Easy. Here’s a festival I made earlier.

Last Saturday afternoon when I was not at Aldeburgh and was waiting for a grandbaby to arrive (he showed up on Sunday morning), I went to this mini festival. It’s a mixture of reading and listening. It takes about an hour. Too long for you, reading at speed on the interweb, I know. But no matter. I had a lovely time and I recommend the experience. I’m sorry some of the participants are posthumous. Please add your own guest events in the comments boxes.

Festival Appearances

nb sometimes these sites run slow, or don’t connect for a few seconds. Think of this as a slightly delayed appearance. They’ll show up eventually.

Opening gig: raise your spirits with ten minutes of Matt Harvey from TedxTotnes. A love poem to a tea-bag, ‘What are you?’ and ‘A hymn to hands’. (9.17 mins)

Now three visits to the Poetry Archive

First a brief extract from an interview with Ruth Pitter, who speaks about ‘the noble obscurity of poetry’, and then goes on to read one of my favourite poems of all time, ‘If You Came’ (Just over 3 minutes)

And next Hilaire Belloc reading, or really singing, Tarantella. How extraordinary! (1.5 mins)

And finally Dannie Abse reading ‘In the Theatre’. He talks about the background to this extraordinary poem first. (About 3 mins). The brain and soul. Once heard never forgotten.

A short break from poetry but still in the weirdness that is poetryland. A short lecture on LIfshin by Daniel Nester (this is really an essay, I’m afraid, but it’s so beautifully conversational it is like a short talk: Rejection Slip? What Rejection Slip?

Back to the stage. The ultimate in performance from Marina Abramovitch, (3.37 mins), with music. I’m giving you the music version because it tells you the backstory. I adore this woman. Makes me cry every time. And the lyrics are lovely.

Okay, we need to come down from that intensity, so a little bit of reading, in the quiet on your own. Think of this as a walk away from the hubbub. I’m taking a bag of chopped up bread with me. ‘From troubles of the world I turn to ducks’ by F.W. Harvey – such a lovely face, he had. ‘Yes, ducks are valiant things’. (2 mins?) And while we’re out by the pond, you might like to unscroll your copy of Trees by Joyce Kilmer. You can read it in half a minute or so, but you’ll want to read it twice of course.

Back to the theatre. The other thing about the web is that poets can be in two places at once. So not just in Aldeburgh but here online is Kei Miller with Unsung (1.38 mins). Uplifting, right?

So the ultimate uplift, from Maya Angelou, And still I rise. (2.52 mins)

Not just English: This festival is not just limited to one language. It can do more. I was enchanted by this bit of Baudelaire, read slowly enough for me to get it. (2.07 mins)

And a little Tom Duddy, who recorded very little during his lifetime, but this magical poem can be heard in his own voice: ‘The Touch’. (2.21.)

More performance: so many politicians talking at us. Hannah Silva says it all, without exactly saying it. (3.21)

Discussion, with music. Aldeburgh was on my mind and winter, and this brought me to a recording of Peter pears and Benjamin Britten peforming from and talking about Die Winterreise. You could listen to all of it, or just a bit. (12.44). A marvellous piece of film.

The Final Billing: headliners Edna St Vincent Millay, Dorothy Parker, Stevie Smith and W H Auden.

  • Love is not all’, Edna St Vincent Millay (1.29 mins)
  • One Perfect Rose’, Dorothy Parker (c 1 min)
  • Stevie Smith, my hero, with Tenuous and Precarious (1 min)
  • And that bit of film produced by the post office and making this bit of Auden famous for all time: ‘Night Mail’. (3.53) Practically an elegy really, now that nobody writes letters any more. (Well, I do. Sometimes.)





The Tale of HB, a Serious and Ambitious Poet who was Remembered for being Extremely Silly.

The fact is this house is beginning to resemble my brain, in which bits of rhyme and reason are all jumbled up together in a glorious mess. Half the time, I don’t know who wrote what or where. Only that someone did.

Today it was Hilaire Belloc. Could I find him? No. I fell off the library steps looking.

In the house where I grew up his Cautionary Tales were in a brown hardback with illustrations by B.T.B. (Basil Temple Blackwood, who was killed at Ypres in 1917). The book was located on one of the shelves to the right of our fire-place in the sitting room, which was odd, because all the other books on that shelf were for grownups. I adored this book. How did it get there? Where did it go?

There’s also a copy in this house somewhere: not the one I grew up with; a remaindered paperback. I can visualise it clearly, but I can’t find it, even though its contents are rattling around in my head with the pictures, which stick in the mind forever. Thanks to Project Gutenberg, the Cautionary Tales, complete, with B.T.B. illustrations, are accessible. Even if it’s not quite the same.

But I learn from Wikipedia (how interesting a Sunday morning can be) that Belloc’s The Bad Child’s Book of Beasts (1896), which sold 4000 copies in three months and considerably helped his grocery bills, got caught up in a plagiarism wrangle. Lord Alfred Douglas brought out his book of funny verse for children two years later: Tails with a Twist by ‘A Belgian Hare’, also with fabulous illustrations (by E. T. Reed) and was promptly accused of plagiarising Belloc. But Douglas later suggested the theft was the other way about: Belloc had imitated him. His rhymes, he claimed, ‘had been written at least two years before Mr Belloc’s, and were widely known and quoted at Oxford, where Mr Belloc was my contemporary’.

So plagiarism (though you knew this already) is nothing new, nor is writing silly verse at Oxford. But both Belloc and Douglas thought of themselves as serious poets writing serious poems. It’s unlikely they planned to be remembered for what they are mainly remembered for: in Belloc’s case the humorous verse for children; in Douglas’s the unhappy relationship with Oscar Wilde. But without Belloc’s Cautionary Tales, could Roald Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes (with illustrations by Quentin Blake) ever have materialised? And did they not create a climate in which the incomparable A.A. Milne could flourish?b2ap3_thumbnail_STRUWWELP.jpg

The facility for witty rhyming, when it comes to the immortal memory, should not be underestimated. That, and the moral tale, goes back a long way. Belloc would have known Hoffmann’s Struwwelpeter, 1858, a volume of which we also had in our house, though Struwwelpeter is painful in its morals, and Belloc is funnier. In fact, Hilaire is hilarious, and if there is ever to be a poetry flash mob, I predict he would serve us well. I could even volunteer to organise it – though not today.

I recommend Belloc’s Lord Lundy for when you have more time but I’ll leave you (because it is short) with Henry King, who chewed bits of string and was early cut off in Dreadful Agonies. If you follow the link, you can also see the pictures.

The Chief Defect of Henry King
Was chewing little bits of String.
At last he swallowed some which tied
Itself in ugly Knots inside.
Physicians of the Utmost Fame
Were called at once; but when they came
They answers, as they took their Fees,
‘There is no cure for this Disease.
Henry will very soon be dead.’
His Parents stood about his Bed
Lamenting his untimely Death,
When Henry, with his Latest Breath,
Cried – ‘Oh my Friends, be warned by me,
That Breakfast, Dinner, Lunch and Tea
Are all the Human Frame requires . . .’
With that the Wretched Child expires.






Give me a poem starting ‘I remember’ and I will suggest you drop the first two words. And yet . . .

. . . one of things poetry does – that it is surely driven to do – is preserve memories. Little things that happen, thing that can’t be allowed to go unrecorded. (Sometimes big things too, of course, though the size isn’t the issue: it’s the immediacy.)

Why do I bossily score out the words ‘I remember’? Two reasons. First: because too many poems start that way, so it’s old hat. Second: because it invites a tone of easy nostalgia: here comes a memory we all share and love.

In fact, the memory poems I like best (at least I think this is true) draw me into a memory that’s vivid, fresh and alive, but it’s not my remembered experience, though I may recognise parts of it. It belongs to the poet. Until I read and learn to love the poem, that is. After that, it belongs to me. I own shares in Wordsworth’s daffodils. I often visit Hilaire Belloc’s inn in the High Pyrenees.

Such a wonderful, and endlessly available resource: memory. And magical too. In a lifetime we visit thousands of places, and can call to mind only a few. We were at school with hundreds of faces and can visualise only a couple. We wear countless garments in our lives and forget their colour, texture and style completely. But a few precise moments stick in the mind. They haunt us like clues to an unsolved mystery.

This is a lengthy introduction to Rosemary Hector’s Knowing Grapes. But one of the things this poet does is draw you into memories, vividly enough for you to possess them. Here is ‘Plums’, for example:

Red-black against the pale blue institutional plate,
the plums sat in a puddle of their own blood.
On Thursdays, always stewed fruit with a flood
of custard, poured from a jug of dented metal.
It was odd how adept I became at the count
of fruits per head, serving in equal measure, could
recognise this fruit was little harmed
by the kitchen process; was, in fact, quite good.
All class three watched as I spooned them out.
The first plate was passed to the senior at the end.
Gonads again, said the small boy to my left.

The first line captures attention with the colour. It recreates the photographic image, without needing to say ‘I remember’ (although this is an ‘I remember’ poem). The reader may also recall the colour of stewed plums, never a popular pudding at school dinner. But the “puddle of blood” and the “flood / of custard” has humour in it. And as for that jug of “dented metal”, not only did my mother have one, but there’s a replica lurking at the back of my cupboard downstairs. So yes, all this chimes with memories of my own: I’m experiencing nostalgia, comforting and nice.

And the voice of the narrator is so grown-up. She is the adult, serving the small boys. Her language is confident and controlled. It is the voice of the British Empire, “adept / at the count / of fruits per head, serving in equal measure”. A whole world in a phrase.

But then the last line! “Gonads again, said the small boy to my left.” Dismissive, precise, authoritative. The adult world crumbles in the face of a child’s summary. He doesn’t say “balls”, as he might well have done. He uses the biological term to sum up his (low) opinion of the pudding. He will be talking like this when he’s eighty, if he makes it that far. Besides, it’s clear, isn’t it, that the whole of class three calls plums “gonads” (and probably gonads “plums”, come to that).

So this is my memory too now. Each time I revisit it, I get the same thunk of satisfaction.

‘Plums’ can be found in Knowing Grapes with a number of engaging companions: emotive memories, served without pretension but with delight.







Week one of the July submissions window is over already.

I’ve read and returned 30 manuscripts. More will arrive tomorrow, and some are still sitting in my box.

So far the standard has been high. This both delights and alarms me: I can’t meet the demand. I can only work with a tiny number of these poets to make a publication.

However, many of them will find other routes to readers. Some, I am sure, will go on to win one of the pamphlet competitions.

I look for poems that connect instantly. I want the magical thing, the almost-impossible-to-describe visceral recognition, an intuitive grasp of meaning even where the surface is puzzling or obscure.

Sometimes, there’s a snag that interrupts the connection, a little thing easily fixed. (It’s easier to describe flaws in poems than put them right.)

One of these is the habit of opening a poem ‘I remember’. Sometimes it’s not the first line – but it finds its way in there, and often it’s repeated. (One poet this week wrote ‘I’ve not forgotten’ – much stronger.)

Most poems are, I think, made from memories. If they’re also written in the first person, the reader assumes the memory belongs to the poet.

So you can present the memory without ‘I remember’. It’s the difference between

I remember the sweet scent of honeysuckle in the rain


The scent of honeysuckle in the rain was sweet

Of course, the phrase ‘I remember’ evokes a number of older poems that we also remember (I remember ‘I remember’), as well that seductive emotion: nostalgia. The sound of the word ‘remember’ is as cosy as an old armchair.

For additional protection from the infection of ‘I remember’, vaccinate yourself by writing an instant ‘I remember’ poem with an online generator.

Then why not revisit the famous ‘remember’ poems which are subconsciously leading you to echo them?

For example, there’s good old Thomas Hood’s I remember, I remember? It’s a sweet but sentimental piece and I would probably weep over it after my third glass of wine.

Or Hilaire Belloc’s Tarantella – not at all sentimental: ‘Do you remember an Inn, Miranda, Do you remember an Inn?’ (While writing this blog I found the most extraordinary YouTube clip of Belloc singing this! I had no idea this existed, or that Belloc could sing. Some would say, of course, that he couldn’t.)

And of course, mistress of the ultimate emotive pang, there’s Christina Rossetti with the ‘funeral poem’: ‘Remember me when I am gone away’. Note that she goes for the imperative. Rossetti was no wimp.

The two words ‘I remember’ instantly summon love and loss, with the emphasis on the latter. But after using them to get the poem going, swiftly excise the phrase. Show no mercy. ‘I remember’ is scaffolding for a building that will stand stronger without it.




Poems by heart. Should we?

The heart is the love symbol, the main machine, the organ that runs everything. It creates the rhythm we hear as soon as we hear anything.Image of heart as machine

Badum, badum, badum, badum. Life, life, life — that’s what the heart says (iambically). We can learn by it in French and English, but not, so far as I can see, in German, Spanish or Italian.  But that’s just the idiom. A good idiom, though. ‘Learn by heart’ strikes me as a whole lot more appealing than auswendig lernen.

Michael Gove famously thinks children should learn poems by it. Badum, badum, badum, badum. Should they? Shouldn’t they? Do we care?

According to a Guardian poll in June 2012, 42% said yes, 58% said no. Michael Rosen, in whose interests it might be for kids to learn poems by heart, especially his own, says (as any worthy poet should) that making it compulsory smacks of ‘government diktat land’.

The thing is, people do learn stuff by heart. All the time. They learn what they like, and frequently it’s rude. My other half, who has no time whatsoever for that thing I call ‘poetry’, has a substantial repertoire of disreputable verse and memorable sayings. Last night, I was cooking and he padded into the kitchen behind me silently, making me jump. ‘You crept up on me!’ I said.

‘I crept into the crypt, crapped, and then crept out again,’ was his rejoinder. He learned this as a wee boy, and the words stuck for life. Some of the things he remembers are too rude to share. But others . . .

Do your balls hang low?
Do they waggle to and fro?
Do you get a funny feeling
When you’re hanging from the ceiling?

This is the sort of thing teachers might want to stop kids reciting. But kids learn all sorts of things off by heart, all the time. They learn advertising jingles, words from songs, rap, rubbish. Stuff that sticks in the head and won’t come out. Teachers want to control what sticks. It’s not a question of what we remember. It’s what we can’t forget.

The BBC still has 15 compulsory poems on a web page dating back to 2009, when they did a learning poetry revival. I don’t know whether they actually arrived at a UK  Child Poetry Recital Champion, though that was the plan. However, the 14 compulsory poems, though doomed by the word ‘compulsory’, are not half bad. I found I knew parts of all of them (by heart), except Grace Nichols and Ben Zephaniah: but theirs are great poems too. I should love to have known ‘Alligator’ and ‘Talking Turkeys’ when I was a kid.

I don’t know whether learning poetry as a kid does you good. I do think chanting and repetition are fun, especially with gestures and actions. And if you did learn, say, Belloc’s ‘Matilda’ as a child, how could you not want to share it as an adult?

Does learning poems turn people into poets? No more than learning songs makes you into a singer songwriter.

But should you find yourself making poems, you learn most about the art from the poems you know well. And learning poems as an adult, if you’re a poet, is an excellent idea. You get inside them that way. You feel how they work. Badum, badum, badum. You pace them out. You learn their sound secrets.

Don Paterson says, in one of those aphorisms of his, that ‘a poem is a little machine for remembering itself’. Some of them are tricky mechanisms. If you try to learn one and find yourself in serious difficulty somewhere around the middle, often it’s because the machine is short of a valve or two. On the other hand, some poems are all too easy to learn. What you learn from learning them is how to be slick, quick and empty. It’s better to be rude.

For what it’s worth, I think poets should learn some of their own poems. By heart. If you do that, it’s a kind of test drive. The line you can’t get – why can’t you get it? Usually because that line’s not ‘right’. So re-tune the machine.

Besides, when you read – if you do read – to an audience, knowing a couple of the poems by heart means you can use your voice as an instrument. You’re not reading. You’re offering the sound and meaning, syllable by syllable.

One of the BBC’s 15 ‘compulsory’ poems is Yeats’ ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’ (1892). Someone told me Yeats began to resent this poem because it was so widely known (a bit like Alastair Reid feels about ‘Scotland’, or Jenny Joseph’s ‘Warning’). Either way, you can tell, when you hear him read it , that he had it by heart, had it like a song. I never consciously learned it but I know most of it. When I do anything with particular deliberation, I think to myself I will arise and go now. And whenever I hear bees in the garden I think of the ‘bee-loud glade’. It’s the same sort of phrase as ‘crept into the crypt’ – utterly satisfying.

‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’ taught me about the power of the short line, the emotive power of falling back from a long lilting phrase to a short one. The middle stanza drops back from (line 3) ‘There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow’ to ‘And evening full of the linnet’s wings’ (line 4). It’s a lovely movement and the linnet’s wings are lovely, if not quite as good as the ‘bee-loud glade’ in the last line of the opening stanza.

But that’s the point. The poet is saving himself. He’s going for the full whammy in his last line, which repeats the rhythmic pattern of ‘bee-loud glade’ in a line a whole syllable shorter. A magnificent last line. A line to provoke a sitting ovation. Let’s hear it for W B Yeats:

I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.