is the title of another blog I run, in which I look at single poems in detail. It’s all about ‘articulating the wow’ as my friend Matt Simpson used to say.
Where copyright allows, I post the poem, then my commentary. If a poem is still in copyright, I may only post a link to it. The commentary is my own, my honest personal practical criticism commentary, in which I will discuss how technique supports content.
It is a site popular with students, but it will also appeal to the general reader, one perhaps who feels they missed out on poetry, or would like to expand their knowledge and understanding of the art of poetry.
Please do have a look, if you are interested. Today I discusses a Thomas Hardy poem called ‘Snow in the Suburbs’, to suit the time of year.
is the title of another blog I run, in which I look at single poems in detail. It’s all about ‘articulating the wow’ as my friend Matt Simpson used to say.
This new lockdown is starting to bite. Unlike the one that began in March, we can no longer have visits to our gardens, and in any case, the weather is not conducive to that. So what can we do to keep ourselves going?
A few years ago, I ran a feature on this blog, of poems drawing on the notion of hygge, with photographs submitted by the poets or selected by me. This feature is still live. Follow the tags and have a good read of all the fabulous poems by contributors. Hygge is about trying to brighten up the long dark days, with togetherness, kindness and cosiness.
Simple things to stay cheerful
1) Take time for a bit of pampering, doing all those things you rarely have time for, such as face packs, long baths, self-massage and foot soaks.
2) Have one day a week, or more if you like, to dress up a little, put on some special clothes, jewellery, perfume, even make up if you wear it.
3) Learn a new skill or revive an old one, for example, I have gone back to machine sewing, which I had to abandon when I was teaching full time.
4) You might not be able to garden or do outside projects easily, but now is a good time of year to peruse seed catalogues and start planning. Or plan some walks you’d like to do when lockdown lifts. Maps are always fun to look at.
5) I’ve been coping with missing holidays and days out by watching things like Escape to the Country on YouTube. I like seeing parts of the UK I either know or don’t know, as well as seeing lots of interesting houses. This is a good time to indulge those guilty pleasures.
6) Try reading those books that may have languished on your shelves for a while. Slip any you won’t re-read into a bag to pass on to others, or even leave outside with a note saying FREE, please take one, though that does have the added work of bringing it in at night. Or maybe you have a book swap telephone box locally?
7) If you have to work from home, clock on and off and do not let it spill out into your own time or your comfort space.
8) Now can be a good time to plan some craft activities, or journalling, painting or writing. It’s relaxing, and it feels good to play without any pressure.
9) Plan nourishing, inexpensive meals that can be slow-cooked. Nothing says hygge like a big pan of home-made soup to dip into, especially with warm bread. Bake your own, or buy a mix, or get those part-baked rolls.
10) Ring or email or message a friend for a chat. Or even write them a letter. Everyone likes to get post.
January is not the cheeriest of months, but looking for signs of spring can bring hope. New buds on trees, bulbs pushing up, birdsong (make sure you are putting out food for the birds if you want to see and hear them), and the gradual lengthening of days. Things will improve.
I’ve always loved Hallowe’en. When I was a child, the children took care of it. It was all about playing out, telling spooky stories and trying to scare each other in the early evening dark after tea. I remember one year cadging a turnip from a farmer so we could make a turnip lantern. I regretted it because the thing was so hard to carve and smelled disgusting when we lit a candle in it. The flesh we’d hollowed out was given to my dad for making soup. He always hated turnip, having eaten so much of it as a child.
When my own children were small, we’d bake Hallowe’en biscuits for anyone who came to the door. There was dressing up, stories, maybe apple-bobbing. I didn’t take my children out to knock on doors, but we sometimes had a party. The most we ever bought for it was maybe hats, and paper plates. One year we were away and the children were staying with the grandparents, so they took Hallowe’en to them by taking their costumes and doing all the stuff we’d do at home. The grandparents had never experienced such a thing before. They talked about it for years.
Then in the last twenty years or so, American Hallowe’en arrived here. There has been a strange explosion of glitter, black plastic decorations like bats, grave stones, spiders and so on. what doesn’t sell before 31st October, is greatly reduced for a week or so, then it all goes into landfill to make way for the Christmas tat. So if you want to have a greener Hallowe’en, buy carefully, store and reuse for a few years, thus avoiding single use plastic. Black plastic cannot be recycled. But better still, make your own decorations. Use crepe paper, DAS clay, which is air-dry and then painted, cardboard painted, and other things easily made from common ingredients. Use face paints instead of masks, or make cardboard masks and attach with elastic. All children really want is quality time with parents, so you can craft away with them at the kitchen table while you are doing little jobs, or watch a film while crafting, or listen to an audio book or a playlist of spooky music..
Trick or treat turned into an excuse for bad behaviour for a misguided minority. Pumpkins took over turnips -probably easier to carve, and just as biodegradable, and a lot prettier. This is because Irish immigrants to American swapped from turnips because pumpkins were cheaper. If you do carve a pumpkin, remember the flesh inside is edible, so great for cooking.
I enjoy having children come to my door dressed up, and giving them sweets, though in 2020, there are dangers around this, and it may be unwise, unless you can do it safely. It is an echo from the Celtic Festival of Samhain, the start of winter. They would lay out food to share and set some aside for their ancestors’ spirits in case they came calling. It’s not necessary to go asking at houses for sweets, which echoes another old custom called wassailing, when poor people would sing souling songs at the rich people’s houses, to be given food and drink, with no suggestion of anything nasty if they didn’t. ” A soul a soul a soul cake /please good missus a soul cake /a plum or a pear, apple of cherry, any good thing to make us merry” is one example. But instead, you could make biscuits or cakes with your children. It’s the icing that makes the difference. Use normal icing sugar with a little colouring added, red and yellow and orange and black, and leave the rest to your children’s creativity. You could always leave a plate in the porch or out front on a table, in case you do get any visitors wanting sweets. Provide paper bags so children can take them home.
On the actual evening, there are lots of fun things you can do at home.
- Draw the curtains, turn of the overhead lights and just use lamplight or even candles if you can do so safely.
- Story circle – each person adds a bit to an evolving story, which has to fit in with the previous part. Start with something like ‘One dark night in winter, two children were looking for ghosts. They went to an old churchyard and started to walk around, when suddenly… (and the next person takes over).
- Each person does a ‘turn’, reads out a spooky poem, sings a spooky song, or does a magic trick, whatever they can contribute. This may need some prep beforehand. Each family member should think of something to offer. I will share a couple of my poems below as a starting point.
- Watch an age-appropriate spooky film, cuddled up under blankets and with the lights off. Something like The Addams Family is always fun.
- Put some potatoes to bake in the oven, or a stew, and then go on a twilight walk with torches. Count pumpkins; hunt for bats; pick up treasures like autumn leaves and conkers; give everywhere you walk a spooky name based in its features. Come home to the smell of food cooking.
- Play hide and seek, but with all the house lights turned off, and everyone armed with a torch.
- Select some foods that are suitable for a touch and taste dare. Things like sliced cucumbers, cold baked beans, cold tinned spaghetti, button mushrooms, grated carrot, shelled hard-boiled eggs. Give them scary names on a card placed next to covered bowls, a set for each child. You could cover the bowls with a piece of paper on top with the name on it. You are only limited by your imagination. The rule is the child must first touch the food without seeing it, then taste it. Once they have tasted it, they are allowed to see it, then they can finish it off. No food should be wasted playing this game, and they might even discover they like a food they had not previously tried.
- Give each child and adult something they can make a noise with. You may have percussion instruments in the house like shakers and tambourines, but it’s easy to make simple instruments at home, or use something you already have to make sounds, for example, two glasses chinked together. To make your own shaker, but something hard and dry inside a lidded yoghurt pot or a box and seal it up. Some could make their own spooky noise. Whispering can work well. Now you can make your own spooky noises and mimic a haunted house. It works best in the dark, and with gaps left between. Everyone makes their noise in order, and the game goes round until everyone has had enough or someone starts giggling and breaks the atmosphere. If two people make their noise at the same time, the round starts from the beginning.
- Write your own spell or curse poems. These usually rhyme and have some repetition. You can make curses against homework, or anything else disliked (not people) or spells to accomplish things like making your toys tidy themselves, your pet able to speak, or anything you’d like to happen. Suit your language to the thing you want, for example if you want to be able to fly, use lots of light words. Share your poems at the end.
- Keep things local and find out about some local legends. Everywhere has some. Then share their stories with the family. One of my poems below is based on a local legend about Samuel Johnson, buried near Gawsworth Hall.
Poems to share:
In Maggoty Woods it’s dark and grim.
The worms crawl out and the worms crawl in.
Maggoty’s buried six feet deep.
He rests his eyes but he’s not asleep.
Maggoty Johnson loved to dance.
With his cap and bells, he used to prance
and caper up and down on stage.
Now he’s at the skeleton age.
In Maggoty Woods there’s no church near.
The ground’s unholy, it’s dark and drear.
Maggoty chose it specially
as the sort of place he’d like to be.
Maggoty Johnson was called Lord Flame.
Now he’s he goes by a different name.
He haunts these woods and he haunts them well.
Sooner or later you’ll be under his spell.
In Maggoty Woods it’s dark and grim.
The worms crawl out and the worms crawl in.
Maggoty’s buried six feet deep.
He rests his eyes but he’s not asleep.
Note: Samuel Johnson (1691-1773) was Britain’s last professional jester. He is buried in woodland near Gawsworth Hall, Cheshire, on Maggoty Lane. A legend says that if you call his name 13 times on Hallowe’en, he will rise up and perform for you. Everything in this poem is true.
‘Maggoty Johnson’ was the only poem to be highly commended in the Cheshire Prize for Children’s Literature and was first published in Word Life (Chester University Press 2011)
My Auntie Jane is a funny old stick:
She’s been alive for ever.
She likes to wear a long black dress
a hat with a raven’s feather.
Her skin is pale like marble,
her teeth are gleaming white,
her eyes are hard to fathom
She’ll go out only at night.
She chooses crimson lipstick,
pointed shoes upon her feet,
her hair is swept up high.
I’ve never seen her eat.
I’m not allowed to visit her
without my mum and dad:
she has some quaint old habits:
my friends think she is mad.
Her house is quaintly spooky.
It’s old fashioned, dark and cold.
She hugs me very tightly,
I can’t escape her hold.
She always keeps the curtains drawn
and does not like the light,
there’s not a mirror to be seen
for she claims she looks a sight.
She tells me how she loves me
She’ll eat me up, she cries,
What pointed teeth my auntie has
What terrifying eyes!
My parents say it’s time to go
And wrap me in my coat
They take such special care to tie
my scarf around my throat.
They say Aunt Jane’s eccentric
and is better left alone
with her spooky castle of a house,
her bed carved out of stone.
This poem was included in my children’s poetry collection, The New Generation, (Salt 2010). I still have a few copies for sale.
As we approach autumn, it looks like Covid-19 is still with us and more measures could be imposed soon to try to prevent its spread. Let’s hope it won’t be another full lockdown, so bad for mental health, with the lack of family and friends’ visits that made March through to June so difficult for many people. Most of us have already tried different methods of social interaction, from garden visits to online meets, but as winter approaches, the garden options may not be viable. A lockdown winter could be a hard one.
Here are a few things to think about while we still have good weather – though that is set to change soon. What kind of things can we do now to make winter easier to handle in the current circumstances? This is a personal list, and I am aware not everyone has an outside space or a garden, so I will include some alternatives where I can. I’ve never lived in a house without a garden, so I’m very lucky.
- Start feeding the wild birds now, then they will know where to come when harsher weather bites, and you will be entertained by bird-watching from your window. This can be done in a garden or back yard. You might also try your local park or any places near you where wildlife comes. Ducks often go hungry in the winter, so consider them too. Birds like to eat all sorts of things, not just commercial bird seeds. Bacon rind, scraps of fat from meat, fruit such as windfall apples, breadcrumbs. Ducks like sweetcorn and grain – so if you have nothing to give them but bread, choose granary. They get little nutrition from white sliced bread (and neither do we). If you are going to a park or wild space to feed them, you also get the benefit of a walk.
- If you can get to any woods where there are pine cones, go on a forage trip. We are lucky to have a pine tree in our garden, so I have been gathering there. Pine cones make great firelighters – for best results use up your left over candle stubs, melt in a double boiler, then dip the cones in once it’s starting to cool. Pine cones also make great seasonal decorations – but first you need to bake them in the oven for about an hour on a low heat, placing them on a foil-covered baking tray, to kill any insects hiding in there and to fully dry them. Then they can be painted, strung together, heaped in bowls, or made into miniature Christmas trees, whatever you like.
- I’m also harvesting windfall apples and freezing them down into stewed apple, which can be used in pies, crumbles and as an accompaniment to food. You may not have your own apple trees, but there may be some going free locally, or you may find some community apple trees. Ask around. People who have them often have more than they can handle and are glad to offload.
- If you have children, it’s fun to take a nature walk or treasure hunt this time of year. Acorn cups, beachnuts, sycamore wings, fallen leaves: there are many things around to collect for a temporary nature table. In the 1950s and 60s, it was common practice for schools to have a nature table, though the practice seems to have died out. It’s a great way to learn about nature, though washing your hands after handling these things is a good plan. It’s fun to look things up and write labels for them, and the display could be made permanent by taking photos.
- While charity shops are still open, do consider donating goods, but more importantly, purchase things. Charities have really felt the pinch, and you can help them AND yourself by buying winter reading, cosy blankets to spread around your living areas to save having heating on all day. It’s better for the planet to buy second hand clothes where possible, and prevent things from going into landfill by both donating and buying second hand.
- If you have sewing skills, unwanted garments can be reclaimed into fabric for new makes. Things like lavender bags only need scraps of fabric. Or start a patchwork quilt with your scraps and unused fat quarters.
- I’m starting to make Christmas gifts, and again charity shops can be a good source of goods to transform. I am thinking about small gifts like a hot chocolate kit. Buy a charity shop mug, make some chocolate spoons by melting chocolate into a shot glass or small jar, insert a pretty spoon (also from charity shops), slide out of the container when set and wrap in glassine or greaseproof paper. Put a couple of these in a mug with marshmallows and other treats, and wrap together. People who use foodbanks might like to have these too.
- I’m also knitting scarves, hats, fingerless gloves, small shawls and so on. These are fun to make and are great for using up yarn oddments. Knitting keeps you warm, and keeps your fingers agile. You could also consider knitting preemie hats and blankets for hospitals. I can’t crochet well but the same goes for crotchet.
- There are lots of easy one pot recipes for winter eating. Make casseroles with lots of veg, and some form of protein such as beans, or meat if you eat it ( we do). A little goes a long way, and stews and casseroles can have a suet crust or dumplings to make them truly one pot – or add potatoes to the mix. A nice recipe I make is red cabbage casserole. Chop the cabbage, red onions and a red pepper into a pan and sweat in a little oil, add chopped up apple and some walnuts, then bake in the oven, using veg stock or cider as the liquid. Serve with baked potatoes. Very satisfying. You don’t need recipes to make casseroles, just be inventive. Suet pastry or crust couldn’t be simpler. One ounce of flour per person, half the amount of vegetarian suet (because it’s nicer). Mix together with a knife add salt, pepper and any herbs you like (Thyme works well), mix into a stiff dough with water, and either roll into balls in floured hands and drop into the almost cooked casserole (while it’s still quite liquidy) and cook for a further 20 mins with the lid off, or roll out on to a floured surface and drape over the casserole contents and cook for 20 more mins without the lid.
- Cultivate the art of writing letters to loved ones you can’t actually see right now. Include photos, recipes they might like, quotes and poems you’ve found comforting. Little parcels can be really nice to get too. I’ve been sending my granddaughter little things, and will start this up again if we can’t see her. Things like colouring sheets, washi tape, and little home-made books and toys can bring a smile. I made paper dolls by enlarging a graphic from the internet and backing it with card before cutting it out. It’s lovely to receive real letters and parcels in the post. Perhaps time could be spent making Christmas cards to send this year, even just a few to special people, and having children make cards for the grandparents, aunts and uncles would keep them entertained on rainy weekends. Home-made cards are best kept simple.
collage art I made with an autumn thrush
Although I did not know Anne Stevenson well, I feel I must pay tribute to her, one small voice among the many tributes which will be written to say farewell to this fine poet and generous encourager of other poets.
I met her, as I met the late-lamented U. A . Fanthorpe, through my beloved friend Matt Simpson (1936-2009). He and Anne were of an age, and she was saddened by his death, like all his friends. For her 70th birthday, Matt Simpson and his friend John Lucas (Shoestring Press and also a fine poet, Jazz player and lecturer) created a marvellous festschrift, The Way You Say the World, with a large number of well-known poets as contributors. I was delighted to be asked to send a poem, and even more so to be asked to read it on the night of her party. Matt and I trundled up to Durham for it on a long train journey, meeting on route (and amongst many changes) with Roger Garfitt, whom we both knew.
The party was a marvellous event. All the great and good of the poetry world attended, and John Lucas’ jazz band provided the entertainment. Anne did one of her wonderful readings, and Neil Astley gave every attendee a copy of her poetry book, whose launch had been the smokescreen for the party. Anne was happy, frank and energetic as always, telling us how she was learning to hear again with her cochlear implant.
Anne was always a kind correspondent, always willing to offer critique as friend to friend, never compromising her high standards. Letter exchanges were replaced by emails over time, and if they were sporadic, it was my fault, not hers. I wanted to include one of her poems in my Austen anthology, Advice on Proposals, (Like this Press 2014), and not only did she allow me to do so, but said if there was a fee owning to Bloodaxe, she would pay it herself. This is typical of her kindness – and she also wasn’t too cross when there were lots of errors at the proofing stage, because I’d been lazy and picked it up from a website. As a result, she had the incorrect website copy altered, and even said she was grateful to me for the chance to sort it out.
She wanted to see some poems from my latest book, which came out from Red Squirrel in 2016, and wrote back with perceptive advice about one 12 line formal poem, which I had struggled to get right – she was very strict and told me I couldn’t rhyme’ bones’ with ‘alone’, because it was unprofessional. Not only this, but she also came up with a suggestion to fix it, which I was delighted to accept. She thought this book, when I sent it to her, my best to date, and said I’d really ‘come on’ in my work. Praise from Anne was always hard-earned but she meant it – no easy flatterer.
In many ways, she has been a role model to me, in the way she treated fellow poets. Her own work so mind-blowingly good, at one time I was planning to read for a PhD about her work, though that idea fell by the wayside when I moved jobs and simply had no time to study for further degrees. I have and often read, many of her books, but I need to complete my collection by buying the most recent. At least we still have her poetry books to read, as well as her essays, her work on Elizabeth Bishop and still the best biography of Sylvia Plath, Bitter Fame. Anne’s philosophy was not to seek fame and success, but to write the best poems one could. For such an accomplished poet, she was modest about her many successes and awards. I think there are many in today’s poetry world who could learn from that. Poetry is a service, a common humanity and a way of understanding the world. Anne Stevenson certainly managed all of that, with grace and humour, and a passion for the best poetry, wherever she could encourage it. I will miss her tremendously, as will all her friends and acquaintances, her partner Peter, and her family. I urge everyone to go forth and reread her work, aloud, as she was the most marvellous reader!
What Marine Life Does For Us, what do you see, taste, smell, feel, hear? Share what you love about the sea using #NationalMarineWeek 25th July- 9th August, more like two weeks poetry and artwork challenge I’d love to hear all about your favourite marine wildlife, the actions you take to help our sea life, and what the sea means to you. First Seven Days: Saturday: Seawatch, Sunday: Rock-pools, Monday: Seabirds And Seals, Tuesday: The Strandline, Wednesday: Sand Dunes And Salt-Marshes, Thursday: Fish-Life, Friday: What Marine Life Does For Us. Please submit your poems and artwork by DM to me, or send a message via my WordPress “The Wombwell Rainbow” contact screen or my FB “Paul Brookes-Writer and Photographer”. Today: Friday: What Marine Life Does For Us?
Lovely feature for those missing the sea. Thanks to Paul for including one of mine.
I see a thin line
which might be half sea
the other half, sky
tastes of particles of salt
in puddles of vinegar
Tastes of sugar
Babies in trollies scream
For smooth ice cream.
Sees him at the far end of the strand,
squamous in rubbery weed, his knees bobbing
urchins, his lean trunk leaning, sea-treasure for her.
After it all (they mate, like carapaces, in parentheses)
Dora feels coolness in new places, lifts a reused
razor shell, mother-of-pearly and straight
and signals out to the swell of mouldering green.
Dora is electric, in love, and deep water.
Dora, Dora, Dora, in which dread is.
People people the beach, peering
through splayed hands, appealing:
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Before I start, I realise I am in a privileged position during this strange time. I already work freelance from home, so I am used to staying in, and because I am freelance, I don’t answer to an employer. I don’t have small children in the house, so juggling childcare and work is not an issue for me. I have enough rooms for a change of scene and I do have a garden. However, others in a similar position to me might just benefit from these tips. It isn’t all plain sailing and I too have down days and feelings of anxiety. Just recognising that and setting simple goals can really help.
These are the kind of things that I have found to be a good distraction from the current situation, in which missing family and friends, and the events I enjoy is a constant ache. These things are in no particular order:
- Continuing to research family history: I have putting together a file of things I’ve gathered over the years, to help me make further progress on my extensive family tree. I’ve rejoined a research website and I’ve also contacted relatives for information. I have realised this task helps with my sense of identity and pride in what my working class forebears endured and achieved, for example, two of my great-aunts lost husbands in WWI, two of my great uncles were killed and another died in his fifties as a result of his experiences. My grandfather fought and survived, as did his brother. There is a sense of triumph in finding information and checking it, and I’ve a few family members on the site, so we help each other, even though I’ve never met them.
- Sorting and finishing craft projects: if you have anything unfinished, either finish it or get rid of it. I’ve started some kits I’ve had around for a while, and been through them all to see what I will actually complete. I’m sorting them all into one specific sewing box. It’s ok to donate, sell or give away something you’ve started or will never do at all, even if it was a gift. Think what you would use it for after you have finished the work. The same applies to other kits.
- Declutter by using up all those pampering products you might have been hanging on to because they were ‘too nice’ to use up. If you like baths, a long pampering bath can be a lovely way to start or end the day. I’ve taken time to reorganise bathroom cabinets too, to find those things pushed to the back. You’ll soon realise which products you really like and want to replace when all this is over.
- Gardening: Sewing seeds really gives one something to look forward to, and we had lots of seeds that we hadn’t got round to using, so it’s fun to see whether they will still germinate. Without garden centres, it’s back to growing from seed or swapping (at a same distance) with friends and neighbours. Just a brief walk around the garden, or sitting outside on a bench for 10 minutes, can give our bodies their daily vitamin D, and is a boost to the spirits. If you don’t have a garden, try mustard and cress of herbs on your windowsill, and beansprouts in a dark cupboard are easy and satisfying to grow.
- Try making a junk journal. There are many tutorials on YouTube, and it’s not difficult at all. You can use recycled materials and spent a little time every day recording what you are doing. These are the historical documents of the future, as well as the artworks of today.
- Decluttering and organising can be very absorbing. Even if you just do one drawer a day, empty out, clean and then decide what goes back in there, often organised into dividers now you have the chance, can give a real sense of achievement. It’s great feeling to not have to search for things and open a beautifully organised drawer. You can find things to make dividers from what you already own, including plastic boxes that have lost their lids, or cardboard covered with pretty paper.
- Wardrobe makeovers: Take time to wear clothes you never normally reach for. You will either find out you really like them, or remember the reasons you don’t reach for them. I know we can’t go to charity shops at the moment, but you can have a bag ready to take when they reopen. I’ve been creatively mending loved garments that I wanted to keep, so my beat up old cashmere hoodie is now covered with crazy patches and embroidery. If lockdown continues for a few more months, I might even use my long-neglected sewing machine. Once you end up only with things that fit you and you will wear and love, you’ll enjoy your clothes again.
- Jigsaws and puzzles: these are a great way to keep the mind busy in down time. I had none, so I have been doing them online, but you may have some lying around forgotten, so dig them out and crack them open. Likewise books of crosswords etc.
- A lot of people have been baking and cooking. It’s a good time to try new recipes, or if you have never baked, time to have a go, it’s easier than you think! Home-made cakes taste so much better, Soups are very simple to make and are much healthier when homemade.
- Reading and audio books and podcasts: These help because it’s like someone talking to you. I’ve been deciding which poetry books to keep, by re-reading to see which still give me a thrill. Audio books are great when you’re doing something with your hands or if you live alone, while you’re eating. Audio doesn’t tie you in one place like a TV does: you can listen anywhere you can take your device.
Good luck and keep busy. This will all end one day just like the ‘Spanish’ Flu did. Meantime staying safe is the most important thing.
I was unwell and bed bound over Christmas and did a lot of thinking. I realised my huge collection of poetry books was actually crowding me out of my small study and I was spending my desk time cramped into a small alcove. I had amassed this poetry hoard over many years, perhaps in the mistaken belief that I would be a better poet for owning them. That does not work because I wasn’t reading them properly: I was just collecting them. The sheer amount of them was too intimidating.
I had often thought I needed to go through them, and I was intending to read them, and make each one earn its place. But somehow I never started that project… I didn’t have the time! Since I started collecting, the internet happened, and there are so many of these poems online to read when I need them. I also had tons of poetry magazines, especially Poetry Review, which as a member I can now access on line.
Charity shops locally struggle to sell poetry books. I actually suspect I am the only one who buys them. There are Oxfam bookshops but not all that local and I can’t manage heavy bags on the train. Fortunately for me, my friend Deborah Alma has opened a premises in Bishop’s Castle, Shropshire, to run her wonderful Poetry Pharmacy, and in the large upstairs room, where she hosts workshops and readings, she is building a poetry library. It’s purely reference, not a lending library, but I am overjoyed my unnecessary books will be where many people can access them and use them, and I can even visit them if I miss anything and want to re-read. The hardest thing is deciding which ones I can let go and which ones keep. Some are precious and will be kept, others have sat on shelves for years and have gone unread, so I doubt I will read them now.
I also had a large collection of early 19th century books with calf binding and gold tooling, that I wasn’t reading but enjoyed looking at. I have started passing those on to good friends who run a second-hand bookshop and bindery, so any books that might be worth anything can be rebound. I am of course keeping the ones I love to see and handle and dip into, but so glad I can pass the unwanted ones to these friends. I’ve also given novels to book swap libraries, my niece, local school libraries. It’s a responsibility to do the best I can to find the right new owners. But the poetry was the biggest section I had left. I am still working on it and my aim is to get a wall bookcase completely empty, so it can come down. Book wallpaper can then replace the books I had that I liked to see on the wall but never opened. Less dust for me to breathe in, which sets off my allergies , and more space in this cramped room. That brown desk is going to charity soon too, so I can put my computer desk there and the books I still want in the alcove, which is going to have a built-in cupboard instead of a cramped writer who can’t even pull her chair in properly.
Ten Tips for Book Decluttering
- Do take books off the shelves to dust and clean them, but this also helps you find books you’d forgotten you had.
- If you haven’t touched a book that’s been on your shelf for more than 3 years, or not since you bought it, maybe you are never going to read it.
- if a book is covered with dust on the top, then it’s not been used for a long time and can be let go.
- Books are friends to many, including me, but a book that’s being ignored is not adding to your life, like a friend you lost touch with years ago.
- You don’t need a lot of books to prove you’re clever. People who know you already know that.
- Work out why you were hoarding books and see if that still applies to you.
- A kindle is great for novels and has really helped me part with hundreds of mine. I’ve pretty much stopped buying novels now, apart from some I need hard copies for, for my literary work.
- By keeping books in your hoard that could be loved and used by someone else, you are keeping birds in cages instead of letting them fly free to new owners who will appreciate their song.
- Once you have decided to let a book go, let it leave the house as soon as possible, or store out of sight until you are able to take them to their destination.
- You are not responsible for what happens to the book after you have moved it on.
I care deeply about the environment and have always been a tender of plants, a user of herbs, and a lover of green spaces. But now these things are no longer enough. I write eco-poetry some of the time, and my most recent book, The Five Petals of Elderflower, has many of these poems, as the main theme is our relationship with nature.
I wanted to explain what else I am doing now, to help the human race survive, at a time when we are ringing our own death knell. We all need to do our bit, and the actions will differ from person to person, depending on budget, time and so on.
What we do to be green in our family:
- We have solar panels on the roof. This was an initial investment but in terms of the planet, a small amount to help convert to green energy.
- We keep bees. We don’t sell the honey, though my husband does draw some down and we share it with family and friends. The bees are more like pets.
- We went down to one car and try to use public transport where possible, or share lifts.
- We try to walk whenever possible. It’s too easy to jump in the car when the journey is very local. Fresh air and exercise are benefits, as is enjoying local green spaces.
- We recycle all we can, and have a system in the house that fits in with our excellent local recycling scheme.
- We reuse and re-purpose what we can, particularly cloth, plastic and glass, boxes and paper items.
- We buy fewer clothes than we used to, choosing natural fabrics which last longer and have less impact on the planet, from sustainable sources. I mend and alter clothes, and when they no longer work for me they are donated to charity shops, or clothes skips, never ever in the bin.
- We garden organically and share produce with friends, family and neighbours.
- We have cut down on flights, though we still want to travel. We avoid large cruises as they are damaging to the seas and the places they visit.
- We rarely waste food, cook meals from fresh natural ingredients, forage for wild food, but never take it all. We are not vegan or vegetarian, but often eat vegetarian, and do not consume large quantities of meat. We do eat cheese but support small local businesses who produce unpasteurised cheese made the old-fashioned way.
- We have swapped most of our bulbs to energy-efficient ones, and remember to keep lights switched off as much as possible.
- Given the right weather conditions, hanging washing outside saves electricity and makes them smell wonderful.
- All year round we put food out for the birds and other wildlife, and make our garden nature-friendly with bird boxes, bat boxes and so on. Our mature trees make the space attractive to birds and squirrels, and we also have a fish-pond which is a haven for newts and a big hit with mating frogs.
- We have a herb garden and use it extensively for cooking, herbs and lavender products like lavender bags, which I make myself.
- As far as possible, we use online banking, email receipts and avoid printing out documents, to run a paperless ‘office’.
- We make Christmas presents, such as knitted garments, notebooks, soaps. massage bars, small textile gifts, collages and art pieces, food items etc. We do buy gifts too, but are careful not to add to people’s clutter. Vouchers can be appreciated, for example.
- We are clearing our own clutter by giving things away to people who can use them, or charity shops.
- Apart from essentials like socks and underwear, we wear our clothes until they actually need washing, so avoiding unnecessary wash loads.
- We use handkerchiefs rather than tissues, and have swapped back to using dusters made from rags, rather than wipes which include plastic. We use cotton dishcloths which can be washed and reused.
- We avoid food which include palm oil, the production of this is causing destruction of the rain forests the planet needs to breathe.
I am aware we could do a lot more, and would appreciate any tips in the comments. I continue to use my poetry as a vehicle for appreciating and informing readers about the importance of our environment. I will share one such poem with you. It was first published in The High Window, so I will include the link here:
The poem I mean is called ‘Salgados Wetlands’, which is the first poem on the link. It may well be in my next book.
Some fabulous poems were produced at my workshops this year. Some participants kindly agreed to share their work. These two are from a brother and sister who attended together. Both are still at school, one secondary and one primary. It was wonderful to have them attend the workshops. Ages 10+ are welcome to attend and they do bring a breath of fresh air.
Bluebell by Holly Pugh
Lasting for weeks
Used for bouquets
Easy to spot
Bluebells catch my eye
Every time I step into spring
Love how they fill me with glee
The Moon is… by Josh Pugh
The moon is undervalued,
Lonely, boring, dead,
In the eyes of mankind.
The moon is made of cheese,
An attempt at bringing life to it,
When in fact there is no need,
For the moon holds great power
It controls the tides,
Deciding the fate of those at sea,
It is the sun’s representative at night
Showing the presence of light
While looking majestic in the dark sky
However nobody sees this
So the moon is undervalued.