Wednesday, 12 September 2018


' ... the roses
Had the look of flowers that are looked at'
     (T S Eliot Four Quartets: Burnt Norton)

The poems were the same - I felt that they were all clamouring Look at me!   They were like the flowers in Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass, 'all shouting together' until the air seemed full of their voices.

How to choose?  I felt honoured and a little daunted to be asked to be the guest poetry editor of a respected literary magazine.  Four large envelopes (total weight just under two pounds) thumped through the letter box.

What to consider?  Basically two things - form and content.  This could be subdivided into sound, rhythm, rhyme (if used), imagery, language, tone, mood, feeling - I could go on and on (line breaks, visual shape, factual correctness etc etc).  I was sounding like an English teacher and still the flowers were  clamouring for attention.

I gave all the poems a preliminary first reading.  At this early stage there were three poems that made a strong impression on me.  I marked them with a star.  I gave another three a cross as rejects.  But I wanted to avoid (to mix my metaphors) a sheep and goats approach.  I was looking for poems that managed to rise above the others and that rise is not always apparent at first reading.

The vast majority of the poems were of an acceptably high standard (the flowers were blowing in the breeze - Choose me! they cried).

A second read-through of the poems.  This time I asked myself: would I miss the poem if it wasn't there?  Would poetry be slightly impoverished if this poem didn't exist?  Would the poem slive (another mixed metaphor here) into my affections like a stray animal?  However good the technique there is a subjective element to selecting poems.  I wrote brief comments on the poems as if I was workshopping them.  By the end of the second reading I was up to ten definite poems. But I needed 17 to 20 poems and five reserves.

A third reading found me putting question marks on quite a few poems (maybes), but at the end I had sorted the pages into the requisite number of poems.  Then I made a quick fourth reading to makes sure I hadn't missed any of the best roses.

It was time to peel off the post-it notes that had kept the poems anonymous.  To my surprise I'd twice chosen two poems by the same writer and once chosen three (by someone whose name was completely new to me).

I didn't want duplicates and certainly not a triplicate - it's hard enough to get poems published and I wanted to give as many people as possible the chance.  Back to the possibles.  They were all good poems - it was hard to choose.  The deciding factor in the end was the theme of the poems - I wanted variety.  Finally I had the right number of poems.

Sorry, roses, I couldn't choose all of you.  But you are still beautiful.

Friday, 24 August 2018


'I should never be a Frenchman, never be one of them' (Daphne du Maurier The Scapegoat) quotes Adam Thorpe in Notes from the Cevennes: Half a Lifetime in Provincial France.  

Enjoying this very readable memoir about living in France has sent me back to the poems in Thorpe's excellent collection Voluntary.  Several of the poems are set in France including - 'Impression', 'Fuel', 'Underground', 'Spring Class', 'Second Homes', 'Posy', 'Neighbour', 'Panic' [another IKEA poem] and 'In Court'.  The prose fills out the background to the poems, but the poems show how all this can be condensed into a few lines.

Writing about 'Voluntary' in the Poetry Book Society Spring 2012 bulletin Adam Thorpe said:

'I was badly stuck for an opener : the main leit-motifs ... seem to be roads, animals' otherness and time, but none of the relevant poems quite worked in pole position.  "Sutton Hoo" with its image of standing on a rostrum helplessly surveying the past, felt like a reasonable compromise.  The day before sending off the final draft of Voluntary, I happened to glance at the paw-embedded tile by my study door and the first two lines of "Impression" welled up, with the dim shape of the rest behind, the world "jobsworth" gleaming in the tail.  The collection was done.'

It's a lovely poem, only 19 lines, imagining the making of the clay tile and how the dog's paw-prints became embedded in it.  In his memoir Adam Thorpe devotes a whole chapter to the clay tile, telling us in fascinating detail about the 2nd century tegula.  'Two slightly overlapping paw-marks showed, with each of the four toe-pads like a large oval petal'.  Questioning the local vet and knowledgeable
friends reveals the gait of the dog so that the writer discovers 'how this far-off moment galvanised an animal, bunched its muscles, fired its brain, traced its intention ... I feel close to the dog, so close I can touch its bristly flank, sense it muzzling my hand with its cool nose, smell the slightly foetid stink of poor drains on the air.'

Adam Thorpe Notes from the Cevennes (Bloomsbury 2018)
Voluntary (Cape 2012)


Concrete road, Mynydd Mawr

Are they still living,
these men in their nineties,
retelling their war?

Stripped to the waist,
shoulders blistering,
piecing together

squares, oblongs, triangles,
placing the forms,
churning the mix like butter,

throwing in gravel,
a broken bottle
(which glints in the sun),

pouring, tamping,
cheering the farm dog
who runs to greet them

his paw prints
on the wet track.

Chough and peregrine,
heather and gorse,
eight decades of concrete.

I will always be younger
than this road
but it will outlive me.

© Mary Robinson 2018

A steady stream of visitors have made their way to my house this summer.  It's been lovely to have so many friends here.  The family have been to stay too and it's been a delight to see my young grandchildren doing 'Fourth generation' things (my parents first visited the Peninsula in the early 1950s) - playing on the beach at Morfa Nefyn and Aberdaron, going on the Ffestiniog Railway and having tea and cake in the Gwalia Cafe in Pwllheli.

One of the places I often take visitors is Mynydd Mawr on the tip of Penllyn.   There are still small fields surviving from the centuries-old smallholding economy of Lleyn.  Mynydd Mawr is an excellent viewpoint for Bardsey Island and if it is clear enough we can see across Cardigan Bay and right down the coast of Wales.  At the summit are the remains of the old coastguard station with a small display inside.  To reach the summit we can either scramble up through gorse and heather or walk up the zig-zag concrete road built by the army during the Second World War when the hill was an important look-out station for sea defences.  Apart from the coastguard station the other buildings have been demolished, leaving flights of steps leading nowhere and flat platforms in the grass.

But the road was built well and has lasted - complete with the footprints of an inquisitive farm collie.

Tuesday, 31 July 2018


The rowan berries have turned orange in the copse where the buzzards nest.  It's the last day of July.

I always associate rowans with a solitary tree on a rocky hillside or near an isolated mountain farm, so that when I see them in a different place - around a supermarket car park, for example - they take me in my mind to a wild elsewhere.  This is a kind of 'Innisfree' moment - Yeats pounding London's 'pavements grey' but still hearing 'the lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore.'

The last day in July.  Gorffennaf in Welsh.  The word literally means 'the end of summer', from gorffen to finish, and haf summer.  I always think that's a glass half-empty way of looking at the seasons, but, now that the heat wave has dissipated into the usual school holiday mix of heavy rain, strong winds and sunny intervals, July is at last living up to its Welsh name as it exits the calendar for another year.

The orange rowan berries sum up the sense of change in the air.  The breeze makes a subtly different sound as it fingers the leaves, dry and brittle from the drought.  The birds (except the buzzards) are largely silent now that they have finished nesting and are starting to moult.

Norman MacCaig's 'Rowan Berry' says:

Tomorrow, or tomorrow's tomorrow,
a flock of fieldfares
will gobble our whole generation.

Friday, 27 July 2018


What do Dylan Thomas, P G Wodehouse and Aneurin (a 6th century poet) have in common?

Not a lot, but on thursday afternoon I listened to excerpts from each of their writings - and more.  I was at the monthly meeting of Blaenau Voices (Lleisiau'r Blaenau) held in one of the upstairs rooms of Siop Llyfau'r Hen Bost, the lovely independent bookshop in Blaenau's main street.  Downstairs there are new books and cards, upstairs - under the low sloping ceilings - there is the second-hand section.  

From where I was sitting I glimpsed titles such as Reincarnation and Home Decorating and Design and there was that slight aroma of old books which makes me think of Victorian novels and Georgian poetry.  Is it the fraying bindings, the glue hardening back to brittle horn and hoof, the musty damp of pre-centrally heated libraries?

For the July meeting (my first time) it was an open choice - people brought a mixture of poetry and prose, their own and that of other writers.  

Amongst the excerpts brought in were poems by Longfellow, Langston Hughes and Frank O'Hara.  The convener of the group read from her own novel in progress.  I particularly enjoyed the three Welsh poems.  The first was by the 6th century Aneurin - an extract from The Gododdin (the Gododdin were a British tribe who lived in South East Scotland) - even the English translation was chilling:
'Fresh mead was their feast, their poison too'.
The other two Welsh poems were by the renowned Gwyn Thomas, 'Enwau Lleodd' ('Place Names') and 'Tomen Fawr yr Ocli' ('The Great Oakeley Quarry Tip).  Two of the group live near this huge slate spoil tip which dominates the town: 
'Mae swn llechi'n crafu'r nos'
('Sounds of slate - they scrape in the night')
They said that sometimes they can hear the slate rubble shifting.  The Oakeley Quarry closed several years ago but it leaves an uneasy legacy.

I had been invited to come and read some of my poems.  They were on the theme of reading and writing.  I read a poem each from my Alphabet series and from my Shakespeare sequence, as well as 'Transcript' (see my blog of 24 Nov 2012) about my mother's occupation as a shorthand typist.  

There are two things one should never do in this situation - put in an extra poem and read a brand new poem.  Alas, I did both.  The extra poem 'A unicorn in the Book of Psalms' bumped up the time too much and in the middle of reading the new poem about the Brontes I realised the imagery in the middle didn't work very well and could do with re-writing (Must do better).  

I framed the selection with Seamus Heaney's 'The Conway Stewart' and Naomi Shihab Nye's 'How do I know when a poem is finished?' (a bit of irony there!).  Then I got everyone to read a verse from 'Summer Lane' - that seemed to go down well and the ghosts in the last verse were a good link to a prose piece someone had brought about Gwydir Castle.

We read and listened for two hours, apart from a break in the middle for tea and cake.  It was good to meet people with a passion for words and I found the diverse range of literature very stimulating - ideas spark ideas.

And now I must revise that Bronte poem.

Wednesday, 18 July 2018


the insistence
of a wren

This perfect miniature poem is by John Rowlands who lives at Tremadoc, just a few miles away from the National Writers' Centre of Wales (Ty Newydd, Llanystumdwy) where I spent last weekend. John Rowlands kindly donated a copy of his book knots of sand (Alba 2017) to each of us on the course.

When I told a friend of mine I was going on a haiku weekend she said "primary school poetry", but I'm pleased (and relieved) to say that I discovered from our tutors, Philip Gross and Lynne Rees, that there is much more to haiku than the juniors' classroom.

I had always thought of haiku as being in the 5/7/5 syllable format. This came into English from the classical Japanese form of 5 characters followed by 7 characters followed by 5 characters.  But Lynne pointed out that the characters were written vertically and they were not necessarily single syllables.  As well as words they could represent punctuation or instructions in how to speak the poem.

The weekend was titled Journeys into Haiku in Verse and Prose. Haiku provided a spring-board for our writing, rather than a straight-jacket.  We didn't have to stick to syllable counting or to three lines - we were aiming for that elusive moment conveyed in very few words.

We began with Lynne's "haiku generator".  We were given two pages of found phrases from poems and invited to combine them in pairs and see what emerged:

the room reflected in a window
homesick now for middle age

I knew that at some point there would be a renga - a kind of verbal tennis with two or more participants (in our case three - maybe a different sport would be a better analogy?).  I started off with 

captured in a moment
the hare
trapped in wood

inspired by the hare carved on a wooden beam in the Ty Newydd dining room.  Our poem travelled a circuitous route via river, sea and slate, children and old men, to end with Philip Gross's final couplet:

the hare set running in the wood
is running still

Haiku can be opened out into a longer poem - we were given the example of Billy Collins' poem "Japan", a meditation with variations on Buson's 18th century haiku

on the temple bell
a moth has settled
and is sleeping

We were encouraged to experiment with combining haiku and prose (haibun) - a form in which the distillation of the poetry and the clarity of prose can complement each other.  An afternoon walk down to the Dwyfor estuary was a great time to gather material (both linguistic and physical - wool, driftwood, feather, stone).  This is my first draft:


blue gate

open gate
path to the shore
blue pebbles

step through the gate
follow the blue path
pebbles lie on the shore

The stock fencing divides the landscape into little postcards of blues and greens.  Earth square makes me think of the carousel of colour charts in a paint shop where they will mix any shade as requested.  The fence has smaller squares near the ground to keep in the lambs and larger squares to keep in their mothers.  Stands of wool catch on the wire and spiders thread nets over the airy spaces.  In winter the sea flings storm-fulls of bladderwrack against the wire.

And that's as far as I got.

On Saturday night we had the usual participants' reading.  I read my traditionally formed Shetland haiku, entitled "Island" (we never discussed whether haiku should have titles).  (I should point out that "boost" is a place to draw up a boat out of the water.)

stone boost by the shore
boat's bow across earth's fiddle
sea in a man's eyes

salt water hones stone
sound-washed air blows in the sun
a woman leaves home

As there were twelve of us it was a good opportunity to read round my "Kalends" haiku.  Here is July:

as you climb the path
heather purples the hillside,
clothes the lonely stones

A most inspiring and enlightening week-end at Ty Newydd.  Thank you, Lynne.  Thank you, Philip.

On Twitter Lynne has tweeted some lovely pictures of the weekend together with her exquisite prose fragments: go to @hungrywriting