Three Poets and All That Jazz: Dylan (the Bob one), Bowie (the David one) and Philip Larkin’s Record Diary.

image of three books on Bob Dylan, David Bowie and Philip Larkin's essays on Jazz

Three books came my way this Christmas, each about a unique artist and all with very different styles and perspectives.


Poet #1

Before Bob Dylan became the 2016 Nobel Laureate for literature, one academic in particular had already been teaching his poetry students about Why Dylan Matters. Professor Richard Thomas has now gifted us with these insights in a highly engaging read that is impeccably researched and to be enjoyed by academic and pure listener-reader alike. The Guardian hailed it with Music Book of the Year 2017 and here is one reader in total agreement.

Growing up and attending school during the 1950s in a small Minnesota town, young Robert Zimmerman absorbed a  multitude of cultural influences that included Roman and Latin Classics amid other literary fodder. Later on, as he ventured forth into the wider American scene, Dylan explored modernist poets like Rimbaud and the writings of Beat authors like Jack Kerouac, all of whom helped shape the unique lyrics of the Bob Dylan canon. Yet the attachment of those words to a musical frame of increasingly sophisticated quality takes the singer-songwriter into a further dimension, one of musical virtuosity that draws from deep roots in American folk to begin with, then blues, country, rock and beyond. It is this intensity of musicianship combined with poetic lyricism that create the sheer enjoyment, intrigue and love of the Dylan canon for me personally and no doubt for many other lovers of Dylan’s work.

Throughout Martin Scorcese’s documentary film, No Direction Home, Dylan describes himself as a musical expeditionary and this is reflected in the ever-changing variety of styles and genres he has adopted to form his trailblazing career. Within that career as musician-lyricist, he is also no doubt a poet. His work, like poetry, exists as a multi-layered treasure, to be enjoyed anew with each listen.


Poet #2

In David Bowie: A LifeDylan Jones adopts a chronological-biographical frame, populated by personal interviews and anecdotes from many of David Bowie‘s friends and contemporaries. In a clear avant garde tradition, Bowie songs seem to me to come from a symbolistic origin, whereas Dylan’s, at least early on, were more of a social commentary. Bowie’s abstract style is also a commentary of sorts, more focused on the inner life or inner space, as well as, paradoxically, the vast cosmological context of life – outer space – and on how that can be articulated through the media of the body, clothes, words and music. Bowie articulates alienation like no other.

Jones’s book is a ‘warts and all’ description of David Bowie’s life, especially the earlier ‘rock star’ years, yet it is also a fond and adoring one. We encounter the artist, driven by a creative instinct that was compelled to manifest in a continually renewing vortex of personas, music, lyrics, visual art and styles, with bodily appearance acting as a blank canvas and the stage as pure theater. As I have argued before, Bowie is a shapeshifter par excellence, a hurricane of creativity in relation to the forming and transforming self.

I found this book fascinating and an enriching addition to my indulgence in all things Bowie, especially the way in which the author brings us behind the scenes of the world in which he moved. Many individuals were involved in the ever-changing Bowie project, all of whom fed into what we know and love as the Bowie classics. Read the book.


Poet #3

My final consideration in this triad of Christmas gift books is the collection of essays and reviews of contemporary Jazz, written for the Telegraph newspaper from 1961-1971 by the Hull based poet Philip Larkin. Reading this book is like a safari into Jazz history, describing artists like Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet, Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday as their recordings filtered in from the United States and Europe, as well as some well known band leaders within Britain itself, like Kenny Ball and Chris Barber.

While the merits and demerits of Larkin’s life and work are topics of considerable debate at the moment, there is no doubt that he loved Jazz and the people who created it and that, in his own words, in the final analysis, ‘what will survive of us is love’ (An Arundel Tomb).

Another Hull poet, Andrew Motion, has written extensively on Larkin’s life and work and presented a captivating portrait of him on the Sky Arts ‘Passions’ series. The following snippets are from the program and summarise Larkin’s offering as ‘glittering verse that spoke directly to, and about, post-war Britain’ and the uncertainty of life. It is this directness and connectedness with everyday life that forms Larkin’s appeal, welded to an ability to ‘create beauty from despair’. As Shane Rhodes contends, ‘He was incredibly accessible for an academic poet’.

In All What JazzI find the articles informative and fun. They have sent me off on a new pilgrimage into jazz music and songs, some reminiscent of growing up with my Dad watching Kenny Ball and his Jazzmen on TV, others complete revelations, especially the voice of a lady singing with the Chris Barber Jazz Band. She’s called Ottilie Patterson and she hails from Comber in Northern Ireland, just up the road from my home in Carryduff. Here she is; what a voice?!




Hope springs eternal in the poetry of Bill McKnight.

image of book vocer with silhouette and title


An interview with poet Bill McKnight

by Roberta McDonnell for Subliminal Spaces blog.

Belfast poet Bill McKnight has just published his second collection which goes by the intriguing title of PoetraitureAs I suggested in the collection’s Introduction which it was my humble duty and deep privilege to write, these poems paint a portrait in words. Those words are sometimes brief yet are so full of pure, distilled poignancy that you realise he could have written a whole book and not said it any better. His lines resonate and communicate in Bill’s authentic, unique voice, filled with insight, hope and humour.

Poetraiture builds to some extent upon themes of stigmatisation and emotional struggle indicative of the first collection Loud Silence, yet in this second volume there is an expansion and maturation of the poet’s attention and observations. He addresses, with great wit and wisdom, themes around modernity, consumerism, human disconnection and the challenges for us all of authenticity and of ‘being human’ as he puts it. In Soul for example, at the same time as a widow is laid to rest in a damp cemetery,

Downtown, shoppers set the tone, / and ‘jingle bells’ is what the tills are ringing.


I asked Bill what sparked off the impulse to write and compose poetry? ‘It just came out spontaneously’ he told me, and went on to explain that many poems emerged during a period of recovery after a mental health struggle. Poetry is a therapeutic resource, he argues, with much personal experience to back up that claim.

Bill says, ‘It seems to come from the unconscious…or I don’t know where it comes from, it just erupts. But it’s only when I look back at the poems later on and reflect on them that I start to understand what they mean…connecting the dots.’ He continues, ‘My poems are a gift, to myself and to others who might find encouragement in them. They’re like little adverts for people who, for one reason or another, might have a short attention span but a brief affirmation might stick with them. I’d love to see them up on posters around the place to help remind people there’s always hope, no matter how ill you are or have been.’

So, when I ask Bill what he feels the aim of his work is, he has already answered the question, but adds, ‘I want to connect with people and to inspire them with hope for recovery. My aim could be summarised as “Symbolising Hope”.’

On Being Published

Bill: ‘What does being published mean to me? Well, it means getting the message out. Encouraging openness. Letting people know that mental illness need not be the end of the road. I’ve known suffering and the pain of stigma but I also know the reality and joy of healing. My main intention is that people get help and inspiration and overall encouragement from my work.

I have a vision for community mental health with a lot of peer input. Ideally, if my literary work could sustain me financially, my hopes are to help the community in North Belfast, to devote my energies full-time to that work. My vision is for a community mental health resource that supports and affirms people, working at the same time to change hearts and minds in this separated and divided society. I’m interested in bringing people together through integrated programmes of mental health support and peer support.’

What / whom do you like to read?

‘I don’t have a favourite author though I used to like the wit and humour of Spike Milligan. I get so much from a wide range of literature, like psychological books, poetry and stories, in fact I’m currently exploring nursery rhymes, they have so much wisdom in a few short lines.’

What are you currently working on?

‘A humourous collection of poetry in the short-term. In the long-term I’ve ideas and some sketched out plans for a play. I’m also in a period of reflection, looking back over some of my past work and it deepens your insight, then it stirs my imagination and gives me more ideas, like a domino effect. It’s all about making connections…that’s my process…that’s how the creativity works.’

What advice would you give to aspiring writers who hope to publish?

‘Be yourself. Dare to be different. Embrace your unique imperfection. There may be nothing new under the sun but there are limitless ways of saying it and speaking truth. And another thing is: don’t be afraid of nerves or ashamed of being nervous. Face your fears and go past them.’

Wise words indeed. Authenticity is one of Bill’s trademarks. It may not have always been so, in fact he suggests it was not being true to himself that caused a lot of his earlier suffering .

The reason I was ill / was because I was not Bill.


I hope that demonstrates the intensity of the distilled wisdom and insight in Bill’s work. Catch up with Poetraiture for more inspiration, fun and food for thought. Bill’s first collection Loud Silence  is worth catching too.

Citations and image from Poetraiture ©Bill McKnight

Article ©Roberta McDonnell


Re-discovering Philip Larkin through word, image and jazz.

the poet Philip Larkin holds a drink and smiles.

A rare smiling image of English poet Philip Larkin.

My old copy of The Whitsun Weddings by Philip Larkin, hidden on the bookshelf for years, was pulled out for a nostalgic read the other day after an intriguing documentary about the poet on BBC4 earlier this week. In the Whitsun Weddings collection, in the poem For Sidney Bechet, the poet describes (earlier era) jazz music as falling upon him,

‘Like an enormous yes’ and refers to it as

‘the natural noise of good, / Scattering long-haired grief and scored pity.’

While commonly known for a somewhat melancholic approach to life, this does not sound like a person who has no time for passion. It was news to me too that alongside his poetry, Larkin had also made significant literary and journalistic contributions to critiquing Jazz music such as the perhaps controversial (maybe just honest) All What Jazz.

The television documentary revealed even more interesting aspects of Larkin’s artistic dimensions, that included skill with a camera as well as with the poetic word. Some of his images are black and white with a haunting or melancholy quality, reflected in his poetry too, such as Home is so Sad.

Yet much of Larkin’s photographic work is also personal and full of emotion like the multiple shots of intimate friends, male and female, with whom he shared his life, albeit within certain strong constraints and clear boundaries, evident in the ending of Talking in Bed,

‘Nothing shows why / At this unique distance from isolation / It becomes still more difficult to find / Words at once true and kind, / Or not untrue and not unkind.

More surprisingly, a significant number of the photographic portraits are of himself, taken with the delayed shutter function of his high-tech Rollieflex camera. The original ‘King of the Selfie’, Philip Larkin was a complex, intense human being whose work continues to intrigue, inspire and invite debate. Some of his photos have been published in The Importance of Elsewhere 2015.

image courtesy of



Blind Rage and Absolute Corruption: Reflections on Macbeth

image of blood red hands and title Macbeth

“Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

Attributed to the nineteenth century historian Lord Acton, this insight was particularly aimed at monarchical systems where the ruler was believed to be there by divine authority and therefore could do no wrong. Like some of the more despotic Roman emperors, Shakespeare’s Scottish Thane Macbeth seems to have become drunk on his own self-image and the power of kingly status. Once in the grip of it, the thirst for more power drove him to ever more bloody and heartless slaughter. And like many corrupt regimes, once the public realised they were under the rule of a tyrant it was too late to depose him. Fear was the order of the day.

Shakespeare was a genius. His understanding of human psychology is timeless, yet forever being re-discovered and Macbeth, the play, is particularly incisive. As the tale intimates, the loss of their young son triggered the slide of Lord and Lady Macbeth into a state of emotional numbness wherein the seeds of a desperate quest for validation and position could take root and fester; almost a state of grief gone awry.

We know that grief can manifest in many forms and that anger is one of them. Yet while anger is a common human emotion built to protect us, no-one would condone a power-crazed killing spree. It is, in my view, the pathological nature of Macbeth’s anger that scares us so much and that creates the dark mood of the play, with all the superstition and ritual that have surrounded it. image of face with black side versus white side Blind rage coupled with the knowledge that he has damned himself seem to drive Macbeth into a state of complete disregard for the humanity around him, perhaps even denial of their suffering. Jung would no doubt say he was in the grip of a sinister, destructive shadow archetype.

But the puzzle remains as to why and how Macbeth’s reign of terror escalated to such a degree. We hear for instance his initial thoughts of ambition and regicide, then his second thoughts pulling back from the awfulness of it – yet the influence of the witches’ predictions and Lady Macbeth’s goading are the focus of some debate. Was he channelled into his dreadful path, to carry out a self-fulfilling prophecy sparked off by the witches’ proclamations, or was the naked ambition there from before? Was he manipulated by Lady Macbeth to re-ignite his notion to murder the king, or did she just fan the flames that were already there?

Here’s an extract from my daughter Dearbhlá’s GCSE coursework of a few years ago, regarding

The Witches and Macbeth

‘The witches seem to predict that Macbeth will do something awful and the world will be thrown into chaos but when we meet Macbeth we see quite quickly that his thoughts have already been dwelling on his own political rank. They tell him he will be king and after they leave he states,

“Stay, you imperfect speakers! Tell me more!”

Murderous ambition is already present in his mind so the witches cannot be seen to have caused it, though they help to bring it to the surface. Even Macbeth himself starts to talk like the witches in another aside:

“This supernatural soliciting;

Cannot be ill, cannot be good.”….

….“My thought, whose murder yet is but fantastical,

Shakes so my single state of man

That function is smothered in surmise,

And nothing is but what it is not.”

Macbeth is “rapt” according to Banquo, and mesmerised by what the witches have said but this could be because it has opened up ideas and plans already in his head. So again the witches are part of the backdrop but not the entire cause of all the chaos and horror in the play. If the witches do have a bigger plan to destroy Scotland, Macbeth is a willing pawn in their game. Even more sinister is his wife Lady Macbeth who as we will also see later encourages and even browbeats him into actually murdering King Duncan.

While the witches have created the atmosphere and kick-started the core themes of the play, it is the main characters of Macbeth and his wife who think the ambitious thoughts and do the evil deeds….

There is a sense that the witches’ predictions are coming true. It could just be that this was bound to happen and they are commentators, dramatising the events with an enchanted presence. But Macbeth may not have actually committed the murders without the witches’ confirmation that he would become king. They do, therefore, influence the development of the chaotic, terrifying plot, alongside Macbeth and his wife.’  [Dearbhlá McDonnell 2012]

As many literature students will attest, the theme of the play is terror; fear of what the next moment will bring. The witches and Lady Macbeth serve to intensify the emotion of the play and act as vehicles for the darkness erupting from the main character, Macbeth. So, on to the reason for my choice of subject today – I went to see the film yesterday evening with my daughter Caitríona at Queen’s Film Theatre, Belfast.

We both felt it was brilliant, if horrifying. There are many difficult scenes of violence and carnage which do, however, create the frightening historical, social and personal context perfectly. Every aspect of the film, from cast to colour palette, does justice to The Bard’s most risky and perhaps most perceptive work. Humans are strong but also weak; have the potential for good and for evil; create and destroy. Given a conglomeration of random events and developmental circumstances, anyone’s life can turn into a perfect storm of chaos. This is the lesson we must take from Macbeth.

Without checks and balances, human nature is corruptible.

“Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely.”


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