Sunday, 27 January 2013


I don’t like anthologies.
Don’t like anthologies?  Don’t like me? I don't believe a word of it, said the little blue book. *
OK, I give in, I said, I do like The Cockermouth Poets.

To start with there’s the rain-splashed cover with Derek Eland’s painting of the town in an ark, afloat on the flood.  The cover is an invitation to pick up and read.  Then there’s designer Karen Sawrey’s informal calligraphy for the title and the Celtic-style waves that wash over the foot of each page.   Good to have some pictures in a poetry book – there are two more of Derek’s atmospheric paintings at the beginning and end of the anthology, “Market Place” and “After the Flood”. 

Flood is appropriate because the idea for the book began a year after the 2009 flood which swept through the town with such devastating ferocity.  In 2010 local poetry activist Michael Baron commissioned the window poems which were displayed on posters in shop windows in the town on the first anniversary of the flood.  At that time the collection of poems were in a ring binder but there were tentative requests for a book.  Hmm - time, funding, people - would it happen?

Yes it has.  Michael Baron and Joan Hetherington and their team have done it.  The number of poems has been increased with the basic criteria that the poets included must have been born in (Wordsworth, to name the famous one), have lived in, read in, visited, or had a pub meal (Shelley) in Cockermouth between 1700 and the present day.   

There is a more or less watery theme (eg, an extract from Les Murray’s brilliant flood poem “Like wheeling stacked water”) but not entirely.  To me it is the sense of place that comes over strongly – in Helen Farish’s “Appellation” or Meg Peacocke’s “Working late on the wall”.  Though not all the places are in Cumbria - see Pascale Petit's extract from "The Book of Water".

What works particularly well is the sequencing.  Alphabetical order, one poem per poet.  No hierarchy, lots of variety.  A school student can rub literary shoulders with a professor, a housewife with Wordsworth. Robert Drake, who writes stone walls on the Cumbrian landscape with the same attentiveness and craftsmanship as he builds poems on paper, is followed by Carol Ann Duffy.  There are historical curiosities -  Thomas Tickell (1684 – 1740) who feuded with Alexander Pope over a translation of The Iliad, and Isaac Wilkinson (died 1837) who went to Cockermouth Grammar School with Bounty mutineer, Fletcher Christian (hence the pub in Main Street). 

It’s impossible to get bored with this anthology.  Chronological order might have been a more obvious choice – but it would have made a much less interesting read.  And for humour there’s Robert Crawford’s dry prose poem “Bond”.

Really good value at £8.50 for 100 pages.  Profits are shared between the local mountain rescue team and Save the Children fund.   Copies are in the beautifully restored after the flood New Bookshop in Main Street, Cockermouth

* With apologies to Katherine Mansfield.

Saturday, 19 January 2013


When I read “My hero: Dennis O’ Driscoll by Seamus Heaney” I thought it was another Guardian typo and that the names had been transposed.  Dennis O’Driscoll wrote Stepping Stones: interviews with Seamus Heaney, a homage to Heaney’s work and essential reading for anyone interested in the background to Heaney’s poetry.

I read the first sentence of “My hero” and noticed with a shock that it was all in the past tense.  Surely not ... this man with his wit and humour and soft Irish accent.  The names were not transposed.  The second sentence began “Dennis O’ Driscoll died suddenly on Christmas Eve aged 58”.  Seamus Heaney’s moving and affectionate tribute followed. 

I heard Dennis O’Driscoll read with his wife and fellow poet, Julie O’Callaghan, at Grasmere in June 2011.  He joked about being in the same line of work as Wordsworth – a government-paid bureaucrat.  He was a tie and jacket office-worker poet, like Wallace Stevens.  There was something school-boyish about his appearance and his mischievous sense of humour.  The poems that I remember from that reading are “Porlock”, “No, thanks”, “Germ warfare” and “Someone”.

“Porlock” – Coleridge’s person from Porlock has become a byword for interrupted inspiration.  His version transported it to the office –
                 “this is the best poem I have never written”
                 “this is a poem of distractions, interruptions, clamouring telephones”.

He introduced “No, Thanks” as a poem “on not saying yes”.  How precious time is to the writer who has to fit writing into the left-over scraps of the working day –
                 “No, I don’t want to drop over for a meal
                        on my way home from work ...
                   No way am I going to blow a Friday night’s freedom
                        just to round out numbers at your dinner table.”

“Germ Warfare” he said was based on an old Irish curse poem: “You pass your plague around like cough drops”.  I sympathised having caught a heavy cold in the middle of a busy term from someone who coughed and sneezed all over me in a cafĂ©.

But it was the early poem “Someone”, the first in the New and Selected Poems, which came back to me when I read of his sudden death:
                 “someone is dressing up for death today ...
                   someone today is seeing the world for the last time
                   as innocently as he had seen it first.”
He read this poem on Irish radio after the September 11th attacks.

After the Grasmere reading I joined the other groupies to get my book signed.  I said how much I had enjoyed the evening and named some poems which I found particularly memorable.  On the title page he wrote “For Mary, with warm regards and thanks for your encouragement”.

I looked back at my notebook for that evening.  I had written “He was lit up by poetry”.


Sunday, 6 January 2013


Twelve books for twelve months

One of the reasons I started this blog was to encourage people to read and enjoy more contemporary poetry.  Here is my third list of twelve poetry collections you must read – one a month would make a good resolution. 
Subjective?  yes, of course.  Omissions?  obviously – tell me what I’ve missed.  The list is a selection of books I have read over the past year and been excited by.  I’ve already mentioned a couple of them in previous posts – Helen Farish’s Nocturnes at Nohant on the ten year relationship between Chopin and George Sand, and W G Sebald’s Selected Poems (another aspect to one of the twentieth century’s greatest prose writers).
I always like to include a pamphlet and this time it is Jim Carruth’s Working the Hill.  It is beautifully produced with great attention to detail.  Jim Carruth’s poems are set in a farming era on the cusp of the change between tradition (“Toast”) and industry (“Stack”, “A time for giving”).  I particularly like the butterfly rhyme scheme of “See it in his body”.
Ice is the latest volume from the much-loved National Poet of Wales, Gillian Clarke.  She is writing as strongly as ever.  One of my favourite poems in the collection is “Shearwaters on Enlli” written for fellow poet Michael Longley.  As well as the ice theme there are some lovely looking-back poems.
Gillian Clarke is the dedicatee of Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy’s The Bees.  The Sunday Times called this collection “indisputably her best volume” – I agree. 
Note that it is Ian Hamilton Finlay’s Selected – not selected poems.  I love his quirkiness and subversiveness.  Here are short poems, concrete poems, “text works”, words as installations (some were in his garden at Little Sparta), prose, one word poems, found poems, aphorisms and more.
Philip Gross won the TS Eliot prize with the much-admired The Water Table.  I now recommend Deep Field, a moving but unsentimental account of his dying father’s loss of speech.  There are several longish poetry sequences, carefully crafted with an eye to line-breaks and how the poems look on the page.  A personal experience made readable and accessible.
This year Kathleen Jamie fans (and I am one) have enjoyed both a book of essays (Sightlines) and a new poetry collection.  The cover of The Overhaul has a beautiful lino-cut of a “Shetland Foureen” to match the title poem.
Ruth Padel, like Kathleen Jamie, has an abiding interest in the natural world.  The Mara Crossing (combining prose and poetry) examines the theme of migration in its multiple aspects.
Richard Price – do you know his work?  I first discovered Aldius Manutius via Price's "An Informationist’s Kitchen”.  His Small World is packed with good things (a hundred pages of them).  Slightly wacky – and that’s a compliment – and also seriously moving.
The work of the American laureate, Kay Ryan, is fascinating and highly original.  The poems in Odd Blocks are characterised by their long thin shapes and their "scattergun" rhymes.
Finally Adam Thorpe’s Voluntary.  I only discovered Adam Thorpe’s poetry recently and I’m hooked.  He’s a fine novelist but (I think) an even better poet.  Anything by him is worth reading.
Happy new year – if it is not too late to say so!