Monday, 14 April 2014


“To set something down is a way of understanding it”, says Dante in Stephen Wyatt’s current Radio 4 adaptation of the Divine Comedy (BBC Radio 4 Classic Serial, Sundays 3pm, repeated Saturdays 9pm).

Stephen Wyatt skilfully blends Dante, the middle-aged poet who narrates the poem, with Dante in old age, reflecting on his life and writing.  And so, painlessly, the listener is introduced to the historical and biographical background to the poem, notably Dante’s love for Beatrice, the political squabbles in Florence and Dante’s exile from his native city.  John Hurt’s voice is perfect for the older Dante.

Dante was the subject of Radio 4’s Great Lives last week.  The journalist Sarah Vine, a Dante enthusiast, and Claire Holness, professor of Italian studies at Leeds, talked about Dante’s greatness and his accessibility (don’t keep stopping to read the notes!).  I learnt that for Dante the three-fold journey through Hell, Purgatory and Paradise was merely the Commedia.  It was Boccaccio who added the Divina adjective, giving Dante’s work the title by which we know it today.  Sarah Vine and Claire Holness pointed out that the most memorable parts of the poem are the many characters Dante encounters in the course of his journey.

Because of these multiple characters the Divine Comedy is ideal for dramatisation – so many voices, so many personal stories to tell.  The poem also creates its own sound world – perfect for radio – the horrific cries and bitter regrets of those in hell for example.  The Medieval mind certainly knew how to make the punishment fit the crime.  There will, I am sure, be angelic music when we get to Paradise in the last episode.

But to me, the best part of the Divine Comedy is the relationship between Dante and his guide, Virgil.  Virgil is voiced by David Warner as a thoughtful matter-of-fact older man.  He has to deal with Dante the poet (played by Blake Ritson) who, despite being “at the mid-point of the path through life”, sometimes behaves childishly in his journey through the spiritual realms. Virgil’s “smile was kind,/As if aimed at a child that we can sway/With just an apple”.  Virgil gives patient answers to Dante’s persistent questioning.   Several times he has to speak firmly to Dante and tell him to pull himself together.  Virgil protects him from harm and extricates him from potential trouble.  Theirs is the close bond that develops between travelling companions. 

I started my second reading of the Divine Comedy in January (this time in the recent translation by Clive James).  I’ve been reading a canto each morning.  By a strange coincidence I finished the Inferno on the day my father died.  In the poem Dante calls Virgil “my master” to begin with, then “my guide” and “my friend”.  By the Purgatorio Virgil is calling Dante “my son” and Dante is calling him “father”.  When the time is near for their parting (Virgil has to hand over to Beatrice for the Paradiso) the sadness under the surface of the words is strong: “Don’t keep/A vigil any longer for my tongue”, says Virgil, “Move on.  You’ll never hear from me again”.  Dante does go on, walking through a beautiful forest, and encounters Beatrice.  He is overcome and turns to say to Virgil “Not a drop, not one/Of blood remains in me that does not shake”.  But “Virgil, who’d done so much for my sake,/Virgil my father, Virgil, he that came/For me ... now was gone.”

It is a picture of loss and grief so universal in human experience and yet still so moving.

Wednesday, 2 April 2014


Walking is not just a way of getting from A to B.   It’s not even about what you see along the way, though that’s important.  No, it’s a way of feeling, of understanding, of thinking. 

All this week Radio 3’s excellent late night (well, late for me because I am a lark, not an owl) series The Essay is devoted to walking and those comments above were from Ross Raisin who on Tuesday night described a walk in the Yorkshire Wolds (recently coined David Hockney country).  His talk included the niggles and hardships of walking as well as the delights.  He described something that has happened to me and other improvident walkers – arriving hungry at a village, expecting to buy a sandwich for lunch and finding that everything selling food has closed down.  He also talked about a persistent knee problem and the way he copes with it, not without humour. 

Sunday saw me heading with the dog to the Caldbeck Fells.  The days have passed the equinox and are gathering speed to make it to the solstice.  The clocks have gone forward.  The clear sunlight of early spring and the calm stillness lifts my mood.  It is, as they say in Shetland, “a given day”.

The moorland grass looks dry and withered.  I look along the streams on the lower slopes for marsh marigolds.  It’s a bit early yet, but there are still bright flashes of colour which catch my eye –
gold stars
school-room yellow
spring’s reward

Soon I pick up the song of a skylark.  I look up but can’t see it.  I am always amazed that such a small bird can voice a song which carries so far and so clearly.  Nowadays it’s a relief to hear a skylark in spring – their numbers have fallen to red alert conservation status.  So there’s at least one around here and hopefully more.  I meet a small group of walkers and we chat about – of course - the weather.  The song ceases.  But after the group has gone further down the valley and I have gone further up the hill I hear the song again – the same bird or another?

It’s not surprising that the magical sound of the skylark has been the subject of several poems by poets past and present.   I think of the ornate poem by George Meredith which inspired Vaughan Williams.  Sometimes I hear “The Lark Ascending” on the car radio in larkly improbable places (a supermarket car park off the Wigton Road in Carlisle, for example) and my mind immediately pictures the distant moors.

On Sunday I wrote in my notebook –


Saturday, 15 March 2014


This solitary juggernaut of bones
for ever balanced on the marble plain
looms above me.
Light filters through the opaque roof
hen coop wire trapped in glass.
I clutch the stout cardboard ticket
comfortingly firm
date and number cleanly stamped.
The bulk of this building unnerves me
I am breathing inside a stone monster.
I listen to the sounds –
chiselled clicks of a man’s steel tipped heels
the shoosh of my rubber soled sandals
whispers that scuttle round the silent body
like a mouse.

Everything is watching me – the walls,
the dinosaur, the attendant in the next room.

amid the basement’s classical columns
Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel roars
on a giant pianola, baroque machines
burst into life, steam engines
are fired, brass pistons plunge, everywhere
belts and flywheels flail like a fantastic
Emett animation.
The smell of metal polish, whale oil lubricant,
the damp of my father’s harris tweed jacket
(a whiff of the Western Isles, coasters,
seaweed, mines, quarries).
In his pocket the clip of a biro
catches the light
as he bends down to usher me
into the same magic quarter
of the revolving door.

© Mary Robinson 2010

This poem is the first poem in my collection The Art of Gardening (Flambard Press 2010).  I dedicated the collection to my father.  Now I am republishing the poem on my blog in his memory.  As a child I loved visiting museums with him.  A special treat was to catch the train into Birmingham on a cold, wet, winter Saturday (in summer we would be outdoors) and visit the Science Museum or the Art Gallery.  He taught me to be interested in everything and to write about it.  I will miss his companionship, generosity and sense of humour.

James Hastings Ball (1921 – 2014)

Thursday, 6 February 2014


Only a month to go to Words by the Water, Keswick’s annual literary festival, and I’m particularly looking forward to the poets on stage.  I’m glad that there are a few more poets this year – perhaps this is the result of a bit of local lobbying! 

On the first day of the festival Louis de Bernières is reading from Imagining Alexandria (a collection of poems set in Captain Correlli’s Mandolin territory) and Blake Morrison will provoke us with his sharp sit up and take notice poems.  A couple of days later Don Paterson will give us “My life in poems” followed by a tribute to Norman Nicholson by Kathleen Jones and Neil Curry.  Photographer Val Corbett and poet Paula Day are sharing their collaboration Trees.  Helen Farish is judging the annual Mirehouse poetry competition and I’m looking forward to hearing the winning poems at the awards event.  Helen will be giving one of her very special poetry readings at that event.  Unfortunately I was too late to book for the River Greta walk in the steps of Wordsworth, Southey and Coleridge – but I live in hope as the first name on the waiting list.

Meanwhile I’m busy working my way through my allocated books for my chairing sessions.  Alev Scott’s Turkish Awakening is a fascinating insight into modern Turkey, a country which seems to be pulled like a piece of elastic between Europe and the Middle East.

Reading and the Reader by Philip Davis is full of wonderful insights into literature and the value of reading in contemporary culture.  You know the times when you read something and have to stop and let your thoughts and emotions spread out and multiply from that small centre of words?  Philip Davis calls it “the creation of an energy-field by a writer”.

I haven’t started Ewan Clayton’s The Golden Thread: The Story of Writing but it looks good and is well illustrated.

Meanwhile as the rain continues to fall I hope the words will stay by the water.

Sunday, 26 January 2014


Saturday afternoon.  A short blustery walk round Maryport Harbour, the wind whipping white horses on the incoming tide.  Across the Solway, Criffel looming dark grey and then disappearing in another scud of rain.  As I walk over the marina’s pedestrian drawbridge, cables rattle insistently on yacht masts. 

Wind – how often it has been used as a synonym for inspiration.   The Romantics hung their Aeolian harps outside and listened to nature’s music, literally inspired/blown upon by the wind.

A short piece by Tara Bergin (“Everything and Nothing”) in the recent PN Review got me thinking about inspiration, a word that has become rather suspect – a word that needs reining in by structure and form.  The root of the word inspiration (the Latin spirare) has links to breath, air, wind, spirit.  Inspiration is a two-fold process which involves both the maker of a work of art and the response to it by the person looking at, listening to, reading, even touching the art form which has been created.

“If I knew where poems come from I would go there”, said Michael Longley, quoting Rilke in the recent Radio 3 Essay series, “Letters to a Young Poet”.  For the writer inspiration can be an inconvenient thing.  Les Murray wrote:

“Poetry is apt to rise in you
  just when you’re on the brink
  of doing something important,

  trivially important, like flying
  across the world tomorrow.”

These lines are from a poem called “The Long Wet Season” – unintentionally appropriate for the current British weather.

The writer may have a desperate impulse to write, may feel inspired, but that does not mean that the resultant writing is any good.  “An ill-made thing leaks energy” said Stanley Kunitz.  The writer has to find a way to conserve the energy of inspiration – otherwise it can run away like water poured into a sieve.  Perhaps that is why the sonnet form has thrived for so long – its tight yet infinitely variable form is a way of conserving energy, particularly the energy of extreme emotion.

We tend to think of inspiration from the writer’s point of view.  But what of the response of reader or audience?  when someone says “That is inspired”?  Inspired writing doesn’t mean feel-good writing.  King Lear and The Waste Land are inspired but inspiration took Shakespeare and Eliot into very dark places.  We follow them into those dark places – and, at times, have to hold our breath. 

A few years ago I was teaching at a summer school when Stephania, an Italian student, said to me “You can breathe in that poem”.  She was explaining her response to William Blake’s “The Lamb” in Songs of Innocence and Experience.  Breath(e) again.  Tara Bergin put it like this:

“Question: ‘How can one thing, described in terms of another, make the thing described more truthful, and more real?’
Answer: ‘Because it makes me draw in my breath.  That’s why’”. 

Saturday, 18 January 2014


Let’s hear it for the north

My mother claimed that the auburn-haired gene, which I inherited from her side of the family, proved Viking ancestry.  I’m not sure about that but I’ve always been drawn to the north and have gradually moved and holidayed further north over the years.

A Carcanet publishers’ email alerted me to Peter Davidson’s book Distance and Memory.  Non-fiction prose (or creative non-fiction as it is called now), after decades of languishing in the publishing doldrums, is at last coming into its own.  What attracted me to the book was Gillian Clarke’s comment, “This is a poet’s book, his mind wide open to the cultures of the world, especially the north ... the language is luscious, musical and precise, rich with quotation and the cultures of northern Europe.”  Distance and Memory has been compared with Gillian Clarke’s prose memoir At the Source.  It’s different but there is an element of – if you enjoyed that you will enjoy this.

Don’t be put off by the rather uninspiring cover.  When you have read the book you can see why John Watson Gordon’s “Portrait of a Gentleman” is appropriate.  Though I am not sure why it was necessary to bisect his face down the middle of his nose.

Peter Davidson is Professor of Renaissance Studies at Aberdeen University and the cultural breadth of the book is fascinating and wide-ranging.  But above all he is a connoisseur of light.  Here he is writing about the distinctive feel to the light at the end of a short northern winter’s day – “evening afternoon” as he calls it, quoting from Sean O’Brien’s poem “November” – “Part of the aesthetic of the homeward journey is to see lives in lighted windows ... In some parts of northern Europe [the Netherlands] there is a social convention that curtains are not drawn at this time.”  (I always look out for the rooms which have book-lined walls, rather than the flicker of a big screen TV.  I would like to peer in, see if I could deduce something of the character of the inhabitants from the books on their shelves – not available on Kindle.)

“This is a poet’s book” wrote Gillian Clarke.  Peter Davidson, himself a poet (The Palace of Oblivion), has woven poetry into the cultural texture of this beautifully written book.  The book’s epigraph is an untitled wintry poem beginning, “The falcon flown, far in the starving air”.  There are Burns quotations and Scottish songs and the Scottish Renaissance writer, Alexander Hume.  Beyond Scotland he spreads his poetic net wide from Michael Riviere to Osip Mandlestam, amongst others.

In “Spring: Orkney” he quotes from Orkney Pictures and Poems, my favourite George Mackay Brown book – the poet’s wonderful collaboration with Scandinavian photographer, Gunnie Moburg.  I take it down from the shelf for another look.  It’s so big it only fits in sideways next to the Collected Poems.

 Poetry of the north would be incomplete without a reference to Auden.  “Auden wrote in the 1930s of lead mines in decline: ghosts of industry in remote country.”  This is in the fascinating chapter on the esoteric art of Spar Boxes, some of which are displayed at Killhope Mining Museum.  Killhope (pronounced Killup) is “the selfsame lead-workings of Auden’s early poem ‘Who stands at the crux left of the watershed ...’”  Peter Davidson admits to a (probably unrealisable) fantasy with artist Tim Brennan of making a film of Auden’s Paid on Both Sides set in the high Pennine watershed between County Durham and Cumberland.

Towards the end of the book he quotes John Ash:
                  “But if you don’t, on most days, love the place you live in,
                    as if it was the only place on earth, you had better get out.”
I don’t think Peter Davidson has any intention of getting out.  He clearly loves the north and celebrates it in this book.  Or, as Alan Taylor wrote memorably in his review in The Scottish Herald, “Distance and memory, darkness and light: what a cheerleader they’ve found in Peter Davidson.”

More about Peter Davidson and Distance and Memory at