“It’s not just that Jocelyn was contrary, she loved a fight, and was a good sparring partner. It’s that she seemed to me the opposite of just about anybody else I ever met.” – John Merivale’s Eulogy for Jocelyn, 23 September 2014
I can’t tell you how stunned I was to receive this piece of treasure in the post the other day:
Jocelyn Merivale, as regular readers of this blog may know, was a painter and friend, whose fabulous work inspired some of my poems in Up in the Air.
I got to know Jocelyn through her husband, John, with whom I worked for several years in Wimbledon and Morden. She died in 2014, tragically young, but carried on working right up until the end.
John set about producing a book to collect all of the paintings, sketches, and sculptures produced by his lifelong partner. He worked with Matthew Hollow, an art photographer, Martin Holman, an art historian, and Brother, a brand design agency. It was a true labour of love, much of it carried out during the enforced solitude of the coronavirus lockdown.
And look at the result:
I had been so looking forward to seeing this book. And the icing on the cake was the use of several of my poems, produced after I visited an Open House exhibition of Jocelyn’s work in Merton.
Scroll down to see my poems and the paintings they relate to, as well as the painting Jocelyn did for my wife and me on our wedding day. (Click on the images of the poems to read them more easily).
And here’s the beautiful painting that Jocelyn produced for our wedding:
To buy a copy of the Jocelyn Merivale book (£45 plus P&P) please contact John Merivale: firstname.lastname@example.org
To purchase a copy of my poetry book Up in the Air, click below:
Today I’m announcing a special book sale offer for anyone who wants a paperback copy of one (or more) of my books.
I’ve realised that with the continued impact of Covid-19 on our lives, I’m unlikely to be returning to bookshop signings and other events for a while. This means I have a reasonable stock of paperbacks that I’ve decided to put up for offer.
So here’s the deal… You can order any of my books for the cover price (£6.99 for novels, £5.99 for poetry), with FREE postage and packing in the UK. For the rest of the world, I will deduct the price of the UK postage (about £1.70) and you would need to pay the difference.
On top of that, if you order 3 or more books I’ll also deduct 10% from the total price of the books.
I will also sign copies if you like, and I can do dedications for birthday and other gifts.
To take advantage of the offer, please email your order to email@example.com, with any dedication details etc. You’ll need to pay by a PayPal account – and I’ll need your postal address of course. Here’s a full list of the available books:
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.
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:
I’m hugely grateful to New Zealand book blogger Pauline Reid for this review of my poetry book Up in the Air – my first ever Youtube review!
In it, Pauline talks about the sections in the book and shows her own Instagram photo of the book. She does a lovely reading of my poem ‘A Bird on the Moorland’. She also flags up the local interest for some of her subscribers, as one of the poems features the Albatross Statue in Wellington, her home town.
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.
An Amazon bestselling collection, Up in the Air brings together 50 poems that I’ve written over the last 25 years, some published, others new. If you want to read how I came to write poetry in the first place, there’s a post about it here.
I hope you’ll consider buying and reading it. I would be over the moon if you could also write a short review for Amazon (one line will do!). And remember, nothing makes a better Christmas present than some poetry…
Here’s the link, available all over the world as a paperback and Kindle version thanks to the wonders of Amazon:
A big pastime for old men in Hong Kong is keeping songbirds. There’s a large garden in Kowloon, where many go to feed birds in return for songs. I wrote this poem about that garden when I visited it in 2001.
The poem was first published in Poetry File by the Belmont Arts Centre, for teaching in Secondary Schools in Shropshire. I’m posting it today because it’s National Poetry Day.
Isn’t it great we have a day to celebrate poetry!?
Bird Garden, Hong Kong features in my poetry book, Up in the Air:
This incident with an adventurous (or possibly confused) housemartin took place when I was staying in a cottage on holiday in rural France. It was an intriguing place, in the grounds of a very small chateau, whose elderly owner used to stand every morning at one of her parapets with a huge Great Dane beside her. The first night I was terrified someone was breaking in because the electrics tripped out downstairs, making a huge cracking sound. That cottage felt like a different world, and a different time.
in through the blue window
hunched up around
angelic beating wings
circling the rafters
tensing our naked bodies
as we read
and drink coffee in bed –
we curl our morning papers,
prepare to drive the thing out.
this bird is no amateur,
doesn’t panic in a crisis –
no, this bird
is a reader of houses
and sees this one’s ours
so retreats quickly
leaving us with only
of the beat
of his wings
in our hearts.
This was one of several poems I had published in the Belmont Art Centre’s Poetry File programme for teaching in secondary schools in Shropshire. It features in my poetry book Up in the Air, available here: