The Frogmore Papers

The Frogmore Papers

The Frogmore Papers is a long-standing literary journal, founded in 1983 and now edited by Jeremy Page, Mary Hetherington and Catherine Smith. There is the usual mix of established writers and newcomers, but the advice given in the literary journal does indeed apply:

. . . the only criterion for selection being quality. However, it’s worth noting that the following are unlikely to be find favour: very long stories, very long poems, poems written in an idiom that is anything other than contemporary, poems that try too hard.

That last phrase is worth emphasizing. The published work is certainly in a contemporary voice, with no hint of metre or rhyme to interrupt the poised, flexible and intelligent tone, but sometimes so light-weight and reticent in content as to be scarcely saying anything at all. The London Poetry Society Library has again put several editions online, from which I take the first example by Jenny Hamlett, who has published Watching The Sea Four Ways with Frogmore. Her Kingley Vale can be read at:

It starts with the speaker looking at the view:

At the view
half-caught phrases
splinter the air:

Then we hear her thoughts about Susanne, which seem not to lead anywhere:

at the end of the day,
how things should be,
what would be best
for Susanne.

Then comes an echo of an earlier, primordial voice:

They do not hear
the woods’ voice.

We have next the narrator walking about the woods, seeing a pheasant, wild flowers and a flash of a white tail, possibly a deer. Which leads us back to thoughts of mother earth:

This is man’s playground
but I have heard something
further back. Still.

And that is it. Enigmatic and treading as quietly on the edge of saying something as the narrator about the woods. Other poems in the journal seem generally less accomplished, and I have therefore drawn the remainder of the pieces from their competition prize winning entries which, admirably, are published in full, with the adjudicator’s reasons for selection – something one would like to see more often. They can all be viewed at:

Even here too many of the pieces are formulaic, delicate descriptions in maidenly water-colours, rounded off with a trite phrase, but happily with some notable exceptions.

The 2104 prize-winning Torc by Lesley Saunders is a flashback to (or flash forward from) Celtic times when warriors wore a necklace of twisted gold. The story unfolded is that of Boudicca releasing the hare, the adjudicator explains, probably from the lines London / razed, the emperor’s brazen head lolling in mud.¬† The poem kindles interest by starting in media res:

When they came to the place again, it was not itself.

A lush description of spring foliage follows (with some poetic license: the flowers are not the usual haunts of deer and boar, and don’t flower in April):

The road had been camouflaged with bines: soft April
explosions of cress and hogweed and oxeye, a bunker
afor muntjac and boar.

Then follows the story itself, with a startling image of the hare with its ‘its huge flamey ears ablaze in the sun‘, the hail of Roman arrows after the animal, whose plight is picked up by the blossom shaken down by the wind with which the poem ends.

– the hare
zigzags in front of the eagle, wooden wheels trundle
hopelessly forward. (A hail of wild blossom shook
from the trees as the teeth of the harrow bit gold.)

Wendy Klein’s (2011, third place) What Paradise Means is also rich in description, here a tomato field in Yugoslavia, with its hint of eventual bloodshed:

As we stumbled from the van in front of the monastery,
their fragrance astonished us; the whole hillside,
covered in their dusty leaves, gave up a scent of earth
and herbs, intense even without their scarlet globes –
too early for that ultimate red, the end of their growing,

From that we pass to the nuns at the monastery, and from these to the habitual problem, of adding significance and rounding off the piece properly. What is conjectured here is perfectly sane, but the flat language gives a flat result, inevitably because it’s only prose, where the poem should start rather than end.

paradise, paradise, and we never found out whether
they were marvelling at the miracle of their crop
or contemplating their future.

A lot could be said about Yugoslavia: the effect of the war on all combatants in the countries concerned, their families and local populations, media distortions, the real reasons for western intervention, etc. And for those matters there are many disciplines that could and should be read: war studies, current events, political economy, globalization – all with their insights and difficult problems that would make the enriched poem worth reading. But to simply wrap matters up with vague symbolism isn’t over-helpful, and such retreats to irrelevancy is one reason why poetry isn’t much read today.

Writ in Stone by Carolyn King (2010, third place: my ranking is not the judge’s) is a more nuanced piece, if a little prosy. But setting the first stanza of four lines out as prose:

Under the wild-rose pergola, I admire her very English garden; and she, having trained at Kew long ago (while I was sowing the seeds of poems), remembers Kyoshi’s haiku inscribed on a stone beside the Japanese Gateway – and that Spring afternoon of rainbows

takes nothing from the piece or its understated ironies: very English (whose quiet decencies still won the war), long ago (before the rise of modern Japan) Kyoshi’s haiku¬† (when an educated class still composed poetry), etc. A bit mischievous but charming. Three more stanzas follow describing the quintessential Japanese scene, possibly serious, possibly not: they’re a little obvious (but see below).

Then the poem starts to bite. I’m probably transgressing copyright by reproducing the second and third sections in toto, but the editor can email me to ‘cease and desist’. We look back on London:

Kyoshi himself had visited Kew in ’36 – merely three years before war tore the innocent heads from so many promising blooms. Cockney ‘sparrers’ endured the Blitz; the haiku gestated; London lay dreaming of gathering lilacs in the Spring.

And even more to Japan:

Many moons now since they finished the spadework – raking over the battle-scars, dead-heading the roses; sweeping up fallen cherry blossoms – pink as the dawn or white as the powdered faces of geisha.

When we realize that the piece is not only about the brutal stupidities of war, and the artificiality of national customs (sparrers and geishas) but what art does in making momentary beauty out of ugliness.

The final piece seems to me the best (2008, first prize): Dog Day by David Wright has the proper interpenetration of content and the precise, easy rhythm, with the ‘message’ as it were running throughout the piece like a stick of Brighton rock (if such still exists).

Snorting, snuffling the dunes; half-trotting, then cantering,
on the trail of things to do, was this dog high-tailing us
through the prongs of fierce grass to the tide’s folded hem

All of this is excellent: exact description, the pun on hightailing, the coarse seaside grass, the breakers. Then it gets even better. Dogs live in their own world:

To me, it was badness that came between us, a lost soul
too curious for its own good,
Quite determinedly:
but there was something
to be said for its determination to follow our lead, to hang on
to our heels in its urgent, head-down, unshakable fashion.
As we do:
Then again, more than likely it was the same for all couples
who don’t walk as close as they should, say enough
Which applies to the narrator:
I laughed it off,
saying, (while seriously believing) every beach, everywhere,
has one such dog, the same every time, never at home,
heartbreakingly sociable, waiting to be recognised
for what it is, then called, accepted and left alone.

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