I’m delighted to say that, on Sunday, 25 September, 2022, I’ll be a guest reader at the next Red Door Poets online reading. Details are available here.
Thanks to Chuck Brickley, I’ve recently had the great honour of co-judging, with Kat Lehmann, the Haiku Society of America’s annual haiku competition, named in memory of Harold G. Henderson, who played a pivotal role in helping to popularise haiku in English.
I’ve been reflecting on why it’s such a great honour. The answer is complex. First off, that the HSA should ask me, some schmuck from England, when the easiest thing would be to ask two (North) American haiku poets – I find that immensely open-minded, especially at this time when globalism seems to be in retreat. Secondly, that so many of the English-language haiku poets whom I admire are American. Thirdly, that much of the rich culture which has influenced me as a person, and as a writer, is American – not just the obvious poets like Bishop, Brock-Broido, Kerouac, Lowell, Snyder and Williams, but art film, music and all, right up to yesterday, when I had Jake Xerxes Fussell’s interpretations of old folk tunes from the South on repeat. So, much gratitude again to Chuck.
I hugely enjoyed the process through which Kat and I progressed from our two separate longish shortlists to having a combined shortlist, and agreeing which poems would be the top three (or four in our case) and then which would be awarded hono(u)rable mentions.
Thanks to Kat, it was an altogether much easier and better process than being a sole judge, as I was for the Martin Lucas Haiku Award for 2019. When you are flying solo, you have nobody with whom you can air your thoughts and doubts about particular haiku; moreover, the chances are that, however meticulously you undertake the initial sifting, you will overlook some perfectly excellent poems which might have otherwise grown on you had you given them the chance to do so.
I like to think that the seven haiku which we selected are all excellent and resonant in their individual ways, and that the pleasure we took from reading and discussing them is evident in the commentaries which Kat and I co-wrote.
You can read the winning haiku and our commentaries here.
I’ve written about the clarity and excellence of Simon Chard’s haiku before, here, and I make no apology for doing so again. Over the last few years, his haiku have been as consistently good as those of any English-language haiku poet and it’s no wonder that he’s won several competitions, including the Haiku Presence Award for 2014 and the BHS’s David Cobb Award for 2021, here.
Snapshot Press published an ebook – A Fence Without Wire, available here – of 20 of Chard’s haiku in 2017. Many of his poems reflect the flora and fauna of Dumfries and Galloway where he lives. Since then, Chard has continued to develop his craft and take more risks.
In the latest issue of Presence, #73, one of his three haiku takes what many readers and, I suspect, most editors would deem to be a highly fanciful turn:
we take the same path
as the goblins
One could criticise the first line for using the generic ‘bracket fungus’ rather than a specific identification, but many bracket fungi look similar to one another so, unless the reader is a mycologist, the wording is totally understandable. One sees the tree or stump to which the fungus is clinging, and senses that the setting is fairly deep inside a wood or forest. The word ‘goblin’, deriving from Norman, came into English in the 13th Century it seems, so one can conclude that belief in goblins is ancient, as ancient as the woodland into which Chard’s haiku leads us. The surprise of the line is softened sonically by ending, like the first line, in an ‘s’. More power to Ian Storr’s elbow for publishing this poem, and good on Simon for writing it.
I was also intrigued by another of Chard’s trio, mainly, but not only, because he includes a place-name and does so prominently:
tinged with pink
Burnswark was new to me, and a quick search said that it’s a hill near Lockerbie with a rich and fascinating history: evidence of Bronze Age occupation; an Iron Age hillfort; and site of a battle between the Romans and locals in the 2nd Century. To my mind, not enough English-language writers are willing to use the power and associations of place-names in their poems. Does it matter if the reader is initially unfamiliar with the reference? Well, the answer is surely that if they are interested, they will look it up. In this haiku, Chard has the confidence to let the hill’s name stand alone as the first line. Its first syllable has an assonance with ‘first’ in the third line and a pararhyme with the ‘n’ of ‘tinged’. Its second syllable has a near-rhyme with ‘pink’. The three ‘w’s in the haiku, happily positioned on a diagonal add a visual rhyme. The picture painted is of a hill towering over a broad landscape at a crepuscular hour – I see a spectacular sunset rather than dawn, but either is possible – as late-autumn gives way to the harshness of winter. With a syllable count of 2-3-2, it’s a short haiku by any standard. The passive adjectival verb, ‘tinged’, is inspired; it suggests the sunset is either working up to a full multi-red glow or is fading from one towards darkness. However one reads it, the elemental sense is intensely vivid.
On Saturday, fellow poets Ian Parks, Simon Beech, Tracy Day Dawson and I walked the route of Ted Hughes’s paper round up from Mexborough to Old Denaby, as described here. Ian, born and brought up in Mexborough, led us on the route which took in the former newsagent’s where Hughes and his family lived from 1938.
At the right-hand-side of the shop is Hughes’s bedroom window overlooking what was a slaughter-yard back then. It inspired his gruesome poem ‘View of a Pig’, published in his second collection, Lupercal (1960). Like most, if not all, English children of my generation, I studied the poems of Hughes more than anyone else’s, except perhaps Owen and Sassoon, and it was the earthier, meatier poems like this one, and ‘Pike’, also from Lupercal, which we read the most. The poem’s last two lines – with the perfectly-judged anaphora, alliteration and simile – ring across the years from an England long-gone:
I stared at it a long time. They were going to scald it,
Scald it and scour it like a doorstep.
The route took in the possible setting of ‘Pike’:
A pond I fished, fifty yards across,
Whose lilies and muscular tench
Had outlasted every visible stone
Of the monastery that planted them—
Stilled legendary depths:
It was as deep as England. It held
Pike too immense to stir, so immense and old
The route took in Manor Farm, where Hughes went trapping and shooting with his brother. It’s the setting of his poem, ‘Sunstroke’, again in Lupercal:
Reek of paraffin oil and creosote
Swabbing my lungs doctored me back
Laid on a sack in the great-beamed engine-shed.
I drank at stone, at iron of plough and harrow [. . .]
I should add that Ian has a wonderful poem published today over at Black Nore Review, here, and I’m looking forward to hearing Ian read at Mexborough Library this Wednesday.
On looking into Lupercal again, I came across that odd poem ‘Mayday on Holderness’, such a contrast to Larkin’s ‘Here’ covering the same terrain, which I trod recently. The last three stanzas travel a vast distance:
The crow sleeps glutted and the stoat begins.
There are eye-guarded eggs in these hedgerows,
Hot haynests under the roots in burrows.
Couples at their pursuits are laughing in the lanes.
The North Sea lies soundless. Beneath it
Smoulder the wars: to heart-beats, bomb, bayonet.
“Mother, Mother!” cries the pierced helmet.
Cordite oozings of Gallipoli,
Curded to beastings, broached my palate,
The expressionless gaze of the leopard,
The coils of the sleeping anaconda,
The nightlong frenzy of shrews.
The Monday before last I went to the Bedford, Balham, for the Live Canon launch of Mary Mulholland’s pamphlet, What the Sheep Taught me. It was and is a beautiful old pub, with an amazing performance space. Before Mary read, her guest readers were Simon Maddrell, Alice Hiller and Chris Hardy, all of whom read their fine poems movingly or entertainingly as appropriate.
What the Sheep Taught me consists of 27 poems relating Mary’s experience of sheep-sitting on a Wiltshire farm. The poems branch out in many directions, including relationships, resilience, the cosmos and beyond. What’s often so intriguing about them is that they rarely follow a logical path and instead invariably go off on tangents. In lesser hands, this approach could be off-putting, if not downright irritating, but Mary has an uncanny ability to trust the reader to follow her (counter-)intuitive leaps into the dream-like, e.g. in ‘Kiss’, which opens thus:
In the yard an olive-brown stone
covered in bumps is skulking away.
Once a man took me boating on the Thames.
He wore a green tweed three-piece, a flat cap,
bought a wicker-hamper picnic,
we saw kingfishers.
The poem gets stranger still, but in all Mary’s poems there’s an underlying truth which means that these ventures into the surreal keep the reader engaged and on their mental toes.
Mary’s pamphlet is available here.
I can’t really not mention Larkin, since yesterday was the 100th anniversary of his birth. Last week, I spent a few days in deepest Holderness, the flatlands of East Yorkshire between Hull and the North Sea.
It’s the area celebrated in ‘Here’, the opening poem of The Whitsun Weddings, and which ends in one of trademark, secular-mystical epiphanies:
Here silence stands
Like heat. Here leaves unnoticed thicken,
Hidden weeds flower, neglected waters quicken,
Luminously-peopled air ascends;
And past the poppies bluish neutral distance
Ends the land suddenly beyond a beach
Of shapes and shingle. Here is unfenced existence:
Facing the sun, untalkative, out of reach.
Nowhere is that sense of ‘unfenced existence’ more apparent than along the spit of Spurn, which protrudes three miles into the last knockings of the Humber estuary, much in the same way that Southend Pier does at the end of the Thames.
From Spurn Point at the end, you can see Bull Sand Fort, a derelict First World War fort guarding the approaches to the Humber. I wonder if it’s what inspired the strange phrase in Larkin’s ‘Friday Night at the Royal Station Hotel’: ‘How / Isolated, like a fort, it is’.
What’s for sure is that Holderness is little changed from Larkin’s time. Since he was still alive when I first became interested in poetry, I somehow think of him as being more contemporary than he is. It seems hard to credit that he was born in the same year as another great writer who inspired me to pick up a pencil, Jack Kerouac, though he, of course, had died long before (in 1969) I came of age. They both inclined to melancholy, and both loved jazz, though Kerouac’s hero Charlie Parker was a figure of hate for Larkin. But I digress. Neither has remained a great, direct influence, but bear repeated, pleasurable re-readings.
I’ve been to see the Sickert exhibition at Tate Britain, having meant to go and see it in Liverpool when it was on show there.
Sickert’s long been among my favourite British artists – and artists per se. The exhibition traces his development from his beginnings as Whistler’s protégé in the 1880s to becoming the grand old man of British art as Europe descended into war for the second time during his life. The curators haven’t flinched from questioning the ethics of Sickert’s nudes or his interest in the infamous Camden Town Murder, and outline how his pioneering usage of photographs paved the way for Pop Art. For me, it was especially good to see many of his Degas-influenced music-hall and theatre pictures assembled together; likewise with the ‘conversation pieces’, narrative paintings in shades of brown and muted ochre, which could have illustrated the novels of Bennett or Wells.
Here’s a poem of mine, written six or seven years ago, which focuses on three fine Sickert paintings in the Tate collection, all of which feature in the exhibition, two of them hung side-by-side.
Vermilion: the dress and hat of Minnie Cunningham,
vamping, for the Bedford Music Hall’s Friday-night delight,
‘I’m an Old Hand at Love, Though I’m Young in Years’.
Venetian: the suits worn by Brighton Pierrots, trotting out
patter to rows of vacant deckchairs, while poison-gas drifts
and chokes the No Man’s Land beyond Sickert’s Dieppe.
Scarlet: the mac defining a news reporter’s back, hunched
at the front of a vast crowd flailed by rain, waiting hours
for Amelia Earhart’s arrival at Hanworth Air Park, May ’32;
conception month of my parents, who grew up to nurture
such tasty Moneymaker tomatoes, lining them up to redden
on the south-facing window-sill, behind the kitchen sink.
Ben Banyard has kindly published two more of my poems over on his Black Nore Review website. I’m very grateful to Ben for providing this platform.
My poems are available here.
My reviews of these two fine pamphlets are up on the Sphinx website, where, as always, there are many other reviews to read. Thanks to Nell Nelson for her encouragement and skilfully editing of my chunter.
The review of Amanda Dalton’s Notes on Water is here.
The review of Greg Freeman’s The Fall of Singapore is here.
Who knew legs could hallucinate,
mistaking uphill for the flat?
a windmill’s arms
as still as the roadkill—
Today is an exciting day for me because my essay on the poet (and writer per se) Ted Walker has been published on The Friday Poem, here. I’m very grateful to editor Hilary Menos for finding space for my rambling observations and, moreover, for Ted himself.
The essay took a good deal of reading and research, including a trip down to Lancing back in February (thus the photos); it was, and is, a labour of love. The more I’ve read by and about Ted, the more I’ve grown to like him and respect his considerable achievements. As you’ll see from the essay, he was critically acclaimed throughout his career, yet hardly anyone seems to remember him. My intention was to bring Ted back into the light, so that, with any luck, he might acquire some new readers. If that happens, then I will be very glad.
The summer is invariably a quiet time for me, writing-wise. There are too many distractions for one thing, but, in any case, I rarely get in the mood to write when it’s warm and pleasant outside.
Reading, though, is a different matter. Sitting out in the sunshine with a good book is, of course, one of life’s great pleasures. In the last three months or so, I’ve enjoyed new and old collections by David Cooke, Jonathan Davidson, Tim Dooley, John Foggin, Ishion Hutchinson, Simon Jenner, Anita Pati, Peter Sansom, Anne Stevenson and Sarah Westcott, as well as pamphlets by Amanda Dalton and Greg Freeman which I’ve reviewed.
On my to-read pile, are new collections by Cahal Dallat, Richie McCaffrey, Dino Mahoney, Helena Nelson and some old ones by Ken Smith, plus the Collected Poems of Lorine Niedecker. All of those should keep me busy when I’m off soon, in four of the six school holiday weeks. A few days in Marvell country, Holderness, will also be good for the soul.
It’s been lovely to see the excellent news lately that some of my favourite poets have new collections forthcoming, including Ramona Herdman, Marion McCready, Pete Raynard, Emma Simon and Matthew Stewart.
Meanwhile, the understandably long waits to hear back about various submissions go on and on, so in amongst my fretting about resilience and recalling of Eliot’s words about poetry being a mug’s game, I was chuffed to see, today, that Live Canon posted on YouTube the reading I did for them last year in their still-thriving Friday Lunchtime readings series. It can be watched here.
I have a poem, ‘Accommodation Strategy’, in the second issue, here, of Public Sector Poetry, which is a rather niche journal for people like me who work in the public sector and also happen to be poets. The events of the last two years have already rendered my poem’s content out of date, but it represents a certain point in time. It just goes to show that local government is rather more fluid and dynamic now than when I started it in an eon ago.
I could provide some football trivia as background to the Cloughie poem, but I’ll let the poem speak for it itself. I like to think it’s in keeping with David Peace’s brilliant 2006 novel The Damned Utd, which was filmed in 2009 with Michael Sheen fully inhabiting the role of Old Big ’Ead himself.
I’ve written before on this blog about the excellence of Kathy Pimlott’s poetry – a review, here, of her first Emma Press pamphlet Goose Fair Night (2016). Kathy’s second pamphlet, Elastic Glue (2019), was just as good, and contained several poems concerning the gentrification of her neighbourhood of Covent Garden and Seven Dials in central London.
I was therefore delighted to be able to attend the launch, on Wednesday at the lovely setting of Phoenix Garden, of Kathy’s first full collection, The Small Manoeuvres, published by Verve Poetry Press and available to buy here. It was a very enjoyable evening, which included Kathy reading some of the fine poems in the book.
Like the two pamphlets, the poems in The Small Manoeuvres are full of Kathy’s clear-eyed perceptions, a palpable sense of social justice, deep respect for family, friendship (especially amongst women), history and memory, and finely-drawn character studies. They are, in the best way, very readable poems, without any irritating tricksy-bollock nonsense. For these reasons, Kathy is among my very favourite contemporary poets.
The first of the five stanzas which make up the poem ‘Weathers in the City’ exemplifies Kathy’s bravura, but also concise, tell-it-as-it-is style:
Our lead-laced down draughts gust
between high-rises, blow sex cards
from phone kiosks, shake plane trees
to sneezes. Not true winds as such.
The poem’s concept is an original one. It carries on to end as wonderfully as it began:
oceans, rippling cornfields, crags,
we must find the sublime where we can.
Once, from the Lyric Hammersmith bar,
disappointed with the play, I looked out
and saw a triple rainbow, so clear it made
anything possible. And sometimes grubby air
rests on our cheeks as if we are loveable.
Aside from the incidental resonance for me of the mention of the Lyric bar, where I spent many lunchtimes with my friend James when we both worked for Hammersmith and Fulham Council in the late Nineties, this passage begs the questions of who ‘we’ might be and, intriguingly, why that ‘we’ might not usually be ‘loveable’. Is ‘we’ the city-residents, or does it also include all those who are just passing through as tourists or even as day-trippers? The idea of community is a key theme, sometimes more latent than explicit, in Kathy’s poetry.
‘Weathers in the City’ is one of several superb poems set in Kathy’s locale which form a core sequence at the centre of the collection, touching on Theatreland, West End pubs and all, but the book also encompasses jam-making, sloe gin and much else besides.
Here’s a picture of the poet herself at the launch.
With thanks to editor Hilary Menos, I have another piece on The Friday Poem today: a review, available here, of Sarah Mnatzaganian’s marvellous Lemonade in the Armenian Quarter, published by the estimable Against the Grain Poetry Press. As ever, though, there’s plenty of other, excellent stuff on there.