What this blog is and how to use it

This blog contains poems that have caught my attention over the years. Many of the poems I've discussed and explored with 16 -19 year old students in my capacity as lecturer in English.

Browse the list of poems by scrolling down the page or read the titles of poems or names of poets in the sidebar 'Poem Titles and Poets'. Then click on the title or poet.

Saturday, 27 February 2021

Psalm 46 [a]


For the director of music. Of the Sons of Korah. According to alamoth.[b] A song.

  God is our refuge and strength,
    an ever-present help in trouble.
  Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way
    and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea,
  though its waters roar and foam
    and the mountains quake with their surging.[c]

  There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
    the holy place where the Most High dwells.
  God is within her, she will not fall;
    God will help her at break of day.
  Nations are in uproar, kingdoms fall;
    he lifts his voice, the earth melts.

  The Lord Almighty is with us;
    the God of Jacob is our fortress.

  Come and see what the Lord has done,
    the desolations he has brought on the earth.
  He makes wars cease
    to the ends of the earth.
He breaks the bow and shatters the spear;
    he burns the shields[d] with fire.
   He says, “Be still, and know that I am God;
    I will be exalted among the nations,
    I will be exalted in the earth.”

   The Lord Almighty is with us;
    the God of Jacob is our fortress.


[a] Psalm 46:1 In Hebrew texts 46:1-11 is numbered 46:2-12.

[b] Psalm 46:1 Title: Probably a musical term

[c] Psalm 46:3 The Hebrew has Selah (a word of uncertain meaning) here and at the end of verses 7 and 11.

[d] Psalm 46:9 Or chariots

Wednesday, 24 February 2021

Effects by Alan Jenkins


Alan Jenkins

I held her hand, that was always scarred
From chopping, slicing, from the knives that lay in wait
In bowls of washing-up, that was raw,
The knuckles reddened, rough from scrubbing hard
At saucepan, frying pan, cup and plate
And giving love the only way she knew,
In each cheap cut of meat, in roast and stew,
Old-fashioned food she cooked and we ate;
And I saw that they had taken off her rings,
The rings she kept once in her dressing-table drawer
With faded snapshots, long-forgotten things
(scent-sprays, tortoise-shell combs, a snap or two
From the time we took a holiday “abroad”)
But lately had never been without, as if
She wanted everyone to know she was his wife
Only now that he was dead. And her watch? –
Classic ladies’ model, gold strap – it was gone,
And I’d never known her not have that on,
Not in all the years they sat together
Watching soaps and game shows I’d disdain
And not when my turn came to cook for her,
Chops or chicken portions, English, bland,
Familiar flavours she said she preferred
To whatever “funny foreign stuff”
Young people seemed to eat these days, she’d heard;
Not all the weeks I didn’t come, when she sat
Night after night and stared unseeing at
The television, at her inner weather,
Heaved herself upright, blinked and poured
Drink after drink, and gulped and stared – the scotch
That, when he was alive, she wouldn’t touch,
That was her way to be with him again;
Not later in the psychiatric ward,
Where she blinked unseeing at the wall, the nurses
(Who would steal anything, she said), and dreamt
Of when she was a girl, of the time before
I was born, or grew up and learned contempt,
While the TV in the corner blared
To drown some “poor soul’s” moans and curses,
And she took her pills and blinked and stared
As the others shuffled around, and drooled, and swore…
But now she lay here, a thick rubber band
With her name on it in smudged black ink was all she wore
On the hand I held, a blotched and crinkled hand
Whose fingers couldn’t clasp at mine any more
Or falteringly wave, or fumble at my sleeve –
The last words she had said were
Please don’t leave
But of course I left; now I was back, though she
Could not know that, or turn her face to see
A nurse bring the little bag of her effects to me.

Click here to buy A Shorter Life by Alan Jenkins

Friday, 12 February 2021

from How to Wash a Heart by Bhanu Kapil


Don’t forget me, I whisper to my
Give me something to eat, I’m
So hungry, I call out to my
The conditional care
Of even these
Imaginary parents
Excretes a hormonal load.
Am I safe with you?
Or like a baby crawling on the bumpy
Carpet, am I my own
Mother, actually?
Imagine a baby developing so rapidly
That by nightfall
It has ripped through the pale blue
Smock to evolve
Beyond the limits of the human.
I remember
How my mother woke me up
So early
To look at the bloody stars.

My grandfather fermented the yoghurt
With rose petals
And sugar then buried it
In the roots of a mango tree.
Come here, he said, extending
The sweetest fruit I have ever tasted
Come June.
On the far side of the orchard
He grew saffron and the mangoes there
Were red and pink.
In the dry well
He planted a pomegranate tree.
This is where they threw
The bodies
Come August
Can you find your way home
By smell?
Metallic, the air tilts along a diagonal line.
I smell the pollen of the flowers of the mango tree
Which once concealed
A kill.

For lunch, my mother made okra
With caramelized onions,
A feat! The wet caps
She stuck to my forehead, cheeks
And nose.
Grimacing as the gates of the school
Swung open, I was
A joke.
The children who were children
Like me
I was alone with the slime
Dripping down the neck
Of my red and white dress,
Nettle bites lucid on my shins.
Because I ran through the alleyways
And not the streets
To get here:
A hot yard.
Shame invites the sun
To live in the anus, the creases
Of the throat.

The priest brought my mother home.
My father fell over in the snow
After drinking his guts out.
The world
Was falling down around my ears.
When our neighbours
Said go, we fled,
Our hearts beating
Like a fish.
Hello, sang Lionel Richie, on the taxi’s orange
My grandfather burned his notebooks
Then scraped the ash
Into a hole
He could button up.
Don’t ask me to remember
The word for zip.
My secret is this:
Though we lost all our possessions,
I felt
A strange relief
To see my home explode in the rearview mirror.

Monoracial, we fetched up
In a place without
Discrete racial categories.
Our hair
No longer felt like our hair
No matter how long
We combed it
With milk.
The messages we received
Were as follows:
You are a sexual object, I have a right
To sexualize you.
You are not an individual.
You are here
For my entertainment.
You complain too much.
Your sexual identity is not
The way you talk about what happened to you
Is a catastrophic representation.
Merry Christmas,
Little pig.

Click here to buy How to Wash a Heart

Click here to watch Bhanu Kapil reading from her collection How to Wash a Heart. It comes with a three-minute introduction.

Or click the link below

Thursday, 11 February 2021

A Portable Paradise by Roger Robinson


And if I speak of Paradise,
then I’m speaking of my grandmother
who told me to carry it always
on my person, concealed, so
no one else would know but me.
That way they can’t steal it, she’d say.
And if life puts you under pressure,
trace its ridges in your pocket,
smell its piney scent on your handkerchief,
hum its anthem under your breath.
And if your stresses are sustained and daily,
get yourself to an empty room – be it hotel,
hostel or hovel – find a lamp
and empty your paradise onto a desk:
your white sands, green hills and fresh fish.
Shine the lamp on it like the fresh hope
of morning, and keep staring at it till you sleep.

Click here to buy A Portable Paradise by Roger Robinson 

Click here to listen to Roger Robinson reading from his collection A Portable Paradise, including a reading of the poem A Portable Paradise. It's about 12 minutes long and begins with an introduction by Ian MacMillan. You'll find the poem A Portable Paradise at 8 minutes.

If you listen very carefully you can hear me applauding in the audience.

Or just click on the YouTube video below.

Wednesday, 10 February 2021

What the Thunder Said by T. S. Eliot

T. S. Eliot

  After the torchlight red on sweaty faces
After the frosty silence in the gardens
After the agony in stony places
The shouting and the crying
Prison and palace and reverberation
Of thunder of spring over distant mountains
He who was living is now dead
We who were living are now dying
With a little patience

Here is no water but only rock
Rock and no water and the sandy road
The road winding above among the mountains
Which are mountains of rock without water
If there were water we should stop and drink
Amongst the rock one cannot stop or think
Sweat is dry and feet are in the sand
If there were only water amongst the rock
Dead mountain mouth of carious teeth that cannot spit
Here one can neither stand nor lie nor sit
There is not even silence in the mountains
But dry sterile thunder without rain
There is not even solitude in the mountains
But red sullen faces sneer and snarl
From doors of mudcracked houses
                                      If there were water
   And no rock
   If there were rock
   And also water
   And water
   A spring
   A pool among the rock
   If there were the sound of water only
   Not the cicada
   And dry grass singing
   But sound of water over a rock
   Where the hermit-thrush sings in the pine trees
   Drip drop drip drop drop drop drop
   But there is no water

Who is the third who walks always beside you?
When I count, there are only you and I together
But when I look ahead up the white road
There is always another one walking beside you
Gliding wrapt in a brown mantle, hooded
I do not know whether a man or a woman
—But who is that on the other side of you?

What is that sound high in the air
Murmur of maternal lamentation
Who are those hooded hordes swarming
Over endless plains, stumbling in cracked earth
Ringed by the flat horizon only
What is the city over the mountains
Cracks and reforms and bursts in the violet air
Falling towers
Jerusalem Athens Alexandria
Vienna London


A woman drew her long black hair out tight
And fiddled whisper music on those strings
And bats with baby faces in the violet light
Whistled, and beat their wings
And crawled head downward down a blackened wall
And upside down in air were towers
Tolling reminiscent bells, that kept the hours
And voices singing out of empty cisterns and exhausted wells.

In this decayed hole among the mountains
In the faint moonlight, the grass is singing
Over the tumbled graves, about the chapel
There is the empty chapel, only the wind’s home.
It has no windows, and the door swings,
Dry bones can harm no one.
Only a cock stood on the rooftree
Co co rico co co rico
In a flash of lightning. Then a damp gust
Bringing rain

Ganga was sunken, and the limp leaves
Waited for rain, while the black clouds
Gathered far distant, over Himavant.
The jungle crouched, humped in silence.
Then spoke the thunder
Datta: what have we given?
My friend, blood shaking my heart
The awful daring of a moment’s surrender
Which an age of prudence can never retract
By this, and this only, we have existed
Which is not to be found in our obituaries
Or in memories draped by the beneficent spider
Or under seals broken by the lean solicitor
In our empty rooms
Dayadhvam: I have heard the key
Turn in the door once and turn once only
We think of the key, each in his prison
Thinking of the key, each confirms a prison
Only at nightfall, aethereal rumours
Revive for a moment a broken Coriolanus
Damyata: The boat responded
Gaily, to the hand expert with sail and oar
The sea was calm, your heart would have responded
Gaily, when invited, beating obedient
To controlling hands

                                    I sat upon the shore
Fishing, with the arid plain behind me
Shall I at least set my lands in order?
London Bridge is falling down falling down falling down
Poi s’ascose nel foco che gli affina
Quando fiam uti chelidon—O swallow swallow
Le Prince d’Aquitaine à la tour abolie
These fragments I have shored against my ruins
Why then Ile fit you. Hieronymo’s mad againe.
Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata.
                  Shantih     shantih     shantih

Click here to buy The Waste Land and Other Poems by T. S. Eliot

Death by Water by T. S. Eliot


T. S. Eliot

IV. Death by Water

Phlebas the Phoenician, a fortnight dead,
Forgot the cry of gulls, and the deep sea swell
And the profit and loss.
                                   A current under sea
Picked his bones in whispers. As he rose and fell
He passed the stages of his age and youth
Entering the whirlpool.
                                   Gentile or Jew
O you who turn the wheel and look to windward,
Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you.

Click here to buy The Waste Land and Other Poems by T. S. Eliot

The Burial of the Dead by T. S. Eliot

T. S. Eliot

The Burial of the Dead by T. S. Eliot

April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers.
Summer surprised us, coming over the Starnbergersee
With a shower of rain; we stopped in the colonnade,
And went on in sunlight, into the Hofgarten,
And drank coffee, and talked for an hour.
Bin gar keine Russin, stamm’ aus Litauen, echt deutsch.
And when we were children, staying at the archduke's,
My cousin’s, he took me out on a sled,
And I was frightened. He said, Marie,
Marie, hold on tight. And down we went.
In the mountains, there you feel free.
I read, much of the night, and go south in the winter.

  What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water. Only
There is shadow under this red rock,
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),
And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.
                      Frisch weht der Wind
                      Der Heimat zu
                      Mein Irisch Kind,
                      Wo weilest du?
“You gave me hyacinths first a year ago;
“They called me the hyacinth girl.”
—Yet when we came back, late, from the Hyacinth garden,
Your arms full, and your hair wet, I could not
Speak, and my eyes failed, I was neither
Living nor dead, and I knew nothing,
Looking into the heart of light, the silence.
Oed’ und leer das Meer.

  Madame Sosostris, famous clairvoyante,
Had a bad cold, nevertheless
Is known to be the wisest woman in Europe,
With a wicked pack of cards. Here, said she,
Is your card, the drowned Phoenician Sailor,
(Those are pearls that were his eyes. Look!)
Here is Belladonna, the Lady of the Rocks,
The lady of situations.
Here is the man with three staves, and here the Wheel,
And here is the one-eyed merchant, and this card,
Which is blank, is something he carries on his back,
Which I am forbidden to see. I do not find
The Hanged Man. Fear death by water.
I see crowds of people, walking round in a ring.
Thank you. If you see dear Mrs. Equitone,
Tell her I bring the horoscope myself:
One must be so careful these days.

  Unreal City,
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.
Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled,
And each man fixed his eyes before his feet.
Flowed up the hill and down King William Street,
To where Saint Mary Woolnoth kept the hours
With a dead sound on the final stroke of nine.
There I saw one I knew, and stopped him, crying: “Stetson!
“You who were with me in the ships at Mylae!
“That corpse you planted last year in your garden,
“Has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year?
“Or has the sudden frost disturbed its bed?
“Oh keep the Dog far hence, that’s friend to men,
“Or with his nails he’ll dig it up again!
“You! hypocrite lecteur!—mon semblable,—mon frère!”

Click here to hear Fiona Shaw reading The Burial of the Dead

Click here to hear Alec Guinness reading the whole of The Waste Land 

Click here to buy The Waste Land and Other Poems by T. S. Eliot

An Easy Passage by Julia Copus


Julia Copus

An Easy Passage by Julia Copus

Once she is halfway up there, crouched in her bikini
on the porch roof of her family's house, trembling,
she knows that the one thing she must not do is to think
of the narrow windowsill, the sharp
drop of the stairwell; she must keep her mind
on the friend with whom she is half in love
and who is waiting for her on the blond
gravel somewhere beneath her, keep her mind
on her and on the fact of the open window,
the flimsy, hole-punched, aluminium lever
towards which in a moment she will reach
with the length of her whole body, leaning in
to the warm flank of the house. But first she
steadies herself, still crouching, the grains of the asphalt
hot beneath her toes and fingertips,
a square of petrified beach. Her tiny breasts
rest lightly on her thighs. – What can she know
of the way the world admits us less and less
the more we grow? For now both girls seem
lit, as if from within, their hair and the gold stud
earrings in the first one's ears; for now the long, grey
eye of the street, and far away from the mother
who does not trust her daughter with a key,
the workers about their business in the drab
electroplating factory over the road,
far too, most far, from the flush-faced secretary
who, with her head full of the evening class
she plans to take, or the trip of a lifetime, looks up now
from the stirring omens of the astrology column
at a girl – thirteen if she's a day – standing
in next to nothing in the driveway opposite,
one hand flat against her stomach, one
shielding her eyes to gaze up at a pale calf,
a silver anklet and the five neat shimmering
oyster-painted toenails of an outstretched foot
which catch the sunlight briefly like the
flash of armaments before
dropping gracefully into the shade of the house.

Click here to buy the book Girlhood by Julia Copus

Thursday, 4 February 2021

History by John Burnside

History by John Burnside

St Andrews: West Sands; September 2001


         as we flew the kites
- the sand spinning off in ribbons along the beach
and that gasoline smell from Leuchars gusting across
the golf links;
                       the tide far out
and quail-grey in the distance;
jogging, or stopping to watch
as the war planes cambered and turned
in the morning light –

          - with the news in my mind, and the muffled dread
of what may come – 
                                  I knelt down in the sand

with Lucas
                  gathering shells
and pebbles
                   finding evidence of life in all this
                 snail shells; shreds of razorfish;

smudges of weed and flesh on tideworn stone.

At times I think what makes us who we are
is neither kinship nor our given states
but something lost between the world we own

and what we dream about behind the names
on days like this
                           our lines raised in the wind
our bodies fixed and anchored to the shore

and though we are confined by property
what tethers us to gravity and light
has most to do with distance and the shapes
we find in water
                           reading from the book
of silt and tides
                          the rose or petrol blue
of jellyfish and sea anemone
combining with a child’s
first nakedness.

Sometimes I am dizzy with the fear
of losing everything – the sea, the sky,
all living creatures, forests, estuaries:
we trade so much to know the virtual
we scarcely register the drift and tug
of other bodies
                         scarcely apprehend
the moment as it happens: shifts of light
and weather
                    and the quiet, local forms
of history: the fish lodged in the tide
beyond the sands;
                              the long insomnia
of ornamental carp in public parks
captive and bright
                              and hung in their own
                       transitive gold
                                               jamjars of spawn
and sticklebacks
                           or goldfish carried home
from fairgrounds

                            to the hum of radio

but this is the problem: how to be alive
in all this gazed-upon and cherished world
and do no harm

                         a toddler on a beach
sifting wood and dried weed from the sand
and puzzled by the pattern on a shell

his parents on the dune slacks with a kite
plugged into the sky
                                 all nerve and line

patient; be afraid; but still, through everything
attentive to the irredeemable.

Click here to buy Selected Poems by John Burnside

Wednesday, 3 February 2021

The Horses by Pablo Neruda

Horses by Pablo Neruda

From the window I saw the horses.

I was in Berlin, in winter. The light
had no light, the sky had no heaven.

The air was white like wet bread.

And from my window a vacant arena,
bitten by the teeth of winter.

Suddenly driven out by a man,
ten horses surged through the mist.

Like waves of fire, they flared forward
and to my eyes filled the whole world,
empty till then. Perfect, ablaze,
they were like ten gods with pure white hoofs,
with manes like a dream of salt.

Their rumps were worlds and oranges.

Their colour was honey, amber, fire.

Their necks were towers
cut from the stone of pride,
and behind their transparent eyes
energy raged, like a prisoner.

There, in silence, at mid-day,
in that dirty, disordered winter,
those intense horses were the blood
the rhythm, the inciting treasure of life.

I looked. I looked and was reborn:
for there, unknowing, was the fountain,
the dance of gold, heaven
and the fire that lives in beauty.

I have forgotten that dark Berlin winter.

I will not forget the light of the horses.

Click here to buy The Essential Neruda: Selected Poems