Gods, Heroes and Foxes

December 7, 2011

Robyn reflects on Ted Hughes, and Kay on Christopher Logue, who died on 2 December. 

The only time I heard Ted Hughes read was at Westminster Abbey in 1985, when the stone honouring sixteen poets of the First World War was unveiled. He had an incredibly powerful presence – I could have listened to him read all day. It was the year he became Poet Laureate, and he wrote to his old friend Terence McCaughey: ‘What is most strange of all is the role I now play in the rusty locked-up heart of the Anglo-Saxon common man woman and child. Very peculiar.’ Now it’s his turn to be honoured, with the stone unveiled yesterday, adjacent to that of T.S. Eliot, his publisher. Hughes’s stone is inscribed with lovely lines from his poem ‘That Morning’:  ‘So we found the end of our journey / So we stood alive in the river of light / Among the creatures of light, creatures of light.’

Liz Lochhead has recently been down to Mytholmroyd, Hughes’s birthplace, to judge the poetry competition run by the Elmet Trust. I asked her what her favourite Hughes poem is, and she plumped for ‘The Thought Fox’, that vivid evocation of the animal and the arrival of a poem. Hughes himself remarked that ‘occasionally I could enjoy the beautiful experience of breaking though a sound barrier and floating at a speed beyond sound, effortless; that happened in the little poem Thought Fox.’


  Saying these things Patroclus died.

And as his soul went through the sand

Hector withdrew his spear and said:


It was the right poetic encounter at the right time. As a third-year undergraduate at the University of Edinburgh, with an embryonic dissertation title on a post-it note (‘MYTH & POSSIBLY RETELLINGS?’), I put out a plea: what am I missing? A friend on the other side of the pond responded with the passage above, from Christopher Logue’s War Music, presented without comment. And she was right.

To say War Music blew the cobwebs away is an understatement: it was more vivid than any action sequence on film, with moments that couldn’t have been more different from my standard diet of nineteenth-century books about books. In one case ‘APOLLO!’  fills the spread of two pages , to be followed by ‘Who had been patient with you, / Struck.’ The god’s strike is after the turn of the page and in standard type size: a tiny gesture from a massive presence, and a perfect illustration of the positions of gods and men in Logue’s version of Homer’s epic.

Everything, including the short introduction, bore reading again and again. Like my friend, I went on to press it on others with urgency and to read the subsequent additions: Kings (1991), The Husbands (1995), All Day Permanent Red (2004) and Cold Calls (2005). Its stamp on my mind is indelible.


All power to the poets, whose work never dies.


#PoetsAtoZ update

November 16, 2011

We’re still on A! Here’s the requests today [you just had to rhyme -Ed.]:

Always remember: ‘There are worse things than having behaved foolishly in public.’ Fleur Adcock, from Things

You came back into the room/where you’ve been living/all along. You say:/What’s been going on/while I was away? – Margaret Atwood

Give me a word/ any word/ let it roll across your tongue/ like a dolly mixture. – Patience Agbabi

expecting the second feature / expecting the second coming / expecting the last post / expecting to be late – Kenneth Allott

Talk some, write some,/ keep some in the archives/ of the heart – John Agard

Sorley MacLean

November 15, 2011

We’re looking forward to Polygon’s launch of Sorley MacLean’s Collected Poems, Caoir Gheal Leumraich / White Leaping Flame at the Library on Wednesday. The jacket image is so evocative – not the elder statesman of Gaelic poetry but the young man who knew that he was an ‘idealist democratic revolutionary’ when he was twelve. The photograph suggests vulnerability, eagerness and energy in equal measures.

I always thought that poets would ‘collect’ their own poems with great care and discrimination, whereas in fact some are quite cavalier, even careless. When Carcanet Press first proposed to publish a collected edition of Sorley Maclean’s poems in 1988, I saw him literally gather together old proofs and photocopies, convinced he’d managed to mislay some important poems along the way. Some of them have at last been recovered.

This new collection is a work of impeccable scholarship, edited by Christopher Whyte and Emma Dymock. It’s also a tribute of devotion to the poet who hauled Gaelic poetry into the twentieth century – albeit not single-handed – and assured its place in the great world of European poetry, in the company of Yeats and Blok and Valéry. It’s a fitting conclusion to this year of centenary celebrations.

~ Robyn

We are delighted to offer a small quantity of A Choosing: Selected Poems by Liz Lochhead for sale.

This limited edition, produced for and previously exclusive to the Edinburgh International Book Festival, presents a ‘crafted, personal selection of poems published over the last four decades, along with new work,’ with a foreword by Carol Ann Duffy. The trade edition of A Choosing: Selected Poems is due to be published by Polygon in October 2011.

Polygon says of A Choosing: Selected Poems:

A stunning new collection of selected works from one of Scotland’s most loved writers. During her career Liz Lochhead has been described variously as a poet, feminist playwright, translator and broadcaster but has said that ‘when somebody asks me what I do I usually say writer. The most precious thing to me is to be a poet. If I were a playwright, I’d like to be a poet in the theatre.’ Liz Lochhead has a large and devoted audience and delights audiences where she goes. Liz Lochhead was appointed Scotland’s Poet Laureate (Makar) in January 2011.

To order, please get in touch with reception@spl.org.uk, call 0131 557 2876 or pop into the library. We accept cash and cheque.

Copies are priced at £9.99 and postage and packing for postal orders will be £1.50 per copy, with international shipping quoted on request.

Lend us your quotes…

September 2, 2011

Can you fill in the gap?

‘How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea,

Whose action is no stronger than a flower?’

I love these lines from Sonnet 65, but they’re too long for our purposes… we’re turning to you for help! We’re looking for vivid, short quotations – no longer than 12 words – that we can use for a variety of things: downloadable posters, a Scottish Poetry Library bag, a Scottish Poetry Library notebook… They should be about poetry, or lines from a poem. New York’s Poets House has already bagged ‘… dwell in Possibility-;’ Emily Dickinson, of course, provides great lines: ‘There is no frigate like a book…’, or ‘The Brain – is wider than the sky – ’ or ‘Dreams – are well – but Waking’s better’. It would be good to have a Scottish inflection: ‘the Scottish Poetry Library: whaur extremes meet’? We look forward to your suggestions, as brief and inspiring as you can make them.

Please send your ideas on a digital postcard to @ByLeavesWeLive on twitter or reception@spl.org.uk.

Join the queue and help Sighthill Library break the Guinness World Record for Longest Reading chain!

A message from Sighthill Library!:

Sighthill Library is playing host to Guinness World Records this summer as we attempt to break the record for the Longest Reading chain by getting 350 people to read a line from the same book. We would like to invite you to join our attempt:

” Did you know the people of Vienna, Austria hold the record for the most participants in a reading relay? They set the record on 26th Sept 2010 at 290.

On 19th August 2011 we want to break this record and add Reading World Record Holders to our UNESCO City of Literature status AND  we want you to be part of it!

Sighthill library will be your hosts for the day as we highlight passionate how Edinburgh are about reading as a whole city. Join our community day and break a world record to show how important Libraries are to us all!

Already home to Stevenson, Scott, Conan Doyle, Rankin, the National Library, a Storytelling Centre an International Book Festival and named the 1st UNESCO City of Literature!  Can you help us add World Reading Record Holders………”

We want to make this a record that is held by the people of Edinburgh and more importantly those who are passionate about literature and reading. Barrington Stoke and the Edinburgh International Book Festival are already on board and as a figure associated with literature in Scotland we would love you to take a line on the day and be part of a record breaking city!


Books from NZ

July 20, 2011

I love a day when there are more books than bills in the postman’s bag. Usually the books go straight to Julie, our Librarian, but these ones took a detour. Through the generosity of Kenneth and Jocelyn Keith, we’ve been able to maintain our New Zealand collection, and a consignment from Unity Books – my favourite Wellington bookshop – reached my desk this week.

Boldly, Bill Manhire and Damien Wilkins picked The Best of Best New Zealand Poems, one poem per author. Having edited Best New Zealand Poems 2009, I’m very pleased to see quite a few of my choices surfacing here, holding their own across the ten years of BNZP. It’s an online publication – a model for Best Scottish Poems (now in its 7th year) – but there’s a particular pleasure in seeing a printed version. Mary Cresswell is one of the 60 poets in the book, and her new collection, Trace Fossils, entered the SPL by stealth last week (thank you, Mary and Lyell!). New collections by StAnza favourite Jenny Bornholdt (The Hill of Wool), by Airini Beautrais (Western Line), Dinah Hawken (The leaf-ride), Vincent O’Sullivan (The movie may be slightly different) and newcomer Janis Freegard (Kingdom Animalia) were all in the Unity parcel, along with a fat edition of the magazine Sport.

I’ve yet to read the poems in Sport 39 because I was so absorbed in James Brown’s account of this year’s T.S. Eliot Prize readings. Brown went along to support the NZ poet Brian Turner (‘he kept [his army service] quiet’) only to find that it was the US Brian Turner, whose army service is central to his poetry. Brown’s detailed evaluation of the evening gives us an attentive outsider’s view of the finalists that’s entirely refreshing. It couldn’t have been written by a UK poet, I think – and of course, that’s the value of the SPL’s international collection of books and magazines: they provide us with different ways of seeing, and unsettle us.

~ Robyn

NZ poet blogs: