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