Sunday, 16 December 2007

Poem for Christmas

A Warwickshire Christmas

Black seam of tarmac glittering hard
with ice, a million points of light,
and our loud boots cracking over it,
tramping to church down country lanes
starred white with frost
or to shops, brilliant with tinsel,
to buy gifts for the infant,
holly for the wise, and head home,
arm in arm, under velvet skies.

Children go about red-cheeked
in the wind, wild as robins.
The sick, in their hospital beds,
fumble for cheer which comes hard,
suddenly rich with angels
and fruitcake for Christmas.
Chill streets ring with boots and bells
and far-off voices raised in song
for those born and dying.

And that boy in the doorway
is no longer a shadow as the carol passes,
telling of peace and Bethlehem,
fire and ice and mulled wine.
They’re lit up by starlight, those we ignore
in the dark of winter, the outcast
and frightened, the sick and the poor.
Shops close. A star is rising.
Pin up your holly and open the door.

Friday, 7 December 2007

Some Quick Tips for Writing Poems

Recently, I've been asked to produce a few tips on 'How To Write Poetry'.

That's another social role for a Poet Laureate: spreading the word about poetry as widely as possible. It's rather like being an ambassador (though without the posh dinners, perhaps fortunately for my waistline) where what I say reflects on poetry as a whole. So I always try to give the same good advice I was given as a beginner.

1. Be yourself.
2. Keep things simple.
3. Rewrite everything.
4. Speak your poem aloud as you write.
5. Make sure the line-breaks fall where you either pause naturally or for emphasis.
6. Only write about things that really matter to you.

Over the next month or maybe longer, I'll be trying a series of online workshop exercises at my other blog, Raw Light, chiefly aimed at those with some experience of writing poetry but who are perhaps still unpublished in book form.

If you'd like to try your hand at a poetry exercise or two over there, I'd be happy to discuss the results with you.

Don't forget, you can still send poems to me here or leave them in the Comment box below, for possible future publication on this blog.

What does it mean to be Poet Laureate?

People often ask me: 'What does it mean to be Poet Laureate?'

Usually they want to know what I'll be doing as the new Laureate for Warwick. But sometimes they're interested in how I see the role of a Poet Laureate, why I put my work forward to be considered in the first place.

The two answers are connected. As a Poet Laureate, one of my responsibilities over the next year is to produce poetry about the region and to encourage others to do the same. And that's how I see the role of a Laureate. I see it very much as a social role, someone who acts as a mediator between the people and poetry. Which is what attracted me to the post.

I see the Laureateship as a good way to introduce new people to poetry, and to use poetry to help people. That can be a therapeutic help, encouraging people to write about their problems and so perhaps come to terms with those problems a little better. Or it can be about fun and creativity, getting adults back in touch with what some might call their 'inner child'!

The Laureateship is also about giving added emphasis to poetry on the National Curriculum, by going into schools for workshops or by helping kids with poetry and performance during poetry-related activities outside school.

Saturday, 24 November 2007

Poem for Rugby Market, Warwickshire

Below is a short poem called 'Where Two Roads Meet'. It's about Rugby Market, and was specially commissioned by The Rugby Times newspaper, around the time I was appointed Warwick Poet Laureate.

Not being the sort of poet who writes much about urban life - though I often write about rural spaces, and either imaginary or past places - I found this commission quite a challenge at first. However, I live on the outskirts of Rugby, so I went into the town and wandered about for an hour or so, talking to people and looking for inspiration for this first poem.

Eventually I sat down with a coffee near the regular open-air market and realised that I had found my subject. With its colourful stalls and bustle of shoppers, a street market is a natural source of inspiration for any writer. And this particular market, so steeped in the history of the town - indeed the entire region - was clearly perfect as a vehicle for tracing local and historical development in Rugby.

After making copious notes on what I'd seen in the market, I headed off to Rugby Library and checked out some local history books. From my research, it was soon apparent that the market was the original heart of the town, the vital 'seed' from which the earliest settlements at Rugby grew.

Back in the Middle Ages, a lone trader must have stopped at this busy Midlands crossroads and set up his stall, thinking it a good spot to do business. Other traders stopped, and eventually stayed, and soon there would have been a thriving village based around the little market at the crossroads, which grew into a town, its importance as a trading place growing and changing with the centuries.

Later, a large cattle market was established further down the hill, a clock tower was built at the crossroads, stone-built shops sprang up around the stalls, the low-roofed 'Shambles' were built, and over time the market and its surrounding town grew into the modern Rugby we know today.

It was a fascinating background story, and one which I really wanted to address in my first ever 'official' poem about Rugby. But I also wanted to write about contemporary Rugby, the hustle and bustle of the market today.

I threw out some of my original notes as useless and went through several wildly differing drafts. I looked at old photographs for further inspiration, and played around with rhymes and my usual eccentric scansion. I knew the poem needed to be quite simple in form and content, for a general readership, but I also wanted it to reflect my interest in the origins of things, in local history and how it shapes our lives today.

This is how it turned out. I hope you enjoy it.


Where Two Roads Meet
(for Rugby Market)

Where two roads meet, a man set up
his cart. Where the primrose
and the dog rose used to flower,
they built a market and a clock tower.

Soon, women in white petticoats sold
flowers and sweets, and men
in cloth caps drove carts and cattle
through the cobbled streets.

Today, two roads still meet
at the market awnings, striped
and neat, above the shouts
for bargain books and fresh-cut meat,

for shoes, potatoes and chrysanths,
for coconuts and underpants,
with stall-holders in caps and jeans,
and traffic choking up the streets

where Rugby past and present meet.

First published in The Rugby Times, September 2007

Saturday, 10 November 2007

Remembrance Sunday

As we reach Remembrance Sunday and set aside time to remember those who have so bravely given their lives for peace and freedom, I thought it might be a good idea to feature a local 'War Poet' on this blog.

After much research, I finally chose Rupert Brooke (1887 - 1915), who was born in Rugby, Warwickshire, and is probably best-known for his patriotic poem The Soldier, which begins:

If I should die, think only this of me:
That there's some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England.

For this Remembrance Sunday, however, I decided to feature a different poem by Rupert Brooke. This complex fourteen-liner on the theme of death, following the form of a sonnet broken into two stanzas, an octet and concluding sestet, is called 'Clouds'.


Down the blue night the unending columns press
In noiseless tumult, break and wave and flow,
Now tread the far South, or lift rounds of snow
Up to the white moon's hidden loveliness.
Some pause in their grave wandering comradeless,
And turn with profound gesture vague and slow,
As who would pray good for the world, but know
Their benediction empty as they bless.

They say that the Dead die not, but remain
Near to the rich heirs of their grief and mirth.
I think they ride the calm mid-heaven, as these,
In wise majestic melancholy train,
And watch the moon, and the still-raging seas,
And men, coming and going on the earth.

Rupert Brooke

To find Rupert Brooke poems on the topic of war, you can visit or read about Brooke and other literary figures of Warwickshire here.

Thursday, 1 November 2007

Send Me a Poem

If you are the sort who scribbles, secretly or otherwise, and you have a poem you'd like to share with the other readers of this blog, please do email it to me here at j.holland442 @ or send it by post via the contacts section of the Warwick Words Festival website.

Poems related to Warwick or Warwickshire are particularly welcome, but not necessary. Please note that there may be special themes at certain times of the year, so check recent posts before sending. This invitation is mainly directed towards Warwickshire residents, but poets further afield can send work too, especially if they have a Warwickshire connection.

If you are under the age of 18, please let me know your age when sending the poem. I would prefer poems to arrive as normal text in the body of an email, but can accept Word attachments.

N.B. I will read all your poems and try to respond to everyone personally, but I'm afraid I cannot guarantee publication!


One of my winning poems from the Warwick Laureateship Poetry Competition 2007:


To dream of death signifies fear
of the unknown. Dandelions
speak of a lover’s
infidelities. Towers and steeples
are signs of ill omen.
To avoid nightmare, sleep
with a stone under your pillow.
The ring-tailed dove
must not be crossed with the crow,
or harm approaches.
To see rivers in flood
means death by drowning, and roses
financial ruin. Anything blue
is an excellent omen
for childbirth. Pearls bring sickness.
Opals, relief.
Falling from a high place
indicates a stranger’s treachery
and carrying milk
a desire fulfilled. But to dream
of milk spilt
is to suffer love unrequited.

*Oneiromancy: to predict the future through dreams. The new requirement of the Warwick competition this year was to send four poems, one of which had to be inspired by this year's National Poetry Day theme of 'Dreams'.


One of my winning poems from the Warwick Laureateship Poetry Competition 2007:


Mid-September, and crane flies
are everywhere, haunting my kitchen
with delicate legs splayed
like a parachutist’s, gripping the air.

Soon my house is alive with shadows, black
under the bulb’s glare. These
are the terrifying Daddy-Long-Legs
of my childhood, an insect
straight out of the mind’s dark spaces,
insubstantial bodies
caught in my hair, delirious in flight
against the light’s tremor
or perched long-legged on a whitewashed wall,
tiny Buddhas deep in prayer.

I fasten windows, lock all the doors,
yet still that pitched flight,
vibrato of wings, is audible
until, quite suddenly, October thickens
and they disappear.


One of my winning poems from the Warwick Laureateship Poetry Competition 2007:


Another one goes higher, climbing up that ladder
like a monkey: screwdriver, hammer, wrench
tucked neatly in his belt. His mates follow,
leaving their cloudy fingerprints
on plate-glass. This is their world,
high above our ant-eye level.
We scuttle underneath with cups of tea,
leave them steaming on planks
or pass them through open windows.

They lean against the scaffolding
at half past ten, unhurried, rolling smokes.
Later, the backs of their necks will redden
as they pull the flashing from the roof
(the youngest often stripping to the waist).
The sun is in my eyes; refracting light
into a fleet of curving poles,
this structure almost seems to bend,
a tree-house circumnavigating stone.

I watch them come first thing, unload their van
and swing up into clouds.
Each day we hear them through our walls
like mice in the skirting-boards
or scratching at the roof, bird claws
hooking onto lead. Their voices rumble
in the chimney-breast, hammer us
a slant of sky through glass
until we’re living under occupation.


One of my winning poems from the Warwick Laureateship Poetry Competition 2007:


She comes up through the yard
at dusk, sturdy in boots
and thick fisherman’s jumper.
You stop work immediately,
smiling and combing lank hair
with your fingers.
Moments later, light streams
from an upstairs window.

The wind’s only a thin hiss
across darkening fields
but my camper rocks gently,
ringing its tiny bells
like some displaced troika.
Inside, I dream of snow
and cannon fire; pour myself
a cup of vodka
that sears even as it blurs.

Outside is like the first dark,
familiar as the first hurt.
I’m used to its deep velvet lagoons
and swim of wet tarmac,
its absence of love,
my road ahead the white trick
of a travelling moon.

Wednesday, 31 October 2007

Spooky Poems for Halloween

Here's a poem for Halloween from Warwick's past, attributed to the Elizabethan poet and courtier I'm in the process of researching, Lord Brooke Fulke Greville:

In night when colors all to black are cast,
Distinction lost, or gone down with the light;
The eye a watch to inward senses placed,
Not seeing, yet still having powers of sight,

Gives vain alarums to the inward sense,
Where fear stirred up with witty tyranny,
Confounds all powers, and thorough self-offense,
Doth forge and raise impossibility:

Such as in thick depriving darknesses,
Proper reflections of the error be,
And images of self-confusednesses,
Which hurt imaginations only see;

And from this nothing seen, tells news of devils,
Which but expressions be of inward evils.


And above are my three youngest children celebrating Halloween last year. Little devils, perhaps, but not 'evil', like the spirits conjured up by Fulke Greville's poem!

My older children were brought up in the Isle of Man, where they always celebrated Hop-tu-naa (Hop Choo Nay) at Halloween, carrying hollowed-out turnips or pumpkins with candles inside as lanterns and singing a traditional Hop-tu-naa song. Some people believe this descends from a type of ancient New Year celebration rather than being linked to the US-style 'trick-or-treating'. Whatever the truth, these old rural practices are certainly good material for poems!

This is a very short and spooky poem I wrote a few years ago, imagining someone who was half-man, half-nocturnal creature:

Whose Hands Were Made of Velvet

He held up his hands
and they were the place of dreams.

Inside each hairy palm, small softnesses of bats
took root, clinging
with astonished intelligent feet
to a skin-space
sweeter than milk.


Have you ever written a poem for Halloween, or perhaps on a spooky or supernatural theme? Do please email it to me for publication on this blog or - if it's short enough - leave it below as a Comment.

Monday, 29 October 2007

Sir Fulke Greville: first poet-in-residence at Warwick?

In my quest to write poems about Warwick, I've been investigating the history of the town. Amongst other fascinating things I've turned up - the recent Mop fairs, for instance! - is the fact that one of the earliest Lords of Warwick Castle was Sir Fulke Greville (1554 - 1628), an Elizabethan courtier-poet and statesman.

Most famous for his close friendship with the poet Philip Sidney, Greville was born in Warwickshire and attended Shrewsbury School. Later, as a royal courtier, he was made 1st Baron Lord Brooke by James I. This was in recognition of his services to the crown, particularly in the Treasury.

Now a peer of the realm, Fulke Greville was also granted Warwick Castle.

He made substantial improvements to the Castle, allegedly amounting to some £20,000 - a vast sum in those days! It became his pet project, and he was still working on the renovations when he died in 1628, attacked by a disgruntled servant.

The most fascinating part of this story, for me at least, is that Sir Fulke Greville was clearly the first poet-in-residence at Warwick!

A member of the élite literary group, the 'Areopagus', along with the likes of Sir Philip Sidney and Sir Edward Dyer, Greville was a poet of high seriousness, keen to import classical metre into English verse, which he presumably saw as lagging behind the rest of European literature in the wake of the Italian Renaissance.

Influenced by the Italian poet Petrarch and his beautiful sonnets of unrequited love, Fulke Greville himself wrote sonnets as well as longer poems on difficult political and moral themes. A great intellectual, many of his poems have been criticised for being too obscure!

When his friend Sir Philip Sidney died on military campaign in the Netherlands, Greville famously wrote his biography, commemorating the greater poet's life and work.


So that's the story of our first ever poet-in-residence at Warwick!

Over the coming months, I'm going to investigate Fulke Greville more closely, and hopefully some new poems of my own will come out of that investigation. Perhaps even a sonnet or two!

First of all, a fact-finding trip to Warwick Castle needs to be planned. Meanwhile, you can find out more about Sir Fulke Greville here on Wikipedia.

Tuesday, 23 October 2007

Crowned Warwick Poet Laureate!

Earlier this month, I was delighted to be at the launch of the Warwick Words Festival where I was crowned Poet Laureate for Warwick. It's all been a bit of a whirl since then, and there's plenty to discuss on this new Laureate blog, but first I thought it might be interesting to talk about how the Laureateship came about and what the post actually entails.

Firstly, the Laureateship is decided on the basis of a poetry competition run in conjunction with the annual Warwick Words Literary Festival. In past years, there was only one judge, and only one poem was chosen as overall winner, with the Warwick Laureateship awarded to that poet. Last year's winner was Helen Yendall with her excellent poem 'Kettle'.

For 2007 though, it was decided to make life more difficult for the would-be Laureates. The committee decided that four poems should be submitted. One had to be on the National Poetry Day theme of 'Dreams', and the whole entry had to be accompanied by a Statement of Interest.

Furthermore, the competition was judged by three judges this year: one female, two males. In spite of that slight gender bias - and acknowledging that all entries are judged anonymously - the three top prize-winners were all women!


Anyway, I was delighted to have been chosen as the overall winner, and I'm looking forward to writing poems about Warwick (and Warwickshire) over the coming months.

There will also be community poetry projects for me to arrange or oversee, perhaps some more interviews - the local papers have already been on the phone - and some projects which are either brand-new or entirely connected to my own work as an individual poet.

Launching this special Warwick Laureate blog is my first official task. The blog is designed to provide an online space for people to make contact with me, find out more about contemporary poetry, or touch base with my activities as Warwick Poet Laureate.

So if you have any comments or Warwick-related suggestions for poems or poetic activities, please do drop me an email, leave a comment on this blog, or contact the Warwick Words Festival via their website. Although I often twist commissioned subjects to suit my own individual approach to writing poems, I'm always open to good ideas!