Thanks for the invitation to write this. I LOVE poetry. The way it ducks its long neck into the water, how it looks serene from far away but can be quite aggressive if you get too close. Fun poetry fact: all of the poetry in Great Britain belongs to the Queen.
Wait. That’s swans. Sorry, I’ll start again.
Poetry is, I think we can all agree, something that exists. Some humans excrete it: but, unlike a turd, a bad poem can never be fully flushed away. And let’s face it, most poetry is utter garbage. When you emailed me and asked me to give you eight poems I liked, my first thought was that I’d have a hard time finding one poem I liked. If it was eight flavours of crisps, I’d have had a lot more to say.
I also want to make a point of saying that I’m not happy about being trapped in this non-specific location. I’m an awful narcissist at the best of times, so having to think about being trapped anywhere has drastically inflated my ego. I assume that if I was some kind of political prisoner—the only variation of this scenario that doesn’t end in my death—Amnesty International would be on the case. ‘All Colin Bramwell did was stand on a street corner in <enter country with terrible human rights record here> and recite his own poetry,’ they’d say. ‘But in our country it’s illegal to be rubbish at poetry,’ officials from said country will reply. And the SNP’s response will become legend. ‘Not in Scotland,’ they’ll say. ‘Not in Scotland.’
At heart, I am an optimistic sort of person. I hope that, in my darkest hour, I can remember the words of my fellow incarcerated poets: Oscar Wilde, Federico Garcia Lorca, Andrew Blair. I hope that, when I stepped off that plane and onto my home soil, I would be given a befitting welcome. Yes. I’ll be standing on the sweet, sweet, tarmac of Edinburgh Airport, as Jackie Kay presents me with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Then I’ll recite my own epic spoken-word masterpiece to the gathering crowd—an indictment of any political system that would seek to deprive an honest Jock of his God-given liberty.
They’ll be weeping almost as much as they wept during the enormously successful run of my 2019 Fringe show, Umbrella Man. As I recall, I performed it at Summerhall, at 10am every day of the Fringe, apart from the 7th, 12th and 20th, for those were my days off. At the time, I was worried that 10am was an insane time to have a show, but after an effusive Twitter endorsement from the actor who played Gimli in Lord of the Rings, I managed to capture the coveted pro-Brexit audience demographic at the Fringe, and sold out my entire run. Anyway. They’ll be weeping.
But, as Ratho Station gently wends its way into my field of vision, I’ll be weeping too. I’ll be weeping so hard that I fall onto my front. Then a big man will stand on my head and I’ll die. But the moment my heart stops, a dragon that looks a bit like Nicola Sturgeon will arrive from the west. She’ll swoop me up in her talons and roar a lamentation to the sky, then carry my lifeless body back to the misty mountains, where the Bramwell crypt lies waiting. As we disappear into high clouds, the crowd, now speaking as one, will begin to chant a single word. ‘Khaleesi.’
Here’s eight poems I really like.
Carlos Drummond de Andrade – In Search of Poetry
| Buying Link |
Boof! That’s the sound of you failing to anticipate my first choice: the Brazilian poet Carlos Drummond de Andrade. A poet with Scottish heritage, not that it matters particularly. I found out about him while reading the Wikipedia page on Scots in South America. That’ll be the side he gets the poetry from then. Shut up, Gran.
Scots have a bad habit of claiming things that don’t really belong to them, and I don’t wish to stick a flagpole in Carlos Drummond de Andrade. I am, however, glad that a tenuous link led me to his work, because he’s become one of my favourite poets. This poem derives its own fun wisdom by telling would-be poets how not to proceed. Naturally, it admonishes those who are inclined to write by mocking them for their humanity. In this way, it suggests a negative reframing of the practice of writing. And in this age where we’re constantly trying to improve and better ourselves as human beings, let alone writers, a bit of negativity goes a long way.
‘Don’t tell me your feelings.’ ‘Don’t get cross.’ ‘Don’t waste time lying.’ The poem is a goldmine of dubious advice. It’s the world’s grumpiest TED talk. It’s like a finger getting jabbed in your chest. ‘Okay, so you want to write? Do it then, but also: get over yourself.’
Move closer and consider the words.
hides a thousand faces under its poker face
and asks you, without caring how poor or formidable
your answer might be:
Did you bring the key?
Alternative choices in the genre of poems about poetry include Leonard Cohen’s ‘How to Speak Poetry’, and Les Murray’s ‘The Instrument’ (‘Why write poetry? / For the weird unemployment.’ Yup.)
Ye Mimi – They Are There But I Am Not
| Video Link |
Zap! This next poem is also a film. The genre of the ‘film poem’ is not something I know much about. But it did strike me that, if I were locked up, it might be good to have something to watch. And this bears repeat viewing. It’s one of those poems that I always carry with me in the back of my head. I can’t say that I’ve cracked what it’s really about yet, but I don’t particularly feel the need to try and explain its mysteries to you. The footage is of the poet/filmmaker’s native Taiwan: of clocks, toys, toy clocks, birds, bike wheels, generations. The words are elusive too: they relate to the displacement of individuals in cycles of time, I think, but that’s probably putting too fine a point on it.
What I like about this is how the visual images enjamb the lines, how they create this black and white world where the poem’s text, which reads like a kind-of moody Tao Te Ching, is given space to breathe. The video would be extraordinarily hip if it weren’t so punctuated by alienation and loss. Ye Mimi whispers the words over the top, almost as if she’s hiding, then gets caught by the children she films.
The poem falls into a final mantra: ‘Time isn’t there but it is / They are there but I am not.’ I don’t know what it means, but it reminds me of the invisible world behind things. Central to Highland folk belief was the idea of a shadow world that overlapped this one: if you saw a shadowy version of yourself, soaked with water, likely you would meet your end by drowning, and so on. Words are a little like that: open to different definitions of causality, open to superstition and magic. And they’re allowed to be that way in a way that pure scientific knowledge isn’t. There is something that exists behind a poem, that says ‘They are there but I am not.’ The voice is so quiet here, it barely draws attention to itself—but that whisper becomes conspicuous too. Which is a circular way of saying that the person who made this film-poem is not as close to invisibility as she first seems, nor am I, nor you for that matter.
Other must-read Taiwanese poets: Hsia Yu, Ling Yu, Sun Wei-Min, Yang Mu, Chen Li.
Elizabeth Bishop – Little Exercise
| Reading Link | Buying Link |
Boing! It’s Elizabeth Bishop. Now, I know what you’re thinking. ‘No Colin. Bishop don’t boing.’ Well, I’m here to tell you otherwise. Her poetry boings like a trampoline, mate. Can you dig it?
No. Don’t boing. Talk about this seriously, please.
Okay. Elizabeth Boingshop is, I think we can all agree, absolutely sick at poetry. And there are lots of poems by her that I love, but this one is a total beast. She’s a master of form: she knows the rules and when to break them. In ‘Little Exercise’, there’s this weird rhyme seeded at the start (lines 1, 4 and 6, nerds) which sort-of alerts the ear to the presence of more sort of assonant music within the lines (ladies). It’s all musical and playful.
There’s a writing workshop exercise involving write a poem where all the lines begin with ‘Think of’ or ‘Remember’ or ‘I hate you because’. If you do that exercise, you’ll probably not write anything earth-shattering, maybe some interesting things will come out. But check how Queen Elizabeth Bishop does it. She follows her ideas through, threads them together and this painting of a storm unfolds. Read it through the first time and you’re struck by the music for it. The second time, the painting appears: the third it becomes clearer, the fourth less so. It’s a precise and confounding little journey, this poem. Lizzo Bizzo? She’s a ninja, mate, yeah? Boing.
Other poems that go boing: ‘Inversnaid’ by Gerard Manley Hopkins, all of Kate Tempest’s excellent new album, Ani Difranco’s ‘Self Evident’.
Michael Donaghy – The River in Spate
| Reading Link | Buying Link |
Michael Donaghy had a penchant for bullshit. His first collection contains a piece called ‘Seven Poems from the Welsh’, all attributed to a 14th century Welsh poet named Sion ap Brydydd. In the fake introduction Donaghy writes, he describes the poet’s intention: to capture ‘faint echoes of a single unwritten poem which, if pronounced, would so perfectly unite the souls of author and listener that they would inhabit each other’s bodies and exchange destinies.’ Apparently a lot of people thought that was real. Good on him for making it up, for being a convincing liar.
All the best poets have a sense of fun. Donaghy, you feel, must have been a lot of fun to hang around with in real life. I feel like that was a nice lesson to learn from Donaghy: as a young poet, he’s probably the person I’ve learned the most from reading, so I can strongly recommend him if you’re starting out.
There are millions of great stories about him. He famously recited his poems from memory, but he only started doing it because he forgot his book on the way to a gig once and realised that he knew everything in it off by heart anyway. On that point, I do think it’s a great test of a poem, to be able to remember it. You have to know and be comfortable with each element that it contains, with its through-lines and digressions. It obviously doesn’t work for everyone, and there’s no harm in not remembering them: but this way works for me, and it’s me that’s being imprisoned here, not you.
Donaghy was a smart-arse, and his poetry is beguiling. ‘The River in Spate’ was the first poem I read by him, before I knew he was funny. This poem isn’t funny. It’s jaw-droppingly beautiful, perfectly constructed, heartbreaking. A story is buried in it, but for me the story of a poem rarely comes across on the first reading, unless it’s a narrative poem. My first experience of a poem is normally as a balance of sounds, a rhythm. Donaghy was a musician, and you can hear that in his phrasing, which feels so naturally measured, balanced, in proportion with itself. If you love Katy Perry, you have to read Michael Donaghy.
If you love Katy Perry you should also read: Wendy Cope, Christina Rossetti and Philip Larkin.
W.S. Graham – Listen. Put on Morning
| Reading Link | Buying Link |
Louis Zukofsky had an equation for poetry: lower limit speech, upper limit music. I have a fondness for poems that get closer to the latter, because I think that’s where you explore the limits of sensible observation and have to be guided by the combination of sounds in words. Following your ear in a poem forces you to say something different: to find out what you have to say, which will often be to different to what you initially intended to say, and likely more beautiful, perhaps wiser, or plainer.
There’s something very simple about this poem, which is about being awake. A few weeks ago, I was moved to hear a poet excoriating himself onstage for enjoying being asleep too much. ‘Listen. Put on Morning’ contains no such admonishment. It understands that there are days where staying in bed may be preferable, if it didn’t, the poem would be far less injunctive and commanding. But sometimes when you’re a reader, it’s good to be commanded, to be forced to submit.
That’s the kinkiest sentence you’ve written for a while, Colin.
But it’s not hard to concede Graham’s point here. Every morning there is a whole world waiting to speak to you, and that world has a rhythm that you partake of, that is different to the worlds of death and sleep, and always contains you within it. Wants you to inherit it, to be part of it. What I love is how unforced that point is in this poem. If poetry has the power to change minds, or to speak directly to people in a way that may be healing, then it does so not by overreaching, but by laying out the evidence, distracting you with a little sleight of hand, a flourish. That’s a better tactic for getting the melancholic out of bed. Maybe it’s the best one.
Other poems for getting you out of bed: ‘I Leave This at Your Ear’, also by W.S. Graham. The morning section of Under Milk Wood. Also, if you’re feeling melancholy, you could always try reading Robert Burton’s ‘The Anatomy of Melancholy.’
C.P. Cavafy – Ithaka
| Reading Link |Buying Link | Version Read By Sean Connery and Soundtracked by Vangelis Link |
I have a good friend who will never read this. He’s one of my favourite people in the world. He’s not the sort to read poetry. I think that with some dyslexic people, that feeling of not being able to do something catches at a very young age. Sadly he wasn’t helped much with it at school, and came out of his education feeling like he wasn’t very bright. That’s a pattern I’ve seen a fair bit with dyslexic friends and family. Once you’ve been beaten down by schooling, reading poetry – particularly with the way it’s taught, as some kind of compendium of puzzling techniques, rhetorical devices, something to be analysed rather than enjoyed – must feel like playing a computer game on the hardest difficulty.
All of that being said, my friend and I have enjoyed one poem together many times. And, unexpectedly, it’s by the Greek poet C.P. Cavafy. Not that Cavafy’s unheard of in poetry circles, but he doesn’t tend to come up in conversation down the pub: at least less so than Sean Connery. I wouldn’t say my friend is a big fan of Sean Connery. He finds Sean Connery’s accent funny, and has thus fallen into a kind of Connery trap. I once had that with the music of a pop star. I heard one funny song, and then he accidentally became my favourite singer. Akon. Changed my life.
So, when I typed C.P. Cavafy into Youtube, to see what would come up, I was delighted to discover a recording of Sean Connery reading Cavafy. Unexpectedly, it had been set to music by Vangelis. The Greek connection, presumably. But when you add a Sean Connery voiceover into the mix, it makes for quite the threesome. He comes in like a wrecking ball.
But the poem, man. It’s a trap. A labyrinth of S. Each line of the poem seems to pile more and more S on top, until you find yourself solely listening for S. This must be a wind-up, you’re thinking, but no, it’s really happening. But even when all of your pals are around a table, crying with laughter, the quality of the poem still leaps out and calms you with its beauty, and there are occasional moments of appreciative silence among the laughter. And so this particular version of the poem, as represented by its unintentionally comic reading, represents something great about poetry in general: its capacity to exist outside of itself, to take on incidental meanings.
Other poems Sean Connery should read: ‘Brigflatts’ by Basil Bunting, ‘The Schism Ring’ by Jenny Lindsay, and my next choice…
Ross Sutherland – Six House Parties
| Podcast Link| Patreon Link |
I’m interested in the question of whether it is a poet’s job to speak for their time. I blame the calendar for this—the reinforcement of decades as a marker for aesthetics is totalising, in that it apportions much of the credit for shifts in ‘ways of doing things’ to the process of time itself, rather than to individuals who, by expressing themselves, take the pulse of their moment. If you read TS Eliot, say, you’ll gain a lot of insight about what it was like to live between the two world wars. Similarly, if you listen to Ross Sutherland’s work, you learn about the minutiae of our time. The two poets bear comparison, I think, because they both like to mix two kinds of obscurity, the first relating to ‘high-brow’ culture, and the second to ‘low-brow’. Ross Sutherland, to my mind, is the more generous of these two, because when he makes a reference he often tends to show his working, but that may only be a marker of our time, and an aesthetic of clarity – perhaps of generosity – that the poetry of our age has embraced.
Although Sutherland’s podcast, ‘Imaginary Advice’, is not a strict poetry podcast, a poet’s fascination with structure undergirds the whole exercise. The two things this reminds me of are (1) William Basinski’s Disintegration Loops, which was made by Basinski, a composer, tried to transfer sounds recorded on magnetic tape to a digital format, only to find that the tape had degraded, creating cracks in the music—he proceeded to make four hours of excellent ambient music from recording the tape’s degradation—and, (2) James Hogg’s ‘Confessions of a Justified Sinner’, in which a man falls into a madness facilitated by the appearance of his Satanic doppelganger. In Ross Sutherland’s work you have a combination of prosey, narrative techniques with these poetical-musical structures.
If I’m correct in anticipating a move within poetry towards narrative (my evidence: the rise of the spoken-word show as a form, the influence of television on poets, the relationship of audio with oral storytelling that correlates with ideas of listening as encouraged by pageless media, i.e. podcasts) then Ross Sutherland will be one of the folk who pave the way for this explosion of form, this move towards mixed media, this great Yggdrasil of future art, etc. He’s an individual who pushes towards the future, as well as taking the pulse of this moment, and I hope he receives the credit he deserves for his beautiful and apparently limitless imagination.
Other spoken-word poets who do a good job of defining their age: John Osborne, Ross McCleary, Leyla Josephine, Iona Lee.
Hannah Lavery – Scotland, You’re No Mine
| Buying Link |
Hannah Lavery is my favourite poet in the Scottish performance scene, and I’m lucky to call her my friend. The world has taken its time cottoning on to how great she is, but she seems to be getting there so, poetry fans, if you aren’t aware of her work now, then you will be soon. Her show, The Drift, is essential viewing. It is a true story of unbelonging and discrimination that is extraordinarily moving: a document of historical crimes, and a call to arms, to change.
This poem is the centrepiece of it. It contradicts everything that we so frequently hear about ourselves in Scotland: that we are friendly, multicultural, that there’s no room for racism here, that we’ve shown it the red card, etc. Well-intentioned rhetoric, but not accurate—damaging, even, if they stop us from facing our history, from knowing ourselves. So frequently we in Scotland try to give ourselves a pass for the crimes of the empire: worse still, we deflect our approbation onto the USA, and point out the racism there as if it is somehow distinguishable from our own. This poem punctures that hypocrisy: ‘blue n white; blue, white n red. / It doesnae matter’. I remember hearing that, and needing to hear it.
Poems that harness anger, that have political ramifications, that agitate for change, are hard to write. Readers and audiences will not stand much hectoring. When a poem like that works, it becomes an extraordinary, heart-breaking act of generosity towards anyone who reads it. ‘O wad some Power the giftie gie us. / Tae see oorsels as ithers see us!’ Well, Burns, here is your reply:
‘my blood and your secrets,
bleed into you, root and earth,
and you, forever, pagan, will, in the spill
and the seep, see all you really are.’
If telling Scotland to go fuck itself is a sign of Scottishness, then Hannah Lavery isn’t just a Scottish poet, she’s the most Scottish poet. Moreover if, as Scots, we are to take ourselves seriously as a country, then this poem must be one of our foundational texts. We might be a little less proud of ourselves, but we ought to be proud that we can count Hannah among the best of us.
Here’s an early version of Umbrella Man that Colin recorded for us.
Whose face is currently trapped in the prison of his beard.
 Like Bridget Jones. Except Colin Firth will not be rescuing me. Unless he could. Editor, is that allowed?