I cling to the belief that it is possible to write good poetry that is neither difficult nor boring. I use humour a great deal, sometimes for quite serious purposes. I mostly write free verse, but I can do the hard stuff when necessary. I also translate poetry: an English version of Rilke’s Orpheus, Eurydike, Hermes won the Stephen Spender award in 2005. My collections, When they Come for you (Frogmore Press 2003) and The Shapes of Things (Oversteps Books 2011) were very well reviewed. A selection of my poetry with Romanian translations, Tiger Dreams / vise cu tigri, was published by Niculescu in 2014.

“The beauty of Michael Swan’s writing is the artifice beneath its deliberate simplicity. … The careless may miss the rich seams of absurdity and irony.”

(Will Daunt, Envoi)

“A sharp, wryly observed collection, intelligent and perceptive… There’s a nicely surreal edge to much of the work, but it’s poetry that remains open and accessible.”

(Catherine Smith, The New Writer)

“Merci pour la simplicité malicieuse de tes textes.”

(Vincent Cobès)

Order a copy  of When they Come for you or The Shapes of Things.

Some of my poems

Please select a title to read the poem

The poem is never quite
what you wanted to say.

Even the great one,
the ultimate masterpiece –
ten lines only, but
all other writers
throw down their pens in despair;
in a matter of weeks
the whole world
has it by heart;
it is quoted at meetings and partings,
at weddings and funerals;
so profound is its message
that wars are stopped in their tracks;
an authority
wise and benign
is set up in Andorra la Vella
to govern the planet;
on the walls of the parliament building
in letters of gold
your text is inscribed –

Even so,
it’s not quite
what you wanted to say.

Tiger dreams

one day
you will meet a tiger.
You and the tiger
face to face.

What will you do?

I know you.
You will hold out
to the tiger
on your bare hand
a small globe
throwing light at all angles.
And you will tell the tiger your dreams,
and a special thing
that only you know.

And the tiger will come close,
press her muzzle to you
– if she were not a wild creature
you would swear
it was a kiss.
And in her turn
she will tell you a secret.

For a long time
you will share each other’s eyes.

You will go away
pad, pad, pad;
and when no one is looking
you will wash your fur
with your rough tongue.

And the tiger
will tell your dreams
to her babies.

Real cool

The Sicilians – or is it the Greeks? –
say that revenge is a dish
best eaten cold.
(Or the Eskimos, perhaps?
That would make more sense.)
now that I am in charge of Hell,
that is the policy I’m following.
It’s freezing down here.

But do come and have a look round.
Bring your anorak.

Here is the hi-fi man
who took all my money
and then didn’t deliver my stereo
for six months.
Up to his neck in ice-cold water
with bottom-of-the-range earphones
stapled to his head
playing very loud rubbish.

If we go along here
past Publishers’ Snowfield
and Customer Service Gully
you will see on your right
Estate Agents’ Crevasse.
Hello, Mr Adams.
Is everything all right down there?
Market’s gone cold, has it?
I’m sorry to hear that.

Over there? Ah, yes.
An employee of British Telecom.
As you can see,
he is holding a telephone
in his chilblained hand.
It says ‘If you want a warm drink, press one.’
Then it says ‘I am sorry,
all our operators are busy.’
Then it plays ‘Winter’ from the ‘Four Seasons’
for a very long time.

In this lake are the cold callers.
Yes, it is rather ironic, isn’t it?
Those spikes were my own idea.

Right in front of you,  Helpline Glacier.
A problem, Mr Ferrando?
Yes, you have a type 104679329804 error.
Just reconfigure your virtual RAM bus port extensions manager driver
to 4000 gigabauds
and call me again if that doesn’t help.
I beg your pardon?
Now don’t get hot under the collar.

Er, let me rephrase that.

Good afternoon, Sergeant Perkins,
you horrible little man.
Call those boots clean?
Seven days
chipping the ice off the latrines
with a teaspoon.
Off you go now,  at the double!

Oh, and here’s the lady who said
‘I’ll sleep with you when hell freezes over.’
Funny, that.

‘But what about yourself?’
I hear you say.
‘Your behaviour, too,
was totally appalling.
Does it merit no punishment?’
Certainly not.
I am in charge here.
Besides which,
what in other people
would have been unforgiveable
in me was just
real cool.

This is my seven-hundredth poem.

I have done my best for it
but with all those mouths to feed …

Rhymes are out of the question,
let alone
anything more up-to-date.

Accompanied by its faithful cat
it sets off for London
to seek its fortune.

Gold, it soon finds out,
is not what the streets are paved with.

It keeps body and soul together
with a bit of busking
and hangs about at readings
trying to ape its betters.

One day
in a bookshop
it gets talking to a rich woman
who likes cats.

For a spell
it rides about
in her magazine.
It is accepted in literary circles
and quoted everywhere.

tiring of its rustic simplicity,
she kicks it out.
The cat, too.

Sic transit gloria mundi.
And indeed
right through the week.

It ends up in a skip
in Leicester Square
clutching the cat for warmth
and wishing it had never been written.

I feel awful.

Sestina: advice to women

When you went off climbing mountains
I acted like most other women:
cultivated patience, wisdom,
sought consolation in reading poetry,
joined an ecological movement,
kept my eyes off calendars, clocks.

When you started collecting clocks,
piled them in the house in ticking mountains,
explained the secrets of their movement,
I smiled and nodded, in the way of women.
You said their chimes were cosmic poetry.
I held my tongue, with my female wisdom.

When you studied ancient wisdom,
told me time wasn’t trapped in clocks,
and read me selections of Sanskrit poetry
sitting cross-legged on top of mountains,
I went along with it. Like many women
I could see these things brought change and movement.

When you took up dance and movement
and told me bodies were the whole of wisdom,
(especially men’s, since compared with women
men have different biological clocks),
I didn’t go and scream in the mountains,
but sought consolation in yet more poetry.

When you started writing poetry
I could see that this was a positive movement.
You deluged me with rhyming mountains
of paper. I loved your creative wisdom,
saw beauty in dustbins, cabbages, clocks,
sunsets and sandbags. God help women.

When you started collecting women,
saying they were needed for your poetry,
I burned your poems, smashed your clocks,
and joined the local anarchist movement.
You can stuff that ancient women’s wisdom.
Faith in men doesn’t move any mountains.

Advice to women: avoid movement;
keep clear of mountains; beware of clocks;
trust no one’s wisdom; don’t read poetry.

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, windowledges,
in the car, on your pillow.
I was sure it was your comb.

How everything is

Perhaps this is how everything is.
The scree steepens into rockface;
you work your way up ten or twelve pitches,
each worse than the one before,
the last a brutal overhang
with few holds, and those not good;
somehow, pushing your limits,
you struggle through to the top
with your arms on fire,
to find a car park, toilets and a café.


Good, sometimes
to go outside
and walk round yourself
looking in the windows.

There are lights blazing
in rooms you have never seen;
strangers dancing,
things going on
you can scarcely credit.

don’t stay out too long.
They might change the locks.

The fisherman's daughter

The fisherman’s daughter
is visiting her cousin
in the mountains.
It is cold,
the roofs are the wrong shape,
and the faces are closed.
She misses the sound of the sea.

But the peaks
that change places with the clouds
tell her things
that she strains to hear,
and the music
from the square in the evening
speaks a language
that she knew before she was born.

In front of the mirror
in the hayloft
where they have made her a bed,
she brushes her long black hair,
and thinks of her lover.

Such a clever ghost

It was a very clever ghost.
Always somewhere else.
If she looked under the bed
it was in the drawer with her blouses;
when she went to the drawer
it slipped behind the curtain
trailing a smell of lavender.

She wondered what colour it was.
It was the colour of all of her fears.
A sort of rainbow ghost.

It would move her things:
hide her keys,
take her photos,
and put them back in the same place,
but she could tell.

When she went into the garden
it stared at her
from behind the shed.

She knew it would have her
in a sudden savage rush,
had felt its hot breath on her neck
often enough;
she knew it was poised.

She had taken precautions, of course:
never married
(he might be the ghost in disguise!);
didn’t travel far;
counted her change, always;
refused to have repairs;
kept her little cat inside;
locked all doors and windows.

Such a clever ghost.
It stalked her all her life,
but held off, and held off
until one spring morning –
then a leap
at the old woman’s throat.

She would not have been surprised
at the way it sat on her gravestone
swinging its legs
and laughing.

Marco Polo

I was talking to Marco Polo.

He said
Yes, OK,
he went over the top a bit
in the book
to push up the sales.

But it was mostly true.

The years on the road.
Turkey, Armenia, Persia, Afghanistan, …

and a year to recuperate
in Badakhshan.

sandstorms and spirit voices
in the Gobi.

The Pamirs were the worst
he said,
with the bloody horses dying
below the high passes
where your bones froze.

You know
I said
I was in China yesterday.
(True enough.
We hit Terminal 3
at 7.20 this morning.)

I had expected disbelief,
but he understood pretty well
what we can do.

I had not expected pity.

We tried to tell you

In a shabby pub
down a back street
late one evening
I found my old maths master
sitting at a corner table

Not a pretty sight,
an old maths teacher
weeping into his beer.

‘Let me tell you this,’
he said.
‘It does not add up.
It does not fucking add up.

Two plus two
is a random number.

The angles of a triangle
make 37 degrees,
or 460, or minus 11,
or nothing you can determine.
Circles bulge.
Squares don’t have enough corners.
Parallel lines all meet
or do not exist
or go where they bloody feel like.
The x axis
does not come on the same page
as the y axis.

There is no geometry
that fits our space.

You get on the number 4 bus for the station
and when you arrive
it is flight 968 to Istanbul
diverted to Manchester
and you have to walk back.

Time leaks out of the clock
and scampers off sideways.

One woman
is three women
or no woman,
not necessarily
in that order.

You bastards knew all that
didn’t you?
You knew it all along,’
he said,
knocking over his beer.

‘We tried to tell you,’
I said.
‘We tried to tell you.’

Stone: study no 3

The prize that year
by unanimous acclaim
went to a man who proceeded as follows:
he bought a statue
removed the head
knocked off the limbs
cut back the drapery
then very carefully
through months of work
brought out the slab of undressed stone
hidden within the human figure.

After much thought
he entitled it
‘Stone: Study No 3’.

The judges praised the unflinching courage
with which he pursued his artistic vision,
‘returning to the medium its lost power
to express its own innate integrity’.

Over their drinks the critics said
at same time recreating
essential relationship artist-world
transcending gulf
form-content artificial barriers
remarkable synthesis process-product

He spent the prize money
on a sort of honeymoon
with a unicyclist
from Chipping Norton.

One of a series

‘My word,’
I said,
‘That really is
a remarkable likeness
of a cold fried egg
on a chipped plate.
How much is it?’

they said.
‘It is a cold fried egg
on a chipped plate.
It is one of a series
by Laura Carambo.


And I said

And they said
‘This is not just
any cold fried egg
on any chipped plate.
It is this cold fried egg
on this chipped plate.

Carambo’s work celebrates
the thisness of things.

She shows us how
this and the other
move in a perpetual dance,
mediating between
and uniting
the amphimetropic opposites
of our Janus-faced universe.’

I could see that it all made sense.
And between you and me,
I’ve looked at the reviews
and the auction catalogues,
and I reckon
I got a real bargain.
Come and look.

Request to the archaeologists

Come to the place quietly.
Leave your vehicles out of sight.

This is what there is.
Woods, river and hills,
dust, sun and spring rain.

It was ours.

Take your smallest tools;
dig slowly.
When you come to our bones,
use tiny brushes,
let the wind help you.

Leave our little bracelets
where they are.

Look carefully
as you uncover us.
Imagine, if you can,
the flesh back onto our skulls.
as our lips whisper a greeting.

Why did we build our houses in a circle?
Because the sky is a circle.
Because all life returns to its beginning.
Because you must make a wall
to keep out the wolves.

The walls are down now,
and the wolves are in.

When you drive home,
finish your reports,
and sit out in the evening,
think: this is what there is.
Woods, river and hills,
the wind, and a light rain, clearing;
children in the next yard.

And remember us.

A story of the kikuyu

Because our children died,
our women,
our cattle,
because so many died
I went to find Death.

I carried fire with me
in a basket,
good shoes,
food and water.

I searched for Death
in the jungle,
in the bush,
by the shore.

Standing on the great plain
I found Death.
He was tall and beautiful,
black hair down to his waist.

‘Death,’ I said,
‘Step up and meet me.
Stand here in front of me.
I have come to kill you.’

He strode towards me,
stood up in front of me.
His eyes flashed
like a summer storm.

We fought, Death and I.

With my fire
I set Death ablaze.
I burnt his hair,
his beard,
his head,
all of his body.

I burnt Death to a cinder.

Nothing was left,
only one eye.

I took Death’s eye,
hid it in the desert
and returned to my people.

Each time it blinks
one of us dies.

From catullus: ‘vivamus, mea lesbia

Time for living,
time now for loving.
Pay no attention
to old men’s carping.
Suns can go down, and
come back in the morning,
but when our little light
has once finished burning,
there’s one long night
for ever
for sleeping.

Lost in translation

This poem has been translated
from a language
that is no longer spoken
in order to give it
a wider readership.
it has lost something
in the process
the original is written
in hendecasyllables
with a complex internal rhyme scheme
and is about something completely different.


I should like the world to end
in just this way.

Eight musicians
in the town square.

People arrive
a few at a time
join hands
and begin dancing.

Four steps to the left
four to the right.
Hands held high
in a flower pattern.

Little by little
more come
to join the circles
and dance gravely

until at the end
with hands held high
in a flower pattern
the whole world dances

to eight musicians
in the town square.

The bridge

Such a short little bridge
and you in the middle.

One step forward,
and you are on the mountain
with the heather
the clear streams
the cry of the curlew,
and no way back.

One step back,
and you are in the meadow
with the gentle animals
the young trees
the sweet grass,
and the gate closed.

And you stand there.

Night comes
and the next day
and the day after,
and still you stand there,
till the black crows arrive.

Your poem

Your poem
is rather heavily made up.
It has thick eye shadow
and is plastered with lipstick.
Your poem
is wearing a cantilever bra
and a skirt
with a split
right up to the armpits.

My poem
is not made up at all.
It has flat heels
its hair is cut sensibly
its fingernails are short.
There is nothing flashy about my poem.
The clear light of sincerity
radiates from its eyes
(which are set
rather close together).

My poem
is somewhat contemptuous of your poem
but I have to admit
that yours is the one that gets the men.
(Mine once got asked
to a folk concert
but the guy
didn’t turn up.)

A humble request

All right
I understand
I can’t come in.
My life was –
I know.
if I could just
sit outside the gates
for a few minutes
and listen to the music?

antipoem good
antipoem eco
not drain precious resources planet
not much grammar, see,
not much sense either,
few words
vibrant meaning
sex cry turbo baby knickers redwood rocket
antipoem dead cool


are a mixed bunch,
sitting there on the mantelpiece,
gathering dust,
staring quizzically
out of their their tarnished frames.
They make me uneasy.

are lovely,
fluttering around,
but all out of focus,
and I can’t tell
where they are
or how many.

are the thing.
Unwrap one each day,
fold the paper carefully,
tidy away the string,
‘Just what I wanted,
you really shouldn’t have’,
and mean it.