A.L Kennedy’s advice

I used to read A.L Kennedy’s funny and engaging pieces on being a writer in the Guardian newspaper some five years ago. I believe these led to her book ‘On Writing’, which will probably go on my Christmas list along with Don Patterson’s  book on Shakespeare’s sonnets. I was lucky enough to see AL speak about being a writer in Nottingham a couple of years back, and today I came across a Guardian article from a few years ago called ‘Ten rules for writing fiction’ in which a number of well know writers were asked to provide ten top tips each. I thought A.L’s was the most relevant to me, and thought that it could equally be applied to writing poetry. Here is the list with a comment or two from me in italics .

1. Have humility. Older/more ­experienced/more convincing writers may offer rules and varieties of advice. ­Consider what they say. However, don’t automatically give them charge of your brain, or anything else – they might be bitter, twisted, burned-out, manipulative, or just not very like you.

I thought about the word ‘humility’ and I suppose I take it to mean having a clear perspective and respect for one’s place in context.
Practicing humility as a poet would involve reigning in one’s vanity.

2. Have more humility. Remember you don’t know the limits of your own abilities. Successful or not, if you keep pushing beyond yourself, you will enrich your own life – and maybe even please a few strangers.

3. Defend others. You can, of course, steal stories and attributes from family and friends, fill in filecards after lovemaking and so forth. It might be better to celebrate those you love – and love itself – by writing in such a way that everyone keeps their privacy and dignity intact.

Interesting one this. I’ve been thinking quite a bit about what I might put in a poems and what I might not- of some sort of moral obligation
to omit details which might cause distress to others, or to disguise inhabitants in poems by changing their gender or in other ways .
I once said something about this responsibility to a famous poet and he said ‘No, no, no, don’t censor it. Just get it all down! ‘ I’m not sure he did this in his own work, and if he did how that might have been viewed by those close to him. I was also once at a reading where a poets child sat through her detailing the breakup of her relationship with the child’s father in poem after poem. That felt very uncomfortable.

4. Defend your work. Organisations, institutions and individuals will often think they know best about your work – especially if they are paying you. When you genuinely believe their decisions would damage your work – walk away. Run away. The money doesn’t matter that much.

I have turned down publication on a couple of occasions when editors suggested changes I couldn’t agree with at the time. As for money, I don’t really have to face any money induced dilemmas, although I did once apply for a commission to write a sequence I wasn’t really inspired to write on the basis that it would pay. Thankfully (perhaps)
I didn’t win that particular commission.

5. Defend yourself. Find out what keeps you happy, motivated and creative.

6. Write. No amount of self-inflicted misery, altered states, black pullovers or being publicly obnoxious will ever add up to your being a writer. Writers write. On you go.

You could add to this list ‘no amount of status updates or tweeting will ever add up to your being a writer’. A difficult navigation around such distractions is required.   

7. Read. As much as you can. As deeply and widely and nourishingly and ­irritatingly as you can. And the good things will make you remember them, so you won’t need to take notes.

8. Be without fear. This is impossible, but let the small fears drive your rewriting and set aside the large ones ­until they behave – then use them, maybe even write them. Too much fear and all you’ll get is silence.

9. Remember you love writing. It wouldn’t be worth it if you didn’t. If the love fades, do what you need to and get it back.

10. Remember writing doesn’t love you. It doesn’t care. Nevertheless, it can behave with remarkable generosity. Speak well of it, encourage others, pass it on.




Myra Schneider’s ‘Le Citron’

Some months ago I was delighted to receive Myra Schneider’s latest poetry collection, The Door to Colour from Myra herself.  A mutual friend, Sonia,  had lent my book The Sun Bathers to Myra, and Myra got in touch to ask if I would like to be one of the poets reading at the event she has been involved in organising for many years, Poetry in Palmers Green.  I used to live in Palmers Green and am looking forward to listening to the music and poetry and reading my own at the event in October.

Myra had personally inscribed her book and sent it to me as a swap, and I immediately felt I’d done rather well since The Door to Colour has seventy-nine pages and is a lovely looking collection published by Enitharmon press, publisher of five previous collections by Myra.  For once, the observations on the back cover (taken from reviews in Poetry London, Acumen and Artemis) are spot on. Here is the one from Acumen.

Myra Schneider has become an essential poet. Nobody else manages her fusion of the domestic and the global as well. Nobody else manages her fusion of the sensual and the spiritual as well.

door_to_colour (2)

William Faulkner said ‘ A writer needs three things. Experience, observation, and imagination, any two of which, at times any one of which, can supply the lack of the others’.  It seems to me that Myra is able to fuse all these things at once. There is a quality of attention, an intensity to her observation which melds seamlessly with imaginative travel and a sense of shared humanity and compassion which can only arise from experience.

For a long time after Myra’s book arrived I didn’t read past the first few pages. There are a number of reasons for this. Firstly, I was busy. Secondly, I think I was daunted by how rich the book was; I wanted to set it aside until I could immerse myself properly. And thirdly, I found it difficult to stop reading and re-reading the opening poem ‘Le Citron’ .

As you will no doubt have guessed from the title of Myra’s book, colour is one of its keynotes, and there are poems which take work by Hockney, Chagall, Matisse and others as starting points. Many of these poems seem to be written out of a sense of rapture at the gift of colour and are a celebration of being alive. These poems are also extraordinary in that they make the reader aware of the sensual vibrancy of existence; they provide something akin to a medative or ‘mindful’ state in which it is possible to notice and experience the moment. It seems that it is increasingly recognised that this state of noticing is vital to our mental health,  and has been greatly challenged by the rush and ephemera of much of  twenty-first century life.

I wanted to share this poem ‘Le Citron’  with you and am delighted that Myra has agreed to let me do so. As I said earlier, I found it hard to read beyond this poem.  I think that one of the reasons for this is that I found it so potent that I didn’t need anything else. Much like a poem by John Donne or Andrew Marvell, it is as if a small pipette-full of poetry of this power is more than enough to sate my need to be taken somewhere other by a piece of art.

I’d read and re-read it, marvelling at its stimulation of all the senses ( how ‘right’ is this line in sense and musicality  – ‘Its tang / is sharp as frostnip yet not hostile’) –  the clarity of its vision, the perfection of its form, the scope of it’s potential as a metaphor and the fact it seems to glow on the page. Their is also the mystery of the last line. As well as reminding me of the chorus of the Small Faces ‘Itchycoo Park (it’s all too beautiful ,) it suggests essential  need for all things to find comfort in their surroundings, in this case some literal softness in stark environment. This perhaps hints at an understanding of the pantheistic nature of things, and also of how intense focus on visual beauty of an object, and maybe even a human, might lead to the neglect of the essential need for a sympathetic environment and the avoidance of  isolation.

Finally, I have included an image of Manet’s painting ‘Le Citron’ at the bottom of the page, ‘bedded on a plate whose mood is olive. ‘ Before I saw Manet’s painting I felt I had already seen a vision of this lemon- it was exactly as Myra had made it appear in my mind’s eye.

The Door to Colour (2014) is available from Enitharmon press.


after Manet

Day after day I contemplate this lemon,
the small weightiness of its rounded body
bedded on a plate whose mood is olive. Its tang
is sharp as frostnip yet not hostile,
its skin landscaped with yellows that sing
in counterpoint to mustard and leaf green.
When I journey to the points at each pole
I’m touched by their vulnerability.
At dusk the plate’s faintly rimmed with silver
as if dreaming it’s moonshine and the lemon
swells to a globe which illuminates a room
yearning for furniture, flowered curtains,
the comfort of carpet. I can hardly bear
to see it in such isolated splendour.


Le Citron 3


One thing leads to another.

I wrote about translation in my last post. This lead me to an on-line conversation with a friend about Montale in translation, and from there I found Paul Muldoon’s fantastic lecture on Montale’s ‘The Eel’ in ‘The End of the Poem’ (Faber, 2006) .  The book presents fifteen lectures delivered by Muldoon during his time as Oxford Professor of poetry, and although individually engaging, together they link and overlap to brilliantly explore poetic influence.

The End of


Among the many ideas Muldoon explores is Octavio Paz’s notion that all texts might be thought of as ‘translations of translations of translations’.  Muldoon quotes Paz by way of explanation;

‘Each text is unique, yet at the same time it is the translation of another text. No text can be completely original because language itself is already a translation, first from the nonverbal world, and then, because each sign and each phrase is a translation of another sign, another phrase.’

Muldoon’s lecture on ‘The Eel’ quotes from numerous translations, and among other things shows how translators add meanings not present in the original, and how these might influence subsequent translations.  I highly recommend this book which I picked up quite cheaply second-hand.

Reading the essay on Montale’s poem, I remember a version I had first come across in Robin Robertson’s ‘Swithering’ (Picador,2006). Looking up the poem I found his wonderful ‘Primavera’ from the same collection. It is one of my favourite poems by Robertson, and atypical of his work in that it is about renewal and rebirth, since much of his poetry is concerned with the opposite.

The ‘brimstone’ in the first line of the poem is not the element of sulphur but the butterfly of that name, and I remember reading somewhere that the word ‘butterfly’ is derived from ‘butter-coloured fly’, the colour of the male brimstone butterfly. I love  the neatness of this twenty line poem and the way it travels, both down the page and geographically, and it seems to me to be related in this way, and in its use of watery imagery (not to mention the setting, Italy) to Montale’s eel, another force of nature migrating down the page in muscular, perfectly balanced short lines. I also love the sound of the poem- try reading it  aloud- the alliteration and repeated vowel sounds of ‘stone’ and ‘woken’.   It’s a bit unseasonal to post the poem here, seeing that autumn is upon us, but I want to share it with you incase you hadn’t seen it, not least to show how Robinson defies his reputation for doom and gloom, and also to illustrate how one thing can lead to another.


for Cait

The brimstone is back
in the woken hills of Vallombrosa,
passing the word
from speedwell to violet
wood anemone to celandine.
I could walk to you now
with Spring just ahead of me,
north over flat ground
at two miles an hour,
the sap moving with me,
under the rising
grass of the field
like a dragged magnet,
the lights of the flowers
coming on in waves
as I walked with the budburst
and the flushing of trees.
If I started now,
I could bring you Spring
for your birthday.

Robin Robertson

Translating again

I’ve been working on some translations today. Two poet friends are going to be starting a new on line magazine next spring, and translations will be a feature. I was pleased when one of the editors remembered I’ve done some translating before and asked if I had anything for them to consider.

As of this morning I  only had one piece – a poem by Eugenio Montale
from his ‘Ossia Di Seppia’ or ‘Cuttlefish Bones’.   But tonight, after a day’s work, I have three short translations in total, one from his early work, one from his middle period and one from a late collection.


I haven’t read much Montale,  but I’m very much drawn to his work and am particularly interested (at the moment) in his sorter poems. The ones I have read are incredibly dense and intense. Some sound as if he is muttering to himself. They also contain humour, transcendent images taken from both nature and urban settings, and what seem to be grumpy asides about media and the state of things, sometimes all in one poem. As you can tell, I’m not a scholar of the poet’s  work, but I’m looking forward to finding out more.

My translation ‘technique’, such as it is, involves finding a translation of poem that intrigues me and comparing it to the original Italian version.
I speak and read a little Italian (my mother was born there)  and I recognise quite a few words and can have a good guess at others. I do also have some idea as to how the words should sound when spoken.

When I’ve found an English translation that I’m interested in, I start to compare it to the Italian version. Often I’ll look for more than one translation with a view to getting ideas of how a translation can be done.
Translations can vary widely and it’s good to compare and contrast styles. Essential tools are a Thesaurus and an English/ Italian dictionary. These are of course also available on-line, together with tools that translate blocks of text. Some of translation tools come up with very funny ideas, but even odd words can be useful to note as potential areas to research. Associations can led to interesting alternative words being found. As well as the above I need a few free hours and a lot of concentration.

I am interested in whether the translation has captured the music of the original, whether it is fluid and fluent or a little stilted.  I want to consider the sense of the poem and see if it has been lost or corrupted slightly, to see if word choices are literal translations (not always possible) or if they are overblown. I want to see how the structure of the translation compares to the original and if, when moving the poem into English, it might be better to change the original shape. I’ll look at whether the translator has kept archaic or outmoded touches or used language that, although ‘accurate’ has dated, and if so does this work. I’m quite interested in bringing references up to date, to re-fresh the poem a little much in the way a cover version of an old song might use contempoary production techniques. It’s hard to explain what I mean without giving examples, and I’ll show you some whole poems and different translations another time.

I want to see if the emotion and/or atmosphere have been carried over.
I might fall in love with the potential I see in the translation but think it would be interesting to re-write with reference to the original.  It might be a word or two that doesn’t seem to have the right tone, or maybe a section lacks clarity, or maybe the whole translation  doesn’t feel right. If I’ve found something to spark my interest then I’ll start work.

Montale book

Today I seemed to be in the right frame of mind for the work, drafting lines quite quickly, researching, considering different word orderings, leaving out phrases, reinstating them. A herd of goats in one poem was literally described as ‘disruptive’. I tried unruly, rowdy and settled on raucous. I also added to the visual clarity of the image by having them ‘gambol’ across the road, something not in the original. For ‘ravine’ I have substituted ‘crag’- I feel closer to the word, and it seemed on a smaller scale, which I liked. English is so rich and allows the translator to find words of Germanic origin to replace and to mix with the Latinate. It’s great fun and extremely rewarding.

This same poem (the one with the goats) also led me to research in flora and fauna as I tried to match the goat’s  dinner (they browse in my translation- I’ve gone for the more obvious and familiar ‘graze.)  Various words for plant life- the wonderful  ‘falasco’ and ‘di pruno’ among them,
led to reading about and consideration of heather, prickly burs, bramble and thorn bush, blackthorn, marsh grass, broom, sedge and sloes.


Montale in his youth.

I’m pleased with the result, even though I had to sacrifice a few words which conveyed a lot in Italian but were difficult to render concisely in English.


Whether the editors like my translations or not, I’ve very much enjoyed the challenges presented by working on these poems. I was also able to revisit the poem I had worked on last year or the year before, and because I was in the right frame of mind, was able to improve it with a few small changes.

If any of these poems appear in the future I’ll share them here.
In the meantime here is a link to a some translations I did a while ago for Leafe Press’ Litter magazine. These two are from a contemporary Italian poet,  Andrea Inglese.

You can read more about Eugenio Montale here and here 

Searching for the ‘right’ word

I’ve been diligently (intermittently) writing three poetry book reviews.
Fortunately, all three collections contain some very fine poetry, and I’ll be glad to have them on my shelf to return to when the reviews are finished. When I write a review I jump straight in, reading through each poem and jotting notes by hand. Then I’ll open a word document and begin the long process of refining my notes, hammering away until sentences flow, checking that meaning is clear, that repetition of certain phrases or words is avoided .

Very often I’ll read over what I’ve written only to get a nagging feeling that what I want to say has not been said well enough, that the essence of how I feel about a poem or the book as a whole has not been captured. I feel a duty to do justice to the poet’s work, to try to get to the heart of what they are saying, to do my best to capture and express what is unique about each.

In the process I  try to avoid phrases that might be becoming meaningless with overuse, phrases that are difficult to substitute, such as ‘Tour de force’. I’ve noticed, reading over one unfinished piece, that I’ve used ‘delicate’ to describe a poem. But turning to the Thesaurus I can see that along with ‘exquisite’ , are ‘fragile,’ ‘flimsy,’ ‘silky’ ‘gossamer’, ‘wispy’ and so on. My brain is hurting a little this morning, but I realise I’m going to have to escape any temptation to lazily apply ‘delicate’ and decide exactly what quality I’m suggesting the poem has and why. I’ve written reviews in the past that I’ve been dissatisfied with, and I now understand it’s because I settled too easily for words which I could have interrogated more fully until I was absolutely sure that they were conveying what I meant.


So I’m learning. This is hard work, and, just as one should read contemporary poetry if one is writing poetry, I know I should read more reviews in order to get a sense of what is currently being done and what is not, what phrases are being overused and what it is possible to achieve.
I do read reviews, and have found some to be beautifully crafted and insightful. There are may ways of approaching reviewing, and I admire writers who leave space between the lines, who, rather than bludgeoning a book with statements about it’s perceived lack of skill or politically (at least to that particular reviewer) unpalatable themes, hint at these things or ask questions.

I suppose I find it harder to write about books I don’t like. If I’ve read several pages and the work seems flat or uninspiring, if the language torpid, or perhaps worse, overwrought and confusing, I really won’t want to write a review. If a book makes me wonder why I thought I liked poetry, I’d rather not go there, and since my reviewing is for pleasure, not profit, I don’t have to.

My current problem, and it’s a nice one to have, is that I admire some of the work I am writing about so much that I’m in danger of sounding gushing in my enthusiasm. Maybe this isn’t a problem at all. I’m a fan of brilliant poetry, and luckily for me, some brilliant poetry has dropped through my letter box. It only remains for me to try to explain why I think it’s brilliant, which, when things are going well and the right words are forming up on the page,  I will regard as a privilege.  Back to work.

A visit to the West Riding

A few days ago I had the great pleasure of giving a poetry reading in Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire.

It is about nine years since I first read a poem in public- one commissioned by my friend Pete for the naming ceremony of his twins.  I don’t think I was entirely audible on that occasion, and like to think that experience gleaned in the intervening years has improved my listener’s experience.

Although any public performance invariably involves a quickening of the pulse, I  feel I have relaxed into reading my work, and can now share my poems as I would wish- confidently, clearly, at the right pace, and unimpaired by the shaking hand, racing heart and dry mouth that can beset the novice (and sometimes) the more experienced reader.

Winston Plowes, who runs the Poetry Shindig, is an excellent host, and the audience were attentive and wonderfully appreciative. There were certain other vital elements in place including a very good microphone and a little reading light on a bendy stalk-  in short everything one could wish for. All this and a chance to meet up with poetry mates Keith Hutson and John Foggin, the latter the subject of my last post.

Arriving earlier in the day  I had time to walk to Heptonstall along
the steepening path that leads up the side of the valley.


It was raining and quite dark under the trees. At one point I passed a birch that had pushed down the high grit-stone wall, its roots refusing to be contained.


I’m sure you will know that  Ted Hughes lived in the neighbouring village of Mytholmroyd until his family moved to Mexbrough when he was seven, and that Sylvia Plath is buried in the churchyard at Heptonstall.

Hughes wrote vividly about his Mytholmroyd years in the fascinating anthology ‘Worlds: Seven Modern Poets (Penguin, 1974), Edited by Geoffory Summerfield,

7 mod

and Hughes ‘Birthday Letters’ (Faber, 1998) contains the poem ‘Stubbing Wharfe’ in which he describes, in less than flattering terms the pub in Hebden Bridge where he and Sylvia sat in ‘the gummy dark bar’ one winter night in the late nineteen fifties.  As John Foggin confirmed later that evening in the comfort of Nelsons Bar, Hebden Bridge was a far darker place back then.
In Hughes poem ‘The black humped bridge and its cobbles’ are ‘sweating black, under lamps of drizzling yellow’, and despite his obvious dislike and discomfort at being back inside the ‘shut-in/ Sodden dreariness of the whole valley’ he attempts to convince both Sylvia (and perhaps himself) that they might make a home here

‘ ‘These side-valleys,’ I whispered.
‘Are full of the most fantastic houses,
Elizabethan, marvellous, little kingdoms,
Going for next to nothing.’



Heptonstall has two churches. The earlier abandoned and ruined one is shown here.


I wondered around the churchyard and found Sylvia Plath’s grave.
On that day, maybe because of the inclement weather,  there was no-one else there, and the grave, like most of those surrounding, was tidy and without anything unusual to distinguish it. I have heard that the name ‘Hughes’ has been removed several times over the years by those who vilified the poet in the aftermath of Plath’s suicide (although this has not happened for a long while,) and that people will often leave tokens on the grave. I was glad I was alone and pleased to see that the grave bore nothing more than some well placed small plants and a single healthy pink rose, beaded with rain.



John Foggin- stocktaking

Tonight I am excited and honoured to share some thoughts and words from the poet John Foggin, who I regard as of Britain’s finest poets of landscape, a poet whose muscular and musical work has delighted, transported and educated and entranced me since I first his poem ‘Achnacloich’ in The North  some  years ago and thought ‘Who is this guy?’

It is a fantastic poem, the best I’d read for some time, and I wondered why I hadn’t seen anything else by this writer and why this poem wasn’t in that year’s Forward collection. A few years later and John’s work is unsurprisingly featured in the Forward Book of Poetry.

John has kindly agreed to showcase a few poems here, and in response to my request for him to talk about his writing we have the added bonus of his wonderful ‘stocktake’ .

I am deeply honoured that he has chosen to let me publish his previously unpublished poem ‘A weak force’. I have just finished laying out the poems and paragraphs for this post, and my face is still wet with tears, my breath still taken away. This devastating and beautiful  poem shows how John’s work has evolved and changed, enabling him to go deeper and further than most writers ever could.

I first met John (or rather observed his immaculately waist-coated bright-eyed and tanned personage) at a Poetry Business writing day in Sheffield five or six years ago.  During a read around of work written that morning he fluidly piled words upon words to describe the interior of a shed or garage or attic. I hope John will forgive me for not remembering the exact location he described, nor the name of the poem in question. I do know that I didn’t want the poem to end. It was evident that John knew his materials (both the language he wanted to use and the physical objects such as rope and tacks and tools) so well, and handled them with such precision that the list of objects sang and gathered in layers to build a sense of place, and, more miraculously, a sense of the person who had collected them. This description doesn’t really do justice to John’s skill, so I hope you will gain some idea of how his poems build from the poems that follow.

On another occasion I was to benefit from his support and encouragement as he commented, after I’d read  my own draft, that we were ‘in Heaney territory here’. This was the first time I’d ever had a poem compared to another poet’s work, and as far as I was concerned, Heaney was a pretty good place to start. John is now well known for his ‘cobweb’ (he dislikes, as we all do I suspect, the word ‘blog’)  a space he utilises to generously air his thoughts and to champion poets whose work he feels we should know about.

John has been published in lots of magazines, and has an impressive record of winning competitions including the Lumen Camden competition which lead to the publication of his wonderful Ward Wood pamphlet Larach,
a soulful, cerebral collection which you can purchase here.  

Ladies and gentlemen, John Foggin.

John's picture

About 12 years ago I finished an MA course in Creative Writing that I was ill-advised to have started. I don’t know what my motive was, but my heart wasn’t in it. I duly got my MA, but the writing didn’t start in any meaningful way until I started going to the Poetry Business Writing Days on a regular basis a couple of years later. Even then, between 2007 and 20012 I averaged about twelve new poems a year.

Something strange (or, rather, wonderful) happened in 2013; it was like a dam bursting. I’ve written ceaselessly since. 272 new poems. I cannot account for it, but I’m happy to count my blessings. And I can now look back and see a curious process and progress.

In one of the essays I wrote for my MA I see that even then I had an idea about where I wanted to be. I wrote that my imagination was:

‘visual ,excited by landscape, particularly the landscape of hills, fells, sky, sea and weather’. but that I wanted to be more: concerned with explorations of people in landscape, and the meaning of their histories.’

Basically, all my poems were like the photograph of the shore at Achnacloich. Empty of people. Which leads me to a shift, of sorts. Back then, even before I started on an MA, I went up to Skye for a week on my own TO WRITE. I would write about Clearance sites. I would read John Prebble. I would take poets with me. I would be serious about it.

Not much came of it except this one poem that eventually was accepted by ‘The North’. I didn’t know that was a big deal. I know better now. The backstory is that I was getting myself lost as usual up on the moor, following, and losing, deer tracks, and looking out towards Rhum, and back to the Cuillin, and realising that I couldn’t see any of it straight. It was all coming through the lens of Ted Hughes and his stags, and his stones and his horizons. And it was that frustration that I wrote about. I wouldn’t have thought anything of it, but when I came home to radio and newspapers, I discovered that had been the day that Ted Hughes had died, and I thought that made the poem worth keeping. Here it is.

                       Achnacloich: October 1998

As the heron creaked clear
of the wet alders by the brown burn,
taking a line from the curve of the fell
where the eagle had mantled
and flown lazy and sure to the far edge of things,
you were watching, old hawk, among the crofts,
the sheep staring mad-eyed
at your insurance man’s suit
shiny at cuff and collar, creased at knee,at elbow.
You watched and talked all that wet day,
your gritstone vowels, your cadences
open as the sky; falling for ever.

You were there on the shoreline,
rooting through the blueprint bones
of sheep, those scattered vertebrae,
this relic jawbone clamped on silence
among the stones, the hiddle of baling wire,
mired iron sheeting, rust.
Across the green and sopping parks
sheep huddled in the lithe of the long wall,
and beyond, on the bareblown hill
the deer were waiting for you and me;
alert and wary, then, pouring easy as light
up the tumbled slopes and out of sight,
in those gulleys gouged in the cold hills.

Heaven poured down on Rhum,
fans and blades of honey, silver-gilt.
As we walked and watched that day
in Achnacloich; old hawk, you saw
the pressed dry grass where the deer lie,
a single slot in a cup of peat;
the buttresses of turf, of heather, tangled whin,
and, always the horizons calling
until, far below and far away,
the wood was a struggle
a scattering foil of birch and bloodbead ash.

There we stood in the high place
where rock was kneeling, clean and dry and bright
and all the earth was a stage
for the performance of heaven.
The tumbling outcrops fell away;
away, away beyond the foundering islands,
beyond the damascened sea.

The stones, the light, the rain,
all fixed in the reflex of your hawk’s eye.
Wherever I walked in Achnacloich,
The Field of Stones, that day your words,
joined with earth and engraved in rock
were under my feet. That day.

    (Ted Hughes d. October 28 1998)

I realise now it more than just a bit of landscape painting, and that I was enjoying collaging lines of Hughes’ poems into my own, and I was actually writing about something personal. But I didn’t stay with it.

It was another 5 years before I started again, and I made a big effort to populate my poetry. I took my cue from The world’s wife and worked away at ventriloqual monologues spoken by fallen angels. I like some of them, but no-one else seems to. I wrote about John Waterhouse, the painter, and his wife, and his favourite model. More dramatic monologues that didn’t go anywhere very much. And then a long hiatus, though I started going regularly to The Poetry Business Writing Days, and they slowly worked their magic. Tentatively, I started to write about real people, but very self-consciously and awkwardly until 2013 when I was on a writing residential and I wrote this poem that changed everything.


According to the specialists you died six months ago
and I like sitting with you, proving there’s an afterlife
as we roll cigarettes, you perched like a wire bird
up on your kitchen top beside the angel
that I made for you before I knew you weren’t alive.
Your fridge’s crusted like a wreck, with magnets
and pictures of Bob Dylan, and you show me
that programme that Patti Smith had signed, for you,
not knowing you’d been applauding from the Underworld.
You make me laugh each time you tell the phone
it can get stuffed because it’s your mad mother
who will not believe that you’re not with us any more.
Your eyes grow bright in your dead woman’s face,
then sink, then glow like cigarettes, like the ironworks
up the coast, or the small lights on the cobles
tied up and tilted on the mud; like the strange flares
from the stack high up on Boulby Cliff, where the shaft
goes down a whole dark mile of ammonites, and heads off
away beneath the weight of oil rigs, and sunken ships,
and shoals of cod, and all the grey North sea.

This poem, about someone I was very fond of, only happened because of the pressure of a fast writing task that ambushed me into knowing an emotion I didn’t know I felt. Thank you for that ‘write from a postcard’ task, Jane Draycott. I plucked up the courage to give a copy to Julie’s brother at her funeral. He liked it. He shared it with people, and I sent it off for the Plough Poetry Competition, where Andrew motion liked it and gave it the first prize. That’s what changed everything. It gave me permission to think I could write, along with the encouragement of Kim Moore (who put one of my poems on her Sunday Poem blog), and Gaia Holmes, who gave me a guest slot at the Puzzle Hall Poets. That was it. The dam broke.

Years of reading and teaching, and having a family and a history were stacked up, waiting to be dealt with and voiced. It took 70 years, but I finally got going. More fallen angels, poems for my parents and for my grandparents, and my children, and long-ago girlfriends, and finally, folktale and myth that became imaginatively real and relevant for the first time in my life. Daedalus let me write about the death of my son. Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Garfield and Blishen’s The god beneath the sea reminded me why I loved Prometheus and Hephaestus, and why I loathed most of the Greek Pantheon. Norman MacCaig taught me it was possible to write about gods and heroes with the ease of familiarity. Which is what lies behind this poem that I chose to put into my chapbook Larach (along with John Keats’ urn and Orpheus and the rest). It’s nice to feel comfortable enough to be angry in a poem.

True stories

Violent and vulgar as the Krays comes Zeus,
a white bull, miasmic with testosterone,
or a shower of gold, or a flurry of wings
and swansdown.
The whole pale mortal world
just asking for it.
A bit of blood and bruising.
No harm done.

No wonder Cronos had no stomach
for Olympus and its thuggish brood.

Roman Ovid knew blood clogs scabbards,
stiffens nets; the blue-white shine of bone;
the gristly wet noise of a boy
spitted on a hunting spear;

Years and reverence
bleached Greek myths white and silent,
censored severed hands and torn-out tongue;
the loud incontinent reek of death.

As if hyacinths, pale anenomes,
the silvery liquid song of nightingales
would atone, somehow.
Birds and flowers, and cold bright stars –
archers,hunters, bear and plough.

Surely simpler, and more godlike,
to prick holes in the fabric of the night,
let bits of heaven shine through.

I suspect all my pent-up frustrations about arrogant Old Etonians and their sense of entitlement, and their palpable contempt for the rest of us has fed into this. Whether it’s healthy or not, I don’t know. But I enjoyed writing it. I like doing it at open mic. events, too.

The last year has brought new breakthroughs that I’ve recognised in the moments where they happened. I’ve reached a point where I can write with what feels like real emotional/imaginative truth about the things that matter to me more than anything. It’s a long business, learning not to shy away from hard truths. Kim Moore has taught me that in her poems that deal with domestic violence in her lovely collection, The art of falling. And then, in March this year, in a residential she ran, she somehow ambushed me into writing a poem about my son’s suicide, direct, unmediated through games with myth and personae. It’s the poem I’ve waited all my life to write.

 A weak force

there’s sometimes a loss you can’t imagine;
the lives never lived by your children;
the one who simply stopped
in the time it takes
to fall to the ground
from the top of a tower block.

No time at all.

They say gravity is a weak force.
I say the moon will draw a trillion tons
of salt sea from its shore.
I say a mountain range will pull a snowmelt
puddle out of shape.
I say gravity can draw a boy
through a window
and into the air.

There is loss no one can imagine

in the no time between
falling and not falling
you learned the art of not falling

beneath you burned
the lights of Sheepscar, Harehills,
Briggate, Vicar Lane,
lights shone in the glass arcades,
on the tiles, on the gantries of tall cranes,
on the motorway tail lights trailed ribbons of red,
and you were far beyond falling.

Because you shut your eyes
because you always shut your eyes
you closed them tight as cockleshells
because when you did that the world
would go away the world
would not see you.

I remember how you ran like a dream.
I remember how you laughed when I swore
I would catch you.

Then you flared you went out
you flared like a moth and you blew
away over the lights over the canal
the river the sour moors the cottongrass
the mills of the plain
and over the sea and over the sea
and the bright west
and sank like the sun.

Thanks for inviting me, Roy Marshall. It’s been good to take stock.