Sunday, 26 July 2015


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


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


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."

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.