Meeting Notes 2015

Social evening - Reading of favourite poems with refreshments

We began with a brief discussion on successes in the past year and on how to build on these in the New Year. We then moved on to an enjoyable and relaxed sharing of refreshments. This was followed by readings of poems which touched on themes of war and peace, on ageing and on silence, on renewable energy, on office friendships and on still moments. There were serious poems and humorous ones. There were familiar favourites as well as poems which were new to most of us. Some poems both startled and amazed, while others unfolded with quiet grace.

5th January 2015

Lunar Module, Diana Webb

Diana began with some writing from Paul Matthews about the nature of the moon – the way the moon gives back whatever light is shone upon her – and then read his poem 'The Moon is a Mirror' which ends 'The moon is the poet's anvil. The moon / is a continuous arrival.'

In Japan, where children call the moon O-tsuki-sama, the combined lunar/solar calendar was in use until 1872. Days in the month were defined by the phases of the moon. A month began on the day of the new moon, continued through its waxing and waning and ended on the day it could no longer be seen. The day was known by the degree of waxing or waning and the time by the moon's position in the sky.

In 'the Wild Places' by Robert Macfarlane the moon is described in scientific terms – moonlight, reflected sunlight, travelling through troposphere, stratosphere and atmosphere before descending to earth, the trillions of lunar photons creating a moon-shadow.

'Sketches of moonlit nights' by Kurita Chodo (1749-1814) gives a series of haibun about the different phases of the moon. In 'The Third and Fourth Day Moons' the crescent moon sinks softly in the west and 'the River of Heaven' or Milky Way is visible above. In 'The Waiting-Night Moon' which is the last night before the full fifteenth day moon we are reminded that 'It is in the way of this world of ours that what lies before us soon will change.'

Chiyo-ni (1703 – 1775), a woman writer, wrote many haiku about the moon and the beauty of its appearance.

The moon is seen as a symbol of enlightenment and self-realization. There is a story of an old man who was looking out at a moonlit night and was robbed of all his possessions and then said that the thief had left behind the moon at the window.

A Nijun Renku has twenty verses of haiku and two people share in the writing of this – each takes an alternate verse. In the 'Bumper to Bumper' renku written by Diana and Frank Williams there are two verses which celebrate the moon. One of these contains the image of a thumb on a window pane exchanging prints with the moon.

The moon appears hazy in spring, cool in summer, and is at its brightest in autumn. There is a story that a katsura tree is growing on the moon and in the autumn its leaves turn a lovely golden-yellow. And so the moon of the fifteenth day of the eighth month is considered the most beautiful.

In Japan people sit in rows in a temple for moon-viewing and eat pink globular sweets as though these represent the moon. When we walk on a moonlit night the moon seems to follow us wherever we go and thus befriends each of us.

There are many haiku written about the moon and Diana showed us a selection from recent haiku magazines. These modern haiku, written in English, are as expansive and expressive as those earlier ones translated from the Japanese.

The Lunar Module conveyed a sense of the beauty and mystery, grace and humour, in writing inspired by the moon. This was a most illuminating and enjoyable talk.

23rd February 2015

The Bard of Barnsley, Tony Earnshaw

The Bard of Barnsley

30th March 2015

Mary Oliver, Sylvia Herbert

Sylvia led a really interesting discussion on Mary Oliver for whom poems are fires for the cold, ropes let down to the lost and as necessary as bread in the pockets of the hungry.

Mary Oliver, born in September 1935, began to write aged 14 and won the Pulitzer prize in 1984 for her collection American Primitive in which her visionary poems portray oneness with the natural world and the renewal of humanity in love. Mary Edna Millay who won the prize in1923 was a close friend as was her sister Norma. Mary Oliver and Molly Malone Cook, an eminent photographer who died in 2005, made their home together for more than forty years.

Mary Oliver thinks of poetry as a river and timeless and to be contemporary it must be rooted in the past. She sees it as an experience passed on to others and there is risk involved in this. She considers that poetry is prayer and offers healing. She writes with close attention to detail, clear and poignant observations and openness and empathy of expression Her writing undergoes many revisions.

The detailed observations of nature in Mary Oliver's poems give rise to a luminosity of experience. In her poem Morning we are shown Salt shining behind its glass cylinder, / Milk in a blue bowl before being introduced to the cat who makes her curvaceous response to the small, kind gesture and then leaps lightly and for no apparent reason across the lawn, / Then sits, perfectly still and watching this, everything in the cold kitchen becomes wonderful.

In Some Questions You Might Ask we are asked to consider whether the soul might have the shape of an iceberg or the eye of a hummingbird and whether or not it has one lung, like the snake and the scallop. In Answers her grandmother hurried on small / uneducated feet and poured confusion out, and cooled and labelled / All the wild sauces of the brimming year.

The Summer Day asks Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life? reminds us of the wonder and transience of life, of the enduring quality of our responses to each day we are given.

Wild Geese reminds us of love and of how no matter how lonely you might be the world calls to you like the wild geese and this call is made over and over announcing your place / in the family of things.

In When Death Comes we are given the image I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering; / what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness? and I look upon time as no more than an idea, / and I consider eternity as another possibility, and the poem ends with the line I don't want to end up simply having visited this world.

Maybe holds images of the calming of the storm, the sermon on the mount and the feeding of the multitude together with the soul Like a tremor of pure sunlight. There are people who perhaps glimpse this before exhaustion grips them and they forget How the wind tore at the sails / Before he rose and talked to it how he was tender and luminous and demanding and more frightening / Than the killer sea.

In the poem In Blackwater Woods we are given the image of the trees turning / their own bodies / into pillars / of light, and of the black river of loss with salvation on the other side. Three things are needed to live in this world to love what is mortal; to hold this knowing / your own life depends on it; and when the time comes to let it go, / to let it go.

Mary Oliver finds that walking helps with thinking and writing. She keeps a notebook and when out walking in the woods keeps pencils hidden in trees in case she has forgotten to bring one with her. This need for words to be written soon after they arise is reminiscent of John Clare who would write words down on the brim of his hat when he was out walking.

The reading of the poems and the discussions that arose were both illuminating and enjoyable.

27th April 2015

Public Event: Poetry Pub

Poetry Pub, an open mike evening held at the Stepping Stones pub, Westhumble, delivered an eclectic mix of poetry with energy and enthusiasm to an appreciative audience. Mole Valley Poets and poets from the floor gave fourteen readings in the first half and seven after the interval. There were many themes and many voices. Music was provided by Ian Codd.

This was a very enjoyable evening. Thank you to everyone involved in behind the scenes organisation and to all those taking part on the night.

11th May 2015

The New York School: Frank O'Hara, Jane Freimiller


Frank O'Hara, the son of Russell Joseph O'Hara and Katherine (née Broderick) was born on March 27, 1926, at Maryland General Hospital, Baltimore, and grew up in Grafton, Massachusetts. He studied piano at the New England Conservatory in Boston from 1941 to 1944 and served in the South Pacific and Japan as a sonarman on the destroyer USS Nicholas during World War II.

With the funding made available to veterans he attended Harvard University, where artist and writer Edward Gorey was his roommate. O'Hara was heavily influenced by visual art and by contemporary music, which was his first love. His favourite poets were Arthur Rimbaud, Stéphane Mallarmé, Boris Pasternak, and Vladimir Mayakovsky. While at Harvard, O'Hara met John Ashbery and began publishing poems in the Harvard Advocate. Despite his love of music, O'Hara changed his major and graduated from Harvard in 1950 with a degree in English.

He then attended graduate school at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. In 1951 he moved to New York.

Known throughout his life for his extreme sociability, passion, and warmth, O'Hara had hundreds of friends and lovers throughout his life, many from the New York art and poetry worlds. Soon after arriving in New York, he was employed at the Museum of Modern Art, selling postcards at the admissions desk, and began to write seriously.

O'Hara was active in the art world, working as a reviewer for Artnews, and in 1960 was Assistant Curator of Painting and Sculpture Exhibitions for the Museum of Modern Art. He was also a friend of the artists Willem de Kooning, Norman Bluhm, Larry Rivers and Joan Mitchell.

In the early morning hours of July 24, 1966, O'Hara was struck by a jeep on the Fire Island beach, after the beach taxi in which he had been riding with a group of friends broke down in the dark. He died the next day of a ruptured liver.


High Culture: Painting and sculpture; worked at MOMA and friends with major contemporary artists of the 50s and 60s. They show up in his poems all the time. He writes for Art magazines, he curates exhibitions. Abstract expressionism, rejection of the past ... a post war world demands a new way of making and responding to art. His poems 'Having a Coke with You' and 'Why I Am Not a Painter' celebrate both writing and painting.

Everydaylife/Pop Culture/New York City lunch and jazz; effortless evocations of street scenes. Film, film stars (He called them "I do this, I do that" poems) as in 'Steps' and 'The Day Lady Died'.

How to live and work: as in his poem 'A True Account Of Talking To The Sun On Fire Island'.

O'Hara wrote an Essay called "Personism" in which he described his dislike of rhythm and assonance and explains how 'You just go on your nerve. If someone's chasing you down the street with a knife you just run, you don't turn around and shout, "Give it up! I was a track star for Mineola Prep"'. He considered measure and other technical apparatus to be just common sense.

James Schuyler writing to O'Hara: "In that cutting garden of salmon pink gladioli (your poems) are as fresh as a Norway spruce. Your passion always makes me feel like a cloud the wind detaches ... from a mountain so I can finally go sailing over all those valleys with their crazy farms and towns. I always start bouncing up and down in my chair...".

Mark Ford: "But the sense of the sublime the poems make possible is achieved not by addressing themselves to particular subjects but by a passionate, unembarrassed responsiveness to whatever happens to happen, however incongruous or seemingly trivial".

Kerouac: "You're ruining American poetry, O'Hara."
O'Hara: "That's more than you ever did for it, Kerouac"

Notes by Jane Freimiller.

1st June 2015

Love and War, Sharon Williams

Sharon began with a brief biography of Richard Lovelace (1617 – 1657). He lived a legendary life as a soldier, lover and courtier persecuted for his support of King Charles I and died in poverty. His poem 'To Althea, from prison' gives a lyrical and romanticised view of war and ends 'I could not love thee (Dear) so much, / Lov'd I not Honour more.' In 'To Lucasta, Going to the Wars' there are references to liberty and the last stanza begins with the lines 'Stone Walls do not a Prison make, / Nor Iron bars a Cage.'

Wilfred Owen (1893 – 1918), who fought in World War I, composed nearly all of his poems in just over a year from August 1917 to September 1918. He was killed in action at the age of twenty-five one week before the Armistice. Only five of his poems were published in his lifetime – three in the Nation and two anonymously in the Hydra a journal he edited in 1917 when he was a patient at Craiglockhart War Hospital in Edinburgh. In 'Anthem for Doomed Youth' the savagery of the Western Front is portrayed in 'the monstrous anger of the guns' and 'the shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells'. And for 'these who die as cattle' there are no candles 'held to speed them all' but 'holy glimmers of goodbyes' in their eyes and 'the pallor of girls' brows shall be their pall'.

Ella Wheeler Wilcox (1850 – 1919), an American poet, was born in Johnstown, Wisconsin and her poetry was being published by the time she graduated from high school. Her poems were very popular, generally written in plain, rhyming verse and there are many familiar quotations from her work such as 'Laugh, and the world laughs with you; / Weep, and you weep alone' and 'To sin by silence when we should protest makes cowards out of men'. In her poem 'War Mothers' the impact of World War I is described from the point of view of women 'forced by war / to sacrifice the things worth living for'. Men who had seemed to them to be weak became soldiers and so heroes overnight. Women who responded to their call 'Come to-night; / For to-morrow, at the dawn, / We move on!' and who subsequently 'gave the world new lives' were dishonoured for not being wives. Widows were left barren and haunted.

Keith Douglas (1920 – 1944) fought in North Africa in World War II and was killed in Normandy. He was about the same age as Wilfred Owen when he died. In contrast to Wilfred Owen's poetry, he is detached and has a sophisticated interest in the violence and horror of war. Ted Hughes was influenced by his work. In 'Vergissmeinnicht', which is German for forget-me-not, a dead German soldier sprawls with the photo of his girl close by on the back of which she has written 'Steffi. Vergissmeinnicht.' in a copybook gothic script. The descriptions of death and decay are stark and the poem ends 'And death who had the soldier singled / has done the lover mortal hurt.' The unobtrusive rhyme scheme adds to the weight of the words. His poem 'How to kill' begins with the image of a child watching a ball falling through the air and landing in his hand as a gift designed to kill. Then we see through the sights of the young man's rifle and the last stanza proclaims 'How easy it is to make a ghost' and likens death to a weightless mosquito.

The discussion that arose was lively and thought-provoking.

Notes by Helen Overell.

29th June 2015

Santoka, Takahashi and Bill Wyatt: two Zen masters and an English monk, Tony Marcoff

The talk began with two poems by Wendell Berry and continued with work by the Zen monks. The simplicity and humour, apparent complexity and depth, gave rise to much discussion.

Wendell Berry tells of a love of beauty in nature and of the peace that can be found in wild things. Alan Watts in his book 'The Way of Zen' describes Zen as a way of liberation.

Santoka Taneda (1882 – 1940) had a troubled early life – his mother died when he was 11 and he was taken in by a monastery when at the age of 42 he survived standing in front of a train. He lived with the bare essentials – wandered, begged, drank saké – abandoning all that is stable. The Zen elements of sabi, aloneness in face of everything, and wabi, simplicity and naturalness, are present in his haiku. These are very plain and pared down to essentials – an apparent complexity masks an underlying simplicity as in 'Spring – / Walking with my begging bowl / Until the end'.

Shinkichi Takahashi (b1901) is influenced by Dada and Surrealism. When he was 18 or 19 he was called the Japanese Rimbaud. He then signed up for a week's course in Zen and after 3 days he was broken and emerged 2 years later. In his collection 'Triumph of the Sparrow' there are images of time pouring down like rain, the roar of the sea in a hare's head, an endless bridge and the wind blowing through the pines being the sound of the beginning of an endless past.

The Diamond Sutra tells us that life is 'a bubble, a flash of lightning, a vision, a cloud, a drop of dew', and this can be compared to the New Testament, in 'James', which has "What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a short time and then vanishes". There are many such cross-cultural points of reference, for example, the opening of St John's Gospel "In the beginning was the Word" is I believe translated into Chinese as 'In the beginning was the Tao'.

Haiku can be epiphanies. In the spirit of Zen, haiku are written with economy, discipline and a flash of insight into the nature of things.

Bill Wyatt (b1942) lives in Bexhill-on-Sea. He is the first person ordained as a Zen priest in Britain. There are elements of counter-culture in his poetry. The haiku in his collection 'The Old Monk Who Does As He Pleases' are written in homage to Eric Satie. His collection 'Gleanings from the Throssel's Nest' refers to the Buddhist Monastery of that name. The Japanese term muyosha means 'the art of becoming a useless person' and this idea is reflected in these haiku: 'I am just a good / for nothing – companion / of moon & flowers'. The Japanese ukiyo means floating world and ukiyo-e refers to points of transition in the world. The collection 'Samadhi Dust Haiku' refers to the state of meditation samadhi when meditator and meditation become one act. Dust is from the Sanskrit word guna and signifies the 'six dusts' of sight, sound, smell, taste, touch and thought which impede purity of mind. Samsara is the world of birth and death and Nirvana is enlightenment, freedom from attachment to desires, delusions.

Tony Marcoff then read some of his own haiku and tanka. These hold meditative silences as in 'sipping tea / & once again / the rain' and both ukiyo and ukiyo-e as in 'grey flight of the heron / changes the world / like rain'.

In conclusion we looked at a series of quotations which illustrate Zen thinking. Amongst these 'Zen poetry is a distillation of insight into the nature of things' and 'A heavy snowfall disappears into the sea. What silence!'.

Notes by Helen Overell.

27th July 2015

Summer School 'Thumbprints', Helen Overell

We began with a brief discussion on thumbprints – actual as well as thumbprint shaped depressions on meteorites, marks on fish and on radiographs. The carbon footprint is sometimes referred to as the carbon thumbprint. Thumbprints can be used instead of passwords to activate phones.

We then read and discussed several poems in which 'the traces we leave in our wake' were explored. In 'Walking on the Atlantic' by Billy Collins footprints appear and disappear on the surface of the ocean, in 'The Pleasures of Calligraphy' by Rengetsu, a brush hair leaves behind dancing letters, in 'Poem' by Elizabeth Bishop a small painting the size of an old-style dollar bill is built up in layers of description and memory – the place painted with such care by the artist many years beforehand recognised by the poet.

The first writing exercise investigated the possibilities of the very small and encouraged writing using all the senses and so opening up into worlds within worlds. In the second exercise, phrases chosen from the first were shared so that some of these could be used in that piece of writing. The third exercise explored present and future and encouraged the re-ordering of sets of lines into a sequence so as to give rise to the best order – i.e. not necessarily chronological or following the order in which the sets of lines were written.

We then read 'The bookbinder' by Clare Best in which there is meticulous attention to detail, 'Instructor' by Ann Sansom where useful pieces of information are tucked away in memory during driving lessons, 'Postscript' by Seamus Heaney where a moment of ocean and lake and the earthed lightning of swans catches the heart off guard and we concluded with Norman MacCaig's 'Aunt Julia' who spoke Gaelic which he could not understand and was filled with energy and resourcefulness - the poet hears her still within the calling of seagulls.

We talked about pebbles and seashells, about what to keep and what to discard, about words and languages, haiku written in Braille, the tick of a clock, the spit and sizzle of food under a grill, the scent of cinnamon, the touch of a feather.

Notes by Helen Overell.

8th August 2015

Public Event: Sofa Poet, Katy Evans-Bush

Katy Evans-Bush led an enjoyable afternoon of readings and workshop exercises. The readings including 'The Escape Artists', 'Thiebauld's Ribbon', 'The Milk God' and 'Gwynnedd in Snow' from her collections 'Me and the Dead' and 'Egg Printing Explained' as well as from newer work. This was followed by a discussion on Keats' 'Negative Capability' which can be seen as a photographic negative, a capacity for sitting in the moment and entering into the spirit of the observed. We were reminded that every single poem was once a few ideas on a scrap of paper. We looked at 'The Story of The White Cup' by Roger Mitchell, 'The Current' by Raymond Carver and 'Little Exercise' by Elizabeth Bishop – in each of these poems there is something unexplained, unspecified and therefore all the more powerfully present. We were encouraged to set words down on the page, beginning with an exercise in flow writing and ending with a response to a puzzling situation. We took away with us ideas to develop further and 'Ode to Melancholy' by John Keats to consider anew in light of the afternoon's discussions.

Notes by Helen Overell.

5th September 2015

Poems of love and loss, Elizabeth Barton

Liz led an insightful discussion on the way in which love and loss can be transformed by poetry, grief counterbalanced by joy. Robert Frost talks of how a poem begins with a lump in the throat and is a reaching out toward expression, an effort to find fulfilment. In a complete poem, an emotion has found its thought and the thought has found words.

We listened to a recording of WB Yeats 'The Song of Wandering Aengus' sung to a guitar accompaniment. The dreamlike words floated with the music – 'moth-like stars', a girl with 'apple blossom in her hair' and ending with 'The silver apples of the moon, / The golden apples of the sun.' The next poem, 'The Wild Swans at Coole', haunts with the sight and sound of 'nine-and-fifty swans' on 'clamorous wings'. There is a sense of loss and longing, of poignancy without being sentimental and of brightness and hope. There are echoes here of both the First World War and the Irish Civil War. The simplicity of language and the images of stones and reeds and lake's edge echo that of the Buddhist poems we explored last time.

In Seamus Heaney's 'Clearances (no. 3)' the mundane task of peeling potatoes is transformed. In the first stanza the boy and his mother, all the others away at Mass, let these fall 'one by one / like solder weeping off the soldering iron' into 'a bucket of clean water'. In the second stanza, years have passed, the parish priest is by the mother's bedside going 'hammer and tongs at the prayers for the dying' and Seamus Heaney remembers the intimacy of the shared task of the potato peeling, 'her head bent towards my head'.

In the next poem, 'I love all things in miniature', Mimi Khalvati looks at the small things in life, the child's eye view that is seen only fleetingly in later life. An acorn cup can be a cup, a sprig can be a tree, childhood itself it seems can be 'arrested, made redeemable'. Small creatures, such as the sparrow, 'tailored to a scale in which / the child loomed large' and regarded with tenderness.

Adrienne Rich, in 'Phantasia for Elvira Shatayev' celebrates the teamwork and the love within a group of women climbers who died on Lenin Peak in 1974 – later Shatayev's husband found and buried the bodies. The lines are broken into short phrases echoing the effort needed for the climb and for the preparation for the climb. The language is sparse and straightforward – combed hair, 'cleated bootsoles' that leave a 'geometric bite', 'our frozen eyes unribboned', the mountain which has taken 'the imprint of our minds' and 'till now / we had not touched our strength'. Love shines throughout the story so that meaning is wrested from tragedy. In each of these poems loss is transformed.

Notes by Helen Overell.

28th September 2015

Public Event: Poetry Pub

Poetry Pub, an open mike evening held at the Stepping Stones pub, Westhumble, as part of the Arts Alive Festival, included a variety of voices and writing styles. Mole Valley Poets and poets from the floor gave ten readings in each half of the evening. There were short poems, longer poems, cautionary tales, ballads and a villanelle. Music was provided by Ian Codd. The event began with the launch of the Mole Valley Poets' Christmas Anthology - proceeds from this to go to the charity CRY (Cardiac Risk in the Young).

Mole Valley Poets would like to thank the Arts Alive organisers for the support and encouragement which enabled us to take part in the Arts Alive Festival.

Thank you to everyone involved in behind the scenes organisation and in production of the anthology and in taking part on the night.

Feedback included:

Notes by Helen Overell.

19th October 2015

The National, Rosemary Wagner

Rose led an informative and interesting discussion on the winning poems in the National Poetry Competition 2013 and on poetry competitions in general. The close reading of these poems, the unpacking of language and the sharing of ideas yielded much of value. Each of the poems held a narrative, each was in couplets and each happened to be written by a woman! The originality of voice was very striking.

'Bernard and Cerinthe' by Linda France looks at Bernard's awkward response to the flower Cerinthe in a long extended metaphor. Cerinthe is a member of the Borage family and is also called Honeywort, Wax flower and Shrimp plant. Each of these names is woven into the poem. The setting seems to be Edwardian and the erotic overtones emphasised with reference to the seeds being like cocos-de-mer. The sensual way of looking at the flower is reminiscent of paintings by Georgia O'Keefe.

In 'Among Barmaids' by Paula Bohince the women tell the story of a bar with 'a metal door that took both hands / of a strong man to open'. The men wear 'their trade / on their fingers – coal or dirt or grease'. There are clues to this being set in America and the detailed descriptions evoke vivid images. The women here are strong and dignified and their compassion for the men, their 'charges', is evident. Sometimes the men bring their children to the bar. The women look after them, letting them draw on napkins and pinning up the drawings or else dancing with them 'trying to turn despair into a party'.

'Love on a Night Like This' by Josephine Abbott uses a storm in which trees are 'breathy as bass flutes' and 'effort is needed / to walk against the wind' as metaphor for a relationship. There are references to storm petrels which were thought to be the souls of dead seamen and to birds 'made helpless as paper bags'. The simplicity and enormity of loving another human being is expressed here – each couplet alive with sound.

We considered the process of judging where there is a panel of judges and the need for agreement amongst them on the winners. We considered how a good poem stays in the memory and how deeper meaning can be found on re-reading. We considered the reward to be gained in paying attention to unusual vocabulary.

Notes by Helen Overell.

26th October 2015

Looking ahead

Tony Earnshaw led a discussion on the successes of this year. There is much positive feedback on the MVP Christmas Anthology and there will be a reading from this at Pickering House, Dorking on Monday 7th December. We considered the possibility of taking part in an existing local open mike event early in the new year. We plan to hold the MVP Poetry Pub open mike event in October as usual as part of Arts Alive. We discussed the Sofa Poet and various ideas were suggested so as to increase publicity for this event. Roles within MVP were discussed and adjustments were made. Ideas were put forward for next year's programme and leaders assigned to the Monday meetings. The Summer School will be held on the second Saturday in August.

The workshop poems included images of a fairground at night and of spinning stars, of sky darned with stitches of indigo and 'fluttered with moth dust', of the 'magenta depths' of a yellow nasturtium and heaping paint onto canvas.

Notes by Helen Overell.

30th November 2015

Meeting Notes Archive