Monday, 14 January 2019


I heard Sigad Rausing (Granta publisher, writer and philanthropist) on Private Passions at the weekend (BBC Radio 3).  She signed off with a recording of a piece played as an encore by the pianist Igor Levit at the first night of the proms in 2017.  She described the piece as a 'lament'.

The piece was Liszt's piano transcription of Beethoven's Ode to Joy from the Ninth Symphony.  The Ode to Joy just happens to be the European anthem.  The way he played could only be described as a lament with defiance.

Sunday, 13 January 2019


'Britain, a place where the priority is to find ever more space for the white van to move into ... street lights glowing in the daytime conform to the view that everything natural is redundant ... but nature fights back.'

These are Rod Mengham's comments on 'Traffic', the painting by Humphrey Ocean featured on the cover of the current issue of PN Review (Issue 245 Jan/Feb 2019).  The picture shows the rear of a white van, a row of lit street lamps, and in the background a strange shape that could be vegetation or perhaps a giant rat with its tongue out.

I live by a minor country road with potholes and grass growing through the tarmac in places, but every day at least one white van goes past, and before Christmas several white vans serving Amazon and our on-line shopping shuttled around the peninsula.

I think of T S Eliot's lines in 'East Coker':

'Now the light falls
Across the open field, leaving the deep lane
Shuttered with branches, dark in the afternoon,
Where you lean against a bank while a van passes.'

I've done this several times to wait while a white van passes.  In 'East Coker' the van is a brief intrusion of the present in a place where the past is so near it can be felt, seen and heard.  The van is transient in the cycle of life, death, renewal.

By contrast Rod Mengham comments on Humphrey Ocean's 'Traffic': 'This is the world we have made, the one that represents us - this is a true mirror of our times.'

To see 'Traffic' go to and click on paintings.

Thursday, 3 January 2019

DELIGHT, INSPIRE, INTERROGATE: Twelve poetry books you must read


At the beginning of January I do a new (and opinionated) list of poetry books that I've read over the last year and recommend to other readers - for delight, inspiration and interrogation.  Here are my twelve books for 2019.  You'll find the complete list with publication details in the right-hand margin of my blog page after my 'recently published' information.

Jim Carruth - Black Cart
Part record, part celebration, part lament for a lowland Scottish farming community and a way of life.  Beautifully produced by Glasgow publishers, Freight Books.

Kayo Chingonyi -Kumukanda
If you have a nostalgia for cassette tapes you'll appreciate the poem 'Self-portrait as a Garage Emcee'.  The collection's title translates as 'Initiation' and Kayo's first collection is a coming-of-age book - 'a powerful exploration of race, identity and masculinity' (back cover blurb).  There is a sharp interrogation of racism in British society.

Paul Deaton - A Watchful Astronomy
A first full collection by Paul Deaton with an astronomy theme.   'A meditation on loss and renewal' (Rachel Boast).  The title poem is particularly fine.

Douglas Dunn - The Noise of a Fly 
This is a masterful collection, often formal in construction and enlivened by patterns, half-rhymes and ingenuity.  Witty, urbane, serious.  The depth of allusion is worn lightly.

Menna Elfyn - Bondo
My translation choice in a parallel Welsh/English edition.  'Bondo' means 'Eaves' and the experience of reading the poems is that of discovering a place for shelter.  Another accomplished collection from one of Wales' finest writers.

Leontia Flynn - The Radio
'Her understanding of what it is to be a woman is one of the things (by no means the only thing) that makes this collection so powerful' (Kate Kellaway).  Poems about motherhood, depression, Belfast, the radio and more.

Matthew Francis - The Mabinogi
A re-telling of the Four Stories of the medieval Welsh classic, The Mabinogion.  Accessible, beautiful poetry, a helpful marginal gloss and a fascinating poetic form.  A delight for those of us who, like Gillian Clarke (back cover), have waited all our lives for this book.

Lesley Glaister - Visiting the Animal
Lesley Glaister is better known as a novelist, but I like this, her first mini-collection.  The observation of small details builds up to some fine writing and of course I loved the terrier poems.  Elegantly type-set by Mariscat (as usual), this time in 'Centaur'.  Even the diamond-shaped note on the type-face is like a poem.

Philip Gross and Jenny Pollack - Shadowplay
Inspired!  This pamphlet publishes the wonderfully inventive interplay between two poets - their voices meld so well that i found it impossible to pick out who writes what (discover this at the end).

Diana Hendry - The Seed Box Lantern
An extensive overview of Diana Hendry's work - accessible, well-made poems.  Or, as Janice Galloway writes, 'A wonderful sense of the author's voice, dark and bitterly sweet at the same time, like high-grade chocolate.'

Robert Minhinnick - Diary of the Last Man
Winner of the Wales Book of the Year award.  I don't pretend to understand all of this book but it's powerful stuff.  The title poem is about the last man left alive on the planet.  Don't let that put you off - this is a book worth spending time with and re-reading.

Esther Morgan - The Wound Register
Delicate and lyrical - Esther Morgan's best volume so far I think.  Three sections: Latch (about motherhood), Field (about the First World War) and Restoration (dedicated to the poet's grandmother).

Now read on!

Sunday, 16 December 2018



In winter-dark days
seek that slanted light
which flares beneath the clouds
and turns the world gold.

© Mary Robinson 2018

With best wishes for Christmas and the New Year,

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