Saturday, December 31, 2005

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Sestinas Again

Stephen Burt has been writing further thoughts on sestinas, particularly on the question of why there are so many. I've attempted a response there off the top of my head.

I find it an interesting question, partly because I feel implicated (I like reading sestinas and enjoy writing them) and partly because the answers might say something about the nature of contemporary poetry that goes beyond the simple sestina-question.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Visit Polly Clark

You might want to pay a visit to Polly Clark’s homepage if you like what you see on the post below.

Polly Clark

The late John Peel, the only UK DJ who made any real contribution to the development of contemporary music, remarked once on his radio show that he distrusted perfection in an album. A flaw, a duff song, often showed that an artist was prepared to take chances and experiment. An album in which every song was perfect usually meant that the artist had played it safe all the way through. Peel liked musicians who strayed from their comfort zones.

I feel the same could be said about collections of poetry. When I read a collection, I don’t need to like every poem to enjoy the complete package. I suspect that most great poets write only a few great poems in their lifetimes, many good ones, and a few really bad ones. These bad ones, the flaws, are probably as important to poetic development as the great ones, even if they might be missed out of the “Greatest Hits” packages.

Polly Clark doesn’t write many bad poems. All her poems display great skill and craft. But I enjoyed some of the poems in her new collection Take Me With You much more than others. I like the way she rarely draws her poems to the most obvious conclusion, the way the poems hint at mystery, the way her extended metaphors twist up and unravel like snakes. Equally, a few poems (and I really mean a few) fall flat, just enough to convince me that she has managed to escape the curse of perfection.

Take Me With You is her second collection. Polly Clark was born in Toronto in 1968, and spent most of her life in the UK. She even worked for a time as a zookeeper in Edinburgh, and now divides her time between the south-west of Scotland and the south of England.

There is a great deal to like. She often approaches her subjects from an oblique, imaginative angle:

Nagyvzsony Castle
Balaton, Hungary

There was a time when I was buried
deep in the walls of a far ruin

and it was not language that saved me,
nor was it history, nor was it me at all,

but the way that certain people can sense
warmth through stone and start pulling.

Far below, my friends are laughing,
children squeal to the stocks and the dungeon.

The green country I remember reaches out,
sunflowers break its heart, vines stitch it whole.

I remember the incantation,
the laying on of hands,

my blanket as I got to my feet,
the command to be forever amazed.

The testimony to the power of human warmth and what it can draw out or even "command" (including the concluding amazement), the almost religious sense of healing, and the intriguing line, “sunflowers break its heart, vines stitch it whole”, make this well-crafted poem affecting.

In a completely different mould:

Elvis the Performing Octopus

hangs in the tank like a ruined balloon,
an eight-armed suit sucked empty,

ushering the briefest whisper
across the surface, keeping

his slurred drift steady with an effort
massive as the ocean resisting the moon.

When the last technician,
whistling his own colourless tune,

splashes through the disinfectant tray,
one might see, had anyone been left to look,

Elvis changing from spilt milk to tumbling blue,
pulsing with colour like a forest in sunlight.

Elvis does the full range, even the spinning top
that never quite worked out, as the striplight fizzes

and the flylamp cracks like a firework.
Elvis has the water applauding,

and the brooms, the draped cloths, the dripping tap,
might say that a story that ends in the wrong place

always ends like this -
fabulous in an empty room

unravelled by the tender men in white,
laid out softly in the morning.

The first few lines are great, with two grippingly strong images. Then there’s the comic showbiz images in the middle, the unseen moves that pulse with colour in contrast to the technician’s colourless tune after he’s walked through the disinfectant. In conclusion, there’s the sad image of the octopus laid out in the morning, but my favourite lines are:

and the brooms, the draped cloths, the dripping tap
might say that a story that ends in the wrong place

always ends like this -
fabulous in an empty room

That’s brilliant. And the interweaving of tragic and comic images throughout is perfect for the subject matter at all levels.

I’m about three-quarters of the way through the collection now and have found it absorbing. And it was a relief to find the odd poem that did nothing for me. Polly Clark is clearly stretching herself. I've not yet felt bored.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Miroslav Holub

Hedgie, over at The Jackdaw’s Nest, has been writing about the Czech poet Miroslav Holub, who has long been one of my favourite poets.

I first read Holub in a Bloodaxe anthology and knew I had to read more, so I picked up a collection that covered much of his long writing career, "Poems: Before and After".

Andrew Motion wrote a good article on Holub for The Guardian.

Miroslav Holub is well worth checking out. You can read three of his poems at Hedgie's article I mentioned above. There are also other poems scattered around the Web.

I quote from a Holub piece in my poem Beyond the Blue, which is included in my The Clown of Natural Sorrow chapbook:

Beyond the Blue

Emptiness is greatest where man was rather than where he was not… Observing the stars, we experience an emptiness which is not theirs.
- Miroslav Holub

The sun pins the nylon sky, a backdrop
pressed blue behind the raised earth.
A pink church melts on the hill like a stick
of rock. The flag on its turret hangs still
and starched. Copperplate roofs scorch
the valley. Human shadows drain the piazza of light.

On a day like this, you crept within snatching distance
of the sun, unpinned it, and watched the sky
drift away like a sheet swept from a balcony line.
You floated out among the stars and night
for fourteen billion light years,

then returned to the church
and the roofs and the shadows, still searching
for the emptiness within, but found nothing
other than the rush of wind that now
drags at your sleeve.

Saturday, December 24, 2005

Happy Christmas!

All good wishes for a fun-filled season!

I'll be back again once it's all over.


Friday, December 23, 2005

Football and Religion

A Glasgow Football Story

The burnt-out house of my childhood casts
shadows bent blue on the Ibrox Park gates.

Steak Pie Suppers cloud up the arctic air
with steam, which spirits through the old keyhole

like King Billy drove his white horse through
the eye of a needle on my bedroom wall

and flutes cracked windowglass to the city’s east.
My father removed Billy’s picture for one day

in the summer of seventy-three to welcome
the new family next door. I took Sean

to the balcony, played hanging over the side
for a dare, while the adults drank beer

like old school-friends. My mother called us
for Cremolafoam. I said, “Give the green cup

to Sean,” and was bundled to bed with
beatings to come. Sean left. Only now returns.

Notes: the "King Billy" of the poem refers to the Protestant King William of Orange. And in Glasgow, the traditionally Catholic team, Celtic, play in green and white colours. "Ibrox Park" is the home stadium of the traditionally Protestant team, Rangers.

poem deleted

deleted while submission in progress.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Lyric Flights and Pretentious Nonsense

I’ve always found it hard to write abstract philosophical or metaphysical poetry and make it convincing, let alone breathtaking. Often it’s hard to stop it falling on the wrong side of the line that separates a flight of lyricism from pretentious nonsense. Other poets don’t seem to have the difficulty. Wallace Stevens, for example:

She was the single artificer of the world
In which she sang. And when she sang, the sea
Whatever self it had, became the self
That was her song, for she was the maker. Then we
As we beheld her striding there alone,
Knew that there never was a world for her
Except the one she sang and, singing, made.

(from The Idea of Order at Key West, Selected Poems, Faber 1965)

or Don Paterson, who neatly shifts from abstract meditation into something far more earthy, so making the abstract bit work well:

In the meantime there is just this, which will do:
the qualified bliss of your once-more deferred
enlightenment, the plagal and imperfect cadences,
all those blessed suspensions of faith, as you lie
in the strong and small arms of your good and kind sister
with nothing much better or worse to look forward to
than your coffee, the paper, the dog on the bed.

(from The Alexandrian Library, part iii – Landing Light, Faber 2003)

I’ve been writing another sestina, the Metaphysical Sestina I posted the first stanza of a couple of months ago. It’s been hard going, and it’s full of passages like this (to be honest, this is probably the best bit):

…The plastic halo
he casts off, like a Frisbee, sends its soul
shooting back, a boomerang the earth
lifts and turns until the metaphysics
sings the path it takes. It’s not a trade
of plastic for angelic. More that heaven

floats the ground of being. More that heaven
forms the hole in all there is.

I want to be ambitious and challenge myself to write stuff I may not be capable of writing. As long as I end up writing it in spite of myself. But this one might defeat me.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

More Launch Pics

You can see the three photos I posted to this blog from the recent HappenStance Press launch along with five others, including one of me looking as if I’m a naughty pupil sent to the headteacher’s study. It’s a jazzy little gallery.

Monday, December 19, 2005

The Others

Andrew wanted to know if the other poems I mention in the Liverpool Disappears Again article immediately below were available to read online. You can read them at the Guardian’s Forward Prize shortlists site, by scrolling down to the “best single poem” list.

Liverpool Disappears Again

I said I’d come back to comment on Paul Farley’s Forward Prize winner Liverpool Disappears for a Billionth of a Second .

Technically, all poems published anywhere in the UK in 2005 are eligible for this award. In practice, only those published in collections by mainstream publishers, or in the more important poetry magazines, or by well-known writers, stand a chance of winning. The judges each read 7,000 poems before deciding on the winners in various categories. 109 poems were nominated for Best Individual Poem, which the judges whittled down to a shortlist of 5 before picking their favourite.

I like the Liverpool poem. It’s witty and clever, it has more than one layer to it, and it connects to the experience of many people, whether that experience is real or imagined. It’s accessible without being trite, and it’s well written, but not overly academic. You can understand it straightaway on one level, although it sets you thinking deeper. It sticks in the brain and connects with the gut.

In many ways, as an advertisement for the Forward Prize and for poetry generally, it’s an ideal winner. It’s the kind of poem I could imagine drawing an intelligent non-reader of poetry to pick up a poetry book and read more. But it doesn’t represent a “dumbing down” of what poetry should be about. The poem is well crafted, well structured. Some might feel it could be stripped-down a bit, but the UK, it seems to me, has always been less insistent on that than our U.S. counterparts.

Was it the “best” poem on the shortlist? It wasn’t my favourite, although I did enjoy it.

I thought Sarah Maguire’s “Passages” was terrific, but at 135 lines, it’s a little long for exposure on the web or in publicity.

Stephen Knight’s “99 Poems” was intriguing. It’s an alphabetical list of made-up (I think!) poem-titles laid out alphabetically, as in an anthology index. What’s clever is the way you can look at each title and immediately tell what kind of poem it would likely be – from what era, what poetry school, what tone it’s going to have. Clever, funny, and original, but probably not one to appeal to the public. It’s a poem for poets and for existing avid readers of poetry.

Katherine Pierpoint’s “Buffalo Calf” must have been a strong contender. I quoted a section of it below, in my entry of 6 December. I’d class it as equal in quality to Paul Farley’s poem, but written in a completely different style. It lacks humour, but makes up for it in its intense lyricism.

Peter Scupham’s “Seventy Years a Showman” pulses with energy and drive. It’s packed full of names I’ve never heard of, along with italicised, invented quotes to portray a life in the fast lane. It’s not that easy to get into, but it’s compelling once you’re in there.

Why did Paul Farley’s poem have the edge over the rest? I’d guess it’s because it’s a good showpiece poem, for all the reasons outlined above. And probably that’s as good a reason as any to give it the winning ticket.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

The Haar

The Haar is pretty amazing, a web experience well worth having. Thanks to Martyn Clayton for drawing my attention to it.

The sea harp, the whistle thing, the lighthouse with the shipping forecast names – and weird music by Don Paterson amongst others. Way out.

Friday, December 16, 2005

Chapbook Launch Pics

I’ve managed to get hold of a few photos taken by Gerry Cambridge at the launch of my chapbook, along with the Winter Gifts anthology, two weeks ago,

Helena Nelson, author of Unsuitable Poems and editor at HappenStance

This is me with The Clown of Natural Sorrow

Eleanor Livingstone, author of The Last King of Fife and Artistic Director of StAnza, the biggest poetry festival in Scotland, held in St Andrews every March.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Best Poem of the Year?

Liverpool Disappears for a Billionth of a Second by Paul Farley won the Forward Prize for Best Poem published in the UK in 2005.

Any opinions? I'll post my opinion soon.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005


I've now turned this John Ashbery/sestina obsession into a challenge, if anyone is stuck for anything to do in the run-up to Christmas.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Rite of Passage

Just in case anyone reading my poem immediately below wonders, I am aware of both this and also this.

Writing such a sestina does appear to be some kind of rite of passage.

deleted sestina

deleted while submission under consideration

Monday, December 12, 2005

A Cloud in Trousers

Many poems can seem clever on first read. I read a few poems at an online poetry workshop (not PFFA) the other day and they were well written, rhythmic, even intelligent. But all four of them had the same major flaw in that they skirted around the surface of human emotion without really connecting to anything urgent. They played clever verbal games, but studiously avoided striking an emotional core.

I recognise the same tendency in some of my own poems as well – the ones I eventually grow dissatisfied with.

Then I read Larry’s thread in PFFA’s Voyages of Discovery Forum about Kenneth Koch and remembered this passage from Koch’s book Making Your Own Days:

“Putting inspiration to the best possible use is something one learns to do…Suppose the line comes to you,

I’m like a cloud in trousers

The least productive use of it, aside from simply forgetting it, is to throw it away in conversation… But supposing you recognise its possibilities for poetry; you write it down. One minimal use of the statement might be to make it part of a clever list:

Or like a night in gloves
A hurricane in a hat

Such a solution may seem superficial: one may want to be brought to something important – a strong emotion, a strong view of life. How could “a cloud in trousers” connect with anything like that? Mayakovsky finally used it as part of a long poem, of which one main theme is his strongly desiring, strongly suffering, wildly variable character - “I feel/My ‘I’/is too small./ Someone stubbornly bursts out of me,” he says of himself. And,

If you want –
I’ll rage on a raw meat
or, changing tones like the sky –
if you want –
I’ll be irreproachably gentle,
Not a man, but a cloud in trousers…

(Kenneth Koch, Making Your Own Days, Touchstone Books, New York, 1998 pp. 87-88)

It seems to me there’s a lot to learn from that little example. The four poems I read at that online workshop all fell within Koch's "minimal use". Getting to the heart of the matter is more difficult, but a poem won't succeed unless it does that.

Friday, December 09, 2005

New Poem (early draft)

deleted while submission under consideration

Superbowl: the Sestina

I love sestinas like this one, Superbowl! The Sestina, that subvert their own genre. And you don't need to know anything about American Football to get it.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Vitamin Q

I’ve been browsing through VitaminQ, a site for anyone interested in words, or lists (that will be all male readers), or both. There’s some great stuff in there. The site is run by UK poet Roddy Lumsden. June 2005 is particularly good.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Elephant Architecture

The Forward Book of Poetry 2006 is (so far) the best of this series of annual anthologies I’ve read yet. The book tries to group together selections from the best collections and the best individual poems of the last year (i.e.2005).

I’ve been looking at the shortlisted individual poems. The prize for this category was won by Paul Farley’s poem Liverpool Disappears for a Billionth of a Second. It’s a good poem. I enjoyed it and thought it was very well structured and well written.

However I loved this passage from Katherine Pierpoint’s Buffalo Calf , originally published in Poetry London magazine, most of all. The calf lounges in the mud while first a cow then an elephant walk past:

A temple elephant too. The surprise of it – in town! – at church! –
for an elephant is its own cathedral.
Even thinking of an elephant
is architecture, elaborate; a plain hugeness at first disguising the
......subtleties there;
and there it stands and stands, and stands at the busy
......temple gate,
little as a lap-dog
against the mounting pyramid of stones,
the mass of carvings, the unending, up-ending sex,
the linked aeons of miracles.

I think she handles the elephant-as-architecture idea really well and the shifts of scale and of subject – from church, to cathedral, to lap-dog, to sex, to “linked aeons of miracles” – give the passage a dramatic fluidity of movement.

My favourite poem overall in this category is Sarah MacGuire’s Passages. It’s too long to quote in full and a partial quote wouldn’t do it justice. But it’s just terrific.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

P. C. Critics

I’m been thinking recently on whether it’s justifiable to use contemporary moral and social standards to criticise writers of the past for not living up to them.

C.S.Lewis, author of the Narnia books, has been attacked in the last month or two for being sexist, racist and for propagating Christian propaganda.

Because few of his female characters have lead parts and because their faults are shown up to greater effect than their male counterparts, Lewis is sexist. Indeed Philip Pullman has called him “monumentally disparaging of girls and women.”

Because the town of Calormene (in the novel “The Horse and his Boy”) is populated by dark-skinned, turban-wearing, garlic-eating people who worship a vulture god and live in a society beset by brutality and corruption, then Lewis is racist.

Because the story of the Narnia books is fairly obviously based on Christian theological ideas, he is propagating Christian propaganda.

I am uneasy when people make such attacks on a writer who wrote 50-60 years ago. I suspect people in 50-60 years time will be making similar attacks on writers of this oh-so-enlightened generation who might be considered politically correct today. And in any case, at the time Lewis wrote, how many Hollywood movies had women in lead roles, as opposed to hanging on the man-star’s arm? How many black movie stars were there (in positive, non-pigeonholed roles)? Is it fair to condemn Lewis when he lived in such a milieu?

I also feel that using terms like “sexist” and “racist” to describe someone who never actively advocated violence or hatred against either women or foreigners is unfair. Lewis perhaps did have feelings of unease towards people who were different from him, but that’s true of most people at some level. Today certain depictions of women and people of colour are considered offensive and unacceptable, but would have been absolutely normal in Lewis’s era. Lewis can be viewed more as a product of his time and class than as “racist” or “sexist”.

Finally the accusation that he propagated “religious propaganda” is, in my opinion, a gross misuse of the English language. Lewis was a Christian and was interested in using his narratives to get over ideas that were important to him. Isn’t that what writers have always done? I saw the movie “Troy” last year, which had a clear humanist agenda running through it. I didn’t see anyone protesting against humanist propaganda, and nor should they. Writers should be free to write what they want, just as an audience is free to agree or disagree with them. “Propaganda” is a loaded and inaccurate word.

So are p.c. critics so enlightened and wise today that they can confidently dismiss writers from the past according to contemporary standards? Or are they setting this generation up to be similarly judged by future ones, when today’s ideas will look every bit as half-witted as C.S. Lewis seems to some today?

Friday, December 02, 2005

Guess What?...

...I forgot to take a digital camera to my chapbook launch yesterday evening, so I have no pictures to share after all. However, Gerry Cambridge, editor of The Dark Horse poetry magazine, was taking a lot of photos. Maybe he’ll let me borrow a few if I can track him down.

So for the moment I’ll use only words.

Helena Nelson kicked off the evening by telling the audience she’d thought I was a woman when she’d first read my poetry. I’d always thought of myself as a distinctly male poet, but I’m perhaps less of that as the years have gone by. The blokish Simon Armitage influence that shaped my poems some years ago has been replaced with a much wider set of influences. But a woman? Me?

Anyway, it got a laugh, which was the main thing. I read four poems – The Clown of Natural Sorrow, Girl Playing Sudoku on the 7:15, The Man who Filled Cans in the Fruit Cocktail Factory, and My Life as a Hollywood Shade. The reading went quite well and the audience looked as if they were enjoying it. I don’t know how many people actually bought copies of the chapbook and I didn’t ask want to ask the woman at the till.

Then various poets read from the Winter Gifts anthology. There are some fine poems in that. I’m about halfway through it. As with any anthology (or collection) there are some poems that I like more than others, but they’ve all had something to recommend them so far. I read my entry from it, Light Storms from a Dark Country.

Then everyone spilled downstairs to drink wine and eat mince pies. It was nice to catch up with some people (non-poets) who I hadn’t seen for some time. Also nice to meet Hamish Whyte, editor at Mariscat press, for the first time. He wrote the blurb on the back of my chapbook, but in addition to that, he had published some of my poems when he was editor of the annual New Writing Scotland anthology. I owe him one!

There was the inevitable feeling of anti-climax afterwards. But that has now worn off. I was working for most of today and now it’s nose to the grindstone again, as I try to write a new poem.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Before The Launch

At the moment, this blog feels like a gigantic sales pitch. Sorry about that. But given that the major bookchains are unlikely to hang The Clown of Natural Sorrow on their front windows, there isn’t any other way to shift a few copies.

Tonight is the launch in Edinburgh. I have to choose what to read and how to introduce the poems. The trick, I think, is to keep the intros short and snappy and not to read too many poems. The Winter Gifts chapbook is being launched at the same event, so I’ll have plenty of company, including a few poets whose names I know and admire. Still this is my 15 minutes of fame, so I’m going to enjoy it.

If I can persuade someone to take some photos at the launch, I'll post them in the next day or two.

Monday, November 28, 2005

The Clown of Natural Sorrow

My chapbook, The Clown of Natural Sorrow, is now available.

I got a few copies through the post today and it looks very nice, with a lilac cover and pale yellow pages.

If you feel moved to buy a copy, then details are just below. Posted by Picasa

Read, Browse and...Buy?

You can read a sample poem from my chapbook and an author biography (of a kind) at this link.

You can find details here of how to order a copy. The cost is £3 for UK residents and £4 for non-UK residents - including postage.
There are three methods - by cheque if you have a UK cheque book, through PayPal, or you can email HappenStance to find another method if none of these suit.

And you can browse other HappenStance publications here, including Winter Gifts, the anthology of new poems grouped around the theme of winter, and the new edition of Sphinx, a magazine full of interviews, reviews and poems, all with a connection to recent chapbook publications.
It's difficult to recommend one book or another because they're all pretty good, but you can read a sample poem from each book at the site, and if you find issue 2 of Sphinx, you can read a selection of reviews online that didn't make it into print - these will give you the general idea.

I've just realised that you can also buy it from But Amazon add on a £1.99 "sourcing fee", will take 4-6 weeks to deliver it, and will also make you pay postage on top! Clearly, ordering direct from HappenStance is the better way.

Friday, November 25, 2005

A Sonnet

I don't write many sonnets, but here's one.


My fourth wife flagged her exit visibly
the way an aeroplane prints out its tyres
of jetstream through the sky: a litany
of bootprints in the snow, of empty drawers
and burnt-out cigarettes. The stain I spread
around the bath had gone. She sliced my face
from every wedding photograph, force-fed
the dog my shoes, and burned my masterpiece.

I grasp for evidence that she was here.
The three who came before her made their mark –
the mirror’s jagged crack, the Labrador
nailed to the floorboards, laughter in the dark.
The fourth’s a ghost. Now even tracks I make
fade with her and seven years of smoke.


The first in Edinburgh this winter fell today. More is to come. Tonight the forecast is for Arctic winds up to 90 miles an hour and heavy snow - blizzard conditions. Also a notional temperature of -9 degrees centigrade, not taking account of windchill. Brrrrr...

The next day:
However, the forecasters got it wrong again. It's cold, but no Arctic winds or blizzards. No complaints...
Posted by Picasa

Thursday, November 24, 2005

The Latest Attempt

I reported a few days ago about my daughter's surreptitious attempts to post messages to poetry forums. Today I caught her just as she'd typed several paragraphs of random letters, numbers and symbols into a message-window at the Poetry Free-For-All site (PFFA appears to be her favourite). Luckily she hadn't pressed the button that sends the message for public viewing.

However, I then realised that she was attempting to post it to the "Experimental" forum where it might not have looked out of place. I deleted it anyway.


That poem, Smile, that I posted earlier this week: I keep tinkering with it. I felt it wasn't clear that the son had died. It now looks like this. Maybe I'm now being too blatant.

A smile won't fade with death. Her son
is grinning still from magazines,
from playgrounds, bikes and prams – a mine
of memories and could-have-beens.
A smile won't fade with death, once known.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

A Definition of Poetry

It is a sharply discharged whistle,
It is a cracking of squeezed ice-blocks,
It is night frosting leaves,
It is a duel of two nightingales.

(from Boris Pasternak's Definition of Poetry, 1917, translated by Edwin Morgan)

Tuesday, November 22, 2005


If you throw a coin in the pool
a penguin may swallow it
and die. Money kills penguins,
the sign says. They’re not
the only ones starving
until someone aims
pennies in their direction;
and they have a charity.
Yesterday I received a letter
asking me to sponsor one,
a nameless penguin
I must name, identifiable
by its unique tone of voice.
Any time I visit the zoo,
I must listen carefully to learn
if it’s alive, to know whether
I owe for the next month.
Twenty years, thirty if I’m
unlucky, not bad for some parts
of the world. Do not drop
litter, penguins choke on
empty packets. Tomorrow
I plan to analyse data
on the infant mortality rate.

Monday, November 21, 2005

This Makes Sense

George Szirtes is interesting as usual - from The Guardian.

e.g. "Poets are ordinary people with a special love and distrust of language."
"Poetry is not a pretty way of saying something straight, but the straightest way of saying something complex."


A smile is slow to fade. Her son
is grinning still from magazines,
from playgrounds, bikes and prams – a mine
of memories and could-have-beens.
A smile is slow to fade, once known.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Hell for Poets

At times, light verse is just what I’m looking for, especially when it’s as well written as this. Most light verse isn’t. In fact, most isn’t either funny or clever, which makes Liz Lochhead’s poem so refreshing in comparison.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Uh Oh

My daughter seems to have found a new passtime - posting to poetry sites.

Her first act was to send a private message to a moderator of a poetry site (she would choose a moderator!) with "jhnb vhvhvvxzscdx" in the title-bar and "ò,x mm nj, àò u u k u jijki b tctvg ggbhbyyy jui9injj hmum8 omkjn g h y nhng mndfxcf xzcs vb" as the message. Luckily the moderator in question had a sense of humour.

Her second act was to post a "poem" to the Advanced C and C forum of Poetry Free-For-All. People have a sense of humour there too of course. It hasn't even been (yet) moved to a lower forum.

I was out working all day, but my wife told me that my daughter must have posted the poem during a ten-minute period when my wife was making her something to eat before nursery school.

What next? I dare say that tomorrow she will start working on the three crits she owes, so posters at Pffa had better watch out. Unless I find an effective way to stop her first. I'll work on it.

Monday, November 14, 2005

Reversal (first draft)

Suddenly the universe starts
contracting. Because distance
equals speed times time,
the clocks slow down.
Soon the long hand
is spinning backwards
and cars roll boot-first
up the hill. The video
is trapped on rewind.
Hot-air balloons crash
into molehills. Women
minutes from labour feel
a tightness in the womb
and a shrinkage that
becomes heavier to bear
the longer time goes on.

Roger McGough

I enjoyed this interview with Roger McGough in the Guardian.

This paragraph is typical:

McGough finds it demoralising when he goes on children's TV: "They say, 'Come on and read a poem,' and they're all very excited, but 'Keep it short, keep it short, it's for children.' OK. 'Keep it 30 seconds.' OK. Then you do your 30-second poem, and it's followed by someone coming on with a hedgehog for 20 minutes."

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Chapbook Publishing

I guess there are poets out there who dream of landing a contract with Major Publishing House (even though most release hardly any poetry from new writers – but poet-with-dream’s material is, of course, so unique and original, that these major imprints just won’t be able to say no).

They see themselves as the new Ted Hughes/Philip Larkin/Carol Ann Duffy/Simon Armitage (no offence meant to any of these excellent poets, by the way), their books studied in schools by cramming 16-year-olds, and being sold by the hatload in all the major bookstores, who (naturally) place their books in the most prominent shelves.

My albeit limited experience of releasing a chapbook with a tiny organisation has taught me the exact opposite. HappenStance, who are publishing my chapbook on 1st December, give the kind of personal attention to detail that a more major publishing house wouldn’t even think about giving to a book of poems.

The editing process has been instructive, the way we sifted through many of my poems to find a group that sat well together as a collection. It’s meant that a few of my better ones haven’t made the cut, but there is a coherence to the book, and I’m happy with the selection. Helena Nelson, the editor at HappenStance made some useful suggestions on some of the poems, although I always had the final say. But in most cases she was spot on.

They also have an active marketing system, which includes a launch, a presence at various poetry gatherings and on the Internet, an IBSN number, and an attempt to get the books into venues which will stock them e.g. the Scottish Poetry Library sales section. OK, the books won’t be in Waterstones, but who goes into Waterstones ready to pick up and buy a poetry pamphlet from someone they’ve never heard of anyway?

I sent them some poems through the post after I attended the launch of the Press and was impressed at what they were doing. I was amazed to get an acceptance. The deal was a one-off payment (edit: i.e. HappenStance made me a payment - thanks for pointing out the previous ambiguity in this sentence, Shug), but HappenStance would bear all costs. They would also take any royalties. This seemed like a very good deal to me, as they were bearing all the financial risks, and I only stood to gain. However, I do hope I sell a good number of chapbooks, partly because of my own ego (I would like people to read my work) and partly because I think a serious, small imprint like this is worth supporting (and I know Helena Nelson would laugh at the word “serious”! But there is a seriousness of purpose about the enterprise. Also I don’t want her to be left bankrupt because of my chapbook).

HappenStance do what they do because they care about poetry and are ready to invest time, energy and money in creating a product that they believe in – not because it’s commercial, but because they like it, and I’m sure the same is true of many chapbook imprints across the world. From a poet’s point of view, I suspect I will shift more copies of my chapbook with HappenStance than I would do if I’d brought it out on Faber (not that Faber were knocking on my door, you understand), where it would sit unmarketed, uncared for, and unread, on the shelves of major bookshops, squashed between thicker volumes of other poets, most of whom are lucky to sell a few hundred copies themselves.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

For Anyone Living Near Edinburgh

My chapbook, The Clown of Natural Sorrow, will be launched in the Scottish Poetry Library in Edinburgh (at Crichton's Close, off the Canongate, opposite the Canongate Church) on Thursday 1st December 2005. There will be wine on offer from 6.30pm, and readings begin at 7pm.

Another chapbook, Winter Gifts, an anthology of new poems on a winter theme, will also be launched at this event. I've seen a draft copy of this and it looks really good.

The event is free and if anyone reading this actually comes along, please introduce yourself afterwards.

Monday, November 07, 2005


I expect there are some writers who will describe their progress as a gradual upward slant; each poem they write becomes the measure for the next one, which must be that minuscule amount better, and so the progress continues.

I’ve never felt like that. My progress – if you can call it that – has been erratic. I scrawled my first published poem on a scrappy piece of paper on a bus from Bellshill to Glasgow. I revised it several times, but got the basis down on that forty-minute journey. Before that I hadn’t written any poem worth the paper it was written on. What had changed to make this new one several degrees better?

Looking back, I see that several things coincided. I had subscribed to a poetry magazine and for the first time, I was paying attention to what other writers were doing and how they were doing it. My first marriage ended and within a few months, I had material to write about that I wouldn’t have had access to before that happened. I began to perform poems monthly at the Bar Brel in Glasgow, an open mic situation, and that forced me to come up with poems I didn’t feel too ashamed about reading in front of other people.

And it was strange. I didn’t really know what I was doing, but almost every time I sent poems to a magazine, I’d get an acceptance.

This lasted for a few years. I then remarried and moved to Italy. I wrote nothing for six months. I wanted to write about Italy but didn’t have enough experience of it to come up with anything of any depth. And Scotland just seemed so far away, invisible even to my imagination. Then I discovered the PFFA workshop and wrote a poem, Waiting, and sent it in. It got a very mixed reaction. There were good bits in it, but it was way overwritten. I managed to improve it in subsequent drafts, but it still remains unpublished.

For a couple of years, nearly every poem I sent to magazines was rejected.

What I find interesting is that when I read some of the poems I was writing at that time, they seem sloppy, without the substance I’d aim for in a poem now (“aim for” doesn’t always mean I am successful). Either this means that I have changed for the better, or it means that in three years time, I will look at the poems I am writing now and have that same feeling of disappointment.

These days, I get some acceptances and some rejections from magazines.

I’m not sure what progress means anymore. I am convinced that my writing has improved in the last few years, but if so, it hasn’t made magazine editors fall over themselves to accept my latest creations – not any more than it did seven years ago. Occasionally, I do ask myself why that should be. But a glass of good Italian red wine takes the edge of the question. As it is doing now.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005


I've been thinking about poems that use well-worn words like heart, soul, moon etc and why some work and some don't, and haven't really found any answers. Perhaps some poems work and some don't and if you have a poem that works and these words work within it, then you're onto a winner.

Carol Ann Duffy's new collection of love poems, Rapture, is full of these words, over and over again, and the repitition throughout the collection takes on an intensity that a single poem from it can't quite show. Of course, some people found the book dull. I read a review by someone who liked Duffy's first three collections but hated this new one. Other critics loved it.

One thought I had is that using language that borders on cliche shows a lack of artifice on the part of the writer, and that approach gives a love poem the impression of being genuine. Whereas a love poem full of fresh, original imagery looks more planned out, as though the heart had less to do with it.

On the other hand, I hasten to add that Duffy handles her poems with a skill most of us can only dream at. Handled with less skill, the poems could all have come over as stale and cliched, which is the way most love poetry comes over.

This is a poem I wrote a few years back:


The mind a drill ..... the heart
a lawnmower ..... the tools we use to make
ourselves heard by one another above all other voices .....
save them .....from rust
even if there is no garden..... no need to screw
holes in concrete walls to beautify a barren landscape ..... our inner
appliances crave more than appearances ..... what’s on paper
..... the IKEA kit for the soul ..... the how-to book of how
things work ..... the dry formulae of mathematics
and magic portions
..... permanent
as technology
..... silent as a star’s knowing
wink ..... so give us noise and bustle ..... the clang
of hammer on scaffold ..... last century’s kettles
snarling on the stove ..... the electric
hum of the washing machine..... its stagger between cycles
..... a lawnmower ..... a drill
to snow imaginary whitewash on the courtyard below
..... where grass has never grown.

- first published in Stride magazine.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Other Traditions

Last month I quoted a paragraph from John Ashbery's Other Traditions. It's a very interesting book. Ashbery analyses the work of six poets, all of whom he says have had a major influence on his own writing. The six poets are John Clare, Thomas Lovell Beddoes, Raymond Roussel, John Wheelwright, Laura Riding, and David Schubert - a varied selection, to say the least.

Today I came across two articles in Ron Silliman's blog that discuss Ashbery's book and both make interesting reading, even (I think) if you haven't read the book.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

The New Music

Her mum could read musical notes by the age of four. Looks like Alyssa is following in her footsteps. She wants to play keyboard all the time. Posted by Picasa

Saturday, October 22, 2005

Poem of the Day

Lorca by William Baurle. What an excellent poem! The final two stanzas are fantastic and I love the glimmering imagery throughout. Well done, Bill.

And Now Tantrum Tamer Trolleys

In the comments section under my shopping trolley post, Heather linked me to an article on Tesco’s plans for a Tantrum Tamer shopping trolley.

'The Wanzl "Tantrum Tamer" will be kitted out with a screen through which harrassed parents can feed their offspring a range of educational DVDs and CDs. Tesco says that almost half of 3,000 parents quizzed confirmed that their little ones had suffered "boredom tantrums" as a result of being forced to trundle up and down between the aisles.'

This looks to me like the worst of bad ideas. When I was a child, I’d go to my parents and tell them I was bored and they’d tell me to go and find something to do and stop complaining. That was a good thing. It’s right that children should be allowed to get bored. That way, they can exercise their imaginations and find some way of applying their minds.

True there may be the odd tantrum along the way, and I know how awful it can be going through a store with screaming child. But the answer is not to stick a child in front of a screen to avoid boredom. Interaction with a child, getting him or her interested in what you are doing, has got to be a better way, both for the child and for the parent.

And if the child complains of being bored, well that’s part of life. Shopping is boring and so are lots of other things. Children have to get used to that and learn to devise ways to make life more interesting for themselves rather than being handed entertainment on a plate all the time.

TV and computer games have their place. They have educational value and are fun. My daughter already loves them. But she needs time to get bored too.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Supermarket Trolleys

When you come out of the Tesco supermarket in the West End of Edinburgh to unload your shopping-trolley, there is a sign a couple of hundred yards down the road which says, “No trolleys beyond this point! All trolleys have a wheel-locking mechanism.”

Has anyone ever tried to go past one of those signs with a Tesco trolley? How do the wheels know you’ve gone past the sign?

A Poem

Here's a poem. It was written by Swinburne in the 19th century and employs Sapphic metre. The first three lines of each stanza scan trochee/trochee/dactyl/ trochee/trochee and the fourth line scans dactyl/trochee (trochee = stressed syllable followed by unstressed, dactyl = stressed followed by two unstressed syllables).

The metre is adapted from Greek qualititative metre i.e. a mixture of long and short syllables, and was employed (perhaps invented) by the poet, Sappho. In English, what would have been long syllables in the Greek metre become stressed syllables in English and short syllables become unstressed.

As a form, it's never been much in vogue in English poetry because English tends to fall naturally into iambs (unstressed followed by stressed syllable) and locking iambs out of a poem is never easy.

But I've used the form several times and I like the intensity of the drive the trochees give, along with the minute pause in the dactyl's extra syllable, which stops the rhythm from becoming monotonous. The short line varies the rhythm, but maintains the intensity, and helps to make the form ideal for poems of passionate emotion, contemplation, grief, and love.

I'm not a fan of Swinburne, but this is a good poem:

by Algernon Charles Swinburne

All the night sleep came not upon my eyelids,
Shed not dew, nor shook nor unclosed a feather,
Yet with lips shut close and with eyes of iron
.....Stood and beheld me.

Then to me so lying awake a vision
Came without sleep over the seas and touched me,
Softly touched mine eyelids and lips; and I too,
…...Full of the vision,

Saw the white implacable Aphrodite,
Saw the hair unbound and the feet unsandalled
Shine as fire of sunset on western waters;
…..Saw the reluctant

Feet, the straining plumes of the doves that drew her,
Looking always, looking with necks reverted,
Back to Lesbos, back to the hills whereunder
…..Shone Mitylene;

Heard the flying feet of the Loves behind her
Make a sudden thunder upon the waters,
As the thunder flung from the strong unclosing
…..Wings of a great wind.

So the goddess fled from her place, with awful
Sound of feet and thunder of wings around her;
While behind a clamour of singing women
…..Severed the twilight.

Ah the singing, ah the delight, the passion!
All the Loves wept, listening; sick with anguish,
Stood the crowned nine Muses about Apollo;
…..Fear was upon them,

While the tenth sang wonderful things they knew not.
Ah the tenth, the Lesbian! the nine were silent,
None endured the sound of her song for weeping;
…..Laurel by laurel,

Faded all their crowns; but about her forehead,
Round her woven tresses and ashen temples
White as dead snow, paler than grass in summer,
…..Ravaged with kisses,

Shone a light of fire as a crown for ever.
Yea, almost the implacable Aphrodite
Paused, and almost wept; such a song was that song.
…..Yea, by her name too

Called her, saying, "Turn to me, O my Sappho;
"Yet she turned her face from the Loves, she saw not
Tears for laughter darken immortal eyelids,
…..Heard not about her

Fearful fitful wings of the doves departing,
Saw not how the bosom of Aphrodite
Shook with weeping, saw not her shaken raiment,
…..Saw not her hands wrung;

Saw the Lesbians kissing across their smitten
Lutes with lips more sweet than the sound of lute-strings,
Mouth to mouth and hand upon hand, her chosen,
…..Fairer than all men;

Only saw the beautiful lips and fingers,
Full of songs and kisses and little whispers,
Full of music; only beheld among them
…..Soar, as a bird soars

Newly fledged, her visible song, a marvel,
Made of perfect sound and exceeding passion,
Sweetly shapen, terrible, full of thunders,
…..Clothed with the wind's wings.

Then rejoiced she, laughing with love, and scattered
Roses, awful roses of holy blossom;
Then the Loves thronged sadly with hidden faces
…..Round Aphrodite,

Then the Muses, stricken at heart, were silent;
Yea, the gods waxed pale; such a song was that song.
All reluctant, all with a fresh repulsion,
…..Fled from before her.

All withdrew long since, and the land was barren,
Full of fruitless women and music only.
Now perchance, when winds are assuaged at sunset,
…..Lulled at the dewfall,

By the grey sea-side, unassuaged, unheard of,
Unbeloved, unseen in the ebb of twilight,
Ghosts of outcast women return lamenting,
…..Purged not in Lethe,

Clothed about with flame and with tears, and singing
Songs that move the heart of the shaken heaven,
Songs that break the heart of the earth with pity,
…..Hearing, to hear them.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Poetry and Myth-Worlds

This month, the theme of the Guardian’s poetry workshop was set by Scottish poet, John Burnside:

For this workshop, I want you to go to a tradition outside your own, a way of seeing alien to your own, and write from there - not in an imitative way ("now, here's my pseudo-Aboriginal poem ... ") but by living for a while in someone else's myth-world in order to renew your own.’

I thought that was interesting. It’s clear that different cultures live by different myths, but how that affects their poetry is far from clear. Yet poetry varies from country to country. I know I’m speaking in a general sense and that in a country like the UK, there are countless poetic styles and obsessions, but if you compare UK poetry to Japanese, say, you’ll find a different tradition and different myths in the background.

What’s less clear is whether you’d find a significant level of difference between British and Italian poetry or between British and North American poetry. In the case of the former, I see clear differences, although it’s hard to express what these are with any great clarity. The influence of surrealism on Italian poetry has perhaps led it in a direction that the mainstream of UK poetry has been reluctant to follow.

Between UK and American poetry, I also see differences. American poems tend to come down very hard on all but the most necessary modifiers and strip every sentence to its bare bones. They often have a conversational tone, “conversational” in the sense of Hemingway-style dialogue. I also see more of a focus on logical progression in American poems, a distrust of quasi-surreal imagery and mystery. Of course, as soon as I write this, I think of many U.S. poets who don’t fit into these categories at all, but it could describe an overall sensibility that can be contrasted to the UK.

I’m not sure whether this can be explained by reference to our respective national myths or not. I did wonder whether I could have sent a poem to Burnside’s workshop claiming it to be in a modern North American style based on that myth-world. I didn’t do that though.

Still less would I like to speculate on whether there is a genre of Scottish poetry distinct from that south of the border. But if one can talk of the “New York Poets”, as expressing a distinctive style as well as a geographical unity, then maybe there is a “Scottish Poets” movement out there and I just haven’t recognised it.

Saturday, October 15, 2005

New HappenStance Chapbooks

Last night I went to the Scottish Poetry Library for the launch of two new chapbooks on HappenStance Press, Matt Merritt’s Making the Most of the Light and Eleanor Livingstone’s The Last King of Fife.

I often find readings and launches boring, average poems read badly to friends and groupies, but I couldn’t say that of last night – far from it. The poems were humorous, imaginative, unsentimental but packed with emotion, and intelligently crafted. The poets read them pretty well.

Eleanor Livingstone’s poems approached their subjects with humour and empathy. They were accessible and multi-layered. I enjoyed her Last Chance, about her hometown of Leven in Fife. She draws a parallel between Leven and old USA frontier towns:

“…These days the ‘Indians’ are take-aways

but cowboys roam from door to door and drive hard deals
in double glazing. Meantime for the good, the bad
and others back on Main Street, music loud with drink

spills out of each saloon while cash tills play a tune
which sure ain’t bluegrass…”

Matt Merritt read several good poems. He clearly likes to play with sound and rhythm. Vocabulary, which dealt (on the surface) with the technical language that family members pick up when visiting cancer wards (Merritt’s sister died of cancer in 2004), had the biggest emotional pull. The last few lines are heartbreaking:

“…Every evening is cocktail hour –
methadone, codeine, immodium – a chance to discuss
the many meanings of serious, before they come
to make us comfortable,

and we can watch the sun go down,
red and furious.
It is unbearable.”

At only £3 each (£4 from outside the UK), these chapbooks are great value and are available from the HappenStance website (see my links) along with two other excellent chapbooks by Helena Nelson and Andrew Philip. It’s good to see such high-quality poetry coming from this new Scottish publishing house.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005


This is a first draft. I think it's going to need a lot of effort to make this work the way I want it to.


Inside the sky
a long arch of leaves

and inside the arch
four lines of cars.

Inside a black Mercedes
behind a partition

a man organises
what’s left of his life.


‘Is she young?’ she asked.
He was thinking about

Gruyk’s theory, and finding it
lacking in logic, raised

a Budvar can and drank in
the news that she knew.

What difference does it make?
he thought out loud.


The awful crem harmonium
squeaks psalms in his head.

Deadlines on Friday, lunch
with Sue on Saturday –

‘I’m an architect,’ he told her
on first meeting. Collect

the casket on Monday. Smoke
from the funnel is ash-free.


Cause of death unknown
to spare his feelings,

the undertaker whispered.
He dumps the verdict

in a rarely-dusted corner
of his brain; everything

has its own cell. It takes
three weeks with paracetamol.


Sue is young. The car
crawls down the tunnel

of leaves. Saturday at ten
they will make love;

he will kiss only Sue’s lips.
She stood near the back

at the crematorium.
Good of her to come.


He locks away
fifteen years of marriage

in the love-cell.
The homily he keeps

for public admiration,
stores it like stained glass

in a cathedral. What he
can’t see, can’t hurt him.


The leaves are thick,
but thin strips of light

spindle down his black tie.
When he sees the road ahead

mirror the sky’s naked glare,
he fears losing

himself in so much space,
in white and boxless air.


Beyond the partition
outside the car, the trees

draw back their branches,
and the sky waits

for a cloud, for a haircut
on Tuesday, for a man

it doesn’t know to step out
and leave the door ajar.

Thursday, October 06, 2005


I was told that my profile photo was too nice. Anyway, this is me with my hair shaved off. Be afraid!

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Saturday, October 01, 2005


Since my daughter started at nursery, she brings things home with her - viruses, coughs, infections of various kinds. I suppose it's astonishing that she hasn't passed any of them onto me.

Until now. I'm running a fever. Not too high. Nothing too serious. With her it lasted 36 hours or so. The only problem is that I have to work tomorrow morning and evening. Ugh.

Why I'm writing this now rather than going to bed, I don't know. I'm going to bed.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Bob Dylan

I just saw Martin Scorsese's documentary movie on Bob Dylan. It was brilliant. Actually, I feel really moved. The whole energy, creativity, and dynamism that grew up around Dylan is galvanising; not just to look back to, but to grasp and make happen in whatever way it has to happen today.

Strange. I've seen other films on Dylan before and haven't felt like this. Maybe it comes down to Scorsese's genius as a director.

Or something else?

Thursday, September 22, 2005

A Poem

Sorry. I 've deleted this poem while it's under consideration by a magazine.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Automatic Writing

There's this weird idea that if you just churn out words onto a page as fast as you think them, you'll come up with something more authentic than a work that has been considered and revised over time. That idea has been responsible for a deluge of crap poems.

Raymond Queneau wrote:

A very wrong idea that is going the rounds at the moment is the equivalence that has been established between inspiration, exploration of the subconscious, and liberation, between chance, automatism, and freedom.
Now this sort of inspiration, which consists in blindly obeying every impulse, is in fact slavery.
The classical author who wrote his tragedy observing a certain number of rules is freer than the poet who writes down whatever comes into his head and is slave to other rules of which he knows nothing.

I'm with Queneau on this.
I am always amazed that people who champion automatic writing seem to feel they are doing something radical and declare that those who write with a nod to tradition are reactionaries.
In fact, the opposite is true. A splurge of emotions with random linebreaks is more common than any other kind of poetry and it's all crap. None of it will be remembered, which is the only good thing to come of it.

Somebody suggested in a poetry website thread the other day that there was "no such thing as bad poetry" and that if I called anything bad, that was only my subjective opinion. Of course, it is my opinion that bad poetry exists, and it exists in massive quantity. And we must believe in it, if only so that we can call some other stuff good.

Friday, September 16, 2005


I’ve been writing a review of a small poetry collection, the first review I’ve ever done. I thought I’d finished it. Then I read it again. To my horror, I realised that my third from last paragraph read like this:

He can shift from a simple clarity to reach for a different register, the lyricism that points beyond itself towards some deeper mystery that isn’t ready to reveal itself in more than a glimpse or flash of light.

What a load of guff! I almost sound like a reviewer. I’m just glad I didn’t send it to the editor. Now it has gone and a glass of wine has made me believe that the paragraph I have replaced it with is much better. Always a dangerous assumption.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

In Doctor No's Garden

I've been reading Henry Shukman's 2002 collection, In Doctor No's Garden. Outside the wind has picked up and it looks as though we're in for a blustery night. I picked up Shukman's book where I'd left off and read;

The storm has the lane rippling and smoking.
The sky has come apart, scuds by in pieces.
Telephone wires belly between their poles...

That's the beginning of his poem Storm Lines. Most of the poems are narratives with effective lyrical interjections, and when he gets descriptive, I can see, hear and touch his images. It's been an enjoyable read.

It's taking me about five minutes to write even the simplest sentence tonight. Time for bed.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

When the poem doesn't come

It started off well. I wrote an entire stanza of a sestina in about five minutes. But from then on, nothing salvageable. The harder I tried the less ideas I had. So I stopped and watched TV.

Here's the first stanza + one line. Will there be any more? I don't know.

Metaphysical Sestina

The angel chops his wings and emails heaven
with the news. “God,” he types. “Deep in the earth,
there lies a secret. I would give my soul
to own its power.” He buys a spade and trades
his white gown for a boilersuit, his halo
for a helmet, and digs for metaphysics.

He whistles as he digs. The metaphysics,

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Ashbery Explains His Own Poetry

I can’t help but smile at John Ashbery:

"For me, poetry has its beginning and ending outside thought. Thought is certainly involved in the process; indeed, there are times when my work seems to me to be merely a recording of my thought processes without regard to what they are thinking about. If this is true, then I would also like to acknowledge my intention of somehow turning these processes into poetic objects, a position perhaps kin to Dr. Williams’s 'No ideas but in things,' with the caveat that, for me, ideas are also things."
- John Ashbery, Other Traditions, (Harvard, 2000)

He is hugely entertaining when he writes about poetry, even if I don’t have the capacity to know what he’s on about half the time. He likes to wind people up though, and his observations are rarely dull.

Sunday, September 04, 2005

How Not to Write a Poem - Lesson 1

A poet-friend just emailed me to say that she attended a poetry reading a few days ago. One of the poets read a self-penned work that contained the following lines (and this should be a lesson to us all in how not to write a poem):

"I feel the universe experiencing itself through me.
It needs me here, now."

My friend’s reaction – “But it didn't. Oh how it did not.”
Deleted. Currently under consideration by publication. Sorry.

Scotland in summer. Alyssa, my daughter, demonstrates how to prepare.

Saturday, September 03, 2005

Why Surroundings?
Other than that I had to think of a name for this blog and had no idea what to call it when the registration form came up on screen.

a) It’s the name of a collection of poems by Norman MacCaig.

b) It gives me a chance to think about how the subject-matter of a poem isn’t always what’s written up-front, in the same way as what your eyes fix on first when you walk into a room may not be its defining feature. The surroundings, rather than the thing in itself.

c) For some strange reason, it was the first word that came into my head, so I went with it. That’s the bland truth.
For the last few weeks I’ve been planning a novel and have enough ingredients in place to make a start on the writing – a man who drives a tourist tram round a fairly untouristy Mediterranean town, the woman he falls in love with, a collection of Greek Gods who think that sophisticated, 21st Century Europeans have ignored them for long enough, and a long quest from the south of France to the summit of Mount Olympus via the Underworld.

I have the characters, some of the settings, the basis of a plot, a few key scenes. Now all I need is the first sentence and I’m away. Someone (Gabriel Garcia Marquez, I think) said that the first sentence was the most important, not just because it can hook or unhook a reader, but because it sets the tone for the whole book.

Take three examples:
I had always thought that a person born blind and given sight later on in life through the miracles of modern medicine would feel reborn. – Eleanor Rigby, by Douglas Coupland
The sweat wis lashing oafay Sick Boy; he wis trembling. – Trainspotting, by Irvine Welsh
An hour and forty-five minutes before Nazneen’s life began – began as it would proceed for quite some time, that is to say uncertainly – her mother Rupban felt an iron fist squeeze her belly. – Brick Lane, by Monica Ali.

The voice and tone of these first sentences determines how the rest of the book will sound. “The rest is easy,” said Marquez. I know that’s crap.

I was thinking about this too when I picked up a few Carl Hiaasen novels. His first sentences are interesting:

On the morning of December 1, a man named Theodore Bellamy went swimming into the Atlantic Ocean off South Florida – “Tourist Season”.
On the morning of July 6, two hours before dawn, a man named Robert Clinch rolled out of bed and rubbed the sleep from his eyes – “Double Whammy”.
On the morning of April 24, an hour past dawn, a man named Palmer Stoat shot a rare African black rhinoceros – “Sick Puppy”.
On the third of January, a leaden blustery day, two tourists from Covington, Tennessee, removed their sensible shoes to go strolling on the beach at Key Biscayne – “Skin Tight”.
On the afternoon of November 25, a woman named JoJayne Lucks drove to the Grab N’Go minimart in Grange, Florida, and purchased spearmint Certs, unwaxed dental floss and one ticket for the state Lotto – “Lucky You”.

I suppose once you find a winning formula, the temptation is to stick at it.