Poetry blog: A last, lingering look at summer

A picnic and plenty of poetry… the perfect summer's day
22 Sep 2015 @ 8.48 pm
| Entertainment

As I write this, outside my window summer is doing a disappearing act. The garden has a soggy, tired look about it. I’m half-tempted to rip out the petunias and buy bulbs.

However, in front of me I have proof positive that summer wasn’t a figment of my imagination, that people were out there having picnics, sunbathing, revelling in swelling fruit and crickets and thunderstorms and the abundance of wild flowers and skylarks.

I am reminded too that others were going to funerals or missing loved ones while summer just went on being summer. May next summer be kinder to you.

I don’t think we have ever had so many good poems, so thank you. Thank you, too, if you are just starting out and used the suggested prompts to express what you felt about summer on a particular day in August.

I love to think of the blog actually making people pick up a pen and have a go. I loved reading all the poems. All of them.

So, if I didn’t pick yours this time, thank you for sending it in and keep writing.

Cracking stuff

Sheer volume of poems prevents me from publishing them all.

I have tried to select a range of approaches and I think all of the poems which follow capture elements of summertime. I was particularly struck by the use of language in these.

So many wonderful verbs working so hard to convey sounds and scents to the reader. Cracking stuff. Thank you all.

I had poems about summer in far-flung places but I’ll start with one rooted in Yorkshire. Lesley Quayle’s lovely August is sonnet-like in shape and half-rhyme. The verbs are wonderful.

I love that opening line and the subtle half rhymes: ‘someone coughs/ like plates dropped’ is an amazing image.

August by Lesley Quayle

sulks around us, slouches over fells;
after the downpours, filling becks
and ghylls with foaming broth,
an ebb, the mumbling air damp
and feverish. Jackdaws bicker,
chip away the hush, someone coughs,
like plates dropped, a walker stops
for his West Highland to sniff and pee.
I climb till the house is a grain on the horizon,
the river, a glossy twist of chrome and bronze,
into the mossy chill of woods, stumbling
over the pale limbs of a fallen tree,
brushing tiny spiders, abseiling on the breeze.

Petra Vergunst’s Song of Summer is also filled with music. There is some fabulous use of language here and I love the way the line breaks are used in place of punctuation.

I can see and hear this pianist in a house in a city with fruit swelling in the garden. It’s sumptuous and beautiful.

Song of Summer by Petra Vergunst

This morning the garden fruits green
gooseberries crop, blackcurrants swell
the wall beyond conceals

consumption. From the street
sounds enter this enclosure
and waft into the room

through an open window. The opulent
black stool on which she sits feels cool.
She nods and plays

Mendelssohn. Even without words
this music expresses feelings like song.
A woman speaks to her husband, they

hear her. What was composed for
the drawing room draws
attention from neighbours. Morning dust rays

urge her to take off her cardigan
and allow passers-by see sun
sparkling her skin

in the city park.

Julie Corbett is walking by an estuary in her poem and takes a photo for the reader of everything she sees and hears.

It is highly evocative and also honest and real with its ‘scraggy bramble hedges’ and its ‘stinks of rotting bulrushes’ but there is a hint of magic here too with the ripples ‘creating a space for the moon’.

What sealed it for me was that brilliant ending, the speaker ‘having another look at the map/ in a fecundity of midge.’

River Walk by Julie Corbett

Short miles from the estuary,
high tide drinking muddy edges
and sluice gates freshly salted.

Twisting bindweed steadies
scraggy bramble hedges
cow parsley and montbretia.

Stinks of rotting bulrushes,
grass clippings and barbecue
linger towards a modest dusk.

Ripples rushed by breezes
move reflections upstream,
creates a space for the moon.

I put away my camera
have another look at the map
in a fecundity of midge.

Back in the city for Kay Wheatcroft’s very effective poem, Sounds Urban. Some lovely images in this one too.

I love ‘the papery beat of bats’. Isn’t that wonderful? Great use of sounds and I like the way it ends with the sounds in the sealed up house.

‘The redundant boiler sighs’. Too right (though I suspect it won’t be redundant for too much longer).

Sounds Urban by Kay Wheatcroft

Double-glazed muffle for nine months
then summer comes and the house breathes
A breeze wafts bell-ringing practice
over roofs, through the cool rooms into the back yard
joining the papery beat of bats

The cat watches, licking her lips
Her bell tinkles
The show is over

Lovers head home shouting
Night-club deaf
they miss the owl and the rustle
in the long gardens of the tatty town fox

Distant thunder and windows close
The house re-sealed reveals its own noise
settles, creaks, drips
The redundant boiler sighs

And, while we’re on the subject of sounds, here’s a great example from Tristan Moss of how to capture a lot in a very small space.

Listening by Tristan Moss

In the long grass,
is it one
or two crickets
I hear?

Just to remind you what summer in Yorkshire is so often like, here’s one from Emma Storr.

21st June, 2015 by Emma Storr

So this is mid-bloody-summer.
A drizzle like a hangover
clinging to the moor,
temperatures stubbornly sticking
at low degrees,
the day brought to its knees.

Trees drip with leaves
as well as moisture.
Buttercups sprinkle the fields
and immodest poppies
reveal all.

But thick cloud has swallowed any warmth,
bog cotton bows in the chill wind.

And after their dawn raid
on the absent sun,
the Druids are sniffling,
wrapped up in mud-spattered fleeces,
woolly hats which droop with wet,
smelling like old dog.

Another June solstice slips past
in the rain.

For many of you summer meant eating outdoors. I had lots of poems with strawberries in and here’s one of the best from Chris Bousfield.

After the build-up of tension in the natural world, what power is packed into that last sentence.

COME BACK by Christine Bousfield

And the strawberries crawl, fingering out
of the raised beds, and raspberry canes
ache to be cut after the late frost

and hydrangeas springing green
under their cinder- brown curls
ache to be cut after the April frosts,

and the violets fill the spaces
where wild geraniums will run riot
through early summer, hyacinth blue

and magenta. Cherry blossom and damson
wave in the wind, too tall for me to cut
but home for every blackbird, magpie

and tit under the drenched and dreary
sun. And he has not returned.

And I really loved this cracker from Stephen Bone in which the speaker shows the passage of time so skilfully in the changing make-up of a picnic.

Again, great images made this for me. ‘denture pink/ luncheon meat’ and that ‘moth-eaten Black Watch’ brought back so many memories.

Cold Sauvignon by Stephen Bone

Long gone the denture pink
luncheon meat pressed
between sliced white.
The cheap red.

The moth eaten Black Watch
rough beneath our backs; a tub
of soft scoop – forgotten about- melting
in the humming heat.

These days
you unfold a formality of table
and chairs, favour starched napkins,

Your hamper empties
baguettes, poached salmon,
Spanish hams. From the icebox
a too cold Sauvignon.

Kay Buckley also summons up ghosts of past summers in her lovely poem, through smoke. I chose this one for the way the writer uses the senses throughout.

I love the sweetness of stanza two, those vibrating grasshoppers and the wonderful image of ‘dot to dotting stars’.

through smoke by Kay Buckley

Áine’s slow shape
her dress thrown onto the pond
turning lilies into light

elderflower cordial
sugar thickening with heat
all sweet afternoon

grasshoppers vibrate
burnt shoulders almost
touch their rattle

amber moon
sitting on dandelion grass
dot to dotting stars

high skies
breathing in expectation
and perfumes of summers past.

Linda Goulden tells me that a combination of my prompts and the Perseids set off this summer memory poem.

I admire the way it opens with an invitation, the intimate tone of the poem and the contrast between past and present. A quiet love poem.

Lochside by Linda Goulden

So, come. This time,
as we leave the van,
I won’t be bursting
with regret for rooms
we haven’t booked
or itching for pyjamas
and a coat. Not worried
midges will still bite
or if we could have
lasted out till morning.
I won’t moan how far
we’ve still to go. I’ll know
to take you at your word:
stand still, breathe in
woods’ edge and the cool
of water, counting on
our forty falling stars.

Another love poem which I couldn’t resist was sent in by Saxon Pepperdine.

I admire the originality of form in this one and the matter of fact tone which seems to belie or make light of the underlying emotion. Great title too!

bookish lovers somewhere near Naburn by Saxon Pepperdine

we moseyed on down the riverbank
quoting Emily & such like:
‘…I’ll tell you how the sun rose…’
‘…a ribbon at a time…’
back & forth
like bookish lovers


& Sprite hissed
The Boo Radleys fell out the radio
we found a mouse

& that tight July sun
was up and roaring

making her eyes
& chest
& ankles
heave and dampen

I got hold of her
under a bridge

wee bookish lovers

well we loved
& looked
& chopped
& slapped
ourselves down there

it was alright

it was 1995 before you went to Keele
& it was over

Richard Carpenter stayed out too long in the sun, or maybe forgot to apply factor 30 but it sounds as if the memory of that casting caution to the wind day was almost worth it.

Beautifully captured in words, both the flashback to ‘the spit between the breakers/ and the mangrove trees’ and the sobering appointment with the dermatologist.

Sunstroked by Richard Carpenter

Which skin type are you?
asked the dermatologist
as he poked the alien lump
that had grown inside my ear.

I asked him to elaborate.
Does your skin burn in sunshine?
Or do you get a copper tan?
‘Type three,’ I said, ‘I tan.’

But I burnt that day
the three of us took our lunch
along the sands of Lagos’
Victoria beach

to the spit between the breakers
and the mangrove trees
with their feet in the water
to keep them cool.

I was impatient to gain
my badge of office,
ignored advice, peeled off my shirt
and threw it at my feet.

So the sun seared each side,
treated me as a barbecue
as I sizzled on his spit –
fit to fill a bacon-butty.

Dry, tight red skin to toss me
from side to side through the night
under the mosquito net;
waiting to slough like bark

from my trunk to leave
a soft pink baby sheen –
tender under lashings of lotion
and hiding in the shadows.

Three poems which handle the loss of a loved one set against an incongruous summer backdrop follow. The first is by Ben Banyard.

As Ben says in his email ‘funerals should happen in autumn or winter, shouldn’t they?’

I think you did your Auntie June proud in this lovely poem. I love the sounds and the detail of cherry brandy being spilt on the carpet.

Wake by Ben Banyard
for June Payne (1929-2015)

We shouldn’t be here, hushed in your house
shirtsleeves and collars pricking sunburn
while we say goodbye to you at last;
Auntie June, named after the summer.

In the end you preferred this gloomy lounge,
wasted yourself on fags, gin and Jeremy Kyle
but your sense of humour stuck around
long after you took one foot off the perch.

Outside in Monica Road an ice cream van chimes,
a plane booms overhead, a car stereo thuds.
Nighat passes a plate of homemade pakora,
cats slide around our ankles.

The breeze rustles the plastic strip curtain,
we turn to look, half-expecting you or Len
and then anecdotes and laughter tumble out,
someone spills cherry brandy on the carpet.

Val Horner, on a similar theme, uses details from the natural world, the hair on gooseberries, the dust on a butterfly’s wings, to great effect in this moving poem.

Tears by Val Horner

Gooseberries, yellow not green,
split their hairy skins
and oozed stickiness,
rough on the tongue,
a taste like grimy sunshine.

A tortoiseshell butterfly
caught in the leaves, feebly
beating a ragged wing,
crumbled at a touch, leaving
dust on greedy fingers.

In the shuttered room, I tugged
at my father’s sleeve, but he
wept – incomprehensible tears –
and would not be drawn away
into the fruit fall of my world.

Now, kneeling in your garden,
where gooseberries were always green,
I stifle dry sobs with dirty hands,
not looking at the window,
where your smile slowly stiffens.

One of my favourites this month was from Catherine Edmunds.

It is left for the reader to decide whether it is death or desertion which has robbed the speaker of the loved one’s presence in this poem but either way I felt that loss acutely and was drawn in by the sensuous detail in stanza one and the speaker’s inability to feel the beauty around her.

Those stark, blunt sentences in stanza two convey the shock and the loss so subtly and the ending is perfectly judged. ‘You’re not in the window seat, looking out/ it isn’t summer’

Now That You’re Gone by Catherine Edmunds

It’s late, the oak tree turns orange,
the fields, distant, blue, the tiles on the white house in the woods
sink into shadows. I live here, I don’t know this house,
I can’t remember how we stood hand in hand
that first time, I’ve no idea how the path winds between
the corncockles, scabious, oxeye daises,
I don’t understand brambles
laden with fruit, the way your mouth
looks bruised when you’ve crammed in too many.

The paint is peeling.
The chair stands alone.
I don’t know how to sweep the floor any more.
You’re not in the window seat, looking out,
it isn’t summer.

It’s exam results time as I write so here’s one from Angi Holden which takes us back to the ‘lemonade afternoons’ of our youth.

I love the humour in this and those ‘raspberry stained mouths’ and the last line will stay with me.

That Summer by Angi Holden

Exams over, papers closed, we sauntered
through lemonade afternoons, read
dog-eared copies of The Mersey Beats,
fingers sticky with fresh-squeezed oranges.
We listened to Ummagumma and Dark Side
on his father’s Bang & Olufsen, abandoned
our virginity between polycotton sheets,
mouths stained with raspberries.
Waited for results.

Humour in the next one too and I knew I could rely on John Foggin to let rip on a ‘bete noire’ in this glorious romp of a poem which I have to confess I love.

Though I don’t share all its sentiments I absolutely cracked up when I read it.

If you hear a tinkle of bells behind you, John, I should run like hell if I were you. It could just be a band of incensed morris dancers.

Folk festival folk: by John Foggin

They work in council housing departments
and sing sad songs of flooded seams and firedamp,
poss-tubs, pinnies, lockouts, blacklegs,
disasters, deprivation.

Or tutor evening classes;
they know The Ballad of Sir Patrick Spens,
and Matty Groves by heart; they sing without
accompaniment. And slow. And flat. They never miss
a verse. They sing the chorus after every
one, bring unimagined nuances to
the meaning of interminable.

Or sell insurance, work in call centres;
sing , at length, about the whaling,
silver darlings, foundering trawlers, ice;
shawled fisherwives on shivering wharves
gazing at the widowing sea.

They drink real ale (the men), are
overweight and thin on top (long at back and sides);
their wives once looked, a bit, (they hoped) like Joan Baez;
they cultivate split ends, and henna.

They believe that all real folk songs
were writ on tablets of millstone grit
brought down from the moors
by Mike Harding and Eliza Carthy
and that Kate Rusby is the Second Coming

They wear, without discrimination,
cheesecloth, tie-dye, leather waistcoats;
regardless of the cold,or drizzle: sandals.
They run to seed, self-righteously. Own tents.

Their children dream of days at Alton Towers,
junk food, Playstations, X Boxes
and hanging out. Instead, are herded into
story-telling workshops; they are quiet,
and subdued, and, often, pale.
Secretly, they harbour visions
of a terrible revenge.

Something should be diddly-done about it.

Angela Topping is currently running her wonderful poetry workshops at the Whitby Folk Festival so I hope she will forgive the previous poem.

Angela’s piece is about a holiday in Tuscany and the intense heat of Siena is so well-captured here, all the things we do to try and stay cool before ‘retreating into the shepherd’s house’ to ‘sleep under a single sheet’. Thank you for this one, Angela.

Stigliano by Angela Topping

In this Tuscan July heat
we who are never idle
are having to learn
how to do nothing.

Siena’s high stone walls
trap warm air; even the shade
is baked hot, a stone oven.
Visits there exhaust us.

In Palazzo Stigliano
We alternate shaded seats
with indoor cool,
lurk by the fan.

Skin slick with factor 40,
we dress in cool linens,
go swimming to feel normal,
make simple meals.

Museums and galleries keep
their secrets for a cooler visit.
We sip icy wine, scan
sunflower fields from hilltop

watch the sun sink,
lay our backs against stone,
retreat into the shepherd’s house,
sleep under a single sheet.

Back in England, Penny Sharman writes of the abundance of summer and I love this poem with its unpunctuated flow and its lovely images of plenty. Those skylarks and May-flowers and white fields of moon and the ‘sighs of our/ white-outs’ stayed with me.

May embankments by Penny Sharman

Abundant they have been
this year with roots in water
stems in sun
the blossom of apples
the shock of green rainbows
the sleeves that stretch over
the garden patchwork
of England
where silver slips at dark-side
from a raining moon
where dreams are sunk
nerveless in the silences
the in breath of our
This year the roadsides
have birthed the May-flowers
white fields of
daises of slow water moving
daises that wave yellow dust
on landscapes
where skylarks sleep
the sighs of our
abundant they have been.

From the lushness of a May lane to the harsher landscape of moorland in Neil Davidson’s poem which is ostensibly about a summer walk but also a subtle piece about a relationship. A love poem really.

I loved its Wordsworthian language, the deceptively simple way it appears to be written down as a personal conversation ‘you know that moor gate that never unlatches/ unless you lift it…’ Beautifully done and with a quiet power.


Under the north dale scarp the light tires early
and that day the gloom of evening
had already laid a hand on us.
You had been saying that I did not ever listen –
really listen and it was likely that the evening
would get darker : television
redirecting sorrow into sleep.

As the dog needed a walk, we followed
the road by-passing the Village Sçhool
to turn up the new strimmed path.
You know that moor gate that never unlatches
unless you lift it, well we went that way,
crossing that old mine rail track to climb towards the brow.

The dog, its head full of recent rabbits,
races ahead breasting the Rigg top:
there the last lowest sun haloes her
whiter that light. Sudden sun is all around
so fuller bright it clouds the sheep,
hallows the tumbled dry stone walls,
touches the moor-grass beyond green to almost purple.

You and I too stand transfigured
beyond wonder
of a sudden known and knowing,
beloved and beloving,
and each well pleased.

From the North York Moors to a Wiltshire garden next in John Davies’ piece, the effects of which owe much to the accumulation of tiny details.

I was right there astride that shed roof with the radio, the snoozing dog, the murmur of neighbours.

The end is a surprise and a bit of a mystery. Clearly an important moment captured here as the speaker will go back to this scene ‘time and time again’.

Gardener’s Question Time by John Davies

Astride the shed, he pulls the roof felt up,
gets blackened as he works. The radio’s on.
Neighbours murmur just beyond the hedge,
a golden dog snoozes in the shade,
swallows dive and veer. A bank of cloud
rises at the distant horizon.
Something catches him that hangs him there,
for years – some mixture of the afternoon,
the heat, the sky, the birds, the Wiltshire light,
some interweaving he can’t account for
yet feels so present in, it will encase
and hold him here in a summer frieze
that he’ll go back to time and time again
– waiting for his daughter to appear.

Big storms in the last few days attracted me to this one from Naomi Saffron which is about a summer storm in London.

Again, details do it for me, capturing the scene from the stillness beforehand ‘the sky yawning in distaste’, through the rain ‘desperate to shake off the shackles of the clouds’ to the air renewed ‘after being bullied by the rain’. Fabulous.

Summer Storm by Naomi Saffron

Oppressive, the heat and the weather,
beat down against the streets,
the roofs, the windows.
A grey street,
the sky yawning in distaste
against the backdrop of a still summer evening.

What noise a thousand drops of water make,
cracking against the concrete
in their last desperate attempt
to shake off the shackles of the clouds,
and run free,
like their distant cousin the river,
who in turn joins the ocean
in a slow, snaking curl of watery time.

The smell of forests and fields
winds around the buildings,
clean, fresh, undeniable.
And now the air is renewed,
after being bullied by the rain,
gasping and spluttering
before settling back into stillness
and the gentle reverie it knows.

Now, in the calm of the evening
the sky spreads like milk over the city.
I can see the crooked rooftops from my window
glimmering an answer to the night sky’s questions.
London is lulled by a lullaby
and the planes overhead try to sing along.

As I said, I enjoyed reading all of these and also all the poems which didn’t make it this time. Now I have the difficult task, as Mel or is it Sue would put it, of telling quite a number of writers that I couldn’t fit them in.

And, while we’re on the subject of the Great British Bake Off (never miss it though it plays hell with the diet), my money is on Ian to win.

Thank you to everyone who sent a poem in. Look out for the next blog with a new challenge, a different theme, and a few prompts and exercises to get you writing.

Am I allowed to add that my second collection, The Stonegate Devil, which contains many poems about York and Yorkshire will be out in October?

There will be a launch reading at Waterstones in York on Thursday, November 19 and you’re very welcome to come along for the reading, enjoy a glass of wine and say hello.

A free event but please contact Waterstones and let them know you are coming.