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……..


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:


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.

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]

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.


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.

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


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

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.

.halifax at night


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]