How personal should poems get?

It’s a sort of spectrum. At one end – the safe end – there’s persona (Robert Browning – ‘My Last Duchess’).

To get to the other end (hot and dangerous territory) you move through ‘Lyric I’ to potentially real experience, personal anecdote, unambiguously personal experience, personal outburst or rant, and – at the far edge of the spectrum – first-person confession and writing from the jugular. 

In poetry, the word ‘confessional’ has generally had bad press. It’s like ‘Georgian’. Its dynamic strengths have been subsumed by the whole idea of spillage and blurt. So generally it’s used by critics with a tone of disdain. 

Latterly the word ‘personal’ seems to be acquiring the same disparaging resonance. In more than one place I’ve read comments suggesting mainstream poetry in English is sadly dominated by memoir and personal anecdote. Too much boringly true experience. Not enough innovation and excitement. 

Personally (I use the word advisedly), I’m suspicious of innovation and excitement. I’m with Robert Frost in saying ‘I never dared to be radical when young for fear it would make me conservative when old.’ Or to put it another way, there’s nothing especially good (or new) about innovation per se. Yes, I know I am sixty-two years old and I don’t remember what I thought when I was twenty.

For one thing, at twenty I wouldn’t have ventured any opinion in public (and just as well), but now I have no compunction. I don’t agree that ‘mainstream poetry’, by which I mean the stuff that is in most of the print-based poetry magazines and read by most (but not all, not all) of the aspiring poets, is marred by being written out of unambiguous personal experience. If it is marred at all, it is by a failure to find sharpness and insight inside that material. This kind of failure characterises every era. The majority of printed poetry (I am not dealing with spoken word here) is worthy but forgettable. A little bit of it, for reasons hard to define, bites.

Where am I going with this? I like personal poems. I believe writing out of true experience is intensely valuable at some point to everyone, though of course not everyone chooses poetic form in which to do this.

As soon as you put true experience into any kind of words, you’ve made something of it. Describing is a kind of understanding, or at least moves towards it. One of the purposes (there are many) of poetry is to share an attempt to understand what’s going on. And to share what being human is like.

Tom Duddy writes about ‘a kind of vividness that poems at their best can and should have’ and at the same time his ‘craving for such vividness—a vividness without which I cannot be satisfied, no matter how admirable a poem or piece of writing may be in other respects’. He came to each poem, he said, not as a poet but as a reader with a need. A need for vividness.

Which means precisely what? The word ‘vivid’ has its origins in the Latin verb ‘vivere’ meaning ‘to live’ (it’s also in ‘revive’). Some poems are more alive than others. They revive us. It’s a little like a film moving suddenly out of black and white into colour. Or the sun coming out on a grey day. Or a human being whistling who suddenly turns into a master fiddler and the whole world dances.

So when I say I like personal poems, I like this kind of personal. The kind that wakes me up. That satisfies the craving for vividness, that reminds me what I read poetry for.

I’m working towards two new HappenStance pamphlets released this week. Kate Hendry’s The Lost Original is centred on personal experience. It begins when the poet is a child and her parents separate, and it ends in Costa, with the poet as a mother herself. But it’s not what poems are about that counts. It’s their vividness, which can sometimes be accomplished with such plainness that it’s humbling. Here is Kate’s opening poem. Each time I read it, my heart flips:

Baked Beans

He’d already gone, when Mum told me—
to a room in the Alveston House Hotel.
Still a chance he’d come back home.

It was baked beans on toast, in the garden;
the green baize card table (brought out
for good weather) unfolded just for me.

After I’d been told, I ate up my food
and I took my empty plate, knife and fork
back inside and washed them up myself.

Not one metaphor. Not one simile. Not one rhyme. The vividness all in the detail. The Alveston House Hotel. The green baize card table (how well I remember them). The empty plate. The knife and fork. The ‘just for me’. The ‘washed them up myself’. The vulnerability of the child eating in the garden (in ‘good weather’) on her own. Not one emotion: just that coldly ‘empty plate’.

This is what Kate Hendry can do with personal experience: share its vividness in a way that makes me be that child. To share this well is a sort of emotional intelligence. I re-learn through feeling it, what I already intuitively know, that the deepest emotions may not show. That the child who copes well is feeling things she can’t or won’t articulate, and may never communicate. Until she writes this poem.

The other new HappenStance pamphlet, Alan Buckley’s The Long Haul, is less obviously personal. On the spectrum, he’s nearer the may-be-personal-experience end. But hell – his vividness is personal. Take a look at ‘Flame’ – the sample poem in the webshop. It sends a shiver up and down my spine every time I read it. That’s vividness for you. It’s addressed to a ‘lover’. I have no doubt this human lover existed (or exists). But when you read it, this poem is addressed to you. And it is alive, and burning.

Both The Long Haul and The Lost Original deal with fathers, and these fathers are tricky people, difficult men. In Kate’s pamphlet her father features several times and, in a sense, he’s even on the book jacket, because he s the one who insists she master ‘Compositae, Rosacea, Gramineae’ from Keble Martin’s Concise British Flora. Alan’s dad makes one intensely memorable appearance ‘grappling under a bonnet, / as deft at the wrench as the fine adjustment’ while his son fumbles even ‘to lever off a bicycle tyre.  

How shall we ever understand our fathers? They are like us, and not like us. They never understood us. And we are still trying – those of us who can remember them vividly – to make sense of all that, whatever it was. This is poetry and it’s personal.





There are poems that won’t let me in. Not enough room.

I don’t know what makes it happen. I only know how it feels. I get to the end of the poem and cast my eye back over it. The poem looks unusually full of words. Chockablock. It sealed over when I got to the end and there doesn’t seem to be a way back in.

Is it to do with the layout? Can’t be. The poem is in couplets with yards of space round them. Is it because it’s written in the first person? No – it uses ‘she’ all the way through. Is it because there’s no ‘story’? Nope. There was a story – something to do with a dog and some washing, I think.

So what shut me out?

Lord knows. Sometimes I think it’s too much ‘I’. At other times, I wish the poet would drop ‘she’ and face up to the first person. 

But if the poem opens with this construction (see below), my heart always sinks:

Walking through the woods on Saturday
I think

which could equally be

On the road from Ceres to Blebo Craigs, I notice


Having drunk three cups of cappuchino and eaten two bath buns
I feel

That construction is opening poems all over the place. It is not fresh. It is not delightful and new. And the ‘I’, it seems to me, is already a poetic ‘I’. It is not me, and I want/need it to be me.

How very different is the start of ‘In Search of Uplift’ by Nancy Mattson which begins like this (and not an ‘I’ in sight):

It was heaven to sit in that shop
at number 28, reading tomes
at a vast table, its buttersoft leather top
stained with ink and sweat

I’m in the shop. That poem is about me.  

When I was at school we were taught about poems with Personal Truth and poems with Universal Truth. Universal Truth was better. There was a lot of Universal Truth in Macbeth but more in Hamlet. Shedloads in Robert Frost. (We didn’t read Sylvia Plath.)

But with this business of inviting the reader in (or not), I think I’m talking about something different from personal v. universal. I like personal truth. But it has to be personal truth the reader can inhabit. The experience needn’t be one the reader has had in person, but somehow she is having it through the poem without too much literature getting in the way. (I mean ‘inhabit’ as in ‘live inside’, as in ‘put on like a garment’, as in ‘invest in’.)

Unless it’s a poem in which she is lumped with an experience she doesn’t like one bit. At the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival recently, Julian Stannard discussed a poem by Frederick Seidel and despite Julian’s persuasive charm, it wasn’t a poem I wanted to be inside. In fact, there are texts that deliberately invite the reader inside an experience that’s abhorrent.

Browning does it in ‘Porphyria’s Lover’ when you find yourself identifying with a murderer. But there – because you sense the speaking voice is a mask – not the poet himself – you can be both inside and outside at the same time. You are and aren’t the narrator. Whereas, if you are the narrator (because you’ve stepped inside) and you don’t like being him, and there’s no place to go, you end up totally creeped out and off poetry for days.

So where am I going with this? People talk about ‘authenticity’ a lot. It may be that ‘authentic’ has lost its authenticity. But I’ll risk it. I think there’s an authentic ‘I’ which invites the reader in, and an inauthentic ‘I’ which shuts her out. I think there’s an authentic ‘she/he’ too, and an authentic ‘you’. And that when you read the poem, you know which it is.

The HappenStance reading window opens a week tomorrow on the first day of December (not before). It closes again on Wednesday 31st, but by the 30th I will be tired. If sending poems, do read the revised guidelines. Then push them gently in this direction, without worrying too much about authenticity. Or anything else. Let the poems do the talking.




The “first fine careless rapture” is startlingly loud just now. And it’s not the first.

It’s not just bird song that wakes me up. Several times recently one of the young birds has arrived on the bedroom window sill and is evidently trying to get in.

And so I lie awake trying to identify the different calls but I can’t — apart from wood pigeons, crows and gulls. I never have been able to. Even when I listen to them on the radio and feel sure I’ll remember, I don’t. Perhaps you have to be trained when you’re young.

So much I don’t know! I didn’t know till today, for example, that there was a difference between the song thrush and mistle thrush, or how to tell it. And now I do know, I’ll probably forget. What a confession! I didn’t know a blackbird was a thrush too (they’re all the same family) or that their Latin un-graceful family name is ‘turdus’. And I now know we have both songs and mistles in our garden, though not all the time. Last week a pair of mallard arrived just outside the garden fence. At least ducks go quack.

But who’s making all the noise this morning, on the first day of June? A lot of it’s the chaffinches (even better in Latin, fringilla coelebs) but some of it’s sparrows and bluetits (who sing their song many times more than twice over). And the coaltits – they’re my favourites to watch because they’re so very tiny. But their song (I now learn from YouTube) is much bigger than their size. Same with wrens. But I’ll still forget which of them is which. I remember standing underneath a robin singing in the spring, determined to memorise the sound because it was so beautiful. But in bed, listening, I’m not sure which one is robin.

I’m not even sure (when I’m half asleep) which sound belongs to the starlings (stukkies in Scotland) because they make such a range of noises when out and about. It may be young starlings that knock against the bedroom window. They do a lot of clowning about. In the tall trees in the road, when roosting together, their beautiful conversation is unmissable but on their own they don’t make that high looping, keening sound.

Thankfully I warm to the calming sound of the fat wood pigeons, who roll around the garden, eating everything in sight. I associate it with holidays in Wales. Probably the only bird sound I’m sure of.

Bird song brings me inevitably to Home Thoughts from Abroad, by that songster R Browning, one of the earliest poets ever to be recorded forgetting his own poem (though not this one). But I love him all the more for that. and at least I could recognise his voice anywhere. Obviously it is the Wrong Month now for this poem. But I woke with it in my head, along with the birdsong . . . so here it is.


Oh, to be in England now that April’s there
And whoever wakes in England sees, some morning, unaware,
That the lowest boughs and the brushwood sheaf
Round the elm-tree bole are in tiny leaf,
While the chaffinch sings on the orchard bough
In England – now!

And after April, when May follows
And the white-throat builds, and all the swallows!
Hark, where my blossom’d pear-tree in the hedge
Leans to the field and scatters on the clover
Blossoms and dewdrops—at the bent spray’s edge—
That’s the wise thrush: he sings each song twice over
Lest you should think he never could re-capture
The first fine careless rapture!
And, though the fields look rough with hoary dew,
All will be gay when noontide wakes anew
The buttercups, the little children’s dower,
Far brighter than this gaudy melon-flower!




‘Un poème n’est jamais fini, seulement abandonné. A poem is never finished, only abandoned.’ Paul Valéry

I’ve abandoned a good few poems in my time.  It’s hard to know when, or if, they are ever ‘finished’.

Gerry Cambridge, poet and editor of The Dark Horse, once told me, ‘Do not send out fresh poems.’ And he was right. It was a long time ago, and I’d had a surge of inspiration. I had ‘finished’ three or four new poems and promptly sent them to him.

Even now, time and again, I find a poem is not as finished as I thought it was. I tinker about for a week or do, think the thing is ‘done’, file it, and – lo and behold, I pick it up six weeks later and see immediately something must change, or the first stanza must go, or that it mustn’t have stanzas, or that I’ve repeated a key word twice and didn’t even notice.

On the other hand, I’ve abandoned poems sometimes because I couldn’t get them right. Then I’ve gone back into them to finish them, and I’ve wrecked them. Sometimes they’re worth keeping, flawed or not. A fragment might be salvaged and re-used. Sometimes, they need to be abandoned without trace.

When people send me poems during submission windows, I quite often (and this comment is terribly annoying) tell them I don’t think a particular poem’s quite ‘cooked’. Or I say, ‘I think there’s a poem in this poem but it hasn’t quite arrived.’

I’m a great fixer. I worry about this too. I often think of Robert Browning’s poem Andrea del Sarto. I may be employing my “low-pulsed forthright craftsman’s hand”. Who wants to be low-pulsed?

I, painting from myself and to myself,
Know what I do, am unmoved by men’s blame
Or their praise either. Somebody remarks
Morello’s outline there is wrongly traced,
His hue mistaken; what of that? or else,
Rightly traced and well ordered; what of that?
Speak as they please, what does the mountain care?
Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp,
Or what’s a heaven for? All is silver-grey,
Placid and perfect with my art . . .

The aim is not to be placid and perfect. The aim is to let the poem do its thing, whatever that may be. It’s a strange process, working with words and lines, working with one’s art, such as it is, and hoping the poem will do what it seems to want to do, that some subconscious process will allow the lyric to achieve itself. Almost impossible to describe.

But redrafting is not necessarily about making perfect. Browning might have talked about the soul of the poem and setting it free. Andrea del Sarto, ‘the faultless painter’, longs to fix a painting, but there’s a cost:

That arm is wrongly put, and there again –
A fault to pardon in the drawing’s lines,
Its body, so to speak: its soul is right,
He means right – that, a child may understand
Still, what an arm! and I could alter it:
But all the play, the insight and the stretch –
Out of me, out of me!

Many people get a poem to a certain stage and then take it to a workshop or even a masterclass. This can be helpful. It can also wreck the poem.

I once sent a poem to a good poet I know for advice. Her advice led me to change the poem substantially, and I was rather smug about the pleasing result. Then I put the poem away. I came back to it six months later. I had killed the poem stone-dead. I went back to the original version. That wasn’t right either. So I abandoned it forever

I’ve returned to ancient poems too – poems I wrote decades ago, which I think I can now ‘fix’. But it’s hard to work on poems after they’ve aged beyond a certain amount. You’re not the same person. Your voice is different. They can end up more ‘finished’ but less authentic. There is a point at which abandoning the poem is the right thing to do.

How do you know when you’ve reached that point? I’ve no idea.





Whose bicentenary was on 7th May this very year?

Robert Browning, no less. Perhaps you already knew. The significance of the year and date escaped me completely. It was mere coincidence (or happy synchronicity) that led me to putting The Pied Piper of Hamelin into a tiny pamphlet in September. In fact, it’s not even in the shop yet but it does exist, trust me.

I don’t know when poetry for children (apart from nursery rhymes) first appeared, but the Pied Piper, in 1842, must surely be one of the earliest manifestations. Heinrich Hoffmann’s Der Struwwelpeter wasn’t printed until 1845, three whole years after the Pied Piper had piped the children into the mountainside, and though both tales are set in Germany, I doubt the German psychiatrist Hoffmann was remotely aware of the aspiring poet/playwright Robert Browning.

In fact, when Browning penned his children’s epic, he was a mere thirty years old, unmarried, living with his parents, a poet who hoped to write for the theatre. He was ambitious but he was certainly far from successful. His main reputation up to that point was for obscurity. His marathon poem Sordello, had been published in 1840 (at his father’s expense) by the same publisher who was bringing out the works of a then little-known contemporary, three years his senior, Alfred Tennyson. (Tennyson didn’t make the leap to celebrity status until 1842; and Elizabeth Barrett’s 1844 volume Poems, the book that would change Browning’s life forever, was still a twinkle in the author’s eye.)

Poets are not always nice to each other. Tennyson said he understood two lines of Sordello only, the first and the last, and both (since one claimed it was going to tell the story of Sordello and the other claimed the story had been told) were lies. William Macready, the leading actor (and friend) whom Browning very much wanted to impress, noted in his diary for 17 June, 1840: “After dinner tried – another attempt – utterly desperate – on Sordello; it is not readable.” How one’s heart goes out to Macready! But at least he reserved his comments for his personal diary, and the friendship survived. (Clyde de L. Ryals calls it a “wonderful, zany poem”, by the way — perhaps Browning was just somewhat ahead of his time. John Lucas’s excellent Student Guide to Robert Browning observes drily that Ezra Pound “claimed to understand it, although he never explained his explanation”.)

But enough of Sordello. Browning had had good friends and he valued them. When William Macready’s oldest son fell ill and was confined to bed, he wrote him a story for entertainment purposes. It was a story in verse: The Pied Piper of Hamelin, and he suggested the boy might like to illustrate it. The author wasn’t preoccupied with penning Great Poetry. Perhaps that’s why the Pied Piper leaps off the page so delightfully:


They fought the dogs and killed the cats,

….And bit the babies in the cradles,

And ate the cheeses out of the vats,

….And licked the soup from the cook’s own ladles,

Split open the kegs of salted sprats,

Made nests inside men’s Sunday hats,

And even spoiled the women’s chats

….By drowning their speaking

….With shrieking and squeaking

In fifty different sharps and flats.

Oh boy, what a rhymer! What a man of metre! What fun he was having!

The year before Browning’s death, the Pied Piper appeared in an edition illustrated beautifully by Kate Greenaway and, although I don’t possess a copy, I think this may have been the version I first read, perhaps my first dose of Browning. With or without illustration, the poem has unparalleled bounce, a quality not often associated with long poems. And it shows Browning’s joy in unreasonable rhyme, something he showed off at dinner parties, apparently, to the end of his days. Who else would rhyme “painted tombstone” with “the Trump of Doom’s tone”? It’s a joke, of course, and some of this no doubt baffled the young Macready. Other bits though must have been a joy, such as the voice of the surviving rat: “So munch on, crunch on, take your nuncheon, /Breakfast, supper, dinner, luncheon”. Such fragments can follow one through life, long after much else is lost.

The HappenStance version of The Pied Piper of Hamelin has a number of rats scattered through its pages, though not in the Kate Greenaway style. They are what poet Frank Wood (his first pamphlet will imminently issued by HappenStance in Racing the Stable Clock) calls “racing rodents”. He likes them so much he wants those rats for his pamphlet too. . . .

In the 1870s, by which time he had outlived Elizabeth by decades, Browning had a pet owl called Bob, which sat either on a bust beside his desk or on his shoulder when he wrote. This is recorded in an anonymous article titled ‘Celebrities at Home’ in The World (1880). A pet owl called Bob. A brown owl.

The great Robert Browning had a sense of humour. Never let that be forgotten.