Running on empty

Two things on this dreich Sunday afternoon.

One : I have just discovered that WordPress analyses one’s posts in astonishing detail; I have simultaneously discovered that I wish I had not discovered it. I’m not at all sure that I wanted to know that most people read my cobweb posts at 4.00pm on Mondays. I’m not sure why it bothers me, but I worry that every Monday round about teatime I’ll be wondering who will be reading what I wrote the day before…and how many. If any.

Two: Is it Yeats..‘The circus animals’ desertion’ ? ‘I sought a theme and sought it for a week’. It’s a sudden realisation that I’m starting to find Sunday afternoons hard work, starting to worry for days before what it is I’ll be writing about, and why anyone would want to be reading it.

So maybe it’s a good time to think about why I started to write the cobweb posts in the first place. I’m fairly sure I had no clear plan that it would be a weekly business, or, indeed, if it would be anything at all. I do know that once I’d written for four successive Sundays I’d created a routine that I would have felt guilty about breaking.

More than that, I looked forward to each Sunday. I had a notebook full of titles for posts I wanted to write. This more or less coincided with starting to write poetry on a regular basis, and I strongly suspect that this was because there was a log-jam of things I wanted to make sense of. And I know for a fact that I was missing teaching, and, especially the two bits of teaching I liked best. One was thinking up new lesson-plans and course outlines (usually about things I wasn’t entirely sure I knew enough about), and the other was having an audience. I am suspicious of any teacher who claims that having a captive audience is not part of the charm of the job. The other thing with the cobweb, of course, is that there’s no marking. Teaching an audience of volunteers, and no marking. I think that’s it.


You forget that sooner or later you’ll hit a patch when you realise you’re repeating yourself, recycling the same old stuff, and starting to bore yourself. Running on empty, desperate for the service station signs on the infinitely receding road dwindling into the prairie. (yes. I’ve watched too many movies). I think that’s what teachers’/writers’ block is. Block is the wrong word; it implies that you have tons of stuff to say and something’s stopping you. I don’t think that’s it at all. I think it’s not having anything fresh to say. Running on empty. So here’s my tribute to four special poetry bloggers who I follow faithfully, and who each, in his or her own way, has found a formula (or formulae) that keeps them ticking over, endlessly interesting, always inspirational. Whenever I feel like calling it a day, they’ll be there, carrying my rucksack for a bit, offering a sandwich or a ciggie, a bottle of water, a flask of tea, that bit of encouragement that says: come on, it’s not far, it’s just over the hill, it’s just round the next bend. It isn’t, of course, but by the time you get there you know you might as well keep going. So here we go. With stats.


Roy Marshall ]

He has clocked up, I see, 4.5 thousand hits. One of the things that unnerved me about his blog was the blogroll. Last time I counted there were at least 75 poetry blogsites on the blogroll (jeez…it’s a horrible thing, this language of the virtual world. But what’s a girl to do.). It makes me think a) how could there be so many? b) how does he know? c) crikey..has he read them all? No wonder he seems to know so much AND d) if he has, how come he’s so disarmingly modest?

Because the reason I follow Roy’s posts is the unfailing generosity with which he shares his experience of all sorts of things to do with writing poems and getting poems published, and about reading at poetry events…….It occurs to me that the tone is always reflectively analytic and always not-exactly tentative but never dogmatic. It’s a voice you can trust, if you’re feeling your way into this strange business of writing poetry. It’s the voice of someone for whom the experience is still fresh…he knows how you feel. Like this

if all or most of the work you are sending out is being returned to you without offers of publication, you are in the majority. There are a lot of people submitting work and only a small minority can be published. That doesn’t mean that this will always be the case. And there are many possible reasons for this. One possibility (and a difficult one to accept) is that perhaps your work isn’t ready yet. Perhaps your poem needs a tweak or even a re-write. One or two clunky lines or even a word could be enough to put the editor off. There is also the question of originality. Editors read thousands of poems and many are adept at spotting something they have seen before and possibly done better. I imagine the only way to know if this is the case is to read as much poetry as you can.

At the moment, then, this is Roy’s theme. A beginner’s guide to the poetry business by a poet who seems to know that this is what he would have appreciated when he was himself a beginner.

Common sense. No messing. Understanding. But reminding you that if you want to be any good and you want to be heard you need to knuckle down, and work at it. And you know, as you follow his posts, and read back through older ones, that this is exactly what he’s done himself. So thank you, Roy Marshall for keeping my feet on the ground, for the ciggie, for the flask of tea. It’s just round the corner. And if it isn’t, that’s no reason to stop.


Joesphine Corcoran  [     and    ]

A special place in my affections for this indefatigable poetry blogger, who maintains TWO distinctly different blogs. I first came across her via Facebook, when the poet Carole Bromley shared a post alerting me to the possibilities of and other poems. As a writer of a poetry cobweb, I could see the attraction of this (without the attendant work and responsiblity). You invite people to send you poems. Every week you post a couple of poems that people have sent in. You publish the biographical details they send in. You don’t comment on or analyse their poems. Simples. People get published. Everyone’s happy.

So I sent her some poems, and after a short delay she wrote back and said ‘thank you, but these aren’t quite up to scratch’. Of course she was much gentler than this, but even if she had used those words I would have had to admit she was right. She also said: send some more; try again; they weren’t all that bad; just not quite good enough. [Though not in so many words]. So I did, and the next time there was a poem she liked, and she published it. That’s not the reason for that ‘special place in my affections’. The reason is the courage it takes to have high standards, to stick to them, to be prepared to disappoint people. Because there are writers out there with a strong sense of entitlement, people who take exception to being ‘rejected’. It takes courage to run a blog like and other poems. And hard work. But I wouldn’t miss it, because of the surprises it throws up. And nary a dud.

Her other poetry blog is something else. I’m not sure how to describe it. It’s personal, it’s reflective, it’s sometimes painfully honest. It’s sometimes like a journal. It’s sometimes like an essay. It’s sometimes like a holiday postcard. But its strikes a chord. It must do. According to her wordpress stats she has 4.2 thousand followers. I currently have about 350. She’s worked hard for everyone of them. BUT the thing that strikes me is not the numbers but the number of comments she gets and the fact that she answers every single one. Her readers trust her, they share all sort of things, primarily because she’s not afraid to share things with them. I don’t know how she’d describe her formula, if it is a formula. But it’s winner. Joesphine, thank you.


Anthony Wilson  [ ]

6.9 thousand followers. 350,00 hits.The blogfather, the daddy of them all, the doyen of poetry bloggers, the ne plus ultra….what do you say about life saving poems that hasn’t been said already? I’m not going to try, but I know why I follow his posts, and what I can learn from them. I have some sort of handle on Anthony’s themes and formulae, and I think he’s a teacher after my own heart. I’m a good deal older than him, but he makes me feel like his contemporary. Let me pick out three things in particular that show me how a blog can be structured, as well as the holy grail of the theme that will carry you for a good long time, save you agonising every Sunday what you’re going to talk about. This is where it started: The post is called BLOG

‘ I was struck by a remark of Seamus Heaney in an interview he gave some years ago now. He was musing on how many poems can affect the life of an individual across that person’s lifetime. Was it ten, he said, twenty, fifty, a hundred, or more? This is the question that has underpinned this pet project of mine since I began it in July 2009.

Since then I have been copying out poems into a plain Moleskine notebook, one at a time, in inky longhand, when the mood took me. Allowing myself no more than one poem per poet, I wanted to see how many poems I could honour with the label ‘lifesaving’. I quickly realised it was a deeply subjective and unscientific exercise. Frequently, the poem that was copied into my book was not especially famous, certainly not representative or even the ‘best’ of that poet’s work.

My criteria were extremely basic.  Was the poem one I could recall having had an immediate experience with from the first moment I read it? In short, did I feel the poem was one I could not do without?

The list below is, therefore, not a perfect anthology-style list of the great and the good. It is a list of poems I happen to feel passionate about, according to my tastes. As Billy Collins says somewhere: ‘Good poems are poems that I like’.

Copying them out into my book has not always been fun, but now that I am finished, I am in possession of a deeply satisfactory feeling of having learnt more about myself and about each poem that I copied.

Over the next weeks and months I am going to be blogging here about the stories behind the choices I made, the influences upon them, and what I learnt in the process. (Before anyone writes in, I have noticed that William Blake snuck in with two choices).

For what it is worth, here are my

Lifesaving poems

And what follows is a list of about 180 poems by 180 poets. That’s more than three years’ worth of blogposts sorted, at one fell swoop. Bloggers’ Nirvana. Shangri La. Provided, of course you know at least 180 poets, and you know their work well enough to choose one from each of which you can say, hand-on-heart: ‘this is lifesaving’. What I love about reading Anthony Wilson is the effortless erudition that is never exclusive or scholarly. It’s what great teachers do…like Bronowsky in ‘The ascent of man‘, or John Berger in ‘Ways of seeing‘ (and not remotely like Kenneth Clarke in ‘Civilisation’). It’s like the introduction to poetry you get if you regularly go to Poetry Business workshops. I’d not heard of half the poets Anthony chose. But I have now. All I want now is another holy grail, no more running on empty.

Of course, Anthony’s Lifesaving poems are not unconnected to another theme of his blog which was essentially a shared journal of his experience of the diagnosis, and subsequent treatment for a particular cancer. I’ve been treated for two kinds of cancer, and I’m currently being treated for a third, so it’s going to resonate. But I doubt I’d have that kind of courage to share the experience. On the other hand, it seems to me that the best poetry blogs are those ones where people declare their own vulnerabilites and doubts as well as their successes and undoubted talents.

Finally, let me pay tribute to two running gags in the script. The Book and The Thing (or Things). Anthony will frequently find himself at a Thing. Which means he is never short of blog copy. And he has written several successful books. A book can take on a life of its own. It can answer back. It can sulk. It can involve you in Pinteresqe dialogue. That’s another thread, then…the narrative of The Book, the occasional drama of Things. But especially the lippy Book. If you’ve not read it then you can now via links in Anthony’s blog to The Parable of the Book. Here’s a flavour. He does great dialogue, does Mr Wilson. The first line is his, the second is The Book’s. They alternate.

 I’m here, aren’t I?’

‘I don’t know, are you?’

‘You know I am.’


‘I thought about you all the time.’

‘I’ve only got your word for it.’

‘You’ve only got my word for anything.’

Poetry by heart 019

Finally, Kim Moore  [ 3.7 thousand followers ]

I’ve been following Kim Moore’s Sunday Poem posts for two and a half years. She has published a post every Sunday (but for the very few occasions when we’ve had to wait till Monday ) for four and a half years. I know that this afternoon she got back home after teaching a poetry residential course at Grange over Sands, and will almost certainly publish a brand new post tonight. In any week she will be teaching children how to play brass instruments, in many weeks she will be playing the trumpet in a brilliant band called The Soul Survivors (specialising in the faithful reproduction of Stax, Atlantic and Motown classics); she may be compiling bids for Arts Council and other sorts of funding for poetry projects; she may be planning a poetry festival; she may be getting ready to be Poet-in-Residence at a literature festival like Ilkley; she may be flown to Ireland or the Netherlands or Croatia; she will certainly be literally running, with an eye on another PB; she will be involved in the on-line poetry magazine, ‘The Compass’; she will be eating chocolate croissants, heading for another reading in another town, kipping on someone’s sofa or in a B&B, driving in horrible weather, somehow and somewhere along the way, writing stunning poems, but ALWAYS every week she will write the Sunday Poem.

Kim has her own specific formula, which in many ways is self-sustaining, albeit horribly demanding. Like a dearly-loved child. Every week she will write a guileless and action -packed account of what she’s been up to, so it’s like a journal. And she will post a poem she’s requested from someone she’s met up with, or recently read, and tell us why she likes it. She’s recently changed the formula to starting with the poem and her thoughts about it, and then writing about her week. Either way, it works because what you get to share is the working life and enthusiasms of a gigging, working, inspirational poet.

All four of my inspirational bloggers teach me something, and I’ve tried to suggest what it is. If I haven’t, then mea culpa. I will try harder. But they have all taught me the importance of being open, of taking risks, of sharing doubts and uncertainties, of championing what you think is important. And of doing it every week no matter what. I think the best bloggers are like sharks. If they stop swimming they die. They just need a flask of tea, or a friendly word, or a hand with the rucksack, or a ciggie, or a chocolate croissant. And the consoling lie that the end is just round the corner, or just over the hill.

Listen. I’ve not forgotten all those other poetry bloggers…Robin Houghton, Jo Bell, Maria Taylor, Jayne Stanton, Mark Connors, Julie Mellor. It’s the Desert Island Disc thing. There’s always someone great left out. Don’t be hurt. Please don’t unfriend me on Facebook.

Next week…a very special post with a Very Special Guest. Clean collars and ties. Think on.

12 thoughts on “Running on empty

  1. Now, to your post- another goodie. I have no idea what the minimal statistics on ‘Heckle’, my blog, will be. I have had my blog for 7 years but am an infrequent poster. I realise I prefer to keep things in my head. however, I enjoy your blog, and all the others mentioned here, and think I know I have loads to say about all aspects of poetry-so maybe I should post more. Will think on it!;)


      1. this is an out of sequence reply…if you really want to do it, then make a wish list of topics and issues and bees in bonnets. And a wish list of poets. And a wishlist of poems that you want to share. And a list of poetry events that you always look forward to. That should give you about 20 posts to be going on with. I just followed my own advice. And I got about 20. And there was I thinking I was stuck.


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