NaPoWriMo: Breaking Point

wave 2

Just past the half way point of Poem-a day-April. Starters from Carrie Etter. Starters from Jo Bell. More starters than you can shake a stick at. I’m going to stick at the business of fine-tuning and editing whatever your starters have turned up. Last week it was first lines. This week it’s line breaks. So, no ideas for new poems. Just things to think about once you’ve got drafts you think may have legs.

Just one thing before we get started properly. At the end of the day, you really hope someone is going to read what you’ve written, and someone’s going to care, someone’s going to be moved, someone’s going to be entertained, or brought to tears, or to see the world just that bit differently. Otherwise, what’s it for? You really hope someone will like it enough to publish it, and you’ll put up with all the polite ‘thanks for sending us your poems but……..’ for joy of the one that says ‘we loved your work and we can’t wait to publish it.’

I was mithering some time ago about the frustrations of having won a competition, the prize for which was to have a collection published. The frustrations came from long delays and unanswered emails, the feeling that perhaps it had all been a mistake or a dream. And then, yesterday, what arrived but the proofs. There it was, with all its lovely stuff about moral rights asserted, its ISBN, its pages for dedications and acknowledgements, its Contents page…80 lovely pages. It’s a collection, what’s more, that came out of a collaboration with one of my ex-Sixth Form students, Andy Blackford. Not having seen each other for 45 years, we set out to swap a poem a week for a year, workshopping and critiquing as we went. And just like everyone up to their poetic oxters in NaPoWriMo we had no idea what would become of it. It was enough to be writing for each other. So hold on to that thought as you struggle with a nonet or a pantoum today, and maybe all your dreams will come true. I’ll make a wish for you.

Right. Line breaks. This will be a slightly edited version of a post I wrote some time ago. I hope it’ll be useful.

There should be a reason why every line ends where it does.

Contrary to the truth universally acknowledged that British children aren’t taught standard English and the conventions of writing it down, here’s the actual truth.. What they HAVE to be taught has been there in black and white in the Framework for the Literacy Hour for years. Politicians don’t trouble themselves with this kind of detail. Maybe they should. So spare a thought for the teachers of 4-7 year olds who have to make sure that young children know how to use a full stop correctly. And, as a corollary,that they have grasped the concept of a sentence sufficiently for them to recognise one when they’ve written it. Think for a moment about that. You know a sentence when you see one. You just read some. Now tell yourself what a sentence is, or what it has to do to be a sentence. Maybe you say it has to have a finite verb in it. Forget for a moment how you’d set about explaining that to a 6 year old. Now get a copy of Bleak House, open it at chapter one and read the first 30 lines or so. Lots of full stops. Sentences like these.


Implacable November weather.

Fog everywhere.   

Not a finite verb in sight. Why does it work? Because these are oral sentences, written down. All grammars leak. So keep this in mind while I spend a Sunday ruminating on the business of when a poem is or isn’t a poem, and how curious and puzzling and endlessly shifting is this business of lines and line breaks. And I’m going to start with (and maybe stay with) punctuation.

jane austen letter

Think about this handwritten letter. I assume it’s in sentences….Jane Austen wrote it. I wouldn’t like to proof read the punctuation, though, because the words are close together. You don’t just need space around words, but space between them. White space is punctuation, and you need white space to put those visually insignificant punctuation marks in. The more white space you have, the easier it is. Here’s a thing. 5 and 6 year olds have to learn how to write instructional texts, and the easiest way to to get them started is to write recipes.

What’s the first thing?

Ingredients. And equipment.

You will need.    

What comes next?    A colon.  You will need:

What next?

A new line.

And then you can write a list.

What comes between items in a list?


Or, even more fun,

*Bullet points.

A new line for each.

See how the white space lets you see clearly. And what next? Instructions. A numbered list, and a new line for each number.

  1. Take three eggs, and separate the yolks and the whites. (Full stop)….and so on.

You don’t need to define a verb (and I can’t anyway. I can tell you what it does). In each line, it’ll be the first word in the sentence. But the text you produce will be easy to read because there’ll be a lot of white space. The space shows you how to read.  The text will look a bit poem-like, because it it’ll have a justified left margin and a raggedy right-hand margin.Hold on to that.

Now, a different kind of thought. Here’s a couple of pages from Dickens.


One thing I used to tell A level students (and, indeed, undergraduates) who were daunted by 500 page novels, was that dialogue moves the narrative and the plot along, so you can’t ignore it. On the other hand, a densely printed stretch of text is likely to be reflective or descriptive, and if you’re reading a 19thC novel in particular, the first sentence of the paragraph should tell you what’s in the paragraph, and you can ignore the rest. (This is just for a first reading, to get the shape and sweep in your mind, you understand…I never did synopses or Coles notes). What you rely on is the amount of empty space. If there’s a lot of it, you can’t ignore the text. This is hard on Thomas Hardy, but there you go.

‘And your point….?’ I hear you ask. I guess it’s that poetry is largely empty spaces round not a lot of words, and that there’s no hiding place for any word that’s not doing a job. And also that you become very conscious, as a reader, of the curious tension between what your eye tells you and what your ear tells you, and, for me, this is one of the great pleasures of poetry. One the other hand, as a writer, it’s one of the things that frightens me, because I can hardly ever explain to myself why I make a line break where I do, except that it sounds right. ‘Sounds’ rather than ‘feels’, although that’s at work too. Whatever it means.

You have to admit that working in traditional forms can often solve that problem, whatever other technical problems it creates. Iambic pentameters/ blank verse…wonderful. Close to natural speech rhythms, di DUM di DUM …five of them…and end on a stressed syllable. Line breaks? Sorted. Syllabics? Haiku? Sorted. Any rhyming poetry and you have the line-breaks for every rhyming line.

Then along comes Modernism, with its ears finely attuned to the strict rhythms of all the traditions that fed it, and careful craft apprenticships of its inventors, so it knew just which rules it was breaking, and why.

Along comes Free Verse. There’s a seductively misleading name for you. Same in the visual arts, of course. Picasso and Braque and Matisse and the rest could all handle paint and line and perspective. They served their time and knew what the rules were stopping them doing and just how to break them and why.

If you want an impassioned and wholly idiosyncratic take on this you could do a lot worse than spend 20 minutes with Bob Dylan’s musings on 50-odd years in the business of singer-songwriting. It’s a sort of ‘Tradition and the individual talent’ lecture, but a lot more fun than T S Eliot. Just Google Bob Dylan Musicares speech. You will not for a second regret it. What he constantly returns to is the trope that everything he ever created he learned from repeated absorption in other writers’ work., in older traditions. Here’s a flavour of what he said…it’s even better to listen to

These songs didn’t come out of thin air. I didn’t just make them up out of whole cloth. Contrary to what Lou Levy said, there was a precedent. It all came out of traditional music: traditional folk music, traditional rock ‘n’ roll and traditional big-band swing orchestra music.
I learned lyrics and how to write them from listening to folk songs. And I played them, and I met other people that played them back when nobody was doing it. Sang nothing but these folk songs, and they gave me the code for everything that’s fair game, that everything belongs to everyone.
For three or four years all I listened to were folk standards. I went to sleep singing folk songs. I sang them everywhere, clubs, parties, bars, coffeehouses, fields, festivals. And I met other singers along the way who did the same thing and we just learned songs from each other. I could learn one song and sing it next in an hour if I’d heard it just once.
If you sang “John Henry” as many times as me — “John Henry was a steel-driving man / Died with a hammer in his hand / John Henry said a man ain’t nothin’ but a man / Before I let that steam drill drive me down / I’ll die with that hammer in my hand.”
If you had sung that song as many times as I did, you’d have written “How many roads must a man walk down?” too.

Here’s a legend (yes he is) who is clear about what’s obvious. The more you listen, the better you hear. The more you practise, the easier it will look. There’s no short cuts.

Problem is, of course, you may not have fifty years to spare; I certainly don’t. And that still leaves us with the business of the free verse most of us are wedded to in one form or another, or unrhymed irregular stanzas, or whatever. And line breaks. I’ve honestly tried to get to grips with it, to get beyond the intuition of the ear, and the feel of internal rhythms. Pasted into the back cover of one of my workbooks is a photocopy of an article by Dana Gioia (I Googled him).

‘Thirteen ways of thinking about the poetic line’.

Every now and then I have the feeling that I sort of get it, but more often I have the same sense of hopelessness I got from Euclidean geometry when I was eleven. I ‘got’ the first couple of axioms, but when I tried to see how they all interacted they turned into wool. It’s still worth struggling with it. Line by line it all seems like commonsense. Have a go. See what you think. I like Number 4.

There should be a reason why every line ends where it does.

Yup. I’ll vote for that. Also for number 13.

The line break is nearly always audible (and always visible) even if only as a tiny pause or echo.

I really ‘get’’s that business of the tension between what your eye and your ear are simultaneously telling you. It says you have to listen.

What else? I’ve had workshops with Mimi Khalvati and with Jane Draycott, both of whom seem exquisitely at ease with the technicalities of form and line. Mimi even startled me by counting the lines of one of my poems, and declaring herself happy to find there were 26. I still don’t get it. At the end of the day, for all the elegance of their analyses, what I carried away was the awareness that it was coming down to the fact that they had more finely attuned ears than mine, that they could spot the tiniest of bum notes when I couldn’t. And perhaps that Dylan has it right. You just have to get on and do it and listen as hard as you can to as much poetry as you can.

But here’s a game you might like to play. It comes out of my genuine puzzlement about prosepoems, about my inability to see what they’re for. (I guess Carrie Etter will put me right on that).  One of the reasons for this is that I’ve been reading a lot of Hilary Mantel of late, and being struck, again and again and again, how much of her prose actually seems to be veined with what feel and sound like poems. (Whatever that means). How about this from ** The giant, O’Brien.

The Giant: ‘If only I could get a good poet. Somebody to recite at him. A good poet can recite a man to death. A poet takes a person’s earlobe between his finger and thumb and grinds it, and straight away that person dies. With a wisp of straw and a cross word they drive a man demented. They chew flesh and set it on the threshold and when a man steps over it he drops to his knees and expires.

The poet has his memorial in repetition, and the statesman in stone and bronze. The scholar’s hand lies always on his book and the thinker’s eyes on canvas travel the room to rest on each human face; the rebel has his ballad and his cross, his bigot’s garland, his wreath of rope. But for the poor man and the giant there is the scrubbed wooden slab and the slop bucket, there is the cauldron and the boiling pot, and the dunghill for his lights; so he is a stench in the nose for a day or a week, so he is a no-name, so he is oblivion. Stories cannot save him. When human memory runs out, there is the memory of animals; behind that the memory of the plants, and behind that the memory of the rocks. But the winds and the sea wear the rocks away, and the cell-line runs to its limit, where meaning falls away from it, and it loses knowledge of its own nature. Unless we plead on our knees with history, we are done for, we are lost. We must step sideways, into that country where space plaits and knots, where time folds and twists: where the years pass in a day.

Just take that first paragraph, and think what happens if you put line breaks in it. Like this:

A good poet

can recite a man to death.

A poet takes a person’s earlobe

between his finger

and thumb

and grinds it

and straight away that person dies.

With a wisp of straw

and a cross word

they drive a man demented.

They chew flesh and set it

on the threshold

and when a man steps over it

he drops to his knees and expires


Why those line breaks?   What changes if you make the lines longer?


A good poet

A good poet can recite a man to death.

A poet takes a person’s earlobe between

his finger and thumb and grinds it

and straight away that person dies.

With a wisp of straw and a cross word

they drive a man demented. They chew flesh

and set it on the threshold

and when a man steps over it

he drops to his kness and expires.


What have you got that the prose hasn’t? What have you lost, if anything, that the first version had? I think it’s flatter. Less engaged, more ‘reasonable’, less angry. Or try the second paragraph, or at least part of it:

But for the poor man and the giant
there is the scrubbed wooden slab
and the slop bucket,
there is the cauldron
and the boiling pot,
and the dunghill for his lights;
so he is a stench in the nose for a day or a week,
so he is a no-name,
so he is oblivion.
Stories cannot save him.

Maybe it’s because most of my first drafts come from writers’ workshops where I write flat-out in continuous ‘prose’ that I feel comfortable with this kind of game. Except that it isn’t prose, any more than these extracts from Hilary Mantel are prosaically prose. There must be some kind of governing rhythm in there that comes from things like repetitions of all kinds. Maybe it’s a question of learning to listen for it and its tricks. Anyway, if your Sunday is lacking spice, have a go with this game. At least, unlike Milton and Browning and all the other indefatigable toilers, you’ve got a word processor that lets you create version after version at the touch of a key. Aren’t we the lucky ones?

I hope you’re all on the crest of a wave this Easter. Keep riding it. No wipeouts.


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


NaPoWriMo: first line nerves

poet 1.jpg

What is it about portraitists  and poets ….that default pose of prophetic pensiveness? Less so with photographers, I suppose, but painters just can’t help themselves. I think that they think that they’re immortalising visionaries, all tremblingly open to the arrival of the Muse in a whisper of flame and plumage. What I see is the blank-eyed terror of the creature in the headlights. It’s very layered, isn’t it, that apparently youthfully-dismissive line of Keats? ”If poetry doesn’t come as naturally as the leaves to the tree then it had better not come at all.” Something like that. Think on, though. You can’t force a poem to be, can you? And meanwhile, there’s that screen or that sheet of blank accusing paper.

empty page

The empty page. I got the germ of this post from a post by Josephine Corcoran…it was about her trusty fountain pen, and boy, did it attract some responses! It struck me just how fussy I am about getting myself in the way of writing anything. I’m a pen and paper person. I don’t compose on a screen usually (though I seem quite happy to be writing this straight on to the screen; maybe that’s because it’s a sort of rambling essay, and I can go with the flow) and I certainly don’t write the first drafts of poems on a screen. Or in pencil..maybe, because that seems just too provisional and uncommitted. There’s nothing provisional about ink. Oh, and the pen and the paper have to get on well together. For years and years I would only write on unlined A4 paper, with a stainless steel Parker fountain pen. And only EVER in black ink. Don’t you agree: A5 and blue ink/biro make you think, inexorably, of Basildon Bond?…you couldn’t be writing poems on that. But then I dropped the pen and bust the nib (fine point, by the way…more friction, cleaner line, more fluency for less effort) and replacements wouldn’t wear into the smoothness of line I loved. Then I discovered Stabilo fine point felt-tip pens, and have stuck with them ever since. They are beautiful. Recently I have stopped writing only in black, and gone all frivolous with dark greens and browns and port-wine reds. I make my own notebooks…A4…and for some reason, I switched to lined paper. Maybe it was because I could buy stocks of ready-folded, lined A3 and it was easier to measure up the spaces for the kettlestitching. That’s where we are at the moment. A4 lined notebooks, fine-point Stabilo pens and a range of subdued colour. Sad innit? It’s like footballers and their lucky underpants/socks/bobble hat. But I swear I can’t settle to writing poems without the right gear.

So, here we are. Sitting at desk. Radio 2 (I can’t think in silence or in noise that’s interesting).Coffee. Notebook(s). The right kind of pen. Workshop notes in another lot of notebooks…draft poems have to have their own notebook. And a blank page. And………………

I hear the whisper of the dying Kurtz . The horror……the horror……..And tell me, all you poets, why should that be? Perhaps for you it isn’t. But it is for me. Why not just start writing, anything, anything at all, no matter what?

(At this point I wander off, downstairs, into the garden.)

(And, after some unspecified time, I wander back)

Right. Where was I? Shouldn’t go laying pavers’ blocks in the middle of a cobweb ramble. But it is all hot and sunny outside. Ah, yes. I know where I was. Before I even read Josephine Corcoran’s  post, someone else had planted an idea firmly in the front of my mind, and it won’t go away. Thank you, Mimi Khalvati. This is roughly what she said:

The first line of the poem contains the DNA of that poem.

It deserves its attention-demanding space, does that. She had said a lot of other incisive things in her workshops, about line  and stanza breaks, and the tricks they play, but this is the one that shouldered its way to the front of the queue. It made me think of the first sentences of novels. Bleak House, for instance:

‘ London.’

That’s the sentence. That’s where we are, and as sure as eggs is eggs, that’s where we’ll spend a good deal of time. Why write it, otherwise? Then, first sentence of paragraph two:

‘Fog everywhere’.

Well, we’re not going to be in a world of moral or topographic certainty, now are we? Dickens is committed, and so are we. An even more disturbing first sentence,I think, is in D.H.Lawrence : The Rainbow. Here it is:

‘The Brangwens had lived for generations on the Marsh Farm’.

If that doesn’t make you shiver involuntarily, then you’re not listening; because they’re not going to live unchanged and comfortable for very much longer are they? Changes are coming, and they are hardly likely to be comfortable ones, otherwise the novel will very soon end.

‘The Brangwens had lived for generations on the Marsh Farm, and because they had the hang of it and were quite happy, they went on living like that.’

That’s not got legs, has it? But just try to think your self into David Herbert’s head, looking at the blank sheet, and dreading writing that first sentence, because he knows that once he’s done it, his feet are set on the track, and he’s handed over all sorts of freedom and choice, for thousands and thousands of words. Who’d be a novelist, eh?

And then I started to think: but it’s even more critical in a poem, isn’t it, because there’s nowhere to hide. You’ve got maybe 10 – 20 lines, and you’ve got to grab your reader, and you’ve got to surprise and intrigue, and you daren’t give the game away too soon, and anyway, you don’t know what the game is till it’s over and you’ve lost or won. And then I began to think: it’s not even the first line. It’s worse than that. It’s actually the first word. Unusually, I started to make notes, scribble ideas, knock together a list…all very speculative, but it’s what I’m going to share if you can spare me the time. Comfortable? Here we go. What I’m going to do is work through the word classes (I know that they used to be called ‘parts of speech’ but actually they’re not…they’re parts of sentences. Of course, if you’re 10 years old, or a Primary teacher, then you are a graduate of the Literacy Hour, and you already knew that). Let’s see where we get to.



You will notice there’s just been an empty space. It is significant and symbolic. There’s been a gap, while I tried to make up my mind whether it was worth carrying on. Not existentially..just carrying on with this cobweb post. Thinking too precisely on the event. Prevaricating. That sort of thing. Is it going to work? have you thought this through? who wants to know, and why would they and hasn’t it all been said before and isn’t it all just a bit prententious? That sort of thing. Sod it. Here goes.

It’s all about syntax. English is all about word order, and poetry loves to play around with that to see what happens. So what’s the first bit of word language we handle? What’s the bit you learn first in a foreign language. Nouns. (And ‘that one’). As we say to the children: a noun tells you what the sentence is about. So how often is a noun the first word in any of your poems? What I did at this point was open Norman MacCaig’s Collected Poems at random (in a sequence from the late 1970’s as it happens) and copy the first lines of 30 consecutive poems. How many start with a noun? Four. That’s more than I expected:

Travelling’s fine – the stars tell me that

Everywhere place names          

Petitions pour into the Big House            

Reality isn’t what it used to be

Now, what strikes me is that they’e actually interesting nouns BUT the lines all sound more like titles than first lines…or that they’d make great titles. It’s what nouns do. And what comes along with nouns? Determiners, that’s what. (At this point I can hear the hot breath of former pupil and university lecturer in Linguistics, Anthea Fraser Gupta, on my neck…but I’ll press on and damn the consequences). You might not call them that, but they are all those useful/necessary little words…..a/the/those/this/my/her/many/ three(or any number word) and the rest. Now, how often is one of these the first word? MacCaig again:

The last word this one spoke                

That sun ray has raced to us            

That cold man with bad poems            

That green alone                                                                                                                                

The dunnock in the hedge                 

The countless generations                     

A cubic inch of some stars  

It gets me thinking. It seems that MacCaig is likelier to say ‘that’ than ‘this’ (but don’t hold me to that!) ; he’s certainly drawn to the assertive ‘that’, and ‘that’ carries more baggage than ‘the’ doesn’t it?  ‘The‘ is uncompromising too, of course. It knows where it is . The Brangwens. The pig lay on the barrow dead. ‘A‘ is always going to sound more tentative, more abstract, less assertive.. But whichever you choose will be followed by a noun or a noun phrase. English syntax makes sure of that. You’re going to play your hand early in the poem with a noun, determiners or not. Is that what you want? Mind you, we were wise enough to invent words that would do instead of nouns, and save us a lot of repetition. Pronouns, clever little workhorses. he/she/I/they/them/you/me….they can’t all be the first word in a poem, unless you’re being really subversive, but which do you favour? MacCaig at random, again.

They sit at their long tables                

You have to be stubborn             

You have more nicknames than legs         

I think of Lycidas, drowned     

I feel miserable, acting                                                            

I see an adder    

I like the almost perceptibles         

I thought they needed no Women’s Lib             

I don’t want to shuffle in a Greek theatre

This list surprised me. All those ‘I‘s’. You have to feel pretty sure of yourelf to get away with that,don’t you? Or have been steadily published for 30 years like MacCaig was then. Whatever, you have to be reflective, in some way or another, and I’m sort of suspicious of a poem starting with ‘I‘. Maybe it’s an English thing. ‘You’ is more interesting, because of the ambiguity..maybe it’s a way of avoiding ‘I’…a quick way of pretending objectivity. He/she/they are good because they are, however minutely, suspenseful; the reader is forced to read at least a bit more to find what they refer to. They don’t give the game away.

What about verbs, which tell you what’s happening in the sentence. How often is the first word of a poem a verb (not nouns like running, thinking, singing)? Odds on it’ll be a directive, an an instruction. MacCaig:       Stop looking like a purse.    That’s the only one, and it’s from my favourite toad poem. I just had second thoughts. It doesn’t have to be  a directive, does it. It could be a question, a request. Can (I)? May (I)? Might….? Or it could be sort of tentative: Let (me/us). Need to think about that. About the only one I found in my own stuff was      Listen.  Why should that be? I don’t know. If you have thoughts on this, then please share them.  Similarly, adjectives. Only one instance in my random MacCaig survey. Heartless, musical Ariel. Hard to manage an adjective as a first word.

Now then, the next bit’s slightly more complicated, so I’m going to bundle up a number of things together, and think about adverbials and adjectivals. Single words, and chunks…..phrases, clauses. I’ll be thinking about connectives at the same time. I’ve noticed that more and more of late, one of these three words will be the first in a first draft, and, often, in the nonstop of a workshop exercise I’ll start with  and   /    but   /    so. Really handy for cracking on , but also dangerously addictive. They give me a false sense of security and a spurious air of cocky self-confidence; they seem to say: ‘no need to introduce myself. I know you’ll be interested, because here I am in the middle of this fascinating stream of consciousness, and how could you not want to join me?’ As in

So I’m thinking of Ted Hughes’ gritstone house/ that tunnel of a yard, its slippery flags

which implies: ‘ you should be thinking: why’s he thinking of that? gosh, I simply have to find out’. Bingo. Am I seeing it more often in other people’s poetry? I’m not sure..but it’s catching. I’m certainly seeing lots more list poems these days and, as a consequence, lots more lines beginning with ‘and’. I sometimes wonder if everyone has done at least one workshop exercise based on Walt Whitman’s ‘Prayer for those who…..’ Oops….. I see I’m starting to go off-piste. Sure sign I should be stopping soon. OK. Adverbials, which tell us more about the verb. The where and the when and the how and the why…the warp and weft of narrative. Last bits of MacCaig, then:

Where the small burn /runs into the sea          

From its distance         

Though I’m in sunlight          

Under the broad flat stone        

When her life broke into smithereens                  

Everywhere places/ jut up  ( I know we’ve had this before, but the nice thing about words is that they do more than one kind of job. All grammars leak, said Edward Sapir, the linguist)


You could make a longer list, but the point is that they all start  longer, more complex sentences or trains of thought or lists. I think I’m always more comfortable writing any of these as a first word because it will be telling me that I have an idea in mind, and at least for a couple of lines I know where I’m going. It’ll let me know I’m going to write a story, or create a landscape, or explain someting, or have an argument. And that, I think, is what I’ve understood of Mimi Khalvati’s numinous phrase. The first line of a poem contains the DNA of that poem. If it doesn’t, it shouldn’t be the first line.

Now, none of this is of any use when you’re doing a first draft (and in any case you might be better off just writing unpunctuated prose and leaving all the fiddly stuff for later). I think what Mimi Khalvati has done for me is give me new tools in the tool bag. Redrafting tools. Reading tools. Evaluating tools. None of them stop the empty page looking any less daunting, and none of them will give you anything to say. Neither will staring at an empty page.

Now, I’m assuming we’ve been thinking about a stage when we’ve got past wondering what to write about, and actually made a start. You get your idea or someone gives you a prompt (kind people, like Carrie Etter, and Jo Bell, for instance) and then you write fast, without thinking. Preferably without stopping, without spaces or lines breaks, just to see what will happen. Mine look like this; they look orderly but that’s just because they look orderly.


You leave it for a bit, let it marinade, and then start thinking about making it into a poem (if it has legs, if it has flavour, if it’s intriguing you…never mind anyone else. Start to think about them, and you’re dead in the water)


Just thought. I never mentioned ‘Maybe’  Of late, I’ve found myself starting first lines with ‘maybe’. Forget the gardening and write a new poem? Maybe.

NaPoWriMo: Poem-a-day April…and poetry competitions (especially the Red Shed)

roulette wheel

It occurs to me on a sunny Day 5 of the poem-a-day marathon, that one group I’ve joined [Carrie Etter’s group] will write over 4000 poems by the end of the month, assuming every member sticks to it. So I’m guessing that there’s a statistical chance that some prize-winning poems will emerge from their chrysalisses, flirting and gorgeously-hued. Of course, for them to win prizes, they need to be entered in competitions.

So here’s midweek Great Fogginzo’s Cobweb strand, urging you to have a go at the Red Shed competition, this year judged by the lovely Di Slaney. And to help you on your way, I’m reposting a strand I wrote at this time last year. Because it may be useful if you’re tweaking poems you wrote under the daily pressure, and you think may go the distance, and it may give you an idea or two about the ins and outs of poetry competitions if you’ve not entered one before. Ready? Here we go…………………………….

Let’s get something out of the way right from the beginning. The odds of your winning a poetry competition are dramatically increased if you enter. Simultaneously, so are the chances of losing, but not by the same amount. And I guess most of us don’t buy a Lottery ticket expecting to win. If you’re like me, you buy yourself a dream.

But let me share with you my reasons for entering poetry competitions, because I hope I’ll persuade you to enter at least one.  Which one is it? It’s The Red Shed Poetry Competition, which is organised by the Currock Press..Why? Because Di Slaney is judging will be launched by the lovely man behind The Currock Press, the poet, story-writer, co-organiser of The Red Shed Poetry Readings in Wakefield, and writing tutor, John Clarke. You can look out for it being publicised via Facebook, and sites like Write out Loud and Spoken Word. Amazingly for the Northern fastnesses of this fair kingdom you’ll be able to pay by Paypal. Which is nice. Or in kind, if you’re into barter.

In earlier posts on the cobweb, I’ve riffed on my own reasons for entering competitions. First comes the dream. What next? I look out for competitions run by small publishers, because when you pay for your entry, you’re in a win-win situation. Your entry fee is going to keep these small concerns alive…I’m thinking of ones like Prole and The interpreter’s house especially. Or you may be helping to promote a small festival, like Havant. The point is, you’re not wasting your money.

Next thing is: who’ll be judging the competition. With the small presses, I don’t mind, …although in this case, I’ll make an exception, because I’m a fan of Di Slaney’s poetry anyway; however, when it comes to medium and high-profile affairs then what’s important to me is whether I like that poet’s work. Why? Because part of the dream is not anything to do with money (and there’s often not a lot of that involved) but the thought that my work is going to be read by someone I admire and from whom I’ve learned. If the judge’s work is not the sort of thing that floats my boat, then I don’t enter, because I guess that more likely than not, it’s going to be mutual. For example, if Pascale Petit were to judge a competition I’d enter like a shot, but not if it was someone who went in for avant-garde shapes on the page. It’s just how I am. I certainly think twice about competitions where the work is filtered by a selection committee before it reaches the star judge….The Bridport comes to mind….but they’re likely to be the ones with big prize money. For my money, I’d say that if it doesn’t guarantee the judge reads all the entries (as, say, Simon Armitage did for the McClellan) then I’d not bother. But take your choice….it’s up to you.

Is there anything else? I’m personally attracted to competitions which offer publication of your work as a prize. Some will guarantee that runners-up will appear in their magazine (as in The Rialto/ RSPB), but I’m thinking particularly of the Camden/Lumen, where the prize is publication of a perfect-bound chapbook of your work. How good is that? Check it out, immediately. What’s more, this competition uses your entry fee to support the Caris Camden charity that provides winter night shelters in the Borough. Win-win.

Finally, some poets I know will tell me they would rather submit to magazines. My answer is always that it’s not an either/or choice. I do both. But I know I’m always less disappointed by not winning a competition than getting ‘sorry, but no thank-you’ emails from magazine editors. I get a lot of those. I suppose it’s because I don’t expect to win a competition, but I’m absolutely convinced that Magma, The Rialto and the rest would be mad not to jump at the chance of publishing my poems.

Anyway, let’s suppose I’ve persuaded you. What advice can I give?

I’ve thought hard and long about this, ever since John Clarke asked me to judge The Red Shed last year. I’ve had a lot of success in competitions. I’ve had poems chosen by Andrew Motion (twice), Liz Lochhead, Blake Morrison, Billy Collins, and Simon Armitage (twice). I have not caught the eye of Carrie Etter, Alison Brackenbury, Jo Bell, George Szirtes or Roger McGough (though with the latter, he probably never got to see it…it’s a huge comp, The Bridport). It’s hard to see that they have much in common apart from being immensely talented, and being poets I love to read.

What about the poems? I can’t see any pattern there, either. I sort of thought that most of them had been narratives of one sort or another, but when I check, I find it’s not exactly true. It’s a variety of elegaic, historical/political, mythic, anecdotal, and biographical. Possibly it’s a list that’s light on the lyrical. There are poems about Ted and Sylvia, Milton’s daughter,selkies, suffragettes, cocklepickers, cutting hair, a 10thC princess, Everest, and the plumage trade. They’re not all in the same voice. One is in the voice of a witch, another of a crucifixion expert. They’re all shapes and sizes. What it comes down to, I suppose, is that there was something in each that caught the eye, or the ear and ‘stuck’. Carole Bromley, who has judged the YorkMix Competition for four years, had to read 1800 entries in 2016, and tells me (and I paraphrase)

it just jumps out, it’s an instinctive thing…but you know it when you see it

And that leads me to the one piece of advice that I’m totally convinced about. You don’t try to second-guess the judge. Because she, or he, simply doesn’t know. I could tell you who my favourite poets are, but I doubt it would help. Vernon Scannell, Charles Causley, Tony Harrison, John Donne, Milton, Pope, Bob Dylan, Christy Ducker, Kim Moore, Roger McGough. Blank verse, free verse, quatrains, sonnets, rhyming couplets, multiple rhymes. It’s not a question of this or that form. But judges all know when something jumps off the page. So what sort of things are we talking about?

None of this will be unexpected, I think, or new. I can only tell you what makes me pause as I look through a collection, what makes me want to buy it.


They don’t win competitions but they can snag the attention. Ones that explain exactly what the poem is about don’t do that. But this one does:

Sometimes you think of Bowness

It holds your attention even more because it’s also the first line. And it begins a list of the things that you remember. And each line of the first stanza begins with ‘and’. It’s just a poem that grabs you visually and puzzles you just enough to give it your attention. She can do that, Kim Moore (for ’tis she). She does great titles. If we could speak like wolves.  When I was a thing with feathers. A previous year’s Red Shed judge, Julie Mellor, does, too. Speaking through our bones. Yes. Check out her pamphlet of the same name. So..think about titles.

First lines (which may also be the title).

It may not have been where the poem started in its first or later drafts. Basically you know what the poem’s ‘about’, so you’re playing to get an uncommitted reader’s attention. At the same time you don’t want to give the game away. A good first line will certainly make me pay attention. Like The first hymn is Abba: I believe in angels.  Double-take. What’s going on? Must find out. Or this one:  They lashed him to old timbers / that would barely float. Him? who is he? A game with a pronoun to create a little hesitation, a suspense. Or this: Isn’t it enough that I’ve yanked out my heart? A question will catch the ear, especially if we don’t know who’s asking it or why. I’m not offering recipes or nostrums. Just saying: look at the title. Listen to the first line. Ask yourself: why should anyone bother?

The moment.

Of late I’ve found myself going again and again to Clive James’ beautiful Poetry Notebook and his insistence on the memorable, the hard-to-forget. Here’s the thing that strikes me as the heart of the memorable poem, the one that sticks, the one that may just win the prize. ‘Everything’ says James

depended on, and still depends on, the quality of the moment……whatever kind of poem it is, it’s the moment that gets you in.

That moment has to be brought alive  and bright in language. It will often be an image, but it could be a startling turn of phrase, or a beautifully placed rhyme. Trying to explain it is like trying to explain a tree or a table. It’s easier to point at some, and say: there’s a table, and so is that. And that. Here, then, are ‘moments’ in poems that persuaded me to buy collections. There might be a lot. It’s enjoyable tracking them down.

How about Robin Robertson’s At Roane Head

He went along the line / relaxing them /one after another / with a small knife

It’s the shock of that last line that nails you. Well, it does me.

Or this, in a different way, from Clare Shaw’s Ewe in several parts..about the imagined(?) loss of a baby, taken by sheep, unprotesting, because

She must have liked it 

the way she likes dogs

her hands to its mouth and stamping 

like she does when she’s pleased

I kept the line breaks here because they’re part of the way the moment is made to work. Think about it.

Sometimes the moment can declare itself as an image- metaphor or simile- as this  does in Wendy Pratt’s Nan Hardwicke turns into a hare.

An odd feeling this, / to hold another’s soul in the mouth like an egg

That stops me in my tracks. What would carry an egg in its mouth? And how full would that be. Awkward and fragile. It’s packed, isn’t it.

The important thing is that they will lodge themselves in my mind. They stick at a first hearing. There’s one like this that I heard when Kim Moore was reading at the Chemic Tavern last year. I can’t remember it precisely or exactly, but I can’t forget it. She’s writing about an old boyfriend, how twice a week they would lie together, and apart, on or in a bed, not touching, asexual, like unlit candles. And I know I can never forget it. Just in case you get the idea that ‘moments’ are necessarily emotionally fraught or traumatic, the apparently funny and inconsequential will do it, too. Like this opening moment of Mike de Placido’s Diktat song (great title, too)

Some people are bad for the soul. Avoid them.

I quote granddad: Never wrestle with chimneysweeps.

You can’t legislate for it in your own poetry, but when it works, it WILL be recognised.

Technique, form and structure.

Clive James talks about ‘the spectacular expression that outruns its substance’. It’s not about formal structures or freeform or rule breaking or experiment. It’s a question of whether the words and their arrangement are doing their job, that they have to be as they are, rather than being flaunted to make an impression. I have no preference for one kind of poem or another. Sonnets, sestina, terza rimas, rhymed quatrains, couplets, tercets, villanelles. Just so long as they’re not like that to be decorative. Sonnets really do need to be about a particular kind of ‘argument’ don’t they. Sestinas deal happily with the obsessional..otherwise, what are those repetitions for. And so on.


This is a personal thing. But I like to know that a poem’s finished. And it’s not always the case. It doesn’t have to be a rhyming couplet; you can be brought up short by endings that surprise, that turn the poem on its head, that make you reconsider what you’ve just read. In the way that the end of that four line satanza of Robin Robertson’s does…’with a small knife’. The way it subverts what you expect ‘relaxing’ to mean, the way it throws a frightening light on the cold calculations of the man who, you realise, has just casually slaughtered his sons. There’s an art to an ending that encompasses and goes beyond the neat sign-offs of the rhyming couplet, or the rhetorical tying-off of a well-crafted sonnet.

And one more personal thing. A year or so ago I spent some time selecting poems for an anthology. As with competitions, all the entries were anonymous, but it taught me something I’d not explicitly acknowledged to myself. I can’t be doing with pretentiousness or sentimentality or ego, or writing that’s out to impress. This is not the same as being esoteric, or having a wide range of reference, or writing poetry that expects the reader to do a bit of work to follow an allusion or reference. It’s just that if it looks hard, you’re not trying hard enough.

I know there are hundreds of people out there who are better writers than I am, and better than I shall ever be. I hope they all enter The Red Shed Poetry Competition and make Di Slaney’s life impossible.

Good luck. Get those entries in. All of you.

The books I’ve referred to this week were:

Robin Robertson: The wrecking light [Picador Poetry 2010] £8.99

Clare Shaw :Head On  [Bloodaxe 2012] £8.95

Wendy Pratt : Nan Hardwicke turns into a hare [Prolebooks 2011] £4.50

Mike de Placido : A sixty watt Las Vegas  [Valley press 2013] £7.99

Kim Moore : The art of falling [Seren 2015] £9.99

Pascale Petit: What the water gave me [Seren 2010] £8.99

Di Slaney’s books are:

Reward for winter [Valley Press 2016. 98 pp] £8.99

Dad’s slideshow  [Stonewood Press 2015 40pp]  £4.99 (Thumbprint Pocket book)

and a web address…… you know where to submit

Currock Press,:

NaPoWriMo: A poem a day in April? maybe you don’t need all those starters.

I originally posted this in November 2015 with the title : Don’t give up. I’ve started on my poem a day for April routine, and it occurs to me that it may leave me pressed to clock out fresh new posts this April. So I’m rejigging posts I wrote: on first lines, on line breaks, and on taking risks. There’ll also be one on competitions, and on one in particular…because you might at this very moment, as I type this, be writing your own prize-winning poem, and it would be a shame if it never went out in the world with its faithful cat and its spotty bundle, and returned with its pockets full of gold.

So, here we go. Before you try the smorgasbord of starter recipes, why not see what you already have in the bank?

Don’t give up


Whatever else you do, don’t give up on work you’ve started. Never throw anything away if you’ve written it legibly. Leave it alone for long enough, and one day you’ll find it and won’t recognise it as something you wrote. You may well think: Mmmm…that might have legs.

derby day notes 001

This handwritten sheet with the quotation from the Daily Sketch, for instance. I found that in a notebook I bought when I was doing a sabbatical year at Bretton Hall. In 1981! The sort-of-sonnet was probably written in 1984. I wasn’t really serious about writing poems, evidently. But I went back to it, and eventually, about 30 years later, it turned into Camera Obscura, which ended up in a Forward Poetry Anthology. There you go. Don’t give up. You simply never know.

Computers mean, of course, that you accumulate documents faster than you can remember. So, two days agoI was having a stock take of my files and stumbled on something I thought was long gone…it was an essay I had to write as part of my ill-judged MA course a dozen years ago. I started to read it with a kind of embarrassed fascination. Because what I’d done was to spell out a set of aims or ambitions. Embarrassing, because I did nothing about them for years. Fascinating, because after long delays, and years when I did nothing at all, I finally did do everything I said I would. I thought I’d share this, just to say: whatever you do, don’t give up. My essay (which is very essay-ish) started with a question:

“Why write? James Britton [196?] suggested part of the answer when he asked the question:
‘Why do [we] constantly improvise upon representations of reality?…because we never cease to long for more lives than we can actually live.’

Britton is actually speculating here about why we are impelled to read, and, particularly, to read stories. What I can take from his formulation is the concept of ‘improvising [] representations of reality’. I like this because it embraces the representations of music and of plastic art as well as verbal composition. The second part of his answer may satisfy writers of fiction, creators of imagined worlds and narratives. It doesn’t answer for me; I have no aspiration to be that kind of writer, possibly because, as David Lodge [2000] has one his characters say, how could I voluntarily spend:
‘long ,solitary hours….staring at a blank page…trying to create something out of nothing, to will creatures with no previous existence into being, to give them names, parents, education…God, the tedium of it! And then the grinding, ball-breaking effort of forcing it into words.’?  [‘Home truths]

I actually do quite relish the business of words, of crafting, the texture and resonance of language, but it goes beyond that. It’s not so much the longing for more lives as not losing the life (or lives) I have actually lived. Maybe the answer to that opening question, for me, is implicit in Eliot’s poignant line:
‘We had the experience but missed the meaning’
What impels me to write is a felt need to find the ‘meaning’ in experiences which snag my memory, my attention. I don’t seem to have a conscious choice about the process; I’m keenly aware that something seems to edit out the powerfully personal—the experience of a broken marriage, the death of a father, of a son, the remorseless and protracted mental and physical decline of my mother—and I suspect that sooner or later this will have to be dealt with.

[Twelve years later, I can now look at the pamphlets I produced in 2014, and say: Yes. It was later, rather than sooner, but, yes. I did it. I did}

But I had to begin with the poetry of observed and remembered landscape. This is what I wrote, twelve years ago:

The problem as I see it is that of pinning down a moment as it is, and, simultaneously to catch the felt experience—and not to let it be distorted by the history, the clutter, that language carries around with itself, willy nilly; the way’, I mean, that it splinters and refracts, or blurs and distorts, or softens and sentimentalises like a Vaseline-smeared lens. Constantly I stumble up against Hughes, or Heaney, or R.S.Thomas, all in thrall to the bleak, the elemental, resistant indifference of things.

[I’ve written in other posts about how I tried to confront this in my poem Achnacloich, precisely because of the way in which the seen landscape of Sleat was constantly refracted through the lens of Hughes’ poetry and the seductive tug of its textures and cadences. I had to sift his writing, particularly Moortown and Remains of Elmet ,to pin down the intrusive—and illuminating– phrases, particularly the one that seemed to unlock the right door:
your ‘words joined with earth
and engraved in rock
were under my feet’    (a nice ambiguity in that last line!),
as well as the rhythms and consonantal toughness of ‘the bareblown hill’, ‘the blueprint bones‘’, the’gulleys gouged in the cold hills’ before I could work from my notebooks. In the essay I go back to one of my notebooks to try to clear up what I think I meant. Like this:]
‘… on this hill with no shorthand. Everything very sharply in focus and out of meaning. Tiny white starry flowers, one here, one there. One brown furry caterpillar straddling two bleached plantain stems. Dry flower heads brittle pink. One plump crimson/blush/rose cushion of spaghnum, complex jewelly florets, bright with water drops scattered….Deer slots, random, occasionally, a single one sharp in a cupful of peaty mud….Amber, yellow grasses like blades, flexing.’

There are pages and pages like this; oddly, all sorts of things are edited out of the record, like my anxiety, teetering on a too-steep slope, unsure of up or down; my vertigo that I cope with by focussing hard on what’s close and directly in front. And every so often there’s an unacknowledged sense of Hughes’ presence:
‘Flat dry outcrops, pale and clean—they feel high, but there’s always another top, another tumbled outcrop beyond, and getting to the very highest top, the land falls away and away and away and far beyond the edge is the sea.’

Echoing faintly behind this, it seems to me, are Hughes’ ringing horizons, his image of immanence and ultimate unreachability.
There are times when I think that this ‘observed poetry’ is enough, that the meaning for the observer is implicit both in the choice of what is ‘seen’ and the choice of language which struggles to be a correlative for what is seen, and its emotional resonance for the reader. It doesn’t need rhetoric or commentary such as Hughes’ authorial glosses—
‘the suffering of water’, ‘a stage for the performance of heaven’.

I’m intrigued by the notion that that some poetry is analogous to the work of landscape painters like Len Tabner who is based near Staithes, but has painted around the world…down deep mines, inside the Arctic Circle, from small boats out in the Atlantic.. I choose him because his response is to the kind of landscape I am drawn to, and quality of his vision. Fred Inglis [1998] talks about:
‘Tabner’s deep-rootedness in that blurred, dramatic ,difficult country…river and sea surging endlessly; the big changeful sky, heavy with cloud, now touching land and water…’

How does Tabner achieve this? By a constant physical absorption in the place itself, whether working fast on the 20 foot Atlantic swell off Fingal’s Cave, absorbed in the cold, the spray; or lying in frozen grass up above Boulby Cliff, pricked by sleet flurries, relentlessy ‘catching’ the nervous geometries of a February hawthorne. There’s no need for commentary or explanation; the shivering cold and the tug of the wind is ‘there’ for what it is. There’s no need for an explanation of what the Black Cuillin ‘means’ for the artist—what it means is there in the drama of the brilliance of light, the dark weight of rock and the saturated air. It’s a meaning that comes from the choice of materials and the speed with which they’re used that simply can’t be done by photography; my photo of a sunset may say something about my choice of frame, my selection of an image, but nothing about the shimmer and fragility of light and moving air that’s Tabner’s statement about the winter sea off Hummersea cliffs
‘(the) deep preoccupation with the moment of deliquescence in all natural life… the moment at which seaspray turns to light….the much-painted hawthorn…to thin lines of eked-out colour against the grey, ochre, and umber streaks of winter sky’

Tabner himself says ‘I want that sense of being in the landscape, not looking at it’
And that sums up the struggle for absorption in the landscapes I ‘research’ by recurrent walking, listening, looking and recording. Like Tabner, I ‘am trying to express the whole feeling of being present in a place, as well as the presence of the place itself.’
This begs a question about the mastery of the medium (or media, in his case), and the patient exercise of words and grammars (or paint, or clay, or stone…) which makes the vision possible. It seems obvious that part of the writer/researcher’s job involves an absorption in vocabularies and syntax, and forging of a written idiolect, a distinctive voice that is he essential meaning of the realised text.
I come across the impulse in a note book, stuff I’d written sitting in a car up on Holme moss, looking back down to the Holme valley.

‘Sky lines recede, one by one, under a slough of driven cloud. Layers and layers.The near fellside acid sour and bracken brown, tired of cloud, of weight, of wet, ofwaiting. A hiddle of oaks in the lee of the ribbon road; black-brittle, acid-burned’

and then I find a shift into something that’s beyond ‘observation’. For some reason I remembered going to my uncle’s wedding in Todmorden some time in the 1950s, the darkness of the valleys, the pall of smog that hung over milltowns in the West Riding.

‘ a place of artful and raw complexities. These chapels are scoured clean back to their golden sandstone start. Where’s the black mourning of the mills? Gone with the chimneys, the cloying stink of lanolin, the mindless loom-clatter, and the dark pall over the valley. Gone with the buses, the black Humbers ,Morrisses, Fords, Austins and grumbling, struggling Albions’

Here’s a history, a change that invites investigating since it’s my history, from childhood till now, the remembered darkness of the mill valleys now filled with art galleries and summer wine tourists. I feel the same impulse to deal with the narratives of my observed Scottish landscapes, the stories of the Clearances. Of Culloden and Glencoe, and for the first time to find myself consciously planning research, needing to ‘know’.

[At this point I announced that I wanted:]

to populate my landscapes, to understand these histories. What sort of research might this involve? I need, for instance, to go beyond the physical scale and drama of Glencoe and the way it shrinks and absorbs, in seconds, parties of scramblers and climbers. How can it possibly be considered or contained?

Part of the answer may lie in my fascination with maps; two things in particular: those close-packed contour lines, as complex as the whorls of fingerprints, and the way every burn, fall, corrie, ridge, and bealach is named. The fingerprinting contours give the illusion that we can grasp this huge and complex land. The scratchy Gaelic names say: we owned this; we understood it, controlled it; they are jabbed into the contours of the text like dirks, like pitons, snagging the eye with their cluttered consonants…. Sgurr na Fonnadh, Bheinn a Creachin, Achtriachtan, Aonach Eagach. I need a Gaelic dictionary before I can hear them, and there they are transformed to breathy complex vowels and soft glottals, and there’s music and poetry in their translation: the Notched Ridge, the Corrie of Capture, the Valley of Slate and Churn.

It’s this verbal landscape that frames the massacre of Glencoe (in which 10% of the clan died; literally, decimated…not the prevailing sense of 90%). When men, and women and children fled into the snow in that cold dawn, ‘half-dressed, unshod’, they were wrapped in the plaids they habitually wore, and disappeared into the high corries where they herded their rustled cattle, and everywhere they hid they knew and had named.

[and then I set out a kind of project. I would write about Clearances, about Glencoe, about the crofters of Achnacloich. If you’ve been following the great fogginzo’s cobweb for some time you’ll notice that, eventually I did all of that. Ten, eleven years later. Nothing’s wasted. Then I went on to write this:]

Whatever the role there is the same pale, translucent tenderness of flesh, the same submissive, desiring gaze that Waterhouse catches in his charcoal and pencil sketches. He, himself, is a constant unseen presence in all these drawings and paintings but for me he’s obsessed, haunted, helplessly in love. We know a lot about his public life; bourgeouis, comfortable, successful (an academician), and married. We know he had two children who died in early infancy. We have portraits of his wife, and of his sisters and sister-in-law who modelled for him. But we know little of his private life; and who was the nymph who haunted him?

The evidence is slim; one charcoal sketch of her head has the pencilled title The head of Miss Muriel Foster. Almost everything else is conjectural; the only source of information I have found is a website that is now unavailable, but just one sentence has snagged my attention in the way that the landscapes and iconic stories of the Highlands and islands have done:
‘Little is known about Muriel’s life. She apparently studied nursing during the years she posed for Waterhouse, and eventually found her place in that field in the Oaklands nursing home in St Leonard’s on Sea. It was there that she died in 1969 at the age of 91’

The sub-text of this is as irresistible to me as her face was to Waterhouse. She must have been about 15 when she first modelled for him in 1893. How did that come about? Waterhouse habitually painted his models nude, for preliminary studies, even though they may be clothed in the finished version. How was that managed? How did they meet? What did they feel about and for each other during that apparently symbiotic relationship that continued for 24 years until his death ( with a gap between 1906-9) and during which her painted image stays as fresh as it did at the beginning.’

Well I kept revisiting this, in a desultory way, just as I kept revisiting the notion of giving a voice to what I imagined were the imprisoned souls that inhabited some of the great sculptures that fascinated me….Michaelangelo’s David, Gormley’s Angel of the North, Henry Moore’s King and Queen, for instance. And twelve years later, one way and another, they’ve been ‘dealt with’, written into poems…enough, in fact for a pamphlet, which I’m utterly delighted to say is now out there. It’s called Outlaws and fallen angels. Details at the top of the page , under My Books.

So there we are. A reminder that if you don’t throw away your notebooks and you don’t despair, one of these days, you can get to write what you thought you’d never see on a page.

For the start of NaPoWriMo: A cautionary tale. Hearing voices, and a Polished Gem: Judy Brown


Cautionary tale first and a mea culpa. Mea maxima culpa. I just tried to do something clever by updating last week’s post about a poet who I hadn’t known until I heard her reading at Writers in The Bath, in Sheffield, in February. It was a reading that told me this was the real deal…deft, poised, urgent engaged writing. Writing that made me wonder if I shouldn’t give up writing and do something I’d be better at. Maybe something with a chain saw. Or a shovel.  I wrote about how Judy Brown was one of those dark watchers who let us see so much we might have missed. A poet who writes with a quiet passion. A poet who can make you smile, and who can write things that can be heartbreaking. I spent a few hours of notemaking, researching, finding photographs and finally writing it all up and posting it. An hour ago I managed, in the process of trying to add an update, to permanently delete it. And because I’m a spasmodically tidy chap, I’ve thrown away all the hard copy notes and jottings. What I do have is the stuff Judy sent me in the first place, because I never throw away what my guests send me. I can’t recover what it took me nearly 4 hours to write last Monday.

So, here’s the moral. Back-up everything. If you write wordpress posts, write them in Word, save them as Word Docs, and then copy and paste them to WordPress.

What can I do to make up for stupidity and carelessness? Not enough, but still, I can share Judy Brown’s three poems again, tell you something about her, and give you a link to where you can buy her books. I also somehow managed to have saved a bit of the intro to the original post:


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. Judy Brown’s is one of those voices.

I can also share this picture of part of the Cumbrian coast that she travelled through and stayed in, Bill Bryson style, recording its landscapes and its (sometimes dubious) B&Bs and hotels.


So, if you missed it last week, here she is.

Judy Brown’s ‘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 and  worked for many years in international law firms, including work in Hong Kong, until she started writing poems, but now lives in a churchyard and writes and teaches.

Judy Brown loudness


[Line break alert: I see that from time to time. WordPress will ignore line and stanza breaks. Stanza breaks, particularly. This week it keeps getting rid of them entirely. So, just in case it does it again, I’ll announce the stanza shape at the start of each poem where needed]

To the poems, then, but without the commentary that I can’t reacpture. First up, a cityscape which will mean you never see the London skyline in the same light again, understanding that steel and glass are parasitic of the light

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 (, September 2016)

The second poem is one of a sequence, Songs from West Cumbria, which is woven into her collection Crowd sensations. You’ll see what I mean by the poet as ‘dark watcher’

[3 six-line stanzas)

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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 laya 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 headsfrom 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)

It’s the moment that matters, says Clive James. Sometimes the moment is also an image. The beach like a a strip of parcel tape ‘ripped off something useful’. Lovely. Desperate.

Judy Brown_quicksand cover

Last poem; I think the man in the poem lives in the city of predatory glass and steel that eats the sky.

[6 three line stanzas]

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.


Judy Brown, forgive me for losing the other 1500 words of appreciation for your work. I hope you’ll come back again some day. The best I can do is urge everyone to go and buy your books. So I will. Here’s what Seren say about Crowd sensations

“Poet Judy Brown’s new collection, Crowd Sensations, is a worthy follow-up to her Forward-prize nominated debut, Loudness. Brown is a poet of dazzling contrasts, of thoughtful paradox, intimate confidences and precise evocations. Her titles and first lines both draw you right into a poem and then quite often surprise you with a narrative that you hadn’t quite expected. ‘The Things She Burned Last Year’ references a past both remote and near, like multiple reflections seen in a mirror. Brown is a poet of profoundly unsettling domesticity as in ‘The Dehumidifier’, which unravels the metaphysics of damp and ‘This is Not a Garden’, which is a cool summation of a failed marriage. We frequently imagine an uncomfortable intimacy: ‘Poem in Which I am Not Short-sighted’, or are given a scary anecdote like: ‘The Post Box in the Wall’. There are serious poems that lure you with humorous titles: ‘Poem in the Voice of a Dead Cockroach’.

A key theme is the contrast between living in the city and the countryside. The author has lived in London and Hong Kong and has recently had residencies with the Wordsworth Trust in Grasmere and at the Gladstone Library in North Wales. Her spin on landscape is original and characteristically unnerving: ‘Elterwater Rain’, ‘Dove Cottage Ferns’ and ‘One of the Summer People’ reflect on nature and the place of the traveller, the incomer, the tourist. ‘Green Man’ also imagines a historical/mythical character and has him walk through a busy city street, shunned and unrecognized. Her memories often focus and celebrate pivotal moments of change: the move from city to country, the release from a doomed relationship, and the discovery of a new street or landscape. A fascination with artistic technique also features in a number of poems: ‘After the Discovery of Linear Perspective’, ‘On a Woodblock Prepared for an Engraving’.

Such is the author’s skill that these poems can often be said to be about more than one thing at a time. They unfold themselves upon the page in concise forms and with considerable flair. Judy Brown’s Crowd Sensations will be a joyful discovery for the intelligent reader.”

And so it will. You could also chase up a review in The North ,by Ed Reiss which you can find via this link (which is, handily, also the link to the Seren site …where you can buy the books!)

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: 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

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. 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; 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’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.