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More than ten years ago I started writing what became a sequence of poems about the fictional character ‘Martin’. Between 2005 and 2011 about a dozen poems turned up. They were never exactly planned, but I knew them when they arrived, and not always because of his name. Often it was a tone of voice, or the ambience of the first few words to arrive that alerted me!

Several have been published, in Acumen, Tears in the Fence, Beautiful Scruffiness, and most recently, with the latest addition, Martin Removed, in the second Speakeasy Anthology here in Carlisle. Eight of the poems were gathered into a short run chapbook by the Carlisle based Freerange Press.

Over the years since 2011 a handful of new poems have been added to the sequence, and they have now been collected into a new edition in paperback and for Kindle. You can find it online here.

I’ll be reading from Martin? Extinct?, followed by a Q & A session, at the poetry symposium on May 19th, at Carlisle’s Phil & Lit Society (Room 8, Fisher Street Galleries), and will have a limited number of numbered & signed copies of the new collection for sale.


Acumen poetry magazine issue 90 is now published, and available here. With one of Mike’s poems inside. Other poems of Mike’s are in An Early Frost, which you can buy following the link on the image:

In the midst of this unexpectedly re-kindled interest in my Valanga form, here are the first and third examples I wrote. The first, of course, is where the name came from:

The Avalanche

We cannot speak.

Our past is spoken for.

So we must keep our silences.


Don’t catch my eye.

We cannot speak,

and I will only look away.

Our past is spoken for.

There is no more to say.

So we must keep our silences.


Nothing will change.

Don’t catch my eye.

We have resolved to wait.

We cannot speak.

The distance is too great,

and I will only look away

across the field of years.

Our past is spoken for,

in forests where we lay.

There is no more to say.

I love you now as then.

So we must keep our silences.


Our love endures.

Nothing will change.

Only illusions fail.

Don’t catch my eye

while listening to this tale.

We have resolved to wait,

and you were always true.

We cannot speak

about this love we share.

The distance is too great.

Besides here’s not the place,

and I will only look away

to see you in imagination

across the field of years

with tears upon your face.

Our past is spoken for,

and we do not forget,

in forests where we lay,

on paths we walked together.

There is no more to say.

Make no mistake.

I love you now as then.

It’s only hearts we break,

and we must keep our silences.












And I no longer look for ships.

We passed in darkness not in light

Where love falls unexpected in the night.


It seems so long ago,

And I no longer look for ships,

And leave the beacon fire unlit.

We passed in darkness not in light.

It’s pain that time from memory strips,

Where love falls unexpected in the night.


All loss lies in the past.

It seems so long ago,

And time slips by so fast,

And I no longer look for ships,

But sit with closed eyes on the beach,

And leave the beacon fire unlit.

The past is always out of reach.

We passed in darkness not in light.

Who learns the lesson this would teach?

It’s pain that time from memory strips,

Until we are alone at last

Where love falls unexpected in the night.


So keep the vigil on your side.

All loss lies in the past

Among the ones whom love divides.

It seems so long ago

We made our separate trips,

And time slips by so fast.

We’ve no regrets at all,

And I no longer look for ships

(There is no rescue yet)

But sit with closed eyes on the beach

To see what I recall,

And leave the beacon fire unlit

In case you see its signal flame.

The past is always out of reach,

And all fires burn the same.

We passed in darkness not in light,

But yesterday still grips.

Who learns the lesson this would teach?

By candle glow and lovers’ talk,

It’s pain that time from memory strips,

Beyond the sound of human speech,

Until we are alone at last.

I would be there if yet I might,

Where love falls unexpected in the night.



No Valangas here, but a collection of poems written overlooking Ullswater, and including the Ullswater Requiem.




There’s a poem by Me, showing on the Acumen Website (a guest poem!). Guest people, it is said, are like dead fish…after three days, they stink. Hopefully the poem might hold up a little bit longer. Here’s the link:

You can find more poems by him, Here.

I’ve noticed that with some poets and short story writers that having read one of their pieces I go on to reading another, almost without thinking. In the case of the poets Robert Frost is the one for me. I can’t seem ever to read just a single poem of his, but must skim through the collected works, looking for favourites to re-read, looking for ones I’ve overlooked, or forgotten or previously rejected. With other poets, even ones with stellar reputations, I find myself closing the book after the single poem that someone has told me I really should read.

For me this phenomenon, if that’s what it is, has become the touchstone for answering that rather absurd and misplaced question about who one’s favourite writers are – the answer, of course, should be, I suspect, that I don’t have favourite authors, only favourite writings. The fact remains though, that some authors provide several favourite writings, and others only one or two.

I find the same true with short stories. A few writers draw me one from one story to another. Elsewhere I’ve compared a collection, or an anthology of short stories to being like a box of chocolates…sometimes you savour one, and put the box away for tomorrow night….other times you feast greedily and clear the top layer, maybe the whole damned box!

Alphonse Daudet, the  nineteenth century French writer, is one that hooks me that way, especially with his simple stories of Provencal life from the 1866 Lettres de Mon Moulin. They lead me on too, sometimes, to the much more recent re-tellings of similar stories by the late Michael De Larrabeiti in Provencal Tales, in which the author weaves the story of his 1959 journey accompanying the sheepherders of Provence on an annual journey from lowlands to mountain pastures for the summer grazing. At each stop, like Boccaccio’s Decameroni, the shepherds tell old stories of magic, love, mystery and treachery. If you haven’t encountered either of these writers before, you should look out for them.

At present my head is stuck in Presence, Collected Stories of Arthur Miller (Bloomsbury, 2007). Not for the first time, I sat down to write about the powerful and intense critique of fading cowboy life that is the short story The Misfits – later filmed under the same name with Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe, but serving a strikingly different agenda even though Miller provided the screenplay. Re-reading that story, closely, and perhaps too closely for ordinary enjoyment, I found myself turning, when the essay was finished, to the equally powerful Fitter’s Night, set in a US World War Two naval dockyard and in which a working class man finds his true nobility and citizenship. So, as we say all too often, back to the pages….

There are some startlingly good poems in Acumen 86 – well, I think so!!

There is also a very interesting review, by Fred Beake, of Nobel Prize-winner Wanda Szymborska’s collection Map. I’ve not read any poetry by this writer, so am in no position to comment on the descriptive qualities of the review, but it seemed to me that one or two underlying assumptions about what poetry is, and should be were co-incidentally revealed, and were worth pulling out and taking a look at.

It’s curious the way elements of what we write, which are perhaps intended to uncontroversially buttress some perceivedly more important statement elsewhere in the piece, should spike the reader’s consciousness, like a thorn in the palm as we stroke smooth wood. One such element, early in Mr Beake’s piece caught me so. Commenting on the lack of information in the collection about the poet he says (and the speech marks are his) “some poets like to be anonymous”. It seemed a curious word, that ‘anonymous’, and especially so in the context of a collection of poetry with the poet’s name attached to it. Here’s a tip for poets who might want to remain anonymous: don’t put your name to it! But was it anonymity that the poet was aiming for?

A deeper implication interested me: the assumption that the context in which a poet writes is of concern to the reader. Behind that lies a further implication, which is that the circumstances leading to the writing should somehow influence the reading. Behind that, the idea that the importance of the poem (or of any other piece of writing) lies in what it means to the poet. But as a reader, you are entitled to read for what the writing means to you. The context of the writing probably won’t be the context of the reading, but do we need to know the former to benefit from (or enjoy) the experience in the latter?

The two are not mutually exclusive, but which way the balance of importance tips might well be different for the ‘ordinary’ reader, and what we might call the academic. Academics tend to look back at the creation of the poem, not forward to the effects. Because the effects are acting on a constantly changing group (and context), whereas the origin, arguably, remains the same, this might seem the best, and perhaps only practicable option. But to what extent does, or should the reader need to care about the back-story of a poem’s genesis?


Once you’ve snagged your palm your senses are heightened, and the next thorn was about popularity, which amounted in one quoted poem to ‘two in a thousand.” That might not make you a living  – which rather dovetails into another article in the same issue, but that’s another matter (mother) – but the late Norman Nicholson in his poem The Whisperer talks of searching for the ‘one face/Lit with the grace/Of listening’, which suggests a rarity. Being unpopular, in that sense is, perhaps, normal.

Yet, writers in particular seem to fall foul of the ‘high brows’ as soon as they are perceived as being ‘popular.’ Readers of the blog will know that I favour the ‘artisan baker’ over the ‘white sliced loaf’ metaphor when talking, writing, and thinking about the good poems (and other writing) I encounter from people that even ‘two in a thousand’ of you probably won’t have heard of!

Next came “inclined to duck the big issues in favour of the point of view of the individual’. This reminded me of that old Jewish joke, about the man who makes the ‘big’ decisions – e.g.whether we should leave NATO or bomb Syria – while his wife makes the little ones  – e.g.whether we should by a new suite and re-carpet the bedrooms etc. I don’t think it was supposed to.

Followed the statement ‘it is very hard to perceive continuities in this work’, which brings us back to the starting point, of context. I’ve already quoted this week, in response to a quite separate article, Meg Peacock’s comment about judging poetry by ‘looking for evidence of reading’, but it seems relevant again. Perception, and evidence, is about what we already know. We can only find evidence of reading by what we recall of having read. As to ‘continuities’, aren’t they like the answer to the question ‘what can you see?’ when someone is lost, and we want to know where they are? Could those continuities be ‘ours’ rather than the poet’s, or indeed the wider world’s?

It was the final thorn, though, that made me want to sit down and write about all the others too: ‘So I am reduced to asking “ which poems do I really like, and why.”’  It’s the choice of verb here that disappoints. ‘Reduced’?  Isn’t that the only question worth asking, and worth answering (with reasons in writing!)?  ‘Liking’ poems and stories is not something we are reduced to. It is what they are for, though I can recognise the word being progressively narrowed and diminished by its usage on Facebook and elsewhere.

But Mr Beake goes on to say more: ‘but I only take a small number to my heart.’ There are degrees of liking. Robert Frost is high among my favourite poets, yet of the couple of hundred poems in his collected works only a dozen or so strike my heart. How could it be otherwise? To like moderately, as Mr Beake says he likes many of the poems in the collection, is one thing. To ‘take to your heart’ as widely would suggest either being indiscriminate or over sensitive.

It is not in the poet’s or any other writer’s grasp to make us take anything to heart: That lies in the joint enterprise of reading and writing. The reader has to bring their sensitivity and experience of life, as well as their competence in reading, to enable a piece of writing to work powerfully, or rather, to recognise a power within it.

Of course, as soon as I write that, I recall C.S.Lewis berating ‘unliterary’ readers for imbuing bad writing with their own imaginings.


I picked up my copy of Robert Frost’s poems a few nights ago, to re-read Fire and Ice. It’s a short poem that I first heard read by Jonathan Price during a TV drama. It was years later that I realised it was Frost’s writing. One Frost leads to another (unlike, for me, Ted Hughes, whose poems have never led me on to read another!). I ended up not only reading a dozen out loud, in a voice as near as I can get to Frost’s, but marking them in the book. Laid out chronologically as published in my Vintage, 2001 paperback, I was interested to see which phase of his life drew the most hits from my dozen. As I suspected, it was the earlier years that got most of my likes.

This, of course, tells you more about me than it does about Frost, but then, reading is more about the reader than about the writer. That thought drove me on to consider the question I might be asked, which is if I thought those dozen were his ‘best’ poems.

The idea of ‘best’ poems – or short stories, or novels or plays – has at its heart an absurdity, for it obscures the more useful addition of ‘from your point of view.’ There can be surely no objective best – though I’d be reluctant to argue the seemingly logical extension that there could be no ‘better’ nor ‘worse’ either. What we should say is there are poems we like most, and perhaps have our reasons ready. ‘Bests’ and ‘betters’ though, give a spurious factuality to what can only be a subjective opinion – if that’s not a tautology – with reasons, possibly in writing, and that idea of factuality endows us with our spurious authorities and elevates one person’s likings above another’s.

Fellow writer Kurt Tidmore recently sent me a link to an Atlantic Review article about poetry. Masquerading as a review of a book, it examined the reasons why, writers and readers alike ‘we don’t like poetry.’ It seemed to me to say very little in a lot of words, but the little it did say struck home. My response was to coin the phrase ‘creative potty training’ for the type of poetry (and perhaps other writing) that we see published these days. Kurt hit back with ‘masturbatory narcissism.’ Both of us, I think, are agreed that much modern poetry has nothing to do with any reader, but only with the writer.

A retort of mine, too frequently used perhaps, when confronted with the ‘I write every day’ assertions of poets who have just read out – from their latest collection – something unreadable, has been to observe that I fart every day, but don’t bottle it for sale.

Behind all that narcissism though, stands a desire to communicate, to share, not merely with the mirror, but with ‘the other’. Stephen King, in On Writing  cites the ‘ideal reader,’ who is not necessarily, I suspect, the person most likely to understand or respond to what we have written, but the one we would most like to be!

‘Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in’

The line is from Robert Frost’s narrative poem, The Death of the Hired Man. Statements like this, which, even when uttered by one of the ‘characters’ in his poems, seem like observations by the author, are a major element in what makes Frost’s poetry so enjoyable for me.

In this poem, as in many others of his, there is a narrative voice that seems partly Frost himself, yet carries the hint of a put-on rural characteristic. Frost was, up to a point, a New England Farmer, but that was not all he was, and the seemingly colloquial voice that he uses in many of the poems could well be part of his strategy for drawing us in to the poetic killing zone of these pithy one-liners.

In another rural poem, The Tuft of Flowers the first person narrator is scything grass, following a fellow worker who, unseen has gone before him. He finds the eponymous blooms, spared by the other man’s blade, and realises that their common activity, and sensitivities, binds them in a more than physical way. This is neatly expressed in the final couplet, which is a reversal of a couplet used earlier on in the poem:


‘”Men work together” I told him from the heart,

“whether they work together or apart.”’


A less rural story, but one that also brings us to a single revelatory statement, is Tree at My Window. Here the two asymmetrical lines are:


‘You have seen me when I was taken and swept

And all but lost.’


As in Blue Butterfly Day – blogged about recently – the reference to human passions is oblique and almost slips by us, but the line gives us the point and purpose of the poem. It is not the closing line though, as it might need to be if this were a short story, and a further verse makes what seems more of an aside, than a summation, as the observer notes that ‘Fate had her imagination about her’ to connect tree and man, which of course the poet has done! He goes on to tell that the one deals with ‘outer’ and the other with ‘inner weather,’ closing the poem, and perhaps nudging the unobservant reader who might have missed the significance of those two earlier lines.

Not every poem, of course, contains such stand-out lines, but look at the short poem, short lined and short on lines, Fire and Ice. Three sentences powerful in their simplicity, the first two of two lines each, the third stretched out over the remaining five lines of this single verse poem, carry a meaning couched in logic, but virulent with emotion. The poem sets out a position in its first sentence, and an acceptance of it in the second. Then it sets out the opposite contention, followed by the reasoning for accepting that too. It ends:


‘To say that for destruction ice

Is also great

And would suffice.’


That couplet of four syllables, and three of them in each, stressed, imbues the poem with great power. It is almost as if Frost has dispensed with the setting, and gone for punch-line on its own. The structure is there, but the balance between context and statement has changed. This poem is almost wholly the assertion of its point. I first encountered it being performed by Jonathan Pryce, as part of a play shown on TV. At that time I still thought of Frost – as I had been taught to at school – as a sort of ‘nature poet,’ which meant, effectively, one who wrote about how pretty the flowers were. When I realised that this was in fact a Robert Frost poem….well…when I came back, my eyes were open to the emotional intensity, and human passion that lurks in the seemingly prettiest of his poems.

On a comic note there is the stunning ending to A Considerable Speck. The eponymous speck, is in fact some sort of creature that Frost, the writer, has momentarily mistaken for an ink blot. As it makes its escape across his unwritten page he recognises that it has intent, if only to survive. But the poem takes an unexpected turn with its closing couplet, perhaps the most satisfyingly unexpected, and perceptive, of all these punch-line blows that I have found in Frost:


‘No one can know how glad I am to find

On any sheet the least display of mind.’


Ouch!!  Worth reminding ourselves here, perhaps, that Frost’s advice to poets (and by extension to all writers) was to NOT do it, unless you had something to say….to which, apparently, he would add the exhortation, that if you hadn’t got it, ‘Go and get it!’

Facets of Fiction Writers Workshop member Hazel Stewart will be reading alongside Alison Barr in a lunchtime Poetry & Fiction session on Sunday 22nd May (11.00-13.00) at the Senhouse Museum in Maryport, with an open mic session included. All under the title ‘From The Margins   West ‘ Worth a visit, I’d say. There’s no admission charge, but donations for refreshments will be welcomed!


While we’re on the subject of poetry, which seems to have insinuated itself back into my life recently, and picking up from last week’s blog, I got to thinking about the nature of objectivity and subjectivity. One of the differences I’ve found, between the poetry of Ted Hughes and Robert Frost, is that whereas with Frost’s work, I go back to it again and again, because the poems I’ve read pop into my mind from time to time, I’ve only ever turned to Hughes because somebody has suggested I read a particular poem. There’s more to it: when I’ve read one poem by Frost, I almost always go on to read another. Whenever I’ve read a Hughes poem, I’ve closed the book afterwards. There must be something, objectively, about the two poets that makes for such a difference, but I suspect it isn’t the main reason. It’s the subjectivity of my own experience that makes me receptive to the one, and not so to the other.

The same way some faces want to make us see them again, and to make them smile, whilst others do not.

Word on the block is that there are readings by ‘The Shift Collection’ at Dumfries’ Stove venue, on the 18th and 19th of the month, followed by an open mic session on the 20th. That should be worth a look in too, if you’re within striking distance.

The last Wednesday of the month sees another SPEAKEASY at Carlisle’s Foxes Cafe – SO there you go! Me, in the meantime, watched with amusement by BHD no doubt, will be trying to extract, in good condition, the first few poems of the last few years from notebook 88, where they have miraculously appeared. I should be so lucky.

There’s also due out this week issue #4 of Cumbria’s own The Carrot, which includes BHD’s short story ‘Last Night’s Story’


Check out Me’s recent collection of poems written above Ullswater: here




DIGITAL_BOOK_THUMBNAILThere were 14 poems in the first projected version of An Early Frost, but they were whittled down to ten and then had to be boosted again for technical reasons – giving me the chance to bolt on the Ullswater Requiem, which was written in the same time period, and from literally the same perspective.

What surprised me when I finally got around to publishing them, was how many years had passed since they had first been written. In fact, it’s a decade now since the first of them was completed, and just over a decade since it was begun.

Over the years all except one of them has been published, or won prizes, or both (and that one, I think, appeared in A Gatehouse of Fleet window during the recent Big Lit weekend!). Then I was invited to contribute to a reading at Dumfries Theatre Royal (on May 5th!). I sent the collection in and said, I could read a couple from this, ‘as yet unpublished collection’. It was only after I’d made the submission, that I told myself it was time to do something about that.That’s what gave the impetus to self-publish. What I think of as the core poems of the collection were too few, I thought, to interest a small press, and perhaps they are too old now! It’s always possible to perceive as a problem the question of what to do with a poem that has been published already, and here was a whole group of them: written from the same place, facing the same view, and dealing with similar themes, in a similar tone of voice. Though they were written individually, they always seemed, among other writing of the same period and the same place, to hang together. The ones that were pruned out were pruned, not so much because they hadn’t been published, as because they didn’t have that tone of voice. These poems sound as if they belong together, at least to my ear.

The poems have appeared in several magazines and journals, among them Acumen, and the south-west Scotland magazine Southlight. A couple appeared in the Templar Poets anthology Octopus. Curiously, they have been taken as pairs and trios, as well as single poems, so perhaps it’s not only me who thinks they belong with each other! Ullswater Requiem was one of a different group that won a Sir Patrick Geddes Memorial Trust award, back in 2009, the first time the award had been made to a piece of creative work. It was written in response to a triple drowning in the lake, which I did not witness, but felt that I could not fail to respond to. I still have somewhere the handwritten couple of pages of A4 paper upon which the earliest draft of this poem appeared. I took it along to one of Chris Pilling’s poetry workshops at Keswick, where poet Meg Peacock identified some lines of blank verse in the middle of its half formed ideas. It was this that gave me the sense of the structure that it needed, and became the opening ‘sonnet.’ First three, and then five,six, and finally seven sonnet-like verses, borrowing from the structure of the Requiem Mass, took shape over the next few months. Each step in the process seemed a journey finished, but with something missing, that only longer reflection could, and did provide.

What surprised me, reading through the collection to look for typos and spelling errors – but not to correct – was how fresh they seemed to me, though the years have left them behind. It’s three years now since I worked on the garden that overlooked Ullswater and Howtown Pier, and looked out towards Steel End and Hallin Fell. I haven’t been back, though I’ve seen it from a distance. The place offered a grandstand view of the world it encompassed: water, earth, and sky, and the flames of my frequent bonfires. Sounds flew in along with the birds that carried them. People came and went. The Ullswater Steamers ferried their passengers to and from the pier, and wrote their passages in those ripples, as regular as Marion Richardson handwriting.

I feel as strongly attached to these poems as I did the day I wrote them, which gives me a confidence – perhaps misplaced, as confidence can be – that they are worth the reading: I have a file of some three hundred poems written in the nineteen seventies, and would struggle to pick out more than four I would still put before you (and some sixty of those have been published).

The cover photo was taken from the bonfire place in the old rose garden, looking to the north of west. The collection, An Early Frost, poems named and un-named written above Ullswater, by Mike Smith is available on Amazon, in print form or for Kindle.