Swift horses, balanced Buzzards and ‘happenings’ versus ‘so whats’

I’ve not read many texts about what a poem should do. Since I fell in love with the possibilities of contemporary poetry some ten years ago, I’ve mainly read poetry. I’ve read very little theory, and not much on ‘how to write’ a poem. For these reasons the observations I’ve made below may appear very simplistic, and to some perhaps, obvious. Others may find them contentious or wrong.

But I wanted to concisely set down a few basic ideas relating to what I think makes a poem successful and rewarding.  This is a short post, so I won’t be examining or explaining these ideas very deeply. Here they are.

In order to keep the reader’s attention, a poem should have tension. There should be tension as in the surface tension of water, (as opposed, say, to the unpleasant atmosphere in the aftermath of an argument.)

Concision helps with tension. Conversely, verbosity can cause the poem to be ‘slack.’  Slack will also occur in the presence of cliché, metaphor that doesn’t convince or when similes are weak, as well as in the presence of clunky or lumpy language which can often be detected by reading aloud.

Another enemy of tension my occur where lines are broken in ways

which do not serve the
poem  but rather disrupt
it need
lessly and cause difficulty and
even irritation to the
reader in their
search for  meaning even if there
no obvious meaning which
is OK
too but I’d rather
not have to try so
very hard to find this

Line breaks and spacing can of course be used to great effect to wrong-foot the reader- I am merely arguing that there should be some purpose to this ‘wrong footing’ and that it the kind of poems I like to read don’t do this merely because it can be (and has been) done.

Along with tension, I like the idea that there should be plenty of movement. The Italian Romantic poet Leopardi wrote that a poem should have ‘rapidity and concision of style’. I’ve mentioned concision already, and it is easy to understand how this will keep the poem tight and concentrated.

Leopardi suggests that a poem should ‘keep the mind in constant and lively movement and action, transporting it suddenly, and often abruptly, from one thought, image, idea, or object to another, and often to one very remote and different; so that the mind must work hard to overtake them all, and, as it is flung about here and there, feels invigorated, as one does in walking quickly or in being carried along by swift horses’.

Along with tension and movement there should be balance. I’m not going to say much about this. Here is a poem by Robin Robertson which I think demonstrates balance very well, (not to mention tension and rapidity of movement.) Look at how the rabbit is exposed!


A buzzard works the field
behind the harvesting:
the slung bolt of her body
balanced in the wind
by wings and tail, hanging
over the machine blades
and the soft flesh below
– a rabbit
exposed in the shorn stalks
and she’ s holding,
holds still
till her wings fall away and she drops
like a slate into snow.
The wounds feather through him
throwing a fine mist of incarnation,
annunciation in the fletched field
and she breaks in,
flips the latches
of the back, opens the red drawer
in his chest, ransacking the heart.

If you are thinking, as some might be, ‘hmm, typical visceral (and possibly hyper-masculine) Robin Robertson poem’ then check out his fantastically elegant and tender ‘Primavera’ from the same collection, Swithering (Cape.) 

Finally, and perhaps most obviously, (or maybe not,) something has to happen in a poem. There are of course an almost endless range of human responses a poem can invoke. It seems to me that what one needs to try to avoid is the ‘so what?’ response.

I’ve been wondering lately about something a poet friend said upon hearing a well crafted poem which described a spider. He said ‘Yes, it’s beautiful. But that’s all it is.’ I think what he meant by this that the wonderful description did not lead the reader anywhere. It was a beautiful diversion, but beyond this nothing happened.

Of course one person’s ‘happening’ poem might be another’s ‘so what’ poem.
This isn’t a science, and since the reader brings the poem to life by reading or hearing it, there will be a spectrum of experiences and interpretations beyond the intended meaning. For example, my intended epiphany may not seem like an epiphany at all.

I try to be honest in judging which are my own ‘so what’ poems, and either leave them alone, perhaps forever, or return to them until I feel they have turned into ‘happening’
poems.  I like to think I’m getting better at this. I would hope so after the amount of time I’ve spent writing. Writing skills develop like the muscle and reflexes of the athlete .

Of course, worrying about all this while writing will no doubt be counterproductive. To adapt a John Lennon lyric, maybe the best poem, like life, is what happens to you when you’re busy making other plans.


The first poem from my sequence Traces about my time as a coronary care nurse has appeared in ‘The Rialto’. 


It’s a few years since I worked in the role, but I found myself writing the first of these poems one evening, and drafts followed one another very quickly in succession over a period of days.

The poet Dannie Abse died recently, and I am indebted to him for helping me realise that I too could write about my experiences as a healthcare professional.  Abse, a Dr as well as a poet, suggested that he might have suffered from ‘too much empathy’ to be a Dr.  It is debatable if nurses can be hampered in their work by an excess of empathy- indeed, the opposite might be a problem.

I do feel that it is certainly the case that people working in such environments bury their emotional reactions to death and dying, partly out of necessity to continue with the job and partly out of a need to conform to cultural norms.   I like to think the gap of a couple of years between my working in this role and writing the poems enabled me to capture something of the experience- I know I couldn’t have written them at the time- and I’m pleased that they record some aspects of what was, in retrospect, quite an extreme environment both emotionally and physically.

Writing these poems is a way for me to record, examine and perhaps make sense of my experience.  Here is Seamus Heaney talking about how writing poems can help the writer discover a sense of self.

‘I have always thought of poems as stepping stones in one’s own sense of oneself. Every now and again you write a poem that gives you self-respect and steadies your going a little bit farther out in the stream. At the same time, you have to conjure the next stepping stone because the stream, we hope, keeps flowing. The challenge for the writer, book by book, is to conjure a stepping stone that carries you forward.’



Double Bill is the sequel to 2012’s very successful Split Screen anthology of poems inspired by film and television. Double Bill reaches into other areas of popular culture, including poems inspired by art, dance and sport in addition to another healthy crop of film and TV-inspired poetry, and even includes some advertising related pieces to provide authentic commercial breaks.

The book features over 130 poems and includes work from W.N Herbert, Joan Hewitt, Jon Stone, Luke Kennard, Helen Mort, Simon Barraclough, Tim Wells, Roy Marshall, Helen Ivory, Ian Parks, Chrissy Williams, Ian Macmillan, John Hegley and many, many  others. Double Bill will delight readers of poetry as well as film buffs, TV fanatics and music lovers of all kinds and would make the perfect stocking filler. Order now to avoid disappointment.

Double Bill is not yet available in the shops, but you can order your copy here or here. 

Some thoughts on titles.

I hope, at some stage,  to publish another book or pamphlet. Until such time as I have enough poems,  I’ll do what poets do.

Most days (or nights) I’ll look at a recent or an old draft and move words around. I’ll substitute words. I’ll alter line breaks or see how the poem looks as a block or in tercets.  I’ll take the solid little sonnet and break it into couplets. I’ll get rid of lines   and reinstate them. And sometimes I’ll admit the poem is going no-where and throw it away. Or maybe start something new. I’ll read the news or do some research while I wait for something to happen. Or I’ll watch geese flying over the house and try to write a poem about writing about geese flying over the house. The geese might become a metaphor and then change back to being geese. moon_geese-preview1

I’ll think I’m onto something and lose it, or not even know I’m onto something until it’s almost finished. Joyfully, a poem might start from nowhere and surprise me by coming to a satisfying finish.

And after thousands of variations of the above processes, I might have a group of poems that I would like to show to a potential publisher. Now I’m going to need a title. And this is why I try to think up potential titles and keep a little list. I like to head up my draft collection and live with the title for a while. Things that look great for a week sometimes lose their appeal.  I might try out titles on friends and family. Quite often they will tell me that my promising title is in fact, pretentious rubbish.  Or just rubbish. And of course, when you finally settle on a title, your publisher may have other ideas.

So the business of choosing a title can be difficult, but I have faith that the right one will arrive eventually. As Winston Churchill said, ‘Success is failure after failure, with no loss of enthusiasm.’

I know that most writers’ will Google their potential titles. There are only so many single word titles, or sort combinations of words, so quite often someone will have already published a book with the title you have chosen.  It can be very disheartening to discover someone has got there before you. At_the_South_Pole,_December_1911

The only way to guarantee that a title has never been used before is to make up your own word. I did that with ‘Gopagilla’ –actually my infant son’s word.  But I didn’t do it for any other reason than that title seemed to fit the collection, which contained quite a few poems in which the boy appeared.

If your title has indeed already ‘been taken,’ as is the case with my current favourite, I think there are a few factors to consider when deciding what you do next. If your book is a book or pamphlet of poems and you are fortunate enough to find a publisher, it is likely that it will be being published by a small press. Even if your manuscript has been taken by Cape or Faber, this is poetry, so you can safely assume your work will not make the best seller list.

You can, however, assume that most of the copies you sell will be at readings or via your own or your publisher’s website. You will be selling to people who read and write poetry; often people you know. Your book is unlikely to be on the shelves of major book sellers. This means you are not in competition with the novel, self-help book, or memoir by a celebrity car-destroyer with the same title.

You are not even in competition with the out of print poetry collection published in 1987 by the now defunct Small Phantom press. There is unlikely to be any confusion.  There are no copyright issues that I am aware of (unless you go for Harry Potter And The Pink Commode or some other variation on a popular film/book franchise,) and your slim volume is likely to be the only book with both your name and your title on it.

At the moment I’m considering sticking to my latest choice despite it’s having been used before.  I think it is worth hanging  on to your pre-loved title, unless of course, John Burnside or some other notable contemporary poet has nabbed it already. In which case you might want to go back to your list.

Featured poet; Sarah Westcott


One of the joys of attending poetry events such as the Free Verse Poetry Fair (see previous post) is that such gatherings provide the opportunity to meet other poets and discover something of their work.
Last week I found myself seated at a pub table with a group of poets that included Sarah Westcott, and in the course of our brief, amiable discussion, we discovered that we had both had our poems printed on beer mats that very week (please see previous post again.) Such is the small world of poetry.

I like to use this blog to share and promote work I like, and Sarah’s caught my eye for its concision, its dense and precise imagery, bold choice of unusual language and for its emotional power.
Sarah has kindly provided the three poems here, including one previously unpublished piece.

Sarah Westcott’s debut pamphlet Inklings (Flipped Eye) was a winner of the Venture Poetry Award and the Poetry Book Society’s Pamphlet Choice for Winter 2013. Her poems have been published in Poetry Review, Magma and Poetry Wales, on beermats, and a poem is forthcoming in The Best British Poetry 2014. Sarah lives with her family on the London/Kent borders and earns a living as a newspaper journalist. Her interests include pug dogs and running marathons.


We found her in the shadow
of the gas drum;
a pleat of otherness
pinched from her dominion.

Maw like a whale,
head slit to gill air,
a dark scythe
at our feet.

We willed her wings to open
her form take shape,
conflate to airy spaces.
A new crescent moon.

We picked the whole contraption up,
brindled, tawny, creamy throat;
she spilled over our hands
into awe.

Her claws were shriven,
her eyes the eyes
of something fallen,
the weight unbearable

so we sent her onwards,
to beat at the heels
of a young god’s sandals,
set her away, windward.

Previously published in Poetry Review, spring 2014.

The Cannots

They are afraid of dolls.
Their genitals are dry.

They are drawn to mountains and motorways.
There have no fear of flying.

Their temper cannot be lost – it is chained
like a dear dog.

They think the Bible is valiant.
They mourn Patrick Moore.

They cannot come, or hiccup,
but convincingly fake both.

They can see through our clothes, into our guts,
read what we are made of.

They are always on the surface of the sea -
they cannot get wet.

They cannot drown either: they loiter
on the inter-tidal zone.

They use onions or pepper to cry
when watching soap operas or weddings.

Their feet are always very pretty,
soles soft as a new-born.

They learn white lies, learn to tell them like a joke.
If they win a race it is not deliberate.

They make vigilant life-guards and paramedics.
They like to think about magic.

Music does not work
but their singing voices are always astounding.

They think Mystic Meg is a hoot.
They love the way starfish can grow back a limb.

They remember every birth,
find the vanishing point in shop windows,

walk over hot coals, and pray
they might, one day, burn.


they call you,
hair fanned over hospital corners,

but what sort of vegetable
grows perfect crescents of keratin

after years of gnawing,
or swells with the moon,

bleeds bright
every twenty-eight days?

I soap your hands and paint your nails
deepest beetroot red.

Previously published in Magma 55

Swimming, beermats, fairs and waiting rooms.

It’s been quite a busy poetry week for me.

Not in terms of writing, although I have produced a draft or two that I’ll have another look at tomorrow. Several pleasing things have happened.

Firstly, I received a nice surprise when the organisers of the Bradford on Avon Arts Festival got in touch. A few months ago I had entered their Poems on a Beermat competition. This was for poems of up to 12 lines, and the shortlisted poems where to be printed on beermats and distributed in pubs throughout the Bradford on Avon area.  I was pleased that my poem  ‘Night Swimming’ had been chosen by poet and Interpreter’s House editor Martin Malone, who was judging the competition. You can read a little about the prize giving evening see the winning poems on Josephine Corcoran’s blog and read some of the poems via a link Josephine has on there. My poem tells the tale of a swim I took  with some poet friends off the coast of Wales near the town of Cricceth  one magical midnight a couple of summers back. The swim was the idea of the force of nature that is Joan Hewitt, whose work I have featured  here before.

Here is a picture of Cricceth beach at sunset. Our swim took place much later, under moonlight beneath and nearer to the castle’s  silhouette.


It is always good to have poems in places other than on paper or on-line, and I am very much looking forward to receiving my 25 beermats.

Yesterday I attended the Free Verse poetry book fair in London. It was a great pleasure to read my contribution to the new Happenstance ‘choclit’ anthology ‘Blame Montezuma’ alongside Alison Brackenbury, D.A Prince (who was also launching her new collection), Clare Best and others.

I also sat in on a couple of discussions, but the best part of the day was spent wandering around the main hall and chatting to poets and publishers. It was great to meet up with Alan Baker, Jane Commane, Matt Merritt and Ross Bradshaw of Five Leaves Press, amongst many others


Conway Hall

I was pleased to meet Liz Berry, and was able to tell her how much I love her book ‘Black Country’.  I wanted to attend the reading Liz gave later, but was so busy chatting with Greg Freeman of ‘Write out Loud’ that I missed it. I do hope to see Liz read in the near future.

I did manage to attend the launch of Michael Brown’s Eyewear pamphlet ‘Undersong’, and I look forward to spending some time next week having a closer look at his work.  If you have the new issue of The North magazine you will find one of Michael’s poems there.

I returned home to Leicestershire to receive another pleasant surprise. The organiser of Poems in The Waiting Room New Zealand had been in touch to ask if she could use one of my poems.   Poems in the Waiting Room is a charitable arts in health trust who, every year distribute 6000 free poetry cards to medical waiting rooms, rest homes, hospices and prisons throughout the South Island of New Zealand. Each season’s poems are also transcribed into Braille booklets. Of course I replied that I would be delighted and look forward to receiving my postcards. It’s lovely to think my work may be of interest to, and maybe provide a brief diversion for someone who is possibly in difficult circumstances.  Once again I am indebted to Josephine Corcoran for publishing the poem on her excellent And Other Poems, as I imagine that is where it was seen on a computer screen in New Zealand. Poetry travels faster and further in the internet age.  You can read the poem here.    



Free Verse Poetry Book Fair

1 Free Verse

I’m looking forward to attending the above event in London this coming Saturday.

Apart from enjoying the ambience of the occasion, hearing readings and discussions and meeting up with poetry friends,  I am pleased to be reading as part of the launch the lovely new Happenstance anthology ‘Blame Montezuma’.


Happenstance editor and publisher Helena Nelson will be hauling copies of this beautifully produced book all the way from Scotland so please do attend the reading and purchase a copy to lighten her load if you can.

The launch looks to be great fun  with participating poets handing out free chocolate samples and Helena supplying a selection of fascinating chocolate facts between poems.

Entrance to the event and all readings are free. You can find more details and a list of the poetry magazine, pamphlet and book presses that will be attending here.