Ten Poems About Bicycles (2011)

A small, but perfectly formed selection

Candlestick Press 978 0 9558944 5 9 £4.99

It ought to beget poetry; the rhythm, equilibrium and cardio-vascular ecstasy of cycling. The intimate relationship with landscape and topography afforded by unenclosed self-propulsion should surely be a source so abundant that through long hours in the saddle, the evocative possibilities are endless?

Yet the poetry of cycling forms but a slender volume and not one that I have ever seen collected under one cover. So Candlestick Press’s ‘Ten Poems about Bicycles’ is a welcome arrival. Part of a series of slight, themed poetry collections intended to be sent as greeting cards, it brings together an Edwardian classic with more contemporary work of mainly well-established and published poets.

It is a rich and joyful little seam of words. ‘Mulga Bill’s Bicycle’, by Banjo Patterson, the Australian ‘bush’ poet best known for Waltzing Matilda is a rumbustious music-hall ditty, that would make a fine club-dinner ‘turn’. The Scots-based poet Helena Nelson’s ‘Bike With No Hands’, is a sublime account of her feelings for an accomplished bicyclist.

It is a delight to see Michael Donaghy’s’ ‘Machines’ included, and a reminder of what a loss his untimely death was to the British poetry scene. And Derek Mahon’s ‘The Bicycle’ concludes with this verse:

It went with me to Dublin
Where I sold it the same winter;
But its wheels still sing
In the memory, stars that turn
About an eternal centre,
The bright spokes glittering.

which is as satisfying a statement as I have read of the enduring quality of remembered experience, and of that most singular manufactured product.

Such a slim folio misses a great deal, of course. The best loved cycling poem is surely Louis MacNeice’s The Cyclist, a slice of mid-summer wrapped up in a play on written language. And there is a good deal more in James E Starrs’ essential anthology of cycling in literature, The Noiseless Tenor.

My favourite cycling poet remains, however, Les Milne. A lifelong cyclist, bike-shop owner and mechanic, who spent the 1970s, based in the west midlands. When he wasn’t cycling to and from poetry readings, he ran writing workshops for young people, generally in Britain’s more industrial areas.

This is his ‘The Criminal’ – as much skipping song as poetry:

Chase me copper!
Chase me copper!
Catch me if you can
For an evil thing I have done
I am a wicked man
I rode my bike passed twilight hour
Under street lamps pale
with insufficient candle power
Showing in my tail.

(Romford 1952)

Reproduced from ‘I’ve Been Singing’ (Arts Lab Press 1977)

Milne’s writing and cycling were inextricably entangled. He wrote as he rode and wrote about what he rode. Since meeting him as a child around the time this collection appeared, I have heard nothing of him. Needless to say, any information about his work since then would be most welcome.

Perhaps Candlestick’s little volume will persuade a few more to follow in his tyre tracks? I hope so. Magical as is the experience of riding a bike, it can always be enriched through the words of others.

‘Ten Poems’ is available with its sibling volumes from racks in selected bookshops.

TD May 12

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