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Ways and Means

  Poetry shouldn't always, really doesn't have to take itself too seriously. It can be playful: enjoying words – their sounds, how they can alter depending on what else is around, their different meanings, even their meaninglessness... Yes, the word play reminds me of the close association of poetry with music: music is played, poetry is spoken and sung – perhaps also played? I found myself playing with a particular word, saying it out loud in different ways ( ways – more of that presently) tossing it up in the air, catching it, flipping it to see what might be on the obverse, until the word itself turned into something else altogether. I was left with no more than a sound produced by a widening of the mouth – a sort of smile – and an amused realisation that words can do so many different things, yet are as simple as that. Join me then on an exploration of the word Ways. No, that's beginning to sound a bit serious – this is more of a wander, a light-hearted wonderin
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Nightingale or Toad anyone?

  The Nightingale has to be one of the most celebrated birds in poetry and song – we'll come to the toad by and by – so one approaches this over-poeticised bird with a certain caution. But it was when I heard it for real, I have to say I could understand why it's inspired so many poets and composers. The nightingale doesn't come to us here in Devon, so it was extra special for me to hear it outside my daughter's house in Essex. I was struck by the flow of the song, its sudden silence and then resumption; the power and urgency.  Perhaps that's why we attribute of all sorts of emotion to this bird's song. But, at the end of the day – or night – it's just a bird singing. Still, I found myself, well if not exactly inspired, at least moved to make my own response, to write a poem. The Song of the Nightingale Time for a moment’s pause in my performance. Silence can speak as strong as utterance – restraint produces passion in the gaps – the gap

Rake Daddy Rake

  As with lots of good stories, there are many versions. Basically this one's about a pair of Wiltshire yokels raking a pond for kegs of smuggled brandy.  They feigned lunacy when surprised by the excise men, saying that they were trying to rake out the full moon which was reflected in the water.  Their ruse was successful. The officials had no trouble in deciding they were lunatics, so left them to their raking. Interestingly, the Lunacy Act of 1842 defined a lunatic as someone ‘afflicted with a period of fatuity in the period following a full moon’. I suppose any time falls into the category of a 'period following a full moon'.  As for fatuity, that might include all of us on certain occasions, not least since it's not stated how long 'a period' is.  Perhaps then we're all occasionally lunatic... Be all that as it may, on this occasion the lunatics (I've put inverted commas round the word and taken them out several times) outwitted the sober and sane,


  I've always found this a touching story. A man actively considering suicide – even to the point of carrying a loaded revolver in his pocket – meets another writer for the first time, who never knew what was being considered.   The latter's friendly professional advice turns out to be momentous, for not only does he unwittingly dissuade – indeed save – the depressed writer, but sets him off onto the path of poetry, which was in time to make him famous.   A deep friendship resulted, alongside a body of important poems from the one who had possibly been about to kill himself. True, our unhappy newly-made poet was soon enough to find an early end – if not exactly suicide, then arguably a deliberate taking the road towards almost certain death.   But before that, the two poets had walked together happily in a productive companionship, which helped generate many of those much-loved poems. So here is the indecisive Edward Thomas, the author who Robert Frost told he should reca

Outside the Nursing Home

  I wonder what deliberation preceded this arrangement.  I think the care assistant probably just stacked them like this without a thought, it being the usual way to gather these rather bulky things up tidily so that they don't get in the way. I'm sure there wasn't any idea of the impression given to the by-passer, which I've tried to describe. The following little poem really needs no introduction. After all, pictures can say more than words. Outside the Nursing Home Mobility over their life work's done slowed to a stop no longer pushed so now going nowhere silently stacked up in their own tidy queue awaiting collection.   The skip being full with discarded cushions once waterproofed mattresses and uncertain items these walkers remain a little apart though still upright for now until along with the boxes the black bags and all everything's gathered to be taken away. Wondering why this little scene made me smile, I began thinking about humour. Why should this

Judicial Murder

    Admittedly, it was all legal.   But it was murder. A teenage girl – a particularly intelligent one at that, accomplished in Latin and Greek, with a decidedly independent mind – the victim of others’ ambitions and circumstance, executed. Circumstance – in this case, the accident of a relative’s early death, not to mention her own family and their inheritance. If the boy king hadn’t died, if her grandfather hadn’t divorced his first wife, if her distant cousin wasn’t a Roman Catholic and if her own learning hadn’t reinforced her own Protestantism – the list goes on and on… then she wouldn’t have been led out that February morning onto Tower Green to be beheaded.     Lady Jane Grey, February 12 th   1554   As I cross these old cold stones and climb the final steps bible in my hand, for now accompanied, silently I wonder at the accident which has brought me here.   Like you, I had no choice in who my parents were. I have been obedient and follow in

The Pillars of Hercules

  Welcome to January – the month of beginnings and ends.   Where do things start and finish? And, while we're at it, when?   Everything gets a bit mixed up when I try to focus on finity (no such word, but perhaps there ought to be), let alone infinity. To be sure – or even certainly – the more I think about it, the more I lose certainty. Here's a dialogue between a child and an adult about the nothing – or is it everything? –   that lies beyond the edge of the known world, as it then was.   Non Plus Ultra   And what is it that lies beyond beyond the Pillars of Hercules?   The waters, child, that endless ocean as far as the eye can see.   So beyond, what lies beyond past what my eye can see?   Never ever ending ocean like time, which never ends.   But if I travel long enough might an end come into sight?   I do not know.  I cannot tell what it is the future holds.   Does the ocean hold the future as the past sets with t


  An unexpected bird to open a December blog – but listen for a moment to this one, who seems to have a lot to sing about.  The song is ‘a prolonged, breathless jingle of strident but not unmusical notes and high trills’ – like no other.  But enough words for now, hear the song...   The Song of the Wren   No need to hunt me – I’ll let you know exactly where I am.   I’ll sing out loud – oh yes you’ll hear me I repeat – you’ll hear me   up to half a mile away – a burst of song five times a minute –   which is why it’s no surprise they told the story   about old Stephen – that saint who hid then was discovered   to be stoned to death. They did the same to me because they said   it was my song. But here I am your singing Jenny Wren   who’s survived the stones the cold and rain and all that man could hurl   so stop and hear me. All is well – the world is full of happiness and song.     Actually, the Christmas Bird is probably the ubiquitous robin.  Yes, despite all those partridges in pear


  Just how Hallowe'en – All-Hallows Eve, the eve before All Saints’ Day – has become so associated with the idea of spirits walking abroad, all decidedly diabolical rather than saintly, isn’t quite clear. But celebrated it certainly is.   For children, it's probably the most important non-sectarian festival; for others, as ‘the night of Samhain’, it represents the first day of winter – but alongside and below these secular, pagan aspects, its religious roots run deep. The festival of the Mexican Day of the Dead falling at this time, draws on an even older Aztec culture.   These festivities were devoted to the Lady of the Dead, who was transformed into (the rather more Roman Catholic) Catrina.   She appears as a partially dressed jolly skeleton, the whole festival enjoying a humorous carnival atmosphere, with an emphasis on food and drink, as well as music and dancing.   Enough talk, let's party!   Calaveras I  heard that merry dancing long before I saw them what a c

Noughts and Crosses

  And once again it's Apple Time. We gather apples and crush them into juice. But I peel a few carefully to make slices for a pie, which reminds me of childhood. I'm still intrigued by those long uncertain skin snakes appearing as the apple is rotated against the blade... Noughts and Crosses   She peels them with her usual skill against her thumb. The apple turns. In the bucket windfalls wait which we gathered where they fell. I watch the freed peel fall away still tethered – for how long I wonder.  Gravity is light. I hear another apple fall. You can tell the future she says quietly to herself although I do not want to know. I select a strip of skin bend it round into an O in which the future might be held.   I peel them with my usual skill against my thumb. The apple turns. The years have passed. As they grow old apples fall into the grass. Time itself descends, is pulled by gravity, no longer light. This time I pick two strips of skin and drop th


I love the word Aftermath, with its apparent Anglo-Saxon simplicity. I read that it means after the mowing, perhaps a second or later mowing; more specifically, it can refer to the crop of grass which springs up after the mowing earlier in the summer. Even if the quality of the grass be criticised as not having the fragrance or sweetness of the first crop, or worse, dismissed as 'the bloomless aftermath', it is after all new growth – a reminder of what has been, and of what is yet to come. Aftermath Yes, the grass will grow again. There will be another season here upon these same old fields where sheep shall safely graze again as if it were the first occasion.   Fresh growth of flimsy blades will spring to feed a new-born generation here once more, in time, expected along with others, all those others drawn forth to prosper in the sun.   And some who left will come again remembering this place. A pair of swallows from the past will score the sky above the

The Wolf Mother speaks

  What a complicated relationship we have with our fellow creatures! When I said that, I wasn't actually thinking of our exploitation of them – important and sobering as that is – so much as how we relate to them, what we ascribe to them, what similarities we notice, or imagine, and what we as humans think we gain and learn from them. It's an ancient story of course – not just to be saved by an animal, but nurtured, even suckled. Why wolves should be so often chosen for this role is curious, but two thousand years after this particular telling of the story, the story of protective parental wolves continues to be told, as in the Jungle Book. Like other versions, my poem presents a speaking wolf. Having an animal thinking and talking opens the teller to the (usually critical) accusation of anthropomorphism. But if anthropomorphism is about seeing animals as more like us, or us as more like animals; then the attribution of human characteristics to animals, and vice versa

Strangeness and Familiarity

  A few thoughts about strangeness and familiarity... and imagination, brought on by discovering that this was the time when a familiar but strange man, endowed with a huge imagination, met his abrupt end. It may have been nearly five hundred years ago, but that day in early July probably felt much the same as today – so,  familiar : a warm English high summer's day, probably with a few screaming swifts darting over the Thames and a blackbird alarm call or two, responding to an unusual gathering of people.  The central character, nature lover as he was, perhaps would have noticed those familiar birds; their life and freedom – their physical freedom, as well as their freedom from imagination. It is strange trying to imagine how it would feel, having been imprisoned, to step out into the open air, to climb a slightly rickety scaffold (he made a joke about it) and then observe a few formalities, knowing that in a moment one's neck was about to be sliced through. The evidence