Wise sisters (2). Elizabeth Sennitt Clough

Feeling a bit like this mackerel, not exactly of my element. I spent last week on a Poetry Residential in St Ives, with star tutors Kim Moore and Carola Luther. I loved it, and simultaneously still have that odd feeling of dissociation or dislocation when I travel. It’s an eight hour drive there and eight hours back, and at either end I have that weird sense of not belonging, as though I’m in a country whose customs and language are a mystery.

I felt a kind of kinship with the mackerel, which was lying on the road down below the station on the way down to Porthminster beach. It was bright and fresh but pulled into a fixed and rubbery curve. There was not a clue about where it had come from, or why. Out of place, that was us. Which is a tenuous enough link with today’s post. It’s a reposting of the post I wrote for Write Out Loud last week; I’m still juggling the business of running two blogs, and as I promised some weeks ago, I’ll occasionally post items on the Cobweb for those of you who aren’t linked up with WOL. It’ll all sort itself out. And so to our guest:

Poetry, place and identity: Elizabeth Sennitt Clough

Some politicians are inescably linked to things they said, often without thinking, or because they were poorly advised. Or plain stupid. JFK could never shake off the ‘ich bin ein Berliner’ thing, however well-meant was what he thought he was saying. Margaret Thatcher was famously ‘not for turning’ even though she delivered the line as if discovering English for the first time. Her ‘no such thing as Society’ is more problematic since you could probably find a Marxist linguistics buff pointing out that she might well have been aware of the business of reification and false consciousness. Personally, I doubt it, but there you go.

The one I’ll go with, however, is our current PM’s shrill and unpleasantly jingoistic assertion that ‘a citizen of the world is a citizen of nowhere’. It’s a narrow and parochial thing to hang your hat on, isn’t it? On the other hand, it raises questions of how our identity, our sense of self, may be tied to the landscapes, the places we think of as ‘home’. Which is, as with most important things, more complicated and troublesome that we might like to think.

A month or so ago I was writing about my own uncertainty about what it means to ‘belong’, to feel part of a culture, to inhabit its language and ways of seeing.

I wrote, then, 

that for the last 30 years I’ve been living in a small town less than 10 miles from where I was born and grew up. More or less in the same valley. And I still don’t know the street names, which tells me that somehow, unconsciously, all this time I’ve been thinking of it as temporary. So if I’m from ‘a place’ I think that place is ‘North’ and my thinking and imagery is ‘North’…….. I find myself speculating on ways in which language (and therefore, our writing) is shaped and informed by the landscapes where we feel we belong. How we come to feel secure in one landscape or another…..Place isn’t just topography. It’s story, and where you place yourself in the narrative.

Which is why, when I was doing some background reading to help me introduce today’s guest poet, I was drawn to an extract from an interview she gave to Paul Stephenson for his blog (here’s the link for the full piece; it’s well worth a read: https://paulstep.com/2017/11/11/interview-with-elisabeth-sennitt-clough/). A bit of background is useful at this point…especially in relation to that ‘citizen of the world’ bit.

Elisabeth Sennitt Clough is a dual-nationality British/American poet who grew up in the Fenlands of Cambridge. In 1998, she studied English and Sociology at Anglia Ruskin University (formerly APU) for her BA. In 2001, she went on to complete an MA at the University of Iceland in Reykjavik. She obtained her PhD from the Open University in 2010. In 2013, she returned to study, undertaking an MA in Creative Writing with Teaching at Manchester Metropolitan University.

Elisabeth has lived and worked in Jakarta, Indonesia; Panama City, Florida; Fresno, California; Reykjavik, Iceland; and Maastricht, Netherlands, where she was a member of the Maastricht Writers’ Group.

Now living in Norfolk with her husband and three children, Elisabeth is a member of a local writing group and regularly attends poetry readings and launches. She runs long distances (which seems to be de rigeur for what I think of as younger poets) and co-edits The Fenland Reed (of which more later).

Paul asked her about place, about growing up in the Fens and its influence on her poetry. She replied:

I’ve heard that living at or below sea level can have an effect on a person’s physical/mental state. I don’t know how true that statement is, but it interests me, as does the fact that the Fens were once underwater. Growing up, I didn’t even question why there were so many freshwater snail shells in the soil. 

I have travelled a lot, since my late teens with my own work and later with my husband’s job. I wanted to escape the Fens (all teenagers do), but I kept returning. I was once away for four years though without coming back to the UK and it started to affect me. …Perhaps I was homesick? When I did return, I found that I had ‘re-membered’ a lot of the places in my mind; they looked entirely different and I’d only been away for four years! 

That interested me, the idea of growing up in Graham Swift’s waterland, its big skies, dark soils, its low horizons. Totally alien to a valley-dweller like me. The other thing I took from the interview was its reference to the darkness you’ll find in some of Elizabeth’s poems..what was highlighted in a comment on her Paper Swans pamphlet Glass. its:

unflinching look at a world of darkness, violence and unhappiness. The repeated use of water and glass invites the poems’ speakers to reflect on their past, to recount the cruelty they have experienced in precise and straightforward detail; they loosen the glass collar and find a way to speak.

Talking about her poem Boy she said

This is an uncomfortable poem. As a child, I didn’t want to be female because I’d been conditioned into thinking girls and women were weak/lesser beings by my stepfather (who beat and humiliated my mother). 

 My stepfather passed away a long time ago and has no living relations. Even so, there were times when I felt uncomfortable, that what I was writing was wrong, but I resisted the urge to silence myself, having often been too scared to speak during my childhood.

If that doesn’t draw you in, that three-part tug of conflicted, ambiguous and troubling  relationships with place, family and gender, nothing will. 

One more thing, before the poems; Elisabeth Sennitt Clough seems (to me) to have arrived suddenly , fully formed on the contemporary poetry scene. Just think about what she’s achieved in the last two/three years: An alumna of the Arvon/Jerwood Mentorship scheme 2016 andToast Poets 2017, she was also a Ledbury Emerging Poet 2017. Her debut pamphlet, Glass, was a winner in the Paper Swans inaugural pamphlet competition in 2016. It went on to win Best Pamphlet at the Saboteur Awards 2017. Her debut collection, Sightings, was published by Pindrop Press in December 2016. It won the Michael Schmidt Prize for Best Portfolio. A poem from that collection was highly commended in the Forward Prize and published in the Forward Book of Poetry 2018. Her second full collection At or Below Sea Levelis a Poetry Book Society Recommendation.

As you can imagine, when I finally met her at a Poetry Writing weekend last December, I was already daunted by this, a bit tentative in approaching her. And as is so often the case, she was not daunting at all, and much to my delight said she’d be a guest for The Wider Web. So here she is. Of the first poem she says

‘Herding the Northern Lights’ is from The Cold Store, the collection I’m working on at the moment;

it was published in Mslexia, so it missed 50% of the poetry audience! 

Herding the Northern Lights

After Oded Wagenstein’s photo-essay 

about elderly female reindeer herders in Siberia

who are now living in retirement: 

I’ve turned my back on the glamour of snow

and glaciers, though I once lost myself to their bite.

The days hatch and faucets crack: nothing flows

when all that’s left to herd are the lights.

Beneath the pines, the bear and wolf collide

and in my ears, the tundra winds still blow

and ripple the skins of sleds until twilight.

I’ve turned my back on the glamour of snow.

Yet sometimes I want to return to the tow

of a migrating journey, but my body has no fight:

it’s become a slow creature. Each fibre bellows

loud as glaciers – how I once lost myself to their bite.

When my daughters return, they chase away the night

with stories and rituals I told them decades ago.

They fill my eyes with scenes I put in their sight.

The days hatch and faucets crack: nothing flows,

until I hear the hooves of reindeer echo

like Siberian lullabies across the night

and then I dance like melt-water flow,

but all that’s left to herd are the lights.

My life has become a segment of white

that my family fold neatly and stow – 

all clasps on the trunk snapped tight.

And I tell them, I’m happy. I don’t miss the snow.

I’ve turned my back.

Just two things to say about a poem that speaks richly for itself: first off, it demands to be read aloud; you need to hear the repetitions of the rondeau redouble, it’s assonance and consonance, and not be distracted by how it looks on the page. The second thing, for me, is the business of belonging, the tug of distance and of the rhythms of migration. The fear of stasis. I love the clinching snap of that triplet

My life has become a segment of white

that my family fold neatly and stow – 

all clasps on the trunk snapped tight

The next poems are from At or Below Sea Level.  The first follows neatly from the last


Maybe I do want to be a dollsome days,

but never that painted thing  

you often shuck in two – 

where, in every wooden shell,  

there’s a diminutive version,

as you work your way down 

to the final fingertip me:

that tiny bloodless woman,

miniature lips erased

by the heat from your palm. 

It’s this business of identity and self again, and how each can be defined by family, by lovers, by place, and how this simplifies and constricts and denies. I like the compression and clarity of it. The last poem is more expansive, in every way.  I’ve had to do a screenshot to preserve the shape and the line breaks. One day I swear I’ll find out how to overcome WordPress resistance to poetic shape. It’s a bit fuzzy. Sorry.

I loved this, its sensuousness, its texture, its drama. It’s packed with those moments that draw you in. I have a favourite. This is it:. I love the way it spins around that one word: envelope

yet his touch transforms me

into iciness as he leans across 

reseals the thin envelope of my body

his mouth twitches as if in prayer 

when he closes me with his tongue.

So there we are. Another labour of love. I hope you enjoy the poems as much as I do. I hope they’ll send you off to buy more (details below). Thank you Elisabeth Sennitt Clough for being today’s guest. You were great.

Glass.  Paper Swans Press[2016] £5.00

Sightings  Pindrop Press [2017]. £10.00

At or below sea level Paper Swans [2019] £9.99

ps. I nearly forgot I’d promised to say something about the magazine that Elisabeth jointly edits.

The Fenland Reed is published twice yearly, with one themed and one unthemed issue each year.

It’s a handsome journal. If you haven’t come across it yet, then take a look at what’s on offer


On Mothers Day, for my mum, Marjorie 1911-2007

At some point I discovered that, after she died, I’d written far more poems about my mum than seemed feasible.

Making do

Mending, making do. These women, perched

on bedroom window-sills, their feet inside the house,

who weekly made their stiff sash-windows bright;

sluiced their flags, and donkey-stoned the steps

before the next-door neighbour got hers done;

hung out wet sheets and overalls, the day not light;

who riddled ashes from the grate, laid kindling,

black-leaded the cast-iron kitchen range,

stared out at gardens on the backs of terraces

where nothing grew but privet, docks and mint.

No wonder that my mother hoarded rainbow silks,

embroidered bluebell woods and lavender,  

fields of poppies,  satiny lush roses

Bought blue–and–white ceramic jars of ginger,

ate it syrup-rich with ice-cream, double cream

and grated Cadbury’s dark chocolate on top.

Indulgences. Mother of mine, I’ve just about 

Indulgences. Mother of mine, I’ve just about 

exhausted you. You occupied my growing up

until I wonder if I ever did. You set me going. 

Make what you will of this. It’ll have to do.

I told Ann Sansom of the Poetry Business that I’d probably written everything I had to say. She said she doubted it. As usual, she was right. I’d written this as part of the eulogy all my family helped to write fro her funeral:For some of us, if there’s life after death it’s in the memories of the living and in the stories they make of them. For those of you who believe differently, then there is a heaven, and my Mum’s has high hills and huge skies; the central heating will be switched off. Regardless of the weather, doors will be open. Somewhere there will be a dish of stem ginger, with Cornish ice-cream, clotted cream and grated Bournville chocolate. A lot of it. There will be a lot of fresh air. And fettling

And, because because today it’s a day when she’d have loved to have been up the Dales somewhere…Simon’s Seat, Valley of Desolation, Grass Woods…. here’s some more poems for her. And pictures. Oh, and because life’s like that, I see that WordPress has once again ignored all the stanza breaks. Try to imagine them.

The parents you never met

I knew one had filleted a python,

and also launched a stuffed crocodile

on a Norfolk mere one summer’s night.

These are the stories we go on telling,

that gather detail, year on year.

Turn mythic.

Not in the same world as the ones

in which my mother learned

to drive a car,

my father gambled.

I can’t imagine them at all,

or, if I did, I’d get them wrong.

My mother young

and long before me, with a chap

whose name I never knew;

white shoes, maybe,

a Morris with a running board;

my mother who learned 

to double de-clutch,

to manage sparks and chokes,

to rattle with insousiance

down country lanes

in a velours hat that never once

blew off, laughing with a man

I cannot picture.

They were glamorous,

these mothers,

and I never knew them at all.

She was so many contradictory and complex and awkward things, my mum. A compendium of mothers. My Dad took hundreds of photos of her on holidays, and somehow never caught her, and I wondered who I would like to have paid to paint her portrait, to capture her.

A gallery for my mother

For her at ten, fetch Joan Eardley from Catterline.

Just one more, for her, I’d say. Pie-faced slum children,

wonky prams. Those sweetie-wrapper colours.

Make my mother for me, her sisters, her brother

and her mother—never had two pence

to rub together; coals in the grate, pegged-rug

reds and blues dabbed in the shine of a black-lead range.

For her at twenty, Picasso or Matisse.

Call it ‘Bather’. That one-piece belted costume,

white shoes. Her thick spectacles. Plain girl

posing in Torquay. Who was that man?

For her wedding photo, Peter Blake.

The cut-out, pasted look.

Degas for my childhood. For the washing,

for the steam, for the set of her shoulder,

for her hand on the iron.

Mary Cassatt for her sewing. Or Vuillard –

all those silks, those ravelled rainbows,

white satin, small bright scissors,

lips pursed on a thread.

Or Hockney. Spoiled for choice.

For my wedding, Beryl Cook.

She’d do that hat, that fabric rose,

those shoes, the look she gave

my mother-in-law.

That shrivelling look.

For her dying, 

Frans Hals and the monochrome

of charity, the greyscale of death.

Or Dürer, who could draw a hare

that could leap into life

at the snib of a latch. 

Cold hands

She had a touch for pastry.

A gift. She hung on to it

as fiercely as she hung on

to life, as fiercely as she hated

being unfree to do

as she wanted with it.

Never passed it on to me

who watched her pinching

pastry: butter, sugar, flour;

how it fell from her fingers,

how it fell through the air.

She tried. She did. But grew impatient

with the way the mix would clump

and stick. O, give it here she’d say.

The pastry would flake, and fall.

You need cold hands she’d say.                    

Yours are too warm. She’d not let go

of life. Could not, would not

pass it on. Until her hands

grew cold enough to let it fall,

and leave them clean.

A happy mothers’ day to mothers everywhere, and all their lovers, and all their children and children’s children.

Wise sisters [1]. Greta Stoddart

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

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

“the earth invalid, dropsied, bruised,wheeled

out into the sun,

after the frightful operation


leans back, eyes closed, exhausted, smiling

into the sun. Perhaps dozing a little.

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

she is not going to die”

[March morning unlike others]

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

“with arms swinging, a tremendous skater

on the flimsy ice of space,

the earth leans into its curve”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Curtain

Perhaps you know that story where people step 

out of this world and into another 

through a split in the air – they feel for it 

as you would your way across a stage curtain 

after your one act, plucking at the pleats,  

trying for the folded-in opening through which 

you shiver and shoulder yourself 

without so much as a glance up

to the gods, so keen are you to get back

to where you were before your entrance:

those dim familiar wings, you invisible,

bumping into things you half-remember

blinded as you’d been out there

in the onslaught of lights, yes, blinded

but wholly attended to in your blindness.

Imagine our dying being like that,

a kind of humble, eager, sorrowless return

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

No tears then. Just one of us to hold 

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

before letting it slump majestically back 

to that oddly satisfying inch above the boards

in which we glimpse a shadowy shuffling dark.

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

who’s to say they won’t already be

in their dressing room, peeling off the layers,

wiping away that face we have loved,

unbecoming themselves to step out 

into the pull and stream of the night crowds.

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

plucking at the pleats,  

trying for the folded-in opening


Imagine our dying being like that,

a kind of humble, eager, sorrowless return

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

unbecoming themselves

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

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

The Street Lamp

Maybe it’s this orange light 

that has me up 

in the middle of the night 

when sleep ought to have 

taken hold and placed us 

god knows where

with whom and how and why 

or was that the baby’s cry 

turning into something else 

and rising that has me rising 

not to him but to look 

down at the street and see 

in a pool of light – what is that – 

a stain, his small coat?

Body seems to know 

but mind, sleep-filled 

and slow with notions, 

ups and follows

(whatever it is it has that 

self-possessed and desolate look 

of a thing left behind);

and heart that knows 

starts to knock and will not 

take comfort from the street lamp 

who stands over our house 

like a guardian angel, 

head inclined but with no arms 

or wings to gather whosoever in.

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

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

The Engraver

It has to be a dying art,

this man leaning in with hammer and chisel,

intent on the angle, cut and concision;

all morning on a single word, a name.

His commissioners – each time the same

exacting band of passionate mourners –

want only the best; for this one stone page

to stand for less and more than all their tears.

And as the dates sharpen, the prayer clears

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

what it means to those who already know

just as he leaves the heart of the stone alone

knowing there’s nothing there, that deep down

his work is with the surface of things;

the opposite of archaeology

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

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

Staying Alive: me and Mr MacCaig

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

I’m eighty- two.

She’ll probably say it quite loudly. 

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

He lets this hang a nanosecond. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

I burst the whole fruit chilled by morning dew

against my palate. Fine, for 42

I loved the way it came after:

Then it’s the kumquat fruit expresses best

how days have darkness round them like a rind,

life has a skin of death that keeps its zest.

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

If I should die, think only this of me:

That there’s some corner of a foreign field

That is for ever England……….

a pulse in the eternal mind, no less

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m a crofter in the landscape of time

repairing a tumbling wall



If only I could say 

a new thing, a thing

I’ve never said before



Of the rest of space

I can say nothing

nor of the rest of time, the future

that dies the moment it happens


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

In the harbour a boat

sets its white sail.

Its anchor crawls aboard.

Those who are left behind

will look out to sea, 

their eyes bright with hope –

not knowing when it returns

they’ll see approaching

a black sail on the bright water

[That journey]

The days pick me up and carry me off,

half-child, half-prisoner,

on their journey that I’ll share

for a while

[Between mountain and sea]

Three men are pulling

at the starboard oar,

the man I am and was

and the man I’ll be.

The boat sails 

to a blind horizon


Pull as we may

we’re kept from turning

to port or starboard by that

invisible oarsman


And ahead, the blessed islands

are a mirage over it.

We forge on towards them.

They keep their holy distance.

[Fore and aft]

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

It’s night now.

I’ve no fear of going to sleep

I’ve no fear of waking in the morning.

For peace will say, Today

is like yesterday

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

[In the croft house called The Glen]

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

This girlish morning

comes straight out of old stories

where girls wore sprig muslin

and spent their entire time 

being happy

[Spring morning]

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

A pibroch for (MacCaig)

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

It sounds right, pibroch – 

plaintive and Scots.

He’d not be doing with that;

what did he write about death?

‘the one that smiles ruefully

thinking how little he is understood.’

MacCaig, punctilious as a dipper, 

pertinent and spry as a robin

on the precise tips of his verse.

What a look he’d give me,

laconic, spare and handsome,

holding his cigarette like a matinee idol.

It’s just that I come to him late

and he bothers me with death:

that cart on the shore road,

the one coming with the sack in his hand, 

the scyther in the hayfield,

those blind horizons, black sails.


I keep wondering: why; 

 in this land of birds, weather,

 the big skies of Assynt, 

why these  shadows, this shadow?

I should pay more attention. 

He’s writing this the age I am now.

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

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

I picture him casting, casting

into some high lochan

and a shadow on the opposite bank;

the delicate arcs of two mirrored lines,

the finicky business of flies, 

and the two of them, still as chessmen

each bent with all his art

on reeling the other in.

Parentheses bother me, too;

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

as though there were beginnings

and endings. No such things.

The salmon go back into the water.

No brackets for you, MacCaig.

Still learning me your language.

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

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

And never forget what MacCaig wrote in An ordinary day

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

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


Critics, poets and the common reader (PartTwo)

This being the second part of my appreciation of Yvonne Reddick’s Ted Hughes: Environmentalist and Ecopoet.

Ted Hughes was a prodigious reader of just about everything, and a prodigious writer of letters (700 pages of the collected letters), of poems (1200 pages), of plays and essays and so on. He was an educator, a broadcaster, a lecturer and a performer. He was conflicted hunter, a conflicted farmer (how many other poets do a full time job like that?), a conflicted and unfaithful husband, father, lover. He grew up in the physically and historically imbricated landscapes of the upper Calder Valley, and of Mexborough. Landscapes of the kind D H Lawrence grew up in. When I read Reddick’s accounts of various critics’ condemnation of his inconsistencies when it come to ecopolitics, I get annoyed. Because, I think, why should a poet be consistent, why should a life be simplified into ‘consistency’? 

There’s a very useful and concise summary at the end of Chapter 2, which begins

Ecopoetry, then, is a poetry of habitat; it explores our relationship to the environments and ecologies that surround us, the alterations we have made to them, and our imbrication within their system. It can no longer present the supposedly untouched landscapes of earlier nature poetry.

What hooks me is that notion of our imbrication within their system. I read this through a particular refracting lens. My habitat is a landscape that I see through the lenses of what I’ve read, the images I see, the physical familiar world I move through. In turn, that becomes the lens through which I read any poet of place, any ‘topological ‘poet.

Where I grew up there was a mill at the bottom of the street and a farm at the top. A quarter of a mile up the road were acres of municipal park woodlands. Beyond that, an open-cast valley, more woodlands, brickworks, some working pits. In the valley where I live now, not far away from where I was born, is polluted river, a canal, a railway (think : The Rainbow).  There are defunct mills,a defunct marshalling yard. No one can build on the field beyond my back garden because it has pitshafts in it. There’s an even older pitshaft under my neighbour’s house. And so on. Everything formerly ‘organic’ has been managed, enclosed, changed, even the river itself. I live on the edge of a coalfield where the 19thcentury houses are on the boundary between stone and brick. My horizon is the skyline of high moorland from Holme Moss to Oxenhope. This is the lens through which I read the poems of Remains of Elmet, through which I imagine the landscape of the Wodo’s wanderings, the corroded dystopian landscape of Crow, and through which I see foxes, thrushes, pike, hawks.

And then there are the voices of other poets of place: Nicholson, McCaig, Hill, McLean, and also the poets and writers of the edgelands: Lawrence, Steve Ely. The painters of place, too: Len Tabner, Peter Hicks, Peter Lanyon, Norman Ackroyd . I sometimes wonder what kind of implied writer and implied worlds I’d ‘read’ if I’d grown up in a big industrial city..Manchester, say, or out in the flatlands of the East Riding, or the Fens.

And there, I suppose, is where literary criticism and scholarship comes in, to help us see differently, to ask us to consider looking through different lenses. Which brings me finally to Yvonne Reddick’s book, the scope and sheer knowledgeability of which makes it difficult for me to do it justice. It’s so packed I found it helpful to think of it a collectionof books, each of which could be read in their own right. 

In her introduction she is clear that the she will focus more closely on Hughes as a public figure than on his personal life. She aims to explore the environmental and ecopoetic richness of Hughes’ work, and to also pay attention to the intersection of environmental preoccupations with other themes. She argues that one of the main reasons he became an environmentalist was to restore mankind’s broken relationship with “the source”. In that Hughes sought to restore this disrupted relationship via writing as well as environmental campaigns, it is ecocriticism, ecopoetry and his idea of ‘nature, that will be explored in order to find out how he did this.

The first chapter proper (or book, if you like) Hughes, Ecocriticism and Ecopoetry is a tour d’horizon that takes the reader on a guided exploration of the thickets of the ecocriticism of Hughes’ poetry. Given the density of the terrain it’s a credit to the clarity of Reddick’s prose that it always seems like a manageable journey. Beginning with an exploration of Hughes’ developing concepts of ‘nature, and of what we may mean by the meanings and oppositions of the human, the animal and the ‘mechanical’, she goes on to curate/summarise the categories and sub-categories of the ecocriticism world. It’s a complex, imbricated world, but through a dense range of citations and references, there’s an assured voice that keeps the reader on track. Each shift to a new topic is signalled by capitalised subheadings. It’s a note-maker’s dream, and literature students, as one, will give heartfelt thanks.

Subsequently, the book follows a chronological course through Hughes’ development as an ecopoet (and subsequently, as a public ‘activist’); it was this that I found particularly helpful, having the reassurace of a quasi narrative. I know where I am with a story. The next chapter, which deals with Hughes early life in Mytholmroyd and Mexborough (drawing especially on recent work by Steve Ely), and the next two, on Hughes’ ‘green’ literary influences were the ones I found most satisfying, the ones that illuminated the work in new and intriguing ways. I don’t necessarily agree with Reddick about the relative forces of authenticity and myth, but it was good to be reminded of his working in a tradition that included Wordsworth, Blake, Yeats, Hopkins, Edward Thomas, Lawrence and Dylan Thomas, as well as the influence of his reading of Jung, and of Graves’ The white goddess. It’s particularly interesting to be shown how poets he was drawn to as an undergraduate at Cambridge influence the technical elements of his verse as well as their concerns.

Chapter 5, on ‘Animal agency, America and early environmental views’, is a welcome reminder of Hughes and Plath’s setting off for the USA in 1957, and that Hughes was anything but parochial in his reading and thinking. It also explores his fascination with native Americans, with the shaman and the animal, and his uncompromising assertion that if you are chosen ‘you must shamanize or die’. The density of this chapter defies summary, but it throws an interesting light on the genesis of The thought fox, and on the apparent preoccupation with violence in the animal poems of Lupercal. I relished the beautifully contextualized readings of Hughes’ passionate realisations of the jaguar and macaw, the otter and pike, and the hawk roostingAnd one thing that shone out, even though it’s only mentioned briefly. Lupercal , Reddick reminds us, is focussed on hunger. And she highlights something from a draft of the Birthday Letters where Hughes refers to an ‘ever-hungry childhood’. I hang on to that when I come to the later chapters exploring the conflicting moralities of farming, hunting and fishing. I’m 76, and even at this age, I was in the first generation of British children not to be hungry. Friends of mine, the same age as Hughes, were children between the wars, and remember the hunger. And I think that’s something well-fed critics need to keep in mind when then getting in a moralising stew about Hughes’ ‘inconsistent’ attitudes to hunting. This, for me , is the most engaging chapter; 40 deftly-marshalled pages of close and contextualised reading of the the early ‘animal’ poems and those in the aftermath of Sylvia Plath’s death…engaged readings of the poems for ‘what is there’ rather than for ‘what fits this or that thesis’. Amongst other things it will teach literature students a thing or two about being a reader.      

Chapter 6 places a reading of Crow in the context of the emergence of the environmental movement, via The silent spring, into environmental activism and Hughes’ growing role as a public/polemic theorist….though my interest was caught mainly by the character of the trickster Crow in his post-apocalyptic and degraded landscape, whilst Chapter 7, in its focus on Hughes the farmer, provides a context for readings of Moortown, Season Songs, and, to a lesser extent What is the truth?. Chapter 8 does a similarly efficient job with River(which I’ve never managed to properly engage with) and Hughes’ imbricated relationship with the art and ethics of fishing in the context of the pollution of rivers throughout the world.

The final three chapters explore in careful detail the poet’s increasingly public and ‘political’ involvement in green/environmental issues, in hunting, in conservation, and are evidently informed by scrupulous research of a recently released and substantial body of articles and correspondence in the British Library’s new Ted Hughes archive. Which is the point at which ‘the common reader’…me, that is…became less involved, less careful about the reading. Reading comprehension and reading purpose have to work together. All I’d say is that any student- reader engaged with the politics of environmental conservation, the human relationship with the natural and animal world, and where the artist’s notional responsibilities may lie, will almost certainlyfind this as elegantly informed as I found the readings of the poems.

I suppose that in any evaluation of any book there will be a but. For me, it’s the fact that, even within its own strictly defined terms of reference, it seem to brush over Ted Hughes’ passionate commitment to education. It was a substantial and significant part of his life. As Melvyn Bragg wrote: in seeking out the ancient ley lines of thought and feeling…Hughes found much of this in children

For a decade or more he was the champion of the The Daily Mirror’s ‘Children as writers’ annual competition (one of the offshoots of which was Jill Pirrie’s On common ground ….now, like so many good things, out of print). I hunted through the index and citations for references to Hughes’ seminal 1970’s lecture Myth and education , a text which, like Poetry in the Making, had a profound effect on my teaching. Another part of my imbricated self; how many of us young teachers (as we were, then) were taught by these texts how we should read and teach poetry? There’s a passage in the lecture which seems central to understanding his core concerns as a poet.

Our educational system differs from what Plato would have called wisdom. Our school syllabus of course is one outcome of three hundred years of rational enlightenment, which had begun by questioning superstitions and ended by prohibiting imagination itself as a reliable mental faculty, branding it more or less as a criminal in a scientific society, reducing the Bible to a bundle of old woman’s tales, finally murdering God. And what this has ended in is a completely passive attitude of apathy in face of material facts. The scientific attitude, which is the crystallization of the rational attitude, has to be passive in face of the facts if it is to record the facts accurately. The scientist has to be a mirror first. He has to be a mirror second too, because the slightest imaginative bias in his presentation of the facts invalidates his findings and reflects badly on his standing as a scientist. And such is the prestige of the scientific style of mind that this passivity in the face of the facts, this detached, inwardly inert objectivity, has become the prevailing mental attitude of our time. It is taught in schools as an ideal. The result is something resembling mental paralysis. It can be seen in every corner of our life. It shows for instance in the passion for photography. Photography is a method of making a dead accurate image of the world without any act of imagination, and the ultimate morality of that was shown in an article I saw a few years ago in an American magazine. This article consisted of a number of photographs of a tiger mauling a woman. The photographs were taken at very close range. The story was that the tiger was really a tame tiger owned by the woman. The photographer wanted to take snaps of her and her tiger. Whether it was the presence of the photographer or his camera or what, the tiger suddenly turned savage and attacked its owner. It didn’t merely attack her – it pulled her down and began to maul her seriously. Meanwhile what was that perfected product of the scientific attitude doing?

The answer is that the photographer went on taking photographs. You can argue about Hughes’ take on photography…I can’t imagine Fay Godwin taking that lying down…but you can hardly argue with his passionate defence of the imagination in the health of the psyche and in our relationship with the ambient universe. It’s a piece of polemic that made me want to learn to read the great myths, the stories that answer the question why?while the scientist answers the question how?  It was this lecture which sent me to the stories that enchant us into a powerfully privileged sense of why we are human, the blurred distinctions between the divine, the human and the animal. 

I was also intrigued as I read Ted Hughes:Environmentalist and Ecopoetto suddenly think about how relatively few people there are in the poems….think of Causley, Larkin, Fanthorpe whose poems are crammed with people, with individuals. It’s not that Hughes poetry isn’t populated. It’s full of voices and ,for a better word, characters. But how many of them are ‘mythic’? That’s worth thinking about. 

But. There’s room in the world for a book about Ted Hughes as an eco-poet teacher and educator, one which that does justice to books he wrote for children, the ones like Season songs and What is the truth? in particular, and the light they shine on the wider work. It occurs to me that I can’t think of anyone better to write it better than Yvonne Reddick.She’d bring to it the qualities she brings to this one, qualities beautifully summarised in this endorsement:

It is very thoroughly researched, lucidly written and critically acute. An important merit is that is examines each stage of Hughes’s career in historical context, thus avoiding anachronistic retrospective criticism. Perhaps the most important change it makes to our understanding of Hughes is that he emerges as a public intellectual, rather than the reclusive poet of popular perception.’ (Neil Roberts, Emeritus Professor, Sheffield University, UK)

Well, it’s taken me an unconscionably long time to write this. I’m glad I have. I’m glad it’s finished. I won’t need the book any more, so here’s the deal. I’m putting it on ebay. Any money that I get for it will go the Caris Camden project that provides night shelter for rough sleepers. 

Stop Press: It went for a tenner.

Critics, poets and the common reader (Part One)

ted 2

Ted Hughes:Environmentalist and Ecopoet: Yvonne Reddick [Palgrave Macmillan 2017. £79.99]

As you know, I’ve become resident poetry blogger for Write Out Loud. I can’t manage to write two brand new posts a week, but I know there are lovely folk who follow the great fogginzo’s cobweb, but may not have hooked on to the WOL site. So, as promised, for the time being I’ll be re-posting articles and other ramblings from WOL on the cobweb. The most recent is huge…over 4000 words…so I’m splitting into two parts. I’ve riffed on the business of academic publishing, what it means to be a reader, on poetry criticism, and on why I think Ted Hughes’ work as a champion of educating the imagination was so inspirational. I’m also be telling you why I think Yvonne Reddick’s book is really really good. So here we go.

“What do I want in a critic of poetry? I am a slow and basic reader: clarity, first of all. Everything else, the enthusiasm, the insight, even little bits of esoteric knowledge, can all come later. I need to see what is going on”. (Anthony Wilson)

Procrastination is the thief of time. More months ago than I like to remember, I was asked if I’d like to review Yvonne Reddick’s new book. 

No problem, I said Send it over…I’ll do it forthwith. 

The book arrived shortly after, and very handsome it is. Compact, satin-y hardback, high quality paper. 335 pages of complex exegesis, plus an additional densely-printed 16 pages of citations. Daunting, but it sat nicely in the hand, with a comforting heft. And I settled down to read it, immediately realising that I probably wasn’t qualified to critique it, but persuading myself that I could make a fist of saying what I made of it, and what it taught me. 

Some time…quite a long time…later, the book was bristling with post-it stickers, and my notebook was filling up with quotations, and queries and jottings, and I didn’t know where to start. Nevertheless, I started, threw away the draft, started again, put it away for a bit, thought about it, forgot it, felt guilty, started again..and so on. 

Meanwhile I missed a deadline for submitting to The North, found the next one was an Irish edition, but finally gritted my teeth, set myself down and wrote a review. I thought I’d done justice to the job, and proof-read and tidied, and then looked up the publication details because the price isn’t on the book cover. The price! I thought I’d misread. Anything from £65 to £79.99 depending on where you look. 

A bit of context: Ted Hughes in context: Terry Gifford (ed) C.U.P. 2018 is priced at an equally eye-watering £75   Why? Apparently it’s because they only sell in small quantities. Maybe the price is one reason for that? What do I know? Anyway, here’s an response from the academic and writer Kate Beswick’s blog; she’s bemoaning the pricing of texts by academic publishers, like this and hers, and the way it it arguably significantly reduces her readership.

“Every six years or so, UK academics have to submit our work to the Research Excellence Framework where its ‘quality, significance and rigour’ is graded anywhere between 1 and 4 stars. …… there are still good reasons to choose an academic publisher….. if you are hoping to submit a book to REF. Most obviously because with an academic publisher your book will be subject to a rigorous peer review by someone in your discipline, which means there is quality control and you can have some confidence the academic world thinks your work is worthwhile.”

Me? I did the only thing I could; I panicked. I couldn’t send in this review; what if everything I said was wrong or just naive? After all, here’s a book that’s self-evidently the product of extensive, meticulous scholarly research, and has most certainly been peer-reviewed within an inch of its life. What more could I possibly add that would be of the slightest interest to anyone, especially to folk who know a lot more about Ted Hughes than I ever will. And thus I missed the Spring deadline. Procrastination. 

But a promise is a promise. This won’t be a review, not properly. Like Bleak House’s Esther Summerson, ‘I have a great deal of difficulty in beginning to write my portion of these pages, for I know I am not clever.’ Let me qualify that. For ‘have’ read ‘had’, and for ‘clever’ read  ‘ill-qualified’. Think of it as the musings of a particularly common reader. Let’s start with something apparently straightforward, an extract from a poem you can find very nearly at the end of Charles Causley’s Collected poems 1951-2000 

When I asked

what the poet did, a girl said,

‘Make up true stories

of people and animals

in his head’

When I told them 

he was also a farmer,

they said they thought

farmers didn’t have time to write

stories and poems.


‘Once,’ I said,’he took home

a wounded badger.

Nursed it well, then set it free.’

All the children smiled;

clapped their hands very loudly.’

(In a Junior School: to Ted Hughes)

It seems so simple to these children, the idea of a farmer-poet who once nursed a badger. I imagine they would not have been fazed to know that in his early life he’d hunted and trapped and killed animals, and throughout his life had been a fisherman. They would possibly be baffled by the fact that critics of Hughes and his poetry find it problematic. What Yvonne Reddick’s book does, with a clarity that belies its density, is to sure-footedly take the reader through the thickets of academic controversy that surround the poetry and the poet; to analyse their relationship to the burgeoning environmental  movement; to deftly unpick interpretations of art’s relationship with ecology, and equally to the alarming number of sects and subsects that occupy the fields of eco-poetics and eco-poetry.

The publisher’s blurb is a useful starting point if there’s to be an element of evaluation in what follows. 

“This book is the first book devoted entirely to Hughes as an environmental activist and writer. Drawing on the rapidly-growing interest in poetry and the environment, the book deploys insights from ecopoetics, ecocriticism and Anthropocene studies to analyse how Hughes’s poetry reflects his environmental awareness. Hughes’s understanding of environmental issues is placed within the context of twentieth-century developments in `green’ ideology and politics, challenging earlier scholars who have seen his work as apolitical. The unique strengths of this book lie in its combination of cutting-edge insights on ecocriticism with extensive work on the British Library’s new Ted Hughes archive. It will appeal to readers who enjoy Hughes’s work, as well as students and academics.”

 Let’s add to that a crucial caveat acknowledged by Reddick in her introductory chapter:

It would be foolish to suggest that reading Hughes’ work through the lens of his environmentalism is the only way of reading it.

Exactly. There’s an implied ‘as’ in the title, and the reader needs to hold on to that, to avoid saying but what about…..?. We need to go elsewhere for the ‘what about’. What are we to be concerned with? I’d say it was the meaning of being human, and of being human in relation to all other sentient creatures, and the complex eco-systems they live in, and on, and through; the challenges to human imagination and responsibility presented by the degradation of our complex environment and eco system. The argument is for all of us, and the book is is presented as being for ‘readers who enjoy Hughes’s work, as well as students and academics’.

Well, I’ve never been an academic, but I fit in the first category of ‘reader’, and I’ve never really stopped being a student, so I’ll take it from there. In the 1980s I was introduced to the sometimes baffling world of meta-narrative, and semiotics. I probably remain baffled, but one text that stuck was Wolfgang Iser’s The implied reader. I probably still don’t quite understand it, or else it’s simpler than it seems. This passage, an interpretation of Iser, was central, for me

“When an author is composing a text, they [sic]have a particular reader in mind, which is in part represented in the text. This reader is not identical to a real, flesh-and-blood reader, but is “a textual structure anticipating the presence of a recipient without necessarily defining him…the concept of the implied reader designates a network of response-inviting structures, which impel the reader to grasp the text.” Iser separates the concept of implied reader into two “interrelated aspects: the reader’s role as a textual structure, and the reader’s role as a structured act.” 

The textual structure refers to the reader’s point-of-view as found within the text. This standpoint is multifaceted, because the narrator, the characters, the plot, and the fictitious reader all offer sides of it. Further, the reader’s role as a textual structure is defined by the “vantage point by which he joins [these perspectives], and the meeting place they converge.” All, as component parts, operate together to shape the reader’s role as found within the text.”

Now, I’m pretty firm in my belief that in the first instance this doesn’t apply to poems at the moment they’re being written. I’m on the side of Ted Hughes when he wrote in Poetry in the making that the whole business is about focussing absolutely on what it is you think you’re trying to capture. I think ‘capture’ is the right word here, and it’s germane to the debate about Hughes’ imaginative and ethical engagement with animals that is reviewed in Reddick’s book. 

But it undeniably applies to a work of evaluative criticism, which attends to the imagined reader just as much these lines that I’m currently writing. If I wasn’t conflicted about my imagined audience, I’d have written this months ago. And I’m not sure that it would be possible to attend to the needs of the common reader AND the student AND the peer-academic simultaneously without going slightly mad. So who is this book intended for? Since Yvonne Reddick’s writing is beautifully poised and coherent and rational, I’m guessing that, whilst she’ll always have one eye over her shoulder, anticipating the what abouts of a specialised segment of literary academia, her primary implied reader is the student, and I’ll argue later that if this is the case she makes a stunningly good job of it.

Whenever we read anything we bring to the text all the accumulated baggage of previous reading and experience, and this becomes the lens that distorts the message the imagined writer intended for the actual reader. Several times in the book, Yvonne Reddick uses a word I’d never before encountered. Imbricated.I had to look it up, and have to say it’s a remarkably useful word. It means that something is in a complex way, layered. You could think of roof tiles, which are each distinct and separate, but simultaneously part of a single structure. I found it more useful to thing of something organic and flexible. Like the scales of a snake. In this case, applied to Hughes and his poetry, it acknowledges that they are made up of many layers, and that some of them may seem contradictory; this becomes especially relevant when it comes to the last chapter of the book…on hunting, shooting, fishing and conservation…in which the inconsistencies of Hughes’ public positions on this are described as ‘problematic’. Reddick pretty well keeps her powder dry on this…a studious objective neutrality is one of the hallmarks of the book….but I can’t.

Melvyn Bragg wrote, for the Observer,in a review of an unauthorised biography, 

There was so much of him. He lived the lives of many men called Ted Hughes. Driven, all of them, by a core of energy so bright and fierce it burned out many of those he encountered. By the time he reached manhood, he had, fully developed, an appetite, even a greed, above all a relentless questing passion for the life of passion itself which he sought and fed with poetry, sex and transformative mysticism about the earth and its meaning. Sometimes jubilant, sometimes tormented. He had a compulsion, which seemed to him to be mysterious, to confess and describe everything that claimed his concentration. And at whatever the cost.

Hughes was a prodigious reader of just about everything, and a prodigious writer of letters (700 pages of the collected letters), of poems (1200 pages), of plays and essays and so on. He was an educator, a broadcaster, a lecturer and a performer. He was conflicted hunter, a conflicted farmer (how many other poets do a full time job like that?), a conflicted and unfaithful husband, father, lover. He grew up in the physically and historically imbricated landscapes of the upper Calder Valley, and of Mexborough. Landscapes of the kind D H Lawrence grew up in. When I read Reddick’s accounts of various critics’ condemnation of his inconsistencies when it come to ecopolitics, I get annoyed. Because, I think, why should a poet be consistent, why should a life be simplified into ‘consistency’? Fortunately, she does not. She sticks to the task. And in the next week’s post I’ll try to tell you how well she does it. See you in a week. Thanks for reading xx

Keeping up with keeping up

I said in my last post on the cobweb that I’d been more than delighted to be invited to be the resident blogger for Write Out Loud. It’s a poetry site that does a wondrous job of posting every poetry gig in the land on a weekly basis, as well as updating us all about what’s what in the bustling world of poetry, and poetry events.

I also said that I wasn’t up to writing two brand new posts on a weekly basis, and that a) I would publish my post on the WOL site, and then b) repost them here, because I know I’ve got readers who aren’t hooked in to the WOL site. You might want to have a look at it anyway, and then decide to click that ‘Follow’ button: here’s the link


I kicked off by using some older articles as an introduction for new readers. There’ll be three or four of them before we get back into the swing of brand new posts and stellar guests. So here’s one from a few years ago.

Whose life is it, anyway?

A couple of years ago, I was writing about the way I had found myself conflicted about learning things about my granddad’s life that that didn’t fit with poems I’d written about him; how I was feeling uneasy about the truths of documentary records, and the truths of poems and poetry. I think it bothered me particularly, because it took me a long time to put people in my poems at all…ten years ago, pretty much all my poems were like my photographs: unpopulated landscapes.

I tried deliberately to break out of the straitjacket of endlessly writing pretty/atmospheric/repetitive (inevitably) evocations of places like Skye and the Pennine Moors. I took my cue from Carol Ann Duffy’s ‘The world’s wife’, because I saw that I could try ventriloquism, learn the way of other people’s voices. I wrote monologues for all sorts of famous statues, like The Angel of the North, and for an artist who had fascinated me, and for his wife, and his model.  But never about real, living people…or, at least, about people who I knew, and might get to read the poems.

I suppose the first breakthrough of sorts came in the guilty relief and release –for both of us, I want to believe – that came when my mother died in her 90s . She spent the last fifteen years of her life in a nursing home following a  severe stroke. She fought against every moment of it. She resented and hated it. I took her ashes to the Valley of Desolation, her favourite place in Wharfedale, and soon after, wrote a poem about it as a sort of atonement or prayer for absolution. Then I felt guilty that I’d not written for my dad, so I wrote about his birdwatching, his shoe mending, his singing; and then I had to balance it up with more about my mum. It’s a strange thing, guilt, but the outcome was that over about three years I’d written a handful of poems, and more about my grandparents, and it seemed to come more easily with each one. I didn’t feel as if they were looking over my shoulder, tutting.  Or not as often, or not as loudly.

But I can pinpoint the big breakthrough to specific dates. In October 2013 I was on a writing course at Almaserra Vella in Spain, and the tutor was Jane Draycott. She gave us a quick writing exercise…first impressions, get-it-down stuff on a randomly chosen postcard, which happened to be a Penguin book cover that had images of flame on it. And I wrote about our friend Julie who we’d visited in her flat in Whitby a couple of weeks before. Julie was dying of an incurable cancer; she’d confounded the specialists by outliving their predictions by over a year.

Flames. The most tenuous of connections. But a flame burned fiercely in Julie, and in the underlit smokestacks of the Boulby mine just up the coast. Maybe that was it. I typed it up with very few changes the week after. When she died a couple of weeks later, I nerved myself up to give the poem to her brother at her funeral. I was genuinely frightened. But he liked it, shared it. Gave me a permission I realised I needed: to write honestly about and for real living people. That poem Julie won first prize in the 2013 Plough Competition. Andrew Motion had liked it! I used some of the prize money to put together and print my first two pamphlets.

Which is where it gets just a little more complicated. We’ve been going to the Isle of Skye for thirty years, renting a bungalow from Norman and Effie Macpherson in the crofting valley of Achnacloich on the Sleat peninsula. Norman was a shepherd all his working life, on Ben Lomond, on Ben Nevis, and finally, till his death eight years ago, back on his home island. Every now and then I’d try to write about them, but always felt conscious of what I imagined would be their wry, dry take on the whole sorry impertinent business. What did I know? Even so, when I put my first pamphlet together I wanted them in: a seven-poem sequence titled Crofters.

If anyone else had given me permission for that, it was MacCaig, who I read and re-read, trying to nail down just how he did it; that apparently simple thing of writing about the people and hills of Assynt that he loved and knew better than I’d ever know Skye, or Effie and Norman. Anyway, that’s the thing I was after. The way Norman would hide behind the barn to smoke, the quiet pauses of Effie’s speech. Here’s Norman

He’s laid up in the house:

joint pains, congested lungs,

bladder like a bag of knives,

and maybe sheep-dip’s to blame.

and Effie, the first year after he died, feeding the sheep that come running

like threads to a spool,

and milling like a boil of beans –

ignore the black and white dog,

the woman in the pilled grey fleece,

her hair that breezes cannot ruffle.

It was an expensive dog, that one. Norman went down to Tyndrum to buy it. A serious business, buying a working dog.

I still didn’t feel right about publishing the poems. In a diffuse sort of way, a way that says: well, they’re not going to see these poems. No-one’s going to buy them after all.  That sort of thing. And then I wrote some more, and sent some in for competitions. A poem called Norman came 2nd in a York Literature festival competition. I wrote from memory and feeling. Some things I know are factually true and some as though they ought to be.


could birth a lamb in the lee of a dike,

smit a skittish ewe in a squall,

pin down a ram and not give a jot 

for its yellow stare, the black slot of its sideways eye,

wear a two-year Herdwick like a scarf

over three miles of bog,

make good a tumbled fence with a twist of twine,

strip out an axle on a Subaru,

stand half a summer to his waist in the slop of the dip

haul a whole flock through

and still tell a tale 

over the clamouring misery of bleat.

He could walk all day 

in a pelt of rain and a sack for a coat.

To put down a runt

or one with a goitre 

or one with a sprain or a maggoty arse – 

that was beyond him quite.

The days for the slaughterman’s truck 

he was away over the moor.

He knew where the first primrose showed.

from Much Possessed (smith|doorstop 2017)

I knew all about the Subaru, but the Herdwick was there for the heft of the word. It would more likely have been one of the blackfaced sheep. I don’t know the proper name. A Cheviot? What I was after was the mix of Norman’s durability and the sentimental side he could show.

He once told me he knew a secret place in the woods beyond the headland. He’d take Effie there to show her the first primroses. They can’t be got at now, because of the deer fences. He was cross about them, because now there are no deer to keep down more competitive plants.

The man at the garage in Armadale told me that all the neighbours were pretty sure that years of exposure to organo-phosphates in the sheep dip played a part in his illness. That had to find a way in.

That’s Norman who I didn’t know all that well; but it’s the Norman I remember. I worried about whether Effie would recognize him. Or think me obtrusive. An incomer.

The business was finally settled for me when Liz Lochhead picked a poem as the winner of the 2014 Plough Competition. It pivots on something Effie happened to say when I told her about an odd meeting in the rain down in Tarskavaig. This is it.


Washed up on a rucked-rug  shoreline,

floats, fish-boxes, rubber gloves,

fertiliser sacks, kelp, clots of wool,

and the cockle –pickers, peat-pickled 

bog-creatures, leathery, with ruined teeth,

long, dirty nails, eyes as dark as iodine.

They tinkers. Och. says Effie. You’d do well

to look to the barns, and count the spades,

and what did they ask you for,

the leather women, old coats belted with rope,

rubber boots patched with gaffer tape,

hair like seaweed, when they tapped

on the windscreen, brown as selkies.

For a light only, the bright ember,

blue smoke blown on the wind, the spit

of rain off the sea, and thanks we’re away 

down the road and done with the day,

with turning stones, with lifting kelp,

browsing the hard shore for a knuckly net

of cockles, iron, amber,cobalt, rust.

What’s to be done with the Tarskavaig tinkers

who come up out of the peat or the sea?

And when the light goes, where do they turn?

from : Much possessed. (smith|doorstop 2017)

We’d had a laugh over that. Not ‘PC’ that ‘tinkers’. ‘But they’re tinkers just the same’, said Effie. And I cut her some cake. Well, it takes more than a slice of cake to say ‘thank you’ for putting someone out there in public, when you never said ‘please’ in the first place. I had sleepless nights over it all,  then said the serenity prayer. The bit about asking for courage to change the things we can. I made a neat parcel of my three pamphlets, and wrote a letter that took me more redrafts than most poems, all explanation, mea culpa and apology, and posted it all off to Achnacloich on the Sleat peninsula of Skye.

Then I waited. And nothing happened. I thought maybe she’d gone to visit her cousin, or gone over to Ireland for a holiday, or…….. I thought over and over, what if she’s upset, or worse. Last week I bit the bullet and telephoned. 

O, hello, she said. I was meaning to ring you…I feel guilty now, you know how things get put off, it’s been a terrible summer, och, the worst I remember, dreich days, and grass poor, we’re taking supplements up to sheep; yes I got your books. We liked them. Norma says I’ll be famous now. Och, no, of course I’m not cross.

For two days I walked on air, and that November I was able to go and see her, and all was well. Whose lives are they anyway, when we write? I have no idea. But I know we’re responsible for them, and the truth of them. Whatever that is.