On library going

In what has already become a somewhat forlorn attempt to arrest my book-buying urges, I thought I would, at long last, take up book-borrowing from Rotherham Library. I’ve been a peripatetic but often prolific library-user over the years since I was allowed to join Old Malden Library when I was six, so it’s a wonder, really, that it took me two years of living in Rotherham before I availed myself of the local treasures to be had. That’s right, treasures. In my experience, every library has them, and much serendipity can be gained by stumbling upon them.

In this case, Rotherham Library, as in many places nowadays, is co-located with its civic centre, and occupies two ground-floor wings of the building, presumably resulting in a rather inefficient use of library staff. Because ‘Fiction’ is within one half, the other tends to be all but empty whenever I go into it, which must be dispiriting for its librarians. Nevertheless, I’ve recently borrowed some excellent books including Zachary Leader’s book on the Movement I referred to in my piece, accessible here, on Donald Davie’s view of ‘The Red Wheelbarrow’.

I also found in the ‘Lit Crit’ section Paul Fussell’s 1980 book Abroad: British Literary Travelling Between the Wars. It examines the works of the likely suspects: Auden and Isherwood, Byron, (Peter) Fleming, Greene, (DH) Lawrence, the Waughs (especially Evelyn). It’s an excellent survey, but it’s of its time so it only begins to scratch the surface of the variably  imperialist and racist subtext of the caricatures and local ‘colour’ which those writers portrayed. I was surprised by how many of the books Fussell covers which I had read way back when, including almost all of Evelyn Waugh’s output, but it’s made me want to read The Road to Oxiana, which I definitely never did. Fussell also includes these disarming sentences,

Making love in novel environments, free from the censorship and inhibitions of the familiar, is one of the headiest experiences travel promises. The very means of transportation, ships and sleeper trains, seem outright provocatives to lust.

As a boy, I had a jigsaw puzzle of the Golden Arrow, the ‘Flèche d’Or’, leaving Victoria Station for headier climes; alas, though, I’m yet to travel on a sleeper, not even aboard the Cornish Riviera from Paddington to Penzance. That must be remedied.

Fussell is good value on how the Victorian, colonialist concept of ‘exploration’ evolved into ‘travel’ and then into ‘tourism’; for many people, there must have been no such distinctions to be made in the attitudes which they took with them wherever they went. Incidentally, I read two years ago Fussell’s 1975 book, The Great War and Modern Memory, which is equally excellent and readable, albeit that it, too, has unsurprisingly dated a little.

As in all public libraries, the ‘Poetry’ section is especially random. But I came across Helen Dunmore’s penultimate collection, The Malarkey (2012), which was a bit of a curate’s egg for me. But when she was on form, she was a brilliant poet, e.g. in the strangely chilling, NPC-winning title-poem and, especially, in the remarkable ‘Barclays Bank, St Ives’, in which she framed – with her unerring, almost-mystical eye – what are presumably the bank’s customers:

Old men with sticks and courteous greeting
who have learned the goodness of days
and give freely the hours it takes
to reach the fathomless depth of the pipe’s tamped bowl
or the corolla of that daffodil
damply unfolding
[. . .]

It’s a true exemplar of how poetic magic can be conjured from unlikely material.

Then there are university libraries. I suspect I’ve written before on this blog about the kid-in-a-toyshop wonder I experienced when I went to university and discovered that its library contained every poetry collection and novel I’d ever wanted to read but hadn’t managed, in those pre-internet days, to track down. There was also the University of London library in the superb Art Deco Senate House – used for the Ministry of Information during the war and, thanks largely to Orwell’s first wife working there, the model for the Ministry of Truth in 1984 – in which I wrote my (dreadful) dissertation; and the library at Essex University, into and out of the paternoster lift of which I was wholly incapable of swanning and instead clambered with Stan Laurel-ish inelegance.  

So that’s me off to the library to change my books for some new ones; maybe that Byron book with any luck.

I must end by mentioning that the magnificent central library in Sheffield has ‘Poetry’ next-door to ‘Horror’.

On sand martins and renku

Two days running, I’ve had serendipitous, marvellous encounters with sand martins.

On Wednesday, I intended to, and still did, walk up the Sheffield and South Yorkshire Navigation – i.e. the canal parallel to the Don – towards Swinton, but first I got distracted by the sand martins whizzing and falling, u-turning and tumbling, their white bellies skimming the river in one seamless, incessant movement on a riffled stretch downstream of Chantry Bridge, below the bus station in Rotherham town centre.

I’d been periodically looking out for them in May, but it took until its final day for me to get the chance to watch stand there, mesmerised, watching them from the railings at the back of a car park. As I said to a 4×4 driver, it’s mindboggling to think that sand martins (and those other acrobats, house martins, swallows and swifts) come all the way from sub-Saharan Africa to sub-Arctic Yorkshire, where there was spit in the air – while half the country’s enjoyed temperatures above 20 degrees, here it’s struggled to get above 10 all week.

Yesterday, Lyn and I walked along the canal in the other direction, towards Sheffield, because we wanted to have a wander round Attercliffe, where she was born. It was that sort of day when it was too cold to go without a jacket, but you felt too hot wearing one – it was, and is, June, for pity’s sake. Anyhow, having looked in the beautiful former Banner’s department store building, now used for not a great deal other than a greasy caff, we ended up trotting through Attercliffe Cemetery and down to the Don again, where we had a fantastic view of sand martins flying in and out of pipe outlets.

That reminded me of seeing them somewhere near Skipton, along the Skirfare, a lovely tributary of the Wharfe, about 20 years ago, with other British Haiku Society poets, in, I think, May 2006. From that experience I produced this haiku, published in Presence 30, then Wing Beats and The Lammas Lands:

river loop—
a sand martin squirms
into its nest hole

It seems like a lifetime ago. Those few days there were notable, among other things, for a renku session run by John Carley, who did as much as anyone in the UK to promote the creation of haikai linked forms not just as a literary exercise, but as an enjoyable, collaborative social event. He was a very erudite man, and absolutely passionate about renku. I think that was the only time I was involved in a renku session in person. I took part in several by email with Ferris Gilli, Paul MacNeil – who took the ‘conductor’ role and very much kept us focused – and Ron Moss, across three continents; but it would have been amazing if we’d been able to write them face to face. Like John, Paul was very exacting and knowledgeable about the subtleties of ‘link and shift’, i.e. how each verse was connected to, and simultaneously moved away from, the previous one. Sadly, both John and Paul are no longer with us.

Reading in Doncaster, 8 June

A week and a bit until my next in-person reading, next Thursday evening, when I’ll be guest poet at Well Spoken, the monthly poetry session at the Brewery Tap, 7 Young Street, Doncaster. Poetry and beer is, of course, a winning combination, but for readings it always begs the question as to whether to have a pint or two before reading or to wait until after. Do poets generally read better with or without a bit of Dutch courage? Obviously, drinking a lot beforehand is both ill-advised and unfair on the audience. I guess it comes down to individual taste and tolerance.

I should mention that the Well Spoken sessions are MC’d by Donny poet and singer/songwriter Mick Jenkinson. He has a fine poem in the latest issue of Pennine Platform and has a couple of albums out at the moment, one of which, When My Ship Puts Out to Sea, featuring superb lyrics by Ian Parks on seven of the 12 songs and available here, is utterly brilliant.

On ‘The Red Wheelbarrow’ and what Donald Davie had to say

When, in 1982, I first encountered William Carlos Williams’s now-famous 1923 poem ‘The Red Wheelbarrow’, readable here, it was instantly inspirational and probably the first poem that I really loved. Like my devouring of the works of Kerouac, Ginsberg and the other Beats, this came about because my brother Adrian, four years older than me, had undertaken a poetry module as part of his American studies degree at Essex University. We both loved WCW’s poem for its directness, immediacy, exactness, brevity, shape upon the page, and absence of punctuation and upper-case lettering; so much so that Adrian, with no little pretension, asked our mum to knit him a jumper which featured a red wheelbarrow against a grey background. I don’t think anyone ever ‘got’ the image without prompting, but we knew – and somehow that sufficed. To us, ‘The Red Wheelbarrow’ seemed a significant advance on Ezra Pound’s 1913 poem ‘In a Station of the Metro’, which rather clumsily attempted to transmit the spirit of haiku into English poetry.

Over the years, my admiration for ‘The Red Wheelbarrow’ has reduced, partly because my tastes have broadened to include poetry far more florid than Imagism and perhaps because, like WCW’s ‘This is Just to Say’ (which, due to the abundance of social media parodies it has spawned, has become more well-known than ‘The Red Wheelbarrow’), the poem has, within the poetry world, become famous to the point of infamy. In my own poetry, whatever concision and specificity they contain are qualities I first grasped from WCW’s poem. But by 1983, I’d discovered the Penguin Book of Japanese Verse and its translations of Bashō, Buson, Issa, Shiki and other haiku poets and retrospectively found Imagism to be verbose in comparison. Nevertheless, I retain a certain nostalgic fondness for my first love.

I’ve just read The Movement Reconsidered, edited by Zachary Leader and published by OUP in 2009, subtitled ‘Essays on Larkin, Amis, Gunn, Davie and Their Contemporaries’. It had a brief review in the Guardian, here. It’s a brilliant book, not least because of the range and quality of the contributors, including: Robert Conquest, the then last survivor of whatever collegiality the Movement possessed; Blake Morrison; Alan Jenkins; Anthony Thwaite (who had co-edited the Penguin Book of Japanese Verse); James Fenton; Craig Raine; Clive Wilmer; and the rather more leftfield Terry Castle, with her essay ‘The Lesbianism of Philip Larkin’ (about his soft-porn ‘Brunette Coleman’ stories). My interest in it was much more about Donald Davie and, above all, Thom Gunn than in their far more insular ‘colleagues’. In relation to Davie, what comes across so strongly is his critical acumen. This wasn’t news to me, because I’ve cherished his last main essay collection, Under Briggflatts, since I first read it 30 years ago; but some of his assessments quoted in The Movement Reconsidered jumped out at me. (Davie was, incidentally, the founding Professor of English at Essex, from 1964 until the sit-ins of 1968 drove him to the States. Not long after, Robert Lowell pitched up at Essex, where one of his students, albeit unofficially, was the haiku bard of Halifax, Keith J. Coleman, perhaps a distant cousin of Brunette.)

In particular, this throwaway remark, in an essay – ‘Donald Davie, The Movement, and Modernism’ – by William H. Pritchard, grabbed my attention: ‘Davie treated Williams as Modernism’s Dumb Ox, calling his most famous poem, ‘The Red Wheelbarrow’, a ‘trivial and self-preening squib’ – something that surely needed saying.’ It’s a devastating verdict, and Pritchard’s enthusiastic agreement, unqualified by any reasoning, further damns the poem. But the poem was published the year after Davie’s birth, a year after Modernism’s high-water marks, so it seems odd to dismiss the poem’s worth without any historical context and/or acknowledgement of how ground-breaking this apogee of Imagism was. (1922 was, coincidentally, also the birth year of Kerouac and Lowell, both great jazz fans, with polar tastes: they respectively adored and abhorred Charlie Parker.)

Is the poem trivial? The fact that it has its own Wikipedia page suggests otherwise. Carol Rumens chose it as ‘poem of the week’ for the Guardian in 2010, here. If, through its opening over-statement, it too squarely focused on what the poet could see, without any overt explanatory information regarding the location or its socioeconomics, then perhaps it didn’t, and doesn’t, provide enough meat for the critical reader. Yet the weight of the first stanza – both the poem’s brilliance and its undoing – surely raises it far above the trivial: explicitly it tells us that in that moment importance lies in what can be seen; that almost nothing else matters. It’s noteworthy, though, that WCW didn’t take that focus to its logical conclusion and write ‘everything depends / upon’.

Is it a ‘self-preening squib’? Let’s consider the noun first. The Cambridge Dictionary defines it as ‘a small firework consisting of a tube filled with powder that makes a hissing noise when it is lit’. Rarely does it appear without its best buddy, ‘damp’. Here, Davie implies that the poem’ explodes and burns itself out all but straightaway. The adjective – attributing a peacock quality to the poem – is, as Davie no doubt realised, rendered superfluous by the choice of noun, but it’s thrown in for good, overloading measure. There can’t be any question as to whether Davie understood what WCW was getting at. His objection must only have been based on the sheer bluntness of ‘so much depends / upon’. (Given that Davie was a Barnsleyite of Scottish extraction, one might have thought such bluntness would’ve appealed to him.) Again, though, we have to note that the statement that phrase contains is qualified and not absolute, so maybe it isn’t quite as blunt as it appears.

And what, if any, assistance to the reader of the poem does Davie’s value-judgement provide? Should we conclude that it’s a deliberately provocative snipe, born of jealousy, at a poet whose work inspired a generation of poets more experimental and, by the sixties and Seventies, mostly much more fashionable than him: Creeley, Ginsberg, Niedecker, Olson, Zukofsky. That Davie, like Gunn before him, loosened up his poetic approach due to prolonged periods in America makes his stance all the more extraordinary.

The poem might be considered the exemplar par excellence of WCW’s dictum of ‘No ideas but in things’, but to what degree is that really applicable here? Does it cohere within the idea that so much importance should be attached to the wheelbarrow? If so, is that because of its usefulness as a functional object or as one merely to be perceived? If the latter, does ‘so much depends / upon’ apply only to the wheelbarrow, with a primacy underscored by its primary colour, or also to everything which follows, i.e. that it is the whole scene, and its unity, to which WCW is pointing.

The wheelbarrow is, of course, the reddest red. Why? Because, the poems tells us it is ‘glazed with rain / water’ which sharpens the definition of the colour in the mind’s eye and because it stands in clear contrast to ‘the white / chickens’. Does the reader also perhaps sense that the chickens have red beaks?

To me the poem’s best, but least mentioned, attribute is the specificity of WCW’s word choices: not just the colours, but his adept use of prepositions and, moreover, the perfection of ‘glazed’ and ‘rain / water’: that he writes ‘rain / water’ rather than just ‘rain’ might be because a second stanza of ‘glazed with / rain’ would’ve looked less appealing and had one less stress than the other stanzas, but it also bestows the sense that the rain has stopped and moved on, leaving a lingering effect behind.

There are theories out there which read the poem as a subtle commentary on race relations, a show of solidarity to the African Americans in his patch: that the poem comes from a visit that WCW, Rutherford general practitioner, undertook to the home of a black farmer; that, just a few years after the lynchings and arson in Chicago, he kept to his Hippocratic oath, which included an obligation to all his fellow human beings.

If the inspiration for the poem came, either directly or via Pound, from early translations of Japanese haiku, then it’s tempting to wonder if WCW considered going the whole hog; perhaps something like:

white chickens . . .
the red wheelbarrow
glazed by rain

The word ‘glazed’ would be too much of a poeticism for haiku puritans who propound the use of unadorned language. Haiku, as they are properly conceived, wholly, or at least mainly, consist of what can be perceived by the senses, without a need to make an overt statement. In the last 10 years or so, though, explicit, abstract phrasing and statement-making, telling the reader too much, has become a regrettable, and regrettably widespread, practice in English-language haiku. In this day and age, nobody needs to be told some equivalent of ‘so much depends / upon’ whatever the objects are or the matter is; it is more than enough simply to isolate those objects, that matter, on the page, surrounded by white space. A century ago, things were evidently different: the spirit of haiku and the way of Zen, and what Eastern traditions generally expounded, had yet to exert much influence in the West, especially on its literature. With this poem, WCW, unwittingly to a degree no doubt, did as much in that regard with this one poem as anyone.

May Day mayday

I’ve been getting my head down reading and writing in the last few months, and participating in the odd workshop session here and there, most recently this weekend just gone, when I was unusually productive.

I organised one myself, in March, for five of us to write poems in response to works in the Albert Houthuesen exhibition at Doncaster’s Danum Gallery. Albert who? you might ask. I confess that I’d not heard of him before, but he was a contemporary of some great artists at the RCA, including my hero Ed Burra. I especially liked Houthuesen’s drawings and paintings of clowns, especially a troupe called the Hermans who regularly performed in Doncaster when he was living nearby as a refugee from London during the war.

This coming Saturday, instead of watching the hideous spectacle in Westminster, the five of us are convening for another poetry from art session, at Sheffield’s fabulous Graves Gallery, where one of the exhibitions surveys the career of George Fullard, about whom I’ve written before, here.

I’ve read lots of poetry, but the book which has haunted me most of late is one which I’ve been wanting to read for years: John Berger and Jean Mohr’s collaboration A Fortunate Man. It contains so many insightful passages about the human condition that it would be invidious to single any out here. Suffice it to say that it’s up there with the Into Their labours trilogy and Bento’s Sketchbook as my favourite of Berger’s many beautiful books. What an extraordinary writer he was. Incidentally, he was an early champion of Fullard.

In my most recent poems I’ve been trying to be more ‘in the moment’, like I am in haiku, rather than dwelling on, and in, the past – albeit, of course, that every second of time contains the past and the future as well as the here and now.

I’ve booked for a couple of online readings – the wonderful duo of Fokkina McDonnell and Zoe Walkington (whose pamphlet, available here, is a brilliant hoot) for Writers in the Bath; the Live Canon launch of pamphlets by Josephine Corcoran, Matt Bryden and Isy Mead; and one in-person: John McCullough, Nafessa Hamid and Vicky Morris as part of Sheaf Poetry festival.

In March, it was fantastic to see Presence reach its 75th issue, due, principally, to the huge effort put in by editor-in-chief Ian Storr, who has had the steadiest of hands on the tiller for a good few years now. I was very happy to have three haiku in it, including this one:

the cornfield flash
of a goldfinch in flight . . .
Flanders poppies

One last thing: here’s a quote from Michael Hamburger’s superb introduction to WG Sebald’s 1998 collaboration with Jan Peter Tripp, Unrecounted: ‘[M]emory is a darkroom for the development of fictions.’ More on that, and the book itself anon.

On Robert Hamberger

Not for the first time, I’m indebted to Mat Riches’s ever-excellent blog – and in this case, an especially brilliant and poignant post, here – for alerting me to something which I may otherwise have overlooked: Peter Kenny’s interview with Robert Hamberger in the latest edition of the Planet Poetry podcast, available here. I’m a big fan of Robert’s poetry, so it was a sheer delight to listen to the interview, not only because of his insights but also because it was interspersed by him reading poems from his latest (2019) collection Blue Wallpaper – available to buy here – which I reviewed for The North, here, and absolutely loved.

Robert aired so many quotable reflections on poetic practice that I had to keep pausing the podcast to write them down. His poetry is often concerned with the past and how it interacts with the present, and I nodded furiously in agreement with his conviction that, “I am preserving experiences or people I loved, or even the person I was at that particular point in my history.” The gist of that is a common enough motivation, but it’s the careful choice of the word ‘preserving’ which is particularly noteworthy; that the poet is as much of an archivist as – if not more than – someone who digitises old photographs or curates items in a museum.

I was struck too by Roberts thoughts on sonnets – he is a superb sonneteer – and his statement that, “rhyme can nudge you onto something in the way that unrhymed poems don’t”. Of course, Robert’s not the first person to point out the paradox that tight rhymed forms can be liberating for a poet. My own experience is that, having come from a position of being dismissive of rhyme and strict(-ish) forms, I was completely won over by a hugely inspiring and enjoyable year-long course in forms taught by Clare Pollard at the Poetry School about 13 years ago.

Robert was also very articulate about the mysteries of drafting poems: “I really like [the] dialogue with a poem during the drafting process; that issue of being attentive to what the poem is not only trying to say but what shape it’s trying to form as it says it.” Robert hints at the mystical aspect of that process, and I certainly share that sense of the poem having a life of its own which I somehow have to charm onto the page.

So, in all, I can’t recommend listening to the interview, and buying and reading Robert’s poetry, enough. Robert’s website, which features his other books, including the marvellous A Length of Road, is here.


Much of my poetry reading of late has been the collected works of the two Janes, Hirshfield and Kenyon, whose poems are and were invariably beautiful, bit so much so that I needed a wholly different voice to read as well. That’s where Luke Samuel Yates’s new, first collection, Dynamo, published by Smith Doorstop and available here, came in: it’s a hugely entertaining book and highly recommended.


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, and then withstand
the Black Watch tugging mightily hard
to tauten it. Alas, no verbatim transcript
of that very first call survives—but suffice it
to note 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 innovators 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.