Cliff Ashby, who died last week, loved the natural world.

Cliff Ashby, who died last week, loved the natural world.

Towards the end of his long life he spent much time watching birds on the feeder outside his window. He had a wry turn of phrase, a way of mixing sly wit with a sudden absolute—for want of a better word—sincerity. Here he is on the season we call ‘spring’, for example. He was living at Loudwater Farm when he wrote this, and so the river in the poem is real enough:

Thank God for
The dispassionate Sun,
Birds that mate
In magnificent trees,
Water fowl
That splash down
On a cheerful river.

Nothing extraordinary about that is there? Maybe the word “dispassionate” is just a little surprising but all the rest is straightforward enough. The next stanza is almost a logical continuation—perhaps not quite:

Say a prayer
For the squirrel
And the cock pheasant
Disappearing into the orchard.

God is in the offing. Praise His creation, though the cock pheasant is off somewhere and perhaps just slightly up to no good.

Then the next stanza—and the voice of praise is on its third round of rallying calls. It sounds just a little weary perhaps. And then human beings arrive on the scene, and the poet is one of them, though you don’t know that yet:

Let’s hear it for
The humble lark
And linnet,
The flamboyant magpie,
Children on swings,
Old men warming chilled bones
And the simple who
Make no complaint.

He is the old man warming chilled bones in the sun, but he doesn’t tell you that. He is not “the simple who / make no complaint”. Cliff never pretended to make no complaint, and he did not like being old and frail much. Who does?

And finally there’s the last stanza, which opens with a full-throated “Hurrah”, and ends completely unexpectedly:

Hurrah for
The tiny flowers
For which I have no name,
Discovered in odd corners,
The cuckoo, still to come,
Whitethroat, swift and swallow,

And yours truly
Sitting in the sun,
Wondering where the hell
The next poem’s coming from.

And there you go—from Heaven to Hell in one Spring poem. Man is at the heart of creation, despairing of his own role in it, his own inability to create. But Cliff Ashby is not—he is never—self-pitying. He chuckles at his own inadequacy.

Cliff Ashby Cliff was born in 1919 to a strongly religious family. His father was a Methodist Minister, so there was much moving around from place to place, as his father took up new office in one church after another. He left school early—at only 13—and never acquired educational qualifications.

However, his choice to register as a conscientious objector during the Second World War led him into contact with artists and poets at the Peace Pledge Union’s community farm ‘The Oaks’ in Essex. Here he met, among others, John Middleton Murry, who had bought the farm and given it over to the Adelphi Centre, a socialist peace community, co-founded by Max Plowman.

Ashby worked as a dairyman for the next 17 years, but something had sparked off—a new world of ideas and culture—and he had started writing poetry. He never looked back. Later he was published in David Wright’s legendary ‘X’ and the two men became firm friends. In this way he also forged a lasting friendship with Charles Sisson, and came to know Martin Seymour-Smith.

Cliff Ashby’s Collected Poems, PlainSong, was published by Carcanet in 1985. It is out of print now, but second hand copies can be had easily and cheaply. I have a handful of his HappenStance pamphlets left—A Few Late Flowers—and some of the Samplers too, his very last publication.

Here are concluding lines from the last poem in Flowers, ‘A Report for Ann’ (Ann was the much-loved wife who died two decades before him):

As night reaches
Its dark conclusions
And dawn brings problems

That I must resolve,
I finally run out of words.

But we were never much
For conversation,
Understanding with a lover’s art,
Silent as the river
That slides its way
Past my bedroom window,
Making its foretold journey
To the sea
While I,
Not much time left,
Totter towards the
Final resolution.

Cliff Ashby has finally run out of words. But his words have not run out. He has left some of them with us: the best of words, and in the very best order.

It was a privilege to have known him.



  1. Hello, I’m writing about Cliff for the Yorkshire Post and I wonder if I could use that lovely photograph? I was a big fan of his work.

  2. I can´t remember how I found Cliff Ashby´s work but I am glad I did. I remember reading Plainsong sittting in front of a disused Methodist chapel on Blackboy Hill Bristol and instantly the poems struck a chord with me, a chord that has continued to sound throught my life. So much poetry seems flaccid and throwaway compared to the lasting impression of Cliff Ashby´s , apparently commonplace but oddly memorable observations. He was a wonderful poet.

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