Category Archives: Writing Process

Excursion Five: The Giant’s Causeway Revisited

River Bush, Runkerry Beach, December 2012

River Bush, Runkerry Beach, December 2012

I was recently asked why, having lived so long in England, I still write so much about Ireland. It’s a question I’ve been thinking over for a while, and one I might turn on its head slightly – why do I find that when writing ‘about’ Ireland, by which I mean the north Antrim coast, do poems come together much more easily and satisfactorily? There’s probably a psychologist who will tell me there’s an obvious scientific answer, bound up in childhood and memory. Something to do with word association, perhaps, in the way that when I think ‘coast’ I think of the black basalt rocks and the waves at Runkerry, less than a mile from where I grew up. When I think words like farm and field, cow and sheep – no matter where I am – these words bring to mind this place, Carnkirk, where I am writing today. The word lane conjures a particular image, of a lane which runs straight towards the cliff at the end of our road, with a dark green mohican down its centre. In an undergraduate essay on Seamus Heaney I likened it to a centrifugal force, in that no matter how far Heaney travelled in life and in verse, all his poems were spun from and constantly pulled by the force of his childhood farm in Co. Derry, the heart of his ‘word hoard’.

On Saturday, an unseasonably mild day, with the rain holding off but the world a numb grey bleed of ocean and sky, we came at the Causeway from the west round Runkerry Point. This is true basalt country, rocks tumbling black and slick towards the sea as if just forged. Bulbous in places, jagged in others, they sit on the beach like the Grand Causeway’s truant cousins, un-uniformed, laid back, really more fun. They are to me more believable as lava. I always loved the way the heat ran through them on a summer’s day and you could believe they might just pop like bubbled tarmac. We walked around the blustery headland, where I noticed what I never had before: large erratics on the edge of the cliff or in the fields, where sheep spread themselves out in the fields, their rumps inked red. The headlands lay before us, four or five, each reaching further out in the still water: Portnaboe, the humped Stookans, the Grand Causeway low in the water, then the Organ, and finally the Chimney Tops. It’s well worth it, if you visit the Causeway, to take these coastal paths and get a proper look at the place.

Looking west from Runkerry Point

Looking west from Runkerry Point

I officially started this project – to write new poems addressing the geology of climate change – in June, but really my thinking around it dates back over a year, to a talk given by Dr Bryan Lovell of Cambridge University, then President of the Geological Society. Bryan has been my advisor and supporter throughout the project, and if it was not for his enthusiasm and belief I doubt I would ever have got started. He spoke that day about an event which happened 55 million years ago, when over a billion tonnes of carbon was dumped into the atmosphere. The temperature of water at the bottom of the ocean increased rapidly from 11 to 15 degrees centigrade, oceans became more acidic, with less oxygen, and the extinction of life that followed in the oceans and on land marked the beginning of a new geological epoch (the Eocene). The message is a simple one: we humans are now repeating that carbon dump, but on a larger scale. For all the climate change deniers, here is evidence in the geological record about the effects of carbon on the atmosphere and the planet. What’s happening now has happened before, but this time we’re responsible.

This is the piece of scientific fact – the real geology of climate change – that I’ve been worrying away at for most of this year. This is what, when I set out on this project, I really wanted to recast in poetic form, to try and get this message across in a new way. But it’s been nothing but stops-and-barely-starts, failed sonnets, some terrible haiku. I’ve tried to make it work, but it won’t. The problem was how to write a poem (another question might be why write such a poem, for which I’d begin by referring you to this post) that worked all of this science and scientific omen into it while retaining the subtlety and condensed-ness of the poetry I like to read and write. Maybe the science of it was just too big for poetry. Maybe there’s no way to do away with the scientific words without losing the science.  I just couldn’t find a way in.

Causeway Headlands, December 2012

Causeway Headlands, December 2012

But then a few weeks ago I was looking in the new issue of Earth Science Ireland and came across an article on climate change by Jan Zalasiewicz and Mark Williams, in which they refer to the event 55 million years ago.  They mention, however, something I had not been aware of before: that the influx of carbon “may have been triggered by massive volcanism associated with the opening of the North Atlantic (and so, locally, the Giant’s Causeway).” I wouldn’t say this was a eureka moment, but it was certainly one of those exciting ones that I think most writers of poetry must feel: a way into a poem that comes from an area you know and know well.  I’ll just have to see what happens.


The Cycling Geologist

The White Room at Royal Festival Hall was filled to capacity last Wednesday evening to celebrate the launch of The Wolf: A Decade, an anthology of poems selected from the pages of The Wolf magazine, which was first published in 2002.  Hosted by the editor, James Byrne, the evening included readings by Nikola Madzirov (Macedonia), Alvin Pang (Singapore), Valzhyna Mort (Belarus), Ilya Kaminsky (Russian Federation) and Zeyar Lynn (Burma). The international range of those voices is an indicator of what has made The Wolf into the important UK publication that it is today: while promoting many UK writers, Byrne has published an impressive roster of world poets as well as works in translation. I’ve been dipping in and out of the anthology all week and have enjoyed poems by Carolyn Forché and Firas Sulaiman as well as James Womack’s translation of Mayakovsky’s ‘Brooklyn Bridge’, to name but a few. I also love the striking cover by Nick Byrne, which uses slices of old Wolf covers that look like minerals in thin section.  You can buy the anthology on The Wolf website here. Limited edition, so get in there quick!

Cole on the Humber-Beeston with Gerard Butler on penny-farthing (from The Gypsy Road, drawing by Edmund H. New)

The anthology contains my poem ‘The Cycling Geologist’, first published in The Wolf way back in December 2008. The poem is based on the life of the geologist Grenville Arthur James Cole (1859 – 1924), who conducted many cycling tours in Europe, which were recorded in his travelogues, the most fascinating of which is The Gypsy Road (1894). In that excursion Cole rode some one thousand and fifty five miles in thirty-eight days from Krakow to Coblentz on a Humber-Beeston tricycle, accompanied by his friend Gerard W. Butler who was perched atop a penny-farthing! That they did it in this time while also managing to examine rocks in detail, take trips down silver mines and climb volcanic cones is even more impressive.

There are some poems I can vividly remember writing, and this is one of them. I was in the top room of my in-laws’ house, looking out at the curving chalk of Wiltshire, with a photocopy of Patrick N. Wyse Jackson’s essay on Cole from Four Centuries of Geological Travel, and I was determined to write this poem. I believe I spent an afternoon in that room, but it felt like ten minutes, because the poem was a joy to write, the rhythms of the journey quickly finding their way into the lines, and Cole was simply such an amiable companion, permanently optimistic and a constant admirer of the world around him.

Cole’s ‘Roadster’ beneath Croagh Patrick, Co. Mayo

I don’t think it is really a ‘geological poem’ (whatever that is) but more a biographical poem that has the welcoming structure of a journeymen’s science.  But now, years later, I think my basic knowledge of geology began with this and, in the act of writing, bits of the science were imbedded in my mind. I realise this especially when I travel in Ireland and can imagine Cole waxing lyrical about Cave Hill basalts or carboniferous Galway.

Patrick Wyse Jackson recently sent me a copy of a poem Cole wrote on his travels, called ‘The Lost City’ which was published in The Irish Review in 1911. As Wyse Jackson writes, it is ‘his only piece of published work of this genre, and it recalls the history and evolution of a Templar hospice in the Causse de Larzac in Aveyron in SE France.’[1]

This is its final section:



Couvertoirade, none could tame thee,

Shelter of captains, bulwark of kings;

These of old would fashion and frame thee;

Four grey stones are their quarterings.

I that lay in the sea’s embraces,

Lifted now to the eagle’s wings,

Shall I not love the wide air-spaces,

First created and last of things?

Oh, strong sister of Sauveterre,

Send me a blast as the pine-tree swings,

Pale Méjan, and the high Lozère,

Eastward set, where the thunder springs,

These shall aid, when to-day I name thee,

Born of me, reared on my breast made bare;

Couvertoirade, Couvertoirade,

Mine at last in the wild sweet air.


I am looking forward to my own first proper excursion as part of this project – to the East Yorkshire coast in August – and hope that it will inspire many types of poems, just as Cole’s journeys inspired him.  Though I prefer to see the land on foot.

[1] Wyse Jackson, P.N. ‘Grenville Cole (1859 – 1924): cycling geologist’ Four centuries of geological travel: the search for knowledge on foot, bicycle, sledge and camel Wyse Jacskson, P.N., ed. London: The Geological Society, 2007: p143