When life circumstance throw us into disarray, it seems there’s a natural human instinct to create order in a corner of the chaos.

So when sirens sound and bombs are imminent, someone may linger to make the bed, or clear the table, or put another piece of the jigsaw into place.

An ambulance is called, and the caller—never mind the chest pains—packs her overnight bag neatly, each thing in its proper place. These things matter.

A violent storm in autumn whisks leaves off the trees and the next day human beings scurry out of their houses, sweeping them up, pushing them into sacks and wheelie bins and compost heaps. Pointlessly. There will only be more.

And in this house, faced with more than one serious illness in the family, it seemed time to organise the boxes of books under the stairs, though other, more important, responsibilities were looming.

You see, we have one room packed with pamphlets upstairs: from here Matt does the packing and posting out for orders, reviews, competitions. In this room, he also has the acetate sleeves, the padded envelopes, the compliment slips, the review slips, the flyers, the newsletters, the postage stamps and customs stickers—everything carefully in its allotted corner—even to the safety pin with which he pricks each acetate sleeve around a pamphlet to let the air out so it will lie flat in the envelope. (This room was a bedroom once.)

In another upstairs room (my study) more books and pamphlets are in tottering piles on a small chest of drawers. Boxes of toner are stacked in one corner, two more boxes of books, reams and reams of paper, white and coloured. The envelopes of poems for the July reading window are filed on the floor, as are a number of other papers waiting to go up the ladder into the roof. (Don’t ask about the roof.)

But downstairs, under the stairs, there are far more boxes, and when there’s a new delivery, as there was on Friday, yet more boxes go there. It’s almost impossible now to get under the stairs, and frequently we forget what’s there—or believe a box of books is there that isn’t—because we’ve sold them all. Periodically, I do a recce, involving dust, heaving, reconciliation and a new floor plan. That was what happened yesterday. it’s tidier now with a outline of what is where. Some things have been carried upstairs and restacked in other stacks. Publications can be pinned down, their geography (for the moment) fixed. A degree of order has been established in one corner of our lives.

It struck me, while under the stairs heaving boxes, that individual poems are doing much the same thing. Many of them arise from a some kind of maelstrom and attempt to establish their own bit of order. They grapple with problems. The ones I like best creep around the problem describing it from one angle or another rather than solving it. But description is in itself a sort of solution. It puts things into place. it creates a floor plan. The more meticulously it makes its measures and phrasings, the more satisfying it feels.

Poetry likes patterns and patterning. It doesn’t have to be rhyme and metrical form, but in the grimmest circumstances those features come into their own. They solve nothing; but they resolve something. (I’m thinking this morning of Anthony Hecht’s More Light! More Light!, the least consolatory of poems, and yet … )

While under the stairs I was thinking about Andrew Marvell’s ‘Bermudas‘, which has always struck me as one of the oddest of poems. If the singers are pilgrims, why are they in a rowing boat? What happened to the Mayflower? Where exactly are they going? There’s something so surreal about it all, and yet delicious. “He gave us this eternal Spring / Which here enamels everything, / And sends the fowls to us in care / On daily visits through the air”—I like its rhyminess and chime-iness. I find the boat of singers both ridiculous and charming, whatever their sense of entitledness. What they really are is workers. It doesn’t matter what they sing (though singing about delights is preferable to singing about despair) so long as it keeps the rhythm going, keeps them going wherever they are going:

 This sung they in the English boat
 An holy and a cheerful note:
 And all the way, to guide their chime,
 With falling oars they kept the time.

And then the poem suddenly stops. Just like that—no warning at all.

But we can keep going. We have established a measure of order and pattern under the stairs and we can keep going. A ‘momentary stay against the confusion of the world’, as Robert Frost has it. The reading window is open and poems are welcome, especially from rowing boats and subscribers. There’s plenty of space on the floor.

Some of the books under and beside the stairs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photograph of common heal-all (blue) 

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


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.




“To whom I was like to give offence. . .”

We ‘did’ Frost for O level.

We ‘did’ Frost for O level.

Ten Twentieth Century Poets, edited with notes by Maurice Wollman, M.A. – I still have a copy, though it’s not the one I used because my name’s not in it. Instead, it’s Susan Heald 5B, Rosemary Green, 4x, Lindsay Brown 4E, Sheila Foster 6”. Where are you now, Susan, Rosemary, Lindsay and Sheila? What do you remember of Robert Frost?

Our teacher was in her early sixties I think, close to retirement. She was plump and very sweet – not a confident woman, but she liked poetry and we must have liked her because we learned not only French vocabulary but also poems on the school bus from Knutsford to Wilmslow, and we passed our exams. I still have ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’ by heart.

Yesterday, it was ‘Mending Wall’ that came to mind. The fence at the front of the house was being . . . half mended, half rebuilt by two stout members of the family. It fell to me to make scones and bacon rolls to keep them going. Their fingers were literally green by the time they downed tools.

‘Mending Wall’ was the first of the set of Frost poems and therefore the first Frost we read. In my head, Frost got mixed up with Andrew Young, who was in the same book – “Frost called to water ‘Halt! / And crusted the moist snow with sparkling salt”.

And then there was the odd inversion at the start – “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall”, instead of “There is something . . .” And that reminded me of Richard Llewellyn’s How Green Was My Family, which had been a craze for me and my two friends Kate and Keri the year before. They talked like that in How Green Was My Valley, inverting everything in a Welsh way. In fact, we re-named the novel There is Green My Valley Was, and Kate became Ceinwen, Keri Keridwen and I think I was Olwen. It wasn’t fair to Kate: nobody, after reading the book, wanted to be Ceinwen.

But back to Frost. We used to adapt bits of poems for our own ends. Something would go missing and one of us would say, “it’s not elves exactly”. Or we would be dragged out against our will to play netball in drizzle, moaning “Oh, just another kind of outdoor game”. Even now, when someone fondly produces a well-worn phrase, the words come to me: “he (or she) likes having thought of it so well”.

I didn’t notice how playful the poem was. I didn’t notice “And on a day we meet to walk the line / And set the wall between us once again. / We keep the wall between us as we go.” How regular it is – how the lines of the poem turn into the obedient lines of the wall! And although there are notes at the back of the book, this poem has none.

In the Highlands, there are dry stane dykes all over the place, mossed over and tumbling. Something has often “spilled the upper boulders in the sun” but mostly the lower boulders stay exactly where they are, and the lines of the ancient walls run through wood, valley and field with stoic determination.

But that’s by the by. Our Hatton Green fence is stoutly erected to keep out neighbours’ dogs and make cats think twice.  It’s taller than I might have liked, because my other half wants privacy (“He moves in darkness as it seems to me, /Not of woods only and the shade of trees”). But there’s a little gap underneath. The hedgehog can probably still get in. . . .


I can’t abide Visiting Hour by Norman McCaig. Marking school work has killed that poem for me. Too many nostrils bobbing down too many corridors in too many essays.

I can’t stand Visiting Hour by Norman MacCaig. Marking school work has killed it for me. Too many nostrils bobbing down too many corridors in too many MacCaiging essays.

However, Visiting Hour wasn’t dead when I was at school. It happened later, when I grew up and somehow turned into a teacher. I was appalled by the way schools in Scotland nurtured an obsession with certain texts. They taught the same poems, two or three of them, year in, year out. How could they bear it?

I think it’s because most school teachers don’t actually like poetry. But I don’t think this bizarre obsession with particular texts totally exterminates the Life of Po. Instead, it does something worse. It creates a disproportionate love for a particular piece, to the exclusion of all else. School leavers re-sitting exams in my evening class sometimes protest, ‘But I LOVE Visiting Hour. Please can I just write about it again?’ Arrgggh. I’m a teacher. Get me out of here.

Why do they love it? Perhaps because it’s the only poem they’ve ever studied and survived. The experience doesn’t seem to make them want to read any more poems, not even by Norman MacCaig.

I’ve just fished out the book we used for O level when I was at school in Cheshire forty-three years ago. It’s small and blue and the title is Ten Twentieth-century Poets, edited with notes by Maurice Wollman, first published in 1957. There’s a sticky label at the front: Wilmslow County Grammar School for Girls, and the book was once used, in turn, by Susan Heald (5B), Rosemary Green (4X), Lindsay Brown (4E) and Sheila Foster (6”). At the end of the year we were allowed to buy a copy if we wanted to, and I did.

The book contains poems by Auden, Betjeman, De la Mare, Eliot, Yeats, Andrew Young, Edward Thomas, Edwin Muir, Thomas Hardy and Robert Frost. We studied five of these – the last five in the list, the ones to whom I’ve given first names. I read some of the rest as well, including ‘The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock’ (a boy I had a crush on told me it was good).

I thought all poets were dead men. I was at an all-girls school studying poetry by all men.

They weren’t all quite dead. Most were: Edward Thomas, Thomas Hardy and Edwin Muir had been gone for ages. Frost was more recently defunct. I would have been astonished to know that Andrew Young was still alive. . . .

We didn’t obsess over one text. We read a clutch of poems by each of our five. We talked about some of them more than others, liked some of them more than others, and learned some of them off by heart, ready for the exams. We learned poems, and French irregular verbs, on the bus. I still have ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’ (Frost), by heart, and sections of the other poems – Edward Thomas, for example, in Out in the Dark:

How weak and little is the light,
All the universe of sight,
Love and delight,
Before the might,
If you love it not, of night.

I don’t believe we analysed poems to death. Or if we did, I have no memory of it. Only the poems.

I probably do love them more than I should, like Herman’s Hermits and Elvis Presley’s ‘Wooden Heart’. They undoubtedly underpinned my sense of what poetry is, which is why, when I began to write myself, free verse wasn’t my first choice.

I think our class teacher liked poems. I think the girls in my class quite liked poems too. But I don’t know that. Perhaps while I was sitting there liking these words and phrases, they were being slowly asphyxiated for other people in the same classroom. Susan Heald, Rosemary Green, Lindsay Brown, Sheila Foster – where are you? What have you got to say about this?

Special offer: If you’re reading this, and you’re still at school (which doesn’t seem likely, but it’s worth a try), I’ll send you some free poetry (which you may or may not like). It won’t include a copy of Visiting Hour. Just email your address to nell@happenstancepress.com