Me and the Stones go back a long way


Did you watch the Stones at Glastonbury last night ? They were superb, of course, pumping out the old favourites – Satisfaction” , Brown Sugar, “ You can’t always get what you want”- and there was Mick ,dainty as a ballerina , clocking up the miles as he covered the huge stage. He looked as though he was dancing over hot coals. And Keef- bandana, pot belly- firing off those wonderful guitar riffs….

Me and the Stones go back a long way.Nearly fifty years as a matter of fact. I was a student at the time- just going into a student cafe- when I bumped into Mick on the way out.
“Sorry, mate” he said.
“ Don’t worry, mush, I replied.
I told you. Me and Mick. Real close.

Most people would say that last night was the very pinnacle of their career. But I wonder…were they a bit overshadowed by the size of it all …the lights, the pyrotechnics… ? Were they- and this is hard to say….trying a bit too hard ? If you’ve reached the pinnacle of your career, then the only way is down, and the Stones, let’s face it, are not in the full flush of youth. I believe their total ages add up to 278.

It wasn’t the end of the beginning. It was the beginning of the end.

There have been other pointers too. Last week I went to the 50th anniversary of my university. In many ways it was great. We wandered the grounds of a beautiful Elizabethan manor, sipping champagne, recognising people, remembering what it was like to be young and full of fizz in 1963. But when it came to toasting absentees, there were a lot of names to remember. Before I set out to the celebration, I had a phone call to say that a dear friend, the best man at my marriage, had been taken seriously ill.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not being morbid, but I’m not being Pollyanna-ish either. I doubt the Stones will be back in Glastonbury in ten years time. Mick holding the mike in one hand and his Zimmerframe in the other ? Charlie Watts connected to the mains so that he can still drum ? I don’t think so.

And what about my generation, the 1963 crowd ? We have a lot more life behind us than
we have ahead.

As Mick said, “ You can’t always get what you want/ But if you try, you might find you get what you need.”

I’ll try for that.

How do YOU write a poem…no….honestly..


I wanted to set myself very specific brief for the poem below.It was going to be about an old man remembering his first love affair. I wanted it to be technically tight, as far as rhyme and rhythm are concerned. But I didn’t want it to sound stilted. And I wanted to use as few words as possible to tell the story- the silences had to contribute to the finished article.

Well. Here it is

Old love

Street light slanted through the half pulled curtain.
She took my hand and put it to her breast.
“It’s you I want.” She smiled. “ As for the rest…”

That she should want me then…to be so certain..

Yes. I have memories which sting me yet
even as they console- the way she purred
against my neck when we were done…. No word

seems apt…so long ago..I can’t forget…..

Well…what do you think ? How far did I succeed ? How long did it take to write?
Ten days.About twenty odd hours.

Writing ” Old love” brought all sorts of practical writing questions to mind, and I thought they might be of some interest to other people. Let me know how relevant they are to your writing style.

Do you have a clear idea about what you’re going to write about before you start ?
Or do you just take a pen for a walk ?

Do you have the first line in your head before you begin ? Or any other line ?

Can see a planned journey from beginning to end ? Or do you allow yourself to wander down golden pathways ?

Do you use a pen and paper or a computer ? What are the advantages and disadvantages of each mode of writing. Anyone dictate a poem ?

5. Do you usually finish a poem in one session, or do you write it over a period of time ?

6. How much do you revise your poem ? Do you just give it a tweak and move on to the next ? Or do you go over it line by line, word by word, silence by silence ? And if you do, how long does it take you ? Hours ? Days ? Weeks ?

7.Who do you write for ? Yourself ? Another specific person ? An audience in general ?

8. Raymond Carver said that every poem needs an audience. It’s like a kiss. You can’t do it on your own. Was he right ?

9.Which is more important- structure ? Or subject ? If you choose quite a strict format in terms of rhyme and rhythm, does this make writing the poem harder ? Or easier ?

10.Who are your poetic role models ? Do you consciously attempt to imitate them ?


” A soul, as ’twere in chains”


You’re back ! And so am I ! Last time I promised to look at one Marvell poem so we could get an idea of how he works. Here it is- or rather here the first half is. There’s so much meat in here it would take at least one post after this one to sort out out- or even more. And anyway, you can work it out for yourselves. Here we go-


Soul.   O, Who shall from this dungeon raise
A soul enslaved so many ways ?
With bolts of bones, that fettered stands
In feet, and manacled in hands ;
Here blinded with an eye, and there
Deaf with the drumming of an ear ;
A soul hung up, as ’twere, in chains
Of nerves, and arteries, and veins ;
Tortured, besides each other part,
In a vain head, and double heart ? 

O, who shall me deliver whole,
From bonds of this tyrannic soul ?
Which, stretched upright, impales me so
That mine own precipice I go ;
And warms and moves this needless frame,
(A fever could but do the same),
And, wanting where its spite to try,
Has made me live to let me die
A body that could never rest,
Since this ill spirit it possessed. 

The clue is in the title- it’s a dialogue between the body- everything which is physical- and the soul- everything about us which isn’t physical- memories, emotions, spirit. If you’re an aetheist, by the way, think of the soul as consciousness- that will work just as well.

It’s about imprisonment- the soul imprisoned in the body; the body forced to walk the earth by a demanding soul.

The first stanza is an anatomy. The soul is “ fettered stands with feet” and “ manacled in hands.” Feet and hands give us the freedom to move around, to act in the world. But for the soul , they are the chains which tie it down. It’s a powerful, paradoxical image. Note the alliteration of “ feet” and “ fetters, by the way.

Look too at: “A soul hung up, as ’twere, in chains
Of nerves, and arteries, and veins “

This is a torture scene, isn’t it ? The soul, trapped within the limitations of the human body, hangs like a tormented criminal.

Life, for the soul, is an agony of limitation.

For the body, life is a state of slavery. The tyrannic soul forces the body into a life it does not want. It would be happier returning to the earth from whence it came, but it is forced to walk upright- “mine own precipice I go.”

The body never asked for life, and now it is alive- all it has to look forward to is death.

Technically, you can’t fault this poem… the paradoxes, the rhyme scheme, the alliteration. It’s as rich as fruit cake. But what do you take away from the poem ? I think Marvell is saying this. Life is not a steady state- things change, there are internal, emotional conflicts.

If you want to read more Andrew Marvell- then it’s widely available all over the internet.
He may have been writing 450 years ago…but he still has plenty to say to us.

” a tough reasonableness…..”


Well, he looks tough enough, doesn’t he ? Meet Andrew Marvell (1621-78) poet, politician and sometime private tutor. We’re going to look at some of his work in a moment, but let me fill in some of his biographical details.

He was the son of a clergyman ( also called Andrew Marvell) and was born in East Yorkshire. It’s a lovely area, rolling wolds leading to the coast. But it can be pretty bleak at times. East Yorkshiremen are a tough breed and young Andrew was no different.

After university, and the obligatory grand tour round Europe, he came back to England at the time of the Civil War. This was a long and bloody conflict between Parliament and King Charles 1, lasting nearly ten years. As in most civil conflicts, there were zealots at each end of the spectrum, but most people were simply unsure about who, if anyone to support.

For a while Andrew dallied with the Royalist side- he even considered becoming a Catholic- but in the end he chose to be private secretary to Sir Thomas Fairfax, one of the Parliamentarian generals.

Part of his duties was to act his private tutor to Fairfax’s daughter, Ann. The Fairfaxes had a house at Nun Appleton- a village outside York, and it was there that Marvell wrote ” Upon Nun Appleton House”- now you might think that he would write about the war- but he chose to write about the things which do not change, rather than the things that it do. It’s a poem about fields and woodlands, rivers and fishing. It’s a kind of oasis in the middle of all the fighting.

After the war – in which he had spent writing propaganda- he became a Member of Parliament for Hull. And he was a successful politician too.

His poems divide neatly into the public and the private.” A Horatian Ode” is a poem about Cromwell, but it’s no panegyric. Marvell writes in a finely shaded, allusive style, giving Charles 1 as much credit as Oliver Cromwell”

His private poetry is wild, fantastical and rude. ” To His Coy Mistress” is a seduction poem- immensely clever, not too crude, but crude enough to remind you what he’s writing about.

In ” Bermudas” he creates a lush, exotic jungle, a paradise for the Puritan exiles who come ashore.

But… damn ! I’ve run out of words ! I have this rule that no blog piece should be longer than 450 words…and I’m there already !

I’ll have to do a Part 2. Next time I want to tell you about his cleverest, most intriguing poem…… back, as they say, after the break.

Treat with extreme caution

I write just like HG Wells. Honest. I’ve got the certificate here:

I write like
H. G. Wells

I Write Like. Analyze your writing!

I also write exactly like Kurt Vonnegut, L.Frank Baum ( who he ?) and Dan Brown ! Dan Brown ! Just think of all those dreadful books I’m going to write! Just think of the money!

Of course, it’s another algorithm. A not-very-good algorithm. You paste in your story and …bingo ! You get a very flattering reply. Your writing is always like some giant of literature and never the football reporter on ” The Daily Filth.”

The Poetry Assessor has some minimal value. This one is just a bit of fun.

I put this piece in just to see what InstaCritic made of it.

You might recognise it.

Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York;
And all the clouds that lour’d upon our house
In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.
Now are our brows bound with victorious wreaths;
Our bruised arms hung up for monuments;
Our stern alarums changed to merry meetings,
Our dreadful marches to delightful measures.
Grim-visaged war hath smooth’d his wrinkled front;
And now, instead of mounting barded steeds
To fright the souls of fearful adversaries,
He capers nimbly in a lady’s chamber
To the lascivious pleasing of a lute.

Could it, by any chance, be William Shakespeare ? Absolutely not. The speech you have just read was written by ….drumroll maestro,please…

I write like
James Joyce

I Write Like. Analyze your writing!

Who would have thunk it, eh ?

If you want to have a look for yourself, then the site is here. Fun for all the family

The day I beat Sylvia Plath at writing poetry


Literary criticism is over. Finito. No more explanations of ” The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner”
(it’s about a bird, stupid.) No more tortured dissections of Gerard Manley-Hopkins.

Because literary criticism is now objective.

I came across this on the Poetry Society website the other day.

It is, of course, an algorithm. It’s an attempt to place any piece of poetry on a spectrum which has “professional” at one end and “ amateur” at the other. Copy your poem and paste it into the box, press the button and….you’ve got a score. Anything plus is in the professional range, anything in the minus,logically, is at the amateur end.

Obviously, there are problems- distinguishing professional from amateur being the first. The authors of this piece of research took a selection of modern, unpublished works and called them “ amateur” – the professional collection came from a selection of poetry magazines.

All the poems chosen were modern, so you can’t try out a chunk of “ Hamlet” to see how Shakespeare scored.

And what criteria did they set ? Rhyme and rhythm were important and, interestingly, perfect rhyme came out as an amateur indicator.

Complexity of vocabulary was important- the nature of nouns used – abstract or concrete. Concrete vocabulary was a professional trait; amateurs took refuge in woolly abstracts. The number of letters and syllables was also significant, as was the “ ease of definition “ – I’m not sure what that means but I suspect they’re talking about the use of ambiguity, double meaning.

Sylvia Plath’s “ Crossing the Water” scored 2.53.

I had to have a go, didn’t I ? This is the poem I copied into the text box


Shifting light
luminous opaque
everything provisional-
the hills tentative
the valley bottoms
indistinct uncertain
still settling into shape

Then,immersed in sunlight,
the day develops,
fixes the eye.
Stone walls grow
a coat of green velvet;
purple moors shake themselves
into a quilt, and in the village
a church spire’s shadow points
the way to sunset and the west.

And the score ? Only 3.9. Not bad eh ?

Of course the whole thing is nothing more than a bit of fun. Sylvia Plath is ten times the poet I am- and poetry, thank goodness, will always be intensely personal, passionate and elusive.


Have a go yourself and let me know how you get on.

“Couples” by Michael Stewart


What makes a good poem ? What makes you read beyond the first line ?
A few things stand out.

Brevity, for a start. By and large the long-form narrative poem is dead ( Reading “Paradise Lost” ? Maybe you should get out a bit more.) Poetry is shrinking and the haiku is king.

Balance. A good poem is a deeply felt, personal response to experience. On the other hand, it must strike a universal chord with the reader. It must make the reader empathise, or at least respond to the ideas on the page.

It’s a difficult balance to strike.

A good poem is accessible. If it’s Eliot’s “ The Waste Land “( with added notes !) then I’m not interested. Pretention and self obsession are real turn-offs. But it mustn’t be trite, or cliche-ridden either. There’s nothing more depressing than feel-good poetry.

Another difficult balancing act.

How does the poem relate to other poems ?

Now I’d never thought of this until I read “Couples “ by Michael Stewart ( pub: Valley Press £6.00.) This is a short collection of 24 poems, placed in twelve pairs that face each other across the page. The two halves of each couple are complementary – “ Cam” and “ Shaft”, “ Hook” and “ Clasp.” It’s a brilliant idea and it works well- your feelings about one poem are filtered through your feelings for the other.

Some of the pairings are quite formal- “Him” and “Her” explore differing attitudes to sex. For Him
‘He only felt loved
after sex sex for him
was his lover giving herself to him..”

And for Her:
“she would only have
sex if she felt loved
when he came to her”

Balanced, clever and formal- but watch out for the sting in the tail, which I won’t ruin for you.

Michael Stewart is really sharp with relevant detail- a week’s menus, favourite films, the imprint of a lover’s lipstick on a tissue- it all adds up to an intricate account of the things that keep people together, whether they are “standing next to each other/ two sheep in a field” or “two moving parts/rubbing together/until they stick.”

This collection ticks all the boxes I set out at the beginning – it’s concise, accessible, and resonant.

And I loved it.

You can buy “ Couples” here: