Thursday, August 26, 2010

On seeing a newspaper picture of Sir Thomas Bouch - language and themes

There is a progression from the actual newspaper picture to the Great Tay Bridge disaster and finally the consequences. To maintain this narrative, the language has to work hard, defining themes and flow.

The repetition of "one black spot" defines two of the main themes - spots and blackness. The choice of these two themes evolves naturally from the double meaning of the phrase - the black mark on a supposedly spotless career , and the spots that make up a newspaper picture. There are other meanings as well - the black gap in the collapsed bridge, and the specks of soot and printers ink make a pivotal point in the poem.

Other themes are present in the poem. The "ordained plan" casts a shadow over the events, and the Tay Bridge disaster could be seen as preordained because of the poor construction techniques used in building the bridge. The epigraph is not just ornamental, but fits into the theme of pre-ordination, with McGonnagal's moralising echoing the Victorian religious ethos of "pride comes before a fall".

The transitory nature of human achievement is another theme - "like his famous bridge, the glorious knight falls quickly" and "constructed glory smudges away" like newspaper ink on the fingers of the readers. The final note of explanation also concentrates on Bouch's success bringing a note of irony and perhaps a more sympathetic look at his career. The reader has to research to link the poem to the historical event which is not mentioned at all by name in the poem. Well, not everything can be made easy!

The title of the poem indicates its primary subject is Bouch and the picture, not the Tay Bridge disaster. The poem concentrates on the picture, its construction and printing. It also concentrates on the effects of the disaster on Bouch - the "bloodshot eye", the grey face, the grief and shame, which eventually leads to his death. The pivotal point in the poem that links these two topics is the phrase "the locomotive sound of printing press". Here the language is working hard, and again in the "ink black gap", a hard sounding little phrase bringing the disaster back to the photograph, and the wihrlpools which immediately follow, moving on to Bouch.

More details and the photograph that inspired the poem can be found at .

Friday, August 13, 2010

On seeing a newspaper picture of Sir Thomas Bouch - some technical notes

This poem has a more rigid structure than many I write, but has many of the same constructs.

The poem has symmetry - the number of lines in each stanza are 1,1,4,4,4,4,4,1,1. This is important not just for the form it gives the poem, but also it reflects the construction of a bridge, often symmetrical with small spacing between the supports at the ends and larger spans "across the gulf".

Each stanza exists to move the story on one step at a time. The first invotes the reader in, the second introduces the construction of a newspaper image, made of dots. The third stanza has the space to develop the narrative of poem, instead of just introducing ideas, and begins to link the dots into shapes which make up the face in the fourth stanza. The fifth stanza moves from the process of building up the picture to printing it, mixing the printing presses and the inks with the locomotive and the smoke. The sixth does not describe the actual event itself, but the reporting of the event and the seventh introduces the transitory nature of all things, events, media reports, reputation. The seventh describes the effect on Bouch and the eighth the ultimate conclusion.

Some might believe the poem was constructed like this and then the words fitted to the construction. That is not the case. The idea behind the poem was the driving force, not the shape, although the basic four line stanza was chosen to give the poem some form that would serve as a skeleton for polishing against. A poem is not like concrete poured into a mould, but more like clay which can be moulded into a basic shape and then modified to create a final form. Perhaps the poem never reaches a final form, but eventually gets displayed as a finished but perhaps not complete object. This poem needed the short lines to give more structure. This was not difficult for the first two lines and for a long time the poem only had two short lines at the start, but in the final polish the ast two lines were split from a rather overladen last stanza and given significance of their own. The adornments are partially ornamental, to add a weight of knowledge to the poem, but also add extra important information in a cryptic form. Why cryptic? Perhaps the media is never straight forward, and although the story might seem to be told, sometimes it requires more research before the full story, if there is such a thing, comes out.

It did not take long to shape this poem. I had known about the Tay Bridge collapse for thirty years or more, was familiar with McGonagall's poem for as long and so had probably thought about the poem for some time before writing it, but not consciously. But the poem, once written on paper took surprisingly little extra work as it tended to demand this structure. And when demands are made, the only difficulty is meeting them, rather than having to design them first.

To summarise, the poem has a defined structure in the number of lines in each stanza to create a symmerty that reflects the objects and events being described, it has a narrative that is progressed one stanza at a time and it has details given in a form that reflects the implicit subject matter to enhance the narrative and educate the reader.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

On seeing a newspaper picture of Sir Thomas Bouch

On seeing a newspaper picture of Sir Thomas Bouch
Edinburgh, 30 December 1879

“For the stronger we our houses do build,
The less chance we have of being killed”

Look closely.

One single black spot.

Two single black spots smudged into one spot.
One black ellipse, a dumbbell, one long black gap,
And then, from a little further
A spotted disc, the grubby oval of the bloodshot eye.

A different perspective, and a face appears
From the mess of swirling spots, scattered
Not at random after all, but in some ordained plan
To form an image of a grey face

In time and space, carefully listening to the
Sounds of rumbling rhythm, deep, eddying and dark,
The locomotive sound of printing press, filthy pistons
Pumping, black as soot, dark as the night,

Imagining the rushing train, lost in the gale
Dashing to the ink black gap. Whirlpools
Etch the wrinkles under the fatigued
Eyes of grief, black as newspaper print

Rubbing on the readers’ fingers as they browse.
So constructed glory smudges away
Into the dark night, an unforeseen disaster,
And shame comes, quick as one black spot.

Like his famous bridge, the glorious knight falls quickly,

Just ten months later and he will join the dead.

Sir Thomas Bouch, Victorian railway engineer, built the St Andrew’s railway, the pleasure pier at Portobello and a floating bridge across the Forth. He was knighted after Queen Victoria journeyed over his great Scottish bridge across the estuary of the Tay.

© Martin Porter 2005

This poem is based on a newspaper picture of Sir Thomas Bouch. Bouch is not a name that is well recognised, so the origin of the poem needs some explanation.

The background of this poem is hinted at in the poem itself, but the supporting text also offer hints. The date is significant. The epigraph is written by Scotland's second greatest poet, William McGonagall. They are, in fact, the last two lines of his best known poem, "the Tay Bridge Disaster". If you don't know this poem you are probably a lucky person, but its worth reading. The postscript also alludes to the Tay Bridge. Thomas Bouch was the designer of the first Tay Bridge. He died on 30th October 1880, as mentioned in the last line.

The Tay Bridge was a spectacular lattice grid iron bridge spanning the Firth of Tay at Dundee. Thomas Bouch designed the bridge and the foundation stone was laid in July 1871. There were some unexpected problems with the construction, including the difficulty in finding sound bedrock for the foundations, so Bouch modified the design to take this into account. The first trains crossed the bridge in September 1877 and Thomas Bouch was knighted when Queen Victoria crossed the bridge shortly after.

On the evening of 28th December 1879 during a violent storm, a train carrying 75 passengers was travelling across the bridge when the central span collapsed, taking the train with it into the Tay, There were no survivors. The disaster shook Victorian engineering to the core and is still one of Britain's worst railway disasters.

The blame will probably never be completely ascertained, but Sir Thomas Bouch was implicated by the enquiry which followed.

This poem was one of those commended by the judges of the Jersey Arts Trust Channel Island Writers' Competition 2005 and is published in the Channel Island Writers' Anthology 2005.

Monday, August 2, 2010

My lover is a rainstorm

My lover is a rainstorm

My lover is a thunderstorm
Grey ripples flickering
Tiny landscapes of stone
Upright, steadfast

And as I watch
My lover paints calligraphy
An illuminated landscape shrunken
waves of jointed, colourless bamboo
watery characters in
upright folds
with all the meaning of

The vacuum
Of the landscape words.

And I say Help me
I am outside, cold and wet

Drenched in chill fascination,
Rattling hollow spaces between drops
Distilling the dews of bronchial chambers.

Like the pine
I grasp the cliff

The morning sun
Drives my lover spectral
from my bed
fleeing colour
rising in

Waves breaking over the hills
Silver sky, silver water
Silver blues and greys
Silver greys, off-whites and almost black

as firm as the landscape it holds

And I say Help me, I am
bewildered, chilled
to the heart.

I know my lover from
Snatched glimpses through the grasses,

Snatched glimpses through the mist.

© Martin Porter 2008

My lover is a rainstorm is an exercise piece written on a wet Sunday afternoon. The poem is an extended metaphor and is based on a "picture" exercise.

The poem started by listing words describing a picture of a chinese landscape in rain. The colours are the most obvious remnants of this exercise, but the bamboo and the pine clinging to the cliff are also clearly a result of the exercise. The movement of the rain is based more on the weather at the time, which rolls down from the hills behind my home in waves. The extension of the poem to the morning is based on the mists that rise in the valley below our house in the morning. These are not uncommon in winter and spring mornings and have a wonderful atmosphere.

It would be an easy but unexciting exercise to continue to write a descriptive poem based on these observations. To spice things up, I decided to add the metaphor. The result was to produce a rather more interesting poem, that allowed the same observations to be put into a more creative context. It also makes the descriptions of being in a rainstorm a little more interesting - lets face it, "I got wet" is not the substance of gripping poetry as a rule.

This poem won second place in the "old hat" section of the recent competition for Northland writers for National Poetry Day and the Whangarei Winter Arts Festival.