Clive James ‘Letter to a young poet’

I’ve sung the praises of on-line poetry magazines on here before. Another new publication, The Scores  went live ( think this is the correct term) this morning.  I haven’t had a proper look yet but the first issue contains  work by many well-known (in the poetry world) poets, as well as an introduction by Don Patterson  and an interesting ‘Letter to a young poet’ piece by Clive James.  I read Rilke’s original letters to a young poet some years ago, and am always interested in advice, thoughts  and ‘wisdom’ relating to poetry .

James’ piece begins with an echo of Rilke’s original letter. Basically, James suggests that unless you are dedicated to the point of obsession to writing poetry, you should give up. Unless you find yourself driven to it to the point where you can’t help it, do something else. James’ reasoning for this advice is that – ‘ the chances of failure are too high, and the disappointments are too cruel.’ I’m not sure I agree with the assumption that failure and cruel disappointment are the overriding experiences of the poet. Of course there must be many frustrated writers out there, but I have also met several hundred who’s lives have been enhanced and enriched by their involvement. Perseverance, dedication, and the occasional check on one’s motivations and expectations might be valuable.  I hesitate to suggest that one shouldn’t aim high, but it would be a good idea for a young poet to know the number of poets wishing to be published, for example, by Faber and Faber, as opposed to the number who actually are. If we are talking about ‘failure’ in terms of publishing (and it is not clear what James means by ‘failure’ ,) then I think it reasonable to believe that one can be published, firstly in magazines and later perhaps in pamphlet or book form.   James continues ‘  the average stacked shelf is not only more useful to society than the average poem, it is actually superior as a work of art. ‘  I suppose this statement too,  depends on a definition or definitions of  ‘average’, ‘usefulness’ and ‘art ‘ in relation to poetry and supermarket shelves.

James also writes

‘ Train yourself to care less about the praise. You should work your new poem to perfection not because it will please more people that way – it might please fewer – but because in its finished state it will prove itself an independent artefact invulnerable even to your own doubts. If the poem has its own confidence, the day will come when you can look back on it and wonder how you did it. ‘

This seems like good advice. If only it were  possible to ‘train  yourself ‘ to care less about praise. In my own experience, one becomes less concerned with both praise and negative criticism as time goes by. When starting to share poems with others , it is of course possible to be elated or deflated by their reactions. Only experience and time can develop confidence in the work (I like the idea of the poem having its own confidence.)  Another factor in how someone responds to praise is their temperament.  Some people will always be buoyed or swayed more than others by praise. For my part, although pleased by it, I’ve always found it a little difficult to accept, ( and here I hope I don’t sound ungrateful,)  of little use.

While I find James’ trademark laconic pessimism  (some might say realism)  a little too negative,  I did find aspects of the article enjoyable, and think the idea of inviting people to write such a letter is a good one.

The piece also contains an odd reference to Malcolm Muggeridge’s thoughts on how the contraceptive pill might effect the light in a woman’s eyes.  I found this off-putting and unnecessary reference, betraying, perhaps, some of  James’ generation’s  lack of subtly and sensitivity when approaching gender issues, or maybe illustrating a predilection for deliberately stirring up a little controversy with offhand sexist generalisation. James’ includes some thoughts on notebooks and how to organise work in progress, and some may find this useful.  Whilst a certain amount of organisation is undoubtedly required to keep work in progress accessible and orderly, I found the setting out of one particular approach a little prescriptive when applied to poetry. This may be because I am resistant to being told how to work, preferring to find ways that suit me best (although I am not a ‘young poet,’ and therefore not the addressee of the letter.) However, I believe there are  many ways of working, and individuals will eventually find what works best for them.

On reputation and career, James writes

‘If you start thinking about your reputation, or even about your career as a poet, you are in the wrong frame of mind. What matters most is the poem, not the poet. ‘

I’m fortunate in that the words ‘career’ and ‘poet’ have never appeared in the same sentence in my mind. Of course I understand why people use ‘career’ in relation to their poetry; either because it suggests a developmental path (which can be a comforting conception ) or that it adds credibility to their dedication to poetry, or perhaps they are referring to the fact that their writing is an intrinsic part of an academic or performance based life.  I am fortunate in that my poetry has always been largely separate from such concerns. As for reputation, maybe that, like beauty, is in the eye and ear of the beholder.

My  favourite line from Clive James’ piece is this.

‘If even a few people remember a line or two in a poem you wrote, you’re not just getting there, you’re there. That’s it: and all the greater glory is mere vanity’

Here comes autumn

After the Gallery

Heading north again, yellow and orange leaves stream past
like dots freed from a Seurat painting.

We pass a plump brown river, the promise of another flood
held under its skin.

A horse in a green coat
rolls in a field; a wash of mist

softens a ridge. Outside Chesterfield
I try to look away from a girl

who studies the Highway Code.
You’re almost old, I reflect

to the tunnel-blacked window.
She glances up and through me,

luminous and assured
as a Leonardo.

A version of this poem first published in Clear Poetry.

Urge for going




Our seventh ghosting in as many days; a thrill
of honking overhead, curtains still drawn
and silver edged. We speculate

over breakfast; are these practice migrations,
training runs from lake to lake; from the Business Park
near the motorway to the reservoir

at Thornton? And if so, could it be the same flock
returning now, a low V fanned across pink cloud
as I drain steaming pasta at the sink? Or is it another band

entirely, travelling west to east, working their turn
like cyclists in a peloton?  And that staggered pair,
gapped and off beam, are they frantic

to close, to make the arrow whole? Or do they only
see each other, become one beating wing?

First published in The Rialto, Spring 2016.



I’m pleased to have two translations of poems by Eugenio Montale
published in the new issue of online poetry journal, The High Window. As well as their usual section of fine contemporary poetry, the editors are keen to publish translated work, and knowing I have an interest in this area, asked if some time ago if I’d like to contribute.

The poems are in a section featuring translations of Italian poetry, which you can access by clicking this link. I have another translation of Montale in the current edition of New Walk magazine.  All three poems are short, and all three took me a long time to translate. I’ve revised and revised them, wanting to capture the rhythm and flow and  ‘feel’ or spirit of the originals whilst not making literal translations. Every word and phrase of the Italian offers so many alternatives.  I’m not sure I’ll ever stop tinkering with any of these translations – Even though I have deliberately chosen short poems to work with, I must have a hundred versions of each. But I’m happy enough to have them published. I had to let go sometime if I wanted to share them. I found the poem , ‘Syria’, in Johnathan Galassi’s bilingual ‘Collected poems, 1920-1954.’

Galassi’s translation is a near to literal version of Montale’s original . Although Galassi is a great scholar and acknowledged authority on Montale, I feel some of his translations are a little staid and stuffy and don’t flow with the ease of the originals.  I wanted to see if I could bring something else to the poem- perhaps a little more vitally and vigor, a little heat and glare and dust.  You don’t need to speak Italian to have a go at translating the poem. If you don’t have a good English/ Italian dictionary there are plenty of resources on- line. Below, for you to compare and contrast and appraise my choices if you are interested,   are the original, the Galassi version and mine. The poem is from Montale’s ‘La Bufera e altro’ –  ‘The Storm and others’ , 1940-1954


Dicevano gli antichi che le poesia
e` scala a Dio. Forse non e`cosi
se mi leggi. Ma il giorno io lo seppi
che ritrovai per te la voce, sciolto
in un gregge di nuvoli e di capre
dirompenti da un greppo a brucar bave
di pruno e di falasco, e i volti scarni
della luna e del sole si fondeveno,
il sangue su un macigno segnalava
la via di Aleppo.

Syria  -trans. J. Galassi

The ancients said that poetry
is a stairway to God. Perhaps not
when you read me. But I knew it to be true
the day I found my voice again because of you,
freed among a herd of clouds and goats
stampeding out of a ravine to browse
the spume of thorns and marsh grass,
and the guant faces of the sun
and moon were one, the car broke
and an arrow of blood on a bolder pointed
the way to Aleppo.

after Montale

The ancients wrote
that poetry brings you
closer to god. Maybe not
if you’re reading mine.
But I new it was true
the day my voice returned
in a wrap of cloud
as goats rattled from a crag
to cascade across
the road, settling to graze
on blackthorn burs
broom and sedge,
while the sun and moon
melted and fused,
that day the engine died
and an arrow of blood on a stone
showed the way to Aleppo.

First published in New Walk 12, summer 2016.

More thoughts on drafting poems

  1. Most of what you write can be rewritten and made better, or at least returned to. Any idea, half idea, image or emotion, can be the start of a poem. W.B Yeats often distilled his poems from prose descriptions. According to John Whitworth, Yeats genius lay in his infinite capacity for ‘taking pains’.16257318563_a20d31cf5dYeats by Sean Cronln

    2. The imaginative mind captures the genesis of a poem. Another facet of the same imaginative mind revisits the words with an intense analytic focus. The drafting poet generally aims to control the expansive, to concentrate meaning by means of technique, discovering and learning technique in the process. The drafting poet is trying to confine the infinite, refine the crude and distill the dissolute. The (virtual?) impossibility of this task makes it exhilarating and frustrating by turns.

    3. The drafting poet should be invigorated by the vivacity of the poem. If the poem is dull at any point, how can the poet expect a reader to continue?

    4.  A poem may take off well only to stall.  It may be under or over-powered. A poem may be repaired, rebuilt or completely redesigned . The re-launched poem may climb and bank well, but slight adjustments to airspeed and angle of approach will mean the difference between a smooth, bumpy or crash landing. Aerobatics are great, but take off and landing and level flight are all of equal importance.

    5. It isn’t necessary to know where a poem is going in order to begin to write.  Writing can let you find out what you think.

    6.Drafts may contain diffuse ideas, or ambiguous ideas or narratives.  It is exciting to turn your attention to the one idea that seems most important.

7. When it comes to the appearance of a poem on the page, it is a good idea if form reflects content. Stanzas of equal length create a sense of order. Variable length might give a sense of organic development. One unbroken stanza might give the sense of narrative, or of continuous thought. These statements are open to debate.  The main thing is to have some notion of the expectation your poem shape generates. Gratuitous stanza choices and outlandish line breaks might affect the credibility of the poem. They may not. It is good to consider the reason for your choices.

8. It is alright to not write for long periods of time. It is not alright (unless illness prevents) to not live. Reading is good but living, (if you are a writer) gives rise to writing, eventually.

  1. Rainbow-mountains-in-Peru-3

A sentence on drafting

Writing a poem, I mean re-writing it, sounding out and rolling sounds and meanings around, considering each word and asking if a better alternative can be found, lying in bed and walking down the road with the lines in your head, getting home, sitting with the words, asking is what you meant, living with it for months, maybe years, removing, replacing punctuation, changing, again, where the line breaks fall, reshaping, so that if you were to animate all the different versions they’d twist and shift like starlings in murmuration.

The Rialto

I don’t keep ‘rejection’ slips, or notes accompanying returned poems, but I do keep acceptances and records of where I sent things.  The Rialto, along with The North, was one of the poetry magazines I discovered in a really good bookshop towards the end of the first decade of the new millennium.

I was blown away by the quality of these publications, both in terms of design and production values, and I was enthralled  by the variety and quality of the work within them. I sent both of these magazines some poems in 2009, the first work I’d ever sent anywhere, and the Rialto took one and published it. I remember the letter from the editor, Michael Mackmin saying he would like to take a poem, along with an apology for the delay in responding. I also remember the  arrival of a contributors copy and twenty pound note.  Since then, I’m delighted that the Rialto has published three more of my poems and it remains one of my favorite magazines. I love the fact I can find new work by, for example, the great Les Murray, alongside poems from people whose names I’ve not encountered before.
A new development for this venerable publication is the launch of the  poetry pamphlet competition, details for which you can find here.

I am mentioning this as I received a subscriber’s e-mail today
which contained two quotes I wanted to share. The first is from Michael Mackmin.

‘As an editor who reads a lot of submissions I need to know that a poet is working on the balance between the thing said and the way of saying it (the essence of a good poem), and that she is engaged in the search for the ‘right’ word, the exact right word. This is often quite a difficult judgement to make when a submission only contains a couple of pieces. We hope, by opening this window for submissions of twenty poems, to discover important new voices. At the very least you’ll be able to check if there are certain words, or phrases, or concepts that you over use. At most you’ll be the winner.’

The second is from Gerry Cambridge, editor of another of Britain’s great ‘little’ magazines. It is taken from his book about The Dark Horse, and is published by Happenstance.

‘Like poetry itself, at heart a poetry magazine is a celebration of the human spirit beyond awards, issues of reputation and all the attendant palaver. It is a free space of expression that transcends commercialism and other involved interests. It aims for the high ranges even as it scrabbles in the foothills.’