Another star fallen: Shirley McClure



I knew Shirley McClure for one week, a year ago. I met her on a writing course where she’d come with her friend Jane Clarke. Shirley was physically frail, recovering from treatment for her cancer. Physically. Not mentally. Not spiritually. Not any other way at all. Funny, feisty, didn’t miss a trick. I opened up my Facebook posts this morning to find she has died, and I couldn’t breath properly for a minute. Shock. Disbelief. Hadn’t I seen photos of her earlier this year…river swimming, full of health, or so it seemed. I have lost a lot of friends this year. I want to rage against the dying of the light, but that does no one any good, after all. So this is to say thankyou to and for Shirley McClure.

Here’s what I wrote about her in April this year:


In a few weeks I’ll be back in the blue house in the middle of the picture. Almaserra Vella, in the village of Relleu in Alicante. I’m not sure I need an excuse for posting it, but I do have one. Because it’s the house where I met today’s guest poet..a year ago, on a writing week tutored by Ann Sansom. She’s not the first guest from that week. We’ve met Jane Clarke and Martin Reed, and equally, another guest who I wouldn’t have met but for the Old Olive Press…my friend Hilary Elfick. I’m not sure why it took me so long to ask Shirley McClure to share her work with us. However. Better late than never.

By way of introduction, then, a story I thought twice about sharing, and then decided it was too good not to. You know how it is at a writing workshop. Deep concentration, silence, the susurrus of paper, the scratch of pens. Sighs. The creak of a chair. And the task. It wasn’t one I associate with Ann Sansom…she’d given each of us a postcard of a portrait. The task was to adopt the voice of a character in the picture, or to create a stream of consciousness sort of thing. I got the equivalent of a ‘Hello’ photoshoot of three languid landed sisters by John Singer Sargent. Shirley McClure, it turned out, had been given one by John Waterhouse ….one of my favourite painters…..of his favourite model, in the guise of a nymph or a mermaid or a minor deity or a dryad. He did a lot of those. Anyway, it was one of those spells in a morning’s writing when I sort of drift off, my mind elsewhere, and folk were reading their drafts, and suddenly I was startled by this sardonic, no-messing Irish voice saying

John;  I know you want to ride me…..’

Since then I’ve read Stone dress, and found myself brought up short, and sometimes close to tears, by the poems about mastectomy, about the relentless business of cancer and its treatments, by lines like these from A marriage: ‘At home we made delicate love /watchful of bandages’, or from Photoshoot ‘ Nurses rave about the handiwork, / scars are praised…..yours is the best we’ve taken……there is more than one way to find fame.’

Bloodaxe poet, Katie Donovan describes that voice for me when she writes of Shirley’s recitations of deadpan lust. That’s the word I wanted: deadpan

But that ‘John, I know you want to….’ was the first time I heard Shirley McClure reading.  I’ve said before that it’s the voice that sells me the poem, and I’ve also said, more than once, that the Irish have an unfair advantage when it comes to voice. Not all the Irish, I suppose I should say. Not the Irish of the Falls Road and the Shankhill, where every vowel sounds like a grudge or a grievance . But it’s that drily sardonic Irish voice that I hear when I read so many of Shirley’s poems, and I love it. I like the drawl, the vowel song.

And now it’s time to introduce her. Born in Waterford in 1962,  Shirley lives in Bray, Co. Wicklow.She studied English Literature and Spanish at Trinity College Dublin and undertook a Master’s degree in Latin-American Studies at Liverpool University. She went on to do a variety of jobs including volunteering in a mens’ hostel in Liverpool; teaching English as a foreign language in Reading, Dublin, Vigo and Quito; tutoring in literacy and creative writing at the Dublin Institute of Adult Education and Tosach, an AnCo centre in Dublin’s inner city; project work in Focus Point (now Focus ireland) which included drama, literacy and counselling; teaching English to Vietnamese refugees in Dublin. Since 1992 she has been a natural health practitioner and teacher. She practices shiatsu and aromatherapy (see and works with a number of community and holistic organisations, teaching and facilitating groups. She also teaches creative writing with a particular interest in writing and health.

stone dress 2

Shirley’s collection, Stone Dress (Arlen House) and her CD Spanish Affair, with her own poems plus poetry and music from invited guests, both came out in 2015. All proceeds from the CD go to Arklow Cancer Support Group, where Shirley facilitates a writers’ group. Her first poetry collection, Who’s Counting? (Bradshaw Books) won Cork Literary Review’s Manuscript  Competition 2009. She won Listowel Writers’ Week Originals Poetry Competition 2014, and the title poem of her new collection, ‘Stone Dress’, won the Penfro Poetry Competition. And now you’ll be wanting to know why she’s a prize-winner. Time for the poems. She’s sent me a slack handful from Stone dress, and I couldn’t be more pleased.

stone.dress1 jpg

The first one is typical of her clear-eyed unflinching gaze, and the diction that tells you exactly how to listen to the poem.


Nurse dresses the wound,

we talk hormones, oestrogen,

how the levels will drop

like water in a summer pool

that yields only a dry ring,

a glaze of salt.


She says I can swim in salt
water, now that the wound
is healing; she says to ring
if there’s a problem. Oestrogen
used to be my friend. The pool
is out of bounds, but I can drop


down into the waves, swim till I drop,

crawl out covered in salt.

Sea water gathers in a pool

at my feet, and even the wound

shines. Sunbathers beam oestrogen,

and I stand, hopeless in a ring


of bare-breasted women. Can’t ring

any nurse about this. Can’t drop

out of the world because of oestrogen.

I change in our room, taste salt.

My sun-dress won’t cover the wound,

I pull on an old t-shirt, curl up by the pool.


You find me at the pool.

Still not used to your ring –

the ring came before the wound,

before the floor dropped

out of the world, before salt

baths and the war against oestrogen.


– Was it the oestrogen                                            

you fell for, or the reflecting  pool,                

or my image conserved in salt?                         

Would you rather I gave back the ring,                

would you rather we dropped                               

the whole plan? I wound


you with questions, wound with oestrogen,

the drops I have left, run from the pool,

your ring glued to my finger with salt.


It was Kim Moore who made me try to write a sestina, and it was Kim Moore who explained that what a sestina is ideally suited for is the exploration of an obsessional idea. Which is exactly why this poem grips and grips and won’t let go. That, and its echoes of the mythic, of women turned to salt, of the iconography of rings, of the lost, like naiads by pools in legendary clearings. So many layers, and always, always, rooted in the here and now, the unavoidable. Stunning. By contrast, the next one is in what feels like more familiar territory, and what makes me think of Heaney…and, indeed, of Jane Clarke. A poem full of love. And, I think, the only poem I know about table tennis.


Best Of Three

When it first came in, they’d use cigar box lids

for bats, a champagne cork for a ball.

They played it after dinner, as a parlour game,

the fathers back from India keeping score,

the uncles in their uniforms shaking hands.


Our dad taught us how to hold the blade,

coached us on how the sleight of hand required

to spin the ball depended on your stance,

your handshake grip, the flick of wood and rubber,

showed the three of us the chop, the loop, the kill.


Jack Frost  was outside but we were holed up

round the table in the echoing house, and sweating.

Everyone played, even Uncle Arthur, whose hands

big as mill wheels dizzied and spun the spectators,

each grateful for the pipe-smoke lightness of the  ball.


Last night in the Parochial Lodge, my hands shook

as the ball danced away from me. New rules,

faster, up to eleven only and  two serves each.

Slowly I corrected my footing as though

my father still stood by the net, score-keeping.


I’m hooked right from the first line; if this was to turn up in a bunch of submissions for a competition I was judging, it would go straight into the ‘probables’ pile, just for that first line. Ah, the power of the pronoun, that artful ‘it’. And then, like Heaney’s father, digging:   my father……….scorekeeping.  Lovely. As is the next poem.

Katie Donovan says of Shirley McClure’s work in Who’s counting: “Quirky and wise, studded with razor-sharp double entendres and droll fantasies, these poems introduce a refreshing new voice in Irish poetry. Fuelled by a combative curiosity about the underbelly of human relationships, this is a poetry of candour and folly, and ultimately of discovery. Themes include sexual jealousy, bereavement, and how a woman regards her physical self. …….. Here is a poet sure of her craft, ready to share incantations of desire and domesticity with poise and elan. From recitations of deadpan lust to the sensitivities of one who is flying on the margins of mortality, the poems in Who’s Counting? become friends whom we cannot resist revisiting.”

I hear the voice that I heard a year ago in Spain whenever I read this poem.

The Kiss

I could have been

a better student – learned Lorca

from the library stacks,


not lying

on the shag rug

in the lecturer’s flat.


I half-listened to his Verde,

que te quiero verde,

knowing he would kiss me later;


half-believing that his tongue –

its twist and roll

around my own –


would transmit linguistics,

short-cut me

to fluency.


It’s the laconic bit about the shagpile rug in the lecturer’s flat, and its guiltless trangressiveness that makes me laugh, and then feel slightly guilty about. My bad. As one of my granddaughters says. But she writes sexy poems as well as harrowing ones does Shirley McClure. I’d like to share the whole collection ( all these poems are from Stone Dress)…but then you wouldn’t need to buy it, and you really, really must. So, just one more.  I wanted to share one about hoovering, but wordpress can’t cope with the formatting of a shaped poem, but I’m just as happy to share this one instead.


The Amorous Cat

 The Amorous Cat bookshop in Aigburth

closes its door for final time

– Liverpool Echo, 2012


Do you ever take a walk in Sefton Park,

browse in the bookshop on Lark Lane?

Is there still a bookshop on Lark Lane,

are any lefties left in Sefton Park?


Do you ever have occasion to remark

to Fabiana, Donna or Lorraine

how much you miss la lucha, the campaigns,

the prisoners’ letters, every Saturday a march?


Or could it be you never settled down,

that when you said don’t ever contact me

because I can’t forget you, that you meant it,

mean it still; oh, but I hope your Liverpool’s a town

grumbling with bookshops – that you’ve forgotten me,

just as I’ve kept my promise – written this, not sent it.


Actually, it’s nice to finish with a love letter, however bittersweet, rather than falling down a flight of stairs with a hoover.


Find out more about Shirley McClure’s via this link

and her books

Who’s Counting? from Amazon’s Book Store. … Paperback: 63 pages; Publisher: Bradshaw Books £9.00

Stone dress [Arlen House 2015] from Kenny’s bookstore:  €13.00



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Gems revisited: Tom Cleary

Irish Lake

My apologies. We’re a day late. You’ve waited with enormous patience, and all I can say is: your patience will be rewarded. To start with, you won’t have to wade through any ramblings on things poetic, and that’s because our guest has sent me an embarassment of riches. Lots of big satisfying poems, today, and little for me to do but crack on and introduce him. Ladies and gentlemen: Mr Tom Cleary!

This is some of what I said about him on his first visit to the Cobweb in November 2014:

It was the first of several posts when I reflected on a poet’s voice, and Irish voices (North and South) in particular, and how I’d once met Seamus heaney by accident and heard him read, and bought him a pint:

“……..most of all, I remember the voice, the one that tells me how to hear every poem of his that I ever read thereafter. And realising that poetry was an unfair business, and there were poets born with a headstart, with gift of a certain kind of dialect or accent, absolved of the curse of RP.

It’s something I think of particularly whenever I hear an Irish poet reading. Frank Ormesby was one. James Caruth is another. They are voices made for poetry, in the way I think that voices like Garrison Keillor’s and Bill Bryson are made for prose storytelling. It’s difficult to describe the quality I’m thinking of. It’s not the fact of a tenor or a baritone voice. It’s the business of rhythm and of softened consonants and the space that’s given to vowels that does it for me. (Harrison’s consonants are nailed down, if you see what I mean. They don’t compromise. They put an edge on the words). I’m thinking of the way the lines come in a series of waves, often the rise and fall of three or four syllables, almost regular but never metronomic, like small seashore waves. A bit like the patterns of Anglo Saxon poetry, but more spacious. The result is always unassertive, unemphatic, and it has both authority and authenticity. Like I say, it’s an unfair advantage. I could listen to them reading catalogues and bus timetables.”

Try to keep that in your mind when you read the poems that come later.Tom Cleary is an Irish poet who lives in Hebden Bridge. When he retired after teaching for many years in secondary schools in England, he started to write poetry. In 2011 he won a poetry competition organised by Writers Forum and HappenStance, and his prize was the publication in August 2014 by HappenStance of his pamphlet, The Third Miss Keane.


In 2015, he won a Northern Writers’ Award as one of six New North Poets. [I was personally much heartened by this…Tom, like me, is in his 70s, and we both come late to writing seriously]. In 2016, one of his poems, ‘Black’, was longlisted in the National Poetry Competition. In May of this year, he promoted, organised and fronted the highly successful ‘Irish and Irishness’ Poetry Reading at the Bradford Literature Festival in which he was also one of the 7 poets on view. He gave a public reading at the Poetry School annual launch in London in April, and at the ‘Poetry at the Parsonage’ poetry festival in Haworth in July.

[An aside: that Irish and Irishness was a remarkable affair, held in   a ballroom in the Midland Hotel in Bradford. A room the size of a football pitch, all mirrors and chandeliers. Like I imagine the Titanic. A massive audience, and a line up that involved Anthony Costello, Ian Duhig, Peter Riley, Kim Moore (temporarily granted Irish citizenship)..and Natalie Rees, who I seriously hope will one day agree to be a guest on the Cobweb. He sits well in that kind of company, does Tom. As his poems will now demonstrate.

When he was here last he let me use a poem from The Third Miss Keane …it starts innocently enough


I saw her first at the bridge where we went

for the dancing. Her legs leapt to the frenzy of the fiddles.

They all wanted her but she chose me.

Come with me for the goose, she said.

But that last line is anything but innocent, and the poem goes on disturbingly, in the dark way of folk tales. These two endorsements give you the flavour.

‘In the neo-folktales of Tom Cleary’s The Third Miss Keane, we see a refreshingly off-kilter voice from we expect great things in the future.’ – Poetry Book Society

‘The poems in The Third Miss Keane often feel slightly surreal, or fairy-tale like, but they always have their own inner logic’ – Kim Moore.

Tom’s latest poems move in new directions, but the roots and the voice are constant I think. Though they grow darker. The first will feel like nearly-familiar territory if you know ‘The third Miss keane’.

Mrs Cassidy

When the Cassidys came to the house next door, my brother Ferdie

fell in love with the mother. Through a delicate wine glass

pressed against the wall of his room he listened to their couplings.

How can she love that hairless creature? How can she let him touch her?

He stalked her through the markets on Saturdays. At night

he stood motionless behind the dark hedges of our garden

and watched her bedroom light go on and off.

He knelt behind her at mass, his nose nuzzling her hair.

Her heady perfume of musk drugged him into a swoon.


Later at the summer fair, he fell desperately in love

with the Headless Lady. Once we went together to see her,

shuffling and bumping through the crowded tent on tiptoe,

our sandalled feet numbed in the wet grass. In the deep shadows

of the tent behind a low balustrade she filled her Windsor chair,

snug and cosy. I couldn’t take my eyes off

the tangled cluster of tubes and wires pouring out of her neck.


Ferdie was enraptured by her stillness, by the soft slow movement

of her thighs beneath her ample skirts, the even rise and fall

of her breasts. He saw advantages in a lover not having a face.

When should I make my move, Cis? I could say nothing.

When the fair moved on at the summer’s end, he locked himself in his room.

Downstairs we listened to his sobbing, frozen in our chairs.


I love the texture and rhythm that underpin this dark, surreal, or fairy-tale like story, the doubt about who is telling the tale, and the narrator’s appalled fascination at the brother’s be-wilderment. He can tell a story, Tom Cleary…a story with lots more questions than answers, and one validated, like ‘Goose’ by the matter-of fact credibilty given by their opening lines.


The next poem shifts us from a rural Ireland into a more documented and documentary urban Ireland.

War Photo


Policemen in black and helmets squat on their haunches.

One sits on his bottom, legs spread, staring through a Perspex face shield.

They look like small boys in costume playing jackstones on the road,

skidding lumps of broken paving over the tarmac.


Beyond them there’s a woman in a striped sweater,

a man in a shirt as white as an advert,

figures with blank Os for heads,

like mannequins in a field to frighten birds.

A screen of metal with a mesh of gauze

hides a delicate blur that might be a child.

And Michael may have been hunched for hours, nursing his camera,

stepping back and sideways to avoid the bricks,

steaming cups of tea between the heels of his mittens.


Then these two women promenaded through holding hands.

One, her face fat with flush,

bundled her raincoat with her handbag under one arm,

and pressed the older woman’s hand to her thigh.

The companion blinked through the flash of her glasses

and surrendered her hand as if it was no longer hers.

It almost looks staged, back-projected from a comfortable suburb

where people had more time to talk

about supermarket bargains and boozy nights out,

Grania’s wedding and a June flight to the Canaries.



A shift of place and shift of voice to match. It seems to me that this poem nails down that dreadful quality of banality, the way violence becomes mundane, the complex fears and determinations that lie behind flaccid cliches, like ‘Life must go on’. Because Auden shone an unforgettable light on the irony of that. Atrocity happens anywhere, and the torturer’s horse scratches its innocent behind on a tree. In details like

a man in a shirt as white as an advert,


figures with blank Os for heads,

like mannequins in a field to frighten birds.


a delicate blur that might be a child.

Tom makes you look again at what you thought was familiarly forgotten.


Lest you suppose that Tom’s landscapes and narratives are necessarily ‘Irish’, it’s worth pointing out that he’s also lived in Spain, and that there are harder, harsher landscapes than the greys and greens of Ireland. He’s also recently been setting poems in Russia, and in snow and ice. But this one I was pleased to have because it showcases Tom’s power as a storyteller.

The irises in the arroyo


When he drove me up into the mountains that night

a sickle moon hung over the peaks in the blue-black velvet of the sky,

but he never let me see his face.


The locals ignored me.

They just turned away and looked down

as if they’d got a whiff from the cloacas.

But then they turned against me with a vengeance

for no reason, talked behind my back,

spread rumours about my relations with Carmela.

I went into a crowded bar and everyone fell silent.

I met them in the street and they deliberately showed me their backs.


I grew so weary of their endless fiestas,

the fiesta of the witches,

the fiesta of St. Agatha with no breasts,

the fiesta of the nun miraculously pregnant.

And of their third-rate music.

And of their dead wild pigs stinking of dung, their rank jabali.

And to listen to that uncouth language, all day, all day,

snapping like storks’ bills, clack, clack, clack.

Never to hear your own tongue spoken.

You practise it in your head but you lack the muscle to hold it.

My language is a cheese in the attic, nibbled away.


Anonymous notes typed in lower case used to come on plain paper.

I thought someone was on my side, but it was just old Q4

up to his tricks, his never-ending game of loyalties and betrayals.


Now they’ve stopped my money.

This is when they send a man.

I jump at the crack of a tree in the wind,

or stones rolling on the roof, or a crow squalling.

I watch every day for the man and I’m too old to run.

I lie in bed listening for his footsteps.

In the market yesterday, I saw a face I knew.

I ran at him but they closed ranks and blocked me.


All night the rain’s been bucketing down

on my lean-to kitchen, pounding the plastic sheeting.

Its grey smoking curtains have wiped out the mountains.

The irises in the arroyo are sunk.


I have no idea who is telling me this story, but I’m convinced of his authenticity. I could spend hours inventing a backstory, and an ending. I want to make a film of it. It reminds me of Graham Greene. It reminds me, too of Cormac McCarthy. It’s jammed with anxiety and hopelessness. It reminds me of that Bob Dylan line ‘In the hilltop village, they gambled for my clothes’. In fact, it’s another line of Dylan’s from Desolation Row that jumped into my mind when I read the next, and last,  poem: they’re selling postcards of the hanging


Waiting for the General


Carts were abandoned at roadsides.

Unmilked cows trumpeted their pain from the byres.

Soldiers jammed the street with their grief, psychotic saints.

Some walked in a dream, gun hands dangling.

Others waved their arms recklessly like burning brands.

Women wept and threw themselves on the ground,

filling their slack mouths with gravel.

Others held their palms out cupped to catch rain.


I left and I walked to the vaulted rocks

and I watched the spring ooze around the flat plates.

I eased myself into a green wash of water.

When the serpent rose up before me, swaying and humming,

its skin of oil and water rippling,

I measured my frame against it, and I cut it down.


I’d love to know what you make of this, how it suddenly swerves beyond folktale and into fable, how it ends with an image straight out of a pre-Rapaelite catalogue.

I hope it won’t be too long before Tom Cleary has another collection published, but in the meantime, if you don’t already own it, I do urge you buy

The third Miss Keane: [Happenstance 2014]  use the link:



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A brief note on tinkering…. and a Gem Revisited: Roy Cockcroft


When I asked him to come again, something my returning guest wrote set me off musing on the way I (and others?) can’t leave a poem alone. Not even when it’s out there, with its spotty bundle and faithful cat, seeking its fortune. I’ve got all sorts of poems out for competitions or submitted to magazines, or already proofread and about to be published…and I keep re-reading them, tweaking line breaks, deleting whole lines and stanzas, changing line order. And then I forget to make a copy, and I save the changes, and I’ve no idea what the original was like, or whether it’s been improved, or should have been left very well alone. Which is why I was intrigued by Roy Cockcroft’s musings about a prizewinning poem of his, and about the changes he made or may have made…and which, very shortly, you can read. If you go to poetry readings around the East Riding, you may already know Roy and his work.  Or if you follow the cobweb you could well have met Roy before. On January 11th 2015, in fact. You might like to read that post, too. Here’s the shorter version.

Leeds 1961:   a boy sets himself the task of describing that universe, of painting a new mythology. after the interruptions of secondary education, university, and thirty-two years of teaching, he resumes the task, picking up his pen, writing poetry, daubing canvasses with paint, trying to remember where he left off.  During those 32 years I had the pleasure of teaching with him. For the full story, head back to January 2015 in the archive.

Subsequently,  this is what the Driffield Post Times wrote about him a few years ago.

‘Roy Cockcroft, from Langtoft, was awarded the Elmet Poetry Prize at a ceremony held in Mytholmroyd….on Friday. Roy.. was awarded a £300 first prize for his efforts……the competition was judged by Ted Hughes’ daughter, Frieda…and based on the theme of Remains’.

Which will now take us to Whitby by circuitous ways. And the winning poem.





I wrote about the poem, Wet harvests:

No wonder it won. There are lines and phrases that make me catch my breath….the housewifely simple unspeakable wish of

‘mothers and wives who wanted their men back/to dry out under their own rafters’

and the wives and mothers

‘thinking the shroud into the wool’.

Stunning. I want to let Whitby stand for all the North-East coast that this poem renews as a working coast of fishermen, and their wives and children, and a coast of indifferent sea.”


So what about ‘tinkering’? I’ll leave the rest of this post pretty well to Roy…….who writes:

In 2008 I wrote this. Or something like this.

Wet Harvests

Here on the east coast,

When the sea had given up its claim

On their inheritance,

The mothers and wives wanted their men back,

To dry out under their own rafters.

And so, when a coble sank with all hands,

The cold waves would see to it,

Returning the dead to their own shores,

Leaving them out for inspection

On familiar sand.


And then, if the corpse was known,

A grave could be dug in the churchyard’s fathoms –

A small berth,

Sheltered from the wind,

Anchored safely in the swell of the mourning parish

By a slab of stone.

But when the tides objected,

Holding them back,

Letting the strict currents carry them miles

From their home,

Strangers would wash up on the beach,

Men without names –

Except, of course, that, under their pale skin,

All drowned mariners are spliced in the blood

With the shawled mother standing on the quay.


So, to sort Withernsea from Bridlington,

The women turned to worsteds and hefty needles,

Clacking post-codes into ganseys,

Thinking the shroud into the wool,

Teaching their own blend of rib and cable

To the black-fingered girls.


How their thick ply foiled the sea’s sick game.

Now the draggled fleece on the shingle

Had a name. Now the shore-crabs and the gulls

Might strip men to the bone,

But never pick the parish records

From their plains and purls.

Is a poem ever finished? The fact that, (as you may have noticed), I have recently made changes mostly to verse three would suggest not. Once changed, is it the same poem? Possibly not. Or is it now the poem it was always going to become? This particular poem has had many lives; isn’t this merely another? Am I the same author, the one who was there at its conception, or am I just a sympathetic but ruthless editor making judgements about another man’s poem?

Its conception? The chance discovery of a piece of local history in a wool shop in Whitby, printed on a brown paper bag. A gull on the roof of the Seaman’s Mission. A church bell. The  strength of wool when it pulls against itself in a mysterious sequence of knots. The question of identity; the contrasting anonymity of the sea. The way  knitting becomes a metaphor, a figure that stands for the way women have networked the coastline. A feeling of constraint in the first half to be followed by a sense of achievement in the second. All of these ideas emerge gradually until I finally discover what it was I was trying to say. That process, as you can see, is still going on.

Apparently Degas was notorious for this refusal to accept that a painting was ever finished, often removing them from the wall when he visited his buyers’ houses and taking them back to his studio where they would remain for months. I can identify with that on occasions.

To use an art metaphor let’s look at some of the earlier sketches of this poem. In 2006 the first verse looked like this


Here on the East Coast

The wives and mothers wanted their men back

To dry out under their own rafters

Once the sea had dropped its (bold) claim

On their inheritance

And so when a coble sank

Was it too much to ask of the (obdurate) waves

To return the (hapless) dead

To the shores of the towns that bred them

For burial in calm graves

Under slack soils     (2006)


Looking at this I can see how ‘inheritance’ needed to be adjacent to ‘wives and mothers’ or now ‘mothers and wives’. I also remember deciding to reduce the adjective count and let the verbs do the work.

To keep that continuous thread of ‘mother’ ‘women’ and ‘girl’ I appear to have cut out a whole section of verse three –


And all the sisters and all the sweethearts

Who have the sea-salt flowing in their tears

And bigger tides rising in their own breast

Than ever ripped keel and deck apart

Or shook the arrogance of piers   (2006)


I seem to remember trying to retain those lines and get rid of the unfortunate metrical carnage, but deciding instead that it added little to the poem. And so it went. ‘deck’ was meant to anticipate the cluster of hard ‘k’ sounds in the next few lines that simulate the clicking of needles, but I must have decided there were enough of them to make the point.

Is the poem finished now? Well, since you ask, I’m thinking that we could do without ‘safely’ in line 15.

But perhaps, finally, the time has come to let it rest.



That was then, Where are we now? As a writer I am still fascinated by the same ideas as I was then; the way the past emerges in the present; finding the heroic in the domestic; the landscapes in my head;  but now that I do more painting than writing, it is becoming clear that the two art forms are affecting each other; my painting is abstract to the point where the marks I make on the canvas can be called visual metaphors and I’m more conscious of rhythm and ambiguity in my compositions than I used to be ; by the same token my writing is now I believe more stripped of explication than ever before, while in my landscape poems colours bleed into the other senses in a kind of synaesthesia. Here are two examples.


The sheep have made thin, brown paths

In the melting snow –

White porcelain fragments

badly repaired

To make a hill.


Last week they were plunging through drifts,


To get at the grass,

Sheltering in hollows,

Always looking towards the gate.


Once, with snow still falling,

The farmer brought hay –

Three bales of it steaming in the dark of his truck –

Wrestled them out of its gaping back

And knifed them open,

Spilling their warm guts

Across the field’s slab.

Standing by the trough,

He clubbed the ice, till it caved in,

Scooping the biggest lumps

From the water with his bare hands,

Before driving off.


The sheep have abandoned

One patch of thawed ground

For another. Rooks angle their long, grey beaks

Into the turf.

Ice floats in the ditch like a dead seal.

A robin claims what’s left

Of the ruined hedgerows with his red shout.


Already there in the hazel,

Before the cold arrived,

Have just remembered

What their soft, green quivering was all about.





No one knows exactly where the river ends

And the sea begins,

But there are signs

that things have changed –


After the comfortable dialects

Of dapple and glide,

The river finds new voices –

Herons shuffling around

On smeared branches, coughing

Or going hysterical,

Dredging their vowels

From sluice-gates –

And there’s the slow grinding of rock

In the bed’s unstoppable machinery

And the guarded whisperings of sedge.


And features change –

Boats hang skewed on cable,

Or stretched out,

Exposing their keels on a wet slab;

Fences of reed split water

Into shallow lakes;

Banks are uncertain;

Every day the tide invents a new channel;

And later, when the fog clears,

We notice the wading of submerged roots,

A twist of wire fishing for its own reflection,

Low branches watching for hours

Before they stab.


And now the river has a new name.

And new colours –

Traces of black –

A suspicion of red –

Browns, purples and yellows leaking from ancient storms.


Levelling out, the greasy current slows,

Dithering in blocked drains,

Smelling of salt and ammonia,

Going backwards,

Muttering to itself,

Revisiting the same places.

 I was prompted  to include this last example by Yvie Holder’s recent contribution to John’s blog , Alzheimer’s being a subject to which I regularly return. The poem also brings us back to where we started – the sea. I’ll resist the temptation to deconstruct my poem; there is of course a tradition of critical theory which says it is not my job anyway, that it is for critics to provide the context for such analysis. I am reminded of the words of a fellow artist who dreaded the thought of critics picking over his work, even though some of them ‘couldn’t paint a fence’; he said it was like fearing psychoanalysis, coming to terms with the notion that someone else knows more about the workings of your mind than you do. In a way I agree; you can hear the critical voice as soon as you see the poem in print – Is this ‘the deep sea swell’ of Phlebas the Phoenician, ‘a fortnight dead,’ or is this Lowell’s drowned sailor who ‘clutched  the drag-net … his matted head and marble feet…’ ? On the other hand I claim the right (and will possibly exercise that right) to come back to these poems and finish them at some point in the future. Or I may just leave them as they are. 

Roy Cockcroft  August 3rd 2016.

It’s an absolute joy to have a guest who does all the work, does the painting, and leaves me a post I can keep coming back to, turning over the business of making, drafting, tinkering. Thanks Roy!  Another Gem Revisited next week. Come early to be sure of a seat.


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The media and the American dream: a guest post by Mary McNulty


I was totally bowled over by a long and thoughtful comment on my ‘West Wing’ post on Wednesday. So bowled over, in fact, that I asked Mary McNulty if I could reprint it as a post on its own. It made me think about what I ask from the arts, from poetry, from fiction, from film. It made me think about what we have a right to expect…or if we have any rights at all, except those we claim for ourselves. It made me think about the relationship between the arts and the body politic. So here you go:


Mary McNulty on Requiem: The West Wing…all over now

 Short version:

The sea-change in the artistic output of America, often so dark and depressing these days, reflects public anger about loss of identity (due to global competition, loss of work, and the falling standards of living experienced by all but a few). There’s been a loss of innocence, due to the relative freedom of new media, the availability of more information overall, selective bias on part of media consumers, resultant cynicism, and feelings of futility, rage, self destruction. I, too, long for the political fantasy of The West Wing, fear that House of Cards could be closer to the truth, but believe that often a powerful work of art can move ordinary people and politicians where mere politics fails us.


Long version:

I’m from County Down originally, but lived in the United States for 33 years before retiring back home, American husband in tow, adult children abandoned to challenging lives in the struggling superpower. Our two boys wouldn’t countenance a move to the cold, wet, sectarian Ireland of their summer vacations. Stalwart Americans, they confidently await our return, while we, viewing the Fight Club atmosphere of this latest presidential election and the ever-rising toll of guns, are resolved to keep our distance.


‘There’s a lot of ruin in a nation,’ Adam Smith says. Despite record profits for corporate investors, vast tracts of America suffer in the wake of serial de-industrializations due to outsourcing, global competition and robot workers. Meanwhile, burgeoning corporate agriculture is sustained by cheap, compliant, barely-legal immigrant labor. There are inadequate economic protections or social supports in most states. As a result, there’s been a slow descent into the kind of resentful, self-hating poverty that only a wealthy nation can produce. Goaded by right wing politicians, many newly poor, those who have fallen out relative middle class security, alternate between irrational hope and despairing rage.


As a local Democratic Party member, I canvassed door to door in Maine–the whitest state in the US. Its long, lovely coast is home to some of America’s Old Money scions, but inland lie desolate mill towns and pockets of rural desperation. Most recently, I campaigned for Barack Obama and a slate of liberal, well-educated, well-heeled candidates, all of whom promised saner policies than Republicans for health care, education, and the general welfare of the people. On my own little campaign trail, I encountered poverty so desperate that I literally reeled: wooden shacks where the door frame sat away from the collapsing walls, admitting mosquitoes and other disease-carrying insects in summer and below-zero winds in winter. I crossed one moss-covered porch only to sink through the rotten boards before I could rap. A family with young children lived there. Elsewhere, I found resignation: I didn’t broach politics with the elderly woman who confessed with a wan smile that she’d rather spend her few dollars on seed for wild birds than feed herself. So we talked birds and watched a rose-breasted grosbeak land at her feeder.


There was rage, too: after walking up a long lane toward a neglected farmhouse, I didn’t have time to speak or hand out political tracts to the man who leapt off his tractor and threatened to shoot me if I didn’t get off his land. Another house, down leafy fall road so lovely it might have graced a New England calendar, was so dark and barricaded that I didn’t dare approach.


Such is the political schizophrenia affecting these and other Americans that Mainers elected the first black president, Barack Obama, and, in the very same election, choose candidates who can best be described as racist, pro-gun dingalings.


How does the obscene wealth and power of the few, the poverty and anger of the many, and increasing political schizophrenia in the nation effect the creative outpourings of American writers, artists, and film makers? In the past five or so there’s been an uptick in dark, cynical, violent and horrific dramas. In part, it’s due to looser standards for the likes of Netflix for sexual content and violence.


But let me address The West Wing (which I loved in the way I love It’s a Wonderful Life, or White Christmas). It was made for American Prime Time television more than fifteen years ago. As a portrayal of courage, decency, and political competence it cleverly invokes Kennedy at one time and Clinton another. It unashamedly harks back to a Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Golden Age of Politics, a time that we miss so much today; a time that sadly never really existed. In truth, we were somewhat sheltered in the past, by censorship and self-censorship, from the greasy, sleazy, sexually predatory and financially exploitative realities of both American politics and American everyday life. Newspapers and the movie industry were tightly monitored (and not only by Catholic bishops). Media colluded with the powerful to produce propaganda in wartime. In peacetime (for supposedly good and patriotic purposes), they kept unions and communists at bay; they edited out ‘undesirable’ social change; they helped keep American workers producing, reproducing, buying and investing in the great imperial enterprise.



The American empire has collapsed for all but a few. America’s newspapers have dwindled to a handful. Many that survive are sustained by parallel enterprises in educational software. There’s enormous competition for prime time programming from hundreds of cable channels and downloadable entertainment. Censorship seems a thing of the past. In one sense, freed from previous restraints, there is a blossoming of opportunities for artists, writers, film makers and pundits. Unfortunately, the gathering feast of graphic violence and pornography and virtual reality doesn’t seem to be contributing to greater political awareness, revolutionary fervour, or increased awareness of long term good and self interest. We are diverted, not inspired. We are entertained, but not, to use an old-fashioned term, ‘uplifted’.


Franz Kafka famously said: ‘art (books, specifically), should be an axe to break the frozen sea within us.’ Perhaps we need less reassurance and nostalgia from our writers (West Wing), but also less fear and revulsion (House of Cards, Game of Thrones). It’s hard to recall (failing memory?) books and recent books or movies or series that axed open my frozen sea. From the past, these few works come to mind: Willa Cather’s novel of frontier life in Nebraska, My Antonia; Alice Munro’s short story, set on the Canadian frontier, Meneseteung; Kenneth Koch’s poem, One Train May Hide Another, and the movies, Midnight Cowboy and Pele The Conqueror (Swedish, that last one, starring Max Von Sydow). All left me temporarily stunned, feeling one hundred percent human myself and full of pity for the human condition. Maybe that’s too much to ask for Made for TV and Netflix series.



(When I read this I immediately wrote back and asked Mary for permission to share it. She wrote back:)


Certainly post it, John.


I couldn’t bring my books home to Ireland, so I lack the facility these days to just reach back and grab a title that won’t come to mind. But I had Edna O’Brien’s book of short stories A Fanatic Heart at my elbow and simply forgot about it. It’s the age thing. And then–I just remembered–there’s A Fatal Shore, by Robert Hughes.


My father, who’s eighty-seven this year, started re-reading the books he loved a few years ago. These days, he sometimes re-reads a book he likes immediately, just to squeeze out the last bit of juice.




You know what…that’s set me off thinking about life-saving texts…books, poems, all of it. I hope it sets you all off, too. And think on..we have a guest poet on Sunday. It’s been a busy old week! Thank you Mary McNulty xx




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Requiem: The West Wing…all over now


Maybe it’s this raft on the BBC of remakes of sitcoms that weren’t particularly amusing in the first place, and are now downright embarrassing. Or the plethora of ill-written stuff in general. Or the lazy fashion for movies that spend trillions on special effects and ritzy locations, and pay the screenwriters peanuts. Or maybe it’s the fact that most movie actors mutter and mumble, so it’s hard to know if the scrtipt would have been good or not. Maybe it’s just the tide of mediocrity scouring the cultural landscape…whatever. I’m not a happy bunny. But I’m taking time away from the usual celebration of poems and poets tonight, because last night I watched the last episode of the seventh series of ‘The West Wing’.

A bit of context. I have an addictive personality. I like to be hooked. I like authors who write big fat books, and lots of them. I have to like the author, of course, but then I like then to be prodigiously productive. Dickens. John le Carre. A.S. Byatt. When it comes to books and films I like a marathon. I also come to things long after everyone has raved about them and moved on. Motown and Stax. 80s electropop. Diesel-engined cars. And series. Friends, for instance. I like bingeing on box sets. True Detective, The Bridge, Borgen, Wallander, The killing, Spiral, The wire. You don’t have to be acute to see a pattern there. I have Netflix, and Amazon Prime. I gorged on House of cards. I utterly failed to engage with Breaking bad.

But three months ago my son lent me the box set of all seven series of The West Wing. Give it three or four episodes, he said. It takes a bit of time to settle into it, but I think you may like it. I was hooked after twenty minutes. I’ve been watching two and half episodes a night for about five nights a week ever since. Why two and a half? Because I fall asleep. Fourteen DVDs. Over a hundred episodes. Watched fascinated as the format changed to widescreen in series 3 or 4. Fell in love with the editing, the dialogue, the camerawork, the savvy scriptwriting, the characters, the cliffhangers, the plot twists…the sheer exuberant unrepentant grown-up pzazz of it all. Last night I watched the very last episode. Two presidential terms. Eight years. The insanity of a presidential campaign. The insanity of the business of news management and media spin. It should have been repellent. But it wasn’t…because of the people. I love them all.

What shall I do of a night, without Charlie, Josh, C.J., Toby, Leo….and above all, Donna Moss, whose smile would light a stadium? Off they’ve gone. It’s like the kids leaving home. What shall I do?

Write poems. Happen.


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Please, Miss, I don’t know what to write (2): A little learning


A couple of weeks ago [August 14] I was getting over-dogmatic (as it seems to me now) about the pleasures of ‘research’….indeed, about the absolute necessity for it if you’re ever to get beyond yourself, if you’re ever to become the dark watcher you need to be.

Last Thursday I was in Pontefract for one of Steve Ely’s ‘Dissonant voices’ monthly poetry readings. It ought to attract a massive turnout. Maybe it was because it was the time of year, but on Thursday there were five of us…for an Ian Duhig reading. Ian Duhig !!!! You’d think they’d be beating down the doors. As it was, we sat around one table and listened to Ian talking about the kind of research that goes into his work. Interviewing ex-policemen, investigating terrible acts of violence and injustice, researching the history of Chapeltown Road in Leeds, Blind Jack of Knaresborough who surveyed and engineered that road and read the earth with his feet….and so on. Utterly unpredictable and fascinating. We wondered about the history of the Kingdom of Elmet, the names of its parishes, the fact that the only journey HenryVIII made to the North was to Pontefract, and why the main road from Airedale into Leeds ran through the nave of Kirstall Abbey. Place names; why in the West Riding, and the Rhubarb Triangle, liquorice is still called ‘spanish’. We talked about Islam, about Catholicism, about Irishness, about the intercession of saints, about confession and repentance and forgiveness. And much else.

I drove home with ideas buzzing like wasps, wanting to know more, wanting to write about them. I think that often this is the problem. I’ll go chasing after stuff, like a labrador in a field full of rabbits. My daughter-in-law has me bang to rights; this is a present she bought me last Christmas.


Perhaps it should be a tee shirt that I’m made to wear at writers’ workshops. I have a scattershot approach to conversation and to finding things out. I think that I’ve grasped ideas when I haven’t. It’s not unique. I was reading Anthony Sher’s autobiographical memoir a couple of nights ago, and all I wanted to do was go and read The year of the King again. And those RSC books (mostly out of print)..Players of Shakespeare. And why not Ken Branagh’s Beginning. And Simon Callow. And John Barton. Before I know it I’ll be thinking I know something about acting, or Shakespearean verse-speaking. And I’ll Anthony Sher. I can’t resist this extract. Sher has been at a memorial service for Monty, his therapist.

“we learned a strange thing. Before he trained as a psychotherapist, Monty’s profession was not that of doctor, which we all thought, but that of dry-cleaner. Dry-cleaner?

I looked at my fellow ‘clients’ in bewilderment.

‘It’s not just me , is it? I put it in Year of the king [Sher’s account of his playing Richard the Third at the RSC in Stratford] – that he’s a GP turned therapist —I must’ve got that from him. I wouldn’t just have made it up’

‘No, no, I remember him telling me too,’ said Richard ‘and how he delivered his daughter’s babies’

‘I got insurance on one of my films,’ said Mike Leigh, ‘on the basis that my therapist was also a qualified doctor’

‘While actually he was a dry-cleaner,’ Roger Allan commented.”

(Extract from Beside myself:  Anthony Sher.  Random House 2002)

I was much taken by Sher’s being particularly disconcerted that he had put what he genuinely believed in a book. Because you can’t retrospectively take it out of a book. It’s out there. It has a life of its own. It’s been validated by print. And it’s not true

Which brings me nicely to looking back at a couple of cobweb posts from last year. Last September I wrote a guest blog for Anthony Wilson’s Life-saving poems. (Whose life is it, any way). I wrote about how conflicted I’d been about putting friends into poems without their permission, and how it hadn’t really mattered until they were published. I wrote this about a poem that won a competition prize:

“I still didn’t feel right about publishing the poems. In a diffuse sort of way, a way that says: well, they’re not going to see these poems. No-one’s going to buy them after all.  That sort of thing. And then I wrote some more, and sent some in for competitions. A poem called Norman came 2nd in a York Literature festival competition this year. I wrote from memory and feeling. Some things I know are factually true and some as though they ought to be.



could birth a lamb in the lee of a dike,

smit a skittish ewe in a squall,

pin down a ram and not give a jot

for its yellow stare, the black slot of its sideways eye,

wear a two-year Herdwick like a scarf

over three miles of bog.


Now, there’s just one detail in this that’s not researched, not properly checked out. The detail about the Herdwick. Norman’s wife Effie has never said to me that this is wrong. But I really feel I just went for the easy otion of choosing that word because it fit better in the line than ‘Cheviot’ or ‘Black-faced sheep’, both of which seem now to be more factually likely. It’s a small thing, but it niggles, and asks questions about a writer’s responsibility.

A month earlier, in the cobweb, I wrote a post called ‘Putting the record straight’. This was more complicated. I’d written poems about my grandparents..who I never knew..and my mother, who I thought I knew. I never wrote about my mum and dad until both had died. And I put these family biographies in my second pamphlet ‘Backtracks’. I wrote about my grandma, Ethel, about her suicide; about her husband Alfred’s death in or during the First World War. I wrote about my mother being orphaned. I based all of it on family anecdote. And then I was invited to a ceremony at Batley Cemetery, created by a Batley group who keep up the graves of Batley men who lost their lives in WW1. They have carefully commemorated the centenary of each and every one. And researched them just as carefully.

granddad alfred's centenary 019

We are sure we know the truth as we are told it, and as we pass it on to our children and their children, and so on. I thought I knew my granddad -or at least about him – even though he died 28 years before I was born, even though my mum hardly remembered him herself. She was four when he died. I knew he’d been a soldier, and simply assumed he’d been killed in action. And then, years on, I was rooting through an old attache case of my mum’s, full of small deckle-edged photos, and newspaper cuttings, and random documents like birth and marriage certificates.  I’m convinced that I remember finding a War Ministry telegram regretting to inform my Grandmother, and all of us, that her husband had died in an Army hospital in Aldershot. But I couldn’t have done. Because he didn’t. And how do I know? Because a group of volunteers, knowing nothing of me or my writing had done the research, and told me this:

Before the war Alfred had served his painting and decorating apprenticeship with John Tomlinson of Upper Commercial Street, Batley. He had joined the Batley Volunteers and Territorials in 1901 and had been promoted to Sergeant before WW1 broke out. He was entitled to a long service medal by 1914 but the war had interfered with the receipt of the medal.

When his camp at Whitby was broken up Alfred accompanied the Territorials to Doncaster, Gainsborough and York. His comrades went to the Front without him and he returned home to Batley. After a short stay at home he was sent to Beckett’s Park Hospital, Leeds as he was suffering from Bright’s Disease (a chronic inflammation of the blood vessels in the kidneys) resulting in protein in the urine. He was never to return home and died in hospital on Sunday the 8th of August 1915.

Whereas I’d written this:


There he is. Grinning and unsoldierly,
the despair of the RSM. The joker in the trench.
Except, I’ve no way of knowing if he ever was.

Maybe, Ypres and Mons and Passchendale
meant no more to him than Chapel hymn tune names –
O dass ich tausand zungen haite. Armageddon.

All based on just one photograph.

alfred 1

Unsoldierly. Except it turns out he wasn’t. You don’t get to be a sergeant by being ‘unsoldierly’. I see, though, that subconsciously I was giving myself a get-out clause :

Except, I’ve no way of knowing if he ever was.

Maybe there’s absolution in that. I’ve begun to notice that there are a lot of ‘maybes’ and ‘I thinks’ and ‘perhapses’ in my poems. What’s all that about. Why be tentative? Why not do the work, and find out. It gets more serious when I find I’ve written a poem that says my mother was orphaned at 14 and then , because I’m invited to a graveyard ceremony I find it’s not true. For years and years I believed that my grandma Ethel drowned herself, and that my mother was a teenager when she was left homeless. What’s more, my daughter Julie tells me that that’s the story she believes, and she believes her gran told her so. But I stood by a grave a year ago that says quite unequivocally that Ethel died in 1937. When my mother was 26. I managed to change the poem when I did a third reprint of Backtracks, but I can’t do anything about the first two printings. I know how Anthony Sher felt. But I put it in a book !

Now, what’s all this to do with a photograph of the Easter Island heads? Well, sometimes you can spend a lot of time getting excited about writing something and then find that it’s simply wrong. Not technically (though it may be) but in terms of its premise and its rhetoric. Here’s a cautionary tale. It starts on May 30th this year, in a poetry workshop task in Spain. It starts from a poem..Peter Carpenter’s Orion. It involves apostrophising a star. A four minute ‘get writing and don’t ask yourself questions’ task. I’m looking at my notes and find I wrote:

Most of this sublunary world being water and there are oceans where no stars are navigation lights. no one knows who carved the giant heads of Easter Island

Where did that come from? Sublunary is Shakespeare. Isn’t it? No idea. The other stuff is Bronowski’s The ascent of man. I’d got so fed up of ex-Blue Peter presenters infantilising TV ‘documentaries’ I thought I’d treat myself to a grown-up DVD, with a grown up very clever presenter. I believed everything Bronowski said about Easter Island..particularly something he said about the inhabitants being unable to leave because they had no stars to navigate by. Unlike us lucky folk in the Northern Hemisphere with the Pole Star at our disposal. A couple of months later, I knuckled down to bashing it out into a poem which I took to a Poetry Business writing day.

No direction home


Here’s a constellation came from murder,

this one from rape. The casual and insincere

atonements of the gods for petty spites,

for violently requited lusts.

Swaddled by stories,

we say the random stars

align themselves for our convenience


She-bear Callisto. The Plough.

Archer, Water-bearer, Crab and Swan.

A join-the-dots menagerie.

The unimaginable universe

a children’s bedtime picture book.


No one knows who made the huge stone heads

of Easter Island. No one knows why. Only

that they had no idea where they were,

and if they left, they had no idea where to,

and drifted till they died.


Staring, monumentally blind

stone heads of Easter Island.

Staring at unbroken sea,

the empty curve of the earth,

waiting for sails, waiting for gods.


If you lived on a star. If.

You could never leave.

You could never find your way

in the dazzling dust of galaxies.


[“Easter Island is 1000 miles from the nearest inhabitable land.How did men come here?….by accident. Why could they not get off?………because there is no Pole Star in the Southern Hemisphere” :Jacob Bronowsky: ‘The ascent of man’]

And got my first comeuppance. Here’s the poem after a bit of workshop commentary/criticism.

no direction

Now, I’d no problems with all the suggestions about what was weak, and what wanted ditching and so on. But what really knocked my legs out from under me was the indefatigably encyclopaedic Simon Currie telling me that all the heads stare inland ..not out to sea, but back towards the ancestors. And, unsurprisingly, he’s right. He usually is. Think about it. If you put it right, it rips out the core image of the poem. AAArghhhh!

I sent the poem to my friend and mentor Hilary Elfick (see cobweb post Nov 15 2015). Hilary lives in New Zealand for half the year. She’s a sailor, too. She knows about navigating the southern ocean in a sailboat. And she pointed out what I should have known if I hadn’t simply taken the professorial Bronowsky at his convincing word. What about the Southern Cross? What indeed. And she took the trouble to send me a photograph of it.



It’s very very bright. And there we are. ‘No direction home’ indeed! That’ll learn me. A little learning may be a dangerous thing. It certainly leads me down miry ways, and into dark corners and cul de sacs. He had it right, that Mr Pope and his acerbic couplets.

“A little learning is a dangerous thing.
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian Spring;
There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
and drinking largely sobers us again.”


Is that a note to end on? I think it is. But I’d love to hear your thoughts on this. There’s always going to be a tension between ‘poetic’ truth and verifiable documentary fact, but at what point does it turn into a conflict? Tell me.

(I reckon I’ve exhausted this strain of argument. Next week we’ll have a proper post with a proper poet, and I’m really looking forward to that. I hope you’ll join me)

Oh…and look out for Steve Ely’s poetry nights in Pontefract:

And if you want to buy poems that may or may not be misleading or downright lies, then go to ‘My Books‘ and Paypal will let you buy more copies of Backtracks than you can shake a stick at.











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Out of the ordinary. A Polished Gem: Mark Hinchcliffe

rothko 2

Is there anyone in the English speaking world – teacher or student – who hasn’t come across Norman MacCaig’s An ordinary day? Who hasn’t enthused about it, or been invited to be enthused

I took my mind a walk

or my mind took me a walk –

whatever was the the truth of it

I met it first in one of Geoffrey Summerfield’s ‘Voices’ anthologies and insisted that several generations of my secondary school students took their minds a walk. We could all sign up for a recognisably post-romantic idea of poetry. It was about ‘observing’ and being surprised. I don’t think I ever stopped to consciously acknowledge that what MacCaig observed was light on water, gulls, cormorants, small flowers, bees, various ducks, a cow, weeds in clear water. Or at least, I never stopped to see the disconnect between MacCaig’s familiar, known place..the West Highland coast, I suppose… and what my students were familiar with. Urban or suburban landscapes. Edgeland places. I never stopped to think too hard about why they didn’t ‘get’ what MacCaig was up to. Or that they might not really want to take their minds a walk round a council estate in Leeds, or down Marton Road in Middlesbrough. Or if they did, it might have been better to start from poems with people and conversations …or bits of conversations .. in them. Water under the bridge. What’s at the back of my mind is the business of the poems we ‘get’ as opposed to the ones we don’t ‘get’.

As ever, I fall back on analogies with paintings. My partner is a painter. She’s taken me to look at Rothkos. She clearly ‘gets’ Rothko. And I don’t. I try; I listen to explanations of what it is I’m missing, but nothing clicks. There’s something missing in me that Rothko tries to talk to. It’s still a foreign language in which other people are fluent. My bad, as one of my granddaughters might say. I think that for all of us (some of us?)  the same is true of poetry. There are poets we (I?) don’t get. I don’t ‘get’ a good deal of contemporary American voices. I don’t get minimalists, and concrete poets. I don’t get poets who write abstractly. I found myself thinking this reading some of Anthony Wilson’s recent posts. Poetry like this:

When poets discover
that their words refer only
to other words and not to reality
which must be described
as faithfully as possible,
their despair.

This is probably one cause
for modern poetry’s sombre tone.

[Czeslaw Milosz]

Anthony ‘gets’ it and it clearly speaks to him and moves him. It says something important. But not to me, who can’t get past the feeling that it’s a part of an essay with line breaks, and that I’m not engaged with the argument anyway, because it doesn’t seem urgent to me.That’s one kind of thing I mean. That Rothko thing.

I don’t mean the poets who take us out of a comfort zone but to whom we still, at some deep level, respond. Those are the ones who don’t readily fall into a category. Basil Bunting. Geoffrey Hill. Those excite me, in the way that some painters puzzle and excite me, because I can’t put them in any sort of category, and I’m not quite sure what’s going on, but at some level I’m engaged and moved and bothered. And I think it comes down to the business of a particular voice. I fall back on Clive James to articulate what I can’t myself. I keep re-typing these assertions in these cobweb posts. This must be at least the third time.  They’ve stuck:

“You hear the force of real poetry at first glance”

Everything depended, and still depends, on the quality of the moment…’s the moment that gets you in”

and never forget the adage about the ‘well-separated poem’ that  makes it almost impossible to memorise what you can never quite forget’

Which is a very articulate way of saying something that can’t quite be articulated. I just have to say I know what he means, and you have to take my word for that, just as I know that my partner knows what Rothko means, and that she can’t be doing with this image that either says nothing much to her, or just gives her the creeps, and which fascinates me.

fairy feller

Richard Dadd. The fairy feller’s masterstroke. Painted in a mental asylum. Obsessively realistic and accurately rendered and packed with small frightening or disturbing or saddening images and narratives. You can’t categorize it. It either speaks to you or it doesn’t and I can’t explain it. It’s like nothing else that I’m used to liking.

Which is, as ever, a very roundabout way of coming to our special guest for this week. Mark Hinchcliffe. I’ve known him for two or three years since I met him first at a Monday night poetry workshop at The Albert in Huddersfield. He brought a poem to work on that totally threw me, because I had no handle on it, I didn’t know what it was for, because it seemed strange and arbitrary. D H Lawrence was in there. And a fox. It was odd. And I couldn’t forget it even though I couldn’t quite remember why it was stuck in my mind. I’ve got to know him and his poems better since then, but he’s never brought one that didn’t disturb/surprise without ever being self-announcing. If I had to think of one word for their immediate quality , it would be ‘diffident’. Only to say the next impression is ‘not diffident at all’. Very Richard Dadd. And very magical, like Chagall…or, at least this phase of Chagall.

chagall 2

I think it’s an easy transition from this image to one of Mark’s poems.



A fox slowly swayed

down the middle of Cowlersley Lane,

eyes glassy and dazed.


People ran out of their houses

to look

and you brought a bowl of milk.


Dressed in a pink tutu and purple glittery wig,

you knelt beside it as it lay down

in the gateway to a garden.


The people peered into

the darkness of its eyes

as if they looked into a stable

or a volcano slowly burning out,

holding up their hands

to catch the sparks

from its glowing tail.


I can’t explain why I think it works. I want to say…but that’s not my sort of poem, not my sort at all. And it ignores me and goes on memorising itself.While you’re thinking about that, you should meet the poet. He’ll introduce himself. I’ve italicised a couple of passages. It will be obvious why.

My first taste of poetry was an ‘A’ level set text in 1976 (when I was 16), the anthology of Gunn and Hughes. Our English teacher played a record of Ted Hughes, one of his radio broadcasts-Capturing animals, where he read his poems and talked about writing. I never forgot his voice, and sought out his poetry, and then found out he was born in Mytholmroyd, and made a pilgrimage there. Over the next few years I found and read his poems, essays, stories, book reviews, all I could lay my hands on. I also started writing poems of my own just after hearing the record.

I have always seen poetry as a healing energy, and when my father died ( I was 17) I wrote about my feelings, I wrote another poem about him the other week.

I went to Birmingham University to read English, kept writing, and published poems in the University magazine. I also started to correspond with Ted Hughes, and later he asked me to send my poems to him, and he commented on them. My last card from him was a few weeks before he died.

I worked for 25years as a psychiatric nurse and used to write as a way of honouring the people I tried to help, and to help me make sense of the chaos that flourished within psychiatry.

I started going to The Albert Pub in Huddersfield, and read there for the first time in 1998. Later I was an organiser for the readings. I still love being involved with the Albert, and going to the workshops- they generate most of my poems.

I recently had a collection published by Calder Valley Press, edited by Bob Horne, and this has meant a great deal.


I love to see myself in a circle of poets, past and present, William Blake, Keats, Wordsworth, Dylan Thomas, T.S. Eliot, Yeats, Ted Hughes, Seamus Heaney, Gary Snyder, Allen Ginsberg, Kathleen Jamie, Frances Horovitz, Carola Luther, Adrian Mitchell, Thom Gunn amongst others.

For me there is no experience that comes close to how I feel when I have written a poem, to see those words on the paper which I have charmed into being.

In  recent years, I have been followed by a gang of spirits, clamouring to be written about, they are like musical themes, they are cats , hares, The Green Man, mermaids and foxes. They slip in through cracks in my mind. An old man, an archaeologist killed by fundamentalists is always behind me, tapping on my shoulder, and a boy who looks for aeroplanes on the moors is much in my mind.”


There’s a matter-of-factness about the way Mark says most things, so you almost miss them. The raven and the laughing head is his first pamphlet; this is not only someone who sent his poems to Ted Hughes, but corresponded with him over the years. There’s a special endorsement on the back cover of the pamphlet (this first pamphlet)

“There’s a lovely lyrical completeness about your poems. So natural and full – they just float out. Something perfect about them. So wholehearted and affectionate. (So rare!)”

Ted Hughes [Letters of Ted Hughes. ed Reid. (Faber and Faber 2007. p734)]

Whatever it is that makes you read Mark Hinchcliffe’s poems more than once, and which lodges them in your mind, be assured that Ted Hughes got there first. And, whatever you do, keep in mind the gang of spirits that slip in through the cracks. The boy who looks for aeroplanes on the moors keeps turning up on Monday nights in Huddersfield and bothers me as much as he does Mark.

At which point I shall say: here are two more poems. When you’ve read them, read them again and then close your eyes. Don’t analyse. Either you’ll get them or you won’t. It’s something that ultimately we can’t help.



 When you stood up

from your chair

your skin peeled away,

raw red strips,

the flesh stuck,


and you took the wolverine skin,

laid it on your neck,


placed the otter skin on your shoulder,

the jaguar on your chest,

and the leopard on your back.

His spots pricked into your skin

like tattoos.


The wild boar covered your legs,

the wolf lay around your ankles.


And you ran,

you sprang through the window

into the garden,


the apple trees shook their heads,

they quivered,

the blossom danced,

and under the grass

your bull stirred, bellowed,

his ring shimmering like the moon,

like a buried hoard.


(actually, I want to say….’that ring, shimmering, that round moonlike glimmering ring’..I can’t keep quiet about it. Let’s see if I can be more disciplined about the next one)


Outlaw Olympics


Billy the Kid plays croquet

with his gang.


Frank and Jesse James

play tennis doubles

against the Earp brothers.


John Wesley Harding races cars.


Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

blow peas through a hole in the wall.


Guests from abroad,

Ned Kelly plays blind man’s buff,

Robin Hood climbs trees, and

Little John plays basketball.


But the Oglala Sioux

led by Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, Black Elk, and Red Cloud

take all the gold medals

back to Dakota.


They keep the sun in the sky

for seven weeks,

they talk to the eagles,

they dance on the earth,

green shoots spring up.


This is what another of the Albert Poets, Carola Luther, wrote about Mark’s work. She puts it better than I can.

“Mark Hinchcliffe writes love poems, praise poems and poems of lamentation and devotion…these are not ironic poems. They weave myth into both the dark and the everyday with a seriousness and attention that could be prayer”

The phrase that really nails it for me is these are not ironic poems. Nor are they naive or innocent or playful, though they might be any or all of these things. I said at the start there are things I just don’t ‘get’ and I should end by saying there things I think I ‘get’ but can’t explain. I just know that I keep re-reading these poems because they keep puzzling me.

So thank you, Mark Hinchcliffe for being our guest on this sunshiny Bank Holiday Monday.

Just two things before we go. Next week will be a sort of complicated explanation about misinformed research, and how poems go wrong. It wasn’t scheduled, which means that a Poetic Gem Revisited : Roy Cockcroft will be a week later than planned, as will every poet who comes after him.

Second thing. Go and buy Mark’s pamphlet. It’s available from Calder Valley Poetry via the following link. 

Thank you for coming. It was lovely to see you all.


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But I was so much older, then…..Gems revisited: Andy Blackford.


Remember these? Panoramic school photos. And the challenge that some found irresistible…to see how many times you could get on the same picture. Do they still get taken? Probably not. They get taken to school reunions by the ones who genuinely believe that their schooldays were the best days of their lives (which always feels inexpressibly sad). But I don’t know many folk who can resist t the business of finding half-remembered faces, and invariably sharing stories..wasn’t that ..? remember that time when..? wasn’t she the one who…? Am I wrong to think that they’re almost always tales of transgression and subversion?

The thing about school photos and school stories seems to be that we only really remember the people in our own year group…and often, only from our own form group. And I guess that’s why we’re slightly miffed when we meet a teacher we used to have and he or she doesn’t instantly remember us. Because  (Secondary)  teachers aren’t tied down to one year group; because in any year, they teach students from 5 or 6 year groups, because the faces start to anonymise…like the ones on panaoramic phots that are more like pixels than individuals. It doesn’t stop me from feeling guilty when I don’t recognise or instantly remember the ones who come up to me, or contact me on Facebook. You won’t remember me, they say (though they really think you will) but you taught me in 1972. On Facebook it’s likely to be   Are you the Mr Foggin who taught English at [  ]? It’s even more confusing when it’s a woman who now has a different surname, and she doesn’t tell you the name you know her by. Happened again only last week. And as it happened, I did eventually realise that I remembered her, and, indeed, still had photos of her in a school school play.

Which provides me with a peg to hang this week’s cobweb post on. It’s a curious business being a teacher, this license to strut your stuff in front of captive audiences and to be paid for doing it, on the assumption that you know what you’re doing. And, what’s more, to do that for a significant minority who are more talented, more intelligent, cleverer than you’ll ever be. The only difference between you and them is that you’re older and you’ve read more stuff. But they catch up. And overtake you. I can look back and pick out students who are now successful actors, novelists, musicians, Head Teachers, dentists, doctors,education advisers and inspectors. One scored the winning try at Wembley in the match that ended Wigan’s monopoly of the Challenge Cup.One is a (retired) university linguistics lecturer who puts me in my place on all matters linguistic.One managed tours for Elton John, the Bee Gees…and knew all the Beatles, socially. One became a Professor of Education, and thereby became my boss. Another is a judge, and plays drums in 60s/70s covers band. And so on and so on. So much talent, so much accomplishment. And why did they once have to listen to me? Dylan nails it.

I was so much older then; I’m younger than that now

I had a headstart by being born first. And then got overtaken, not least by today’s guest, Andy Blackford who I invited to be on the cobweb in September 2014. This is how I introduced him..with a picture first. I can’t resist using it again. He’s one of the divers.

andy's shark


I wrote about how I taught him in the late 1960s and how, after a gap of 40 years, thanks to the wonder that is Facebook, we met again. In May 2013, I went up to Staithes where he has a holiday home and spent a day with him and his wife, Sandra. 40 years simply melted away. Nothing had changed and everything had changed, and all was well. I found that he’d  been a diver, run ultra-marathons, worked in advertising, done a stint as a professional skateboarder, written 20-odd books and for three years or so, he’d been lead guitar in ‘Spreadeagle’ (I can’t resist this image). If you want the fuller version, check out the 2014 post.


In December 2013 he emailed me to say that the film director Louis Bunuel had been in the habit of meeting a fellow artist each Monday to exchange and critique a new work of art. He proposed that, via the magic of email we would do the same. We would exchange new poems every week for one year. It would become a book called GAP YEAR and would make us even more famous. And so we did. We started awkward and tentative and apologetic, and there was still a residue of that teacher/student relationship. But after a month or so we could happily give each other’s poems a good kicking, and I was delighted when Andy was able to say of one of mine: Sorry…it does nothing for me. What’s it for? And I was able to write back: Absolutely nothing, mate.   And then to bin it.

And here we are again. I asked Andy to bring us up to date and send me some new work. So he did.

“On the face of it, not very much has happened since 2014. We ‘finished’ Gap Year and made a rather half-hearted attempt to interest publishers in it. I moved from a rambling 15th Century house with a lovely cottage garden and a barn full of the accumulated junk of a lifetime into a two bedroom flat in Cambridge. Weirdly, I haven’t missed the country or the house, and am enjoying cycling between the gym, the Picturehouse cinema and the Buddhist Centre.We look out on the River Cam and we’re a mortarboard’s throw from Stourbridge Common… ( at this poem he blindsides me with with a dark take on the merry month of May)




Expect the worst and then

you won’t be disappointed.


That’s what Mum said –

or would have if she’d thought of it.


It’s why I don’t trust May.

Just take today: It’s all so bloody perfect.


A pigeon wobbles

on an emerald willow waterfall.

(Can there be a bird more stupid than the pigeon?

Yes. The pheasant).


The creak of rowlocks on the Pembroke eight

the coxswain’s barked arcane commands

the patter of the jogger’s fluorescent trainers

on the towpath.

A brace of dancing damselflies, kimono blue.


May doesn’t smile, it positively smirks.

The sickening conspiracy of lilac and forsythia

the bullocks bucking in the meadow

out of pure exuberance.


Mindless, ignorant exuberance.


For on a motorway somewhere

a truck with slatted sides is winding

its relentless way to Stourbridge Common.

And all of us – the cox, the bullock

and the witless pigeon,

poet, jogger, damselfly –

must one day climb its dung-encrusted ramp.


And while you absorb the random inevitability of it all, and the smart juxtapositions of that list in the last stanza, he reminds me of a different persona:

three covers

You asked about children’s books: I began writing when a friend gave me a cutting from the Independent, inviting entries to the writing competition they sponsored in partnership with Scholastic Books – The Children’s Story Of The Year. I wrote a story called Spare Bear, about a teddy bear saved from a wasted life as understudy to his identical twin, and it won. I received a cheque from Andrew Marr at the Groucho Club.


Since then I’ve had about twenty books published, illustrated by a variety of artists. One of them consisted of a poem about a boy who, inspired by a nature documentary on TV, resolves to run away to Brazil. He gets as far as his back garden…




George watched a film about lizards and snakes

And creatures that slither in rivers and lakes.


He said to his mother, ‘Do you suppose,

For my birthday or Christmas, I could have one of those?’


His mum shook her head. ‘Most certainly not!

You wanted a hamster and that’s what you’ve got.

It’s me who looks after him, gives him his tea.

If you had a python, it’s not hard to see

Who’d be feeding and walking it ­ Daddy and me!’  


‘If I can’t have a snake,’ said George to his hamster,

‘Or a lizard or something, there’s only one answer.

I¹ll go to the jungle and live in the trees

With a boa constrictor and six chimpanzees!’  


So George packed a bag with some socks and some pants

And left for the Land of Man-Eating Ants.

But George had no sooner set foot in the garden

Than a gorgeous green dragonfly said, ‘Beg your pardon!

Before you go off and live in a tree,

There’s a couple of friends that I’d like you to see.’


George followed the insect to where it had flown,

Then on its instructions, he lifted a stone.


There coiled a millipede, all shiny and black,

And a bright orange beetle with stripes on its back.

George was amazed. They were brilliant and pretty ­

Not what you’d expect in the midst of the city.  


The dragonfly hovered and darted beyond

And waited for George by the side of a pond.

There were tadpoles and toads and a fat, friendly frog

And a great crested newt that lived under a log.  


The fly guided George to a web on a shrub.

A red and green spider sat right at the hub.

Six of its legs were knitting a sweater

While the two at the back were writing a letter.  


On a twig on a bush, the fly landed next.

‘I say! Do you mind?’ said the twig, clearly vexed.

‘I’m an insect, you know ­ I just look like a stick!’

George was impressed: ‘That’s a well-wicked trick!’  


‘Morning, young George!’ called a big bumble bee.

‘Who needs a snake when there’s all this to see?’  


But the dragonfly showed him one final surprise –

A beautiful grass snake with beady black eyes.  


‘Thank you!’ said George to his dragonfly guide.

‘That was totally brilliant.’ And then he sighed.

‘I think I’ll go home and not live in a tree.

Why go to Brazil when there’s all this to see?’


Now, you might think that isn’t the sort of poem you’re used to on the cobweb. You’d be right. But it’s hard to get right, a rhyming story for children, one that effectively storyboards itself, and, above all, one that’s a pleasure to read aloud. Oral tradition. Ace.

But I notice that Andy’s been posting a completely different sort of poem on his Facebook page. And he hasn’t run them by me first. They grow out of the latest phase of a multilayered life. Andy explains:

“I’m now working [as a Buddhist Chaplain] in four gaols, ranging from the very highest category of security to an open prison. Most of my lads are serving life sentences. [It makes me smile, that ‘my lads’] The most humbling aspect of the work is their gratitude and politeness; the most thought-provoking is how like me they are.

Meanwhile, I’m pursuing my path to Ordination with the Triratna Buddhist Community. This involves a number of intensive retreats at our beautiful centre in the dreamy backwaters of the Norfolk Broads. The place is stuffed with wildlife, airborne and waterborne. And bats:



Padmaloka June 2016


Flitwing Pipistrelle careers into the thickening dark

crazy, restless

lancing boils of dancing flies that burst

in swirls of black confetti


The river dawdles in dementia

lost in reedy mazes

gravid, oleaginous


In the meadow by the bridge

a bullock moans the old complaint

solitary, stubborn

mist brimming to his matted haunch


Flitwing, come and corkscrew with me

through the midgy dimness

We’ll swoop and dart and loop the loop

and tease the glaring owl

our talons plucking oily wrinkles

on the moonstruck fen

and we the manic navigators of the night.


This strikes me as the other side of the playfulness and fantasy of George’s garden. And I really relish the textures of these sharply observed creatures, from the manically cluttered first line, to the mist brimming to the haunches of the bemired bullock moaning ‘the old complaint’. It’s about focus. About keeping still and seeing how things are. Andy thinks he knows why he’s getting better at it.

“During a recent retreat themed on the ten ethical precepts of Buddhism, I had a quiet breakthrough in my meditation practice and so far, the effect seems to have stuck. I am suddenly steadier and calmer, less afraid, and I regularly gain access to a well of innocence, joy and bright amazement.

I’m back at Padmaloka in September to study and meditate upon my favourite topic, the Brahma Viharas – the ‘four great emotions’ of loving kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity.



I raise my mop, unwieldy with world-dirty water

twist its drowned girl hair about its knotted throat

force it up hard into the up-turned bucket of the night

and squeeze out the grey swill through the holes of the stars


I’m going to finish here, with the inside-outness of this poem, and drowned girl hair…almost. But I can’t resist reminding myself that Buddhist or not, Andy still plays guitar, and still gigs with his current band. You should go and see them.

summer of love

Andy, it’s been a pleasure having you back. Thank you for the updates. And maybe one day we’ll write something together that actually gets published.




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Please, Miss, I don’t know what to write.


I suppose that begs the question: why write at all? It’s a question that I spent a lot of time on, in the 1980s, when I was writing a book about the teaching of writing, or working as a consultant on the emerging National Curriculum, or when I was putting together a series for GCSE. It’s easy to sidestep, by concentrating on the categories of writing that children and students need (we believe) to get to grips with. Lists, explanations, reports, summaries, persuasive and analytic pieces.

For most of the time in schools it’s so we can assess how well children write, and also to assess what they’ve understood or what they know. About history, geography, science, economics….whatever. In English lessons, we ask them to write in response to poetry or novels or plays. But why do we ask them to write stories or poems or scripts? I’m not sure it’s a question that enough teachers of English bother about sufficiently. It’s sort of a given. It’s what ‘English’ is.

I know when I was at school I’d be asked, or told, to write a story; and when I was a young and not especially reflective teacher, I’d be the one to do the asking or telling. There was always the one or two or three who would very reasonably say: I don’t know what to write about, Sir / Miss. I guess they were written off in school reports: ‘Lacks imagination’. I was OK at school, because although I knew very little, I read a lot and I’d figured out the tricks of writing a story. Poems, not so much. But we were rarely asked to write a poem, so that was OK.

And then, many years later (in my case) you find yourself, for reasons you can’t fathom, writing, or trying to write, poems; meeting other bewildered and enthusiastic folk in the same pickle. And every now and again hearing (or reading on Facebook) the complaint that someone is ‘blocked’ or ‘stuck’ or has ‘hit a blank period’. It’s the voice from childhood, all over again. Please, Miss. I don’t know what to write. I’ll stick my neck out. Here’s the answer. It’s because, for one reason or another, you have nothing to say. Not for ever. But just now. It’s because nothing is exciting or puzzling you.

You can make a list of what ought to intrigue you: your childhood, relationships, friends, school….the whole autobiographical shtick. But if it doesn’t excite or puzzle you, why should it interest anyone else? Places, landscapes, other lives? Ditto. Stuff you know you know about? History, science, cars, philately? Ditto.

So I’m going to stick my neck out again and say it’s the stuff that takes you by surprise, that’s exciting but something you don’t understand, something you want to understand…that’s what you wait for or go hunting for.

I was talking to the poet Helen Mort a week or so ago and she said something that caught my attention (she said a lot of things that did that) and I had to write it down. She said that when she went to Cambridge she was thrown by the way so many students took the place for granted, as though they didn’t actually ‘see’ it. Whereas she, as an outsider, an incomer, was gobsmacked and excited and baffled and all that…And I was immediately transported back to the interview I had in Cambridge, aged 17. I felt like an alien. Which meant, I suppose, that I was differently observant. It was like trying to learn a four-dimensional foreign language. And then Helen said:

                             Ideally, writers are on the outside, looking in

They are ideally, I suppose, the dark watchers I wrote about last week . They are writing to discover, because that’s the medium they make their discoveries in.Helen said:

I can make poems to be written, and they might be OK, but that’s all

By which I understood: if you’re not puzzled by what you’re writing about then you won’t be writing the poems that need to be written. I’m really glad I was there to hear that. To record it. And then to get on with this bit of cobwebspinning. I’m going to reflect on the business of finding out what it is you need to be finding out for the poems that need to be written.(  I’ll leave that tortured bit of syntax as it is. It’s symbolic).


You have to start, somewhere. Maybe you start here.


He is the sparrow, the Friday lord.

I hoped to be the watcher on the rooftop,

but He was first. I’m flake of his fire,

leaf-tip on His world-tree”

[ From: Tyndale in Darkness .

U.A.Fanthorpe: Selected Poems, ed R.V.Bailey. Enitharmon Press 2013 ]

I have no idea why I downloaded U A Fanthorpe’s ‘Selected poems’ to my Kindle, round about midnight on a too-hot night in Spain a couple of months ago. Perhaps I’d looked her up on Google and realised that here was another poet, like Causley and Vernon Scannell, whose work was now to be sought via Abe Books. Whatever. On the verge of sleep, I stumbled into her sequence of poems where she voices William Tyndale, and I read these lines, and the hairs at the back of my neck stood up. That feeling that I’d never read anything like this, that it was amazing that it could have been written with such simple assurance. Later on I recognized the echoes of Gerard Manley Hopkins, and of George Herbert too, I guess,  but that hardly matters. I felt I’d learned something new-minted and important.

In a moment she will take you from the ‘dear preoccupied people’ of 16thC Gloucester, to Gethsemane,

‘and they weren’t used to late nights, his disciples

…………….why did He ask them to stay awake

when he knew they couldn’t? Because He always does.’


and back to Gloucestershire, and Tyndale remembering that


I heard the ploughboy whistling under Coombe Hill,

and I thought, I could do that. Give him God’s word.

I mean, in his own workaday words. And I did.


I think this astonishing and lovely, the way the translator of the Bible into English walks into my life. It’s done with such apparent ease..the ease of imaginative familiarity that only comes with total involvement, absorption in a life that’s loved and troubling.

By the time you come to the fifth poem in the sequence-the Passion, two voices have come together in a single voice that’s simultaneously Fanthorpe’s and Tyndale’s. The voice of the poet’s living faith, and that of Tyndale imagining his imminent execution at the stake.

The powerlessness. This is the day He dies,

Jesus the Friday sparrow, the watcher on the cross

who forgives those who put Him there. He’s dying now,

and His world is dying too. I made this world twice

after God. I translated Genesis.

All I could think was: how does she do this, how does she move me so much? I’m an atheist, aren’t I? How did she make me care, make me believe this was important? How could she do it so ‘easily’? Well, here’s the thing I want to concentrate on: she knows what she’s writing about. ‘Knows’. Not ‘knows about’. This is felt knowledge. But at first it could only be facts, history. It had to be read and learned. And here’s the other thing: it couldn’t be understood, truly known like this until it was written like this. She didn’t know what she knew till she said it.

So what I’m saying is, there’s an answer built into the implied question of my title: I don’t know what to write . The answer being a hard one: well, go away till you know something enough to be intrigued and excited by it.Not sure that you undersatnd it but feeling as though you should. Which will involve you in reading, watching television, watching films, knocking around with mates, walking around cities or up hillsides in rain, or digging, or playing football, or cooking or looking after ageing parent, or after young children, or falling in love, or having an affair, or going into hospital, or having an interview. Getting to know stuff. Finding out. Living it. Which is not the answer people on poetry courses and so on are likely to be comfortable with. But let’s leave that hanging. Let’s go back to Tyndale.

Because from here on, I’m going to be riffing around the business of research, and the way it can be a strange and reflexive business. Sometimes the poem comes first, as it did with Tyndale in darkness. and then sends you off to find the world of the poem, which in my case turned out to be the history of a book, and a biography, too, and a work of detection. It’s subtitled : ‘William Tyndale, Thomas More, and the bloody birth of the English Bible’. The book is Brian Moynahan’s Book of Fire [Abacus 2002]. I mentioned to my mate Keith Hutson (a guest poet on the Cobweb in February 2015) that I’d read Fanthorpe’s  poem, and Keith immediately lent me Moynahan’s book. Which is now bristling with post-it notelets, and waiting for me to transcribe all sorts of quotations and snippets from it….although I haven’t got round to that, because I’m skimming through Hilary Mantel again, finding out what she wrote about Thomas More, and (she’s sure)Thomas Cromwell’s enthusiasm for a vernacular Bible. And at some point I’ll be back with Fanthorpe’s poem, marvelling at the way  she lets you know that what you’re reading is the essence and the truth of a hugely complex and contested tale. I know it will be provisional and I will change, and maybe one day the poem will seem less true. But I hope not. What I do know is that I now know a lot of stuff I didn’t know before I read about the Friday sparrow, and I now I’m writing about it. Not poems that need to be written. But later, maybe. They’ll say if and when they’re ready.

sula sgeir 3

Or maybe you start here…not with a poem, but with the glimmering of an idea. Maybe something you didn’t know you’d noticed at the time, but which comes back and surprises you. I’ve written before how I need workshops to generate that kind of surprise; I know I can’t consciously sit down to find stuff out to make into poems. I know, because I wasted months trying to do that with a 19thC painter. But here’s an illustration of what I mean. I wrote a poem recently from a workshop draft. Here’s just a bit of it: I wondered of the Celtic saints of the Outer Islands

if they knew that gulls and fulmars

would nest in the cloister of their ribs.

I had an idea where that had come from, because it certainly wasn’t mine. I tracked it down to Macfarlane’s The old ways and his journey to Sula Sgeir in a small boat. Something I have never done, will never do. I know that Macfarlane had taken me back to Adam Nicholson’s Sea Room, where I’d been led by reading Kathleen Jamie, who also took me to books about St Kilda and the Greater Blaskett…and so on. Sea-girt mountain tops, puffins, gannets, bird migration, white-tailed eagles, nests in the ribcage of a saint. He’ll do that for me, Macfarlane. I don’t know if it’s plagiarism…I know that some of his phrasing lodges in my word-hoard and sort of roots itself there. Like this from another poem about a burial cairn on Bheinn na Caillich on Skye

because their oceans were swanspaths, whaleroads.

because they wrote their maps in the wind,

the whole idea is lifted from Macfarlane. I know, because I knew I hadn’t invented it, so I tracked it down. I didn’t take his words. But I had to write my words to understand what he meant, so I could tell you how the idea excited me. Does that make sense?



Before I started this bit of the cobweb, I scribbled a list of the stuff that was hanging about waiting to be read, or re-read. The stuff with post-it notelets stuck in it. William Tyndale, British mining disasters, a journey through the English moorlands, A sky full of birds by Matt Merritt, Antarctica (including the remastered films: South (Shackleton) and Scott of the Antarctic, David Wilson’s new pamphlet: Slope [smith/doorstop 2016]. Tectonic plates. Coal measures and the Jurassic. The building of the Himalaya.

I know that at least a bit of that comes from a poetry reading at the Red Shed months ago when the Agbrigg Poets performed a sequence about the Lofthouse Colliery disaster …which was only a couple of miles from where I live, but might as well have been on the moon. And I know that as a result of that, I’ve been finding out about Onibasha. And I can’t make myself write about any of it. It needs to settle into my thinking, become something I don’t know that I know, and wait for it to be surprised into a shape I can share.

Now, I need to make it clear that I don’t think that ‘research’ is the answer to everything. I confess that I’m drawn to poems that announce themselves as knowledgeable rather than (just) elegantly lyrical. Writers like Steve Ely, Ian Duhig, Christy Ducker, Pascal Petit, Julie Mellor. I’m looking forward to the postman bringing me Helen Mort’s new collection which grows out of her research into pioneering women rockclimbers and mountaineers. But I also think that for myself I’m particularly taken by the way ‘research’ can throw a bright, unnerving, illuminating light on what you thought you knew. Childhood, parenting, a parent’s death, or the death of a relationship.

I’ll remind my self of what Helen Mort said:

Ideally, writers are on the outside, looking in

I think you have to become an outsider looking in on your own life. You think you know it, but you don’t, because it’s too near to see.

I know that it was only by reading and re-reading versions of the Greek myths that I became able to write about the death of a son in a way that didn’t exclude other readers. I’ll stick my neck out, and guess that it wasn’t until she’d been absorbed into the ‘Metamorphoses’ of Ovid that Kim Moore became able to write the poems about domestic abuse and violence in the way that stops me in my tracks. I’m biased…I think these poems are the powerful heart of ‘ The art of falling’. Like I say, I’m sticking my neck out. Tell me if you disagree. I really would like to know.

I was going to go on to write about the way the process can go wrong, and how you can find yourself writing what are essentially lies. But I realise I’ve rambled, and there’s enough in that for whole post of its own.

But just a cautionary note. If you have a project that excites you, be careful who you share your enthusiasm with. Maybe you’ll want to keep it to yourself. Because a poet I love shared her project with someone who went off with it, and used it, and reaped great reward thereby. For me, if you want to write about tectonic plates or Shackleton, go ahead. I don’t know enough about them. Yet.




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Polished gems revisited: Julia Deakin

carel weight 3

I once promised a Scots friend of mine (and a great folk singer and mandolin player) that I’d write him a song about Culloden, to the tune (and stanza structure) of ‘The tinkerman’s daughter’. And I did, but he had to wait ten years. It’s not been quite as long as that, but it’s been at least 18 months since I said, in a car on the way to the Poetry Business Saturday Workshop: ‘ if no-one else seems to be doing it,I’ll write a review of your poems, Julia.’

I wrote this two years ago, [ Dark Watcher July 2014 ] when I’d not long started this cobweb-weaving business and had never written any kind of a review. So it’s really nice to be back, feeling a tiny bit more confident, to see what’s been happening since. A bit of context, first, though.

Julia Deakin and I taught together in the 1980s in the English Dept at Boston Spa Comprehensive School, along with two othe Cobweb Alumni, Yvie Holder and Roy Cockcroft. Yvie came to update us recently.We’ll be having a visit from Roy in September…look out for that.

Julia is one of my inspirations. Ever since she gave me a copy of her first pamphlet – ‘Picasso’s Child’, I was hooked on the idea that one day I’d do that. And I’ve watched lots of her poems emerge at the Poetry Business, in that trademark, precisely provisional pencil, with minute, exact annotations, and the neatest crossings-out the imagination can deal with. And then later seen them in her two collections. I wanted to be like that, too. In collections, that is. Not in pencil. And certainly not provisional.

Dark watcher? why? I think  that I came across this haunting phrase sometime in the 70s; I think it was in an article by Geoff Fox in Children’s literature in education…maybe about A wizard of Earthsea. It’s phrase that a 12 year old girl used to describe herself as a reader …. a sort of hidden, secret eavesdropper on, and fascinated observer of, other lives. Not sinister, but, simultaneously, emotionally involved and moved and engaged, and distanced and disengaged. It makes me think of Mary Lennox in The Secret Garden who observes because she’s basically left out, curiously detached, rueful, and occasionally cross. That’s  how I see Julia as a poet. A dark watcher. Not always dark, but often. I often look for analogies in art to explain a poet’s work.

When I read Julia’s poetry I’m reminded of the work of Carel Weight, who was deeply unfashionable in the 1960s, but who my art teacher loved, and made sure that I thought I did too. The headline picture is his, as is this one.

carel weight 4

There’s always something very precisely and obliquely and slightly disturbingly observed in Weight’s images; they have puzzling subtexts,  and I think that a lot of Julia Deakin’s poems have this quality, too. And sometimes she can be like Lowry. And sometimes, Beryl Cook. She can be very funny, and very tender by turns. So I couldn’t be happier to have her coming back to the cobweb and telling me and you what’s been going on in the last two years and a bit. Big hand, please, for Julia Deakin…

“Go, litel blog

I appreciate John’s review – if you haven’t read it, please do. There have been others, notably Sally Baker’s in The North 51, also much appreciated. All have been generous, but none deeper or more engaged. A certain amount of personal knowledge perhaps makes his focus more autobiographical than I’d like but no matter – go litel book, and all that.

The pencil is provisional but also tactile: I like the sight of wood, the friction of graphite on paper, the sharpening ritual and much more – aptly summed up in Grevel Lindop’s ‘Pencil’ (Luna Park, Carcanet 2015).

Choose a poem for us to revisit.

(I asked all my revisited gems to choose a poem to revisit…I actually meant one of theirs, but it got interpreted in different ways; for instance, Simon Zonenblick chose to revisit Thom Gunn. Julia generously took two options)

Writing just after Jo Cox’s murder and before the fateful Referendum, Benjamin Zephaniah’s ‘To do wid me’ (YouTube) and Derek Walcott’s ‘Love after love’ (Collected Poems, 1989) seemed and still seem to sum up the artist’s dilemma of how to relate both to the world and to oneself. Now, post June 24th, Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘One Art’ comes to mind:

‘I lost two cities, lovely ones, And, vaster,

some realms I owned, two cities, a continent.’

‘It wasn’t a disaster’ she says, unconvincingly.

Also apt are Auden’s ‘A Bride in the Thirties’ (‘Easily, my dear, you move your head…) and Yeats’ ‘Easter 1916’ (‘All changed, changed utterly.’) If poetry makes nothing happen, good. Far too much has happened.

If you mean a poem of mine, ‘Checkpoint’ (YouTube; Without a Dog p19) deals with the humanitarian issue of migration – although my conscious focus when starting it was the heritage industry.

(I’m delighted that Julia picked this poem. I heard her workshop it when the Poetry Business was still up in the roof of the Byram Arcade in Huddersfield. I’d just seen the film ‘The Golden Door’ (with the amazing Charlotte Gainsberg)…Sicilian emigrants and Ellis Island. And I’d just read Annie Proulx’s Accordion Crimes. So I was all primed to be blown away by the rhetorical force of this image-packed wonderful poem. It’s even more relevant today).



We come from hell. A history of short measures, rough justice,

public executions. Rules of thumb. From backs bent in fields,

mines and furnaces, we walked miles in rags through becks

clogged with debris, hitching lifts on carts down rutted tracks

or shut for days in cramped, smoky carriages on splintered slats

with cocky strangers leering legally,

to cities ruled by horses

in the hands of drunks, the sound of klaxons, screeching,

oaths and tolling bells obscuring backstreet screams of birth,

crude amputations, barber dentists, TB wheezing up the stairs,

spit and spittoons everywhere, cataracts and goitres rampant,

fingers green with nicotine and ink, the tang of coins fished

from gutters, rivers heaving with the dead. Rain and slime

between our toes came with us into dim rooms close with soot

and sulphur, clogging nostrils picked for smuts flicked into rugs

thick with grit, chairs with dust and hair oil, privies cold

and wet or fetid, just vacated, hands from here unwashed

to hack food with a penknife used for fingernails and hooves

in kitchens home to cats, dogs, beetles, maggots, grubs in fruit

and slugs in greens at tables wiped with cloths boiled with kerchiefs,

bandages and nappies brought from bedrooms shared with mice,

bedbugs, nitcombs, pisspots, plaster peeling onto damp bolsters,

clammy sheets and memories of leeches, layings-out and wakes,

clothes seamed with sweat heaped souring in moth-filled closets

next to pictures over mould and trapped birds in chimney breasts

and hard soap scum in aluminium tubs of cooling water

fanned by draughts from grey net at the streaming windows,

springtails in the rotten frames and in the attic, books and papers

pulverised, riddled rafters, wasps’ nests, pigeon lime.


We’re here now. Gated, lighted. Vaccinated, regulated.

Vacuumed, smokeless, enzyme clean. It’s been

so long, like centuries.


Everything stank. Tanneries and pits and breath.

This is the past. Do not turn us back.


[Read it aloud. Shout it. Whatever you do, don’t just look at it on the page and imagine you can hear it. Right..back to Julia…I ask for an update. Wow!]

What have you been up to?

Until last August I taught English Literature at Bradford University, which took most of my time and energy. As well as teaching, I was considering doing a PhD. But did anyone move me enough to pick over their entrails for three years? Was there any clear question I could spend 65,000 words answering? What about the creative writing ‘route’? Could I write an extended commentary on work in progress without compromising that work? Two years and some synopses later I still don’t know.

Meanwhile, I began writing up every poem I had ever received in a workshop. Last month – 70,000 words and 319 poems later – I finished. It’s been a useful exercise, perhaps bloggable, if not publishable, but is just between me and my workbook. I comment on each poem’s structure, form and subject, what they do to me or for me, what writing it might have sparked, sometimes adding biographical notes if they seem to help. In workshops I read superficially and miss so much, and in recent years I have attended fewer because after a while the same context can trigger the same memories. From the start many of my poems, while usefully trialled at workshops, were written outside them – unglamorously, at home, at my desk.

I haven’t yet found the best arrangement of paper, keyboard and mouse there though, and don’t like sitting long at a screen, so aim for at least one computer-free and one car-free day a week. I walk – last year I re-walked the whole of the Stanza Stones trail – and ice skate….. three days a week I set off for the Bradford rink at 6.45. My participation in a Christmas show we rehearse from May, with colleagues mostly in their fifties, is a big deal for a non-sporty type like me.


Driving to Bradford, and on various walks, I have been learning bird song, from Simon Barnes’ inspirational Birdwatching with your eyes closed (Short Books, 2011) and from assorted CDs, to extend my auditory frame of reference. I can now identify quite a few birds from CDs, where they all obligingly sing in aphabetical order.

More assured and, hopefully, poetic performances have included – with John Hegley and others – George’s Jamboree, in Oxford; with Anne Caldwell at Puzzle Hall; with Gaia Holmes at Rastrick Library; with Carole Bromley, Antony Dunn and others at East Cottingwith; with the Pennine Poets in York; the Bridport Prize Awards; with Grey Hen Poets in Preston; with Tom Weir at Writers in The Bath; with John Duffy, Mark Hinchliffe and Carola Luther at The Albert Poets; at Honley Library on my own (well not quite – there was an audience); and with Adam Strickson and others for Holocaust Memorial Day in Huddersfield. Sadly I had to miss the London Troubadour Prizegiving.

What have you published since we last met?

In the past two years new poems have appeared in The North 53, two Beehive Poets anthologies (Bee Five and Beehive Poets 2015), Pennine Platform 73, Riptide 9, The Bridport Prize Anthology 2015, Beaumont Park Anthology, the Leads to Leeds website, the Troubadour website, and I’m waiting to hear about two more on a shortlist. All will be in my new collection if I can find a publisher.

Published poems have been anthologised in U. A. Fanthorpe’s Memorial Anthology, The Book of Love and Loss (a sumptuous cloth-bound hardback edited by Fanthorpe’s partner R.V. Bailey, and June Hall); Three Grey Hen anthologies (Colours, Seasons and Extraordinary Forms), Fifty:Fifty (the latest Pennine Poets Anthology) and possibly others I can’t remember, having lost my record-keeping chart when I moved office.

Finally it’s an odd claim to fame but ‘Codicil’ (The Half-Mile High Club, p19) has been read at several funerals including Lynda Bellingham’s in November 2014.


Knowing how few competitions I’ve entered during this time, I’m chuffed that ‘Hope’ was highly commended in the Troubadour 2015, ‘Elizabeth I at Fourteen’ was one of five highly commendeds in The Plough 2015, ‘1973’ was commended in York Mix 2014 and ‘How can I tell if the bluebells in my garden are Spanish?’ won Third Prize in the Bridport 2015.

What have you been reading?

Every new year I start to keep a record and after a week I stop, but what stands out include biographies of Larkin, Thomas (Dylan), Eliot and Hughes; Memoirs of an Old Balloonatic by my Great Uncle about his WW1 service, including his harrowing amputation in a field hospital; Celtic Fringe by my one-time copywriting colleague Di Reed; ‘The Narrow Cut’ by my former university Head of Department Ken Smith – both well-crafted page-turners; lots of great library books I’ve forgotten; Don Paterson’s breezily refreshing ‘Reading Shakespeare’s Sonnets’, and many stonking poetry collections.

A trip to Budapest in 2015 led me to explore Hungarian poets Attila Jósef, Miklos Radnóty, János Pilinszky, Agnes Nemes Nágy, and Sándor Weöres, none of which I can pronounce but whose work in translation is awe-inspiring. Nágy’s essays on poetics I find particularly remarkable, and would give you a reference if that too hadn’t disappeared between offices.

I’ve also been catching up on unread poetry magazines. I subscribe to Poetry London, The North, The Rialto, Pennine Platform and Poetry News. When I was working I hadn’t time to read or even to open these for several days. I’d glance through for familiar names then shelve them for some unimaginable future leisure. Later I might skim through in search of themes for a workshop, but now I’m reading carefully for everything from wisdom to inspiration.

Lastly, in order to sort 30 years of photographs, I have been reading my own diaries, kept almost daily, with a lapse last year, since 1962. Here’s my seventh birthday, and – as Ms Bronte-mad Teenager 1972 – my sixteenth.

This year I started re-reading them. It’s a strangely consolatory experience, re-claiming the day-to-day minutiae and cataclysms of one’s past life, which I hope will result in new poems.

[It makes me hugely happy to be able to share that image of the handwriting that’s fascinated me for years and years. And then I ask:]

Can I have a new poem that you’re happy to share.

Julia replies: From my North Staffordshire years…

Windy Harbour


Windy Arbour, three mile on

afore Water’ouses, tinna much of a harbour

or farther from water, nout there


but crossroads, signpost

an’ boarded-up Green Man

long-gone fetched up at,


hooked up, split lips, trees

upped sticks an’ nout nah whimpers

but wind. Yer canna go wrong.


Julia…thanks for coming back, thanks for Checkpoint, thanks for the update, thanks for the memories. You can’t go wrong.


Julia’s books/pamphlets : Without a Dog has now had a second reprint, so both this and Eleven Wonders are available from at the fashionably retro prices of £6.95 and £7.95 respectively. Pence-per-poem, you won’t get better value. The Half-Mile-High Club is still available from and there’s a CD, £7 direct from Julia.

A warning. Next week brings no entertaining guest. You will need to have pencil and paper at hand. You will be expected to take notes.


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