Hearing voices, and a Polished Gem: Judy Brown


It’s the voice that grabs your attention, the image that sticks. Not the Joan of Arc sort of Voice…you want to watch out for that sort of thing, the rapt, the Enthusiastic. It ends in tears. The voices I have in mind are the ones I keep writing about, one way or another…the ones that I hear that make me want to buy their owners’ pamphlets and collections. I can’t remember ever buying poetry because of a reviewer, though I sometimes buy collections because a friend says I must. Carrie Etter’s Imagined sons was such a one. Kim Moore wrote about it on her blog, and I bought it, and was not let down.

For the most part, though, I buy poetry because of readings. I’m sometimes surprised about how many, because I don’t go to Poetry Festivals, where I imagine you could rack up an impressive numbers of purchases and a concomittant debt. I suppose I go to more poetry nights than I think I do.

But voices and images, now. Sometimes it’s difficult to separate them.The first poetry reading I ever went to was Tony Harrison reading in our college staffroom..I remember the persistence of rhythm, the urgent rhetoric of it, [Wordsworth’s matter/water are full rhymes] but mostly I remember images, especially ones from The nuptial torches…the stray dogs whose skin grows/puckered round their knees like rumpled hose;  or the imagined ghosts of the dead of the auto-da-fe: Let..no crowding smoke / condensing back to men float in and poke ./their charcoaled fingers at our bed.

Sometimes it’s the voice you’re caught by first, and for me it’s almost always got a sort of incantatory quality, it’s own rhythmical ideolect. Kim Moore reading Train journey from Barrow to Sheffield in the bland meeting room of  a Premier Inn; Steve Ely reading A sin and a shame in a pub in a scoop of the moors at Marsden; Clare Shaw reading This baby in the back room of The Albert;  Julia Deakin at an artspace in Huddersfield, reading with the precision of a Hockney pencil line..The half-mile high club. Most recently, David Constantine at Dean Clough in Halifax….I was completely entranced by the effortless way he said (rather than read) long and lovely poems with long looping sentences.

Sometimes though, it’s not the performative voice; some readers have a stillness and what superficially may come across as diffidence, but which is actually a voice that lets the image shine through, so it’s the image you remember first and the voice after. I’m thinking, say, of Tom Weir and the men with stubble like burnt corn [The cuts], and most memorablythe child with an ice cream which you wore / like a glove as it melted over your hand  [Day trippin’]. Those particular moments, those images. Because, although you may , I never tire of repeating Clive James’ flat assertions that

‘you hear the force of real poetry at first glance’


‘declaring itself to be a poem is one of the main things a poem does’


‘everything depended, and still depends, on the quality of the

moment..whatever kind of poem it is, it’s the moment that gets you in’


Which brings us to our guest for today…let’s give a warm cobweb welcome to Judy Brown, who heard reading for the first time at Writers in the Bath, in Sheffield, on Valentine’s day this year. I like this poetry group which Cora Greenhill runs with a rare zest. But it’s a truth universally acknowledged that this particular room at The Bath can be one in which it’s hard to concentrate on the poems. It’s a corner room with a fireplace across one corner. Sometimes the fire is lit and it becomes a very warm room. If the door is opened to let out the heat, the pub noise of the tap room joins the reading. In summer there’s stuff outside. The second time I went (to hear Jo Bell, I think. Or Julie Mellor) I thought my new hearing aids had gone wrong. I thought I had rhythmical tinnitus. Turned out to be Morris dancers in the street. Of course it did. It morphed into a fight which involved shouting. What I’m saying is, it’s a room in which occasionally you may struggle to hear properly, if you, like me, are a bit deaf. The other thing, this Valentine’s day, never having met Judy before, and also being a guest poet, I was sitting next to her, and therefore slightly behind her when she stood up to read.She reads clear and quiet, without fuss or histrionics or show. And still the moments came, bright- minted and memorable. Moments like these from her second collection Crowd sensations.

There’s a joyous crowd of them in The street of the dried sea-food shops, Sheung Wan, Hong Kong.  :  ‘the ruinous bisque of dog-chew’  (it’s ‘bisque’ the nails it); cockled sheets of pemmican (the cockling of unstretched water-colour paper is what I see); kilos of brown mussels, complex / as rucksacks.

You notice that here’s a poet with the eye of a painter. I think that’s almost always a Good Thing. They’re not just pictures, or snapshots. That’s not what I mean. It’s true looking, true seeing. Like these moments: Spring was birdsong loud as broken glass, and the drunk outside Tesco face as bright as a rufous fruit; another one of her personae whose anger was rising like bread, and another, hauled back to Cumbria to this bucket of hills . And then there are the fires. I guess it’s a mark of how these moments stick that I think, somehow,there are far more fires in Crowd sensations  than there actually are: cinders have shivered /to dead-bird ash as I froth up dust / with the balding brush. The surprise of ‘froth’ is dead right, the textures also. I said to someone a couple of days ago, as I was thinking about this post (which, you’ll have noticed, is late again. Slapped wrist/naughty step), that when I read through Crowd sensations for the first time, I decided I’d pack in writing poems and do something I’ve more aptitude for. Something with a chainsaw. And it was images and moments like these. But not just them. It was the emotional intelligence, and heft and range of the poems too. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Time to meet our guest.millom2

Judy’s quite sparing of her biographical details…or concise, or succinct. I could learn a lot from her, and these posts would be over sooner. Still there’s a lot to think about:

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

It’s worth saying that for a time she was a lawyer based in Hong Kong. and I was intrigued at that reading in The Bath by the way her poems ranged around the world, from Hong Kong to Grasmere, and, what grabbed me straight off, to the unfashionable, run-down, end-of-the world coast of Cumbria, the untouristy un-Romantic-daffodilly coast. Millom, Maryport, Workington. Old iron-ore ports. And strangely beautiful too. Haunted, maybe.Judy told how, during her Grasmere residency, she took off , Bill Bryson style, to wander down that coast, staying in small hotels and B&B’s along the way. I was hooked…years ago, visiting teaching practice students along that coast, I used to stay in those places. Often quite odd, or run-down, or eccentric, sometimes diffusely menacing places.There’s a sequence that’s stitched through ‘Crowd Sensations’ . Songs from West Cumbria, each poem voiced by an unaccompanied (solitary? lonely? it’s hard to say) visitor. I loved them, straight off. Here’s one that’s possibly my favourite.


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

working a bald strip of tilted earth behind wire.

Between us lay a five-foot-deep concrete alley

through glass; my admiration at its brown head and neck

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

and some prison dreams neither of us would divulge.


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

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

as a squadron, turned their heads from the window

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

to believe in the beach that stretched for miles each side

like an adhesive strip ripped off something useful.


Breakfast was an open bag of Kingsmill White,

some soft croissants pouched in cellophane, plus

one bruised pear which I took out of fellow feeling.

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

talking business in their sagging tracksuits, away

from this disowned ground, its hand-hot rain.


[From ‘Crowd Sensations’ (Seren Books, 2016)]


There’s so much going on here, like a film storyboard, all the deft edits from the goat seen through the window, and the fellow-feeling of the watcher; the narrator wanting to sit with a view of the sea but becoming part of the view of the men from the power station, unable to shift out of its awkwardness; the sad breakfast offerings..that one bruised pear. And the stick- in- the -mind images/moments: the beach like an adhesive strip ripped off something useful, that hand-hot rain. I loved it when I heard it. I still do.


The next poem is a traveller’s poem too. I realise that a familiar trope is rising in my mind. Dark watcher. That’s what it is that draws me to Judy Brown’s poems…the observations of the unattached and the simultaneously imaginatively engaged. The exact opposite of withdrawal and alienation.


From Platform 1, Blackfriars Station


There’s something over-familiar about the cranes

rising through the city.  For centuries its huddle

was spiked only by the paraphernalia of spires.

Through the river-soaked glass of the new station

we can measure the torturer’s bamboo as it grows

into a friable body.  The shallow-rooted boroughs

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

Here the earth has already crumpled, spills skeletons

which are coppery-blue from buried money.

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

Still, the latest towers are eating light like plants,

donating grace as they hurry into their final poise.

A confession has been exacted, then simplified.

All that remains as we sink down into the tunnel

between platforms is the city’s current heraldry,

its long bones opening our skulls to the air.

Published in The Scores (thescores.org.uk), September 2016)


I suspect I shall never see a cityscape in the same way again, never be easily entranced by the insouciance of cranes and steel and the swagger of engineering. It’s the image of the ‘torturer’s bamboo’ that exacts and simplifies a confession. The way the sky yields to the spiky upward thrust of steel and glass, the way the towers ‘are eating light like plants’. City as insatiable consumer. Memorable and disturbing. Maybe you see now why I thought I might pack in poetry and leave it to the grown-ups.

The last poem (which is not unconnected from the money – wonderland world of the Shard) I like because of the way it reminds me of what seem like revelatory personal poems in Crowd sensations :  the ones that are the stories of love betrayed, or lost, or broken..the loves that may be exorcised by the fires I thought there were more of, and the loves that seem transgressive and tempting, like Eve’s apple or Pandora’s box.


The Frog Prince


This man believes a woman can feel the muscle

of money changing his skin, a second landscape

mapped over pectorals, biceps, his long back.


It’s a language that means she reads his body

in several translations: precious metals unfold

in the altered curve as thigh flares into buttock.


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

No woman loves him without moistening her lips,

the word price commingling with mint on her breath.


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

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

in the lift to the thirtieth floor  The actual moment


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

Down on the cushiony carpet is a private education.

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


Under his eyelids the message is: amethyst bruises,

unpettable dogs, as his hands mete out a currency

that more than repays the damage done to him.


[Unpublished: till now]

I’ll not say any more about it. It’s deft, it’s poised. It can speak for itself. Thank you for being our guest, Judy Brown. The least we can do is now rush out and buy your collections. Or the sedentary amongst us can go to the link below and then hit the Paypal button. Repeatedly.

I have no idea what’s happening next week. We’ll just have to wait and see.

Thank you to Seren for permission to print Was this review helpful to you?  Let’s hope that we repay you by visiting your site and buying lots of books. Here’s the link









On sequences. And a Gem Revisited: Steve Ely


To begin with, an apology, and an also an acknowledgement.

The apology first. On Friday night I was lucky enough to be the guest reader at the laconically-named Manky Poets,  in Chorlton. Great audience and quality open mic. A listening room. I would have done well to remind myself of what I wrote some time ago in a post about how to behave at an open mic. evening: thus

For readers. Reading

Rehearse. Rehearse your timings. Find out how long you have, and rehearse how many poems that is when they’re read aloud. Stick to it.

Well, I’d been told, and it was on the poster. Finish 9.30. Somehow I got it in my head it was 10.00. So, Copland Smith, I’m sorrier than I can say that you had to do the thing of holding up your arm and tapping your wristwatch, meaningfully. Mea maxima culpa. I hope I can come back some time. I’ll get the time right.

And the acknowledgement. I decided I wanted to write this post after reading one on Sequences by the indefatigable Roy Marshall   (here’s the link: https://roymarshall.wordpress.com/2017/03)/01/on-sequences/). As is his wont, Roy writes about the what and the how of the business -which is of more use to the prospective writer than my own tendency to to muse about the whys and wherefores. I’ve lifted a couple of chunks to illustrate:

First of all, a practical reason: “In my experience sequences can provide the writer with the feeling that they are rich in material; that they have ‘something in the bank’ and that even when not actively producing poems, there is a subject to return to an explore.”

I think the key notion here for me is the one that points to our need for a comfort blanket, the feeling that we have ‘something in the bank’ . Drawing on his own experience of putting his two collections together, Roy also reflects on the business of sequencing itself:

Once a number of poems have been written, the next challenge is to select poems and lay them out in the order that works best.  One absorbing aspect of assembling a sequence is deciding which poems to include and to work out the relationships between poems so they work together to their collective advantage.  While it is undoubtedly hard to write a batch of poems that maintain a consistently high quality, it is  important to try and recognise any weaker poems and remove them or risk weakening the impact of the whole sequence.

I like the reminder about the need to weed out poems that may fit thematically, but don’t stand on their own two feet. And also the reminder that you try to figure out the best order. I’d only add to that the idea that it can be like tweaking and fine-editing individual poems. You can often end up where you started, and reflect that that way madness lies. I know I’ve been open mouthed with admiration when poets describe how they lay hard copies of each sheet of a pamphlet or a collection out on the floor and move them around like chessmen. I can’t do it. I actually don’t know how I do it. Instinct. Something. But not a floor full of paper, which would bring on nightmare memories of double-checking 360 folders of English coursework for GCSE by setting them out on the floor at home. AAArgh.

I do know that one of my editors in particular has an amazing instinct/ear/eye/brain for spotting a glitch in the succession of poems. Ann Sansom (for it is she) shifted one poem in Much Possessed from near the beginning to the end. Where it belonged. I’d never have seen it. And she shifted one poem , about apples and the Fall of Man from 4th to 2nd, when it became apparent that it was in the voice of Lucifer (the voice of the first poem)…the thing is, when I wrote it, I didn’t know. When you put poems side by side, they begin to have conversations with each other and won’t do what they’re told. They take on an independent life. Which is as it should be.

I’m intrigued by that notion of an independent life. Somehow, poems will grow out of things that simpley will not leave you alone. I think of, say, Yvonne Reddick’s new pamphlet Translating Mountains which grows out of her father’s death in the Grey Corries, and her ancestor’s gem-hunting in the Alps. I think of Tom Cleary’s latest poems about his father’s trials in the Irish fight for independence, of Keith Hutson’s Troupers and his longstanding love affair with almost forgotten music hall and variety acts; of Kim Moore’s sequence on domestic violence in The art of falling, and her new poems about ‘All the men I never married‘…and of course, of Steve Ely (but more of that before long). Roy got me thinking of the way sequences appear or don’t appear in my own writing. Thinking about it I’m aware that I’ve created sequence about the death of my son, David; about my parents (my mother, especially) and grandparents; about a crofting community on Skye, about a village in Spain; about hospitals and about the Fall of Man. The thing is, I never set out to do any of it. Not like that. The poems got written over a period of years and then found each other’s company. I never set out to write ‘sequences’ about any of them, though theing is, once you’ve got, say half a dozen, you begin to wonder if there can be more. I have to say that in my case that’s the point at which I start to write bad poems.Because I’m forcing them in to being.

I’m also aware that quite accidentally I’ve written a lot of poems that feature birds. I know very little about birds. I can recognise them because my dad was a keen bird-watcher, and I suppose he taught me, but I’ve never set out to study or research them. And there has never been a reason to group the poems together simply because they have birds in them…probably because they’re not actually about birds at all.

I’ve set out, sometimes, quite deliberately to write sequences: one about a painter and his wife and his model and his paintings (think of Fiona Benson’s Van Gogh sequence in Bright Travellers)….I spent over a year reseaching and ended up with three poems. That should have taught me something, but I’ve since tried the same thing with Clearance sites on Skye, with Culloden, and (with a bit more success) the notions that famous statues may be able to speak…at least I had a proper purpose with that, one of experimenting with dramatic monologues, and trying out other people’s voices. In general, I’d judge them all relative failures, mainly, I think, because I was trying too hard.

They say you live and learn, but I’m currently battling away at an idea seeded at an open mic night…ostensibly a sequence about the Lofthouse mining disaster. It involves versions of God, Mrs Beeton, Mary Anning, flower pressing and the evolution of the planet. I suspect it will end in tears. And on the strength of one poem written in a workshop a poet I love and respect suggested I write a twelve poem sequence. I am already having nightmares about it.

So it’s a huge relief to turn to a poet who writes sequences with huge assurance, fed by phenomenal (as it seems to me) scholarship, research and absorption in contemporary political history, in the the world of birds, and in the heft and texture of Yorkshire dialect and its roots in medieval English. Welcome back, Steve Ely.

priory 5

When Steve was last a guest (August 2015)  I wrote quite a lot about landscape, about ‘knowing your place’. Particularly, I wrote about Englaland

Englaland isn’t edgeland. It’s right in the middle of England, the landscapes of farms and pit villages and power stations and their great white plumes of condensation, despoiled monasteries, forgotten castles, the remains of priories . It’s the landscape that D.H.Lawrence wrote about, and his loathing of the man-made England. Because pit villages are never pretty or picturesque in the way of, say, Pennine mill towns. But they are surrounded and inerpenetrated by an older farmed and forested England. Which is Steve Ely’s ground.

You can catch up on all that by following this link https://johnfogginpoetry.com/2015/08/30/knowing-your-place-a-polished-gem-8-steve-ely/

Time now to get up to date, with this poet who writes sequences..though, as we’ll shortly see, not just sequences. Since he was last here, his account of Ted Hughes’ Mexborough years has been published, as has his unnerving, chunky pamphlet Werewolf of which Sheenah Pugh writes:

“the poems in this collection which discuss individuals’ propensity to violence, how they control it and how it can be exploited by the state are extremely thought-provoking and memorable, and mostly not because of their often harrowing subject matter but because of the skill with which it is handled. The jackdaw approach to history, assimilating different peoples, events and eras, brings home, as nothing else could, our essential likeness to each other, and viewing our own thoughts, words and actions through the glass of the “other” is as instructive now as it was when Euripides used the prism of the Trojan War to condemn the Athenian invasion of Melos. I don’t think anyone could read “Inyengi” and not be, at least temporarily, more careful in their language, or “Spurn” and not wonder “could it happen here?”

I think that’s why Steve Ely speaks so directly to me in his collections, Oswald’s Book of Hours and Englaland. He reminds me of the jolt I got when I first read E.P.Thompson’s The making of the English Working Class, and Hobbsbawm, and The common muse, and Roy Palmer’s The Rambling Soldier, of when I first listened to Charles’ Parker’s radio ballads…especially The ballad of John Axon ….. and Tony Parker’s Red Hill (the story of a mining community).

breakfast 001

OK. What he sent me when I asked him to come back to the cobweb needs not a scintilla of editing. Steve..off you go.

Since August 2015, I’ve:

  • Run
  • Been out with the dogs a lot and got into confrontations with any number of landowners, farmers and gamekeepers.
  • Been birding in South Uist
  • Found a kestrel’s nest with two young-uns and been caught up in a tornado on the same day.
  • Published my biography of Ted Hughes’s early years, Ted Hughes’s South Yorkshire, with Palgrave McMillan.
  • Been involved in the organisation of the second Ted Hughes Poetry Festival in Mexborough.
  • Gotten myself a PhD – the guerilla-pastoral, anarcho-yeoman anarchism, Bakhtin, Gramsci, Kipling, Pound, Moretti and Kavanagh …
  • Started teaching creative writing at the University of Huddersfield.
  • Been appointed Director of the Ted Hughes Network at the University of Huddersfield.
  • Published a hefty (who knew pamphlets had to weigh less than 0.5 grams and be printed on point 4 font on a butterfly’s wings?) pamphlet, Werewolf, with the estimable Bob Horne’s Calder Valley Poetry.

In 2017, I’ll:

  • Run
  • Continue my guerilla-pastoral campaign against landowners, farmers and gamekeepers
  • Dig some holes
  • Get a third dog for my roster, probably a lurcher of some sort
  • Go birding in South Uist
  • Publish a book of poems called Incendium Amoris with Smokestack Books  (June)
  • Be involved with the third Ted Hughes Poetry Festival in Mexborough (main weekend 23rd –25th June)
  • Help facilitate the symposium, ‘Ted Hughes & Place’ at the University of Huddersfield, with my colleague James Underwood (June 15th –16th)
  • Be delighted and excited to welcome Dr Heather Clark to the University of Huddersfield as International Visiting Scholar in June. Heather’s biography of Sylvia Plath will be published in 2018 by Knopf.
  • Write some excerpts from a mythic autobiography
  • Grow a some dangerous plants on my occult allotment
  • Publish a book of poems called Bloody, Proud & Murderous Men, Adulterers and Enemies of God with High Window Press (December).

I’ll also be keeping it real – on the street and in the ’hood. (he adds)


Unlike the pigeon, pursued onto my window by the sparrowhawk which filled my garden with feathers,there’s not the slightest suggestion that Steve will be brought up short by the unexpected.He’s sent me two poems to share. They are poems with birds in them. They may not be about birds.

How great is that darkenesse

Ring road glazed in lights.

Buffering macula, dampened panes;

muted YouTube central heating.

Cold coffee and donuts,

gastro-oesophageal reflux.

The heart’s a torn up map, voyaging

blind through doldrum darkness.

Through muffling glass

high greylags trumpet,

skeining wild and north.

I reckon that if you had to visualize the first circle of hell, you’d do worse than think of a ring-road or a motorway service station in the dark early hours. It’s a place for a dark night of the soul, being itself soulless in its unnatural light and much-breathed, centrally-heated air, its windows glazed with condensation. An edgeland place, neither here nor there, but between real places and lives. The sense of spiritual displacement is concentrated in that phrase ‘the heart’s a torn up map, voyaging blind’ and I love the accuracy of ‘doldrum darkness’…the doldrum of becalmed sailors in the middle of a great ocean. And then the poem expands, out and up and away with the ‘high greylags’, migrants moving along known instinctive routes to where they have to be, ‘skeining wild and north’. ‘Skeining’ is lovely, being at once a shape and a sound, a call. And a great word to end on: north, resonant with literature and history. No accident that Heaney chose it for the title of a collection


The second poem shifts us north. If you follow Steve Ely on Twitter or facebook you’ll be familiar with the posts about bird life on Uist. Here’s a poem that explains the love of it all.

No man can serve two masters

Walking that kelp-wrecked,

Hesperidean strand, notes

sanderling, turnstone, purple sand.

Shags hard and low across the surf swell,

crab boat’s outboard drone.  Hauled pots

and crates and nylon holdalls,

pagurus, AKs, shrink-wrapped keys,

the freedom of the golden isle

where phalaropes flirt

and red-throats flume and wail.

Norman MacCaig country, this…not geographically, but spiritually and linguistically..where shags fly ‘hard and low’ and small birds work busily on the low-tide wrack. It’s a moment to rest in.

I’ll know whether I’ve got it right this coming Tuesday night at Huddersfield University, when Steve is leading a writing workshop built around Ted Hughes’ Gaudete. He’ll certainly not leave me in doubt. Thank you anyway for being our guest, Steve Ely.

If you don’t own his books you can put that right. The detail of all of them, as well as of the other poets’ work I’ve mentioned at the beginning, follows. See you next week when we’ll be having a new guest. It’ll be great.

Steve’s books

Oswald’s Book of Hours   [2013 Smokestack Books] £7.95

Englaland                             [2015 Smokestack Books] £8.95

Ted Hughes’s South Yorkshire: Made In Mexborough [2015 Palgrave MacMillan ]

Werewolf                             [2016 Calder Valley Poetry ] £7.00

and others I’ve referred to:

Kim Moore The art of falling    [20125  Seren] £9.99

Yvonne Reddick  Translating mountains  [2017 Seren] £5.00

Keith Hutson Troupers [2016 Poetry Salzburg]

Roy Marshall The great animator [2017 Shoestring Press] £10.00

Tom Cleary  The third Miss Keane [2014] Happenstance] £4.00

Poems, poets, and a polished gem : Carola Luther

poet 2

Prior warning: early parts of this cobweb strand may come across as tetchy. If so, it’s not intended. I worry that someone might think it’s personally directed. It isn’t. Anyway. Here’s John Keats, listening to, or for, nightingales on Hampstead Heath. Now, that’s what a Poet looks like. Or it’s what one painter thought a Poet should look like. I suspect that poor Keats was more likely to be found in straitened circumstances somewhere unfashionable in London. But you get the picture. I’m not sure at what point you get have a capital ‘P’ for your status…probably you need to be dead for a good long time, by which time you’ll be known for writing Great Literature. In any case, it’s not something we should worry about for ourselves. My worry, if worry it be, is a small one; it itches and irks, and I want shot of it.

It’s this: I get uncomfortable with folk I don’t know, except via a few poems and Facebook posts, or bit of Twitter,calling themselves ‘poets’. I more than suspect that they shouldn’t. That it’s for other people to use that label for you. I get distinctly uncomfortable when someone calls me a poet. I usually say..no; I’m someone who writes poems. I believe there’s a real distinction to be made. I’m an ex-teacher who writes poems. On the other hand, it would never cross anyone’s mind, would it, to describe Larkin as a librarian who also wrote poems. ‘Poet’ is the word that comes to mind. It’s got me thinking about what it is when someone becomes a ‘poet’…because he or she has decidedly got something that I know full well I haven’t.

I was kicking it over in my mind on a two hour drive back from a birthday party in Whitby last night. I suppose it may have had something to do with the fact that the birthday girl is the daughter of someone I wrote a poem about. The poem won a prize and it made me believe I could go on writing poems, because someone might read them. Here’s a couple of stanzas from the poem  that did it.


According to the specialists you died six months ago

and I like sitting with you, proving there’s an afterlife

as we roll cigarettes, you perched like a wire bird

up on your kitchen top beside the angel

that I made for you before I knew you weren’t alive.



Your eyes grow bright in your dead woman’s face,

then sink, then glow like cigarettes, like the ironworks

up the coast, or the small lights on the cobles

tied up and tilted on the mud; like the strange flares

from the stack high up on Boulby Cliff, where the shaft

goes down a whole dark mile of ammonites, and heads off

far away beneath the weight of oil rigs, and sunken ships,

and shoals of cod, and all the grey North Sea.


Let’s be clear. I didn’t decide to write a poem. I just wanted to say something about someone who meant a lot to me, and I wanted to find out what it was. It’s one of those gifts, those insights you’re sometimes granted, and you feel duly grateful. It didn’t make me feel remotely like any of the things I’ve trawled from the internet this morning. Like these:

“When one does something, one must do it wholly and well. Those bastard existences where you sell suet all day and write poetry at night are made for mediocre minds – like those horses that are equally good for saddle and carriage, the worst kind, that can neither jump a ditch nor pull a plow.”― Gustave Flaubert

Well, I’m sorry, Gustave, but I’m not ready to give up the day job. Nor can I get on board with Sylvia Plath, who wrote “Oh what a poet I will flay myself into.”  Though I sometimes bump into those who seem equally desperate to be ‘poets’. Anyway, flaying isn’t on my agenda or in my bucket-list.

I got a quiet smile from the self deprecation of someone called Mary Karr who wrote :“I’d spent way more years worrying about how to look like a poet — buying black clothes, smearing on scarlet lipstick, languidly draping myself over thrift-store furniture — than I had learning how to assemble words in some discernible order.” I say this despite the fact that my partner Flo is wont to say as I head off in my collarless shirt and waistcoat to some reading or other: “hey up, Fogs, you’ve got your poet set on again
I’ll run a mile from the orotundites of one Greg Bear (who he?) who says without apparent irony: “Once, poets were magicians. Poets were strong, stronger than warriors or kings — stronger than old hapless gods. And they will be strong once again”, or Wallace Stevens: ‘The poet is the priest of the invisible.’   You can see how easy it is to be completely uncomfortable with the idea of calling yourself a poet. Bob Dylan is easier company, for once: I think a poet is anybody who wouldn’t call himself a poet.

I could go on. And yet. There are those who I can only think of as poets, albeit some may have been priests or librarians, or hospital receptionists or teachers. It seems they were always poets first and the other things were incidental. Men and women with astonishing imaginative/empathic reach allied to the (apparently effortless) control of words, of the capabilities of language, syntax, rhythm, form. Men and women who are artists with verbal language in the way that, say, Hockney, lays down a mark, or Picasso makes a pure line. They seem to have been born that way, regardless of the phenomenal effort they put into assembling their craft.

What I think distinguishes them from someone like me is the feeling that they simply can’t help themselves. I’m going to struggle to articulate this, but it’s what I feel when I read Gerard Manly Hopkins (especially him), and R S Thomas with his hardscrabble neighbours on poor farmland. Sometimes, it’s as though they’d rather not be carrying the burden of this impossible urge. Think of the two poets who defined poetry for my generation. Ted Hughes. He was 27 when ‘Hawk in the Rain’ was published. Heaney, only 4 years older than me, was also 27 when Death of a naturalist appeared. What they each had was a visceral engagement with the world out there and the way it spoke to and through them; one that was fed by an absorption in the physical world of farms and foxes as unanswerable as, say, Slvia Plath’s engagement with the inner world of the psyche. The thing is, it went on and on, poem after poem. The landscapes might change, but the charged connections, rarely if ever.

I think, if I’m lucky, that might happen to me once or twice before I die, but I can see the same quality of ‘not being able to help yourself’ flare up in the contemporary poems that have excited me..ones by Christy Ducker, by Fiona Benson, by Pascale Petit, Kim Moore, Steve Ely. Ones who do it often enough for me to think of them as poets rather than people who write poems. Forget the hierarchies, the rankings, the ‘who’s better than who’ nonsense. Some have done more than others, and some have had more success in terms of public recognition than others, but whatever it is, they have it, and they are poets. They are passionately moved by what they see and feel around then..it’s a quiet passion, but passion it undoubtedly is.

Which brings me, if you’re still reading, to today’s guest, Carola Luther. Two quotations will help me make the link with what I’ve written so far. Kim Moore, first, from a Sunday Poem post of 2012, writing about a poem from Walking with the animals:

– it was hard trying to pick a favourite.  I narrowed it down to eight across the two books, but decided to go for ‘Mourning’ .   I think this was maybe the poem that gave me the open door into Carola’s work – it is like a like a prayer or a benediction


And then this from Carcanet publicity for another of Carola’s collections:   Arguing with Malarchy which, the writer, says is:

full of voices: tender, sinister or angry, the glimpsed depths of their stories, the distances they have travelled. Carola Luther’s poems are alert to the ways a life can be briefly snared in the turn of a phrase – or in the moment when language fails. She explores silence, absences, the unspoken communication between animals and human beings, the pauses and boundaries between what is remembered, forgotten or invented, the living and the dead.

Both of these pick out what I think is a numinous quality in Carola’s work…’a prayer or a benediction’; ‘the glimpsed depths’; the way they are alert to ‘the moment when language fails’…and thereby rescues it through language. It’s this quality of being alive to the moment that makes me think of Carola Luther as something more than ‘someone who writes poems’. Let’s meet her.

She’s characteristaically brief about herself; she sends me this:

“Carola Luther’s first poetry collection, Walking the Animals was published by Carcanet Press in 2004 and shortlisted that year for the Forward Prize for First Collection.

Her second collection Arguing with Malarchy was published by Carcanet Press in 2011.

Carola was Poet in Residence at the Wordsworth Trust in 2012. Herd, a pamphlet of poems written in that year, was published in by The Wordsworth Trust (2012).

She has also written texts for theatre and mixed media performances. The most recent of these was the libretto for Lilith, (composer, Dimitar Bodurov) a piece commissioned and conceived by soprano Claron McFadden. Other composers Carola has worked with are Jenni Molloy (UK) and Byron Au Yong (Seattle).”

I’ll let all that speak for itself. I know Carola through the Albert poets, both as a guest reader and generous host, and even more as a member of the critiquing workshops I go to on Monday evenings in Huddersfield. I’ve come to rely on her sharp ear and keen editorial eye, and especially the way she responds to the work, and what it says. She has that quality of quiet engagement in a workshop that I like so much in her poems. She’s sent me three to share with you. They’re quite long, and packed. It’s a treat.

The first is one I wanted for the way it illuminates Kim Moore’s sense of a prayer or benediction. Carola provides an explanation of the use of what might feel like an arcane bit of lexis. ‘The word Selah appears in the Psalms. Its exact meaning is not clear. It is thought to mean ‘pause’; or be an end (similar to amen); or be a musical direction indicating a breathing space. It is also apparently similar to the Hebrew words for lift up and praise.’ The poem recreates one of those moments that can be too-easily missed.


Driving north towards the first snows

I see the moon’s blue hare

balance on its ears.

Except for a ridge of cloud

the sky is clear


waiting for its morning



Nnnn the sky half-belonging

to the night Nnnn the sky on tiptoe

reaching for its day

everything today explained by sky

its bank of deep blue becoming

pink without a threshold

strip of violet. Should there

not be violet ?



Radio alert. Soon a gale

will blow from Russia

and the tight contours of a front

make mountain maps of storm

though now it’s bone-china

dawn give thanks


Give thanks the trees are still as cakes

whole canopies dipped in sugar in the night

and in the light




etched rooks.



black anorak

of wings.


Sheep tucked.


Each sheep motionless

in its cumulus

and I too

bring my car

to a stop.


Looking up

I see the outline of the moon

fading in the early light.

Blue hare

hangs yet.

It could break through

at anytime twisting

upright from its caul

to escape

and haunch away

before the onslaught

of the storm

of day

give thanks.

Or if it proves too late selah for that

might it fall unseen to earth

defrost in its plastic bag


a knuckle knurl selah

grey blue



till night ?

You should read it aloud, following its length down the page, listening for its rhythm, hearing the stage directions of those line breaks. Then you can go back and relish the precision of the moments: each sheep motionless in its cumulus, trees ‘still as cakes’, the zip – breast/ black anorak/ of wings. And  become aware of the counterpointing of rounded and spiky textured sound, the images that are as precise as the ones in dreams. It’s lovely.

floodtown 2

The next one is one that stopped me in my tracks at a Monday night workshop, and it’s a special request from me. Carola lives in Sowerby Bridge, and I suspect the narrative of this flood has special resonance for everyone from the upper Calder valley. (Whatever WordPress has done or will do, this poem should be in quatrains)

The Rising

The roof of the distant house is still attached,

lashed down with tarp and rope

by the woman who floated past

on a section of road.


Now fieldlakes are sea. I watch wavelets

lap at tip-toey hooves of sheep and goats

on archipelagos. Tail to tail

they stand stock-still and stare


at this tree, at the house, at the ridge

in the distance that hides the farm.

Only when hocks go down do they bleat.

The bleating goes on.


The man who thought he was alone in my tree

croons a song of comfort. A tenor.

He sings to the beasts in a tongue I don’t know

but it could be Hebrew. Perhaps he’s a cantor.


He reminds me of my mother so I join in quietly

in Levantine Arabic, her home language.

I’m godless and tone-deaf but harmonise

as well as I can.


He looks up at my branch, shock in his eyes,

raises arms in the rain. I think he weeps.

We both sing louder. From the visible

tip of the hill, a bark. Vixen.


Two dogs howl from the house.

The woman leans from an attic window

dog either side and a chicken. She’s waving.

I think she’s a Christian. She sings


of waters that stood above mountains,

covers of the deep flung out like garments,

and a God who came to rebuke

the waters, and the waters fled, they fled.


A bellowing stag on a knoll to the east.

I hear scream of hare and keckering

badger. Moles and beetles join in

with squeak of weasel, squirrel, rat,


even dumb worms open their mouths

to mouth at capsizing frogs

and otters that mew from a channel.

Then the sounding of cattle.


It is ox-horn and shofar calling

to the planet’s diaspora, and I see herds

in silhouette from the milkfarm amass on the hill.

A lion from the zoo on the moor


roars his answer, and there is sweetness

in the sound of cow and lion lowing together.

I think of my lover and I miss her.

And just as  noise reaches crescendo, birds


rise up like bodhisattvas, and all things with wings

strain skyward as one to lift the world.

Crows, bees, peregrines, pulling

skyward with bats and swans,


and on the backs of hawks, the little things

singing and singing, mayfly, crane-fly, wren;

and high up, a harrier, and there a dove,

I’m certain I’m looking at a collared dove,


and I turn to ask the man who chants kaddish

when I realize that he and the sheep

have gone quiet, the goats are swimming

in silent circles, and water pulls at my hips.


The forward momentum of this poem is as irresistible as floods. There’s an en-chantment in the naming of creatures, and of the consolations of song and of religion and of gods, which means that I found the last line shocking. You think you know where you are in this poem until it takes your feet out from under you with an alarming shift of perspective; twice.

The man who thought he was alone in my tree

croons a song of comfort

In the way of a dream, you have no time to reflect on the oddity of it; it is what is, with all the inevitability of a dream. I just have to go back and reread this poem, aloud, letting the voice sink in.

Finally, a poem full as an egg with richness: (an apology…this poems is constructed in couplets. WordPress has a habit of closing stanza breaks. If it has done it again after two re-edits, I’m mortified)


The first blossoms are caught in the slow-motion act of bursting

their scabbards. The timid will survive, not these flamboyances


blowing out innards, shaking out pleats from their whites too early

not to be nipped in frost or unfrocked by the forecast snow.


Today has been full of such sorrows, regrets felt as motes of perfection

breaking, something important breaking, a pod, a contract,


contraction of the heart. If I let myself be flamboyantly open, I feel them

these minuscule mistakes, as well as my own betrayal of the trees,


the birds, the animals. For example, what does it mean to walk in, again

and again, on that young heron? I say walking in, as if the bird is human,


as if its long pond floating with weed and the single-track road laid down

like carpet before it, were the boudoir, the bedroom, the madre


chambre  of a tender king in which only the beloved is allowed. A mallard

sieves green with its beak. Everything else is quiet in the aftermath,


outbreathing relief, it is easter holidays, dusk, and at last the people

go home. Trees wait. Blossoms hold tight. Breath. Beat. All clear.


The woodpecker grinds open its gate and the evening rituals begin:

the deer lips the earth, the mallard dips, birds call and chunter


as if before doorways of shops, squirrels running along branches

doing chores like the branches are streets, and the breeze shaking


brand-new canopies, their signs of new leaves, buds, little white flowers.

And then here I am. Each evening this week I have come, walking into fright


and the scattering of animals interrupted while doing their thing, disturbing

the sheep, disturbing everything, especially the young heron who feeds here,


drinks, looks at himself, looks at, and into himself with a concentration

that could be creating. Yesterday when I came, he turned to stone


to wait it out. But with the evening pull of hunger and disappearing

light, he risked it, dropped his head to puncture water, sup, sip,


try to concentrate, to ignore me, get the depth back. It didn’t work.

He opened wide his resignation. Flew. Immediately I missed


the grey-white body, his ponytail, his tribal, inner-city Manchu queue,

I missed the pharaoh eye out-lined in kohl, his neck-tube, narrow, vulnerable,


and down the throat-front, the long punk zip, as if in the past his throat

had been slit lengthways, then stitched back together in hurry and remorse, suture


upon suture in thick black thread. On the heron’s chest two dreadlocks

of sorrow, the hunter’s own hair I imagined, sewn as a sign, a message


to sisters and brothers to leave this bird alone, he has died once

for no reason, and should not die again.  I did not shoot or even throw a stone,


but here I was nonetheless, staring at wounds, demanding as my right, ownership

of looking, and only now asking, do creatures and trees not need


what I need, to be left alone, to be unseen, sometimes, in order to be

themselves, and what I write becomes a question to myself, about privacy,


when have I had my allotment of looking, when is it enough? And I realise

of course, I am talking of theft. I am talking of the snake at the water trough.



It’s so crammed and so particular, I look for analogies in painting. It has the strangely disconcerting quality of a Richard Dadd, and the lush sensory qualiry of a Rousseau. I love the way it says thankyou to D H Lawrence, one poet to another. I like the cheeky insousciance of the title. I hope you do too. Thank you Carola Luther for finally being a cobweb guest. The pleasure was all ours.

Acknowledgements: Versions of two of the poems in todays cobweb have been previously published. Theft first appeared in Herd a pamphlet published by the Wordsworth Trust in 2012.  The Rising was first published online in The Compass Poetry Journal  March 2016 (ed Andrew Forster and Lindsey Holland). With thanks to The Wordsworth Trust and to Andrew Forster and Lindsey Holland.

Finally, a reminder; Carola’s collections are available from the publisher. Just go the the Carcanet site. And buy them.

Arguing with Malarchy

Published: July 2011 Carcanet Press

Walking the Animals

Published: April 2004 Carcanet Press

See you next week.

Between the lines: drafts, workshops, and how to survive them


A spot of deja vu this afternoon. It’s lovely to be back after a two week break, but I notice the last  post I wrote (about poetry residentials, just before going on one) starts with a moan about the weather AND the unpleasantness of watching my RL team Batley Bulldogs on a cold day with rain siling down. Guess what. I’m off to Mount Pleasant, the most ironically named ground in English rugby league, and it’s cold, horrible and tanking down. I may have to thaw out before I can finish this week’s post. Fingers crossed we get a win. (why do managers and players of football teams always say they wanted to get ‘a result’? A draw is a result. So is getting hammered by a team you should walk all over. Just a thought. Anyway, I’m off to get layered up. I’ll be back in a while. Behave, while I’m away.)


Well. You’ve been very patient. It’s Monday afternoon.This is what it looked like yesterday. Detail from a brilliant photo posted by Paul Butterworth on the supporters’ facebook page. It was cold, it was wet and it was unrelentingly nailbitingly brutal. It’s taken me till now to get warm, and I was only watching. Right. Back to business.

I had great week in St Ives with writing tutors Kim Moore and David Tait, in the company of talented, committed folk who I already knew, like Meg Cox, Martin Zarrop, Rachel Davies and Hilary Robinson, and a whole bunch of folk who I met for the first time and taught me lots.

Because they are gifted teachers, Kim and David did three things that a good residential ought to do. 1:They are very clear about what the course is for, about what to expect, and, day by day, what’s coming next, and why. 2: They surprised me with poems I’d never seen before, and put them in a context that shifted the way I read them and wrote out of them. 3: They gave me tasks that disturbed and challenged me. 4: They gave me the security to handle it.

It was a week that did what a good residential should do: it took me out of my comfort zone, it made me look at stuff that I unconsciously try to avoid. It will eventually make me write differently, and, hopefully, better. And it also made me think very hard about workshopping my own poems and those of others…which will be the point of this delayed cobweb strand.


Just to be clear; what do I mean by a workshop? In this context, it’s not one where you write new work from prompts or whatever. I mean workshops where you take a poem that’s unfinished or unsatisfying in some way, in the hope that someone will spot what’s going wrong and suggest a possible solution, or to discover that it’s unsatisfying because it’s actually not very good and probably not worth persisting with. The two I go to on a regular basis are the (theoretically) weekly meetings of The Albert Poets at The Sportsman’s pub in Huddersfield, and the ones in the afternoon sessions of the monthly Poetry Business Writing Days in Sheffield. They’re the ones where I feel simultaneously safe and challenged. I’ll try to explain why I think both of these conditions are essential as I go along.

Safety/security first. Groups like these work because they have very clear ground rules. On residentials where there’s a critiquing workshop, and where there are people who haven’t met before, its good to be told what they are.(They include making enough copies of your poem for everyone to have one) David Tait reminded me of the importance of this in St Ives, because he told us all very clearly, and I’m going to borrow what he said.

First: don’t bring a poem that you’re unwilling to change; a workshop isn’t a place to go to be told how much you’re loved. If you want applause, go to open mic.s and take your chance with the rest. Now, you might think this is obvious, but nothing is more uncomfortable than dealing with the ones who don’t get this basic premise.

Second. Everyone’s got a copy. You read your poem aloud. And then you keep quiet. You don’t explain why you wrote it, or its backstory..none of that. The poem has to stick up for itself. You don’t argue or interrupt. You listen as people say what they think. You may think what they say is stupid. (a few weeks ago, a newcomer to one group gave my poem nul points, saying that it was full of similes that have no place in poems any more…something of the sort). Grit your teeth. There should be a time span for this bit..depends on the size of the group. 5-10 minutes. At the end you should have the chance to respond. Not indignantly.

Third. What about the critiquers? Rules vary, but I like the format of the Poetry Business. When you respond to a poem you start with some thing(s) you like..two or three….and then things that puzzle you, or don’t seem to work. What you say needs to be helpful, potentially. And it needs to be about THIS POEM. And even if you love it, you need to say why. And if you want to suggest changes, PLEASE make them provisional. You have to believe that you don’t necessarily have the answers or solutions. Preface your comments with something on the lines of: what happens if ….what happens if you cut this line/if you shift these stanzas to the beginning/ if you make the title the first line. That kind of thing

Fourth. I nearly forgot this. It’s a rule I personally want to add. When you listen to someone read her poem, listen to what it’s saying. Think: what’s this about? Too often people jump in with a comment about details and techniques without giving any indication that they’ve listened to what the poem means. So say what you think the poem means. The poet thinks she knows but if you’ve heard something different then that’s important. It tells her that she hasn’t got the message/significance/meaning across to one reader at least, and she may need to think about why.

In other words, there’s a contract between the poet and the readers, and everyone has to trust everyone else. I tend to think this works best in groups of a certain size. For me, 5 or 6 is optimum, 10 is manageable, and bigger than that means that whoever is in the last three of the session will not actually be heard by anyone. Because it’s a tiring business. It really is.

Fifth: (actually, I’m not sure this part of the sequence BUT it’s coming here nonetheless).

It’s about one-to-one workshops. These are a feature of most, if not all, residentials. David Tait, again, is very clear about ground rules.Let’s assume this is not a session where you are asking how to get published, or how to sequence a pamphlet, or how to get readings, or how to become famous.

The first is that you will have a time allocation. Whatever it is, both you and the tutor must honour it. You will be punctual. The tutor will be punctillious. When you time is up, it’s up.

Secondly, you supply the tutor with two or three poems that you want advice about. You do not turn up with a manuscript, or ask the tutor to read a potential collection. You’re going to get twenty minutes. Deal with it.

Thirdly, you do everything you can to help the tutor to help you. Ask the tutor if s/he’d like you to highlight the bits that you think are not working. S/he may prefer to read the poems blind, but it does no harm to ask.

Fourthly, in any case you should go to your workshop/tutorial with your highlights ready. It might be the title, the last line, the pivot; it might be that you think there’s too much or too little; it might be that you can’t make it dance…but have an idea what you want to focus on.

Now, you might think this is obvious, commonsense, doesn’t need saying. But I’ve been in a blind-reading workshop (all the poems anonymised) where an extremely famous poet said that my contribution was a ‘crock of sh*te’. And to be fair, it wasn’t much good, but the point of a workshop’s being to make poems better vanished right there. It didn’t do much for the ambience either. Tutors can break the contract, but so can ‘students’…the ones who, despite everything, want to be told how to write a collection or get on the radio or whatever, who want to criticise the course, or just turn up for vaguely poetry-related therapy. The rules are crucial, and we have to trust that we all make them work.

So what’s it like, chucking your poem into the ring, like a prize-fighter’s hat. I thought I’d finish with a sort of case-study. Let’s start with the version of the poem I wanted to workshop because it wasn’t working.

Inside out


Men caught heaven,

made a place to hold it. Light fills it

like a cistern, to the brim.


Outside : cliff-face, course on course

of great stones shutting off the sky,

the earth breathing its last, pressed to death.


Inside: suspended gravity.

Mass without weight,

where everything takes flight…


cobweb banners of dead regiments –

small dry waterfalls,

the arrested drift of falling leaf…..


where stone grows like trees, like flowers,

spreads its arms, its fingers

that it clasps in prayer.


where light smells of incense, wax,

scented dust and God;

sounds like the oldest music


that murmurs and whispers;

a shout would vanish,

a pebble in a well.


Press a palm on the stone,

its cool grain, small snags

where a mason’s chisel slipped;


make yourself remember

this is simple stone –  quarried,

split, carted, hauled


by men with callouses,

fighting brute inertia,



who wove traceries in stone

and netted heaven

like a bright moth.


The copies circulated round the group weren’t highlighted in red, but just for convenience, they are here..they’re the bits I wasn’t sure about. I’d started from the simple idea that great Gothic cathedrals are bigger inside than out, that enchantment of stone to create the illusion of weightlessness. When I was writing, in my mind I was standing outside Durham Cathedral, outside York and Lincoln and Winchester and then walking inside into that rare light.

Now..you see what it does when I tell you that;  it’s special pleading before you can read what’s in front of you. I started to think that maybe the idea is a) blindingly obvious, b) the poem was just assertively arguing a case that didn’t need arguing, and c) that it probably wasn’t worth salvaging, but we could give it a chance. Intriguingly, some readers didn’t see that it was about cathedrals; maybe I was making too many assumptions. (I grew up with Bannister-Fletcher’s history of architecture). Anyway, it made me think.

As well as people in the group making oral suggestions, several will annotate their copy and give it to the writer afterwards. I think this is great, regardless of what they write.Here’s two to make a point:


What do I make of this? The left hand one reinforces my unease about the title. It means I need to do something about it…I trust this responder, as it happens. Ditto the suggestion about omitting two stanzas. Why? Because I’m not sure about the introduction of scent and sound into a poem that’s focussed on sight and touch. I really like the images, but I have to ask if they belong, if they earn their keep. What about the right hand one?  Well it’s curtly radical, isn’t it. It would be easy to take umbrage or shrug it off. But maybe I need to listen to the voice that’s saying: this poem is too long, there’s too much stuff going on. It needs some cuts. Possibly not these.

Meanwhile, as group members are making their annotations, I’m making mine.


What’s happened is that I feel confirmed about the title. Lots of folk mentioned this. Ditto, the inside/outside opposition which tips the rhetoric of the poems in the wrong dirction. It’s clunky. Get shot. As I read the poem to the group I heard what was wrong with the the line about the leaves…I heard it before I got to it and changed it as I read. You think you’ve read your poem aloud, but it’s different reading it to listeners. I decide to get rid of the pebble in the well, much as I like it. It’s distracting. And so on. On the other hand, no one has found that those imperative verbs, press, make yourself, are a problem. Maybe I can keep them. A week later, I go back and edit. I don’t think this poem is up for submissions or competitions. It’s OK, but I suspect it didn’t want to be written as much as I thought I wanted to write it. On the other hand, I think it’s better than it was,thanks to that workshop. Here it is.See what you think.



Men caught heaven,

made a place to hold it, a cistern,

full to the brim with light,


suspended gravity,

mass without weight,

where everything takes flight…


cobweb banners of dead regiments:

small dry waterfalls –

arrested drifts of falling leaf;


where stone grows like trees, like flowers,

spreads its arms, flexes fingers

that it clasps in prayer;


where light smells of incense, wax,

scented dust and God,

sounds like the oldest music.


Press a palm on the stone,

its cool grain, small snags

where a mason’s chisel slipped;



this is simple stone –  quarried,

split, carted, hauled


by men with callouses,

fighting bulk,weight,

awkwardness;  men


who wove traceries in stone

and netted heaven

like a bright moth.

I’m sorry you had to wait till Monday. Thank you for turning up and thank you for listening. As a treat, next week we’re having a guest poet I’ve wanted ever since I started writing the cobweb. See you next Sunday (or Monday)

PS. If you’ve been persuaded by the last two posts, you could do a lot worse than have a think about this tasty-looking course coming up shortly. It could be just what you need:

Residential Poetry Course
April 10th – 14th 2017
Tutors: Kim Moore and Jennifer Copley
Abbot Hall Hotel, Kents Bank, Grange-Over-Sands, Cumbria
£396 To book please contact hotel  015395 32896

The ins and outs of residential poetry courses.


Well, here we are, a day late, and posssibly later. No excuse really. Just that yesterday (Sunday, in case it really is later) I put on an unfeasible number of waterproof, windproof, fleecy layers and headed off in the driving sleet and rain to Mount Pleasant. Arguably the most ironically named Rugby League ground in the world….whether it’s the bleakest is arguable; I seem to remember that Workington’s ground is pretty inhospitable…..but anyway, even going to sit down in the covered stand did little to stem the sensations of encroaching hypothermia, and I spent last night getting warm again instead of writing this for the cobweb. So, thank you for your forbearance and general air of cheerfulness. It will not be forgotten.

As it happens, there’s a bit of serendipity involved, which I’ll explain as I go along. I’m feeling a bit confused and conflicted about the business of writing poems at the moment. This morning a copy of The Interpreter’s house dropped through the letter box. It’s full of good things, including poems by cobweb guest poets Keith Hutson, Wendy Pratt, Wendy Klein and Julie Mellor, and, among so much good stuff, a fulsome review of Much Possessed by Dawn Gorman. Wow. Thank you for that. A review!..at every stage of writing you can feel you’re ‘arriving’, though I can’t imagine you’ll ever quite feel you’ve arrived. I hope not, because then you’d have to get off the bus and look for work. First poem in a journal, first commendation in a competition, first invitation to do a reading, first pamphlet, first collection. First review. How did I ever get here? I’ll come back to that.

Because there’s sometimes a downside to the business. In my case it’s paradoxically to do with having won a competition…jointly won, because it was a shared submission…which you can check out if you like. I wrote about it on Dec 3rd, feeling especially proud of my fellow writer, Andy Blackford. The prize is to have a collection published. Here’s the thing. No one from the business that runs the competition (and I believe it’s a reputable affair) has ever contacted me directly, only Andy. He forwarded a copy of a publishing contract for me to sign in January. I sent off my two copies, but have heard nothing, nor has my copy been returned, countersigned. We have repeatedly emailed the organisers and still have had no reply. Andy begins to believe it’s a scam. I don’t, but it makes me cross. What would you do? Comments welcome if this resonates with you in any way..but there it is. I’m simultaneously delighted, frustrated and cross. How did I get here?


In my case it’s because I’ve started by going on day courses, and then won competitions…one of my pamphlets, and my first collection, were published as the prize for winning, first the Camden/Lumen, and then the Poetry Business Pamphlet Comps. And now the latest one, Much possessed. There are other routes, and tougher ones, especially those taken by the writers who submit and submit and submit and submit to journals and magazines, and build up a painstaking porfolio of published work. They’re the ones who win my admiration and respect. They know who they are. But thing is, how did I come to write enough poems in the first place. Well, it started, as I say, with one-day workshops, and with small writers’ groups, but at some point I applied to go on a residential course. Moniack Mhor. That’s it, with the Wagnerian sky in the background.

I’m not sure I would have done so had I not known a bit about Arvon Courses in the first place. Which is why there’s a picture of the back yard of Lumb Bank at the top of the page. I ‘ve always thought the real character of the building and, indeed, the place, is in that back yard with its hard granite setts.It’s always, for me, been the setting of Full moon and little Frieda. It’s the spirit they went for in the recent TV Bronte drama. Uncompromising. It’s leaked into a couple of poems in the last two years. In Banked up

“somewhere out in the yard a bucket has blown over

rackets about the cobbles like a big man in a rage

like a man who’d smash his fist into a gritstone wall

and sing about the blood”

and in So I’m thinking

“….of Ted Hughes’ gritstone house,

that tunnel of a yard, its slippery flags,

that valley of unsmoking chimneys,

knee-deep in brown leaf-litter,

an old artillery firing blanks at a Pennine moon”

It certainly made a big impression when I first went there in the mid-80s, not as a course participant (because I’d never heard of Arvon or Lumb Bank till then), but because as part of my job as an LEA English/Drama Adviser I co-ordinated an annual residential course for selected 6th formers from the Calderdale schools. It’s how I came to meet Berlie Doherty, John Latham, Terry Caffrey, Lemn Sissay and Graham Mort among others. Maura Dooley was warden then, and for a few years it was a retreat and a bolthole when I needed to avoid the increasing misery of being turned into an Inspector. Very fond of Lumb Bank, then, though I’ve never been on a course as resident member. And that’s how I became aware of Arvon, though I didn’t write poems until a good deal later.

Like I say, in the late 90s I discovered writing days, which made me write stuff, even though my heart wasn’t yet in it. And I began to meet more like-minded folk and make ‘writing friends’ and think there was something to the whole business, though I wasn’t sure what. It was my partner, Flo, who was the one behind my going on residentials. Determined that I wasn’t going to mooch through retirement like a mental tramp, she looked things up, told me Liz Lochhead was tutoring a course at Moniack Mhor, and told me to apply for it. So I did.I liked Liz Lochhead’s poetry. That was the only reason. And I didn’t enjoy it. Not one bit. Not at all.

But my partner was indefatigable. I’d become a Poetry Business writing day addict by then. Look, she said. Your friend Ann Sansom is running a poetry course in Spain. Spain! I might not have gone, but my oldest friend lived only 100miles south of where the course was..and had been very ill…and I reckoned I could go and visit him, too. I’m glad I did, because he died a couple of months later. And I’m more than glad I went to the Old Olive Press, because that’s where I met Hilary Elfick who told me, without qualification or hesitation, that I should and would be published. It was truly astonishing.


Everything about it was astonishing. Heat. Mountains. Walking. A swimming pool. En suite bedrooms. Food. Writing every day, for day after day. Amazing. I keep going back. And here’s the thing..it cost less for a Saturday to Saturday course in Spain (including the air fare) than it cost me to drive to Inverness (which involved a B&B stop…it’s a long long way) for a Monday to Saturday Arvon course. Money’s an issue, but so is value for money. I’ll come back to this. The thing is, I enjoyed it so much, got so excited by it all, that I went again, for a course tutored by Jane Draycott..which was brilliant…on which I wrote a poem that won a prize that paid for a return to Spain the next year, a course with Mimi Khalvati, and something towards another with Ann Sansom.


And so it goes. I’ve been on others…to Cumbria, to Whitby, to Keswick, and to St Ives (where I’m going again on Sunday, and very handsome it is, as you can see)..and it’s on these days and weeks that I’ll base what I’ll write next. But, caveat emptor. This will be partial, subjective, and possibly unreliable. I can only share what I’ve gathered from experience that is probably not typical; I’d love to hear from others who may have quite different perspectives. Still, here we go: the ins and outs of poetry residentials as far as can tell.

You need to ask yourself what you hope to get out of it. The first one I went on, I think I expected some kind of magical transformation. I was very vague about what I thought that might mean, but I supposed that by spending time in the company of a famous poet, I’d achieve poems by osmosis; inspiration via proximity. Forget that. I rather hoped that someone would show me ways of thinking and working that would help me to be a better writer. That didn’t happen either, and it made me cross.I expected to be pushed and stretched and challenged. That didn’t happen, either. So, what can you look for before you commit yourself?

Firstly, don’t just go on the ‘name’ of the course tutor(s). Ask around. Facebook’s a good place to start, because I’m assuming that you’ll have acquired poetry chums. But ask people to message you in response. You don’t want poets being slagged off on a public forum.

I want to know how the tutor normally works. I know what works for me, and I want to find a good ‘fit’. For instance, I like to work fast, under pressure. I know in advance that a Poetry Business will do that for me. But you may like a gentler pace, something more reflective. You know how you learn best. So think hard about that.

Alternatively, I like structure. The most productive courses I’ve been on have been carefully and explicitly structured, and they tell you explicitly or implicitly what the course objective will be. So, a Jane Draycott course very quietly, day on day, focussed on building up a toolkit of techniques that let you dramatise your poems: place, voice, character, (the who, where,what, when and why of things). The techniques were illustrated via the ‘starter poems’, and the whole thing was purposeful and accretive. I loved it.

A Kim Moore/Carola Luther course focussed on myth, and ways in which its retellings enable you access ways of understanding and communicating your own life experiences and belief. It actually changed the way I thought. It was hard work. I loved it. A Kim Moore/Steve Ely course focussed on voices and ventriloquism. I don’t know a better way of breaking out of your own default voice and its rhythms. Anyway. You get the idea.

On the other hand, I went on one course tutored by someone who came highly recommended by folk I trusted. What I failed to do was check out the tutor’s own poetry. Which is technically amazing, but essentially lyrical and doesn’t ring my rhetorical/narrative bell. Maybe I hoped it would challenge me more than it did, but there was a lot of analytic/reflective discussion and all I wanted to do was crack on. So, make sure you know, as far as you can, what the ‘teaching/practice’ is going to be like before you commit.

Secondly think about accomodation and setting. This, I think, is much more important than I explicitly recognised at first. Ask yourself: do you want a spartan room, a novitiate’s bed,  and a walk along cold landings to a distant shower/bathroom? Do you want to prepare food for other people? (as it happens I love doing that, so my Arvon course was saved by my being able to spend every afternoon prepping and cooking in a big kitchen with and industrial sized range. very few people understand my enthusiasm. And I wouldn’t want to have done it at Lumb Bank). It’s a simple fact that residentials in hotels are more comfortable, and you get your food cooked and served by professionals. In dining rooms. Counter-intuitively, they also tend to be significantly cheaper.

However, it can also feel slightly odd to be writing in a hotel, where there may also be a convention of Charismatic Christians, or water polo players or whatever. You can lose you concentration, whereas at Arvon it’s wall to wall poets and poetry. So think about that. Equally, about the locality. I want to be in a space that I’m happy in. I want distance, I want to be able to walk but not in streets or in constrained, fenced countryside. I don’t want to be in woodland. I want to be able to get away for an hour or two each day, just to let my brain stretch, and to stop talking to people. Think about where you’re likely to feel happy. Seriously.

Thirdly ..this doesn’t bother me so much, because I’m able to switch off from my surroundings when I’m working, to blank out what’s going on around me…but what about the people? This sounds misanthropic, and I don’t intend it to be. If you’re not convivial, then being in close proximity to the same (intense) group of people for several days might not be what you want. You’re not going to have the tutor’s unlimited personal attention. And then there’s the business of what everyone else does when you’re not in a timetabled session. You’ll see people earnestly writing on and on, at tables, in armchairs, tapping away at laptops, and if you’re not careful, you’ll start to worry because you’re not. And you need to blank out the conversations about ‘how much have you written?’ Because it’s not a competition. The only person who matters is you. You’re there to get better at what you want to do. One more thing. It’s possible to find out by asking around if a given tutor is always accompanied by the same group of accolytes. I’ve seen this twice, and learned from it. You can feel frozen out. I’m thick-skinned but it still irked me. You have better things to do with your life

Lastly  (because I’ve gone on for too long, and I’m rambling). Residential courses are not cheap. For me, they are actually my holidays, but you can be forking out anything between £500 and £1000. (which partly accounts for the demographic.Don’t expect too many young folk in the group). And if they’re any good at all, they’re hard work. If not exhausting. It’s important that you do everything you can to make sure you’re going to be in good company, in a place you like, which is comfortable, with a tutor who will drive you up a level or two. Even when they’re not very good, residential courses are places where you strike up important friendships, and, in my case, where your life may change. So don’t for a second let me put you off by saying: think about it, check it out, ask.

And with that, that’s me for a couple of weeks. Because I’m going on (surprise) a residential course next Sunday. And I couldn’t be happier.








Shifting gear and a gem revisited: Julie Mellor


Do you go through spells when you feel as though you’re ploughing the same ground and wondering why nothing fresh is coming up? I just noticed that last Sunday I posted my 200th cobweb strand. That’s about 400,000 words. Not all of them have been mine, obviously. All our generous guest poets have contributed a goodly number of those, and I couldn’t be more grateful. Because I become uncomfortably aware that though I don’t exactly run out of ideas, I do find myself revisiting things I’ve said before, sometimes without being totally conscious of it. And the same goes for poems.

One of my wise sisters, Hilary Elfick, told me that I wrote so much in a relatively short time because I hadn’t written much for decades, and it had all been dammed up. (Ironically, I realise that I’ve written this before, somewhere in the cobweb. There you go.) In the best of times, you’re on a roll, you have something, a theme let’s call it, that insists on being explored, on being written. You don’t have to force it. It has been given; it is a gift, and you only become properly grateful in retrospect. For ages, for me, it was the landscapes and stories and people of Skye. For a spell, it was my fascination with the notion that if great sculptures had a voice they would have startling things to say. I mined the reach seam of stories of my family…my parents and grandparents…for a good while. The story of my son’s death, and my feeling of complicity in that, too. For some reason, at the moment there are a lot of Vikings and the shores of the North East demanding some attention. But sooner or later that will run its course, and there’ll be a time when nothing demands to be written about. I’ll go on ‘forcing’ poems, but they won’t amount to spit.

And then there’s the ‘voice’. It’s seductively easy to fall into a default rhythm. Mine is iambic, possibly because it’s the closest to the rhythms of English speech. (Not my observation; Tony Harrison’s, among others). With the iambic comes an easy shift into a default line length. Mine is between 8 and twelve syllables. Another default element in my writing is long sentences that run over a lot of lines. Not bad in itself. Kim Moore does it. David Constantine does it…and they’re  gifted . I can muck about, and cheat it by playing with line breaks…and I do, but blank verse line breaks are rarely just arbitrary; those lines tend to hold a rhetorical unit very handily. I could go on, but for whatever reason, I’m not very good at short poems, at compression. I think that also tends to mean that I’m not very good at lyricism. And it’s just too easy to go along with the tried and tested without noticing that it’s getting a bit tired and predictable. At some point you need to shift a gear. Or maybe buy a new car. (a weaselly voice in my ear just reminded me that when I was teaching English, I used to tell students that if you’re in an argument and you resort to metaphor you’re probably losing the argument. And that the same thing applies to your opponents. I should listen to my own advice).

What I’m not going to do today is to write about what to do when you find yourself in this situation. I’ve done it before. It may make no sense, but you’re welcome to have a look. Here’s the link:


It doesn’t address the business of ‘the voice’. I’ll go and have a good long think about that. For now I’m just happy to move on to today’s guest, Julie Mellor, who has in her latest writing given me great hope. Because it seems to me that she’s one of those hardworking writers who sticks at it…and, I think, one who has shifted gears in the last year or so.

When she was last our guest in August 2015, I wrote this as introduction:

“My guest for today writes about men who can hold ice, trains that fall from viaducts, (not the one in the pictur), fossilised trees, the folklore of fruit, the fears of geese,  Pennine graveyards, Sicilian breakfasts, volcanoes …in short a poet who never fails to engage and delight me: Julie Mellor


While I was rereading her Poetry Business Pamphlet Competition winner Breathing through our bones (chosen by Carol Ann Duffy! Yes, it’s that good.) I realised what it was I liked so much about Julie’s writing…it’s that every poem is a surprise, that each one is unexpectedly different from the last, and at the same time the voice is reliably the same. And the other realisation is that there’s not a shred of ego, or self-consciousness. Just a genuinely curious delight in the unaccountable richness and diversity of things.Julie Mellor asks a question in one of her poems Autobiography

How do I know about the price
of porter, about fleas in the mattress,

the pawning of ulsters –?

The answer is that she spends a lot of time in museums and churchyards and books and other people’s poems and lives and landscapes; because she has endless curiosity. That’s what research is like. And we could do a lot worse than follow the advice in the closing lines of  her poem Drawing the line

Look at these graves,
how they hold their names ready for us,
how we stoop to read with surprise
what, for centuries, has been lying at our feet.


Now, if you follow her poetry blog  [   https://juliemellorpoetsite.wordpress.com/   ] you’ll have noticed that recently that curiosity of hers has taken her through the streets of Sheffield and that particular graffiti have sent her off in unexpected direction. You might also notice that her verse form and lines have been more experimental, more risky; she’s changed gear. Which is a metaphor with more than one layer. Essentially she gives me hope, and I’m delighted that she’s back today to share new poems and to update us on what she’s been up to since she was here last. Here she is:

Julie lives near Sheffield and holds a PhD from Sheffield Hallam University. Her work has been widely published in magazines such as Ambit, Mslexia, The North, The Rialto and Stand. Her pamphlet, Breathing Through Our Bones was a Poetry Business pamphlet competition winner and was published by Smith/Doorstop in 2012. Her new pamphlet will be published by Smith/ Doorstop later this year. She writes:

“I’ve had the good fortune to be involved in lots of interesting and exciting things since I was last on your blog, John, including, in no particular order, the Urban Forest project lead by Oliver Mantell, Millstone Grit (an anthology edited by Rosemary Badcoe, Carolyn Waudby and Noel Williams), Voices in the Landscape (led by John Anstie and Ann Hamblyn at  Wentworth Castle, Stainborough) and currently, the Hear My Voice project in Barnsley, which has put on free readings and workshops by some stunning poets, including Suzannah Evans, Steve Ely and Helen Mort. I also completed the Poetry Business Writing School last May (a fantastic 18 month course run by Peter and Ann Samson).

I’m sending you three new poems which give a flavour of where my poetry is at the moment.

Ode to the Scar on my Wrist was commended in last year’s Ilkley Lit. Fest’s Walter Swan Trust poetry comp. judged by Andrew McMillan.

Darling, What If … was written at one of Nell Farell’s wonderful workshops at Abbeydale Industrial Hamlet (another group I was involved with last year). The poem also won second prize in the Nottingham Open, judged by Liz Berry.

Finally, I’ve included The Lodging House, which was first published in Stand magazine last Spring. Focussing on the last line of this poem has helped me clarify my thinking around my new pamphlet, so I have a bit of a soft spot for it!

Let’s start with the first one, which Julie featured on her own blog in January; her introduction to it couldn’t be more appropriate to the business I started this post with:


[Sheffield graffiti, artist unknown. Photograph by J. Mellor]

“As far as the New Year is concerned, I’m all for looking forward, rather than looking back. However, many of my recent poems have purposely involved looking back in order to try and make sense of the past and my place in it. The writing has taken a more personal turn, something that feels quite new to me, and at times difficult to manage. Sheffield’s graffiti continues to amaze and inspire me, as do the many wild poets out there. One of the books I received this Christmas was Patricia Lockwood’s Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals. I’m only 6 poems in and already I can tell you that it’s edgy, energetic, playful with language, and very aware (almost self-consciously so – and this is a strength) of the extraordinary power words have to unnerve and surprise us. What a gift!”

Ode to the Scar on my Wrist

Yellow stars of skin where the break was pinned,
a car crash, Hereford, student weekend
of Pernod and black, my friends,

Susan with the cowlick fringe,
her boyfriend from the Rhonda,
and Steve, who would run naked down any street

at midnight for a dare, all of us in a hire car,
speeding down that road with the hidden bend,
scream of wheels spinning mid air,

the roof crushed in the long roll down the bank
and us, after our minute’s silence,
clambering out with no more than a graze,

except for the compound fracture to my wrist,
and weren’t we the lucky ones, in love
with ourselves, the resilience of our bodies

taken for granted, and didn’t we drink ourselves
stupid the following night, quoting Talking Heads,
this ain’t no party, this ain’t no disco,

 this ain’t no fooling around, me with my arm in plaster,
flirting with the fireball from a box of matches,
a pub trick that set my face alight.

I see what she means about the poems taking a more personal turn; there’s a more immediately personal voice in this poem, too, something of a swagger, and also something of the trangressive. I’m much taken by these lines that colour the whole of the poem:
and weren’t we the lucky ones, in love
with ourselves, the resilience of our bodies

taken for granted, and didn’t we drink ourselves
stupid the following night

I love the double-edged ending: flirting with the fireball from a box of matches, / a pub trick that set my face alight.

The next poem strikes off in new directions, too. When I wrote about Julie’s poetry before, I focussed on the way so much of it was rooted in a clear-eyed process of fascinated research. This is a different, freer kind of fascination, I think. It’s a remarkably potent and liberating thing to simply say  ‘what if?’…and then follow it through:

( a PS. I was rechecking this post about 4 hours after it went out on Facebook and Twitter, and saw to my distress that whilst it was fine when I posted it, WordPress has, as it will, closed up all the stanza breaks. Nothing I have done persuades it to do as it’s told. I shall have one more go to make it right, but just in case, the line count of the stanzas is as follows: 1/4/4/2/4/2 )

Darling, What if …

What if I choose this one small fly, iridescent on the daisy’s white ruff.


What if I choose to follow it with my eye from flower to flower

as I sit on this bench, a wooden sleeper resting on two grindstones.

And what if other flies circle, for example, that fat atheist the bluebottle,

searching for something more akin to a shopping mall than a lawn.


What if nothing happens but sound, trains across the way

sliding in and out of town like pharmaceutical salesmen or lovers

who’ve met on the internet. What if the wind repeats rumours

of their wedding vows from mid-week town hall ceremonies.


What if the fly disappears, only for a minute, but completely,

dizzying blindly through a portal into another world.


I know this can’t happen, because a fly has a thousand eyes

and can’t go anywhere blindly. Imagine our world as it appears to the fly,

like a shop front on a 70s high street, stacked with t.v.s,

all tuned to the same channel.


This is the closest you’ll ever get to understanding, not being a fly,

but at least being able to picture it, the feeling inside my messed-up head.



I can leave you to speculate, if you wish, on who is the ‘darling’ of the poem, why it could be some sort of letter, and, indeed, why it’s being written. What I will hold on to at first, is its specificity, the  dreamlike clarity of its images. I loved the trains that slide in and out of town, like pharmaceutical salesmen. It’s an image that’s simultaneously funny and sinister. I think I’ll keep revisiting this poem, because bits of it insist on memorising themselves. And so to the last poem, whih has a different voice again, that improvises on shapes on the page, leaves (apparently) unaccountable gaps.

The Lodging House

after L.S. Lowry

Light burns above the doorway

grey as a pearl             faces queue

without bodies                        men whose lungs

are clogged with cotton dust

hands in empty pockets

tongues            without words

this is the time of day

when pigeons attempt to coo

where the breath moves

like a child amongst overcoats

and net curtains shift       against

the casual undressings of the heart.

I remember being entirely puzzled at the age of 17 by the regard in which my English teacher held the Imagists, how excited he got about early T S Eliot. I just thought it was pictures of things in streets. I think I know better now. That line about breath moving like a child among overcoats says as much as I care to think about suffocation, the negation of the purposes of breath. The shift of net curtains gives a textured physicality to the disturbance of  the figurative draught in the last line which seems like a bleak prohibition. Or not.

Anyway. I’m going to offer up my own personal thanks to Julie for coming back to the cobweb, and above all for reminding me that we can all change gear,and that it’s exciting.

I hope to see you next week. I think I’ll be musing on the business of residential poetry courses. Or not. Depends which gear I’m in.

Writing poems in the sleep of reason


I remember one of my uncles, a life-long trades unionist and old-style Labour man. He was an interesting man…he completed his OU degree when he was 80. He’d lived through the 1920s and 30s, and once told me that the cleverest thing the Tories ever did was to introduce the Giro. His argument was that when you were unemployed and drawing benefit, it came through the letterbox in an envelope. He said that when he was a young man in a time of mass-unemployment and poverty, men went to the Labour Exchange to draw the dole. There’d be queues along the pavement…what else was there to do? So there was an audience for the political activists of all persuasions. He said that was how people became politicised (unless they clung tenaciously to their membership of the Ragged Trousered Philanthropists Union).

I remembered that story when I was teaching A Level Communication Studies… getting students to critique the concept of Mass Media. I forget where I read it, but I came across an interesting argument to the effect that Goebbels understood the principle of Mass Media..one of his plans was to install loudspeakers on street corners where people would have to gather to listen to radio news. I thought of this when we considered the way the Indian government at one point financed the provision of a television in every village. The overt aim was to expand education and literacy. It’s easy to see how both systems were double-edged, but the point of my uncle’s argument held. No one would receive information in isolation, and so information would be shared and communal…and open to debate.

I’m not dewy-eyed about the vision BUT as someone who spends far too long on Facebook, I have no illusions that I’m using ‘social’ media, or ‘mass’ media. Media platforms now are essentially individuating, nucleating and isolating. If you read the posts on my Facebook page you’d imagine the world was made entirely of left-leaning, pro-feminist poets, runners, birdwatchers and landscape artists. Whereas when I go down to Sainsbury’s for my shopping and make myself read the front pages of the tabloids (and, indeed, the so-called quality papers) all I see is parallel universes where people speak a different language and live in a completely different country from the one I think is mine. We need no longer meet anyone who disagrees with us. I don’t have to make myself check out the Mail and the Express and the rest on a daily basis. But I do.

We can all ‘publish’ with little effort, and accumulate lots of ‘shares’ and ‘likes’ and smiley faces, and almost imagine we’re changing people’s minds. But on my bleak days, and there are many of those of late, I see that I’m at the bottom of a deep dry well, and I can shout all I like, but the only feedback I’ll get is the distorted echo of what I’ve just said. I wrote a very cross poem about this some time ago. It’s not a good poem, but it makes the point well enough:

Je suis Charlie

 (after:  ‘Known to the guards.’  Martina Evans )

in a week of men in black

with guns as big as motorbikes

in Kevlar vests in black boots

in helmets like the eyes of flies

in the chatter of static

and breathless newsmen

recycling scraps of film and tape

and sputtering phone-in

solutions no one wants to listen to

to problems no one can articulate

and Facebook Shares, emoticons

and cursor clicks that tell the world

Je Suis Charlie

in weeks like these

how can anyone say anything

when after all, our number’s up

and all of us are in the lenses

of a million cameras

and all of us are known

to the guards

who have the guns

and the vans and the planes

and can guard none of us from anything

and who will keep us from each other ?


I feel much the same about aspects of the online chatter about poetry…who’s in, who’s out, who’s won and who’s lost, the febrile to-and-fro about the Forward or the T S Eliot or about the effrontery of a white poet who tried to inhabit a black voice. And so on and so on. Meanwhile, children are being starved and burned, mosques are razed to the ground,  a monstrously unstable bigot is the President of the USA, and I’m invited to considered evident nonsense like ‘post-truth’ or alternative fact’ as part of a meaningful discourse rather than a thoroughgoing attack on the very purposes of language.

Yesterday I spent the day with many people I’m very fond of, reading and writing poems, and I found it all very difficult. Why were we there?  What did we think we were accomplishing? Let me rush to say that I have no intention of giving up, but sometimes I need to get it in proportion. And there’s no irony in the fact that when I set out to do that, I’ll turn to poets as readily as to anyone else. More readily in fact.

I’ll turn, say to Bob Dylan, and go along with idea that he articulated the anger and aspirations of a generation at point in history, when he could sing for Civil Rights marchers, and in Washington for Martin Luther King. Songs like The times they are a changing,  The lonesome death of Hattie Carroll,  the Ballad of Hollis Brown. I think I thought, at the time, that the songs were changing the world. Not that they were articulating a change that other people were making by direct action and incredible acts of physical and moral courage. I remind myself that he’d probably have vanished without trace at the time of MacCarthy, because not enough people would have been ready to listen, and in any case, no one would have broadcast him. There were wonderful things written in the Soviet Union under Stalin and later, but they circulated in secret as samizdat.  Thing is, I don’t ever want to forget that Dylan also wrote this:


“It’s a restless hungry feeling

That don’t mean no one no good

When everything I’m a-sayin’

You can say it just as good

You’re right from your side

I am right from mine

We’re both just one too many mornings

And a thousand miles behind”

[One too many mornings]


That’s how I felt yesterday….everything I’m saying, you can say it just as good. Or much better. And who’s listening, and why should they care?  I’m over that for now, but I recognise the irony of writing about the pointlessness of writing. The point is, I think, that Dylan wrote it, and hey, I can’t write it just as good. Which is why I’m borrowing his words.

There’s a demagogue in the White House and millions have marched to protest it. The news media can manipulate that, and they do. They can edit out events, because whoever controls the past controls the future. They can, with apparent impunity, present lies and call them alternative facts. The chattering and privileged classes can have elegant arguments about the concept of ‘post truth’ without ever saying simply that it’s an obscenity. If we don’t hang on to the true purpose of language which is the business of true naming, then we are lost. Auden didn’t bring down Hiltler, but he articulated the essential nature of tyranny that lets us truly name a monstrosity like Donald Trump.

Epitaph on a tyrant

Perfection, of a kind, was what he was after,
And the poetry he invented was easy to understand;
He knew human folly like the back of his hand,
And was greatly interested in armies and fleets;
When he laughed, respectable senators burst with laughter,
And when he cried the little children died in the streets.


And the poetry he invented was easy to understand.  There’s a line to cling to. Life is wonderfully and terribly complicated and muddled and difficult. Tyrants understand that language needs to be used to simplify, and to reassure the ones they seek to control that they can make the world comforting and comprehensible. Brexit means Brexit. Give us back our country. You know why Corbyn is unpopular…because he keeps saying it’s not simple, it’s not easy, it’s muddled. He must be muddled, mustn’t he? Weak. As opposed to ‘not a tyrant’.

I suspect that poetry is sometimes used in a potent way to suggest that everything will be OK in the long run. There must be thousands of people who know little about poetry, but who have somehow come across this bit of Shelley.




I met a traveller from an antique land,

Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone

Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,

Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,

And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,

Tell that its sculptor well those passions read

Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,

The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;

And on the pedestal, these words appear:

My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;

Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay

Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare

The lone and level sands stretch far away.”


You know what?  I remember at the age of 15 or so the excitement of realising how irony worked. ‘Look on my works ye mighty, and despair’ . Hitler and Stalin were both dead by then. Which, I thought, proved the point. Tyranny won’t survive. I guess I didn’t read the rest with any real attention. Nothing beside remains. That fallen statue lies in a wasteland of the King’s making. There are no people. Nothing grows. I didn’t see that, maybe, I should look on that and despair; that the past was irredeemable. We read and we hear what we want to hear. Oddly this makes me want to kick out of the despair, and to write. Because if I know anything, it’s that if  I really write…if I really pursue the business of true naming… I may just find that I know things that I didn’t know I knew, or that I would never acknowledge, and I might know the world better. If that speaks to someone else, then that’s a bonus. But perhaps I’m coming to believe that my first reponsibility is myself, and my health depends on speaking truly.

I know this is an incoherent post for a Sunday. Still, I’m inclined to believe that when Matthew Arnold wrote Dover Beach his first purpose was to understand his own spiritual despair…and I’m inclined to think it was in the process of writing that he discovered that there was an answer to that despair.

“The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long withdrawing roar,
Retreating to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.


North facing shingle beach looking out across rough sea and surf, Kingston, Moray, Scotland

One hundred and forty years ago, ignorant armies clashed by night, and the world was a darkling plain. Sounds familiar? So why am I reading it again, and finding a reason to keep writing. Hasn’t it all been said before, and better? Wasn’t Dylan right? Yes and no…there’s a line I can cling to, like a life raft in a cold sea. It’s not remarkable, except that it’s said in a spirit of apparent hopelessness.

Ah, love, let us be true to one another!

Because if we can’t do that, then we are truly lost. And how  can we be true if we can’t say how. Which is why I’ll go on writing, whether anyone reads it or not.