‘think on the slug’s white belly, how sick-slick and soft’

A Way to Love God by Robert Penn Warren new up at Pizzicati of Hosanna. I felt one way about this poem when I read it online, another way when I recorded it, and another way still now it’s uploaded.

It reminds me of Olduvai Gorge Thorn Tree by Sarah Lindsay.

Meanwhile, the Helen in Egypt project is progressing. I am sinking into it, or it is sinking into me. Still not sure why I am doing this, but there are 20 books in its three sections, of which two are up. Which makes the project 10% complete.

Easter poem & remembering Paul Stevens


I woke from my nap and heard the goldfish
whistling. I got up and pressed my face
to the glass: Goldfish,
I said. Please stop.
It unpuckered its tiny orange lips
but didn’t stop whistling.

I went outside and a warm blanket
of bees fell upon me.
That’s it, I said,
but the thrumming crept
into my ears like dormice
and you threw a bucket of sun
over me and I became so bright
I closed my eyes.

That was my first-ever published poem, accepted in 2006 by Paul Stevens, late editor of the Shit Creek Review, The Chimaera and The Flea, who died last week. Paul had a wonderful sense of humor (check out this last message!) and was a tremendous force-multiplier in the poetry blogosphere. Read an interview with him from Very Like A Whale’s Ten Questions for Poetry Editors series.

RIP, Paul, and thanks for everything.

‘A poem is a state of perfection at which a poet has arrived by whatever means’

Love this, and not just because I’m an Yvor Winters fan:

A poem is a state of perfection at which a poet has arrived by whatever means. It is a stasis in a world of flux and indecision, a permanent gateway to waking oblivion, which is the only infinity and only rest. It has no responsibilities except to itself and its own perfection – neither to the man who may come to it with imperfect understanding nor to the mood from which it may originally have sprung.

from the Volta Blog, quoting a foreword by Yvor Winters.

‘as scars attach and ride the skin’

Lucille Clifton VoicesYes. Strong. Bare-bones simple. Open-hearted. Wide-hearted. Highly recommended. I liked all of this collection, particularly a series at the end called a meditation on ten oxherding pictures. The images she refers to are here (in the far left column, the ones by Kuoan Shiyuan, 101 explication here).

I love how she interpreted these pictures, how her work is so quiet and understated, yet so forceful.

‘sistering the moon’ and ‘bars of rage’

Lucille Clifton MercyMaya Angelou Collected Poems

I’m writing about these two collections together (Maya Angelou’s Complete Collected Poems and Lucille Clifton’s Mercy), although they couldn’t be more different from each other.

This is really the first time I’ve read work from either author in any concentrated way, beyond simply skimming the odd piece found in anthologies and in random places.

The Clifton gets a big thumbs up from me. Excellent tradecraft, and her spare, concentrated and understated style showcases the substance of her poems beautifully. This collection is divided into four parts: last words and stories are the first two and september song and the message from The Ones the last two. Unfortunately, the last two did not work so well for me – one is a series of poems about September 11 and its immediate aftermath, and the other seems to be a series of other-worldly communications (received by a psychic?) commenting on the human condition. I felt the themes in these two sections were too large for the poems, leading the latter to attempt too much and end up with too much abstraction and a loss of connection with the reader (or at least with this reader). On the other hand, the first two sections, which dealt with families, individuals, specific individual scenarios and events, packed some serious poetic punch and everyone should read them! One beautiful example online: dying.

As for Angelou’s poems, they did not work at all well on the page for me. The tradecraft was less noteworthy and I found her work lacked subtlety – was indeed often fairly raw, heavy-handed and sometimes even clunky. It’s easy to see where her considerable reputation comes from, though, if you do an internet search for her reciting her own work (see The Mask and Still I Rise, for example). She has a great, super-sensitive relationship with her words, a terrific voice and amazing delivery, which make her poems-as-voice much more formidable than her poems-as-text (as we might put it at Voice Alpha.)

Beyond those technical differences between the two, however (and this is why I decided to write about them together), is the big difference between the emotional places from which I felt each was writing. Angelou, it seems to me, writes from a tight, angry, bitter and sometimes rather triumphalist place. Her world feels divided into the good and the bad and in it, she robustly defends the side of the good and faces down the bad. ‘Committed’ poetry, in other words. Which has of course been important and necessary in every age, and always will be.

But, right now, other things, not these, resonate for me in poetry. Like Clifton’s more subtle, wider, and more ‘humane’ approach, with its signature underpinning of universal compassion. I like that in Clifton. Must go and find some more of her work…

‘it leaps like a bike with a wild boy riding it’

Grace Paley Begin Again I just read this Grace Paley collection again. A search on this very blog reveals I have already mentioned it three times – once in 2010 and twice in 2008. At some level, I must like it even more than I think I do.

I wrote the first time: “Rather mad and hectic in a great Stevie Smith ee cummings deadpan cartwheel razorblade sort of way. I feel I know what she means and am interested in it and like how she says it most of the time, which I realize is not such a frequent happy coincidence with me.”

And later: “Dainty white bird bones and little chameleon’s feet that pick-pick their way all the way up you then whoa your stomach parachutes out at 13,000 feet.”

The third time, I just copied out one of my favorite poems from the collection: Come back, you fucking sea.

This time I’ll just add that, although I have no idea how old she was when she wrote these poems, to me she writes like one of those cool old people who have become properly young again without losing the good things about their oldness. And she’s funny too.

400 years of KJV


Challenges to the authority of the King James Version are a proper part of the critical scrutiny to which all texts should be submitted in an open society. What is remarkable is that such scrutiny does not subvert the affection that English speakers have for the KJV. The principal reason for this affection, even for readers who use other translations, is the aural quality of its prose. Modern translations are normally intended for private study, and so are usually read silently. The KJV was, as its title-page pronounces, ‘appointed to be read in churches’: it was a translation intended to be read aloud and understood, and so it was in countless churches, chapels and households. Its prose has a pulse that makes it easy to read aloud and easy to memorize. When Adam ungallantly blames Eve for the fall, he says (in the KJV) ‘she gave me of the fruit and I did eat’ (Genesis 3: 12); he uses ten simple monosyllabic words arranged in a line of iambic pentameter, which was the verse form used by Shakespeare. This is prose with the qualities of poetry, and it would be hard to think of any modern translation of which that can be said.

desiccated twigs in the swamp of the skull

Grace Paley, what is she like? Dainty white bird bones and little chameleon’s feet that pick-pick their way all the way up you then whoa your stomach parachutes out at 13,000 feet with no permission.

And funny. She’s funny too.


What has happened?
language eludes me
the nice specifying
words of my life fail
when I call

Ah says a friend
dried up no doubt
on the desiccated
twigs in the swamp
of the skull like
a lake where the
water level has been
shifted by highways
a couple of miles off

Another friend says
No no my dear perhaps
you are only meant to
speak more plainly

– Grace Paley


Just fell off the Poetry Foundation’s best-seller list so I went to order a copy and was told ‘temporarily out of stock.’ One reviewer calls it Anne Carson’s deeply moving scrap heap:

(…) Nox is unwieldy. It is, very deliberately, a literary object—the opposite of an e-reader designed to vanish in your palm as you read on a train. It comes in a box the size of my external hard drive, and its pages fold out, accordion-style, to colonize all your available space. More than that, though, the book radiates a kind of holy vibe that seems to demand some gesture of ritual cleansing.


Decided I must have this. Looking elsewhere for a copy now.

The De-Cabbage Yourself Experience continued


Very Like A Whale is tickled pink to present the second part of  the interview we conducted with Rob Mackenzie for his De-Cabbage Yourself Experience – his virtual book tour for The Opposite of Cabbage, his debut collection from Salt Publishing. The first part of his Very Like A Whale interview is here.
Photo: © Gerry Cambridge, 2009

6. A small group — perhaps five or six out of the 44 poems in the collection – have some of the cerebral ‘observer’ quality of the majority, but at the same time give a strong sense of personal involvement by the narrator and have poignancy for that reason. I’m thinking of poems like Light Storms from a Dark Country, Voices , Married Life in the Nineties and Plastic Cork, which all seem to be “relationship” poems. Describe the genesis of these poems. Do they feel different from the rest to you, and if so, how?

These poems are all about different people and were written years apart from each other. I suppose they do have a strong sense of personal involvement and, apart from ‘Married Life…’, an immediacy about them. The unfolding of the action seems almost synchronous with the pressures on the relationships. But they don’t feel too different from the other poems to me. I’m not in the least a ‘confessional’ poet and I try to find other strategies to draw readers into my poems.

7. You are quoted here as saying: “I wanted to find ways of writing about politics, religion and nationality that would engage, provoke and entertain people.” Not all the references in Fallen Villages of the North were clear to me, but it is precisely and compactly-written and seems to touch on all three of these themes. What were you trying to achieve thematically in this poem?

The poem began with place names. I was travelling by car up the A1 to Edinburgh from the English Midlands and noticed how odd some of the place-names were. The places in the poem like Longhorsley, Pauperhaugh, Cockle Park and Shilbottle (on the road signs to Shilbottle, the –l is often graffittied to a –t) are just villages. Much of the terrain is moorland and farmland but it was punctuated by small fairgrounds at regular intervals. I’d been reading Milton’s Paradise Lost and I also thought of Blake’s Jerusalem as I looked onto the green, rain-soaked landscape. All of these images and influences came together in the poem, which went through a large number of drafts.

Environmentally-questionable farms grow alongside merry-go-rounds. The hail falls. The priest is summoned to curse rival villages and to bless his home turf. Wind and rain play havoc. Messiahs drop in like bombs. Blake’s hymn shakes coconuts from the shy. A parochial and self-serving politics and religion vie with the landscape’s decay.

There’s no single theme, which I suppose makes it a complex poem to get a handle on. I wanted to hang a personality on the landscape, which would exert a pervasive effect on the surrounding human endeavour. The people look to God in a rather self-serving way, and God sends them what they deserve, I suppose.

8. Many of these poems are funny in a great way – if not laugh-out-loud funny, definitely wide-smile funny – and some (such as The Look, Slimming, Benediction and Sky Blue) are pretty Kafkaesque, also in a great way. Talk about the importance of humor and the surreal for you as poetic devices.

The kind of humour I like best in poetry is when it’s used as a counterpoint to seriousness. I think of Zbigniew Herbert, whose poems deal with important themes and yet engage their complexities with what appears to be a light touch. Humour is a big part of that. Many writers I enjoy do this and it’s a feature of the work of many 20th and 21st century Scottish poets.

I don’t think of myself as a surreal poet. My poems cohere too much for that, despite an initial appearance of fragmentation about some of them, but surreal techniques have influenced me. I use them in different ways: to view a scene from a surprising angle, or (similar to metaphor) to layer an image with unexpected connections. Also, there can be a political dimension – absurd images can reveal the absurdity of a situation better than any argument. That’s one thing I learned from Eastern European poets like Herbert and Holub.

9. Name your top five poetic influences and the nature of their influence.

Well, I’ll name five books I read almost exclusively while writing around half of the manuscript. I was consciously courting their influence, and read them slowly and carefully, and didn’t read anything else for months. I didn’t want to sound exactly like any of them, but if anything from their output has seeped into my poems, it will have been all to the good:

Harmonium – Wallace Stevens: his first lines are always remarkable. He never wrote anything in the least ordinary. He reminds me that whatever poems are, they shouldn’t be dull. Stevens is about as far from prose as poetry can get.

The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nation Millennium General Assembly – Denis Johnson: Johnson is better known as a novelist these days. He is a flawed poet, but never a bland one. This ‘Collected Poems’ contains some fantastic poems and the most extraordinary images and ideas. He’s never cited when poets mention their influences – another good reason to be influenced by him…

Collected Poems – James Schuyler: again, this big book is a mixed bag, but Schuyler’s best stuff is passionate and brilliantly observed. His writing often feels informal and is also really moving.

New Collected Poems – W.S. Graham: like Stevens, sometimes he mystifies me, sometimes he loses me, but Graham is one of the most innovative writers of the 20th century. The odd syntax, the sinuous clarity of thought struggling to find expression, the varied approaches to writing a poem – unparalleled.

The Great Enigma – Tomas Transtromer: he can transform a landscape with a word or phrase and make me look at something simple in a very different light. He compresses his poems without them becoming ponderous and creates the most surprising metaphors and similes (often overused in poetry, but not by him) of any writer I’ve read.

10. You are one of what seems to be just a handful of UK poets familiar with and comfortable in the US poetry blogosphere as well. Talk about that cross-over experience. There doesn’t seem to be as much US-UK poetry blogosphere cross-over as one might expect, given the internet and virtual-ness in general – is that a good or a bad thing for poetry? What are the broad-stroke differences between the US and the UK poetry worlds as you see them?

These are huge and potentially controversial questions! My feeling is that many poets (and therefore, many poet-bloggers) aren’t much interested in poetry or poets from outside their own country. I guess some see blogging as a form of networking and don’t see any need to network beyond national boundaries. There’s no po-biz advantage. However, the Internet has made it possible for those who are interested to find out what’s happening throughout the world of poetry on a previously unimaginable scale. I know the work of many American poets I wouldn’t have heard of in pre-Internet days and am in touch with several U.S. bloggers.

As I see the U.S. poetry world (from a great distance, so I probably have it very wrong), there’s more acceptance of innovation in mainstream circles than in the UK. I know some U.S. post-avant poets might laugh at that, but much of the American mainstream would still seem quite avant-garde to many people in UK mainstream circles. This year, the Forward Prize nominees for Best Poetry Collection (published in Britain) included one U.S. poet – Sharon Olds! She is your representative! That’s where we are… A great deal of excellent British poetry is being written, but the best stuff isn’t always given the recognition it deserves.

American poetry is such a huge world though, it’s impossible to scratch more than the surface. I recently read through an anthology, Legitimate Dangers, of U.S. poets, most of them from the ‘elliptical’ side of things. It was a fascinating read, great for an overview of emerging American poets. Like all anthologies, I liked some poems better than others. I have quite wide taste. I really enjoyed Rick Barot, Stephen Burt, Matthea Harvey, Lisa Jarnot, DA Powell, Natasha Trethewey, C Dale Young and a good number of others, but some writers were indistinguishable from one another. Reading so many poems in a row employing an elliptical writing style brought to mind a prose poem by UK poet, Luke Kennard, called ‘The Elements’ (from one of the best books to emerge in recent years, The Harbour Beyond the Movie) which includes an ‘Interview with a Clod’. The poem concludes:

‘Your work often concludes in paradox,’ I say. ‘Is that intentional or do you genuinely not know anything?’

But I like a lot of American writing and read more of it than I do English poetry. Scottish poets have often looked across the Atlantic for inspiration, so I’m only carrying on a well-worn tradition by doing so.

The De-Cabbage Yourself Experience begins here!


Very Like A Whale is tickled pink to serve as the launching pad for Rob Mackenzie’s De-Cabbage Yourself Experience, his virtual book tour for The Opposite of Cabbage, his debut collection from Salt Publishing. You, of course, have either already purchased his stirling collection or are about to do so.
Photo: © Gerry Cambridge, 2009

We thoroughly enjoyed reading this beautifully-crafted collection of poems which is infused with a whole range of desirables — intelligence, humor, satire, the surreal, the poignant and Scotland, to name but a few. We asked Rob ten questions about The Opposite of Cabbage. He answers half here and will be back towards the end of his tour to answer the other half. Thanks for being here, Rob!


1. Your publisher promoted your book launch as that of “a new Scottish poet.” Only seven or so of the 44 poems in this collection seem “Scotland-specific” in setting, theme or subject matter – the rest seem pretty universal. Talk about the “Scottish poet” label. How important is “Scottishness” to your work as a poet? Is the label restricting or helpful to you?

Restrictions are useful for publishers to market books and ‘Scottish poet’ no doubt attracts certain audiences and doesn’t alienate too many.

I am Scottish and therefore I am a Scottish poet. I probably bring a typically doom-laden, pseudo-Calvinist ethic to what I write, coupled with an off-beat sense of humour which enables Scottish people to survive the long, grey winters.

I do write about Scotland now and again. Poetry which is purely personal interests me less than poetry which engages in some way with the public sphere and, for me, that sometimes means Scotland, but it can mean many other things too. The worlds of popular music, holiday camps, public transport and multiculturalism also find a way into my work. I don’t find the Scottish label either restricting or helpful, but it is one aspect of my identity.

2. Talk about the importance of cabbages. They give your collection its title, are a central image in the poem Everyone Will Go Crazy and are mentioned more than once elsewhere (Fallen Villages of the North and Hot Shit, for example).

I’ve always wanted a platform to talk about how important the humble cabbage is! To be honest, I had quite a bland working title for the collection (In-Between States – zzzzzzz…). Someone (Andrew Philip, I think) read Everyone Will Go Crazy in draft form and told me he liked the ‘opposite of cabbage – fat as a bus honk’ lines, and it soon became the new title. From there, images of cabbages kept popping into my head whenever I wrote a poem and it was hard work to keep them from taking over. Fallen Villages and Hot Shit were written during that period and it seemed like a fun idea to incorporate a minor cabbage motif into the book. There is an absurdist sensibility in many of the poems, which the title seemed to reflect as well as any title could.

3. Talk about poem order in your book. What was the organizing principle behind the order you chose, and what were you hoping to achieve with that choice?

There were various stages. After my chapbook was published at the end of 2005, I continued writing poems without any real principle in mind. Halfway through 2007, I collected the best poems into a chapbook length manuscript and realized that they often dealt with extremes, opposites, and people struggling to find a meaningful path that wasn’t just banal compromise between them. I added poems until I had a book-length manuscript. However, I threw out more than half of that manuscript and seriously revised another quarter over the next eighteen months.

The turning point was reading Michael Hamburger’s book, The Truth of Poetry, which covers poets like Baudelaire, Celan, Eliot, Stevens, Pessoa, and various others. What they had in common was a distinctive style (none of them could be accused of writing what magazine editors were wanting to read!), an almost obsessive, singular vision for their poetry, and an obvious greatness. I couldn’t do anything about the third of these, but I realized that the first two aspects were vital for producing anything worthwhile, let alone ‘great’. I focused on writing poems that fitted with the best poems still in the manuscript, the kind of poems I wanted to write rather than what anyone else might have been expecting. The poems emerged at a much slower pace than I’d managed in the past, but it was worth plugging away at. The poet, AB Jackson, was a great help at this stage. His editorial skills and his rejection of anything bland forced me to try harder and stop playing about.

Once I had enough poems, it was a case of laying them out on the floor and juggling the order around. I wanted to scatter poems with similar themes throughout the book e.g. ‘Scottishness’. I wanted there to be less obvious connections from poem to poem, but I hoped the whole would feel like a unity. I spent ages deciding on the first and last poems but, when I look at them now, they seem like obvious choices.

4. With the exception of one, all the poems in the collection are very urban poems, set in streets, in buildings, in cafeterias and houses, around buses and bicycles. The one exception is The Loser, which relies on a pastoral forest setting in its compelling first stanza. Do you consider yourself an urban poet? What about The Loser set it apart from the rest of the poems and required a pastoral setting?

In one sense, I am very much an urban poet. I’ve lived in cities all my life – in Scotland, England, South Korea and Italy. I don’t know any other way of life and cities fascinate me. However, if ‘urban poet’ also connotes the idea of stylish seediness, dark alleyways, street narratives, and a hip, conversational voice, then I’m not that kind of poet at all.

The Loser was written a few days after Barack Obama’s victory in the U.S. elections. I was delighted that he won, but knew the battle to wrestle power from the hands of those who oppose radical change was only just beginning. The losers weren’t going to roll over and capitulate. I chose an anonymous pastoral setting because it seemed out of eyeshot, the way plots of the powerful usually are. Also, I didn’t want to tie the poem to the single political event that inspired it. The undefined island setting makes the poem more universal in scope.

5. One of your blurb writers describes your poems as “restrained, intelligent, quietly ironic.” Indeed, they are finely-observed, well-crafted and precisely-written poems. In most of them, the narrator comes across as a perceptive observer — humorous, rather cerebral, and somewhat detached. Two small groups of poems are different, though. The first is the three poems The Loser, While the Moonies are Taking Over Uruguay and Berlusconi and the National Grid, which appear together. They have an immediacy, an emotion and a feeling of involvement by the narrator not present in most of the other poems. Talk about these three poems. At least two, and maybe all three, are set in Italy. Do these poems seem different from the rest to you and if so, was the setting a factor?

That’s a really interesting question. To me, these poems don’t really seem different from the rest and they were each written years apart. While the Moonies… was written about 2001 (easily the oldest poem in the book), The Loser is the newest poem in the book, and Berlusconi was written in (I think) 2005.

They aren’t the ones I felt I had invested the most emotion in. Poems like Glory Box, Holiday at the New Butlins, Light Storms from a Dark Country, and The Preacher’s Ear seem more immediately emotional to me. However, I don’t think the poems which carry the most emotional investment by the writer will necessarily be the ones to instill such emotional involvement in the reader. Each reader brings his/her own experience to a text and responds to it in ways the writer can’t always predict. That’s one of the great things about poetry. If poems are written authentically with a high degree of emotional and intellectual honesty, feelings are bound to be set off in readers, but different poems will set off different reactions in different readers. Without that – if poems are only craft and precision and lack that ‘spark’ of conviction or struggle or emotion – the reader may feel like a corpse afterwards, or perhaps a cabbage.

Rob A. Mackenzie was born in Glasgow. He studied law and then abandoned the possibility of significant personal wealth by switching to theology. He spent a year in Seoul, eight years in Lanarkshire, five years in Turin, and now lives in Edinburgh where he organises the Poetry at the Great Grog reading series. His pamphlet collection, The Clown of Natural Sorrow, was published by HappenStance Press in 2005 and he blogs at Surroundings.

the time has come to talk of many things

including cabbages, people.  We’ll be hosting Salt author Rob Mackenzie on our pages this Monday as he launches the Cyclone Blog Tour for his debut collection, The Opposite of Cabbage

If you’ve been living under a rock and haven’t bought your Just One Book yet, get Rob’s  – it’s worth every penny.

More on Monday.

whirl your pointed pines

I am irrevocably lazy and yes, the angels never cease weeping for me. I have to write about Hilda Doolittle after Ezra Pound, so what else can I do but reproduce an ancient post from 2006? From my birthday in 2006, to be precise. I find that today I don’t have anything to add to what I wrote about her three years ago, except perhaps to note that she hung out with Marianne Moore & Carlos Williams, as well as unfortunately E.P. And also that the label H.D. Imagiste feels like a big antibiotically-clean sign carved in some announcing crystalline material. Maybe black emerald or crystal jet.

Sept 10, 2006:

Guess who else was born on September 10? Hilda Doolittle. A few years before me, of course. Not a poet one is drawn to, on the face of it. A close associate of Ezra Pound – always a name to make one’s mind begin to think about nipping off quickly to do something else. He called her H.D. Imagiste, it appears. Imagism, I learn this instant, was a movement in early 20th century Anglo-American poetry that favoured precision of imagery, and clear, sharp language. The Imagists rejected the sentiment and artifice typical of much Romantic and Victorian poetry.

I’m sorry I have not known anything of my co-birthdayee before. These two poems by her are really sticking with me today. (The first one is apparently her most-quoted and most-anthologized poem so I must have been buying the wrong anthologies. “Oread” by the way, is the name of a mountain nymph – not a typo and an imperative):


By H.D.

Whirl up, sea—
whirl your pointed pines.
Splash your great pines
on our rocks.
Hurl your green over us,
cover us with your pools of fir.


Stars Wheel in Purple

by H. D.

Stars wheel in purple, yours is not so rare
as Hesperus, nor yet so great a star
as bright Aldeboran or Sirius,
nor yet the stained and brilliant one of War;

stars turn in purple, glorious to the sight;
yours is not gracious as the Pleiads are
nor as Orion’s sapphires, luminous;

yet disenchanted, cold, imperious face,
when all the others blighted, reel and fall,
your star, steel-set, keeps lone and frigid tryst
to freighted ships, baffled in wind and blast.


the complete poems of carl sandburg

have come to me twice in one week. Not sure how/when I ordered duplicate copies, but there they both are. Both lovely old musty hardback library copies from online used bookstores. If you want one, let me know. Sandburg is great for spot-on word choice and totally understandable linebreaks, even if he channels W. Whitman occasionally.