Thursday, 28 May 2015


“How do you know when a poem is finished?”

I was asked this question a few months ago and it’s been niggling at the back of my mind ever since.  It’s a good question and the short answer is “I don’t know”.  A poem is not a mathematical calculation which is either √ or x.

One answer would be Jonathan Swift’s definition of style: “Proper words in proper places”.  But how difficult it is to get those words and places in alignment!  So many aspects impinge on a poem – and just one word can throw a whole poem out of kilter.  T S Eliot complained about “the intolerable wrestle/With words and meanings” (“East Coker”).  He was writing part of Four Quartets during the Second World War (he was an air raid warden during the London blitz) and confessed that it was difficult “to feel confident that morning after morning spent fiddling with words and rhythms is a justified activity.”

But this is getting away from that word “finished”.  When I was asked the question I used the analogy of cutting a hedge – you think you’ve finished but when you look at your efforts you find you have to tweak that untidy little sprig which sticks out awkwardly.  Then you look again and there’s another sprig ...  When I go to a poetry workshop it is a rare poem that receives the unanimous comment, “I wouldn’t change a word”.  But sometimes I am stubborn and resist suggested changes if I am convinced that the poem would be harmed by them.

Then there’s the poem I think is finished but when I go back to it months later I find obvious infelicities that need altering.  There is an analogy with painting.  How does an artist know a painting is finished?  Lily Briscoe, at the end of Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse, knew.  Her painting had been unfinished for years but at the end of the novel, “She saw it clear for a second, she drew a line there, in the centre.  It was done; it was finished.  Yes, she thought, laying down her brush in fatigue, I have had my vision.”  Just one brush stroke completed the picture.  Such restraint.  “You don’t have to include everything” is one of the best pieces of writing advice I have received.

I’ve recently been reading W G Sebald’s The Emigrants.  The last section of the book concentrates on an artist, Max Ferber.  At night he frequently scraped from his paper or canvas much of the work he had done during the day, so much so that there was a deposit several centimetres thick on his studio floor.  He “decided the portrait was done, not so much because he was convinced it was finished as through sheer exhaustion.” 

All that scraped off paint is the artistic equivalent of the writer’s overflowing waste paper bin with its crumpled crossed out drafts.  I wonder if we should consider unfinished as normal and finished as extraordinary!

I was delighted to discover a poem by the American writer, Naomi Shihab Nye, called “How do I know when a poem is finished?”  (You can listen to Naomi reading it on youtube – search for Naomi Shihab Nye: Dear Poet 2015.  A quick google will give you the text on  You could keep altering a poem for ever but sometimes, like the blue chair and the red pillow, it just looks best that way – “So you might as well/leave it that way.”

In the last section of “Little Gidding” at the end of Four Quartets, T S Eliot describes over several lines a perfect poem.  He begins “And every phrase/And sentence that is right (where every word is at home ...)” and ends with “the complete consort dancing together”.  What a wonderful definition of a finished poem – words dancing together, but it is a perfection to strive for rather than attain. 

He prefaces the passage with the lines:
     “What we call the beginning is often the end
       And to make an end is to make a beginning.
       The end is where we start from.”
The end of a poem is a springboard for another, like the end of a movement in a piece of music where the sound hangs in the air waiting to begin again in the next movement.

Perhaps all art, subject to time as are its makers, is provisional.  Meanwhile, I must get down to finishing that poem.

Thursday, 21 May 2015


"Waking up is a parachute jump from dreams."

At least it felt like that when my alarm went off at 6am so that I could catch the early train to Edinburgh on Saturday.  

The quotation is from the opening line of Tomas Transtromer's "Prelude" (translated from the Swedish by Robin Fulton).  I was in Edinburgh to attend a discussion on Transtromer's poetry at the Saltire Society.  

I find Edinburgh's urban geography fascinating.  The Saltire Society building is reached via Fountain Close (one of those narrow pedestrian closes off the Royal Mile) and down steps into a courtyard which on Saturday morning was a well of sunlight.  The courtyard buildings are below street level, or, more correctly, the street level has risen above them over the centuries.

There were a dozen of us at the discussion, organised by the Scottish Poetry Library in the Nothing but the Poem series.  It was facilitated by Kate Hendry, though it was such a lively group that it didn't need a lot of facilitating!

I had only encountered Transtromer's work once before - in an analysis of his "Schubertiana" by Gerry McGrath (PN Review 220 Nov/Dec 2014).  Some people were totally new to his work, others quite familiar with it.  Two participants were Swedish which helped a great deal.

Tomas Transtromer was born in 1931 and won the Nobel Prize for literature.  I get the impression that he is as well-known in Sweden as Seamus Heaney in Ireland.  As well as writing poetry he was a professional psychologist and a keen pianist.  in 1990 he suffered a stroke which resulted in partial paralysis down one side.  Afterwards various Swedish composers wrote music for him to play one-handed.  He died earlier this year.

I particularly enjoyed the musical references in Transtromer's "Allegro", for example, which begins
     "After a black day, I play Haydn,
      and feel a little warmth in my hands".  
I liked the humour of "I shove my hands in my haydnpockets"  and "I raise my haydnflag".  In this poem music becomes a refuge: "The music is a house of glass standing on a slope."

We noticed recurring images and themes in the poems - light and darkness (the two extremes of the Swedish latitude, someone remarked), dragons, birds, trees, sleep, dreams, cars and traffic.  In all the poems there was an element of surprise as if Transtromer was seeing the world anew.  

Everyone round the table brought fresh insights and comparisons.  But we felt we had only dipped our toes in Transtromer's work.  I would definitely like to read more.  A big thank to the Scottish Poetry Library for an exhilirating poetry discussion.

Transtromer's work has been translated into English:
New and Collected Poems (Bloodaxe 1997) translated by Robin Fulton
The Winged Energy of Delight: selected translations (Harper Collins 2004) translated by Robert Bly
The Blue House (Thunder City Press 1987) translated by Goran Malmqvist.

Thursday, 14 May 2015


“Rain rattled
  the roof of my car
  like holy water
  on a coffin lid”

That’s the beginning of Paul Muldoon’s “Pelt” in his new collection One Thousand Things Worth Knowing.  The water certainly pelted down last week when I drove to Grasmere to hear Paul Muldoon’s poetry reading.  

The reading was a retrospective selection of poems from many years’ work, including that Muldoon classic, “Why Brownlee left” (1980).  It’s a poem set in a rural Irish past when a few acres and a pair of heavy horses was all you needed.  There’s that wonderful line break that enacts the horses standing waiting –
“shifting their weight from foot
  to foot”
but above all there’s the unsolved mystery of Brownlee’s disappearance and the tricksiness of the poem’s title.

Paul Muldoon is a charismatic reader.  His voice has a warm County Armagh timbre (perhaps with a slight American tinge after all the time he’s spent on the other side of the Atlantic).  He gives helpful introductions and reads his poems with great clarity, all the time engaging with his audience.  Every word is given its proper weight.

When I hear Paul Muldoon read I am reminded of his legendary reading at Grasmere in 2003 which ended with a virtuoso unscripted defence of contemporary poetry in reply to a somewhat biased or naïve questioner who asked “Why is this poetry?”

But last week he ended with a link between his youth in County Armagh and Grasmere.  One day his English teacher, Jerry Hicks spent the whole lesson reading a long poem aloud to the class.  It was Wordsworth’s Prelude. 
(“Meanwhile abroad
  Incessant rain was falling.”)

Read on:
You can find “Why Brownlee left” at

The current edition of PN Review carries an excellent interview with Paul Muldoon by Adam Crowthers (PN Review 223 May-June 2015)

Sunday, 3 May 2015


English translation: to write

Take a group of disparate writers, give them a pen and paper and a bit of encouragement and the result is a ferment of creative writing (thank you, everyone!).  Last week I was on a poetry masterclass at Tŷ Newydd, the National Writers’ Centre of Wales.  The tutors were Gillian Clarke, the National Poet of Wales, and Maura Dooley, Reader in Creative Writing at Goldsmiths College.  During the week Tŷ Newydd celebrated 25 years of writing courses and it was a privilege to be at the al fresco celebration in the garden with bubbly, cupcakes decorated in silver and white, and balloons.   Guests associated with the house (including David Lloyd George’s great niece) and with Literature Wales attended.  Gillian Clarke wrote and recited a specially commissioned poem.  I’m hoping all this literary magic will transfer to my own creativity!

This week, my writing batteries recharged, I am filling my notebook with observations, ideas, draft poems while staying on the Llŷn peninsula.  Every field is bordered with white and gold from blackthorn blossom and gorse flowers.  Marsh marigolds and primroses flourish along the valleys.  Thrift's pink buttons stud the cliffs.  Bluebells cast their vivid haze along grass verges and under trees, growing so thickly in Nanhoron Farm wood that they are a vivid blue lake.

I spend a long time watching a small group of choughs, two of which are prospecting an abandoned mine shaft near the shore.  Stonechats pop up on gorse bushes and chack pebbles together.  Wheatears flit from stone to stone on open moorland.  It’s been good to see song thrushes again in gardens and fields, once commonplace birds whose numbers have declined back home in Cumbria (warranting a mention in the results of the Big Garden Birdwatch).

But there are two noticeable avian absences, the cuckoo and the curlew.  Plenty of cuckoo’s boots (the bluebell – see previous post) but no cuckoo.  A farmer told me he hadn’t heard a cuckoo on the Llŷn for several years.  Have the curlews gone too?  Twenty years ago Llŷn fields were full of their flute-like music in spring.  I mourn their silence.  I hope there are still some around on the peninsula – maybe it’s because I’ve been doing more coastal walking this week that I’ve not heard them.

Each day I walk down to Porth Ysgo.  It’s where I watched the choughs and it’s the setting for my poem “Seal”.


We skitter
past derelict mine workings,
scratch through gorse –
its yellow flowers
spicing the spring air –
and leap the last stone steps
to the shore.

They’re ahead of me,
tearing off clothes,
printing the soft sand
with their feet
gasping and shrieking
as their winter skin
hits the nacreous sea.

They swim
with youth’s easy grace.
The cove’s gentle arms
enclose them.
A black float
off the headland
marks where men drown
their pots each night.

A dark head glistens –
they are joined
by another.  No one
sees or hears him arrive.
They tread water and watch
a whiskered face
shining fur
heavy shoulders
the plectrum eyes of an old man.

Weeks later, walking
past uncut oats and kale,
I hear seals out on the skerries
half a mile away.
Ghostly, amelodic,
their voices
not a lament or cry
but a cantata

of abstract sound.
The music
of sea caves and tide race,
singing for the days
we hide inland.
I think of storms
and my two sons asleep
sailing on a sea of dreams.

from The Art of Gardening (Flambard Press) © Mary Robinson 2010