The tigers of wrath, and an (un)discovered gem: David Spencer

david spencer 8

Promises to keep and apologies to make; it’s been too long since the last post. I may be part-Troll. I may be like Detritus in Terry Pratchett’s stories…our brains don’t work in hot weather.

I’ve also been distracted by disparate things. Like a cat going missing so I spend days of high anxiety, posting 150 “Have You Seen This Cat?” leaflets through the doors of the neighbourhood, and driving round at one 0’clock in the morning, whistling and calling. All’s well, as it is with cats. He comes wandering in, insouciant and unperturbed, but I can’t stand the stress.

I wrote in June: I’ve been trying to juggle the availabilities of 7 guest poets against those of four or five possible venues. It’s like herding cats and knitting fog. I’m in open-mouthed admiration of anyone who manages to run a poetry festival. How are they sane afterwards? Right now I’ve not managed to book a single venue. At this rate I’ll be putting it off till September. We shall see.  Well, I made all the arrangements. Lovely venues like the stunning Halifax Central Library which is stitched into the even more stunning Piece Hall, and also the splendid Hyde Park Book Club in Leeds. I bought drinks and nibbles and napkins and paper plates..all that. I ordered too many books from the printer. I had not allowed for hot weather nor for football. It was a delight to read with wonderfully talented poets…Gaia Holmes, Vicky Gatehouse, Alicia Fernandez , Tom Weir, Ian Harker. It was a shame that we almost outnumbered the audience. But gods bless the ones who came, anyway. Was it worth it? Yes. It’s always worth it. Why write, otherwise. And there’s still one launch reading to go. Fingers crossed.

red shed

There’s been furniture moving, and painting and decorating, and mixing cement and raking-out and pointing, too. Some wall mending, thrown in, and more to come. It all distracts from ‘the work’, and the less you write, the less you write, and then you get frustrated, you lose all the carefully hoarded vestiges of serenity, and you might just lose your temper and do something(s) you regret.

Which brings us to apologies, and couple of thoughts about anger. A couple of weeks ago I wrote something on Facebook (since deleted) that was silly and intemperate. I’d read an elegantly written piece about Melania Trump’s stupidly tasteless coat with its allegedly post-mod ironic slogan about ‘not caring’.What made me cross was that someone took the the time to write  smart piece of semiotic deconstruction when what I fervently believed was needed was a simple statement: this is wrong, immoral; only a stupid person with zero sense or empathy could have worn it in those circumstances . So I wrote something cross and ill-thought which brought deserved gentle rebukes from two poets who I have immense respect for, and left me uselessly rueful for a couple of days. Blake wrote :

The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.

The tigers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction.

Blake explains that,

Without Contraries is no progression. Attraction and Repulsion,
Reason and Energy, Love and Hate are necessary to Human existence.
From these contraries spring what the religious call Good & Evil.
Good is the passive that obeys Reason. Evil is the active springing
from Energy. Good is Heaven. Evil is Hell.

Now you can unpick those paradoxes for hours, but the fact remains that there is useful anger that is channelled, and there is crossness and rage which is useless and makes you ill. As the King James Bible says:

“He that hath no rule over his own spirit is like a city that is broken down and without walls” so “let not the sun go down upon your wrath”.

And all this, after my mea culpa, brings me to today’s guest poet, David Spencer.

David is not primarily a “poet”. This is important. Born in Halifax, he is a dramatist and has been creative writing tutor at the Deutsches Schauspielhaus Hamburg, Burgtheater Wien and the University of Arts in Berlin. His numerous plays were staged at the Royal Court Theatre in London, Deutsches Schauspielhaus Hamburg, Volksbühne Berlin. The first time I heard him read was at The Albert Poets in Huddersfield, and he didn’t so much read as perform. His poems are more often than not, I think, soliloquies, and are written, consciously or not, as you would write for performance. They are like a score or a script, waiting for a performer who who understands  who the narrator is and what motivates him or her. A bit later, in a Monday writing workshop, he took me to task over my reliance on similes, on not being plain and clear. It’s a blast of fresh air, that kind of challenge. It reminds me that I can’t be doing with arguments about what poems are, or aren’t or should be, and the either/or of some small corners of the poetry world. I deeply distrust  the exclusivity of  definitions that allow a lyricist I know to to casually dismiss Tony Harrison’s work as if he wasn’t in a great tradition of rhetorical poetry. I want to say as plainly as I can, pace T S Eliot’s ‘a poem should not mean but be’, that  I think we are better served by asking  not what a poem, any poem, is, but what it does, and how it does it, and if it does it well. I’m reminded, too, that Eliot also said that poems are best read ‘on the page’, whereas for me (and for most of history) poetry is performative, and poems are a synthesis of script and musical notation and pattern and ideas and beliefs and emotion. And, sometimes, anger.

Like this one. I can see it on a stage without props and with hard lighting. Or as a film in monochrome. It can’t be left on a page to be ‘looked at’ and considered and thought about. It has to be heard. And perhaps as an ensemble piece. Three voices.

Us three


Last night a seething son

clambered cemetery railings;


last night, I stalked us Dad

and lost me way again.


Last night, under an indifferent moon

yer brother pissed pails


over us Dad’s grave. Last night

if he phoned you, erase the mails,


delete the texts, never read’em.

Last night, he loved yer all again.


* * *


What yer bother’s tryin’t say is:

us childhood, it’s a brick


by wood brick built tower

what wobbles and topples and…  .


* * *


Remember Saturday nights? Hammer Horrors

on us portable black n’white?


Us three: wired on crisps

with them little blue sacks a’salt.


Us three: fizzed on Dandelion and Burdock

and Mum, cancering her lungs


at us front room window, praying fierce:

“God Sammy, God! Be on the fuckin’ bus.”


Her at tea time? She wanted him home

before the bookie blew his pay packet


Gone Midnight? Well? If the booze

hasn’t blasted his Barnardo’sbrain


right back to World War Two

then just havin’ him home’ll do.

* * *

F’me: It comes down t’Sunday mornings;

the pale-blue linger of Number 6.


F’me: It’s you two, dressed for Methodists

in semi-synthetic micro minis.


F’me: it’s you two, Sundays,

at the top o’the stairs.


F’me: it’s yer oddly angelic feather cuts

and yer oddly grown up eyes.


Yeah. F’me: it’s you two in

crocheted lime-green Rayon


appearing                     disappearing


* * *


Trust me: it’s all unriddled in me dream,

that one where us Dad dyes me pubic hair


day-glow green. And I leg it in t’yer bedroom

sayin’: “Look! Look what he’s done.”


And you two show me yours, chant together:

“It’s alright. He’s done it to us all now.”


* * *


Some-when somewhere in the nineties?

Whose wedding? I watch yer husband’s


stalk yer squealing daughters

ambush them behind the bush


chase, pounce, lift and spin

them up and out in centripetal bliss.


Then off into the woods they shoot,

girls under their arms like rugby balls.


And I ask the two of you: Do you remember

Sundays? At the top o’the stairs


trying to decide

who’s turn it was t’go inside his bedroom.


It’s a distinctive voice  ( or voices) with a particular Northern accent, and David has written about this when discussing his play from the 1980s: Releevo

I grew up on a council estate, sixties and seventies; we had a neighbour out the back of our garden; she killed her husband, invited his drinking pals into her house for a chat with his corpse. After three days she was dragged screaming from the house. I remember the policeman on a ladder and her screaming “y’can’t take him off me!” I remember her pushing the ladder away from the bedroom window and the copper toppled into the privet below. 

They say drugs were involved – that could have been anything; back then on a Northern council estate even THC containing substances were seen as something uniquely wicked. I never really found out what happened but the mystery of the situation intrigued me; later I learnt that she served only a two year suspended sentence and became a local Labour politician. My play, RELEEVO started as a way of answering something that I couldn’t research or really fathom; it then became something else completely. 

At the time I was fiercely conscious of class and had this un-reflected hatred of all things that were not proletarian; of course I was fascinated too by all such things, drawn to them. But for sure I didn’t want any middle class Southerners mucking this up, so I thought fuck this, “am gunna write it as yew’ve t’say it.”

I hold on to that last line whenever I read a new poem of his. It’s important to him as the the controlled anger that propels some of his poems. And also the tenderness. Like that in the next poem

david spencer 4

The Red Dog


Down over the cliffs from Siddal Infants

Walsh’s dye works spews purple into the Hebble.

Close to the sluice, the red dog churns in the torrent.


Behind the milk crates, Phil Radcliffe shows Pauline Hurst

his thingy, says: Mr Mason put his thingy in Miss Crabtree’s thingy,

now there’s a pregnant growing inside her.


Young Spanner knows nowt about that sexy-sex stuff,

he watches the red dog spiral in the eddy,

go under, bob up, beetroot and bloated.


What caught me in this poem was the way he can use a single image around which the poem turns, in this case, the bloated dog turning pointlessly in the current, and the way a character can be realised by his response to the moment. You know a lot about Young Spanner, you think. You think you know how and why he watches, without knowing why he seems ‘apart’ or ‘cut off’. I like the economy of it all. David can make you smile, too. Or even grin..the next poem is a family story. A true one.


At Us Kitchen Table


When our Nick wed into the Carter clan,

their John took the bus to Sunny Bank,

walked the line down Hunter Hill


all the way to Mixenden, a Martin on his back.

It were us auntie Sandra what clocked him:

out the corner of us curtains, “the Man in Black,


coming down us garden path.” Then, ‘bang! Bang! Bang!’

at us side door. Mum gets to it before Sandra, “Hello,”

he sez, “I’m Johnny Cash.” “Oooh,” sez Mum, “I know who you are.”


Then there he is, at us kitchen table, us new uncle John;

“Would you like a cuppa?” auntie Sandra sez and uncle John,

he sez, “Mouth’s mighty dry Maa’m, I don’t mind if I do.”


Jim Caruth called his Poetry Business winning Pamphlet The death of narrative because another poet told him that narrative was dead. I was told pretty well, by another famous poet, that narrative isn’t the real deal. Except she characterised it as “the anecdote, the conversation at the bus-stop” which was all very well in its place but that place was probably not ‘poetry’. And I thought well, if it’s true, that’s me stuffed. But it isn’t true. One of the poems David read the first time I heard him was about an encounter on a train travelling through Germany. He meets an older Jewish woman who shows him the tattooed number on her arm, and for a second they’re drawn into a small conspiracy in the corridor of a train. I think you could make short films of David’s poems, because of the sure focus on the visual moment, and the time you imagine passing around them.  One more poem then. This one also set in Germany, and one he performs with rare passion. A poem of useful anger.



We Came to Lay Flowers


with the written permission of the Berlin police,

three hundred of us, here for comrade Mathilde

as she was there for comrade Rosa. We are to the left

and we are in the right, as comrade Jakob was

in the Altnazizeit.


And now, a delegation, the cops say a delegation;

just three of us may enter the Tiergarten town hall.

We say: “All of us or none of us, we came to lay flowers.”

Negotiators  negotiate. We crank the lautie louder

“Fuck, fuck, fuck the police! Fuck, fuck, fuck the police!”


We are AntiFa, we are Black Block; we are Green Partei, PDS,

we are SPD, members of the Jewish community; my Germany.

Riot squads down visors, hammer shields, “Fuck, fuck, fuck

the police!” deploy CS gas, water cannon, elite Hessische

snatch bulls; I have seen this shit before:


Belfast, South Africa House, the Miners’ Strike, G8 summit.

With their telescopic whips, their tonfas, they will hurt us.

We are afraid but we are AntiFa: “Fuck, fuck, fuck the police!”

Five to our one, they kettle in; we are AntiFa, we do not run;

we came to lay flowers.


For comrade Mathilde Jacob, Rosa Luxemburg’s secretary and friend; (born, 8 of March 1873 and murdered 14 of April 1943, Theresienstadt.)

I was thinking before I wrote this piece that there is so much to be rightly angered about, from mindless validations of racist violence by powerful men, the brutal separation of children from parents, the needless and pointless deaths of disabled people by the withholding of benefits, the genocides of Palestine and Yemen, the sustained attacks on truth in the MSM…on and on. I have never known a time of so much hate, and we need people who can confront it with controlled anger and empathy for the wronged. We need poets who can write it. So thank you, David Spencer for being our guest today. Keep on insisting that we will lay flowers even if we have to fight to do it.


Fathers’ Day

My favourite picture of my Dad with Michael) 1969-ish

Here he is, late 1960s with his first grandson. My Dad could have been so many things. He’d played trumpet and cornet in the Salvation Army. He sang in the Chapel choir. He was a gifted photographer; he won scholarships to Grammar School and to Art School. There wasn’t the money for him to use either, so he worked in a mill as a woollen-spinner for 50 years. A great walker, a bird-watcher. He loved Jussi Bjorling of all the great tenors. He didn’t talk a lot. Here’s three poems for him on Fathers’ Day.



His hands cross-hatched as a chopping board

from breaking yarn- a million creels.

I think he dreamed moors and opera in the mill.

His nails were horny, blue with old dark blood,

caught by flying shuttles in the humming  sleet

of shivering threads. Miming in the din,

the racket of machinery, the deafening beat

of spinning-mules, close air thick with lanolin.

Chapel  choir –  his tenor voice came reedy-light.

Round and ringing if he thought he was alone

with Jussi Bjorling on the gramophone,

the gathering wave of None shall sleep;

a duet to bring a dreamed La Scala to its feet,

his voice like a moorland wind, and rich as night.





Drawn to Mam Tor, to Kinder Downfall,

Simon’s Seat, Grass Woods, The Strid;

they came by steam train, on the bus,

away from mill and pit and forge,

an England dark with smoke;

they passed by crumbled slums, grand

neo-classic terraces, iron-railinged

parks, until the cities petered out

on the edges of high moors, big skies;


they came to the quiet of neat fields,

of drystone walls. They walked miles,

wore caps or trilbies, belted macs,

flapping turn-up trousers, ordinary shoes.

They knew the habitats of birds and flowers;

they knew shortcuts and hidden waterfalls,

would pull aside wired gates,

push over ‘Private: Keep Out’ boards,

would not be kept from bluebell woods.


At school we had to pray they’d be forgiven,

those trespassers, who rambled viking fells,

ghylls and cloughs,  sour gritstone moors

and green lanes cropped by mourning sheep.

They knew the land they walked should not be owned,

wished it was theirs; coveted the cottages

of the small stone villages, their tidy gardens.

Those men like my father the woollen spinner,

namer of birds;  presser of wild flowers


According to their cloth


I knew one man made a forced march in a column,

full pack and rifle; heat and scrub, humidity, thick dust;

forty miles in a single day and never knew a battle plan.


One man who fell from a plane

in a night full of parachutes,

the wind white silk ; the dark sound of planes

dwindling up into the night and him falling into fiasco;

who taught history, who clung to Communism

like a Tudor martyr to a relic.


Another who drove his jeep into something

that men might make, experimenting

in a slovenly way with making up an idea of hell;

into a camp made out of rust and rot,

of wire and sweet black smoke and rags and sweat;

No one came to liberate him;

no one to take his eyes from the dark,

no-one to bring him back from the dead.


The one I loved most spun yarn

for uniforms and army blankets.

Reserved occupation.Conchie.

All the same to him. Nobody tried to kill me.

He cut his coat according to his cloth.

Took his suit lengths into Leeds,

to Jewish tailors, emigrés

in small dark shops in narrow streets.


You don’t choose where you are in history.

You cut your coat

and wear it.

Tailor Sewing a Jacket


[According to their cloth”   published in Much Possessed [smith|doorstop 2016]




So there. Or, so what?

so 9

So when did it actually take hold. I mean, the business of answering a question by starting the answer with ‘SO’? As on quiz shows, for instance.

What do you do for living, then, Kevin? 


So, ‘Zander, I put the eyes in Cabbage Patch Dolls

Or in news links going live to reporter on the ground:

What’s the reaction of the community this morning?

Significant satellite delay pause.

So, Sophie, temperatures seem to have cooled, but there’s still a significant police presence, as you can see behind me.

When did I become aware of it? When did I become so annoyed by it? Why? Why do I care? (don’t answer that in case you start with “So”). I was perfectly comfortable with certain usages for years and years. Mothers did it when you came home inexcusably late.

So where’ve you been?

Friends said it when you hadn’t seen them for ages.

So how are you doing?

And colleagues, when they’d just pitched an idea about how things could be changed

So what do you think, then?

And that was perfectly fine. You’ll notice there’s no pause after “so”. Whereas in current usage there is. What’s that about. There was a period after that (probably not yet finished) when things became  so (or emphatically SO) this that or the the other. Fashions became so last year. It was making noun phrases do the work of adjectives. I have no rooted objection to that. It’s what we can do in English. Shakespeare did it all the time, pushing the limits of what could be done. But it still irritated me in a low-level way. And now the latest, passing (it will pass; things do) usage. It annoys me that I can’t actually explain the basic grammatical function of ‘so’ any more. So happy, or so cross…I get that . It’s an intensifier. And in the first examples, it’s a rhetorical device. I can live with that. Still; I think I’m becoming rooted in the role of grumpy old man.


So, I thought, tongue in cheek, I’d post a poem which for some reason I called

So I’m thinking


– of Ted Hughes’ gritstone house,

of that tunnel of a yard, its slippery flags,

of that valley of unsmoking chimneys,

an old abandoned artillery

knee-deep in brown leaf-litter,

firing blanks at a Pennine moon,


– of the abrasions of passing time,

the world wearing down till it’s bland as an egg,

to the soundtrack of seconds, a long, drawn

cello note, circling these cloughs


– of defunct mills and breweries –

Hammonds, Duttons, Websters, thin and bitter,

and of my Methodist uncle,Leonard,

and of the Pledge he signed, aged six,


– of this film I saw, in Japanese,

at the Essoldo, where the whole of an army was killed

down to the very last one, the cannibal,

shot through the smoke by the farmers

burning stubble, clearing the last of war

that ended when I was two

and still isn’t over, seventy years on,


which is not to be laid at Ted Hughes’ door,

any more than the orphans

walled in the sides of the valley

in the shadow of lums and sycamores


I’ve never sent it anywhere, as far as I can remember. It’s a sort of tribute to the times I’ve spent at Lumb Bank, to the stories of the orphanage in the valley, to the smokeless chimneys, to that dark back yard. Which turns up in one that was published (in Much Possessed)..this one started life in a workshop which invited us to think of two writers and then to put them in a landscape. There’s minimal invention in it.

Banked up


Brittle as a mirror

worrying at little lines

exquisite as ants or wasps

half-aware of an open window

banging somewhere in this long dark house

in a clenched valley

of cold chimneys and black walls

cemented with orphans’ bones

balsam flattened by the weight of wind

of trees flogging themselves to death

she cramps herself small, and smaller

dreams of dwindling

into the fastness of a shell

of lying under a full moon

in a sky of no wind


Somewhere out in the yard, a bucket has blown over

rackets about the cobbles like a big man in a rage

like a man who’d smash his fist into a gritstone wall

and sing about the blood.

so 12


So. There you are. Have a nice Friday.


Passing the time with Mr Causley

(Preamble: there’s a phrase that’s been stuck in my mind ever since I first read it in the 70’s, quoted in an article by Geoff Fox in ‘Children’s Literature in Education’. I keep writing about it, one way or another. A 13 year old girl describes what it is for her to be a reader of stories.

It’s as if I’m a sort of dark watcher, who is there at the scene, but none of the characters pays any attention to me. I’m like a power, as if everything is happening because I’m there.                                                    Claire, 3rd year, secondary modern

[Dark watchers: young readers and their fiction)

I think all the poets who matter are dark watchers, none more so than Charles Causley, who once said: If I didn’t write poetry I think I’d explode.)

I’ll start with a rambling introduction. It’s the kind of thing you can’t ignore in a face-to-face conversation, but can cheerfully skim when you’re reading, without any fear of giving offence. I’ve spent most of last week setting up three launch events for my new pamphlet Advice to a traveller [Indigo Dreams] and after many small frustrations we’re now good to go with readings in Halifax (with Gaia Holmes and Vicky Gatehouse), in Leeds (with Alicia Fernandez, Tom Weir and Ian Harker) and in Wakefield (Ian Parks and Laura Potts)

[** should you be interested in finding more about them they’ve all been guests on the cobweb. The links to their posts appear at the end.]

In and amongst, I’ve been trying to do some real writing, when not distracting myself with comfort-blanket novels. I’ve not read novels for ages, and it’s remarkably soothing to be able to do it again. Anyway, I’m struggling to get grips with a sequence based on a local mining disaster in the 70’s. I’ve had a tutorial workshop with Kim Moore who suggests one element could be short ‘interlude’ poems about other disasters…Senghenydd, Aberfan, Markham, Hartley…and I have the idea that they should be short 4-line stanza ballads. I haul out Charles Causley: Collected Poems , because there’s a man who could make 4-line rhyming stanza do just about anything. Two sunny days later, I’ve read the whole book, which now bristles with post-its. I really thought I knew his stuff…in the way I thought I knew U A Fanthorpe. Couldn’t have been more wrong.

It reminds me that I once met Charles Causley, and I was sure I remembered what he looked like. I was convinced I remembered, along with the deceptively mild demeanour (think Alan Bennett) that he had a cap of soft white hair . Wrong. Like all of us he has had lots of physical selves and lives. And all of them sing in his poems. But no head of soft white hair.

Mr causley's chronology

Still. I’ll tell you a story.

One August, long ago and far away, I drove from Dawlish, where I was on a family camping holiday, to Oxford to start a week’s tutoring for an NYU course for American teachers of English. I’d walked up from the beach (where the seawall fell down in 2014), got changed, packed the car and drove to Oxford. I guess that added to the dreamlike quality of arriving on a warm, golden summer evening, to be greeted by ( I think) Maurice from Chicago….if it was Maurice, who was frighteningly correct, and always immaculately dressed in a blindingly white shirt and discreet tie.

Because it was a Sunday evening, he apologised, many of our course members would not be with us. (They were in the habit of flying off to Rome or Florence or Paris or Amsterdam at the weekends. That taught me how small Europe is, and that Americans have a different scale of distances.) However, said Maurice (if it was Maurice) a few of us had stayed behind to show some hospitality to a guest who’d been invited by the course director. If you like poetry, you may care to join us, said Maurice. Are you familiar with a Charles Cowsly?

And so it was that a bit later on I joined six or seven dutiful stay-behinds in what would have been the Rector’s study, all leather chairs and glazed bookcases and ticking clocks and buckram-bound works of biblical exegisis and there was:

causley 16

..Mr Charles Cowsly, who read to us for an hour, and told us stories, and generally entranced me. Just to be clear, this was 30 years ago. What I knew about poetry (apart from university and sixth form teaching) didn’t amount to much. As I wrote in an earlier post, I got my poetry from school anthologies. but that meant, thanks to Geoffrey Summerfield and ‘Voices’,  I certainly knew Vernon Scannell, and even more, like generations of the children I taught, I knew (or thought I knew) Charles Causley. Which mainly meant I knew ‘A jolly hunter’, ‘What has happened to Lulu?’, ‘Timothy Winters’, ‘The ballad of the bread man’ and ‘Charlotte Dyment’. The first four were sure fire winners with any class I taught, and the last one fitted in with the poetry I read as social history…broadsheet ballads; the poetry of the working classes. Oral poetry. Causley’s ‘Figgie Hobbin’ was the only single poet collection we had a full class set of, until Gareth Owen’s ‘Song of the city‘ was published.

So that was Causley for me, memorable and accessible, but not up there on set text lists with Heaney and Hughes and Larkin. Maybe that was because he was tagged as a children’s poet? I hadn’t tuned in to the craft, the elegance, the misleading simplicity of his work. One hour in a room in a house on the Banbury Road changed that for good, and for the better.

First there was the physical presence; comfortable, unassuming, a man at ease with himself. And then there was the voice. Some poets have an unfair advantage, their voices at one with the rhythm and music of their poetry. Heaney had it and so did Hughes. Tony Harrison has it, and so does Liz Lochhead. Young contemporary poets I know have it. Clare Shaw. Kim Moore. Instantly recognisable. You can make your own lists of people who haven’t got it, folk whose poetry is terrific but whose readings don’t match it. Charles Causley had it, Cornish and unemphatic but with a quiet authority and a lovely rhythm. And then the sense of place. Some poets live their whole lives in one place, a place where they are deep rooted and enriched, which is never parochial, and which they simultaneously transcend. George Mackay Brown is one, and Causley another.

causley 22

I started to get the glimmerings of it as he talked about his village, his mother and father, the house where he lived all his life, and this illuminated one of my favourite poems of his: ‘Reservoir Street’. Here, in ‘hallmark’ 4-line rhyming stanzas he recalls being sent as a child to stay with Auntie, who

‘…stood strong as the Eddystone Lighthouse.

A terrible light shone out of her head.’

who rules her five prime – beef boys with a fierce discipline. The days are hot, the sun comes up like a killer; at night, motor- car tyres rubbed out the dark, and next day:

‘Down in the reservoir I saw a man drowning’.

The child escapes back to his home, and on the train, says the poet:

‘I thought of my brother who slept beside me,

four walls round us pure as cloam.


When I got to my house my head was thunder.

The bed lay open as a shell.

Sweet was my brother’s kiss, and sweeter

the innocent water from the well.’


It’s a poem with not a wasted word, its release like the breaking of a storm after oppressive heat, and the cool of after. It’s as true and frightening and real as a folk tale. It was told, rather than read, and then he told us about the white painted bedroom he shared. He didn’t need to explain anything.  I’ve thought since that what enchanted me was its tenderness. What do I mean by that? I mean the tenderness of Rembrandt’s portraits of his wife and unwavering eye of his self-portrait, the loving honesty. Not a shred of sentimentality. That tenderness was in his reading At the grave of John Clare. I had not known that a poet could talk to a dead poet like that.

O Clare! Your poetry clear, translucent / as your lovely name’.

I had not known it was possible to use the word ‘lovely’ so frankly and simply. The only other poem I remember from that reading was Death of a poet. I’m still not sure that, despite its total accessibility, I understand it yet, but this last stanza  stays and stays.

‘Over the church a bell broke like a wave upended.

The hearse left for winter with a lingering hiss.

I looked in the wet sky for a sign, but no bird descended.

I went across the road to the pub; wrote this.’

One of the things about Causley’s poems is that you can learn them by heart more readily than anyone else’s I know. I also learned I needed to see beyond Figgie Hobbin to this unnerving quiet craftsman and maker of great and grown-up poems. A couple of weeks later, I bought ‘Secret destinations’. It wasn’t what I expected, and it took me a long, long time to just let it work. Many of the poems were written while he was a writer-in residence at the University of Western Australia, and it’s as though the unfamiliar landscape jolted him into what Tribune called ‘the arena of truly major poets’. I can’t imagine that sort of league-table labelling would have suited the quiet man I heard read, but I see what it was getting at when I read

Kite, poisoned by dingo bait

‘A kite, as motionless as clay,

plumping its feather against death

like northern birds against the frost

it gripped the noon, its eye of stone

blinded as by a pentecost’

and also, this, from Greek Orthodox, Melbourne, where,

in a scent

of drooling wax a priest hurls in,

suddenly pitches his black tent

scolds God in Greek.

There’s a heightening of sensation in these poems…that was the unexpectedness. I needed to grow, not out of, but beyond simple expectations of ballads, or lyrical reminders of

‘This is the house where I was born:

sepulchre-white, the unsleeping stream

washing the wall by my child bed’.


Well, it took days of reading last week to find that I’d not scratched the surface of what he could do, and with what passion he could write. I’d forgotten that he was, early on, a “Poet of WW2”. If he’d died in the war, he’d be remembered for that more than he is.I’d not taken in that he could write, with equal ease, blank verse, free verse, sonnets, couplets, and hymns (if asked); I’d not realised just how much myth, autobiography, fable and folk tale bleed into each other, nor just how far he ranged, geographically. I learned again how technically accomplished he was, and how apparently simple and accessible, and how he could make, unerringly, solid, breathing landscapes and seascapes. He made then, like his  crunching sea, with great economy.  Like this;

the cool quilt of the filtering moon

or this

the stiff waves propped against the classroom window

or this

beyond those pale disturbances of sky

another year assembles its vast floe

And his instinct was religious. It’s not just that angels and Christ walk familiarly in the streets of his imagination. For him, as for Blake, everything that lives is holy.  And he could be drily funny, too. Let me share two small discoveries before I finish.

There are some small poems towards the back of the Collected Poems. One records the time Ted Hughes came to his classroom….to read and tell stories, I imagine. (Wouldn’t you have liked Charles Causley to teach you?)

In a junior school 

“When I asked

what the poet did, a girl said,

Make up true stories

of people and animals

in his head.


When I told them

he was also a farmer,

they said they thought

farmers didn’t have time to write

stories and poems


Once, I said, he took home

a wounded badger.

Nursed it, then set it free.

All the children smiled;

clapped their hands very loudly


and then there are three or four that I could easily have passed over. I think they must have come unmediated from a notebook. The sequence is called Embryos. This is my favourite


Emily Dickinson

called last night.

You are a poor cook,

she said. And look,

these windows

need cleaning.

As for your poems

listen to me

for a moment


Just one thing more; I have an abiding affection for ‘Jack the treacle eater’ with its gorgeous Charles Keeping illustrations. I think Keeping was created to be an illustrator of the work of poets, and especially of Causley.

causley 20

So, there we are. A happy accident. I’m not sure what American teachers of English, attuned to free verse, made of Charles Cowsly, but I’m pretty sure that an early evening in a house in Oxford is the reason  I spend part of most Sundays writing about poetry and poets. Thank you Charles Causley.


** To say thank you to all the poets who volunteered to guest at the three launches in June and July, and to introduce you to them if you’ve not already met them, here are the links to the posts when I’ve tried to say how much I like their work:

The company you keep. An [un]discovered gem: Regina Weinert

Regina 7

I realise I’ve used this ‘company you keep’ tagline before without explaining why. So, in a minute or so, I’ll put this to rights. But first, I should explain why there was no post last Sunday. Basically, I’ve been too busy, one way or another. The Friday before I drove up to Kendal to read with the inspirational Kim Moore, and with Jean Harrison at The Brewery Poets. I’d been looking forward to it for months. They only have two poetry nights a year and if you miss your window of opportunity, you have to wait a long time till another opens.

It’s not that long a drive from Ossett to Kendal; according to the AA, whether you take the shorter direct route through the Dales or the longer motorway route, it should take about two hours. Either way, and I’ve tried both, on a Friday at the start of Whit. it takes over three and a half. With the company of Terry Pratchett audiobooks, it doesn’t matter that much, but you do get tired. And if you’re incautious, you may need to stop at the Lancaster services on the M6. It is probably the ugliest, worst designed, motorway stop in Britain, if not the world. I mention this in passing, should you think it a good idea to try it. And Kendal has one of the trickier one-way systems; I always think I have the hang of it. But I haven’t. The Brewery Arts Centre, on the other hand, is lovely, and the cafe that hosts the readings is a delight of a space, furnished with big leather sofas, and hung with genuinely good art work. I loved it, and listening to Kim, whose current project All the men I never married just keeps better and better and better, as she shifts it into a more emotionally and intellectually challenging exploration of gender politics and its personal dimensions. Like I say, she’s an inspiration. (And she’s also one of the judges of the National Poetry Competition this year; get in for that).

Nevertheless, I had to jump in the car and drive home (2 hours!), get to bed and get up about 7.00 to drive to Sheffield for a Poetry Business Writing Day, where I had promises to keep…particularly to keep Louisa Campbell company on her first Sheffield writing day. I really must ask her to be a guest poet. In the meantime, I can tell you that her poetry has appeared in Acumen 87, Prole 22, Obsessed with Pipework 78, and The Interpreter’s House 65, she’s made the Bridport Prize shortlist in 2016, and right now she has a new book out. The ward. [Paper Swans]. Check it out.

the ward

It was a very nice day, and pretty productive. I think I think more clearly when Im tired. I think. I didn’t think very clearly that night at our lovely next door neighbour’s 50th birthday party. Dress code: golf-club posh – sort of blazer/Pringle pink sweater/air hostess scarf/cocktail frock; vast quantities of Prosecco and casual right wing politics. Alarmed and intrigued by a stocky woman in a canary-yellow blazer who told my partner Flo, at great length, what an admirable and inspirational woman Treeza May is. Fortunately, I’ve not had a drink in over five years, and understand that sobriety is the only defence against this stuff, and left before 11.00 to sleep the sleep of the virtuously knackered.

Sunday was prize giving and readings for the Red Shed Poetry Comp, in Wakefield. Wouldn’t have missed it for anything, especially to listen to judge Maria Isakova Bennett read her own poems and introduce the winners and commended poets. It goes from strength to strength, this competition, now in its 10th year and this year attracting over 350 entries from all over the country…and one from New Zealand (or was it New South Wales? a long way away, in any event). All credit to John Clarke and Jimmy Andrex who started it up from nowhere and made it a significant event.

And since then I’ve spent an unconscionable amount of time trying to organise three launch events for my new pamphlet Advice to a traveller (sales pitch: you can buy it via PayPal ..see the My Books page). I’ve been trying to juggle the availabilities of 7 guest poets against those of four or five possible venues. It’s like herding cats and knitting fog. I’m in open-mouthed admiration of anyone who manages to run a poetry festival. How are they sane afterwards? Right now I’ve not managed to book a single venue. At this rate I’ll be putting it off till September. We shall see.

And in and amongst all that, I’ve been doing a lot of reading for the first time in ages. Comfort blanket books (early John le Carre, and also A S Byatt) and The Loch of the Green Corrie. that gentle tribute to Norman MacCaig. I want to share couple of bits I bookmarked. Not to explain or discuss. Just to say: this sticks in my mind. This seems right and true.

“Climbers, fishers – we are players and sole audience.  A bit like writing poetry…..The absence of audience, the tiny readership…guarantees it is written for its own sake. We trust poetry because it’s not trying to sell us anything.

MacCaig referred to himself as an Edinburgh schoolteacher who sometimes writes poetry. The idea of ‘being a poet’ as though that were a different and higher form of life was abhorrent to him”

[At the Loch of the Green Corrie: Andrew Greig]

So that’s why there wasn’t a post. I’m making sure today, by writing it on a Saturday, taking advantage of a dull damp day when I don’t mind being indoors. So. As it seems you are required to say these days before starting a sentence. So. The company you keep. In particular the poetry company you keep…the readings you go to, the books you choose, the courses you go on, and, particularly, the small group you can come to rely on (as did MacCaig, and Sorley McLean and the other Edinburgh poets who would meet in the pub) because you trust their criticism and charge your batteries on their support and talent. In my case it’s The Albert Poets in Huddersfield, and their regular Monday night workshop, which used to be in The Albert, and is now in a curtained-off room in The Sportsman’s…a place where I meet lots of talented people including today’s guest, Regina Weinert. High time to let her introduce herself.

“I’ve lived roughly a third of my life in each Hamburg, Edinburgh and Sheffield and have spent most of my career researching and teaching linguistics and language. Over the last few years I made more time to write and started to read more contemporary poetry, which I’d liked for a while. I’d written for pleasure or to reduce stress, including a few poems, then had a lightbulb moment while looking through some short prose pieces that weren’t turning into longer stories. It seemed a good idea to get a reality check at an early stage and very much thanks to the gentle feedback and encouragement of Sharon Black and to Bill Greenwell’s Poetry Clinic, I kept writing poems. Through the generous support of the “Clinic” I learnt an enormous amount in a short time. (See links below).

I feel in my element with short poems and was very pleased to be shortlisted in that category of the Plough Prize 2017. I also enjoy writing narrative poems – although holding their shape and scale is somewhat alarming. I’ve had poems published inThe Northand Poetry Salzburg Review.


Two key things;  Regina researches language and linguistics; she writes ‘short’ poems. Put them together and you have the economy and precision that I’ve come to admire in her work. And also to envy it. My own writing sprawls. I don’t do short, especially ones built out of crafted couplets, and I’m fascinated by poets who can and do. She’s sent me four to share, and it’ll be a pleasure.

Regina 1


Mistake, sister


Neither of us paid much attention to birds,

we never chased pigeons,


noticed gulls only as a threat

to our picnic or to our Sunday skirts.


If I remember rightly, your interest

was limited to a duck’s sense of timing,


how it pretended to study the grass

before snatching  the bacon from dad’s plate.


I don’t know why it’s taken me so long.

It’s all in the movement, the way you swoop


and dive in and out of your daily doings, yes,

you’re some kind of low flyer.


What always struck me was the lack

of doubt. Now I see the hesitation


I took for nonchalance, all that chaperoning,

how pristine you keep your wings.

( first published in  Somewhere to keep the rain, [Winchester Poetry Festival 2017, Sarsen Press])

What has always struck me in Regina’s writing is the way she understands line breaks. Look at the work that’s done by the big space between  swoop    /    and dive, all the expanse of air it implies. Or the space between lack  /  of doubt. Lovely. I like the way that apparent conversational tone, the unselfconsciousness of the voice, works with the accurate, careful diction; that’s where that immersion in language and linguistics pay off. It’s expressive and tight at the same time, like a confident etching. Here’s another.

regina 10




I haven’t swept under the bed,

the stairs are garlanded


with the abandoned efforts

of long-legged spiders


on their way up or down,

never mind which, because


the fridge flashes by, cradling

mustard, beetroot, milk


and I’ve remembered

the crinkled parchment of jeans


blouse, cotton vest on the arm

of the spine-tingling settee


and it’s too late to beat the coir mat

into shedding a shovelful of grit,


too late to bin the pink rose, its bloom

hard to retract, once assumptions


are speed-budding, as they will be, since

I’ve opened the door to you.


I like the slightly harassed (or is it?  it’s beautifully ambiguous) voice, the way it starts in the middle of something, that sounds like anxiety, or a diffuse kind of small guiltiness, that opens out into the beginning of a moments surrender (which an age of prudence will never retract). Another thing: I like the moments/images that stick. The juxtaposition of mustard, beetroot, milk;  the crinkled parchment of jeans. I like the economy with which a real environment, a real place and lifestyle is constructed, and a real character inhabits it…one that I’m involved with and hope for.

The next poem, not in couplets as it happens, demonstrates Regina’s eye for the shape and texture of the moment that makes the image significant.

regina 2



She dangles in her sleep

like the last bramley

from a winter-brittled branch


she’s tired as peat

with its memory of plants

her dreams are coal seams


(First published in The North, Issue 57.)

If I could only keep one moment from all her poems, I think it would be

she’s tired as peat

It’s the inchoate tiredness of tedium, of a long long process of small accumulations that grow inert and heavy. And eventually offer the hard brilliance and the promise of fire in coal seams.Beautiful. I love the way that it moves in a short space from the laxness of ‘dangles’ to the solidity of ‘coal seams’. Just one more, then, and minimal commentary. Just enjoy its clarity and quiet. Like a Rothko. Less is more.

regina 4

No question


The foghorn intones all night,

like a well-adjusted contrabass,


mooring my sleep with perfect pitch

and phrasing. In the morning


I’m drawn to its silence. Everything

hasbeen wiped to a polish –


the lapis vein of the water line

below a pale-blue cloche,


the sheer air, enamelling my neck

and sending a jet of birdcall


skidding along the shore, as if this sky

has lost its grip on the clouds.


So, a week late, but thank you so much, Reginert, for being our guest poet on a Saturday afternoon when the sun has suddenly come out.

Next week I’m hoping for another guest poet from the Albert Workshops. Fingers crossed. In the meantime, enjoy the sun, and wish me luck in trying to book three venues on dates that work for everyone. See you soon, and thank you for being here.




Gaia Holmes: Where the Road Runs Out

Gaia Holmes: Where the Road Runs Out

On dealing with loss, with grieving and healing, the dislocations and consolations of wildness and weather, and the smaller ones of everyday people and places who prove as McCaig wrote how extraordinary ordinary things are. Whenever and however you find yourself in the dark, read this beautiful essay.

The High Window

I was going to call this lecture ‘The Poetics Of Grief’. I was going to call this lecture ‘Beyond The Mainland: Poetry of The Highlands And Islands’. I have started, and deleted, this lecture at least seven times. I was going to cancel this lecture because I am, to use the vernacular, ‘all over the shop’ but I’m here now talking to you. Well, most of me is here but some of me is way up North where the road runs out and the sea takes over at Dunnet Head. Some of me is stumbling through the darkness in my father’s size 10 wellies. Some of me is counting roadkill as I sit in the passenger seat being driven up the A9 towards Orkney, towards dawn, towards grief. So this lecture may be fragmented. It may drift back and forth between Jamieson’s Quay and Hatston ferry terminal. It may trip…

View original post 2,874 more words

The company you keep, and a Polished Gem: Maggie Reed

maggie reed 3 

When I was doing a bit of back-reading for this post I was looking at an earlier one when the guest poet was Martin Reed. The reason for this will quickly become apparent. I introduced that post like this:

“When people ask ‘Why do you write?’ if the answer isn’t ‘Because I’ve got things to say and this is the way I do it…rather than music or painting or sculpture or essays or journalism or graffiti’ then something’s not quite right. If you’re having to make yourself write, then what’s all that about? I think that’s what Keats was getting at with this business of poetry needing come as birds to the tree. Poetry. Not poems or a poem, note. That’s usually going to be difficult, because words don’t just line up and snap to attention. We’re going to draft and redraft and get second opinions, and polish and refine, and we’ll never quite get it right, because if we did, there’d be no point in carrying on. We need to say what’s on our minds. We have to have something to write about, if you like. Ideally we need to be full as an egg and brimming and bursting with things to say. “ 

Julie Mellor has been approaching this idea, on and off for some time in her always-thought-provoking poetry blog. If you don’t follow it already, I highly recommend it. Here’s the link:         

I’ve got a different problem at the moment. I’m busting with ideas I want to articulate, experiences I want to nail down and share, and simultaneously physically/mentally tired; I can’t seem to think clearly, or concentrate in the right way, and it seems the only thing to do is just to let it be. There’s no rational reason to believe that I can’t go away and find it all waiting when I come back. Maybe what’s needed is some peace and quiet inside my head.

Quietness. I think that’s the keyword when I come to think of the work of today’s guest, Maggie Reed . It’s a quality that attaches to another poet whose work I love…Jane Clarke. I’m a noisy, rackety sort of person, and I don’t do that sort of grounded serenity. That quietness. I wish I did, and I’m grateful for those who do. At which point, let’s meet Maggie Reed, originally from Cumbria who now lives in West Malvern where she writes poetry and short stories. She graduated from Lancaster University in 2015 with a merit in an MA in Creative Writing and in 2017 achieved a Post-Graduate Diploma in Creative Writing for Therapeutic Purposes at the Metanoia Institute, London.

In 2016 Maggie had three poems published in the North magazine and won third prize in the Settle Sessions Poetry Competition. In 2017 she had another poem published in the North and self-published her first pamphlet ‘Life Lines’. In August 2018 another two poems are due to be published in the North. Previously, in 2011 she won a merit in the Nottingham Open Competition.

Before taking herself seriously with her creative writing in the year 2000, after attending an Adult Ed evening class, Maggie worked in Further Education in Cumbria, Lancashire and Central London, with a focus on teaching and supporting adults with learning difficulties and disabilities. Prior to teaching, she ran her own sign-writing business in the Lake District, painting signs for hotels, pubs, shops and cafes, whilst also working part-time in a factory packing dried food products, driving a van for Securicor parcel delivery as well as assisting in care homes for the elderly.

Maggie enjoys the beautiful British countryside and loves walking in the Lake District as well as discovering the wonderful landscape surrounding her new home in Worcestershire, Herefordshire, Shropshire and Gloucestershire. Much of her writing reflects her life experiences and the people and places that matter most to her.

She met and married her soulmate, Martin Reed last year, after meeting him at Whitby on one the Poetry Business writing residential courses – life right now couldn’t be better!”

So now you see why I was re-reading that post from a couple of years ago about Martin Reed. Essentially, this is a first: a guest poet who met, on a Poetry Business Writing Week in Whitby, another guest poet who I met on a Writing Week in Spain, tutored by Ann Sansom of…the Poetry Business. Which has a nice sort of synergy, and makes me very happy. As do the poems she’s sent me to share.

maggie reed 2

John Arnold


First week in my new job,

lesson observation still on my mind,

he came in the office to suss me out

with words like Silver Book, Ofsted.


You’re not one to rock the boat then.

He knew as soon as I smiled

he’d get at least one coffee from me.

He preferred the company of women,


wolves, some of them, circling on him

as he sniffed around the smoking room.

Had a lad in a headlock this morning.

No one throws tools in my shed.


His shed, the engineering block:

metal vices, cold radiators, stacks of scaffolding.

Lunchtimes in the pub rather than

filling forms, meeting deadlines.


Kids loved him. He could teach them

to fix a car, jazz up a bike.

Tell them how to learn best,

on the job.


He sat in our staff room

flashing his white bushy eyebrows,

his failed career at BAE Systems

waving at him across Walney Channel.


I heard and read this for the first time as a draft in a critiquing workshop. Sometimes a poem just speaks direct to a specific experience.In my case it was having to do an Ofsted style inspection in a bleak technical college, observing the ‘teaching’ of a morose individual who despised his students, the job, and probably, himself. John Arnold lifts me above that, because of its humanity, its gentleness. I feel as though the narrator, and John Arnold with his failed career at BAE Systems / waving at him across Walney Channel, are both out of synch with where they find themselves  She should be lining up her lesson-observation checklist sheets; self-evidently, he shouldn’t have

Had a lad in a headlock this morning.

No one throws tools in my shed.

but there’s the mutual sympathy of outsiders who recognise each other in a cold and angular environment. And after all, kids loved him. And what survives of us is love. It’s poem that couldn’t have been easy to write, in the sense that it needs to persuade the reader to suspend a rational criticism of a teacher who assaults students, goes down the pub at lunchtime, and is a ‘failure’. But it does. Quietly.

When you listen to the next poem for the first time, you may think you’re in over-familiar territory. You may be inclined to think : nostalgia. But it has a trick up its sleeve.

 maggie reed 1



A red-brick vicarage in a northern coastal town

near the football club by St Andrew’s Church.

My father, taking me to Roker Park,

asked a policeman to stop the traffic

so we could cross the road.


I remember cold winters, hands over gas rings,

velvet curtains drawn, matching blue carpet,

draughts under the door.

Mrs. Donkin boiling sheets, wooden tongs,

struggles with the mangle, steam,

pegging them out in the back yard,


Do you remember holidays in Saltburn,

staying in Marlborough House

on Emerald Crescent, taking Peter,

our cat, how he never ran away?

Always smiling at the flowers

in the window, eating homemade

chocolate cake for tea;

riding my bike in the garden,

no, it must have been a tricycle,

I was only three.


I remember these things because you told me

from your chair in the nursing home,

eyes searching then holding my own.


I do remember these things, don’t I?

Or was it you?

Or was it me?

maggie reed 4

I like the way (as I read it) the poem invites me to assume the “I” of the narrator who tells me about the vicarage and the policeman, and the old woman doing the washing is the voice of the poet. If it was, then I guess this would just be a piece of nostalgia, which is as interesting to a listener as a stranger’s photograph album. But something happens very quietly in one line which retrospectively made me re-read and re-evaluate:

Do you remember holidays in Saltburn.

Just like that, the poem turns from a soliloquy to a dialogue. Who asks the question? Who’s being asked? Why?  I make an assumption that it’s a daughter (because it’s a woman poet; yup, that simplistic) and I know she’s visiting a parent (a mother, I assume, because in my experience, it usually is) in a care home. But the thing is, that I don’t know whose memory is unreliable, who rode the trike, who owned the cat. And at the end I don’t know whose memory is more unreliable. And I find it hugely moving. It’s quiet and unassertive and it won’t let me be..

One more poem. It reminds me of U A Fanthorpe and a kind of love called maintenance. A poem of love and undramatic happiness. Which is a condition we can all devoutly wish for.



It’s a day in February,

Monday, perhaps Tuesday,

it doesn’t matter.

Birds are on the feeders,

washing-up is still in the sink,

Radio Five Live on too loud.


I’m remembering images from that dream:

the crowd on the staircase

the sketch I made of pillows in sunlight,

how I ordered a sherry at the bar.

I can hear you in the shower

and think of the books you’ve read

on Stalin, Scannell, Country Walks in Worcestershire.


This time five years ago I lay

curled on my mother’s bed,

remembered how she held me,

how she loved the scent of snowdrops.


So thank you, Maggie Reed for the poems, for the quiet, and the smile you’ve put on my face.

I’m not sure about next week’s post. I have a guest waiting patiently in the wings, but on Friday I’m delighted to say I’ll be driving up to Kendall to read with my hero Kim Moore at the Brewery Poets; on Saturday, I have promises to keep, and though I’ll certainly be knackered, I mean to be at the Poetry Business in Sheffield for a day’s writing. And on Sunday I’m off to the prize-giving for the Red Shed poetry competition, and listening to all the winning poems as well as seeing Maria Isakova Bennett who judged it. So the Sunday post may be delayed.

In the meantime I’ll be trying to set up some launch events for my new pamphlet. Did I not mention that? Perhaps I can keep quiet sometimes. It’ll be out in June. I’ll tell you more about it later. Quietly. Well, fairly quietly.


Advice to a Traveller 723