Wednesday, 26 April 2017


A few days on the Llŷn Peninsula last week and I delighted in the prolific spring flowers.  Blackthorn blossomed along narrow lanes; wood anemones, primroses and violets flourished on grass verges.  Beneath the trees of Nanhoran woods bluebells were a deep azure blue as far as the eye could see, the colour like a haze hovering above the ground (Christine Evans’ poem ‘Bluebells in Nanhoran’ – in Growth Rings – captures them perfectly).  And of course everywhere there was the coconut scent of gorse and brilliant splashes of yellow gorse flowers.  To me gorse gold is a separate colour.

Graham Sutherland’s ‘Gorse on a Sea Wall’ is on the cover of Too Brave to Dream, the latest posthumous gathering of poems by R S Thomas.  These previously unpublished poems were discovered between the pages of two books, Art Now by Herbert Read (1933) and Surrealism, essays edited by Read (1936).  The poems have been dated to between 1987 and 1993, and were interleaved with the paintings to which they refer.   The dating is evidenced by the reverse of the poems which are typed on previously used paper (the notes in the book reveal the fascinating minutiae on the reverse of the reused paper – letters, draft poetic fragments, jottings).

The book is beautifully produced by Bloodaxe in a perfect-bound square format paperback with good reproductions of the relevant picture alongside each poem – excellent value at £12.

Ekphrasis (a verbal description of a visual work of art) is a good escape from writer’s block and R S Thomas admitted that he sometimes wrote poems on paintings ‘to get myself back into writing’ during ‘a blank period’ of ‘poetic dryness’.

R S Thomas’s wife, Elsi, herself an accomplished artist, was not enthusiastic: ‘A painting is paint not words ... I think Between Here and Now [an ekphrastic collection published in 1981] is not a good idea because it deals with the meaning behind the painting, not with the paint – for he had never seen any of them.  What a tangle, quite impossible to express.’  Perhaps these comments suggest the tensions within the Thomas household rather than the quality of the poems.

In Too Brave to Dream it is the meanings Thomas finds behind the paintings that make the poems so interesting.  They are ‘a conversion experience, since [they] involve translating one’s response from one medium, one language, to another, which is profoundly different’ (as M Wynn Thomas said of the reverse process of artists producing work to accompany R S Thomas’s poems in the exhibition  Inspiration held at Plas Glyn y Weddw in 1995).

In Edvard Munch’s ‘House in Aasgaardstrand’ (1905) the poet makes us observe the figures in the bottom right hand corner:
 ‘who, in anticipation of time

   as though like the Gestapo
   it would arrive in
   its van to take them away,
   have gone underground.’

Some of the poems have an added dimension of intertextuality.  On Eugène Berman’s ‘Evening in Venice’ (1931) R S Thomas writes of ‘the author/of the death of a young man’, an allusion to Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice.  There are references in other poems to Plato, Shakespeare, the Bible, Greek myth, Dostoevsky, Wallace Stevens.

The poems have the economy and simplicity of form and the intuitive fracturing line-breaks that are hallmarks of R S Thomas’s work.  Unusually there are only three references to God.  Here is the poet on Yves Tanguy’s ‘The Extinction of the Species’ (1936):

   ‘... the appearance
    is of a landscape God
    looked at once and from which
    later he withdrew his gaze.’

Several of the paintings – and their accompanying poems – are disturbing.  The title of the collection is taken from the poem on Henry Moore’s ‘Shelter Drawing’ (1941) of sleepers in the London underground during the Blitz.  Survivors poke amongst the remains of ‘others/who were too brave to dream’.  Dreaming here suggests escapist fantasy and not facing up to reality.  Perhaps the most shocking poem is the scatological response to André Derain’s ‘Portrait of the Artist’.

But there is ‘love that will bring on the thaw’ at the end of the poem on Jindřich Štyrský’s ‘Man Fed on Ice’ (1934) and the poem on Graham Sutherland’s ‘Gorse on a Sea Wall’ (1939) is one which came alive for me this week:

   ‘Gorse is gorse.
    It never goes off
    the gold standard, smells
    warm and insinuating

    as a creature with fur.’

Thursday, 20 April 2017


In a week when every news bulletin seems to ratch up another shock 'The Great Passon' restored a sense of perspective. 
What a wonderful BBC radio 4 play this was - based on Johann Sebastian Bach's composition of the St Matthew Passion in 1727.  Whatever one's belief or lack of it the play was a moving imagining of the creation of this great work of music.  The play provided an intimate view of the Bach household with his wife Anna Magdalena smoothing over troubled waters, rehearsing wobbly singers and coping with the stillbirth of her child.  Bach came over as younger, less forbidding and more vulnerable than the famous portraits of him as an irascible bewigged middle aged man.  He still lived life on a short fuse but Anna Magdalena knew he was a driven man ('Nothing is ever enough' he says towards the end of the play) but there were also moments of great tenderness between him and his young wife.
We heard sections of the St Matthew Passion throughout the play and a good long chunk at the end.  These were performed by the choristers of St Mary's music school and the incomparable Dunedin Consort.  The music of the Passion is breath-stopping.
There is another 25 days to catch James Runcie's brilliant play on iplayer, with Simon Russell Beale as Bach and Melody Grove as Anna Magdalena.  Highly recommended.

Friday, 14 April 2017


The pick of the bunch - the Scottish Poetry Library has just published its annual guest-selected 20 "Best Scottish Poems", this time edited by Catherine Lockerbie.  

It's a wonderfully varied list and balanced equally between male and female poets. The poems are all on the SPL website, together with comments by the writer and the selector, and sometimes with a recording of the poet reading his/her work ("Outwith" is brilliantly performed by Katie Ailes). 

The subject matter includes the personal (Michael Faber's "Don't hesitate to ask"), social comment (Pippa Little's refugee poem "For Refuge" and Kate Tough's "People made Glasgow" are not to be missed), animals (sheep, pony, herring gull, cat).  There are poems on physics (J O Morgan's "We used to think the universe was made of" and Pippa Goldschmidt's "Physics for the unwary student") and list poems (Claire Askew's "Catalogue of my Grandmother's Sayings" and Andy Jackson's "Enquiry Desk").   There is a wry humour to several of the poems.  There are poems in Gaelic and Scots and Standard English. 

I have two particular favourites.   

James Aitchison's "Anthem"is a home-coming poem, about returning to Scotland, to "this land / of small things" - dwarf ferns, newts, frogs, a mistle thrush.  It's a fine poem where ageing and mortality are part of the natural course of things.  

Angus Peter Campbell's "Aig Cladh Hallan" / "At Hallan Cemetery" is reproduced in both Gaelic and English versions.  Despite the title it is anything but gloomy:

"This is the time, he says,
  to honour everything that is alive."  

To me there was an added dimension to this poem because I have been to Hallan several times when walking in the Outer Hebrides.  What finer place could there be to be buried than this western machair shore of South Uist with the sound of corn-crakes and oyster-catchers, the profusion of machair flowers and the Atlantic waves breaking on the shore?

To browse the poems go to and click on Poetry and then scroll down to Best Scottish Poems.

Monday, 3 April 2017


and other poems

Here we are, past the equinox, and all that photosynthesis is hurtling towards summer.  Every day I notice another flower to add to the spring tally – primroses, honesty, violets, wood anemones, ladies’ smocks, bluebells, and dandelions everywhere, making the predominant grass verge colour yellow, despite the daffodils starting to brown round the edges. 

But there were still streaks of snow in north facing gullies on Skiddaw today as I drove towards Cockermouth.  The literature discussion group I started several years ago is still going strong.   Today we all brought a spring poem to share.  I was both surprised and delighted to be invited to read my own poem “This crazy time of year” from The Art of Gardening.    It’s encouraging when people remember my poems!  I made a list of the other poems that were shared:
e.e. cummings “Spring is like a perhaps hand” [never use ‘perhaps’ is common creative writing advice!]
Seamus Heaney “Death of a naturalist”
John Clare “Peewit’s nest”
Edward Thomas “Adlestrop”
Gerard Manley Hopkins “Pied Beauty”
Robert Browning “Home Thoughts from Abroad”
Philip Larkin “At Grass”
John Clare “Summer Amusements”
Gillian Clarke “Miracle on St David’s Day”.

My poem includes the lines
   “In sandy fields ribbed with green
     lapwings tumble, polishing
     their wit with constant repetition”.
But this spring I have not seen or heard lapwings and neither had anyone else.  They are on the UK red list of conservation concern.  But we saw them very clearly in John Clare’s poem, “The peewit’s nest”.  He describes the nest on the bare earth, the greenish eggs speckled with different colours (including “chocolate” prompting speculation as to where Clare would have seen/consumed this luxury item), the chicks newly hatched running around with half a shell on their heads.  The flocks must have been numbered in their thousands in Clare’s day.

I was going to read Les Murray’s “The Broad Bean Sermon” (reprinted in On Bunyah which I am reading at the moment) but decided to redress the gender imbalance slightly by sharing Gillian Clarke’s “Miracle on St David’s Day”, a poem which always sends shivers down my spine.  Outside the daffodils flowered high above the river Derwent, the same river which flows past Wordsworth’s birthplace a short distance upstream in Cockermouth.