Saturday, 19 April 2014


On Good Friday afternoon I decided on impulse to walk up Binsey on the western fringe of the Lake District.  It’s a short walk, under half an hour to the top by the usual approach from Binsey Lodge.  But this outlier, this freak of local geology, has a three hundred and sixty degree panorama from its summit.  It’s a good walk when you haven’t much time to spare but need a fix of fresh air.  If it is clear enough (it wasn’t) you can see the Isle of Man.

I walked up and westwards.   The grass on the lower slopes was replaced by heather with its still bare winter stems.  Skylarks flew up from the ground.  The male birds were singing high above me.  In the distance snow lay in north facing gullies on the highest fells.

At the summit I could see the complete circle – the coastal Cumbrian plain, over the tidal Solway to Criffel  and Galloway, the deeply indented Caldbeck Fells, the pale streak of Whitewater Dash, Skiddaw’s curving spine, then layer after layer of crinkled rocky ridges filling the horizon before falling away to the towns of West Cumberland and the coast again.  From this height Overwater, Bassenthwaite Lake and the pool at High Ireby were like miniature mirrors in a Sunday School’s Easter Garden, moss replaced by small plantations of dark green firs.  The landscape is full of the history and legends of early Christian saints – the churches dedicated to St Kentigern, St Bega and St Hilda, and across the water the association of St Ninian with Whithorn. 

I decided to prolong the walk and descend by the steeper south side of the fell coming out at the farm at Fell End.   This route is used infrequently and there is no path, just a case of picking the way carefully and avoiding putting the boot in a skylark’s nest.    Lambs were everywhere, soaking up the spring sun.  Then a short walk along a very minor lane back to Binsey Lodge where I had left the car. 

Last Tuesday one of my neighbours told me that he was going to walk at Ullswater to see the daffodils.  He reminded me that it was on that day, April 15, when Dorothy Wordsworth, walking with her brother at Gowbarrow Park on the shore of the lake, famously saw the daffodils.  She wrote about them in her journal and her brother used her journal entry for his even more famous poem “I wandered lonely as a cloud”. 

I realised (bit slow here) that is why the Dorothy Wordsworth Festival of Women’s Poetry is held in the middle of April.  It’s a biennial event, initiated by Carol Ann Duffy and organised by the Wordsworth Trust.  Last week end was the third festival.  I didn’t get to everything but I enjoyed Sarah Corbett’s poems and Zoe Benbow’s drawings (Where we begin to look: Women and the Landscape), some of the varied evening readings and a lively Writing Motherhood session with Rebecca Goss, Carolyn Jess-Cooke and Sinéad Morrissey. 

But for me, Menna Elfyn was the high point of the week end.  In conversation with Robyn Marsack, director of the Scottish Poetry Library, Menna talked about her life and read work by some of her favourite poets – including R S Thomas, Wislawa Szymborska, Mark Doty and Jane Kenyon.  I have known of Menna Elfyn for some time but never had the opportunity to hear her read.  She is an engaging reader, sharing her beautiful Welsh language poems and their English translations by Gillian Clarke and other Welsh poets.   Her generosity, subtle mischievous wit and her thoughtful originality all combine in poems which never failed to hold my interest.  Hearing the poems in their original language brought out Menna’s skill in and adaptation of the ancient Welsh art of cynghanedd (a combination of alliteration, internal rhymes and chiming sounds).

Zoe Benbow quoted Paul Klee’s definition of drawing as “taking a line for a walk”.  It’s a phrase that has been borrowed by poets and to me it’s an apt description of the process of writing poetry.

Monday, 14 April 2014


“To set something down is a way of understanding it”, says Dante in Stephen Wyatt’s current Radio 4 adaptation of the Divine Comedy (BBC Radio 4 Classic Serial, Sundays 3pm, repeated Saturdays 9pm).

Stephen Wyatt skilfully blends Dante, the middle-aged poet who narrates the poem, with Dante in old age, reflecting on his life and writing.  And so, painlessly, the listener is introduced to the historical and biographical background to the poem, notably Dante’s love for Beatrice, the political squabbles in Florence and Dante’s exile from his native city.  John Hurt’s voice is perfect for the older Dante.

Dante was the subject of Radio 4’s Great Lives last week.  The journalist Sarah Vine, a Dante enthusiast, and Claire Holness, professor of Italian studies at Leeds, talked about Dante’s greatness and his accessibility (don’t keep stopping to read the notes!).  I learnt that for Dante the three-fold journey through Hell, Purgatory and Paradise was merely the Commedia.  It was Boccaccio who added the Divina adjective, giving Dante’s work the title by which we know it today.  Sarah Vine and Claire Holness pointed out that the most memorable parts of the poem are the many characters Dante encounters in the course of his journey.

Because of these multiple characters the Divine Comedy is ideal for dramatisation – so many voices, so many personal stories to tell.  The poem also creates its own sound world – perfect for radio – the horrific cries and bitter regrets of those in hell for example.  The Medieval mind certainly knew how to make the punishment fit the crime.  There will, I am sure, be angelic music when we get to Paradise in the last episode.

But to me, the best part of the Divine Comedy is the relationship between Dante and his guide, Virgil.  Virgil is voiced by David Warner as a thoughtful matter-of-fact older man.  He has to deal with Dante the poet (played by Blake Ritson) who, despite being “at the mid-point of the path through life”, sometimes behaves childishly in his journey through the spiritual realms. Virgil’s “smile was kind,/As if aimed at a child that we can sway/With just an apple”.  Virgil gives patient answers to Dante’s persistent questioning.   Several times he has to speak firmly to Dante and tell him to pull himself together.  Virgil protects him from harm and extricates him from potential trouble.  Theirs is the close bond that develops between travelling companions. 

I started my second reading of the Divine Comedy in January (this time in the recent translation by Clive James).  I’ve been reading a canto each morning.  By a strange coincidence I finished the Inferno on the day my father died.  In the poem Dante calls Virgil “my master” to begin with, then “my guide” and “my friend”.  By the Purgatorio Virgil is calling Dante “my son” and Dante is calling him “father”.  When the time is near for their parting (Virgil has to hand over to Beatrice for the Paradiso) the sadness under the surface of the words is strong: “Don’t keep/A vigil any longer for my tongue”, says Virgil, “Move on.  You’ll never hear from me again”.  Dante does go on, walking through a beautiful forest, and encounters Beatrice.  He is overcome and turns to say to Virgil “Not a drop, not one/Of blood remains in me that does not shake”.  But “Virgil, who’d done so much for my sake,/Virgil my father, Virgil, he that came/For me ... now was gone.”

It is a picture of loss and grief so universal in human experience and yet still so moving.

Wednesday, 2 April 2014


Walking is not just a way of getting from A to B.   It’s not even about what you see along the way, though that’s important.  No, it’s a way of feeling, of understanding, of thinking. 

All this week Radio 3’s excellent late night (well, late for me because I am a lark, not an owl) series The Essay is devoted to walking and those comments above were from Ross Raisin who on Tuesday night described a walk in the Yorkshire Wolds (recently coined David Hockney country).  His talk included the niggles and hardships of walking as well as the delights.  He described something that has happened to me and other improvident walkers – arriving hungry at a village, expecting to buy a sandwich for lunch and finding that everything selling food has closed down.  He also talked about a persistent knee problem and the way he copes with it, not without humour. 

Sunday saw me heading with the dog to the Caldbeck Fells.  The days have passed the equinox and are gathering speed to make it to the solstice.  The clocks have gone forward.  The clear sunlight of early spring and the calm stillness lifts my mood.  It is, as they say in Shetland, “a given day”.

The moorland grass looks dry and withered.  I look along the streams on the lower slopes for marsh marigolds.  It’s a bit early yet, but there are still bright flashes of colour which catch my eye –
gold stars
school-room yellow
spring’s reward

Soon I pick up the song of a skylark.  I look up but can’t see it.  I am always amazed that such a small bird can voice a song which carries so far and so clearly.  Nowadays it’s a relief to hear a skylark in spring – their numbers have fallen to red alert conservation status.  So there’s at least one around here and hopefully more.  I meet a small group of walkers and we chat about – of course - the weather.  The song ceases.  But after the group has gone further down the valley and I have gone further up the hill I hear the song again – the same bird or another?

It’s not surprising that the magical sound of the skylark has been the subject of several poems by poets past and present.   I think of the ornate poem by George Meredith which inspired Vaughan Williams.  Sometimes I hear “The Lark Ascending” on the car radio in larkly improbable places (a supermarket car park off the Wigton Road in Carlisle, for example) and my mind immediately pictures the distant moors.

On Sunday I wrote in my notebook –


Saturday, 15 March 2014


This solitary juggernaut of bones
for ever balanced on the marble plain
looms above me.
Light filters through the opaque roof
hen coop wire trapped in glass.
I clutch the stout cardboard ticket
comfortingly firm
date and number cleanly stamped.
The bulk of this building unnerves me
I am breathing inside a stone monster.
I listen to the sounds –
chiselled clicks of a man’s steel tipped heels
the shoosh of my rubber soled sandals
whispers that scuttle round the silent body
like a mouse.

Everything is watching me – the walls,
the dinosaur, the attendant in the next room.

amid the basement’s classical columns
Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel roars
on a giant pianola, baroque machines
burst into life, steam engines
are fired, brass pistons plunge, everywhere
belts and flywheels flail like a fantastic
Emett animation.
The smell of metal polish, whale oil lubricant,
the damp of my father’s harris tweed jacket
(a whiff of the Western Isles, coasters,
seaweed, mines, quarries).
In his pocket the clip of a biro
catches the light
as he bends down to usher me
into the same magic quarter
of the revolving door.

© Mary Robinson 2010

This poem is the first poem in my collection The Art of Gardening (Flambard Press 2010).  I dedicated the collection to my father.  Now I am republishing the poem on my blog in his memory.  As a child I loved visiting museums with him.  A special treat was to catch the train into Birmingham on a cold, wet, winter Saturday (in summer we would be outdoors) and visit the Science Museum or the Art Gallery.  He taught me to be interested in everything and to write about it.  I will miss his companionship, generosity and sense of humour.

James Hastings Ball (1921 – 2014)

Thursday, 6 February 2014


Only a month to go to Words by the Water, Keswick’s annual literary festival, and I’m particularly looking forward to the poets on stage.  I’m glad that there are a few more poets this year – perhaps this is the result of a bit of local lobbying! 

On the first day of the festival Louis de Bernières is reading from Imagining Alexandria (a collection of poems set in Captain Correlli’s Mandolin territory) and Blake Morrison will provoke us with his sharp sit up and take notice poems.  A couple of days later Don Paterson will give us “My life in poems” followed by a tribute to Norman Nicholson by Kathleen Jones and Neil Curry.  Photographer Val Corbett and poet Paula Day are sharing their collaboration Trees.  Helen Farish is judging the annual Mirehouse poetry competition and I’m looking forward to hearing the winning poems at the awards event.  Helen will be giving one of her very special poetry readings at that event.  Unfortunately I was too late to book for the River Greta walk in the steps of Wordsworth, Southey and Coleridge – but I live in hope as the first name on the waiting list.

Meanwhile I’m busy working my way through my allocated books for my chairing sessions.  Alev Scott’s Turkish Awakening is a fascinating insight into modern Turkey, a country which seems to be pulled like a piece of elastic between Europe and the Middle East.

Reading and the Reader by Philip Davis is full of wonderful insights into literature and the value of reading in contemporary culture.  You know the times when you read something and have to stop and let your thoughts and emotions spread out and multiply from that small centre of words?  Philip Davis calls it “the creation of an energy-field by a writer”.

I haven’t started Ewan Clayton’s The Golden Thread: The Story of Writing but it looks good and is well illustrated.

Meanwhile as the rain continues to fall I hope the words will stay by the water.

Sunday, 26 January 2014


Saturday afternoon.  A short blustery walk round Maryport Harbour, the wind whipping white horses on the incoming tide.  Across the Solway, Criffel looming dark grey and then disappearing in another scud of rain.  As I walk over the marina’s pedestrian drawbridge, cables rattle insistently on yacht masts. 

Wind – how often it has been used as a synonym for inspiration.   The Romantics hung their Aeolian harps outside and listened to nature’s music, literally inspired/blown upon by the wind.

A short piece by Tara Bergin (“Everything and Nothing”) in the recent PN Review got me thinking about inspiration, a word that has become rather suspect – a word that needs reining in by structure and form.  The root of the word inspiration (the Latin spirare) has links to breath, air, wind, spirit.  Inspiration is a two-fold process which involves both the maker of a work of art and the response to it by the person looking at, listening to, reading, even touching the art form which has been created.

“If I knew where poems come from I would go there”, said Michael Longley, quoting Rilke in the recent Radio 3 Essay series, “Letters to a Young Poet”.  For the writer inspiration can be an inconvenient thing.  Les Murray wrote:

“Poetry is apt to rise in you
  just when you’re on the brink
  of doing something important,

  trivially important, like flying
  across the world tomorrow.”

These lines are from a poem called “The Long Wet Season” – unintentionally appropriate for the current British weather.

The writer may have a desperate impulse to write, may feel inspired, but that does not mean that the resultant writing is any good.  “An ill-made thing leaks energy” said Stanley Kunitz.  The writer has to find a way to conserve the energy of inspiration – otherwise it can run away like water poured into a sieve.  Perhaps that is why the sonnet form has thrived for so long – its tight yet infinitely variable form is a way of conserving energy, particularly the energy of extreme emotion.

We tend to think of inspiration from the writer’s point of view.  But what of the response of reader or audience?  when someone says “That is inspired”?  Inspired writing doesn’t mean feel-good writing.  King Lear and The Waste Land are inspired but inspiration took Shakespeare and Eliot into very dark places.  We follow them into those dark places – and, at times, have to hold our breath. 

A few years ago I was teaching at a summer school when Stephania, an Italian student, said to me “You can breathe in that poem”.  She was explaining her response to William Blake’s “The Lamb” in Songs of Innocence and Experience.  Breath(e) again.  Tara Bergin put it like this:

“Question: ‘How can one thing, described in terms of another, make the thing described more truthful, and more real?’
Answer: ‘Because it makes me draw in my breath.  That’s why’”.