A sequence of poems paying tribute to poets and singer-songwriters who have shaped my life.


I. The spell

for Meg Harrington

It is Spring, moonless night in the small town,
starless and bible-black, the cobblestreets silent…

No tricks on the dark stage but a single pool
of light, in which a Welsh voice sounded.
It was magic, it was hypnotism, it was alchemy.

Oh, I was flotsam on the lilting waves
of consonants that chirred and chuckled;
I was a shell caressed by sibilants and wooed
by choirs of liquid vowels. There was no end
to the tug and toss of the word-hoard’s ocean.

Did I follow the human drama? I had no need.
The people were bodiless voices picked out
briefly by lights, then receding into darkness.
When the play ended, when the clapping stopped,
something had gone from me. But I was a votary.

All the way home, in the car’s quiet, I brooded
on memory. Words turned and churned in my mind
but only as phantom traces, their thin sounds
tuneless, papery. I knew then I would never
experience the like of it again. I was bereaved.

It was years before I saw the film. Until that time,
all I allowed myself was the poet’s words
on the page, seen by my own eyes reading silently.
I tried once listening to the man himself, reciting -
but was angered by his posh elocution, a travesty.

Before the film, how pure was my fealty
to that first performance. In comparison, all else
seemed irrevocable loss – until one voice,
the medium for something rich and strange,
brought my touchstone back to me.

Richard Burton, you died too young, of drink.
You lie buried in Geneva – in a red suit
to honour your Welsh ancestry. A copy
of the poet’s work is entombed beside you,
making you one with the life that you portrayed.

II. Too late

“Peace in the world or the world in pieces”

I never hear him but those days come back,
with the quick sweet scent of lilac:
doors open all day long
and the Sixties living on in song.

Dylan divided us – our parents rushing in
to turn the volume down
but Pete’s voice was always welcome,
everyone listening.

His ballads held the line,
piecing truth together.
He married folk to protest
and made them last for ever.

Always, now, the bitter regret
that I never saw him perform.
I came to him too late,
and his voice cracked as the years wore on.

I was in Oxford when he died,
five decades suddenly un-spooling.
The world was a gutted candle,
an unstringed banjo, a broken heart.

I never saw him — but those days came back,
with the quick sweet scent of lilac:
doors open all day long
and the Sixties living on in song.

III. The poetry reading

“In the deserts of the heart
Let the healing fountain start”

His face sagged in pouches and he smoked on stage.
Whatever he was wearing that night
resembled pyjamas. But when he read,
an immense silent tension spread
through the assembly hall and held us all
so tight we felt that it would never end.

As we drove back from Harrogate, I told my dad
that this poet’s words could change the world.
He frowned, shook his head, and told me to read
Marx and Engels, which I did – in a small book,
The Essential Left, signed by my father;
it’s here with me now, though he’s long dead.

It was he who came upstairs to break the news
when Auden died. We stood apart, looking out
over the red-brick back-to-backs, sharing
only our memory of that night in Harrogate,
not its significance. For our difference,
as much as for the poet’s death, I cried.

IV. Chansonnier

Was he bawdy or not? The jury was out -
and I was there to decide, in a packed tent
in Leeds... He sang ‘Family Tree’ beguilingly
and ‘The Hole’ with a demented intensity
that told us laughter was almost beside the point;
but laugh we did. The tent-walls vanished,
carried away on a sudden gust of hysteria.

There was no one like him: poker-faced, jawbone
tensed like a vice; sweat pouring off his body
like an unstoppable annealing flood. His baritone
voice clipped itself, clipped you: nothing
mattered but the stories. He raged at trapped lives –
pinched hypocrisy, repression, snobbery. His satire
gripped the Absurd, and never let go.

A local writer - Catholic, poet, journalist - Jake taught
at my sisters’ school in Bramley. Best known
as Yorkshire's Brassens, he had a national
following. Thatcher finished him, and he died
a lonely death. Was he writing filth? No more
than Rochester. Was he like Rabelais?
The jury’s still out: unsure what to make of him.

V. The interpreters

for Lydia and Irena Bauman

We had only that album, but we made it count:
it was manna, heaven-sent, a gift from my friends
the Baumans, who were exiled Polish Jews.
We were fifteen; we tiptoed round the lyrics
as if they were holy sacraments whose meaning,
like a Dali painting, we must find with our missing key.

Oh sailor! He who could walk on water! With little
knowledge of Freud and less of the Bible, we were
the blind leading the blind; his lost disciples
huddled over the turntable, watching the stylus
go round and round, scoring the lines deeper
and deeper into our mystified adoring minds.

Familiar Stranger! I cannot listen to his songs
without those days, those friends, returning:
his words are intertwined with an intense
remembered love. His later albums,
which have accompanied me through life,
are inseparable from who I am, like those I marry.

I have no words for what it felt like when he died,
an old man after a fall, just like my father.
It was Armistice Day. I had awoken, stunned.
I walked the streets alone, seeing poppies – some red,
some white; all equally the badges of our shame.
This was purgatory; we were the damned.

And now, a month later, playing his new album,
I’m re-mystified. Yes, I’ve been reading Fanon,
and I want it darker. Already the songs are etched
on my mind, sharp as a needle. My biggest regret
is that I never heard him singing live – when he was
here; when we were equally vulnerable.

VI. Reincarnations

“Such violence and I can see how women lie down for artists”

That first time, in Balliol JCR, he was exactly
as you’d expect: the one man in the room
powerful enough to move mountains.
Feral, morose, his voice possessed me.
He stole the poems of his I had by heart
and gave them back to me again
so fierce and new that I shook and trembled.

The second time, in the Sheldonian, he was
a long way off – thinner than I remembered,
and somehow frail. The Yorkshire gutturals
were still strong, but the voice had faded.
Plath’s words came back to me: ‘Oh to give myself
crashing, fighting to you’. Was it aging that made
this difference in him, or had I changed?

The third time was in Blackwell’s, when I heard
he’d died. But death was not a word that fitted,
and Birthday Letters proved me right.
He had come back – not as he’d been known,
but as a voice confessing: naked, thrawn.
His words of reparation all the more strange
for being so clear – and spoken much too late.

VII. The meeting place

Why is it always at this time of year
that I can count on meeting Jon’s ghost
as he crosses the Broad to Bodley?
He’s never less than who he was – not thinned out,
as spirits sometimes are, but ever the ladies’ man,
dapper and sprightly.

For one who thought and wrote
so much about the First World War,
he still shows such remarkable good cheer.
Does he owe this to his army training?
He raises his hand in a gallant salute, and stops
to talk, an immortal part of the scenery.

If I were to sing his praises, would it be
for the sheer consistency of his art,
or for the lovely buoyancy of his delivery,
every sentence ending with an upward
inflection, suggesting hope? I’ve heard his voice
so often, I don’t know where to start.

VIII. Naming

‘It was all crepuscular and iambic’

Whatever it was about the place
that spoke to him so strongly, it seems
fitting that I met him that one time in Grasmere -
where, as he looked up Loughrigg Fell
then down the Lake and round to Town End,
his whole face relaxed, every line settling.

Here, as he spoke of local names
and of the places that are named,
something spell-like in the act of naming
was conveyed in the clear cupping
of his vowels, as if they were water –
and like second nature, they seemed home to him.

I was in Grasmere the day he died: standing
in the museum as the call came through.
It was a wrench to tear myself away
and, as I headed down the motorway, to hear
over and over again his soft Irish voice
carried so far from a place he’d made his own.

Now we stand in reverence
around the well, cupping candle-light
in our hands like wine. The darkness
fills with sound, and as we read his verse
its rhythms hold us like a spell, just as
the quad-walls keep his silence.

IX. Sally Amis

‘In fact, may you be dull —
If that is what a skilled,
Vigilant, flexible,
Unemphasised, enthralled
Catching of happiness is called.’

(Philip Larkin, 'Born Yesterday')

Is happiness something you ‘catch’ –
like a cold, or a ball lobbed suddenly in your direction,
or a moment trapped on film
by an opportunistic camera?
Is it a butterfly on the wing, to be pickled
in a killing-jar, pinned
in a scrap-book, and put on display?

He doesn’t say. Such a beautiful poem,
all the weight falling on the adjectives at the end.
What he describes in that sequence
(deliberative, tranquil, paced, each one adding
an essential detail to the story)
is a state essential to ordinary life.
What he wishes on the new-born child
is to be contented.

Sally Amis, manic depressive,
you died of alcohol, at the age of forty-six.
The blessing of your father’s friend,
full of love and hope,
was no earthly use to you
as you lived your sad, promiscuous, addicted life.
Can we conclude from this
that unhappiness is catching?

X. Almost overlooked

I heard her reading, once, to a group
of hushed admirers. Reserved, well-bred,
well-spoken, you wouldn't have known
how hard she laboured to conceal her craft –
she seemed to have the lightest touch
in making her words sing.

Anne Ridler, superb practitioner, is it
too late to make up for what we’ve missed?
It has been easier for us to overlook you
than to notice how you revealed
your subtle art. The time has come, now,
for you to be honoured and widely read.

Thank you with all my heart for being
the first reader of my poems, so careful;
and for your gentleness, and for
your spiritual, observant gift.
When I heard you'd died, I thought
at once of snakeshead fritillaries.

XI. For Jenny Lewis

She blew in, like a wind from off the sea
And saw that all was arid, dry as dust.
Needs must, she thought, needs must, needs must.
She found my heart and gave it back to me
In long wild draughts of purest poetry
Which cleared the air and broke the age-old crust,
Mining within a childlike depth of trust
To bring new words and my spirit free.
Such giving was not known in times like those—
She led me to a place I hardly knew
And helped me choose this way I gladly chose
Under her guidance, strong and kind and true.
And so, belatedly, I pay my dues
To one who never asked what was her due.