Tuesday, January 30, 2007

My Blog Record Smashed

Apologies to everyone who has come to my blog to read the poem, “Soon to Be Deleted…” at the post immediately below this one, which I deleted about 10 hours ago. Astonishingly, this blog has already received more hits today than on any other day in its history, and the night is still young.

The majority of these hits have been on the deleted poem, partly because Frank Wilson kindly linked to it when it was still up, and partly because there must be an allure, an urgency, in reading something you think won’t be there for long. There is a certain humour about all this as one of the main themes of the poem was transience.

Anyway, at Very Like a Whale, you can read Paul Stevens’s answers to VLaW’s Ten Questions series, along with eight other poets who have made an attempt to answer the questions so far. Very interesting stuff.

And to make up for deleting that last poem, here’s an old one, my first ever published poem – in New Writing Scotland eight years ago.

Judas and the Candle

I’m not ready to burn
with you, candle. I’m no Messiah
groping in the darkness for a Lucky Strike
to set my hair on fire.

You’re glaring from the altar
at tongues of love and perfumed necks and boys
in white dresses; without irony you light up
the sins of the flesh.

The longer you burn, the lesser
you become, candle. I’ve borne enough
scalding tears without catching yours,
waxed around your ankles.

I squint through the stained glass;
an old man, a bitter, arthritic fist
on a stick, the squall nailing him to a tree.
I blow hard. It is night.

Sunday, January 28, 2007


Looking back over this month, I’ve written a few poems I’m happy with. But it’s been a struggle all the way. Nothing has come easy and I’ve been very short of poetic inspiration. The first drafts have been crap and it’s taken me ages to get poems working. I haven’t felt more frustrated about writing poetry in a long time.

That said, I produced a poem for the Scottish National Galleries Competition that, at least, stands half a chance. I entered one for the Wigtown Competition (also known as the Scottish Open International Poetry Competition) and I was pleased with it by the final draft, although that final draft was a long time coming. I wrote a single stanza of a poem that might come good if I can find a way of continuing it. But the first stanza is OK. And I wrote a poem about bananas, which has probably found a final resting-place on this blog.

But the real disappointment is a poem I’m trying to write that I thought might do for the Strokestown International Poetry Competition. It just won’t work. I keep plugging away at it, feeling that the necessary moment of inspiration is bound to strike sooner or later, but nothing doing. It’s dead on the page. And I really did want to win that one beyond all the others. The deadline is Wednesday and it’s almost too late to transform the few good lines I have into a potential winner.

It’s something to do with my frame of mind. At least, I think that’s it. I’m not thinking like a writer this month. The disparate ideas in my notes aren’t cohering into anything greater than themselves. I keep interrupting myself by thinking about other things when the poem needs to be written. I’m coming at the poem from too straight an angle. My imagination appears to have taken a holiday in sunnier climes. And because of all this, I’m not relaxed, and the ability to relax, as Ros Barber correctly points out, is the key to it all.

I know it. I really know it. But knowing it doesn’t write the poem.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Tim Buckley: Song To The Siren

One of my favourite songs of all time. Both this original and This Mortal Coil's cover.

This Mortal Coil: Song To The Siren

This is a cover version from 1984 - Liz Frazer from the Cocteau Twins is the vocalist.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

A Job

Looking for a part-time job?

If you’re U.S. Based, and have the necessary skills (see the link above), Salt, which publishes some very interesting poetry, might be what you’re looking for.

It's Burns Day, So...

...here's the only Burns poem I can recite or, at least, I used to be able to recite it, and could do so again without too much work. I ate haggis yesterday, so will probably pass this evening. But this poem is great. Burns sees a hair-louse on the fancy hat of a rich woman in church, and asks, in the famous final stanza, that God might give us the power to see ourselves the way others see us, and not depend on our own airs of self-importance.

To a Louse
(On seeing a louse on a lady's bonnet at church)

Ha! whare ye gaun, ye crowlin ferlie!
Your impudence protects you sairly:
I canna say but ye strunt rarely
Owre gauze and lace;
Tho' faith, I fear ye dine but sparely
On sic a place.

Ye ugly, creepin, blastit wonner,
Detested, shunned by saunt an' sinner,
How daur ye set your fit upon her,
Sae fine a lady!
Gae somewhere else and seek your dinner,
On some poor body.

Swith, in some beggar's haffet squattle;
There ye may creep, and sprawl, and sprattle
Wi' ither kindred, jumpin cattle,
In shoals and nations;
Whare horn or bane ne'er daur unsettle
Your thick plantations.

Now haud ye there, ye're out o' sight,
Below the fatt'rels, snug an' tight;
Na faith ye yet! ye'll no be right
Till ye've got on it,
The vera tapmost, towering height
O' Miss's bonnet.

My sooth! right bauld ye set your nose out,
As plump an' grey as onie grozet:
O for some rank, mercurial rozet,
Or fell, red smeddum,
I'd gie ye sic a hearty dose o't,
Wad dress your droddum!

I wad na been surprised to spy
You on an auld wife's flainen toy;
Or aiblins some bit duddie boy,
On's wyliecoat;
But Miss's fine Lunardi!—fie!
How daur ye do't?

O Jenny, dinna toss your head,
An' set your beauties a' abread!
Ye little ken what cursed speed
The blastie's makin!
Thae winks and finger-ends, I dread,
Are notice takin!

O, wad some power the Giftie gie us
To see oursels as others see us!
It wad frae monie a blunder free us
An' foolish notion:
What airs in dress an' gait wad lea'e us,
And ev'n Devotion!

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Flags and Candles

I’ve been reading the latest Poetry Review and keep going back to two poems: David’s Harsent’s The Hut in Question, which sadly isn’t online, and Glyn Maxwell’s Flags and Candles (.pdf file), which is, except that no one seems to have noticed that the final two stanzas are missing. Here they are (I'm presuming the omission is an oversight and not deliberate!):

When I wave flags, flags think it's the world waving
while flags are holding fast. When I light candles,
the sense of something reverently bowing

holds me and I tremble like the shadows.
Flags again know nothing and they're flying.
Candles shed a light and burn to darkness.

I really like the poem, and it's a poem that would have been easy to write badly. The tercets and repetition give the vague impression of a villanelle-type structure but the poem doesn’t suffer from the rigidity that kills off most villanelles. Glyn Maxwell alternates between flags and candles two lines at a time to each, and this tension between the three-line stanzas and the two-line sentences gives the poem a dynamism – the flags and candles are woven together in the heart of the poem’s tercet structure, but the often dramatic stanza-breaks, due to the sentences-in-couplets, act against reconciliation between the two subjects.

If you were to rewrite the poem in couplets, it wouldn’t work anything like so well. Interesting in itself!

The contrasts aren’t the obvious ones. They are imaginative and surprising and appeal to the senses. The subtext of the poem is (I think) political, about two types of power, and it’s clear which side the writer is on without him having to beat his readers about the head. In particular, I love the lines:

Flags are picked out one by one. The others
group around the gap and say Gap, what gap?

Monday, January 22, 2007

Chapbook 2 - The Boy Who Came Ashore by Alan Gay

The second of this series of reflections on chapbooks.

Alan Gay’s chapbook centres around the Eyemouth Disaster of 14 October 1881 when a storm raged along the east coast of Scotland. It destroyed entire fleets and killed hundreds of people. The fishing village of Eyemouth, a microcosm of the whole event, saw 213 dead, one third of the male population. In addition to the loss of life, the blow to the livelihood of the communities was incalculable.

Alan Gay’s aim is to tell the story from the point of view of the fishermen who were on the seas that day, as most of the historical accounts come, understandably, from family and community members who remained on land. Gay is well qualified to attempt this, as he is an experienced yachtsman who has seen many storms in his life, and currently lectures in meteorology and navigation.

The chapbook contains 16 poems, interspersed by useful prose background, source material that may be genuine or invented (either way, it seemed authentic), and an occasional illustration. The poetry is direct, spare, unsentimental, and succeeds in conveying the tragedy without becoming maudlin. I found a couple of the poems, Recipe and Islands in the Sky artificial – imposing a ingredient-metaphor and a too self-conscious dream onto a reality that didn’t require such artifice – but the other fourteen poems had a real vigour about them that hooked me in and kept me there.

Gale Warning has the fishing boats setting out to sea. The boats were full of experienced seamen, used to storms, but not with the sudden intensity and violence of the storm to come. The gulls circling the boats seemed to know:

shadows criss-crossing the deck
urgent, as if to warn us
to heed the signs:

the heel of a hand on the horizon
fingers reaching out
to crush the sun.

The poems describing the storm and the fishermen’s reactions to it were well researched and described as only someone who has seen a storm or two could manage. At times, I would have liked a little more lyricism alongside the narrative, but there is certainly a compelling surge, a direct power about the descriptions, so that you can almost feel you’re on the boat, seeing things through the fishermen’s eyes.

In The Hurkurs, the boat slows in a trough and is then lifted onto the crest of a wave. This, Alan Gay explains in a note, is the most dangerous moment for a boat, when the loss of momentum leaves it most defenceless against the wind. On the crest, they catch sight of rocks downwind, with land just beyond the rocks:

a picture we carry into the next trough
and know there’s no escape.
Better the sea’s rage
than the madness of land.

You can sense intimately the desperate plight of the men and the equally desperate decisions that had to be made. It was safer to stay at sea in the jaws of the storm than to risk heading for land, although some boats did make land. One was hurled by a wave over the rocks clean onto the sand and landed with every mast intact. Many were not so lucky.

If there is an epic quality to these poems, there is also a quiet sadness and, at times, even a mysterious quality. Hares on Twin Law Cairns begins with the curious:

In the dawn I see myself wade free of the sea

as if the narrator is watching himself from somewhere else. He climbs through the hills and recounts the intricate, familiar details of place names, smells, and natural life. He walks all day until he sees his father’s house reddening in dusk:

He is standing in the doorway
arm raised to shield his squint.
He knows I am coming.

But, as readers, we can’t help feeling that he will never come and that the father is still there squinting into the dusk. A very good poem.

The final poem, Lost at Sea, concerns a woman - her glance both to the future and to the past, which contains hope, grief, longing, all in one simple image:

She pauses to watch her cradled baby
reach for racing clouds

that now and then open
for shafts of sun to search the waves.

The Boy who Came Ashore was published in 2006 by Glasgow-based Dreadful Night Press and can be purchased online (credit card or PayPal) at the Scottish Pamphlet Poetry site for £5.50.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Jade Goody's Eviction

Jade Goody was yesterday evicted from the Big Brother House with 82 percent of the public vote. That means that nearly one in five people voted to evict Shilpa Shetty.

They made up. Jade told Shilpa that she hadn’t meant to be racist and Shilpa accepted the explanation. But soon after her first apology, Jade called her “Shilpa Poppadum” behind her back, was called to account in the Diary Room, and had to make her apologies all over again. Once more Shilpa accepted the apology, but hinted to Jade that many Indian people wouldn’t have liked the comment at all. Jade spent half and hour crying in the diary room with regret at her previous behaviour, as if it had all suddenly sunk in.

Cailleach’s comment in the comments box of my previous article on this likened the bullying to what goes on in a school playground, and it strikes me that the protagonists were indeed behaving like children, and that playgrounds are full of such behaviour on a daily basis, and that newspapers don’t spend much time getting mad about it (although the same papers that criticise Jade do get mad about, for example, the number of immigrants entering the country and the money being shelled out to welcome seekers of political asylum, and...well, you get the idea).

David Aaronovitch makes some telling points in his This Trash Makes You Feel Righteous – Get Real article in The Times. I don’t agree with everything he says, and there is a hint of self-righteousness about it too (unavoidable in a debate like this, I guess), and I think Big Brother has the right to instigate debate as much as any art form, but his case makes me think. An excerpt:

"Mrs Poppadum? We’d never say that behind anyone’s back, would we? It’s not us, it’s her. She’s the racist, sling her out. The Sun headline yesterday, accompanied by six horrible pics of Jade (whom the paper monstered last time around, as well) was “Evict the face of hate”. The irony was that the page itself was the face of hate. A columnist condemned Jade’s hate speech. “She shrieks racist obscenities, her piggy eyes bulging as she struts round the house like a demented toad.” And that, presumably, is just what Our Lord would have written if He were a columnist.

"BB satisfies our taste for cruelty. But what is so odd is that to discuss real things we have to make them unreal first, and then describe them as reality. Maybe we’ll understand better when art catches up with this moment, and we all troop off, replete with salience, to see the tragic Jade Goody — the Opera."

Friday, January 19, 2007

Why Do We Like Certain Poems?

Nick Seddon, who learned 100 poems off by heart last year, asks an interesting question in The Guardian, and has set me thinking of my answer.

"Why do we like certain poems?... What Yeats called the "singing school" is made up of all of us who value poetry and want to remember it and make sense of it in our lives. But when we say we value a poem, when we say it's our favourite poem, can we say why?"

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Celebrity Big Brother and Racism

A busy week! Too much stress. Although I did manage to complete a poem for the Scottish National Galleries poetry competition and will send it in today.

I watched Celebrity Big Brother last night. The controversy centres around the treatment of Shilpa Shetty, a star of Bollywood movies. Thousands of complaints alleging racism and scape-goating against her by three other housemates have poured into the Channel 4 studio.

What surprises me is Channel 4’s denial that overt racism has taken place. The normally oh-so-politically-correct channel don’t seem to me to have been paying much attention.

Jade Goody, who became famous due to exhibiting crass stupidity and being a blabbermouth who could always be relied on to speak before thinking (on a previous Big Brother series), argued bitterly with Shilpa last night. Jade and two other housemates (Jo, an ex-singer of a commercial pop vocal group, and Danielle, a model who was disgraced after winning a competition while dating the judge) have all made comments that seem racist to me (one of the two, being served chicken cooked by Shilpa, commented about its possible lack of cleanliness, as “you can never be sure where her hand has been”).

The three non-entities (edit: as Harry has pointed out in the comments box, it's unfair of me to call Jo a non-entity, as she was a successful pop star), who have become famous simply for being non-entities, giggle hysterically as they mimic Shilpa's Indian accent (Shilpa got back at them last night by suggesting they should take some elocution lessons. Ha!). Jade persists in addressing her as Shipla, pretending she can't pronounce such a foreign name correctly.

Shilpa is no shrinking violet and can take care of herself. Jade got mad, almost hysterical, last night when in the course of the argument Shilpa commented that Jade was famous only for being on a reality TV show. This is obviously a sore point with Jade and her foaming-at-the-mouth reaction speaks volumes about her own fragile ego. After all, what Shilpa says is only the truth. But when Shilpa left the room, Danielle clearly said, “I wish she’d f*** off home!” Later in the Diary Room, Big Brother asked her what she’d meant by that. A look of horror passed over Danielle’s face. Had she really said that? She hadn’t meant “home”, she said. But that’s exactly what she had said and meant at the time. Will she ever work in modelling again?

Now Carphone Warehhouse are threatening to withdraw their sponsorship of the programme, not wanting to be associated with the racism – understandable of course. (Edit: In fact they have now just pulled out of their sponsorship deal). It is sordid, depressing television. But television, especially reality TV, is only a mirror to reality. It shows us celebrities as they are. It may help certain companies to reconsider who they get to wear their products. It may one day cure the public of an obsession.

It might also wake all of us up. What would our egos be like if we ended up like them, so many of them famous for nothing that’s required any talent whatsoever? And yet we hear Jade boasting that she’s been named as the “25th most infinluential [meaning “influential”] person on the planet!” And then telling Shilpa to stop going around with “her head stuck up her arse.” And then telling the others that she isn't "escape-goating the Indian." The irony is sad, depressing, almost laughable.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Heaney Wins T.S. Eliot Prize 2006

Seamus Heaney has won the £10,000 T. S. Eliot Prize for District and Circle.

So no surprise after all. But surely a deserved win.

Chapbook 1 - High Auchensale by Jim Carruth

Here’s the first of my reflections on chapbooks. I thought I’d start with a good one, Jim Carruth’s High Auchensale.

Jim Carruth’s first chapbook, Bovine Pastoral, took cows as its subject and enabled him to reflect on the rural world – its past and its threatened future. Cows may not sound like promising material for poems, but the book was never less than engaging.

This second volume revisits Jim Carruth’s childhood on the farms, his decision not to take on the family farm himself, and his return visits as an adult. But these are not simply dead memories. They are vivid recollections, which have living resonance for readers today, even those who live far from a rural environment. There are no romantic rural idylls here, but the harsh smell of earth. There is loss and hardship, but also humour and a stubborn commitment to the future.

The style is accessible, but not simplistic. They are obviously poems that have been lived and earned.

The first poem, Homecoming, metaphorically sets out what he is trying to do. He drives to the farm, after being away for a time, and pictures the welcome he is about to receive;

…and my words,
faltering and uncertain,
like the unsteady steps of an Ayrshire calf
staggering towards her mother
with a hunger new born.

The first half of the book concentrates on childhood – the school Robert Burns recital competition in which he is beaten by an English boy who “was modulating his voice/ in exaggerated accents/ contorting his face in false passion…” He remembers his mother's hands weaving tapestries, hands that his daughter still watches today. He recalls with a shudder the kisses of great aunts. My favourite was Dancing Girls, a poem about racing down the riverbank against cans of Tenants Lager, which were floating downstream. These cans at the time were adorned with pictures of glamorous models. The poem, typically, is more than just a memory. It acts on the present-day reader, imposes itself on the moment, by finishing:

Days when fleeting beauty
was more important
than the promise within.

In Drowning Kittens, a fine poem when the father tells his son they can't keep some new-born kittens, the son imagines his father tying them in a sack and throwing them in the river. He feels real grief. He turns to his father and:

Two kittens lie cradled broken-necked across his left hand;
the last, chapped eyes wide open against a roughcast wall.

That’s where I think it should have ended, but the poem has a final line:

We stand silent, tethered together by their mother’s cries

which goes too far in trying to milk the image. The mother’s cries have less power than the “last, chapped eyes.” There’s a climax, followed by something far less climactic. But if I whiten out that final line, it’s a terrific poem.

The second half is made up of visits to the farm as an adult. Death features prominently in many of the poems, a sense of aging and decay. In Siege, a council estate built near the farmland expands, along with the associated urban problems, brilliantly captured in the simple image:

In the woods
an old fridge opens up.

In Inheritance, he returns to the farm. He and his father, neither of whom work the farms full-time any more, help out with the cow milkings. A shared passion for the place remains, and a connection that can’t ever be broken:

And while we are able
we’ll always come back
each to be judged in turn
by what we pass on to others,
but not now as we bring in the cows
Away back,
Get away back,
Two voices in the failing light
calling out together.

High Auchensale contains well-written and sharply observed poems, which repay several reads. It’s well worth the £5. One problem with the chapbook is that it contains no details about how to purchase it! However, you can buy it by credit card, cheque, or PayPal, at the Scottish Pamphlet Poetry site.

Sunday, January 14, 2007


Why has celebrity become so fascinating? And why are we so interested in the private lives of celebrities? These are questions I find interesting and I’ve written a few poems on these kind of themes.

Yesterday, I read a poem by Tony Hoagland, from his collection What Narcissism Means to Me called Commercial for a Summer Night (the linebreaks are slightly different in the book version).

It’s a terrific poem with a great ending. I like the lines:

We were drinking beer with the sound off,
watching the figures on the screen--
the bony blonds, the lean- jawed guys
who decorate the perfume and the cars--

the pretty ones
the merchandise is wearing this year.

So the perfume wears the model. But the final line of the poem is, I think, ironic. The TV watchers are part of a "perfect commercial".

Friday, January 12, 2007

Poetry and Art

I haven’t been feeling all that well this week. A bit washed out – probably a virus - and today, just when I thought I had recovered, my stomach has started to make strange noises.

This should, perhaps, get the blame for the fact that I’ve been trying to write a poem for the Scottish National Galleries Creative Writing Competition, but haven’t yet come up with anything remotely worth sending. The idea is to choose a work of art from any of Scotland’s galleries and write a poem or short prose piece as a response to it.

My failure so far may be more to do with a sense that nothing is going to be good enough. I’ve chosen a painting, and I keep starting to write, but the furthest I have got is four lines, all of which I deleted the following morning. I bet once the competition deadline is past (19 January), the poem will virtually write itself.

An excerpt from last year’s top-class winner, A Loaf of Bread, by Anna Crowe, based on Claude Monet’s Haystacks: Snow Effect:

Winter is when you need to see this Monet.
To come in out of the city’s dirty streets
and cross this field of snow – crisp as a sheet
or table-cloth – and toast yourself: mown hay
like those proverbial loaves, to feed the many;
haystacks, round as pains de campagne, whose heat
is palpable, might melt the snow; replete
with wordless promises of milk and honey.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

A New Poem (draft)

Reading the News

With each edition of today’s Evening News,
a free banana. And no, this is not a wind-up
or some poetic artifice at work on your
subconscious – the banana means nothing
other than itself. You can read the news,
banana in hand, and with each mouthful,
the page will soften its focus until only
the horoscope feels like harder copy
than the banana’s flesh. If you decide,
on the basis of today’s experience,
that tomorrow’s banana cannot come
soon enough, the early editions will carry
a free DVD of a Hollywood movie no one
has never seen. But a banana will pop up
in the imagination around the one-hour mark.
If you try a banana once, you can’t stop.


However, I suspect the free banana, in reality, had something to do with this story. Someone within the editorship of the Edinburgh Evening News must have a sense of humour.

An excerpt:

"Enter a £7 million programme entitled Lean Thinking - funded by Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs. Sounds good, doesn't it?...

The idea is that your desk is marked out with black tape denoting the locations of every piece of essential equipment. Your pen has a place. Your paper clips have a place. However, that cute picture of your baby boy or the banana you are planning to eat at lunchtime have no place.

Objects are either "active" or "inactive" and - I kid you not - a banana only counts as active if you are about to eat it in the next few seconds. Otherwise, it must be removed along with all those inactive pictures or ornaments that help jolly up a dull desk job."

My Plan

Over the next while, I plan to write short pieces on this blog on poetry chapbooks I’ve read – not reviews exactly, but more responses and reflections. I’ll try to give a flavour of what a given chapbook is like, quote a few sections from poems, and say what I think.

Here’s a list of chapbooks I plan to comment on (in no particular order), although this may change if I read more:

A Secret History of Rhubarb – Anna Crowe (Mariscat)
Pillars of Salt – Judy Brown (Templar)
High Auchensale – Jim Carruth (Ludovic)
Landing on Eros – Tony Lawrence (Tiplaw)
Twenty-Three Poems – Michael Mackmin (HappenStance)
Under the Threshold - Dorothy Lawrenson (Perjink)
Under the Clock – Tony Harrison (Penguin)
Stephanie Green – Glass Works (Cat’s Pyjamas)
Eftirs/Afters – Donny O’Rourke and Richard Price (Au Quai)
The Theory of Everything – James Wood (HappenStance)
The Boy who Came Ashore – Alan Gay (Dreadful Night)
Peeling Onions – Anna K. Dickie (Tyne and Esk Writers)
The Small Hours – Tom Duddy (HappenStance)
The Faithful City: Visual Poems – Stephen Nelson (afterlight)
Light Up Lanarkshire – Gerry Cambridge
Uncertain Days – Gill McEvoy (HappenStance)
Demon – Edwin Morgan (Mariscat)

and that should keep me going until June at least…

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

James Wood Interview

Over at Fusion View, a literary blog I’d never heard of before that looks pretty good, you can hear a podcast interview with James Wood, conducted by blog owner and novelist Yang-May Ooi.

I met James at the launch of his poetry chapbook on HappenStance, The Theory of Everything, a few months ago, and went for a drink with him and a few other people afterwards. He is a nice guy, very committed to his art, and the podcast touches on a number of issues – the process of writing poems, the input of others, publishing, the local poetry scene etc. Towards the end, he reads his poem, Thursday, also printed on the website. The podcast lasts almost half an hour – refreshing, I think, in an age of soundbites.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Chapbooks and The Guardian

Chris Morton has an interesting article in The Guardian Online about the evolution of chapbooks. He argues that blogs are the chapbook’s true successors. I think he has a point and I’m glad he’s brought the subject up.

But in the comments, I couldn’t not make the point that chapbooks are still very much alive and kicking in the world of poetry publishing and have been important both to new and established poets.

Meth O.D.

I mentioned a few Blog entries ago that I had discovered a MySpace page run by Roy Moller, a singer-songwriter and friend from Glasgow who I hadn’t seen in a while.

Well Roy has been in touch with me since, and I’ve also found a My Space page with music from Roy’s old band, Meth O.D.. The four tracks you can hear there represent the gentler side of the band, as they had songs with titles like Bastard Tarantino, High School High, and Dbug, which were a lot more abrasive.

My favourite of the four is First Zen Temple of New York. It's the only pop song I know of that gives a mention to the orang-utan, so it has, in its own way, secured its place in rock history. Not so instant, but a grower, is Goldigger. The other two tracks are strong songs, but the production isn’t as good. Also, the backing vocalist in both of them is my ex-wife, which makes All Our Yesterdays sound more ironic than ever to me.

***Edit: It looks as though All our Yesterdays has gone, and has been replaced by Bastard Tarantino. Now we're talking. This song rocks in the best possible way!

Friday, January 05, 2007

Three Good Reads

Despite the fact that blogs are “written by fools to be read by imbeciles”, as the Wall Street Journal would have us believe, as reported by Ms. Baroque, I can still point all willing imbeciles to three foolish blogs that somehow happen to make excellent reading:

First, it’s good to see that Geoff has a new poetry blog, and that he’s begun with a pretty good poem inspired by something I wrote unwittingly on this blog.

Second, Todd Swift’s Eyewear features Sheffield-based poet, Ben Wilkinson. Well worth taking a look at.

Third, Smoog has started blogging again, and if that wasn’t enough, she’s made the final shortlist for the CBC/Canada Council for the Arts 2006 National Literary Award, one of 31 from an initial 1,100 entries. Good luck, Rachel!

Not bad going. Especially for fools and imbeciles.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

T.S. Eliot Prize 2006 Shortlist

Edit 15.1.07: The result is now in.

The shortlist for the prestigious T.S. Eliot Prize for Best Collection 2006 is now out, and it’s a heavyweight list:

Simon Armitage – Tyrannosaurus Rex versus the Corduroy Kid
Paul Farley – Tramp in Flames
Seamus Heaney – District and Circle
W. N. Herbert – Bad Shaman Blues
Jane Hirshfield – After
Tim Liardet – The Blood Choir
Paul Muldoon – Horse Latitudes
Robin Robertson – Swithering
Penelope Shuttle – Redgrove’s Wife
Hugo Williams – Dear Room

Breaking it down, we get:

8 men, 2 women.

5 English (Armitage, Farley, Liardet, Shuttle, Williams), 2 Irish (Heaney, Muldoon), 2 Scots (Herbert, Robertson), 1 American (Hirshfield).

4 on Faber and Faber (Armitage, Heaney, Muldoon, Williams), 2 on Picador (Farley, Robertson), 3 on Bloodaxe (Herbert, Hirshfield, Shuttle), 1 on Seren (Liardet).

Who are the favourites? Well, Heaney must start off as favourite, which probably means he won’t win. I don’t think Muldoon will win either, as people seem quite split over his new book. Robin Robertson has already won the Forward Poetry Prize for Best Collection, and so must be a strong contender, but I think the judges might want to share out the annual honours. They might consider giving it to Penelope Shuttle for her collection in memory of her late husband, the poet Peter Redgrove, but the poems I’ve read from it have been uneven. I don’t think they’ll want to give it to an American (Americans have won it before, mind you), even though I think Jane Hirshfield’s collection is excellent. W. N. Herbert’s range will impress the judges on the one hand, but may also lead them to favour someone with a more uniform style.

I haven’t read Simon Armitage’s collection, but I’ve heard it’s one of his best. Still, there is a sense in which many poets aren’t pleased that Armitage is so popular, and perceive him to be, also, populist – rather unfair, I think. That sense may not influence the judges though, and Armitage must have a good chance. Paul Farley’s Tramp in Flames is a dark horse. I’ve only read a few poems from this. They seemed OK, but are they a match for the likes of Heaney? I like the little I’ve read from Tim Liardet’s collection – some very strong writing – but I suspect he’s not yet a big enough name to win. Maybe next time. Hugo Williams produces some strong poems, but some critics feel he is too whimsical, not ‘serious’ enough, which may be unfair too (Williams has won it before, and twice may be at least once too much in the view of some people).

It’s a hard one to call. I haven’t read all the books, so can’t give an informed opinion on who should win.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

First Lines

Until I’ve got the first line right in a poem, I’m rarely happy to continue for long. I might alter, or even cut, the line later, but it’s got to have the necessary tone, voice, rhythm, sound etc. already in place. The first line doesn’t need to be dramatic or attention-grabbing in a sensational way, but the rest of the poem must wear its clothes, so to speak.

A first line sets up expectations regarding a poem’s voice. The poem may subvert or confirm those expectations, but it can’t ignore them.

A good and apt first line doesn’t guarantee a great poem. But if you don’t have one, the poem is bound to fall flat.

One of the reasons Michael Mackmin’s Twenty-Three Poems (HappenStance)is such an interesting read is because of the quality of the first lines. Here’s a selection.

Tom Grix is dead and his meadow sold, the man who…
Never trust a memory
Moving deliberately among bees
Pale but not the moon, not that
I have been faithful to our peculiar love
A kiss. The kiss. Just lips touch, press
‘Because of fear I always hurried into love’,
In her black swimsuit she stands in the boat
My sweet birdwatcher
The bug that causes madness
When I say ‘they are cutting the barley’
Music always belongs to God, if I could sing

Do they make you feel you’d like to read on?

In addition, for the last few days, I’ve been reading Seamus Heaney’s District and Circle, and besides being impressed, awed at times, by the quality of writing, I’ve also noticed the quality of the first lines there too:

In an age of bare hands
‘We were killing pigs when the Americans arrived.
Early autumn morning hesitated
If I wasn’t there
He’s not in view but I can hear a step
A first green braird: the hawthorn half in leaf.
The road taken
Barrie Cooke has begun to paint ‘godbeams’,
Into your virtual city I have passed
For the bark, dulled argent, roundly wrapped
Not the brown and fawn car rug, that first one
Fiddlehead ferns are a delicacy where? Japan? Estonia?
And so with tuck and tightening of blouse
Dorothy young, jig-jigging her iron shovel,
The mass and majesty of this world I bring you
Spoken for in autumn, recovered speech