Thursday, April 12, 2012

Line length and long lines in "The Ghost at the Old Lychgate"

One of the characteristics of "The Ghost at the Old Lychgate, St Mary, Berkhamsted" is the length of the lines. Long lines have been used to control development of the narrative, the movement of the poetry, the speed of reading and to give impact at certain points.

Long lines tend to add a prose-like nature to a poem and prose is often used to develop a narrative and tell a story. There is an implicit narrative to this poem and the use of long lines allows the reader to develop the "back story" without making it explicit.

Using a long line length to control the speed of the poem is important here. The time it takes to read each line, or each narrative item of importance in the poem, slows the reader. This gives time for the item of importance contained in each line, perhaps simple description, implication of a back story, the properties such as the speed of occurance of an event or setting, to be realised and appreciated. This allows for a more meditative and considered reading of the poem to take place.

This poem is elegaic. Long lines allow the poem time to drift, rather than the "bang-bang-bang" impact of short lines. In this poem, the story uses a dreamy drifting progression to build an atmosphere. There is a development of innuendo and implied events to allow the reader to anticipate or even predice the ending, which contains the unusual event of the groom being jilted, rather than the bride.

The long lines also reflect techniques often used in ghost stories to build and maintain suspense, where little seems to happen but much is implied. This builds up suspense which is often released by a sudden shock. This poem does not have a shock at the end, but a twist which I hope is unexpected.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

The Ghost at the Old Lychgate, St Mary, Berkhamstead

The Ghost at the Old Lychgate, St Mary, Berkhamstead

Sometimes, when the rice has not been properly swept from the ruddy path
And the footprints from each wedding guest scar the surface with erratic scuffs,
When the cherry blossom petals, stirred into little eddies, stack like confetti on the grass
You might catch the leaf like rustle of a congregation long gone from the church,
Glimpse the shadow of a rain cloud when there is empty sky, shaped like a young girl in a pleated frock,
Always a bridesmaid…

In the heat of the May morning you can sometimes hear the sighing
Behind the sound of birdsong from the cedar, mixed with the rustling of a thrush
Scrubbing below the border hedge. The words can be just made out
By the more discerning listener, the one who hears the scraping
Of the beetle on the hoggin, or the whisper of a butterfly or moth in nervous flight,
No, always a butterfly…

“Never a bride”. The words are uttered in light breathy murmurs
That send ripples through the unmown grass beside the graves,
Bending blades in a melancholy breeze. The shade of oak trees
Leave their cool spots by the porch wall, where the last of the snails shelter from the morning heat.
Sometimes the sounds of marriage can be heard across the glebe land, drifting in the shimmering air,
And the more perceptive watcher, the one who sees the movement of the lichen on the tombstones
May see an apparition stand beside the church gate, drowned out by sunlight, or so the locals say,
Always a bridegroom…

© Martin Porter 2005

This elegaic poem is based on an accidental visit to a church one evening while I was walking near Tring in the United Kingdom and is not intended as a description of the building, but more an attempt to capture the atmosphere and emotions experienced.

The church described is a synthesis of the now "retired" church of St Mary the Virgin, Pitstone, the church of St Andrew, Little Berkhamsted and the Parish Church of St Saviour, Jersey. The actual church and consequentially the old lychgate does not exist as a single entity.

The poem relies on detail to give it realism. The setting is described throughout the poem. The brown hoggin church path, the cherry blossom, oaks and cedar within the hedged unmown grounds, the porched church and all there to fix the experience into a geographical location. None of this is real.

The ghost story is also an invention. There are, of course, a great many ghost stories set in church grounds. These often feature jilted brides who, no doubt because of the shock, go on to commit suicide. This poem uses this formula, but adds a variant. This change is not entirely capricious but based on the related experience of a family relative.

The only real aspect of the poem is the ghost in the story, although even this has a twist. On first reading the audience is led to believe that the ghost is the bride, as might be expected in a traditional story. The last line twists this to identify the bridegroom as the spectral presence. But such ghosts are just the substance of fiction. The real ghost in the poem is perhaps better identified as the church of St Mary, Berkhamsted as mentioned in the title, no longer a "living" church, but rather drifting in-between the existence it once had and its ultimate fate as a dead building.