christopher james

Poems and prattle

Category: Poetry

Something so wild and new in this feeling – a review of Sarah Doyle’s new collection

The title poem of Sarah Doyle’s audacious and brilliantly conceived new collection says it all. Reading these collage poems, drawn from Dorothy Wordsworth’s journals, there’s something absolutely remarkable about seeing her luminous words for the first time presented as poetry.

Using cut-up techniques, elements of found poetry, and applying her own sensibilities as an unusually accomplished poet herself, Sarah has given us these words afresh. She has freed them from history, and the straitjacket of prose, stitching together disparate lines and observations from different days, months and even years into finely honed and coherent poems. Working thematically – for example bringing together Dorothy’s reflections on the moon, birds, the sky – Sarah has crafted individual pieces that catch the light in new and unexpected ways.   

Dove Cottage, Grasmere, where Dorothy Wordsworth lived with her brother, William (collage by Christopher James)

Sarah’s source materials are the journals Dorothy kept between 1798 and 1803, of her life with William Wordsworth. Dorothy records their intimate, symbiotic relationship, where she casts herself almost as a midwife for his poems, copying down his stanzas and sharing her own nature writings for him to use and rework – including one of her finest pieces of writing on encountering a blazing belt of daffodils that ‘tossed and reeled and danced/and seemed as if they verily laughed with the wind’. She records her and her brother’s comings and goings in often amusing and revealing detail, documenting their visitors, walks and moods, spanning their crucial time in Dove Cottage, Grasmere. 

Anyone familiar with these journals, will know that the weather (particularly the incessant rain) and William’s predisposition to ‘compose’ (or fail to compose) on any given day, form the chief preoccupations. She has a powerful sense of empathy, both with her companions and surroundings, and indeed her moods closely reflect the weather and those around her, soaring to moments of epiphany and bliss, but spiralling just as easily into melancholia.

‘A heart unequally divided’ is a sonnet built around Dorothy’s struggle with a depression, and captures these oppositions particularly well. It begins with the assertion: ‘My heart was so full that I could hardly speak.’ She takes herself on a solitary walk to the lake: ‘I sate a long time upon/a stone at the margin of the lake, and after a flood/ of tears my heart was easier.’ The catharsis she experiences in nature goes some way to mend her heart, even if she cannot banish her demons for good. As a sonnet, it works perfectly – a focused, compressed and continuous narrative that allows us a glimpse of her soul through a rich sensory experience (she hears ‘the weltering on the shores’ almost like the sound of her own sobbing). Part of the pain it seems, is a sense of her own unfulfilled potential, alongside unspecified, unrequited feelings, perhaps unknown even to herself.   

Almost all of Dorothy’s writing is rooted in nature, and this manifests itself in her phrasemaking in the most astonishing ways; she is constantly open to the colour and variety of the wild that meets them almost at their door. With a magpie’s eye, Sarah collects some of her most vivid and surprising phrases, and with careful use of line break, form and rhyme delivers them memorably.

‘Among the mossy stones’ is almost a parallel piece or version of Wordsworth’s Daffodils: ‘…and at last, under the boughs/of the trees, we saw that there was a long belt of them along the shore.’ And later: ‘Some rested/their heads upon these stones, as on/ a pillow for weariness.’  There is a tenderness to it, and sense of Dorothy’s own weariness too in the face of all this beauty; as if she would never be capable of capturing or mirroring nature’s bounty. Yet paradoxically, this is almost the closest she got to a sort of poetic perfection – only for it to eclipsed by the dazzle of her brother’s showboating reflections on the same scene. Her wonderful phrase: ‘ever glancing, ever changing’ could describe the light, the rain and these poems too.   

Sarah’s use of concrete (or visual) poetry is especially strong. ‘Snow in the night and still snowing’ is full of gaping white space between the words, which drift down like flakes, the lines collecting more densely at the foot of the page; form perfectly reflecting the meaning. Scouring the journals for different observations on snow, Sarah piles phrase on phrase, each compounding the next – from ‘the occasional dropping of the snow from the holly boughs’ to ‘the brooms waved gently with the weight of snow.’ The cumulative effect is incredibly powerful: repetition with variation, almost like Monet’s water lilies or van Gogh’s sunflowers. The individual phrases continue to work in their own way as vivid, dynamic images – all the more redolent for their filmic sense of movement – like a photograph taken on an iPhone where you see a second’s movement before the still image itself.  

‘When the rain’ is another tour de force in the same manner – the phrases flooding down the page in a twisting spiral; the word rain itself running like a spine through the poem (as I heard one reader astutely describe it). Indeed, the almost comical quantity of rain that falls on William and Dorothy seems to make the very pages of the journal damp; yet it’s this very liquidity, slipperiness and the luminous reflections of the rain that most accurately describe Dorothy (and Sarah’s) style – with images and colours running and flowing together to create something fresh and new.    

Sarah’s trick in this collection is to make herself invisible; yet her poetic intelligence is constantly at work, feeling the weight of each line – like snow on a branch. She is alert to rhymes and half rhymes, repetition and rhythm. The space she gives these poems to breath is almost her greatest gift to Dorothy, clearing space for us to see the lines more clearly and quiet for them to sing out.  

There is a sense here too of a wrong being righted. Dorothy has been cast as a spinster, a hanger-on, an also-ran of the Lakeland poets, and latterly, even a gooseberry in William Wordsworth’s marriage to Mary. While many have praised her as a diarist, few have truly made a claim for her as a poet in her own right. These pieces make a compelling case to the contrary.

Whether Dorothy herself limited her poetic ambitions to serve her brother, his muse and reputation, or whether she felt the constrained by society and convention, we will never know. However we do at least get a sense here of what she might have achieved. To compare William and Dorothy’s work is perhaps unfair – but there is arguably a lightness and freshness about her writing that’s missing from her brother’s; an instinctive, intuitive grasp of nature’s hold on us. She is unshackled from the stuffy strictures of form William adhered to, and untroubled by his public expectations.       

Indeed, this book is a double achievement: first for Sarah for seeing the poems within the prose and working them into such fluent and complete pieces; and second to Dorothy herself for what is in effect, her long-delayed debut collection. What a wonderful thing it would be to see both their names together on the Forward Prize shortlist for best debut? You can imagine Dorothy bashfully ascending the steps to the stage in her black gown, cheeks flushed as she collects her cheque. And, yet, you feel, she would still spend most of her acceptance speech praising her brother. Bravo to Sarah on such an original and daring venture.   

Knives out: a review of The Knives of Villalejo by Matthew Stewart

I’ve been looking forward to reviewing Matthew Stewart’s long overdue debut collection. With a title like a 1950s crime fiction potboiler, and a blood-red cover, there’s the promise of mystery and mortality in store.

Those elements are certainly present in this fine book, but the set-up is something of a ruse. The themes, in fact, are squarely domestic. Family, home and work are the chief preoccupations of this honest, absorbing sequence, and yet each is explored with an astonishing intimacy.


The Knives of Villalejo

Stewart divides his time between England and Spain and works in the wine trade. And if some of these poems have been slow in gestation, then like a good wine, they have aged well. The book is full of polarities: between work and home, past and present, England and Spain, life and death, appearance and reality and these opposing currents provide the book with its emotional tension.

Stewart creates unpredictable landscapes. Often, innocuous, domestic scenes can lurch into something much darker. Sooner or Later begins in a ‘spare-room wardrobe’ where something lives amongst ‘forgotten gifts/ and out-of-favour shirts.’

Maybe tonight, maybe

next year, a sudden call

will bring it centre stage,

rushed to the dry cleaners.

It’s structured like an Anglo-Saxon riddle; then comes the pay-off: ‘There’s not a hope/of dodging the dark suit.’

This ability to wrong foot the reader, to lull them into a sense of quiet domesticity, only to pull the rug with a dramatic turn or arresting image, is Stewart’s trump card. And yet there is a never a sense of smugness or conceit in this. It’s a reminder that this is what life is like – light can give way to dark in a matter of moments; banality can slide into tragedy, bliss into despair.

There is a feeling here of life intensely lived; a sense sharpened by the certainty of death. Rather than something to be feared, however, our mortality appears to enhance each pleasure: each sip of wine and each carefully prepared meal. Stewart shares something of Larkin’s acute awareness of death (‘All streets in time are visited’) but without the same paranoid sense of self-preservation.

Stewart is especially adept in the kitchen. There is a ritualistic delight in Artes Culinarias: the ‘skinning and sluicing’ and the lamb stew for which ‘you peeled, you scraped, you sliced all morning long.’ Yet this isn’t Saturday Kitchen; in Stewart’s spry, multi-layered poems, there’s always something else going on. Here there’s a sense of the poet reflecting while these rituals are enacted – memories, worries and temptations reveal themselves. I especially liked the pay off in the final section: Guisantes al vino tinto, where an exquisite dish is meticulously prepared with ‘a long dollop of wine and just-shucked peas’. It appears to be an act of love and generosity. In fact, there are

memories of an old lover stirring:

This is still her dish and far more daring

than sly rummages for battered photos

especially now I’m serving it for you.

There is a clear link between sexuality, sensuality, food and wine, and yet it is never explicitly made. It’s a book full of allusions, hints and shadows. There’s as much left unsaid in the sparseness of the language.

The poem The 23rd is as heart-breaking as it is brief. A single stanza long, it is a dignified tribute to a loved one, and says everything about how grief must necessarily live in a world that carries on regardless. The date ‘casually loiters in the fourth line of April, pretending not to stalk me.’ The personification of death, sly and insidious, is brutally effective. So too is the caesura in the final line where there is a fear that the poet might forget: ‘As if I ever could.’ The fact I’ve written more in this paragraph and said so much less than the poem itself, tells you just how good Stewart is. I’ve only resisted reproducing the whole poem to encourage you to read the book for yourself.

Stewart’s poems are as precisely measured as the dishes themselves. The language has a deceptively simplicity, a distilled clarity, just as the most delicious food and drink relies on simple ingredients.

But Stewart has a gift too for the original simile and metaphor and it’s in these moments when you feel a re-invigoration of language and re-imagining of a familiar world:

….two rosaries

lie coiled on a sunlit table

like dozing, sated rattlesnakes.

This is as good as anything that’s being written right now. Aside from the freshness of the image itself, there’s a subtext of religion, culture and guilt all at play. Elsewhere, a pencil is ‘perfectly wigwammed by a Stanley knife.’

The title poem is one of the finest pieces in the book, and again plays into the themes of domesticity, ritual and mortality. The Knives of Villalejo are put to work each day in every kitchen, and are ‘blunted by the cloying dough of fresh bread.’ This magnificent iambic line, with its layers of clinging consonants and springy vowels, sets up a densely worked piece. Over time, the blades become ‘speckled with rust’ while the handles become ‘darkened.’ Then comes the village grinder, like the reaper himself, who ‘pushes his bike from door to door/he knows them well and whets them in seconds.’ But nothing lasts forever (not least our ourselves) until one day:

…they judder halfway through a stroke

and snap like over-sharpened lives.’

There’s a sense of danger, and an intimation of death but the poem is also a rich celebration of life.

Finally, it would wrong not to mention Last chance, part of a longer sequence called Speech Recognition. The voice is that of a neglected book, gathering dust in a charity shop:

I’m stick on a wonky trestle table

between a video tape of the Smurfs

and the 1989 Good Food Guide

The book has a simple plea: ‘I only want a single pair of hands/to stretch my spine and open me at last.’ Let this not be the fate of this important book.

It’s a flawless performance, at once funny, elegiac and deeply felt; and totally representative of this spare, deeply enjoyable collection that does not pretend to offer answers, but only questions and consolations. This is a generous and accomplished collection at once refreshing in its simplicity, nourishing in its intensity, and intoxicating in its emotional pitch. Enjoy with a glass of Rioja.

Dizzying audacity: A review of Paradise Road by Bob Mee

Surely one of the most neglected poetry collections of the last fifteen years or so, is Bob Mee’s Paradise Road (Blue Fish, 2003). Known to many in the poetry community as the tireless editor of Iota (until he tired of it) and publisher of the redoubtable Ragged Raven Press, Bob spends a significant portion of his life championing other poets. Such generosity is rare in the world of contemporary poetry. As such, there is a deep streak of both humour and humanity that runs through Paradise Road.

Paradise Road

I’ve had the privilege of hearing Bob read some of these poems live and many are purpose-built for the upper room of a pub on Friday night. I’ve seen him wrong-foot an audience with a comic line, then deliver the knock-out blow. Comedy of all kinds runs through his poetry, from the slapstick to the darker stuff, but of course, it’s never the only thing going on. He certainly knows how to deliver a line: ‘Bob from the bookshop has eight widows on the go/three of them named Joy.’ The brilliance is not only the specificity, but in the deadpan bathos of the line break.

Bob is not afraid to break the rules – including writing poems about writing. All contemporary poets will be familiar with the two-hundred mile round trip to read to seven people and the compere. And Bob has done his fair share of this, but he’s also hit the big time too, as an author of celebrated books on boxing.

One of his set-pieces here is ‘Doris Lessing at the Harper Collins Christmas Party’ – a prose poem that recounts a disastrously surreal trip to a publisher’s party, after his book on bare-knuckle boxing hit the big time: ‘I don’t know anyone and nobody knows me.’ He’s hardly there ten minutes before he’s back on the M4 heading home, but not before witnessing a surreal punch up at a service station between two skinheads and an old man waiting for his tea, who, it turns out, has a few surprises up his sleeve: ‘The old guy drags up a memory of a stiff jab that’s not a prod or a poke but a real-step-in-behind-it and drill-it through your face jab’. It’s oddly in keeping with the book that sent him to the party in the first place. But like so many of the poems here, the poem has a luminous centre – the beatific vision of Doris Lessing herself at the party ‘in an overcoat with a big brooch and she’s smiling and nodding and her eyes are twinkling.’ This feels so typical of Bob’s work – finding moments of truth and beauty among the comedy and chaos of life.

Other poems are celebrations of both life and poetry, as in the glorious ‘We Didn’t Cross the Road to See Dannie Abse.’ A trip to see the feted poet is aborted in favour of ‘a swift one’ at the Prince of Wales, that turns inevitably into an epic session with digressions on second-hand Volvos, cress and Morecambe and Wise. It’s not that he doesn’t like Dannie Abse or his work – just that the randomness of life suddenly seems more important the other side of several jars.

There’s plenty of technique on show here, and for a novice poet learning their trade, it’s a primer in how to turn an idea into a keeper. ‘The Dinner Party’ uses the repeated line ‘We are not supposed to know’ as the set up for a series of secrets and subtexts beneath the veneer of a middle class dinner party: ‘We are not supposed to know Wilf has an alternative wife in a corner shop in Warwick’ then later: ‘How are we supposed to know any of this… as Wilf cheerfully uncorks another red and/Catherine serves seconds of mousse.’

Then there’s the nurse ‘who unbolts my head and lifts the lid.’ It’s a brilliant conceit and as she ‘plunges in her hand up past the wrist’ she discovers the memories and detritus of a lifetime: ‘sunsets, women and a bottle or three of Barolo.’

If the collection has a fault, it’s only that there’s too much of it. If it was a Beatles’ album, it would be the White Album, or even George Harrison’s triple All Things Must Pass. Again, in the Beatle-esque way, it veers wildly in style and substance, from tender family vignettes, like the Way it Is, where father and son dig potatoes together, side by side, to extraordinary flights of fancy, such as discovering Elvis at a bustop in Texas.  There’s an urgent sense of catching up – as if two or ever three collections are bundled into one.

Some of the most impressive work is the sequence written in and about the USA. Atlantic City is a vivid portrait of the State-side Blackpool at Christmas where ‘the piano plays itself’ and ‘the limbless woman lies on a cushion/and plays Amazing Grace on a keyboard with her tongue.’ It’s a surreal culture shock – where Bob doesn’t so much as interpret any of this, but simply presents it back in the spirit of Louis MacNeice’s famous phrase: ‘the drunkenness of things being various.’ Ultimately it’s a poem about loneliness – not just the lost souls ‘dying just a little bit in the backs of cabs’ but his own too, reflecting on ‘distances between you and I.’

Driving, USA is a magnificent road trip of a poem: a version of On the Road, where we get a blurred snapshot of American life: ‘I drive into cities where beggars dance to the tunes of their bones’ and ‘I stop at a gas station and a clown in full make up pours the gas.’ It’s both brilliantly observant and dizzyingly audacious.

But perhaps it’s the simpler, lucid moments where Bob’s poetry succeeds best. ‘Five Minutes Near Milton Keynes’ is a contemporary version of Edward Thomas’ Adlestrop, where he is sat opposite a woman on a train, lost in her own thoughts: ‘The train has stopped again/I count the young birch trees on the embankment.’ He notices her ‘tap her lips with a pen, turn a page.’ She ‘slides her wedding ring up/and down her finger. It’s a moment in time, a freeze frame as the universe hurtles ever outwards.

All this barely scratches the surface of a collection that brims with passion, humour, reflections and regrets. Its all delivered with an élan that few of Bob’s contemporaries could muster, which is why it puzzles me why it’s not more celebrated. I’m heartened to see that you can still buy a copy on Amazon and I can also report that the poet himself is in rude health and still producing excellent work that continues to build on these themes: the solace and stability of family in the face of an increasingly chaotic and inexplicable world.

When the going is good: momentum in poetry and what to do with it

A few months ago I wrote a blog about whether it was possible to retire from poetry. I was reflecting on that sense of the uphill struggle – that feeling that you’re writing some great things, but for whatever reason they aren’t connecting. The reasons could be manifold. It could be that you’ve lost perspective – the cure is always to read more; young, old, or dead poets, it doesn’t matter – just immerse yourself in something new and different. It will restore your sense of what’s good. You often do not apply your usually reliable critical judgement and reader’s ear to your own writing. Revisiting your work after reading others’ best work can be a revelation. Weaknesses previously quite invisible suddenly reveal themselves.

It could be that your poems are too niche (I wrote 65 poems about polar explorers and expected them to sell like Death of a Naturalist for goodness sake). It could be that you’ve forgotten how to ‘socialise’ your poem – something Andrew Motion encouraged me to do when he taught me briefly at UEA. How do you let your reader in? How hard to you expect them to work? How will you reward them for their efforts?

For whatever reason, everyone hits that brick wall at some point – that feeling that no one’s listening. Simon Armitage, famously described this state as ‘talking down a toilet.’ And coming from one of the most gifted and popular poets in the land, this was depressing indeed. He said this at a time when poetry was more marginalised than it is now – sales of poetry are at an all time high. Now, as Poet Laureate, he can hardly quibble about lack of audience. His excellent poems deserve to be read and I’m pleased that they are.

But there’s a quite different state to that feeling of dejection. It’s called momentum. Suddenly things start happening for you. There’s an unexpected invitation to read. There’s a competition win, or a good placing in a major competition. You land a poem in a magazine like Poetry London or the Rialto. You finally get that offer from the publisher. You’re asked to write an article or run a prestigious workshop.

It’s a giddy feeling and I was lucky enough to experience it. In March 2009 I won the National Poetry Competition for my poem Farewell to the Earth. The incredible shock and delight of the recognition was intoxicating. As was the champagne. The prize giving at a London club was deliriously enjoyable. Gryff Rhys Jones was there with a camera crew and interviewed me. He asked me how I started off writing poetry. I told him I thought it was a symptom of adolescence. ‘What,’ he said. ‘Like spots?’

Merseybeat legend, Brian Patten, presented the prize and sent me a postcard the next day of him and Christopher Reid sitting in a tin bath. There was an article about me and my poem in The Guardian. Someone made me a Wiki page. I had barely banked the cheque (not lost it on the Tube home as Carol Ann Duffy did when she won the NPC) when I received a commission to write a poem for the Tate based on a First World War painting. I was invited to a party on the South Bank by Alan Yentob and shook Valerie Eliot’s hand. The winning poem ended up in the Forward Book of Poetry and the high point was an offer from Arc Publications to take my second collection. There was nothing more I could wish for. I’d made it.

Christopher James and Brian

Then? Nothing. 2010 was my slowest ever year for poetry. The Arc collection was taking much longer than expected to appear. My previous book had appeared in 2006 and I had a pile of poetry that was gathering dust. The initial euphoria of the win had worn off. I was still plugging away at work doing exactly what I did before. I went to a few readings and felt a modicum of resentment. One poetry publisher I met at a festival looked me up and down and said: ‘Oh, so you’re Christopher James’ and walked away. I’m not sure what I expected to happen. TV? Radio? An offer to become a poetry lecturer or critic? Perhaps my expectations were set too high. This was poetry after all. Remember the rules – no one gets rich on it. You can dine out on it, but someone’s got to pay the bill.

Things picked up again – I’ve some other collections. There were other wins and enjoyable festivals, readings and workshops. Fortunately I wrote some more good poems too. But I never gain quite got that extraordinary feeling of being plucked from ‘the crowd’ that ‘flowed over London Bridge, so many.’

Just this last month or two, I’ve had a rash of successes. First place in the Crabbe/Suffolk Poetry Society competition, judged by Tiffany Atkinson, second place in the McLellan, judged by Sean O’Brien and I’m shortlisted for the Wells one too – judged by Mr Armitage himself. I’ve started to get that tingling feeling of momentum again. Except this time I’m wise enough to manage my expectations, to enjoy success when it comes and appreciate any good things for what they are: a bonus. The real reward of poetry is realising an idea – and seeing it, miraculously on the page in front of you. Paul Muldoon once said: ‘Most poets can achieve take off. Most can keep a poem at cruising altitude but very few know how to bring them into land.’

The First Canal Boat in Space

Like a lolly stick balanced on the Ariane,

we clung to the sink, clutching the Davy lamp,

waiting to be flipped to the heavens.

During powered ascent, we stowed the pot plants

and lashed our bicycles to the taff-rail.

On a slow boat to Pluto, we dreamt of cowslip,

heather and The Black Lion at Froghall.

Safely in orbit we stayed below decks,

sipping tea and singing space shanties.

We survived on air trapped in the bilge.

 

A coil of wet rope on the prow,

we bumped through the cosmos, drifting

through wormholes, navigating each

like a series of locks. The stars were like

phosphorescence in the water.

Rudderless, we woke to find our tiller

floating above the deck. We retrieved a chart

from the monkey box and found a safe berth

on Phobos, the small moon of Mars,

our boat-hook finding purchase in a crater.

 

Losing power at Neptune, we traced

the problem to a blockage in the remote greaser,

flicking open the quick release weed hatch.

Now leaking oil we prepared for re-entry,

securing the saucepans and Toby Jugs.

Parachute deployed, we splashed down in the marina

at Great Haywood, sending shockwaves

down the Trent and Mersey. On the rescue boat,

there was loose talk of ticker tape parades,

and the front cover of Canal Boat Monthly.

Is it possible to retire from poetry?

Is it possible to retire from poetry? Not in the sense of having made enough money from it to retreat to a cottage in Cornwall, because that would be absurd. They used to say only three people made money from poetry: Heaney, Harrison and Hughes. No, I mean in the sense of hanging up your poetic boxing gloves and stepping out of the ring without so much as a glance back at the blood on the canvas.

After all, it happens all the time in the world of sport and the arts. Is there a poetic equivalent of the former ballet dancer with a television career and a work-out video? Not that I can think of. In truth, there are few gigs for the retired poet. Not much in the way of punditry, and memoirs have a niche audience. Of course there is always teaching and criticism but this is usually small beer. And younger poets might take a dim view of a creative writing teacher who is no longer producing the goods. No, most poets stumble ever onwards with a slim collection every few years, often with diminishing returns, as they put further distance between the moment they burst onto the scene as the enfant terrible bearing a clutch of dazzling poems.

Is it a poet’s duty to go on until they can no longer raise the lid of a laptop? There is no shortage of poets who continued to write at the top of their game, and many arguably got better, including Heaney, Walcott and notably, Clive James. Others re-tread old ground or circle in a sort of holding position, reliably producing the same book over and over. Some, you feel have had their moment in the sun.

I’m a typical poet in mid-career, with some early glory (Bridport, 2002) a big win (National Poetry Competition, 2008) and some later success (Oxford Brooks, 2016). But in between there have been plenty of fallow years, quite a few read-to-three-people appearances (including one best-forgotten grey Sunday in Loughborough) and at present I’m starting to feel something akin to poetic fatigue – not writer’s block exactly, just a lack of enthusiasm to enter this year’s round of competitions, work towards another collection or send out to magazines.

It all feels eerily familiar. Then I remembered an encounter with a poet while I was an bright-eyed undergraduate at Newcastle-upon-Tyne. He was a softly spoken, bearded fellow called George, who wrote lyrical nature poetry with a luminous edge, set against the desolate landscapes of Northumbria. He had been published in plenty of reputable magazines, had a good local reputation and a well-reviewed collection behind him. I was sent along by my poetry editor, Ben Rice, (later, author of the virtuoso novella Pobby and Dingan) to snaffle a poem for the university magazine, pigeonhole (no capital letter, of course).

Duly, I bowled up outside the Lit and Phil Society on the Westgate Road, cherry-cheeked from the numbing Tyneside winter. I listened attentively, then, heart pounding, hectored the poet for a poem. Without hesitation he handed over a sheaf of papers and said: ‘Take your pick.’ He astonished me further by telling me he was ‘retiring from poetry.’

I didn’t think such a thing was possible, and even now, I am not entirely certain that it is. He was around the same age I am today (42) and to my eighteen-year-old self it seemed an absurd waste of talent. When I asked him his reasons, he was hesitant in his reply. Clearly he didn’t want to put off a young Turk like me from making his way in poetry, but eventually he gave this explanation: ‘Too many poems in the world, too much disappointment, too little reward and too much else to do.’

Elaborating, he told me he wanted to make the transition back from writer to reader. I’m paraphrasing now, but he said he could never entirely enjoy other people’s work without the nagging sense that he was either in some sort of competition with them (even if they had died a thousand years ago) or that he was in some sense neglecting his own duty to write. When I asked him his plans, he simply shrugged: ‘Just to go back to a normal life I suppose. Read. Go for walks. Go to cinema. Spend time with the family.’

Back to a normal life! Who wanted that? That way, only obscurity and banality lay. They sounded like the words of defeated man. Yet he did not seem bitter in the least. In fact, as he handed over his tattered A4 pages, he had a certain serenity about him. He asked about my own writing and wished me luck with it. He was looking down the other lens of the telescope. I asked for his address to send on his author’s copy, but he shook his head and smiled. ‘No need.’  This was no melodramatic Ziggy Stardust-esque exit from the stage. This was measured, considered retirement.

At the time, of course, I couldn’t relate at all. After all, what could be more important than getting into print and elbowing your way into the literary world? We were being taught by (and liked to think we were hanging out with) Sean O’Brien, W.N. Herbert and Desmond Graham. One of the Merseybeat poets had ventured up the year before, drunk a bottle of wine and snogged a student in the back of a taxi. To me, these figures represented everything I wanted to be – published, feted, and making a living from the written word.

Naturally, I wore the same kind of long navy blue ‘cousin coat’ that O’Brien made famous in his poem of the same name. It had practical as well as poetic qualities, being the only defence against the biting Geordie winter. My abiding memory of the year was trudging in my trench coat and polar neck across the town moor to Castle Leazes, the decidedly unpoetic brick halls of residence where I composed my early efforts.

I put the encounter out of my mind and continued to haunt the poetry scene – watching Brendan Cleary blaze away in the pubs (one part Ed Byrne, one part Lord Byron) touting The Irish Card, his first collection for Bloodaxe.  For an ill-fated, disorganised spell, I even took over the helm of the student poetry magazine alongside musician and fellow poet, Darren Giddings. He was a mature student in circumstances as impecunious as my own, with holes in his shoes and an M&S credit card that kept him in frozen lasagne and reasonable Cabernet Sauvignon. He had already found his poetic voice not to mention put out a proper single, and was someone else to look up to as well as sink pints with at the Trent House. In the same year, 1993, I would watch, slightly star-struck, as the white bearded Jon Silken, legendary editor of Stand, ghosted out of the Robinson Library with a pile of books under his arm.

I embarked on my poetry career in earnest, inveigling my way onto the Creative Writing MA at UEA to be taught by future laureate Andrew Motion, who would murmur a ‘well said’ with quiet intensity whenever we produced a promising phrase. There were other encounters: Hugo Williams, dashing, and always mildly provocative, who read stylish, faintly erotic poems about nurses. Childishly, we boycotted one of his sessions after he criticised a fellow poet’s work, saying that he ‘thought the metaphor had died with Eliot’ (referring presumably to the evening spread out against the sky, ‘like a patient etherized upon a table.’) I was later the grateful recipient of an Eric Gregory Award, handed to me by novelist Ian McEwan, who advised us not to allow the cash disappears down the tills at the supermarket, but instead to buy something that would nourish the soul, like a Picasso sketch. I spent it on a new washing machine.

But now, this meeting with the mild mannered, northern poet has come back to haunt me. Was there something in George’s decision that makes a terrible sort of sense? Perhaps there comes a time when you have written all the poems you are supposed to write. Maybe you arrive at a moment when you realise you best stuff is behind you and that there has been a falling off in quality? And think of the benefits. Imagine not having to worry about where the next idea for a poem is coming from? Imagine not having to stuff money into PayPal for all those speculative competition entries.

Another sobering moment came when old mucker, Darren, sent me a thick manuscript of his poems, stating that they were otherwise destined for the waste paper basket. Having previously given up poetry in a spell of disillusionment, this time he had packed it in for good like a 20 a day Marlborough habit but again without anger or regret, simply acknowledging that he did not have the time or inclination to continue. A box of back issues of Poetry Review followed in the post. These in turn were followed by a bundle of once coveted poetry collections with the message that he had kept the ones he liked and no longer had the space or time to devote to these. It was a typical act of generosity, but at the back of my mind I also felt there was some small betrayal of his gift and calling. But who am I to judge?

I spent 2017 pursuing poetry with a reasonable level of success – a few inspired moments producing a handful poems worth keeping and some placing in good competitions. I was longlisted for the National Poetry Competition 2016 (always announced a year late) and shortlisted for both the Wells and Winchester competitions. Still easily lured at the prospect of success, I motored down the M4 and sat in the audience listening to other people’s names being read out, returning home without a cheque or travel expenses to show for my trouble. This is not to say I didn’t enjoy the readings. Meeting up with the other poets and talking a bit of poetry shop brings its own rewards, and any fool can tell you that poetry is generally an unprofitable and somewhat trying business.

I have produced five collections, including Farewell to the Earth (Arc, 2011) and The Fool (Templar, 2014) and have been included twice in The Forward Book of Poetry (always next to Clive James, to my delight). But it was my last book, The Penguin Diaries (Templar, 2017) that really took its toll.

September 2015 047

I set myself the onerous challenge of producing a sonnet for every member of Captain Scott’s final expedition to the Antarctic. Despite a memorable launch at Keats House in Hampstead last January, it gained just a single review and has disappeared like Captain Oates himself in the blizzard of new poetry. I genuinely felt it was among the best work I had done. Again, I say this without a trace of bitterness – it is incumbent on the poet to market their own work. I didn’t spend enough time sending out individual poems to magazines or books out for review. I was too busy at the day job, or rattling away on other writing projects (a play about John Betjeman and a Sherlock Holmes pastiche). But thinking about the hours that went into it, it is impossible not feel the disappointment – and at least the small temptation to throw in the proverbial towel.

But of course I haven’t. I got an idea for another poem and wrote it. I visited the Seamus Heaney museum, HomePlace, the stunning, honey-wood shrine to the great man in Bellaghy with his effortless assonance printed a foot high on the walls. I’ve sent out to another rash of competitions and will wait like the other ten thousand hopefuls for the announcement of the winner of the National Poetry Competition, hoping that lightening might just strike twice, as it did for Jo Shapcott and Ian Duhig.

Indeed I wonder whether twenty years’-retired George was tempted to swap the carriage clock for a MacBook Air; whether he succumbed to the temptation to write again, and enter? Can you really turn your back on something like poetry, that intoxicating madness in which, ‘inspiring frenzy, awakens lyric?’ (Plato).

 

In the Bleak Midwinter – Review of Clive Carroll, 11 January 2017

To the Apex, Bury St. Edmunds to witness a remarkable performance from Clive Carroll performing songs from his album, The Furthest Tree and beyond. Mixing influences of early music (the kind of folk baroque made popular by John Renbourn, more of whom later) with huge, almost prog-like bass-lines and complex patterns, he transfixed a packed house on this freezing winter night.

With his clean lines and superb technique, Clive’s compositions resonated powerfully inside the wooden cathedral of the Apex – a new and usually beautiful venue, both ancient and modern at the same time, much like Clive’s music. At one point it felt as if we were all contained within the body of an enormous acoustic guitar, and it certainly sounded that way.

clive

Taking a few moments to gather himself, an insight perhaps into his classical training and level headed temperament, he began with The Abbot’s Hymn, a beguiling tune, named after both the local Abbot ale and much missed John Renbourn, who acquired the nickname ‘The Abbot’ while touring with Clive in the early 2000s. Mention of John got a cheer of its own and the local reference was appreciated by the Suffolk crowd; they gave the piece their rapt-attention. It brought back memories of John playing on the Old Grey Whistle Test, a glass of red wine perched on his amp while he picked out the tunes.

Next up was In the Deep, a swampy, lugubrious piece that floated high into the rafters, before being grounded by a thunderous bass line that seemed to shake the building to its very core. The portentous mood was dispelled when Clive chatted to the crowd; with his head-boyish demeanour, he is as far removed from a rock and roll stereotype as you are likely to find, but his patter is hilarious, both learned and irreverent. He mentioned that he had recently played for both the Prince of Wales and the Duke of York before confessing they were pubs not people…

Establishing a bond with an audience both musically and emotionally are Clive’s key strengths and we certainly invested in the music. He later acknowledged a debt to Shostakovich in an astonishing waltz, giving us a lesson in three-four time and its various permutations for good measure. Only once did he seem to lose the audience: mention of his Essex roots drew an element of unbecoming inter-County nose-holding, although he put paid to any stereotypes by reminding them that Holst himself made his home in Thaxted, the subject of a mind bogglingly pretty tune, Thaxted Town. It somehow managed to accommodate both Morris dancing and the melodic theme to Holst’s I Vow to Thee, My Country and was played with great affection.    

The centre piece of the set was a performance of Clive’s Renaissance Suite, based thematically on the Middle English poem, Sir Gawain and The Green Knight. The difficulty that the piece was written for two guitars (second guitar on the record played by John Williams, no less) was surmounted by a ‘second Clive,’ previously recorded. The melodic intricacy of the piece and the fact that he had to both add a capo and retune mid performance without stopping the recorded part made for a thrilling bit of theatre. Suffice to say, he made it through without mishap. The Green Knight, a galloping tune was a superbly dramatic climax to this piece and was greeted with some open-mouthed astonishment. The poet, Simon Armitage has recently translated the 14th century poem to great effect and a collaboration between him and Clive would hold some wonderful possibilities.   

Perhaps the highlight of the evening however, was the final piece, inspired by a trip to northern Canada. With its icy, haunting melody and unpredictable dynamics, it was perfectly suited to this bleakly cold evening, full of talk of thunder-snow (that in the event would fail to materialise.) It would make for a fitting theme to a Nordic detective TV series. Has Clive explored such avenues you wonder?

With his wonderful poise, generous spirit and boundless musicality, Clive eventually made way for the swashbuckling Tommy Emmanuel, who was reliably astonishing. It would be too much to try and cover Tommy’s vivacious set here (perhaps another time) but Clive left a lasting impression, filling this dark, midwinter night with an ancient kind of magic.  

In Bloom: The Chelsea Flower Show Massacre by Mark Fiddes

A punk energy and an impish sense of fun suffuses this fine new collection from Mark Fiddes. His preoccupations range from the state of the nation to the state of the nation’s pavements in (see The Existence of Dog for more on this). At its centre is the predicament of a revolutionary who finds himself in suburbia, sprayed with ‘Nespresso’ and ‘junk mail.’ He feels, like a Shakespearean fool, that it is his duty to subvert, to out hypocrisy, absurdity and social injustice, albeit with an oblique detachment and stylish intensity.

Chelsea

The title poem sets out the stall, a polite tirade at the money that is threatening the spirit of the Chelsea Flower Show. It begins with a great gag: ‘The butterflies get in for free/like the Queen, ex officio,’ the pay off skilfully executed with the line break. Anger is too strong a word for it, but he rallies against the Prada ha-ha’ in ‘a cash-scented glade.’ The images and brand names come one after another, like the butterflies themselves, creating a kaleidoscopic sense of colour (following Hugo William’s maxim that ‘poems should be full of things.’ The cumulative effect is dizzying – as rich and gaudy as the overpaid guests themselves. I won’t spoil the ending, but it’s a comic tour de force of considerable panache.

At fourteen poems, this pamphlet has a sonnet-like brevity, but is equally compressed with wit and wonder. The conceits are thrillingly apposite and refreshingly original; his wife attempts to stack ‘metallic capsules of coffee/which tumble like command modules.’ A commuter meanwhile darts ‘as a trout over stones smoothed/by decades to a favoured spot.’ There is a MacNeice like air of unreality to the everyday; as if familiarity has rendered it strange and absurd. A dog is ‘more photocopy than dog,’ resembling a ‘Braque cut-out on whipcord.’ At this flower show, high and low culture frequently collide, Fiddes mixing the mythic with the mundane; Orpheus and Rembrandt rub shoulders with George Clooney and Hello Kitty.

At its centre is a beautiful and affecting poem about a father, Sons of the Golden Section. The man is a painter working in ‘a kingdom of turpentine’ who possesses similar anti-establishment views, always ‘marching/against the latest Dunsinane.’ It is about perfection and imperfection and the poem itself has a painterly quality to it. The father is drawn as a magician, a creator, a mythic figure almost, but he has human frailties too, which are now only appreciated as the son grows older himself. He admires his technique as one craftsman to another:

‘He works paint with palette knives
as if colour like a growing thing,
needed pruning and deadheading’

It is a marvelous poem, filled with reflections, parallels, love and fear.

Equally powerful is Have We Won Yet?, an Afghanistan veteran’s hollow rumination on an ill conceived war. His own sense of bewilderment and disillusionment becomes a critique of his home country:

In the terrible clatter of cups and saucers
he hears the chipped symphony of England
officially at peace with everything except itself.

The poem is full of ironies; he notices that the flowers (is he also at guest at the Chelsea Flower Show Massacre?) are the same as the ones that grow in Kandahar; the crippled soldier remembers how he pressed a flower for his Gran ‘in a copy of Men’s Fitness.’

But this collection is never po-faced. Just when it threatens to take itself too seriously, it lapses into absurdity. Ruminations on war, religion and family are the tempered with the levity of This is Not A Scam or Solo Doloroso. The Pontiff and his entourage in A Page of Revelation are portrayed like a kind of holy Mafia ‘in a miracle of flash bulbs with ‘spiritual muscle on either side.’

Elsewhere the poetry is without politics or polemics: ‘From Siberia’ has a simple grace to it, a little reminiscent in tone and construction to John Burnside’s dark lyricism: ‘these geese trail/winter like needles pulling/thread through sailcloth.’

Ultimately, like the flower show itself, the pleasure is not to be found in a single piece, but in the effect of the whole on the eye (and in this case the ear too). He uses the flower show as a metaphor for England: ‘more Abstract Expressionist than picturesque.’ Its ‘reckless foliage’ is hidden beneath ‘a patchwork flag’

There is so much to enjoy in The Chelsea Flower Show Massacre that to quote from it excessively would be to do Fiddes an injustice. Purchase a copy of this intelligent, immaculately tended collection and you will find yourself in the company of a tour guide at once wickedly cynical, bleakly funny and always colourful.

The Scarecrow in the Rain

Each day on the drive to work I pass three scarecrows, their old shirts and trousers flapping in the breeze. They all stand in the same field, suspended on their poles as if they are three friends (or three wise men/three fools/three thieves?) who have fallen out with each other. What are they thinking? What are their hopes and dreams? Why have they fallen out? Here’s the song it inevitably inspired.

Scarecrow rain

For poems about scarecrows, fools and mythical London detectives, take a look at my poetry collection, The Fool, available from Templar Poetry.

Sherlock Holmes in the Lavender Field

Retired now, he spends his days beekeeping
and playing Bach’s sonatas on his violin.
At night, he feeds his case notes to the fire;
allows old enemies to slip from his mind.
But today, he is standing in a field of lavender
showing me the sky: how the cirrus uncinus
is a blur of angels returning to heaven; why
the altocumulus floccus is the pipe smoke
of a thousand problem. At the edge of the field
is a man in a bowler hat, a statue of Holmes
in one hand, a pistol in the other. Look, my friend
says: a single bee buzzes inside a gold snuff box.
Holmes lifts the lid and lets it spiral into the air,
woozy with freedom, as the bullet hits home.

Bees

This poem is taken from my collection The Fool, published by Templar Poetry in 2014.