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Drop in by Phil Vernon

I’m delighted to welcome one of my favourite poets, Phil Vernon, to talk about El Tres de Mayo from his new collection, Poetry after Auschwitz.

El Tres de Mayo appears as the second poem in my collection Poetry After Auschwitz. A common theme in my poetry is the exploration of connections, often sensed, rather than seen, between people and peoples across time and place. El Tres de Mayo refers particularly to the connections between past, present and future, and how these are facilitated by or linked to the dynamic environment we share, down the centuries.


At first sight it seems to be an ekphrastic poem, inspired by Goya’s famous painting El Tres de Mayo, which depicts the execution by firing squad of Madrileños in the aftermath of their failed uprising against the Napoleonic military occupation in 1808. Art historian Kenneth Clarke described this painting as “the first great picture which can be called revolutionary in every sense of the word, in style, in subject, and in intention”.

In fact however, the idea for the poem was sparked not by Goya’s masterpiece, but by a conversation with my daughter, the actor Paksie Vernon. She said once that she’d been told by a sound  engineer with whom she’d worked on a play, that sounds never actually die. Apparently, although they fade away continuously, they never quite disappear, but simply become inaudible in the background, where they mingle with countless other lost and unconnected sounds from different eras.

This fanciful idea fascinated me. The more I thought about it, the more it resonated with my reflections about the tension between continuity and change over time, and about how little we actually perceive of the depth and subtlety of our environment. It also seemed to reflect the lovely idea explored in Gary Snyder’s poem Axe Handles (one of my favourite poems for years), of how knowledge and values are transmitted through the generations, and are improved (or at least altered) in each iteration.

As often happens with my poems, these various ingredients spent several months marinading, until eventually I began to search for a suitable recipe through which to turn them into a poem.

I no longer recall why or how this happened, but at some point, perhaps a year after I had decided I’d probably write a poem on this subject, the Goya painting came into shot. The sound of Goya’s gunshots, the tragic death of the people being shot, at a critical moment in the history of Spain (and Europe), and in a work of art that’s seen as a critical example of revolutionary aesthetics – all these elements made El Tres de Mayo a suitable vehicle for the poem. Thus, the poem is not ekphrastic as such: perhaps its truer to say it refers to Goya’ painting, which catalysed, rather than directly inspired it.

Choosing the form

A lot of my poems are written using formal patterns. I usually spend a fair bit of time early on, working out an appropriate form for the poem in question: trying out line lengths, stanza lengths, rhyming patterns and so on for size – in some cases ending up with free verse, but often sticking with a regular form. In this case, fairly early on I decided to adopt a pretty rigid form, using iambic pentameter and repeating the same pattern of end rhymes (ABCD) all the way through. This repetition and regularity was intended to reflect the underlying conceit of the poem – the everlasting, ever-resonating waves of sound. (Funnily enough, I hadn’t realised until writing this note that another poem in the collection, Blackberries in Ukraine, which is about connections across space rather than time, uses the same repetitive form.)

As so often, sticking to an unforgiving form yielded frustration as well as nice surprises. I was particularly frustrated at not finding a way to include, in the third line of the third stanza, the phrase “the sergeant’s terse command”. I wanted the word “sergeant” as it fitted aurally. I also thought it would convey a more vivid sense of the original moment if the sound of gunshots was explicitly shown to have been created by the agency of (and the sound made by) a particular individual. But I couldn’t find a way to fit the extra syllables of “sergeant” into the pentameter line, so they had to go…

However, writing in formal patters also yields pleasant surprises. For example in this poem, I would never have found the phrase “faded cryptogram/ of sound” if I had not been searching for a suitable rhyme for “bang” and “man”. Nor, I suspect, would I have used the phrase “it’s terror which obtains” – the rhyme of which, from memory, was determined by choices made lower down in the poem. Nor, perhaps, would the priest have been described as “shriving” the victims. But once I’d come across them, all three of these phrases and their sounds became integral to my idea of this poem.

I love Goya’s work. He absorbed and developed the skills of those who had come before him, and then innovated brilliantly both technically and in terms of the political and humanistic content of his art. Therefore I hope he wouldn’t have minded his great painting being used two centuries later, as the vehicle for a poem about the resonance of sounds, values, ideas and stories down the generations. And in a final tying of creative loops, my daughter Paksie – who was the original source of inspiration for the poem, and who belongs, of course, to the next generation – has recorded it. Click here to listen.

Read my review of the excellent Poetry after Auschwitz next week.

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