What you don’t see

Someone in our Friday morning group recently wrote a poem about going on an expedition to see long-eared owls on a common outside Blackpool.  The poem was a journey in itself, and engaged the reader so successfully that it really felt as if we were with her, tramping across scrubby ground at twilight, prey to group dynamics, shifting cloud cover and flights of fancy.  However, when we got to the final stanza and encountered the birds, it was almost an anti-climax. Although their appearance was captured precisely and well, the poem seemed to have peaked at the slightly earlier moment of is-that-them-or-not.


Searching for something, with all its attendant hope, dashed or otherwise, its triumphs and frustrations, is a playground for the imagination. I’ve spent several mornings this spring with an hour or so to kill in an old and fairly neglected part of the city, and I’ve been wandering along wooded river banks to a park with a former boating lake, all within a stone’s throw of the motorway. There have been lots of things I haven’t seen.


In particular, the number of times I’ve nearly spotted a kingfisher have far outnumbered actual sightings.


It strikes me that the poet has to be like the hunter – or rather, wildlife watcher. Idle yet alert. Focused yet open to imaginative possibility. And with the added requirement of knowing when to step back and let the reader make that final capture.

Here’s a sonogram from my 2014 collection, Map Reading for Beginners.


Listening For Nightingales



a cobweb



our heads

tilted to hear strands



the sky

dark as the bark of a dog-fox

over the valley



by whitethorn

the infant river trickles rumour

in our ears


this is

dishevelled willows murmur

a perfect place for




a robin declares itself,

a weary song thrush pegs clean notes out

on a tree



in dandelions and vetch

we lean upon a gate and hold our



Postscript:   I heard a nightingale singing last night (Saturday 11th May 2019) at Bushey Coombe in Glastonbury, and it was beautiful. And I’m not planning to write a poem about it.


listening for nightingales

Photo © Dru Marland, 2012


In praise of everyday traipsing

montpelier St Andrew's railway bridge

In his novel Strandloper, Alan Garner tells the true story of William Buckley, a working-class farm labourer from Cheshire, who was convicted in 1803 on a trumped-up charge of trespass and transported to Australia. Upon arrival, William escapes from the settlement and is rescued from near-death by aborigines of the Beingalite people, with whom he lives for the next 30 years. At the end of the book, he is pardoned and returns to England, where he visits his former fiancée, Esther. Realising that their lives have diverged too far for them to have any future together, he bids her goodbye for a final time and ritually walks the landscapes of their home, as he once walked those of Australia. This restorative last chapter ends with William performing a spirit dance inside the church, uniting the patterns of his life and its two cultures.


It sounds perverse, but as much as I enjoy walking in new places, it’s the familiar, traffic-clogged roads of north Bristol that are more of a stimulus to my creativity. Not that nothing wondrous ever happens in these edgelands: during one Christmas, some years ago now, I was walking along the ring road past the Airbus playing fields, in the company of my eldest child, when we saw a parliament of hares – about twenty in a circle, with three looking out from the middle. That this was so rare and mysterious as to constitute a visitation still seems the case ten years on.


Mostly, though, I plod past retail centres, bus stops, warehouses and suburban semis with my brain idling, much like the engines of the cars queuing alongside me. And it is in this mental state – not quite present in the moment, not quite switched off altogether – that the imagination sparks strange and useful connections.


While I was writing my novel, Dart, this was when my characters would come to life and start talking to each other, apparently of their own accord. It usually happened while I was walking to my then place of work – one mile through a post-war council estate and alongside a stream throttled with rubbish, shopping trolleys and the occasional burnt-out car. An incongruous place for families waiting out the Black Death in their remote Dartmoor village to make their presence felt, you might think, but this didn’t deter them – in fact, they’d grow so vociferous that by the time I reached work, I had to race straight to the toilets to write it all down before one of my colleagues asked me to do something and I forgot it. I’m sure some of the staff must have thought I had a very weak bladder.


These days I stick to poetry, but traipsing the everyday routes of my life still works its magic, whether it’s providing a hitherto unthought-of word or cadence, or an unexpected insight into what the poem wants to say. And occasionally – oh joy! – there’s the dropping of an almost fully-formed poem, or idea of the same, into my consciousness.


So if you’re struggling to shift a bout of writer’s block, why not put your shoes on, switch your brain off and go for a wander down your street? You might walk your way into a whole new poem.



Walking Dartmoor on World Mental Health Day

As writers as diverse as Simon Armitage, Samuel Coleridge, Charles Dickens, J K Rowling, Rebecca Solnit, Edward Thomas, Virginia Woolf and William Wordsworth attest, walking is vital to the creative process. I too have found this to be the case.

Yesterday was World Mental Health Day. It was gloriously sunny here in the West Country, so I packed up some victuals, my map and the dog, and drove down to Buckfast Abbey on the south-eastern edge of Dartmoor. From there I walked up through Hembury Woods to the iron-age hillfort on the balding crown of the hill, before descending to the River Dart, winding my way back to edge of the woods and retracing my steps through the lanes to the Abbey.


In the poem Wintering, Sylvia Plath describes the jars of honey from her hives as ‘six cat’s eyes in the wine cellar/wintering in a dark without window/at the heart of the house’. I carry these words in my head at this time of year, as I try to build up a stock of remembered sunlight to get me through the too short, too dark days of winter.