How poets work


We had been in the new city for two months. The house we had bought was even more of a wreck than we had remembered it, surprising us with all manner of rot which had not shown up in our survey. Our lives centred on responding to our builder’s ever more concerned estimates, working and sleeping. We had met only a handful of people, mostly friends of our friends Rupert and Sue Loydell. (We knew our builder intimately.) It was time for a break.

Rupert rang to say the Penzance Arts Club had got a deal on for Halloween. ‘We’ll show you St Ives. The Tate, Barbara Hepworth. Grab some fish. You know you want to,’ he said.

Storms were forecast, but that did not deter us. ‘Ignore it,’ Rupert said. ‘No one knows the weather in Cornwall.’ Amazingly, he proved to be right. We walked on the beach, ate fish soup, bought ice creams for our children. The Barbara Hepworth was a revelation, the azure sea glittering through the spy-holes in her sculptures. Our children loved it.

It was only as we turned south towards Penzance that we began to regret our decision to come. The skies lowered to road-level. We took a wrong turn. Our children, now hungry and wanting the routine of bath time, began to whine.

By the time we had parked and found the Arts Club the sky was a glowering gunmetal. Invisible seagulls shrieked overhead. Big spits of rain began to pockmark the pavement as we lugged travel cots up the steps from the car.

With something between horror and relish, Rupert pointed out that a cajun band was setting up in the bar: ‘Fancy a quick pint before dinner? I can feel a poem coming on.’ I said I would love to but pointed out it was more than my life was worth. He set off in search of his drink.

Having finally settled our children and armed with a baby monitor, we joined Rupert and Sue for dinner. We were only half an hour late. The cajun band were indeed to be the evening’s entertainment, a theme Rupert was steadily warming to: ‘If it’s anything like the soundcheck, we’re in for a treat,’ he said. ‘Chablis’ good, by the way.’ I could not tell if he was joking.

The restaurant-cum-bar was quintessential late period shabby-chic. Paintings by Cornish artists of all periods and styles filled the walls. ‘See that Tony Frost?’ Rupert said. ‘That paid for his life membership.’ A woman walked past our table, wearing a skeleton mask and what appeared to be a négligée. ‘Part of the band,’ Rupert said, pouring us more Chablis.

The evening was going well. Wine and conversation flowed, the room a hazy melange of art-gossip and cackling locals, all of it candlelit, the storm outside nothing but a murmur. Then the band started. Violent nails-down-the-blackboard violins churned methodically, the twinned voices of masked and négligéed women spiralling around them in a thin caterwaul. A guitarist and bassist (they looked like brothers) plodded, earnestly and without expression. Couples began to leave their tables, some in an effort to dance, others simply to leave. Beating me to it, my wife said ‘I’ll just go and check on the children.’

She reappeared five minutes later, beaming. ‘Like babies,’ she said. But it was impossible. If we went to bed we would risk waking the children. The alternative was no less bleak, an assault of noise fit to wake the dead. Which perhaps was the point.

We chose the babies. Lying there motionless, our sheets pulled tight like a drum-skin, we listened to our children’s breathing, grateful for it but nevertheless praying they would not wake to the noise of the gale now at our windows. We did not have to wait long. First our daughter, the eldest, sat bolt upright and enquired where she was . We had just got her back down when our son woke, first with a cough, then a roar. He demanded to be fed some milk. Now. We found him some milk, fed him and settled him again. Except he would not be settled. Arcing his back rigid he refused to lie down in his travel cot. The only way of pacifying him was to bring him to bed, where he grew calm again. For about a minute. Gurgling with pleasure (or wind?) he lay between us chatting happily at the ceiling. He showed not the slightest interest in going back to sleep.

What felt like a minute later he was awake again, howling. In the groaning darkness I boiled a kettle and made him another bottle while my wife tried to calm him. Swapping roles, I paced the bedroom floor with him, his face now red with rage. He began to cough again, refusing the offering of the bottle. Panic now filled the room. Our daughter was also awake. She asked to know where she was. Just as we began to answer her a thud came through the walls. Not an accidental thud, as of a fallen glass of water, but a thud of menace and purpose. My wife shot me a look through my son’s bawling. The thud came again, twice this time. There was nothing else for it.

Bundling my son into his car seat, I suddenly became aware of the time. It was 3.30. The storm was now at its peak, horizontal wind and rain lashing waves against the sea walls in the harbour. But I didn’t care. In the confines of the car my son could scream for as long as he wanted. I sang to him, offered him more milk, then started the engine. Without knowing where I was going I began to drive. After five minutes he fell silent. Not wishing to risk it I drove on, back and forth, from one end of the town to the other, until I was sure he he was properly off. Eventually I decided to park outside the  Arts Club, with a view of the sea. Tired to my core, I pulled my coat up around me, checked on my son’s breathing and fell instantly asleep.

The dining room was a muted affair the next morning. Breakfasters were few, all of them sotto voce. One couple were wearing sunglasses. Unsure as to whose displeasure we had invoked, I chose to smile apology at everyone. I found Rupert and Sue sat with the rest of my family, polishing off a gigantic cooked breakfast. ‘Sausages are good. Sleep well?’ Rupert said. Before I could reach across the table to punch him, my wife calmly explained that our son had not had the best of nights and that I had spent the best part of it in the car.

Ordering me some coffee, Rupert tossed me that morning’s Independent. It was open at the books page, a review of How Poets Work, Tony Curtis’s edited book of essays of poets writing about their craft. I quickly learned it contained Simon Armitage, Gillian Clarke, Vicki Feaver, Michael Longley and Don Paterson. ‘I wouldn’t bother,’ Rupert said. ‘It’s balls.’

‘The review or the book?’

‘Both,’ he said.

Ignoring him, I began reading. I should have heeded his advice. Not because it was balls, but because of what it revealed to me. I saw at once that the lives these poets were leading, or appeared to be, through the filter of the reviewer’s eyes, were light years away from my own. Unshaven and unfed, I understood I was both metaphorically and literally at the end of the line. Something would need to change, and soon. Even though I later learned, when I bought the book, that the poets in it shared exactly the same insecurities as me, their wisdom, success and -yes- status seemed impossible to attain. I read to the end of the article in silence, hoping no one would notice the tears now pushing at the corners of my eyes.

Rupert poured me another cup of coffee. Then, to his eternal credit, he said: ‘Not to worry Ant. You wait until your book is out. It’s all going to change.’ I couldn’t tell, and still can’t, whether he was joking.


  1. I look forward to the day when poets are put on the State salary roll. Then, in accordance with best European practice, everything a poet does, and especially those long periods spent apparently ‘resting’ between poems, can be deemed remunerable. Thus the poet’s long periods of angst, self-doubt, guilt even, can be properly evaluated and adequately recompensed, Perhaps some sort of tax-free scheme could be worked out for those long, only apparently purposeless, periods spent staring at stars, flora, fauna, adored children, other people and telly The research that goes into snapping up whole libraries of ill-considered trifles, gazing spell-bound at operas, plays, films and examining dumbfounded the work of other poets like yourself, might then be officially recognised as billable! Well, a gal can dream, I suppose! All these thoughts, incidentally, came to me unbidden on an endless train ride yesterday from Plymouth to Edinburgh. As such I trust that ,under the new dispensation, they will be adequately remunerated in due course. Swing that fat pen of yours, Sajiid Javid, and wave that obese-from-inaction ministerial cheque book! It will be a far more Right Honourable thing you will do,, than you have ever done before, trust me on this one!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. One of my favorite posts, Anthony. And you know that I like many of them. I like any writing piece about writing linked to life. I love the poesy through this post. You capture this special night with vivid descriptions that propulse images to my eyes and emotions to my soul.
    Anything about the craft of writing interests me. We all have read of other writers and poets’ successes with a mix of admiration and envy. But we all start somewhere and as long as we keep working at our craft, we will get somewhere, too. In between, we still have to care for the children, the house, and all the small and yet important things of life. Art is still there.

    Liked by 2 people

      1. You know how Seamus H talked about getting ‘the letter from God’ .. well, it’s over ten years since I got ‘the letter from someone who thinks he’s …’
        Would be very odd to publish that collection now, though there are some in it I still like.
        Violence in the Heart is next, I hope, but it’s theology not poetry.


      2. I know that quote. Yes. I wondered if you had run dry. Or aground. Theology sounds good though. I know a man who is editing The History of Evil (Vol.5).


      3. Nope. I’ve never stopped writing. There are hundreds of poems .. whole book length sequences .. Istanbul .. The David Story .. Mad Psalms .. there’s haiku, ghazals, sonnets, limericks .. even, heaven help us, the odd aphorism.
        I would say that derangement is one of my big themes. And evil, of course.


      4. The one Faber binned was called Gardening in Hell .. I’ve revised that a couple of times over the years. The Istanbul is about complete. In both cases I haven’t felt much point in turning them into finished manuscripts as there’s nowhere for them to go. There would be at least a book’s worth of general poems from the last few years, same issue. I have so little clear-minded time now, read so slowly, that I wouldn’t (as I now see it) use up that time and emotional energy sending out to magazines. Some stuff goes on FB, I enter the National most years .. etc. I still hold to what I had concluded before Pierrot came out, that what we learn in the early years (the stage in a writer’s development when publishers are interested because they are a ‘new voice’) is how to write what is publishable. The business is still preocccupied with short lyrics, we all do that falling poingnant thing at the end that throws the whole poem into some ‘meaningful’ light. We’re all really writing sonnets .. opening / volta / lyric close. It bores the tits off one and seems utterly unrelated, for me, to why I still write.
        Yours, disgruntled and solipsistic,
        and another thing ..
        Hi, Rupert! LTNS


      5. No no never! It just means I got more from your answer than I bargained for. I thought you had fallen off the face off the earth and I am glad you haven’t.


  3. I wasn’t joking about any of it – tho i don’t remember liking the band!
    [And things did change for you after your book]


      1. You are right, as ever.
        I do recall Frankenstein turning up at in the room with the cajun band playing in though, opening the door hand in hand with your daughter… Goodness knows why she wasn’t scared; I was!

        & hallo Harry ex-Faber. No, I don’t write sonnets really.


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