Tuesday, 26 February 2008

Happening poetry

Not getting much time to post at the moment (for entirely selfish, pleasure-seeking reasons), but this post on Jane Holland's blog Raw Light, and the original Guardian article that it mentions, make very interesting reading. More later, perhaps...

Friday, 22 February 2008

Eaten by a lion in Skegness

I'm off work next week, and plan to get over to North Norfolk early on to do a bit of birding. Drive along the coast road towards Sheringham, and just before you get to the 'most birdwatched parish in Britain', Cley, you go through the little village of Stiffkey, which never fails to remind me of the story of Harold Davidson.

Actually, it's not quite as bizarre as it's often billed (The Vicar Who Was Eaten By A Lion In Skegness), but it's pretty odd nonetheless. Killed by a lion out on the African savannah would at least have a romantic, heroic tinge to it. Skeggy may be many things, but romantic and heroic it isn't.

Tuesday, 19 February 2008


All this frost and fog seems to have had mixed effects on the birds. In the garden, they're more visible than ever, with the cold forcing them to look to feeders as the best source of sustenance. Out and about on the patch, though, certain species have gone missing - Little Grebes, for instance, on the smaller (now frozen) ponds, such as those at Kelham Bridge, one of my regular haunts. On Sunday, there were at least two Water Rail there, good numbers of winter thrushes, plus Lapwings and Golden Plovers in the skies nearby, but otherwise only a couple of Snipe and a few Coot and Moorhen.

Looking back through my notebooks from previous years, I noticed that this week is usually when the first Curlew appear back in the area, usually stopping off for a couple of days at sites such as Sence Valley Forest Park, before presumably pushing on further north (perhaps much further north). Where they've wintered, I'm not sure. The south coast, maybe, or a warm-ish estuary on the French coast?

It's also noticeable, though, that there's a second, much later influx of Curlews, this time on the higher ground around Charnwood Forest. Oddly enough I always seem to see them first on Easter Monday, although that's presumably because that's when I happen to be travelling in such parts, rather than because they're a particular sect of Curlews who have decided to regulate their movements according to the dictates of medieval church councils.

There's been talk in the past about possible breeding, and certainly at one regular site (a large pasture) I've seen a couple of pairs displaying for the last two or three springs. But whatever, it's got so that their strange, ecstatic bubbling call, or the sight of their gull-like flight, is a better indication of the arrival of spring round these parts than the first Sand Martin, say. I reckon they'll be around by the weekend, bringing warmer times with them.

Monday, 18 February 2008

So Here We Are 10

The latest of David Caddy's Poetic Letters From England is available to listen to here, while as usual, a text version can be found at David's blog.

It's a timely look at Basil Bunting's work, because I'm pretty sure that Faber have Bunting's Collected Poems coming out in the next couple of months. Another essential volume to find the money for!

Friday, 15 February 2008

Poetry and the presidents

I've only just come across this article. Interesting stuff, not least that description of the Gettysburg Address as one of the finest prose poems in the English language. Hard to disagree.

The 41st Best Stand-up Ever

I went along to the Y Theatre in Leicester last night with some friends, to see Stewart Lee, appearing as part of the 15th Leicester Comedy Festival. He was performing the show (The 41st Best Stand-up Ever) that he took to last year's Edinburgh Festival, and he was as good as ever.

Quite why he's been absent from our TV screens (bar the very occasional, very brief, appearance) for so long remains a mystery, because he puts most British stand-ups in the shade. As I've said before, it's not so much the material, however thought-provoking and intelligent it is. It's all in the delivery. I suppose it all comes under the heading of 'comedy timing', but Lee uses silence and repetition to wonderful effect.

Funnily enough, his old comedy partner Richard Herring is at the Y in a month's time, so I'll be going along to that too, to see what he's been up to in the years since Fist Of Fun and TMWRNJ.

Wednesday, 13 February 2008

Current reading

The Peregrine - JA Baker
The Hill Of Dreams - Arthur Machen
Singing In The Dark - Alison Brackenbury
Bloodfeud: Murder And Revenge In Anglo-Saxon England - Richard Fletcher

Tuesday, 12 February 2008

A pictorial interlude

A couple of people mentioned they liked that Red Kite pic on the last post, so here's a few more pics from the bloke who took it, colleague Mike Weedon's blog, Weedon's World of Nature.

First, a mist-net of spiders' webs thrown over the fenland landscape...

...next, a splendidly fiery-eyed Black-necked Grebe at Orton Brick Pit, Peterborough...

...and finally, a piratical Kestrel attempting to relieve a Barn Owl of his supper up on Deeping High Bank.

Friday, 8 February 2008

Poetry and biography

I finished Byron Rogers’ excellent The Man Who Went Into The West last night, and thoroughly entertaining as it is, I’m not sure I’m any nearer forming a proper opinion on RS Thomas (pictured).

I often have a bit of a problem with literary biographies, especially where poets are concerned. Even if the poet has co-operated, they too often seem to encourage the tendency to see everything the writer produced as directly autobiographical, and there’s also the danger that the details of the writer’s private life become more important than the work they produced. The most extreme example is probably Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, but there are others.

I thought I’d give Rogers the benefit of the doubt, though, partly because I loved his biography of one of my literary heroes, J L Carr (he must like writers who insist on only using their initials). I’m glad I did, too, because it’s a fine book, being unafraid to criticise Thomas where necessary, and to point out all the contradictions in this deeply complex man. And, importantly, it makes the effort to keep the writer and the man separate.

That’s probably more important than ever with someone like Thomas, because as I say, the phrase “a mass of contradictions” might have been coined with him in mind. His vehement support of the Welsh language was balanced by the fact that he wrote all his poetry in English, and spoke with such a cut-glass English accent that lots of Welsh neighbours and parishioners were unaware that he was actually Welsh born and bred. He even seems to have preferred the company of middle-class English incomers a lot of the time. He was a committed Christian pacifist, yet at times came dangerously close to espousing unconditional support for violent protest against the eradication of Welsh culture. And I couldn’t help feeling a bit uneasy at times about just how far Thomas took this ‘Wales for the Welsh’ mentality – a keen birdwatcher, he played a role in conservation of the Red Kite (it’s difficult now, when I sometimes see half a dozen on my way to work each day, to remember just how close it was to becoming extinct in the UK), but resigned his RSPB membership when it was decided to introduce foreign Red Kites to bolster the Welsh population and encourage its spread. There are genuine ecological reasons to want to keep a separate British population, but I'm not sure he had those in mind.

Then there’s the religion. He spent his life as a vicar for The Church In Wales (in a country which is predominantly nonconformist), and yet seems to have had what can best be described as a very troubled relationship with God. But that’s the most absorbing and moving aspect of the book, I think. Thomas took on the one hand a very pragmatic approach (he felt that he was employed by the Church, and so had no business in challenging any of its beliefs from the pulpit), while at the same time channelling his spiritual search and his struggles with his faith into some wonderful poetry. A lot of the time, in the poetry at least, the search became more important than easy answers.

And there’s the question of humour. The popular image of him, fuelled by newspaper profiles which were usually accompanied by photos of him in a windswept, wild-haired pose, was of a painfully serious, taciturn and often downright rude man. Rogers makes no attempt to gloss over any of this, but he does bring out the nervousness and shyness that contributed to it, as well as showing that Thomas could be very funny, in a dry, offbeat way.

I suppose, more than anything, the biography will encourage me to go out there and buy more of Thomas’s poetry, because it never loses sight of the fact that it was, in itself, always more important to Thomas than the purely personal, religious and political spheres. I’ve got a couple of anthologies, with largely the same well-known pieces, but he wrote such a mass of poems that it’s time I checked them out. Bloodaxe, I think, do several volumes of Collecteds, so I’ll have to have a look for them, probably when I’m in Hay on Wye in a few weeks.

Now I’m about to start reading J A Baker’s classic The Peregrine. I’m ashamed never to have read it before, but it comes very highly recommended from all quarters, and is one of those books that genuinely completely changed the face of an entire genre.

100 Books Of Poetry

Good post here over on Very Like A Whale - the more I think about it, the more I think what Ron Silliman says (and he does say he's not at all certain) is not that unreasonable. Do a university course on any subject, and you might be expected to have a decent overview of the subject and to show a bit of willing. He's not saying you've got to know all 100 off by heart, after all. Or like them, for that matter.

Thursday, 7 February 2008

Just released

Today's poem on Lesley Duncan's blog at The Herald is by Alison Brackenbury. Coincidentally, when I got home late last night, my copy of Alison's new book, Singing In The Dark, had arrived from Carcanet. I only had time to flick it open and read a couple of poems, but it looks excellent, so I'll be getting into it over the weekend.

Wednesday, 6 February 2008

Swap shop time again!

It's that time of year again, when you can sign up to the Poetry Super Highway Great Poetry Exchange, and broaden your poetry horizons a little.

It's dead simple. If you have a chapbook out (it has to be a physical object - no e-books allowed), you agree to send a copy of it to one of the other participants, drawn at random. You, in turn, receive a book from someone else altogether.

I've done it for the past two years, and struck lucky both times, first with Matt Mason's When The Bough Breaks, then last year with LouAnn Muhm's Dear Immovable. Both were very fine books, so I can recommend it. A lot of the poets involved are in the USA, but there are also a fair few Brits and other nationalities, and part of the fun is having no idea where you're going to receive a book from.

There's still plenty of time to sign up, so give it a go.

Tuesday, 5 February 2008

Voicing concerns

Reading that RS Thomas biography last night, I came across an interesting passage about his style in his middle period, and how it was viewed with suspicion by a number of critics, notably the ‘Movement’ figures Donald Davie and John Wain. They particularly took exception to his extensive use of enjambement, feeling that he overused it, making his rhythms awkward. Thomas, for his part, felt that he was using his line-breaks very carefully to emphasise certain words, and Byron Rogers points out that there’s no awkwardness of rhythm in the poems in question when you listen to Thomas himself reading them.

All of which throws up some interesting questions. Whether or not you actually intend to perform your poetry to an audience, you write with the idea of hearing the poem out loud. Sound is as important as sense. But when you’re writing, should you hear it exclusively in your voice, or in a more neutral tone? What you decide has implications not only for rhythm, but also for things like rhyme. My own accent, for example, would rhyme “again” with “then”, but clearly a lot of other accents wouldn’t. So do you go with your own voice (literally), or with a more universal one?

Having read about that brush with Movement orthodoxy, it was interesting to come across this piece earlier today. I found myself agreeing with quite a lot of what AN Wilson said. I enjoyed doing Larkin at school (The Whitsun Weddings), but I now tend to be pretty selective about his poems. I think it’s probably that the gloom is a bit unrelenting. That can also be true of the likes of Geoffrey Hill, or RS Thomas for that matter, but in the case of the latter especially it’s mitigated by the sense that the spiritual search that is going on becomes the most important thing in itself, even as Thomas is hinting that there’s a lot of emptiness at the end of it.

Wilson’s article also, of course, raises interesting questions about the gap between a poet’s work and their personal life, which I’ll come back to when I write about the Thomas book in detail.

Finally, the biography mentions an interesting anecdote about the seventh century Saint Beuno, who was out walking one morning, heard a man calling to his dogs in an unfamiliar tongue (English) on the far side of the Severn, and promptly packed up and moved to the Lleyn Peninsula, predicting doom for the Welsh. Something of an extreme, not to say defeatist, reaction, you might think, but they were an excitable lot, those dark age saints, no doubt partly down to living in isolated spots while subsisting on meagre rations which must have included a fair amount of hallucinogenic plants and mushrooms. Anyone who’s read Felix’s Life of St Guthlac (he holed up on the island of Crowland, just down the road from here, in the fens) will know that large parts of it are one long bad trip. Still, that’s what makes them so fascinating, too, and that’s why the Early British Kingdoms website is such a great resource.

PS. While we’re on the subject of Wales, a quick mention of Saturday’s Six Nations match (although I prefer Rugby League, if I’m honest). I’m half-Welsh, but being English-born have to cheer England when the two meet, so I should have been depressed by what transpired. All I’ll say, though, is that’s what happens when you send out an England side containing just one Leicester player (and he was gone after about 15 minutes). Asking for trouble.

Monday, 4 February 2008

Ploughing on...

The results of the 2007 Plough Prize have been announced, and you can read the winners and comments by the judge, Poet Laureate Andrew Motion, on the website.

It's a competition that goes from strength to strength, not least because it offers entrants an awful lot for their entry fee, I think. This year, every poem entered got a tickbox critique, and for a small extra fee, you could get a full critique (and take it from me, they're excellent).

I was involved in doing some of the long and shortlisting this year, and in doing tickbox critiques, and thoroughly enjoyed the process, not least because it made me think hard about what makes a poem work, or at least what makes a poem work for me. It also surprised me just how many poems were in the 'nearly, but not quite there' category. That is, they were spoiled only by one seemingly small factor, which nevertheless proved impossible to ignore. Usually, it was a failure of nerve on the poet's part, and a consequent tendency to overstate their case or signpost what they saw as the significant parts of the poem. But on the whole, I think it was encouraging to see just how much good work was submitted.

I spent the weekend on the sofa, deciding that taking it easy was the best bet after all this kidney infection brouhaha. As a result, I did no birding, but I did write an awful lot (about time, after a pretty thin January), and read most of Byron Rogers' splendid biography of RS Thomas, of which much more later in the week.

Finally, a thank-you to PJ Nolan for plugging my chapbook on his blog, PJ Nolan Online, which is my recommended browsing for today.

Friday, 1 February 2008

IWP 2007

On the subject of photographs, here are some great images from the International Wildbird Photographer Awards 2007, the results of which are in the February issue of Bird Watching. The winner, Danny Green's picture of a single Grey Plover in a sea of Knot at Snettisham, is superb, and as you can see he was up against some great competition. Enjoy...

All change!

Time for a bit of redecorating, I think. Having upgraded my browser, I'm going to post a few more pics and videos on here in future...