Thursday, 30 November 2006

The Unquiet Grave

Our latest poetry essay assignment is to compare a 16th/17th century poem with a 18th/19th century poem on a similar theme, and both must be from the Norton Anthology, or "The Big Bastard Book of Poetry," as it is affectionately known. I spent quite a large chunk of last night/this morning trawling through to find poems I wanted to use. I practically ended up reading the entire thing, which, no doubt, was the cunning plan. I didn't find anything for the essay, but what I did find, to my delight, were early poems which I know well as folk or Mediaeval songs. And they were versions I hadn't seen! One thing I really love about folk music (and I mean proper folk music, not Bob Dylan, though he's in the Norton too!) is that literally hundreds of singers will record the same song and it will be dramatically different each time.

The Norton has one of my favourite songs, "The Unquiet Grave," which I first heard recorded by Kate Rusby, with the loveliest piano accompaniment. As Kate says in her song book, it is such a delicate, passionate song. It was interesting to compare the versions. Kate's is:

How pleasant is the wind tonight
I feel some drops of rain
I never had but one true love
In greenwood he lies slain

I'll do so much for my true love
As any young girl may
I'll sit and mourn all on your grave
For twelve months and a day

The twelve months and a day being up
The ghost began to speak
Why sit you here and mourn for me
And you will not let me sleep

What do you want of me sweetheart
Oh what is it you crave
Just one kiss of your lily-white lips
And that is all I crave

Oh don't you see the fire sweetheart
The fire that burns so blue
Where my poor soul tormented is
All for the love of you

And if you weren't my own sweetheart
As I know you well to be
I'd rend you up in pieces small
As leaves upon a tree

Mourn not for me my dearest dear
Mourn not for me I crave
I must leave you and all the world
And turn into my grave

While the Norton has:

"The wind doth blow today, my love,
And a few small drops of rain.
I never had but one true-love,
In cold grave she was lain.

"I'll do as much for my true-love
As any young man may;
I'll sit and mourn all at her grave
For a twelvemonth and a day."

The twelvemonth and a day being up,
The dead began to speak:
"Oh who sits weeping on my grave
And will not let me sleep?"

"'Tis I, my love, sits on your grave,
And will not let you sleep;
For I crave one kiss of your clay-cold lips,
And that is all I seek."

"You crave one kiss of my clay-cold lips,
But my breath smells earthy strong;
If you have one kiss of my clay-cold lips,
Your time will not be long.

"'Tis down in yonder garden green,
Love, where we used to walk,
The finest flower that e'er was seen
Is withered to a stalk.

"The stalk is withered dry, my love,
So will our hearts decay;
So make yourself content, my love,
Till God calls you away."

I'm sure the Norton's version is much more "worthy" and closer to the original composition, but I must confess I don't like it as much. Kate possibly made the speaker female to suit a female voice, but, even without that, her version is much more feminine, more of a love song and, to me, sadder, in spite of the Norton's hammering home the tragedy. There's a morbidity to the Norton, right down to the corpse's "earthy strong" breath. It's less personal. I enjoy the romance of Kate's version, the lovers speaking from the heart, etc, just because I'm soppy. Long live soppy, I say.

Oh, and the attached version is Charles Vess' illustration. I like it very much, even if I don't agree that the girl sits on the grave until she's an old woman. Her lover wouldn't let her sit there that long, and what'd be the point if she was going to die herself soon anyway? Maybe it's showing how suffering has aged her. Still, she sounds young to me. It's a lovely picture, though, really beautiful.

The Awful First Post

I've decided to do away with the whole introduction (name, age, life story) thing and plunge right in. All you need to know is that I'm a nocturnal student and world class procrastinator. I'm sure others things will be apparent in time, but, eh, what's the point? I'm hoping to say something vaguely intelligent on here occasionally and keep navel-gazing to a minimum.

This, yet another online journal, is the product of insomnia. It's now 8am and I've been up all night, mostly writing poetry. I'm very glad of this (the poetry, not the lack of sleep) because I don't write nearly enough. I came to university intending to get up an hour early every morning and write, which, needless to say, didn't happen. But, while I haven't done nearly enough, I have, at least, done a little. And I finished two poems tonight. Here they are:

The Dying Woman

When the doctor shook his head,
you became a woman changed.
You became a prophet, telling us,
only through hoarse coughs,
what was to come. Your husband
the ever-stubborn unbeliever.
Nightly you shake the sheets free
from biscuit crumbs like desert sands,
while he just lies there, numb.

As a child I played in your house,
watched by the grandfather clock.
He, unknown to us, was counting down
your days, your years. I imagine
he will one day chime in time
with your funeral bells, booming through
the empty rooms. When we pack up
your things, remove the relics of your life,
he will be the last to go.

Travellers’ Tales: Thailand

We fly over a foamy sea of clouds,
the kingdoms beneath like Atlantis,
and land unsteadily on a country
still dizzy from drowning.

We drive through a city of slums
and skyscrapers, and buildings
in ruins as if after an Apocalypse.
Buddha has left, choked

by the smoke and noisy advertisements.
He ran with his hands to his ears,
found a retirement home by the sea
with trees to sit under

and water to wash his bleeding feet.
He grows fat on bananas and coconuts.
The sea speaks to him in rhymes.
He is not seen

in Pattaya, where even the sun
has turned away and the lights
are like Christmas gone wrong.
Here are the leering,

the drunk, the girls grinding
and writhing, fat flies, the dogs’
ribs showing as Buddha’s had done.

Please, take me home.

I'm not entirely happy with the ending of the dying woman one (which is about my aunt, who has cancer); and the Thailand one, in retrospect, is just generally a bit shit. What's with all the Buddha stuff? Oh, well. There's late night ramblings for you.