Sunday, 22 May 2022

One of the things I wanted to say

Bird with a damaged wing 

We should help it. No, it's alright. Look, it's still moving.

In the early days, when MS was new to me, it was like a game of what comes next. I didn't know, nor did the experts, and the world at large was oblivious.

I was on a bus and my leg seized up. I was at the open door, couldn't move, passengers tutting, driver shouting, and I could have said I have MS, please help.

But I didn't. I threw myself forward and fell onto the pavement. No-one tried to help me, likely thinking I was drunk. It passed. I got up, limped off.

But can it fly? I don't know. Does it have to?

First published in Under the Radar, Nine Arches Press

Friday, 20 May 2022

Poetry and care

I'm not sure what I want to say - or if I'm conflating two distinct issues here - but I know I'm angry about so many things at the moment. One of those things is the lack of respect for, understanding of, and funding of social care. 

I worked in the voluntary sector in social care for many years, largely with older people and (informal) carers. Loss was an underlying, if not manifest, feature of the lives of those I worked with - loss of independence, health, dignity, and loss of self and/or a loved one. Some dealt with this calmly, positively even, some didn't. Most struggled to express how they were feeling, or kept quiet about it, but at some point, broke down in anger or tears. 

There was a lot of 'I used to be able to... but now I can't.'

Some people write poems about their experiences of disability, illness, loss of independence, or about their experiences of caring for and/or losing someone. Why? Because they want to express or understand how they're feeling? Because they want to be heard and understood? As a memorial to a loved one, or to the part of themselves they've lost? As a way of fighting back? As a way of grieving? As a way of saying 'I used to be... but now I'm not.'? 

We struggle with expressing how we feel - in life and in poetry. As a disabled, sick or cared for person, there may be a balancing act we try to sustain between wanting to still appear independent, positive, in control, and allowing ourselves to look vulnerable and say how bad we sometimes feel.

As a carer, the balancing act may be between wanting to express that we care and love, and suppressing the frustration, resentment, guilt, we may sometimes feel.

There is a pressure to be positive, even when going through hell. Because positive people fight on, put on a brave face, smile through the tears, and are inspirational. If you say the pain is unbearable, the loss of dignity is destroying you, that you can't cope any more, then you're at risk of being seen as whining, weak... 

I'm not suggesting that positivity is bad - it can provide comfort and hope to many, but it can, unintentionally, mask some very harsh realities and lessen people's perception that there are a very large number of people who really need help.

There are acclaimed poets who write about these things, and others - often carers - who make no claim to be poets, but write their feelings in poetic form - and both can help others to understand in their own way.

Where am I going with this? Can poetry make a difference? Can the personal show a broader truth? Can the personal be political? Not if poets and occasional writers of poems are not allowed to express how they're feeling because it's either seen as whinging or as not good poetry. If people who write poetry succumb to the pressures to be constantly positive, how will anyone ever know their truth? How will people know change is needed?

Because people need to know what it's like for people with disabilities and loss of independence and dignity (and all the conditions that require care), because if they don't we will continue to show the total lack of regard for them and for social care in this country which we are currently displaying. Social care is by no means the only issue that needs addressing - poverty, health care, mental health... are equally in need of attention. And poetry is obviously not the only, or the most important, way to change things, but it could be part of it. If we let it.

Friday, 6 May 2022


 (after Billy Collins)

I think the poem speaks for itself. But for clarity:

When I say 'I',

I do not mean me.

Except when I do.

Or when I didn't,

but it turned out

it was me anyway.

Oh, and whether 'I' is me or not

does not mean any of the things

in the poem actually happened,

or that if they did, that they happened to me,

or to anyone in particular.

Though they probably did.

So, for the record:

'I' may not be telling the truth

and this will be deliberate.

This may be for the purposes

of a greater truth,

or that I just don't want you to know the truth.

Anyway, I think the poem should be clear now.

It's called 'Me'.

Friday, 29 April 2022

The dangers of specifics and specifically the specifics of nature in poetry

Let us take, for example:

I wandered lonely as a cloud

That floats on high o'er vales and hills,

When all at once I saw a crowd,

A host, of golden daffodils...

This poem immediately demands the reader think about specifics - specifically specific ways of doing things, and daffodils.

What are the problems with that? 

Firstly, it prevents the reader exploring their own ideas of how, for example, to wander in a lonely manner, or what they might see when doing so.

If one instead said:

I wandered lonely as a wandering lonely thing


A host of things you could see a host of

then the reader's imagination is allowed to run free inserting his or her own images as applicable to their own experience.

Even better:

I did something in the way I like doing it


I could see what I wanted.

thus not restricting them to wandering, being lonely, or seeing too many things at once.

Secondly, the nature question. These nature specifics - and they appear in an awful lot of poems - also exclude those readers who do not have access to 'nature'.

The city dweller is lucky if they've ever seen a vale or hill, and their knowledge of daffodils is likely to be either of that circle of yellow planted by the council on the concrete roundabout where the turn-off for Tesco is, or the drooping yellow things they've taken out of the green bucket outside the petrol station as a last minute present for Aunty Nora. These daffs are not dancing in the breeze - they're gasping for air. 

So what is this poem supposed to mean to these people?

To sum up: such specifics limit the imagination of the reader and are also exclusive.

While I'm at it, may I suggest that poets are a bit too obsessed with loneliness, solitude, lying on couches, and being vacant and pensive. They should get out there, get some mates, and get a life. And if they can't be bothered to get off the couch (ok, fair enough), at least watch something decent on Netflix.

Sunday, 10 April 2022


You thought that you would try the villanelle.

The sonnet form just didn't work for you.

The villanelle has caught you in its spell.

Your free form was... too free, so what the hell,

You thought that you would really turn the screw.

You thought that you would try the villanelle.

You confined yourself to your small writing cell.

You thought that it might take a day or two.

The villanelle has caught you in its spell.

You thought, at first, that it was going well.

You thought it couldn't be that hard to do.

You thought that you would try the villanelle.

The police were called because of the bad smell.

All your efforts had just made you start to stew.

The villanelle has caught you in its spell.

I'm afraid that it's a sorry tale I tell.

Dylan Thomas, Auden, Bishop, Plath, they knew.

You thought that you would try the villanelle.

But the villanelle's a bugger to do well.

Tuesday, 5 April 2022


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Monday, 28 March 2022

Beowulf today

I studied Beowulf at Leeds University over 40 years ago under Tom Shippey (worth looking up if you don't know who he is). Or, to be completely honest, I was young and nervous and sat watching this brilliant, unnerving, sexy man trying to enthuse us, while I tried to hide, comprehending little, and therefore missing a great chance to really appreciate this work - probably. Apart from Shippey himself, what I remember is struggling to understand Old English and hoping that we'd be given a clue as to what was going to come up in the exams. Which is not a great way to remember Beowulf.

When it first came out, I read Seamus Heaney's Beowulf, but probably wasn't in the right place for it at the time. I've just re-read it and have finally found myself in the right place to appreciate it. I'm still not in a position to argue over the merits of reading this 'poetic translation' over reading the original. Heaney covers this in his introduction (as well as the experience of students studying it at university - I was not alone.)

What I have done this time is loved the language and the story, and seen how the best works transcend time, and in the following passage, I think you'll see what I mean:

'A Geat woman too sang out in grief;

with hair bound up, she unburdened herself

of her worst fears, a wild litany

of nightmare and lament: her nation invaded,

enemies on the rampage, bodies in piles,

slavery and abasement. Heaven swallowed the smoke.'