Bright flames


Simon Armitage wrote his poetry collection “Book of Matches” with the idea that each sonnet should be read quickly, in the time it takes for a match to burn out, about 20 seconds.  I love this idea, too many people labour the reading of poetry.  They put on the “poetry reading voice” which has a plummy accent and a low, monotonous droning drawl that makes everything sound bloody boring.

Poetry should leap from the page and dance across your lips and tongue.  It should be read in a real voice, a natural voice, your own accent.  The pace may be slow, if that is what is called for, but it can also be machine gun fast.

As an added bonus the title of this poem becomes its own joke when you add in the author.  In truth I am not very bothered by Simon Armitage, I like the guy.  I like him enough to wish him a happy birthday today.

Back to those matches then.  I am reminded of Sylvia Plath staring into candle flames.  I am reminded of the little match girl and the visions she sees by the light of each match.  I am reminded of Enda St. Vincent Millay and her double ended candle.  It reminds me of all those poets who have elucubrated deep into the night to craft their work under flickering flames.  It reminds me of T.H. White and his “Once and Future King” who is a candle against the wind, a bastion against the darkness and embodies the hopes and dreams of a better world.  Matches are evocative.


I am very bothered; by Simon Armitage

I am very bothered when I think
of the bad things I have done in my life.
Not least that time in the chemistry lab
when I held a pair of scissors by the blades
and played the handles
in the naked lilac flame of the Bunsen burner;
then called your name, and handed them over.

O the unrivalled stench of branded skin
as you slipped your thumb and middle finger in,
then couldn’t shake off the two burning rings. Marked,
the doctor said, for eternity.

Don’t believe me, please, if I say
that was just my butterfingered way, at thirteen,
of asking you if you would marry me.


Candle in the Wind


If I mention “Candle in the Wind” I will get lots of people telling me about Elton John, Marilyn Monroe and Princess Diana.  What is interesting is how the meaning of ‘Candle in the Wind’ came to this association.

I like tracking the origin and changes of meaning over time.  Candles are a symbol of many things.  Mostly of good.  A Candle is a light in the darkness, representing Hope, Truth, Education, Goodness and so on.  The darkness beyond the light carries meanings of ignorance, evil, fear.  A force that seeks to extinguish a candle must therefore be a force of evil.  The image of a candle resisting an evil wind is a powerful one.  It needs little explanation.  Everyone gets it.

The earliest usage of the phrase “Candle in the Wind” that I can find is the title of the fourth book in T.H White’s novel “The Once and Future King”.  It is an Arthurian romance, pulling together all previous versions of the tale of Arthur, Camelot, Lancelot, Guinevere and the Knights of the Round Table.  The novel was published in 1958 to an audience who had seen the rise and fall of Fascism.  The Central theme of White’s novel is the attempt by Arthur to replace naked force with a better form of rule.  Arthur is the force for good in a world where might is right.  He is the candle in the wind.

In 1960 J.F. Kennedy became the youngest candidate to win a presidential election.  On Dec 3rd 1960 Lerner and Loewe launched their musical “Camelot” on Broadway.  Based on the T.H. White novel it was a fantastic success.  The LP became the best selling record in the USA for the first 60 weeks of the new Kennedy administration.  The two became intertwined with some of the Broadway glamour rubbing off onto politics and the Kennedy Administration gained the nickname of Camelot.

Then Kennedy was assassinated in 1963 and this particular candle in the wind was extinguished.

Some years later a journalist pulled up the metaphor when he wrote an obituary for Janis Joplin in 1970.  She died at only 27 and it seemed that she was the candle and the commercial interests of the music industry were the evil wind.

Bernie Taupin, lyricist partner of Elton John, read the obituary and liked the phrase.  He said it was about “the idea of fame or youth or somebody being cut short in the prime of their life. The song could have been about James Dean, it could have been about Montgomery Clift, it could have been about Jim Morrison … how we glamorize death, how we immortalize people.

The song he wrote was about Marilyn Monroe and it appeared on the 1973 album “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road”.  Released as a single in the UK it only reached number 11.  Possibly as a result of this poor performance it was not released at the time in the USA, and “Bennie and the Jets” was.  But it achieved a kind of background recognition and was always playing away in the wings.

When Diana, Princess of Wales, died in 1997 the song was remixed by Elton as “Goodbye English Rose” and became the best selling single of all time.

This first Wednesday in Advent there is a candle in the wind for Diana Spencer, Marilyn Monroe, Janice Joplin, Jack Kennedy and all beacons of hope against the terrible dark.