NaPoWriMo: it ain’t what you do…or maybe it really is


What set me off today was a post in Carrie’s NaPoWriMo

what do you do with that trembly feelingwhen you think you have written a really good poem, or perhaps it’s not ……[Hazell Hammond] 

I wrote back (pompously enough)

when you feel it, when it excites you, when it’s like someone else wrote it through you……then trust it. Leave it for a couple of days. Then go back. If it still does it, it’s the biz.

The fact is, sometimes you just know. There’s a poem in my collection that did that for me. What it does for anyone else is not my business, but I know I love performing it at poetry readings, the rhythm of it. I wrote the first version of it at Saturday workshop in Sheffield, nearly two years ago. The first task. 10.30am. Here’s your opening phrase. Off you go. Don’t think about it, don’t edit it, don’t stop. Here’s a slightly unfocussed scan from my notebook.

in the meantime notes

And now, here’s the final version, from the collection

In the meantime


because that’s how it is, the sparrow

flying into the meadhall, bewildered

by smoke-reek, gusts of beer-breath,

out of the wild dark and into the half-

light of embers, sweat, the steam

of fermenting rushes, and maybe

a harp and an epic that means nothing

in a language it doesn’t know, this sparrow,

frantic to be out there, and maybe

it perches on a tarry roof beam, catches

a wingtip, comes up against thatch

like a moth on a curtain, and it beats

its wings, it beats its wings, it tastes

a wind with the scent of rain, the thin

smell of snow, of stars, and somehow

it’s out into the turbulence of everywhere,

and who knows what happens next.

When I typed this on a screen for the first time, the line breaks seemed to fall naturally, it seemed to want a roughly eight-syllabled line, and the four stressed syllables of Anglo-Saxon verse. It wanted to be a single sentence. It wanted to be urgent. I think there are three small edits to a piece that took about three minutes to write. Some days it’s like that. Most, it isn’t. The thing is, you have no idea what prompt will kickstart something you really want to say. If it does, it won’t come out of nowhere. I must have been to Whitby, or been reading something about Caedmon, or the Farnes..I don’t know. But I know that in two years of compulsory Early English courses at University, the story of Caedmon was the only thing I ever read that came close to moving me.

whitby Poetry Business 2015 028

This will be my last post on the cobweb for NaPoWriMo. It’s been great to be involved. What I’d like to do is to say why I’ve written about 40 poem-shaped drafts since I started, and why I haven’t actually used many of the carefully crafted prompts that Carrire Etter has provided for her huge and hugely enthusiastic group. Mainly, it’s because I took the opportunity to go through the backlog of notes I’ve made in workshops, to look at the ones I’ve not done anything with, and to ask if, perhaps, any of then have legs. It turns out that they had, and I’m gradually removing the post-its and bits of paper that marked where they were. What I haven’t been able to do, apart from finding out what might be done with a pantoum (I’d never heard of it till now) is to follow prompts which focus on a particular form, whether it’s a sestina, a triolet, a terza rima, a rondo redoublé, or whatever.

For whatever reason, I just can’t do it. Maybe I mean that I don’t want to, in case I ‘fail’. Whatever that means. I’m going to use a reworked version of a post from January 2015 later on to explore it a bit further. But if you’re pushed for time, I’ll borrow a very simple justification that Clare Shaw used in one of her incredibly generous NaPoWriMo posts some  days ago.

NaPoWriMo Day 13.
Ghazals! they’re ace in the right hands, but I don’t have those hands. I made two attempts to write one and it’s too late and I’m to tired to keep on trying; so about 11.30pm I returned to a poem I started writing in response to a poem by John Foggin about a broken pot. Mine’s about a broken pot too.

On the other hand, when she’s aked to write a letter to someone, this happens

Letter to my mother

It’s been a long time,
there’s so much to catch up on.
I have a nine-year old daughter.
You’d like my partner.
I’m doing well in the ways
that count. As for the news – we’ll fall out
before we get started
and it’s late
and the light’s getting too faint
for writing. Just tell me about yourself,

things that matter:
how many skips of a stone
you could make on the water,
the roses, the nameless trees.
Let’s leave all the bad stuff to one side.
Tell me about mass, the tide of the voices,
how words were a river –
tell me what it was like to be seized by a river.
Tell me about your God
and when were you most yourself

in your garden; tell me about your lawn
and how did it feel when the stones
fell out from your walls, when the path faded;
when your world softened
and lost its edges; when you were broken
and couldn’t be mended;
when the words got stuck
in your throat. When people were ghosts
and you wouldn’t wear glasses; when you got lost;
when world was all losses.

Now tell me birdsong and flowers.
Tell me the importance of very good manners.
Do you remember the Lakes? Do you visit?
Do you recall how high the grass grew
and how it was sweet
at the roots? Can you taste it?
It’s late. Can you open your eyes,
can you speak, can you tell me
before the light goes out

I fancy this was written in one great sweep, no pauses, no stopping and worrying. The first 30 lines are all one sentence…well, almost. That line with the ghosts. I could see that you might have a semi-colon after ‘throat’, and I can see that maybe it did, and then got changed, to segue into the final stanza which is all short sentences, question after question; it’s in a panic, that last stanza , I think…. in a desperate rush to say everything before the last chance is gone, like trying to save all your precious things before the flood takes them …and it knows it’s going to fail, that the light’s going to go out, and that there never was enough time, and if there was, we never saw it was there. So, when Hazell Hammond asks about that trembly feeling when you think you have written a really really good poem then I can say I not only know what it feels like, but I can see when it’s happened to someone else. And for me, it’s nearly always because they’ve taken a risk with their own emotions, not edited them or dressed them up.

So, this post was in its earlier incarnation, prompted by Jenny Joseph’s Warning and was interesting itself in irresponsibility, unselfconsciousness, and risktaking. I’ve always been attracted by the notion of embracing irresponsiblity and eccentricity, but fight shy of their corollaries of physical and emotional and spiritual risk. I’m attracted to  those writers who take those kinds of risks in poetry, and I declare a preference for poems and poets that are courageous and unflinching.

For various reasons, I’m advised against eating processed meats, so sausages are out, and I’ve never been keen on wearing purple or rattling sticks along railings. Extravert behaviour has always come fairly easily, but  real risk-taking is something I’ve basically tried to keep at arms’ length, and without that, I see no way towards achieving the edge that I respond to so readily in other people’s poems.

I’m going to see if I can articulate this better . It may be that I have to come at it obliquely and crabwise. Fingers crossed, then. First of all, let’s declare that when I rock up at various writers’ workshops I invariably react negatively to exercises in ‘form’. My writing mind responds well to pressure and strictures about time, and cues about, say, how many lines I’m allowed, and even about the imposition of keywords to plant in each line. But that’s about it. What I can’t do is sit down and plan to squeeze an idea or a feeling into a terza rima, or a sestina or a sonnet. I can’t see the point of it. I’m not saying there isn’t one, but I find it quite hard enough to find out what I think I’m thinking or feeling, and what it might mean, without things being edited out by form or rhyme.

Rhythm is the thing  I need to think with . All my first and early drafts are in flat-out prose that attaches to a particular rhythm…which will in turn attach to the feel of a line length that I can fine tune later. In fact, while I’m having a ‘wearing purple’ day, I want poems where the form follows the drive of meaning and feeling. I like the playfulness, the wit, the rhetoric, the memorisabilty of rhyme in other people’s poems, but much of the time, they get in the way of what I want to say or feel. I’m always pleased to add to the bag of tricks and techniques, but almost always they’re the ones that help me to cut out what’s inessential, that make what’s left feel surprising and inevitable. I want holding forms, but there are beautifully crafted poems out there full of beautifully crafted observations and reflections and images that seem to sit there just to be admired. Like Faberge eggs. Exquisite and pointless bits of showing off. Don’t ask me for examples. I have few enough friends as it is. I’m just inviting you to see where I am before I go on about where I want to be.

Another ‘wearing purple’ thought. My Facebook pages are full of poetry and things about poetry. And there are so many people posting about how many collections have been bought and devoured. There are so many of you out there, reading so many poems. And here’s the thing. I don’t. I can go for days and weeks with one or two poems that affect me. Art galleries have the same effect. I can take in maybe four images (if it’s a good show) and then I want no more. After that the rest will simply blur into unmeaning. Two or three examples. There was a Stanley Spencer retrospective at the Tate Liverpool some years ago. Wonderful images everywhere. But it was as much as I could do to sit in front of ‘The resurrection at Cookham’. Enough there to fill my mind for years. Same with Peter Blake. Fantastic canvasses, but just one of his Ruralist self-portraits had enough ideas to last the week.


The Alte Pinakothek in Munich has a Rubens room that’s like walking through a celestial butchers’ cold room, but, tucked in a corner of a 19thC room, is a little Lautrec oil sketch. It’s on a piece of torn card. It’s of a bone-tired,  redhaired prostitute. The intensity of his imaginative engagement and unflinching raw honesty and tenderness is worth a room full of  gilt-framed blowsy renaissance treasures. That picture is like the poems I want to write. But trying to say what I mean is turning out to be like trying to describe vertigo. If you’ve ever frozen up at the top of a ladder, or on a rockface, or on seacliff path you know exactly what I mean. And if you haven’t, you don’t. Ah well. By the way, let’s be clear. I’m not for a second suggesting that there’s too much poetry around. Just that there’s too much for me to take in, and quite enough that moves me and excites me to be troubled about the rest.

There’s another thing I must say before I forget . What CAN’T workshops and exercises and boxes of tricks do  (well, for me, at least)? They may make you you more inventive, but they won’t make you more awake to what’s going on around you. If I’m not feeling, imagining the world, minute by minute, whatever will I be writing about? How do I grow more curious about, and more involved in, living and all its complexities. I know there’s a reflexiveness about being absorbed in creative works and being able to be absorbed in living, and being honest about it. But. Kim Moore gave me the keyword to hang on to. Value judgements about poetry are neither here nor there. ‘Good’ is irrelevant. What matters is whether it’s true or not. Don’t ask me to explain that. It’s like vertigo. But you know viscerally as well as intellectually when things are true or not. Don’t you? I don’t want to wear purple. I want to take the risks in engaging with the world ‘out there’  that end up with ‘true’.

And another thing (there’s no shape to this any more. Sorry). Curiosity. That ability to ask. What if? Why? About anything and everything. That would free me up, get the kinks and stiffness out of the way I write, I think. Couple of examples. I was at a workshop at the Orangery in Wakefield a couple of years ago, and strugglingling to concentrate, because I’d given up the chance of going to see Batley Bulldogs play Featherstone in a Championship play-off in order to go to the workshop. That’s commitment, that is. But two things made me sit up, and stuck like burrs. Kim Moore said both of them. The first thing was about an exercise in which we’d been invited to concentrate on a painting we knew, and to work with it. Kim said : have you ever wondered what it would be like to follow the painting round the edges to where it carries on. Something like that. The other was when she mused about geese being herded to market. Why would they walk when they can fly? she asked. Something like that. Both ideas still bother me. But I love and envy the idea of being able to think outside the frame, outside the obvious logic. The other example was in an email from Gaia Holmes. She said that maybe if you named all the bones in the body you’d call something up.  Wow! Just let that reverberate in your mind. Wonderful. I must learn to be free to imagine like that.


So, where are we. I think I’ll stop after a couple more short thoughts. My Facebook pages are full of other writers’  resolutions to write a poem every day in April…it’s struck chords around the web, has that. But there’s a corollary. Let’s say you can manage an hour or two a day. What will go on in all the other hours?  Because that’s where the work will come from.

Say you take your photograph of a drowned bird on shingly beach, and the wind blowing in from the Outer Islands. What does it mean to you? What do you mean to it? What does it mean? Why does it matter? Because if doesn’t, why did you take a photograph?

Here’s my NaPoWriMo wish for you. That things will matter more. And here’s one for me. For the awful daring of a moment’s surrender. Preferably, lots of them.

NaPoWriMo: Breaking Point

wave 2

Just past the half way point of Poem-a day-April. Starters from Carrie Etter. Starters from Jo Bell. More starters than you can shake a stick at. I’m going to stick at the business of fine-tuning and editing whatever your starters have turned up. Last week it was first lines. This week it’s line breaks. So, no ideas for new poems. Just things to think about once you’ve got drafts you think may have legs.

Just one thing before we get started properly. At the end of the day, you really hope someone is going to read what you’ve written, and someone’s going to care, someone’s going to be moved, someone’s going to be entertained, or brought to tears, or to see the world just that bit differently. Otherwise, what’s it for? You really hope someone will like it enough to publish it, and you’ll put up with all the polite ‘thanks for sending us your poems but……..’ for joy of the one that says ‘we loved your work and we can’t wait to publish it.’

I was mithering some time ago about the frustrations of having won a competition, the prize for which was to have a collection published. The frustrations came from long delays and unanswered emails, the feeling that perhaps it had all been a mistake or a dream. And then, yesterday, what arrived but the proofs. There it was, with all its lovely stuff about moral rights asserted, its ISBN, its pages for dedications and acknowledgements, its Contents page…80 lovely pages. It’s a collection, what’s more, that came out of a collaboration with one of my ex-Sixth Form students, Andy Blackford. Not having seen each other for 45 years, we set out to swap a poem a week for a year, workshopping and critiquing as we went. And just like everyone up to their poetic oxters in NaPoWriMo we had no idea what would become of it. It was enough to be writing for each other. So hold on to that thought as you struggle with a nonet or a pantoum today, and maybe all your dreams will come true. I’ll make a wish for you.

Right. Line breaks. This will be a slightly edited version of a post I wrote some time ago. I hope it’ll be useful.

There should be a reason why every line ends where it does.

Contrary to the truth universally acknowledged that British children aren’t taught standard English and the conventions of writing it down, here’s the actual truth.. What they HAVE to be taught has been there in black and white in the Framework for the Literacy Hour for years. Politicians don’t trouble themselves with this kind of detail. Maybe they should. So spare a thought for the teachers of 4-7 year olds who have to make sure that young children know how to use a full stop correctly. And, as a corollary,that they have grasped the concept of a sentence sufficiently for them to recognise one when they’ve written it. Think for a moment about that. You know a sentence when you see one. You just read some. Now tell yourself what a sentence is, or what it has to do to be a sentence. Maybe you say it has to have a finite verb in it. Forget for a moment how you’d set about explaining that to a 6 year old. Now get a copy of Bleak House, open it at chapter one and read the first 30 lines or so. Lots of full stops. Sentences like these.


Implacable November weather.

Fog everywhere.   

Not a finite verb in sight. Why does it work? Because these are oral sentences, written down. All grammars leak. So keep this in mind while I spend a Sunday ruminating on the business of when a poem is or isn’t a poem, and how curious and puzzling and endlessly shifting is this business of lines and line breaks. And I’m going to start with (and maybe stay with) punctuation.

jane austen letter

Think about this handwritten letter. I assume it’s in sentences….Jane Austen wrote it. I wouldn’t like to proof read the punctuation, though, because the words are close together. You don’t just need space around words, but space between them. White space is punctuation, and you need white space to put those visually insignificant punctuation marks in. The more white space you have, the easier it is. Here’s a thing. 5 and 6 year olds have to learn how to write instructional texts, and the easiest way to to get them started is to write recipes.

What’s the first thing?

Ingredients. And equipment.

You will need.    

What comes next?    A colon.  You will need:

What next?

A new line.

And then you can write a list.

What comes between items in a list?


Or, even more fun,

*Bullet points.

A new line for each.

See how the white space lets you see clearly. And what next? Instructions. A numbered list, and a new line for each number.

  1. Take three eggs, and separate the yolks and the whites. (Full stop)….and so on.

You don’t need to define a verb (and I can’t anyway. I can tell you what it does). In each line, it’ll be the first word in the sentence. But the text you produce will be easy to read because there’ll be a lot of white space. The space shows you how to read.  The text will look a bit poem-like, because it it’ll have a justified left margin and a raggedy right-hand margin.Hold on to that.

Now, a different kind of thought. Here’s a couple of pages from Dickens.


One thing I used to tell A level students (and, indeed, undergraduates) who were daunted by 500 page novels, was that dialogue moves the narrative and the plot along, so you can’t ignore it. On the other hand, a densely printed stretch of text is likely to be reflective or descriptive, and if you’re reading a 19thC novel in particular, the first sentence of the paragraph should tell you what’s in the paragraph, and you can ignore the rest. (This is just for a first reading, to get the shape and sweep in your mind, you understand…I never did synopses or Coles notes). What you rely on is the amount of empty space. If there’s a lot of it, you can’t ignore the text. This is hard on Thomas Hardy, but there you go.

‘And your point….?’ I hear you ask. I guess it’s that poetry is largely empty spaces round not a lot of words, and that there’s no hiding place for any word that’s not doing a job. And also that you become very conscious, as a reader, of the curious tension between what your eye tells you and what your ear tells you, and, for me, this is one of the great pleasures of poetry. One the other hand, as a writer, it’s one of the things that frightens me, because I can hardly ever explain to myself why I make a line break where I do, except that it sounds right. ‘Sounds’ rather than ‘feels’, although that’s at work too. Whatever it means.

You have to admit that working in traditional forms can often solve that problem, whatever other technical problems it creates. Iambic pentameters/ blank verse…wonderful. Close to natural speech rhythms, di DUM di DUM …five of them…and end on a stressed syllable. Line breaks? Sorted. Syllabics? Haiku? Sorted. Any rhyming poetry and you have the line-breaks for every rhyming line.

Then along comes Modernism, with its ears finely attuned to the strict rhythms of all the traditions that fed it, and careful craft apprenticships of its inventors, so it knew just which rules it was breaking, and why.

Along comes Free Verse. There’s a seductively misleading name for you. Same in the visual arts, of course. Picasso and Braque and Matisse and the rest could all handle paint and line and perspective. They served their time and knew what the rules were stopping them doing and just how to break them and why.

If you want an impassioned and wholly idiosyncratic take on this you could do a lot worse than spend 20 minutes with Bob Dylan’s musings on 50-odd years in the business of singer-songwriting. It’s a sort of ‘Tradition and the individual talent’ lecture, but a lot more fun than T S Eliot. Just Google Bob Dylan Musicares speech. You will not for a second regret it. What he constantly returns to is the trope that everything he ever created he learned from repeated absorption in other writers’ work., in older traditions. Here’s a flavour of what he said…it’s even better to listen to

These songs didn’t come out of thin air. I didn’t just make them up out of whole cloth. Contrary to what Lou Levy said, there was a precedent. It all came out of traditional music: traditional folk music, traditional rock ‘n’ roll and traditional big-band swing orchestra music.
I learned lyrics and how to write them from listening to folk songs. And I played them, and I met other people that played them back when nobody was doing it. Sang nothing but these folk songs, and they gave me the code for everything that’s fair game, that everything belongs to everyone.
For three or four years all I listened to were folk standards. I went to sleep singing folk songs. I sang them everywhere, clubs, parties, bars, coffeehouses, fields, festivals. And I met other singers along the way who did the same thing and we just learned songs from each other. I could learn one song and sing it next in an hour if I’d heard it just once.
If you sang “John Henry” as many times as me — “John Henry was a steel-driving man / Died with a hammer in his hand / John Henry said a man ain’t nothin’ but a man / Before I let that steam drill drive me down / I’ll die with that hammer in my hand.”
If you had sung that song as many times as I did, you’d have written “How many roads must a man walk down?” too.

Here’s a legend (yes he is) who is clear about what’s obvious. The more you listen, the better you hear. The more you practise, the easier it will look. There’s no short cuts.

Problem is, of course, you may not have fifty years to spare; I certainly don’t. And that still leaves us with the business of the free verse most of us are wedded to in one form or another, or unrhymed irregular stanzas, or whatever. And line breaks. I’ve honestly tried to get to grips with it, to get beyond the intuition of the ear, and the feel of internal rhythms. Pasted into the back cover of one of my workbooks is a photocopy of an article by Dana Gioia (I Googled him).

‘Thirteen ways of thinking about the poetic line’.

Every now and then I have the feeling that I sort of get it, but more often I have the same sense of hopelessness I got from Euclidean geometry when I was eleven. I ‘got’ the first couple of axioms, but when I tried to see how they all interacted they turned into wool. It’s still worth struggling with it. Line by line it all seems like commonsense. Have a go. See what you think. I like Number 4.

There should be a reason why every line ends where it does.

Yup. I’ll vote for that. Also for number 13.

The line break is nearly always audible (and always visible) even if only as a tiny pause or echo.

I really ‘get’’s that business of the tension between what your eye and your ear are simultaneously telling you. It says you have to listen.

What else? I’ve had workshops with Mimi Khalvati and with Jane Draycott, both of whom seem exquisitely at ease with the technicalities of form and line. Mimi even startled me by counting the lines of one of my poems, and declaring herself happy to find there were 26. I still don’t get it. At the end of the day, for all the elegance of their analyses, what I carried away was the awareness that it was coming down to the fact that they had more finely attuned ears than mine, that they could spot the tiniest of bum notes when I couldn’t. And perhaps that Dylan has it right. You just have to get on and do it and listen as hard as you can to as much poetry as you can.

But here’s a game you might like to play. It comes out of my genuine puzzlement about prosepoems, about my inability to see what they’re for. (I guess Carrie Etter will put me right on that).  One of the reasons for this is that I’ve been reading a lot of Hilary Mantel of late, and being struck, again and again and again, how much of her prose actually seems to be veined with what feel and sound like poems. (Whatever that means). How about this from ** The giant, O’Brien.

The Giant: ‘If only I could get a good poet. Somebody to recite at him. A good poet can recite a man to death. A poet takes a person’s earlobe between his finger and thumb and grinds it, and straight away that person dies. With a wisp of straw and a cross word they drive a man demented. They chew flesh and set it on the threshold and when a man steps over it he drops to his knees and expires.

The poet has his memorial in repetition, and the statesman in stone and bronze. The scholar’s hand lies always on his book and the thinker’s eyes on canvas travel the room to rest on each human face; the rebel has his ballad and his cross, his bigot’s garland, his wreath of rope. But for the poor man and the giant there is the scrubbed wooden slab and the slop bucket, there is the cauldron and the boiling pot, and the dunghill for his lights; so he is a stench in the nose for a day or a week, so he is a no-name, so he is oblivion. Stories cannot save him. When human memory runs out, there is the memory of animals; behind that the memory of the plants, and behind that the memory of the rocks. But the winds and the sea wear the rocks away, and the cell-line runs to its limit, where meaning falls away from it, and it loses knowledge of its own nature. Unless we plead on our knees with history, we are done for, we are lost. We must step sideways, into that country where space plaits and knots, where time folds and twists: where the years pass in a day.

Just take that first paragraph, and think what happens if you put line breaks in it. Like this:

A good poet

can recite a man to death.

A poet takes a person’s earlobe

between his finger

and thumb

and grinds it

and straight away that person dies.

With a wisp of straw

and a cross word

they drive a man demented.

They chew flesh and set it

on the threshold

and when a man steps over it

he drops to his knees and expires


Why those line breaks?   What changes if you make the lines longer?


A good poet

A good poet can recite a man to death.

A poet takes a person’s earlobe between

his finger and thumb and grinds it

and straight away that person dies.

With a wisp of straw and a cross word

they drive a man demented. They chew flesh

and set it on the threshold

and when a man steps over it

he drops to his kness and expires.


What have you got that the prose hasn’t? What have you lost, if anything, that the first version had? I think it’s flatter. Less engaged, more ‘reasonable’, less angry. Or try the second paragraph, or at least part of it:

But for the poor man and the giant
there is the scrubbed wooden slab
and the slop bucket,
there is the cauldron
and the boiling pot,
and the dunghill for his lights;
so he is a stench in the nose for a day or a week,
so he is a no-name,
so he is oblivion.
Stories cannot save him.

Maybe it’s because most of my first drafts come from writers’ workshops where I write flat-out in continuous ‘prose’ that I feel comfortable with this kind of game. Except that it isn’t prose, any more than these extracts from Hilary Mantel are prosaically prose. There must be some kind of governing rhythm in there that comes from things like repetitions of all kinds. Maybe it’s a question of learning to listen for it and its tricks. Anyway, if your Sunday is lacking spice, have a go with this game. At least, unlike Milton and Browning and all the other indefatigable toilers, you’ve got a word processor that lets you create version after version at the touch of a key. Aren’t we the lucky ones?

I hope you’re all on the crest of a wave this Easter. Keep riding it. No wipeouts.


**Hilary Mantel, The giant O’Brien  [Fourth Estate. London,. 1998]


NaPoWriMo: first line nerves

poet 1.jpg

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

empty page

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘ London.’

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

‘Fog everywhere’.

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

Travelling’s fine – the stars tell me that

Everywhere place names          

Petitions pour into the Big House            

Reality isn’t what it used to be

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

The last word this one spoke                

That sun ray has raced to us            

That cold man with bad poems            

That green alone                                                                                                                                

The dunnock in the hedge                 

The countless generations                     

A cubic inch of some stars  

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

They sit at their long tables                

You have to be stubborn             

You have more nicknames than legs         

I think of Lycidas, drowned     

I feel miserable, acting                                                            

I see an adder    

I like the almost perceptibles         

I thought they needed no Women’s Lib             

I don’t want to shuffle in a Greek theatre

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

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

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

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

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

Where the small burn /runs into the sea          

From its distance         

Though I’m in sunlight          

Under the broad flat stone        

When her life broke into smithereens                  

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


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

Now, none of this is of any use when you’re doing a first draft (and in any case you might be better off just writing unpunctuated prose and leaving all the fiddly stuff for later). I think what Mimi Khalvati has done for me is give me new tools in the tool bag. Redrafting tools. Reading tools. Evaluating tools. None of them stop the empty page looking any less daunting, and none of them will give you anything to say. Neither will staring at an empty page.

Now, I’m assuming we’ve been thinking about a stage when we’ve got past wondering what to write about, and actually made a start. You get your idea or someone gives you a prompt (kind people, like Carrie Etter, and Jo Bell, for instance) and then you write fast, without thinking. Preferably without stopping, without spaces or lines breaks, just to see what will happen. Mine look like this; they look orderly but that’s just because they look orderly.


You leave it for a bit, let it marinade, and then start thinking about making it into a poem (if it has legs, if it has flavour, if it’s intriguing you…never mind anyone else. Start to think about them, and you’re dead in the water)


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

NaPoWriMo: A poem a day in April? maybe you don’t need all those starters.

I originally posted this in November 2015 with the title : Don’t give up. I’ve started on my poem a day for April routine, and it occurs to me that it may leave me pressed to clock out fresh new posts this April. So I’m rejigging posts I wrote: on first lines, on line breaks, and on taking risks. There’ll also be one on competitions, and on one in particular…because you might at this very moment, as I type this, be writing your own prize-winning poem, and it would be a shame if it never went out in the world with its faithful cat and its spotty bundle, and returned with its pockets full of gold.

So, here we go. Before you try the smorgasbord of starter recipes, why not see what you already have in the bank?

Don’t give up


Whatever else you do, don’t give up on work you’ve started. Never throw anything away if you’ve written it legibly. Leave it alone for long enough, and one day you’ll find it and won’t recognise it as something you wrote. You may well think: Mmmm…that might have legs.

derby day notes 001

This handwritten sheet with the quotation from the Daily Sketch, for instance. I found that in a notebook I bought when I was doing a sabbatical year at Bretton Hall. In 1981! The sort-of-sonnet was probably written in 1984. I wasn’t really serious about writing poems, evidently. But I went back to it, and eventually, about 30 years later, it turned into Camera Obscura, which ended up in a Forward Poetry Anthology. There you go. Don’t give up. You simply never know.

Computers mean, of course, that you accumulate documents faster than you can remember. So, two days agoI was having a stock take of my files and stumbled on something I thought was long gone…it was an essay I had to write as part of my ill-judged MA course a dozen years ago. I started to read it with a kind of embarrassed fascination. Because what I’d done was to spell out a set of aims or ambitions. Embarrassing, because I did nothing about them for years. Fascinating, because after long delays, and years when I did nothing at all, I finally did do everything I said I would. I thought I’d share this, just to say: whatever you do, don’t give up. My essay (which is very essay-ish) started with a question:

“Why write? James Britton [196?] suggested part of the answer when he asked the question:
‘Why do [we] constantly improvise upon representations of reality?…because we never cease to long for more lives than we can actually live.’

Britton is actually speculating here about why we are impelled to read, and, particularly, to read stories. What I can take from his formulation is the concept of ‘improvising [] representations of reality’. I like this because it embraces the representations of music and of plastic art as well as verbal composition. The second part of his answer may satisfy writers of fiction, creators of imagined worlds and narratives. It doesn’t answer for me; I have no aspiration to be that kind of writer, possibly because, as David Lodge [2000] has one his characters say, how could I voluntarily spend:
‘long ,solitary hours….staring at a blank page…trying to create something out of nothing, to will creatures with no previous existence into being, to give them names, parents, education…God, the tedium of it! And then the grinding, ball-breaking effort of forcing it into words.’?  [‘Home truths]

I actually do quite relish the business of words, of crafting, the texture and resonance of language, but it goes beyond that. It’s not so much the longing for more lives as not losing the life (or lives) I have actually lived. Maybe the answer to that opening question, for me, is implicit in Eliot’s poignant line:
‘We had the experience but missed the meaning’
What impels me to write is a felt need to find the ‘meaning’ in experiences which snag my memory, my attention. I don’t seem to have a conscious choice about the process; I’m keenly aware that something seems to edit out the powerfully personal—the experience of a broken marriage, the death of a father, of a son, the remorseless and protracted mental and physical decline of my mother—and I suspect that sooner or later this will have to be dealt with.

[Twelve years later, I can now look at the pamphlets I produced in 2014, and say: Yes. It was later, rather than sooner, but, yes. I did it. I did}

But I had to begin with the poetry of observed and remembered landscape. This is what I wrote, twelve years ago:

The problem as I see it is that of pinning down a moment as it is, and, simultaneously to catch the felt experience—and not to let it be distorted by the history, the clutter, that language carries around with itself, willy nilly; the way’, I mean, that it splinters and refracts, or blurs and distorts, or softens and sentimentalises like a Vaseline-smeared lens. Constantly I stumble up against Hughes, or Heaney, or R.S.Thomas, all in thrall to the bleak, the elemental, resistant indifference of things.

[I’ve written in other posts about how I tried to confront this in my poem Achnacloich, precisely because of the way in which the seen landscape of Sleat was constantly refracted through the lens of Hughes’ poetry and the seductive tug of its textures and cadences. I had to sift his writing, particularly Moortown and Remains of Elmet ,to pin down the intrusive—and illuminating– phrases, particularly the one that seemed to unlock the right door:
your ‘words joined with earth
and engraved in rock
were under my feet’    (a nice ambiguity in that last line!),
as well as the rhythms and consonantal toughness of ‘the bareblown hill’, ‘the blueprint bones‘’, the’gulleys gouged in the cold hills’ before I could work from my notebooks. In the essay I go back to one of my notebooks to try to clear up what I think I meant. Like this:]
‘… on this hill with no shorthand. Everything very sharply in focus and out of meaning. Tiny white starry flowers, one here, one there. One brown furry caterpillar straddling two bleached plantain stems. Dry flower heads brittle pink. One plump crimson/blush/rose cushion of spaghnum, complex jewelly florets, bright with water drops scattered….Deer slots, random, occasionally, a single one sharp in a cupful of peaty mud….Amber, yellow grasses like blades, flexing.’

There are pages and pages like this; oddly, all sorts of things are edited out of the record, like my anxiety, teetering on a too-steep slope, unsure of up or down; my vertigo that I cope with by focussing hard on what’s close and directly in front. And every so often there’s an unacknowledged sense of Hughes’ presence:
‘Flat dry outcrops, pale and clean—they feel high, but there’s always another top, another tumbled outcrop beyond, and getting to the very highest top, the land falls away and away and away and far beyond the edge is the sea.’

Echoing faintly behind this, it seems to me, are Hughes’ ringing horizons, his image of immanence and ultimate unreachability.
There are times when I think that this ‘observed poetry’ is enough, that the meaning for the observer is implicit both in the choice of what is ‘seen’ and the choice of language which struggles to be a correlative for what is seen, and its emotional resonance for the reader. It doesn’t need rhetoric or commentary such as Hughes’ authorial glosses—
‘the suffering of water’, ‘a stage for the performance of heaven’.

I’m intrigued by the notion that that some poetry is analogous to the work of landscape painters like Len Tabner who is based near Staithes, but has painted around the world…down deep mines, inside the Arctic Circle, from small boats out in the Atlantic.. I choose him because his response is to the kind of landscape I am drawn to, and quality of his vision. Fred Inglis [1998] talks about:
‘Tabner’s deep-rootedness in that blurred, dramatic ,difficult country…river and sea surging endlessly; the big changeful sky, heavy with cloud, now touching land and water…’

How does Tabner achieve this? By a constant physical absorption in the place itself, whether working fast on the 20 foot Atlantic swell off Fingal’s Cave, absorbed in the cold, the spray; or lying in frozen grass up above Boulby Cliff, pricked by sleet flurries, relentlessy ‘catching’ the nervous geometries of a February hawthorne. There’s no need for commentary or explanation; the shivering cold and the tug of the wind is ‘there’ for what it is. There’s no need for an explanation of what the Black Cuillin ‘means’ for the artist—what it means is there in the drama of the brilliance of light, the dark weight of rock and the saturated air. It’s a meaning that comes from the choice of materials and the speed with which they’re used that simply can’t be done by photography; my photo of a sunset may say something about my choice of frame, my selection of an image, but nothing about the shimmer and fragility of light and moving air that’s Tabner’s statement about the winter sea off Hummersea cliffs
‘(the) deep preoccupation with the moment of deliquescence in all natural life… the moment at which seaspray turns to light….the much-painted hawthorn…to thin lines of eked-out colour against the grey, ochre, and umber streaks of winter sky’

Tabner himself says ‘I want that sense of being in the landscape, not looking at it’
And that sums up the struggle for absorption in the landscapes I ‘research’ by recurrent walking, listening, looking and recording. Like Tabner, I ‘am trying to express the whole feeling of being present in a place, as well as the presence of the place itself.’
This begs a question about the mastery of the medium (or media, in his case), and the patient exercise of words and grammars (or paint, or clay, or stone…) which makes the vision possible. It seems obvious that part of the writer/researcher’s job involves an absorption in vocabularies and syntax, and forging of a written idiolect, a distinctive voice that is he essential meaning of the realised text.
I come across the impulse in a note book, stuff I’d written sitting in a car up on Holme moss, looking back down to the Holme valley.

‘Sky lines recede, one by one, under a slough of driven cloud. Layers and layers.The near fellside acid sour and bracken brown, tired of cloud, of weight, of wet, ofwaiting. A hiddle of oaks in the lee of the ribbon road; black-brittle, acid-burned’

and then I find a shift into something that’s beyond ‘observation’. For some reason I remembered going to my uncle’s wedding in Todmorden some time in the 1950s, the darkness of the valleys, the pall of smog that hung over milltowns in the West Riding.

‘ a place of artful and raw complexities. These chapels are scoured clean back to their golden sandstone start. Where’s the black mourning of the mills? Gone with the chimneys, the cloying stink of lanolin, the mindless loom-clatter, and the dark pall over the valley. Gone with the buses, the black Humbers ,Morrisses, Fords, Austins and grumbling, struggling Albions’

Here’s a history, a change that invites investigating since it’s my history, from childhood till now, the remembered darkness of the mill valleys now filled with art galleries and summer wine tourists. I feel the same impulse to deal with the narratives of my observed Scottish landscapes, the stories of the Clearances. Of Culloden and Glencoe, and for the first time to find myself consciously planning research, needing to ‘know’.

[At this point I announced that I wanted:]

to populate my landscapes, to understand these histories. What sort of research might this involve? I need, for instance, to go beyond the physical scale and drama of Glencoe and the way it shrinks and absorbs, in seconds, parties of scramblers and climbers. How can it possibly be considered or contained?

Part of the answer may lie in my fascination with maps; two things in particular: those close-packed contour lines, as complex as the whorls of fingerprints, and the way every burn, fall, corrie, ridge, and bealach is named. The fingerprinting contours give the illusion that we can grasp this huge and complex land. The scratchy Gaelic names say: we owned this; we understood it, controlled it; they are jabbed into the contours of the text like dirks, like pitons, snagging the eye with their cluttered consonants…. Sgurr na Fonnadh, Bheinn a Creachin, Achtriachtan, Aonach Eagach. I need a Gaelic dictionary before I can hear them, and there they are transformed to breathy complex vowels and soft glottals, and there’s music and poetry in their translation: the Notched Ridge, the Corrie of Capture, the Valley of Slate and Churn.

It’s this verbal landscape that frames the massacre of Glencoe (in which 10% of the clan died; literally, decimated…not the prevailing sense of 90%). When men, and women and children fled into the snow in that cold dawn, ‘half-dressed, unshod’, they were wrapped in the plaids they habitually wore, and disappeared into the high corries where they herded their rustled cattle, and everywhere they hid they knew and had named.

[and then I set out a kind of project. I would write about Clearances, about Glencoe, about the crofters of Achnacloich. If you’ve been following the great fogginzo’s cobweb for some time you’ll notice that, eventually I did all of that. Ten, eleven years later. Nothing’s wasted. Then I went on to write this:]

Whatever the role there is the same pale, translucent tenderness of flesh, the same submissive, desiring gaze that Waterhouse catches in his charcoal and pencil sketches. He, himself, is a constant unseen presence in all these drawings and paintings but for me he’s obsessed, haunted, helplessly in love. We know a lot about his public life; bourgeouis, comfortable, successful (an academician), and married. We know he had two children who died in early infancy. We have portraits of his wife, and of his sisters and sister-in-law who modelled for him. But we know little of his private life; and who was the nymph who haunted him?

The evidence is slim; one charcoal sketch of her head has the pencilled title The head of Miss Muriel Foster. Almost everything else is conjectural; the only source of information I have found is a website that is now unavailable, but just one sentence has snagged my attention in the way that the landscapes and iconic stories of the Highlands and islands have done:
‘Little is known about Muriel’s life. She apparently studied nursing during the years she posed for Waterhouse, and eventually found her place in that field in the Oaklands nursing home in St Leonard’s on Sea. It was there that she died in 1969 at the age of 91’

The sub-text of this is as irresistible to me as her face was to Waterhouse. She must have been about 15 when she first modelled for him in 1893. How did that come about? Waterhouse habitually painted his models nude, for preliminary studies, even though they may be clothed in the finished version. How was that managed? How did they meet? What did they feel about and for each other during that apparently symbiotic relationship that continued for 24 years until his death ( with a gap between 1906-9) and during which her painted image stays as fresh as it did at the beginning.’

Well I kept revisiting this, in a desultory way, just as I kept revisiting the notion of giving a voice to what I imagined were the imprisoned souls that inhabited some of the great sculptures that fascinated me….Michaelangelo’s David, Gormley’s Angel of the North, Henry Moore’s King and Queen, for instance. And twelve years later, one way and another, they’ve been ‘dealt with’, written into poems…enough, in fact for a pamphlet, which I’m utterly delighted to say is now out there. It’s called Outlaws and fallen angels. Details at the top of the page , under My Books.

So there we are. A reminder that if you don’t throw away your notebooks and you don’t despair, one of these days, you can get to write what you thought you’d never see on a page.

For the start of NaPoWriMo: A cautionary tale. Hearing voices, and a Polished Gem: Judy Brown


Cautionary tale first and a mea culpa. Mea maxima culpa. I just tried to do something clever by updating last week’s post about a poet who I hadn’t known until I heard her reading at Writers in The Bath, in Sheffield, in February. It was a reading that told me this was the real deal…deft, poised, urgent engaged writing. Writing that made me wonder if I shouldn’t give up writing and do something I’d be better at. Maybe something with a chain saw. Or a shovel.  I wrote about how Judy Brown was one of those dark watchers who let us see so much we might have missed. A poet who writes with a quiet passion. A poet who can make you smile, and who can write things that can be heartbreaking. I spent a few hours of notemaking, researching, finding photographs and finally writing it all up and posting it. An hour ago I managed, in the process of trying to add an update, to permanently delete it. And because I’m a spasmodically tidy chap, I’ve thrown away all the hard copy notes and jottings. What I do have is the stuff Judy sent me in the first place, because I never throw away what my guests send me. I can’t recover what it took me nearly 4 hours to write last Monday.

So, here’s the moral. Back-up everything. If you write wordpress posts, write them in Word, save them as Word Docs, and then copy and paste them to WordPress.

What can I do to make up for stupidity and carelessness? Not enough, but still, I can share Judy Brown’s three poems again, tell you something about her, and give you a link to where you can buy her books. I also somehow managed to have saved a bit of the intro to the original post:


It’s the voice that grabs your attention, the image that sticks. Not the Joan of Arc sort of Voice…you want to watch out for that sort of thing, the rapt, the Enthusiastic. It ends in tears. The voices I have in mind are the ones I keep writing about, one way or another…the ones that I hear that make me want to buy their owners’ pamphlets and collections. Judy Brown’s is one of those voices.

I can also share this picture of part of the Cumbrian coast that she travelled through and stayed in, Bill Bryson style, recording its landscapes and its (sometimes dubious) B&Bs and hotels.


So, if you missed it last week, here she is.

Judy Brown’s ‘Crowd Sensations’ (Seren, 2016) is a Poetry Book Society Recommendation. Her first book, ‘Loudness’ (Seren, 2011), was shortlisted for both the Forward and Fenton Aldeburgh prizes for best first collection. Judy was Poet-in-Residence at the Wordsworth Trust in 2013, a 2014 Writer-in-Residence at Gladstone’s Library and is a 2017 Hawthornden Fellow. She has won the Manchester Poetry Prize, the Poetry London Competition and the Templar Pamphlet Competition (with ‘Pillars of Salt’, 2006).  Judy was a lawyer and  worked for many years in international law firms, including work in Hong Kong, until she started writing poems, but now lives in a churchyard and writes and teaches.

Judy Brown loudness


[Line break alert: I see that from time to time. WordPress will ignore line and stanza breaks. Stanza breaks, particularly. This week it keeps getting rid of them entirely. So, just in case it does it again, I’ll announce the stanza shape at the start of each poem where needed]

To the poems, then, but without the commentary that I can’t reacpture. First up, a cityscape which will mean you never see the London skyline in the same light again, understanding that steel and glass are parasitic of the light

From Platform 1, Blackfriars Station


There’s something over-familiar about the cranes

rising through the city.  For centuries its huddle

was spiked only by the paraphernalia of spires.

Through the river-soaked glass of the new station

we can measure the torturer’s bamboo as it grows

into a friable body.  The shallow-rooted boroughs

might be peeled off, easy as a roll of turf.

Here the earth has already crumpled, spills skeletons

which are coppery-blue from buried money.

Skyscapes are a story I’m bored being bored with.

Still, the latest towers are eating light like plants,

donating grace as they hurry into their final poise.

A confession has been exacted, then simplified.

All that remains as we sink down into the tunnel

between platforms is the city’s current heraldry,

its long bones opening our skulls to the air.

Published in The Scores (, September 2016)

The second poem is one of a sequence, Songs from West Cumbria, which is woven into her collection Crowd sensations. You’ll see what I mean by the poet as ‘dark watcher’

[3 six-line stanzas)

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There was a goat outside the window of my Classic Double,

working a bald strip of tilted earth behind wire.

Between us laya five-foot-deep concrete alley

through glass; my admiration at its brown head and neck

on a white body, like two beasts severed and sewn;

and some prison dreams neither of us would divulge.

In the bar, low sun glimmed off the sea.  I couldn’t

get a seat near it.  The men from the power station who could,

as a squadron, turned their headsfrom the window

to watch the TV above mine.  For me too, it was hard

to believe in the beach that stretched for miles each side

like an adhesive strip ripped off something useful.

Breakfast was an open bag of Kingsmill White,

some soft croissants pouched in cellophane, plus

one bruised pear which I took out of fellow feeling.

I had to get us out of here: away from the owners

talking business in their sagging tracksuits, away

from this disowned ground, its hand-hot rain.

From ‘Crowd Sensations’ (Seren Books, 2016)

It’s the moment that matters, says Clive James. Sometimes the moment is also an image. The beach like a a strip of parcel tape ‘ripped off something useful’. Lovely. Desperate.

Judy Brown_quicksand cover

Last poem; I think the man in the poem lives in the city of predatory glass and steel that eats the sky.

[6 three line stanzas]

The Frog Prince

This man believes a woman can feel the muscle

of money changing his skin, a second landscape

mapped over pectorals, biceps, his long back.

It’s a language that means she reads his body

in several translations: precious metals unfold

in the altered curve as thigh flares into buttock.

It’s not about the palm’s pleasure but signification.

No woman loves him without moistening her lips,

the word price commingling with mint on her breath.

She keeps his heat and spill in her throat: investment.

This is exegesis, the note of the glassware, the slap

in the lift to the thirtieth floor  The actual moment

is nothing, it’s about what she learns of her value.

Down on the cushiony carpet is a private education.

You cannot touch me, he says but she’s expected to try.

Under his eyelids the message is: amethyst bruises,

unpettable dogs, as his hands mete out a currency

that more than repays the damage done to him.


Judy Brown, forgive me for losing the other 1500 words of appreciation for your work. I hope you’ll come back again some day. The best I can do is urge everyone to go and buy your books. So I will. Here’s what Seren say about Crowd sensations

“Poet Judy Brown’s new collection, Crowd Sensations, is a worthy follow-up to her Forward-prize nominated debut, Loudness. Brown is a poet of dazzling contrasts, of thoughtful paradox, intimate confidences and precise evocations. Her titles and first lines both draw you right into a poem and then quite often surprise you with a narrative that you hadn’t quite expected. ‘The Things She Burned Last Year’ references a past both remote and near, like multiple reflections seen in a mirror. Brown is a poet of profoundly unsettling domesticity as in ‘The Dehumidifier’, which unravels the metaphysics of damp and ‘This is Not a Garden’, which is a cool summation of a failed marriage. We frequently imagine an uncomfortable intimacy: ‘Poem in Which I am Not Short-sighted’, or are given a scary anecdote like: ‘The Post Box in the Wall’. There are serious poems that lure you with humorous titles: ‘Poem in the Voice of a Dead Cockroach’.

A key theme is the contrast between living in the city and the countryside. The author has lived in London and Hong Kong and has recently had residencies with the Wordsworth Trust in Grasmere and at the Gladstone Library in North Wales. Her spin on landscape is original and characteristically unnerving: ‘Elterwater Rain’, ‘Dove Cottage Ferns’ and ‘One of the Summer People’ reflect on nature and the place of the traveller, the incomer, the tourist. ‘Green Man’ also imagines a historical/mythical character and has him walk through a busy city street, shunned and unrecognized. Her memories often focus and celebrate pivotal moments of change: the move from city to country, the release from a doomed relationship, and the discovery of a new street or landscape. A fascination with artistic technique also features in a number of poems: ‘After the Discovery of Linear Perspective’, ‘On a Woodblock Prepared for an Engraving’.

Such is the author’s skill that these poems can often be said to be about more than one thing at a time. They unfold themselves upon the page in concise forms and with considerable flair. Judy Brown’s Crowd Sensations will be a joyful discovery for the intelligent reader.”

And so it will. You could also chase up a review in The North ,by Ed Reiss which you can find via this link (which is, handily, also the link to the Seren site …where you can buy the books!)