How to Love Poetry

After spending the last academic year as a module tutor on my department’s final year ‘Modern Literature’ course, this semester I’ve returned to where I first began – tutoring and lecturing poetry and poetic theory to lots of engaged and enthusiastic first year undergraduates.

It’s always such a pleasure to be a part of this course. You get to witness your students develop from prose enthusiasts who are often fearful or indifferent to poetry at the start of the semester to passionate and sophisticated advocates of verse by the time it comes to the summer. Many seem to arrive at the first seminar already certain that they don’t really like poetry and certainly don’t understand it. I understand this feeling. To a small extent I felt it myself when I was just starting out as a student. As an evangelical convert it’s therefore a wonderful, if challenging, task to make them change their minds.

The shift from fear and indifference to appreciation and understanding often takes place when they begin to re-assess their whole idea of what it means to ‘understand’ poetry in the first place. For this reason I want to set out some of the common things that can initially hold back a new reader, and then I’ll talk about some ways around these issues.

So, first up, the challenges:


There’s a tendency – sometimes first acquired during GSCE and A-Level study – to try to read and assess poetry in exactly the same way as prose. New, uncertain (and even complacent) readers begin a poem with a checklist of what to look out for. They need a theme or story, a clear narrative, a beginning, middle, and an end. They need to know what the poem is ‘about’, what the poet is trying to tell them, and even how that relates to the poet’s life itself. And then they get frustrated when they can’t find one definitive answer to any of these questions. They know what alliteration, onomatopoeia, and sibilance mean, but not how and why they mean – their place in the on-going and usually unresolved drama between the form and the content of the poem.

Read in this way, poetry is frustrating, alienating, and unsatisfying. It’s like Diet Prose – it’s sort of got the same ingredients – language – just less of it. It sort of tastes the same, just with less of the rich narrative and juicy descriptive sections. It sort of fills you up, but you finish sooner than expected, and are left with blank space where there should be more. It’s like being given a Ryvita, or one of those awful rice cakes, when all you want is a big bag of chips.

For these same reasons poetry is also often perceived as being less weighty and nourishing, more decorative. It’s appropriate only for weddings and funerals, but has little value outside of that (save revealing the horrors of the First World War – a subject which seems to break the mould). In one lecture I conducted a quick, ad-hoc survey on whether the students felt poetry was more like bread or cake – whether they thought it was necessary in society or merely something cooked up and enjoyed on special occasions. Nearly everyone (apart from the other staff and a few brave souls) said that it was cake. Now I know I’m mixing my metaphors here – first poetry is diet prose and now its opulent and indulgent cake. It’s nearly dinnertime as I write this, and it shows. But this juxtaposition between the sparse and the indulgent also sums up how people often perceive poetry. It’s both lacking and unnecessarily opulent. It’s an indulgence and an empty plate.

I’ve outlined some of the problems that students and readers face when they first encounter poetry as early researchers and critics, but this post isn’t about the failure of readers. It’s about their development and eventual success. So in the next part I’m going to talk about how these challenges can be addressed.


In the first part of this post I discussed the issues that sometimes hold a reader back from loving poetry. Now I’m going to look at how and when this starts to change.

At different times across the semester you see these little light bulb moments occur when a student stops reading poetry as prose and reads it as poetry; when they finally understand why a poet might write an elegy when they could have simply mourned the dead, or why they chose to address a political issue within the formal confines of a poem when they could have written as much as they liked on the subject elsewhere. They discover the power of poetry – they see how it makes the world strange, and reminds us of its existing strangeness. They begin to note how it invites and defies conclusion and definition, and attests to the fact that every word, line ending, punctuation mark, rhyme and non-rhyme matters. Earlier I called poetry Diet Prose, but in reality poetry is the opposite of diet. It is concentrated language. It is a nourishment of ideas.

There are a few poems that never fail to act as a catalyst for this moment of realisation (even when the student in question doesn’t even like it that much). Often they are modern or contemporary poems, or pieces whose overt and deliberate strangeness instantly alert the students that something different is going on. When students are set ‘The Red Wheelbarrow’, for example, or ‘Anecdote of the Jar’, they often come to the seminar thinking that they’ve got nothing to say, but then leave amazed that ‘so much depends’ on just a few words on the page, ordered in a certain way.

If you look at the poem itself, at first glance it seems like very little is going on:

The Red Wheelbarrow (via Academy of American Poets)

Left with almost a whole page of blank space, a reader might feel short changed by William Carlos Williams – particularly after he’s assured us so emphatically that ‘so much depends’ on this everyday, altogether unremarkable object. Expecting the same things from the poet as we would from the novelist we are left desiring an explanation as to why we should ‘depend’ on this mundane wheelbarrow for entertainment, enrichment, or truth. Things start to change though, when we consider what this poem is saying about poetry, reading, and beauty itself. Prose doesn’t always need to remind us of its self-consciousness and anxiety, but poetry does. If you bumped into poetry on the street you’d find yourself embroiled in a twenty-minute conversation about its ailments, or its recent success at work. Or else you’d stand patiently and mutely as it rattled on about its foray into veganism or bikram yoga, trying not to seem rude when it implored you to look at its body to see if you could see the difference. It’s like Woody Allen’s character in every one of his films: neurotic, narcissistic, and self-absorbed. But unlike these men it’s all the more interesting and appealing for it.

Poetry’s self-consciousness and reflexivity makes it great, and ‘The Red Wheelbarrow’ is a prime example of this greatness. When a student realises this, and starts to see how the poem is commenting on tradition, form, and innovation, they come away shocked that such a small poem can say so much. Things such as: how poetry can celebrate the ordinary and everyday rather than the ‘Grecian Urn’ or other more traditionally ‘poetic’ objects. Or how it plays with the subjectivity versus the objectivity of the poetic voice. Or how it challenges the reader’s need for meaning – we sometimes expect to find a higher truth or moral in our poetry, and when that’s denied to us it forces us to question the role that we play in the poetic process. Similarly when readers see the part that form plays in this dynamic – how ‘so much depends’ on the line breaks and the way they lead us on in anticipation of the elusive answer to the poem – then that idea of poetry as something concentrated and self-conscious really shines through.

Other poems, like David Wheatley’s ‘Sonnet’, show readers that rules are made to be broken. They demonstrate how forms like the sonnet, which can seem so stilted and formulaic at first glance, in fact offer the perfect structure for innovation. Sometimes a poem like ‘Night, Death, Mississippi’ by Robert Hayden shows them the power and tendency of poetry to face difficult and distressing subject matter, and to do in in such a way that your sympathy and ethical judgement become uncomfortably intertwined. A poem like ‘The Heartless Art’ by Tony Harrison shows them how seemingly un-poetic topics and language are still the stuff of great literature; how these elements actually make the poem full of heart rather than ‘heartless’. Sonnets by Edna St. Vincent Millay and Carol Ann Duffy empower readers to see that poetry can re-write literary and social traditions and norms. They show how humour can be a tool of defiance and intellectual prowess. Pieces by Maya Angelou, Langston Hughes, and more recently, Danez Smith, show them how the ‘cage’ of poetic form can sometimes make the poet sing louder, and more defiantly, than they ever could in prose.

These are just a few examples of pieces that inspire and ignite the imagination. There are so many more, and often it is the ‘old’ poems, read in new ways, which start this process off. This is particularly the case when students start to realise how poetry is self-conscious of its own artifice, creation, and posterity. Looking at Shelley’s ‘Ozymandias’, Keats’s ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’, Sidney’s ‘Loving in Truth’, and so many of Shakespeare’s sonnets, it’s wonderful to see how the gaze of the poem turns inwards as well as outwards. Every poem is in a way an ‘Ars Poetica’, pointing the reader to the ways that its form and content come together and then fall apart. They are all concerned with how each word contains both a poetic meaning and an external one, and how this doubleness comes to affect and shape the finished piece. Poems are finished and highly crafted sculptures, but they give you glimpses of their rough stone.

Speaking of the ‘rough stone’ of poetry, another way to ignite the imagination is to learn about how poems are drafted, even to see examples of these in library archives and online resources. At Leeds we are lucky to have a wonderful poetry archive, and it’s great to take students up to see and handle the notebooks of some of the poets they study in their degree. In regards to creative writing, doing this also acts as a remedy to the distorted notion of ‘inspiration’. What I mean by that is the misconception held by some that poems just pop into a poet’s head, are written down on the spot, and are immediately finished, no drafting or re-drafting needed. Whilst this might happen sometimes (lucky poets!), for the most part a poem is a process of crafting and revision, and it’s good to show students this. It brings the poem alive – it reminds the reader how it is an organic, changing thing, often with its roots in ideas and language not previously imagined.

When I describe what poetry ‘does’, I like to repeat Emily Dickinson’s words: ‘Tell all the truth, but tell it slant’. This, to me, is why poetry is so wonderful. But I wanted to end with these wonderful lines from Jane Campion’s biopic Bright Star, which depicts the love affair of John Keats and Fanny Brawne. Describing poetry, and how it should be read, Keats provides this wonderful metaphor:

‘The point of diving in a lake is not to swim to the shore; it’s to be in the lake, to luxuriate in the sensation of water. You do not work the lake out … Poetry soothes and emboldens the soul to accept mystery.’

My point exactly.

‘Three Miles’: The Importance of Widening Participation

I’m a fan of This American Life, the podcast that’s found a new following in Britain due to its offshoot, Serial. As well as exploring the case of Adnan Syed, the Baltimore teenager who’s now served fifteen years in prison for the murder of his ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee, This American Life are also responsible for some of the best cultural, social, and political journalism that I’ve encountered in a while. At their best their features are sensitive, well researched and thought provoking, and although – as the title suggests – they’re focussed on the ‘American life’, the issues they explore are easily (and necessarily) transferrable across the Atlantic. Recent programs include an exploration of innate racial bias and relations between police and communities, deportation and the idea of home in Mexico, and more recently, the education system and the expectation gulf between the public and private school system.

Entitled ‘Three miles’, this particular episode looks at a public school in the Bronx – University Heights – and explores what happens when some of their most gifted students are taken to visit the nearby Fieldston– an elite private school located only three miles down the road. Here’s the official synopsis:

There’s a program that brings together kids from two schools. One school is public and in the country’s poorest congressional district. The other is private and costs $43,000/year. They are three miles apart. The hope is that kids connect, but some of the public school kids just can’t get over the divide. We hear what happens when you get to see the other side and it looks a lot better.

All in all, it was an incredibly depressing programme. But the stories of these students who, in the decade that followed, tried to effectively break out from their background, raised some difficult but important questions for all educators to consider, regardless of whether they work in primary, secondary, further, or higher education. Questions like How do we make sure it’s not just the privileged who benefit from seeing how ‘the other side’ live and learn? And How do we make sure that exposure is a positive experience for everyone involved? The children from Fieldston got to see and appreciate just how lucky they were to go to a school with a fully-stocked library and separate classes for each year group, but when the teenagers from University Heights got back on that bus and made the short trip across the Bronx to their tiny school with no library and classes of fifty, what did they do with that experience? How did they make sense of that one day on the ‘other side’ and its relation to the rest of their lives?

The answer that all of us, including myself, want and hope to hear is that they went back having seen what life could be if they worked hard and went to College. That they saw the stone buildings and libraries and playing fields and felt inspired to carry on with their studies. It’s the belief that I think we all hold: that exposure – to new ideas, new places, new possibilities – is a fundamentally important part of raising and educating young people. It’s an idea rooted in scientific research, with neuroscientists such as Professor Sarah-Jayne Blakemore raising awareness of the learning brain; of the continuing ‘synaptic plasticity’ of the teenage mind. Professor Blakemore and others’ research has in recent decades disproved the long-held belief that our brains cease to change and develop after the first few years of life. Now we know that both the physiology and the function of the brain continues to alter right into early adulthood, and that social factors play a huge role in shaping this neurological development.

This is a powerful notion that brings with it big responsibility. It also supports the anecdotal, pedagogical and psychological evidence as to the huge effect both of exposure, and social, educational, and personal circumstances on brain and identity formation. But returning to ‘Three Miles’, many of these students returned home with nothing but frustration and disillusionment. Rather than inspiring them, their experience at Fieldston only confirmed to them how little they had, and how their lack of educational opportunities had pre-determined the course of their lives.  They went home knowing how those three miles had make it so that they would be ‘holding doors open’ for the students of Fieldston, rather than walking through them with them. Their brains may have had the ‘synaptic plasticity’, but their social and economic opportunities were as rigid as they have ever been. To add to this, they were not equipped with the tools to turn this initial exposure into a long term and positive change. There was not the support network, at school or at home, to give them the confidence, help, and special attention that they so desperately needed.

That was ten years ago, and I imagine a lot has changed and developed since then in regard to this particular exchange. Certainly there are thousands of fantastic programmes across the world that broaden the horizons and opportunities of young people from every background.  But discussing the visit with the original participants – now in their mid–twenties and for the most part working in menial jobs with no college degree and a continuing sense of bitterness and failure – the conclusion that the reporter came to was one that I’m sure many of us in the UK still recognise as a pressing and unresolved challenge: That there is still a gulf that runs across and beyond geography and money – one that creates a barrier far harder to cross than the space of three miles.

What the failure of the exchange comes down to was something bigger than the buildings and books. It transcended Fieldston and University Heights.  It failed because no matter how much we expose young people to new worlds and opportunities beyond their immediate experience, we also need to equip them with the sense of entitlement and self-worth that will enable them to envisage themselves as successful, bright, deserving and valuable members of society. As one bright and enterprising girl in the programme reflected, ‘how am I meant to convince anyone that I’m capable of doing anything, when I still can’t convince myself?’ She was one of the few who made it to ‘the other side’. She didn’t quit college; in fact she got a scholarship and a degree, and is now working as a teacher. Yet this lack of worth that every interviewee articulated still hasn’t left her. She was still waiting for someone to tell her to get back on that bus.


There were no answers in ‘This American Life’, only questions. Questions that, as a post-graduate tutor at a wonderful University English Department, I also ask myself. I know that I’m in a privileged position. Privileged because I meet bright and inquisitive undergraduates on a daily basis. Privileged because I get to work alongside colleagues whose research I admire, value, and seek to emulate. Privileged because of the intellectual freedom, liberal discussion, healthy debate, and celebration of thought, learning, and questioning that permeates across the campus. And of course ‘privileged’ because, like all Russell Group Universities, the academic (and student) population of my department is largely white and middle class. I’m proud of where I am and what I do. But I also feel that it can mean very little without any attempt to communicate research and engage with a community outside of academia. Outreach, impact, and engagement might sometimes feel like arbitrary buzzwords applicable only to REF assessments, but they can also be something very real and urgent. I certainly feel a responsibility to communicate my research, and to find ways to collaborate and develop new ideas with those outside of my immediate research field.

These issues and questions are also ones that, as an Education Outreach Fellow for my department, I’m reminded of in a  positive way. I’m very lucky to meet many incredibly bright young people from around the Leeds and Yorkshire area who might have never considered attending university until their visit. It’s a wonderful job to teach them about poetry, run creative writing sessions, and to help them see themselves as belonging to the same tradition as those poets who, before that moment, seemed a world away. Yet there’s always the fear that they won’t quite be able to marry their day out at the University to every other day, that they won’t be able to see themselves in the faces that walk past them on campus, or hear themselves in the voices of their tutors.

One of the great things about literature is that it can offer them an alterative to ‘Received Pronunciation’. One of my favourite things to do with students from the Leeds area is to read out Tony Harrison’s ‘Them and ‘U[z]’ as a group. Not only do they love finding out that Harrison grew up in Beeston and attended the university, they also enjoy finding their accents and speech pattern in the rhyme and syntax of the poem. I always make a point of noting how the poem doesn’t work as well when I read it – I can’t make ‘matter rhyme with water’ with my Southern accent! Being able to talk about these (usually unspoken) differences is liberating for everyone, and always starts off a fascinating discussion of social expectations, and the way we can all challenge and exceed them.

But I’m also very aware that the children we meet are often handpicked as the brightest and most promising students in their class. Given the pressures on schools and teachers this is understandable. Plus, these students really are impressive, not just academically, but in their attitudes and enthusiasm, in their willingness to ask questions and say exactly what they think of a poem, to take risks and not be afraid to get it wrong. But what about the rest of the teenagers in that year 10 group? What were they doing that day? I never see them. I never have to convince them of the value of literature and university to their lives. Have some of them already made up their minds anyway? Or had their minds made up for them?

One way that university departments are trying to get around this issue is by meeting children even earlier. One fantastic example of this is PENCIL – a public engagement project between the universities of York, Sheffield and Leeds, local primary schools in West Yorkshire and other educational organisations. Another way is to work with community groups. A couple of years ago I was part of a small team of postgraduates who worked with Leeds Special Collections and the Leeds Library service on a pilot project called ‘Sharing Stories’. Three of us got to take Tony Harrison’s drafts and poems to the fantastically talented spoken word group Leeds Young Authors and work with them to produce their own creative responses to the issues raised in ‘Them and U[z]’. They then came up to the University to effectively add their own poems to the archive: Here’s a video of one of the responses: 

This was a fantastic opportunity to show these bright and talented young poets that their world didn’t have to be separate from their local university. A lot of them only lived three miles away, but until that moment they had never considered how the University might impact upon their daily lives, and vice versa. Now, their voices were part of the library, alongside famous writers, and they could hopefully begin to appreciate how valuable they were to the vibrant and varied identity of Higher Education.

These are just a few examples of how people in my University are trying, in a small way, to not only ask questions about exposure and engagement but to push at finding solutions. I don’t think anyone in the Higher Education system has all the answers. We could all still do more, find better ways to engage with everyone in the local community, get more children from different backgrounds into every university department across the UK. But like ‘Three Miles’ we are asking questions – of ourselves and of our system. Perhaps the one good thing about the rise in fees is that it has forced many universities to wake up and think harder than ever about how to make sure nobody misses out. I’ve seen people become more proactive and committed than ever before, not because they’ve been told to fill a quota, but because they genuinely care about equality, diversity and widening participation. Once students are here I hope that we instill in them the confidence that the University Heights students were missing. At the moment there’s still lots to do, but if the people around me are anything to go by, I’m cautiously optimistic.

Poem of July: getting re-connected

It’s been far too long since I’ve updated this blog, and I only have a few (poor) excuses. After being in between homes for the last few months, I’ve finally moved into a new flat, and until this week I haven’t had the Internet. It’s actually been wonderful. I was offline for a month earlier this year, and I got so much reading done! This time around has been exactly the same – I don’t have a T.V. either, so I’ve been spending evenings reading in the quiet, writing letters, or else listening to the radio or my music collection (if you haven’t already heard of him, I recommend Gregory Porter – I’ve spent hours semi-hypnotized by his beautiful voice). I know many people do this anyway, but I find it hard to switch off and stop procrastinating online when it’s available. Now that I’m re-connected, I’m going to have to work extra hard to resist going back to my old ways.

Writing poetry has definitely taken a back seat to reading poetry in the last few months. I had been hoping that I might end up spending my evenings drafting, but apart from a few odd poems, inspiration hasn’t really come. I know that rather than waiting for something to appear I should just sit down, stop thinking, and start writing, but the prospect of the blank page has just been too daunting. I’ve been working on my next thesis chapter for a while now, and I usually find that my brain only likes to do one type of writing at once. Whilst I’m writing a chapter I can’t write anything else, and then the moment I finish it my poetry brain reappears. Even though I spend my days writing about poetry, there is something profoundly un-poetic about trying to complete a PhD!

In between moving and chapter writing, I’ve also been trying to become a bit more practical around the house, having realised that I might need to know a few more skills beyond changing a light bulb. This brings me to my poem of the month. Probably in an attempt to avoid chapter writing, for a couple of days I became a bit obsessed with hammering in picture hooks and hanging pictures to make the new place feel like home. I was determined to have some poetry on the walls, but hadn’t yet found anything that felt right (I have a great poster from The Literary Gift Company, but I haven’t got around to getting that properly framed yet). I happened to be rooting around my box of letters one evening when I came across a little handwritten note from the co-editor of Poetry & Audience, Emma Trott. Attached to it was a small poem, copied out in Emma’s neat hand, called ‘Ring of Bone’, written by the American poet Lew Welch. This poem, so small and simple yet so big in subject matter, passed on from one friend to another, felt like the perfect addition to my new flat, so it now has pride of place in my living room.

Don't mind my reflection in the background!

Don’t mind my reflection in the background!

photo 2

Welch is in many ways a tragic figure, yet the poem itself almost crackles with possibility. Short as it is, it also possesses an openness and space to it – a quality found in so much of the American writing that I love and return to. The relationship between the self and the natural world is as fluid as the stream that flows though the stanzas, and by the end of the piece you are left not with a sense of resolution or closure, but rather with the far more exciting possibility that resolution lies just beyond the edge of the page.


Short, powerful, and loved by a friend – the perfect poem for this particular, rather busy July.

Heart Poems: Children’s Heart Week

For Children’s Heart Week this year, May 12th – 18th, the wonderful poet Rebecca Goss has turned her blog into a place of ‘Heart Poems’. Each day she has published poems by contemporary poets, some written especially for the week, along with important information related to Children’s Heart Week and the Children’s Heart Federation.

There have been lots of wonderful poems on the blog all week, written by poets at all stages of their careers, and I’m honoured to have been asked to contribute to such an important project.

Please visit Rebecca’s blog to see all of the poems and find out more about Children’s Heart Week and the Children’s Heart Federation. Also, if you haven’t already read it, I strongly recommend that you get hold of a copy of ‘Her Birth’, Rebecca’s wonderful, Forward Prize nominated collection.



My Arvon Week: finding my ‘lyrical impulse’ at Totleigh Barton

My room was the top left window!

My room was the top left window!

A couple of weeks ago I was lucky enough to get a bursary to attend an Arvon course down in Totleigh Barton, Devon. Here’s a little account of my week:

When the taxi turned the final corner after miles of almost deserted country lanes and the thatched roof and white walls of Totleigh Barton came into view, I nearly pinched myself. I needed to make sure that I really was about to spend almost a week reading and writing poetry in such a beautiful and secluded setting.

This was my first Arvon retreat (after years of window shopping through the brochure), and so I had very little idea about what to expect, both in terms of the specifics of the course – the enigmatically titled ‘Poetry: The Lyrical Impulse’, led by the wonderful Mimi Khalvati and David Harsent – or in the day-to-day life of Totleigh. What I got was five days jam packed full of all things poetry, in which I got to learn from two generous and talented tutors, meet and share ideas, stories, and poems with a group of lovely people, and have the time simply to write, read, and edit with no distractions or excuses.

We were incredibly well looked after. All of the team at Totleigh were wonderful, catering to our every whim and creating an environment that was warm, welcoming, and perfect for relaxing and writing. When we first arrived the group (aged from twenties to eighties, and mostly women except for two brave men and David Harsent) bonded over afternoon tea and scones, and then we all went over to the barn to meet our tutors and discuss the week ahead. Our ‘schedule’ was very exciting. Every day between 10am and 1pm (after a hearty breakfast) we would have a group workshop with either Mimi or David, followed by lunch and then individual writing time until dinner (cooked by teams of four), and then in the evening we would all go over to the barn to either listen to, perform, or else discuss poetry. As well as this we would each have a one-to-one tutorial with both tutors at some point in the week.

2014-05-02 13.01.53

I came away from the week with a fresh batch of poems to work on and a renewed enthusiasm for writing, but here are a few other things that I acquired along the way:

  • An expanded waistline. Oh the food. As much cheese, bread, and puddings as anyone could wish for, and a biscuit jar that just kept being refilled (although get there early to secure a chocolate digestive). Breakfast, lunch and dinner brought everyone together around the big dining table, and it was great fun to cook together in teams and enjoy seconds (and sometimes thirds) of the resulting delicious meals.
  • Lots of pictures of birds and rivers. Photos on a phone just don’t do justice to the beauty of Totleigh Barton and the surrounding countryside. I recommend making time either before or after morning workshops to venture out and explore … just make sure that you bring appropriate footwear!

  • Lots of new additions to my ‘to-read’ list. Bloodaxe poet Maitreyabandhu came to read from his new collection ‘The Crumb Road’ and wowed us all with his beautiful poems. Plus every workshop (or conversation for that matter) threw up new poems to search out. Thanks in particular to Mimi for highlighting the later work of James Wright, as well as other examples of the pure lyric.
  • New ways to write and think about poetry. This is a pretty important one! The daily workshops and tutorials with Mimi and David (gently) pushed everyone out of their poetic comfort-zone, and we were encouraged to approach the blank page in a new way. When we came to perform our poems at the end of the week it was clear to see how everyone had been inspired and improved by the experience, and the final night was a lovely, funny, and often moving showcase of everyone’s hard work. As a double act Mimi and David complimented each other perfectly (they had a bit of a ‘good cop, bad cop’ routine going on) and it was lovely to get to know them and learn about the ways that they approached reading, writing, and teaching poetry.
  • Finally, a burning desire to return to Totleigh Barton. This one is pretty self-explanatory, and judging by the mournful mood in the mini-bus back to the station, I’m pretty sure everyone there would agree with me!

Thank you to the Arvon team at Totleigh, Mimi Khalvati and David Harsent, and of course my fellow poets for a wonderful week.


(A version of this blog post will be appearing on the ‘my Arvon week section of the Arvon blog: )

Poem of Today (09/05/2014)

Today’s poem is ‘On Not Being Milton’ by Tony Harrison – A wonderful Meredithian modification of the sonnet (16 lines instead of 14, after George Meredith’s ‘Modern Love’) that begins Harrison’s second full collection ‘The School of Eloquence’ (1978). Here’s how it starts:

On Not Being Milton

Tony Harrison

for Sergio Vieira & Armando Guebuza (Frelimo)

 ‘Read and committed to the flames, I call 

these sixteen lines that go back to my roots
my Cahier d’un retour au pays natal
my growing black enough to fit my boots’


Today the Leeds Humanities Research Institute played host to scholars from Aalborg, Lund, Aarhus, York, and Leeds. Brought together in order to think about the notion of ‘Transnational Memory and Traumatic Histories’, the one-day conference saw papers addressing subjects as diverse as Franco-Iranian women’s writing, the Istanbul Pogroms, Algerian War narratives and post-memory literature, the poetry of William Wordsworth, Ulysses syndrome, multidirectionality and the Spanish Civil War, and Polish melodrama. The keynote address, given by professor Maxim Silverman, addressed the notion of palimpsestic memory, and indeed it felt as if each of the panels held interesting traces of the others in their return to notions of multidirectionality, transnationalism, and the constant need to interrogate and re-assess the ethics and transmission of historical trauma.


My paper, entitled ‘Leeds is Nigeria and Newcastle is Auschwitz: a Post-Holocaust Cartography in the Poetry of Tony Harrison’ looked at Harrison’s first two full collections. Rather than try and explain everything that I tried to get through, here’s the abstract:

‘Born in Beeston in 1937 and educated at the University of Leeds, the poet, translator, and dramatist Tony Harrison has based many of his poems in and around the North of England. Traditionally championed as a resolutely working class poet, Harrison’s writing often focuses on the public and private lives of his family and Leeds neighbours – a focus epitomised by his aptly named first full collection ‘The Loiners’ (1970) and his second collection ‘The School of Eloquence’ (1978). However, whilst the gaze of the poet seemingly focusses upon the post-War Leeds cityscape, this paper will argue that far from being simply concerned with class inequality and issues of local heritage, the two collections are in fact profoundly shaped by the poet’s keen awareness of both the Holocaust and England’s Colonial legacy. Drawing upon the Harrison’s prose and poetry, I will explore how ‘The Loiners’ and ‘The School of Eloquence’ together map a new, transnational landscape of violence and barbarity upon the streets of Leeds. Connected by their shared dark histories, Europe, Central Africa, and the North of England are compressed together within the tight form and often taboo subject matter of the poems, as Harrison breaks down the geographical, imaginative, and ethical boundaries that might have otherwise kept these diverse landscapes apart.’

Quite heavy stuff! But also a fantastic topic to work on, not just because I got to engage with the work of some wonderful writers – Michael Rothberg, Paul Gilroy, Walter Benjamin, Susan Gubar, Aimé Césaire, and Hannah Arendt to name just a few – but also because I got to re-immerse myself in the wonderful poetry and prose of Tony Harrison.


I had a bit of a major headstart, as my latest chapter is a much larger exploration of this very subject, but I’ve had a bit of a break (to attend an Arvon course, but more on that another time), plus when you work for so long on a few poems you tend to lose sight of what it was that attracted you to them in the first place. Writing a conference paper is such a different experience from writing a chapter, and it allows you to look at old poems in new ways. Coming back to ‘Allotments’, ‘Newcastle is Peru’, and ‘On Not Being Milton’ with fresh eyes and a need for brevity and accessibility, it was great to think about how these poems have the power to jump off the page, regardless of whether the reader/listener is new to poetry, or else a seasoned veteran.


Turning to the Poem of Today – ‘On Not Being Milton’ – what continues to impress with each new reading is the sheer volume of literary, geographical, and historical allusions contained within such a short and engaging piece. In particular, Harrison’s engagement with Césaire, negritude, roots, and the notion of ‘growing black enough to fit my boots’ throws the apparent subject matter and landscape of the poem into flux. Suddenly, the poem becomes as much about the power of poetry to shock, to break down geographical, historical, and ethical boundaries as it is about the poet’s return to his own ‘native land’ of Leeds.


As an example of Harrison’s tentative yet nonetheless persistent post-Holocaust humanism, the sonnet captures the equal darkness and light that shapes his often deliberately ‘awkward’ poetic: Darkness in the sense that Harrison is separated from John Milton not just by choice, but also by the historical ruptures of both the Holocaust and Britain’s colonial legacy. Yet light and celebration in the fact that poetry might reclaim this rupture, offering a positive disruption and transgression of outdated and inhibitive geographical, historical, and imaginative borders.


Anyway, the paper is done, the day was great, and so is Tony Harrison! Thanks to the organisers, the other speakers, the audience (particularly my lovely Literature dept. buddies who came along to support), and finally Nick for his humanism without guarantees. 

Poem of Today

Not to be confused with a ‘Poem Of The Day’, the ‘Poem Of Today’ is meant to reflect the (often surprise) encounters that we have with poetry, either when we open a book or magazine, browse a blog, or else come across a poem in an unexpected place, medium (or media). It doesn’t have to happen everyday (which is suspiciously convenient, as I haven’t got the discipline to write about a new poem everyday!) and it doesn’t have to be something loved. The only requirement is that it lingers beyond the minutes that it takes to get from the first word to the last, so that today takes on a slightly new shape as a result.

With all that in mind, my first poem is brought to you via YouTube and the music of Vaughan Williams:

Williams’s ‘Five Mystical Songs’ (first performed in 1911 at the Three Choirs Festival) takes four poems by George Herbert and turns them into five beautiful choral pieces, each one different in tone and style from the last. The one that I’ve chosen here is ‘Love Bade Me Welcome’, which is inspired by one of Herbert’s most famous poems, Love (III):

Love (III), by George Herbert

Love bade me welcome. Yet my soul drew back
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,
If I lacked any thing.

A guest, I answered, worthy to be here:
Love said, You shall be he.
I the unkind, ungrateful? Ah my dear,
I cannot look on thee.
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
Who made the eyes but I?

Truth Lord, but I have marred them: let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.
And know you not, says Love, who bore the blame?
My dear, then I will serve.
You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat:
So I did sit and eat.

In the tentative, mournful, and loving song of the almost solitary baritone, Williams captures what it is that allows Herbert to continue to move a contemporary readership, even if now they might not always identify with his complex relationship with his God. The seconds of silence that frame the final couplet of the piece reflect the quiet dialectic that so often characterises Herbert’s work, and as the choir come in to wordlessly signal the moment of understanding and communion between the speaker and Love, the tension between solitude and companionship, and between faith and self-doubt are gracefully resolved.

The reason that this poem and piece of music come together as my Poem of Today is that they made a surprise appearance this morning. As my grandfather and I trawled through his 700+ collection of cassette tapes – all in the vain hope of coming to a decision over which ones to convert to CD – this recording made its way onto the tape player, and we got distracted. Abandoning the tapes, we spent the rest of the time reading Herbert aloud, deciding on our favourite lines (mine will always be ‘who made the eyes but I?’) and talking about how ‘Love’ feels timeless because it is concerned with a form of faith and doubt that transcends the religious as well as capturing it. My grandfather is an atheist (he won’t mind me telling you!), and had never read Herbert before today, yet he recognised the power of the poem as a piece of dialogue as well as a moving declaration of love in its own right.

What started off as a morning discussing cassette tapes and their digitalisation turned into something far more interesting, and I have Ralph Vaughan Williams and George Herbert to thank for that!


After talking about it for a long time, I’ve finally set up a blog! Right now it’s looking a bit empty, but I’ll be posting up various bits and bobs once I’ve got the hang of everything.

I plan to use this space to talk about poetry, writing, and editing (with a little bit of PhD-related/research stuff thrown in as well). If anyone has any interesting links, poems, events that they want to share, just get in touch. Enjoy!