Canal Poetry Anthology

Ian McMillan
Canal Life


Sarah Watkinson
Oxford Canal

You board at Lower Heyford
don’t quite get to Banbury.
There and back takes a whole week-end.
You won’t mind, you’ll soon abandon timetables and goals,
route planners, maps, clocks and choices
to the engine’s steady underwater pulse
and life between parallel lines.

You move on a lane of water
round hillsides at the pace of a horse walking
float under roads, through the O
of a tunnel and its upside-down twin
lift the balanced bridges, open and close locks, enjoy
the real and simple physics of it all

and when you stop and moor, stepping out
into damp dawns, you encounter empty fields, cow-parsley
or at midnight, glow-worms in the long grass at Aynho.

Megan Watkins

At the tunnel mouth we lie, where the water pools
and the ducks won’t paddle. He introduces himself often
and guesses my name, his generator runs forgotten
and he sings loudly along while I’m trying to describe
the difference between starling and blackbird song.
Under the overgrown tree and down the overgrown stairs,
locked out of Angel, locked in with six bottles of wine
and a bottle of whisky, I saw him once away from the boats
unable to walk on land. He goes to sleep with the candles lit,
every day his lucky day, every morning he asks who I am
and tells me his name again.

Alan Buckley
Flaming June

but this is a winter spate. Our forty-footer’s
hurried down the Thames from Swinford reach.
At King’s we steer to the lock, then slide into
its chamber, moonishly still, a semi-colon;
the keeper sets his back to the balance beam,
captures us in a pause of cropped grass,
flowers bedded in squares. Behind a screen
of trees, the feral river charges the weir

then bursts back into view, dark and foaming.
It surges hard, pummels the lower gates.
The man strolls past us, a limited god
in short sleeves, sturdy trousers. You’ll need
to give it some. Keep both hands on the tiller.
He spins the sluice-wheels. Gently, we descend.

Caroline Cook

Click to see Towpath – as a PDF with its proper formatting

Green doesn’t know where it is. Seed falls random
as light rain as light falls and nothing knows
where it falls.

Water doesn’t know its own state, or where
it is or where it comes from. See how it slides in vague
indolent drift unaccountable for leavings unaware.

Air doesn’t know how it is still today, or how it feels
or that it seems wrung-out, hung over everything
like rags.

Suddenly the swags of rosehips on low dusty bushes
sway en masse and rise and rest again, and never know
what lifts them. Hangdown heads of thistles brown
some silver, even powdery do not remember
only hours ago how stiff they were, how fervent.

Stab of new-cut grass opens a memory.
These brambles scratch on little sparks that flare and shrivel.
Out of the blue above me seldom splash of clear sky
takes me back to sea.

Scrag-land doesn’t know that it is,
or where it is, or what it now replaces. Tiny flower-faces
wind round brick-stumps. No one needs to know their names.
The brick says nothing being useless
having lost all trace of what it once adjoined.

Green doesn’t know where it is. It is lidding the water.
This is the live lime-green of covering weed and that
the sombre green of leaves et cetera on trees I see no point in
naming. Everything is shifting like the clouds and nothing
knows where it has been
what makes it what it is or was or where
it goes to and the towpath closes suddenly
in padlocked gates.

2 thoughts on “Canal Poetry Anthology

  1. Linda Goulden

    These are all so worth reading, hearing.
    ‘Towpath’ particularly gives me that shiver, startle, that makes me want to read it again. The sense of place, the specific observations put me there on the towpath but meeting enough mystery and emotion to puzzle over.

  2. Anna Coburn

    I liked the repetition in Ian McMillan’s Canal life. It was a song that kept coming round.
    And ‘gongoozling’ (not sure about the spelling) is a great word to put in a poem. Or use in conversation.

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