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Robert Frost famously, well, perhaps not famously but certainly reportedly, in the biography of him that I read a few years ago, advised his students not to write ‘unless you have something to say.’ I’ve cited the quotation before, but I come back to it again and again. It has a rider that changes what you might have thought of as its rather unhelpful finality: if you haven’t got something, he would, apparently, add, ‘go and get it’.

Having something to say seems to me to be an entirely laudable reason for writing, and trying to get it said might well be a long job, involving many attempts that either end up saying not quite what was intended, or failing completely. But there comes a time, I’ve found, when, only occasionally, one finds oneself, or to put it more bluntly, when I’ve found myself feeling that I have said what I had to say, and that consequently the tank is dry, the larder empty, the cupboard bare, and all other similar metaphors.

It’s an unpleasant place to find yourself, especially after that moment of euphoria when you first begin to think that you’ve nailed something (other than your literary thumb). I’ve experienced it in a couple of genres, I think – one can never be sure about these things – and certainly in poetry. It hasn’t stopped me writing poems, but it sure did slow me down. It was nearly ten years ago when the drowning of three boys in Ullswater challenged me to be a poet who wrote about something that mattered, or not. The Ullswater Requiem took several months to evolve, and I’m sure I’ve told the story elsewhere. But after it was finished, far from being the spur to a flurry of other poems, it created a sort of hiatus. I came to a stop. What else was there to say that I could say that would stand up to comparison with it?

To feel like that didn’t require anybody else to endorse my assessment of UR. It was, I knew, whatever reception it got, or whatever anybody else thought about it, simply the best thing I had written; the best thing that I had conceived of writing. I still feel like that about it, whatever level the poem stands at in relation to other people’s best or worst. It took some time to recover any sense that it was worth me trying to write anything else.

A similar thing happened to me on the way to this blog post. Nearly two years ago now, I wrote a couple of flash fictions, and then a short story (short enough to be regarded as flash fiction by some definitions) which had a similar resonance for me. One of the flash fictions (perhaps the starting point, and the least developed) has been published. The other pieces still have not, and, I suspect, might be impossible to place for a variety of reasons. A good friend and valued critic panned absolutely the one that I see as the pinnacle of the trio, yet, yet, for me it remains a high point: the high point when it comes to what I might have to say.

I’ve suggested to students before now that success as a writer is something that has, or has not, already happened when you put down the pen, or close the keyboard. Public, or private approbation, publication, is only the recognition of that already accomplished success. Success in sales, or celebrity is an entirely different matter, as Gerard Manley Hopkins or Nathaniel West might testify.


At the moment I’m wondering what to write that will advance what I perceive as my writing trajectory. I’d be tempted to say that it is ‘no easy place’, but I said that back in 2004, in a poem that provided the title of a now out-of-print 2005 collection (the poem, In My Claude Glass, was included in the Maryport Writers anthology New Stories for Old Stones).


When I was in my teens, and was supposed to be listening to various pop-groups whose names I can’t remember, I was fan of Stan Getz. Never heard of him? Or perhaps you have. Playing an Americanised version of South American music the faux-Samba hit of the season was Girl from Ipanema. You don’t have to be any sort of feminist to see the inherent stereotyping in this title, and you don’t even have to know the song. Like a diffused bomb, the eponymous woman was both made safe and endangered.

It was sung by Astrud Gilberto, wife of Jao (I know I’ve spelt that wrong, but am too lazy, and unconcerned to correct it,; and I know how easily you could, if you could be bothered) Gilberto, a guitarist and singer who collaborated (an interesting choice of word) with Getz, a tenor saxophonist. As a kid I had all the Getz albums on vinyl. I have a compilation on CD nowadays, but rarely listen to it. Gets, record sleeves told me, had initiated the venture, and Gilberto, He’s wife, had been drafted in to sing the song. I was happy to listen to whatever she sang, and in whichever of the languages she had available, for you did not need to know what the words meant to pick up the emotional freight that they were slipping across our borders. In fact it might be that, certainly with that most famous song, the tedious and trite lyrics are best left un-known, with only the sound to enjoy. After all, much opera is enjoyed that way, even in English so far as I can tell.

Getz played a soothing music in the main, which appealed to me then in the way that poetry always has: lyrical, suggestive, and valued as much for what it leaves out as what it puts in. That’s what as a writer I might call leaving something for the reader to do. I find the same quality in that Josephine Dickinson poem I wrote about only a short while ago. When you get us on the right emotional wavelength we tune in to our own hopes and fears and dreams, and fantasies.

There’s something else about Samba that didn’t come to me until years later though. It was when my daughter was at school in the early noughties and Samba Bands were what the trendy English kid did at school. I would never accuse my daughter of being trendy, by the way, but her school had one of those bands, which were, at the time, virtually ubiquitous.

In case you’ve never heard of them, because they sank without trace soon enough, in my experience, they would lend a Latino flavour to the most English (and Scottish) of local events. A phalanx of drummers, lead by a gruppenfuhrer with a whistle, would – and here I struggle for a verb…stomp seems not quite right – up the road, usually as part of a larger procession, beating out a complex rhythm, the shrill shriek of the whistle signalling the changes. The not quite part of it audience – and here another verb gives problems….shuffles is only the half of it – would accompany them, sheepishly, on the sidelines. It didn’t have the insistent fascist quality of other drum bands I’ve heard (along with pipes in Carlisle’s market square, exhorting us to hate someone), nor that of the little drummer boy from you know which old film.

Eventually the Samba band would take ground at the top of a hill or in a square and settle down to a virtuoso performance of its whistles and bangs. It was all rather heady, but benign.

How the hell, I wondered, did the kids learn though, such complicated rhythms? And here comes another link with poetry, or at least with language. My daughter gave me the secret. She was playing, she said Polly put the kettle on. From that old nursery rhyme! You can tap it out on the table. That’s all you need to know really. There’s nothing you can say, even nonsense, in this language, and for all I know, in any other, that couldn’t teach you some sort of drum solo, and no line of poetry you’ve ever read, or written, that can’t be tapped out that way…. whether or not it would be worth shuffling up a street alongside though, is a different matter….


Ah! A beer in Vetters Bar in Heidelberg, just off the Haupt Strasse at the Cathedral end. Bliss.

Yesterday reminded me I must watch Bad Day at Black Rock again, but in the meantime here’s some news about a poetry anthology under preparation in Cumbria and to which I was offered the chance to submit.

I was lucky enough to have one poem accepted. It’s one of several poems I have written over the years touching on the subject of dry-stone walls. The first two were written back in the mid seventies and picked up by The Countryman magazine (which actually paid for publication!). It was a theme I returned to for a number of reasons. One was that the stone wall has a high profile in the culture of the north of England, and does so even as far south as where I grew up. The Derbyshire stone-walls are as ubiquitous as those of Yorkshire, Lancashire and the Pennine country and of the Lake District Fells. They differ in building styles and techniques, some being of the dark – Satanic – millstone, some of the sharp, irregular limestone. But here in Cumbria too there is a similar variety – Limestone on Orton Scar, Slate and granite on the central Lakeland fells, sandstones on the fringes to the north and west.

It’s not just their appearance in the landscape that draws the poet’s attention though. Walls themselves, Hadrian’s or the Emperor of China’s, and later Stalin’s, Israel’s, and perhaps one day Trump’s, make political and racial statements about who they are walling in and walling out. Since schooldays Robert Frost’s poem has reminded me to ask ‘to whom’ they were ‘like to give offense.’ That poem, Mending Wall, appeared in the 1914 collection North of Boston. Decades later, in a collaborative publication with retired miner and embroiderer Kenneth Dow Barker, the Cumberland poet, Norman Nicholson’s Wall, inspired me with its lyricism. That poem focussed on walls in the landscape and how they were built, but it contained a simple idea, ‘built it to stand’, that became the core of my later poem.

I heard Nicholson read his poem along with others from Stitch & Stone (Ceolfrith Press, 1975) at the Brewery Arts Centre in Kendal, soon after, or probably at its launch and I recall him introducing the two long poems – Wall and Beck – with the explanation that he hadn’t had the time to write shorter ones.

Writer and stone-waller, Joe Smith, writing in Southlight  #13, cited one of my wall poems – quite a compliment, for I believe he can’t have seen it in print, but must have remembered a reading somewhere. That might have been at the Burns Centre in Dumfries, where I read as a warm-up poet for a mildly famous ‘named’ poet, whose name I have forgot. He reassured me during the after show hospitality, that I had been lucky that he had ‘not caught fire’ in his own reading. I have wondered since if he was the lucky one, as I would have had to hand only beer or urine to douse him in – and would have considered it a waste of beer (nobody can beat a poet at nursing a grudge).

To be published in early October by Handstand Press, This Place I know will feature poets living in the county. There will be launches as part of the Borderlines Festival, and at the Wordsworth Trust.

I was at a public rehearsal of Patchwork Opera’s Footstep a couple of nights ago. A multi-media group, of poets, songwriters and film makers, they had put together a story based in Carlisle (England), and which featured a poem by local writer Kelly Davis. A full performance scheduled for August 29th at Carlisle’s Old Fire Station.

In particular this caught my ear, because it was written in the Valanga form. I devised and named the form about ten years ago, whilst working towards an M.Litt at Glasgow University’s Crichton Campus.

The exercise wasn’t appreciated by my assessors, it must be said, but it served the purpose of allowing me to write a poem I wanted to write in a particular style. I had been looking at the pantoum form, and the way that lines repeat in a sort of ‘ripple’ down the length of the poem. That wasn’t quite what I was looking for. I wanted a repetition that would build, expand, like…I thought, an Avalanche! The poem was called Avalanche (originally, The Avalanche of Emotion…which was too much, and most of it wouldn’t need saying if the poem did its job!). I called the form Valanga, as a bit of a dig at the British (English? Establishment?) preference for Arts that aren’t home grown.

Kelly’s, to my way of thinking, successful use of the form, had resulted in her poem being taken for publication…but the editor had asked for some shortening…saying it was a bit ‘repetitive’. The editor, Kelly told me, was ‘forthright’: a good quality in an editor, especially if you are going to disagree with them!

The use of repetition is traditional in poetry (and elsewhere), but that doesn’t necessarily mean that that use must be for tradition’s sake. Repetition can be used in several ways (some of which, I’m sure I’m not yet aware of!). It can render a phrase, clause, or sentence (or even a single word for that matter) meaningless, comic even. It can add emphasis on each subsequent usage. It can fade like an echo, or like someone leaving, or crying in a wilderness. It can explode, like an avalanche, progressively filling our consciousness. It can test a form of words against a variety of background contexts that will give them meanings totally at variance with each other. It can make music, beat, and rhythm.

In poems like Louis Aragon’s Ballade de celui qui chants dans les supplices it can be heart-breakingly powerful, where the opening refrain becomes an assertion of human courage, endurance, hope and intention against the certainty of death:


“Et s’il etait a refaire

Je referais ce chemin….”


….Which I translate as:


‘And if it was to do again

I would do it the same…’

…which I know is not a word for word translation. You can find the poem, with a word for word translation in The Penguin Book of French Poetry 1820-1950, which I strongly recommend to anyone wanting to write poetry influenced by our European tradition.

A similar power, in a quite different context can be found in Josephine Dickinson’s lament for her late husband. From the collection Scarberry Hill (Rialto,2001), comes the profound and moving Instead of Time .

Again it is the opening lines that are repeated, this time with a slight variation to end the poem:


Do you not hear the sea?

Snow still falls on your grave

(I threw a red rose)

The wind still blows.


This stark quatrain of simple, single syllable words beats like a muffled drum, and I have testified before to feeling the hair stand up on my neck when I have recalled it to mind, let alone read it again. The first time I heard Josephine read it (she stood tall, slim, silent and motionless as a pillar of dark slate) not only did I listen in stillness and in silence, but without breathing for fear of breaking the spell; and that spell was woven to a large extent by the repetitions of these words.

At the other end of the scale, the repetition of a single word or phrase ad nauseam can reduce an audience to hysterical laughter.

Perhaps somewhere in the middle lies that tradition I mentioned, in the provision of choruses to both songs and poems. Choruses bring us back and send us round again, like a merry-go-round fun-fare ride, like a marching song. But it’s not only verse, lyrical or otherwise. I’ve even attempted a ‘chorus’ short story, though it didn’t quite work out that simply (Last Chorus in Burton on Trent, from Second Time Around, 2006). Repetition is a powerful tool of more general oratory. Can you remember Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock asking his members if they were ‘ready for power’, and by that repetition generating a storm of response that some commentators suggested he himself was not ready for?  And what about the Shakesperian repetition that undermines its own ostensible meaning in Mark Antony’s famous eulogy…Brutus is an honourable man…?

I’ve been an aspiring poet for so long that I’ve begun to wonder if I’ll become an expiring one before I get there; and after that, perhaps, an inspiring one. Which made me wonder if there are any other spirings to be done. Dispiring, for example, which might be connected to despairing. And then there’s the matter of Church Spiring. Did the word come after the structure, or was the structure named for the word?

There is of course, spiralling, which is usually associated with destruction, but surely could be upwards too.

The only answer was to look it up. I’m still in the Age of Paper when it comes to looking things up, and have a collection of dictionaries going back to 1659 (Blount’s Glossographia (of hard words)…which, as I’ve mentioned before on this blog, has in the case of my copy the word GLOSSOP in gilt capitals stretching half-way across the spine. The gilder, presumably recognised his mistake and decided to quit while he was behind…How he would got GRAPHICA on anyway I have no idea as he was already more than half-way across. Perhaps I’m being sexist, with that ‘he’, but surely a woman would have plotted it out more effectively to begin with?

Aspire obviously wasn’t considered a ‘hard word’, but Aspirate features with breathing, aspiring or influence.

From the sublime to the correctly lettered, I turned to the Shorter Oxford. Here were spires in abundance, and some of them, seemingly quite disconnected from each other. A thread of the two pages of entries…from Spiracle to Spirituous gives enough ideas, metaphors, similes and straight meanings to fill a small thesis; but at its core, I sensed the connection of movement, through breath, towards creation:


So here’s a creation from many years ago, not about spires, though perhaps touching on inspiration, but about that Age of Paper, and other ages, that might be passing:


A Premature Obituary


Poetry’s finished, he said. Yeah! I heard that.

And the wheel. The wheel’s off the road.

And fire’s out. Fire’s dead in the water.

But flint knapped blades are in, and obsidian.

Great for cutting meat. Useless with paper.

But paper’s done. That’s another thing off the books.


Don’t get me started on food. Sugar’s passé,

Sweetie. Fat’s in the fire, or would be

If that weren’t ashes. Salt’s old hat. We’re through

With that. All art and culture’s for the vultures.

It’s all gone out with the ark: obsolete.

Not a spark of intelligentsia left.


But some dodo, you can depend on it,

Even as we speak, ’s writing a sonnet.


(Mike Smith, c2007)

Here‘s a little review of Me reading at the Poetry Symposium in Carlisle a couple of weeks ago. Andy picked up on my idiosyncratic avoidance of introductions. It’s not just bad introductions I don’t like. It’s the idea that you can, or even should, try to prejudice somebody’s response to a piece of writing by telling them what you think they ought to look for, and find in it… If you doubt they will, then maybe you should have written it differently.

I’m all for discussions afterwards though, when they have found (or not!)…and maybe that’s the time also for any stories about where the piece of writing came from and why…which is really only of interest if we really like the piece (or really loathe it…which is still  better than not caring one way or the other, I suspect!).

The collection Andy mentions can be purchased here and there>

Andy Hopkins, with the help of a team of students organised by Ruby Evans, gave Carlisle its first Poetry Symposium at the weekend. It was staged at Room 8, Fisher Street Galleries, the home of Darren Harper’s Phil & Lit Society.

Eight invited poets were supported by a dozen ‘open mic’ readers, which merry (and not so merry) band held their audience of fellow writers, readers and friends from 11.00am to around 4.30pm, give or take a break for networking and buying from the pop-up bookshop which sold over £300 pound worth of local publications.

Most dazzling of all, for me, was the finale, during which Josephine Dickinson read her poem ‘Alphabetula’ designed, and performed to give the hearing reader an experience of the profound deafness that overtook her from the age of six. Astonishing is a difficult word. Is the astonishment a quality of the astonished, or of the astonisher? Whichever, I found the performance astonishing. Working at break next speed from a breeze-block sized stack of single sheets upon each of which was written in capitals a single ‘word’, or rather a single group of seemingly random letters, and which she flung from the pile to face the audience, Josephine grunted, squeaked, wheezed and harrumphed her way through what to call a ‘nonsense poem’ would be to do to (or even oo-bee-do-be-do) an injustice.

Forget Jabberwocky. With this poem we were not invited or encouraged to mould the gibberish to our usual grammar or to a simulacrum of our normal speech, but were rather demanded to look, and listen on, in bemused incomprehension – as those who are profoundly must often have had to do.

It was a break neck performance, not least because of the sheer physical weight of the poem being read…and make no mistake it was being read, it was a poetry reading, a mad, compelling soundfest of a poem, the meaning of which was not meaning, but incomprehension itself.

Writing this I’m reminded of Bob Cobbing reading in the seventies – he toured the Lake District one summer in the company of other pop poets on a poetry bus or van that colonised, and re-vitalised a series of car parks if memory serves -but by comparison his poems, broke down some barriers of language and languages, were models of linguistic simplicity. It seemed to me, glancing at the audience when I could tear my eyes away from Josephine and her crazed turning of the pages, that she was taking us on a wild ride, no less, I think, than we might expect from this mistress of words.

For those of an arboreal persuasion, let me say that the title of Josephine’s poem contains no co-incidental pun, as she will explain, when and if you ever get the chance to take the ride. You can take a peek at Josephine reading, and what the poem looks like on the page, here.

There will be another poetry symposium, I hope, and, I hope I shall be there!

We have an all day poetry symposium in Carlisle (England) on Saturday, May 19th, at the Phil & Lit Society on Fisher Street (Room 8, Fisher Street Galleries).

I’m one of the poets who will be reading. I have a twenty minute slot to fill. I don’t do introductions, or at least not the twenty-minutes-to-introduce-a-twenty-line-poem sort of introductions. It seems to me that if the poem doesn’t speak to you it’s no use the poet telling you what it should have said, and besides, the poem you experience is the one you hear, not the one the poet tells you that you are going to hear. So it’ll just be the poems, mainly, apart from a word or two.

There’s a Neil Young concert, with Crazy Horse, I have on CD – you remember those – at the beginning of which someone yells out ‘They All Sound the Same!’, and Young shouts back, ‘It’s all one song’. The perfect grammar makes me wonder if it was a plant…but either way, if my poems attracted the same sort of comment I’d have to give a similar sort of answer.

I set about choosing the poems I won’t be introducing.

I have a new collection out, which I should attempt to promote…we’re having a pop-up bookshop too, so I’ll bring a few copies to sell…. and I’ve included a couple from that, at the end of the reading.

But which other poems? Well, I thought, pick ones you like. Pick ones you’d like to have read if you were never going to read in public again, and who knows if you are ever going to read in public again? Who knows if you are going to make it through to the 19th of My anyway?

I discovered I liked quite a lot of my poems. That’s why I wrote ‘em, I suppose.

A.E.Coppard, that short story writer whose stories I rather like, published a couple of collections of poems, and he too liked his own poems. He got into a deal of trouble for mentioning that. Perhaps I shall too.

And then there’s the matter of which order you read ‘em in. I sent fellow poet Andy Hopkins – whose event this is – a copy of the intended poems, and he suggested which one I start with. I’d placed it nearer the middle, but the suggestion unlocked the logic of the ordering.

Start with the poetry, then the biography, then poems that matter, to me, and perhaps, if I’ve done the job properly, to you too. End with the poems in the collection you’re trying to promote (I added one extra comic poem – always good to end on a high note, if there’s time to squeeze it in).

There are several others readers, too good to be among really, and lots of ‘open mic’slots in between. The show runs from 10.00am until 5.00pm. Come along. Listen. Read. Buy books. Ask questions. Chat. Make sure Andy reads some of his poems too!

Rime’s an odd concept. I don’t mean that crust of ice that clings to cold metal, but the poetic technique that sings the last syllable of some preceding word, often at a line end; absurd, round the bend.

It brings us up sharp against the subsequent word, or down heavyily on it, logically without warning, but if the rhythm’s right, the poem’s like a song and to not get the rime, at that point precisely in the tune would be somehow wrong. Rimes can be weak or strong. Sometimes, when we hit them, unintentionally as we speak, they sound out of time. Some poets put them in the middle of a line, which is fine. Others, I’m thinking Wilfred Owen I suppose, does something not quite the norm – echoing consonant but not vowel – but no-one cries foul! (or thinks him a fool or it bad form). Riming two syllables at a time often sounds silly, weakens the line, willy nilly.

It comes down to the tune, more often than not, and whether it will scan, but there’s one poem springs to mind, where it does not.

I’m thinking of Robert Frost’s Fire and Ice where the rhyme scheme is rigid, but instead of singing like music, it turns each line to come down like a mechanism, a verbal steam hammer rather than the lyric of a song. Instead of marking a musical beat, it makes the line-end an anvil on which the sense rings true, and is beaten out on the two rimes in it: the words of the title, echoed, pile driven home: ire, ice. The fact of the actual rime of ‘Fire’ being ‘ire’ adds a little something that must surely have been fortuitous!

Find it here.

I wrote a few days ago about failures, of one sort and another, quoting William Faulkner. If you’d like to experience Me attempting to be a (failed) poet…here are a couple of collections where you can:

A successful poet, you might think, is not one that gets published, but one that nails the poem.

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.