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


The Fragility of Being Human and the Power of Poetry to Mend

blue word cloud composed of poet names and recurring words

The Power of Poetry

In a recent BBC2 documentary on W. H. Auden and ‘The Age of Anxiety’, Poet Paul Muldoon reflected that Auden’s work reveals the ‘fragility’ of human societies, indeed of what we think of as ‘civilisation’. It was this insight that struck me as one of the reasons for the intensely therapeutic nature of poetry, both reading and writing it. For if poetry and poets help us understand the human condition and our own experience in the world, or as Muldoon has it, in the ‘moments’ in which we find ourselves, then it can help us to fully engage with the world, with our lives and with our authentic selves.

To do this, I am convinced we need to work with all shades of existence, including, as Jung maintained, the realm of shadow. For again it was Jung’s contention that denial of the shadow gives it tremendous destructive power, acted out in political contexts in the guise of oppressive ideologies and mass violence. And Auden saw this too in the mesmerism of crowds by the rise of fascist tyrants during the 1930s,

‘And the poetry he invented was easy to understand; / He knew human folly like the back of his hand,’


Louis MacNeice, another poet who arose during the thirties, also imbued significant chunks of his work with a sense of human mortality and the weariness of war, yet with a balancing opposite that revelled in human connection and in moments of ‘Sunlight on the Garden’.

Even in child development we can see reflections of the poet’s worlds of fear and destruction, opposed and challenged by growth, light and creativity. Melanie Klein constructed her whole model of child development around ideas that every human child goes through a period of depression and alienation, which must be negotiated successfully in order to grow into a balanced, happy, functional adult. How is this trial surmounted? By being steeped in an environment full of opportunities to channel feelings and fears and to use creative energies to construct and express the self. This also requires being surrounded by emotionally healthy, loving carers who can become positive, constructive internalised role models. A fragile existence and perilous journey, indeed, for if these conditions are not met at least in some measure, all sorts of distorted relationships and ideas may develop, allowing for powerful defensive, negative shadow material to fester into self-destructive or outwardly violent actions.

Auden understood this dynamic and pointed it out, not I believe to be a doom warrior, but to show the way out of the cycle of destruction, through understanding and validating other humans and their experience, and by addressing our needs for safety, belonging and expressive outlets. In September 1, 1939 he writes,

‘I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.’


As Muldoon and other commentators in the documentary explained, the individual experience is inextricably linked to the contexts in which it emerges, and these contexts are multi-layered: time, history, place, biological, social, political, cultural. Poetry as a therapeutic resource must surely be more widely acknowledged and funded. For my own part, I find poetry encouraging and validating, which is why I seem to be on a bit of a bender of late, catching up with some of the classics like Auden and MacNeice as well as more modern poets like C. K. Williams and Paul Muldoon. Here are a few links to sites I’ve come across recently. I hope you find them as uplifting and exciting as I do.

The Interesting Literature blog

The Poetry Foundation

And the word art motif above was created free on 

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



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