I got two poetry anthologies running, and they’re both – one way or another – going my way. Well now, last time I counted, Railway rhymes has got 88 poems, looks more to yesterday; Train songs has a dozen more, rocks with a swagger, rolls with a sway. The collections share 18 poems spanning 150 years.
The smaller formatted Railway rhymes, edited by Peter Ashley (Everyman’s Library Pocket Poets, 2007) has a distinctly British focus – 10 pieces from John Betjeman (no bad thing in itself), six Hardys, and three Larkins – and is organised in 5 sections, at first historical, mapping the coming of the railways with Navigating and Engineering, then becoming atemporal with Waiting, Travelling and Musing.
The handsome Train songs, chosen and introduced by Sean O’Brien and Don Paterson (Faber, 2013), crosses the Atlantic more frequently, recognises the mythic power of a handful of song lyrics – including Robert Johnson, no less, and Tom Waits – and reserves more seats for contemporary writers. It too is arranged in 5 sections: Prospects, Stations, Underground, Travellers and Night. Note that Travelling in Railway Rhymes, as opposed to Train songs‘ Travellers; it’s a subtle difference, but when push comes to shove (railway buffs might say that should be pull) I’d say the former has more of a focus on railways (not that the railway enthusiast will linger long on the majority of its pages), the latter on poetry.
Belying my title, some of the best poetry in both comes from stopped, stationary or absent trains; the actual railway interest often, like the station and trains in Brief Encounter, the stage and necessary scene-setting rather than the focus of the action. It’s mostly about the inner journey. Railway enthusiasts – ok, trainspotters and modellers – will, however, find some succour in R.P Lister’s fun, name-checking Nostalgia, featured in Railway Rhymes, with its 3 whole pages of the likes of:
You loved them too: those locos motley gay
That once seemed permanent as their own way? –
The Midland ‘lake’, the Caledonia blue;
The Brighton ‘Stroudleys’ in their umber blue.
In the thoughtful introduction to Train Songs the editors, poets and professors both, put it well, with some nice word play:
Readers will not be surprised to learn that there is no shortage of poems about trains and railways. The age of steam in particular lends itself as readily to poetry as do love, death and the natural world, because the railway train participates in all of them. […] So it would not be difficult to assemble a railway anthology along what seem like familiar lines, stoked by nostalgia and comfortably uncoupled from the insistent realities of politics, economics and war. That is not what we wanted to do […]
and it seems to me they succeed with the selection they have made from “the multitude of journeys poets have taken” while not forsaking “poems that, rightly or wrongly, passengers expect to find along the permanent way“. Hence the aforementioned, mostly rich, core of the 18 duplications (links underlined where I could find them):
- interestingly Seamus Heaney’s The railway children (kids playing above a railway cutting) kicks off Train Songs but appears 4th from last in Railway Rhymes
I dare say the anti-HS2 campaigners have already been gleefully quoting from William Wordsworth’s On the projected Kendal to Windermere Railway (he was against it – ironic given that the revived steam trains on the Windermere end are now a heritage attraction in their own right) but they should be aware that he wrote it in 1844, by which time this was grumpy old man Wordsworth, as O’Brien and Paterson put it, “who wrote sonnets in favour of capital punishment, rather than the one who knew the experience of bliss.”
- no-one in their right minds could leave out Philip Larkin’s The Whitsun weddings
- and of course Edward Thomas’s fine Adlestrop (1917) has to be there; it’s practically compulsory for any anthology of English poetry published in the last thirty years (and good for it, say I). [Footnote: I had a mini-crisis the day before yesterday when Adlestrop was featured in a local poetry reading orchestrated around World War 1 themes – I hadn’t realised Thomas had died at the battle of Arras in 1917 – and it was pronounced with the ‘a’ as in ‘paddle’ rather than ‘pay’, as I’d always heard it in my head, and I thought the reader had got it wrong. Adventures in YouTube – Richard Burton, Geoffrey Palmer, and, crucially, Robert Hardy at a reading in the village – rather disturbingly prove I’ve had it wrong all this time.]
- two John Betjemans are shared: Pershore Junction – the melancholic regret of words never said at the station – and Thoughts on a train, which sees him journeying in gentle entertaining lech mode (“No doubt she is somebody’s mistress / With that Greta Garbo hair“).
- obviously: Auden’s magnificent Night Mail; Robert Louis Stevenson’s From a railway carriage; Eliot’s Shimbleshanks: the [bleeding] railway cat; McGonagall’s classic The Tay Bridge Disaster; Wilfred Owen’s sombre The send-off;
- less obviously Thomas Hardy’s The missed train (Railway Rhymes offers much better Hardy options, I’d say)
- of the moderns, it was a nice surprise to find Tony Harrison’s bracingly downbeat Changing at York, a shame that Simon Armitage’s The metaphor now standing at Platform 8 doesn’t quite live up to the promise of its wonderful title (still good it’s there, though), but I’m not convinced by Alan Brownjohn’s The train, which was new to me
- Walter de la Mare’s The railway junction, another one new to me, is an interesting railway variation on the line less travelled
- it’s only the two remaining shared poems that actually give you a physical sense of the powerful attraction and allure that trains, the steam train in particular, bring – in themselves, or in the landscape. Stephen Spender’s The express in the former case (“After the first powerful plain manifesto / The black statement of pistons, without more fuss / But gliding like a queen, she leaves the station“) and in the latter – hey, guess who? – Emily Dickinson’s delightful I like to see it lap the miles (“I like to see it lap the miles / And lick the valleys up“).
Both collections have their strengths and complement each other nicely. Train songs has yielded new names and work that excites me. Peter Didsbury’s The Guitar is full of captivating imagery (“The train courses over / the frets of the guitar / but it is going backwards, towards the hole in the middle. / Coleridge is sitting at a window / with his back towards the engine.“) and Robert Crawford’s The railway library tracks literary mileposts (” … racing through its chapters / In a slipcase of steam until your destination / Broke off the story. Rochester met Jane Eyre / At Falkirk High“). Ian Duhig’s Jericho Shandy records a never dull 4-page surreal literary and sub-cultural reverie when “Returning from the anniversary / event for Sterne at Bradford Library, / a theft of signal wire maroons his train” and “the engine idles in iambics“; the title of the poem is a nod to Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy (one of Lillabullero‘s favourite books).
Train Songs‘ other great plus is the decision to include Americans in its remit, so we get William Carlos Williams’ bustling Overture to a dance of locomotives and Walt Whitman’s magnificent To a locomotive in winter among others. An actual train song included – Junior Parker’s classic Mystery train, one of Elvis Presley’s greatest early Sun Records performances – raises an interesting question, in that the copyrighted lyrics maintain the opening line as “Train arrived“, as opposed to the “Train I ride” that most everyone sings (or hears), though ‘arrived’ makes much more sense narratively.
On the other hand, where Railway Rhymes really scores is in its opening Navigating section, a fascinating set of anonymous, or rather unattributed, verse and popular ballads concerning the first railway age. At times doggerel, for sure, but nevertheless illuminating pop culture artefacts of their time displaying the wonder and fears of the general populace as the railways grew (and the navvies hit town of a Saturday night). Some sort of introduction – original sources, dates – would have been useful here. There’s the amazement that what makes the kettle lid rattle can be the power that drives the locomotives and an acute awareness that with the coming of the railway – also the dot.com boom of its time, hence Thackeray’s The speculators included here – everything is changed. So we get The railway whistle, or, The blessings of hot-water travelling, and The Cockney’s trip to Brummagem, with its “When the swell mob comes down, we must look out for squalls / Or they’ll bolt with the organ from out the Town Hall“; some things paranoic never change. Then there’s The wonderful effects of the Leicester Rail Road, the dialect Johnny Green’s trip fro’ Owdhum to see The Manchester Railway and a few more, none of them exactly nostalgic for the superceded stage coaches and coaching inns.
After the social history, Railway Rhymes settles down into almost an English pastorale – “Unmitigated England” as Betjeman puts in his Great Central Railway poem. The longer poems are variously interspersed with some short squibs, three Edward Lear limericks and numerous examples of the humour of one ‘Tiresias’, the author of Notes from overground (1984), a book of commuter jottings I took great joy in when I was commuting. We get samples from Adlewhat? – his cracks at Adlestrop – and his bawdy Loose coupling sequence of short poems. Try Adlewhat? 3:
Haycocks and meadowsweet? I wouldn’t know.
I never looked outside the train,
Just drank canned beer from a plastic cup
Until the damned thing started again.
Neither book contains anything, from what I can fathom, from a real railway poet. Joe Smythe was a railway guard, living and working in Manchester, when the NUR – his union, the then National Union of Railwaymen, now a part of the RMT – commissioned The people’s road as their contribution to the Great Railway Exposition of 1980, celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Liverpool/Manchester Railway. It’s a lively collection, with poems ranging over the whole period and touching on the lives of all manner of railway workers. Its class perspective, while never hectoring, adds another dimension to the poetry of the railway. Variously witty, acerbic and thoughtful in mood, its language is vivid, fanciful, vernacular. Because the poems appear to have no presence on the internet and seem to have disappeared without trace, here are a couple in their entirety for your delectation (with an apology for the language in the second one if you want it, even if I think it makes a valid point):
Class by Joe Smythe
She was the Inspector’s daughter,
I was the Porter’s son,
For years we paused in passing,
Now she’s dead and gone.
Paused and never spoke yet
Unspoken love was there,
She was the Inspector’s daughter,
I was the Porter’s heir.
Her eyes I well remember
Looked longingly at me,
A girl as young and beautiful,
Brave as a memory.
She married the Station Master
Twenty years or more,
Married and gone forever,
For ever gone, the whore.
A small philosophy by Joe Smythe
The guard is a man who sits in a van,
The van at the back of the train. The driver
up front thinks the guard is a cunt, the guard
thinks the driver’s the same. I wonder
who wrote those verses. I’ve seen them
everywhere. Lavatory walls, mess rooms,
engine bulkheads, from Carnforth to Crewe.
Llandudno to Leeds, that’s my patch,
and everywhere, this little bitterness;
which might parade a larger truth,
travels the roads like a mocking eye.
There is no brotherhood in it, this
most memorable of rail graffiti.
I wish I hadn’t wished I’d written it.
And I leave you with this little gem from the pen of the mighty Jeff Mallett. For a while now his Frazz has been my favourite regularly produced comic strip, appearing daily on the splendid Go Comics website at http://www.gocomics.com/frazz/. Enjoy.