Helen Mort’s ‘No Map Could Show Them’

Before the recent failings of my body, too tedious to go into here, I used to do a bit of hill walking, scrambling and rock climbing. I visited France a couple of times and tried to climb Mont Blanc with a friend. The weather was poor on that occasion and we turned back after a night in a hut below the last long ascent to the summit. I’ve tried, unsuccessfully (apart, perhaps, for a line or two in a poem about working a night shift as a nurse) to write of climbing; of being attached to a companion on a rope, held aloft by figures and toes, of the texture and colour of rock and the body and mind’s relationship to it, of mountain environments where I’ve been frightened, elated, contemplative, challenged and humbled.


I learnt, through experience, that despite the use of the term ‘conquer’ in relation to reaching the summit, no human being conquers a mountain: rather, weather permitting, a mountain may allow the climber a brief experience of a world away from an urbanised life. I remember, on one occasion telling a companion that I felt I was part of the mountain. This might sound ridiculous, but I was experiencing a completeness and profound sense of belonging I hadn’t experienced before. Related to that feeling is the one I sometimes get when I am totally absorbed in writing poems. Perhaps I find it difficult to write ‘mountain’ poems due to the enormity of the mountain landscape. Or maybe the profundity of the experience makes it hard to capture in words. Maybe the language used to describe extreme and rugged terrain and physical struggle is a barrier to the capturing the inner world of the climber. I’ve also tried writing about climbers, but have not been satisfied with the results, often regarding what I’ve written as one dimensional and lacking, for want of a better word ‘soul’.  .  

Not everyone struggles as I do, however. In her second collection, ‘No Map Could Show Them’ Helen Mort has written a number of immersive, contemplative poems about climbing and climbers. There is a sure-footed purity to her poems, a hard-won simplicity that seems ideally suited to this subject matter. It is as though a light, strong and precise touch is exactly what is required to make these poems adhere to the page and memory. Perhaps it is the nature of both poetry and climbing that one false move could result in a fall.

I began to read this book the day before it was announced that the climber Junko Tabei had died. Tabei was the first woman to climb Everest. Years ago I used to pour over climbing books; Chris Bonington’s, Joe Simpson’s, Henrich Harrer’s ‘The White Spider’. It didn’t occur to me at the time that all these books were written by and about men and that there might be other stories and ways of seeing human relationships with mountains.

One aspect of this collection is its attempt to address this imbalance, to articulate and celebrate the lives of women mountaineers, to give voice to those who were often ‘not on the map’ in terms of recognition by male peers and the wider world in general.    ‘An Easy Day for a Lady’ works, on one level, as the sort of ‘ climbing poem’ I admire. It captures something of the freedom and altering of perspective, both visual and in relation to how the viewer sees their life, afforded by climbing. It’s the kind of poem that should you close your eyes and listen, as I did at a recent reading given by its author, is able to transport you to a high place, a place where, should you turn round to look, you will see ‘the swooping absence/ of the face, the undone glaciers, crevasses closing in on themselves/ like flowers at night’.  But the poem also works in its address of historical (and sadly not so historical) gender issues, dealing as it does with the irrelevance, to the woman narrator, of the title’s 1920’s  quotation ‘An Easy Day for a Lady’, this being shorthand for a climb considered to be beneath a man once two women alone had achieved it. The speaker of the poem and her female companion,  ‘en cordeefemininineare literally and metaphorically above such language, unconstrained by social mores and able to ‘give back the silence/ at the dawn of things’. Other poems address the constraining garments considered suitable in Victorian times. The narrator in ‘Miss Jemima’s Swiss Journal’ longs to stand in her blue dress ‘ beneath the falls/ at Lauterbrunnen, higher/ than all society, a teardrop/ if only you saw me/ from the sky.’ Miss Jermima’s frustration, anger and sadness at her confined existence are all conveyed in this short and deceptively simple piece.


The sequence of poems about the climber Alison Hargreaves is haunting, displaying great understatement and sensitivity.

Containing sixty- five pages of poems, this collection feels and is substantial. Much of the work voices the rage of the suppressed and maltreated. There are also tender pieces and humorous touches.   Many of these poems are celebrations of achievement; records of overcoming, or attempting to overcome, not only the often  harsh conditions of the mountains, but also the everyday adversity and prejudice encountered by those in all environments, both elevated and domestic. Many of the protagonists, mainly, but not exclusively female, speak in refusal to have their worth defined or measured by others. I began writing here as a quick response to highlight some of the qualities I admire in the poems about climbing and climbers. There is a great deal more to discover. I am looking forward to reading this collection thoroughly and with care.




Three new anthologies

I am pleased to have recently received new poetry anthologies from three excellent independent presses.

First to arrive was Vanguard Editions #2 Poetry Anthology. It is an eclectic collection, beautifully made, full of surprises and great value at only £5. There is an impressive selection of work from the likes of Ian Duhig, Dan O’Brien, Samantha Wynne-Rhydderch and many other fine contemporary writers.   I’m grateful to the editor, poet, writer and director of the Faber academy, Richard Skinner, for asking me to contribute and pleased that my fairly newly minted poem, ‘The Glass Delusion’ was to hand when Richard contacted me. We agreed a couple of small changes to line breaks were needed and I’m very happy with the version that appears the anthology.


Next came ‘New Boots and Pantisocracies’  from Smokestack Books. This project started as a blog set up in the aftermath 2015 UK general election by Professor Bill Herbert and Andy Jackson who initially decided to publish a poem a day for the first hundred days of the new government in order to record responses, in poetry,  to the prevailing political atmosphere. The project grew and remerged in order to take in responses to the outcome of the EU referendum. At 181 pages it is an impressive tome, and contains work from Daljit Nagra, Hannah Lowe, Suzannah Evans , Jon Stone and many others. I’m pleased my own poem, ‘Election Night’, which was specifically written in response to the result and casts an eye back to nineteen-seventy nine, is sandwiched between poems by Clare Pollard and Helen Mort as I have long been an admirer of their work.  You can read some reflections on the anthology from Sheenagh Pugh here.  



Finally, there is ‘Millstone Grit’, an anthology of work by poets associated  with Sheffield Hallam university. I attended Hallam a couple of years ago to study a postgraduate course, and was pleased to be asked to contribute by editors Noel Williams and Rosemary Badcoe. The book represents a new venture into publishing for the editors of Antiphon magazine, and contains poems by T.S Eliot Prize shortlisted poets Katherine Towers and Ruby Robinson, as well as wonderful poets like Julie Mellor, Beverley Nadin, James Giddings (who has a new book out with Templar Press) and Suzannah Evans. There are also two poems from me. You can see a list of contributors and order a copy here for the very reasonable price of £6.50 (UK) including post and packing.

All three anthologies give an idea of the wide range of work being produced and published by poets in the UK, both in terms of stylistic approach and subject matter. The ‘New Boots’ book might be of particular interest to those who feel poetry is divorced from contemporary events and are looking for responses to current affairs. Both the other books contain varied reflections of contemporary life by some of the best poets currently producing work in the English language.

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.’


Getting the book in order (again)

I’ve been living with a draft of my book for a while now. The poems keep getting rewritten- line breaks changed, and changed back again. Poems have been removed and added ; the usual stuff.  I sent a version to my publisher a while ago, and he’s going to have a look in the autumn with a view to publishing in 2017.

In the meantime, I keep going back for a look, and when I do I find myself working again on poems I’d long since thought settled into their shape and sound. Even the shortest have been through countless drafts, and luckily, I managed to keep some of the first, since I’ve reverted to something close to an early version several times. I couldn’t resist adding a couple of newer poems to the latest file, mainly because they still give me a slight buzz of excitement, being not yet entirely familiar.

I’ve left out work that’s been published in good magazines- Magma (x 2 poems), The Morning Star, The North, The Interpreter’s House, Bare Fiction, Under The Radar and others – either because the poems don’t fit with the rest of the collection, or because I simply don’t love those poems enough.  I like and in some cases, love, (or will grow to love; time will tell) all the poems I’ve chosen, and I’m pretty sure they are strong enough, though my editor may offer reasons as to why one or two might be left out. I’m looking forward to reading his thoughts.

Today, although I am not at my day job and it is a beautiful day,
I’ve been at the computer a lot.


As well as being absorbed in re-drafting a new poem,  I’ve been looking at the order of the collection once more. Grouping poems by content is not as simple as it might be. Just because a poem has a bird in it,for example, should it sit with other ‘bird’ poems? I’ve decided not, as most if not all of my ‘bird’ poems are not about birds at all, but are poems with birds in them, birds that are usually passing through. Without going back and analyzing all the bird poems (maybe I should, and group them accordingly) I guess they are actually poems about change, transience, remembrance, loyalty, resilience etc.

There are so many possible ways of putting 60 odd poems together so that one leads into or echos or reflects something of the next. And of course my idea of a reflection may not be someone else’s. From where they are standing, the view may be completely different.

Then there is the option to break the book into sections. I’m not naturally inclined to do this, as I’m not sure what the benefit might be with this particular set of poems. I do have a sequence of some twelve poems about my time as a coronary care nurse, so that has its own title.

Where to place the sequence in the book is another question. At the heart, or middle of the book? I’ve been receiving some good feedback on these poems, and wanted to put them at the beginning. This didn’t ‘feel’ right ( although I can’t explain why at the moment) so I’ve compromised and am leading into the sequence with a short section of ten or so pieces, although this might change.

Putting the book in order, feels I imagine, a bit like designing a landscape garden with beds and ponds and hedges and sculptures.
Deciding on an order that will work is exciting and time consuming,
and, like most poets I imagine, I keep changing my mind.

However, as with every word and line break of the poems themselves, there will have to come a time when the printer puts a stop to experimentation and mutation: a time when the book will be held firmly in place by its cover.  Which reminds me, I need one of those too.