I nearly always write to music. Quite often I’ll listen to the same track on loop whilst writing. Plenty of other writers I know don’t do this, preferring to work in silence.
But I struggle to write without having music on in the background.
The music doesn’t have to be related to the subject matter. Song for Zula by Phosphorescent is clearly a song about broken love, about something that wasn’t as it seemed, but I spent many hours listening to it whilst writing a poem about a pigeon! Not just any pigeon, mind you. This one;
Tonally the song fitted the wistful melancholy of the poem itself (I’ll not share it here yet as it’s in a submission pile somewhere). Hopefully you’ll see Poem for Martha in print or online sometime soon. It almost got published in Butcher’s Dog magazine, so I think it has some merit. I’m just trying to find the right place for it. I digress.
You can hear Song for Zula here;
I usually write to music that doesn’t have any strong connection with a personal memory. As someone who is always looking out for and listening to new music, (when I say new, I mean new to me), this may not necessarily be significant, but I do think that too much familiarity, particularly if that familiarity is associated with a particular time of my life, would influence the creative process too much.
Looking back to my late teens and early twenties I used to listen to Talk Talk on repeat. This may have been a factor in my creating a whole folder of dire heart-on-my sleeve lost love poems that I threw away as they were so bad.
As it happens I was clueless then as to the real meanings of some of these songs – Such a Shame for example is actually inspired by a story of a psychiatrist who bases his actions/decisions on the cast of a dice: The Diceman, a novel published in 1971 by George Cockcroft (pen name Luke Rhinehart). It’s clearly suggested as such in the official video which you can see here: https://youtu.be/lLdvpFIPReA (Unlike the Song for Zula link I can’t seem to embed the video into this post).
Whatever, I couldn’t write poetry now whilst listening to It’s My Life,Such A Shame, Life’s What You Make It, or anything else by pre Spirit of Eden Talk Talk. The memories these songs drag up are too wince-inducing for me to want to revisit at the best of times, let alone when I am trying to create something new.
Over the last few weeks I have primarily been listening to Godspeed You! Black Emperor whilst writing. Like the later iteration of Talk Talk, GYBE are a post – rock band. Unlike Talk Talk, with the exception of the occasional sample, their music doesn’t have any lyrics. Mladic , the track which I’m sharing below is apparently named after Ratko Mladic, responsible for organising the Srebrenica massacre and extradited to face trial in The Hague at around the time this song was recorded.
At 19 minutes 59 seconds long it has time to build different themes and motifs into the track. It’s one of GYBE’s heaviest tracks, and works particularly well when listened through headphones. Thematically, (rising darkness through despair, defiance and ending with hope for redemption), it fits the tone of what I am currently writing about, if not the exact subject matter.
I think the only times when I have written poetry whilst in silence was when on an Arvon course or in some other writing workshop. Maybe I’ll suggest sticking Mladic or The Dead Flag Blues, (which is equally expansive and apocalyptic, if more so), on full volume next time I’m in one and seeing how everyone else reacts!
I have experimented with this – trying to write poetry whilst listening to The Trammps’ Disco Inferno or Reach by S-Club 7 simply didn’t work. Maybe it’s just me, and the sort of subject matter that I am drawn to.
What about you? Do you write to music? If so, what works? Let me know!
A quick mention for an event I am reading at tonight – if you are at a loose end and want to hear a range of poets read their work, details follow;
POETRY & JAZZ CAFÉ
Thursday, June 24, 7.30pm. ASSEMBLY ROOM, NORTH ST, CHICHESTER, PO19 1LQ.
As part of the Festival of Chichester, acclaimed poets Raine Geoghegan and James Simpson team up with jazz stars the Charlotte Glasson Trio, with legendary guitarist Chris Spedding, to entertain and inspire. Raine will read from her Romani poems while James will read from his new collection. Enjoy a delightful mix of words and music in the historic setting of the Assembly Room. Tickets £15. Disabled access. http://www.thenovium.org/boxoffice Tel 01243 816525 https://festivalofchichester.co.uk
My youngest child was 18 at the end of last week. Today is Father’s Day. Both events have prompted me to revisit this collection of poems for families, edited by Carol Ann Duffy, which I was given as a present earlier this year.
As with all good anthologies it includes a wide range of poems from across the centuries, that are as relevant now as they were when they were written – Here’s one from Charles Kingsley, writing in the mid-19th century
My fairest child, I have no song to give you; No lark could pipe in skies so dull and grey; Yet, if you will, one quiet hint I’ll leave you, For every day.
I’ll tell you how to sing a clearer carol Thank lark who hails the dawn on breezy down; To earn yourself a purer poet’s laurel Thank Shakespeare’s crown.
Be good, sweet maid, and let who can be clever; Do noble things, not dream them, all day long; And so make Life, Death and that last for ever, One grand west song.
Personal highlights include two lovely poems written by Jackie Kay to her son – Gap Year and Piano 4pm, which make me want to buy her Bloodeaxe selected poems, and stunning Eavan Boland contributions including The Pomegranate, which starts as follows;
The only legend I have ever loves is the story of a daughter lost in hell. And found and rescued there.
Poems on letting go feature strongly as you would expect, such as Walking Away by Cecil Day Lewis, written for his son Sean, which if you don’t already know it starts with the following stanza;
It is eighteen years ago, almost to the day – A sunny day with the leaves just turning, The touch-lines new-ruled – since I watched you play Your first game of football, then, like a satellite Wrenched from its orbit, go drifting away
and ends with these lines:-
How selfhood begins with a walking away, And love is proved in the letting go.
Or Stephen Spender’s To My Daughter
Bright clasp of her whole hand around my finger, My daughter, as we walk together now. All my life I’ll feel a ring invisibly Circle the bone with shining when she is grown Far from today as her eye are already.
But this isn’t just a book of parental reminiscence, there are poems written for parents – Charles Causley’s Eden Rock makes an appearance, as does Yvonne Reddick’s witty Things My Father Told Me, there are poems for lost children, such as Sharon Olds’ devastating To Our Miscarried One, Age Thirty Now and William Stafford’s For a Lost Child which finishes with the lines;
I found your note left from a trip that year our family travelled: ‘Daddy, we could meet here’.
We are all changed by parenthood, and I know that when my son leaves for university in a couple of months time it is going to hit me hard. As W.S Merwin writes in Separation (this is the full poem so I hope it’s OK to share it here);
Your absence has gone through me Like thread through a needle. Everything I do is stitched with its colour.
Back to Empty Nest. This really is an excellent collection of poems, suitable for poets or non- poets alike. It’s widely available, including on Bookshop.org here;
1989. The year the wall came down. Tiananmen Square. Exxon Valdez. A year bookended by George HW Bush becoming president and Ceausescu being deposed. I remember watching the latter in my grandmother’s house in Portchester Road, as we went there most Christmases. Such. A. Long. Time. Ago. So much has changed. Yet so much hasn’t.
Today’s book from my bookshelf is a case in point. Published in 1989, Peter Reading’s Perduta Gente, with its’ central theme of homelessness is as relevant today as it was then. Perhaps more so, after forty years of the sham of trickle-down economics, and the last ten years of austerity. Even after the magical thinking and ridiculous economic self-harm of Brexit, the UK is still the sixth richest country in the world.
A famous quote from Mahatma Gandhi springs to mind here: ‘the true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members’. So how do we stack up here in Britain? How do we treat our destitute, our disabled, our ill? We vote for Boris Johnson. We vote for Boris Johnson. We vote for David Cameron. We vote for the rich getting richer. We vote for those who come down hard on asylum seekers. We vote for those who want to commercialise the NHS, who cut funds for social services, welfare and education. Well enough of us do.
I’m not going to try and understand why people vote the way they do. I’m sure that many who vote Conservative are compassionate, caring and kind individuals. However, as Reading states;
Don’t think it couldn’t be you – bankrupt, batty, bereft, huddle of papers and rags in a cardboard spin-drier carton, bottle-bank cocktails and Snow soporifics, meths analgesics, beg-bucket rattler, no-hope no-homer, squatter in rat-pits, busker in underground bogs (plangent the harp-twang, the Hwaet! Haggard, the youthful and handsome whom I loved in my nonage; vanished, the vigour I valued; roof-tree and cooking-hearth, sacked). Bankrupt, batty, bereft – don’t think it couldn’t be you.
Peter Reading was born in Liverpool in 1946, and was educated at the Liverpool College of Art. After graduating he taught for a few years before obtaining a job as a weighbridge operator at an animal feed mill in Shropshire – where he remained for 22 years until he was sacked for refusing to wear a uniform when a new owner took over. He liked the work because he said that it gave him time to think.
He was a prodigious poet – writing a total of 26 collections. These collections were unusual because they were fashioned more like novels with themes and plots and often featured: characters, newspaper cuttings, letters, found poems, crossings out, different type-faces and pieces of prose. The poems that did appear were often untitled. He once said: ‘The concision of poetry appeals to me, but the novelist’s job – big-scale serious tackling of things, as in Dickens and Smollett – is something I try in a smaller way to get into what I do.’
The above two paragraphs were taken from this biographical post on the Poet’s Graves website.
Perduta Gente is filled with anger, power and compassion. As with his other work, it’s a mix of untitled poems, prose pieces, snippets, collages of newspaper clippings and headlines, and handwritten diary entries;
Some of the poems are written in the vernacular of the street, or at least in Reading’s interpretation of it. I think this is a way to try and bring their voices and experiences to life.
gizzera quiddora fiftyfer fuggsay mistera tellya tellya da missiziz fugginwell whatnot fugginwell ampute afer da nackerup arm
I’m not sure how well they work, compared to some of the others here, but they broaden the scope and language in what is a relatively short collection.
Incidentally there are no page numbers in Perduta Gente. It is a book that is not meant to be read in any particular order. You dip in and out. It is unstructured, rootless, a collision of styles and formatting. Which fits well with the subject matter.
One thing I have tried to do with my weekly blog posts is illustrate the sheer range of poetry available. I know a lot of people who say they don’t ‘get’ poetry, it doesn’t speak to them. My reply is that they just haven’t found the right poet yet. As for Perduta Gente, It’s safe to say that if you are looking for gentle, easy reading, lyrical poetry, then this isn’t the book for you.
Newspaper, wrapped round the torso between the fourth and fifth jerseys (night attire proper for doing a skipper in icy December under the Festival Hall), carries a note to the Editor, from ‘Ex- Soldier’ of Telford, outlining plans to withdraw DHSS cash from those no-fixed-abode parasites.
Wound round a varicose indigo swollen leg, between second and third pair of trousers (which stink – urine and faeces and sick), Property Pages delineate bijou River-View Flatlets £600,000 each.
The house prices may have increased, but so has homelessness. Where is the anger? Why are we so accepting of this?
Perduta Gente is out of print, so if you want a copy you’ll have to pick one up secondhand. You won’t find it on my bookshop.org page.
You can, however, listen to an audio recording of Perduta Gente here;
What do you think? Do you prefer poetry that is less angry, less politicised (in the small ‘p’ sense of the world), and conservative (in the small ‘c’ sense)!. Or should there be more writing like Perduta Gente being published now? How does what you’ve read here compare to the contemporary poetry you see in magazines, online publications and new collections and anthologies?
And for those of us who write poetry. Do we take enough risks with our own writing, with the subject matter, language used or poetic form and structure? What if we don’t want to? Does it actually matter? Can it actually achieve anything? Maybe that’s something for a future post.
Anyone reading these poetry bookshelf posts will have seen that I haven’t, as yet, written much about any of the canonical poets, those who everyone says are the best, the most important, those you must read to get a proper understanding of poetry.
The truth is I’m a little intimidated about doing so. I know that it will expose my lack of reading, my lack of education (I only took English to O Level at school – as part of a misguided career plan to become a surveyor). I have therefore, never properly studied literature, and so have huge gaps in my literary knowledge.
I could, in theory, study for a masters degree, since I eventually got a BA in Humanities, focussing on History or Geography, but due to government funding cuts for higher education that avenue is no longer open to me. I don’t have a spare £10K lying around that I could use for this purpose.
Whilst it’s not a huge issue for me personally, it’s worth thinking about all those other people whose life choices have been shrunk because of this. Not just in literature, but in music, theatre, art. The last ten years of Conservative Party led austerity has been at the expense of the opportunities for so many people to learn new skills, to open their minds to different ideas and experiences, whether for career or pleasure. But we all know that by now.
As an aside, I have to assume that anyone who votes Conservative is perfectly happy with this, as they no doubt must be with austerity policies in general. Still at least the national debt has been reduced significantly since 2010 (allowing for Covid of course). Oh wait.
Anyway, enough of the rant. Back to Shakespeare. I bought this book because I am reading at an event celebrating his birthday next week, and I wanted to choose a suitable poem or sonnet. Apart from the really obvious ones, (Sonnet 18 for example) , I haven’t actually read many of them.
Are they all equally brilliant? Clearly not. But how do we judge what is, and what isn’t good? How much of our assessment is based on our own prejudices, and our own reactions to the previous assessments and criticisms of others? There’s an interesting article on the Poetry International blog which goes into this – it’s about the apparently much unloved Sonnet 145. You can read it here.
I’ve chosen Sonnet 50;
How heavy do I journey on the way, When what I seek (my weary travel’s end) Doth teach that ease and that repose to say “Thus far the miles are measured from thy friend.” The beast that bears me, tired with my woe, Plods dully on, to bear that weight in me, As if by some instinct the wretch did know His rider loved not speed being made from thee. The bloody spur cannot provoke him on That sometimes anger thrusts into his hide, Which heavily he answers with a groan More sharp to me than spurring to his side, For that same groan doth put this in my mind: My grief lies onward, and my joy behind.
I picked this sonnet because of my own ambivalence towards Shakespeare whilst growing up – we were taken to see some of the plays from quite a young age, usually RSC productions, either at Stratford or the Barbican. I can’t remember much about the ones I saw, though I’m sure this has no reflection on their quality. But I associated going to the theatre with the disintegration of my parents’ marriage. Looking back I’m pretty convinced that it was subconsciously also the reason I chose to take A level Maths , (which I failed), instead of English.
A good few years ago I wrote a haiku which appeared in Orbis Magazine;
On being taken to watch Akira Kurosawa’s version of Macbeth for my twelfth birthday when all I wanted to do was go to the football
deceit and hubris lead to lengthening speeches everybody dies
Obviously the whole poem is a joke – haiku’s don’t have titles and my parents never took me to see Macbeth, nor any Japanese film versions of it, but there are undercurrents of truth – about family break-ups, about how we are sometimes blindsided by our own interests and passions to what others want, and how we can over promote something to the point that it can have the opposite effect on those we are trying to share it with.
I suspect this is why my wife doesn’t appreciate Portsmouth FC, Tangerine Dream’s challenging early 70s music, or for that matter the complete back catalogue of Black Sabbath. Though as I sit here listening to Iron Man on this sunny spring morning, I do believe there is still time for her to change her mind.
I think this may well be the first poetry blog post about Shakespeare that also references Black Sabbath. If you know of any others please do let me know!
As it happens I found my own way back to Shakespeare through Akira Kurosawa. I saw the incredible Ran, (his version of King Lear), at a near-empty cinema in the West End of London shortly after it came out. It’s a mind-blowing film that is really worth watching on the big screen if you ever get the chance. There’s a good review in the Guardian of the 4K restoration that came out in 2016. It’s one of my favourite films.
Anyway, back to Shakespeare. Sonnet 50 is one of a pair. Sonnet 51 reads as follows;
Thus can my love excuse the slow offence Of my dull bearer, when from thee I speed: ‘From where thou art, why should I haste me thence? Till I return, of posting is no need.’ O what excuse will my poor beast then find When swift extremity can seem but slow? Then should I spur, though mounted on the wind: In winged speed no motion shall I know. Then can no horse with my desire keep pace; Therefore desire (of perfect’st love being made) Shall weigh no dull flesh in his fiery race, But love, for love, thus shall excuse my jade: ‘Since from thee going he went wilful slow, Towards thee I’ll run and give him leave to go.’
Obviously both poems are about leaving and returning to a lover, but there’s much more to them than that. You can read far more detailed analyses of these poems elsewhere – far more detailed than you are going to get from my ramblings at any point!
The Oxford Shakespeare The Complete Sonnets and Poems does have notes on each sonnet, helpfully shown on the page opposite that of the sonnet itself, along with a 158 page introduction, so this may be all you need, but if you are after something shorter, about say a particular sonnet, then there are plenty available online.
As a starting point should you be interested in finding out more, here are a couple of short ones for each sonnet. There may well be better analyses out there, but these also give suggestions for further reading.
I have come to appreciate Shakespeare’s work far more than I did when I was younger. Maybe I just needed time, to go on my own journey. What about you? As for the sonnets themselves, what do you think of them? Do you have a favourite? I’m still reading through them so any suggestions would be very much appreciated.
Please let me know in the comments.
Actually the same applies to Black Sabbath, Tangerine Dream and the films of Akira Kurosawa. We are all still learning, there’s always something new to see, to listen to, something we have somehow missed. Last week I listened to Tangerine Dream’s Atem, which is a sonic exploration of the history of the Earth in reverse. It’s the album before their most well-known work – Phaedra – and so despite being championed by John Peel on it’s release in 1973, tends to be ignored today. I thought it was brilliant.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this rambling blog post. Most of the books mentioned in My Poetry Bookshelf are available on Bookshop.org – I have a page where they are all saved. If you do buy anything from this page then I’ll make a small amount of commission from each purchase, which goes towards the running costs of this blog. Last time I checked I had made £6.30 in total, so it’s hardly making me rich, but it all helps!
Today, April 10th 2021, is the thirtieth anniversary of the sinking of the Portsmouth based scallop trawler Wilhelmina J.
Wilhelmina J, a 26m beam trawler left Portsmouth on April 9, 1991, to trawl for scallops in the English Channel near fishing grounds known as Horseshoe Bank. But at 2am on April 10, the vessel was involved in a collision during foggy conditions with MV Zulfikar, a 142m Cyprus-registered cargo ship.
All six members of the Wilhelmina J’s crew were lost.
The six men who died were; Jeff Alan Venters, Michael James Bell, Mark Warwick Fitz, Christopher Clifford Thomas, Guy Ransom Davies and Matthew James Hodge.
Their names are on a plaque in Old Portsmouth Fishermans Quay, a memorial in the Old Portsmouth cathedral and a plaque in the Bridge Tavern pub.
I didn’t know any of the crew, but wrote a poem about the sinking a number of years ago. It’s based around the marine accident report summary of what happened that night.
It is one poem in a long sequence of poems, (currently unpublished), themed around my running the perimeter of Portsea Island whilst training for marathons – the circa 16 mile run goes past the small fishing harbour where the Wilhelmina J was based. I thought now was as good a time as any to share it here (it was previously published in South Poetry and on the Places of Poetry website.
I read the poem at an event in Southsea and someone came up to me afterwards saying they knew one of the families who had lost someone, and asked me for a copy of the poem (which I gave them, obviously), so that they could give it to them. I can’t imagine that it helped in any way. But maybe it did.
My thoughts today are with the families of those who were lost. I can only imagine what they have gone through over these years, what they are going through today.
I’ve posted a link at the bottom of this post to the donation page for the RNLI who, whilst they couldn’t have done anything in this case, save hundreds of lives each year around our shores. I raised money for the RNLI the first time I ran the Great South Run. It’s a charity I have a lot of time for.
At sea it is the small decisions that count; to rely on assumptions, or not, to check all frequencies make sure your lookout is on watch, or not, to see a shape in the swirling dark in the shifting canvas of fog
As always a series of coincidences of misunderstandings and mistakes and not, this damp wool-blanket of a night heavy on ship and water alike, and not names on a plaque in the Bridge Tavern in the apportioning of blame.
And so, running past a pile of lobster pots a chiller trailer and fishing boats, is not the time to think of giving in to aches and pains of inconsequence, but is the point to pick up your heels and live life fast as long as you can.
If you wish to support the work of the RNLI, please go to;
A very quick post to let you know that a recording of me reading my poem ‘Pieces’ , which is about, and for, the NHS team at QA Hospital in Portsmouth, is being aired on BBC Radio Solent tomorrow, between 12 and 1 PM tomorrow.
If interested, you can listen via 96.1 and 103.8 FM, DAB, FreeView or via the BBC Sounds app.
After Bird in Hand was published on the Football Poets website, it got a mention on an article on the Write Out Loud website. Which was nice. The article is primarily about Torquay United’s poet in resident. I wonder if Pompey have one? Perhaps I should offer my services…you can read all about the Bard of Plainmoor here
There’s a link in the article to a recording of me reading Followers, plus three other poems at the Write Out Loud Woking’s monthly zoom open mic – I wasn’t aware it was going to be shown on Youtube – I might have had a shave beforehand otherwise! Not the best readings I’ve ever given, still struggling a bit with technology, but anyway, they are available to view if you have a spare 5 minutes and nothing better to do…I know we’re in lockdown, but still…
Six viewings so far – including one by me, so whoever you are, thank you!
There’s a second Write Out Loud Woking article specifically about the Football Poets website which is definitely worth a read – it’s an interview with one of the founders and covers a brief history of a website that is now archived by the British Library as a site of excellence in 2008. It’s the largest football poetry website in the world. You can read the article here.
New poems there every day – so it’s always worth a look if football and poetry are of interest – I notice that the most recent poem is by Greg Freeman (of Write out Loud Woking, and the author of both the articles referenced in this post) – The Battle of Hastings, as Summarised by Roy Keane – I shall enjoy reading that one later!
Right, back to the day job!
…a quick further update – I have just heard that Bird in Hand has been accepted for the next edition of West Wilts Radio’s poetry programme. It will be going out at 4 PM on Sunday, 28th February. Link to the programme and previous episodes here;