Friday, 29 June 2007

Farley on Clare

Last night I went to Uppingham Theatre to hear Paul Farley talk about John Clare. The last time I saw a poet at the venue, about three years ago, it was Hugo Williams, and I was just about the only ‘civilian’ there, the rest of the sizeable audience being pupils from the public school just down the road. This time, though, there was a much wider range of people attending.
Farley recently put together an anthology of Clare's poetry for Faber and Faber’s Poet-to-Poet series, and he was probably sticking his neck out to come and talk about the Peasant Poet just a stone’s throw from his home turf. I got the impression that a good few of the audience were first and foremost Clare aficionados rather than more general poetry fans. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course, just that he was probably at high risk of being corrected if he got anything even slightly wrong.
But anyway, the first half consisted of him reading some of Clare’s poems, and some of his own, and he did both very well. Well enough to make me think I should give his more recent collections a go. As I’ve said before, I have a bad habit of giving up on a poet if I’m underwhelmed by their work the first time I encounter it. Sometimes, I suppose, my instinct might be right, but other times (and this is one) I should really be a bit more open-minded.
What I enjoyed even more than the poems, though, was what Farley told us in between them, and in the second half of the evening, when he took questions from the audience. For one thing, he touched on something I talked about earlier in the week (in relation to Robert Mitchum – it’s not often Bob Mitchum and John Clare get into the same sentence), regarding the image people have of poetry and poets. Clare’s deep unhappiness, and eventual mental illness, may have had a lot to do, Farley suggested, with the fact that he didn’t quite fit in London literary society or the rural labouring class he came from. And, as he pointed out, that was in part because he had been very much ‘marketed’ as the Peasant Poet, with his lack of learning (rather than his humble beginnings) highlighted and even exaggarated.
Another thing he touched on was Clare’s particular style of nature poetry, one in which precision of description is paramount, and more importantly, in which everything is given equal weight. That’s to say, he didn’t home in on the birds, trees, natural features, buildings and people in his poems to give them metaphorical or allegorical emphasis, instead preferring an approach that reads more like excerpts from a nature diary. At the time, Keats thought Clare’s poems were too descriptive, while Clare in return thought Keats’ poems relied too heavily on a ‘life-support system’ of Classical allusions. There’s no reason, of course, not to enjoy both (I’m not one for pitching my tent in any particular poetry camp), but it certainly seems to me that Clare’s approach has gained far more acceptance in modern poetry. To some extent in poets like Hughes, and now Alice Oswald, but also in more left-field figures such as Lee Harwood, who continue that Clare trademark of refusing to signpost significance (as well as getting themselves well out of the picture being painted).
There was loads more, too. I was interested to hear Farley say that, for sheer species count, Clare beat any English poet since our old friend Michael Drayton, which just went to show my general ignorance of this blog’s spiritual godfather. In my defence, I would say it’s hard to get hold of much of the Elizabethan’s work, but I’ll try harder now. There was good stuff too about the places and names that Clare used in his work, his writing methods, and the man himself, and the Faber book is well worth buying.

Wednesday, 27 June 2007

Missed by a whisker

Last week, when I was using up my last bit of holiday entitlement (EMAP has a holiday year that, bizarrely, ends in June), a Whiskered Tern showed up at Eyebrook Reservoir near Uppingham, late on Monday. So, next day, I rushed over there with high hopes, only to spend two hours vainly trying to persuade myself that any one of dozens of Common Terns were in fact the rare visior.
My colleague Mike Weedon, on the other hand, was far luckier the previous day, and grabbed these pictures, and these. He was also busy at RSPB Bempton Cliffs, up near Bridlington, getting some great seabird pics.
My day was far from a dead-loss though. First of all two Ospreys showed up at Eyebrook, with one of them fishing only a couple of hundred yards away. Then it was on to Rutland Water, to see the pair of Ospreys breeding in Manton Bay (bizarrely, a pair of Pied Wagtails have made their home in the bottom of their huge nest), and to check out the usual variety of bird and animal life, which included a very strange fox-red Grey Squirrel.
Last night, it was back to check on my local Barn Owls. I took a friend who has always wanted to see one, and she wasn't disappointed. They were highly visible as early as 8pm, no doubt making up for lost hunting time the previous rainy night. They're doing well, with prey seemingly easy and quick to find.

Life's rich tapestry

You can have all sorts of fun with this Create your own Bayeux Tapestry site. The example shown here, at Baroque In Hackney (and thanks to Katy for flagging it up) is a particularly good one.

Tuesday, 26 June 2007


One of my favourite blogs for regular browsing is Fretmarks, which features some very fine prose writing plus a lot of items of birding interest. In fact, it's written by a highly-acclaimed poet, but as she doesn't use her real name on the site, I'll assume she does so with good reason, and maintain her anonymity.
Anyway, just lately, it's featured a plethora of good stuff, such as the overheard conversations here and here, a wonderful piece on
Sparrowhawks, and this - the crow book is nice, but the rewriting of The Story Of O without the sex is truly inspired.

Monday, 25 June 2007

Real men write poetry

Yesterday afternoon, Radio Four ran a half-hour programme called Oh! Dad, about film star Robert Mitchum's lifelong addiction to...writing poetry. In fact, I came to it with some trepidation, thinking that maybe they were going to take the "isn't it incredible that a tough guy actor wrote poetry?!" line, to which my prepared answer was "No! He was an actor, for heaven's sake. That in itself should make involvement in some other branch of the arts, if not necessarily likely, at least thoroughly explicable".
Thankfully, Cardiff poet Lloyd Robson did a far better job of putting the programme together than my imagination did, especially when he put Mitchum's writing in context (he was, for example, highly musical too). The only gripe, really, was that we heard so little of the actual poetry, but I'm sure there were good reasons for that. I liked the poem (someone else's) we heard him reading - must listen again and take note of who it was by.
It did all set me thinking about the image that poetry, and poets, have. I don't think it's necessarily any harder for a bloke to 'admit' being a poet than it is for a woman, but I was interested by what Robson said about the kind of man Mitchum was. A loner, but always capable of being (and enjoying being) one of the gang. I think that might be a pretty necessary mindset for any writer, but especially for poets. Is it?

Lightning reactions

Thanks to those of you who suggested a number of lightning poems - I read them all, and very enjoyable they were too. The weather hasn't changed, mind you, and Peterborough even had this tornado on Friday.
My appeal last week was almost immediately answered by my random blogging taking me to these poems on Martin Stannard's blog. Excellent (I think I saw some more of Rupert Loydell's Secret Life poems recently - in Poetry Scotland?). Maybe there's something in the air at the moment.

Monday, 18 June 2007

Audience participation

I need help (insert joke here). At about 5pm today, I was taking a load of washing out of the machine in my almost windowless outhouse, when there was a massive bang overhead. It took me about ten seconds to realise that it was thunder, and not the roof coming in, and we then had yet another torrential downpour, complete with all the bangs and flashes you could want. I have to admit, I love a good thunderstorm, although I'm sure I'd be less keen if my house was prone to being struck, or flooding or something.
Anyway, it set me thinking, trying to remember poems about thunderstorms. The thing is, I'm sure there are loads, including some very well-known ones, but my mind has gone totally blank.
All I could come up with was a song, although admittedly a pretty good one, Bob Dylan's Chimes Of Freedom. That "for the countless confused, accused, misused, strung-out ones and worse" line is a favourite.
Anyway, can you help? Suggestions of great (or just good) thunderstorm poems, please...

Saturday, 16 June 2007

Silver linings

It's been raining heavily on and off all day here, which meant no cricket, no birding, no gardening (it's a jungle out there - really). On the plus side, after I'd read the papers (nice mini-review of The Frogmore Papers in The Guardian) and watched a little bit of the test match, I had no excuse not to get writing, and I've spent most of the day wrestling with a poem that's been giving me trouble for weeks. I'm still not sure it's doing exactly what I want it to, but it's almost tamed, and I'll have a go at finally whipping it into shape tomorrow.
I celebrated by redecorating Polyolbion. I'll probably get tired of this look too, but for now I like it.

Tuesday, 12 June 2007

You'll have to move fast but...

LouAnn Muhm just sent me details of this call for submissions. If you’re like me, and have gradually accumulated a lot of bird poems, it might be up your street, although you’ll have to move fast because the deadline is Friday. I’m going to have a go, I think.
Even if it isn’t, though, they look like really beautifully produced chapbooks.

Poetry Pathways

Last autumn I went along to Kegworth Library for one of Leicestershire County Council’s Poetry Pathways events. It’s a good format – a visiting poet takes a group of you on a roughly one-hour stroll around the neighbourhood, stopping now and then to read poems (by anyone) that are in some way connected to the particular landscape. Then it’s back to the library for wine and (big selling point for me, this) cheese, before the poet reads some more poems, this time their own.
On that occasion it was the excellent Michael Tolkien, and now there’s a new season in full swing. Details of all are at the Literature East Midlands site, but I’ll certainly be getting along to hear Mark Goodwin at Kirby Muxloe Library. He’s a poet whose work I’ve often enjoyed in magazines, so it should be fun.

Monday, 11 June 2007

Saints at Stride

I'm not really a religious person, but I like Dark Age saints. And I like poems. Not a surprise, then, that I like these poems at Stride.
I got very little writing or birding done this weekend, mainly because I was roped in to play cricket again yesterday in a cup match (normally a Saturday league game is more than enough). It did have a vague literary connection though, because we were playing Eastwood Town, whose lovely ground is only a few hundred yards from DH Lawrence's birthplace. We got well beaten, but a good time was had by all.

Friday, 8 June 2007

...and more

Strangely enough, an email arrived today from David Caddy, about the publication of his second So Here We Are: Poetic Letters From England. It's also available as a podcast.
It's excellent stuff, too, looking at another dialect poet, William Barnes, and the need for local distinctiveness. The stuff about Anglo-Saxon language is interesting too. I'm always willing to stand up for the Anglo-Saxons against the ill-effects of the Norman Conquest, but it's perhaps going a little too far here to equate one with libertarianism and the other with authoritarianism - however broadly true that is, there were plenty of elements of continuity pre- and post-1066. Still, it's probably no coincidence that the emergence of poets such as Barnes and Clare happened around the same time people were becoming aware that the pre-1066 period contained the roots of much that made the country what it was (and is), rather than being a dark age.

More Clare...

Yesterday I was musing about John Clare's poetry, and in particular the poem Emmonsails Heath In Winter. I've been looking at it again today, and several things strike me.
One (of course), is Clare's unorthodox use of English, such as "oddling crow in idle motion swing", which would seem to demand an "s" on the end of "crow" or "swing". Clare, though, was resistant to any attempts to tidy up his poetry, preferring it to more accurately reflect his humble rural origins. It's possible that nowadays (it might well have happened back then) he'd get accused of being a 'professional peasant', or some such, and with some other writers that might have validity. With Clare, though, the poems are often so personal that the idiosyncratic grammar, syntax and diction is an essential part of the whole. Maybe his poems attract me because, in my own, I tend to use very regular English, something to do, no doubt, with having been in a job that pretty much demands the same for the last 15 years or so. Whatever, the important thing is that Clare makes his idiosyncracies work.
Linked to that is his use of dialect words. One here, "bumbarrels", immediately jumps out. In fact it's a term still used in some parts of the country for Long-tailed Tits, and has to do with their domed nests, but it absolutely begs to be used here. Can you imagine the line working, in any way, with the proper name?
Finally, I like the fact that, in nature poems such as this one, there's no visible attempt to press-gang the birds and animals into service as metaphors. Sometimes, often maybe, they are, but the reader is allowed to do that work, to impose their own meaning on them. Clare simply gets on with observing very acutely. I like the use of the last two birds mentioned. Fieldfares are not only emblematic of the freezing English countryside (and the fields round here are still full of them in winter), they're one of the few birds that seem to actively like winter, standing there with their chests puffed out defiantly. Of course, coming from Scandinavia, our puny winters are probably something to be laughed at. The "coy bumbarrels", on the other hand, are the sort of small birds that suffer terribly in bad weather, and which band together to survive, often relying on each other's body heat to get through the cold nights. Whenever I read the poem I find myself thinking that maybe Clare was identifying himself with both birds - the Fieldfare he'd like to be, taking whatever was thrown at him, and the Long-tailed Tits, at the mercy of a cruel world and doomed for certain if left isolated.

Thursday, 7 June 2007

Peasant poet

This looks interesting. I'm not, I'd have to say, a big fan of Farley's, although I'm basing that mainly on The Boy From The Chemist... and a few poems in mags and newspapers, but I do like a lot of John Clare's work. Plus, there are few enough poetry events going on around Leicester and Peterborough, so it'd be a shame not to go along. I'll get a ticket on the way home.
Clare spent much of his life close to Peterborough, where I'm writing this. In fact, if you went across the retail park next to the office, through a housing estate and on across the fields, you'd come to Emmonsails (now Ailsworth) Heath, subject of this lovely poem.

Emmonsails Heath In Winter

I love to see the old heath's withered brake
Mingle its crimpled leaves with furze and ling
While the old heron from the lonely lake
Starts slow and flaps his melancholy wing,
And oddling crow in idle motion swing
On the half-rotten ash tree's topmost twig,
Besides whose trunk the gipsy makes his bed.
Up flies the bouncing woodcock from the brig
Where a black quagmire quakes beneath the tread,
The fieldfare chatter in the whistling thorn
And for the haw round fields and closen rove,
And coy bumbarrels twenty in a drove
Flit down the hedgerows in the frozen plain
And hang on little twigs and start again.

It's (perhaps not surprisingly), those last five lines I like best - any birder would, I suppose.
Tomorrow, I'll go through exactly why I like the poem so much.

Tuesday, 5 June 2007

Hear, hear!

PoetCasting is a website run by student Alex Pryce. She's from Northern Ireland, but studying in Leicester, and has been frantically busy recording all manner of poets, to put their podcasts on the net. What's more, she intends to get even busier, and you can contact her if you'd like to be involved.
It sounds like a great idea, and certainly the poets already on there make good listening. I'm going to be reading for the site myself in the autumn, when she gets back to Leicester.

East Mids online

Literature East Midlands has got its website well and truly up and running. It contains news, opportunities, and a database of writers and writers' groups, which is bound to come in useful.
I noticed on there that the Lowdham Book Festival is fast approaching. I'm determined to get along to at least a couple of events this year, and although as a lifelong Leicester City fan I probably shouldn't admit it, the Brian Clough thing looks good. Even if I do hate all things Forest, the man was a (flawed) genius.
One of my favourite Cloughie stories is about how he'd been out one bitter winter's night, watching a reserve or youth team game, and got back home late to find his wife had already gone to bed. He went straight upstairs and got in beside her, and she woke, saying: "God, your feet are cold."
His reply? "They are cold, but I've told you, you can call me Brian in the bedroom."

Monday, 4 June 2007

Sunny Dunny

Talking of Poetry Scotland, Colin Will, who designs and manages the PS website, posted this mini-review of my chapbook on his blog, Sunny Dunny. I'm grateful to him for his kind words, and I can endorse everything he says about Eleanor Livingstone's The Last King Of Fife. I like the look of Jim Carruth's High Auchensale too - it keeps getting excellent reviews. I'll be buying it very soon.

Magazine design

I was interested to come across this (scroll down to the No135 review) on the NHI site.
For the most part, I tend to like a book, pamphlet or magazine to be physically well put together if at all possible, and I've mentioned before that it's good when a magazine or anthology gives the poems room to breathe. And I think that's what the reviewer is saying, although I did rather rush through reading it earlier today, so may have missed some of the argument.
On the other hand, as with many other things, variety is the spice of life, and I think the reviewer might be somewhat missing the point. Yes, Poetry Scotland does pack a lot into a small space, but I'm not really sure how that is doing the poet or the reader a disservice, because surely they know exactly what they're getting when they submit to it or buy it? Its selling point (and I'm pretty sure it does sell a lot more than some glossier poetry mags) is precisely that it contains a lot of good poetry (a good mixture of 'name' poets and unknowns) at a ridiculously cheap price. I don't know about anyone else, but I buy different mags for different things, and the same goes for submitting. It would only be doing the poet a disservice if they were unaware their poem was going to be reproduced in a particular way, and that would mean they never read the magazine themselves. And then, of course, they're doing the editor a disservice.

Saturday, 2 June 2007

Online book fair

I'm delighted to have made it into the latest edition, No.135, of long-running and high quality webzine Snakeskin, which takes the form of a book fair. It's flattering to be in there alongside all kinds of excellent poets, including fellow Happenstancer Eleanor Livingstone (we launched our chapbooks at the same Edinburgh reading back in October 2005 - I can recommend hers), Alison Brackenbury (Bricks And Ballads is another I can highly recommend), and Snakeskin editor George Simmers, who manages to be both a real craftsman AND have a lot of fun with his poetry. Anyway, have a browse. My featured poem (imaginatively titled Poem) was one of my favourites from my chapbook, or rather, as near as I got to writing a 'manifesto' poem. It has also spawned a sort of sequel poem, but more of that some other time.
Snakeskin has had one or two web-based problems in the last couple of weeks, but as you'll see, it's very much alive and well again.