Children learn about rhyme probably before they can speak, but certainly they start to be able to do it – for fun and with relish – as soon as they can talk easily.    

My granddaughter and I used to go for walks and do rhyming. I would say, ‘What do you want for Christmas? Do you want a mat? …. Or do you want a cat? Or do you want a ….’ and she would roar HAT (or RAT or BAT), and fall about with delight. She would even invent words that rhymed. TAT! WAT! DAT!

Create a space and a rhyme falls into it. Goodness knows why rhyming sense is fun. But Dr Seuss, Lewis Carroll, Edward Lear, A A Milne, Lynley Dodd and Julia Donaldson are just a few of the names that have profited and continue to profit from this fact. They have entertained children and parents for over a century and a half.

I think it’s something to do with knowing what’s coming while at the same time being slightly surprised. If I read aloud from A. A. Milne’s The Christopher Robin Story Book, or happen to say to you

James James
Morrison Morrison
Weatherby George Dupree
Took great
Care of his Mother
Though he was only …

won’t you leap into the fray with THREE? Can you resist saying ‘three’? And

James James
Said to his Mother
‘Mother,’ he said, said he;
‘You must never go down to the end of the town, if you don’t go down

You will finish the line for me, won’t you? Me. Me. ME!

But some of the rhyming verses you learn as a child don’t rhyme properly. The old ones, the authorless ones that get passed down over generations – some of them have terrible rhymes. 

Jack and Jill, as I feel sure you know, went up a hill to get a pail of water. When Jack fell down, he bumped his crown, which rhymed nicely, but ‘Jill came tumbling after’ is miserably disappointing. ‘Water’ absolutely does not rhyme with ‘after’.

And this happens a lot. Look at Ding Dong Bell / Pussy’s in the well. 

Little Johnny Thin and Little Tommy Stout rhyme neatly. But what about the cat who ‘ne’er did any harm’? ‘Harm’ does not rhyme with the farmer’s ‘barn’, except for the purposes of this ditty (which by the way is grossly modernised on Wikipedia and not the version I grew up with). Still – harm/barn? You can make it rhyme. You can hear the similarity. You can hear a similarity between ‘water’ and ‘after’. But it’s not a full-blooded, satisfying, click-into-place rhyme. 

As a child I knew the difference. Everybody knows the difference.

But where are we now? Contemporary poets are nervous about rhymes and go to all sorts of lengths to avoid the delicious neatness they might offer. Perfect rhyme is looked down on, with much the same raising of eyebrows as goes with the word ‘Georgian’. 

But poets still pair words like ‘sleeping’ and ‘walking’. Or they may slant-rhyme ‘cat’ with ‘pot’ (Philip Larkin being the grand master of brilliant slant rhyme). They rhyme in the middle of lines instead of at the end. They rhyme without a metrical pattern to drive the rhyme home. They rhyme singular with plural (hope / envelopes). Or most commonly they rhyme not at all.

It has been suggested to me on more than one occasion that contemporary magazines reject certain poems because they rhyme. I do not think this is true. It is more likely that the editor felt the poem weak for other reasons. But rhyming is both easy and hard to do. That is to say anyone can rhyme with certain words (the balladeers exploited that to the full by regularly ending lines on sounds like ‘lie’ and ‘say’, for which there are many matches). But rhyming with the panache of Hilaire Belloc or Roald Dahl or W H Auden or is a true art. 

Most of the rhymers I have mentioned here wrote for children or humorously, and it is in humorous writing that rhyme still flourishes. The fortieth edition of Lighten Up Online is proof of this alone, and Martin Parker’s ‘Ermyntrude and the Higgs Boson’ offers a number of inspired rhymes for the Hadron Collider. It can still be done.

And not just in light verse. Ruth Pitter, who lived into the last decade of the twentieth century, continued to rhyme all her life. She rhymed through modernism, post modernism and beyond. Olive Dehn loved rhyming, and it worked for her. And of course, Charles Causley, whom I wrote about last week – the man could rhyme.

‘New’ poets often go to considerable lengths to flout convention, as artists are supposed to do. They drop punctuation. They spatter words across the page. They right justify. They put things in boxes. They put things in columns. They superimpose text with other text. They cross things out. They invent symbols and signs to substitute for words. (They don’t, usually, write for children.) Despite all of this, most contemporary poems look, at first glance, remarkably similar to one another. For example (as I have pointed out elsewhere) the practice of writing in (unrhymed) couplets is currently so common as to be a contemporary convention, as well as frequently associated with poems that win competitions.

But rhyme is no longer a convention in non-humorous, contemporary, literary, page poetry. (In performance work, it’s a different story, though I might say something about that another time.) Not-rhyming is the convention in page poetry (except at weddings and funerals), even though readers appear to continue to enjoy it, from childhood onwards. I wonder how long it will be before use of rhyme will radicalise the page. It hasn’t been in fashion now, except in light verse, for a very long time. It’s hard though. It’s hard not to sound like a greetings’ card. It’s hard to do it well.

And hard to write good poems – has been from the year dot.

(Hard to write good poems, whether they rhyme or not.)


July is a long month. There are ten days still to go. I’ve read 56 sets of poems now, and I’m getting tired.

Also I may have become completely neurotic. This leaning verb thing, for example. I keep falling over them. And the ‘as’ construction keeps popping up (you know I hate that word) at the end of what is otherwise a nice poem.

Last night I was constructing verse in my sleep, stanzas that would exemplify the recurring patterns.

The long day is longer, hotter than ever before
and the leaning verb thing leans in-
to my consciousness as I read. It’s
familiar as conscience, seductive
as silk. It feels like poetry, aches
like an old grudge. As I move out of the sun
it leans over to me, reaches my ankles,
whispers reassurance, and burns.

One day a poet will take revenge on me. It will be easy. The person will trawl through my two full collections to find examples of Helena Nelson doing exactly the same thing. I know, I know. The semi-colon in my own eye is what makes me see it in others.

Here are two more things that go wrong though. First, there’s the poem that makes complete sense to the poet but less sense to the reader.

Here’s what Ruth Pitter has to say about obscurity:

[ . . . ] I think a real poem, however simple its immediate content, begins and ends in mystery. It begins in that secret movement of the poet’s being in response to the secret dynamism of life. It continues as a structure made of and evolved from and clothed in the legal tender and common currency of language; perhaps the simpler the better, so that the crowning wonder, if it comes, may emerge clear of hocus-pocus. (I think it is important to make the plain meaning of the words as clear as possible, but it cannot always be made entirely clear. Our only obscurities, I feel, should be those we are driven into; then a sort of blessing may descend, making such obscurity magical.)

I agree. There’s a kind of necessary obscurity. It arises when you write about something you don’t fully understand. The poem may be an attempt to grasp an idea bigger than itself. But it is “important to make the plain meaning of the words as clear as possible” and that’s where things can go amiss. It can start when the poet chooses an obscure title, and then goes on to other layers of obscurity.

Imagine, for example, that the title is ‘Miasma’ and the poem is about the day the poet learned she was at risk of losing her sight. The verb ‘to see’ is a wonderful one to play with, because it means see with the eyes and understand with the brain. “I could not see what he meant” in the context of this imagined poem, therefore, is pregnant with irony.

However, the unknown reader may not see what the poet is talking about, or only with difficulty. Perhaps the poet has introduced her poem to a group of friends – a workshop group perhaps – and the group already knows (or she tells them) about the experience underpinning the text. Nothing is obscure to them.

But often it’s more difficult for a general reader. I often get to the end of a poem and feel unsure what it was about. I assume the deficiency is in me. I read the text again. I think it might be about a) or it might be about b). It could even be about c). I feel wary of making a comment in case I reveal my own idiocy.

Should all poems be immediately comprehensible? Obviously not. The delight may reside in the mystery. I can think of poems I love that I’ve never fully understood. But I think this is the obscurity Ruth Pitter calls “magical”. It’s a mysteriousness the poet is driven into unavoidably.

I once shared a little poem in a workshop group – a poem by me, I mean. It was about an innocent childhood memory and yes, it was a bit obscure. To my horror, my friends were convinced it was an experience of sexual abuse. I couldn’t see any way to save it. The poem went to the bottom of the ragbag.

One last thing. I like narrative poems, by which I mean poems with a story at their heart. But I notice the heaviness when they involve a backstory with past perfect or habitual tenses.

The same difficulty often afflicts short stories:

“I had often seen Mr Parr on a Tuesday morning. He’d be shouldering his purple and green backpack. He would wave to me as he marched past my garden. He’d almost certainly be wearing his mauve hat with a white pompom. But today was different.”

If you can avoid the past perfects, with their heavy ‘d’ sounds, I would do it. In a poem you can almost always swing straight into the simple past, without having to explain (through your verb tenses) which action came before which. For example:

On Tuesdays Mr Parr waved as he marched past
with his purple and green backpack, and
his mauve hat with a white pompom. But today
was different.

The reason for avoiding the he’ds and you’ds and we’ds is two fold. First, the mechanism is unimaginative – such an obvious way of filling in background. Second, if you fill your poem full of ‘d’ sounds, it’s like a bag of stones. It sinks straight to the bottom of the river.


Last week I wrote about idolatry. This week I learned it.

Driving to work, I quite often see someone singing at the wheel. If it’s a man, Nessun Dorma; a woman: I Will Survive.

In my case, I’m not singing (the mouth moves in a different way), I’m talking. I’m talking through a sonnet, line by line.

It can be dangerous. I think I have the whole sonnet safely heart-stowed, and then I acquire a snag round line 7 and I can’t bear it. The card with the sonnet is on the seat next to me. I could pick it up while driving, glance at it and ease my pain. Quite often I pull in: it’s safer. 

Eventually I don’t have to stop because the poem is safe in head and heart, for a while at least.

Poet Ruth Pitter lost her sight in the last years of her life, but in her sightless nineties she could still recall swathes of poetry. I’ve always envied this. My mother, too, had a remarkable memory for the words of poems and songs. In my case, I have to work at it. I remember lines and snatches effortlessly, but the whole thing requires extended exercise.

But it is hugely satisfying. I have no idea why I’m not learning one all the time. Don Paterson famously says a poem is “a little machine for remembering itself”. He says this, I think, in more than one place but certainly in the introduction to his Faber book of 101 Sonnets. Why do I remember Paterson’s phrase? Because it’s so neat and so true of formal poems. The clicks and hinges, the tucking into place of phrase and cadence – these are all about meaning and memory.

I don’t think sound is everything in poetry, but it’s a great deal. Last week I believed I had examined #105, ‘Let not my love be called idolatry’ minutely. When I came to learn it by saying it over and over aloud, first I began to pay close attention to the repetitions. Because repetitions, in learning by heart, can both help and hinder. Obviously, in the idolatry sonnet ‘Fair, kind and true’ comes in three times, each time at the start of the line. Three words, three times.

The repetition I hadn’t fully clocked was ‘wondrous’ which comes in twice (‘still’ comes in twice too). Here’s the sonnet so you can see what I mean as I talk it through.

Let not my love be called idolatry,
Nor my beloved as an idol show,
Since all alike my songs and praises be
To one, of one, still such, and ever so.
Kind is my love to-day, to-morrow kind,
Still constant in a wondrous excellence;
Therefore my verse to constancy confined,
One thing expressing, leaves out difference.
Fair, kind, and true, is all my argument,
Fair, kind, and true, varying to other words;
And in this change is my invention spent,
Three themes in one, which wondrous scope affords.
Fair, kind, and true, have often lived alone,
Which three till now, never kept seat in one.

It’s only when you say the word ‘wondrous’ aloud (or only in my case) that you hear the ‘one’ inside it and therefore hear what the word is doing. You also hear the inner rhyme, like the Ariston and on and on advert: ‘Still constant in a wondrous excellence; / Therefore my verse to constancy confined, / One thing expressing’.

On and on. It’s in ‘invention’ too and ‘song’. It’s the last word of the whole poem: the high point. You, WS is saying, are The One. If this isn’t idolatry, what is? But in this poem, idolatry is dismissed as a matter of multiple idols, whereas true love is ‘three themes in one’. It’s another bit of blasphemous trickery – using the terms of ‘true religion’ to describe human love.

But Shakespeare doesn’t care. He’s creating a little machine for remembering itself, and it does. I thought at first the weak phrase was ‘varying to other words’. It doesn’t seem very memorable. It almost seems to cancel out the uniqueness of ‘Fair, kind and true’. If these are the only themes, why talk about varying them?

All Shakespeare’s sonnets have inner connections: often the logic and the syntax is as neat as the sound. Here ‘varying to other words’ connects directly to ‘And in this change’. I wondered (sorry about the pun) last week whether ‘change’ could have had a currency connection in Elizabethan England. I think it must have done. ‘And in this change’ must link back to ‘varying’ and link forward to ‘invention spent’, and further forward to the ‘wondrous scope’ that this ‘affords’. It may be that ‘scope’ shadow-rhyming with ‘Pope’ is going too far. Nevertheless, it forms another link in my memory chain.

Memorising is very odd. Certain lines and phrases are like safe havens or ‘barleys’ as we used to say at school (which may be a corruption of ‘parleys’). You arrive at them with relief:  they ‘click’ more easily and resolutely than the rest. For me, it’s ‘Therefore my verse to constancy confined’. I love that phrase. I like the way ‘Therefore’ lodges neatly, and its logical link to ‘argument’. I savour the alliteration of ‘to constancy confined’ and the pun on ‘constancy’ as faithfulness but also simply Ariston and on and on.

And I adore ‘Which three, till now, never kept seat in one’. For some reason the ‘Which’ is particularly satisfying to me. Again, it’s a hinge, it points back nicely but it somehow helps to stack ‘three’ against ‘one’ at the other end of the line, while ‘never’ breaks the iambic pattern so thoroughly, so pleasurably, with such an irrevocable surge towards the resonant ONE at the end.

It is unforgivable to go on and on and on about one sonnet over two blog weeks. But learning it by heart changes everything. I still think the rehearsal of idolatry and Catholics and the Book of Common Prayer is interesting, but nothing compared to the hinges and clicks, the soundscape of the sonnet.

For example, why is it easy to remember line five? ‘Kind is my love today, tomorrow kind’? The word ‘Kind’ hasn’t featured in the first four lines. I think it’s because of ‘all alike my songs and praises be’, a lovely phrase in itself. The sound in ‘alike’ is picked up in ‘Kind’, and so it fits. It all fits.

Shakespeare is astonishing. It was when I began to memorise parts of plays at school that I realized something extraordinary was going on. It is still happening. So this week, I also memorized #30 ‘When to the sessions of sweet silent thought’. Much of that was on the train, so more difficult. However, there is a particular pleasure in bits of Shakespeare that have found their way to being famous in other context – in this case ‘remembrance of things past’.

And although I could write about #30 too from now till lunchtime, especially about the way the currency metaphor connects the entire sonnet from the (debtors’) court ‘sessions’ in line one to the ‘losses are restored’ in line 14, I’ll just note I was surprised that ‘moan’ in line 8 preceded ‘fore-bemoanèd moan’ in line 11. It occurred to me that I’d got the first ‘moan’ wrong. I thought it might have been ‘mourn th’expense of many a vanished sight’. (Shakespeare does use ‘mourn’: it’s in #71 ‘No longer mourn for me when I am dead’.)

But no, ‘moan’ is correct. And of course it is correct. Because the ‘fore-bemoanèd moan’ not only refers to past griefs, but also to the ‘moan’ earlier in the poem – and, even more importantly, a key word in the poem is ‘woe’. The most difficult line to say is: ‘And with old woes new wail my dear time’s waste’, but it introduces the key sound ‘oh oh oh’, ‘old woes’. Hence the absolute necessity of ‘moan’, which will also echo in ‘flow’ and then another ‘woe’ and then ‘heavily from woe to woe tell o’er’. The whole poem is a symphony of lamentation, until the final couplet, which is suddenly (perhaps too suddenly) upbeat. The sonnet’s full of ‘w’ consonants too” when, woe, waste, weep, wail, drown, new, which, while, sorrow. Favourite haven phrases? ‘Love’s long since cancelled woe’.

This week I’m going to learn ‘My own heart let me more have pity on’. Gerard Manley Hopkins is harder than Shakespeare because the expression is so very compressed, but ‘thirst’s all-in-all in all a world of wet’ is not only irresistible, it’s suited to our current climate and it is now on a BardCard, just the right size for learning.

Please drive carefully.



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?


Poetry is out to get me.

Sometimes nice people say to me, by email, “I will send you some poems soon”. I know they mean well, but nevertheless I experience this promise as a warning. It is like the Godfather saying “I will send you a little present”.

But I have an antidote. It is a thin paperback volume with a green cover. It is 56 pages long and contains 33 poems written over seven years.

This is Robert Nye’s new book. I cannot link to it here, because the publisher, Greenwich Exchange, hasn’t yet made the publication available on their website.

The book is titled An Almost Dancer, Poems 2005-2011. Like the poet’s previous volume, The Rain and the Glass, it has a brief foreword about poetic practice. Here’s what the poet said back in 2004:

The craft, as has been noted, is long to learn. And the last lesson (like the first) may be that craft at best is only half the story, for poetry is not a product of the will. I have spent my life trying to write poems, but the poems gathered here came mostly when I was not.

“Poetry is not a product of the will.” Say that in a creative writing class and emerge unscathed.

In his new volume, Nye refers in his foreword to Norman Cameron, the twentieth century Scottish poet. In New Verse, Geoffrey Grigson asked Cameron “Do you intend your poetry to be useful to yourself or others?” Cameron’s reply (and it was typical of him) was: “Neither. I write a poem because I think it wants to be written.”

For Robert Nye, who shares Cameron’s view, “in each case certain lines came into my head unbidden which then required resolving before they’d let me rest.” Many of us could relate to that, though few would go on to say, “I must admit that . . . the process of poetic composition is still as much a mystery to me as it ever was, perhaps more so.”

But it is a mystery in more than one sense. It is a mystery that in the melée of tweeting and twittering, prizes and glorification, puffs and counter-puffs, rants and pomposities, a small poem can still arrive astonishing and complete. It doesn’t need to assert itself. It waits for you to notice it and pick it up, like a pebble amongst sea-washed pebbles.

Ruth Pitter, in her preface to Poems 1926-1966, says “I think a real poem, however simple its immediate content, begins and ends in mystery”.

I do not want to mystify – neither the process of writing, nor that of reading either—because essentially, despite the tracts and books about poetic theory and so on, certain poems do not need annotation or cleverness. Some of those are in Nye’s new book.

Sometimes Nye’s style is so plain that a modern reader could suspect the author of being disingenuous. But he is not. Here is one of my favourites, ‘The Lady With The Dog’. The title is not a subtle reference to Chekhov. The experience, I am sure, was real:

I saw a little old woman being led
Up a Cork alley by a mongrel dog.
The dog was wall-eyed and it had the mange
And slavered as it pulled her on a string,
Yet as they passed I heard the woman chant
In a low voice, as sweet as Juliet,
‘Who is my joy? Who is my darling boy?
Wolfie, my dear, aren’t you the dog of dogs!’
I hurried on, for I had things to do,
But when all’s done I hope I shan’t forget
That lady and her love for one fine dog.

In the crucible of the poem, “things to do” are life itself, the way its busyness preoccupies us and prevents us from seeing. And “when all’s done”—that is death, the moment of dissolution. And the lady herself, whose voice is as sweet as Juliet, is a vision.

In Nye’s poetry it is as if one line or phrase opens that vision, the glory that Wordsworth felt he had seen as a child and later lost. For a moment you peer through the poem and glimpse it too. Then you wonder whether you imagined it, and you have to go back, and read again.

Here is ‘Valentinus’, who was also Martin Seymour-Smith, the poet and literary critic, and a friend. What had he to say?

Yes, I knew Valentinus from my youth.
He taught me poets have to tell the truth
Or try to, though it make us seem uncouth.

You find this foolish? Lady, so did he,
Laughing at his own verses, teaching me
To laugh at mine or simply let them be.

Not that it’s ever simple to make sense
At least when living in the present tense,
Or to be more than your intelligence.

That is not the end of the poem, but those stanzas encapsulate a paradox—that the poet can somehow, sometimes, be more than his or her own intelligence, can be a vehicle for something that wants to be written. Nye is serious about this. He does not make the claim grandly.

Like many contemporary volumes, the book has endorsements on the back cover from Carol Ann Duffy, John Burnside, Peter Porter and even Ian Crichton Smith. But the poems do not need endorsement.

All they require is a little private room for solitary reading. They are not in the least intimidating.

Party preliminaries

It’s complicated. In 2005 I bought ten ISB numbers. To my surprise I’d used them all up within two years and I bought another hundred.

Three years later I’m over half way through that hundred. The idea at the birthday party, Saturday June 12th, is to do a kind of ‘This is your life’, recalling all that’s been and indicating a bit of what’s to come. But there’s a lot of it.

It’s complicated. In 2005 I bought ten ISB numbers. To my surprise I’d used them all up within two years and I bought another hundred.

Three years later I’m over half way through that hundred. The idea at the birthday party, Saturday June 12th, is to do a kind of ‘This is your life’, recalling all that’s been and indicating a bit of what’s to come. But there’s a lot of it.

I think about twenty of the poets should be there, all reading little bits or in one case quite a lot. Some is happy, some is sad, some is performancey, some is music, some is cake. It will be grrrrrrrreat.

In preparation I am making lists and lists of lists. Up to now I have been making electronic lists upstairs, and sending out more invitations to people I think I might have forgotten or whose reply I think I have managed to lose. Soon I am going downstairs to make more lists on pieces of normal paper.

Meanwhile, the Ruth Pitter Selected came home this week and so did David Ford’s Punch. The former is cheering and consolatory: Pitter has that effect. She is a magical poet. Punch, on the other hand, is one of the darkest collections I have done. Many of the poems have stunning impact: they are also often sinister and somewhat scary. Neither David nor Ruth can be at the party (though for somewhat different reasons) but Gina Wilson and Gill Andrews (the next two pamphlets) should be there.

Also expecting a whean of others – a plethora of poets including, Andrew Philip, Rob A Mackenzie, Clare Best, Jeremy Page, Alison Brackenbury, Janet Loverseed, D A Prince, Sally Festing, Jon Stone, Robin Vaughan-Williams, Ross Kightly, Paula Jennings, Jennifer Copley, Stewart Conn, Christine de Luca, Margaret Christie  — and MORE! Honestly this is THE poetry event of the year.

Do join us, (Scottish Poetry Library, Edinburgh, 3.00 for 3.30) but let me know because numbers are swelling (and swell). nell@happenstancepress.com


Ruth Pitter cover

David Ford cover

Dark Wood goes out

This week lots of Jeremy Page chapbooks went in the post to those and such as those — a flurry of orders through the Zen shop.

This week lots of Jeremy Page chapbooks went in the post to those and such as those — a flurry of orders through the Zen shop.


In and Out of the Dark Wood
Jeremy Page’s pamphlet

At the same time, David Ford’s Punch went off to Dolphin Press and so did Ruth Pitter’s Selected. I’ve been busy with all the associated bits and pieces: flyers for all, updating the ‘in print’ list, doing the poet bios for the website, printing flyers, attacking the sticky willie in the garden . . .   Oh no, the last of these wasn’t exactly at the same time.It’s just the fact that the sticky willie gets everywhere.

So far (apart from Ruth Pitter who, though with us on paper, is absent in body) it has been a very male year. Four guys. I’m now working with two women: Gina Wilson and Gill Andrews. Very very different from each other. Also very different from anything else I’ve published.

I’m not sure these can be ready for the HappenStance Birthday Party on June 12th (in the Scottish Poetry Library at 3.00 ish), but we’ll see. I hope their authors will be there and reading a poem or two, as will lots of other HappenStance authors and subscribers. My mother and sister are coming from Sussex. There will be a cake made by my daughter. There will be music (son-in-law). Do put the date in your diary. It’s an open event but let me know if you’d like to come (nell@happenstancepress.com) because the library is not gigantic and the cake might not be big enough.

It was suddenly Summer here in Scotland yesterday. The old lady in the queue in the post office in front of me had to sit down. People were flapping leaflets in front of their faces to keep cool. Matt got the fan down from the spare bedroom and sat in front of it. Some of the new bedding plants went limp and keeled over. The tiny crab apple ‘tree’ (really a sprig) that I got for a fiver from Aldi burst into blossom.

This morning I woke to the sound of heavy rain. Back to normal.

PS Here’s an interesting review of Robin Vaughan-Williams’ The Manager by Ben Wilkinson

In and Out of the Dark Mud Bath

Sphinx 12 has gone out in all its waspy colours to those and such as those. As usual, the posting process took longer than I could possibly have believed, but it is done.

So it’s back to the poetry pamphlets: Jeremy Page’s In and Out of the Dark Wood is just about done. The second draft went in the post to him yesterday. David Ford’s Punch is sitting in front of me. These two should be printed in May.

Sphinx 12 has gone out in all its waspy colours to those and such as those. As usual, the posting process took longer than I could possibly have believed, but it is done.

So it’s back to the poetry pamphlets: Jeremy Page’s In and Out of the Dark Wood is just about done. The second draft went in the post to him yesterday. David Ford’s Punch is sitting in front of me. These two should be printed in May.

Meanwhile, I have been working on a Selected Ruth Pitter for some time and must get back to that because it will be a lovely thing to have out. It will include a small number of unpublished poems, which may create a little additional interest — that will be thanks to Thomas McKean who copied many poems out of Ruth’s notebooks during his visits to her home. It has been very interesting to see the steady trickle of orders coming in for the Conversation with RP — one never knows how the word gets round but round it does get. And readers have liked it very much, which is gratifying (though not surprising).

Another diversion has been a family publication titled Night Brings Home The Crowes, which is my mother’s memoir about her grandmother’s family, the Crowes, of which there were eleven children — twelve if you count the one who died as a baby. She has been writing up the anecdotes and collecting information about them for at least ten years. Finally, it is all coming together as a pamphlet publication (Sally Evans led the way) but even the family tree, on which much work has already been done, is more complicated than I could have thought. I am not a genealogist but have begun to look at how this family research stuff works. I keep thinking about those seven women in Africa, to whom we are all originally (allegedly) related . . .

And all the while the garden is unfolding into Spring.


Thinking about mud baths . . .

Soon the new fence will have things growing up it again. The honeysuckle is recovering. The old clematis has brave little shoots here and there: I am keeping an eye on them. This morning we have rain, but this garden needs the rain so I’m glad of it. I bought a little crab apple tree in Aldi for a fiver, because I’ve always wanted one. It is sitting in a bucket, waiting for me to dig a deep hole, which may prove difficult. We’ll see. I remember the stones just under the top soil the last time. Digging to Australia in this garden would not be an easy task.

One of our games in the summer when we were children was ‘mud baths’. This entailed water (water being the underlying necessity of many serious games) and piles of newly dug (stoneless) earth. First you dig a deep hole, which you half fill with water. Then you put some of the nice loose earth back into the hole, mix the earth and water carefully to the right consistency, spread it over your legs, from foot to thigh and sit in the sun for some time, processing the sensation of mud caking your skin. You watch it start to dry and crack (because your days are endless and you have acres of time to spend on nothing else than this). Finally your sibling, who is playing the role of Mud-bath Attendant, gets the watering can and rinses the mud away. You feel renewed. You feel you could write the reviews that are waiting for your attention. Oops, sudden time jump there . . .