The Canal & River Trust

The Poetry Society commissioned Ian McMillan to write a new poem in celebration of our canals, marking the launch of the Canal & River Trust. There's no shortage of inspiration when you live near a canal, McMillan explains: "I used to see the line of an old canal glinting in the sun near my house in Barnsley like the line of a poem, a slow poem that you took your time with, a poem that went through many drafts, lots of history's verses..."

There is something so mystical about water and our relationship with it that it takes a poet to describe it. Ian McMillan’s Canal Life puts into words what most of the rest of us can only feel and I cannot think of a better way to commemorate the start of an amazing new chapter in the history of our precious canals and rivers.’  Tony Hales, Chairman, Canal & River Trust

The poem is designed to be performed! Watch - and listen - as Ian reads his poem...

Ian McMillan
Canal Life

 
The canal tells you stories
The canal sings you songs
They hang in that space
Between memory and water


Once saw a narrowboat raised up,
Like it was cutting through the air,
Between two grass walls and the road below
Like it was sliding through history,
And a tiny vole swam across the water
So a tiny vole swam through history.


The canal tells you stories
The canal sings you songs

 
Once saw a man floating belly up in a canal
Like he was in the bath. He shouted
‘This is the life’ as I passed by on a narrowboat;
The sky was reflected in the surface
And we tied up in the places the map never showed us,
The man floating by, making ripples on the surface.

 

      They hang in that space
Between memory and water
  
Once got waved at by a jogger as I stood gongoozling
On the towpath; her running gave rhythm
To the early afternoon, dog-strollers and kids
Who’d rather be here than sitting in school.
To gongoozle is to stand and watch narrowboats pass
And a canal is a lesson, a water-based school.

The canal tells you stories
The canal sings you songs


Once these canals were information highways
If coal and iron can be information,
And I think they can be. And there are bridges,
Pub gardens, the laughter of children
As they walk by the water; and the canals
Turn us all into curious children.

They hang in that space
Between memory and water


Once is never enough for a canal, I reckon;
You need to go back and see it again,
And sail it again, and smell it again, and
Touch it again; canals run through our veins
Like they stroll through this country
Like blood through our veins.

The canal tells you stories
The canal sings you songs
They hang in that space
Between memory and water

 

 

Ian McMillanIan McMillan - pic credit Canal & River Trust