Something about Frank O’Hara

A couple of years ago I read and enjoyed Frank O’Hara’s ‘Lunch poems’ for the first time.

Lunch poems

Intrigued, I looked up details of O’Hara’s life and discovered that he was active in the New York art world of the 1950’s, working as a reviewer for the journal Artnews. In 1960, he became assistant curator of painting and sculpture exhibitions for the Museum of Modern art. O’Hara was also friends with artists such as Williem de Kooning, Norman Bluhm, Larry Rivers and Joan Mitchell.

Around the time I was reading O’Hara, I came across an article about abstract art. The writer recounted a scene from around the turn of the millennium in which a discussion took place about who made the first abstract art. Unfortunately I can remember neither the scource of the article nor the writer’s name. The poem below began by using detail from the text, so it’s partially a ‘found poem’ and I’d like to reference the text if I could locate it again. To develop the poem into something relevant to O’Hara, I did some research into abstract art history and omitted and added abstract artists to form a new conversation. I looked up knowledgeable contemporaries and friends from O’Hara’s art scene to provide the characters in the piece, and put them in the car with him. I added period voices and period detail.

New Jersy Turnpike

The poem is voiced by O’Hara, and I attempted to capture some of the immediacy of his writing style, and perhaps some of the tone he uses in some of his poems. Although O’Hara’s poems are often fun and funny, as by all accounts, was he, I find several of them strangely haunted and emotionally affecting.


I wonder if his wartime experience as a sonar operator in a submarine may have lain beneath his often urbane and ironic style. Another poem I wrote around the same time, ‘Sardines’, explores this idea a little.

The poem I’m sharing here was described by someone I showed it to as a pastiche. I think I’m happy with that description, as it is meant to celebrate  O’Hara and his interest as well as making a serious point about the ancient origins of supposedly ‘modern’ art.

I rediscovered the poem while browsing old files on my computer this evening.  It doesn’t really fit in my new book, so I’m giving it an airing here.  A version of the poem was previously published in Sheffield Hallam’s Matter  magazine in 2014. Thanks for reading.

Frank O’Hara Talks Abstract Art

I recall driving back to Manhattan
on the New Jersey Turnpike the day after
New Year’s, the heater jammed on high,
rain turning to sleet and hitting the windshield
like cloud borne jellyfish between wiper blade sweeps.
That’s when Henry asked, who made the first abstract?
I said Kandinsky, and Henry said Kupka came before him
and that Arthur Dove showed oil studies to Seiglitz
in nineteen-ten, way before Malevich or Mondrian.
I was wearing my leather hat, the one with the flaps,
a gift from Joan Mitchell before she went back to Paris.
I said Serusier made his Talisan painting
in the eighteen-eighties. Henry replied that was just
one painting, and anyway it’s still a landscape. Al Martino
came on the radio and Henry grumbled, jeez, why not spin
some Charlie Parker or Dizzy Gillespie. I remarked that
Victor Hugo drew abstracts in the eighteen-fifties
while Henry packed his pipe and I said I hope
you’re not going to light that. Then we argued about
Besant and Leadbetter who made their Thought Forms
in nineteen hundred and five. Henry said those weren’t
really paintings at all. I mentioned Hilma Af Klint
and her Paintings From The Temple series
and that’s when Hal Forden woke up in the back,
his big face creased from the leatherette seat
and told us we were both fools and asked
what about the Peruvian carpet makers
and the Mayans and the Tantra painters
and the American Indian rock painters
and the Aboriginal dream-time bark painters
and then he told us we’d just missed
the Lincoln Tunnel exit.


Woman paying bills


I’ve been asked to supply a couple of poems to be displayed at a festival where I’m reading in the summer. I’ll also be delivering a workshop and presenting the prizes for the children’s poetry competition I’m judging. Which poems should I choose to represent the me?

Poets get put into categories – this one is urban and gritty,


this is a nature poet, this one a feminist poet, this one political, this one funny. Or this poet is like that poet.


I like to think that I’m not consistently one ‘type’ of poet. The mundanity of most people’s everyday lives are constricting, and so to be constricted in the scope of your creativity is surely to be avoided. The artists I admire in all mediums were or are always changing and exploring, experimenting.

Pigeons 2

But I’m taking this small choice too seriously.

I ask my wife which poems she thinks I should send. When she suggests one I come up with a reason why that one won’t do. She laughs and says that If I don’t really want her opinion why am I asking her? I wander off to ponder the possibilities. It’s ok, I’m not going to get neurotic or hung up on this, so I’ve chosen two. I think …


Sundry- from the old English for syndig- distinct, separate; related to ‘sunder’ .

I’ve just been up to the Newcastle, neighbour to Sunderland, for the fabulous poetry festival. The festival included the launch of the new issue of the Butchers Dog poetry magazine, and I was fortunate to have been invited to read my contribution. I’d been to the northeast of England once before, to visit a friend some thirty years ago, and needed little excuse to return.


I love the geography and architecture of Newcastle and the surrounding country, and find the people to be extremely friendly. If you haven’t bought the Butcher’s Dog, I recommend you check it out. It’s a beautifully produced magazine packed with an eclectic range of fine contemporary poetry.

Angel by Phil Pounder

Angel of the North, photo by Phil Pounder  

Another brilliant, albeit much older British poetry magazine, The Rialto, has arrived, and continues to surprise, provoke and delight with its selection of poems and discussion.  It is well worth checking out the blog for a considered response to a letter from a reader who responded to the editors request that they be challenged on their selections.

The Rialto, issue 85

My poem in this edition, ‘Geese’, benefited from a suggestion from the editors that the ending wasn’t quite right. Without overtly suggesting a change, they subtly, gracefully and succinctly explained why they felt this, and thereby sent me and my poem to a new and improved conclusion. I am grateful for their astute reading and careful comment.

Elsewhere, the wonderful poet John Foggin is one of the winners of this years Poetry Business pamphlet competition, judged by Billy Collins. I am delighted for John, who is a fine and prolific poet as well as a generous friend and supporter of many other writers. You can read some of John’s work here. I can’t wait for the launch of his pamphlet.

Social media occasionally leads me to gems. I found this in an interview with the poet Li-Young.

‘ The more we practice it, the more we discover how thinking in poetry is actually the closest thing we have to enlightenment. Poetic consciousness is the deepest, fullest form of consciousness there is. The longer we practice it, like a yoga, the more we uncover about ourselves, our identity as children of the cosmos, or of God. Whatever you want to call it….we can practice art not only as a way to make money, not only as a way to compete, not only as a way to aggrandize the ego, but as a way, really, of self-knowledge.

It seems to me the more we practice it, the more art gives us. That’s abundance. It’s infinitely abundant. You never stop discovering. You never stop.’

Also this month, I was pleased to be presented with second prize in the inaugural Aurora East Midlands International Poetry competition.
It was great to visit nearby Nottingham and be part of the award ceremony. All the facts in the poem, and there are many more fascinating aspects to these birds, are taken from research into crow behaviour. Any ‘crow’ poem will, I imagine, owe a debt to and fall under the shadow of Ted Hughes incredible poems in his collection ‘Crow.’ Here is my homage to Hughes and to these fascinating birds.

From the Book of Crow Etiquette

for John Foggin

To avoid association with a crow’s death
feign a limp or otherwise disguise your gait
when passing a crow funeral. In order to escape
a scolding, don’t contest a crow’s right
to your roof or disrupt its visceral business
among fledglings and eggs. Crows have memories
like wet tar, can recognize the white-stitched ribbon
of a fruitful carrion road, the location of a yard
from which a stone was thrown. Tame crows
give pet names to their keepers; make of this
what you will. Crows that are damaged or ill
are often assisted by others, or else
done in. Decades may pass before a widowed crow
casts the cross of her shadow
on a long abandoned farmyard. A murder might mob
the one-time owner of a slingshot, now
a grandfather in the park. Crows bring gifts
to those who feed them, to children with no prejudice
or fear of crows. You might not need
a stash of broken necklaces, Airfix kit
of sparrow bones, lens cap rinsed in a birdbath,
nor a half heart locket, inscribed with ‘Best’.
You may not wish for ‘friends’ to priest a garden fence
or wall, who call before your alarm sounds
and pick at your open dream.       

Wenlock poetry festival

I’ve just got back from a day trip to the Wenlock Poetry festival, and I can highly recommend it. From the selection of lovely venues to the line up of poets and events, everything was beautifully organised and managed.

For those who are not familiar with the festival, it has been running for about five years and takes place in Much Wenlock, a small and pretty town in Shropshire that lies between Shrewsbury and Brignorth, to the northeast of the Ironbridge Gorge.

I understand that the ‘Much’ was added to Wenlock to distinguish it from the nearby Little Wenlock, and that Wenlock probably comes from the Celtic name Wininicas, meaning ‘white area’ (in reference to the limestone of Wenlock Edge), plus the Old English loca, meaning ‘enclosed place’.

I arrived in the early afternoon and didn’t have as much time as I would have liked to look around the town before attending a wonderful reading by Alison Brackenbury and Chris Kinsey, followed by the excellent Jean Sprackland and Robin Robertson. In the evening I had the slightly surreal experience of being presented with second prize in the festival competition by the judge Don Patterson, and, with the other winners, reading (or rather reciting my poem since I have lost my glasses) before the day was rounded off with superb readings from Andrew Mcmillan and Don, who was in great form and extremely funny.  It was great to bump into friends and wander briefly through the town, and of course I was pleased that my poem had done well for itself. You can  click to read the competition poems here.

Depression awareness week

This newspaper article alerted me to the fact that this is depression awareness week,  so I felt it would be an appropriate time to do my bit and share my own experience of this illness.

I was in my early forties when an episode of debilitating stress -induced depression lead me to seek help. A colleague noticed I was frantically cleaning the office and said, with her typically northern directness, ‘Oh no, you’re not going nutty are you. My friend  did that frantic cleaning thing before she went nutty.’  I certainly didn’t feel ‘nutty’. Cleaning the keyboard enabled me to have some measure of control over my unfocused energy. I did, however,  feel like I was watching myself, an actor in a nightmare struggling to cope. At that time I was simultaneously detached and deeply engaged with my job, not wanting to let anyone down but feeling unable to handle the nature and quantity of my work. I was losing a grip on the numerous projects under my care.  Some weeks before I’d had my first ever migraine, getting double vision in the corridor and stopping a passing Dr who checked me out. Now I was starting to stutter, something that had never affected me before. My thought processes were disconnected and alternately syrup-slow or manic. Several times I had tried to flag up my difficulty in dealing with the amount of work I had with my manager, ironically a medical consultant. He believed that ‘where there’s a will there’s a way’, and although a brilliant man, I later realised he had no concept of the amount of work our clinical trials were generating.  I’d get a certain way into a task only to find I had no idea how to continue. For some time I felt I’d been running up an endless sand dune, sometimes making good progress but inevitably sliding back. I could explain further but ultimately, the exact circumstances are not important. Suffice it to say that it is recognised that stress overload can make humans ill. I don’t have a very clear recollection of the events that lead up to me being sent home by a caring colleague, but I know I went to see my GP who asked me to fill out a questionnaire  that indicated I was severely depressed.  Anyone who has filled in one of these forms will know that it is difficult to be objective and that it is frightening and perhaps shaming to confront the truth of the situation. There is the temptation to underplay the symptoms in an attempt to appear ‘normal’. Some might suffer from’imposter syndrome’,  and, for various reasons, be incapable of admitting that they are really unwell.  Many people who suffer depression will have become ill after denying that there is anything wrong. I suspect that those people of my generation will also be prone to the stigma surrounding mental un-wellness and so avoid admitting that they are unwell for as long as possible, thus worsening the situation for themselves.

Signed off as sick and desperately worried and guilty about my workload (I believed I was the only person in the world who could conduct the clinical drug trials I was running, and since I had no team to take over and the administration was incredibly complicated, in a way I was) I  initially refused the GP’ s suggestion of medication, frightened perhaps of what drugs might do to me in my fragile state.  I sought counselling from the organisation Mind, which was incredibly helpful, and, after realising that I had suffered on and off with very degrees of severity or most of my adult life, I began an undulating journey to recovery. Swimming helped. Cycling helped. Writing helped- a lot. There were many days when nothing helped. Time helped. Talking to a counselor helped. A change in work patterns and lifestyle helped. Walking across the fields helped. Talking to friends helped. Understanding my illness and knowing that others also suffered helped. Being able to identify symptoms and recognise their onset helped. Letting go of the shame at being ill with an invisible illness helped. No two people’s circumstances are the same, so there is no set prescription for depression. But I was fortunate to find a few ways back to strength and health.

A friend asked me how I felt during my darkest days. I said I felt as if I was trapped at the bottom of a black well with sheer sides. Even this doesn’t really come close. It is very difficult to explain depression to those who haven’t experienced it. But I’ve tried. I suppose in talking about this subject the worry of stigmatization lingers, as do old fears of stirring up memories of dark times that might shadow the light of the present. But to those who are experiencing depression I want to say that after seeking help and entering a period of healing, I am well and not afraid to talk about my own experience. Here is a poem I wrote after getting a little better. I’ve never sent it out for publication but I’m publishing it here in the hope that it may help in a small way. It is not a poem of hope unless it is viewed in the context of the fact that this is where I have been, not where I am now.

Year of the Black Dog

Neither love earthly or divine
will chase this dog out.

Reach for any medicine
it will curdle in the mouth,

drip through skin,
turn to metal in the bowel.

Look for the strength
to grasp its neck.

The vibrato of a snarl
trembles in your chest




Social media animal

In 2009, I attended one of the first spoken word events I’d ever been to. It was in the basement of a bar that had a rather loud air-conditioning system. I’m pretty sure the poems I read that evening were not very good, but I believed in them at the time and it was a start. I remember mentioning to one of the other readers I met that evening that a poem of mine had been awarded third place in the Ledbury poetry competition. He looked as if I had announced that I was Lord Lucan. And he looked even more surprised when, having suggested we link up on Facebook, I told him I wasn’t on Facebook.

Seven years later I have Facebook and Twitter accounts and hundreds of contacts on each. I also have a website (a grand name for this blog!) but I believe this is a productive use of my time. As I mentioned in a recent interview with Rachel Carney, this site isn’t really about promotion – I doubt very much if it has helped me sell a single poetry book. It’s about sharing and exploring.

The Twitter and Facebook accounts are not necessarily negative additions to my life- it depends on how I use them. Both have provided me with access to lots of interesting information and been used for meaningful communication as well-being a means to view videos of cats doing interesting things. As my Italian grandma used to say about her daily glass of wine, it’s all a question of moderation.


There have undoubtedly been times when I’ve spent too much time on social media.

"In case I actually do something."

I am aware of research into how endorphins are released by ‘Likes’ and how browsing can become addiction. I’ve also seen the ugly way in which conversations between poets with opposing views can quickly spiral into unpleasant exchanges, and have learnt to stay well clear of commenting on unproductive arguments which will lead me to be updated on how the subsequent unpleasantness unfolds.

I’ve noticed that some people connected to poetry seem to be on networks constantly. I can’t help but wonder how they have time for anything else, never mind writing. Of course I probably wouldn’t know this if I hadn’t spent too much time there myself and I don’t wish to condemn anyone.

An example of a positive aspect of being on Twitter is that I came across the website Practical Criticism , whose editors include the poet Sarah Howe.  In a recent visit I read an interview with the Canadian poet Karen Solie which prompted me to start writing this post.  Here is Solie talking in a very balanced way about the choice to utilise social media.

‘I don’t have any social media accounts, or a website. Though someone is threatening to make me one. We’ll see. But it isn’t that I think disparagingly about these things. I recognize their value to conversation, their potential for social justice initiatives, and there are people using these platforms for good. I’m not personally inclined to engage with their promotional or publicity aspects – though again, I don’t think doing so is a bad thing, it’s a valuable tool – and I haven’t really encountered any pressure from my publishers to join. It’s more expected of novelists, I gather, because the financial stakes are higher.’

I’ll leave you with another quote from the interview. It’s well worth taking time to dip into the website, if you have time.

‘It’s okay to be a private person if you need to be one. There isn’t any one proper or preferred way to be a poet, to engage with your communities. We do need to consider where best to devote our energies toward positive, helpful work that contributes to the health of our communities, but there are a number of avenues.’