Wednesday, 31 January 2007

Iceland - it's not all pickled herrings and dodgy geysers

A few weeks ago, I had to write a little news item for Bird Watching about the death of Magnus Magnusson, as he was once a highly successful president of the RSPB.
It obviously mentioned the job that made him a household name in Britain – stern but kindly question-master on Mastermind – as well as his role as a historical broadcaster and author.
I didn’t, sadly, have any room (or remit) to talk about his work as a translator, so let’s put that right here.
I can’t quite remember when I first came across Njal’s Saga, but I do know it had a big impact on me. Written some time in 13th century Iceland by an unknown author, it’s about events taking place on the island round about 1000AD, telling the story of a 50-year blood-feud. Now considered the greatest of the Icelandic ‘family sagas’. I suppose it could be thought of as a sort of proto-historical novel, as many of the events depicted in it can be shown to have taken place, even if the detail and colour that makes it so entertaining could be the invention of the writer.
Anyway, the Penguin Classics text is translated by Magnus Magnusson, and a fine job he did. As an Icelander brought up in Scotland, he could hardly have been better placed to work on a tale whose action takes in both countries. He also added an excellent introduction that makes it by far the best version I’ve read.
Of course, he was working with excellent source material. The sagas have a very distinctive style. Their authors certainly believed in the old “show, don’t tell” maxim, as characters are generally introduced with the briefest of descriptions, and the reader is then left to infer everything else about them by their subsequent actions. There are no internal dialogues, no soul-searching monologues. And yet, by any standards, let alone those of medieval literature, these are incredibly complex characters. None, except the thoroughly malevolent Mord Valgardsson, are really good or evil. Instead they’re just ordinary people with ordinary strengths and weaknesses, caught up in events that frequently take on a momentum of their own.
An all too believable moment, for example, is when Flosi and his followers, driven to the gruesome slaughter of Njal’s family by burning them alive, realise they have let Njal’s son-in-law, the Hebridean Viking Kari, escape. Far from putting a stop to the vendetta, they have merely widened it further, and they know it immediately. All they can do is go home and wait for the storm to engulf them too.
The style is ultra-laconic, something that is used to introduce considerable humour as well as to point up the strong, silent ideal that these Vikings were so fond of. And it’s beautifully paced, with the murderous feud flaring and fading again and again, until finally resolving itself after the coming of Christianity.
I can’t recommend it highly enough – other sagas, such as Egil’s, are well worth reading too (after all, it features a psychopathic, hard-drinking poet as its title character - certain parties should be grateful he's not around to take part in the modern day 'Poetry Wars' ), but for me, this is Icelandic literature’s, and Magnus Magnusson’s finest moment.
Here’s an online version. I can’t vouch for it, but it can’t go far wrong.

Sunday, 28 January 2007

Highly recommended

It's nice to be able to say that my poetry reading since Christmas has been dominated by two Happenstance chapbooks. First it was Michael Mackmin's excellent Twenty-Three Poems, and now it's Tom Duddy's The Small Hours, published late last year.
Duddy is an Irishman, and perhaps because of that I hadn't come across his poetry in UK mags before reading the book. If I had, I feel sure I'd have rememebered it, because there are a number of pieces that immediately lodge themselves in the brain, sending you back to re-read them again and again.
Despite the fact he teaches philosophy at university in Galway, Duddy's learning is worn pretty lightly, and his poems are accessible without ever becoming prosaic or, at the other extreme, reaching for easy poetic effect. His concerns are everyday and yet universal - life, love and death being the predominant ones - and at times he reminds me of a more musical version of Michael Tolkien, another small-press poet who really deserves a wider audience. There's a restraint to his work, but never so much that genuine emotion isn't allowed to seep out.
Another strong point of the chapbook is how skilfully it is arranged. When my own chapbook was being put together, it was a real education for me to be shown how poems can be made to work off each other, how some seemingly unspectacular pieces can be enhanced by the company they keep, and the same thing has been done particularly well here. Happenstance's Helena Nelson deserves high praise for her work as editor.
You can buy the book by clicking here, and read a sample poem here.

Thursday, 25 January 2007

An appeal

My last mention of north Norfolk for a while, I promise.
Something struck me the other day, as I was sitting there considering the frostbite in several of my toes. The area is full of second homes owned by Londoners, and by all accounts Wells and Burnham Market turn into Hampstead-by-the-Sea in summer, so it’s perhaps surprising that there aren’t more novels set in the locality. The Suffolk coast around Aldeburgh, beloved of the capital’s literati, seems to have featured in umpteen novels in recent years, but I can’t really think of any Norfolk equivalents. And looking back, the only examples I could come up with were The Go-Between (great, but set somewhere a bit further inland, I think), and The Eagle Has Landed, which let’s face it, is a good thriller but not literature as such (I know that sounds highly pretentious, but you know what I mean).
I’d be amazed if such a distinctive and evocative part of Britain hadn’t inspired at least a few good books, in the same sort of way as the Welsh border did Bruce Chatwin’s On The Black Hill, so if you know of any, let me know.
Finally, it’s Burns Night. I have only the faintest trace of Scottish ancestry, so I won’t be down at the Rangers Club in Thringstone tonight, but celebrating a national poet in such style is only to be encouraged. I don’t know that many of his poems, but this is a nice one, recommended by my colleague Mike.
Plus, anyone who can be moved to write a paean of praise to what amounts to an oversized sausage is OK by me.

Tuesday, 23 January 2007


Just back from a three-day press trip to north Norfolk, and very nice it was too. Freezing, freezing cold though, with a wind blowing straight down out of the Arctic. Combined with all the recent rain, and some very high tides, it made for less than ideal birdwatching conditions, but as always with Norfolk, there were still plenty of highlights.
1. Watching 6,000+ Pink-footed Geese leave their roost on the Wash and fly over the RSPB reserve at Snettisham at dawn, on their way to the sugar-beet fields inland. And, against perfectly clear skies, seeing 10,000+ Pinkfeet returning to the Holkham roost.
2. Also at Snettisham, seeing the shoal-like clouds of Knot circling the reserve, before the birds landed to roost in impossibly dense order next to one of the gravel pits.
3. Seven Barn Owls in two days, including the best views I've ever had of them.
4. A wild male Crane hanging around Pensthorpe Nature Reserve, trying to entice some of the young lady Cranes from the captive breeding programme there to join him in the outside world.
5. Two great Marsh Harriers at Cley. Norfolk birders are pretty blase about them, and not surprisingly, given how familiar they are to them. But they're still rarer than Golden Eagles in the UK as a whole, and for a Midlander like me, very exciting.
6. The light - the north wind kept the clouds away, with the result that everything looked dazzlingly vivid throughout.
And of course, the food, drink and company was excellent. I'll post a few details of the hostel we stayed at when I can find them.
Just had an email to say that Envoi has accepted two poems - Paradise Tanager and Reliquary - for publication, which is encouraging.
Now to try to defrost my feet...

Friday, 19 January 2007

Getting lyrical

A while back I mentioned the small but significant part The Triffids’ song New Year’s Greetings played in getting me writing poetry seriously. Thinking back, music also played a role in several other ways.
For starters, like loads of other teenagers and twentysomethings, I was a bit of a frustrated song lyricist. Frustrated because (a) I have no aptitude for any musical instrument whatsoever; (b) I couldn’t insinuate myself into a band as a singer/lyricist as I can’t sing either; and (c) the lyrics were uniformly rubbish. But it did get me into the habit of writing, and at some point I must have picked up a book of poetry, remembered that I actually did like most of it at school, and realised that writing poetry might be a lot more fun than penning lyrics for bands that didn’t exist.
At about that time, Mark Radcliffe had a Radio One show, running from about 9pm-11pm on weekdays. I liked the music he played, plus once a week, he had at least one poet in the studio to read. It was often Simon Armitage or Ian McMillan (presumably because they could easily pop along the A62 to the Manchester studio), although I also remember John Hegley being on, and I’ve since read various poets saying that they also guested. The best thing about it was that the poets didn’t just read their own work (in fact, Hegley’s the only one whose poems I can definitely remember, although I do like the other two), which meant that I got exposed to all sorts of things I might never have otherwise heard. I started buying the odd anthology, to follow up on some of the poets featured.
Radcliffe deserves a massive pat on the back for his services to literature in exposing the nation’s indie kids to so much poetry (he also had an excellent novels slot, with Will Self), although he undid some of that good work recently with his own novel, Northern Sky.
Finally, there was a very specific music-poetry link. I’ve always been a Billy Bragg fan, and on the Bard of Barking’s 1996 album, the splendidly titled William Bloke, he set the Kipling poem A Pict Song to music. Now Bragg’s always had a soft spot for Kipling, which might sound strange given the popular perception of their respective politics. He echoed the poem Gentleman Rankers in his song Island Of No Return, and used the famous “what do they know of England” line in The Few. Coincidentally, at the same time as I was listening to all this, I was reading a book about Anglo-Saxon history which included a quote from Kipling’s Norman And Saxon, and it all encouraged me to go and buy a Kipling anthology. Three poems in particular – Lichtenberg (with its great first stanza and that "Ah Christ" line), Chant Pagan and the wonderful Bridge Guard In The Karroo – really grabbed me, and from there it was poetry all the way. It was still a good five or six years before I wrote a poem I felt happy enough about to send to a magazine, but I still enjoyed getting there.
Generally, I’d have to say I prefer lyrics that steer well clear of trying to be poetic. For that reason, I really ought to get the Warren Zevon album for which Paul Muldoon co-wrote a couple of songs – Zevon was a fine lyricist in his own right, without ever being remotely ‘poetic’, and I can’t help feeling that Muldoon’s involvement will somehow diminish that, but it'd be good to see whether that's the case.
On a totally different subject, last night I watched Bill Oddie Back In The USA. I was delighted to see he went to Florida’s Merritt Island and highlighted the plight of the Florida Scrub Jay. Great birds, like all jays. I’ve never met another Merritt in this country (outside my family, obviously!), but the USA seems to be full of them.

Wednesday, 17 January 2007


One thing more than any other makes north Norfolk stand out as a great place to visit, for birding, walking, painting, writing, sitting around…whatever.
It’s quiet. Really quiet. Or rather, there are few of the manmade sounds that we hear non-stop throughout the day. I live in a fairly built-up area, but walk half a mile and you’re in totally open country. Even there, though, and even at night, there’s a constant tinnitus, of traffic on the M1, of quarries and factories at work, of the airport ten miles away, and of the general buzz of a town.
In north Norfolk, though, roads are relatively few, and only one of them, the A149 along the coast, could be described as remotely busy. Even it is slow and winding, so it’s easy to get away from traffic noise.
That’s when you are able to appreciate just what a clamour the natural world is making. Yesterday, as part of filming a DVD at work, we were at Thornham Harbour and Titchwell. No sooner were we out of the car at Thornham than the air was full of the “tew-hoo-hoo” alarm call of Redshanks, the mournful “plee-oo-wee” of Grey Plovers, and the hugely evocative bubbling trill of Curlews, my favourite bird sound of all.
Then there was the bickering, twittering flock of 30 or so Twite flitting around the car-park, and the real star of the day, a Lesser Yellowlegs. This rare American wader is like a more petite, elegant Redshank (except with yellow legs, of course), but he didn’t seem very popular with the resident ‘shanks, who ushered him off their patch once or twice.
He’s a lively, hungry chap, and spent the whole time dashing around pulling huge worms out of the muddy creeks. He’s also, as birdwatchers would have it, a confiding little fellow, although sadly that just means he’ll let you get very close (within three or four yards), rather than that he’ll call you over and spill his secrets. Anyway, there’s some good pics of him here.
The year list shot up to 89, with very showy Water Rail, Ruff, both types of godwit and plenty of Spotted Redshanks the other highlights.
All that ruminating about sound all the way home was ideal preparation for finishing reading Michael Mackmin’s excellent chapbook Twenty-Three Poems last night. He uses sound wonderfully, in some occasionally risky but nearly always successful ways. I’m reviewing it for Sphinx, so won’t go into detail just yet, but suffice to say that a précis of my review is
"It’s brilliant. Buy it here."

Monday, 15 January 2007

Out and about

As I mentioned in my first-ever post on this blog, one of my New Year resolutions, where poetry is concerned at least, is to get out and do more readings. I intend to get down to The Troubadour in London for at least two or three Monday night sessions, but it’s also time I read on my own patch.
It was a lovely surprise, then, to get an invitation from Adrian Buckner, editor of Poetry Nottingham, to read at the launch of the magazine’s next issue. I’ve got a couple of poems going in – Café Italia and Sweet Spot – and I’ll be reading with Mark Gilbert and Davina Prince at The Mechanics Institute, North Sherwood Street, Nottingham, on February 24th.
The most surprising thing of all about it is that I’m getting paid £50 plus expenses. It’d be a pleasure to do anyway – this way, it’s even more of a pleasure, as my other New Year resolution is to spend any money made from poetry on poetry.
It was a productive weekend for writing. I ‘finished’ a couple of pieces, and sent stuff out to Envoi, Poetry Wales and Magma. I’m still waiting to hear from Red Ink – five months now; another four weeks and I’ll take that as a ‘no’!
The bird lists are slowly but surely growing. Recent additions to both include a very showy Cetti’s Warbler, Caspian Gull, a possible Mediterranean Gull (hopefully it will hang around long enough to let me get back to Swithland Reservoir and firm up identification), and huge numbers of Bramblings and Golden Plovers.
The score stands at Patch List 62, UK List 65, but the UK List will streak ahead tomorrow. I’m off to Snettisham and Titchwell in North Norfolk for work, with goodies like Shore Lark, Snow Bunting and Lesser Yellowlegs around, not to mention the usual Marsh Harriers, Avocets and a host of waders.

Friday, 12 January 2007

Madness and Genius

I didn’t see The Devil And Daniel Johnston when it was out at the cinema (let’s face it, I see next to nothing at the cinema, especially now that even the Curzon in Loughborough has been tarted up and renamed), so I’d been looking forward to sitting down to watch it on More4 on Wednesday night.
Johnston is a legend in American indie/lo-fi circles. He was much feted by Kurt Cobain, and US alt-rock luminaries such as Sonic Youth. The Flaming Lips and Yo La Tengo have queued up to record his songs. Over here, the likes of Teenage Fanclub and The Pastels have given similar backing.
I’ve only got one of his albums, Artistic Vice, the first he recorded with a band. It’s patchy, but I defy anyone to listen to it and not come away humming at least half a dozen of the tunes. Of the odds and ends of other stuff I’ve heard, the same is true. Johnston’s playing is at best competent and his singing honest but raw, but he has undoubtedly got a knack for a great tune (albeit, often better sung by someone else). And his lyrics can seem pretty childlike and obvious, except that every now and then they unsettle or move you with a startling line, or just make you laugh with some smart wordplay. When he’s good (True Love Will Find You, for example, or the wonderful Speeding Motorcycle), he’s very good indeed.
Anyway, all you need to know about his life is here.
The question I think the film raised was whether the whole Johnston cult is in fact rather exploitative and voyeuristic, although of course in doing so it was laying itself open to the same claims.
And to be honest, by the end I was no closer to deciding whether or not this is the case. Most of the people singing his praises seemed genuinely to believe he is a genius (as an ‘outsider’ artist as well as a musician), but there was still an uncomfortable feeling that it was a case of “look at the funny man with the mental illness”. There were times when you definitely felt that being told constantly that he’s a genius (even if it’s true) has only fuelled his problems. As to whether the mental illness is actually essential to his talent – well, I don’t think this offered any great insights. An enthralling but frustrating two hours.

Wednesday, 10 January 2007

What's in a name?

Every few years, some bright spark in these parts decides it would be a good idea to lobby for the name of our nearest town, Coalville, to be changed, on the grounds that (a) there are no coal mines here any more, and (b) it's ugly. Never mind that the alternatives suggested have usually been along the lines of Enterpriseville (yes, really, although possibly we'd have got some tourist trade from confused Star Trek fans).
Now admittedly, when you stop and think about it, Coalville does conjure up a pretty grimy picture, but it must have seemed very snappy back in 1840 or whenever, when we were at the sharp end of the Industrial Revolution, and I don't see any particular reason to hide our history. And the suggestions generally come from people living in Ashby de la Zouch, four miles away and with a long-standing superiority complex. If only Sir Walter Scott had thought a bit harder about what he was doing when he set part of Ivanhoe there - they've been trading shamelessly on it ever since.
But to get to the point (finally, you cry). Last time it was mentioned, it got me thinking about whether Coalville does, as a word, sound any worse than the various Domesday names around it, once you take away the Victorian Johnny-Come-Lately implications. Because after all, poetry is often about sound as much as meaning, although I suppose ideally you'd always unite the two seamlessly.
Anyway, I don't think that Coalville, as a sound, is any worse than lots of the surrounding villages - Thringstone, Shepshed, Ibstock, Whitwick. If it was spelt Coleville or Colville, I'd imagine there'd be lots less fuss. Plus, if you're a native, you call it Coville anyway, so it's not an issue.
So, presumably, the people who are causing a brouhaha immediately picture an old-fashioned, it's-grim-up-north mining town at the merest mention of Coalville. For my own part, it never occurs to me, but then I've lived hereabouts most of my life.
It all made me think there must be a good poem in there somewhere, and fortunately someone other than me has already written it. Joanne Limburg's Barton in the Beans (coincidentally, a village just down the road, and containing a lot of names local to here) does the job better than I could ever dream of, playing with the first impressions conjured up by placenames (admittedly, it's even better when you know how much of a contrast her images are with some of the actual places). Don't be put off by the Dutch version - scroll down and it's there in English too. It's the only place I could find it on the net.
Oh, and I reached a birder's Holy Grail today. We all secretly want to be able to make the very childish but inevitable joke "I popped out for a Shag at lunch" (let's face it, I was unable to resist putting such cormorant-related hilarity in a poem), and today I was finally able to, when one turned up at the Town Bridge in Peterborough. It was gone by the time we got there, but it won't stop me cracking the same old gag.

Sunday, 7 January 2007

Super Sunday

This year-listing lark is harder than it looks. After eagerly awaiting the weekend, Saturday was a washout, and today much the same. I finally lost patience at 1pm and drove off to Staunton Harold Reservoir in search of the juvenile Great Northern Diver that's been hanging around there. No sign, but there were plenty of other good birds, and I went on to Willington Gravel Pits to finish. Lots of wildfowl, including my favourite duck, the always comic Shoveler. Then, just as I turned away to head back to the car at dusk, a male Goosander came in low to land on the nearest pit. Even with no sun, its white breast, tinged with a sort of salmon-pink/orangey hue, absolutely shone. Much more satisfying than any number of ticks on a list.

Bordering on the absurd

The other day, I was browsing round Borders in Leicester. Which is to say, I stood reading through the various poetry mags, and then flicking through the poetry book section, without the slightest intention of buying anything, because it's just after Christmas and I'm totally skint.
I do, I should hasten to add, normally do my best to support poetry mags. Mostly it's because a lot of them contain a lot of great material that might not otherwise ever be seen, plus it's pretty hypocritical to submit to them but never buy them. They are pretty expensive though, and that's where Borders has come in handy, because it stocks Poetry Review, PN Review, The North, The Rialto, Dream Catcher, Poetry Wales, Poetry London and maybe one or two others. This means I can buy individual copies of them as and when they take my fancy, and then maybe subscribe to a couple more.
Anyway, the current issue of The Rialto is a good one. For a start, there's a poem by Bob Cooper. I post to The Works online poetry group for discussion and criticism of poems (although I haven't actually done anything for quite a while now), and Bob has always been a very perceptive and constructive critic. Even more importantly, he's a really excellent poet. I've got one of his Smith Doorstop chapbooks, Pinocchio's Long Neb, and it's great, sort of like the New York School exiled to the banks of the Tyne.
There's also an interview with Peter Sansom about his new book, of which I've said enough already. Interesting, though, that he also considers it his best by far, and that he talks a lot about the formative influence on him of Stanley Cook. Now I've got Cook's Collected, Woods Beyond A Cornfield, and like most of it a lot, especially the long title poem and the sequences Class Photograph and Form Photograph. I can heartily recommend him, but it hadn't struck me until reading the piece in The Rialto just how much his poetry recalls John Clare at times. So I'm going back to him for yet another re-read.
Finally, Borders had a big display of the New Faber Book Of Love Poetry, edited by James Fenton. I have to admit I'm not a big fan of his anyway (I quite like some of the early stuff, but that's it), but I was a bit surprised to see that he's got six of his own poems in there. Now I certainly don't think editors of anthologies should coyly ignore themselves when they clearly warrant inclusion, but this seems a bit like overdoing it to me. Reading the poems in question only hardened that opinion, I'm afraid.
On the other hand, he does give Michael Drayton five sonnets, including, of course, "Since There's No Help".

Thursday, 4 January 2007

Bad birdwatching

Time for a change of subject. For the first time, I’m keeping a birding year list (well, two – one for my local patch, and one for the UK generally). I should explain…
I’ve always been a bit of a birdwatcher. I remember getting interested after doing a project at primary school, but I let it slip a bit until 10 years or so ago, when I started hill-walking a lot. Now, while walking can be a pleasant enough experience in itself, it’s even better if you’ve got something to keep an eye out for. In Britain at least, birds are the obvious option. After all, we’ve got relatively little in the way of mammals and reptiles, and for much of the year it’s too cold for the larger, more colourful insects. In addition, these islands get far more than their fair share of interesting birds, because the relatively mild weather makes it an attractive prospect for all manner of migrants at different times of year.
I’m not, though, what is popularly called a twitcher. They’re the type of birdwatchers who will drop everything to drive or fly off to a remote Scottish island, or an exotic location, to see a rarity, tick it off their list, and move on to the next. Don’t get me wrong – if I happen to see a rarity on my travels, I’m delighted, but to my mind it’s just as much fun seeing a perfectly common species going about its daily business. And when a rare bird does turn up, even a moderately unusual one for that matter, it drives home one of the big appeals of birdwatching, namely that it reminds you that whatever the field guides say, pretty much anything CAN happen. This winter, for example, has already seen three British firsts – a Long-billed Murrelet in Devon, a Glaucous-winged Gull in Gloucester, and a Black-eared Kite around the Wash and North Norfolk. All are literally half a world away from home.
Connected with this is the fact that (as Simon Barnes points out in his excellent How To Be A Bad Birdwatcher) birds can fly. It might sound obvious, but mastery of flight is so alien to us as (individual) humans that it gives even a Starling a certain glamour.
As it happens, I now combine business with pleasure, working for Bird Watching magazine, so, inspired by assistant editor Mike Weedon (whose blog here contains loads of great digiscoped images), I thought I’d start the year lists. The patch list should be the most interesting, giving some idea of just how rich an array of birdlife it’s possible to see within roughly a dozen miles of an unremarkable Leicestershire village.
Fine in theory, but it’s been a slow start. A king-sized New Year hangover restricted my watching on January 1 to a quick trip to the garage and back. As I left the house, my first birds of 2007 were eight Jackdaws, bickering away on their usual perches on my chimney-pots (in the past, they’ve thoughtfully dropped goodies such as half a kebab down into the fireplace), and a large, hungry looking Sparrowhawk was a good spot just down the road. There was a Cormorant, too, flying towards the leisure centre fishing lake, plus Blackbird, Dunnock, House Sparrow, Robin, Carrion Crow, Magpie, Wood Pigeon, Black-headed Gull, Lesser Black-backed Gull and Starling.
Since then, very little. On my patch, that’s not surprising, because I’m away during daylight hours, but while I only get about 20 minutes of light on the trip to work in the morning, and none going home, it’s usually enough to see Kestrels, Pheasants, some wildfowl and winter thrushes. And the feeders at work, plus the car-park and nearby woods, sometimes have some interesting species. So far, though, nothing much for the UK list. I’ve managed to add Chaffinch, Great Spotted Woodpecker, Common Gull, plus Red Kite, and that’s it.
Still, that last bird is always a delight. When I was a kid, they were one of the UK’s rarest breeding species, with probably less than 20 in Mid-Wales. Now, thanks to conservation and reintroductions to England and Scotland, there are thousands, with at least 300 thriving in Rockingham Forest, between Leicester and Peterborough. They’re so elegant, so much the masters of their element, that they never fail to make me catch my breath a little bit as they glide over the trees or, as was the case with this one, skim low over the road on their way to the landfill tip.
So, not exactly off to a flyer, but I’ll get out and about at the weekend.

Wednesday, 3 January 2007

The Plough Prize

Just before Christmas, I judged the short poem section of the 2006 Plough Prize. It was a lot of fun, but very difficult to choose between the last half-dozen poems, because even though there was a limit of ten lines, the writers had managed to pack an awful lot in there, creating and maintaining tension and suggesting all sorts of back stories. You can read the top three, plus the top three in the open section of the competition, by clicking on the link above,
It struck me as I was doing the judging that my own poems almost invariably seem to clock in at between 12 and 24 lines these days. Not that there's necessarily anything wrong with that, and I won't be trying to write more or less just for the sake of it, but I will be seeing whether sometimes I should let things flow a bit more, or on other occasions if a poem can be pared right down. There's something very satisfying about writing a really short poem (well, as long as you feel like you've done it well), feeling that you've made every word more than pull its weight.
I'll be posting reminders later in the year, but make a note of the Plough Prize site. It's an excellent competition, not least because of the critiques of individual poems offered at a small extra charge. I know from experience how valuable (and how thorough) they are, so they're well worth every penny.

Monday, 1 January 2007

New Year Greetings

Happy New Year to you all - I hope it brings you what you wish for.
I knew I'd forget something in my end of year round-up, and sure enough, I omitted to mention that my favourite 'old' album of the year was the reissue of The Triffids' Born Sandy Devotional. OK, so the extra tracks were no great shakes (just demos, really), but the booklet shed interesting light on the making of what has always been one of my favorite albums.
I can't claim to have bought it when it first came out in 1986, but I did get it in 1989, just after seeing the band in Newcastle on what turned out to be their final tour. By then, they were probably getting fed up of the fact that constant critical acclaim stubbornly refused to transmute into commercial success, but they were still great live. Hailing from rural Western Australia, they played what I suppose was a sort of country-rock, but it's hard to describe accurately. All I can say is what I thought the first time I heard them - that their sound seemed to perfectly describe the wide open spaces of their homeland. Add to that David McComb's literate, occasionally genuinely poetic lyrics, and you were left with a pretty heady brew. BSD was their masterpiece, ten songs packing a massive cumulative emotional punch.
There's another reason I mention them. On their last album, 1989's The Black Swan (fine, but a bit too eclectic for its own good), was a song called New Year's Greetings (The Country Widower). Musically and lyrically it summed up all their usual themes of romantic disenchantment, loss, isolation and delusion, but only years later did I discover that it was based on Les Murray's poem The Widower In The Country. Finding that out sent me off in search of the poem, and fired up my enthusiasm for poetry afresh, it having flared on and off a few times since school. This time, it actually got me writing, for which I'm very grateful.
It's got me thinking about what got me finally, well and truly hooked on poetry, and several of the reasons involve rock music, although sometimes in a quite tangential way. More on that to come later...