The ‘S’ word… apochryphal prohibition [ being a defence of Peter Sansom ]

I was but recently in Alicante, scrambling up an unfeasibly dusty, thorny, stony hot hill to the foot of a cliff where, we were assured, we would find fragments of pottery, the 2000 year old detritus of an original Iberian settlement. And so we did. Lots and lots of broken pots. The view was amazing, too…….hundreds of miles of Roman and Moorish terracing contouring each and every hill, off into the distance.

Imagery, history, narrative, sculpture….and poetry. Ah….poetry and broken pots. That brings us to the troubled world of apochryphal quotations. No one actually said  ‘Come up and see me some time’. No one ever said, in a film, ‘Play it again, Sam’. But because everyone thinks that someone said it, then it’s as though someone actually did. History is what people believe…nothing to be done about it, any more than you could eliminate the belief, in parts of Wales, that Churchill ordered English troops to open fire on the striking miners of Tonypandy.

And so, it will always be true (though factually incorrect) that Peter Sansom, one half of the beating heart of the wonder that is The Poetry Business, categorically states (in a book that most people who ‘quote’ from it have never read), that no self-respecting poet should ever, ever, ever use the word ‘shard’ in any kind of poem ever. I suspect that he is occasionally embarassed, if not actually irked, by this. Anyway, standing, hot, awkward, sweating and bleeding, on a pile of broken Iberian earthenware it struck me that this should be confronted. How, I wondered, might it have appeared in a florid piece of Romantic rhetoric. As it turns out, such a thing actually exists. The original is difficult to read from a photograph. This is a transcript.

A Relique.

 From Mare Nostrum’s Anatolian shore,

Ten leagues distant, ‘midst arid, jagged

Mountains, eagle-haunted airie heights,

There stands a tow’ring cliffof golden stone.

If to its rocky foot, with faltering steps,

The dauntless traveller would ascend

By goat path tortuous, through brittle Thorn,

And bitter Dust, as ’twere of Dead Sea Fruit,

Then bloodied, dwarfed beneathe that Precipice dire,

Under his feet appear, among the Root

Of Juniper and Ericacae dessicate,

Fragments of the ancient Potter’s art….

Broken amphorae, rough bowls and goblets

That, for two Millenia, lay spurned

By hoof of goat, scorched by Tropic suns,

Blown at every Winde’s caprice, unheeded

Even as great Empires rose in Pride, then fell.

O! Shattered Reliques of an ancient Race!

And say, how should the Traveller, besmeared

With toil, and foul with cloying dust and blood,

Apostrophize a single piece of all this multitude?

The Replie

Two thousand years it’s lain in dust

on a thorny hill, this broken pot,

waiting patiently for the mot juste

from all the lexicon of crock that poets have got…………………

not fragment, splinter, scrap or shiver,

remnant or chunk or flake or sliver.

Dismiss false prohibitions laid upon the bard.

Some times only one word will do the trick

So, take up your pen, and write it:   SHARD

So there you are. No such thing as never in poetry. Thank you for everything you taught us all, Peter Sansom, recognising false nostrums being among the foremost.

Next week will be about the horrors of the empty page. Make sure you sharpen your pencils. Oh, and go out now to buy  Peter Sansom: Selected Poems [Carcanet]…..available in kindle and paperback. Buy both.


mind the gap: and another (un)discovered gem…Andy Blackford

andy's shark

Those who turn from delusion back to reality,

who meditate on walls, the absence of self, and other,

the oneness of mortal and sage, and who remain

unmoved even by scriptures

are in complete and unspoken agreement with reason’


A windy monastery

higher than clouds care to climb:

Bodhidharma gazes at the wall.

He stares so hard the plaster crumbles.

The wall stares back so long his eyelids droop.

He cuts them off as one might trim a wick

and where they drop spring tea-green shoots

of wakefulness.

For nine years

he gazes on through bloody tears.

The wall will neither blink nor flinch.

Then, one ordinary day,

there is no wall,

there is no Bodhidharma

Last week I posted an article about ‘the oral tradition’ that, smugly, I’d written a good week in advance. And what happens? This week I’m a day late. Mea culpa. But I thought that at least I could start with a bang. The picture and the poem are both experiences way outside my comfort zone. Buddhism and swimming with sharks; ideas yoked together by violence (is that Coleridge on the metaphysicals?)…except they’re not. Somewhere among that team of tiny divers, looking like remora fish against the bulk of that shark, is my friend Andy Blackford, who also happens to have written the poem.

Now, I say ‘my friend, Andy’, and I don’t say it lightly, but I should explain something. I taught Andy when he was a super-smart, clever, cocky, just-this-side of arrogant 6th former in Middlesbrough, round about 1968. He was not only clever and subversive, but good company, and funny. He was also, even then, a pretty good guitarist…he almost, but not quite, persuaded me to feel enthusiastic about Cream.

He went to Oxford to do PPE, and, in about 1973 I met him again in a hotel in Gateshead, on his way to Amsterdam to start (I think) a job in the music industry. Now, I was more than a bit of a left-wing puritan in those days, and, to my undying shame I lectured him on my disappointment that he sought to fritter away his god-given talents on feeding trivia to the masses. (I am relieved to find he does not remember this, but feel in no way absolved).

Anyway, that was it until, after a gap of 40 years, thanks to the wonder that is Facebook, we met again. In May 2013, I went up to Staithes where he has a holiday home and spent a day with him and his wife, Sandra. 40 years simply melted away. Nothing had changed and everything had changed, and all was well.

Last December he emailed me to say that the film director Louis Bunuel had been in the habit of meeting a fellow artist each Monday to exchange and critique a new work of art. He proposed that, via the magic of email we would do the same. We would exchange new poems every week for one year. It would become GAP YEAR. And so we have. We are now into ( I think ) week 40. We had a week off around June, but have made up the omission since. We started awkward and tentative and apologetic, and there was still a residue of that teacher/student relationship. But now we happily give each other’s poems a good kicking, and I was delighted when Andy was able to say of one of mine: Sorry…it does nothing for me. What’s it for? And I was able to say: Absolutely nothing, mate.   And then to bin it. I’m going to give you another poem of his from the Gap Year, sent from his hospital bed when he was having unnerving things done to his heart, and then leave him to speak for himself about himself.

On the blink

Two TV screen flank this clever bed.

One is my Hospimedia.

The news looks bad…the picture’s slashed

by pixellated bands,

the sound is intermittent.

The email has a dodgy keyboard

doubling up one character

deleting three.

The other screen is monitoring me.

It’s picked up nasty habits

from its wayward friend.

The trace that should be docile and predictable

is bucking like a bullock in an abattoir.

Be still my pixellating heart.

With Andy, I never know whether I’m going to get black humour or some unflinching take on a Buddhist’s way of seeing the world. Maybe this biography will go some way to explaining why I expect to be surprised and unsurprised by anything he does or writes. Here he is in his own words ….he writes of himself in the 3rd person. Considering the many lives he’s led, it could be in the 5th or 8th or 13th.

Andy was born in Middlesbrough and spent much of his childhood at Runswick Bay near Whitby. When he was nine, his father built him a small boat, and encouraged him to row it out to sea. After leaving Oxford (St Catherine’s) with a degree in PPE, he disappointed nearly everyone by joining the rock band Spreadeagle.

The band disappointed the record-buying public, despite touring regularly with Genesis and Lindisfarne, and after a period as the editor of a teenybopper fanzine Music Star, he moved to Amsterdam as an A&R executive for Phonogram Records. Returning to London, he became a professional skateboarder, and in his alter ego of Bengt Maelstrom, the editor of Skateboard Scene magazine [Ed:….and that’s not all..]


Later, he met a drunk at at the launch party of The rude food guide, and was so impressed by the drunk’s salary…he was an advertising art director…that he decided to try his hand at copywriting. Armed with a short story, The day Mrs Osmond cried, he landed a job with Lonsdales Advertising (later he discovered this was because the agency band was short of a guitarist). His CV includes creative directorships at Saaatchi and Saaatchi, IMP and Joshua. At Grey, he made the agency famous by persuading the entire staff to to take off their clothes for a publicity shot. In 2003 he became founding partner of KB49, an agency in Covent Garden.

Andy’s friend, the editor and writer Susan Hill encouraged him to write, and he produced books on implausibly disparate subjects, including the the Newcastle R&B band The Animals, and a history of the discotheque. When his daughter was born, he tried his hand at children’s fiction. He won The Independent/Scholastic Children’s Story of the Year competition, and has since produced some 25 books for children, mainly for younger readers. [Ed…..if you have young children it’s odds on they’ve unwittingly encountered Andy’s writing via Oxford Reading Tree]. However, sadly, his main qualifications for immortality may well be the NatWest Piggies savings scheme, and the legendary 80’s advertising campaign for Um Bongo…[still to be heard in parts of the world. um bongo, um bongo; they drink it in the Congo.]

Andy took up distance running to break his smoking habit [counter-intuitive as ever], and for 25 years was columnist for Runner’s World magazine. He has run the Marathon des Sables in the Sahara, and ultra-marathons in Greenland, the Amazon rainforest and the Himalayas. His acclaimed collection of articles Running on empty is available as an ebook. [Exhausted?…there’s more]. For 30 years he had a column in Diver magazine (two more books: Blackford’s Diving Life and Times and Deeper with Blackford). Andy has his own publishing brand, The Littlington University Press …Google it for titles, which can also be found via Kindle. His most recent (Aug.2014) is Twenty cheery tales about death.

Well. He’s now retired from full time work to concentrate on life with his English-teacher wife and daughter in Cambridgeshire, on his rock band 1967 which has played festivals in the UK and Europe, on writing their anti-war single Afghanistan which featured Van Morrison’s musical director Paul Moran, and a 50-strong choir….and so on

The ultra marathon stuff might just contextualise the hospital poem, and the diving magazines the shark photo. But the opening poem? Saving the best till last. Andy is a mitra in the Triratna Buddhist Community, he teaches meditation, and works as a prison Chaplain through the Angulimala Charity.

A couple of weeks  ago I posted about my friend Gyula Friewald, who I met up with for a day’s walking a week last Wednesday. We got horribly hot and scratched and bloody, scrambling to the base of a golden sandstone cliff to find fragments of Iberian pottery, 2000 years old, and we had an easier walk…but still hot…in the afternoon, and Gyula mused on the need for the acknowledgement of Chaos in our lives and the failure of most people, now, in the 21st century, to understand that, because their lives are too chaotic. That kind of conversation for a hot sweaty walk.

A month or so earlier I went on a clifftop walk with Andy and his dog, Merlin. Staithes to Runswick and back..8 miles or so of rockband stories, diving stories, drinking stories, advertising stories, marathon stories, prison stories, buddhism, meditation, children…I count myself more than blessed to have exhausting friends who have lived more lives than the times I’ve stopped smoking. Delighted to be writing a poem a week for and with Andy, and to have him as my undiscovered [sic] gem for this week, albeit a day late.

Now, for 40 weeks I’ve been niggling away at Andy’s penchant for abstractions in his poems…comes of being a Buddhist, I say. But he still blindsides me with reflective, meditative poems quite unlike anything I write, and this makes the weekly exchange more than fascinating.

I’ll leave you with the poem, but before I go, this is just to say I’m having a gap of my own…no posts for two weeks, while I do some reading and thinking, and stock up with gems and walks and friends and things worth saying. See you in a couple of weeks. Now, big hand for ……..Andy Blackford!!!!!!


Some memories are too sweet to drink –

even sipping them is like self-harm.

And yet we’re drawn to dwell on what we’ve lost

in case the recollection might retrieve it.

If so, we can expect a rough reunion:

the pain is in the pleasure, indivisible.

Remembering is like a lizard’s tail

it snaps off in your hand

the living part escaping

in the thicket of the past.

And thanks to Merlin, for showing me the world’s biggest rabbit hole.


Video killed the radio star

Well, it’s a grey rainy bank Holiday, and I’m writing this so it’ll be all ready when I come back from the Old Olive Press, and tempted to think…didn’t summer use to be, well, summery. But, as Raymond Williams usefully demonstrated * , nostalgias are infinitely regressive. Which is one way of explaining the oblique title of this Sunday’s post. Wasn’t radio supposed to kill reading, put an end to books? And so on. Anyway, I’m writing this in response to a post that Anthony Wilson** put up on his blog recently (I’ve come late to Anthony Wilson, as I come late to most good things, and so I’m relying on the golden oldies from his back catalogue). The one that caught my attention was one about why students say they don’t like poetry.

Now, I think, like he does, that what they’re saying is : they don’t like Poetry, and I think that there are reasons for this that could be laid at the door of teachers (including me), and, a long time before that, Literacy. When I was an English Advisor, I could guarantee that if I visited a Year 5 or a Year 6 class, sooner or later a group of girls (almost always girls) would want to perform something for me, and (almost always) it would be Alan Ahlberg’s Please Mrs Butler. Nobody made them learn it, nobody suggested they learn it, but learn it they did, and performed it to anyone who stopped long enough to be an audience. I learned it, too: Please, Mrs Butler, this boy Derek Drew keeps taking my rubber, Miss what can I do? And then in comes the voice of Mrs Butler, in this brilliant rhyming call and response poem for two voices. I didn’t try to learn it; it just happened slowly, through repetition.

Another memory. When I was Secondary English teacher and form tutor I used to enjoy, enormously, the way (mainly) girls would copy the lyrics of pop songs from ‘Smash Hits’ into their journals and jotters. In coloured felt pen. Why? nobody made them. Why copy them? They could have cut them out and stuck them in. These were kids who would have been indignant if I asked them to copy out Poems. But, of course, these were poems. It’s just that nobody called them that, so it was OK. But why copy them out? Why, to learn them. We can all learn from that. I used to wonder why it was mainly girls. I think…I think it’s because then (and I don’t know about now) girls’ play was more collaborative than boys’, and that collaboration was sustained, in part, by poetry. Don’t get me wrong…I’m not pushing a nostalgic view of childhoood, but I was 16 when the Opies’ ‘Lore and language of schoolchildren’ was published in 1959, and a lot of the playground rhymes,  for  counting-out and skipping and ball-bouncing, were still alive and well in the 60s as my own children were growing up. I’m not too worried if they’ve been displaced by whatever advertising jingle or popsong has been appropriated and subverted by today’s children. It’s all part of the long revolution.

Literacy has a curious and occasionally disturbing history. For how long was it the monopoly of the church? And then a shared monopoly with the ruling elites? There was no universal literacy before the invention of cheap mass print technology and universal education. And even then, a peer of the realm in the 19th century, debating the education of the labouring classes, conceded that they needed to be taught to read, because they would need to read instructions (about the management of machinery, for instance), but there was no point in teaching them to write, because they would never issue any.

So where’s this taking us? This isn’t a scholarly affair…I’m just saying, without any originality, that poetry is older than prose because it’s older than reading and writing. Its heart and soul is rhythm, and the point about rhythm is that it’s patterned and repetitive. Children teach us this, but I wonder if we listen hard enough.What did rhythm help people to do for thousands of years before writing? It helped them, through songs and chants, to work collaboratively, to move huge loads, raise sails, keep straight lines in planting and harvesting fields. It helped them to celebrate with continuity the important things like birth and death and marriage. It gave them communal memories through the stories of victories and defeats, floods, fires, famines, and myths and legends. If these couldn’t be written down, then they had to be memorised. Stories had to be memorisable as well as memorable. Which is why we needed rhythm and repetition (just like times tables) and then the clever invention of rhyme that underscored rhythm and also helped the storyteller to remember the next line. The Odyssey, and Beowulf, had to be memorised. As did the parts of the Miracle Plays performed by artisans, not scholars.

Poetry was a creation of voice and sound and performance, social, collaborative, and democratic. At some point, in our culture at least, it became Poetry, and Private, and individual and exclusive. Of course, the original morphed through broadsheet ballads, and music hall songs, and pop songs and all the rest of the shared, popular, rhyming, repetitive languages we entertain ourselves with, and somehow stopped being poetry and became popular culture. Poets threw a white light on the obscenity of the First World War, while the soldiers subverted hymns and musical hall songs and sang ‘When this lousy war is over’ and ‘We are Fred Karno’s army’ and ‘Hush, here comes a whizzbang’ much as schoolchildren appropriated Charlie Chaplin and Tarzan into older song-patterns, and the Beatles into ‘We three kings’. And no-one wrote it down for them, or made them learn it.

All of this is taking me towards some of the ambivalence I have about my own writing and the things people have said about it, and to thinking about the relationship of Poetry, and stand-up poets, and performance poets, and written and oral poetry, and whether I should worry about it. Why should I bother about T S Eliot’s assertion that poetry exists on the page, when I didn’t understand ‘The Waste Land’ till I heard it being read aloud?

Maybe, here’s where I got conflicted. I started reading poems, publicly, in folk clubs, where poems are often called monologues. I didn’t read my own poems, because I wasn’t writing any. My heroes were John Cooper Clark and Les Barker. I plundered the collections of Pam Eyres and Roger McGough; I did McGonagall, John Hegley (especially Rowena), Marriot Edgar. So long as it was robust, had a narrative line and made people laugh it was fine. If it rhymed, then so much the better. I learned that it helps if there are repetitions and redundancies that give the audience a space to take it all in; ditto, places to pause and let the jokes and surprises work. When I thought I might write my own, it turned out to be a lot harder than it looked. There’s craft in these poems.

If you ever get to see the DVD of  Evidently John Cooper Clark, you’re in for an eyeopener. Clarky is more than happy to say that he learned his trade from Palgrave’s Golden Treasury…and then does an impromptu performance of Henry Newbolt’s Vitae Lampada.…that fantastic piece of Kipling-esque jingo, the desert sand red with the blood of English soldiery, the Gatling jammed and the Colonel dead, and the only thing that will rally them is an English public schoolboy, exhorting the chaps to Play up, play up, and play the game!. This is John Cooper Clark, and he’s being entirely sincere. Think on that.               Well, I gave up going to folk clubs because I started going to poetry workshops, and writing poems that simply didn’t stand up in the way that a folk club audience expect. Started going to poetry readings instead. And started wondering about what makes a poem work in an open mic. Because quite a lot of them don’t. You know the kind of thing I mean…when you don’t know if a poem’s finished or not, because there’s no sign off, like a couplet, or there’s a poem you simply can’t take in because by the time you start to realise it’s started it’s finished, or because there’s no resting place. And often because there’s no context. What I always like in a poet or a singer-songwriter is a bit of a story that places the song or the poem.

I’d love to know what your take is on all this. Somewhere along the line, I found I tended to write anecdotal/narrative poems, and that I had a default rhythm…which was iambic (pentameter). People started to say they recognized my ‘voice’. That was nice, but recently I was knocked sideways by a comment someone made in a workshop session. The criticism was that the poem looked too regular and predictable. It LOOKED too regular and predictable? What does that say about a way of reading poems. I didn’t think it SOUNDED predictable. I thought it had a rhythm any reader could hear. But I’m insecure enough to have spent the subsequent weeks trying to write non-narrative, irregular-looking poems. I’m still wobbly about it, even though the business of the ‘look’ of a poem seems important to some, as does the playing about with terza rima and sestinas which strike me  as being akin to flower-arranging on the Titanic. The clever craft of coteries. Maybe I’m sour because I can’t do them, or if I can, I can’t say anything important that way. See what I mean about ‘conflicted’? Because I’m on record about my love of Metaphysical poetry and Tony Harrison. I think I’ve blogged myself into a cul de sac.

Tell you what. I’ll sneak away under cover of a poem I wrote for Mary Gauthier (it’s pronounced Go-Shay) who I first saw playing a dingy pub gig in Sheffield, and who has finally, years later, made the bigtime breakthrough, and this year played the Grand Ol Opry. And at least I wrote one poem that I can do without any qualms at folkclubs and poetry open mics. And Mary G. likes it. Sorry about the rambling…too many arguments going on. But let me know what you think about on-the-page/read-out-loud poetry. Please.

Shooting Star

a cold autumn night and this cold Sheffield bar

smells of 60watt lighting and yesterday’s beer

and this lady of the shooting stars

is wondering how she came to be here

with her dreamers and thinkers, her junkies and drinkers

the lovers and dancers, the liars, the chancers

the outlaws and angels and whores

in gigs like this in a Thursday night bar,

where the spotlight shines in her eyes.

For a moment she stands there looking lost

or maybe just looking surprised.

Then she unpacks her old blue Taylor guitar

from its scuffed and well-stickered case;

she peers into 60watt distance,

and wonders aloud…says: is this the right place?

She fiddles with tunings, tries a couple of ch0rds;

through the mic. comes her quiet country drawl:

hi. I’m Mary Gauthier, from Louisiana,

come here to sing songs for y’all……

and we’re hitching a ride on a backcountry road

through the landscapes of Mary Gauthier,

a ride through another country.

well., they do things differently there:


bright lights and lost dreams, poets and drag queens,

trailer-trash has-beens, death cells and limousines,

and the angels are falling,

and there’s fire in the fields

and places flash by through the windscreen of songs

like phrases or rhymes half-heard in a dream

Juarez, las Cruces, Prairie du Chien,

Thibodeaux to Raceland…you know what I mean.

And you’re hitching a ride on a southern states voice

that sings cool and clear as the moon,

tho’ it isn’t exactly singing

but more like talking in tune,

one that lingers on sweeet and curdles on sour

holds on to a note like a child plucks a flower

lights on a phrase like a bee on a stem

lets the words run like water held in a cupped palm

or just fades to whispers like a moth in a flame

like the wind in the grasses, like the rain in the pines,

like the hushing of tyres when the wet blacktop shines..

so thanks for your leaving home stories

and the roads you travelled before

and the folks who’ve travelled them with you:

the poets, the dancers, the lovers, the chancers

the angels, the liars, the burned-out high fliers

the drinkers the thinkers the junkies the whores

yeah, thanks for the ride Mary Gauthier,

the journey was over too soon.

I’m still hearing your shootong-star stories,

still singing along to your tune.

There’s a lot of ‘ands’  in that.   I get told that a lot, at workshops.  Poems with too many ‘ands’. That’s me.  There’s a lesson there, somewhere. But do go and listen to Mary Gauthier: especially Drag queens and limousines, and the album that followed it, Filth and fire.

* Raymond Williams: The country and the city [Chatto and Windus. 1973]

** Anthony Wilson’s blog…not to be missed