Sunday, 18 March 2018


There were still grubby snowdrifts by the side of the road last week when I went up to Cumbria for the annual Words by the Water literary festival at Keswick.

I enjoyed meeting up with friends old and new and having the opportunity to hear some brilliant speakers.

Some highlights included Jenny Uglow on Edward Lear (a relative of the wife of my father's half-brother!) and the naturalist John Lister-Kaye not on the lives of wild creatures but on his own life.   The talk by popular linguist David Crystal was full.  His topic was the history and sociology of pronunciation and as usual he entertained and enlightened us.  My favourite talk was by the gently-spoken Christopher Nicholson  and was on the elusive summer snows of Scotland's mountains.

The Poetry Breakfast was a sell-out and all the croissants were eaten.  It's a strange phenomenon that open mics and workshops always seem to have a subtext or a hidden agenda - in this case it was elegies.  I resisted the temptation to read a poem about my  mother (being a switherer I had brought a handful of poems to choose from).  Instead I read a poem about the 'lollipop coloured gifts' we find on the shore - the plastic that gets washed up everywhere.  Not exactly a sea elegy but ...

Elsewhere there were few poetry sessions - the Write to be Counted anthology reading, William Sieghart (founder of the Forward prizes for poetry) talking about prescribing poems, and Adam Feinstein comparing translations of the Chilean Pablo Neruda's poetry before the showing of the remarkable and unnerving film Neruda (2016).  Blake Morrison, an accomplished writer of poetry, fiction and non-fiction, talked about his new novel The Executor which includes poetry written as if by one of the characters.

Adam Feinstein judged the biennial *Mirehouse Poetry Prize.  Congratulations to Alison Carter for her winning poem 'Topiary'.

As I packed up the hire car yesterday morning snowflakes were falling again.

*The winning poem and the commended poems are up on the Mirehouse website  (go to The House and then click on Poetry Prize and 2018 Poetry Prize Winners).  

Wednesday, 7 March 2018


Peter Scupham was 85 on 24 February.  PN Review  celebrated his birthday with a bumper thirty three page celebration of the poet, teacher, book dealer, publisher, house restorer and "genius of activity".

The magazine printed a selection of his decorated envelopes which show a man with a keen sense of humour and a love of cats.  I was amused by the satirical cartoons drawn round postage stamps of Harold Wilson and Margaret Thatcher (the latter sporting a pinny and a handbag labelled "Blood and treasure").  A large fluffy cat on an orange rug adorned a letter to Dr Jane Griffiths at Wadham College ("College cats: series one").

Reading the contributions from friends and colleagues (including Anne Stevenson, Peter Davidson, George Szirtes and Grevel Lindop) I was struck by how much Peter Scupham is a great encourager.  Ex pupils praised an inspiring English teacher who refused to be limited by the curriculum.  John Mole wrote about the Mandeville Press, which he ran with Peter Scupham:
"Our editorial principles ... approaching poets who we felt had been overlooked or undervalued and publishing them alongside familiar 'names'.  We used the best quality laid paper and card that we could find".

The magazine included a selection of Peter Scupham's poems.  I thought at first that his work was unfamiliar to me, then I realised that some time ago I had copied into my notebook a quotation from "Prehistories":
"Ghosts are a poet's working capital.
  They hold their hands out from the further shore."

Robert Wells wrote "Peter told me that he has never begun a poem without finishing it".  That seems good advice, even if the finishing might take a some time.  I must tackle that little heap of half-abandoned poems in the wire tray on my desk.  Finish them or scrap them.

                                 *                       *                       *

A few days ago I heard on Radio 4 Douglas Adams' statement that 'Any fool can write, only a writer can cut.'  All that editorial fiddling is worth it.  I remember reading in Lyndall Gordon's biography of T S Eliot that the poet (an air-raid warden and fire watcher in the Blitz) bewailed the fact that while there was a war on he spent hours messing about with a few words. But the few words became Four Quartets.

The recent blizzards and extreme wind and cold have taken up much of the news but like a running sore the horrors of besieged Eastern Ghouta have refused to heal.

On the last day of February Syrian composer and qanun musician, Maya Youssef, featured on BBC Radio 4's "Front Row".  She has lived in the UK for five years and has written "Syrian Dreams" in response to the Syrian Civil War.  I was moved by her simple statement: "Before the War, there was music".

                         *                          *                          *

Thursday 8 March is International Women's Day.  Thanks to Kathleen Jones who has posted my poem, "The Women" on her blog "A Writer's Life".  You can read the poem at

Wednesday, 28 February 2018


A long grey train journey through the Welsh borders gave me a chance to catch up with my reading, including a recent copy of the poetry magazine, Stand.

I was particularly impressed with the poem, 'Van Gogh's Windmill', by the late Ron de Maris (a highly respected American poet and teacher whose work I had not encountered before).  The poem opens:

'Skies grey, clouds billowing black and in the tilted
      Field the grey slatted wood of a windmill,

      A crow perched on the blade, the blade wob-
bling as it turns, the post sunk in the mud of false

Then the artist appears - an unnamed 'he', laden with the  'weight of canvas and stretchers ... brushes and oils', his clothes 'spotted with colours'.  With consummate craft Ron de Maris welds detailed descriptions of the scene, the artist, the creative process.  He moves from the monochrome opening of the poem to the 'gold' (remember the sunflowers?) of the ending.

[You can read the opening lines of the poem on the Stand website  Go to the current issue 217 (volume 16 number 1) and scroll down the contents until you find Ron de Maris.  You can access the first five verses but after that you will have to subscribe to get the rest of the poem.]

                             *                   *                    *

I was reminded of this poem today as I watched the farmer ploughing the stubble field next to my garden.  As if from nowhere birds flocked to a newly opened food source:

      'Under a cascade of seagulls
Tumbling, blue clouds, buds of low trees sky


As well as the seagulls there were crows, rooks, a couple of buzzards and a handful of plucky lapwings who endured constant harassment from the herring gulls.  And the gold was a little patch of flowering daffodils under a hedge in a corner of the field.

                              *                    *                    *

My local paper (which comes out on a Wednesday) carried a feature on the forthcoming 90th birthday celebration of the renowned harpist, Dr Osian Ellis CBE, illustrated by a picture of the musician with Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears.

I once sat next to Osian Ellis at dinner at Gregynog.  I was a naive 20 year-old student and he was (I think) musician in residence.  I remember asking him incredulously - 'Do you actually manage to make a living by playing the harp?'  He graciously replied that yes, it was possible to do this.

Now he is living a few miles away from me in Pwllheli, the market town of the Lleyn Peninsula.  The celebratory concert in Caernarfon will feature a celebratory poem by Mererid Hopwood, the first woman poet to win the Bardic chair at the National Eisteddfod of Wales.

Sunday, 18 February 2018


This poem is dedicated to my dog, Oscar, and my friend, Kathryn, who really did -

You asked for a poem about listening

How easy is it to represent a sound in words?
Take, for example, the sound of a dog's paws

on frozen leaves - a medium sized dog - and notice
how the pads spread apart.  The leaves are stiff
and the ice crystals abrade each other.
The dog does not press down hard with his feet.
As he walks a few grains of frost cling
to his paws.  When he runs he disturbs the leaves
so that they have a right side (frosted)
and an underside (unfrosted) like scraps
of satin cloth.  The dog's breath steams
in the chill air.  Far off to the south-east
dawn burns.  A heron studies the river.
Soon rooks will rise from their roost to begin
a day's forage in the fields.  And the sound? Crunch
is too sharp (boots walking on gravel). Crack -
no, that's pine resin in the fire.  Snap -
worse still - twigs, not leaves, under the same boots.

It's the sound of movement on a still morning,
the sound of a dog's paws on frozen leaves.

© Mary Robinson 2015
(First published in The Poetry Review vol 105:2, Summer 2015)

Thursday, 25 January 2018


Stimulating, thought-provoking, informative, intelligent and closely printed in double columns on A4 size pages: P N Review is towards the Radio 3 end of the poetry magazine wavelengths.  When I read an article by Rebecca Watts in my latest issue (239 Jan/Feb 2018) I wondered if the wider poetry world would pick up on it - and it has.

Rebecca Watts takes no prisoners in 'The Cult of the Noble Amateur'.  Performance poets Rupi Kaur, Kate Tempest and Hollie McNish all come in for criticism for the shallowness of their work - particularly Hollie McNish, whose Plum was sent to Rebecca Watts for review.  Don Paterson, poetry editor at Picador (the publisher of McNish and Tempest) is a poetry establishment 'name'.  Watts accuses him of doing a U-turn from his 2004 denouncement of the 'populists' who have 'infantilised' poetry to his current endorsement of McNish and Tempest.

Do £ signs have anything to do with it?  T S Eliot said words to the effect that the aim of publishing poetry was not to make a profit but to make as small a loss as possible.  But Rupi Kaur's Milk and Honey sold 1.4 million copies by May 2017.  It's not surprising that Picador want a couple of performance poets on their list.  

Watts attacks the way writing about poetry has shifted from assessing the quality of the work itself to the cult of the personality.  

The article has provoked coverage in The Guardian (23 January) and a discussion on BBC Radio 4.  It's not often that the media actually notices poetry!  I suspect we haven't heard the last of this particular storm.


Last Friday I went to Rhiw, one of my favourite places on the Peninsula.  In the Plas woods winter storms had uprooted several trees, some of them still in a state of half-dismemberment.  Only a month after the solstice the sun was low, beneath a threatening cloud cover.  

Every crease of Porth Neigwl's crumbling cliffs and every fold of Cilan headland were illuminated.  The tide was well out but I could hear the waves on the shore - white surfing breakers that make the beach so popular in the summer (though not without danger as its English name, Hell's Mouth, makes clear).  The sea was gunmetal grey, except where a shaft of light pierced a break in the cloud to make a pool of dazzling silver.

I took the dog for a walk in the woods.  Two men were taking broken slates off a roof and chucking them noisily into a builder's lorry.  Rain had gouged big ruts in the path.  There were a few snowdrops already in flower - a foretaste of the great sheets of white which will appear here in early February.  But under the trees the woods still smelled of winter.


I flicked on the car radio - it was Radio 4's obituary programme, Last Word.  I often wonder why more men die than women, but Friday's programme included an obituary of the poet, Jenny Joseph.
Jenny Joseph was born in 1932 (the same year as Sylvia Plath).  She was a near contemporary of Elaine Feinstein, Anne Stevenson and Fleur Adcock.  

I first came across Jenny Joseph's poetry in the excellent Bloodaxe Book of Contemporary Women Poets edited by Jeni Couzyn (1985).  
This was far more than an anthology.  It presented the work of 11 British writers in 230 pages.  For each poet there was a good selection of poetry , photographs, a short biography, and - this was the best bit - an essay on their writing.   No bleeding chunks here!

'Rose in the afternoon', 'Dawn Walkers','Women at Streatham Hill', 'Another old tale', 'In Memory of God', 'The inland sea', two extracts from 'Persephone' and ... 'Warning' were the poems selected.  

Jenny Joseph wrote in her introductory essay that when she was in her teens 'it seemed the absolute of fame that what one wrote should be so much a part of the world as to rise to the lips of any Tom Dick or Harry, Joan Liz or Mary, unaware of authorship, like sayings, like war songs, like ballads.'

Be careful what you wish for - this is exactly what happened to her poem 'Warning' which took on a feral life of its own, so much so that she told her publisher that she had grown to hate the poem.    You'll know the one - 'When I am old I shall wear purple ...'

I turned to Fleur Adcock's seminal Faber Book of 20th Century Women's Poetry (1987) and found just one Jenny Joseph poem - yes, it was 'Warning'.  Maybe Deryn Rees-Jones editing Modern Women Poets (Bloodaxe 2005) would do better.  Slightly - she included 'The Inland Sea' and 'Ant Nest' as well as 'Warning'.  

In 1996 the W poem was voted the Nation's favourite poem (i.e., in the UK).  It is a pity when a poet becomes a one poem wonder and not recognised for the body of her work.  So I was pleased when one of my students asked if we could read and discuss some more of her poetry.  I incorporated the poems into the course under the heading 'What else has Jenny Joseph written?'

Friday, 19 January 2018


Scroll down on the right of this page, through Events, News and Recently Published and you will discover that there's a new list of Twelve Books You Must Read.

As usual this is a subjective, opinionated selection of some of the poetry books I have read over the past year.  Books that I have enjoyed and/or been challenged by.  

Limiting myself to twelve means that there are some notable omissions.  In particular four of my favourite poets - so I'll mention them here, which is a cheat's way of omitting them from the list.  Michael Longley Angel Hill, Philip Gross A Bright Acoustic, Thomas A Clark Farm by the Shore, Les Murray On Bunyah.

Here's the new list with accompanying 'puff':

R S Thomas Too Brave to Dream - a posthumous collection of poems written as a response to various art works (which are reproduced with the poems).  All the hallmarks of the poetry of R S Thomas - economy, simplicity, and those intuitive fractured line breaks.

Myra Schneider Insisting on Yellow: New and Selected Poems - readable, imaginative poems. 'Emotionally vulnerable, richly allusive and superbly poised between past and present' (Jane Holland).

Richard Price Moon for Sale - a roller coaster of emotions.  Witty, clever, funny, sexy, heart-stopping. You never know what is coming next.

Tom Pickard Winter Migrants - there is a distinctly northern feel (Pennines and Solway Firth) to this alert and original collection with its 'mercury whisper of tipped-in light'. 

Sinead Morrissey On Balance - another fine accomplished volume from Sinead Morrissey.  Is there anything this poet can't write about?  Is there any form she can't use?

Geoffrey Hill Clavics - read it to honour the memory of a great English poet (died 2016).  Beautifully crafted poems in shape and rhyme.  Hill is never an easy read but his work is a worthwhile intellectual challenge.

John Glenday The Golden Mean - there's a haunting quality of tone and content to these honed short poems without losing any of their edginess.  Includes powerful, sometimes shocking, translations from contemporary Iraqi poets who deserve to be heard beyond their own country.

Angela France The Hill - psychogeography meets poetry in these varied succinct poems (some with fine surreptitious partial rhymes) on the history and life of Leckhampton Hill near Cheltenham.  A wonderful and strange read.  'An essential contribution to the literature of landscape' (Claire Crowther).

Helen Dunmore Inside the Wave - how Helen Dunmore treasured life even as she lived in the shadow of death.  Poems of great depth expressed with clarity - if you read nothing else by this writer, read this.

Gillian Clarke Zoology - a bumper (by poetry standards!) 100 pages of poetry divided into six sections, including 'One Year' (the cycle of the seasons at Hafod y Llan farm in Snowdonia) and a final section of moving and powerful elegies.

Gerry Cambridge Notes for Lighting a Fire - uses the theme of light of explore 'desire, possession and memory' (HappenStance blurb).

Ruth Bidgood Black Mountains/Land Music - attractively produced back-to-back volume.  Here is the familiar Bidgood territory of a rural Welsh hinterland of deserted hills, empty lanes, ruined houses.  It is the loneliness of places where people seem to have withdrawn. She values this often overlooked landscape.

So there it is - now read on.