Poem of the North 3.3

There are, of course, many ways of dealing with the breaks after the 8th and 10th lines imposed by the 8-2-1 brief given to Poem of the North contributors, but I think there’s a case to be made that prolific poet, biographer, and founder of Rack Press,  Nicholas Murray has used the form as well as any. The shifts in tone from the light (but sharply focussed) nostalgia of the first eight lines to the darker self-knowledge of the couplet, and the sardonic twist of the final short line, are finely-tuned and compelling.

I don’t think I realised until writing about it now, how closely my own piece shadows (however palely) the form and tone of Nicholas’s. I’ve struggled before, as I think I’ve mentioned, with how to render the cadences and linguistic differences from standard English of regional varieties without it seeming inadvertantly comic, but here I felt liberated to ‘go for it’ because it’s intentionally exaggerated, although hopefully with a jagged (or jiggered?) undertow.

I was tempted to provide a glossary, but hopefully there’s no real need. If there are any dialect words or meanings you’re unsure of – well, these days you can look them up online more-or-less like any other word (though be careful to read past the first paragraph of the Wikipedia entry for ‘teacake’ if you wind up there). You may want to check on back-to-backs, though. The narrator of Jigger seems to me to have voiced a common misconception that they are terraces with their back yards opposite each other across an alley/jigger/ginnel/jennel and so on (take your regional pick). If I’ve misunderstood, well never mind – it’s provided a bit of grist to my poetic mill.

We kicked on doors an’ all on mischief neight,
burrit were ginnels that we scarpered dewn
at ‘ends o’ terraces. Back-to-backs ‘ad long sin’
bin teared dewn, but they din’t have nor yards
any road up: they cou’n’t ‘ave, cos, well —
they were back-to-back, tha daft ‘aporth!
An’ did yer all scoff spice while yer were laikin’,
‘before havin’ butties in ‘teacakes yer mums were bakin’?

Nay. O’ course yer din’t. But that’s not right.
A rose, by any other name, and all of that.

Our word games turn  so easily     to spite.

(I suspect I may be the daft ‘aporth, though, with a ‘volta’ whose ambition o’er reaches itself and falls on the other side…

Poem of the North 3.2

Like the previous one, several of my poems have drawn inspiration and ideas from the ‘My North’ biographical notes that accompany each poem, as well as the poem itself.

My 3.2 reverts to the short form of my first few responses, written before I was posting them separately, and before this had become my main creative endeavour, for the time being. Of its four lines, almost all of the first two are lifted directly from Cora Greenhill’s ‘My North’, and its title (it is the only piece I have given a title) is a simple transposition of Cora’s Moving North:

Yet, despite its highly derivative nature and its brevity, this is one of the pieces that I am most satisfied with. I like its sound in my mouth (I finished the sequence I read at Spoken Word Saturday the other week with this). Cora’s poem articulates beautifully the sense of ‘dawning trust’, of ‘thaw’ after a turbulent emotional winter, and a sense of ‘home’ not doing what it should.  I haven’t had quite the same experience, thankfully, but we have had the feeling of going back to the place where we lived with a sense that really we were leaving, not returning, home.

Moving West

Our slow learning: that a place can hold you
down. That love can last as long as the string
that carries stretch and slack from hand to kite.
That snow hides from the sea. That here is home.

(But now we are here, and here, I hope, to stay…


Poem of the North 3.1

It occurred to me that my problem of what to call my poems instead of ‘responses’ might have been dealt with way back in 1.8, which Charley Reay titled ‘Ekphrasis’, but it seems to be used to refer to poems responding to visual art rather than other poems

Anyway, my whatever-it-is to Mike Farren‘s commended poem, Second Avenue, Heaton, 1992 feels in part like a kind of ekphrasis of the image from Bede’s Ecclesiatical History that Mike alludes to towards the end of his poem. I love his use of that image of his wife as the lighted mead hall (in other words, I think, this whole life) to his sparrow, and in my poem I linked it to the biblical image of God remembering the sparrows as he numbers the hairs on our head. And then spoiled it by, for some reason, imagining Bede in a Newcastle Wetherspoons encountering a trapped pigeon rather than a fleeting sparrow. That third stanza needs more work. Or culling.

Mike implies that he met his wife in 1992. In 1992, I married mine.

I see that sparrow dim
as it dips, but know
its hidden flight.

Which number is on that brown bird’s back?
Which hair of my head
would it choose to pluck?

I see Bede watch a pigeon in The Five Swans
panicking against the skylight,
shitting in fear in his mead.

Still, I look back at 1992
not as a flicker against the night
but as the light clicked on by you.

(Amid the fluttering, and flapping, there is a constant…

Poem of the North 2.10

Tom Weir‘s poem, like the previous one from Fiona Bennett, addresses a lost loved one, but although both skewer their memory to a particular place, Tom’s takes a more oblique approach that fixes his subject less through physical than psychological detail. This is a poem that defies direct approach, but ramifies and resonates.

The starting point for my response was Tom’s referring in his ‘My North‘ biographical sketch to taking the train to Whitby with his aunty, the subject of his poem.

I honestly can’t remember now if we first arrived in Whitby by car, and that I was struck by seeing the train station next to a large car-park by the water front, or whether we arrived by train and I was surprised to see such a large car park next to the station by the water front. Either way, it was the aunty’s train pulling into the car park that stuck with me, but set me off on a journey not out to the sea and skies but into Whitby’s past and some of its (oblique and tenuous) connections to mine. That swerve of direction led me also to invert the 821:

And, because you are not a god:

Whale bones
grieve for the harbour.

And Barlick lads
lie in Rohilla.
And St. Mary
chastens the abbey.
And Caedmon
dreams heaven’s ward.
And your train pulls in
next to the car park.

(I didn’t know until now that the Dewey Decimal subject classification subject 128 is ‘Philosophy & psychology: Humankind’, which seems fitting…

Proms Poem – Five Elegrams

I entered the BBC Proms Poetry Competition. I wasn’t a winner or runner-up, so you can’t read my poem here , where you will find the winning entries.  You’ll have to read it below instead (click the button at the top right to pop the document out into a new window if it’s too small. I needed to embed it as a PDF as the formatting was messed up otherwise):

The proms performance that inspired it was Five Telegrams by Anna Meredith. Here it is:

Poem of the North 2.9


One of the great pleasures of following the Poem of the North project so closely is discovering a wealth of poets and related websites and other projects that I haven’t previously encountered. The 9th poem in Canto 2 is by Fiona Lesley Bennett who is the founder of a lovely podcast called The Poetry Exchange each episode of which is a conversation with someone who chooses a single poem that they regard as a ‘friend’. I’ve already caught up with a number of previous episodes of the podcast, including one that introduced me to a Greek poet, C P Cavafy, whom I’d not heard of before, and then discovered that the latest publication from Ian Parks (writer of poem 2.8 – see last blog entry) is a collection of translations of Cavafy’s poems. I’m really enjoying following at least some of the interwoven threads that are emerging for me from following this project.

I found Fiona’s poem so moving, compelling and personal that it seemed to require a directly personal response:

But I shied from that response initially, and focussed first on an acutely observed detail from Fiona’s poem: “water is swollen above the weir before it breaks
/ into a gush of white foam.” This is one of those things that seems to me distinctive of literary language: that it can give shape meaning and form to something previously observed but not heeded. As soon as I read the phrase ‘swollen above the weir’ I knew exactly the visual impression referred to. Having adopted that image for the start of my own piece, I headed downstream, but never made it to the sea. Although Fiona’s title, with its reference to the River Dee and her autobiographical note referring to Chester fed me a line back to my recurring theme of the relationship between my northern English heritage and adoption of Wales as my home, that’s not where her poem took me.

I don’t know the back-story to the poem, beyond Fiona’s dedication: ‘in memory of Michael J Bennett’, but the description of the painter’s observation of the scene not, as might be expected, concentrating on the seeing eye, but on the forceful physicality, the corporeality, of the hands and arms with force and tension framing “the view you never came back to paint” renders the subject vivid, solid, alive: more so than is the scene itself which, despite still being there when he is no longer, is, poignantly – devastatingly – in the two line volta couplet  “like an X-ray held to the light”, and those two lines have a syntactically and semantically ambiguous relationship to the final, isolated, line. I could unpack the varied ramifications of that for hours; for pages. But I won’t. If you haven’t already, please read it. I love that poem, and my response feels like a pale and partial echo, at best. When I included it in my reading at the last Spoken Word Saturday, I changed the last line slightly:

What happens, then, when we hem nature in?

Water swells, appearing still, its force
waiting to be a gushing foss, won’t hold.
It charges to the sea, heedless of wheels
we use to steal a fraction of its power,
and locks give sedentary boats the chance
to cheat the headlong tumble. We have our
reasons to choose the mild over the wild.

But something else: those hands that seem a frame,
held there as if to choose what to exclude
what cannot, because infinite, be borne,
are concentrating a creative force;
the scene remains unpainted, but was thought,
and you, because you knew him, sought and found
what’s hemmed and stitched by poets’ and painters’ hands.

‘Stitched’ fitted better rhythmically, and, on reflection, its two facets: the surface meaning of joining, making and mending, but with senses of piercing, and stabbing pain, lying etymologically alongside seems more fitting in any case.

(While it might not have yielded my most coherent piece, this has been one of my most rewarding poetry exchanges of the project so far…

Poem of the North 2.8

Some of my responses (I don’t quite feel comfortable with that word in this context, but I can’t think what I should use instead) have had me quibbling (pedantically? creatively? pedagogically? – you decide) with the factual content of the stimulus poem. The fact that even people with no interest in poetry are familiar with the term ‘poetic licence’ shows that most of us don’t expect literal veracity from poetry. It may well be a handicap, but I’m a little uncomfortable personally with playing fast and loose with the facts, even in verse, unless it’s clear (at least to me) that I’m doing so. So I was pleased that this piece got a seal of approval from a former student of mine , an RGS Fellow and former Young Geography Teacher of the Year, for its impeccable Geographical content:

I can’t be sure which river IanParks had in mind in his poem, but his ‘spur’ and lighthouse reminded me of Spurn Head at the mouth of the Humber, fed by the Ouse, and, in turn of the crumbling East Coast that also haunts my early three-line response to poem 1.2:

Like a shook sheet, the landscape ruffles to the sea.
Crust clings to its edges;
startling offcumdens stand against its retreat.

Ian’s use of the term ‘insidious’ for the ‘soft…lowlands of the south’ is telling, and a flippant echo for me is standing on the Popside at Belle Vue watching my half-adopted Doncaster playing the likes of Mansfield or Chesterfield with a well-known Santa-hatted character yelling “Yer soft southern Jessies’ at a small huddle of opposing fans. But the soft southern lowlands included, for me, Ian’s home patch of Doncaster. Well, he’s actually from Mexborough, to be fair, which seems to me to have a bit more grit about it. ‘Insidious’ can mean ‘deceitful’, operating in ‘a seemingly harmless way but actually with grave effect.’ I moved to Doncaster thinking, “well it’s Yorkshire; part of my north”, but somehow it never quite felt like it, despite holding me there for over two decades. As originally written, my piece had an extra, isolated line at the end.

Our North Ouses to its edges.
Hard rain sloughs the land.
Rivers arterial pump from its heart
to where the sea’s muscle takes the silt
blasting it back
scouring Flamborough’s flank
and the soft till of Holderness.
Named as if their founders knew their fate,
Withernsea, Kilnsea, Skipsea
tilt and tumble
building a sliver that Spurns.

Solid-seeming, the land softens with its folk.


Ian’s poem finished with a lighthouse. A lighthouse is meant to warn you off: Ian’s “held [him] in its arms.”

(Perhaps he knows how I felt.

Poem of the North 2.7


I think I have mentioned elsewhere that I’m a little surprised and humbled at the company I’m keeping as a contributor to the Poem of the North. Most of the other poets are well-established, with a litany of publication credits in magazines, competition wins and often pamphlets or full collections already published.

Sarah James (a.k.a. S.A.Leavesley) appears to be one of the most prolific of the contributors so far, and although I’ve enjoyed most of the poems that have been published so far, Sarah’s is among my favourites both to read, and as a prompt for my own response which I really enjoyed writing. I think that has at least something to do with the multi-faceted echoes created by my responding to a poem that itself is responding to a Dylan Thomas piece (which, as it happens, was brought out of the shadows by my poetry MA tutor, Prof. John Goodby) which appears to have itself been a response to a series of pictures, published in Lilliput magazine, which I have a minor obsession about as the source of the photograph that inspired  the early logo of Cocteau Twins.

I included this as part of a sequence I put together to read at Spoken Word Saturday last weekend and made a couple of edits that I felt made it sound a little better when read aloud:

They offer me their pictures: his, chilled dreams,
eight splinters of ice in the heart; and hers,
a liquid twilit drowning wave; and his,
owl-tongues in aspic, dust on the North Star;
and hers, a languid now she knows as then.
Hear those words: drip, idle, stroll, linger —
wasting, stretching, holding-off; they ooze
sweet flesh, tacky with lightness and regret.

The shredded peach hides hardness: a stone, a seed.
Those ice shards do their work, then melt away.

Pipistrelles roost. Only children hear what they say.


I’m still not sure which ending I prefer, although both carry the point that pipistrelle calls are at a frequency that most adults cannot hear, but children can. Which makes me think of all the other things which can’t complete the trite slogan ‘It’s never too late to…’

(And also, rhyme, or not to rhyme?

Poem of the North 2.6

Rachel Bower, born in Bradford (not far from where I was brought up) and now living in Sheffield (where I was married), writes in her ‘My North’ biographical piece that accompanies all the poems in the project, about hearing Tony Harrison (one of my early poetic heroes) and realising that “that poetry could not only be read in a Yorkshire accent, like mine, but could actually be written for a Northern voice.”

So, my response settled comfortably into the cadence and grammar of the accent and dialect I grew up with (this is what I sounded like when I was six), though I’ve never been quite comfortable with how to render the glottal stop without it seeming merely comic.  But, to my native voice was added a vocabulary I was hitherto largely unfamiliar with: that of the names of apple varieties. One of the many joys of interacting so closely with the Poem of the North project has been following references and allusions to discover new things (and sometimes, admittedly, to let my arrant pedantry get the better of me – hence the reference to the shoemaker’s garden being in Keswick).

I reckon Evie were a northern lass, goading Adam
on to nick that blessed-cursed fruit that caused the fall.
I can just see her now, a Yorkshire Beauty (aren’t all archetypes
by definition spliced from our rootstock?) strapping on a shoe
(by Greenup, made in Keswick, as it goes)
to stamp on th’snake, and spit at it the pips,
shaking the earth, and all that would be in it, to its core:
an act of gravity rewriting (so it’s said) heaven’s laws.

The fall of Flower of Kent was watched by Newton
sat in Grantham, in a garden. That gave him pause:

The apple draws the earth, as well as earth the apple draws.

This was also the first piece where I found myself following the 8-2-1 form. Maybe the closeness I felt to the voice of the original, or maybe the gravity thematically at the heart of my response pulled me in that direction.

(Is Grantham in the North? Well, compared with Kent, it is…

Poem of the North 2.5

Maria Isakova-Bennett‘s poem Welcome to Liverpool evokes the Liverpool skyline with a painterly eye and a masterful use of space on the page to guide the ear. When it came to my response, my perspective again, as it was in my own contribution (Canto 1.10), was from the past, and from the west. The voice of my poem reminds us that a possible etymology of Liverpool (though admittedly elver-pool seems perhaps more widely accepted) is the Welsh ‘Llif pwll’ (flooded pool), and that just across the Mersey is Wallasey – Wealas eya – island of the ‘welsh’ (foreigners/strangers). Those of us from ‘The North’ (which, silently, means the north of England) often see ourselves and our place as ignored by the Southern economic and cultural power base of these islands, but in doing so, can forget how easily we nevertheless assume an Anglo-centrism that marginalises those parts of Britain that are not England.

With your back to Wallasey
you’re looking at Llifpwll
with Wales’ eye.
Does that skyline rise to greet you
between yawning sea and sky,
or diminish to a sliver
swallowed up by air and brine?

Those small strokes:
are they cwrwgl boats
ghosting in the ferries’ wake?
Is that stippled wireless tower
a beacon, or a brand?
Are those sacred places sharing out
the Hope they stand along,
or are they smothering our tongue?

Your accent, speaking Saesneg,
is much the same as by the Dee,
but no-one asks the Scouser if they’re Welsh,
and few ask me.

(Now that I live in Wales, perhaps, when I talk about revisiting my roots I should say not that I’m ‘going back North’ but that I’m ‘going back East’?