Poetry at Palmers Green: live review (April 2016)

When reviewing my first year of blogging on poetry and related matters (see blogI said I wanted to review more live events. That has not happened really but this week I wanted to rectify that to some degree.

Last Saturday I drove a few miles north to Palmers Green, best known to the poetry world of course, as the home ground of Stevie Smith who moved there when she was three years old. She was educated at Palmers Green High School and North London Collegiate School for Girls and lived in the area until her death in 1971. I first became aware of the current poetry activity in the area a few years ago when I went to readings at the bookshop in the High Street run by Joanna Cameron.

Stevie Smith in the park in Palmers Green

But in 2006 the Palmers Green Bookshop was forced to close, the lease was sold on and I think it was an opticians that opened in its place. Since then a number of local poets and enthusiasts have been keeping poetry alive with 6 monthly poetry readings at Stevie’s church, St John’s, N13 4AL. The readings take place in the Parish Centre adjoining the church and are always friendly and well-programmed evenings. I’d recommend them if you’re in the area (Contacts: Katherine Gallagher  or Myra Schneider and on Facebook).


The evening was introduced with clarity and authority by Lynda How and readings took place as the April evening sun set outside. The Parish Centre looks at first a little soulless but with its shades-of-yellow decor, surprisingly tasteful lighting and pitched wedding-cake-white roof it is actually a venue which has a good acoustic and a disarming and warm atmosphere. The first reader was Danielle Hope, whose new book is Mrs Uomo’s Yearbook (Rockingham Press, 2015) from which she read the entertaining and instantly recognisable out-of-season seaside resort description  ’Llandudno Winter’. Recognisable to most of the audience it seemed and as I spent a couple of years in digs in Morecambe I knew the “please-remove-wet-shoes-at-door / heating-on-from-seven-to-eight / no-radiator-in-bar / low-watt-lamps” guesthouse. Her translations from the Italian are also impressive (Montale’s ‘Eastbourne’) and the Mrs Uomo poems manage to combine humour and acute observation with a more serious satirical edge. Mrs Uomo teaches her cat economics at one point but more poignantly is left awaiting an operation having “improved against [the NHS] recently refreshed thresholds”. Hope works as a doctor in London and knows what she is talking about here and her poems are always a pleasure to listen to delivered in a colloquial, un-stylised fashion.

In contrast, Mario Petrucci read slowly and deliberately from crib (Enitharmon Press, 2014) which is a selection from the 111 poems he wrote during the first year of his son’s life (Mario was kind enough to allude to my own efforts in this topic area (see A Madder Ghost)). Petrucci’s work (especially in recent years) is much concerned with language as an object/medium in itself (hence his delivery). He spoke about his interest in the “deckle edge” of language where it begins to fade and dissolve and on the page he accentuates the thingi-ness of words with mostly very short lines, unpredictable line breaks, sometimes dividing words across line breaks.


The cover image of crib is of a child sleeping in almost pitch darkness – a metaphor Petrucci suggested for the way language itself struggles to communicate, picking from the mass of experience a highlight here or there. This from ‘i fish’:


in dark

with dark

as spool &


mark him




as if

i sought



on glass slide

that form



Gill McEvoy’s most recent pamphlet The First Telling (HappenStance, 2014) won the Michael Marks award in 2014. McEvoy’s delivery is rather more actor-ish, her voice taking on the inflections and tones of the character felt to be speaking the poems themselves. I’m never wholly convinced this is the way I (personally) want to hear poems read (I’m even more uneasy about poets who have learned texts in order to ‘act them out’). But McEvoy’s work – especially in The First Telling, which deals with rape and its aftermath – is easily powerful enough to overcome any misgivings I might have had. Her poems are often brief and delicate and disturbing:


I touch the cigarette


to my arm.


And here.


I can’t talk about it.


I could touch this fuse

to my chair.

I could watch it catch.

I could watch it flame

to roaring fury.


Counterpointing such troubling pieces, McEvoy scatters even briefer poems on birds which comment obliquely on the human narrative. Petrucci had earlier commented on the importance of the silence after a poem has been read aloud and in the intervals between many of these poems – at least while the evening light held out beyond the windows – I could hear the occasional twitter and cheep of birds in the churchyard grounds. A rather lovely accompaniment.

After the interval there were 8 floor readers. The quality of the work was high (not always the case where venues welcome floor readers) but I was struck by the number of people reading from electronic devices – phones and iPads. Of the main readers several read from their books (traditional) others from folders where the poems seemed to be printed and ordered for the occasion (the well-prepared; the short sighted). I can see the latter becoming more likely in relation to my own eye-sight but I have to say I prefer to see poets read from their books (assuming the work is published) and I can’t help think that the sight of the book cover waving around up there does something for after-reading sales too.


Simon Richey read from his first book, Naming the Tree from Oversteps Books. I’m ashamed to say I know little of his work (though he later confessed to me that he has hardly ever attended a poetry workshop, so perhaps he has just not been very visible on the ‘circuit’). I thought his work was very interesting indeed, sharing something of Petrucci’s concerns with language but also developing threads of thought and emotional responses alongside.


the meaning of a word,


before it becomes a word,
waits in the silence. It is as if


it has come as far as it can go
without being uttered. In a moment


it will change from one thing
into another, or its meaning


will tremble into a word,
into something barely familiar,


finding itself spoken,
finding itself understood.


Several of the pieces were prose poems – one a series of sections, called ‘The Darkness’, about the night-wanderings of cats as well as about the night-wanderings of their owner’s mind.


The final reader was Mo Gallacio whose marvellously rich reading voice (she is a trained actress) leant itself to both Scots and English verse, triumphantly avoiding that actor-voice that seems either to value the rotund vowels and the crisply planted consonants over and above the emotional tides of a piece of writing, or to emote all over the poetic text so heavily that the language and form of the poem is swamped and made unhearable. ‘Purple Iris’ is an especially moving poem about the incurable illness of a neighbour. Gallacio’s own struggles with cancer form the basis for a number of poems; in one she asks the nurse how she will feel after surgery – the nurse’s reply: like you’ve been stabbed! Gallacio’s evident love of and attentiveness to flowers and plants echoed McEvoy’s acutely observed birds and the evening ended with a celebratory bunch of brightly trumpeting daffodils (no more than £1 from Tescos) suggesting – with a nod to the Edward Thomas of ‘March’ perhaps – that Spring is most definitely HERE.


Everything Burning: Review of Maitreyabandhu’s ‘Yarn’

I love to follow the development of a poet’s work. This is often imaged as the finding of a voice but is really a process in which the poet brings into focus what centrally concerns them and sheds what is extraneous. A recognisable voice may be a secondary consequence of this but it is achieved through technical advances and deep thought about poetic predecessors and possible role models. Maitreyabandhu’s second collection, Yarn (Bloodaxe, 2015) is fascinating from this perspective.


Born Ian Johnson in Warwickshire, Maitreyabandhu was ordained into the Triratna Buddhist Order in 1990. I once started a review of James Harpur’s  Angels and Harvesters (Anvil, 2012) by saying that I wanted contemporary poetry to address spiritual matters, so I was obviously excited to get hold of Maitreyabandhu’s first book, The Crumb Road, when it appeared in 2013. Given my rather narrow line of expectation, I suppose was a bit disappointed. But the book is full of vivid colloquial detail, many poems about childhood and a moving account of a homoerotic relationship between two young boys which ends with the death of one of them. The crumb road of the title is the Hansel and Gretel trail back to the past rather than a trail of stations towards spiritual enlightenment, though ‘Visitation’ is an awed encounter with something like that: “I saw you, in the mess of things, / [. . .] as a slant of grey”. The book was a PBS Recommendation, rightly praised for its melancholy modesty, quiet expression, its alert and attentive qualities, its models evidently Edward Thomas and Thomas Hardy.


Yarn develops similar materials. Maitreyabandhu’s poetic technique is even more evident in the range of forms – free verse, rhyme, prose poem, blank verse – employed to great effect. The Warwickshire childhood features again in a section called ‘The yard’ with the father’s wine-making – damson, raison and berry – and his war service, the mother’s involvement in the coach driving business, school, various distant relations. The first book’s portrayal of young love cut tragically short is echoed here in an elegiac sequence to a Buddhist friend, Mahananda. This man’s longer life (his mother’s flight from the Gestapo, his conversion to Buddhism, living in Primrose Hill, his friendships) is touchingly evoked and it is a thoroughly grief-stricken sequence: “what can I conclude on your departure? / that nothing came of it, with everything, / everything undone” (‘Souls’).


There is a curious echo of this latter phrase in a poem about the Zen Buddhist monk/poet Ryokan for whom the temple bell and old books seem to say “how everything is burning”. Such a sense of the ultimate insignificance of earthly things arises elsewhere in this book and Maitreyabandhu explores such spiritual issues more explicitly here than in The Crumb Road. Though there is often a strong response and pleasure in the natural world, ‘These Days’ suggests “our human calculus precedes / the given world” to negative effect. There is a fearful recognition that what we contribute amounts to no more than “error bred in the bone, the daily rancour / of the mind, / our clever ways to be unkind”. But the erasure of those things that we cling too can be almost as frightening. Nietzsche’s ‘The Parable of the Madman’ (1882) is alluded to, a sponge wiping away the “entire horizon”, yet the consolation (as in the death of a valued friend) can be hard to access: “I strained to see Vajra Guru’s face”. Perhaps the character in ‘The Postulant’ has “closed his eyes on this world” more successfully:


When night fell, the space between two worlds

Was all the shape he made, an empty dark [. . . ]

What he thought to be himself he didn’t know:

His pain was all that stopped the worlds unite.


Bit inevitably, what is ultimately not graspable in words is hard to write about and Maitreyabandhu’s often chosen model (the rhyming, song-like lyric voice) can lead to a mellifluousness that over-sweetens a poem, especially when trying to evoke more successful intuitions of “the Lotus Born” and the “illumined image” (‘The World of Senses’).


But Yarn contains three long yarns or stories in which the voice of the teller plays at least as much part as the narrative of events. This is what is new and particularly exciting in this book and reveals the influence of Robert Frost (not Edward Thomas who tried this early on with ‘Up in the Wind’ (1914) and then dropped it as not fit for his own purposes). Frost’s eclogues (especially in North of Boston (1914)) manage to convey a bleak, anti-pastoral, godless, modern world of death and often inexplicable suffering. One similarity is that ‘The Cattle Farmer’s Tale’ is spoken by a proprietorial, rather self-satisfied farmer (read Maitreyabandhu on the influence of Frost here). Like Frost, Maitreyabandhu immediately catches character and voice brilliantly. He encounters a mysterious figure: “his not pretending / to be meek or grateful to set me at my ease / and, funny thing, it stopped me in my tracks / so for a moment I stumbled on my words”. This is so like Frost’s ‘Death of the Hired Man’ – the enigmatic visitor, the farmer and his wife, the carefully sketched context, the skilful handling of dialogue in blank verse. Maitreyabandhu adds a few songs too but this is in no way a pastiche but a development of a neglected form for different purposes. The visitor is in fact Buddha and though he talks in cryptic terms, the farmer’s rootedness in the land, his evident pride in his worldly achievements, his bossiness followed by regret in dealing with his wife serve to make the Buddha’s pronouncements palatable in the poem’s world:


There are two thoughts, Dhaniya [. . .]

one leads to suffering, the other to joy.

The first is yoked to yearning like a calf,

a suckling calf that’s yoked unto it’s mother,

the other’s like a shadow that never parts.


So this really is the cattle farmer’s tale – his response to his encounter with a wholly different set of values (he and his wife are in fact deeply impressed by the visitor who stays for a month). The form of the poem allows the reader room to be sceptical in our modern fashion but also to be moved by the insights and wisdom (old fashioned word) being offered.


The second yarn, ‘The Travellers from Orissa’, is even more ambitious. Bhallika (the narrator) and Tapussa are again farmers, cattle men, who encounter Buddha in their younger days. Bhallika is again a sceptical voice (“I’m not a fool”) but is nevertheless impressed by the Master, who “spoke in a funny way with gaps / between the words as if he’d just been woken [. . .] his smile, / I shan’t forget, was like gazing at the sea”. But this is not an experience he can easily share with others and he resolves to “keep it to myself”. Tapussa’s response is quite different. The poem makes it clear Tapussa’s character inclines him to “yarns” and in the telling they grow “more fantastical each time”. His response to the meeting with Buddha is to cast himself as the rather attention-seeking disciple, who succeeds in becoming something of a cult figure: “his nodding head, how he held his finger up / each time he spoke to emphasise each word”.

But Tapussa dies, as does Bhallika’s wife and the widower lives on quietly, distantly aware of the Master’s growing fame and influence. At last he meets him again: “I said ‘Master’ before I knew I spoke”. Only now does Bhallika share the details of the original meeting with his son. In fact Tapussa had failed to understand, turning “the whole thing upside-down” to make it all “about himself”. What is moving in this yarn is the fact that Bhallika evidently understood the Buddha’s message (“There is a thorn buried / in the heart of man”) but with his commitment to wife and family and land he “walked back into [his] own life and tried to take it up”. Even years later, he understands “I’d betrayed my life” on that day and with that decision.

Coleridge’s Mariner and Wedding Guest

Such false and true followers feature in the third yarn too though the human situation is even more finely drawn and prevents any simplistic response to the questions it raises. In a still sketchy but more Westernised context (Sunday morning church) it is ‘Aaron’s Brother’ who narrates. Like Tapussa, it is Aaron who is the more overtly spiritual figure, famously suffering visitations and visions. But there is again a self-regarding quality in the way he readies himself for church before the mirror, “combing his hair”. The story is told to an unnamed guest – there’s much of Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner here – who is eager to speak to Aaron and not much interested in his brother. But the brother is in fact adopted and has further secrets to disclose of a homoerotic love between himself and Aaron and (he implies) this partly fuels Aaron’s interest in his young male acolytes.

The treatment of these ingredients of a far grander and dramatic tale than Maitreyabandhu wants to develop suggests a powerfully imaginative act by the poet, the kind of thing Keats admired in Shakespeare. In this third yarn in particular, there is no irritable reaching after facts and clarity; it is a poem which explores the perhaps irresolvable tensions  between the spiritual and the sensual life, the spiritual and materialism and fame, the spiritual and our mundane earthly loves and commitments. I’m interested that Maitreyabandhu has not yet attempted such renovations of the Frostian form in a more overtly contemporary setting. His skills with form and his brilliant capture of colloquial speech, his obviously profound engagement with Buddhist thought and his commitment to poetry as a form of expression make him a unique figure in the UK literary landscape and I really look forward to discovering the direction and innovations of his next collection.


Review: Kate Bingham’s ‘Infragreen’ (2015)

There is a side to Kate Bingham’s poetry that might be (and has been) described as steady, calmly observed, dispassionate, elegant and formally accomplished. But I also see another writer – one largely unacknowledged in Seren’s blurb to Infragreen and the many critical comments arrayed in her praise – for whom the world is endlessly atilt, above lethal undertows, aching distances, the formal wizardry in large part a white-knuckled hanging on in fear of letting go. I don’t mean the latter in any silly psycho-babble way but in relation to that moment when the black gulfs open up under all we thought we knew.

The more conventional part of this new book is the second section which seems to be visiting a landscape, a house and wooded countryside where the poet perhaps spent time in her youth. We are given reflections on early love, motherhood, the daughter becoming a mother herself, the English countryside, cattle, blackberrying. Most of these poems are obviously viewed through the perspective-glass of time past and time present and this somewhat disrupts Bingham’s more characteristic way of seeing things which is from within and without. One really marvelous poem here assumes the stance of the innocent younger girl encountering an apparently friendly farmer who keeps a bunch of string in his pocket to entertain the child while also using it to keep “his trousers up” (‘String’). It’s the humming, obsessive, ground-base of end-rhyming (string, string, twine, string, mine, strings, string, hem, string, hen, string, him) that evokes the worrying undertow of adult threat without anything explicit being said at all: “He didn’t need the string. / I tugged his arm and trotted after him”.


It’s the clash of viewpoints or perspectives – using that unsuspecting, unreliable narrative voice – that makes this gem of a poem so disturbing to read. And it is the manipulation of viewpoints that yields such rich dividends elsewhere in Infragreen. On a domestic level this is played out in ‘Next Door’ where the tone is one of some surprise that the neighbours “experience life to the full”, the latter word forming on this occasion the repeating ground-base rhyme that imports irony into the seeming admiration for the “bang and slam” of their lives. But the collection is carefully opened with two brief, curiously abstract treatments of perspective. ‘Ultragreen’ takes the ‘above and beyond’ implication of the prefix to have the narrator observe a water drop “at the end of the garden”. Through a disturbing synaesthetic travelling, the drop instantaneously appears “in my brain”, indeed takes up the narrator’s perspective precisely as it “looks out / and sees what I have seen”. What was without is now within and something “like photosynthesis begins”. As a way of announcing this poet’s basic strategies and as a metaphor for (artistic) generative fecundity this is brilliant.


This is followed by the six cryptic lines of ‘Infragreen’ itself. I take Ultra to suggest ‘out there’ so Infra is more ‘within’ and here suggests a more harmonious coincidence of perception in which “the sun and I see eye to eye”. However, this frail connection seems always in danger of being broken, “half letting go of itself / half hanging on” and though Bingham does write occasionally of the fertile experience of such connectedness (see below) she more often writes in the throes of its breakdown, of distance and the accompanying sense of loss of control. So the archetypal ‘feel-good’ season of ‘Spring’ seems to be remotely occurring rather than directly experienced, the sun (again) “rising above its various nationalities / and making things grow”. The romantic gift of flowers is undercut in a meditation on tulip harvesting in Holland and the deliberate wrenching cliché of “the international language of flowers”. Even the self, viewed from deep within, has to be recognized through experience and even then not reliably: “it is her face my face projects / and for a moment I look strange” (‘Look’).


Seamus Heaney has a number of car poems in which the vehicle seems to be working benignly as a mode of travelling into wider experience (my favourite is ‘Postscript’ from The Spirit Level (1996): “As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways / And catch the heart off guard and blow it open”). For Bingham, in contrast, the narrator’s car is a place “I have to return to”, a place of (admittedly rather dull) security, “somewhere to look from” (‘Silt’). So much so that there are occasions, even when “London at night is a blaze of company”, when sitting alone in a stationery car, “seat belt on / and the engine running”, seems the best thing to do, or even the most that can be done. This is from ‘Between’, another of Bingham’s best poems in this collection, opening in the familiar only to end in another dizzying, atomised gulf.

The familiar surroundings, the container of the car, perhaps works in the way that Bingham’s use of rhyme can be seen to work, as providing a firm base from which the poem gazes outwards into the truly disturbing (Tony Harrison has said something similar about his use of metre and rhyme; it also makes me think of Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘The Art of Losing’). So the lulling rhymes of ‘On Highgate Hill’ make the stabbing on a London bus more shocking than a more informal, realist treatment. The hypnotic, mono-rhymes of ‘At Night’ (night, white, light, sight, tight, right, bright and so on) evoke a drowsy, sleepiness of thought that ventures closer and closer to the edge. On this occasion, the vision is a brighter one of something (like Edward Thomas, Bingham enjoys the nonspecific of such a word), something “mine and right / and unconditional”.

The unconditional is an escape from the binaries of perspective. It is a fleeting moment – impossible really to be written about because impossible to be disciplined into language – when self and other, those distinctions we lean on and then find ourselves manacled to, vanish. Bingham approaches such moments cautiously, “my hairs on end, my senses trespassing”, occasionally there are successes: [I] look back from where I am at where I stood / and see the wood for the trees, the trees for the wood” (‘The Wood’). On other occasions the plenitude is more overwhelming like the fisherman faced with an overflowing fish farm: “tongue-torn, foul-hooked, half tame / when there was nothing more to take more came” (‘Cull’).


But there are also a few untitled experimental pieces scattered through Infragreen that seem to be approaching this state of the unconditional in a lower-case, unpunctuated tentativeness. On page 24, a couple wake into a sleepy uncertainty in which bird song and growing buds seem one, as do thoughts and birds on a branch, the human and the natural, “one listening one listening to itself”. The final poem too, page 63, starts by undermining language (“call it what you like”) and proceeds to a car crossing Exmoor, an unaccountable stopping, the driver leaping out into a gale force wind, a slammed door offering a brief framing device, the observing voice trying to “make what I can” of it all, though within and without are bewilderingly blurred, “the other side of the force in the fence // of the foreground”.


Kate Bingham’s skill in tacking the vessel of form against the breeze of colloquial language is certainly to be marveled at. There is great pleasure to be had from the rightness of her positioning of words on the page. But I also admire her willingness to gaze past what Seren’s blurb refers to as “necessarily” her subjects, “the familiar, the seen again, and the returned to”, to glimpse something far more terrifying and in this she reminds me less of Edward Thomas, less of Elizabeth Bishop, more of Robert Frost.

How to Closely Analyse a Poem (and keep exam boards happy) #3 Edward Thomas’ ‘This is no case of petty right or wrong’

Having declared in my review of one year of blogging that I wanted to include more about teaching literature, I am posting three examples of the type of essay required by OCR exam board in module F661 (see also Essay 1 and Essay 2). The essay below focuses on Edward Thomas’ poem ‘This is no case of petty right or wrong’ which can be read in full here. The poem has Thomas probably remembering bitter arguments with his patriotic father about the rights and wrongs of the war. Beyond this essay written for specific purposes, the poem seems to me to contain so much unresolved material that it rather falls apart at the seams. Poems may well travel long distances in a few words but this one seems to me to trip itself up in doing so though it also seems to record Thomas’ final and fatal decision to join the fight in France. As can be seen below, OCR students are supposed to present a close analysis of one selected poem (AO2) while also putting that poem into relation with some others by Thomas (AO4).

Thomas in uniform

“I am one in crying, God save England”. Explore the ways in which Thomas’ poem ‘This is no case . . . ’ wrestles with the idea of patriotism in a time of war.

In your answer, explore the effects of language, imagery and verse form, and consider how this poem relates to other poems by Thomas that you have studied.

Key:  close analysis is in bold;           comparative comments are in italics

In this poem Thomas seems to be continuing a debate – or argument even – with a more conventionally patriotic person (perhaps based on his own father) and trying to define his own view of patriotism and why he might join up to fight in WW1.The single block stanza suggests a dense or intense passage of speech. Though there are some vivid images included, this is an unusual poem for Thomas as it is argumentative rather than descriptive. Although it contains some of his characteristic uncertainties (as seen, for example, about memory in ‘Old Man’ for example), it does end with what seems to be a strong affirmation of patriotism: “God save England”. This love of England and its history is very typical of Thomas as in poems like ‘Words’ and the lovingly portrayed rural English landscape of ‘As the team’s head brass’.

The opening couple of lines contain a bold reply, suggesting a discussion is already underway. Thomas denies that the issue of patriotism can be easily resolved (even by “politicians and philosophers” – probably jingoists and pacifists respectively) because the rights and wrongs of it are not “petty”. This adjective with its plosive first sound conveys something of the anger that Thomas feels. He provocatively declares, “I hate not Germans”, the delaying of the “not” giving extra emphasis and the clashing ‘t’ sounds of “hate” and “not” again suggesting the anger, even aggression of the debate. Lines 3 and 4 make use of contrasting terms (Germans/Englishmen; hate/love) to make the point that the narrator will not simply obey the conventions or propaganda of “newspapers” of the times. Lines 5 and 6 repeat this contrasting device (hate/love) and hyperbolically and dramatically declare that his hate of a “patriot” makes his “hatred” of the Kaiser (the German leader) “love true”. This is evidently exaggeration as he goes on to describe the Kaiser metaphorically as “a kind of god . . . banging a gong”. This metaphor gives the Kaiser the powers of a god but he is portrayed as using them merely to create irritation and noise in the onomatopoeic, consonantal phrase “banging a gong”. The Kaiser’s actions seem pointless.

Scene from the Battle of Arras 1917

Line 8 again declares an independent viewpoint with heavy emphasis on the monosyllabic “not”, denying that the choice is a simple one “between the two” warring sides, or between “justice” (England) and “injustice (Germany) as jingoistic “newspapers” would have put it in 1914/18. The verb “Dinned”, prominently placed at the end of line 9, again suggests that Thomas feels the debate is a loud and noisy one (perhaps more shouting than clear argument?) and as a result he can “read no more”. This image of reading may refer back to the debates in the “newspapers” of the time or it might be more metaphorical, suggesting his ‘reading’ of the situation in general. What Thomas suggests is that he gets little more sense from these debates than he might find watching “the storm smoking along the wind / Athwart the wood”. This image of a natural landscape is much more typical of Thomas’ poetry in general, reminding me of the opening lines of ‘Melancholy’ where Thomas uses repetition, heavy punctuation and personification to evoke another stormy scene: “The rain and wind, the rain and wind, raved endlessly”. The storm image in ‘This is no…’ is ominous and perhaps war-like with the bad weather approaching, metaphorically “smoking”  and the sweeping and whistling of the weather evoked through sibilance and repeated ‘w’ sounds and even the enjambment of “wind / Athwart”. Perhaps this storm suggested to Thomas the next image, recalling the storms and wicked witches in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. The imagery here becomes more gothic briefly (again not at all characteristic of Thomas’ poetry in general). The irony is though that what emerges from these apparent alternatives (Thomas again using contrasting terms in this poem) is similar. The adjectives “clear and gay” and “beautiful” suggest that there is little to choose between these alternatives, echoing line 8 with its phrase “I have not to choose”.


Thomas’ discussion of patriotism continues at line 16 with a dismissive tone: “Little I know or care”. The admission that he may be “being dull” is surely ironic and his reference to “historians” must echo line 2 with its reference to “politicians or philosophers”. In each case, these reputedly clever and intelligent figures are being mocked as unable to solve the “case” being discussed. Thomas uses the mythical image of the phoenix (re-born from the ashes of its own destruction) and imagines the historians raking at the ashes when the bird itself – the valuable, beautiful – “broods serene above their ken”. The archaic word “ken” suggests the historians fail to understand (perhaps are behind the times?) and the verb/adjective combination (“broods serene”) again evokes the beauty and value of what they have completely missed.

It’s at this point that the poem abandons its blank verse form and breaks out into rhyming couplets. It has been suggested that these final 7 lines were added later and it is interesting that it is these that declare the patriotic view more confidently with the ringing rhyme sounds supported the confident tone. In line 20, the contrasting terms (“best and meanest”) now suggest a unity of purpose or viewpoint rather than the futile oppositions earlier. Thomas is more typically alone in his poems, an isolated figure as in ‘Rain’ where the narrator repeats the word “solitude” and says he has “no love” left to offer except the “love of death”. In complete contrast, here he declares he is “one” with many of his countrymen and the passion of their patriotism is conveyed in the powerful verb “crying” suggesting loud and vigorous support rather than grief in “God save England”. His discussion concludes here with his motive for patriotism: “lest / We lose what never slaves and cattle blessed”. This is a difficult line but the image of what never blessed slaves suggests that it is English tradition of freedom/liberty that he hopes to preserve and would fight for.


The final four lines use the traditional personification of England as a woman. This sort of personification is not something Thomas does a great deal though he does personify the sun in ‘March’ to evoke the mixed nature of the weather of that month: “the mighty sun wept tears of joy”. In these final lines, England (as often for Thomas) is linked with history with the phrase “ages made her”. The bold declarative tone is aided by the hyperbole in line 24 (“all we know”) and the connecting “and” is repeated which gives a rhetorical tone. There is an  interesting contrast in the rhyme words “dust” and “trust” suggesting that England has raised her people up from almost nothing to a more complex relationship of trust in the country being “good”. The statement that she “must endure” conveys a determination or perhaps a hope that England will survive the world war. The final line again uses contrasting words and creates a sense of paradox as well as drawing the argument of the poem to a conclusion: “as we love ourselves we hate our foe”. Most of this line is monosyllabic which also gives a sense that these final words are clear and simple and explicit in deciding for English patriotism and against “our foe”.

So the poem starts by seeming to reject conventional ideas of patriotism and jingoism and suggesting that this “case” or issue cannot be easily decided. Thomas employs lots of contrasting terms throughout the poem and suggests (especially through the phoenix image) that this sort of black/white argument tends to miss the real point. Thomas’ real point seems to emerge in the final rhyming lines: it is the old traditions of English liberty that are at stake in the war. This is something he does feel passionately about and it is on that basis that he chooses patriotic commitment: “God save England”.

Photograph of Helen Thomas found on her husband’s body at Arras

How to Closely Analyse a Poem (and keep exam boards happy) #2 Edward Thomas’ ‘The Sun Used to Shine’

Having declared in my review of one year of blogging that I wanted to include more about teaching literature, I am posting some examples of the type of essay required by OCR exam board in module F661 (see also Essay 1). The essay following focuses on Edward Thomas’ poem ‘The Sun Used to Shine’ which can be read in full here. The poem has Thomas recalling happy days, walking with Robert Frost in the Gloucestershire countryside. Though the Great War  had begun, neither of them had yet become entangled with it. Students are supposed to present a close analysis of one selected poem (AO2) while also putting that poem into relation with some others by Thomas (AO4).

Little Iddens – where Robert Frost lived in 1914

Explore Thomas’ response to the English countryside of 1914 in the poem ‘The sun used to shine’. Your focus should be on close analysis of language, imagery, tone and form.

NB: Comparative sections here are in italics only to indicate the proportion of the essay devoted to that Objective (AO4). The main Objective remains AO2)

In this poem Thomas describes the English landscape as a place of pleasure and relaxed enjoyment as he walks with Robert Frost. These are remembered scenes and as the poem develops thoughts of the war of 1914-18 become more prominent. In the end perhaps the poem explores ideas about permanence and change, putting the war into a more historical perspective. The features which are typical of Thomas in the poem are the focus on the small details of the natural landscape (like ‘But These Things also’), the way the war lies in the background of the poem (like ‘Rain’ and ‘Tears’) and his interest in memory (‘Old Man’).

The opening stanza describes the two men walking at peace and the sun shining and here is an example of pathetic fallacy, the sun reflecting their happy mood. The easy rhythm of their walking is also reflected in the enjambement of lines 1-4 and the caesura in lines 2 and 4, giving a lilting, relaxed and flowing movement to the verse. At this early point in the poem, the regular ABAB rhyming adds to this impression and adverbs such as “slowly” and “cheerfully” obviously reinforce this sense of easy pleasure. The phrase “sometimes mused, sometimes talked” also suggests their free and easy life, with the caesura here again giving the steady walking rhythm of the opening as they contentedly (but thoughtfully – “mused”) explore the English landscape. This is similar to ‘As the Teams’ Head Brass’ where Thomas uses enjambement in many of the opening lines to reflect the flowing movement of the horse and plough up and down the fields. In that poem there is even less punctuation, reinforcing the idea that in ‘The Sun Used…’ the caesuras’ reflect the stopping and starting of the two men’s walking pace.


The narrator’s statement that the two men “never disagreed” about which gate to lean on is probably hyperbolic but again suggests their closeness and harmony and even the action of leaning on the gate with no urgency or hurry  reflects their relaxed state of mind. From line 6 the narrator conveys their mental focus as they walk through the landscape and suggests that they are wholly occupied in the enjoyment of the present moment. The phrases “to be” and “late past” suggest both past and future to which they give “small heed”. Other subjects are suggested by the phrase “men or poetry” and the “or” here suggests their easy freedom even in topics of conversation. However, it is at the end of stanza 2 that the war is first mentioned though at this point the word “rumours” is used, suggesting that the subject is only vaguely picked up and this is reinforced by the use of the adjective “remote” which is placed at the end of line 9 giving it an particular emphasis. At this point the war is not an important element as they walk through the landscape and this is also suggested by the word “Only” at the start of line 10 which rather dismisses the war topic of conversation in place of their focus on the landscape, this time in the form of the apples they find there.

The description of the apples is ambivalent because they are initially described with the adjectives “yellow” and “flavorous” suggesting their attractiveness and sweet taste so the reader may be a bit taken aback to hear in the next line that wasps have “undermined” the skin of the apples. The most important thing about this latter word is that it suggests the mines and mining associated with the battlefields of World War One and therefore suggests that thoughts of the war even penetrate the pleasant walks through the countryside of the two men. Something like this can also be seen in ‘Rain’ in which the narrator listens to rainfall in a depressed mood and hopes that no one who he “once loved” is doing the same. That poem uses a natural image of “Myriads of broken reeds all still and stiff” which also can be interpreted as referring to the many dead on the battlefields of France. ‘The Sun Used…’ was actually written in 1916 when Thomas was about to join up though the memory of the walks refers to 1914 when the war did seem further from him personally. These suggestions of war are continued in stanza 4 with the line of betonies described as both “dark” in colour (a contrast to the yellow apples?) and with the metaphor of “a sentry”. This makes very explicit the war reference and this is continued with the description of the crocuses (their “Pale purple” suggesting both weak vulnerability and shade) as having their birth in “sunless Hades fields”. Each of the words in this phrase might suggest the war with the darkness of “sunless”, the reference to death in “Hades” (the Classical land of the dead) and “fields” which surely refers to the battlefields in France.

Robert Frost

These suggestions that thoughts of war cannot be excluded from pleasant walks in the English countryside in 1914 are confirmed with the very next line: “The war / Comes back to mind”. Here it is the rising moon that reminds the two men of the war as they remember that the same moon would also be visible to soldiers on the battlefields of France “in the east”. The next word “afar” again suggests the distance of the war, though actually the poem has suggested that thoughts of it are not at all remote. The narrator’s thoughts now go beyond thoughts of the 1914 war. Typical of Thomas, he develops a more historical perspective, referring to earlier wars, “the Crusades / Or Caesar’s battles”. This has an ambiguous effect as it might suggest some consolation that war has always occurred and perhaps always will. On the other hand, perhaps it suggests the more depressing thought that humankind cannot avoid warfare. This sense of long stretches of time is quite common in Thomas’ work such as in ‘Aspens’ where he describes the trees at the crossroads and there implies that they are permanent, even indifferent to the human world: “it would be the same were no house near. / Over all sorts of weather, men, and times”.

May Hill – where Thomas and Frost often walked together

Perhaps it is this longer historical perspective that creates the thoughts of the final 11 lines of this poem. They open with a hyperbolic statement that “Everything” fades away and Thomas then uses a series of similes of things which he regards as transient, starting with the “rumours” of war, running water vividly described as “glittering // Under the moonlight” and the two men’s “walks” through the English countryside, even the men themselves (in line 26) and the apples from stanza 3 (now more pessimistically described with the adjective “fallen”) and the men’s “talks and silences”. This is a very inclusive list which gives the impression of time sweeping away many of the pleasures of life. The climax of the list is the last simile that seems to wipe away memories too (an important element in many of Thomas’ poems). He seems to suggest that memories are like marks on sand and the tide washes them away (is the tide an image of Time?). The poem ends with images of “other men” enjoying the same “easy hours” that the poem began with though now Thomas and Frost have vanished. In these last lines some things have changed (“other flowers”) but the moon alone remains “the same” suggesting that much of the landscape even will have changed (this reminds me of the felled elm tree in ‘As the Team’s Head Brass’ in which the English landscape is shown to be changing).

In this poem, Thomas records pleasures gained from walking in the English countryside in 1914 though he also suggests that thoughts of the war cannot be excluded. As the poem goes on, it seems to become detached from the countryside but does return to it at the end in suggesting that though people may vanish and die and even aspects of the countryside itself may change in the long perspectives of Time, there are a few things – like the moon – can be seen to remain constant.

How to Closely Analyse a Poem (and keep exam boards happy) #1 Edward Thomas: ‘Old Man’

Having declared in my review of one year of blogging, that I wanted to include more about teaching literature and having spent the last 3 weeks or so congratulating, consoling, interviewing and advising students post-results, I thought this would be a chance to post something of that sort. Part of my job during August is to talk to students who have fallen short at schools and colleges (largely at A level) and it never ceases to astonish me that so many of them – clearly capable of better grades than they have achieved – seem muddled and even ignorant of the Assessment Objectives required by exam boards. Now I’m the first to loathe this kind of acronymic reductiveness but if AOs are what the examiners want, it’s either a brave or stupid teacher who screws them up.

Of course, English A level courses are changing significantly this academic year but I’ll talk here about the OCR English Literature specification I have been teaching for a few years (both AS and A2 levels are available for the last time this year). Module F661 involves study of prose and poetry. The latter involves a study of 15/16 poems by an author and essays are close analyses of one selected poem (AO2) with the student putting that poem into relation with some of the other poems (OCR call this AO4 in this module – though elsewhere AO4 is historical and cultural context) . . .

See what I mean – it’s not really complicated but it’s easy to find this sort of stuff very boring indeed.

My advice is that it’s always better to show than tell. I show essays performing this relatively complex task written by students as homework or in past years’ exams (photocopied to the class, read and discussed). Alternatively, I’ll occasionally write something myself. The latter has the advantage that I can make specific points about style and strategy (and teachers doing what they ask their students to do is another piece of good advice). What follows is an example of the latter on OCR’s selection of Edward Thomas’ poems, focusing on ‘Old Man’. I’ve also included in this one a kind of meta-commentary on what the essay is doing. The poem can be read here.


“I have mislaid the key” (‘Old Man’). Explore how Thomas tries to get to grips with his feelings about the real nature of the Old Man plant.

  • In your answer, explore the effects of language, tone, imagery and verse form, and consider how the poem ‘Old Man’ relates to other poems by Thomas that you have studied.

 NB.  Bolded phrases signal close analysis to the examiner


‘Old Man’, on the face of it, is a poem that tries to describe and explore the narrator’s feelings about a particular plant. Ironically, the descriptions tend to be rather vague and the point of the poem seems to be that the narrator cannot precisely pin the plant down, nor can he pin down the memories which smelling the plant’s odour brings to his mind.

Brief comparative suggestions here …

This sort of uncertainty is very common in Thomas’ poetry (for example in ‘The Glory’) as is his interest in states of memory. This is also a poem where we see evidence of Thomas’ love of Nature and his close attention to its many details which also appears in a poem like ‘Aspens’.


Para 1: Get well into your close analysis of stanza 1 . . .

Line 1 opens with the alternate names of this plant. Old Man and Lad’s Love are contrasting terms – suggesting both youth and old age – and this immediately announces the ways in which the narrator finds it difficult to define this plant. In the opening stanza, the narrator is preoccupied with the plant’s names, probably because this might be one way to get to grips with the thing itself. But the narrator, after the caesura in line 1, immediately declares that “there’s nothing” in the name. This feels rather hyperbolic but the second line’s repetition of the two names perhaps gives the reader the sense that nothing is really conveyed by them. He then tries some simple descriptions of the plant itself but line three calls the plant both a “herb” and a “tree” which seems contradictory again and the hyphenated phrase “hoar-green” has the same effect because the first word is associated with grey (grey hair – old age?) whereas the second word is more associated with youth and freshness. The phrase is therefore oxymoronic and confirms the difficulty of defining this plant. The metaphorical “feathery” also suggests something soft, something whose shape is hard to define. Reinforcing this idea, the narrator goes on to say that (even for someone who actually does know “well” what the plant looks like) its names “Half decorate, half perplex”. The repetition of “half” here suggests that nothing about the plant is straightforward or clearly defined. Also if the name decorates the plant perhaps it also obscures it from sight, while the word “perplex” suggests that the name actually confuses things rather than clarifies.

A brief comparison . . .

This is surprising given Thomas’ evident love of language as seen in a poem like ‘Words’ where he praises words in a series of images such as “Tough as oak, / Precious as gold”.

Old Man or Lad’s Love

Para 2 is till focused on stanza 1 – it’s detailed but I’m taking a long time…

Line 6 of ‘Old Man’ uses a phrase which does make clear what the narrator is after: “the thing it is”. But the language used here is vague and does not convey an image of the plant at all. This stanza ends with the narrator suggesting that the “thing” is not something that “clings” to the names of the plant. Despite the names not seeming much use in getting to grips with the plant, the stanza ends with a half line in which the narrator, rather contradictorily, says he does “like” them (the names). This short sentence is begun with the conjunction (“And”) though I would expect it to begin with a more contrasting word (like “but”) and this reinforces the way the opening stanza of the poem has been wrestling with trying to define things and names but failing to do so.

A brief comparison . . .

This sort of failure to get to the heart of experiences occurs in ‘The Glory’ too. There, having praised the beauty of the English countryside, the narrator suggests there is something further that he cannot access: “I cannot bite the day to the core”.


Para 3 covers lines 9-16…

Line 9 of ‘Old Man’ uses the word “herb” for the second time to characterise the plant itself (rather than its names) and begins by sounding more definite with the monosyllabic “I like not”. This seems reinforced with the line’s final word “certain” but the enjambement to line 10 plays a trick on the reader: “for certain / I love it”. I think this surprises the reader but again the narrator seems to be struggling to define his own feelings about the plant. This second stanza goes on to focus on the narrator’s child’s interaction with the same plant. He wonders if the child will also have a strong attachment to it. This seems to be one of the ways in which he is trying to work out his own feelings about it, though I don’t think it helps him to be any more definite. Lines 10 – 17 focus on the child’s actions in relation to the plant. These lines are full of active verbs as she “plucks” a “feather” from the plant. The “feather” metaphor again suggests something about the type of leaves the plant has and “plucks” has a plosive opening, a harsh ‘k’ sound and sibilance at the end which is perhaps suggestive of the plucking motion, even the sound it might make. Sound is also important in lines 13-15 as the child is “snipping  . .  tips and shrivelling / The shreds”. Sibilance hisses through these lines, to me suggesting the quite aggressive action of tearing the leaves off. The short hard vowel sounds (mostly ‘i’) also suggest this to me. The noun “shreds” again suggests the destructive way the girl behaves. The girl seems unaware of what she is doing and this is suggested by how she just drops the leaves “on to the path”. This is reinforced with the casual-seeming repetition of the word “perhaps” (another example of vague lack of definition in this poem) but especially because the girl is perhaps “thinking, perhaps of nothing”. She then “runs off” though we are not told where to and the reader gets the impression she has not taken much notice of the plant. Her casual attitudes are perhaps reflected in the poem’s form (mostly iambic lines of about 10 syllables, but no rhyme) which gives a loose, colloquial, even casual tone. This suits the poem’s meandering, thoughtful qualities – though perhaps is a contrast to the way the narrator seems to want to be more precise and definite.

A brief comparison…

Thomas uses the same sort of lines in the opening of ‘As the Team’s Head-brass’, where the long lines running on reflect the movements of the horse and plough as they move up and down the field beside the fallen elm.


Para 4 covers 16-23

Despite the child’s casual attitude to the plant in the present moment, the narrator wonders if she will remember it in the future, or as he puts it in line 19, the “hereafter”. Later in the poem we realise that this is part of his fascination with the plant: its smell reminds him of something in his own past. Lines 16-18 suggest some sort of comparison between the girl and the plant as the narrator compares their heights and ages. But his main sense seems to be that the girl is oblivious to the plant and this is emphasised when we are told that she says “Not a word”. The narrator now wonders what she might remember later in life of the “bitter scent”. This is an oxymoronic phrase which again suggests the puzzling nature of the plant with its acrid “bitter” smell, which is here described using the more attractive sounding word “scent”. This stanza ends with a listing technique. The narrator lists the elements of the landscape which he thinks the girl may later associated with the smell of the plant. The items in the list are not very remarkable but conclude with “me / Forbidding her to pick”. The father/narrator here takes on an authoritative character (the garden imagery might remind the reader of the original garden of Eden and God’s forbidding to pick from the Tree of Knowledge) though it seems from the poem that his warnings are ignored by the girl.


Para 5 to the end of the poem…

It’s at this point that the narrator’s puzzling obsession with the plant becomes more clear as he admits that he too shrivels and sniffs the leaves but where he first “met” the scent is unclear to him. ‘Tears’ is similar in that it describes a fox-hunting scene and then soldiers parading, and the narrator tells us that they revealed to him “truths” that he has now “forgotten since their beauty passed”.

A brief comparison…

Thomas is fascinated by these areas of uncertainty and this is also reflected in his interest in those moments when seasons change as in the way ‘But These Things Also’ ends with an asyndeton: “Spring’s here, Winter’s not gone”.

In line 25 of ‘Old Man’ the narrator personifies the plant’s scent into a character he might encounter and in the following lines the repeated verbs (shrivel, sniff, think, sniff and try) suggest his fascination with the plant once again. But here too he fails to get to grips with its real significance as he declares that his efforts are “Always in vain”. The paradoxical thread that has run throughout the poem is again clear as he says that he “cannot like” the smell of the plant and yet he’d give up “sweet” smells rather than this contrastingly “bitter” one. The mystery remains unsolved as the final stanza begins and this is conveyed very simply with the metaphor that he has “mislaid the key” to the experience and to his understanding of the plant. This sentence fills only half a line in line 32 and so is short, dramatic and striking because longer sentences are far more typical of Thomas’ poems. The final lines use the repetition of negatives like “nothing” and “no” to suggest the absence of any clear understanding of the plant or the memory associated with it. These final lines are also heavily punctuated, slowing the pace of the poem, perhaps suggesting hopelessness. The absences of child, mother, father and play-mate, create a sense of loneliness in the final lines though the mystery remains unsolved. The last line of the poem conveys this very powerfully with the memory being imaged in the metaphor of an “avenue, dark, nameless, without end”. Again the caesura here slows the pace so that the reader emphasises each element of the scene, the final phrase especially suggesting eternity while the darkness might well suggest death itself, in an image

A final comparison…

that reminds me of the bleak ending of ‘Rain’ where everything seems to have dissolved for the narrator except the “love of death”, a suicidal thought that we know was something Thomas himself felt at times.



So the narrator may try to get to grips with what the plant represents or suggests to him but he fails. He tries to consider the plant through its names, its physical appearance and smell, through the child’s experiences of it and lastly through his own memories. It is clear that the plant provokes powerful feelings but the “key” remains lost. The colloquial tone of the poem and its simple language make the reader feel as if we are hearing the narrator talk aloud but what he ends up saying is that he cannot tell us what is really behind this plant nor what memory it suggests.


How Do You Judge a Poem?

I am half way through the process of judging this year’s Torriano Poetry Competition (https://torrianomeetinghouse.wordpress.com/2014/10/27/torriano-poetry-competition-2015/). I’ve been lucky enough to judge a few such competitions in the last few years and what follows is a compilation of thoughts on the judging process. Though the initial sifting can be a slog, the latter stages are fascinating as poems that set little hooks in you at first reading, gradually become more clear, their internal coherence emerging alongside their skills with language and form. What follows is inevitably a personal take on the business – more so as the process unfolds – but I hope it may cast some light on it for those (of us) tempted to spend hard-earned cash on entering the numerous competitions now running (here are a few . . . http://www.poetrylibrary.org.uk/competitions/).

In the 2003 comedy film Bruce Almighty, Jim Carey plays God and, alongside with more obviously useful powers, he has to respond to the prayers of the world. But people are always praying; he rapidly approaches a kind of madness as voices swim around him, clamouring for attention.  He takes to reading the prayers in the form of e-mails. He tries to answer them individually but is receiving them faster than he can respond. He sets his e-mail account to automatically answer “yes” to all, assuming this will make everybody happy. Of course, it does not.


A poetry competition judge comparing himself to a character playing God lays himself open to criticism – but I have indeed found the initial phases of judging rather like Jim Carey’s experience. There are so many and such a variety of voices clamouring to be heard and every one of them is heart-felt, recording significant moments in people’s lives. There is a similar sense of responsibility too – the raw nature of much of the writing is impossible to deny. I’d like to set my response mechanism to say yes to everybody, but the judge’s task has to be how to distinguish submissions as poetry.


The numbers are always frightening. Many hundreds of poems will be submitted. Perhaps only 10% of these will demand a further reading after the brutal first sifting. Poems face an early red light from most judges because basic elements are not competently done:

  • Competitions are full of pieces where a particular verse form or rhyme pattern tyrannises the sentiment. The writer’s submission to this tyranny becomes clear quickly through the contortions imposed on the language to achieve a rhyme.
  • The writer’s choice of language can be devastating to the life of the poem. It just isn’t right to opt for forms of language or abbreviations that died out early in the nineteenth century.
  • Choice of diction also derails an entry if it is doggedly abstract. Sure, there remains much debate about whether it is the narrow English tradition that insists on things rather than ideas – but poems about Fear, Ignorance, Poverty, Eternity and Love which refuse to dip a toe into anything resembling a real life situation are going to find progress hard.


  • A fourth error is using language without being fully aware of its likely resonance with a possible reader. A poem called ‘Mother’s Pride’ which turns out not to be aware of the loaf of bread is going to have unanticipated clutter to climb over in the reader’s mind. Louis MacNeice wanted the poet not to be an ivory tower type, but rather “able-bodied, fond of talking, a reader of the newspapers, capable of pity and laughter, informed in economics . . . actively interested in politics”. All a bit Boys Own perhaps, but if this means the poet stays up to date with the way words live then he’s right.


If you are thinking of submitting to a competition, it’s worth recalling Wordsworth’s formulation – familiar though it will feel – that poetry is built from “emotion recollected in tranquillity”. Poems made in the heat of the moment (and not revised and reviewed in the name of not tainting spontaneity) are seldom without their flaws. This is the kind of distinction Rilke also makes when he denies poetry is composed of feelings. Its constituents are rather “experiences” which he clarifies as “memories” though even with these, we “must be able to forget them when they are many and one must have the immense patience to wait until they come again . . . Only when they have turned to blood within us, to glance and gesture, nameless and no longer distinguished from ourselves – only then can it happen that in a most rare hour the first word of a poem arises in their midst and goes forth from them”. On the other hand, such recollection can sometimes create an intellectualised distance that may do harm to a good poem. Who said writing a poem was easy?


Stephen Spender argues that a poet should try to acquire skill and virtuosity through the study and interpretation of other poetic works in the way Mozart and Beethoven did in playing the music of their predecessors.  Spender suggests translating poetry is the best possible exercise in interpretation. But the really important lessons (Spender says) are those of the eye, the ear, the athletic/poetic muscles. A poet can go a long way without a developed heart, but, he says, can get nowhere at all without these skills. The poet must ask continually of his lines: ‘Do they make the reader see, or hear, or feel, this experience which I am trying to re-create?’


Reaching the final stages, the judge will be focusing more positively and more clearly on the sense, the story, the thought of a poem. Personally, I like poems that focus on small things and, in effect, make arguments for the ways in which they communicate the bigger issues that concern us all. I’m with Thomas Hardy in believing that “he used to notice such things” is one of the greatest of compliments. Edward Thomas’ poem about Spring, ‘But these things also’, likewise echoes this focus on what most people tend to overlook:

The shell of a little snail bleached

In the grass; chip of flint, and mite

Of chalk; and the small birds’ dung

In splashes of purest white . . .

Perhaps one explanation of why the question ‘what is poetry?’ is difficult to answer is because it is an art of the negative, of avoidance. The Daodejing says what is rigid and inflexible is a companion of death; what is flexible is a companion of life. I’d guess there would be general agreement that poetry is an art on the side of life. So poetry must eschew the inflexible; we must avoid the posture. And that’s very hard. In judging a competition one comes across the Wordsworth-posture, the Ginsberg-posture, alongside those of Betjeman, Hughes, Plath, Duffy . . . But we also posture like mad in ‘real life’. We may take up the pose of grief, melancholy, love, liberalism, environmentalism . . . The mark of the absence of posturing is an instability, an openness, an awareness of time (which posture tries to deny) and this is something I look for in a good poem. If a poem strikes an attitude my attention diminishes (even the attitude that wants to show a rejection of attitudinising through the hall of mirrors of ironic distancing). When the poem unearths a pulsing, shifting, live relationship between the self and the other, then I am captivated, recognising something that is both commonly human and uniquely personal.

But having said all this, I’d assure potential competition entrants that anything resembling a rule is there to be broken. Philip Pullman has said, “We don’t need a list of rights and wrongs, tables of dos and don’ts: we need books, time, and silence. Thou shalt not is soon forgotten, but Once upon a time lasts forever.”


So any poem in any form can work its magic. It will haunt its reader for days; it will make me change the way I think and feel; make me see the world differently. Ultimately, a poem contributes to who the reader is becoming. That is an exciting prospect for the writer. It is an even more exciting one for the judge who settles down to read.