Donald Ward: Lark Over Stone Walls

old book puzzled over by Michael Peverett.

The local poetry publisher in my town is Hippopotamus Press, a number of whose volumes have found their way onto the shelves of the public library. What were the chances of finding something interesting from this selection? I thought of Hippopotamus Press as a press catering for a highly traditional audience, those neglected readers so far across the mainstream as to consider even soft surrealism an unacceptable practice.

Anyway, I did find something interesting. ("Modern in the best sense", the jacket claims uncomfortably, before turning with relief to "the great tradition of English rural verse"...)

Some of the derangements in Lark Over Stone Walls (1993) may be just poor proof-reading. For example "my Calvary bankers", in a poem about Alan Whicker's classic 1964 anti-foxhunting documentary, Death in the Morning; should it perhaps be "cavalry bankers"? And "whose walls are beaten to the mania gaze"; should that be "by the many's gaze"? ("Angoulême"). It seems I don't altogether trust the text, which may be unfair since there's no more than the usual number of definite typos and probable mispunctuation. Yet having lost trust, the doubts find their way into the reading of nearly every poem. Had Ward, already well into his eighties, acquired a certain indifference to particles? In the last line of "Breath", should the peculiar "for" simply be accepted as the commonplace "from"? The syntax of "Late into the night" is unresolvable as it stands, but positing an absent "if" in one place would sort it out almost completely, if a bit dully. My mind swirls with alternatives. I read

        The Devil himself, forsworn into the Christ
        To witness thus, such suffering in time

and wonder if it really helps or not to suppose the Devil forsworn unto the Christ to witness this? I am swaying on sphagnum.

From Ward's own Guardian obituary (Feb, 2003): "His poetry, though belonging to no literary school, was direct and simple, speaking naturally about themes both universal and personal". This idea probably emanates from Ward himself, whose bio says: "He started to write seriously in middle age. This may explain the lack of obvious literary influences in his work". Perhaps it may, though I'm not sure what the implied argument is: that finding expression so late, one is bound to forms of language fixed over a lifetime and comparatively unreceptive to outside influence? But what provided the seed for such forms, if not someone else's poetry?

The fact seems to be that Ward's conceptions of poetry are in a highly recognizable tradition, so that often you know what kind of thing the poem says though it may not say it, but the expression is indeed distinctive. The deranged syntax is too everywhere to be ignored, and in due course I gladly surrender trying to second-guess what may lie behind the long sentences. Here is part of one:

        the bright kindness finished,
        and the bright half-jokes

        till the murderous silence settles,
        stampedes the millionth smile
         (submerged – or wicked,
        submerged, far worse than bliss)

        till ceremony has marshalled all that's left,
        though some may feign surprise they should be left
        or simply are surprised in their suspense

(from "Astrid")

I simply am surprised in my suspense, unsettled by a settling that is also a stampede, astonished by the inverted Milton of "far worse than bliss"...

"Lark Over Stone Walls" begins:

        Hills swarm on salmon and rock
        and on this vague street...

The word "and" promises a second main clause, but in the remaining 32 lines we'll never get one. Instead the poem is structured as an endlessly unrolling sequence of subordinates. Pick it up half way through:

        or a thin stream that runs by a tavern
        and has never discovered its origin.

        Though streams flash trembling silver
        and through the town's hollows
        the platinum streams
        sneak beneath walls
        to the dun valley
        where low houses are all one
        with no distractions but each other
        – the dark window's gob of light,
        the factory drying on the line
        waving to other waterfalls

"Though" is either in apposition to the first non-sentence, or else it begins the second with another unkept promise. There is no lark in the poem, but these syntactic break-ups keep us scanning beyond the poem's borders, as if for the thin stream's origin. Eventually the poem turns a corner and into head-on confrontation with the whole town being owned by "the firm". Just as we're readjusting our sights, it flips again, this time into tipsy surrender:

        where sunlight doubled as it fell
        and stone walls lay back in Eden.

In "Estuary" the syntactical derangement is less keenly felt, but it's still there. This is the brilliant nature-evocation for which Ward has been admired; it's also an object-lesson in the slippery use of "whilst" and "while" and "where" to shift times and points of view. In the end the estuary, continual interaction of river and sea, cannot be pinned down to a view and therefore can't be captured by evocation either:

        .....the thin-lipped waves
        Which roll their foam
        Squirming and vanishing to the anonymous sea.


        Whilst its river is the gulls' escape yet wears
        A diminishing rapture of the sea –
        Or buries the sea
        Beneath the tapered roar
        Embalming mud, and all the pebbled shore
        Where salivaed stones lie shining
        Round and bare

        While a film of water like the softest hair
        Moans the last trickle of relief

"Moan", an important term for Ward, is an inarticulate sound which squeezes out an essence; as here, of emotional release. Elsewhere, he speaks of words as moans. Perhaps the spongiform texts respond to that conception of language.

[Donald Ward was born in 1909 in Surrey. He left school at 14 and worked for the Post Office for a round half century. Nearing retirement he started to write poetry: the first of his collections appeared in 1971; he continued writing until near his death in 2003 and eventually there were around a dozen books and pamphlets, mostly published by small mainstream presses like Hippopotamus and the Mandeville Press run by John Mole and Peter Scupham. There were brief glimpses of attention in the national press, Radio 3, etc. A Collected Poems was published by the University of Salzburg in 1995. "Ted" Ward was a long term resident of Orpington, Kent and a loyal supporter of the local football team, Cray Wanderers.]

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