September 7, 2016


I’ve put Miss Hopper upon the train,
And I hope to do so never again,
For must I do so, I shouldn’t wonder
If, instead of upon it, I put her under.

Never has host encountered a visitor
Less desirabler, less exquisiter,
Or experienced such a tangy zest,
In beholding the back of a parting guest.

Hoitiful-toitiful Hecate Hopper
Haunted our house and haunted it proper,
Hecate Hopper left the property
Irredeemably Hecate Hopperty

The morning paper was her monopoly
She read it first, and Hecate Hopperly
Handing on to the old subscriber
A was of Dorothy Dix and fiber.

Shall we coin a phrase for “to unco-operate”?
How about trying “to Hecate Hopperate”?
On the maid’s days off she found it fun
To breakfast in bed at quarter to one.

Not only was Hecate on a diet,
She insisted that all the family try it,
And all one week end we gobbled like pigs
on rutabagas and salted figs.

She clogged the pipes and she blew the fuses,
She broke the rocker that Grandma uses,
She left stuff to be posted or expressed,
Hecate Hopper, the Polterguest.

If I pushed Miss Hopper under the train
I’d probably have to do it again,
For the time that I pushed her off the boat
I regretfully found Miss Hopper could float.

Ogden Nash

Personal Helicon

September 7, 2016


For Michael Longley

As a child, they could not keep me from wells
And old pumps with buckets and windlasses.
I loved the dark drop, the trapped sky, the smells
Of waterweed, fungus and dank moss.

One, in a brickyard, with a rotted board top.
I savoured the rich crash when a bucket
Plummeted down at the end of a rope.
So deep you saw no reflection in it.

A shallow one under a dry stone ditch
Fructified like any aquarium.
When you dragged out long roots from the soft mulch
A white face hovered over the bottom.

Others had echoes, gave back your own call
With a clean new music in it. And one
Was scaresome, for there, out of ferns and tall
Foxgloves, a rat slapped across my reflection.

Now, to pry into roots, to finger slime,
To stare, big-eyed Narcissus, into some spring
Is beneath all adult dignity. I rhyme
To see myself, to set the darkness echoing.

Seamus Heaney

take away this grief…?

September 7, 2016


She heard him mutter, ‘Can you take away this grief?’

‘I’m sorry,’ she replied. ‘Everyone asks me. And I would not do so even if I knew how. It belongs to you. Only time and tears take away grief; that is what they are for.’

Terry Pratchett
I Shall Wear Midnight


September 7, 2016


Writing this feels like I am taking part in a therapeutic programme designed to cure me of my bibliomania and the first step is to admit my addiction. In my mid-teens I had been reading a lot of Thom Gunn’s poetry. On a dreary, rainy trip to Robin Hood’s Bay in Yorkshire one day on a family holiday, I was rootling round the now defunct Old Chapel Bookshop when I found a small, sickly-yellow volume. Inside, on the beautiful letterpress title-page it read: Fighting Terms / Poems by Thom Gunn / Fantasy Press, Oxford / 1954. I knew this was Gunn’s first full collection. I suspected it might have a value exceeding its £2.50 asking price. I bought the book because I loved Gunn’s poetry; only afterwards did I discover it was one of about 200 copies of the uncorrected first printing and probably worth forty times what I paid for it.

I still own that book. The real frisson of its discovery was not its value, but that I now owned the rare first book by one of my favourite poets, something that only a hundred people could boast, with the remaining hundred copies scattered in libraries across the world. I am interested in the market value of poetry books mainly because it shows me one, albeit very problematic, way in which poetry is prized in a world that often overlooks or undervalues it. Market value in itself is not a very useful gauge of literary merit, however. For example, I own a copy of the Scottish poet Ian Abbot’s only collection Avoiding the Gods. Signed by Abbot to Angus Calder, monetarily speaking this book is worth little more than the £2.99 I paid for it in Oxfam. It is one of the most treasured books in my collection: I’ve never seen another signed copy and Abbot died only months after its publication.

Julian Barnes has written about the fetishisation of books in his Guardian article, ‘My Life as a Bibliophile’, on book-collecting. One of my poet-friends refuses to get any of their books signed, believing that a signature commodifies a book as a collector’s item. Having recently read Dennis O’Driscoll’s essay-cum-memoir collection The Outnumbered Poet, I was pleased to find that O’Driscoll was a poetry autograph hunter much like me, often using a book-signing as a means to engage some of the poets he admired in conversation—or not, as the case seems to have been with the rather thrawn William Empson.

Richie McCaffery
Amang the Buiks
(From ‘The Dark Horse’ 20th Anniversary issue)