It ought not to be aloud!

I posted some time ago about reading poetry aloud. I thought I’d return to that with many of the same points and a few new.

When I was a small kid, before we had a TV, there was a popular radio children’s series called “Larry the Lamb”, notable in a Britain that had not long stopped fighting the Germans for a sympathetic German character, Dennis the Dachshund, voiced with a strong German accent.

The third main character was an irritable old man called Mr Growser, whose regular plaint was “It ought not to be allowed!” Since his childish audience grew up to student protest, free love and flower power, maybe this biting satire had great effect.

Sorry, I had to explain that to explain the title. This is really about reading poetry aloud at Open Mics or other events. There was a long discussion about this on a LinkedIn group I belong to and here’s my tuppenyworth.

Think about the audience. Much of what you need to get right is the same as if you were giving a lesson in school or a talk to a group of inquisitive older people or a powerpoint presentation to work colleagues. What do you know about them? What might terminally turn them off? What might excite them? An audience of poets might enjoy some quite obscure poetry which would leave another audience puzzled. If you’re reading your poems in a place with strong historical connections, do you have a poem that fits that?

How many people are expected? If you imagine it’ll be a cosy group of ten or so in a small room, only to find a vast hall and a hundred people, you could be totally thrown. Ask the organisers! Get a feel for the venue – outdoors and noisy? Intimate? A big room that may be 90% empty? They’d all suggest a different approach.

Despite what I’ve said above, select a variety of poems. Audiences usually react well to variety. Besides, if something really doesn’t work for them, something different may work. Hesitate to risk something really long (after all, you’ve probably got only 15 minutes or so) and humour is really risky. Choose only your best poems, ideally ones you’re passionate about.

Express the passion! Share your fire and excitement, but don’t gabble. Don’t apologise. Most audiences will be very forgiving of people who are obviously nervous, but if you confide you aren’t at all sure you should be reading to them, they may agree with you.

Make sure you have their full attention before you start – or if you don’t, do something to get it. Try to remain aware of the audience as you speak: this again is a speaker’s trick, useful for politicians or lecturers, to pick up the little signs from body language and expressions of how people are reacting. If they look restive, something is wrong. Maybe you’re reading too fast? It’s a good idea to select more poems than you’ll have time for, so if you find poem A went down like a lead balloon and you’d selected also poem B which is similar, you have reserves. Believe me, if the audience becomes visibly enthralled or excited, that will fire you up so you read brilliantly. But if the response was disappointing, try to start the next poem with all the self-belief and passion you can muster.

Don’t speak to your toes, but to someone in the back row. But check out the front row from time to time: you can see them better.

Speak the poetry slowly and clearly but naturally. The lines of free verse are often how the poet indicates where the voice might pause – at the end of a line. But a long pause at the end of a rhymed line can overemphasise the rhyme, which can sound quite ridiculous especially if the end of the line is halfway through a sentence.

It’s a good idea to say a few words about poems before or after each poem, but keep it short.

Be yourself.

The Master of the Atmosphere




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You may recognise some phrases in this poem that are shared with “We have Changed War”. I suppose it’s taking the ominous irony of that poem a bit further to imagine (or how far is it real?) a power that pretends to the reach and rectitude of God. Is that power external, or do we participate in it? Is it the limitless power of Man (humankind) and should Man’s power be unlimited?

Some phrases are borrowed from religious, especially biblical, sources – for example, “there will be no more sea”.



I am the master of the atmosphere

Here in a glass case

Is the stuffed falcon that rivalled me.

I plan the growing of the trees.


I can tell you what you will want to buy

I can enslave the free and tell them why they’re happy

I am the ever-watching beacon.


When I have tidied up the awkward interface

Between the land and sea, an inconvenient place

There will be no more sea but what I make to flow

Truth is what I make it. I make history.


If out beyond the reaches of the last gaseous particles

Another law, another pattern rules, another right

We’ll soon change that. This is the longest day

But after day comes night.

Copyright Simon Banks 2013


And now for the Magicians

Anyone spot the non-deliberate mistake in my last post? No? Hello? Anyone there?

It was called “Travellers and Magicians”. The poems certainly dealt with travellers, but not particularly magicians. That was because when I entered the title, I expected to be discussing four poems, two about travellers and two about magicians. I found the discussion as getting long enough so I stopped at the first two poems, but failed to change the title.

So now for the magicians. This post, by the way, is another in the series of re-blogging poems of mine with some discussion or explanation.




One day the magician came to me and said,

The fish are leaping in the yellow stream

The oak has turned into an acorn small

And I saw Death in dream.


And I saw Death in dream, he said,

And Death was very kind

He showed me where the roses grow

Though I’m old and blind.


I’m old and blind and lame, he said,

The sea is out of sight

The shell is empty on the shelf

Through the woken night.


The night is all around, he said,

It closes hour by hour

The voices make me fear, my friend,

Should a proud man cower?


But should a proud man cower, my friend,

I think perhaps he should

The wine is turning sour, my friend,

But the bread is good.


The bread of death is good, my friend,

The bread of life is fine

And now I’ve understood, my friend,

Will the starlight shine?


And will the starlight shine, my friend,

And will the starlight shine?

Now let us touch the vine, my friend,

And we will drink the wine.


I posted this recently on a poetry discussion group and instantly someone asked if it was a ballad. Well done, that woman. I’d hesitate to call it a ballad because that for me implies something about its environment, but it does deliberately mimic ballad style, especially after the first verse. Signs are the large amount of repetition (but sometimes with slight changes), the strong rhythm, definite and simple rhyming plan, lack of detailed description, reliance on a few powerful, often archetypal, images and that it is in some way narrative. If you’re not into ballads, especially if you’re British, think “Sir Patrick Spens”, very much a ballad. Many American Country and Western songs are essentially ballads, for example “Long Black Veil”.

It’s probably fairly obvious that this poem is about coming to terms with death, which is personified as often in folk art. Who are the other two characters, though? There is a Magician (old and dying) and a narrator who is a friend of the magician. Is it actually the magician himself? Maybe. Maybe the narrator is me, but maybe I’m the magician – in my imagination and predictions. Maybe the narrator is God. Maybe (a radical suggestion) he or she is a friend. The Magician is a creative individual who has difficulty reconciling himself to death, but accepting he’s afraid is a long step to accepting death while still loving life (the bread of death and the bread of life).

I wouldn’t want to set out meanings for the key images as if this was a phrase book, so I won’t comment on the roses or the wine. I will comment on “the shell is empty on the shelf/ Through the woken night”. Old people often have difficulty sleeping, so “the woken night” is obvious enough, though the Magician’s fears may contribute to his sleeplessness. But “woken night” could also suggest dark or frightening forces waking up in the night – his fears, maybe.  “The shell is empty on the shelf” is interesting because of the sounds involved (shell/shelf). But why a shell? A shell is empty when the creature that lived in it has died. People often collect shells and may put them on a shelf for decoration. Despite snails, we think of shells as coming from the sea, which has receded from the Magician: it’s a reminder of his failing powers or his loss of spiritual contact (because of his fears?).

In the end the Magician comes to terms with death.

Now another poem written soon afterwards. I actually wrote four poems featuring magicians in quick succession. This happens sometimes with me: an image rises from the unconscious and I can’t make full use of it or exorcise it in one go. the magicians are typically wounded or dying.




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I’ve been away ten thousand nights

But now, you see, I’m back.

You lived with a thousand fears

I carry in my sack.


You saw the wise magician fall

Emptied out by worm

And the turning of the tides

Come to a full term.


You heard the knocking in the night

No shadows cast by moon;

Waited for the morning light

To copy out the rune.


You saw the singer come by sea

With seven ships and gold

Felt the ageing of the tree

And the hand grown old.


The snows will cover all your songs

The dark will kill the flower

The bud will break, with new-born wrongs

And an unquiet hour.


Over the snow the song is sung

And dark gives birth to day;

Remember how the light is sprung

From the shadowed way.


 There we are – the magician appears now as a less central character, dying in the second verse. This poem also imitates ballads, though perhaps less obviously. Again, someone is struggling to come to terms with fears, but here, the bringer of fears has arrived on the doorstep.

The characters seem to exist across time or for a longer timespan than humans (“felt the ageing of the tree”. The visitor seems to predict annihilation (“The snow will cover all your songs/ The dark will kill the flower”) but immediately predicts rebirth, which is not always comfortable (“an unquiet hour”). The final message is that light comes out of dark (so accept the dark).

I think that makes sense…

Copyright Simon Banks 2013

Travellers and Magicians

From time to time I re-post poems that appeared here some time back but with some discussion or explanation. When I post a poem for the first time I try to keep such added text very short or totally absent in order not to direct people’s reactions. But discussion of poets’ own poems seems to be quite rare on the blogosphere and many people welcome it.

The most recent such posts have chosen a theme such as time or right and wrong and selected three or so poems that illustrated different approaches. That’s hard to keep up if only because it gets very hard to remember which poems I’ve re-posted. Besides, choosing a theme like that can lead to bias or misrepresentation in how I talk about the poem. Imagine if Keats had blogged some of his poems, chosen “birds” as a topic and entered “Ode to a Nightingale” in it.

So here goes with two poems that are vaguely related and were written around the same time.




Some day the rain shall tell me I should leave

Or the shortening days set off a bell

Quiet at first, insidious in the blood

So I will pack

Searching the sky for clues

The distant shimmer and blur that might be rain

Glance at the house

And set out by a route that gradually

Creates itself but will not turn on itself

Though I don’t know the city at the end.


I am a journeyman, I learn my trade

From hints and shallow inscriptions on low stones

And from the linking of the bones.


I am used to wandering

I travel light, I know the signs

The questioning cat, the blackened oak

The broken bridge, the river in spate

The posts turned round, the embered fire

Light in the sky and razor wire.


And so the stages wait, or maybe indifferent

I mark them with my feet for a few minutes

But swimming with a river in the mind

I grope and stumble, being alive and blind.



The first thing is to explain what a journeyman was, especially as the word has come to mean an uninspired plodder. A journeyman was a young craftsman learning his trade by travelling around the country taking on jobs as he went, learning from established people in his craft. A “journeyman piece” of furniture, for example, would be like an apprentice piece – possibly very good, but likely to show mistakes the experienced skilled worker would not make.

So in this poem I (or the person speaking) see myself as a journeyman – of what? Of poetry? Of life? Some of the lines are really quite straightforward: for example, “a route that gradually/ Creates itself but does not turn on itself” = a route that is not pre-set, but emerges gradually as I make my way – and does not lead me back where I came from. The journeyman is not learning from seeing carpentry or ironwork done, but from signs that may seem magical along a route that seems rural. I’m not aware of any special significance to the signs I’ve specified. His journey is partly in his mind “swimming with a river in my mind” and he is “blind” – aware that many things are hidden from him.




Only one vessel, outward bound,

You need not change your course.

The dead gull goes round and round,

Looking for the source.


The waves are broken on the wall

The angular land is blind

No salt invades the marbled hall

Nor sails in the mind.


The sun is shining as it shone

But the words you talk

Are bronze untaught, of Eden gone

And a broken hawk.


Only one vessel, outward bound,

Turning of the tide,

The unknown sea is lost and found,

The rolling sky is wide.



This one draws on an image from my then recent memory – seeing a dead gull going round and round in an eddy of an estuary. Like “Journeyman” it’s about journeying and leaving. The possibilities, fluidity and uncertainty of the sea are contrasted with the cut-and-dried land, especially in the second verse. Like “Journeyman” the tone is quite optimistic: I expect to go on the journey and find new things. There are lines here I can’t explain: they seemed to make sense when I was composing it! Maybe they do. “Bronze untaught”, for example: I have a feeling that meant something, but search me now! Note the extra syllable in a generally regular poem in “The angular land is blind”: this emphasises the gawky, hard word “angular” and hence what I’m saying about the land.




The Tower

What if someone has the opportunity to live his or her dreams? What happens to that person – and to the dreams?


Looking out over the silent sea

Knowing of another hidden country

She dreamt of unicorns and fiery dragons

(The island in the bay was Avalon)

And when the sailors laughed, cursed them to be blind.

Older, more cautious, richer, more powerful,

She bought the island, poisoned all the rats

And built a tower like one that might have stood

To watch for pirates in the China seas

And spent some few nights there watching whales and slow-burning

Stars that spread eerie magic over the black waves.

But when a dying dragon came to her in a dream

Dragging smeared scales over the revengeful rocks

She left the island and the tower fell slowly into ruin

Peopled by spiders and by mad-voiced seabirds

Haunted by silent, searching unicorns.


Copyright Simon Banks 2013

We Have Changed War



“We have changed war,” she said

“No longer push of pike,

The intimate connection by a hooked iron blade.

We can destroy our enemies on computer screens

They look like simulations of human beings

Until they are wiped out

We make our own truth, we make history.”

How truth got in the programmes is a mystery.