Poetry Project

Poems to mark the hundredth anniversary of the Titanic

This poetry project will mark the centenary of the sinking of the Titanic by inviting poems related to this theme. On the one hand, the Titanic's many human stories of life and death as well as its inherent symbolic value ( The Onion's spoof headline, 'World's largest floating metaphor hits iceberg', says it all) make it ideal literary material.  It's not surprising that the cries of hypothermic survivors struggling in the icy water and begging to be taken aboard the lifeboats (whose occupants chose to save themselves instead)  echo throughout Titanic-inspired fiction, from Beryl Bainbridge's prizewinning Every Man for Himself to Charlotte Rogan's gripping The Lifeboat.

But on the other hand, I am painfully aware that I may be ill-advisedly extending an open invitation to the legion of William Topaz McGonagalls out there, who will assault my ears with flat, contrived rhymes, banal thought, bathetic attempts at momentousness, all at tedious length. They are forewarned and I am forearmed.

Send your poems pasted inside the body of an email headed SLiP April poetry workshop to SLiP Project Manager pieter@slipnet.co.za by no later than Tuesday 10 April 2012.  Please give your poem a title. I’ll respond with general comments about all the entries, and select a few of the best for publication here.

I look forward to your poems in response to any or all of the following prompts.

  1. Last year Allan Wolf published a novel in poetic form, The Watch that Ends the night: Voices from the Titanic.  Read an excerpt here and then write your own poem adopting the point of view of an object, animal or person involved in any disaster, including the Titanic. For example, you could try to enter the head-space of Lady Duff Gordon, who said at dinner on the Titanic: "Fancy strawberries in April, and in mid ocean. The whole thing is positively uncanny. Why, you would think you were at the Ritz." How would someone like that cope in an emergency?
  2. Amanda Ripley writes: ‘each of us has what I call a “disaster personality,” a state of being that takes over in a crisis. It is at the core of who we are.’  Write a poem in which you depict your own disaster personality.
  3. Survivors of disasters like the Titanic often experience ‘survivor guilt’.  Read Derek Mahon’s poem After the Titanic which adopts the voice of Bruce Ismay, the director of the White Star Line, the man held responsible for reducing the number of lifeboats on board because he said they ‘cluttered’ the deck.  Then write your own survivor guilt poem.
  4. Musical director Herbert Finck is quoted in The Band That Played On: The Extraordinary Story of the Eight Musicians Who Went Down with the Titanic  as saying: “The ship's band in any emergency is expected to play to calm the passengers. After Titanic struck the iceberg the band began to play bright music, dance music, comic songs – anything that would prevent the passengers from becoming panic-stricken.”  Write a poem that is directly or indirectly inspired by this idea.
  5. Various insurance claims were made against the White Star Line for losses incurred by the sinking of the Titanic.  The Belgian Consul asked for ‘$46,250 for Lost Natives of His Country and their baggage’. Margaret Brown claimed for the loss of fourteen hats. Mrs Irene Wallach Harris, claimed $1,000,000 for the loss of her husband.  Other claims listed a set of bagpipes, a marmalade machine and a signed photograph of Garibaldi. Write a poem inspired by these insurance claims.
  6. Read Thomas Hardy’s The Convergence of the Twain and then write your own poem contemplating the aftermath of a disaster that destroyed substantial property.
  7. Consider some of the odd things that were aboard the Titanic and then write a poem addressing or contemplating human baggage.
  8. Write a poem sending up the whole idea of centenary celebrations.
  9.  Any poem on any subject.

Submitted Poems

The Bass Violin Player’s Last Hymn
Geoffrey Haresnape

“It would have been finer if the band of  the Titanic had been quietly saved, instead of being drowned while playing—whatever tune they were playing, the poor devils.” – Joseph Conrad

What we* didn’t choose was “Nearer my God to Thee,”
though we knew already that the ship was gone,
for the sea’s tongue licked at the slanting deck.

There was no point in jaunty ragtime as before,
when we’d sailed from Southampton on a hopeful tide.
How we’d lifted the hearts of the leave-taking crowd!

A hundred-ton rudder had angled out our course.
The triple-throated horns had vented blasts of pride:
each belching funnel could have been the tunnel to a train.

Bigger (it had seemed to all) was better on that day.
Messrs Guggenheim and Astor were the most admired on board;
undistinguished immigrants were on their way to Ellis Island.

How could we guess that green ice had the biggest paw?
That, casual, it would claw us in the plated flank
and open up our entrails with a single sweep?

I knew the deck was shuddering, though not why.
A priest and his flock were tugging at their rosaries:
no time for me to grasp the beads beneath my scarf.

The band had its imperatives. My horsehair bow
picked out the rhythm of “Autumn,” a robust hymn
whose cadences denied the imminence of death.

Strange instruments replied from deep within the hull;
wrenchings and tearings, distant drops and grinds—
a sad, demented symphony, performed fortissimo.

The lifeboats dropped away like seed pods from a tree;
too many eyes remained aboard to watch the superstructure sag.
The submerged decks still threw a tremulous, glow-worm’s gleam.

State room to steerage, drinks were on the house.
Some grabbed at brandy while the glittering shelves collapsed;
the twisted casings groaned: Time, gentlemen, please.”

Then some internal sheathing snapped and killed the lights.
The stern was up and pointing, eighty meters high;
three reared-up screws were looming like Cyclopean genitals.

We fifteen hundred who were cornered there
crawled high to buzz and cluster on the plunging rail:
I was one with these bees desiring to swarm.

The big bulk of my instrument was crashing down:
my music sheet and stand each went its separate way.
I tried to cling, slipped through a yawning hole, was gone.

It’s said a White Star charter found me drifting in the floe
among the cabin fittings, deck-chairs, masses of loose cork.
An O of gold and pewter cross were all I had to speak for me.

Since then, it has been ninety years of quiet earth
to dream again upon the pain it was to drown;
to hear the North Atlantic roaring in my ears.

* John Frederick Preston Clarke held a temporary position in the band on RMS Titanic, his first—and  final—time at sea. His body was recovered from the ocean and taken to Halifax, Nova Scotia. It was dressed in a grey overcoat and muffler. A ring bearing his monogram was found on a finger, and a crucifix around the neck. Clarke (together with a number of other identified victims deemed to be Catholic) was buried in the Mount Olivet Cemetery, April 1912.

Nanook – a North Atlantic Ballad
Geoffrey Haresnape

They packaged him at London Zoo
with full professional care:
his destination was New York
for exhibition there.

His claws were out like iron hooks,
and he was filled with rage.
He cuffed and slashed with frontal blows,
but could not break his cage.

At the quayside they winched him high,
then lowered him below.
The liner was about to sail
if he could only know.

His cage was placed against the hull
below the water-line.
He grunted at the telegraph;
the steam’s hiss made him whine.

To rich New York, to rich New York
the home of Liberty.
To rich New York, to rich New York
and more captivity.

They had not been at sea for long,
not even for a week,
before an iceberg struck their side
which sprang a copious leak.

A glassy spur ripped through the plates
as frail as melon skin:
in passing it collapsed the cage
Nanook was captured in.

When water filled the bulkhead’s space,
he answered with a roar
and squirmed beneath the guillotine
of a steel safety door.

He padded down the passageways,
hopped up an ornate stair:
with every snuffle of his snout
he searched for open air.

On deck, the women did not laugh
nor watch  their children play:
they were unlike the folk he’d known
on a Bank Holiday.

For here they cried and clustered round
to look down from the rail.
They saw the water’s icy sheen
and felt their spirits fail.

The gentlemen so loathe to wet
their patent leather shoes,
they feared great forces were at play
to drag them in the ooze.

Nanook observed the stern rise high:
the sinking planks were steep.
On all four paws he slithered down
to set off in the deep.

It was the longest, coldest swim
that he had known for years.
The pallid ice floes passed him by,
some edged with glinting spears.

His muscles stretched, his nostrils spread,
the ocean soaked his hair,
but he advanced with easy stroke,
and energy to spare.

He hauled out on a growler’s shelf
to shelter in its lea:
sank before his eyes,
the ship that set him free.

A long, continuous wailing chant
came to his hearing there
from humans drowning in the night
with fearful screams, or prayer.

Nanook, he waited on the ice
till the last voice was gone,
then set his course towards the north
and paddled strongly on.

Huge Ursa Major watched from far
among the sky’s white lights
contented that the polar bear
was safe this night of nights.

Jennifer Lean

is this wealth of sea-womb spoils
and the tourist cameras
on whales and seals
and picture-book boats
and his toothless gums
and raw-rough hands
and the colour
of the words that spill
like guts of fish
from his beseeching mouth

No camera
on his dreams at night
where waves are wolves
and rough-weave winds
work an easy way
into his shack
his sleep
his dreams of
in the daunting seas
of his labour
against lack

Not the Titanic
Yvette Morey

It will not happen comically, or
brutally, in the shower.
or with those peaches
my sorority sisters.
Not in a broken-down car
in the middle of the night woods,
abandoned warehouse,
or room housing implements
for tree-felling, taxidermy or butchery.
In spite of global warming
there will be no earthquake, tsunami,
hurricane or volcano,
nor the indignity of majesty up-
ended, backside suspended,
white star making a bee line
for the bottom.

It will come with the arrival of a stranger
unannounced, uninvited,
crooning an almost-familiar song,
always there
on the tip of your tongue
like the voice of your mother,
or the slow whoosh of blood in your ears

Straightening Deckchairs
Ross Flemming

I am convinced that if we as a society work diligently in every other area of life and neglect the family, it would be analogous to straightening deck chairs on the Titanic.” – Stephen Covey

There are times of illuminating honesty
When I glimpse a caricature
Reflected in the heaving swell
And, seasick to my core,
I head for the bridge in lopsided panic
Looking for meaning, poetry, reality,

But not before politely
Adjusting the deckchairs
Of a few fellow clowns
And of course the paying customers

Who would be hurt, angry and possibly decimated
Were I to lump myself overboard
In a thrilling leap of unfaith
To feed the fishies in a fickle statement of foolish futility

Going Viral
Ross Flemming

(Gasp) you'll never guess what happened
At the Centenary of the act of Union
(You know how you just know
fool's going to spoil it for literally everyone)
Well Kabous really let the side down for the entire Mountjoy family

Between me and you and these four walls
You know how dear Ray has a thing about the old country
And how Kabous simply hates anything right and proper
Real black sheep of the family
Well Ray was in his old boys’ blazer and tie
Marching with the veterans

In front of Parliament when
What should happen but Kabous
Appears wearing nothing but a tattoo on his derrière saying Kabous dot cozy
Or something like that

(Ray has no time at all for the intimate – work of the Devil he calls it)

Anyway don't tell anyone
But Kabous did it for the publicity
Apparently now his web sight thingy has gone viral
Whatever that might mean

He ran right in front of the Television cameras
(and the evening news showing our son getting crash tackled by a special branch member)
I don't know how Ray will hold up his head at the club again
He's considering resigning from the Nationalist party
(Or what's left of it)
The disgrace is unending

And our only son a plumber
(and running a dating sight on the intimate for homosexuals)
I didn't know what to tell the newspaper reporter
Who was here a moment ago
Oh the disgrace, dear God
Disgrace is the one word running
through my mind

The Bottom Line
Ross Flemming

Feel the rhythm, find the beat
Here’s an offer that’s right up your street,
You’ve worked so hard, you’ve done the sweat
But your come-uppance ain’t come up yet

You’ve done the time, but nothing sweet,
Has tickled your fancy, swept you off your feet.
But we’ve got your number, it’s your night
Listen up pal, we got you tight

Tenth of April, Twenty Twelve
Be ready to fly, all other plans shelve
You’re the man, you’ve got the fame
We need you in our airplane game

All you need is your credit card
The rest of it will not be hard
We know your profile is really real
And of course that you have b**** of steel

A century since Titanic went down
But we’ve come a long way from that floating town
So don’t be sad, wipe off that frown
Get your girl into that smart ball gown.

You’ve paid your dues, dismiss the blues
Our motley crew will see to you
Let down your hair, come get your share
Forget your cares, we’re nearly there.

Cheap adverts come at ten a penny
But this one knows your girl’s called Jenny
And that you’re called Ross
And that you’re quite the Boss

We hired a poet, subtle and sharp
To make sure you heard our ‘parp’
So all that you right now must do
Is text COMING to 10812
Text COMING to 10812 NOW
(Terms and conditions apply)
SMS’s charged at R4 a pop

Margaret Clough

Each Autumn relentless as the equinoctial tides
my grandmother made marmalade
and I would help her take the sea-green fruits
break them apart and cut them up.
Our fingers wrinkled wet, we battered them
pounded and chopped them into little pieces.
The bleeding segments soaked the board with juicy spray.
When we were done and all was swept
into the waiting, churning water,
pieces of orange, grapefruit, lemon
rose up and sank like flotsam
in the heaving cauldron.

At the bottom of the ocean,
among the Titanic dead there lie:
chairs, musical instruments, gramophones,
cases of rabbit hair, motor parts, filter paper,
jewels, furs, portraits and
one marmalade machine.

Was it, I wonder, chosen with care
to carry across the ocean as a present
for a grandmother.

Janka Steenkamp

For years, painstakingly arranged in a printer’s tray  –
Recollections, moments, desires
Culminating in a neat order –  Reality.
Six by six – ordered, classified.
The first for first kisses, three down for judgements made –
At the centre a perception – a convincing masquerade.
All gone now, sucked into the sea
Of self.

Peter’s regret                  
Stephen Roberts

It should be me
On the gnarled trunk
Lifted skyward
Where his body hangs
On three fierce nails
I said “Never Lord”
“Never happen to you”
I said “If all fall away”
“…I never will”
Then I stood alone
In the crowd
His soft eyes met mine
And the cock crowed

One hundred years and nearly original               
Stephen Roberts

I know someone who knows someone
Who is one hundred years old
She lives all alone in a terraced house
In a tough part of Glasgow
(There are no soft parts)
She bought a new TV last year
And insisted on the 5 year guarantee
Rather than the normal 3 year option
She always buys green bananas
Of course they had a big do for her
But she was not much bothered
After 36,500 one day is pretty much
The same as the next
She doesn’t remember the Titanic of course
But her parents did and that day
Was very different from the rest
The event echoed noisily in the annuals
Of men, machines and movie producers
Today they will launch a 3-D version
You can buy commemorative tea mugs
And Leonardo DiCaprio tea towels
And Kate Winslet tea cozies
While in Glasgow knock on the door of Grandma Anderson
Hear the thing live, albeit secondhand,
And have a real cup of tea

Left behind                      
Stephen Roberts

When they put me in a box and shovel compost on top
Or run me over the rollers into that oven of fire
What will be left, what will they find
Lying at the bottom of my life
In dusty drawers and cobwebbed cupboards
On garage shelves and in garden sheds?
A copy of the Sunday Times proclaiming
The release of Nelson Mandela
The five hundredth anniversary book
Commemorating my high school’s birth
And the Founder’s Day incantation
“De profundis calamavi ad te, Domine”
My Dad’s pocket watch on a gold chain
In a box of prefect badges and corporate cufflinks
A file of long forgotten sermons illegibly scribed
As a series of mind maps to prompt the spirit
My first lacrosse stick bowed and bent like its owner
Desperate for a coat of Dubin to quench tired strings
(From the years before plastic heads were invented)
Annual increase and bonus letters, a silent affirmation,
Applauding the steps from poverty to plenty
And maybe a few poems scratched along the way
All this counting for little beyond lives that were touched

Titanic re-released in 3D
Michael Rolfe

Disaster on disaster piled!
Word flies round the
just when you thought things couldn’t possibly get any worse,
Leonardo DiCaprio in 3D.

My Contribution to the Dickens Bicentenary
Michael Rolfe

I am re-writing Oliver Twist.

Nancy, an enlightened feminist,
abandons Bill Sikes
and lives happily ever after
with Charlotte.

Bill Sikes is hanged for beating his dog,
but Fagin and The Artful Dodger
both get off
for being lovable.

Some ghastly fate,
as yet undetermined,
awaits Oliver
for being an annoying little ponce.

Next up: David Copperfield.

A daffodil on the grave
Sara P. Dias

The daffodil offends me.
It trumpets in gaudy confidence
its spring renewal.
It knows nothing of a loss so loud
that it compels hands to mouth
in constraint of a serrating sorrow.

The daffodil offends me with its
seasonal rot and strut –
unmindful of the commemorative
scratching at the splinter that remains.

R.M.S Titanic – First Class Dinner, April 14th 1912            
Graham Dukas

Just the meal after a strenuous day of deck quoits
and lounging about, taking in the cool ocean air –
a ten course whopper of oysters, consommé Olga,

poached salmon with Mousseline sauce, filet Mignon,
lamb, roast duckling, Chateau potatoes, boiled rice,
(God knows, if the third class could see all of this),

punch Romaine, roast squab, asparagus vinaigrette,
pate de foie gras and to top it all, Waldorf pudding,
(perhaps they feed the poor buggers on left-overs),

and peaches in Chartreuse jelly with chocolate éclairs
atop a sea of French ice cream, resembling a mountain
of floating darkness. We should all sleep well tonight!


I don’t know whether it was my stern comments last month, my dire warnings about William
McGonagall-type rhymes, or the fact that poets found the Titanic theme inspiring, but this month’s poems turned my mood around and reminded me of the diverse pleasures poetry is capable of giving.

What are the pleasures of poetry?  First, there is the lure and promise of the title: ‘The Bass Violin Player’s Last Hymn’; ‘Harbour’; ‘Straightening Deckchairs’; ‘One hundred years and nearly original’.  Something in the title snags us with its forthrightness, suggestiveness, oddity.   (I can’t imagine a contemporary audience queuing or clicking to read any poem with a title beginning ‘Lines written on’, though perhaps that’s an idea for a future poetry project to test.)

Then there’s the welcome of the opening line – the proof of the poem’s ability to float, to stay watertight, and so to keep us on board.  The opening line can be as firm as a dock or a deck, or as ominous as a gangplank, but it has to let us in.  Billy Collins says that for the reader, ‘Stepping from the title to the first lines is like stepping into a canoe’ http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/billy-collins.

In this month’s poetry project, Geoffrey Haresnape starts in medias res, sparing us the tedium of any exposition: ‘What we didn’t choose was “Nearer my Go to Thee”’.  It’s immediate; it’s direct; it is spoken in a voice that engages, that tells us the news. Because I’d been researching the Titanic, I knew that there was some dispute about whether the band’s last melody was the famous hymn or the much lighter dance tune, ‘Autumn’, but I think that even without that background knowledge, there are sufficient hints from the title and epigraph to secure the reader.

I was startled by Sara P Dias’s opening gambit, ‘The daffodil offends me’, and drawn in by solemn wisdom and unexpectedness of Yvette Morey’s ‘It will not happen comically, or’.  I was seduced by the ‘Come, let’s laugh’ tone of Graham Dukas’s overture: ‘Just the meal after a strenuous day of deck quoits’, and by Michael Rolfe’s insouciant ‘I am re-writing Oliver Twist’.

I should say something more here about voice, because I think we too often forget poetry’s kinship with drama, and the excitement it can generate by acts of ventriloquism, theatre, and impersonation.  Geoffrey Haresnape’s poem, ‘The Bass Violin Player’s Last Hymn’; ‘Graham Dukas’s ‘R.M.S.Titanic – First Class Dinner, April 14th 1912’ and Stephen Roberts’ ‘Peter’s Regret’ all have this core strength of the poem as an enactment: an act, specifically, of channelling the words of the dead. Ross Flemming’s ‘Going Viral’ mimics a living voice, with devastating satirical effect.

These rich experiments in point of view bring me to our next pleasure, which is the opening of the mind to a thought, or a way of thinking, that is new to us.  After a slight creaking in our bows, something opens and floods in.  I felt that way about the camera lens’s sudden switch from happy-snap tourist scene to the gulping darkness of a fisherman’s nightmare in Jennifer Lean’s ‘Harbour’ poem.  Jenny gives the fisherman a complex life; she manages to write about someone who is poor and underprivileged without condescension or recourse to that other, even worse failing, guilt-driven canonisation of the broke by the better off.

Poetry has always used lists (catalogue, enumeration, litany) to give us pleasure.  I’m surprised more poets don’t realise how satisfying and thrilling a list can be and use them more often in poems.  To list is human, helpful, hilarious and compulsive. See this site for some examples.  http://www.listsofnote.com/2012/01/things-to-worry-about.html

You can see how Graham Dukas uses the menu device to brilliantly decadent and doomed effect in his poem; how Stephen Roberts achieves such depth with a simple list of personal effects in ‘Left Behind’; how Yvette Morey’s catalogue of negatives shapes her poem with images of destinies not anticipated, and creates suspense as well as a formal, beautifully serious mood.  Lists appeal to our classifying instinct, which Janka Steenkamp’s poem ‘Watershed’ delicately traces – though I wanted images rather than those abstract words in the second line.

Metaphors, images and concrete realia give pleasure, I think, because of the reaches of the brain they stimulate and light up.  (Read this article, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/18/opinion/sunday/the-neuroscience-of-your-brain-on-fiction.html?_r=1&pagewanted=all substituting the word ‘poems’ whenever you see the word ‘novels’.)  In Ross Flemming’s poem ‘Straightening Deckchairs’ we’re half in on the metaphor already because of the known phrase about ‘rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic’, but Ross develops this coinage into an admirably witty, yet deep comment on life and death.

The ‘paw’ clawing the ‘plated flank’ of the Titanic, and the ‘life boats dropped away like seed pods from a tree’ and, of course, the ‘Cyclopean genitals’ in Geoffrey Haresnape’s ‘The Bass Violin Player’s Last Hymn’; the ‘punch Romaine, roast squab’ and ‘Chartreuse jelly’ in Graham Dukas’s ‘R.M.S.Titanic – First Class Dinner, April 14th 1912’ ; the hand raised to the mouth in Sara P. Dias’s poem; death coming like a stranger ‘crooning an almost-familiar song’ in Yvette Morey’s ‘Not the Titanic’ – these images do something to my Broca and my Wernicke.

Margaret Clough’s poem ‘Marmalade’ moves seamlessly from the image of fruit preserve in the making to the flotsam of the Titanic – the first two stanzas are a brilliant metaphorical conflation of recipe and shipwreck.  I’m just not sure that the last lines work – they feel unnecessary, and a little heavy-handed.im is the erating lost voices.ment, an act, specifically, of chanelling mpersonation.  suggest  month'

But I loved her simile ‘as relentless as the equinoctial tides’, which brings me to the pleasures provided by diction and sound patterning.  For rhymes that don’t irk or hurt the ear, read Geoffrey Haresnape’s wonderful ‘Nanook – a North Atlantic Ballad.  (I loved the irony of the caged polar bear released by the iceberg, and the beauty of the bear constellation, Ursa Major, benignly overseeing his escape.)  In Geoff’s other Titanic poem, there are all kinds of formal sound feats to admire: alexandrines; lilting iambs with internal rhyme and without polysyllable (‘to dream again upon the pain it was to drown’), a caesura particularly fitting to a  broken ship (‘State room to steerage, drinks were on the house’).  He also had to work hard to recreate the dissonance of that breaking: ‘wrenchings and tearings, distant drops and grinds’.

Ross Flemming knows all about my sensitive ear and irritation with clichés, hence his amusing make-Finuala’s-teeth-grind poem, ‘The Bottom Line’, which sends up centenaries.  This brings me to the great pleasure afforded by humour in poetry.  For a good laugh, rich with irony and absurdity, read Michael Rolfe’s ‘My Contribution to the Dickens Bicentenary’ and Stephen Roberts’ ‘One hundred years old and nearly original’.

Thanks to all this month’s contributors. It was as though I had been sitting dully alone at a party when suddenly ten animated, imaginative, articulate, amusing and cerebral people swept me up in their midst.

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