Canal Laureate Poems

Nancy Campbell 
Safety Briefing

This slow current won’t capsize a kayak, but watch for the surge when the lock gates open:
you can brace against barge-wash with the back of your blade,
trim your boat in response to the flow, take the turns
on an edge. Keep the whole of your torso
over the boat and reach out your paddle
to make a sure catch with each stroke.
Be alert. Correct any small slip
with a twist of your hips:
you’ll be surprised
just  how  far
you can tip


you do
feel your hull
tilt a fraction too far
take a beat. Stay calm.
Although you’ll be surprised
as the kayak rolls round, and up
turns to down (don’t forget, hold your breath)
as canal fills your clothes and cold numbs your limbs
and the shivers begin, you’ll be safe under that uppity boat
(just remember, stay calm) if you keep a grip on the cockpit
until it stops tumbling. Now comes the moment to struggle
with toggles, to push free from your craft in a cascade of bubbles
and burst to the surface – and breathe – then clamber back in and continue to paddle.


Luke Kennard
80,000 Gallons To a Lock

Skipton to Greenberfiled, 2016

In the roar of 80,000 gallons to a lock
The engine thrums through my bones
from ankle to temple.

I am an antennae channelling
a past I cannot know.
40 tonnes of coal via wheelbarrow

on a single plank, the bargeman’s equilibrium.

I wonder if he read the first signs of the freeze,
windlass in his hand, weighty and balanced
As a murder weapon or a perfect line.

Behind the reeds a scrawny cat
shadow boxes with a swan
and in the roar of 80,000 gallons to a lock,

I wouldn’t listen for your voice because
we’d live together in the hull;
I’d wait to feel your hand upon my back,

your light step from land to deck
and back again.
I wonder if the bargeman saw

The dandelions scattered in the ungrazed fields
like I do: city lights from an aeroplane;
Or if, to him, they looked like lanterns in distant inns,

Or shrapnel glowing in a battleground.
The same seagulls pinwheel round the plough
and all that’s really changed is the machine.


Luke Kennard

for Kevin and Taryn

A mechanism I am yet to understand,
but wind and push and mimic
the contraflow, the reading of the depths.
Hello. A cheerful, solemn duty.

To differentiate from its namesake
we say a pair of compasses, like trousers;
the lockgates make you part of their machine,
the boat a bubble in a spirit level.

Prepare the quarter circle you describe.

The smell of lighter cubes and sunblock,
hollow knock of crack willow.
Dayboats return with a cargo of sunburn,
we turn and turn the windlass.

when a boy balances on the roof,
stamps as the corner hoves into view, I think:
how quickly we presume the safety-catch,
how we might leave it off this once,

how one day we might run aground or sink
without a wave or nod or how are you?
The soul’s maintenance we hardly notice,
with each small act of generosity.


Luke Kennard
Sonnet for Hadley

Hadley seen from land or when aboard,
Your blue and yellow as bright then as today
A silent movie reshot and restored.
Roses and castles carry the eye away
As far as any valley, East or West
Cut by your steel when you were Willow Wren’s.
We read the double-meaning of the crest,
We polish and rotate the camera lens,
You feel the engine’s thrum within your bones.
The smell of coalsmoke draws us to connect
The present to a past we might have known.
To redefine our course and our effect:
A swan defends his nest against the spray
Pecks at the aft and watches us obey.

Luke Kennard
What We Can Least Afford to Lose

Written in collaboration with, and with thanks to, the attendees of the Manchester CRT Conference

I wonder if it is a stretch to say canals and poetry
share more than history or eccentricity:
Hiding in plain sight, a relic dwarfed by commerce,
towers of grey, dismissed by some as obsolete, but they
Have never seen Woodseave Cutting in the morning mist,
An overhead projector light as an owl in flight
Redeems the dawn. Or dereliction turned to treasure:
A community learns what it means to be community.
They’ve never weighed a line or rhyme or seen the way ahead
cycling Saltaire to Bringley clear as the silent fields
the boat cuts through and peddled like a maniac.
To share Dog Tunnel, Gordon’s Wharf, with a kit of pigeons,
no-one else. To moor on the flashes or fish in Ashton
surrounded by neglect and pulchritude,
flowers in the cracks, where the dip-net catches the perch.
The places where our forebears met.
And would they get why it’s important that the trees
Which lean in like respectful mourners to make
A wooded corridor so close to the prefabs,
blocks of flats, a sharp bend; two worlds, two visions,
needs recording, needs maintaining?
Disintegration creeps below the surface as above,
of all that we can least afford to lose.
A blessing uncounted, a life unexamined, no stock taken.
So a prayer that generations hence remember to slow down,
Adopt the speed of families, of pubs, of ales with names
As numerous as bargemen or as poets.
Listen: the water gurgles obscenely, it gargles serenely.
The vista of Tegg’s Nose unfolds as the boat clears
Leek New Road. The orange glow of sunlit
built-up waters. Come to love the ancient ribbon
of ever flowing waters, the bright magnificent mills.
Peak Forest towpath, Swizzels factory: the sickly sweet
Perfume of sherbet and Love Hearts transports
You to a childhood candystore (BE MINE or latterly TEXT ME).
A hustle bustle sanctuary; oasis of the way to work,
Mirage of the lunchbreak; the water glistens
Below the view of the hills, the commuter’s spectacles.
And Standage Tunnel, Everest of the waterways
Rock cavernous feat of modern industry.
The fresh asphalt smell at Bootle, a place to gather
memories, dream visions, see dreams,
and as we clear the waters, clear our heads.
And if we lose our tether to the past as we move on;
and if the aggressive goose-grey glass and metal towers encroach
and suffocate our impulse to explore the footnotes,
poems, marginalia. If water-levels rise like apathy
and litter gathers in the corners of the mind,
and if 100 years from now we hardly recognise
what we’ve become… As long as there’s the will
to search for calm, to wander from the road more travelled,
The selfless sacrifice of our own time just to
Maintain one thing then another we can hope…
At the stern there’s not a soul but me;
The world slides by, 4 miles per hour –
Past understanding, the tranquillity.


Luke Kennard
Collage Poem for Wigan Pier

factory whistles
i was never awake to hear
black tripe grizzled squalid
museum exhibition hall and pub
fights with savage horses
maligned in music halls
we also offer payday loans
to forgive george orwell
we also take your xbox one
coming back is worse than going
former machinery floors
converted into apartments
we normally say flats
a brief unflattering mention
a planet one big piece of coal
most signs now gone
a rather horrible agility
bargemen muffled to the eyes
the lock gates and their beards of ice
and even this transfigured
not café rouged or papered over
but unredacted as we try
to understand what we were
the landlords loved their grievances
and do you think
we treat each other
any better now


Luke Kennard
Etiquette at the Canalside

New traveller of the shining towpath,
Please be mindful as you roam.
It’s not that you can’t speak, eat, laugh,
But this is everybody’s home.
Let others too enjoy its use,
Be like the duck and not the goose.

Do not preach to the converted
Or assume we’re unaware
That dropping litter’s as perverted
As ignoring others’ cares.
Keep your homilies to yourself,
Leave your manuals on the shelf.

Sorry; it wasn’t my intention
To nag, cajole, instruct or bore,
Just eager that your intervention
Keeps the peace you came here for.
Adopt an attitude, at most,
Of simultaneous guest and host.

Just the kind of regulation
We came here to avoid:
A pelican’s regurgitation.
We sought escape, now we’re annoyed.
“Poetry makes nothing happen”:
A good reason to shut your trap, then.

A pelican sustains through vomit
All his or her offspring, so
Actually, your analogy, I hold it
A great compliment, and lo:
Even as it breaks the rhyme scheme
I grant myself the final word.


Luke Kennard
The Persistence of Rubbish

The moon reflected in a broken pair of
star-shaped children’s sunglasses.
The perfect feet of a knocked down statue
survey the abandoned shopping centre.
The cat describes the arc of a fountain as it leaps
the lip of the busted fountain. Grit crackles.
A mural painted over a mural depicts
your worst acts in the social realist mode
and you’re thinking why me as the artist
is thinking why not? An empty crisp packet
rumoured to be the last meal of a martyr
is worshipped by a group of fanatics
dressed as empty crisp packets.
God’s promise not to flood the world again
is a dispersion of light through the study window
of a climate-change-denier’s poem.
Meanwhile a man gets his head stuck
in an ornamental wrought iron gate
and has to be cut free by the fire brigade;
the 2 hour notch they sawed to loose him
visible from the next street forever.
When asked by a journalist he replies:
‘I wanted to see if my head would fit
through the ornamental gate.’
The moon reflected in the journalist’s iPhone
contains detritus of its exploration:
space junk, giant foil wrappers, glass,
an everlasting bootprint, our new logo:
A dust so fine it won’t wash off.


Luke Kennard
The Water Replies

Maybe we have washed our hands
and drunk deep and swam
and think we know her,
but water’s reputation goes before her like a flood:
she does not suffer fools or gadflies.
Therefore I have prepared some questions.
Where do you get your ideas & your tide from? 
Don’t say the moon – that’s really pretentious.
But as I clamber down the coast
I lose my footing and spend our allotted time
tossed around in her backwash,
pummelled by tiny stones.
When I am baptised I ask the water
Where have the demons gone?
Were they hiding behind the H, the 2 or the O?
I emerge finally able to see that I have not changed,
that I can of myself do nothing, that water decides.
On the towpath behind the church
I wring out my jacket. I ask the water:
Will you convey these thoughts away?
These itching hatreds, toothache of jealousy,
These squalid appetites and dog thirsts?
Just as far as the next city will do.
The ripples of the moon’s tablature.
When was the last time you cried, and why?
I ask the water. I ask the water:
Do you have plans later?


Luke Kennard
Because the city was in mourning…

BECAUSE THE CITY was in mourning a canal was created to run the population’s tears over the border. A special tap was installed in every kitchen of their enemies, a silver tap in the shape of a weeping gargoyle. From the gargoyle their enemies could run a glass of cold tears and hold it up to the evening light. The tears of children, of mothers, of fathers, of grandparents. The tears of architects, police, machine operators and accountants. This, it was felt, might instil some sense of compunction and fellow-feeling in the enemies. But the enemies proved so lacking in basic humanity that they used the special taps to mix the tears with their Old Fashioneds, their Margaritas, their Gibson Martinis and their whisky sours. Some retaliation was called for, but first an account had to be given by those responsible for the initiative: what, after all, were they expecting? Those responsible for the taps, their conception, design, funding and installation were expelled over the border where they could see for themselves, in the words of a popular op ed piece, how far their naivety might carry them in the hands of their enemies. And the tears of the exiles were bottled by their enemies, labelled by an award-winning designer and exported back across the border. A product which, when mixed with the tears of the families they had left behind, proved a powerful cleaning fluid, anti-wrinkle cream, liniment and salve.


Luke Kennard
Steering Someone Else’s Boat

To take a home between your finger and your thumb,
stick out your chest, insinuate against
the bank you would avoid is to be numb
to all your cheerful vanity and pretence.
We cut a ragged path under my captaincy.
The towpaths are a fitting prayerbook for
a dipsomaniac, wandering hermit monk.
Sunlight through branches quickens, so ignore
the dogshit smell of hydroponic skunk.
Trust the Loops. The shaggy tollbooth islands,
bowers of rotting pyramidal flowers,
the gorgeous dereliction of a bridge.
The prison, like a demon stadium,
squats in your peripheral vision.
the crenelated printer’s arm goes back and forth,
records the soul of battered industry.
I’ll think of it when my own mind’s not right,
go home, try not to steer my own awry.


Jo Bell

A two-kingfisher day, with sparrowhawks thrown in
and we were bickering at Kingswood Junction.
Water won’t be told, she said, you never learn.
We settled to the first of nineteen locks.

It got between us with its own built frame;
its greening beams that spoke
an older argument, the slow negotiations
of meadowsweet and pondweed.

The ratchet sound of summer winding in;
the bargain between land and man and water
that earns the right to pass. A can’t-be-hurried
spill of rising inches in the filling chamber,

a measured fall through moss and diesel smoke.
We did not speak until the aqueduct where,
running out of land, the navvies
simply kept on cutting through the sky.

Carry me, the channel says: the bridegroom engineer
must find a way. They never learned to disbelieve.
Water won’t be told, but give it bones
and it will take the shape you train it to.

That iron rib, grown out across the cavity of air and traffic
took us over, laughing. We made our reckoning
and moved on slow as marriage, slow as decades
through a day of gentle sweat, a two-kingfisher day.

Jo Bell
God’s promise to the boater

It won’t be easy and it won’t be beautiful, not always –
but in every circumstance, all kinds of bedrock,
at every gravel-shallowed hull-crunch bend,
by every stone-dead wharf
          you shall have water.

In every stickleback-and-barbel-thickened pound,
through every bridge (the Bath stone ashlar voussoirs,
rusticated lime or broke-backed brick)
at each and every pub and poached field end
          you shall have water.

Keeping company with towpaths on the ragged Trent,
with chimneyed yards in Stoke or Huddersfield,
with cow parsley and council golf courses that look elsewhere;
everywhere you pass, so long as you agree to pass
          you shall have water.

Don’t look for guarantees of quality or colour –
I don’t do miracles on brownfield sites – but whether
clean, curmudgeonly, open to the elderflowers
or close as a Yorkshireman’s pocket
          you shall have water.

This, my slipshod covenant: keep faith
with fickleness and movement, and
where you travel I will make it so.
Do not look for constancy. Your blessings
          will be writ in water, always, where you go.

Jo Bell
My country

takes years to find me, comes by water
in its own sweet time, doesn’t mind much
if I lag or fall behind; never waits.

We meet in shallow waterways
in clay-and-crow land, beyond words
like Worcestershire or London.

This has been the finding of me; this country
without self; its private happiness,
its snoozy dawdling at city-back or meadow.

We know each other just a little –
it, the thing that laid me down like silt;
me a momentary factor, cell within the leaf

within the lively forest,
adding one small dot of matter
to its wood-slow happenings.

Jo Bell
Working Pair

I have asked for a poem about love.
The woman I have asked to write this poem
knows nothing about love.

Of boats, she knows a little.
When she tries to write of love
it often looks exactly like a boat; and so

she found herself remembering a rusty day
in Birmingham. From an arm of water known,
and so invisible, to all the city drinkers

came the slow nose of a narrowboat –
Aries, heading for the Old Turn Junction
at an angle made for public pain.

But then behind her, shark-smooth,
slid the snub-nosed Malus
hitched on short lines so that both boats

took the corner in a perfect coupling,
right as knee or elbow. The first
was pushed around the narrow turn:

the second paused, then took the rope
and both moved on. Each line and angle,
each response and strain was halved

and doubled. This is of course
a clumsy metaphor. The woman I asked
to write this poem knows that,

but it is the best way she can find
to show how, moving light or laden,
two bodies could help each other

so that both are more than helpful;
each is needful to the other’s passage.
She cannot write a piece that will explain

the love that I’ve laid down for you, my love
in ramson and in bramble season, through our days
of rush and rest, of hills and homecomings.
I had not known there was a home to come to, till you came.

Jo Bell
No Seafarer

I sing my own true story, tell my travels
small as they are, of episodes on shallow channels;
working up to Wolverhampton through the Twenty One
or drifting into Diglis, gagging for a cup of tea.

It’s all about me: my boat, my slow-mo marvels,
my lockside affairs – a spaniel saved from death,
a bon mot for the fat gongoozler. That day
on the Llangollen, storm-glazed, glad together.

The overgrowing straits that carry me
from one pub to the next, the shallow river mouths
and long-dead ferry points where knackered boats
would carry sheep across at dusk;

I sing their praises daily, bank to bank.
A narrow span, a slight adventure
of slight travels, yes. But still my own, and true
and still, for all that, sung.

Jo Bell
How to live on a boat

Walk slowly,
and quite often
There is
no room
for books
for vases;
redundant shoes.

the span of
a tall man’s arms
live lively as
a woman’s hands,
mindful of
one need
which can be met
by moving on;
and always

Jo Bell
River Steel

It means no harm, but that’s cold comfort
when the crucibles of storm and circumstance
are over-full, and then some.
As innocent as molten steel released,
Severn takes its ease at land’s expense,
chokes any channel  that will give it space;
brooks no refusal. Trent and Thames
make runnels of the leaf-mould lanes,
and settle first into the cellars and the delphs
or secret mineworks under fields, then
into silver furrows; waterlogging woods
and pasture gates, spilling giddy with a liquid weight
to overtop the hedges in a killing field of moles
and on into the farms, the living rooms, the malls,
to make a landscape without lines.
The river makes a plane of all our contours,
makes our complicated days and places plain –
a blank and shining slate where we had written OURS.
Sodden, leaden, mastered for the moment, still we work
for green and grass, for metal, brick and all that live by it;
for those who, like the winter waters, find a way.
Listen to Jo reading the poem:


Jo Bell
The Crick Poem

A poem written using the best and worst canal memories of Crick Boat Show visitors on 25 May 2013.

Crick Boat Show Marina

We’ve seen more than you can write down;
cuckoos and choristers, moorhen sex,
chemical toilets and terrapins,
Anderton Boat Lift and Foxton Locks.

Curious cargoes and mystical beasts,
steam boats and herons, working pairs.
Giant pedal organs on tiny little boats,
midnight dancing at Mountsorrel weir.

The winter approach to Standedge;
our second trip out, so we took it slow
and saw a dark mouth full of blossom
as the entrance loomed in the first fall of snow.

A juvenile heron that rose and dropped
ahead of your bike on the towpath –
the dread sound of metal on water
as your dog or child or your keys take a bath.

Steering a sinking clinker boat
as droplets spin out from the flywheel;
up Heartbreak Hill, tipping ash in each gate –
and a pint at the top in the Bluebell.

Mooring at Branston beneath a tree,
and waking surprised in October dawn
as the roof sends out a guncrack of rain
and crab apples shaken down by the storm.

A roe deer at dawn, a 4.30 start
with a long strap pulling the butty behind;
a dog-fox at dusk, as you take the last berth
and set out the barbecue, pour out the wine.

The Unpronounceable Aqueduct
the Tardebigge Deep Lock, the Bingley Five;
the perfect Ashby mooring,
a peaceful spot with boats and beehives.

We’ve seen things that could stop your breath.
A brave duck called Fender who nearly got squashed;
the first sod cut from the Ship Canal;
a kingfisher, angel of the grubby Erewash.

The sound of a rudder hitting the sill –
enough to stop a boater’s heart.
Towcester and Bingley carrying lime juice,
forty tons moving through locks in the dark.

Mechanical trouble? We’ll use the Standard Tool
(what you might call a lump hammer).
Toilet tank blocked? Not a nice job but we found
some remarkable things from Ann Summers.

The bagpiper on the Huddersfield,
who piped us into the locks one night;
the choristers in the Harecastle
who sang us through darkness and into the light.

At five years old, a taste of time –
fish and chips at Middlewich
as the last of the working pairs slid by
and the boatman tied up with a tugman’s hitch.

We’ve done things you wouldn’t believe;
crossing the wide Bristol Channel
with fingers crossed – or down on one knee
to propose in the Harecastle Tunnel.

Painting a boat in December, masked
so your breath doesn’t spoil the finish;
smelling the bright smell of Brasso
as you start to spit and polish.

Braving the laughs of Canal Street
on a boat called Pleasure Bent; we’ve done it all.
They say we’re freaky boat people.
And that, my friend, is the point.

Jo Bell

Frozen In

You wake, and know.
The boat is still as bones
and you, its red heart beating.

The canal was taken in its sleep
and paved with cold; the chilled air
gathers round your feet.

The ice, disgruntled, shifts itself
and chews a little on the hull,
sets itself to set again.

Beneath the glaze fish flicker
like grey flames,
silent, watchful.

Inside, you go on with the business
of making tea,
waiting for crocuses.

Jo Bell
Springtime at the boatyard

You can keep your cuckoos.
We hear Spring’s first song
in the sound of angle-grinders,
brazen as a mating call across the yard:
the saw blades and the welders,
working between weathers
like a nesting bird; and swarf
as bright as daffodils on workshop floors.

You can keep your catkins;
we have rust like pollen on our skins.
We walk between steel shells
and smell the fresh blue boiler suits
of all the coming days,
when warmth will stretch our hulls
and make of summer evenings a shed
for building this year’s stories.

Jo Bell
Boat in Dry Dock

A welded tongue; she talks in water
and is dumb in dock. A wet knife in,
a tethered cow when out.

Under way she cuts the surface,
frays the bank. Here it’s scrape
and solder, grind and burn.

Half-lit and heavy in the shed
there’s too much air.
The floors don’t move.

She wants a navigation,
sluices, channelled wet; the rain
to lick her ropes and scuppers.

She wants her own weight
hanging in her long black hide,
her pitted hull, her rusts.

The cut pours in to ease her steel.
She floats again. She bobs
and bumps her nose against the gate.

She holds. The welcome shift
of everything, the balance
and the give!

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