Signpost Ten, ‘Extremophile’ by Sheenagh Pugh


This stunning poem will give you strength.

It was only a matter of time before I fell in love with one of Sheenagh Pugh’s poems. To quote from the back of Sheenagh’s recent collection, ‘Short Days, Long Shadows’ (Seren Books, 2014 – see details below):

“Sheenagh Pugh is a poet, novelist, translator, critic, reviewer and considerable online presence through her popular blog. She has won many prizes including the Forward Prize for best single poem, the Bridport Prize, the PHRAS prize, the Cardiff International Poetry Prize (twice) and the British Comparative Literature Association’s Translations Prize.”

She is also a very helpful person and thoroughly good egg,  willing to help people like you and me learn more about poetry. She has agreed to let me reproduce ‘Extremophile’ for you here:





An extremophile is ‘a micro-organism that is capable of living in hostile conditions or an extreme environment’ (Chambers Dictionary, 13th edition). What I love about this word is that it is new to me and, before I looked it up and found out that it was a ‘real’ word, I thought it was a made-up, poet’s word, based on the idea of someone who likes extreme activities, like ‘extreme sports’ and this set me thinking about having a lust for life – cue Iggy Pop. Yes, to me this poem is rock and roll!

How exciting, how interesting, how inspiring that life can “live without sun, thrive on sulphur”! How life-affirming is it that “There is nowhere life cannot take hold… flourishing on bare stone”?  And don’t you just love “some chancer”? It makes you smile. It made me think of an art student who put a price tag of £2000.00 beneath one of his paintings at the end of term show and someone bought it! Reading this poem makes you think, “Yes, I will have ago! Yes it is worth a try!”

Look at the settings for the images of the poem: radioactive rock, the ocean floor, hydrothermal vents, Antarctic valleys. All these places are other-worldly, exotic, alien to us and yet real; another clue about life and its endless possibilities.

The end of the poem is breathtaking. The idea that the world itself is “the impetus never to leave it” is so profound and uplifting.

This poem is the first in Sheenagh Pugh’s most recent collection, ‘Short Days, Long Shadows’, published by Seren Books. Here’s a link to the publisher’s website with details of the wonderful book:




Click on this link for Sheenagh’s blog, on which she features some of her poems. Enjoy!



So for writing our own poems?

You could start by hunting out interesting landscapes, unusual places, strange habitats and see where that leads you. There are several outcrops of rocks around my town. They’ve already given me inspiration for one poem, but I think I’ll look closer and see what else springs to mind. I’ve just remembered there’s a yew tree in the park, which you can smuggle yourself inside and that’s definitely worth a closer look.

You could start with a science book. Find something notable or interesting and ponder on it for parallels in life. Think about it as you fall asleep and you may wake up with a poem idea!

Please note in the comments if this has inspired you to write a poem. No need to post your poem (unless you wish to).


A big thank you to Sheenagh Pugh for allowing me to reproduce her poem here.

The featured image is a free download from




Signpost Nine, ‘Shore Leave’, by Kate Garrett


The sky is grey this morning. The air seems to lie heavy on my chest. I am in pain. I have Lupus, an autoimmune disease, so the pain’s nothing new, but that doesn’t make it any easier. Neither is it easy to be cheerful, as I drive my daughter to school through rush-hour traffic, trying not to care whose turn it should be to let people out and that I can’t stop for children trying to cross the road because the arsehole in the black BMW behind is far too close up my backside. Well, my car’s backside.

So here I am, in my dingy living room, with a cup of tea, a blank Word document and Kate Garrett’s pamphlet, ‘Deadly Delicate’. Does the pamphlet help?

Yes it absoflippinlutely does!
Pirates! Misunderstood, doing the best they can, swashing their buckles  (or buckling their swashes, even), hiding their hair, drawing blood – theirs or others’ – but only because they have to. And it’s not cartoon silliness, it’s real. These are poems that could easily have been told by the historical characters who speak to you from the pages of this powerpack pamphlet.

My favourite poem is ‘Shore Leave’. I have Kate’s permission to reproduce it for you here (I think it’s rather appropriate that it’s come out a little bit swimmy):


The beautiful rhythm and imagery of the first line put you on the quayside, looking down at the ocean. You almost have vertigo, looking in to the water, which is moving, “drunken[ly]” with the “tide spit[ting] foam at your feet”. Then you feel the shore shift as you stand still. Anyone who’s stood on a beach knows this feeling of not knowing whether it’s you, the shore or the sea that is moving. You are dizzy and dropping and swirling and shifting and I make no skull and crossbones about saying isn’t life like that? Especially as you “look to the ground, the horizon.” But it’s ok; “Keep moving”, we’re told, for “better pleasures lie ahead”. There are taverns! Rum, fun, rest from the sea’s constant tides and the harsh life aboard ship. Once your “crooked sails” are “straightened” you can “climb back on board under the stars; look up” and then “slow the movement of the earth to a slumber.” I’ll say that again, slowly; “slow the movement of the earth to a slumber.” There, that’s better.

This looks like such a simple little poem, but it is skilfully crafted: full of movement and – if we want to see it – a way of coping with life and its relentless tides.

I’ve had the pleasure of hearing Kate read her poems and it’s just as true listening to them as reading them: there is no pretension; no “look at me” – not even any “poor me”, simply a truthful, matter of fact way of looking at the world, which is somehow filled with magic.


You have a choice of where to buy Kate’s pamphlet. For details, you need only click on this link:–deadly-delicate.html

A final note on writing your own poems. How about looking at historical characters who interest or intrigue you? Pirates, witches, Roman centurions, Christians thrown to the lions, lions having Christians thrown to them…. Think about what their lives may have been like. If you don’t find inspiration there, then that’s another hat I’m going to have to eat.

Signpost Eight: ‘Summer with Monika’, Roger McGough

“Write a sequence?” Suggested my wonderful poetry mentor. I’m thinking of writing a Coronation Street-style sequence based on my street. Meanwhile, though, here’s a sequence and a half, the adorable and famous ‘Summer with Monika’, by the equally adorable and famous Roger McGough.

Of course, lots has already been said about Roger McGough and his poetry and that is all beyond the scope of this blog. ‘My Signpost Poems’ exists to help you find inspiration to write your own poems. ‘Summer with Monika’ is teeming with ideas!

My copy of ‘Summer with Monika’ was published by Penguin Books in 1990


Here it is, being read by the man himself on Youtube. It’s over 8 minutes long, but so very worth listening to:

To start, ‘Summer with Monika’ was a fairly racy (for the time) Swedish film from 1953, directed by Ingmar Bergman. The film was based on a novel of the same title from 1951. The book inspired the film and the film – possibly – inspired the poem. It hadn’t occurred to me before to look for poem inspiration from book and/or film titles, but I will now.

The language in this poem is beautifully simple and clear. In the first section, he shows how the lovers’ home becomes a whole world, as they are too involved with love-making to go out:

“otherdays we went for long walks
around the table
and picknicked on the banks
of the settee”

The delightful images of the “shilling set[ting] on the horizon” and the milk bottles as carol singers are probably a little dated now, but what I love about this imagery is that McGough takes the ordinary and makes it extraordinary. Have a look about you now and see if there are any objects you could make extraordinary. I’m in bed. My bed could be a magic carpet, the chest of drawers could be Pandora’s box, the fireplace could be a portal to a different universe…

Section 5:  “when the moon is waiting / for the first bus home / and birds assemble / for morning prayers”. Section 8: such love / as makes unhappiness / appear to have mislaid our address” . There is so much magic in this poem!

The poem begins to change in tone, as the relationship described changes; Section 14; “..our littletown / waiting for the sun /screaming with dull pain / to rise like a spark / from a crematorium chimney”. The poem takes us through the boredom, paranoia and jealousy of the relationship: Section 21, “our love is like a kitten in a well / the death of something young and softlywarm”;  Section 23, “when you wear your marriage face / boredom lounges round the place”; Section 40, “…there’s a strange man under the table / wearing only a shirt.”

A poem must have movement. It must have a crescendo. This would be dull and inconsequential if it simply rambled on about how much the characters were in love with each other. The movement through the different phases of the relationship make it a real page-turner and the ending is exciting in its mundanity: “our love has become as comfortable as the jeans you loung about in …. As nice as a cup of tea in bed”. Phew; I’m so glad they didn’t split up!

To conclude, the inspiration we can draw from ‘Summer with Monika’ is of finding ideas in book and film titles, looking at ordinary things and making them extraordinary and ensuring our poems have movement in their tone and/or story and/or ideas.

P.S. This is signpost Eight. Eight! If somone doesn’t comment that they have been inspired to write a poem as a result of reading my blog soon, I’m going to have to eat my hat, or whatever it was I said I’d do…

Signpost Seven, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, T.S. Eliot: Create your own Prufrock!


This is likely to be my shortest blog post ever because pretty much everything that could be written about this wonderful poem has already been written.

There’s a wide choice of websites to read it on. I read it in the book I have as the “featured image”, which is published by Faber & Faber, London 1972.

You can read it on:

I like hearing it read by the man himself on Youtube:

You can also google notes on, explanations of, discussions about this poem. It’s worth reading this information, if you’re in the mood. This one’s easy to read if you can put up with the adverts:

The point of this blog is to share poems that have inspired me to write my own poems and the gorgeous things I find inspiring about this poem are:

  • Memorable rhymes. Rhyme can be frumpy and old-fashioned. These rhymes add to the dreary, resigned feel of the poem:

“In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo”


“Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,
I have measured out my life with coffee spoons;”

  • Imagery, for example that yellow fog
  • Gritty realism: “arms downed with light brown hair”, “do I dare to eat a peach?”
  • Repetition: “That is not what I meant at all”

So now to the point ; by which I mean the poetry-writing point . Develop as much self-awareness as you can over the following months (an incredibly useful exercise in itself), then create the poem for your own caricature; your own J.Alfred Prufrock.

The self-awareness bit will almost definitely involve asking people what they think of you, how they see you. A kind way to do this is to ask people what careers they think might suit you. You could look at photographs of yourself. Listen to a recording of your voice. Look up your name on a category list (mine is apparently very middle class). Try meditation and notice what thoughts consume your awareness (you may think your thoughts are about work, whereas they’re actually overshadowed by your passions for cheese sandwiches and Ms X in the accounts department). What have you always wanted to do and why have you never done it? What will you be like when you are old(er)?

Then write your very own J.Alfred Prufrock. It should be interesting.

P.S. I am now beginning the habit of asking someone to please add a comment when one of my blog posts has actually inspired them to write something, so, yes; that. No need to actually post your poem.

Signpost Six: ‘Directed by Sergio Leone’, Brett Evans

This blog simply features poems that have inspired me to write poems. The idea is that – having inspired me – the poems might inspire you, too.

To explain the ‘featured image’, Copyright means I can’t just go grabbing someone else’s Sergio Leone picture from the web and stealing it for my blog, so here’s a picture of a dog with a pint of beer. I happen to know Brett Evans would approve.


Back to the point, here’s the poem, reproduced with the kind permission of the poet:

Directed by Sergio Leone

There’s nothing but waiting around to die, so you choose
how to spend that time: swatting flies on your stubbled
throat whilst waiting for a train or riding through
this one-horse world, hell-bent on creed or trouble.
A bottle of rye, a cheroot beneath the bough
may be enough for those who’re simply chasing
a quieter life. Or you could stand or slouch
between hero, villain, gunslinger and assassin;
your idle fingers twitching whilst waiting on a script
to reveal the character to which you are assigned.
An extra in another’s movie, too late you’ve grasped
that at the bar, in bed, on the street, dying’s just dying.
Your final suspicion, that there must have been so much more;
that there must have been music, an unforgettable score.

At this point, I suggest you find yourself a Sergio Leone soundtrack and open it in another tab, then leave it playing while you come back to this tab and read the poem again.

….ok? Right then…

‘Directed by Sergio Leone’ has a pervading stillness. You soon hear Clint Eastwood speaking, his eyes squinting in the sun, lips pursed around a cheroot.

An attention-grabbing first line, but this inevitability of death is not fatalistic because “you choose how to spend that time”. I was brought up in a strict, fundamentalist and – frankly – abusive environment. Realising that there might not be a god, or a heaven, was a dreadful shock and strain to me, but then the mental progression after that, to realising that if you only have one life, it’s pretty important you get on with living it, was liberating. That’s the issue this poem presents to me and it’s reinforced with the lovely old spaghetti-western word, “creed”.

The choices move from the banal “swatting flies”, to “riding… hell-bent”,  from“slouch” to “stand”, from “assassin” to “hero” or, of course, the other way around.

However, the environment in which all these choices take place is a “one-horse world” and there’s a feeling of helplessness in having to “wait… on a script” and that you are “an extra in another’s movie”. The poignancy of this and the sadness of being “too late” in realising that “dying’s just dying” is heartbreaking.

To me that poignancy perfectly shows how I felt when I “lost my faith”, as mentioned above. The beauty of the final two lines, though, must leave us ensuring we don’t waste a second, but look for the “music” in our lives; seek out our own “unforgettable score”. This is a cautionary tale, a fable.

Remember me mentioning in a previous blog how a poem needs to “soar”? Your poem needs to go somewhere; it must have a crescendo. This poem moves from the inevitability of death, to the possibility of an unforgettable life.

‘Directed by Sergio Leone’ inspired me to write a poem set in a silent movie. You could write one set in a cartoon, or a horror film or any genre that tickles your tastebuds. It could also inspire you to go from a negative in life (or death) to a positive. Or a positive to a negative – if you must.

It comes from Brett Evans’ Indigo Dreams pamphlet, ‘The Devil’s Tattoo’, which you can buy using this link:

Signpost Five: ‘Addiction to an Old Mattress’, Rosemary Tonks.

It’s been a long while since I wrote my blog and the reason is that I was introduced to Rosemary Tonks. Oh my god; Rosemary Tonks! Remember, the whole point of this blog is simply to share poems that have inspired me to write poetry, in the hope that the poems will inspire you to write, too. Rosemary Tonks has been like rocket fuel.

Please read this and bear with it; it’s unlikely you’ll understand it immediately:

Now, you can see why I wasn’t in a hurry to post this and explain why this poet has been my inspiration. It is not easy. But I’ll have a go.

The whole sound of this reminds me a little of the Fast Show character, Rowley Birkin QC, who would gabble away nonsensically, his ramblings punctuated by phrases you suddenly understood, like “poisonous monkeys!” Not that Tonks comes over as drunk, but certainly overwhelmed by the feelings she is conveying. I hear a county lady, with a posh voice, in tweeds, sounding exasperated, saying, “…and another thing….!”

“This is not my life…” suggests being stuck in a life the poet doesn’t want to be living, with dull objects, drudgery, greyness.

Think of boring things you’re fed up with, but stuck with: Potatoes!

After reading this I pretty much wrote a complete poem in one sitting and went on to get it accepted for publication! This poem showed me how to write about something I was totally fed up and exasperated with, in an entertaining way.

Have a look at “bolsters from Istanbul!” Very ‘poisonous monkeys’, isn’t it? I imagine someone at her hotel proudly announcing that the bolsters were from Istanbul and Tonks thinking this was a ridiculous thing to be proud of. Think of something that you consider ridiculous to be proud of and try sticking it in a poem.

Look at the things that give the poem movement: draughts, salt breezes, moody isobars. Can you see them, moodily huffing and puffing?

Look at the people described: haberdashers, writers of menus, dentists. Tonks clearly feels they are not her kind of people, that their lives are too dull, yet she is “obsessed” and in the last line, she writes; “And I wolf, bolt, gulp it down, day after day”. She is disgusted with herself. She wants to break out! Who hasn’t felt like that, suffocated by an illness, a dull job, a boring dinner party, a shift that’s gone on far too long on a supermarket checkout?

I’m going to take a risk now. I’m so confident that one of you darling readers will be inspired to write a poem after reading Rosemary Tonks that I’m going to ask you to please comment below this time and say  you have. You don’t have to post your poem, but please let us know that Tonks has worked for you. Go now and write that exasperated poem…



Signpost Four: ‘Formby Sands’, Angela Topping

(If you haven’t read the ‘About’ section, I’ll just point out here that I am learning to write poetry. This blog is not a review and I am not a teacher, but simply keeping a record of poems that have inspired me to have a go at writing my own poems.)



It was getting on for two weeks since I’d written anything and I feared that I would never be able to write a poem again. A myriad prompts left my mind blank. Then I came across ‘Formby Sands’ in Angela Topping’s collection, The Five Petals of Elderflower. It’s published by Red Squirrel Press and only became available in November 2016. (Angela has her own blog and you can read all about her here:

Angela has given me permission to reproduce the poem on my blog, so here you are, you lucky reader:


Formby Sands

This beach is not for sunbathing,
not at this time of year.
Inland, birds may sing
and hawthorn’s pink tips
froth in the woods, but here

wind makes new partings
in my hair, blows shell-grit
ground by sea-roiling
into my mouth and eyes.
The dunes have swallowed you.

I wade through shifting sand
which sucks and ripples
as I try to follow.
Words are ripped from my mouth.
Where are you? I flounder

think I’ll never find you again
scale sand hills close to crying,
not that anyone would hear me
in this banshee place
of screaming gusts and gulls.

When we find each other
between dips and rises, your calling
and mine, things we dare not say
rise like distant waves,
glitter in cold spring light.



‘Formby Sands’ begins with the stark phrase, “This beach is not for sunbathing”. Wow; that really grips you by the throat! You immediately wonder what the beach is for. The poem continues with a contrast of the safe “pink” “froth[y]” world inland, then the poem continues with disconcerting images and language, for example “sea-roiling”, “swallowed you”, “shifting”, “sucks”, “ripped”, “flounder”. The images are all appropriate to a seaside scene, so you never get lost or distracted with mixed metaphors. I know this is important because I have recently managed to conjure up an image of an elastic band squeezing an hourglass entirely by mistake and therefore unwittingly written surreal nonsense, instead of my intended serene sonnet. Hmmm.

By the way, just look at those line breaks across stanzas; where the mid-sentence pauses add to the dramatic tension!

The “banshee place” seems very real to me. I could imagine someone struggling for words to describe a frightening scene and saying, ‘that banshee place’ with complete sincerity. Oh the relief when we read, “When we find each other” ! But, then there are “things we dare not say” and these words “glitter”. The unsaid words take on a magical quality. For me, it conjured a break-up of a relationship: two people losing each other and being afraid to admit it.

I was inspired by this poem to write about a very frightening childhood experience, when a dream turned in to a nightmare, much as a lovely sunbathing beach became a place of fear in ‘Formby Sands’.

I have to say, I recommend this whole collection. It is vast in its scope, spanning a whole lifetime’s experience. For a new poet, it is almost a textbook itself, in that it will suggest inspiration to you from nature, from relationships, and from sensual experiences, including eating fish and chips and falling in love with a fish. I wrote that this isn’t a review and it’s not, it’s a recommendation. Five Petals of Elderflower is available from or from Angela Topping herself.

P.S. I was dying to know what actually inspired the poet to write ‘Formby Sands’, so I asked Angela Topping and she replied (she’s very obliging) that the poem sprang from a real incident of being lost in sand dunes. It wasn’t inspired by the break-up of a relationship, but I was sufficiently moved by the poem to feel that deeply about it. We don’t have sand dunes where I live and the sand pit in the park simply won’t cut it, so I think I might take myself to the wildest woods I can find this afternoon and imagine being lost in them; see if I can find a poem lurking behind a tree! [Grabs coat and wellies…


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!