Category Archives: Poetry

Imagery: Backwards on a Donkey

I have never had writer’s block, but I certainly have a deep fear of editing – which makes writing rather awkward. Ernest Hemingway used to smooth the previous day’s efforts off before moving forward to the new pages. Once you get to the end of something in excess of a hundred thousand words, that approach makes sense. My method is to press on, and then rewrite and edit from the beginning. By the umpteenth time around, I am dizzy.

Chief amongst my editing fears is missing the what I call the backwards on a donkey moment. This is when some word, or phrase, or sentence jars the reader up. Either by a lack of clarity, poor imagery, the wrong idiom, or sheer clumsiness of composition. When writing first drafts the backwards on a donkey moments are inevitable. It is the job of the writer to edit them all out later. I fear I will not. The fear stays my eyes, and my fingers. Nothing gets done.

There it is out.

Now it is out, I must press on.

The backwards on a donkey description for words that don’t work well came to me, when I misheard an Anne Sexton poem, read out late one night on the radio many years ago.  The poem was called Flee on Your Donkey. It’s long, and confessional, as her poetry was. In it, she reflects on being in a mental institution, again.

Sexton was a Pulitzer prize winner.  She committed suicide aged 45. She suffered others; others might say they suffered her, including herself.

We call it life I suppose. Here are the lines – they are the last of the poem. The ‘hotel’ is the hospital. My problem has always been one of imagery – the backwards bit – she is sitting backwards, and the donkey gallops, as they do?  The first time I heard it, I did not hear the word backwards, and could not understand her description at all.  Of course, now, it all makes perfect sense.  I think.  One word, misheard, not said, can make so much difference.

Anne, Anne,
flee on your donkey,
flee this sad hotel,
ride out on some hairy beast,
gallop backward pressing
your buttocks to his withers,
sit to his clumsy gait somehow.
Ride out
any old way you please!
In this place everyone talks to his own mouth.
That’s what it means to be crazy.
Those I loved best died of it—
the fool’s disease.



We were
Beyond words
Water diviners
The Moon

We were
Symbols of
Hope and chance
The counter

We were
To ourselves
To each other

We were
Before all
Of it.
No one
Would ever remember

‘A sorrowful warning’

I submitted some work to a beautiful site called Visual Verse

The brief is ‘One image, one hour, 50-500 words’ There are some wonderful images and thought-provoking words. Mine is here.

Sometimes, I don’t know what I am doing and I have to take a sidelong glance at what comes out. The hour that the brief stipulates gives you freedom to explore the image and get lost in yourself.


Definition of ekphrasis from a literary description of or commentary on a visual work of art

Ekphrasis was on my exceedingly long list of things to do sometime (along with sorting out my bedroom, refilling the trenches in the garden, cleaning the oven…) however a visit to the Royal Academy is unlikely to inspire a fit of wanting to tackle the tasks in the brackets…  Fortunately, a recent trip to the Sensing Spaces: Architecture Reimagined exhibition at the RA did remind me I wanted to try working on a poem to describe an artistic experience. It’s my first attempt at ekphrasis; I make no claims for it, but it was fun to do.

The exhibition runs until the 4th April 2014 and is recommended if you are that neck of the woods (Piccadilly, London, The World…)

Playing with Light

I come to write
With corniced eyes…
My brittle, bad, habit
But the ink stays wet.

Explore these mindspace secrets
Containing voids for our flesh
Spiralling into the firmament
To face down gilded mood angels

Inside, glean the skinned wood groaning
Tread the knotted smooths made of splinters.
I’m a noise hum-thrumming through
In search of softening spaces

Always, never, diverted
To forgotten whorls, loops and arches
Pressed against the lost twins in satin concrete
Both wearing the scold’s bridle

Trapped under hollow sheaves
And mussed-up smartphones
Reclining lovers plait
Hair into straw rainbows

Squeezing between valiant hazelnut switches
Close-by, a disconcerting grumble of beaches
Where the Sentinel reflects, only, One Way!
To the #Zen Garden

Lenticular clouds beam
Making me blink. Or think. Inverted
Clusters bustle under pointing corners
As we abrade our hides

Lurk behind bamboo ogees
Watch the game with cedared curtains,
Plus silhouettes… slow-dawning…
All playing with light.

playing with light

This Winter

Poem by me, illustration by daughter. Some of the formatting has taken on a life of its own. Oh well.

This winter, we wade in paddy fields
With no rice.
I’ve never known the land like it
In my lifetime
Which grows longer, every minute.
Whether I do, or don’t.
It’s the only thing I know how to measure
As, relentless, hungry
We power up our earth’s atmosphere
Shooting carbon atoms into the sky.



Thickly-iced polar vortices spun by
Fatal fingers slam down the east coast

And purple heatwaves head south

Lost in smoke. And above the clouds

Clear air turbulence
Lurks invisible between every isobar
Waiting to send your in-flight meal, flying
And, still, some people wonder,
What any of this has to do with them…
Whilst in England
We wade in paddy fields.


complicated (adj.) 1640s, “tangled,” from past participle adjective from complicate. Figurative meaning “not easy to solve, intricate, confused, difficult to unravel” is from 1650s.

If I were to have a brain scan, I reckon the whole lot would look like a Gordian Knot right about now.

Of course that is of no interest whatsoever to the casual blog reader and I really have scratched my head over what to post today, if at all. The problem is that I am trying to get my head around a few new concepts at the moment and the automatic pilot that can usually ‘run’ things in my absence seems to have stalled. I usually get brain freeze at this time of year, but this is slightly different; it’s more like brain stretch! I wonder where it will take me…

Fingers crossed it’s to somewhere other than a sudden, loud and painful *twang*

Wilfred Owen, 18th March 1893 – 4th November 1918

Today marks the 95th anniversary of the World War I poet, Wilfred Owen’s death. He was killed in France, just a week before the Armistice was signed. According to contemporary reports, his poor mother received the news of his death on Armistice Day, as the local church bells pealed out in celebration of the end of the Great War.

I love the truth of Owen’s poetry, although it is heart-rending. This below, Anthem for Doomed Youth is one that resonates very deeply, and it is the very last line that has sealed the poem in my mind. I see that line very clearly and it whispers in my ear often.

Anthem for Doomed Youth, Wilfred Owen

Today, a historian, Matthew Ward tweeted an image of another poem by Wilfred Owen Dulce et Decorum est. It is a handwritten draft, and like the poem above has annotations from another war poet, Siegfried Sassoon.

There are more changes than are made on Anthem. Dulce et Decorum est is where ‘gargling’ goes through many transitions, until it becomes ‘guttering’ – as the poet searches for just the right word. Choosing the ‘right’ verb to describe the nightmare of the theatre of war… could there be a harder job as a poet?

Terrible, beautiful words that still stand testament to the waste of life in war.

I wrote a poem

And now I can’t remember what it was all about. I cannot remember one line.

I have the title ‘Water’s Edge’ – not terribly inspirational now I come to think of it, although edges and what one might term liminal spaces interest me – but I do not have the foggiest of the poem’s content.

I could just look it up in my files. I could just buy the collection, The Dance is New, that it’s just been published in. I will. I will do both. In fact, I am very intrigued to read all the poems in the collection… but for now, I would just like to sit, and see if my own comes back to me. It hasn’t so far, and it’s been over a week or so now.

There is a sort of purpose to all this. It’s exploring the disconnect between the poem and the poet. I am not saying I am a poet, but I do write poetry, and my relationship to it is different from my relationship with the prose. I don’t recognise my poetry at times. The prose I do, far more often. Some of the poems I write make me feel uncomfortable. And I never, for example, feel that I am ‘murdering my darlings’ when I edit a line of poetry. Prose? All the time.

I cannot draw any conclusions from this. I can only throw around the idea, for now, that the prose comes, overall, from a more conscious part of my mind. The poetry, from somewhere on the edge of the map.

Poetry & Prose Talk & Walk

Poetry & Prose Talk & Walk

‘Nobody’s N-Word’

This was the title of this bold programme, presented by the poet Dean Atta, broadcast yesterday on BBC Radio 4. I caught the second half in the car, between appointments. When I got home last night, I listened to the whole thing. For me, the programme, the subject matter, was a must listen.

As a white person, the N-word is not my word. That is to say, I don’t use it, but I am aware of its violent history. It was thought-provoking, through the prism of Atta’s poem of the same name, to hear Darcus Howe and the comedian Reginald D. Hunter share their thoughts about it’s use and their own relationship with the word. It was clear, after listening to the poem and the personal views shared, that there is no easy answer to the question of the N-word. But why should there be. Language makes us who we are, and who we are is different. And also the same. I prefer to focus on the latter, but I don’t ignore the former. I don’t use the N-word because it is not part of my culture. I don’t think in the N-word. Some people do. Who am I to tell people how to think?

Still, I admire Dean Atta’s poem and it was interesting to hear him reflect on how, since he wrote it and was exposed over and over to the N-word, it sort of lost some of its negative emotional power for him. That put me in mind of another poet, who wrote about washing words – that if you use and re-use them – over and over – they do lose some of their original meaning. This is contrary to Howe’s approach say, where the aim was to reclaim the word, something that Atta thought had failed to materialise, but not because it had not been reclaimed in some quarters, but because he still heard it used with all it’s former venom.

The fact is, we can’t wash words permanently. Meanings can change, but they can’t be erased. Negro became used in the Americas because it was the Spanish/Portugese word for black. Spanish and Portugese imported African slaves. The word carries it’s history on it’s sleeve, however we change it over the years. At the end of the day, categorising someone by skin colour seems reductive, but I understand why it happens. My own children can never be white, but they can always be black. Like Atta said, he may be of Greek Cypriot and Jamaican heritage – but, politically, he is a black man.

So, is it the words themselves that are the problem, or the apparently continued need of people to define similarity and difference in the most blindingly obvious of ways? Reginald D. Hunter said that Atta’s poem was idealistic because he personally, wanted to move beyond a label. Hunter’s point was that we are all labelled, whether we like or not and we don’t actually get to choose the labels. I guess that’s true, but a conversation about whether could ever move beyond that state of affairs is one that I think is worth having.

Jonah on a Bike

angel dogCycling home, shadow
Looms, as road whale swallows me
Up – from behind – whole









This is not a whale, or a cyclist, but current street art in Hackney, E9 (and that child looks ready for plankton).