A fateful year, of course. Among Hitler’s assumption of power and the Bodyline tests, my parents were born: Mum on 18th February; and Dad on 27th March, so he would’ve been 90 tomorrow. As shown in my poem below, a version of which was published in Haibun Today a few years ago, he was fortunate to make it to his first birthday, let alone to live until almost his 82nd.

The Beddington Water Works Typhoid Outbreak, 1933

The doctor said it would’ve taken Gracie
if Peter, her infant-school-teacher husband,
hadn’t learnt the symptoms of, and basic
treatments for, the rifest killer contagions:

as her temperature soared, he spoon-fed
Gracie diluted milk, until she was borne away,

her face a death mask, to Croydon Infectious
Diseases Hospital, on the Purley Way.                                 

Next day, a constable knocked to say Gracie
was in isolation with the least deadly strain.

Within hours, Peter had to notify the doctor
of three more cases: he and his young boys;

straightaway given hospital shirts and carted
off for eight weeks of bed baths, stewed

rhubarb and junket, watery milk and weight 
loss, between them, of several stones.

On the back of every photo later that year,
Gracie wrote, ‘After our illness.’

On ‘funny’ poems

Partly due to the pressure of the old toad work, I’ve been in the poetry doldrums for much of this year, so it was nice to get a short piece up on The Friday Poem again, here – a 100-word response to a poem by Geoff Hattersley as one of a series of brief commentaries on ‘funny’ poems. The poem I chose is, as you’ll see, both funny and deeply serious at the same time, which is no mean feat to pull off. I could’ve chosen any number of his poems, in the same way that I could’ve chosen numerous Matthew Sweeney poems, but that thar Mat Riches got there before me, here. (I’m reminded at this point that, a week or two ago, I heard Paul Stephenson – another brilliantly funny yet serious poet, like Mat himself – read a poem entitled ‘Not Matthew’.)

Had Mat not quite rightly alighted on Sweeney, I might’ve chosen ‘Upstairs’, first published in the LRB – here – and collected in The Bridal Suite, Cape, 1997. It’s typical of Sweeney’s very quirky narrative style, moving from funny to very dark within a heartbeat. His poems and worldview were often described as ‘surreal’, but that’s a lazy label. It’s surely just a recognition that if you live life with your senses tuned to high-ish alert you will notice that it’s chocker with non sequiturs, which paradoxically make more sense than not. There’s tremendous artistry at work beneath the surface of Sweeney’s poetry too: in ‘Upstairs’, the consonance between ‘X’, ‘brass’ ‘Voss’, ‘undressing’ and even ‘Iceland’ isn’t coincidental; and ‘Voss’ isn’t chosen purely for that purpose: Sweeney would’ve known that it‘s the German word for ‘Valentine’.

As someone who has often been accused of writing ‘funny poems’, I find it bemusing that the underlying seriousness isn’t obviously apparent; but I suppose that shouldn’t be surprising, since everyone reads poems differently and, initially at least, picks out what appeals to them. For me, though, it‘s just the case that the line between funny and serious is invariably so cigarette-paper-thin that it‘s barely visible. No wonder the Buddha always had a smile on his face.

The First Telephone

This poem is one which sprang from a Poetry Business workshop. I rarely have much affection for poems written in workshops, because I seldom seem to be able to put enough heart into them. Nevertheless, I like to think this one developed a life of its own.

The First Telephone

consisted of cotton reels and a lolloping length
of industrial string, robust enough to crab
the twelve-thousand sea-bed fathoms
in the perishing gap between the dolerite
of Fair Head, Co. Antrim, and a grey-seal city
on the Mull of Kintyre; to withstand
the Black Watch tugging mightily hard
to tauten it. Alas, no verbatim transcript
of that very first call survives—but suffice it
to say there were multiple mishearings
and consequent pleadings to pipe up.
The unpublished memoirs of the two main
protagonists prove those teething problems
can’t simply be attributed to mathematical
misconfiguration; rather, it was the pell-mell
tempo the top-hatted gentlemen nattered at,
over one another, which necessitated
their grudgingly methodical recalibration.

On a reading for Read to Write

A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of reading some of my poems to Doncaster’s writing group Read to Write in Balby Library. I read for about 25 minutes and then, after a break, we had a Q&A session. It was my first in-person reading since I read for Fen Speak in Ely in February 2020, a couple of weeks before the first Covid lockdown. Here’s a picture of me reading from The Evening Entertainment, taken by Tracy Day Dawson and used with her kind permission:

The brilliant poet Ian Parks, whose Selected Poems is forthcoming from Calder Valley Poetry, founded Read to Write in Mexborough seven years ago and it’s gone from strength to strength. Its activities include workshopping sessions and, as its name implies, reading and analysing texts by great writers, including an ongoing project to read all 37 of Shakespeare’s plays.

The week before my reading, I went to a Saturday afternoon fundraiser for Ukraine at Doncaster Ukrainian Centre Club, at which Ian, Sarah Wimbush (the organiser) and Joe Williams were the featured poets among an open mic session of most of the Read to Write regulars and other poets from further afield, beautifully MC’d by Mick Jenkinson. I’d recently read Sarah’s marvellous Bloodaxe collection, Shelling Peas with My Grandmother in the Gorgiolands, available here, having previously enjoyed and admired her pamphlet Bloodlines, so hearing her read from it was a delight. The whole afternoon was a pleasure. As ever with open mics, you never know quite what you’re going to get, but in this instance, the overall standard was refreshingly high.

Despite practising beforehand, I felt a bit ‘ring-rusty’ when I read at Balby, but the group were so warm and lovely that any nerves I had soon vanished. The questions were good ones and kept me firmly on my toes – they’re a very knowledgeable group. Up and down the UK, local groups are the lifeblood of poetry, especially for those who are just starting out, and might not have read or written poetry since they were at school. In this case, the group impressively encompasses writers at different points on their poetry journey. I hope to get along regularly to the group’s sessions once I have a bit more time, which I hope to have later this year.

My thanks to Ian for the invitation and to him and all the group for being so welcoming.

On a haiku by John Hawkhead

there it is again
that harvest moon in the well
of my whisky glass

The Japanese tradition, like the preceding Chinese poetic tradition, is rich in moon haiku, and especially ones in which the moon is seen in water, particularly by poets who’ve drunk too much sake. With this haiku, first published in Presence 50, John Hawkhead cleverly reimagines the sub-genre. Hawkhead has been writing haiku, and has seen them published in many reputable journals, for many years. He’s also one of the very few English-language haiku poets on Twitter whose haiku are well worth reading.

I’m not a huge fan of statements in haiku, but this one sets up the picture and the mood engagingly: it strikes a tone which could be read as either wearisome or full of wonder, or anywhere between the two. There’s an audible pause at the end of the statement, as if a colon is in place.

The precision of the middle line needs careful unpacking. Why ‘that’? It possibly gives the reader a sense that the moon is being an irritant. Crucially, it means that the line doesn’t need two instances of ‘the’. Then we’re told that this full moon is a specific one, which appears closest to the autumn equinox; so here is the season reference. What gives the poem its real power is the fact that Hawkhead doesn’t opt for a more prosaic and generic option of writing ‘there it is again / that harvest moon / in my whisky glass’. The addition of ‘the well / of’ bestows a layer of depth.

If one reads the poem as a study of melancholy, in which a solitary whisky-drinker cannot even find solace in the sight of the moon at the bottom of his glass, then the word ‘well’ triggers its other noun sense, of a deep, round underground source of water. And the fact that the moon is visible in the glass means, surely, that the finger or two of whisky has been drunk, adding to the melancholic mood.

Even if one reads the haiku merely as an expression of curiosity – that the moon has appeared to align its bright white roundness into and with the roundness of the glass’s bottom – it is still a magical moment, like the alignment of planetary bodies.

A more cynical reading might be that including ‘the well / of’ enables the haiku to fall unobtrusively into a 5–7–5 pattern and provides an alliteration with ‘whisky’. For me, though, the addition truly enriches the poem. This haiku is the exception to the rule that 5–7–5 haiku in English are generally too verbose and therefore need trimming: here, cutting back to a 5–4–5 would diminish the poem’s effectiveness.

There is a recording of John Hawkhead reading some of his haiku on the Living Haiku Anthology website, here.

On The Iron Book of British Haiku

2023 marks 25 years since Peter Mortimer’s Iron Press published The Iron Book of British Haiku, still available on the Iron website, here. It was co-edited by David Cobb and Martin Lucas, both of whom are no longer with us. I seem to remember reading somewhere that it sold over 5,000 copies. It certainly found its way into many bookshops and for years was usually the only English-language haiku book available.

It contained 73 haiku poets, including two of the four who participated in a kasen renga which was appended after the individual poets. Of the 73, I reckon just 14 are still writing haiku and at least three of those 14 have ceased seeking publication for their output. A good few of the others have since died – Norman Barraclough, Seamus Heaney (!), Ken Jones, Stuart Quine and David Walker among them. That’s unsurprising, because in those early days of the British Haiku Society (BHS), which had only been founded eight years before, the average age of the membership must’ve been well over 60, and I was usually the youngest attendee at events.

At the time, I was chuffed to bits to be in the anthology, even though I only had two haiku (both about snails!) in it. I went to the launch at a bookshop whose name and exact location in London escapes me, and which was memorable for a hypnotic reading by Mimi Khalvati, one of three poetry ‘heavyweights’ (alongside famous Seamus and Anthony Thwaite) who were shoehorned into the book to add some clout. Of course, haiku readings are mercifully brief.

In reality, the British haiku scene, as the BHS saw it then, wasn’t sufficiently developed to warrant such an anthology. Like the Haiku Society of America had done before it, the BHS in those years was largely concerned with trying to form a consensus about what haiku is, though it was easier to agree on what it isn’t. Unsurprisingly, some poets disagreed and left to pursue their own paths.

In 2002, the book was superseded by the Snapshot Press anthology, The New Haiku, again co-edited by Martin, this time with John Barlow. It too is still available, here. In terms of both representation and quality, it far exceeded the Iron Book, but the latter had set the bar.

The Iron Book had some noticeable omissions: James Kirkup, whom David had roped in as one of the founding triumvirate of the BHS and its first president, had left on bad terms; Gerry Loose, Peter Finch, Chris Torrance and, posthumously, Frances Horowitz might’ve been included. Whether or not David and Martin had tried to rope some or all of them in I don’t know.

Equally, some poets were included who wrote fine haiku (and other poetry in some cases), but who have long since vanished from the haiku (and wider poetry) scene: Claire Bugler Hewitt, Geoffrey Daniel, Janice Fixter, Jackie Hardy and Susan Rowley.

To me, the standard of the haiku in the book is highly variable, including a fair few – especially some which have been crowbarred into telegram-like 5-7-5 without articles – which today would be highly unlikely to be published anywhere except, unfortunately, by their authors on social media, as well as several minimalist poems and sequences which aren’t even especially haikuesque.

Yet the selections included some really good poems which have stood the test of time. Here are just a few that I like:

after dad
tidies her scarf
the toddler fixes it herself

Annie Bachini

my woodshavings roll
along the verandah

Dee Evetts

caught in a storm
wearing nothing waterproof
except mascara

Janice Fixter

into the busker’s cap
a chill wind blows
bronze leaves

Stuart Quine

loose now
on the knuckle
the thin gold

Susan Rowley

Evetts’s haiku reflects his job as a carpenter, later documented in the excellent collection endgrain (1995). Aside from a couple of classic haiku by David Cobb himself, the book is light on the sort of resonant haiku which rely not on an instant first-reading effect but yield their subtleties and layers over time.

The renga – by the tremendous quartet of Fokkina McDonnell, Stuart Quine, Helen Robinson and Fred Schofield – was, Fokkina, tells me, written on 11 May 1996, in her front room in Manchester at a Yorks./Lancs. Haiku Group meeting. Although it takes some slightly offbeat turns, by and large it’s the best thing in the book, which isn’t something you can often say about renga – in my experience, they’re often just a bit of fun rather than an exercise rich in literary quality.

So in all, one can say that the Iron Book was very much reflective of its time; and it’s about time now for another anthology of the best British haiku, which, to my mind, have come on in leaps and bounds in the last quarter of a century.


I was recently very fortunate and glad to see four of my poems published in the most recent issue of the lovely journal Pennine Platform – three short ones plus a longer one, ‘Smallpiece’, named after the gardener at Cecil Beaton’s Wiltshire home, Reddish House.

A recording of me reading ‘Smallpiece’ is now on the Pennine Platform website, here.

I’m very grateful to the journal’s editor, Julia Deakin.

OPOI reviews of John F. Deane, Clare Best and Mark Wynne

The last batch of one-point-of-interest reviews for 2022 were published on Sphinx yesterday, here. They include my reviews of pamphlets by: John F. Deane, here; Clare Best, here; and Mark Wynne, here.

As ever, though, there are lots of reviews, by and of a diverse range of voices, to enjoy and pique your interest.

Thanks for reading my blog in 2022 and happy New Year!

On On Poetry by Jackie Wills

I’ve been saving this up as my last non-collection/pamphlet read of the year. I bought and much enjoyed Wills’ collection Woman’s Head as a Jug (Arc) 10 years ago, and during the pandemic I got copies of three of her other five collections, which I also really enjoyed. So I had to buy a copy of On Poetry, curiously the second excellent book with that title to be published by Smith Doorstop in the last couple of years, after Jonathan Davidson’s. This one, though, seems implicitly to have a different book – Glyn Maxwell’s brilliant, but somewhat didactic classic – its sights.

Wills’ book is subtitled ‘Reading, writing & working with poems’ and illustrates her points with poems which all bar two (Donne’s ‘The Flea’ and Edward Thomas’s ‘Digging’) are not written by White men, thus providing a necessary corrective to Maxwell’s and other ‘how-to-write-poetry’ books. For example, Wills’ unpacking of Patience Agbabi’s superb poem ‘The Doll’s House’ – available here – is a lesson itself in how to read poetry and tease out its subtleties and gifts.

A key feature of Wills’ ideas is the centrality of metaphor. She approvingly cites Susan Sontag’s line that, ‘A great poet is one who refines and elaborates the great historical store of metaphors and adds to our stock of metaphors.’ I often find metaphors hard to grasp and use them sparingly in my own poems, so this is a little challenging for me. However, it’s good to be challenged, and essential, I think, for any creative person to reassess their own thoughts and practice in the light of others’.

I’m only halfway through the book, but I’m enjoying it so much that I’m having to take it slowly so I can fully savour it. You can buy a copy on the Poetry Business website, here.

I should mention too that Wills maintains an always highly readable blog, here, and that her latest collection, A Friable Earth (2019), and three of its predecessors are available to buy on the Arc website, here.

My (sort of) year in haiku

As I said recently, I write precious few haiku nowadays and never try to force them out. It’s surprising for me to find, then, that this year I’ve written as many as 16 which I like to think have some merit to them. By some distance my favourite among them is this one, which Tanya McDonald kindly published in Kingfisher 6:

a dove’s two-note song . . .
I sink a pint of bitter
in the old pub’s shade

It was a rare instance of a haiku popping into my head fully formed, in the hot days in Holderness back in August, which I partially reported on here. I was sitting on a bench outside the White Horse, Easington, a few minutes after it opened at the odd time of 4pm, when I had an hour or so to kill before the bus was due to ferry me back to Holmpton. (The vagaries of East Yorkshire’s buses were as much of a mystery to me as those of the Kingston Loop railway would be to any non-south-west-Londoner.)

By accident rather than design, it’s a rare-for-me 5-7-5 haiku, though that in itself doesn’t make it any better or worse than any other haiku of mine. More to the point, maybe, that iambic second line and the third have a sing-song rhythm comparable to the collared dove’s call.

The fact that it was a pub called the White Horse was very pleasing to me, because it was also the name of the first pub, in Kingston, in which I regularly drank under-age. The latter, long since gone, was an odd boozer, with a landlord known as Orville, and a regular propping up the bar who was Samuel Beckett’s double and known to all as Roadrunner, on account of the fact that the only thing he ever said was ‘Beep’. I have no idea how he ordered his bottles of Guinness. Orville ended up doing a runner with the takings, which really can’t have been worth it.

Perhaps my pencils will jot down more haiku next year than they manged to this. Either way, rather like East Yorkshire’s buses, they’ll come when they come.

On obscurity

A BBC website piece on the international appeal of Detectorists, available here, provides some instructive reading, in how superb writing can transcend supposed barriers: that, far from obscure cultural references being deterrents, they can actually possess intrinsic appeal because of their obscurity.

I’ve had similar thought when reading We Peaked at Paper, subtitled ‘an oral history of British zines’, co-written by Gavin Hogg and my friend Hamish Ironside. It covers fanzines devoted to all manner of obscure subjects, including, to my delight, A Kick up the Rs, about the mighty QPR. What’s evident is the passionate energy which the founders brought to their individual fanzines and it’s that which is important, surely, in enabling niche content to reach beyond those who might already be converted. I can’t recommend the book, which is beautifully produced and available here, enough.

The same thought occurred to me when reading my favourite poem, ‘Behind The Turnip Harvest’, in Julia Deakin’s 2012 collection, Eleven Wonders, published by Graft Poetry and available here. It describes how, when she was young, she and her family once went round to the adjoining semi-detached:

Perched on their mustard settee
on our best behaviour, we sipped tea
in their front room, which was ours

inside-out, with the same criss-cross
wooden knick-knack rack but strange
ornaments and more furniture.

Deakin evokes the time and place of her childhood with such precision, yet such a light touch too. The poem contains references to ‘Embassy Regal smoke’, a ‘Vymura trellis’ and ‘our Rowland Hilder’, which cast the reader into that early-1960s world. I had no idea what a Rowland Hilder was until the penny dropped that Hilder was the artist who painted the (presumably reproduction) picture in the poem’s title. The fact that Deakin had left it to the reader to work this out made the poem even more enjoyable and is a reminder that less is often more.

On disillusionment

On one Saturday morning shopping trip to Guildford when I was 14, while my parents spent ages in Debenham’s, I went into a secondhand bookshop and bought, for about 75 pence, a Penguin Modern Classics copy of Little Herr Friedemann and Other Stories by Thomas Mann. The only story I half-remember from it is a very short one called ‘Disillusionment’, about the narrator’s random encounter with a man who recounted the sadness of his life. No wonder my favourite band at the time, and for a good period after, was Joy Division (I bought Closer from Woolie’s the same day).

Disillusionment has been my watchword since, or rather, it has been an acceptance of the fact that I’m always likely to be disillusioned – hope for the best but expect the worst and somehow enjoy the sense of disillusionment as a means to self-improvement if at all possible. When I was young, there was, of course, next to no emotional health support for children and young people, but I’m not sure it would’ve been welcome either. I was sent to see the psychologist at Kingston Hospital twice, when I was 10 and when I was 17, to no real end on either occasion. Miserable sods like I was in my mid- to late-teens recognised each other by ‘the weight on their shoulders’, their wedge hair and secondhand overcoats – in my case, a late-Sixties Burton’s one I inherited from my dad, which I absolutely loved and still wore in my university days on the north coast of Ireland until it presumably fell off my back of its own accord.

If you’re wondering at this point where I’m going with this post, then so am I. The state of the UK now, under this most clapped-out and uncaring government, is at its worst since the days of that trip to Guildford. The despair they are inflicting is insidious, infectious and deadly – they’re even reviving the coal industry which their forebears used all manner of state-inflicted violence and subversion to kill off. Finding glimmers of light among it all is far from easy.

I’ve been much less active on social media, because that too is infinitely deflating. However, thanks to a Tweet by Roy Marshall, I’ve read a 2020 interview, available here, with Jane Hirshfield, a poet whose output I’ve warmed to slowly. (My favourite collection of hers is probably The October Palace, 1994, which contains as high a count of poems which I really like as any collection I’ve ever read.) Just the first sentence of her response to the interviewer’s second question alone is extraordinary: ‘Beauty unweights the iron bell of abyss, letting a person hear that even that iron bell, lifted from ground-level, can make a sound our human ears thirst to know.’ Hirshfield has followed a Zen path since the early Seventies, so it’s no wonder that her gnomic utterances sometimes sound intensely profound.

Being able to rise above pessimism and sorrow, and be sufficiently within the moment to appreciate fleeting beauty and be at one with it, is a gift; and one that, as Hirshfield has written about, informs the best, most resonant haiku. In some ways, I wish I still wrote haiku with the same level of productivity that I managed 10 or 20 years ago; but these days they very rarely form in my mind, and I’m old and weary enough to know that forcing them out would be utterly self-defeating.

Running still helps. I have a new route which includes a circuit around the lakes at Orgreave – yes, that one – whose avian inhabitants currently include one of my favourite birds, wigeon, Eurasian Wigeon to be precise, and their fantastic whistling. In Birds Britannica (Chatto and Windus, 2005), Mark Cocker and Richard Mabey say that, ‘The bird’s name [. . .] is partly imitative of the sound, and a large gathering in full voice is one of the classic sounds of the British winter and must rank among the most evocative vocalisations by any of our birds.’ The OED disputes that etymology, but nobody could reasonably dispute the second assertion of that sentence. They are also beautiful birds to look at, especially the males, with their chestnut and yellow heads and pink breasts. A haiku by Martin Lucas, first published in Shamrock in 2007 and which John Barlow and included in Wing Beats a year later, contains not just a powerful picture of the birds’ movement but also an innate lyrical music not often encountered in haiku these days:

rising tide
all the wigeon
backsliding upriver

Review of Greta Stoddart

My review of Greta Stoddart’s collection, Fool is up on The Friday Poem, here. It was a labour of love to undertake all the requisite back-catalogue re-reading before I read Fool and eventually started to write.

As ever, the Friday Poem website has lots of really interesting reviews, articles and, of course, poems to read. It’s become such an indispensable part of the poetry community that it seems incredible that it only started last year.