On office machinery and Kath McKay

Old, obsolete office equipment is a fascinating subject to me, since I’ve spent almost all my working life in offices (including my own; well it’s more of a room with a PC in it, but hey ho). When I first started in local government in Kingston in 1992, there were cupboards still full of weird gadgets which looked like instruments of torture: Gestetner duplicators, comb binding machines, gigantic hole-punchers, etc. As I may have related before, there was one word processor between 11 of us and it broke down regularly; and for the processing of many millions of pounds of student grants and fees per year, we used an old and creaking mainframe computer which churned out reams of print-outs.

In 1996, I moved on to another London borough, Hammersmith and Fulham and, following the General Election in May ’97, it became a Labour flagship borough, with lots of money for new computers and the revolutionary new communication and knowledge opportunities offered by email and the internet. I remember sending my first email, to my work colleague and friend James in which, for some reason, I accused him of some unspeakable deviancy; typically, I contrived to send it to the whole of the Education department. The fact that nobody even mentioned it to me, let alone warned me about my conduct, showed that email in the workplace really was in its infancy. But I digress.

Obsolete office equipment is also an excellent subject for poetry. I’ve written previously about Emma Simon’s delightful poem, ‘In the Museum of Antiquated Offices: Exhibit C, Fax Machine’, and have just come upon another, ‘Elonex Word Processor Circa 1998’ by Kath McKay, from her fine collection, Collision Forces, Wrecking Ball Press, 2015. As I’ve experienced at first hand, from Saturday writing sessions with the Poetry Business in Sheffield, Kath is a very perceptive and articulate poet who tells it how it is. This particular poem opens pricelessly:

Boxy as a Soviet car, it took up two thirds of my desk,
while others slimmed down, became pencil like.
This bod had to warm up. Every day rebooted seven
or eight times.


I’m sure many readers can empathise with that. The opening simile is perfectly judged, comically conveying a sense of this piece of hardware being innately behind the times. I like too the dry humour in that exaggerated second line and of that ‘bod’.

The poem goes on to encompass a search for her partner’s personal details following his sudden death, an event which understandably dominates the middle of the book:

Later I scoured the hard drive for your bank statements, spread sheets,
calendars: something of you coiled deep.

The last seven lines of the poem consist of a litany of old machines. As I implied when I wrote about Emma Simon’s poem, this obsolescence has a poignancy to it, and, of course, an ecological cost too, both to the extraction of the raw materials required for new products and to the waste of the old: about 10 years ago or more, an article in the Richmond and Twickenham Times, back when it still contained some proper-ish local journalism, revealed that hundreds of knackered computers from the local FE college had shamefully ended up dumped on a beach in Ghana.

My enjoyment of Collision Forces was slightly diminished by the regularity of typos and by other oddities (no biographical details, no endorsements, though that might be a blessing, and the briefest of blurbs); all of which are wholly at variance with the book’s attractive physical attributes and the poems’ literary quality. But don’t let that deter you.

There must be scope for more excellent poems on this theme. Perhaps some are already published. I hope so.

A final thought: Ive been reminded of the 10,000 Maniacs classic, ‘Planned Obsolescence’.

The poetry of reservoirs

You, my regular reader, may remember that several of my blog posts have been inspired by those of Matthew Stewart. In this case, it’s slightly different: a welcome instance of synchronicity.

It must be difficult to be a poet in Yorkshire and not feel a need to write, at least once, about reservoirs. Near where I grew up, in south-west London, the reservoirs were more often not forbidding places with no or limited access, surrounded by high walls, which kept the water out of sight, and grassy banks grazed by strangely suburban sheep. When they were visible, the water was enclosed by undisguised concrete. Some are havens for urban birders – Stephen Moss undertook much of his formative birding at Staines Reservoir.

Those in Yorkshire tend to be tucked away, in moorland hills, and properly absorbed into their environments. Therein lies their beauty, perhaps: the knowledge that even though we, and the creatures who live in and around them, appreciate them as natural lakes (and who doesn’t love a nice lake?), they are artificial , existing only to be functional; to provide clean water to the great conurbations of the Ridings. Peter Sansom’s marvellous ‘Driving at Night’, the opening poem of his 2000 collection Point of Sale, begins:

The res through trees
is a lake or calm sea on whose far shore
a holiday is waiting, a fire laid in the grate,
the larder stocked with tins, milk in the fridge,
and on the hearth a vase of new tulips.


I know instinctively what he means. The contentment invoked in those lines is topped off by that ‘new’: these are pristine tulips, with no sign yet of their heads drooping.

I’ve mentioned previously Ted Hughes’s poem ‘Widdop’, about the reservoir of the same name, a few miles north-west of his house at Lumb Bank, which he subsequently gave to the Arvon Foundation. Its opening lines are as vividly memorable as Peter’s:

Where there was nothing
Somebody put a frightened lake.


When I spent a very hot week at Lumb Bank in 2018, I wrote my poem ‘Dawson City’, set against the backdrop of the making of the Walshaw Dean reservoirs between 1900 and 1912, and one, channelling Seurat, called ‘Bathers at Widdop Reservoir’.)

I drafted a haiku about five years ago, while walking round Damflask, one of the reservoirs which supply Sheffield, and then forgot about until a few weeks ago, during a return visit to Bradfield, when I added the allusion to the Great Sheffield Flood of 1864:

a hairpin bend
to where a village drowned—
the smell of pigs


It was, though, the appearance in issue #66 of The North of Victoria Gatehouse’s brilliant – and brilliantly-titled – poem ‘Reservoir Gods’ which set me off on this post. Vicky brought it for workshopping in a session of the last Poetry Business Writing School, but we had nothing constructive to say because it seemed – it was – already word-perfect. As the title indicates, the gaze of the poet romanticizes the protagonists, but within a framing of the risks which they take:

They pay no heed to warning signs
about deep water and toxic blooms
of blue-green algae. These are dangers
which don’t concern them


Earlier in this Covid year, with little to do but head out into the natural and not-so-natural world, there seem to have been a lot of drownings in reservoirs – including one of a 16-year-old boy in the closest, Ulley, to where I live. Gatehouse doesn’t say explicitly that the people she’s writing about are young men, but it’s obvious that they are, as confirmed by the rich details: ‘all swagger, / in a hit of Hugo Boss’. The description continues beautifully, as if this is a Rococo Arcadian scene painted by Watteau:

and the afternoon cracks open, fizzes
like a shaken can, all vigour and foam
as they strip and dive in.


It’s one of those poems which needs to be anthologised as the instant classic it is.

On Patricia Beer and the RNLI

The news from a few days ago that Nigel Farage, the ‘Poundland Enoch Powell’ as Russell Brand memorably called him, had berated the RNLI on social media for providing what he called ‘a migrant taxi service’ across the Channel was of course both fascist flatulence about the value of migrants’ lives and a crass trivialisation of the dangers which the migrants and RNLI volunteers face in the world’s busiest shipping lane. It’s no wonder that the RNLI responded so robustly, or that donations to the RNLI soared as a result.

In my university days, a frequently heard sound was the lifeboat siren echoing around Portrush, which sent half a dozen very brave men scurrying from whatever they were doing down to the harbour. The man, whose name I can’t recollect, who owned and/or ran the chip shop was one of them. To see them setting off into the North Atlantic was an intensely memorable sight.

Farage’s drivel also reminded me of a great poem by Patricia Beer which I read recently: ‘Lost’, concerning the Penlee lifeboat disaster of December 1981, and first published five months later in the London Review of Books. Devonian by birth and by residence after years away, Beer became a laureate of the West Country, and this poem captures both the personal and the universal profundity of the tragic events.

The middle two of the six stanzas of ‘Lost’ are almost unbearably poignant:

The storm was here too, blowing its own trumpet,
Holding up the white wings of my neighbour’s geese
As they fought like angels in the growing darkness.

That night the news, fraying from the Stockland mast,
Stuttered across the valley that the Penlee lifeboat
Was lost with a crew of eight.


The image of the geese provides a powerful foreshadowing, and that description ‘fraying from the Stockland mast / Stuttered across the valley’ gives the relaying of the news a timeless sense to it, as though it might be by semaphore rather than the radio and TV transmission mast. Both ‘fraying’ and ‘Stuttered’ are far from obvious verb choices but they work superbly.

Beer’s approach to such difficult subject-matter is exemplary in how it acknowledges and deals with tragedy; and how it shows the impact of that tragedy on the wider community. The distance from Upottery, in East Devon, where Beer lived, to Penlee Point, in Cornwall, where the Penlee lifeboat was based then, is 86 miles, or ‘two moors away and three lighthouses’ as the poem goes on to say, but the congregation in the final stanza are nonetheless deeply affected by it:

Yet when the vicar paused in his prayer that Christmas Eve
There was true silence in the church as though
The lost souls had been found for a few minutes
Who had no time for ‘Nearer my God to Thee’.


It would be difficult, I think, to over-emphasise the brilliance needed to pull off a poem like this, which addresses an event which struck with grief not just the people of Cornwall and Devon, but the country per se and beyond. To a nation brought up on the heroics of Grace Darling, Penlee had a terrible resonance. Beer does not include the heart-breaking familial details of the disaster and hers is not a journalistic account of the deaths of the eight volunteers; rather, it is an oblique yet profound and humane response which only a poet of genius could have created.

Quiet flows the Don

If you’ve read either of my haiku collections, you’ll know I have a fondness for rivers; but then, who doesn’t? Living in the middle of England, fifty-five miles from the nearest coastline, landlock naturally means that I gravitate to rivers and canals. Rotherham is where the Rother ends, at its confluence with the Don.

The upstream Don has long ago been split so that part of it forms and is shadowed by the Sheffield and South Yorkshire Navigation, i.e. canal. It bends round the back of Rotherham United’s New York Stadium, in the New York part of the town, because the steel produced locally was used to make the fire hydrants in NYC. There, today, Lyn and I saw the first of probably five or six lots of sand martins. I don’t think there is a collective noun for sand martins and I’m struggling to think of a word which would be appropriate other than something like ‘joyfulness’. They are one of my favourite birds and always an absolute pleasure to encounter. I’ve written a few sand martin haiku over the years, and this, written on the Skirfare and published in both Wing Beats and The Lammas Lands, is probably the best of them:

river loop—
a sand martin squirms
into its nest hole

From Meadowhall, the retail cathedral replete with lead-green roofing, we followed the Five Weirs Walk towards Sheffield. We were amazed to find that each of the weirs dates back several centuries – Sanderson’s Weir since the 1580s and Brightside Weir since 1328. We got a riverside view of Lady’s Bridge, so called because, like Chantry Bridge in Rotherham, it had a chapel on or beside it in medieval times.

I was also very happy to see tansy:

There was already plenty of yellow about, with the preponderance of ragwort and sprawling hedge mustard (“as wild as Leo Sayer”, Lyn noted), but tansy is slightly more golden, a lovely contrast to the pinkish purple of slender thistles and teasel and the proper purple of buddleia. In England, it’s at its best at this time of year. I wrote about it 10 or so years ago, when I spotted a clump of it along the Thames, heading upstream between Ham and Kingston:

school’s out
the riverbank flush
with tansy florets

On Brian Jones (no, not that one)

A decade or so ago, I was a member for two or three years of the Twickenham Stanza group of the Poetry Society until it ceased following the closure of Langton’s bookshop, Church Street, in which the group met. The quality of the poems we workshopped was invariably high. Among the members was the fine poet Paul McLoughlin, who was generous to me with his time and entertaining anecdotes. Sadly, he has recently passed away.

Paul occasionally mentioned the poet Brian Jones (1938–2009) – not to be confused with the Strolling One – and a few years ago, his own publisher, Shoestring Press, published a selection of Jones’ poems. I must get round to buying a copy. In the meantime, I recently bought a lovely copy of Jones’s Interior, 25 poems published by Alan Ross in 1969. There is something Larkinian about his poetry, though without the misanthropy or suppressed bigotry. More than anyone, though, his poems remind me of Dennis O’Driscoll’s: droll, acutely aware of mortality and on the nose.

A three-part poem ‘At the Zoo’ was always going to appeal to me, because I adore zoo poems, and zoos in fact, hard though it is not to feel simultaneously thrilled by proximity to the creatures therein and repulsed by their captivity. The third part concerns Chi-Chi, the giant panda who was brought to London Zoo from Frankfurt in 1958 and was a major attraction until her death in 1972, and opens thus: ‘This is the panda that wouldn’t be shagged!’. After a superb simile, ‘wondering kids hoisted like periscopes’, he elaborates on the panda’s situation and attitude:

This is the girl
who would have none of it, who let the world
proclaim and plan the grandest wedding for her,
who travelled in state and with due coyness
one thousand miles in a beribboned crate,
who ate well at the reception, honoured the ritual,
and when the time arrived for being shagged
chose otherwise, rolled over, went to sleep.


Anthropomorphic, to a degree, this may be, but it’s fine writing, with a deceptively easy rhythm.

The same panoptical and omniscient voice is at play in his poem ‘In a University Library’, the last two stanzas of which build to a mightily unexpected and extraordinary flourish:

So here I am, game for another try.
Across hushed floors, I follow appropriate rules—
check catalogues, use cards, go straight to a shelf,
extract one book with unambiguous hand,
pass girls with gentle faces and lyric hair

without a second glance, become a bulk
of silence at a table, open the words—
and Time leaps cartwheels and the blood runs loutish
as sunlight strokes the pages where they swell
in sumptuous buttocky mounds from the shadowed spine.

It’s a poem to which I can fully relate. Pre-computerisation, university libraries must’ve been even stranger environments than those I inhabited in the mid to late ’80s; nevertheless, the timelessness of being, in that perfect phrase, ‘a bulk of silence’ is marvellously depicted.

The masterpiece in Interior is ‘Death of a Cultured Golfing Motorist’. With a title like that, how could it not be? In seven intricately-woven tercets, Jones maintains the poise and tension of a tale which we already know will not end well. Here are stanzas 3 to 5:

And on the course was never such a day—
the ball sprang from the gorgeous woods
like a bolt of joy, hung in subtle flight

from wedge and spoon. The greens played like a dream
and light was dreamlike, reducing distances.
And driving home, he heard his car

croon like advertisement—the stubbed gearstick
floated between the ratios, the tyres
discarded corners with brisk disdain.


I won’t give away the brilliance of the poem’s closing couplet. For the anthology of poems about sport which I am slowly compiling, ‘Death of a Cultured Golfing Motorist’ is an absolute shoo-in.

On football poetry and why it matters

If you dislike football, and QPR and/or England even more, then you probably ought, as Des Lynam used to say, to look away now.

I’ve been a football fan almost as far back as I can remember, and in 1973 chose QPR, then newly promoted to the old First Division, as my team. I sometimes wonder what I’ve done to deserve almost a lifetime of supporting them, though, on balance, the highs have just about outweighed the many nadirs, the lowest of the low perhaps being, in 1998, the brief simultaneous appearance in the hoops of Razor Ruddock, carrying more timber than a glen-full of caber-tossers, and Vinnie ‘off-to-Hollywood’ Jones, both barely bothering to walk, let alone run, with Jones spending much of the game very loudly calling his rather more energetic young teammate Tony Scully a ‘fucking cunt’.

I’ve also endured (on telly) nearly every England game since one happy Saturday in 1975 when I rushed home from my junior school’s fete to watch then QPR and England captain Gerry Francis inspire them to their second best ever 5–1 win, over the Auld Enemy. It wasn’t until 1982, following an infamous qualifying disaster in Oslo, that I was able to see England play in a tournament. That World Cup started perfectly, with a scintillating win over Platini’s France, but ended, as it always has in my lifetime, in defeat, Keegan and Brooking’s last-throw-of-the-dice double-act unable to save them. Naturally, England fans ran riot, inspired by Thatcher’s colonial war to save Britons so patriotic they chose to live 8,000 miles away. Then they were back to the old ways of failing to qualify, for the Euros in ’84, before the agony of Mexico ’86. Everyone remembers Maradona’s Hand of God and that sensational run for his and Argentina’s second, revenge of sorts for that war I mentioned, one of the four defenders he left in his wake being QPR’s Terry Fenwick; but it’s the England response that sticks most in my mind: on as a sub, John Barnes’s wing-play was unbelievably good, setting up one goal and providing a cross which Lineker was an inch away from. I remember pacing around the house afterwards, feeling the disappointment of that defeat as real physical pain.

The ’88 Euros were a shambles: three games, three defeats, seven goals conceded and only two scored. Lord knows how Bobby Robson (born, incidentally, on the same day in 1933 as Yoko Ono and my mum) was still manager two years later for the near-glory of Italia ’90. England started slowly at that tournament, as they’ve done many times since, and grew and grew into what looked like an unstoppable force. Whether the switch to a system with mad Mark Wright a revelation as sweeper really was, as supposed, senior England players’ idea or Robson’s, it was inspired. In retrospect the fact that it took a fluky deflection off QPR’s Paul Parker for that brilliant German side to score was testament to how good that England team – Gascoigne, Lineker and all – had become. Again, the disappointment was something tangible.

I won’t discuss hapless Graham Taylor’s reign except to recall that on a pre-season tour of Sweden, after he’d just taken over as Wolves manager in the summer of ’94, he went over to thank some Wolves fans, asked them why they’d come all that way and got a blunt Black Country reply along the lines of “We would’ve been in America, but you fucked that up for us, didn’t you”. I also recall a Bolton fan being up in court for throwing a turnip at him and then having his fine doubled by the magistrate for declaring that it was worth it.

Euro ’96 was a blur of excitement, guided by ex-QPR boss (and player) Terry Venables, but that Gascoigne miss lingers . . . You get the gist. Beckham’s red card against Argentina in ’98 (what a game it had been up to that point). Keegan’s gung ho naivety in 2000. That 2002 side which also grew and grew, with ex-QPR Trevor Sinclair outstanding, but which didn’t properly show up against a Brazil team whom they were more than capable of beating, and lost to a ridiculous lob over the head of also ex-QPR David Seaman.

I won’t go on. But I will say that England’s current crop are playing the best and most assured tournament football that I reckon I’ve ever seen from an England squad. Whereas previous England teams, including that of 1990 which almost exited against Cameroon, have been prone to panic at the mere sight of opposition players running at their defence, this squad has defended brilliantly, from front to back. Kyle Walker, who had a fondly-remembered loan spell at QPR 10 years ago, has made many blisteringly fast recovery runs to snuff out trouble despite being the oldest member of the squad. Going forward, their resources are as rich as any squad I can recall, and Sterling, on QPR’s books until he was 15, has been chief among them. More than that is the exemplary manner of how they conduct themselves in the manner of their manager, an affable, dignified man who knows and celebrates the fact that the players he’s picked reflect the true diversity and inclusiveness of English society. These are footballers who recognise that they are role models and that their fabulous wealth can be used to help remedy the wrongs inflicted by years of years of uncaring, selfish government. Even if they lose tomorrow night, they have already done so much to erase the pain of all those previous near-successes.

*

‘What of football poetry?’ I hear you ask. Well, when I was a boy, I could turn to my dad’s Wisden collection for fantastic writing about my other sporting love, yet football literature consisted mostly of annuals, in which the likes of Ken Dodd, and even Marty Feldman, arsed about and gurned at some club or other’s training ground. Although I used to read match reports in the Guardian, it was only later that I discovered that there were some anthologies containing superb prose accounts of great games and players by the likes of Geoffrey Green, Hugh McIlvanney and my favourite, Brian Glanville. Those books would often contain a few poems, mostly by the doyen of football poets, Alan Ross, whose hymn to Stanley Matthews remains perhaps the most famous football poem in English, plus Ted Hughes’s fine ‘Football at Slack’. Ross’s poem ‘G. Lineker’ obliquely but cleverly addresses the approach of that celebrated goal-poacher:

A style suggested by a name,
A way of comportment, of playing
In the merging of ‘line’ and ‘glint’
Necessary elusiveness, hint
Of mother of pearl, ‘nacreous’,
As in the opening, knife-edged,
Of two halves of an oyster.

His poem ‘Football Grounds of the Riviera’ is lovely:

Menton at home to Nice, the French league leaders.
Sun only a rind squeezed dry of its heat,
And below us the voices of bathers scratch
At the cellophane air, airing ignorance of the match.


For me though, Clive, the incidence of excellent football-related poetry seems remarkably low given how central a role the sport has played in our cultural landscape over the last 150 years. Thankfully, there are some exceptions.

Don Paterson’s ‘Nil Nil’ from his 1993 (debut) Faber collection of the same name, contains, despite its digressions, a rich kernel:

McGrandle, majestic in ankle-length shorts,
his golden hair shorn to an open book, sprinting
the length of the park for the long hoick forward,
his balletic toe-poke nearly bursting the roof
of the net


All that assonance – ‘ank’/‘book’/‘park’/‘hoick’/‘poke’ – is rather trowelled on, but the description of the player’s movement and finish is undeniably vivid.

Rory Waterman’s ‘Alfreton Town 0, Brackley Town 1 (89’)’, from his 2020 Carcanet collection Sweet Nothings, captures the weird devotion of grown men to football clubs way down the football pyramid (though both clubs in the poem are now in the sixth tier of English football): ‘The pitch is white where the sun’s not been seen / on its hill-cresting flight. The tea queue is long / and shrouded in breath, as men in fat coats / grunt at each other, though the game’s going on’. I won’t quote any more because it would ruin the surprise of a terrific poem which is both very funny and sad. That image of ‘men in fat coats’ is beautifully observed. It reminds me of those different, absurdly long coats which Arsène Wenger used to wear, which resembled sleeping bags and/or made him look like Olive Oyl, depending on your viewpoint.

I also much admire ‘Geese Above Highfield Road’ by Oliver Comins, first published by Alan Ross in his London Magazine. Matthew Stewart has rightly highlighted its brilliance on his Rogue Strands blog. It’s one of those poems which I wish I had written, having many times seen Vs of geese heading over Loftus Road. As Matthew notes, it can’t have been easy being a Coventry fan, as Peter Raynard would also testify, in recent years, so it’s gladdening to a poem set in their more stable times.

I should highlight Matthew’s own ‘Las Cigüeñas’ which is as atmospheric, in its own way, as Oliver’s, to which, being equally prompted by the seemingly incongruous sight of birdlife, it could be a Spanish cousin. The reasons outlined by the editors of The Friday Poem as to why they chose it for publication are spot-on. As a fan, like Rodney Wood, of Aldershot Town, Matthew must also know a thing or two about the travails of following an unfashionable club, and one with at least two QPR connections – Ian Gillard and Gary Waddock, both of whom I saw play many times at the tail-end and beginning/prime of their respective illustrious careers.

In his 2018 Seren collection Way More Than Luck, Ben Wilkinson included a 14-poem middle section, ‘An Ordinary Game’, devoted to football, to Liverpool FC specifically and several of its key figures in particular: Shankly, Barnes, Grobbelaar, Liddell, Gerrard, Fowler, Torres, Suárez and King Kenny himself, who adorns the cover. The Dalglish poem, an unrhymed sonnet, is arguably the most memorable of them, because rather than attempting to depict his indescribable playing ability, it focuses on his immensely brave response the day after the Hillsborough disaster. To have witnessed that after having also been present at Heysel in 1985 would’ve broken a lesser person. Wilkinson’s poem captures the heartrending moment:

The one man, making no fuss, steps up,
sits down two teddy bears, gifted by his kids;

a man who’s performed miracles on this field,
resurrected hopes. Who’ll pay his respects
to every one, not in duty’s name, but love’s.
They supported Liverpool Football Club.
It’s the turn of the Club to support them.


As all these poems, bar perhaps Ross’s Matthews one, show, the best poems about football, about sport in general – like novels and films about sport – transcend the sport itself. A few days ago, I watched, for the first time in many years, Lindsay Anderson’s 1963 film of David Storey’s novel This Sporting Life. The rugby league sequences within it are remarkably well done when compared with other sport sequences in dramatic films, like Escape to Victory or The Damned Utd. One couldn’t expect an actor to convey the skills and balance of top-class footballers. Poets, on the other hand, can, with words, do exactly that and more, and widen the angle to show exactly why football matters.

I couldn’t not finish by quoting the last stanza of Ross’s poem ‘World Cup’, about the final in 1966:

Arms raised like gladiators, they embrace.
Human emotions swamp them, childishly even
For such protagonists of perfection.
    And involved in this mixture
Of the fallible and the dreamy,
The percussive and the lilting, they demonstrate
How art exist on many levels, spirit
And matter close-knit as strangling lianas.

On Kavanagh, Hughes, Burra and Sisson

A correspondence on haiku and then sonnets led me to dip into Don Paterson’s 1999 anthology 101 Sonnets (Faber). I was pleased to find Patrick Kavanagh’s ‘Inniskeen Road: July Evening included. It’s the only poem I’ve ever ‘borrowed’ from – I used the equally punning phrase ‘blooming sun’ in the first poem, concerning a herd of cows in County Down, which I had published, in Poetry Ireland Review, appropriately, in 1987.

I bought a copy of, and was greatly affected by, Kavanagh’s Collected Poems in my first year at university, in 1985/86. That was around the time that Tom MacIntyre’s play adaptation of Kavanagh’s masterpiece, ‘The Great Hunger’, was finishing a triumphant run at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, which had revived interest in a poet whose posthumous reputation had, it seems, not been as high as it ought to have been, despite advocacy from the likes of Heaney and Montague. (The play incidentally reminds me of Paul Durcan’s poem, ‘What Shall I Wear, Darling, to The Great Hunger?’ which I saw him read at Coleraine in, I think, 1990.)

Paterson’s verdict on Kavanagh’s sonnet is brief but mostly spot-on:

This is about as good as it gets – effortless rhymes, effortless accommodation of natural speech to the form – and that lovely pun on ‘blooming’. Fine witty poem on the predicament of the provincial aesthete.


The Predicament of the Provincial Aesthete sounds rather like the title of an Angus Wilson novel.

I like the way that the first half of the octet is packed full of an energy and activity which is deliberately lacking from the second half, as if the ‘mile of road’ could be in a Beckett play or a Jack B. Yeats painting. The three phrases which stand out from the octet – ‘the half-talk of mysteries’, ‘the wink-and-elbow language of delight’ and (‘not / A footfall tapping secrecies of stone’ – are perfect: economical yet conveying some sort of magic in the air.

The turn of the poem is a large one: whereas the octet is entirely observation of the all-seeing narrator, the sestet moves into the personal. Poems which talk about poetry are often dull as ditch-water, but here the comparison with the model for Robinson Crusoe leads the reader, this one at least, to consider whether Kavanagh was doing more than a sketch of ‘the predicament of the provincial aesthete’. Do these six lines, especially the couplet, not give a sense, again, that a poet anywhere is as isolated as Selkirk was, and, like an old-time traveller or tramp, ‘king / Of banks and stones and every blooming thing’? That would do for me.

Somehow thought of ‘the provincial aesthete’ led my mind to Ted Hughes and, specifically, his 1979 collection Moortown which contains several of his mythopoeic sequences, including ‘Prometheus On His Crag’, but also perhaps the oddest poem within his oeuvre, ’Orts’, part 5 of which, ‘In the M5 restaurant’, is extraordinary stuff. It’s a scrawled excoriation of the sub-standard fare at a motorway service station in 1970s England, wrapped around an environmentalist warning about the primacy of the car. As a whole, it’s a rather Existentialist take on the poet’s life on the road:

Our sad coats assemble at the counter

The tyre face pasty
The neon of plaster flesh
With little inexplicable eyes
Holding a dish with two buns

Symbolic food
Eaten by symbolic faces
Symbolic eating movements

The road drumming in the wall

The road going nowhere and everywhere

My freedom evidently
Is to feed my life
Into a carburettor

Petroleum has burned away
But a still-throbbing column
Of carbon-monoxide and lead.

I attempt a firmer embodiment
With illusory coffee
And a gluey quasi-pie.


I can’t be alone in finding the last stanza hilarious – the poet-as-food-critic, disgusted by the horror he finds before him. In my experience. It’s tempting, naturally, to suggest that very little has changed in the intervening forty or fifty years.

It’s reminiscent for me of the peculiar, equally stark Environmentalist-ish paintings which Edward Burra produced in his last decade or so. His widowed sister Ann would drive him all over England and Wales and what he saw from the passenger seat would feed into ominous-looking landscapes, in which hills and mountains are rendered in grey and black, and petrol tankers and lorries dominate the undulating roads. It’s a vision absolutely in parallel to Hughes’s despair at a soulless England. What on earth would either or both of them make of the state of the nation today, now that government, more than ever, is in thrall to big business with next-to-no though of the consequences beyond unpublished impact assessments made by put-upon civil servants? C.H. Sisson’s epitaph, born of his own bitter experience and included in his 1961 collection The London Zoo, will suffice:

On a Civil Servant

Here lies a civil servant. He was civil
To everyone, and servant to the devil.

On HappenStance Press, the reader and the poet

In these days when UK politics and world events are enough to make you despair, it’s difficult to know whether blogging about poetry and other stuff has any relevance. There are many much more important voices which need to be heard than mine. So, I post on here now more out of occasional habit and, more happily, a need to celebrate the things which give me some joy among the gloom.

It’s in that spirit that I want to write about HappenStance Press, that most discerning of British poetry publishers. I’ve mentioned before on this blog how the customer service of many other poetry publishers leaves an awful lot to be desired, lacking the courtesy even to scrawl ‘Thanks for your order’ on a post-it note when they send you a book or two. Helena (Nell) Nelson at HappenStance is the antithesis of that: every order is accompanied by some little booklets which enhance the pleasure of opening the parcel. Enclosed with my latest order, of books by Tom Duddy and Gerry Cambridge, was an essay by Nell entitled A Demand and a Promise and subtitled ‘a poetry manifesto’, which is full of wisdom, such as this:

As a publisher of poetry, what I want more than anything else of poetry—more than prizes and accolades, more than reviews and remarks—is good readers. Good readers are worth their weight in poems. I want to hang onto them by offering poems that richly repay their promise. How? I choose the work that does it for me. I don’t make that choice lightly.

Like their publishers, poets need not pander to the reader, but it’s equally prudent not to treat them with disdain, as though they must be given a code book before they can approach a poem with anything less than fear; a fear that they might interpret the poem wrongly. It must be a fair presumption that most readers of poetry, whether poets themselves or not (more on that below), are generally cultured, intelligent and able to understand and enjoy or be moved by fairly complex syntax, narrative and argument, whether obvious or slightly obscured. During an Arvon week in 2014, Jacob Polley said to me that he felt every single poem had to have a ‘point’ to it at heart. At the time, I was a bit resistant to the idea, as I believed that some poems could just operate as a superficial sound-poem or on a purely descriptive level. Now I think he was right. Poetry, like drama, is, among other things and perhaps primarily, a form of entertainment, even at its darkest; without some element of playing to, and manipulating the emotions of, the audience there is nothing to see and nothing to enjoy. In the end, the best-loved poets (and creative artists per se), like maverick footballers, are those who realise that their audience have paid to have their time occupied by a spectacle of some sort.

Yet how often do we read the phrase that so-and-so is/was ‘a poet’s poet’? That translates, more-or-less, as: only one of the elect could possibly be attuned to the high degree of skill and craft of that no doubt unjustly neglected poet’s poems. It’s akin to the bleating of ex-professional footballers that the average punter in the street can’t, for even a moment, hope to understand the intricacies of the beautiful game unless they’ve played and/or coached at its highest levels. That’s not to say, though, that poetry has to be, at one extreme, provided in an easy-read format or, at the other, that it shouldn’t challenge the reader, in the same way that no sensible football crowd wants to watch their team playing hoof-ball every game.

Nell also mentions an interesting and often-since-asserted observation by Billy Collins, made two decades ago, that, in Britain, ‘the number of poets is equal to the number of readers of poetry’. Nell, rightly I think, says that there may well be more poets than there are readers of poetry. Stop me if Ive told you this before, but 10 or 15 years ago, when I was directly employed by a certain south-west London local authority, there was an article in the staff newspaper about a member of staff who had self-published a pamphlet of his poems and who was quoted as saying words-to-the-effect that he didn’t read contemporary poets because he considered none of them to be worthy of his attention. It hadn’t seemed to occur to him that potential readers of his pamphlet might agree with him and therefore decide that his output was equally unworthy of their attention. I have no idea whether he sold any copies. I hope not. The sheer arrogance of someone wanting to write and air poems without first reading widely and absorbing the lessons of their reading into their own poetry-writing goes beyond (predominantly male) entitlement to the point of being downright peculiar. He’s probably since progressed to become one of those people who go along to open mic sessions to read their poem, invariably exceeding their time-slot, then leave at the interval so that there’s no possibility that they might feel obliged to hear too many of anyone elses poems or to look at, let alone buy, any of the books on sale. (I realise, though, that not everyone has the financial wherewithal to buy books.)

Nell also says that ‘a good and loyal reader is harder to find than a poet’. If every person who knows the value of contemporary poetry were to buy books for those who haven’t read any poems since school and tell them, with as much vehemence as necessary, that they really will enjoy the experience, then the poetry readership can grow. Despite the un-self-aware idiots like the one Ive described above, there are still many fine poets to be discovered; more, probably, than one could ever hope to read whilst living a full-ish life. Why shouldnt a book or two of poems on the beach be as common a sight as crime novels, thrillers or bonkbusters?

Having said that, Im stilly surprised when a novelist or other creative non-poet includes a poetry collection among their books of the year or summer reading whenever the Grauniad publishes such features. I get the sense that its far less common now than it was say, a century ago, for generally cultured people to keep up with newly published poetry. Leslie Stephen, father of, inter alia, Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell, and albeit an author on many subjects, was able to read on the last morning of his life [. . .] a new poem by Thomas Hardy (letter from Virginia to Charles Eliot Norton, 13 March, 1904). Maybe Im wrong. I hope so.

On ruined abbeys

Even in the summer, a visit to the ruins of any abbey in England is likely to prompt recollection of Shakespeare’s sonnet no. 73:

That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou seest the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west,
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou seest the glowing of such fire
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed whereon it must expire
Consumed with that which it was nourish’d by.
This thou perceivest, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.


Thanks to a top tip from Julie Mellor, a seven-mile trip out this morning from Rotherham to Roche Abbey, established by the Cistercians in 1170 and dissolved in 1538, certainly did so for me.

But it also brought to mind Peter Levi’s magnificent long poem, ‘Ruined Abbeys’, poem no. 111 in his Collected Poems 1955–1975, Anvil, 1976:

Monastic limestone skeleton,
threadbare with simple love of life[,]
speak out your dead language of stone,
the wind’s hammer, the stone’s knife,
the sweet apple of solitude


And:

Ruins are like a strong body
growing its strength in country air
then breeding age until you see
nettles are waving in its hair,
the ruined body keeps its shape
by the mechanics of landscape:
fox in the gorse, wind in the tree,
raincloud, fellside, mystery:
what was born wild is never tame:
ten numbers never written down,
fellsides and abbeys are the same:
until time draws like a deduction
true proportions for their destruction.


The poem was written when Levi was still a Jesuit, and, like the best of his poetry, has a simple, likeable mysticism which bears his vast erudition lightly. I must get a copy of Brigid Allens biography of Levi, himself the biographer of Horace, Virgil, Shakespeare, Milton, Tennyson and Pasternak. 13 years ago, I spent a wonderful week at Heythrop College in Oxfordshire, which was formerly the UK headquarters of the Jesuits and where Levi trained for the priesthood. I was occupied, officially at least, by undertaking a Prince2 course, but my memories are mostly of exploring the extensive grounds, muntjac deer and all, and writing haiku in beautiful May sunshine. Among Levi’s many other books is The Frontiers of Paradise, 1987, subtitled ‘A Study of Monks and Monasteries’, which is a favourite of mine, not because I have, or ever have had, any leanings towards the monastic life, but because it’s a richly entertaining book, with many unexpected laughs.

Roche sits snugly below the limestone promontory from which its name derives, and straddles Maltby Dike which provided water for washing and beer, presumably upstream of its use as a depository from the latrine. It’s a beautiful setting, as ruined abbeys almost always are. No wonder that Turner, Constable, Piper, Sutherland and others were drawn to paint them so often. On a day like today, when the sun has finally arrived to announce the start of summer, the scene at Roche looked very beautiful indeed. It reminded me very much of Waverley Abbey, near Farnham in Surrey, the Cistercians’ first abbey in England. There, I wrote this haiku, published in Presence no. 54 and undoubtedly echoing Levi subconsciously:

ruined abbey:
the dark mullein’s yellows                                               
light the transept


I wrote some more haiku this morning. It would have been rude not to, since they’re such inspiring places.