Tim Allen: Three Phobias


I always take Ramipril on purpose hourly or between indecent ateliers. 

Blow up the bridges. Block the lane. Barricade the stairs. In the poky suntrap of an office that welcomes guests to the mansion teaching 60’s secretaries to type the gothic tales of cub-journalists Bob Dylan sits suffering chronic telephobia. He cannot change the tune but he can amend the lyrics which theoretically could go on forever in a never-ending tour of God’s waiting rooms. When the phone rings he picks up nervously and says hello this is the wild Rowans and buffeted bays of Connacht speaking.   

Blow up the bridges. Block the lane. Barricade the stairs. A horse drawn gig approaches in the valley and will soon climb the hill getting closer and closer so blow up the birds with the kiss of death and block the badgers with the medicines of moths and barricade the bats in the cellar with the final performances of George Melly and Mark. E. Smith but be sure to be long-gone by the time the physician comes in snorting and sweating more than his horse as he hands his hat to the maid and bounds up the stairs three at a time clutching his 


This bag is toxic silence but without the solace of leeches.
This bag is a Pandora’s box but without the nuclear deterrent. 
This bag is stuffed with Jack the Ripper magazines but without Gottfried Benn poems.

On arriving in the sickroom the Gladstone takes a deep breath then settles down on the deathbed with a self-satisfied sigh. It stays shut but a miniature portrait of the patient shakes inside its closed brass clasp. The Gladstone is tough inside and out. It’s tougher than you sick dead person. Steel lining lies snug around its compartments where nothing is left lagging in the cladding of rambling shrubbery except a decoy duck with shingles. The doc’s cough is bottled to preserve the room’s brambling bourgeois incoherencies without having to wait in triage picking at a jar of aspic entombing Renfield’s flies that preamble the rebirth of lanes trooping across humped bridges looking for the stairs during ambling country miles of extreme unction or to put it another way to cut open a long story in order to shorten a different one the bag does indeed burst with short stories cut from much longer ones.


I caught herring to harvest your oily pancake here on boat’s insidious altarpiece.

This would be a good morning to cheat the gods. A cold clear day in sun’s sharp shadow. The morning invites images it has no room for which is an omen of good fortune for as long as the gods are looking the other way towards the Jacobin plotters with their weekend flea market scholarships. An image not given elbow room is casual trade selling water features with a bit of foreign brio. Yea this stuff is complicated… as Pam Ayres said: I wish I’d looked after me hard parts.

The invitation is itself the rejection – symbiosis is horror.

The quayside is straight out of a novel. The boats are straight out of the night. After a hair-of-the-dog breakfast the glamour-puss and rough handsome fisherman curve in from the world of therapeutic visualisation to meet a little breathless on the harbour wall. This is the opportune moment for imagining that the day ahead will provide not just for need but for neediness. Some for example need Raymond Queneau. Others need Jacques Cousteau and crave conversation with the drowned witches who live in the row of cottages called Pen-Pal Street, a place where the term pebble dashed means what it says. The fact that the seawall has now become a drawbridge should not be a drawback any more than the scuttled shoes handbags and teeth decorating the aquarium are there for your own amusement, not for palaeontology. 

It’s alright being spare with the details but not positively mean with them. 

When I was small those cottages were worth a bag of chips. Now they equal a beached whale breaching dreams of Britany. Not Britain. And what if they were so-called literary dreams? A Catholic lad’s cultural allowance includes nicking poetic inventories to carry down the ladders and audited levels of pre-Cambrian language whirlwinded by puns through subterranean latitudes into an ecosphere of shrewd philosophical diversion, disabused washrooms and rusty nickelodeons, re-cranked. When dream becomes reality the realisation that the limits of each are the infinity of the other is a real blow so roll with it, bounce up into an uncommon market where the old writing skills can find a job filleting mythological creatures on a great communal slab of granite where generation after generation of toilers had seen out their days. 

There is no such thing as self-sacrifice.


In southern orbits peptides terrorise every red orchid pruned hoarded or built inside attachment.

The cemetery is narrow with just enough space for a path and a row of top-to-toe heaps. You enter by one gate and leave by the gate at the far end. That’s why I never caught you up. On every plot there is a blank headstone and to the left of the path a man-high hedge but I am not man-sized so could not see over but I didn’t need to because I knew what was there, the unnerving land of the living and the lots of the crawling wood eaters. On the right behind the graves is another wall but I had no idea what lay beyond it. I did guess though - allotments in which abandoned church organs provided shelter for various little animals through the day and the terminally ill through the night but now I know different. Now that my longed-for celebrity status has caught up with my life I’ve been taken on a tour.

In my first year at Teacher’s Training College in 1970 I lived on-site in a building named after Siegfried Sassoon who recognised me as a fellow poetic talent as did a cool chisel-faced lad called Paul. He dressed in rocker denims and said he had been in The Paramounts, the nascent Procol Harum. He liked me but was very unpopular with the others in the block who never spoke to him because he was an arrogant loner who didn’t give a fuck what they thought. Anyway, he pops-up here because he wrote a really interesting poem about a city in which the mindless and conforming population behave like a colony of ants. I’m not sure what Siegfried’s opinion was of Paul or his poem as he was years ahead of us both and Paul was two years ahead of me as well so I never caught up him with him either.

I returned from the tour with a renewed regard for the land of the living and found myself wearing their trainers. Their city is the largest psychiatric hospital on the planet and every term spent there is a mighty pillar of municipal vim crisscrossed with shafts and corridors and arrows pointing as only arrows can to the total care of the hospital canteen where zest is ground into the most inaccessibly tiny corner of every cake. Somebody has to make the advert for pest control so it might as well be Tony Blair soaked in citric acid and Keira Knightly. Blair’s minions have set-up a marquee as a makeshift chapel of scientology.

Peter Philpott, Telling the Beads (2020)

by Michael Peverett

After Yule

where is there to go?
everything full
utterly green
lie on the lawn
watch the swifts
yip, yip, yip

(Opening of head poem to After Lithe (July), from Peter Philpott's Telling the Beads (2020))

I'm of course a fully-signed up fan... See e.g. this piece about Peter Philpott's previous collection Wound Scar Memories (2017): http://intercapillaryspace.blogspot.com/2018/03/in-and-around-peter-philpotts-wound.html .

But my obsession with Telling the Beads (2020) didn't kick in at once. It is, at first sight, a complicated sort of book. Peter supplies an engaging introduction that guides us through the various ingredients and formal features. Obscure Dark Age history, Brecht, the seasons, modern Stortford, modern poetry...  It was all a bit too much to take in, so what happened was, I tried to read a bit, developed some questions, went back to the introduction, sighed, read a bit more, had new questions. . . 

But gradually these short dips became longer and happier, I didn't need to consult the introduction any more, I felt habituated. And then the real reading began, and the real questions, the things the introduction can't answer. 

Telling the Beads is a calendrical structure, beginning and ending in summer. Its contents are variously seasonal, contemporary, lyrical, autobiographical, philosophical; but there's also an underlying Dark-Age story about Unwin and his war-party. The book has illustrations sourced from Victorian popular histories. It proposes a kind of undogmatic polytheism in place of both theism and atheism (e.g. with reference to the goddesses in some of Bede's month-names). 

Unwin's story has an ending, like Colin Clout's story in The Shepheardes Calendar, but in each case the poem is more than the story, and for its readers the invitation is patent, to just keep going round and round. (cf. Carol Watts' 2011 book Occasionals , another summer-to-summer poem.)  I reckon I've walked the whole course of Telling the Beads three or four times now, and I'm not done yet. I'd like to run it. 

The book is organized by months, the traditional Anglo-Saxon months reported by Bede. (There are extra intercalary days at Yule and Lithe (=midsummer).)  Another input is Bertolt Brecht's 1927 poetry collection Die Hauspostille , whence comes the idea of a manual of piety that's hostile to orthodox religion. Telling the Beads plays with the idea of being a devotional book, and it really is a devotional book. Its subtitle is A Spiritual Year Book for Our Times after Bede & Brecht. (In other respects I don't see much Brecht here, but others may.)

Each month begins with a strophic head poem, with a coda (an intriguing "oracular sentence", and a skittish open-field poem). Then come the holy days for the month, a mix of poems and prose. These holy days mostly turn out to be ordinary days, which are extraordinary days. They are titled, e.g. "A Day for a Pleasant Walk in Gentle Rain" or (its predecessor) "A Day to Think on the Oppressions Caused by Organised Religions". 

But apparently this arrangement still wasn't quite intricate enough for Peter's purposes. So, for instance, the third holy day in each month references Tove Jansson's illustrations to The Hobbit, as seen on his calendar in the kitchen. The number of holy days increases each month until Yule (from 3 to 8), then decreases to midsummer (8 back to 3). 

What Peter doesn't fully disclose is the fixed pattern of the holy day sections, which are suffixed a to h. At its full extent (in Before Yule (6) and After Yule (7)):  a is verse, b is prose (sometimes with diagrams), c is prose (the Tove Jansson one), d is verse, e is prose-verse-prose, f is epigraph-prose-verse-prose, g is prose, and h is a twelve-point list. 

Nor does he disclose that things start to change, especially in the second half of the book. The a poems stop following the strophic form of their own head poem and instead begin echoing the forms of earlier months, running backwards: i.e. 7a has the strophic form of 6, 8a has the strophic form of 5, etc. This carries on until 12a, which you would expect to match 1 but actually matches 2, the same as 11a did. (Meanwhile 8f fails to contain any inset verse; "Unwin did not make song on this theme", it tells us.) 

Something else, too. In the poems of the first three months the stanzas (or strophes) are elaborately matched line for line, by morphed vocabulary and meaning, an aspect of Peter's poetry that I've previously termed "phrase transformation". It's half an echo, half a dialogue.  As an example, here's the head poem for Holy Month (3):

look! another time to start
this year has nothing but, so
look at what it gives us
summer again (all brief)
and a chance to dig in
harvesting slow to make
due sacrifice to all the powers
manifold & circumambient
last brightness in the air

it starts with us all together
you can say we begin with nothing
except what the world now gives us
insects again & all small life
thronging where we dig
harvesting in the middle of decay
preparing what is due to live
many folded around us
lost in the brightness of the air

Let's just hold it together
begin again with nothing
open to what the world gives
life innumerable & delicate
bursting out where we dig
harvest triumphs over decay
preparing some brief escape
our lives are folded in this world
lost within its final brief air

This resonance is still discernible in months 4 to 7, but only just. Then it's gone until Aretha Month (9) when we suddenly catch its elusive presence between two poems. In 11a it's there but restricted to the last line of each stanza. Finally (head poem of 12) it returns in something like its full effect.

In short, there's literally no end to discovering features if you want to, but you don't have to. It's like the book of nature. 


Reading this poetry means experiencing a paradox, or rather many paradoxes. 

The poems are both silly and wise, both simple and complex, both committed and uncommitted, both casual and engaged, both mundane and grand, both throwaway and crafted, both reverent and irreverent.

When I wrote about Wound Scar Memories I talked about this as the expression of the poet's character, the "Peter of the poems". But in Telling the Beads what seems more prominent is that these paradoxes are a way of staying true to a particular vision of life,  a vision purged of idealism and authority but humble, credible and warm-hearted.


You can imagine that the word "now" might feature largely in poems so linked to specific times of year, and so it proves. Along with "this" and "here", it chimes through the book. But the word is less prominent in midsummer and almost absent in winter. Does this prove anything? I suppose not. But I feel that it's attentive to our common experience; that "now" correlates with times of the year when we're keenly aware of change: the earlier nightfall in August, the approach of winter in November, proper spring in April. And it's less prominent at those times of year when our main sense is of each day being much like the next. 

Occurrences of "now" in Telling the Beads (I've ignored the prose. hp = head poem)

After Lithe (Jul) 1hp0. 1a1. total 1.
Weed Month (Aug) 2hp5. 2a2. 2d4. total 11.
Holy Month (Sep) 3hp2. 3a1. 3d1. 3e1. total 5.
Winter Full (Oct) 4hp0. 4a1. 4d1. total 2.
Blood Month (Nov) 5hp2. 5a2. 5d2. total 6.
Before Yule (Dec) 6hp3. 6a0. 6d0. 6e2. total 5.
Yule. Days 1,2,3,5,6,8,9,10,11,12: 0. total 0.
After Yule (Jan) 7hp0. 7a1. 7d0. total 1.
Mud Cake Month (Feb) 8hp0. 8a0. 8d0. total 0.
Aretha Month (Mar) 9hp0. 9a0. 9d0. 9e1. 9f1. total 2.
Easter Month (Apr) 10hp2. 10a1. 10d2. 10e1. total 6.
Three Milks Month (May) 11hp0. 11a0. 11d1. total 1.
Before Lithe (Jun) 12hp1. 12a0. total 1.
Lithe (midsummer) Day 1: 0. Day 3: 2. total 2.

Now, this, here .... it's a poetry that conveys rather than describes. It deploys a quite sparse set of facts: green, sunlight, insects, greyness, birds, wind, the swifts and lime trees that book-end the sequence. We hear the "yips" of those returning swifts before we catch sight of them. The focus isn't on something we see, it's on something we're in. Mostly we don't see much in the way of detail, yet we definitely know we're here and this is now. 
All the diffuse & varying things
the somewhere & the arbitrary constraints
what is the use?
                                not subtle
not some controlling grammar, no
just the inheritance again from arbitrary power
that won't outlast our deaths there
-fore shouldn't outlast our lives
even though the weather breeds submission
this life can be amended
made of flower, eggs, milk & fruit
small knots of resurrected sunlight
crunching against our teeth
                                                     no one
needs that dying worthlessness
this month is short as the sun returns

(from 8d, "The Day to Realise How Short the Month Is")

Mud Cake Month

Billy Mills on Telling the Beads:


Billy's post gives a better sense than mine of the succession of different materials, and it persuaded me to listen out for the individual character of the poems, though I dare say that's not very apparent.

Peter Riley has a brief notice on Telling the Beads here:


Two other posts about Telling the Beads:



Shira Dentz: Beads / swarm then -- shingling,

              The Penmanship of Trees

To take these lines, however flimsy,
hurl them at the white shrouded sky.
Animal musk absent
from the pelts of boughs

                                                                                   the white
                                                                                   a gluten-
                                                                                   Nodules that line my throat

Enter the white
amnesiac hive,
not honeycomb- or yolk-
yellow. Beads
swarm, then—shingling,
a migration of pine needles

To cool the number of damp beads in this morning’s wind, smell the leaves and
woodstuff it edged around and bore into all night; no one saw. A stalk of tree branches
rocks behind the porch.

(Poem by Shira Dentz, from how do i net thee (Salmon Poetry, 2018). I'm hoping it's OK to quote it in full, since it's already available on Salmon Poetry's own site.)

"The Penmanship of Trees" isn't quite as peaceful as its title. There's a violence to "hurl" and "penetrate"; a moral trouble in a word like "amnesiac". It's a nature poem but not in a sense that excludes human concerns. The words "my" and "no one saw" are peopled. Of course it makes sense that the incessant overnight scribbling and scattering of the trees were unseen by any humans, it's a thought that can provoke a gentle meditative wonder. And yet the italics seem to say that this isn't just calm meditation, we want to ask: What 'no one'? -- as if we sense an unstated someone.

Shira Dentz is an author who willingly courts the term "hybrid". She began as a graphic designer working in the music industry, and you can see that background in the remarkable care given to the presentation of how do i net thee; its jacket, title page, the intricate typesetting and visual layouts. Some of her other books, such as door of thin skins (2013, about psychological abuse) and Sisyphusina (2020, about women's aging and beauty) intermix a lot of documentary and fictional prose. These books admit content in a way that much experimental poetry doesn't; in other words, the kind of content we're inclined to call "straightforward", though the books themselves show how "straightforward" isn't an adequate description.

"The Penmanship of Trees" is indisputably a poem, but even here you can see the careful hybridity; the switch to prose at the end, starting again from the same word "To", is a change of tempo and a change in the mode of thinking, but what strikes us is more the development of the poem's statement than its cancellation. A confidence that multiple modes is the only way to get to what she needs to say.

Considering it's just 11 years since her first published book, there's already a mass of online writing about Shira Dentz' work. I've only read a small fraction of it, but here's some things I found particularly interesting:

Hanna Andrews' Omniverse review of how do i net thee:

Pepper Luboff's interview with Shira Dentz, mostly about door of thin skins (2013). (PL was also the creator of the brilliant jacket of how do i net thee, shown above.)

Two reviews of door of thin skins on Galatea Resurrects:
1. by Sima Rabinowitz:
2. by Eileen Tabios:

Shira Dentz' new book Sisyphusina has just been published (April 2020). An extract was published as FLOUNDERS in 2016, and this is available online:
Koh Xin Tian's interview with Shira Dentz about the technicalities of producing FLOUNDERS:

My previous glance at how do i net thee:

Shira Dentz

[Image source: http://jstheater.blogspot.com/2018/04/poems-shira-dentz-robert-hayden.html .]

Ten Bayatis

Rocks lay out around Tebriz,
Its golden earth blows fresh breeze.
    Tebriz is no more in peace,
Dare not to disturb Tebriz.

Təbriz üstü daşlıdı,
Torpağı zər qaşlıdı.
    Dindirməyin Təbrizi,
Gözləri qan yaşlıdı.

Gence is further than here,
Its lawns padded with flowers.
    Love’s death is an act of god,
Parting from love is torture.

Burdan uzaq Gəncədir,
Güllər pəncə-pəncədir.
    Ölüm tanrı işidir,
Ayrılıq içkəncədir.

Now, Araz ‘was’ partitioned,
But allowed to be silted.
    No way, I would part from you,
This bitter parting was forced.

Arazı ayırdılar,
Qum ilə doyurdular.
    Mən səndən ayrılmazdım,
Zülm ilə ayırdılar.

Yowl and howl echo outcries,
Twinkles of stars sound outcries.
    A sole bud cheers the meadow,
Out of thirst, that too cries out.

Haraylar hay haraylar,
Hər ulduzlar haraylar.
    Çiməndə bir gül bitib,
Susuzundan haraylar.

The moon rose but sank in pools,
Your face looks like just a moon.
    My youth days sank one by one,
Without you, my sky has no moon!

Ay doğdu düşdü çaya,
Camalın bənzər aya.
    Cavan ömrüm cürüdü,
Günləri saya-saya.

The moon rose, when the sun set,
At their gap, lovers were blessed.
    My keepsake for my sweetheart,
Was shared there, at our closest.

Ay doğdu batan yerdə,
Can-cana qatan yerdə.
    Dosta yadigar verdim,
Yaxından ötən yerdə.

My love lives by, life goes on,
Sad or cheerful, time goes on.
    Upon hearing of lone nights,
Tears appear in my love’s eyes.

Yar gələr yaşa dolar,
Ya ağlar, ya şad olar.
    Hicran sözün eşitcək,
Gözləri yaşa dolar.

Hope you favour me and me,
Fill the cup, also for me.
    Life is spent, our days are gone,
Youth days lost for you and me.

Əzizinəm bir də mən,
Doldur içim bir də mən.
    Ömür keçdi, gün keçdi,
Cavan olmam bir də mən.

O my love, it is high times,
This moonrise is on high times.
    I can swear to what you wish,
Your heart lifts my heart’s high times.

Əzizim qəlbiləndi,
ay doğdu qəlbiləndi.
    Nəyə desən and içim,
Bu qəlb o qəlbləndir.

O my love, let a rose bud,
Nightingales cheer by rose-buds.
    I miss you with all my heart,
Gloom, no more, but buds and buds.

Əziziyəm, oyan gül,
Oyan, bülbül! Oyan, gül!
    Könül fəqan eyləyir,
Nə yatmısan oyan gül?


Translator's notes:

Tebriz: The capital of historic Azerbaijan and now the capital of South Azerbaijan (outside the Republic of Azerbaijan).
Gence: Second largest city in the Republic of Azerbaijan (North Azerbaijan).
Araz: A river that rises in Turkey and flows to the Caspian Sea, cutting through the heart of Azerbaijan (South and North).
Bayati #4: A lament for the fate of South Azerbaijan in modern times.


Bayatis are a form of Azerbaijani folk-poetry. Over 10,000 have been written down but most never are. A bayati has four lines, each of seven syllables. Rhyming is on lines 1,2 and 4. The first two lines set the scene and the next two deliver the message. Bayatis express desire, wishes, anxieties, longings and other fundamental human emotions. Both anonymous and named poet composers seek simplicity of expression as well as intricate word-play.

These translations are by Yashar Toghay, pen-name of the hydrological engineer Rahman Khatibi.

One word more

… about giving instruction as to what the world ought to be. Philosophy in any case always comes on the scene too late to give it. As the thought of the world, it appears only when actuality has completed its process of formation and attained its finished state. The teaching of the concept, which is also history’s inescapable lesson, is that it is only when actuality is mature that the ideal first appears over against the real and that the ideal grasps this same real world in its substance and builds it up for itself into the shape of an intellectual realm. When philosophy paints its grey in grey, then has a shape of life grown old. By philosophy’s grey in grey it cannot be rejuvenated but only understood. The owl of Minerva begins its flight only with the falling of dusk.
G. W. F. Hegel, Outlines of the Philosophy of Right, translated by T. M. Knox, revised, edited, and introduced by Stephen Houlgate, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), p.16
But surely you paint “on” not “in”? Perhaps: ‘When philosophy paints its grey on grey, then has a form of life grown old. By philosophy’s grey on grey … it cannot be revived but only understood.’

And surely it is night that falls, not dusk?

‘The owl of Minerva takes flight only as night falls.’

‘The owl of Minerva only takes flight at nightfall.’

‘The owl of Minerva takes flight only into the dusk.’

‘Only at twilight does the owl of Minerva begin its flight.’

So, according to Hegel, our task can never be to change the world, telling it what it should be. There are complicated arguments here: about how the ideal and the intellectual sphere are only possible at a certain – late – stage of development; about the temporal disjunction between the ideal and the real, between the thought of the world and the world. But the key point is, surely, that the world can never be bent to the will of the “should” because thought is always a step or two behind. Our intervention is always too late. The present moment has already gone.

And here it is difficult not to think of Gatsby – as tragic Hegelian hero. For his whole tragedy is to think that he can recreate a moment from the past and regain the love of Daisy. His problem is that she cannot hold to that singular moment in the past and recreate it again in the present. That Daisy, and her love for the young Gatsby, is lost in the flow of time. She only remembers.

Nick Carraway is the philosopher, a minor part of the action, mostly an observer. At several points he states his sense of being old before his time, outside of his world, looking back into it: ‘a form of life grown old.’ For him the present is always out of reach. But he has the role of philosopher and, despite his taste for nostalgia, at least can understand and give a truthful account of what happened. And so, The Great Gatsby concludes with Carraway’s Hegelian reflections on the tragedy of history that Gatsby embodies.
And as I sat there brooding on the old, unknown world, I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night…
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
But what then is the foundation of Gatsby’s relentless dream? What is his intense commitment to that singular moment in the past?

John Seed 

I'd. The verb.

by Michael Peverett

This essay consists of two blog posts, the first from summer 2017 and the second from about a year later.


Post 1. I'd.

This post isn't so much a post - at least not yet - as a construction site. It aims to collate, investigate, speculate, pontificate and posture about an observation that I made many years ago but first mentioned on the Britsh-poets forum a year or so back.

The observation, in very crude terms, is this:

"I'd" (and other related words such as "she'd", "we'd" and "they'd") are very popular words in modern mainstream poetry in English. Contrariwise, these words almost never appear in experimental/avant-garde/alternative poetry in English.

This appears to be the case even though few if any practitioners are aware of it. So I see this as to some extent a matter of sociolinguistics.

Response on the forum was muted or hostile, perhaps because few poets like to think their diction is unconsciously determined, or perhaps because of ideological resistance to the idea that there are different poetries, or because the word mainstream is deemed to be always pejorative.

[On this last point, I will only assert here that both these poetic camps have existed for over half a century and there is a formidable tradition of important poets in each camp (as well as plenty of poets that nobody has ever taken much notice of). The claim that one camp is as a whole better than the other camp is not easy to defend convincingly.]

Anyway, here's the middle part of Andrew McMillan's "Dancer", which was the Friday Poem on Radio 3 (in this case it was also aligned with Radio 3's Gay Britannia celebration). I'm not sure where McMillan's line breaks occur (the poem won't be published until next year) so I've simply cut the text into lengths.


Even after rehearsal when I invite him
back to the flat to shower before the night's performance
he moves through the rooms so carefully
as though deciding a way to best inhabit them

I'd imagined he would be too beautiful to be curious but
each shelf and photo receives his audience of wet hair
tight body where each part's connection to another part is visible
his battered feet leaving their notations on the false wood floor


(It isn't relevant to what I'm going to say about them, but I do like these lines very much.)

"I'd" is present here, and it reveals the mainstream tradition in which this poem functions; that is, the poem is more Mark Doty than John Riley (to name a couple of poets that have been reported as McMillan faves).


So, why? 

There are three elements to our collocation: Pronoun, contraction, and verb/tense.

The combination is more important than the individual elements. A pronoun, an idiomatic contraction, and even a past perfect might all crop up in experimental poetry, but the presence of all of them together tends to go with a stable narrative frame: a frame in which "I" ("She", He"...) has a certain definite identitiy, including a previous history (promoting such tenses as the past perfect "I had + PP" or past continuous "I had been + vb + ING" or past habitual "I would + INF", all of which can be contracted to "I'd".) Contrariwise the "I" ("She", "He"...) of experimental poetry often exists only in the now, as an experiencing entity; as often as not, we have no idea who I/she/he is.

"I'd", then, is a collocation that appears in anecdotes. But not just any sort of anecdote. A dramatic or extraordinary event may not need a carefully constructed backstory. Unliterary narrators, sticking to the strict sequence of events or speech-acts, would see it as a failure of art to have to slot in achronological information in the past perfect. The collocation comes into its own in those unsensational stories in which the significance resides more in an accumulation of psychology and individual experience than in the event itself; even more so when the narration deviates artfully from the timeline in a Conradian manner; more so still when the past is conceived as a realm of greater significance and interest than the now. [This is obviously not a factor in McMillan's poem, but it's very much a factor in the wider world of poetry, whose typical audiences (and practitioners) are nearly as elderly as church congregations.]

The act of contraction itself is a less important element. Nevertheless, it can be associated with a conversational, idiomatic, informal diction, such as is usual in mainstream poetry, which aspires to be taught in schools.  (On my TEFL course we're encouraged always to teach our students to use the contracted forms -- though not when "had" is the simple past tense of  "to have", as in the Heaney quote below.) The mainstream poetry scene is heavily imbued with the belief that regional accents go with good poetry and that it's good thing if a poetic text suggests the distinctive inflections of an individual voice. [Experimental poetry tends to be informal too, even aggressively so, but it's far less committed to seeking the most idiomatic and natural ways of saying something.]

These more or less relevant generalizations arise from the observation, but they don't fully explain it. To go further is to note the poetic diction that exists as much now as in the eighteenth century; both the mainstream poet and (perhaps more damagingly) the experimental poet have each an unconscious poetic diction, which is a selection of vocabulary and syntactic forms that comes to hand when making up the next line. The choice is not as free as it seems. This individual poetic diction is what the "source text" of Mac Low's diastic verse is intended to replace. In fact the poetic diction is a kind of source text already; that is, it is limited though ample, and it isn't, for the most part, unique to the individual who writes, but is shared with other poets who write the same kind of poetry.


"I'll have been working here for eight years, come the end of November..."

Poetry in English, no doubt, has always favoured a straitened selection of verb forms. Tenses such as the future perfect continuous (as in the sentence above) are part of the standard English toolkit but they are not particularly common in any form of discourse, and they deter poets in particular because they use so many syllables.

Nevertheless experimental poetry stands out for its excessively narrow range of verb forms. It avoids nearly all the standard tenses, except the simple present, in favour of floating forms (in particular, present participles). This is because of of its willed indefinition of agency and chronology.
Experimental poetry tends to be about the general state of things. From this perspective the verb tends to be a suspect device. It appears as an anthropomorphic piece of publicity about what someone thinks they are doing, or even worse, what they want other people to think they are doing. Experimental poetry believes that the social processes at work outrun this human language of verbs in much the same way that particle physics outruns the common language of time and identity.



William Wordsworth, "The World is Too Much With Us"
.--Great God! I'd rather be
          A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn  ( I would)

Edward Thomas, "Up in the Wind"

But I do wish
The road was nearer and the wind farther off,
Or once now and then quite still, though when I die
I'd have it blowing that I might go with it (I would)

Siegfried Sassoon, "Base Details"
I'd live with scarlet Majors at the Base (I would)

Philip Larkin, "Church Going"
Mounting the lectern I peruse a few
hectoring large-scale verses and pronounce
Here endeth much more loudly than I'd meant... (I had)

Dannie Abse, "Return to Cardiff"
No sooner than I'd arrived the other Cardiff had gone,
smoke in the memory, those but tinned resemblances,
where the boy I was not and the man I am not
met, hesitated, left double footsteps, then walked on. (I had)

Derek Walcott, "The Fortunate Traveller"
I'd light the gas and see a tiger's tongue. (I would)

Derek Mahon, "Afterlives"
But the hills are still the same
Grey-blue above Belfast.
Perhaps if I’d stayed behind
And lived it bomb by bomb
I might have grown up at last
And learnt what is meant by home. (I had)

Mark Doty, "Source"
I'd been traveling all day, driving north
—smaller and smaller roads, clapboard houses
startled awake by the new green around them—  (I had)
I'd pulled over onto the grassy shoulder
of the highway—   (I had)

Ted Hughes, "Epiphany" (from Birthday Letters)
I glanced at him for the first time as I passed him
Because I noticed (I couldn't believe it)
What I'd been ignoring.           
Not the bulge of a small animal
Buttoned into the top of his jacket
The way colliers used to wear their whippets –
But its actual face. (I had)

Peter Porter, "Afterburner"
I'd been raised an Anglican. 'In the Name of the Larder,
the Bun and the Mouldy Toast. (I had)

Moniza Alvi, "I would like to be a dot in a painting by Miro"
I’d survey the beauty of the linescape (I would)

Seamus Heaney, "Two Lorries"
As time fastforwards and a different lorry
Groans into shot, up Broad Street, with a payload
That will blow the bus station to dust and ashes...
After that happened, I'd a vision of my mother,  (I had)

Christopher Reid, "Late"
Of course, I’d forgotten she’d died.
Adjusting my arm for the usual
cuddle and caress (I had)

Carol Ann Duffy, "Salome"
I'd done it before (and doubtless I'll do it again, sooner or later)
woke up with a head on the pillow beside me (I had)

Jo Shapcott, "Mrs Noah: Taken After the Flood"
Now the real sea beats inside me, here, where I'd press fur and feathers if I could. (I would)

Kathleen Jamie, "Glamourie"
When I found I'd lost you -
not beside me, nor ahead,  (I had)

Owen Sheers, "Late Spring"

one-handed, like a man milking,

two soaped beans into a delicate purse,
while gesturing with his other
for the tool, a pliers in reverse

which I’d pass to him then stand and stare
as he let his clenched fist open
to crown them. (I would)

Daljit Nagra, "In a White Town"

That's why
I'd bin the letters about Parents' Evenings,

why I'd police the noise of her holy songs (I would)

Simon Armitage, "Privet"
Because I'd done wrong I was sent to hell (I had)
Roderick Benziger "Piano lessons"

and all I'd hear was the stream's dance
no drip, drop; and I'd feel in league

with my five-year-old self, cocooned in bed,
a bar of light under the door,


Post 2. The verb.

Spruce trees in Klövsjö, Jämtland

[Image source: http://www.arkivcentrumnord.se/skogensarkiv/skogsbruk_text.html. Photo by Rolf Boström.]

This is the name of the popular poetry show on Friday nights on Radio 3,  hosted by Ian McMillan.

Once upon a time, not so long ago, the verb was indeed feted in some poetry circles. Poets like Ted Hughes and Robert Lowell and Seamus Heaney were admired for fierce and forceful verbs, a hint at the vigour of medieval alliterative poetry.

The sea was still breaking violently and night
Had steamed into our North Atlantic Fleet,
When the drowned sailor clutched the drag-net.    (Robert Lowell, "The Quaker Gaveyard at Nantucket")

The apes yawn and adore their fleas in the sun.
The parrots shriek as if they were on fire, or strut
Like cheap tarts to attract the stroller with the nut.... (Ted Hughes, "The Jaguar")

The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft
Against the inside knee was levered firmly.
He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep
To scatter new potatoes that we picked,
Loving their cool hardness in our hands.  (Seamus Heaney, "Digging")


It's often claimed (and not always by poets) that poetry is the deployment of language at its most strenuous and complex. But this is misleading. Poetry can be markedly complex in certain ways, but this play of forces can only be unleashed if there is, in other respects, an equally marked simplicity.

One valuable  thing I learned from my TEFL course (I've qualified, by the way) was the grammar of English, for example its 12 standard verb tenses in a table (plus all the others that aren't in the table).

I realized that poetry is characterized, probably always has been, by a limited palette of verb forms.
In the modern poetry that I like best, the impoverishment of verb forms is particularly severe. Indeed the verb itself is an object of suspicion.

And yet verb tenses such as the past perfect continuous (e.g. "had been feeling unwell"), which are so rare in poetry, are everyday working forms of language. They're common in discursive prose, but also in vernacular speech; in fact anywhere there's narrative. With few exceptions there's nothing academic or high-falutin about these verb forms. They are, however, definitional. They place action in a certain relation, most commonly a time relation, to other events.

But the lesson poets have absorbed from such forms as the haiku is that the world comes through the poem in a less mediated way if, so far as possible, we eliminate extraneous matter. Naturally I've always understood about the resulting distaste for adjectives and adverbs: the instinct that if we write




we bring an experience to the reader's mind with a sort of  integrity and directness, compared with when we write of "the dark, brooding stand of fir trees that dripped with rain..."   , or  "the corporal shrugged rapidly, hunching over the embers, ..."

What I had not understood (probably through mere ignorance) is that the same argument tells equally against the verb in poetry. 

For verbs are nothing if not interpretive. A discursive text full of verbs provides, as it were, a running commentary on the actions performed by its agents, an interpretation of what happened by an observer (which may sometimes be the agent her/himself, but this makes the commentary no less suspect).

This is most apparent when our agents are non-human. Most verbs originate in human activity. When we say that a tree "stands", or that a deer "walks", we assert an interpretation that cannot be shared by the agents themselves. Isn't the rangy springy floaty movement of the deer's legs utterly traduced by such a misleading image as the movement of human legs? Isn't the tree's  slow occupation entirely different from the stiffening pause that we experience as standing?

But the same argument applies, to a large degree, when our agents are human. When we report that a person gestures, or shrugs, defends, or agrees, hits out, strokes, and so on, we allege these things on the basis of a commentary from outside. Everyone knows how often such commentary is disclaimed by the parties involved. But when this is not so, what all consent to is rather a manner of speaking, that is, a communal cliche, a cliche of literature, than the real quality of the event itself.  Yes, I am happy that my behaviour is categorized under the received idea of "gesturing": the accumulated bundle of stereotypic movement connoted by that word. The reality is that action, behaviour, movement, thought, have no boundaries, no species, and no borders: the world of action is entirely fluid and continuous. The verb, however, seizes (or even creates) a certain event from this continuum, and drops it into a little pre-defined pigeonhole, such as "gesture" .... or "break", "steam", "clutch", "yawn" ...

A poem consisting only of nouns (like the rather short poems  above), makes no such allegation. The nouns and noun phrases float there, for the readers to make of them what they will.

Movement can be implied by verbal nouns and suspended tenses such as floating participles, but without specifying who or when: in other words, by dropping tenses.  So widespread is this poetic diction that sometimes when we are reading a modern poem and we do run across a more definitional phrase it looks like an intrusion; it looks like a quotation. The assertion was asserted somewhere else, we suppose; but it isn't asserted in the poem we are reading.

In mainstream poetry, often anecdotal or narrative in nature, the verb and some of its leaner tenses have survived. That was the point of my earlier post (above), in which I proposed that the presence of the words I'd/He'd/She'd was characteristic of modern mainstream poetry, their absence equally characteristic of modern non-mainstream poetry.


This proposal was vulnerable to counter-examples sourced from non-mainstream poetry, and Jamie McKendrick wasn't long in discovering one. He pointed out that Denise Riley, a poet commonly agreed to be non-mainstream, used my indicator words quite a bit in her recent collection Say Something Back (Picador, 2016).

He was right.  As early as the first poem, "A Part Song", she writes:

You'd rather not, yet you must go
Briskly around on beaming show.

And in a poem such as "The patient who had no insides", we read: "I'd slumped at home"... "I'd glimpsed the radiographer's dark film"... "How well you look, they'd said to me at work".

But I wasn't put out by this anomaly, it being apparent that Denise in this collection wrote in a great number of styles, some of them (such as "The patient who had no insides") unapologetically close to mainstream. In fact, Denise has always been strikingly individual in her poetic,and not easily assimilated to the common interests of the Cambridge School. She adopted almost none of the fashionable strategies and mannerisms of alternative poetry, and her own probing of the epistemology of personal sentiment and anecdotal poetry has often involved a kind of parodic immersion rather than a rebarbative resistance. Some of this work has communicated beyond the confines of theory; it's not a sheer accident that she was the only "alternative" poet to appear (albeit with one short poem only) in Paul Keegan's Penguin Anthology of English Verse.


Readers who are interested in this kind of stuff might also like this earlier piece:


Poems by Laurie Duggan

Blue Hills 77

the glint of a car through a screen door
a clang of metal gates

at night the clatter of freight trucks
on the Bankstown line

the birds in this vicinity
are large or predatory

no spuggies hereabouts
to fledge

Blue Hills 78

stones in the bottom of a jar
the water yellows
        (a crossword clue)
                                          church bells
        (no certain location)

a man carries a cat box across a courtyard

Blue Hills 79 

the ridges of this place
thought a flat city
where bins clatter in a bluestone alley,

                                           that basalt edge
runs through Melbourne’s west.

someone looks out from a balcony
the way the old pass the time
                                              (texting intently)

noises off:
                       trains the far side of Royal Park
a fire alarm
mimicked by a bird

Blue Hills 80

one of those eucalypts,
pink, vague shape

of a human body,
across the road

from a Boer War veteran
stranded on the median

Blue Hills 82

the balance of colour, shape
and texture
                      a painting
of vases, bouquets,
stray objects
                            a shoe, a leaf, a bottle,
a carved bird,
                        even a painting
within the painting,
                                 perhaps a picket fence

beyond this, the idea that art
might be useful
it might help you to sell something

Blue Hills 85

the bend of this river
once paradise
a mingling of salt and fresh
and whatever lived on the ground

what was the name of this place?
(what is the name)
                              and who to ask?

the rock ledges painted by recent visitors
over a century back

a discovery of light

                          of how to work with underpainting
and not neutralize
the effect of atmosphere

Allotment 103

into the sun
across mudfields

a letterbox
mimics a barn

red berries glow
in a dark landscape

Allotment 104

a pond

the sun
at angle

outline of
a stile

dark against
dry grass,

then white

an egret
on the marsh

Allotment 109

barking dogs
turn out to be geese, a flock

over marshland,
mud islands guarded

by a spit
at Church Norton

Allotment 113

I’m in the yard at Iklectik, too early for the reading. I’m seated on an old lounge chair under a shelter hemmed with hay bales and autumn leaves, a warped geodesic dome to my right. It’s a strange oasis on prime developmental land (between Lambeth Palace and Waterloo Station). The last time I was here I heard a nightingale. Now it’s distant football practice and the rumble of trains over the viaducts. Will anybody show up? Someone in an adjacent office knocks off, bolts the shutters and turns out the lights. Paper lanterns wave in the breeze. A mangy fox trots down the path. Lights go on in the hall. Someone has entered through a back door. The fox reappears. And a man with an electric keyboard.

Allotment 116

for realism
the right of way
                     from Brogdale Road
blocked by developers

Allotment 118 

a red kite rides thermals
over Didcot

distant beeches
crown Wittenham clumps

Allotment 119 

a decadent walks his butterflies
past Goodnestone chapel to Graveney

too early in the season for the odour
of strawberries

instead, the Creek,
its sewage outfall,

Harveys in the Phoenix

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