Category Archives: Poetry

Talking Dead – Neil Rollinson

To celebrate World Poetry Day today I decided that I would spend the day reading some. I had a few collections to choose from however in the end I settled on Neil Rollinson’s latest selection Talking Dead. I have to say, being a slight novice to poetry I hadn’t heard of Rollinson before, however the lovely Kate at Vintage sent me one as she said they were corkers and also because she thought the cover might appeal to me. I don’t know what on earth she was implying…

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Jonathan Cape, 2015, paperback, poetry, 56 pages, kindly sent by the publisher (as Kate Neilan thought I would like the contents as much as the phallic looking cover – she knows me so well)

Talking Dead is an unusual and interesting collection of poems which centre around three things. They are about death, sex and nature or occasionally all three, if you are lucky. In this selection of 37 of Neil Rollinson’s poetry we are thrown into random moments of people’s lives, sometimes the very last ones, around the world and throughout history. That is no mean feat and yet Rollinson does it with a wry grit, honest earthiness and often with quite the wicked sense of humour. The language can be as fruity as the subject matter, some poems are sensual and some shocking, together they form a quite eclectic mix. I laughed and I gasped as I read through.

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One of the things that I most enjoyed about the collection was how down to earth it was. Whilst Rollinson’s poetry is vivid, lyrical and beautiful it isn’t flowery. It has a rugged nature to it, not masculine per say more ‘muddy’ for want of a better turn, that’s sparseness is all the more powerful because of the honesty within its lines. Poems such as Christmas in Andalucía, which tells of a couple chatting at Christmas world aparts on Skype, have as much beauty and emotion as a man lying waiting for the rain after an epic drought in the aptly titled Monsoon. The same is the case for poems such as the stunning Ode To A Magnolia Tree or the tale of a historical beheading (I thought it was meant to be Marie Antoinette, it may well not have been) in The National Razor, both of which I thought were stupendous for completely polar reasons.

In many ways this is what is so brilliant about the collection, you can go from a love poem to a poem talking about the torturous ways you could be killed in the past, and there are not a lot of poetry collections that I can think of (but then again I am not the most prolific in poetry) where you would go from two such extremes with everything in the middle.

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See, I told you this was a varied collection. So varied in fact that I ended up having a slight issue with it because of the way the poems were organised. There is a series of poems, from which this collection takes its name, which all feature the Talking Dead literally (as you can see an example of above) as they are told by those who have died. For me personally it would have made sense to have them in the same section of the book. I don’t mean in one clump, however you could have interspersed them with poems such as Mother Die, Chesed Shel Emet or the aforementioned The National Razor. Then you could have had some of the more earthy poems like Cuckoo Pint, Bartolo Cattafi: Winter Figs and Starling all together – though actually Starling is all about death so maybe I am talking gobbledygook. I think I just sometimes felt the collection stopped and started rather than flowed. It seems an odd grumble considering I loved almost every poem (I didn’t like Gerbil or Foal  – but the latter was about a horse and the former was a bit too icky for me) I guess I just found it odd going from some deep poem about life, nature and death to suddenly a collection of poems about a hot beverage in The Coffee Variations.

That isn’t a slight on that series of mini poems by the way, I liked The Coffee Variations quite a lot and they actually lead me into one of the things that I loved most about some of the poems in the collection… they celebrate the ordinary. Poems such as X-Ray Specs, Love Sonnet XI, Starling, Ode To A Piss (which I loved and took me back to thinking of Andrew McMillan’s marvellous collection Physical), The Very Small Baseline Group Convenes at the Cat and Fiddle and Picnic were all wonderfully and made the ordinary extraordinary.

In fact the saucy, lovely and raw Picnic leads me into bringing up my favourites, for alongside Ode To A Magnolia Tree, Bartolo Cattafi: Winter Figs, Feathers and Talking Dead – Blackbird (in fact all the Talking Dead poems) it was one of my very favourites and so I will share it with you before I wrap up. (Click on it if you want to make it bigger.)

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Talking Dead is an interesting collection because at its heart, even when it is about death, this is a book about living and celebrating all the moments you are alive be they the extraordinary or the ordinary. I will have to head to Rollinson’s back catalogue I think.

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Filed under Jonathan Cape Publishers, Neil Rollinson, Poetry, Review

Physical – Andrew McMillan

I don’t really feel qualified to write anything about Andrew McMillian’s debut collection of poems Physical because as we have discussed on here before, many a time, I am not one of poetry prowess. Poems on the whole tend to scare me, as I don’t feel I understand them as I should. (I mentioned this when I was discussing Sarah Lowe’s collection Loop of Jade a few weeks ago.) However a collection like Physical is one that you simply cannot ignore and I simply have to write about because it embodies, see what I did there, everything I want from poems and poetry… a reaction that hits me right at my core, an honest voice and an experience that fiction couldn’t conjure if it tried.

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Chatto and Windus, 2015, paperback, poetry, 56 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

Physical, as the title might suggest, is all about the body. However as we read on (or as you might guess from the cover) we come to learn that this is all about the male body, what it can do, what is it meant to do, what it shouldn’t do, how it comes in all shapes and sizes, how it can be desired, loved and sometimes feared. Andrew McMillian’s debut collection is all about masculinity, no scrap that, Andrew McMillan’s debut collection is a book that ponders, despairs and celebrates what masculinity is meant to mean.

If this all sounds like I have gone bonkers, let me explain with the help of the first two poems. In the opener, Jacob With The Angel, and its follow up Urination McMillan plays with our expectations and turns them on their head. What we instantly think is about one thing, is another, something which might occasionally or often shock and surprise us. When we read Jacob With The Angel we initially thing of a classic, literally, poem of a religious scene however the more we read on we start to wonder if this is not in fact the meeting of two gay male lovers.

Similarly with Urination we think it is a poem about the awkwardness of urinating at such close proximity with a stranger (which remains odd no matter how old you get, especially if it’s your CEO and they want to chat to you which has happened to me in past jobs) and then swiftly turns into those domestic moments of ritual within a relationship, the moments we should treasure. This wonderful trickery is something I have only seen once before in that famous scene in Keith Ridgway’s equally brilliant, quirky and just as original novel Hawthorn & Child. In many of these poems we are pulled through the squeamish, the uncomfortable, the thrilling, the erotic, the joyous and the heartbreaking moments of men’s lives be they heterosexual, homosexual, undecided or it doesn’t really matter.

Admittedly there is a main focus on homosexual relationships, it is not the whole story though. Not that it should or would matter if it was. We all feel love and lust, we all compare ourselves to other people of the same sex, often admiring them even if there is nothing sexual in it. Plus when McMillam does write about sex or initimate moments between two men it is done directly and visually but always with a beauty even at its most base of moments. Sex is sex. Love is love. We all go through these things whatever gender, sexuality and race. It is all about how we relate to each other, men and men relating (or not) being one of the themes here too.

Speaking of which, back to the masculine nature of the collection though… There are a whole spectrum of machinations of masculinity, from the danger of Leda To Her Daughter to the questioning and pondering How To Be A Man from the erotically charged Saturday Night to the vulnerable and open Screen, which shows you the bare insights of a lover looking at the object of his love and then at the objectification of the man in the film, albeit a porno, see there are those brilliant twists and flipping things on their head moments again.

at the beginning I asked you
to let me watch you watching porn    I think
I needed to see you existing
entirely without me     your face lost
(from Screen)

There is another interesting construct to Physical and that is that it is made of three parts; Physical, which houses 15 poems; Protest of the Physical, which flips the style of poems as we are used to them (or at least as I am) on their heads; Degredation which consists of a final nine poems. Now as I have mentioned before I am now connoisseur of poetry, though the more I read the more I enjoy it,  but I found this a really interesting shift in perspective and in gear even if I couldn’t quite understand if it had a  purpose. This is me not being au fait with the art form rather than anything McMillan does and I enjoyed it regardless. With the first and final sets of poems being slightly more conventional in terms of form, if not subject, Protest of the Physical is something quite different. It is one great big piece of poetry made up of smaller poems (well that is how I read it) some which take up a whole page, be it in length or in random places literally all over the page, or just a few lines. It is something I will need to read again and again to get more and more from, rather like a painting that holds you and gives you more and more as you stare.

I am worried I am making this sound a little too worthy or too serious and there are a lot of laughs and funny moments in Physical. Firstly from its northern nature and narrative. As you read of Manchester bedsits and poems entitled The Fact We Almost Killed A Badger Is Incidental the wonderful warm Northern tone comes through which is always has a twinkle in its eye, well tone. Elsewhere, yes there is the titillation of the writing of sex, porn, urination etc which might have you expelling a mild giggle before being lost in McMillan’s words. Amongst all this and the honest and thoughtful more serious poems there are some belly laughs. I for one still cannot read the opening of The Men Are Weeping In The Gym without laughing out loud, before the poignancy of what follows settles in.

the men are weeping in the gym
using the hand dryer to cover
their sobs    their hearts have grown too big
for their chests     their chests have grown too big
for their shirts      they are dressed like kids
who have forgotten their games kit
they are crying in the toilet

Physical is a stunning, raw and direct look at what it is to be male. It celebrates the male physique in all its forms as much as it celebrates the foibles of the male species. It is a collection that asks a lot of questions, primarily ones such as in the poem Strongman, which asks ‘What is masculinity if not taking the weight?’ Be you male or female you need to read this collection. Books, poems and stories are all about experiencing the world of others and walking in their shoes, Physical excels at this and from an unusual and original view point. I cannot wait to see what Andrew McMillan creates next.

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Filed under Andrew McMillan, Books of 2015, Chatto & Windus, Poetry, Review

Environmental Studies – Maureen Duffy

Reading poetry is something that I have to admit I don’t do very often. I think it is because whenever I try and read poems I inevitably feel like I am a philistine, stupid or that I am back in the classroom at St John’s and getting more and more upset that I don’t understand what some of these bloody things mean. I think poetry is very like art (and yes I know it is art but I mean art you hang on the wall art, or sculpt in some cases) because it is so subjective, some people (like myself) might like Picasso others may think he is an abstract mess. I tend to like poems that rhyme and which in some way I can apply to the real world in all its grubbiness or glory. As it is National Poetry Day though, and after a short natter with Kate about poems, I decided I would pick up a poetry collection (while I am at home with a voice like Mariella) and spend the day with it and report back with my thoughts. I plumped for Maureen Duffy’s latest collection, Environmental Studies.

Enitharmon Press, paperback, 2013, poetry, 64 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

You may be thinking, why on earth would someone who still has nightmares about English lessons choose a collection with a title that looked like it was designed for a classroom? This was my thoughts actually after I had grabbed it from the shelf. Yet Environmental Studies is not at all laborious or dull as it might be in a school context. It is a vibrant collection of poems that cover nature, culture, various periods in history and indeed the authors own personal history.

I have mentioned that I like poetry that I can relate to, and while none of them rhyme, I found myself incredibly drawn into this collection. My favourite poems were the ones about nature, we have poems dedicated not to all the fancy animals you might imagine but to woodlice, slugs, snails, pigeons and even the beautiful yet pesky parakeets that have made themselves so at home in London. I loved these particularly because they chimed in with my own thoughts, particularly Woodlouse because I have always been oddly fascinated by them, Sluggish as I have always questioned the point of slugs, Parakeets as when I lived in London they fascinated me, though the bloody squawking they would make was horrendous.  Here Duffy and I connected with our similar opinions of these creatures. Oh I almost forgot Pigeon Dancing is just wonderful, we have all seen a male pigeon trying its luck at any possible mate haven’t we?

Duffy and I also connected over the importance of keeping the small things in life and the feelings they can evoke. There are a couple of these which celebrate the smallest most random of things which are also the things which make us human. Who knew I could be so moved by a poem about an address book, thermometers or tools and yet I was.

Address Book

They come at me every year at this time
off the pages of my address book
my largely secular saints, the ones I no longer
can send carefully handpicked cards to
faces and voices I haven’t the heart
or something, even to cross out. The book’s
falling to pieces, held together now
with a rubber band, and by that same token
love token, when I should by another
enter only the current, living, my hand
draws back, like a Christian commanded
to put a pinch of incense on the emperor’s altar
an image of secular Shaw, I know.
I did say unsanctified saints. But in
the old world of falling night and frost
this was the time to wake the dying sun
the dead earth. So I invoke my lost ones
off these pages, tattered, battered by years
and tears, but with their living names still.

In Environmental Studies Duffy also brings up the subject of culture and art. Now here I was slightly worried, art being so subjective and all, yet Duffy does something very clever. She looks at the story behind the art, so for example in Portrait and Figurine she looks at the people behind the picture be they the artist or the subject and I thought that was rather wonderful. It also made me feel a bit clever and reminded me that art is initially in the eye of the artist, yet it is in only in our eyes that we can try and work it out, be it the story behind it or whether we like it.

I have to admit that with the more religious and historical based poems I did struggle a little bit more. However they weren’t all lost on me at all, I just didn’t always know what historical person, myth or legend (for there are many of those and I loved the poem from a medieval dragon’s perspective a lot) I was meant to be connecting with. Up rose that moment of ‘oh Simon you aren’t knowledgeable enough’ but I just enjoyed the pace and the words and carried on. There were some marvellous moments though when having a classicist for a mother paid off and really added to the experience, I will be taking my copy to her tomorrow. These historical pieces are not dry though, they are full of adventure, drama and comedy – the classic poets would approve I am sure.

Uses of a Classical Education

Narcissus is up the gym three nights a week.
Out on a binge Ariadne fell for the prettiest
boy in the rout who dumped her later.
Ganymede’s been swept of his feet again
and by the villa pool Daphne shrivels
under the sun. Callisto pregnant on IVF
goes around like a bear with a sore head.
But let me still be your all encompassing cloud
your shower of gold or just carry you away in my arms.

I loved the authors poems of personal history though. Those childhood dinners, the pastimes their parents had and of how things must be cherished and scrimped and saved, the atmosphere being very evocative. (See I can’t tell you about all the poetry tricks but I can tell you how they made me feel which I think counts as much if not more, he says not being defensive at all!) I also really loved poems where Duffy looks at the modern world, which she seems to both celebrate and be baffled by, along with the nostalgia for the old, like in the sublime Technolithic.

I really enjoyed reading Environmental Studies. I had forgotten the power of a poem. They can really evoke atmospheres, times and places. They can also tell a really wonderful story very quickly and encapsulate so much which you sometimes forget, especially if you read as much fiction as I do. It is a collection that covers a variety of styles, moods and experiments with the form whilst reminding you of all the good things about poetry too.

I am rather thrilled that Kate, in a way accidentally, set me off on a self imposed challenge to read some poetry and even more thrilled that I chose Maureen Duffy’s to read as it ticked all the boxes for me both in the poems and in reminding me of the joy in them. They aren’t just for studying, and if you don’t get all of them does it really matter? Have you read any of Maureen Duffy’s poetry, apart from the ones I have shared with you? It has really reminded me how much I need to read her fiction too as I heard her read a few times at the Polari Literary Salon when I lived in London and loved the extracts she gave. Have you read any of those? Which other poetry collections would you recommend?

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Filed under Enitharmon Press, Maureen Duffy, Poetry, Review

Topsy Turvy Tales – Charlotte Boulay-Goldsmith & Laura Hyde

I do like a quirky book. I was going to say I like a quirky book now and again, which is true, because I couldn’t read them constantly as their quirkiness would seem less special then. Wow, that was a bit long and complicated, sorry. Back to my point, I like a good quirky book and when I received an email from a new publishing house, Humpty Dumpty Publishing, asking me if I would like to try their first book ‘Topsy Turvy Tales’ I agreed in an instant and before long a lovely cloth bound book arrived in the post.

****, Humpty Dumpty Publishing, 2012, hardback, fiction, 64 pages, kindly sent by the publishers

Charlotte Boulay-Goldsmith’s collection of ‘Topsy Turvy Tales’ do just what they promise on the tin, well on the book cover. Here are four unusual almost fairy tales ‘Quest for the Head’, ‘The Girl With Liquid Eyes’, ‘Chester the Oyster’ and ‘The Man with the Stolen Heart’, told in verse and wonderfully illustrated by Laura Hyde. Each one is rather short and so I don’t want to give their stories away that said I do think their titles probably sum them up rather well enough anyway.

Each one is rather like a fairytale only rather more unconventional and much quirkier (there’s that word again) in part because of the fact they are in verse, but also because there is something slightly intangible about them which makes them all the more magical because they can be so surreal. I will admit that in the case of ‘The Girl with Liquid Eyes’ I was a little bemused by the story, even with the pictures, however interestingly I found the (award winning) film which they made of it and it all makes more sense visually. I am popping it below to give you a taster and a feel for the collection…

What was lovely is that the first time I heard the tales was when The Beard read them aloud to me at bedtime, spoken they worked wonderfully but I must say it is with the illustrations that the tales come alive all the more and why I have put both author and illustrator in the title of my post because I think they are equally marvellous and work wonderfully as a whole.

It really is a wonderfully collaborative collection.

So if you fancy something quirky (and do go and see the publishers website for even more quirky gifts, I want that Humpty Dumpty on a wall bag) for yourself or as a special little gift (I nearly mentioned a gift for C********, I have seen season treats in the shop this week, eek) for someone who likes a twisted, or should that be topsy turvy, tale then you couldn’t go wrong with this I don’t think. With its images and the lovely cloth bound feel it really is an object of joy as well as a book, I wouldn’t mind seeing more hardbacks come out in this style. I look forward to what Humpty Dumpty decides to publish next – not something I expected to be saying.

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Filed under Charlotte Boulay-Goldsmith, Humpty Dumpty Publishing, Laura Hyde, Poetry, Review

Two Cures for Love (Selected Poems) – Wendy Cope

I really must educate myself more on poetry. I think in my head somewhere I have decided that I am not clever enough to get it. That said when I went to an open day at The Reader Organisation a while back we all read poetry allowed and the realisation that ‘there is no right answer’ finally hit me after several decades of feeling like I was rather in the dark. However there are two poets I have always loved, as a child Brian Pattern (and I can still recite many of them) was the bees knees and now as an adult I am a huge, huge fan of Wendy Cope. I tend to dip in and out of her collections but sometimes, when I am a little low or out of sorts, I will pick them up and just devour the lot as I did with ‘Two Cures for Love’ one morning a week or so ago.

Faber & Faber, 2010, paperback, poetry, 112 pages, kindly sent by publisher

‘Two Cures for Love’ is a collection of selected works of Wendy Copes from 1979 to 2006 and so it isn’t a collection that has an exact narrative, I see it more as a ‘Best of So Far…’ kind of affair, though of course there has been the collection ‘Family Values’ since this. What these poems all have in common of course are Wendy Cope and her wonderful style. I think I love her poems so much because be they happy or sad, or indeed a mixture of the two, they are human and they are in my kind of language.

I don’t really go for over flowery prose in fiction and so it is no surprise I like my poetry to be similar; it helps me to connect to the words in front of me. I also rather like, and here I may sound a complete philistine but in for a penny in for a pound, poems that rhyme as I seem to find the patterns easier and the rhythm. Not all Cope’s poems do rhyme though yet because the poems are down to earth rather than airy fairy I find that I can cope with them. But what about the poems I can hear you asking; well before I talk about them further let’s have one that I love…

Loss

The day he moved out was terrible –
That evening she went through hell.
His absence wasn’t a problem
But the corkscrew had gone as well.

Isn’t that just brilliant? It combines the utter devastation of losing someone you love or being left and then in her wonderful way Cope makes light of it. Yet she can be just as heart breaking. I don’t want to include it because a) its too long and b) I think you should all be rushing off to read all of Cope’s poems, but ‘Tich Miller’ is just one of the saddest poems I think I have ever read. Every time I read it it just gets me. ‘Being Boring’ is another stunner as it celebrates the joys of the everyday, in fact I think that really sums up Cope over all, everyday emotions of all ranges are celebrated in her work. Time for another poem I think…

Valentine

My heart has made its mind up
And I’m afraid it’s you.
Whatever you’ve got lined up,
My heart has made its mind up
And if you can’t be signed up
This year, next year will do.
My heart has made its mind up
And I’m afraid it’s you.

I can’t really sum up a collection of poems, partly because with the selected works in ‘Two Cures for Love’ they are glimpses of an author at differing stages of her career and I would have to sum each one up and possibly look too deeply into them which might ruin the magic Cope weaves. There is also the fact that with poetry the reaction you have to it is very personal and very individual (yes, I know this is the case with fiction too but with poetry I feel it is stronger maybe deeper). All I can say is that I love Wendy Copes words and I would heartily recommend you read her if you haven’t already.

Wendy Cope is basically the poet I am using to slowly but surely shoe horn my way into poetry properly. Who else would you recommend?

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Filed under Faber & Faber, Poetry, Review, Wendy Cope

Family Values – Wendy Cope

Poetry? On Savidge Reads? Yes, you well might be shocked. I have to admit I am often left utterly bemused by poetry. I have never really got it. I’ve always found it a little pretentious. (Did I just hear someone shout ‘heathen’ somewhere in the blogosphere? Ha.) This has all changed thanks to Wendy Cope and her latest collection ‘Family Values’. I think I have finally found a poet that I get the gist of and one who, in this collection alone, has made me laugh out loud and also made me want to cry. Yes, I seem to have found some poetry I connect with.

Faber & Faber; 2011; hardback; poetry; sent by publisher

It’s very difficult to review a collection of poems without wanting to simply include every single one of them to make it easier on yourself, it’s even harder if a) you have never done it before and b) until recently you weren’t really a big fan of the form. Wendy Cope’s latest collection of 56 poems ‘Family Values’ is one that really runs the spectrum of the everyday things that happen in human life. From the turbulence of childhood to both the fear and acceptance of death this collection spans a whole host of human emotions.

The start of the collection focuses on Christmas, one of the more delightful yet equally trying times of year. In the four poems that cover this period Cope manages to completely convey the joy and the annoyance that come with that time period. I found myself thinking ‘phew, someone else has that feeling of happiness and slight nostalgic melancholy at that time of year too’. From the start I felt I was on the same page (no pun intended) as Cope and this was before we had even started on the poems of love and loss, some of which I found so beautiful and touching I admit I got a little teary. Try reading the below and not feeling something.

April

The birds are singing loudly overhead,
As if to celebrate the April weather.
I want to stay in this lovely world forever
And be with, my love, and share your bed.

I don’t believe I will see you when we’re dead.
I don’t believe we’ll meet and be together.
The birds are singing loudly overhead.
I want to stay in this lovely world forever.

What I really loved about Cope’s collection, apart from the fact it ‘got me’ so much, was the sense of humour in it. As a child my Mum (the English teacher) read me Brian Pattern’s ‘Gargling With Jelly’ which would reduced me to hysterics. Almost two decades on Wendy Cope is doing the same on a whole host of things from love to debating whatever happened to the tomato shaped ketchup dispensers in motorway service station fast food restaurants as she does in ‘At Stafford Services’. I even found myself laughing bizarrely at subjects such as death and even the thoughts of our own funerals.

My Funeral

I hope I can trust you, friends, not to use our relationship
As an excuse for an unsolicited ego trip.
I have seen enough of them at funerals and they make
       me cross.
At this one, though deceased, I aim to be the boss.
If you are asked to talk about me for five minutes, please
       do not go on for eight.
There is a strict timetable at the crematorium and nobody
       wants to be late.
If invited to read a poem, just read the bloody poem.
       If requested
To sing a song, just sing it, as suggested,
And don’t say anything. Though I will not be there,
Glancing pointedly at my watch and fixing the speaker
      with a malevolent stare,
Remember that this was how I always reacted
When I felt that anybody’s speech, sermon or poetry reading
      was becoming to protracted.
Yes, I was impatient and intolerant, and not always polite
And if there aren’t many people at my funeral, it will probably
      serve me right.

I really loved this collection. I should say at this juncture that it was actually seeing Wendy Cope reading her own poems in Cambridge that made it all so accessible and finally broke me into poetry again. I could here her voice and see her arched eyebrow and wry smile as I read through so that added a certain something. Regardless of that though, she didn’t read the whole book, I can genuinely say that these poems would have touched me anyway if I had seen them. A collection of poems that can make you laugh, cry and resonate with you just so is a hard thing to find, but find one I have. Thank you Wendy Cope! 9/10

So there you are, I am somewhat converted. I have to admit that after the success with Wendy Cope (and I have another of her collections I am going to save for the future) I have since read a whole novel written in poetry. I will be reporting back on that soon. Which poet really resonates with you and why? Who would you recommend I go and try next?

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Filed under Books of 2011, Faber & Faber, Poetry, Review, Wendy Cope