Lifesaving Lines: Stone, I Presume, by Ian Mcmillan

For several weeks before Christmas I had these words from Ian McMillan’s peerless ‘Stone, I Presume’ rattling around my head. During my teaching, walking the dog, reading, even when I was watching the telly.

One day I heard myself saying them out loud: ‘It’s all a bit twist and reek, isn’t it?’ What was I talking about? I mean: what was I talking about? The 10 Downing Street party crisis? Keir Starmer’s suits? Chelsea’s injury list? The current edition of Really Great Poetry? All of these, and none of them. They are all twist and reek.

Twist and reek. Not twist and shout, twist and reek. What does it mean? a) I have no idea, and b) Whatever you want it to. I mutter it under my breath in meetings when the same person makes the same point for the third time without realising they are doing it. (Sometimes this person is me.) Climate change deniers can be twist and reek. The Conservative Party has been twist and reek for years. Poetry readings can be twist and reek. (That’s yours as well as mine.)

The poets who are never twist and reek are definitely Frank O’Hara and absolutely Ian McMillan. Martin Stannard is never twist and reek (unless he chooses to be, in which case it is always deliberate and therefore acceptable). There are others. (Check out Lifesaving Poems to find more!)

I don’t really make New Year’s resolutions, but if I did, it would be Please, God, don’t let me be twist and reek in 2022. Anything else, but not that. (I have just cut a poem in half because it was too twist and reek. It’s a good rule of thumb to go by. ‘Is this twist and reek?’ If the answer’s yes, out it has to go.) May we all resist the dead hand of twist and reek in 2022, in our art-making, in our conversations, and not least in our


  1. Was that last line intentionally twist and reek? I wanted to see the last word, but decided perhaps it was just a teaser. Twist and reek is such a fine expression and now you have me saying it about all kinds of things including trying to plant late bulbs on a chilly, windy day. Freezing hands, Bulbs whining. Need another pot. Twist and reek!

    Molly in Oregon

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I like the way we find and adopt phrases. Some of them become family language i.e. meaning known to friends and familiars but faintly mystifying to everybody else. One of ours is ‘piffle in the wind’, which comes from Daisy Ashford’s inimitable and unsurpassable ‘The Young Visiters’. So I wouldn’t want you poems this year to be piffle in the wind either. No siree!

    Liked by 1 person

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