Thursday, 1 October 2015


I was lured away from my desk one morning this week by the brilliant sunshine and went up High Pike instead of fiddling around with words and bits of paper.  The Lake District mountains vaulted away in the distance - Carrock, Blencathra, Helvellyn, Scafell, Skiddaw - but Scotland was invisible, the Solway Firth filled with haze.

As I approached the summit I could see the outline of two smallish birds, quite long-bodied, but not long-tailed.  They twitched intermittently, as if waiting for the moment when I would turn away.  Their bobbing resembled wagtails but I knew that if I could just manoeuvre enough I would see a blueish-grey head and back contrasting with darker wings and tail and the second bird a paler imitation of the first.  Sure enough, wheatears.  When they eventually flew off there was a white flash of feathers clinching their identity.

Wheatears are often the first summer migrants I see in February or early March and the last to leave, a few hanging around until the end of October before migrating to Africa.  I see them in my favourite places - open moorland in Wales and the Lake District, islands such as Bardsey or Mull where they fly up from the path ahead, that white flash giving them away each time.

A quick look at Birds Britannica informed me that their name is a bowdlerisation of their original Old English name hwit (white) aers (arse).  It struck me that although there are several poems about skylarks, nightingales, swallows, robins, blackbirds, swans I could only think of one poem about a wheatear.  Perhaps it is because we have imposed on those other birds such a freight of symbolism, whereas the wheatear just is.

The one poem is Michael Longley's 'Wheatear', subtitled 'Poem Beginning with a Line of J M Synge'.
You can read it at
It's a lovely deep breath poem - all one sentence as if the poet dare not exhale until the end of the poem.  It takes a while to get to the wheatear.  The poem begins with that line of Synge, 'Brown lark beside the sun', goes on with marsh marigolds, yellow flags, trout, ravens and then trapped in the very middle of the poem is 'A wheatear from Africa'.  She has flown into the cottage and is 'banging against the windowpane'.  How frightening for a bird used to flying thousands of miles.  The poet rescues and releases her and she flies away to a rabbit hole (her nest?) where she mimics 'My panic, my breathlessness'.  Such a simple action - removing a bird from a room - but in Longley's writing pure magic.

Wednesday, 23 September 2015


When I went on the internet today an array of pumpkins and marrows spelt out the word Google, and an animated cheeky (red) squirrel darted about among them.  A fun way to mark the autumnal equinox.

One of my early morning dog walks is along a very straight country lane.  In the summer the sun rises towards the northern side of this lane: in the winter it rises towards the southern side.  But at the equinox the dawn sun is exactly in line with the lane.   The autumn equinox – the northern hemisphere’s tipping point between each day having more hours of light in summer and having more hours of darkness in winter. 

      Two seasons walking
    together, one flies away –
      life in the balance

Today everything is bathed in the sepia light of the September sun, a pale golden wash over the fields and trees.  There’s a “brownness at the edges of the day” (as Tom Stoppard wrote in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead).  Random branches in autumn mode against the still predominant green, small segments of hedgerow turning bronze or coppery – but I worry that the trees that already look autumnal might be victims of some tree disease.   The wind turbines on the Solway Plain turn languidly.  They are like strange mechanical trees.  There’s a mist over the Firth but I can see the outline of Criffell on the Scottish side of the water.

Apart from a few magenta dots of hardhead flowers and the deep purplish-blue clusters of tufted vetch, everything has gone to seed.  The dried stems of angelica and cow parsley are doing their umbrella impressions.  There are soft clumps of thistledown – a bounty for foraging goldfinches – which I admire with a slight twinge of guilt (I’m the daughter of a farmer who believed that all thistles should be cut down before they had a chance to seed).  The hedge is beaded with red – haws, hips, honeysuckle berries – though blackbirds and thrushes have stripped the bright orange rowan berries weeks ago.  Half a dozen herring gulls fly westward, their bodies pearlescent against grey cloud drifting in from the coast.  They remind me of Philip Gross’s gulls flying back from ‘a day’s work at the landfill’ in ‘Betweenland VI’ (from The Water Table), but these birds are heading not for the tip but for one of my neighbour’s newly ploughed fields.

As I shield my eyes against the low sun I wonder why the lane is aligned east/west for almost a mile.  The answer to its lack of deviation, if not its alignment, is the indent in the hedge, leaving a wide semi-circle of grass verge with a small (overgrown) pool in the middle of it.  It’s an old drover’s watering hole for cattle.  This part of Cumbria is criss-crossed with straight drovers’ tracks - routes to markets and livestock fairs to avoid expensive toll roads.  This lane was once a drove road.

Flocks of birds are on the move as the hours of daylight diminish and the nights grow colder.  I’ve yet to see any big flocks of geese or swans heading for the Solway (any day now, I hope) but the swallows, who spent last week psyching themselves up on the electricity wires, have gone.   How I miss them.


All summer they painted the ceiling of the sky
with their invisible inky scribbles
their droppings spattered the wall
at night I would hear the feed me/need me
cries of the chicks and wake to them at first light.
They raised three broods under our roof
birding the air with swallows.

This morning the sky was as calm as the lake at dawn
the trees and hedges 2D stage flats in the mist
swallows were lining up on the telephone wires
nudging and chittering like prommers in a ticket queue.
After a summer of carefree cartoons
it was time for some serious drawing –
an arc linking two hemispheres.

The sky has cracked open with their absence
tonight the wind rattles the leaves
I turn on the radio and hear news of another season
of war gathering on the horizon.
But one day after the long siege of winter
I will catch sight of a ghost

from another year ribboning above the stream.
The next day there will be the print of a small
bird skating on the chill air.

    From The Art of Gardening (Flambard Press) © Mary Robinson 2010

The haiku at the beginning of this post is ‘September’ from Kalends © Mary Robinson 2012

Thursday, 17 September 2015


My poem 'North Ronaldsay' is on the StAnza poetry map of Scotland.  You can read it at

I used a repetitive form adapted from Louis MacNeice's 'Leaving Barra'.  It seemed an appropriate island influence and a form which suited the richness of the North Ronaldsay landscape in spring (the poem was written in May when I stayed at the bird observatory on the island).

To view the StAnza poetry map of Scotland (still in the making) and to sign up to receive the next poems by email go to

'North Ronaldsay' is the white pin at the north end of the Orkney islands.  


Language pitches its tent,
next day strikes camp, moves on.*

Last week I went to a talk on Cumbrian folk songs by Sue Allan (with singing), and then a couple of days later a lecture on 'The Disappearing Dictionary' by the linguist, Professor David Crystal (the dictionary at risk of vanishing is Joseph Wright's English Dialect Dictionary 1898-1905).

Cumbrian songs and dialect poetry abound in lovely words like snecklifter, a word which is now used by the Jennings' Brewery at Cockermouth as the name for one of its beers.  When I went to Shetland I discovered that we share Norse words with the most northerly archipelago of the British Isles - for example gey (very) and thrang (busy).  The current Edinburgh Makar, Christine de Luca, who grew up in Walls, Shetland, writes in both Shetlandic and English.  Here's the opening of her poem 'Gaet-markers' (from North End of Eden):

At da stert, dey wir a makkin o wirds.

I've occasionally included dialect words in my own poems.  I wrote "Prinked" for the Cockermouth flood and it began:

The streets were clagged and clarty.

I've stolen the lowland Scots word keek (peep, take a quick look) from over the border.  One of my Christmas poems described

A robin, which - instead of keeking 
behind a haw curtain - came to his hand
for crumbs.
                     ('Robin' from The Art of Gardening)

But when David Crystal proffered a sample of Cumberland dialect words from Joseph Wright's dictionary the audience recognised only about 20 per cent of them.  He said the same is true all over the country.

But he pointed out that, although we have lost words, new words and usages are coming into English worldwide. He gave the example of the word robot in South Africa for traffic lights (think robot policemen). It was only a few days later that I remembered that the word robot originally came into English from the Czech writer, Karel Capek.  Language is always on the move.

I thought about the use of dialect words in poetry.  Norman Nicholson used Cumbrian words such as brogging (marking the route of a tidal crossing), syke (ditch), skear (a tidal shingle bank).  In 'Cornthwaite' he riffed on dialect words from the origin of his middle name.

Adam Thorpe's 'On a Photograph of a Wainwright's shop' (Voluntary) is full of words which have disappeared along with the occupation of wainwright: thill, jackwain, rave, liners.  The poem ends:

Here is where the old world got upgraded
and our nescience unfolded, that day
the doors closed on the dark and the sign said SOLD.

I asked David Crystal about the difference between a language and a dialect.  His answer was that a language is a dialect with an army and a navy.    Well, Scotland has a parliament, so I will not be drawn into whether Scots (Lallans) is a dialect or a language.  Kathleen Jamie said that she originally wrote her beautiful poem 'Skeins o' Geese' (The Queen of Sheba) in standard English but it didn't sound right - it was too wooden.  So she rewrote it in Scots and the result, I think, is perfect.  It begins:

Skeins o' geese write a word
across the sky.  A word
struck lik a gong
afore I wis born.
The sky moves like cattle, lowin.

(It shows how language moves on -  Mac just tried to correct lowin to login!)

I think it would be fun to reinstate some of our lost Cumbrian dialect words.  I'm going to make a start with two of the lost words from Wright's dictionary:

Scroggins! (a useful mild expletive), as in Scroggins! I've burnt the toast.

Stuffment (junk - which my Nottinghamshire friend calls rammel).  My garage is full of stuffment.

Language can time-travel too.

     * © Mary Robinson 2015 (from 'D', one of a series of alphabet poems I have recently completed).

You can read Kathleen Jamie's 'Skeins o' Geese' at

Christine de Luca's 'Gaet-markers' is on the Scottish Poetry Library website: 
and go to poetry > poets > De Luca, Christine > poems

Wednesday, 9 September 2015


The motto of the Scottish Poetry Library - words by Patrick Geddes.

The library owes its existence to the perseverance of Tessa Ransford, a remarkable person who worked tirelessly to set up the Scottish Poetry Library in the 1980s and then to see it established in a beautiful purpose-built building, designed by Malcolm Fraser Architects, in Crichton Close in 1999.  Although I live over the Border I visit the library as much as I can and always come back inspired - with half a dozen borrowed books under my arm.

All this is thanks to Tessa Ransford.  She was born in Mumbai, educated in Scotland, studied German poetry at University and spent the 1960s in Pakistan with her first husband, a Church of Scotland missionary.  She wrote poetry herself (Not Just Moonshine is a volume of new and selected poems), but after she had returned to Edinburgh she felt there was a need for more support for poets, particularly women poets.

So, with missionary zeal, she set up the School of Poets workshop and the Scottish Poetry Library Association to establish a poetry library in Edinburgh.  I imagine there must have been a lot of form-filling and jumping through frustrating bureaucratic hoops to get funding.

She was also a champion of poetry pamphlets, often seen in the past as the Cinderella of poetry publishing.  She set up the prestigious Callum MacDonald Memorial Award in memory of her second husband (a publisher and printer) and initiated Scottish Pamphlet Poetry to promote the work of poets and small presses.

So I was saddened to learn of her death last week from cancer at the age of 77.  She achieved a great deal in her life, but the Scottish Poetry Library was her greatest achievement, and recognised by the award of an OBE.  The library has been so successful that at the moment you can't visit it.  It is being refurbished to provide more room for the collection, archives, and the wide range of readings, workshops and other live poetry activities that take place under its roof.  It's due to reopen by the end of the year - meanwhile I'm having withdrawal symptoms and the list of poets I want to read is growing longer.

Tessa Ransford 1938 - 2015
To read more about Tessa Ransford's life go to and follow the links to Poetry > PoetsA to Z > Tessa Ransford.

Monday, 31 August 2015


Fifty years ago the Australian Les Murray’s first book of poems was published – The Ilex Tree.  It contains two of my favourite poems, “Noonday Axeman” and “Spring Hail”.  Since then he has produced a wonderful body of work, full of invention, wit and compassion.   Blake Morrison’s description of him as “one of the finest poets writing in English, one of a superleague that includes Seamus Heaney, Derek Walcott and Joseph Brodsky” has often been repeated.  Les Murray is the only one of the quartet who has not won the Nobel Prize for Literature, an honour he surely deserves. 

Now, half a century and several collections later, he has published Waiting for the Past (Carcanet 2015).  I bought it as soon as it came out and I was not disappointed.   Whatever Les Murray writes about, from international race horses to typewriters, from bereavement to vertigo, he always surprises and makes you think – hard.  At 76 he does not funk the subjects of old age and mortality as well as crime and capitalism.  But do not think Les Murray is dismal.  His poem on the recent discovery of Richard III’s skeleton is titled “Under the lube oil” and travels by way of the Tudors and Macbeth to its brilliant last line, “Ah, William, you marvel of spin”.   Animals are always in Les Murray’s collections.  Here there are cattle dogs, “loose tongued and smiling” (“Dog Skills”) who only need a “murmured vowel” to leap back onto the tractor tray, and a set of haiku (“Bird Signatures”) which perfectly capture the character of each bird (“Tiny spinnakers/of blue wrens”). 

On Saturday night I listened to Radio 4’s Saturday Review which included a few minutes on Les Murray’s new collection.  The novelist Tracy Chevalier loved it.  She spoke about the importance of re-reading.  First she had dipped into the book, then she had read it through thoroughly, then she had gone back over poems she particularly liked.  “We don’t review enough poetry, we don’t read enough poetry.  We need to read more.”

Just as my cheers were dying down I was suddenly appalled by what I heard from the other two reviewers, both Oxbridge educated.  “I didn’t know what I was doing” (it’s a book of poetry for goodness’ sake), “I hoped the language would wash over me” (I blame Dylan Thomas for that).  One of the reviewers confessed to never reading poetry and never having heard of Les Murray.   OK, so some people don’t read poetry and there are millions who have never heard of Les Murray – that’s fine, but I wouldn’t expect them to review poetry on the BBC.  Can you imagine a journalist doing a theatre review and starting “I never watch plays and I’ve never heard of Arthur Miller”?

But such is the power of Les Murray’s poetry that both reviewers, once they had actually read the book, were really enthusiastic – “I am speechless.  He is so full of great words”; “I realised this was something absolutely extraordinary.”   

Then on Sunday afternoon the teatime poetry slot on Radio 4 avoided the soft option and broadcast a programme entitled Poems from Syria.  About half the inhabitants of Syria are displaced from their homes by the “permawar” (a word I have borrowed from Mohsin Hamid) that has taken over their country. 

Contemporary Syrian poetry belies Auden’s much quoted words, “Poetry makes nothing happen.”  In Syria, I learnt, writing a poem can be as dangerous as carrying a gun.  So many have disappeared – writers, journalists, poets. 
Here are some of the words and ideas I wrote down as I listened to the programme:
“For me poetry is a cure – a balance between destruction and construction”;
A child in the snow in a refugee camp imagining a sunny sky and butterflies;
A poem from the viewpoint of the mother of an architecture student killed on his exam day when the University at Aleppo was bombarded by Assad regime soldiers;
“I need a new language, existing language cannot convey what is happening – it is outside humanity, outside the imagination”;
“Longing has become my religion, Syria is my homeland, Syria is my mother and father”;
“My soul will fly over the ruins of my house, but I will rebuild the house”;
“Syrians still know how to dream.”

At times the programme was searingly unbearable, but bravo to Mike Embley for this incredible broadcast.  It needs to be heard.

LISTEN AGAIN: Both Saturday Review and Poems from Syria can be heard on BBC iplayer.