19 July 2015

Wolf Hall

The Shotover Oak probably started life as an acorn in Tudor times, and was a small sapling by the time Elizabeth I visited Shotover Lodge in 1566.

I've known the oak for most of my adult life, but a week ago on 13 July its major branches succumbed to damage brought on by the dry weather. It fell in two parts, and the council had no option but to cut it down.

I feel a sense of loss I find impossible to justify.


If I worship anything
it is this old oak,
stranded centuries
from its birth,
curated by treecreepers.

I place my palm
on its skin
as I could only be
to something
and capable
of suffering,
and pray
as if it could care.

I pray
it will keep my memories safe
refreshed and bright and bitter
as leaves.

08 June 2015

Living at 10,000 feet

Living at 10,000 feet is hard, more so if you’ve spent your life at sea level in Oxford. You have a perpetual, vague headache, you walk slowly, and take rests when you’re climbing stairs. There’s 30% less oxygen than at sea level, and at night when you’re trying to sleep, your body wakes you every few minutes to check you’re still alive. You read about unwary tourists dying of altitude sickness in Machu Picchu, but the Pic du Midi is 1,500 feet higher. You’re so high up that, miles below, the fearsome climb of the Col de Tourmalet looks like a gentle Sunday bike ride. 

Picture by Pascalou Petit - Licensed via Wikimedia Commons

The Pic du Midi is a meteorological, astronomical and ecological observatory perched on top of the highest peak in the French Pyrenees. It looks like Blofeld’s lair. It is also, after the recent very harsh winter, surrounded by snow, rather than the pristine rock shown in the picture.

The most distinctive feature of the complex are the multiple cupolas housing many different telescopes. 


The Pic has converted 6 rooms previously used by the scientific staff into guest bedrooms so that people can stay at the observatory overnight, watch the sun go down, see Venus and Jupiter rise, watch the rings of Saturn and Jupiter’s moons through a telescope, see the Milky Way and all the stars in the sky, sleep briefly, watch the sun rise over the mountains the next day, view solar flares through a coronascope, visit the huge TBL telescope with its 2 metre mirror, and then go back down the mountain by cable car to somewhere you can actually breathe.

Rocks, snow, cloud, June

Of course, this being France, you also get a four course meal with red and white wine, and a bijou bottle of champagne which the maitre d’ says you can drink or take back to your room.

There is a long safety briefing when you first arrive, and great stress is laid on the emergency number you can call if you are taken ill (there is a fully equipped sick bay), and there is an emergency phone in each bedroom. I think they’re concerned about shenanigans.

It’s behind you. Actually this is a coronascope and it is taking pictures of the sun, not the moon.

Unsurprisingly there is not a lot of fauna this high up, but we got to see vultures soaring, alpine choughs, and snow finches. 

The author about to strike...

16 May 2015

Nightjars and Tufa

Apple Picking by E Tolley

How do you see a poem?

It’s a stupid question: you don’t see poems. Poems are about how you see things.

Poetry is so much about seeing things that there is an extensive genre - ekphrastic poetry - of poems describing visual works of art. One of the most famous ekphrastic poems is Keat's Ode on a Grecian Urn, but the technique goes back at least as far as Homer, and is still very popular today.

Poems are used to seeing, not being seen.

This painting of an apple orchard is an exception. It’s a reverse ekphrasis: a friend took a poem I’d written a few years earlier, and described it in a picture. I’m the one in the purple T-Shirt leaning against the tree. I’d say it’s as faithful a representation of my poem as most ekphrastic poems are of the works of art they describe - which is not a criticism of the painting or ekphrastic poetry, simply an acknowledgement that works of art have to exist in their own right first, and only secondarily in relation to what inspired them. 

Here are the opening stanzas of the same poem visualised by a program created by a multidisciplinary team of poets, linguists and computer scientists:

I learned about their work in a seminar on Data Visualisation: Poetry Visualisation on the Web held at the IT Services Department of Oxford University.

The team had the interesting idea of writing a computer program to visualise a poem in a way that would help a close reader to analyse it. The first problem they faced was to find a common language they could all use to talk about poems. Given that the intent was to create a program to do the work of visualisation, it made sense to look for concepts in computing which had a usable correspondence to poetry. Computer scientists may not understand poems, but they understand complex dynamic systems - and a poem, in the right light, can be seen as a complex dynamic system.

Traditional data analysis makes the world comprehensible by sifting the myriad of possible influences on a complex event to identify the handful of factors which are critical to understanding it.

One of the most brilliant uses of this reductionist technique is Minard’s infographic describing Napoleon’s 1812 invasion of Russia, and his subsequent retreat from Moscow. For anyone interested, Minard’s work is discussed in detail in Edward Tufte’s remarkable book Visual Display of Quantitative Information but, in short, the picture plots the geographic advance (brown) and retreat (black) of Napoleon’s army, the width of the line corresponding to the size of the army, the bottom graph showing the bitter temperatures experienced during the retreat from Moscow, the route showing how Napoleon tried to avoid returning over the same scorched earth he had advanced across and how the Russians forced him to retrace his steps along the Smolensk road, the corridor of which had been stripped of food by both armies during the French advance. Napoleon’s invading force of 680,000 was reduced to 27,000 fit men by the end of the campaign. The picture is War and Peace as a one page graphic novel.

Poetry is not amenable to such simplification. The poets on the team identified over 50 features they felt were vital to the close reading of a poem - rhyme, assonance, consonance, vowel sounds, and so on. It was not possible to meaningfully reduce the analysis of a poem to two or three key variables. Not all factors were vital to the understanding of every poem, but a substantial subset were. Simultaneously presenting 50 variables in a comprehensible way on the two dimensional canvas of a web page is pretty much impossible. In addition to which the analysis and visualisation of the poem had to be done by a program, and therefore it was necessary to choose features of poems (like letters, words, lines and stanzas) that a computer program could identify and understand. This meant the analysis of metre and rhythm was ruled out early in the project (in my opinion most metrical analysis of English poetry has no more objective basis than homeopathy, so I wasn’t surprised a computer couldn’t understand it).

In the end the team settled on 26 poem features, both phonetic and semantic, that the program was going to analyse and visualise.

The first step is to translate the poem into the phonetic alphabet, with vowels, consonants and punctuation colour-coded. The line of symbols above the phonetic text represents the consonants (coloured circles or squares) and vowels (3x3 grid) in the words beneath. The particular design used to represent each letter describes its sound, and the way it is produced by the tongue and lips. The original design of the vowel glyphs was based on an X-Ray of a human head showing the position and movement of the tongue in the process of pronunciation. Although accurate, this was pretty gruesome to look at, and the picture contained a lot of invariant information - only the positioning of the tongue was different in each case. So the team settled on the abstract 3x3 grid representation instead.

Phonetic relations such as rhyme, end rhyme, alliteration, assonance and consonance are shown by colour coded ligatures between the related elements - for example connecting rhyming words.

The final refinement of the visualisation was to create a glyph to represent the line as a whole:

The line glyph, or macro glyph, is the spiderweb to the left of the line of text. This glyph describes the changing sound of the line as it progresses.

All of the analysis performed by the program relates to the structure of the poem, rather than its content - for  obvious reasons. I don’t think that’s such a terrible limitation: after all in the best poems form and content  are strongly aligned, so by saying something about form you are also, implicitly, analysing content.

The primary use of the visualiser is as an aid to the close reading of a poem, and to teaching poetry. It is very complex, especially for less advanced students, but different elements of the visualisation can be turned on and off so that the teacher can concentrate on a single element, such as rhyme, or a small handful of elements, which should simplify things a lot.

That’s a valuable thing to do, but personally I’m more interested in the creative possibilities of the visualiser. One suggestion made in the seminar was to use the analyser to render a three dimensional representation of a poem by stacking the line / macro glyphs like a pile of coins and feeding them into a 3d printer. I think that’s a brilliant idea, but I don’t think the current visualisation of the line / macro glyphs would result in interesting 3d structures: you’d get something that looked like a scabby packet of Polos. But the idea is definitely worth pursuing. As a biologist I tend to think of poems as proteins. Proteins start life as a linear sequence of amino acids, just as poems start life as a linear sequence of words, but as the chain of amino acids gets longer the elements in the chain begin to interact with each other, and the protein folds up, the two dimensional structure becoming a complex three dimensional shape, undergoing multiple transformations as more elements are added to the chain, until it reaches its final configuration - which often brings elements which are distant from one another in the linear structure of the protein into close three dimensional proximity. That’s how I’d visualise a poem.

Another suggestion was to use the visualiser as an adjunct to the performance of a poem. Again this is an excellent idea, but at the moment the visualisations produced by the program are optimised for analysis, not entertainment. You'd need a pretty specialised sense of fun to be captivated by the current diagrams. 

If you want to go back to the source material for this blog post you can find a podcast of another performance of the lecture I attended here.

If you want to experiment with the poem viewer, it can be found here.

And finally here is the full text of the poem which was the basis of the ekphrastic painting and computer analysis so that you can judge for yourself how well they interrelate. 

Apple Picking

The colours of the hedgerows
bruise and ripen.
Each tree set with a blaze

like a slant of light. He was
waiting for us at the door
and led us into the orchard.

He rooted out two ladders
of rickety grey wood,
and stood back to offer

advice and plenty; those
are good eaters and keep well,
those are cookers,

they wont last after picking.
He'd seen the trees force out
the last flowers of frost,

then stripped by wind and rain,
blind calyxes swelling
with green galls. Under his care

their puckered cheeks
belled and reddened to this
roseate halo; the best fruit

always out of reach.
I climbed into the sunlight.
The last good day of the year

he said, as he gathered it
and cupped it in his palm,
the light held in the waxy

lustre of its skin. Take what
you want, they'll just go to waste.
As I picked the jarred fruit

fell with the padded thud
of billiards on baize; soft
stones pressed underfoot.

I had never known wealth
so wholly impractical;
in the black country

at harvest festival
we brought offerings
of tinned fruit and coal.

02 May 2015

The Oxonian Review 2015 poetry competition

This is Florida
The competition was judged by Jamie McKendrick and a reading of the shortlisted poems was held at the Albion Beatnik book store in Oxford. Those willing and able followed up with a celebratory meal at the Al Shami restaurant afterwards. Everyone was incredibly friendly and welcoming, and it was marvellous fun.

My poem is my jaundiced response to having to travel to Florida one too many times for work, with all the Disney families and the snowbirds chasing the last of the sun. It's part of a sequence of poems about how office drones and IT workers like me make our living.

18 February 2015

Elemental Path Debuts The First Toys Powered By IBM Watson

Picture (c) Elemental Path
A friend wrote to me today: "I'm about half impressed, half creeped out here, but pretty sure I'd check with a child's parent before gifting one of these." 

He was talking about Elemental Path's new line of smart toys for children which will be powered by IBM Watson (the same machine intelligence that won the quiz show Jeopardy), and which the company says will enable the toys to hold meaningful conversations with children, and to evolve with a child as he or she grows.

There's an article on the toys here and the project can be found on Kickstarter if you want to buy one.

It's easy to get this sort of thing out of proportion, and to start sounding like an old person. But (crazy idea) why not encourage kids to go out and talk to other children instead?

The toy is intended to contain specific educational content, and I'm probably overthinking things again, but who gets to decide what content? Will the Jesuits release their version? Do you get to pick the world view of your toy (libertarian, creationist, objectivist etc) or are they all plain old liberal secularists?

I can see some potential therapeutic uses for the toys (with autistic children for example), but beyond that it feels like a bad idea. I admit I bought my kids a Furby when they came out, but the thing about Furbies is that they were endearingly rubbish. These toys have the potential to be just too good: childminder, pacifier, teacher, friend...

Note: according to the article, none of the founders of the company is a parent.

21 November 2014

Weird Google Stats

For a couple of months the most visitors to this blog have come from the Ukraine, which was interesting. What freaked me out on further analysis is that the post getting the most hits was "You want weapons..." which is a Dr Who quote where the weapons are books and the arsenal is a library.

I hope things get better in the Ukraine soon.

13 November 2014


A child cross-legged in rain
leaves collapse outside bright gates. Teachers
bow heads as pigments break.

summer forgets
the unwilling city

spilling their guts out,
rust, helicopter blades, blush
of the sycamores

The child gets up. Face scratched
with autumn and loss. A bell aches.

the takeaway
smells of chilli and garlic
in any weather

(and this child, the sort who speaks
in three registers at once, speaks:)

“I’m not hungry. STOP!
This petulant orange, your plastic
parenting. I’d rather eat Lego.”

I will buy you some eggs.
We need to have words.

Love? How much for these?
I weigh the bright change
in the weather, my pocket.

On the way home, we shuck dried
poplar leaves from the pavement.

I read your letters
the full moon in the garden
the only sunlight

dark with yolk, broken overnight. And
letters, little chalaza, never spell it out.

I remember your hard
boiled humpty-dumpties: shaky
painted smiles and felt feet.

The note on your bedroom door:
                                    buggr ov.

Open up! And you hit
the high note, the long aa,
private harmony of pulsars

We don’t talk of the child and rain.
Sliver humpty’s head with a butter knife.

Rain and children
are never in short supply,
vide: history.

vide: I empty my words into the flower pot
and I spot the spit of us on the top deck of a bus.

Strangers smell of your fists,
even at this distance. I’ve delayed
at so many bus-stops for you.

57 varieties of salvation
and none of them any bloody use.

Enough to crack a heart. Enough to lick
a thumb, to strum a breast pocket,
to ask (messy pup) blood or ketchup?

My first day at school wasn’t better –
a nose bleed of Smash and curly laces.

All those bloody leaves,
and the moon half cut. The child
is farther…        [I forget]

You forget the child is the mother
of invention. Lies, beside herself.

I buried the hamster
in that flower pot. Words decompose
into sun flower.

a corona of tongues,
a wreath for the darkness.

her second-hand Halo,
her phone, on silent, ringing
out, the worst in you.

We named you Joe for a reason.
Wanted a blank-slate of a name.

It’s dark, the air's sweet
as a fridge. Go home
or you’ll catch your death.

Nights like this open outwards into night,
like a car door turning on the interior light.

19 October 2014

Three drivers. One Steering Wheel. Go.

2014 Jerwood/Arvon mentors and mentees

I'm two thirds of the way through the Octanka digital literature project that I committed myself to at the beginning of this month.

I'm taking it in turns with fellow Jerwood/Arvon poetry mentees Deborah ‘Debris’ Stevenson and Holly Corfield Carr to write a renga of linked poems or poetic fragments. The renga is made up of tanka, of which one poet provides the first, three line, stanza (equivalent to the modern haiku), and the next poet provides the concluding two line stanza - and so on. We exchange the fragments via Twitter.

The three of us have very different writing styles and subject matter. I check my Twitter feed with a mixture of terror and excitement to find out where we're heading next. Sometimes there's a fantastic  buzz of collaboration and sometimes I feel we're all fighting for the steering wheel of a car heading towards a cliff.

I'll miss it when it is over.

If you want more background on the Octanka project, try Deborah's blog here or Holly's blog here. All of the tweets in the project use the hashtag #octanka, and all of the underlying poems are retweeted from the @octanka account.

09 August 2014

The SAFT battery man

Sometimes you're reminded you don't quite speak the same language as everyone else. Last time that happened I was 17 and the SAFT battery company had just launched itself on the black country. Their rep's car was always parked by the Butterfield Close flats in Dudley. It was blue and had SAFT written all over it in yellow and was driven by the SAFT battery man. Oh how we laughed. It was a source of low grade humour for months, until one day the car disappeared. No one was surprised: who did they think was going to go into a shop and ask for “some STUPID batteries please”?

And now, nearly 40 years later, Liz Berry's book reminds me again that I don't quite have the Queen's English, even though most of the dialect words in her book haven't passed my lips for years. I don't think people in Oxford would know what a donny was (on the other hand the Postie gives me my mail with a cheerful "Hello my lover", even in front of my wife, so I suppose everywhere has its idiosyncrasies).

Black Country is Liz Berry’s first full poetry collection and it leads off with “Bird” in which the poet is transformed. The choice is appropriate for a first collection as "Bird" is one of those statements of poetic intent that poets write early in their career, laying claim to their domain:

                I raised my throat to the wind
                                                         and this is what I sang…

It is also an appropriate statement of intent for the collection: birds roost everywhere in its pages - starlings, throstles, wrens, sparrows, swallows, larks, pigeons filthy with petrol - in poems ranging from the documentary Grasshopper Warbler to the fantasy of The Year We Married Birds.

A lot of the early poems are written in the persona of Berry's younger self and have a wonderful, ferocious energy. She loves transgressive V signs: whether it is a bicyclist’s legs or an upended sow’s skyward trotters, her poems repeatedly turn what could otherwise be a sign of female submission into a splendid "fuck off" to anyone offended by their jouissance.

Berry's use of dialect and phonetic spelling fully justifies the title of the book. I think that dialect is technically hard to pull off in poetry: it often feels like the poet is stretching for an authenticity or a connection that they do not have the rights to, even when that is not the case. Everything in Black Country is earned and unaffected. Berry has lived and breathed these words, or if she hasn’t she’s such a damned good writer that it doesn’t matter. The book switches effortlessly between poems in “pure” English, poems spotted with local cant, and poems larded with dialect like Sow, without any obvious change in quality or authorial control.

One of my favourite poems is the terrible wonderful "Echo"

                                            wherever girls’ voices are lost,
                                            I am

followed closely by "Christmas Eve"

                                 and although we can’t ever go back or be what we were
                                 I can tell you, honestly, I’d give up
                                 everything I’ve worked for
                                 or thought I wanted in this life,
                                 to be with you tonight.

Although this is a first collection, it is assured, mature and utterly confident in itself: if there are any missteps I didn’t find them. The only thing I can find to criticise are the titles of the poems. They are flat. Sometimes they barely describe, let alone evoke, the poems - but that’s as bad as it gets in this wench's answer to  Mercian Hymns. I love Geoffrey Hill, but it’s a damn sight more fun hanging with Liz.

Being a black country lad, I do have a couple of quibbles: her publishers say that canting means flirting, but in our family it meant gossiping or "going on" - especially at great length and wasting time. And where were Teddy Gray’s Herbals? But these are minor cavils about a brilliant book.

22 May 2014

Feeding pigeons out on a limb

Deborah Stevenson and Jacob Sam-La Rose

To the Roundhouse yesterday for the launch of Deborah Stevenson's poetry pamphlet Pigeon Party where Jacob Sam-La Rose did a brilliant job of MC-ing the event.

As you'd expect from Debris Stevenson it was a launch party like no other. Or as a friend put it: "Deborah totally smashed it".

The aftermath - this pigeon stuff just does not wash off

04 April 2014