Faber & Faber, £12.99 Order at a discount from the Independent Online Shop
Book review: Train Songs, Edited by Sean O'Brien and Don Paterson
Poets have taken to the rails since the first puff. The Writer on the Train signals his approval
Friday 01 November 2013
Why a poetry anthology based around trains and train travel? Because, its editors Sean O'Brien and Don Paterson explain, there is no invention since the industrial revolution that so lends itself to poetry, or so bound up in love, death and the natural world – "because the railway train participates in them all".
To writers, trains offer a space for reverie, a series of glimpsed views to stimulate the imagination and an opportunity for covert people-watching. As Thomas Wolfe told us, trains aren't built to transport your body, but your mind.
Transport us they do; moving us as a nation to nostalgia and affection at one moment, frustration and fear the next. With such an orchestra of emotions to play on, O'Brien and Paterson make their choices carefully. Old favourites are here: Larkin's "Whitsun Weddings", Auden's "Night Mail" and Edward Thomas's "Adlestrop", drowsing in the sun, its connection to an unchanging rural England not the railway itself but a blackbird's song on an empty platform.
However, the selection includes many new delights. The railway is, they tell us, "as close as earthly things get to perfection". Walt Whitman would have agreed. In "To A Locomotive in Winter", he perfectly captures the steam engine's pornography of pistons and smoke, as it eats up North American distance. For him, the engine is the "Type of the Modern – emblem of motion and power – pulse of the continent".
Trust poets, then, to concentrate so frequently on those moments when the system breaks down, revelling in the glimpse it gives of the fate that awaits us all. In "The Very Slow Train", Mark Waldron finds himself moving at the speed "with which I grew/ and with which I will, in my old age, shrink back to the warm and waiting ground". Tony Harrison's "Changing at York" provides a different kind of time travel, returning us to a world before mobile phones, when station phone-boxes offered "A directory that runs from B to V,/ the yellow pages entries for HOTELS/ and TAXIS torn out, the smell of dossers' pee,/ saliva in the mouthpiece, whisky smells".
Today we are returned, apparently reluctantly, to an age of heroic construction projects, with Crossrail burrowing beneath London and HS2 poised to redraw the map. In this context it is instructive to read that great laureate of Nimbyism, William Wordsworth, bemoaning the approach of the tracks to his beloved Lake District: "Is then no nook of ground secure/ from rash assault?" Trains have been linked to poetry as long as they have been linked to progress. Like both, they continue to divide opinion.
James Attlee is Writer on the Train for First Great Western
GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival
TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride
FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head
Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treattv
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 'Cheeky' Nando's under fire for apparently coming onto a customer on Twitter
- 2 Playboy model April Summers speaks out about being a victim of revenge porn
- 3 There is something wrong but very right about this Bible illustration
- 4 iPhone 'effective power' text: how to be safe from iOS bug that lets people crash your phone
- 5 Man jumps into bear pen at zoo, fights bear and loses
Jay Z's Tidal could be about to lose Beyonce's music in ultimate humiliation
Royal Academy of Arts' Tim Marlow: Bronze statue of lovers embracing at St Pancras station is a lesson in 'how not to do' public art
Britain's Hardest Grafter: Petition set up as Twitter reacts to BBC 'poverty porn' series pitting low-paid workers against each other
Britain's Got Talent 2015: Jamie Raven divides Twitter as fans expose mind-boggling magic trick
Big Brother contestant Aaron Frew removed from house for 'inappropriate behaviour' after flashing fellow contestants
EU referendum: David Cameron's rules are a 'democratic disgrace', says French-born Scottish politician set to be denied a vote
British tourists complain that impoverished boat migrants are making holidays 'awkward' in Kos
SNP fury as HS2 finds 'no business case' for taking fast train service to Scotland
A nation of inequality: How the UK is failing to feed its most vulnerable people
Australian man punched in the face for defending Muslim women from abuse on train
David Starkey 'tells Amal Clooney to shut up and stop over-promoting human rights'