Lifesaving Poems: Jean Sprackland’s ‘The Birkdale Nightingale’

I met Jean Sprackland in 2000, somewhere in the bowels of the Poetry Society in London. We were meeting to discuss a project we later called Poetryclass, a training programme for teachers wanting to make more of poetry in their practice. We shared some ideas, had a coffee and a good giggle, and have carried on like that, on and off, ever since.

I quickly learned that Jean is generous with her time and ideas and that she is kind. She is the best of teachers. And if you are reading this you will already know that she is an amazing poet.

Later that day I went up the London Eye for the first time. I connect the two events, corny as it may sound, because reading Jean’s poems provokes in me that same feeling of giddiness, excitement and wonder at being shown the known world from completely unexpected angles.

As with most of my friends who are poets, I see Jean once a century. We gossip and natter, as you do. We will talk about who we are reading, which poets we are looking out for, that kind of thing. But we rarely speak about our own writing. (I have a very unscientific hunch that we are not alone in this).

However, Jean did say two things to me about writing, a good while ago now, and I think they may permanently have changed me. Her first statement came as I was congratulating her for winning the Costa Award for Tilt, saying how great it was, how layered and strange and evocative and how happy she must be to have her work recognised in this way. But she cut me off.  ‘It doesn’t mean anything, not in the end, Anthony. All we ever have is the process.’

The other comment of Jean’s I go back to and savour is this (made as an aside during a discussion about teaching poetry writing, I seem to remember): ‘When I am writing I am only happy when I have no idea what I am doing’.

These have become touchstones for me. I use them to help me make judgements about how far I am committed to the process of writing the thing that is at hand, and how consciously controlling I am about the same.

I thought about these things driving home late on the motorway two weeks ago, as Jean’s voice came out of the car radio, reading from her marvellous new book Strands. The passage we listened to concerned Jean’s attempts to make a recording, under cover of darkness, of the extremely loud and distinctive mating call of the Natterjack toad on the beach near Southport. Like talking to Jean it was life-affirming, full of deft touches of observation, and funny, in the best way possible.

The Birkdale Nightingale

(Bufo calamito – the Natterjack toad)


On Spring nights you can hear them
two miles away, calling their mates
to the breeding place, a wet slack in the dunes.
Lovers hiding nearby are surprised
by desperate music. One man searched all night
for a crashed spaceship.

For amphibians, they are terrible swimmers:
where it’s tricky to get ashore, they drown.
By day, they sleep in crevices under the boardwalk,
run like lizards from cover to cover
without the sense to leap when a gull snaps.
Yes, he can make himself fearsome,
inflating his lungs to double his size.
But cars on the coast road are not deterred.

She will lay a necklace of pearls in the reeds.
Next morning, a dog will run into the water and scatter them.
Or she’ll spawn in a footprint filled with salt rain
that will dry to a crust in two days.

Still, when he calls her and climbs her
they are well designed. The nuptial pads on his thighs
velcro him to her back. She steadies beneath him.

The puddle brims with moonlight.
Everything leads to this.

Jean Sprackland, from Tilt (Jonathan Cape, 2007)

Lifesaving Poems

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