I heard the tree of life was broken

But the sun still shone

The payslip still arrived each month

Football teams lost and won

So I carried on.


I dreamt the leaves were withering

Buzzing and grind of saws

Put the giant trunk to use

I obeyed the law

Others get caught.


The severed roots began to push

Amber up and green

I was not there, no camera

Recorded the scene

Nor any dream:

Humans had been.


The tree of life is an ancient symbol which appears at least, I think, in Hindu, Celtic and Nordic mythology. It symbolises the unity of living things.




The murderer sits down in his chair

A job is neatly done, the splintered steel

And brains are out of sight

Signs of power round the walls

Remind him of name and cause

But he is not there

He is cast off in flow of light

Sound of a language lost and found

Touch of a cool calm lake

Scent of the forest pines, footfall

A violin, a gentle drum


He killed the drummer long ago

But the drumming sound goes on.


This was sparked by reading about the rediscovery of Hitler’s store of classical music records. It had been looted in 1945 and carefully preserved by a Russian army officer who was Jewish, and who, his son said, had been perpetually puzzled that Hitler had favoured numerous pieces of music with Jewish conductors, composers or leading musicians. The old officer felt guilty about taking the collection and kept quiet about it until his death, when his son revealed it to the world.

I had also heard that Hitler favoured the work of Bruckner, one of my favourite composers and in whose music one can find calm and depth. Like the Red Army officer, I am puzzled.




Wild Bill Hickok with failing sight

Grips the cards held in his hand

Ghostly faces gather round

The door behind him opens wide.


Panicking cavalrymen, unhorsed,

Scramble towards a grassy ditch

The condemned Indians make the kill.


A straight hard highway stems the land

Flat fields of wheat that wave and brush

The memories down to subsoil worms.


Wild Bill Hickok was famously shot in the back while sitting with his back to the door playing cards: he normally avoided this position, but had found the other seats occupied. His sight was failing badly and some time earlier he had shot a fellow lawman by mistake.

Fairly recent archaological excavations at the Little Big Horn confirm Indian accounts, discounted at the time, that the last cavalrymen had broken and run into a long, shallow depression on the battlefield in a desperate and unsuccessful attempt to escape the Indians. The battle changed little, of course, beyind the lives lost, and history moved on to Wounded Knee.


The Sallow



On a branch of the sallow

I have hung a sign

So you will see.


I still wait

Though the tree’s long gone

The marsh is drained.

The Crossword Answerer

This is based on watching a man on a train intent on completing the crossword.




No mystic, like a puritan seeking God

He looks for the right answer. His brow furrowed

Mouth tight, hands twitching

As he nearly writes.


No half-truths, no deception will deliver

Only the narrow path to 13 down

Will reach the treasure

That will point him on


To the next clue, and when the puzzle’s conquered

The oyster’s open and the pearl has gone

He’ll start another

Endless it might be

For what the end might be, there is no clue.





The elephant is not like us

It has a trunk


We do not know its secret thoughts

It does not talk to us

It’s not like us


Sometimes it seems quite human-like

Its fondness for a sugary bun

Can lure us into sympathy

But it’s not one of us


All unattended baggage and

All personal effects

Will be destroyed, they said

The elephant found wandering

On platform six was soon secured

A name-tag on its blanket showed

That it was personal effects

And so it was destroyed. And now

The Government has named the date

Elephant Threat Deliverance Day.


The Kemp Owaine Sequence


Kemp Owaine is a mythical warrior who appears in some Saxon stories, often associated with magic. The name itself is fascinating because “Kemp” is Saxon and is from the same origin as German kampfen, to fight:  it means a warrior. But “Owaine” is Celtic Owen; so this mythical character is, as it were, half Saxon and half Celt and probably represents a Celtic mythical hero taken up by Saxon culture.

The first stanza here is closely based on a real surviving fragment where Kemp Owaine meets a monster who turns into a beautiful woman. The rest take the myth into modern times.






Seeking a great prize not identified

The lost prince pads wet-footed from the sea

Having heard rumours of a weird thing

A ravenous monster with a hint of speech

An evil dragon crying for a mate:

Circling of gulls shows him the way to climb

They take the scraps of bloodied flesh around

The female devil growing from the tree.

The warrior has a sword well-blessed and forged

A gap in sliding clouds can now unleash

Light from the imprisoned sun to make the sword

Glint like a fire in Prince Owain’s hand.

A sign of Gods to trust the sword and strike

But though a warrior he does not strike

But stands before the long-haired nightmare thing

And hears it speak: come here, kiss me and win

The prize you cannot even know exists.

He kisses her through tangling hair and stink

Of death or sickness and the sun goes in

As if a shadow is falling. As he stares,

“Kiss me again,” she says. He is still human,

His hands not wizened or hairy, even the scar

From that old fight still itches on his chin,

But for the thing he kissed, cavernous eyes

Have filled and narrowed and the maddening breath

Smells not of death but only dangerous night.

He kisses her. The withered breasts grow young

The claws recede. “Again,” she beckons him,

But the dull day has turned to starless night.

He hesitates, gropes for his darkened sword,

Then throws it down and kisses her again.

She feels soft, the smell is sweet. “Turn round,

Pick up your sword and throw it in the sea.”

He turns and throws the holy sword away

Night becomes day, the lady’s live and lithe

Twining her hair with his beneath blue skies.





I will be good to you for half the year

For half the year I’ll need you: we will love

For half the year, but for the rest I’m gone

You cannot send a message or a gift

I will not speak, I’ll have forgotten you

Till I return in spring.


I range the seas and have no sense of land

I jump the rapids with a single aim

If I escape the bears and fishermen

I will remember land and feet and thought

And come to you again.





So Owen Kemp arrived at the Reception

Where they conducted him to a conference room

Milling with others aiming to achieve

The same great prize. Then from the highest place

A woman’s voice spoke soft and rich and clear:

“Welcome. We’re glad you could attend today.

We have devised a battery of tests,

We hope you’ll find them fun as well as right.

So Owen answered all the riddles set

Like whether he felt nervous in a crowd,

He linked the dots to make a cockatrice

Devised a way to escape the universe

After a coffee break, beat all the rest

At memory games and four-dimensional chess

He tricked the lion from its hoped-for kills

And then the wise ones called him in alone:

“Thankyou, but we were really looking for

A team-player with good networking skills.”




The man talks on his mobile phone

(A rodent hanging from his face)

He has a message to receive

An awkward meeting’s going well

But needs his word to clinch the deal

A momentary annoying thing

Speaks of the hidden and unreal

But what concern is salmon or seal?


The sea is calm, more like a lake,

And never broken by a dive

Of wandering man, has never held

A salmon that had breathed and run

All time’s cut up in hours and dates

The sea and land each know their place

Sandcastles are the only gates

The long-haired woman wails and waits.



My approach to writing poems

This sort of follows on from the post “What makes poetry?”, but looks at how I write rather than what the right circumstances are.

I’ve learnt that if I try to produce poetry to order on a specified subject, however much that subject means to me, the result is poor poetry unless, occasionally, it’s a poem of angry satire. It’s much better to let experiences and images sink below the surface, from where they may resurface changed and linked to other things. I did write a poem about Auschwitz after visiting the place – not one of my weakest poems but not in the top twelve, I think – but I wrote it about three months after I was there and was deeply moved.

Often an opening line comes to me. I consider it, maybe amend it, and see where it leads. Sometimes I have a more definite idea – for example, I wanted for some time to write a poem celebrating the courage and ingenuity of early humans and mourning some of the things that had come from it, but instead of setting aside time to do that, I waited till some ideas for the poem – Callanish – began to come together.

Some of my poems use a regular rhyming scheme and scansion (though I may switch from one rhyming plan in verse 1 to another in verse 2 before returning to the original in verse 3, for example) and some don’t. Quite often the poem starts without either rhymes or predictable scansion, as I feel around the subject, but becomes more rhythmic as it proceeds, with towards the end some rhymes appearing. To me, this conveys a coming together and a taking shape. A problem about this is that introducing rhymes to a previously unrhymed poem throws huge emphasis on to the second rhymed line, so it has to be strong enough to bear that. On the whole the poems I write in a relatively controlled, rational state of mind are rhymed and the ones that seem to come without thought ( I stress “seem”) and in a heightened state not unlike a trance are unrhymed.

I think that’s partly because working without an obvious pattern is much more demanding. Of course, you avoid the scrabbling around for a rhyme which I do experience when writing regular poems (“that one ended with ‘band’ so this one needs to end with – let’s see – hand, stand, understand, brand…”) but the poem is weak if it is not full of sinewy internal connections, rhymes within the lines, half-rhymes, alliteration. All these things for me are not planned but come naturally, and that for me requires the heightened state. I don’t like the term “free verse”. If the poem is full of such connections, holding it together, the fact that they don’t follow a completely predictable pattern does not make the poem “free verse”. If there is neither regular pattern nor such varied internal connections, you just have prose set out in short lines and with a “THIS IS IMPORTANT ART” sign on it.

I write a rough version and sometimes make generally small amendments immediately. When I come to write it up properly I may make other very small amendments, a typical one being cutting out “and” or “the” at the start of a line. Ocasionally, though, I’ve written what I thought was a complete poem but on re-reading it later that day or the next day, I feel it’s incomplete, perhaps because it seems to reach a conclusion, a position, that doesn’t really represent what I think or my real uncertainty. A few times this has led to me adding one more verse: in my poems posted here this happened with both “Spirit Mountain” and “The Roads to Rome”. Recently I wrote a poem, “Dark Lady“, which started as a fairly short one-section poem, but I felt I’d left a lot unsaid, and now it’s a poem in five sections! I would find it very hard to do a major recasting of a poem because I wouldn’t be in the right state of mind, but I did this once with “A Walk Around the Sea” because I increasingly felt that the old opening part was weak, so I wrote something new and much shorter.

There are some poems I find quite easy to explain and others where an image or phrase feels right but I can only suggest possible meanings!

I think the poems convey a sense of otherness which is characteristic of spirituality, and I’m happy if this detoxifies or begins to explain religion for strangers. However, there are lots of unanswered questions and many uses of the words “perhaps” and “maybe” in these poems.

I think you could tell from them that I like and am often in the outdoors: images of hills and the sea are frequent, but are usually smbols of something else. Similarly my knowledge of history and fascination with time and evolution show.

I’m aware that some well-known poets have influenced me, but they’re not necessarily the ones I like best (Hopkins, Yeats, MacNeice, Keats, Marvell, Donne). After reading a lot of Tennyson or Dylan Thomas I’ve writen lines I wouldn’t have written without them, but are still consistent with the rest of my stuff.

And as in this post, my biggest problem is the ending. Is it falsely upbeat? Is it too mundane to bear the weight of being the concluding line? The Monty Python writers solved that problem by those sudden unexpected switches to another sketch…







For the scientists, maybe:




The law of entropy is that

Organisation crumbles down

To chaos. Life, by this approach,

Is swimming against a winning tide.


But tides are not supposed to turn

Because of living things’ excess

Life is a weird anomaly

And inconvenient to its heart

The awkward smudges on the sphere

Creep out towards an alien law.





With a light shrug she said:


If a long golden line

Woven as thin as thought

Stretches between the planets

Will you swing there?


If in a long-drowned mine

Red-black beast wakes and shifts

Tearing the surface calm

Will you fight it?


If opening your hands

Emerald bird alights

Throbbing with intense life

Will you stroke it?