Where all the ladders start (2)


Just back from five days at a writing retreat at Garsdale Head, about eight miles up the valley from Hawes.

It felt strange, last Monday, to be driving past the Ribblehead viaduct, all the moors streaked with snow that lies longer in the lea of the gritstone walls that march straight up big hills, for no purpose other than enclosure, the marking of boundary and ownership. Deeper drifted snow in hollows and ghylls; curling snow cornices on the edges of landslip. I drove past the turn to Dentdale, and realised with a kind of lurch that years ago, on my first hiking holiday, I’d walked from Dent youth hostel straight over the moor top to Oughtershaw and Langstrothdale, down into Buckden and then to Kettlewell. The lurch came from seeing how big the moors are, how far. I didn’t know better then. I just did it without thinking. Last Monday, I knew I’d never do anything like it again. I’d be too timid, too anxious, and in any case my legs wouldn’t let me. It’s an uncomfortable feeling, that sense of inability, and if you let it in, it makes you feel as though there are lots of other things you can’t do any more. Like writing anything you’d want to read again.

I think that diffuse draining of confidence leaked into the workshop tasks, which all seemed to become reflective, introspective, all about ‘I’ and ‘me’. You lug a lot of baggage into workshops. Or at least I do. Often it’s useful baggage, stuff you’ve just read or done, that lets you come at the moment obliquely. A simple example would be the way you can approach your own inner life via the narratives of myth or folk tale, via ventriloquism, hiding inside another imagined self or persona. This last week has been about finding no hiding place, and being unsure of the way language can let you speak truly about the unadorned experience. I think that’s at least part of what Yeats meant about the foul rag and bone shop of the heart. I firmly believe that it was just what I needed. Whether I liked it or not was neither here nor there. When I’m asked what I expect from a writing workshop I say, blithely, that I want to be shifted out of my comfort zone. I wasn’t disappointed. Thank you, Kim Moore.

I wanted to say all that before sharing one of those poems that seem to come without worry or effort, because sometimes I forget to say thanks for their turning up. Of course, they don’t come out of nowhere. It’s nice to acknowledge a debt to those who make a place to start. Here’s a task that came at the very end of a Poetry Business writing day. Task 7. One of Ann Sansom’s six line specials, with four or five minutes and no more to finish your morning on a high.

for true naming

How does it work? The instruction is to write a succession of lines, and each of the lines must contain one of the prompt words or ideas. A hero, a time word, some sort of headgear, something to do with a church, a free choice line and the name of a county. Any of those could be a trigger, but it happened that I’d been reading, and rereading Robert Macfarlane’s Landmarks. I’d earmarked several things. One was his writing about the Finnish Kalavela, and the hero Vainamoinen who the legend credits with winning the gift of fire for mankind. The other wonderful core idea is that of the naming of places, and of landscapes, that the world is en-chanted into being by knowing and saying its True Names.

What else comes along, what baggage? For me, the quest of Ged in Ursula le Guin’s Wizard of Earthsea. The end of Ged’s quest is to understand that he can only know his true self by naming it with his true name. Names are the core of magic. The journeys of the innocent heroes and heroines of folk tale are important too….journeys through dark forest, over mountain passes, on the edges of dark seas. Elemental places, much like the snow-streaked dark moors or the coast of Northumbria; Dunstanburgh and the Farnes where the mythic is just about to break in like hail. And there it is, a workshop prompt that lights a fuse for a fire you’ve been building without really thinking why. Without Macfarlane, that line ‘for the true naming of the world’ wouldn’t have jumped on the page to introduce a list of everything you might need. I should write a praise-song for lists and listing, and their seductive forward-pushing rhythms. Here’s the finished version.

For the true naming of the world


For the true naming of the world

you need one who will recognise a fish

that has swallowed a star

that fell through the vaults of the air;

one who wears a helmet or bears a sword

forged in the heart of mountains,

from metals whose names no man ever knew,

to bear a name that can not be forgot,

a name to fit in a verse to be sung at a feast;


you need one to be sent on a quest

through silent forests, stony wastes,

to a bony church and a hillside that opens

to a way that he’ll walk through all the ages,

to come dumb and dazzled to the seashore

under huge lucid skies, into the wind,

to build monasteries, to illuminate gospels;

to speak to otters, spear the sea like a gannet,

to be one with wind and with seals.


Then stones and flowers might come

to know themselves. Day’s-eye, comfrey,

coltsfoot, mallow, vetch, stonecrop, feverfew.

Hornblende, granite, wolfram, flint and gneiss;

valleys might come know their depths,

and becks and burns to know the purposes of rain,

and the ways of the clough and the gorge

under blood moons, hare moons, the moon

when horns are broken. Then.


Almost everything in this is borrowed. I’m pretty sure the ‘hillside that opens’ is from William Mayne’s Earthfasts, set in Arkengathdale. I imagined the kind of hillside that loomed over the house I stayed in last week. This oneIMG_2612

the lucid skies are the astonishing skies of the Northumberland coast; the founder of monasteries is Cuthbert, the gospels are from Lindisfarne; Cuthbert spoke with otters and seals, but the imagining of it is from Robert Westall’s The Wind Eye. The naming of flowers is from Macfarlane, and the Native American names for the moons of different seasons are from Dee Brown.

Sometimes it’s even less complicated. Sometimes you seem to be given something that comes pretty well fully-formed. In this case a sort of retelling of a parable from Bede. More Northumbria, but in my mind, it happens in Whitby. It seemed to have its own urgent rhythm.In the meantime

and the finished version, which just seemed to know its own linebreaks

In the meantime


because that’s how it is, the sparrow

flying into the meadhall, bewildered

by smoke-reek, gusts of beer-breath,

out of the wild dark and into the half-

light of embers, sweat, the steam

of fermenting rushes, and maybe

a harp and an epic that means nothing

in a language it doesn’t know, this sparrow,

frantic to be out there, and maybe

it perches on a tarry roof beam, catches

a wingtip, comes up against thatch

like a moth on a curtain, and it beats

its wings, it beats its wings, it tastes

a wind with the scent of rain, the thin

smell of snow, of stars, and somehow

it’s out into the turbulence of everywhere,

and who knows what happens next.


So there we are. Every time you think you have nothing to say, or it all seems too hard and miserable, say a little prayer for the ones you were given free, like a blessing.


[Both poems come from Much possessed .  smith|doorstop 2016.

Available  via The Poetry Business, or from me direct. See  My books  at the top of the page]

Only a story


Perhaps it’s all the years of teaching, but I’m feeling end-of-termish. We’ve done all the hard work and revision and tests. We’ve had the concerts and the trips to Flamingo Park. We’ve tidied the stock cupboards and taken down the displays, and we’ve read our reports and we all got gold stars and smiley faces. Everyone’s thinking of poetry and poetry festivals, like Chaucer’s pilgrims. It’s time for a story before we all go home.

I’ve been looking back at what we’ve done and who we’ve met, and  because Kim Moore chose one of his poems from ‘Talking to the dead’ for her Sunday Poem last week, I looked again at one post about my friend Gordon Hodgeon. Bright star.  I was writing some months ago about my circling obsession with myths and with tyrannical gods. Recently, for reasons I cannot fathom, I’ve been writing translations and adaptions of myths. Maybe ‘plundering’ is a better word. I’ve even been inventing myths about owls, and about why there are no clouds of starlings on the twilight roofs and ledges of our great industrial cities. I’ve been re-telling Prometheus and Jesus to myself. A couple of weeks ago I was at a Stanza workshop in York (thanks for the invite, Carole Bromley) and one of the poets read from a new retelling of Finnish epic poem, The Kalevala. Recently, too, I was reading Robert Macfarlane’s Landmarks. and rediscovering a memory of Vainamoienen, the epic’s hero. There’s an extract from the tale in Penelope Farmer’s Beginnings [Creation Myths of the World]. It tells of how man was given the gift of fire. If we have fire at all, I would rather it was won for us by Prometheus. I love Prometheus as much as I hate most of the Greek pantheon (Apollo, particularly). However, the extract snagged my attention, since it pivots on the notion that fire is spilled from the sky by a Virgin of the Air in a moment of careless inattention. Not even ‘transgression’, like Pandora or Eve. Just clumsiness. I had to deal with it somehow, and though I don’t write much prose, I batted it out. And who ironed out its creases for me? Gordon Hodgeon. He probably won’t remember. But I won’t forget.

So, here we are. End of term. Sit back. Close your eyes. Let’s have a story.

How the Finns got the gift of fire

This is how it was.
Once, a sun shone on the Finns every day, and a moon every night, and each day and each night there was a new sun and a new moon in place of the ones that burned away. Louhi stole Sun and Moon; she stole fire, and she hid them in the far Northlands.
The Finns could not dry the flesh of the fish they caught nor the flesh of the deer they hunted, and they ate their food raw. They shivered in their birch cabins, and listened to the snow as it slid from the pines in the black forests; they listened to the howling of wolves in the endless night. Only the wolves loved this land of the Finns.
Ukko, lord of the skies , master of the flaming sword, maker of stars looked down and saw how the Finns tholed their darkness and cold. It puzzled him. As stars burn out and blackness takes their place he breathes a long breath into the heart of his furnaces until they roar in the forge of the sky. He thrusts the great blade of his sword into the fire’s blue heart so it blazes silver and gold and crimson. His eyes burn with reflected fire, his thoughts all flame and sword and anvil and stars, stars, stars. He swings the white-hot blade in great circles, faster and faster and the sky is a halo of strange and beautiful light.
At these times of starmaking the Finns would stare at the trembling bands of light and tell each other: Ukko is making new stars. Sometimes they would wonder: Ukko is making new stars; why does he not make new suns and moons? But he never did. he was the Star Maker.
He clashed the flaming sword on the anvil of the sky and sparks flew like dangerous gems; before they could fall to earth, sky-maidens caught them and put them in their right places in the endless dark. It was a fine fierce thing. Faster and faster the sword spun and circled and clashed on the anvil, the jewel sparks flew and flashed, and the sky-maidens laughed with delight, and caught them, and put them in the sky, and in their hair, and around their arms like bracelets, and they shone. Over and over the sword went to the furnace, and swung and clashed until the forge of the sky was a brilliant mist of stars, and the sky-maidens laughed, and caught them, every one, and locked them fast in the vault of heaven.
But when the new stars were made, and shone in their places, when the furnace cooled and grew dim, and the sword of Ukko was cold and blue as old stars, then he would look down on the world and wonder at the life of the Finns. Who could bear so much dark? Why did they not fill that darkness with the light of their own stars? He could not understand it. It was none of his business, though. He was the Star Maker. There was nothing he could do for them. They were too far away and below.
And sometimes the starmaidens looked down to where he looked; they were curious, too, but not for long. They were the starmaidens, virgins of the air, and they served Ukko the Starmaker. It was nothing to do with them.
But one was different. She loved the dance, the pure starfire she dressed herself in. She could not bear the thought of darkness. Neither could she drive it from her mind. She did not want to look down at the land of the Finns. But its darkness was always there at the edge of her mind.

This is what she thought:
We fill the dark space of the sky with stars. To light the long night of the world would be a small thing. The smallest spark from the forge would serve.
She thought: Star fire is beautiful but soon it grows cold.
She thought: We give the fire of our dance to an empty sky.
And so her delight in the brilliant dancing of stars grew less, and her thoughts filled with the cold darkness of the land of the Finns, and the starmaking could not warm them.
She said: We give our fire to the sky.
Ukko looked up. Whether his eyes burned red from long staring into the furnaces of his forge, or whether they smouldered in anger she could not tell. But she was afraid.
–Tell me what you said.
— Nothing. I said nothing.
— No. It was not ‘nothing’. Say it to me.
She was truly afraid. She said:
–We give our fire to the sky.
The furnace flared and Ukko was standing, black and huge, a great shadow.
—I am the Starmaker. I give nothing. I make stars.
–Then what am I?
–You? You make nothing; you give nothing. You put stars in the vaults of the sky. You dance. That is enough.

It is not enough, she thought, but she was afraid and she said nothing.
The fires sank and Ukko brooded over them, dark.
The skymaiden sat alone. Far below her, the land of the Finns lay cold and bleak. It filled her mind with a cold darkness as big as the sky. And then came a thought. Something small and bright in a big darkness.
It is not enough just to dance. It is not enough catch a fire I cannot make.
Ukko’s huge shadow hulked against the fireglow; she was afraid, but her thought burned in her mind and in her heart like a star. It was her own star. Then she knew she was a starmaker, and, being a maker, she had something to give, and she knew it was her right to give it.
–I am a star maker.
She whispered it softly.

Ukko sat before the red fire; he was black against it, and his shadow lay across the night. She sat alone in his shadow, but she was lit by the star she had made herself.
Time passed. Stars flashed cold and blue and shivered and winked out, and darknesses grew in the sky. Ukko stirred. It was time for the making, furnace heat, the dancing light of the forge, the dangerous sweep of the sword and the wild joy of the dance. It was what he lived for. A fierceness took him and shook him, and his breath made the furnace roar, blue and brilliant, and he thrust the great blade into its hot heart.

The dance began. Gravely and slowly it began, the slow pattern as the starmaidens circled the forge and the Star Maker. The sword glowed red, orange, gold, silver; the furnace light streamed past Ukko’s haloed dancing shadow, and dance grew faster, wilder. Ukko laughed a great laugh, and the skymaidens laughed too, and lost themselves in the dance.
Only, one did not. Though she danced with others, she was herself and not the dancing as the others were.
They were nothing but dancing, and Ukko was nothing but fire and forging, but she saw one bright star that shone in her mind with a different light. She spun and whirled and laughed with the rest, but was not lost with them. She knew herself different, and she knew what she must do. It made her afraid, but her fear was a strange excitement that was more than the excitement of the star dance.
With a great shout, Ukko drew the flaming sword from the fire and swept it in great arcs, and the dance was a dance of light, a great dome of beautiful light.
Far below, the Finns looked up from their darkness. Look! they said. Ukko is making stars! How far above them it all was. It brought them no warmth, only wonder.
Ukko brought the hot blade hissing down on the anvil. It clashed and rang. His eyes were full of stars. The flew from the beaten sword, and the sky maidens caught them, and laughed and danced and shone. It was brilliant.
Far below, in their cold dark world, the Finns thought: Ukko is making stars. And some thought: Why does he not make stars to warm and light us? But he never had done.
The dance grew wilder and breathless. The sword went again and again to the furnace, and rang and, splashed fire. The starmaidens put stars in the vaults of the air, and dressed themselves and shone.
Only, one, though she danced, was not of the dance. A star shone in her mind and she held one star clenched in her hand. Though she moved in the dance she was more than a dancer. It was time.
–I am a starmaker. I am a giver of stars.
It was a shout of joy. It was her shout.
The dance faltered; the sword stopped at the highest point of its arc, flaming and dangerous. Ukko was shadow; she could see nothing but his darkness and the great sword poised.
–I am a star giver, she said.
She was all alone in Ukko’s darkness. With a great cry he brought down the sword, and with a great cry she leapt from the sky, and it was one cry.
She fell from the skies, out of Ukko’s darkness and shadow, down and down through the the nine vaults of the air. The star shone in her hand and the giving of it shone in her mind, and it was one shining.
The Finns looked, spellbound, as the one star fell out of the night, brilliant and wonderful.
The hero Vainamoienen caught it and made it safe and made fire from it, and so the Finns had fire and warmth in their long night.
–Ukko the Starmaker has given us fire, they said.
And they worshipped him.


Enjoy your holidays; enjoy your pilgrimages.   I’ve got to start thinking about a new term. Here’s your holiday reading. There’ll be tests when we all start again. Think on.

Jane Clark:  The River  Bloodaxe Books  £9.95

Jonathan Davidson Humfrey Coningsby Valley Press poetry £6.95

Christy Ducker Skipper  SmithI doorstop  £9.95

Gordon Hodgeon Talking to the dead Smokestack Books £4.95

Gordon Hodgeon Old workings Mudfog £8.95

Kim Moore The art of falling Seren Books £9.99