Measured, musical and understated, Jacob Polley’s poems delve deep into the elemental, the eerie and the unstable. Whether conjuring a crow from the Biblical tale of Cain’s murder of Abel, his gloves “set alight” and “blackened into life”, or simply in figuring a jar of honey as “the sun, all flesh and no bones”, his writing affirms a unique sensibility at work. Borderlines abound: land and sea, life and death, home and flight, particularly the urban and the rural, in atmospheric poems which explore Polley’s northern upbringing. Like Ted Hughes before him, a fascination with nature’s often mysterious workings is evident: a leaf becomes an “old yellow eye / lost in the fall, lost in the mind”; snow “survives in quiet places / like a rare species”. Yet typically the focus remains with the human, the borderlands and blurrings between civilisation and the natural world. This is a poetry of postmodern pastorals: a stream littered with the detritus of “dumped washing tubs and pram wheels”, or that precarious snow, “whose habitat is silence / and closed roads.” Even the “white winter flowers” of the ballad ‘The Weasel’, featured in the online selection from this Archive recording, are symbolic of human failures, of lives and love gone awry; the “little twist” that “turns your sweet breath sour.”

Jacob Polley was born in Carlisle in 1975. He was poet-in-residence at the Wordsworth Trust in 2002, the same year he won an Eric Gregory Award. During this time, he completed his first collection of poems, The Brink (2003), a Poetry Book Society Choice that was shortlisted for the T.S. Eliot Prize. Critics were swift to praise its subtle lines and inventive images; what the Guardian described as “a certain cutback virtue” pervading the poems, indication of Polley’s “belief in a restrained language and the transforming possibilities of description and metaphor.” Nowhere is this more apparent than in the startling opener to this Archive recording, ‘Smoke’. Recalling his father’s stove in the family home, iron doors “like a black bank safe’s”, the poet imagines his unborn self, “wondering if I too / had hung in darkness”. As throughout Polley’s reading, the poem’s rich sibilance and vowel sounds, delivered in his distinctive Cumbrian accent, vividly bring its scenes to life.

This recording also includes work from a second book, Little Gods (2006): an altogether more formal, incantatory collection guided by traditional lyric inspiration. As with his award-winning first novel, Talk of the Town (2009), there is much uncanny psycho-geography in these newer poems: from the “bluer home-time dark” of ‘October’, to the “rockslides caught in metal nets” and “bare earth and bridges” of “the lumpy, guileless country” mapped out in ‘You’. But perhaps its finest moments come when, as in ‘Decree’ and ‘The Cheapjack’, Polley blends his formal deftness with a wholly contemporary voice, forging unforgettable lines both direct and poignant. In the fullest sense, this Archive recording gives us the chance to experience what the TLS has called Polley’s “gift for the unexpected”.

Jacob Polley’s Favourite Poetry Sayings:

“The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible.” – Oscar Wilde

“We were put on earth to make things.” – W.H. Auden

Jacob Polley's recording was made on 18th November 2009 at the Audio Workshop, London and was produced by Anne Rosenfeld.

Poems by Jacob Polley

Jacob Polley in the Poetry Store

The free tracks you can enjoy in the Poetry Archive are a selection of a poet’s work. Our catalogue store includes many more recordings which you can download to your device.

Books by Jacob Polley



T.S. Eliot Prize, Jackself,

Prize website

Forward Poetry for Best Collection, The Havocs

Prize website

Shortlisted for the T.S. Eliot Prize, The Havocs

Prize website

Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize, The Havocs

Prize website

Shortlisted for the T.S. Eliot Prize, The Brink

Prize website

Somerset Maugham Award for Talk of the Town

Prize website

Selected one of Next Generation Poets from the Poetry Book Society

Prize website

Eric Gregory Award from the Society of Authors

Prize website

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Featured in the Archive