Signpost Three: ‘We Think We See Richness, Said Dougal’, Mark Waldron

(If you haven’t already, please see the ‘About’ section of this blog, which explains  the scope of my posts.)

I get very, very excited about this poem. The rhythm is perfect. The ideas are fascinating.  It is a thing of deep beauty. I should mention the word “surrealism”, really; surrealism.

I was lucky enough to see/hear Mark Waldron read this poem at a Poetry Society Stanza* evening. He said it works differently depending on whether or not you’re familiar with Dougal and Florence from The Magic Roundabout. I am – I grew up in the 60s/70s – so I see Florence’s eyes as the dark, oval, painted-on eyes she had: they looked like openings in to her spherical head. I see Dougal’s  “putty-coloured piece of brain” as a 3D children’s TV model brain, maybe made of Plasticine.

I love this poem so much that I have learned it by heart. I was therefore fascinated to learn that Mark Waldron learns his own poems by heart, so performs them from memory. This is a very handy hint for those of us who are learning to write poetry:If possible, learn what you have written by heart. If the rhythm is wrong, it will jar. If it’s boring, the chances are the reader will find it boring, too. If it’s just not worth the effort, then…

Right, here is a link to the poem, published in Magma Poetry:

and another to a recording of the poet reading it, on YouTube:

Ok, so I now need to explain why this is one of my ‘signpost’ poems. I can’t just say “it’s brilliant”, can I? No. Sigh…. This is going to be difficult, but bear with me and I’ll do my best.

Remember, a poem does not have to be understood to be felt. Ok, having said that:

As you can see, the title is also the first line Make a mental note that this is a thing and you can do it, if you like. In this instance, it means the poem has started before you’re ready. I’ll just leave that thought hovering.

I’d be a complete twit to say what this poem means. It means whatever it means to you. What I will do, (as an ex-therapist), is ask questions and the questions might help.  So, to start; why do we only “think” we see richness and what does “richness” mean to you? Are Dougal and Florence captive puppets  in a pretend world ( a bit like the film, The Truman Show) ?  Why does Dougal have difficulty finding a word for how “thin” their reality is and why does Florence helpfully come up with “paper”?  Meanwhile, her legs are “crossing and winding”: Is that suggestive of a woman who’s simultaneously available and not available as a sexual partner? Is Dougal frustrated? Or is that just a mannerism she has?

The next stanza has Dougal fantasizing about being lost (“wholly unfound”) in Florence’s eyes. Why does he want to be lost? What or who does he want to escape? More, though; there are whole packs of dogs wanting to be lost, except that they also want to be “owned again” (I’m thinking abandoned dogs, orphaned children, addicts,  people who’ve lost a person they love….). I find this so very sad. The loss and the powerlessness and the need to “foam” and “rise” and “swarm” …but then they do so as “her” happiness, not with their own. The final stanza breaks my heart. And that’s it.

So – look – we don’t know what it’s about, do we? If the poet wanted us to know, he would tell us. I think it speaks of powerlessness and that – whatever your circumstances, be it an existential crisis, traumatic memories, addiction, a break up of a relationship, or just being human – it ‘speaks’ to you through your emotions. The point is, though, that if we want the meaning, we have to

“…make it all up [so that] it forms in front of us as we go.” See?

Meanwhile, rhythm. It makes me feel as if my heart is dancing. You’re going to have to read it out loud, I’m afraid. I say “I’m afraid”  but that’s probably only a problem if you’re British. Anyway, go on…

This poem soars.  (I was given that concept by Ira Lightman and I’ll talk to you about him in another post). The rhythm builds and builds, then ends thin and stark. It rocks you, at first, a little like a lullaby, then builds as if you were waltzing, or dancing a ballet. And – of course – this building is matched by the language with the foaming happiness rising and swarming. (God, I love this!)

I love this poem and this is what it means to me. It means there is no meaning. It is excruciating and beautiful at the same time.

What can we learners learn from today’s blog?

  • You can use the first line as the heading;
  •  you don’t have to spell out your meaning to the reader;
  • your rhythm should build;
  •  your meaning should build;
  • you should try learning your own poem by heart, as an editing device;
  • It’s worth joining The Poetry Society

Mark Waldron is one of the Next Generation Poets which is a Very Big Deal in the poetry world. (You can Google it to find out more and see who the others are.) He also looks very good in jeans.  I’ve just bought his most recent collection, Meanwhile Trees. I get excited about this collection, too and I’m very glad I bought it:

*It’s a good idea to join The Poetry Society. You get access to workshops with people who tend to know what they’re talking about, as well as readings by poets worth listening to. Also competitions, the Poetry Review magazine and other good stuff:


Signpost Two (Updated!): ‘Poem’, Simon Armitage

p1090225(If you haven’t already, please see the ‘About’ section of this blog, which explains  the scope of my posts.)

Poetic form, I thought, was a cage that imprisoned  the natural sound of words. Surely any attempt to force a particular rhythm and/or rhyme on to your chosen words will spoil the whole thing? Make it all frumpy?

Then I read this:

It’s a good idea to beat time when you read/write a poem.  This poem has five beats per line:

It goes, basically, “di-dum di-dum di-dum di-dum di-dum”. This is the famous iambic pentameter. We tend to naturally speak English in iambic pentameter. You can Google it, or read more about it in readily available textbooks (I’ve recommended Stephen Fry’s, below).

The container of the poem is not only the iambic  rhythm and the rhyming words at the end of each line, but also that nearly every sentence begins with the word ‘And’. I would never have thought you could do such a thing before I read this.

Right then, the interesting bit: the meaning! (I’ll talk about the title at the end). The poem begins with a description of a habitual act, (clearing the snow every time the drive needs to be cleared of snow). This could be a particular man, or men in general. He/they have to “toss [the snow] to one side”. Then we have his tender act of tucking up his daughter in bed (ah, lovely), but then – the shock – he “slippered” her? This tender father was also violent? Look through the lines. We have tenderness, we have responsibility (working and saving money) and we have domestic violence.

This particular man, or this “Everyman”, is good and bad, tender and violent. The strong, rhymed, iambic pentameter and the repeated words accentuate the habitual nature of the man/men’s behaviour, so therefore the shock of the violence and the theft stick out from the container. At the same time, it’s a routine that is a prison and that’s what stays with me from this poem. It’s clearing the snow, tucking up children and saving money (di dum, di dum, di dum) as well as punching women (ouch!) and stealing (no!). Am I explaining this? I hope so.

Regarding the Very Clever Title. I’ve read suggestions on why the poet chose this title. One is that the plain old, almost thoughtless word ‘poem’ accentuates the banal, everyday , habitual feel of the poem. For me, it’s something different. I’m very much a Southerner. I had a Scouse boyfriend for five years (can I say “Scouse”? It means he came from Liverpool). We used to meet up regularly with his Northern Bloke friends at very blokish venues, in particular, at biker festivals. I can just imagine that, if he’d written a poem, one of his Northern bloke mates might have asked what he was going to call it and he might easily (in my imagination) have replied, ‘It’s a poem, innit? So I’ll call it “Poem”’, in a very blokish, dismissive way, as if saying that poems are a bit sissy and it’s really not worth poncing about thinking of a title: as if to imply that real men don’t write poetry!

So for me, this poem is about Simon Armitage’s outrage at the accepted role of men. It’s a feminist poem from a male point of view. It’s an outcry at the way men behave and are expected to behave (think, for example, “wait ‘til your father gets home!” and what the poor father thinks would be expected of him). The meaning bursts out of the metre just as Simon Armitage’s  feelings about being a man burst out of the words. I imagine the fact that the poet worked as a probation officer contributed to his exasperation at the way a man’s expected role can bring nothing but violence and sadness.

P.S. I found Stephen Fry’s The Ode Less Travelled an excellent resource, if you want to know more about metre and poetic form. Right now, I just don’t like the idea of a pantoum (sounds like an elderly lady’s undergarment) and I struggled with a villanelle until I gave up. I managed a passable sonnet. Reading the book gave me a better grounding in rhythm generally. I bought the CD version first, but then had to buy the book because I couldn’t easily find my way to and from the bits I wanted on the CDs. Here’s a link to Stephen Fry’s book:

Signpost One (Updated!) : John McCullough’s ‘Reading Frank O’Hara on the Brighton Express’

[Please read the ‘about’ section, which explains the scope of this blog.]

I am starting with John McCullough because he was my inspiring, intuitive, tutor for my Open University ‘Creative Writing’ course. My personal journey began with him as the guide. One of the best things John taught me was about the “Talent Myth”: You can learn to write poetry. There is no such thing as innate talent. You can start off rubbish and end up good. You can! Yes, courses, workshops, books, tutors, yes to all those things, but the Big Fat Point is that you don’t need to worry about whether or not you have that magical thing called ‘talent’.

If you want to learn how to write poetry, John’s poem, ‘Reading Frank O’Hara on the Brighton Express’, is full of zingy ideas, movement and wonderful swirling interactions between the poet and the world. It made me cry. I was going to start blathering on about why it made me cry, but, you know, “show not tell” and all that, so – with the permission of the author (he’s cool like that) – here it is:

Reading Frank O’Hara on the Brighton Express

I might believe we are stationary.

It’s only everything out there kindly

hurtling past, the grey verticals of Clapham

revealed as bars of a song.  I might lend my ear

to catch cirrus chit-chat then touch down

at Gatwick and watch parked cars nuzzle

in tidy rows.  Which reminds me to sort

my manners out, to raise a hand to waving trees

whizzing backwards, plastic bags in their branches

brilliant flags announcing carnivals

in Balcombe, Wivelsfield, Hassocks.

I may trill like a starling myself, bless everything

outside and within this case of human fireworks:

the silver-chained lads probing Burger King bags

like lucky dips; the Tannoy woman who is Our Lady,

surely, with a mobile altar of Ribena and Coke;

the suits with Guardians hiding Heat magazine.

I may twig that Brighton is unreal,

is being made as we approach,

the shops plugged in, the prom laid down,

the new beach scattered with smiling pebbles,

there where buses have names

so we can get knocked down by Dusty Springfield.

I might conjure up crowds auditioning

for the North Laine, all dreadlocks and posturing,

benefits and big schemes, with different kinds

of queen walking different kinds of dog –

vital clutter that dashes or repairs

Brighton dreams, that brings death or a boon

for the West Pier, swaying over the surf.

It all glides on towards salt-caked houses

and the united panes of Betjeman’s station,

though it’s not him but you, Frank, who I picture

in the station café, coughing your lungs out

above a latte as you eye the black waiter.

In just a moment I shall pass the gates

of heaven and find you,

my memories of travel left in the ticket machine

as we stroll out down Queens Road,

the sun on our skin, the sea shining so whitely

that we stop and stare, and keep on staring.


A ‘follower’ (I have followers!) has asked me to be more specific. He wants to know why this poem made me cry. This will involve an in-depth analysis of the poem, which I am not qualified to give, so please note that what I am about to write is a personal opinion. Righty-ho:

The poet starts with “I might believe we are stationary”. Have you felt that? When the train is moving, but it feels as if the world is moving and not you? The fact that this statement appears in the poem gives you an immediate connection with the poet. You think, Yeah! I’ve felt that, too! It’s a good feeling. This connectivity excites me.

The poet then goes further with the thinking that the world is there unfolding for his pleasure: the “grey verticals of Clapham” are not just depressing old tower blocks, they’re “bars of a song” – the poet has added sound! Yeah! Then the clouds are “chit-chatting”! (Can you hear them?) At Gatwick, the cars in the car park are “nuzzling”. I mean, how gorgeous an image is that? The poet is showing us how to enjoy life, see? (What a guy!) The trees, the plastic bags (there are always plastic bags, aren’t there?) and the flags are all waving, so the poet feels moved to wave back: The poet is part of this friendly world.

The people inside the train become much more than they are: “silver-chained” lads, the “Tannoy woman” takes on a spiritual significance, the men in suits lose their, well, men-in-suitness and are, instead, lusting over Heat magazine. He’s added silver, spirituality and lust, all in this stanza. See how the poem scoops up life in armfuls?

The next stanza has the joyful feeling that Brighton (the poet’s home) is being laid down in readiness for him and he adds details to explain that: buses with names, colourful Brighton characters in the North Laines and the drag queens ( another reflection – along with the Heat  mag – of the poet’s own sexuality. These all help to explain why the poet feels so at home in Brighton and celebrate Brighton’s vibrancy.

I’m putting this in block font because it’s a hint for your own poetry: Pay attention to every image you conjure as you write. Every one will fire up thoughts and feelings in the reader’s mind. So I’ve been talking about the joy in this poem, right? Hang on a minute, there was a mention of being knocked down by Dusty Springfield (bus). Now, we have the West Pier swaying precariously and the possibility of “death”. The stanza about Betjeman and Frank O’Hara gives a feeling of history and some bare-faced joyous queer cheek, but leads us to the final stanza, which brings in Heaven (so, still death, but maybe happy death) and memories left in the ticket machine (ooo… nice image). Now the poet’s strolling with “you” down Queens Road. It could be that the “you” is Frank O’Hara. Or, it could even be that – as Frank O’Hara died in 1966 and John McCullough wasn’t born then – he’s talking about someone he loved who has died. It washes down you, the sadness when you realise. Then you are left, flooded with:

“….. the sea shining so whitely

that we stop and stare, and keep on staring.”


…and that, you see, is why I cried.


This poem comes from John’s first collection, The Frost Fairs, which was winner of the Polari Prize 2012. It’s available from:

(John’s latest collection, Spacecraft, is available from:

I went to one of the Spacecraft launches! It was brilliant! If you’re learning to write poetry, go to as many launches as you can. It will give you a whole new perspective and make you feel all poety. Buy the book being launched and then bowl up to the launched poet and say something like; “I’m learning to write poetry. I have just spent X quid on your work. Please would you pretty please sign it and write something encouraging in it for me?” And s/he will!