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.





Perhaps you do it differently. I can’t know. I only know what I do.

I’m interested in how people approach puzzles, and a poem’s a sort of puzzle. When I was a college teacher, and working on learning skills, I used sometimes to give students a thinking challenge, a question. ‘What’s 5 x 13?’ for example. They had to work out the answer and write it down without conferring. Then they had to say how they got their answer.

A lot of people (I’m in this group) did 5 x 12 (which they remembered from learned-by-heart tables) and then added 5.

Some did 5 x 10 (50), then 5 x 3 (15) and added the two results.

Some had a picture in their head that looked like this:

13 +

They would add up the 3s in the units column one by one (15), write down 5, carry 1 over to the tens column, then add all the 1s.

Somebody would reach for their phone and use the calculator.

Sometimes there would be a person who knew the answer instantly but didn’t know how they knew.

And so on. Usually there was at least one method that would never have occurred to me in a month of Sundays. But the interesting thing was the way we assumed, without saying as much, that we were all doing the same thing. Actually we were doing a whole range of different things.

So it occurs to me, in this reading window when I’m reading a lot of poems, that it may be the same with poems. Tom Duddy once said to me he didn’t read poems like a poet reads poems, he came to them as an ordinary reader with a need.

The ‘ordinary reader with a need’ makes a lot of sense. Think about funeral poems. You go to a funeral, and someone who never normally reads poems, will read one aloud, and that poem, in that situation, will answer a need for more than just that one person.

But I was immediately interested in how a poet reads poems. How does a poet read poems? I think perhaps Tom meant looking at how the poem is made and what it’s up to, like a person who builds bicycles immediately looking at the construction not just the performance.

Frankly, I don’t often think about what I do. Like most people, I just do it. But I thought it would be interesting to perform my own class exercise on myself, to see what happens, and share it.

If I were doing the 5 x 13 exercise, I would also talk to the class (after they’d done the sum) about the role fear plays in the whole problem-solving thing. If people were nervous about coming up with the wrong answer to 5 x 13, it would affect the process. So the person who reached for her phone might be scared she’d get it wrong (or too lazy to work it out). But some people would know they would get it right and that would affect not only the thinking method but their entire feeling about juggling with numbers.

When I come to a poem, I’m not scared of it. I’ve read a lot of poems, and I like doing it. So I think that probably makes me quite relaxed in my approach. I come to it as a communication and I want to know what the poem’s telling me. Simply from the fact it calls itself ‘poem’, I assume it’s telling me something un-casual, something I might want or need to know.

So here’s how I read a poem (assuming the poem fits inside one side of A4 paper, which most these days do. If it’s a long poem, the process is different).



Right! I’m working with a real poem. I haven’t read it before, ever. (I picked it at random from this month’s submissions, but I shan’t tell you who wrote it or what it’s about.)

I glance at the shape and how the text fits into the white space. Is it in stanzas and if so, are they the same size and shape. Do I like the look of it, or find it interesting? This is a sort of ‘Are-you-sitting-comfortably-then-I’ll-begin’ stage. I note, mentally, whether there’s an odd or even number of stanzas.

This poem has 5 x 4-line stanzas. Five is a good number. For me, odd is nicer than even.

Then I look at the title. And mentally process it. Is it one of those titles that could be a play on words? Or a title I don’t get? Or a first line title? Whatever. The title may be a clue. But this one seems entirely straightforward, so I relax a little, and start.

I’m reading right through the poem from start to finish. If I hit a snag, I’ll stop. A snag is a place where I’m not sure what the poet means, at the simplest level. That could be because there’s ambiguity, or the sentence doesn’t seem to make sense, or the punctuation’s confusing and I get lost.

But this poem’s easy. Immediately I see a pattern. Each of the five stanzas starts with a question. All but one has the question mark at the end of the second line.

So yes – even from the start, I am looking for patterns in poems, and if I see one right away I feel quite chipper because I’ve spotted something the poet put there for me, like the sixpence in a Christmas pudding. (NB: I don’t think poems have to have patterns.)

This poem has five questions. The second half of each stanza gives the answer. So the structure’s a bit like the story of the Three Little Pigs, except here there are five pigs (I mean stanzas), not three.

In the story of the Three Little Pigs, the first pig builds his house of straw, the second a house of wood, the third (as you know) a house of bricks. So we know a climax is imminent because bricks present the hungry wolf with a big problem. But by this time, we also know the score. We know the wolf will say, ‘Little pig, little pig, can I come in?” and we know how the pig will reply. The tension builds because we know some of what will happen, but not all of it.

This poem does that same thing. It draws me into a pattern of familiarity. Each stanza has a question and an answer. And as I go through, I see the answers are rhetorical – that is to say, not true answers. The poet simply considers a possibility in response to each question. This means that by the final stanza, the reader (me) REALLY wants to know what the ACTUAL answer might be. This poem has structured itself towards a punchline and a pay-off.

Actually, there’s a pay-off in most poems, namely the feeling of satisfaction (or at intensified interest) that takes you back to the start. Because if you really like a poem, you want to read it several times, and if it’s a good poem, each reading adds to your pleasure.

So back to this poem. My interest intensified as I went through the stanzas. But when I got to the very last line (at this point, I’ve only read it once, remember), the pay-off didn’t work for me. It didn’t match my expectation.

Why not? I need to go back now. I’m glancing back up the poem, like someone looking up a high rise building from the street.

I can easily see a rhyme thing going on. The ends of the second and fourth lines of each stanza roughly mirror each other. And there’s metre. I picked that up even on first reading. This poem has a ballad-type shape and sound, and ballads are folky poems. They don’t intimidate by being difficult, intellectual and full of complex metaphors.

I still like the feeling of this poem, despite my sense of disappointment at the end. So now I’m going back to read it again. This time, I’ll track the pattern more closely.

Right. This time I notice immediately how the first word in each line’s capitalised, even when the sentence runs over. So either this poet always writes in a slightly old-fashioned way, or she is deliberately calling in an old-style format. I’m inclined to think the latter, but I don’t know, because I don’t know the work of this writer. At this point I notice (this is a confession because it’s not a particularly honorable observation) that the poem is set in Times Roman, the default font of Microsoft Word up to 2007, so either they’re using an old version of Word, or they deliberately selected a slightly retro typeface.)

Second time through, I notice why I dived into the poem so willingly. It’s because the opening question’s really interesting. I do want to know the answer. And although very little information is given about the context, there’s enough for me to imagine myself fully into this situation. And even in the very first stanza I’ve begun to create a scenario. I’m already fearful that the answer to the question will be the one I dread, the one we all dread.

But I know a thing or two about poems because I’ve read a lot of them. One of the things I know is they set up expectations – but then they have a little wriggle and a twist. So your expectations are satisfied (if the poem works) but not in the way you thought they were going to be. Jokes work like this too; it’s part of the fun.

Now I’m up to stanza three of my second reading, and I like the way the question stays unanswered but each stanza gives a tiny bit more information about the context. Lots of poems use lots of repetition and sometimes it can get annoying and wearisome (I often find this is true in villanelles and sestinas, for example) but here I like it. And I like that none of the language is complicated, and none of the sentences either. Question. Suggested answer. Question. Suggested answer. I know precisely where I am at each stage.

And the rhyme isn’t perfect rhyme, it’s a rhyme echo. The words at the end of the first and third lines in each stanza end in ‘ing’. That’s all. But it’s enough.

In the fourth stanza, one line now strikes me as slightly clunky, and it’s because of a ‘that’ which doesn’t quite sound like natural speech here, though the poem has invoked a speaking voice from line one. Also, now I think about it, there are other ‘thats’ in the poem and one earlier in the same stanza. Probably another reason why this line struck me as clunky.

Ah, I’m into stanza five, and now I see the first two lines of the last stanza are exactly the same as the first two of the first stanza. So the poem’s come full circle – back to the question first asked. This puts huge weight on the last two lines, doesn’t it? Finally, the reader has got to what might be the answer.

So I read the last two lines again. Maybe they’ll work for me this time. Nope. I’d say the poet’s created a lovely situation here, and done it well, but hasn’t decided where the poem was going, or hasn’t let the poem have its own head. Because the end is flat.

I go back to the title. It now seems too plain and straightforward. It doesn’t add anything; it simply repeats a phrase that already occurs twice in the poem, and it seems to me now that there is much unexplored possibility here. The title could have changed the whole poem, or perhaps lifted it into an extra level of meaning.

But what possibilities are here! This could be quite something. So easy to make it into a cracking little poem. And the question doesn’t have to be answered, of course. But if it’s left open, it has to be left satisfyingly unanswered. The mystery has to deepen, like Walter de la Mare’s ‘The Listeners’, that marvellous poem of un-answeredness.

Now all I have to do, though the ordinary reader does not, is articulate my feedback. My pencil’s in my hand. But before I do this, I’ll take a sneaky look at the next poem because I do want to see whether the method in this text is unusual for the poet, or typical. Does she capitalise the first word in every line of every poem, or just this one? Do all her poems have regular stanzas? etc

Reading poems takes an age ( ‘An hundred years should go to praise / Thine eyes and on thy forehead gaze’). So very much to think about in each one. A delicious way to spend a Sunday morning.

How do you do it?




Easy. Here’s a festival I made earlier.

Last Saturday afternoon when I was not at Aldeburgh and was waiting for a grandbaby to arrive (he showed up on Sunday morning), I went to this mini festival. It’s a mixture of reading and listening. It takes about an hour. Too long for you, reading at speed on the interweb, I know. But no matter. I had a lovely time and I recommend the experience. I’m sorry some of the participants are posthumous. Please add your own guest events in the comments boxes.

Festival Appearances

nb sometimes these sites run slow, or don’t connect for a few seconds. Think of this as a slightly delayed appearance. They’ll show up eventually.

Opening gig: raise your spirits with ten minutes of Matt Harvey from TedxTotnes. A love poem to a tea-bag, ‘What are you?’ and ‘A hymn to hands’. (9.17 mins)

Now three visits to the Poetry Archive

First a brief extract from an interview with Ruth Pitter, who speaks about ‘the noble obscurity of poetry’, and then goes on to read one of my favourite poems of all time, ‘If You Came’ (Just over 3 minutes)

And next Hilaire Belloc reading, or really singing, Tarantella. How extraordinary! (1.5 mins)

And finally Dannie Abse reading ‘In the Theatre’. He talks about the background to this extraordinary poem first. (About 3 mins). The brain and soul. Once heard never forgotten.

A short break from poetry but still in the weirdness that is poetryland. A short lecture on LIfshin by Daniel Nester (this is really an essay, I’m afraid, but it’s so beautifully conversational it is like a short talk: Rejection Slip? What Rejection Slip?

Back to the stage. The ultimate in performance from Marina Abramovitch, (3.37 mins), with music. I’m giving you the music version because it tells you the backstory. I adore this woman. Makes me cry every time. And the lyrics are lovely.

Okay, we need to come down from that intensity, so a little bit of reading, in the quiet on your own. Think of this as a walk away from the hubbub. I’m taking a bag of chopped up bread with me. ‘From troubles of the world I turn to ducks’ by F.W. Harvey – such a lovely face, he had. ‘Yes, ducks are valiant things’. (2 mins?) And while we’re out by the pond, you might like to unscroll your copy of Trees by Joyce Kilmer. You can read it in half a minute or so, but you’ll want to read it twice of course.

Back to the theatre. The other thing about the web is that poets can be in two places at once. So not just in Aldeburgh but here online is Kei Miller with Unsung (1.38 mins). Uplifting, right?

So the ultimate uplift, from Maya Angelou, And still I rise. (2.52 mins)

Not just English: This festival is not just limited to one language. It can do more. I was enchanted by this bit of Baudelaire, read slowly enough for me to get it. (2.07 mins)

And a little Tom Duddy, who recorded very little during his lifetime, but this magical poem can be heard in his own voice: ‘The Touch’. (2.21.)

More performance: so many politicians talking at us. Hannah Silva says it all, without exactly saying it. (3.21)

Discussion, with music. Aldeburgh was on my mind and winter, and this brought me to a recording of Peter pears and Benjamin Britten peforming from and talking about Die Winterreise. You could listen to all of it, or just a bit. (12.44). A marvellous piece of film.

The Final Billing: headliners Edna St Vincent Millay, Dorothy Parker, Stevie Smith and W H Auden.

  • Love is not all’, Edna St Vincent Millay (1.29 mins)
  • One Perfect Rose’, Dorothy Parker (c 1 min)
  • Stevie Smith, my hero, with Tenuous and Precarious (1 min)
  • And that bit of film produced by the post office and making this bit of Auden famous for all time: ‘Night Mail’. (3.53) Practically an elegy really, now that nobody writes letters any more. (Well, I do. Sometimes.)





What is poetry FOR?

That was the question I couldn’t answer.

There are answers, of course. I waited for one of them to come to me but it didn’t. Instead, a memory arrived, an unsuitable memory.

This was at the launch of Vishvāntarā’s pamphlet Cursive, and Fiona Moore’s Night Letter at the London Buddhist Centre last weekend. Before the two poets read, there was a short discussion/ interview with all three of us. The ‘What is it FOR?’ question was put by poet and host Maitreyabandhu who had the whole session filmed. So you can see what we said, if you want to, though you can’t see what I was thinking.

Which was this. About 25 years ago, I was teaching in college and officiating in what we called a FLU (a flexible learning unit). In the FLU people could do many things with the support of a tutor (me) – from basic English to (you guessed it) creative writing. We had study packs which people opened, read, and then got on with. In between I talked to them, and they talked to each other. We went off and had long coffee breaks together. This was before SMART targets and it was very civilised.

One week a small woman with very long hair turned up. Very long, right down to her bum. She wrote poetry, she said, and could show me some of it because she took it with her wherever she went. Poetry was an unusual arrival. I was curious. So were the other students in the room.

Do you recall that sort of toilet paper called Izal? It was hard and slightly shiny. Using it as it was intended was not a pleasant experience but it was cheap, cheaper than the soft kind, and definitely better than no toilet paper.b2ap3_thumbnail_izaltoiletpaper.jpg

Well, what the poet produced what looked like a roll of Izal toilet paper. Izal was never easy to write on. From this distance in time I can’t be sure it was Izal. But what she had with her appeared to me, and to the other people in the room, to be a roll of toilet paper, each sheet of which was covered in tiny writing. She proceeded to unroll it in long loops. Her poems, her tiny poems, went for miles.

I read some of the poems before she rolled them up again. They did not appear to be great literature, at least not on the first twenty or thirty sheets, but she put them back into her bag them with pride. She was intense and serious and sweet, so no jokes were made then, or at any other time, about poems on toilet rolls and their potential uses. However, those thoughts were in my head and in the heads of all the other people in the room.

And this was the image that popped into my head when Maitreyabandhu asked ‘What is poetry for?’. It was closely followed by another memory, the recollection of a thin booklet written by the late Evangeline Paterson titled What to do with your poems? , which always struck me as an unfortunate title. Somehow the two have bonded in my head.

What is poetry for? It has numerous functions. But what’s it for?

I still don’t know ‘the’ answer.

However, I know what I use some of it for. (No, not that.)

And in particular, since I want to write a little about Night Letter and Cursive, I’m going to say what they do for me. Is that the same as what I use them for, or what you might use them for? Possibly.

Vishvāntarā (in the same filmed discussion) spoke of poetry as a kind of portal, a way between worlds like the wardrobe in C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, and she has something here, yes, because I know I use the poems of these two poets to take me out of myself. It’s one of their functions, and a vital one.

It’s like the line from Tom Duddy’s poem ‘Racing Festival’ in The Hiding Place: ‘I am elated, light-hearted, beside myself.’ Reading these poems takes me into the same mental space as writing, those rare moments in which words are magical and transformative, and existence is pregnant with meaning, and the burden of my own ‘self’ evaporates.

I can like poetry that doesn’t do this – doesn’t take me out of myself but only into itself. But the work I value most takes me out. Fiona Moore (same discussion) said something about how in reading and in writing poetry we are at our most alive. Not all poetry gives me that feeling of walking on the edge, the precise and beautiful edge between life and death where readiness is all – but this poetry does.

The two pamphlets are not ‘like’ each other. But they share this quality of purity, discipline, dedication. If I want to stop the world and be still, I can read these. I can use them ‘for’ that. They take me out of myself.

I don’t want to make poetry pamphlets sound like mystical texts. They have laughter in them too, and puzzles. You can worry away at them: what’s going on here? what does that really mean? did she really say that? But here are two poets you can respect and learn from. I have learned and been enriched, and will go back again and again. The lines, the forms, the shapes – these are hard-won, thoughtful, joyous, distilled, life-enhancing.



I was in Galway last week launching Tom Duddy’s ‘The Years’. But the author wasn’t there.

It’s a strange and moving experience introducing a book whose author is dead. Especially when so many of the poems, with the benefit of hindsight, seem to anticipate his own demise.

Some of them, of course, were written when he knew he was dying. But others were created long before the fatal diagnosis.

Introducing the book in Ireland was wonderful. All around me were the warm accents of the land where the poems were engendered. I could hear Tom’s voice through every word, even when reading some of the work in my own Scottish/English accent.

With each month that passes, I am more persuaded of his singular talent and achievement. The melody of key phrases and lines haunts me. I wish he were still here. I wish he were here to talk and write about these poems himself, though he would hang back. He would not say much. He was ever an under-stater.

Obviously he’s not here. But his voice is. I give blatant notice now that my mission is to promote this book. I want you to read it more than I want you to read this blog. It’s the benchmark. It’s the watchword.

Tom liked magic. He was a member of the Munster Society of Magicians and acted as official conjuror at parties for the children of his family – his own children, as well as nephews and nieces. He was good with cups and balls, something that will turn out to be a link with a forthcoming pamphlet by Richard Osmond (more of that very soon). But I also think, with a corner of his mind, Tom subscribed to the concept of ‘real’ magic – that belief accomplishes inexplicable transformations.


Duddy has pulled off a particular trick in his last book. It’s as though a little piece of his own intelligence is running permanently, like film on a loop, inside the lines. The volume feels alive in a peculiar way. Almost eerily alive. The phrase ‘truer of ourselves than our own /self-seeming’ echoes endlessly in my head. The contrast between how things seem and how they are underpins even the quiet act of reading. Is he doing it on purpose? How is it accomplished?

With the very best stunt, you never find out how it’s done.

I can’t stop thinking about the poem called  ‘Situation Vacant’. It talks about the need, in the face of death, to have a particular person present, although that person is missing. The individual in question is the type to stand ‘a stride or two back / from the rest of us’, the type to notice tiny details others miss, the type to see brightness where life struggles to persist, the type to ‘take note’.

I think that person is Tom. He is sorely needed. He is not here. But here he is:

Situation Vacant

We needed to have with us today
someone who was part of the crowd
but who stood a stride or two back
from the rest of us, in the shadow
of the roofless chapel,
on a ridge of high ground.

We needed someone to take note
of the vestiges of snow still bright
in the sunken places where growth
is rank, half-lodged, yellow-stemmed.
We needed someone to tell a story

truer of ourselves than our own
self-seeming, truer of the place
than all measures of ordnance,
truer of the world itself than the laws
crystallising in the brooches of ice
held together by grave grass.





Since brass, nor stone, nor earth, nor boundless sea,  
But sad mortality o’ersways their power,  
How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea,  
Whose action is no stronger than a flower?

O! how shall summer’s honey breath hold out,  
Against the wrackful siege of battering days,  
When rocks impregnable are not so stout,  
Nor gates of steel so strong but Time decays?  
O fearful meditation! where, alack,  
Shall Time’s best jewel from Time’s chest lie hid?  
Or what strong hand can hold his swift foot back?  
Or who his spoil of beauty can forbid?    
O! none, unless this miracle have might,    
That in black ink my love may still shine bright.

Shakespeare Sonnet 65

One of the reasons poets want their poems published is so they’ll live on, after their death —the poems, I mean — though there’s a sense in which we want to believe a bit of the author is preserved along with them. If a UK book or pamphlet has an ISB number, copies will nestle in the copyright libraries forever. Or not. There are six mandatory receiving libraries in the UK. (In Poland there are 19).

There is a cost to this for publishers, of course, and also for the libraries. Cambridge University Library has been a legal deposit library since 1710. It currently houses its print contents over 100 miles of shelving, expanding at the rate of two miles per year.

Still it’s a comfort to know that once a book is positioned securely somewhere in those 100 miles, it’s safe. The words between the covers are protected from ‘the wrackful siege of battering days’ for a good while.

But publishing dead poets is problematic – unless the authors have already achieved school textbook status and outlasted copyright restrictions. Poets like Keats and Shakespeare sell well (in the context of a genre whose sales stats sink the heart). Other poets sell poorly at the best of times, and if they’re no longer around to help promote . . .

Because increasingly living poets have a dynamic role as marketers and promoters of their own books. They announce publication in social networks; some of them blog online; they work hard to get online reviews and offline readings. They ask all their friends to write to Poetry Please and request them. Publishers mainly don’t do this any more, if they ever did.

Living poets are placed between two stools. On the one hand, many of them are modest, bookish people. On the other, they are producing their own promotional text, with varying degrees of unease. Some of them turn out to be amazingly good at it. Others are frankly terrible.

Dead poets are spared this. With luck, some of their friends will continue to promote their book(s). But with the best will in the world, enthusiasm vacillates and wavers over time.

And other factors come into play. The work of dead poets is hard to get reviewed, even if the publisher is sending out myriad copies. Many publications don’t review the work of dead poets as standard policy. There are too many books every year from living poets clamouring for attention.

Dead poets can’t apply for grants or residencies. Dead poets can’t take on commissions. Dead poets can’t answer letters. Dead poets can’t network or blog. Dead poets can’t appear at festivals. Dead poets can’t write new topical poems. Dead poets can’t upload recordings on YouTube or SoundCloud.

And books of dead poets are usually ineligible for prizes and awards. The Forward Prize, for example, stipulates that ‘work submitted on behalf of an author who is deceased at the date of publication of the work is not eligible.’ What does a dead poet need with a cash prize? But it’s not the cash. It’s the attention that both the dead and the living most need. That’s what brings readers to poems.

If the poet is not there demanding attention, who is doing it for them?

The original idea was that the poems would continue doing the job. ‘Time’s best jewel’ would ‘still shine bright’ in ‘black ink’. People would read the printed poems and share them. That phenomenon known as ‘word of mouth’ would do the business.

Theoretically ‘word of mouth’ is more powerful than ever before. Publishers are keen to exploit the possibility that any text could go viral. It worked for J K Rowling. So far as I know, it has never (yet) worked for poetry.

Where am I going with this? HappenStance has just published a book of poetry by a dead poet. The Years, by Tom Duddy, will not be promoted or circulated by Tom Duddy, though his friends and family will do their best. It will not be entered for any prizes. It will gradually find its way to a number of very good readers: at least I hope it will. It is a beautiful book with the highest production quality we could get. There are times when an absolute belief in the work must override all other considerations. This is one of those times.

Meanwhile, a living HappenStance poet, C J Driver, will be taking part in a memorial service for Nelson Mandela in Westminster Abbey at noon on March 3rd. Among other words, Jonty will be upholding the faith by sharing a bit of Shakespeare, undying proof that some poetry really does endure.



It’s the month of new publications!

Jonty Driver’s Citizen of Elsewhere has now followed Hamish Whyte’s Hannah, Are You Listening? into the webshop. Tom Vaughan’s Envoy will follow next week.

I love the word ‘elsewhere’. Something magical about it. Robert Nye has a poem ‘Lines to The Queen of Elsewhere’, in An Almost Dancer, his 2012 collection (“Remembering places where I’ve never been . . .).

‘Elsewhere’ feels dramatically different from ‘somewhere else’.b2ap3_thumbnail_SCAN-OF-CIT-OF-ELSEWHERE-SMALL.jpg

Also Tom Duddy, in The Years, (imminent second collection) has a poem titled ‘Elsewhere’, in which children’s “minds [go] wild with the thought of elsewhere”. Elsewhere is beautiful, unattainable, and eventually tinged with sadness.

In the Merriam Webster, I find also ‘elsewhither’ and ‘elsewhence’, neither of which I remember encountering before. Perhaps I can incorporate them into something.

The Christmas launch at the Scottish Poetry library (Saturday, December 14) is now in the planning. Hamish Whyte, poet and editor of Mariscat Press, will be reading poems from Hannah (Hamish lives in Edinburgh). Jonty Driver will be travelling there all the way from Sussex – a rare chance to hear him read in Scotland. Gerry Cambridge will be sharing a couple of the new poems from Notes From Lighting a Fire, the PAPERBACK! It’s possible that I may have some Fife Place Name Limericks to rattle along with by then too. Most importantly of all there will be a lovely atmosphere and a warm welcome for poets and readers and friends.

Now I must get back to the packaging and sending out of books, elsewhence I came.



The International Serial Book Number was invented in 1965.

Originally it was nine digits long. Then it became ten. In 2007, it expanded to a sequence of 13.

What is this sequence of numbers? A product identifier, used by publishers, booksellers and libraries for ordering, listing and stock control purposes. Through the ISB number the book can be tracked down and, if it’s in print, or in a library, a copy can be obtained.

You can publish without an ISBN, of course. But if you want people to be able to find your book, both during its lifetime and in libraries after we’re all long gone, an ISBN is a handy thing.

Publishers buy these numbers in blocks. You can’t buy them individually. In 2005, when I began HappenStance I bought ten, which is the smallest number you could (and can) purchase at one go. They were dead cheap. I don’t recall the exact cost but I think it was less than £1.00 per number. Since then, the price has gone up.

Ten ISBNs currently cost £126.00.  One hundred cost £294.00. A thousand cost £774.00.

Anyway, I got my first ten in 2005. Quite quickly after that (a year or so later) I bought a hundred and they cost something very close to a hundred quid. One hundred! That seemed a huge number to me at the time.

I’ve just come to the end of that hundred numbers and I’ve bought another hundred. I did consider buying a thousand but . . . I’m sixty. One can only do so much in a lifetime.

There’s little poetry in a list of numbers, it seems to me. However, I found it oddly moving when I realized that the first ISBN in my last hundred was Tom Duddy’s pamphlet The Small Hours: 978-1-905939-00-8.

The last number of that same block is 978-1-905939-99-2. It belongs to Tom Duddy’s posthumous volume The Years. I’m finalising this book for print right now. More about Duddy, and much else, soon.


If you read a lot of poems, most of them don’t.

Click into place for you, that is.

And then you read one, and it’s like you’re old friends already. That shock of recognition. Weird.

There are lots of reasons why this happens, not all of them to do with the quality or beauty of the poem. Sometimes the poem speaks to you because the circumstances of the writer are close to your own. And sometimes this similarity stretches across time uncannily.

Here, for example, is a fragment from Sappho, translated by Aaron Poochigian:

I declare
That later on,
Even in an age unlike our own,
Someone will remember who we are.

(Μνάσεσθαί τινά φαμι καὶ ὔστερον ἀμμέων.)

Poochigian has created a brief rhyming form for his translation (see Don Paterson, 2004, “a poem is just a little machine for remembering itself”). Neat and clever. One line from Sappho – just the remark that human beings will remember ‘us’, whoever we are – creates a rhyme that confirms the sentiment and is, by the way in which it’s voiced, memorable. Sappho lived two and a half millennia ago. Someone two and a half milliennia ago shared our preoccupation with being remembered.

Actually, the note in the Poochigian’s Penguin Sappho tells me this fragment “appears near the end of a Discourse wrongly ascribed to the Greek writer . . . Dio Chrysostum”: it is a line spoken by a character who is upset because his statue has been taken down – so he “lectures the Corinthians on immortality through art”. Not a personal statement from Sappho, then. And yet perhaps it is. We want it to be, don’t we? We want that to be the voice of Sappho resounding through the centuries, human speaking to human.

Because part of the point of art, especially written art (though Sappho expected to be remembered by ear, not by book), is connected with memory. We want to be remembered. But not just that. Our writing is an attempt for something to be remembered (Poochigian uses this poem as an epigraph to his own first collection, The Cosmic Purr). We feel as though our little lives, insignificant as they are, hold clues to something meaningful.

       —Forgive me. I need to digress. I have discovered only this morning that a whole element of history has escaped me. I didn’t know that our way of talking about ancient history as B.C. (Before Christ) and A.D. (Anno Domini, or in the year of Our Lord) has changed. Am I the only person not to have known that now most scholars say CE and BCE? And that CE can ignore Christ because it stands for Common Era (though if you are Christian, you can take the letters to mean Christian Era)? And BCE obviously came before that.

The new terminology doesn’t compensate for the fact that numbers getting smaller as people get older BCE is confusing. But how odd that I didn’t know A.D. had been consigned, along with Noah, to the ark. It’s comforting to note that Carol Ann Duffy, in the preface to the Penguin edition, refers to Sappho as born “after 630 BC”, while the translator (Poochigian) in his introduction to the same volume says she was “born after 630 BCE”. Duffy is my generation. Poochigian is still in his thirties.

Anyway, thanks to the internet I have adjusted my mental framework. The other ancient poet I am working my way towards is more straightforward because she’s a CE poet, so her dates go in the same order as ours: born in 1084 and living to about 1151. I’m referring to Li Ch’ing-chao or Li Qingzhao, another woman whose voice floats down through history. Again, her poems were written as songs with tunes, but print has allowed them to survive. Here is ‘Cassia Flowers’ from the Complete Poems translated by Kenneth Rexroth.

After my sickness
My temples have turned gray
I lie and watch the waning moon
Climb up the gauze window screen.
I boil a drink of cardamom leaf tips
Instead of tea.
It is good to rest on my pillows
And write poetry.
Before the door
Beautiful in wind, shadow and rain,
All day the fragrant cassia blossoms
Bend toward me, delicate and subtle.

Perhaps this poem would not have ‘clicked’ with me normally. I haven’t been sick. My hair is fading but not going gray. I don’t know what cassia blossoms are though I think they may look something like this (follow the link). In her next poem, though, she says “I have studied poetry for thirty years”. I can relate to that.

But I came to this lyric via another route. I am working, as I said last week, on a volume of poems by Tom Duddy. In many ways I feel as though I’m following him through his last couple of years, reading the life through the poems, trying to get inside his head. Here is one of his written in January 2012 (he died six months later). It’s titled ‘First Week of New Year Before Treatment Begins’.

Outside, the storm that came up
as the darkness came down
whacks the loose fence
resoundingly hard
against the gate-post
at our westerly gable.

An engine that can only be
a water pump or road drill
doing emergency work
has droned for hours
(not unpleasantly),
like a small biplane
circling nonstop over Cherry Park.

I drowse by the wood fire,
reading over and over
(during brief spells when
the sparking logs rouse me)
Li Ch’ing-chao’s ‘Cassia Flowers’.  

Now both poems have clicked. I see why Tom read ‘Cassia Flowers’ “over and over”. The Chinese poet wrote this when she was ill; writing was a comfort to her. Tom read it in the same situation. It’s not hard to see and feel the electric connection between two human beings across centuries.

Tom Duddy knew the secrets that make poems remember themselves. Here, the immortality is in the detail. It’s in the word “whacks” that recreates the noise of the loose fence in the storm. It’s in the irrelevant engine that has “droned for hours”, and which only an ill person could notice so precisely. It’s in the “sparking logs”. It’s in the connection between human experience and the weather: the calm after a storm. It’s in the name “Cherry Park”, a housing estate in Galway. I wonder whether Tom heard, even there in the word “Cherry”, an echo of those cassia flowers.

His poem captures that feeling of indolence, the haze that slows down time when we’re neither ill nor well, when action and initiative are removed from us. You can hear it in the sound of the words: flowers, rouse, fire, drowse. Human beings, so long as we’ve existed, must have felt like this at such a time. And Tom’s book, The Years, is at least partly about the mystery of time itself: the way the years vanish in an instant, but also how they stop, everything focussed, sudden and alive, in a single moment.





The order makes a big difference.

I take my blog title from Coleridge, of course. Male poets are especially good at coming up with definitions of poetry, and it’s convenient that this should be so, because definitions are useful for brandishing.

The full quotation—recollected online—is this: “I wish our clever young poets would remember my homely definitions of prose and poetry; that is, prose,—words in their best order; poetry,—the best words in their best order .”

I woke rehearsing Coleridge’s maxim in my head. Why? Because in my current price list—the one that went out to subscribers last week—I got one of the titles in preparation in the wrong order. Not for the first time, either, I might add. Sometimes these things get scrambled in my head: a sort of title dyslexia.

The pamphlet I got wrong was Hannah, Are You Listening?, by Mariscat publisher and Shore poet Hamish Whyte. I called it Are You Listening, Hannah? The order of the words makes a difference. The second (the wrong one) seems to me a weaker question, vaguer, more casual—even wistful and slightly distrait. The first (the right one) is crisper. It projects. It carries right out into what Julian Treasure calls ‘the listening’. Or so it seems to me, the person who got it wrong.

Hannah, Are You Listening? is a lovely little pamphlet. The poet’s voice is quiet but resonant, serious but playful—even impish, at times. There’s lots of white space. I sometimes talk about how poetic ‘technique’ can get in the way, like the specks and grains on the glass that stop you seeing through. These poems are transparent. Pure delight. 

Anyway, Hannah, Are You Listening? is nearly done. Two other new pamphlets are also in preparation. More of those later.

I’m also working on Tom Duddy’s second book (it will be called The Years). Tom died, as many of you will know, before he intended to. With the help of his wife Sheila and daughter Clare, I’ve been sorting through his unpublished work, in particular those poems he suggested for a second volume. He and I were able to correspond about some of them before all smiles stopped together.

The process of putting together Tom’s book is humbling. It is reading a life, not just a set of assorted texts. Again, he wrote with astonishing clarity. Sometimes his poems, at first glance, seem slight. Nothing much is happening here, you think. Then you realize everything is happening.

Already I am fumbling in words of inferior order to praise what Duddy did better. So I will close with a little example, appropriate because the title—the correct title—is ‘Window on the World, Sunday Morning’. You see right through the window. Not one speck on the glass.


Window on the World, Sunday Morning


A mother and a daughter (herself a mother)

walking very slowly, arm in arm, past


the closed gates, judging gardens as they go;

just behind them, catching up, soon to pass,


a man in a tight black coat, eyes downcast,

grey head bowed as if into a strong wind.


Two girls running sideways down the green mound

between the church and the soaking playing field.


Above them all, jackdaws cher-cherking

in the bright aftermath of gales and rain.