Wednesday, 19 August 2015

BIRD OBSERVATORY


“Why are so many male poets also birders?” asks Sheenagh Pugh in her excellent interview with Steve Ely. 

“I can think of half a dozen male poets I know or know of, who are keen birdwatchers, and not a single woman poet.”  Steve Ely replies, “It’s true – David Morley, Gregory Leadbetter, and Gerry Cambridge come to mind straight away.”

That was a challenge I couldn’t ignore.  I thought immediately of Kathleen Jamie (“The Dipper”, “The Swallow’s Nest” and “Flight of Birds” to name but three of her bird poems) and the way birds are, in her words, “the animating spirit” of her prose book Findings. 

On the internet I found Simon Armitage and Tim Dee’s list from The Guardian of the 10 best bird poems – groans – only one woman poet on the list, Gillian Clarke (“Curlew”).  I remembered Gillian’s beautiful prose/poetry memoir “All Lost Things Lie Under Closing Water”.  It begins “For a year I have observed a family of mute swans”.

Browsing in Toppings’ bookshop on a visit to Bath last week I came across Twelve Poems about Birds (Candlestick Press).  Here the male/female ratio was slightly better: Elizabeth Bishop, Emily Dickinson, Lynne Wycherley, Karin Koller. 

Who else?  Birds are a recurring strand in the work of Katrina Porteous and her radio piece “Late Blackbird” is build from the sounds of a blackbird’s song.  Ruth Padel’s prose and poetry book The Mara Crossing is about migration, and includes dunlin, osprey, swallow and humming bird.  “Dunlin” is written from the viewpoint of the bird in the flock –
“Then the V, and my wing pushes down
  making upwash off the tip
  which my neighbour taps
  and gets his lift for free.”

I re-read Anne Stephenson’s “Buzzard and Alder” and Christine Evans’ “Watching Skylarks”.  At which point I stop flicking through the poetry books on my bookshelves and think a bit more about this term “birders”.  In winter I see them out on the salt-marsh watching the Solway waders (sometimes for hours at a time – flasks and sandwiches essential).  They have the latest in binocular optics and cameras with very long lenses.  They wear dark green.  I’m not knocking them – I know they contribute a lot to ornithology.  But usually the majority are men.

I’ve written bird poems myself – “Storm petrels at Mousa Broch”, “Crane” (a random sighting from the footpath across the Campsfield bird reserve), “Swallows”, “Sterna Paradisaea” (arctic tern) are all in my first collection.  The red kites I saw last month near Castle Douglas have made it into a new poem.  I love watching birds and like to learn about them but I would not call myself a proper bird-watcher. 

I wonder how many of the women poets I have listed would actually think of themselves as birders?  Perhaps there is a gender difference.  In Findings Kathleen Jamie writes: “Between the laundry and the fetching kids from school, that’s how birds enter my life.  I listen.  During a lull in the traffic, oyster catchers.  In the school play-ground, sparrows – what few sparrows are left – chirp from the eaves.  There are old swallows’ nests up there.  It’s late April, but where are the swallows?  The birds live at the edge of my life.  That’s okay.  I like the sense that the margins of my life are semi-permeable.  Where the peregrines go when they ‘re not at their rock ledge, I couldn’t say.”   Observation, detail – essential to poetry.


You can read Sheenagh Pugh’s interview with Steve Ely at

Kathleen Jamie’s “The Dipper” is on the Poetry Foundation website

Gillian Clarke’s “All Lost Things Lie under Closing Water” is at

Monday, 10 August 2015

TIMELESS MOMENTS

"But why this fascination? The many returns
to this place? A comfort? Seeming timeless moments
when stood here in the sweep of the mountains."
("Cwm Nantcol")

I was saddened to hear of the death last month of Lee Harwood aged 76.  I met him at Grasmere in June last year (I asked him to sign my copy of his Selected Poems) and we discovered a shared love of the landscape of North West Wales.

He had the slim wiry build of a climber.  He read calmly and clearly, while his eyes seemed to look beyond the here and now.  I was fascinated by the dream-like, painterly quality of of his poetry, the simple, unflashy way he described the natural world and the fragmentary form of the poems which could change suddenly from the impersonal or political to the intensely personal.

I went home and began to read the Selected Poems (Shearsman 2008).  Their structure is noticeable for "zigzag" or "collage" effects (Lee's words).  For example, "Dreams of Armenia", a powerful poem in memory of the Armenians killed in the genocides of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, includes lists of dates intercut with apparently non-sequential lyrics addressed to a lover with "long black hair" and "deep brown eyes".  It is only near the end of the poem that the different parts of the poem come together -
"They would do this to you, my love,
And to our son."

Lee Harwood was no stranger to death.  "On the Ledge" and "For Paul/Coming out of winter" were written in memory of his friend, Paul Evans, who had a fatal climbing accident when they were climbing together.  The poems in memory of his baby daughter are intensely moving -
"dear daughter              ghost in my head" ("Pagham Harnour, Spring").

That mid-line gap is used in several poems to great effect.  The poet needs a breath, some sort of division, where punctuation or a line break would be too abrupt and would leave a short line too isolated.

There is another side to Lee Harwood's work - playfulness and joy.  "Gifts Received: Six Poems for Friends" incorporates a Mexican bus ticket in the text of section 5.  He imagines
"The brightly coloured bus
- trinkets jingling, saints swaying
all the music the driver could want"
alongside the humour of the words on the bus ticket "Utopia Real".

"Gorgeous - yet another Brighton poem" rejoices in the summer weather, the happiness he shares with people on the beach, the sunset over the sea,
"The air so soft and warm,
like fur brushing my body."

In an interview Lee Harwood said that when he gave a reading "I always try to keep in mind ... that I'm talking to, talking with, people, the individuals in the audience ... I love the natural music of ordinary speech, and trust it."  I am sorry that he is no longer here but his poems live on and linger in my mind.

Sunday, 2 August 2015

ALL WE NEED IS THE BIKE

"Philip concentrated on the poem sheet and hunched forward like a man on a Harley Davidson coming down the road at ninety."

That's Seamus Heaney's description of Philip Hobsbaum's chairing of The Group, the famous poets' workshop which met in Belfast in the 1960s.

Poets meeting together, sharing each other's work, offering advice and opinions on new poems - to me that's an important part of my writing life.

Some years ago I was invited to join the Cumbrian Poets' workshop, which I still attend.  It was my first experience of reading my poems to fellow writers - and it felt like taking my clothes off in public.  But after a short time I came to value the "crit" and (I hope) improve my poems as a result.  Sometimes I would come away feeling I had been to a free masterclass.

I have been going to two monthly workshops on a regular basis for some time and I have recently started going to a third.  Each workshop is different.  On Monday I went to a meeting of the newest group, the North Cumbria Stanza group, set up by Nicola Jackson.  I went to the inaugural meeting a few weeks ago when it was decided that the core business of the group would be to share and comment on each other's poems, but perhaps do other activities from time to time.

The group meets in a beautiful old cottage in a village high up in the Eden Valley, where the land and the lanes rise to meet the brown slopes of the Pennines.  Perhaps the setting contributes to the relaxed atmosphere.  Nicola is a relative newcomer to poetry workshops herself and is well aware how daunting it can be to attend one for the first time.  So she is very keen that people should start their comments "with what they like about the poem" and that "all comments must be constructive, thoughtful and kind."

There are phrases that I remember from Monday night, phrases with that imaginative spark which gives life to a poem - "milky darkness", "forbidden play its flame", "the entrance chant to a world".  I enjoyed meeting other writers at the group and sharing their poems.

Nicola had a photo and a write-up in the local paper (the News and Star) - the journalist wrote that the new North Cumbria stanza group was "a response to the current upsurge of interest in poetry across the country."  Now all we need is the Harley Davidson.

For more information on the North Cumbria stanza group:
www.poetrysociety.org.uk/membership
go to Poetry Society Stanza, scroll down to Stanza Groups and click on Cumbria.

Sunday, 26 July 2015

THE AIRDRIE BOYS

Kirkcudbright is a small homely town in South West Scotland.  It’s built on a grid pattern and the terraced houses are fronted with an attractive mix of stone and pastel-coloured render.  Once a busy fishing harbour on the tidal Dee estuary off the Solway Firth it now promotes its “Artists’ Town” status.  Don’t expect St Ives, but there are plans to convert the rather down-at-heel town hall into an art gallery of national significance by the summer of 2017.

Every summer the town hall hosts a major exhibition.  This year it’s “The Airdrie Boys” – John Cunningham and Dan Ferguson – and this week I went to see the exhibition.  The two painters were born a year apart, both were educated at Airdrie Academy and Glasgow School of Art, both served in the armed forces in the 1940s and both did considerable stints of teaching – they could have been twins if Dan Ferguson had grown a beard!

John Cunningham’s work is immediately attractive with its bold brush strokes and bright colours.  His strength is his paintings of the West coast of Scotland and the islands.  I particularly liked the pictures of South Uist and Colonsay.  They made me wish I was there, standing on the white shell sand on a brilliant summer day (that piercingly clear light of the islands when the sun finally appears).  There were other landscapes, still lives and portraits, including some of the poet and academic, Alan Riach, John Cunningham’s nephew.  A few of Alan’s poems were reproduced for the exhibition, including the atmospheric “Calderbank nostalgia” looking back in imagination at a boyhood escapade of climbing on a shed roof –
    “You can see –
      All the way to Africa!”

I enjoyed Alan Riach’s description of Cunningham’s still life paintings: “Always they look fresh, depicted in that moment when you might stand and pause, take in what is presented, anticipate the prospect of a crisp apple or a succulent pear.  Give thanks, sing praise, take pleasure.”

That quotation captures the upbeat quality of Cunningham’s work which contrasts with the edginess of Dan Ferguson’s pictures.  Ferguson’s paintings are darker in colour and content.  He was an artist who experimented, took risks.  There were mystical canvasses with rainbows and angels and turbulent semi-abstract pictures (“Culzean Landscape” and “Breaking Wave”) where thickly applied paint physically enacted the storms it depicted.  Ferguson taught in schools in Glasgow’s East End and was profoundly moved by the experience.  “Dolly Walker”, “Scrap Yard”, “Back Court” show Glasgow’s mid 20th century urban deprivation – they are impressionistic portraits of people and places, complete with gang boys’ graffiti.  They reminded me of the Glasgow paintings of Joan Eardley, friend of the poet, Edwin Morgan.

Alan Riach’s “Elegy for Don Ferguson” picks out the painter’s use of shadow:
     “Your death is there to make the worth
       of colour, tone and emphasis –
       when shadows fall, they never fall in black ...
       Dan, stop my words.
       Tonight for you, I’ll think of all
       the colours of the world, moving.”

I drove back via Laurieston to see the red kites and Castle Douglas where I had a very sticky cake in a café.

“The Airdrie Boys” can be seen at Kirkcudbright Town Hall until 30 August (daily 10 – 5). 
More information at: 

Monday, 20 July 2015

GARDENS NEVER KEEP STILL

A few days ago I met up with an old school friend and her daughter at Dalemain, where we spent a happy afternoon wandering through the five acres of gardens. 

From the Georgian Terrace border we could look across to the fells, whose solid structural outlines contrasted with the profusion of tumbling summer flowers.  The Rose Walk was a delight of scent and colour – “the roses / Had the look of flowers that are looked at” as T S Eliot wrote in Four Quartets.  They leaned over the path towards us and I could almost hear them saying look at me.  Round the corner was “The moment of the yew tree” – the deep green needles of the yew hedge pricked with the small flame-red flowers of a nasturtium-like climber.  We sat for a while in the Gazebo, half-hidden behind a veil of clematis.

In the semi-wild garden we saw a few of the Dalemain blue poppies – late stragglers hanging on after the main flowers had seeded.  This garden has a charm of its own with the recumbent giantess and the topiary dragon (which I first mistook for a hippo).  There is an old summer house down by the Dacre Beck.  What a lovely place to write, I thought.

It’s said that a garden is the only work of art that never stays the same.  The semi-wild garden has a feel of work in progress – the topiary not quite grown enough, spaces cleared but not yet planted up, the summer house slowly disintegrating into the wood.  On the Georgian Terrace a rogue sycamore had shot up a metre high in the middle of a rose bush.  It was reassuring to see the occasional weed in these not far from perfect gardens.

Sometimes when I am out walking along old field paths and tracks I come across ghosts from earlier gardens – daffodils by a roofless gable, a cat’s cradle of feral rhododendrons by cracked stone steps, or deep pink escallonia blossoms almost obscuring a collapsed wall.

When I was a child one of our favourite family walks was to the top of Mynydd Anelog near the tip of the Llŷn Peninsula.  The path passed an isolated house high up on the slope of the hill.  We always peered over the fence at the beautifully tended cottage garden. 

His life

I took it for granted every year –
hollyhocks staked to cane masts,
nasturtiums snagged like tangled flags,
rows of potatoes lush by the outhouse
and at dusk a breath
of night-scented stock.

It was the way fuschia petals
splashed crimson
against lime-washed walls,
the sea threw back
a glow of roses and lupins
and outside the fence
heather and gorse
brashed the granite rocks
as I climbed to the cairn
where I could see
oil tankers, container ships
and on a clear evening
right out to Ireland.

It seems at first a mistake –
something has wrecked the field bank,
sheep-wire rolls in a ravel of rust,
windows are blind sockets
in the skull of the house

but at the back
among broken jam-jars,
a pocked enamel saucepan,
nettles and a smell of cat piss
suddenly I see
a thousand yellow flowers
senecio greyii
an old man’s farewell.

© Mary Robinson 2011
(First published in Gardeners’ World magazine June 2011)


Monday, 13 July 2015

CELEBRATING THE OUTSIDER

Alun Lewis was born 100 years ago this month.  A blue plaque has been unveiled on the house where he lived in South Wales and there is to be a conference on his writing at Aberystwyth University in the autumn.

An email from Literature Wales alerted me to this anniversary, so I flicked through several anthologies on my shelf to find ... nothing.  A search on the internet brought up "All Day It Has Rained", "The Peasants", "Karanje Village", "Goodbye" and "Postscript: for Gwenno".  I was pleased to discover that there is a Collected Poems, edited by Cary Achard.

Alun Lewis was born in the village of Cwmaman near Aberdare in the Cynon Valley on 1 July 1915.  His parents were both teachers and he won scholarships to grammar school and university, although his three brothers worked in the coal mines.  After working as a supply teacher he joined up ("I've been unable to settle the moral issue satisfactorily").

He was always an outsider - a Welshman writing in English, a pacifist who joined the army, a writer whose work was published in the war years but was ecclipsed by new postwar names.

Two of his poems, "Raider's Dawn" and "Song of Innocence" were published in the beautifully illustrated Caseg Broadsheets of Welsh Poetry.  His idea of creating low-priced publications led to the establishment of Caseg Press by Brenda Chamberlain and John Petts at Llanllechid near Caernarfon (Brenda Chamberlain is best known for her classic book on Bardsey Island, Tide Race).  Other writers published in the broadsheets series included Dylan Thomas and Lynette Roberts.

Alun Lewis's best work was written during the war in which he felt himself a misfit - "I always write against the tug of war and the horror and tedium of it."  His poem, "All Day It Has Rained" conveys that tedium.  It was written while he was stationed with the Royal Engineers at a military training camp.  The poem details the natural world and the activities of the soldiers:

"And we talked of girls and dropping bombs in Rome,
 And thought of the quiet dead and the loud celebrities
 Exhorting us to slaughter, and the herded refugees."

In the last verse he describes his most important memories, including walking with a "shaggy patient dog" in the steps of the writer Edward Thomas, one of the poets of the First World War "till a bullet stopped his song".  It was a bullet that stopped Alun Lewis's song too - fired from his own gun in Arakan, Burma in 1944.

But before this there were books - Raider's Dawn and Other Poems and The Last Inspection (short stories) both published in 1942.  After his death Ha! Ha! Among the Trumpets: poems in transit (with a forward by Robert Graves who had encouraged Lewis and whose son had died in Arakan) and Letters from India were published.

In India and Burma Alun Lewis served as an army intelligence officer.  "The Peasants" is set in India:
"Across scorched hills and trampled crops
 The soldiers straggle by,
 History staggers in their wake.
 The peasants watch them die."

Fifty years after his death Alun Lewis's poems were finally gathered together into a Collected.  In a review (The Independent 27 February 1994) the late Bill Scammell wrote that the poetry reminds us "that 'war poet' is a contradiction in terms".  Why should we read him now? asks Scammell.  "Because his concerns are still ours."