Wheest, Wheest | Chris Jones


Thom Gunn

One of the things that I came to appreciate as I started to read poetry in my early teens was how much poems were in conversation with other poems, and as a kind of variation of this theme, it dawned on me that poets were going about their business by ‘talking’ to each other. Never mind that the poet being responded to had been dead for three years or three centuries: this reflection on and negotiation with previous practice – whether it be through assimilating long-established poetic forms (e.g. the sonnet) or mining a well-used trope through the echo of allusion, or perhaps even through adopting creative plagiarisms – this was all part of a grand tradition of writing. It’s one of the fundamental, underpinning (and unwritten) tenets of poetry that makes it so difficult for students and casual readers coming to the genre to make sense of the sometimes rarefied, often codified language placed in front of them. It’s still one of the main stumbling blocks that makes it difficult for me to read, absorb and unravel poems.

To show how this long-standing ‘dialogue’ develops and mutates over time, I’ll use my own poem ‘An Invitation’ as a starting point for discussion. The piece is a fictionalised response to a meeting I had with the poet Thom Gunn back in the mid-1990s in Haight-Ashbury, San Francisco. It was my rather clumsy attempt to interview a very fine and inspirational writer about his career (he was in his mid-60s at the time of my calling). I had just written a thesis on Gunn and wanted to put a full stop at the end of the project by meeting my subject, the great man, himself. I decided, eventually, to write the poem that reflected on our afternoon together (after a sixteen year gap or so) in iambic tetrameter rhyming couplets. One of the reasons why I wanted to write in rhyming couplets (which could be viewed as quite an anachronistic form of address) was that this poetic form gave a strong nod in the direction of one of Gunn’s own formally idiosyncratic pieces: ‘An Invitation: from San Francisco to my brother‘. Whereas I use the term ‘invitation’ in a more generalised sense of already being invited somewhere, turning up, and going away again, Gunn is channelling a more classical sense of the term and seeing his own poem as a kind of epistolary call to his brother halfway across the world: it’s proleptic in its concerns – brother, if you come to visit we can do this, and this, and this. Gunn’s own rhyming couplets (he mixes up pentameter and tetrameter lines throughout) are themselves floating on a pool of allusions: he has based the structure and tone of his work on Ben Jonson’s poem ‘Inviting a Friend to Supper’. Because Gunn was so widely read, a catholic consumer of poetry, he realised one ‘template’ he could use when writing his own piece of bidding was to imitate (this being a favourite theme of Gunn’s) and adapt a previous model fashioned by this Elizabethan/Jacobean poet. Jonson’s form de jour here is the heroic couplet (rhyming iambic pentameter lines): he is sending out a ‘formal’ invitation to his patron, William Herbert, the Earl of Pembroke, to come to a seemingly elaborate feast in the private space of the poet’s house.

We can go even further back than this. Jonson wrote ‘Inviting a Friend to Supper’ as part of a series of epigrams: concise, witty, often satirical pieces that commented on (and often mocked) social airs and conventions. Jonson was schooled in the languages of Latin and Greek. He would have written this piece knowing that a good number of his audience could pick up on the Classical antecedents that the work is drawing on. In particular, Jonson is echoing some of thematic strategies of the Roman poet Martial. See, for instance, Martial’s poem that begins: ‘You will dine nicely, Julius Cerialis, at my house’ (11.52) or poem 5.78: ‘If you are troubled by the prospect of a cheerless dinner at home, Toranius, you may fare modestly with me.’


Michael Longley

We need not necessarily go this far back as time-travellers to trace a ‘family tree’ of models, connections, allusions. Indeed, we could put to one side this notion of poets responding to each other and adopt a much more standard (and prevalent) critical paradigm where a reader focuses on analysing how a poet’s own oeuvre develops from book to book, in essence testing how his or her work matures by charting the central arguments, tensions, debates that the poet has engaged in over the span of a career. This approach is particularly illuminating when we examine the interconnected schemata/motifs prevalent in the work of the Irish poet Michael Longley. His poems are so much in conversation with themselves that I regard these (often) short, discrete pieces like the fractals that contribute to a larger patterned picture, or like petals that make up a huge vibrant flowerhead. Something of this idea of movement/progression and recapitulation can be found in Longley’s own maxim: ‘If prose is a river, poetry is a fountain.’

I can show how this self-sustaining debate has evolved in Longley’s work by quoting from a recent poem, ‘Marigolds, 1960’, published in The Stairwell (2014). Here Longley is remembering one of his last meetings with his father. The poet is about to return to university in Dublin to continue his studies after the summer break. He has just had his first poem published which his father thinks is ‘[n]ot worth the paper it’s printed on.’ This rather pat critique is followed by a little contextualising statement and fragment of speech:

You are dying. ‘They’ve cut out my
Wheest – I have to sit down
To wheest – like a woman.’

Longtime readers of Longley’s work will know that his father reappears as a key witness of historical trauma, having fought in the First World War with the Ulster Division. The father is both a central character in Longley’s focus on autobiography, contingency and personal tragedy and also a kind of Everyman soldier, a put-upon Tommy who could equally be pictured outside the gates of Troy with Odysseus as he might be charging across the blasted fields of the Somme. The emasculating consequences of war that come to literal effect in ‘Marigolds, 1960’ have already been foregrounded in Longley’s earlier work. In a poem from Longley’s first collection (No Continuing City, 1969) we first learn of his father’s debilitating wounds:

Between the corpses and the soup canteens
You swooned away, watching your future spill.
But, as it was, your proper funeral urn
Had mercifully smashed into smithereens,
To shrapnel shards that sliced your testicle.
That instant, I your most unlikely son,
In No Man’s Land was surely left for dead,
Blotted out from your far horizon.

You can see that Longley is still working toward a mature voice here. He has a rather mannered way of phrasing his lines. ‘[Y]our proper funeral urn / Had mercifully smashed into smithereens’ seems to focus on rather ornate poeticisms for the fragments of the shell that went off in the vicinity of his father. He will go on to refine this balancing act so that his full-blown style is based on making poems out of rather poised and elegant long sentences. He jettisons the full end-rhymes we see here soon after publishing his first collection, cultivating a robust and supple free verse style. But it is this image of the shrapnel shards slicing the testicle, the enervation of the soldier’s strength from that palpable sense of castration, that he returns to in his poetry. Here’s a later poem, ‘The Choughs’, from the collection The Weather in Japan (2000) that shows how his stylistic approach has changed:

The choughs’ red claws recall my father

Telling me how the raw recruits would clutch
Their ‘courting tackle’ under heavy fire:
Choughs at play are the souls of young soldiers
Lifting their testicles into the sky.

Longley is making surreal connections between watching birds ‘rolling and soaring’ about the cliffs on the West Coast of Ireland and this mediated memory of his father’s that returns to focusing on the male sexual organs as a signifier of vulnerability and mortality. His father’s delicate euphemism (‘courting tackle’) seems at odds with the apparent violence of the situation he found himself in, but is in keeping with his own sense of decorum elsewhere (see his use of the word ‘wheest’ in ‘Marigolds, 1960’, for instance). Longley is almost trying to reclaim the shocking earthiness of his father’s plight by pushing this defamiliarising metaphor of the dead soldiers ‘lifting their testicles into the sky.’

It’s worth noting that in the poem ‘The Butchers’ (from Gorse Fires, 1991), one of Longley’s many translations of Homer that he uses as a way to reflect on contemporary violence (in this case sectarian killings), one of the acts that Odysseus perpetrates on his rival Melanthios’s ‘corpse’ is to ‘cut off his nose and ears and cock and balls.’

In ‘Marigolds, 1960’, Longley is coming full circle when he writes after his own father’s cock and balls. You feel that Longley is making that connection between potency and writing here. After all, the father is denied his penis just as the son begins to find success publishing his work. Perhaps more tellingly, Longley is offering us one way of reading this ongoing dialogue he has cultivated across his books with his dead father. Rather than dwelling on his father’s opprobrium (with poems that are ‘Not worth the paper [they are] printed on’), he writes, and continues to write because he wants his shade-of-a-father’s respect and understanding. Here’s another poem printed in The Weather in Japan:

12 January, 1996

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.


W S Graham (photograph by Michael Seward Snow, late 1950s)

Sometimes, once in a while, I read a poem that makes me see another piece in a whole new light. It’s as if the succeeding poem works as a skeleton key that can open a secret compartment in the other text’s structure, revealing a whole new layer of meaning. Usually, this involves the poet creatively re-interpreting another poet’s work through his or her own understanding of the text. They usually do this through allusion or reconfiguring a particular word or phrase found in the original poem. When I read Michael Longley’s collection The Stairwell, I noticed that Longley uses as his epigraph for the first part of the book a quotation from the poet W S Graham: ‘Hap the blanket round me / And tuck in a flower.’ I knew I had read this extract before in a Graham poem and flicked through my copy of the Scot’s Selected Poems (1996) to see if I could find where this petitioning couplet had been taken from.   My homing instincts were right – pretty soon I had found the late Graham poem ‘To My Wife At Midnight’ as the source for this perhaps emboldening, perhaps plaintive request. This piece rounds off the Selected Poems – it is a rather fragile, beautiful sequence that contemplates love, companionship and old age as Graham and his wife (Nessie) prepare to ‘say goodnight… / sleeping alone together.’

While I was reading through the Graham poem again it dawned on me that Longley was echoing and subtly playing with the Scottish poet’s trove of language, teasing apart and ‘redressing’ a particular word that is shared in both books. Here’s the final section of ‘To My Wife At Midnight’ in full:

Nessie Dunsmuir, I say
Wheest, wheest to myself
To help me now to go

Under into somewhere
In the redcoat rain.
Buckle me for the war.

Are you to say goodnight
And kiss me and fasten
My drowsy armour tight?

My dear camp-follower,
Hap the blanket round me
And tuck in a flower.

Maybe from my sleep
In the stoure at Culloden
I’ll see you here asleep

In your lonely place.

I always thought the narrator of this poem is talking to himself for solace, a spell to calm his unsettled mind down. If we read the notes at the back of Graham’s New Collected Poems (edited by Matthew Francis and published in 2004), we find that ‘wheest’ is a Scots dialect word for ‘hush’. There are various examples of the use of this dialect word in poems that explore the Scots vernacular. Given the tone and direction of the poem – towards sleep and separation – this self-administration of comfort seems like the obvious route to take through the sequence. However, if we read the text through the prism of Longley’s ‘Marigolds, 1960′, we find another poem floating just beneath the surface. Certainly, if we take on board Graham’s own sense of artistic contingency – as he articulates in his manifesto-driven ‘Proem’ (‘It is now left just as an object by me / to be encountered by somebody else’) – we might go back to the beginning of the poem and take a different path through its architectural planes.

So, rather than the narrator in ‘To My Wife At Midnight’ saying ‘hush, hush’ to himself, perhaps, like Longley’s father, he understands that the word ‘wheest’ carries another load within it. Graham perhaps is saying ‘cock, cock’ to himself, to ‘help [himself] now to go / Under into somewhere / in the redcoat rain.’ Actually, thinking about this emphasis more and more I don’t see it as a great leap of the imagination to read the culmination of the piece to be addressing obliquely the intimacies of sex. After all, the poem begins: ‘Are you to say goodnight / And turn away under / The blanket of your delight?’ The alternative to that ‘turn[ing] away’ is surely the act of love. There are wide open spaces between the lines of this poem for physical union to take place.

I’m sure Longley is aware of this alternative reading he’s providing room for through nailing on the quotation from ‘To My Wife At Midnight’ at the beginning of The Stairwell and then echoing Graham’s usage of ‘wheest’ in his poem ‘Marigolds, 1960’. Perhaps too there is a double bind in this quoted epigraph, ‘Hap the blanket round me / And tuck in a flower’ – that of attentive, love-worn survivors, old man and wife (Longley was celebrating his marriage of fifty years in his last poetry collection, Angel Hill) – while also evoking the old soldier who has survived the war, who has returned, and who Longley wants to give flowers, marigolds perhaps, and hopes they are not rejected this time around.

This is the fourth in a series of essays by Chris Jones reflecting on the craft of writing. The first essay appears here, the second can be found here, and the third is posted here.

Chris Jones’s second full-length collection Skin is out now from Longbarrow Press, and includes the poem ‘An Invitation’. Visit the Skin microsite for more details about the book, or click on the relevant PayPal option below to order:

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