Crowdfunding with Anthony Wilson: in praise of anthologies

Anthony Wilson’s crowdfunder is something you can really get behind. You can be part of a venture to launch a new anthology of poems that really ought to get more attention. All the details you need are available by following this link

Not only that, but in support of crowdfunding their new anthology of poems, No One You Know, with Unbound, Sue Dymoke and Anthony are starting a series of blog posts about anthologies which have influenced us as readers and writers. The first one is about an anthology that inspired me. Again…just follow the link

Discovering Geoffrey Summerfield’s Worlds

Anthony also writes

We would be interested to know which anthologies got you, our readers, going.

So here goes with a reworking of a post I wrote a couple of years ago. Your favourite anthology might be something like The Rattle Bag. Mine are ones that initially kept my head above water as a young teacher, and then introduced me to a world of poetry. Here we go:


The Best of…………..

……..punk, bluebeat, blues, rhythm and soul, Bob Dylan, the 80’s, Motown, Stax, Atlantic, Leonard Cohen, ska, Reggae Greats, Miles Davis. A flavour of my record collection. I reckon 80% of it is compilations. Very few single albums that hold my attention all the way through. Albums without a dud track. Cohen’s ‘I’m your man’. Paul Simon’s ‘Graceland’ (although you could argue that it’s actually a compilation of great artists). ‘Who’s next’. Tom Russell:’The man from God knows where’. I’m pushed to think of many more, off-hand. And I’m a bit like that about poetry, though that’s been changing over the last three or four years. Anthologies. That’s been my thing. Maybe that’s why I frequently go blank at poetry events when friends talk with great familiarity about poets I’m not sure I’ve heard of, and feel a bit gauche when poet friends post photographs of new collections they’ve bought in a retail frenzy at this or that poetry festival. So this week’s cobweb strand is in praise of anthologies and anthologists…or, at least, one particular anthologist. OK. Close your books, tidy your pens, sit up straight, look this way, remember it’s your own time you’re wasting and now…..

….let me take you back to 1972, when the then Education Minister, one Margaret Thatcher of blessed memory, ordered a review of the teaching of English. It was the first of a long series of attempts (which grew more successful over the years) to take political control of the school curriculum, and of English in particular. What it produced was hardly what she hoped for. The report was ‘Language for life’ (popularly the Bullock Report)…a generally humane and informed document, which you might have expected of HMI. It’s taken SATS, league tables and OFSTED to put the kibosh on that kind of subversive lefty nonsense. What we have in its place is government ministers sounding off about how we should teach the history of the First World War, and what poetry should be force-fed to the children of Albion, and how. And now…..

anthology 3

….as the wheel turns inexorably full circle, let me take you back another twenty years when I passed my 11+ and went to Batley Grammar School and was presented with Book One of a series of five English course books written by a man who sold at least 70 million copies of his prolific output by the time he died in some comfort in the 1990s. You might not remember just how drab and battered English course books used to be, but just to be clear, that jazzed up ‘contemporary’ later stuff was just as stuffed with clause analysis, punctuation exercises, comprehension exercises, jumbled proverbs and all the rest of the nonsense. Oh, and each chapter would begin with a bit of text, an extract of prose and, maybe twice in any one book, a poem. The one I remember from Book One was something by Masefield. Followed by exercises that sqeezed every last ounce of syntactic, grammatical, and vocabulary juice out of it.

anthology 2


Of course, we were offered books of poetry which contained no exercises. But generations of desperate pencilled marginal notes. Palgrave’s Golden Treasuries, and the deeply dispiriting, but jauntily alliterative Paths to Parnassus: The poet’s pageant. I remember the second one from the  stock cupboards in my first teaching job. Exercises and heritage. Whose heritage was never in question. Probably not that of the lads I taught on my first teaching practice at Wharrier Street Secondary Modern School in Walker on Tyneside..alma mater to the great Eric Burdon, as it happens. So the question would arise. If you don’t want this stuff, what’ll take its place? All my secondary and university education in English Lit. stopped dead round about 1916. I was well up on prose fiction…northern realists like Sillitoe, Stan Barstow, John Braine, Keith Waterhouse, and I was totally sold on the short stories of Dylan Thomas. And I was shortly immersed in a golden age of children’s fiction. Alan Garner, Joan Aiken, Robert Westall, all of them. But I simply didn’t know enough poetry to offer an alternative to what seemed to be on offer.. The Bullock Report noted it was still a problem in 1972.

‘The teacher is often faced with the task of showing that poetry is not some inaccessible form of utterance, but that it speaks directly to children, as to anyone else, and has something to say which is relevant to their living here and now.


It is exceptionally difficult for the individual teacher to keep abreast of all the new poetry that is published. Indeed, except for those with a particular interest in it there is often a time lag, so that the teacher is not aware of much of the work produced in the last two decades. A good anthology will do a great deal to introduce teacher and pupil alike to new and unfamiliar material, but it should not be a substitute for the extensive reading of poetry by the teacher himself.’

I remember reading that bit about anthologies not being a substitute for extensive reading. I didn’t know whether I felt guilty or indignant. Because what I believed then, and still believe, is that the best anthologies offer the shared experience of an committed enthusiast’s extensive reading. It’s taken me a long time to get round to standing up for anthologies. But here goes.

anthology 7

For years, the BBC ran a schools’ radio series called Books Plays and Poems,  lovely landscape format booklets that accompanied the programmes and in the mid 60’s they were the first source I had of an eclectic mix of poetry that included contemporary work (including the lyrics of Penny Lane). They had photographs in them, too! Imagine. And then, in my fifth year of teaching along came Geoffrey Summerfield’s Voices [Penguin. 1970]. It was the first of a series of four anthologies, and pretty soon accompanied by four more Junior Voices.


And here’s the thing; they not only didn’t look remotely like school books, but they didn’t read like school books either. They were full of surprises, and, in the case of Junior Voices, they had stunning imagery in colour. They were books you could sit and browse, and every page brought a fresh surprise, if, like me and the rest of the teachers The Bullock Report talked about, you didn’t know much about poetry and poets and poems (unless they were on O and A Level syllabuses).

What’s more, none of them seemed to have designs on a reader, other than to share a boundless enthusiasm and apparently encyclopaedic knowledge. They were eclectic and exciting. They weren’t overtly thematically organised, so there was none of that invitation to compare and contrast we were all programmed into. It was all done by smart juxtapositions.Let me tell you who they introduced me to. Roethke, Elizabeth Jennings, e e cummings, John Clare, Basho, Stanley Cooke, Norman MacCaig, Woody Guthrie, Elizabeth Bishop, Gary Snyder, Patricia Beer, Yevtushenko, Neruda. They sold me on Sylvia Plath’s ‘You’re’, and Ted Hughes’ Hawk roosting, and Auden’s Musee des beaux arts. There were medieval riddle poems, and playful stuff like ones from Alastair Reid’s Ounce, dice, trice. Haiku and and shape poems. Carlos Williams. Maybe it was Summerfield’s connection with NYU, but there were lots of American poets who I would otherwise never have come across. It was the inclusion of MacCaig’s I took my mind a walk that ended up with my reading his collected works, beginning to end. Years later. But that was the seed. Those anthologies opened my eyes and ears to world I had no idea existed.

And that wasn’t all. Hard on their heels, in 1974, came Geoffrey Summerfield’s Worlds

anthology X

And for me, as for Anthony Wilson, this one was truly a revelation.  ‘Worlds, says Anthony, ‘is one of the most important books in my life.’ I’ll second that. It will come as no surprise, I suppose, to discover that you can now only buy second- hand copies of these lovely books. Meanwhile, Coles Notes go from strength to strength, and supermarkets stock books of exercises to drill your children through their SATs and their phonics, and so the world turns,and the mills of Gove grind exceeding fine. Thank god for Geoffrey Summerfield and Michael Rosen and the rest, and whoever picks up their mantle in coming years

Now, it may well be that lots of you have parallel experiences. Anthony and Sue would be delighted to hear about them. But before I go, I want to say a word about about a different way of encountering an anthology. I’ve been going to Ann and Peter Sansom’s Poetry Business writing days for a good long time. In the process I realise they’ve assembled a very special anthology for me. Very often, a writing exercise will begin around, or from, a photocopied poem. I’ve religiously trimmed them down and stuck them in my workbooks so I know which poem triggered which draft or prose ramble. And now I have probably a couple of hundred, and in the process I’ve realised that these workshops have done for me now what Voices and Junior Voices and Worlds did, way back when. Without them I’d never have met Alison McVety, Thomas Lux, Billy Collins, Liz Berry, Martina Evans, Frank o’Hara, Tishani Doshi, Matthew Sweeney, Robert Van Dias, Claudi Jessop, Stewart Conn…and on and on it goes.

That’s what a great anthology is. The shared experience of folk who know more than you and who fill you with enthusiasm to know more than you do. To want more of the best of the best of. If that was all very teacherly, I guess it’s what I do. Certainly what I did for 40 years. Hard to shake off.

Not sure who’ll be the guest next week. But he or she will be stellar. Promise.


Magic toyshops…..a polished gem (9) Gaia Holmes


“Comparison is the thief of joy”

–Teddy Roosevelt

“You wake up one morning. You check in with Facebook. Skim the latest updates. And there it is: another writer announcing their latest prize-winning success, followed by several hundred ‘likes’ and congratulatory comments. You add your own, with a smiley or two.”    ( you can feel a ‘but‘ straining at its leash, can’t you?).

Thus Robin Houghton in her excellent guest post for Anthony Wilson’s blog recently ….I’ll leave the link at the end, because it’s well worth a read.

It certainly chimed with me. Robin’s post takes a cool look at the business of envying the success of others. Two things go through my mind. One is an acknowledgement of the ‘why not me?’ feeling. The other is the memory of the pleasure other people’s success has given me. Kim Moore, Jane Clarke, Keith Hutson, Pam Thompson, Wendy Pratt…their pleasure has made my life richer. And, I think, envy is on a spectrum that, at its other end, contains rich and positive feelings and emotions. I might ‘envy’ a writer who can do things that I can’t…but then I can qualify that. I can believe: ‘I can’t do that YET’. We learn from the company we keep. Simon Armitage said something at a workshop he ran a couple of weeks ago and it has stuck. He says that the only piece of advice he’ll give his students without reservation is : READ. How are you going to get better at your trade unless you spend time in the company of people who are better than you? Certainly, in the company of people who are different from you, who can do things that you know you can’t do. YET. I guess it comes down to the difference between ‘I wish that was me instead of you’ at one end of the spectrum and ‘what will I have to do to join you?’ at the other.

Here’s an example. One of my mentors, Hilary Elfick, told me once that all my poems are silent films, full of visual imagery and without sound. That brought me up short. I was reminded of it this week at the open mic. I compere at The Puzzle Hall Inn in Sowerby Bridge; one of my favourite Calderdale poets, Tom Cleary [(un)discovered gem No.5, 30/11/2014] was reading, and I was struck by the way sound matters in his poetry. There was a train ‘snaredrumming over the points’; there were the RUC, looking to split scalps, ‘the tap and slap of truncheons on their palms’. I thought: ‘I wish I could do that’. He does first lines, too. The kind that defy you not to read on…’her first husband fell into a machine at work’ or ‘since the scream he hasn’t moved’. And I thought. ‘I wish I could do that’. The answer to which is: well, work at it if you want it. Otherwise stop feeling sorry for yourself.

And thus, after much procrastination and delay, we come to my guest for today. I’m going to use a lot of analogies to explain what her work does for me. I hope they work.

QUEEN peter blake

Whenever I read Gaia Holmes’ poems, or hear her read, I’m put in mind of the world and work of Peter Blake. To nail my colours to the mast, this image of Alice is how I’d picture Gaia’s narrative voice. Not quite other-worldly, but knowing things I have no immediate access to, and aware that the world is strange and lovely and that it can make us vulnerable. It’s a voice that makes me think of the doughty, unworldly, resourceful, compassionate clear-eyed heroines of folk tales. The ones who have no expectation of the kindness of  stepmothers and stepfathers and spiteful siblings, who are stoic about their work among the ashes, who undertake unnerving journeys through forests to the hen’s leg houses of cruel aunts, who understand that everything you are given is a gift to be used for the betterment of the world….all that.

The Toy Shop 1962 Peter Blake born 1932 Purchased 1970

I just realised that I’ve been enthusiastically banging on about this and that, and altogether forgetting the magic toyshop analogy.  I saw the Granada film version before I read the book.. It starred the unnerving Tom Bell. It’s completely unavailable anywhere in any format as far as I can make out. Why? It was great. As is the book. I love the arbtrariness of it all…the arbitrariness of the folk-tale. Once upon a time there was a sister and two brothers; their mother and father went on a journey and never came back because they died suddenly. So the children came down in the world and went to live in a toyshop. C.S.Lewis’s siblings have to learn swordplay and archery and war, and then become kings and queens. Carter’s have to play at puppetry, and at Leda and the swan. Carter’s tale has a terrible erotic charge among the feathers and the wedding satins and the dancing red-haired aunt. I think of toyshops and orphan girls when I read Gaia Holmes poems. Not all of them. But enough. Let’s meet her, shall we.

Gaia Holmes is a Luddenden-born poet whose work digs beneath the surface of mundane, urban life to reveal a remarkable seam of exoticism. Her carnival of characters – bingo callers, burger sellers, critical theorists – are all cast from the least expected places. She is a graduate of Huddersfield University’s English with Creative Writing BA, and has previously made a living as a busker, a cleaner, a gallery attendant,an oral historian, a lollypop lady , a poet in residence at Bradford Library, a free lance writer and Creative writing lecturer.
As well as being a familiar face on the local poetry scene, Gaia Holmes is also known nationally. She has read at literary festivals throughout Britain and beyond. Her poem ‘Claustrophobia’ was highly commended in the ‘best individual poem’ category of the Forward Poetry Prize, 2007 and ‘A homesick truckie In The Algarve’ was the featured poem in Frieda Hughes’ weekly literary column in ‘The Times’ (May 2007). Currently she runs the Halifax-based writing workshop ‘Igniting the spark’, and hosts Themes For Dreamers’, a fortnightly show (sundays 4-6pm) on Phoenix FM (Calderdale’s community radio station) along with William Thirsk Gaskill and Dave Higginson and featuring a flavorsome blend of music, poetry and other literary things. ‘Often we give away prizes; broken kettles, muses and poetry books. Often we press the wrong buttons or say the wrong things.’ she says. And they do. Being a guest is a rare and wonderful experience. Take it from me.

[The narrator exits stage left (because that’s where his sympathies lie) and returns two days later]

You should be reading this on Sunday night. At this rate you’ll be lucky if it arrives on Monday, and even if it does, it could be more incoherent than usual. How do these young poets manage to travel and travel and still seem lucid? I’ve only driven 500 miles and my head is now full of warm damp wool. Still, if anything will wake me up it’s the poems of Gaia Holmes; here we go.

First of all, I always misremember Gaia’s poems. When I remember them, I remember something like a magic toyshop, something slightly ramshackle and magical, full of awkward corners and odd surprises and surreal pilings on of impossible detail, the wacky inventiveness of one who would clear her life of the tidemarks and dullings of old lovers with Cillit-Bang, and the crazy imaginings of the salacious neighbour who thinks the poet ‘snorts cocaine, sleeps in a coffin,  /  eats dead kittens drowned in gin’ . I  invariably ‘remember’ feather and patchouli, and saffron lampshades, and the interiors of the cover of her first collection. This one:


And here’s a thing. If you want to buy it via Amazon the cheapest will cost you £15.00 + p&p. The most expensive is currently about £65.00, which, ironically, means that since the first print run is finished, Gaia probably can’t afford to replace her own copy when she loses it, or when it falls to pieces, or when she loses it, or when someone steals it. Whichever is first.

But as soon as I open up her her poems and read, rather than rely on this memory then before long I’ll be chilled and close to tears. There’s a lot of ice; there’s even an Ice Hotel. There’s the cold of loneliness and love gone wrong, and broken things that might be hearts or dreams that make you think twice about walking in bare feet. There’s the orphan voice of a narrator who sees things that no-one seems to notice her seeing. Like this.

The Allure Of Frost
Boxing day.
No fire in the grate and unopened presents
stacked around the base of the tree and fairy lights muted,
switched off, and the brandy that swells the fruit starting to eat
the cake in its tin and all the mirrors doused with tea towels
and your raw-eyed mother keening into a pillow in her bedroom
and too many men in black whispering and nodding
and I don’t know what the rosary is and whether to curtsey
to the priests when I hand them their tea
and the phrase ‘fruits of thy womb’ seem too ripe and too rich
for this and, Mary mother of God, I don’t know
how to cross myself and fear I’m invoking the devil
and the scent of death’s so thick
that it’s tainted the water and it’s heavy in the curtains
making them bend the rail
and your lips taste of the oils that grease your dead sister
and when I kiss you, you push me away and I want to spit
and weep and slap the corpse where she lies in her coffin
all done-up with hair grips and lipstick,
her sunken cheeks plumped out with wads of cotton wool
and the rictus of sin softened
by the crust of Rimmel Natural Beige powdering her face
and it’s so hot in here
that the cheese is sweating and the butter is liquid.
The chocolate coins are dripping from the tree.
Your Aunt’s un-bitten sandwiches
are curling upwards on her plate
and the lilies are wilting and stinking in their vases
and the cat stands quivering and retching
against the cold crack beneath the back door.
Outside the frost, not knowing any difference,
continues to sparkle. And I’d like to go out there.
I’d like to stand in it until my feet turn blue.

I think this poem has everything in it that I think of as ‘Gaia’s poems’. The piling on and on of sensory detail, the Alice in Wonderland, or folktale, sense that the logic of things is wrong, the wistfulness, the vulnerablity, and the pluck of a girl who will stand in a sparkling frost till her feet turn blue and the world becomes real again. Lovely. It makes me think of Richard Dadd’s fairy feller. I’m not sure why, but indulge me. I do like a picture every so often.


And then there’s a more worldly voice. I’m struggling to make up my mind about which poem to choose next, because I’ve been so many to choose from, and her newer poems are quite hefty (which I like) and I think that three is probably enough to make you want to go and pay £65.00 for that first collection. However, I plump for this one.


You reach a certain stage in your life
when you seem to spend a lot of time
holding other people’s babies.

At parties, the bottles of M & S berry crushes
on the kitchen table
outnumber the bottles of wine
and it seems you’re the only one drinking.

Tonight you’re nursing your second glass of Chianti,
warming it against your chest
as the other guests sip Mocktails
and talk of teething rings and Farley’s rusks
and you’re trying to find a way in, but failing

and one of the kids is doing that cute thing again
with his hat pulled down to his nose
and everyone starts taking photos
and clucking and cooing and you take one too
just to fit in, even though you know
that you’ll delete it later
in favour of a landscape
or something you can understand
or something you can have

and you want a cigarette but no one’s smoking
so you go and stand outside the front door in the sleet
to smoke a roll-up but it gets wet
and you’re sucking on nothing

so you go back in. You cut through the branny fug
of milk and nappies with your reek of smoke
and they look at you cow-eyed with pity
and you know they’ve been talking about you
and one of them says “It’s not too late at forty”

and you mumble something and walk into the kitchen
to pour yourself another bigger glass of wine
and you sit there for a while listening to them talking
and think about the things they have:
the husbands, the high chairs, the family-sized toasters,
the pairs of tiny red wellies lined up by the door,
the huge American fridges
covered with glitter-crusted playschool pictures
and you think about your lack.

You think about your cat that moved next door,
your scrawny Basil plants withering on the windowsill,
the bread you bake always turning black

and you go back into the lounge,
move mounds of small, pale woollen things off a chair
and sit down wishing you had some ballast in your pockets,
wishing you were not made of straw and dry things,
wishing you were not quite so old and flammable
because they’re all looking at you
and it seems you’ve turned into
the hollow witch levitating in the corner,
that lonely, awful thing
that they could have become.

The first time I heard this, a couple of months ago, it took me aback and took off in new directions. It’s a great poem to read aloud, working the breathing-through of long, burgeoning sentences, which I’m currently addicted to. But a second reading picks out the trademark observation, those sensory images that are always surprisingly right…that branny fug, for instance, and the incredibly frustrating business of sucking on a wet roll-up, sucking on nothing, surrounded by Farley’s rusks and Milton, and milky babies, and mounds of small, pale woollen things. So far so ‘Guardian’ till the poem takes a tilt into something darker, and it’s the darkness of the folktale and the fairy godmother who may have things in her heart that you don’t want to know about, wishing she were not made of straw and dry things  /  the hollow witch levitating. Don’t tell me that last verb didn’t catch you out.

I’ve come to sudden decision. I’m going to stop explaining, or trying to explain,I’m going to stop reviewing and evaluating and being teacherish. I’m still jet-lagged, or whatever the word is that decribes the brainscramble of driving too fast for too long. So, with no more ado, I’m simply going to share two more poems with you.

Rain Charm For Stirling Street

Oh, the itch and nag of it-
this rainless month
when sapless slugs
fruit our yards like prunes
and the lawns
in the salubrious parts of town
are brown whispers.

Even inside
red roses yellow
and spill their petals
before they’ve had time to bloom.
Hard green mangoes
rot before they’ve ripened
and in the fridge
milk thickens and clots
in the necks of bottles,
the cheese gets louder and louder
until it roars.

And lately, we have had
restless nights too hot to touch,
deserts between us in our beds,
Sirocco winds blistering our dreams,
our waking bodies
black with fruit flies.

All you sun-junkies,
you lovers of deck chairs
and Ambre Solaire, forgive me.
I am taking action.
I am standing behind the kitchen door
wobbling a cross hatch saw
to make the sound of thunder.
I am cooking lightning
in the microwave.
I am pouring rice on to a saucer
to make the sound of rain.
I am summoning a storm.

You know what? I believe Gaia Holmes can make rain. I know that cheeses can roar. I take that as the West Riding dialect word for ‘weeping’. ‘Give ovver roaring or I’ll give you summat to roar ovver’ my Gran would say. In a kindly, apple-cheeked way. Gaia Holmes can write bittersweet, tender love poems, too. And does. They make me want to gather ‘her’ up, whoever is the her of these poems, whoever is the ‘I’; I want the world to set itself right and more kindly.

Inspired by the paintings of Andrea Kowch

My life is full of gaps.
The barbed wire fell away
from our fences
leaving rotten posts.
Wind shucked the glass
from the greenhouse frame
and rabbits gnawed our apple trees
to stumps.

The turnips and beetroot we planted
are soft and rotten beneath the dirt
and the dry-teated cows
can give us nothing.

We sell what we can: rare eggs with no yolk,
scant scrapes of honey, the last plump fish
from our dying lake.

and there’s not enough love
in my wrists
to make bread.

In bed at night
my husband’s hands
fall through me.

When I read these poems I have to remind myself of the subversive truths of the folktales, of the resilience of folk, and that, somewhere and somehow, the innocent and the loving will endure and triumph. I believe that, as Gaia writes in another poem, in lines I hope she’ll forgive me for taking out of context:

Tomorrow I’ll be out at dawn
shovelling sunlight into sacks,
siphoning it into jars and bottles
I will pipe the edges of his world
with gold.

I think it will be the gold of the sky in Peter Blake’s Alice;  the cold house of the toyshop will be hot with flames and we will all run over the ridge tiles in the night with not an idea where it’ll all end. I hope you enjoyed this as much as I have. I think I have an idea for next Sunday’s post, but I can’t be sure. Still, you all looked very smart today, and I’m proud of you all, and next week, as a treat, we’ll have a no-uniform day. Let’s say ‘Thankyou, Miss Holmes’, and then off you go. If you want to buy her books she only has one at the moment. Maybe you can save up for the other. Here’s the detail.

Dr James Graham’s Celestial Bed  [Comma press 2006]  via Amazon: anything from £15 – £65

Lifting the piano with one hand      [Comma Press 2013]  £7.99

Oh….and you can follow Gaia and read more of her poems and other things via this link.

oops…nearly forgot. You can read the full text of Robin Houghton’s ‘On Literary Envy’ from July 19th this year, via Anthony Wilsons’s wonderful poetry blog at


Video killed the radio star

Well, it’s a grey rainy bank Holiday, and I’m writing this so it’ll be all ready when I come back from the Old Olive Press, and tempted to think…didn’t summer use to be, well, summery. But, as Raymond Williams usefully demonstrated * , nostalgias are infinitely regressive. Which is one way of explaining the oblique title of this Sunday’s post. Wasn’t radio supposed to kill reading, put an end to books? And so on. Anyway, I’m writing this in response to a post that Anthony Wilson** put up on his blog recently (I’ve come late to Anthony Wilson, as I come late to most good things, and so I’m relying on the golden oldies from his back catalogue). The one that caught my attention was one about why students say they don’t like poetry.

Now, I think, like he does, that what they’re saying is : they don’t like Poetry, and I think that there are reasons for this that could be laid at the door of teachers (including me), and, a long time before that, Literacy. When I was an English Advisor, I could guarantee that if I visited a Year 5 or a Year 6 class, sooner or later a group of girls (almost always girls) would want to perform something for me, and (almost always) it would be Alan Ahlberg’s Please Mrs Butler. Nobody made them learn it, nobody suggested they learn it, but learn it they did, and performed it to anyone who stopped long enough to be an audience. I learned it, too: Please, Mrs Butler, this boy Derek Drew keeps taking my rubber, Miss what can I do? And then in comes the voice of Mrs Butler, in this brilliant rhyming call and response poem for two voices. I didn’t try to learn it; it just happened slowly, through repetition.

Another memory. When I was Secondary English teacher and form tutor I used to enjoy, enormously, the way (mainly) girls would copy the lyrics of pop songs from ‘Smash Hits’ into their journals and jotters. In coloured felt pen. Why? nobody made them. Why copy them? They could have cut them out and stuck them in. These were kids who would have been indignant if I asked them to copy out Poems. But, of course, these were poems. It’s just that nobody called them that, so it was OK. But why copy them out? Why, to learn them. We can all learn from that. I used to wonder why it was mainly girls. I think…I think it’s because then (and I don’t know about now) girls’ play was more collaborative than boys’, and that collaboration was sustained, in part, by poetry. Don’t get me wrong…I’m not pushing a nostalgic view of childhoood, but I was 16 when the Opies’ ‘Lore and language of schoolchildren’ was published in 1959, and a lot of the playground rhymes,  for  counting-out and skipping and ball-bouncing, were still alive and well in the 60s as my own children were growing up. I’m not too worried if they’ve been displaced by whatever advertising jingle or popsong has been appropriated and subverted by today’s children. It’s all part of the long revolution.

Literacy has a curious and occasionally disturbing history. For how long was it the monopoly of the church? And then a shared monopoly with the ruling elites? There was no universal literacy before the invention of cheap mass print technology and universal education. And even then, a peer of the realm in the 19th century, debating the education of the labouring classes, conceded that they needed to be taught to read, because they would need to read instructions (about the management of machinery, for instance), but there was no point in teaching them to write, because they would never issue any.

So where’s this taking us? This isn’t a scholarly affair…I’m just saying, without any originality, that poetry is older than prose because it’s older than reading and writing. Its heart and soul is rhythm, and the point about rhythm is that it’s patterned and repetitive. Children teach us this, but I wonder if we listen hard enough.What did rhythm help people to do for thousands of years before writing? It helped them, through songs and chants, to work collaboratively, to move huge loads, raise sails, keep straight lines in planting and harvesting fields. It helped them to celebrate with continuity the important things like birth and death and marriage. It gave them communal memories through the stories of victories and defeats, floods, fires, famines, and myths and legends. If these couldn’t be written down, then they had to be memorised. Stories had to be memorisable as well as memorable. Which is why we needed rhythm and repetition (just like times tables) and then the clever invention of rhyme that underscored rhythm and also helped the storyteller to remember the next line. The Odyssey, and Beowulf, had to be memorised. As did the parts of the Miracle Plays performed by artisans, not scholars.

Poetry was a creation of voice and sound and performance, social, collaborative, and democratic. At some point, in our culture at least, it became Poetry, and Private, and individual and exclusive. Of course, the original morphed through broadsheet ballads, and music hall songs, and pop songs and all the rest of the shared, popular, rhyming, repetitive languages we entertain ourselves with, and somehow stopped being poetry and became popular culture. Poets threw a white light on the obscenity of the First World War, while the soldiers subverted hymns and musical hall songs and sang ‘When this lousy war is over’ and ‘We are Fred Karno’s army’ and ‘Hush, here comes a whizzbang’ much as schoolchildren appropriated Charlie Chaplin and Tarzan into older song-patterns, and the Beatles into ‘We three kings’. And no-one wrote it down for them, or made them learn it.

All of this is taking me towards some of the ambivalence I have about my own writing and the things people have said about it, and to thinking about the relationship of Poetry, and stand-up poets, and performance poets, and written and oral poetry, and whether I should worry about it. Why should I bother about T S Eliot’s assertion that poetry exists on the page, when I didn’t understand ‘The Waste Land’ till I heard it being read aloud?

Maybe, here’s where I got conflicted. I started reading poems, publicly, in folk clubs, where poems are often called monologues. I didn’t read my own poems, because I wasn’t writing any. My heroes were John Cooper Clark and Les Barker. I plundered the collections of Pam Eyres and Roger McGough; I did McGonagall, John Hegley (especially Rowena), Marriot Edgar. So long as it was robust, had a narrative line and made people laugh it was fine. If it rhymed, then so much the better. I learned that it helps if there are repetitions and redundancies that give the audience a space to take it all in; ditto, places to pause and let the jokes and surprises work. When I thought I might write my own, it turned out to be a lot harder than it looked. There’s craft in these poems.

If you ever get to see the DVD of  Evidently John Cooper Clark, you’re in for an eyeopener. Clarky is more than happy to say that he learned his trade from Palgrave’s Golden Treasury…and then does an impromptu performance of Henry Newbolt’s Vitae Lampada.…that fantastic piece of Kipling-esque jingo, the desert sand red with the blood of English soldiery, the Gatling jammed and the Colonel dead, and the only thing that will rally them is an English public schoolboy, exhorting the chaps to Play up, play up, and play the game!. This is John Cooper Clark, and he’s being entirely sincere. Think on that.               Well, I gave up going to folk clubs because I started going to poetry workshops, and writing poems that simply didn’t stand up in the way that a folk club audience expect. Started going to poetry readings instead. And started wondering about what makes a poem work in an open mic. Because quite a lot of them don’t. You know the kind of thing I mean…when you don’t know if a poem’s finished or not, because there’s no sign off, like a couplet, or there’s a poem you simply can’t take in because by the time you start to realise it’s started it’s finished, or because there’s no resting place. And often because there’s no context. What I always like in a poet or a singer-songwriter is a bit of a story that places the song or the poem.

I’d love to know what your take is on all this. Somewhere along the line, I found I tended to write anecdotal/narrative poems, and that I had a default rhythm…which was iambic (pentameter). People started to say they recognized my ‘voice’. That was nice, but recently I was knocked sideways by a comment someone made in a workshop session. The criticism was that the poem looked too regular and predictable. It LOOKED too regular and predictable? What does that say about a way of reading poems. I didn’t think it SOUNDED predictable. I thought it had a rhythm any reader could hear. But I’m insecure enough to have spent the subsequent weeks trying to write non-narrative, irregular-looking poems. I’m still wobbly about it, even though the business of the ‘look’ of a poem seems important to some, as does the playing about with terza rima and sestinas which strike me  as being akin to flower-arranging on the Titanic. The clever craft of coteries. Maybe I’m sour because I can’t do them, or if I can, I can’t say anything important that way. See what I mean about ‘conflicted’? Because I’m on record about my love of Metaphysical poetry and Tony Harrison. I think I’ve blogged myself into a cul de sac.

Tell you what. I’ll sneak away under cover of a poem I wrote for Mary Gauthier (it’s pronounced Go-Shay) who I first saw playing a dingy pub gig in Sheffield, and who has finally, years later, made the bigtime breakthrough, and this year played the Grand Ol Opry. And at least I wrote one poem that I can do without any qualms at folkclubs and poetry open mics. And Mary G. likes it. Sorry about the rambling…too many arguments going on. But let me know what you think about on-the-page/read-out-loud poetry. Please.

Shooting Star

a cold autumn night and this cold Sheffield bar

smells of 60watt lighting and yesterday’s beer

and this lady of the shooting stars

is wondering how she came to be here

with her dreamers and thinkers, her junkies and drinkers

the lovers and dancers, the liars, the chancers

the outlaws and angels and whores

in gigs like this in a Thursday night bar,

where the spotlight shines in her eyes.

For a moment she stands there looking lost

or maybe just looking surprised.

Then she unpacks her old blue Taylor guitar

from its scuffed and well-stickered case;

she peers into 60watt distance,

and wonders aloud…says: is this the right place?

She fiddles with tunings, tries a couple of ch0rds;

through the mic. comes her quiet country drawl:

hi. I’m Mary Gauthier, from Louisiana,

come here to sing songs for y’all……

and we’re hitching a ride on a backcountry road

through the landscapes of Mary Gauthier,

a ride through another country.

well., they do things differently there:


bright lights and lost dreams, poets and drag queens,

trailer-trash has-beens, death cells and limousines,

and the angels are falling,

and there’s fire in the fields

and places flash by through the windscreen of songs

like phrases or rhymes half-heard in a dream

Juarez, las Cruces, Prairie du Chien,

Thibodeaux to Raceland…you know what I mean.

And you’re hitching a ride on a southern states voice

that sings cool and clear as the moon,

tho’ it isn’t exactly singing

but more like talking in tune,

one that lingers on sweeet and curdles on sour

holds on to a note like a child plucks a flower

lights on a phrase like a bee on a stem

lets the words run like water held in a cupped palm

or just fades to whispers like a moth in a flame

like the wind in the grasses, like the rain in the pines,

like the hushing of tyres when the wet blacktop shines..

so thanks for your leaving home stories

and the roads you travelled before

and the folks who’ve travelled them with you:

the poets, the dancers, the lovers, the chancers

the angels, the liars, the burned-out high fliers

the drinkers the thinkers the junkies the whores

yeah, thanks for the ride Mary Gauthier,

the journey was over too soon.

I’m still hearing your shootong-star stories,

still singing along to your tune.

There’s a lot of ‘ands’  in that.   I get told that a lot, at workshops.  Poems with too many ‘ands’. That’s me.  There’s a lesson there, somewhere. But do go and listen to Mary Gauthier: especially Drag queens and limousines, and the album that followed it, Filth and fire.

* Raymond Williams: The country and the city [Chatto and Windus. 1973]

** Anthony Wilson’s blog…not to be missed