There are recipes for certain kinds of poem. Villanelles, for example.

Ingredients: one rhyming couplet, each line sufficiently persuasive to bear four repetitions and bake on its own with strong flour. If you have any iambic pentameter, so much the better. Select a third line that's easy to rhyme with, since this pudding (I mean poem) only has two rhymes throughout. Pre-heat your oven to approximately 180°C.

But you don't want to make a villanelle, surely. I know they're fun to concoct, but so rarely sustaining. They remind me of Dr Johnson's unfortunate but memorable observation on women's preaching: 'like a dog's walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all'.

But I digress. I am thinking really about poems with recipes rather than recipes for poems. I am working on Alison Brackenbury's forthcoming HappenStance publication, which was to have been a pamphlet and has grown into a delightful book. It is called Aunt Margaret's Pudding and contains a mixture of poems and recipes, as well as a brief account of the life of the woman who inspired them – Alison's grandmother, Dot – who worked, at one time, as a professional cook.

As a recipe lover myself, I have often been struck by the similarity, on the page, of poems and recipes. They both often resemble lists, but they're a little unpredictable. They can sprawl unexpectedly, and contain little asides that have nothing to do with the food. You can make of them what you will.

Either way, it strikes me as an excellent combination. Alison's poems are particularly good if read in combination with a cup of tea and, say, a raspberry bun. (I especially like Dot's raspberry buns and my other half, Matt, who almost never eats cake, has developed an interesting partiality for them.) So this is a little advance puff for her book, though there will be much more about it later.

I once tried to combine a recipe and a poem. That is to say I converted a recipe into what seemed to me at the time to be poetic form. I am not sure the results would have pleased the T S Eliot judges, but at least it has saved the recipe from getting lost – another use of poetry, if you like. Before it became a poem, I once lost it, and my friend Barbara, to whom I had passed it on, copied it out and gave it back to me. It is called 'Pain de Campagne' and when Barbara returned it to me, she had subtitled it 'Tired of Living in the Country'.

So whether or not it's good poem, I know it's a good recipe. It is tried and tested by more than one of us and will not let you down. Here it is:

Pain de Campagne

Day 1:
Mix these things in a roomy bowl:

8 ounces of strong white bread flour
A scant dessertspoon of table salt
8 fluid ounces of tepid water
A little dried yeast (a scant half teaspoon)

Cover with a plate and leave till next day.
At night dream richly. Record your dreams.

Day 2:
Return to the bowl.

Add 4 fluid ounces of luke-warm water
and then 4 ounces of whole-wheat flour.
As you stir the mixture, remember your dreams.
They will rise to the surface in tiny bubbles.

Cover and leave. Sleep well that night.
Record your dreams.

Day 3:

Back to the bowl.

Beat in more water—4 fluid ounces
and then add 12 ounces of strong white flour—
enough to make a workable dough.
Knead at length, remembering your dreams.
Add flour if needed. Continue to work
until the dough is beautifully smooth.

Leave to rise till doubled in size.
Sleep, if you wish, while the bread rises.

Later the same day

Punch back the dough.
Knead briefly and form a long oval.
Place on a baking tray covered in flour.
Shake more flour on top of the loaf.
Lightly cover and let it rise.

This loaf will grow.

When the size impresses you
slash the top with diagonal cuts
and bake very hot[1] for a quarter of an hour,
then somewhat cooler for twenty minutes[2].

The crust of this loaf will be domed and firm,
the crumb dreamy.
It will make great sandwiches, keep well
and prove that poetry can be useful.

[1] 230C

[2] Or perhaps a little longer, at 180° 

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Ama Bolton
Mmm ... yummy! Thank you. Here's my recipe in return. How to make Sloe Gin Buy a litre bottle of gin. Drink half. With friends. ... Read More
Monday, 15 January 2018 14:29
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'The little rabbits smiled sweetly in their sleep under the shower of grass; they did not awake because the lettuces had been so soporific.'    


Precisely the right word.    

That's it, isn't it? The right one, in the right place.    


The fabulous and mysterious surprise of language, which in the ordinary way we use so lightly – merely for talking.

But when you find it fixed and free in a rhyme or simply placed without fuss exactly where it should go in the dark backward and abysm of time – well, the black bat night has flown, that's what, and ringed with the azure world he stands. 

The right word in the right place is the star to every wandering bark. 

There is wildness and wet, wildness and wet, and then suddenly it's long live the weeds and the wilderness yet. From wildness to wilderness, simply a syllable. But slipping 'wilderness' into the last line of 'Inversnaid', as if it were inevitable, oh my!

I am working on two new pamphlets. They have provoked this excitement and woken up the wonder of words. 

The two poets in question are especially good at putting the right word in the right place, and each time this happens, there's that little shock of recognition. It feels like a miracle.

Maybe this is how clichés get to be clichés. Somebody puts the right word in the right place and the world falls in love with it. So a heart of gold loses its original beautiful self and belongs to everybody. Then the level playing field flattens. At the end of the day, we're back to square one, which may or may not have something to do with hop-scotch.

A day job as a copy-writer has been an honorable trade for many poets and if I could write catch phrases for a living, why would I not? I throw you a phrase. You catch it and pass it on...

But there's more to it than that inside a poem. You linger on the precise and delicious word, yes – but it's precise and delicious because of where it is in the poem as a whole, which the sum of the parts is greater than. Another mystery: how a poem adds up to something that seems to make sense even if it doesn't.

Here are two tasters from the poets who have stirred me to dithyrambs.

Ramona Herdman's forthcoming pamphlet is called Bottle and actually it does contain 'a taster of pink fizz', but that's nothing to what else is in there.

For example, there's a ship in a bottle and its deck 'flexes under your feet'. Flexes. Besides, how did you get inside the bottle?

There's 'a stumble of ice cubes' and then ice 'ticking' in a glass. Ticking.

There's a 'quiver of whiskies'. Quiver.

It is a joyful job to be a poetry editor and linger over words. To set them onto a page one by one and marvel. And then to share them.

Lois Williams's forthcoming debut may be called Like Other Animals. It's a bargain. No, really. Read on. She wakes up words and sets them spinning.

There's a cashier, in Poundland, for example. She's 'stuck there, furious, reliable.' 'What if our bargains are / our only words in common?' Bargains.

At the town centre pond, there are 'goldfish / shimmering their semaphore'. Shimmering. Semaphore.

And at home, there's her father in the greenhouse 'dusting off soil, bits of vermiculite'. Vermiculite. I don't think I've ever said the word out loud till now. Vermiculite.

What a sensuous pleasure language is! What an amazing and humbling gift!

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First, get the recipe from the author. 

It will look much like a Contents list, but with no indication of quantities or baking temperature.

But at least it's a place to start.

Here, for example, in Will Harris's debut, are the ingredients:

Mother's Country
Halo 2
Self-Portrait in Front of a Small Mirror
Bee Glue
With Cornflowers
From 'The Ark' I
From The Other Side of Shooter's Hill
From 'The Ark' II
Imagine a Forest

But what's the method? And will the ingredients work?

At least some of the contents promise a recognisable cake. First collections nearly always have something autobiographical that fits into the sense of 'self'. Because when you publish, it's a public statement – if not about who you are, at least about who you may be. It's personal, even if the poems aren't.

In Will Harris's Contents, you can see, fourth in the list, a self-portrait. Almost all poets have one, though not always explicitly titled. This one is in prose; part of the mixture. You can see 'Identity' too, and 'Mother's Country' which has to be a bit of heritage stuff. Most poetry cakes have some heritage.

And 'Naming' of course. Poetry gives things names, then sometimes takes them away again. I often think about Gill McEvoy's poem 'Difference'. It was in a pamphlet baked back in 2007, her first collection, Uncertain Days. The poet is in a plane, looking down at the grass at the edge of the runway – 'white clover in the grass, / a bee, a clump of yellow bedstraw, / a small brown butterfly'. All at once, the airport itself is 'a place where species are defined / by difference'. The poet wants 'to be out there', on her 'hands and knees, / naming things'.

Poets name things. At first for themselves; later (sometimes) for other people.

The name of the publication is part of that. All This Is Implied. Great name. Doesn't sound like anything I've baked (or consumed) before.

Having said which, when it comes to first collections, no two poetry cakes are ever the same. Each is radically different from the next. Sometimes difference is the defining ingredient.

'Will Harris'? Not much difference there. It's such an ordinary-sounding name. A white-caucasian-empire-building name. But he's not. A Victoria Sponge this is not.

All This Is Implied took a good while. The author is a thinker and a craftsman. He's been experimenting for years, putting things into words, trying them out, breaking them up, putting them back together again. And he's been working on prose style as well. He writes excellent prose (not all poets do). Blogging about one of the ingredients ('Justine'), he says: 'I think about writing as a way of addressing race, gender, history which might embrace mixedness and confusion ....'

Will Harris is a fellow of The Complete Works III. He self-defines as BAME (Black, Asian & Minority Ethnic). He doesn't 'play the race card' lightly. As he says himself in an essay on this subject, ' the race card is not something the non-white person can choose to play. It is what is done to you'. Do read that whole essay, and watch the YouTube film at the end. There is a context here.

So yes – this debut pamphlet does 'embrace mixedness and confusion', though the complete confection is anything but confused. Numbered among the ingredients are: games, humour, mischief, love, and form – even rhyme. It's not confused: it's fused.

The end product has come out pretty well, in fact. It's hot off the press. Want to try a slice? 

Cake in waiting
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My last blog entry dealt with the ‘post-pamphlet process’. I’m mid-pamphlet this week so thought I’d share a bit of that too, rather than writing about hot cross buns. (I may write about the first stage one day, and even the buns, but not today.)

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So we have two new pamphlets at last!

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How to launch a poetry book

There are many ways. 

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