One of my hopes for #ReadIndies2 is to cover a range of writing and publishing; and poetry is definitely a form which often benefits from independent publishing. In fact, one of my favourite indies is Bloodaxe Books. Founded in 1978 in Newcastle upon Tyne, and now based in Hexham, they’re a renowned publisher of poetry and a quick look over the list of names they’ve published is a real eye-opener. Simon Armitage, R.S. Thomas, Anna Akmatova, Marina Tsvetaeva, Edith Sodergran, Paul Valery, Frieda Hughes, Linton Kwesi Johnson, Benjamin Zephaniah, Mary Oliver, Denise Levertov – well, I could go on, but you get the picture… Just check out their range and you’ll be impressed!

The Newcastle connection is relevant, for as I discussed in this post back in 2019, Bloodaxe publish not only Basil Bunting’s great work “Briggflatts” but also “High on the Walls: The Morden Tower Anthology”. The latter was issued in 1990 to celebrate 25 years of poetry at the Tower, and it rather alarms me to realise that that’s longer ago now than it was from the start of the readings when it was issued in 1990… Time really does fly! Anyway, I felt this would be a good way to explore some indie-published poetry, and I wasn’t wrong. “High…” turned out to be a great way to start the month!

The anthology is constructed to house contributions from many of the poets who’d read at the Tower since the first reading in 1964. Arranged alphabetically, there is a photo (in most cases), some words from the poet and a new work by them. And the list is impressive: Bunting features, of course, and Tom Pickard (who was instrumental in starting the readings, alongside wife Connie who continues to support the Tower up until today); there’s Allan Ginsberg, Anne Stevenson, Fleur Adcock, Carol Ann Duffy, Adrian Mitchell, Liz Lochhead, Hugh MacDiarmid, Seamus Heaney, Anne Waldman – well, that’s just a few of the names I know, and there are many, many more! Connie Pickard provides a piece about the start of the readings, Tom Pickard also offers his thoughts and the cumulative effect of reading these poems is just stunning!

Morden Tower, Newcastle Town Wall cc-by-sa/2.0 – © Andrew Curtis – geograph.org.uk/p/2183976

In truth, with an anthology like this it’s best not to gulp it down all in one go, and so I didn’t. Instead, I read two or three poets between other works and it was a lovely way to approach the book – and also one which allowed me to really enjoy the poems and ponder on them. There really is an impressive range of work on show here and athough I hate picking favourites, I will highlight a few which really stood out ! For example, Bob Cobbing’s “Square Poem” was exactly what it said and stated clearly what it was!! Alistair Elliot’s “Old Bewick” was rooted in the north, exploring the Debatable Land (which I wrote about here) and the wild country away from cities and towns. Ginsberg’s generous introduction to his own poem acknowledges the importance of his visit to Morden Tower and his meeting with Basil Bunting, as well as admitting that his reading at the Tower had caused him to alter his own poetic practice.

There’s a theory that emotion is imprinted on walls like music on vinyl. If this is so, the walls of the Morden Tower must bear one of the most beautiful symphonies of passion and life. (Henry Normal)

Carole Rumens’ “Jarrow” is short, moving and beautifully written. And Ken Smith’s “Running on Empty” contained lines which resonate…

My country is falling off the back of a lorry
but I bear you no malice, Alice.
What I’m in is chargrin. It’s late,
I’m out on the road, running on empty.

Really, I could fill this post with so many quotes as “High…” is an anthology full of riches. As well as paying tribute to a place which nurtured the poetic tradition in the North East, the book is a simply wonderful introduction to a wide range of fascinating poets. The poems are powerful, often moving, funny, sad, evocative – everything poetry should be. Many of the names featured are no longer with us, or have become better known since, but all are worth reading. If you fancy exploring a fabulous collection of poems, as well as finding out a little about Morden Tower’s history, I can highly recommend this anthology; unfortunately, I think it’s out of print, but it’s definitely worth searching out if you enjoy reading verse! And do take a look at Bloodaxe’s website – they have such a great range!