We are absolutely delighted to be able to feature Hilary Mantel in this week's edition. Also, of course, our usual selection of poetry, which is where Stephen Boyce's editorial comes in:
Perhaps because it reflects a universal truth, the authorship of the much quoted adage "If I had more time I'd have written a shorter letter" is much disputed. It's been attributed to Pascal, Twain, Thoreau and Locke among others. Whatever its origins, the phrase can be said to apply as much to poems as to letters. To produce a really successful short lyric poem takes great skill and plenty of time – time to develop the craft, and time to execute the poem.
Among those with the gift of achieving the distilled thought and essential beauty of a well-wrought lyric, are Edward Thomas, Frances Cornford, Raymond Carver and, especially in our time, Michael Longley. Not all short poems have the same impact, of course. The haiku is too often treated casually by western poets and with little understanding of its evocative intention, while clerihews and limericks are fine five-finger exercises, but the short lyric poem with its emotional force and rhythmic sense can have an exquisite intensity all its own. Here's Frances Cornford's "Parting in Wartime":
How long ago Hector took off his plume,
Not wanting that his little son should cry,
Then kissed his sad Andromache goodbye —
And now we three in Euston waiting-room.
Beautifully set up and with a final line that sweeps you right into the moment, this poem carries just as much impact as many a successful longer poem. And Edward Thomas achieves a masterly blend of melancholy and hope in his much anthologised four-line poem "Thaw":
Over the land freckled with snow half-thawed
The speculating rooks at their nests cawed
And saw from elm-tops, delicate as flowers of grass,
What we below could not see, Winter pass.
In addition to musicality one thing both these poems exemplify is Michael Longley's dictum "Syntax is poetry's backbone", the words unfolding with natural cadence, clarity of thought and the rhythm that Longley says "makes poetry memorable, makes poetry poetry". His own work contains a snowfall of beautiful short lyrics, many dedicated to departed friends, to his grandchildren or simply conveying a sense of wonder at the natural world and our place in it. As he's aged, Longley's work has tended to focus more on shorter pieces which are like little improvisations in search of the perfect chord. His collection The Weather in Japan from 2000 contains several fine examples, not least "January 12 1996", which tenderly recalls his father:
He would have been a hundred today, my father,
So I write to him in the trenches and describe
How he lifts with tongs from the brazier an ember
And in its glow reads my words and sets them aside.
As is so often the case in short poetry, much weight rests on the final words, but how softly and deftly these land.
Should more attention be given to short poems? Occasionally a competition will bring special attention to poems of up to ten lines – the Plough Prize used to do so and the Magma Competition editors' prize does so currently – but it's rare for a short poem to win a competition that does not have a special category into which it may slot. Yet the imagination and concentrated effort required to capture and hone a short lyric are surely as great, if not greater, than that which goes into a longer poem. What, for instance, would a major competition or magazine make of Raymond Carver's "Late Fragment"?
And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.
In this week's issue, you will find poems by Fran Lock and Roddy Lumsden, Michael Schmidt, Marcia Hindson, Rosalind Easton, Samuel Tongue, Steve Xerri, Nkateko Masinga, Ben Morgan, Matthew Paul, Bob Beagrie, Senem Gökel, Anna Terék and Zita Izso (both translated by Agnes Marton), Sheila Jacob, Jennifer A. McGowan and Kate Gold. Also, a terrifically intelligent and entertaining essay by Hilary Mantel, as well as another piece of travel writing by Lilian Pizzichini, the usual Track of the Week, photographs by Steve Shepherd, etymology and Buddhist wisdom from Brandon Robshaw and Noah Rasheta respectively and the first in a regular feature, Since Feeling is First, by One Hand Clapping's editor, Alan Humm. We hope that you enjoy it.
Stephen Boyce lives in north Dorset. He is the author of three poetry collections, Desire Lines (Arrowhead 2010), The Sisyphus Dog (Worple 2014) and The Blue Tree (Indigo Dreams 2019), and of three poetry pamphlets. Stephen is co-founder of Winchester Poetry Festival. You can find him here: www.stephenboycepoetry.com.