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Monday, 22 January 2018 at 20:29


I've not got round to adding to the blog for sometime. Here's a piece I wrote several years ago, for Abegail Morley's Verse Palace. When that website became defunct, I posted it here as my first blog entry. It then fell off the end when I updated this website two or three years ago. It's dark winter outside, and this seems a good way to get back intoposting entries for the blog. I'll be putting up some poems and new images over the next week or so.


Mid-winter and midday feels like dusk. Cold and wet outside; inside it’s dark, cavelike. Light seeps in around the windows, but not enough to blunt the glow from laptop, lamp, the radio’s digital display. It seems a good time to make soups, stews: have things simmering on the stove, hoping some sympathetic magic will help word-broths thicken through the dark afternoons. The days are not so much short as weak: half-hearted respites while the night gathers strength. A sudden snowfall overnight and the contrast is turned up loud. Night seems pushed back, the sun, as John Updike has it, “a spark / Hung thin between / the dark and dark.”1 It seems a good time to think about darkness.

In the city I miss star-thick winter nights. Something evocative remains in the first smoky weeks of the autumn: the bright-dark dusk as you notice the brake-lights stabbing on, the slow sulphurous warming up of streetlights. But soon it is all top-lit amber-grey which flattens the street and lids the sky.

The bright-dark encourages dreaming. The word “focus” is cognate with “fire”, the hearth which the family gathered round and stared into. Behind them, the flickering flames shifted the room’s perspectives. A little away from the family, a candle cast a cold halo over book or writing table. Imagine how that would seep into your writing. Now shadows are banished from corners. Central heating and screens in every room have left the grate unfocused. The gas fire may have retained some vestigial warmth, but, as Tony Harrison noted, sitting with his father, it’s “Not as good for staring in, blue gas, / too regular each bud, each yellow spike.”2 The coal-fire simulacra cowling some gas fires settle for a bed of lumpy warmth rather than spooky rainbow-plumed updrafts and shape-shifts, though even that effect is defeated by electric light.

Darkness and light. Liminal / luminal. You need darkness to see certain lights: stars, sparks, glow. Heaney tells us that all he knows is a “door into the dark”. Inside “The Forge” is an “altar” where, in an “unpredictable fantail of sparks”, the blacksmith “expends himself in shape and music”, beating “real iron out”. The dark is sacred, mythic, magical, but also somehow more authentic than the contemporary world of traffic “flashing in rows”. In the dark we see a vanished world, like the one in which the Bard Schools nightly set apprentices themes to work on “the whole next day in the Dark, till a certain Hour of the Night, Lights being brought in, they committed it to writing”. 3 The dark allows imagination to roam, feed on memory, conjure visions. Seeds grow in the dark earth, but they grow towards, and flower in, the light.

The archetypal poet Orpheus bears a name which is probably connected with “darkness” (Orphna). The Underworld is peopled with shades: these dead give wisdom which we can retrieve into the light. Following Orpheus, the Orphic Mysteries proclaimed a cycle of death and rebirth, darkness and light. The Orphics revered Phanes, the god of light, but also Persephone, seasonal goddess who wintered underground in Hades to be reborn each spring. In Hades, the dead may choose to drink from Lethe, forgetfulness, or Mnemosyne, memory: the latter guarantees rebirth with the knowledge of past lives. Mnemosyne is also the Mother of the Muses. The descent is only part of it; we must learn from the shades then reascend into light; to wallow in darkness is eternal death. Dante is guided through Hell by Virgil who had his hero Aeneas also descend. “Facilis descensus Averno”: it’s easy to slip into Hell, Virgil tells us: climbing out is what’s difficult. The inchoate and dreamlike beckons, but the gradus ad parnassum, the slow ascent to craft, requires perseverance and guidance from the shades.

Darkness is, of course, also a metaphor for depression or mental torment, the time of ashes. Roethke writes: “In a dark time, the eye begins to see, / I meet my shadow in the deepening shade”.4 This “darkness” is beyond seasons. Tennyson’s “dark and true and tender is the North” contrasts with the “bright and fierce and fickle” south.5 But fierce bright Spain gives us Lorca’s death-haunted duende: “all that has dark sounds has duende” – and St John of the Cross’s dark night of the soul.6 For Scott Fitzgerald “in the real dark night of the soul it is always three o’ clock in the morning”,7 while for Nathaniel Tarn the terrible thing about la noche oscura is that it comes about in broad daylight.8 A gloomy January afternoon, however, can make even “the long dark tea-time of the soul” seem more like Eliot than Douglas Adams.

Google “poetry and darkness” and you discover the vast goth subculture in which psychic darkness complements the subfusc dress-code. “Emo” poems peep out from behind stage-scenery that was already looking rackety by the time of Baudelaire and the druggier decadents. Some sites give tips on writing “dark poetry”: “think of dark things… death, blood, negative thoughts, depression, anger, hate, fear and the supernatural are good things to start off with. Add in anything else not listed here”; “If you cannot think of anything else, write about death.”9 Black has always been the new black, since melancholy or “black bile” was the admired mode on Elizabethan page and stage. Though Robert Burton claimed to write his compendious The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621) in order to avoid the condition, later writers seem in love with it. “O melancholy Brothers, dark, dark, dark!” writes James Thompson in The City of Dreadful Night (1874), anticipating the ironically gregarious nature of the black-clad virtual brotherhood now baring their dark souls on the web. Dark fashion outlasts seasons by ignoring them.

Most of us spend our season in Hell and move on. “Darkness” is seasonal, or was. Traditionally haiku contained a season-word and were often grouped according to the four seasons. This system was robust enough to accommodate the bombing of Hiroshima [6 August] and Nagasaki [9 August], though the ancient lunar-based calendar meant that the first fell in summer and the second in the autumn. Since the adoption of the Gregorian calendar by Japan in 1872, there have been problems reconciling lunar festivals with the solar calendar. This, and the diminishing influence of the seasons on modern urban life, have led to the growth of new categories: tsûki [“spreading through seasons”] and muki [“no season”]. Though western poetry traditionally mirrored the seasons and the ecclesiastical calendar, meaning has now effectively been banished from both. We have Kenyan green beans, Spanish strawberries, all seasons and none. Seasonal Affectless Disorder: our season-words become as incomprehensible as Shakespeare’s old measurements of rods, chains, furlongs, perches.

Darkness may signal the end of seasonality itself. From Biblical punishment to Milton’s “darkness visible” it has been also been retributive. In Byron’s “Darkness” “The bright sun was extinguished” and the world doomed to be “Seasonless, herbless, treeless, manless, lifeless – / A lump of death – a chaos of hard clay.” Not so long ago, the Cold War threatened us with a Nuclear Winter; today global warming seems more likely to banish seasons or twist them out of kilter.

In a way I’ve returned to where I began: dark skies. A bare-light bulb you can’t turn off is torture and now the American Medical Association warns of “light trespass”: “Many species, including humans need darkness to survive and thrive. Light trespass has been implicated in disruption of the human and animal circadian rhythms, and strongly suspected [of causing] depressed immune systems and increase in cancer rates…”10 Poetry adapts. Nick Laird, for example, has a poem called “Light Pollution”, but it’s difficult to imagine a genre growing out of the night-time glare and the buckled seasonal wheel bewildering man and beast. Slowly we recognise that “Darkness is as essential to our biological welfare, to our internal clockwork, as light itself.” It may also be essential to our poetry.

[1] John Updike, “January”, A Child’s Calendar.

[2] “Book Ends”.

[3] 1772 source quoted by Daniel Corkery in Hidden Ireland; also in Michael Parker, Seamus Heaney: the Making of a Poet, p.79.

[4] Theodore Roethke, “In a Dark Time.”

[5] “O swallow, Swallow”

[6] In Lorca’s lecture “The Theory and Play of the Duende.”

[7] F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Crack-Up.

[8] In, I think, the collection A Nowhere for Vallejo.


[10] Verlyn Klinkenborg, "Our Vanishing Night," National Geographic magazine, November 2008, also at

One For The Road

Saturday, 9 December 2017 at 18:58

No Text

Smith/Doorstop brought out an anthology of poems about pubs a month or two back One for the Road, edited by Helen Mort and Stuart Maconie. The shortest poem in it, a haiku about a Hull pub, was mine. Here it is, below. I did a little reading for the launch at the Bridlington Literature Festival. Reading a haiku, even with a title of almost as many syllables, doesn't take very long, so I filled out my reading with a little section from Satyr (Shoestring 2017)  ,"Drilling the Zinc". Here, also is another take on Hull pubs, with Philip Larkin sitting in.



Ex-Trawlerman’s Beermat Haiku at The Whalebone, Hull

Wine-dark sea? Think beer:
let fish-finings load your pint
with light. Is that clear?

Drilling the Zinc

Ingerland: foreskin of a Friday night.
DJ, eyes worn by distance, smoke,
eavesdrops the future down the bone,
thumbs the next track into the stripper’s zip,
wastes imported vinyl on the drongos of this Dead Zone.

Thud and blunder from the back-room.
Click of a black rolls the last pony into the pocket.
You trouser what you can of the chink,
stand your wingman a chaser, and one for the bludger,
stuff a brown lizzie in the burly-gurlie’s biscuit.

Out into the bladdered, the Filth with their hoolivan,
faces like bulldogs licking piss off a nettle.
Everyone, everywhere’s angstin or bustin for knuckle.
And it’s a jive life. Jive life. Jive life.


Outside in bum-fuck Egypt, garyboys burn rubber,
gunning kevved-up GTs twerking twocked Zondas.
You go down manors icky with gum and spilt claret,
rug like a pub floor that sticks to the sole.

Past glassy piss-factories, vitrines of vertical drinkers,
smokers and vapers, smartphones flipped, juggled on the flop,
the jig and jag, the jokey rib-punch, joshing on the step,
the middling men paunching untucked shirts.

Past face-aches, blue-rinsers, tranked Neds and jellied Nellies,
the liggers, lounge-lizards, the bilious prannets with previous;
over the vom, coffin-dodgers, pavement pizzas.

Past Halal taxi, Polski Smak (Scag? S&M? Happy-slappers?)
Through carparks, ruinous estates, urinous underpasses
carpeted by bozos, piss-pants and crusty-white rastas.


Up there the bunker: rachitic saplings on a raw-estate,
the boarded-up shops, bars on barwindows. Inside asboids,
pickled eggs, pork scratchings, Britain’s Hardest Landlord,

ripped leatherette and coughed-up stuffing.
It’s all argument, argot and grot; booze, palaver and pants.
Give me your piss-poor, your pilchards, your pillocks.

Think back to the old blokes, the smoky Snug, the snecklifter;
the art-college year, the one you dropped out for the boozer till 3,
Somali Club afternoons, and back again for early doors.

That urgent note drilling the zinc, ringing out loud
–ah the paintings you’d paint, the poems you’d write! –
as you emptied all your warmth in the singing pissoir.

Philip Larkin Dreams of the Myth Kitty at The Cock and Bull

It was never dull in mythological Hull,
but no one was ever quite who they seemed.
That bloke in the pub: half-man or just half-mad?
And your dad, but of course, that stud claimed to be half-horse,
and was then his other half half-mare, mer-, or just barmaid?
We were half-fish, tadpole, toad (we put the crap in crapaud),
shape-shifting higher and higher up our wish-lists.
Listening to each poet’s shaggy tales we did the maths,
remained one hundred-and-ten percent non gullible,
all of us full, full to the gills with cock and bull.

Welcome to my blog

Friday, 22 January 2010 at 11:26

When time permits I hope to be in a position to update my blog.
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