A day by the reedbed

On Saturday I was at the Snape Poetry Festival, England’s number one festival. I live about an hour and twenty minutes’ drive away, so I could go up just for the day, the main day of the three. Last year I stayed bed and breakfast and sampled the whole experience from Friday to Sunday, but this time I thought one day was enough (and saved money).


It’s a pretty intensive experience. Why “a day by the reedbed”? Snape Maltings, the arts (mainly music) centre where it’s now held, is by an estuarine reedbed on the Suffolk coast. It’s a beautiful place. Last year but one, my first attendance, an aged Korean poet guesting there referred to the beauty of the reedbed and then said the Maltings was full of poetry – “maybe more poetry when it was industrial”. That wry comment hit a button for many people: there is no such thing as a cathedral of the arts.


There are many things I could write about, but I want to choose two. The main one is about comparisons and extended metaphors – whole poems that seem to be about one thing but are also (or instead) about something else. I think I’ll leave that till next time and do it properly, talking about Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “Sandpiper”, Paula Bohince’s talk about the poem, which left me with reservations, and by way of comparison, a couple of my poems that try something similar.


So I’m just going to say I was struck like lightning by the last event. Two young female poets read some of their work. One, an American, left me cold with a kind of word-association exercise that might have appealed to me if I’d been into crosswords. The other

karen mccarthy woolf


was Karen McCarthy Woolf. A poem about dead animals by the roadside on Dartmoor. A poem about a stillbirth. Immediate, vivid, precise, painful, exciting. Superb poetry: I’m not quite going to place it with the best of Keats or Hopkins or Yeats, but I’ve never heard anything read aloud with so much impact – which obviously implies that she reads well.


Tell me poetry is dead.

One reason for going to a poetry open mic


Now here’s untrodden ground. I’ve found Wonderful WordPress’s new way of allowing you to import images, but the only way you can do it is quoting the URL, assuming you have it. So this comes out here as gobbledegook and if it stays as gobbledegook, for which I do not apologise as it may inspire someone.

I went to a local open mic (why not open mike?) in Colchester. I read some of my stuff and listened to some superb poetry, much from people who were not regulars and had one short minute. There was a lead performer, a political poet with a rap style – very talented, but I prefer my politics delievered at a slower pace so I can think about it and even disagree.

At a late stage – or it may have been the interval – my attention wandered enough for me to jot down two very different short poems. Here they are.


This man I should meet, I don’t understand him well
He speaks a different language, almost, to my own
I cannot see his face. I do not know if he still has his hair
Or how he walks at all or if he sees. I do know his name
And (this is boring for a story) what happens to him next.
He dies. He was a human; he loved birds and rivers,
The sea, the stars, even the starless dark.
We are connected, somehow, by the years.


I was a voracious child for books
I read the preface, notes, index if any and the rest.
The editors thanked Mr J.B. Priestley for permission
And also the executors of Robert Louis Stevenson.
He died quite young. I knew the reason: they cut his head off
These executors. Not being a Catholic I hadn’t come across
People being canonised.



I looked for an apocalyptic picture of The End, but strangely, they’re hard to find on the net. This is actually the Great Fire of London, but it looks pretty apocalyptic.

Actually, this isn’t about that kind of End, or about this kind.


It’s about the end of a poem.


When I started writing poetry again, I felt for a long time that endings were a weak point for me. Just as the Monty Python team found they often didn’t know how to end a sketch (hence those sudden shifts to And Now for Something Completely Different), I was aware that the last line of a poem had huge impact but struggled to find words that were up to the task.


Secretly, without realising it, I’ve changed. Last month I took part in an organised poetry reading at the Poetry Cafe in London, set up as a Colchester team against a London team (though actually there was no competition). Thinking about my own selection later, and also some poems I shared in a poets’ group not long after, I realised some of the endings worked particularly well (I think).


Here are some examples from the Poetry Cafe event. These are all poems I’ve posted here before.



After a month of night, a reddish moon
Illuminates a new world, smoothes
The slivers of metal, softens the swathes
Of jagged concrete to
A pebble beach. The clumps of bodies become
A silvered sleeping army of dancing elves.
Nothing human moves,
But deep rats scrabble towards the surface
In the wounded rivers
Dragonfly larvae wait, and where the great trees stood
Fern spores survive. There will be
Another turn.
Tomorrow the relentless sun will rise.

The moonlight over the sea in a narrow, shimmering dark-speckled band
Links the horizon with the stony beach
To the left the town lights strung along the esplanade
In yellow and red do not shift
Being precise, defined; round the dark sea are the sounds of a town night
A drunken argument, a covey of old people chattering
Taxis’ irregular engine rumble;
A few late white gulls flap and swivel;
The glittering causeway is untrodden.


Dark shape of a man against the drifts of white
The pale watching lights on concrete walls
The crump of boots in the untrodden snow
The short scream of an owl in the hidden wood.

No lights show in the sky, but the steady throb
Of a heavy heaving plane in the opaque air;
The dogs begin to bark; a light goes out.


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.


So what works about these endings? I should say I read some other poems whose endings I didn’t feel were so strong.


In the first poem, “Tomorrow, the relentless sun will rise” reminds us of the title “Tomorrow”. It marks the first time the sun will be visible after a month of night. But the key word, I suggest, is “relentless”. The sun is relentless. “Relentless” suggest cruel and ruthless as well as strong and persistent. Most life forms, including humanity, have been destroyed by some cataclysm, but “There will be another turn”. The sole word “relentless” raises the question, “Do we want another turn, when it may be no better?”.


In “Weymouth Bay” the last line again relates back to the beginning, this time to the first line instead of the title. It reminds us of the glittering band of light from the moon shining on the dark sea. But whereas the first line describes this fairly straightforwardly, the last line turns the band of light into a causeway people could walk on, but choose not to, setting off the magical against the mundane (a drunken argument, chatter, idling taxi engines, street lights).


In “Night Vision”, I think the reader begins to realise what is being described is a prison, a concentration camp or a prisoner of war camp. There is an atmosphere of menace, even in the big bomber or transport plane being hidden in cloud. “The dogs begin to bark” could suggest an escape attempt has been discovered. “A light goes out” could be just another piece of atmosphere – or it could mean the light of a human life has been extinguished. People seem to get this double meaning quite easily.


The last line of “The Tower” appears just to introduce more mythical things (we’ve had unicorns before, in the third line, and also dragons and the island of Avalon). But the poem describes the death of a dream. The woman dreams, becomes able to implement her dream, enjoys it briefly, then is shocked by the dream becoming threatening and retreats. But not only does the tower fall into ruin – her dream creatures do not die, but continue on the island searching for her. I think that comes as quite a shock.


Next time I’ll look at a few endings from other poems I read recently.


Sorry, by the way, for being silent for some time. Usual excuses.


Take care.








More Snape


First, an official announcement. If you got an email notification about my post yesterday, but on clicking couldn’t find it, there is a reason. I’d edited it and either failed to click on PUBLISH or the PUBLISH hadn’t worked (which is my story). Anyway, it’s back now. Please look at it as this post won’t make a lot of sense without it. On the other hand, that may be how you like things. Are you by any chance a poet?

Now one or two things I didn’t mention yesterday.

There was a long and interesting panel discussion about poetry and beauty. What is beauty? What is poetry? What is and? Poets from the 17th to the early 20th century often used the word “beauty” but it’s now almost a dirty word. It’s vague, of course, and saying something is beautiful doesn’t help much to describe it. We’re also clear now that there’s no obligation for poetry to concentrate on beautiful things, or what would we make of war poetry?

It seems to me we still write sometimes about beautiful things, but often with a kind of reservation, and we don’t use the B word. I don’t either – and the things I find most beautiful aren’t often the subject of poems, though they often appear as images within poems. The exception, for some reason, is dragonflies. Twice in the same long poem (“Dark Lady”), I apply the B word to them (one beauty, one beautiful) though in each case the dragonfly is an image suggesting something else.

Now the other thing. As last year, the poetry readings were a revelation (and only occasionally, a revelation that I didn’t think much of that poet), but I found some of the introductions jarred. These were sometimes very obviously read word for word from a book or script. We hear that this poet shows “startling humanity” or something like that, and very rarely does it give those who don’t know his/her work any idea what it’s like. Does it matter (s)he’s published six collections or seven? Why not just get on with the poetry? If (s)he wasn’t well rated, (s)he wouldn’t be at Snape about to read to us.

Oh, and the Macedonian poet Madzirov is great fun.

Snape Poetry Festival


I’ve just come back from the annual Poetry Festival at Snape Maltings, Suffolk. This was the 25th such, but formerly they were held a few miles away in the small town of Aldeburgh by the sea, a fishing settlement turned to tourism and music. Snape Maltings is a site by a river and reedbeds, consisting of beautiful industrial buildings turned to use mainly for music events.

Last year I made my first visit, staying just for the one day. I don’t live so far away that a day trip is problematic. But it did mean I’d have been unwise to stay for the poetry open mic, which finishes just before midnight. This time I booked into events from Friday evening to Sunday morning and had a go at the open mic. I stayed in a very friendly and convenient bed and breakfast on the main road at Stratford St Andrew, about a twelve-minute drive away.

This could be a very long blog, but it won’t be. Here’s just a few impressions.

At the start, it can be a bit intimidating. It’s a big venue and a big event. I found myself thinking it was a bit like arriving at secondary school aged eleven and having to cope with an alien organisation, a confusing multiplicity of rooms and a tight timetable. It didn’t help that it was raining heavily and dark. Moving from place to place withing the site involves going outside and in places the lighting is minimal. That helps deliver marvellous starscapes when it isn’t raining or cloudy, but also helps deliver you into potholes and puddles.

People were all friendly. That wasn’t always so the previous year when the “ushers” at the doors for the events were some of them rather forbidding. I met a lot of people including some of the featured poets. I bought poetry books by two of those, Kim Moore and Robin Robertson. I’ll blog about them when I’ve finished reading their books. There was much thought-provoking discussion and lecturing: the only pity was that this never involved the audience. I suppose that becomes difficult when so many people are present and the timetable is packed – difficult, but not impossible.

It seems to me that much contemporary poetry is thoughtful, compassionate and rational. It’s also in its main thrust quite different from the main thrust of what I write. I use common words and images of common objects, but I’m rarely chatty in poems. I use mystery more and observation of characters less. No problem: I learnt long ago in poetry to do my thing, not someone else’s.

One thing that does bother me a bit, taking in both Snape and recent browsing through a lot of poetry magazines (what I could find on-line) is that some poets seem to think their main task is to think up unusual ways of describing things, and then if they string together a few such descriptions with some light twine such as “Mother used to” or “In Manchester”, there’s the poem. I can see the inspiration this comes from, to see mundane things anew as Craig Raine said, but it can become a sort of competition exercise: “Find a new way of describing an ATM/someone drinking coffee/a bus stop/a poodle”, or “cram as many unusual metaphors and similes into the poem as possible”. Such ingenuity is fine, but if it’s valued too much, it becomes confetti without a wedding or even a wind to make it swirl.

The open mic was fun. I read “Death and the Magician” and “Night Vision”. One young female poet read a piece about refusing intimate shaving and it was very, very funny.

More soon.