A tribute from Anne Stephenson, friend and fellow poet.... 

 

 

A Song for A Singer.

 

 

            When Roger Garfitt and Frances Horovitz first took me to hear a poetry reading by Bill Martin - in Morden Tower, I think, sometime in 1980 - I could scarcely believe my senses. Here was a small, shy, self-effacing man, not at all bard-like in behaviour, who looked like something between an elf and a saint, and whose high, thin speaking voice seem to promise nothing in the way of eloquence. And yet, once he began partly reciting, partly singing his own verses, he captivated his listeners as I had never seen an audience moved by poetry before. He had invented for his poetry an entirely original form, combining the rhythms of nursery rhymes, folk-songs, and hymns in such a way as to suggest their absolute originality while basing them, nevertheless, on the deep musical inheritance of his own people. Today, I simply can't read his poetry with the authenticity of his voice; I won't even try. Let me instead offer him a song I wrote for our mutual friend, the poet Frances Horovitz, just prior to her death in 1983. I called it "Willow Song". It's partly a lament for the passing of the mining community in Durham, Langley Park and Silksworth, partly a celebration the continuing life in these parts despite so much of the past that has gone. 

 

  

 

Willow Song

 

I went down to the railway

But the railway wasn't there.

A long scar lay across the waste

Bound up with vetch and maiden hair,

And birdsfoot trefoil everywhere.

But the clover and the sweet hay

The cranesbill and the yarrow

Were as nothing to the rose bay

            the rose bay, the rose bay,

As nothing to the rose bay willow.

 

I went down to the river

But the river wasn't there.

A hill of slag lay in its course

With pennycress and cocklebur

And thistles bristling with fur.

But ragweed, dock and bitter may

And hawkbit in the hollow

Were as nothing to the rose bay

            the rose bay, the rose bay,

As nothing to the rose bay willow.

 

I went down to find my love,

My sweet love wasn't there.

A shadow stole into her place

And spoiled the loosestrife of her hair,

And counselled me to pick despair.

Old elder and young honesty

Turned ashen, but their sorrow

Were as nothing to the rose bay,

            the rose bay, the rose bay,

As nothing to the rose bay willow. 

 

Oh I remember summer

When the hemlock was in leaf.

The sudden poppies by the path

Were little pools of crimson grief.

Sick henbane cowered like a thief.

But self-heal sprang up in her way,

And mignonette's light yellow,

To flourish with the rose bay,

            the rose bay, the rose bay.

To flourish with the rose bay willow.

 

It's flames took all the wasteland

And all the river's silt,

But as my dear grew thin and grey,

They turned as white as salt or milk,

Great purples withered out of guilt,

And bright weeks blew away

In cloudy wreathes of summer snow.

And the first one was the rose bay

            the rose bay, the rose bay.

The first one was the rose bay willow.

 

 

                                    Anne Stevenson