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    1. A little flurry of emails over Christmas, and I’m rashly starting a new group with only days to go! It’s a new advanced poetry workshop that will meet on alternate Wednesday afternoons. Starting this week, 9 January, the term runs over seven fortnightly sessions. The group is limited to seven members, so if you join you get to share your work every time and the group really get to know each other. You don’t necessarily need to be published (though many members are), but if this group is a good fit for you, you’re seriously engaged with contemporary poetry and your own writing of it. I run a relaxed, friendly class, jolly and rigorous, with opportunities to share or ask for suggestions, tips on magazines etc, news of readings or the latest poetry scandal, and to celebrate each other’s achievements.

      The new group will meet from 3-5pm at the Free Word Centre in Farringdon Road. The fee is £150 a term. And if you’d rather join the evening group, that meets from 7-9 and there are a couple of places, where members have moved to the afternoon one. Just drop me a line if you have any questions, or want to join.

      NOTE: I first wrote this post in 2009, what seems a lifetime ago. Although it seems a lifetime, it is less than ten years, and it was the first year on which there were no veterans of the Great War to take part in the memorations. It really is not that long a time, one century. We can reach out and practically touch it.

      In June 1918, a young poet called Eloise Robinson, touring the Front on behalf of the YMCA, was giving a poetry recital to an audience of American soldiers. Guy Davenport tells it: “Reciting poetry! It is all but unimaginable that in that hell of terror, gangrene, mustard gas, sleeplessness, lice, and fatigue, there were moments when bone-weary soldiers, for the most part mere boys, would sit in a circle around a lady poet in an ankle-length khaki skirt and a Boy Scout hat, to hear poems.”

      Eloise Robinson was reciting poems, and in the middle of one poem, Davenport tells us, her memory flagged. “She apologized profusely, for the poem, as she explained, was immensely popular back home.” A hand went up, and a young sergeant offered to recite the poem. Here is what (in, as Davenport reminds us, “the hideously ravaged orchards and strafed woods of the valley of the Ourcq, where the fields were cratered and strewn with coils of barbed wire, fields that reeked of cordite and carrion”) the soldier recited:

      I think that I shall never see
      A poem lovely as a tree.

      A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
      Against the earth’s sweet flowing breast;

      A tree that looks at God all day,
      And lifts her leafy arms to pray;

      A tree that may in summer wear
      A nest of robins in her hair;

      Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
      Who intimately lives with rain.

      Poems are made by fools like me,
      But only God can make a tree.

      Eloise Robinson was surprised and impressed that he should know it. “Well, ma’am,” he told her. “I guess I wrote it.”

      Joyce Kilmer was killed by a German sniper less than two months later, three months before the Armistice. His most famous poem had been published in POETRY (Chicago) in 1913.

      Eloise, for her part, continuing about her duties at the Front, wrote to POETRY that August: “I wish I might tell you of my visit to the French front, and how for two nights I slept in a ‘cave’ with seven Frenchmen and had a hundred bombs dropped on me. Not directly on top, of course. The nearest hit just in front of the house. And for five days and nights after that I was taking chocolate to advance batteries, to men who can never leave their guns.”

      Davenport mentions how Kilmer’s Trees is in fact a self-reflective poem, about poetry itself. These days that’s a sort of no-no, a workshop cliché, but – even though the poem rates itself as second to a tree – the fact nevertheless gives us a clue to something. Kilmer was regarded as the foremost Catholic poet of his day, and like a good Catholic he concludes as he must that however he may feel driven to create, his power as a creator can never equal that of God. This sentiment is in keeping with the sentiment of most people of his time; far more than (say) Ezra Pound, to whom he was connected through both contemporanaeity and, more directly, the magazine itself. Pound will no doubt have despised this poem for its utter lack of fearless modernity (though Davenport talks of its “silvery, spare beauty” and “inexplicable integrity”). But it had one important, unavoidable and perhaps even tautological quality (aside from the fact of its enormous popularity): it is a poem.

      In his recent look at the satire of the recently-late poet Tom Disch, in the Contemporary Poetry Review, David Yezzi quotes at length from the following poem:

      I think that I shall never read
      A tree of any shape or breed –
      For all its xylem and its phloem –
      As fascinating as a poem.
      Trees must make themselves and so
      They tend to seem a little slow
      To those accustomed to the pace
      Of poems that speed through time and space
      As fast as thought. We shouldn’t blame
      The trees, of course: we’d be the same
      If we had roots instead of brains.
      While trees just grow, a poem explains,
      By precept and example, how
      Leaves develop on the bough
      And new ideas in the mind.
      A sensibility refined
      By reading many poems will be
      More able to admire a tree
      Than lumberjacks and nesting birds
      Who lack a poet’s way with words
      And tend to look at any tree
      In terms of its utility.
      And so before we give our praise
      To pines and oaks and laurels and bays,
      We ought to celebrate the poems
      That made our human hearts their homes.

      (from “Poems”)

      According to Yezzi, this is “Kilmer’s earnest chestnut from the pages of Poetry… admirably cracked and roasted.” But I’m not so sure.

      Kilmer may not have agreed with Disch’s treatment, on the face of it; he had his religious beliefs to support, and his poetry was full of the inspirations and consolations of nature. Even his war poetry is about the nobility of suffering, with prayers and expressions of piety towards the dead, as in Prayer of a Soldier in France, where he describes in rhyme all the ways he is suffering, like Christ did, and concludes:

      Lord, Thou didst suffer more for me
      Than all the hosts of land and sea.

      So let me render back again
      This millionth of Thy gift. Amen.

      I actually think this is rather wonderful. What exactly is the gift? By the same token one may wonder how consoling the lifestyle of a tree, with snow on its bosom and open to the rain, seemed to a soldier in a trench, when it came down to it; by the time Kilmer came to recite it that day for Eloise Robinson, some of his fellow soldiers must have heard it as a faint, decadent message from a faraway world. But there may be something wonderfully consoling about being, in some elemental way, like a tree.

      Disch’s poem also gets at something else, something important, that Kilmer – however conventional and pious – knew very well, and knew while he was writing Trees: the reason why he would bother to write a poem about a thing like a tree in the first place – and the reason Eloise Robinson was reciting poems to soldiers.

      Below are two pictures of Joyce Kilmer: one from the years just before the War, and one taken in 1918.


      Let’s take this day to remember not only the fallen of the Great War and other wars, but also their lives, however banal in their expression, and life itself. The fact that we use language as our primary means of engagement with immovable, intractable nature – including our own – is more important to us as civilised human beings than almost anything else. Lest we forget.

      There is more on Eloise here and here.? A lost poet of the First World War. You can read the original essay and also more about Eloise in my collection of essays, Forgive the Language (Penned in the Margins, 2015).



      A few thoughts on Christmas

      December 25, 2017

      Well… maybe I get a little too much time to think on a Christmas Day. The festivities ended hereabouts at about 12:30 and the darkness descended… I had a lovely, quirky cup of tea with a friend who’s alone today – we thought of the Jewish bakery but it’s shut, but a pub turned out […]

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      ‘So Glad I’m Me’ at the Betsey: so glad I went!

      November 24, 2017

      ‘Home Sweet Home’ So, last Sunday. A celebration (rather than a ‘launch’, as it’s already been out for a while, and there were very few copies for sale on the day) of Roddy Lumsden’s new collection, So Glad I’m Me. I will be writing more about this book in due course, as it’s shortlisted for […]

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      7th annual TS Eliot Prize workshop: one day, ten poets

      November 16, 2017

      13th January, 11am-4.30pm Ten books. Ten poets. One day. (And what a day it is!) The?TS Eliot Prize Shortlist?has been announced, and on 13 January, 2018 – the day before the ten poets shortlisted for one?of the UK’s two most prestigious poetry prizes will read their work in the Royal Festival Hall?– we’ll be meeting […]

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      A great day out at the Free Verse Poetry Magazine Fair

      May 14, 2017

      Sometimes someone es along and does something that, once it’s done, seems?like it must always have been this way. Charles Boyle did one of those things when he started the Free Verse Poetry Book Fair, however many years ago it was now – five? Six! That first year it was a pretty?small affair, in the […]

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      Why, it’s a mendation!

      January 8, 2017

      I’ve recently started entering petitions again. Well – I entered two. And because of the year it?was (2016 of course), I forgot to keep notes, so I entered the same poem into both of them. Kids! Don’t do this! So I effectively paid two fees and entered one petition, and probably pissed off the people […]

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      TS Eliot weekend approacheth, and with it, the all-day shortlist workshop…

      January 3, 2017

      Well, it’s that time of year. The?TS Eliot Prize is ing up, marking the end of this year’s ‘prize season’.?In recent years it’s been the most prestigious, and biggest, award for poetry in the UK;?it’s getting a bit of a run for its money lately from the Forward Prize, but still forms a defining look […]

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