As a theme for presenting a keynote address to a local poetry group this summer I chose to look back over sixty years of my own making of poems. The result was something like what follows and the presentation of a small book of Selected Poems which is available free to anybody who might choose to ask for it.

Why do people write poems?

I don’t really know why other people write poems (I’d have to ask them – & sometimes do) but I’m fairly well aware why I often craft words down the middle of a page instead of sprawling right across it in undifferentiated chunks of prose. From the very look of them, ‘poems’ seem like discrete, isolated symbols or images of something, framed on a page. Conceptually, these things they call ‘poems’ serve as tags for certain elements of existence; they act as markers for the way you are; they map passageways towards and away from events that represent the essence of Being; they are little philosophical trials (or trails), assaults on the randomness of things, incomplete, just like their more ragged physical appearance suggests.

Poems are obviously visually different from linear sequences of prose which come in hard, justified but unforgiving, blocks where thinking appears to be cast into some sort of what you could call ‘logical development’; there is a scrupulous illogic about a poem: it’s a quick spontaneous sally into the inscrutable; it lasts as long as it lasts and no more; rounded, it admits of no development in itself.

There’s a radical disconnect between prose and poetry that, like so many other presuppositions and patterns of thinking, has been imposed on us; it began round about 1660, so we are led to believe, when Charles II asked the ‘Royal Society of London for the Promotion of Natural Knowledge’ to have a look at the way language might be used to describe the results of scientific explorations with more precision. Thomas Sprat called for a kind of writing that was supposedly exact, not decorated with the elaborate metaphors and odd allusions beloved of poets. The Royal Society wanted to shorten the endless sentences devised by earlier writers to express a complex of meaning. He and his like were perhaps the first advocates of sound-bites – notionally clear & complete statements about an issue designed for those who are unable or unwilling to spend time and energy reading more than a couple of lines, who don’t get the significance of colons & semi-colons and qualificatory clauses to mirror a true reality. The mental effect is systemic: by reverse, living in a sound-bite culture modifies the mind/brain, makes brains in general less willing or able to pick up & respond to complexity when they can indulge themselves in simple platitudes and seeming facts, mantras & slogans, and deal in eminently quotable quotes.

Thus began that ‘dissociation of sensibility’ TSEliot describes in his essay ‘The Metaphysical Poets’. It’s not, he says

‘…a simple difference of degree between poets. It is something which had happened to the mind of England… [it marks] the difference between the intellectual poet and the reflective poet. Tennyson and Browning are poets, and they think; but they do not feel their thought as immediately as the odour of a rose. A thought to Donne was an experience; it modified his sensibility. When a poet’s mind is perfectly equipped for its work, it is constantly amalgamating disparate experience; the ordinary person’s experience is chaotic, irregular, fragmentary. The latter falls in love, or reads Spinoza, and these two experiences have nothing to do with each other, or with the noise of the typewriter or the smell of cooking; in the mind of the poet these experiences are always forming new wholes. …The poets of the seventeenth century… possessed a mechanism of sensibility which could devour any kind of experience… [But] a dissociation of sensibility set in, from which we have never recovered… Poets revolted against the ratiocinative, the descriptive; they thought & felt by fits, unbalanced; they reflected…’

Eliot says that poets are exhorted to look into their heart in order to write but he insists that ‘…Donne looked into a good deal more than the heart. One must look into the cerebral cortex, the nervous system and the digestive tract…’

I realise now that coming to terms with Eliot’s resounding words in the 1960’s, I felt them on my pulse and imbibed the intellectual notions, coming to a grasp and emotional-intellectual understanding of them when studying Donne’s poems themselves. Thereafter this approach generalised itself to the whole of life. Specifically, now I’d say that my reaction both to Eliot’s words and to poems in general is a combinative uprush using all Centres, the whole brain, neocortex, limbic and reptile rough & ready distinctions, thought, feeling & action.

The metaphysical poets were ‘constantly amalgamating disparate experience’, expressing their thoughts through the experience of feeling; later poets did not unite their thoughts with their emotive experiences and therefore expressed thought separately from feeling. This hindered the development of poetry, according to Eliot. Nowadays, pop poets like John Hegarty and Roger McGough live solely in their limbic/reptile areas and poetry has become a bit of a joke.

I was thinking about all this when I addressed the task of making a Selected Poems 1954-2014 – sixty years of poetic effort during which I’ve often thought of myself as one of Walt Whitman’s heirs – as are we all, of course! He holds forth thus:-


Poets to come! orators, singers, musicians to come
not to-day is to justify me and answer what I am for,
but you, a new brood, native, athletic, continental,
greater than before known,
arouse! For you must justify me.
I myself but write one or two indicative words for the future,
I but advance a moment only to wheel
and hurry back in the darkness.
I am a man who, sauntering along without fully stopping, turns
a casual look upon you and then averts his face,
leaving it to you to prove and define it,
expecting the main things from you.

Back in the arrogance of adolescence, the story I told myself was that I could be part of the ‘new brood’, quite ‘athletic’ then, responding to ‘a casual look’, ‘proving’ and ‘defining’ what Walt started off in me. I’ve kept this rusty conceit going for sixty years!

The important thing is that Whitman’s sensibility was fully associated: no radical distinction for him between thought & feeling & action; an act was a thought and entailed feeling – start anywhere in the system you care to; craft poems out of anything that hits the senses and do what you will with it.

Doing Something with Words

So, for example, as a matter of felt & thought experience, I have become aware over time that when I’m reading I’m not just taking in words but I feel their passage through me and experience an urgent need to do something with them. I like to think that I go some way towards ‘amalgamating disparate experience’ and making it into something else. So this poem occurred to me while reading a novel recently:-

the Elephant’s Journey

by José Saramago starts off
with the King of Portugal
suddenly becoming obsessed
with the idea that the present they gave
to Cousin Maximilian of Austria
on the occasion of his wedding four years ago
(in 1547) was a bit stingy; his queen suggests
that to make things up
they pass on one of their own unwanted
gifts – Solomon an elephant

the King deems this a good idea
but is suddenly struck by an attack of guilt
about his sad neglect of both elephant
and mahout whose clothes have by now
more or less fallen off him
which the King will discover
when he visits the elephant enclosure

his secretary (portrayed as a bit of a wag) opines
that this is a good idea: “it will be a poetic act…”

the King asks what that might be; the secretary
says “no one knows my lord –
we only recognise it when it happens…”


I think the secretary of the King of Portugal is completely right: you have to recognise a ‘poetic act’ for what it is; it needs a certain cast of mind and you just have to grab it when it stares you in the face. Never mind what others might say; never mind the standardised models, the published masterpieces; just do what you feel impelled to do.

And you need a ‘mechanism of sensibility which [can] devour any kind of experience’ – the whole of experience is subject matter for poetry; you don’t have to be at all precious about it; poems come ultimately from one’s interior being which can suddenly somehow recognise the ‘poetic act’.

Being a Poet

I never attach the label ‘poet’ to myself any more than I respond to the idea of being a ‘composer’ or ‘artist’ – I write ‘poems’, make ‘music’, paint and make constructions. The word ‘poet’ comes from the Greek ποιεω meaning ‘I make’ or ‘I do’: so I make poems – it’s something I do and have done for 60 years 1954 – 2014. I make musical objects, I divide up space with line & colour to make things to look at; it’s all simply pattern-making. Poems, visual patterns & harmonies (including considerable disharmonies when it seems appropriate) just happen to be things that I do pretty much off the cuff. In terms of Bateson’s Logical Levels, it’s less about identity, more about action and involvement, looking at what you could do differently rather than capitulating to what you can already do. Thus I effect to escape the conventional categories: a principle of life I adhere to is always to strive to evade both being labelled and imposing labels; they capture and confine what’s naturally fluid.

At Kingston Grammar School, Surrey, Thingland, in 1954 I came across this poem. It released something in me that was not there before: I discovered that poems could be a real hoot whilst having serious intent!

Mrs Reece Laughs

Laughter, with us, is no great undertaking,
A sudden wave that breaks and dies in breaking.
Laughter with Mrs. Reece is much less simple:
It germinates, it spreads, dimple by dimple,
From small beginnings, things of easy girth,
To formidable redundancies of mirth.
Clusters of subterranean chuckles rise
And presently the circles of her eyes
Close into slits and all the woman heaves
As a great elm with all its mounds of leaves
Wallows before the storm. From hidden sources
A mustering of blind volcanic forces
Takes her and shakes her till she sobs and gapes.
Then all that load of bottled mirth escapes
In one wild crow, a lifting of huge hands,
And creaking stays, a visage that expands
In scarlet ridge and furrow. Thence collapse,
A hanging head, a feeble hand that flaps
An apron-end to stir an air and waft
A steaming face. And Mrs. Reece has laughed.

Martin Armstrong (1882 – 1974)

Like most people I suppose I started writing poems on the assumption that you had to aim for rhyme but I had this nagging feeling that there was something else to poems – something I’d perhaps have to discover inside myself. I had no idea what it might be.

Then I picked up Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass in a Mentor paperback that gradually fell apart with reading & rereadings; it was a miraculous discovery which by chance finally released me from bothering with rhyme. Around the same time came Kenneth Allott’s fine Penguin Book of Contemporary Verse. Much much later, long after I’d shed my adolescent Tennysonian imitations, there were confirmations about what to do, and how to do it, by Frank O’Hara and James K Baxter.

One Autumn afternoon, ten years after I found Mrs Reece, David McAndrew, English Lecturer at James Graham College of Education, Yorkshire, (where I went to escape from office quill-driving and to enjoy at least ten weeks’ academic holiday a year for the rest of my life) provided us with a way of looking at poetry which has served me well; acronymic fervour will fix the process in mind:-


Surface Meaning
Deeper Meaning (through metaphor & imagery)
Technical things (rhyme/rhythm etc)
Gesture & Tone (authorial stance towards the reader etc)
The surface meaning of Mrs Reece Laughs is exactly that – a record of some extraordinary somebody laughing. You get the feeling that it’s a resumé of a number of bouts of laughter rather than just a single occasion; the thought & felt result of a succession of singular jocular events. The first line tells us what the authorial stance is: ‘laughter with us’ is probably pretty ordinary but we are invited to compare the quality of our laughing with Mrs Reece’s and maybe notice, through an engagement with the striking imagery, how it could be different: what if it consisted of ‘formidable redundancies of mirth’ so that we found ourselves heaving ‘As a great elm with all its mounds of leaves/Wallows before the storm’ or having to manage ‘blind volcanic forces’…? The deeper meaning of the piece is conveyed through such striking comparisons; they take us into a world which is, and ever remains, an alternative to the obvious one. Try them on for size; the world can become a different place.

We are so deeply engaged with the writing, the structure of which is one long spontaneous, seemingly uncontrived, sprawl (just like a good bout of great laughter) that reading or reciting it we scarcely notice the tight rhyme scheme which seems to help the pace along, now we think about it. We might describe its tone as chatty & off-hand were it not for the studied choice of imagery and the final striking visual image of a big crow flapping its wings. Mrs Reece, who has become other than human – tree, storm, volcano, crow – suddenly returns to being human. ‘And Mrs Reece has laughed…’

Thus I learned to apply a thinking-structure towards coming to grips with a poem that I had merely gasped at, unbelievingly, in 1954. Sudesteg also informs my thinking about what I write but not in any slavish kind of way – it just hovers about in the background. You forget its formality when writing and replace it with a sudden uprush of something-or-other; it becomes part of who you are.

Where to Start & What the State of Mind?

It seems that absolutely anything can be subject-matter for poetry. But a more interesting question might be – What state does one have to be in to ‘be poetic’?

I am iding along

minding what I take to be my own business
when suddenly out of some inconceivable blueness
simply in the rhythm of the knotty prose I’m reading
in the building of images
comes a feeling throughout my body head to diaphragm
nose to big toe in my tingling arms that what I’m reading
(the text itself) will make a poem

and so in Kierkegaard I find
a question about the binding of self to life:
what is it binds us thus?
for the wolf (he says)
it is a chain made of cats’ paws walking on the ground
of the roots of cliffs
of the breath of fish and the spittle of birds

for myself (he says) it is gloomy fancies alarming dreams
troubled thoughts fearful presentiments
inexplicable anxieties:
things flexible but soft as silk that cannot be torn apart


My twenty-five year-old habit of writing Found Poems provides some of my subject-matter – just as life-experience yields up poems so the reading-experience yields up the excitement of poems discovered in chunks of prose written by others, or, as in this case, a commentary based on striking images in a philosophical text.

Idleness helps: poems often come out of it; there’s a nice biography of Walt Whitman called The Magnificent Idler; idling with intent can help to capture a spontaneous gesture from the universe, of which text is a part; this is something which probably would not happen in ratiocination; unsuspecting, one can remark on an image which may be strikingly different from normal ways of thinking; it may suddenly be deemed worth recording, or at least being isolated out for inspection. There’s a prosaic life and an extraordinary life; there are long-winded utterances containing small gems which are worth separating out for pondering, for poetic treatment.

Then there’s the natural rhythm of experience.

the poem

– just ask: has it been an experience?
that is all that matters…

understanding it…
merely a matter of balancing

life-knowledge and your own being
world without end

initiated by Clifford Bax: Evenings in Albany

(RoW 2013)

Reading and consuming a poem is about getting the balance right between you & the poem, between what you get out of life and what the poem offers you – Understanding=Knowledge+Being. It’s emphatically not a question of ‘liking’ or ‘disliking’ which are great barriers to experience. Then you must topple the process over to get to grips with writing a poem – it requires entering fully into Being and the application of what Knowledge you’ve acquired from life-experiences in order to arrive at Understanding the nature of the ‘poetic act’ as opposed to the prosaic act.

By the time just after I started off in the professional disguise called ‘being a teacher’ in 1968, I had come to thinking about teaching poetry, about getting younger minds entranced by the prospect of making their lives into poetry: it seemed certain to me that poem-making was an interior construction made from the weft & warp of experience, contrived into form & image & a kind of fantasy:-

there’s something inside me

and it’s trying to get out:
it’s a star trapped in its universe;
a comet sick of going round and round
elliptically for a million years;
it’s a black box hard sharp corners;
it’s an express train
shooting fiery coals into the night;
it’s a snake wriggling
to a water trough to drink;
it’s a fox;
it’s a fountain of blood;
it’s an arctic winter

there’s something inside me
and it’s trying to tell me things;
words combine with words
and struggle to emerge
it’s beginning to scream

(c1970 – 1992)

(BiK 1994)

When the scream, the express train, the comet or the fox has had its way with you, then it’s like old Lawrence said in his spontaneous kind of way:-

Whatever man makes and makes it live
lives because of the life put into it.
A yard of India muslin is alive with Hindu life.
And a Navajo woman, weaving her rug in the pattern of her dream
must run the pattern out in a little break at the end
so that her soul can come out, back to her.

But in the odd pattern, like snake marks on the sand
it leaves its trail.

So it is with a poem: you have to leave a ‘little break at the end’ so your soul can come back out ready for the next poem. But where’s that going to come from? That’s a virtual question that always jumping about in the neo-cortex. Once upon a time I had a conventional belief that a poem came from a Muse or was the result of ‘inspiration’, a belief that made it a great struggle. I suppose that this might be the origin of the concept of ‘Writer’s block’; the alternative is to realise that a poem doesn’t come from some mythical exterior source but from the depths of your own soul – then the resource is always there; it simply rises up no matter how incomplete and imperfect the result.

there was a time

when I believed that poems came out
complete like a baby with pony-tail
train-set Visa card hockey stick
and jangling a big bunch of keys;
that you did not tinker for fear
of losing the original tomb-stone words

indeed that tinkering was a cheat
and a fraud – if the poem did not howl
down the grooves of time and the universe
forged to symmetry on an unspecified
somebody’s anvil then it should never
see the light of day but now

(as who pays 10K at Christies – bargain –
for my pile of notebooks will discover)
I bull-doze the landscape of my poems
crazy as any bloated developer or Canadian Army
ganging up on Mohawk Indians to convert
their Sacred Lands into a golf course

(gulf 1990)

The most utterly perfect expression of the genesis of a poem, how a poem arrives from far across a particular landscape of the mind is contained, I think, in Ted Hughes’ Thought Fox:-

I imagine this midnight moment’s forest:
Something else is alive
Beside the clock’s loneliness
And this blank page where my fingers move.

Through the window I see no star:
Something more near
though deeper within darkness
Is entering the loneliness:

Cold, delicately as the dark snow
A fox’s nose touches twig, leaf…

It comes across the snow, just two eyes threading between trees, just a shadow minding its own business

Till, with a sudden sharp hot stink of fox,
It enters the dark hole of the head.
The window is starless still; the clock ticks,
The page is printed

What I find when I allow this way of working to course through me is that you can start somewhere and probably arrive somewhere completely different. It’s something in the bones that makes shift to get out. A poem can create itself as you toss words down on the page.


out in the garden
on a suave February evening

(Cassiopeia clearly dreaming
about centuries of smoke
going up straight
from a chimney and roots
beginning to stir deep down)

the mood (the far scope of things)
is just like in all my Augusts there

now somebody in a book says
‘poets peak in their twenties’
so assuming I ever was a poet
I’m well on the downward slope

but it’s the Augusts of my twenties
I was referring to particularly –
that I was reminded of
just now going out
to see whose cat was being torn up
by what nocturnal Grendel

look I am all those Augusts
reborn this February night;
they are in my bones

and I can still go to the back door
and let a poem in

(aoa 1989)

This is thinking out loud: it was first of all just something about a February night garden, then a cat yowled in combination with the August comparison and enter Grendel!

If I’ve learned anything down the years it’s that when you hear yourself saying “I don’t know where to start…” you’re actually in a great position because it means you can start absolutely anywhere you like. Which is what I now do: the first line that swims in (and usually becomes the title) leads on to all the rest; I rarely know how something’s going to turn out. Poems are little Adventures of Ideas. Constant surprises. The first few lines dictate what comes next; what comes next is the first surprise. How do I know what I’m going to write till I pay attention to what I’ve just written?

In the Mrs Reece era I thought of poetry as something outside you so that you set about writing poems by imitating proper poets, hoping, maybe, someday to turn out to be as ‘successful’ as they obviously were. So successful as to appear, for instance, in the Oxford Book of English Verse which was handed to me by RCSheriff, of Journey’s End fame, old boy of KGS, as his essay prize, Speech Day 1954. On its first page appears ‘Sumer is icumen in’ – the very first poem I ever wrote took off from that.

May [1954]

The cuckoo doth sing,
Appeareth the spring:
From his travels the swift
Doth himself uplift
And wing his flight above the sky
Whiles the woodland green below doth lie

While preparing the text of Selected Poems I was struck by the way the same images keep cropping up, deriving, I suppose, from some other-than-conscious reservoir, and the way the same pattern of expression occurs, demonstrating a steady consistency. Or perhaps I’m just stuck in a groove. Anyway, swifts seem to swim the air above my head and into poems on a regular basis.


the comings and goings
of swifts…

(black scythes
rather than coffee spoons
have measured out my life)

fifty times
screaming through the twilight
of a suburban garden
looping webs
on London tenements
slicing a minor Chiltern scarp

‘their scream is not displeasing
from an agreeable association of ideas
since that note never occurs
but in the most lovely summer weather

their early retreat
mysterious and wonderful
at the sweetest time of the year…’
(says Gilbert White)

and in winter
from miles away high in the night sky
into the pages of books

‘lords of the summer sky’
(says James Farrar)
they blunt themselves
on the tough stalks
of remembered things

(aoa 1989)

At Kingston Grammar School I dropped Physics, Chemistry, Biology & Geography to study Ancient Greek. I noted that the plays of Aristophanes & Euripides have a Chorus that stands apart from the action and makes a sort of Brechtian commentary on things. This device makes sure that you are constantly aware that you’re watching a play, puts you firmly in a meta-position. I fancied myself in that role but I also needed to use the image that haunted my deliberately nostalgic miserable adolescence – ‘woodsmoke of autumn’ – together with bonfires it’s another image that persists…


Scented woodsmoke from the pyre –
Death is a comely thing –
Woodsmoke of Autumn
Above the weeping trees

December 1954

By 1958, after so-called ‘National Service’, which at least had given me the long opportunity to reflect, I became far more aware of what I was doing but still very self-conscious. It still feels very familiar to me to

Ask how standing on a high hill
The soul might expand to encompass
The far horizon
And take in the fields
The ever-expanding sky
Revolving on the eyes
That overchases the very growing
Of the soul…

April 1958

Even in those far-off days I had a desire to reach for ‘something much bigger than myself’, union with the cosmos or something like that, while at a mundane level I had a permanent feeling of being out of odds with the way things were in the so-called normal world which was perhaps associated with a certain shyness or gaucherie:-

There he stands
Hands loosely hanging
Side by side
Like dead flies hanging
On a wounded spider’s web
Out of tune
Perplexed by a problem
Unknown to Venus de Milo
Incapable (as a tree of
Knowing where to put its branches
In the starlight)
Of finding a deep dark pocket

August 1958

The alienation persists but I have become well aware of not being out of step but just ‘marching to the sound of a different drum’ – Thoreau’s – so that awkwardness is of no longer of any consequence to me and I think nothing these days of standing on a stage and acting the goat.

And there’s something that sounds very much like a haiku (a form which I did not really get to till the 1990’s) but was actually designed to record a moment of total musical ecstasy in Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius:-

The sound of joy:
Wind in
The summer pines

September 1958

The other side of calculated adolescent misery and nostalgia… Then, as now, music transcended everything, Beethoven to Krenek and all points in between. And fortunately, during those two years of absolute National Irresponsibility that turned me into a pacifist, I’d gone to WEA lectures & been introduced to Prufrock by a brilliant tutor, Howard Jones, who in later years put me on the Iris Murdoch trail. Hence


Old men sit on long seats
In the hot summer evenings
And talk about the past
Until past and present become immaterial –
Then it’s time to go home.
They sit on long seats
In the hot summer evenings
Weeping from their blind eyes
Like Tiresias.

July 1959

The moment, the neuronic structure as it might be, is still mine in which, from the top of a London omnibus, I remember seeing them sitting on a long pub bench near Camberwell Green…

Then somehow I drifted into the idea of poem as philosophical workout. I suppose it was the Eliot influence: reading Four Quartets I discovered that you could use a combination of thought & feeling to arrive at provisional and paradoxical certainties, gnawing away at ideas.

What can I do that I have not done before?

Is there another moon to see on starry nights?
Or other valleys stretched in noonday hollowness?
I have a hollow fit of summer sadness
That is only sweet in the silence of the mind
And asks for country paths
For the whole length of a grey day.
I would philosophise the cat to stand on one leg,
Paint pictures of sunsets stained with Phaeton’s blood,
Dangle my toes in Heraclitus’ passing flood,
Or stand under trees in the rain…
But what can I do that I have not done
In the constant counting out of time?
What patterns have I not cut out of Experience,
What memories are there to come,
Woven out of the Present Flux of things,
That I have not had already?

Poetry is the Rhythm of experience:
Sit and think after the unquiet necessity of
Counting out God’s beetles –
Think of something sublime, as they say,
And soon a point evolves that one must gnaw at
And grasp, to fashion it into something intelligible –
Not what the thunder said or what somebody,
Unaware of shouting across the echoes of a valley,
Whispered in the crowded train –
It does not require much to fashion
From the wreck of many thoughts
The intellectual patterns of Existence –
And I am Pheidias with a type-writer –
After which, what can I do that I have not done before?

So, there is, of course, a point which has evolved from all
The, Prima facie, aimless meandering
Of this monumental Creation:
Halfway down the page, indeed,
I had thought there would be –
But now…
Now the wind blows in the empty chimney,
And in my summer sadness I feel the rain
Which falls across the valley
In the falling evening
At the end of many quiet days…
I am empty with Absence…

23rd February 1959

The quest for a new way of seeing things is no different from how I do things NOW: I take steps to form ever more complex intellectual patterns and then interrupt them, in the shape of a Bruckner symphony, for example. At least I try to understand my patterns of behaviour.

The period from 1958 to 1964 was very curious. During the day I was locked into paper shuffling and quill-driving (Conrad: The Rover) in the Civil Service & then the Westminster Bank, a task I performed like an automaton with total lack of commitment to what I was doing. How on earth to get out of it? O the barely contained misery. On the way to ‘work’ I used to wish that the earth would open up and swallow me down; in winter, for the long train journey from Basingstoke to London, I used to urge the weather to freeze the points so that I’d get into the office late and be allowed to leave early. Then (oh deliverance!) a teacher shortage! — Adverts for teachers on the telly and I chucked it all in – the role as unquiet office clerk; all that remained of that time were forty years of a recurrent dream in which I found myself at odds with the daily task in an unspecified office, likely to get the sack for not doing the job properly and then not knowing how I’d pay the mortgage and so on. September 1964 was such a pivotal moment. To justify my new intellectual freedom in Teacher Training College I set myself to write a poem a day in the first Christmas holiday. We’d been reading Hawthorne and I became aware of one of the essentials of what I write – the jumping off from a literary text or two – the subsequent mental synthesis that makes a ‘poetic act’ for me.

Warmth & Light

To the untrue man, the whole universe is false – it is impalpable
– it shrinks to nothing within his grasp… Hawthorne.

Our desire for knowledge is more apparent than real*:
We require warmth before light.
We are not called Socrates;
We will not drink hemlock just to prove a point.

In the words of Los:-
I must create a system or be enslaved by another man’s.
Most of us are willing to be ordered
By the mythologies of others
If this avoids disruption of our favourite ideas:
Because of this we are incapable of adjusting ourselves
To what-is

If we, being part of the organic whole ‘What-is’,
Fail to recognise our identity within it
Then we cannot function efficiently.

* Language and the Pursuit of Truth – John Wilson

Xmas Diary 1964

Thirty years later and I was still on about the same thing! Same pattern of thinking but with perhaps more conviction.

invent the world

& do it quick!
get in first to head off
the always imminent danger
that the world will invent you…

invent the world
with all its incredible
molecular events:
the hills oceans cities

deserts and parliaments;
actors on stages mouthing
poems well-wrought or not
by scribblers in garrets;

pot-bellied kids
who’ve ceased preventing flies
from settling; noble stick men
striding into death away

from the TV probe; shoppers
ducking the latest mortar bomb;
harlequin trees in spring
& horses eating fields –

and in this invented world
above all take care to construct
a model of your self
that can contain it all

with ease ramparts fortified
against the tempestuous
invasions of dull events
pretending to be you

(itw 1993)

How exactly does one go from playing around at writing poetry to what you could call ‘seriousness’? What happens to the psyche that changes things? What choices occur? It could be that one suddenly realises that the stuff of ordinary life provides the concrete images that can anchor the philosophical substructure… This I think I half knew during that first Christmas holiday of my new intellectual life but would probably never have been able to make explicit.

One winter evening five years ago

My mother and her 80 year old aunt and uncle
(Both now dead, one by a motor-bike
And the other of a long empty feeling)
Talked about the past. My mother first.
“I remember my aunt’s place at Longney – 9 miles from Gloucester…
Eddie and I used to catch red admirals down by the Severn.
I used to think that it was miles from anywhere when I was a kid;
And you made us butterfly nets…
… the boat that used to go across the river…
… climbing up the steps to the house…

“We went back there, of course, when we were down there;
We looked for the cottage but couldn’t find it;
We were only there for a few hours, mind.
The farmhouse was still there and the old school:
I think the cottage must have been pulled down and ploughed over”.

They spoke as though had they stayed there longer,
Eyeing the scene,
They’d have found their own small foot-prints.

“Nell was chased by a goat along the Severn;
It’s butting me, it’s butting me, she screamed…”

“And picking cobnuts…”

“You just had to fall against the trees
And down came the plums…”

“It seemed to be miles from anywhere when I was a child…”

Xmas Diary 1964

The rhythm of life & experience – capture it! I once went back to Longney, nine miles from Gloucester just to breathe the same air.

In the next room three old women

clattered dominoes on a glass-topped table;
I stared into my glass in the empty room
and into the flickering fire beyond.
I watched tables and chairs deliberately
draining themselves of their objectivity;
their energy exhausted me
and I shuddered at the feel of my feebleness;
in shuddering I became aware
of the three old women still
clattering dominoes and talking about
going to Blackpool at the weekend
for the illuminations.


My Old Mum’s Unwitting Metaphysical Influence

And I started tapping in to the ‘real’ – the rhythm of experience… I collected bits & pieces of things embedded in the remembering system which can surface inexplicably after many years in darkness:-

It was Christmas [1946 or 7]

and my mum
in between
the Queen’s speech
and the serving of
cold chicken and pickled walnuts
was trying to say

But how do you know
that you see
the same colour
as I see
how can you tell?

my father wasn’t interested

I was painting a green elephant
(how could you tell it was green, I thought…)

There are many other things my mother
might have taught me.

Xmas 1966

I think I owe it to my mum that she sowed this small philosophical question in my mind; then it became for me a question of how do we know anything at all? I was nine or ten years old. What’s the point of it all? What is anything worth? Once I’d discovered La Nausée, this was the grounding,  for my generally existential take on the absolute Absurdity of existence. So fifty years on:-

each of our genes

has an evolutionary history covering
at least three and a half billion years;
in China near Beijing
there is a little village called
Zhoukoudian where heavings of the earth
have jumbled limestone and coal seams
together under alluvial deposits
eroded by rain and bitter winds
from central Asia that still send dust
from China halfway round the planet

700,000 years ago hominids came
to the cave system of Zhoukoudian:
for 500,000 years their quotidian detritus
began to fill the caves blocking
the lower entrances and they lived
worked and reproduced on the surface
of the gradually thickening layers
of waste material constantly finding it
necessary to discover new ways to approach
the caves down chimneys and fissures

200,000 years ago the human land-fill
choked the upper chambers and so one fine
Monday (perhaps) they just upped and left

the people of the caves of Zhoukoudian
had crouched over their smoky fires
eating half-cooked bats
for a hundred times as many years
as we have recorded our civilisation –
a hundred times as many years since
the invention of an alphabet

and what do any of us do
that makes us think that we achieve
anything higher than the status of the task
of eating a half-cooked bat in the gloom?

all projects & all commerce the music
and the mystery and the kerfuffles
of relationships go wiffling down
the fissures and the caverns of the brain
at a hundred yards a second blocking
the lower entrances to snug down
with all the quiet kangaroos assembled
there in ordered ranks each with
their own expressiveness frozen gestures
like the patient absurd warriors of Xian

(HIW 1999)


I started teaching in a Luton comprehensive in 1968 full of ambition to get into the lives of kids and determined to help them become poets. When I first saw Robin Williams in Dead Poets’ Society I identified strongly with John Keating and the ripping up of old ways of doings things; watching it again after his sad death I wept for his genius and felt unfathomable joy when he was carried aloft by his lucky class to the sound of Beethoven’s Ninth.

starting teaching – late 60’s

“…on Blow’s Down near Dunstable
there’s a place where flying saucers land –
you can see the three tall chalk knolls
(they’re beacons)
exactly the right distance apart
for the landing pads to settle…”

“how do you know that?”

“we went to this lecture in Luton
and the man who’s a real authority…”
(by which I was to understand that I wasn’t –
in any sense… ) “…drew pictures
of intergalactic vessels
all to scale… and he showed us
photographs of mysterious round shapes
in newly ploughed fields
their landing pads are always shaped like that..”

“anyway I was in the street
going home last night and a loud voice
from somewhere overhead
told me that they’d be landing
at 11 pm next Friday night
and I was to be there…”

desperate for something that would quell
the rioting chuckout 4th and 5th year lads
written off by old Parker
I gave them a rich and beady diet
of Bradbury Pohl Asimov and Poe
and this was their way of rewarding me:
“please come with us…”
and as an afterthought “sir!”

or perhaps they who posed as men of this world
coming into their inheritance
wanted somebody at least recognisably an adult
to defend them from any Little Green Men
from other worlds that happened by

so up on Blow’s Down we sat
five or six of us for comfort
talking till the morning’s small hours
and we saw Caesar’s Legions trudging past
and Tin Men up from Cornwall
and pilgrims asking for Stonehenge
and all those who will spoil the valley
for a thousand years to come
but no flying saucer

and no such teaching since

(aoa 1989)

Later on, in FE, teaching teachers to open a lesson with some degree of verve & enthusiasm, offering an attention-grabbing mental set in order to create a sense of direction, I started a lesson one evening saying, “Let’s imagine this is a biology lesson!” and proceeding to declaim:-


as a special treat
we are going to talk about

their habits their life-style
spiders as pets – the horrorscope and spiders
difficulties with spiders

I am going to get a tray
of all different kinds of spiders
for you to have a look at:

there will be some lovely large furry ones
and some very long-legged ones which are also


poisonous I don’t advise you to touch them

however you will be pleased to know
that you will be able to handle
the ones that are about four inches across with
red marks on their backs:

they are so common that they’re expendable
and the zoo doesn’t want them back

(aoa 1989)

My Father, an Expert Tease

My father was a great tease. One summer I asked him where we going on holiday that year – he said, “Stopaton…” I kept on saying with increasing exasperation, “Where’s Stopaton?” I suppose it dawned on me eventually that we weren’t going anywhere that year. Thus I learned to lark about in a serious manner. Rule: you are not allowed to be serious unless you can lark about; you are not allowed to lark about unless you can be serious. This way you avoid both just being a clown and committing ‘the sin of seriousness’.

people in dreams

are turn and turn about
disturbing familiar sinister
changed since last you met them
strange haunting and amusing –
extensions of your very self

and when you play
in the World Cup Final
it’s a curious sort of game
because you pause from time to time
to chat to people in the crowd

others laugh and boo
and talk in turn to their friends;
then it’s lemon slices
at half-time brought on
by somebody’s mum

the second half during which
you were to score the winning goal
never takes place as a result of
the bad habit dreams have
of losing interest in themselves

(itw 1993)

If you don’t lark about you might chuck yourself into a Pit of Despond with things being so monumentally awful in the world and getting a lot worse – or is it just old age?

the man on the radio

announces that the Government
has decided that children
should be taught DIY skills –
useful things like wiring and tiling

and now after the announcement
we have Beethoven’s First
Piano Concerto each note
done by himself eternally destined

for its precise place in the score –
I may be biassed but it is
my considered opinion that kids
should be taught solely to whistle

starting with Johann Sebastian
and progressing to degree standard
with Schoenberg and late Tippett –
whistling being a highly transferable skill

(BiK 1994)

Very Early Retirement

And after all the hum & buzz of Wage Slavery had fizzled out, it never really occurred to me that I’d had a ‘career’ – the word didn’t ever seem to attach itself to what I did which was, as far as I was able, simply to push things people’s way and hope they’d pick them up. And when I at last escaped it all I decided that

I might devote my time

to perfecting in myself
the caricature of
a cranky old retired teacher
exaggerating or inventing
the academic pyrotechnics
of my days in front of the class
concocting stories of the brains
I’ve turned inside out and the jokes
I’ve told my masterly command
of every situation
except that
never having been able
successfully to counterfeit myself
as ‘teacher’ how can I begin
to pretend to ‘retired teacher’?

there is no sound foundation
so I’ll just have to rely on
a studiedly cussed crankiness
and I’ll sniff the wallflowers
and watch the newts
in full view of the natives
just whenever I please

(HIW 1999)

My Idea of Teachinglearningteaching

Between 1968 and 1992 when I retired, oh so early, from a teaching that seems now to have barely really started and ‘hung my hat on a pension’, I came to a few conclusions about what I thought about teaching and learning. One thing I picked up from a Danish lady I met on a post-retirement course was that in her language there did not exist separate words for teaching and learning; the word ‘indlæring’, it seemed, connoted a mixture of both. It came to me that I can never learn something without immediately wondering how I might be able to teach it – how might I make it possible for others to make sense of it for themselves? – while teaching something helps me to learn something new every time I cover a subject. So the concept of ‘indlæring’ is so essential to me – it comes naturally. Likewise, the act of writing a poem is a way of learning something about the way you are; a poem is a way of teaching that.

I’ve also gone back to thinking about the years between 1948 and 1954 when my relatively sound purchase on the universe began at Kingston Grammar School. There the classrooms were dark, the corridors dark & musty, the old library a shambles and mess of ancient books and ideas and it strikes me that learning is far more likely to be real in such surroundings than in the halls of computers and frigid formalities that seem to characterise the cut & dried notions of ‘learning’ nowadays.

walking in the streets of Cambridge

you imagine that there are rooms here
(wood-panelled book-lined)
where great thoughts are born –
of mental conjunctions too dark
too unfathomable to be allowed out
on the ordinary pavement
in the ordinary light of day

and pre-Raphaelite ladies zoom
purposefully on their bikes
red hair flowing long stockinged legs
achieving a high rate of mph
from one appointment with an unfathomable
dark conjunction and another

and on trains going out in all directions
from the source – Foxton and Shepreth
Ely & Waterbeach Newmarket & Bury
people talk about Keats & Marvell
as though they were toothpaste & baked beans
or they read La Escuela de Platon
by Fernando Savater as though it were
the Daily Express

and gradually the evening falls
(rain clouds gathering) on all the lawns
where learning sometimes disports itself
and I go into the University of the World
thinking that the chance of dark conjunctions
would be a fine thing and gulls fly

(BiK 1994)

Life’s Just a Long Narrative We Invent for Ourselves

These days I’m strongly inclined to believe that life is a story we tell ourselves; it’s unlikely that I had this angle on things pre-1990 when, ironically, my learning really began but a series of fantasy or story reconstructions of things cropped up – I have no idea where this came from!

the village is all agog

for it has been announced that the owner
Lord Humphrey Twistleton-Smythe
(pronounced ‘Tump’)
whom they have never met
is due to visit this morning

they go about their normal business
(as advised by the bailiff)
polishing steps
oiling gate hinges
painting whatever can be painted
and combing their hair
over and over again

suddenly there is cheering
down the street
and a short ugly fat nan
smoking a very large cigar
struts (as far as his legs
and your Imagination
will allow) down the centre
of the street lobbing fivers
(in bundles) into the crowd

there is a lot of bowing and scraping
but it is a false alarm –
the man is a stockbroker living locally
(whose left brain has undergone
hemispherectomy) studying
the poetry of flying money –
the villagers return to their normal business
polishing steps
oiling gate hinges (etcetera)

a young nurse
wheels a pram down the street
aware of the eyes of all the men
who pause in their hedge-trimming
to admire (etcetera)
her salient characteristics
out of their strip cartoon brains
past the butcher’s headless torsos

this Second Coming is Lord Tump –
in the pram
with his Innocent rattle

only the bailiff is cheering

(gulf 1990)

Just larking about maybe… but of course there’s something severely political about it.


Poetry can demonstrate commitment – something that seemed to die around 1979 with the advent of Thatcherism & Reaganism. This, I know for sure makes me an old relic of the past. It could be that I realised its presence in me when I heard Adrian Mitchell declaiming his poem Tell me lies about Vietnam in 1964 in Trafalgar Square. Or heard Bertrand Russell’s rasping voice in the same place a couple of years earlier.

Now it could be Tell me Lies about Iraq and Palestine. I stand up for George Galloway as I once stood up for Tony Benn in Hyde Park and I express myself in a far more radical, anarchistic way in more overtly political poems – howls or ‘barbaric yawps’ – and regrets for a past that’s being systematically done away with.

in Adolf Hitler’s day

when you went into Woolworth’s
clutching your threepenny and sixpenny pieces
you knew you were in Woolworth’s
and not some other poor clod of a place
where they didn’t sell little writing tablets
with rough paper sheets stapled together
and blue non-standard hard-back exercise books;
where there wasn’t the distinctive smell
of dark brown wooden floors that walked on
bounced between the shiny brown Titanic counters
leaning to tempt you across long dark aisles
with real people behind them testing
every electric bulb you bought with a quick flash

now in the name of Customer Satisfaction
and Improved Consumer Service with a bit of
New Image thrown in Woolworth’s has converged
with the same enormous homogenizing ice-berg
that has given the world Kentucky Fried Chicken
near Tiananmen Square and Beijing Fried Dragon
in every little village in Thingland

and now out of the Commodity Markets
the Vultur Gestapo rides again triumphantly
invisible behind the banner of Responsiveness
and Value for Money nailing the dried skin
of art and music to the mast of Profit
defined by the mindless tapping of feet
and the indolent fluttering of eyeballs

look! the nice grey men
are imposing the Ultimate Solution
again on the gypsy imagination – the New Age
intellectual wanderlust – refusing to kow-tow
to anything dictated by the profit-thugs

welcome to the Concentration Camp!

(SofU 1997)

And even Woolworth’s is no more.

once upon a time

there was a rich man
who was terrified of darkness
but more specifically of the idea
that unless he sustain
the work of his one hundred and seven furnaces
his nine hundred and twenty retail outlets
his warehouse operations too many to count
and links with five hundred and sixty countries
overseas and kept his workers’ noses
to the grindstone and kept his own nose
there as well he would collapse
into the dark void as he saw it
that forever looms below you
when your balloon is pricked

there are only two alternatives
he said: keep yourself afloat
or sink without trace
into the palpable blackness of the Void

anyway once a year he travelled round
(compulsive circuit) all his foreign contacts
to make sure they knew what they were doing –

this time round in Deepest Somewhere
in a sudden fit of needing to be somewhere else
he wandered off the commercial track
and lost himself down pathways
going down and down into a valley
where the only light came heavily dappled
from the tops of prehistoric trees
and all around him growled the voices
of furnaces and retail outlets
and warehouses and foreign links
and grindstones and hard-pressed folk

he came into a place
where there was only darkness
and the insistent voices
of his nightmares – the Void
at the still centre
of which is a bright clearing
with a capacious mansion –
thirty-two rooms he counted –
and the sound of laughter and smiling
and the rich man suddenly knew for sure
that oblivion is at work within you
and that penetrating the Void
which is nowhere but inside you
is the only way to arrive
at the very centre
of yourself – the smell
of bonfires in summer
and old men smoking pipes
by the bowling green
and the beloved chill of November
and the long vistas of Nutwood

(SofU 1997)

Time Out

If I’m not careful I spend a bit too much time lamenting the nature of things. And so I must take time out to remind myself that the still centre is completely immune to past present & future and all the dull vicissitudes of time and motion. Just before the time it suddenly occurred to me that I could get out of Wage Slavery for good and all, like that first Xmas holiday of being trained as a teacher, I spent a summer holiday writing a poem a day; the long holidays were what I’d gone into teaching for, like my son after me…

all these weeks of leisure

during which you forget yourself
(and remember what is uniquely Self)
extract you from the world of Total Work
release you from the Planned Diligence
of dolts and pitch you into the heart
and centre of creation – God’s unending
holiday the undivided universe of play –
and the worst mistake of all
(which they would have you make) is to regard
such time as a mere pause from work refreshment
to enable you to work better reculer
pour mieux sauter – it is not that at all!

who looks to leisure to restore working power
will never discover its fruit which is to see
life whole to come face to face with Being
once again to win back your soul (which is all)
from dread and anxiety (which is nothing)

the Total Work State Lie requires unquestioning
spiritual impoverishment the one-track mind
of the functionary who (to escape the reality
of despair and doubt) calls it service
and achieves the illusion of a life fulfilled;
the Total Work State Lie does graciously permit
Time Off – but creates a Leisure Industry
to control it satisfying the itch for sensation
with breathless excitement deadening
the sense of wonder resulting in an idleness
which is not leisure: sloth makes leisure
impossible – the holidays I went into teaching for

leisure is not the opposite of work;
it runs at right angles to work – leisure is
a Condition of the Soul – silence and receptivity;
the capacity to steep your Self
in the whole of creation; confidence in fragmentariness

what spiritual immunisation free to all
can be provided against the wasting disease
of inner Impoverishment and despair
unable to conceive of significant action
outside slave-work? it is a tough serum

learning to be at one with yourself;
learning to acquiesce in your own being;
learning celebration within a sacred plot of ground
at the protected centre of a sacred period of time
moving you to timeless Wonder
in this Garden here now
where leisure has to be worked at thus

(gulf 1990)

The Total Work State! In the twenty years since I wrote that the Global Capitalist Conspiracy has done so much more to keep people’s noses to the grindstone of fruitless labour. I retired at 55, a blessed ten years earlier than I expected to; now they suggest 68, 70 and who knows what else as though life was for working. Nobody on their death bed ever said, “I wish I’d spent more time at the office…”

Like Ivan Karamazov, I would rebel even if I found out I was wrong.

There is a violent hammering at the door

“Let me in! An army’s been pursuing me all day!”

The sun begins to set; the castle gate-keeper
Takes his time; he must see to the lighting of the lamps.

“Please hurry! There’s an army at my heels…”

The castle gate-keeper must feed the dogs
And attend to the stoking of the fires.

“Let me in! I can hear the panting of their horses;
The plain is quivering with death…”

The castle gate-keeper fills his pipe
And folds his newspaper to the football page.

“They’re nearly upon me! Have you no feelings?
I feel their spears already heavy with my blood.”

The diminutive gate-keeper must stand on a chair
To look over the castle wall and see what the fuss is about;
He calls out, “It’s all right – it’s our own army:
They’ve been out all day hunting an opponent of the System…”


Neuro-linguistic Programming

From 1990 onwards I began to learn ways to achieve a reconciliation with the past especially when things suddenly come upon you.

finding a message

in an adolescent diary
addressed to ‘the old and bearded you:
remember that you loved her
in spite of all this anguish…’

I revisit the scenes
still haunted by our absence
to try them on for size
and I hear him whistling
Shostakovich (as it might be)

the First Symphony
(oh blessed rapture!
to be able to do that at whim!)
as he goes bravely
into what he knows will be defeat –
assignation with girl and dog

I lean over to him –
the innocent lad on the seat
waiting on the Green –
and put my arm around him
(as it might be my son)
and send a message back
to say that all has been
(as it were) worked into
a timely resolution

and I go yelping with tears
across the Green we all knew well
as I might have done
(for quite different reasons)
all those years ago

(itw 1993)

I often indulge in a lament for the past something that writing in the form of a poem can do really well – it does not have to be explicit or heavily worked out – just a few bits of randomness, nothing to get worked up about.

the Surrey cricket team

is not what it was; I looked
at the names of the team in the paper
this morning and recognised not one:
no Laker Lock or Surridge

no Constable Squires or Whittaker
no Bedsers or Loader or Fishlock
the names I knew when the team
was legendary (and green in my soul

like a perfect tree) whom I’d go
on the Northern Line most Saturdays
in summer to watch with a pack
of sandwiches and Brian; then

you could hear the sound of pencil
on scorecard and notices warned
of ejection for creating disturbance
there was nothing berserk or frenetic:

the sedate clap for a maiden
louder for a four or a wicket;
it was a seamless cerebral scheme –
nothing to get worked up about

as they appear to want it now

(gulf 1990)

In 1992 I learned about serious time-lining – how you can plot a historical sequence for yourself across a carpet and walk it to rediscover the past and modify or enhance current attitudes towards your past. This works not only across a carpet but also with the spirit of place.

from this high trig point

attained by dint of scaling
45° of scarp and pale sunlight
for hundreds of feet

you can see across the dreaming valley
St James and that other church
at the top of the golden hill

and Abbey Walk where
the sixteen-year-old you sits still
at the centre of that amazing August

and looks all week on and off
at the shape of Melbury Down
where you are now forty years on

tracing the contours of in between
charting through tears the life
that’s led you at last

across the valley through tempests
of desire and villages
of contentment manifold twists

and turns; flying up hawk
on an impulse you can see
that there is nothing to choose

between the eyes & the mind of the lad
you love by the Abbey there and those
of the man on Melbury Down

except that he only shaped the hill
in his soul while the man has ridden
its back and tamed its height

(Shaftesbury August 1955/April 1993)

(itw 1993)


This takes us into nostalgia which I’ve always been pretty expert at. As the dates might suggest, the next poem was long in the making. The original experience 1955, revisions 1971, 1992 and 1994. What is it that makes an afternoon from the past so devastatingly significant?

Frensham Ponds and Haslemere (1955)

there they were! the ponds; the bus
lurched round the green summer corner;
the journey has been long and derelict
(derelict the day) – behind me
the bowl of the valley
in a threatening blue heat
and in the dead centre the steaming ponds;
there was a formal house in elegant woodland ways
and I new from formless London

blue the sky I came for the music:
such music it was! pipes and harpsichord
in a blue-cool hall respectable
formal deliberate
by the ponds
the soil was sandy with hard roots of heather;
my city suit was out of place and I had to write
to the girl who had refused to come

climbing the hill up from the ponds
I thought the line of its summit
might mark the edge of the world
and beyond – a bottomless nothing
into which I might jump

(1971- 1992)

(BiK 1994)

The next poem was equally long in the making and sits in my brain as a moment so densely laden with regret & sadness.

turning to go

down the dark stair into the street
he looked his last at two old ladies
from a past of winter afternoons
and meetings with unidentified relations
(they owned a coveted book of Longfellow)
and knew suddenly he’d never see them again

and that had been the reason for his visit
having brought photographs of his family to show
as though to make a final compact with the past;
they smiled at him going (goodbye forever)
from their ghost vantage point
at the top of the stairs
against ill-lit yellowing wall-paper

the District Line train whined
into Parson’s Green as it always used to do

(July 1964)

(1971/72 – 1992)

(BiK 1994)

All manner of people I’ve lost touch with come back to haunt me; my past is full of neglected or abandoned human beings. I felt as though Arthur and I, fellow-students at James Graham College of Education 1964-1967 – he was a year ahead of me – would be bosom chums forever. I neither saw nor heard from him again after 1967.

Arthur and I

walked over the hill
one dark evening
a quarter of a century ago
and came down to the satanic mill
in the adjacent valley
beyond the popping balsam

the boiler room engine
was hard at it for the night shift:
the light at the open door
deafened the moon;

the boiler-house keeper
read his paper oblivious
of unlikely night-walkers

we could have crept up to him
and belted him one with a shovel
in his silent scrutiny
of the football results –
our footsteps lost
in his dream of the world

where are you now Arthur?
in what well-lit room
hidden in the dark din of the universe
oblivious of this my visit?

(gulf 1990)

Found Poems

In the late eighties, having made two collections of poems out of the Notebooks of Richard Jefferies, the centenary of whose birth was in 1987, I went on to produce three collections of purely Found poems 1988/89/90. It became an obsession. I had been haunted by the idea that I was wasting time reading when I could be writing and wasting time writing when I could be reading. The very straightforward exit from such a conundrum was to write while reading (and vice-versa) and this I’ve done ever since to the point where I began to weld ‘findings’ into my own poems as ‘commentaries’ and no longer produce separate volumes devoted to Found Poems.

composers of lyrical poetry

create it in a state
of divine insanity like the Corybantes
who lose all control of reason
in the enthusiasm of the sacred dance
says Socrates to Ion – a rhapsodist

supernatural possession –
an excitement at rhythm & harmony
which they seek to communicate –
draw honey & milk from a river
where (in their right senses) they would find
just the ordinary water

whilst you retain any portion
of the thing called reason
you remain utterly incompetent
to produce poetry or to vaticinate

going beyond reason
into a bold excitement of neurons
I draw milk & honey to discover it
mere scrapings in a notebook
and as for ratiocination… well…

Commentary on Christopher Cauldwell: Illusion & Reality


You’ll be reading some text or other and suddenly a poem will leap off the page. The form of the words will suddenly chime with the way you think or feel; it’s as though the writer is writing about a bit of you so you go, “Yes, that exactly how it is for me!” So you take the words off the page where they may well have been mouldering unread for a hundred years and see what they look like in straggly poem-form.

the more I see of the world

and the more people I meet
and books I read
and questions I answer
the more I return
with increased conviction
to those places where I was born
or played in as a boy
narrowing my circles
like a bird going back to a nest

the end of all travel
especially the widest travel
is to get home –
radiating inwards

if I could only paint this valley
I might go on to paint that garden;
if only I could paint that garden
I might be worthy to paint
the creeper under the window

found in G.K.Chesterton: The Poet and the Lunatic

(BiK 1994)


the great philosopher

was big fat & ugly when born
in a house on the banks of the River Wye
in the same year as Ralph Vaughan Williams;

on his third day in the world he lifted his head
and looked about him in a very energetic way
just as he was doing when I saw him
rasping cogently against nuclear weapons
on the plinth of Nelson’s Column in 1961

his mother said she had lots of milk
but that if her famous son did not get it
at once or had wind or anything like that
he would get into such a rage and screamed
and kicked and trembled till he was soothed

they were persuaded not to call him Galahad
and so his aunt recorded that Bertrand
insisted on lifting all alone (before he was 2)
an enormous book out of a shelf and taking it
to a little stool where he sat down
with it open before him in a fit of laughter
at his own wisdom
when Queen Victoria
came on a visit Bertie made such a nice little bow
and he did not treat her majesty
with the utter disrespect his aunt expected

later at Pembroke Lodge it was noted
that Bertie was a solemn little boy
in a blue velvet suit with precocious courtesy
and precise diction; his puritan home education
gave him the habit of meditating
on his sins follies & general short-comings

accustomed to solitary rambles
in the big neglected garden of Pembroke Lodge
he grew up a young recluse silent & shy
for lack of company of his own age
with a diffidence & difficulty in expressing
any personal affection or feeling

at 5 informed that the earth was round
he began to dig a hole in the garden
to see if he could come out in Australia;
told that angels watched over him at night
that they went away as soon as he opened
his eyes he kept his eyes tight shut
and making a sudden grab caught nothing

told not to read most of the books
in his grandfather’s library he did so avidly
and he determined to ignore all the things
he began to know he merely wanted to believe
and to be guided by reason alone

he loved human-beings partly because
in the neglected garden they were rare;
intellectual prowess is likely to be achieved
by those who have been solitary
and somewhat neglected in their childhood

(ITD&A 2007)

A Style All of One’s Own

The more I produced Found Poems the more I found my own style in what I think is a Pinteresque spontaneity and off the cuffness. ‘Style’ is a odd thing: it creeps up on you all unawares; it’s not something I ever worked at but it came without my realising it; I expect that modelling will have had a lot to do with it – Whitman, Eliot, O’Hara, Hardy, Henley, Pound, Service, Drinkwater, Lawrence, MacNeice, Newbolt – unlikely bedfellows as it might seem, but I think I have unwittingly acquired a bit of each and welded them into a sensibility and way of saying things.

A poem plucked at random from WEHenley will maybe offer an instance of the modelled tone:-


On a ploughland hill against the sky,
Over the barley, over the rye,
Time, which is now a black pine tree,
Holds out his arms and mocks at me –

“In the year of your Lord nineteen-fifteen
The acres are ploughed and the acres are green,
And the calves and the lambs and the foals are born,
But man the angel is all forlorn.

“The cropping cattle, the swallow’s wing,
The wagon team and the pasture spring,
Move in their seasons and are most wise,
But man, whose image is in the skies,

Who is master of all, whose hand achieves
The church and the barn and the homestead eaves –
How are the works of his wisdom seen
In the year of your Lord nineteen-fifteen ?”

The next found poem is from a novel by George Gissing who was once considered to be on a par with Charles Dickens as a novelist:-

it’s a theory of mine

that every one of us
however poor
has some wealthy relative
if he could only be found

I mean a relative within reasonable limits
not a cousin fifty times removed –
that’s one of the charms of London
to me: a little old man
used to cobble my boots for me
a few years ago in Ball’s Pond Road;
he had an idea that one of his brothers
who went out to New Zealand
and was no more heard of
had made a great fortune;
said he’d dreamt about It again and again
and couldn’t get rid of the fancy

well now
the home in which he lived took fire
and the poor old chap
was burnt in his bed
and so his name got into the newspapers

a day or two after
I heard that his brother
(the one he spoke of)
had been living for some years
scarcely a mile away
at Stoke Newington –
a man rolling in money
a Director of the British and Colonial Bank

George Gissing: The Town Traveller pp47/48


While writing Found Poems obsessively I settled on a particular form of expression. From 1990 onwards I’ve used lower case except for proper nouns or for emphasis and the only punctuation that occurs are semi-colon & colon with hyphens – such deliberate and meaningful markers: they add significantly to meta-meaning if only people understood their use. And now the title is always the first line of a poem. Mere affectation!

Thinking about it now, the seed-ground for Found Poems had been prepared way back in 1967 – I remember the circumstances of the precise moment when this happened:-

Warning to Guests

“You’re alright
as long as you consider yourself (at the centre of your being)
to be an idiot” I thought

it was something like this
that Socrates said

and variants have penetrated
the barrier of the centuries
with a masculine sense of purpose
Sextus Empiricus to Sartre

e.g., Meister Eckhart
to do nothing
to own nothing (in affirmation of your non-being)
to know nothing
opens you to God
(Medieval Thought – Gordon Leff
p 301)

all this somewhat confused or clarified
by the much later statement that Not-being
and Nothing were real existents

le néant

pardon me while I reach for the wall
of books and find out just what Socrates said:
the first step to wisdom
is to admit that you know Nothing
(The Last Days of Socrates p 26)
according to Plato according to a modern translator

visitors to this house must expect
to be piled up with recommended books
it’s very rude I know
and to show I’m willing to atone
for this seeming sin of
intellectual busibodiness
I turn up Gilbert Murray
(Five Stages of Greek Religion p 33)

I retract I like a pinched-snail’s-horn

the old man in us must first be crucified

it relieves me to know that
tea is ready

real wisdom is the property of God     maybe

January – Easter 1967

The Influence of Haiku-writing

In 1991, having taught the form to kids in 1968 but not done it much myself, I took up the practice of writing haiku seriously. It has had a profound effect on the way I do poems: there’s been a sharpening, a deliberate focussing and mostly a getting rid of western poetic contrivances:-

something there is

that now perceives a full moon in darkness
slightly hazy behind the thinnest of cloud coverings
behind the stark grasp of wintered branches –

a something – but in reality an absolute nothing
dreaming inconsequentially that it’s a something
by reason of the idea that it guides the scudding pen

across the page in the way it learned long ago to do
to produce a modicum of words – just sufficient
to say that there’s a something that perceives…

and so on and on; there will come other occasions
when it will choose to allow itself to be beguiled
into imagining that grand & conspicuous heaps

and heaps of words make some kind of sense –
all the stout metaphors and the dancing images
circumlocutions qualifications periphrastics…

but in these bold moments before this winter dawn
it has a sudden understanding that between words
– whatever words you so carefully choose –

and the infinite scintillations of externality there are
gross mucky swamps and dire deserts monstrous
mountains & galaxies that can never ever be traversed

(PC 2011)

After sixty years here’s the last poem I’d written at the time of doing Selected Poems:-

in a deckchair

on Cawood Castle gatehouse roof
by ducking down low
you can obliterate all visual clues
to the life of other ordinary human-beings –
it facilitates the observation of trees
both near & far with new spring growth
and a grand covering of clouds
swimming in blue: grey-black
cream grey-blue riven
with the screams of swifts
– their thin black scythes

unless you also shut your ears
you cannot expunge the murmuring world:
dog bark; chaffinches’ wide-apart converse;
an election address of sorts; the emptying
of merchandise on a pavement; an angry shout;
the hammering of wooden frameworks;
the lawns that must be mowed;
jackdaws ca-ing down by the river-wood;
all the indolent machinery of events;
children gaily returning
from some long angelic day of learning
and occasionally there’s ragged rain

the church a mile off begins
to strike an hour – you count
to a stop at four –
rather pleased as it turns out
that your afternoon still has time to read
about ‘the lip-clicks of worms’
and Edith Sitwell’s view that
‘the busy dusty world
is too deafened by the sound
of the machines that it has made
for the trapping & murdering of time
to listen to those sounds
that are clear as the songs of angels’


But time moves on and there are already many poems in my notebooks ready to be squashed into the computer’s gigantic maw.

August 15, 2014 (7:51am)


Books of Poetry

aoa 1989 The Awareness of Autumn
gulf 1990 Gulf
itw 1993 Invent the World
BiK 1994 Born in Kingston
SofU 1997 Svetlana of Urgench
HIW 1999 House in Winter
ITD&A 2007 In This Day and Age
PC 2011 Pseudo-Clarities
RoW2013 The Recovery of Wonder
TNO The Next One (as yet unpublished)
All other poems appear in Selected Poems for the first time.

8 thoughts on “WHY WRITE POEMS? (R12+)

  1. From Patrick Lowery

    Why do people write poems?


    From: ‘Memorial de Isla Negra’

    And it was at that time… Poetry came
    to find me. Don’t know, don’t know from where,
    it leapt, winter or the river.
    Don’t know how or when
    no, not words, not
    voices, not silence,
    but I was called from the street,
    from the branches of the night,
    suddenly, from the others,
    in violent flames,
    or coming back alone,
    I, without a face,
    it touched me.

    I did not know how to say, my mouth
    no names,
    my eyes
    were blind,
    and something began in my soul,
    fever or lost wings,
    and I made it alone,
    that fire,
    and I wrote the first, vague line,
    vague, without a body, pure
    pure knowledge,
    of he who knows nothing,
    and suddenly saw
    the sky
    and open,
    pulsating spaces,
    perforated shadows,

    with fires, flowers, flights,
    the revolving night, the universe.
    And I the smallest thing,
    made drunk by the great void,
    in the image, likeness
    of mystery,
    felt myself pure part
    of abyss,
    turned with the starlight,
    my heart broken loose in the wind.

    Pablo Neruda

    That sounds right to me, “my heart broken loose in the wind,” as if poetry cracked open something surrounding me, a psychic shell of materials unknown busted wide, and left me in the branches of a high tree. It was poetry that found me, a magnetic pull that allowed for lines like this, “I come from a line of lazy poets/poets in love with their own scent.”

    I’ve asked many poets why they write poems and this usually brings a sly smile to their faces, as if to suggest they are as baffled as anyone else, but along with their smiles come a story about a peculiar teacher, an odd sort of man or woman who turned them on. There is an old saying that poets are born and not made, and as romantic as that might sound, it also carries with it a lie, just as the old saying “all men are poets!” Just off the cuff:

    we hear the drum
    the wind picks up,
    and takes us,
    poetry must live
    on the skin of camels

    It was the Deep Image poets that came to me first: Robert Bly, James Wright, Galway Kinnel, Gary Snyder, William Carlos Williams, William Stafford, Richard Hugo, Denise Leverton, W.S. Merwin, Theodore Roethke, and many others who weaved image with very little narration. How did Ezra Pound write this startling little poem, did it bubble up from his unconscious – presto!

    When I first heard one of my professors stand up and read a section from Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass the air was charged with electricity, the classroom vanished and I was travelling across a universal psychic landscape. As dramatic as that sounds it doesn’t serve the unabashed freedom and transcendence that swept me up that day. Whitman’s poetic voice let loose upon the world by a single blade of grass, one simple image.

    Many teachers who teach make learning tedious and they can be experts at planting an image of poetry as boring deep in the young and unsuspecting minds of their students. Instead of reading poetry out loud (as it should be read) and doing some dancing with the work, they begin by having the students read and answer questions about what they’ve read. This sets up the duality thinking of right and wrong, and from there poetry becomes a dead fish smelling up their young, curious, and hormone fueled brains. Poetry is sexy and if it’s not sexy and full of adventure then what is it? If not sexy, it becomes another dried up equation, full of things like meter, metaphor, simile, rhythm, rhyme, and the dreaded iambic pentameter. Holy shit Batman this poetry stuff sucks. What to do? We’ve got to get some Alpha brain waves going in the classroom, alter their consciousness, take them on a trip of their own making.

    It’s a good idea to begin with their bodies, remember poetry is sexy. There are many meditation exercises that can be used to promote their A-waves. With their feet on the ground and their eyes wide shut, they can begin relaxing different parts of their bodies, from their toes to the top of their heads. Some kids will resist but they are the ones that usually travel the farthest, they intuitively have a sense about this aspect of themselves – big dreamers usually resist at first. Once they are relaxed they can tune into a teacher’s voice, and the teacher can then lead them on a journey. While they are on this journey they will encounter many images. For instance, if they go into the dark woods and come across a deer or a pond amazing images will be released from their unconscious. The settings can change with each lesson.

    Once their back in their desks sitting in the class, they can begin to free-write what happened to them. The rest is guiding them to use line-breaks. Now they have a taste of poetry and it should taste juicy if the teacher has done their job.

    Why do we write poems? We are natural travelers; we wish to visit the unknown if we have the right guide. This is our birthright. Poetry is multiplicity, a casting out to discover our energetic configurations that should give us a surprise each time we cast our nets. Poems are full of surprises!

    In a Station of the Metro

    The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
    Petals on a wet, black bough


    1. HaHaHa!

      I was idly looking back over this Glob today and got to

      this Second Coming is Lord Tump –
      in the pram
      with his Innocent rattle

      ‘Tump’ was of course an invention of mine but it only needs an ‘r’ now!


  2. As usual, Colin, I’m not sure which I enjoyed more – the poems you included in this post, or the autobiographical nuggets interspersed between the poems. So I guess I will have to call it a draw! I particularly enjoyed the “politics” section, and most especially your poem “in Adolf Hitler’s day”. As a youngster, I used to go on shopping expeditions to Woolworths with my mother, and I certainly never had the thoughts then that I have now, having read your observations! I was also very touched by your remarks on the conflict between time spent reading and time spent writing – an issue I struggle with daily as I attempt to read an ever-growing list of books on Buddhism and at the same time post to my mindfulness blog on a much more frequent basis.



    1. Thanks Tom. As always I’m so touched that one or two others actually read what I write and then respond…

      Ah, Woolworths! When other branches I was familiar with had been homogenised, I remember going to the one in the place where I grew up fully expecting it to be unchanged from the one I knew in Adolf Hitler’s time with its ‘Titanic counters’ and bouncy floors and shop assistants testing every light-bulb to see that it lit up properly! You can imagine my horror when I discovered that even my Woolworths had been vandalised and reduced to the common order. This must have been sometime in the late 1980’s.

      I had kept all my images of the real Woolworths to myself till I wrote that poem in the mid-nineties.

      When I got wind of the idea that they’d stop making them, I used to go round all the Woolworths shops I knew and clear their shelves of their ‘blue non-standard hard-back exercise books’ which were my favourite notebooks. I’ve gone on to Rymans’ 9″x7″ hardback notebooks now (excellent for the feel of fountain pen scooting over the paper surface!) but I still have one of the Woolworths ones left; I cannot bring myself to use it! Perhaps I ought to give it to somebody for Xmas…

      Watching the excellent film Notes on a Scandal the other night I observed Judi Dench going into a Rymans to buy a new notebook just like the ones I use now – I’ve been stocking up on those just in case Rymans goes bust! Things keep on changing…

      On writing & reading, I’m finding that now I’m in the habit of Globbing every book I read results in some cascade of things. The Glob I put up yesterday came out of a cognitive struggle to digest Herbert Marcuse’ One-dimensional Man which I seem to remember reading & abandoning some time ago, probably in the 70’s…



      1. I too struggled with, and eventually abandoned, Marcuse back in the 70s. So I’m looking forward to reading your new post and seeing what sense you make of his ideas now. It may well be the case that it is still too much of a struggle to read him in his own words, but I’m sure it will be the usual pleasure to “read” him in your words!



      2. I think Marshal McLuhan was popular about the same time or was that later? Anyway I found him very stimulating and provocative. Then I had a phase with Ivan Illich and others of his ilk. Ive just picked up a copy of The Aquarian Conspiracy by Marilyn Ferguson; they’re all in there! A fascinating read.


  3. Eric – McLuhan & Illich & Freire & other by-passed people … The chap who wrote Teaching as a Subversive Activity whose name I forget. Tippett & The Age of Aquarius. So much that’s been written now to be ignored or not known by later generations than ours! I was addicted to Lewis Mumford & I’m still very addicted to Herbert Read (not to mention Colin Wilson!). I don’t know Marilyn Ferguson – thanks for that! I wonder why I don’t get automatic emails re your site. I thought the Mozart poem was a great delight. Back to your site!

    Tom – I think that the ending of One-dimensional Man is so disappointing. Perhaps all that can be done is to effect an educational revolution which would entail a global revolution…


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