Quiz results, and a happy accident; a chance meeting with Mr Causley

Just got home from a splendid afternoon at The Red Shed Poetry competition prize-giving in Wakefield. A lovely upstairs room at the Cafe Mocho Moocho (who make exceedingly nice cakes). All sorts of friends there. Jo Peters (2nd Prize), Sandra Burnett (of OWF…publishers of ‘The Garden’ anthology…and her Highly Commended poem), William Thirsk-Gaskell, (who has Walked the Line….Wakefield Post-Code shortlist), and Julie Mellor who judged the comp. and read a stack of her stunning new poems. New voices, too, like the winning poet, Charlotte Ansell. Great. I hope I’ll hear more of her from now on. A lovely afternoon of poetry and readers of poetry..thanks John Clarke and Jimmy Andrex for organising it all for seven years running. It’s paying off at last, lads. Now, to the normal Sunday cobweb business……..

Quiz first. I forgot to post this last week. Apologies to Jayne, Elly, Janet and Derek. No one guessed the Highly Commended one. Three of you picked ‘Pinioned 1’ as the original. Two of you thought ‘Pinioned 2’ was the version written after the poem was submitted. Two of you thought version 3 was the highly Commended one.

Here’s the answer. ‘Pinioned 3’ was the original draft. ‘Pinioned 2’ was Highly Commended. And Number 1 was the final rewrite. Which proves only that it’s all the luck of the draw. I liked the final version best. But now I don’t know. Anyway….thanks for joining in the game. So, to the main event. Tara!

lemn Sissay

This heartening image popped up on my Facebook a couple of days ago, reminding me not only that Lemn Sissay is in the running for the post of Chancellor of Manchester University, but also featured in the first of a number of happy accidents that lead up to the subject of today’s cobweb strand—–who happens to be Charles Causley.

The first time I met Lemn was round about 1988, at a NAWE course for aspiring writers in education; it was held at Lumb Bank, and my part was to pair up Heads of English in my LEA with writers who would spend some time working in Calderdale schools. It was in-sevice for the HoDs, too. Happy days. Another writer/performer on the course, Terry Caffrey and Lemn  became good mates during the week. One of the workshops was run by a poet I can’t remember who suggested that we all write a haiku, for that was a sure-fire way of energising kids in school, and it were well we had it in our armoury. Lemn leaned across me to Terry and whispered : ‘Terry…what’s an haiku’. Terry whispered back: ‘Lemn…it’s a three-legged dog.’ Like I say, I forget whoever it was tutoring the session, but I’ve remembered that.

One upshot of the course was that Terry got a fair amount of work from schools in the authority, and also the job of guest tutor, along with Berlie Doherty for one of the week-long Lumb bank course we used to run for chosen 6th formers from Calderdale schools. And bit by bit we became good friends. Which leads me to:

37_Banbury_Road,_St_Anne's_College,_University_of_Oxford

North Oxford and the Banbury Road, and this house in particular; part of the college that hosted an annual NYU Summer School, and to which I invited Terry to provide one evening’s poetic entertainment. Which he did, to the mixed delight and bemusement of the American teachers of English who found his Liverpool accent and speed of delivery occasionally needed subtitles.

I was very fond of those Summer Schools. The very first Oxford-based one I went to was one August, long ago and far away. I drove there from Dawlish, where I was on a camping holiday. Walked up from the beach (where the seawall fell down last year), 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 immaculately dressed, always 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 behind the big bay window in the picture, all leather chairs and glazed bookcases and ticking clocks and buckram-bound works of biblical exegisis and there was:

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..Mr Charles Cowsly, who read to us for an hour, and told us stories, and generally entranced me. Just to be clear, this was nearly 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. 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 out of 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’.

I think I did; I think I have, despite my abiding affection for ‘Jack the treacle eater’ with its gorgeous Charles Keeping illustrations.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 spent this afternoon at the Red Shed prize-giving, and why I spend part of most Sundays writing about poetry and poets. Thank you Charles Causley.

jack 2

Oh…yes..it’s also the reason I shall be away for eight days on a writing course from next Saturday, so the odds are against cobweb strands being woven for two weeks. In fact, let’s agree on that. You can have a half holiday, and when you come back I may well have an (un) discovered gem lined up for you. See you then. Fingers crossed for Lemn Sissay

[As you know, those of you who who hang back at the end, this is where I usually put the details of books you now want to rush out and buy. But you can’t. Just Google Charles Causley’s ‘Collected Poems’ and you’ll be directed to Amazon to be told it’s unavailable, or to Abe Books who will tell you the cheapest copy available will cost you about £45.oo (+ P&P). It’s hard to believe. Maybe someone will do something about it. Maybe]

Inside Lifesaving Poems

Anthony Wilson

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The central organising principle of Lifesaving Poems is that each poet is represented by a single poem. There are poets you have heard of (Carol Ann Duffy, John Ashbery, Elizabeth Bishop, Norman MacCaig) and many more that you haven’t. To me, they are all household names.

The poems are arranged in eight sections, like chapters. These take their titles from a line or phrase in the first poem of each section. For example, the first section starts with Thom Gunn’s ‘Autobiography’ and is called ‘The sniff of the real’, after the poem’s opening line. It is my hope that this gives the reader plenty of guidance, but without feeling overly programmatic.

As readers of my blog posts will know, each poem is accompanied by a short commentary explaining where and when I first came across the poem, with a short reflection on how I have continued to use it…

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Not believing in silence [remastered]: A polished gem (5) Clare Shaw

Not believing in silence…..Directors cut, remastered. While I was writing this cobweb strand on Sunday, I managed to lose the last section; simply couldn’t recover it and its elegant rhetoric from cyber-oblivion. Could have been worse. There may be a virus going round. Kim Moore (she of the world-famous Sunday Poem poetry blog…. http://kimmoorepoet.wordpress.com/ ) somehow managed to lose the entirety of her post. Or maybe we were both just a bit tired and in a rush. Anyway, this is my second and last re-edit, and it’s as close to the original may have been as I can remember. I hope it does my guest credit.

skylark-cragg-sun (2)

May is a hectic month. Suddenly the garden’s fat with flower and blossom and where did all that come from. And the weeks are suddenly packed with poets and poetry. Nothing happens for weeks and then everything comes at once. Like wisteria. Or buses. What it is, I’ve driven to Sheffield on three consecutive days, for readings and workshops, and I don’t do late nights, or I do but I don’t do them well. I’ve had a ridiculously long lie-in this morning, but though I don’t drink, I feel vaguely hungover. So today’s cobweb strand may be unsteadily spun and brittle. The images I chose for it may make no sense in the cold light of day. I sincerely hope otherwise. I’ve been planning it for weeks. Here’s why.

gunslinger 1

I first saw Clare Shaw read to a less than full house at The Albert Poets in Huddersfield about a year ago. Striking,beautiful, tall, with an athlete’s poise and grace, and in black, like a gunslinger. I was bowled over. I’d been roped in to compering duties at the last minute; as far as I remember I described her set as a rivetting combination of Patti Smith/Bukowski/ Dylan/ Morrisey and John Cooper Clark if they had that accent of the Lancashire Pennines where they rhyme ‘hair’ with ‘fur’. She reads with a rare intensity and poise. Gunslinger. Her poems have you unwaveringly in their sights. They’re urgent and full of love. I find it hard to separate the poems I hear at a reading, but this time one stuck in my brain. I wanted to hear it again and again.

This baby
This baby is a hurricane –
it’s the thunder of an underground train.
You can hear it coming from miles away.
You can feel it in the walls, the floor.

It’s the roar beneath the city street;
the earthquake that wakes you,
shaking beds, breaking plates.
This baby dislodges slates –

felled a steeple in Dudley.
This baby could kill.

This baby is news, big news.
This baby makes you huge.
Makes you Africa and Russia,
proud. A high hot-air balloon fat-filled with fire.
You could explode with it.
Stand clear! This woman could blow any minute.
*
This quick blood-bloom of certain cell
could grow to anything –
snowflakes forming like a wildflower,
a sly-eyed gull; a dinosaur;

a deep bellyful of weed.
This baby is a fallen seed.
The thin grass blade that ruptures the road.
It could open you up –

your stomach, the shape of a book not yet written;
the curve of the first word
of the book you wake speaking,
always forgotten.

It’s like that, this baby –
the light of a star that no-one can see
travelling ten thousand light years
to catch you unaware

knelt as you are in the slow Autumn rain,
heaving with dreams
and your body a poem
on the theme of ‘This Baby’.

Think of a name.

[from Straight Ahead]

Hard to say how much I enjoyed inexpertly typing this poem, feeling it reveal itself letter by letter, typos and corrections and all, hearing the craft of it that I’d missed in the rush of hearing it read. The universality and particularity of THIS baby, the surprise of the rhymes, the lovely juxtapositions of gulls and wildflowers, the immanence of THIS baby. I love, too, the way it makes me think of Sylvia Plath’s ‘high-riser /my little loaf’ ….but THIS baby’s ‘proud’ way beyond the proud of flesh or a risen loaf, a small insidious force that will grow to an earthquake, ‘the thin grass that ruptures the road.’ Everything is exact and crafted and thunderous with energy. It had me in its sights, alright. I wanted to read more. So I did.

Landscapes, first, although that might not be the first thing that you’d attend to. I’ve been a great fan of ‘Edgelands‘ for a good while, but it occurs to me that its rich observations are those of edgeland tourists, whereas many of Clare Shaw’s poems (like those of Steve Ely’s ‘Englaland‘) are those of one of its inhabitants. I’m thinking of the inbetween landscapes of council estates on the edge of Pennine moors, between the dirty glamour of the Lancashire plain and its cities, and the high sour cottongrass and peat and gritstone, and the small towns of the Calder valley, the Ribble valley, the mix of rundown mills, steep slopes, small farms.

pennine roads

They’re evoked to locate and realise a particular childhood in a hot summer when

‘………Miss Snell walked in circles

and the girl with Downs from off the estate

came up with her mother.

In our back yard, Action Men fell and died’

[‘The year Dad left.’  in Straight ahead]

Just let the resonance of the title work on you; just consider the careful particularities of the detail of that stanza. See how just one ‘extra’ word can tune you in to the dialect and the accent you should hear it in : ‘ the girl with Downs from off the estate’. And I want to highlight the way another landscape places the desperate tensions of love affairs. Everything happens somewhere, but these somewheres seem to me absolutely true and right. Like this from ‘About the arguments we had last year

‘It would have been so easily ended

back then,

the three hour arguments

that left us shaking,

the urgent late night drive,

two other cars on the road,

between here and North Yorkshire,

the yellow-green hedgrows,

the sudden open page

of an owl lifting’

and another haunting memory with its haunting half-rhymes, from the title poem ‘Straight ahead’

‘I can still see her

how she pulls up the car at night on the moor

just to hear

those big white windmills slicing the air’

I love the way the physical facts of these landscapes, their textures and scents and creatures, inform urgent poems of motherhood, its visceral tug.. I keep re-reading ‘Ewe’ from Head on– this animal who ‘is losing it, losing it. The lamb-leap and skip -all her fastness, / back from the day when touch came / pink, milk dripping’ , this ewe with her ‘hedge-heavy fleece’  because that’s how they are, those grubby gritstone sheep. And again and again I’ll read ‘Ewe in several parts’  whose first line has you and won’t let go. The heartclench of ‘I lost my baby. / I left her outside for a moment…’  The sheep have taken her, this child of a Pennine Persephone. There’s a poem of Fiona Benson’s that has this same heartstopping moment, but in a harvest field. The sheep moors are closer to the storytelling forests of folk tale, where children are innocent and nature is quite amoral. This baby

must have liked it

her hands tangled deep in the sheep’s deep wool

where the moss and the small twigs snag.

She must have liked it

the way she likes dogs,

her hands to its mouth and stamping

like she does when she’s pleased’.

There’s always texture and physicality in Clare Shaw’s poems. It strikes me, because I’m told often enough that my own poems are almost always visual, that there’s touch and not just touch in these poems. They’re sometimes olfactory (is that the word?). There’s the damp reek of a place where a girl is abused: ‘In the film she is in a subway. / The viewer imagines the smell: / concrete and dirt; sour fruit‘… unnervingly, textures have scent; the grit, the soft brown fruit. Grass may smell yellow. Surface can be dangerous, unkind. ‘the angry sand / the shattered glass of pine and bracken’ at a seaside campsite. Sweat in a hot tent  has a ‘stale leather smell’. A drunken girlfriend after a night on the lash ‘smelt of compost heap, hot weather’. The narrator nurses a hangover on a train ; ‘the woman in front / smells sweet of fruit, /a red smell you could climb into / and never get out; a great, wet / nest of a smell’ .

Felt and physical, Clare Shaw’s poems. And you see we’ve shifted landscapes and into a more disturbing, damaged world, and one that’s central, along with the theme of motherhood (or, if you prefer it, the business of being a mother) to both of her collections. Clare Shaw champions the damaged and abused, particularly abused and damaged girls, with a rare fierce love and urgency, and her poems speak for them quite unforgettably. I don’t want to go on about the details of her life. Her poems are her way of telling her story and that’ll do for me.

As a way of introducing the next bit, here’s an extract from an interview Clare did and the source of which I’ve unforgiveably lost. So when she tells me off after she’s read this, I’ll acknowledge the source.

‘I revel in the texture and echo of words; I love their dance. There’s something about the physicality of the spoken word that delights me. For me it feels like the meeting place of human and landscape; a sort of landscape of mouth and air and page. I enjoy the physicality of my own language; and I’m drawn to poems that foreground the dance and swoop of conversation, as well as the music of form and rhythm; alongside meaning and content.

*

There’s nothing more political or urgent than how we give shape to our feelings, our experiences; and how we understand and respond to each other’s struggles and sufferings. Psychiatry gives a language of medicine and illness to distress; it tells us that we suffer because our brain chemistries are disrupted. The impact of social causes – like poverty, injustice, social exclusion – are sidelined or completely disregarded. There is no definitive evidence for the biological basis of mental illness. That poverty, isolation, abuse and violence cause distress is an irrefutable fact. I’m wedded to the task of helping people to give their experiences and feelings a more meaningful shape than illness or disorder; I think art, literature and poetry offer us more powerful possibilities.’

So they do, and so she does. There’s so much I could tell you about in the two collections, but I’ll let two poems stand for the others. They are ‘This isn’t’ (from Head On) and ‘Poem about Dee Dee’ (from Straight Ahead).

 (Here’s where I try to recall what I wrote about four hours ago, and which for some reasons was not saved. Fingers crossed)

The first poem acheives its power from its unexpected perspective.This is the aftermath of physical and sexual abuse; a cold and impersonal forensic abuse, and there is more than one victim.

‘This isn’t

what mothers are meant to do.

They’re not meant to stand in the corner

of a white room

while their daughters are led, bewildered

to a white couch covered in paper.’

It’s unflinching and it’s fiercely tender. It’s heart-breaking, the belittlement of the one who knows her role is to protect, but who is made to ‘stand in the corner’ ( and just think on the rightness of that line-break). It’s clear-eyed, and dry eyed, and utterly committed. ‘Bewildered’ is a wonderful choice of word. It has the full force of its old roots. This child is be-wildered, led astray and lost. Mothers, says the poet, without sentimentality or condescension, ‘should be at home / with bags full of knitting ; / a kiss.’ There should be the comfort and consolation of pattern, and softness and warmth and wool, and the blessing of a kiss; not this antiseptic cold white nakedness.

The second poem is really a sequence of four poems that start in a psychiatric unit where

‘Dee Dee is out on the hospital roof.

From here, Liverpool is a story

she can read from beginning to end.’

I have suffered from vertigo. I don’t think anyone has come as close as Clare does to describing it:

‘the slow slide of of your stomach

into a corner of itself……

the milk – white explosion

of a moment that could last forever’

There’s that dreadful temptation of falling, ‘and the sound of the cheer is your big day out’.  But two guards and three nurses ungently bring her down. Later, in the crazy blue light,  Dee Dee and a narrator who has had no sleep for weeks:

‘watch TV in the small hours,

………

We know all the tunes to Ceefax,

baiting the glaze-eyed agency staff

with high-risk jokes…..

Dee Dee and me are having a laugh

dreaming plans for O.T. —

rock-climbing schemes

for the deeply depressed.

A barebacked parachute jump.’

You may be institutionalised, restrained with your cheek pushed into the grit of a concrete roof, your arms forced up your back, a knee between your shoulders, and your breath  ‘a necklace of tiny red gasps’ ;and then how will you fight back? How will you reclaim your sanity? Through the black humour of the beleaguered, of the trenches. One flew over the cuckoo’s nest. Survivors’ dark jokes. ‘In there / you could die laughing’. Unsparing and caring. And I flinch. This is what it can take to stay alive. This is the poetry of resilience. I don’t know anyone else who does it so well, with such care and craft and love.

She tells why, too; it’s not comfortable to be told. Poetry shouldn’t be comfortable, should it. It’s

‘because that one afternoon

when I nailed my own voice to the air

and because there was no-one listening

and through it all

birdsong

and the sound of cars passing

I do not believe in silence.’

I’m just going to say thank you to Clare for sending me one new poem, which she says, reprises an earlier one. It came very close to me did this poem. It made me cry. And then it stood me up and brushed me down and sent me on my way. Like mothers do. Here it is.

Not baby, nor boy.

Love cheered you back
but could not save you.
That was a hard thing to learn.

I don’t know when
you re-learned to walk;
when the words you had lost

returned. But I know from the start,
there was something about you –
hope had you marked –

and if I could paint,
then I might stand a chance
at your eyes.

Who needs monkey bars,
or playing the drums
two-handed?

One hand has guided the other.
Your body has been its own brother;
boy with a face like the shore, oh

the question mark of your arm!
I guess time will tell
whether obstacles make a boy

fall. Or leap higher.
Oh boy full of wonder.
Oh head full of thunder.

You’ve a right to your anger –
but you’ve more of a right
to those eyes.

Like she’s written earlier. ‘What I’m really saying is – / our ability to care for each other, / to stand with each other, / it’s all we have / in the end‘. And so it is.

Night-View-of-Halifax

 

One thing before we go. As of now, I believe, Clare Shaw is a Fellow of the Royal Literary Society. This means she is charged to help university students to think and write clearly; to rid them of circumlocution, pedantry and verbosity; to enrich their lexis and streamline their syntax; to see and say plainly. Lucky students, I say.

You’ll be wanting to buy her collections. Please make a note of them before you go. I don’t do handouts. See you next week. Without breaking down in the middle. Fingers crossed.

Straight ahead: [Bloodaxe 2006] £7.95

Head on             : [Bloodaxe 2012] £8.95

If you have any cash left, you could do much worse than buy

Englaland : Steve Ely [Smokestack 2015] £8.95

Edgelands : Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts [Jonathan Cape 2011]

Luck of the draw

wings 5

I’ve managed to build up a backlog of writing jobs and comittments, and I’m not feeling too clear-minded, so it’ll be a  shortish post this week, but (hopefully) an interactive one. There’s a poet I love who has sternly admonished me to concentrate on sending poems out, but then another competition appears on the horizon, and all my pious resolutions go out of the window. I like entering competitions.There are all sorts of reasons for it. I like the buzz. I like the possibility of a prize. I like the deadlines. Most of all, I like the idea that someone whose work inspires me will read my poems. I don’t write poems for competitions. I write them because it seems urgent to nail down an idea, and experience, to get at it’s meaning, its significance, its whatness. I write them because I like the wrestle with words. But once they’re written, I want someone to read them. When you enter a competition you’re paying your fiver, or whatever, for someone special to read them. I look at a competition and think: wow…Simon Armitage, or Carol Ann Duffy or Andrew Motion or Helen Mort or Liz Lochhead or Carrie Etter, or whoever, will look at a poem of mine, however briefly. And when you get on a longlist or a shortlist, or you are Commended or you win a prize, you know you’ve written a poem that has made this person you are in some awe of stop and think: mmm…this says something; this is worth reading again; this bothers me in some way. So, I pay for someone special to read a poem of mine. And I’m happy to do it.

Anyway. You’ll all have your own take on this, and on the business of submissions…..which remain a strange enigma to me. But here’s a puzzle for you all on this cool day in this cool month of May. Last week I found out that a poem of mine was Highly Commended in the Rialto/RSPB competition. Only the four winners are published in The Rialto which means I can do what I like with my poem. So I’ll publish it here and now. Here’s the interactive bit. I’ve been faffing about with all sorts of notes and scribbles about the plumage trade in the very early 20th.C. Why would that be? Because in the course of a writing day, my friend Carole Bromley workshopped a poem which had a line in it about the statistics of a plumage auction. It’s not left me alone since. I suspect that eventually it’ll end up as a cluster of poems. At the moment it’s one-and- a- bit poems and a lot of printouts and prose notes. But I did notice that the RSPB was founded precisely to fight for the abolition of the plumage trade, and having one more-or-less finished poem, I sent it off with my entry fee, and Simon Armitage liked it. So, here we go. There are three versions of the poem. One is the first draft. One is the Highly Commended. One is a version that I rewrote after I’d forgotten entering the competition in the first place. Which one is which? Which version do you prefer and why (although you may think all three are naff) ? Answers on a postcard, or at least, in the comments box at the end. Have fun.

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Pinioned (1)

I could tell you all the proper names: rachis, vane,
and calamus. I could tell you that the plumage of a bird
is three times heavier than its bones, or that
its heart, its brain, weigh next to nothing.
Why would you need to know, a feather being a lovely thing
blown along the edges of the sea and its running waves?

A grebe will ingest its feathers and feed them to its young.
Poultry are plucked for the oven. A goose quill may be cut
to make a pen. Feathers are single, lifting loose on the wind.
In 1892 a single order from a London milliner
bespoke the plumes of forty thousand hummingbirds.

Imagine the delicacy of the work, each tiny jewel feather.
In truth, they’re skinned, not plucked. Skinned
like a rabbit, peeled off like a sock, neat as you like.
Remember fallen nestlings at the foot of downpipes.
Little purplish horrors. Bug-eyed tiny pterosaurs. Like that.

Thick as a hedgehog’s fleas; busy as ticks in a fleece
the sparrows in the precinct shrubberies, all chit-chat,
racketting out like shook pepper, like dust off a rug,                                                                                                                                                                                                                       till the Council rooted out the laurels, potentillas.
When did you last see a crowd of sparrows? When
did the starlings leave the cities, and where did they go?

wing 1

Pinioned (2)

Three times heavier than its bones,
the plumage of a bird.
Its heart, its brain, weigh next to nothing.
Why would you know that, a feather being a lovely thing
ruffled on the edges of the sea and its running waves.
No need for proper names: rachis, vane, and calamus.

A grebe will ingest its feathers and feed them to its young.
Poultry are plucked for the oven. A goose quill may be cut
to make a pen. Feathers are single, blown loose on the wind.
In 1892 a single order from a London milliner
bespoke the plumes of forty thousand hummingbirds.

Imagine the delicacy of the work, each tiny jewel feather.
Fact is, they’re skinned, not plucked.
Like a rabbit, peeled off like a sock, neat as you like.
Remember fallen nestlings at the foot of downpipes.
Little purplish horrors. Bug-eyed tiny pterosaurs. Like that.

Thick as a hedgehog’s fleas; busy as ticks in a fleece
the sparrows in the precinct shrubberies, all chit-chat,
racketting out like shook pepper, like dust off a rug,
till the Council rooted out the laurels, potentillas.
When did you last see a crowd of sparrows?                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        A feather in a fancy hat?

wing 2

Pinioned (3)
You know this much about a feather : blown on a beach,
grey gull, most likely. You stroked your cheek with it,
liked its gloss, its flex, the softness of fine down.
How easily it tears. How it completes a real sandcastle.
No need for its proper names; rachis, vane, and calamus.

The plumage of a bird
weighs three times heavier than its bones.
Its heart, its brain, weigh next to nothing.
Why would you know that, a feather being a lovely thing
blown on the edges of the sea and its running waves.

A grebe ingests its feathers and feeds them to its young.
Poultry are plucked for the oven. A goose quill may be cut
to make a pen. Feathers are single, blow loose on the wind.
In 1892 a single order from a London milliner
bespoke the plumes of forty thousand hummingbirds.

Imagine the delicacy of the work, each tiny jewel feather.
But the fact is, they’re skinned, not plucked.
Like a rabbit, peeled off like a sock, neat as you like.
Remember fallen nestlings at the foot of downpipes.
Little purplish horrors. bug-eyed tiny pterosaurs. Like that.

Thick as a hedgehog’s fleas; busy as ticks in a fleece,
the sparrows in the precinct shrubberies, all chit-chat,
racketting out like shook pepper, like dust off a rug,
till the Council rooted out the laurels, potentillas.

racketting out like shook pepper, like dust off a rug,
till the Council rooted out the laurels, potentillas.
When did you last see a crowd of sparrows? When
did the starlings leave the cities, and where did they go?
When did you last see a crowd of sparrows? A feather in a fancy hat?

wings 4

I’ve noticed that the line breaks of ‘Pinioned 1’ and ‘Pinioned 2’ are wrong. The edit won’t let me do what I want. So here’s the proper layout of the ends of each..

Pinioned 1……………………

racketting out like shook pepper, like dust off a rug,
till the Council rooted out the laurels, potentillas.
When did you last see a crowd of sparrows?                                                                When did the starlings leave the cities, and where did they go?

Pinioned 2 ……………………

When did you last see a crowd of sparrows?
A feather in a fancy hat?

The Best of…………..

……..punk, bluebeat, blues, rhythm and soul, Bob Dylan, the 80’s, Motown, Stax, Atlantic, Leonard Cohen, ska, Reggae Greats, Miles Davis. A flavour of my record collection. I reckon 80% of it is compilations. Very few single albums that hold my attention all the way through. Albums without a dud track. Cohen’s ‘I’m your man’. Paul Simon’s ‘Graceland’ (although you could argue that it’s actually a compilation of great artists). ‘Who’s next’. Tom Russell:’The man from God knows where’. I’m pushed to think of many more, off-hand. And I’m a bit like that about poetry, though that’s been changing over the last three or four years. Anthologies. That’s been my thing. Maybe that’s why I frequently go blank at poetry events when friends talk with great familiarity about poets I’m not sure I’ve heard of, and feel a bit gauche when poet friends post photographs of new collections they’ve bought in a retail frenzy at this or that poetry festival. So this week’s cobweb strand is in praise of anthologies and anthologists…or, at least, one particular anthologist. OK. Close your books, tidy your pens, sit up straight, look this way, remember it’s your own time you’re wasting and now…..

….let me take you back to 1972, when the then Education Minister, one Margaret Thatcher of blessed memory, ordered a review of the teaching of English. It was the first of a long series of attempts (which grew more successful over the years) to take political control of the school curriculum, and of English in particular. What it produced was hardly what she hoped for. The report was ‘Language for life’ (popularly the Bullock Report)…a generally humane and informed document, which you might have expected of HMI. It’s taken SATS, league tables and OFSTED to put the kibosh on that kind of subversive lefty nonsense. What we have in its place is government ministers sounding off about how we should teach the history of the First World War, and what poetry should be force-fed to the children of Albion, and how. And now…..

….as the wheel turns inexorably full circle, let me take you back another twenty years when I passed my 11+ and went to Batley Grammar School and was presented with Book One of a series of five English course books written by a man who sold at least 70 million copies of his prolific output by the time he died in some comfort in the 1990s. You might not remember just how drab and battered English course books used to be, but just to be clear, that jazzed up ‘contemporary’ later stuff was just as stuffed with clause analysis, punctuation exercises, comprehension exercises, jumbled proverbs and all the rest of the nonsense. Oh, and each chapter would begin with a bit of text, an extract of prose and, maybe twice in any one book, a poem. The one I remember from Book One was something by Masefield. Followed by exercises that sqeezed every last ounce of syntactic, grammatical, and vocabulary juice out of it.

voices 10voices 9

Of course, we were offered books of poetry which contained no exercises. But generations of desperate pencilled marginal notes.

palgrave The_Poets_Pageant_179

Palgrave’s Golden Treasuries, and the deeply dispiriting, but jauntily alliterative Paths to Parnassus: The poet’s pageant. I remember the second one from the  stock cupboards in my first teaching job. Exercises and heritage. Whose heritage was never in question. Probably not that of the lads I taught on my first teaching practice at Wharrier Street Secondary Modern School in Walker on Tyneside..alma mater to the great Eric Burdon, as it happens. So the question would arise. If you don’t want this stuff, what’ll take its place? All my secondary and university education in English Lit. stopped dead round about 1916. I was well up on prose fiction…northern realists like Sillitoe, Stan Barstow, John Braine, Keith Waterhouse, and I was totally sold on the short stories of Dylan Thomas. And I was shortly immersed in a golden age of children’s fiction. Alan Garner, Joan Aiken, Robert Westall, all of them. But I simply didn’t know enough poetry to offer an alternative to what seemed to be on offer.. The Bullock Report noted it was still a problem in 1972.

‘The teacher is often faced with the task of showing that poetry is not some inaccessible form of utterance, but that it speaks directly to children, as to anyone else, and has something to say which is relevant to their living here and now. It is simply that much of the work of this half century, and perhaps particularly the last two decades of it, has a voice to which a larger number of young people can more readily respond. Moreover, it is fresh to many teachers themselves and some feel able to read it to their pupils with the pleasure of a new discovery. BUT  It is exceptionally difficult for the individual teacher to keep abreast of all the new poetry that is published. Indeed, except for those with a particular interest in it there is often a time lag, so that the teacher is not aware of much of the work produced in the last two decades. A good anthology will do a great deal to introduce teacher and pupil alike to new and unfamiliar material, but it should not be a substitute for the extensive reading of poetry by the teacher himself.’

I remember reading that bit about anthologies not being a substitute for extensive reading. I didn’t know whether I felt guilty or indignant. Because what I believed then, and still believe, is that the best anthologies offer the shared experience of an committed enthusiast’s extensive reading. It’s taken me a long time to get round to standing up for anthologies. But here goes.

For years, the BBC ran a schools’ radio series called Books Plays and Poems,  lovely landscape format booklets that accompanied the programmes and in the mid 60’s they were the first source I had of an eclectic mix of poetry that included contemporary work (including the lyrics of Penny Lane). They had photographs in them, too! Imagine. And then, in my fifth year of teaching along came Geoffrey Summerfield’s Voices [Penguin. 1970]. It was the first of a series of four anthologies, and pretty soon accompanied by four more Junior Voices.

voices 2voices 3voices 4voices 5

And here’s the thing; they not only didn’t look remotely like school books, but they didn’t read like school books either. They were full of surprises, and, in the case of Junior Voices, they had stunning imagery in colour. They were books you could sit and browse, and every page brought a fresh surprise, if, like me and the rest of the teachers The Bullock Report talked about, you didn’t know much about poetry and poets and poems (unless they were on O and A Level syllabuses). What’s more, none of them seemed to have designs on a reader, other than to share a boundless enthusiasm and apparently encyclopaedic knowledge. They were eclectic and exciting. They weren’t overtly thematically organised, so there was none of that invitation to compare and contrast we were all programmed into. It was all done by smart juxtapositions.Let me tell you who they introduced me to. Roethke, Elizabeth Jennings, e e cummings, John Clare, Basho, Stanley Cooke, Norman MacCaig, Woody Guthrie, Elizabeth Bishop, Gary Snyder, Patricia Beer, Yevtushenko, Neruda. They sold me on Sylvia Plath’s ‘You’re’, and Ted Hughes’ Hawk roosting, and Auden’s Musee des beaux arts. There were medieval riddle poems, and playful stuff like ones from Alastair Reid’s Ounce, dice, trice. Haiku and and shape poems. Carlos Williams. Maybe it was Summerfield’s connection with NYU, but there were lots of American poets who I would otherwise never have come across. It was the inclusion of MacCaig’s I took my mind a walk that ended up with my reading his collected works, beginning to end. Years later. But that was the seed. Those anthologies opened my eyes and ears to world I had no idea existed.

And that wasn’t all. Hard on their heels, in 1974, came this

voices 6

This one was truly a revelation. A carefully edited selection of each of the seven poets (and by then I was beginning to think I knew them) BUT accompanied in each case by a personal statement or essay by each poet AND a photographic essay on each poet by the wonderful Fay Godwin (and if you haven’t got her collaboration with Ted Hughes in Remains of Elmet then you can do no better than to rush out and buy it. It’s never too late). As I was doing a bit of googling, trawling for images for this post, I was delighted to stumble across a post by Anthony Wilson in September 2013. Anthony describes how he encountered Adrian Mitchell, and therefore one of his selection of Lifesaving poems, in this very anthology. ‘Worlds, says Anthony Wilson, ‘is one of the most important books in my life.’ I’ll second that. It will come as no surprise, I suppose, to discover that you can now only buy second- hand copies of these lovely books. Meanwhile, Coles Notes go from strength to strength, and supermarkets stock books of exercises to drill your children through their SATs and their phonics, and so the world turns,and the mills of Gove grind exceeding fine. Thank god for Geoffrey Summerfield and Michael Rosen and the rest, and whoever picks up their mantle in coming years

Now, it may well be that lots of you have parallel experiences. I’d be delighted to hear about them. But before I go, I want to say a word about about a different way of encountering an anthology. I’ve been going to Ann and Peter Sansom’s Poetry Business writing days for about five years. In the process I realise they’ve assembled a very special anthology for me. Very often, a writing exercise will begin around, or from, a photocopied poem. I’ve religiously trimmed them down and stuck them in my workbooks so I know which poem triggered which draft or prose ramble. And now I have probably a couple of hundred, and in the process I’ve realised that these workshops have done for me now what Voices and Junior Voices and Worlds did, way back when. Without them I’d never have met Alison McVety, Thomas Lux, Billy Collins, Liz Berry, Martina Evans, Frank o’Hara, Tishani Doshi, Matthew Sweeney, Robert Van Dias, Claudi Jessop, Stewart Conn…and on and on it goes.

That’s what a great anthology is. The shared experience of folk who know more than you and who fill you with enthusiasm to know more than you do. To want more of the best of the best of.

OK. If that was all very teacherly, I guess it’s what I do. Certainly what I did for 40 years. Hard to shake off. I promise the next cobweb strand will be much less about me and infinitely more about a poet who stops me dead in my tracks. No. I’m not telling you who it is.

And finally, and without a shred of shame or irony, I’m going to advertise not an anthology, but a collection. My collection. I posted this at the wrong time, I realise, bang in the middle of Black Thursday, so I’ll run it past you one more time.

larach cover for cobweb 001

I’m really delighted to say that I’ve had to bespeak a reprint of Larach. Thanks to everyone who’s already bought a copy. Now, here’s the deal. Having Larach published in the first place was my prize for winning the 2014 Lumen Camden Poetry Competition with the poem about Emily Wilding Davison ‘Camera Obscura’. (If you follow the cobweb strands you’ll know that I posted it a couple of weeks ago as a reminder of what the right to vote cost so many courageous, selfless individuals). The judge was Sir Andrew Motion who is a patron of the charity. This year’s judge is George Szirtes. It’s a great competition, no question. If you entered this year, then good luck…results must be out soon.

The purpose of this annual competition is to raise funds to support a winter night shelter for rough sleepers. One of my sons was once, for a short time, a rough sleeper. It’s a charity near to my heart. It was the reason I entered the competition in the first place, knowing that my entry fee would go to help the charity’s work. There is no profit from the winners of this competition.

If you already bought the book you paid £3.00….I always thought that it could raise more, so here’s the deal. WardWood agreed to reprint the book at a price to me of £3.00 a copy. I’ve had the book repriced at £5.00. For every copy I sell £1.00 will go to the charity. I’ll use the balance to cover post and packing for orders I take via the cobweb site. Just check out the details about ordering copies by clicking on My Books at the top of the page. And anything left over after that can go towards funding any future reprint (Fingers crossed)

I hope you’ll all be happy about this arrangement. If you are then I’d take it more than kindly if you reblogged this post, or Shared it in Facebook and/or Twitter. And let me know what you think about it all via the Comments box below. I really do want to feel as though I’m doing the right thing all round.

Why must we write?

Anthony Wilson

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The poem that came into my mind on waking up this morning and hearing the General Election result is Mark Halliday’s ‘Why Must We Write?’ A proper tour de force of improvisation against ‘the wave of forgetting/ which is so common, so K-Mart,/ so have-another-basket-of-ribs-and-die’, it is the penultimate poem of my favourite collection of his, Jab. Even among that book’s mercurial shifts from stellar and often hilarious riffing to plummeting melancholy, it is a serious contender for stand-out performance.

Not least among the poem’s almost-didactic pleasures is its awareness, so often missing in contemporary poetry, that writing, specifically writing poems, takes place for all of us within an economic, and therefore political context: ‘Also for another 14 percent of us there will be/ decent tolerable jobs permitting in rather brownish ways/ a tolerable amount of the fine wordy dreaming/ we will die saying we need more of’. We…

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Larach: reprinted

larach cover for cobweb 001

I’m really delighted to say that I’ve had to bespeak a reprint of Larach. Thanks to everyone who’s already bought a copy. Now, here’s the deal. Having Larach published in the first place was my prize for winning the 2014 Lumen Camden Poetry Competition with the poem about Emily Wilding Davison ‘Camera Obscura’. (If you follow the cobweb strands you’ll know that I posted it a couple of weeks ago as a reminder of what the right to vote cost so many courageous, selfless individuals). The judge was Sir Andrew Motion who is a patron of the charity. This year’s judge is George Szirtes. It’s a great competition, no question. If you entered this year, then good luck…results must be out soon.

The purpose of this annual competition is to raise funds to support a winter night shelter for rough sleepers. One of my sons was once, for a short time, a rough sleeper. It’s a charity near to my heart. It was the reason I entered the competition in the first place, knowing that my entry fee would go to help the charity’s work. There is no profit from the winners of this competition.

If you already bought the book you paid £3.00….I always thought that it could raise more, so here’s the deal. WardWood agreed to reprint the book at a price to me of £3.00 a copy. I’ve had the book repriced at £5.00. For every copy I sell £1.00 will go to the charity. I’ll use the balance to cover post and packing for orders I take via the cobweb site. Just check out the details about ordering copies by clicking on My Books at the top of the page. And anything left over after that can go towards funding any future reprint (Fingers crossed)

I hope you’ll all be happy about this arrangement. If you are then I’d take it more than kindly if you reblogged this post, or Shared it in Facebook and/or Twitter. And let me know what you think about it all via the Comments box below. I really do want to feel as though I’m doing the right thing all round.

Thanks for following the great fogginzo’s cobweb, and thanks in advance for your Shares and Comments. On Sunday the post will have the best of all worlds. In a manner of speaking. Hope to see you then. xxx