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’”. 

Saturday, 18 January 2014


Let’s hear it for the north

My mother claimed that the auburn-haired gene, which I inherited from her side of the family, proved Viking ancestry.  I’m not sure about that but I’ve always been drawn to the north and have gradually moved and holidayed further north over the years.

A Carcanet publishers’ email alerted me to Peter Davidson’s book Distance and Memory.  Non-fiction prose (or creative non-fiction as it is called now), after decades of languishing in the publishing doldrums, is at last coming into its own.  What attracted me to the book was Gillian Clarke’s comment, “This is a poet’s book, his mind wide open to the cultures of the world, especially the north ... the language is luscious, musical and precise, rich with quotation and the cultures of northern Europe.”  Distance and Memory has been compared with Gillian Clarke’s prose memoir At the Source.  It’s different but there is an element of – if you enjoyed that you will enjoy this.

Don’t be put off by the rather uninspiring cover.  When you have read the book you can see why John Watson Gordon’s “Portrait of a Gentleman” is appropriate.  Though I am not sure why it was necessary to bisect his face down the middle of his nose.

Peter Davidson is Professor of Renaissance Studies at Aberdeen University and the cultural breadth of the book is fascinating and wide-ranging.  But above all he is a connoisseur of light.  Here he is writing about the distinctive feel to the light at the end of a short northern winter’s day – “evening afternoon” as he calls it, quoting from Sean O’Brien’s poem “November” – “Part of the aesthetic of the homeward journey is to see lives in lighted windows ... In some parts of northern Europe [the Netherlands] there is a social convention that curtains are not drawn at this time.”  (I always look out for the rooms which have book-lined walls, rather than the flicker of a big screen TV.  I would like to peer in, see if I could deduce something of the character of the inhabitants from the books on their shelves – not available on Kindle.)

“This is a poet’s book” wrote Gillian Clarke.  Peter Davidson, himself a poet (The Palace of Oblivion), has woven poetry into the cultural texture of this beautifully written book.  The book’s epigraph is an untitled wintry poem beginning, “The falcon flown, far in the starving air”.  There are Burns quotations and Scottish songs and the Scottish Renaissance writer, Alexander Hume.  Beyond Scotland he spreads his poetic net wide from Michael Riviere to Osip Mandlestam, amongst others.

In “Spring: Orkney” he quotes from Orkney Pictures and Poems, my favourite George Mackay Brown book – the poet’s wonderful collaboration with Scandinavian photographer, Gunnie Moburg.  I take it down from the shelf for another look.  It’s so big it only fits in sideways next to the Collected Poems.

 Poetry of the north would be incomplete without a reference to Auden.  “Auden wrote in the 1930s of lead mines in decline: ghosts of industry in remote country.”  This is in the fascinating chapter on the esoteric art of Spar Boxes, some of which are displayed at Killhope Mining Museum.  Killhope (pronounced Killup) is “the selfsame lead-workings of Auden’s early poem ‘Who stands at the crux left of the watershed ...’”  Peter Davidson admits to a (probably unrealisable) fantasy with artist Tim Brennan of making a film of Auden’s Paid on Both Sides set in the high Pennine watershed between County Durham and Cumberland.

Towards the end of the book he quotes John Ash:
                  “But if you don’t, on most days, love the place you live in,
                    as if it was the only place on earth, you had better get out.”
I don’t think Peter Davidson has any intention of getting out.  He clearly loves the north and celebrates it in this book.  Or, as Alan Taylor wrote memorably in his review in The Scottish Herald, “Distance and memory, darkness and light: what a cheerleader they’ve found in Peter Davidson.”

More about Peter Davidson and Distance and Memory at

Monday, 13 January 2014


Keep up - 12 books you must read

It’s high time I changed my list of 12 recommended poetry books.  So here is my choice for 2014 arranged in alphabetical order.  

Prejudiced? Subjective? probably.The list is based on a selection from the contemporary poetry I have read, enjoyed and admired for various reasons in the last year – books I think deserve to be read and re-read.   

The Fluent Moment – Ruth Bidgood (Seren 1996)
Ruth Bidgood was born midway between the birth years of R S Thomas and Elizabeth Jennings and it is possible to see some similarities with the work of both poets.  But unlike them she is still writing.  Powys in mid Wales is her poetic territory.  I’ve been reading and enjoying her work for years.  This collection shows the maturity of her later writing.

Then – Alison Brackenbury (Carcanet 2013)
If you yearn for rhyme read Then.  Well-made  poems concentrating on themes of nature and memory.  There is some subtle eco-comment in Brackenbury’s eighth collection.

Estuary – Stewart Conn (Mariscat Press 2012)
My pamphlet choice this year.  Lyrical, moving poetry, leavened with a keen sense of humour.  Very good value for 29 poems, produced with careful attention to design and type by Mariscat Press. 

The Palace of Oblivion – Peter Davidson (Carcanet 2008)
An extraordinary collection which really grew on me as I read on.  Free verse style combined with rich, rare, archaic vocabulary.  The cover blurb states “baroque in its extravance of language”. 

Life under Water – Maura Dooley (Carcanet 2008)
A playful negotiation with Auden’s poetry takes place in this wonderfully fluid collection.  “The Source” is a confident response to “In Praise of Limestone”.

Her Birth – Rebecca Goss (Carcanet 2012)
A collection to read with the heart.  I was moved to tears by this beautiful tribute to Rebecca’s small child Ella who died of a rare heart disease.  But the collection ends not in grief but in a “Welcome” for her second daughter.  Lots of sea imagery which gives unity and depth to the poems.

Laughing at the Clock – Aonghas MacNeacail, translated by the author (Polygon 2012).  See my blog post of 2 December 2012.
New and selected poems by one of Scotland’s foremost Gaelic writers printed in the original with a parallel English translation.  Brilliant, surprising, generous.

Parallax – Sinead Morrissey (Carcanet 2013)
Meaty poems you can get your literary teeth into.  Well worth exploring and pondering.  Mind the gap!

Archangel – Henry Shukman (Cape 2013)
I am impressed by the economy, simplicity and fluency of these poems.  The core of the book is based on the experience of Shukman’s refugee grandfather and great uncle who were deported from London to Archangel to fight on the Eastern front just as the Russian Revolution was taking off and the old regime collapsing. 

Axe Handles – Gary Snyder (first published 1983; Shoemaker and Hoard edition 2005).  See my recent blog post of 6 December 2013. 
A poet who records ordinary life like no one else.  He has been called the “Poet laureate of deep ecology”.  There’s Zen Buddhism too.

Tigers Facing the Mist – Pauline Stainer (Bloodaxe 2013)
Concise, even compressed, poems, huge leaps of language.  Never a superfluous word. 

The Church of Omniverous Light – Robert Wrigley (Carcanet 2013)
Why haven’t I discovered this fantastic American poet before?  Think: the surprising imagery and originality of Les Murray - in an American context.  This is a selected poems so gives a good overview of Wrigley’s work in 200 pages.


Most of these books are stocked by the Scottish Poetry Library who provide an excellent postal loan service.


Thank you to everyone who came to the Norman Nicholson centenary celebration evening at Penrith.  One of the highlights for me was hearing the recordings of Norman reading his poetry.
Reports about the evening at

Sunday, 5 January 2014


Andrea at the Wordworth Bookshop has just emailed me to say that the forthcoming Norman Nicholson evening on Wednesday is FULLY BOOKED.  So if you were hoping to come but haven't booked a place I am sorry to say that you are too late.

But the bookshop will have copies of Norman Nicholson's writing and The Whispering Poet, the excellent new biography by Kathleen Jones.

Saturday, 4 January 2014


Reading Norman Nicholson

I discovered Norman Nicholson's poetry in a school anthology Six Modern Poets (edited by J R Osgerby).  The other five were R S Thomas, Ted Huges, Philip Larkin, D J Enright and - the token woman - Elizabeth Jennings.  An impressive gathering.

Reading the recently published Nicholson biography, The Whispering Poet, by Kathleen Jones I noticed that the issue of provincialism came up several times.  Nicholson's poetry is deeply rooted in Millom, its people and the surrounding (and very varied) landscape.  He titled one of his collections A Local Habitation and wrote a strong rebuttal of the pejorative use of the label provincial:

By a provincial I do not mean someone who merely happens to live in the provinces - I mean someone who lives in the place where he was born; the place where his parents live, and his friends and relatives.  Someone who has shared from his childhood the culture of his native region - the way of life, the patterns of activities ... the vast majority of mankind is provincial.
           ("On Being a Provincial" The Listener 12 August 1954)

The West Indian Nobel prize-winning poet, Derek Walcott, wrote a similar defence.  He considered that provincialism provided advantages for the writer: it forces him into -

a deeper communion with things that metropolitan writers no longer care about ... attachments to family, earth and history.   
            (Sunday Trinidad Guardian 22 May 1966)

You only have to read Norman Nicholson's "The Pot Geranium", one of his best poems, to understand how strongly the poet felt that imagination can transcend physical limitations.  Nicholson contracted TB in his teens and at times he was confined not just to Millom but to bed rest in his attic bedroom.  Yet -

          ... It is the Gulf Stream
         That rains down the chimney, making the soot spit: it is the Trade Wind
         That blows in the draught under the bedroom door.
         My ways are circumscribed, confined as a limpet
         To one small radius of rock; yet
         I eat the equator, breathe the sky, and carry
         The great white sun in the dirt of my finger nails.

I wonder if there is a Nicholson influence in these lines from Walcott's "Spring Street in '58"

         Dirt under the fingernails of the window ledge,
         in the rococo ceiling, grime
         flowering like a street opera

Norman Nicholson was encouraged by T S Eliot, who became his publisher at Faber and Faber.  Nicholson shared the prestigious Cholmondely Award with Brian Jones and Seamus Heaney.  He received the Queen's Gold Medal for Poetry in 1977 and the OBE for services to literature in 1981.  He was invited to Helen Sutherland's artistic and intellectual gatherings at Cockley Moor, near Ullswater, along with Kathleen Raine, Elizabeth Jennings and David Jones, amongst others.  He recognised the quality of Ted Hughes' early work and the two poets became friends. Hardly a marginalised writer.

In 2012 Nicholson's poetry was included in Writing Britain: Wastelands to Wonderlands, a major exhibition at the British Library in London.  "Hodbarrow Flooded" and "Millom Ironworks" were included in the section "Post-industrial landscapes" and "To the River Duddon" in the "Waterlands" section.

Contemporary interest in the environment, ecopoetics and "edgelands" makes Norman Nicholson's poetry ripe for reassessment in the year of the centenary of his birth.  That seems appropriate for a poet who always took the long view - in decades, generations, centuries.