John Gohorry is David's Bookshop's Poet-in-Residence. He appears irregularly in the bookshop, reading his poems and talking poetry with allcomers. John has published ten collections of poems to date; his latest, Squeak Budgie! (Smokestack, June 2019) is a series of 24 satires on events unfolding in Brexit Britain from 2016 to the present day.
More information about John and his poems can be found at his website,
23 June 2019
Many thanks to David's Bookshop for giving me this space on their website and for allowing me complete freedom over what I put on it. I'll start with a poem I wrote near the beginning of my residency; it's a sonnet modelled on the metaphysical poet George Herbert's Prayer, which consists of a string of metaphors offering different perspectives on the subject. My (secular) poem aims to do a similar thing, giving different (though not exhaustive) perspectives on its subject, Poet. I think that each metaphor might in fact be a trigger for another poem, though not necessarily of sonnet length or structure. Here's the poem:-
Netmaker; interpreter; spark bringer
to the tinder-dry rook roost; nurse; midwife;
walker on rooftops; horsewhisperer; singer;
thief; lookout; lifeguard; preserver of life;
builder and crosser of bridges; artist
of all that disturbs, teaches or pleases;
dreamer; explorer; wallgazer; fabulist;
stone-breaker; namer of our diseases;
closer and opener of doors; coaxer of flame
from the hearts of others; plumber; scout; scourge;
faker; playmaker; cobbler of what came
to hand or to mind; shapeshifter; demiurge;
cook; traveller; acolyte; word-warden;
sweep; labourer in the Muse's garden.
10 July 2019
This is definitely a good time for me to reflect on the impact a poem can have on the world in which it's written; my latest collection, Squeak, Budgie! was published by Smokestack last month, a sequence of 24 poems giving a commentary on the unfolding of the Brexit situation from the referendum in 2016 to the point it had reached by May this year, just before publication. My poems are written in a satirical tradition stemming from John Skelton's sixteenth century Speke, Parrot!, in which the target is Cardinal Wolsey.The 'voice' in the poems is sometimes my own, and sometimes that of a budgerigar named Pipsqueak; the boundary between the two is deliberately blurred. W.H.Auden famously said that 'poetry makes nothing happen'; ultimately I don't agree with this and there are some strong arguments to the contrary (by Andy Croft, the proprietor of Smokestack as it happens) in last month's PN Review (accessible online at https://www.pnreview.co.uk/cgi-bin/scribe?item_id=10493).
So Squeak, Budgie! picks up on events as they unfolded - the battle early on to give Parliament a say in the process, the triggering of Article 50, President Trump and Kim Jong-un's hostile exchanges, the Salisbury poisonings, the royal wedding, the World Cup, the Windrush scandal, the plight of refugees, etc etc, and I posted the poems, more or less as they were written, on Facebook, in an attempt to expose the follies and deceptions involved in Project Brexit, and in the hope of dissuading people from going forward with it. With four months to go to the next scheduled date of our departure on 31 October, the issue of leave or remain is still very much a live one, and I hope that Pipsqueak's arguments will continue to exert what traction they are capable of in support of remain.
The first (and very positive) review of the book came out yesterday from Stuart Henson in London Grip (https://londongrip.co.uk/2019/07/london-grip-poetry-review-john-gohorry/) and I hope this will draw more people to read it and to flex their political sinews in favour of remain.
On the back of all this I've been invited to take part in a Breaking Lines podcast by members of Poetry ID at the beginning of next week on the theme of political poetry; I'm looking forward to a lively discussion, and I'll post details of it here, including links, once I've taken part.
21 July 2019
Loneliness, solitude and a voyage round the moon.
When, at some point in the 1970’s, I wrote what became the title poem of my first collection of poems, A Voyage Round the Moon (Peterloo, 1985), I centred it on the unique experience of Michael Collins, who flew in the command module Columbia on a solitary orbit round the moon while Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked 60 miles below him on its surface. Fifty years on from the moon landing, yesterday’s (20 July 2019) Google Doodle containing a commentary by Michael Collins confronts me with the mismatch between what I imagined Collins’s experience to have been and what he says that it was, and, in the course of this, raises some challenging questions not just about differences between solitude and loneliness, but also about the authenticity of an act of imagining, an act of remembering, and the assorted underpinnings of each in the conditions that bring them about.
While Armstrong and Aldrin had each other for company, as Collins circled the moon, for two hours at a stretch on its dark side he had the moon’s bulk keeping him out of contact with the rest of humanity. He had no contact with his fellow astronauts; he was out of radio contact with the control centre at Cape Canaveral; as he says in his commentary, he was cut off from the 3 billion plus two inhabitants of Earth, all of them.
He spent over 20 hours entering and returning from this state of isolation in the Columbia module until the astronauts came back from the surface and the trio set out on their journey back to Earth. My poem reimagines this sense of intermittent connectedness. It catches Collins as he returns to the human fold at the end of each two hour half-circuit, the voices of Armstrong and Aldrin crackling up to him from the lunar floor, and the voices of various controllers ‘greeting him on his return with a routine / Howdy, it’s good to have you back with us / for they suspect what he knows on the far side.’ It ends by crediting Collins with a uniquely lonely experience:- ‘ Only he, circling / her immense black back in the star silence, / knows the true meaning of loneliness, like the Old Mariner / sailing down his horizon, her fingers turned steel /at the moment of parting, and her dead heart /2,000 miles thick bulging between them like an iceberg.’ The thrust of the poem is that Collins, as a result of his unique experiences of separation from the rest of humanity, has gained access to some privileged knowledge, the existential implications of which can only be guessed at by others.
But this is a version of the experience far different from how Collins describes it in the Google Doodle. He says he was ‘All alone, but not lonesome. I felt very comfortable back there', he says. 'I even had hot coffee.’ And Collins does have the privileged position of first hand experience, when all’s said and done.
So the disparity between our two accounts prompts me to ask where, and even whether, in fact, I went wrong. It’s possible of course that in writing my poem I had failed through naivety / inexperience to register a fundamental difference between solitude and loneliness; fifty years’ further experience has certainly made it plain to me that they are not the same thing, but did I ever think they were? Perhaps I was overawed by the conditions of Collins’s systematic and recurrent isolation, not having had the pre-mission training that he will have had, one of the purposes of which must have been to strengthen him against the potential trauma of such solitude and indeed, to enable him to be in a frame of mind of which it would be true for him to say I felt very comfortable back there.
Were there other factors at work in writing the poem that led me to see loneliness where I might perhaps more accurately have seen solitude?The words loneliness and solitude both contain three syllables, so there can have been no metric considerations leading me to choose loneliness. Perhaps at this point I’m already anticipating Collins’s connection with Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner ‘Alone, alone, all all alone, / Alone on a wide, wide sea.... . The connection however is entirely mine. When Collins says that he was All alone, but not lonesome, it doesn’t seem to me that he has any conscious intention of setting himself alongside Coleridge’s seafarer.
Setting aside for one moment the possibility that my poem did mistakenly confuse loneliness and solitude, and without at this point conferring any greater weight of truth on either account at the expense of the other, might it not be the case that the two visions express different and even complementary perspectives on a complex reality sifted and framed by the different, partially overlapping experiences of the two people engaging with it?
Poet and astronaut look back on their 50 year distant experiences; the astronaut, trained to engage with the reality of space exploration and with the technical and emotional challenges of his particular mission, operates in a calm, logical and emotionally detached manner because the success of his mission and the safety of his fellow astronauts depends on it. He’s concerned to normalise the experience; ‘I even had hot coffee’ - because the mission represents – no, it is - a triumph of scientific method; other missions will follow (24 people altogether have landed on the moon) and although some sense of wonder is appropriate to Collins’s narrative, a sense of fear, threat, or apprehension just doesn’t occur to him.
The language in which Collins states his sense of wonder (in the Google Doodle) uses standard phrasing to report rather than to express that emotion:- The first time we saw the Moon up close, it was a magnificent spectacle (my emphasis). The relative impact of the Moon seen close up and of Earth viewed from a distance is a matter chiefly of size: It [the moon] was huge...the sight of the tiny Earth. The language of wonder does stretch to one vivid phrase: The sun was coming around it, cascading and making a golden halo but this quickly dissolves into platitudes of wonderment: (my emphases again) As impressive as this view was of this alien Moon seen up close, it was nothing compared to the sight of the tiny Earth. The Earth was the main show. The Earth was it. None of this is to discredit Collins’s authentic sense of wonder, but it does indicate how thoroughly regulated that sense is by a consciousness much more attuned to the logical, the rational and the prosaic.
The poem on the other hand, for all its use of narrative, is a document not so much of report as of dramatic imagination. It’s aware of the risks, not as rare possibilities that have been minimised by careful scientific preparation, but as realities as powerful and as essential to the enterprise of writing the poem as split-second timing and a cool head are to successfully landing on and escaping from the lunar surface. If solitude is primarily a matter of numbers, loneliness is wholly a matter of human feeling, and so, maybe, for this reason, I was right to attribute the sense of it to Collins in my poem after all.