Another star fallen: Shirley McClure



I knew Shirley McClure for one week, a year ago. I met her on a writing course where she’d come with her friend Jane Clarke. Shirley was physically frail, recovering from treatment for her cancer. Physically. Not mentally. Not spiritually. Not any other way at all. Funny, feisty, didn’t miss a trick. I opened up my Facebook posts this morning to find she has died, and I couldn’t breath properly for a minute. Shock. Disbelief. Hadn’t I seen photos of her earlier this year…river swimming, full of health, or so it seemed. I have lost a lot of friends this year. I want to rage against the dying of the light, but that does no one any good, after all. So this is to say thankyou to and for Shirley McClure.

Here’s what I wrote about her in April this year:


In a few weeks I’ll be back in the blue house in the middle of the picture. Almaserra Vella, in the village of Relleu in Alicante. I’m not sure I need an excuse for posting it, but I do have one. Because it’s the house where I met today’s guest poet..a year ago, on a writing week tutored by Ann Sansom. She’s not the first guest from that week. We’ve met Jane Clarke and Martin Reed, and equally, another guest who I wouldn’t have met but for the Old Olive Press…my friend Hilary Elfick. I’m not sure why it took me so long to ask Shirley McClure to share her work with us. However. Better late than never.

By way of introduction, then, a story I thought twice about sharing, and then decided it was too good not to. You know how it is at a writing workshop. Deep concentration, silence, the susurrus of paper, the scratch of pens. Sighs. The creak of a chair. And the task. It wasn’t one I associate with Ann Sansom…she’d given each of us a postcard of a portrait. The task was to adopt the voice of a character in the picture, or to create a stream of consciousness sort of thing. I got the equivalent of a ‘Hello’ photoshoot of three languid landed sisters by John Singer Sargent. Shirley McClure, it turned out, had been given one by John Waterhouse ….one of my favourite painters…..of his favourite model, in the guise of a nymph or a mermaid or a minor deity or a dryad. He did a lot of those. Anyway, it was one of those spells in a morning’s writing when I sort of drift off, my mind elsewhere, and folk were reading their drafts, and suddenly I was startled by this sardonic, no-messing Irish voice saying

John;  I know you want to ride me…..’

Since then I’ve read Stone dress, and found myself brought up short, and sometimes close to tears, by the poems about mastectomy, about the relentless business of cancer and its treatments, by lines like these from A marriage: ‘At home we made delicate love /watchful of bandages’, or from Photoshoot ‘ Nurses rave about the handiwork, / scars are praised…..yours is the best we’ve taken……there is more than one way to find fame.’

Bloodaxe poet, Katie Donovan describes that voice for me when she writes of Shirley’s recitations of deadpan lust. That’s the word I wanted: deadpan

But that ‘John, I know you want to….’ was the first time I heard Shirley McClure reading.  I’ve said before that it’s the voice that sells me the poem, and I’ve also said, more than once, that the Irish have an unfair advantage when it comes to voice. Not all the Irish, I suppose I should say. Not the Irish of the Falls Road and the Shankhill, where every vowel sounds like a grudge or a grievance . But it’s that drily sardonic Irish voice that I hear when I read so many of Shirley’s poems, and I love it. I like the drawl, the vowel song.

And now it’s time to introduce her. Born in Waterford in 1962,  Shirley lives in Bray, Co. Wicklow.She studied English Literature and Spanish at Trinity College Dublin and undertook a Master’s degree in Latin-American Studies at Liverpool University. She went on to do a variety of jobs including volunteering in a mens’ hostel in Liverpool; teaching English as a foreign language in Reading, Dublin, Vigo and Quito; tutoring in literacy and creative writing at the Dublin Institute of Adult Education and Tosach, an AnCo centre in Dublin’s inner city; project work in Focus Point (now Focus ireland) which included drama, literacy and counselling; teaching English to Vietnamese refugees in Dublin. Since 1992 she has been a natural health practitioner and teacher. She practices shiatsu and aromatherapy (see and works with a number of community and holistic organisations, teaching and facilitating groups. She also teaches creative writing with a particular interest in writing and health.

stone dress 2

Shirley’s collection, Stone Dress (Arlen House) and her CD Spanish Affair, with her own poems plus poetry and music from invited guests, both came out in 2015. All proceeds from the CD go to Arklow Cancer Support Group, where Shirley facilitates a writers’ group. Her first poetry collection, Who’s Counting? (Bradshaw Books) won Cork Literary Review’s Manuscript  Competition 2009. She won Listowel Writers’ Week Originals Poetry Competition 2014, and the title poem of her new collection, ‘Stone Dress’, won the Penfro Poetry Competition. And now you’ll be wanting to know why she’s a prize-winner. Time for the poems. She’s sent me a slack handful from Stone dress, and I couldn’t be more pleased.

stone.dress1 jpg

The first one is typical of her clear-eyed unflinching gaze, and the diction that tells you exactly how to listen to the poem.


Nurse dresses the wound,

we talk hormones, oestrogen,

how the levels will drop

like water in a summer pool

that yields only a dry ring,

a glaze of salt.


She says I can swim in salt
water, now that the wound
is healing; she says to ring
if there’s a problem. Oestrogen
used to be my friend. The pool
is out of bounds, but I can drop


down into the waves, swim till I drop,

crawl out covered in salt.

Sea water gathers in a pool

at my feet, and even the wound

shines. Sunbathers beam oestrogen,

and I stand, hopeless in a ring


of bare-breasted women. Can’t ring

any nurse about this. Can’t drop

out of the world because of oestrogen.

I change in our room, taste salt.

My sun-dress won’t cover the wound,

I pull on an old t-shirt, curl up by the pool.


You find me at the pool.

Still not used to your ring –

the ring came before the wound,

before the floor dropped

out of the world, before salt

baths and the war against oestrogen.


– Was it the oestrogen                                            

you fell for, or the reflecting  pool,                

or my image conserved in salt?                         

Would you rather I gave back the ring,                

would you rather we dropped                               

the whole plan? I wound


you with questions, wound with oestrogen,

the drops I have left, run from the pool,

your ring glued to my finger with salt.


It was Kim Moore who made me try to write a sestina, and it was Kim Moore who explained that what a sestina is ideally suited for is the exploration of an obsessional idea. Which is exactly why this poem grips and grips and won’t let go. That, and its echoes of the mythic, of women turned to salt, of the iconography of rings, of the lost, like naiads by pools in legendary clearings. So many layers, and always, always, rooted in the here and now, the unavoidable. Stunning. By contrast, the next one is in what feels like more familiar territory, and what makes me think of Heaney…and, indeed, of Jane Clarke. A poem full of love. And, I think, the only poem I know about table tennis.


Best Of Three

When it first came in, they’d use cigar box lids

for bats, a champagne cork for a ball.

They played it after dinner, as a parlour game,

the fathers back from India keeping score,

the uncles in their uniforms shaking hands.


Our dad taught us how to hold the blade,

coached us on how the sleight of hand required

to spin the ball depended on your stance,

your handshake grip, the flick of wood and rubber,

showed the three of us the chop, the loop, the kill.


Jack Frost  was outside but we were holed up

round the table in the echoing house, and sweating.

Everyone played, even Uncle Arthur, whose hands

big as mill wheels dizzied and spun the spectators,

each grateful for the pipe-smoke lightness of the  ball.


Last night in the Parochial Lodge, my hands shook

as the ball danced away from me. New rules,

faster, up to eleven only and  two serves each.

Slowly I corrected my footing as though

my father still stood by the net, score-keeping.


I’m hooked right from the first line; if this was to turn up in a bunch of submissions for a competition I was judging, it would go straight into the ‘probables’ pile, just for that first line. Ah, the power of the pronoun, that artful ‘it’. And then, like Heaney’s father, digging:   my father……….scorekeeping.  Lovely. As is the next poem.

Katie Donovan says of Shirley McClure’s work in Who’s counting: “Quirky and wise, studded with razor-sharp double entendres and droll fantasies, these poems introduce a refreshing new voice in Irish poetry. Fuelled by a combative curiosity about the underbelly of human relationships, this is a poetry of candour and folly, and ultimately of discovery. Themes include sexual jealousy, bereavement, and how a woman regards her physical self. …….. Here is a poet sure of her craft, ready to share incantations of desire and domesticity with poise and elan. From recitations of deadpan lust to the sensitivities of one who is flying on the margins of mortality, the poems in Who’s Counting? become friends whom we cannot resist revisiting.”

I hear the voice that I heard a year ago in Spain whenever I read this poem.

The Kiss

I could have been

a better student – learned Lorca

from the library stacks,


not lying

on the shag rug

in the lecturer’s flat.


I half-listened to his Verde,

que te quiero verde,

knowing he would kiss me later;


half-believing that his tongue –

its twist and roll

around my own –


would transmit linguistics,

short-cut me

to fluency.


It’s the laconic bit about the shagpile rug in the lecturer’s flat, and its guiltless trangressiveness that makes me laugh, and then feel slightly guilty about. My bad. As one of my granddaughters says. But she writes sexy poems as well as harrowing ones does Shirley McClure. I’d like to share the whole collection ( all these poems are from Stone Dress)…but then you wouldn’t need to buy it, and you really, really must. So, just one more.  I wanted to share one about hoovering, but wordpress can’t cope with the formatting of a shaped poem, but I’m just as happy to share this one instead.


The Amorous Cat

 The Amorous Cat bookshop in Aigburth

closes its door for final time

– Liverpool Echo, 2012


Do you ever take a walk in Sefton Park,

browse in the bookshop on Lark Lane?

Is there still a bookshop on Lark Lane,

are any lefties left in Sefton Park?


Do you ever have occasion to remark

to Fabiana, Donna or Lorraine

how much you miss la lucha, the campaigns,

the prisoners’ letters, every Saturday a march?


Or could it be you never settled down,

that when you said don’t ever contact me

because I can’t forget you, that you meant it,

mean it still; oh, but I hope your Liverpool’s a town

grumbling with bookshops – that you’ve forgotten me,

just as I’ve kept my promise – written this, not sent it.


Actually, it’s nice to finish with a love letter, however bittersweet, rather than falling down a flight of stairs with a hoover.


Find out more about Shirley McClure’s via this link

and her books

Who’s Counting? from Amazon’s Book Store. … Paperback: 63 pages; Publisher: Bradshaw Books £9.00

Stone dress [Arlen House 2015] from Kenny’s bookstore:  €13.00


Gems revisited: Tom Cleary

Irish Lake

My apologies. We’re a day late. You’ve waited with enormous patience, and all I can say is: your patience will be rewarded. To start with, you won’t have to wade through any ramblings on things poetic, and that’s because our guest has sent me an embarassment of riches. Lots of big satisfying poems, today, and little for me to do but crack on and introduce him. Ladies and gentlemen: Mr Tom Cleary!

This is some of what I said about him on his first visit to the Cobweb in November 2014:

It was the first of several posts when I reflected on a poet’s voice, and Irish voices (North and South) in particular, and how I’d once met Seamus heaney by accident and heard him read, and bought him a pint:

“……..most of all, I remember the voice, the one that tells me how to hear every poem of his that I ever read thereafter. And realising that poetry was an unfair business, and there were poets born with a headstart, with gift of a certain kind of dialect or accent, absolved of the curse of RP.

It’s something I think of particularly whenever I hear an Irish poet reading. Frank Ormesby was one. James Caruth is another. They are voices made for poetry, in the way I think that voices like Garrison Keillor’s and Bill Bryson are made for prose storytelling. It’s difficult to describe the quality I’m thinking of. It’s not the fact of a tenor or a baritone voice. It’s the business of rhythm and of softened consonants and the space that’s given to vowels that does it for me. (Harrison’s consonants are nailed down, if you see what I mean. They don’t compromise. They put an edge on the words). I’m thinking of the way the lines come in a series of waves, often the rise and fall of three or four syllables, almost regular but never metronomic, like small seashore waves. A bit like the patterns of Anglo Saxon poetry, but more spacious. The result is always unassertive, unemphatic, and it has both authority and authenticity. Like I say, it’s an unfair advantage. I could listen to them reading catalogues and bus timetables.”

Try to keep that in your mind when you read the poems that come later.Tom Cleary is an Irish poet who lives in Hebden Bridge. When he retired after teaching for many years in secondary schools in England, he started to write poetry. In 2011 he won a poetry competition organised by Writers Forum and HappenStance, and his prize was the publication in August 2014 by HappenStance of his pamphlet, The Third Miss Keane.


In 2015, he won a Northern Writers’ Award as one of six New North Poets. [I was personally much heartened by this…Tom, like me, is in his 70s, and we both come late to writing seriously]. In 2016, one of his poems, ‘Black’, was longlisted in the National Poetry Competition. In May of this year, he promoted, organised and fronted the highly successful ‘Irish and Irishness’ Poetry Reading at the Bradford Literature Festival in which he was also one of the 7 poets on view. He gave a public reading at the Poetry School annual launch in London in April, and at the ‘Poetry at the Parsonage’ poetry festival in Haworth in July.

[An aside: that Irish and Irishness was a remarkable affair, held in   a ballroom in the Midland Hotel in Bradford. A room the size of a football pitch, all mirrors and chandeliers. Like I imagine the Titanic. A massive audience, and a line up that involved Anthony Costello, Ian Duhig, Peter Riley, Kim Moore (temporarily granted Irish citizenship)..and Natalie Rees, who I seriously hope will one day agree to be a guest on the Cobweb. He sits well in that kind of company, does Tom. As his poems will now demonstrate.

When he was here last he let me use a poem from The Third Miss Keane …it starts innocently enough


I saw her first at the bridge where we went

for the dancing. Her legs leapt to the frenzy of the fiddles.

They all wanted her but she chose me.

Come with me for the goose, she said.

But that last line is anything but innocent, and the poem goes on disturbingly, in the dark way of folk tales. These two endorsements give you the flavour.

‘In the neo-folktales of Tom Cleary’s The Third Miss Keane, we see a refreshingly off-kilter voice from we expect great things in the future.’ – Poetry Book Society

‘The poems in The Third Miss Keane often feel slightly surreal, or fairy-tale like, but they always have their own inner logic’ – Kim Moore.

Tom’s latest poems move in new directions, but the roots and the voice are constant I think. Though they grow darker. The first will feel like nearly-familiar territory if you know ‘The third Miss keane’.

Mrs Cassidy

When the Cassidys came to the house next door, my brother Ferdie

fell in love with the mother. Through a delicate wine glass

pressed against the wall of his room he listened to their couplings.

How can she love that hairless creature? How can she let him touch her?

He stalked her through the markets on Saturdays. At night

he stood motionless behind the dark hedges of our garden

and watched her bedroom light go on and off.

He knelt behind her at mass, his nose nuzzling her hair.

Her heady perfume of musk drugged him into a swoon.


Later at the summer fair, he fell desperately in love

with the Headless Lady. Once we went together to see her,

shuffling and bumping through the crowded tent on tiptoe,

our sandalled feet numbed in the wet grass. In the deep shadows

of the tent behind a low balustrade she filled her Windsor chair,

snug and cosy. I couldn’t take my eyes off

the tangled cluster of tubes and wires pouring out of her neck.


Ferdie was enraptured by her stillness, by the soft slow movement

of her thighs beneath her ample skirts, the even rise and fall

of her breasts. He saw advantages in a lover not having a face.

When should I make my move, Cis? I could say nothing.

When the fair moved on at the summer’s end, he locked himself in his room.

Downstairs we listened to his sobbing, frozen in our chairs.


I love the texture and rhythm that underpin this dark, surreal, or fairy-tale like story, the doubt about who is telling the tale, and the narrator’s appalled fascination at the brother’s be-wilderment. He can tell a story, Tom Cleary…a story with lots more questions than answers, and one validated, like ‘Goose’ by the matter-of fact credibilty given by their opening lines.


The next poem shifts us from a rural Ireland into a more documented and documentary urban Ireland.

War Photo


Policemen in black and helmets squat on their haunches.

One sits on his bottom, legs spread, staring through a Perspex face shield.

They look like small boys in costume playing jackstones on the road,

skidding lumps of broken paving over the tarmac.


Beyond them there’s a woman in a striped sweater,

a man in a shirt as white as an advert,

figures with blank Os for heads,

like mannequins in a field to frighten birds.

A screen of metal with a mesh of gauze

hides a delicate blur that might be a child.

And Michael may have been hunched for hours, nursing his camera,

stepping back and sideways to avoid the bricks,

steaming cups of tea between the heels of his mittens.


Then these two women promenaded through holding hands.

One, her face fat with flush,

bundled her raincoat with her handbag under one arm,

and pressed the older woman’s hand to her thigh.

The companion blinked through the flash of her glasses

and surrendered her hand as if it was no longer hers.

It almost looks staged, back-projected from a comfortable suburb

where people had more time to talk

about supermarket bargains and boozy nights out,

Grania’s wedding and a June flight to the Canaries.



A shift of place and shift of voice to match. It seems to me that this poem nails down that dreadful quality of banality, the way violence becomes mundane, the complex fears and determinations that lie behind flaccid cliches, like ‘Life must go on’. Because Auden shone an unforgettable light on the irony of that. Atrocity happens anywhere, and the torturer’s horse scratches its innocent behind on a tree. In details like

a man in a shirt as white as an advert,


figures with blank Os for heads,

like mannequins in a field to frighten birds.


a delicate blur that might be a child.

Tom makes you look again at what you thought was familiarly forgotten.


Lest you suppose that Tom’s landscapes and narratives are necessarily ‘Irish’, it’s worth pointing out that he’s also lived in Spain, and that there are harder, harsher landscapes than the greys and greens of Ireland. He’s also recently been setting poems in Russia, and in snow and ice. But this one I was pleased to have because it showcases Tom’s power as a storyteller.

The irises in the arroyo


When he drove me up into the mountains that night

a sickle moon hung over the peaks in the blue-black velvet of the sky,

but he never let me see his face.


The locals ignored me.

They just turned away and looked down

as if they’d got a whiff from the cloacas.

But then they turned against me with a vengeance

for no reason, talked behind my back,

spread rumours about my relations with Carmela.

I went into a crowded bar and everyone fell silent.

I met them in the street and they deliberately showed me their backs.


I grew so weary of their endless fiestas,

the fiesta of the witches,

the fiesta of St. Agatha with no breasts,

the fiesta of the nun miraculously pregnant.

And of their third-rate music.

And of their dead wild pigs stinking of dung, their rank jabali.

And to listen to that uncouth language, all day, all day,

snapping like storks’ bills, clack, clack, clack.

Never to hear your own tongue spoken.

You practise it in your head but you lack the muscle to hold it.

My language is a cheese in the attic, nibbled away.


Anonymous notes typed in lower case used to come on plain paper.

I thought someone was on my side, but it was just old Q4

up to his tricks, his never-ending game of loyalties and betrayals.


Now they’ve stopped my money.

This is when they send a man.

I jump at the crack of a tree in the wind,

or stones rolling on the roof, or a crow squalling.

I watch every day for the man and I’m too old to run.

I lie in bed listening for his footsteps.

In the market yesterday, I saw a face I knew.

I ran at him but they closed ranks and blocked me.


All night the rain’s been bucketing down

on my lean-to kitchen, pounding the plastic sheeting.

Its grey smoking curtains have wiped out the mountains.

The irises in the arroyo are sunk.


I have no idea who is telling me this story, but I’m convinced of his authenticity. I could spend hours inventing a backstory, and an ending. I want to make a film of it. It reminds me of Graham Greene. It reminds me, too of Cormac McCarthy. It’s jammed with anxiety and hopelessness. It reminds me of that Bob Dylan line ‘In the hilltop village, they gambled for my clothes’. In fact, it’s another line of Dylan’s from Desolation Row that jumped into my mind when I read the next, and last,  poem: they’re selling postcards of the hanging


Waiting for the General


Carts were abandoned at roadsides.

Unmilked cows trumpeted their pain from the byres.

Soldiers jammed the street with their grief, psychotic saints.

Some walked in a dream, gun hands dangling.

Others waved their arms recklessly like burning brands.

Women wept and threw themselves on the ground,

filling their slack mouths with gravel.

Others held their palms out cupped to catch rain.


I left and I walked to the vaulted rocks

and I watched the spring ooze around the flat plates.

I eased myself into a green wash of water.

When the serpent rose up before me, swaying and humming,

its skin of oil and water rippling,

I measured my frame against it, and I cut it down.


I’d love to know what you make of this, how it suddenly swerves beyond folktale and into fable, how it ends with an image straight out of a pre-Rapaelite catalogue.

I hope it won’t be too long before Tom Cleary has another collection published, but in the meantime, if you don’t already own it, I do urge you buy

The third Miss Keane: [Happenstance 2014]  use the link:



A brief note on tinkering…. and a Gem Revisited: Roy Cockcroft


When I asked him to come again, something my returning guest wrote set me off musing on the way I (and others?) can’t leave a poem alone. Not even when it’s out there, with its spotty bundle and faithful cat, seeking its fortune. I’ve got all sorts of poems out for competitions or submitted to magazines, or already proofread and about to be published…and I keep re-reading them, tweaking line breaks, deleting whole lines and stanzas, changing line order. And then I forget to make a copy, and I save the changes, and I’ve no idea what the original was like, or whether it’s been improved, or should have been left very well alone. Which is why I was intrigued by Roy Cockcroft’s musings about a prizewinning poem of his, and about the changes he made or may have made…and which, very shortly, you can read. If you go to poetry readings around the East Riding, you may already know Roy and his work.  Or if you follow the cobweb you could well have met Roy before. On January 11th 2015, in fact. You might like to read that post, too. Here’s the shorter version.

Leeds 1961:   a boy sets himself the task of describing that universe, of painting a new mythology. after the interruptions of secondary education, university, and thirty-two years of teaching, he resumes the task, picking up his pen, writing poetry, daubing canvasses with paint, trying to remember where he left off.  During those 32 years I had the pleasure of teaching with him. For the full story, head back to January 2015 in the archive.

Subsequently,  this is what the Driffield Post Times wrote about him a few years ago.

‘Roy Cockcroft, from Langtoft, was awarded the Elmet Poetry Prize at a ceremony held in Mytholmroyd….on Friday. Roy.. was awarded a £300 first prize for his efforts……the competition was judged by Ted Hughes’ daughter, Frieda…and based on the theme of Remains’.

Which will now take us to Whitby by circuitous ways. And the winning poem.





I wrote about the poem, Wet harvests:

No wonder it won. There are lines and phrases that make me catch my breath….the housewifely simple unspeakable wish of

‘mothers and wives who wanted their men back/to dry out under their own rafters’

and the wives and mothers

‘thinking the shroud into the wool’.

Stunning. I want to let Whitby stand for all the North-East coast that this poem renews as a working coast of fishermen, and their wives and children, and a coast of indifferent sea.”


So what about ‘tinkering’? I’ll leave the rest of this post pretty well to Roy…….who writes:

In 2008 I wrote this. Or something like this.

Wet Harvests

Here on the east coast,

When the sea had given up its claim

On their inheritance,

The mothers and wives wanted their men back,

To dry out under their own rafters.

And so, when a coble sank with all hands,

The cold waves would see to it,

Returning the dead to their own shores,

Leaving them out for inspection

On familiar sand.


And then, if the corpse was known,

A grave could be dug in the churchyard’s fathoms –

A small berth,

Sheltered from the wind,

Anchored safely in the swell of the mourning parish

By a slab of stone.

But when the tides objected,

Holding them back,

Letting the strict currents carry them miles

From their home,

Strangers would wash up on the beach,

Men without names –

Except, of course, that, under their pale skin,

All drowned mariners are spliced in the blood

With the shawled mother standing on the quay.


So, to sort Withernsea from Bridlington,

The women turned to worsteds and hefty needles,

Clacking post-codes into ganseys,

Thinking the shroud into the wool,

Teaching their own blend of rib and cable

To the black-fingered girls.


How their thick ply foiled the sea’s sick game.

Now the draggled fleece on the shingle

Had a name. Now the shore-crabs and the gulls

Might strip men to the bone,

But never pick the parish records

From their plains and purls.

Is a poem ever finished? The fact that, (as you may have noticed), I have recently made changes mostly to verse three would suggest not. Once changed, is it the same poem? Possibly not. Or is it now the poem it was always going to become? This particular poem has had many lives; isn’t this merely another? Am I the same author, the one who was there at its conception, or am I just a sympathetic but ruthless editor making judgements about another man’s poem?

Its conception? The chance discovery of a piece of local history in a wool shop in Whitby, printed on a brown paper bag. A gull on the roof of the Seaman’s Mission. A church bell. The  strength of wool when it pulls against itself in a mysterious sequence of knots. The question of identity; the contrasting anonymity of the sea. The way  knitting becomes a metaphor, a figure that stands for the way women have networked the coastline. A feeling of constraint in the first half to be followed by a sense of achievement in the second. All of these ideas emerge gradually until I finally discover what it was I was trying to say. That process, as you can see, is still going on.

Apparently Degas was notorious for this refusal to accept that a painting was ever finished, often removing them from the wall when he visited his buyers’ houses and taking them back to his studio where they would remain for months. I can identify with that on occasions.

To use an art metaphor let’s look at some of the earlier sketches of this poem. In 2006 the first verse looked like this


Here on the East Coast

The wives and mothers wanted their men back

To dry out under their own rafters

Once the sea had dropped its (bold) claim

On their inheritance

And so when a coble sank

Was it too much to ask of the (obdurate) waves

To return the (hapless) dead

To the shores of the towns that bred them

For burial in calm graves

Under slack soils     (2006)


Looking at this I can see how ‘inheritance’ needed to be adjacent to ‘wives and mothers’ or now ‘mothers and wives’. I also remember deciding to reduce the adjective count and let the verbs do the work.

To keep that continuous thread of ‘mother’ ‘women’ and ‘girl’ I appear to have cut out a whole section of verse three –


And all the sisters and all the sweethearts

Who have the sea-salt flowing in their tears

And bigger tides rising in their own breast

Than ever ripped keel and deck apart

Or shook the arrogance of piers   (2006)


I seem to remember trying to retain those lines and get rid of the unfortunate metrical carnage, but deciding instead that it added little to the poem. And so it went. ‘deck’ was meant to anticipate the cluster of hard ‘k’ sounds in the next few lines that simulate the clicking of needles, but I must have decided there were enough of them to make the point.

Is the poem finished now? Well, since you ask, I’m thinking that we could do without ‘safely’ in line 15.

But perhaps, finally, the time has come to let it rest.



That was then, Where are we now? As a writer I am still fascinated by the same ideas as I was then; the way the past emerges in the present; finding the heroic in the domestic; the landscapes in my head;  but now that I do more painting than writing, it is becoming clear that the two art forms are affecting each other; my painting is abstract to the point where the marks I make on the canvas can be called visual metaphors and I’m more conscious of rhythm and ambiguity in my compositions than I used to be ; by the same token my writing is now I believe more stripped of explication than ever before, while in my landscape poems colours bleed into the other senses in a kind of synaesthesia. Here are two examples.


The sheep have made thin, brown paths

In the melting snow –

White porcelain fragments

badly repaired

To make a hill.


Last week they were plunging through drifts,


To get at the grass,

Sheltering in hollows,

Always looking towards the gate.


Once, with snow still falling,

The farmer brought hay –

Three bales of it steaming in the dark of his truck –

Wrestled them out of its gaping back

And knifed them open,

Spilling their warm guts

Across the field’s slab.

Standing by the trough,

He clubbed the ice, till it caved in,

Scooping the biggest lumps

From the water with his bare hands,

Before driving off.


The sheep have abandoned

One patch of thawed ground

For another. Rooks angle their long, grey beaks

Into the turf.

Ice floats in the ditch like a dead seal.

A robin claims what’s left

Of the ruined hedgerows with his red shout.


Already there in the hazel,

Before the cold arrived,

Have just remembered

What their soft, green quivering was all about.





No one knows exactly where the river ends

And the sea begins,

But there are signs

that things have changed –


After the comfortable dialects

Of dapple and glide,

The river finds new voices –

Herons shuffling around

On smeared branches, coughing

Or going hysterical,

Dredging their vowels

From sluice-gates –

And there’s the slow grinding of rock

In the bed’s unstoppable machinery

And the guarded whisperings of sedge.


And features change –

Boats hang skewed on cable,

Or stretched out,

Exposing their keels on a wet slab;

Fences of reed split water

Into shallow lakes;

Banks are uncertain;

Every day the tide invents a new channel;

And later, when the fog clears,

We notice the wading of submerged roots,

A twist of wire fishing for its own reflection,

Low branches watching for hours

Before they stab.


And now the river has a new name.

And new colours –

Traces of black –

A suspicion of red –

Browns, purples and yellows leaking from ancient storms.


Levelling out, the greasy current slows,

Dithering in blocked drains,

Smelling of salt and ammonia,

Going backwards,

Muttering to itself,

Revisiting the same places.

 I was prompted  to include this last example by Yvie Holder’s recent contribution to John’s blog , Alzheimer’s being a subject to which I regularly return. The poem also brings us back to where we started – the sea. I’ll resist the temptation to deconstruct my poem; there is of course a tradition of critical theory which says it is not my job anyway, that it is for critics to provide the context for such analysis. I am reminded of the words of a fellow artist who dreaded the thought of critics picking over his work, even though some of them ‘couldn’t paint a fence’; he said it was like fearing psychoanalysis, coming to terms with the notion that someone else knows more about the workings of your mind than you do. In a way I agree; you can hear the critical voice as soon as you see the poem in print – Is this ‘the deep sea swell’ of Phlebas the Phoenician, ‘a fortnight dead,’ or is this Lowell’s drowned sailor who ‘clutched  the drag-net … his matted head and marble feet…’ ? On the other hand I claim the right (and will possibly exercise that right) to come back to these poems and finish them at some point in the future. Or I may just leave them as they are. 

Roy Cockcroft  August 3rd 2016.

It’s an absolute joy to have a guest who does all the work, does the painting, and leaves me a post I can keep coming back to, turning over the business of making, drafting, tinkering. Thanks Roy!  Another Gem Revisited next week. Come early to be sure of a seat.


Please, Miss, I don’t know what to write (2): A little learning


A couple of weeks ago [August 14] I was getting over-dogmatic (as it seems to me now) about the pleasures of ‘research’….indeed, about the absolute necessity for it if you’re ever to get beyond yourself, if you’re ever to become the dark watcher you need to be.

Last Thursday I was in Pontefract for one of Steve Ely’s ‘Dissonant voices’ monthly poetry readings. It ought to attract a massive turnout. Maybe it was because it was the time of year, but on Thursday there were five of us…for an Ian Duhig reading. Ian Duhig !!!! You’d think they’d be beating down the doors. As it was, we sat around one table and listened to Ian talking about the kind of research that goes into his work. Interviewing ex-policemen, investigating terrible acts of violence and injustice, researching the history of Chapeltown Road in Leeds, Blind Jack of Knaresborough who surveyed and engineered that road and read the earth with his feet….and so on. Utterly unpredictable and fascinating. We wondered about the history of the Kingdom of Elmet, the names of its parishes, the fact that the only journey HenryVIII made to the North was to Pontefract, and why the main road from Airedale into Leeds ran through the nave of Kirstall Abbey. Place names; why in the West Riding, and the Rhubarb Triangle, liquorice is still called ‘spanish’. We talked about Islam, about Catholicism, about Irishness, about the intercession of saints, about confession and repentance and forgiveness. And much else.

I drove home with ideas buzzing like wasps, wanting to know more, wanting to write about them. I think that often this is the problem. I’ll go chasing after stuff, like a labrador in a field full of rabbits. My daughter-in-law has me bang to rights; this is a present she bought me last Christmas.


Perhaps it should be a tee shirt that I’m made to wear at writers’ workshops. I have a scattershot approach to conversation and to finding things out. I think that I’ve grasped ideas when I haven’t. It’s not unique. I was reading Anthony Sher’s autobiographical memoir a couple of nights ago, and all I wanted to do was go and read The year of the King again. And those RSC books (mostly out of print)..Players of Shakespeare. And why not Ken Branagh’s Beginning. And Simon Callow. And John Barton. Before I know it I’ll be thinking I know something about acting, or Shakespearean verse-speaking. And I’ll Anthony Sher. I can’t resist this extract. Sher has been at a memorial service for Monty, his therapist.

“we learned a strange thing. Before he trained as a psychotherapist, Monty’s profession was not that of doctor, which we all thought, but that of dry-cleaner. Dry-cleaner?

I looked at my fellow ‘clients’ in bewilderment.

‘It’s not just me , is it? I put it in Year of the king [Sher’s account of his playing Richard the Third at the RSC in Stratford] – that he’s a GP turned therapist —I must’ve got that from him. I wouldn’t just have made it up’

‘No, no, I remember him telling me too,’ said Richard ‘and how he delivered his daughter’s babies’

‘I got insurance on one of my films,’ said Mike Leigh, ‘on the basis that my therapist was also a qualified doctor’

‘While actually he was a dry-cleaner,’ Roger Allan commented.”

(Extract from Beside myself:  Anthony Sher.  Random House 2002)

I was much taken by Sher’s being particularly disconcerted that he had put what he genuinely believed in a book. Because you can’t retrospectively take it out of a book. It’s out there. It has a life of its own. It’s been validated by print. And it’s not true

Which brings me nicely to looking back at a couple of cobweb posts from last year. Last September I wrote a guest blog for Anthony Wilson’s Life-saving poems. (Whose life is it, any way). I wrote about how conflicted I’d been about putting friends into poems without their permission, and how it hadn’t really mattered until they were published. I wrote this about a poem that won a competition prize:

“I still didn’t feel right about publishing the poems. In a diffuse sort of way, a way that says: well, they’re not going to see these poems. No-one’s going to buy them after all.  That sort of thing. And then I wrote some more, and sent some in for competitions. A poem called Norman came 2nd in a York Literature festival competition this year. I wrote from memory and feeling. Some things I know are factually true and some as though they ought to be.



could birth a lamb in the lee of a dike,

smit a skittish ewe in a squall,

pin down a ram and not give a jot

for its yellow stare, the black slot of its sideways eye,

wear a two-year Herdwick like a scarf

over three miles of bog.


Now, there’s just one detail in this that’s not researched, not properly checked out. The detail about the Herdwick. Norman’s wife Effie has never said to me that this is wrong. But I really feel I just went for the easy otion of choosing that word because it fit better in the line than ‘Cheviot’ or ‘Black-faced sheep’, both of which seem now to be more factually likely. It’s a small thing, but it niggles, and asks questions about a writer’s responsibility.

A month earlier, in the cobweb, I wrote a post called ‘Putting the record straight’. This was more complicated. I’d written poems about my grandparents..who I never knew..and my mother, who I thought I knew. I never wrote about my mum and dad until both had died. And I put these family biographies in my second pamphlet ‘Backtracks’. I wrote about my grandma, Ethel, about her suicide; about her husband Alfred’s death in or during the First World War. I wrote about my mother being orphaned. I based all of it on family anecdote. And then I was invited to a ceremony at Batley Cemetery, created by a Batley group who keep up the graves of Batley men who lost their lives in WW1. They have carefully commemorated the centenary of each and every one. And researched them just as carefully.

granddad alfred's centenary 019

We are sure we know the truth as we are told it, and as we pass it on to our children and their children, and so on. I thought I knew my granddad -or at least about him – even though he died 28 years before I was born, even though my mum hardly remembered him herself. She was four when he died. I knew he’d been a soldier, and simply assumed he’d been killed in action. And then, years on, I was rooting through an old attache case of my mum’s, full of small deckle-edged photos, and newspaper cuttings, and random documents like birth and marriage certificates.  I’m convinced that I remember finding a War Ministry telegram regretting to inform my Grandmother, and all of us, that her husband had died in an Army hospital in Aldershot. But I couldn’t have done. Because he didn’t. And how do I know? Because a group of volunteers, knowing nothing of me or my writing had done the research, and told me this:

Before the war Alfred had served his painting and decorating apprenticeship with John Tomlinson of Upper Commercial Street, Batley. He had joined the Batley Volunteers and Territorials in 1901 and had been promoted to Sergeant before WW1 broke out. He was entitled to a long service medal by 1914 but the war had interfered with the receipt of the medal.

When his camp at Whitby was broken up Alfred accompanied the Territorials to Doncaster, Gainsborough and York. His comrades went to the Front without him and he returned home to Batley. After a short stay at home he was sent to Beckett’s Park Hospital, Leeds as he was suffering from Bright’s Disease (a chronic inflammation of the blood vessels in the kidneys) resulting in protein in the urine. He was never to return home and died in hospital on Sunday the 8th of August 1915.

Whereas I’d written this:


There he is. Grinning and unsoldierly,
the despair of the RSM. The joker in the trench.
Except, I’ve no way of knowing if he ever was.

Maybe, Ypres and Mons and Passchendale
meant no more to him than Chapel hymn tune names –
O dass ich tausand zungen haite. Armageddon.

All based on just one photograph.

alfred 1

Unsoldierly. Except it turns out he wasn’t. You don’t get to be a sergeant by being ‘unsoldierly’. I see, though, that subconsciously I was giving myself a get-out clause :

Except, I’ve no way of knowing if he ever was.

Maybe there’s absolution in that. I’ve begun to notice that there are a lot of ‘maybes’ and ‘I thinks’ and ‘perhapses’ in my poems. What’s all that about. Why be tentative? Why not do the work, and find out. It gets more serious when I find I’ve written a poem that says my mother was orphaned at 14 and then , because I’m invited to a graveyard ceremony I find it’s not true. For years and years I believed that my grandma Ethel drowned herself, and that my mother was a teenager when she was left homeless. What’s more, my daughter Julie tells me that that’s the story she believes, and she believes her gran told her so. But I stood by a grave a year ago that says quite unequivocally that Ethel died in 1937. When my mother was 26. I managed to change the poem when I did a third reprint of Backtracks, but I can’t do anything about the first two printings. I know how Anthony Sher felt. But I put it in a book !

Now, what’s all this to do with a photograph of the Easter Island heads? Well, sometimes you can spend a lot of time getting excited about writing something and then find that it’s simply wrong. Not technically (though it may be) but in terms of its premise and its rhetoric. Here’s a cautionary tale. It starts on May 30th this year, in a poetry workshop task in Spain. It starts from a poem..Peter Carpenter’s Orion. It involves apostrophising a star. A four minute ‘get writing and don’t ask yourself questions’ task. I’m looking at my notes and find I wrote:

Most of this sublunary world being water and there are oceans where no stars are navigation lights. no one knows who carved the giant heads of Easter Island

Where did that come from? Sublunary is Shakespeare. Isn’t it? No idea. The other stuff is Bronowski’s The ascent of man. I’d got so fed up of ex-Blue Peter presenters infantilising TV ‘documentaries’ I thought I’d treat myself to a grown-up DVD, with a grown up very clever presenter. I believed everything Bronowski said about Easter Island..particularly something he said about the inhabitants being unable to leave because they had no stars to navigate by. Unlike us lucky folk in the Northern Hemisphere with the Pole Star at our disposal. A couple of months later, I knuckled down to bashing it out into a poem which I took to a Poetry Business writing day.

No direction home


Here’s a constellation came from murder,

this one from rape. The casual and insincere

atonements of the gods for petty spites,

for violently requited lusts.

Swaddled by stories,

we say the random stars

align themselves for our convenience


She-bear Callisto. The Plough.

Archer, Water-bearer, Crab and Swan.

A join-the-dots menagerie.

The unimaginable universe

a children’s bedtime picture book.


No one knows who made the huge stone heads

of Easter Island. No one knows why. Only

that they had no idea where they were,

and if they left, they had no idea where to,

and drifted till they died.


Staring, monumentally blind

stone heads of Easter Island.

Staring at unbroken sea,

the empty curve of the earth,

waiting for sails, waiting for gods.


If you lived on a star. If.

You could never leave.

You could never find your way

in the dazzling dust of galaxies.


[“Easter Island is 1000 miles from the nearest inhabitable land.How did men come here?….by accident. Why could they not get off?………because there is no Pole Star in the Southern Hemisphere” :Jacob Bronowsky: ‘The ascent of man’]

And got my first comeuppance. Here’s the poem after a bit of workshop commentary/criticism.

no direction

Now, I’d no problems with all the suggestions about what was weak, and what wanted ditching and so on. But what really knocked my legs out from under me was the indefatigably encyclopaedic Simon Currie telling me that all the heads stare inland ..not out to sea, but back towards the ancestors. And, unsurprisingly, he’s right. He usually is. Think about it. If you put it right, it rips out the core image of the poem. AAArghhhh!

I sent the poem to my friend and mentor Hilary Elfick (see cobweb post Nov 15 2015). Hilary lives in New Zealand for half the year. She’s a sailor, too. She knows about navigating the southern ocean in a sailboat. And she pointed out what I should have known if I hadn’t simply taken the professorial Bronowsky at his convincing word. What about the Southern Cross? What indeed. And she took the trouble to send me a photograph of it.



It’s very very bright. And there we are. ‘No direction home’ indeed! That’ll learn me. A little learning may be a dangerous thing. It certainly leads me down miry ways, and into dark corners and cul de sacs. He had it right, that Mr Pope and his acerbic couplets.

“A little learning is a dangerous thing.
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian Spring;
There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
and drinking largely sobers us again.”


Is that a note to end on? I think it is. But I’d love to hear your thoughts on this. There’s always going to be a tension between ‘poetic’ truth and verifiable documentary fact, but at what point does it turn into a conflict? Tell me.

(I reckon I’ve exhausted this strain of argument. Next week we’ll have a proper post with a proper poet, and I’m really looking forward to that. I hope you’ll join me)

Oh…and look out for Steve Ely’s poetry nights in Pontefract:

And if you want to buy poems that may or may not be misleading or downright lies, then go to ‘My Books‘ and Paypal will let you buy more copies of Backtracks than you can shake a stick at.