OK, so technically National Poetry Day was yesterday and I missed doing this Poetry Playlist post due to juggling 101 other things!
Whilst I love reading poetry on the page, it’s important to recognise that it developed from oral traditions, a means of passing down the values, wisdom and playfulness of humanity from one generation to the next before writing became common.
So for me poetry exists in two very distinct states. The poem on the page, which emanates its power in a wonderful, still silence (if it’s good!) And then there’s the poem as read by the poet or avid reader, which can take on a wholly different feel. The pacing and the length of the end-of-line pause, the emphasis of certain words, the catching of the poem’s rhythm. All are shaped by the personal interpretation of the out-loud reader.
I’ve done quite a few poetry readings in the past – at festivals, schools, pubs and in such illustrious venues as the basement of the Troubador Cafe in Old Brompton Road, where Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones played (and Ed Sheeran and Laura Marling for you young folk!). But with Covid there’s much fewer chances of doing live readings, so why not take a look at this Poetry Playlist I’ve put together? In it, you’ll find me reading six of my favourite poems from my two collections, Up in the Air and The Things We Thought Were Beautiful.
And if they inspire you to read more, the books are available here:
I was amazed when I heard ‘Negative Capability’ used in a meeting the other day. People were looking at the ways in which society works, and using the term to highlight the skills needed to navigate increasingly complex systems. It’s pretty impressive, considering Negative Capability was a concept invented by the Romantic poet, John Keats, to describe the poet’s seeking after Beauty without becoming bogged down in reasoning.
I’ve always liked this concept. We can easily get distracted from creativity and even living life itself if we try and keep on top of everything. Negative Capability is not really negative at all, it’s about letting go, about wading right into the mystery and seeking out the things most beautiful and important to you. Hold faith with those things you cherish, even in the midst of doubt and uncertainty.
Many people are not happy with uncertainty. They prefer to make concrete decisions about the way the world is and isn’t. I think I’m the opposite. As part of the universe, I feel fundamentally ill-equipped to make final pronouncements on it. I just don’t know. Why are we here? Is there an ultimate purpose to life? I tend to think not, but given the inconceivable improbability of our own existence, who knows? There are always gaps, always possibilities.
I think in our modern context, Negative Capability really comes into its own. Society is becoming more complex, mainstream views are being overturned, strong-man populists reign, a pandemic rages, and the climate is on the brink of catastrophic change. In a decade or two’s time, most jobs will require digital literacy, or be taken over by robots. The times, in short, are changing. Sometimes it feels like the only way to survive is to ignore the the big picture and double down on what matters most to us. Whatever that may be. Art, Environment, Politics. We need to function, and thrive, in the midst of all this complexity.
So, hats off to Keats. What an amazing poet, creating words and concepts that are just as significant now as when he invented them.
How’s your tolerance for mystery? Are you happy not knowing things or do you like to find rational explanations for everything?
I’m excited to announce that The Things We Thought Were Beautiful is out now on Amazon!
The Things We Thought Were Beautiful is my second book of poetry. It includes poems on our changing feelings and connection to nature and the world around us, the beauty and strangeness of travel, and the places we look for meaning. Poems explore the challenges of living without love, as well as the redemption of home and family.
Here’s a taster:
These are some of the things readers said about Up in the Air, my first collection:
“Beautiful and thought-provoking collection of poems that speak of life, death, love and nature…” Amazon UK
“I love this book. I keep it at my bedside to read a passage or two before getting up to start my day or at night before the lights go out.” Amazon.com
Order your copy now:
Note – this link is to the paperback – you need to search in the Kindle store for the ebook as it takes a few days for the formats to link.
My new poetry book, Up in the Air, is divided into five sections – Air, Love, Water, Air (again) and Image.
The Image section consists of eight poems inspired by paintings, photographs, a display, a poster and a line drawing. In this post I’ll identify some of these pictures and talk about how they inspired my poems.
First off, the paintings.
The section begins with On Justice, inspired by the painting of Margareta van Eyck by her husband Jan van Eyck. The painting hangs in the Groeninge Museum in Bruges. When I saw it, I was mesmerised by the character in the woman’s face. I could see her intelligence and what I thought was a hint of sharpness, possibly even bitterness. My poem (check it out here if you don’t have the book) wanted to capture that, as well as meditate on the failure of even the greatest art to transcend mortality.
The next poem, Self-Portrait, is based on one of Van Gogh’s paintings. There’s a lot going on here, as you can see, plenty of light, colour, chaos and energy. This painting is a gift to anyone’s imagination, so I just let mine run riot.
Exhibition, Merton is a long poem based on the paintings of the artist Jocelyn Merivale. I used to work with her husband, John, and so had the pleasure of studying her paintings in their home. Jocelyn’s main theme was water and especially the sea – but she also painted birds and portraits. Jocelyn died a few years ago and her website is currently down whilst her paintings are being professionally photographed, but below is a close up of Field of Birds. You can see more of her paintings here.
The other poem based on a painting is Looking at it Now. Paolo Uccello’s Saint George and the Dragon in the National Gallery is a masterpiece. But, as with the poem that follows it, Beast (based on a gallery drawing), I wanted to re-imagine the relationship between man, woman, and ‘monster’, to reflect more modern sensibilities.
The Ogrw-Garw Display was an exhibition about one of the valleys in South Wales, created by a friend. The exhibition comprised beautiful photographs of the ancient oak woodland scattered across the mine-scarred landscape. But in the middle of the display was a single black-and-white photo of… a group of school children.
I wrote Ugandan Bestiary after a safari holiday with my wife in 2007. Back home, I studied the photos of the trip, mulling over the animals we’d had the good fortune to see. In doing so, I came up with this series of short, vignette-style poems.
Finally, Christ in the Crowd was randomly inspired by this poster for Jesus Christ Superstar. As they say, inspiration comes from anywhere and everywhere.
I’ve been really pleased by the reception of my first poetry book, Up in the Air, which reached the top ten in Amazon’s ‘Inspirational Poetry’ bestsellers category.
I wrote a post about how I started writing poems here. I mentioned it was climbing Scottish mountains and reading William Wordsworth that kickstarted my love for poetry. But citing Wordsworth as an inspiration is hardly hip these days. So I thought I’d tell you why I like him. Then, hopefully, you will too.
There are three reasons I love Wordsworth:
#1 His Idealism
As a young man in the 1790s, Wordsworth travelled on the continent and was excited by the fresh ideals of the politics he discovered. He believed passionately in the French Revolution, that there would be a new dawn of equality and liberty for all humankind. Unfortunately it was followed by the Reign of Terror and Wordsworth ultimately retreated, disillusioned, to his private sanctuary in the Lake District. I’ve got a feeling quite a few of us would like to do that these days.
#2 His Poetry
Obviously. Wordsworth created some of the most inspired and memorable lines in the English language. Look at these for instance:
Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,
But to be young was very heaven!
That best portion of a good man’s life,
His little, nameless, unremembered acts of kindness and of love.
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers.
Come forth into the light of things, Let nature be your teacher.
With an eye made quiet by the power
Of harmony, and the deep power of joy,
We see into the life of things.
#3 Above all, his love of, respect for, and insight into Nature
As one of the greatest Romantic poets, Wordsworth described the inner life and value of Nature like no other:
And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man:
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things.
Therefore am I still
A lover of the meadows and the woods,
And mountains; and of all that we behold
From this green earth; of all the mighty world
Of eye, and ear, – both what they half create,
And what perceive; well pleased to recognise
In nature and the language of the sense
The anchor of my purest thoughts, the nurse,
The guide, the guardian of my heart, and soul
Of all my moral being.
He understood the mysterious interplay that our thoughts, our minds, have with Nature. Lines composed a few miles above Tintern Abbey is my favourite poem, and I think the lines about what the eye and ear ‘half create, and what percieve’ is a revelation.
I often re-read Wordsworth’s poems, when I arrive in the mountains, or see a new, inspiring landscape. We can never be sure about the inner life of Nature, the force that through the green fuse drives the flower as Dylan Thomas called it, and what our part in it is. But many of us believe that there is something really there beyond dim, blind, mechanics. And we see that, in a semi-objective, semi-imaginative way, we are not only created by it, but have a mysterious role in creating the world ourselves.
Interested in finding out about my poetry? Go here.
My new poetry book, Up in the Air, will be out later this month. I am sooo excited!
This book brings together 50 poems I’ve written over the past 25 years. I got into poetry properly in my twenties when studying an MSc in Environmental Management at Stirling University in Scotland.
I love the big outdoors, and it wasn’t long before I began climbing some of the legendary Scottish mountains. Ben Lomond was the first, done in thick snow and cloud after a late night out on the tiles. It was a struggle, but I remember an amazing moment near the summit when the fog lifted and there was half of Loch Lomond on dazzling display. I’d studied Wordsworth before – but it was in the Highlands that I really became inspired by his poetry:
‘Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive But to be young was very heaven!‘
From there, it was a short step to writing my own poems. My first publication was in a regional anthology. It was really a clever piece of vanity publishing – everyone’s family and friends bought copies – but it boosted my confidence as a writer. Next, I had two poems accepted by a much more high profile magazine, Orbis International. One (Old Man) was inspired by a walk on the Old Man of Coniston, a mountain in the English Lake District.
After that, I began to write poems on nature, love, and all the other things that inspired me. Many got accepted in literary magazines, such as Poetry Ireland, The Rialto and The New Welsh Review. I did readings in places such as The Troubadour in Old Compton Street, London (in the cellar where Bob Dylan once performed!)
I always thought one day I would get them published – but along came work and other things. I stopped writing for a while, and when I came back to it I was bursting with ideas for my adventure series, The Secret of the Tirthas. Whilst I continued to write the odd poem, I focused on that for the next decade.
When I finished The Secret of the Tirthas this summer, I realised it was the ideal moment to get the poetry into shape for a collection. So now, after many hours of work, sifting through dozens of poems, whittling down the best, sorting everything into themes, designing a cover (always there in my mind’s eye, with the title decided upon years ago), I am finally there.
It was a revelation choosing the themes, as it showed me how almost unconsciously I kept returning to certain subjects. Birds and flight are a major inspiration, as are paintings, love, and water (particularly ice).
I hope you will consider buying and reading my first poetry collection. And remember, a poetry book makes a fantastic Christmas present for family and friends!
People have been asking what I’m up to now that I’ve finished writing The Secret of the Tirthas. So here’s my Autumn Update….
I’ve taken the summer off from writing! After spending the last 4 summers writing and publishing novels (albeit with short hols thrown in), this year I decided to have a break. What did I do? I went here with my family:
That’s Niagara Falls by the way, for those who don’t recognise it. Wow. I mean, wow…
Now I’m back, I’m compiling a book of poetry that I’ve written over the last [mumble…mumble] years. This includes collecting some of the poems that I’ve had published in magazines such as Poetry Ireland, The New Welsh Review, and Poetry Scotland.
It’s fun getting all this together – but it’s not doing much flexing of my imagination muscles. So I’m also thinking about my next book. I’ve got a few ideas swirling around – speculative fiction for young adults and / or grown-ups; another fantasy series for middle grade / teens; something more ‘literary’. Some of these ideas have been around for years, some are entirely new. But what I’m waiting for (or maybe working my subconscious on) is the writer’s eureka moment. That moment every author knows, when they feel that pure excitement and know this is the story they are going to tell because… well, because they have to tell it. It’s too exciting to let it go.
So, besides lots of family time, that’s what I’m up to now. Plus I’ll be doing to a few promotional activities in the real and social media worlds – including a book signing session at Barton’s bookshop in Leatherhead for Christmas on 1st December.
Let me know what you’re up to in the comments section, or send me an email at email@example.com!