Tipping my hat to John Burnside


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I couldn’t have been happier that John Burnside won this year’s T S Eliot prize. The Scottish poet is one of my favourites – I have his ‘Selected Poems’ next to my bed, along with Robert Lowell, Ted Hughes, Eavan Boland and Rita Dove. All are more or less fixtures there.

I’m also a big fan of David Harsent’s poetry – he was short-listed for the award.

In fact, it was a strong field of contenders, notwithstanding the fact that Alice Oswald and John Kinsella pulled out.

With 11 collections to his name, Burnside is a heavyweight, inhabiting his language like a boxer whose fists are probably most at home in his gloves. Here is his account of why he writes – and why winning the T S Eliot prize made him rethink his purpose.



Poets say no to hedge-fund sponsorship


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When two of the 10 British poets shortlisted for the T S Eliot Prize dropped out of the running because Aurum Funds, a hedge fund, was named the sponsor, I wondered if there was something sinister about Aurum Funds that I didn’t know about.

Does Tony Blair have something to do with the company? It appears he doesn’t. Good. That’s all right then.

Apparently the company is in bad odour for being at ‘the very pointy end of capitalism’, according to John Kinsella, who withdrew from contention along with Alice Oswald, who said that ‘poetry should be questioning not endorsing such institutions’.

Anyone who knows me will know I’m a sometimes fiery left-wing activist who devours books by Naomi Klein and John Pilger and has a very harsh view of some corporations.

But I’m also not completely stupid. I work as a financial journalist. Like it or not, big business has money. What they do with that money is a moot point and I’ll be the first to protest against companies that trash human rights or don’t pay at least a minimum wage.

On the other hand, I do know that nobody is poor like a poet. Believe me, don’t even think of making money as a poet. Do it for love, or not at all, and any royalties or prizes you collect along the way are a bit like the 13th cheque a good employee gets – not owing to you, to be sure, but a very welcome recognition of all your hard work.

The arts are struggling all over the world and quite frankly a company whose only sin appears to be investing clients’ money in a range of funds of hedge funds – including public sector pension funds – is welcome to sponsor a prize in my neck of the woods.

Don’t forget that T S Eliot worked in a bank (Lloyd’s) and he would probably have enjoyed the delicious irony of having poets sponsored by financiers.

I won a poetry prize sponsored by a life insurer when I was a student, still naive about precisely where such disparate worlds could and did intersect. That prize – a modest sum of money and a certificate – showed me that poetry can be, and is, valued by humanity. Poetry has value beyond a grimy coffee shop or a bedsit in which one spends hours trying to find the perfect rhyme or phrase. If it takes a bank – or a hedge fund company – to remind one of this, then so be it.

Aurum Funds can sponsor a prize here in South Africa any day. We’re starving for recognition, sponsorship, funding. Oh, and the company also supports a number of children’s charities, including Paediatric Aids Treatment for Africa (PATA), which provides support for children and their families affected by HIV/AIDS.

Yet ‘such institutions’ are clearly not morally righteous enough for some poets. Perhaps Aurum Funds will sponsor actors or artists next time. Yes, that will really be good for poetry, won’t it?

Zen blog


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It’s my own fault. I can’t complain that nobody’s looked at my blog for a week if I haven’t posted anything. It’s been looking like a Zen garden, my blog: a dry landscape with some carefully pruned outcrops of something that could be wood or rock.

This is the Karesansui garden in Ryōan-ji Temple. I love the garden outside the garden, too.

In the garden book Sakuteiki ‘Creating a garden’ is expressed as “setting stones”, ishi wo taten koto; literally, the “act of setting stones upright.” It sounds an awful lot like making poetry:

Make sure that all the stones, right down to the front of the arrangement, are placed with their best sides showing. If a stone has an ugly-looking top you should place it so as to give prominence to its side. Even if this means it has to lean at a considerable angle, no one will notice. There should always be more horizontal than vertical stones. If there are “running away” stones there must be “chasing” stones. If there are “leaning” stones, there must be “supporting” stones.

Tutoring poetry


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Good news – I’ll be tutoring poetry online for the SA Writers’ College. Here’s my tutor’s profile:


Most people associate poetry with the dull, droning imprisonment of the classroom, which is a shame. I think almost everyone has an inner poet – it’s just a question of finding the voice within. I’m looking forward to mentoring some students.

Landscape with crows


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Is it possible to write poems about crows after Ted Hughes? I think so.
This is a new-ish one I finally finished this morning.

Landscape with crows

Crows flew low, their ominous wingspans
dark. The showy harbingers
of storm-air, they lifted up
the greyish, coppery clouds and turned
in lazy motion over the four-lane
highway and our moving car,
heading towards the dark, ridged hills,
cold as fish-gills at winter evening.

If there was light, I didn’t precisely
see it, but I felt it on
the underside of life – a ditch
of contrasts, where the cloud and shadow,
wet marsh and rising crows,
the hum of life beyond the now-stalled
traffic of my thoughts, was just
enough to hold me. In the pitch

and roll of motion: on the edge of storms.

But it’s my bowl, you see. And I love it.



Now and again, I dip into Raymond Carver’s poetry with a feeling of gratitude. Here is someone who’s lived it – the good and the bad – and come out with a sense of wonder intact. Take this poem, Tomorrow.


Cigarette smoke hanging on
in the living room. The ship’s lights
out on the water, dimming. The stars
burning holes in the sky. Becoming ash, yes.
But it’s all right, they’re supposed to do that.
Those lights we call stars.
Burn for a time and then die.
Me hell-bent. Wishing
it were tomorrow already.
I remember my mother, God love her,
saying, Don’t wish for tomorrow.
You’re wishing your life away.
Nevertheless, I wish
for tomorrow. In all its finery.
I want sleep to come and go, smoothly.
Like passing out of the door of one car
into another. And then to wake up!
Find tomorrow in my bedroom.
I’m more tired now than I can say.
My bowl is empty. But it’s my bowl, you see,
and I love it.

I suspect that most of us feel this way about our lives – however full of problems, grim reflections or lucid moments we would rather not have, they are also ‘our bowls’, our vessels of being, and precious. You can’t say no to owning your own life, however it may hurt you at times.

Those last two lines are perfect, I think:

“My bowl is empty. But it’s my bowl, you see,
and I love it.”

The silence before and after speech



Writers know what an inner silence means. When you feel you have nothing to say – or nothing left to say – and you could skate over your life quite happily, like a teenage skater loving the feel of new blades on firm ice. It’s a kind of blithe, endless happiness that means there is, quite simply, nothing to explain or analyse, nothing to pay attention to but the light scratchings and scorings of the surface of life itself.

Should one worry? As Keats said, If poetry comes not as naturally as the leaves to a tree, it had better not come at all.

The blank page is best left alone, when there is truly nothing that comes to mind. The only light in all this is that there is always a time – well, there’s always been a time, for me – when the words finally come. But for now, I’ll keep skating. Perhaps it’s true that when one is happy there’s not all that much to worry about. It’s often the anxiety that makes the poetry come; and when you spend your life in anguish you have to wonder if the poetry itself, the poetry alone, is worth it. I am not sure it is. And I say that as a poet – as one who has written poetry compulsively since the age of 10.

Sometimes one has to accept that silence is the best form of speech.

Of running shoes and rhymes



This week, I spent a fair amount of time talking about running shoes. Which ones are best for trail-runs; which shoes my friends prefer; and how you know your old ones are worn out and you need a new pair (I’m not there yet).

Strangely enough, I didn’t chat to anyone about poetry: which poets they had discovered lately; which books they recommended; and whether poems in translation can be enjoyed without the weird anxiety that they are mere approximations of poems.

I think I need to have a poetic conversation soon, before I forget to listen to the whispers and rhymes that are so much a part of my psyche.

So…have you discovered a fine poet lately?

I think I’m race-ready


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The Energizer Night Race is a little over 24 hours away and I’ve been resting for three days because I didn’t want to put too much pressure on my left ankle. I’ve had minor problems with it and there’s nothing like discomfort to make a run less enjoyable than it should be. I think I’m race-ready, though. Even if it is just a 5km fun-run, it’s still the first race I’ve ever entered, so it’s exciting for me.

Just for fun, here’s Pindar’s Olympian Ode 12, written 460BC.

Great runner, four times victor at the Games,
But for a war you would have known no fame.
Though exiled from the bubbling springs of home,
Your swift pace made a new land’s fields your own.

A victory for poetry


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Tomas Tranströmer is the first poet to win the Nobel Prize for Literature since Wisława Szymborska deservedly bagged it in 1996. That’s 15 long years of drought for us poets, who are so used to seeing poetry marginalised and relegated to the backwaters of obscure academia that we seldom hold our breaths in expectation any more.

The Wall Street Journal published a beautiful homage to Tranströmer’s poetry, and the victory of poetry over politics, in a piece by Michael Moynihan. It reminds me, all over again, why I write poetry and why I feel vindicated for doing so.