Archive for the ‘poetry’ Category

Return to Aldeburgh

February 20th, 2020 No comments

For those who have been wondering where I’ve been for a longer pause than usual, last year I turned my attention to poetry which has been a constant presence in my writing life, and have been assembling some collections which needed seclusion and concentration, including one of travel poems which for obvious reasons has been a constant thread.

As part of that process I returned to the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival which loyal readers with longer memories will remember I attended almost exactly 10 years ago and gave a reading and blogged about.

So very interesting to go back. A certain amount has changed, in that the poetry festival – now called ‘Poetry in Aldeburgh’ as part of its new incarnation after a substantial hiccup a few years ago when the original one went bust – has taken a few years to get up and running again. Read more…


March 11th, 2013 No comments

I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of panspermia: the theory that Fred Hoyle and others put forward almost 30 years ago that – very broadly put – life was distributed across the universe by meteorites.

It’s often been ridiculed by other astronomers and physicists – let alone biologists – for being simplistic, but that surely is part of the charm: we should look for an elegant simplicity in our scientific solutions.

So the news that scientists, including a former colleague of Fred Hoyle’s, have identified biological matter in the heart of a meteorite that recently landed in Sri Lanka, in December, should have attracted much greater attention than it has.

This judicious and weighted article in the August M.I.T Technology Review puts the case.

My more frivolous case for panspermia is below:are 

The first Big Bang:

panspermia flood

through space, lactating

fireworks against the black;

meteorites cross-pollinate


between planets,

extremophile bacteria

clinging to the rocks

like a rodeo:



The Earth got lucky –

we were fertilised.

But what I want

to ask the Universe

is this:


‘How was it for you?’

following Edward Thomas and his ‘map of the soul’

January 10th, 2013 No comments

The Dark Earth and the Light Sky, Almeida Theatre, LondonBlown away by the quite phenomenal Nick Dear play The Dark Earth and The Light Sky about Edward Thomas, now showing at the Almeida Theatre on its first run.

I wrote about Thomas in The Green Road into the Trees – indeed in some ways the book was a centenary version of his own book, The Icknield Way, when he took the same route in 1912. Nick Dear has a fine phrase for Thomas’s travel books which he describes as ‘maps of his soul’, rather than more conventional guides, and as a result did not sell.

Dear does a few things exceptionally well:  he doesn’t sentimentalise Thomas at all – he often comes across as a monster in the way he treats his wife Helen in particular;  the play does not climax with Thomas’s tragic death in the First World War which often over-colours accounts of his life – this is the chronicle of a death foretold;  he shows how the friendship between Thomas and Robert Frost was pivotal for both men’s poetry – Thomas started publishing and Frost got recognition.

But above all it focuses on Helen, who for me had always been a shadowy presence.  She comes across as a tragic figure, quite beautifully played by Hattie Morahan, dealing with her husband’s depression and death wish with alternate light and sadness.

In The Green Road into the Trees, I quoted the lines of Thomas that haunted me from his own account of my journey:  ‘I could not find a beginning or an ending to the Icknield Way. It is thus a symbol of mortal things with their beginnings and ends always in immortal darkness.’

Aldeburgh Poetry Festival Sunday

November 7th, 2010 No comments

some time on Sunday night  

I’m both exhausted and exhilarated by the end of proceedings.  The final poets’ dinner on Sunday night ends at about two in the morning. 

If there has been a noticeable intensity at Aldeburgh compared to other poetry festivals,  it derives from one unusual component — no poet is ever invited back.  

This isn’t because in some ways they might have failed a quality threshold.  A strict policy is in place only to invite those who’ve never read there before.  This lends the proceedings an intensity they would not otherwise have.  Poets have one shot at getting an Aldeburgh Festival reading right. 

The same goes for the organisers.  Every year they have to start at the bottom of the mountain and select new participants. 

I’m reminded of those Buddhist monks who spend months laboriously making sand mandalas from small grains and then blow them to the wind.


Sunday 18.00  Don Paterson’s earlier lecture on Frost proves a terrific curtain raiser for the later reading by Marie Howe, as it is noticeable how many of her poems are framed as dialogues rather like Frost’s.  The elegy for her missing brother is just one of many fine poems. 


She makes a striking figure on stage with her Botticelli hair.  Indeed this year’s ‘best poetic hair’ prize is awarded equally between her and the long-locked Matthew Caley.  I’d love them to do a shampoo ad double-act together, swinging their impressive tresses as they duetted on a country and western song, or pastoral eclogue.  Who says that all poets are bald and need to wear berets? 

Bill Manhire is less hirsute but still very effective.  He concentrates on those works of his that lend themselves to public performance, with strong rhythm and rhyme.  You might think that most  poets would follow this obviously sensible line.  Or series of lines.  But they don’t. 

His elegy for Charles Causley is just the first of a string of emotionally intense poems,  hypnotically delivered.  His voice has an attractive incantatory quality, whether listing his possessions as a small boy on New Zealand’s South Island, or howling at the moon down a lift shaft in Copenhagen. 

The perfect choice to close the festival, internationalist, accomplished and passionate as it has been.


Sunday 14.00     I’ve had 2 cups of 152’s excellent cappuccino and so am ready for the highly caffeinated lecture on Robert Frost by Don Paterson.  We are still at warp speed and every word is worth unravelling and playing back at 33 rpm. 

The bulk of his lecture is on Frost’s poem ‘West-Running Brook’.  While some critics have decried the rhetorical staging of this as a dialogue between husband and wife  as clumsy, Don admires what he sees as the resulting subplot of ‘how people in love talk to one another’.  Perhaps naturally, given that he has just published his account of Shakespeare’s sonnets, he finds Shakespearean echoes in some lines – like ‘And even substance lapsing unsubstantial’, while also being drawn to Frost’s nihilism and ‘the aphoristic, demotic and plain-speaking nature of his verse which omits the extraneous, leaving itself nowhere to hide’. 

He sees Frost’s  poetry as ‘an intellectual and emotional provocation to which we are challenged to respond in kind’. The same could be said of Don’s rigorous criticism.  

Not quite sure about his pronunciation of ‘contraries’ though.  Surely to rhyme with ‘Compare-is’? Readers with New England accents are invited to write in……..


Sunday am    It’s nine o’clock in the morning and I’m trying to move at speed to the White Lion to give my own talk on poetry and travel writing, together with Harry Clifton.  Unfortunately the wind is so strong that for every two steps I take, I’m one step back, and there isn’t any music playing. 

‘Fresh fish – anything fresher is still swimming,’ reads the logo on the side of the shack that sells them on the beach.  I can’t quite say the same about myself, but at least I haven’t got a hangover, and Maggie at the Poets House has fed me plenty of black coffee and bacon sandwiches, so the brain has started to kick in.  


Have 250 people gathered to hear us?  Well not quite.  But for early Sunday morning it’s a brave turnout, as Harry says.  We talk about how when travelling some experiences seem to lend themselves either to prose or poetry;  of how Byron was in some ways an early travel writer, appealing to the stay-at-home British public ( who had to stay at home – it was the middle of the Napoleonic Wars) with his tales of Mediterranean pleasures;  of ‘The Odyssey’ as the first travel poem;  of the celebration and exhilaration of travel but also of its own concomitant hangover, jet lag:


Jet Lag Blues

Two o’clock in the morning, punched
inside out,  jet-lagged  from Los Angeles
via London, face pressed against

the pillow with unnatural gravity,
like a safe-breaker listening
for the combination to give,

I feel the ground much closer,
almost moving,
and want to twist the world’s tectonic

spine, the way a chiropractor snaps
a patient’s back, so I no longer lie
divided on my own fault line.


The Aldeburgh Poetry Festival blog is sponsored by Writers’ Centre Norwich,a literature development agency for the East of England running workshops, competitions, events and more.

Aldeburgh Poetry Festival Saturday

November 6th, 2010 No comments

Saturday 23.30   The evening closes in the way all Saturday evenings should close – with a drink and a stand-up comedian, in this case the brilliant Elvis McGonagall, whose tales of love, loss, and David Cameron are just the ticket. The man is a lyrical genius, managing to find not just one but two different rhymes for Oompa-Lumpa.

Outside they are still sending up fireworks for bonfire night.  It’s been a long but satisfying day.

Saturday 18.00    By now I’m beginning to feel a bit like I’m travelling at warp-speed myself, bundling from talk to talk, with some blogging in between (Stardate 2011, Captain’s Diary… A strange poet with staring eyes has parked himself in orbit around me and is refusing to move….)

On to hear Marie Howe talk about one of her teachers and mentors, the late Stanley Kunitz.  It’s a much warranted appreciation as he is less well-known in the UK than some of his American contemporaries such as Bishop,  Lowell and Berryman.  He died in 2006, age 101.  He said of his later poems, “what is left to confront are the deep simplicities,’ and according to Marie he was working towards “an art so transparent you could look through it and see the world.”

She reads The Portrait, an extraordinary poem and very central to his work, which tells of the death by suicide of his father when Kunitz was very young,  and quotes something that he told her when she was his student, that poetry should exploit “the lyric tension of the fact that we are both living and dying at the same time”.

It’s a good reminder of the Aldeburgh support for American poetry over the years, as Neil Ashley of Bloodaxe points out to me when I chat to him after one of the earlier readings.  It was Aldeburgh who hosted Tony Hoagland a few years ago, who’s been emerging as one of the strongest American voices of recent years – certainly a favourite of mine  – and whose most recent work, Unincorporated Persons in the Late Honda Dynasty, Bloodaxe have just published.

This year as well as Marie, Dorianne Laux has come to Aldeburgh from the States and has not only given a much sought-after masterclass on ‘how to write an unforgettable poem’, but has read several of her own which are just that.  ‘Enough Music’, for instance, is a fabulous short poem.

Saturday 17.00  Some speed writing with Michael Laskey and Jeni Smith at the James Cable Room — the format feels a bit like bingo.  Everyone sits expectant at a table, eyes down to pen and paper.  Michael or Jeni reads a poem and sets a five-minute poetic task (like ‘Think of a sport.  Write out its keywords.  Make a poem’).

It’s fun and fast and goes down well with the participants.

Come back an hour or so later for a workshop that Don Paterson gives.  If the earlier class was like playing bingo, Don’s is more like playing Speed Go on the Internet:  extremely fast, extremely furious and demanding mental dexterity.  Don is packing the lecture he usually gives in two hours into a half-hour firework spectacular.

He boldly takes us into what he terms ‘deep trope’, at warp speed.  Some fascinating vistas flash by as we hang onto the spacecraft, metonyms and metaphors pinging off the side like meteorites.  The search is for autopoiesis, a sort of Gaia-style self –renewing poetical equilibrium where content and structure both balance and renew each other.

In Star Trek it would be found on those planets that have to teach Kirk and his men some simpler truths (and don’t you just know that Spock would be the one to have a problem with metaphor).

Don makes some good points about the process of composition being one in which you only find out what you think as you start to write, rather than simply printing a received opinion;  and that a poem has to intrigue enough on the first reading to bring you back for subsequent deeper ones.


Saturday 13.00

Some more fine readings this morning, this time from  Harry Clifton and Imtiaz Dharker.

Harry talks about the way that for his generation Ireland was almost ‘painted too green’ by nationalists, from its letterboxes to its literature,  in the decades after Independence and indeed for most of the 20th century.  He himself has always taken a more internationalist approach, with much time spent abroad in places like Paris or Italy, producing an impressive body of verse.  The Italian stay also gave rise to an excellent travel book, on the Abruzzi  Mountains.  We are giving a joint talk tomorrow morning on the connection between travel writing and poetry, but I’m not just being polite about his writing to ensure a smooth discourse:  the qualities of elegant concision that go into his poetry lend themselves well to travel writing, which can sometimes be prolix.

There is an emotional undercurrent to the following reading by Imtiaz Dharker, who is replacing Selima Hill at short notice after Selima was taken ill.  As the Festival announces,

We are hugely grateful to Imtiaz for stepping in at such short notice, and rather amazed at the extraordinary felicity of it all – given that Imtiaz herself had so sadly to withdraw from last year’s APF due to the untimely death of her husband Simon. We are all thrilled that she will, at last, get to enjoy the Aldeburgh experience.

Imtiaz gives a moving reading of “Honour Killing”, in which she takes off “the black coat of my country”, the veil, and the other garments that constrain the position of women in countries such as Pakistan.  It’s a fitting rebuke to those Western intellectuals who have recently flirted with the idea that somehow the burka and its variants are in any way empowering, and that we just fail to understand it because of cultural difference.  I made a film about the position of women in Afghanistan for Channel 4 a few years ago, so it’s a subject that I appreciate her strong feelings on.

And she makes the second good joke of the day: ‘ now that English is just one more Indian language….’


Saturday 10.30

from the programme:

Jubilee Hall 9.00 – 10.00am  :  DISCUSSION: THE POET’S TOOLKIT .

A meticulous eye for detail with an awareness of the bigger picture. Relevant experience. Excellent communication skills, verbal and written. Capacity to think outside the box. Passion, drive and ambition. Ability and willingness to work long and flexible hours unsupervised. Lars Gustafsson, Marie Howe, Bill Manhire and Don Paterson finesse the person specification.

9.00 in the morning?   what time is that to start a Poetry Festival.  One thing that rarely is part of a poet’s toolkit is the ability to get up early in the morning.  But Lars, Marie Howe, Bill and Don seem fresh as daisies.

Don kicks off by trailing the notion that poetry is a bit like dyslexia, a condition of the mind that favours certain abilities while hampering others: he points out that many of the male poets of his acquaintance can’t drive, swim or ride a bicycle safely, however impressive their scansion.  So “poetry is less of a calling and more like a diagnosis.”  As poets we have less dopamine receptors, so as more information is allowed to reach our cortex, we become over-wired (and, the hope is, inspired).

Bill reflects that poets should be obsessed with words themselves, building up what Maori poet Hone Tuwhare once described to him as a ‘word-store’;  Marie quotes Virginia Woolf’s essay on ‘The Angel In The House’, and suggests that women poets need to lose the notion of themselves as the constant ‘giver’ in a household,  to become instead more feral:  “there are dogs out at the gate — throw them some meat.”  And as Lars astutely notes, ‘it’s all very well to think out of the box, but first you must make your box.’

Best joke of the morning comes from Marie Howe, who quotes what someone said about Rilke as he left a party:  “does he have to be a poet all the time?”


The Aldeburgh Poetry Festival blog is sponsored by Writers’ Centre Norwich,a literature development agency for the East of England running workshops, competitions, events and more.

The Centre also runs the  Escalator Literature Writing Prize. Full details available at:


Aldeburgh Poetry Festival Friday

November 4th, 2010 No comments

Friday late:   It’s an attractive opening bill: the narrative directness of JO Morgan’s story about a wild boy on Skye;   Matthew Caley’s louche rock ‘n’ roll take on Illinois, breast-feeding and Yeats (and claim that Ezra Pound used to lie at languorous angles on chaise longues so that his semen could seep down to his brain and improve his poetry);  and then, to round it off, Don Paterson.

Writing one-line descriptions of poets for a programme is a bit like a wine critic’s job.  Sooner or later you run out of adjectives.  Once we’ve had thoughtful, acute, rigorous, playful, incisive and that old stand-by prize-winning,  you have to start reaching for the unexpected.

Not quite redolent of hay on a mid-summer evening (though I can think of a few poets who would fit that bill) , but something ambitious.

Hats off then for the description of the wonderful Don Paterson who according to the programme shoulders the responsibility to live and write the fully-examined life with wit, courage and exemplary formal skill.  That’s some day-job!

These days, Don hardly needs a strap-line under the billing, such is the impression that recent collections like Rain have made. He even has an ‘official website’.

If this were a rock gig it would be the Proclaimers, followed by the Dandy Warhols, followed by Tom Waits.  Not a bad line up.

Indeed the night showcases all that is best about the Poetry Festival: poets reading well and with engagement to an audience excited to hear them.  The Jubilee Hall as a space always has a sense of occasion.  It’s big enough to make the performers onstage seem both vulnerable and intense; small enough for a sudden and surprising intimacy with them when the poems start.

It’s also a good moment to step back and appreciate what a formidable achievement the Poetry Festival is.  Without now receiving a penny of Suffolk County Council money, it manages to keep an impressive wave of energy beating each year against Aldeburgh’s shingle shore.

But as Naomi Jaffa, the festival director, announces (“I’m going to do something very un-English:  I’m going to talk about money”), with the current cuts on the horizon, it will need all its  many supporters to rally round if it is to keep going.

All three poets read tremendously well.  Don Paterson has learnt his by heart, and his reading brings out both the underlying emotion and rhyme in equal, carefully weighted measure.  While apologising for the fact that he feels so much of his last collection dealt with ‘death and divorce’, he also reflects ruefully on the ageing process:  ‘ one no longer appears in one’s own poems – one’s presence is more of a heraldic affair.’  And he now takes siestas, although as a longterm hispanophile, we would have expected nothing less of him anyway…..

He reads several more recent, unpublished poems, including some from a sonnet sequence that he is beginning (he is at number eight or nine out of a planned 48),  He also reads ‘The Day’,  inspired by the DVD box set of Battlestar Galactica, no less, with a conversation between two aliens who have just got married:  it’s engaging, direct and funny, although the insistent little six-year-old boy inside me taps me on my shoulder at one point and asks, ‘ did that man just say the earth was a star?’


Friday 19.00  John Glenday gives a modest and intriguing Craft Talk, on the art of revising, for which he is well qualified,  running often to 30, 40, 50 drafts of his own poems.  It has taken him 15 years to fine-hone his most recent book, ‘filling the white grave of the page with words’.  Over the years he has come to recognise which early drafts will never respond to treatment, remaining ‘ghost poems’ and those which it is worth pursuing down the corridor.

It’s a fine-honed talk as well, with not a word wasted and some fine aphorisms (some quoted from other poets):  inspiration is an inclination to take notice;  poetry is a river that widens into silence; the poem as a balance between craftsmanship and intuition.

One question though.  Why is it always easier to sound modest if you have a Scottish or Celtic accent?  Something to do with the dying fall at the end of each inflected sentence, of which the great and under-rated Glaswegian comedian Arnold Brown is a master.


Friday 17.00   I enjoy giving a class on the crossover between poetry and travel writing, using Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘Questions Of Travel’ as a central text, from her book of the same name.  Writers in both prose and poetry when they travel can constantly criss-cross the borderline between detachment and engagement, observing the strange phenomena of a new country and taking part in them if they so choose.  It’s a process we all do in our daily lives anyway, but somehow heightened in a foreign country, and fertile territory, with its own tensions and ambivalence:

Should we have stayed at home and thought of here?
Where should we be today?
Is it right to be watching strangers in a play
in this strangest of theatres?

 (Elizabeth Bishop ‘Questions Of Travel’)


Friday 11.30   my own turn to get locked away comes around.  The festival has the use of an old lookout tower on the beach, and poets are encouraged to go up there for some silent meditation or even (and the organisers phrase this delicately) “possible writing”.

Writers can be both fussy and stringent about the conditions for perfect writing – not least because it is the perfect displacement activity for actually doing any.  Finding it hard to face that blank sheet of paper?  It’s all the fault of background noise, or stains on the wallpaper, or those bills elsewhere on the desk that need attending to.  No wonder writers need their sheds.

I’d noticed this just earlier in the morning when I realised that my small back bedroom in the eaves of the Poets House was, while perfectly clean and adequate, impossible to write in — all bed and no table.  In short, the perfect excuse.

But the lookout tower offers no such escape.  There are nine biros beside a block of paper.  The view is magnificent.  The waves break with a soft insistency.  The bleached wood is restrained and tactful.  Even the temperature is ambient.

I’m reminded of the problems I experienced at a Buddhist retreat last winter:


      Bad Pupil 


When I went to the Buddhist Centre retreat I found myself being continually distracted

by the soft, smoky runs of the boiler igniting  its regular puffs of disbelief

and by the distant catcalls of children

playing in the garden, while we sat inside,

in postures of graduated discomfort and in complete silence.


The practice of mindfulness is not one that comes easily to me. 


There is a ticking clock in my head, counting down the days, the hours, the minutes


and never quite reaching the present tense.


But then the Zen Master explains that it is like being at a drinks party

and only talking to the one person, yourself, rather than being distracted

by others.  ‘Make eye contact with yourself,’ he suggests.  Or ‘I contact’,

as I understand him to say in a moment of rare connection

that blows away when someone else speaks.


Friday 08.30    Can’t quite believe I’m blogging before breakfast but clearly a stream of consciousness blog will demand a dedicated approach.  Let alone all that stuff about Trollope knocking off a few thousand words before even having a cup of tea, and then doing a full 9 to 5 as a postie.

Now ensconced in the Poets House on the seafront where poets were gathering last night for a bit of pre-match banter and limbering up (over several bottles of excellent Chilean red) – The first person I see when I walk off the street is  J O Morgan at the kitchen table talking enthusiastically about Ted Hughes.  But then the man’s been locked up in solitary confinement for a week in Thorpeness as part of his winnings for last year’s Aldeburgh First Collection Prize (‘a week of writing space’), which would make anyone want to hold forth a bit.  Wonder what they do to you if you lose?   (Joe is reading this evening with Matthew Caley and Don Paterson.)

Topics on the agenda over dinner are:  whatever happened to (‘For Lizzie and’) Harriet Lowell after all those poems about her;  was Lowell patrician and snobbish about his Irish servants;  what mobile signal works here?  And a brief foray on Iraq, but as everyone was in complete agreement, we moved on……. 


(c) Peter Everard Smith


Thursday 15.00     Just off to the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival  – sadly not in the Oldsmobile on the right, as suggested in the festival e-letter, but a more sedate beemer – so watch this space as the Festival begins on Friday for posts, musings and comments over what promises to be a long and intriguing weekend: as well as giving a talk and class on the  relationship between travel writing and poetry, I’m to be their official blogger….


The Aldeburgh Poetry Festival blog is sponsored by Writers’ Centre Norwich, a literature development agency for the East of England running workshops, competitions, events and more.