How (not) to begin a poem

Thoughts from the reading window.  

The first three or four lines of a poem are make-or-break territory.

If you hook the reader firmly at the start, she’ll follow you willingly right through to the very last syllable.

The poem is one long fishing line (usually with line breaks). The reader is a rainbow trout. The poet’s art is to play that fish and reel it in.

Monochrome drawing of a small fish, swimming left to right, with a wide open eye and a slightly perky expression. It is actually J.O. Morgan's fish, from his book 'In Casting Off', the sole illustration in that poem novella.

But the first few lines may well be where the fishing line, at least in its early drafts, fails.

They’re where the poet is still unpacking her kit, getting ready for Real Poem action. They’re where the poet is most likely to include phrases like ‘I remember’ or ‘I think’. Or ‘As I see the dew on the hollyhocks, I…’ Don’t do it!

The old prose writer’s trick is to delete the first paragraph and start with the second, where things are getting interesting.

I find myself suggesting this often for poems too.

Delete the first stanza? Try starting with the second.

Maybe delete the first three lines? Consider starting with line four.

In fact I scribble this so frequently that it may be worth trying with all poems, just to see how far the opening lines, as they stand, matter.

Then there’s the tangled line. By this, I mean a poem that opens with a lengthy sentence, spreading over several breaks, and it’s just difficult. So it’s like getting stuck in the reeds with a distant view of clear water.

Or the poem that hurls in a really odd break at the end of the first or second line. Jumps and challenges are fun, but not too soon.

Or the opening lines set up a metrical pattern. Or they seem to. And then the pattern drops. So it wasn’t a pattern at all. The disappointed fish is off the hook and floundering.

I’m talking in the abstract. Much better to give examples from my creel.

But I don’t have time in this most pressurised month of the year – and besides, the poets wouldn’t like it.

I have more poems to go and read. Many many more. And other fish to fry.


(I may discuss the over-wrought metaphor next week.)

View from Ron King's window in the highlands, showing a wide horizontal vista of mountains, dark pine trees and an amazingly pink sky, with little ruffled cloudlets. Gorgeous.

View from window courtesy Ron King.

On Windows and Fish

The reading window is open. The envelopes are stacking up.

So not much from me this week. Instead I’m reading poems and baking cake. The cake is for the HappenStance Winterfest event at the Scottish Poetry Library on Wednesday. Last night I dreamed I was there and the reading part went all wrong because we had a poet who wanted to read but who wasn’t on the programme and I couldn’t even get him to begin his poem, let alone end it. So there was much panic, the time management at such events being a delicate matter.

But in the end he read something, and Andrew Sclater did some stuff, and Gerry Cambridge did some stuff, and I thanked everybody.

And then I remembered that although I’d brought the cake and the crisps and the juice and the white wine and the red wine and the serviettes and my notes, I had forgotten the books.

So the rows of seats were full of lovely people who had arrived for the books to be launched and there were NO BOOKS. 

A great relief to wake up and go and read some poems. Pencils sharpened at dawn.

Stuff Christmas shopping. I have other fish to fry.

How to get your pamphlet reviewed

 ‘Is it true – what Shelley writes me that poor John Keats died at Rome of the Quarterly Review?’ [Letter from Byron to John Murray, 26 April 1821]

You have a poetry pamphlet in print. So what next? Poets both crave and fear reviews but mainly they needn’t lose sleep. ‘Publishing a volume of verse’, as Don Marquis notably remarked, ‘is like dropping a rose petal into the Grand Canyon and waiting for the echo.’

I think it’s easier to get echoes than it used to be, though not all echoes are as desirable as people think.

Why do people want reviews? 

  • They want a genuine reader response (as opposed to praise from their friends).
  • They believe reviews will help sell the publication (usually they make little or no difference).
  • They want attention.
  • They want to trawl them for useful blurb to go on their next book jacket (or current web page).
  • They think it’s what’s supposed to happen after you publish your writing.  
  • They want to learn. (You can learn from what some reviewers say.)

The number of poetry readers, relatively speaking, is small. The number of poetry pamphlets published every year is big. (I have no definitive statistics but it is a fact that more come to me every year than I can manage to read. At my left elbow is a pile of unread pamphlets, about 25, and 3 more arrived yesterday.)

Maybe an attention-catching review for one of these, shared on social media, would bump that pamphlet to the top of my ‘To Read’ list. It might. So how would you accomplish that?

Frankly, it’s of little use posting your pamphlet to every magazine you can think of in the hope of generating a review. It will just cost loads and you’ll end up feeling bitter. Why was Last Year’s Dead Leaves by M. J. Petticoat featured in a review when yours was ignored?

Magazine and newspaper editors have skyscrapers of books and pamphlets staring at them beseechingly – more than could be reviewed in a month of Sunday blogs. It’s a mug’s game adding your humble publication to that pile.

So what’s to be done about all this? There are really interesting reviews all the time on the web, and some on paper. If one of them is to be yours, what do you need to do?

First, spend a little time finding out how it works. Don’t send your pamphlet to a magazine editor if the magazine doesn’t publish reviews. If the magazine does do reviews, find the correct procedure. If in doubt, email the main editor and ask. Many magazines only review books, not pamphlets. It’s reasonable to suppose you stand a better chance of a review in a magazine where you’ve previously placed poems or contributed as a reviewer yourself.

When did Poetry Review last review a set of pamphlets? When did the Times Literary Supplement last pay attention to pamphlets: it has happened – but when? Have you ever seen a pamphlet reviewed in The Guardian? Does Best Poetry of 2016 (in any publication where such a round-up exists) include reference to any pamphlets?

Let me be more positive. Is your pamphlet listed on Amazon? It may or may not be. It’s certainly possible to get it there. If it’s there, has anyone posted a reader review?

Look at Shelley Day’s The Confession of Stella Moon, published earlier this year. Forty-five customer reviews – so far. More people read novels than poetry, but novelists are much better at courting customer reviews than poets. Look at Fiona Moore’s Night Letter, currently shortlisted for the Michael Marks Award for Pamphlet Poetry. Not one customer review on Amazon.

Fiona Moore’s pamphlet has received review comment, not only in a couple of paper magazines but also here and here and here. More for Moore than many. But please note that this poet writes reviews herself. She blogs at Displacement, where (among other things) she writes about poets she admires. She also regularly reviews elsewhere.

By and large, poets don’t try very hard to get reviews on Amazon. It’s a moot point whether they should. Perhaps they think responses will just pop up. Generally they don’t. You have to solicit attention. If an articulate friend really loved your pamphlet and tells you so in an email, ask them to post a few comments on Amazon (unless you’re ethically opposed to Amazon, in which case consider GoodReads, a site I like very much – although since 2013 it has been owned by … Amazon).

Some webzines accept pamphlet nominations for review – and offer them to their review team. Sabotage Reviews, which reviews pamphlets but not (usually) books follows this procedure. So the issue might be whether someone on the review team would take an interest in your publication. Is your name familiar to them? If you’ve already published poems widely, it might be. Get your name out there!

In my experience, most poets think more about getting their own work reviewed than the role they might play in reviewing other people’s. Pamphlet poets regularly ask about OPOI reviews at Sphinx Review. It is rare indeed for one of them to send an OPOI response to a pamphlet recently enjoyed.

Ink, Sweat and Tears has ‘no resident reviewers’ but accepts ‘unsolicited reviews for poetry and short story collections.’ The guideline word count for a pamphlet is 500 words. So here a reviewer would have to offer the review. The editor doesn’t organise it. You can’t review your own book (though sometimes I wonder why not).

There are blogger reviewers: Matthew Stewart at Rogue Strands.  Tim Love’s LitRefs. Dave Coates at Dave Poems. Emma Lee at Emma Lee’s Blog. John Field at Poor Rude Lines. There are lots more… You could be one of them. You can set up your own blog, or you can go to GoodReads and simply select a book and write about it.

Tim Love did a fascinating analysis of what happened to his pamphlet, Moving Parts, with the reviewers. Tim has been around for a long time in little magazines as a poet, reviewer, letter-writer; on the web as a poet, short-story writer, reviewer and blogger; in real life as an organiser and contributor to poetry groups and events. It helps.


How to launch a poetry book

There are many ways. 

I like the way the word ‘launch’ suggests champagne and an ocean liner. And recently I did attend a poetry reading in the sea. It was almost certainly the first ever event of its kind and it was during Poetry in Aldeburgh in early November.

Four swimmers entering the water, three in swimsuits, one in a bikini. The photo captures them from behind.Four swimmers posed for photo out of the water. They are glowing with health. I am not sure of all the names but all are laughing and they certainly include Bryony Bax and Fiona Moore -- I think one of the other two is Lisa Kelly.

Poets are tough people. They can do almost anything. Including taking off their clothes and immersing themselves in bitterly cold sea water while declaiming verse. The four fearless poets involved in this reading were each other’s audience because the spectators (I was one of these) were too far away to hear the words – and comfortably dry.

Poetry in the Sea was an unforgettable and stunningly beautiful event. But it wouldn’t do for a launch, despite the possibility of boats, because the books would get wet. And at a launch, there are books.

However, there was also a dry HappenStance launch at Aldeburgh, when we booked a beautiful room (with a sea view and amazing stripes wallpaper) in the Brudenell Hotel to launch Charlotte Gann’s Noir. It’s a dark and shadowy book, elliptical in its suggestion and grace – but there was much laughter on the day, as you can see from the photograph, and many HappenStance subscribers and poets came along.

Helena Nelson and Charlotte Gann. Helena is holding up a copy of the book and laughing at some joke evidently just made by Charlotte, who is pictured (shoulder length blonde hair) from the back and in half profile. Behind them is wallpaper in thick vertical stripes of bright red, white and gold.

But what are the essential ingredients for launching books?

Well, you do need an audience. There must be books to sell (this sounds simple but printers go bust every year). There needs to be a signing table. There needs to be an author to read (even this can go wrong and I have known launches where the author was elsewhere). The poet/reader needs to perform well and not for too long. Someone needs to make a little speech, introducing the poet and probably proposing a toast. You need glasses, or at least paper cups, and something with which to toast the success of the publication – anything from purest tap water to champagne.

You need something to put the money in. You need change. You need paper to note down sales etc. You need pens for signing the books. You need a clear head. You need a budget.

Because all this almost certainly costs a bob or two. You may or may not have to hire a room (you could use a free back room in a local pub; you could use your back garden; you could assemble in a park). But there is a cost factor.

If you’re selling the books yourself, you may pull in enough cash from the event to cover the cost. But the launch could be at a festival – like Paul Stephenson’s first reading from The Days That Followed Paris – which was also at Poetry in Aldeburgh. At a public event of this kind, you don’t have to fork out for the venue (and if you’re lucky you may even receive a performer’s fee), but the official bookseller will handle sales.

You can have more than one launch, of course, and bigger publishers do organise these for popular titles at bookshops across the nation. But most poetry titles have just one, and occasionally two.

It all sounds a bit scary if you’re a new poet and contemplating organising such a thing – because often it is the poet who organises the launch – not the wonderful publisher, who is already working on the next three titles and anyway is on holiday in the Seychelles.

I have known poets who got a friend to do the organisation: an unofficial publicity person or secret agent. That works well, and the friend can also do the introductory speech. It’s also often a good idea to launch with at least one other writer: more variety during the reading and someone else to bolster the confidence and share costs.

But there are many models and ways of doing it. The most important single thing is that the audience – and the poet herself, if possible – has fun. It’s a sort of party: a birthday party for the book and a well-wishing. So once you think of this, nothing else matters but a spirit of celebration. 

Last weekend I was in Taunton for Annie Fisher’s launch of Infinite in All Perfections. If you give a collection a title like this, you’re asking for trouble. However, it was a fabulous launch with a style of its own. 

It was an afternoon launch with glasses of Prosecco, Victorian china, floral decoration on all the tea tables, acres of glorious cake and tea. It was a launch in a terrific hall with microphones and comfy seating. There was a band playing before and after the poetry. It was a launch at which the poet not only read but sang. Such a voice! Such a lyric performance! 

Annie Fisher reading with microphone to an audience in a large hall, comfy seats in a big semi circle and light from big overhead windows. Behind her, along the white wall a striking exhibition of photographs.An array of cake: Victoria sponge, Walnut gateau, Lemon Drizzle, Coffee Cake, Something chocolatey etc, all carefully sliced and ready to serve.Close up of Annie reading or singing. She is wearing glasses and has shoulder length grey/blonde hair and a dark dress. She looks pretty happy and focussed.A long table with white cloth lined with copies of the pamphlet. At one end, Annie is bent over the table organising something.

If a publication would make a suitable Christmas gift (this is certainly true of Annie’s pamphlet), it’s no bad idea to launch in November or December, so timing’s worth consideration.

I’ve always wanted to do a launch at which copies of the publication were given away free to everyone who came. I’ve never done it but I love the idea; and it could be possible, if it were a launch with a paid entry. Or if the poet (or publisher) was singularly well-heeled. 

What’s the purpose of a launch again? It’s to celebrate the arrival of a new piece of making, to send it out into the world, and to find it some good readers. It’s only the beginning, but a good beginning helps. 

(One thing to bear in mind: the launch of your first publication is the easiest. Launching subsequent books is much harder. By now, your family and friends have got used to the idea you do this kind of thing. So you may need to think hard about how to do it in a different way with different attractions. A magician. Games. A celebrity guest. Rabbits.)

Close up of iced carrot cake, decorated with walnuts and sliced ready to serve. About twenty slices, I'd say. It was delicious.

Poetics and Drinking Parties

I love the word symposium. I don’t know why.

I think it’s because you can hear ‘posy’ in it. And because ‘symp’ starts sympathy and sympathise. And because I think the plural is ‘symposia’, a word I’d quite like to get into a rhyming poem, maybe with a nip or two of ‘ambrosia’.

Obviously it’s a bit of an upmarket, somewhat academic word too. I took part in the Scottish Women’s Poetry Symposium 2016 yesterday at the Scottish Poetry Library, run in collaboration with the University of Edinburgh. It was open, of course, to all genders and to many ideas and provocations. A fabulous event, wonderfully well organised in a building like no other, and free to all.

A symposium, to the Greeks at least, was a party, with stimulating flow of drink, food and ideas. We tend to use it these days to mean something more like a conference, with speakers and panels – a formal event. I’m glad to report the SWPS day combined the best of both, with food and drink that was a feast to the eye as well as the appetite. And a most convivial and welcoming atmosphere.

The word ‘poetics’ was in the air. It is, to me, an academic word, and poets who do degrees in writing use it cheerfully, whereas ordinary folk look a bit worried when the term pops up. (We create both divisions and alliances by our use of language.) But at the Scottish Poetry Library yesterday at no point did you have to feel dim for not grasping an academically technical term (though there were a good few – I have them in my notebook). Of course, it helps if you like language and find it interesting, which most people working with, in or around poetry do.

I was talking briefly on a small panel about my poetics. So I had to think again about what ‘poetics’ meant. It’s one of those plural words that’s really singular. That is to say, there isn’t a noun ‘poetic’. ‘Poetic’ is an adjective. But there is a noun ‘poetics’ and it takes a singular verb. So your poetics is probably different from mine.

I suppose Poetics must have a plural. Because if you and I get together and discuss both of our poetics, two sets of poetics are on the table: two poetics? or two poeticses? (I must not think like this. Red herring alert.)

Poetics usually means either a theory of poetry, of which there are many, or a way of working in poetry, exemplified by practice. So my ‘poetics’ is exemplified by what I do as an editor, publisher and selector of poetry. That is to say, I have preferences and they’re demonstrated publicly in the books I choose to bring out. I promote the work I like and find stimulating. What I like and what I can like turns into my poetics.

We talked about gate-keepers yesterday too, a more accessible term. Publishers, magazine editors and event organisers have something to do with what gets read or heard: they can open or close a gate to publication. My HappenStance gate is quite small. But these days there are many gates. It’s not so very hard to find one that will open, or even to make your own and invite people through it, especially if your gate opens without public funding.

It’s an exciting time for poetry. Confusing, bamboozling and bewildering too. Impossible to keep up with what’s going on amidst the glory of types and forms and outlets for poems. But there’s no need to keep up. Keeping on, is the thing. Keeping on, and making connections, and joyfully exploring the mystery and magic of language. Sharing. Yesterday’s event was very much about that. Both ideas and poems were shared. Some wonderful things were shared: new names, new ways to go, new things to like.

I ended my own party piece yesterday with my favourite definition of poetry, which is Tom Leonard’s, from his poem ‘100 differences between poetry and prose’ which doesn’t contain a hundred differences at all. But this is the one I like – yep, here’s a bit of poetics for you:

‘if you dribble past five defenders, it isn’t called sheer prose’


Colour photograph of a path through November woods in sunlight. The path is thickly covered in brown leaves, but the trees are golden with sunlight and also a fully yellow beech just about to drop its leaves.



The smell of the poem

These days there’s a lot of interest in what poems look like.

Issue 57 of Magma was titled The Shape of the Poem and the submission invitation began: ‘Poetry is a shaping of words and that shape can often be seen on the page’. It made reference to the visual cue of lines that turn before they reach the edge of the page: an early indicator that text is poem not prose.

Generally readers expect poems to look like poems. They expect more space round them than around prose. They expect a lot of other things too, many of which are conditioned expectations, operating subliminally – such as rhyme, an aural cue.

If you want to know a reader’s subconscious expectations of poetry, give them a poem that satisfies none of them. Give them a one-word poem. Give them an absence in the middle of a square. Give them a poem in which every line is struck-through or blotted out. Give them a poem they can’t hear. Give them a poem they can’t see.

Poetry – whatever it may be – works by acknowledging, and then – to various extents – both satisfying and disrupting expectation. If it doesn’t satisfy, you won’t like it much. If has no element of surprise, you won’t rate it.

Robert Pinsky says of poetry: ‘It’s voice. It’s a vocal art.’ Well, it can be, although it usually requires more than one sensual response eg. seeing and hearing.Photograph of my mainly drunk mug of tea with a pair of glasses balanced across the top. The mug is white and decorated with examples of different typefaces. You can see TYP and held of the E in bold print at the top.

But try watching Cochlear Implant, by the extraordinary British Sign Language poet Richard Carter, and see what you think. That’s if you can see him. Is vision the only way for British Sign Language to be accessible?  There might be another way, through touch. Helen Keller could read speech by touching people’s lips with her hands.

We operate through our senses. We make communication in whatever way we can. We call some of those communications – especially those unusually important to us – ‘poetry’. Like water through porous rock, poetry finds ways to reach people.

But what if we think poetry is a visual art, and then lose sight? What if we believe the shape on the page (or the page itself) is essential? What if we believe the poem must be heard?

We are an exceptionally creative species. We find ways. Some of them are technological.

I’ve been fascinated in recent months by Giles Turnbull’s blog. Giles is a poet who can’t see – though he wasn’t born without sight, which means he has his own expectations regarding shape and form. He has acquired a pair of magic glasses, which do the most extraordinary things. His blog about the Orcam glasses is here. And his story is ongoing – do follow that blog.

Giles can’t, I think, respond to Richard Carter making poems in BSL. Richard can respond to Giles because deaf poets can read, though English may not be their first language, so there could be a language barrier. Barriers are not terrible obstructions: they’re creative opportunities.

As for poetry of touch, I expect it’s out there. Taste poetry may, arguably, already be with us. And dogs smell stories. If you don’t believe it, look or listen to this little film.


ps I will be at Poetry in Aldeburgh next weekend. Do come if you can. Paul Stephenson will be reading from The Days That Followed Paris, and Charlotte Gann will have a private launch of Noir on the Saturday afternoon at the Brudenell Hotel, to which you’re warmly invited. Email me (nell) at for details or use the message box on the website.

Why Writing a Poem is Like Making Crab Apple Jelly

Each year the apples take longer to ripen than you remembered.

The apples are so lovely on the tree. Why pick them at all? Full colour photo of small red crab apples on the branch. The apples gleam. Between the leaves a brilliantly blue sky.

Some people like their jelly very sweet. I add the juice of a lemon

A little dark fruit in the early stages (a few blackberries?) may improve the colour.

The juice must be carefully strained. You can’t crush it or rush it.

When you add sugar and bring to the boil, you need to skim off the froth.

You’re aiming for the perfect set.

There is a ritual for testing the set. (Modern technology is not required.)

Each batch of jelly should have a title, with labels on the jar.

The jars of jelly should be stored in a dark, cool cupboard.

You can enjoy it all yourself, or you can share.

Other people’s jelly is good but rarely as enjoyable as your own.

You are only as good a jelly-maker as your last jelly. 



1. Crab apple blossom can cross-pollinate most other apple trees.
2. The BBC Food recipe works well.


Robert Frost’s ‘Design’ and ‘The Rule of the Shorter Term’

After publishing Charlotte Gann’s book, Noir, I’ve started to think of noir poems as a genre — poems with shadows; poems that set up the dark/light opposition. Poems that expose.

So it struck me yesterday that Robert Frost’s sonnet ‘Design’ was another of them. And it appears I can quote it in full, since it’s listed as a poem that’s in the public domain in the USA in Wikisource. 

But wait – copyright is a strange business. ‘Design’ is in the public domain (free for use) in the USA because it was published before January 1, 1923 and its copyright term was not renewed in its 28th year after publication. That is American law. (If you don’t want to know any more about copyright, skip the next 5 paragraphs.)

But what about in other countries? Robert Frost died in 1963 (53 years ago) and so the work can also be used freely in areas where the legal copyright term is the author’s life plus 50 years or less.

Okay. I am in the UK (though you may not be) where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 70 years. Still, I now learn that some countries have native copyright terms that apply ‘the rule of the shorter term’ to foreign works.

It’s a foreign work. So am I in a country that applies the rule of the shorter term? Apparently ‘the rule of the shorter term’ does, at present, apply to countries in the European Union. Oh but following Brexit, I shan’t be in the EU much longer.

Also, the Wiki Talk page for ‘the rule of the shorter term’ suggests it doesn’t apply even now because of the EU legal caveat that says: “The fact that there is a reference to national execution measures does not necessarily mean that these measures are either comprehensive or in conformity.”

Do I really understand this? No. But I am a publisher. I care about copyright and protection of creative rights, so I’ve decided not to reproduce the poem on this blog for another 17 years, although you can read it here, here or here.

So what was I going to say about that poem? Oh yes. It’s Noir-ness. But also why it’s such a beautiful piece of writing. Have I mentioned how much I love rhyme? And in this fully-rhyming poem there are only three. There’s ‘white’ – the key word that recurs in both octet and sestet (and this sonnet physically divides the two) – which is chiming through lines 1, 4, 5, 8, 9 and 11,  in order to arrive at its true partner at the end of line 12, which is ‘night’. Then there’s ‘moth’, one of the key players; and there’s the ‘heal-all’, the common wild flower. Three rhymes: three characters.

But I’m getting technical and I haven’t mentioned the picture because you have to have in mind what the poet has seen – just an ordinary thing, really – something you might bend and note on a country walk first thing in the morning. (You might want to open the poem itself in a different window.)

The poet has noticed a fat, white, dimpled spider – arresting because we tend to think of spiders as black – although most spiders aren’t. More unusually, this spider is on a common wild flower, the ‘heal-all’ which is usually a purply blue. But this time the flower is white.

The spider catches the poet’s attention, hard to see at first being white on white, and then he sees it’s carrying a dead moth, and the moth is white too. So all the creatures are white – as he gradually ‘sees’ what he’s seeing – ‘like the ingredients of a witches’ broth’ (so this is a Hallowe’en poem too, if ever there was one).

Yet even in the first stanza, what strange oppositions! The three ‘characters of death and blight’ are mixed ‘ready to begin the morning right’. But what morning begins ‘right’ with such an assortment?

This brings the poet to three questions in a row in the sestet of the poem, and the tone changes from macabre fascination to a desperate plea: ‘What had that flower to do with being white, / The wayside blue and innocent heal-all?’ It’s a Shakespearean switch, like sonnet 138 when the speaker suddenly reaches desperately for some kind of understanding: “But wherefore says she not she is unjust? / And wherefore say not I that I am old?’

But Shakespeare works towards a cynical resolution whereas Frost goes for more questions: ‘What brought the kindred spider to that height, / Then steered the white moth thither in the night?’ (I love the word ‘thither’.) This bit reminds me of Blake’s noir poem, ‘The Sick Rose’, with the ‘invisible worm, /That flies in the night’, and surely Blake, too, whatever the wider meaning of that piece, had been shocked more than once by looking into the heart of a garden rose and seeing maggots.

But Frost is a crafty makar; and all poems are in some way or other about themselves. They are designed. So in the last question – which is also an answer: ‘What but design of darkness to appall?’ – he stacks up the weight of evil with the D alliteration but also brings in ‘appall’, which comes from the Latin ‘pallescere’, to grow pale. And this also contains ‘pall’, the cloth thrown over a coffin or casket and usually, these days, white. (Remember Wilfrid Owen’s ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’ – ‘The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall’?)

What a phrase – ‘design of darkness to appall’ – what a cracking phrase! And then how masterfully Frost brings the sonnet back to reality, back to an afterthought, back to the innocent heal-all – ‘If design govern in a thing so small’. If there’s God, if there’s a creator, if there’s a purpose behind that sight of spider and moth (which is, in fact, neither good nor bad, only as it strikes the viewer). This is just a fourteen-line poem but the design is extraordinary.

‘We hate poetry that has a palpable design upon us and, if we do not agree, puts its hand into its breeches pocket,’ wrote John Keats to John Hamilton Reynolds in 1818, and quite right too. But Frost’s design in ‘Design’ is not palpable. It’s subtle and beautiful, discoverable by close attention. The smallest line in the poem shrinks back to the word ‘small’. It’s a fabulous piece of making, and in its own beauty offers a counter-balance to death, blight and the indisputable fact that the common heal-all, white or blue, doesn’t – and can’t – heal all.

Photograph of common heal-all (blue) 

Photo by Ivar Leidus, (Iifar), 
Creative Commons Licensed.


Why Arvon Works

There is a recipe, and it works.

I’m just back from an Arvon week at the Hurst, in Shropshire—a week of practising poets, with Cliff Yates and me as tutors.

In my younger days of writing, Arvon existed and it was remote to me and something other people did, and those Other People were all (so far as I was concerned) rich, effete and almost certainly spoilt (I had no idea there were bursaries). My deeply left-wing side, the side that reacted with embarrassment to my parents running a private primary school (in which I was a pupil), was hopelessly biased against Arvon.

Poetry skill you could buy? No chance. I was in favour of garrets for poets.

And then, in the unfair way life sometimes returns rejected gifts to the refuser, I was invited to tutor on an Arvon Course.

Really, like Ben Zephaniah refusing an OBE, I should have declined. No hesitation. But I was too curious about what I’d been missing and, besides, my co-tutor was to be Michael Laskey. I would have gone to the ends of the earth to do a course with Laskey. If Michael was there, I knew I would learn. I love to learn. Almost more than anything, I love to learn.

So I accepted gratefully – and learn I did. And afterwards, and ever since, find it hard to believe I have had the privilege and honour and pleasure and delight of tutoring on one of these courses.

Last week’s Arvon was my fourth as tutor, and I have also done one as a paying tutor-student (it was an Arvon course for tutors to learn more about tutoring). Each time, part of me thinks it won’t (can’t) work again. But it does. It really does.

If you’ve done one yourself, you’ll know all this. But you might not have done. You might be me twenty, thirty, forty years ago. So here’s an Arvon day for you, just so you get a bit of an insight. You can even do the exercises if you like. If they don’t work, it doesn’t matter. They’re all bridges and footpaths designed to take you somewhere, but it’s the journey that counts. Destinations are over-rated.

First there’s the space. You’re in a building of light and shade and space and echoes. It will be an old building with history on the walls and photos of writers you’ve heard of, and books spilling off bookcases. You’ll hear voices in the corridors and they’ll be either whispering, or shouting and laughing.

Outside there will be a glorious landscape. You may find it breath-taking and have to go inside again and lie down.

There will be a place to lie down. At any time of day or night you can return to your own sleeping and writing space – a room – maybe small or maybe large – with a bed, and a desk, and a chair, and a place to put your clothes. You won’t be able to plug into the net and read this blog because you won’t have access to the net. You will have full access to books, paper and thinking space.

You can be a private person at Arvon or a public person. It suits introverts and extroverts. You can have breakfast with everybody or you can, like me, carry it away to your room.

But let’s get back to the day. You get up and the weather will either be gorgeous or terrible. It won’t matter. You’ll look through the window and the weather will feel right.

You’ll go to the kitchen and find your breakfast in the cupboard or fridge – you can cook bacon if you want, or eggs. Or have toast or cereal or the any of the other things people have in the morning. There will be masses of fruit. In Arvon kitchens, as food is consumed, more magically appears.

At a certain time – probably about half past nine – you’ll take yourself and your notebook, or whatever you like to write on, to the writing room. This will be a big room with a big table around which the writing people will sit, and there will be a place for you – anywhere you like, unless you arrive last and get the last space.

You might feel a little bit close to the other writing people. You might think, ‘I can’t write, not like this, with all these people around me’.

And there will be a tutor who is leading this workshop, or spaceship, or think-stop, or shipshape, and that’s a relief because it means there’s a structure and someone in charge whom you can trust, and they’ll tell you what to do (and that you don’t have to do it).

The tutor might start with some free writing to get you going.

And as the tutor starts to explain what’s happening the writers feel a tiny thrill of expectation and nerves like the start of a race. The tutor may say how great it is that you’re all there and then something about a warm-up so ‘here’s a line to run with’. And there’ll be a given line. O the given line!

Which might be ‘I knew I had to do it before it was too late so …’

You take the line, you write it down and you keep going until the tutor tells you to stop. You don’t take your pen off the paper you just keep going whatever nonsense is spilling out and if you find yourself drying up and running out of words you just keep writing the same thing the same thing the same nonsense the same thing until you get going again you can rant if you want to about how effing ridiculous it is to keep writing the same thing over and over and eventually just when you think your arm is about to drop up because writing continuously without lifting the pen from the paper is INCREDIBLY tiring the voice of the tutor will break in and say, ‘You can stop now’.

All the writers will look up in relief and smile and relax, and there will be creakings of chairs and also an expectancy because what is going to happen NEXT? There’s no knowing what will happen next. So MUCH could happen next. Almost anything could happen next.

But it might be that the tutor – because this could be day one – would ask you to look back at what you’d been writing (provided you could read your own handwriting) and find a word of phrase you liked – and take that word or phrase out and write it again separately from the rest. And he might ask some people whether they would share that word or phrase and some people – maybe even all the people – would want to throw their word or phrase into the room, and the tutor might say ‘If you like any of these, you can have them for later.’

Then the tutor might talk about ‘sticky’ words or phrases – how sometimes the mention of just one thing could call a whole world of associations into one’s head, things that are stuck to that phrase. And he might start passing round a poem called ’21 Things My Father Never Told Me’ by somebody famous or not, and once your copy had arrived he would read it out. Or it might be a dialogue poem: things someone used to say and what you used to say back, like Michael Rosen’s They said, I say. And then he might say to think of someone, close to you – could be your dad or mum, if you had one, could be your friend, your uncle, your teacher – and try something similar – X things Patsy Cline Never Told Me. Or Mum says, I say. And there might be rules this time. Like that you had to break the line before you reach the right hand edge of the paper (so it looks like most poems), and that you had to number the things. And you had 5 minutes starting NOW.

And before you know it everybody is writing so you’d better get writing so you start writing the things you would have liked your ex to have told you but she never did. Or you start writing the awful things your mum DID tell you. Or you start thinking about your nan and the things you never told her that you wish you had … and you start to write them down. And everybody around you is writing like at school, which could put you off, but actually weirdly it doesn’t put you off because this is easy, isn’t it? You get to thing number three and then you remember the accident, and you think you should have written the things Steph said to you before that accident so you ditch the first poem and start another, and you’re up to about 11 of Steph (but there’s more) and the tutor bangs on a huge cymbal (I made that up, it’s not true) and says ‘Stop Now.’ Or maybe ‘Get to the end of the point you’re on, and then stop’.

And people sit back and look round, with slight astonishment that the room’s still there, a bit of sheepish grinning, and already that tutor is on her feet and asking for some suggestions – she wants some abstract nouns please like ‘love’ and despair’, and she’s writing them down on a flipchart down the left hand side of the sheet. People are calling out. Anxiety! Hope!  Panic!  Patience!  Consternation!  Terror!  Doubt!  Grief!  Anticipation!  Logic! Blindness! Mathematics! Art!

Stop! There’s no more room. Now concrete nouns – she wants concrete nouns like table and chair – and an indefinite article, an ‘a’. Someone calls out A carrot! A pair of specs! An octopus! A necklace! A fifty pence piece! A condom! A shopping list! A recipe! A book! A pace-maker! A handbag! A teapot! A tealeaf! A panda!

Stop! There’s no more room. So here’s the task. Choose one of the abstract nouns from the left hand column – any of them, and one of the concrete ones from the right hand column. Fit your words into the following title:

  • Three Ways in which Grief is like a Shopping List.
  • Three ways in which X is like a Y.
  • Three Ways in which Logic is like a Teapot.

Choose your words. Write the poem. Three stanzas (obviously) for the three ways. You’ve got three minutes.

Quick, quick, what will you have which will you choose some people are already writing and two of them are chuckling quietly and the tutor’s saying it doesn’t matter what you choose because everything is like everything else just try it and you see.

So you do, and it’s sort of true and sort of not. But interesting. It’s interesting. She said three minutes but really she says STOP after at least five because the writers are writing. The writers are writing and that is the point.

Now the tutor’s asking you to write down something you read recently – it must be in the last week – or you could write down two or three things if you read a lot. You need the name of the author, that’s very important, the title of the book/poem/newspaper is less important. So everybody has a think and does that.

‘Now I want you to write down where you were when you were reading that book,’ he says. ‘If you read the book in several places, write down one place that you can see yourself reading that book in. And write down what that place was like, what you were sitting on, and what was going on round you.’ 

People start to scribble, and some of them look up and think, and try to remember, and tap their pens, and then start to scribble again. After a minute or so the tutor passes round a poem by Charles Wright called ‘After Reading Tu Fu I go outside to the Dwarf Orchard’. The writers settle comfortably into their seats as the rustling sheets go round, one for each person, and then the tutor reads the poem out loud. The poem is beautiful and sad and it calls quietness into the room. The space at the end of the poem opens right up and out and stretches up to the ceiling. You can hear people exhale. ‘Could somebody else read it, now?’ says the tutor. ‘It would be good to hear it in another voice.’ Immediately one of the female writers offers (not you) and you hear the poem a second time and this time it’s different. How interesting.

A little discussion emerges – people saying which are their favourite lines, and you hear yourself saying how your favourite line is ‘How deeper than elsewhere is the dusk in your own yard’. Mysteriously, round this table, people are able to say things without interrupting each other. One person says something and other people listen. And then another says something and people listen. And there’s a bit of discussion about the title too – the significance of reading inside and then going outside. But before you know it, the tutor interrupts.

‘I want you,’ he says, ‘to think back to where you were when you were reading the author you wrote down earlier’. You look back to your notes and what have you got? Oh yes, it was that new book by Charlotte Gann, Noir, and the weird poem about Mrs Coulter’s Scissors – what was THAT about? And you were reading it on the train on the way to your interview in Chester, so you were a bit nervous, which didn’t help the poem. Or maybe it did.

‘Here’s your next task,’ the tutor’s saying. Your title is ‘After Reading [substitute the name of the author that you wrote down earlier] I go outside to [substitute real place you know well]. And here are some rules: 

  1. You must write in the present tense.
  2. You must go outside in the poem.
  3. You must have a season in the first line and no verb (like Wright’s poem)
  4. The poem must include one line that is a question with a question mark at the end.
  5. Your lines must not be longer than 11 words max.
  6. Poem should have three stanzas.
  7. You can break any of these rules.

Right: you’ve got ten minutes.

Somebody looks a little confused and says ‘Do all the lines have to be 11 words long?’ and the tutor says no, they can be any length you like so long as they aren’t LONGER than eleven words long, and already people have started writing and one of them is you.

Some time later the tutor’s voice permeates your consciousness saying you’ve got another minute, so you start to tidy up the poem, although you haven’t finished, not really. Other people are bound to be better at this than you but by this stage that doesn’t matter much because it really was interesting how you remembered about that tree in the corner of the station and the shape in the bark that caught your attention because it was really like a pair of scissors.

And the tutor’s talking about ‘read back’. Read back? Help! Are you going to have to read something out loud? She’s saying to look over all the things you’ve written that morning to see whether there’s anything you’d like to share. It could be a whole poem. It could be just the title. It could be a few lines out of something but not the whole thing. Take a few minutes, have a look, see whether you want to tidy anything up or not. So you do, and you’re not sure about this, not sure at all, though you know what you think is the best bit of what you wrote this morning, the other things were bollocks.

And the tutor’s looking around the room expectantly – and somebody chirps up – ‘I’d like to read my Three Ways in which Death is like a Teapot’ – and the tutor looks round at the flip chair and says, ‘But death wasn’t on the list’ and the writer says ‘I know’, and then she starts to read, and her poem is really funny, and one person in the room has the most infectious laugh in the world, so you’re all falling about with laughter. Then somebody else reads some things their mum never told them, and it’s really sad. And so on, until everybody has read back something, and for some the ‘something’ is long and for others the ‘something’ is just three opening lines.

And it’s time for the teabreak. It’s eleven o-clock and you can’t believe it, it’s eleven o’clock and you spill out of the writing room and into the kitchen and there’s tea and coffee and juice and so on, and a plate of freshly-baked cake (you are RAVENOUS), and some thin slices of sweet potato spiced with smoked paprika, and the sun has come out and some people are in the garden talking, and one person has wandered off on his own to the apple tree, and others have stayed in the kitchen chatting. The plate with the cake on has turned into a plate of crumbs.




I was going to give you a whole day, but I can’t. This is already too long and I’ve only got you as far as half past eleven. But just briefly, there will be another session, not unlike the one I’ve just covered, before lunch. The lunch will be self-service and it will be delicious – the smell of soup will be filling the house during the whole of the last writing exercise. And after lunch, some people will have ‘tutorials’ with the tutors and bring some of the things they wrote in the morning and talk about them, and others will go for a walk, or disappear into their rooms to write or sleep. Four people will have signed up to cook that evening (the writers take it in turn, one evening each) and they will find all the ingredients and magic instructions and have a helper to guide them through. Everybody else will arrive at seven and devour the dinner in the lovely dining room (all the dining rooms are lovely). Some wine/beer will be around as well as lots of water. And after the dinner and the washing up, there’ll be another session from 8.30-9.30 when something will happen – maybe a reading from a guest poet – maybe something from the writers themselves.

And then some people will go to sleep, or go to their rooms and write, or a little group will go out for a walk in the dark and look at the stars. 

And the next day it will all happen again.

At the end of the week, you have a notebook book full of scribbling. So MUCH. So many starts and middles. You will have laughed till you cried. You may have cried till you laughed.

You will keep in touch with at least two people for a long time after the course, maybe even forever.

There is a recipe, and it works. The writers are the ingredients and they are different every time. They bring their pens and their lives.

This is the longest blog entry I have ever written because blogs should be short. It is far too long.

I want you to notice in particular that I haven’t used the word ‘amazing’, except now I have. 

And here is a film about Arvon, which is also true.


Photograph of the writing table at The Hurst in Shropshire. You see a huge round polished table that takes up nearly the whole room, which is a room with a big window opposite you with what look like trees outside -- a big window with lots os small white panes. And the ceiling in the room is high, with white lights suspended high up. Around the table 17 or 18 beautiful wooden chairs with high backs. There are no people in the picture. The table is waiting for them.







What you need to know about Po

I don’t mean Li Po, though I might well have done. 

No – it’s what I was thinking on the train on the way back from the Poetry Book Fair at the Conway Hall in London last Saturday. Free Verse, as it is also called. And it was free – and much given away and many things purchased. A day with a buzz. An event that more and more feels a necessary part of the business. So many lovely people turn up and chat. Some marvellous connections, snatched cups of tea in the park, postcards, events, principles, values.

On the way home, on a very long and slow Sunday train between London and Fife, I read right through the Poetry Almanac 2016, a book of about 250 pages generated for the book fair by its organisers. I should probably say it’s ‘curated’ by them, although that word makes me think of cured bacon, which is the wrong connotation. This nice fat yellow book is precisely what it claims to be: ‘a Most Excellent Guide to the Year’s Poetry & Poetry Publishers’. 

I remember poring over the Writers and Artists Yearbook, or more precisely, poring over the poetry bits of years and years of yearbooks. Same with The Writer’s Handbook: I got it for the poetry section and all the rest came along as well. But this Almanac volume is ALL poetry and so – for a poetry obsessive – just the ticket. I like the essays at the front (not just because one of them is a chapter from my own book) especially John Clegg of the LRB bookshop ‘On Selling Poetry’, a subject I am somewhat obsessed with).

I read right the way through pages 154-245, which is the publisher listings, the pages where publishers say whatever they say about themselves. An amazing range of poetry publishers. In fact, quite extraordinary.

I remember when the editors of Poetry Almanac returned my HappenStance section to me for checking. I was appalled by what I had written and cut it right back, and I’m glad I did. But it’s so hard to write about what you do and why you do it, what you publish and what you look for – when it comes to poetry, of all written forms the most impossible to define. If I could define what I was looking for, then people would send that thing to me – and that would be terrible. If I could define it in advance, how could it surprise me? 

The unexciting phrase ‘new and exciting’ does get into these publisher entries quite a lot, and those who have read my new book Down With Poetry! will know how I feel about that, even though I understand how and why it gets where it gets. But this really doesn’t matter. To anyone interested either in getting work published or in publishing the work, this is THE handbook of the year. It has poems in it too – an added extra. The poems, in style and form and reader pay-off, do not vary as much as the publishers might think they do, I think. But that’s a topic for discussion another day.

Anyway, I’m going to quote two bits from the Almanac that I specially like. One is from zimZalla:

zimZalla publishes poetry objects, with recent releases including badges, poems in styrofoam with free chips and sauce and a pair of poetic garters.

The other is from Tony Frazer at Shearsman:

What I do not like at all is sloppy writing of any kind; I always look for some rigour in the work, although we will be more forgiving of failure in this regard if the writer is trying to push out the boundaries. I tend to like mixing work from both ends of the spectrum in the magazine, and firmly believe that good writing can, and should, cohabit with other forms of good writing, regardless of the aesthetic that drives it, and regardless of whether the practitioners are happy about such cohabitation.

Would you like a copy of the Almanac? Want to know what is going on in the poetry scene — who is doing what, where, why, and what they have to say about it? I think clicking on the book image below should take you to the purchasing page. 

Jacket of the Almanac, which is cream in colour with a background of stars - with mapping of constellations -- but that is quite faint. You don't see it at first glance. To third in purple caps is POETRY ALMANAC 2016, centred. You also see a purple spine to the left with the same words in cream on purple background.