Category Archives: Publications

Silence before Speech

sbs-bog-cotton-jm  sbs-im-neil-christie  sbs-time-and-tide-kc
Silence before Speech is a new publication in memory of Neil Christie, a friend who died on Christmas eve three years ago. It’s a boxed set of 16 poem-cards, each featuring a poem by myself or Jane MacKie, and a painting by Dina Campbell. The portfolio was designed by Mary Asiedu.


We all knew Neil; he had a gift for friendship, and for bringing people together. One of his favourite tricks was to arrange a meeting to which he invited people from different parts of his life, and then cry off at the last moment, leaving us to get to know each other.


He worked as a graphic designer, and occasional publisher; Reading the Streets was made for his Duende Press, when he linked myself and illustrator Libby Walker. Latterly he lived down by the river at Cramond, and I’ve fond memories of eating fish soup in his small cottage there, packed with books and CDs, before emerging for a riverside stroll.


Jane and I both wrote to Dina’s images, and their titles. My poems all came out as unpunctuated six-liners; Jane allowed herself more scope, in length and stanza form.

The cards measure 195 x 94 mm. A set costs £15 – please contact me if you’d like to buy a set.


Some flowers among the ruins

Callendar House
Callendar House

In summer 2013 the Park Gallery in Callendar House, Falkirk, exhibited Ian Hamilton Finlay’s Nature Over Again (After Poussin), part of the Artist Rooms collection.

The gallery asked Alec Finlay to make a new work for Callendar Park, and invited him to work with the gallery’s Youth Ambassadors (YAs), teenagers drawn from local secondary schools who are involved in different ways with the gallery’s programme. Alec asked me, along with other poets and artists, to work with the YAs over the summer to develop his ideas, centered on creating viewpoints within the park, and linking these to plants brought here by the Romans (the line of the Antonine Wall runs just to the north of Callendar House).

WALLFLOWERS | FLORES MURI – a series of plantings in Callendar Park marked by archaeological poles – was finalised and installed by Alec in spring 2014.

Sadly it was vandalised immediately and thoroughly.

Some flowers among the ruins is a new booklet published by Callendar Park, Falkirk. It invites the reader to walk in their imagination through the park, and to view the plantings that were once there, albeit briefly, rather like the Antonine Wall itself.

If you’d like a copy, send an SAE to Studio Alec Finlay, 53 Prince Regent Street, Edinburgh EH6 4AR. (It measures c.14x11cm, so you don’t need a large envelope.)

You can read the YAs blogs about the project here, and Alec has written a blog about it here. Below are some notes I made about my involvement in the project in 2013.

Alec Finlay & Ken Cockburn
Alec Finlay & Ken Cockburn

Alec and I had made a couple of preliminary visits in the spring, looking for views. As the gallery is showing Nature Over Again (After Poussin), his initial idea was to set up viewfinders to ‘frame’ certain landscapes in a painterly way; but given the woodland we found too few. What we did find were the golf-course with its flags, the Antonine Wall still casting its Roman shadow, and what we called the ‘declension tree’ (a red maple), whose trunk divided close to the ground.

Come summer the tall limes are flowering and abuzz with bees. Between showers I explore the grounds with the Youth Ambassadors, looking for sites that will work as viewpoints and a views; like a golf flag which draws you towards itself, then points you towards what comes next. Nine in all (like the golf-course); each marked by an flag-topped archaeological pole, and a plant first brought here by the Romans (some of which already grow here, others we’ll plant specially). We write about and sketch the views, compare one with another, contrast different views from the same viewpoint.

After researching our Roman flora, we write very short poems about them, playing with their features, their uses and the meaning of their Latin names. Then we plot a route through the grounds, from one pole to the next, realising they’ll be more visible in winter; the landscape now is like a series of discreet rooms. We finalise the pole locations by photographing them in situ, each with a poem-label for its matched flora. It’s a good way of seeing how the poles link up, and considering the work as a whole.

The last day is spent with photographer Robin Gillanders. At each location Robin takes three photos of each person in a t-shirt (happily there are nine of us, so no-one is left out) – head & torso, facing forwards; full length, ditto; full length, looking away at the view. And at each location Alec and I discuss the poems, already revised, revising some further on the spot (most interestingly the Whitmanesque ‘daffodil’).

Robin speaks about photographing other gardens –Ian Hamilton Finlay’s Little Sparta, and Ermenonville where Rousseau is buried. Later, walking round Nature Over Again (After Poussin), Alec talks us through the images, and his personal memories of their creation; there’s some discussion of why the photos are ‘folded’.

2013-06-12 12.54.48

there were our own there were the others


I spent much of summer 2014 driving the motorways and country lanes of England and Wales with Luke Allan for there were our own there were the others, a project by Alec Finlay for the National Trust to mark the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War. Luke & I visited 23 properties, all of which had some connection to the war – a family member who served and was perhaps killed; a house used as a hospital, grounds used as a training camp; gardens planted as memorials to the carnage. At each I led a silent memorial walk, bookended by a pair of poems from the past century on the theme of conflict. At most properties we set up a pair of lecterns, on which the poems were presented, and at some the lecterns were placed either end of a sandbag wall, reminiscent of the trenches. At a few we flew a red flag featuring a circular version of project’s title. That phrase is taken from Hamish Henderson’s Elegies for the Dead in Cyrenaica, about his experiences in the North African desert in the Second World War, but it seemed an apt way of memorialising all the victims of conflict, rather than just those ‘on our side’, as did the large-scale ceramic poppies installation at the Tower of London.

This gallery above shows some photos from the tour (all are by me, except Killerton Chapel by Hannah Devereux, and Liverpool, by Luke Allan). The full itinerary is on the website.

After the English and Welsh tours I was able to visit Belgium at the end of September to visit some of the First World War sites near Ypres: graveyards, battlefields, memorials. I also saw the excellent exhibition In Flanders Fields in the Lakenhalle in the centre of Ypres itself, which shows the war from the perspective of the four armies who were fighting there: Belgian, French, British and German. We stayed at Talbot House in Poperinge, a small town which, for most of the war was just far enough behind the front line for it to be fairly safe. Talbot House became a social club for off-duty soldiers, and retains many features of that time.

book of the same title documents and reflects on the project. It includes poems and prose by myself about the walks and the poems, as well as the poem ‘Cloqueliclot’ about my experiences in Belgium. It also features fine photos by Luke and Hannah.

our own the others front cover

The Road North – published by Shearsman

the road north front cover

After the road-trips of 2010 and 2011, Alec Finlay and I wrote a long poem about our travels on The Road North. It’s now been published in book form by Shearsman as the road north: a journey through Scotland guided by Bashō’s oku-no-hosomichi, 15 May 2010–15 May 2011.

You can buy the book via the Shearsman website.

You can download an audio version free of charge from iTunes – search for ‘The Road North (Alec Finlay & Ken Cockburn).

With thanks to Tony Frazer at Shearsman, and Tomohiko Ogawa for the cover photograph – it’s a postcard of Scotland which Alec sent to Tomohiko, who ‘matched’ it with a landscape in Japan.

If you’re interested in the background to the project, click on the link below to read an article I wrote for The Author, the magazine of The Society of Authors, earlier this year.

KC TRN The Author

And you can still read the original blog, written while we were on the road.

the road north back cover

Walking Poets: the books

Earlier this year I mentioned that I was taking part in the exhibition Wordsworth and Basho: Walking Poets at Dove Cottage, Grasmere. That exhibition is now up and running – it closes on 2 November – and this post is about three books connected with it.

While yet we may coverA-ga coverWalking Poets cover

While yet we may is my contribution to the exhibition. It exists as a boxed set of 68 cards, and as a book. “While yet we may is composed of 17 words from Basho’s Oku no hosomichi (best known in English as The Narrow Road to the Deep North, though I worked mainly from the English translation by Cid Corman and Kamaike Susumu published as Back Roads to Far Towns) and 51 extracts from The Prelude, The Recluse and ‘Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey’ by William Wordsworth. The idea for While yet we may came from a ‘variable construction’ by the poet Gael Turnbull (1928–2004), which consisted of two sets of cards : one of 28 cards, each featuring a noun, the other of 112 cards, each featuring a qualifying phrase. As Turnbull explained, “any one of the one-hundred-and-twelve phrases may relate to any of the twenty-eight nouns”. Of a published version in which each phrase was paired with a noun he wrote, “this version is no less final than any other”. The same applies to the version of While yet we may printed here.”

While yet we may spread
While yet we may cards
Copies of While yet we may (book and cards) are available from the bookshop at Dove Cottage, at £8.00 and £25.00; alternatively, you can buy them online at Big Cartel.

Alec Finlay’s contribution to Walking Poets is the booklet a-ga : on mountains, which includes pieces composed for the road north.

A-ga spread

The exhibition catalogue has now been published, a fine full-colour publication edited by Mike Collier, and featuring work by, among others, Autumn Richardson, Richard Skelton. Ayako Tani and Brian Thompson. You can buy a copy here for only £9.99. One of the photos I took on the walk up Easdale Tarn in January has made its way onto the front cover.

Walking Poets cover
Walking Poets back cover


we sail past Stroma’s empty fields
the Maidens grind the sea-gods’ salt
binoculars to scan the scene
the latent power the races hold

the Romans came and saw and left
Vikings named themselves in runes
a hoard of shards the dig unearthed
the sacred grove is made of stone

unfurl your banner to the breeze
starlings wheel across the sky
a spotted orchid in the verge
the wind is in the blades and flags

divers down among the wrecks
I don’t know what it is I’ve found
a haar drifts in across the rocks
the crab’s blue shell fades in the sun

Last autumn I took part in The Written Image, an exhibition organised by Edinburgh Printmakers Workshop and the Scottish Poetry Library. Poets and printmakers were paired, and I worked with Cat Outram. When we met she was just about to visit Orkney for the first time, and I’d visited the previous summer, so that became our theme. We came to settle on four of Cat’s images that seemed to give a good overview of Orkney: FERRY (geography), FARM (economy), BEACH (ecology), and BRODGAR (archaeology). I returned to a notebook I’d kept while there in 2012, and another relating to an unrealised project at John O’Groats; for each image I composed a 4-line stanza, guided by half-rhymes. The order in which the stanzas can be read is interchangeable. ‘The Maidens’ are one of the powerful tidal currents, or ‘races’, in the Pentland Firth.

Orkney print 2

Summer on the road north

Road sign

In the grey afternoons and long nights of January, it’s good to be reminded of The Road North, the summer Alec Finlay and I followed the Japanese poets Basho and Sora along the hosomichi, the back roads, of Perthshire, Argyll, the Hebrides and elsewhere.

The big blog is still available, but we’ve also written a long poem about the journey. There are four extracts from it in the new edition of Northwords Now (no. 25) – ‘Glen Lyon’, ‘Loch Etive’, ‘Schiehallion’ and ‘Berneray’– available here; other sections are online at Alec’s blog; more will appear in the spring edition of Shearsman.

23 wood sorrel

Composite Landscapes

‘Composite Landscapes’ is a paper on my work with artists ~in the fields, which I delivered at the conference Writing into Art held at the University of Strathclyde and Kelvingrove Museum and Art Gallery, Glasgow, on 18–19 June 2013.

01 ~in the fields

Since 2008, I have collaborated on several projects with the artist collective ~ in the fields, Nicole Heidtke and Stefan Baumberger. Their work, in their own words, “emphasizes natural phenomena and condenses poetic moments into inventions of closed systems”. Their visual art practice draws on archival material and often involves environmental topics.

Our collaborations include a publication, an exhibition and public art projects, and I would like to consider some of the approaches to writing these different projects suggested, in terms of our collaborative methods, as well as the ways in which the content, form and sequencing of the resultant texts developed.

In particular I’ll consider two works: ink, for which text, written in response to an extant sculptural work, features in and shapes a book publication; and yen to see distant places, an interactive work made for an exhibition last summer at New Media Scotland, Edinburgh.

02 soccer

Our initial connection was a shared interest in the relationship of the handwritten inscription to the printed book – the individual to the mass-produced. I wrote a sequence of poems, On the flyleaf, notionally written in and relating to particular books, and I continue to have an interest in marginalia – readers writing in books. The image above features one of the ‘flyleaf’ poems.

03 parallel_view_on_programming_det

~ in the fields’ work incorporates new and old media, and their sculptural work ink used digitised versions of handwritten inscriptions found in five printed books from five centuries. This inscription – here represented in digital form – is taken from a 1634 edition of Pliny’s Natural History:

With one sole pen I wrote this book
Made of a grey goose quill;
A pen it was when I it tooke,
And a pen I leave it still.

04 ink_threespheres

Ink – the sculptural work – consists of five colourless clear glass bulbs – each partly filled with blue ink. When the visitor approaches, the bulbs begin to rotate, causing a layer of ink to coat the inside surface. Through the ink, illuminated handwritten inscriptions become visible on a spinning armature – a rotor with LEDs which pulse very quickly – and the inscriptions are given to the visitor individually. The visitor’s presence initiates the offering of the inscription once again.

05 Ink upright

In the book Ink, images and texts relating to the sculptural work ink are augmented by texts by myself – original poems, found poems and reflective prose – which consider the sculptural work itself as well as the related topics of marginalia and the colour blue. An alphabet poem – on imaginary shades of blue – came to define the structure and extent of the book.

06 Ink French folds

The book is bound using French folds – the main text is all printed on one side of the paper – but between the pages, as it were, there is a background text – the alphabet poem – glimpsed out of the darkness. The book is 52 pages, so two pages for each letter of the alphabet.

07 Ink Circles

The poems in the book move off in different directions from the sculptural work. As well as the blue alphabet, there are found poems using parts of the handwritten descriptions; these additionally reflect the globes of sculptural work by being presented as circle poems, a form I had previously attempted without much success, but which seemed to work for me in this context. There are also poems reflecting on the sculptural work directly – on movement – on the propriety, or otherwise, of writing in books – and on the happenstance of the collaboration occuring in the first place. Here are two short poems – original, rather than found – from the book.

A paradox – before
this or any other book
absorbs the library-
stamp of ownership.
a proper response, a nod
to posterity; but afterwards
unwanted, wanton, an act
of desecration,
proper grounds for censure.


It felt like a gift, such an encounter, out of the blue.


08 Myriorama

“Landscape is not seen as merely dramatic background but as a force which shapes and directs the minds of its inhabitants.” (James Reed)

yen to see distant places from 2012 projects composite landscapes drawn from early 19th century etchings of Scottish landscapes, creating – perhaps somewhat in the manner of historical fiction – an image each of whose elements is based in reality, but which has never yet appeared in quite this context or combination.

Each composite image consists of three elements – background (The Sublime), middleground (The Beautiful) and foreground (The Picturesque).

~in the fields wrote to me: “[we are] working with the ‘Sublime’ as landscape elements which are rough and evoke respect. The ‘Beautiful’ (Edmund Burke) are the small elements, smooth, delicate. The ‘Picturesque’ (William Gilpin) element is something like a ruin of a castle… We decided also to have the introduction of the rhododendron, etc.”

09 backgrounds 1-9

Here are some of the backgrounds. Individual elements are sourced from different books, mainly Walter Scott’s Provincial antiquities and picturesque scenery of Scotland: with descriptive illustrations, published in the 1820s. Other sources are books from the Botanic Garden Library, for example, Scottish trees with a history or a connection to a famous place. There are also some landscape drawings by Robert Kaye Greville (mainly for ‘the beautiful’) from the 1830s.

10 3 x 15

Fifteen images were selected, and individually coloured, for each element, and thus in total there are over three thousand possible combinations(15x15x15), or composite landscapes. The idea is also that the composite images can also connect horizontally to form a continuous landscape, or ‘myriorama’ – an idea taken from 19th century sets of cards featuring landscapes, which could be placed in any order and still produce a coherent image.

11 0001wG

I was originally asked to provide a short caption or title for each image, but in fact produced a short poetic line, mostly taken or adapted from the work of Sir Walter Scott and other Romantic writers. Like the images, these lines were adjusted so that when combined they form a composite three-line verse, or Romantic haiku. The first and second lines – background and middleground – are linked by prepositions ‘from x to y’ – with the third line following after a dash, thus precluding the need for more specific syntax, yet qualifying the previous couplet in some way.

12 2012-08-09 16.17.56

Here is a shot from the exhibition. You can see how each of the images is presented on a glass screen on a pole. When these are moved into a certain position, they are projected on to the screen at the back as a combined image, and the text appears with them.

Here is the composite landscape, and poem, formed from the three elements in the bottom right of this image.

13 4_27_38

The text reads

from savage grandeurs, to
shaggy heath –
making improvements

14 2012-08-09 16.14.56

Another exhibition shot of the three elements – and the composite landscape which they form.

15 1_24_43

from wild cascade, to
boughs, and a low eminence –
a beached skiff

Here are a series of images, as presented on the screen during the exhibition, shifting from right to left.

16 panorama

In this case, the user experience is very different from that of ink, as they participate and create one image out of three parts, anticipating what the composite image will look like and seeing this as a part of an ongoing panorama, and then being surprised by the related poem they have also “composed”.


To conclude: poetry is about structures, about form as well as content, and sometimes the most interesting way of producing content is to focus on the form, and let the content as it were come of its own accord. I enjoy the way ~in the fields focus on thinking through and making their highly conceptualised and technically ambitious works, and I hope the poems can work in similar ways, as intricate machines which fascinate in terms of both their engineering and their output.

Ken Cockburn, June2013

Autumn leaves

Autumn seems to be the time translations appear – a smaller crop than last year’s, but there are two publications to mention. No Man’s Land, the online journal for German writing in English, has published my translations of Arne Rautenberg – several haiku, and ‘gingko leaf fairy tale’, about coming across a pressed leaf in a copy of Grimm’s Fairy Tales. Those poems, and many more, are included in Snapdragon.

The recent issue (3:18) of Modern Poetry in Translation is on the theme of Transitions. It’s the last to be edited by David and Helen Constantine, who share this issue with their successor, Sasha Dugdale. I’ll be sad to see them go – they have consistently published work of interest from a generous range of poets and translators, and have been very supportive of my work, taking versions of Thomas Brasch, Thomas Rosenlöcher and Heiner Müller. This issue features translations of three poems by Heinz Czechowski (1935–2009), a writer I’ve just discovered this year, and who skillfully interweaves his private and public selves, the historical and the contemporary, the literary and the mundane. You can read one of the poems here.

Beside them are other translations of Czechowski by Ian Hilton, a former professor of Germany at Bangor University, who has known his work for much longer than I have, and who many years ago met the poet on the eastern side of the Berlin Wall.