The Australian poet, John Kinsella, has written over thirty books. I only have Armour, which was published in the UK by Picador on 2011. My copy arrived as part of the Poetry Book Society membership I had at the time. The back blurb states that Armour is a beautifully various work, one of sharp ecological and social critique – but also one of meticulous invocation and quiet astonishment, whose atmosphere will haunt the reader long after they close the book.
Many of these poems are of rural Australian life, of man’s interaction with nature. They speak of environmental change, but not in an in-your-face polemical way. The first part of Easterlies, a three poem sequence, reads;
We fear the brouhaha of mood and tones of inaction, to decamp, to extract myths from country and myths hard let go from reading
a vicarious sense of being, of having come from wherever myths implant. Dust stings. We are blinded by howlers.
The long seeding grasses suddenly dry. Shaken empty. From whips to whispers. Exhausted. Freshwater snakes huddling,
desiccated at the riverbed. Toads, deep buried, vulnerable to evaporation. Scattering of salt deposits.
To call upwind is to singe lips and perish, no matter how loving your speech:
we must hope, fire-risk, a cold lunch read on the table. Grit in our mouths. Fire.
When writing about nature, Kinsella often uses scientific terms – as an example, Owl, which as with the excerpt above comes from Armour ;
Massive owl in redgum surprised in heavy moonlight by my passing: a barn or boobook, quite different though even a grey-white glow could not illuminate identity.
So I went back to the place today; a thin dead branch, not much more than a twig, that took your eerie weight, phantom bird. And below, an answer. A component of the algorithm: a freshly dug mousehole.
A vengeful or indifferent or hungry bird perched in calculation? Whatever the answer, I went again tonight to see if your hunting took you there: opportunistic or logical. And clouds sweeping over the harsh moon,
what weight their stains would bear. But you were not there; and why should you be? It’s spring and the mice are opening gateways everywhere: a vast burrowing and surfacing, the small weight of their bodies adding up.
I found a critique of the language online – you can read it here;
I can see where the writer is coming from, but my take is slightly different – I suspect that this is partially about a conscious rejection of anthropromorphic language, and about trying to root the poetry into something more solid, more calculated, a different kind of real. Having said this, some of these lines do jump out -‘A component of the algorithm’ , ‘perched in calculation’ , ‘opportunistic or logical’. But maybe that’s the point?
There are poems of family – such as Yellow , a brilliant poem that starts off with his son coming home from school angry because he has been put into ‘Yellow Faction’ that catches alight in a completely different direction (you’ll have to buy the book to find out!), and three poems about different kinds of armour – a knight’s suit, a metal horse, and Durer’s drawing of a Rhinoceros.
There is also an Elegy for Dave McComb, the singer of Perth-based band The Triffids, who died far too young (aged 36). The Triffids were a highly regarded band that failed to get the breakthrough they deserved. McComb’s writing often encapsulated the space and dust of Western Australia, particularly in Born Sandy Devotional, probably their best album, although Calenture runs it close.
Anyway, I digress. an Elegy ends with the following four stanzas;
Staving off inevitables, we watch from ashen tables, sing higher than Norfolk pines, this gifting us, this turning
inside out, an aubade to sunset, horizon’s loud cicatrice, as soothing as a road torn wide open:
travel jars the mind and that’s the sign of the times, the crowd standing still in flight,
to look out on morning: good morning, good morning: and I am reminded how to know, to listen.
Within this poem there are references to McComb’s music, which you would not get unless you were a fan of The Triffids, the Black-eyed Susans or McComb’s later solo work. I’m sure there are plenty of other references in other poems that I haven’t picked up on – including those where scientific language has been used, as a counterpoint to the comments by Charles Whalley in the post I shared earlier.
As for why I pick up this book fairly often? I took Armour on a family holiday to France. I was going through a pretty challenging time, but whenever I sat down with it I was transported to another place on the other side of the world, that I have never visited, and probably never now will. Perhaps that’s why I keep going back to it.
I didn’t manage to travel as much as I wanted to when I was younger, getting caught up in work, a career and everything else that goes around it. Perhaps that’s why I’ve always been a sucker for poetry, and music, that evokes a certain place.
You can find Armour at Bookshop.org – it’s on my poetry bookshelf with other books I rate, including some previously written about and others that I have yet to comment on.
I’m lucky to live within a five minute cycle to the sea. Living in Portsmouth, it doesn’t matter where you are, you are always within a 5 to ten minute bike ride from salt water. It’s one of the benefits of living on Portsea Island, along with the lack of hills.
With the sea comes wildlife that you wouldn’t otherwise expect from the most densely populated city in the UK. Families of seals. The occasional porpoise. A wide range of seabirds, including some that are very rare elsewhere.
If you are out on the South Hampshire coast between October and March you are likely to encounter flocks of Brent Geese. They’ve gone now, back to their summer grounds in the tundra of northern Siberia. With such a long migration, this small (Britain’s smallest) and rather unassuming goose is perhaps the most remarkable we have in the UK.
Their feeding grounds here are under significant pressure – here in Portsmouth from the ridiculous decision to allow a company to lay an energy pipeline right through an important wildlife area, to other plans to build housing on wasteland to the west of the island.
I’ve been in touch with my local councillor on the latter matter – his response was actually very good – full of detail as to the realities of the situation faced by Portsmouth City Council. The financial penalties that local governments get for non fulfilment of central government set housing targets are severe. So what does a cash-strapped council do in such circumstances? What really can they do?
Meanwhile, our Prime Minister pontificates on Earth Day. I couldn’t be bothered to watch his speech. This is the man who wanted to destroy green space and mature trees for a vanity-project garden bridge. Whilst this was just a local planning issue it shows where his priorities lie. There are plenty of other examples of his hypocrisy and contempt for the environment. The man is an utter disgrace.
But we carry on. We carry on hoping, that despite the negligence, corruption and greed around the world, that things will change, that there still is time.
I think there is, just.
I’ll finish this post with a poem that first appeared on the One Hand Clapping website last October. Take care everyone, and good luck.
This runt-scrap of land. This pith of earth. Half-soil, half-salt, all howling sky. For now this silt’s still ours.
A concrete sea wall; impervious, half-toil, half-hope. Already dissolved in the future’s slewing surge.
Today the light is fragile blue, foreground a smear of sea. Brent geese flying in from what remains of the Arctic. Where do we go from here?
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!
The next edition of The Poetry Place includes a recording of me reading my poem Pieces with accompanying music by award-winning and hugely talented composer Crispin Ward
It is being aired on West Wilts Radio . The show features readings by Nichola Deane and Charles Lauder Jr. who will bring Sherlock Holmes, Lorca, Einstein and, possibly, proof of a parallel universe into your afternoon at 3pm on Sunday April 24th – their new, regular time. Charles, who Pam Thompson says ‘is not afraid to delve beneath the surface of white masculinites, unearthing violence and toughness but vulnerability and tenderness also…’, and Nichola, who Katharine Towers says offers us ‘poems of darkness and delight – alive to sensation and feeling, and open to the urgency of beauty’, will be joined by an eclectic gathering of open mic-ers: Rosie Jackson, Pey Oh, Moira Andrew, Pratibha Veronica Castle, Ray Fussell, Eileen Anne Gordon,June Wentland, and myself
A quick post to mention that I am reading at an event to celebrate Shakespeare’s birthday. It’s part of the South Downs Poetry Festival, (of which more anon), and is hosted by my publishers, (it still, even after three years feels weird to write that!), Dempsey & Windle.
I shall be reading Sonnet 50 alongside a very short poem of my own that links to the theme of that particular poem.
I was given this book as a Christmas present a couple of years go. It’s a relatively small (144 page) collection of poems in five sections – moving from what the f**ck through to life is still f**king beautiful. Subtle it is not.
Many of the poems are obvious selections – and have appeared in plenty of other anthologies over the years – the book starts with Larkin’s this be the verse and follows with an excerpt from Macbeth. The range is reasonably broad – alongside Byron, Dickinson & Eliot, we get Hollie McNish, Lemn Sissay and Kate Tempest.
Once you get part the attention grabbing title, it’s a good introduction to a wide variety of poets and poetry styles and has some justifiably well-known and revered poems in it.
One criticism is that there is an awful lot of space between each poem – as an example, one stanza from Shelley’s The Mask of Anarchy gets two pages for five lines of poetry. Mind you they are brilliant – and with the latest revelations of what senior members of the Conservative party have been up to since they came to power in 2010 they are particularly appropriate for me to share today;
Rise like Lions after slumber In unvanquishable number, Shake your chains to earth like dew Which in sleep had fallen on you – Ye are many – they are few.
Despite this criticism of the book’s layout, Poems for a World Gone to Sh*t , like all anthologies opens the reader up to poets who they wouldn’t otherwise read, and has a good mix of subjects – ranging from rage to joy. Hopefully the title, marketing, and seasonal placement in bookshops will have introduced poetry to people who would not normally read it.
It’s worth considering getting a copy if you have a recalcitrant non-poetry lover in your household. Leave it on a side table somewhere, or in a bathroom maybe – I suppose with its title this is the most appropriate place to put it! Who knows – this book might just be what is needed as the starting point for some much-needed poetry conversion therapy. Your non-poetry lover may well be reading The Waste Land a couple of months later!
I still pick it up from time to time – with the world the way it is at the moment, most of the poems are as relevant now as they were when the book was published, and when they were originally written.
As for poetry anthologies generally, which ones do you rate? Which do you give to non poetry-loving friends? Let me know in the comments.
I’ll finish with one of the more optimistic poems in the book – by Robert Louis Stevenson – one of those writers whose poetry can get missed in the clamour for what’s new.
Escape at Bedtime
The lights from the parlour and kitchen shone out Through the blinds and the windows and bars; And high overhead and moving about, There were thousands of millions of stars. There ne’er were such thousands of leaves on a tree, Nor of people in church or the park, As the crowds of the stars that looked down upon me, And that glittered and winked in the dark.
The Dog and the Plough, and the Hunter and all, And the star of the sailor, and Mars, These shone in the sky, and the pail by the wall Would be half full of water and stars. They saw me at last, and they chased me with cries, And they soon had me packed into bed; But the glory kept shining and bright in my eyes, And the stars going round in my head.
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 post this morning to plug a prose poem of mine which makes its’ first appearance on the Ink Sweat & Tears website today. It’s one of a 25 – 30 page sequence of prose poems / hybrid / flash fiction pieces with driving, childhood, loss, reconciliation and Tangerine Dream as running themes.
It does beg the question, what is poetry? One of my friends, on receiving a copy of Landings was disappointed that there wasn’t much, if any, line-ending rhyme in the collection. Whilst most published contemporary poetry dispenses with the obvious rhyming that many non-poets would think is an essential element of poetry, it does have an internal metre and rhythm. You could argue that a lot of performance poetry actually follows the end-rhyme tradition more frequently than non-performance poetry. Which is the more radical? It’s all moot though. Poetry is, or should be, a broad church.
As for prose poetry, it’s not exactly a new phenomenon – haibun anyone? But where does poetry end and prose begin? Where does poetry become hybrid writing or flash – fiction?
Let me know in the comments. Oh, I almost forgot. A link to the poem;
One of the reasons for doing these weekly From my Poetry Bookshelf posts is to remind myself of poets whose volumes, for whatever reason, are languishing on my bookshelf and haven’t been read for a while. This is no reflection on the quality of writing. With so many new collections coming out, and so many magazines (I received three excellent ones last week alone – the latest editions of Banshee, Sonder and South – all worth getting hold of if you can), then I don’t have much time to revisit older books on my bookshelf, but I need to – today’s recommendation is a case in point.
Pauline Stainer has published nine collections of poetry, all through Bloodeaxe. I have her second book, Sighting the Slave Ship, which was published in 1992, and was a Poetry Book Society Recommendation (which I think is how I got hold of a copy). This book is now out of print, but if you like what you see in this post, you can get The Lady & The Hare, New & Selected Poems, (from 2003), plus three of her more recent collections, from her Bloodeaxe page at;
The back cover blurb includes a quote from Anne Stevenson, that ‘Pauline Stainer writes sacred poetry for the scientific twenty-first century. Her poetry preserves a surety of vision, insisting that belief can only increase with knowledge, and that wisdom and faith are still provinces of careful, crystalline language.’
The Poetry Book Society Recommendation for Sighting the Slave Ship states that ‘Pauline Stainer is a poet ‘working at the margins of the sacred’, conveying sensations ‘with an economy of means that is breathtaking… her poems are not merely artefacts, they have an organic life of their own’ (John Burnside). As in all her books, the luminous poems of her second collection Sighting the Slave Ship are minimal but highly charged – with presences and hauntings, sensing the spirit incarnate in every part of the living world’.
I think these two quotes give a good indication as to the direction and focus of her work.
There’s also a nice review of The Lady & The Hare by Paul Morley in the Guardian, which touches on the same comments
Stainer was born in Burslem, Stoke-on-Trent, in 1941. She later left the city to attend St Anne’s College, Oxford, where she took a degree in English. After Oxford she completed an M.Phil degree at the University of Southampton. She has subsequently lived and written, in Essex, the Orkney island of Rousay, and now resides in Suffolk. I’m sure all of these locations, and the history of such places, has influenced her work.
To quote again from an external source, this time a page about her on the Poetry Society website;
‘Her determinedly neo-romantic poetry, which has won several prizes, explores sacred myth, legend, history-in-landscape, and human feeling – and their connections to the ‘inner landscapes’ of the imaginative mind. Her choice of subject matter is perhaps partly a reaction to her growing up in the industrial city of Stoke-on-Trent.
The compact vividness of her visual imagery is akin to that of the Anglo Saxon riddles, symbolist poetry, or the work of García Lorca. Reviewers have also detected the influence of Ted Hughes in her work’.
Re-reading this collection I absolutely adore the precise language and the connections between the contemporary and the past, where real or myth. As an example, her poem Skydivers, which begins as follows;
They fall outwards as if from the calyx of a flower each smaller than a falcon’s claw their target a gravel circle in the Byzantine barley.
They fall like hushed flame where once the sun’s disk was ploughed from the furrow, coupling, uncoupling above the drop-zone.
or again, the opening three lines in Transparencies in a Landscape
Speedskaters en grisaille streaking the fen like trace over smoked paper
or finally, at the end of a sequence of eight poems written after Eric Ravilious, the war-artist who was lost on September 2nd, 1942
We glimpse it still – the spatial mystery of the machine – a broken water-turbine in a stream; wrecked harriers beached like modern angels on strange shores.
pleasure-steamers ghosting the night in their winter quarters; the speaking-tubes on the bridge of the destroyer springing like African lily under shelling at sea;
infernal engines on a bright slipway – and from the flightdeck, with all the inconsequence of revelation, the crossing arcs of afterburn.
You can hear Pauline Stainer read some of her poems via the Poetry Archive website, including two from this collection – A Haze Held by Thorns, and The Yew Walk . If you like what you’ve read so far, then it’s definitely worth a listen.
I suspect I may have to get hold of a copy of that selected poems collection from Bloodeaxe. The subject matter in her work is pretty varied – including western art, Christian liturgy, chemistry, medicine, jazz, nature, wildlife and history. But always with that precise, sparse language with striking imagery that says more than is on the page. Isn’t that what all good poetry is about?
As I’m writing this on Easter Sunday, I thought I’d finish by sharing a link to a poem commissioned by the Churches Conservation Trust in 2008. I hope you have, or have had, a wonderful Easter, whatever your faith (or none, if you don’t have one).