What’s so brilliant about being a MATURE student?

Having a year off work! Coming back to study with a career underneath me is brilliant. Not only am I well organised and well resourced, I’m annoyingly keen. You know the type – I’ve always done the work ahead of class (and then some), am engaged in the topic under discussion and often share views without embarrassment. Part of this lack of self-consciousness just comes with age but after a few naive weeks in my new class I realised that there was something else going on too. Married, with three young children and a job, I’m not looking for a mate (nor do I have any ego left). Most of the rest of the class are still fluttering their beautiful peacock feathers at each other. In our gender fluid cohort this was endearing and exciting to watch. What a relief not to be a part of it though. 

Then there’s motivation. To take a year out of work (gulp, one salary down in our growing household) having saved up enough to cover the cost of the MA plus travel plus no income – you do the sums – there is a lot riding on each class. I have a real sense of the value of the course. My work has expanded week on week as we’ve been sped through historical and contemporary poets and developed our own styles at such a pace that I will be catching up with myself for years. Speaking of which, I’d also like to cheer for my husband whose support has been essential to me being able to study and write. It’s been a real joint effort #younext

Finally there is the enrichment of being creative with other people who are as geeky as you. I can’t tell you how much I’ve enjoyed sharing the making of poetry with other poets. I’ll miss this brilliantly diverse group of writers and thinkers. They have been my baby-steps family as we’ve all tumbled our way towards that thing called ‘voice’. I’ve learnt an immeasurable amount from them collectively and individually. Nowhere was that more touchingly felt than in performing a collaborative poem to a hot and appreciative audience at the Norfolk and Norwich Festival. Standing on stage, gifting our poems to each other, held up all the precious vulnerability we have shared. 

Perhaps the most brilliant thing about being a mature student is the intellectual freedom to focus on just one thing intensively. I’m so used to juggling multiple responsibilities. I would recommend the taste of that intense simplicity to anyone considering taking the risk of going back to college. 



is those splintered days when you start off watching 

Hollie McNish on outdoor teaching and end up 

on Shakira tributes on YouTube is those shattered days 

when you start with a Mediterranean salad and end up 

at the bottom of the Nutella jar is those broken days 

shivering in the rain  at the school gate  as if the grief isn’t 

scribbled all over your body in permanent marker. Why 

do other parents talk to you about the weather, their kids’ 

shoes, Brexit — anything but her mouthing absence?

It’s just, September’s the days we go back. This year it’s busy

invisibly sadly busy. Sad busy September full of  this-time-last-years 

last smiles kisses hugs gasps blink breath —

is to step into shoes I haven’t worn in a lifetime

to walk boldly in those soft shoes, up to the front of the class

and read my poem. Read it with my voice, wide open 

eyes like the clear water of sticklebacks trickling over 

my toes. Refreshing, drink-it-straight-from-the-river water 

drink-it-to-fill-me-up water at the end of a year of crying  

Rainday! Rainday! all the rivers are filled and the slippery trout

have spawned. I am all fat up with promise.  

Another kind of language

I am human, I am animal, I am mineral, I am spectral.

You too are human, you are animal, you are mineral, you are spectral.

Te is not he, she or it. Te is human, te is animal, te is mineral, te is spectral.

We is all of us. We are human, we are animal, we are mineral, we are spectral.

Tey is not t-he-y. Tey are humans, tey are animals, tey are minerals, tey are spectral.

On writing (and listening)

It’s when words fail, when the grammar falls apart, that we find the real us. Writing poetry is finding that state where the very thing you want to say is the self-same moment language fails and you can’t find the words for the page. Then you really become your deep self, pulling something up and out that you didn’t know was there. Poetry comes out of the abyss of incoherence. The job of the poet is be prepared to go there, to loss and failure, and not cover it up with nervous chatter but to listen attentively in a relaxed manner to the bubbling core of themselves, where the new words come to the surface. It’s a skill and an attitude that can be cultivated which ultimately relies on risk, self-reliance and sharp attention.

The result is work that can creep into the same place in the reader which might in turn take them to their own moments of failure of language. Who am I? What am I doing here? When was the last time I listened? As the reader either veers away from or dives into the poem, they find something out about themselves. People value poetry precisely for the risk it asks them to take because in that moment it speaks right to their heart. A real connection between poem and reader is authentic and meaningful, as affecting as falling in love. The universality of these experiences should not be confused with the intimate truth of the moment for each individual. Poets listen to the bigger you, the you of all of us, and take us by sound and rhythm to a place where we all surrender to the wordless enquiry in ourselves. Conversely, this may be why some people distrust poetry and others dismiss it. Maybe they are not able to take that journey, yet. Also why many people enjoy poetry that is only answers dressed up in verse. It is a type of poetry that we find on greetings cards or held up on banners of one sort or another. Answers close down communication, they end sentences.

For me, writing poetry is about finding the words that can dance to that inner rhythm of risk and take me to a place where I am just energy, pure verb. And then leave me, hanging in a silence that feels like love. To a place where the words that will come next risk everything, they are authentic and I listen to them with wonder and surprise, apprehending their living shape and rarely their meaning. I don’t dwell on their meaning, it is the music of them that matters. The grammar is irrelevant, normal speech is no use. If you try to impose normal speech, the ‘what I should say’ at that point the spell is broken and you are back in the world of prose, of telling and explaining. All is lost. This is why I say that the skill of the poet is holding a space at the edge of failure. It is as precious as it is vital to the new life of words, born out of inability, stumbling, first steps in a new way of expressing yourself. In our current climate of shouting short sentences at each other as a stand-in for communication, poetry that handles the complexity of our experiences is more necessary than ever.

Breath – The Gasp and The Silence


A short thought in response to Ben Lerner’s The Hatred Of Poetry 

Our bodies breathe in all by themselves and when we are healthy our body’s imperative is for the intake of breath. Our organs are high consumers of oxygen and the body ensures that they are provided for. We breathe in. We also breathe out. We often do this completely unconsciously, not even noticing the act as we talk, laugh, run, sing. We might become more conscious of the out breath during orgasm or as a deliberate sigh when things are hard or boring. What we are always more conscious of is the need for that in-breath. Without it our brain releases cascades of panic hormones and we become entirely focussed on getting air. The Gasp.

When we move out of healthy activity and into the active dying phase of our lives, take this to be the last few days of life, although in some cases it can be hours, our breathing changes. Our body is engaged in shutting down, reducing organ function and so the requirements on breath shift accordingly. We stop trying to breath in, the body breathes out consciously, deliberately but the in-breath is now involuntary. There are long silences between breaths, the heart stops and starts, the body expels the unwanted involuntary in-breath and at last, the last breath out, is the last. The Silent.

Breathing is life. Without it we do not live. Breath is life and life is breath.

Breath can be deliberate diaphragmatic control. When we sing, we learn how to use the breath to our advantage, to achieve the performance we want. We deliberately control the diaphragm to allow for a percussive sound, a continuous note or to scaffold long arias. In classical singing, we don’t want the breathing to detract from the delivery of the notes and words, so we breathe silently. Expelling all the air during a phrase, we mentally make the vowel sound of the next word, open the mouth to that vowel sound and let the lungs fill with air silently rather than gasping in the breath consciously. We are employing that principle of the involuntary imperative for breathing at work in the healthy body. It’s effortless because we shift our attention to breathing out, the singing, and the body takes care of the rest. Have a go and sing:

  1. a continuous figure of eight note wo/man until the breath runs out, then keep the mouth shape on the wo when breathing in, let the air fill the lungs silently
  2. a percussive ma/ma/ma/ma- breathe in silently on an ‘ah’ mouth shape ready to pick up the rhythm
  3. a deep hoosha to the rhythm of oars / /ho/oo/sha/ /ho/oo/sha/   Note the gasp-breath on beat 1 shown by / /

Reading poetry without attention to the breath makes our eyes sore and our head sore and if followed to the letter, will result in death.

Photo 19-02-2013, 14 11 26

Ben Lerner neglects to mention breath ONCE in his essay The Hatred Of Poetry, by which omission he does poetry and poets a great disservice. Readers do not want to end up actively dying in reading poetry, always focussed on the expending of breath, headless to the imperative to fill the lungs. Do poets focus too much on the words? As the reader gets rid of themselves, breath by breath, the poem can be left gasping for air literally, mentally and physically. Poetry is physical, as much as anything else it may be. So try singing it Ben!

Ben Lerner  Ben Lerner   don’t you know where   breath lives

Ben Lerner  Ben Lerner   don’t you know where   life is

Let us tell you   let poets tell you   life is breathing   breath is life

Let us tell you   oh let us tell you  life is breath   so learn to   breathe

Lyrics and composition by Alice Willitts

Listen to the song

a few poetry exercises

CONSIDER the choreography of space as breath in poetry. Look at the white space around the breathing and continuous sound in ‘Slowed-down Blackbird’ by Alice Oswald (from Falling Awake Published by W.W. Norton, 2016)

CONSIDER what happens to your breathing when you read Danez Smith’s ‘. . . nigga’ (even in the title), (from Don’t Call Us Dead published by Graywolf Press, 2017)

CONSIDER the one breath approach of the Haiku (for example Haiku 150 by Basho, On Love and Barley, Haiku of Basho translated by Lucien Stryk, published by Penguin, 1985)


Further Reading on this subject:

Mary Oliver, A Poetry Handbook, a prose guide to understanding and writing poetry, Mariner, 1994. The sections on Sound and The Line are particularly relevant to breath and flow but this excerpt from Revision is also useful.  “A caution: there are poems that are packed full of interesting and beautiful lines – metaphors on top of metaphors – details depending from details. Such poems slide this way and that way, they never say something but they say it twice, or thrice. Clearly they are very clever poems. Forsaken however in such writing is the pace – the energy between start and finish, the sense of flow, movement, and integrity. Finally the great weight of its glittering pulls it down.”


Gary Snyder – Just One Breath: The Practice of Poetry and Meditation

All One Breath, John Burnside, Jonathan Cape, 2014. ‘master of the moment’ Burnside does not treat white space as active.

http://www.poetryinternationalweb.net/pi/site/poem/item/10066/auto/0/POEM-IN-ONE-BREATH Gerry Murphy’s poem Poem In One Breath

Projective Verse, Charles Olsen, Poetry in Theory, ed. Jon Cook, Blackwell, 2004

concerned with transference of poetic energy from source to poem.

“Olson argues that the breath should be a poet’s central concern, rather than rhyme, meter, and sense. To listen closely to the breath, Olson states, “is to engage speech where it is least careless—and least logical.” The syllable and the line are the two units led by, respectively, the ear and the breath:

“the HEAD, by way of the EAR, to the SYLLABLE

the HEART, by way of the BREATH, to the LINE”

Olson argues against a lazy reliance on simile and description, which can drain a poem of energy, and proposes that syntax be shaped by sound rather than sense, with nuances of breath and motion to be conveyed to the reader through typographical means.”


The Breathing, Denise Levertov. https://allpoetry.com/The-Breathing


Poetry and Narrative in Performance, Oliver, Douglas, Palgrave Macmillan, 1989

William Carlos Williams: Triadic-line Verse – An Analysis if its Prosidy, Berry, Eleanor, Twentieth Century Literature, Vol 35, no. 3, 1989

“The variable foot has been taken as (1) a temporal unit, each step of the triadic line being equal in duration to every other (Donaoghue, Wheatherhead, Breslin); (2) a stress-based unit, each step of the triadic line containing a single major stress (Duncan, Hedges); (3) a syntactical unit, each step of the triadic line being a single complete phrase or clause (Solt, Hofstadter); (4) a unit of meaning or attention (Goodman, Hofstadter); (5) a unit of phrasing in reading, the triadic lineation constituting a score for performance (Wagner); and (6) a visual unit (Shapiro, Perloff, Sayre, Cushman).” p 364

A Sense of Measure by Robert Creeley, Poetry in Theory, ed. Jon Cook, Blackwell, 2004 concerned with ‘measure’ as a music in poetry, that poems ‘derive from some deeper complex of activity’ and produce ‘a coherence which no other means can discover’.