Lifesaving Poems: the book


Photograph © Bloodaxe Books Ltd


I am delighted to announce that my Lifesaving Poems series of blog posts is going to become a book. Bloodaxe Books will be publishing the anthology in June 2015.

Readers of this blog will know how the project started and therefore what this means to me. Originally, the idea of Lifesaving Poems stemmed from a remark I once saw of Seamus Heaney, along the lines of an out-loud query about how many poems could affect a person over a lifetime. Was it ten, he said, twenty, fifty, a hundred, or more?

To put this notion to the test I began copying out poems, in inky longhand, into a plain Moleskine notebook given to me for Christmas. My criteria for inclusion were as basic as possible. In the style of Heaney and Hughes’s The Schoolbag I allowed myself only one poem per poet. And I had to be able to remember the experience of first encountering it.

I didn’t write in the notebook every day. Sometimes weeks would go by without an entry, only to spur myself into action with several poems in one sitting of a rainy weekend, say. According to the inscription on the front page I began in July 2009 and finally filled the notebook in May 2011, shortly after which I wrote my first Lifesaving Poems post, on Alasdair Paterson’s ‘Fishermen’.

Readers of this blog, and of my memoir Love for Nowwill also know that, quite apart from the physical effort of copying the poems, the notebook and subsequent blog mean much more to me. This is because, during my treatment for cancer in 2006 I felt for the first time in my life that poetry was leaving me. By that I mean not just the desire (or ability, or concentration) to write poems, but the notion of reading and spending time with poems at all.

Lifesaving Poems  is therefore an attempt to say thank you, ultimately to poetry for not deserting me but also to the poets who wrote the poems, and the people -teachers, friends, colleagues, poets, anthologists- who have influenced my reading, and therefore my life, so richly.

I should say straight away that not every poem from the blog is included in the book. Partly this is for reasons of size, and partly I am hoping there will be a sequel! To find out who I have included you will have to do what I am always encouraging my readers to do: buy the book. It feels both odd and wonderful to write that sentence in support of something I have put together.

If the process of turning a notebook into a blog into a book has taught me anything it is that poems are needed by people. Which is to say not just that we reach for poetry in times of distress, joy and grief; but that a poem, lying dormant, only comes fully alive when this or that person comes along and reads it. That is what I have tried (and continue) to do with Lifesaving Poems: to stay true to the energy of first encounters, remembering as accurately as possible my debt to the friend or anthologist who put me in the poem’s way.

I am indebted to Neil Astley for suggesting and supporting the anthology from the start; and to Anna Clarke for her help with the manuscript.

Heaney’s pedagogy


During the Christmas period I am reposting some old posts from my archive. 

Wishing all my readers a very happy Christmas, and joy and fulfilment in the new year.


A comment Mark Robinson made in the days following Seamus Heaney’s death in August resonated with me. He said he had learned as much about poetry and poetics from Heaney’s critical writing and essays as from his poems. I only ever got to hear Heaney read his poetry once. I never met him, let alone was taught by him, yet I think of him as one of the great teachers in my life. The advice and teacherly example in his poems is justly famous:

Lie down

in the word-hoard, burrow

the coil and gleam

of your furrowed brain.


Compose in darkness.

Expect aurora borealis

in the long foray

but no cascade of light.  (‘North’)

I would argue his essays are just as rich a word-hoard of wisdom and delight, to use two of his favourite words.

Here is the beginning of Omphalos, Part 1 of ‘Mossbawn’, the first essay of Preoccupations (1980):

I would begin with the Greek word, omphalos, meaning the navel, and hence the stone that marked the centre of the world, and repeat it, omphalosomphalosomphalos, until its blunt and falling music becomes the music of somebody pumping water at the pump outside out back door. It is Co. Derry in the early 1940s.

Everything that Heaney achieved and set out to do in his essays is in here I think. Right from the off, there is the presence and influence of learning upon thinking and interpretation of reality: ‘omphalos, meaning the navel, and hence the stone…’ carrying with it the expectation that the reader’s intelligence and learning is at least as well-stocked and up to speed, but, in case it is not, also bearing a tone of benevolent reassurance. We get that in the repetition of the word, ‘omphalosomphalosomphalos‘, and in the marvellous visual and sonic image of that farmyard pump. It is as though he is putting his arm around the reader in forewarning of the esoteric language which follows, but not to worry, in a minute he will get on with some talk about tractors. His epithets are Heaney in microcosm, the Anglo-Saxon hand-tool of ‘blunt’, and the romanticised longing of ‘falling’. As prose it is hypnotic, sonorous and persuasive as a lullaby, one long, complex sentence followed by a simple one, bringing us back to earth as it were: ‘It is Co. Derry in the early 1940s.’

It is possible, however, that, achieved and perfect though this, none of it carries the same weight as the one-syllable word that sets it all going, beautifully and craftily rendered invisible by the time we reach the word ‘Greek': ‘I’. What Heaney does in all his great essays is to place himself both at the centre (that word again) and to the side of the action. A proper sleight of hand in plain view, ‘I’ is a word we do not see again for the rest of that first paragraph, until the start of the next one, some 180 words or so later. Yet not for one second do we doubt that this happened, in that place, at that time, in the manner the writer describes it. It is a masterful exhibition of writing which is both authoritative and without ego.

Pick any of Heaney’s great set-pieces and these tropes and themes are repeated. The disastrous and abandoned recording of poems and music with his friend David Hammond at the start of ‘The Interesting Case of Nero, Chekhov’s Cognac and a Knocker’. His aunt planting a chestnut in a jam jar at the start of ‘The Placeless Heaven’. Robert Pinsky sharing his new translation of Czeslaw Milosz’ ‘Incantation’ ‘in the upstairs study of a silent house, empty that afternoon except for ourselves’. Robert Lowell’s remark to Heaney that his dolphin sonnet (‘My dolphin, you only guide me by surprise’) was itself ‘set-piece, set-piece’. Not least is the impression that he was as good at friendship as he was at poetic insight. But while he seems to have known everybody, you always feel it is they who are doing him the favour. The names are used, not dropped.

In the final analysis, it is this authority one looks for, recognises and returns to, taking us from personally lived and felt experience into a realm where statement, so often rejected as a modus operandi in the poems, can be formulated, however provisional and metaphorical: ‘Finding a voice means that you can get your own feeling into your own words and that your words have the feel of you about them; and I believe that it may not even be a metaphor, for a poetic voice is probably very intimately connected with the poet’s natural voice, the voice that he hears as the ideal speaker of the lines he is making up’ (‘Feeling into Words’). You can argue with that, but you can’t disprove it, as Yeats is supposed to have said about ‘Sing a Song of Sixpence’.

My favourite of all his lines —and I do think of them as lines, in the same way I think of his poems— occurs right at the end of his marvellous essay ‘The Government of the Tongue’, from the book of the same name (1988). It is a free-ranging tour de force which takes in Eliot, Coleridge, Anna Swir, Mandelstam, Dante, Stalin, Zbigniew Herbert, George Herbert, Elizabeth Bishop, and the writing of Christ in the sand when presented with a woman caught in adultery. Heaney describes Christ’s writing as ‘like poetry, a break with the usual life but not an absconding from it’. He goes on:

It does not say to the accusing crowd or to the helpless accused, ‘Now a solution will take place’, it does not propose to be instrumental or effective. Instead, in the rift between what is going to happen and whatever we would wish to happen, poetry holds attention for a space, functions not as distraction but as pure concentration, a focus where our power to concentrate is concentrated back on ourselves.

This, for me, is one of the great descriptions of the effect of poetry, even when ‘faced with the brutality of the historical onslaught’. It describes the free and untrammelled entering of a space where anything can happen, but where nothing is forced. It is, paradoxically, a space of communion and solitude, of longing and completion. At the same time I also happen to think it is one of the great descriptions of good teaching, a pedagogy where the boundary between teacher and pupil is blurred for a moment, at once separately ‘summoned and released’ into self and co-reflection.