Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Honno Poem of the Month: Rapunzel

I'm pleased to announce that my poem Rapunzel is Poem of the Month on the Honno website.

Honno was established twenty-five years ago to increase opportunities for Welsh women writers and to bring Welsh women writers to a wider public. It is currently the only independent women's press in the UK. Rosanne Reeves, one of the founders, interviewed in The Cambrian News, gave an account of the situation in Wales which led to the setting up of the press:

"None of the publishing houses in Wales were particularly interested in promoting women's literature or writers, especially not in English... the thought of going out to look for new female talent and female voices was not a priority. It was in the 1980s that Greenham Common started, when women from Cardiff marched to the base; Welsh Women's Aid extended to rural Wales; the Miners' Strike brought women of the valleys out of their kitchens, to return to their kitchens empowered;... and a political branch of the Women's Section of Plaid Cymru was developed.

The opportunity to sell women's literature became a possibility - the influence of Virago, The Women's Press, Spare Rib, Onlywomen and the Attic Press in Ireland led the way. But of course Wales was different from England and there was a gap in the market in Wales for books which were relevant to the women of Wales, in both languages."

Honno's authors have included Sian James, Malorie Blackman, Tessa Hadley, Lindsay Ashford, Patricia Duncker, Kitty Sewell and many others. There have been several high-profile awards, including most recently Bethan Darwin's novel Back Home which won the Aur Pur Award 2010 and Cold Enough to Freeze Cows by Lorraine Jenkin which was shortlisted for the People's Book prize.
Jane MacNamee's anthology of women writing about nature, In Her Element, includes essays by Christine Evans; Sian Melangell Dafydd; Jane Matthews; Dee Rivaz; Jay Griffiths; Patricia Barrie and Sue Anderson. The book was serialised on Radio 4.

Sadly Honno no longer publish poetry books but they have established the Poem of the Month feature on their website to promote the work of women poets in Wales. And one of my favourite books of poetry, Vixen, by Glenda Beagan, is still available. In this, her first collection of poems, "she dips into the world of nature and myth to draw on themes, which though ancient, still have a powerful effect on the modern world. Through the central figure of the vixen she looks at the twin pulls of motherhood and independence, and explores how it feels to be a woman in Wales today".

There is also a collection of Welsh Women's Poetry 1460 - 2001 which includes brief biographies of each poet, and some daring new translations. The editors have produced "a superbly researched anthology that illustrates the breadth, power and skill of Welsh women's poetry". "This groundbreaking volume is the first bilingual anthology of Welsh women's poetry, demonstrating the rich, varied canon of poetry by Welsh women, in both the Welsh and English languages. It ranges from Gwerful Mechain, the Welsh women's Chaucer, to acclaimed contemporary poets such as Menna Elfyn and Gillian Clarke, and many works which previously existed only in handwritten manuscripts in the National Library of Wales.

The Welsh word honno is the feminine form of  'that one' (who is elsewhere).

Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Join the first Mindful Writing Day on 1st November

This Thursday the 1st of November is the first ever Mindful Writing Day, organised by Kaspa & Fiona at Writing Our Way Home.

I'm going to be travelling to London on the train in the morning  to perform in the evening at the Poetry Place, Covent Garden, with the Word Distillery. I shall have plenty of time to be mindful, gazing out of the train window. I wonder what I'll see?

To join in simply slow down, pay attention to one thing and write it down (making a small stone). Read all about it hereSmall stones are easy to write, and they will help you connect to the world. Once you've started, you might not want to stop...

You can read more about small stones and find out about Lorrie with pea-green eyes in Fiona's free ebook, Write Your Way Home. If you visit Writing Our Way Home on Thursday you'll find out how to download your free kindle copy of the new anthology, 'A Blackbird Sings: a book of short poems' (which contains two of my small stones). You can also submit your small stone and see it published on the blog, and be entered into a competition to win one of five paperback copies of the book.

 There's a Facebook invite here if you'd like to invite your friends, and do feel free to copy this blog onto your own blog. You can tweet this: Connect with the world through mindful writing - join the first Mindful Writing Day on the 1st of November: #smallstone

Friday, 26 October 2012

The Sea Road: available soon

My poetry booklet The Sea Road is now in print. I'm very pleased with the way it's come out. There are twenty-five poems and artwork by local artist Jenny Fell. I took down my previous post about it as I had a hitch with the payment details and it seems to have disappeared! As I'm busy again preparing to go away for the poetry performances in London, I'm going to wait until I get back to launch it here. Meanwhile, you can see an image of it on the sidebar.

Monday, 17 September 2012

Book Launch: Ruth Bidgood and Matthew Jarvis

Ruth Bidgood

(I wrote this post back in July and forgot to post it!). 

I recently attended a book launch at the Aberystwyth Arts Centre bookshop for Ruth Bidgood’s latest volume of poetry Above the Forests and Matthew Jarvis’s study of her work for the Writers of Wales series, called simply Ruth Bidgood. It was also a celebration of the poet’s 90th birthday a few days before.

Ruth Bidgood is an accomplished reader of her own poetry. As the medieval Welsh Bardic Grammars point out, it is rare that a reciter is able to read a poem exactly as the poet composed it and listening to Ruth reading her poems with ‘fluency of expression, elegant sense and full understanding’ was a privilege; especially perhaps, as her full understanding of the poems includes bringing out some of the humour in them which we might otherwise have missed.

The evening included John Barnie, poet and one-time editor of Planet, interviewing Matthew about his book with occasional questions passed to Ruth herself. The book is a fascinating study with some interesting and appropriate biographical details and a close examination of many of the poems. It also includes in an appendix an unpublished letter Ruth wrote to the editor of Poetry Wales about her long sequence, Hymn to Saint Ffraid, which throws light not only on the genesis and intent of the piece but also on the poetic process.

                                                                    Matthew Jarvis

However the poems themselves must take centre stage. They address memory, its importance, its effect on the past, its relationship with what is real. Often they engage with the unseen, the numinous, in a delicate and clear-headed way. The ground of their being though is the landscape and communities of the area surrounding Abergwesyn in mid-Wales, Ruth’s ‘home patch’ as she refers to it. Ruth Bidgoood observes in fine detail the life in the locality, past and present. Written over four decades, such an achievement must be almost unique and, as Matthew suggest, the work amounts to a mid-Wales epic. It is a record of the milltir sgwâr, the square mile, a Welsh phrase used to describe the patch of land that nourishes, sustains and calls to you. Matthew Jarvis describes it as ‘a bluntly defiant commitment to the region’s memory and its yet-surviving life’. Ruth says simply:

It seems important 
to remember right:
know exactly the angle
of house to hill, be able
to count the pines…

as though the intensity
of my recall
ensured the reality
of the place, its being…

as though the existence
of a loved place were something
to be built, sustained
each moment, held to, against
the cold and cancelling wind.  

( from Recall) 

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Word Distillery Blog

Tina Warren reading at the Russkiy Mir bookshop, London

I've been facilitating a blog for The Word Distillery - the poetry group I perform with. There are pages for each poet with a short description and samples of his or her work as well as the latest news, pictures and forthcoming events.

If you'd like to have a look, click here: The Word Distillery

Friday, 27 July 2012

Amergin, Keats and Dōgen, Poets and Mystics

I am Wind on Sea,
I am Ocean-wave,
I am Roar of Sea,
I am Bull of Seven Fights,
I am Vulture on Cliff,
I am Dewdrop,
I am Fairest of Flowers,
I am Boar for Boldness,
I am Salmon in Pool,
I am Lake on Plain,
I am a Mountain in a Man,
I am a Word of Skill,
I am the Point of a Weapon (that poureth forth combat),
I am God who fashioneth Fire for a Head.

R.A.S. MacAllister's translation from Lebor Gabala Erenn (Irish Texts Society, 1941)

So sang Amergin Glúingel, poet of the Milesians, when he first placed his right foot on the soil of Ireland. In Wales, the medieval bard Taliesin claimed to have been many things, animals, wild and domestic, the tools of farmers and smiths:

I was a blue salmon,
I was a dog, a stag,
I was a roebuck on a mountain,
I was a block, I was a spade,
I was an axe in the hand,
I was an auger [held] in tongs,
for a year and a half.
I was a speckled cockerel
covering the hens in Eidyn;
I was a stallion at stud,
I was a fiery bull. 

( Legendary Poems from the Book of Taliesin, edited and translated by Marged Haycock)

Some people see these proclamations as evidence of shamanic practices, shape-shifting or time-travelling, while scholars studying the Taliesin texts have sought to demonstrate that they are not the work of an early druidic bard but rather of a medieval professional poet promoting a mystique about the knowledge and talents of his profession, incorporating learning derived from such diverse sources as medieval science, folklore, biblical and continental texts.

But can we see these particular utterances of Amergin, (‘Born of Song’) and Taliesin (‘Radiant Brow’) in poetic terms as exemplifying the ability or skill of the poet to inhabit other bodies, other times and situations through his imagination or mystical experience?
Famously John Keats described the chameleon poet who has no colour of his own but takes on those of others, whether good or bad:
The poetical character... is not itself — it has no self — it is every thing and nothing — It has no character — it enjoys light and shade; it lives in gusto, be it fair or foul, high or low, rich or poor, mean or elevated. — It has as much delight in conceiving an Iago as an Imogen. What shocks the virtuous philospher, delights the camelion poet.
It does no harm from its relish of the dark side of things any more than from its taste for the bright one; because they both end in speculation. A Poet is the most unpoetical of any thing in existence; because he has no Identity – he is continually in for – and filling some other Body – the Sun, the Moon, the Sea and Men and Women who are creatures of impulse are poetical and have about them an unchangeable attribute – the poet has none; no identity – he is certainly the most unpoetical of all God’s creatures. [1]
Keats is even able to imagine how an inanimate object might experience its existence, telling his friend Richard Woodhouse that he could conceive of a billiard ball taking a sense of delight in 'its own roundness, smoothness, volubility and the rapidity of its motion’.
Coleridge wrote in a letter of 1819 that he too experienced "a sort of transfusion and transmission of my consciousness to identify myself with the object" and nearer our own time T. S. Eliot has described how the poet continually surrenders himself to something more valuable (in this case an awareness not only of the time in which he lives but also the presence of the past, an experience of the timeless and the temporal) and asserts that  ‘The progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality.’ (Tradition and the Individual Talent)

There are some similarities between this ‘progress of the artist’ and the Buddhist way. The 13th century Chinese Buddhist Dōgen said:

To study the Way is to study the self.
To study the self is to forget the self.
To forget the self is to be enlightened by all things.
To be enlightened by all things
is to remove the barriers between one’s self and others.

But, although Dōgen himself was a poet, he taught that the Way led beyond language to a state of being fully present and enlightened. The way of the poet and the way of the mystic share steps on the journey but lead to a different place. When I was 16, sitting by a tree-lined lake with my cat, I had the classic mystical experience that we are all One. This was no conscious musing or reaching after meaning; there were no pictures, no words at the time, it was a sudden, unexpected and involuntary shift of perception - one which hasn’t recurred  to date, although I suspect that my sense of the world and my being-in-the-world has been informed by it. But it's an experience that is impossible to put into words beyond 'We are all One'; impossible to describe of what that consists, how it feels, how it looks - because it is outside the usual bounds of perception and therefore of our usual modes of description which rely upon the senses. We may try to use words to describe it further, but in my experience they taint and dilute it.

In her essay Two Secrets: On Poetry’s Inward and Outward Looking [2], Jane Hirshfield considers poetry’s relationship with the outer world. She suggests that poems which carry reflective and indirect meanings take one of three stances: the subjective in which a ‘human-centered consciousness [is] dominating’; the reflective in which ‘the poet and the outer world stand face to face in mutual regard’ and the objective in which ‘the poet becomes an intermediary, a medium through whom the world of objects and nature beyond human consciousness may speak’.

But is it possible for the world of objects and nature beyond human consciousness to speak to the poet and for the poet to communicate it to others? As Hirshfield herself says, ‘The earth does not speak our language’ (and Wittgenstein thought “if a lion could talk, we could not understand him”). Miriam Gamble points out in her review of Ruth Padel’s recent poetry collection Mara Crossingthat ‘Padel tussles…with the paradoxical truth that we can gain access to other perspectives only by filtering them through the networks of our own’. We cannot ‘conjure the experience of animals without sinning through usurpation’.

I think there are two ways in which we endeavour to engage with the consciousness of other beings and objects. One is through a mystical communion with nature, with aspects of reality that are normally beyond human perception – an experience which is beyond words and is often corrupted if an attempt is made to communicate it in language. The other is through the imagination.

What is the imagination? It is the faculty which gives “the power to visualize and build mental images; dream about things that have never happened; feel intuitively; and reach beyond sensual or real boundaries” (Elementary Art - Glossary of Art Terms) Colderidge defined the Primary Imagination as “the living Power and prime Agent of all human Perception, and as a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM”. James Volant Baker thought that for Coleridge, "the creative act… is a godlike-act-of-power and causing-to-be, imagination being the divine potency in man”. (James Volant Baker, Sacred River: Coleridge’s Theory of the Imagination) The Primary Imagination says Coleridge, is the necessary imagination as it "automatically balances and fuses the innate capacities and powers of the mind with the external presence of the objective world that the mind receives through the senses".

I am God who fashioneth Fire for a Head” said Amergin, the pronouncement often taken to mean that he is the god who kindles the fire of creative imagination. But is that what he said? The original says “Am dé delbas do chind codnu" and codnu is obscure. It may be a plural form of the noun conn / cond which could mean a 'protruberance, bulge'; so 'horns, antlers', or it could mean 'intelligence, sense', or even 'chief, leader, sensible person'. The meaning ‘fire’ (tene) only comes from a later gloss on the text. Dennis King has questioned, could the line read "I am a god who shapes/creates horns/antlers for the head" - which might link it, perhaps, with Cernunnos, the antlered god. John Carey (The Celtic Heroic Age), meanwhile, translates the line as “I am a god who forms subjects for a ruler”. Problems of translation are not only between nature and ourselves…

But if Amergin is saying that he is a god that shapes intelligence or sense (meaning), then that is perhaps not a bad way of describing the consummate poet who uses his imagination to engage with the external world and filter his vision through language and form to his or her audience, enabling us to expand our perception of the world, its diversity and its wonders.

[1]   Selected Poems and Letters of John Keats, edited with commentary by Robert Gittings, Heinemann, 1966, p 87
  [2] Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry, by Jane Hirshfield, Harper Perennial, 1998, pp 127-152

Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Poetry at Strata Florida Abbey

 The church next to Strata Florida Abbey.
Dafydd ap Gwilym's yew tree is to the left of the picture.   

Recently I went to the Open Day of the Centre for Advanced Celtic Studies at Strata Florida, or Ystrad Fflur, the site of a Cistercian abbey. Although the weather was cold and grey, it was a truly lovely and inspiring day. Just what I needed as I had been decidedly lacking in hwyl (enthusiasm, humour) lately.
The abbey is about a mile from the village of Pontrhydfendigaid, Ceredigion, some 15 miles from where I live. Originally founded in 1164, many important manuscripts are thought to have been written there, namely Brut y Tywysogion, The Chronicle of the Princes, a major source for early Welsh history;  Llyfr Gwyn Rhydderch, The White Book of Rhydderch, which contains the stories of the Mabinogi, and the Hendregadredd Manuscript which contains an anthology of poems of the 12th and 13th century Beirdd y Tywysogion (the Poets of the Princes) or Y Gogynfeirdd (the Not So Early Poets). Around 1330 a number of poems by contemporary poets were added and there is one poem of Dafydd ap Gwilym’s which is probably written in his own hand.
Dafydd ap Gwilym was born not far away in the village of Penrhyncoch and it is likely that he was educated at Strata Florida by the monks and was buried in the churchyard there when he died. A fellow-poet, Gruffydd Gryg, wrote an elegy to him, addressing the yew tree which grew over his grave. It was the custom then, however, for poets to write elegies to each other when they were still alive so it isn’t certain that he is buried there. However it is thought that the yew is old enough to have existed in his time and there is a memorial to him placed there.


Yr ywen i oreuwas
Ger mur Ystrad Fflur a’i phlas;
Da Duw wrthyd, gwynfyd gwŷdd,
Dy dyfu yn dŷ Dafydd.

This yew-tree for the best of men,
Near the walls of Strata Florida and its hall;
God’s blessing on you, happy tree,
For growing as a house for Dafydd.

In an earlier exchange of funeral odes with Dafydd, Gruffydd had written:

Tristach weithian bob cantref,
bellach naw digrifach nef.

Sadder now is every area of land,
but heaven is nine times more joyful.

Dafydd Johnston gave a talk among the ruins about the poets of the abbey, quoting from the medieval poet Dafydd Nanmor’s poem about Strata Florida. He tells how the Abbot  Rhys ‘cut ten complete windows, half the cost of this went in glass’; the abbey had roofs of 'heavy lead', 'so woven as to leave no holes for ice, water, snow or rain'. Between her walls were 'acres for burying lords' and there was music too – he heard the fair sounds of treble, mean (the refrain or chorus of a song) and burden there.  He related how there was a great belfry, lime dressed, huge and white, with a cock on top of it. It was so large that if Noah’s flood were to come again, all the saints inside would be protected.

The talk filled the empty spaces of the abbey with the words of the poets and thoughts and images of how magnificent it had been once…
No sun
but the stones
shine with history

After this it was time to go and learn about cynghanedd from Eurig Salisbury who perched on top of the wall by the garden. It had a rather medieval feel to it – being taught something in the open air, the words blown on the cold wind. Not so much a hedge school as a wall school perhaps… It was a very clear and concise introduction to complicated Welsh metres with an excellent handout. I was motivated the next day to try a few lines of (rather clumsy) cynhanedd sain to give an image of the day:

Sitting in the cold in the fold of Strata Florida
hearing the tale of the travail of the venerable
I catch sight of the flight of the falcon
which soars in the sky like the sigh of a soul
Ideally the lines should have 7 syllables (such as in 'Make fish the dish of the day' - remember that ad?) although I think more are permitted.
And then back to the impressive West Gate to hear poems about Strata Florida by the Welsh poet, Gwyneth Lewis. CADW commissioned her to write them in recognition of its literary and cultural associations and to celebrate the re-opening of the abbey. The poet said that this was for her the high point of her career and she planned later to light a candle at Dafydd ap Gwilym’s memorial ‘in gratitude and humility’.

The English poem had, at times, a bare, somewhat staccato feel to it, and it wasn’t until I saw it written down that I felt I understood the concept underlying it (although who knows whether it is what the poet intended). To me it seemed to contain, in almost concrete fashion, some of the feel of the abbey. Its incomplete sentences were fragments, like the surviving stone fragments of the abbey... only the great West door remaining intact, offering us through through absence rather than presence an opening into something greater, an expanding universe. But the poem ends by reminding us that we have to find our own door; a gateway to all ages, to the timeless in the temporal. Perhaps the picture below will give you some idea of what I mean.
Through this door
Into Christ, the expanding
Universe. Dimension:
Wonder. Uplands bare,
Riches below…
… This
Door. Find your own elsewhere.
Now. The future. Then. Then now.

I remembered that the medieval Welsh poets were sometimes referred to as builders and their poems were not composed but built...
The Welsh poem was quite different, the poet asking for her ashes to be scattered in Ystrad Fflur (which in an article in CADW's magazine Etifeddiaeth Y Cymry she describes as being a cornerstone and frame of her life) and ending:
...Gwisgaf y gwynt, fy nghorff
Ac, mewn munud daw awel lem
O'r mynydd gan iasu'r glaswell yn emau byw.
(I'll wear my body, the wind, and in a moment a cold breeze from the mountain will thrill the grass into living gems.)
Lunch was a cream cheese and salad roll I’d prepared earlier, finished off with digestive biscuits and a flask of tea. I ate it sitting in the car which was consolingly warm, looking out over one of the fields. Then it was a spell of finding out how to add shapes to a mosaic of an archway with the words STRATA FLORIDA above it. Rob Turner is the artist commissioned to display the poems in a permanent setting at the abbey. You can read about his design and progress HERE 

There was a final talk on manuscripts and princes by Ann Parry Owen with a very useful illustrated booklet she had produced (I only managed to get one of the Welsh copies but it is proving very good for me having to translate it). Before going home, I went into the visitors' centre to’ make my own tile’. This consisted of buying the tile which resembles unset plaster of paris (but has dried into something that feels very light, rather like polystyrene) and then choosing one of the designs from the several tiles which have survived at the abbey and impressing it on the tile. I decided on ‘the man with the mirror’ – perhaps a symbol of vanity although other interpretations suggest he is a hunter. I like to think he’s a poet of the green wood holding up a mirror…

And finally, not to be forgotten, the Flowers - bluebells and the promise of foxgloves .

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Haiku Competition (Kukai)

There's just over one day left to send in your submissions for the Second International Kukai  (Haiku contest). The topic this month is 'kite/s' and you can send up to three haiku.

I sent three in to the last one, which had sparrow/s as its topic. None of them distinguished themselves but I enjoyed writing them and - since the entrants read and vote on all the haiku (excepting one's own) - judging the entries. It gave me an insight into the judging process (very difficult) and there was an interesting range of haiku covering many aspects of sparrows, their habits, interactions with humans, and indeed the use of them as metaphors for the ordinary person.

While writing this I became aware that I hadn't read the instructions properly this time and had written three haiku about the red kites that are regular visitors to the airspace above my garden :-) So back to the drawing board...

I see these Kukai as an exercise, a little like small stones, for catching the moment. An opportunity to write many haiku I probably wouldn't have written otherwise and to read many more.

Why don't you give it a try?

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Celebrating May with Dafydd ap Gwilym

Cytisus scoparius photo MPF Newcastle, UK

May 1st, Calan Mai. 

But it's cold and gloomy here in West Wales and the may blossom is not yet out. I think it might be some time… 
Here are some lines of an Ode, by the 14th  century Welsh poet Dafydd ap Gwilym  (although I believe it has also been attributed to the 15th century poet Robin Ddu in some of the manuscripts). It contrasts January and May, winter and summer, but could be mistaken for a description of our current weather in the UK.

Urging on tides and colds
and in the brooks a brown flood;
a turmoil fills the rivers,
day is angered and offended,
and the heavy, chilly sky
with its hue obscures the moon…

When May comes in its green livery
with ordination for the fresh leaves
then green grows along the threads
of the bush for him who owns it.
Fair is the tree and lively,
from whose branches grow thick gold;
God gave, o faultless structure,
a shower of gold to its stalks.
Let my girl rejoice that a green grove
makes a paradise for a poet.
We love the loveliest flowers,
but these boughs are summer’s frost.

Ac annog llanw ac annwyd
ac mewn naint llifeiriaint llwyd
a llawn son mewn afonydd
a llidiaw a digiaw dydd
ac wybren drymled ledoer
a’i lliw yn gorchuddiaw’r lloer…

Pan ddel Mai a’i lifrai las
ar irddail i roi’r urddas
aur a dyf ar edafedd
ar y llwyn er mwyn a’i medd.
Teg yw’r pren a gwyrennig
y tyf yr aur tew o’r frig.
Duw a roes, difai yw’r ail,
aur gawod ar y gwiail.
Bid llawen gwen bod llwyn gwydd
o baradwys i brydydd.
Blodau gorau a garwn;
barrug haf ydyw’r brig hwn.

(from Dafydd ap Gwilym a’i Gyfoeswyr, by T. Roberts with Sir Ifor Williams, Bangor, 1914, p 91 and 79. English translation by Gwyn Williams.)

The bush which is celebrated here is of course the broom (Cytisus scoparius) and I’m happy to say that in my garden there is a shower of gold on its stalks and the air is rich with its honey scent. A paradise for a poet indeed.

Monday, 13 February 2012

Seeing Things - The Vision of the Poet

Van Gogh: A Pair of Shoes 

Seeing things: The vision of the poet

We've seen that the Old Irish word for poet, fili, comes from a root meaning 'seer' and is cognate with Welsh gweled, 'to see'.  But what does the poet see? Nothing less, I’d suggest, than the invisible in the visible - to rephrase the words of the French symbolist artist, Odilon Redon

What does this mean? In early societies poetry was entwined with prophecy – a divinely inspired utterance or revelation, often about what is to come. Our English word ‘seer’ refers to a person who sees visions, an inspired person, a prophet. Yet the poet does not necessarily need to see visions or prophesy to be a seer. I think there are several different ways by which the poet sees the invisible and mediates it to the reader or listener through words to make it visible. (Naturally, when I say ‘see’ I don’t mean only seeing with the eyes but include other sense-perceptions, as well as intellectual cognition and intuition – a perception via the unconscious, to use Jung’s definition.)

These are my suggestions for the ways the poet sees what is often invisible to others:

      1. By seeing things differently to the commonly perceived view.
      2. By seeing things that aren’t there, that is, seeing things that aren’t there according to others, or to ‘consensus reality'
      3. By seeing into the nature of things – insight.
      4. By seeing things more clearly than others – being a keen observer of objects, people etc.
      5.  By seeing ‘through’ things, beyond mere appearance.
      6. By seeing things that are intangible – abstract ideas, objects and situations as metaphor or symbols
      7. By seeing things before they happen – foretelling, associated with prophecy.
      8. By seeing visions –  these may be supernatural, often accompanied by revelation, in a state of heightened perception or a dream, or a trance. Or they may be arrived at via the imagination.

Of course these categories blur and overlap with each other. For instance, seeing things clearly may involve insight, seeing into the nature of things or seeing through things as when a poet is not fooled by some commercial or political manipulation.

Most, if not all, types of poetry are included in these ways of seeing: humorous poets see things differently, satirical poets see through things, mystical poets see visions or see into the nature of things and so on. But the poet doesn’t have to be a mystic or to have visions to be a poet, although s/he may be, what is required is to perceive beyond the ordinary, beyond the  matter-of-fact, the mundane - the prosaic.


Seamus Heaney: how a poet sees things

‘Seeing Things’ (1991) is the inspired title of a volume of poetry by Seamus Heaney. Inside there is a sequence of 3 poems with the collection’s title. In I, Heaney presents us with several types of seeing, from his observation of the people in a boat and his own fear to an out of the body experience of looking down as if from another boat ‘sailing through air’ to see ‘how riskily we fared into the morning/And loved in vain our bare, bowed, numbered heads’. 

In II he gives us a description of a carving, on the stone façade of a cathedral, of Jesus standing in a river and John the Baptist pouring water over his head. ‘…Lines/Hard and thin and sinuous represent/The flowing river. Down between the lines/ Little antic fish are all go. Nothing else/ And yet in that utter visibility/ The stone’s alive with what’s invisible’. Likewise, the poem also is alive with what is invisible.

In III, he conjures up a vision of his father remembering an incident when his father came back from the river after an accident, an incident which prefigured his ‘imminent ghosthood’.

Seamus Heaney often has a unique way of seeing objects. He describes them in three dimensions, not only how they look but their weight, the space they occupy, the way they feel to the people who use them. He explores how people interact with tools, how they express themselves through them. They become a metaphor for the interaction between the material and the intangible, the physical and the emotional or spiritual. I can’t help thinking of him when reading something that Ralph Waldo Emerson said:

We are symbols and inhabit symbols; workman, work and tools, words and things, birth and death, all    are emblems; but we sympathise with the symbols, and, being infatuated with the economical uses of things, we do not know that they are thoughts. The poet, by an ulterior intellectual perception, gives them a power which makes their old use forgotten, and puts eyes, and a tongue, into every dumb and inanimate object. (The Poet)

In the collection ‘Station Island’ (1984) there is a sequence called Shelf Life which has poems about a granite chip, a smoothing iron, old pewter, an iron spike, a stone from Delphi and a snowshoe. Old Smoothing Iron is one of my favourite Heaney poems. In it he enables us to see what he saw: how the compact wedge rode the back of the stove like a tug at anchor, how the woman spat in its iron face and aimed it into the linen like a plane, ‘like the resentment of women’. And finally he shows us something about the paradoxical nature of work, in an almost visceral way, in the mechanics of ironing – to move a certain mass a certain distance and ‘feel exact and equal to it’ is to ‘Feel dragged upon. And buoyant.’


Describe a mundane object like an iron or a snowshoe as objectively as you can – its colour, size, weight, use etc. Then look at the object again and allow your imagination to come into play; let the object become a portal to something else.

Or, write a poem about Van Gogh’s Pair of Shoes, the illustration at the head of this post.

Sunday, 5 February 2012

A Few Last Small Stones

21st January

Deep winter -
in the shelter of a holly tree
a bush of vibrant pink bells
remember summer

22nd January

23rd January

Through the scribbled branches
of the beech tree
the evening sky turns pewter

24th January

Evening: On the doorstep I leave an offering
              of the day's uneaten cat food

Morning: The white bowl empty
               but for the crisp curled mystery
                of a winter leaf.

25th January

Opening the curtains
a bright round face
beams through the window -
the returning sun

26th January

a line of sheep
circles the oak-crested mound -
a living amulet

27th January

The goldfinch rides
the mast of last year's evening primrose
like a sailor scanning for land

28th January

In the far distance
snow-heavy hills blend with the sky
the windmills spin their blades

29th January


30th January

As of old the church bell rings out -
my first service for 30 years -
inside a boy sings
'Blowing in the Wind'
in Polish
a saxophone played from the pulpit
reverberates along the pews
outside the wind-borne snow
creates the world anew

31st January

On a bed of moss and snowdrops
lies the Bride doll lightly sleeping
come and call her to awaken
celebrate this springtime brightening!

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Some more small stones

January 13th

In my dream
the small stones grow
to make a crossing-place

January 14th
Visiting Gill
Kitchen Alchemy
a treeful of sparrows

January 15th
Sentinel blackbird
overseeing the garden
its symphony of food

January 16th
The hills hunch against the mist
we watch it gather
fillling the valley with enchantment

January 17thThe sign in the cafe:
'Have some cake - you deserve it!'
What puzzles me
is how they know?

January 18th
A settled mist blurs the garden
my day lacks definition

January 19th
Today's small stone
grew larger in my hand -
became a poem
that sang to me
of luminescence

January 20th
Black wellington boot
thick grey sock nestles inside -
resting on it the husk of a butterfly

Thursday, 12 January 2012

A Week of Small Stones

January 6th

Bare birch branches
brush the sky
banishing contrails

January 7th

Blue stained-glass sky
by the monkey-puzzle tree

January 8th

Solitary Sunday
the drip of water from the gutter

January 9th

Looking up -
a sinister plume of cloud
slowly moving east

January 10th

New Year gale -
hurtling past
the garden chairs
I meant to put away

January 11th

Late again -
time slips through my grasp
like a bar of soap

January 12th

The door blows open
rolls a golden carpet down the hall

Thursday, 5 January 2012

Twelfth Night

5th January

Christmas lights brighten
the drab sky
their days numbered

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Small Stones 2

3rd January

Half light -
hovering in the darkening sky
half a moon

4th January

Lone toffee
in the chocolate box
austerity bites

Monday, 2 January 2012

Small Stones

1st January

Half seen
a flash of red
among the blue tits

2nd January

Slab of green hillside
against the skyline
a row of trees curtsey
their backs to the sea
tableau of motionless sheep -
it's still life

I'm joining with the River of Stones to pay attention each day and write what I see. I might not keep it up for the whole month - I didn't last year - but I shall try. I've found it such a valuable way of honing my perception so that I don't only look but really see and then weave the experience into words, uniting outer and inner and making it visible.

Feel free to post your own Small Stones here if you'd like - I'd love to read them!