Paul Mills

Paul Mills's latest publication, You Should've Seen Us, brings together the poems he has written in response to footage from the Yorkshire Film Archive, with still photographs from the films.


from 'Coronation Celebrations, Harrogate, 1937'

You could have been part
of the May Queen's retinue, joined the teams of girls
stitching costumes, led at the Junior Maypole.
But No. You liked the fairground best.
Being anywhere and nobody much suited you.


And the crowd –
those left out, or happy to be just herded –
you loved being among them and invisible:
showground fodder. Hotel porters, chambermaids
from houses with high ceilings, married farm labourers,
smell of hay, horses, wool and sweat:
everybody posh gone off to London


During the 50 minute presentation, audiences hear Paul’s poems, spoken by himself and actors. Some are commentaries, others imagined voices of people in North Yorkshire from before, during and after the Second World War, so that a picture emerges of a period of cultural change.

“A wonderfully stirring, thoughtful, and ultimately celebratory body of work that spins out from specific histories into all our families, all our lives.” — Ian McMillan

Recently at Bridlington Poetry Festival, You Should've Seen Us, is currently showing at Ilkley Literature Festival, Sheffield Off The Shelf Book Festival, and Lancaster LitFest. The pamphlet of the text is produced with the help of Arts Council England who supported the project.

For more information about how to view You Should've Seen Us, see the author's website or email


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Paul's fifth collection of poems is Voting For Spring (Smith/Doorstop, 2010). His previous collections include Half Moon Bay, (Carcanet, 1993), and Dinosaur Point (2000), winner of the 1999 Poetry Business Book and Pamphlet Competition

Born in Cheshire in 1948, Paul's first poems were published in Lines Review, Edinburgh, while he was at university there, and during his third year he was given a Gregory Award for poems which appeared in his first book, North Carriageway, published by Carcanet. He stayed on to complete a doctorate on the poems, novels and travel writings of D.H.Lawrence. After a period teaching English in secondary schools in Edinburgh and Birmingham Paul held Arts Council Fellowships at Manchester University and Christs Hospital School, Sussex, and from 1978-80 was Gregory Fellow in Poetry at Leeds University. The university now holds his collection of literary papers and manuscripts (see Leeds Poetry, 1950-80). He taught Literature and Creative Writing at York St John University until taking early retirement in 2005 to concentrate on his own writing. In 1986-87 he and his family lived in California for a year while he was teaching on a Fulbright Exchange Fellowship.

He has also published two books on writing, Writing In Action (1995) and The Routledge Creative Writing Coursebook, (2006) . Two of his plays have been performed: Herod at the National Theatre, and Never at the West Yorkshire Playhouse. He lives in Ripon and is currently RLF Fellow at the University of York.  




'It rewards and withstands a lot of rereading. What I especially like is the rather apprehensive feeling that absolutely anything can happen… that means great freedom – and a lot of provisional or mental imaginative systems, a big kit of metaphysical templates. His poems are genuine flying machines – bits and pieces of half the world in the rigging – but they take off, and have that sort of beauty which works in the world, and is meant to.' — Ted Hughes

'Mature, philosophical and adventurous work… Paul Mills strikes me as one of the few poets writing today who is fully prepared not to play safe. Deeply (if also mischievously) questioning'. — Paul Munden, PN Review

'Mills’ poems are unflinchingly candid in their reflections on family, ecology, and a de-sentimentalized national past. It is when moving around and between some of the most frequent topics of contemporary poetry that Mills is most inspiringly risk-taking. The risk is that such areas are already overly-familiar. Yet the achievement of Mills’ two new publications is that they continually address prevalent – and important – concerns of current poetry in uncompromisingly stark ways.' — James McGrath on Voting For Spring and You Should've Seen Us, from The Manchester Review


Dinosaur Point gives ample demonstration of Mills`s gift for uncovering emotional clarity from complex situations and exploring it in a language at once accessible, and very often moving. a poet writing at the height of his powers - confident, perceptive, entertaining and assured. - Ian Parks, Poetry Quarterly Review.


His writing is on the theme of single fatherhood and he shows how poetry of the ordinary and everyday can strike us and remain long afterwards in our memory. - Gerald England on poems from Dinosaur Point included in Anthology of Gregory Fellows` Poetry.

An extended commentary on the treatment of science in Paul Mills`s poetry, with particular reference to Half Moon Bay, is included in a chapter `The Noise of Science` by David Kennedy, in his book New Relations and British Poetry, Seren 1996

Also, on this subject see PM`s essay `The Quantum Uncertainty of the Narrator` Poetry Review Vol 85, No 1, Spring 1995



A day`s journey to our overnight camp,

two white hens in the bows for slaughter,

the outboard drives us noisily upstream.


The American in the stern gives an opinion

on what`s killing the planet. `The cow`,

he pronounces, while air flow flosses cloud

around his head, blown fog covers each shoreline


The wind is like spring in England. We shelter for warmth

in this tropic new to us.

From mid-river we can`t tell if these

dense shores are banks or islands.


In an hour the cold evaporates. The sun bites.

On the boat`s prow, my hand rests near the word EDUCACION

carved into hot wood.


A coastguard gunship passes. Not us they`re looking for.


Near the shore, children are caught in the wake, heads swimming.

From huts on stilts, others run out, wave to the boats,

shin up trees, somersault in the water.

The river folds over them like oil.


Sunset flips into night. Banks of mud in a moment

are golden saliva. Floating trees,

pieces of earth like islands collide with darkness.


What I don`t know is that three nights on,

back in Iquitos, in a long downpour,

I will be standing facing the river, euphoric

in the rain`s blessing –


Giving my thanks to the great spaces

for having come this far, my children with me.


I won`t know, as the rain soaks me through,

that the next morning a sound out of nothing in the air

will change to a passenger jet coasting across New York,

then another, on our hotel TV.


We shall be watching it as it happens.

from Voting for Spring

Paul on his work 

My first experience of poetry was listening to my father reciting from memory 'The Brook' by Tennyson, instead of a bed-time story. The next (again heard aloud) was of countless passages from the King James Bible and the Book of Common Prayer while I was a choirboy, aged seven, in our local parish church. After that, it was reading T S Eliot's play Murder In The Cathedral, at school, its tones hieratic, but making a sort of bridge to the modern world. It was then, aged seventeen, that I started writing, during a bout of flu. The same year, 1965, it was Robert Graves, then the metaphysical poets: Donne, Marvel, George Herbert, then for me the most prominent contemporary poets were Philip Larkin, Ted Hughes, Thom Gunn, Stevie Smith, Norman MacCaig, who was Writer in Residence at Edinburgh in 1967, and Auden`s ballads, and the poems of Keith Douglas: formal, intelligent, and like speech. I loved the Faber Book of Modern Verse, the Michael Roberts edition. Poetry was first the music, then the bite, the grip on the real – mortal coils being shuffled into rather than off. It was something to do, also, with being in love. I started to read American poetry, Lowell, Plath and Snyder, three different points of a wider compass, later the New York poets, plus Williams, a good antidote to Elliot – as he intended himself to be. I kept going with the others too, and found more. I got to value Geoffrey Hill, who later was to appoint me as Gregory Fellow in Poetry at Leeds. I rememberfinding Larkin's 'Show Saturday' in The Spectator (was it?) at Leeds, and sitting in the National Library of Scotland, finding new Crow poems in obscure limited edition pamphlets from The Rainbow Press. There were poets who passed me by and made little impression. Seamus Heaney was one, compared with Hughes, but I'm not sure why. At that time I felt his English readers were too easily swayed by their taste for the pastoral, something a bit feel-good and genteel.

I often thought of myself as self-taught when it came to poetry, but my English teacher's influence and MacCaig's welded together into a suspicion about a certain (romantic perhaps) love for the extravagant, the apocalyptic – a wariness that acts as a constant check. Poems are things about which very impassioned people disagree. I remember reading Hughes's poem 'A Wind Flashes The Grass' to Norman in his flat in Edinburgh where a group of us used to retreat after his writing class sessions. So what did Norman MacCaig think of Ted Hughes? : "What's he lifting", he said to me when I had finished reading it, "with all his muscle flexing?"


* * * * *


I leaned a lot from Elizabeth Bishop, how to write thoughts as well as observations, how to mix the two as she does in 'In The Waiting Room'. Thought is the glue that holds a poem together, and original thinking of course is very difficult: When I read the poem now it's hard to pick out where the thinking actually occurs, but I have the sense of encountering it in almost every line. Here is Norman MacCaig doing some of his own customary looking and thinking:



He picked up a pebble
and threw it into the sea.

And another, and another.
He couldn't stop.

He wasn't trying to fill the sea.
He wasn't trying to empty the beach.

He was just throwing away,
nothing else but.

Like a kitten playing
he was practising for the future

when there'll be so many things
he'll want to throw away

if only his fingers will unclench
and let them go.


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I mostly write in the mornings, either at my computer or, when it's not too cold, in my shed by the river, though there is a little wood-burning stove there. I also paint – almost always oil paintings.


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 About Voting for Spring

Spring is our renewal symbol - the time for revolutions and uprisings, but also it signifies a drive to co operate, to engage with the natural world and the process of growth.

A group of poems in my first book North Carriageway (Carcanet 1976) looked back to certain locations and artefacts associated with prehistory. There`s an evident return to these subjects in my most recent collection, but while the earlier treatment was loose, impressionistic, the poems on these subjects in Voting For Spring begin to exercise a tighter grip, a more urgent sense of real worlds being inhabited. I began writing them while thinking about the issue of climate change, thinking first about how to think about it, and soon discovered that this subject requires at least some knowledge of our past negotiations with natural worlds, climate upheavals, and how these have played out.

As soon as we step in that direction it becomes apparent, alarmingly so, that a very large chunk of human experience remains inaccessible to us and therefore to writing. Our common story it seems is one we still know little about, though we live in a time when the number of clues are rapidly increasing. Poetry though, unless we can invent a new form of it, still needs close-up focus, sensuous immediacy; academic research just isn`t enough. So how can the vastness - even of human time - be engaged by it?

Not all the poems in the book are about this subject, very few in fact Most poetry collections are an amalgam, since most writers are carrying around a range of preoccupations, but I do sense a drift away from the autobiographical in my own work, and have felt happy to go along with that, to look outwards, or, where the personal is still present, to give thanks in some way and move on.


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Currently I am working on two writing projects, the first is a series of poems about my early childhood, the second continues to explore human prehistory and the development of consciousness in conditions that threaten its survival. A fascination with origins. What is the story? What is the shape of it? In the second case, or perhaps both, my dealings are with fragmented narratives, sensations of mystery, possible insight, and by the usual choice of means: rhythm, voice, story, and a sense of place.

Titles by this author

  Dinosaur Point
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