Thursday, 9 June 2016

Nana on a Dolphin and other poems...

I'm delighted to have three poems featured at Exeter University's online poetry journal, Canto. One is a response to Niki de St Phalle's wonderful 'Nana on a Dolphin'; one has its roots in Russia, and another was described on Twitter by WN Herbert as 'a fine elegiac poem about eyebrows'. (Thank you!)

You can read the poems here.

And to whet the appetite, here are a couple of related images:

Grinling Gibbons Hampton Court.JPG
A carving by Grinling Gibbons

By Camster2 - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Nana On A Dolphin.jpg
Nana on a Dolphin, by Niki de St Phalle

By Source, Fair use,

Tuesday, 17 May 2016

'Writings on the Wall' Reblogged

I've been thinking a lot about boundaries and borders recently - if you see any news from Europe or the US, and many other places, it's a recurring theme.

I wrote this piece a few years ago. It was Autumn then, not early summer as it is now, but the walls still stand, and walls are still being built. More than ever, I feel that we should really think hard about why we build walls, and whether all of them are really necessary.

Robert Frost and the Berlin Wall

This time of year, when all the green stuff is beginning to die back, the bones of the countryside start to become more visible. Here in Devon, the networks of hedgerows and dry stone walls are suddenly foregrounded; their structure and relationship to the land revealed now that the lushness of summer is receding. They seem organic, these boundaries, part of the nature of things, since many of them have been in place for hundreds of years or more, but of course they are all man-made and need to be maintained.

In Robert Frost’s great poem ‘Mending Wall’ two neighbouring farmers walk the length of the dry stone wall which separates their properties, each on his own side, repairing the holes after the winter weather, making the boundary between them once more complete. ‘Something there is that does not love a wall’, muses Frost’s speaker, pondering the damage that occurs when no one is there to see. But he still goes though the spring ritual of mending: one day a year to ‘set the wall between us once again’. 'Just another kind of outdoor game,' he says.

Dry stone wall in the yorkshire dales detail

This particular wall serves no useful purpose as far as the speaker can see, since all it does is separate one kind of tree from another, and as he says ‘My apple trees will never get across/ and eat the cones under his pines…’. His neighbour sees things differently: insists, as his father did before him, that ‘Good fences make good neighbours’, and as readers we may smile at this old cliche, this unsophisticated parochialism. But then we read Frost's description of him picking up the fallen stones ready to put them back in place and mend the wall:        
...I see him there
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed
and we realise that to the neighbour this is something far deeper and darker, more primeval, than just a game.

There’s something very ancient in this need for boundaries, for marking one’s territory. History is criss-crossed by the bones of boundaries: Bronze Age field systems on Dartmoor, castle walls, city walls, Hadrian’s Wall, the Great Wall of China. Frost’s wall, like all these walls, is a social and psychological construct as well as a physical one: to the neighbour it is a representation of ownership, and of tradition, of something which must remain fixed. For Frost as poet, it seems to represent the barrier between two people’s points of view.

Point of view about boundaries and territory is addressed in another Frost poem, ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’.The poem starts
Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.
The speaker is riding through some woods which are not his, but the trespass seems to be implied not in the passing through, but in the stopping and looking. Perhaps taking pleasure from something that is not yours is a crime, even if by doing so you hurt no-one? Certainly Frost seems to feel that his speaker has crossed some kind of moral boundary. ‘He will not see me stopping here/ To watch his woods…’ has a very different implication from a possible alternative that Frost didn’t use: ‘He will not mind me…’. So even without walls, the social boundaries of territory exist.

In English, the word ‘wall’ is a kind of catch-all. We have to use the same word, whether we mean the internal vertical surfaces of a room, or an exterior dividing agent. German is kinder, and allows speakers to distinguish between an internal wall (Wand) and an external one (Mauer). The most famous German wall is of course the Berlin Wall, a barrier between two diametrically opposed points of view – those of Communism and of Capitalism.

The division of East and West Berlin took physical form on the night of 12th August 1961, when East German troops and workers tore up the streets adjacent to the border, and laid barbed wire and fences to prevent anyone crossing. The first bits of actual wall (concrete and blocks) were laid by August 17th, and soon there was a wall along the whole border. In 1975, however, the East German border troops started building a new type of wall along the border: the Grenzmauer 75. This was made from 45,000 sections of reinforced concrete, each 3.6m high and 1.2m wide. It was painted a bright, inviting white. Graffiti was of course forbidden in East Germany, but by the beginning of the eighties, artists had decided that the Western face of the wall was a massive canvas waiting to be filled. Many artists, known, unknown, or anonymous, painted on the wall. Sometimes a painting was only there a day before it was painted over. Anyone could paint. The wall, a symbol of oppression, became a place of expression – but only to those on one side. The Western side was riotous with colour, the Eastern side plain and greying.


In the Bible, (Daniel 5: 1-31) the ‘writing on the wall’ foretold the demise of the Babylonian Empire. While it would be pushing it rather to pretend that this is directly analogous with the Berlin Wall and its graffiti art, given the events of 1989 and after it’s quite a pleasing idea to prop, rather like some flimsy but decorative ladder, up against it.

More than twenty years after Reunification, few parts of the Wall remain, although on those stretches that do, the Eastern face is now covered with graffiti too. Pieces of the fallen Wall have made their way all over the world and can be found displayed in embassies, parks, schools, hotels and museums. But there is still a vestigial wall, albeit invisible. Germans talk about the ‘Mauer im Kopf’: the wall in the head. (Incidentally, it’s interesting how the spatial specificity the German noun – its externality – makes its paradoxical placing within an internal space – the head – so much more striking.)  Polls have indicated that some Germans regret Reunification, and feel that the erosion of cultural differences between the East and West is a negative thing. In other words, they wish the Wall was still there.

Which brings us back to Robert Frost’s neighbour, who wanted the boundaries kept solid, visible, unbroken. Knowing that the boundary was there in abstract was not enough. To him, the wall in the head needed be made manifest by the wall on the land, even though to Frost’s more pragmatic persona, there seemed no point at all.

So, what is the 'something' that makes the gaps, the something that doesn't like a wall? The something that
…sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun;
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
It’s frost.

Image Credits
Image 1, Drystone wall:  Lupin at English Wikipedia (Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons.) [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Image 2, Berlin Wall: Noir at the German language Wikipedia [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Monday, 28 March 2016

Tuesday, 9 February 2016

Chinese Poetry: Su Shi

Su Shi, also known as Su Dong Po (Detail, Fei Lai Temple, Qingyuan)

I had not really read much Chinese poetry until I went to China earlier this year - just some by Du Fu, and a couple of really well-known ones by Li Po - but obviously, if I visit somewhere, I've got to get to know at least a bit about its literature. So I bought the Penguin Classics edition of the poetry of Li Po (also known as Li Bai) and Tu Fu (also known as Du Fu), searched out my copy of Jonathan Waley's Spring in the Ruined City, translations of Du Fu, and bought Chinese Literature: A Very Short Introduction. I was glad I had read a bit, because when our hosts found out I wrote poetry, they were very keen to discuss the subject with me, and having done a bit of research I was able to not come across as entirely ignorant!

It was on a trip to the Fei Lai Temple, near Qingyuan, that I was introduced to Su Shi (1037 - 1101 CE), also known as Su Dongpo or Su Tungpo. I loved the frieze that depicted him reading his poetry among the mountains and the winds, so when I returned home, I added him to my reading and research list.

As I read more about Chinese poetry, I became more and more excited by it. As far as I understand it, Chinese is an almost totally uninflected language, so the relationships of words to each other in a poem are far more fluid than in English and other European languages. This allows a translator a lot of freedom in the rendering of a poem into their own language.

Here is Su Shi's Mid-Autumn Moon in Chinese and in Pinyin:

Text from
And here is the literal translation from the excellent website Chinese Poems:

Sunset cloud gather far excess clear cold
Milky Way silent turn jade plate
This life this night not long good
Next year bright moon where see

I am now working on my own version of this almost thousand year old poem, and will post it here when it's done. In the meantime, I would encourage anyone with the slightest interest to have a look at Chinese poetry. I certainly wish I'd known more about it sooner.

Su Shi,(Complete panel, Fei Lai Temple, Qingyuan)

Poems, Li Po and Tu Fu, tr Adam Cooper, Penguin Classics
Spring in the Ruined City, Selected Poems of Du Fu, translated by Jonathan Waley, Shearsman
Chinese Literature: A Very Short Introduction, Sabina Knight, Oxford University Press

Monday, 30 November 2015

Ekphrastic Prompt 7 - The Rucksack by David Inshaw

DAVID INSHAW The Rucksack (Anticipation) 1994 1995
The Rucksack (Anticipation) by David Inshaw

Today's prompt is a picture by the British artist David Inshaw. Inshaw was a member of the Brotherhood of Ruralists, a group which included Peter Blake, Jann Haworth, Graham and Annie Ovenden, and Graham and Ann Arnold. It was formed in 1975 and placed itself 'in opposition to the scholarly nature of contemporary art which believed that paintings were only really valid if they addressed social questions' (Peter Blake).

I first came across the Brotherhood of Ruralists when in the late '70s my parents bought a pencil drawing by Graham Ovenden, but I know a lot more of their work from the front covers of the second edition Arden Shakespeares that I still have on my shelves.

But back to the image. There's a lot here that could grow into a poem. The rucksack of the title which is barely in the picture; those gulls all looking in the same direction; the white towels; the hidden face; the strangely claustrophobic landscape. 

Perhaps you'd like to bounce this image off another poem. Have a look at Matthew Arnold's 'Dover Beach', or Les Murray's 'On Home Beaches' where 'You peer, at this age, but it's still there, ridicule,/ the pistol that kills women, that gets them killed, crippling men/ on the towel-spattered sand.' Think about the contrasts and the potential confluences. Think about your own experiences around beaches and coastlines.

You can see more of David Inshaw's work, his intense, often erotic and sometimes almost surreal pastoralism, on his website here; and an article about him in The Guardian, here

Happy viewing, and happy writing. 

Image Credit: The Rucksack. By David Inshaw (the artist) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Sunday, 29 November 2015

Poem: Schrödinger's Cat

On 29th November 1935, Erwin Schrödinger published his famous thought experiment about the cat. That famous cat in the in the steel box, the cat which is at the same time dead and alive until the box is opened and the cat is observed. I can't say I fully understand it at a scientific level, but at a poetic level, it's just my thing!

I started thinking about how surely, unless the cat were asleep, it would be able to observe itself. And if it did, what would happen? Would the 'psi-function' collapse and, in effect, the cat kill itself via its own consciousness? Let's hope it's asleep, I thought, so there's no danger of that happening...

So, to celebrate its 80th birthday, here's my ode to Schrödinger's Cat, complete with suitably unscientific 'footnotes'. Imagine it with a bit of a rap feel...

Apparently, in later life Schrödinger wished he'd never mentioned the darn cat. I bet the cat wished so too.

Saturday, 28 November 2015

The Sound of Silence Reblogged

As Christmas is approaching, I was reminded of this piece I wrote in 2010. It was only the third post on this blog, and has had the most page views over the years, so I decided that, with a few minor edits and updates, it was worth sharing again. 

John Cage, Edwin Morgan and the finding of meaning

Christmas is coming. I can read the signs. There are sparkly decorations in the shops and department stores have started displaying bizarre ‘gifts’ such as electronic talking monkeys that you can clip to your shoulder. (Thank goodness there weren't 'gifts' like that 2000 years ago, or the Three Wise Men might have arrived bearing Gold, Frankincense and Talking Shoulder Monkey...)  What else? Oh yes, X Factor fans are thinking about the Christmas Number One. And on Facebook, a campaign against anodyne manufactured pop is once more underway.  There’s a group which wants to try and get John Cage’s 4’33’’ onto the Christmas Number One spot. I have to confess, I’ve clicked the Like button.

Born in 1912, John Cage was an American composer, philosopher and artist who became famous for stretching the bounds of music. His 4’33’’ is probably his most famous work. It was composed in 1952, and is for any combination of instruments. The score basically instructs the musicians to not play during the piece’s three movements – it is four minutes and thirty three seconds of absence of instrumental playing. However, it is not four minutes and thirty three seconds of silence, but of environmental noise, of expectation, of aural space.

Cage had been considering the idea of silent music for a while, but was pushed into writing the piece by the example of the artist Robert Rauschenberg, who had produced a series of paintings which were basically large white squares. The point of this was that even if they just looked like blank canvases, they would change according to the conditions in which they are viewed: the quality of the light, or what other colours there might be in the room in which they were displayed. In a similar way, Cage’s 4’33’’ uses the silence as a background canvas for the ambient sound and atmosphere: the sounds to which we are usually too distracted to pay attention. Both Rauschenberg’s pictures and Cage’s music required the audience to pay hyper-close attention in order to experience them. Viewers and listeners had to make an effort: it wasn’t all laid out there in front of them. In fact, this requirement of effort meant that they had to become part of the creative process themselves.

White Painting (seven panel) by Robert Rauschenburg
Source Credit: Guggenheim

John Cage said ‘I have nothing to say and I am saying it and that is poetry’. Edwin Morgan, the Scottish poet who died this year, and whose tribute event, organised by the Poetry Society is taking place at the Southbank Centre, London, on Nov 3rd, took those fourteen words and made his own poem of them. The poem, 'Opening the Cage', is a fourteen line variation of those fourteen words, each line creating new meanings through new combinations.

It takes effort to tease meanings out of these lines, and I’m sure different people will find different things. To me, the first line seems to state the poet’s need to write, his uncertainty about whether that writing has any worth, and the fact that this dilemma is what he is considering:
I have to say poetry and that is nothing and I am saying it
By line 7 the words seem to have assembled themselves into an invitation to strip away all the fripperies of life and perhaps also of language to get to the bare bones:
To have nothing is poetry and I am saying that and I say it
And after a sonnet’s worth of variations, the poem concludes (if a conclusion it is) with the decisiveness of a manifesto:
Saying poetry is nothing and to that I say I am and have it
John Cage was very interested in aleatoric music, the music of chance. Morgan’s poem is very much in that spirit – the randomness of word-shuffling produces chance combinations from which meaning can be derived. Morgan chose the fourteen he felt made the meaning he wanted. It’s an interesting paradox, however, that while the poem is punningly entitled ‘Opening the Cage’, implying the freeing of language and meaning, Edwin Morgan might be considered to have imposed a cage of his own by using the sonnet form. (If it is a sonnet – certainly Don Paterson includes it in his 1999 Faber Anthology 101 Sonnets.)  However, a more controlling poet might have added punctuation to clarify the meanings he wished his reader to derive. Morgan does not do this. He lets the meaning of each line stay fluid and free. (Have a look at the similarly constructed 'The Uncertainty of the Poet' by Wendy Cope, a poem also derived from another artist's work, to see how punctuation pins down meaning.) It seems to me, also, that implicit in the poem are all the other possibilities which Morgan did not use. For these reasons the sonnet-shaped cage is only an illusion. It’s a poetic Tardis: the inside is bigger than the outside.

If one accepts this notion, ‘Opening the Cage’ is a poem that could continue, inside the reader’s head, for a lifetime. With 14 words there are 14! (that is, 14 factorial: 14 x 13 x 12 x 11 x 10 and so on down to x 1) possible combinations – in other words, 87,178,291,200 different ways of arranging those words. Well, you might say, some of those combinations will just be gobbledygook. Okay, let’s go for a gobbledygook one: the purely alphabetical
am and and have I I is it nothing poetry say saying that to
Is there any meaning to be found in that? Of course there is, of you look hard enough. The ‘am’ separated from its implied ‘I’ has a plaintive, questioning tone, while the repeated ‘and’s and ‘I’s reinforce this feeling of uncertainty. Then we have the question around which this line revolves, the shaky, inverted ‘is it nothing, poetry?’, followed by an imploring ‘say’ – tell me the answer. Next comes a phrase that implies no confidence in the received answer, ‘saying that to…’. This seems to me to question the motives of the unheard speaker: You’re just saying that for some other motive. Whatever it is, it means I can’t rely on your answer to help me in my search for whatever I’m searching for.

And I’ve derived that ‘meaning’ from listing those fourteen words alphabetically. You, dear reader, might derive a completely different meaning – it’s up to you. All it takes to derive meaning is a reader with the willingness to do so.

Edwin Morgan by Alex Boyd.jpg
"Edwin Morgan by Alex Boyd"
Licensed under 
CC BY-SA 4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 via Commons.
This kind of poetry, poetry that demands so much of the reader’s participation in the act of creativity, reminds me of the writing of someone I once met in a critique group. She was severely dyslexic, and had come to poetry, and literacy in general, quite late in life. For her, her poetry was mostly therapeutic, but for her readers, it became something quite exciting by virtue of her dyslexia. I can’t give any actual quotes, because I’m not in touch with her now, but, for example, in a poem about domestic violence, she might write things like ‘meating’ instead of ‘meeting’, and ‘burned’ instead of ‘born’ – changes which often added a startling and completely unintended complexity to her poems. When she was alerted to this, she was often delighted with the effect that she had created, and would let it stand. Her meanings were created in an aleatoric way, and the initially chance significances found by her readers were then fed back into her later revisions of the poems.

I’m not sure that Cage’s 4’33’’ will make the number one spot*. Nearly sixty years after it premiered it still provokes angry responses, as can be seen by some of the comments on the Daily Mail's coverage of the Facebook campaign. One person even rants about how the people who support the campaign should be locked up. What amuses me, though, and would probably have pleased both John Cage and Edwin Morgan, is the fact that the Cage piece must have suggested itself for this year’s campaign simply because of its chance sonic relationship with last year’s successful campaign band. Rage Against the Machine – Cage Against the Machine. A chance rhyme from which such appropriate significance and meaning has been derived. How could it have been anything else?

The making of Cage Against the Machine, 2010.

*In fact, Cage Against the Machine made it to number 21 in the UK Chart Singles. X Factor's Matt Cardle took the Number 1 spot with When We Collide. Hey ho, never mind. 

Opening the Cage’ can be found in 101 Sonnets, ed Don Paterson, Faber 1999.