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  • Helen Sail

Lawrence Sail

  • London


Lawrence Sail was born in London in 1942 and brought up in Exeter.

He studied French and German at Oxford University, then taught for some years in Kenya, before returning to teach in the UK. He is now a freelance writer.

He has published several poetry collections, including Eye Baby (2006); The World Returning (2002), Building into Air (1995), and Out of Land: New and Selected Poems (1992), and has edited a number of anthologies, including The New Exeter Book of Riddles (1999) with Kevin Crossley-Holland, and First and Always: Poems for Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital (1988). He also edited South-West Review from 1980 to 1985.

Lawrence Sail works in schools and colleges, and has also written a radio play, as well as short features for radio. He has presented the BBC Radio 3 programme 'Poetry Now' and 'Time for Verse' (BBC Radio 4).

He was chairman of the Arvon Foundation from 1990 to 1994, has directed the Cheltenham Festival of Literature, was the UK jury member for the European Literature Prize (1994-96) and is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.

His most recent poetry collections are Songs of the Darkness (2010), an illustrated selection of his Christmas poems and a Poetry Book Society Special Commendation; Waking Dreams: New and Selected Poems (2010), which draws on poems from ten previous collections, and. Sift (2010) is a memoir of childhood.

Critical perspective

Lawrence Sail is a distinguished poet, editor, critic and essayist; an all-round Man of Letters in the traditional sense.

Having been chairman of the Arvon Foundation, director of the Cheltenham Literature Festival, and sometime editor of South-West Review, he helped to encourage new and established writing talents. His cultural interests are also international, visiting countries such as Egypt, the Ukraine, India, and Bosnia, for the British Council – exchanges which have informed some of his subsequent poems and essays. The broad range of his erudition is much in evidence throughout his writing, and he has participated in Arts Council projects that have brought the arts together, notably the sequences ‘Six Songs’ and ‘Out of Silence’ that have toured West Country schools and churches in a series of musical concerts.  

As a lyric poet, Sail has a manner that is restrained yet full of feeling, his characteristic tone by turns urbane and contemplative. His subjects are the arts, his family, the passing of time – and the ever-changing nature of rivers and the sea. Living up to his surname, he typically deploys a good deal of marine imagery, of shorelines and sailing, often finding epiphanies within them. His poems are invariably well-crafted, as one might expect of a long-time admirer of W.H. Auden. (In a nice image, ‘Painting of an Island’ describes an open boat as being ‘careened like an Auden slipper’). Again like the later Auden, Sail gives a religious dimension to his meditations, especially on pictures and music. Don Paterson, reviewing Out of Land: New and Selected Poems (1992) in the TLS, drew attention to what he called Sail’s ‘self-consciously timeless’ style. And, he continued, ‘Given the candour of his voice, Sail’s avoidance of the sentimental seems at times miraculous’. The example given was ‘The Artist at 81’, a tribute to the great pianist Vladimir Horowitz, who returned to Russia to play a concert after many years of exile: ‘Simply his music spells / A fluency of blessing to drown out / The worst of history. He does not even look / To know that we are weeping’.

‘Expatriate Teacher’, a poem in Sail’s first collection, Opposite Views (1974), suggests that his wide-ranging cultural interests were stimulated during five years of teaching in Kenya: ‘I tell you of illuminated scripts, / The Roman Forum, the statues at Versailles’, while ‘You walk to school barefoot, on stony paths; / By wind-sharp thorn you see the jackal move’. By The Kingdom of Atlas (1980) his descriptive powers are prominent, observing ‘Children in Snow’, or just the feeling of being ‘Becalmed’: ‘the sails flatly lose their memory, / ropes shrug into trailing loops’. Music became a preoccupation, whether in the ‘Five Thoughts of the Violinist’, or facetiously recalling a bygone era in ‘Poem for a Cinema Organist’: ‘God be praised, at your first touch / usherettes tap-dance down the aisles’. Devotions (1987) significantly develops his perception of a sacramental dimension overlaying ordinary life. ‘Snooker Players’, for instance, wittily depicts the divine order of the game, in which ‘grace is an endless break / and justice, skill repaid’, while ‘tenderly God in white gloves / Retrieves each fallen planet with love’. This perfection is contrasted with ‘the framing/ Darkness’ surrounding the table, where ‘doubt dogs the game’. In ‘Allotments’, sheds are seen as ‘close and devotional as chantries’, and men working them are ‘tenants / of the last real estate of common prayer’.

The family is a perennial concern, as expressed in ‘Dreaming of My Father’, or hearing his young daughter’s feet as ‘the bodied echo of love’ (‘Goodbyes’), and recalling a child’s nearly drowning in a swimming pool (‘An Incident in Kent’). For him, the heart ‘is a window looking in / onto a room where all our past lives / Darken to sweet and painful shadows’. And there are always ‘The dark grotesques of vivid childhood fears, / Spotless in detail, arcing over the years’ (‘Two Figures’). Among the section of new poems that concludes Out of Land: New and Selected Poems, there is ‘The Family’s Last Holiday Before the Fledglings Fly the Nest’. Counter-pointing such ponderings, he considers an insect, ‘a tiny/ But complete model of imagination, / of all the possibilities of flight’.

In The World Returning (2002), Sail once again finds epiphanies within the ordinary. Even in suburban domestic tasks (‘Cutting the Bay Hedge’), there is evidence of ‘the oncoming past’. Overall, the poems have now achieved a fine balance: between dreams and personal history, music and silence, tracking memory and the passing of time. ‘Gas-mask’ is about a child finding just such a mask, and drawing vaguely realized lessons from the uncomfortable experience of putting it on: ‘Soldiers, I knew, came into it – and rattles, / and men with bandaged eyes’. ‘The Musical Box’ recalls a childhood episode with a sister equally fascinated by an object’s ‘ornate arpeggios, glissandi bright as rain - / Can-can, Strauss, the Russian anthem, Brahms’. In ‘The Addiction’, the era of the 1950s is brought to mind simply by listing the brand names of packets of cigarettes (which are ‘stacked like organ pipes’). The book is also notable for a series of fine elegies, notably for the poet Jon Silkin. Another deeply felt piece is ‘For Tony Lambert’, an Oxford college friend, whose early death makes him wish to find ‘that real and timeless ground which lies beyond / the real immediacies of grief and anger’. Sail’s preoccupations with painting, the sea and the West Country achieve a memorable form in ‘Alfred Wallis’s Vision’. He depicts the St. Ives painter as able to see  ‘the luggers, schooners, cutters / all alive in the wind and tide’, believing that ‘each boat of that fleet / had a soul, a beautiful soul / shaped like a fish’.

Sail’s broad range of literary knowledge has been reflected in his regular essay columns for Michael Schmidt’s magazine PN Review, written between 1995 and 2003, a generous selection being recently published as Cross-currents (2005). His essays often begin with poetic matters but range widely over the arts, both historically and internationally, with particular focus on music, cinema and fine art, as well as containing interesting observations on his travels. Their subjects are apt to be eclectic, such as flies in literature (in poems from Miroslav Holub to John Donne), the epithalamion and the current difficulties of finding poems suitable for civil marriages, or wider educational issues raised by placing poets in schools. As always, he brings a lively, diplomatic view to questions of artistic values and interpretation: his aim in writing the essays was ‘to present a lively and companionable stimulus to the reader’s own thinking’. Lawrence Sail’s writing, whether in verse or prose, certainly succeeds in doing this, and is always a civilized pleasure to read.

Dr. Jules Smith, 2005


Songs of the Darkness: Poems for Christmas
Waking Dreams: New and Seleccted Poetry
Sift: Memories of Childhood
Eye Baby
Light Unlocked: Christmas Card Poems
The World Returning
The New Exeter Book of Riddles
Building into Air
Earth (Poem Poster)
Out of Land: New and Selected Poems
Fire (Poem Poster)
Air (Poem Poster)
Water (Poem Poster)
First and Always: Poems for Great Ormond Street Children's Hospital
South-West Review: A Celebration
The Kingdom of Atlas
The Drowned River
Opposite Views


Cholmondeley Award
Arts Council Writers' Award
Hawthornden Fellowship

Author statement


Why do I write?


Over many years I've appreciated the force of W. H. Auden's injunction at the close of his poem in memory of Yeats:

            'In the prison of his days
            Teach the free man how to praise.'

A close second to this, as an aim at least, might be Frost's suggestion that a poem should begin with delight and end in wisdom.


For me the possibilities of poems remain as challenging as ever. On one level you are only as good as the poem you are about to write. Nothing illustrates this better, as emblem or image, than the sea, to whose perspectives I return again and again. Protean, it is never the same as it was: look at it, then away and back, and already it has escaped the words you might have formed for it. Much of experience seems to have something of the same slipperiness, while also encouraging the urge to commute between it and meaning.


As to the world my poems inhabit, it's a border region which straddles dreams and history, discovery and concealment, doubt and belief.