the end

I did it: in 2008 I read fifty-two collections of poetry by fifty-two different poets; and, for the most part, I wrote a little post here with my thoughts (often late). It’s been a fantastic journey. I read all the great poetry I already had on my shelves, and from about July onwards I followed my nose in finding new collections to read, both from poets I’d heard of and those completely new to me.

It’s been such fun. The experience of reading poetry in a sustained, concentrated manner has meant a lot to me. Apart from when I was on holiday, my poetry reading time was on the tube on the way into work in the morning, and I can really recommend it as a way of starting the day. It’s something I’m going to keep up for as long as I can; from here on in, I definitely plan to always have a book of poetry on the go. Sounds obvious, but I’ve never read poetry in such a deliberate way before, and the rewards have been huge.

One of the rewards has been really working out my own taste. Of the poetry I’ve read, quite a bit has left me puzzled and cold; a lot has resonated with me very deeply; some has delighted me and a few poets and poems honestly feel as if they’ve changed me and the way I look at things – I almost feel like writing a thank-letter to a few of the poets I read in 2008. But all have taught me something about poetry, about the world, and about how I might want to write myself.

Reading deeply and broadly is surely the first stepping-stone for anyone who wants to write, and the favourites that I have picked up this year will no doubt go on to influence both my reading and my writing. In particular I have been arrested and inspired by the following:

Lynne Wycherley’s landscapes;
Gillian Allnutt’s sparse lyricism;
John F. Deane’s rather mournful take on spirituality;
the same in R.S. Thomas, along with a real flinty toughness;
George Szirtes’ scope and attentiveness to form;
Alice Oswald’s earthiness;
Kathleen Jamie’s dealings with the natural world;
Luci Shaw’s ‘baptised imagination’;
Alice Major’s astonishingly inventive take on the Canterbury Tales/1001 Nights;
John Burnside’s deeply spiritual meditations;
the same in Fiona Sampson;
Gwyneth Lewis’s beautiful wit and wisdom;
Sam Meekings’ downright genius;
Helen Farish’s exquisitely honed observations;
U.A. Fanthorpe’s lightness of touch;
Kathryn Simmonds’ magical gaze on the everyday.

I’ll definitely be coming back to all these poets again and again – both reading their other collections, and re-reading what I read of theirs last year, and also allowing them to teach me how to write.

So, what else is next? As I said, I’m going to carry on reading poetry in a very deliberate way, and for 2009 I’ve set myself a new project: to read some of the epics. I immersed myself in contemporary poetry last year, and this year I’m going to look back: to some of the great big long poems that have shaped the canon of English poetry. It’s mainly going to be poetry written in English, I think, but I’m starting with the Iliad, and the Divine Comedy will feature, too.

As to whether I’ll keep a blog, I’m not so sure. This one has been fantastic, as I’ve really enjoyed keeping an online record of what I’ve read: it’s helped keep me going, given shape to the project and also made me think more deeply about what I’m reading (though I won’t pretend anything I’ve written here has been particularly deep). But I’m not so sure how well a blog would fit with reading epic poetry; I’m anticipating it’s going to take me a while to read the Iliad, so it would be a pitifully infrequently updated blog, and I’m sure no one will want to read a three-hundred word summary of my thoughts on it when I’m done. But who knows? If I do do something new, I’ll make sure I link to it from here.

Thanks to everyone who’s read this, anyone who commented and all those who’ve encouraged me in my reading. Most of all, thanks to the fifty-two poets, whose work I so enjoyed in 2008.

Kayvee, January 2009.

fifty-two: Kathryn Simmonds, Sunday at the Skin Launderette

Well, here we are: my fifty-second poet. I did it! And what a journey it’s been. But I’ll save all that for another post, and concentrate instead on this, my last collection.

I picked up Sunday at the Skin Launderette on the last day of 2008, and read it over a rather miserable new year’s eve/day. Wonderful. I can’t imagine a better collection to end the year on. Once again it was a chance encounter, as it were; I’d never heard of Simmonds before, and was simply looking in the bookshop for that last book. I was intrigued by the title, the cover, the commendations on the front (shortlistings for various prizes) and the blurb on the back, which included this: ‘This is a poetry of subtle contexts and allusions, as much concerned with the vulnerability of the body as for the fate of the soul and the idea of “keeping faith” in God and life.’ A quick flick through convinced me I was going to like it.

And I did – a lot. From the generous invitation to ‘Lie down with me… and rest’ of the first poem, ‘The World Won’t Miss You for a While’, to the account of a first date and its possibilities opening out – ‘there will be other things to laugh about’ – of the last poem, ‘The Road to Persia’, I was totally captivated. Reading the collection was like crawling under a duvet with the author, having your hair stroked, being made to laugh, and being encouraged and reminded that the world is a beautiful, if sometimes sad and confusing, place (and believe me, I needed that over the 31st/1st). We’ll return to the duvet in a bit.

The back of the book also says that the collection is ‘quietly persuasive and formally adept’, and I loved it for those qualities. Every page had a new revelation that was wise, witty and optimistic (without being glib), and I love Simmonds’ style. She deals absolutely with the stuff of life – fishmongers, talking to yourself, ghosts, recycling, worrying yourself to death, foreign affairs – it felt like a really beautiful, charged look at the everyday and the ordinary. Some are hilarious – ‘What Not to Do with Your Day’ and ‘Experimental Concert’, for example; some deal with faith, or unfaith – ‘Whittington’s Mistake’ and ‘Transfiguration’. All are precise and human and gently uplifting.

Have I gushed enough yet? Honestly, I almost feel as though this book found me, was written to me, and I was greatly encouraged by it. There aren’t many books that really do that to you, but this was one of them. It’s her first full-length collection and I’m already looking forward to the next.

Please, if you like poetry at all, or in fact even if you don’t – especially if you don’t? – get hold of this. It was the perfect end to this year’s reading and just right for the time of year, too.

Favourites are almost too many to mention because they’re practically every poem in the collection. But the ones I scribbled down were ‘Reasons to be Cheerful’, Women Dancing’, ‘Precautionary Poem’, ‘Winter Morning’, ‘Against Melancholy’, ‘Eyelids’ and ‘Shoestring Dialogues’.

Because it’s the last proper post and the last collection, I’m going to post up two poems. I hope Simmonds doesn’t mind too much. I think they’re both appropriate for right now: one for the dawning of a new year; one for the current situation in Gaza and beyond. I hope you enjoy them as much as I did.

Six Months
(for Eva Sharkey)

What you know, are the only things worth knowing,
you, who give yourself whole
into the arms of strangers,

unafraid of meeting their eyes.
You who ponder your findings,
serene as a pope on your blue changing mat.

Teach us not to care about causing a fuss,
teach us to eat when we’re hungry,
to be ambivalent to fashion, to bear no grudges,

and to love without restraint
this yellow leaf, this face, this universe
composed of passing colours, temporary shapes.


I can’t keep awake these days. AS soon as I get home I’m underneath
the eiderdown, dozing in my tights, the radio announcer shrinking to an insect

buzzing with the news of war. If only I could let the politicians into bed
with me they might be pacified, inhale my unwashed pillowslip and milky breath,

close their eyes against the amber stencil of the window frame. The Foreign
Secretary could form a spoon and tuck his knees into the opposition’s flank,

Mr President relax his grip and rest a hand there on a Middle Eastern hip.
Together we might chat in whispers of our days, interpreters translating softly

into open ears: that conference in Karachi that went on and on, crisis talks
in Belfast and New York. I’ll tell of how in Norwich I unclogged the photocopier

again, sipped instant coffee, heavy-lidded in the lull of three o’clock. The Premier
of Holland will recount an anecdote in perfect English (the astounding fart

that punctured talks on agricultural policy). Eventually our giggling will stutter
to its end, our ribs relax, we’ll fall into the rhythm of each other’s breath

and stay like that for twelve hours at a stretch, arms around each other’s middles,
dreaming not of anything we want because we have it, all there is to have.

Sunday at the Skin Launderette, Kathryn Simmonds (Seren, 2008 )

fifty-one: Charlotte Mew, Selected Poems

I broke the rules again! And grievously, choosing a selected works this time instead of a whole collection. But there wasn’t a huge amount of choice in the local bookshop where I was buying my last few treats of 2008, and I’d been wanting to read Charlotte Mew since reading about her in the Cambridge Companion to Twentieth Century English Poetry. Plus, like I said, it was the end of the year. Rules are there to be broken.

Before reading about her just at the beginning of last year, I’d never heard of Mew; I think she’s somewhat neglected. But according to the introduction to this selection, by Eavan Boland, who also selected the poems, she shouldn’t be; for Boland, Mew was instrumental in ‘the great unshackling of women’s voices in poetry’, thanks in part to her perspective as an outsider (although in her lifetime Mew was commended by John Masefield, Thomas Hardy and Walter de la Mare).

Again this was a collection that I read in one day. It’s pretty powerful stuff. She does seem to hover outside the canon, somehow, bridging the Victorian with the modern age? Her sexuality (she was lesbian) made her life difficult and led to much disappointment, and shades of that definitely come across in the poetry. Knowing that she killed herself by drinking Lysol made it all the more bleak. In fact her writing is like an even more depressed Hardy: failed love and lack of faith, expressed in lyric poetry that’s stretched almost to breaking point.

Favourites were ‘The Farmer’s Bride’, ‘The Quiet House’, ‘A quoi bon dire’, ‘On the Road to the Sea’, ‘From a Window’ and this,  ‘In the Fields’  –

Lord when I look at lovely things which pass,
Under old trees the shadows of young leaves
Dancing to please the wind along the grass,
Or the gold stillness of the August sun on the August sheaves;
Can I believe there is a heavenlier world than this?
And if there is
Will the heart of any everlasting thing
Bring me these dreams that take my breath away?
They come at evening with the home-flying rooks and the scent of hay,
Over the fields. They come in Spring.

Selected Poems, Charlotte Mew (Fyfield Books/Carcanet, 2008 )

fifty: Graham Plender, The Common Sharing

I found two of my last three collections in a small bookshop in the market town of Leominster, in Herefordshire (near where the previous week’s A Shropshire Lad was set), the week after Christmas. This one in particular was a lovely find: a poet local to the area, and the book itself printed in Leominster (although sadly it looks like the publisher no longer exists).

I was drawn to it for its beautiful cover and title, as well as its being local, and it was a really great find. Plender has a sharpness of vision and focus and a surprising, energetic way of putting things; I like this line, referring to his son’s umbilical cord, from ‘To Andrew’ –

The cord jiggered from your centre like a stopped fuse

There’s lots of stuff going on in each poem, along with a deep sense of human connection, and I enjoyed all the characters who popped up – Cicely Saunders and Elgar among others. I think this might be the first time I’ve read a whole collection in just one or two sittings – certainly it was within the space of a day.

Favourites were ‘To Andrew’, ‘After April’, ‘Helen Thomas Fears for Edward’, ‘New Year 2003’, ‘On Hay Tor’, ‘A Mariner’s Romance’, ‘Jubilee’ and ‘Plant-like’, which seemed a fitting post-Christmas/pre-New Year poem:

So there is plant in us too
below the animal –
a vegetative strain
for which sound, odour, vision
carry no value

and motion’s
an irrelevant dynamic.

Their part’s to grow
in a bright meaningless:
mute, earthed

to tap the soil for solutes,
draw on resilient waters.

We need our intervals
for lapsing plant-like –
not stir, devise
no programmes for advance.
Achieve stasis:
letting the pore-buds open,
feeling our roots push deep,
training our leaves to the sun.

The Common Sharing, Graham Plender (Raddle Bank House, 2006)

December part four

Here they are, the last three books I read in 2008 – all chosen while browsing in bookshops looking for the perfect  collections to finish off the year.

Graham Plender, The Common Sharing (Raddle Bank House, 2006)
Charlotte Mew, Selected Poems (Fyfield Books/Carcanet, 2008)
Kathryn Simmonds, Sunday at the Skin Launderette (Seren, 2008)

forty-nine: U.A. Fanthorpe, Christmas Poems

Happy new year! Well, I did get all my fifty-two poets read this year (fifty-three collections in fact, given that I read two by Saul Williams earlier on), but I am late posting my final thoughts. Never mind: the reading’s been the important bit!

In fact, I broke the rules again for this one. I’d already read all of U.A. Fanthorpe‘s fantastic Christmas Poems, but I wanted to read something that was seasonal, and I didn’t have any luck finding a collection by a single poet (rather than an anthology) that was Christmas-themed. This is a collection of all the poems Fanthorpe has written to send out with Christmas cards over the years, and it inspired me to do the same, on first reading it five years ago – I’ve managed to write four Christmas-card greetings since then.

It’s a totally brilliant collection: Fanthorpe writes with such startling originality about what could be a very tired cast of angels, wise men, Mary and Joseph, Jesus. But they’re all fresh and new, often hilarious and frequently wrenchingly poignant. And most impressively of all, she manages to convey a profound message in a very direct and simple way: these aren’t silly, throwaway fripperies, but they are resolutely readable. In her introduction, Fanthorpe says

The disadvantage of Christmas is that the captive audience includes the widest possible age-range, from toddlers who are just learning to read to great-grandparents who are likely to ring up and ask precisely what line three means. The words should be accessible to all ages, because that’s what we feel is needed for a universal message. But it’s unnervingly easy to be too simple and sentimental, or too hard and intellectual.

Knowing the truth of this last line from my own experience, I am all the more admiring of this collection: I would love to be able to write with a simplicity that’s infused with such deep meaning. The smallness and the unexpected nature of the Christmas message of the incarnation comes across so powerfully in every piece.

It’s ridiculously hard to choose favourites from this, just as it’s hard not to read them out loud to whoever’s sitting next to you on the sofa when you’re reading them (being on holiday, I didn’t read this on the tube to work). I won’t list them, as it would probably be three-quarters of the contents. And I can’t definitively say this is my favourite one of all, but it’s definitely in the top ten – ‘I am Joseph’:

I am Joseph, carpenter,
Of David’s kingly line,
I wanted an heir; discovered
My wife’s son wasn’t mine.

I am an obstinate lover,
Loved Mary for better or worse.
Wouldn’t stop loving when I found
Someone Else came first.

Mine was the likeness I hoped for
When the first-born man-child came.
But nothing of him was me. I couldn’t
Even choose his name.

I am Joseph, who wanted
To teach my own boy how to live.
My lesson to my foster son:
Endure. Love. Give.

U.A. Fanthorpe, Christmas Poems (Enitharmon/Peterloo 2002)

forty-eight: A.E. Housman, A Shropshire Lad

Well, it’s the last day of the year, and I’ve read 51 out of my 52 poets, but thanks to the festive season have a bit of catching up to do. So I’ll keep it short and sweet.

Housman‘s most famous work seemed like a fun thing to read at the end of the year: it’s one long cycle of sixty-three poems that’s ostensibly set in Shropshire’s ‘blue remembered hills’, which has a connection for me, in that it’s where my Granny lives and near where she was born and grew up. In fact Housman wasn’t from Shropshire and didn’t visit the part of the county that he writes about before writing the poems; he used Shropshire as the setting of vanished youth.

It has to be said that by the end of the book I was getting a bit fed up with it: it’s all doomed lovers, people speaking from the grave and nostalgia for faded youth, and it’s written in very tight metrical style that gets a bit exhausting after a while. But parts of it were lovely to read. One of the most famous pieces is this one, which is no less beautiful for its being so familiar:

Loveliest of trees, the cherry now
Is hung with bloom along the bough,
And stands about the woodland ride
Wearing white for Eastertide.

Now, of my threescore years and ten,
Twenty will not come again,
And take from seventy springs a score,
It only leaves me fifty more.

And since to look at things in bloom
Fifty springs are little room,
About the woodlands I will go
To see the cherry hung with snow.

A Shropshire Lad, A.E. Housman (Dover Thrift Editions, 1990, following the authorised 1924 edition)