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.

Ellen Doré Watson’s ‘Be Here First’


Ellen Doré Watson was a new name to me until recently. ‘Be Here First ‘ is a good example of what I think she is up to in her extraordinary collection Dogged Hearts. 

From the wit of its first line, through its stunning descriptions of nature in different settings (the lilac’s sun-// starved horizontal heroics, the still-naked/ redbud shrugging off bitty unlit lights’), the poem grants everything that falls into its gaze both solidity and being. The verbs used to personify the trees (‘angling’, ‘spitting’, ‘drooling’) set up the intimacy of their ‘sharing’ both ‘roofline’ and ‘cesspool’ with the speaker. This lends the poem a kind of cinematic zoom-in-then-out shift in focus, which is kept in the present tense by running the sentence on with a comma instead of a full stop or semi colon after ‘cesspool’.

As a record of associative thinking and feeling it feels both improvised and vertiginous, as if daring itself to mask the fear ‘behind our everything’. I love the inner dialogue of ‘Must we dislike ourselves to change?’, the faux confidence of brazenness as ‘just/ a jacket fear puts on’.

Below the surface of these observations there is awareness of the world ‘as ever/ offering now distraction, now danger’, personified again in the ‘neglect’ leaning back on the lawn chair, the garden shed ‘moving towards ruin in its own slow time’.

Even the crows have ‘vowels’, albeit ‘hideous’. Dawn assaults the snow not softly but with a ‘smack’. Everything here is indeed ‘eager, rude and alive’. The one still thing in the poem is the mare, teaching the speaker slowness of a different and direct kind, summed up in the imperative: look. ‘Be Here First’ is penetrating and unsettling, moving between registers, scenes and ideas without fuss or cosy explanation. Richly lyrical, abundantly complex (as opposed to obscure) and most of all alive, the poem is a remarkable account of the struggle to stay present in the moment.

Be Here First

I don’t know my trees but I know my trees.

Their angling for what has spurned them;

their spitting and drooling, the battered


crocuses at their feet. We share the roofline,

the cesspool, I’m responsible for all that salt.

From my stone stoop I watch the lilac’s sun-


starved horizontal heroics, the still-naked

redbud shrugging off bitty unlit lights.

Neglect leans back on the lawn chair.


Must we dislike ourselves to change?

Sick of every other part of me, I approve

my hand slobbered by the horse’s jawing


a hacked apple. I say fear is behind our

everything. Or brazenness, which is just

a jacket fear puts on. The mare’s sudden


stillness says look: fox. The world as ever

offering now distraction, now danger.

But no. How much I owe the trees, the hissing


raccoon outsmarting my heart. The shed

moving towards ruin in its own slow time.

There’s something sprouting on the kitchen


table that’s not supposed to. Everything

eager, rude and alive. Not just the knotweed

but the crows’ hideous vowels; buds blasted


open or whipped young off the tree. Take your

pick: the ridge hurtling for the last rag of snow

or simply lifting off with the first smack of dawn.


Ellen Doré Watson, from Dogged Hearts (Tupelo Press, 2010)

Ellen Doré Watson reads at the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival on Saturday 8 November at 11.15 in the Britten Studio with Julian Stannard and Jen Hadfield, and on Sunday 9 November at 3.30 in the Britten Studio with Thomas Lux, Adélia Prado and Finuala Dowling.