17th January 2020: A request from the Poetry Society

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As I gear up to finish the Firebird Writers’ Group website along with my WordPress journal I receive a request from Alice Watson at the Poetry Society to produce lesson materials based on the Young Foyles poetry winners. It seems always the case that work attracts work, but I’m not complaining. There are some fine poems, my favourite being Helen Wood’s ‘Appointments’:


Helen Woods

Contains strong language.

The first doctor insists that my relationship
with food is to my self what a seed is to a fruit,
that my eating habits are the moon and all
my life’s catastrophes are the tide. The second doctor

makes a diagnosis I can’t pronounce.
My father tells me I will fuck up my life
if I don’t get a grip, which is all
strictly medical terms. I want

a perfect life that everyone is jealous of.
I want all the water I touch to turn
into pearls, I want a miserable life
that everyone is jealous of.

Summer is to me
what a stained glass window is to a fist.
I should have prefaced this poem with an apology,
to my family and to the NHS

because there is nothing you can say to a poet
and be certain it won’t be set loose again.

The trigger warning about ‘strong’ language is comical, and surely not from the poet. I wonder which is stronger, My father tells me I will fuck up my life / if I don’t get a grip or Summer is to me / what a stained glass window is to a fist. Perhaps the father should read Larkin.

It’s a remarkable poem for one so young, with the first doctor (of what?) usurping the poet’s place, the humour at the end of the second stanza, the contrasting desire for recognition seemingly at the heart of the eating disorder, the jokey belated preface in the penultimate stanza trying to knit things together with half-rhymes, the pithy, punchy ending which makes it an extended sonnet… I could go on, and hope I can convey some of this in my ‘learning resource’. I never much liked lesson plans, doing best with spontaneity, and in lesson plans never liked the fashion for gimmickry, which tends to distract from the learning.

On another pressing matter, for simplicity’s sake I’ve now decided to combine the Pagespinner travel and poetry journals and revive the Mandevilles’ Travels idea. This means editing and retrofitting a lot of entries, some of which (the Sri Lankan ones) have yet to be written.

Watch this space—or rather, the space on the right.


January 12th, 2020: On Fruit Bats

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Another poem from the trip to Sri Lanka, a first draft based on a rough that I unexpectedly found this morning in the Aspinal notebook:

Fruit Bats at the Botanical Gardens, Kandy

Juicy black fruits themselves, they hang heavy out and down from trees, no branch spared,

Stock-still, their shapes pregnant, ripe, bulbously

Promising great transitions, harbingers of a future

Rooted, inevitably, in its primæval past.

Suddenly a flicker, a shudder, a flap,

Then one fruit flowers, unfurling dark petals,

Morphs into a pterosaur from antediluvian times,

Followed by others who. stirring one by one

Like alien travellers from transpatial sleep, now kite the sky criss-cross,

Respooling the landscape of river, palm and bamboo

To dusk-smudged origins of dankest green, the little fingers on the wings

Somehow disturbing, like the bones that Hansel puts out from his cage,

Their shred-heart shrieks—as from the tortured young of all life-forms—

Distilling those terrors that carry no name.

It goes some way to capturing the moment, despite the odd weakness. The bats were genuinely scary and earn the vague Lovecraftian feel (I substituted dusk-smudged for eldritch while writing this). The crude three-image rough is fleshed out as well as it could be and effectively wrote itself into a free-verse sonnet. Could be something worth keeping here.

Last night I watched Mrs Lowry and Son in the hope (as usual with this type of film) of inspiration, but found its narrow focus on his rather Oedipal relationship with his mother. Both Redgrave and Spall were brilliant, but this left me somewhat short-changed after Spall’s Turner—and he really does not resemble Lowry. In fact, by the end I was hoping he would (unhistorically) wring her neck.

Better was what I watched after it—The Strange Case of Margaret Rutherford. This was a more tragic tale, but left me feeling upbeat, if only for Rutherford’s philosophy of lifting people’s spirits. The fruit bat poem falls somewhat short in that department.


4th November 2019: The First Post

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4th November 2019: On setting out the stall in a ‘blog’

As an amateur of mediaeval literature I was transfixed by Mandeville’s Travels, that very rough and fanciful guide to travelling the world which, like the Anglo-Saxon medical treatise Bald’s Leechbook, provides a fascinating insight into the mentality of its era. My idea was a multimodal modern version based on my world travels. Ambitious in concept, besides travel photographs it would encompass essay, play, non-fiction and fictional prose… and poetry. Then it hit the wall so hard I had to abandon it: despite having taught poetry as both creative writing and literature I discovered I couldn’t write it for toffee.

I had never (outside a school magazine) had a poem published, though I have published prose in the form of articles for magazines and newspapers now long dead. Poetry has always been a challenge for me, but that is the very reason I took it up: it is the vein of written expression which runs through all seams of human existence; literary in its permanence unlike, say, the novel, itself conceived as bourgeois entertainment and very much a Johnny-come-lately. Different too in the sense that it is spare, precise, semantically sharp, able to capture the moment in all its comprehensive senses, the otherwise unrecordable emotion, the butterfly in flight which would be crushed by the clumsy hand of prose.

It is a medium in which I am very inexperienced but undaunted: ‘Always be a beginner,’ said Rilke. It is curious that I have run two writers’ groups where I attempted to teach poetry, have taught poetic appreciation as part of Literature courses, and even received a Poetry Society award for my teaching of it. And yet I am, at the time of writing, complètement nul, as the French say, at composing verse.

So that is where I am: a poet in the making or, etymologically speaking, a maker in the making. This path of folly, as those around me consider it, is to me the choice of Hercules, who opted for the difficult path, the one I have always tended to take in life.

I hope to have some company on this journey.