Monday, 6 July 2015


Yesterday I went to an exhibition of patchwork quilts.  Beautiful, intricate work, many hours in the making.  The quilts reminded me of Margaret Atwood's brilliant novel Alias Grace where each section is named from a patchwork design.

In one room was a demonstration of needle felting with skeins of Texel wool.  I thought of a poetry discussion I led last week in which the subject of sheep poems came up - rather as an aside.  The only sheep poetry I could think of on the spur of the moment was by David Scott.  Anyone who has seen our native Cumbrian sheep will recognise them in "Herdwick" - "their Quaker grey heads", sheep who travel "at a tinker's pace, their wagon of rags / splashed with ochre".  In his companion poem, "Flanking Sheep in Mosedale" he writes of the sheep "strewn like crumbs / across the fell".

I turned to R S Thomas, a poet who spent much of his life amongst sheep farmers.  I found his early "The Welsh Hill Country" where the sheep are "arranged romantically in the usual manner / On a bleak background of bald stone" but to get that far in the poem you must first encounter "The fluke and the foot-rot and the fat maggot."

Sheep poems tend to be more about sheep husbandry than sheep - for example Norman MacCaig's "Sheep dipping" in which a man ticks (note the pun) "in a glossy book / the tally of the just baptised".

Gillian Clarke is a sheep farmer as well as a poet.  She has a short sequence of sheep poems in Five Fields from "Flesh" ("the wethers walk to their death") to the new life of "A Difficult Birth Easter 1998" (juxtaposed with the news of the Northern Irish peace negotiations) and "A Very Cold Lamb".  My sheep farming friends can identify that moment when lambs start "warming to the idea of staying alive".

The foot and mouth epidemic hit Cumbria particularly hard.  Another shepherd poet, Josephine Dickinson, devoted much of The Voice to chronicling the outbreak.  "Good Friday 2001" juxtaposes - to devastating effect - Biblical phrases about the paschal lamb with descriptions of the sheep cull.

A lighter touch (but not light-weight - she has a Simone Weil epigraph) is Kerry Hardie's "Sheep Fair Day" with its arresting opening sentence: "I took God with me to the sheep fair."  I found the poem in the popular anthology Being Alive.

In midwinter I am often wake before dawn (not difficult this far north!).  On a frosty mornings I notice the sheep next to our house huddled together in a flock in the middle of the field.  I assume this is some instinct to avoid hedges where foxes might lurk.  Also safety in numbers - closing ranks against possible predators.  Michael Longley notices a similar phenomenon in "The Fold" (from A Hundred Doors):
     "Why would the ewes and their lambs
       Assemble as though hypnotised
       Around the cottage?"
In the poem the "darkness and quiet" are "folding / All the sheep of Carrigskeewaun", and their wool provides a comfort blanket for his granddaughter, Catherine, "asleep in her crib / This midnight, our lambing time."  (My favourite sheep poem)

But, despite a long tradition of the Pastoral in English literature, I don't think any writer has quite captured the sheepness of sheep.  By contrast Thom Gunn writes convincingly from a dog's viewpoint in his "Yoko" and Les Murray from the point of view of cattle in "The Cows on Killing Day" (you can find this poem at

After writing this post I discovered that Candlestick Press had published Ten Poems about Sheep.  It includes two of the poems I mention and confirms my suspicions - "very few poets actually write about sheep" (Neil Astley in the introduction).  There is scope for more sheep poems.

Sunday, 28 June 2015


Here's another answer to the question, How do you know when a poem is finished?  (my post of 28 May):

"Fantastic to feel how my poem grows
while I myself shrink.
It grows, it takes my place.
It pushes me aside.
It throws me out of the nest.
The poem is ready."

These are the closing lines from "Morning Birds" by the Nobel prize-winning Swedish poet, Tomos Transtromer.  The Scottish Poetry Library discussion (my post of 21 May) on Transtromer's poetry gave me the impetus I needed to read his New Collected Poems, translated into English by Robin Fulton (Bloodaxe 2011).

The cover blurb quotes Seamus Heaney - "In its delicate hovering between the responsibilities of the social world and the invitations of a world of possibly numinous reality his poetry permits us to be happily certain of our own uncertainties".

Tomos Transtromer's face on the cover of the book conveys that happiness - he is looking up and the light in his eyes suggests an openness to new experience, to the possibility of transcendence and a refusal to lapse into cynicism.

The book includes the prose chapters of the autobiographical Memories Look at Me.  I read these first and found they provided me with helpful background.  In "Exorcism" he writes about what he calls "a severe form of anxiety" which he experienced in his mid-teens and which lasted for several months.  It was "possibly my most important experience".  I wonder if that was why Transtromer went on to become a psychologist.  His poems often convey a strange dream world between the conscious and the unconscious, between sleeping and waking.

When I read the poems I noticed various doors into a different kind of experience.  These doors included music, the natural world, sleep, journeys (often by car - there's a lot of traffic in these poems?).  Transtromer himself said, "These poems are all pointing towards a greater context, one that is incomprehensible to the normal everyday reasoning."

"I lie down to sleep,
see strange pictures
and signs scribbling themselves behind my eyelids
on the wall of the dark.  Into the slit between wakefulness and dream
a large letter tries to push itself in vain."
      from "Nocturne"

Transtromer uses some striking metaphors and similes in his poems, for example,
"The wind came out gently as if it were pushing a pram" (Noon Thaw"),
"Crystal chandeliers hung like glass vultures" ("The Blue Wind Flowers"),
"Constellations stamping inside their stalls, high / over the tree tops" ("Autumnal Archipelago").

I particularly enjoyed reading (and re-reading) Transtromer's masterpiece, "Schubertiana", and the sequence of poems, "Baltics".  The sequence is framed by Grandfather, " a new-made [naval] pilot" and Grandmother, who "never looked back / but because of that she could see what was new / and catch hold of it."  "Baltic" includes found text, definitions, diary entries, history, lateral thinking, recollections.  It ends with the poet noticing a fisherman's hut, its ancient roof tiles "slipped downways and crossways over each other".  The tiles remind him of "the old Jewish cemetery in Prague" ("the stones packed packed").  The hut "is lit up / with all those who were driven by a certain wave, by a certain wind / right out here to their fates."

The only drawback to this Bloodaxe edition is the absence of the original poems.  Although my Swedish is almost non-existent, seeing a poem in the original language can reveal rhyme, alliteration, form, line length, punctuation etc which might affect how a translation is read.    Robin Fulton has been translating Transtromer's work for at least 35 years.  I trusted him to get as close to the original form and language as possible in poetry (no easy task).  Thanks to him I am able to read Tomas Transtromer's wonderful luminous poetry in English.  Never forget the translator.

Saturday, 20 June 2015


150 years since the birth of the great Irish poet, W B Yeats (13 June 1865).  It’s a shock – one and a half centuries for a Modernist writer.   I have the fat green paperback of his Collected Poems, expertly annotated by Norman Jaffares.   The spine is cracking in four places and several poems are wafered with post-it notes for quick access. 

I re-read familiar poems but always with a sharp intake of breath at their wild, strange, faultless music.  What varied poetry he produced: the early favourite “The Lake Isle of Innisfree”, the powerful political poems such as “September 1913” and “Easter 1916”, the devastating “The Circus Animals’ Desertion” (one of the last poems he wrote). 

It’s impossible to forget “The Wild Swans at Coole”.  The poet describes the birds: “lover by lover, / They paddle in the cold / Companionable streams or climb the air”.  Swans pair for life (“lover by lover”) but the poet counts “nine-and-fifty swans” and suddenly I realise that one swan is without a mate – surely an allusion to Yeats’s unrequieted love for Maud Gonne.

I was reminded of Yeats one morning this week when the BBC Radio 4 news announced that the poet James Fenton had won the PEN/Pinter Prize, an annual award for a writer who looks at the world with an “unflinching, unswerving” gaze and shows “a fierce intellectual determination ... to define the real truth of our lives and societies.” 

You can read two of Fenton’s “unflinching” poems, “A German Requiem” and “Wind”, on the website.  The former begins, “It is not what they built.  It is what they knocked down”.  They are political poems in the widest sense of the word.  Two poets have won the prize before – in 2009 Tony Harrison, and in 2012 Carol Ann Duffy.

One of the most moving political poems I have ever read is Lorna Goodison’s “The Woman speaks to the Man who has Employed Her Son” which is about a mother’s love for her son who has been “employed” as a child soldier.

Last year “The Lioness of Iran”, the poet Simin Behbahani, died at the age of 87 (see my blog post for 12 November 2014).  Her work tackled women’s issues and social and political injustice.  For ten years her work was banned in Iran and she was subjected to police harassment.  But her work was greatly admired and a measure of her popularity was that her face appeared on T shirts and placards. 

It takes courage to venture above the political parapet and write.

Thursday, 28 May 2015


“How do you know when a poem is finished?”

I was asked this question a few months ago and it’s been niggling at the back of my mind ever since.  It’s a good question and the short answer is “I don’t know”.  A poem is not a mathematical calculation which is either √ or x.

One answer would be Jonathan Swift’s definition of style: “Proper words in proper places”.  But how difficult it is to get those words and places in alignment!  So many aspects impinge on a poem – and just one word can throw a whole poem out of kilter.  T S Eliot complained about “the intolerable wrestle/With words and meanings” (“East Coker”).  He was writing part of Four Quartets during the Second World War (he was an air raid warden during the London blitz) and confessed that it was difficult “to feel confident that morning after morning spent fiddling with words and rhythms is a justified activity.”

But this is getting away from that word “finished”.  When I was asked the question I used the analogy of cutting a hedge – you think you’ve finished but when you look at your efforts you find you have to tweak that untidy little sprig which sticks out awkwardly.  Then you look again and there’s another sprig ...  When I go to a poetry workshop it is a rare poem that receives the unanimous comment, “I wouldn’t change a word”.  But sometimes I am stubborn and resist suggested changes if I am convinced that the poem would be harmed by them.

Then there’s the poem I think is finished but when I go back to it months later I find obvious infelicities that need altering.  There is an analogy with painting.  How does an artist know a painting is finished?  Lily Briscoe, at the end of Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse, knew.  Her painting had been unfinished for years but at the end of the novel, “She saw it clear for a second, she drew a line there, in the centre.  It was done; it was finished.  Yes, she thought, laying down her brush in fatigue, I have had my vision.”  Just one brush stroke completed the picture.  Such restraint.  “You don’t have to include everything” is one of the best pieces of writing advice I have received.

I’ve recently been reading W G Sebald’s The Emigrants.  The last section of the book concentrates on an artist, Max Ferber.  At night he frequently scraped from his paper or canvas much of the work he had done during the day, so much so that there was a deposit several centimetres thick on his studio floor.  He “decided the portrait was done, not so much because he was convinced it was finished as through sheer exhaustion.” 

All that scraped off paint is the artistic equivalent of the writer’s overflowing waste paper bin with its crumpled crossed out drafts.  I wonder if we should consider unfinished as normal and finished as extraordinary!

I was delighted to discover a poem by the American writer, Naomi Shihab Nye, called “How do I know when a poem is finished?”  (You can listen to Naomi reading it on youtube – search for Naomi Shihab Nye: Dear Poet 2015.  A quick google will give you the text on  You could keep altering a poem for ever but sometimes, like the blue chair and the red pillow, it just looks best that way – “So you might as well/leave it that way.”

In the last section of “Little Gidding” at the end of Four Quartets, T S Eliot describes over several lines a perfect poem.  He begins “And every phrase/And sentence that is right (where every word is at home ...)” and ends with “the complete consort dancing together”.  What a wonderful definition of a finished poem – words dancing together, but it is a perfection to strive for rather than attain. 

He prefaces the passage with the lines:
     “What we call the beginning is often the end
       And to make an end is to make a beginning.
       The end is where we start from.”
The end of a poem is a springboard for another, like the end of a movement in a piece of music where the sound hangs in the air waiting to begin again in the next movement.

Perhaps all art, subject to time as are its makers, is provisional.  Meanwhile, I must get down to finishing that poem.

Thursday, 21 May 2015


"Waking up is a parachute jump from dreams."

At least it felt like that when my alarm went off at 6am so that I could catch the early train to Edinburgh on Saturday.  

The quotation is from the opening line of Tomas Transtromer's "Prelude" (translated from the Swedish by Robin Fulton).  I was in Edinburgh to attend a discussion on Transtromer's poetry at the Saltire Society.  

I find Edinburgh's urban geography fascinating.  The Saltire Society building is reached via Fountain Close (one of those narrow pedestrian closes off the Royal Mile) and down steps into a courtyard which on Saturday morning was a well of sunlight.  The courtyard buildings are below street level, or, more correctly, the street level has risen above them over the centuries.

There were a dozen of us at the discussion, organised by the Scottish Poetry Library in the Nothing but the Poem series.  It was facilitated by Kate Hendry, though it was such a lively group that it didn't need a lot of facilitating!

I had only encountered Transtromer's work once before - in an analysis of his "Schubertiana" by Gerry McGrath (PN Review 220 Nov/Dec 2014).  Some people were totally new to his work, others quite familiar with it.  Two participants were Swedish which helped a great deal.

Tomas Transtromer was born in 1931 and won the Nobel Prize for literature.  I get the impression that he is as well-known in Sweden as Seamus Heaney in Ireland.  As well as writing poetry he was a professional psychologist and a keen pianist.  in 1990 he suffered a stroke which resulted in partial paralysis down one side.  Afterwards various Swedish composers wrote music for him to play one-handed.  He died earlier this year.

I particularly enjoyed the musical references in Transtromer's "Allegro", for example, which begins
     "After a black day, I play Haydn,
      and feel a little warmth in my hands".  
I liked the humour of "I shove my hands in my haydnpockets"  and "I raise my haydnflag".  In this poem music becomes a refuge: "The music is a house of glass standing on a slope."

We noticed recurring images and themes in the poems - light and darkness (the two extremes of the Swedish latitude, someone remarked), dragons, birds, trees, sleep, dreams, cars and traffic.  In all the poems there was an element of surprise as if Transtromer was seeing the world anew.  

Everyone round the table brought fresh insights and comparisons.  But we felt we had only dipped our toes in Transtromer's work.  I would definitely like to read more.  A big thank to the Scottish Poetry Library for an exhilirating poetry discussion.

Transtromer's work has been translated into English:
New and Collected Poems (Bloodaxe 1997) translated by Robin Fulton
The Winged Energy of Delight: selected translations (Harper Collins 2004) translated by Robert Bly
The Blue House (Thunder City Press 1987) translated by Goran Malmqvist.

Thursday, 14 May 2015


“Rain rattled
  the roof of my car
  like holy water
  on a coffin lid”

That’s the beginning of Paul Muldoon’s “Pelt” in his new collection One Thousand Things Worth Knowing.  The water certainly pelted down last week when I drove to Grasmere to hear Paul Muldoon’s poetry reading.  

The reading was a retrospective selection of poems from many years’ work, including that Muldoon classic, “Why Brownlee left” (1980).  It’s a poem set in a rural Irish past when a few acres and a pair of heavy horses was all you needed.  There’s that wonderful line break that enacts the horses standing waiting –
“shifting their weight from foot
  to foot”
but above all there’s the unsolved mystery of Brownlee’s disappearance and the tricksiness of the poem’s title.

Paul Muldoon is a charismatic reader.  His voice has a warm County Armagh timbre (perhaps with a slight American tinge after all the time he’s spent on the other side of the Atlantic).  He gives helpful introductions and reads his poems with great clarity, all the time engaging with his audience.  Every word is given its proper weight.

When I hear Paul Muldoon read I am reminded of his legendary reading at Grasmere in 2003 which ended with a virtuoso unscripted defence of contemporary poetry in reply to a somewhat biased or na├»ve questioner who asked “Why is this poetry?”

But last week he ended with a link between his youth in County Armagh and Grasmere.  One day his English teacher, Jerry Hicks spent the whole lesson reading a long poem aloud to the class.  It was Wordsworth’s Prelude. 
(“Meanwhile abroad
  Incessant rain was falling.”)

Read on:
You can find “Why Brownlee left” at

The current edition of PN Review carries an excellent interview with Paul Muldoon by Adam Crowthers (PN Review 223 May-June 2015)