No-Never Poems

In trying to decide on the most suitable length for a poetry collection, attention was diverted by Masefield’s great poem


Quinquireme of Nineveh from distant Ophir,

Rowing home to haven in sunny Palestine,

With a cargo of ivory,

And apes and peacocks,

Sandalwood, cedarwood, and sweet white wine.

Stately Spanish galleon coming from the Isthmus,

Dipping through the Tropics by the palm-green shores,

With a cargo of diamonds,

Emeralds, amethysts,

Topazes, and cinnamon, and gold moidores.

Dirty British coaster with a salt-caked smoke stack,

Butting through the Channel in the mad March days,

With a cargo of Tyne coal,

Road-rails, pig-lead,

Firewood, iron-ware, and cheap tin trays.

Three vessels are carrying cargoes consisting of six items causually related only by the fact that they are cargoes.  However in this poem the title is overshadowed by the first word, ‘Quinquireme, which immediately generated the phrase five-key-rhymes and from this point there was no turning back.

Masefield tells us here that there is truth and there is poetic truth. Both are equally valid, but, as is the case with poetic licence, one is always more valid than the other. This brings us to the first two lines of the poem. No-one knows for certain what a quinquireme was, or where Ophir might have been or if that journey to Palestine was ever possible.

In contrast to the trireme, which is well-documented as a high-speed military vessel designed to ram and sink enemy ships, there is no definitive description of a quinquireme. But imagine how the opening ‘Trireme of Nineveh’ would sound.  The name ‘Trireme’ comes from three banks of oars that powered the vessel, so by extension, a quinquireme could have 5 banks of oars, but attempts to model this are not, apparently, convincing. Current opinion is that ‘quin’ refers to the number of slaves deployed to power the oars with a 1,2,2 configuration from the lower to the higher deck. This is a more aggressive military vessel and not a cargo ship. Then there is the issue of Ophir, where the current opinion supports a site on the Indian Ocean. Rowing from there to Palestine was feasible in Masefield’s day, but only thanks to the Suez canal. Nineveh is known to have been on the banks of the Tigris near the site of present day Mosul. It may have been the place where the quinquireme was first designed, but it seems highly unlikely that any ship built there would have reached the Mediterranean. Nevertheless the poetic truth of Masefield’s poem over-rides any such considerations.

The result is that quinquireme suggests a 1,2,2 configuration repeated many times and the name morphs to five-key-rhymes, via kinky rhymes, to the Italian ‘cinque rimes’ or, less convincingly, the French ‘cinq qui riment’ and here again poetic logic over-rides the known facts.

It only remains to explain that Nineveh morphs to No_never and that No_never poems is a collection of ‘cinque rimes’ marketed in a No_never envelope with a quinquireme motif and that the configuration is 1,2,2 where the lead poem sets the mood of the remaining entries.  Most, but not all of the No_never collections are derived from longer Tiplaw Press collections, but  some contain work that has not been published elsewhere.