Since I last posted about poetry stuff, I’ve read at the Poetry Café alongside Chris Hardy and Chrys Salt, which was a really enjoyable evening, not least because there was fantastic music too, and read another poem at The Troubadour, so I feel more than ready for my reading, again alongside Chris, this coming Sunday, at the Torriano.

Me at Poetry Cafe Feb 2018
(Photo taken by Chrys Salt)

Writing has been slow of late. I’m not sure that spring’s delayed arrival has helped – it feels like it’s never going to hang around properly at the minute. The Beast from the East #1 led to the postponement of a Poetry Business Writing Programme session and I can’t make the rescheduled date this Saturday, when the Beast from the East #2 is due, so that’s a real pity. I am though, looking forward to attending the monthly Poetry Business workshop session in Sheffield on Easter weekend.

On the reading front, I’ve been immersed in, among others, more John Berger books, and trying to precipitate spring by (re-)reading William Carlos Williams, who wrote more poems about spring than probably anybody else. I’m about to start reading some Bertolt Brecht poems, alas not in the original since my German doesn’t extend much beyond asking for a beer and a light, from a summer I (happily mis-)spent in West Berlin when I was 20.



“Art is an organised response to what nature allows us to glimpse occasionally.”
— John Berger, from ‘The White Bird’, Landscapes, John Berger on Art,
ed. Tom Overton, London: Verso Books, 2016.


Yesterday, wearing more layers than a bag of onions as protection against ‘the Beast from the East’, my wife Lyn and I walked along the River Wey from Guildford to Send, near Woking, changing banks as the towpath required. In the mid Seventeenth Century, the river was channelled from Godalming to its confluence with the Thames at Weybridge to form the Wey Navigations, but as we followed the many bends it certainly didn’t feel as though it had been straightened and canalized very much at all. At times, we trudged and slid through very boggy mud, and found it much tougher going than our previous venture along the route last spring. Occasional runners did well to keep their footing. But the sections of the towpath which the strong, all-day sun didn’t reach were caked hard and still silvered with frost.

There was little in the way of wildlife. Three mallard drakes circled an unimpressed female. The odd few Canada geese swam past rather desultorily. A couple of celandines spread out their petal tips to mirror and soak up the sunshine. The highlight was a cow, knee-deep in water that didn’t seem able to figure out how to extricate itself from the river and back up into its field. Later, near Papercourt Lock, we came across more cattle, a herd of red polls, standing their ground along the path we had to take towards a stile. They wouldn’t budge. On the way to Woking, where last year we saw lapwings tumbling in their courtship display, there was little doing.

Near Send


Two hundred men, hardened
by battling for England’s soul,
dig far and deep and wide, embedding
bricks from Oatlands Palace
in the base and sides, recycling
its better timber for lock after lock,
and adding, in just two years,
nine miles of re-direction
to the wayward Wey, until
their third spring of labour,
when eight-blade stitchwort clusters
on the banks, meadow-edge alders
explode with titmouse giddiness,
and the young gentleman paces
a broad enough berth around
nesting swans, one dandelion day,
as orange-tips take to the wing,
for the slow-running waters to meet,
at Papercourt, to make his father’s
navigational scheme complete.

Reviews in Presence 59

Below are my reviews of three haiku books in Presence #59.


Ghost Moon, Mark Gilfillan
Alba Publishing, PO Box 266, Uxbridge, UB9 5NX, UK; €14/£12/ US$15,
104pp., ISBN 978-1-910185-68-1.

On the Edge, Tim Gardiner
Brambleby Books, 15 Lyngford Square, Taunton, TA2 7ES, UK, £6.99,
62pp ISBN 978-1-908241-53-5.

Ghost Moon consists of 99 haiku, which seem to have been collated without any attempt to put them into a logical sequence or to weed out poems which have little or nothing to recommend them. The lack of thematic unity makes for a rollercoaster ride of subject-matter – just within the first 10 pages, we’re taken from very English scenes, involving conkers, slippers and an honesty-box, all the way to Uluru and Louisiana. That could, if one were feeling charitable, conversely be considered a virtue, but, alas, there is an overall lack of quality.

For example, Gilfillan has a predilection for anthropomorphic, military metaphors: ‘a squadron of geese / fly over / winter’s victory’, ‘by the cold stream / a heron / stands guard’, ‘dandelion spores / silent paratroopers / hanging on the breeze’ and ‘from the train window / pylon platoons / regroup’. Surely it’s of much more lasting value to write haiku which describe natural and man-made objects on their own terms, i.e. it’s almost always best just to “say what you see”, as Roy Walker used to implore on Catchphrase, though ideally in an original way, rather than to say what you think or, worse still, over-think. To his credit, Gilfillan occasionally does try to do that, e.g. in ‘branch to branch / releasing sudden snowfalls / these sharp-eyed rooks’, but here the well-caught immediacy of the moment is somewhat spoiled by the superfluity of ‘sudden’ since the word ‘releasing’ implies a sudden movement. On occasion, though, he happily delivers the goods:

log scattered boats
the slow sweep
of the river                                                         

wooden bridge
a koi carp’s slow rise
to kiss a cloud

In both these, Gilfillan’s clear focus is on what he perceives, without a layer of cerebral commentary. The phrase ‘log scattered boats’, though it would be improved by a hyphen between ‘log’ and ‘scattered’, draws the reader in because it’s not run-of-the-mill wording and it shows an aspect of the world in a fresh, simple and therefore effective manner. One could argue that the haiku has room for an adjective before ‘river’, but that might just over-egg it, so the restraint, intentional or not, is, on balance, probably right. In the other haiku, I’m not sure if the phrasing is entirely original given the preponderance of ‘reflection-in-water’ haiku (not that I’m implying any plagiarism), but it’s a beautifully poised poem which reads well and sounds lovely, with the double alliteration. Unfortunately, the excellence of this haiku is somewhat undone by the inclusion in the book of a much poorer one which repeats its key verb use: ‘rising trout / kiss the surface / ………looks like rain’. 

Ghost Moon includes more than a few poems which are over-reliant on puns (‘The British Library / this silence / speaks volumes’), or attempts at ‘irony’ (the wretched ‘health and safety / the execution chamber’s / sterilized needle’); include more anthropomorphism (‘harbour dancing / one hundred / white sails’) or unnecessary meta-commentary of sorts (‘outpatients / we’re still waiting / batteries running low’); or even, in one instance, coin a conspicuous archaism (‘standing to attention / afront the war memorial / a tulip parade’). But Gilfillan can – and does – write nice haiku, so I’ll end with one which I really like (albeit that the impact of the mild but effective pathetic fallacy of ‘curious’ is diminished by also being ascribed to a dog elsewhere in the book): ‘slowly rising / behind the terrace / a curious moon’.

I’ve said it before and I’ll keep on saying it: publishing a collection of haiku, or any poems, too soon in a writing career does no-one any favours, least of all the writer concerned. There is, of course, a certain amount of bravery to be admired on the part of anyone who puts their work out into the world; however, it is always advisable first to reflect objectively and fully on that work, and to consider how it compares with that of writers whose collections have been published to critical acclaim.


On the Edge is subtitled as ‘a collection of short poems inspired by the landscape of the Peak District’ and consists of 97 haiku, grouped by theme, e.g. ‘Vales and Dales’, and then by location, e.g. ‘Dovedale’, with some accompanying black and white photographs taken by Gardiner. Some of the haiku are prefixed by straightforward descriptions of the locations and natural features, such as Mam Tor and Blue John Cavern. As such, the book is clearly aimed as much at visitors to the Peak District as it is at haiku aficionados. Since he’s an ecologist with a particular interest in grasshoppers and crickets, Gardiner’s eye is often scientifically forensic yet his poetry aims at simplicity of expression:

blind summit
the autumn mist
goes on and on

a fresh flush
of old man’s beard
the path narrows

These aren’t earth-shatteringly great haiku, but they have a pleasing understatement about them. Collins English Dictionary defines a ‘blind summit’ as “a point on a road where a vehicle approaching the top of a hill or incline cannot see vehicles approaching up the other side of the hill”, but in analysing this haiku, maybe one should substitute ‘walkers’ for ‘vehicles’; either way, all those ems seem somehow reflective of the surrounding mist and the poem hints at the inherent danger of the situation. The second haiku again uses the sounds of the words well: ‘a fresh flush’ is a delightful way of saying ‘a new bloom / flowering / efflorescence’. The specificity in the second line could refer to one of several plants (and a lichen), all of which have a whiteness that gives them their common name. The third line is, at first glance, rather throwaway; however, again, it may be hinting at the risks of clambering around the edges of the Peaks, to which I can readily testify.

The book would have benefited from the omission of a number of haiku which are merely descriptive (e.g. ‘laughing lovers / walk hand in hand / several paces ahead’ or ‘redundant water trough full of ferns’), and one could be for forgiven for not knowing whether the wording under some of the photographs is meant to be a haiku or a caption. Writing repeatedly about place or on a theme inevitably brings a tendency to straightforward depiction, and consequently the weaker haiku in On the Edge are perhaps more tolerable and excusable in such a context than, as is the case with Mark Gilfillan’s book, if they are more varied. Like Gilfillan’s, some of Gardiner’s fall into the trap of meta-commentary, e.g. how the third lines unnecessarily summarise or comment upon the first two lines in ‘dog wallowing / in cotton grass / happiness again’ and in ‘crimson petals / adorn the well dressing / old habits die hard’ (pun apparently intended), or project human characteristics onto nature (‘quiet clough / a lonely peregrine / hovers over me’). On the whole, though, the haiku convey the Peaks’ mystery and beauty, both macroscopic and microscopic, with more than a strong dose of yūgen:

rutting season
from the old coppice
a stag’s silence

dung fly
from wiry rushes
a lapwing calls

In the first of these, the two ‘-ce’ sounds at the ends of the second and third lines combine superbly to make a happy twist where the reader might, instead, have expected a bellowing. The precision of the second haiku is admirable and provides a fine example of deft use of an adjective.

The photographs fit very neatly with the prevailing, slightly melancholic moods of the haiku, and the overall book is very nicely produced by Brambleby Books, a small, generalist press.

naad anunaad, eds. Kala Ramesh, Sanjuktaa Asopa and Shloka Shankar
Vishwakarma Publications, 283 Budhwar Peth, Near City Post, Pune, 411002, India; ₹340,  ISBN 978-93-85665-33-2.

Described as ‘an anthology of contemporary world haiku’ and ‘the first international haiku anthology to come from India’, naad anunaad serves its immediate aim of presenting contemporary haiku – 746 of them, by 231 poets from India and 25 other countries – to a readership (in India and beyond) unfamiliar, or largely so, with the form. Most of the poets, presented in alphabetical order by their forename, are well-known in the Anglophone haiku world, though the selections per poets are generally too small, mostly two or three per poet, to gain a real sense of their distinctiveness. For that reason, the anthology leans towards homogeneity and tantalises the reader with titbits. That a few poets – the likes of Jim Kacian, John Stevenson, Marlene Mountain and Kala Ramesh herself – are afforded a maximum selection of 12 (with the other two editors having eight each, which feels undeservedly high) only highlights the unjust fact that other notables – such as John Barlow, David Cobb, Cor van den Heuvel, Ferris Gilli, Lee Gurga, Martin Lucas and Lenard D. Moore – are afforded only a third or a quarter of that number, and others, like Tito and Billie Wilson, are each unsatisfactorily represented by just a token one. On the plus side, it’s good to see an anthology with a healthy gender balance, which no doubt wouldn’t have been the case had the three editors been men.

It’s interesting, though, to see so many – 81 – Indian poets represented, plus one from Bangladesh, most of whom might otherwise not get a look-in. Their best contributions reflect the geographical, socioeconomic, religious and other diversity within that great country, e.g. ‘temple tank— / near the stone bull / a real bull’ (Ajaya Mahala), ‘confused drunk . . . / not knowing when to zig / and when to zag’ (Gautam Nadkarni), ‘clear sky — / the vendor sells clouds / of cotton candy’ (Geethanjali Rajan), ‘drop by drop / it becomes a river — / sound of rain’ (Harleen Kaur Sona), and plenty of others besides.

As with any anthology, there are notable absences who spring readily to mind: from these shores, Frances Angela, Annie Bachini, Simon Chard, Keith Coleman, Caroline Gourlay, Matt Morden, Thomas Powell, Stuart Quine, Fred Schofield, Alison Williams and the late Ken Jones and Bill Wyatt are all at least as eminent as most of the 16 UK-based poets who are included; from the USA, Jack Barry, Mike Dillon, Garry Gay, Burnell Lippy, John Martone, Marian Olson, Wally Swist and Hilary Tann are all missing; etc., etc. Maybe some of these poets were invited but declined to participate. Whatever the reasons, these omissions are unfortunate, like the imbalance in the numbers of haiku per poets who are included, because readers who don’t know any better will presume that such an anthology as this provides the best work of the very best contemporary haiku poets. I don’t wish for a moment to trivialise the difficulties involved in putting together such an ambitiously wide-ranging anthology, but there’s an inherent flaw in trying to survey a field without first acquainting oneself with it thoroughly.

It closes with 33 passable haiku by children and young people, which rather undermines the point of the anthology, i.e. that haiku “resonate”, as the back-cover blurb puts it, because it shows that writing formulaic haiku to a decent level doesn’t even necessitate being an adult. But, crucially, becoming a consistently good haiku poet requires originality of perception and expression and a certain amount of flair born of experience and intense practice, i.e. that can’t be achieved overnight or even after just a year or two.

This book does have some good stuff in it, including some old favourites; ultimately, though, like most anthologies, it tries to please too many audiences and in so doing is a bit of mish-mash. That could, though, be perceived as a virtue, since its selections are somewhat eccentric.

Feverish February

So where did January go? February, it seems, has a strange etymology.

I’ve really enjoyed reading Stepping Stones – I can’t say I was ever the greatest fan of Seamus Heaney, but the book has sent me back to the poems and opened my eyes to their brilliance. I especially love the first half of Wintering Out, where the poems feed into each other, and his Williamsesque / Creeleyesque quatrains have a tautness which perfectly matches the content.

I went to the first Poetry Biz Saturday workshop of the year a fortnight ago, which was remarkably productive for me: I got four reasonably good poems out of it, I think, and I’ve written several more since; so I feel like I’m writing a fair amount, which is always a lovely feeling. One of the more recent ones was influenced form-wise by Yeats’s extraordinary poem ‘The Fascination of What’s Difficult’, which is unlike anything else he wrote as far as I can see.

I’m off to the Troubadour tomorrow for the first Coffee-House session of the year. I’m not reading this time, so I can sit back and relax and enjoy a series of terrific poets, among them my fellow Eyewear poet Stewart Carswell , before the second half extravaganza featuring a quartet of poets and performers, including wonderful Sasha Dugdale.

On Wednesday, I’m meeting up with my friend Hamish Ironside, whose second haiku collection, Three Blue Beans in a Blue Bladder, has just been published by Peter Mortimer’s Iron Press. To my mind, Hamish is up there with David Cobb as the best and funniest senryu poet in Britain and beyond.

But I tell myself again and again that the main thing is to keep writing and keep editing the poems, because they won’t happen otherwise! Here’s a throwaway one which I wrote on the Poetry Biz session:


The Horniman Museum walrus
has taken up swimming again:

every Friday, an hour till dawn,
he flim-flams to Brockwell Lido,

breaststrokes leisurely lengths,
forgets how many he manages,

& hitches a ride back incognito
on his old pal Bryan’s milk float.

New Year news

The Mary Evans Picture Collection has a poetry blog which publishes poems inspired by, or linked to, pictures in their library. My poem ‘Beuys Don’t Cry’ is on there.

Also, I have a few readings coming up:

19 February, 8pm: Coffee-House Poetry at The Troubadour, 263 Old Brompton Road, Earl’s Court, SW5

23 February, 8pm: Fourth Friday, Poetry Café, Betterton Street, London, WC2H 9BX

18 March, 7.30: Torriano Meeting House, 99 Torriano Avenue, Kentish Town, NW5 2RX


On the Poetry Biz Writing School front, I’ve now been grouped with Ramona Herdman and David Underdown for exchanging and critiquing poems and sharing views on certain books – amongst others, we’re each reading Stepping Stones, the great Dennis O’Driscoll’s interviews with Famous Seamus himself, and Richard Murphy’s 1963 neglected but brilliant collection, Sailing to an Island.

On Useful Toil

One of the books I’ve been dipping into of an evening is John Burnett’s Useful Toil, his 1974 compendium of pieces from ‘autobiographies of working people from the 1820s to the 1920s’ and it’s served to remind me how lucky I am to have been born and raised where and when I was, with privileges that I’ve too often taken for granted, rather than working all hours for a pittance, or worse. It’s also become abundantly clear to me that those, like my grandmother, who went straight from their rudimentary schooling into domestic service were regarded as the lowest of the low; it was always the last resort, it seems, however much of a gloss anyone might put on it. Clearly, it depended on whom they worked for: my mother insists that my grandmother’s employer, the Dean of Westminster Abbey, was a kindly soul. It seems absurd that such servitude still exists in this day and age.

Yesterday, I went to see the Courtauld’s fantastic exhibition of Soutine’s 1920s portraits of cooks, waiters and bellboys at Parisian hotels and clubs. Seen together, the pictures transmit the warmth of feeling and empathy of an artist who knew first-hand how hard the ‘lower classes’ worked to get by. Later, having walked down the Strand to the National to get a fix of the Rembrandts, I exited from the back, and as Orange Street curved round to the Charing Cross Road, I saw a young chef vaping.

All of that has somehow conflated into this semi-ekphrastic poem:


the young patissier    uses his breaks
to mango vape    beside the fire escape

he stands off-centre    lop-sided    feet splayed
left hand clutching    the bulging of his waist

his right elbow leans    for pleasure not weight
upon air    a leer on his palsied face

I can’t help but pose    exactly the same
unconsciously perhaps    my off-kilter way


It’s been a year of poetry I’ll never forget: the joy of seeing my collection published and launched, several readings and the collegiality of working with some tremendous poets on the Poetry Business Writing School programme. More than that, though, just the feeling of getting somewhere, further developing my ‘voice’ and writing and revising poems far more regularly than ever before. And besides, Lyn’s and my marvellous wedding day in June. 

Beyond that, though, lots of wonderful reading, highlights being: Marion McCready’s Madame Ecosse, Clare Pollard’s Incarnation, Mick Imlah’s The Lost Leader, George Herbert’s Collected and Music at Midnight, John Drury’s excellent biographical study of Herbert, Eavan Boland, Ishion Hutchinson’s House of Lord and Commons, Anne-Marie Fyfe’s House of Small Absences, Selecteds of Hardy and Lovelace, Emma Simon’s Dragonish, discovering Ciaran Carson’s poetry and prose and wondering why I’d not done so before, the brilliant long lines of C.K. Williams, and so much else . . . In addition, I’ve enjoyed reviewing excellent books by Elaine Gaston and Kathy Pimlott on this blog plus many haiku books, of variable quality, for Presence.

I was very sad to hear of Sarah Maguire’s passing. I never had the opportunity to meet or correspond with her, but her poems were my main inspiration for writing 20 years ago. Her body of work is a triumph of quality over quantity and serves as a reminder to polish poems properly before they are published, rather than seek to be ‘out there’ perpetually. This interview with her shines with her clarity and erudition: “I feel curious about the world and want to experience as much of it as possible.”  She remains an inspiration to me and a paragon of everything I want to be as a poet.

Readings this Sunday and Monday

On Sunday 10th December, I’ll be one of the guest readers at Eyewear’s Christmas Party. It’s at the Windmill, Brixton, at 2pm, and features a heap of fab poets reading from their new ‘Lorgnette series’ pamphlets. I’ll be reading four poems.

And on Monday 11th, I’ll be one of lots of poets reading a poem each on the theme of ‘rivers’ at the last Coffee-House Poetry session at The Troubadour in Earl’s Court before Christmas.

I’ll have copies of The Evening Entertainment for sale at both gigs. If anyone would like a signed copy to give as a Christmas present, please get in touch. 

New Networks for Nature

This Thursday to Saturday saw the ninth annual New Networks for Nature symposium, and the sixth to be held at the Arts Centre in Stamford, Lincolnshire. I went, as is customary, with my fellow haiku poets John Barlow and Simon Chard. I’ve been to all of the previous symposia except last year’s and been privileged to perform at two of them – alongside John, and then with Martin Lucas too – but mainly I go to listen, to be informed and come away knowing that there are some incredible things to raise awareness of nature and its perilous state.

This year’s symposium felt the most relaxed one yet. The gallery at the Arts Centre was hung with the marvellous exhibition of Carry Akroyd’s lithographs and linocuts which incorporate and respond to poems by John Clare, who knew Stamford well. Unfortunately, thanks to work, I missed the opening event on Thursday evening, an apparently lively discussion between splendid Patrick Barkham and Tim Smit, the founder of the Eden Project. But I was up and at ’em on Friday to see the day kicked off with a fabulous session in which Doug Allan, Helen Scales and ever-wonderful Philip Hoare gave us three different views of the oceans, highlighting, respectively, the depletion of the ice mass which forms the ‘terra firma’ of the Arctic, the travails of the humphead (or Napoleon) wrasse, and close encounters with a variety of cetaceans, including sperm whales and orcas. All three are natural, engaging performers who are passionate about their interests.

The annual debate, this time between two dairy farmers (Micky Astor and Robert Craig) and Davy McCracken, Professor of Agricultural Ecology, was, disappointingly, more of a general agreement than a debate and certainly didn’t match the ferocious and intellectually thrilling duel between George Monbiot and Tony Juniper in 2015.

My highlight of Friday afternoon was the showing of two short films by Emily Richardson, including one, entitled Cobra Mist, filmed among the eerie shingle of Orford Ness, accompanied by a tremendous pounding industrial soundscape by Benedict Drew.

Saturday’s programme was as richly varied and surprising as Friday’s, and started with the entertaining performance by members of Stamford Arts Centre resident Shoestring Theatre troupe of an extract from a play by Steve Waters, who introduced the piece and was very eloquent on the issue of how to produce drama addressing ‘environmental issues’ without being didactic and/or dull.

What of poetry in all this, I hear you ask? There was some actual poetry – Katrina Porteous reciting, for the fourth time at New Networks, a few of her Northumbria poems, and in Derek Niemann’s reading of his poetic prose – but there was arguably more, and better, poetry to be had in some of the presentations and film, including Jack Perks’s amazing footage of grayling sex (as you do), and musical performance from Mike Edwards on Didgeridoo and Sam Lee singing folk songs. And I had a good chat with Matt Howard, my Eyewear stablemate, whose 2015 pamphlet The Organ Box is excellent.

In all, it was great fun, as it invariably is, and no doubt we’ll return for the 10th symposium next year.

The Yorkshire Grey and other stuff

At Yorkshire Grey 1 Nov 2017

So here I am in full, er, pause mode at The Yorkshire Grey a week or two ago, where I read, followed by Chris Hardy and Chrys Salt. It was a smashing evening, and the three of us were heartened to receive lots of kind feedback from the lively and engaged audience about how enjoyable it was. With
Dino Mahoney as compere, it was never going to be a dull evening.

Last week, I went to Faber HQ to see Ishion Hutchinson read, rather movingly, from his collection House of Lords and Commons and talk about it very eloquently in conversation with Matthew Hollis. It, too, was a really enjoyable evening and I’m going to sneak the book up my list to read.

Mentioning Matthew Hollis brings me round to Edward Thomas, whose death, at the Battle of Arras, in 1917 has been commemorated again, on this weekend of Remembrance just gone, even though he died in April of that year. I’ve been re-reading Thomas’s poems of late, as well as working my way steadily through my edition of the Collected MacNeice, which my brother Adrian bought me for Christmas back in 1985. I’ve always liked MacNeice’s urbane, slightly louche detachment, and I daresay his rather knowing narrative ‘voice’ has been more of an influence on my own voice than I’d realised. But that aside, he was a great, immensely readable poet, with a tremendous range.

For the Poetry Biz Writing School programme, my latest writing partner is the wonderful Mr Keith Hutson. Keith is known for his fantastic ‘Troupers’ sonnets about odd but true Music Hall acts who trod the boards of the UK’s finest variety theatres, but he writes other, equally brilliant poems too, which explore themes such as masculinity, aspiration and blue-collar work. At the moment, we’re looking at the poems of Hopkins and the lyrics of WS Gilbert and exchanging poems for each other’s constructive criticism. Keith’s pamphlet Routines is great value, in every way.

Finally, I’m delighted to see that my book is up on the Eyewear Publishing website, in august company.