Poetry blog: That’s just for starters…

New beginnings: John F Kennedy. Yvie Holder writes about starting school as news of the Cuban missile crisis breaks. Photograph: Wikipedia
25 Sep 2013 @ 7.00 am
| News
New beginnings: John F Kennedy. Yvie Holder writes about starting school as news of the Cuban missile crisis breaks. Photograph: Wikipedia
New beginnings: John F Kennedy. Yvie Holder writes about starting school as news of the Cuban missile crisis breaks. Photograph: Wikipedia

First jobs, new schools, moving house… the theme of ‘beginnings’ takes many poetic forms, says YorkMix Poet In Residence Carole Bromley

I certainly started something this time. So many poems about beginnings and so many good ones it really was hard to choose. If your poem isn’t among these do please send one for our next challenge in October.

I hope all your school starters are OK. My granddaughter is doing fine. I meet her sometimes and it’s lovely to watch her hopscotch her way home and tell me as much as she chooses about her day and no more. That must feel like a first taste of independence.

The Bake Off continues and poor old Rob got the boot. All that scientific precision was no match for the towers of perfect macaroons held together by edible glue.

I wouldn’t want to face Paul and Mary with a leathery tuile. I love it. Watching people learn and make mistakes is always good telly.

It also makes for great poems. I’ll start with the ones about school. The first one, by Sarah Wimbush, is more about the acceptance of growing up by the parent though it is also about the new and stricter regime of secondary school for the pupil.

Hope I’ve got that right, Sarah. It could equally be about moving on from playgroup to primary. Either way, I love the simplicity of this one, the little details and the ending with its new rules and strict uniform. I like the enjambment in the fun part of the poem and that full stop before the decisive “It’s on the bus”.

4th September by Sarah Wimbush

No more walking
round the corner,
with a Viking longboat
made from a Kellogg’s box,

or balancing a pyramid
of sticky buns on a cardboard plate
and the Christmas hat
it took us hours to make,

or skipping
dressed as a little witch
for the disco (Halloween).

It’s on the bus –
shirt, tie, black opaque tights.
Ankle socks, strictly not allowed.

Yvie Holder’s poem is about a child’s experience of going to school the day of the Cuban Missile Crisis and not knowing if the world might have ended by hometime.

I remember that day so clearly, all that black humour in the playground and the fear underneath. Yvie captures it beautifully and gives us a vivid glimpse of a Sixties schoolyard with its chants and marbles. Great title.

Tilt by Yvie Holder

Just something on the news, she said,
as you pulled on your school gabardine.
She looked away, at the sink, her hands
in soap suds, then wiping dry, reached
to the bow at her back, tugged her apron.
Now, have a lovely day. Bye-bye.
You swung out of the door, blowing
a quick kiss, without looking back.

Rounding the corner of your road
late in the afternoon – head full
of spelling tests and needlework,
pockets clacking with new marbles –
and humming the big ship sails through
the illey alley-oh on the last day –

you heard her words again.
The world might end today.

You paused and look down, stepped over
some cracks, tilted your head, listened
for birds, checked for sunlight flickering
through branches, and wondered whether
you were still alive, really walking,
and whether you’d be able to tell
if anything had changed,
or everything, or nothing at all.

I loved the song in that poem. Songs are great at evoking a particular time and place, aren’t they? Jacqueline Everett gives us another example, this time in a secondary school where ankle socks were allowed and a classmate sang “Don’t want your love any more” in a cloakroom full of damp gabardines.

It’s little details like that that bring a scene alive. Ah, Cathy’s Clown. That brings it all back. Thank you for transporting me to a Sixties grammar school classroom and the land between the Tigris and the Euphrates. I, too, drew sheaves of corn.

In the beginning.
by Jacqueline Everett

Nervously scuffing new ankle socks under desks,
we open From Ur to Rome and add our names
to the dog-eared list of previous owners,
and twice a week, we journey back

to Mesopotamia, the Cradle of Civilisation,
The Fertile Crescent, between the Tigris and Euphrates.
We draw sheaves of corn and reed beds as high as houses.
We’ve no idea how we might draw civilisation;

to Babylon, where astronomers chart planets and measure stars,
and divide the world into three hundred and sixty degrees.
Our protractors, set squares and compasses in waiting,
we open our pencil cases and try our hand at cuneiform;

to Egypt, where Pharaohs defy death and we labour over pyramids
and irrigation channels but give up on notions of The Underworld;

to Greece, where we ink in lopsided Ionian columns and wonder at
the music of the spheres and the short life of Athenian democracy;

to Rome where Caesar dies but not before he’s come, seen and conquered.

I picture a Syrian soldier on Hadrian’s Wall
keeping watch against the barbarians, pining for home.

In the cloakroom behind the rows of damp gabardines,
Linda Wildman sings, “Don’t want your love anymore.”

Nice to hear from Doreen Gurrey, one of our competition prizewinners. And thank you for introducing us to a new form. That taking up a word or phrase from the end of a stanza and using it in a different way in the next gives this poem its energy and wit.

The poem feels spontaneous though I’m sure a great deal of crafting went into the writing of it. A whole world opens up for us here and I absolutely love it.

Before I Met You by Doreen Gurrey

I played hard to get,
showed one hard breast to David Long
longed to be from a different class.

Became a class act,
grammar school girl in a council house,
housed a grudge that became my lodger
in an attic with no hot water.

Got into lots of it:
wrote bad poems about men
and good poems about bad men;
thought every man was the right man
left things behind in flats.

Worried I was flat chested,
worried my mother, mothered cats,
strays; got caught ticketless on trains.

Missed trains, overslept on trains
slept with strangers, friends, the odd lover
who were mostly just that.

Put up with them,
put myself down,
burned the candle at both ends,
couldn’t bring myself to burn my bra,
burned for you instead.

Got a telegram,
met you half way, where two rivers meet,
heard our laughter
in a place
where before became some time after.

The next poem is about the initial struggle to learn to read and how, once you’ve grasped it each word becomes “a window to a world of thought”.

Chris Bridge wrote this at Gatwick where he was “bored out of his skull” waiting for a plane to Sicily. What a very profitable way to while away those dead hours in departures. I’m so glad your plane was delayed, Chris. A poem worthy of the Great British Bake Off.

Bun by Chris Bridge

The first word I ever read was “bun”.
on a day when the hieroglyphs I’d struggled with
became a pattern that I understood.
A b, a u, an n became a thing of air pockets
joined together by stuff so lightly cooked
that you could scoff or knead it back to dough.
This was a word you licked the icing off.

Much later on “bun” became “phthisic”, “glasnost”, “nuanced”,
each one a window to a world of thought.
But that three letter word was my gateway
and when I see it written even now
it rewards me with a kind of afterglow
that never fades, as if I understood even then –
at small expense – that penny bun
shouted its sweetness, promised the world made sense.

Moving on from school to a first taste of the world of work, we have a lovely poem by Janet Dean which will make you hungry. There are not enough tastes in poems. It’s a neglected sense and so effective when used well.

I loved the picture of the writer taking home her “trophy” of a first wage packet and a bag of Misshapes to share with her family. A real rite of passage. I like this one very much. Love the longer lines.

I started in the Pick N Mix at Woolworths, Barnsley, 1973
by Janet Dean

A girl in a blue checked overall, nylon-neat and smooth,
protégé of a dark haired woman whose name has melted.
Stretching over mahogany stalls, reaching for paper bags
bulging Humbugs or limp with a quarter of Midget Gems.

The trophy of my first wage, and a bag of Misshapes to share;
Dad sucking on the Caramels, Mam letting the Strawberry Creams
melt into her daydreams. Back then I like to think I crunched and
cracked like a young ’un.

It’s true I gorged handfuls of Chocolate Limes and Toffee Éclairs
crouched under the counter, and picked out all the Raspberry
Ruffles on the bus home. But being grown-up was an illusion,
all in my mind and the uniform I wore.

And now for a poem by Kathryn Clune who hasn’t sent poems in before so welcome, Kathryn.

There were, incidentally, a number of new names this time. Some poems I decided not to publish because they were too long, others because they felt a bit old-fashioned in form and language, one because it had been published on Facebook (sorry but that counts as publishing too for the purposes of this blog) and others because I simply didn’t have enough space.

Kathryn’s poem is a delightful evocation of spring. It is closely observed and I especially liked “the rich dark crumb/ of December’s plum pudding”, the “fleshy pads of Bergenia” and those snowdrops seen as “fragile white teardrops”. Spring feels a long way off even with Strictly and Christmas in between.

Spring Garden by Kathryn Clune

There is a welcome warmth
Softening the edge of the morning air.
The earth is damp,
Holding the rich, dark crumb
Of Decembers plum pudding;
A rhythmic fecundity
Waking at last from Winter’s icy grip.

Rowan and Hydrangea boast
Plump brown buds on their bare branches.
The fleshy pads of Bergenia
Have shrugged off shrouds of dull emerald
In favour of a brighter hue.
Clustered round a corner of the border,
Primroses unfurl their modest display.
And at the shadiest spot beside the path,
Snowdrops roll fragile white teardrops
Along slender stems that bend and sway,
Trembling on the cusp
Of a new Season.

Susan Elliot chose to write about making a fresh start in the form of moving house. Beginning again with new neighbours can be a challenge but Susan makes something positive out of it. I like the honesty and humour in this one and I love those “sunflowers and wild berries”.

Moving house

There were two beginnings, as different as a pea and a broad bean
in the same pod; both in winter, two new homes. At the first it was below zero.
She had left stale pickings from Christmas rotting in the alley,
an old broken lop-sided chest in the bedroom which we had to break up.
Each wall was clinic-white, but then she was a doctor.

On arrival, we crept upstairs. I glimpsed down, saw something on the windscreen;
thought it was a Yorkshire pigeon leaving us a gift. Instead someone had sprayed
“Fuck off” with that stuff they use for Christmas trees. You washed it off;
I cried with the cat on my lap in the back room. I want to go back home I said.
We can’t you said. This is a new start. God help us I said. A nice policeman

came quickly on his a bike. The Pickfords man gave me a hug. I felt better.
We were cursed though, things went wrong. Stuck it out for a decade,
then came here, where we fell in love with the large warm hallway, glows
in uncurtained front windows, a garden full of energy, renewing itself, and us.
There are no witches here, only sunflowers, wild berries and people who smile.

And now we come to a couple of poems about art. The first is by Bill Fitzsimons who had a poem published on YorkMix about a year ago. I seem to remember it was a sonnet?

This one is very different in tone and form and is based on a painting in the Audrey Burton Gallery at Leeds University. I wonder if the writer went on one of their wonderful poetry workshops?

I think it is a really strong poem and I’m so pleased to publish it. Very unusual and effective. I love the voice in it. Adopting the voice of the man in the painting seems to have been liberating and the language in this one is beautiful. I don’t know the painting but the poem certainly captured something of its essence.

CHANGELING by Bill Fitzsimons

(based on the painting “The Man who thought he was a Bear” by Christopher P Wood, displayed in the Stanley and Audrey Burton Gallery at Leeds University)

I swing my snout into the wind,
the sweet odour of honey and heather
rising to my eager nostrils; my heavy legs
welded to the spongy earth.
My jaws ache with hunger at the thought
of wild berries bursting with juice;
salmon twisting in my grip, pink flesh
melting on my thick tongue.

Yesterday I was a man, immersed
in human waters, no strange stirrings
in my pale, hairless body. Today
cells are mutating, flesh becoming coarse,
bulky, ursine. I feel the fresh breeze
ruffle my new fur coat, hear
the rustle of small creatures in the grass.

That I was ever other than a bear
seems remote, unnatural, unthinkable.

John Foggin, also writing about art / design, adopts a different approach. I imagine this is Capability Brown advising a lady about landscaping her grounds? I’m assuming it isn’t based on a painting but it could be.

I love the humour in this and the language. It succeeds in expressing the speaker’s opinion of “the Picturesque” while also giving us a clear picture of before and after the “improvements” to the scene. I love the ending.

Grand designs by John Foggin

The grass is wet, Ma’am; take care. Allow me. So.
Perhaps your man can hold the book?. Yes.
You see this colour wash and pencil shows
the way the land’s disposed just now. These barns
and cottages will have to go. Now, if we fold
these papers, let me show you our design.
Thus: a shallow valley where we redirect
the stream, and, in the middle ground, a lake,
this balustraded bridge in Portland stone;
here, we plant our stands of chestnut; here, of elm
and beech. We need the play of dappling light.
A raised knoll here — with Pantheon —some sheep
precisely placed, a scattering of deer.
The Pictureseque, you see. This vantage point
will need a temple. Something simple, Doric.
Madam, you approve the scheme? The which
to undertake will be a privilege.
We could begin within the month..upon my word.
And as to finishing? The work to be complete,
within a twelvemonth. The achieved effect? Ah.
Allow two hundred years; you have my guarantee.

The final two poems are both about writing. In the first, Simon Currie explores writers’ block by comparing it to rock climbing. It’s a very effective metaphor for writing and I sympathise with the speaker, stuck in a workshop facing a stubbornly blank page while “others gain the sunlight”.

This is, of course, false modesty. Simon Currie’s first collection will be launched at the Ilkley Literature Festival on Saturday October 19th at 9pm in the Ilkley Playhouse. Do come along. You’ll be in for a treat.

And, while we’re on the subject of the Ilkley Festival Fringe, I will be reading with the York Stanza group also at 9pm in the Playhouse on Monday October 7th. All welcome. Free event. Here’s Simon’s poem.

Block by Simon Currie

Novice at rock face, address but no ascent,
feet pressed on stone, fingers tight in crevice.
Or a writer blocked, unable to go beyond
jottings that lead nowhere, no route to inspiration.

No ladder, stuck at first step, the next hold blind,
above reach, rock dank by the ground.
What of that vaulting rhythm, the unchecked ballet
from base to top just witnessed?

Slab and blank page seem featureless, no way forward.
Climber and writer can make no call on reason,
foiled by obdurate rock or workshop blues:
bystanders watching others gain the sunlight.

And finally a poem by Lyn Langford about starting to write a poem. I love the idea of that initial stage being “like making this beautiful dish”. Lyn emphasises the time it takes and the painstaking research or perhaps a search for the right images.

Then there’s the form “You want people to puzzle / over how it was made, what is that flavour?” It’s a very interesting way of looking at the creative process, the pleasure and pride in it, the perfectionism, everything right down to the last “sliver of orange” and then the “dish” sitting in the centre of the table “glinting, as if it had made itself.” Perfect.

OK, nothing’s perfect. I did wonder if “dish” would initially make people think of a bowl rather than a recipe? Now I’m sounding like Paul and Mary. Lovely to finish on another taste poem. Can’t get enough of them.

Persian Jewelled Rice by Lyn Langford

When you start to write a poem
it’s like making this beautiful dish.
You need to allow a few hours.
There are many ingredients- saffron threads,
rose petals, cardamom, rice of course.
Not all are easy to find.
You go from shop to shop. You spend hours
gazing, and then you go back
to mix them. Not too much of this,
a little more of that.

You want people to puzzle
over how it was made, what is that flavour?
And you want it to linger,
intense, smoky, sharp, a little sweetness.
You build it up layer by layer,
shape it to a point, if you can – (careful here
the texture is crucial).
Then you can work on it – add the barberries
pistachios, little slivers of orange, some petals.
It will sit in the centre of your table
glinting, as if it had made itself.

Thank you for all the poems you sent in. I love reading them and selecting the best for the blog. I hate rejecting them but that’s a necessary evil, isn’t it? I get rejected too but I keep on sending them out. Don’t give up. Send me another one and I promise to read it with care and interest.

One plea. Do please send your poems as attachments in Word or PDF. Poems in the body of an email go haywire when cut and pasted. All the faffing about to get them right is very time-consuming and enough to make me choose someone else’s poem!

The next theme will be water, which is the theme for National Poetry Day this year. A short blog with some tips and examples will appear in early October.

And, talking of National Poetry Day, I will be reading at City Screen Basement Bar on Thursday October 3rd with a great bunch of poets (Abi Curtis, Henry Raby, Oz Hardwick, Helen Cadbury, Becky Cherriman, Dave Gough, Steve Nash, Miles Salter, Nick Toczek and Lizzi Linklater).

The event is called Poems By The Water and is part of Miles Salter’s excellent Red Wheelbarrow series of events. It will run from 8-11pm Tickets £4 / £3 for students on the door. Do come. It would be nice to meet you over a glass of wine.


Carole Bromley is married with four children and lives in York. Twice a winner in The Poetry Business Book and Pamphlet Competition, she has two pamphlets with Smith/Doorstop (Unscheduled Holt, 2005, and Skylight, 2009) and a collection A Guided Tour of the Ice House. She has won a number of first prizes, including The Bridport and Yorkshire Open, and her poems have appeared in a range of magazines and anthologies. Carole is a graduate of the MPhil in Writing at Glamorgan University and teaches creative writing for York University’s Centre for Lifelong Learning.