But not whining. Or I hope not.

But it has been quite a week.b2ap3_thumbnail_DSC02048_20130901-085220_1.jpg

The decoration of the HappenStance bedroom/office was neatly finished in time for the work downstairs to commence with a vengeance. The conservatory, which was leaking in more places than we had bowls to put under, has been torn down (ready for rebuilding). So the furniture from the conservatory is in the newly painted bedroom. It is difficult to move there.

The new conservatory has not yet been built so the door which would go into it is boarded up and the sitting room is consequently very dark.


However, the log burning stove (cue previous saga) has been installed. We are still getting used to the shock of stove plus huge pipe. But it works. It certainly works. And the light from the flames slightly offsets the huge dark from the boarded up wall.

Half the exterior of the house has been rough cast and harled. Men come to do pipes, cladding and gutters tomorrow morning. And more of the building work round the soon-to-be-erected conservatory. They are all men. On the board in the kitchen, there’s a small list of names and what they take in their tea.


And on my upstairs list (it has been increasingly hard to get to this computer which is a gateway to the WORLD) there has been the pleasure of knowing Gerry Cambridge’s book, Notes for Lighting a Fire, has been short-listed for The Scottish Mortgage Investment Trust Book Awards. Long live mortgages!


But meanwhile (a lot of my paragraphs are starting with ‘but’, but that’s the least of it), my friend and HappenStance poet Marcia Menter, arrived from New York, and together we set off for the Isle of Arran, leaving the building work behind, and my long-suffering partner Matt in charge of log stoves, tea for the workers and general survival.


Why Arran? Marcia was one of four winners of the Robert McLellan poetry prize and she flew over, like a true poetry executive, for the award ceremony. (This is not the sort of thing she usually does but hey, life is short).

The three other winners included another HappenStance poet, Jim Carruth (hurray!) And then there was Ron Scowcroft, Hubert Moore and highly commended Emma Strang. Hubert is the one with his hand in his pocket, Ron the one gripping the lectern. Jim, you will recognise. A lovely bunch of people.



But it wasn’t all winning. On our way to the event, Gerry Cambridge texted to say Seamus Heaney had died, a huge loss. I would not normally see this from a US perspective but because I was with Marcia, I knew that this death was featured next day on the front page of the New York Times above the fold. This is practically unheard of.

And so, as PoetryWorld shivered on its foundations, we celebrated poetry, which will outlive all of us.

Peter and Ann Sansom were the judges of the McLellan competition and awarded prizes. But they did much more than that. They are not ordinary judges (or poets). They talked about each winning poem. They read each poem, and then the poets read them again. We got to know those poems, and their authors.

All this in a little community hall on Arran, set out not in in rows, but with café-style tables and bring-your-own bottles of wine. There was a lovely atmosphere. Peter and Ann read a few of their own poems too – not many – with charm, humour and generosity. We laughed a great deal. Oh did you read Anthony Wilson on Ann Sansom? It is all true.


I think it’s true to say that on this lovely occasion on Arran, despite the loss of the great Seamus, we felt like we had all won. He was not forgotten, and as long as there is life and letters, he never will be.

We arrived in Arran in rain but with rainbows.


We left in a squall of rain that nearly soaked us through, followed by brilliant sunshine.


Now back to the building of the HappenStance emporium. This week the conservatory should go up, the roofwork should be done – oh and a few other things. One day it might be possible to read and write here again.

But not yet.

On Friday, I go to London, taking some HappenStance wares to the Free Verse Bookfair at the Conway Hall in London. I must work out where it is before then. If you’re based in or near the metropolis, do come along and have a chat. I may have dust and mortar in my hair, but who cares?





A poet doesn’t have to be well-known to be remembered.

A poet doesn’t have to be well-known to be remembered.

When I was recently (and for the first time) in New York, I had the privilege of visiting a lady in that city who had been a great reader all her life.  Her Manhattan apartment was a quiet and lovely space, far above the traffic and bustle. Most of the wall space was lined with books, from floor to ceiling. You could sit and read there for weeks, months, years, decades.

We spoke about George MacDonald, because I had come from Scotland and she thought I might know and like his work, which indeed I do, though not as any kind of expert.

I read MacDonald’s books for children in my early years and loved them passionately. He said, of course, that he wrote not just for children “but for the child-like, whether they be of five, or fifty, or seventy-five.” I think I will never forget Princess Irene, in The Princess and the Goblin, who, on a miserable wet day—too dreich and dreary to go out—gets lost in the “large house, half castle, half farmhouse” where she is growing up. She scrambles up a little steep stair and finds herself:

“ in a little square place, with three doors, two opposite each other, and one opposite the top of the stair. She stood for a moment, without an idea in her little head what to do next. But as she stood, she began to hear a curious humming sound. Could it be the rain? No. It was much more gentle, and even monotonous than the sound of the rain, which now she scarcely heard. The low sweet humming sound went on, sometimes stopping for a little while and then beginning again.”

The humming noise comes from a wheel, at which a “very old lady” sits spinning.

The “very old lady” is Irene’s “grandmother”. Irene thinks she may be as old as fifty, but she is far older than that. Everything has incredible visual clarity, but nothing more than the grandmother’s fire place:

“…Irene looked again, and saw that what she had taken for a huge bouquet of red roses on a low stand against the wall was in fact a fire which burned in the shapes of the loveliest and reddest roses, glowing gorgeously between the heads and wings of two cherubs of shining silver. And when she came nearer, she found that the smell of roses with which the room was filled came from the fire-roses on the hearth.”

Later the magical grandmother is able to put her hand into the fire and lift out one of the roses. This whole haunting scene came back to me in the apartment of another magical lady in Manhattan.

I didn’t know (I have just checked) that MacDonald was a profound influence on C S Lewis, whose children’s books I also loved. And on J R R Tolkien, whose works I loved in turn. And of course, C S Lewis was a friend of Ruth Pitter, whose poetry I had gone to the United States to discuss.

Everything connects.

In that high-up apartment in Manhattan, we talked also about poetry. The lady I visited did not like all poetry—and why should she? Why should anybody? But she liked some of it very much. She was a life-long reader of The New Yorker, and sometimes she cut poems out of that magazine and kept them. She shared one she had by heart. She had read it first about sixty years ago.

This is what she had cut out, kept and remembered:

Time is not a healer

by Gerta Kennedy

No sorrows pass.
They all remain
In the honeycomb

Under the heart’s drain.

Nature quickens:
The comb’s alive,
And the bees of pain
Spring from the hive.

She had never seen another poem again by that poet. She had looked out for her, but no more Gerta Kennedy poems had crossed her path.

Marcia Menter and I, who were visiting together, set about an Investigation. Marcia in particular found out quite a lot about Gerta Kennedy (1913-1994), who was born and died on November 7th. Though certainly not prolific, she had published two books of poems, Native Island (1956) and Water Ways (1988). She married, had three sons, and was later divorced.

Native Island includes ‘Time is Not a Healer’, though the first line has changed, from “No sorrows pass” to “No passion passes”, and the punctuation is different too. It reads: “No passion passes, / they all remain / in the honeycomb / under the heart’s drain.” First word capitalization has gone. Exchanging “sorrows” for “passion” is significant. Marcia liked the second version. I prefer the first, but with the punctuation of the second.

But no matter. The lovely thing is the idea that a poem could follow someone around for the whole of their life, just one small lyric saved from the perishable pages of a magazine.

As Stevie Smith said, “The poet is not an important fellow. There will always be another poet.”

But the one little poem, now. That’s quite something.


The phrase has come back to me because I’m packing. I’m flying to the States tomorrow, the furthest I have ever been, to participate in a poetry conference and in particular to confer about Ruth Pitter.

The phrase has come back to me because I’m packing.

I’m flying to the States tomorrow, the furthest I have ever been, to participate in a poetry conference and in particular to confer about Ruth Pitter. The event is at the West Chester Poetry Center, at West Chester University in Pennsylvania, on Friday 8th, in company with Molly Peacock and Tim Liardet, chaired by Marcia Menter.

US New Formalists know all about this auspicious annual gathering, of course, and it has touched my life in various ways, but from a distance. So much from us in the world is cosily remote, and then suddenly it’s not remote, and never really was. But I must not get side-tracked.

Ruth Pitter, that most English of poets, has accomplished unexpected connections with the United States, despite the fact she never went there. Born in 1897, she wrote poems from about five years old onwards. Like many poets, she moved in and out of the lime-light. She had early success and a steady set of books, but as modernism seized the century, she began to look increasingly old-fashioned. She wasn’t confessional either – not in the least bit.

In the 1960s, her poetic output had dwindled practically to nothing. Then out of the blue, a letter arrived from the US poet Carolyn Kizer, editor of Poetry Northwest. Having been introduced to Pitter’s poetry through Theodore Roethke, who “worshipped her work”, she wanted to devote an issue of the magazine to the British poet. Had she any new work?

The request set Ruth writing again. She sent seven poems, which were duly printed in the magazine with tributes from Stanley Kunitz, Thom Gunn and John Holmes. In 1966, this group of poems would form the backbone of the collection Still by Choice which – although it numbered no more than 26 poems in all – was recommended by the Poetry Book Society. There was evidence in the later work of a change, something rather different happening.

But that wasn’t the last of the American interaction. In her early seventies, Pitter published a collected volume, and it appeared in the States as well. She had a small army of loyal readers. She grew older and began to be forgotten as a poet, but not by everybody. Author/illustrator Thomas McKean, for example, had come across A Mad Lady’s Garland in a secondhand bookshop in New York and had then acquired more books. When he visited the UK in 1983, he tracked her down at home, and had the first of three remarkable conversations. In 1985 and 1987, he brought a tape recorder with him. (From those visits, the HappenStance publication A Conversation with Ruth Pitter is drawn.)

After McKean’s visit to Ruth’s home, he became a faithful correspondent. He busily encouraged her to make her late poems known, and his industry paid off. In 1987, he edited a slender volume to honour her ninetieth birthday. A Heaven to Find was published by Enitharmon Press in an edition of 200 numbered copies, the first volume of Pitter since 1975.

America was a long way away, though, and Pitter was living an increasingly reclusive existence. She was befriended by newcomers to the village of Long Crendon, which was her home. Muriel Dickinson, together with her son Peter, the composer and musician, also began to support interest in Ruth Pitter. In 1987, the same year as A Heaven to Find, she was interviewed on BBC radio, and in 1990 Enitharmon brought out a collected volume introduced by Elizabeth Jennings.

There is a splendid photograph of her on her ninetieth birthday in the Enitharmon Collected, reprinted in 1996.

Ruth Pitter died in 1992. But even then, the USA continued to play a role. Don W King of Montreat College, North Carolina, was making the work of C S Lewis his professional focus. Through C S Lewis, he came across a key correspondent and friend of the great man – Ruth Pitter. In 2008, he published Hunting the Unicorn, a critical biography of the English poet, Ruth Pitter.

So America continues to play its part! In June of 2012, there is a panel out there in Pennsylvania discussing her. I was going to say more about her here, but I am running out of time and I need to pack.

The heading, when I began, was ‘Parlez moi d’amour’. That’s because Ruth Pitter knew the tune well. When she first met Horace’s Ode to Faunus, at school in the early part of the twentieth century, she also met Sapphics, “easy”, she said, “for ignorance to scan; what is more, it can be sung to the tune of ‘Parlez-moi d’amour’, which it fits to perfection.” And so it can. Here is the tune: you can sing it and see.

For Ruth, the rhythm and lilt of those Sapphics ran through her life. They emerge unexpectedly in all sorts of poems, sometimes as a half line, sometimes as the form of the whole poem. In such ways do rhythms connect not only continents but millennia.

I’ll finish with ‘Of Silence and the Air’, not one of her famous pieces, but you can sing it, and the last two stanzas are terrific. It comes from A Trophy of Arms, 1936.

Here where the cold pure air is filled with darkness
graced but by Hesper and a comet streaming,
censed by the clean smoke from a herdsman’s hearthstone
…..I stand with silence:

void of desire, but full of contemplation
both of these herds and of the gods above them:
mindful of these, and offering submission
…..to those immortal.

Older than they, the frosty air about me
speaks to the flocks like careful age, like winter,
saying, Seek shelter: to the gods, I know ye:
…..and to me nothing

save but that silence is the truth: the silent
stars affirm nothing, and the lovely comet
silent impending, like a nymph translated
…..abides in heaven.

Shall I not also stand and worship silence
till the cold enter, and the heart, the housewife,
spin no more, but sit down silent in the presence
…..of the eternal?