This project has been part funded by the Dedham Vale AONB and the Suffolk Coast & Heaths AONB Sustainable Development Fund


Standby Poems: Between Walls by William Carlos Williams

Often it takes longer to try and describe a William Carlos Williams' poem them than it does to actually go and read them. I recently had that experience in America with the poet Chris Salerno as we were being driven to the venue for our reading (in a very small car, huddled on the back seat). We were discussing favourite poets, as you do, and came to William Carlos Williams and after going through the classics I again tried to remember ‘The one about the broken glass around the back of the hospital’ and failed and thought, that has to be my next Standby Poem. So I can just reach for it easily next time I struggle to explain it again.

Because there are so many loveable and terrific William Carlos Williams poems and the classics, as discussed with Chris on our way to Georgia Tech – have to be ‘This Is Just To Say’ (the apology about eating the plums in the fridge) or the ‘The Red Wheelbarrow’ (so much depends on it) or the cat one (that I find is simply titled ‘As The Cat’, deliberating where to put its feet as it climbs down - look out for the flowerpot!). Or how about the other plum poem ('To a Poor Old Woman')? About the way she enjoys eating plums from a bag in the street (giving herself to the plums that 'taste good to her'). I need to read that one again now too!

And doesn't William Carlos Williams have the perfect name by the way? It's curious, slightly mad and makes you smile. Just like his poems. He was a doctor and so the story goes, he wrote them on a typewriter between seeing his patients. His short poems certainly have that typewritten punch to them - you can imagine him hammering down each letter of each well-chosen word before Mrs Madison arrives with an ear infection. He pushes the typewriter to one side...

Just by trying to describe my favourite as ‘The one about the broken glass around the back of the hospital’ - I've already used half as many words as WCW uses in the entire poem. ‘Between Walls’ is just 24 words long and they are the exactly right 24 words too. The line endings slow you down and make you savour each word, you have to take your time so you can be careful where you tread around the back of that hospital. It's like you’re following his directions to get to the treasure.

You're not sure what they are at first, those pieces of green. And the poem enacts that discovery. It's a celebration of the unlikely that I love, how our eyes are drawn to what sparkles, the small unexpected joy of finding little tricks of light in the most dingy of places.



Standby Poems: Experiment by Wisława Szymborska

I always connect fantasy novelist Terry Pratchett with the poem ‘Experiment’ by Wisława Szymborska (1923-2012). It's a bit of digression, but I remember him saying in a TV interview that after learning he had a rare form of dementia, the very next morning he took a walk in his garden and it was a gorgeous bright sunny day and there, amongst the trees and flowers, he suddenly found himself whistling. Even on a day when he’d had the darkest news, up popped the human spirit again, unthinking, whistling to itself. And that’s what takes me back to this poem.

If I tried to sum it up, and hope it doesn’t put you off, ‘Experiment’ is about headless dog wagging it’s tail. It’s a poem I’m glad to have read by a poet I was pleased to be introduced to by Christopher Reid, my Jerwood Arvon mentor back in the early years of the century when I was still a ‘young’ poet. I've been hooked by her poems ever since.

For me, ‘Experiment’ is a real Standby Poem, one that I often reach for. I've taken it with me on some of my adventures – to a high school in Swaffham (deepest Norfolk) where there happened to be a young Polish girl in one of the classes who knew the work of Szymborska. She said everyone knew and loved her poems in Poland and, after making her laugh with my pronouncation, she even taught me how to say her name correctly. I also remember the girl read the poem to the class, joyfully, in Polish which was lovely to hear.

It came with me to a writing group in Blundeston Prison – set up by my sister Nicky who worked there in the library – and for each session I’d take a poem for discussion. This one had quite an effect! It really surprised me that the group of inmates were shocked and thought it was sick – what warped mind would write about a headless dog! What’s it got to do with happiness? I tried to explain…

One definition of happiness for me, after reading 'Experiment', will always be a headless dog wagging it’s tail. I swing back and forth as to whether it’s scary, as Szymborska says in the poem, or whether it’s reassuring that if all else fails, even on the darkest days, happiness can be found in a sniff of a bacon sandwich.




During air raids, by torchlight

Working in a residential home this afternoon, the theme childhood and the games we played. Reminded of that now departing generation who were children in the Second World War, who were bombed in their houses, in their rural villages and small towns, some were evacuated, how they endured.

At 14 Cecil drove a tractor
careful not to go near the river

At 8 Les was rollerskating
knees grazed around country lanes

At 6 or 7 Tony had Dinky Toys
digging out garages and roads
in the spare land near the library

When they were old enough
Norman and Pat used to pop next door
to the undertakers to see
the locals in the Chapel of Rest

Rosemary, younger brother in arms,
found an unexploded bomb in his bed
before another landed in the staircase

And remembers playing draughts in the cellar,
during air raids, by torchlight


Standby Poems: Time Enough by Dennis O'Driscoll

I've reached a certain age. When you can say things like, I went to Primary School forty years ago (and in the last century too). The early 1990s are a quarter of a century ago. The current England football team manager is the same age as me. This feeling has been exacerbated by my return to the books I published over twenty years ago, listening to the interviews I did with people born before the First World War, telling me how time flies and how they can't believe they are nearly ninety.

I have searched for this Dennis O'Driscoll's 'Time Enough' on more than one occasion, because it puts the record straight. I first read it in the American Poetry Review, as part of a double-spread of his work and I loved all the poems which would later appear in his 'Dear Life' collection (I emailed Dennis to tell him so and I'm glad that I did). And in this poem I love his calm and bookkeeper-like tone - that quiet voice. And it's given me a small antidote to those anxious thoughts about time flying and that it's all somehow been wasted. Actually, we do have the receipts. It's a poem that beautifully addresses those thoughts and one that I want close at hand, to remind me.



Standby Poems: Dumb Insolence by Adrian Mitchell


Welcome to my Standby Poems selection. I've been meaning to start this for ages - so many times either I wish I had a poem with me or I have to go in search of it (and usually can't find the book, because I've left it out somewhere safe the last time I was looking for that poem). Why not just have them all handily online? So, here they are safely posted on my blog where I hope they might even provide someone else some pleasure (especially if you're coming across the poem for the first time).

Let me start at the beginning... I wasn't very good at school. I don't mean I misbehaved, I mean I just wasn't very motivated. I quite liked English and Games and a bit of history but mostly, it was anything for a quiet life. I can remember particularly liking my English teachers, who were mainly aging hippies from the 1960s, complete with wild knitwear and bushy beards. Bless those men for staving off the boredom - Mr Lawes, Mr Walsh, Mr Radburn, Mr Hackett, all of them who seemed to love shocking us with some poems usually written by Roger McGough, Brian Patten or Adrian Mitchell. Enough so that I always pricked up my ears when those poets were mentioned (I knew their names!) or sat up when poems were read out (and was disappointed when it turned out NOT to be them).

And I particularly remember this Adrian Mitchell poem being read by Mr Radburn at the Sir John Leman High School (when I was 14). By then I realised that most poems that we were being read were DULL but this one got me listening again. I remember being surprised, again, reminded that poems could be about any subject - this time the sullen misbehaviour of a school boy. Not that I was like that but I do remember thinking 'I do know kids like that' and it felt exactly right. Wrapped up in a delicious poem.

It's one of my great pleasures that I got to meet those three poets - McGough, Patten and Mitchell - and interview them as part of my work for the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival and to thank them personally. With Adrian Henri, they really did blaze the trail. And 'Dumb Insolence' still shoots straight from the lip, is written in ordinary everyday English, no fancy stuff, and writes about us, the thoughts in our head and what we do. I can still feel it and it's one of the earliest poems that did that to me. So it has to be my first Standby Poem. Thank you again Adrian - he's a poet of impeccable spirit and still worth reading or going back to.