Category Archives: John Clare

Christmas Reading at Crossways

I enjoy doing the occasional reading for The Stroke Club so this year I have branched out and put together an event for Crossways, a residential home for elderly people who cannot look after themselves.

This is the first time I have sung in public accompanied by my husband on the piano, but I know that a few Christmas songs and carols would brek up the readings and be fun for the residents. They particularly enjiyed the readings about Christmas past, such as extracts from John Clare and Charles Dickens.

As part of the event, they wrote some lines for a group poem in the interval. Here is the group poem.

Christmas Is

The children’s smiles when opening their presents

A nice happy crowd who enjoy their food

All the lovely presents of chocolate

The shimmering tree

A good piece of pork on the table

Sitting and listening to Christmas songs

Having a glass of red wine

Remembering all the Christmas trips from school days

Christmas is a time to be happy and joyful.

(Group poem written by the residents and staff at Crossways, Lostock)

And a Christmas thought from Thelma

Christmas is a time for families when we all meet together to sing songs of praise and to honour the birth of Jesus.  We must all be grateful for everything we receive, be nice to our family and friends. We must think of everyone and about all the poor animals who need our help, especially at Christmas time when so many are cruelly abandoned.


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Cheltenham Poetry Festival

This shiny new festival was a joy from start to finish. I wasn’t able to attend any of the Thursday events as I was in Oxford doing two readings with the wonderful John Foster, but we arrived in good time for Philip Gross’ reading. He was, as ever, wonderful, and was joined by accordion player Mike Adcok, whose own compositions resonated hauntingly with Philip’s words. Philip and I were booked to read together at the LRB bookshop in November 2010, which was unfortunately postponed. We are still seeking opportunities to read together. We both write for both children and adults – and make little distinction between them, as both deserve well crafted and intelligent verse.

The next event we attended was with George Szirtes, Nigel McLoughlin and Kviria, the Georgian harmony singers. The venue at Francis Close Chapel, was perfect for the meditative poetry of Szirtes, who, as I am sure people know, is an excellent reader, always leading his audience on a journey of discovery. I hadn’t realised before this event what Nigel’s Ulster accent would add to his poems. The music of them was enhanced for me. Nigel and I were both published by bluechrome, so we shared some commiserations over their mysterious disappearance.The singers were enchanting. We were sorry we had to miss the last five minutes to get to John Cooper Clarke’s performance whish turned out to be not to our taste. However, there was a huge audience of people who were loving it, so we slipped out unnoticed after a while.

The next day I had to concentrate on my own two events. The reading at Waterstones was fun, although it can be somewhat challenging at times to make oneself heard on the ground floor of a busy shop. It’s very good to see my books in a prominent position on the shelves! On the plinth in the poetry section my book is cheek by jowl with one of Owen Sheers, festival patron, ace poet and thorougly lovely person.

In the afternoon I was giving a multi-media talk on John Clare. I chose to structure the talk around arguably his most famous poem, ‘I Am’. This allowed me to concentrate on the positivity of his life rather than the asylum years. The representative of the sponsors, This England magazine, commended my approach. I do not see Clare’s life as tragic despite his mental illness. He lived it intensely and had great joy in his love of nature.

Shortly after I had finished handling questions and packing up, we dashed over to Francis Close Chapel to hear Gordon Tyrrall singing his settings of Clare songs, accompanied by his friend Caroline on the flute. I know these songs well, as I play the CD (A Distance from the Town) , but I had heard them all live before. Gordon has a gift for composing tunes which bring out the words and meanings of the poems with great sensitivity. His performances are enhanced by his obvious enjoyment in sharing his talents.

John Hegley, unlike the other John mentioned above, did not disappoint us. This was an extraordinary evening of fun, poetry and music. Hegley is an engaging performer, and I have seen him before, but I had never seen him play his mandolin accompanied by a fantastic jazzy double bassist. See, Hegley is a stunning wordsmith but he can also amuse, impress, involve and entertain. Hats off to him, I did not want this concert to end.

Next day was a little quieter in the events I sought out. We went to hear Cliff Yates, fellow Salt poet, give a quirky reading to a good crowd. He was joined by singer/songwriter Men Diamler, who provided a good contrast: his angry young man style set up some lively tensions with Yates’ gentle and laid back delivery. Later at the same venue, Angela France gave a strong reading. She was joined by Jennie Farley, whose narrative poems I had not heard before. This was a lovely reading. I knew Angela’s work already and enjoyed her readings on other occasions.

The last event I went to was Buzzwords. I will be leading this in September so I wanted to get a flavour while I was already in beautiful Cheltenham. Pat Borthwick was the guest. I have been familiar with her work for a long time and like it very much. The workshop gave me three quick drafts which I intend to work on when I have some time, and the standard of the open mic before Pat’s reading was truly impressive. Angela is an excellent event manager and host as well! Pat’s own reading was both powerful and entertaining by turns. Cheltenham is very lucky to have such a great event happening every month. Buzzwords is running its first national competition, so do get some entries together to support this smashing event.

Anna Saunders and her team deserve hearty congratulations for the success of the first Poetry Festival. Let’s watch it grow.

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Filed under Children's Poetry, Everything else, Festivals, John Clare, Poetry Collections, Salt, The New Generation

Cheltenham Poetry Festival

Cheltenham Poetry Festival starts this week on Thursday 31st March and continues till 3rd April. I am reading at Waterstones at 11.30 on Saturday 2nd April, and giving an illustrated talk on John Clare at 1.45 at the YMCA, closely followed by a wonderful concert given by Gordon Tyrrall, who has set some of Clare’s lovelist poems to music.

There are many other wonderful readings including George Szirtes, John Cooper Clarke, John Hegley, Alwyn Marriage, Angela France, Cliff Yates, Clare Pollard, Philip Gross, just to name a few off the top of my head.

The organisers have worked really hard to put together an amazingly varied festival and I urge everyone to support it.

Here is the link:

Before that I am over in Oxford, reading and doing a school gig with my hero of old, John Foster, who was the very first person to put my work in a children’s anthology, apart from the ones from the Bees Knees collective. That was in 1992, in Can You Hear? poems for Oxfam, published by Macmillan.

I love going off to new places to do readings. I also love staying at home writing and making things, like I did today.

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Filed under Children's Poetry, Education, John Clare, New books in 2011, Salt, The New Generation

The Landscape Laughs in Spring

Chapter 6: The Landscape Laughs in Spring

Spring is an important time in the rural calendar. There is much work to be done in preparing fields and planting crops. The season is full of joy because the weather has improved and life is easier, after the privations of winter, but there is also a ‘hungry gap’ because no new crops are ready to eat and only the crops which have overwintered are available for food. However, children can play out of doors again, thus relieving the feeling of overcrowding in the cramped cottages.

In the Everyman selection, there are two poems in particular which celebrate the exuberance of the season. ‘Sport in the Meadows’, a happy account of how children pass their time in innocent pleasure, is strongly reminiscent of Blake’s Songs of Innocence[i], in particular ‘The Ecchoing Green’ where the children are playing and older people watch them indulgently.         ‘The Landscape laughs in Spring’ is remarkably congruent with Blake’s poem ‘Laughing Song’ from Songs of Innocence, with the same pathetic fallacy[ii] of a joyous landscape:

When the green woods laugh with the voice of joy,
And the dimpling stream runs laughing by;

compared to Clare’s lines:

The landscape laughs in Spring and stretches on

Its growing distance of refreshing dyes.


Both poets have used personification to good effect here, and see the landscape as actively rejoicing. However, Blake is illustrating the concept of innocence in his poems, but Clare is displaying the pleasure he feels in the reawakening of nature. Both are firmly rooted in the Romantic tradition of freedom and a love of the natural world. Blake draws on very similar things to Clare, but uses them to different ends.

Both ‘Sport in the Meadows’ and ‘The Landscape laughs in Spring’ are accomplished poems. ‘Sport in the Meadows’ is a headlong rush of alternately rhymed iambic pentameter in one long stanza, a form well suited to the expression of the children’s energy and delight as they rush about collecting cowslips. Each quatrain is in alternate rhyme, providing harmony and variety.  The poem is full of action and high spirits. The run on lines[iii] help to express the movement of the children as they play. They play with things which nature provides, such as a ball made from flowers (a cuckaball) and rush about looking for birds’ nests and cowslips to pick. Even the animals seem to join in the fun as they too want the cowslips:

The sheep and cows are crowding for a share

And snatch the blossoms in such eager haste

That basket-bearing children running there

Do think within their hearts they’ll get them all

And hoot and drive them from their graceless waste.


This creates a comical scene as the children and animals are in competition for these golden flowers of early spring. The children feel that the animals ‘waste’ the flowers by eating them, but they want them to make a ball with to throw to each other, which is much more wasteful. The children are also gathering them for sustenance:

For they want some for tea and some for wine

Tea made from cowslip flowers by infusing them in boiling water was used for medicinal purposes. It is a good diuretic and is useful for headaches. Country people will make wine from many wild flowers and berries, another activity which was curtailed somewhat by The Enclosures. In ‘The Landscape Laughs in Spring’, Clare also refers to cowslip tea and cowslip wine, using a beautiful metaphor:

To make praise-worthy wine and savoury tea

And drink a Winter memory of May

When all the season’s joys have ceased to be

And flowers and sunny hours have passed away.


The wine therefore is something of a comfort in winter, as it preserves the warmth of spring in its flavour and sweetness. Cowslip wine is usually sweet and rich, like a dessert wine.


‘Sport in the Meadows’ begins with a picturesque description of a meadow in May, when the cowslip ‘peeps’ (or first buds) have grown into large golden flowers, and the fields are full of other spring plants such as: ‘water-blobs’, the local name for marsh marigolds; lady-smocks, which are white or pale blue; daisies and buttercups. Clare describes all these wildflowers as ‘shining here and there’, a lovely visual metaphor which suggests they appear in the fields like stars against the night sky, bright and glowing. He says the marsh marigolds, which grow in damp conditions, are ‘crowding’ by the bridge (‘brig’ is a dialect word for bridge), and compares the spread of plants to ‘morts of folken flocking at a fair’ with delicate alliteration, assonance and consonance. A fair would be a merry occasion, something country folk would look forward to, so this metaphor suits the atmosphere and allows readers to identify with the spring flowers.


The poem is full of action verbs: ‘snatch’, ‘hoot’, ‘drive’, ‘shout’ and so on, and the middle section in particular is full of noise and hubbub. By constructing long loose-limbed sentences tagged together with dashes, Clare creates a sense of rush and joy. There’s a tale of a girl who drops her basket and spills all her blossoms, and another who loses her bonnet to the wind. The children help each other, adding to the happy impression. Clare refers to a child standing on a molehill to reach for a ‘bunch of May’. May is the blossom of the hawthorn tree; it has a strong musky smell and small white flowers with pink centres. Some think it unlucky to bring it into the house. It is what is referred to in the old rhyme that advises the listener ‘ne’er cast a clout/till May be out’[iv]. The thorns scratch the child, but plantain leaves are used to soothe it. This is not the plantain used in Caribbean cookery but a common British weed, Plantago major, whose broad leaves were used to soothe inflamed skin, or rubbed fresh onto stings to bring pain relief. These children are fully versed in country remedies. The poem concludes with the animals running away from the noisy children, ‘marauders’ who return every day. The ‘noising childern’ also feature in ‘The Landscape Laughs in Spring’ but they make more of a cameo appearance for a few lines.


‘The Landscape Laughs in Spring’ is also in iambic pentameter but this time is a sonnet in the Petrachan style, with an alternate rhyme scheme but no division of octet and sestet. Rather than concentrating mostly on one aspect, it gives a taut panorama of all the activities that are going on in nature, like an aerial view of the country. ‘Pewit-haunted flats’ suggests the darker notes of winter, in the word ‘haunted’, but now the floods have dispersed and the meadows are full of flowers. The lines:

The tricking brook veins sparkling to the sun

Like to young may-flies dancing wi’ the hours


are not only beautifully observed but contain a hint that this pleasure is short-lived, as may flies only live for a very short time, from a few hours to a few days only. Clare’s feelings towards the spring are full of pleasure made the more intense because it cannot last. This idea is emphasised by the concluding three lines quoted above, which lament the passing of the ‘flowers and sunny hours’ with an internal rhyme.


These two spring poems are delightful. They are full of the precise observations that Clare is admired for. He follows through with his poems about summer, which are also rich with detail, but perhaps lack the exuberance of these spring poems.






[i] 1789


[ii] A literary device in which an inanimate object is given human feelings.

[iii] enjambment

[iv] Many people today think this refers to the month of May. The hawthorn does not bloom until the weather is sufficiently clement, so that wearing extra clothing is not necessary.

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Filed under John Clare, Prose

John Clare- ‘My Early Home’ NPD#2

My Early Home

Here sparrows build upon the trees,
And stock-dove hides her nest:
The leaves are winnowed by the breeze
Into a calmer rest;
The black-cap’s song was very sweet;
That used the rose to kiss;
It made the paradise complete:
My early home was this.

The redbreast from the sweetbrier bush
Dropt down to pick the worm;
On the horse-chestnut sang the thrush,
O’er the house where I was born.
The moonlight, like a shower of pearls,
Fell o’er this ‘bower of bliss’,
And on the bench sat boys and girls;
My early home was this.

The old house stooped just like a cave,
Thatched o’er with mosses green;
Winter around the walls would rave,
But all was calm within;
The trees are here all green again,
Here bees the flowers still kiss,
But flowers and trees seemed sweeter then;
My early home was this.

John Clare (1793-1864)

I have long loved this poem by John Clare, and it was made sweeter for me when I heard the beautiful setting Gordon Tyrrall made for it. WordPress will not let me post the little movie I made of it, but I do urge everyone to get a copy of Gordon’d Clare CD, A Distance from the Town. It is stunning.

John Clare was very attached to his home in Helpston, and was terribly homesick when he moved three miles away, writing a heartbreaking poem called ‘The Flitting’. I am still working on my John Clare book for Greenwich Exchange.

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Filed under Education, John Clare

Film About John Clare

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Filed under Education, John Clare

Reading with Peter Street

Last night’s reading at Northwich Library was fun. As usual (well it is only the second one) I started off the night, then Peter enthralled us with his gritty, down to earth and sometimes funny poems. I still love the tree poems best. Peter has a lovely way of writing: close to conversation yet heightened. The readaround section was interesting, with a wide variety of material. The audience was different this time and it was nice to see some new faces.

I have a tight deadline for a teachers book for GCSE new specifications on teaching poetry, which is jobbing work for a poet but it does help pay the bills. I am still working steadily on the John Clare book, dying to get to the chapters where I can write about my top favourite poems, and putting poems in order for a new submission.

Just been reading Chris Hamilton-Emery’s excellent  book, 101 Ways to Make Poems Sell. It’s given me lots of ideas about how to reach a wider readership and work more effectively to help publishers. Since my last publisher disappeared from the earth’s crust, this is all fascinating for me. It’s good to know I am doing a lot of the right things already, but it has given me some fun ideas on more things I can be doing. So watch this space.

Am still VERY excited about Salt doing my children’s collection as a solo collection for the short people has always been a dream of mine – it will make poets-in-schools bad much less cumbersome! Awaiting a delivery of natty postcards to contact local schools, with my poem ‘My Thumb’ on the front. I loved the two days I did in Huyton.

Meanwhile, I await news of my Oxford application, determined not to be downcast if I do not get on the course. What will be will be.

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Filed under Children's Poetry, Education, John Clare