No Amateurs in the New Poems of 1973


Having to move a bookcase and its contents is a good way to encourage a pause and then a browse of some of those long unread books you’ve taken off the shelves for the shift. I had a quick scan of a 1997 Ambit and then this first of two P.E.N. Anthologies, the other from 1975.

I thought it would be interesting to remind myself [it could well be the 40+ years since I really looked] and write about what was ‘new’ in 1973, hoping to find some as then undiscovered and now celebrated poet. I lose track of how old – excusing the obvious opposite – established, currently famous poets are, but a quick check on the names collected revealed these were already well-established writers, and the work selected was therefore ‘new’ to that year and, apparently, unpublished. These luminaries will give an indication of that revelation: Fleur Adcock, W.H. Auden, Charles Causley, Douglas Dunn, D J Enright, Gavin Ewart, Thom Gunn, Seamus Heaney, Ted Hughes – and stopping that early in the alphabet suggests what will follow in more ways than the surname order.

All good poems, by the way, but I needed another angle on what I might write, and it came timely in Stewart Conn’s Introduction and in this opening line to the intro proper,

‘A marked polarisation is evident in English poetry, and the public’s response to it, today’

and I will pick out this other line from a little later,

‘The trend is healthy so long as it is for the right reasons, and provided the poetry’s real strength underlies local colour’

It should be obvious from these two extracts where this is going: I am of course referring to the very recent Rebecca Watts PN Review article ‘The Cult of the Noble Amateur’ and the subsequent furore this has generated, obviously the forensic blog response from Hollie McNish and the debate’s reporting in, for example, The Guardian, including the Dan Paterson response, as well as attendant social media commentary, and, among many others I have read, the Soraya Roberts The Baffler article ‘No Filter’ which you can read here [and I link because this might not be as obvious as the others – apologies if I am wrong].

No, I am not entering the debate and not endorsing any views referenced here. Chicken? Probably. But I was fascinated to see the parallels – no more than this – in Conn’s Introduction which I will post in full for you to read if you will, as well as his further observations on how poetry/writing engages with its ‘new’ world of 1973, the parallels with today quite captivating as well,




I want to select one poem as illustration from the whole, and this has proved difficult, most being today quite well known. In the end I went for the following from Edwin Morgan, a favourite writer of mine, one of four poems from a sequence called School’s Out. In the first, Morgan uses Plato as his main reference point; in the second it is Milton; in the third – and I really enjoyed this – it is Summerhill’s A.S. Neil, and in my chosen fourth it is Ivan Illich, but more important [and in an echo of Conn’s introductory comments on the impact of the then modernity] how in education, like poetry, we embrace as subject matter and indeed means of production the new technologies and/or similar,

‘We know how Armstrong landed, bleeps call us
in our breast-pockets everywhere we go,
we’ve got cassettes….’

and whilst these references, and those you will read next in the full poem, seem and are dated, it is what they represent and mean that still reverberates, though I particularly like Morgan’s humorous final take on this,



Falling Behind in the Pencil Grip

In the 2017 Ofsted report Bold Beginnings – as if an assertive alliteration generates meaning – it is concluded that many 4 and 5 year old reception class children are ‘falling behind their peers’.

While the report recognises the importance of listening to ‘stories, poems and rhyme’ – though this seems the oddest trilogy, and it doesn’t initially mention writing stories and poems – the conclusion seems to be that this, and other aspects of learning at this stage, aren’t formalised enough:

The EYFS profile (EYFSP)3 is a mechanism for statutory summative assessment and if this doesn’t demonstrate that the perceived best learning is right, children are ‘falling behind’.

And when the report does mention children writing, this is the focus:

In schools visited where writing was of a high standard, the children were able to write simple sentences and more by the end of Reception. They were mastering the spelling of phonically regular words and common exception words. These schools paid good attention to children’s posture and pencil grip when children were writing. They used pencils and exercise books, while children sat at tables, to support good, controlled letter formation.

‘Pencil grip’. There’s another title for a new found poem. But for now, here is what I found in the report’s opening Executive Summary:

Reception Years

It was

this falling

their imagination,
painful and

at the

heart of the

a missed

for their
life ahead –

our children

selling synthetic

preparing for
Inspection, exposed

to critical

in their stories
and poems years.

Top Fifty 11: Eagles – Desperado, 1973

[Originally posted June 2013]


Pretty Is As Pretty Was

I’m working my way through the fascinating Eagles documentary History of the Eagles, The Story of an American Band shown recently on the BBC. I’ve just watched the section where it features the recording of their second album Desperado, and this is the album that introduced me to the band, having pretty much missed their first. It did then and does now appeal to everything I love about this country-harmony sound, a style Glen Frey in the documentary refers to disparagingly as ‘Beatles-Country’ as dictated [to a shared degree I think if the band is totally honest] by then producer Glyn Jones. The criticism is made because both Frey and Henley wanted a heavier sound, which they did move on to with their next On The Border where production duties were soon transferred to Bill Szymczyk [and the stylistic dichotomy between Bill and Glyn is an intriguing as well as mildly comic revelation in the programme].

Whilst interesting, these relatively minor schisms in style are meaningless in as much as I am a continuing fan of their oeuvre, but this second album is in my Top Fifty as both introduction to and exemplification of their beautiful harmonising and songwriting. The fact that JD Souther and Jackson Browne also still contribute to that songwriting on this album [well, on Doolin-Dalton] is significant, being a fan of their work too, as platitudinous as that statement and proclivity is. The point is I am with Glyn Jones on thinking this is the sound that defines the Eagles.


The ‘outlaw’ concept with album cover and other photos added an attractive if ultimately tenuous connection with notions of being alternative at the time, but I do recall playing the album over and over, as with their next two, for those glorious vocals. Pretty yes, but pretty damn fine then and now.



West to West Humuments

w to w0011

I am a hoarder of much, including work related to my 30 years as an English teacher [from teaching resources to student work, especially their creative writing], and when I have the occasional rummage and clear-out, though the latter is an intention rather than a fact, I generally come across some precious memorabilia that reinforces the good times, especially in the early years/first half of my teaching.

So coming across this today brought back one of my fondest recollections, and at 1997 it occurred into that second half I generally regard as the beginning of the decline [pre-1997 had seen beginnings of Tory SATs and targets, and 1997 itself saw Labour come in to power – and continue it all, with enthusiasm].

These two clips from a newspaper written by the students who were involved in the West to West visit/‘exchange’ set the context. I put exchange in inverted commas because our American friends did not come back to the UK, but our British students did stay with and in the homes of their American partners.

This only scratches the surface of what went on and how dynamic and rewarding the whole week was there in Ashland, Oregon, but on a personal note I was reminded today – with the re-discovery of this ‘hoard’ – of the writing workshops I took there and how brilliant that was as a teaching experience for me. Though humuments gets misspelled by the student writer in the following article, that is all a part of the honest reality of the experience and the two humument examples [USA on the left; UK on the right – I edited out the names as I don’t have permission]. I must stress that these two examples are just the text – humuments also have their crucial visual element and we couldn’t at the time reproduce this, but I might be able to find in another hoard and will perhaps post at a later date.

humu - Copy



‘New York Hotel’ by Ian Seed – Shearsman Books


Ian Seed’s latest New York Hotel arrived today. I have been anticipating this with genuine enthusiasm, knowing how much I would enjoy the expectation of the unexpected, and I’m sure I’ve used that line before in writing about his distinctive poetic vignettes.

I want to be clear before writing this review: I haven’t read all of the prose poems collected here. I don’t want to. They could be read in one delightful sitting – I have just written to a friend where I referred to them as ‘easy but playful and enigmatic reading’ – and they are and this is an absolute compliment [that easy tag] but they also puzzle more and play rough and tough on re-readings. However, and entirely pragmatically, I want some for tomorrow, and maybe, if I am disciplined, for one more day after that.

Seed’s narratives can seem difficult to hook, so to speak, and thank goodness. Are the hotels that often feature the New York of the title or generic places of transience and chance encounters? Is the Italy of occasional placing the same as that in Seed’s preceding work Italian Lessons? As the early poems in this collection demonstrate, answers to these essentially unimportant questions are elusive.

These opening poems appear to refer to the Italy we as readers have come across before, the country of his youth, and here for example in Early Promise where he is out of work and ‘reduced to wandering the streets and dossing in doorways’, Seed [as persona we’ll assume, more on this later] is helped out by an old friend, yet this is as fleeting as it is suspect, and when left wandering again he comes across an Italian café he fondly recalls. We hear a little of this happy past and just as he ‘knocks on their door’ to perhaps rekindle that experience from the past, this vignette finishes, Carver-esque in its anticipation and our unknowing.

As I have mentioned, many of the poems in the collection narrate encounters and situations in quite probably the New York Hotel, a building in a ‘grand style’ and with a ‘wooden lift still in its steel cage’. Here Seed meets up, eventually, with his father, or as in Soundproof a woman with whom he is unexpectedly sharing a room. You’d think the surprise doubling-up would be the main focus, but it isn’t. It is the small bathroom with its sloped roof and the woman who ‘was no more than a doll’. But even this isn’t it. When a plane taking off from the nearby airport is seen through the bathroom window, the attention is for the ‘complete silence because the window was sealed tight’.

There are times when the encounters are delightfully surreal, or disturbingly bathetic. In Interview with a Priest, the inevitability of being captured by another’s faith – possibly sermon – is animalistic; in Resistance, a wife’s cruelty to her father is usurped as emphasis by the slowness of a moped.

There are chance encounters, chance seductions, chance getting lost and found, chance potential defenses [though thwarted by a headache] of Oscar Wilde. There are many visits to places once lived where people once known are no longer knowable and Seed will move on only to get lost again. He often wants to make amends for the past, or make an impression because of the past. At times he will chance upon a cure, though it is too late. The storytelling leads and often eludes but never loses us, though loss does so often prevail.

The poems are usually told in the first person so, as I suggested earlier, we see Seed as the persona, however close or distant that is to him as writer, but not always, as in American in Rome where as a sometime Quaker he [the poem’s speaker] entertains the Pope with an Elvis impersonation. And in this poem I particularly like the idea of the Pope who

…listened patiently, but couldn’t help smiling at the word ‘Quaker’

There are other voices. As Putin’s English tutor, he embraces Russia’s love with such emotion we could almost forget the deep irony. In other again surreal expositions, the observer in a poem is at Hiroshima, or in another is observing Tony Blair and Alistair Campbell as born-again hippies recapturing the promise of their collective ambition, before a different ambition triumphed.

He is Elvis again near the book’s end and I know for a fact Seed is genuinely fond of Presley and his music. I certainly don’t need certainty when I read these wonderful prose poems, but I couldn’t help but read a little extra poignancy in these closing lines from Loved,

I found Priscilla weeping on a bench. She waved me away without even looking up. It was people like me who through our adoration had killed her loved one, she shouted after me.

For further details and to purchase go here. You really should.

‘Ways of Looking’ by David Grubb – smith/doorstop


I have been reading and enjoying very much David Grubb’s recent poetry, posted mainly on Stride here and at International Times. They are as poems both lyrical and oblique, beautiful flows and cadences of language with sudden shifts in direction and narrative lines/focus.

In searching for information about Grubb as poet and his work, I read about this smith/doorstop collection and 2012/2013 winner in the Poetry Business Competition. I ordered immediately and it has arrived today. The chapbook is based in poetic approach on Wallace Stephen’s poem Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird, and the six poems, each with their thirteen phases, further represent what seems to be a signature feature of Grubb’s work that I have seen so far – the lyricism of tone and flow with the suddenness of move in emphasis.

The narrative surprises are a delight to be handheld into, and I do think every thirteen part poem has a narrative line, as disrupted as it might be. And it is the gentleness of the surprise that warms each reading – these are not shocks and/or moments of apocalypse. They are shifts in glimpse, their extra surprise in the cleverness of idea/description. These being ‘surprises’ it is problematic for reviewing, as mentioning diminishes their essence. As compromise, I do want to illustrate but I will only do so for the first poem Ways of Looking at a Lost Farm.

Rather than plot the actual lead into the shifts [as I’ll continue to call them] I will simply quote the lines which even out of context reveal the core of their appeal and interest. From 1.

mother coughing in her grave again

From 3.

in August we took down the B&B sign
and skinned ten pigs

From 4.

…The estate agent knows
the price of an acre of autumn

From 10.

hugging side by side, as if we owned the snow and wind,
as though the radio was a friend

That will do, and all of this is from an increasingly moving account of a family forced from their farm to take up residence on an estate, and it is a poem of change and regret and external intrusion/interest and ultimately misconceptions of what was special about their life.

In Ways of Looking at Blessings, the narrative start seems more conventional – more linear and connected – but then the poetic beatitudes take on more distinct aphoristic gestures, and this becomes very much the feature in the next poem Ways of Looking at a Very Old Lady where the succession of aphorisms take on comic/ironic tones, that is until the suddenness of a plaintive stanza catches us out in our smiling

The man who comes to stroke my hand says
he’s my grandson and that he remembers
closing all the shutters at night and that every
room had its own way of forgetting things.

The final poem is Ways of Looking at a Poet. Again, I won’t spoil by over-quoting, and I certainly won’t quote the wonderful stanzas 12. and 13., their two encapsulations of respectively ‘each poem’ and ‘each poet’ hauntingly [I think that is the right word] insightful, but I will close by referring to the humour of stanza 6.

It is easier to deal with
people from Porlock; it is
often like mending a chair
that you are sitting on.

You can buy this for £5 [including p&p in the UK] here.

Nebraska 27: ‘Wild Dreams of a New Beginning’ by Lawrence Ferlinghetti

There’s a breathless hush on the freeway tonight
Beyond the ledges of concrete
Restaurants fall into dreams
With candlelight couples
Lost Alexandria still burns
In a billion lightbulbs
Lives cross lives
Idling at stoplights
Beyond the clover leaf turnoffs
‘Souls eat souls in general emptiness’
A piano concerto comes out a kitchen window
A yogi speaks at Ojai
‘It’s all taking place in one mind’
On the lawn among the trees
Lovers are listening
For the master to tell them they are one
With the universe
Eyes smell flowers and become them
There’s a deathless hush
On the freeway tonight
As a Pacific tidal wave a mile high
Sweeps in
Los Angeles breathes its last gas
And sinks into the sea like the Titanic all lights lit
Nine minutes later Willa Cather’s Nebraska
Sinks with it
The sea comes in over Utah
Mormon tabernacles washed away like barnacles
Coyotes are confounded and swim nowhere
An orchestra onstage in Omaha
Keeps on playing Handel’s Water Music
Horns fill with water
And bass players float away on their instruments
Clutching them like lovers horizontal
Chicago’s loop becomes a rollercoaster
Skyscrapers filled like water glasses
Great Lakes mixed with Buddhist brine
Great books watered down in Evanston
Milwaukee beer topped with sea foam
Beau Fleuve of Buffalo suddenly becomes salt
Manhattan Island swept clean in sixteen seconds
Buried masts of Amsterdam arise
As the great wave sweeps on Eastward
To wash away over-age Camembert Europe
Mannhatta steaming in sea-vines
The washed land awakes again to wilderness
The only sound a vast thrumming of crickets
A cry of seabirds high over
In empty eternity
As the Hudson retakes its thickets
And Indians reclaim their canoes

© Lawrence Ferlinghetti

In this fine poem, Nebraska is a rural everyperson to contrast with the urbanite reality, but it too is swept away and ultimately the poem is about change everywhere and questions humanity’s survival/renewal.