The rest is silence : that P N Review thing

playground 2

“Articulation is the tongue-tied’s fighting.

In the silence that surrounds all poetry we quote

Tidd the Cato Street conspirator who wrote:

Sir, I Ham a very Bad Hand at Righting”

Tony Harrison: On not being Milton


If I had to pick one particular inspiration it would be Harrison, and if I had to pick one poem of his, it would be this…..the business of being articulate when everything conspires to make you silent, or, if that fails,  dumb. I come back, again and again, to the doubleness of that line

the silence that surrounds all poetry

At one extreme, it’s the silence that allows a poem to be heard. It’s the space it’s given to yield up all it wants to articulate. The other extreme, of course is the silence of complete indifference, the lack of any kind of attention or response.

When I found a few years ago that I genuinely wanted to find out what I needed to articulate, I chose to to write poems. Probably because I haven’t the stamina or the invention for anything longer. Whatever. The thing I was surprised to welcome was the silence of the process. And to find language coming out of a silence in which I wasn’t imagining an audience, and therefore at no risk of imagining argument or opposition. It was just the business of concentrating on the moment, to find out if it was as significant as it seemed. Sometimes it was. More often, not. I found great consolation in this, and subsequently in the quiet company of people who wrote and shared poems.

I don’t know when I became aware that,  there were factions and competitiveness in this business of writing poems as in almost any walk of life;unhealthy kinds of ambition, too, and also envy and mean spiritedness. I do all I can to avoid the company of the vexatious, because what I need more than anything is serenity. Sometimes the noise of it all is too loud, and you can’t escape it. But maybe you can say your piece and walk away. So I shall.

My Facebook page is full of posts about Rebecca Watts’ article. I’ve read the article several times because it seemed to generate such angry responses. And I’ve read a lot of them. There were two that generated more light than heat for me, from Roy Marshall and Greg Freeman. Roy, in particular, takes a systematic, carefully analytic approach to Watts’ article, and it’s well worth your time. The links to both Roy’s and Greg’s are


I’m assuming that if you’re reading this, you read the original P N Review article. If you haven’t, then stop right now, go and read it, make your own mind up, and then come back if you have a mind to. In fact, you could do worse than read Roy Marshall’s piece. The thing is, I don’t want this to be about what x or y said about what a or b said about an article that folk may not have read thoroughly. And I don’t want to be taking sides or joining gangs.

I came across a thing on FB yesterday in which a wise man is talking about the polarisation of political discourse. He argues that, right now, that polarisation can’t be resolved; there is no real discussion, because we have ‘a contempt problem’. He says that when you encounter contempt (and I think Rebecca Watts is contemptuous in the course of her article) then answer with warmheartedness…ask yourself, will you do the right thing, or make the problem worse. My problem is that I’m given to being intemperate; I shall do my best to follow that advice.

Lets’s start by declaring what I believe, and believe in.

First of all, we get nowhere by arguing via labels and abstractions. Rebecca Watts makes statements like these:

“Why is the poetry world pretending that poetry is not an art form?

When did honesty become a requirement – let alone the main requirement – of poetry?”

Don Paterson has recently weighed into the argument, and generally helped to simultaneously muddy the waters and add to the polarisation, and writes, without a shred of shame that

“the poetry world [has been] split apart”

There’s an assumption that we all know what they mean and tacitly agree on what we mean by poetry. I make an assumption that too often it’s written as though it came with a built-in capital ‘P’;  I can hear that capitalisation even when it’s not written down. The thing is, I think , this kind of language is meaningless for practical purposes .

It’s not exclusive to the discussion of poems. “Poetry” is as useless a word as “music” or “art’. If “poetry” as a meaningful category includes every kind of oral poem from The Odyssey and Beowulf to McGonagall, John Cooper Clark and Kate Tempest, and poems in print from The Pearl to Howl then it’s difficult to see how anyone can assume we all know what it means. So let’s talk about poems. Then we may get somewhere. We’ll have arguments, but at least we’ll know what we’re arguing about.

What’s a poem? I won’t assume that you all automatically know what I mean when I use a word. So I’ll use a working definition/explanation which I’ve shared more than once. You might not agree with it, but you’ll know the premises I’m arguing from.  I rely on Clive James, not in the sense that I think the fact that he’s famous validates my case, but because he’s articulated what I couldn’t quite articulate for myself.

James writes about the ubiquity of bad poetry:  ‘At a time when almost everyone writes poetry, but scarcely anyone can write a poem…. there are…..Slim volumes by the thousand….full of poetry…but few..with even a single real poem in them’ 

[you see..there’s a difference between ‘poetry’ and ‘poems’ and poems are what I’m interested in]

“A real poem?  A real poem is  ‘Well separated’ . You hear ‘the force of real poetry at first glance’ ” (I love that!).

Because ‘Even if you don’t set out to memorize a real poem, it somehow seems to be memorizing itself for you’. 

I think I probably punched the air when he wrote about ‘poets who want to keep technique out of it, because they don’t have any’ and set this side by side with ‘the spectacular expression that outruns its substance.’ What an important idea that is ..just that one word ‘substance.’ 

How good it is to be reminded that a poem has to be about something real and concrete, because ‘everything depended, and still depends, on the quality of the moment…whatever kind of poem it is, it’s the moment that gets you in.’ 

Of course, you have to have the ability to be alive to the moment that insists you write it, and ‘Confidence is the attribute that can’t be taught’. Like a class rugby player’s sidestep. Like the way Picasso or Hockney put down a clean simple line that’s the only line that will do.

To be honest, I doubt that Rebecca Watts would take much exception to any of that, and I suspect that it underlies what is unfortunately an intemperate and incoherent article. A couple of examples. At one point she quotes from a Rupi Kaur, a poet who’s attracted an internet following of thousands.

i don’t know what living a balanced life feels like 
when i am sad 
i don’t cry, i pour 
when i am happy 
i don’t smile, i beam 
when i am angry 
i don’t yell, i burn 

I’d argue that there’s not a memorable phrase or line in this. Nothing to surprise, nothing to make you think, nothing interesting. It’s the verbal equivalent on a selfie posted on Facebook. Maybe that’s why it works for her followers. And it looks like a poem. Maybe it is…..but it’s also not very good. It doesn’t connect with me because it only seems interested in itself.


That’s about it. For me. Watts goes on, however:

“Commenting on the appeal of Milk and Honey, Kaur’s publisher Kirsty Melville insisted that ‘the medium of poetry reflects our age, where short-form communication is something people find easier to digest or connect with’.


poetry had the best chance of escaping social media’s dumbing effect; its project, after all, has typically been to rid language of cliché. Yet in the redefinition of poetry as ‘short-form communication’ the floodgates have been opened. The reader is dead: long live consumer-driven content and the ‘instant gratification’ this affords.”



have a think about this: a publisher insisted [Watts’ words] that the medium of poetry (poems?) reflects our age because it’s a short-form communication that people find easier to digest.

Right…it’s a proposition. It seems to have a grain of truth in it. Worth unpicking, anyway, if only to qualify or repudiate it. But what Watts does is rhetorically and logically dishonest: look, she says,  “in the redefinition of poetry as ‘short-form communication’ the floodgates have been opened.”

Simply, this isn’t what the publisher said or did. Certainly she didn’t offer a definition. And certainly not THE redefinition. Generalising/universalising from a single instance that isn’t even an instance of what you claim is at at least sloppy writing, and at worst, downright intellectual dishonesty. Floodgates? Really? She goes on a little later, following this thread


“Kate Tempest and Hollie McNish are her [Kaur’s]UK equivalents, dragging their significant and seemingly atypical followings into the arena of establishment-endorsed poetry. Both developed profiles on YouTube as an extension of their presence on the slam/performance scene”


“Even McNish has deduced that her ‘poetic memoir’ Nobody Told Me won the Ted Hughes Award ‘because of where the poetry has gone, not for the quality of the writing’.”

Two things annoy me:

One is the pairing of McNish and Tempest. One has street smarts, has put in the hard miles, has worked all levels of  the slam/performance circuit…and since the age of sixteen has lived the life she writes. One is authentic. The other isn’t. It’s sloppy writing to cavalierly pair the two.


Secondly, I talked about contempt, earlier. The two underlined words will do to illustrate what I understand by ‘contempt’. We’re invited, implicitly, to see Tempest and McNish as boors and bullies, coercing and ‘dragging‘ their followers along. There’s a contempt for their followers implicit in that. And the sneer of ‘even McNish’  implies that though she’s not very bright or smart, something should be obvious …even to her.

It’s this intemperance, this contempt that undermines the value of the article,  that polarises, and indeed, makes the world a worse place. That this is done in the name of something a civilised society would do well to value is simply unforgivable.


Do I rate Holly McNish’s poems? Mostly, no. If I ran a magazine and this turned up in the post, would I decline it?

so now 
stinks of shit 
from sewers, seeps to streets to poison kids 
preaching, it lies in gutters lined in teenage kicks 
deflated footballs, mud and teenage sick 

with stomachs thick and sagging centres 
minds left numb and fun repented 
it snatches fire-filled beating teenage hearts 
pours water over bursting teenage sparks 

In a heartbeat. But I wouldn’t tell anyone but her. And I’d politely explain why, starting with the meaningless of that phrase and the line break that makes it worse: seeps to streets to poison kids / preaching…..

Boredom that stinks of shit preaching what, exactly? It’s vacuous. I guess you might get away with it in a full-on performance rant, when there’s no time or space to ask what means, and you just go along with the nihilism. Ditto the naff rhymes. But I doubt it. The syntax is naff, too. It’s bad writing.

There’s another thing that really bothered me. It’s this question that Rebecca Watts poses, en passant:

When did honesty become a requirement – let alone the main requirement – of poetry?

I think I grew up to believe that an honest engagement with your subject, yourself, your audience and your medium was a sine qua non. For the argument to have meaning you’d need to consider its contradiction..that dishonesty/insincerity/cynicism might be acceptable. Because if they’re not, then the opposite becomes a requirement. I think the mistake Watts makes here is that she treats the proposition as a sufficient condition. I don’t think we’d have a problem with saying that honesty alone is not enough, and also that it’s necessary. Sincerity won’t automatically make good art. Nothing wrong with reminding ourselves about that.

I could write a lot more, but praise the lord, Roy Marshall and Greg Freeman have done that for me.  I hope the whole business doesn’t  close off a genuinely engaged reading and discussion of poems which is open to thinking about three questions that underlie the Rebecca Watts article. That will be forgotten, but the questions shouldn’t be.

One: are there such things as poor, badly written poems. Are there bad poems?        Examples, please

Two: are some bad poems and their authors excessively/inappropriately praised/rewarded

Evidence, please

Three: If the answer to Two is ‘Yes’ is this having a deleterious impact on ‘poetry in general’ (how would you know?). Put it another way; does it encourage people to write bad poems?


I said ‘three’ but I chuck in another.

Four: why does it matter, if 99.9% of the population have no idea that this conversation’s taking place.


And with that, I’m off to enter some poems in some competitions. Because I do.

Next week a proper post with a proper poet who writes proper poems. And a nod to Tony Harrison with whom we end

My mind moves on silence and Aeneid VI


One of those days

skye 2011 004

A short and apologetic post, this. I’m not sure how it would be if it was crisp and bright and cold and blue. But it isn’t. It’s one of those days of cold rain and sleet that can lower the spirits even if you’re in a wonderful place. It’s a Sunday afternoon that reminds me of one in Achnacloich on Skye, when it never got properly light and the sheep were too miserable to bleat. The Scots have the best word for it. Dreich.

One of those days when you can wake up feeling an ill-defined guilt, as though you did something wrong the day before but can’t for the life of you think what it could have been. So you make it worse by imagining what it could have been. I was at the Poetry Business Writing Day yesterday. Did I say something inappropriate? Did I break my own rules about how you should respond to a workshopped poem? …that kind of thing.

Or maybe it’s a hangover from getting back to the Meadowhall Interchange and finding I’d left my headlights on when I parked there in the morning. Battery dead. Frost forming on windscreens. 40 minute wait for the nice AA man to come and get me started, and then finding that the radio/satnav/phone/media thingy was now unavailable because it needed an authentification code. Why don’t I immediately write this sort of thing indelibly somewhere inside any car I buy as soon as I get it? Anyway, the Spares/Service departments are closed on a Sunday. Natch. Who needs repairs/parts on a Sunday? but tomorrow if I ring up and give them my car reg. they’ll tell me the 4-digit code. Please, god, grant me the serenity to accept what I can’t change. Everything will be fine tomorrow. Yes it will.

And apart from that I have nothing to say. Someone asked me yesterday what I was writing. The answer is that I’m writing nothing of any consequence because I’ve nothing to say at the moment. Probably I need to charge my own batteries and hope all the codes are still working afterwards. I need to fill up with some substantial reading…I’m not sure about what. Landscape. Geology. Mining. The history of London. The Victorian underworld. Etching. Mountaineeering. Who knows. I’m not sure it matters so long as it’s something hefty and time-consuming.

In the meantime I’m waiting for guests to send me poems to share with you, and publishers to tell you about their joys and despairs. And I’m watching Spiral, and McMafia and series 1 of The Wire . And fiddling about with two lovely stained glass panels that our friend Chris has made, but which don’t quite to fit the door. Yet.

Oh..and reading David Constantine’s Collected Poems which will eventually lift anyone’s spirits. So I’ll finish by sharing a couple of things of his that speak directly and powerfully to me on a bleak and miserable day. How about this, from Sunflowers

They lap furiously at the sun

with rasping lion tongue-leaves. But they die

as big men do whose bodies the life finds heavy, they loll

and blacken like the crucified. At evening

you will hear them in the garden flapping their rags

groaning to fall from the fences

flat over the grass



And this on a weekend of women marching to protest the awfulness of the Trump presidency. This is from Atlantis

It dies hard,the notion of a just people;

The wish that there should have been once mutual aid

dies very hard ……………………………….

………………………………………………………..we imagine

a life courteous and joyful; see them lightly clad

loving the sun, the vine, the grey olive.

Over the water, from trading, they come home winged

with sails, their guide and harbinger the white dove


Both extracts are from Watching for Dolphins [1983]


And should I have inadvertently done anyone a discourtesy recently or ever, forgive me.

Let’s see what next week will bring, after the rain.


The nice thing about poetry readings is……. the (un)discovered gems. With guest poet Ken Evans

Apologies. The cobweb’s a day late. It was half written yesterday when the dishwasher started to flash warning signs and to cease work mid-cycle. It turned out after some time that the impeller on the pump was jammed with a bit of broken glass. Or, because you’re keen on poetry, a shard. Anyway, it involved some finicking with tweezers and a lot of mopping. All is now well, so on with the post.

lucky dip stall

The thing about poetry readings is you pays your money (or, more often, don’t) and you takes your choice. We’ve been to poetry nights where the poet(s) and organisers outnumber the punters; one remarkable one in Bradford where the normally designated pub room was full of sleeping bags…….some may have been occupied. And those where the floor is taken by a manic street preacher who cannot be persuaded that the open mic is not the place for his grievances. The ones where the poetry is buried under an avalanche of jukebox and drunken revelry from an adjacent room. One memorable one where the poetry competed with Morris Men in the street outside. Ones where an audience member grows increasingly puzzled until s/he realises it’s not a Union Branch Meeting after all.

And there are poetry nights that are memorable simply because they make you feel good about yourself, about poetry, about the human condition. It was like that last Thursday at The Albert Poets in Huddersfield, not just because of the quality of the poetry, which was great, but also because there wasn’t even standing room. The Albert’s back room these days houses a pool table, and the poets are now out in the front bar, right by the front door on to the street. It’s an interesting space, and becomes even more interesting when a whole bunch of lovely folk hire a minibus and turn up in numbers. It happened in November when Ian Parks (who will, before too long, be a guest poet) was reading with Steve Ely and Smokestack Books editor, the splendid Andy Croft, and were supported by travelling fans from Mexborough…a bit like football, or music. Apparently, they liked it so much that they came again last Thursday to support Neil Clarkson, Emma Storr, Mike di Placido and Mexborough poet,Mike O’Brien, featured below. You might just see the orange barriers outside the door. The council were digging up the street, with drills and mechanical diggers. Which is always interesting.

And Mike Di Placido displayed, courtesy of Mark Hinchcliffe, one of Ted Hughes’ Mont Blanc pens, about which he’s written a belter of a poem in his collection ‘Crow flight across the sun’. It was a special night. Some of them are.

In and among all this are memories of poetry nights where you heard a poet for the first time, one who reads something that stops you in your tracks, makes you sit up and pay attention. Almost all of the poets who have been guests on the cobweb are in this category. Nearly all the contemporary poetry I own has been bought at readings (including some on residential courses)  where I heard these poets for the first time. (most people knew about them already, but that’s not the point, is it?). Ruth Valentine, Steve Ely, Rebecca Gethin, Christy Ducker, Jonathan Edwards, Roy Marshall, Jane Clarke, Shirley McLure…..and so on and so on. Which brings us nicely to today’s guest and (un)discovered gem.

In December I drove over the M62 to Liverpool for the launch of Coast to coast to coast 2, at the Open Eye Gallery on the waterfront near the Pier head. It was a lovely cold night, and I’d forgotten how nice it is to walk, all wrapped up, through mainly deserted spaces like the Albert Dock, and to enjoy light on water. It was like being a student in the 60s again. The world bright, new-minted. I’m hoping to dedicate a post to Coast to coast… in the very near future. Enough to say it’s the brainchild of Maria Isakova Bennett and Michael Brown, and they produce limited- edition, fabric-covered and handstitched pamphlets.


They’re flooded with submissions whenever they invite them, and they attract ‘names’. Their second pamphlet opens with a stunner from John Glenday. There are poems from Suzannah Evans, Stephanie Conn, Paul Stephenson, Rebecca Gethin…

It was a splendid launch, with poets from all over, and one of those readings where I heard lots of poets for the first time. Charles Lauder Jr., Robin Houghton and the one with opening lines that jumped out at me from the page..a poem by today’s guest Ken Evans

“(where no DNA, prints or dental records exist, jewellery helps identification)

What survives is love, and jewellery –”

The whole poem follows shortly, but first, I’ll let Ken introduce’s a fascinating story of his arrival in this odd world of writing poems.

I find a lot of people come to poetry through crisis – break-up; divorce; a death; redundancy; an unexpected rift in the weave; an addiction, or the journey from addiction; or simply a mid-life loss of way. This last, though less dramatic, is just as debilitating – a creeping sense of alienation, that won’t be denied.

My own moment came after donating a kidney to my sister who had lupus. An incurable but not necessarily killer-disease, she’d reached the stage of dialysis. Without a donor, it can be a seven-year wait for a good match. Often, twice that. The op. went well, but left me with a collapsed lung (re-inflatable) and a loss of purpose (less easy to breathe air into.)

My job seemed pointless and stressful.  While presenting, I started swaying and for an instant, lost all depth of field, so that the person farthest from me in the room seemed as upfront and close as the person in the front row.  Unnerving. A cardiogram suggested a small stroke – a TIA (Transient Ischaemic Attack.)

[I’ve spent time speculating about the subtext of the gap that Ken leaves between this paragraph and the next. It’s one of those ‘In one bound he was free’ narratives!

“A kidney short, but an Arvon course up, I was away. A Master’s in Poetry at Manchester University under the brilliant John McAuliffe, Vona Groarke and Frances Leviston (and the then-Writer-in-Residence, Colette Bryce), and I was hooked.

Placings in Poets & Players; the Bridport; Troubadour; the National Poetry Prize longlist; Bare Fiction and the Nine Arches Press ‘Primers’ series – all boosted self-confidence, and made me start to think I’ll have a shot at this poetry-stuff, and I began living for the time I could steal at the keyboard/notebook.

I read all the time – as of course, all workshop-leaders tell us we must: mainly lyric North Americans like Henry Cole, Carl Phillips, Jack Gilbert (all recommended by John McAuliffe.) I also learned of the longer and downbeat, wry conversational line of Karen Solie and Louise Gluck; the density of Jorie Graham and the dazzling Sharon Olds, Brenda Shaughnessy, as well as Kay Ryan’s tauter and shorter lines, while Billy Collin’s apparently effortless way with verse won me over.


In 2016, I won Battered Moons, and published a pamphlet, ‘The Opposite of Defeat, with Eyewear Publishing, as well as making runner-up, in the lovely Jacky Kays’ generous judgement, in Poets & Players.


There you go. And now I’m delighted to share some of his poems with you. Let’s start with the one that caught my eye at that December book launch.

True Forensic

(where no DNA, prints or dental records exist, jewellery helps identification)


What survives is love, and jewellery –

a Deposit Box in a tower-basement,

hennaed by heat, gold and sapphire, ruby,


diamonds burnished to a glitter,

scorched from their settings to outshine

their blackened fixtures.


Limbs, so firm and clasped in life,

burn lightly as a willow-branch, browning

leaves, a wick of fat beneath.


Flames dance upon our face, eyes.

The ring on a finger is an emissary

from a thin wrist of skin and time,


shrunken to a flare of alchemy,

distilled to what remains, the opaque,

a flaming geometry.


Our fire-licked embrace cannot shake

the faithful sleep of a Pompeiian dog,

the Viking amethyst, sunk in taiga,


that heaven, crackling, thirty floors above

our heads, brought down upon

the precious, and our semi-precious



Two things struck me straight away. The first was the texture of the writing, the consonants, the near rhymes that tie it together. It sings out to be read aloud. The second was the unblinking way it opens by borrowing from Larkin, and then subverting my expectations by substituting ‘jewellery’ for ‘love’. And the odd juxtaposition of ‘tower’ and ‘basement’. It all jumped off the page at me. And then I was taken by the notion that gems may have as much provenance as DNA is establishing our identity. It’s an idea that bothers, like grit in a shoe.

The fourth stanza is unnerving in the way it sets up the body as fragile, pliant and flammable. I get an after image of an auto da fe. I have to say that I jumped to the conclusion that this was a Grenfell Tower poem. Ken told me that it predates Grenfell. But Grenfell becomes one more layer of meaning in a poem of layers and strata. It was this poem and Ken’s reading of it that made me ask him to be a guest and send me some more.

Maybe it’s because I’m fascinated by the narratives of early polar exploration that I chose the two that I did. Fire and


(based on Mawson’s diary, Antarctica, 1912)


at the food depot, two oranges on a crate under

the tarp. i can’t eat, even though i crave them.


their colour avalanches in my eyes.

cocaine and zinc-sulphate for snow-blindness.


i love such men that would leave them here.

if I perish, i am my last photograph, bent-double


in a hundred-knot wind, snow flying

from my shovel, skating my tripod legs away.


our last husky ate her puppies, which is normal.

we boiled her friends, the paws being toughest.


snow-bridges cave-in, their thunder is company.

a petrel flew into my sled from nowhere.


young Metz raved and broke a tent pole.

‘veh,’ he said, dying in my blistered arms.


i hired him for his hilarious English accent.

a climber, glaciologist, i thought him an idler.


he soils himself, i need his sleeping bag.

i am too weak, no, too lonely, to bury him.

the yellow lips, the other colour in the landscape.


I chose this for the ‘voice’. Maskwearing is liberating, but it’s harder than it looks to find the rhythms of a ‘voice’ and to sustain them. I like the way the tone is set by two phrases

i thought him an idler / he soils himself,

the way they act like a tuning fork for the rest of the poem. How do you read this narrator? If you were an actor, how would you imagine him? A man impatient of weakness in himself and in others. Something of a moral snob, and determinedly stiff-lipped, laconic, sardonic.

our last husky ate her puppies, which is normal.

I love the way the two points of colour, the intensity of the orange, the sallowness of the yellow, seem to dazzle in a monchrome world  It’s a very painterly poem, this, and a carefully managed one. As is the last one for today which attends to the other narrative of  polar exploration; Scott and Shackleton and Amundsen have their heroic/tragic/triumphant/epic journeys. We remember them, the gallant frontline troops, and pay less attention to support systems that made their stories possible. We tend to forget the patient work that has to go on for months and months of no sun, no day. Which is why I chose this poem, for it’s shift of perspective, and I suppose, for the dark humour.


At the Amundsen-Scott Research Station


Night came months ago and stayed ever since:

the moon, not waxing or waning, hangs high,

a mothball in a corner of a dark cupboard,

constant as the wind, a feral pet we feed outside,

seal air-locks against to stop the rasping lick:

we know all our moods, better than our own faces

fractured in iced-up port-holes. Each day arriving

minus thirty-eight, wind-chill off the scale.


Our work is talk, sensitive in the silence to each

blip or whirr of our instruments, an exact spot

the needle touches on the dial of the jet-fuel

in our generator. We dream in half-tones,

our only sunset a screensaver, for memory.

After homemade-hooch (no blow at the Pole

to wipe minds white) and a series of box-sets,

we play a game of who we’d eat first if all else


fails. Irrationally, for a lab full of scientists,

the men say the women, the women, the men.


So, there you are. A day late, for which I’m sorry, but I hope you’ve enjoyed Ken Evans’ poems and voices as much as I have, and that you can’t wait to buy his book. As for next week….I don’t know yet. It’s probably the dark days and early nights. It’s good job I’ve never been sent to the Antarctic.



























































Just do it


I’m aiming for a short post today. We’ll see.

I’m 75 tomorrow. This comes as something of a shock. Or, alternatively, as just a number. I prefer the alternative. However, I’ve come to acknowledge in the last couple of years that there are things I could do that I can’t do any more, or as well, or for as long. Physical things. As my joints grow more crumbly I can’t do hill walks that I could do five years ago. For a time, this made me very resentful and cross and bad-tempered and sorry for myself.

When that happens, you need to stand back and take stock. Like Ivan Denisovitch, with his own brand of practical Epicureanism; an audit of the things you have that could be taken away. Counting your blessings, I suppose. What happens is that I remind myself that though I can’t do what I did five years ago, physically I can do twenty times more than I could do fifteen years ago. Because ten years ago, I had new hips fitted.

Ten years ago, I didn’t write many poems, and the ones I wrote were not worth anyone’s attention. Five years ago I put my mind to it and determined to do something about it. Don’t ask me why, because I’m not precisely sure, but the thing is that essentially, I followed the exhortation of that Nike advert. Just do it. Whatever it is, do it, as well as you can. Don’t put it off, don’t make excuses, don’t talk yourself out of it. Just do it. And then keep on doing it. It’s really that simple. So why don’t we?  Metaphor time.


If you’ve never done any rock climbing, this will look amazing, and remote and mad. And in any case, your senses may have been blunted by CGI images, and it won’t seem that remarkable. On the other hand, we all understand the business of height and of falling, and conclude that it’s all very well but not for the likes of us.

If you’ve just started rock climbing and got the bug, you might just dream of doing something like this amazing woman does with apparent ease. You can come to dream of it, you start to read about climbs and routes and lines, you start pushing your limits. And you hit a point when you know that’s it. You’ve hit your technical or physical limits. With me it was a combination of those and vertigo.

What do you do? You can keep pushing till you do something disastrous. Or you can be unhappy and resentful because you realise you’re not going to get better, and you’ll never do what the superstars do so (apparently) easily. You know you can’t do it. ‘It’ being defined what you can’t do.

Or you serenely face up to the fact that you never could have done ‘it’, but you certainly can do some of it. You know what it feels like, the pull of gravity, the cold of stone, the moments when you felt invulnerable, standing on a big safe ledge high up, above the world. I tried to catch that in a poem : Seen from above


“……that time, belayed high up on Gimmer Crag

we watched a tiny Mini puttering up the Langdale road.

It missed the sharp left turn, and, with a tinkling of stone,

ran slap into the boundary wall. There was a little plume of steam.

We smiled. Above us in the quiet, a kestrel hovered;

sheep coughed, and cropped.

Distance takes away all difficulty.”


It was that feeling of godlike irresponsible superiority that I could feel on even an ‘easy’ climb…this one being Holly Tree Traverse, which probably only counts as a scramble these days. Or, in Scotland, a walk. Still, I chanced my arm with a metaphor [climbing/writing] so I’ll push on. I can remember beginning.

climbing 2

I can remember the clumsiness with dealing with the gear, the ropes, the slings. All that. And eventually the clumsiness grew less. You get better if you practise. You remind yourself how far you’ve come, and if you want to stay sane, you stop worrying about the superstars, and you do what you can. You just do it. And who, knows, you might just get better.

The thing is, you won’t get better if you keep mediocre company. You learn from the company you keep. The fact that I can’t climb up vertical ice walls doesn’t stop me from enjoying the company of ,say, Joe Simpson. When it comes to poetry, I’ve set myself an annual task/routine. I choose a poet who I like via a handful of poems. It has to be a poet who’s kept on writing and writing. Enough to have a big fat Collected Poems. And then I read X poems every day for a year till I get to the end. So far Ive read Charles Causley, Norman McCaig,  and U A Fanthorpe like this, and on January 1st this year I started on David Constantine. 374 big fat pages.

To my dismay, very briefly, I felt the poetry equivalent of what I’ve felt about my physical limitations. It didn’t last long, but I think it came down to seeing that he’s a year younger than me, and his first collection A brightness to cast shadows was published in 1980. In the way of things, I estimate that he was 33 when he had enough material from which to select a collection, and then to interest a publisher. And there certainly weren’t remotely as many poetry publishers around then as there are now.And I was jealous. Which is, of course, not only a waste of time, but a waste of the emotional energy you’d be better off spending on things that matter. Let me share some the lines that put me in mind of that woman free climbing that terrifying blank face in Yosemite.

the clock pecks everything to the bone.  

[from As our bloods separate]


I see the damned are like this:

loquacious to no effect……….

incapable of nakedness

they rasp their hands on one another


[from The damned ]

the dead lamb picketed a ewe.

She cropped round, bleating

and chewing in that machinal way of sheep


[from Lamb ]

I’m not a stone, I’m dirty snow that in

her sunlight melts. It has no choice but to

[from Suddenly she is radiant again ]


How soon, I wonder, after how many Novembers

did the years begin to seem not paces

interminably around a pit nor steps deserting

a place, but slow degrees by which she came

over the curve of the world into that hemisphere

his face rose in?

[from In memoriam 8571 Private J W Gleave ]


Like shrapnel in the lucky ones

she carried fragments in her speech

remarkable to her grandchildren

but to herself accustomed

[from In memoriam 8571 Private J W Gleave ]


But with a history of ECT

and separation Milburn Margaret Mrs

did not attain the obliterating sea

she got no further than the DHSS

and on a Friday in the public view

lodged on the weir as logs do

[From But with a history of ECT ]


the morning’s broken glass

and brightening air could not pick up his breath

[From Boy finds tramp dead ]


you were working slowly on a smoke

and, tilting your indoor trilby, would appear

through clouds soon and would broach

your silence waiting like an untouched beer

for a man back from the gents

[Fron Elegy ]


The summer moon was terrible. It beamed

like Christ on Lazarus

[From Spring tide ]


It’s the company you keep. One who’s not afraid to learn from R S Thomas or Geoffrey Hill, or Tony Harrison or from Heaney or Hughes or MacCaig. Not afraid of ellipsis, awkward syntax, abstractions, rhyme or rhetoric. I shall enjoy my year with David Constantine, marvelling at what can be done with words. I was tempted to go off on one about the poetry equivalent of the X Factor, the world where all must have prizes, but I’m going to avoid the vexatious. Most of the folk I know in the tiny world of poetry and and those who write it are honest with themselves. They support each other. They don’t put on airs. They want to get better at what they do. As a rule, it seems to me that the more talented they are the more self-doubt they’re likely to have.

I’ll finish with an anecdote. Someone who I taught in my very first class in my very first week as full-time qualified teacher wrote to me a couple of days ago. For years he was a tour /stage manager for some of the biggest names in popular music.

“Speaking of booze and drugs, I also had a front row seat for Queen’s most successful times, from Live Aid to the death of Freddie, curtesy of the years I spent working for Elton’s manager, John Reid, who for a while managed both.  Elton at least is still there, or was when I last looked.

I am very aware that all the music history I shared, no matter how remotely, through truly golden years, is not really relevant to anyone any longer (except old farts like us) and an echo of the transitory grandeur of these events only reverberates briefly through history upon the death of a protagonist.  

The most surprising person who truly got that, was George Harrison, who I chatted with backstage during soundcheck at the Albert Hall, before he went on to join in a set with Eric Clapton at a charity event for Pamela Stevenson, that again, I stage managed.

At the time, George had not played live for 100 years or so and before he went on he said to me, ”Dunno why he wants me. Nobody will know who the **** I am….”

Keep that in mind. Then believe in yourself. What you’ve done is done. It doesn’t matter if it was good bad or indifferent. You can get better. Just do it.



David Constantine : Collected Poems [Bloodaxe 2004]. £12