The Shapes of Things by Michael Swan, reviewed by the author Michael Swan, uk

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The Shapes of Things by Michael Swan, reviewed by the author
Michael Swan, UK
Michael Swan writes English language teaching and reference materials. His many publications include Practical English Usage (OUP), Grammar (OUP), and (with Catherine Walter) the Cambridge English Course series and the recently-published Oxford English Grammar Course. He also writes poetry, especially when he should be concentrating on something else. E-mail:

About the book


The grammarian and the poet

Where did these poems come from, and how did they get written?




Poetic form

What is poetry, exactly, and what does it mean for me?

Language teaching

Over to you
About the book
Published by Oversteps Books.

Copies are available through the author's website:

Price: £9 including postage.
An invitation to review one's own work is almost too good to be true. Opening sentences immediately leap to mind. 'This brilliant collection …' 'Not since Wordsworth …' 'At last, a poet who really understands …' 'Genius! Sheer genius!'
But perhaps it's best to start with the facts. The Shapes of Things is my second published collection. It contains 60 or so poems, selected from a much larger body of material written over many years. An earlier collection, When They Come For You (Frogmore Press), appeared in 2003. I have also published a good deal in literary magazines, and, like most poets, I have a fair-sized stack of unpublished work. (Britain is not an easy market for any kind of artistic activity.)
The grammarian and the poet
Writing poetry is a relatively harmless pursuit, but some people clearly find it an odd enterprise for a language specialist. During the coffee break at a recent conference, a sensitive-looking young woman fixed me with an inquisitorial stare and asked 'How can you write poetry if you are a grammarian?' For her, it was clear, grammarians are dusty pedants who spend their lives hunched over their microscopes peering at dried-up specimens of language. Whereas the poet's eye, 'in a fine frenzy rolling', as Shakespeare put it, 'doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven'. One kind of person uses language to express profound and beautifully-formed insights about truth, love, life and death; the other gets excited about relative pronouns. How can the two coexist in a single individual?
I was a little irritated by the question, though I tried not to show it. As politely as I could, I suggested that it betrayed a misunderstanding of both language and poetry, along with a failure to realise that there is no contradiction between studying something theoretically and exploiting it for practical purposes. Specialists in human anatomy know a lot about how bodies work, but their professional knowledge doesn't disqualify them from making use of their bodies to play football or dance. Similarly, language specialists have as much right as anyone else to use language creatively – and there are many people in ELT who do.
Sometimes I get asked a question that runs in the opposite direction. It goes roughly like this: 'I wish I knew all about language, like you. It would really help me to choose the exact words for the delicate shades of feeling I want to express. I could also be more confident that my writing doesn't have any bad grammar in it. Can I possibly trouble you to check over my poems and tell me if the punctuation is OK?' This attitude, too, seems to me misguided. Theoretical knowledge about language may be no obstacle to poetic creativity, but it doesn't really feed into it either, any more than the anatomy specialist's detailed understanding of bodies makes him or her a better footballer or dancer. As far as I am concerned, at least, the two kinds of expertise simply come off different batteries.
Where did these poems come from, and how did they get written?
So: if my knowledge of relative pronouns isn't relevant to my poetry, what is? How did I go about creating the poems in The Shapes of Things? To be honest, I'm not sure that I know. Poets are often asked questions to do with 'inspiration' and 'expression', about how they choose their subject matter and decide on its poetic form. These are fair questions; the trouble is that literary creation doesn't always work that way round. No doubt there are poets who do begin with a relatively clear idea or feeling which they can then develop into a poem:
'My lover has just run off with my best friend and I am very upset.'

'That snow-covered birch tree looks beautiful in the evening light.'

'Why do human beings treat each other so badly?'
For some of us, however, things simply don't start out on that kind of conscious level. What generally happens in my case is that a poem will turn up out of the blue, announce its presence by a line or two or a fragmentary image, and (so to speak) ask to be written. Often, I don't know where a poem is going until it's got there, and I may have to go back and read what's on the paper in order to find out just what it's about. Even this may not tell me the reason for the poem. A year ago I found myself writing a sequence about Kokopelli, the flute-playing joker god of the Native Americans of the South-Western United States. Why, I have no idea, though as I got to know Kokopelli better through the nineteen poems of the sequence, I have to say I found him a charming fellow, if (like all gods) somewhat confused.
Confusion is in fact one of my recurrent themes (and perhaps this does relate to my grammarian's day job of struggling to get things clear). Many of the poems in The Shapes of Things have to do with the difficulties we have in making sense of the baffling world we live in, and the trouble we often have in understanding each other.


I was sure

it was her comb

lying on the pavement.

And I ran after her


‘Excuse me

but you dropped your comb’

and she turned

a woman I had never seen before

and she told me


it was not her comb.

She seemed unwilling

to discuss the matter further

and walked on

rather quickly.

She had hair like yours

and the comb, too

was like one of those

you used to leave everywhere

on tables, shelves, window ledges,

in the car, on your pillow.

I was sure it was your comb.
A certain number of the poems in the collection are humorous in one way or another. Laughter is one of the ways in which we handle, mentally and emotionally, the things that concern or disturb us. Although I am emphatically not a 'comic poet', I do often find humour useful as a way of making a serious or semi-serious point. And sometimes it's nice just to be silly.
it’s wednesday
If you want to understand them,

you have to start with their language,

which is different from ours.

For example, when we say ‘It’s Wednesday’,

‘it’s’ means ‘it’s’

and ‘Wednesday’ means ‘Wednesday’.

When they say ‘It’s Wednesday’

they mean ‘Put the bins out’

or ‘Remember Granny’s coming to supper’

or ‘Jessica’s got her maths exam’

or ‘It’s your turn to babysit’

or ‘Why haven’t you –––?’ (fill in the blank)

or ‘You bastard, you’ve forgotten our anniversary’

or just ‘Guess what’s in my head’.

There are no dictionaries.

Good luck.

All poetry is necessarily personal, in that it reflects the way its author sees the world. This doesn't mean, however, that writing poems is synonymous with pouring out emotion; and poetry that simply does that can be truly dreadful. Very little of my own work, in fact, involves the direct expression of feelings. I tend to come at things obliquely, often through stories. The Shapes of Things has poems about a shipwrecked sailor who loves his island and can't make it clear that he doesn't want to be rescued ('That's not what I meant'); an ancient explorer pitying the modern traveller who can fly to China in a day but misses everything on the way ('Marco Polo'); a teenage daughter who exchanges secrets with a tiger ('Tiger dreams'); and what really happened to Romeo and Juliet ('Happy ending'). Even when I do write a poem in the first person, the 'I' is not exactly me. The story of the comb, above, is not about a real event in my life. But it does symbolise personal experience – it's about loss – and it thus provides a fictional channel through which, I hope, my knowledge of loss can engage with yours.
Poetic form
Like most poets today, I write a good deal of so-called 'free verse'. (Actually, free verse isn't really free at all, if it's any good. Getting words, ideas and images into satisfying arrangements is an extremely difficult business, whether or not one is also using formal devices such as rhyme or metre.) I also find it a useful discipline to work with strict forms from time to time, as do many writers of free verse. Composing the occasional sonnet, for example, helps to exercise the poetic muscles, and proves that one can do the hard stuff if one wants to.
sometimes you think you understand
The trouble is, it goes too fast to catch.

So many things begin. So many end.

People are kind, then not. You save, you spend.

Hares run and dance; you haven't time to watch.

Somewhere a woman sits and cries in church.

A big boy steals his little brother's toys.

Creation sings its song – you hate the noise.

Catkins are sudden on the silver birch.

Sometimes you really think you understand.

Just for a moment, high above the trees

the moon on snow is everything there is.

And then it slips out of your clumsy hands,

the moon, the hares, the catkins and the rest, all

straws in a gale.

What is poetry, exactly, and what does it mean for me?
I wouldn't like to try to define what poetry is. I do believe that most art – perhaps all – involves a kind of double shaping: the writer, painter or other artist perceives relationships, connections and patterns – shapes – in the world, and produces shaped accounts of what he or her has perceived. (The title poem of The Shapes of Things is about an imaginary painter, someone like a present-day Rembrandt, who does exactly this.) Beyond that, I don't have strong views about what poetry should or should not be; in my opinion should is not a very helpful word in discussions about the arts. If I have a personal credo, it is that I want to say something that will affect the reader, I want to do so by arranging words, ideas and images into a satisfying shape, and I value clarity and economy. (Here at least the grammarian, the materials writer and the poet come close together.) Furthermore, I want to achieve all this while using quite ordinary language, but without straying across the fuzzy boundary that separates poetry from prose. A good deal of contemporary poetry seems to me to be difficult, boring or empty (sometimes all of these); I hope none of the poems in The Shapes of Things merit any of those three adjectives. Most of them are, I think, pretty accessible and straightforward, but the reader needs to look carefully at what is there: first impressions can be deceptive. The comment that I have most valued came from a French friend who complimented me on the 'cunning simplicity' of my poems.
Language teaching
That's all very well (I hear you cry), but would these poems be useful for language teachers and learners? Yes and no. I don't in fact think that literary texts are especially suitable for formal language teaching – the reverse is often the case. My poems were not written as teaching material, and I should be very sorry to see any of them weighed down with comprehension questions or vocabulary and grammar exercises. On the other hand, the ideas addressed in a poem can sometimes provide a good starting point for class discussion. And suitably chosen poems, like any other texts, can constitute valuable extensive reading material, provided of course the learner likes them (if not, that learner should be reading something else). Many language students do like poetry, and they can get a real feeling of achievement from being able to appreciate and enjoy poems in the language they are studying. I would certainly be very happy to learn that students were reading The Shapes of Things for pleasure.
Over to you
I hope this review has helped to illuminate what lies behind one particular grammarian's involvement with poetry. But it hasn't addressed the crucial question for any reviewer – is the book any good? Well, I think it's terrific ('This brilliant collection …'), but that doesn't mean much; most parents are convinced their children are beautiful. If you're still reading and sufficiently interested, get hold of a copy and let me know what you think.

The Literature course can be viewed here.

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