Monday, 18 January 2016


When I first started this blog the list of 12 books (one for every month) was aimed mainly at my ex-students to encourage them to continue reading contemporary poetry.  I always included poetry in my adult and higher education courses.   It was very satisfying to see people who were initially indifferent or even hostile to poetry leap over the appreciation barrier and connect with the work of a contemporary writer.   I’m not sure how many of them look at this blog but I enjoy selecting the titles from the books I’ve read throughout the year.  My hope is that some of these books that have captured my imagination will delight other readers too.

Moya Cannon Keats Lives: Reading this book was one of those “Why haven’t I come across this brilliant writer before?” moments.  A perfect blend of form, language and content from an observant, thoughtful writer.  Not a terribly helpful title but it comes from a wonderful poem about having a conversation about Keats with an Amtrak railway official.

Elaine Feinstein Portraits: a writer with a long and distinguished career.  These sensitive and beautifully crafted poems show she’s known most poets worth knowing in the 20th century.  I had to google some things but it was worth it to be introduced to Mandelstam’s ‘Necklet of Bees’.  Her Polish cleaner gets a word in too.

Annie Freud The Remains: quirky, sexy, funny, sad, beautiful.  The collection is illustrated with Annie’s own paintings and well produced by Picador.  Nice to have an older poet on the New Generation Poets list. 

Philip Gross Love Songs of Carbon:  one of those poets I can’t get enough of.  The language of Love Songs is precise, incisive, strikingly original and surprising.  He’s also king of the line breaks.  This collection is right up to the standard of the T S Eliot prize-winning Water Table (2009). 

Mavis Gulliver Waymarks:  Mavis lives on the Isle of Islay and writes poetry which is accessible and keeps faith with nature.  If you like Kenneth Steven or Ruth Bidgood you will like this.

Frances-Anne King The Weight of Water:  an impulse buy on a visit to Bath.  It was worth buying this pamphlet to repay the Holbourne Museum shop for selling poetry.   The poem ‘Trace’ and the epigraph ‘A momentary identity with the sliding past’ give the key to this mini collection – these well written poems carry a trace of the past, often with a hint of the unexplained or the supernatural.

Zaffar Kunial Faber New Poets 11:  when Zaffar arrived at Grasmere for what turned out to be the Wordsworth Trust’s last poet residency Cumbrians quickly came to appreciate the work of this talented newcomer to the poetry scene.  His modest pamphlet from Faber (pity about them giving him a number and not a title) may be short on quantity but is right up there on quality.  Definitely a new poet to watch.

Paul Muldoon One Thousand Things Worth Knowing: and worth reading.  Paul Muldoon is as usual wide-ranging, serious, playful, completely confident.  His work is challenging and rewarding.  Hear him live if you can (or on YouTube).

Les Murray Waiting for the Past: Les Murray is back on form after a bit of a blip with his (nonetheless good) previous volume.  ‘Under the lube oil’ is about Richard III’s skeleton in the car park and ends with the great line “Ah, William, you marvel of spin.”  Here’s the originality and oblique look at life that is pure Murray.  But I miss the long baggy poems of his youth and their formal experiments.

Naomi Shihab Nye Tenderspot: another recent discovery for me.   Naomi is the daughter of an American and a Palestinian and this selection from almost four decades of writing is a treat for UK readers.  She notices and delights in small things and has a knack of thinking laterally.  Some of her later work is political, or rather politically unpolitical, refusing to take sides or to favour the political over the personal. 

Tomos Tranströmer New and Collected Poems translated by Robin Fulton.  The late Tomos Tranströmer was Swedish and won the Nobel prize for poetry.  This bumper volume includes his classic ‘Schubertiana’.  He uses amazing metaphors and his poetry inhabits a world where nature can morph into dream.  Sometimes surreal, always inspiring.

I’m ending with a book which is a blatant cheat on this list – Ian Bostridge’s Schubert's Winter Journey (see my post of 25 October 2015).  It’s an exposition (and much more) of the poems and music of Schubert’s Winterreise and one of the books I have greatly admired this last year.

Now read on!

Saturday, 2 January 2016


A Happy New Year to you all!

I’ve just returned from a family gathering in the Cotswolds.  It was a world away from the sodden greyness of my home in Cumbria.  I was staying in a converted water mill by the side of a diminutive river Thames – really just a stream flowing from the nearby Thames Head.  The rushing water was a constant undersound to our comings and goings.  We explored the field paths, the river path and the little villages of Somerford Keynes, Pool Keynes and Ewen.  I enjoyed being able to go for cross-country walks without having to spend ten minutes putting on multiple layers, waterproofs, wellies.  It was warm for midwinter, so warm that daffodils were a foot high with tight spears of buds ready to open in a week or two.  Some wild plants were already in flower – celandines, primroses, white dead nettle (lots of those – flowers April to June and autumn according to Keble Martin).  And it was light – a few degrees south, pale skies and that ubiquitous yellow stone.  Years ago when I worked in Oxford and my parents lived in Warwickshire I would dread the winter drives home through the Cotswolds – snow often fell on the high land and drifted against the drystone walls.

The cottage was at the end of a farm track and this part of Gloucestershire is a quiet backwater.   It seemed the epitome of the landscape of lowland England and to me had the atmosphere of John Drinkwater, Edward Thomas, Ivor Gurney, Laurie Lee.  It’s a place bypassed by major routes – Shakespeare travelling through the Cotswolds on his journeys between Stratford upon Avon and London would have missed this area.  His road would have been further east through Oxford.

But it was not always so.  We spent a day in Cirencester, in Roman times the second most important town in Britain, with a population similar in number to the present.  We walked over the grassy humps and hollows of the remains of the large amphitheatre and saw the beautiful Roman mosaics and wall plaster in the museum.   At Cirencester the great roads of imperial Roman Britain intersected: the Fosse Way, Akeman Street, the Ermin Way.  Hardy’s Wessex is south of here but the road map reminded me of one of his poems:

The Roman Road

The Roman Road runs straight and bare
As the pale parting-line in hair
Across the heath.  And thoughtful men
Contrast its days of Now and Then,
And delve, and measure, and compare;

Visioning on the vacant air
Helmed legionaries, who proudly rear
The Eagle, as they pace again
                                       The Roman Road.

But no tall brass-helmed legionnaire
Haunts it for me.  Uprises there
A mother’s form upon my ken,
Guiding my infant steps, as when
We walked that ancient thoroughfare,
                                        The Roman Road.

(Thomas Hardy 1840-1928)