Saturday, September 28, 2013

Top Ten Autumn Poems

If the sign of spring is the first cuckoo, for me the sign of autumn is hearing someone - usually someone just stepping outside into a foggy day with golden leaves swirling across the pavement - quote Keats' 'season of mists and mellow fruitfulness'. Like 'now is the winter of our discontent' or 'shall I compare thee to a summer's day', these lines are no so much part of the English language that they survive quite happily without the poem they introduce. Autumn provides a ready-made metaphor for the end of youth, the process of ageing and intimations of wintery death on the horizon. And yet, as in Keats' lines, autumn is also a time of plenty and harvest. So, my selection of favourite autumn poems (in no particular order) may be downbeat, but there is always some comfort to be found.

I'd love to discover some of your favourites - feel free to leave a comment!

File:Hapgood Pond - Flickr - USDAgov.jpg
Image: Wikipedia

Thomas is the 20th century poet of the English countryside, but the landscapes he loved were never only beautiful, shadowed as they were by existential and political concerns (for instance, in 'The Team's Head Brass'). Here, the observer is struck by the beauty around him, but also experiences a melancholy born of his own awareness of his difference from the rest of nature, that difference which is a product of human consciousness. The irony is, of  course, that the beauty of nature could not be experienced without that human point of view.

A wonderfully musical poem which manages to make the mountain of winter (and, metaphorically, death) sound like a relief from the stiffness and decay of the autumnal world. It certainly seems more of a comfort than the narrator's fellow human beings, growing cold as the nature around them.

The cranefly of the summer becomes an ungainly, unlikely creature in Hughes' description, like a species about to be made extinct by an environment which has changed without leaving time for it to adapt. The 'vast empire' of nature is indifferent to her fate.

Elizabeth Jennings says that 'every season is a kind / Of rich nostalgia' - as in most things, she is right.

Skilfully using the sestina form to suggest a moment of stasis, Bishop captures autumn as a time of waiting - the cold felt by the grandmother is an intimation of mortality, while the child waits for the flower bed she has drawn to bloom in an anticipated spring.

Autumn as a desolation that only May can redeem.

Frost beautifully juxtaposes autumn's twin themes of decay and plenty - here the narrator is weary from harvesting so much richness, and that weariness suggests that he may not be able to enjoy the fruits of his labour for too much longer. The pane of ice from the water trough, which he holds up to observe the autumn world, is a lovely metaphor for his melancholy point of view.

A much more vital and life-affirming take on autumn here, as we might well expect from Redgrove, who is never a glum poet - the poetic imagination gives the changing season an energy which charges the whole of the natural world with erotic expectation.

A lovely poem by Shuttle for her late husband, Peter Redgrove. Here autumn is a moment of loss and loneliness. It's remarkable how much Shuttle is able to achieve with such economy - a real contrast to Redgrove's effervescent style.

If there's one thing I personally try to refrain from, it's commenting on or attempting to interpret Stevens' poetry. I just read it. A kind of desolate music in this exquisite poem.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Autumn Dates

After a pleasant summer lull in poetry goings-on, I have a few appearances coming up in September and October.

On Sunday 22 September, I'll be in Bromsgrove for the prize-giving ceremony for the Ralph Ockendon Poetry Prize ( My poem 'Lenin at the Music Hall' is nominated for the prize. The event takes place at 3.00 p.m. at the Artrix Theatre. The prize has been judged by Sean O'Brien.

On 26 September, I'll be in Cirencester with my good friend Jennie Farley, performing our 'Counterpoint' programme at the Brewery Arts Centre, from 7.00 p.m. Further details here. Jennie and I have put together a wide-ranging performance of about 40 minutes, with reflections on love and relationships, taking in myths, cross-dressing and superheroes along the way. There's an open mic sessions before our reading, so the audience can share their poems, too.

On 2 October, I'll be reading my poem 'Leda' at the launch of The Echoing Gallery, an anthology of ekphrastic poems by writers based in Bristol. The reading will feature 22 poets and live music. It starts at 7.30pm at The Orangery, Goldney Hall, Lower Clifton Hill, Clifton, Bristol BS8 1BH. Further details on the anthology can be found here.

On 5 October, I'll be reading my poem 'To the Harvesters of Ambergris', which was commended in this year's Battered Moons poetry competition, judged by Alice Oswald and Cristina Newton. You can read all of the winning and commended poems here. Further details of the event can be found here. The chief attraction of the evening will be to hear Alice Oswald read. I'm very much looking forward to it. Tickets seem to be selling quickly, but can be booked here.

On 13 October, I'll be reading my poem 'Song of His Suterkin Brother' at an event for the poets nominated for this year's Wells Festival of Literature poetry prize. The even begins at 2.30 p.m., but details are not yet on the web. I'll update in due course.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013


As noted below, I haven't been blogging much recently, faced with an increasingly tricky work-life-writing balance. Writers who don't do it for a living often complain that they lack the freedom (i.e. the time) to write, but I wonder if I would get any more written if I had more time to do it. After all, what I have written has happened in amongst everything else that I do. What would really happen if that was taken away?

I've been thinking a lot about constraint recently, having read a new book of two essays on the Oulipo movement: The End of Oulipo by Lauren Elkin and Scott Esposito. It's quite a curious book, polemic at times, and less about the movement and its poetics than about particular individuals, but still worth reading as a reminder of the fascination which this group of writers, founded in Paris is 1960, can still exert. In the English-speaking world, the prose works of Oulipo writers are perhaps better known, including those of Raymond Queneau, Italo Calvino and Georges Perec, but their approach to literature is equally applicable to poetry. The Ouvroir de littérature potentielle or Workshop of Potential Literature (Oulipo for short) proposes an approach to writing which emphasises the imposition of artificial and often complex constraints on the text to be produced. The resulting work represents a possible outcome of the experiment conducted by the author, but only one of the many potential outcomes. And, indeed, the experiment can be repeated again and again within the same text to demonstrate the many possible versions that might be produced. So, for example, Queneau's Exercises in Style retells the same banal anecdote over and over again in a variety of literary styles. A recent practitioner of Oulipian techniques in poetry, although not a member of the group, is Christian Bok, whose collection of prose poems Eunoia contains five sections, each written using only words containing only one of the vowels. (There's an excellent essay on Bok's work here, by the way)
Photo: D. Clarke
While these extreme forms of constraint produce fascinating - and often very witty - results, I wonder to what extent Oulipo, at least in poetry, is in fact at one end of a spectrum along which all poetry operates. Really, there is no such thing as 'free verse' - poems tend to invent their own conventions, and every poet is constrained to some extent, even if only by the practice of line breaks and stanzas which we all recognise as making the text on the page seem like a poem.
When I look around at contemporary poetry, I see a lot of poets setting themselves formal challenges. Michael Symmons Roberts recent Drysalter, for example, consists of 150 15-line poems. As far as I'm aware, there is no special reason for adopting these parameters, but - once accepted - they allow Symmons Roberts to explore a range of formal possibilities within the space of those 15 lines. Only by limiting himself is he able to discover something new. Matthew Caley's Apparently (2010) is a very different collection, but takes as its starting point the premiss that each poem will either begin or end with the word 'apparently'. This gives the whole collection a speculative, playful atmosphere, as if everything were in the subjunctive - which, in poetry at least, I suppose it always is. There's more game-playing of various kinds to be found in Jon Stone's excellent School of Forgery (2012), much of it with distinctly Oulipan tendencies.
But even poetry which does not foreground its formal constraint so openly cannot escape the fact that its artifice is central to its own production. I have often heard the view expressed that poetic form should somehow melt into the background or become natural-seeming. Of course, we have all heard and read bad poetry which is written only to make the rhyme or meet the requirements of the chosen metre, but these poor examples should not distract us from the potential of formal constraint, of whatever kind, to challenge the poet to explore new terrain - form is not just something the poem is poured into, but a factor in its production, opening up new potential for expression.