Tuesday, January 31, 2006

More from UMBRA

This is another odd piece, which I later edited in a brisk fashion to make a much shorter and more structurally cohesive poem, but here you see it in its original form, as part of the lost UMBRA sequence I've been posting up over the past few weeks.

To recap briefly, for those who have not been following the story, UMBRA is a play for three voices: Barton, a retired policeman and widower, Stella, his grown-up daughter, and Umbra, the young woman who turns up on their doorstep, claiming to be the reincarnation of Barton's dead wife.

In this poem, Barton's nervy, rather mentally unstable daughter Stella - whose relationship with her father is claustrophobic to the point of being suspect - begins what turns out to be quite a rapid descent into madness. The focus of her new-found rage and madness, of course, is the newcomer to the house, the intruder ... Umbra herself.


watches Umbra with dislike.
She has come to supersede me.
She looks at her father.

A door, somewhere deep in the house, is being thrown open.
A door that has been locked for as long as she can remember.

He looks back at her over the teacup.
He is not looking at me, Stella thinks.
He is looking through me.

The sharp stench of death recoils.
She clenches her jaw, still watching her father.
Her eyes narrow and flatten to yellow slits:

you, tiger-carver, oak-grower,
breath in the face, fox in the night,
you, sliver of silver, the wound

that works inwards, peacock feather,
one gold eye of the daisy, sun god,
stone ship, Lindworm, shining water:

Green Man, moon shield, bright lover,
whistling falconer, seed on the wing,
trout-poacher, shade-caller, outcrop

on the battered moors, the mistletoe,
salt sea, mainspring, saboteur,
hoofprint, hot forge, death's head:

feast day, firefly, river raft,
laurel wreath, love knot, driftwood-dress,
Launcelot, thirty pieces, weaver's red,

skin-slough, bull's eye, reptile house,
fierce flame, kayak-stitcher, ice-water,
life force, floodpath, side-spur, far father.


Friday, January 27, 2006

slow ground prose

Apologies to those who regularly browse this blog; I haven't posted for three days, but I do have a good excuse, which is that I am up to my neck in other prose, trying to finish the first two chapters of a new novel by Tuesday. Only a self-imposed deadline, of course, but I've found that unless I impose a deadline on myself and take it seriously nothing gets written. I wish I could say that I sit down regularly at such-and-such a time and write x-amount of words or pages or for a particular length of time every day, religiously, but alas, it would be far from the truth. What actually happens is that I fight for time every day, and the time I do manage to reserve for writing gets eaten into by other responsibilities or interrupted by admittedly delightful children - my tiniest daughter offering me a mangled dolly to kiss or one of my boys poking their heads round the door and asking wistfully 'what you doin', mummy?' - which means that things move too slowly for my impatient style of working. I get an idea and I want the whole thing done, written, polished, sent off within days. It doesn't work like that and it probably shouldn't, but I sometimes wish it was possible. My mother wrote a short novel (55,000 words) over a long weekend once and she had five kids too. That's a long shadow. I wrote about 2000 words last weekend and may manage about the same again this weekend. Slow grinding.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Another poem from the 'lost' UMBRA sequence

This is another poem from the 'lost' UMBRA sequence; here, Umbra is reliving that first moment of disorientation as she realises that she is the reincarnation of Barton's wife and must leave her old life behind to seek him out. A little brief and fanciful, perhaps, but I think it worked better within the sequence, where the other poems bolstered it and gave it more fibre, if you like. UMBRA was very much a play for voices; a version intended for radio was performed at the Brasenose Arts Festival in Oxford in the spring of 1999 as a pure 'reading'.


into that swimming heat,
it was all iron and alcohol.

The first step crushed her.

The second step moved her.

The third step came over

like a wave on the shore,
beating its silver tongue
against her lungs, filling her
with the ache of recognition.

She was a catamaran,
arching her delicate blues
into the hull of an ocean.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Poems Like Pictures?

'Like' above is not a verb. Or is it? I was entering a poetry competition online today - hard to believe I could barely manage to send an email five years ago, and now look at me! - and found myself thinking 'what's the point?' You see, I never win these bloody things, never have done - well, apart from a Gregory, but I put that anomaly down to beginner's luck - and the poem I've entered in this competition isn't even about anything. Which then made me look more closely at my poems, or at least the ones I've written over the past year, to see how many of them are actually about something other than themselves, i.e. how many work on a variety of levels? And the answer, I'm afraid, seems to be 'not as many as I would like.'

Which then led me to wonder 'well, do poems always need to be about something? Why can't some poems simply be like pictures?'

But then, of course, the academic at the back of my head, the one with the annoying nasal voice, came in with the idea that even pictures are about something more than themselves, that they too work on a variety of levels. But the realist in me, the one who changes nappies and does self-assessment tax returns, said that there will always be pictures which are nothing but pictures, which are not allegories or statements or manifestoes or challenges to one's social conscience, but which are still accepted as 'art' by some expert or another. So why can't some poems be like those pictures and still work as poems, i.e. somehow managing to mean more than themselves?

I'll let you know if it wins any prizes. But I suspect you may be waiting a long time for that.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Death to the Literary Establishment

A subversive poet, calling himself U.V. Ray, in black leather and dark glasses - I think there's a sort of Christopher Eccleston look going on there - has asked me to be a Guest Poet on his website and I have agreed. I'm afraid I have a soft spot for subversives, occasionally resorting to subversion myself. My husband doesn't refer to me as 'a grenade in a small room' for nothing.

'Death to the Literary Establishment' says U.V. Ray. Well, indeed. I'll drink to that. And once they're all safely dead, we'll take over the position. You and me.

U.V. Ray's site can be visited by clicking here. Be strong.

Friday, January 20, 2006

More from UMBRA, the 'lost' poem sequence

As promised, here is another poem in the 'lost' UMBRA sequence (only 4 poems still exist out of about 40, due to computers that died and hard copies that disappeared). See previous blog entry below for details/explanations of the UMBRA sequence and reasons why I'm posting them here.


in the dry wrack of the house, listless
under the crooked arch
of the stairway, listening for weather.

Her blood plummets.

Her scalp drags.

Her fingers stiffen, pointing south.

The dark hole of her mouth rolls shut,
an oubliette.

Where is the line,
the arrow-head, the fierce unlocking magnet gone?

His absence hurts her,
takes away all purpose like the cracked vase
on the table, draining its blue veins
to a dark puddle of light on the hall floor.

What could she do, where go,
how to atone, retrieve the scattered atoms of her self?

The dark recedes.

The windows beat their pulsing heads
against the sun.

His body hangs against the glass.

She hears his mute key speak into the lock,
oracular, indelible.

The house shifts like mercury
beneath the pressing tide.


Thursday, January 19, 2006

T.S. Eliot Prize 2005: Carol Ann Duffy wins

It was announced on Monday that Carol Ann Duffy is the winner of this year’s T.S. Eliot Prize with her collection Rapture (Picador). The judges this time round were David Constantine, Kate Clanchy and Jane Draycott.

Speaking at the Award Ceremony in London, David Constantine, Chair of the Judges Panel, said:

‘Poetry matters, and this generous prize is a sign of that. Why does it matter? Because it is an intrinsic answering-back against the bad language all around. The medium of poetry is words, and words are in currency all around for all manner of purposes not in the least poetic. Indeed for several purposes which poetry must body and soul implacably oppose. It is against lying, against evasion and shoddiness of speech. Against all the ways of speaking and writing which reduce our humanity, narrow our sympathies, wither our ability to think and feel. Against all the forces of cretinization. Poetry is an intrinsic fight-back against all that. These writers – intelligent, passionate, witty, inventive – prove it: poetry will help us into what Lawrence called ‘a new effort of attention’. And it hardly needs saying that without that effort, without continual new efforts of attention, we shall drift into some final showdown engineered by people whose speech and sensibilities are, to put it mildly, lacking in nuance.’

I think there are some fascinating remarks in David Constantine’s speech, both above and in other parts of his address which I have not reproduced here but which can be found in full at the PBS site. What, for instance, does Constantine mean by ‘bad language’? Does he mean a poor use of English, an incorrect use of English by both English and non-English speakers, or does he mean using swear words, abusive language? A facetious question, perhaps, but it does strike me as odd that somebody complaining about the inexactitudes of contemporary speech should do so in language that is itself inexact and open to question. I agree though with the gist of his argument, that poetry is a ‘fight-back’ against the constant and inevitable slippage of language, that it can be used to shore up the ruins, as T.S. Eliot puts it in The Waste Land. Long may that fight continue.

But prizes like these, whilst celebrating the importance of some poetry, must always do so at the expense of other poetry. Following on from Neil Astley’s now infamous 'Stanza' lecture and other public remarks he has made on the imbalances within the contemporary poetry scene, it may be worth noting that only one collection on this list was published by Bloodaxe. With one Carcanet and two Seren titles also on the shortlist, it may be over-zealous to point to a continuing north-south divide. Yet the overall bias within the mainstream is still towards London-based publishers and, though I could be mistaken about this, southern-based poets. Of the avant-garde there is little evidence at all.

The T S Eliot Prize 2005 shortlist was:

Polly Clark
Take Me with You

Carol Ann Duffy

Helen Farish

David Harsent

Sinead Morrissey
The State of the Prisons

Alice Oswald
Woods etc.

Pascale Petit
The Huntress

Sheenagh Pugh
The Movement of Bodies

John Stammers
Stolen Love Behaviour

Gerard Woodward
We Were Pedestrians

If you’re a member of the Poetry Book Society, you can buy any - or all! - of these poetry collections at a 25% discount.To find out more about the PBS, click here to visit the Poetry Book Society website.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

finding spaces to work

I’m getting less and less tolerant as I get older. I'm not sure that's always a bad thing, since it does tend to highlight issues which more tolerant people would ignore, and if they don't get highlighted, some of these issues can escalate to dangerous proportions. Like anti-social behaviour, for instance, and the stress it causes for its victims.

One of my older kids was off school today - some sort of open day which didn’t involve her - so I took advantage of her presence to leave the younger ones and disappear for an hour or so. This is a rare event, being able to leave the house without my three and often difficult small children during term-time, so I was in an optimistic mood. I took a writing pad and went to one of my favourite cafes in a nearby town, hoping to get some serious work done.

Within minutes of sitting down with a deliciously steaming latte, three girls in their late teens walked in and took the table opposite. They then proceeded to make the most appalling racket for the next forty minutes, playing intensely irritating 'speech' ring tones at top volume to entertain each other, shouting down their phones at their ‘mates’, yelling at each other across the table as though they were deaf, screaming with laughter, throwing food and generally bringing my blood to boiling point.

The cafe owner seemed oblivious to the sound levels - no doubt the girls are regulars there, whereas I’m only an occasional visitor and therefore unimportant. If I had realised how long they would stay, I would have left immediately. But I hung on stupidly, hoping it was not as bad as it seemed, that they were only there for a quick snack.

Needless to say, my hour was wasted, I did hardly any work and sloped off in the end seething with rage and frustration. If it had been possible to do so without the usual legal consequences, I would quite happily have blattered their teeth out with a baseball bat. Snatched their bloody mobiles and crushed them to pieces under the heel of my boot. Dragged them into the toilets and shoved their heads into ... well, you get the picture. Not much of a pacifist, me. But when your time alone is at a premium and something like that happens, preventing you from working or even enjoying yourself in a civilised manner, you do begin to wonder how such a warped set of values could have evolved, how our young adults can be so completely uninterested in the feelings or needs of other people around them, behaving in public like overgrown toddlers and expecting to be indulged by society in much the same way.

Bring back National Service, that’s what I say! Bring back corporal punishment. Bring back hanging, et cetera.

Monday, January 16, 2006

UMBRA - a 'lost' poem sequence

One of the problems of working on computers is the thorny issue of when to back up, and what happens when you don't. I am extremely lax about backing up and have paid the price. Hundreds of my poems written between 1997 - 2004 are lost in the belly of the beast - i.e. inside one of my dead computers - and I have no idea how to access them and no funds available to engage the services of an expert on information retrieval.

One of the major victims is my long verse sequence UMBRA - later developed into a play for voices which was performed at Brasenose College, Oxford - of which only four poems still exist from about 40 in the original sequence. The rest are trapped inside a now defunct laptop which I was using while at Oxford. Having moved house five times since 1998, I have also managed to become separated from the paper copies of my older poems - where they existed at all. So unless they come to light at some point in the future, UMBRA is no more. No great loss, perhaps, to the literary world. But a part of my past which I would rather still have access to, if only for the pleasure of it.

So today I thought I'd post up a poem from UMBRA, and maybe the others that I have, slowly, in the coming days, to give them a little airing. They are certainly among the oddest poems I have ever written but they do deserve to be seen, I think. Indeed, the only reason I have these four poems at all is that they were published in the poetry magazine ‘Brando's Hat’ back in 1998, I think, and can be found at the Poetry Library website where they provide back issues of poetry magazines online. The rest are lost, probably forever.

UMBRA is a story told in poems - rather than a 'verse novel' - a storyline or theme developed through a sequence of poems.

The title character, Umbra, is a young woman who believes herself to be the reincarnation of Barton's wife, and feels drawn to take her place in his life. His daughter, Stella, feels threatened by Umbra whom she suspects of superseding her in her father's affections. Barton, who may or may not have murdered his wife, is both excited and disturbed by Umbra's sudden appearance. The sequence darts between the three voices, sometimes explorative, sometimes lyrical, often violent.

If there is a clear-cut theme in UMBRA - though I dislike having to discuss theme, which can be such a slippery thing for a writer - it's probably something to do with mental breakdown, with the odd disturbing shifts in personality that happen at that time, the inability to see oneself clearly, or as others see you, and the constant suspicion that your entire environment is somehow 'against' you, in a very real and threatening way.

This poem, 'Heaven to be out there, under', comes midway through the sequence and is unusual because it is written from the dead wife's point of view. She wants to communicate with her husband, to describe the experience of being dead, I suppose, but since the poem is told through Umbra's voice, it may not be entirely trustworthy. Umbra has begun to learn about and identify with the dead woman to such an extent that the boundaries between them begin to shift and blur from this point. Is she really the reincarnation of Barton's wife, possessing a direct mental link to the secrets and tragedies of his past, or is she simply mad?

Heaven, to be out there, under

she might have told him,
not rolling, but holding, taking

the thunder, a wild bird
into shelter, dredging the surf

of the storm, shimmying.
Hell, to be in here, realised,

torn to a stand, stripped
of these leaves, these coverings.

A cold hand summons the star.
Warm breath mists the mirror,

repeating the winter,
the dead season, where I

reel from the whirlpool,
the sucking in, the bright mote.

N.B. This is the first - and only - poem in which I have used the word 'mote' (speck of dust) more commonly associated with poor imitations of nineteenth century verse. Personally, my eyebrows shoot up whenever I encounter it in contemporary poetry, yet here it seems natural. To me, that is. You may disagree.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

The Schizophrenia of Translation

I've been holed up in my study for the past few days, translating some modern poems written in a Cajun French dialect into English. (260,000 people still speak French in the Cajun regions of Louisiana; the spoken language is quite harshly accented, a cross between the deep southern drawl of New Orleans and the sort of twang you'd hear from a rural French speaker in the hills above Marseille.) I'm just picking at the poems for now, waiting to hear back from the poet himself, but also trying my hand at some Jacques Prevert to get into the swing of translating, a poet whose work I've known for years and who is so frequently translated, it would be hard to find a poem of his which does not have an English version somewhere in the world for help and verification.

It's surprising though how quickly translation works its magic. The poet I'm translating was influenced by Ginsberg and the Beat generation, and I'm already feeling inspired to loosen my rhythms, stride out from the hip more, train myself to think politically. But not all effects are that benign. Translation does odd things to your head; from the very beginning, it forces you to engage with another's mind, with their 'voice'; it makes you critical of their choices where those choices conflict with ones you might have made or will need to make in the act of translating; it becomes a gradually increasing influence over your own work until the moment arrives when, deep in the Other's poem, the boundaries between you begin to shift and blur, and you cease to be sure where their voice ends and yours begins.

Then you have to reject their influence and pull away, recentring yourself as a writer. Who am I? Why do I write? What do I write?

Personal anecdotes, occasionally, on this blog.

I needed my keys this morning and, remembering that I had left them in my coat pocket last night, I went hunting for my coat. One of my three year old twin sons, Dylan, watched me in silence. After twenty minutes of fruitless searching, I shared with him my bitter suspicion that his elder sister had worn my coat to school.

Dylan suggested it might be in the car. I put my boots on and went outside to check. When I came back, still empty-handed, he was smiling. 'What's so funny?' I asked.

He smiled again and his eyes slid sideways to the washing-machine. Inside, I could see my coat and hat, squashed up against the glass door along with the damp washing. The little scamp!

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

William Oxley: featured poet at Falcon Editions this month

'The sonnet is, at once, the simplest and the most complex, the most personal and the most universal form in poetry ... It is a true microcosm in words: a perfect verbal mirror – when properly polished – of that greater macrocosm called life – of which latter we humans are a part.'


William Oxley is the featured poet this month on Jonathan Steffen’s new literary website www.falconeditions.com. I’ve known William for some years; we first made contact through the small press scene, back in the mid-90s. I was editing Blade at the time and wanted to meet the man who’d been responsible for editing one of the most notorious and influential little magazines in Britain, Littack, which had flourished and folded in the early 70s, two decades before I stumbled across Bloodaxe’s POETRY WITH AN EDGE anthology and was astonished to discover that people who were still alive could publish their poetry. I think I’d read some fascinating interview with William Oxley in Wolfgang Gortschacher’s superb tome on the small press scene, LITTLE MAGAZINE PROFILES: THE LITTLE MAGAZINES IN GREAT BRITAIN, 1939 - 1993 (University of Salzburg Press, ISBN 3705206087) and was keen to pick up some tips on magazine editing from one of the 'greats', especially one who had railed against the Establishment with his Vitalist manifesto.

Feeling a certain kinship with William’s position, I took myself along to the Little Magazine Store at UCL one overcast morning and found great pleasure in reading the original copies of Littack. I then managed to persuade David Miller to photocopy one of the covers for me, designed by Ian Hamilton Finlay - himself editor in the 60s of the Concrete poetry magazine Poor. Old. Tired. Horse. With permission, I used that infamous image of bomber planes as a cover for an early issue of Blade Magazine, attacking the literary Establishment thirty years later with the same bombers!

Sadly, I’m not sure any copies of that particular issue of Blade are still in my possession. So if anyone still has one tucked away somewhere ....

William Oxley is a very talented man, a sort of maverick figure in the small press world, constantly thinking and constantly dabbling in poetry - not only as a practitioner but also as an editor (he launched the Long Poem Group with Sebastian Barker and is Consultant Editor on Acumen) facilitator, organiser and now director of international literary events like The Torbay Poetry Festival. His poems have been widely published throughout the world, and his recent books of poetry include Collected Longer Poems (Salzburg University Press, 1994), and Reclaiming the Lyre: New and Selected Poems (Rockingham Press, 2001).

Among the pieces William Oxley has contributed to Falcon Editions this January are some lyrical, thoughtful and masterfully structured poems; several trademark ‘provocative’ articles on poetry (sonnets, cadence, the ‘designer poet’, the state of poetry publishing today); plus an amusing interview with Jonathan Steffen. I highly recommend a visit to the site; you can click on the link below after these brief tasters, my personal pick of this month’s feature on William Oxley:

Here are the opening lines of his poem


Alone or in pairs like penitents they stand
in unholy wind at the bleakest edge
of fields of winter-gutted farmland
where inedible ivy clings to crazy walls
and trees offer bare ideas of form and age.
Some wear coats like men in shabby overalls
or chamois-naked stand log-still
fetlocked in a mash of ice and mud.

And here is an extract from


The sonnet is, at once, the simplest and the most complex, the most personal and the most universal form in poetry. The simplest because it is comparatively easy for any poet-apprentice to get a grip on; simplest because nearly everyone – poet or non-poet – knows something about it e.g. that it almost always has only 14 lines; and simplest because it is the most efficacious, economical, tightly organized yet flexible verse-form ever invented – the Persian ghazal notwithstanding. The simplest and the most complex form because it is a miracle of containment in being, in vernacular terms, the fabled half pint pot that really can contain a pint. It is a true microcosm in words: a perfect verbal mirror – when properly polished – of that greater macrocosm called life – of which latter we humans are a part.

and another extract from his article


Consequently, this South Sea Bubble of Bardolatry would, sooner or later, start to burst (as now); and it is becoming common knowledge, what all real poets have known for years, that poetry does not sell. And all the subsidy, the hype, the prize-giving, etc., is finding it more and more difficult to preserve the illusion that, anyway, in poetry sales don't matter. For, unfortunately, to people like Waterstone's or Oxford University Press, they do.

plus two lively snippets from his


William Oxley (asked for a definition of poetry): 'Poetry is the dance of feeling among words. Poetry is not about things, but what the poet feels about things. Poetry is the utmost act of honesty.'

Jonathan Steffen: 'Do you think that children should be obliged to learn poems by heart in school?'
William Oxley: 'Yes. Having done some acting in my time I realised early the intriguing way in which even the most mundane lines can haunt the mind when memorized. How much more so the poetic.'

To read these poems and articles from William Oxley in full, click here to visit Falcon Editions.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

POETS ON FIRE - a poetry blog-mag and online resource


POETS ON FIRE is a brand new online poetry resource and magazine, launched today, to 'promote live & performance poetry in the UK'. Presented in a blog format, it will carry news of forthcoming poetry events around the country, readings & performance-based workshops. Discussions of performance techniques and short articles on every aspect of live poetry are currently being sought.

To visit POETS ON FIRE and read about poetry in performance across the UK, click here.

Poets, publishers and organisers wishing to advertise readings, performances and other similar events on the site will find the relevant details there.

Friday, January 06, 2006

Mark Haddon's debut poetry collection THE TALKING HORSE

THE TALKING HORSE AND THE SAD GIRL AND THE VILLAGE UNDER THE SEA -- Mark Haddon (Picador 2005, £12.99, Hardback) ISBN: 0-330-44002-0

Well, I finally managed to afford Mark Haddon’s debut poetry collection a few weeks ago - an extravagant Christmas present to myself - and took it home to savour it properly. I’d found the book just after its launch at the start of October in a bookshop in Exeter, and although I couldn’t afford it at the time - it’s an expensive little hardback at £12.99 - I stood there in the poetry section and read it cover to cover, laughing and exclaiming where appropriate, and no doubt looking quite deranged to the staff and other customers. It's a little annoying, having handed over my ill-gotten cash at Waterstones in Coventry, to find this collection now on sale at Amazon for less than £4, plus P&P. Harumph! But I suppose at least I'm helping to keep poetry afloat by paying full whack for it. Or the Picador poetry list, anyway.

I’ve written a full review of Haddon's collection for publication elsewhere, but I think I can get away with posting some comments here which either didn’t make the final edit of that review or have been tweaked a little to suit the blog format. Overall, I found this collection quite an interesting read, in spite of its mad title and its leanings towards the more laconic end of postmodernism, a tone that struck me as being both contrived and derivative rather than the natural voice of the poet. But hey ho, it’s early days yet for Haddon the poet -- as opposed to Haddon the children’s writer, or Haddon the celebrity novelist (he’s also the author of the multiple award-winning bestseller THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME). Plenty of time yet for him to decide which way he’s leaning and whether that direction’s going to suit him in the long-term. It must suit him perfectly at the moment though, otherwise a mainstream publisher like Picador would not be publishing his first collection.

So I enjoyed reading his debut and often found myself wondering where he would be going afterwards, how his work would progress, sensing an ambition which is not fully realised here - and how boring life would be if our ambitions as poets could be realised that quickly and easily! - and another poet beyond the knowing smile. The French have a warning sign on their railroad crossings, which goes something like this: Un train peut en cacher un autre. Here it struck me that ‘un poet peut en cacher un autre’ - one poet may hide another. I think in my own debut collection I was hiding behind about a dozen poets, most of them having been pushing up the daisies now for fifty years or more. Apart from classical authors like Horace, most of Haddon’s influences appear to be very much alive. I would even number his own editor, Don Paterson, among them. But there’s real talent here and a voice to reckon with. I’m looking forward to reading new poems from Mark Haddon over the next few years and gradually watching the real poet emerge from under those influences.

There were poems in this collection that left me cold and poems that I loved; the latter were generally written in a more personal voice, poems like ‘Cabin Doors to Automatic’

This is how we leave the world,
with the heart weeping

and ‘Old, New, Borrowed, Blue’

My Ella Live at Montreux which I hope he plays one night by accident and makes you cry.

There are also translations of Horace which require - and reward - fairly close study; these took me back to my days as an A-level Latin student (not altogether a recommendation, I’m afraid) but also provided clues to Haddon’s identity as a poet, how he sees himself, or would like the world to see him. Perhaps it might not be entirely fanciful to say, here is a gentle sensibility made cynical by the disappointments of modern existence, a poet who wishes life ran along more mythical lines but who fears the opposite to be true, pre-empting the arbitrary nature of things with these well-constructed, provocative and often wittily surreal poems.

I have much more to say about this collection but don’t want to duplicate what I’ve written in my hard copy review, so you’ll just have to buy the collection yourself - or wait until it’s in the library! - to find out what sort of poet Mark Haddon is. And in case you’ve been wondering, the title THE TALKING HORSE AND THE SAD GIRL AND THE VILLAGE UNDER THE SEA is taken from the opening poem, ‘Go, Litel Bok’. It’s an odd and cumbersome title that reminds me - in possibly an arbitrary fashion - of Dylan Thomas’ verse play ‘Under Milk Wood’. But perhaps that’s another clue to Mark Haddon’s real poetic identity - not the drinking, I should stress, but that deeply human response to other people, the expansive nature of his poetry, the delight in the absurd and the trivial, things which came so wonderfully to life in Dylan Thomas’ famous play, and which come alive in a similar way in Haddon’s best poems. More of the above, please. Less of the laconic.

And for those who haven't yet discovered it, Mark Haddon - idiosyncratic novelist, illustrator, poet and raconteur - has a fascinating and quirky website of his own - aimed mainly at his younger fans but with enough dark humour to make it attractive to adults as well. Go explore.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

Menna Elfyn, Sylvia Plath and Me

(Well, I can dream, can't I?)

The following lines are from a poem entitled 'Bags' by Menna Elfyn, a Welsh poet born 1951:

Plath said
that poets make the most sublime packers
each word squeezed in tight
before we sit on the case, struggle to get it shut.

Among my New Year Resolutions is a vow to write more poetry this year than last; not a difficult target to reach, since I wrote mainly prose last year. But a novel is such a vast - and leisurely - canvas in comparison to poetry's postage stamp medium, and more forgiving too. So I will need to adjust my mind-set. The above quotation from Menna Elfyn's poem says it well; time to squeeze hard, shut tight, pack it all into the smallest space possible. But would avant-garde writers agree? I think perhaps, inevitably, there would be the corner of a hanky sticking out of my case, or the hem of a dress trailing in the dust of a platform. Everything always just about to burst spectacularly open ... or perhaps that's a post-Christmas feeling, brought on by too much pudding and rum sauce.

Happy New Year!

N.B. Menna Elfyn's poem 'Bags' will be published in full this month in Poetry Wales. Like all Menna's poems it was written in Welsh - the translation is by Elin ap Hywel.