How have I missed Louis MacNeice on minor poets until now?

Thank you Michael Longley for including his ‘Elegy for Minor Poets’ in your Selected. There’s a lot to be said for selections, especially where a poet has been so prolific you can’t see the woods for the poems.

Also I relate – many of us do – to the idea of the Minor poet. It seems to me to be a worthy ambition to aspire to be a good Minor poet. (Not a bad Minor poet, please. Not a totally Forgotten poet, please.)

Hardly anybody gets to be Major. Still fewer get to be Great. Louis MacNeice is nearly always disadvantageously compared with W H Auden, who was Major. MacNeice was also a friend of Dylan Thomas who was once Minor but has now been moved up to Major.

Minor or not, there are poems by MacNeice that have wormed their way into the hearts of many of my contemporaries. ‘The Sunlight on the Garden’. ‘Snow’.Bagpipe Music’. ‘House on a Cliff’. I have spent years thinking about ‘Snow’, and when it snows, I can’t not think about it. MacNeice isn’t all that Minor to me.

Here are the first two stanzas of his ‘Elegy for Minor Poets’:

Who often found their way to pleasant meadows
Or maybe once to a peak, who saw the Promised Land,
Who took the correct three strides but tripped their hurdles,
Who had some prompter they barely could understand,
Who were too happy or sad, too soon or late,
I would praise these in company with the Great;

For if not in the same way, they fingered the same language
According to their lights. For them as for us
Chance was a coryphaeus who could be either
An angel or an ignis fatuus.
Let us keep our mind open, our fingers crossed;
Some who go dancing through dark bogs are lost.

How beautifully he takes us into the world of the poem. The easy clichés of the pleasant meadows, the peak, the ‘Promised Land’. We know just where we are, we poets. We have seen that land. Then the three strides and the hurdle – back to school – remember missing that hurdle? Or failing in the long jump? And the prompter (in a play, maybe). And then the tripping change of rhythm in ‘too happy or sad, too soon, or late’ – so very simple. And the last line neatly echoing Kipling’s ‘Let us now praise famous men’.

With an elegant little skip, the second stanza is different. Its first sentence runs nimbly over the end of the line into that lovely phrase ‘According to their lights’. No stock imagery here. Fingering language is a complex image. You can pursue it in several directions, just as you can ‘the lights’. And now he’s got me thinking about that phrase ‘according to their lights’, which is what good poems do. I won’t be able to say that again ever, without remembering MacNeice, that good Minor poet. I had to look up ‘coryphaeus’ – it’s the leader of the chorus. MacNeice was a classicist. This stuff came easily to him. But the last two lines are a mantra for poets: ‘Let us keep our mind open, our fingers crossed;  / Some who go dancing through dark bogs are lost.’

Then he expands on the ways of getting lost:

Who were lost in many ways, through comfort, lack of knowledge,
Or between women’s breasts, who thought too little, too much,
Who were the world’s best talkers, in tone and rhythm
Superb, yet as writers lacked a sense of touch,
So either gave up or just went on and on –
Let us salute them now their chance is gone;

And give the benefit of the doubtful summer
To those who worshipped the sky but stayed indoors
Bound to a desk by conscience or by the spirit’s
Hayfever. From those office and study floors
Let the sun clamber on to the notebook, shine,
And fill in what they groped for between each line.

Isn’t ‘the benefit of the doubtful summer’ wonderful? And the ‘spirit’s hayfever’? But his point is clear. It makes no difference: poets can get lost from working too little or too much. Such a terrific and generous couplet: ‘Let the sun clamber on to the notebook, shine, / And fill in what they groped for between each line.’ And yet I don’t think he’s being patronising. He’s in there with the gang. His ‘salute’ is born of true respect. Playfulness, too, but not satire.

You have to admire his clinching couplets, don’t you? Here’s the next stanza:

Who were too carefree or careful, who were too many
Though always few and alone, who went the pace
But ran in circles, who were lamed by fashion,
Who lived in the wrong time or the wrong place,
Who might have caught fire had only a spark occurred,
Who knew all the words but failed to achieve the Word –

And with what irony, that couplet is turned against MacNeice by John Fuller, in Poetry London, in 1951, who (reviewing his Faber collection, Solstices) thought “so few of his poems achieve real poetic inevitability that one is almost tempted to label him from his own ‘Elegy for Minor Poets’ as one who ‘knew all the words but failed to achieve the Word’.” b2ap3_thumbnail_4101MsyscNL.jpg

Still, it seems to me this poem has caught fire. It has certainly caught my attention. So much so that I’m sharing the next stanza too:

Their ghosts are gagged, their books are library flotsam,
Some of their names – not all – we learnt in school
But, life being short, we rarely read their poems,
Mere source-books now to point or except a rule,
While those opinions which rank them high are based
On a wish to be different or on lack of taste.

Isn’t it all still true? The Minor names. We may know them – Richard Church, Edmund Blunden, Alice Meynell, John Drinkwater, Fredegond Shove, William Soutar, Violet Jacob – but, life being short, we rarely read their poems.

And the final lines of ‘Elegy to Minor Poets’ (you have had the whole poem now):

In spite of and because of which, we later
Suitors to their mistress (who, unlike them, stays young)
Do right to hang on the grave of each a trophy
Such as, if solvent, he would himself have hung
Above himself; these debtors preclude our scorn –
Did we not underwrite them when we were born?

More difficult, but interesting. The Muse is the mistress and the poets are the living suitors. The tone and imagery reminds me of another Minor (?) poet, Robert Graves. I like the idea of hanging a trophy on the grave. It neatly reverses Keats’ idea of the poet’s soul as a trophy on Melancholy’s shrine. Besides, it’s what I’m doing now, in effect, by paying respect to a true poet who may be Minor but is Major to me. I like ‘if solvent’: I wonder if it’s a nod to Dylan Thomas, who never was (solvent), and for whose family MacNeice helped to raise money after his death.

The last metaphor lingers. We are the underwriters of the dead minor poets. We are their security, their future, their insurance. We are also writing under them, they are up there, their poems somewhere in the ether. We inherit the chance to keep them remembered by being born into the art, the making of poems, and the reading of poems, and the writing about poems….

So having split up ‘Elegy to Minor Poets’ mercilessly between my paragraphs, here’s a poem entire, from Holes in the Sky, a collection published in the late 1940s. He could do the little gob-smacking lyric too. What a poet!

What is truth? says Pilate,  
Waits for no answer;  
Double your stakes, says the clock  
To the ageing dancer;  
Double the guard, says Authority,  
Treble the bars;  
Holes in the sky, says the child  
Scanning the stars.







. . . is still singing in my head.

The world launch of two prose pamphlets took place on Friday night in the Grand Pavilion, Porthcawl. You can still avail yourself of a copy via the HappenStance website, though their numbers are diminishing, but you have lost the opportunity – forever – to be there. What fun we had!

How lovely it was to hear Robert Minhinnick himself gloriously challenging the myth! b2ap3_thumbnail_Dylan-Thomas-in-Porthcawl-Event-20140516_7.jpg

How wonderful to hear the quiet chuckle of the audience in response to Ruthven Todd’s wit and mischief (with his picture in THE HAT on the screen behind me as I shared some of his words)!

Such a great audience, and with what enthusiasm they chipped in with their thoughts and insights about the great DT!b2ap3_thumbnail_Dylan-Thomas-in-Porthcawl-Event-20140516_4.jpg

I don’t rememberl writing this many exclamation marks, ever!

And in between, Kristian Evans read his marvellous translation from Dafydd ap Gwilym, and another from Rimbaud, and another  poem of his own. Oh, if you can’t have an Irish accent, have the soft music of Wales singing in your voice!

And I haven’t yet mentioned the music, the astonishing music from Peter Morgan (who also took the photographs included here). He began with a copy of the poster for the event (which included a photo of Dylan Thomas), and he had a computer programme that converted visual image into sound. Obviously this is magic. That magic was followed by conjuring electronically manipulated sound files of Dylan’s voice into the mix, and on top of all this Peter himself extemporised on a keyboard which looked like no keyboard I have ever seen in the world. Bright squares in a rectangle. Utterly amazing.

We had an official artist-in-residence at the event too: Kristian’s small son Gwion drew us on stage as we launched the world. A first.


I am returned to Scotland overwhelmed with Wales. The weather in Wales is glorious always. The sea shimmers in the morning light. The circus has permanently just arrived. There is jasmine in every garden and yucca trees shaking their heads ever so slightly. The machines and the rides and the windmills and the candy floss of the fair are new minted. Little children in white sun hats, clutching small spades, are pressing their first footprints into the sand ripples and shivering with delight. Windmills and shrimping nets are clustering outside shops, longing to be bought.

The Grand Pavilion is grand. The perfect place for the world launch of two tiny pamphlets. They are now tiny paper boats bobbing through the Celtic Sea to the Atlantic Ocean.

But Porthcawl is a whole hotbed of creation. On Thursday night, Robert Minhinnick hosted a poetry event in the Green Room above the Sustainable Wales shop. Everybody should go to an event in this green Green Room. Everybody should go to the Sustainable Wales shop, where I bought the green green dress that I wore to read Ruthven Todd the very next night in the Grand Pavilion. I have never been to a friendlier or more sustaining open mic event than the one on Thursday in the green Green Room above Sustainable Wales: such lovely, enthusiastic, talented people. We are all part of this writing thing – there are no winners and losers, only participants, celebrants and supporters – and these are rotating roles.

And Robert Minhinnick, Porthcawl writer and local international poet, is the warmest possible host to poets. And Margaret Minhinnick, from Yorkshire once removed, lighting an entire room with her smile and her welcome. There is writing, and there is creating the space in which writing and making can happen and be celebrated. Margaret and Robert are heroes. Go to Porthcawl. Sustainable Wales will sustain you. Fair, local, eco-chic. You can get there via the internet. The sun will be shining.



I was in Wigtown, Scotand’s National Book Town. And I have something to confess.

I went for the Writer’s Gathering – a great privilege and a perfectly splendid occasion. Lively, talented, spirited people, raring to go. Marvellous interaction. It could not have been more welcoming. But for an hour, I slipped away into the town.

There are as many as a dozen second hand bookshops there. As I wrote that sentence, a shiver went through me from my scalp to my toes.

I only had time for one – the biggest second-hand bookshop in Scotland, on the main street. It is called The Bookshop. It is divine.

As is my wont (though I love all books), I went straight to the poetry section. I ascended a white ladder to the high shelves and knelt beside the low shelves. I extracted a little bundle of desirable volumes. Then I sat in a deep comfy chair beside the stove and read.

Needless to say, I made purchases. The walls here are groaning with books, most of them filled with poetry and poets. My Significant Other, who would never read poetry by choice, tells me one day – not too far away – the ceilings will collapse.

Nevertheless, I bought several books, one of which was a hardback copy of the Daniel Jones edition of Dylan Thomas’s poems. I already have it in paperback. (I had it with me in paperback.) But I could not leave this book behind.

It was not expensive, probably because it is full of pencil scribblings. Some of the scribblings are not pencil. They are in red pen, or red crayon. Inside the front cover, there are eight yellow/orange newspaper cuttings about the bard, and a bookmaker’s note from the Mecca Bookmakers. But it doesn’t record a bet.

On the bookmaker’s note the owner of the book, David W F Brown, has copied a poem stolen by Dylan Thomas as a boy for his school magazine (plagiarism is not a modern art). Such an irony in the poem he stole! Its sentiments are true to much of DT’s later writing.

The plagiarised poem was by Thomas S Jones and DT found it in 1000 Poems of all Times and Countries: Children’s Encyclopaedia, ed Arthur Mee. I know this because David Brown has carefully copied the detail onto the bookmaker’s slip, as well as the whole poem. Thomas S Jones sounds like another Welshman but he was in fact American (‘Sometimes’ can be found in Untermeyer’s Modern American Poetry in 1919). Here is the stolen poem:


Across the fields of yesterday
He sometimes comes to me
A little boy just back from play
The boy I used to be.

And yet he smiles so wistfully
Once he has crept within
I wonder if he hopes to see
The man I might have been.

In the blank front sheet of the book, Mr Brown has written It’s like eating caviare, only. Above the crossed-out ‘only’ he has substituted ‘alone’. Underneath that is another inscription in pencil, with crossings out and substitutions.


Can you read the inscription clearly? Why did Nico stop being ‘dear’? What hastened the ‘disillusion’? Was David Brown himself a poet? I think he might have been. He was certainly an analytical, obsessive reader. He had a mark-up system with a capital E for Erotic, M for Metaphysical and R for ‘Regeneration theory’.

Like me, Brown began meticulously in his study but the pencil markings dry up as the poems get later (and mainly stronger). Above ‘The Neophyte, Baptized in Smiles’ he has written Drunk at the time. He has crossed through some poems as completely worthless. Above ‘High on a Hill’ he has written Tumescence and detumescence which, yes, sums it up.

Under ‘Being But Men’, he has written – a plea to the poet himself regarding his determination to subvert ordinary word order – Couldn’t you, just for once have changed it? But BEING MEN . . . .

But what got me – the reason I had to have the book – was the markup on ‘And Death Shall Have No Dominion’. This is an early poem, you know. Most of the best of Dylan Thomas arrives later. It is dated April 1933. (The poet wasn’t even twenty when he wrote it.)

I have wrestled with ‘And Death Shall Have No Dominion’ for as long as I can remember. Where other readers find reassurance (it is both apocalypse and resurrection), I find nightmare. But David Brown’s comment took me into a reading of two lines so absolutely compelling that I sat and stared. I was astonished. Turned (temporarily) to stone. Heads of the characters hammer through daisies? They certainly do.

This is what David Brown wrote, among other things (and perhaps I should mention he has scribbled A v. great poem under the title). His longest remark, in pencil at the end of the poem, is attached by an arrow to this couplet in the poem’s final stanza:

Where blew a flower may a flower no more
Lift its head to the blows of the rain

Note (writes David Brown) This ‘may’ is not an imperative. One of most evocative couplets in Eng. Lang. I can’t speak it without tears. Such a sad impression of buffeted beauty bravely striving.

Of course I had to have this book. What is more – as I travelled back to Fife with it, carefully scrutinising the annotations, I was absolved of a terrible and secret sin. If you only knew the guilt I have accumulated for writing in books! I have been doing it since I was three. Some of the volumes I have scribbled in are rare and old. I love them but I have desecrated them. What would a librarian say?

But it’s a conversation. David Brown is the real reader. This is his response to the poems, which are, after all, a communication, and here is that response: alive in the very moment it was written. And now I am the reader of David Brown reading Dylan Thomas, and so are you. We are reading David Brown, who possessed Dylan Thomas: The Poems in more than one sense.

You don’t get this on Kindle.



Ruthven Todd is very clear about it.

In The Ghost of Dylan Thomas, he sums it up: ‘Honesty had to declare that Dylan died of Dylan.’ Not whisky. Not the doctor who administered the drugs that probably finished him off. Dylan lived and died the myth. He was certain he wouldn’t see 40. His life proceeded towards the destruction he anticipated.

But on the back cover of Paul Ferris’s biography of Thomas’s wife Caitlin, another culprit is identified. “Here, for the first time, we are shown the extent of his dependence on her, and how, as their marriage collapsed, her despairing behaviour helped to destroy him.” So Caitlin turns out to have been an accomplice.

Several weighty biographies of Dylan Thomas have been written. The combination of the poetry and dramatic/tragic life style made him a marvellous subject.

But Caitlin rarely emerges as a sympathetic figure and there is a significant gender issue, I think, in the way she has been treated. She behaved very like her husband, but without the redeeming quality of ‘genius’. She also lacked the advantage of being a man.

Paul Ferris, who wrote biographies of both Dylan and Caitlin, didn’t like her much (a lot of people didn’t like her much). Brenda Maddox suggests that “Ferris’s toughest target was Caitlin Thomas, Dylan’s wife, his slave (according to her) and, in later life, his greedy, drunken widow. Ferris admits ”Mrs. Thomas wasn’t my cup of tea; nor was I hers.” When Caitlin: The Life of Caitlin Thomas, in which she collaborated (for a fee), was published, one of her sons asked him the dreaded question: ”But did you like my mother?” All Ferris could do, he says, was lie.’ http://www.nytimes.com/books/99/05/09/bookend/bookend.html

‘Greedy, drunken widow’! What a stereotype! Kathryn Hughes, in reviewing one of the films about the doomed Thomases, creates a truer snapshot: ‘. . .while Dylan’s early life was pinched and stable, Caitlin’s was disturbingly free. She lived in gentrified chaos in a tatty house in the New Forest with her sisters and brother. While Dylan started his sex life among the local high-school girls, including possibly Vera Phillips, later Vera Killick, Caitlin was brutally initiated by her father’s friend Augustus John, who considered sleeping with teenagers one of the perks of artistic genius.’

Paul Ferris mentions the rumour that Augustus John was thought by some to have been Caitlin’s father. He thinks it unlikely. However, the ‘great’ painter did have sex with her mother and her sister. He had casual sex with innumerable partners, just as Caitlin did later. But promiscuity in a male artist causes little damage to the reputation: it may even enhance it.

In Glyn Jones’s obituary of Caitlin, in The Independent, (2 August, 1994), he says she was ‘seduced by John himself when she started to model for him’.

Seduced? According to her own account, she was raped. He was a close family friend, almost a father figure. She was nursing a crush on his son Caspar, but she got the father instead. Here is what she says, in Caitlin, Life with Dylan Thomas:

One day Augustus said, ‘Come over to the studio. I want to paint you.’ So I did. It seemed quite an honour, although I didn’t think of it like that because I had known him since my earliest childhood.’

    Augustus was then at the height of his fame; in fact, his reputation had become somewhat inflated because of his notorious lifestyle. As an artist, I thought he had great talent, especially with his drawings and some of his portraits.

    [. . .]

   The first time I went to sit for him he didn’t speak to me or say anything to put me at my ease: he just glared most ferociously, without the trace of a smile, with his long black hair and long black beard accentuating his fierceness. He usually offered his models £1, but he didn’t pay me a penny, and then right at the end of the session he suddenly leapt on me, pulling up my dress and tearing off my pants, and made love to me, although you could hardly call it love. It was totally unexpected and I was still a virgin. He didn’t ask for my consent or even try to woo me; he just pounced and I couldn’t fight because he was an enormous, strong, bestial man. I was cowed and too frightened to resist. What drove me nearly crazy was that I had wanted Caspar and now I had his hairy animal of a father on top of me instead.

     I was petrified. When he had finished (and it didn’t take long) Augustus just got up, adjusted his clothes, and left the room. He didn’t say anything to me, not even ‘sorry’. I didn’t burst out crying. I just got dressed myself, thinking how disgusting he was. I suppose it was rape, but that thought didn’t enter my mind; he was a very old friend of my father’s.

    [. . .]

    I went and posed for Augustus again the next day – I had to, the painting wasn’t finished – and the same thing happened.

   Augustus did have a reputation for behaving like that, but nobody had warned me in advance. In the end I was more disgusted than frightened. Every time I did a sitting I knew what was coming at the end – the big leap. I just waited for it, thinking, ‘Oh my God. If only I could escape.’ He could see that I was miserable because he would ask me sometimes, ‘What are you so sad about?’ But I couldn’t tell him. Sometimes, I tried to push him away but I didn’t want to offend him, and eventually I think he became quite fond of me. He painted several portraits of me in oils: one is well-known, but I don’t know what happened to the others. He also did many drawings, which I hated sitting for because he did most of those nude. I used to die a thousand deaths because he would sit me down on a divan and tear my legs apart until I was in the position he wanted.

    Augustus made me very anti-sex: you couldn’t call his man-handling making love; there was no tenderness at all. It was horrible, with his great hairy face: I don’t know why I didn’t fight it; why I just let him get on with it when I certainly had no pleasure myself – it was like being attacked by a goat. The saddest thing is that my whole sexual development happened the wrong way round. It was a catastrophe from which I have never quite recovered.

    [ . . .] I never became fond of Augustus, although he did start taking me around a bit. He took me out to lunch and dinner, introducing me to people as Francis’s daughter. Afterwards we used to stay the night at his flat in Fitzroy Square: I didn’t enjoy the love-making part, but I liked going out with him because he would take me off to the Eiffel Tower and other restaurants where the food was good, and I came to look upon the sexual side of it as a necessary sacrifice.’

Poor Caitlin. Her early experience of sex – she was only in her teens – was abusive. What did she learn from it? That sex was a necessary price to pay, that ‘proper’ men were dominating, that she ‘didn’t want to offend him’.

No wonder she settled with Thomas, a wimp of a man who liked to be treated like a baby and even have his pullover put on for him by his wife. It was the opposite kind of sexual relationship (though equally frustrating).

Ferris seems to conclude that Caitlin’s later promiscuity was simply a character feature: he assumes she liked sex and wanted lots of it, like her father. It doesn’t seem to occur to him that promiscuity is often an adult feature where sexual abuse occurs earlier, and that in such cases, the promiscuous person often drinks heavily. It’s a sign of damage, not of moral ‘badness’.

So Augustus John used Caitlin and later she used him. She was a survivor. But she was not a courtesan. Until he raped her, she was almost certainly a normal young girl, full of life and spirit, and ambition to be a dancer. He interfered, and she wasn’t his only victim.

But look what happens to her in retrospect. Paul Ferris’s biography of Caitlin includes a plate of Augustus John’s painting of her – and the text below picture reads: ‘Augustus John’s painting of a radiant but predatory Caitlin, not long before she married Dylan Thomas in 1937.’ Predatory? It is clear which of the two, painter or model, was the predator.

Even more disturbingly, earlier in the biography he discusses a photograph of Caitlin with her two sisters. The girls are on holiday in France, and they seem to have been swimming. They are naked, anyway, with towels slung round them. Caitlin was eight, pre-pubescent. ‘Brought up, as were all the Johns and the Macnamaras, to be relaxed about showing off their bodies, Caitlin was soon making the most of hers.’ [She was EIGHT].

He goes on to say: ‘A snapshot of Us 3 at Cannes, 1922, during a visit to the Majoliers, shows the sisters draped in bathing towels. Brigit, aged ten, is covered up. The towel around Nicolette, aged eleven, has fallen open, conceivably by accident. In Caitlin’s case she is clearly parting the towel for maximum effect, her right foot bent back to touch the ground with her toes, eyes closed and a ‘look at me being naughty’ smile on her face. She was eight, already posing and arranging her limbs.’

Considering the recent furore about a UK barrister calling a 13-year old girl ‘predatory’, we may think we have made some advances since Ferris’s biography. But the book was first printed in 1992, updated 1995. That’s only twenty years ago.

Caitlin’s early experience of sex – abusive and disturbing – was likely to have been a key factor in her later alcoholism and promiscuity. You don’t have to be a psychoanalyst to see that. She struggled hard with her demons, and so did Dylan, but they were probably, in the modern sense, ‘co-dependent’ in terms of alcohol. It was terribly sad.

Paul Ferris talks about Caitlin’s ‘campaign to prove she had been an alcoholic’, as if drink was never a problem. He talks about her dismissal of sex in old age as the brushing aside of ‘what was once a natural taste for it’. Natural? So Augustus John’s use and abuse of her was catering to a ‘natural taste’? He comments on her violent nature (she was prone to battering Dylan with her fists) and suggests that ‘more than once she was on the receiving end of violence from men, without much protest’. So she enjoyed it then? He refers to her as Augustus John’s ‘lover’. He talks about her story of unhappiness at school and says that ‘like many of Caitlin’s’, it ‘manufactures despair.’

We go through our lives trying to make sense of them. We manufacture our stories. We make the best we can of what we have.

It is best not to become the partner of a dysfunctional artist, in whose biographies you will inevitably become a character. If he dies young and tragically, you will never ever escape him. It is not just Dylan Thomas who becomes more myth than man. Poor Caitlin. Poor Caitlin.




The past is not as past as we think it is.

1914 seems such a long time ago. A century. But a century is short. Some people born in 1914 are still alive.

Others born in 1914 were killed neither in the first world war nor the second. They were twentieth century people and although their stories ended, the trail’s still warm.

Two 1914 babies were Dylan Thomas, the poet, and his Edinburgh friend Ruthven Todd, (also a poet). You’ll have heard of the first; maybe not the second. But Ruthven was an important person in the Dylan Thomas story. For a start, he was the first official biographer after Dylan’s spectacular demise in New York, though his account of the Welsh poet’s life and death was never completed.

To mark the centenary of the births of these two poet-friends, HappenStance has just published two prose pamphlets (http://www.happenstancepress.org/index.php/shop/category/49-dylan-thomas-centenary)

The first is a witty essay by Robert Minhinnick, another Welsh poet of note, about the advantages of dying in New York (for a poet). The other is by Ruthven Todd, largely rescued from his archive in the National Library of Scotland. He had a marvellously engaging style.

Human lives metamorphose into printed papers. It’s almost possible to forget they were real, especially Dylan, who carefully made sure he was larger than life even before he died. But yesterday I met Peter Main, Ruthven Todd’s biographer, in the flesh, in Edinburgh. We sat in a pub on Victoria Street and Peter told me the story of how he came to start writing about Ruthven – the book is not yet done, though it is promised for 2015. We toasted our dead friends. Peter downed a pint of Stewart’s No 3 for Ruthven and Dylan. I drank whisky and ginger for Caitlin.

It was Peter who supplied the picture of Ruthven, on the title page of his pamphlet, wearing the hat he was sporting when he first met Dylan with Geoffrey Grigson:

“Dylan, at this time, was short and slim, with lots of curly hair of a neutral brown, and when his full, but not yet blubbery, lips were parted, they disclosed irregular, slightly yellowed, but adequate teeth. A suggestion of the nineties still hung around him. A piece of silk was knotted below a would-be floppy collar, and he seemed to be trying to give the impression of a stunted Yeats. To be fair, I was wearing the broadest brimmed black hat Edinburgh could supply, and my own aim was to be Wyndham Lewis as The Enemy. Beside us, Geoffrey must have seemed anonymous.”

So Ruthven Todd’s story is still unfolding. Peter, who is also a detective fiction buff, is on the case. If anyone can track Todd down in living detail, he is the man.

But that same day, I had had an email from poet Angela Kirby who noticed I’m to talk about Dylan and Ruthven at a Poetry in the Pumphouse event on June 22nd in Aldeburgh. She told me Ruthven (which is Gaelic in origin and pronounced Riven) was a friend of her sister, the late IM (Iris) Birtwistle, a poet, gallery owner and marvellous character in her own right. Ruthven’s sister Alison stayed in their family home in Lancashire for part of the war as a refugee from the bombing. He was a real person in their lives. Gordon Jarvie, whom I chatted to at StAnza only a week ago, also pursued his interest in Ruthven to the school annals at Fettes (he wrote about him in Duncan Glen’s magazine Akros). And Christopher Todd, Ruthven’s son, sent me an MP3 recording of Ruthven reading ‘Laugharne Churchyard in 1954’.

So the past is really not as past as we think it is. We hand the memories and anecdotes and events from one person to another. Dylan Thomas died in 1953, four months after I was born. It’s a living thread. We’re all characters in the story. There are lots of chapter endings, but the book itself is never done.



This is cheating. I am really thinking about StAnza.

And this morning it’s snowing and around me all the trees are white and I’m not even there. I’m working. But this is a space between yesterday (when I was there) and today when I’m working.Snow in the garden

When I went to bed last night my head was full of the space between the stanzas, which for me was the space between the events at StAnza. The events are many, marvelous and magical, of course, and you can read about them elsewhere.

The spaces between the events are just as remarkable, and somewhat more mysterious because completely unpredictable, and not on the programme. When you run an arts festival, you create spaces for unexpected concatenations, correspondences and coalescences. I know that’s just alliteration, but how do you describe it?

On your way to hear a poet read, someone you may never have heard of, perhaps even in a language you don’t know, you stop for a coffee and fall into conversation with  Michel (?) from Belgium, there to present a film poem event, and whose job it is to co-ordinate and run literary events in  Antwerp – such a charming and interesting young (to me) man. And then we are joined by poet Paula Jennings and Jenny Elliott. Jenny is an old friend (we were once StAnza trustees together) and also a poet and originator of the Shed Press (in her garden shed). Together we sorted out European politics and then moved on to discuss our mothers, over soup and sandwiches (it’s not just poetry). As the table filled up with friends, I moved the flowers onto the floor. Out of the corner of my eye I could see people I knew and wanted to speak to, and others I dimly recognized from their dusty photos on book jackets.

Then an event and then the poetry book fair and then more chats with Tony Lawrence, who has redefined poetry according to laws of mathematics, and the man from Monifieth whose name I can’t remember but who has come to the festival every year for eleven years, and D A Prince, and Karin Koller, and Robyn Marsack and Sheila Wakefield and Stephanie Green and a long conversation – the longest we have ever had, (a GREAT conversation about the late David Tipton and his wife Ena Hollis, taking in John Lucas, Tony Ward and Alan Hill) – with Martin Bates; and another with the lady at the second hand book stall – shop in Newport – I forget her name but it will come back to me; and of course Gerry Cambridge and briefly Rob Mackenzie.

And Richie McCaffery and Stef, and Sally Evans and how lovely to see Ann Drysdale, who has written a whole book about Newport and thus a long conversation about W H Davies and other matters, and briefly (hug interval) Lyn Moir, and Lydia Harris (well met, for the first time) and Christine Webb, and Robert Minhinnick on Dylan Thomas, and Joy Howard and Alan Gay.

And many more. Many more, and some sought for but just missed. Deus ex machina (I’ve just realised that’s a double dactyl) Eleanor Livingstone slipping in and out carying strange objects and messages and inspirations. And others glimpsed in the distance or pausing to share treasure, or say ‘see you later’.


The sun has come out and lit up the snow.

And now back to work.


Do you remember the smell? The redolence of the little tubes of ‘oil paint’?

Not to mention the exquisite risk (because oil paint would not wash off). The necessity to soak the brush in that strange stuff—‘turpentine’. The ambition, the aspiration to achieve the picture of a horse in a field, the flowers in a jar, the replication of the Mona Lisa: so perfect and so beautifully available—if you could just fill in each numbered portion faithfully, with its own faithful colour.

And the painting to be achieved would arrive on a birthday or at Christmas, the perfect thing to fill several hours of patient application. But oh, the disappointment when half way through, your patience ran out or you discovered you’d painted a bit with the wrong colour. Your edges weren’t clear, like they should have been. The horse was not as horse-like as it had been on the cover. It should have fitted together as magically as a jig-saw but (in my case, at least) it never quite did. And so the painting lay about, and the little tubes looked squeezed and limp, and the brush was not soaked in turpentine as it should have been, but hardened in the unforgiving paint, which had also somehow found its way onto bits of the dining room table. There was retribution, and there was guilt.

Wikipedia tells me it all started in the early 1950s, just in time for me (born 1953) to undergo aspiration and anguish. Max S Klein (owner of the Palmer Paint Company of Detroit, Michigan) and Dan Robbins (a commercial artist with an eye for the main chance) were the perpetrators, and the marvellous idea led to ‘colour by numbers’ (with crayons, so much less dangerous to household furniture), as well as the same principle applied to tapestry.

Stamped cross-stitch and embroidery kits must, however, have long pre-dated painting by numbers. From the tablecloths we grew up with, I have reason to believe my mother tackled pre-printed designs long before I was born. In this case, no numbers are required, just the faint indication of the design on the cloth, sometimes in colour, more often in monochrome shadow, with the colours left to the craftswoman’s judgement. I have a memory of half-finished embroidered cloths in the little sewing table (the lid lifted up and the threads and bobbins were underneath). Presumably the vision grew thin halfway through, or my mother got too busy to finish the job.

There’s no real connection between this and writing by numbers. There isn’t really an equivalent, and when Pope talks about it in his ‘Epistle to Arbuthnot’, he means something different:

Why did I write? what sin to me unknown
Dipp’d me in ink, my parents’, or my own?
As yet a child, nor yet a fool to fame,
I lisp’d in numbers, for the numbers came.
I left no calling for this idle trade,
No duty broke, no father disobey’d.
The Muse but serv’d to ease some friend, not wife,
To help me through this long disease, my life

‘Numbers’ were the Renaissance term for poetry, because poetry was defined in terms of measured form, counted out metrically or syllabically, or via some patterned system. Certainly it makes sense in terms of Pope’s work, his ear for the perfect turn of phrase to complement a neatly iambic line.

And now? What about the repeating French forms: the villanelles, the sestinas, the triolets, and even the paradelle (the last invented by Billy Collins as a joke, but now popping up in various places with disturbing solemnity). The pattern is supplied. You study it carefully. You choose the words that are to recur in the recurring places, and – voilà! a poem appears. I am among the many who have served their time with these forms, who have industriously studied to repeat the repetitions, in the hope that something would emerge.

For me, however, they do not have the charm of the oil paint, the risk and the promise. I can’t say these forms are unworthy. Sometimes, when penned by other people, I read them with pleasure and surprise. I know the feat has been achieved when I discover I have liked the poem without noticing the elaborate practice in numbers. This is rare.  (It doesn’t help when the work is titled ‘Sestina’.)

As for the villanelle: if you are going to repeat two lines four times inside one poem of only 19 lines in total, those two lines had better be good. ‘Do not go gentle into that good night’ is one of the few that does it for me. By and large, I think the villanelle is a villain. But let Pope have the last word:

Fire in each eye, and papers in each hand,
They rave, recite, and madden round the land.

What walls can guard me, or what shades can hide?
They pierce my thickets, through my grot they glide;
By land, by water, they renew the charge;
They stop the chariot, and they board the barge.
No place is sacred, not the church is free;
Ev’n Sunday shines no Sabbath-day to me:
Then from the Mint walks forth the Man of Ryme,
Happy! to catch me just at Dinner-time.

Ken Pyne cartoon


Poets should only be allowed to publish as many poems as they can learn by heart.

Poets should only be allowed to publish as many poems as they can learn by heart.

Scoff, if you will. But sometimes I think it should be so.

When I travel, I take a poem with me to learn, one that’s already half under my skin. My memory is not the best, but I try. There are poems that follow you around – and what if all the books were gone, and all the Kindles curdled?

Perhaps this sort of thinking is a result of getting older. Old enough to wonder what I would remember in a hotel room on my own in Paris, or a hospital bed, or even in my head if my body didn’t work.

This time it was Dylan Thomas, who died the year I was born, when he wasn’t even forty. The excellent thing about learning him, retracing his lines over and over, is the way you get inside the world of the poem. You put it on like a garment:

………In my craft or sullen art
………Exercised in the still night
………When only the moon rages
………And the lovers lie abed
………With all their griefs in their arms
………I labour by singing light
………Not for ambition or bread
………Or the strut and trade of charms
………But for the common wages
………Of their most secret heart.

That’s only the first stanza.  This poem was not my favourite in the past. I spent many moons marveling at ‘And Death shall have no dominion’ and ‘Fern Hill’ and even ‘Twenty-Four Years’. But now the crafty syntax of ‘In my craft’ has got me – the way the first line, even just the little preposition ‘in’, drives the momentum, pushes the energy of the syntax right through to the line six – ‘I labour by singing light’. Sit on a train or a plane or a bus and learn this. It is wonderful.

Dylan Thomas drives the swell of the sentence through the poem like a wave which gains further momentum from the lovely construction (repeated twice): ‘Not for . . . But for’. He paces it beautifully. The brief lines, each with an end rhyme, establish a careful, gradual tread. There’s plenty of time to think as you go, and that first stanza is curiously romantic – it makes you want to be labouring by singing light, immune to the trashy business of squabbles and prizes.

Most of Thomas’s poems sound wonderful, sometimes to their cost. But this one combines sound and sense perfectly, and simplicity too, though you ponder over it for hours – what he meant, what he didn’t mean, and in what sense the meaning feels true for you, me, all of us.

Then the second stanza ceases to be romantic and becomes troubling, and sadder by far:

………Not for the proud man apart
………From the raging moon I write
………On these spindrift pages
………Nor for the towering dead
………With their nightingales and psalms
………But for the lovers, their arms
………Round the griefs of the ages,
………Who pay no praise or wages
………Nor heed my craft or art.

Why do the lovers have their arms “round the griefs of the ages”? Why are the stages “ivory”? Why does the moon ‘rage’? What is the difference between “craft” and “art”?

And how I love the way the common phrase runs: “pay no heed” and yet he resists that. He goes for “pay no praise . . . / Nor heed”. But this is like a painting by Chagall. It asserts its own world, within which everything is strangely fitting. The rhythm and rhyme make an incantation to feed your secret heart.

After you are done, the spindrift pages can go their way. The poem is inside you, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, as long as ye both shall live.

And I do believe that Dylan Thomas, when he wrote this poem, was not writing for praise or wages. Hear his own voice here.