I got rhythm


I got rhythm.
So has everybody. It’s built into us. We’re tuned to the rhythm of light and dark, the beating of our hearts, the in-and-out of our breathing.So it’s no surprise that rhythm is a crucial tool in the poet’s toolbox. I use that simile quite deliberately, because writing a poem is making something just as much as someone making a chair, or a carving, or a painting. In fact the early Scots poets were called “ Makars” for that very reason.

OK – what does this miracle tool do, then ? It gives shape to the poem. By and large prose is a continual stream of thought, structured into sentences and paragraphs. But poetry needs rhythm to mark out a territory, indicate a change of mood.

There are plenty of other tools of course- rhyme ( obviously) imagery ( metaphor and simile) and all those tricksy little things you can do with the sound of words -onomatopoea, for instance. ( I only put that in to show you that I know how to spell it.) But we’re not going to deal with all that stuff in this post. Maybe later.

We British poets write a five stress line.

Hang on a minute. Look at that again.

We British poets write a five stress line.

Do you get it ? A line of ten syllables with five of them stressed.

The posh name for this is iambic pentameter (“pent” as in five- yes ?)

French poetry tends to add a couple of syllables and an extra beat. Actually some people say that we have the five stresses line because that’s about the length of a single breath. Maybe the French breathe more deeply. But I digress.

We use iambic pentameter all the time. Every day.

I’m going to the shops to buy some bread.
My bike has broken and I need some help.
My sister’s got the measles ! Fetch the nurse!
Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York.

Haha ! you weren’t expecting Shakespeare in there, were you ?

In fact Shakespeare is the King of the iambic pentameter. He writes prose- sure- but always for a reason. And his iambics don’t plod a long like a trotting horse. He riffs on the idea of the five stress line; he plays around with the pause (caesura) in the middle. And his audience loved it. They didn’t think his plays were written in a posh inaccessible way- they recognised that he wrote in their ( and our) daily speech. And the five stress line was a real help to the actor too- easy to learn, flexible- you could play around with pauses, and yet come back to the beat at the end of a line.

And yet…and yet…there’s no law saying you’ve got to write in iambic pentameter. You can play around with rhythm. Try changing the rhythm when you change the mood. Try a four stress line ( I find it clumpy, but give it a go)- or challenge the French at their own game and roll out might alexandrines.

That’s about it for now- on rhythm. But I’m going to stick one of my poems at the bottom here. The rhythm is largely three stresses- but it isn’t regular. But there are other things going on which we will discuss some other time.

Only the heart

Sky so cold it could
crack like an eggshell,
clatter to the ground
in shards.

Earth so hard it hurts,
ridged and rutted,
treacherous, bruising.

Air so sharp,so full
of pins,it stings the throat,
turns to steam
before your face.

Only the heart ,so old and full of winters,

still burns for love.

Come on, baby- do the Andrew Motion

Dylan Thomas
was full of promas
but he couldn’t resist
getting pissed.

Ted Hughes
had eccentric views.
He wrote about owls
and bowels.

Robert Frost
got dreadfully lost.
They found him, forsaken,
on The Road not Taken.

Mad Lord Byron
was an ace with the iron.
In his shirt, when appareled,
he looked like Childe Harold.

Cheese lovers

John Milton
was fond of Stilton,
But Percy Byshe Shelley
loved anything smelly.

The sound of silence

Turn off the tv.

Go on. Do it now. Turn off the radio. Turn off the central heating- just for a few minutes.
Can you still hear the outside world ? Children shouting ? Traffic in the street below ?
Pull the curtains across and try to muffle the noise.

Sit down for a while. What can you hear ? At first you’ll strain to hear noises from outside- anything. Then you’ll start to hear your body- your rumbling tummy, the steady thud of your hear, the in-out whistling of your breath.And when you listen beyond that you will hear…nothing…silence…or as near silence as you can get. What is it like ? Is it comforting ? Frightening ?

No two silences are ever alike.

I think that we have become frightened of silence. There is music everywhere- in shops,in cafes and restaurants, on the phone, in airports. It is as though we have to move from one island of noise to another. Notice the number of people in town who are plugged into their MP3 players. Are they music buffs, desperate to listen to their favourite composer every minute of the day ? Or are they frightened of listening to their own thoughts ? Or are they afraid of having to actually speak to someone ?

This comfort blanket of noise is quite a recent thing-a hundred years ago most people didn’t have access to recorded sound, or the radio. It was noisy when they went to work- the clacking of typewriters, the ear shattering roar of machinery, but the background of their private lives was human speech. There was music- yes- but it was a special treat, and it was always live. I think that maybe music has lost some of its power because it is so instantly available.

No two silences are ever alike.

Silence is more than an absence of noise. It is what happens in the gaps between your words and the gaps between your thoughts. Listen to this piece about silence by the French writer Jean Anouilh:

“Every kind of stillness. The hush when the executioner’s axe goes up at the end of the last act. The unbreathable silence when the two lovers, their hearts bared, their bodies naked, stand for the first time, face to face in the darkened room, afraid to stir. The silence inside you when the roaring crowd acclaims the winner- so that you think of a film without a soundtrack…and you, the victor, alone in the desert of your silence.”

Silence. Makes you think, doesn’t it ?

That’s the point.


Just another word
for amputation.
Fleshed of leaves
the hedge gapes open
like a charnel house-
clawed fingers, knuckles, elbow joints
fused in a mass of spikes and barbs.

An eye for cramped and crooked growth,
long handled cutters and a pair of gloves
will see you straight.
Now pull the twigs aside.
See the main stems- long bones, twisted
tight as cables in the bitter winter.
Pick those thinner than your wrist
and slice them through. The stumps may bleed
a sticky sap, but this will clot and heal
the gash.
Now drag your cuttings out
and burn them.

Thin as lace and filled with air, the hedge
will fade from sight
until the warm days come,
when overnight it grows a lush green pelt.
It smells of sunshine.
Its dappled heart is loud with sparrows.

That cinquaine feeling

Writing is a tough row to hoe, and don’t let anyone tell you different. Perhaps the worst thing is when you’ve started a poem and somehow can’t finish it. You try all the usual tricks…leave it in your desk drawer for a couple of days, switch it round so that the first stanza becomes the last…and it still hasn’t come out right. It doesn’t taste right in your mouth when you read it aloud.

You’re probably writing it too soon. The poem hasn’t quite taken shape in your sub-conscious. The best thing to do is leave it in the desk drawer, or park it in the “ Bits and Pieces” folder on your computer. Never throw anything out. You’ll be able to cannibalise what you’ve got and use it in something you’re going to write in a couple of months time.

There is a way of avoiding that situation, though – warm-ups. You need to get your writing muscles into shape with a few practice runs. I used to write a couple of haiku to get the my brain in gear- they were dreadful haiku- but they did the job.

Now I think I’ve found something even better- cinquaines. Forgive me if you’ve been writing cinquaines for years and know all about them- but for the novices who don’t- try this link:


You can see they come in various flavours, but the 2,4,6,8,2 structure remains roughly the same.

You’re writing a small, concentrated poem which has to follow a set of rules- and yet have some impact when you’ve finished it. It’s a challenge- but a limited one. You have to play meaning off syllable or word numbers and squeeze out a good last line. Write a couple of cinquaines before you start your next big project and they’ll make the road a whole lot easier.

Here are some of mine. Not great poetry – more like circuit training for the mind. They might amuse you. Try them yourself- let me know any interesting results.


Bald heads
bull necks swelling guts tatts
like inflated babies they bawl
for beer


as a mirror.
The air softens, blurs. Mist
shadows its edge, clouds its surface
like breath.

Wild Geese

Wing beats
measure my dreams;
ink black eyes meet mine.
The water shivers as they pass.

Getting on

My bones
ache each morning.
Fuddled,slow, I stumble
grunting, farting, still drunk with sleep.

John Clare – the poems


You there ? Good. Last time I gave you a quick outline of Clare’s life and the kind of time he lived in- the class system,lack of mass communication etc.

It’s time to have a look at one of his poems.

The wild duck startles like a sudden thought,
And heron slow as if it might be caught.
The flopping crows on weary wings go by
And grey beard jackdaws noising as they fly.
The crowds of starnels whizz and hurry by,
And darken like a clod the evening sky.
The larks like thunder rise and suthy round,
Then drop and nestle in the stubble ground.
The wild swan hurries hight and noises loud
With white neck peering to the evening clowd.
The weary rooks to distant woods are gone.
With lengths of tail the magpie winnows on
To neighbouring tree, and leaves the distant crow
While small birds nestle in the edge below.

It’s a sonnet- you might have noticed. And it’s about birds.I don’t know how good you are on bird recognition- but can you tell the difference between a jackdaw and a crow ? Have you ever seen a heron ? If, like me, you live in the town, you might have a problem.

Clare lived in the country and knew wild birds the way a town boy can recognise motor cars. He knew the way they flew, what they lived on, and this poem shows off his knowledge and his ability to differentiate them.

The answer lies in the verbs he uses – “startles” “flopping” “noising” “whizz” ducks fly as sudden as thought; crows flop through the air.

But it’s not just verbs.
“The weary rooks to distant woods have gone”
Eight words paint a picture- an autumn evening, the rooks flapping away in the dying light.
I’m not sure about the magpies “winnowing” – that usually applies to sorting the wheat from the chaff- I think maybe he’s describing the way the magpies thread their way through the trees.

And what about the larks who “thunder”- their song echoes down from a height, and then they”suthy” (flutter) back to the stubbly ground. Literally a rise and fall.

Fourteen lines- and ten birds named and described in detail- and notice, he doesn’t tell you what they look like- he tells you how they move..
Not bad for a frail, lonely farm boy.

If you’ve found this piece interesting, then get hold of some John Clare. He’s disconcertingly simple at first reading- but there’s a lot beneath the surface.

I think John Clare deserves a place on the Desert Island..don’t you ?

Walter, Stanley and Big George

Every dog comes with an exclusive membership- you get to join the National Dogwalkers Union. You see, walking a dog is a very social occupation. You talk to the dog, of course, pointing out features of historical interest, and preventing it from going belly deep in mud – but you meet other dogs- and dogwalkers, as well.

Digby and I walk round the lake two or three times a day. It’s  about a mile round, with trees and bushes – I’ll tell you all about it another time. And because we tend to go out at the same time every day, we meet the regulars who go out at the same time as us.

There is an etiquette about dog on dog meetings. If the other owner offers your dog a treat, then you have to reciprocate. Then you have a chat. It’s an opportunity to talk about the weather, how bad the bus service is, and the cricket ( I live in Yorkshire- you can always talk about the cricket). The dogs, meanwhile, are sniffing each other and exchanging views on dogfood, cats and how to deal with them, and that interesting smell on the gate post of Number 11.

And the odd thing is, you get to know the other dogs as well as  the owners. You learn their names. Now our Digby is called Digby, partly after Dan Dare’s sidekick in the Eagle comic, and partly because he…well…he looks like a Digby. See below.


It’s a comforting, old fashioned name…and I thought it was a bit out of the ordinary. I imagined that people would call their dogs Spike, or Bruiser, or Caesar- maybe Satan. Not so.

Digby’s best mate is a terrier called Bill Smith. You can’t get more down to earth than that .

We know a tiny Yorkshire terrier called Ellie, who never ventures out unless she’s wearing a coat- sensible tweed in the winter and a sort of frilly red thing in the summer. Then there’s Bertie- originally a terrier and now a furry mobile  coffee table. Dennis is a fluffy Bedlington terrier, while Trevor is a spaniel. Now you may notice a pattern developing here- these are all old fashioned names, Walter and Stanley, Big  George the Staffie and Sam the labrador- these are names that go way back beyond the sixties. Their names sound characters from a Post war Ealing comedy about plucky Cockneys in the blitz.

There are two exceptions- Merlin the Collie is a walking tribute to the groomer’s art. He flows along in silky majesty, every hair in place. But that’s a good name for him. He looks like a Merlin. Or maybe a Stewart Grainger . And then there’s Darcy Bussell the little Jack Russell. Darcy is tiny and amazingly clean- box fresh is the phrase which springs to mind. She dashes up to everyone she meets and greets them with theatrical squeaks of delight – Mwah ! ! Mwah ! so good to see you darling !

I’ve been thinking about this- and maybe the naming of dogs hearkens back to an older, more predictable age. Maybe we name our dogs in remembrance of the old times, and the old virtues, and  in the hope of keeping memories alive.

What’s your dog called ? And how did it come by its name ? I’f be interested to hear.