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June 13, 2016

The Invisible Gift, a Selected Poems

Sarah Hymas reviews “The Invisible Gift: Selected Poems” in The Compass

There is something overwhelming about years’ worth of work bound into one book: the chatter of all thoseHedgehurst poems, all those preoccupations and the slow growth of the poet being compressed into something dangerously close to white noise. I share the reservations expressed by Jane Routh in Issue 1 of The Compass around the concept of a Selected.

This is not, however, true for David Morley’s ‘The Invisible Gift’. Morley’s focus, while elastic, comes back again and again to a tight realm: the natural world, folklore, traveller and domestic scenes. This allows the poems to layer up and build a deep resonant world and the book to open, as if it is a door, shedding light onto what is as familiar and unknown as my neighbour’s house.

The poems are taken from his four Carcanet collections, Scientific Papers (2002), Invisible Kings (2007), Enchantment (2010) and The Gypsy and the Poet (2013), covering just over ten years, so perhaps it isn’t surprising that this Selected has such cohesion. The book is sectioned, gathering poems from each collection into constituent parcels, but apart from The Gypsy and the Poet, neither books nor dates are referenced in the contents or section titles. This encourages the flow in presentation and reading of the work.

There is also a prologue and an epilogue (both taken from Enchantment). The first is ‘Hedgehurst’ which I read as a manifesto, of a kind, for the book. The latter ‘Spinning’ is a reflection on the power and fabulous nature of storytelling, a summing up, I suppose, although that does not give the poem its full due. I like how it is separate from the body of the Selected, how this gives it space and an identity that may have been lost if it were alongside companion pieces from the original book.

So, as manifesto:

I called

my name into the night. The trees

shushed me, then answered

with caterpillars baited on threads.

I called again. Moths moored

in bark-fissures flickered out,

fluttered towards me as I spoke

Naming and connecting is one of the spines of the collection as a whole: how definition brings us closer to the world we occupy. The importance of language is its ability to shape and open our understanding. This notion is explored further in a poem like ‘Kings’ where English and Romany interweave throughout the poem. There is a slight layout issue which means translations of the Romany (in footnotes) do not always sit on the same pages as the original word. I gave up flipping pages and simply read the Romany as sounds within the English ‘sense’ which was a far more satisfactory reading. That way the poem occupied itself in me as an aural, physical entity rather than the intellectual relating of a distant event.

‘Hedgehurst’ is introduced as a character from Fireside Tales of the Traveller Children. As such it makes issues of violence seem safe by setting them in this fabulous context: ‘My father flared and fumed as / I fumbled with gravities’. These issues of violence are echoed in a more familiar setting in a later poem, ‘Three’ set in kitchen and bedrooms, where another father ‘has a fist crammed with kitchen knives’ and ‘One of us is guilty of the crime of two biscuits.’ And here they hold a direct potency and pain, stripped bare in the stark electric light of the home.

But, thankfully, there is the redemptive power of love. Back to ‘Hedgehurst’: ‘I whispered my wife’s name …’

I called her again.

Moths stirred in bark-fissures.

They flickered out, flutter

towards us as I spoke her name,

as though my voice was a light.

This love is not confined to humans, as displayed in the consecutive poems ‘Osip Mandelshtam on the Nature of Ice’ and ‘Two Temperatures for Snow’. The delicate force that binds both narrators to the paradoxical abundant temporality of ice and snow is likened to a ‘force-field’, yet exposing and liberating. Such is the concentration of connection to other, the desire to understand and the rewards that come from this. Then there is the playfulness of ‘Chorus’ where the dawn chorus and birds’ activities are seen in the light of new beginnings, in this case the birth of a son.

The rook roots into roadkill for the heart and the hardware.

The tawny owl wakes us to our widowhood. The dawn is the chorus.

The repetitious litany of this poem is hypnotic, delicious, soporific. It’s probably no coincidence that images of repetition, of circular motion and circles, are found throughout the book, from creatures making circles to blacksmiths’ iron circles and the circle of the circus.

‘A Lit Circle’ is a short sequence detailing circus performers: ‘Rom the Ringmaster’, ‘Demelza Do-it-All’, ‘Kasheskoro the Carpenter’ and other high energy, breathless characters describing their skills, relationships and the prejudices against them, the factions and ‘Round it goes, this hate, hurtling around, / The question is where’s that hate going to hurtle when it’s without home,’. Coming as this sequence does after another sequence, about Papusza, Romany name for the poet Bronis ława Wajs, traveller and performer who suffered terrible injustice and persecution through her life, preempts the epilogue’s declaration of the importance of creative expression in people’s spiritual strength and salvation.

The sonnet sequence from The Gypsy and the Poet explores how this creative expression may come about. Again there is a connection with nature, a listening that enables the entrance to a deeper understanding. Where at first, the gypsy Wisdom Smith

… leans against an ash tree, shouldering his violin,

slipping the bow to stroke the strings that stay silent

at distance. All John Clare hears is a heron’s cranking

Wisdom watches the poet’s continued writing, frustration and ‘scribbling pen’ and draws him to his world of tobacco and music, his way of seeing what is ‘Deepest of the Deep’ what is surface, what is love and who and what he is writing for. It is an almost comic sequence, playing formality off instinct, class and society off natural law that ultimately presses its beliefs and ethics into and between lines. ‘I call out to my child, and he is everywhere, and she is everyone.’

The Invisible Gift is a fitting testament to a poet whose work over the last decade or so shows a tracing of origins and deep connections.

June 12, 2016

John Clare's Heirs

‘John Clare’s Heirs’ by Stephen Burt from “The Boston Review”

Probably nobody wishes they had been John Clare. The son of an agricultural laborer and JCan illiterate mother in tiny Helpston, Northamptonshire, Clare (1793–1864) had only the barest schooling. After finding, at age thirteen, “a fragment” of James Thomson’s long poem The Seasons (1730), Clare “scribbled on unceasing,” drafting his own poems in fields and ditches. Helped by a vogue for peasant poets, his Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery (1820) likely sold more than 3,000 copies in a year. Visits to London literati, and three more books, ensued, despite diminishing sales. In 1832 Clare, his wife, and their six children left Helpston for another village, a few miles off, where he never felt at home. Five years later Clare was declared insane and confined to an asylum. In 1841 he escaped and walked home, sleeping under culverts and trudging twenty miles a day. Clare spent the rest of his life in another asylum, “disowned by my friends and even forgot by enemies,” though in some years he continued to write. At times he thought he was Lord Byron. His late poems can present a scary sense of disembodied, empty confusion.

And yet most of Clare’s voluminous poetry, early and late, mad and sane, exults in what he saw firsthand outdoors: crops, wildflowers, birds, mammals, and fellow laborers, all threatened by the Enclosure Acts of the early 1800s, which turned shared fields and forests into private property. Before enclosure, Clare wrote in the manuscript version of “October” (1827),

Autum met plains that stretched them far away

In uncheckt shadows of green brown & grey

Unbounded freedom ruld the wandering scene

No fence of ownership crept in between

To hide the prospect from the gazing eye

Its only bondage was the circling sky

(Note the misspellings, which his printed books correct; some modern editors, led by Eric Robinson, restore the manuscript usage.) The wonder that Clare found in unspoiled, unenclosed landscapes was something like the wonder he found in childhood, with an unphilosophical glow:

We sought for nuts in secret nook

We thought none else could find

And listened to the laughing brook

And mocked the singing wind;

We gathered acorns ripe and brown

That hung too high to pull,

Which friendly windows would shake a-down

Till all had pockets full.

He also portrayed the gypsies, now called Roma, as “a quiet, pilfering, unprotected race” whose language he claimed he could speak. Almost everything that could have seemed, to a nineteenth-century reader, like a reason to count Clare as minor, or not to read him, makes him a resource for poets today. “Bard of the fallow field / And the green meadow,” as he called himself, Clare remained closely attentive to what we now call his environment, what he called “nature,” in a way that is neither touristic nor ignorant of agricultural effort. He saw tragic ironies all over the place, but he never sought verbal ironies himself: he is about as sincere (if not naive) as poets get. Clare seems to have benefited from few of the changes wreaked on the planet since the invention of the steam engine and cannot be blamed for whatever brought them about: he may be the last significant white Anglophone poet for whom that was true.

Better yet, Clare’s apparently unorganized—but minutely observed—poetry looks like a model for poets who want to stay true to a material world while rejecting the hypotactic, well-made structures that earlier generations preferred. Clare’s poems, Stephanie Weiner writes in her study of his legacy, “insist on their origin in real acts of perception” even though “he seems deliberately to court unboundedness.” John Ashbery loves him: in his 1969 prose poem “For John Clare,” “There is so much to be seen everywhere that it’s like not getting used to it, only there is so much it never feels new.” Twenty years later, Ashbery called Clare’s verse “a distillation of the natural world with all its beauty and pointlessness, its salient and boring features preserved intact.” The distinguished scholar Angus Fletcher found in the incontrovertibly English Clare—and in Ashbery and Walt Whitman—what Fletcher called A New Theory for American Poetry (2004), all about the anti-hierarchical, centerless, “self-organizing and nonlinear . . . . environment-poem.”

No wonder some poets now work with Clare in mind. The sonnets of The Gypsy and the Poet (2013), by the English writer David Morley, dramatize Clare’s meetings with the Romany leader Wisdom Smith:

Clare gazes at the fire. Wisdom cradles the poet’s cup and stirs

and stares at the tea leaves: ‘Our lives are whin upon this heath

whose growing makes one half of heaven and one half earth.

You desire an earthly heaven, John, and will find it in Helpston.

The leaves also say you are welcome to my fire—and to this cup.’

‘You read a world from so little,’ thinks Clare. And the Gypsy looks up.

…Morley weaves Romany lore and language (often untranslated) into his poems; a trained biologist, he also corrals the horticultural details. Morley’s wise, witty, circuitous Gypsies seem better adapted to the land than Clare himself, though his written words may outlast their music and speech: “Wisdom Smith tugs corks on two bottles. He pulls a long face. / ‘John, I know no man more half-in or half-out of your race. . . . / We die if we do not move, whereas John—John, you would die.” In their low-pressure conversation, their unobtrusive hexameters, their samples of English and Roma customs and landscape, Morley’s poems draw winningly on aspects of Clare that no American poet could use...

June 11, 2016

The Dynamics of Birdsong

Ken Head reviews ‘The Gypsy and the Poet’ for “Ink, Sweat and Tears”

The strands of David Morley’s thought in this collection are rich and various. hedgelayingOn the one hand, he makes use of ... his knowledge of the Romani dialect in which he sometimes writes. On the other, the poems in the book’s first and third sections work to develop an insight into the real-life friendship between John Clare, the poet, and Wisdom Smith, the gypsy, material for which Morley draws from Clare’s journals and emphasises in the title of the opening sonnet, “Wisdom Smith Pitches his Bender on Emmonsales Heath, 1819″. The central section of the book, by contrast, is concerned to demonstrate the validity of Clare’s own belief in the creative forms of nature itself: “I found the poems in the fields/ And only wrote them down.” There is concrete poetry here and experiments in what George Szirtes has described as “the dynamics of birdsong”. These elements constitute a complex mix, the source material for which, it’s probably fair to say, is not well known, a particular difficulty, I felt, with the epigraphs taken from traditional Traveller songs and The Book of Wisdom of the Egyptians, for which no translation is offered because, as the notes make clear, “meaning may be found within the poems.” True enough. Both in content and form, the poems work hard to be accessible, but even given the problems of translation, I should have preferred to make my own judgement as to the relationship between each epigraph and the content of the poem related to it.

The collection, sixty-four poems in all, is bookended with two italicised sonnets which seem to me to define the basis of the entire project. In the first, “The Invisible Gift”, Morley describes the way in which, he believes, Clare went about making poems: “John Clare weaves English words into a nest/ and in the cup he stipples rhyme, like mud/ to clutch the shape of something he can hold/ but not yet hear; and in the hollow of his hearing,/ he feathers a space with a down of verbs/ and nouns heads-up.” It is a joyous creative process, craftsmanlike and unpretentious, that is being described, although at the other end of the collection, “The Gypsy and the Poet” makes clear the agonies a compulsion to write may bring with it: “Shades shift around me, warming their hands at my hearth./ It has rained speech-marks down the windows’ pages,/ gathering a broken language in pools on their ledges/ before letting it slither into the hollows of the earth.” Morley may, perhaps, be speaking of his sense of his own predicament here, caught between cultures, struggling with the notion of belonging, although what he writes is clearly, he believes, also true for Clare. The point, well made throughout the Wisdom Smith sonnets, is especially clear in “An Olive-Green Coat”: “John Clare longs to look the part, the part a poet can play/ – no part labourer. He stares at a tailor’s display, his money/ gone, his hands numb with the vision of further toils.”

Clare’s struggles with poverty, lack of education, his sense of isolation, the misery and depression these forced him to live with and his eventual decline into mental illness, are well documented and commemorated poignantly in what may be, if not his best, then certainly his best known, most anthologized poem, “I am”: “I am – yet what I am, none cares or knows;/ My friends forsake me like a memory lost:/ I am the self-consumer of my woes -”. Morley’s poems, however, in bringing together the very different mindsets of poet and gypsy, both of them, in material terms, impoverished, both living close to wild nature, but in other ways so dissimilar, create a dynamic that also highlights the love of nature, the life and energy, which readers familiar with Clare’s work will know predominate throughout his writing. “Mad” makes the point well: “Wisdom Smith smiles into his steaming bowl: ‘March Hares/ grow spooked in their bouts, so tranced by their boxing,/ you can pluck them into a sack by the wands of their ears!’/ John Clare hungers. He hugs his bowl and starts writing/ on the surface of the stew with a spoon. ‘Let the hare cool/ on the night wind,’ urges the Gypsy. ‘Sip him but do not speak.’ ”

In what Wisdom Smith teaches, or tries to teach, Clare, there is Romani lore that has been passed down through generations: how to survive in a world that is always indifferent and may well be hostile, how to enjoy it nonetheless, how to learn who and what are trustworthy and who and what may not be. As Smith says in “A Walk”, ” ‘I know no more than a child, John,/ but I know what to know …’ “ There are many similar examples, moments when the practical gypsy spells out the lessons of life to the brooding, insecure poet: ” ‘I envy your free-roving,’ John Clare sighs to Wisdom Smith./ ‘To have the wide world as road and the sky and stars as your roof.’/ ‘That bread in your mouth, brother,’ butts in the Gypsy, ‘is ours/ because I bought it with my muscles and my calluses this morning./ Man, the day gads off to market with the dawn and everything/ sells itself under the sun: woods, trees, wildflowers and men.’ ”

This book, to which my one thousand words haven’t begun to do justice, is the most interesting new poetry I’ve read this year; it’s a delight, a testament to what is important, not only in English poetry, but in life also: ” ‘Poor John,’ whispers the Gypsy, ‘a quaking thistle would/ make you swoon.’ ‘Truth is, Wisdom, a thistle still could!’/ laughs the poet. And the friends snort and drink to the night./ Clare snores beneath his blanket. Wisdom rises from the earth./ Their fire is all there is to show. Orion stares down on the heath./ He searches for their world with a slow sword of light.”

August 06, 2013

The Gypsy and the Poet

by Peter Blegvad for cover

John Clare, Wisdom Smith and Me

I’d finished a trilogy of books for Carcanet, and I had no idea what I was going to do next. What poet really does? I had been invited by New Networks for Nature, an alliance of creators whose work draws strongly on the natural environment, to perform at their annual gathering. My reading took place in Helpston Church. Afterwards, I sat down by John Clare’s grave and had a little chat with him.

Back home, I re-read Jonathan Bate’s biography then I read Clare’s Notebooks. Because Clare thinks nobody’s going to be reading them, he sounds more at ease with himself - a real, living voice surges through. He sows the earth for unwritten poems and even for an unpublished prose book about the natural history of Northamptonshire called Biographies of Birds and Flowers.

The Notebooks also show the presence of Gypsies in Clare’s life. I am partly Romani, I write in Romani dialect, and am alert to anything Gypsy. Clare liked Gypsies. He liked them at a time when it was acceptable for a clergyman to write in the local paper, “This atrosious tribe of wandering vagabonds ought to be made outlaws and exterminated from the earth”. Gypsies liked the poet back: ‘As soon as I got here the Smiths gang of gipseys came and encampd near the town and as I began to be a desent scraper we had a desent round of merriment for a fortnight’. A fortnight of merriment is not gained unless the Gypsies trusted this local poet - with his fiddle and pen – completely.

Clare also sought them out for stories, songs and tunes. And one character keeps cropping up in the Notebooks, a Gypsy called Wisdom Smith: ‘Finished planting my ariculas—went a botanising after ferns and orchises and caught a cold in the wet grass which has made me as bad as ever—got the tune of “highland Mary” from Wisdom Smith a gipsey and pricked another sweet tune without name as he fiddled it’. Wisdom was the catalyst. Next day, I went into my writing shed and found Wisdom Smith sitting in the chair, waiting for me, and I seemed to step into him, or he stepped into me. Some days I found John Clare waiting with his friend. This triple team could write a lot better than I could alone: they could turn sonnets and make them an outdoor form, an unenclosed space for singing the world into being. Clare’s example, with Wisdom Smith’s energy and – yes – his wisdom, forced me to make a step-change and write poems about the the life of love.

I allowed myself to be taken over and to trust in that transformation completely. Emmanual Levinas wrote how ‘I am most like myself when I am most like you’. It is true that once upon a time the action of writing used to take me over so completely it obliterated me. But, newly, sometimes painfully, I felt myself to be more myself than ever. Yet here I was, taken over by a gypsy and a poet. I felt as if I had lived three lifetimes, transcending the self and entering a near-constant state of negative capability that allowed me to escape the “literary” - and write from a wild love of the world and for life:


It is pleasant as I have done today to stand

... and notice the objects around us

‘There is nothing in books on this’, cries Clare.

‘I do not read, brother’, states Wisdom smiling,

‘for I will not bother with Mystery.

Worlds move underfoot. Where lives Poetry?

Look’, hums Wisdom Smith, ‘in the inner domes

of ghost orchids - how the buzzing rhymers

read light with their tongues; or in this anthill -

nameless draughtsmen crafting low rooms, drawing

no fame - except the ravening yaffle,

or fledgy starlings bathing in their crawl.

I see these worlds - lit worlds. I live by them’.

The wood-ants sting. John Clare shifts foot to foot:

‘I did not know you gave me any thought’.

‘This? All this - is nothing, John’, laughs Wisdom.

February 12, 2013

The Far Field by Theodore Roethke

The Far Field by Theodore Roethke

I dream of journeys repeatedly:
Of flying like a bat deep into a narrowing tunnel
Of driving alone, without luggage, out a long peninsula,
The road lined with snow-laden second growth,
A fine dry snow ticking the windshield,
Alternate snow and sleet, no on-coming traffic,
And no lights behind, in the blurred side-mirror,
The road changing from glazed tarface to a rubble of stone,
Ending at last in a hopeless sand-rut,
Where the car stalls,
Churning in a snowdrift
Until the headlights darken.


At the field's end, in the corner missed by the mower,
Where the turf drops off into a grass-hidden culvert,
Haunt of the cat-bird, nesting-place of the field-mouse,
Not too far away from the ever-changing flower-dump,
Among the tin cans, tires, rusted pipes, broken machinery, --
One learned of the eternal;
And in the shrunken face of a dead rat, eaten by rain and ground-beetles
(I found in lying among the rubble of an old coal bin)
And the tom-cat, caught near the pheasant-run,
Its entrails strewn over the half-grown flowers,
Blasted to death by the night watchman.

I suffered for young birds, for young rabbits caught in the mower,
My grief was not excessive.
For to come upon warblers in early May
Was to forget time and death:
How they filled the oriole's elm, a twittering restless cloud, all one morning,
And I watched and watched till my eyes blurred from the bird shapes, --
Cape May, Blackburnian, Cerulean, --
Moving, elusive as fish, fearless,
Hanging, bunched like young fruit, bending the end branches,
Still for a moment,
Then pitching away in half-flight,
Lighter than finches,
While the wrens bickered and sang in the half-green hedgerows,
And the flicker drummed from his dead tree in the chicken-yard.

-- Or to lie naked in sand,
In the silted shallows of a slow river,
Fingering a shell,
Once I was something like this, mindless,
Or perhaps with another mind, less peculiar;
Or to sink down to the hips in a mossy quagmire;
Or, with skinny knees, to sit astride a wet log,
I'll return again,
As a snake or a raucous bird,
Or, with luck, as a lion.

I learned not to fear infinity,
The far field, the windy cliffs of forever,
The dying of time in the white light of tomorrow,
The wheel turning away from itself,
The sprawl of the wave,
The on-coming water.

The river turns on itself,
The tree retreats into its own shadow.
I feel a weightless change, a moving forward
As of water quickening before a narrowing channel
When banks converge, and the wide river whitens;
Or when two rivers combine, the blue glacial torrent
And the yellowish-green from the mountainy upland, --
At first a swift rippling between rocks,
Then a long running over flat stones
Before descending to the alluvial plane,
To the clay banks, and the wild grapes hanging from the elmtrees.
The slightly trembling water
Dropping a fine yellow silt where the sun stays;
And the crabs bask near the edge,
The weedy edge, alive with small snakes and bloodsuckers, --
I have come to a still, but not a deep center,
A point outside the glittering current;
My eyes stare at the bottom of a river,
At the irregular stones, iridescent sandgrains,
My mind moves in more than one place,
In a country half-land, half-water.

I am renewed by death, thought of my death,
The dry scent of a dying garden in September,
The wind fanning the ash of a low fire.
What I love is near at hand,
Always, in earth and air.


The lost self changes,
Turning toward the sea,
A sea-shape turning around, --
An old man with his feet before the fire,
In robes of green, in garments of adieu.
A man faced with his own immensity
Wakes all the waves, all their loose wandering fire.
The murmur of the absolute, the why
Of being born falls on his naked ears.
His spirit moves like monumental wind
That gentles on a sunny blue plateau.
He is the end of things, the final man.

All finite things reveal infinitude:
The mountain with its singular bright shade
Like the blue shine on freshly frozen snow,
The after-light upon ice-burdened pines;
Odor of basswood on a mountain-slope,
A scent beloved of bees;
Silence of water above a sunken tree :
The pure serene of memory in one man, --
A ripple widening from a single stone
Winding around the waters of the world.

January 31, 2013

Almost Happiness

Writing about web page

A review of Andrew Motion, The Customs House, Faber and Faber, £12.99 Hb / £9.99 ebook, ISBN: 978-0-571-28810-6

Reading Andrew Motion’s lucid, brilliant, melancholic poetry collection The Customs House I was reminded of Edward Thomas’s moodily captivating essay ‘One Green Field’ in which Thomas realises how, ‘Happiness is not to be pursued, though pleasure may be; but I have long thought that I should recognize happiness could I ever achieve it... I never achieved it, and am fated to be almost happy in many different circumstances...’. The Customs House is a strong, searing and sad book. I think it is certainly his most achieved collection. It signals a central change to the way he is thinking and feeling in language. He is letting the world back into him. Not the public world and restive politics of the Laureateship, but a private world of understanding, humility and love. Andrew Motion is developing a late style that is far more open to possibility, one that is ‘almost happy in many different circumstances’:

The last colour to see when the sun goes down

will be blue, which now turns out to be not

only one colour but legion – as if I never knew.

from ‘Gospel Stories’

Edward Said believed the late style of creative artists ‘is what happens if art does not abdicate its rights in favour of reality’. I would argue (and I have heard the poet state as much) that Motion’s stint as Laureate pushed him to abdicate the rights of his poetry to the reality of that public responsibility. Writing of the final poems of Cavafy, Said commended ‘the artist’s mature subjectivity, stripped of hubris and pomposity, unashamed either of its fallibility or of the modest assurance it has gained as a result of age and exile’. The Customs House possesses and is possessed by a bare, pared-down tone stripped of hubris and unashamed of its fallibility. Andrew Motion has fully returned from the public exile of self-conscious art. He returns scorched but wiser. Like the poets of The English Line – Thomas Hardy, Edward Thomas, Keith Douglas, Philip Larkin, Motion himself - the mature subjectivity of tone is of course a never-to-be-realised happiness, a restlessness of feeling, a scarred understanding that yields fine, heart-rending language and the grace and pressure of precise memory:

Now wind has died in the lime trees

I have forgotten what sense they made,

but not the leaf the wind dislodged

that fell between my shoulder blades.


Motion’s poetry has always possessed an affecting tonal vulnerability. It is a quality that draws a reader closer - and to his famously hushed presence when he reads in public. It is a silence made of unwritten sentences. Of the feel of not to feel it. Almost (if not quite) of self-annihilation. Yet it is also the brilliance of concentration in which both tone and image lean into each other without falling, and hold each other and proffer some slight consolation. Like his hero Edward Thomas, Motion can create images and tones of such word-carried, world-wearied sadness that you accept their truth while simultaneously believing in their fictive grace. Truth and beauty: those dissimulators. Andrew Motion used to be their master. But in poem-sequences such as ‘Gospel Stories’, ‘Whale Music’, ‘A Glass Child’ and ‘The Death of Francesco Borromini’, Motion is now – in his late style - humble before them. The Customs House is redemptive. He has served his term. These poems are true poems.

Is the music of his poetry as finely judged as their tone? The first section of this book is something of an experiment. It comprises a series of war poems. These are ‘found poems’ – which is to say (Motion notes) ‘they contain various kinds of collaboration’. And the collaborations find their origins in oral and written reportage, and in war-time stories from veterans of the World Wars and the recent and current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. For example, in ‘The Golden Hour’ (which refers to the time required to keep a traumatised patient alive in surgery), an army surgeon addresses the reader:

For instance: one patient I remember had been in a blast situation

with no visible injury but we were not ventilating very well at all.

I put two openings in both sides of his chest with a big scalpel blade;

then I could stick my fingers in, and knew his right lung was down

because I could not feel it. However, I was now releasing trapped air

and the lung came up again. He has responded within the golden hour.

Because I could not feel it. The verbal truth of the war poems is fascinating in that their poetic music is almost completely surrendered in order to honour the spoken clarity of factual experience. This requires a sensitively engineered ear for line-break. Some of the material swings close to the prosaic, yet Motion’s deft lineation and deletions work double-time to preserve the true sense of natural speech. And Motion is generous as a translator of experience. He allows the hard-won details and voices to carry their own poetry. The voices of the war poems shift from the panoptic to a microscopic focus. Tight scenes possess intense light and energy. There is no desire to press a bright-red anti-war poetry button; no call for the trickery of literature; and no call above the quiet truths and sensibilities of those on the front-line. In terms of poetry and in terms of truth, The Customs House is an honourable, humbling achievement.

December 20, 2012

My Elizabeth Jennings story (because it is Christmas)

I liked Elizabeth Jennings and I like her poems. When I was 30 I directed my first poetry festivals. WhileEJ programming I made a decision to ask women poets to read at most of the events. I drew no attention to this engaging balance. I thought the programming made its own point. At one festival, of the 24 poets performing, 21 were women poets. The three men were programmed into one event of their own which I called “Three Male Poets”. I bought myself a Stevie Smith tee-shirt and set about hosting (my tee-shirt bore a photo of Stevie Smith; there are edgier versions available; see image below). The main performance space was a little… well, it was dull. So, using what came to hand from skips and photocopiers and craft shops, I built a high, wide self-standing frieze of poems, images and images of women poets of the last three centuries. This provided a lively backdrop to the performance area, and gave better lighting and perspective for performer and audience. What happened next? The readings were packed. Sometimes I had to turn people away. And they were really angry at being turned away. Why? Because some of the women poets I had booked simply did not get asked to do readings because these women were – women and some were old. Thus, these readings were rare appearances. In fact, there was a mini-riot before the reading by Elizabeth Jennings because of numbers trying to press in through the door. I had met Elizabeth from the train three hours earlier. Immediately we clicked. She jabbed her finger to my chest. ‘You’re wearing my *friend*!!!’ . Anyway, I introduced her to the keen, standing-room-only audience. She rose to the occasion and read with clarity, magic and total power. As the reading went on so more people took advantaSSTge of the fact we were all listening to Elizabeth to sneak in through doors and windows. By the time she came to read her final poem the room was overfull. And the audience exploded with applause when she finished. So enthusiastically! Their rapture took Elizabeth Jennings by surprise and she slipped and fell backwards. With a puma’s speed (I was 30), I was under her, breaking her fall and catching her in my arms. The applause grew louder. But as I caught her we both collided with the ‘high, wide self-standing frieze of poems, images and images of women poets of the last three centuries’. This wall of wonders trembled for a second and then, like the finale of Pink Floyd’s The Wall, collapsed around us. ‘Like an allegory’, cried Elizabeth Jennings. And the audience exploded again - and picked her out of my arms - and carried her away to be loved and adored like the hero she was.

October 23, 2012

Shortlist for 20th T.S. Eliot Prize Announced

The Poetry Book Society is pleased to announce the shortlist for the 2012 T S Eliot Prize for Poetry.

Judges Carol Ann Duffy (Chair), Michael Longley and David Morley have chosen the shortlist from the record number of 131 books submitted by publishers.

Simon Armitage The Death of King Arthur Faber

Sean Borodale Bee Journal    Jonathan Cape

Gillian Clarke Ice Carcanet

Julia Copus The World’s Two

Smallest Humans Faber

Paul Farley The Dark Film Picador

Jorie Graham P L A C E  Carcanet

Kathleen Jamie The Overhaul Picador

Sharon Olds Stag’s Leap   Jonathan Cape

Jacob Polley The Havocs  Picador

Deryn Rees-Jones Burying the Wren Seren

Chair Carol Ann Duffy said:

‘In a year which saw a record number of submissions, my fellow judges and I are delighted with a shortlist which sparkles with energy, passion and freshness and which demonstrates the range and variety of poetry being published in the UK.’

Poets’ biographies

Simon Armitage

Simon Armitage was born in 1963 and lives in West Yorkshire. He has published nine volumes of poetry, including The Universal Home Doctor and Travelling Songs, both published by Faber in 2002. He has received numerous awards for his poetry including the Sunday Times Author of the Year, one of the first Forward Prizes and a Lannan Award. His bestselling and critically acclaimed translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (Faber) was published in 2007. In 2010 Armitage was awarded the CBE for services to poetry. His last collection, Seeing Stars (Faber), was shortlisted for the 2010 T S Eliot Prize.

Sean Borodale

Sean Borodale works as a poet and artist, making scriptive and documentary poems written on location; this derives from his process of writing and walking for works such as Notes for an Atlas (Isinglass, 2003) and Walking to Paradise (1999). He has recently been selected as a Granta New Poet, and Bee Journal is his first collection of poetry. He lives in Somerset .

Gillian Clarke

Gillian Clarke was born in Cardiff , and now lives with her family on a smallholding in Ceredigion. Her collections of poetry include Letter From a Far Country (1982); Letting in the Rumour (1989); The King of Britain's Daughter (1993); and Five Fields (1998). The latter three collections were all Poetry Book Society Recommendations. She has also written for stage, television and radio, several radio plays and poems being broadcast by the BBC. Gillian Clarke's most recent poetry collection is A Recipe for Water (2009). In 2008 she published a book of prose, including a journal of the writer's year, entitled At The Source, and was named as Wales' National Poet. In 2010 she was awarded the Queen's Gold Medal for Poetry.

Julia Copus

Julia Copus was born in London in 1969. The World’s Two Smallest |Humans and her two previous collections, The Shuttered Eye and In Defence of Adultery, were all Poetry Book Society Recommendations. She has won First Prize in the National Poetry Competition and the Forward Prize for Best Single Poem. A radio version of the sequence ‘Ghost’ was shortlisted for the 2011 Ted Hughes Award for New Work in Poetry. She works as an Advisory Fellow for the Royal Literary Fund.

Paul Farley

Paul Farley was born in Liverpool in 1965. He won the Arvon Poetry Competition in 1996 and his first collection of poetry, The Boy from the Chemist is Here to See You (1998), won the Forward Prize for Best First Collection. The Ice Age (2002) was shortlisted for the T S Eliot Prize and won the Whitbread Poetry Award in 2003. In 2004, he was named as one of the Poetry Book Society’s ‘Next Generation’ poets. Further collections are Tramp in Flames (2006) and The Atlantic Tunnel: Selected Poems (2010). He currently lectures in Creative Writing at the University of Lancaster . He also writes radio drama, and several plays have been broadcast on BBC Radio. Field Recordings: BBC Poems 1998-2008 (2009) was shortlisted for the 2010 Ted Hughes Award for New Work in Poetry. His book of non-fiction, Edgelands: Journeys into England’s Last Wilderness (2010), written with Michael Symmons Roberts, won the 2009 Jerwood Prize for Non-Fiction.

Jorie Graham

Jorie Graham was born in New York City in 1950 and raised in Rome . She has published nine collections of poetry in the UK with Carcanet, most recently Sea Change (2008), Never (2002), Swarm (2000), and The Dream of the Unified Field: Selected Poems 1974-1994, which won the 1996 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. She has taught at the University of Iowa Writers ' Workshop and is currently the Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory at Harvard University . She served as a Chancellor of The Academy of American Poets from 1997 to 2003.

Kathleen Jamie

Kathleen Jamie was born in Scotland in 1962. She has published several collections of poetry, including: Black Spiders (1982), The Way We Live (1987), The Queen of Sheba (1994), Jizzen (1999), and her selected poems, Mr & Mrs Scotland Are Dead, was published in 2002. Her poetry collection, The Tree House (2004), won the 2004 Forward Prize (Best Collection), and was a PBS Choice. A travel book about Northern Pakistan, The Golden Peak (1993), was recently updated and reissued as Among Muslims: Meetings at the Frontiers of Pakistan (2002). She lives in Fife, is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and in 2010 was appointed Chair of Creative Writing at Stirling University .

Sharon Olds

Sharon Olds was born in 1942 in San Francisco . Her first collection of poems, Satan Says (1980), received the inaugural San Francisco Poetry Center Award. The Dead & the Living (1983) received the Lamont Poetry Selection in 1983 and the National Book Critics Circle Award. Her other collections include Strike Sparks: Selected Poems (2004) and The Father (1992), which was shortlisted for the T S Eliot Prize. Her last collection, One Secret Thing ( Jonathan Cape , 2009) explored the themes of war, family relationships and the death of her mother, and was also shortlisted for the T S Eliot Prize. She currently teaches creative writing at New York University .

Jacob Polley

Jacob Polley was born in Carlisle in 1975. Picador published his first book of poetry, The Brink, in 2003 and his second, Little Gods, in 2006. His first novel with Picador, Talk of the Town, came out in 2009 and won the 2010 Somerset Maugham Award. Jacob was selected as one of the Next Generation of British poets in 2004. In 2002 he won an Eric Gregory Award and the Radio 4/Arts Council ‘First Verse’ Award. Jacob was the Visiting Fellow Commoner in Creative Arts at Trinity College , Cambridge , 2005-07, and Arts Queensland’s Poet in Residence in 2011.

Deryn Rees-Jones

Deryn Rees-Jones was born in Liverpool in 1968 and was educated at the University of Wales , Bangor , and Birkbeck College , London . She is an Eric Gregory Award winner, and her collection The Memory Tray (Seren, 1994) was shortlisted for a Forward Poetry Prize for Best First Collection. Her other collections of poetry are Signs Round a Dead Body (Seren, 1998), Quiver (Seren, 2004) and Falls & Finds (Shoestring, 2008). She was selected as one of the Poetry Book Society’s ‘Next Generation Poets’ in 2004. Her critical work includes a monograph on Carol Ann Duffy, and the book of essays Consorting with Angels which accompanies Modern Women Poets (Bloodaxe, 2005). She lives in Liverpool.

October 08, 2012

Harry Mathews' "Septina

Fascinating post by JoAnne Simpson Growney, a poet and mathematician, from her blog. She writes:

Can sestina-like patterns be extended to other numbers? Poet and mathematician Jacques Roubaud of the OULIPO investigated this question and he considered, in particular, the problem of how to deal with the number 7 of end-words - for 7 does not lead to a sestina-like permutation. Rombaud circumvented the difficulty (see Oulipo Compendium -- Atlas Press, 2005) by using seven 6-line stanzas, with end-words following these arrangements:

123456 715243 674125 362714

531672 457361 246537

In ‘Safety in Numbers’, Oulipian Harry Mathews has followed Roubaud's specifications - and Mathews' septina also uses the words one, two, three, . . ., seven as end-words.

Safety in Numbers  by Harry Mathews

The enthusiasm with which I repeatedly declare you my one
And only confirms the fact that we are indeed two,
Not one: nor can anything we do ever let us feel three
(And this is no lisp-like alteration: it’s four
That’s a crowd, not a trinity), and our five
Fingers and toes multiplied leave us at six-

es and sevens where oneness is concerned, although seven
Might help if one was cabalistically inclined, and “one”
Sometimes is. But this “one” hardly means one, it means five
Million and supplies not even an illusion of relevance to us two
And our problems. Our parents, who obviously number four,
Made us, who are two; but who can subtract us from some
mythical three

To leave us as a unity? If only sex were in fact “six”
(Another illusion!) instead of a sly invention of the seven
Dwarves, we two could divide it, have our three and, just as four
Became two, ourselves be reduced to one
– Actually without using our three at all, although getting two
By subtraction seems less dangerous than by division and would also
make five

Available in case we ever decided to try a three-
some. By the way, this afternoon while buying a six-
pack at the Price Chopper as well as a thing or two
For breakfast, I noticed an attractive girl sucking Seven-
Up through an angled and accordioned straw from one
Of those green aluminum containers that will soon litter the four

Corners of the visible world – anyway, this was at five
O’clock, I struck up a conversation with a view to that three-
some, don’t be shocked, it’s you I love, and one
Way I can prove it is by having you experience the six
Simultaneous delights that require at the very least seven
Sets of hands, mouths, etcetera, anyway more than we two

Can manage alone, and believe me, of the three or four
Women that ever appealed to both of us, I’d bet five
To one this little redhead is likeliest to put you in seven-
th heaven. So I said we’d call tomorrow between three
And four p.m., her number is six three nine oh nine three six.
I think you should call. What do you mean, no? Look, if we can’t
be one

By ourselves, I’ve thought about it and there aren’t two
Solutions: we need a third party to . . . No, I’m not a four-
flusher, I’m not suggesting we jump into bed with six
Strangers, only that just as two plus three makes five,
Our oneness is what will result by subtracting our two from three.
Only through multiplicity can unity be found. Remember “We Are

Look, you are the one. All I want is for the two
Of us to be happy as the three little pigs, through the four
Seasons, the five ages, the six senses, and of the heavenly spheres
all seven.

Mathews' poem is found - along with 150 other maths-related poems - in the anthology Strange Attractors: Poems of Love and Mathematics (A K Peters, 2008), collected and edited by Sarah Glaz and JoAnne Simpson Growney.

September 28, 2012

A Farewell to English

The new home of the Warwick Writing Programme

This road is not new.
I am not a maker of new things.
I cannot hew
out of the vacuumcleaner minds
the sense of serving dead kings.

I am nothing new
I am not a lonely mouth
trying to chew
a niche for culture
in the clergy-cluttered south.

But I will not see
great men go down
who walked in rags
from town to town
finding English a necessary sin
the perfect language to sell pigs in.

I have made my choice
and leave with little weeping:
I have come with meagre voice
to court the language of my people.

from 'A Farewell to English' Part Seven by Michael Hartnett

September 23, 2012

The Crowd

And today, as you walk to the match, I am beside you.
Proud to be alive. Proud to be walking beside you,
to take our seats together.
And you know my name. You know all our names.
We are beside and between you,
our souls, invisibly visible.

We are waking. We are smiling.
We are walking in your hearts.
And we are prouder still to know today,
tomorrow, next week, month or year
you will not chant us down again.
You will not chant us down in our sorrows.
You will not chant us back into the earth.

For we left the earth where we thought we were alone
yet we are beside you, laughing and singing and unbroken.
If you were to hear me among the crowd
you would hear a song.
Were I to pass invisibly among your jostling arms,
or carried to earth, you would hear me singing with you.
If I took you to one side and told you 'you were my brother',
what would you sing to your brother?
If I took you to one side and told you 'you were my sister',
what would you sing to your sister?.
You are my brother and you are my sister.
Nothing can kill me, for I am the crowd.

And the sun shone over Merseyside, over Manchester,
over the Pennines with its skylarks and brightening becks,
over Penistone and Stocksbridge and Hillsborough.
Liverpool fans in their buses - cheering the roof off -
anticipation, faith in the day and the song of life
no stronger than your own, just scousier.

You will not chant them down again.
You will not chant them down in their sorrows.
You will not chant them back into the earth.
And today, as you walk to the match, they are beside you.
Proud to be walking beside you, to take your seats together.
And you know their names. You know all their names.

We are walking to the same match.
We are walking on the same road.
We are arriving at the same gates.
We are waiting. We are laughing. We are singing.
And we do not know it but this is joy.
Nothing can kill us, for we are the crowd.

August 11, 2012

The Site

after Mandelshtam

Why am I trailing you,

now through a pine-wood, now

through the words I write,

going nowhere fast?

There’s a gypsy encampment on the steppes,

newly moved in—sharp fires gone

by morning; the stamped ash

surrenders no clue or forwarding address.

I am in the pinewoods, trailing you.

There you were, like memory, a shackle.

Cling to me, you said.

Voronezh, January 1937

February 10, 2012

The Story of The Writers’ Room Deep Space Telescope

In its new home

See that telescope in the middle of this photograph?

This powerful Russian telescope, currently on loan to The Writers’ Room at Warwick University, has been on a fascinating literary journey.

In the early 1990s it was acquired by the poet Simon Armitage. Scanning the night skies above his native Huddersfield, Simon began writing a sequence of fifty poems. The titles were taken from the constellations he observed through this telescope’s lenses. However, his poems did not take stellar observation as subject. Cunningly, Simon used the names of the stars and their configurations to stimulate personal poems about family, relationships, work and loss. These poems were published in his collection Cloudcuckooland which he read from at Warwick University in 1999.

During the early part of the 21st century, Simon sold the telescope to the novelist Monique Roffey. Monique was then working as Centre Director of the Arvon Foundation at Totleigh Barton in Devon. Monique used the telescope to examine the brilliantly dark skies of Devon and gain inspiration.

The telescope occupied the Arvon Foundation offices for many years, sometimes being used to prompt poetry and stories during the weekly creative writing courses that took place at the centre. Many writers pass through the doors of Arvon at Totleigh; and hundreds of authors will have “played about with”, or used, this telescope during that fertile period in its journey. During this period David Morley taught a number of Arvon writing courses and greatly admired what he then christened the Armitagescope a.k.a. the Roffeyscope.

Later, Monique Roffey left Arvon and became a full-time writer, taking the telescope with her. She moved to central London , to the famous Black Sheep Co-op, and wrote the fiction (and non-fiction) that made her name and led her, later that decade, to become one of our most renowned and generous writers.

In 2005, Monique contacted David Morley to explain she was moving on to her own flat, and the telescope was too bulky to make the trip. It might have faced a sad end. So, Monique and DM arranged a ‘gift economy’ exchange: Monique wished to learn how to write poems with a little guidance from DM, and in exchange DM would adopt the telescope so long as he could somehow get to and through London , rebuild it and collect it. Which he did. One memorable rainy Sunday morning in Spring.

The telescope needed some TLC by this time. DM reconditioned the lenses, cleaned the scope inside and out, and gave it a coat of paint for good luck. The telescope then lived in DM’s writing studio for six years, making occasional sorties into his garden to study The Great Galaxy of Andromeda. These studies led to the creation of an elemental poetry workshop ‘Nightfishing for Poets’ which examines the universe and how various phenomena within it have acted as templates for the making of oral ‘literature’ in the shape of creation myths.

DM believes Warwick University's Writers’ Room is the natural home for this historical piece of literary-scientific equipment. It is not a theatre prop. It is not trivial. It is a powerful Russian. Deep space. Telescope.

And it can see the face of God.

February 07, 2012

Happy 200th Birthday to a Great Inventor


February 01, 2012

Publication Day for The Cambridge Companion to Creative Writing

from Jonathan Bate's FCUPoreword to The Cambridge Companion to Creative Writing

On Criticism and Creativity

Creative writing has been the subject of university level study in American universities and colleges far longer than it has been within British higher education. The common pattern in the American system has traditionally set the ‘writing program’ apart from the critical, historical and theoretical work of the ‘literature’ department. Typically, the writers will be employed for the drudgery of instructing students from almost every discipline in ‘freshman composition’ (how to structure an argument, a paragraph, even – remedially – a sentence) and then be rewarded with some small group teaching in which, at a more advanced level, they assist the aspirant writers of the future in the improvement of their novels, stories, scripts and poems. The academics, meanwhile, will teach a freshman survey course of the kind that used to be known in the trade as ‘from Beowulf to Virginia Woolf’ but that is now more likely to be a guided tour of competing theoretical approaches to the subject and to include a high proportion of contemporary, often international, literature; they will then teach other, more advanced courses in their specialism, which could be anything from Shakespeare to the Victorian novel to some aspect of literary theory to postcolonial women’s poetry. In terms of their ambitions for publication, the ‘writer’ will be working on, say, her latest novel and the ‘academic’ on a learned conference paper that will later be worked into a critical book for a university press. It is not unknown for the writers and the academics to neglect each other’s work and even to view their counterparts down the departmental corridor with a degree of suspicion.

There is no inherent reason why there should be such a division between criticism and creativity in English studies. Consider the higher level teaching of music and art, the disciplines of writing’s sister arts. University degrees in music do not confine themselves to questions of form, history and cultural context, as English degrees often do. They have an emphasis on technique and on practice that is rarely encountered within a traditional English degree. The serious student of music will be expected to read music, to play an instrument, to hear a shift from major to minor key. Similarly, the serious student of art will be expected to know about perspective, to discover the different properties of different materials, and (one hopes) to draw in a life-class. It is not usually demanded of literature students that they should be skilled in the literary equivalents of such techniques as playing a scale, composing a variation, sketching a nude: they are not habitually asked to scan a line of verse, compose a sonnet or sketch a fictional mise en scène. An education in the art of writing is often regarded as marginal to an education in the art of critical reading (as the agenda of most English departments used to be) or the art of cultural poetics (as the agenda of most English departments has become). But it is precisely this gap – an education in the craft of putting together words, analogous to the craft of putting together musical notes – that creative writing programmes can fill.

January 30, 2012

Walking Underwater

This was the poem selected for the 2011 Montreal International Poetry Prize, “Walking Underwater” by Australian poet Mark Tredinnick.

The winning poem was selected by former UK poet laureate Andrew Motion from a shortlist of nearly 50 poems. “This is a bold, big-thinking poem, in which ancient themes (especially the theme of our human relationship with landscape) are re-cast and re-kindled. It well deserves its eminence as a prize winner,” said Motion.

When asked to say a few words about the Montreal Prize, Mark responded: “This prize celebrates the making of poetry everywhere, in particular all of the shortlisted poems. To win it feels completely improbable. It’s a huge delight and an honour I’ll try to keep living up to in my writing.”

Walking Underwater
By Mark Tredinnick
Click here for the MP3.

For Kim Stafford

There is this quietness that hangs over North America.
As if all the days were double-glazed against themselves.
It’s uncanny. Tectonic. A kind of grief, a kind of pain
In waiting. Some sort of business unfinished. I feel it here
In the northwest, especially, though it stalked me in Toronto:
A slender quality of northern light, I guess, my southern
Self’s unused to, transposed into a season of suppressed sound,
A penumbra of silence cast by too much history, too much
Ecstatic landscape, too many plot points resolved at gunpoint,
And it feels like my life’s been lost here from the start.

I’m sorry: I’m talking out of my mood, which is jet-lagged
And dreaming heavily of what it used to think I loved.
There are plates subducting other plates on the mantle
Of my mind; there is disquiet and illness of ease. But look,
Out your windows the prayer flags have stopped
Praying, and moss deckles the edges of the oaks and firs,
Which hold out stoically inside the sweetest excuse for day-
Light I’ve ever seen. Come out with me, you say; let’s wander
Up the river. Let’s see what N’chi wana has to say about
The light… Which turns out to be a lot, and most of it profane—

The cock and the cunt, for instance, Neruda’s entanglement
Of genitals, right there, gargantuan in basalt, and wrapped in Douglas
Fir on the south bank—and glorious. The robins along the Eagle
Creek drainage seemed convinced it was spring, but the cloud
That streamed downriver on the back of the teal-blue water
And the rising wind and the narrow road coming unstuck beneath
Our feet, were all busy putting winter back in place. And for two
Hours you schooled me in the art of walking underwater; for two
Hours we carried a bright conversation all the way to the falls
And back again in rain that fell like disappointment on my head.

If you’re going to call a mountain range The Cascades, this is
What you’re going to get—their very name on the map
A long walk in the rain. But it was worth it; it nearly always is:
The afternoon crying out the grief the continent had spent
All morning—all last century, so far as I can tell—trying not to
Confess. The watershed was a Japanese watercolour at risk
Of running off the canvas, the big water carrying its muted palette
Down to the sea and taking a good part of me with it. The gorge,
It turns out, is a green sermon left largely unsaid, and as we drove
Out of it, evening lay on the river like half the psalms I never knew.

Note: The Columbia River is known by many names to the people who
live along it. To the Chinook of its lower reaches, it is known as “Wimahi”;
the Kwak’wala-speaking peoples of the river’s middle reaches call the river
“Nch’i-Wana”. Both “Wimahi” and “Nch’i-Wana” mean “the big water” or
“the big river”.

January 20, 2012

John Clare's 'The Mouse's Nest'

Harvest Mouse nest

I found a ball of grass among the hay
And proged it as I passed and went away
And when I looked I fancied something stirred
And turned again and hoped to catch the bird
When out an old mouse bolted in the wheat
With all her young ones hanging at her teats
She looked so odd and so grotesque to me
I ran and wondered what the thing could be
And pushed the knapweed bunches where I stood
When the mouse hurried from the crawling brood
The young ones squeaked and when I went away
She found her nest again among the hay.
The water o’er the pebbles scarce could run
And broad old cesspools glittered in the sun.

Seamus Heaney describes this poem as 'seven couplets wound up like clockwork and then set free to spin merrily through their foreclosed motions'.

John Clare

John Clare

December 01, 2011

Is Brendan Kennelly Essential?

Pile of books

Brendan Kennelly is certainly an essential poet but his editors, Michael Longley and Terence Brown, have done him a favour by distilling his burgeoning oeuvre to the 110 poems in this book and 36 poems on a CD (Kennelly is a highly skilled spoken word artist).

This is a strong introduction to Kennelly, and the editors are refreshingly candid about the poet’s lyric and epic strengths as well as his occasional failures of rigour (there are worse crimes than over-writing or writing too much).

What comes across in The Essential Brendan Kennelly is the poet’s spiritual generosity, a tonic sense of wonder and a project that allows new readers to reach the core of Kennelly’s poetry without being tripped up by thirty slim and not-so-slim volumes.

The Essential Brendan Kennelly: Selected Poems, edited by Terence Brown and Michael Longley with CD of poems read by Brendan Kennelly, Bloodaxe Books, pb., 160 pp., £12.00, ISBN 978-1-85224-904-5

Thanks are due to the editor of Poetry Review, Fiona Sampson, where this piece first appeared.

November 28, 2011

'How Snow Falls'

‘Married to Poetry… in Love with Prose’Flaky

Peter Reading’s Vendange Tardive and Craig Raine’s How Snow Falls have a strong sense of reaching shore after testing experiences, losses, voyages. Yet these latest collections by Peter Reading and Craig Raine arrive at styles of expression that are as comparably and incompatibly different as absence and presence. Peter Reading is absent from his work, his grump ghost and voice notwithstanding. Reality is favoured by Raine, even when it cannot be borne. But this written reality is made from himself, from remembered and imagined feeling. I know that, for a critic, subject should be secondary to style. I cannot help but feel that style in How Snow Falls is partly sacrificed for the purposes of shock:

…two days before she died, a question:

would I pluck the hairs out of her chin?

There were none on the ward,
so I bought some tweezers down the road.

Every time a hair was plucked,
she sighed, almost like someone being slowly fucked.

Yes, she said, yes. Yes.
The last pleasures of the flesh.

‘I Remember my Mother Dying’

As Kate Kellaway has observed the details seem not so much intimate as disinhibited. Raine’s early poetry possessed a poise of exactitude through its artistic inhibition: the poet edited himself very tightly; selflessness of vision made his metaphors ring with invention. His images extended how we might see, connecting with the reality of things, there being no reality but in things. There is still plenty of poetic CGI for those who like the spoils of eye-made art: ‘Ski lifts tireless as a trail of ants’; ‘The firs are herring-bone with snow’; ‘Trinity lawn, effervescent with hailstones’. Raine claims in this book that although he ‘will always be married to poetry’ he has ‘fallen in love with prose’, and the recent passion shows in the length of the book, an occasional breeziness of technique, and the privileging of subject.

It seems presumptuous of me to state of a writer and editor of his accomplishments but I think Craig Raine is a far better writer and editor than he is allowing himself to be. How Snow Falls might have been a shorter, sharper book. The final poem ‘A la recherche du temps perdu’ releases brilliant, buoyant, elegiac energy (imagine a Martian Poet recreating Muldoon’s ‘Incantata’). But ‘A la recherche’ is a poem published ten years ago in book form by Picador (How Snow Falls is advertised as his first collection in a decade.). As Peter Reading is super-selective ‘eschewing utterance’ when there is nothing to say, Craig Raine is generous, but generous to a fault.

How Snow Falls, Craig Raine, Atlantic Books, hb., 168 pp., £14.99, ISBN 978-1-84887-285-1

Thanks are due to the editor of Poetry Review, Fiona Sampson, where this piece first appeared.

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