Tuesday, 4 December 2018


Winter sounds - an irritated blackbird in my garden (he disputes my ownership), gulls and corvids scavenging the ploughed field opposite my house, the occasional buzzard.  The wind in the Scots pine, sounding like an oncoming vehicle when there is none.  The sycamores, oaks, rowans and ash trees sound differently with their branches open to the sky.  The scrubby gorse bushes along the field banks delight me - their yellow flowers are a welcome burst of colour in the dark days of the year.

I've been playing catch up during the long evenings and have particularly enjoyed some binge listening - to RTE Radio 1's The Poetry Programme.  I recommend it to everyone who is interested in contemporary poetry - it is the best poetry programme I have found on the air waves.  It's introduced by Olivia O'Leary, a journalist who has a life-long love of poetry and has the ability to get poets to open up about their work and their lives.  There is nothing formulaic about the programme - it covers a diverse range of poetry.

I recently caught up with the wonderful two-programme extended interview with Michael Longley, who won the inaugural Yakamochi international poetry award earlier this year.  Michael Longley's work has been a favourite of mine, ever since I heard him read from his Collected Poems at Grasmere in 2006.  It's a volume that is now incomplete - the poet has been quite prolific in his later years.  I introduced his book, Snow Water, to my students and they all loved it.  It's probably one of the most popular poetry collections I have ever taught on a course.

The Poetry Programme was a retrospective of Michael Longley's work and included him reading (beautifully of course) a selection of poems from his long writing career.  The poet talked about various aspects of his writing - here are a few snippets:

Carrigskeewaun (the remote cottage where he writes): it is 'my special place', my 'home of poetry', 'my soul landscape'.  'It's how I explain myself'.

About the Troubles:  I felt 'inarticulate, confused, angered, heart-broken'.  He vowed to avoid 'Troubles trash', hitching a 'a ride on yesterday's headlines'.  His Troubles poems are about the victims, including the death of the local ice-cream man. The last four and a half lines of the poem 'The Ice-cream Man' consist of a list of wild flowers - 'I named for you the flowers of the Burren/I had seen in one day'.  After he had written the poem the poet received a letter from the ice cream man's mother, thanking him for remembering her son in the poem, who had sold 21 flavours of ice cream, and pointing out that there were 21 flowers in the poem.

The dedications to female friends and relatives: 'I've learned most of what I know from women' and 'from the feminine side of my men friends.  He praised the important role played by women's groups during The Troubles.

'The best poetry is written by youngsters and pensioners!'  Michael Longley is 80 next year and has written more poems in the last year than in any of the previous years of his life - 'I've just got the hang  of it'.

'Anything, however small, may make a poem.'

You can listen again via The Poetry Programme on the RTE Radio 1 website. 

Monday, 19 November 2018


Listen. Put on light break.
Waken into a miracle.
     (from W S Graham's 'Listen.  Put on morning')

19th November 1918:  W S Graham's birthday.  It's good to see this rather neglected but brilliant poet being celebrated in his centenary year.

I first encountered his work in an anthology.  It was a short poem titled 'Johann Joachim Quantz's Five Lessons'.  I was hooked.  I borrowed his Faber Selected and discovered there were another four wonderful verses to the Quantz poem.  To me Graham's work was an intoxicating mix of the lyricism of Dylan Thomas and the Modernist rigour of T S Eliot.

Graham was born and grew up in Greenock.  He left school at 14 to take up a draughtsman's apprenticeship and then studied structural engineering.  In 1938 he won a bursary to study for a year at Newbattle Abbey adult education college (later associated with Edwin Muir and George Mackay Brown - warden and student respectively).  He's regarded as a Scottish poet, although he lived much of his adult life in Cornwall.  The Scottish Poetry Library acquired his battered writing table a few years ago.  His friends were artists, and the sketches and paintings he left on scraps of paper, letters and in books show that he could have been an artist himself.

There's an exhilaration and originality to the language of Graham's poems that I find irristible.  There's that very early poem:

Listen.  Put on morning.
Waken into falling light.

There are the Scottish poems such as 'Loch Thom':

... I walked backward from fifty six
Quick years of age wanting to see
... To find Loch Thom and turned round
To see the stretch of my childhood 
Before me.'

There is the cheerful, colloquial, yet serious tone of the elegy
'Dear Bryan Wynter':

This is only a note
To say how sorry I am
You died ...
I would like to think
You were all right
And not worried ...
Bryan, I would be obliged
If you would say scout things out
For me.'

'The Night Fishing' (trawler fishing) is to me a long roller-coaster of a poem.  I find 'What Is The Language Using Us For?' difficult but I get more out of it each time I read it.

But my favourite poem remains 'Johann Joachim Quantz's Five Lessons'.  The poem is in the words of the Baroque composer Quantz, addressing his pupil.  I included this poem on a course called 'Words and Music' a few years ago.  My continuing education students asked me to write another poem in the voice of Quantz's pupil.

So I did.  It's called 'Karl's flute lessons' and I wanted to combine the tone of the original poem with an imaginative recreation of the lessons.  Here's a little extract:

Every lesson was a surprise.
He asked me once to play barefoot
so I could feel the floorboards
bounce back the music.

'The sound you make must be so real that you can
touch it, that they will put down their wine glasses
and thirst for your playing.'

© Mary Robinson 2018

Saturday, 10 November 2018


The music shop's plate glass is shattered.  A youth

hunches over the grand piano, its lifted lid
the glide of a shadowed wing.  The melody's

a funeral march, the triplets restless,
nervy, obstinate.  Between movements

notes hang in the dust, linger
for their companions in another key.  He straightens

his spine, his fingers dance the minuet
in darkness.  His collarless shirt open

at the neck, his brown waistcoat torn, 
the heels of his shoes worn away.  The last movement -

an inferno breaks loose.  His fingers
pale blurs of skin.  Flames pause

only to explode sforzando
with each indraft of air.  His heart flutters,

trying to escape its cage.  The fire
burns itself out, his clothes are sour with smoke.

© Mary Robinson 2018

I was researching the wartime history of Birmingham in the Wolfson Centre for Archival Research at the Library of Birmingham when I came across an account in one of the scrapbooks of Second World War reminiscences.

The writer [why wasn't he in an air-raid shelter?] described walking up New Street, in the city centre, on a dark moonless night, the air filled with the continual drone of bombers and anti-aircraft fire and the occasional whine and thud of a bomb.  At the corner of Lower Temple Street he heard the beginning of Beethoven's 'Moonlight Sonata'.  Two grand pianos stood behind the shattered windows of a music shop.  A young man was playing one of the pianos.  His appearance suggested that he could never afford to own such an instrument - he had simply stepped through the broken glass and seized an opportunity he might never have again.

His total absorption in the music and his complete indifference to the air-raid going on around him reminded me of the lines of Yeats:

The years to come seemed waste of breath,
A waste of breath the years behind
In balance with this life, this death.

We tend to think of the opening of the Moonlight Sonata as slow, peaceful, languid.  It's an interpretation reinforced by the sonata's nickname, which was not given by Beethoven.  But the pianist Andras Schiff, in his excellent lecture on the sonata (on Youtube), explains that the first movement's triplets should be played considerably faster than has been traditional and the melody is borrowed from death music in Mozart's Don Giovanni.  His lecture imbues the sonata with a powerful energy, especially the restlessness of the last movement.

It is a bizarre coincidence that the Germans used the code name Operation Moonlight  Sonata (Operation Mondscheinsonate) for the Coventry Blitz.

What was the gold lettering above the piano's keyboard?  Steinway perhaps?  Hitler converted the Hamburg factory to aircraft production.   Bechstein?  Their German factory was destroyed by allied bombing.

Saturday, 3 November 2018


If it is unpermissible, in fact fatal
to be personal and undesirable

to be literal - detrimental as well
if the eye is no innocent - does it mean that 

one can live only on top leaves that are small
reachable only by a beast that is tall? -

of which the giraffe is the best example -
the unconversational animal.

(from Marianne Moore 'To a Giraffe')

I've just returned from a week's poetry masterclass at Ty Newydd, The National Writers' Centre of Wales, at Llanystumdwy.

Several poetry rules were reiterated during the week: avoid abstract nouns, adjectives, adverbs; use metaphors not similes; avoid one word lines; do not use lists of more than three things, keep the writing tight, etc etc.  This is all very good advice.  But of course rules are meant to be broken - if you can get away with it (and several - very good - poets have).

One of the most interesting workshops was one which erupted into a fierce debate about the use of gaps, inset lines, visual patterns.

It came as a surprise to me to find such visual and aural poetic devices described as a modern fad.  (What about George Herbert?  Henry Vaughan?)  Some of the poets that I find most exciting and interesting play about with form in this way - for example, Philip Gross, Gary Snyder, Angela France (The Hill), Heidi Williamson (The Print Museum), Angela Leighton.   R S Thomas does wonderful things with line breaks and inset lines (see my post Between Sea and Sky 1 July 2018).   Here's the opening of 'Arrival' -

Not conscious
       that you have been seeking
       you come upon it

the village in the Welsh hills
              dust free
       with no road out
but the one you came in by.

Note the placing of the one line adverb 'suddenly' immediately below 'you' - the visual positioning enacting the verbal meaning.  There is 'no road out' 'but the one you came in by' and the reader's eye, like the traveller, has to go back.

Where would concrete poetry be if poets always kept to the rules?  Last month (This place I know 18 October 2018)  I mentioned Josephine Dickinson's brilliant 'Snow' poem - a rectangular blizzard of tiny snow words with no spaces in between, as if she is looking out of a window at the snow storm. I can think of other examples - I wouldn't want to lose Edwin Morgan's 'Loch Ness Monster's Song' and 'The computer's first Christmas card' or Paul Muldoon's 'The Plot'.  Jeremy Over (in Deceiving Wild Creatures) has great fun with Robert Herrick in an erased poem 'Delight in       order'.

'The medium is the message' as Marshall McLuhan said - the poem must find its own form. Sometimes good advice can be too prescriptive and I think some of us felt that strongly in the group.  We were like Marianne Moore's giraffe - we didn't want to be told what was unpermissible and undesirable and be confined to the thin small leaves at the top of a tree.

One of the best things of the masterclass week was the small group workshops - four of us met each day to share poems, discuss our work and encourage one another.  I found kindred spirits who also enjoyed messing about with form.  Some of our lines contained gaps ....
Thank you, Jude, for this -

Remember - the Gap Movement started here!

Friday, 26 October 2018


I stepped back in time when I entered the kitchen.

The floor was paved with huge slabs of slate, about a yard wide.  A coal fire was burning in the grate of a black range.  I noticed the baking oven and a fire crane holding a soot-encrusted kettle.  No sign of a tap - the water had to be carried in from a mountain stream which ran nearby.   A Welsh dresser, filled with willow pattern plates, took up most of one wall  - I suspect it had not been moved into the kitchen but built there.   On the worn wooden table there was a large Bible, the front page inscribed with the names of children born into the family.  A grandfather clock ticking in the corner made no impact on the passing of a hundred years.

On Saturday I visited Yr Ysgwrn (near Trawfynydd), the home of the poet, Hedd Wyn (Ellis Humphrey Evans).    The house has been lovingly preserved by the Snowdonia National Park authority.

In Wales the moving story of Hedd Wyn is well-known.    The gifted poet died at Ypres in 1917.  Before his death he had sent off a poem for the Welsh national eisteddfod, and subsequently the poem won the highest honour (the chair) for a poem in traditional Welsh form.    At the awards ceremony the winner's name was called three times, then the empty chair was brought in draped with a black cloth.  By a strange coincidence the craftsman who made the chair was a Belgian refugee who came from a place not far from Ypres.  The chair has pride of place in what was the old parlour at Yr Ysgwrn.

The film Hedd Wyn (1992 Welsh, with English subtitles), based on the poet's life, won several awards and was the first Welsh film to be nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards in the US.

On Sunday I went to the latest exhibition at Oriel Plas Glyn y Weddw at Llanbedrog.  I was fascinated by the work of James Laughton who is showing a series of oil paintings entitled Copper, Slate and Stone.  

These are pictures of old quarries and mines at Nefyn, Trefor, Nant Gwrtheyrn, Dinorwig and Parys.  The old workings are enormous, and although man-made seem to be the work of giants.  A tiny lime-washed farmhouse is perched above the great space of the open cast copper mine.  A pair of ravens tumble above the vertiginous depths of the mine.   He has captured the eerie silence of such abandoned chasms where the only sound is the plink of a drop of condensation hitting a pool or the occasional clatter of a stone rearranging itself in a quarry.

What James Laughton does best is light - this is what makes his pictures so outstanding.  I was not surprised to learn that he admires the work of Turner.  In 'Corridor, Dinorwig' shafts of light are reflected in the greenish-blue water that has collected in the mine.  Another picture shows the blinding light at the end of a railway tunnel in the same mine.  He catches the way sunlight breaks through storm clouds to illuminate so briefly the rock face of an old quarry.  It is as if the light has a texture like gauze, that could be dispelled at a touch.

I read in the Guardian this week that this shattered landscape is to be nominated for Unesco world heritage status.  Michael Ellis is quoted as saying: 'Gwynedd's slate landscape is hugely important.  Its vast quarries and mines have not only shaped the countryside of the region but also countless buildings across the UK and the world.'

There's a ghostly enchantment about James Naughton's paintings of the old workings, a strangely beautiful devastation.

Hedd Wyn's home                   www.yrysgwrn.com
Plas Glyn y Weddw gallery    www.oriel.org.uk
James Naughton                     www.jamesnaughton.com

Thursday, 18 October 2018


Skiddaw sulked under its cap of cloud, but as I drove over Dunmail Raise the weatherscape changed.  The late afternoon sun lit up the Vale of Grasmere and the slanting light chiselled each rock on the fellside into sharp relief.  Every shade of autumn was visible - from the iron oxide brown of the dying bracken to the delicate gold foil of silver birch leaves.

I was in Grasmere to read at the launch of This Place I Know, the new anthology of Cumbrian Poetry edited by Kerry Darbyshire, Kim Moore and Liz Nuttall, and beautifully produced by Handstand Press of Dent.  Lovely cover design by Angie Mitchell.

The Jerwood Centre was fully booked.  After brief introductions including some opening words by Grevel Lindop (who wrote the foreword to the anthology) about 20 of us read in the sacred room lined with the Wordsworth Trust's collection of manuscripts and books.  And (here's a first for me) - we were live-streamed on Facebook for anyone who couldn't get there to watch.

What a wonderful evening it proved to be - both for readers and the (very attentive) audience.  I want to single out two readers in particular: Hannah Hodgson and Josephine Dickinson.  Hannah read her brave poem 'The Fells Whispered Goodbye'.  Hannah is one of the youngest poets in the anthology but, due to an incurable illness, she is no longer able to climb the fells and come home with 'earth clinging to my boots'.  The last verse of her poem is very moving:
   'The fell wrapped its arms
    around my shoulders,
    whispered "goodbye" in the wind
    and let me go.'
Josephine Dickinson read her concrete poem 'Snow'.  On the page the poem is a blizzard of small print with no spaces between the snow-words.  Josephine read it in a fast whispered voice with occasional gradations in volume.  Sometimes the words were recognisable but often not - it was a snowstorm of sound and we were captivated by the originality of the poem (or should I call it a poetic installation?).

This Place I Know throws its net wide.  There are poems by 92 writers in the anthology (if I've counted correctly).  The editors made the decisions on which poems to include and the book is not meant to be representative of the work of individual writers, rather it is meant to be representative of contemporary writing about Cumbria .  In this it succeeds excellently, giving us an extraordinarily varied selection (you will not get bored reading it!).

The contents of the anthology give an answer to Robert MacFarlane's words (from The Old Ways) quoted on the opening page:
   'What do I know when I am in this place that I can know nowhere else?'

This Place I Know costs £10
Go to the Wordsworth Trust's Facebook page and you should be able to find Dove Cottage and the Wordsworth Museum's streaming of the event.
17 November at Maryport Literature Festival www.senhousemuseum.co.uk
18 November at Kendal Mountain Festival www.mountainfest.co.uk