike keeps them afloat

So they return home, miraculously alive
Wounded by trauma, but grateful to survive
An honourable victory to lift national morale
And quite a remarkable story to tell

Into the Grass

The idea for this poem came after a student showed me a very pretty photo that she had taken on her mobile phone, depicting a large empty field of long grass under a sunlit backdrop.

I wrote this in order to prove to myself that I was capable of turning something innocuous into a half-decent literary creation, something that requires a precious commodity which I can sometimes lack – imagination. Here goes:

We stroll gently through the long grass
Clambering over reeds and thorns,

A single flower
Glistening like a star in the moonlight
Oblivious to the surrounding din, 
A cacophony of sound
Crickets click from the depths of nearby shrubs
We hear the delicate rustling of leaves
As snakes move menacingly beneath our feet
Birds are twittering in the trees
And parasitic insects deliver bites to our knees

So thus we battle through nature’s garden
Scampering stealthily in a bid for freedom
Desperate to make our escape
As we become more vulnerable to the fading light
Mice scurrying ahead of us
And we follow
The grass fighting back like never before
Trapping our ankles to the leaden ground
There’s no-one around to help us get away,
Leaving predators free to ravage their prey

The Young One

The Young One has all the power
Fresh-faced and oozing authority
He rules with an iron fist
Leading some to question his sanity

His troops march in unison
Striding forth like hardy chessmen
Making ripples and attracting wary glances
From outsiders who accuse him of seeking attention

Enclosed in an autonomous sphere
Shrouded in secret and mindful silence
He keeps his cards tight to his chest
Though we think we know what lies underneath

Dreams of domination and conquests galore
Achieved through gunfire and nuclear war
Coolly and tactfully he bides his time
Leaving the enemy to wonder just what lies in store

The Young One carries all the weight;
His thirst for supremacy will never abate
Nobody has the right to challenge his rule
For he is the untouchable head of state


Poetry – Nothing’s Changed

The release of Nelson Mandela from prison in February 1990 was unquestionably one of the world’s defining moments of the last half a century. It helped unite a nation, helped to regain its global status after years of inequality, and most importantly it served as the ultimate confirmation that the Apartheid regime was finally on its way to coming an end.

The isolation, segregation and indeed persecution of the non-white South Africans and anybody who felt opposed to the regime is among the saddest examples of the cruelty of humanity in recent times, since the Holocaust. But in freeing Mandela came a degree of redemption, a chance to put the horrors of the past behind them and build a culture of universal respect.

Of course, some who were hardened by the Apartheid found the whole thing difficult to accept and struggled to make the transition from discriminatory society to an equal one. That was the country’s biggest task at the outset of the new era, and Mandela made his aim to unite the entire nation after he became President in 1994.

‘Madiba’, as he was affectionately known by those who felt close to him, was a revolutionary of the positive variety, and in some cases a miracle worker. South Africa certainly became a better country upon his freedom and subsequent leadership, but he was never going to make everything perfect.

At the time of his death in December 2013, the outpouring of tributes to Mandela was quite overwhelming and rightly so. Only very few people have changed their country so massively, and for the better.

There is still plenty of work to be done, such as lowering the level of crime that still exists in the far from luxurious inner-city regions of cities such as Johannesburg and Bloemfontein, but Mandela will forever be a legendary figure and we all hope that it will be in his name that South Africa continues to make progress on the human rights front.

The end of Apartheid was far-reaching, but its legacy still lasted in some areas including the infamous District Six, which saw over 60,000 non-white residents forcibly removed by the governing regime during the 1970s. Soon after becoming President, Mandela allowed many of those people to return.

Somebody who was vociferously opposed to Apartheid and felt that its aftermath had failed to produce the desired reform was the poet Tatamkhulu Afrika, who refused the right to be classified as a white South African as a matter of principle. Soon before his death in 2002, he released a work called ‘Nothing’s Changed’, where he ruefully claims that the end of Apartheid had done little to alter the inequality within District Six.

He does this by comparing the facilities on offer to the white South Africans, which are full of upper-class and lavish features, while the ethnic groups have to make do with a poor quality of a life and significantly fewer provisions. Afrika states his desire to bring down this establishment by any means possible, but ultimately seems powerless.

Here is the poem in full:

Small round hard stones click
under my heels,
seeding grasses thrust bearded seeds
into trouser cuffs, cans,
trodden on, crunch
in tall, purple-flowering,
amiable weeds.

District Six.
No board says it is:
but my feet know,
and my hands,
and the skin about my bones,
and the soft labouring of my lungs,
and the hot, white, inwards turning
anger of my eyes.

Brash with glass,
name flaring like a flag,
it squats
in the grass and weeds,
incipient Port Jackson trees:
new, up-market, haute cuisine,
guard at the gatepost,
whites only inn.

No sign says it is:
but we know where we belong.

I press my nose
to the clear panes, know,
before I see them, there will be
crushed ice white glass,
linen falls,
the single rose.

Down the road,
working man’s cafe sells
bunny chows.
Take it with you, eat
it at a plastic table top,
wipe your fingers on your jeans,
spit a little on the floor:
it’s in the bone.

I back from the glass,
boy again,
leaving small, mean O
of small, mean mouth.
Hands burn
for a stone, a bomb,
to shiver down the glass.
Nothing’s changed.

This was the first poem I studied as part of my GCSE Anthology, and it introduced me to a style and a realism that I had never come across before. It was hard-hitting, and really put you in Afrika’s shoes, imagining the setting in front of him, picturing the said ‘whites-only inn’ and its juxtaposition with the adjacent working man’s cafe.

It is this juxtaposition – and the repetition within the second stanza – that makes this poem technically brilliant. Afrika paints the picture superbly, emphasising the disparity between the two communities. He avoids sweeping statements, just sticks to simple nouns to describe the scene he witnesses every day, and how he wants to destroy it.

It is worth reiterating that this poem was reflective of the feelings of one – though reasonably influential – South African. Others may have felt differently about the situation at the time, but the work also proves that there was still a long way to go for the rainbow nation to achieve total equality in terms of human rights, and as said before they are still on the road to doing that now, 22 years after the end of Apartheid.

My Poetry – Always There

For some time I have wanted to write a poem that echoes the lyrics of a musical ballad, perhaps with the intention of portraying an excessive degree of sentiment.

So I came up with ‘Always There’, a work which became a little more personal than it was meant to be. In one long verse, I give the impression that I am upset about the relationship I have with a female friend.

Some of the feelings expressed are my true feelings as I can feel rather subordinate when a friend of mine is chatting to somebody else in plain sight, but it is merely an exaggeration; a hypothetical situation which I hope will never reflect reality. Here it is in full:

It’s a cruel feeling
Sickening to the core
It’s eating away at me
And makes me want to live no more
There’s meant to be a power in letting go
But we’ve done too much to finish now
You still need my help
And I still need your ability to wow
A lot has happened
Over this short space of time
You have grown so very quickly
But I hope you’re not leaving it all behind
The battles we’ve fought
Either side of the desk
Maybe they have simply expired
But I don’t want it all laid to rest
You still treat me with adoration
Yet when others arrive
It all feels so hollow

And I’m desperate for our relationship to survive
With others you look so natural
Makes ours just seem like a game
I feel so selfish I hate myself
All because you don’t feel the same
It is impossible to admit how I truly feel
As too much depends on it
But what really frightens the most
Is how it may harm our friendship
I want us to feel close again
But others are standing in my way
You are friendly with them all
And when I see you together
I just waste away
I pretend I’m not around

But the emotions are too powerful
I just can’t control them
It keeps me awake all night, it’s that awful
You reined me in and now I can’t escape
And although the flutters have gone
I still think of you lots
And worry that things are so wrong
I may never get what I desire
But I would like you to know
That I will always be on your side
Always there for you while others come and go

I think that this is one of my more powerful poems as it probably reflects the emotions of a lot of people. It deliberately goes to extremes such as the suicidal thoughts that are expressed early on, while it tells the story of someone who just cannot let go of how he feels, regardless of how much he would like to.

I chose to write it in a single stanza format in order to achieve a better poetic flow. At no point is there an obvious discourse marker to begin a new verse, and this post ends on my piece of literary advice: I may be known for my quatrains, but they should only be used where best applied.

The endurance of poetry

In January 2011 I was in the audience at the Colston Hall in the centre of Bristol for Poetry Live, an event that was put on in order to help GCSE students from all of the local schools gain a greater understanding of the subject matter we were studying for section B of our upcoming exam, which was on English literature and Poems from Different Cultures.

Attendance wasn’t compulsory, but I didn’t think twice, and not merely because it meant a day away from normal lessons.And there were many of us in the audience in front of that famous old stage, and we had a great time, helping ourselves to excessive amounts of Haribo sweets and chatting in between performances.

The master of ceremonies gave a couple of sessions of his own, while introducing five of the UK’s leading poetry figures – Gillian Clarke, Simon Armitage, Imtiaz Dharker, John Agard, and the poet laureate herself Carol Ann Duffy.

I found them all very engaging, and it was good to put a face and a personality to the works we had studied in our anthologies. Agard in particular left a lasting impression on the audience with his charisma and effervescence, but all of them had their own unique delivery and read their poems with different mannerisms; from different perspectives.

Although gaining more knowledge ahead of my GCSE exams was the biggest priority on the day, as somebody who has a fascination with this field of literature, I was eager to pick up a few tips from each of them and learn how and where they get their inspiration. But regrettably I doubt that too many others in the audience left feeling something similar.

As far as I know, too few young people – particularly as you go further down the social ladder – take poetry beyond their school studies and the topic becomes something rather confined to academia. For example, I doubt very much that all that many people in the UK know that Carol Ann Duffy is the poet laureate, such is the lack of mainstream attention she receives.

It is all very well learning the necessary works and the techniques poets use such as alliterations, assonance and those ever reliable metaphors, but surely doing so needs to have some kind of future benefit. Once the time for studying these poems come to an end, they are often forgotten about forever and not reserved the sort of appreciation that they are probably due.

In fairness, the same also applies to the works of William Shakespeare and that of classic authors such as Charles Dickens or Jane Austen. Secondary school aged children cannot identify with them, and as a result they don’t gain any long standing appreciation. ‘Highbrow’ knowledge and interests aren’t valued as much as they used to be.

Only a select few take up poetry, as outside of an educational environment it neither promoted nor encouraged with any great gusto. The role of the poet laureate is a very prestigious one, but this day and age it is hardly recognised or understood, which for me is a shame. It is a very versatile form of art and one that is very pleasing when everything marries together perfectly, but unfortunately its profile has lowered and it doesn’t carry the same weight as other forms of media.

Poetry can be just a hobby or a pastime, as it is for me – and even then I don’t do very much of it. I devote a lot of my time to much more popular and ordinary activities that the average working class 20-year-old would do, but a liking for language remains ever-present and I really hope that it is something that many of my peers (at least secretly) share and put into practice – not just in the occasional humerous Facebook post.

My Poetry – The boy who brought it down

I work as an university administrator and receptionist, a job that carries a fair amount of responsibility. Given my relative lack of experience I have acquitted myself very well through nearly a year in the role, gaining a huge number of new skills as well as becoming friends and colleagues with loads of wonderful people along the way.

I also like writing poetry, which, for whatever reason seems to have some kind of stigma surrounding it. When a person says that they have written a poem, or can come across as poetic in either their speech or their writing, they can be sneered upon a little.

My liking for poetry began at a reasonably early age, and the nature of my work has become considerably more personal as I have grown older, with verses detailing more trivial subjects making way for the real-life thoughts (and there are many) that creep into my mind.

The first poem I wrote after beginning in my job can be perceived as one which showcases the sense of self-doubt I felt at the time. As the hours passed I was often worrying about how I was viewed by everyone at work and whether I was well-liked. Aside from the occasional relapse, these thoughts have now largely subsided, but I thought this poem marked a turning point as to me it seemed to show that I was coming of age as a poet.

Entitled ‘The boy who brought it down’, it is set some time in the not-too-distant future and depicts my sole, almost ghostly presence in my workplace, presiding over what is essentially a delapidated ruin. It probably encapsulates some of my tentative fears at the time and how I was a little wary of being perceived, but I guess it was also written with the awareness that the contents were far from the real truth.

Here it is in full:

I creep through the haunted hall
Plagued by doubt yet full of love
Watching over the corridors of sepia
Until push finally comes to shove

I see an office adorned with hangings and blinds
Dusty files and earthy drawers
Webs hanging from the dim lights
This place has been through the wars

Once it used to prosper
Over four years of groundbreaking schemes
But then the soul was removed
Making it fall apart at the seams

And at the centre lies a desk of decaying timber
Where one teenage delinquent used to reside
His dishonest dealings with the guests
Were the reason why the whole place died

While I have made moves away from this format, the standard quatrain verse with the single rhyme remains my preferred style. This particular poem may be seen by some to represent the anxiety felt by some administrators, or anybody who begins in a new job. You are just desperate to impress your bosses and not to put a foot wrong.

For the record, I don’t think it is fair to call me a delinquent, and my so-called dealings with guests are (certainly intended to be) far from dishonest, but the message that this poem conveys is that I really wanted to prove myself and not be responsible for things going wrong.

The poem is an exaggeration of the potential consequences which were flickering in my head from when I began, until say the summer of last year. As I said at the beginning of the post, I have acquitted myself very well, so any major worries I might have had proved unfounded, and I am now pretty relaxed about things.