Busy being born

………….he not busy being born is busy dying  : 

It’s alright, Ma.(I’m only bleeding). Bob Dylan …………….

“It has been a quiet week, here on Lake Wobegon. It  snowed twelve inches on Tuesday”. 

So begins my favourite Garrison Keillor radio story. I’ve written about it before, in another context, because it’s a story about stories, about storytelling and storytellers, and the covenant between audience and author/performer. About expectations and surprises, about truth and falsehood. Which is more important now than at any time in my life, as we stumble through the sleep of reason in which monsters are born.

I suspect there will be a lot of quotations in this post which I’ve been struggling to start for about two months. Ready-to-wear ideas may well be what you get, instead of the bespoke ones that are, more often than not, eluding me. I can envy Keillor, who, whatever his doubts about what came next, always knew what the first sentence was going to be. And that what followed would be about ‘the quiet week’.

It’s been a horrible year here in the UK. It snowed on Wednesday. Things went on getting worse. 

Who wants more? Thought not.

Six weeks ago I started a programme of chemotherapy. I wasn’t prepared for the lethargy or the mental tiredness. I thought I was already mentally tired by the unchanging circumstances of ten months of shielding/lockdowns/self-isolation. Though I suppose it was some kind of practice. It would be so easy to catalogue the frustrations of 2020 and would serve little purpose. Everyone else has been there. I’ve grown spiritually and physically agarophobic as the world has consistently shrunk.

I dream of going out to an actual shop and buying things with physical money. I’d like to have trips out to places that aren’t hospitals or surgeries….though every now and them they’re the highlight of the week, because they involve meeting people I don’t know, and having conversations, and, often, a laugh.

Which reminds me that two poetry residentials I’ve booked and paid for have been cancelled (and the hotels that would have hosted them have just gone into administration; my heart goes out to the staff); our annual trip to Skye has been indefinitely postponed. I miss the sea, the hills, and the creative buzz of it all. Poor me.

How to switch this around?

I have one friend, a singer/songwriter/performer/teacher/artist in his early 80s. He’s started these days to talk about not having much time left. Another friend, not quite 80, just emailed me and his post included the phrase ‘in the months that remain to us’.

I’ve been reading recent work by David Constantine, and by Martin Zarrop in which, quite co-incidentally, they share a trope. The business of hill walks you could once manage but know now that these days you can’t. And also the business of walks you you used to do with close trusted friends who are now dead and gone.

Then there was the Christmas card list. I realised that so many friends have died and so many addresses are dead-letter boxes that I need to start again with a new address book. A real book. Which brings me to the first quotation

………….he not busy being born is busy dying  

In my early 20s I suspect I didn’t hear the ambiguity of it, any more than I did in The Who’s lyric ‘hope I die before I get old’. To which I now say a fervent ‘amen’. Because I understand, now, that getting old isn’t the same thing as the passage of time, and that dying is about not being born, every possible minute. For years my partner and I cared for elderly parents, one way and another, and I watched as their worlds shrank, physically, as did their curiosity. Slowly and inevitably they stopped taking any notice, stopped listening, stopped reading, being interested, talking. They were just busy dying. 

I’ve decided I want none of it. I can learn from Solzhenitsyn and his take on Epicureanism, especially in One day in the life of Ivan Denisovitch. The idea that happiness lies, at least in part, in taking inventory of the day and identifying how it could have been much worse if X or Y had not happened or didn’t exist. And then focussing on X or Y. Things that made life better. An extra bowl of kasha. A bit of hacksaw blade. Building a wall. 

What did I do in 2020? I have a house, I have a garden, a field beyond the garden, a view beyond the field. I have a garage full of bits of timber and power tools. In February three days of incessant horizontal rain worked through the gable end and round the kitchen window and poured in. So when the rain stopped, I got out the gear and repointed all the damage, and replastered and painted inside. I enjoyed it. Most of it. 

The weather was nice this summer. I repained a lot of the outside woodwork; when it rained I decorated indoors or resprayed picture frames.

On a whim, via the cobweb and Facebook I invited folk to send me poems inspired by Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin’s wonderful, artful poem Swineherd. Scores of people sent me poems, and then Bob Horne of Calder Valley Poetry suggested that we make a book of them, which involved asking Kim Moore to select the 26 best ones in an alphabet of occupations we’d leave When all this is over.  

It’s only just struck me that probably every single submission involved a future of being left alone. You’d have thought that lockdown might have inspired dreams of crowds, of festivals of concerts. What most folk seemed to dream of was travelling alone, and almost invariably, in wild places or on the sea. Yes. My dreams too, I realise. But there you are. A book out.

I missed physical poetry courses, but I’ve been, virtually, to Garsdale Head with Kim Moore, to Sneaton Castle with the Poetry Business; I’ve joined in Joe Bell’s project To heal the mutilated world …and that was terrific…as well as Winston Plowes’ and Gaia Holmes’ Muse-li courses. And every Monday night, via Zoom, there was the Albert Poets’ Workshop. What else…oh yes. Tom Weir and I will be zoom-workshopping together, hopefully right through 2021. A lot of extra bowls of Kasha.

Then there was the field. It’s been fallow most of the time for the last 50 years. Next doors’ started to reclaim a patch in 2019. Dug out decades of crap (including substantial car parts), tons of bindweed and bramble and nettle, constructed raised beds, planted veg.

I was less ambitious and elected for wild flower meadow patches. We really should have asked the farmer, but no one has done anything with the field for half a century, and anyway……this year I decided to start another patch.

One August afternoon this year, Freda, the field’s owner decided to clear it all out. No idea why, but one morning there was a JCB scraping off decades of tangled briar, and we were rumbled. In the end I put into a poem which conflates events over two summers, but which made me happy when I made myself do it last November

It turns out

she’s been watching from her bedroom window

on the gable end side of the house which, officially,

does not exist. It turns out it was the smoke.

That and the red tee shirt in her field. Her husband,

himself a burner of fields, was keen on trespassers.


Its her field now, fallow fifty years, a seething sea

of bramble, bindweed, cowparsley, twitch and dock.

Every seven years, her husband (much older and now dead)

would assert his right of way, sometimes by burning,

one time with a greatbladed JCB that scraped it bare.

But now he’s dead, his rights of way have lapsed.


Next doors’ dug out a fair sized patch of field,

put raised beds in, planted spuds and onions and kale.

I cleared out my own; dug out miles of poplar roots,

asbestos sheets, old nettles, briars, furnace bricks,

rusted car parts, chicken wire, dug and raked,

ordered wildflower seed: rattle, corncockle, poppy.


Let mounds of dead leaf, root and thorn dry out,

and had a day of fires. Which is is when she saw me

from her bedroom window. The blue smoke, red shirt.

Came round to our front door with her nephew, 

Kev, a big lad with earrings, hair like Johnny Cash 

and letters on his knuckles. She said 

she’d been watching from her bedroom window

That’s my field you’re burning. What’s going on?


I could have taken her round to look, but

her seeing Tony’s vegetable garden 

didn’t bear thinking of. I’m seeding wildflowers.

I should have thought to ask. I meant no harm.

I bought her the packets to see. 

Kev got back in the van. I’m Freda, by the way

she said. Freda Parkin. Would you like to do the field?


There we are. Busy being born. As to dying before you get old. I think they may be the same thing. It’s taken me two months to write this. I feel outrageously happy to have done it. Happy enough to end with two quotations, both from Tony harrison.

Articulation is the tongue-tied’s fighting


The tongueless man gets his land took.

When all this is over, I think I’ll have one of these tattooed on my arm. And maybe another on the other.

A polished gem [1] Anthony Costello


The more I get to know about the world of poetry, the less familiar it feels. A little knowledge can be a comfortable as well as a dangerous thing. And I certainly feel uncomfortable with the occasional squabbles and small jealousies I may encounter, when most of the time the bit of the poetry world I actually know is welcoming and generous. Thus it was that I was simultaneously taken aback and entertained by Anthony Howell’s ‘Fear and loathing in the Royal Festival Hall’ ( an article someone Shared on my Facebook page from The Fortnightly Review. Another bit of the poetry world I’d never heard of). Because I’ve always enjoyed the splenetic squabbles of the world of Pope, Dryden and Swift I suppose I felt a guilty pleasure at the sustained crossness of Howell’s piece. At the same time I was puzzled by the crossness. There’s a lot wrong with the world that’s worth getting more cross about than whose poems win what. Still. I was intrigued enough by bits of it to make notes about what he describes as the ‘generic British poem’ …’the poetic equivalent of a rather staid life-class’….’well-crafted….more or less free….more or less scanned…..decent’….’middle of the road, narrative.’ I put that together with something I wrote down in a workshop I was at last year. I wrote it down because its languid condescension made me very cross indeed. ‘The anecdotal, the bus-stop conversation has its own charm.’ And I thought, well, that’s me put in my place. Howell and the languid commentator probably sum up the level of where I, personally, am in poetry. But British poetry? All of it? Really? Is it really so insular, the default voice of the ‘successful’ British poem. Is it really so ‘nice’? This seems remarkably at odds with what I’ve been wrestling with for the last few weeks, the unnerving imaginative challenge of work by poets like Clare Shaw and Fiona Benson, for instance.

But let me go back to that phrase ‘middle of the road’. Well, pretending that metaphor is a substitute for sustained argument is a dubious trade at best, but surely, the middle of the road is by no means always the safest place to be. On the other hand, I do come across puzzlement and resistance in various workshops to things that are out of the familiar run of language and allusion…literary, biblical, scientific, historic, geographic references..even those to the world of popular culture, anything beyond a comfortable frame of reference seem problematic. Or  pretentious. Or seen as ‘showing off’. And I start to ask: where is the resonance to come from? I’m thinking of John Barton discussing how a complex Shakespeare speech could make sense to the chunk of his audience that was illiterate. Barton argues that the verse is carried by resonant keywords, packed with layers and levels of meaning..words like gold, iron, fire, lion, cur, sphere, sun,king, rebellion, tempest…that create the emotional colour and meaning of a stretch of text. Barton would tell his actors to locate them, make sure that if nothing else was heard that they would be. Shakespeare could assume how these words would work on a listener. The Metaphysicals and  the Stuart and Hanoverian poets wrote for coteries whose knowledge they could assume. 19th century poets, before universal education and literacy, seem to assume a shared knowledge of the Bible and, to a degree, of Classical literature.

I sometimes wonder if ‘The WasteLand’ was the first poem to be deliberately and bloodymindedly uncomfortable in its parade and assumption of literary and other knowledge …as opposed to experience. I used to resent trying to get to grips with it. And then, as with Shakespeare, learned to enjoy it, in the way you enjoy gradually coming to terms with a foreign language.Why shouldn’t we all have to be prepared to do a bit of work as readers?And isn’t Tony Harrison’s trademark lengthy introduction to a poem before he reads it part of the pleasure?

Maybe it’s because I grew up with set-books that sometimes seemed as remote and unattainable as Alpha Centauri. Shakespeare, Milton, the Metaphysicals, ‘The silver poets of the 16th Century’ (Championship), ‘Palgrave’s Golden Treasury of…’ (Premier league). There didn’t seem to be a Bronze Cert. for poetry. What there certainly wasn’t, when I was at school and university, was anything that came within passing distance of the 20thC. I (I should say ‘we’) had to find out about all sorts of problematic stuff, like pre-Copernican Universes, and medieval physiology, myth, fable, folktale, 18thC politics. From footnotes. Mainly. Gradually, it either did, or didn’t, cohere. The point was, you had to work at it. It was, of course, after University, a delight to encounter accessible texts, stuff that spoke to you in a familiar, or seemingly familiar, language…Heaney, Hughes, MacCaig, Larkin, the Mersey poets, Adrian Mitchell, Ferlinghetti, Ginsberg. And with the considerable help of anthologists like Geoffery Summerfield (oh! praise the lord for ‘Voices’ and ‘Junior Voices’, and BBC Education’s ‘Books, Plays and Poems’) we passed them on to our pupils. Contemporary, accessible and sassy poetry. And, I suspect, somewhere along the way, forgot about some of the harder stuff. This sounds curmudgeonly; it’s not meant to. It’s just that less and less I expect to come across brand-new writing that surprises me by its reference. I expect you’ll all tell me that I don’t get out enough. You’re probably right. I can only say how it feels.

It’s a roundabout way I’ve come to introduce tonight’s guest poet, Anthony Costello, and to introduce the cobweb’s new category of ‘the polished gem’. I’ve been caught out by calling some of my poets ‘undiscovered gems’ only to find out they are pretty well known. From now on, I’ll be more careful. The polished gem will be a cobweb category for poets who are reasonably well-known around my neck of the woods, but not necessarily in other parts of the country. They will be recent discoveries for me that I want to share. And thus to Anthony, who I met at the world-famous Puzzle Hall Poets when he signed up on the open mic., whose book launch I read a jazz poem at, and who invited me to guest at his own poetry venture at the Kava in Todmorden.

Three things struck me on that first meeting. The first was the silence that followed his poem ‘Feeling blue nr. Russell Square’ ( which follows shortly). The second was that Anthony didn’t read the poem. He didn’t recite it. He said it, almost as if it was extempore, improvised, an entirely natural way of speaking. I’ve seen/heard him do this several times since. It never fails to set me back on my heels; it’s impressive, without any intention of seeming so. The third was the conversation we had afterwards. But here’s the poem first. Anthony apologised in advance in case we would find it sentimental, and explained it was for someone he loved who had died.

Feeling blue nr. Russell Square

for an Essex girl

A good place to feel blue, Bloomsbury

all those bookshops, all those cafes,


I imagine a life

of the could have been a writer kind


with coffee breaks to be a kind soul

talking with a tourist about jazz


transporting America’s luggage

along a charming London Road,


the trail of blue plaques – Lenin,

Roger Fry, Jerome K Jerome,


I’d travelled by Tube to the weald

to sprinkle ‘Country Meadow’ on the grave


I sat under pines and sweet chestnuts,

the trees friends and the morning sun


the dappled seeds’ friend.


I spoke to the grave in the present tense.

I put a name to love.


What caught me when I heard it was the voice. What catches me now when I read it is the memory of the quietness that settled around that poem when Anthony said it, and the deceptiveness of what looks simple. You don’t notice the repetition of ‘kind’ in the time it takes to say the poem, nor the shift of meaning that happens. You don’t notice the odd syntax that disturbs the even surface like barely suppressed grief. Anthony quotes Fiona Sampson’s editorial in Poem where she writes about the way mediocre poems may be improved by being read aloud. Now, I think some accents, some voices, can make anything sound good, but I don’t think this poem is mediocre, and I think it grows with being seen on the page. He thinks this poem is sentimental. I don’t.

But, before we forget: three things that struck me. Third, the conversation. I’ve rarely had a casual conversation that involved German metaphysical philosophy and 19th C French poetry. But that tends to happen in Anthony’s company. Maybe his version of his biography may go someway to explaining the eclecticism of his talk and his poems. He wrote the 3rd person, but he says: ‘edit away’, and I’m editing some into the first person, because he’s not really an impersonal guy.

I was born in Halifax, and left school at 15 to work in a boiler-making factory. I left for the South-East aged 21, and for several years worked as a barman, labourer and salesman. Aged 25 , as a mature student I began a degree in Literature and Philosophy, then took a PGCE course in English and History, and taught in a Secondary school in Sussex. Later, I took an MA at the University of North London. After leaving teaching, I worked as a senior bookseller, and, after a 2-year horticultural course, as a self-employed gardener. I took a sabbatical from work in 2011 to travel the world; in the same year I started writing poetry.’

His travels were mainly in SE Asia, and for a time he lived in France. He has published widely in magazines and anthologies, and his first collection The Mask was published by Lapwing Publications, Belfast (more detail at the end). His collaborative translation of the Poems of Alain-Fournier, a project he undertook in 2013 while living in France, will be published by Anvil in 2015. Now he’s back in the West Riding, living in Luddendenfoot ( a valley at the foot of a valley) a saying poems at the Puzzle Hall Inn, the Square Chapel, and elsewhere.

Which brings me to The mask and also back to the point where I started and the business of reference and allusion and resonance. It’s a collection I don’t read sequentially, though there are thematic elements. And this, I think, is because as you wander through the pages you’ll come across Mark Gertler, Kandinsky, Neruda,Whitman, Larkin, Heisengerg, Schrodinger, Schubert, Coleman Hawkins, Morgane le Fay, Roger of Ockham, Dennis Hopper, the Brontes, John Cage,Stanley Spencer, Kant, Kraftwerk, Rothko, and all the cerebral lobes. Amongst others. Some of the poems may feel a bit rough round the edges, but the whole collection, for me, is like sitting round an assymetric dinnertable with lots and lots of clever, interesting people. Anthony gave me a free hand to choose, and though I was tempted to pick ‘Written on the eve of my 50th birthday’ which is a homage to Gregory Corso, in a sequence of homages, I’m going to pick Billy Ockham for its sardonic edginess, its wit and its wordplay. And, I guess, because there’s the ghost of Tony Harrison’s ‘Loiners’ in there somewhere, too. And because Occam’s razor is one of my favourite logical tools.

Billy Ockham

looked like he was at the end of his tether,

paced up and down – raged -got into a lather


decided to leave his Surrey village forever

with the curse of God, a sharpened razor


it wasn’t just the bawling of the butchered hogs

or the cartwheel squeaks or the barking dogs


the yeomen shouting, the pedlars peddling

the anvil twanging, and church bells ringing


that got Billy’s goat, or that he was ‘villein’

as earmarked by the Lord of the village


nor the hall-mote blackballing Billy’s

social climb to the lore of peasant yeomanry


more that the night before in a drunken state

he’d taken the blessed life of his namesake


a man Billy had envied from afar

a man revered as ‘good’ and bound for Oxford


the village Seer, a Latin speaker, logician

(a word Billy didn’t comprehend…..’Lodgeishtinian!’)


a Franciscan monk under Holy Orders

up to his neck in blood in Ockham’s latrines


Billy died. Same vein. Same blade. Intestate.

Entia non sunt multiplicanda sine necessitate


was sent down, in folklore, as Ockham’s Razor


I keep reading this, puzzled by oddities of punctuation, and enjoying the tasty linguistic relish of it. Thank you, Anthony, for being this week’s guest.

And, like I say, the rest of you can do much worse than spend time with the whole collection. The Mask by Anthony Costello is published by Lapwing Publications. It’s £10 well spent. It truly is.

Now, I am committed to writing reviews and to writing some stuff of my own for the next week or so. You may have to put up with a week off, or to an edited repost of an earlier cobweb strand. But thank you for your time and for your company. See you later