Wednesday, 19 November 2014


In 1979, 25 years old and trying too hard to be Seamus Heaney, I wrote the following. One year away from graduating in Oxford, I had before this lived, studied and worked in Ipswich, three years as an agricultural labourer, thus the rustic roots celebrated in the poem and providing an affinity for rural preoccupations in the poetry of Heaney and Hughes. But who didn't revere these two at this time, whatever their themes, if you wanted to be a poet?

From working on a 3000 acre farm near Ipswich, I then helped to run with one other a 200 acre farm on the Chiltern Hills near Stokenchurch for two years. This poem was written two years after that time, those farming days still pumping the poet's blood.

I post this now having been reminded of the poem during research today about a wonderful man and farm worker [also horseman in his youth] I knew and will write much more about later. He is the Arthur of the haiku posted a little earlier, and that is a true story.....

The George Crabbe Memorial Poetry Competition
1979 Crabbe Memorial Competition - First Prize
Adjudicators: Wes Magee, Marguerite Wood

Tom turns a spaded clod upside
down and prods it to levelled crumbs.
He grips the handle between thumb
and palm while a laugh jerks his side,
then stabbing at the crusty surface loam
a booted step thuds it home.

His smiles are a unique arcana,
mysteries to break the slow toil
into rhythms: movements of compact soil,
once turned, are finished like a coda.
It's a simple talent. Using these secrets
his arms work on through leather singlets.

On stopping, his fingers stretch to unhitch
a clutch nine decades old. Tom stalls
to review through eyes that can recall
backwards as a Suffolk horse-witch
when instead of taming this dark loam
his skill with a dried fresher's back-bone

worked a different gardening.
Pocketed in thick farmer's corduroy
the thin frog-bone was a ploy
to coax some Punch to its tugging
charm. Sweating to the potion
its great legs heeled tight at Tom's motion.

The plough-team's raven-feathered shine
oiled itself through strange antidotes
Tom brewed and added to blander oats.
Each bait was mixed from some design
of his own, or a Horsemen's select cabal
whose shared magic suggest 'Paddock calls',

their witch-like exchange of ideas.
Now moving the stubborn rich earth
he is tending to a similar birth,
and this is Tom's silently smiled panacea.
Molding another cut turf to shreds
he casts his spells into living beds.

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