From the back catalogue (7)

Gosh…Sunday come around again already. I can’t keep up. It’s been another busy poetry week.No wonder it went so fast. Albert Poets workshop at The Sportsman’s in Huddersfield. I love those Monday nights, getting feedback on draft poems from people who are on top of the game. I’ve never gone without coming home with an improved piece of work. And there are always surprises, poems that stick in the mind after one hearing. Not surprising, with writers of the quality of Julia Deakin, Carola Luther, John Duffy and Steph Bowgett as regulars. It’s everything a workshop should be…democratic, critical, supportive, and warm. I just needed to write that. I owe a huge debt to groups like these.Wednesday I went to read at The Purple Room…a performance event run by cellist/musician Keely Hodgson at the Wheatley Arms in Ben Rhydding. As it turned out, I was a day early. I asked the guy on the bar: is there a poetry event? Certainly, he said. It’s tomorrow. Are you interested? I was. I drove the 30 miles back home, went back the following night, and read to a lovely listening audience. I read a poem I haven’t done for ages. It’s called Deja Vu. The other performer on the night was very special.Steph HSteph Hladowski is a performer and singing teacher from Bradford who sings unaccompanied (mainly English) traditional folk songs. Google her. You’ll find links to The wild wild berry. The track is on Youtube; you’ll also find links on BBC Music, and more tracks. The thing is, I gave up going to folk clubs some years ago in order to go to poetry clubs where I could read the poems I really wanted to read.

I don’t regret it, and particularly don’t miss some of the things I crammed into  a stand-up piece written in a workshop ; the instruction was to write about a group of people by using only stereotyping, exaggeration and downright lies.


Folk festival folk:

They work in council housing departments

and sing sad songs of flooded seams and firedamp,

poss-tubs, pinnies, lockouts ,blacklegs,

disasters, deprivation.


Or tutors in evening classes;

they know The Ballad of Sir Patrick Spens,

and Matty Grovesby heart; they sing without

accompaniment. And slow. And flat. They never miss

a verse. They sing the chorus after every

one, bring unimagined nuances to

the meaning of interminable.


Or sell insurance; work in call centres,

and sing , at length, about the whaling,

silver darlings, foundering trawlers, ice;

shawled fisherwives on shivering wharves

gazing at the widowing sea.


They drink real ale (the men), are

overweight and thin on top (long at back and sides);

their wives once looked, a bit, (they hoped) like Joan Baez;

they cultivate split ends, and henna.


They believe that all real folk songs

were writ on tablets of millstone grit

brought down from the moors

by Mike Harding and Eliza Carthy

and that Kate Rusby is the Second Coming


They wear, without discrimination,

cheesecloth, tie-dye, leather waistcoats;

regardless of the cold,or drizzle: sandals.

They run to seed, self-righteously. Own tents.


Their children dream of days at Alton Towers,

junk food, Playstations,  X Boxes

and hanging out. Instead, are herded into

story-telling workshops; they are quiet,

and subdued, and, often, pale.

Secretly, they harbour visions

of a terrible revenge.


Something should be diddly-done about it.


But when folk songs are sung by some one with a pure voice, someone with great pitch, with no faked emotionality, by someone who engages imaginatively with the words and the language, and with the people in the songs, someone who understands phrasing, then that’s a different matter. Which is what Steph Hladowski does. It was lovely. It set me thinking about folk tales and folk songs and the differences between them. It set me off thinking about two distinct types of folk songs, too.

Essentially, for me, the folk tale is universal and works deep at the level of a collective unconscious. Its notions of truth, of justice, of right and wrong work at a different level from those of ‘rationalism’. According to the latter, the message of Rumpelstiltskin should be that if you tell lies and break promises you will marry a king and live happily ever after. Ask yourself why the little ugly man who helps the pretend spinner of gold should be so dreadfully punished. Ask yourself what it is that he did wrong, and you realise the answer lies in understanding that he has broken a fundamental taboo.

The folk song, on the other hand, I think, is anchored in its culture, its nationality if you like. Scots folk songs are different from English ones…or, at least one kind of folk song is. There are the ones which are firmly anchored in events, that are an oral historic record from the viewpoint of the folk rather than their ‘rulers’. They tell stories of cruelty on board ships…like the tale of ‘the English sailor, Andrew Rose’, or of terrible shipwrecks like that of the SS Ellen Vannin, lost in the Irish Sea, or of mining disasters like Gresford…of mutiny and popular insurrection like that at Peterloo. And so on. And then there are the generic ones that would be timeless if not for their language. The ones of constant lovers, of betrayed maids, the ones that begin with walking out on a May morning, when larks sing melodious. The ones of young women who disguise themselves as men to seek for their true loves lost in the wars…and so on. These were the sort Steph Hladowski sang so beautifully last Thursday, and I loved every minute of it. Anyway, you should check her out.

The week ended very happily with a day in Sheffield at The Poetry Business Writing Day, and this afternoon with my beloved Batley Bulldogs finishing the season with a great win distinguished by top quality tries. Tomorrow, at the Puzzle Poets Live in Sowerby Bridge I’ll be introducing two of my favourite poets…Clare Shaw and Kim Moore. What a double bill! I couldn’t be more delighted. Right; this week’s backtrack, and I hope you enjoy it.

Now what? Or: What next?

I don’t need many excuses to use this picture. When I was doing A Level Art, my art teacher, Louis Wilde, made me copy it. I mean, really, copy it. It was probably a poor quality reproduction, maybe 4 inches square, at most. He told me I had to figure out how it was all put together. I had to draw it and redraw it. I started to understand what was going on with lines…that strong diagonal of the worktop, the echoed vertical curves of the women’s arms, the shapes made by the orange scarf, the shapes around it. It became more and more abstract the more I looked and looked.

And then I had to paint it and paint it. Bear in mind, this was a Boys’ Grammar School in 1959. I was the only one in the whole 6th form who was doing Art. It was not a well-equipped department. The papers were rubbish. The available paint was powder paint. Still. I struggled and struggled to get the texture of that work top. I put paint on top of paint. I started again. And again. And Louis Wilde just let me struggle. Keep going. he’d say. You’ll see. And I did. I’d have seen straight away if it had been the original, and you can see much clearer with a screen image. But the fact is, there’s hardly any paint on that pale oatmeal-y area at the bottom. Mainly, what you can see is the canvas, as is also true of the top part of the image. He was teaching me to look, was Louis, and I’m still grateful.

Drawing and redrawing the two figures and then painting them made me look at how the upper body is put together, the ways it works. You can feel the weight of bone and flesh and muscle, the ways they flex. I never managed to figure out how Degas managed to suggest that the weight of the figures continues all the way to the unseen floor, hidden by the diagonal line of the worktop. Miraculous. But here’s the kicker…we were into Abstract in 1959. Representional painting was dead. Or unfashionable. Much the same thing, when you’re 16. Louis had me doing synthetic cubism quicker than you could say Braque. So I never really got to think about what the picture was saying about these women and their work. I never for a second considered what Degas was well aware of…their tiredness, the steamy heat…look at that big stove, or copper, or whatever it is…look at the haze of light, muzziness. I was reminded of this, reading U.A.Fanthorpe who voices one of the women in this painting. I can’t remember the title of her poem. But in a footnote, she remarks that Degas got the title of the painting wrong. It’s called Women ironing. Fanthorpe says that these are women trained in a trade involving skill and stamina. They’re professionals. The painting should be called Ironing women.

gap year facebook

Why the odd feeling of flatness? Surely, everything is wonderful? Isn’t this more than you could ever dream of? I remember suddenly realising that Degas wasn’t using much paint at all on that surface that I’d been trying to reproduce by laying paint on paint. I saw how it was done, and what I felt was …deflated. I’d been missing the point all along. Less was much much more. I have to say it was a lot later that I recognised that the women in the picture, their situation, and work and humanity was what mattered, and the technique was a means to an end. Not the end, any more than ‘having a collection’ is an ‘end’. It’s a means of telling what you make of the world.

Poets I love have told me how they went to sleep with their first published collections under their pillow. I watched a poet I love sit in a daze of happiness on the day a parcel of copies of her first collection arrived. I saw her reading the other week, and during her reading she talked about how she’d written nothing, really, for a year after that. Not writers’ block, whatever that is, because I think that describes a kind of desperation. Not wanting to write and being unable. That wasn’t it at all. It was just..not writing.

I haven’t felt it like that. I’ve gone on writing and writing. But I think I may have made a mistake in getting involved in that poem-a-day-April, which coincided with finishing the new collection. I wrote 50+ ‘poems’. I worked on every unfinished draft from two years of going to writers’ workshops. I’ve read them all over and over. I feel as though I’ve spent all my savings in one big splurge, and I’ve nothing to show for it and less to fall back on when it rains. Flat. A bit like realising Degas didn’t use much paint. The ‘is that it?’ feeling. Well, it is what it is, and we’ll ask for the serenity to accept it until it decides to go away. Because it will. In the meantime I found myself writing a series of shortish poems which wonder whether poetry’s all it’s cracked up to be. You know you’re in trouble when you start writing poems about poems. I’ll share them with you. Think of it as confession. Have a read of Auden’s ‘Musee des beaux arts’ first.

The whole of the moon



They give themselves airs, poets,

make large claims on the world,

like starving men

who stake little flags in cairns

in wildernessess of snow and cold.


You don’t get painters doing that,

the ones for whom it’s enough

to sit still, to look and look and look

till they almost believe they know

how the moment works,


the art where you see all of it

at once, at the same moment

as everything else  inside the frame,

right to the very edges

where the moment stops.


A poet wonders how would it be

if the picture went on round

the corner, if you could see

where Breughel’s hunters came from,

and who or what was following.


Poets  tell you what matters

is the moment, but really

they’re hooked on narrative,

the why, the who, the what and when,

the dumb ghosts in the machine.


painters give you everything at once,

you stand in the space where they were,

they gift you their eyes, don’t stand

behind you to explain or point.


Poets are always at your shoulder,

touching your elbow, you can’t

shut them out. You go at their pace,

top to bottom, left to right.


A painter sees the sea, the cliffs,

the clouds, the boy scaring crows,

the ploughman turning clods,

the ship, a splash. Doesn’t write

a title underneath. A poet tells you

what the painter meant.


Through the scrim and scaffolding

of words you will never see

again  the world he saw.



A painter can stop the moment

of a girl lit from a window,

pouring milk from a jug. The milk

makes no sound, a stilled liquid purl.


Intent and still as a cat, a painter

sees a woman ironing, the turn

of her shoulder, the planes

of greenish light, the way flesh

isn’t white at all, how, like snow

it borrows colour, blue and violet.


You look through the eyes of the cat

and see with a start that it’s true,

the way a torso shifts to press

down on an iron, how a finger

moves a strand of errant hair,

how red is the inside of a yawn.


He watches how a dancer watches

herself in a long mirror. He doesn’t

say she loves herself in her froth

of muslin, her satin shoes. He doesn’t

say how tired is the ironing woman,

how hot, or bored, how long the day.


He lends you his eyes and quietly

goes, leaves you to make of it

what you will.

What was all that about? Not for a moment was I thinking of stopping writing to take up painting. I think what was behind it was thinking about the whole purpose of signs and symbols as a way of illuminating the world, celebrating it and the people in it. And at the same time thinking that either I’d said as much as I possibly could, or that however much I did it I’d never say anything particulary new or memorable, or both.

And then you’re given a gift. A poet who says she didn’t write anything for a year after her first collection was published. But who is now writing wonderful new stuff. And another; yesterday, I reblogged a post from Julie Mellor. When you’re finished here, do go and read it. It seems ages since she was a Poetry Business Pamphlet Competition winner, and then seemed to go off the radar (though I’ve kept reminding you how good she is via the cobweb). She’s been quietly working away, listening, watching, researching, absorbing. She’s finding herself in new places, exploring things she hadn’t expected to explore. If that doesn’t cheer me up, nothing can.

So when I write: Now what? Or. What next? you can imagine two distinct ways of saying it. One irritable and tetchy. Or one that say, let’s get cracking. Work to be done. This morning, it’s the second voice, and I’m grateful to the ones who made me feel this way.

And that, I promise, is the last recycled post for a good long time (or so I fervently hope) and next week we’ll be back to what I set out to do in the first place, which is to share my enthusiasm for poets I’ve heard and been excited by. I’m delighted to say that next week, it’ll be a visit from Laura Potts. Come early and get a good seat.

From the back catalogue (6).Rhythm

It has been (as Garrison Keillor never wrote) a packed week, and a very satisfying one. I found out I’d got a Highly Commended in the Buzzwords Competition (along with my good friend Maria Isakova Bennett), and a 2nd prize in the Otley Poetry Prizes, which is organised by the OWF, and the indefatigable Peter White, Jane Kite and Sandra Burnett. (it occurs to me, retrospectively, that there’s no reason now why I shouldn’t share the poems, so I’ll add them as a p.s. at the end.

I’ve been ‘interviewed’ twice …once ‘virtually’ for The Wombwell Rainbow, which is a fascinating blog site that’s recently posted a whole sequence of interviews with a load of poets…(Stephanie Bowgett is the latest)…and is well with a visit; the other was a programme on Chapel FM which is a community radio station based in Seacroft in Leeds. It’s housed in a stunningly renovated and adapted small chapel, tucked away on the edge of Seacroft Estate. It was a delight to be interviewed by Laura Potts who gave me free rein to ramble about poetry and landscape, and to choose two favourite music tracks. You can hear it via their catch-up link :

The show’s called Love the words (Sept.18)….there are three programmes on the night, the other two featuring Wakefield poet and performer Jimmy Andrew, and the Leeds poet Joe Williams. My set’s 40 minutes in. Fill your boots.

Wednesday night I went to Harrogate to do a reading; one of those odd nights. An audience of three very nice young people and the M.C. Anyway, I read and chatted and then drove home. One of those nights when, as a poetry night organiser, my heart went out to the poor M.C. And salutary, too. Anyone whose driven any distance to do readings will have similar stories. Clare Shaw tells me that she and three other poets once did a gig where they outnumbered the audience, and the organiser went home and left them too it.

Yesterday I had a wonderful time at the Old Courthouse in Otley for The Otley Poetry Prizes 2018. Judged by Gaia Holmes, I was chuffed to bits to hear Vicky Gatehouse announced as the First Prize can find Vicky’s guest appearance in the cobweb archive; even more delighted to do something for the very first time: to win an open mic. competition. And I finally met fellow Indigo Dreams pamphlet prize winner, Amy Kinsman, who came second with a performance I’d picked out as the likely winner.

So there we are. Breathless at the end of a splendidly busy week. So forgive me for going on with this back catalogue sequence. New, fresh posts any time soon. Today here’s another of the ones where I’ve rambled and mused about various aspects of the technicalities of poems.

This one’s from Jan 17 2016, and it’s about rhythm.











A couple of months ago a poetry friend of mine asked me for some advice about ‘rhythm’. Reading between the lines, he was bothered, I think, that what he was writing sounded like prose. He asked me how he could ‘get more rhythm’ into his writing. I spent a lot of time thinking about what the question meant, and I’m still not sure that what I came up with answers the question. But, for what it’s worth, I’ll share the thinking with you. And if you have more ideas, and better ones, then I’ll be delighted if you share them back. It wasn’t an orderly process, my ‘lot of time thinking’…more a collage of bits and pieces that all seem relevant but don’t jigsaw and dovetail neatly together.

Still. We need to start somewhere, and where better than with the wonderful Clive James. Here’s two things I jotted down.

‘you hear the force of real poetry at a glance’……

in a nutshell! Poetry is about its shape on the page, and the sound the shape makes.

and something he writes about a passage in Eliot’s ‘Four Quartets’

‘a stanza held together by its rhythmic drive…and the assiduity with which it didn’t rhyme’.

Just hold those two things in mind. Let them wash around and colour your mood.

Let’s add something to the mix, that, on the face of it, has nothing to do with poetry and poems. I used to be, amongst other things, an OFSTED inspector, and also  a Lecturer in Primary Education, telling students, inter alia, how to beat the OFSTED system. OFSTED inspectors were strictly enjoined, when assessing observed lessons, to take particular note of ‘pace’. I know that this was was frequently understood to mean that children should ideally be taught at a remorseless speed. But pace in a lesson has nothing to do with speed. It’s actually about rhythm. That was my argument. If the rhythm is unrelenting and unvarying the result is brain-death. We need time to think. We need variation of light and shade, of tempo. We need spaces and silences to surround the word and the action.  And they have to come at the right point. And the same’s surely true of a poem.

So: three things to hold in your mind. Just one more. For now.

Rhythm’s not the same as metric regularity. It’s dancing rather than foxtrot. You want to feel it intuitively, in the blood. And why ? This was my argument in a post over a year ago.

I’m just saying, without any originality, that poetry is older than prose because it’s older than reading and writing. Its heart and soul is rhythm, and the point about rhythm is that it’s patterned and repetitive. Children teach us this, but I wonder if we listen hard enough.What did rhythm help people to do for thousands of years before writing? It helped them, through songs and chants, to work collaboratively, to move huge loads, raise sails, keep straight lines in planting and harvesting fields. It helped them to celebrate with continuity the important things like birth and death and marriage. It gave them communal memories through the stories of victories and defeats, floods, fires, famines, and myths and legends. If these couldn’t be written down, then they had to be memorised. Stories had to be memorisable as well as memorable. Which is why we needed rhythm and repetition (just like times tables) and then the clever invention of rhyme that underscored rhythm and also helped the storyteller to remember the next line. The Odyssey, and Beowulf, had to be memorised. As did the parts of the Miracle Plays performed by artisans, not scholars.
Poetry was a creation of voice and sound and performance, social, collaborative, and democratic.

Once we could write poetry, we weren’t nailed down to the need to be memorisable. On the other hand, the responsiblity to write memorably became even more central and critical. As James says of the ‘real poem’ ..’it somehow seems to be memorizing itself for you’. Which I translate as: it makes itself memorable as you read and listen to it.

All of this, I think, lies behind my friend’s asking for help. How DO I write with rhythm? How do I find a rhythm? I know exactly what it’s like when you do find it…that feeling of being in the zone, where the rhythm is carrying the writing, where the words know where they’re going, where everything seems inevitable. It happens less than we’d like, but maybe there are things we can do that make it more likely. I think of this in the way that I think of practising with a musical instrument. There are things that have to be repeated in order to become automatic, and appear intuitive.If you have to think about the how rather than the what, there’ll be no rhythm, no fluency.

So, here’s where I start. Oral poetry will tend to be regular, and sometimes clunky. The Anglo-Saxon line can feel remorseless, the metre of the Finnish Kalevala, even more..

Voice the best of all our legends
For the hearing of our loved ones,
Those who want to learn them from us,
Those among the rising young ones
Of the growing generation.

But memorisable..which makes the popularity of the boy who stood on the burning deck and Longfellow’s Hiawatha explicable

By the shore of Gitche Gumee,
By the shining Big-Sea-Water,
At the doorway of his wigwam,
In the pleasant Summer morning,
Hiawatha stood and waited.

and on it goes. And on. But every now again there’s a surprise that just brings you up short.   Every tree-top had its shadow, / Motionless beneath the water. I really like the way I stop at ‘motionless’. Because if you know the rules well enough, you know how to bend them. I remember Tony Harrison telling my students that they need to remember that the iambic pentameter is the default rhythm of English speech..I think he argued that it was even truer of Northern speech, but I’m sceptical about that. Maybe someone will put me right. Sit on trains and buses, he said, and you’ll hear sentences like : ‘his brother works at Bisons outside Leeds’. You’ll hear them all the time.
So don’t let anyone tell you that a di-dum-di-dum metre is bad for you. Just that  remorseless and unvarying will kill anything stone dead. Once you know the rules you can break them. Marlowe’s usually said to be less fluent and flexible with his blank verse than Shakespeare, but boy, could he listen to the moment and break the ‘rules’.

The stars move still, time runs, the clock will strike,
The devil will come, and Faustus must be damn’d.
O, I’ll leap up to my God!—Who pulls me down?—
See, see, where Christ’s blood streams in the firmament!
One drop would save my soul, half a drop: ah, my Christ!—

I reckon that every syllable in bold is stressed. Because the emotion of the moment insists on it. And it’s the rulebreaking that makes it memorable. As it is in this lovely moment from Wordsworth’s Prelude.

And, as I rose upon the stroke, my boat
Went heaving through the Water like a swan;
When, from behind that craggy Steep till then
The horizon’s bound, a huge peak, black and huge,
As if with voluntary power instinct,
Upreared its head.—I struck and struck again,
And growing still in stature the grim Shape
Towered up between me and the stars,

The bits in bold are where I think the unexpected stresses go, where they’re unexpected but absolutely right, because he knows  the rhythm of the panicked rowing, and the exponentially growing physical menace of the ‘craggy steep’. I remember being 16, and seeing, for the first time, how a piece of writing worked, how it dramatised what was happening, how it explained to me how I should hear and understand it . But I had to be tuned in to the expected before I could hear the unexpected. It took me a lot longer to realise that it was OK to feel comfortable with my own iambic rhythms. The only thing that matters is whether a recognisable rhythm, or the deliberate avoidance of a recognisable rhythm (which can only come from repetition) is doing a proper job. The four-stressed Anglo-Saxon line does a wonderful rhetorical job for one of my favourite contemporary poets: Steve Ely

as in this extract from Hours of the Dead

Under the golf course,  the dead of England lie;
beneath the steel mill, their vernacular graves.
Rolling and turning in tectonic earth

So: bearing in mind what Clive James says about ‘poets who want to keep technique out of it because they haven’t got any’ here’s a more considered version of what I wrote to my mate who worried about the rhythm (or lack of it) in his writing.

“I thought it might be something to do with sentences with lots of dependent clauses. I thought it might be something about adjectival clotting.
It seems to me that if you try to push it, it’ll die in the water. So, what to do?
The main thing is to know what it is you want to be saying; what’s it about?
For instance, at the moment, I’ve got a head full of the year’s ending accompanied by myth and legend, which is jostling for space with the language of landscape and topography
At other times it’s been about a particular landscape, or about my parents, or about mortality. I don’t ask for these things. They are what preoccupy me at any given moment. So how to make a start on any of them in ways that put pressure on the words to do more than they ordinarily will.

*Try clearing your head of what you think you want to write about by doing something else. Try this.  You shouldn’t try to copy anyone BUT you can do some very useful work in ‘copying’ exercises. For instance: Choose a poem you wish you’d written, and copy it out by hand. Do it again. See how much you can write before you need to refer to the one you’re copying.

*Take a sonnet, or a ballad….something with a particular rhyme scheme. Take the last words of each line only.Then write a piece of your own which uses that set of rhyming words in that order. And use the same number of syllables as the original lines. It’s irksome. But so is learning the fingering of  guitar chords. Depends whether you want to play or not.

*If you have an idea for a poem then try playing ‘Starters’.. good starters are : arriving somewhere, meeting someone- real or fictional or historical- , leaving somewhere, a portrait of someone you love who must be in a place that is ‘theirs’, doing something that is ‘them’…
These are all about memory and visualisation; write fast and without thinking in continuous prose and without worrying about punctuation or anything. Give it 4 minutes. Then underline the most important bits. Then rewrite in lines of 6-8 syllables. Short lines will create a sort of rhythm of their own. See what happens. Remember, it’s an exercise, but you never know what you may stumble upon. Do not wonder what anyone else might think. It’s nothing to do with them.

*Write sequences of say 8-10 lines, 6-10 syllables to the line;
Start each line with the same word. These are good ones: AND, BECAUSE, ALTHOUGH, WHEN  ( but not the last line)
This is something I’ve noticed more and more, and something I’ve learned about from poets like these:  Gaia Holmes starts her poem ‘Inland’ like this

And it comes to me
as we drive through moors
clotted with burnt, black heather

It’s got immediacy and drama and energy does that ‘And’, despite what your Primary school teachers hammered into you about what not to start and end sentences with. Kim Moore shows you what happens when you repeat the trick…you set up a rhythm

And if you saw her hiding in the air ducts of Parliament
it was only to listen to the speeches.
And if she set fire to post boxes and burnt letters,
it was only certain envelopes she put pepper in.

It’s the rhythm of psalms and blessing and curses which is also the language of lists and repetitions. Julia Deakin can show you another take on it in her poem about the kind of dubious advice offered to would-be-published poets, or in bad workshops (or posts like this). This time you can think of starting every line of a list-poem with ‘No’. (well, not just every line…..)

Thank you for thinking of us
no shards, no lozenges, no litanies
no seagulls, no patinas
no abstract nouns, no adjectives or very few                                                                                                          no haiku

They can be blessings as well as curses, as with this lovely poem from Gordon Hodgeon, written for his new granddaughter.

cradle song
earth be your cradle
earth be my bed
sky be your morning light
sky my old head

You can see how you might take that small formula and push it as far as it will go. You could stick with ‘earth’ and ‘sky’; you could ‘fire’ and ocean’, ‘sun’ and ‘ice’. But only give yourself 8 syllables per line, max. Or 6. Just see what happens. There will be a rhythm . Seek out Jane Clarke’s The River; read  ‘Broken’….unrhymed couplets of 5 and 6 syllables. That’ll give you a clear notion of how much can be done in a short space. Another poet who plays with big ideas in a short and tightly structured space is Christy Ducker in her Grace Darling sequence from Skipper…4 eight(ish)-syllabled lines for each letter of the alphabet…(it could be for the first ten years of your life, for eight school subjects, seven neighbours down your street, six places you went on holiday. You get the idea).

is a hook that hangs by a thread
in the vault of the north sea
where it inkles, bright as her faith
the fish will come. Parabolic.

*play with lists of all kinds ….things you’ll leave behind, things that are unamanageable, places you’ll never go to, places you wish you’d never been, lives you might have lived…The Poetry Business writing days will often include one of these exercises, and they always, always result in something with its own recognisable rhythm, that comes from a structural repetition. One of my own started like that, as place names in a particular journey

A Kind of History

MacIan of MacDonald of Glencoe
comes to Inverary, three bitter days
of blizzard at the year’s ending;
three days from the Fords of Ballachulish,
the Narrows of Creran by Benderloch,
the Pass of Brander in the lee of Bheinn Cruachan;
by Loch Fyne and Glen Aray to river’s mouth;
in sodden plaid, and blind with snow;

It’s the kind of thing that happens in the bits of filler in Anglo-Saxon poetry where the scop recites line after line of a king’s battles, or gifts, or attributes, as he tries to remember the next bit of the narrative.

And I reckon that’s enough to be going on with on a snowy Sunday. Games with repetition, and with short lines. Here are some starters for ten, all of which come from the Poetry Business Saturdays over the years, and all of which will get me moving. Stick to the rules. Repeated first words. and.  because. although. when. but. Short lines.

*It snowed/rained/never rained for twenty years
*That winter
*We thought the rain would never stop
*Years later we went back
*We thought it wouldn’t matter,
*When the clocks stopped
*After it was all over

Before this all peters out, as such things can do, with more admonitions, and thereby loses its point and focus, let’s just add one thing. Read aloud poets who are comfortable with their rhythms and structures and who make it sound easy even as they’re breaking their own rules. Learn some by heart. Feel the rhythm in the blood. These are my current readaloud favourites: Tony Harrison, Steve Ely, Kim Moore, Robert Frost, Seamus Heaney, Vernon Scannell, Charles Causley, Robin Robertson, and Clare Shaw …but you know who’ll work for you. Remember how many poems have started by reading Carl Sandburg’s ‘Psalm for those who go forth before daylight’.  And if you like, you could write a poem in praise of lists.Or alternatively, write a will. That’s an interesting list to tackle.

After I’m gone

who will oil the letter press,
know to use clean boards,
the way the big drill sticks, or throws out bits;
who’ll keep the lengths of flex,
the spare plugs, the oil stone,
the basket of broken bits of blue/white crock,
a plastic box of scavenged seashore rope,
a bag of driftwood pieces all with interesting holes, or knots or nails,
the small wood box of printers’ plates,
acrylics in half-litre tubes: a good sized crate,
a basket of assorted woodstains including antique walnut, mahogany, pitch pine,
a black binbag of pine cones brought from Gironde and Charente,
a case of modellers’ enamels in small tins,
a box of packs of steel wool in different grades,
a cabinet of jumbled screws, and nuts and bolts, and washers, cotterpins,
a tin of blunted bits that only want a bit of work,
a pack of mirror glass pulled from a skip,
a fox’s skull, bits of vertebrae, a chunk of Coruisk gabbro,
some bundled withies,
a bag of batik wax?


Answers on a postcard. See you all next week


PS. Two poems…with acknowledgements and thanks to Ann Samson and The Poetry Business, since both of them were workshopped there and one started off as one of their exercises. The other started off as an exercise in a Kim Moore workshop. Credit where it’s due

*Buzzwords entry

Dear Mr Causley,


I knew you’d be out; if you’d been in

I wouldn’t have knocked. You won’t remember

me. And you seemed a private sort of man.

Not solitary or reclusive, but quiet.

Maybe it was the whiteness of your hair,

or the way you sat easy in that leather chair

surrounded by your silences. Your peace.


What could I have said? That you made me think

of white, the one you wrote about. Four walls

pure as cloam in this house where you were born

to live all your life in, contentedly, it seems,

in the room you called a bright glass cabin,

and outside the river ran like a mad boy and

all Cornwall thundered at your door. I didn’t

knock. I only wanted to see your house.


I wanted to say thank you. It was the whiteness,

the soft cool white of china clay, the pure space

where first words, like snowflakes, touched the page.

The burning bush of each necessary line,

the banked fires of the orphans, cripples,

and stranglers; the outcast and the seeming-mad

you celebrated, the passion of your real

and personal Jesus blazing on his cross,


the grey grain of its sea-bleached timber

under stars of glass; huge Cornish skies,

where crows rise up like hot black bonfire ash,

and birds, dark as history, lumber by.

So I didn’t knock, knowing you were out,

your clay in the cemetery’s long yawn, the graveyard

crammed with slant stones, like ships stormbound,

but you out there, everywhere. In your mouth,

oceans broke, like the crunching Cornish sea.


*Otley Prize


The bright silences

 beyond the almost noiseless sound of blood,

and of breathing, the small clamour of anxiety,

or whatever it might be, the calculation

of distances and likelihoods, the mild noise of wind,

the tiny sounds of men made small by distance,

the hammer tap, the minute snap of a slate, a scrape

and shift of a ladder on a granite wall

the drawn scouring of tyre noise, all this quiet din,

the scattered sequins of birdsong, the urging

of sap in bare hedges, green pressing

from the tips of winter-brittle thorn, the friction;


beyond all of that

the silence of a dog fox flattening himself

to a puddle of dark in a wide field;


the silence of three crows harrying

one indifferent buzzard drawing

perfect circles in an immense blue,

signing off in one long sliding line,

vanishing into a tumbled hillside;


the silence of two dolphins, small as hatpins,

breaking bright and sudden in the green space

between scribbled chalk lines of tiderip,

blowing fine spume for the sheer hell of it.


Fox, bird, two dolphins, hunting.

The dark watchers. The bright silences.






From the back catalogue (5) catching up and looking forward

wave 2

Breaking Point

(Before we get going: We’ve nearly finished the DIY: all the pulling out of fitments, plastering, filling, shelving, redecorating, reflooring and so on. Or at least, we’ve had enough of it for this year.

I’m gradually reducing the guilt pile of things I promised to do…like reviews, and reading folk’s manuscripts and giving feedback. Things I promised myself too. Like going through ten years of folders, looking for all the poems that I’ve done nothing with, and tidying up files, and wondering if any of them have legs (I think there are about 80; there must be one or two there). Like checking what comps are coming up, and what magazines are open for submissions. Well, there’s Strix for one. Can’t miss that.Feeling happy enough to have a 2nd prize, a highly commended and a couple of commendeds this year.

Looking forward to October’s Puzzle Poets Live when we’ll have a staggeringly good double bill of Kim Moore and Clare Shaw. How good will that be! Checking out and planning new setlists for readings…I’m really chuffed to be reading north of Leeds in the next month or so:  Harrogate, Otley, Ilkley, York…. and later on in Penistone, Huddersfield and Halifax. And I’ve got at least five guest poets lined up, all wonderful; I’m really looking forward to them.

Oh, and lest I forget; on Wednesday I went to the launch of Gaia Holmes third collection at The Book Corner in Halifax’s Piece Hall. Where the road runs out is published by Comma Press [90pp. £9.99]. It’s a beautiful collection, and I’ll be posting a review when I’ve absorbed it properly. And that, Ladies and Gentlemen of the jury, is why I’m dipping into the back catalogue, to keep up up the post-a-week habit. This week it’s a relatively recent one,originally written just past the half way point of Poem-a day-April. 2017

Breaking Point

“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.  Gap year.

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, I’ll light a candle.

Right. Line breaks.

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. All rule systems leak, sooner or later. The sum of the angles of a triangle is 180 degrees. Right? Unless it’s a triangle on the surface of a sphere, say, one made by the equator and two lines of longitude. All grammars leak.I didn’t say that. An eminent linguistician said that. 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 day 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?

Back here in 2018, an afterthought. Julie Mellorhas been posting almost daily on her poetry blog of late. Basically she’s been doing something much more absurd, radical, playful and subversive with texts…initially, “redacting” and making dense black spaces; more recently, cutting and pasting in the manner of 1950s blackmail letters. Have a look. It’ll be worth your while.


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





From the back catalogue (4)


Two very nice poetry days: Friday night was The Red Shed’s Poetry Supper at Mocha Moocho in Wakefield. Posh pie and peas. And a lovely after-pie reading from the wonderful Julie Mellor. Saturday off to Staithes for the Arts weekend, to celebrate my partner Flo’s birthday, eat cake, read silly poems for grown-ups and real poems for children with my mate Andy Blackford. Met Patrick Scott who was one of my English teaching mates for years, and who was once the editor of a book I wrote, Met one of my painting heroes, Peter Hicks, who turns out to be such an amazingly nice man I bought a painting, a proportion of which is Flo’s birthday present. I can’t stop looking at it. Shortly, I’m off to Mount Pleasant (the oxymoronic name of Batley Bulldogs’ home ground). Altogether, I couldn’t be happier and I’ll leave you with a post revisited. Have a nice day. I shall.


As leaves to the tree: first line nerves

First posted April 2017


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.

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 yourself 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.



From the back catalogue (3)

Originally posted August 14, 2016

Please, Miss, I don’t know what to write.tyndale-gospel-of-john

I suppose that begs the question: why write at all? It’s a question that I spent a lot of time on, in the 1980s, when I was writing a book about the teaching of writing, or working as a consultant on the emerging National Curriculum, or when I was putting together a series for GCSE. It’s easy to sidestep, by concentrating on the categories of writing that children and students need (we believe) to get to grips with. Lists, explanations, reports, summaries, persuasive and analytic pieces.

For most of the time in schools it’s so we can assess how well children write, and also to assess what they’ve understood or what they know. About history, geography, science, economics….whatever. In English lessons, we ask them to write in response to poetry or novels or plays. But why do we ask them to write stories or poems or scripts? I’m not sure it’s a question that enough teachers of English bother about sufficiently. It’s sort of a given. It’s what ‘English’ is.

I know when I was at school I’d be asked, or told, to write a story; and when I was a young and not especially reflective teacher, I’d be the one to do the asking or telling. There was always the one or two or three who would very reasonably say: I don’t know what to write about, Sir / Miss. I guess they were written off in school reports: ‘Lacks imagination’. I was OK at school, because although I knew very little, I read a lot and I’d figured out the tricks of writing a story. Poems, not so much. But we were rarely asked to write a poem, so that was OK.

And then, many years later (in my case) you find yourself, for reasons you can’t fathom, writing, or trying to write, poems; meeting other bewildered and enthusiastic folk in the same pickle. And every now and again hearing (or reading on Facebook) the complaint that someone is ‘blocked’ or ‘stuck’ or has ‘hit a blank period’. It’s the voice from childhood, all over again. Please, Miss. I don’t know what to write. I’ll stick my neck out. Here’s the answer. It’s because, for one reason or another, you have nothing to say. Not for ever. But just now. It’s because nothing is exciting or puzzling you.

You can make a list of what ought to intrigue you: your childhood, relationships, friends, school….the whole autobiographical shtick. But if it doesn’t excite or puzzle you, why should it interest anyone else? Places, landscapes, other lives? Ditto. Stuff you know you know about? History, science, cars, philately? Ditto.

So I’m going to stick my neck out again and say it’s the stuff that takes you by surprise, that’s exciting but something you don’t understand, something you want to understand…that’s what you wait for or go hunting for.

I was talking to the poet Helen Mort a week or so ago and she said something that caught my attention (she said a lot of things that did that) and I had to write it down. She said that when she went to Cambridge she was thrown by the way so many students took the place for granted, as though they didn’t actually ‘see’ it. Whereas she, as an outsider, an incomer, was gobsmacked and excited and baffled and all that…And I was immediately transported back to the interview I had in Cambridge, aged 17. I felt like an alien. Which meant, I suppose, that I was differently observant. It was like trying to learn a four-dimensional foreign language. And then Helen said:

                             Ideally, writers are on the outside, looking in

They are ideally, I suppose, the dark watchers I wrote about last week . They are writing to discover, because that’s the medium they make their discoveries in.Helen said:

I can make poems to be written, and they might be OK, but that’s all

By which I understood: if you’re not puzzled by what you’re writing about then you won’t be writing the poems that need to be written. I’m really glad I was there to hear that. To record it. And then to get on with this bit of cobwebspinning. I’m going to reflect on the business of finding out what it is you need to be finding out for the poems that need to be written.(  I’ll leave that tortured bit of syntax as it is. It’s symbolic).


You have to start, somewhere. Maybe you start here.


He is the sparrow, the Friday lord.

I hoped to be the watcher on the rooftop,

but He was first. I’m flake of his fire,

leaf-tip on His world-tree”

[ From: Tyndale in Darkness . 

U.A.Fanthorpe: Selected Poems, ed R.V.Bailey. Enitharmon Press 2013 ]

I have no idea why I downloaded U A Fanthorpe’s ‘Selected poems’ to my Kindle, round about midnight on a too-hot night in Spain a couple of months ago. Perhaps I’d looked her up on Google and realised that here was another poet, like Causley and Vernon Scannell, whose work was now to be sought via Abe Books. Whatever. On the verge of sleep, I stumbled into her sequence of poems where she voices William Tyndale, and I read these lines, and the hairs at the back of my neck stood up. That feeling that I’d never read anything like this, that it was amazing that it could have been written with such simple assurance. Later on I recognized the echoes of Gerard Manley Hopkins, and of George Herbert too, I guess,  but that hardly matters. I felt I’d learned something new-minted and important.

In a moment she will take you from the ‘dear preoccupied people’ of 16thC Gloucester, to Gethsemane,

‘and they weren’t used to late nights, his disciples

…………….why did He ask them to stay awake

when he knew they couldn’t? Because He always does.’


and back to Gloucestershire, and Tyndale remembering that


I heard the ploughboy whistling under Coombe Hill,

and I thought, I could do that. Give him God’s word.

I mean, in his own workaday words. And I did.


I think this astonishing and lovely, the way the translator of the Bible into English walks into my life. It’s done with such apparent ease..the ease of imaginative familiarity that only comes with total involvement, absorption in a life that’s loved and troubling.

By the time you come to the fifth poem in the sequence – the Passion, two voices have come together in a single voice that’s simultaneously Fanthorpe’s and Tyndale’s. The voice of the poet’s living faith, and that of Tyndale imagining his imminent execution at the stake.

The powerlessness. This is the day He dies,

Jesus the Friday sparrow, the watcher on the cross

who forgives those who put Him there. He’s dying now,

and His world is dying too. I made this world twice

after God. I translated Genesis.

All I could think was: how does she do this, how does she move me so much? I’m an atheist, aren’t I? How did she make me care, make me believe this was important? How could she do it so ‘easily’? Well, here’s the thing I want to concentrate on: she knows what she’s writing about. ‘Knows’. Not ‘knows about’. This is felt knowledge. But at first it could only be facts, history. It had to be read and learned. And here’s the other thing: it couldn’t be understood, truly known like this until it was written like this. She didn’t know what she knew till she said it.

So what I’m saying is, there’s an answer built into the implied question of my title: I don’t know what to write . The answer being a hard one: well, go away till you know something enough to be intrigued and excited by it.Not sure that you undersatnd it but feeling as though you should. Which will involve you in reading, watching television, watching films, knocking around with mates, walking around cities or up hillsides in rain, or digging, or playing football, or cooking or looking after ageing parent, or after young children, or falling in love, or having an affair, or going into hospital, or having an interview. Getting to know stuff. Finding out. Living it. Which is not the answer people on poetry courses and so on are likely to be comfortable with. But let’s leave that hanging. Let’s go back to Tyndale.

Because from here on, I’m going to be riffing around the business of research, and the way it can be a strange and reflexive business. Sometimes the poem comes first, as it did with Tyndale in darkness. and then sends you off to find the world of the poem, which in my case turned out to be the history of a book, and a biography, too, and a work of detection. It’s subtitled : ‘William Tyndale, Thomas More, and the bloody birth of the English Bible’. The book is Brian Moynahan’s Book of Fire [Abacus 2002]. I mentioned to my mate Keith Hutson (a guest poet on the Cobweb in February 2015) that I’d read Fanthorpe’s  poem, and Keith immediately lent me Moynahan’s book. Which is now bristling with post-it notelets, and waiting for me to transcribe all sorts of quotations and snippets from it….although I haven’t got round to that, because I’m skimming through Hilary Mantel again, finding out what she wrote about Thomas More, and (she’s sure) Thomas Cromwell’s enthusiasm for a vernacular Bible. And at some point I’ll be back with Fanthorpe’s poem, marvelling at the way  she lets you know that what you’re reading is the essence and the truth of a hugely complex and contested tale. I know it will be provisional and I will change, and maybe one day the poem will seem less true. But I hope not. What I do know is that I now know a lot of stuff I didn’t know before I read about the Friday sparrow, and I now I’m writing about it. Not poems that need to be written. But later, maybe. They’ll say if and when they’re ready.


Or maybe you start here…not with a poem, but with the glimmering of an idea. Maybe something you didn’t know you’d noticed at the time, but which comes back and surprises you. I’ve written before how I need workshops to generate that kind of surprise; I know I can’t consciously sit down to find stuff out to make into poems. I know, because I wasted months trying to do that with a 19thC painter. But here’s an illustration of what I mean. I wrote a poem recently from a workshop draft. Here’s just a bit of it: I wondered of the Celtic saints of the Outer Islands

if they knew that gulls and fulmars

would nest in the cloister of their ribs.

I had an idea where that had come from, because it certainly wasn’t mine. I tracked it down to Macfarlane’s The old ways and his journey to Sula Sgeir in a small boat. Something I have never done, will never do. I know that Macfarlane had taken me back to Adam Nicholson’s Sea Room, where I’d been led by reading Kathleen Jamie, who also took me to books about St Kilda and the Greater Blaskett…and so on. Sea-girt mountain tops, puffins, gannets, bird migration, white-tailed eagles, nests in the ribcage of a saint. He’ll do that for me, Macfarlane. I don’t know if it’s plagiarism…I know that some of his phrasing lodges in my word-hoard and sort of roots itself there. Like this from another poem about a burial cairn on Bheinn na Caillich on Skye

because their oceans were swanspaths, whaleroads.

because they wrote their maps in the wind,

the whole idea is lifted from Macfarlane. I know, because I knew I hadn’t invented it, so I tracked it down. I didn’t take his words. But I had to write my words to understand what he meant, so I could tell you how the idea excited me. Does that make sense?


Before I started this bit of the cobweb, I scribbled a list of the stuff that was hanging about waiting to be read, or re-read. The stuff with post-it notelets stuck in it. William Tyndale, British mining disasters, a journey through the English moorlands, A sky full of birds by Matt Merritt, Antarctica (including the remastered films: South (Shackleton) and Scott of the Antarctic, David Wilson’s new pamphlet: Slope [smith/doorstop 2016]Tectonic plates. Coal measures and the Jurassic. The building of the Himalaya.

I know that at least a bit of that comes from a poetry reading at the Red Shed months ago when the Agbrigg Poets performed a sequence about the Lofthouse Colliery disaster …which was only a couple of miles from where I live, but might as well have been on the moon. And I know that as a result of that, I’ve been finding out about Onibasha. And I can’t make myself write about any of it. It needs to settle into my thinking, become something I don’t know that I know, and wait for it to be surprised into a shape I can share.*****

Now, I need to make it clear that I don’t think that ‘research’ is the answer to everything. I confess that I’m drawn to poems that announce themselves as knowledgeable rather than (just) elegantly lyrical. Writers like Steve Ely, Ian Duhig, Christy Ducker, Pascal Petit, Julie Mellor. I’m looking forward to the postman bringing me Helen Mort’s new collection which grows out of her research into pioneering women rockclimbers and mountaineers. But I also think that for myself I’m particularly taken by the way ‘research’ can throw a bright, unnerving, illuminating light on what you thought you knew. Childhood, parenting, a parent’s death, or the death of a relationship.

I’ll remind my self of what Helen Mort said:

Ideally, writers are on the outside, looking in

I think you have to become an outsider looking in on your own life. You think you know it, but you don’t, because it’s too near to see.

I know that it was only by reading and re-reading versions of the Greek myths that I became able to write about the death of a son in a way that didn’t exclude other readers. I’ll stick my neck out, and guess that it wasn’t until she’d been absorbed into the ‘Metamorphoses’ of Ovid that Kim Moore became able to write the poems about domestic abuse and violence in the way that stops me in my tracks. I’m biased…I think these poems are the powerful heart of ‘ The art of falling’. Like I say, I’m sticking my neck out. Tell me if you disagree. I really would like to know.

I was going to go on to write about the way the process can go wrong, and how you can find yourself writing what are essentially lies. But I realise I’ve rambled, and there’s enough in that for whole post of its own.

***** PS. Two years and two weeks have passed. I’ve done a lot more reading about the evolution of the earth, and about British mining disasters. I’ve also read lots of Charles Causley, trying to find out how to write ballads. Also about disputes about ‘resurrection in the body’, and also about the Revelations of St. John. And still not written a poem worth a whistle. There you go.