from BARDO

The stars are in our belly; the Milky Way our umbilicus.

Is it a consolation that the stuff of which we’re made

is star-stuff too?

– That wherever you go you can never fully disappear –

dispersal only: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen.

Tree, rain, coal, glow-worm, horse, gnat, rock.

Roselle Angwin

Tuesday, 12 February 2013

new lambs, and 350 poems

Bitterly cold, and here are the first new lambs of the year (that I've seen), black and white both, staggering around learning to lope after the ewes. How long, I wonder, do they keep their memory of the warm nourishing uterine darkness from which they've so recently emerged? At the heights of their field the soil is sandstone-coloured and terraced by centuries of sheep feet circling the hill; tangled protruding roots of oak and ash and beech, knotted like fairy-tale roots, hold the banks together. Below, the water meadows bordering the Avon alongside the old Primrose Line branch railway are thickly drifted with snowdrops.

No-one's unmoved by new lambs. Seeing them, though, for me as a vegan is always touched with a poignancy – their destination being the table, and I find it really hard that we in England are so sentimental about new lambs, and so effectively and hypocritically dissociate them from the plastic-wrapped lumps of anonymous flesh on which we feast. I can't help feeling that far fewer people would eat meat if they had ever visited a slaughterhouse.

The way we humans relate to animals has long been a source of great distress to me; and the best we can usually manage is the Judeo-Christian stewardship model, which doesn't go far enough for me, anthropocentric as it is and founded in the view that other species are here to serve our needs. For me, we're all in this together, and 'do as you would be done by' is as relevant to our treatment of fellow species as of other humans.

'The animals of the world exist for their own reasons. They were not made for humans any more than black people were made for whites or women for men.' (Alice Walker)

There is one huge book to be written about all this, and one of the reasons I don't write more here about my own deeply committed ecocentric approach to the world – one that considers other beings to have the same rights as humans – is because there is so very much to write about this – in effect an alternative history – or bible – of the Western world (in fact I have a vegan friend who is doing just this). (I am not saying it's only the West that is anthropocentric – clearly that's not true – but I can't reliably speak of a culture other than my own; and ours has a particular history, from the Greeks on and fertilised nicely by the Age of Reason, that perpetrates and perpetuates that belief.)

OK, rant over.


Back to reading through the box of around 350 poems I'm judging for a competition. This is an interesting process – poetry being as personal as it is it's hard to reject people's work, and yet I have to pick a winner. At this stage I'm primarily looking for ones that I can pretty certainly disqualify (because I have to).

As long as I make myself be ruthless, the 'no' pile isn't too hard. I do have to include in it poems that are OK but are not outstanding, as I have to start somewhere. Into it must go the ones that mostly consist of clichés, those that use rhyme in a rather stilted and contrived way (I'm happy to read rhyming poems, but the rhyme needs to be unostentatious and 'fit for purpose'), ones in which the grammar and spelling let the work down, ones that read as prose, ones that are overly sentimental, ones that don't go far enough, ones that might work for a C19th audience, or are slight and trite or doggerel, ones that 'tell not show', ones that are derivative. (Does that make me sound fierce?)

As in most competitions, probably, there's a huge range, and some poems that won't make it into the shortlist are still very moving. Some are startlingly original in their approach but don't quite open up from the personal to cast light on something more universal. Others are fine at face value but don't resonate in a deeper way than that. Oh – this is hard.

What I'm looking for, of course, is something that sets a poem apart from the merely 'acceptable', something that makes it really original, surprising, multilevelled, outstanding. I want a poem that will make me think, move me, give me a new angle, make me see things differently; one that will haunt me as I read the rest. It will probably also conjure up a sensory picture. It will for sure 'deliver' more than it would seem to at the beginning. I like, too, to be surprised by a title: one that offers a different or lateral or deeper view is always good to find.

Because it's also subjective, I personally am also drawn to poems that speak of the human relationship to the natural world; and while I don't mind – actually to some extent require – dark (the juxtaposition of dark and light can add substance, depth and dramatic tension to a poem), I do mind nasty.

I have a suspicion I have already met the possible winner; we'll see.

The 'maybe' pile grows almost as fast as the 'no'. The 'yes' pile is small, but I know from experience that by the time I finish a second or third reading of the 'maybe' and 'yes' piles there will be a long longlist that will be hard to whittle down.

I'll of course be considering all the things that work to create a good poem: originality of voice, subject, style, a marriage of form and content, cadence and musicality, the subtle use of 'poetic' devices – chiming words, alliteration, assonance, metaphor, imagery, scansion, diction, strong verbs and so on to scaffold the poem, an awareness of the need for the poem to appear fresh and spontaneous while also having clearly been worked, subject matter beyond the merely personal and emotional, etc. It's fairly obvious, fairly early on, too, which poets are readers, familiar with a range of poetry, which does matter, given that we don't work in a vacuum.

In the end, though, although I will have noticed subliminally or otherwise all the aspects above that create a strong poem, the winner will be the one to which my heart and mind in tandem instantly say YES.


  1. Nearly all your description of what makes a good poem could apply equally well to prose. I shall copy it and carry it with me! I particularly like what you say about opening up from the personal to cast light on the universal - which I think comes from not being too close to the subject matter - from having processed it and acquired a certain detachment. (Hope I'm not being pompous.)Something I'm struggling with at the moment with The Novel.

  2. Catching up with your recent thoughts, feeling– as usual – inspired and connected by what you say. Your image of 'fat-bellied' clouds dislodged an idea for another cloudy image in a poem I've been wrestling with for some years, triggered by a visit to Harris. It may not work in the end – and bears no resemblance to yours, be assured! but fits the bill so far. Thank you, Roselle.
    I think I know what you mean about meaningfulness and failing fathers, remembering meeting my departed father held inside the bright green leaves of iris high up on Iona one morning.
    I remember those egrets, too, in the creeks and estuaries of South Devon. Round here, the mud clings, the mizzle slowly thinning, our Avon spilling out again.

  3. Hi Belinda - thanks a lot! And yes, you're right about some of what I say being transferable to prose, in that good writing in general does offer recognisable qualities. And yes I'm sure you're also right in mentioning acquiring distance on one's creative work. I think also - and this is relevant especially to the novel, of course, as you'll know - a sense of theme helps: what is your passion in relation to speaking of 'the human condition'? In other words, if a piece of writing is to be more than simply a processing (or even not!) of personal emotion, it has to shed some light on universal questions or preoccupations. Holding a theme in mind, the needs of this bigger picture, can help enhance both the quality of the work, and remind us that we're one small part in a whole, and we are more than our emotional reactions – or something! IMO ;-).

    Miriam - thank you. I love the image of an elision of green iris on the heights of Iona, and your father. How we meet the world, and ourselves and loved ones in it, over and over... And here too more rain. Am glad you are still also writing poetry alongside(?) the novel.



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