Going up a hill to come back down: in search of poetic inspiration 

Part Three in my blog post series about my poetry practice: The subject.

What shall I write? Why do I write? Should I write?

These are questions that I’d imagine have dogged even the most self-confident of writers and poets at least once in their lives. When I was young, my grandpa sometimes teasingly called me ‘Yebbut’ (Yeah, but…) because I’d invariably have a follow up question about something said, seen or observed. 

I must admit that the repetitive ‘why’ of my early childhood has never really gone away. So, perhaps the shortest explanation I could give for why I write poems, is because I have no answers, only endless questions. 

With regard to me and writing in particular, three questions are always there, hanging about, like a cloud of mental midges, flapping round my mind with their nagging inner sneers:

‘Why bother?’ ‘Who cares what you think?’ ‘Hasn’t it all been said, better, already?’

For a long time, my answers were respectively: I don’t know. No one and Yes. 

As a result, I wrote nothing. 

That’s not to say I didn’t think about writing – I always went around noticing things – such as, fascinating, but fleeting casts of light, couples in the street, not obviously arguing but with faces that suggested, not all was well. A Bristol, or a London hill, its character, buildings, history. The atmosphere of a pub. A bird in a tree, an overgrown graveyard. A lane. The leap-out-of-your-seat dance round the kitchen in your pants command, in the way a singer sings a ‘Yeah Yeah’ or ‘Uh’.

There were all these sorts of things and more, but for a long time I didn’t note them down. I might tell a mate down the pub, but other than that, these little flashes of significance in daily life went unrecorded. A thousand lost satori.

Then, just over ten years ago, I started to write this blog. For a time, it answered a need. Then, three or four years ago, poetry, which I’d long cast aside – at least in terms of trying to write the stuff – came back knocking. With an insistent urgency. 

Embracing uncertainty
I realised that my answer to the first of those questions above – ‘Why bother?’ was not the definitive ‘No’ I’d long assumed. I began to see ‘I don’t know’ as more of an invitation than a barrier. 

This is by no means a thought original to me – Keats’ famous notion of negative capability, for example, is predicated on being and feeling uncertain and doubtful. 

From my perspective, this resonates deeply. In our social-media age of grimly fixed, vocally strident opinions, positions held and angry truths shared constantly, where you must pick a side, I find ‘being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts’ increasingly necessary. 

For now, I write poems because I feel a compulsion to do it. If anyone else wants to read some of them, then great, but I’m doing it regardless. 

That said, this is me, so here comes the inevitable – however…

So, what are your poems about then?

Having finally bowed to the impulse to try writing poetry (again), what would, should my subject or subjects be? In the first instance I certainly didn’t want it to be me, at least, not in any obvious way. I began writing about external things, some listed above. Most of all, I was attracted to, to use that dread phrase, ‘the natural world’. 

What I didn’t want to do, in writing poems about ‘the natural world’ was to simply try to describe my feelings on seeing, or hearing a bird, feeling moved by a tree, or a view. But how to express a sense of wonder, or love even, without coming across all hackneyed and dewy-eyed. I love reading natural history and poems about trees, bees, seas etc – all that might be termed ‘Nature Writing’ but was wary of attempting to be a ‘Nature Poet’, whatever that might be. 

I distrusted myself. I feared the old sublime infused ‘Ohs, Ahs and O! type of poem. Not because I dislike the Romantics et al, far from it, more that my natural instinct in writing is to gush and sigh.

Another personal watch-out I had, is that when writing about landscapes, city streets, woods etc, I be aware that as a tall-ish, straight, white male, I have a degree of  privilege. Most of the time, I am able to feel comfortable and unbothered in certain times and places – that those who don’t share these specific characteristics cannot. In town or country, park, wood, field, city street at night, I can usually amble about unbothered by quizzical stares, cat-calls, or worse. I’m never quite sure how to address this within a specific poem, but in general when writing, I try to stay aware and mindful of my very particular point of view. 

I used to file poems by subject [see above]but it became far too unwieldy and they were never really just about one thing.
V fond of ‘Serious Whimsy’ inspired by Glasgow based poet Andy MacGregor.

Right, caveats done, when I write poems, what am I drawn to? What am I talking about? Handily, just the other day, I made a list of five things that might be found in my poems. This was in a tweet inspired by Matthew MC Smith of Black Bough Poetry (full disclosure – he is editing my forthcoming book). 

My list of subjects went: Magpies. Bindweed. Flashes of light. Hills. Uncertainty.

I’ll try to expand a little on the ‘Whys’ behind these below. This list is by no means exclusive, but I think is fairly typical.

Magpies etc

In common with many poets, I like birds. A lot. As a character in Richard Powers’ ‘The Overstory’ says: ‘the birds, they are a gift.’ Conveniently, many birds fly, nest, come to rest, feed and breed near us. Even in a big city. 

As my children would tell you, I’ll never shut up about the time a sparrowhawk spent half an hour using the back wall as a table where it finished off its freshly caught meal of woodpigeon. Once, a pair of goldcrests appeared in a fuchsia and in cold winter days, fieldfares and redwings, occasionally gather in the bare ash tree. In the church tower down the hill, peregrines sometimes nest – glowering down at pigeons from the top.

These more unusual visitors are a delight, but I love the regulars too – boisterous sparrow gangs hurtling into bushes – as if defiant of their own decline, great tits, blue tits, blackbirds, goldfinches, wrens, nuthatches, robins, swifts, woodpeckers, crows, jays, magpies. Venture not too far away, near an urban river and it’s even possible to see kingfishers, surprisingly close to the south circular near Catford – and certainly cormorants, heron, moorhens, coots, ducks etc.  

When I write about birds, I tend to focus on the ones that are there, like the above, near where I live. I also try not to address them in isolation, with the ‘I’ of the poem communing in some abstract private moment. I aim to set birds in context of the place around, as parts of one shared world, rather than being mutual encounters between visitors from separate wild bird and domestic human universes. I don’t always succeed, but like to make the effort. 

This approach is one I also try to apply when writing about other more than human lives, whether animals, insects, trees, plants, moss or fungi. That probably helps explain why I seem to have written a lot of poems featuring bindweed, brambles, cherry laurel and rats. None are perhaps as obviously charismatic as some other creatures, but they are certainly very present. I also have a poem about mistaking the torn edge of a parka for a dead stoat.  

Flashes of light

As a topic, this is probably up there in poetry along with birds, the moon, trees and the colour green. Light creeps in, sometimes taking centre stage, in many of my poems. Like so many others, I find the play of light, or light in a particular cast, or time can be utterly transformative. For a while I worked in a building next to the Thames at Blackfriars. At about 3pm on late summer afternoons, arriving out of the sky like a sudden storm of sparkling dust, a gold light would briefly settle on the buildings lining the river and on the water itself. The effect seemed miraculous, like something from a painting or film. Yet, was simply the sun moving. For a few moments, I’d find that I could barely look away. So yes, I frequently delight in light. 


I like a good hill, I like a bad hill. I have written a fair number of poems about or featuring hills, in cities, beyond cities. I wrote a post a while back about Solsbury Hill near Bath. This probably encapsulates well a good sense of my fascination/irritation for the big lumpy things. As for urban hills, I try to write them as I see them, but always with a sense of their underlying history – as with this one ‘Flower of Bristol’ that first appeared on Atrium. I also sometimes like to pretend that if you could only peel back the layers of pavement and tarmac, beneath you’d be able to locate the original, pre-settlement grassed version. 


Last on my non-exhaustive Tweeted list of typical Matt Gilbert poetic subjects is uncertainty, which, handily, I have covered, in part, above already. 

Bonus subject

One other subject strand I often feel drawn to, but rarely get a good handle on and rarer still get published, are poems inspired by politics, news and current affairs. I find myself regularly upset, angered and enraged by things politicians do, say or fail to do. Equally, social injustice and environmental damage and destruction often move me to write something about a story or an issue. Too often these end up as ranty screeds – all heat and no light. A couple of examples, such as Blue Fruit, I’ve posted on the blog, in a moment of madness. This is an area I’d like to pursue further, but with a touch more subtlety. 

If you’d like to read more of my actual poems, rather than me talking about them, there’s a published elsewhere tab on the blog header, which has links to various poems of mine that someone else has liked enough to share. I also have a book coming out in spring with Black Bough, so you could buy or borrow a copy of that. 

Right, I’m off to listen more intently to a thrush that’s belting out its repertoire not too far from here. Part of me wants to be enthralled, but I’m also thinking, ‘it’s not spring yet, you’re too early, oh no, maybe this is down to our climate disaster?’ 

Keep the questions coming. 

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