So this is what I do during the reading window in July.

The envelopes arrive (about 35 so far). I open them, number them and log them. I take note of whether the person has sent me poems before and whether they’re HappenStance subscribers. I read the covering letters. I put them in my yellow box, which is in the conservatory downstairs, well away from this computer screen and its interruptions.

It’s nice in the conservatory at the back of the house because you see the thick green of the trees and the Russian vine over the fence, and the main interruption is birdsong.

Each day I read at least a couple of the submissions, if I can, and return them. I read with a pencil in my hand, and write on the pages. I write some notes in my green book on what I thought of them.

On some people’s poems I write a lot. I feel a little guilty about this because it makes a hell of a mess of the poem. But at least it shows I’ve read it carefully and had a response. Because that’s all I do really – respond to the poems as best I can. Often I find the techniques of a poem interesting, even when I don’t much like it. On the other hand, sometimes I like it but it seems to me the technique isn’t working.

There are poems where my response fails. I don’t write all over everything! But poems are enormously interesting. There’s so much one could say. There’s so much one could wreck. How on earth to get the balance right between a constructively critical response and encouragement?

In the end, I just do what I do.

I thought I’d illustrate this week by sharing a poem with my scribblings. But I can’t share one from my submissions box. I’d have to ask the author first. And in any case, it might be a poem they’d later publish somewhere. So I picked one at random, by a poet totally unfamiliar to me, in a somewhat uninspiring anthology titled Poetry of the Thirties – in which only three poems are by a female author, all three by Anne Ridler). The poem I chose is not by Anne Ridler.

Here’s it is with my mark-up. At least it will be if I can get the scanner to behave. Not sure how legible it is…


And now for the after-thoughts.

When you read a person’s poem – a person you don’t know at all – you have no idea what underpins it. You know nothing about the life out of which it’s grown. And this was true for me with the poem above.

The author was Philip O’Connor. That name may mean something to some of you. It it dropped into an empty white space for me. But now I’ve read something about him. What an astonishing person! As mad as birds, as his drinking companion Dylan Thomas might have put it. But what an extraordinary life! And other poems by him in the book are more interesting – each completely different from the next. I don’t know that I like them exactly, but I am fascinated by them. More, please.

In ‘Blue Bugs in Liquid Silk’ (yes, he is a surrealist, or started that way) he writes “and a purple sound purrs in basket-house / putting rubies on with red arms”. And ‘Useful Letter’ (great title) begins:

You mustn’t take in more idealism than you can usefully

And ends:

All in all, my fiend to whom I send this letter,
I think there is room for everything and that everything has a place,
You must not take on (be impregnated with)
more ideals than you can profitably digest. Nosir.

And ‘fiend’ is not a typing error. Blimey – and people these days think they’re being zany and innovative! He has a whole series called just ‘Poems’ (see my useless comment in the scanned page). They start at number 5. Here’s just one of them, number 6 (the right-hand margin should be justified but I can’t make that happen here:

Captain Busted Busby frowned hard at a passing ceiling and
     fixed his eye upon a pair of stationary taxis. Suddenly
     he went up to one of them and addressed himself
     to the driver. He discharged his socks and continued
     whistling. The taxi saluted but he put up with it, and
     puckered a resigned mouth and knitted a pair of
     thoughtful eyebrows.

Dear Philip,

You have a way of your own. I don’t always understand your poems but I find them more than ordinarily interesting. Do send more in the next reading window (no promises – see notes to poets enclosed). I thoroughly enjoyed reading you.

Yours sincerely

Helena Nelson




  1. Where does “Poems” start at no.5? In the Penguin Book of Comic and Curious Verse, a major influence on my early life (I remember finding it on the shelf at home and taking it to junior school at about 8) it begins with no.1 “Captain Busby put his beard in his mouth and sucked it…” and the “Captain Busted Busby” that you quote is no.2. Maybe that was just Penguin being tidy and renumbering. I was most struck by the deadpan of the final section (final and numbered 7 in this book anyway) beginning “she considered the porter with the cap on the side of his head fitfully” and containing:

    Madam he said coldly
    your carrot is in the drawer
    pray come for it or suitable measures will be taken to enforce
    the union of yourself and the personality
    who broke the even tenour of your ways

  2. Now I see the other numbering is in the Poetry of the Thirties – which I did as a set book for A level, but was generally distracted by Auden and MacNeice. thank you for bringing O’Connor back to my attention.

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