Thursday, 7 November 2019


Have you read Alice Duer Miller?  I was asked recently.  No, I had to confess I hadn't.  So, here I am  reading a long narrative poem, The White Cliffs, published in 1940 by an American writer whose work sold in vast numbers and who is now almost entirely forgotten. 

I've checked my shelves - her name is absent from Fleur Adcock's Twentieth Century Women's Poetry, absent too from Deren Rees-Jones' Modern Women's Poetry.  There is no sign of her in my Penguin Book of American Verse.  Wikipaedia warns that the entry on Duer Miller needs backing up with evidence.  The only scholarly material I can find on the internet is a short essay by Rebecca Steizer.

The poem is told in the voice of an American woman, Susan Dunne, who comes to England from Rhode Island and somehow manages to meet and marry a member of the English upper class.  They have a son but her husband, John, dies in France fighting in the First World War.  Susan stays in England living on the crumbling country estate with her Scottish mother-in-law, Lady Jean, who becomes, rather surprisingly, her 'nearest, dearest friend'.  The Second World War breaks out and Susan faces the possibility of history repeating itself when her son goes off to fight - treading 'the same / Path that his father trod'.  The last sections of the poem are an emotional summing up of England's faults and virtues, past and present, and a plea, based on history and liberty, for America to enter the war.  She concludes:

                                       ...   I am an American bred,
I have seen much to hate here - much to forgive,
     But in a world where England is finished and dead,
I do not wish to live.

White Cliffs was published in 1940 and became an immediate bestseller.  It was broadcast on radio on both sides of the Atlantic, recorded and sold as a three-record set, inspired the song made famous by Vera Lynn ('There'll be bluebirds over  ...' etc), and was adapted for an MGM film in 1944.  If Pearl Harbor was the catalyst which brought the United States into the Second World War, the poem, White Cliffs, has been credited with influencing public opinion in favour of such a move.  Rebecca Steizer has commented that the poem 'met a need in British and American cultures and dovetailed with the radio propaganda culture of the 1940s'.

What about White Cliffs as poetry? In Duer Miller's favour, she does vary the form of the diffent sections of the poem with differing line lengths, verse lengths and styles - narrative, ballads, epistolary verses (surely these could have been in blank verse), verse drama.  My main ciritism is that the rhyme is relentless, in couplets or in alternating lines, full rhymes you can see coming a mile off - spot/not, faces/places, glove/love and so on for 52 sections.  But at least she uses a reasonable number of run-on lines. 

I don't want to be too hard on her.  The poem is of its time and is interesting from a historical point of view.  She was writing about subjects of relevance to her readers and she saw an important political role for her poetry.  Look at the Penguin Poetry of the Thirties and you will see plenty of political poems in traditional forms.  Modernism seems to have completely passed Duer-Miller by, but she was not the only one - and White Cliffs would certainly not have been so immediately popular had it been 'difficult'.  But would it have lasted longer?

For Rebecca Steizer's essay on Duer Miller go to

Sunday, 27 October 2019


*Independent presses are literature's Amazon rainforest, the oxygen that sustains new voices.  

One of those new voices (at least to readers of English) is Jokha Alharthi, the winner of this year's Man Booker International Prize.  Her work is published by a small independent publisher, Sandstone Press, based in Inverness.

Jokha Alharthi's novel, Celestial Bodies, is structured round generations of an Omani family, and conveys the changing social and political history of Oman through the lives and desires of a core group of characters.  What makes this book so satisfying is the way that the author expects her readers to be active readers, flipping backwards and forwards in time and between characters and voices, picking up the nuances in this tightly structured novel.  

Poetry is highly respected in Arabic culture and it is woven into the story.  Jokha Alharthi herself has a PhD in classical Arabic poetry from the University of Edinburgh and teaches classical Arabic literature at Sultan Qaboos University in Muscat.  An uncle and one of her grandfathers were poets.

In Celestial Bodies poetry is particularly important for Azzan.  He and his daughter, Asma, often swap 'instantly composed lines of poetry in playful competition'.  The rules of the game are that the exchanges should have the same rhyme scheme, but one day Asma subverts the game by quoting the openings to poems by al-Samau'al and al-Buhturi in a rhyme scheme different from Azzan's opening.  Asma's excerpts are:

If a person's honour is not sullied by base acts
     then every garment he dons is beauteous

and I guarded myself from what would soil my self
     and held myself above the paltry offerings of the scoundrel. 

But Azzan is having a passionate and (he hopes) secret affair with a Bedouin woman, Najiya bint Shaykha, whom he calls Qamar (the Moon in Arabic).  After this poetic exchange he wonders if his secret is out.  But the reader can sense another layer of allusion - to the marriage that is being arranged for Asma and her sister to Khalid and Ali, the sons of emigrant Issa.   (It is very helpful to have the family tree at the beginning of the book, even if it is printed horizontally!).

Poetry is particulalry prominent in Azzan's affair with Qamar.  He cannot resist addressing her in classical quotations, which express his intense passion, something he has never experienced before.  But does she feel the same?  By the end of the book we realise hers is a here-we-go-again response to the poetry and she wishes he would stop it.

To Azzan Qamar is the Moon, and he tells her 'your beauty is a gift from the Creator'

The strong emotional effect poetry has on Azzan is shown in the chapter 'Asma and the moon'.  He asks his daughter, Asma, now a young bride recently married to Khalid (her sister refused to marry Ali), to recite some of al-Mutanabbi's poetry.   'Asma's voice was subdued at first but it started gathering fervour as she recited:

... lover's nights stretch endless
They show me the full moon I have no craving for
    And hide a moon to which there is no way ... 

Her father's hand went up and Asma stopped.'  She suddenly notices how old her father looks.  He takes a notebook from under his pillow and gives it to Asma to read.  The passage is about the movements of the moon - and symbolises Azzan's inner emotional turmoil.

Celestial Bodies is not a long book but its richness and complexity make it one of the most satisfying novels I have read for several years.  As in poetry, every word counts, and I know that when I read it again I will find more depth in this most accomplished novel.

And don't forget the translator!  Marilyn Booth has done a superb job.  Celestial Bodies does not read like a translation - and that's good enough for me.

Celestial Bodies Jokhar Alharthi, translated by Marilyn Booth (Sandstone Press p/b £8.99)

*Debbie Taylor in Indie presses 2016-7

Tuesday, 8 October 2019


Last.  It's a quirk of the English language that the word is a homophone that can imply both loss and something that endures.

I've just returned from the Ways with Words writing and art holiday at Villa Pia in the village of Lippiano up in the hills on the Tuscany/Umbria border.  I've been going for a week every autumn since 2014 but this year was the last one.

I've been reflecting on those weeks away and what they've meant for my writing.  The tutors have always been encouraging and inspirational.  I'm particularly indebted to Blake Morrison and Julia Blackburn on whom I inflicted a considerable number of poems.

I wrote 'U' and 'X' (Alphabet Poems) at Villa Pia.  'U' was prompted by the traditional Tuscan barrel tiles (or half tiles) on the roofs of the Villa and surrounding outbuildings.  The tiles are like drain pipes cut in half (length-wise) and are laid in alternate rows facing up and down.  The old tile makers shaped the clay over their legs to make the tiles slightly tapered so that they could overlap.  In 'X' I imagine an illiterate labourer being dispossessed of his land in one of the big houses in the village.  The soil and stones are a pale yellow, like Cotswold stone, hence the 'yellow mud' which clags the man's boots.

The fifteenth century Renaissance painter, Piero della Francesca, worked in this area.  I wrote 'Saint Mary Magdalene' after seeing Piero's fresco in the Duomo in Arezzo, and 'The Pregnant Madonna' after seeing the 'Madonna del Parto' fresco in nearby Monterchi.

One year I worked on 'A Comonty', my sequence of Shakespeare sonnets based on (mostly minor) characters in Shakespeare's plays.  I managed to pack all my clothes into a cabin luggage case that year and ended up slipping a fat paperback Complete Works of William Shakespeare into a duty-free carrier bag to avoid the need for a bigger case.  I abandoned Shakespeare before the return flight and he's still on the Villa bookshelves!

But there was more than writing and painting.  Fabulous scenery, delicious Italian food and wine, friendly and hard-working staff for whom nothing was too much trouble, close friendships and now, lasting memories.  Thank you, Kay and Steve, for making it all possible.

Tuesday, 24 September 2019


When I studied Six Modern Poets for O level English Literature, five of them were men.  The token woman was Elizabeth Jennings.  Women poets were then, I suppose, regarded as a bit of an oddity, though I didn't realise that when I began writing (very derivative) poems in my teens.

But attitudes were changing.  A few years later, on the other side of the chalk (as it was then) board, I was teaching my A level students from The Bloodaxe Book of Contemporary Women Poets.  The book was very well produced: eleven poets with a good number of poems, photographs, biographies and essays about writing.   It was edited by Jeni Couzyn whose introduction was thorough and combative.  She took issue with the steotypes of women poets ('sub species of the genus Great Poet'): Mrs Dedication, Miss Eccentric, Mad Girl.

I thought of this when I heard a recording tonight (on BBC Radio Four's Front Row) of the poet Elaine Feinstein, who said that when she started writing poetry a woman poet was considered to be 'eccentric'.   The programme was paying tribute to Feinstein (born 1930), a great writer of poetry, fiction, biography and drama, whose death has just been accounced.

I first encountered her work in that Bloodaxe anthology. In her autobiographical essay she wrote not only about her own writing but about her encounter with the work of the great Russian poet, Marina Tsvetayeva, and her English versions of Tsvetayeva's work, introducing it to English readers for the first time.

Later I taught Ted Hughes' poetry to A level and continuing education students and read Feinstein's Ted Hughes, The Life of a Poet. Writing about Ted Hughes' life is to enter a minefield and the book was criticised for its restrained tone amidst the drama of the Hughes-Plath conflict (for example, by Nicci Gerrard in her Guardian review 28 October 2001).

When Elaine Feinstein's Portraits was published in 2015 I bought a copy.  These very accomplished poems show that she knew most of the poets that were worth knowing in the twentieth century.  The poem 'Homesickness' in memory of Maria Fadeyeva Enzenberger introduced me to Mandelstam's 'Necklace of Bees'.  In complete contrast Feinstein sees herself through another's eyes in the humorous 'My Polish Cleaner's Version' in which the author is an 'old woman in her nightie' who is untidy and careless, 'like a child', but who works at her writing on the computer - 'what she does there is her life'.

There is a recording of Feinstein reading a few of her poems on the Poetry Archive website.  One of the poems is 'Getting Older': 'The first surprise - I like it'; 'Every day won from such darkness is a celebration'.  Somewhere I found this quotation of Feinstein: 'People do seem to need poetry; it makes ordinary life feel richer.'

Wednesday, 18 September 2019


Last Friday I was sitting on the top of Mynydd Enlli, eating the most delicious dressed crab sold to me by Emma at the Bird Observatory on Bardsey Island (Ynys Enlli in Welsh).  Thanks for the wooden fork, Emma!. 

I can see the island's farmland spread out below - the outline of the  tidy field layout and the sturdy Victorian farmhouses, built in pairs together with a solid set of farm buildings round a cobbled courtyard.  Small fields reflect sunlight, like mirrors on a Sunday school Easter garden.  There are boggy patches with willow growing, and the old field banks, carefully and laboriously constructed with layers of stones and turf are now crumbling.

On the other side of the mountain the cliffs plunge steeply into the sound between the island and the end of the mainland at Mynyd Mawr and Braich y Pwll.  I chat to a small group of people who have just seen a pod of dolphins in the sound (I'm very good at missing creatures someone else has just seen!).  But I'm rewarded with a glimpse of a merlin veering off the mountainside into the airy void.

The sea surrounding the island is like a blue silk cloth, rippled gently by the breeze and the underlying currents and tides.  Patches of turbulence indicate unseen rocks under the surface.  Moving clouds create big slabs of darker colour on the water.

I open Moya Cannon's new collection, Donegal Tarantella, and read the first poem, 'Island Corrie':

   ... a pale scar shows
   that another slice of moutain 
   has succumbed 
   to this century's 
   hard seas
   and grey storms ...

But on Ynys Enlli it's The Narrows that often take the brunt of the storms and I wonder how long it will be before the sea breaks through and the lighthouse becomes isolated on its own little island.

One thing I am sure of - one day is not enough.  I must come back again soon.

Saturday, 7 September 2019


Thou art an O without a figure ... thou art nothing.

I was reminded of those quotations from T S Eliot's The Waste Land and Shakespeare's Lear when looking at Jeremy Over's poem, 'Kenneth Koch Uncorked', in his new volume Fur Coats in Tahiti.  I say 'looking' rather than 'reading' because the poem consists of ten pages of apparently randomly placed letters and those letters are all 'O's!

What are these 'O's? I wondered.  Little circles, like corks (I liked that title with the pun on Koch and cork).  Or, like bubbles, from an uncorked bottle of fizz.

I turned to the back of the book for help - "'Kenneth Koch uncorked' is an erasure of the first ten pages of Kenneth Koch's When the Sun Tries to Go On, leaving just the explanatory 'O's."
Did this help?  Well, a bit ...

I overlapped with Jeremy at the Cumbria Poets' Workshop for a while.  His poems were clever, witty, playful, surreal.  It would be an understatement to call them experimental.

So the poem is an erasure poem.  There's one in Jeremy's previous collection Deceiving Wild Creatures.  It's called 'Delight in      order' and is subtitled 'Erased Herrick'.  Robert Herrick's poem (published 1648) is 'Delight in Disorder' in which the poet delights in his mistress's dishevelled attire.  But in Jeremy's poem the words themselves are undressed from the original poem leaving a new bizarre poem behind.  Here is the first verse:

Kindles in

                do     confuse


But back to the uncorked poem.  For those of us still mystified about all those 'O's Jeremy has helpfully put something on the Carcanet blog (see below).  The whole poem is printed there.  The blog post starts off with Jeremy feeding paper through a musical box - playing the 'O's!  I can hear the rustle of paper as well as the tinkle of the single notes.  I'm not sure I can follow the poem as score but it's a fun idea.  Also on the blog is a very helpful explanation of erasure poems and of this poem in particular.  My bubbles were a good guess, but I could have had suns too!

But is it poetry, you ask?  Well, you can always think of it as a poetic installation!