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by James Graham 

Posted: 22 February 2012
Word Count: 118

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Where we were going that day I canít recall,
but we saw a wonder: a flock of shambling sheep
and a pair of maestros shaping, blending them.

We pulled up quietly, respectfully, half on grass.
(What kind of yobbo would have honked and barged?)
Two border collies, sprung, alert and instant, focused
like marksmen down the sights of their black noses,
crouching, rising, circling, skimming the road,
pouring their timorous underlings into a field.
One tried to cut and run; two others followed
(like sheep). A dog went spanking like a cheetah
along the verge, outflanked them, turned and squatted,
stared them back. The big gate fastened, we advanced,

saluted man and dogs, and went - wherever.

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Comments by other Members

plurabelle at 22:36 on 25 February 2012  Report this post
I really love 'Performance', James. It encapsulates the excitement and joy of seeing a superb performance of any kind, and how the memory of it can make the surrounding circumstances seem irrelevant -(the first and last lines of the poem capture that neatly, I think.)
I particularly like the dogs 'focused like marksmen down the sights of their black noses', and the dog 'spanking like a cheetah along the verge'. We're often told to avoid 'ing' words in poems because they weaken the sound, but in this case the five in lines 7 and 8 ('crouching, rising ... pouring' seem to me to create a picture of continuous fluid movement, a choreography which chimes with the musical image of the dogs as 'maestros'.

I have my own 'border collie' memory which I've thought of trying to put into a poem (or maybe a very short story), but I'm not sure whether I now feel encouraged or not...

V`yonne at 10:51 on 26 February 2012  Report this post
I like this too James but I thought
crouched, rose, circled, skimmed the road,

would still give continuous but quicker movement more like the quickness of dogs and I'm not sure that I like the intro and last line. I can see it emphasisies memory but I'm not sure it's needed. The picture is the performance.

I love this phrase
A dog went spanking like a cheetah

FelixBenson at 10:11 on 27 February 2012  Report this post
I agree, the -ing words, just as Una said

create a picture of continuous fluid movement
, and it also goes to prove that rules about what should and shouldn't be used in poems or writing generally, always have exceptions. I like to see an exception.

I hope you don't change the ending. I think it's so important where we can to be 'real' in poetry, and strike the right balance between the language which sometimes must make us artificial. Not that your poems are like that, which is one of their great strengths. And it is a very un-artificial ending (and beginning). It matters only what was seen and how it struck the audience. How that scene is replayed, it was a small thing that happened that day (but also very memorable), and then after, you go on in life (where to, where from? Who knows, who cares.)

I like this poem very much.

I've not been around much lately - busy with work deadlines, but I hope to read through everything sooner or later.


James Graham at 11:44 on 27 February 2012  Report this post
The 'ing' thing is something I've never understood - as a fault in verse-writing. It's basic grammar: verbs ending in 'ing' are either present or past continuous, meaning they talk about actions that are going on over a period of time, or actions that are repeated. The dogs didn't rise, circle, etc only once; they were doing this repeatedly over a (short) period of time. Sorry, Oonah, this is getting very pedantic.

In other poets' work as well as my own, I've never (or seldom) really been able to see 'ing' as a fault.

To frame the 'performance' with something about going somewhere unimportant and forgettable, seemed ok to me. It isn't central to the poem, but I hoped it would point up how special the sheepdogs were.

This isn't a first draft, it's the nth draft. Among the things I ditched were 'We came upon a wonder, a World Heritage Sight'. Banal, eh?

Thanks Oonah, Kirsty and Una for your comments.


TessaF at 12:23 on 01 March 2012  Report this post
Hi James

There is much I love in this poem:

and a pair of maestros shaping, blending them.

like marksmen down the sights of their black noses,

and of course
A dog went spanking like a cheetah
along the verge,

I love the reverance with which you introduce what you have seen - "we saw a wonder" and "we pulled up quietly, respectfully" and I can identify with this unexpected sense of awe (which I often get when I go into the countryside, let alone witnessing a 'performance' like this).

I have been unaware of the 'ing' debate but I do think the 'ing' words work very nicely here and I couldn't put it better than Una already has - it "creates a picture of continuous fluid movement".

Personally there is nothing I would change about your poem - in fact, it goes in my mental catalogue of 'I wish I could write like that' poems


James Graham at 12:38 on 01 March 2012  Report this post
Thank you, Tessa. Some of the stuff I've done recently has been a bit heavy, and I like to find something really positive like the sheepdogs, to write a celebratory poem about.


wordman at 21:40 on 13 March 2012  Report this post

James this is very nice to read and has some lovely imagery. I felt I was there with you. 2 questions though is the gate the gate to the sheep pen or farmers field? & are your dogs black & white collies? I like the 'we advanced' line almost mimicking the dogs precise movements.. Andre

James Graham at 16:59 on 14 March 2012  Report this post
It was a field gate and they were black and white collies. 'Advanced' - I was thinking of a kind of formal approach, ceremonial, respectful. But it does suggest the dogs too. Thanks for your comment.


V`yonne at 16:28 on 18 March 2012  Report this post
Oh the ings thing is probably just die to all the poems we get submitted where every other word ends in ing and I always thing sing is more succinct than singing - unless there is a 'sound' (excuse the pun) reason - to slow the rhythm or make a stanza more languid. Ignore me James - you're the expert and I shall keep my impertenence to where I an the editor ;

gard at 02:38 on 20 March 2012  Report this post
Hi James

you know when I was a kid (some period of time ago...)I used to watch the TV program I think it was "One man and his dog". This program would focus on one man and his very smart collie who understood the farmer's whistles and calls and would perform all sorts of skillful maneuvers collating the sheep into a pen.

This poem reminded me of that and I wonder how much herding occurs these days given the state of factory farming. So it is wonderful to read your piece and be transformed into those honest days of farm work.

Love the phrase
like marksmen down the sights of their black nose

spanking like a cheetah

I suppose a critique for me would be that I wonder if it is a little over punctuated in parts, what do you think? I guess that is because I often get accused of that....


James Graham at 21:09 on 20 March 2012  Report this post
You could be right, Gard. To leave out commas in this line, for instance, does no harm at all:

crouching rising circling skimming the road

This wouldn't do in prose, but in verse it's fine. I'll consider that.

I'm happy to say that where I live at least - west of Scotland - there are sheep everywhere, in fields and on the hills. And plenty of clever sheepdogs. Probably in many other places too.


SarahT at 21:48 on 27 March 2012  Report this post
Hi James,

I think that this captures movement and the springiness of sheepdogs really well. I actually loved the last line because it was a contrast to the flow and control of the dogs: 'and went - wherever.' There's a freedom implied in that phrase that is a great counterpoint to the motion of the dogs and highlights it - it almost doesn't matter where the writer went because it was the dogs' moment.

On the 'ing' debate, I wondered whether you could speed the flow up a little by changing the tense of some of it: 'crouch, rise, circle, skim' but I think it might need a bit more tweaking elsewhere to make that work.


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