This poem from my first book Up in the Air was written a few years ago. I think it’s pertinent to our current coronavirus crisis, where once again we find ourselves reliant on brave and selfless public workers. It’s my first – and only – prose poem and I wrote it after watching a TV programme about the Marriott World Trade Centre hotel, which stood beside the Twin Towers. As you can imagine, the hotel was damaged beyond repair, and there was one guest who spoke in tears and amazement about how a firefighter saved his life. I can’t remember much more than that, but it showed how there’s something more important to us than money and power and status. It’s the ability to feel widely, to be open to everything and have empathy. We’re not talking about being wishy-washy, but about sensing the ‘drunkeness of things being various’, as the Northern Irish poet Louis MacNeice would put it. The world is amazing. What makes us special is the fact that we are able to sense and feel it, in all its fathomless complexity.
I’m posting this poem from The Things We Thought Were Beautiful for World Poetry Day not because it’s a ‘happy’ poem, but because sharing our sadness can also help us to pull through.
Many people think of poetry as a sideline, or even worse, an irrelevance. But for many of us, poems are a source of inspiration and comfort. Losing the possibility to see and hug our close relatives is surely one of the hardest things for us all to deal with at the moment.
This poem, Sorted, heads up the ‘Without Love’ section of The Things We Thought Were Beautiful, and it was written about the frustration and emptiness we often feel when we’re not with a lover. But I think it works just as well in the context of being apart from anyone we love.
I’m currently working on the final draft of my second poetry book, “The Things We Thought Were Beautiful”. Like “Up in the Air”, I’ve divided this one up into sections, the first of which is called “Another World”. The poems in this section focus on the natural world and our desire to see more deeply into it.
One of my favourite poems is Wordsworth’s “Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey”, in which he talks of what the eye and ear ‘half create, and what perceive.’ I’ve always loved that line. It’s as if there really is a transcendent value in nature that we can grasp, or “perceive”.
But when Wordsworth talks about us “creating” it, is that in the sense of making it real – or just us making it up? And how do we know which bits are our own creation, and which bits are real? The true reality behind reality – if there is such a thing – can only ever be understood, or felt, in glimpses. Poetry is one of the best ways of having those glimpses.
To read more about why I love Wordsworth, check out this post.
This is the last of my Five Favourites series, based on the categories of books I’ve published myself. It’s a reflective time of year, so I’m finishing with my five favourite poems.
I think in general your emotional response to a poem is strongly attached to where and when you first read it. But not always. For me, there are some poems that get richer over time, and continue to provide a visceral, often transcendent, feeling. My favourite poems are always changing, but the five below have stayed with me throughout my life.
Louis MacNeice was a Northern Irish poet who wrote some wonderful poems, including Prayer before Birth and The Sunlight on the Garden. My favourite is Snow, a poem that points to the incongruousness and mystery of the world:
The room was suddenly rich and the great bay-window was Spawning snow and pink roses against it Soundlessly collateral and incompatible: World is suddener than we fancy it.
2. The Sun Rising
My pitch-perfect memory for poetry is not good, but there’s a power in the opening lines of this poem that has always stuck with me. I love John Donne, his interplay between sacredness and lust, spirituality and corporality, and the way he finds a way through the opposites to breathless transcendence.
This poem, with its movement from chiding the sun for rousing him from his lover’s bed to the moment when he realises it’s fulfilling its duty by warming them, is the perfect epiphany.
Busy old fool, unruly sun, Why dost thou thus, Through windows, and through curtains call on us? Must to thy motions lovers’ seasons run? Saucy pedantic wretch, go chide Late school boys and sour prentices, Go tell court huntsmen that the king will ride, Call country ants to harvest offices, Love, all alike, no season knows nor clime, Nor hours, days, months, which are the rags of time.
Thy beams, so reverend and strong Why shouldst thou think? I could eclipse and cloud them with a wink, But that I would not lose her sight so long; If her eyes have not blinded thine, Look, and tomorrow late, tell me, Whether both th’ Indias of spice and mine Be where thou leftst them, or lie here with me. Ask for those kings whom thou saw’st yesterday, And thou shalt hear, All here in one bed lay.
She’s all states, and all princes, I, Nothing else is. Princes do but play us; compared to this, All honor’s mimic, all wealth alchemy. Thou, sun, art half as happy as we, In that the world’s contracted thus. Thine age asks ease, and since thy duties be To warm the world, that’s done in warming us. Shine here to us, and thou art everywhere; This bed thy center is, these walls, thy sphere.
Alice Oswald continues and reinvigorates the traditions of William Wordsworth and Ted Hughes. Nature is the main focus of her poetry, suffused with the numinous. In poems like Dunt: A Poem for a Dried-Up River, nature (here, a nymph trying to give birth to the poor stream) seems to represent the arduous challenge of the creative process itself.
I’ve chosen the poem Mountains from her first collection, The Thing in the Gap-Stone Stile. Like all the best poems (writing?) there is a push towards resonance, idealism, the unfathomable; the things which open up the mind and feelings as opposed to shrink and contain them. I like to think there’s an allusion to Plato’s cave at the end, the bigger reality behind daily experience:
…you can feel by instinct in the distance the bigger mountains hidden by the mountains, like intentions among suggestions.
4. Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey
I owe my love, and writing, of poetry to Wordsworth more than any other poet. I have written about why I like him – and especially Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey – so much here. The line about what the eye and ear “half create, and what perceive” is, I think, one of the best ideas ever contained in a poem. We connect deeply with nature, glimpse something bigger than us there; but what that is remains always beyond our reach. Our story is in the yearning.
5. Tales from Ovid
Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath seem to me to be among the last generation of poets to have gained iconic status. It’s hard to choose between them in terms of greatness. In the end I’ve opted for Tales from Ovid by Ted Hughes, as it was the first book-length poem that I devoured with the excitement of a thriller. Hughes’ rendering of these classical Greek stories is a revelation. He brings to life the rawness of the stories (the hunters killed so many animals the ‘slopes were patched red with the butchering places‘) and the warping of souls caused by deep and precarious passions.
Many other poems by Hughes are brilliant, including Birthday Letters (about his time with Plath) and his most famous poem, The Thought-Fox. But Tales from Ovid is the one I push my friends to read.
Finally, a few of those that got away…
So, I’ve mentioned Sylvia Plath. I discovered her poetry one winter in Kenilworth and loved the icy desolation / vivid madness of Tulips, the dark power of Daddy, and the wonder and playfulness of You’re.
Another poet I admire is John Burnside, whose Myth of the Twin (‘bending to a clutch of twigs and straw to breathe a little life into the fire‘) is deep, complex, bleak. It’s out of print unfortunately, but you can still find a second-hand copy.
One of the first poems I had published was in a magazine called Tandem, which placed famous poets alongside new. One edition included a poem by Seamus Heaney, Postcript, which includes the astonishing image of the ‘earthed lightning of a flock of swans’. The poem alludes to the impossibility of holding on to things:
“Useless to think you’ll park and capture it / More thoroughly. You are neither here nor there, / A hurry through which known and strange things pass“
Finally, I have to mention Dylan Thomas’ Do not go gentle into that good night, a poem about how no matter how you live your life you will always feel a lack. And somehow the poem seems to suggest that the lack, or yearning, is somehow in itself what makes life worth living. The failure, the drive to be more, to comprehend. From a young age, I’ve always felt that the most important thing for me is to understand what being alive means. This poem captures the keeness – and frustration – of that desire to know.
These are a few of the poems that have inspired me down the years. There are many, many more. If you’d like to see what they’ve led me to write, check out my own poetry:
My Five Favourite series is focused around the three categories in which I now have books published. The last post was my Five Favourite Creepy Stories, and the next and final one will be Poems. That means this time it’s my Five Favorite books aimed at the audience of my own series, The Secret of the Tirthas. These are mainly pre- and early teens, but with crossover appeal to older readers. They’re books that I think can be enjoyed by the whole family – or at least all of them over nine-years-old!
1. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
OK, so there’s no surprises with the start. Harry Potter is hardwired into our lives now for a very good reason – it’s brilliant. I’ve chosen Goblet of Fire as my favourite although it’s marginal over the first and all the later ones.
Why do I like this one in particular? I like the fact it’s where it starts to get properly dark, with the fate of Cedric and the proper return of Voldemort. I like the first battle between Harry and Voldemort. (I also like the fact the Quidditch World Cup in the film is set on the Sussex Downs, near where I was born.)
Whilst including Harry Potter is a no-brainer, I will admit something here. When I first tried to read the Philosopher’s Stone I was turned off by one phrase on the first page and put it down… for years. It was only thanks to my wife, a big fan, that I picked it up again, pushed past that section – and then devoured the whole lot in a few weeks one summer.
2. Northern Lights
So I’m getting the obvious out of the way first. Philip Pullman has been a major inspiration in my writing. I like Northern Lights best out of all the books in His Dark Materials and The Book of Dust. I love the settings, the cold north and Oxford spires, the armoured bears, the nuanced appearance of Mrs Coulter – and of course the sharp mind and character of Lyra.
3. Chicken Dance
Now for something completely different. I read this book on my own years ago, and then read it again recently to my two boys. They loved it too.
Chicken Dance is the story of a boy who lives on a chicken farm and gains fame in his hometown by entering them into competitions. Don Schmidt has his own special take on the world, quirky, cautious and observant. Despite poor treatment by his family, he remains the true grown-up – even when events take a strange turn, and he begins to investigate the mystery of his sister who supposedly died when he was born…
I remember my excitement at seeing a Tintin book, King Ottakar’s Sceptre, in a shop in Eastbourne when I was nine. I was staying on a long summer holiday with my grandma. I asked her if I could buy it with my book token but she was hesitant as it was a comic (or graphic novel, as we’d say now…) She eventually agreed and so began my passion for Tintin.
It was hard to select my favourite. It came down to a fight between this one, Cigars of the Pharaoh, and the superb Tintin in Tibet. I chose Cigars of the Pharoah because it was a breakneck adventure and it made me laugh – a lot, especially the eccentric archaeologist, Dr Sophocles Sarcophogus. You can read about how Tintin inspired The Secret of the Tirthashere.
5. The Girl Savage
I love Katherine Rundell and find it hard to select my favourite from excellent books such as Rooftoppers, The Explorer and The Wolf Wilder. But ultimately I think The Girl Savage pips it, particularly for the sheer exuberance of the opening section where tomboy Will runs through the South African countryside, living a wild and free existence. She is loved by her father, and adores every bit of her life. But it’s all about to be shattered by the arrival of a terrible stepmother. Like all of Rundell’s books, The Girl Savage drips with poetry whilst retaining a strong sense of plot and direction.
And now for the ones that got away…
Moominvalley in November. Not really young adult, but I didn’t feel I could leave the Moomins out. I read them when I was eight, but think they appeal up to ages twelve or older. They have a beautiful combination of friendship, strangeness and adventure – surrounded by a wondrous delight in northern landscape and nature.
The Three Investigators – The Mystery of the Screaming Clock. I loved loved loved this series as a kid. They’re now out of print but you can still get them second-hand online – and I keep finding them rummaging around in old book stores. Good news, as my boys love them too!
Skellig – David Almond has a masterful touch for fantasy that subtly encroaches the edges of reality – and of the ability of kids to accept and engage with it. This story of a boy finding a damaged angel in his garage is truly magical.
Earthsea – a wonderful fantasy series from the late Ursula le Guin. The moment in the first book when the young mage Ged accidentally summons a shadow creature is every bit as dramatic as the ‘You shall not pass’ Gandalf-on-the-bridge moment in The Lord of the Rings.
A Library of Lemons – a fantastic book about the relationship between a boy and his father, struggling to cope with the loss of their mother / wife.
And finally, I couldn’t finish without superlative praise for The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. I read them all in my early teens but think of them as adult fantasy, which is the only reason they’re not in this top five.
If you’re inspired to read more young adult novels, why not check out my own adventure mystery series, beginning with The City of Light. What would you do if you inherited a garden with a portal to India – and found a killer was using it?
It’s getting to the time when I normally post about my favourite books of the year. But this year, given that I’ve now got books out in three different categories – young adult, horror and poetry – I thought I would post about my five favourite of each… ever! My most recent book is The Boy in the Burgundy Hood, a ghost story, so I’m going to start with my five favourite creepy stories.
First off, Frankenstein. One of my favourite books of all time, regardless of genre. Frankenstein is brilliant and can be read on many different levels. It can be seen as a political allegory for the French Revolution or the abolition of slavery; a lament for Shelley’s own lost child; a cautionary tale on bad parenting; or a warning on the dangers of overreaching yourself with technology. Read this excellent article to see how.
I knew the book as a favourite of my grandma’s, but only read it when I was doing an English degree at university. We studied Frankenstein not in Literature but in our English Language module, because the newly-created ‘monster’ gives a Saussurian view of the world without language to break it down and ‘contain’ it. There’s a brilliant description of the monster staggering through the woods bewildered, his senses overcome by the sounds and sensations all around him. Eventually he sits down and manages to focus on just one thing – a slice of moon in the nighttime sky.
Whilst it’s true the novel works on many levels, it’s also worth stating that the one it works best on is as a gripping horror story. The horror comes from Dr Frankenstein’s neglect as well as from the monster’s crimes. This is a brilliant, claustrophobic suspense story, ranging from the civilised refinement of Geneva to the bleak icy wilds of Antarctica.
Mary Shelley is my standout novelist. Just remember, she wrote this, one of the greatest works of English literature, when she was eighteen years old. And she had to publish it anonymously, for fear of how it would be received were it known the author was a woman.
2. Salem’s Lot
Where to start with Stephen King? Whilst I don’t list myself among the true hardcore of fans who have read all of his novels, each time I do read one I marvel again at his skill and invention. Whilst he’s a horror writer, I think of him alongside another great modern US writer from the North-Eastern states, John Irving. Like Irving, he takes time to lay out the table, recording his characters and (mostly) small town settings in detail that’s loving but never laboured. Then, again like Irving, he strikes us with seismic, often catastrophic events that, due to the groundwork, you will have known are coming – although you will not have known how, when and where from.
I could choose many of King’s novels – The Stand, Bag of Bones, The Girl who loved Tom Gordon, Green Mile – but I’ve decided to go with Salem’s Lot, which truly scared the heebie-jeebies out of me as a teenager. That floating vampire kid scratching at the window? Give me a break. Or the iconic moment when the priest’s faith fails him and the crucifix loses its power to keep the vampire at bay? I’d seen a hundred horror films but that never happened. I was totally blown away, my world view changed in one fell swoop. Awesome.
3. The Wine-Dark Sea
Want to be properly disturbed by your horror? Read Robert Aickman. I only came across him a few years ago when I saw this collection in a bookshop in Covent Garden. I wrote a short review of it here. Aickman is unlike any other horror writer I know. This quote sums up his approach:
“Nothing is more lethal to the effect that a ghost story should make than for the author to provide an alternative materialist solution. This reduces a poem to a puzzle and confines the reader’s spirit instead of enlarging it.”
His dark tales work like sinister magic, probing away at the depths of your subconscious. I’ve never had such strange dreams as those whilst reading this book (appropriately one of the scariest tales, Into the Wood, is all about insomnia). In most the stories the creep is left open-ended, in a deliberate attempt to stretch your mind, to keep you away from certainties, to open your eyes to the weirdness and mystery at the heart of living. Suggestive, dark, brilliant – but not for everyone…
4. The Cormorant
A couple relocate from the city to an isolated seaside cottage in Wales, an inheritance from an eccentric uncle. But there’s one catch – they must look after his ‘pet’ cormorant. It seems a simple enough ask – but soon things start to go horribly wrong.
I read Stephen Gregory’s story a long time ago when I was working in the Welsh valleys. I’ve always loved the strange, ominous atmosphere it creates and I’m planning to read it again soon.
5. The Little Stranger
A classic ghost story, with a twist (sound familiar?). Without wanting to give anything away, I’m not quite sure whether this counts as a ghost story – although it certainly has a very real supernatural element.
It starts off more like a piece of unsettling period literature – but then, with an incident of a dog and a little girl at a party, transforms into something altogether more visceral and terrifying. The novel deals skillfully with the feelings of injustice that class division arouse – coupled with the burning frustrations of love. I think the ending is one of the most satisfying I’ve read.
And finally… the ones that got away.
It was hard to make this list, and I was often left wondering why on earth I’d just settled on five. Was it purely because ‘Five Favourites’ sounded good? Probably. But I also wanted to give a bit more time to each book than I normally do.
So here’s a few more I’d have liked to include, because I love them too:
The Terror, by Dan Simmons. Recently made into a superlative TV series, there’s a supernatural beast in this but the real horror comes from two Victorian ships trapped in the Arctic ice without sunlight for six months of the year. For three years. Yes, three years.
Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem, by Peter Ackroyd. One of my favourite authors, Peter Ackroyd brings the saturated history of London to life like no other. This is my favourite book of his, a horror mystery that has a mythical monster slashing Victorian Londoners to pieces (Pisaca, anyone?). Who is the dreaded Limehouse Golem?
The Accursed, by Joyce Carol Oates. A sprawling, multi-perspective vampire novel set in Princeton university in the early twentieth century. Real life characters including Woodrow Wilson and Jack London add to the zest.
Jaws, by Peter Benchley. The monster of the deep did more to damage the reputation of sharks than a thousand fishermen, but this novel is nevertheless superb. I burned through it when I was eleven, in probably the same amount of hours.
The Magician, by W Somerset Maugham. Whether there are any real supernatural elements is left up to the reader to decide, but this tale of an overbearing, repulsive occultist who steals a beautiful woman from her fiancee is as gripping as any poison love story. The character of John Thrush in The Lady in the Moon Moth Mask was partly inspired by this story.
If my five favourite creepy stories have whetted your appetite for the macabre, why not check out my own ghost story, The Boy in the Burgundy Hood – out now on Amazon: