Verbs leaning through the window and other coincidences

The coincidences in the poems sent in to me during the December window ARE uncanny.

Here are some of them:

♥  Two sets of envelopes, one immediately after the other, have both egrets and herons in the same poem.

♥  Four poems in one day’s reading use the word ‘gift’ (as in we gifted her our dog) where once we might have used ‘give’ or ‘gave’. Last window, it was ‘hefted’ instead of ‘heaved’. Now it is ‘gifted’ instead of ‘gave’.

♥  Horses are off the menu latterly. But now a lot of foxes. Ted Hughes started it and Robert Minhinnick continued, so this is nothing new. Nice to see foxes are back, in fact.

♥  Two lots of supermoons arrived in poems on the same day. I thought there would be more, like there were for the last comet, but it may be early days.


♠   People writing ‘til. It is either until or till. Both of the latter are proper words so you get a choice.

♠  Habitual past tense – ‘I’d run down to the shop / and buy the daily bread. / I’d talk to Mrs Bloggs / but I’d forget the things we’d said.’ I contend that a single action in the past is always more interesting than the things you used to do. (‘I ran down to the shop / and bought the daily bread. / I talked to Mrs Bloggs / but I forgot the thing I said.’)

You get the same construction when filling in back story – ‘I’d talked to Mrs Bloggs and I’d bought the daily bread / but then I saw the postman / and remembered what I’d said.’ Back story tends to be boring, though sometimes necessary in a narrative. In poetry it brings in a lot of letter D, which is involved in ‘I’d’ and ‘we’d’ and ‘you’d’. Too much letter D is a killer, aurally. Trust me.

♠  Too many stanzas starting a new sentence with And (cap A). You can overplay your And.

♠  The leaning verb.

Leaning verbs
It is possible that I’m losing the plot completely. I could be imagining the fact that they’re ganging up on me.

No, I’m not imagining it. There are a lot of leaning verbs in free-verse forms, and especially towards the end of the poem.

What on earth are ‘leaning verbs’? It’s my name for them. it’s a way of describing a series of verb clauses, where two or more verbs have the same subject. There’s probably a proper grammatical term for it. They are sort of in apposition. Like this (I am rhyming my example for fun, but this is really a free-verse thing):

I ran to the shop,
bought the daily bread,
talked to Mrs Bloggs,
forgot the things she said.

A leaning-verb lover would never put ‘and’ before the last verb in the sequence. The verbs are stacked one by one against the subject (in this case ‘I’). The leaning-verb user likes to stack verbs. It gifts (I mean, gives) a good strong stress to the first syllable of the verb, and in a repetitive pattern, this creates a sense of structure and pattern. Often each verb gets a line of its own.

Some poets will do this without commas at end of the verb clause. They will use a line break to substitute for a comma. This is fair enough, unless you plan to use enjambed lines later, in which case the common reader gets anxious.

There’s nothing intrinsically evil about the leaning-verb construction, and it’s certainly not wrong, grammatically speaking. But if it becomes a regular habit, poets should take note. Because habits quickly become convention, and staidly conventional writing is what killed the so-called ‘Georgians.

Look out for leaning verbs in the last two lines of free-verse poems. You’ll be surprised how often you find them, in poets of all ranks. You’ll find them so often it’ll start to sound as ‘right’ to you as ending on a rhyme once did (witness Simon Armitage’s Cataract Operation).

But you want to sound different from the rest, don’t you?

Some poems just work. The poems that work work in their own way. They’re not much like any of the other poems that work, generally speaking, so it’s impossible to generalise about what makes them delightful. If it were, I would share the secret with you here.

All I can say is, sometimes poems just do it, whatever ‘it’ is. They make you wake up, sit up and read them again. And again. A poet can sometimes write five pleasantly dull poems and then one that’s a sit-up. If the poet could write the sit-up poem every time, she would. We all would.

During this reading window, I read about a mile of poems, and every 44 yards or so there was a sit-up. It was wonderful. There were also poems that could be sit-up poems, I thought, with a little tinkering, though tinkering can be over-rated.

All the poems have now been returned to their owners, though they only went in the post yesterday. Just so you know. For me, it’s back to publications and reviews, both of which are shouting from the sidelines: me, me, me. And my ‘to do’ list, which is up to 21 items. 

Also it’s time to eat.

Rodents through the window

Forget horses. Today it is wasps and rats.

The less lovely things in life can be the best inspirations. But the isle of Iona has popped up three times too, and Iona is gorgeous.

The leaning verbs are still leaning. I think I may be making it a bit of a mission to prop them up. Or bring them down − whichever metaphor grabs you.

Honestly, some great poems today.

Among its other virtues, poetry bears witness. Real things that happened and can’t unhappen. The grain of things. Seen as they were seen. 


On windows and stacking

Yes, it’s a new year but I’m still reading poems from the old window.

If you happen to be wondering why you sent yours in early December and haven’t had a reply (I am usually pretty quick) it’s because it all went wrong. I did manage the first few as usual, day by day, but quickly I gave up. The pressure of work, as they say, pressed in a pressurised fashion, and I had to start stacking. 

Poem stacking is not difficult. Much easier than logs. So the stack didn’t actually topple for a while, at which point I carried it upstairs. Then all that seasonal stuff got in the way. (Try reading poems and wrapping parcels at the same time).

The people I returned poems to in early December returned emails to me. The emails were already out of control so I started a second stack: the poems that had been replied to. But I didn’t post them, and I still haven’t posted them so as not to attract more emails, until I have time to read emails again.

The ‘replied to’ stack is now slightly higher than the ‘waiting to be read stack’.

Soon they will all go into the post at the same time, but not for at least another week because you can’t rush this stuff. Peoples’ lives are in those envelopes. Lives on hold.

So the reading continues. If yours was one of the under-stamped envelopes, it will come back to you, because I haven’t been to the sorting office and offered to pay for them. It does cost a ridiculous amount to send a large letter envelope these days and many of us have still not caught up with that.

If yours was one of the special delivery envelopes for which the postie hammered at the door and woke me up, I forgive you. But please don’t do that again. An ordinary delivery works perfectly fine, and if you choose ‘signed for’ the postie just ignores it anyway.

So here’s a brief review of the preoccupations this time round — half way through the stack.

♦ Most frequently occurring animal: the horse. 

♦ Most frequent grammatical things that bug me: ‘lay’ instead of ‘lie’ (I blame Bob Dylan) and ‘were stood’ instead of ‘were standing’ or ‘was sat’ instead of ‘was sitting’ (probably his fault too).

♦ Most frequent poem type: the journey, punctuated by imperatives (turn right, go past the post office).

♦ Most frequent poem structure: the Now and two stanzas later Then poem. Or vice versa.

♦ So many leaning verbs I begin to worry that I’ve made the phenomenon worse. And I’m noticing another thing: the two leaning nouns in the last line, something like this:

We have no other way of attracting
the horses and so we arrive with
our hands full of marshmallows, buttercups.

♦ Using line breaks to substitute for commas (I wrote about this not that long ago and now I can’t find which blog it’s in) while having other line breaks across an enjambed phrase, so the reader starts not to know quite how to read safely without falling off the edge. 

I feel unreasonable a lot of the time, and when it comes to punctuation, I get what my mother used to call ‘fratchetty’. Why on earth should semi-colons affect me like the rhinoceros and his skin. Give me simple punctuation and I’ll rest easy. 

But really I’m living the life of Riley. There are numerous delights, but each is individual. It’s like the Tolstoy thing about all happy families being alike but unhappy ones being unhappy in their own way; except not. A good poem is uniquely happy, but lots of poems are made unhappy in exactly the same way.

(Riley is living my life, but he’s not very keen on it and wants to go home. And yes, I know I used a semi-colon. Grrrr.)





It was difficult getting the window to shut. Several envelopes were stuck in the hinges. But it has shut now.

Thank you! Thank-you to the writers who trusted me with their poems. It’s not an easy thing to expose your work to a critical reader, especially one who comments on verbs that are leaning, lines that are breaking and sonnets that are creaking. And towards the end that reader was very tired.

There are other thank-yous. If you spend a whole month reading like this, very little else can be done. So the ordinary functions of the press grind to a halt, which is risky. But many readers humbled me with their generosity before Christmas. They ordered publications, they sent donations, they sent stamps, they sent love. This secret fuel is amazing.

The window won’t open again in the same way. This was the apex, the peak, the nirvana of poetry reading. In May 2015 (still difficult not writing 2014) HappenStance will be ten years old. I will be nearly 62. And I plan to change things. How? Not quite sure yet.

But poets mainly create themselves. There will be, and always have be, people to whom making poems is important. Creating readers of poetry is harder. That’s what I’m working on.

Watching my fiendish work over the last weeks, more than one friend has said, ‘Why don’t you charge?’ Of course I have thought about this. The money, if some people paid for feedback, could be reinvested in the press. If payment were required, it would reduce the numbers dramatically. I haven’t ruled it out.

Still, I’ve a deep fear of poetry that’s by the privileged for the privileged. I am on the side of the garret and the baked potato. I am on the side of it is more blessed to give than receive. I believe, ridiculously, enough money will always arrive. So far, it has. Though only just.


Now here’s the ‘window’ analysis. I love figures.

162 poets sent in work. More than twice as many as the previous December. They sent between 1 and 29 poems, but it would average about 10 each. Most of them remembered the stamped addressed envelope. About 1600 poems, then.

Of these poets 107 were female and 55 were male.

I can’t comment on age range because I don’t ask people about that, though they sometimes tell me, but my unstatistical impression is that three-quarters were over 50 and only about 4 were under 25.

Nearly all the poets who sent poems were (hooray!) HappenStance subscribers. 17 were not. But they might yet be. I am an optimist.

About 30 took out a subscription just before sending poems in. (This is good if they also go on to buy publications, because it suggests they’re active readers. If they don’t buy anything subsequently, the postal subscription makes a loss).


  • 34 in Scotland
  • 3 in Wales
  • 2 in Ireland
  • 115.5 in England (of which 23.5 were in or near London)

as well as

  • 1 in Isle of Man
  • 1 in Sweden
  • 1 in Canada
  • 1 in Spain
  • 3.5 in France

I hope those numbers add up. This is me, not a spreadsheet talking.

I took 47 pages of (secret) notes. Most ever. These include notes on the bio, brief comments on the poems, and also comments on my comments and the experience of reading. Up to now I’ve done this by hand in large books, but this time I did it on the laptop because the books go back nine years and are hard to search. Many poets assume I’ll remember what they previously told me about themselves. I don’t. I get my Marys and Chris-es confused.

88 poets sent in poems for the first time, just over half. I rewrote the printed reply notes three times.

The level of guilt on my part was at 88% (I made that figure up. It means high). That’s because I made hardly any offers. I agreed to do two debut pamphlets in Spring 2016 (2015 was already ‘full’) but both authors already knew an offer was coming.

Normally I would have offered to do more in 2016. Two things stopped me.

First, it was the volume of poetry. It overwhelmed me. Second, I was astonished by how many possible debut poets, sending for the second, third or fourth time (so I was recognising poems I knew and loved), clearly merited publication in the next two years. I highlighted a group of 24 who fitted into this category. Twenty-four! If I did nothing else from now till 2017, I couldn’t manage that.

Fortunately, other things will happen for most of these poets. They’ll either win one of the competitions (as many who’ve send poems to me have done already) or find another publisher. I hope they’re all on the qui vive, spotting what’s going on in the sector, and which new imprints might be worth approaching. In the first three of four years of a new publishing business, a publisher is actively looking for new, good poets. After ten years, what she needs is not poets but readers. Or even better, poet-readers.

But also it’s important not to keep on doing the same thing in the same way, even if that thing has gone well up to now. Creativity thrives on change.

Also there’s Chapter Nine of the HappenStance Story to be written, three pamphlets urgently needing attention, StAnza tickets to buy, two new books nudging my collar, and the other 13 items on my list. And I had better get dressed.

Thank-you again. Huge thank-you. Thank you poets, blog readers and poetry buyers and supporters. You are not a vast community, in Harry Potter terms, but individually and en masse, you are . . . supercalifragelisticexpialidocious.