Featured Poem: Jackie Kay’s ‘Darling’

Jackie Kay will be appearing alongside Matt Simpson at the Sefton Celebrates Writing Literary Festival on Saturday 27 September at the Southport Arts Centre Sudio. Jackie Kay is an award-winning poet who has published several collections of poems. Her latest book is Darling: New and Selected Poems (2007) and this is the title poem.




You might forget the exact sound of her voice

Or how her face looked when sleeping.

You might forget the sound of her quiet weeping

Curled into the shape of a half moon,


When smaller than her self, she seemed already to be leaving

Before she left, when the blossom was on the trees

And the sun was out, and all seemed good in the world.

I held her hand and sang a song from when I was a girl –


Heel Y’ Ho Boys, Let her go Boys

And when I stopped singing she had slipped away,

Already a slip of a girl again, skipping off,

Her heart light, her face almost smiling.


And what I didn’t know or couldn’t say then

Was that she hadn’t really gone.

The dead don’t go till you do, loved ones.

The dead are still here holding our hands.


By Jackie Kay


The Sefton Celebrates Writing Literary Festival runs from the 22nd to the 28th of September. For updates about festivals in Liverpool and Northwest, subscribe to our email bulletin. Last week jen Tomkins compiled a roundup of literary festivals in the Northwest this autumn.

Featured Poem: The Beautiful Lie, by Sheenagh Pugh

Katie Clark, a Reader Organisation outreach worker recommends ‘The Beautiful Lie’ by Sheenagh Pugh.

I recently read this poem with my reading group at the Kevin White drugs detox Unit. I was so moved by the discussion it evoked that I came away and read it again myself, noticing things that I had not picked up on at first. After we had finished reading in the group, one member of staff told us that he read the poem from the point of view of the Grandma, and said ‘I think it is the Grandma who is telling the poem–it’s her voice. That’s why she cuts off in the last stanza’. Two other group members said that they had read it from the child’s point of view, finding themselves back at the moment where they first realised that it is possible to ‘say the world different’. One young woman said quietly ‘We all have experience of that in here I think. But it can go both ways. I’ve sometimes got into trouble for being too straight’. We thought that it was interesting the way this lie is reported, as ‘beautiful’, and just another important development phase in this child’s journey through life. It raises questions such as ‘is lying important? Do we need to do it to be human? What would we be like if we didn’t lie?’ Questions which remain with me, like a haunting presence, days after reading the poem.

The Beautiful Lie by Sheenagh Pugh

He was about four, I think… it was so long ago.
In a garden; he’d done some damage
behind a bright screen of sweet-peas
– snapped a stalk, a stake, I don’t recall,
but the grandmother came and saw, and asked him
“Did you do that?”

Now, if she’d said why did you do that,
he’d never have denied it. She showed him
he had a choice. I could see in his face
the new sense, the possible. That word and deed
need not match, that you could say the world
different, to suit you.

When he said “No”, I swear it was as moving
as the first time a baby’s fist clenches
on a finger, as momentous as the first
taste of fruit. I could feel his eyes looking
through a new window, at a world whose form
and colour weren’t fixed

but fluid, that poured like a snake, trembled
around the edges like northern lights, shape-shifted
at the spell of a voice. I could sense him filling
like a glass, hear the unreal sea in his ears.
This is how to make songs, create men, paint pictures,
tell a story

I think I made up the screen of sweet-peas.
Maybe they were beans, maybe there was no screen:
it just felt as if there should be, somehow.
And he was my – no, I don’t need to tell that.
I know I made up the screen. And I recall very well
what he had done


This poem was first published in the TLS. It was the title poem of the collection The Beautiful Lie, Seren 2002 and appears here by permission of the author. Sheenagh Pugh’s next collection is Long-Haul Travellers and is published in autumn 2008. Her Selected Poems is available from Seren.

Featured Poem: Candour, by Rebecca Goss

This week in our Featured Poem series we welcome back Rebecca Goss, who recommended Amy Lowell’s ‘Carrefour’ for us back in June. This time she writes about her own poem, ‘Candour’ which was first published in Ambit, issue 192, Spring 2008.

Rebecca writes:

Someone told me of a man they knew, who had woken his wife in the middle of the night to tell her he didn’t love her anymore. At first, I was horrified at this. How humiliating for the wife, how undignified to be told such a thing, whilst sleepy and vulnerable. But then, the more I thought about it, it was him I felt sorry for. How desperate had he become to feel he had to do it then, tell her at that moment? I’m no good at writing anti-male poems either, I like writing in the male voice too much. I love adopting a man’s voice, imagining his reactions, seeing if I can get away with it!




Moulding my back into the headboard,

I look down at my sleeping wife, push a finger


into her fleshy arm. I watch it sink in, like a child’s finger

lost in forbidden icing. With my whole palm, I roll her arm


like a baker’s pin, but still can’t drag her from the dark.

Shaking a shoulder makes her eyelids spark open.


She sits up quickly, unaware one breast has fallen

from her nightdress. Yawning, her sticky mouth stretches,


sour breath rises in the slim space between us

and I tell her I feel sunken, unloved.


by Rebecca Goss


Rebecca Goss has poems forthcoming in 2008 in two anthologies of contemporary poetry In the Telling (Cinnamon Press) and The Poet’s Perspective (Headland Press). Her poem ‘Virginity’ was amongst a selection chosen by Kate Clanchy to feature in her poetry workshop for The Guardian (online). Read the poem and her comments about it here

Rebecca will be reading with the poet Paul Durcan at The Bluecoat, School Lane, Liverpool, 7.00pm, Wednesday October 15th 2008.

Read a review of her recent reading in Liverpool, see section ‘July 24th’

‘Candour’ is published here with permission.

You can get all our featured poems by email (via Feedburner). Just follow this link and enter your email address: Featured Poems By Email.

Posted by Chris Routledge

Featured Poem: ‘The world is too much with us’

This famous poem, written in 1807, needs little in the way of introduction. Wordsworth’s anguish over the lost connection between humanity and nature is expressed in clear and forceful terms: ‘We have given our hearts away’ and for what? Mere ‘getting and spending’:

The world is too much with us

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon,
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers,
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not.–Great God! I’d rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.

By William Wordsworth (1807)

Posted by Chris Routledge

Featured Poem: ‘Sympathy’ by Paul Laurence Dunbar

Paul Laurence Dunbar‘s poem ‘Sympathy’, first published in 1899, inspired the title to Maya Angelou’s autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, and after even the briefest of readings of the poem, it is easy to see why. I myself always return to Dunbar’s poem, for which neither the words ‘sad’ nor ‘happy’ can apply, striking as it does at a deeper chord of human feeling that has to do with one’s assertion of life even in the bleakest hours of struggle – an assertion of the life spirit which forces even those smallest of creatures, such as the small caged bird around which the poem revolves, to persist in their struggle for freedom which in turn requires their having to hold on to what might be regarded as an almost instinctive faith in life.

I read this poem last week at one of my Get Into Reading groups. After I had read it, two other women also wanted to take a turn in reading it. After I had read the poem, one woman, who is about seventy years old and has suffered from depression for most of her life, said ‘I think that is a lovely poem. I relate it to myself – with the prison bars and the bruised wings, I think about myself in here, but I also think about how I always make sure I go out and keep on going out, and walk around.’ I hope you enjoy the poem as much as I continue to do.


I KNOW what the caged bird feels, alas!
When the sun is bright on the upland slopes;
When the wind stirs soft through the springing grass,
And the river flows like a stream of glass;
When the first bird sings and the first bud opes,
And the faint perfume from its chalice steals –
I know what the caged bird feels!

I know why the caged bird beats his wing
Till its blood is red on the cruel bars;
For he must fly back to his perch and cling
When he fain would be on the bough a-swing;
And a pain still throbs in the old, old scars
And they pulse again with a keener sting –
I know why he beats his wing!

I know why the caged bird sings, ah me,
When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore,-
When he beats his bars and he would be free;
It is not a carol of joy or glee,
But a prayer that he sends from his heart’s deep core,
But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings –
I know why the caged bird sings!

Paul Laurence Dunbar, 1889

Posted by Clare Williams

Featured Poem: ‘Piano’ by D. H. Lawrence

This poem was given to me to read last week by one of our Get Into Reading group members. K, who has also been volunteering in our office found the piece of paper with the poem on it filed away with a collection of short stories, or rather sandwiched between other things in haste after one of the reading groups. It had been lying there, forgotten about, “It’s time we brought it back out into the light,” K said, “isn’t it?” Urging me to read it, telling me that it was one of the most beautiful poems that he’s ever read, I turned away from my computer screen to do just that.

What struck me most about re-reading ‘Piano’ by D H Lawrence was that it didn’t strike me as being merely an act of nostalgia but a beautifully penned illustration on the nature of memory. One can almost hear the “tingling strings” of the “tinkling piano”. These strike me as being like crystal clear water trickling and tumbling in narrow, rocky streams. So our lives move on, never stopping – like a river – and we’re left, on occasion, with our own “insidious mastery of song” which takes back to somewhere we can never really be again (and we may well not want to be) but in those moments floods our present life all the same.


Softly, in the dusk, a woman is singing to me;
Taking me back down the vista of years, till I see
A child sitting under the piano, in the boom of the tingling strings
And pressing the small, poised feet of a mother who smiles as she sings.

In spite of myself, the insidious mastery of song
Betrays me back, till the heart of me weeps to belong
To the old Sunday evenings at home, with winter outside
And hymns in the cosy parlour, the tinkling piano our guide.

So now it is vain for the singer to burst into clamour
With the great black piano appassionato. The glamour
Of childish days is upon me, my manhood is cast
Down in the flood of remembrance, I weep like a child for the past.

D. H. Lawrence, 1918

Posted by Jen Tomkins

Featured Poem: ‘Weathers’, by Thomas Hardy

The British summer has a lot going for it if you happen to be a meteorologist or a poet. Thomas Hardy wrote a lot about weather, in his poetry and in his novels. The contrast between spring and autumn in these two stanzas is beautifully done, connecting the natural run of the seasons with the human (and animal) needs. For the next few weeks at least let’s have more of the weather the cuckoo likes.




This is the weather the cuckoo likes,

And so do I;

When showers betumble the chestnut spikes,

And nestlings fly;

And the little brown nightingale bills his best,

And they sit outside at ‘The Traveller’s Rest,’

And maids come forth sprig-muslin drest,

And citizens dream of the south and west,

And so do I.


This is the weather the shepherd shuns,

And so do I;

When beeches drip in browns and duns,

And thresh and ply;

And hill-hid tides throb, throe on throe,

And meadow rivulets overflow,

And drops on gate bars hang in a row,

And rooks in families homeward go,

And so do I.


By Thomas Hardy


Posted by Chris Routledge

Featured Poem: Wordes Unto Adam His Own Scriveyne

Writers often wish a plague of scabs (and worse) on their editors and Chaucer’s poem about his copyist or scribe, revealed a few years ago as Adam Pinkhurst, is one of the most famous literary outbursts against them. Chaucer’s poem is concise and to the point. Giles Coren came over all medieval in a long email to his subs at The Times and was rather less economical. Adam Pinkhurst, it turns out, worked on many of Chaucer’s best-known manuscripts, and was a ‘favoured scribe’. That makes the following all the more significant:

Wordes Unto Adam His Own Scriveyne

Adam scrivener, if ever thee befall

Boece or Troilus for to write new,

Under thy longe locks thow maist have the scall(1),

But after my makinge thou write mor trew,

So oft a day I mot thy werke renewe

It to correct, and eke to rubbe and scrape,

And all is thorowe thy necligence and rape(2).

1. scab

2. haste

Featured Poem: Emily Bronte, ‘Stanza’

Think of the Brontës and poetry isn’t the first thing that springs to mind. It’s more likely to be Charlotte’s Jane Eyre, Emily’s Wuthering Heights or Anne’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (which, incidentally, is the focus of Readers Connect in the current issue of The Reader magazine and one of the novels in our Richard and Judy Poll, which closes at the end of the month). Yet Emily Brontë is widely regarded as one of the most original poets of the nineteenth century, remembered for her lyrics, such as ‘The night is darkening round me’ and for her passionate invocations from the world of Gondal (an imaginary world that she created with Anne), as well as more personal musings and visions, of which ‘Stanzas’ is one. It is vivid in its evocation of the atmospheric landscape of the moors, which are the centre of her thoughts and the place of her inspiration.

There is, however, some doubt as to whether Emily did indeed write this poem; that it should probably be ascribed to Charlotte. Yet Emily’s poetic work, like Wuthering Heights, so often evokes the moorland scenery that surrounds her – something she was more intensely attached to, and concerned with, than her sisters – this poem is no exception. Surely it was Emily? We’ll never know.


Often rebuked, yet always back returning
To those first feelings that were born with me,
And leaving busy chase of wealth and learning
For idle dreams of things which cannot be:Today, I will seek not the shadowy region;
Its unsustaining vastness waxes drear;
And visions rising, legion after legion,
Bring the unreal world too strangely near.

I’ll walk, but not in old heroic traces,
And not in paths of high morality,
And not among the half-distinguished faces,
The clouded forms of long-past history.

I’ll walk where my own nature would be leading:
It vexes me to choose another guide:
Where the grey flocks in ferny glens are feeding;
Where the wild wind blows on the mountain side.

What have those lonely mountains worth revealing?
More glory and more grief than I can tell:
The earth that wakes one human heart to feeling
Can centre both the worlds of Heaven and Hell.

Emily Brontë

Posted by Jen Tomkins

Featured Poem: Hen Felin, by Grevel Lindop

Helen Tookey, whose poem ‘At Burscough, Lancashire’ from her book Telling the Fractures we featured a few weeks ago, writes to recommend ‘Hen Felin’ by poet Grevel Lindop, from the collection Playing With Fire (Carcanet Press, 2006) Helen has written a substantial and fascinating exploration of the poem which we’ll publish tomorrow:


Hen Felin


There is a white house sunk in the long grass

and a spring rises, no one knows from where


and there is nothing, nothing and again nothing.

The nothings talk together in the house.


The beach breathes when the tide hisses along it,

each pebble bald as a moon; and the moon rises,


and the rocks melt and wrinkle the bright sea.

Part of me has been living here for years


among the nothings and the silences

which are not nothing and are never silent.


And stranded under the long grass and the weeds

a wooden boat, her timbers sprung by time


the white wood mildewed, SWALLOW on the bow:

a white moon drowning in a green sea.


The knitwork tapestry of furballed goosegrass,

pink spikes of willowherb have run her through


but still the unstaunched spring whispers and sings

and will not let her rest and turn to earth


but long past hope still sets the empty heart

echoing to the perpetual music of water.

‘Hen Felin’, from the collection Playing With Fire by Grevel Lindop is published here with permission from Carcanet Press.