A way with words


A few years ago, someone on ‘Desert Island Discs’ chose OS maps for his ‘book’…not just one, and not just the whole of England, Wales and Scotland, but a notional set of the whole world. And I thought: ‘Yes!’ I knew just what he meant. I love OS maps. The first time I flew in a plane (1981, Manchester to Belfast. Not the best time to go to Northern Ireland) I was spellbound a) by the fact of flying. Actually flying. The way you could leave the ground and stay up; b) by seeing that the maps were right. That what you could see out of the window was actually what the maps said you should see. I still haven’t got over it. Or over the fact that the maps were drawn without flying. How do they do that? Nothing short of miraculous.

Before I had new hips fitted, there were years when I couldn’t actually walk very far. Ten miles was a struggle, and then five, and then three…and then, finally, one. So I used to sit with maps of, say Upper Wharfedale, or South Skye, and imagine walks. You could figure out where it would be boggy, or hard-going and steep. You could stand on the top of a moor or a ridge and visualize what you could see. You could go everywhere, and not get lost. In practice, of course, it doesn’t quite work like that. Like the time on Skye when a large lochan seemed to have mysteriously vanished. It simply wasn’t where the map said it should be. Of course, it was. It became quite obvious when I got to the edge of a steep long drop. There it was, at the bottom. I’d just not paid proper attention to contour lines. I cannot understand why people are willing to give up their route finding to satnavs. How do they know where they’ve been, or how they got to where they are? Maybe it’s an age thing. But I stick to my maps.

Which leads me to thinking about how folks found their way when there were no maps. There were lovely speculative fictive maps, like the Mappa Mundi…but you would have to find your way to Hereford to look at it, and it still would be absolutely no use at all. And what if you were going where there were no well-found roads? I’m speculating myself, now, but just think…you ask someone how to get from a to b. At one time, if you were in a town, the reference points would be pubs. As Anthony Costello remarked when he gave a pub full of poets directions to the Kava cafe in Todmorden…it’s opposite Lidl. The times they are a changing. What happened to ‘The cock and bottle’, ‘The Duke of Devonshire’? Ah well. But, between towns and villages and hamlets?

I think it must have been done by names. I think that the names of places paint a picture, give directions. John Hillaby, in his wonderful book ‘A journey through Britain’ describes his distress at discovering the meaning of the word ‘larach’ in his OS map of part of the Western Highlands. It means ‘a place’. It means that it once had meaning; it once was populated or inhabited. Now it isn’t anything. Not even a proper memory. It doesn’t rate a symbol. A place. It’s never left me. I wrote a poem for it, and my new chapbook is called Larach (pub. Wardwood, December this year). It’s an oxymoron. The name of a place should tell you more. It should be helpful. I want to know what the names of places mean, so they should mean something. Let me explain.

If you drive from Shipley to Skipton you travel from Saxon to Norse. Both places are where sheep were grazed. Two similar, but different, languages. That tells you something. Now, I grew up in a street of houses built for mill workers. Pearl Street. The adjoining streets were Emerald Street, Ruby Street…a treasure house of a neighbourhood. Not surprisingly, this was totally misleading. I sometimes wonder at the warped inventiveness of the namers of streets, of the avenues and crescents in new housing developments…all the Grasmeres and Windermeres and Wharfedales and Braemars. There must people in planning departments who think them up. Where I lived there were streets named after battles (like Trafalgar Street and Jutland Street). In the older slums there were Yard No. 1, Yard No.2. No romancing or fancy there. But so many of them have no connection with the land or its use. Which makes the ones that do so much more precious. Like Tenterfields, on the Burnley road near Mytholmroyd, where Ted Hughes grew up. Have you ever been on tenterhooks? There’s a clue. Or Thrum Hall in Halifax. Near Gibbet Lane. Now we know what we’re talking about. They tell a story, names like this. I said last week that I’d riff on Calderdale placenames. So I will. (But, in passing, point out that Calderdale is not only home to Ted Hughes, and intermittently to Branwell Bronte, but also to the poets Gaia Holmes (my inspiration), Char March, Simon Zonenblick, Anthony Costello, and Clare Shaw…who, as I write, should have arrived in St Ives (surrounded by places with ‘pol’ in the name, and many with Z’s) to run a residential course with Kim Moore (my inspiration), and good luck to them both….


Last week we had Simon Zonenblick’s ‘Slitheroe Bridge’, which plays games with a false etymology. Before I forget, I should say that place names are no sure and certain guide. Slitheroe has nothing to do with slithering. My part of Batley was Carlinghow, and I still don’t know how that breaks down. ‘How’..well that’s a hill. ‘Carr’…a marshy woodland. ‘Ing’…people. That would give me, the place of the people of the marshy woodland by the hill. It would make sense, too. The topography would be right. But Wikipedia says it’s derived from ‘Carlin’ which could be a witch or a hag, or a commoner. Wikipedia goes for colourful: The witch’s hill’. I don’t believe it. I want to go for the description that would tell me I was in the right place. Go to Carlinghow, and then head up the hill and up another hill to Morley (the marshy settlement). Still, I should stick to the plan; Calderdale, that’s the plan.

Calder. Could be a problem. It’s Norse, but folk argue about whether it means ‘swift water’ or ‘stony river’. But it doesn’t much matter, because it’s going to be a deepcut river in a fairly steep-sided valley. A lot of places in the valleys of the Calder, the Hebble and the Ryburn have reliable names. There’s a horrible irony about Mixenden. A mixen was a rubbish tip..and also a sewage tip. Up at the end of the ‘den’ or pastureland. Where the rubbish and worse was carted from the town of Halifax, and dumped. They built a council estate up there, in that pleasant valley. It ended up as the place of last resort for ‘problem families’. I hope none of them are into placename etymology. But on we go. A dene is a small valley, usually an open river valley. A clough is as it sounds. A steep-sided valley. ‘Clough’ is derived from the same root as ‘cleave’ and ‘cleft’. Dene and den are open. Clough is hard and tight. You see where the poetry starts to grow. Thwaite is meadowland. There are words that tell you what trees you would have expected to find. ‘Birk’ is birch. There’s a place called Ling Bob where I used to go to tell stories at the Primary School. It’s actually Hollin Bob..it just got elided over time. There would have been a significant stand of hollies there at one time. You can head off to Illingworth from there. ‘Worth’ is an enclosed piece of land. Go careful. They might not care for trespassers. Or sheep stealers.

Let’s go up the valley that used to be full of pubs owned by long-defunct breweries, through Luddenden and Mytholmroyd, taking notice of hows and cloughs, and royds, towards Todmorden (an open valley pasture, maybe a bit on the marshy side, and possibly home to foxes), until we get to Hebden Bridge, and then go right, up and up until we get to Heptonstall, where the road runs on to the moor top, and shortly, cut off to the left and slant down the hillside track to Lumb Bank. That steep valley filled with lumbs –mill chimneys –pointlessly standing among the sycamores, and the pink, sour-smelling balsam that came all the way from the Himalaya, as seeds hitching lifts in bales of cotton heading for the cotton mills..some of the last, east of the Pennines. Sit on the terrace of Ted Hughes’ old house and look down into dark valley. Go when the light’s fading. Think about the orphans. I’m not telling you any more.

So I’m thinking

of Ted Hughes’ gritstone house,

that tunnel of a yard, it’s slippery flags;


of that valley of cold chimneys

knee-deep in brown leaf-litter,

an abandoned artillery

firing blanks at a Pennine moon


of the abrasions of time passing,

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

to the soundtrack of years, the long, long

sustain of a cello, circling these cloughs

of defunct  chapels, mills and breweries,

Hammonds, Duttons, Websters, thin and bitter,


of all my Methodist aunts and uncles,

Leonard especially, whose drink

was Water Bright, from the Crystal Stream

of the Pledge he signed, aged six,


and of this film in Japanese I saw

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

down to the very last one, the cannibal,

shot through stubble-smoke, by farmers

burning off the fields, clearing the last of war

that ended when I was two

and still isn’t done, 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 the sycamores and lumbs.


No telling where following place names may take you. Now, for the next two weeks I shall be without wifi, and there will be no cobweb posts. I shall be in Ord, on the Isle of Skye, where hills are bheinns, where beag is little, and mhor is big, inver is a rivermouth, camus is a beach or a shore, nish is a headland, ach is a field. Rather beautifully, drum is a wave, and also a ridge or spine . The Pennines are like that, the crest of a great long wave. Drum. I shall look across Loch Eishort of an evening and see the Clearance sites of Boreraig and Suishnish, and so many places that are now only larach. Somedays you see Boreraig, and half an hour later, you don’t.


I shall miss you. Maybe I’ll bring new poems back with me.



as the leaves to the trees, and first line nerves


What is it about portraitists  and poets ….that default pose of prophetic pensiveness? Less so with photographers, I suppose, but painters just can’t help themselves. I think that they think that they’re immortalising visionaries, all tremblingly open to the arrival of the Muse in a whisper of flame and plumage. What I see is the blank-eyed terror of the creature in the headlights. It’s very layered, isn’t it, that apparently youthfully-dismissive line of Keats? ”If poetry doesn’t come as naturally as the leaves to the tree then it had better not come at all.” Something like that. Think on, though. You can’t force a poem to be, can you? And meanwhile, there’s that screen or that sheet of blank accusing paper.

The empty page. I got the germ of this post from a recent post from Josephine Corcoran…it was about her trusty fountain pen, and boy, did it attract some responses! It struck me just how fussy I am about getting myself in the way of writing anything. I’m a pen and paper person. I don’t compose on a screen usually (though I seem quite happy to be writing this straight on to the screen; maybe that’s because it’s a sort of rambling essay, and I can go with the flow) and I certainly don’t write the first drafts of poems on a screen. Or in pencil..maybe, because that seems just too provisional and uncommitted. There’s nothing provisional about ink. Oh, and the pen and the paper have to get on well together. For years and years I would only write on unlined A4 paper, with a stainless steel Parker fountain pen. And only EVER in black ink. Don’t you agree: A5 and blue ink/biro make you think, inexorably, of Basildon Bond?…you couldn’t be writing poems on that. But then I dropped the pen and bust the nib (fine point, by the way…more friction, cleaner line, more fluency for less effort) and replacements wouldn’t wear into the smoothness of line I loved. Then I discovered Stabilo fine point felt-tip pens, and have stuck with them ever since. They are beautiful. Recently I have stopped writing only in black, and gone all frivolous with dark greens and browns and port-wine reds. I make my own notebooks…A4…and for some reason, I switched to lined paper. Maybe it was because I could buy stocks of ready-folded, lined A3 and it was easier to measure up the spaces for the kettlestitching. That’s where we are at the moment. A4 lined notebooks, fine-point Stabilo pens and a range of subdued colour. Sad innit? It’s like footballers and their lucky underpants/socks/bobble hat. But I swear I can’t settle to writing poems without the right gear.

So, here we are. Sitting at desk. Radio 2 (I can’t think in silence or in noise that’s interesting).Coffee. Notebook(s). The right kind of pen. Workshop notes in another lot of notebooks…draft poems have to have their own notebook. And a blank page. And………………

I hear the whisper of the dying Kurtz . The horror……the horror……..And tell me, all you poets, why should that be? Perhaps for you it isn’t. But it is for me. Why not just start writing, anything, anything at all, no matter what?

(At this point I wander off, downstairs, into the garden.)

(And, after some unspecified time, I wander back)

Right. Where was I? Shouldn’t go deadheading geraniums in the middle of a cobweb ramble. But it is all soft and golden and Keatsian outside. Ah, yes. I know where I was. Before I even read Josephine Corcoran’s cobweb post, someone else had planted an idea firmly in the front of my mind, and it won’t go away. Thank you, Mimi Khalvati. This is roughly what she said:

The first line of the poem contains the DNA of that poem.

It deserves its attention-demanding space, does that. She had said a lot of other incisive things in her workshops, about line  and stanza breaks, and the tricks they play, but this is the one that shouldered its way to the front of the queue. It made me think of the first sentences of novels. Bleak House, for instance:

‘ London.’

That’s the sentence. That’s where we are, and as sure as eggs is eggs, that’s where we’ll spend a good deal of time. Why write it, otherwise? Then, first sentence of paragraph two:

‘Fog everywhere’.

Well, we’re not going to be in a world of moral or topographic certainty, now are we? Dickens is committed, and so are we. An even more disturbing first sentence,I think, is in D.H.Lawrence : The Rainbow. Here it is:

‘The Brangwens had lived for generations on the Marsh Farm’.

If that doesn’t make you shiver involuntarily, then you’re not listening; because they’re not going to live unchanged and comfortable for very much longer are they? Changes are coming, and they are hardly likely to be comfortable ones, otherwise the novel will very soon end.

‘The Brangwens had lived for generations on the Marsh Farm, and because they had the hang of it and were quite happy, they went on living like that.’

That’s not got legs, has it? But just try to think your self into David Herbert’s head, looking at the blank sheet, and dreading writing that first sentence, because he knows that once he’s done it, his feet are set on the track, and he’s handed over all sorts of freedom and choice, for thousands and thousands of words. Who’d be a novelist, eh?

And then I started to think: but it’s even more critical in a poem, isn’t it, because there’s nowhere to hide. You’ve got maybe 10 – 20 lines, and you’ve got to grab your reader, and you’ve got to surprise and intrigue, and you daren’t give the game away too soon, and anyway, you don’t know what the game is till it’s over and you’ve lost or won. And then I began to think: it’s not even the first line. It’s worse than that. It’s actually the first word. Unusually, I started to make notes, scribble ideas, knock together a list…all very speculative, but it’s what I’m going to share if you can spare me the time. Comfortable? Here we go. What I’m going to do is work through the word classes (I know that they used to be called ‘parts of speech’ but actually they’re not…they’re parts of sentences. Of course, if you’re 10 years old, or a Primary teacher, then you are a graduate of the Literacy Hour, and you already knew that). Let’s see where we get to.



You will notice there’s just been an empty space. It is significant and symbolic. There’s been a two day gap, while I tried to make up my mind whether it was worth carrying on. Not existentially..just carrying on with this cobweb post. Thinking too precisely on the event. Prevaricating. That sort of thing. Is it going to work? have you thought this through? who wants to know, and why would they and hasn’t it all been said before and isn’t it all just a bit prententious? That sort of thing. Sod it. Here goes.

It’s all about syntax. English is all about word order, and poetry loves to play around with that to see what happens. So what’s the first bit of word language we handle? What’s the bit you learn first in a foreign language. Nouns. (And ‘that one’). As we say to the children: a noun tells you what the sentence is about. So how often is a noun the first word in any of your poems? What I did at this point was open Norman MacCaig’s Collected Poems at random (in a sequence from the late 1970’s as it happens) and copy the first lines of 30 consecutive poems. How many start with a noun? Four. That’s more than I expected:

Travelling’s fine – the stars tell me that

Everywhere place names          

Petitions pour into the Big House            

Reality isn’t what it used to be

Now, what strikes me is that they’e actually interesting nouns BUT the lines all sound more like titles than first lines…or that they’d make great titles. It’s what nouns do. And what comes along with nouns? Determiners, that’s what. (At this point I can hear the hot breath of former pupil and university lecturer in Linguistics, Anthea Fraser Gupta, on my neck…but I’ll press on and damn the consequences). You might not call them that, but they are all those useful/necessary little words…..a/the/those/this/my/her/many/ three(or any number word) and the rest. Now, how often is one of these the first word? MacCaig again:

The last word this one spoke                

That sun ray has raced to us            

That cold man with bad poems            

That green alone                                                                                                                                

The dunnock in the hedge                 

The countless generations                     

A cubic inch of some stars  

It gets me thinking. It seems that MacCaig is likelier to say ‘that’ than ‘this’ (but don’t hold me to that!) ; he’s certainly drawn to the assertive ‘that’, and ‘that’ carries more baggage than ‘the’ doesn’t it?  ‘The‘ is uncompromising too, of course. It knows where it is . The Brangwens. The pig lay on the barrow dead. ‘A‘ is always going to sound more tentative, more abstract, less assertive.. But whichever you choose will be followed by a noun or a noun phrase. English syntax makes sure of that. You’re going to play your hand early in the poem with a noun, determiners or not. Is that what you want? Mind you, we were wise enough to invent words that would do instead of nouns, and save us a lot of repetition. Pronouns, clever little workhorses. he/she/I/they/them/you/me….they can’t all be the first word in a poem, unless you’re being really subversive, but which do you favour? MacCaig at random, again.

They sit at their long tables                

You have to be stubborn             

You have more nicknames than legs         

I think of Lycidas, drowned     

I feel miserable, acting                                                            

I see an adder    

I like the almost perceptibles         

I thought they needed no Women’s Lib             

I don’t want to shuffle in a Greek theatre

This list surprised me. All those ‘I‘s’. You have to feel pretty sure of yourelf to get away with that,don’t you? Or have been steadily published for 30 years like MacCaig was then. Whatever, you have to be reflective, in some way or another, and I’m sort of suspicious of a poem starting with ‘I‘. Maybe it’s an English thing. ‘You’ is more interesting, because of the ambiguity..maybe it’s a way of avoiding ‘I’…a quick way of pretending objectivity. He/she/they are good because they are, however minutely, suspenseful; the reader is forced to read at least a bit more to find what they refer to. They don’t give the game away.

What about verbs, which tell you what’s happening in the sentence. How often is the first word of a poem a verb (not nouns like running, thinking, singing)? Odds on it’ll be a directive, an an instruction. MacCaig:       Stop looking like a purse.    That’s the only one, and it’s from my favourite toad poem. I just had second thoughts. It doesn’t have to be  a directive, does it. It could be a question, a request. Can (I)? May (I)? Might….? Or it could be sort of tentative: Let (me/us). Need to think about that. About the only one I found in my own stuff was      Listen.  Why should that be? I don’t know. If you have thoughts on this, then please share them.  Similarly, adjectives. Only one instance in my random MacCaig survey. Heartless, musical Ariel. Hard to manage an adjective as a first word.

Now then, the next bit’s slightly more complicated, so I’m going to bundle up a number of things together, and think about adverbials and adjectivals. Single words, and chunks…..phrases, clauses. I’ll be thinking about connectives at the same time. I’ve noticed that more and more of late, one of these three words will be the first in a first draft, and, often, in the nonstop of a workshop exercise I’ll start with  and   /    but   /    so. Really handy for cracking on , but also dangerously addictive. They give me a false sense of security and a spurious air of cocky self-confidence; they seem to say: ‘no need to introduce myself. I know you’ll be interested, because here I am in the middle of this fascinating stream of consciousness, and how could you not want to join me?’ As in

So I’m thinking of Ted Hughes’ gritstone house/ that tunnel of a yard, its slippery flags

which implies: ‘ you should be thinking: why’s he thinking of that? gosh, I simply have to find out’. Bingo. Am I seeing it more often in other people’s poetry? I’m not sure..but it’s catching. I’m certainly seeing lots more list poems these days and, as a consequence, lots more lines beginning with ‘and’. I sometimes wonder if everyone has done at least one workshop exercise based on Walt Whitman’s ‘Prayer for those who…..’ Oops….. I see I’m starting to go off-piste. Sure sign I should be stopping soon. OK. Adverbials, which tell us more about the verb. The where and the when and the how and the why…the warp and weft of narrative. Last bits of MacCaig, then:

Where the small burn /runs into the sea          

From its distance         

Though I’m in sunlight          

Under the broad flat stone        

When her life broke into smithereens                  

Everywhere places/ jut up  ( I know we’ve had this before, but the nice thing about words is that they do more than one kind of job. All grammars leak, said Edward Sapir, the linguist)




You could make a longer list, but the point is that they all start  longer, more complex sentences or trains of thought or lists. I think I’m always more comfortable writing any of these as a first word because it will be telling me that I have an idea in mind, and at least for a couple of lines I know where I’m going. It’ll let me know I’m going to write a story, or create a landscape, or explain someting, or have an argument. And that, I think, is what I’ve understood of Mimi Khalvati’s numinous phrase. The first line of a poem contains the DNA of that poem. If it doesn’t, it shouldn’t be the first line.

Now, none of this is of any use when you’re doing a first draft (and in any case you might be better off just writing unpunctuated prose and leaving all the fiddly stuff for later). I think what Mimi Khalvati has done for me is give me new tools in the tool bag. Redrafting tools. Reading tools. Evaluating tools. None of them stop the empty page looking any less daunting, and none of them will give you anything to say. Neither will staring at an empty page. What we all need first is to get out and do stuff and read stuff. Which is what I shall now do. I have a big piece of kit which turns the branches of pruned trees and bushes into little bits. I shall make mulch.

Who knows. I might even follow my own advice and a have a cobweb break for a week or two. Go and read stuff. Go and do stuff.

Just thought. I never mentioned ‘Maybe’  Of late, I’ve found myself starting first lines with ‘maybe’. Forget the gardening and write a new poem? Maybe.

Thanks for your time and company. See you later.