Monday, 31 August 2015


Fifty years ago the Australian Les Murray’s first book of poems was published – The Ilex Tree.  It contains two of my favourite poems, “Noonday Axeman” and “Spring Hail”.  Since then he has produced a wonderful body of work, full of invention, wit and compassion.   Blake Morrison’s description of him as “one of the finest poets writing in English, one of a superleague that includes Seamus Heaney, Derek Walcott and Joseph Brodsky” has often been repeated.  Les Murray is the only one of the quartet who has not won the Nobel Prize for Literature, an honour he surely deserves. 

Now, half a century and several collections later, he has published Waiting for the Past (Carcanet 2015).  I bought it as soon as it came out and I was not disappointed.   Whatever Les Murray writes about, from international race horses to typewriters, from bereavement to vertigo, he always surprises and makes you think – hard.  At 76 he does not funk the subjects of old age and mortality as well as crime and capitalism.  But do not think Les Murray is dismal.  His poem on the recent discovery of Richard III’s skeleton is titled “Under the lube oil” and travels by way of the Tudors and Macbeth to its brilliant last line, “Ah, William, you marvel of spin”.   Animals are always in Les Murray’s collections.  Here there are cattle dogs, “loose tongued and smiling” (“Dog Skills”) who only need a “murmured vowel” to leap back onto the tractor tray, and a set of haiku (“Bird Signatures”) which perfectly capture the character of each bird (“Tiny spinnakers/of blue wrens”). 

On Saturday night I listened to Radio 4’s Saturday Review which included a few minutes on Les Murray’s new collection.  The novelist Tracy Chevalier loved it.  She spoke about the importance of re-reading.  First she had dipped into the book, then she had read it through thoroughly, then she had gone back over poems she particularly liked.  “We don’t review enough poetry, we don’t read enough poetry.  We need to read more.”

Just as my cheers were dying down I was suddenly appalled by what I heard from the other two reviewers, both Oxbridge educated.  “I didn’t know what I was doing” (it’s a book of poetry for goodness’ sake), “I hoped the language would wash over me” (I blame Dylan Thomas for that).  One of the reviewers confessed to never reading poetry and never having heard of Les Murray.   OK, so some people don’t read poetry and there are millions who have never heard of Les Murray – that’s fine, but I wouldn’t expect them to review poetry on the BBC.  Can you imagine a journalist doing a theatre review and starting “I never watch plays and I’ve never heard of Arthur Miller”?

But such is the power of Les Murray’s poetry that both reviewers, once they had actually read the book, were really enthusiastic – “I am speechless.  He is so full of great words”; “I realised this was something absolutely extraordinary.”   

Then on Sunday afternoon the teatime poetry slot on Radio 4 avoided the soft option and broadcast a programme entitled Poems from Syria.  About half the inhabitants of Syria are displaced from their homes by the “permawar” (a word I have borrowed from Mohsin Hamid) that has taken over their country. 

Contemporary Syrian poetry belies Auden’s much quoted words, “Poetry makes nothing happen.”  In Syria, I learnt, writing a poem can be as dangerous as carrying a gun.  So many have disappeared – writers, journalists, poets. 
Here are some of the words and ideas I wrote down as I listened to the programme:
“For me poetry is a cure – a balance between destruction and construction”;
A child in the snow in a refugee camp imagining a sunny sky and butterflies;
A poem from the viewpoint of the mother of an architecture student killed on his exam day when the University at Aleppo was bombarded by Assad regime soldiers;
“I need a new language, existing language cannot convey what is happening – it is outside humanity, outside the imagination”;
“Longing has become my religion, Syria is my homeland, Syria is my mother and father”;
“My soul will fly over the ruins of my house, but I will rebuild the house”;
“Syrians still know how to dream.”

At times the programme was searingly unbearable, but bravo to Mike Embley for this incredible broadcast.  It needs to be heard.

LISTEN AGAIN: Both Saturday Review and Poems from Syria can be heard on BBC iplayer.

Wednesday, 19 August 2015


“Why are so many male poets also birders?” asks Sheenagh Pugh in her excellent interview with Steve Ely. 

“I can think of half a dozen male poets I know or know of, who are keen birdwatchers, and not a single woman poet.”  Steve Ely replies, “It’s true – David Morley, Gregory Leadbetter, and Gerry Cambridge come to mind straight away.”

That was a challenge I couldn’t ignore.  I thought immediately of Kathleen Jamie (“The Dipper”, “The Swallow’s Nest” and “Flight of Birds” to name but three of her bird poems) and the way birds are, in her words, “the animating spirit” of her prose book Findings. 

On the internet I found Simon Armitage and Tim Dee’s list from The Guardian of the 10 best bird poems – groans – only one woman poet on the list, Gillian Clarke (“Curlew”).  I remembered Gillian’s beautiful prose/poetry memoir “All Lost Things Lie Under Closing Water”.  It begins “For a year I have observed a family of mute swans”.

Browsing in Toppings’ bookshop on a visit to Bath last week I came across Twelve Poems about Birds (Candlestick Press).  Here the male/female ratio was slightly better: Elizabeth Bishop, Emily Dickinson, Lynne Wycherley, Karin Koller. 

Who else?  Birds are a recurring strand in the work of Katrina Porteous and her radio piece “Late Blackbird” is build from the sounds of a blackbird’s song.  Ruth Padel’s prose and poetry book The Mara Crossing is about migration, and includes dunlin, osprey, swallow and humming bird.  “Dunlin” is written from the viewpoint of the bird in the flock –
“Then the V, and my wing pushes down
  making upwash off the tip
  which my neighbour taps
  and gets his lift for free.”

I re-read Anne Stephenson’s “Buzzard and Alder” and Christine Evans’ “Watching Skylarks”.  At which point I stop flicking through the poetry books on my bookshelves and think a bit more about this term “birders”.  In winter I see them out on the salt-marsh watching the Solway waders (sometimes for hours at a time – flasks and sandwiches essential).  They have the latest in binocular optics and cameras with very long lenses.  They wear dark green.  I’m not knocking them – I know they contribute a lot to ornithology.  But usually the majority are men.

I’ve written bird poems myself – “Storm petrels at Mousa Broch”, “Crane” (a random sighting from the footpath across the Campsfield bird reserve), “Swallows”, “Sterna Paradisaea” (arctic tern) are all in my first collection.  The red kites I saw last month near Castle Douglas have made it into a new poem.  I love watching birds and like to learn about them but I would not call myself a proper bird-watcher. 

I wonder how many of the women poets I have listed would actually think of themselves as birders?  Perhaps there is a gender difference.  In Findings Kathleen Jamie writes: “Between the laundry and the fetching kids from school, that’s how birds enter my life.  I listen.  During a lull in the traffic, oyster catchers.  In the school play-ground, sparrows – what few sparrows are left – chirp from the eaves.  There are old swallows’ nests up there.  It’s late April, but where are the swallows?  The birds live at the edge of my life.  That’s okay.  I like the sense that the margins of my life are semi-permeable.  Where the peregrines go when they ‘re not at their rock ledge, I couldn’t say.”   Observation, detail – essential to poetry.

You can read Sheenagh Pugh’s interview with Steve Ely at

Kathleen Jamie’s “The Dipper” is on the Poetry Foundation website

Gillian Clarke’s “All Lost Things Lie under Closing Water” is at

Monday, 10 August 2015


"But why this fascination? The many returns
to this place? A comfort? Seeming timeless moments
when stood here in the sweep of the mountains."
("Cwm Nantcol")

I was saddened to hear of the death last month of Lee Harwood aged 76.  I met him at Grasmere in June last year (I asked him to sign my copy of his Selected Poems) and we discovered a shared love of the landscape of North West Wales.

He had the slim wiry build of a climber.  He read calmly and clearly, while his eyes seemed to look beyond the here and now.  I was fascinated by the dream-like, painterly quality of of his poetry, the simple, unflashy way he described the natural world and the fragmentary form of the poems which could change suddenly from the impersonal or political to the intensely personal.

I went home and began to read the Selected Poems (Shearsman 2008).  Their structure is noticeable for "zigzag" or "collage" effects (Lee's words).  For example, "Dreams of Armenia", a powerful poem in memory of the Armenians killed in the genocides of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, includes lists of dates intercut with apparently non-sequential lyrics addressed to a lover with "long black hair" and "deep brown eyes".  It is only near the end of the poem that the different parts of the poem come together -
"They would do this to you, my love,
And to our son."

Lee Harwood was no stranger to death.  "On the Ledge" and "For Paul/Coming out of winter" were written in memory of his friend, Paul Evans, who had a fatal climbing accident when they were climbing together.  The poems in memory of his baby daughter are intensely moving -
"dear daughter              ghost in my head" ("Pagham Harnour, Spring").

That mid-line gap is used in several poems to great effect.  The poet needs a breath, some sort of division, where punctuation or a line break would be too abrupt and would leave a short line too isolated.

There is another side to Lee Harwood's work - playfulness and joy.  "Gifts Received: Six Poems for Friends" incorporates a Mexican bus ticket in the text of section 5.  He imagines
"The brightly coloured bus
- trinkets jingling, saints swaying
all the music the driver could want"
alongside the humour of the words on the bus ticket "Utopia Real".

"Gorgeous - yet another Brighton poem" rejoices in the summer weather, the happiness he shares with people on the beach, the sunset over the sea,
"The air so soft and warm,
like fur brushing my body."

In an interview Lee Harwood said that when he gave a reading "I always try to keep in mind ... that I'm talking to, talking with, people, the individuals in the audience ... I love the natural music of ordinary speech, and trust it."  I am sorry that he is no longer here but his poems live on and linger in my mind.

Sunday, 2 August 2015


"Philip concentrated on the poem sheet and hunched forward like a man on a Harley Davidson coming down the road at ninety."

That's Seamus Heaney's description of Philip Hobsbaum's chairing of The Group, the famous poets' workshop which met in Belfast in the 1960s.

Poets meeting together, sharing each other's work, offering advice and opinions on new poems - to me that's an important part of my writing life.

Some years ago I was invited to join the Cumbrian Poets' workshop, which I still attend.  It was my first experience of reading my poems to fellow writers - and it felt like taking my clothes off in public.  But after a short time I came to value the "crit" and (I hope) improve my poems as a result.  Sometimes I would come away feeling I had been to a free masterclass.

I have been going to two monthly workshops on a regular basis for some time and I have recently started going to a third.  Each workshop is different.  On Monday I went to a meeting of the newest group, the North Cumbria Stanza group, set up by Nicola Jackson.  I went to the inaugural meeting a few weeks ago when it was decided that the core business of the group would be to share and comment on each other's poems, but perhaps do other activities from time to time.

The group meets in a beautiful old cottage in a village high up in the Eden Valley, where the land and the lanes rise to meet the brown slopes of the Pennines.  Perhaps the setting contributes to the relaxed atmosphere.  Nicola is a relative newcomer to poetry workshops herself and is well aware how daunting it can be to attend one for the first time.  So she is very keen that people should start their comments "with what they like about the poem" and that "all comments must be constructive, thoughtful and kind."

There are phrases that I remember from Monday night, phrases with that imaginative spark which gives life to a poem - "milky darkness", "forbidden play its flame", "the entrance chant to a world".  I enjoyed meeting other writers at the group and sharing their poems.

Nicola had a photo and a write-up in the local paper (the News and Star) - the journalist wrote that the new North Cumbria stanza group was "a response to the current upsurge of interest in poetry across the country."  Now all we need is the Harley Davidson.

For more information on the North Cumbria stanza group:
go to Poetry Society Stanza, scroll down to Stanza Groups and click on Cumbria.