T-shirts, T and poetry

Friends of the Earth inform me that it takes the amount of water to manufacture one t-shirt that would be needed to make 15,600 cups of tea. A thought-provoking statistic – but straight away, I start wondering if that’s why they’re called t-shirts. Or is tea named after tea shirts? Did British colonial officials once relax on the verandah having changed into a tea shirt to drink tea?


Now I take t-shirts seriously, like them. I have quite a collection, many commemorating somewhere I’ve been (Georgia, Fair Isle Bird Observatory, the most south-westerly pub in England – The Saracen’s Head, St Agnes, Isles of Scilly – plus one printed with my own wording, “Ho, Johnny Wildman, where art thou?”).

Towards the end of a walking holiday, though, the dirty clothes do mount up and of course are dead weight to carry. Working on that FOE statistic, maybe I could convert a small fragment of a dirty, old t-shirt into cups of tea?

By the way, that personalised wording refers to a favourite snippet from my history reading. During the Commonwealth period when we were between kings, the radical Leveller group had fallen out with Oliver Cromwell, but one of their number, a Major John Wildman, had defected to Cromwell. His former comrades put out a pamphlet attacking him. You can imagine what this would be like today – a pamphlet or blog post from a far left group attacking someone who’d abandoned them. The Leveller pamphlet read,

“There was a great stone, and it fell in the sea, and it gave a great PLOP. Ho, Johnny Wildman, where art thou?”


Incidentally, I was at a reading last night by performance poet Luke Wright. I’d seen two of his poems before and thought one brilliant and the other rubbish, but this was all good. Few performance political poets have such subtlety and compassion, plenty of passion but nothing of bludgeoning you into assent.


Both one thing and another?

One of the things about poetry that most puzzles literal-minded people is that one set of words can mean two or more things. A description of snow falling can be a description of death or of sleep or, just possibly, a  description of snow falling.




Going to the Snape Poetry Festival earlier this month got me thinking about this a good deal, particularly because of listening to an American poet, Paula Bohince, reading, interpreting and explaining what she liked about the poem “Sandpiper” by another female American poet, Elizabeth Bishop.


I found myself interested but uneasy. Here’s the poem:




The roaring alongside he takes for granted,
and that every so often the world is bound to shake.
He runs, he runs to the south, finical, awkward,
in a state of controlled panic, a student of Blake.

The beach hisses like fat. On his left, a sheet
of interrupting water comes and goes
and glazes over his dark and brittle feet.
He runs, he runs straight through it, watching his toes.

– Watching, rather, the spaces of sand between them
where (no detail too small) the Atlantic drains
rapidly backwards and downwards. As he runs,
he stares at the dragging grains.

The world is a mist. And then the world is
minute and vast and clear. The tide
is higher or lower. He couldn’t tell you which.
His beak is focussed; he is preoccupied,

looking for something, something, something.
Poor bird, he is obsessed!
The millions of grains are black, white, tan, and gray
mixed with quartz grains, rose and amethyst.


Western Sandpiper, Cattle Point, Uplands, Near Victoria, British Columbia


Now clearly this is a very good poem, with vivid and accurate language, well-organised and thought-provoking, if only to find me American support for spelling FOCUSSED, which my American-dominated spellcheck thinks is wrong. There are lines here which are memorable for the beauty of the image and/or the words like the last two lines or “he stares at the dragging grains”, which is not only vivid but reproduces the sound of a spent wave hissing back over coarse sand.


In reading it before Paula Bohince expounded, I suspected there was a half-hidden agenda to it but didn’t know what. I was seriously bothered by the words “a student of Blake”, which interrupted clear and vivid description with what seemed to be a crossword-puzzle-maker’s clue. Paula Bohince especially liked those words, explaining they referred to Blake’s “To see a world in a grain of sand”, which makes plenty of sense; but I still think this is an awkward break and a too clever insert which will distract most readers from the picture that’s been building up.


By the way, as a European birdwatcher, I was also slightly bothered that the sandpipers I knew rarely fed on sandy shores, but judging by online photos of American sandpipers, some of their sandpiper species do.


Paula Bohince talked about Elizabeth Bishop’s approach to writing poetry and interpreted the poem from start to finish as the poet describing herself writing poetry. That does make sense: in particular, it would be downright silly to describe a bird as being “obsessed” (“Poor bird, he is obsessed!”) in his or her pursuit of a successful feeding strategy without which (s)he would die. It leaves me uneasy, though, because at the end of Paula Bohince’s talk there seemed to be nothing left of the sandpiper. It was a kind of disrespect.


Maybe what leaves me uneasy is more in Paula Bohince’s mind than the poem, though I am unhappy about that line “Poor bird, he is obsessed”.


Now let me try putting in this light two of my own poems that seem to be attempting something similar – “Watershed” and “Underwater”.



Did you see, there where the cloud broke
Between the high grey ridges an angled cleft
Roughly in line with the uneven river
Which might be a pass? A great bird soared over it
Now nothing shows but cloud and the warning of rain.

The broken impatient river carved the way
We leave the many-angled rocks behind
And the last twisted tree, the last glimpse of a roof;
And the hidden ravens call in the grey mist.
With cunning and husbanded strength
We drag from the circle of sweat to the circle of icy wind
Recovering from a slip is hard
Recovering from the task impossible.

There is never a point where you can say “that’s it”
No throne or light or monument
Only the slope is inconsistent
The shattered smoothing rocks lie in no order
There is no river
These barren pools are the only water

And then the ghost of a trickle
A few thin fingers feeling
Trying to come together, the hiss and sparkle:
We have passed the watershed
We have seen the birth
Of a new river.
Somewhere there is a new land
But it is hidden and the mist rolls in.

There is no warning
No sign, no new music
Just the realisation and the standing still
The dropping, blocking hills
The unknown, long suspected
Alien valley ahead
But half-familiar, like a dream
The hidden end
You feel you ought to remember.

The descent from the murderous heights
To the soft valley is always more dangerous
Than the struggling up:
The sight of meadows and bushes can lead like a mirage
To the eggshell-crushing fall
And the way to the low glittering lake
May be many miles round.

But at least the first task of the explorer
Seems to have been fulfilled
To show what he wanted to explore
Was there at all.
America is found
Mars glows dully but more clear
In the dark waters, something moves after all
Down the strange valley our suspected
Alive waters fall.


I don’t want to analyse this poem in the round here or this would be an impossibly long post, but there is an obvious extended metaphor. The poem is a realistic description of a climber or hill-walker ascending a pass to reach the watershed and it actually draws extensively on two real climbs, one in Torridon in the Western Scottish Highlands and the other in the English Lake District (Black Sail Pass). But it’s also about any adventure, any risk-taking, any exploration. There’s plenty of detailed description of rocks, rivulets and so on, but to reinforce the exploration theme I’ve made the climber unaware of what’s beyond the watershed, so (s)he obviously wasn’t carrying a decent map!


Nonetheless, the whole thing could be a poetic description of a climb and nothing else until that last verse (from “At least the first task of the explorer”), about which I have reservations though a poetry magazine must have been happy because it was selected for an anthology. In that last verse I talk not of mountains and fells but of America and Mars. The analogy becomes clear. Was that a mistake? At least by this final shift I avoid the weakness of “Poor bird, he is obsessed” – the point at which what the poet wants to say about herself (if Bohince is right) clashes with what can truthfully be said of the bird.



When you slip under
The long lying line of waves
Strange shapes will come
Silently propelled by waft of flipper
Or sinuous pulsing of a streamlined torso
And some maybe you knew and had forgotten
Dirt shovelled over the well has been removed
Remember the time before you broke the surface
Gasped, fumbled, burrowed
And survived by stratagem?

Now you return to them
Learning to be like a fish
Wander and linger
Here where the pearly nautilus waves unchanging
Here with the ammonite and plesiosaur
And where squat fish that never see the sunlight
Thread through great feathery banks of frond
Of hidden sting and jaw

Do you rise up towards the scattered sunlight
The crushing waves, the inconsistent wind,
The seabird that will fly to a rocky island
Drawing life from the depths, their crowded night?

When you are playing with the waves
Will you remember
Here on the fine-grained shore (maybe imagine)
Beneath the corals and the painted fish
Down with the vents, the eyeless creatures
Some heavy hidden box
That had an answer,
Where you will return?
Will you return?


This is more complicated because there are at least three associated half-hidden meanings. The sea can stand for death, time or the unconscious. The poem is much less realistic than “Watershed” and it would be difficult for someone to read it and think it was just about underwater exploration, though there are bits that describe underwater habitats pretty accurately –

And where squat fish that never see the sunlight
Thread through great feathery banks of frond
Of hidden sting and jaw

(which could certainly be a deep-sea, ocean-bed habitat) or

Here on the fine-grained shore (maybe imagine)
Beneath the corals and the painted fish
Down with the vents, the eyeless creatures

(which describes a sandy shore, shallow tropical waters and the ocean bed). But this ocean contains long-extinct creatures side by side with surviving ones, suggesting something either dreamlike or timeless. There is a kind of subtext which says, “Beneath the water surface you change into something else and time as you have known it vanishes. In the deepest places there are dangers but also something valuable. The life of things above the surface depends on life beneath the surface (the fish-eating seabird). Humans travel between the different levels, rather as we evolved to leave the sea and live on land (the last five lines of the first verse).


It seems to me to work and one reason is that I didn’t pretend to be talking about real seas. If I’d done that, some things I wanted to say would have disrupted the metaphor.


There’s a lot more to think about here…





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.




I said I might put out something about titles – not Mr, Ms or Reverend, but the titling of poems. This is a problem for some poets. Somehow the relationship between the title and the content for a novel seems closer and more evident – probably wrongly, as novels are often given titles to get people to buy them, whereas the title of a poem will not be the title of a book unless you want it to be. On one of the LinkedIn discussion groups I belong to, there was quite a long discussion about poem titles – whether to use them at all and if you did, how to find one.


Some short poems for which a title doesn’t come naturally can be titled with the first line. I’ve done that sometimes. I know one poet who just numbers his poems. That seems to me to be missing a chance to use the title to good, though it is similar to the numbering of works of classical music (and when those classical orchestral works are given word titles, they often seem grandiloquent – Beethoven’s “Eroica”, Nielsen’s “Unextinguishable” symphony, a title which always suggest “Undistinguishable” to me: it’s the Fourth and I prefer his mysterious, ominous, triumphant Fifth.


If I think about some of the titles of other people’s poems I most admire, most of them seem pretty straightforward: Ode to a Nightingale, The Wreck of the Deutschland, The Wild Swans at Coole, or the often long and chatty, but informative, titles used by the Metaphysical poets. Some are less obvious – for example Louis MacNeice’s “The Wiper” and “Bagpipe Music”. The former does concentrate on a wiper on a  car windscreen, but the poem is more about the car’s journey through night rain (and about our journey through life to death) than about the wiper merely. The latter? I’m not really sure why it has that title. There are Scottish references in it, but perhaps it’s supposed to be a song that could be accompanied by the bagpipes. Maybe someone knows? It’s a very pointed, funny and wry poem anyway, with those fantastic lines “The glass is falling hour by hour, the glass will fall forever/ But if you break the bloody glass you won’t hold up the weather.” It sounds even better in a Northern Irish accent.


And Yeats’ “Sailing to Byzantium” and “Byzantium”? Without the title, the second poem anyway might not be related to Byzantium, but Yeats’ Byzantium is more a fantasy world full of meaning than a historical empire. For the importance of titles, though, note that “Sailing to Byzantium” was originally titled “Byzantium”, but Yeats felt he hadn’t reached a satisfactory conclusion, just made progress on the way – to the second poem -so the new title was highly significant.


Some titles, then, direct your attention to a key part of the poem, or work as a kind of clue to a puzzle. Above all, whatever the title does – IT’S PART OF THE POEM.


This discussion has made me just a bit uneasy that many of my own titles are clever-clever, unnecessarily obscure. Let’s look at a few, obviously with the whole poem, so keeping the choice to shortish poems. Here goes.



Riding a jet-black steed
In snow-white armour clad
He aims for noble deed
In war of good on bad

He seeks the Holy Grail
In purity of thought
No failing on the trail
Will have him lured and caught

He’ll sacrifice his life
Or any other’s too
The outcome of the strife
Depends on being true

And noticing the stain
From some unlucky beast
Or villager’s loud pain
Would shamefully have creased

His shining banner and cause
So quickly he rides on
Ruled by his Order’s laws
But where the light has shone

It travels not with him
And all his noble death
It stays on blood and skin
Impure and loving breath 24



It is indeed about a knight in shining armour, on the face of it, so this title is quite straightforward, though of course the knight stands for anyone who is ruthless in the pursuit of high ideals, particularly of purity.



The queen has made a laurel wreath
For the new champion to wear
So he will not grow old and weak

The whisper of the brittle leaves
Is of a people falling down
And of a king that cannot breathe

The blue-black sloes have gathered round,
The blackberry and scarlet hip
They twine about the king’s own crown

Inside the castle nothing moves
The guests are frozen to the walls
And spears of ice hang from the roof

The withered wreath has taken root
And pressing through the embroidered cloth
Will resurrect the warmth and doubt.


It seems to me this case is rather similar to “The Wiper”. The sloes (fruits of the wild plum known as Blackthorn) are part of the poem, but I choose to draw attention to it.



I don’t say it’s a long way home
Because I don’t know home exists.
Wandering in forests, confused by mists,
I’ve heard that all roads lead to Rome:

Maybe that legend is a lie
And all roads lead to a silent shore;
But memories of a light, a door
Suggest there was a home, but why

The road to it will always twist
And turn away and run instead
Towards the city of powerful dead
I cannot say, but having missed

No pointing tree or flying crow,
No sudden cold or smear of blood,
No reddening sunset, opening bud,
Maybe I’ve found the home I know.

But carving on a rotten log
Tells of an easy way to rest
While still the broken branch points west
Over the river blurred in fog.


I’d say this title is similar to “Sailing to Byzantium”. My Rome is not the Rome of Cicero and Marcus Aurelius, not exactly, and not the Rome of the Vatican either, but more of a state of spirit which I characterise with reference to those two Italian Romes. But the title is a key part of the poem, hopefully helping with a fairly obscure poem.



A gentle soup is around you
You belong to a circle and beat
At an alarm you struggle
In time of peace you sleep

Now the world is warped by a warlike
Beat from a tunnel of change
And the light at the end of the tunnel
Is the light of an oncoming train

But if you can grab a handrail
Hold on to the train if you can
For the scenery’s into this world, and
You won’t get a ticket again


Now that was naughty. The “coming out” is not at all about revealing one’s sexuality, but about birth, which is, though, of course a “coming out”. Did I mean to cause brief puzzlement? To catch attention? Can’t remember.



Nobody gave me a choice
Of where I’d like to be born
Nobody set me a test
Nor asked me to swear allegiance
To a fixed smile in a dress

I feel as Irish as Scottish
I’m English and Welsh in the blood
How could they accept me as British
Who’d trade in the crown for the mud?


Obvious, straightforward, OK? It’s a thoughtful, irreverent poem about British nationality and my identity.



It will not be all new when we meet again
The blood will still be on the old stone steps
The man at the corner will still be glancing after
The drunken girl who retches beyond the railings.

We recognise the smears, you and I
We know the use of bleach on the grimy standard
Will wreck it beyond loving, and the raising
Of a pure standard is a call to killing.

But where the stray cat wolfs the fallen burger,
Where up the bloodstained steps you come by night
There is the cancer that will grow and scatter
The knowing of the dark, the love of light.



That’s less obvious. It refers to the start of the poem, the first line. The message of the poem, I suppose, is that things won’t be perfect but can get better and that grime and retching (as metaphors and as specifics) are part of life. Sounds trite now, doesn’t it? In my mind the title refers among other things to the idealism of the radicals of the English Civil War and Commonwealth with their bible quote “Behold, we are making all things new.”


I’d better stop there, because I’m churning out loads of words and just asking you to look at the first one or two. I’m somewhat reassured about my own titles, though.





This post is nonsense.


Recently I’ve discussed poem endings and then poem beginnings (the opening lines). An internet friend asked what I’d do next – perhaps discuss middles. I joked that maybe I’d look at a selection of line eights.


Well, why not? Occasionally random selections turn up something interesting. I still remember a school French grammar textbook which set French phrases in a series down the page alongside the English translations. I tried reading a bit of the English as a sequence and got:


She is sitting

He is kneeling

They are hanging from the ceiling.


Not quite a haiku, but a pointed little poem.


So here goes with a poem made up of the eighth line of every eighth poem from the earliest ones in my canon, ready to fire.


Of Saxon or Mordred may have built

Though Midas put the markets in a stir

As the breakers crumble?

After angle and curve into dark

Down the leat’s long scar

Until the monster in its den

So what has stayed with you?

I think he might be smelly

Whose summit shows signs of long-gone harm

Before they leave for the drowned land, the sky darkening,

Water, and when he’s drunk the stream

Till a light casual tap shatters it

So I can listen to its roar

Something begins to pulse, divide,

Satisfied. Only five quid,

And making self-effacing jokes are watching her.

And when a wandering “if” came on the wind

And a little lawyer beyond bribes dreamt of a pure Republic

Under that crazy-angled floating box.



Hmm… I don’t think I’ll submit it. It doesn’t work as well as Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain”, reputed to be a string of first lines that were waiting for a song. There are a few couples of lines that could conceivably make sense, if that’s the intention.


But a semi-serious point: from that transect through my poetry, what could anyone say about the poetry as a whole? Anything? What if for a later age, only a jumble of a few lines of Shakespeare survived, no two lines that belonged together? How would he be characterised?


By the way, there were several poems in the sequence of one in eight that were seven lines long or shorter. I ignored them.


Next time, maybe: titles. Like Marquis or Lieutenant-Commander.





In my Beginning is my End



OK – I wrote about poems’ endings. How about the beginnings? Can I find any lessons from my own opening lines?


I’ve reversed Eliot’s well-known line here, but his was deliberately contrary. All beginnings imply some kind of end and the characteristics of a beginning – whether it’s a poem, a revolution, a product launched or a child conceived, carry information which can determine how it will end.




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.


How does this beginning work? Well, in fact you could say the beginning is actually the title, which tells you death will feature and suggests something rather archetypal. Then the first line is in ordinary language and chatty, quite misleading really for a poem that becomes ballad-like and rather distant from everyday speech. But that’s a way of as it were luring the reader in. Compare with a Hitchcock thriller. It normally starts with things seeming ordinary.



Here are the shoes and here the photographs,
The shaven heads, expressionless eyes or defiant.
These are the notices: washroom, joy, be honest.
Joy was the brothel. Here the camp commandant’s children played,
Getting used to the occasional screams.
We are done now. Ten minutes’ rest break: the toilets are over there,
Hot drinks and snacks in that corner. The coach is ready.
Thankyou for listening, thankyou for coming here.

The people are quiet in the coach until a phone rings.
The old Jew answers it. “Yes, we’re fine. No, you’re joking.
It’s raining here, just like Manchester.”


Once you’ve realised this poem is about a concentration camp, the first line is very specific and plummets you right in. These are shoes piled up from people who were gassed. The title is ambiguous: is it about the visitors to the modern exhibition, to present-day Auschwitz, or does it describe the murdered people as visitors, perhaps because they didn’t stay long? The first line is straightforward and there is no twist from first line to second, just progression.


Here there is a twist though:



The world is disenchanted
We have walked in the dark places
And found no ghosts or elves
No dragons roam the forests
The real fearsome beasts
Of the forest we have shot
And made a diagram of their bodily systems.

But now the sabre-toothed beasts from the forest myths
The giant wings, the parallel cunning people
With their invisible cities and hidden spells
Are coursing through the streets of the flooded city.

Come with me to the sea.
We know the source of its power, waves and tides
There’s not a grain of sand disturbed
By the last thrash of the wave
I cannot analyse;
I can tell when a star will disappear.

Hunting elusive messengers in your mind
You may find useful this neat chart
We can identify
The electromagnetic impulses for love or hate
We’ve come a long way, you and I
Perhaps it is too late
To search back for some thing we have forgotten.


The title and the first line introduce the words DISENCHANTED and DISENCHANTMENT, which normally mean serious disappointment (“He became disenchanted with his leader,”), but immediately you wonder how the WORLD can be disenchanted. Gradually you realise the word is being used perversely if logically to be the opposite of ENCHANTED. We’ve lost enchantment.To me too the very sound of DISENCHANTED is right: it has a kind of mournful music.


I don’t mean this as self-praise – just picking out some openings I believe work quite well. Maybe I’ll do this for poems by better-known poets – but that’s harder work as I have my own poems all on one word file!


See you.








The End Again



I said I’d talk about some more last lines. That’s Land’s End in Cornwall above, by the way.



The cat is serious
It has its ways
So do I.
It came miaowing to me; under the bed it went
Where it scrabbled and rushed around
I bent down and looked it in the eye
I said,
“Hello, puss-cat – what are you up to?”
In reply, the dextrous cat
Threw a rat in my face.


Well, that’s obviously a surprise ending, just as the real event was a surprise to me. Not much more to say except that this is much the same as a surprise twist at the end of a novel or short story.


But what about this?



As I came through the automatic door
And found that it was raining
As I paused to deal with that
This shabby man caught me.
“Do you want to see
The future? It’s amazing, genuinely squire,
Believe me, every customer is
Satisfied. Only five quid,
I’m ruining myself.”
I handed him the money
Went round the side and looked.
And he was right:
All customers were satisfied.
No argument!
No play of light and dark, no life.
Against the rain I pulled my collar up.


Here, I’d suggest, I’m imagining a bleak vision of the future, of nothingness. The last but one line might seem to be the punchline. But the last one shows me doing what people tend to do, retreating from something unwelcome into daily life and ordinary, comprehensible concerns. At the same time, I’m seeking protection from my clothes against something not stopped by rainproof clothing.


I don’t want to suggest that all good poems end with a final line that’s obviously strong, and there’s another issue about the ending – the conclusion it suggests. Here’s the poem that led to me returning to writing poetry, the first of my new poetic life:



“Said to be haunted”
“Source of strength and madness”
Alone on the night mountain
I wait, curious.

Screeches and groans
Tear the night, only I
Know they’re ravens
Not demons.

Harbour lights, town lights, wandering
Headlights shine and
Are gloved into mist

Pale flame of sunrise
Seascape afire
Ghosts? Then within us

But a trickle of
Welsh blood speaking:
Perhaps in the soil
Out of time, sleeping.


I wrote this poem about a night out on a Welsh mountain said to be holy and haunted. A couple of hours later, the poem still running through my mind, I added an extra verse. The original ended at “Ghosts? Then within us.” Why did I change the ending? Because I was uneasy and increasingly felt it was too neat and promoted a firm conclusion where I was really unsure. So the last verse rejects a rational certainty for doubt.


Happy Easter!







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.








Book Review: Tom McCarthy – “C”

ImageApparently C is a programming language. That may be relevant. Tom McCarthy’s novel starts weirdly well with a doctor hitching a ride on a cart carrying copper wire in order to visit a woman in labour. The father turns out to be much more interested in the copper wire than in his impending offspring. The house is old, rambling and confusing in layout. This could go all sorts of ways, the reader thinks.

The book covers the entire life of the baby about to be born. Young Serge, born in the dying years of the 19th century in southern England, grows up in a strange household. His father is a deaf school headmaster and eccentric inventor fascinated by new means of communication. His mother hardly features at all (why?). His elder sister is a sadistic scientific genius who kills herself for reasons not very clear. Serge suffers from ill-health as a boy, shares his father’s fascination with radio, becomes an observer in a First World War fighting aircraft and is then a prisoner of war, returning to civilian life, experiencing spiritualism and drugs, only to die in Egypt soon after.

The strangeness of the main characters and of the world they’re in (instance the attitudes of the fliers to death and of British intelligence in Egypt to everyone else on the planet) are well conveyed. There are passages of description, especially in the Royal Flying Corps chapters, which are vivid and very well done indeed. But there is a hole in the book. I found until nearly the end that I did not care what happened to Serge. Why? Because he didn’t seem to care at all about what happened to anyone else or if he hmself lived. His sister’s death doesn’t seem to provoke any emotions at all. He was totally indifferent to deaths of fellow-flyers in training and in war. He shot up manned German observation balloons not to try to win the war or out of anger, but because it was fun and fascinating. Narrowly escaping being executed on the last day of the war, he feels cheated and has no thought for his comrade who was about to die and wanted to live. Frankly, he seems to be a bit of a monster.

My unease about the book is that I’m not sure Tom McCarthy realises what a wasteland is in his main character. There are suggestions that the book is a kind of prediction of how humanity was developing, but very few people today are emotionless and disconnected like that. The SS cultivated being above emotions of sympathy or revulsion at the suffering of people they corralled and killed, but even they generally cared about their comrades.

When Serge is angry at a spiritualist fake, and unmasks the deception, it seems strange. Where has that emotion, that anger at deceit, come from? It’s the first emotion he’s displayed. His relations with women seem just as blank-faced and emotionless.

His fever and delirium in his final days are well described. But whether there is any significance in where and how he dies, I just don’t know.


My lines for today are (rather a lot of lines, but it’s an example of the impact being from the whole, and the lines I’d most want to quote are well-separated by others).

O my Luve’s like a red, red rose,
That’s newly sprung in June:
O my Luve’s like the melodie,
That’s sweetly play’d in tune.

As fair art thou, my bonie lass,
So deep in luve am I;
And I will luve thee still, my dear,
Till a’ the seas gang dry.

Till a’ the seas gang dry, my dear,
And the rocks melt wi’ the sun;
And I will luve thee still, my dear,
While the sands o’ life shall run.

And fare-thee-weel, my only Luve!
And fare-thee-weel, a while!
And I will come again, my Luve,
Tho’ ’twere ten thousand mile!

Well, that really shouldn’t be difficult. Still, here’s a clue:



“In theory they were sound on Expectation

Had there been situations to be in.

Unluckily, they were their situation”

CLUE: A Yorkshireman in America?

W.H. AUDEN – “THE QUEST”. Auden was a Yorkshireman who moved to the States.

Wiry and white-fiery and whirlwind swivelled snow

Spins to the widow-making unchilding unfathering deeps

CLUE: Socialising with Jesus?


With beaded bubbles winking at the brim

And purple-stained mouth

CLUE: Suffering from a kind of Thrush?

JOHN KEATS, “ODE TO A NIGHTINGALE” – the poem is about joy and suffering among other things and a Nightingale is a member of the thrush family. The quote is a reference to people in the South of France drinking wine.

The earth of shells and friends is covered in flowers

CLUE: Money is the source of some evil.

OK, I sort of cheated. This is one of mine – so SIMON BANKS (Moneybanks?), “Estuary Shore”.

Far, far around shall those dark clustered trees

Fledge the wild-ridged mountains steep by steep

CLUE: Hyperion to a satyr!

Which is a quote from “Hamlet”, but that’s a red herring. the poet is JOHN KEATS again, “Ode to Psyche”. Keats wrote, but never finished, the epic poem “Hyperion” and he wrote a lot about elements of classical Greek mythology such as Hyperion, satyrs and Psyche.

though now it seems

As if some marvellous empty sea-shell flung

Out of the obscure dark of the rich streams

And not a fountain, were the symbol which

Shadows the inherited glory of the rich

CLUE: Bill Gates?

W.B. YEATS, “Meditations in Time of Civil War”. If I could remember just one short passage of poetry, this would be it. The W is for William (informal form Bill) and Yeats and Gates are variants of the same word, what we now call a gate.

Neither the magical smith nor the carver

Of mythical fish on soft stones will answer a call

CLUE: The first pope?

Cheating again – another of mine slipped in. SIMON BANKS, “Callanish – Winter Solstice”. Allegedly the first pope was Peter (Simon Peter, Simon the Rock).

But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make

Of beaten gold and gold enamelling

CLUE: An Irishman in Istanbul

W.B. YEATS again – “Sailing to Byzantium”. Yeats was Irish and Istanbul used to be Constantinople, the capital of Byzantium.

Cold blows the wind on my true love

And a few small drops of rain

I never knew but one true love

And in greenwood he was slain

CLUE: What about Franz Fanon?

Rhymes with ANON. This is an anonymous late medieval ballad, quite a well-known one.

It came to me on the Nile my passport lied,

Calling me dark who am grey

CLUE: MacUncle?

No, MacNeice. LOUIS MacNEICE – “Beni Hassan”.

I saw Willie Mackintosh burn Auchendoon:

CLUE: Perhaps the most prolific of all poets.

ANON again, obviously – an anonymous 16th century Scottish ballad. It’s an example of a line that needs context to be effective: Willie and the Mackintosh clan are seeking to avenge the murder of the Earl of Moray in Mary, Queen of Scots’ time and in the ballad are repeatedly warned not to raid and burn the house of the man responsible. We know the raiding party will be caught on the way back and nearly wiped out. This is the last line: Willie ignores the warnings and goes to his death.

Remember me to God

And tell him that our politicians swear

They won’t give in till Priussia’s rule’s been trod

Under the heel of England – are you there?

Oh, and the war won’t end for at least two years,

But we’ve got bags of men

CLUE: Mad Jack

Which was the nickname in the First World War of Second Lieutenant Siegfried Sassoon (on the British side despite his first name). So – SIEGFRIED SASSOON, TO ANY DEAD OFFICER”.

Life, like a dome of many-coloured glass

Stains the white radiance of eternity

Until death shatters it to fragments

CLUE: Related to Frankenstein by marriage.

That should have been an easy one – P.B. SHELLEY (whose wife wrote FRANKENSTEIN): “ADONAIS”.

Oh, and one I meant to include but forgot:

She drove in the dark to leeward

She struck not a reef or a rock

But the coombs of a smother of sand. Night drew her

Dead to the Kentish Knock.

CLUE: A manly poem.

GERARD MANLEY HOPKINS again – and again that tremendous long poem, “THE WRECK OF THE DEUTSCHLAND”.

I was just a bit disappointed no-one actually had a go at this as a quiz, even for some of the questions, but this has been fun, so I think I’ll include single mystery quotes in future posts, some at least. That could give me a chance to redress one big imbalance, since all these poets were male. I think this is a historical thing: poetry until the mid-twentieth-century was much more male-dominated than novel-writing, for example. If I was picking out four or five of the best contemporary British poets and following personal taste, Julia Copus and Kim Moore would be in there; but they’re not yet well enough known to have been fair quiz questions. Earlier? Personally I’m not a Sylvia Plath fan, unpopular though that position is, and Emily Dickinson interests rather than excites me, though I need to test that more. I want to go back and look at Christina Rossetti’s stuff more, though.

Come on – have a go!