Vernon Scannell 1922-2007

The poet Vernon Scannell died last weekend aged 85. He was a prolific writer: eight novels, autobiographical memoirs, works of criticism, children’s books and several collections of poetry and yet it seems he was not as well known or as highly rated as he certainly deserves. My fellow Reader editor, Brian Nellist is a long time admirer of Scannell’s poetry, likening him to the school of Thomas Hardy finding in his work something of Hardy’s consciousness of cruelty but with a warmth and tenderness. Brian points out that he is an active rather than a reflective poet though led to the reflective by particular incident as in his poem ‘Incendiary’, which we chose as one of the poems for discussion in The Reader’s Food For Thought event earlier this month:

and frightening, too, that one small boy should set
The sky on fire and choke the stars to heat
Such skinny limbs and such a little heart

Or in ‘Ageing Schoolmaster’ reflecting on the huge inevitability of his own death:

Not wholly wretched, yet knowing absolutely
That I shall never reacquaint myself with joy,
I sniff the smell of ink and chalk and my mortality
And think of when I rolled, a gormless boy,

And rollicked round the playground of my hours,
And wonder when precisely tolled the bell
Which summoned me from summer liberties
And brought me to this chill autumnal cell

He was, like Hardy, a craftsman poet. Language fits and operates in harmony within the tight framework of his verse and he was concerned with and interested in form. Extraordinary physical images spring out at you from the poetry. Even so it is still surprising to learn that he was once a boxer, earning a living in fairground fights. This was following a deeply troubled army service in WWII. After witnessing the results of a massacre in North Africa,

Disposed in their scattered dozens like fragments of a smashed whole, each human particle/ Is almost identical, rhyming in shape and pigment, /All, in their mute eloquence, oddly beautiful (‘Remembering the Dead at Wadi Akarit’)

he deserted, only to be caught and imprisoned. He was later released to take part in the D.Day landings where he was wounded and once again ran away. While on the run, he changed his name from John Vernon Bains to Vernon Scannell but in 1947 he was caught and sent to an asylum as an alternative to prison. He was a man who lived life to the full and much of that experience of love, violence and death is reflected in his verse. Perhaps his most famous poem and one of the greatest poems of the Second World War is ‘Walking Wounded’:

A mammoth morning moved grey flanks and groaned.
In the rusty hedges pale rags of mist hung;
The gruel of mud and leaves in the mauled lane
Smelled sweet, like blood. Birds had died or flown,
Their green and silent attics sprouting now
With branches of leafed steel, hiding round eyes
And ripe grenades ready to drop and burst.

To hear the rest of the poem read movingly, in gravel voiced seriousness by Scannell himself, visit the Poetry Archive.

If you would like to read more of his work, Collected Poems 1950 – 1993 is available from Amazon.

On the back cover of this collection, Paul Fussell, author of The Great War and Modern Memory says: ‘you actually want to go back and revisit the poems many times. Their shrewd structures hold their elements firmly in place and they resonate also with the kind of humanity time is generous to…’

I can think of no better tribute.

By Angela Macmillan

Poetry Launch: Life Lines 2

Last night, amongst the hustle and bustle of London’s Tottenham Court Road and Soho, the launch of Life Lines 2 was held in the tranquil surroundings of The Poets’ Church, St Giles in the Field. Hosted by Todd Swift (whom I had met on the first day of the Cheltenham Literature Festival), the evening consisted of readings by featured poets in this anthology which has been created to raise funds for Oxfam‘s Darfur appeal. Admitting to me before the event started, “I’m very nervous”, Todd hosted the event in his unasuming and witty manner to great success. He needn’t have been worried: this audio anthology is superb, it’s a joy to be able to listen to poets reading their own work and to hear such different timbres of voice in one collection. It’s credit to his position as Oxfam’s Poet in Residence and the evening’s readings were an impressive representation of the work that is featured on the collection.

The readings last night came from a collection of  distinct and original poetic voices: Dannie Abse, Sujata Bhatt, Siobhan Campbell, Elaine Feinstein, Atilla the Stockbroker, Wayne Smith and John Hartley Williams. Todd himself read the memory-laden ‘The Man Who Killed Houdini’ from Winter Tennis (a collection that I admire very much), an emotional Elain Feinstein recitied poems  from her latest collection explaining the difficulties and joys of marraige to her late husband Arnold (‘Wheelchair’ is featured on Life Lines 2), and Dannie Abse read some of his heartfelt and emphatic poetry: “a liturgy to literature”, my dear friend Ruth noted whilst we were sat in the pews of the beautiful Poets’ Church. This is not to say that it was a sombre and serious event, humour came from Atilla the Stockbroker and from the anthology’s youngest poet, Wayne Smith (who, unlike me, has no shame that he was born in Swindon). I wish every success for the Life Lines anthologies and hope there to be a third; fantastic poetry by original voices for a commendable cause.

Posted by Jen Tomkins

Cheltenham Literature Festival: Life Lines

Life Lines is an audio poetry anthology of some of the best poets writing in the English language today, including Fleur Adcock, Carol Ann Duffy, Blake Morrison, Andrew Motion and Benjamin Zephaniah. Its editor, Todd Swift, is Oxfam’s Poet in Residence and it was his idea to ask established and new poets to contribute their writing in support of Oxfam’s charitable work. Contibutors Kate Clanchy and Michael Rosen joined Todd Swift at the festival last night to launch Life Lines 2, reading extracts from it and from their own collections.

The event started with an lively discussion about the relevance and importance of poetry to our lives today. Poetry is often regarded as a ‘dying art’ but these poets are flying their flag high, believing poetry to be blazing with life and eager to feel that their words are able to make a difference in this world. Recently a newspaper journalist had written, “now that poetry is dead…”, which prompted Michael Rosen to write a swift response on the paper’s blog in defence of poetry (rather Shelley-esque). His indignation was still obvious last night, “it’s crazy to say that, of course it’s not!”, “it’s an extrapolation outwards of the egocentric self to say poetry’s dead” and there was not a soul in the room that would have consider poetry a dying art after hearing these efficacious speakers. “It’s not dead, just listen to rap music, that’s poetry: a new way to deliver rhythm and rhyme,” says Rosen, “but us poets, we were there first!”

Todd Swift read four poems from his new collection Winter Tennis, all touching accounts written about his father and their relationship (Swift’s father died last year). Kate Clanchy’s ‘War Poetry’ delves into the realities and unrealities of our lives, about our ability to watch television war reports with silent abashment, distancing ourselves from the reality. Then Michael Rosen took centre stage and had the audience captivated with his piercing blue eyes and animated delivery; it was an amusing, poignant and powerful reading of some of his most loved work (although I was most disappointed not to hear ‘Don’t put Mustard in the Custard’, a favourite from my childhood). Three very different poetic voices but with the same common goal: to use poetry to make us rethink the how we use words and how they can change the world for the better.

Inspired by the vibrancy of the poets event, I dashed out of the room to the book tent to buy a copy of this CD. This, you may think, would be easy. Not so. I saw Todd Swift sitting down ready to sign away so I asked him where his fantastic anthology could be found. He didn’t know. This was obviously a little worrying for Todd and whilst people were off looking for the cds I was able to talk to him about his work and The Reader (delighted that he was familiar with it). I am now the proud owner of his personal copy of Winter Tennis, which he read from last night (he wrote in the inside cover but I can’t work out what it says, any handwriting decoders out there?). In this time the CDs were found and I duly went to pay (which itself proved difficult: lack of change and surplus of people at the till) before taking them back for the grand signing (which was also difficult: neither myself, Todd Swift or Michael Rosen could get the cellophane off for a good while, ultimately a biro proved invaluable). Thinking that I had then made enough fuss around this table, it was time to leave, so I said goodbye and off I went. Only I had forgotten my CDs, to their amusement and my embarrassment. It is now firmly in my possession and once I have some moments of calm solitude, I will listen to the anthology and review it in full.

Posted by Jen Tomkins

Featured Poem: The Stone Beach

In the last of our poetry recommendations for this week Reader outreach worker and Reader Online editor Katie Peters chooses Simon Armitage’s ‘The Stone Beach’. She says: “I like stanzas 4 and 6 best, and especially the idea of living in the present but simultaneously carrying the memory of a distant past life which lives on in the present through that memory and through those who shared that life with you.”

Of course we asked permission to print this poem and Simon Armitage replied through his agent that he was happy for it to appear here, but to contact Faber, the publisher, to confirm. The agent said there was unlikely to be a problem. Unfortunately it wasn’t to be. I contacted the permissions department of Faber earlier in the week to ask if we could post the poem here. We promised of course to cite the conditions of the permission offered and it goes without saying that we would have linked to the Faber catalogue and to places where our readers could buy the collection The Universal Home Doctor, which was published in 2002. ‘The Stone Beach’ is characteristic of the collection, which was described by The Guardian at the time as “amusing and charming – effortlessly winning over an audience when read out loud – yet essentially serious, substantial enough to repay reconsidering. [The poems] achieve this because their preferred method is allegory, “mouthing off” about one thing while thinking about another.”

In the end on Friday I received word from Faber that we would be able to publish the poem here, but at a cost of £155 (ex. VAT, naturally). That would buy us a year of having the poem on this page, but Faber would retain the right to take it down with a month’s notice. Since we would be providing publicity for Faber, rather than the other way around, I declined this generous offer. So instead of the poem, let us all consider Faber’s permissions letter, published in full below. I’m going to be writing more on this topic in the next few days, since it seems to resonate with the mistakes made by the music industry over the last few years. I just love the bit about not ‘photocopying downloads,’ whatever that means. In the mean time if you think this document is as ridiculous as I do, feel free to contact Faber to tell them so. A contact address is available on this page.

The Permissions Form in Full:

Thank you for your email requesting permission to reproduce the above on your open-access web site (sic) in textual form.

We have certain conditions for the use of our copyright material on the internet and I have listed these below together with our fees for non-exclusive English Language permission throughout the UK and Commonwealth.

Fee: £155.00 plus VAT

This permission is granted for the period of one year only and we reserve the right to withdraw our permission with one month’s notice. A copyright line including the title of the work, the source of the poem, the author and Faber and Faber Ltd as the publisher must be printed, as well as a warning that photocopying downloads is against copyright law. We would also request that your web site is linked to a book shop site or our own web site [].

Please indicate below how you wish to proceed and then return this fax to (+44) (0)20 7465 0108.

If we do not receive a reply within thirty days we will assume that you have proceeded.


If after all that you still feel like reading the poem ‘The Stone Beach’ is freely available online here. Interestingly very few of the conditions imposed above have been met.

Posted by Chris Routledge. Powered by Qumana

Featured Poem: Morning Mudslinging

Marion Leibl has chosen ‘Morning Mudslinging’ by Erich Fried as our featured poem for today. She writes: ‘Sometimes I meet the people I see every day in my dreams as well. When in dreams I have conversations with them, or something happens that upsets me or makes me happy, I cannot help but either hold it against them or feel more warmly towards them the next time I see them. There’s always a little voice in the dark recesses of my brain that says: you know very well what happened – you can pretend now that it was nothing, but we both know better. Reading this poem, I am relieved to find that I’m not the only one with this problem.

Morning Mudslinging

When I proposed love
you declined
and explained to me:
‘I just met
a nice man
in a dream
He was blind
And a German
Isn’t that funny?’

I wished you sweet dreams
and went down
to my desk
but so jealous
I was hardly ever before


This poem appears in Eric Fried’s Love Poems, published by Calder
Publications, £11.99
Translation (c) Stuart Hood, 1991, reprinted with permission

Featured Poem: The Dream

Today is National Poetry Day and this year its focus is dreams, a subject that poets (and readers alike) are continually beguiled by. When we enter sleep, we enter an entirely new world, one that is filled with dreams carrying their own pleasure and pain. In Part One of ‘The Dream’, Byron separates our lives into waking and dreaming worlds, explicating how dreams render their own reality, through power of vision and intensity of thought. Yet equally pertinent is the amalgamation of the two: how dreams borrow from our conscious thought and how we, in turn, bring essences of our dreams into our waking world.

From The Dream

Our life is twofold: Sleep hath its own world,
A boundary between the things misnamed
Death and existence: Sleep hath its own world,
And a wide realm of wild reality,
And dreams in their development have breath,
And tears, and tortures, and the touch of Joy;
They leave a weight upon our waking thoughts,
They take a weight from off our waking toils,
They do divide our being; they become
A portion of ourselves as of our time,
And look like heralds of Eternity;
They pass like spirits of the past,—they speak
Like Sibyls of the future; they have power—
The tyranny of pleasure and of pain;
They make us what we were not—what they will,
And shake us with the vision that’s gone by,
The dread of vanished shadows—Are they so?
Is not the past all shadow?—What are they?
Creations of the mind?—The mind can make
Substance, and people planets of its own
With beings brighter than have been, and give
A breath to forms which can outlive all flesh.
I would recall a vision which I dreamed
Perchance in sleep—for in itself a thought,
A slumbering thought, is capable of years,
And curdles a long life into one hour.


Posted by Jen Tomkins

Sean O’Brien Wins the Forward Poetry Prize

Sean O’Brien has become the first person to win the Forward Poetry Prize three times, picking up the £10,000 poobah for his collection The Drowned Book. Daljit Nagra won the £5,000 prize for best first collection while Alice Oswald took home £1,000 for best poem, the category won by Nagra in 2004.

We reported on the shortlist back in August.

Posted by Chris Routledge. Powered by Qumana

Featured Poem: Hamatreya

So it’s my turn to recommend a poem and I choose ‘Hamatreya’ by Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emerson is better known as a philosopher, perhaps the philosopher of American Transcendentalism. I like this poem because of the way it confronts the tension between humans and the environment and for its clear-eyed realism about our transient dreams:


Bulkeley, Hunt, Willard, Hosmer, Meriam, Flint,
Possessed the land which rendered to their toil
Hay, corn, roots, hemp, flax, apples, wool and wood.
Each of these landlords walked amidst his farm,
Saying, “‘Tis mine, my children’s and my name’s.
How sweet the west wind sounds in my own trees!
How graceful climb those shadows on my hill!
I fancy these pure waters and the flags
Know me, as does my dog: we sympathize;
And, I affirm, my actions smack of the soil.’

Where are these men? Asleep beneath their grounds:
And strangers, fond as they, their furrows plough.
Earth laughs in flowers, to see her boastful boys
Earth-proud, proud of the earth which is not theirs;
Who steer the plough, but cannot steer their feet
Clear of the grave.

They added ridge to valley, brook to pond,
And sighed for all that bounded their domain;
‘This suits me for a pasture; that’s my park;
We must have clay, lime, gravel, granite-ledge,
And misty lowland, where to go for peat.
The land is well,–lies fairly to the south.
‘Tis good, when you have crossed the sea and back,
To find the sitfast acres where you left them.’
Ah! the hot owner sees not Death, who adds
Him to his land, a lump of mould the more.
Hear what the Earth says:–


‘Mine and yours;
Mine, not yours, Earth endures;
Stars abide–
Shine down in the old sea;
Old are the shores;
But where are old men?
I who have seen much,
Such have I never seen.

‘The lawyer’s deed
Ran sure,
In tail,
To them, and to their heirs
Who shall succeed,
Without fail,

‘Here is the land,
Shaggy with wood,
With its old valley,
Mound and flood.
“But the heritors?–
Fled like the flood’s foam.
The lawyer, and the laws,
And the kingdom,
Clean swept herefrom.

‘They called me theirs,
Who so controlled me;
Yet every one
Wished to stay, and is gone,
How am I theirs,
If they cannot hold me,
But I hold them?’
When I heard the Earth-song,
I was no longer brave;
My avarice cooled
Like lust in the chill of the grave.


Audio versions of this poem from Librivox:

64kbps mp3

128kbps mp3

ogg vorbis 

Posted by Chris Routledge

Featured Poem: The Lake Isle of Innisfree

ReaderOnline contributor Siobhan Chapman has recently returned to teaching after a year’s sabbatical to write a book. Judging by her selection of W.B. Yeats’s ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’ she is finding Liverpool’s city streets rather unforgiving. She says she chose this poem because, as well as being a powerful evocation of a particular place, it will resonate with anyone who has ever found themselves on ‘pavements gray’:

The Lake Isle of Innisfree

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean rows will I have there, a hive for the honey bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.

I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements gray,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.


Here are links to audio versions of this poem from Librivox:

64kbps mp3

128kbps mp3

ogg vorbis

Featured Poem: Ode To Autumn

Thursday October 4 is National Poetry Day here in the UK and to mark the occasion we are going to be posting some of our favourite poems each day in the coming week.

At the Sefton Festival of Literature last week Andrew Motion was asked by a member of the audience which poet, living or dead, he would most like to meet. He named, among others, John Keats and in conversation afterwards agreed that ‘Ode to Autumn’ would be his choice. This poem is one of those works of art without which it is inconceivable to be alive. Motion asked us to consider that in the morning of September 19, 1819, this poem did not exist. By the evening it did:

Ode To Autumn

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eaves run;
To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease;
For Summer has o’erbrimm’d their clammy cells.

Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reap’d furrow sound asleep,
Drowsed with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
Spares the next swath and all its twinèd flowers:
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
Steady thy laden head across a brook;
Or by a cyder-press, with patient look,
Thou watchest the last oozings, hours by hours.

Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,—
While barrèd clouds bloom the soft-dying day
And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
Among the river-sallows, borne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The redbreast whistles from a garden-croft;
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.


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