Koh Thmei (New Island) is definitely one of my favourite places in Cambodia. Whenever we need a break from the chaos of Phnom Penh this is where we go – Koh Thmei is small and quiet (not a party island like Koh Rong and others). It’s the perfect place for reading and writing (I’m hoping to organise a writing retreat here some time in the new year). If you’re living in Phnom Penh, or just travelling and wanting to experience a different, more relaxed side of the country, Koh Thmei is the place to go. For more details see this link to my blog post from 2011, and the Koh Thmei website here.

There’s something about being on an island holiday – particularly at Koh Thmei – that makes me want to write haikus. Below are a few of my favourites written while at Koh Thmei in April and October this year:


Here there is nothing

Going on, but at the same

Time everything is.



The water is smooth

Even when it ripples it

Doesn’t really move.


Beach dog dogs are the

Happiest of all the dogs

And the most sandy.


Crabs scurry sideways

They can’t do anything else

But scurry and hide.


At the boat a girl

Says You can’t eat the small fish

Says ‘Dtrey toich ot baan.’


I wanted to swim

But with the storm coming in

I think I will wait.


Hammock swaying is

The best kind of swaying that

I ever swayed.


Lizards everywhere

Like stop-motion video



The ponies come home

At dusk; they know it is time

To file off to bed.


There are boats on the

Horizon, flares of glowing

Light, fire on the sea.


Last night toad on the

Sand. Andrew wonders if it

Might be a good trip.


It’s hard to decide

Which swim will be the last swim

Before you get dressed.



This is the first thing

I have understood:

Time is the echo of an axe

Within a wood.

(Philip Larkin)

I ran out of books to read while I was in Australia, so I did something I haven’t done in years – went to the library! I don’t think I’ve ever appreciated libraries quite so much before. There wasn’t a huge selection in the Bright local, but I did find these two.


Philip Larkin: Collected Poems (edited with an introduction by Anthony Thwaite)

Man hands on misery to man.

It deepens like a coastal shelf.

(-from ‘This Be The Verse’)

It was nice to read a poetry collection for a change; it’s not something I usually do. I chose Larkin because I remembered the line “They fuck you up, your Mum and Dad, they may not mean to, but they do.” I love the rhythm of it, the honesty, the twist of humour. This collection is more of the same.

Larkin is a beautifully quiet writer, and his poems carry so much weight. They feel so close to reality, to the raw truth of human experience. Larkin worked as a librarian for over forty years, and wasn’t interested in fame. I like to think he was reading and writing for himself, for the truth that art allows us to get at and better understand. That’s what it feels, to me, like Larkin is doing in his work: noticing the inherent chaos and sadness in the world, and striving to structure it. To give it meaning, and beauty. He certainly succeeds. His work is piercingly insightful – he doesn’t shy away from life’s difficulties (relationships, age, and death are big themes), and the way he renders them is wonderfully bittersweet.

Only one ship is seeking us, a black-

Sailed unfamiliar, towing at her back

A huge and birdless silence. In her wake

No waters breed or break.

(-from ‘Next, Please’)

I found a lot of the poems in this collection very moving. There are touches of humour, but sadness, too. I read this over a bit of an emotional period, and shed a few tears. I finished it in a crowded V-line train carriage on the way to Melbourne.

[W]e should be careful

Of each other, we should be kind

While there is still time.

(-from ‘The Mower’)

Ali Smith: The First Person and Other StoriesIMG_20150831_114851

I gravitated towards Ali Smith because of how much I loved her novel The Accidental. Her writing style in that novel is so different, and there are some rhythms and themes that I really connected with. These stories are also quite unique, but I didn’t connect with them as much (I was surprised to discover that this collection actually came after The Accidental – to me these stories seem less mature, less sure of themselves).

The First Person is experimental: the focus is much more on symbolism, form, and theme than plot. In many ways this is a collection of writing about writing – in particular, about the short story and what it is, what it can achieve. One question central to these stories seems to be about identity (the four quotes that open the collection all certainly point in this direction) – the identity of the characters, as well as the identity of the medium they find themselves in. Smith seems to reach the same conclusion as many other great writers before her (Virginia Woolf, Katherine Mansfield): that identity is fragmented, constantly shifting.

There are a lot of wonderful ideas in this collection: a talking baby; a disturbing package; a conversation with a fourteen-year-old self. I suppose idea-based (rather than plot driven) writing works better in short story form. I did, however, find some moments repetitive, and felt a bit lost in the swirling stream of consciousness style. I think Christopher Tayler sums The First Person up well in this review from The Guardian: “lively and inventive but dreamily absorbed in the protocols of its own making.”

I finished the stories quickly (waiting for a friend at a Kensington dental clinic, in bed, and in the park by the river on a sunny early spring afternoon). Not too many of them stayed with me, to be honest. I might try another novel of Smith’s, next time.

So the overall moral of this blog post … libraries! Don’t take them for granted; like many things, it’s hard to appreciate just how wonderful they are until you don’t have access to them anymore.

Philip Larkin died in 1985. This edition of his collected poems was published in 2004.

Ali Smith was born in Inverness and currently lives in Cambridge. The First Person and Other Stories was published in 2008.

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked….

-from ‘Howl’

Allen Ginsberg’s “Collected Poems 1947-1997” is a thick and heavy volume, and every page of it is packed with rich chunks of language. Reading it is an overwhelming experience, somewhat like eating a double-chocolate brownie. Some of Ginsberg’s poems are long, and many are very personal. There are a lot of references to politics from the 1960s and 70s, and a lot of very graphic sexual descriptions. I’ve always thought that to really appreciate poetry you had to sit down and become immersed in one poem, one line, one group of words. But there’s so much in this collection that I jump quickly from one poem to the next, and the words wash over me like a wave. But maybe this is the way Ginsberg is meant to be read – not slowly and ponderously but fast and frenetically, letting images come and go like traffic on a busy street.

Reading Ginsberg is like nothing else. Ginsberg widened the parameters of poetry when he created his own free form, a form based on rhythm and breath. The result is writing that is often long and rambling, seemingly disconnected, a jumble of obscure words and phrases. Is this literature? Here the same question that plagues abstract art rears its head – what differentiates Pollock from a 4-year-old’s finger-painting? And what differentiates Ginsberg from me scribbling down words that just sound nice?

The answer, I think, lies in the origin of the work. The journey, rather than the outcome. Ginsberg’s poems were not created by simply picking words at random. They arose out of a deep and complicated process, a process that was almost spiritual or meditative in nature. In the 2010 film Howl (directed by Jeffrey Friedman and Rob Epstein) James Franco (as Allen Ginsberg) describes the way poems would come up out of him. They would come from a deep physical impulse, almost like a sexual impulse, up from his stomach and through his throat. Real poetry, Franco goes on to say, comes from complete honesty about how you feel. But you have to work at that honesty – sometimes you have to work all day to get it flowing. And when it does finally flow it is beautiful. The lines that come up from that pit-of-the-stomach-place are the lines that will make people weep forever because they are so true. This is great advice for all artists, I think. Sometimes it is easy to become paralysed by structure, to box ourselves in so much that we either don’t create at all or we create something that feels forced and unoriginal. To just write – even if you write all day and end up with only one page that you love – is the most important thing. You need to write through the bad to get to the good; you need to almost hypnotise yourself with writing to get right down deep to that place where real feeling comes from.

The rhythm of Ginsberg’s poems, also, comes from instinct. Ginsberg apparently felt the rhythm when he started to write a poem. He would begin with a word and feel the beat that the rest of the line would follow. He wrote poetry like music in this way – hearing the sound and then adding the words to fit. He often let the lines follow the length of his breath.

Until I read Ginsberg I thought poetry had to be written after deep and careful thought, with structure and working things out and picking over words and punctuation until they were perfect. But working at poetry in this way doesn’t always lead us to the honest, raw feeling that Ginsberg was able to create. Now I think that writing is often best done without too much conscious thought; that it is useful to take a step back and let the unconscious take over for a while. And to save the pondering and pencil-chewing for editing.


 … who cut their wrists three times successively unsuccessfully, gave up and were forced to open antique stores where they thought they were growing old and cried …

This poem is an ode to the poets, artists, and thinkers of Ginsberg’s generation; recognition of their fight against the American-capitalist-war-machine, and of their experiences with drugs, jazz, sex, imagination, and adventure. It is a poem of restless youthfulness and frustration, of sexual energy and anger and joy. It is a poem on heat. The pace of ‘Howl’ is amazing. It pumps you up the way an intense musical beat would. In Friedman and Epstein’s film the animation that accompanies James Franco’s reading of the poem is busy, colourful, and frantic. The fast-moving cartoons capture the poem’s mad, helter-skelter feeling. Flashes of light, the dark city at night, roof tops – so many rooftops – sex and death, skeletons and fire and despair, people flying through the air like fireflies or shooting stars. The animation illuminates the poetry and brings out the richness of the language often better than my imagination can.

Each line of ‘Howl’ is as long as a Ginsberg breath, beginning with “Who” and flowing until the breath runs out:

 … who howled on their knees in the subway and were dragged off the roof waving genitals and manuscripts …

… who scribbled all night rocking and rolling over lofty incantations which in the yellow morning were stanzas of gibberish …

… who threw their watches off the roof to cast their ballot for Eternity outside of Time, & alarm clocks fell on their heads every day for the next decade …

Angkor Wat

Angkor – on top of the terrace

in a stone nook in the rain

Avalokitesvara faces everywhere

high in their stoniness

in white rainmist…

A long poem about Ginsberg’s visit to Cambodia in the 1960s, during the Vietnam War but before the Khmer Rouge. It is nice to think of Ginsberg visiting temples, riding motorbikes, and sipping sweet coffee in this country that I (for the moment, at least) call home. Like so much of Ginsberg’s work, politics is palpable in this poem. There is also a lot about sex, drugs, religion (Buddhism), and food.

 … Slithering hitherward paranoia, Banyans trailing, high muscled tree crawled, over the roof its big, long snaky toes spread, down the lintel’s red, cradle-root, elephantine bigness …

… and riding in the rain in the, anxious motorcycle putting, in the wetness my shirt, covered with green plastic, apron shivering, and throat choking …

All well in this solitude, plenty money, for a long ride thru the forest in a, rainy afternoon with, long hair wet beard, glasses clouding – and that, nausea – passing out, of the Churning of the Ocean …

… the huge snake roots, the vaster, serpent arms fallen, octopus over the roof …

… slow girl dance bent elbow and inspring fingers snaking it thru the middle …

… walked on the rainy. run out of ink, market, To write a letter to President Norodom Sihanouk to live in the flower-jazz palace at Phnom Penh, Kingly neutrality enter China …

… to drink, Iced coffee with sweet evaporated milk …

… I’ll go down and get a cold coffee at Midnight …

Ayers Rock/Uluru Song

And finally a poem that reminded me of my first home. Much more formally structured than Ginsberg’s other poems, but lovely in its simplicity:

When the red pond fills fish appear

When the red pond dries fish disappear.

When the raindrop dries, worlds come to their end.

This post was first published by Suite101. 

William Blake contrasts the different states of the human mind in his poetry collection Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience.

William Blake (1757 – 1827) is widely believed to have been one of the most original English language writers of his time. His prowess both as a poet and an artist (he often used prints to illustrate his verse) allowed him to capture the human experience with great intelligence and beauty. His work is thought to have signalled the beginning of the Romantic period, and also later inspired the poetry of the 1950s Beat Generation. Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience is perhaps Blake’s most famous collection of poetry. Subtitled “Shewing the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul”, Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience examines the paradoxical nature of human existence. While Songs of Innocence describes the lightness, joy and purity of childhood, Songs of Experience expresses the corruption and disillusionment of adult life. Blake’s poetry seeks to understand how these contrary states relate to each other, and why they are both necessary to the human soul.

Songs of Innocence

Blake’s Songs of Innocence are characterised by descriptions of happiness, laughter, the beauty of nature and the carelessness of childhood. There is a lovely simplicity to these poems – they are lyrical and easy to read. References to children and nature are common, as in “The School Boy”: “I love to rise in a summer morn/When the birds sing on every tree;/The distant huntsman winds his horn,/And the sky-lark sings with me./O! what sweet company./ But to go to school in a summer morn,/O! it drives all joy away”. The poems “Laughing Song” and “The Ecchoing Green” also exalt the joy of playing outside, and the untroubled happiness of children.

Songs of Experience

It may be argued that the poems in Songs of Experience are more sophisticated than those in the preceding collection. They are certainly much darker in subject matter, and present more complex ideas than Songs of Innocence. “The Garden of Love”, for example, deals with the idea of religion destroying passion: “And Priests in black gowns were walking their rounds,/And binding with briars my joys and desires”, while the poem “A Poison Tree” famously investigates the complicated nature of anger: “I was angry with my friend:/I told my wrath, my wrath did end./I was angry with my foe:/I told it not, my wrath did grow.” The use of language and imagery in Songs of Experience is also much more evocative. The poem “London”, for example, creates a bleak sense of hopelessness with the lines – “And mark in every face I meet/Marks of weakness, marks of woe”, and “And the hapless Soldier’s sigh/Runs in blood down Palace walls.”

While Songs of Experience is a beautiful and thought-provoking collection of poetry in its own right, it can only truly be appreciated when read in comparison with Songs of Innocence. Many of the poems in Songs of Innocence have a corresponding verse in Songs of Experience, and reading them together reveals the conflicting ideas Blake was trying to make sense of. “Holy Thursday” in Songs of Innocence, for example, describes a group of children attending church: “’Twas on a Holy Thursday, their innocent faces clean,/ The children walking two and two,/in red & blue & green”. The poem’s counterpart in Songs of Experience views the scene from a different angle, questioning how people can attend church and sing when so many children are facing poverty: “Is that trembling cry a song?/Can it be a song of joy?/And so many children poor?/It is a land of poverty!” Comparing the poems “The Lamb” (in Songs of Innocence) and “The Tyger” (Songs of Experience), however, is perhaps the best way to examine the paradox at the root of Blake’s poetry. In “The Lamb” the author wonders who “Gave thee clothing of delight,/Softest clothing, wooly, bright;/Gave these such a tender voice,/Making all the vales rejoice?” Similarly, in “The Tyger” Blake asks who could have created this ferocious animal: “What immortal hand or eye/Could frame thy fearful symmetry?” How, the poet seems to be asking, can something as gentle as a lamb exist in the same world as an animal as fearsome and violent as a tiger?

The poems in Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience are an effort to make sense of the paradoxical existence of love and hate, tenderness and violence, in our own souls. The conclusion seems to be that these contradictory states are natural parts of human life, and that they cannot exist without each other.

Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience by William Blake, New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1992.