Have we got it right? Does the poem work? Did the poem win?

Last week my multiple foibles and fixes were more in a spirit of play than anything else. Poets should get in more, and have more fun. And worry less about winning.

But I had a subtext that never made it into the blog, and it was to do with form. Form intrigues me, although of all the forms a poem could take, we’re often ruled by fashion and habit. (I’m using the word ‘form’ in the widest sense: it includes ‘free’ form.)

This isn’t always a bad thing. I’ve known poets who, for an extended time, wrote sonnets relentlessly. The result was a handful of wonderful poems (in the middle of others less remarkable). One can stick to a particular form for ages, in order to become so comfortable that the range of possibilities stretches and extends.

On the other hand, writers can stick to a familiar form because it’s the way they write, and the way most of their contemporaries write. It’s what most people do, at least at first. It’s normal.

Just now, there’s a lot of poetry in two-line stanzas. Fashion favours aeration in poems these days. And although there are a number of texts that leap about the page with gaps and jumps, far more poems follow a dutiful line down the left hand margin. If there are stanzas, they’re mainly chunked in regular numbers, and often this chunking works against the verse paragraph: you see that by the amount of cross-stanza enjambment. Prose poems are ‘in’: you see them in numerous first collections, though sometimes the shape is formed by the typesetter, not the poet because the poet, wrongly, thinks prose is just prose.

Sometimes readers mention a sense of boredom or ‘same-ishness’ when reading poetry journals or inside whole books of poems. They can’t quite put their finger on what causes it but it’s there.

I think it’s often caused by lack of variety in form. And yet – I don’t think that nails it either. Because sometimes I have the same sense of same-ishness in a journal where the poems are actually pretty varied on the page, insofar as layout is concerned.

The thing I often miss is the sense of everything coming together: that the sound, the shape and the sense have fused. That the form (whatever it is) feels like the only one possible. That the poem has led the form, rather than the form guided the poem.

You know it when you see it – or rather, I think you feel it when you read it. It’s an intuitive matter to some extent, and there’s no recipe for getting it ‘right’. But there is a mindset in poets that can allow for good form. I think it’s a playful mindset. Playful, in the best sense.

Often writers believe they must be innovative. On back covers of books, the blurbs brandish ‘risk’, ‘experiment’, ‘fearlessness’ and any possible aspect that can be described as ‘new’. We have been persuaded to value innovation to a ridiculous extent, to the extent that the word ‘innovative’ is bland and mindless.

But for poets there’s no need to be stuck on what’s new, any more than being stuck in the rut of familiarity. Every single form that has ever been done — from Old English metre through rhyme royal through Spenserian stanzas (never liked them much) through ottava rima through dada through L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry and the avant garde through iambic pentameter through ballads through salads through the chains of free verse through syllabics through Sound and out again through round through concrete and discrete and tall and short and fat and thin and out-loud poems and poems so hard to decipher you have to read them on an iceberg all by yourself — all of this stuff, and more, is available to you.

Using retro language might be inadvisable, but no form is ever redundant. All forms and shapes and approaches are options. It’s mind-boggling.

This doesn’t mean you have to run the gauntlet of clever-clever I-can-show-you-all-my tricks. It’s a mindset I’m talking about. A sort of informed instinct, even in the act of writing, for the shape/form the poetry might need, whether it’s two lines long or 5000. And sometimes an instinct for when the poem hasn’t found its true form, or is behaving sheepishly in order to fall in line.

I’ll end with a poem by W H Davies, who was often accused of repeating himself, though actually his range of form and method was pretty wide. He wrote a lot, and played with different forms a lot, and out of that play came a handful of lovely things, where everything fused. I think ‘The Villain’, first published in 1920, is one of these.

It opens in plodding ballad metre – such a heavy plod – and it summons ‘joy’ (Davies had a thing about joy) and then calls ‘where’er’ into service. Your heart sinks.

But Davies is mocking his own method. Read on. Look how he uses the indents to shape the poem, to emphasise change in tone and action, and how the rhythm of the last line isn’t like any of the rest.

The Villain

While joy gave clouds the light of stars,
    That beamed where’er they looked;
And calves and lambs had tottering knees,
    Excited, while they sucked;
While every bird enjoyed his song,
Without one thought of harm or wrong—
I turned my head and saw the wind,
    Not far from where I stood,

Dragging the corn by her golden hair
     Into a dark and lonely wood.




This is cheating. I am really thinking about StAnza.

And this morning it’s snowing and around me all the trees are white and I’m not even there. I’m working. But this is a space between yesterday (when I was there) and today when I’m working.Snow in the garden

When I went to bed last night my head was full of the space between the stanzas, which for me was the space between the events at StAnza. The events are many, marvelous and magical, of course, and you can read about them elsewhere.

The spaces between the events are just as remarkable, and somewhat more mysterious because completely unpredictable, and not on the programme. When you run an arts festival, you create spaces for unexpected concatenations, correspondences and coalescences. I know that’s just alliteration, but how do you describe it?

On your way to hear a poet read, someone you may never have heard of, perhaps even in a language you don’t know, you stop for a coffee and fall into conversation with  Michel (?) from Belgium, there to present a film poem event, and whose job it is to co-ordinate and run literary events in  Antwerp – such a charming and interesting young (to me) man. And then we are joined by poet Paula Jennings and Jenny Elliott. Jenny is an old friend (we were once StAnza trustees together) and also a poet and originator of the Shed Press (in her garden shed). Together we sorted out European politics and then moved on to discuss our mothers, over soup and sandwiches (it’s not just poetry). As the table filled up with friends, I moved the flowers onto the floor. Out of the corner of my eye I could see people I knew and wanted to speak to, and others I dimly recognized from their dusty photos on book jackets.

Then an event and then the poetry book fair and then more chats with Tony Lawrence, who has redefined poetry according to laws of mathematics, and the man from Monifieth whose name I can’t remember but who has come to the festival every year for eleven years, and D A Prince, and Karin Koller, and Robyn Marsack and Sheila Wakefield and Stephanie Green and a long conversation – the longest we have ever had, (a GREAT conversation about the late David Tipton and his wife Ena Hollis, taking in John Lucas, Tony Ward and Alan Hill) – with Martin Bates; and another with the lady at the second hand book stall – shop in Newport – I forget her name but it will come back to me; and of course Gerry Cambridge and briefly Rob Mackenzie.

And Richie McCaffery and Stef, and Sally Evans and how lovely to see Ann Drysdale, who has written a whole book about Newport and thus a long conversation about W H Davies and other matters, and briefly (hug interval) Lyn Moir, and Lydia Harris (well met, for the first time) and Christine Webb, and Robert Minhinnick on Dylan Thomas, and Joy Howard and Alan Gay.

And many more. Many more, and some sought for but just missed. Deus ex machina (I’ve just realised that’s a double dactyl) Eleanor Livingstone slipping in and out carying strange objects and messages and inspirations. And others glimpsed in the distance or pausing to share treasure, or say ‘see you later’.


The sun has come out and lit up the snow.

And now back to work.


I couldn’t even remember at first which poem it came from — it was the image that stuck.



It’s hard to know how or why this happens, but happen it does. A fragment of a poem lodges in the mind, illogically and irreversibly. I woke thinking about one of these again: the small creature with “shining eyes between the leaves” in the grass or under the hedge, the life that goes on despite us and beside us.



Drawing of mouseIt was W H Davies who planted this image. It haunts me, especially when stuck in traffic, intent on some human imperative or other – the vision of a small creature nearby in the grass leading a separate life altogether.



Last June, when visiting New York and waiting on the train to go into the city, I glimpsed a chipmunk (I had never ever seen one before) busily about its business at the side of the train track. He was so easily missed, and yet there, as alive and urgent as we were, only a few yards away. W H Davies put him there for me, I reckon.



And about eight years ago, I was with my friend Stewart Eglin, outside the Adam Smith Theatre in Kirkcaldy, on a bench in the sun, when I had a similar experience. We had spent an hour in the café inside but they had thrown us out. It was their closing time and we weren’t done chatting. So we sat outside in the sun, and as we talked, I noticed a mouse. (We were beside a public thoroughfare, a main road and traffic lights). The mouse popped up its head from a grating just opposite us and looked from side to side, slowly and carefully. Its ears were as fine and clear as a cartoon mouse, the sun highlighting their translucence. I could practically see its whiskers. Then it popped down again, into the dark. It was sheer chance that I noticed it at all. Chance and W H Davies.



All those lives going on just beside ours. All the things we don’t see.



W H Davies was probably best known during his life time for The Autobiography of a Super-Tramp, though he wanted his reputation to rest, above all, on his poetry, and for me, it does. When he needed inspiration he went walking, tramping through the countryside and over the hills, like his friend Edward Thomas.



Davies had many casual relationships with women, paying for sex on a regular basis, before he finally married (late but irrevocably). As a child, he had been brought up by his grandmother, in a strict Baptist faith, with many “shalt nots”. The theatre was regarded as sinful and the famous actor, Henry Irving (later knighted for his theatrical achievements) was known as the man who brought disgrace on the family.


But Davies was a rebel. He could never have settled for an ordinary life and even the story of how he became a poet is an extraordinary one (too long to tell here).W H Davies (from http://www.npex.co.uk/en/stories/135)



I tracked down the Davies poem that planted an image in my mind. It wasn’t at all the one I was expecting.



It was ‘A Fleeting Passion’, first published nearly a century ago in The Bird of Paradise. Here Davies recalls one of his sexual assignations. Oddly I had remembered nothing of the sex, the passion (fleeting or otherwise), or even the contrast between the man and the woman (to the woman’s grave disadvantage). It was the small creature in the grass at the edge of the road that had remained vivid and haunting. It will stay with me for life.



‘A Fleeting Passion’ is a strange poem, I think, as many of Davies’ poems are – despite his reputation for being a predictable Georgian. I’ll leave you with it.




A Fleeting Passion
(first published in The Bird of Paradise and Other Poems, 1914)



Thou shalt not laugh, thou shalt not romp,
Let’s grimly kiss with bated breath;
As quietly and solemnly
As Life when it is kissing Death.
Now in the silence of the grave,
My hand is squeezing that soft breast;
While thou dost in such passion lie,
It mocks me with its look of rest.


But when the morning comes at last,
And we must part, our passions cold,
You’ll think of some new feather, scarf
To buy with my small piece of gold;
And I’ll be dreaming of green lanes,
Where little things with beating hearts
Hold shining eyes between the leaves,
Till men with horses pass, and carts.


The Bird of Paradise (book cover)








Keats was dead at 25, Shelley at 29, Dylan Thomas at  39, Sylvia Plath at 30. Chatterton didn’t even make it to 18.

Keats was dead at 25, Shelley at 29, Dylan Thomas at  39, Sylvia Plath at 30. Chatterton didn’t even make it to 18.

But Fergus Allen, who reads at this year’s Aldeburgh Poetry Festival, didn’t start the poetry business seriously until after retirement. His first book-length collection was published when he was 72.  There have been three others since, and now, at ninety, he  will be conversation with Peter Blegvad about all of this in November.

People, including poets, are (with unforgettable exceptions) living longer. Many of them have time and opportunity in their sixties to do things they’ve never done before. For some it’s sky-diving or cycling across India. For others, it’s poetry.

Moss Rich, now billed as ‘Britain’s oldest poet’ launched his first pamphlet publication with PigHog at the age of 95. HappenStance’s oldest poet is Cliff Ashby. Cliff didn’t start writing until he was 40, but once he started, he kept going.

During my reading window in July, the ages of the poets sending work varied widely. The young ones were older than Chatterton and the oldest ones were younger than Fergus Allen but there was an incredible range. The one thing writers significantly over 60 have in common, as it seems to me, is an increased sense of urgency.

But it’s all very well being welcomed into a writers’ group and then placing a few poems in magazines after a lifetime of reading and loving the stuff. It’s another thing to find a publishing outlet, especially if one prefers paper to keyboard, bookshop to online emporium.

On the other hand, older poets sometimes have a bit of an income and they have that commodity so hard to find in the world of work — time. They can often get about to festivals and readings and meet people. They are shrewd and worldy-wise. They make it their business to secure a future for their poems.

W H Davies self-published his first brief collection, The Soul’s Destroyer, when he was  33. He felt he had started late, so he worked like a demon to win himself a place among the poets of his day.  He was intensely prolific to start with, though as the decades went on, he began gradually to reduce his output. And here’s what he had to say about it.  He is addressing one of the garden birds he loved in this poem: I have a dim memory it was a robin, though this may be my own invention.

…….Late Singers

…….The Spring was late in coming, so,
…….…….Sweet bird, your songs are late:
…….Have you a certain number, then,
…….…….Of verses to create?
…….If late to start means late to end,
…….You comfort me, sweet friend.

…….It was the summer of my life
…….…….Ere I began to sing:
…….Will winter be my summer, then,
…….…….As summer was my spring?
…….No matter how things change their hue,
…….We’ll sing our number through.