Monday, 30 March 2020

The poetry of birds

My bird poetry quiz - if you saw it (if not, just scroll down to previous post) - relied heavily on The Poetry of Birds as the source of quotes. The quotes I selected for the quiz were all from well-known poets, with, I hoped, descriptions of relatively recognisable birds.

I love birds and poetry - I notice poems with birds in them. In The Poetry of Birds, Simon Armitage says 'Poets, I believe, seek and find in the world of birds unlimited and unequalled reflections of their own world.'

As I was going through the book, and in reading other poetry recently, I noted down a few of my favourite of these poems, which I thought I'd share. At the moment, I'm looking at birds and poetry to escape the world, and my choice doubtless reflects that.

From The Poetry of Birds, ed Simon Armitage & Tim Dee (Penguin) (though these poems are available elsewhere):

The Heron - Paul Farley: 

' struggles
into its wings then soars sunwards and throws
its huge overcoat across the earth.'

(though it's the cursing man image in this poem that I like most)

Rhu Mor - Norman MacCaig

'Gannets fall like the heads of tridents...'

My Crow - Raymond Carver

'...This was just a crow.
That never fit in anywhere in its life,
or did anything worth mentioning....'

From other pamphlets/collections:

Hedging - Hamish Whyte, from Now the Robin  (Happenstance) - a lovely little book, that made me smile.

Sparrows - Amanda Huggins, from The Collective Nouns for Birds (Maytree) - a beautiful book, that made me cry.

Wader Flock,Thornham Harbour and Pluvialis - Matt Merritt, from hydrodaktulopsychicharmonica (Nine Arches)

Starlings and West Sussex Interlude - Matt Merritt, from The Elephant Tests (Nine Arches)

- almost impossible to narrow it down even to two poems from each of these wonderful collections

I would also recommend Diversifly, Poetry and Art on Britain's Urban Birds,  ed Nadia Kingsley (Fair Acre)

I appreciate that these are just a few of many, many poems, and I'd be very happy to hear some of your favourites.

Wednesday, 25 March 2020

Bird Poetry Quiz

A distraction for me, and hopefully for you. Open to all. Extracts from poems. One point for the bird, one for the poet. There are no prizes - sorry.

1. Art thou the bird whom Man loves best

2. It was the Rainbow gave thee birth

3.Their feathers roughed and ruffling, white on white

4. Our most hardened crooks are sincerely shocked by your nesting habits

5. Thou scorner of the ground!

6. Burglar Alarm of the undergrowth

7. I love to see these chimney sweeps sail by

8. Mostly it is a pale face hovering in the afterdraught of the spirit

9. High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing

10. Warbl'st at eve, when all the woods are still

Good luck! Answers below

1. Robin - Wordsworth
2. Kingfisher - W H Davies
3. Whooper Swan - Heaney
4. Cuckoo - Auden
5. Skylark - Shelley
6. Wren - Ted Hughes
7. Carrion Crow - Clare
8. Barn Owl - R S Thomas
9. Kestrel - G M Hopkins
10. Nightingale - Milton 

How did you get on?

Friday, 28 February 2020

A surprising reaction to the poems of John Betjeman

The Poetry Group I started online is now meeting face to face. It appears that some of our computers won't talk to each other and even when they do, all the messages get mixed up together and it's difficult to follow them. Also, many people prefer talking in person. So we're now meeting as and when as many members as possible are available, in a venue which is nice, if a little busy, which everyone can get to. It's a start.

We had started online with MacNeice - this largely elicited a negative response - form over content, too difficult... My attempts to argue for MacNeice were unsuccessful. People said they wanted something 'lighter' (undefined), and one or two people suggested John Betjeman, so we thought we'd give that a try.

In our comfortable-ish new meeting place, we started our discussion of Betjeman's poems. It did not go as I expected. Each person had chosen a poem to talk about. What happened was that people talked about really personal and often moving experiences, none of them happy ones. When we talked more, people recognised that their responses were not always really related to the poems themselves, and that their experiences had very much coloured their view of the poems. 

It highlighted incredibly strongly how much we bring ourselves to every poem we read - the things that have happened in our lives, our beliefs, everything. This is not a revelation, of course, but I did find it surprising that this kind of discussion was in response to the poems of Betjeman, as did the others when I mentioned it. Everyone said they were happy with the meeting though, and felt that poetry had got them thinking, so that feels right and we'll see how it progresses.

We are moving onto Robert Frost next - I'm really not sure what to expect from that now!

Monday, 6 January 2020


I decided to start the new Sheppey poetry group by looking at Louis MacNeice. I looked to see what was available online to ensure all the group could find something and then went through things I had at home. In the back of my Selected Poems I found a scrap of paper on which I'd scrawled the following. I don't know when and I don't know why. It made me smile - and it certainly isn't going anywhere else, so I thought I'd share it here. And yes, I know it should come with sincere apologies to MacNeice, whose poetry I have grown up with and loved.


I've got it sussed completely
It didn't take that long;
I've learnt the words and gaps between
It was me that wrote the song.
I've sat at the feet of gurus
And ignored them oh so sweetly;
I did the work, it wasn't luck,
I got it all completely.

I found my joy completely
I found it in myself;
I do not fear the winter's void
Or the onset of ill health.
Each year just brings more promise
Packaged oh so neatly,
The presents come out of the blue
And satisfy completely.

The rainbow arcs completely
The way is always clear;
For sure there are diversions
But the path is always near.
I'm sure this is the way to go
The road will rise to meet me
In truth I know this is the way
That's right for me completely. 

Slightly random punctuation, capitalisation as per the original, form not Entirely as per. Poetry group totally unaware of its existence as yet. Probably for the best.

Friday, 27 December 2019


When you get a poem (or any piece of work) accepted for publication it is great to have someone congratulating you on the achievement. Even better is when someone actually takes the time to say something positive about the work itself, and I wish that happened more - for everyone, I mean, not just for me. Sometimes on Twitter people will share poems or other pieces of work they have found and liked and I do that as much as I can (with the constant fear of sounding ingratiating) - because I know how important it is for me to feel I've connected with someone, and if I've found something I really like I want others to find it too.The poetry community is, on the whole, very supportive, but I wish it were broader.

For me, the most positive experience this year has been the feedback on my self-published book 'You can see it from here' - combining photos and words (poems) about Sheppey, where I live. People have actually taken the trouble to approach me, or tweet me, to tell me they liked it, or were moved by those words, or loved that particular picture. I appreciate that so much.

It sounds really needy when I say it like that - but we want that feedback, don't we (well, good feedback obviously)? Otherwise, why put it out there in the first place? We need to connect, to feel we've been seen, that someone out there gets it/gets you.

It was also really useful for me to get some professional feedback on my work this year.  I learnt a lot about what was working, what wasn't working and why. That kind of constructive criticism (and I stress constructive) is so important. Because otherwise, if you're just submitting poems, all you're usually getting is accepted/rejected. An individual response on that basis is subjective. Of course it is. We all like different things, we see things differently, or maybe it wasn't the right fit, or maybe the poem is just terrible, but you rarely get to know, so you can't learn. I do, however, appreciate that it would be near impossible for poetry publishers to give that kind of feedback. That's why we need others.

I want to share poems and ideas about poetry with more people. I have just set up a new group on Sheppey (under the auspices of the Isle of Sheppey U3A) to look at poetry in new ways. It will be online, at least initially, and starts in the New Year. The members of the group do not call themselves poets, but all are interested in poetry - reading it, discussing it, writing it, looking at new ways of exploring it. I hope we can share and learn and enjoy new ideas and poetry.

Monday, 14 October 2019

Some thoughts on loss

It's always fascinating to me how one thing can spark off another - how you read one thing and it makes you think of another and then that leads to another and so on...

In the latest issue of Poetry Review there's an article by Rebecca Goss which tells her story of how the loss of her baby daughter led to her poetry collection and how the work itself and her performing the poetry affected her grieving process. It's a moving and striking account. It made me think about my own poetry, and also about the effect of making your poetry public.

A great deal of what I write is about loss - the loss of people I've loved, the loss of relationships, health, the life I used to have, the anticipation of loss, the inevitability of it. It's a common enough theme for poets, but handled in so many different ways - and with different effects. When the poem is no longer just in front of you, but out in the world, what effect does it have on others, and how does that affect you?

I scribbled in the margins of the article: 'sometimes you need someone to put an arm round your shoulder and take you home' - and I thought poetry can sometimes give you that.

Helen Dunmore's last poems, written when she had received her terminal diagnosis, reminded me of someone close to me who, while having to deal with her own pain and her feelings about her imminent death, managed to extend an arm to others to help them deal with it too.

I thought too, of this, from 'The Hours' by Michael Cunningham:

'There's just this for consolation: an hour here or there where our lives seem, against all odds and expectations, to burst open and give us everything we've ever imagined...' 

(I should, perhaps, say that the rest of that particular passage is a lot less positive.)

In Dunmore's poems, and In those of so many others - Mary Oliver, Elaine Feinstein, Hugo Williams - to just randomly name a few I have been reading recently - the pain is not hidden, the loss is not denied, but there are moments that are conjured  - those 'hours' where life seems to burst open - that offer consolation.

These may seem, or even be, little things - which reminded me in turn of a line I remembered from a poem from long ago :

'A man whose life was made of little things that mattered.'

I then spent ages trying to find the poem. It's actually from 'These are facts' by Ruthven Todd - and is an incredibly powerful poem - angry, and not at all designed to console. But the line had stuck in my head (actually for over 40 years, as the book I finally found it in was one I had at university), because of the importance of those 'little things'.

One other thought I had. We do the best we can to deal with loss, and indeed to deal with life. And at the end, we want people to know that, I think - to know we did our best.

Elaine Feinstein: 'forgive me, I did all I could'.

Sorry if that's not totally coherent - just a few sparks perhaps.

Wednesday, 14 August 2019

Poetry plus

A quick round-up of the very best of my recent discoveries, in no particular order (some tweeted about previously):

Don't Read Poetry - A Book About How to Read Poems - Stephanie Burt (Basic Books)
A really readable approach to what poems can mean for different people at different times - and it has some brilliant examples.

Spotting Capybaras in the Work of Marc Chagall - Simon Williams (Indigo Dreams Publishing)
A little gem - clever, funny - an absolute joy.
'I see you want to call attention.
Should you not do that with the poems?
You could put a crocodile in the last line.'

Giraffe - Bryony Littlefair (Seren)
Funny, desperately moving - stunningly good.
'When you feel better, you will not always be happy, but when happiness does come, it will be long-legged, sun-dappled: a giraffe.'

Pamper me to Hell and Back - Hera Lindsay Bird (Smith/Doorstep)
Because it's just brilliant.
'A poem should never be a tourniquet
You have to let the blood go where it wants'

Hugo Williams - I Knew The Bride (Faber & Faber)
Dry humour and subtle anguish.The sequence of poems 'From the Dialysis Ward' is particularly memorable and moving.

Common People - An Anthology of Working-class Writers -  ed Kit de Waal (Unbound)
Writing at its best. Helped me to reconnect with my childhood and all the questions and doubts I've had since. 'Yes, it's tough, we've had enough. And we are coming.'

A magazine that I've just discovered that I think is well worth a look is Confluence - A Literary Magazine from Wordsmithery. Wonderful poetry, prose and illustration.

I also wanted to mention Bird Therapy - Joe Harkness (Unbound). This is an honest account of how one man found a way towards mental wellbeing through birdwatching. It seems to be selling well and has endorsements from respected people and organisations. There is an ironic twist though: the pressures of publicity and some responses to his book, through Twitter, etc, have not helped his mental health, even though there is a huge amount of support for him and the book. 

Even when we feel at our best, we are still vulnerable. Poetry can help. So can birdwatching. Just be wary of social media.