The Dog Walking Poet 2

Do you like to read a poem for yourself ? Or do you prefer to hear it spoken ? I ask that because there has been a recent revival in spoken word poetry. Maybe it stems from rap music. I must admit that I have a problem with rap – maybe I’m too old to appreciate it, but I do think that sometimes it glorifies rhyme and rhythm at the expense of meaning. But at least it’s there.

When I was growing up spoken poetry was dull, prim and exclusive. I remember being made to listen to TS Eliot reading “ The Wasteland “ – he read it in the portentous, droning way which was the fashion in those days. Most poets are bad readers- they need helping out. And yet I can remember listening to Ted Hughes read “ Crow”. It was late at night, with the wind howling and the rain lashing at the windows- and he scared the living daylights out of me. And no-one can beat Richard Burton in that wonderful opening speech of “ Under Milk Wood.”

All poetry was originally spoken word.. It was a way of embodying experience, of shaping the past. Before a battle, the bards of each party would meet and agree a place where they could watch the fight- they would note who showed the most courage, who fight with the greatest vigour- and at the end – they would work it all up into an agreed version, to be spoken in the mead hall or before the next battle. It wasn’t a good idea to upset the bards- they held your reputation in their hearts
Printing changed everything. It altered the very nature of poetry. What was a flourishing, social art became personal. You could read a poem for yourself and by yourself. Rather than being simply an audience, the reader became a partner in the creation of a poem. You could work it out for yourself. You could relate it to your own experience. Thomas Wyatt was the first Elizabethan poet to make poetry directly personal- his work is taut, allusive- meant at the most for a very small audience. The same can be said of Shakespeare’s sonnets, Donne’s love poetry, George Herbert’s quiet dissection of his own soul.

And poetry as good as this is being written now, you’ll be glad to hear. If you haven’t read Clive James poetry- then that’s a gap you’ve just got to fill. And James Nash’s “ Some Things Matter” – a wonderful sequence of sonnets- is simply a masterpiece. It’s moving and human and it really does go straight to the heart.

It’s horses for courses, isn’t it. The main thing is that poetry is alive and well and getting stronger by the day.

Ah…the dog… here he is…you ndon’t believe there is a dog, do you ? You think it’s a cheap way of bringing this to an end… wait till next time… and he will make an appearance.

The Dog Walking Poet

I’ve been writing poetry for about sixty years, and I’m just starting to get the hang of it. Why do it ? All sorts of reasons, really. First, it was more fun than football. I never liked football. Terminally short sighted and with two left feet, I was useless at it. On the other hand, I was good with words- I could kick them around the page and, from time to time, I achieved a goal.

Writing poetry was a way of fixing the present. Time moves on, you’re old before you realise it – and a poem can fix one moment, with all its complexity, like a fly in amber.I’ve still got poems I wrote forty years ago – they’re dreadful – but they’re honest.

I hate to say that poetry is a journey – a cliche about as fresh as that tub of last week’s yoghourt hiding at the back of the fridge – but sometimes cliches are true. When I start a poem I know exactly where I want to end up – and I never get there. I end up in a place I never dreamed of. Someone is leaning over my shoulder, whispering “ No, Ian…this way..can’t you see it..”

Poetry’s greatest virtue is that it’s short – unless you’re John Milton…or Byron…or Homer…ok…poetry is usually short. I like the idea of cramming ten gallons into a pint pot. It intrigues me. If a novel is a Venti Cappucino with cream, sprinkles and chocolate sauce, then a poem is a triple shot of bitter espresso.

I like the technical challenges of poetry writing. Anyone can write a novel. Even Morissey. Have you seen the reviews though…No – being a poet means heavy duty thinking, balancing meaning against structure, making one word do three jobs, agonising over a comma. It strains your brain.

It all takes time. Was it UA Fanthorpe, or Stevie Smith who said that a poem took 74 hours to finish. How did she get to such a precise number, I wonder. I know that most poems I write take about a fortnight. Around the half way mark I’m ready to quit – it’s so tempting to drop it into the “ Scrap” folder and melt it down later. But if I keep going, there’s a lovely moment when you know that it will work. The golden city is in view. All I have to do is walk through the gates. It’s a great moment.

And of course, poetry writing is therapy. It’s a chance to dig down, get the bad stuff out, look at it, and move on. Good poetry is an account of internal weather.

Talking of weather- it has stopped raining, and the dog is demanding his walk round the lake. Next time I shall be talking about the printed…and the spoken word.

Until then – goodbye

You can always listen to a spoken version of this piece here:



Somewhere, a long way,
the sea- a second horizon line.

Here, a blank sheet of sand.
The ground gives, blanching at each step.

Later it will be a palimpsest
of stories, a circle scrabbled
by eager children;
a dog’s paws printed shallower
and wider as it runs;
serpentining bike tracks and
gulls’ webs pressed like leaves
into the sand.

This is not a new poem. I wrote it five or six years ago when we were visiting family in the Isle of Man. It’s not quite the poem I hoped for and I post it here because I want to use it as a starting point for something else.
Let’s see what we can salvage.
I don’t like the start. It’s all too vague. Too vanilla.
I do like “ The ground gives, blanching at each step” – there’s movement here. That works.
I’m not sure about “palimpsest) ( it’s a manuscript which has been scribbled over and re-used) Shall I keep it ? Maybe

The rest of the poem is straight description – stories and pictures drawn from the marks on the sand. It works…a bit…but it doesn’t go deep enough for me. Standing on the tideline is a curious existence. You’re standing where fish swam a few hours before. It’s not one place.It’s two places. And tomorrow morning there will be no scrabbles or bike tracks in the sand…the tideline only exists for now…

So. I’ve got some ideas. Add to them if you like. I’ll go and punt a few sentences about.

If you want to hear the poem read then go here : … on #SoundCloud

The Poets

I have a friend who writes poetry.” Do you find it a struggle ?” I said, ” You know,…getting all the words in the right places ?”
He smiled. ” It just flows down my arm, into the pen, and onto the paper.”

I wanted to strangle him.

I’ve always found writing poetry difficult – which is why I’m still trying to do it,I suppose. I hand write poetry.Fountain pen. At the moment it’s a Conklin Durograph. I like the shiny line of ink it gives. It encourages me.I get something which might be a first line. I go away, have a cup of tea, and come back ten minutes later to see if I still like it. I don’t. It reads like baby drool. I start again.

It is a slow process but slowly…very slowly…something starts to peep out. It takes days. One took over a month.I cover sheets of A4 pad with scribbles, question marks, slashings out until…it’s there. And I’m usually shocked. This isn’t what I intended at all. This…thing…has crawled out of some dark corner in my brain. I read it again and… works…I quite like it, actually.

But this time it was different. Two days ago I had a line in my head – ” This man could give a voice to stones” – I had no idea what it meant. Maybe I thought the man was a magician, a wizard. Then a line of Ted Hughes hovered- ” this house has been at sea all night.” And I was off. It was about poets.

The next verse was easier. Ted did external. This had to be about inner weather- and I thought of Elizabeth Browning and Sylvia Plath. I liked the idea of poetry as a pulse handed from poet to reader.

I think the last verse is about poetry as subversion.Nothing is certain except that nothing is certain. So suck it up. Or something like that.

So there you are. And here it is.

The poets

This man could give a voice to stones,
cause trees to shriek in a December gale,
see through solid flesh down to the bone,
make houses creak, and ancient timbers fail.

This woman annotates her pulsing blood
and makes it roar again in others’ veins.
She pleads the possibility of good
and, dying, leaves that rhythm in our brains.

These are the poets, vilified and cursed,
who wear their souls turned inside out
and lead us, struggling, to face the worst-
where faith is sin, the only virtue doubt.

Holy Trinity churchyard

Weathered stone, and twists
of barley sugar sunlight;
arthritic trees and flaking table tombs.
The evening turns to amber.

Empty now. The visitors have left –
families who’ve come to look at
something old, then ease their aching feet-
foreign students eager to move on.

All gone.
The residents appear among their canted gravestones:
Frances Fisher, died of cholera 1839
Li…l Ingram inf..nt 1680
Mrs Cath..ine Stanley 87 d 1729
after ingesting a small pebble….

And others wait in shadows, watch
darkness fall from the air
on the last place they belonged to.

Roman oil lamp

An awkward, graceless, hand made thing,
pot bellied, with a spout
and glazed in muddy brown.

It was a gift.
Who from, I can’t recall.
I kept it on my desk for years.

I’d pick it up sometimes
and feel the grittiness
that lay beneath the glaze,
marvel at the clumsy spout,
all caked with soot,
where once the flame had flickered.

I gave it away to one
whose life was shadowed then
and cold.
An amulet against the dark
two hundred decades old.

On reticence

A group of gap-year tourists climb someone’s holy mountain, then strip off and wee on it. A female journalist starts a campaign to have a woman on the new five pound note ( hardly a wild rebellious act) and is made the butt of obscene, misogynist abuse. The result of an international football match provokes floods of tears and hysteria from some of the fans. Novak Djokovic almost reduces one of the ball girls to tears because she’s late with a towel.

Let’s deal with our Novak first. He’s immensely rich, the height of a tall building, and he tears lumps off some kid who will be paid the princely sum of £160 for the whole Wimbledon fortnight.
This looks like self indulgent bullying to me. What bugs me even more is what he said when confronted with his loutish behaviour.
“ I’m definitely going to try to apologise to her, if I’ve done anything wrong.”
I’ve never seen so many conditionals in one sentence “ try” to apologise ? How hard is it Novak ? “ If I’ve done anything wrong.” – If ? You mean you don’t know ? You don’t realise you acted like a psychotic five year old ?

Not nice.

Nor was the weeping and wailing when England was defeated in the Womens’ World Cup. It was a football match, not the massacre of tourists on a Tunisian beach. Save your weeping and wailing for something like that.
“ Ah,” they say but it’s so emotional ! “ That’s not emotion,it’s self indulgent mawkishness. It’s wallowing in icky sentimentality.

And the crazies who threatened to rape the lady who wanted Jane Austen ( or some other uppity woman) on the five pound note ? They worry me, they really do. I never realised that misogyny could run so deep and so dirty..

And finally the mountain widdlers. They didn’t know it was a holy mountain, of course they didn’t. But maybe they should have. Maybe they should have recognised that there are bits of the world which don’t belong to them, but to someone else, and shown a bit more respect.How would would they feel if someone pissed on their front room carpet ?

Freedom of speech and action is a wonderful thing. Never have the boundaries been so relaxed. We should have those freedoms, certainly, but they bring with them a responsibility to use them with thought and consideration.

A bit more reticence, a bit of quiet restraint, could work wonders in our daily lives

College Green. 6.30pm. Urban fox

Bone white stone bleeds
shadow on the grass.The air dulls.
Outside the coffee shop, a girl
is stacking chairs. A scooter putters by.
The tourists have gone back to their hotels.

A shifting of the light. A slur
of movement, and he’s there,
trotting past the sundial.

No Reynard in a red coat.

Ash grey, sandy flanks
all smudged with mud,
his eyes ink black, cautious.

Rat-back snapper, chicken slasher,
worm chewer, sparrow splitter,
knocker down of bins,
lurking in the shadows
by the pub’s back door.

He stops there in the sunlight,
eyes me over.
Resolving I am neither threat
nor promise, trots away
down College Street and into Minster Yard.

Bedern. Midnight geese

A place of alleyways
and turnings back,
each blocked
with drifts of shadow
black as soot.

Moonlight streams between
tall cliffs of brick,
paints windows slick
with silver.

Caught in the city’s underglow
a dozen greylags flicker overhead,
no higher than the housetops.
They call into the night –
a husky, booming note
like a blown reed.