Wise sisters [1]. Greta Stoddart

[a slightly adapted version of the post I did for Write out Loud. I shall keep doing this for some time, for followers of the Cobweb who aren’t tuned in to the other webpage.. Why “wise sisters”? I dedicated my first collection to’my three wise sisters: Kim Moore, Hilary Elfick and Gaia Holmes’ . I just want to keep saying thank you to all the others. There will be two more in the next three weeks, and doubtless more in the coming months.]

I came back to Ted Hughes’ Season songstoday, as I do on a day like this, with

“the earth invalid, dropsied, bruised,wheeled

out into the sun,

after the frightful operation


leans back, eyes closed, exhausted, smiling

into the sun. Perhaps dozing a little.

While we sit,and smile, and wait, and know

she is not going to die”

[March morning unlike others]

One of those days when you feel the buzz under everything, the buzz at the tip of every stem, the spurts of daffodils, a day when:

“with arms swinging, a tremendous skater

on the flimsy ice of space,

the earth leans into its curve”

One of those days when you come awake and bestirred. How things suddenly shift, like an old log in a river bed that twists into a release and a rush. Two days ago I wrote a poem to take to a Poetry Business Writing Day; a poem I’ve been trying to write for two years or more, an old log of a poem, and everything pent up behind.

I put it down to how the company of other poets matters, how listening to them tells you ‘it can be done’. There may be writers who can make poetry out of solitude but I can’t imagine how it is to be like that. I love the urging and weight of stuff. And deadlines, pressure. When the company and the pressure come together I can feel blessed and released.

I guess this starts last Monday when I went to reading at The Square Chapel in Halifax; a wonderful space stitched into the fabric of the renovated Piece Hall, an amazing North Italian piazza that seems to have landed from space in a steep-sided gritstone valley. You can hear the footfall of 18thC Russian cloth merchants. It is astonishing. 

The were three readers: D A Prince, a Happenstance poet who I hadn’t known, and who read from a collection that is inpired by the bookmarks she collects or finds in second-hand books. She tells the story of them, these tickets, programmes, bits of card. And you think: Wow! why did no one think of that before? There was Yvonne Reddick (see the review of her book in earlier posts on Feb 19 and 25) who reads with an articulate conviction..memorable poems about her father, a man who died in a mountaineering accident; an oil industry worker across the world..in Kuwait, on the Norh Sea rigs. She read poems that bring stormblown birds into a world of glistening steel; poems about the enormous fragility of the world. Passionate and political poems that make you say yes: poems matter; writing matters. And then there was the prodigiously accomplished David Constantine who appears to be able to do absolutely anything with language and make it appear simple and inevitable. I came away buzzing, having been given permission to believe I can go on writing.  Some writers can do that.

Which brings me neatly to today’s guest poet (which was the reason I started writing a poetry blog in the first place..to share my enthusiasm for poets that you probably knew already, but who I’d just discovered). I met Greta Stoddart in December where she was a tutor on a Writing Residential weekend. You never know what to expect from writers’ workshops, but hers was everything I like. Structured, focussed, purposed. It was about the work of the line and of line endings. It was full of the variety of the things a line break can be persuaded to do. It taught me more in two hours than four years of puzzling over Dana Giaio had done, and it offered me one trick with a two stanza poem that might just solve an apparently intractable problem. So this post is by way of a thankyou.

Greta was born in 1966 in Oxfordshire. She spent her childhood in Oxford and Belgium. She studied mime in Paris and worked as a performer before becoming a full-time poet. She now teaches at the Poetry School in Exeter and Bridport. 

Stoddart’s first collection of poetry, At Home in the Dark was published in 2001, was shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best First Collection and won the 2002 Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize.

Her second collection, Salvation Jane was published in 2009 and shortlisted for the 2008 Costa Book Award.

Her third collection, Alive Alive O, was published in 2015 which focuses on life, death and mortality, was shortlisted for the Roehampton Poetry Prize 2016.

Her latest work, a radio poem called ‘Who’s there?’ broadcast on BBC Radio 4 was shortlisted for the 2017 Ted Hughes Award.

She lives in Devon and teaches for the Poetry School and the Arvon Foundation. 

It was the business of mortality (which I wrote about in last week’s post) that made a couple of the poems in her own webpage [http://www.gretastoddart.co.uk] jump off the page, and I’m delighted that she’s let me share them with you. I love their combination of precision and passionate engagement. 

The Curtain

Perhaps you know that story where people step 

out of this world and into another 

through a split in the air – they feel for it 

as you would your way across a stage curtain 

after your one act, plucking at the pleats,  

trying for the folded-in opening through which 

you shiver and shoulder yourself 

without so much as a glance up

to the gods, so keen are you to get back

to where you were before your entrance:

those dim familiar wings, you invisible,

bumping into things you half-remember

blinded as you’d been out there

in the onslaught of lights, yes, blinded

but wholly attended to in your blindness.

Imagine our dying being like that,

a kind of humble, eager, sorrowless return

to a place we’d long, and not till now, known.

No tears then. Just one of us to hold 

aside the curtain – here we are, there you go –

before letting it slump majestically back 

to that oddly satisfying inch above the boards

in which we glimpse a shadowy shuffling dark.

And when the lights come on and we turn to each other

who’s to say they won’t already be

in their dressing room, peeling off the layers,

wiping away that face we have loved,

unbecoming themselves to step out 

into the pull and stream of the night crowds.

It’s one of those poems, full of momemts that pull you in, full of lines that seem to be memorising themselves as you say them, as you hear them: 

plucking at the pleats,  

trying for the folded-in opening


Imagine our dying being like that,

a kind of humble, eager, sorrowless return

and, this remarkable phrase that sees the dead as actors, already

unbecoming themselves

It’s full of the accurate truth that I’d been striving for when I was writing about this particular subject, and falling short . I love the way the conceit of the theatrical exit which ought to feel like a cliche, and doesn’t, is so beautifully sustained. I love the way it begins with an apparently tentative ‘perhaps’, its tact, and the way it’s followed by the sense that there’s no ‘perhaps’ about it. This is the way it is. Ben Wilkinson put it better than I can when he wrote about the economy and deceptive simplicity of her writing, and a cool-headed emotional restraint. Yes.

I met the next two poems for the first time in a Poetry Business writing day; I can’t remember what the exercise was that they illuminated, but the poems stuck. Metaphorically and literally, since they’re pasted into my workshop notebook.

The Street Lamp

Maybe it’s this orange light 

that has me up 

in the middle of the night 

when sleep ought to have 

taken hold and placed us 

god knows where

with whom and how and why 

or was that the baby’s cry 

turning into something else 

and rising that has me rising 

not to him but to look 

down at the street and see 

in a pool of light – what is that – 

a stain, his small coat?

Body seems to know 

but mind, sleep-filled 

and slow with notions, 

ups and follows

(whatever it is it has that 

self-possessed and desolate look 

of a thing left behind);

and heart that knows 

starts to knock and will not 

take comfort from the street lamp 

who stands over our house 

like a guardian angel, 

head inclined but with no arms 

or wings to gather whosoever in.

I came back to this poem after last December’s workshop, now noticing as I should have done, the work that’s done by the way the first two stanzas are a single unpunctuated sentence, and the way the next two are more reflective and ‘rational’, even if they’re interrupted by that parenthesis. Lovely. And I like that slightly startling use of the not-quite-abstract body, mind, heart. It’s something I’ve started to notice in Kim Moore’s poems, too. I need to think about it.

One more poem. This speaks straight to my other enthusiasm, for physical craft and craftsmanship…the precision and neatness I can never manage whatever tools I invest in. Just relish the way that first line abosolutely nails what lies at the core of the poem.

The Engraver

It has to be a dying art,

this man leaning in with hammer and chisel,

intent on the angle, cut and concision;

all morning on a single word, a name.

His commissioners – each time the same

exacting band of passionate mourners –

want only the best; for this one stone page

to stand for less and more than all their tears.

And as the dates sharpen, the prayer clears

so it all blurs for him; in the end he leaves 

what it means to those who already know

just as he leaves the heart of the stone alone

knowing there’s nothing there, that deep down

his work is with the surface of things;

the opposite of archaeology

where nothing’s found and all is to be made.

It’s a poem that has to be read aloud, so you taste the consonants, and feel the the point where the poem pivots on that moment when  it all blurs for him. A beautifully crafted piece of work about art and transience. There’s that buzz under everything today. Thank you, Greta Stoddart for making it sing.

Staying Alive: me and Mr MacCaig

Screenshot 2019-03-17 at 12.15.30There’s a sequence in one of Eddie Izzard’s shows where he’s riffing on supermarket shopping. At some point he remarks that if an old lady bumps you with her shopping trolley (which, by the way, will contain only hairnets and dog food) she’ll tell you, for no apparent reason: 

I’m eighty- two.

She’ll probably say it quite loudly. 

I’m eighty- two. Old ladies do this all the time. Old men never do this.

He lets this hang a nanosecond. 

Old men never do this, because they’re all dead. 

There’s a minute silence. A sort of shock before the audience laugh. I’ve always thought it’s the kind of laugh you get from a baby when you go BOO!!! Its face crumples momentarily, and then comes the laughter of release. It was just a trick. Phew.

We don’t care to be reminded of our mortality. In this we are radically different from the Victorians, who (in public, anyway) edited the fact of sex out of their literature, but were happily graphic and sentimental when it came to deathbeds. I’m thinking of Dickens, of Jo the Crossing Sweeper, of Smike, and all the rest. Since the sixties, it seems we’ve become quite the opposite.

Where’s all this leading? Lately there been a voice in my head, a little chap with a shopping trolley who will stop me as I go about my business, and announce: I’m seventy -six.I pointedly ignore him for much of the time, essentially because I feel no different from when I was 16. I’m just as conflicted, baffled, puzzled, excited by the day to day as I ever was. But at the same time, I have to acknowledge, like Mr Casaubon in Middlemarch, an uncomfortable truth. As George Eliot points out, it’s one thing to say ‘we will all die’ and quite another to say ‘I am going to die’. (and in Casaubon’s case with an additional phrase: and quite soon ).

Before you start looking at the clock, and wondering how soon you can decently get away, let me reassure you that this isn’t going to be a miserable read. But it is going to be about poetry, about reading it, about writing it, and why it just might be important. I was going to call this post, tongue in cheek, I hope I die before I get oldand play around with the double-edged meaning  in The Who’s lyric. But the title of Neil Astley’s anthology is more to the point. I think of it alongside Anthony Wilson’s poetry blog subsequent anthology Lifesaving Poems.  There’s clearly a big readership out there for books that offer us hope…or, at least the reassurance of our common humanity; most of them, though, seem to be full of fluff, like literary comfort blankets. The best, like Astley’s and Wilson’s are grown-up books full of grown-up poems that get to grips with uncomfortable truths, and show how they can be acknowledged and how this makes our lives richer.

At 76, I’ve lived longer than anyone on the male side of my Dad’s family (and all his sisters, too). Sometimes I’ll do the maths, and think something like, “well, with a following wind I could probably have five or six or seven years left. Four would be good. Every day’s a bonus. You’re a lucky man.” It’s not for a moment depressing, but it’s made me notice that I’m reading poems I might not have taken much notice of before. Life enhancing poems that didn’t seem that relevant or interesting at one time. Your stories will be similar, I imagine. When I was in my 30s and my Dad was dying I found myself reading and re-reading Tony Harrison’s sequence of sonnets from The school of eloquence… Book ends(especially), Continuous, Marked with D.They gave me a vocabulary, a language to shape my grief. In the break-up of my first marriage, and in finding a new love, it was A kumquat for John Keats, that midlife thankyou for coming through, for love, for survival. I remember him reading it when it had just come out, the relish with which he read the lines

I burst the whole fruit chilled by morning dew

against my palate. Fine, for 42

I loved the way it came after:

Then it’s the kumquat fruit expresses best

how days have darkness round them like a rind,

life has a skin of death that keeps its zest.

I saw him reading last summer, still going strong at 80. And I wondered how those lines sound to him now. I think he might give them a wry smile. It’s the same kind of wry smile I reserve for young men’;s poems about their imagined end. Rupert Brooke, for instance

If I should die, think only this of me:

That there’s some corner of a foreign field

That is for ever England……….

a pulse in the eternal mind, no less

I don’t imagine for a moment that he had any intention of ending up like that; he just thought he did. Since he never got to the Front he never got to rethink it, unlike Sassoon, or Rosenberg, or Owen and the rest. But I’m pretty sure it spoke to me differently when I was 16, when I believed sincerely (because of the H Bomb) that I’d not see 21. We read who and where we are. We change and the poems change with us.

I’d been chewing over writing this post, or something like it, but what finally gave me a shove was Kim Moore’s sharing a Derek Walcott poem: Sea Canes, and the first stanza particularly:

Half my friends are dead.
I will make you new ones, said earth.
No, give me them back, as they were, instead,
with faults and all, I cried

Four of my best friends have died in the last four years…three of them in the last two. That stanza gave me a jolt, but it also sent me back to something that has snagged my attention and sort-of-bothered me for some time. A couple of years ago I decided to read the Collected Poems of Norman MacCaig. The idea was to read from beginning to end, several poems, aloud, every morning till I’d read them all. The idea was that somehow that would show me ‘how he did it’ whatever the ‘it’ was. It was an ‘it’ I wanted to be able to ‘do’… the business of being rich and plain at the same time. Obviously, I still can’t do ‘it’, but along the way in the year I spent with him I became aware that something was bothering him, and that the something was death, and dying. I began to notice moments, images (as in Clive James’ phrase:the moment that draws you in). A black sail out at sea. The scyther in the hayfield, the cart on the shore road, the horse, the blind horizon.

I sort of left it there, but when I went back to MacCaig last year, I paid more attention. These images and the concerns that surround them turn up more and more in the poems of the 1980s and into the 1990s. Why? It’s actually obvious when you remember he was born in 1910. These are the poems he wrote in his 70s and through to his death in 1996. For whatever reason it started to bother him a lot earlier than it need have done. But, there again, what he couldn’t have was hindsight. What he had was the here and now, which contains all our yesterdays, and which is all anyone has. It’s his love for the gifts of the here and now that make him the great poet that he is.

As I was reading and researching for this post I cut and pasted scores of lines and stanzas from the poems of his last 16 years; I can’t decently share them all…only give you flavour. There are the ones in which he’s caught up in the business of wondering if he can say what he wants before it’s too late (which clearly wasn’t bothering Harrison at 42, for all the rind of death that keeps us zesty). The thing about MacCaig was that he kept his zest, even when he was writing:

I’m a crofter in the landscape of time

repairing a tumbling wall



If only I could say 

a new thing, a thing

I’ve never said before



Of the rest of space

I can say nothing

nor of the rest of time, the future

that dies the moment it happens


I love that last one, because it seems to contain the credo that the moment, the now, is what we have and what we should celebrate. He sustains it even as he writes again and again about the sense of approaching the end of a journey

In the harbour a boat

sets its white sail.

Its anchor crawls aboard.

Those who are left behind

will look out to sea, 

their eyes bright with hope –

not knowing when it returns

they’ll see approaching

a black sail on the bright water

[That journey]

The days pick me up and carry me off,

half-child, half-prisoner,

on their journey that I’ll share

for a while

[Between mountain and sea]

Three men are pulling

at the starboard oar,

the man I am and was

and the man I’ll be.

The boat sails 

to a blind horizon


Pull as we may

we’re kept from turning

to port or starboard by that

invisible oarsman


And ahead, the blessed islands

are a mirage over it.

We forge on towards them.

They keep their holy distance.

[Fore and aft]

When he writes, in the 1990s, after the death of his wife of 40 years:

It’s night now.

I’ve no fear of going to sleep

I’ve no fear of waking in the morning.

For peace will say, Today

is like yesterday

and I’ll be here for the long length of it

[In the croft house called The Glen]

it’s not Stoicism that sustains him, but the kind of Epicureanism that Solzhenitsyn found a parable for in One day in the life of Ivan Denisovitch. The salvation of the apparently small things, their significance. Because alongside all these clear-eyed poems are the ones I suppose we think of when we think of MacCaig. The sheltie with the filmstar eyelashes, the road hemsitched to the rim of the mountain, all the birds and beasts, the man with the bottle-shaped bulge in his pocket, the fiddlers, the music,the weather. All the bright moments, all neatly packaged in one stanza of the 1990s

This girlish morning

comes straight out of old stories

where girls wore sprig muslin

and spent their entire time 

being happy

[Spring morning]

When I think of life-saving poems, it’s Norman MacCaig that I think of. I wrote him a thank you poem.

A pibroch for (MacCaig)

[ ‘History frightens me…/ If                                                                                                                                                                                                       only I come to be a word with brackets round it /                                                                                                                                                                                 a word drowned in a footnote / a word’                                                                                                                                                                                              Norman MacCaig : ‘Backward look’    1984 ]

It sounds right, pibroch – 

plaintive and Scots.

He’d not be doing with that;

what did he write about death?

‘the one that smiles ruefully

thinking how little he is understood.’

MacCaig, punctilious as a dipper, 

pertinent and spry as a robin

on the precise tips of his verse.

What a look he’d give me,

laconic, spare and handsome,

holding his cigarette like a matinee idol.

It’s just that I come to him late

and he bothers me with death:

that cart on the shore road,

the one coming with the sack in his hand, 

the scyther in the hayfield,

those blind horizons, black sails.


I keep wondering: why; 

 in this land of birds, weather,

 the big skies of Assynt, 

why these  shadows, this shadow?

I should pay more attention. 

He’s writing this the age I am now.

I want to say: you don’t die for years.

He can’t hear me, any more than Socrates.

I picture him casting, casting

into some high lochan

and a shadow on the opposite bank;

the delicate arcs of two mirrored lines,

the finicky business of flies, 

and the two of them, still as chessmen

each bent with all his art

on reeling the other in.

Parentheses bother me, too;

(enter a life, stage left; exit right),

as though there were beginnings

and endings. No such things.

The salmon go back into the water.

No brackets for you, MacCaig.

Still learning me your language.

[* Pibroch:  a tune played by a single piper.                                                                                                                                                                  A call to a gathering, a salute, a lament,                                                                                                                                                  characterised by the complexity of its grace notes]

Thanks for staying with me. I promised you it wouldn’t be depressing, and I don’t think that is. Self-indulgent, maybe, but that’s how it is at 76. Next week we’re having a guest. Come along. It’ll be great.

And never forget what MacCaig wrote in An ordinary day

And my mind observed to me,
Or I to it, how ordinary
Extraordinary things are or

How extraordinary ordinary
Things are, like the nature of the mind
And the process of observing.