More than 80 ways of looking in verse at floods, torrents, waterspouts, seas, rain - and a faraway desert
The Cumbrian town of Cockermouth has been a model of how to revive a community following a disaster. It was helped in the early days after the devastating floods of 2009 by its Northumbrian sister Morpeth, and learned well. In turn, it has lent a hand when time and resources have allowed, to its neighbour down the Derwent – and fellow victim of the swollen river - Workington.
Benefits have included a wholesale restoration of Cockermouth town centre shops which won several heritage awards, and a raft of community projects given extra impetus by the rallying-round and neighbourly spirit which characterised the recovery. One of these is a poetry anthology which has involved the whole place sitting down and writing verses about watery and wet things, with the help of some illustrious visitors, outsiders and luminaries from the past.
The Guardian Northerner wrote about the town's original post-flood poetry trail here, flagging up the idea of an eventual book. Now we've been sent a copy by Michael Baron, indefatigable source of info about everything from scansion to nuclear waste disposal, and co-editor of the anthology – The Cockermouth Poets– with another local, Joan Hetherington.
Their enthusiasm has rallied almost 100 contributors, from William Wordsworth to teenagers at the very excellent Cockermouth School. Each gets a short but informative biography at the end.
Baron is very good at extracting pledges of coverage from journalists and you see from the picture how seriously we take them. I read The Cockermouth Poets on the Pacific coast of Mexico, not far from the spot where John Keats imagined 'stout Cortez' staring for the first time at the second ocean. (Was he actually stout, as well as metaphorically? Hard to find out in Mexico which does not have a single statue of him).
The selection of poems is so catholic that no one could put down the book without some moments of pleasure. If you don't care for Carol Ann Duffy, who nicely brackets Workington and Cockermouth in her 11-liner, there's a witty play on Wordsworth by her predecessor as poet laureate Sir Andrew Motion. If he is too elegant for you, try the 42 lines of Cumbrian dialect by Stanley Martin, aka Gwordie Greenup, who lived from 1848 to 1893.
My two favourite lines come from one of the school pupils, Elizabeth Field-Harvey, who starts her poem with the couplet:
Sometimes clear, sometimes blue
You never thought I would turn on you
while Paul Farley has the most memorable metaphor for a heron's cumbersome take-off which he describes as
fucking hell, all right, all right,
I'll go to the garage for your flaming fags.
Does it all get a bit too damp? Yes. But Baron and Hetherington have a saving sense of humour. One of their star guests is Percy Bysshe Shelley on the cheeky grounds that in February 1812 he travelled from Keswick to Whitehaven to catch the Isle of Man packet boat
on the post-coach the Good Intent and took refreshment at the Globe Inn in Main Street, Cockermouth.
His contribution is Ozymandias, which is set in a waterless desert.
The Cockermouth Poets is published by Octogenary Press, 28 South Street, Cockermouth, CA13 9RT and costs £8.50. Proceeds go to Cockermouth mountain rescue team and Save the Children. More details online here.