Believe me…

Believe me

I know words, I have the best words
secure in a bank vault, proof
against Terror, Depression and Doubt.

The second-best words are offshore
and are tortured daily to keep
the best words safe.

The third-best words are security men
in dark glasses. They are not concerned
with the best order, but rally instinctively
around my least suggestion.

Other words pile up like petty cash, dulled
by use, and practically worthless.
I spend what I can. Loose change
likes to be in circulation.


Last year, in a PBS item marking his 96th birthday, Lawrence Ferlinghetti noted that San Francisco had changed from ‘a wide-open city’ where you could arrive without heaps of cash and ‘just start anything you wanted’, to one which is pricing out those who are not well off, dominated by an influx of IT-types ‘with bags full of cash and no manners’.

Some commenters reportedly took issue with Ferlinghetti, one noting ‘Fogeys gonna foge’. (It seems the views of older people are automatically fogey, irrespective of speaker or view – unless they are in agreement with you, in which case they really ought to make themselves invisible and let you hold the floor.) Long may Ferlinghetti foge on.

Meanwhile displaced younger bohemians are shifting from San Francisco to LA, displacing communities of people on lower incomes in their turn. Trickle-down economics in action…


When Paula Green started our Going West conversation on ‘The Poetry of Place’, she asked Leilani Tamu and me whether we had a favourite place, somewhere that restored us. Leilani spoke about the sea that links the islands of the Pacific, and how she keeps a connection with that, and I mentioned a bush walk by a stream in Wellington and an archive I like to work in.

I thought afterwards that the places I’d referred to offer different kinds of ‘restoration’: one an environment that allows for a soft focus, a space for the mind to relax and wander, and the other an environment of concentration.

It also occurred to me that both of these can be had in a good bookshop. Unity Books in Wellington does this; so do the others I’ve encountered that offer a good selection of poetry, lots to browse through and dive into. Foyles in Charing Cross had the added enjoyment of this view from its gallery space up near the cafe: neighbouring buildings trimmed (or rather untrimmed) with flax and cabbage trees. The odd placement of these plants (natives of New Zealand, growing out of the tops of London buildings) seemed very New Zealand in more ways than one.

I thoroughly enjoyed Going West. It was great too to be in conversation with Leilani, having heard her at the Truth or Beauty conference in Wellington last year (her book, The Art of Excavation, is terrific), and with Paula, whose work I have known and enjoyed for some time and who also provides another kind of forum for discovering New Zealand poetry – her excellent blog, NZ Poetry Shelf.


Congratulations to Janis Freegard on the publication this week of her new collection of poems, The Glass Rooster (AUP), and her novel The Year of Falling (Makaro Press) – very much looking forward to reading both of these.

I’m also looking forward to Mary Cresswell’s new collection of ghazals and glosas, Fish Stories, due out from Canterbury University Press in a few weeks. (For three of her recent ghazals, click here.)

And in further good news, a ‘blue plaque’ honouring Dorothy Richardson has gone up in London, one hundred years after the publication of Pointed Roofs, the first of her Pilgrimage novels. Richardson was notable not only as a pioneer of ‘stream of consciousness’, but for her beautiful and acute writing about place, relationships, work, from a woman’s perspective. The novels defy summary as poems do and are not quite like anything else I’ve encountered. The plaque is in Woburn Walk, near St Pancras (an area in which Richardson lived and which also features in her work).

Coloured with light

Mark Rothko’s Harvard murals – damaged by light – are now being restored with light.

Rothko was commissioned to paint the murals for Harvard University in 1960. Installed in a room where they were exposed to sunlight, they faded patchily. There was no immediate remedy for the damage – Rothko was no longer alive, it was impossible to replicate his paint, and any retouching would have obscured his brushwork – so the murals were taken down in 1979 and placed in storage.

Recently, however, an alternative approach has been taken to ‘restoring’ them. In an exhibition at Harvard Art Museums, templates have been painstakingly developed for projecting coloured light on to each mural – just enough, precisely where it’s needed, to recreate the original colouration. (To determine what that was, conservators studied another painting Rothko had made for possible inclusion in the Harvard group, along with photographs taken of the murals soon after they were completed.)

Going in to the exhibition, this restoration seemed ingenious and a bit disconcerting. How would the technology affect the experience of the murals? To what extent are they still paintings, as opposed to hybrid works? In the room, standing in front of them, you see the paintings; they work on you as Rothko’s do. Then you realise how much adjustment there is when someone positions themselves near one of the works, interrupting the projection, and you see how the colour plays over them, in some parts intense, in others nothing at all…

The museum have tried to approximate the space in which the murals were originally hung, to retain a sense of scale and context; they have also endeavoured to reproduce the colour of the original room’s walls, an unexpected mustard-ish yellow. Ante-rooms display archival materials such as Rothko’s notebook-size preliminary paintings and a model of the room which he used to test out ideas, along with three full-size paintings and background information on the project – fascinating for a glimpse into Rothko’s process, as well as into what was involved in developing the exhibition.

And because this restoration is immediately reversible, you can also see the paintings just as they are now, when the projections are turned off for an hour at 4pm each day.

Notes, Grasmere


Gushing torrents down the short, steep hills; water spouting through stone walls into the road.

Wordsworth’s suitcase and luggage checklist: day shirt, shirt for evening, notebooks and writing equipment, socks.

Coleridge’s fondness for the Aeolian harp.

Pink, and yellow, yellow and yellow and pink – at the end of a path, clusters of plastic ponchos, hoods up.

Pay-and-display, charges applicable even 5-9pm. Got our bearings, and went to the local for a beer and something to eat. The bar serving hard-crack laughter and grammar – anyone asking ‘Can I have….’ was told ‘May I please have…’ Heavy rain walking to St Oswald’s. Quick look at the Wordsworths’ graves – William’s bare, Dorothy’s marked with a soft burst of cream-white roses – before heading in to the church for a reading by Tom Pow and Ruth Padel, part of a programme of poetry events organised by the Wordsworth Trust.

Pow was launching his selected, In the Becoming, including work from Dear Alice (last year’s collection relating to the Crichton asylum in Dumfries); his reading of ‘The Last Vision of Angus McKay’ was one of the highlights of the night. He also read from a work in progress, a ‘speculative biography’, in poems, of Thomas Watling, a Dumfries artist in the late eighteenth century. Watling was convicted of forgery and transported to Botany Bay, where he was put to work creating images to illustrate publications for a British market avid for a glimpse of the Antipodes. (Reassuringly, for those of us with slow-burning poetry projects, Pow first began to be interested in Watling in the late 1980s…) After a brief drinks break, Padel read from her book-length biography-in-verse of Charles Darwin, her great-great-grandfather, which had been produced to mark his bicentenary (Darwin: A Life in Poems, Chatto & Windus, 2009); she started with the first poem in the book and ended with the last, so the reading spanned his life. Both provided deft contextualisation of the extracts in terms of the broader narrative they were drawn from.

The Q&A after the reading was brief, but touched on the question of narrative, and the tension between needing to tell a story and needing to allow the poem to do what it wants. Padel noted her use of marginalia alongside the poems to convey information – she sees it as a way of allowing the poems to sit in the life. (Seeing this in the book later, it seemed to me ingenious, but also distracting. Having the notes in the margins is arguably less disruptive to the flow of the poems than footnotes or endnotes – but it’s also hard to ignore them…) Pow felt he didn’t have the same constraints on him: so little is known about Watling that he doesn’t have to cover the range of touchstones that Padel did – he can just go to the ‘hot spots’ that interest him.

There was also discussion about the use of quoted material in the poems. Padel chose to use quotation marks as the effect was less messy than italics; she never invented words for the two main characters, though occasionally left things out or changed the word order slightly to serve the poem. Pow sometimes used quotes from doctors’ notes at the Crichton – he said they were almost anthropological, and rooted in the idea of observing behaviour to understand the illness – but in doing so he wanted to look behind the words.

(28 July 2009)


Tom Pow has just released his book on Watling, A Wild Adventure (Birlinn, 2014), which I’m looking forward to reading. Information on the excellent Dear Alice is available at Salt Publishing; a short film about the project, which includes readings of three other poems from the collection, is at Pow’s website.

How to Talk About Poetry

1. If addressing a general audience

Adopt the persona of a jolly uncle. Talk fast, sound upbeat, make lame jokes. Remember your audience associates poetry with quiet suffering; noise and enthusiasm will come as a welcome relief to them. Be hearty!

2. If addressing an audience interested in culture

Wear a suit. Allude to the latest culture gossip; refer to the sad decline of bookshops and the exciting rise of the e-book; touch lightly on your personal connections with Berlin, London, Edinburgh, Paris, New York, Frankfurt and Bayreuth. Acknowledge the importance of poetry and name two or three poets without referring to their work – then talk with feeling about your personal preference for political biography and ballet. Finish with a funny anecdote about someone you think your audience may actually have heard of.

3. If addressing students

Dim the auditorium, so that any illicit use of electronic devices will be evident. Forbid note-taking and refer the audience to the forthcoming availability of the lecture online. Imagine that they are infants still in the womb and you are a form of classical music, playing in the background while they float insensate in amniotic fluid, enriching their intelligence before they know it.

4. If you are a woman

Adopt the persona of your make-up. Show cleavage. Think smooth and shine. Look at the audience as your selfie camera. Remember, all that should come to mind when you speak is lovely.

5. If addressing an audience interested in poetry

Don’t talk poetry; read poems.