A canto taken from Jonathan Gibbs’s book-length poem Spring Journal, a response to the coronavirus pandemic originally written on Twitter, and modelled on Louis MacNeice’s 1939 poem Autumn Journal.
“Now we are back to normal, now the mind is
….Back to the even tenor of the usual day
Skidding no longer across the uneasy camber
….Of the nightmare way.
We are safe though others have crashed the railings
….Over the river ravine; their wheel-tracks carve the bank
But after the event all we can do is argue
….And count the widening ripples where they sank.”
So run the first eight lines of Canto Nine of
….MacNeice’s Autumn Journal,
And I cannot improve on its sense or sentiment
….Except to say that we are not yet back to normal,
The camber of the road ahead is uncertain –
….The road itself is in doubt –
And we’ll not be done for years with counting the ripples
….And watching them widening out.
May bank holiday weekend comes, with the filthy Sun
….Tempting us into the light
And filling the streets with parties (the London parks
….Are a dreadful sight).
And this week my work turns from teaching to marking:
….Parade, in close order, left/right dress,
With me as drill sergeant of creative writing,
….Inspecting recruits for proof they possess
Originality of thought, style and form,
….Boots polished, creases sharp, stance symmetrical and neat,
Understanding of generic conventions,
….Double-space your work, indent, repeat.
Never use a metaphor, simile, or figure of speech
….You are used to seeing in print.
Don’t tell me the moon is shining, sunshine;
….Show me the glint
Of light on broken glass (break the glass if need be).
….Be her on whom nothing is lost;
Give me the vivid continuous dream, the five-act structure, give me
….The seven basic plots.
And here’s the axe for the frozen sea within you,
….Which in your case you have not got,
And here’s the splinter of ice in your heart,
….Which is always released, is it not,
With an easy flick of the finger, and please do not let me see
….Anyone using his thumb,
Now here’s a bill for nine thousand pounds, here’s a reading list,
….And turn to chapter one.
But can you teach someone to write?
….Of course you can’t, but perhaps you can learn;
Teachers are those who stand and point the way,
….And now and then discern
The spark of talent that merits kindling;
….I’m not here to train
The next platoon of Rooneys and Heaneys
….I’m here to tend to their brains:
Their critical thinking, the habits of mind that
….Hone the intellect,
That make for clear analysis and elegant expression,
….And when these things all intersect
Then maybe you’ll have an education,
….And maybe you’ll know how to write,
But more to the point what you write’ll be worth reading.
….And maybe then you’ll join the fight.
For we are governed by Humanities graduates – mostly –
….Who seem determined to throw
Our subjects under the bus of ‘Employability’
….With all the glory, all of the dough
Funnelled straight to STEM subjects; which, don’t get me wrong,
….Would be fine
If when science was needed they didn’t ignore it
….For some desperate Nudge Unit line.
And I want to tell my students: the world needs you, because it needs people
….Who know how to think
And how to analyse that thought and express it
….In words that don’t make you blink
And say, am I reading that right? Stay alert, Control
….The Virus, Save lives?
Whether you’re a student of Rhetoric, or of Comms,
….That’s not one for the archives.
And MacNeice had his Greeks, all so unimaginably different
….And all so along ago
But our subject is right outside, so I say to my students,
….Yes, write what you know,
And if you’re good enough, you’ll soon work out
….You know next to nothing at all
About what you thought you knew. That’s when you start digging,
….That’s when you answer the call.
And the crooks are still out in the Agora, the careless athletes
….And the fancy boys,
And the slaves, libation pourers, and demagogues, they’re all still there, listen:
….Listen to their noise.
Written 9 – 15 May