Monday, 17 December 2012


Season's greetings to all my readers.  My annual Christmas poem this year is set in Prague's Music Museum (which I visited a few weeks ago). 


After the kit and the quinton
and the viola d'amore
is a pear-shaped lute,
a strange lop-sided lute
with two sets of strings

      the angelica

'For the angels to play' you tell me.
The room falls silent
and fills with winter's sunlight,
pale gold, as we imagine
the touch of an angel's fingers.

© Mary Robinson 2012

kit - a miniature fiddle favoured by 18th c. dancing masters
quinton - 18th c. five stringed instrument, part viol, part violin

Sunday, 2 December 2012


Or dèanamh gàire ris a’ chloc
I‘m reading Aonghas MacNeacail’s new and selected poems in a Gaelic/English parallel edition.  Aonghas MacNeacail was born in 1942 in Uig on the island of Skye.  He is regarded as one of the most important poets writing in Gaelic today and his reputation has spread far beyond his native Hebrides.  Having very little Gaelic I have to be content with the English translation, but sometimes I look at the Gaelic poems and try to read them aloud and catch the musicality (even in my blundering pronunciation) of MacNeacail’s originals.

In laughing at the clock Aonghas MacNeacail has written his own English translations and they read beautifully.  None of that stilted English which blights some poetry translations.  Occasionally he writes some explanatory notes which give an insight into the original poem.  “attire” is a finely crafted poem – ostensibly about shirts.  In Gaelic each kind of shirt (“lèine”) has a name.  Towards the end is the longest line of the poem:  “the fine-threaded shirt is wearing out”.  In Gaelic this shirt is “lèine-chaol”, the Sunday best white linen shirt.  Only one shirt left – the “death shirt” in the final verse: “lèine-mhairbh”, Gaelic for a shroud.  By now I realise that the shirts symbolise the stages of the poet’s life.  My eye goes back to the beginning of the poem.  The first two lines suggest birth and the awakening of consciousness:
          “i wakened from
            the little shirt”
The little shirt is a literal translation of the Gaelic “lèine-bheag” but what makes this magical is that it is also Gaelic for the inner lining of an eggshell.

I’m so glad to have discovered Aonghas MacNeacail (thanks to the Scottish Poetry Library).  He has an impressive breadth of subject matter and a wide-ranging and generous mind.  His poems are the work of a careful, loving craftsman and, even with my limited knowledge, the translations read as careful and fine equivalents of the originals.  In the introduction Angus Peter Campbell writes that Aonghas MacNeacail practices the art of poetry “with great delicacy and an elegance and precision that delight”.

Aonghas MacNeacail writes in a minority language but his poetry deserves an international readership.  Long may he continue to laugh at the clock.

More information at:

Saturday, 24 November 2012


The Brother factory in Wrexham made its final typewriter last Tuesday and donated it to the Science Museum. 

Not just the last typewriter to be made in Wales but the last typewriter to be made anywhere in Britain.  I was surprised to read this and had thought that typewriter production would have ceased decades ago.  I find it heartening that somewhere there are people who use typewriters out of habit, confidentiality, stubbornness or economy.  I hope they will continue to be able to source new ribbons and indulge delaying habits such as cleaning the keys with blu-tack and mopping up residual dirt with a fine paintbrush.  Somewhere there are writers still hearing the warning bicycle-bell ring that says they have come to the end of the line and can go no further.

I still have an ancient portable (a Litton Imperial) which was briefly brought out of retirement about seven years ago to type up teaching hand-outs during a week-long power cut.  I look at it gathering dust in the corner of my study and wonder if Oxfam would take it.

Earlier this month, Valerie Eliot, T S Eliot’s second wife died. 
She was a shorthand-typist and T S Eliot’s secretary.  One of her great achievements was liberating the original typed drafts of The Waste Land.  After Eliot’s death the drafts languished in the New York Public Library.  In 1971 Valerie Eliot published the facsimile and transcripts of the original drafts of The Waste Land, showing the crucial part played by Ezra Pound in editing and revising Eliot’s original ideas. 

When did you last see a job advertisement for a shorthand-typist?  Yet for millions of women in the last century (including my mother) it was their daily employment.  


Just there – the iron black typewriter –
Remington in gold letters.  Dust between the keys –
filaments of paper, skin cells, hair, threads
from a utility dress.  I remember her clothes –

the coupon bought shirt-waister, knitted cardigan,
straight seams in her seamed stockings,
the scent of Yardley lavender.  It’s as if I clicked                  
copy this file and all the pages she ever typed

come flying across my memory, the letters
grey with age, the paper acid yellow.
Her fingers rest on the home keys;
as she touches s a diamond glints,

swaddled in white gold.  The ribbon spools
and unspools until it wears to rags.
She is the concert typist of the keyboard,
her bobbed hair a permanent wave to the past.

©  Mary Robinson 2012

Wednesday, 14 November 2012


Many thanks to my good friend, Anne, for her comment on my last post.  I did not know that Edith Pargetter was an important translator of Czech literature (as well as being more well-known for her Brother Cadfael books).  Her translations included quite a bit of Czech poetry.

Lots of information at

Sunday, 4 November 2012


I've just come back from Prague.  I stayed in a hotel in a street called Na Porici.  I was just a couple of doors along from the building which used to house the Workers' Accident Insurance offices where Kafka started work in 1908. 

There's a sizeable ex-pat population in Prague as I discovered when I went to a rumbustuous performance of Shakespeare's As You Like It in English with American, English and Czech actors.

One of Shakespeare's literary contemporaries was Elizabeth Jane Weston c.1581 - 1612 (known as "Westonia").  She was born in Chipping Norton.  Her family moved to Prague when she was a child and she became a poet of international repute.  Later this month Prague is celebrating the 400th anniversary of her death.  I visited her elaborately wordy memorial in the cloisters of the later much-baroqued St Thomas's Church.  She wrote in Latin, the lingua-franca of Europe.  David Vaughan has written: "Within a few years of Westonia's death, her whole universe was to be swept away forever and Central Europe was dragged into thirty years of devastating war.  Her poetry captures beautifully this fragile moment on the edge of the abyss." More about Westonia at

Over three centuries later the Orkney-born poet, Edwin Muir, and his wife Willa came to Prague.  They were a self-styled "translation factory" and had already introduced Kafka to English readers for the first time.  Edwin Muir spent the years 1945 to 1948 as head of the British Institute in Prague. In 1945 the Muirs travelled through defeated, traumatised Germany to get to Prague.  In the city people had made shrines with photographs of loved ones shot during the German occupation.  By 1948 Communist intimidators had silenced Edwin Muir's university students and kept a close watch on the poet's words and movements.

Remembering a Prague poem I turn to R S Thomas's Residues.  Here, in "Went to Prague", are the lines

   "... The Gestapo
    have vanished, but the uniformed buildings
    were still there
    haunting us with the story
    of the man turned
    into an insect."

Prague's turbulent history, resilient inhabitants and cultural richness continue to draw writers.  I've come back with a notebook full of ideas - all I need now is the space to work on them.

Friday, 26 October 2012


I listened, captivated by the words of Alex Alexandrowicz, to a poem about journeying to the stars.  It was a beautiful, moving poem written by a Category A prisoner serving two life sentences in Parkhurst.  Here was the work of a gifted writer whose poetry proved that though he was physically confined his imagination could not be imprisoned. 

I caught this poem when I flicked on the radio on Wednesday (Radio 4 Midweek).  When Alex Alexandrowicz wrote a fan letter from jail to actress Fiona Fullerton in 1976 a correspondence began which continued for over 30 years.   The story is told in Fiona's book Dear Fiona: letters from a suspected Soviet spy.

I thought of another prison-poet, the late Greek poet Yannis Ritsos.  His books were burned by the Metaxas regime.  The Papdopoulos military dictatorship send him to island prison camps where he was forbidden to write.  This didn't stop him.  He hid his poems in empty tins and buried them in the prison compound.  It is humbling to remember someone who continued to write under conditions of such severe persecution.

On a lighter note, I was up in court on Thursday with fellow Flambard poet, Rebecca Goss.  We read together at the old Magistrates' Court in Chester as part of the Chester Performs literary festival.  It was the most unusual venue I have ever read in - all the court furniture is still there.  A big thank you to everyone who came and to Paul Lavin for his practical help.

Sunday, 21 October 2012


A telephone rings in a derelict building – is it the beginning of a thriller?  Or has a techno-savvy squatter moved in? 
That was what I heard last week when I was walking past the boarded up-car showrooms by West Walls in Carlisle.  The place has been empty for years and a proto-forest of scrub has broken through the tarmac and colonised the old car park – but still the telephone rings.  
Meanwhile at home my land-line was out of action for nine days.  Why didn’t I use my mobile?  Well, I did try, but I live in one of those rural Bermuda triangles where mobile calls and texts disappear without trace (“Didn’t you get my text?” ask irritated friends and relatives).  The signal is very patchy but I can get some (intermittent) mobile reception if I perch on the window sill behind the upstairs loo.   
I was finally connected to the outside world at 6pm last night.  That got me started on telephone poems.  That image of a phone ringing in a derelict building reminded me of Gillian Clarke’s “On the train”.  It was written after the Paddington train crash but some readers thought it was about the Madrid train bombings.  Gillian Clarke says the poem has a general application.   I can’t help thinking of 9/11:
                “The Vodaphone you are calling
                  may have been switched off.
                  please call later.  And calling later,
                  calling later their phones ring in the rubble.”
But the poet on her train journey wants to phone home to say she is safe:
                “ ... Today I’m tolerant
                  of mobiles.  Let them say it.  I’ll say it too.
                  Darling, I’m on the train.”
 There's a copy of the poem on Gillian Clarke's website
By contrast Edwin Morgan’s poem “Phoning” is about a telephone call from the city of Glasgow to the snows of Montreux and it is also a love poem: 
                “the back of your head
                  as you bent to catch
                  the distant words
                  caught my heart
                  as the love
                  with which I make
                  this sunset chain
The poem’s long thin form perhaps suggests a telephone line.
Ruth Bidgood’s “New Telephone” describes a house “up the half-mile track” which is finally connected to the phone network.  “The house is alive.  Back and fore/words will dance and stumble, check and flow.”  But at the end of the poem the “fragile wind” is “like ambivalent words / waiting in the wires.”  You know, despite the frustrations of this past nine days, I have enjoyed the quiet in the house without the phone ringing.
If you have responsibility for an aged parent a phone is a must.  In Kathleen Jamie’s “The Buddleia” the poet describes
                “those bumbling, well-meaning bees
                  which remind me again,
                  of my father ... whom, Christ,
                  I’ve forgotten to call.”
Then there are the phone calls one dreads.  Lydia Fulleylove’s “Night Drive” (shortlisted for the Forward prize in 2010) begins “So when the phone call came, saying / that we should go back tonight” - you immediately sense it’s a phone call from a hospital about someone who does not have long to live.
But there are some phone calls you have to ignore.  That’s what the girl in the car park does in Philip Gross’s brilliantly virtuosic crown of sonnets, “Fantasia on a Theme from IKEA”.  She has clearly ditched the boyfriend but still he phones.  She snaps
“her phone shut.  End of story.  She folds him away,
   ... slaps
him in her hipster pocket, snug – which may
be as close as he’ll get (and yet not know)
to what he’s dreamed of ...
... the phone in her pocket chirrs, cheep       
cheep.  Poor lovebird.  She puts it to sleep.”
Incidentally IKEA also gets a mention in Edwin Morgan’s “For the opening of the Scottish Parliament” and Adam Thorpe’s “Panic” and probably elsewhere in contemporary poetry.  Could product placement be a new income stream for poets?
But for sheer celebration there’s Seamus Heaney’s “Midnight Anvil”.   At midnight on the last day of 1999 Barney Devlin, the old blacksmith at Hillhead in Northern Ireland, hammered his anvil twelve times to ring in the millennium.   A “cellular phone / Held high as a horse’s ear” relayed what Seamus Heaney has elsewhere called the anvil’s “sweet and carrying notes” across the Atlantic.  “His nephew heard it / In Edmonton, Alberta.”   “Midnight Anvil” is written in five verses each in the form of a tanka.  Even the name of the poetic form has a metallic ring to it.  Heaney imagines “Barney putting it to me: / ‘You’ll maybe write a poem’”.  He did.
Any more suggestions for telephone poems?

Sunday, 30 September 2012


"What is a fire crane?" you ask, perhaps imagining something ornithological or industrial.  If you do a search you'll soon discover what we use to hang words on in Cumbria.

The Fire Crane is a new publication from New Writing Cumbria.  It's the brain-child of Mick North who has been putting it together and editing it over the last few months when most of us have been taking time off for our holidays. 

The theme of the first issue is writing and the visual arts.  Essays, poetry, interviews, fiction and plenty of picures, all in a newspaper format.  As soon as I got hold of a copy I read it all the way through without a break.  And I've been re-reading it.

I'm fascinated by Jeremy Over's essay on the art of the Boyle family, a highly unusual take on land art.  Jonathan Ruppin's interview with novelist, Christopher Burns, reminds me that I must get round to reading A Division of Light.  Christine Howe's short fiction "Survivor" lingers in my mind long after reading it.  Ian Hill's essay "Weather Eye" opens with one of the best descriptions of the Solway I have read. 

And then there are poems, not scrunched into odd corners but presented with plenty of space round them like pictures in a gallery.  Apt that, because the interplay between words and images is very strong in the poems presented here.  I'm particularly taken by John Rice's "The Little Girl at the Door" with its devastating last line and Terry Jones' slow meditiation on underpass graffiti. 

The elegant typography and uncluttered lay-out show the highest design standards.  The design is by Jeremy Fisher (very appropriate with all the rain we've been having in the last week).  Care and attention to detail has resulted in a beautiful-looking publication, even down to the fire crane logo constructed from the type of two brace brackets.

"Sufficient unto the day is the newspaper thereof", wrote James Joyce in Finnegan's Wake.  Not The Fire Crane.  This is one to keep.  Whatever you do, don't use it to light the fire.

More about The Fire Crane and how to get a copy at

Wednesday, 26 September 2012


"September is the cruellest month".  Not April, but September - the summer holidays are over, a new term begins and children move on to the next school year.  "Shades of the prison house begin to close/Upon the growing boy" [or girl] as Wordsworth wrote in his Immortality ode.

Today, with wellies and a spare canoe in the back of the car, I ventured down to Keswick to see Deborah Parkin's exhibition entitled "September is the cruellest month".  It's a beautifully presented exhibition with Deborah's black and white 4 x 5 photographs accompanied by "September Sonnets" (poems by Jennifer Copley, Antony Christie, Martyn Halsall, Kim Moore and Gill Nicholson).  With the small size of the pictures
   "You need to draw close, attempting to see faces
    often masked by a dip of shadow."
        Martyn Halsall "Drawing Close"

Deborah's photographs are all of her children and she sees pictures as a way of preserving memories of their childhood as they grow up and away from her.  The black and white photographs look as if they could have been rescued from an old family album half a century or more ago when everyone's holiday pictures were monochrome.  There's an otherness about the images that reminds me of L P Hartley's famous epigraph to The Go-Between - "The past is another country: they do things differently there".

Usually there is a single child and only once does the child show her face.  She's standing on the edge of a rock pool and looks as it she's been playing there and is not happy about being made to stand still for the photograph.  Don't you remember that feeling?  That, to me, is part of the appeal of the exhibition.  It is as if I am being reminded of my own childhood, even the clothes - the damp woolly layers worn in the snow, the summer dress worn with a cardigan because it's shivery weather.

Some of the poems are in the voice and imagination of a child.  This is Gill Nicholson's "September Holidays":
   "I find a fallen rotting log.
    Along its bark I hold a tea party
    with orange fungus cups on moss."
Jennifer Copley's "Skimming Stones" and "Grange Beach" both capture a sense of the child's relationship to the different generations of a family.  The poems are small narratives, just as each picture creates its own small narrative.  Martyn Halsall takes a step back and writes peoms about the exhibition itself in "The Hanging" and "Drawing Close".

Summer and winter, outdoors and indoors, water, woods, a child framed in a doorway.  There's a dreamlike quality about this collection of images and the poems' dialogue with the pictures adds an extra dimension to the exhibition.

"I'm wishing time would stop" says the child in Gill Nicholson's "Rosehips" and I feel the same.  Alas, the exhibition closes on 30 September.  Get there if you can.

Saturday, 15 September 2012


“A poet’s hope: to be,
  like some valley cheese,
  local, but prized elsewhere”

Auden’s words (“Epistle to a Godson”) used by Norman Nicholson as an epigraph to Sea to the West (1981). 

On Friday I put on an adult education day course on Norman Nicholson’s poetry.   The group was full of enthusiasm for a poet whose work portrays so vividly the landscape and people of his native Cumberland.  Because we were reading a local poet dialect words, places and people came alive.  We knew exactly what he meant in “Raven” when he said “the lyle herdwicks fed in the wet pastures/For the grass was thicker there and orchids and burnet grew” (“The Raven”) or in “Wall” which begins “The wall walks the fell”.   You can see "Wall" and hear the poet reading it on the Poetry Archive website

Norman Nicholson (1914 – 1987) lived almost all of his life in Cumberland.  He was a protégé of T S Eliot (who published his work at Faber and Faber), his first collection (Five Rivers) won the Heinemann Prize, he shared the Cholmondely Prize with Seamus Heaney and Brian Jones, and he was awarded the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry and the OBE.  He was one of my school set texts (in Six Modern Poets) where he rubbed literary shoulders with Ted Hughes, R S Thomas, Philip Larkin, Elizabeth Jennings and D J Enright. 

“Is he due for a revival?” someone asked.  I hope so.  The British Library’s current and greatly acclaimed Writing Britain: Wastelands to Wonderlands exhibition includes three of his poems – “Hodbarrow flooded” and “Millom Ironworks” in the Post-Industrial Landscape section and “To the River Duddon” in the Rivers of Light section.  Ecopoetics or ecocriticism is taking a fresh look at texts from an environmental perspective.  Paul Farley and Michael Symmons-Roberts have championed the edgelands.  Nicholson wrote plenty of edgeland poems, such as “Millom Old Quarry”, “On the Dismantling of Millom Ironworks” and “Bee Orchid at Hodbarrow”. 

Even his burial place is an edgeland sort of place.  He is buried in the new graveyard of St George’s Church, Millom.  Previously it had been the Station Field, where the railway shire horses were let out to graze on Sundays. 

The Station Field

Norman Nicholson 1914-1987

Loosed from their loose boxes, their breath mists
the early dawn, their iron hooves thud
the meadow turf as the great horses
race into their Sabbath freedom.

Here in the Station Field on flowery afternoons
they stand nose to tail, their feathered fetlocks
dusted with pollen.  Allotment men forage dung
from the field corner.  Here, in the new graveyard

that was once the Station Field, he lies
under the shadow of Black Coombe,
his bones to the east but his heart to the west,

and in the grass - dandelions, plantain,
cat’s ear, persistent pearlwort, as if
his words are breaking through the earth. 

© Mary Robinson 2011
(First published in Comet Spring/summer 2011)

The poet’s birth centenary will be in 2014.  There will be celebrations in Cumbria – I hope there will be celebrations elsewhere. for more about Norman Nicholson for Writing Britain at the British Libary

Saturday, 8 September 2012



"Walter Scott has no business writing novels, particularly good ones" wrote Jane Austen on reading Waverley.

Thomas Hardy's first and last love was poetry - he said he only wrote novels because poetry didn't pay.

Some writers start off writing poetry and then renege on poetry and write only novels thereafter.  But other writers manage to achieve a creative symbiotic relationship bewteen the two genres.  Margaret Atwood is a good example.  Although she has said, self-deprecatingly, that she started off with poetry because it is short, she has proved herself to be a fine poet as well as an accomplished novelist.  The Door, her powerful 2007 collection, takes no hostages.

I'm reading the recently published Selected Poems of John Fowles (yes, he of The French Lieutenant's Woman).  I was surprised to discover that Fowles wrote poetry throughout his writing life.  "The prose did not soak up the poetry" writes Adam Thorpe in the introduction.

It's interesting that Adam Thorpe has selected and edited the poems because he too is both a poet and a novelist.  He's a writer I've only recently discovered, initially through his wonderful sixth collection Voluntary (2012).  I went on to read some of his earlier collections and then started on his first novel Ulverton.  It's one of those rare rich novels that makes me think I'm merely skimming the surface at the first reading.

Back to John Fowles.  The opening peom of the Selected is "Ars Poetica" which includes the lines

     "they should be like the
      little daily things kept
      in Doctor Johnson's house:
      his tea-bowl, stick, reading stand
      . . .
      so when you're dead and
      they read your collected
      they'll say:
      I see how he was".

The lines illustrate Fowles' view that if you really want to know a writer read his poetry, not his prose.

The Selected opens with the Apollo sequence of Greek poems, dating back to the time when John Fowles lived on the island of Spetsai ("Phraxos" in The Magus).  There's considerable variety in this sequence.  The satirical "Unasked" features an encounter with Mr Plutopoulos, with his Cadillacs and Picassos, and ends with the devastating unasked question.  "Shepherd" is a perfect character sketch of a man who went away to work in the capital but came back.  It ends:

     "Athens was good but lacked one thing:
      a silence in which a man could sing."

There is a Mycenae sequence (titles include "Cassandra", "Clytemnestra", "Choros", "Agamemnon").  Most of these poems are unpunctuated, strongly dependent on line and stanza breaks.

The longest section is a gathering of separate poems.  I read "The Experience" as an allegory of writing poety.  You do all the right things and nothing happens.  Inspiration does come but inconviently "at the start of a busy day".  It comes with "The wind.  And you stand / blinded till you are not blind." 

There are several love poems in Fowles' Selected, including "Within ten seconds" which you can read at
Finally there is a little cluster of translations, a reminder that John Fowles was a fine linguist.

The Selected Poems is beautifully produced by Flambard Press.  I am very impressed with the design and layout and it's on good paper with just the right print size and font.  The front cover with its simple serif lettering features an amazing photograph by Peter Wiles called "Cobb Storm".  I'm surprised the photographer survived the storm!  The whole of the back cover is taken up with  Carolyn Djanogly's moving portrait photograph of John Fowles.

But celebrating the publication of these poems is tinged with sadness.  This is the last volume from my publisher, Flambard Press, "one of the finest small publishers in the UK".

Friday, 31 August 2012



This week I went to Wakefield by train on the Settle and Carlisle line, the most beautiful railway journey in England.  Most of my fellow passengers were walkers and I half-envied those who got off at neatly kept wayside stations to walk the Pennines in a rare burst of late August sunshine.

But my interest was in another walker, the artist Richard Long, whose work is on display at the stunning new Hepworth Gallery in Wakefield, where I met up with a friend who had travelled from Lincoln to join me.  Long’s artistic manifesto is “to make a new way of walking: walking as art”.  His work is characterised by the use of natural materials – stone, wood, mud, grass – and conceptual simplicity (recurring shapes are circles, ovals, lines). 

Three works particularly caught my attention.  “Circle in Africa” (photograph of art work) was made on the slopes of Mulanje Mountain in Malawi.  It was a circle of dead branches fitted to the shape of the land.  The landscape itself looked denuded and drought-stricken, dotted with dead trees.  By contrast “A Circle in Alaska” (another photograph) was a circle of driftwood on the shores of the Bering Strait, the circle itself lying near the Arctic Circle.  But my favourite was yet another circle but this time in stone on the floor of the gallery: “Blaenau Ffestiniog Circle”.  It was made of pieces of slate - the purplish grey Welsh slate which roofed the 19th century industrial world.  I looked at the fractured textures, the sedimentary fissure lines and the wonderful shades of brown and golden iron pyrites where the rock had been broken.  The slates’ jagged shapes suggested the sharp glaciated outlines of the mountains of Snowdonia from which they had been cut.

Richard Long’s work reminded me of the poetry of Thomas A Clark.  Clark’s writing is formed by walking: his vocabulary of natural materials, his spare minimalist verses, and the way his lines are placed on large expanses of white page: The Path to the Sea and The Hundred Thousand Places.  Footprint and print.

The next day we went to the Yorkshire Sculpture Park at Bretton Hall just outside Wakefield.  After a morning of surreal Miro, the gigantism of Anish Kapoor and the monumental Hepworths and Moores we went for a walk round the lake for some aesthetic down-time.  Serendipity: Alec Finlay’s “Bee Library” quietly and unobtrusively nestling in the woods around the lake.  I’ve just finished reading Ian Hamilton Finlay’s Selections so I was delighted to discover his son’s work at Bretton.

The Bee Library is made from 24 bee books.  These include Virgil’s Georgics and Sylvia Plath’s Ariel, as well as books on practical bee-keeping and on the decline of bees in the environment.  After reading each book the artist has turned it into a potential shelter for solitary bees.  The book is opened out so that the cover is the roof, then underneath are fixed bamboo sticks like those insect homes you see in free catalogues advertising things you never knew you needed. 

We walked round the lake spotting the little bee books and found 22 out of the 24 – the appeal of the diminutive.  But – has any bee actually taken up residence?

More information and pictures at

Thursday, 23 August 2012


“How an edge creates tension or loses it” - this phrase leapt out at me from Edmund de Waal’s fascinating family memoir The Hare with the Amber Eyes.  Edmund de Waal is a potter and the phrase is in the context of ceramics.  But it could just as easily refer to poetry.  Edges – the beginnings and ends of lines.

It made me think of Paul Muldoon’s poem “Why Brownlee left”.
Brownlee disappeared one morning while ploughing his land.  By noon his two plough horses were discovered still standing patiently

Shifting their weight from foot to
Foot, and gazing into the future.

The line-break enacts the meaning of the words.  The poem shifts its weight to the next line just as the horses do – and surely there is a concealed pun on the sense of foot as a unit of scansion in verse.  Look at the first edge of the first line, “shifting”, and the last edge, “to” and then the next line “Foot” which chimes with the last word of the poem, “future”.  Perfect edges.  Incidentally, can anyone tell me why Brownlee left?

I’ve recently discovered the work of American poet, Kay Ryan.  She is known for her narrow short-lined poems.  “Edges are the most powerful parts of the poem.  The more edges you have the more power you have”, she says in a Paris Review interview.

The edges of a poem are particularly exposed in free verse.  Good free verse is not chopped up prose.  Getting the line-breaks right is vital.  Glyn Maxwell, in his new book On Poetry, writes of free verse: “Line-break is all you’ve got, and if you don’t master line-break – the border between poetry and prose – then you don’t know there is a border.  And there is a border.”  Line- and stanza-breaks are “a form of punctuation, but a white not a black one.”

In Kathleen Jamie’s poem “Landfall” (The Tree House) we are walking along the shore and looking out across the waves.  When we see

            a single ragged swallow
            veering towards the earth-
            and blossom-scented breeze,
            can we allow ourselves to fail

That’s how the poem ends.  Look at the power in that line-break after "earth-":  the swallow is veering towards the earth, its landfall after a long migration.  But in the next line we find it’s drawn by the earth-scent and blossom-scent of the breeze.  Two meanings for the price of one.  Then there’s the final edge of the poem

Sunday, 12 August 2012


Writers who write in cafés – but what do they write?  I’ve been looking for café poems.   Can you add any more to my list?  (OK, one's in a pub and I am not differentiating between café and restuarant)

I'll start with Esther Morgan’s “At the Falls Cafe” (from Grace) in which the poet imagines herself as the waitress “watching over that solitary guest/who lets the skin grow on his coffee”.   It's a mysterious poem with suggestions of the metaphysical.

By contrast, another Morgan (Edwin) produces a piece of grim realism in his poem “In the snack bar" (from The Second Life).  It describes the poet’s encounter with an old man who needs help to go to the gents. 

In Michael Longley’s “The Lizard” (Snow Water) the poet is distracted “From the gnocchi stuffed with walnuts in porcini sauce” by “a greeny lizard” at the last restaurant on the road to Pisa airport.  (scroll down to read it)

Les Murray’s culinary experience in “Vindaloo in Merthyr Tydfil” (Poems against Economics) is not a subtle one.   The waiter offers him a chance to get out of it – “You sure you want vindaloo, sir?” – but the poet is a tough Australian.   He consumes “the chicken of Hell/in a sauce of rich yellow brimstone”.  “Oh it was a ride on Watney’s plunging red barrel,/through all the burning ghats of most carnal ambition” to the finished empty plate and “licked knife and fork”.  Part of the fun of the poem is the use of  Dylan Thomas echoes: “I sang for my pains like the free/before I passed out among all the stars of Cilfynydd”.  It takes him three days to recover.

R S Thomas’s “Poetry for supper” dramatises the debate between free verse and traditional forms, inspiration and craft.  The two characters are “two old poets,/Hunched at their beer in the low haze/Of an inn parlour, while the talk ran/Noisily by them, glib with prose.”  Years before the smoking ban of course.

But I’ll let Wendy Cope have the last word.  Why did she call her collection “Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis”?  She claims the words came to her in a dream: “I knew it wouldn’t be much of a poem/But I love the title”.  So do I.

By way of a postscript Jenny de Roebeck’s Café Poems project that I blogged about a few months ago has been rolled out to various cafés in the north of Cumbria.  Here’s the complete list:

Celebrations, Bank Street, Carlisle
The Old Engine House, West Walls, Carlisle
The Wordsworth Bookshop café, St Andrew’s Churchyard, Penrith
High Head sculpture park, Ivegill
BoJangles, Appleby
Upfront gallery café, Hutton in the Forest

Just ask for the Café Poems notebook with your cappuccino and add your poetic contribution edible or inedible.

Wednesday, 1 August 2012


Do you have a little black book on your shelves? 

It all started with a black cover and a design of white cow parsley - Penguin Modern Poets 1: Lawrence Durrell, Elizabeth Jennings, R S Thomas.  I bought a copy from W H Smith’s bookshop in Stratford upon Avon when I was in the sixth form at the local girls’ grammar school.  It was the first poetry book I ever bought.  It cost half a crown and was not a first edition – volume one was already into its third printing.

Three contemporary poets, all represented by 25-30 poems from more than one collection – enough to get a feel of each poet’s individual voice.  I never bought the whole set (27 books in the first series, 13 more in a later revived series) but I do have a selection of the little black books.  There was a sense of excitement in these little books, a sense of being in on contemporary poetry as it was happening. 

I was reminded of this excitement by Paul Farley’s recent Archive on Four radio feature celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the start of the Penguin Modern Poets series in 1962.  What a wonderful range of poetry – the Modernist poet William Carlos Williams, beat poets Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti, a whole volume named The Mersey Sound, up and coming Irishman Michael Longley, Orkneyman George Mackay Brown rubbing shoulders with fellow Scots Norman MacCaig and Iain Crichton Smith.  There were few women poets in the first series (though Kathleen Raine and Denise Levertov made it), but this imbalance was corrected in the second series which included the current Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, and Scots Makar, Liz Lochhead. 

But there were notable omissions.  What, no Ted Hughes?  No Thom Gunn?  They were already signed up to Faber and Faber who apparently refused to give permission for their work to be included.

Looking back 50 years it is worth celebrating the fact that a major publishing house took contemporary poetry seriously enough to launch a whole series of books and also didn’t stint on design.  The classic black covers with different linear designs have not dated.  The poems are beautifully set in my (current) favourite type, the elegant Garamonde. 

Of all the volumes The Mersey Sound was the most successful – it sold half a million copies.  Not bad for a little black book of poetry.

Finally here's a poem by Denise Levertov from volume 9 - dedicated to everyone who has been walking their dog(s) in the rain.  It's called "The Rainwalkers"

More information about the 50th anniversary of Penguin Modern Poets at

Sunday, 22 July 2012


It’s marked “Meml” on the map and I expect a war memorial.  Instead I find a cairn in memory of two Gaelic poets, Donald MacIntyre (1889 – 1964) and his nephew, Donald John MacDonald (1919 – 1986).  I’m walking on South Uist in the Outer Hebrides and I sit down by this modest roadside monument to eat my lunch.
Nearby an orderly flotilla of greylag geese swims across a loch which is a deep steel blue from the cloudless sky (in contrast with most of Britain the Western Isles have had very little rain since mid April).  Beyond the loch there is open moorland ending in the low-lying machair and beyond it the sea, a blue line on the horizon – the beginning of the Atlantic Ocean.
The two poets were born within a mile of each other – Donald MacIntyre at Sniseabhal and Donald John MacDonald at Peighinn nan Aoireann (latest OS map Gaelic spelling).  A plaque states that they were “steeped in Gaelic oral tradition” and they “revelled in the musical sound of the language.  Their work was characterised by a richness of vocabulary and idiom.”  They were both crowned bards at the national Mod in Glasgow (in 1938 and 1948 respectively) – a great accolade for a Gaelic poet.  There’s an extract in Gaelic from the work of each poet and a helpful translation.
The most moving aspect of the cairn is that it is built using stones from the now derelict houses in which the two men were born.  On impulse I decide to go looking for their birth places.  I set off along a tentative grassy track.  There are golden flowers of bog asphodel, patches of purple heather, cotton grass fluffed up by the wind.  A solitary white butterfly orchid grows in the middle of the track. 
The moor is dotted with roofless ruins but the one I think was Donald MacIntyre’s is a low building not far from the path.  A crofter’s put a narrow gate in the fence so I go and investigate.  It’s slightly sheltered by the slope of the hill and there’s a lochan nearby.  Perhaps one of Donald’s childhood chores was fetching water for the house.  But it’s poor land with only a thin skimming of acid soil.  Like so many islanders Donald MacIntyre left the Outer Hebrides for the mainland.  He became known as “The Paisley Bard” and is buried in a Paisley cemetery.
 The track gradually pulls itself together and passes a modern bungalow (one of today’s croft houses).  A causeway crosses a beautiful tracery of lochans and then I’m on the fertile land of the machair where Donald John MacDonald was born.   Is that his birthplace – a jumble of stones right next to a suburban-looking house?  He was a soldier and prisoner-of-war but returned to live on the island after the Second World War and is buried in Ardmichael graveyard overlooking the sea, only a couple of miles from where he was born.
I pass a man clipping sheep.  No hurdles, no sheep pens, no portable shearing rig.  Just the steady click of the hand shears and a relentlessly vigilant dog keeping the small flock in the corner of the field.  Let’s not be sentimental – sheep equalled clearances in the 19th century.  Donald MacIntyre’s family probably lived in a poor moorland cottage because the good land was reserved for sheep.  But I’ve seen a task that would have been a common sight for the two poets and I’ve walked a route they would have taken many times.

Friday, 6 July 2012


Did you know that an important poetry prize was awarded recently?  No, not the T S Eliot or the Forward or the Costa.  It was the 2012 Michael Marks Awards.

Roisin Tierney's Dream Endings was the poetry winner and Smith Doorstop won the award for publishers. Dream Endings is published by Rack Press (run by Nicholas Murray), a small press based in Powys in mid Wales.  You can read about Roisin and see one of her poems at  There's more on the Rack Press blog  Smith Doorstop is probably better known in poetry circles (through its own Poetry Business competition and The North magazine) and it's been going for over 25 years.

The Michael Marks awards are for poetry pamphlets only (specified as no more than 36 pages).  Poetry pamphlets are wonderfully individualistic and tactile.  I have one of a previous year's shortlisted pamphlets on my desk.  It's the lovely "Devorgilla's Bridge" by Hugh McMillan (words) and Hugh Bryden (linocut) published by Roncadora Press.  Poetry pamphlets are very often a small press cottage industry with small print runs.  They are a labour of love - break-even is probably the best that many poetry pamphlet publishers can hope for.

Some poets prefer the name chapbook.  The OED defines this as "A modern name, applied by book collectors and others, to specimens of the popular literature which was formerly circulated by itinerant dealers or chapmen, consisting chiefly of small pamphlets of popular tales, ballads, tracts etc."  I think of Autolycus (in Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale) who, when he was not snapping up unconsidered trifles, was a pedlar of ballads. 

In a literary climate which is so often dominated by the big publishers whose books are commodities with a limited shelf-life like yoghurt, it's great to have a literary prize which celebrates poetry pamphlets and small presses.

That's why it is disappointing that this year's Michael Marks Awards seem to have been accompanied by a distinct lack of publicity.  More razzmatazz next year please.

And apologies to Roisin for the missing accents in her name - I can't get them on blogspot.

Monday, 18 June 2012


A waste of time and money?

Perhaps you spent a miserable childhood being nagged to do music practice every night.  Maybe you are a parent who has shelled out eye-watering quantities of hard-earned cash only to find the ungrateful offspring never touches an instrument again after leaving home. 

So it was heartening to read Helen Farish’s dedication at the beginning of her new collection Nocturnes at Nohant (Bloodaxe 2012):  “In memory of my parents with thanks for all the years of piano lessons”.

I heard Helen read at Grasmere last Tuesday, together with Daljit Nagra.  Both poets read beautifully, sometimes speaking the poems from memory.  What a pleasure to see and hear poets who engaged so fully with their audience.  

I was particularly interested in Nocturnes at Nohant based on the relationship between George Sand and Chopin at Nohant, Sand’s family home, in the ten years following their first meeting in 1836.  Helen is reading at Ledbury Poetry Festival with a pianist playing Chopin – well worth going to if you can (Saturday 7 July 4.15pm at Hellen’s Manor)

Music and poetry go well together – content or performance or both.  Joanna Boulter’s Twenty Four Preludes and Fugues on Dmitri Shostakovich is a superb achievement, in which the poetic forms are directly related to Shostakovich’s biography and music, for example “Mirror Fugue”

As for individual poems with a musical theme there are so many I could choose.   I’ve selected some of my favourites and put links so you can read them (and in one case watch on youtube). 

“Bach and the Sentry” is set in the trenches of the First World War

Langston Hughes sings the blues in “The Weary Blues”

Michael Longley wrote a perfect (if a few years late) “Elegy for Fats Waller”

In William Carlos Williams’ “The Dance” the poet imagines the sounds “in Breughel’s great picture The Kermess”  Those peasants “swinging their butts” to “such rollicking measures” knew how to enjoy themselves.

Here are a few more without links – Sheenagh Pugh’s “Mozart Playing Billiards” (Song for the Taxman Poetry Wales Press 1993) and Pauline Stainer’s “Chromatics” as well as her short moving poem “After the Bread Queue Massacre” about the cellist of Sarajevo, Vedran Smailović (both from The Wound-dresser’s dream Bloodaxe 1996).

Do you have any favourite music poems? 

And now, confession time: I’m a failed grade 5 pianist – but I’m a good listener.