Catching up: John Duffy’s “A Gowpen”

I’m a fan of Terry Pratchett – that wise, witty, inventive, humane man. I have 30+ of his audio books on a flash drive, and I listen to them over and over in the car. I love his characters, not least Tiffany Aching, the witch and keeper of sheep. She has a great love of words that she experiences in a kind of synaesthesia. They are mobile, tactile, visual, aural, all at once.Like this:

Susurrus . . . according to her grandmother’s dictionary, it meant ‘a low soft sound, as of whispering or muttering’. Tiffany liked the taste of the word. It made her think of mysterious people in long cloaks whispering important secrets behind a door: susurrususssurrusss … (The Wee Free Men)

There’s one that’s stuck in my head of late. Desultory. Limp-wristed, indolent, dilatory. That’s me. That’s twelve months of self-isolating and procrastination. It’s what happens when days fail to have meaning as events or sequences, when deadlines seem like irrelevances. Time to do something about it. Time to catch up.

It’s what we say when we haven’t seen someone for a long time…”let’s get together and do some catching up”. Of course there is the obverse …as in “playing catch up” which is when a team will rush things, and forget the plan and take risks, and generally lose the plot on the way to losing. I’ll keep that in mind. The thing is, poets go on writing, and even through a year of Covid, books are published and I buy them, and I mean to tell folk about the ones I liked. And then I go all desultory. So here’s the plan. I’m going to do some catching up; I resolve to get back to a proper routine of regular cobweb posts and tell you about the books that have made me happier in the last year. And we’ll start with……..

John Duffy “A Gowpen” (Calder Valley Poetry 2020)

In normal times (remember them?) I try never to miss the 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. It’s everything a workshop should be…democratic, critical, supportive, and warm. So thank whatever gods have not abandoned us for Zoom, and the virtual continuation of those Monday nights, and the company of, among others, John Duffy.

He’s been a guest of the cobweb  before when his earlier collection was published : [the link, if you’re interested is:]

 Glamourie. You don’t need to look it up. It’s a Scots word. It means ‘enchantment’, and it’s an enchanting collection of poems from a man who loves words and the craft of words. You may be aware that it’s not the first time you’ve seen the word. Kathleen Jamie‘s already used it as the title of a poem that relives a moment of bewitchment in an everyday wood, of feeling a sudden loss, of a search for a lost one. Here’s a flavour of it. It explains ‘glamourie’ better than I ever could

“It was hardly the Wildwood,

just some auld fairmer’s

shelter belt, but red haws

reached out to me,

 …………………………. I tried

 calling out, or think

I did, but your name

shrivelled on my tongue”

Well, we know full well that the words rarely shrivel on Kathleen Jamie’s tongue, and neither do they on John Duffy’s. Time for an introduction. John writes of himself that he:

” was born in Glasgow 70+ years ago, and has lived in Huddersfield since 1984. He has worked as a social and community worker in Glasgow, London, Huddersfield and Bradford, and as a bibliotherapist in Batley.He has run writing workshops mainly with community and mental health groups since the mid 1990s, and is one of the founders of Huddersfield’s Albert Poets, still going after 25 years.

He gave up employment in the 1980s to look after the house and children (not in that order), while Cathy qualified as a midwife (he calls this the practice of husbandry). When he moved to Huddersfield he made good use of Kirklees Council’s Writing in the Community workshops, and met the other Albert poets.

He likes reading, baking bread and making soup walking and singing, and is much given to utopian speculation.”

To this I’ll add a very recent bit of information he shared in one of our Zoom workshops . He once, years ago, overheard himself described by someone (who may well have been one of his clients) thus : the only social worker I ever met who wasn’t totally f***ing useless. There’s an endorsement to treasure.

He’s too modest to tell you what scores of poets around the West Riding (and beyond) will happily tell you…that there are scores of poets who owe him a huge debt for his quiet encouragement and support, for his  enthusiasm, for his sustained stewardship of the Albert Poets in Huddersfield, along with Stephanie Bowgett. And, as I’ve said, there’s the Monday night sessions where I’ve grown accustomed to John Duffy’s shrewd editorial ear and eye. I’ve never taken a draft to share without coming home with something tighter, righter, better. So let me share with you a taste of A Gowpen. Which is a Scots word,  from the Old Norse gaupn – a hollow made by cupped hands. An image of openness and generosity.

One of the first thing to strike the reader is the sheer variety of styles, subject, and, indeed, shapes. It’s a rattlebag of a collection, which reminds me of the unpredictability of what John will bring to workshops…it may be a succession of highly crafted dialogues between True Thomas and Duns Scotus. Or an anecdote about the kinds of encounters he had as a Glasgow socialworker. Or a praise poem for the making of soup. In A Gowpen you’ll encounter priests, Samuel Beckett, the Paris of tourists and wanderers, urban edgelands, Richard the Second, a Lanark bing, a shape-changing fox, and all sorts of birds and animals observed in the way that MacCaig would record encounters with toads or Dippers: mating bees, ducks, nest-building rooks, a blackbird drinking.

What always strikes me, too, is the matter of what Clive James calls ‘the moment that draws you in’. The phrase or short sequence that arrests you with its rightness, which seems to memorise itself. Like the mating bees


A knot of fumbling 

fluff that tumbles 


or a sudden rainfall


seeds spilled from a huge hand 

crackle of an egg hatching 

or tractors and their haymaking trailers on a steep slope


            They clamber uphill, dogged as ladybirds


or a crow on a Huddersfield chimney pot


who crouches, hops 

a quarter turn east

            on nimble feet


or a small patch of woodland where


the beck steps

down in twelve-inch

cascades, each 

with its own cool 



or a night sky, far out at sea


           There is the moon, the stars like dice


I could go on and on, but you get the picture.  I’d like to share some of the lyrical poems that play elegantly (and, I guess, fashionably) with shape on the page, but I know WordPress will corrupt them, and you will just have to buy the book to find out how they work. But I’m more than happy to share two chunkier narrative anecdotal poems (because I like narrative) and finish with the title poem, which is a gem.

The first I chose because I like the voice, and the owner of the voice. I like the reflectiveness of it, and I especially like the half echoes of Larkin and also of Douglas Dunn at the end. That man. I wish him grass.

That Priest in Immingham

You’d think that when the rub and blur of the wind 

stops and the engine stops its unheard throb 

that there would be relief for us in port – all 

those wishful rumours of rum-laced dance halls 

crammed with girls who come in packs being true –

but all we get, another three-hour shift, shifting 

unrevealing containers to the cranes, securing 

the containers that take their place, 

and every grubby place begins to look like all 

the places where we sweat and schlep: 

in and out of port so quick, these cranes these days,

no time to smoke, let alone get drunk or laid

or visit temples, hills, shops. See any children. 

The ship will never wait for anyone and then 

where are you? Back at sea: fight the war

with rust – scraper primer paint –

tighten the bolts that secure the crate towers. 


                        There is the moon, the stars like dice, 

the empty sea on a four-hour watch.

A lonely ship light passes sea-miles away,

you wonder if they wonder about you: 

you sometimes feel like an actual sailor,

the morning light, the patterns 

in waves and clouds and trailing birds;

and the shipmates who keep you sane 

from port to port. For months. There was 

that priest in Immingham asked

what he could offer us. I know what my crew,

the skipper said, would really like. 

All they get to do is walk on steel.


We got out of his minibus in a car park 

in a flat street by a bland church. 

Between church and street, a lawn. 

For half an hour we walked 

barefoot on damp grass. 


The second one I’ve chosen for its sheer range, its tumbling detail. I like the dry irony of  “I will be a flâneur”. Because this narrator is anything but.

Parc des Buttes Chaumont

The Sibyl, with frenzied mouth uttering things not to be laughed at, unadorned

and unperfumed, yet reaches to a thousand years with her voice by aid of the god.                                                             



Alone and idle in Paris for an hour –

quiet Sunday morning, Belleville – I amble. 

I will be a flâneur. Here is the market, 

the clatter and clang of poles as the traders                        

erect their stalls, unfurl awnings, unpack flowers. 

Listen to the chatter as they unload their vans; 

their voices fill the square, too early for the snarl 

of traffic. I walk beneath these plane trees,

towards the park on my map. Here is the gate:                   

a dozen steps in I am surrounded, 

passed, thronged, jostled from all sides 

by runners, joggers, Nordic walkers,  

in pairs or in groups or alone; crowds 

do tai chi; that must be a Pilates class;

here are skippers. There is a man 

walking backwards. With fervent faces 

they stretch, bend, jump, swing, 

twist, kick thin air, lunge, crunch, 

carry ropes and poles and bottles 

of water and towels and backpacks. 

They have headphones, they narrow their eyes

as I stroll among them, fully dressed, 

without purpose, a sane man in Bedlam. 


There’s the lake and the hill; the temple on top 

of the pinnacle; the waterfall in its grotto;

the stalactites, and miles of rustic log fences, 

all made from concrete, complete with knots 

and grains and streaks. Thomas Coryat’s Crudities

describe this spot: The fayrest gallowes                                  

that I ever saw, built on a little hillocke, 

where people were hanged then hung

by the dozen for years; de Coligny’s headless 

corpse swings by its heels, Quasimodo 

holds dead Esmeralda in the charnel house below. 


 This bare hill where lepers were housed,

whores reformed, horse corpses cut up,

communards shelled, is a gym for the brothers                              

who need to be fit to massacre cartoonists, 

and brush past me, perhaps, this morning.


From the hilltop I look at all the rooftops, 

chimneys, domes, mansards, ridges;                      

turn away from the temple of Sybil, 

make my way down, across the Suicide Bridge.


It’s a very artful poem that starts with the accumulation of sensory detail, the narrator going with the flow of things, oh, look  Here is the market, …..Here is the gate. He seems to be carried along and essentially separate

as I stroll among them, fully dressed, 

without purpose, a sane man in Bedlam. 

But he’s a man who knows history and understands its complex ironies. It’s a very disingenuous poem, and unnerving in the way it takes the reader out of the park, away from the crowds, across the Suicide Bridge. It’s a poem to spend time with and return to, because there are discoveries to be made on each visit.


One more poem to end with. It’s an obvious choice.

A Gowpen

To make a gowpen: cup your hands 

together, hold that hollow of skin and light.

The portion of oats allowed each pauper, 

a gowpen of gold the youngest son 

snatches from the Fairy Barrow, a gowpen 

of meal at the miller’s door (Quick, 

before the Master comes back!), a scoop  

of water for thirst, a scrape of dirt   

to make a grave. We carry nothing, 

but our hands are never empty. To calm

the child’s fever, a gowpen of snow.

Shape of pleading, gesture of beggars,

all you can carry in two hands, a gift  

to a lover, this bowl of moulded air. 


The whole collection is as generous as this. Give yourself a treat. Buy it. Here’s a link:

2 thoughts on “Catching up: John Duffy’s “A Gowpen”

  1. Hi John – Lots of really good stuff here. Not least because it prompted me to check the meaning of flaneur – to find that all my life I’d been under a misapprehension, convinced it meant something else! Good to see you’re back in the Fogginzo saddle. Jean xx


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.