Wednesday, 27 March 2013

Ted Hughes's 'Full Moon and Little Frieda' - A Full Moon In March

Moon photo © Chris Turner

As I waited for the train tonight in the deathly late-March cold, the full moon hit my eye rather in the manner of a big pizza pie. Given that March seems to be associated with madness anyway (mad as a March hare?), I suppose we will just have to see how things go.

The Guardian recently did a good series of poetry podcasts, featuring well-known poets reading and discussing favourite poems. Simon Armitage did a podcast on Ted Hughes's famous 'Full Moon and Little Frieda', and you can listen to it on this link:

There are a number of Ted Hughes poems which I prefer, but 'Full Moon and Little Frieda', written for Hughes's daughter, has a beautiful innocence to it which I like (although the bleak image of "a dark river of blood" is also Hughesian - his depictions of nature tended to be red in tooth and claw.)

I love the idea of the interaction between the moon and the child - "The moon has stepped back like an artist gazing amazed at a work/That points at him amazed." It seems to me unique among his poems.

Just as I was finishing writing this, the phrase "a full moon in March" went through my head. As I couldn't place it, I turned to Google, which obligingly reminded me that it was the title of a play by W B Yeats and sometimes the (inaccurate) title of one of his poetry collections. Yeats also wrote a number of poems about the moon. All things are interconnected, indeed.

Saturday, 23 March 2013

Tua Forsström's 'The snow whirls over the courtyard's roses'

Rose photo by cbransto


I thought that I might be done with posting cold snowy poems for a while, but today it snowed in London, and apparently it was the coldest March day on record. So this poem still seems very appropriate, as well as interesting.

I am going to be very lazy and just say that the accompanying article by Carol Rumens on this link in the Guardian is informative and useful, and I have little to add to it regarding the poem. Personally I am interested in the fact that the author is a Swedish-speaking Finnish poet, given my partly Finnish background (my mother is a Finnish-speaking Finn, although due to her terrifying Nordic mastery of several languages, she speaks Swedish reasonably well too). Finland is an officially bilingual country, but not everyone knows this and it is occasionally difficult to convince people that a writer in Swedish may be a Finn. I have encountered this confusion with the work of Tove Jansson, the Finnish author who wrote her wonderful Moomin books in Swedish. As I recall, one very reputable publisher recently reprinted the Moomin books with a comment on the dust jacket that the author was from Sweden.

Anyway, I suspect that Swedish translates more effectively into English than Finnish does, as the two languages are far more closely related - although I speak no Swedish, so I'm just guessing at that. I have read some Finnish poetry translated into English - sadly, my Finnish was never good, but I still know a lot of words and I understand the shape of the language, and so I can discern a certain amount from facing translations. I've had the impression that Finnish poetry is difficult to translate simply from the fact that Finnish is an unearthly language, and most translations I've read have sounded prosaic to the point of being clunky. (Although I think the language has a prosaic quality, too. Hard to explain.)

It may also be interesting to compare 'The snow whirls over the courtyard's roses' to Louis MacNeice's 'Snow', with its similar central imagery.

Friday, 22 March 2013

"Behold the Man!" - Randall Jarrell's 'Eighth Air Force'

Ecce Homo, Antonio Ciseri, 1871.

This painting by Antonio Ciseri, depicting a crucial moment in the Gospels, is one of the most famous examples of a scene often depicted in art. Its perspective, that of a withdrawn observer, is particularly interesting and powerful.

At this time of year, many people reflect on the figure of Jesus Christ and what his life and death meant. As one of Jehovah's Witnesses, I will be attending the annual Memorial of Jesus's death along with fellow believers and friends around the world. [Updated for 2022: this year, the event takes place on Friday 15 April] (Nisan 14 by the Jewish calendar. You can find some more information about this event on this link:

This has also led me to think of a poem which I first encountered in university and which makes reference to the events surrounding the death of Jesus. The poem is 'Eighth Air Force' by Randall Jarrell.

EIGHTH AIR FORCE (Randall Jarrell)

As I have studied the Bible for so much of my life, due to its importance in my life as a Christian, I have also often found that being familiar with the Scriptures has had peripheral benefits in helping me to understand many literary references. The Bible is, of course, referenced in a multitude of ways in world literature. In 'Eighth Air Force', Jarrell uses the voices of Pontius Pilate (the governor of Judea) and his wife to reflect on the moral agony and dilemmas of war.

I remember studying this poem in a small seminar class, and writing an essay about it; when the professor handed back our essays, she mentioned that "one of you even looked up the scriptural references." I was just a little surprised that no one else had done so, which hopefully was not a smug reaction.

In any case, I found the way in which Jarrell wove together the voices of Pilate and his wife fascinating. "I have suffered, in a dream, because of him,/Many things" is a reference to the warning sent to Pilate by his wife: "Have nothing to do with that righteous man, for I suffered a lot today in a dream because of him" (Matthew 27:19). "What is lying?" is plainly a reference to Pilate's ambiguous philosophical query to Jesus, "What is truth?" (John 18:38). After his famous utterance "Behold the man!" (John 19:5), Pilate said (for about the third time) "I find no fault in this just man," (John 19:6) but caught in what he perceived as a moral dilemma, he still washed his hands symbolically and chose to give Jesus up to those who wanted his death.

Jarrell, in his sad, complex contemplation of men of war - "murderers" - calls up these Biblical references to indicate that he faces a similar moral dilemma. Although he concludes with "I find no fault in this just man" - humanity at war, here evoked by simple homely details - his conclusion is by no means free of ambiguity, and what he really thinks and feels is not at all certain. (Jarrell himself served in the Air Force and is known for other works of war poetry.)

I do know that the impression which this poem made upon me has never left me. I remember the images which appeared in my mind when I read it, and I remember being intrigued by the Biblical references. I even remember the fall of light in the classroom.

It seems to me that certain things - sometimes works of art - are memorable in life because a lot of things flow to and from them. The Scriptural references gave this poem greater significance for me than it would otherwise have had, I think. Many years later, I've developed an increasing interest in war poetry and the sad ambiguities which it encompasses, and this too may have something to do with this poem.

Thursday, 21 March 2013

Christopher Middleton's 'Pointed Boots': Transitional States and Nervous Giggles

London Underground c. 1900

POINTED BOOTS (Christopher Middleton)

At three in the morning,
A quietness descends on central railway stations.

A mail van, or an ambulance, may be there;
A man in pointed boots, a Miss Carew.

Quietness keeps them apart,
The quietness that descends on central railway stations.

It is not meant for me.
It is not meant for you.

© Christopher Middleton. Reproduced by permission of Carcanet Press. (Christopher Middleton's Carcanet page can be found at

Some weeks ago I went to a Poetry School workshop led by Sean O'Brien. I've been to a few poetry-writing workshops now, but this was one of the best: it had just the right balance of reading, writing and discussion, Sean O'Brien was an excellent workshop leader (besides being an excellent poet, obviously!) and the group was talented and lively.

The theme of the workshop was "Staircases and Landings," a title which was less than literal. It referred to transitional places and states, whether before, during, or "instead" (the road not taken? the alternate universe?). Unsurprisingly, one of the poems that I wrote was about being stuck on the Underground.

Many of the poems that we read, and that the workshop produced, were somehow both ominous and funny, sinister and humorous. Interesting juxtapositions. The above poem, Christopher Middleton's 'Pointed Boots', seemed to illustrate this particularly well. I loved this poem for its profound Englishness (the railway station imagery, the Miss Carew, and so much left unsaid) and for the fact that it made me want to burst out into nervous giggles. It seemed to me almost like an inversion of Edward Thomas's beautiful classic 'Adlestrop', another railway station poem. I know this much - it's a poem which has lodged itself into a little corner of my brain forever.

Wednesday, 20 March 2013

The T S Eliot Memorial Meeting with Alice Oswald and Robin Robertson

On Monday night I went to the T S Eliot Memorial Meeting, at the Courtauld Institute (Somerset House). I had been going back and forth a little over whether I wanted to buy a ticket to the event, but my dilemma was solved when I won a pair of tickets through the Poetry Society. This also allowed me to bring a friend - it turned out that she was rather starved for some poetry, so that worked out well.

The evening was organised by the Royal Society of Literature, and so I had the added pleasure of seeing my favourite travel writer, the charming and erudite Colin Thubron, introducing the evening. On this occasion, critic and novelist James Wood was also admitted as a Fellow of the RSL. I had no idea that so much ceremony accompanied these occasions, but it seems that a new Fellow must sign the almost-200-year-old roll book, and that this is traditionally done with a famous writer's pen. In the past, Byron's and Dickens's pens have been used, but this year the RSL has a new pen, and a very exciting one: TS Eliot's.

Photo by I've Read That (

A trustee of the T S Eliot estate who presented the pen said: "Before Valerie [T S Eliot's widow] died, it was just known as Tom's pen and she kept it with Tom's wallet, Tom's glasses and Tom's cheque book, and that was its proper home and where it belonged. When Valerie died, it stopped being Tom's pen and became T S Eliot's pen and so needed a home." There was definitely an emotional charge in the air when the pen was presented.

The poetry readings were by Alice Oswald and Robin Robertson. I was only slightly familiar with Alice Oswald's work but I found her quite extraordinary. The lights were dimmed (for both poets, except a small reading lamp on the podium) but Oswald didn't read - she recited her poetry for half an hour, and with great presence and sense of timing. Her work struck me as layered and cumulative, like the interior of a seashell or some beautiful symmetrical form in nature, using language which was both musically poetic, and simple. As well as several shorter poems, she recited a long passage from Memorial, her version of the Iliad, which was powerful and unforgettable, bringing home both the violence of war and the details of the individuals who met their deaths. (On this link, you can read excerpts from Memorial or listen to Oswald reading them herself:

Robin Robertson read poems about (among other things) what sounded like a rather grim childhood in Scotland, about heart surgery and its aftermath (I am now quite grateful that I'm closer to the A&E at St Thomas's, rather than the Denmark Hill A&E, which was described in the poem as an "abattoir" on a weekend night), and invented tales of Scottish mythology. I thought Oswald was a tough act to follow but Robertson reads with great Scottish gravitas and I've always found his readings to be wonderful. He concluded with 'At Roane Head', which was as powerful as ever (I heard a few gasps from people who may not have been familiar with the poem's twists and turns already) and which is likely to become the poem he will be remembered for.

Here is a photo of the stars of the evening - from left to right, Robin Robertson, James Wood and Alice Oswald:

Photo by I've Read That (

Saturday, 16 March 2013

"Where All the Ladders Start": Yeats's 'The Circus Animals' Desertion'

When I started writing this blog in 2011, my second entry (and the first entry on a specific poem) was about W B Yeats's 'At Algeciras - A Meditation Upon Death'. In it, I mentioned that although Yeats would always be one of my most significant poetic loves, he was in some respects a part of my past, because I no longer read him to the degree I once did.

Having subsequently seen the number of times I have written about Yeats or at least made reference to him, I tend to think that I was wrong about that. Many of Yeats's poems are woven into my life so deeply that it's now more subconscious than conscious, but no less important for that. I think that I may start reading him more again, as well. There are many poems that I never came to grips with, and those which would probably now have an altered or additional meaning for me.

'The Circus Animals' Desertion' makes me think of this significant role that Yeats's work has played in my life. As with the Byzantium poems, or 'Meditations in Time of Civil War', or 'Under Ben Bulben', it is one of his epic works, with the added poignancy of its self-reflection on what the poet sees in advancing age as the gradual loss of his powers. It might in the crudest terms be called a recap of his career, but who could do this like Yeats? Ever conscious of the links between the personal and the universal, he points out how the people and situations in his life represented broader themes and truths, but that the personal has his deepest affection ("Players and painted stage took all my love,/And not those things that they were emblems of.") This is, I think, a great commentary on the importance of poetry in our lives and in various spheres. What is also remarkable is the fact that he creates such an extraordinary poem while apparently mourning the loss of his creative ability.

The interwoven nature of past, present and future, memories, dreams and obsessions, and the teleological manner in which Yeats focuses these, reminds me of the way my own mind works; if only I could do with my thought patterns what Yeats did with his.



I sought a theme and sought for it in vain,
I sought it daily for six weeks or so.
Maybe at last, being but a broken man,
I must be satisfied with my heart, although
Winter and summer till old age began
My circus animals were all on show,
Those stilted boys, that burnished chariot,
Lion and woman and the Lord knows what.


What can I but enumerate old themes?
First that sea-rider Oisin led by the nose
Through three enchanted islands, allegorical dreams,
Vain gaiety, vain battle, vain repose,
Themes of the embittered heart, or so it seems,
That might adorn old songs or courtly shows;
But what cared I that set him on to ride,
I, starved for the bosom of his faery bride?

And then a counter-truth filled out its play,
The Countess Cathleen was the name I gave it;
She, pity-crazed, had given her soul away,
But masterful Heaven had intervened to save it.
I thought my dear must her own soul destroy,
So did fanaticism and hate enslave it,
And this brought forth a dream and soon enough
This dream itself had all my thought and love.

And when the Fool and Blind Man stole the bread
Cuchulain fought the ungovernable sea;
Heart-mysteries there, and yet when all is said
It was the dream itself enchanted me:
Character isolated by a deed
To engross the present and dominate memory.
Players and painted stage took all my love,
And not those things that they were emblems of.


Those masterful images because complete
Grew in pure mind, but out of what began?
A mound of refuse or the sweepings of a street,
Old kettles, old bottles, and a broken can,
Old iron, old bones, old rags, that raving slut
Who keeps the till. Now that my ladder's gone,
I must lie down where all the ladders start,
In the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart.

Thursday, 14 March 2013

The Emergency Poet To the Rescue: An Interview with Deborah Alma

Poetry Parnassus, which took place on London's Southbank at the end of June 2012, was a particularly rich poetic feast because it took care to communicate on a variety of levels. On one hand, there were readings from Nobel Prize winners and intense discussions on translation and the political power of poems; on the other hand, there was a Poems on the Underground workshop, activities for children, music, and a helicopter-led Rain of Poems. In other words, it was possible to find something for everyone.

Among the outdoor activities luring in unsuspecting passersby were a Poetry Takeaway, and also the 1950s ambulance belonging to the Emergency Poet. My curiosity led me over to this one day and I found myself reclining inside the ambulance, being prescribed poems which turned out to be just the thing (Wendell Berry's 'The Peace of Wild Things', and a passage from Eliot's Four Quartets - I tend to suffer from anxiety.) It was pretty obvious to me that Deborah Alma, the Emergency Poet herself, knew her stuff. Somehow, I felt that the Emergency Poet encapsulated the festival quite nicely. It was fun but also serious, entertaining but also well thought out. Deborah was obviously prepared to prescribe anything appropriate for poetry enthusiasts, for those who suffered from poetry-phobia, and all between.

Deborah and I subsequently stayed in touch and she has very kindly agreed to be interviewed for The Stone and the Star.

TSATS: Tell me about your background and where your interest in poetry came from.

DA: I grew up in a North London council estate where the only poetry around me was a scrawled rhyme on the side of a house, although we did write poetry at school. I'm the child of child parents, an Indian mother and a grammar school boy who dropped out of education when I came along! My beautiful grandmother read poetry, though, and we had a few books in the house.

TSATS: How did the Emergency Poet get started?

DA: It seemed to come in a burst of madness. But I suppose really it has emerged from my work with poetry and dementia, my working with literacy in primary schools for years as a teaching assistant, from being a poetry evangelist and from listening to friends and their problems over the kitchen table.

TSATS: What are your objectives as Emergency Poet? Tell me a bit about what you do.

DA: Its objectives are simple: that poetry has something to say, that it is for everyone, that it does not have to be difficult, that to stop and take time to value one's inner life is important. All lofty aims, but the reality is light and fun, although often with serious poetry at its core.

"Patients" are invited into the back of the ambulance and asked to lie down on the stretcher for a private consultation. Sounds from outside are hushed and the patient is given my complete attention. I might put a blanket over their knees if it's chilly. Then I ask questions such as "When was the last time you stood by the sea and is this important to you?", "Are you allergic to poetry or any types of poetry?" and "What are your desert island book choices?". These and other questions are designed to give me a sense of the person and their reading tastes, as well as their general well-being. Towards the end of the 10-minute consultation, I will ask if they would like a poem for anything specific and then make a suitable poetic prescription, which they can take away with them. I might read out the few lines from the poem that they should pay particular attention to and they are then advised to find some quiet space to take their "medicine". I might suggest they listen to birdsong, or to sit in silence for 5 minutes, or take it with a hot drink at bedtime.

TSATS: What are some of the most entertaining or inspiring things that have happened to you as Emergency Poet?

DA: I am always surprised at how open people are with their problems. I have been asked for a poem for a woman with breast cancer, a man who wanted a love poem for his wedding day, a woman whose best friend had died that morning... Being able to find them a poem has been such a joy. These poems have really mattered - this has been so inspiring for me.

I have prescribed poems with the words "bottom" and "willy" in them to children who have said they hate poetry and give them the instruction that they must take the poem with their favourite sweet. This prescription usually works!

TSATS: What are you particularly proud of accomplishing?

DA: I think the fact that I have got it up and running at all! I'm a single parent and when I started buying an old filthy ambulance and dressing up in a doctor's coat, my friends and family thought that I was more than a little crazy. It has been a work of real determination and has been financially scary, to say the least. At the end of last year I was delighted to have been successful with an Arts Council grant which has helped the project enormously and meant that I can take it more seriously.

TSATS: I know that you're also a poet in your own right. Can you tell me a bit about your poetry and its sources of inspiration?

DA: I have just completed my MA and for my dissertation I submitted a portfolio of poems. I write, I suppose, about relationships, about disappointment and loss and sex. I love to read widely and am often inspired by the writings of others. This is sometimes not good for my self-confidence, though!

(You can read one of Deborah's poems, 'On Sleeping Alone', in the Ink Sweat & Tears e-zine:

TSATS: Where are you planning to take the Emergency Poet next?

DA: I have a busy Emergency Poet tour for this year. It includes Wenlock Poetry Festival, Ledbury Poetry Festival, Stratford Literary Festival, Sparks' Children's Arts Festival, Ludlow Fringe, Lichfield, Nottingham Library, Walsall Library, Just So Festival, a new spoken-word festival in Knaresborough called Release the Hounds, and Poetry Can in Bristol.

TSATS: Do you have other poetry and/or literature-related endeavours underway at the moment, or in the works?

DA: I have several! As well as the poetry and dementia project, I teach Creative Writing for Writing West Midlands' Writing Squad, I occasionally work for Arvon, I will be teaching Writing Poetry for Worcester University from this autumn, and I am organising a Poetry Party as part of Ludlow Arts Festival this summer with the poet Jean Atkin.

You can find the Emergency Poet website here:

Saturday, 9 March 2013

James Elroy Flecker's 'Ballad of the Londoner': "I Will Cross the Old River..."

Regent Street in the Rain by Grant Cherrington. Used under Creative Commons license

BALLAD OF THE LONDONER (James Elroy Flecker)

Evening falls on the smoky walls,
And the railings drip with rain,
And I will cross the old river
To see my girl again.

The great and solemn-gliding tram,
Love's still-mysterious car,
Has many a light of gold and white,
And a single dark red star.

I know a garden in a street
Which no one ever knew;
I know a rose beyond the Thames,
Where flowers are pale and few.

I came across this poem in one of the older Poems on the Underground anthologies. I wasn't at all familiar with James Elroy Flecker (1884-1915), but apparently his death from tuberculosis was considered a great loss to English literature, certainly in terms of what he might have accomplished. A quick glance at some of his other work makes me think that I would very much like to look into it further.

A few things struck me about this poem. I like the North London/South London nature of the romance; so many people think it's not possible to cross the Thames in any significant way. (I lived north of the river for several years, and have now lived south for a few years. and felt quite at home in both; this in itself is generally considered unusual. Maybe as a foreigner it's actually a little easier to manage than if you're a born-and-bred Londoner.) Flecker was from Lewisham in southeast London originally, but I am not sure whether there are any clues as to which direction the speaker is taking in this poem.

I also like the "hidden" nature of the poem; this is very London. Flecker's vision of the tram made me think of similar moments of unexpected urban transcendence in other works. There is a U2 song called 'Moment of Surrender' where the protagonist says "At the moment of surrender, I folded to my knees, I did not notice the passersby and they did not notice me...I was speeding on the subway through the stations of the cross, every eye looking every other way, counting down till the pain will stop..." I suspect this could be either London or New York, but it is very much about spiritual or transcendent experiences in big cities. I think such moments are why I continue to try writing about the Underground, too.

The final stanza is about bringing the hidden to light, too - or at least the speaker's delight in having found someone wonderful, and perhaps undiscovered by others, in the city wilderness. The mystery of it is rather lovely.

Friday, 1 March 2013

Jo Shapcott's 'Gherkin Music': "Joining the Game of Brilliance"

Gherkin photos © Minouche Wojciechowski

London is a city of contrasts. This is the ultimate cliché; I don't think I've ever come across a city which someone wants to sell to tourists and which isn't called "a city of contrasts" at some point. I have found, though, that London's contrasts can be particularly beautiful or savage.

I was on my way home tonight and had just got on the bus at Sloane Square when a friend texted to ask if I wanted to meet up for dinner. Poised to text back "no, I'm on my way home," I realised that I had nothing much to do at home and didn't particularly want a night in, so instead I hopped off the bus and headed on foot towards Kensington to meet her. I walked up Sloane Street, where the shop windows are like art galleries to me - some of the lovely displays suggested that horses and bags are in this year (I could definitely live with that.) And on through Knightsbridge and up towards the Royal Albert Hall. Near the Victoria and Albert, I ended up buying a hot chocolate for a man who was homeless and ill - he had a cancerous lesion which he'd wrapped plastic bags around. I think part of me closed off in self-defense when I saw that, not really able to confront the fact that I'd just been window shopping in Chelsea amongst people with far more money than they need, and that I was wearing a warm coat and off to have a restaurant dinner before heading home to a flat which is at least tolerably warm - while this man was quite possibly in the process of dying on the street.

This is where London's contrasts are savage, and they are often to do with the increasing gap between the rich and the poor, one of the outstanding failures of the twentieth century and the start of the twenty-first. I will never forget the day when I found myself on a particularly threatening housing estate in Brixton in the afternoon, and then in the evening I went to a millionaire's house in Holborn for an art exhibition. I would be lying if I said I didn't enjoy the exhibition, but the contrast gave me a kind of moral headache. "They will certainly build houses and have occupancy...they will not build and someone else have occupancy; they will not plant and someone else do the eating" (Isaiah 65:21, 22, New World Translation) - this is how the world was actually intended to be.

London's contrasts can also be magnificent and fascinating. I went to St Katharine's Docks one night recently with friends and we were dumbstruck (though conflicted) at the sight of the Tower of London with the Shard rising jagged and space-age behind it. I cannot possibly imagine how the Tudors would have reacted to this. It was one of the most science-fiction things I've ever seen.

I thought of such contrasts when I read one of the new Poems on the Underground - the new set are all London poems, as it is the 150th anniversary of the London Underground. I've loved 'Stations' by Connie Bensley, as well as pieces by Wordsworth and Yeats. This poem, though, really made my day when I saw it on the District line - I imagine I wore a big stupid smile on my face as I read it.


This poem does a number of things rather wonderfully. The Gherkin is an icon because of its distinctive shape; the first line asks us to "walk the spiral", and then the poem takes a shape and does just that. I'm not a big fan of shape poems, but this one is not obtrusive - it feels very organic and intuitive, a part of the words. The line breaks resemble a staircase (probably a spiral staircase) but they also evoke the shapes of the glass panes which make up the Gherkin, "where flat planes are curves" and "fragments of poems." Although your eye must read down the page to experience the poem, the words and the shape somehow make you feel as though you are ascending - this is wonderfully done and not something I've not often experienced in poetry. The poem itself becomes a "game/of brilliance".

I was also struck by the fusing of the secular and the spiritual in this poem. The building is described in terms which make it into something like a cathedral - "names fall like glory/into the lightwells" - but it is well known that this building is yet another temple to commerce. Shapcott also calls it "St Mary Axe" - the Gherkin's official name is actually 30 St Mary Axe, the name of the street. But again, this term would naturally bring to mind a place of worship. The City of London is, of course, densely populated both with skyscrapers and immensely rich corporations, and with a depth of history which includes many churches and other old buildings. All of this comes together in just a few lines, in a poem which should be providing a moment of transcendence for many Tube travellers this year.