Lifesaving Poems: On Hugo Williams and Douglas Dunn

I can remember exactly where I was when I first read these poems. It was on the balcony of the squat of my friend Duncan Kramer, in Bromley in the summer of 1984.

The house had been earmaked for demolition to make way for a ring road. It was shared by Duncan with five other art students, each of whom attended Ravensbourne College of Art on furniture/product and graphic design courses. It was perhaps the most chaotic house I had ever seen, with bikes and car repair tools littering the hallways and landing, no locks on the bathroom or lavatory doors (you had to claim occupancy with a post-it note), and a constant mix of music seeping through the pores of each floor and ceiling.

I used to escape my bedsit in Golders Green to visit Duncan on the other side of the universe, turning up at his door unnanounced with a bottle of wine in the hope of being fed and entertained for the weekend. If he was irritated by these raids of mine, he never showed it.

I do think they were some of the most formative experiences of my life.

It was through Duncan that I had first met the work of Seamus Heaney (one winter he walked around with a copy of Field Work in his donkey jacket pocket), and now I was meeting other poets who were not on the syllabus of the English Literature degree I was doing: Paul Muldoon, Tom Paulin, Douglas Dunn, Michael Longley, Derek Mahon and Hugo Williams. They were all to be found between the pages of a tiny looking paperback, The Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry, edited by Blake Morrison and Andrew Motion and published only two years previously.

We were sitting on his balcony with coffee and the papers, having got up late one Saturday morning, when I began glancing through this little book of poems, intrigued by the artwork on the front cover and drawn in by the lure of reading more Heaney.

To the sound of weekend shopping and ordinary south London traffic I read these lines of quiet longing and utter clarity, feeling as though someone had taken a look inside my head and made a snapshot of it for all to see:


The evening advances, then withdraws again

leaving our cups and books like islands on the floor.

We are drifting you and I,

as far from one another as the young heroes

of these two novels we have just laid down.

For that is happiness: to wander alone

surrounded by the same moon, whose tides remind us of ourselves,

our distances, and what we leave behind.

The lamp left on, the curtains letting in the light.

These things were promises. No doubt we will come back to them.

It seemed to describe perfectly the liminal world I was living in, with its descriptions of abandoned paperbacks, lamps left on and aimless wandering. I loved that I could see everything in the poem, while feeling that its main action as it were, remained mysterious, out of reach. Right at the poem’s centre was a big abstract noun, ‘happiness’, a word I was deeply suspicious of, let alone seeing it described with such stark negatives, in terms of distances, departures and delayed fulfilment of promises.

Yet I was very happy to read it. My reading up to that point had been Geoffery Summerfield’s Worlds and A Alvarez’ The New Poetry, Hopkins and Plath for A level, Ted Hughes and McGough for O level, the early poems of TS Eliot, bits of Yevtushenko and some Thom Gunn. Having read Plath in particular, I was both surprised and delighted to see that the moon could appear just as itself.

Flicking through the book from front to back I next came across Douglas Dunn. The book seemed to fall open at ‘On Roofs of Terry Street’:

On Roofs of Terry Street


Television aerials, Chinese characters

in the lower sky, wave gently in the smoke.


Nest-building sparrows peck at moss,

urban flora and fauna, soft, unscrupulous.


Rain drying on the slates shines sometimes.

A builder is repairing someone’s leaking roof.


He kneels upright to rest his back.

His trowel catches the light and becomes precious.


I did not know until I read these poems that if you wanted to say in a poem that rain drying on the slates shines sometimes you could actually say ‘Rain drying on the slates shines sometimes’.  It seems so obvious, looking back at it now, but I cannot overestimate the shock and the joy of discovering the power of plain language, aged 20, one sunny South London Saturday.

I have felt indebted to Duncan Kramer ever since that moment, for the frenzy of reading, borrowing, buying and writing of poetry that has ensued in my life as a result. I am not sure anything has come close, before or since, to confirming my pleasure in and awareness of the numinous, and awakening my desire to ‘credit marvels’ (Heaney again) in the everyday.


m;”>Lifesaving Poems


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