the company you keep


True stories

Violent and vulgar as the Krays comes Zeus,

a white bull, miasmic with testosterone,

or in a shower of gold or a flurryof wings

and swansdown.


The whole pale mortal world

just asking for it.

A bit of blood and bruising.

No harm done.


Roman Ovid knew blood clogs scabbards,

stiffens  nets,

knew the blue-white shine of bone,

the gristly wet noise of a boy

spitted on a hunting spear.


Years and reverence

bleached greek myths white and silent,

censored severed hands and torn-out tongue,

the loud incontinent reek of death.

As if hyacinths, pale anenomes,

the liquid silver song of nightingales

would atone, somehow.


Birds and flowers and cold, bright stars –

archers, hunters, bear and plough.

Simpler, and more godlike,

to prick holes in the fabric of night,

let bits of heaven shine through.


Writers are always being asked: ‘where do get your ideas from?’ . I think that’s a harder question than: ‘why do you write poems?’ My answer to that comes in two parts. One is pragmatic: because poems are short. The other is that I can’t write stories. Novelists invent. Particularly, they invent characters; once they’ve invented the who of a story, the what and the when and the why have to follow from that. There’s something godlike about great novelists. And I can’t do it. This is winging it, but which poets do  you know who invent charcters in the way that novelists do? Dramatic monologues come to mind, but they live in the edgelands between poetry and drama. I think.

When I think about where poems come from, then it’s almost invariably from other poets. Certainly from ‘books’. They may be about what I know, what I’ve lived, but to become ideas they have to be turned into words, and most of mine come from books. We learn from the company we keep. Now, for years and years I didn’t write poetry. I taught it, and was fixated by the unacknowledged belief that poems have their existence on the page, that they are written artefacts. I nearly moved away from this notion when I realised that ‘The Waste Land’ made perfect sense when it was performed (thanks to an LP of Robert Speight reading T S Eliot that I found in dusty stock-cupboard), but still persisted in keeping poetry visual, on the page.

Later (much too late) when I moved into working in Primary Schools, and particularly with and for Key Stage One I was forced into the understanding that, at its root, poetry is oral. On the principle of ‘promises to keep’ I’ll dedicate a post to this in about 6 weeks time. Order your copy now. But while I was hooked on ‘the page’ there were always go-to poems to trigger/coerce children’s writing. Keith Douglas: ‘Vergissmeinicht’ (the dust upon the paper eye), Ted Hughes’ ‘Season songs’ (The chestnut splits its padded cell/it opens an African eye)…for the sharply focussed visual image; William Stafford ‘Incident on a journey’ …for the ‘do you remember?’ exercise; and always in school anthologies, Norman MacCaig: ‘I took my mind a walk’. And always and always, the aim was to have children write poems, when what they needed was to read them aloud and learn them by heart and show off with them. Ah well.

Here’s where we get back to the promise I made to talk about myths and why they have found their way into my writing, and what they have made me confront or discover, or admit. And MacCaig. A bit roundabout this, but I became more and more aware in poetry workshops (ah, The Poetry Business!) that I was falling into a default line and rhythm (mainly iambic blank-ish verse) and a default narrative way of writing. It was nice when someone told me I had a recognisable ‘voice’ , but you don’t want to be playing the same tune for the rest of your life. Well, I don’t. So I went to MacCaig to try in his company to learn something about ways of telling with short lines, varied lines, shorter poems. I read two MacCaig poems every morning for months. Aloud. Working my way through the house-brick of his ‘Collected Poems’, I think I began to hear his thinking, the way each line did its job; and I fell into his comfortable familiarity with the characters of Greek and Roman myth, the way they were companions to his thought, to his watching and listening. This sent me back to ‘The God beneath the Sea’ and its brilliant conceit of the Greek myths as a chronological narrative, told to Hephaestus by the nymph Euronyme who catches him when his mother, Hera, hurls him, newborn, from heaven for being malformed. Cared for by Thetis and Euronyme in the grotto under the sea, they tell him the story of where he came from when his nightmares of falling trouble his sleep. The why of the why of the why… I love it.

It’s interesting to tackle the business of translation, the retelling of stories, and since it would make no sense to invent a myth, it’s also very tempting. There’s a visceral gusto in Ted Hughes’ muscular, sexy, sensual, tactile translations of Ovid, and you can feel just how much he relished those long lines, all those hexameters. Ovid was where I went next. It’s all about the company you keep. In a chance email converstaion (does that make sense…as though you stumble into an email conversation? something not quite right there. ) Kim Moore happened to mention that she was getting all excited about reading The Metamorphoses (in a plain prose translation) and that it was opening up all sorts of ideas and feelings about the sequence she’s talked about in her own blog, and in her current role as Virtual Poet-in- Residence with the Poetry School Campus. If you’ve not signed up yet, then you should. For her it made connections with the morally and emotionally difficult business of physical and mental abuse. I wanted to see how. Nosey bugger. As it happened, different things happened as I read, and unexpected ones. One was that I conceived a passionate loathing for the Olympic Pantheon which revived the memory of Tony Harrison’s ‘Trackers’ and the flaying of Marsyas the Satyr because of Apollo’s arrogant abrogation of music to himself.  Which resulted in the poem I opened with .

And then there’s a twist. It happens that I’m sitting next to Kim at Poetry business day in Sheffield. There’s a task about finding yourself in a new place. Kim is on a beach under a huge sky full of seabirds whose cries are like memories that cannot stop hurting. I’m at the foot of a dark staircase understanding that the breaking of marriage is a stair into the dark that has to be climbed, in a house you never wanted. I thought of Orpheus. I thought I knew the story, and found it knew me. I still haven’t really got that poem nailed down. But there were others, as though windows had opened and there was a different sort of light. I’ll finish with one of them.Hephaestus. Maybe I should say that for 65 years I walked with something of a rolling limp. Not now. I have titanium hips. I like the Titans as much as I hate Zeus and Hera and Ares.



ugly and lame, whose mother threw

all down the sky, you know how falling feels,

the pluck of the wind a tearing of thorns,

the spheres of heaven turning cobalt, indigo;

tumbled in cumulus, stripped by cirrus,

deaf and dumb with gravity you hurtle

from sleep, wrung out with falling.

You. The shining one,

who they mocked with a name,

with a gift from the sea in a dazzle of foam

and sea-fret lace, trailing a tang of salt,

her eyes remote as a gull’s for you all crooked,

crumpled and cracked like kindling

and soot-smeared from the smithy.

You fashion a filigree girdle, dress it with pearls,

you yearn for a gentle look, and she hammers

broken stars into your eyes.

You forge yourself blackened and burned

and what have you crafted..a cuckold’s horns.

You watched the whole world sink into her lovely loins.

Moony wanderer, Euronyme,

catch me as I fall, lay my head by the soft blue

pulse in the crook of your white arm.

Tell me a silvery story. Sing me to sleep.

Thanks for your company. You’ve put all the chairs straight, the board’s clean, the pens have all been counted. You can go early. Don’t run.

ps. next week I shall be at a writing workshop in Alicante. No teacherly stuff, then. Just a poem.

I said: No Running

And promises to keep

Being congenitally lazy, allied to a fear of starting a job, and to habits of procrastination, I discovered a long time ago that I need to make public promises that X or Y will be done. Add in a deadline, and the fear of breaking a pledge, and I will sit down at the last minute, and somehow get it done. Driven by guilt. Of course, this means that a piece like this will rarely be as orderly as the elegantly rhetorical pieces that come so clearly in the mind a nanosecond before you wake up.

So what have I promised? That I will share a poem by Gaia Holmes, and that somehow I will talk about myth and poetry. So, Gaia first. I love both her collections: Dr James Graham’s Celestial bed (2006) and Lifting the piano with one hand (2013) …both published by Comma Press. I tried to explain to myself what it was that I recognised as Gaia’s distinctive voice. Jane Draycott talks about the point where the poem detonates. I find that incredibly helpful when I’m trying to see why this or that poem isn’t working, isn’t taking off. With Gaia’s stuff, I’m put in mind of Chemistry lessons in the blissfully pre-Health and Safety 1950’s, when to demonstrate the meaning of the word crepitation a teacher would toss a slack handful of crystals (potassium?) into a sinkful of water and stand well back. Gaia’s poems do that, in line after line. Multiple detonations like dangerous Rice Krispies. And because many of her poems are about separation and loss of love or lovers, sometimes tender and sometimes vengeful,sometimes wistful and sometimes heartbreaking, they take me into dark woods and lose me. Folk tales. No getting away. Here’s her poem that I said, last week, that I wanted to change (slightly).

Road salt

Snow falls plumply, prettily,

whites out the dog-eared leavings

of Christmas,

dolls-up the ragged end of January,

mutes the road between us

with its whispering glamour

and we’re stuck –

you in the East and me in the West

with miles too thick and deep to cross


and, once again,

without you, I fall asleep

listening to the frost

patterning the insides of my windows,

laquering the edges of my bed.


If I could

I would send you

seal-skin boots and brandy.

I would send a sledge

and a savvy husky to guide you

across the blinded miles,


but instead I go out

into the bright, dumb darkness

with my pockets full of road salt,

toss it to the night

like chicken feed,

try to melt myself

a path to you.


I hope you’re like me, snagged and reeled in by listening to frost, thinking of its laquering, and being out in the bright, dumb dark. But I did want to change that ‘chicken feed’ to something like ‘breadcrumbs’. Because I bring my own luggage to a poem, and I’m in a folktale world of snow and lost girls, and chickens make me think of Baba Yaga and her  house on hen’s legs. And chicken feed takes me in a different direction from the one that I’m pulling towards like a demanding child.                            Anyway, that’s a promise kept. Thank you for letting me share your poem, Gaia.                                                                                                                                                                   Now I have to somehow get from folktales to myth and thence to goodness knows where. It was all clear when I started. Or just before I woke up.

When I was a lecturer in Primary English at Bretton Hall I had to make sure my students could go out there and ‘deliver’ (yes, that’s the kind of language that’s used in the world of Mr Gove and his ilk) the Literacy Hour, which requires, inter alia, that young children are taught about folktales, legends and myths. I think that comes in one term, and then they move on to greater things. So my students had to understand it first. I relied heavily on a transcript of a lecture given in Leeds by Marina Warner (I hope I’ve got that right) in which she essentially defines Myth as the stories of the gods, Legends as the stories of heroes, and Folktales as the subversive stories of the people. My take on this was to see that myths are about why the world is at is, about creation, about mortality, about the amazing gift of fire, about the archetypal flood. How was the world created? Why do we have to die? Why do we have language? Why, of all creatures, can we manage fire? These stories are the oldest, and they are oral stories. When the Greeks wrote them down they turned them white and silent. Legends are aristocratic, naturalistic and courtly; they have plots (though I guess Robin Hood lives in the edgelands of legend and folktale); they are, I think, irreversibly literary. The folktale world is ,I think, that of a plucky underclass of giantkillers and orphans. At all events, its winners start off poor.

Something just popped into my head, or tugged at my sleeve. Tons of great films have been made retelling legends. Jason and the Argonauts, Robin Hood, William Tell, King Arthur. And the Western made its own legends. They make great movies, legends do. But whoever made a great film about a myth? Or of a myth? I bet this new movie about Noah will make my point for me. Films of folk tales? There are some great animations, I think, and I’ll have to think about Angela Carter. Not now, though. There have been some horrible films of late that riff on folktales, but always seem to make them into jokes or CGI nasties. Pan’s Labyrinth ? Or does that take us off into the realm of fairy tales and fantasy and horror films? Tell me what you think. Fairy tales make good films, no question. But I’m just trying to reflect on why it’s myth and folk-tale that find their way into my poems, but not legends. Mm.

When in a hole, stop digging. Myth…that’s what I said I’d do. In 1970 Ted Hughes gave a lecture at the Exeter Children’s literature in education conference. It was called ‘Myth and Education‘. He reflects on the fact that while Plato couldn’t be doing with poets in his Republic, he thought it essential that young children, before they were old enough for a formal education, should know the great myths. Hughes argues that this is because without an education in imagination we can never be fully human. I’d like Mr Gove to be forced to learn the whole transcript by heart. And then to be sacked. If we want to understand what it is to be human we need myth. We need to hear it. We need storytellers. We need to constantly dream the world or it will die as we sleepwalk into the limbo of getting and spending.

Which myths dream me? Because of that wonderful book The god beneath the sea [Garfield and Blishen..illustrated by Charles keeping] ….and unforgiveably, out of print…. I find myself in the stories of Hephaestus, Promethues, Daedalus and Icarus, Orpheus, Demeter and Persephone, Pandora …those, especially. So here’s another promise. I’ll post a poem next week where I found one of these stories telling me what a significant moment in my life meant. And maybe why the squabbling bullies of Olympus make me so angry. But to finish this week, here’s a poem that came out of a 5 minute workshop task at the Poetry Business in Sheffield on Saturday, and without any thought on my part, it ended with something I threw into a ramble about folktales last week.

The uses of Literacy

(for Richard Hoggart)

‘The Daily Herald’. That went, long ago,

like ‘The Batley Reporter’ –

(both left-leaning, doomed) –

them and the outside lavatory

we shared with the three Armitage sisters,

all tiny and pinafore-d like Beatrix Potter mice.


In winter, the wooden toilet seat,

scrubbed all-year-round with non-conformist zeal,

and never dry, would wink

like diamante ballroom frocks.

Newspaper to sit on, or you frosted fast.


The tang of Dettol, coal-smoke;

damp newsprint that smelled like parsnips.

A little Kelly lamp against the cistern’s freezing up;

a library of squares of paper on a nail.

The sisters took ‘The news of the World’.

Tantalising. Scandalous.


…..shapely red-haired Walsall

housewife, Moira kershaw (43)

broke down in tears when

recounting her terrible ord….


Breathing grey, I learned to read between the lines

to fill in gaps, imagine worlds

that could have been ordained or ordinary,

and came to understand that sentences have full stops.

And stories don’t.


Thank you for your forbearance (oh, just one thing. There were 30 pencils on my desk when we started. No-one leaves till they’re all counted back in)