From my Poetry Bookshelf – Mary Oliver

Mary Oliver is a fairly obvious choice for this weekly series of posts about books that I own. If you are a regular reader of this blog (both of you!) then you will know that last year I learnt and read one of her most famous poems, Wild Geese, for a Tongues & Grooves organised evening entitled Poems from the Heart.

You can read about the event here. I also reprinted the poem in full, and included a link to a recording of Mary Oliver reading it. As with all recordings, it’s interesting to see the inference and difference in emphasis that the poet makes on particular phrases and words.

I’ve not recited any poems in public since. Hopefully this situation will change in the not too distant future. If you are reading this, and struggling right now, these days will pass.

Incidentally, there was an article in the Guardian this week on the value of poetry in a pandemic. It’s an interesting read, and I think also gives an indication as to why certain poets are particularly popular amongst the general public, particularly at times of personal and societal crisis.

Mary Oliver is certainly one of those poets. I know that her work has been sniffed at by many, whether due to her popularity amongst non-poets, or due to her writing style, faith, or subject matter. There’s a really excellent article about this, and her work, in The New Yorker, which you can read here.

If you don’t know Oliver’s work, her most famous poem is probably this one;

The Summer Day

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean –
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and throughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

You can hear her reading The Summer Day here.

So what do you think? Do you side with the critics, with those who regard Oliver’s work as doggerel? Or was she right to receive the Pulitzer Prize? I’d genuinely be interested in any comments or thoughts.

For what it’s worth, Oliver isn’t my favourite poet, but I’m on the side of the Pulitzer panel. It is far, far more difficult to write in a simple, straightforward style like this than you may think. As argued in the New Yorker article it is also easy to underestimate this type of poetry. Religious poetry is deeply unfashionable, as are nature poems that speak of wonder as opposed to those that rail about the climate crisis.

In addition, if you only know the most famous poems, such as The Summer Day or Wild Geese, you are missing out on the full range of her work and subject matter. Mary Oliver had a traumatic childhood – some of her darker poems, or at least those I have read, are, as I understand it, about her father, poems such as A Bitterness, which ends with the lines

I believe no trinket, no precious metal, shone so bright as your bitterness.
I believe you lay down at last in your coffin none the wiser and unassuaged.
Oh, cold and dreamless under the wild, amoral, reckless, peaceful flowers of the hillsides.

So all is not light in Oliver’s poems, and there is a weariness and sadness under the surface in many of them.

It is easy to say that Oliver’s poems, certainly the most famous ones, those that become memes and post-stick notes, aren’t particularly challenging and are easy to understand on the first reading. Is that a weakness or a strength? I guess this depends on the audience, and your view on what poetry should be, and what it should do for the reader. Do we always want to be challenged?

I know a good number of people for whom Mary Oliver’s poetry gives great comfort and hope. And in times like these, sometimes that’s all we need.

Chichester Poetry

A quick mention that in a week of two further poetry submission rejections, (all par for the course if you read my post last week), I have another poem appearing on the Chichester Poetry open mic page this month.

It’s a poem that I recorded for an online festival last year, which I have since reworked – and may carry on doing so in the future – is a poem ever finished?

I think Paul Valery was spot on with his well known, (at least to many poets), “A poem is never finished, only abandoned” quote.

Are the best poems the ones you complete? Or are they the actually the worst?

Food for thought for a future post perhaps. Anyway, the link;

Lots of excellent other poems to read there – whether completed or abandoned. Only the poets themselves will know!

From My Poetry Bookshelf – New Poets of Native Nations

When we were in New York in the summer of 2019, on a rather special family trip to Canada and the USA, I made a diversion one afternoon to visit Berl’s Bookshop in Brooklyn. There aren’t many bookshops like it. It only sells poetry. Imagine – a bookshop that only sells poetry! Where poetry isn’t relegated to a dark corner on the third floor next to the lift or loos. Where the window display doesn’t show some ghost written nonentity celebrity memoir or blockbuster novel, but new poetry books instead. Nirvana!

Sadly of course, Berl’s is currently closed – but you can make online purchases via their website here.

I picked up a few individual collections and chapbooks, (some which I may comment on later), but today’s poetry from my bookshelf post is a brief introduction to New Poets of Native Nations, edited by Heid E. Erdich, and published by Graywolf Press. It’s not currently available on, so if you decide to buy a copy then I guess you’ll have to order directly from a bookshop or use Amazon.

In view of the new US government’s decision to cancel the Keystone Pipeline, which would have run through important first nation lands, it seemed as good a time as any to write about this book.

New Poets includes work by 21 different poets, all of whom’s first books were published since the year 2000. The book is 284 pages long, so each poet has enough space to show their craft and writing style. Certainly enough to make a judgement on whether to seek out their full collections.

There is huge variety in subject matter covering contemporary politics, urban & rural life, relationships, memory and history as well as what might be perceived as traditional First Nation subjects. There are significant differences in form, language and approach used by each poet.

If you want to search them out online, they are Tracy M. Atsitty, Trevino L Brings Plenty, Julian Talamantez Brolaski, Laura Da, Natalie Diaz, Jennifer Elise Foerster, Eric Gansworth, Gordon Henry, Jr., Sy Hoahwah, LeAnne Howe, Layli Long Soldier, Janet McAdams, Brandy Nalani McDougall, Margaret Noodin, dg nano okpik, Craig Santos Perez, Tommy Pico, Cedar Sigo, M.L. Smoker, Gwen Nell Westerman and Karenne Wood.

This is forward looking, contemporary poetry, not something rooted in aspic. I could give a few examples, but I’m wary to do so in view of such variety – from Tommy Pico’s book length poems (three excerpts are given here) heavy in references to 21st century New York City, to Jennifer Elise Foerster, writing from the perspective of a member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation of Oklahoma, from Craig Perez (Guam) to dg nano okpik (Anchorage) the voices are as varied as the geographical and cultural spaces between each writer. How could this not be the case?

If you are feeling jaded about contemporary poetry, or just want to read something very different to what you are used to, then this is definitely worth getting hold of. New Poets of Native Nations is vibrant, invigorating and challenging. The quality of writing is outstanding. I return to it often.

If you want to read more in depth reviews as opposed to my ramblings, try this from the Harvard Review

or this from the Star Tribune

New Poets of Native Nations was the winner of the American Book Award in 2019. I fully understand why. It’s a superb book.

On Rejection

I received my first poetry rejection of the year last week. I’ve had enough over the years to not be bothered by them. They come with the territory, no matter how good a writer you are.  “I love my rejection slips,” wrote Sylvia Plath. “They show me I try.” 

A rejection means very little in terms of meaningful judgment on the quality of the rejected poem, or poet for that matter. Rejected poems can do very well elsewhere – see this article in the Irish Times about Damen O’Brien’s poem that won the €10,000 Moth prize last year.

It’s a subjective business, and each editor has different perspectives on what they are looking for. It can often be down to what else has been sent in. Sometimes a theme will come together based on other submitted work, leading to poems that had been strongly considered being discounted (this happened to me last year). Alternatively, an editor may receive several perfectly useable poems that are all about the same subject. I’ve been part of the editing team for South on three occasions, for one of which we received three poems by different poets about a relative’s glasses. They were all perfectly publishable – but were we going to accept all three?

There’s also the volume of submissions to consider. Some magazines get several thousand for each issue. Even the lesser-known online publications will get submissions in the hundreds. Again, judging by my experience as an editor, most of these will be pretty good. So rejections are par for the course.

So getting a poem accepted is a joy rather than something to expect. My numbers from last year are as follows – I didn’t send out as much as I would have liked – whilst some seem to have been able to focus on sending submissions and / or writing about Covid, I couldn’t.

Magazine Submissions 23 – Acceptances 3 – New Magazine Acceptances – 1

Competitions 4 – Acceptances / Placements 2

I also had 6 poems appear on blogs (other than this one!) in 2020

Not really much to shout about is it? But that’s the point of this post. As writers we have to enjoy success in whatever form it comes , and not be disheartened by the failures.

Anyway, each time a poem comes back, there’s a chance to to find a home for it somewhere else. Obviously after 5 or 10 rejections it might be worth reviewing and editing before sending it out again, but you’ve just got to keep moving, keep sending the work out, in the knowledge that some of it, somewhere, will stick.

I guess what goes for poetry submissions goes for life in general.

Keep on keeping on.

Oh and the photo at the top of this post? It became the front cover for my first poetry collection which came out in 2018. If you’d told me a year earlier that I’d be launching my first poetry book in September 2018, I’d have asked you what you were smoking. Sometimes success is closer than you think.

From My Poetry Bookshelf – David Jones – In Parenthesis

When people think of poetry from the First World War, they tend to think of Owen, Sassoon, Rosenberg. Few think of David Jones. Yet when In Parenthesis was published in 1937, WH Auden described it as “The greatest book about the First World War” and TS Eliot called it “A Masterpiece”.

In Parenthesis is in 7 parts and 187 pages long, with 30 additional pages of notes and references. It’s hard to categorise – poetry? prose poetry? prose? and isn’t exactly the easiest book to read – weaving Jones’ own experiences as a soldier at the Somme (he fought with a London battalion of the Welch Fusiliers), with Celtic, Arthurian, Roman and Greek myths and legends.

In his review for the Guardian, Owen Sheers says that “In Parenthesis works at the level of poetry, yet isn’t verse, nor, I’d argue, a poem. Multiple narrative possibilities are deployed throughout, fragmented lyricism giving way to sections of prose, dialogue, stream of consciousness, slang and song. The flow between these modes and registers never feels anything less than organic, and yet the work is built upon a parenthetical structure of mathematical precision; a subterranean architecture of image, pace and movement that provides a governing background rhythm to the multiple transitions of voice, perspective and cadence.”

.Susan Salter Reynolds in the Los Angeles Times describes In Parenthesis as.”[A]n extraordinary prose-poem….Jones wrote in the tradition of James Joyce, T.S. Eliot (his greatest supporter) and Ezra Pound. His net of references to the pagan and secular, Roman and Celtic history makes him one of the last of his writerly kind, one foot in the empirical world, the other in the world of faeries and spirits….Jones was also an accomplished painter; his writing draws on this sensibility to create textures, smells and images, describing the feeling of fatigue, of marching four abreast for 12 straight hours, of sleeping standing up in the rain, or a camp in the pitch dark….A reader feels, like the soldiers, a sense of being able to see only as far as the next man, of not knowing why you are there or where you are going.”

The book follows John Ball (according to one review the name references a radical priest from the Peasants Revolt) from embarkation at Southampton to the final battle, an assault on Mametz Wood (which Jones himself fought in). There may be some truth in this – Jones’ Catholic faith heavily influences is writing, and there is much in the book about the lives and losses of the ordinary soldier, and the links in experience between these men and those from other, earlier conflicts. Jones also writes of the new mechanisation of war, and is acutely aware of the changes in the conduct of conflict from previous wars, and subsequently society in general.

The language can be dense, obtuse, or straightforward and clear. I’ve read it several times and still don’t fully understand many of the references. It is a book that would, I’m sure, reward deep research and analysis. On Goodreads the reviews are mixed. Some describe it as impenetrable. I would disagree. As with all poetry, you don’t have to understand it all. You don’t need to get every metaphor, every association, every reference to a previous work by Shakespeare or Homer to appreciate it.

And while it is described as a book of high modernism, it is heavily rooted in the real-world experiences of Jones and his comrades (and opponents). It is about the men who journeyed to and then died together on the Western Front in 1916. Jones preface states (it appears in capitals in the book hence also appearing in the same format here);


It’s the mixing of specific contemporary events and historical myth that I find particularly interesting, along with the use of colloquial language and slang terms. The way it moves between prose and poetry, dialogue and song was also really striking the first time I read In Parenthesis, and showed me a very different type of poetic expression to that which I had read before. From a personal perspective the way that all of this is bound together by a strong, straightforward narrative arc towards the final, chaotic and catastrophic battle at Mametz Wood, ( at which Jones’s battalion alone lost 263 men), made it easy to read (if not fully comprehend!).

The Welsh National Opera performed a specially created opera of In Parenthesis for the 100th anniversary of the battle at Mametz Wood, (11-17 July 1916). David Antrobus, co-librettist was recorded reading several passages from the original book. You should be able to hear them via the following link (I hope!)

This post isn’t meant to be a full review of In Parenthesis. For a work with this level of reverence by writers such as Auden, Eliot, and Stephen Spender, who wrote, (in a book review for the New York Times ), “This work of a poet-painter has its every word chiseled out of experience, and it is probably the World War I monument most likely to survive.” there are longer and more detailed reviews available, such as that by Graeme Fife in Writer’s Review, which I think is good and worth a read.

I’ll finish with this passage from Owen Sheers’ Guardian review;” Perhaps the most considered response came from Herbert Read, an ex‑solider himself, whose reviews of In Parenthesis are shot through not just with admiration, but also a sense of gratitude. “For the first time,” he wrote, “all the realistic sensory experiences of infantrymen have been woven into a pattern which, while retaining all the authentic realism of the event, has the heroic ring which we associate with the old chansons de geste … a book which we can accept as a true record of our suffering and as a work of art in the romantic tradition of Malory and the Mabinogion.””

Ultimately, this is a book about Jones’ own experiences of war, and that of the men he fought with.

I hope you’ve found this post of interest. Like most of the other books I’ll be writing about In Parenthesis is available on my bookshelf (should you be interested in making a purchase any referral commissions I make will go towards the costs of running this blog)

The Poetry Place – West Wilts Radio

A quick plug for The Poetry Place – a radio programme on West Wilts Radio, as I am appearing on radio for the second time ever (I was on Portsmouth’s Express FM around ten years ago, being interviewed about the city’s burgeoning poetry scene – I assume the recording of this programme is no longer in existence!).

This time I am reading my poem Ashes – which has appeared previously in this blog (I’ll share the link at the end of the article) – on Sunday 31st January at 4 PM

The line-up for January’s edition of The Poetry Place on West Wilts Radio is as follows. Guest poet Martin Malone will be reading from two collections he’s currently working on, so some brand new work and directions to catch there, and also from his newly-published ‘Selected Poems 2005 – 2020: Larksong Static’ from Hedgehog. He’s previously published three poetry collections: ‘The Waiting Hillside’ (Templar, 2011), ‘Cur’ (Shoestring, 2015), and ‘The Unreturning’ (Shoestring 2019). Dawn Gorman will be interviewing Rosie Jackson about a new collaborative pamphlet ‘Aloneness is a Many-Headed Bird’, also from Hedgehog, and both Dawn and Rosie will read from that. The open mic lineup includes Moira Andrew, Ama Bolton, Pratibha Veronica Castle, Ray Fussell, Eileen Ana Gordon, Ann Preston, Ruth Sharman, Carl Strohmeier and myself.

The programme is on air on Sunday January 31st from 4pm at, and from the following day (and indefinitely) via the station’s Play Again page.

I hope you enjoy the programme if you tune in – it was a challenge to get the recording of my poem right, I’ll wait for comments on whether or not I did so!

Abergavenny Small Press

A quick mention that I have a couple of new poems appearing in the second online edition of ASP magazine. You can read them here – but do also look at the other poetry and flash fiction appearing in this new magazine. All magazines, whether print or, as in the case of this one, online, take a lot of time to put together and deserve all the support they can get.

From My Poetry Bookshelf – The Nightfishing by WS Graham

The second in my (weekly?) series of posts about poets whose work I go back to regularly, and whose writing has influenced my own work, is about WS Graham, particularly in relation to his poem The Nightfishing.

Born in Greenock in 1918, Graham moved to Cornwall in 1944, where he lived until his death in 1986. Whilst more well-known poets such as TS Eliot and Hugh Macdiarmid supported his work, Graham wasn’t particularly successful during his lifetime, and he lived in near poverty, surviving, just, on his income as a writer, until receiving a civil list pension of £500 per year in 1974.

Since his death, his reputation has grown (perhaps due to being championed by Harold Pinter .

Should you be interested, in finding out more about Graham’s life and work, there’s a brilliant article here in the London Review of Books.

His most well-known poem may well be The Nightfishing, which was published in 1955 (to disappointing sales). I’m lucky to have a first edition of The Nightfishing, though for reading purposes I obviously tend to refer to my well thumbed New Collected Poems .

So what of the poem itself? It’s a long poem of circa 500 lines in seven sections. Seamus Perry, in the aforementioned review described it as “one of those rare poems that consciously sets out to be a masterpiece and pulls it off”. It starts on a fishing boat leaving harbour to catch herring, moving into a meditation on memory and recollection of the past.

Very gently struck The quay night bell

To quote Douglas Dunn from the forward of the New Collected, “could these opening lines of The Nightfishing be any more evocative, authoritative, exact, and as wonderful as they are?”

As with much great poetry, it is the silences between words that make all the difference. The language is clear and precise. There is use of repetition, rhythm and imagery in unusual and distinct ways.

Across our moving local of light the gulls go in a wailing slant.

Again, quoting Dunn’s commentary, “Graham’s is a poetry very much of voice or sound, but with doses of self kept to a minimum, although there can be heard an audible voice of character. He saw his poems as events, that would ‘disturb the language'”.

The poem, and much of Graham’s other work is rooted in place – in this case the fisheries of the Clyde of the 1950s, and yet it still has resonance today. It’s a poem to read in one go, and to re-read in it’s entirety or in part, picking up images and different interpretations on the way.

It’s also a poem to read out loud. Graham meant for his poetry to be heard – and would amend and rework his poems accordingly. You can hear him reading The Nightfishing here.

It’s one of my favourite poems. His collected works is an often referred to book on my bookshelf.

You can order it from Bookshop here (and yes, I do get a small commission for every book sold via this link!).

I hope you’ve enjoyed reading this post. Any comments welcomed.

From My Poetry Bookshelf – Mark Doty

This is the first in a new series of posts where I will be recommending poets and poetry books from my own bookshelf. They may be full reviews of specific titles, or more general pieces about why I like and return to specific writers / books or particular poems.

Part of my strategy for developing this blog this year is to be more outward looking – this may be in terms of poetry books, magazines, competitions, events etc.

There are a few reasons for this, not just that I don’t want to come across as a complete narcissist!

As for these particular posts, if you are interested in finding out more, and potentially buying the book I have recommended, you can find a link to my page. I’ve chosen Bookshop as opposed to some of the more obvious options since they support local independent bookshops. Yes, if you do buy from my page I’ll make a small amount of commission, but that isn’t the real motivation (though it would be nice to make back some of my blog hosting costs!).

The first poet I am recommending is Mark Doty.

Mark is a resident of New York (hence the accompanying photograph of the High Line in New York, from my holiday there in 2019…different times). I have two collections of his – Theories and Apparitions (2008) and Deep Lane (2015) – both available from Cape in the UK.

Much of the poetry of both of these books is rooted in place. There are memorable poems whose starting points are apparently mundane – the closure of his favourite barbers – This Your Home Now (Deep Lane) , and a close encounter with a truck in downtown New York – Citizens (Theories & Apparitions). Both develop into something completely different – meditations on life, death, personal history and who we really are.

Deep Lane includes nine poems based loosely around a country lane near where he lives (or lived at the time of writing them). Nature poems that can also be seen as intimate poems of personal reflection. The language is beautiful, straightforward yet often with several layers to its’ meaning. Not all of which are apparent on first reading.

In both collections there are poems about other poets, often those whose work has influenced Doty’s own. In Apparition (from Theories and Apparitions), Doty encounters the ghost of Alan Dugan

Bitter wind off a metal harbor
and here’s Alan Dugan crossing 15th Street
as if he owns it, sharp new jacket
just the shade of that riffled steel

– why shouldn’t the dead sport
a little style?

There are many other ghosts in Doty’s work, and references to big issues and concerns, but to me the poetry, (at least in the collections that I have read), is never depressing or overtly sentimental.

As I’m new to this here’s a quote by Gerald Stern (another American poet) who sums up Doty’s work better than I could.

Mark Doty writes with absolute exactitude, with one eye on the ideal or absolute and one on the real; the ghost of Walt Whitman on one hand, and a laundromat on 16th Street in New York on the other. There is not a finer, more delicate, more sublime poet writing today in the English language. It’s a poet’s job to show us what we knew but never saw before; and it’s a poet’s job to tell us over and over what love is. Doty is this poet.–Gerald Stern

If you like what you’ve read then you can find both of these books on my expanding virtual bookshelf here;

I’ll finish this post with the aforementioned Citizens, which I have read at a couple of open-mic events in the past (don’t worry – I didn’t claim it as my own!).

Any thoughts or comments welcomed


The light turns and I’m stepping
onto the wide and empty crosswalk on Eighth Avenue,
nothing between the white lines but a blowing riffle

of paper when this truck –
all unnecessary red gleam – roars on the avenue from 20th,
the driver turns his wheels inches from my knees

even though I jump back
out of the way, and before I’ve even thought I’m yelling
what are you doing, act like a citizen

though it’s clear from the face
already blurred past me he’s enjoying this, and I shout Asshole
and kick at the place where his tire was with my boot.

If I carried a sharp instrument
I could scrape a long howl on his flaming paint job
(just under the gold and looming logo: DEMOLITION)

and what kind of citizen
does this thought make me, quivering and flummoxed
by contradictory impulses: to give a speech on empathy

or fling my double latte
across his back windshield, though who knows what
he might do then. He’s stuck in traffic and pretends

I’m not watching him looking
in my direction, and people passing doubtless think who is
this idiot fulminating to himself,

or probably they don’t;
they’ve got trouble of their own. Here’s a story:
two pilgrim monks arrive at a riverbank

where an old lady’s weeping,
no way to cross, and though they’ve renounced
all traffic with women, one man hoists her on his shoulders

and ferries her over the water.
Later his friend is troubled: How could you touch her
when you vowed not to?
 And the first monk says, I put her down

on the other side of the river,
why are you still carrying her?
 Midday’s so raw and dirty
I can’t imagine anyone here’s pleased with something just now,

and I’m carrying the devil
in his carbon chariot all the way to 23rd, down into the subway,
rolling against the impersonal malice of the truck that armors him

so he doesn’t have to know anyone.
Under the Port Authority I understand I’m raging
because that’s easier than weeping, not because I’m so afraid

of scraping my skull
on the pavement but because he’s made me erasable,
a slip of a self, subject to. How’d I get emptied

till I can be hostaged
by a dope in a flaming climate-wrecker? I try to think
who made him so powerless he craves dominion over strangers,

but you know what?
I don’t care. If he’s one of those people miserable for lack
of what is found in poetry, fine.

It’s not him I’m sorry for.
It’s every person on this train burrowing deeper uptown
as if it were screwing further down into the bedrock.

Heavy hands on the knees,
weary heads nodding toward the floor or settling
against the glass. When did I ever set anything down?

Three Films

During the first lockdown, I made some very basic poetry films. These were in response to a couple of requests for material for online events.

The three poems are;

The Transmutation of Geese, Metamorphosis in a Copnor Garden & The Domestication of Ghosts

The first and third poems have previously been published, in South and Orbis magazines respectively, and subsequently appear in my first collection, Landings (published by Dempsey & Windle Publishing in 2018). The second poem, (and film), was a direct response to the lockdown itself.

If you are interested in watching them, they can be viewed as one continuous video here;

Don’t worry – I’m only speaking to camera in the second poem – the first and third poems have still images as the visual element. In the first poem ( The Transmutation of Geese) these are photographs I took whilst running around the perimeter of Portsmouth training for marathons, and the final poem (The Domestication of Ghosts) has images selected from Wikimedia Commons under (I believe) the appropriate usage license. Feel free to contact me here if you are the license holder and I have made a mistake in this respect.

If you do watch them, please let me know your thoughts – good or bad. The feedback would be useful- even though I don’t currently plan to create more poetry films – I think I’ll leave it to the professionals! If you want to see the difference that a talented filmmaker can make, see my earlier posts about the films created for my Swordfish and Of Whales and Mermaids poems.