wish you were here

A day later than planned but that’s because I’m up in limestone mountains in Alicante, and spent time when I would I might have writing, pottering about on a ridge with views of Benidorm high-rises in the far and misty distance, while I looked for the remaining bones of a fox whose larger bones have been organised into a piece of work on my window ledge at home. It’s a sort of conceptual piece, a synthesis of Damien Hurst and Ted Hughes. Anyway. I found the remaining 14 or so smaller bones that have stayed undisturbed since last October, and they are now in a sandwich bag, and will be reunited with the others. I have imagined her to be a vixen. No idea why.

Last week I was rambling about Norman MacCaig’s ‘I took my mind a walk’. So let me take you round the town of Relleu in a sort of silent movie. No teacherly stuff this week. Just a poem about Sunday morning, called, unsurprisingly:

Sunday Morning

this narrow morning street

is shadowed canyon-cold and quiet

as an aftermath where the woman

in a shapeless cardigan tips out a bucket

and sluices granite setts as blue as mussels

and at the street’s steep end the sun has warmed

the church whose doors are set with steel

and damascened with hammered copper nails

and underneath the latticed iron balconies

a corrugated garage iron door is rattled up

and no one’s coming out but

three men in biker boots and leathers

appraise a Yamaha

and pink and lemon lycra cyclists

spool roud a curve and out of sight

as the old man shuffles carefully across

the way and disappears

and the blind man tap taps his way

along the wall and his mouth is pursed

and his smokeblack glasses reflect nothing

church bells aretolling flat and cracked

across the valley’s olives wild flowers oranges

the soil as pale as pastry the million terraces

the windscoured crumbling turrets

piercings crenellations revetements

the patchwork roofs the tiles

and all the untrodden paths and tumbled stone

the tended trees the ironwork on peeling doors

the blue graffiti on a Moorish wall

the cool greenness of a cistern this car

that’s slowly turning into rust

down in the gulley where the road turns

steep and tight back on itself

the river long since drained into its bed

geraniums that want for sun

behind a crusted grille

that need a drink and all this myriad

strange particular stuff

 

and you turn the corner

and stop dead for fear of falling

into distances where only mountains live

that only birds can understand

this endlessness beyond

the shadowed street

where a woman in the quiet

early Sunday morning

sluices granite setts

so that they shine

like mussel shells.

 

That’s it for this week. I’m off to look for bones, and, maybe eagles. Hasta luega. As they say.

the company you keep

True stories

Violent and vulgar as the Krays comes Zeus,

a white bull, miasmic with testosterone,

or in a shower of gold or a flurryof wings

and swansdown.

The whole pale mortal world

just asking for it.

A bit of blood and bruising.

No harm done.

 

Roman Ovid knew blood clogs scabbards,

stiffens  nets,

knew the blue-white shine of bone,

the gristly wet noise of a boy

spitted on a hunting spear.

 

Years and reverence

bleached greek myths white and silent,

censored severed hands and torn-out tongue,

the loud incontinent reek of death.

 

As if hyacinths, pale anenomes,

the liquid silver song of nightingales

would atone, somehow.

Birds and flowers and cold, bright stars –

archers, hunters, bear and plough.

 

Simpler, and more godlike,

to prick holes in the fabric of night,

let bits of heaven shine through.

 

 

Writers are always being asked: ‘where do get your ideas from?’ . I think that’s a harder question than: ‘why do you write poems?’ My answer to that comes in two parts. One is pragmatic: because poems are short. The other is that I can’t write stories. Novelists invent. Particularly, they invent characters; once they’ve invented the who of a story, the what and the when and the why have to follow from that. There’s something godlike about great novelists. And I can’t do it. This is winging it, but which poets do  you know who invent charcters in the way that novelists do? Dramatic monologues come to mind, but they live in the edgelands between poetry and drama. I think.

When I think about where poems come from, then it’s almost invariably from other poets. Certainly from ‘books’. They may be about what I know, what I’ve lived, but to become ideas they have to be turned into words, and most of mine come from books. We learn from the company we keep. Now, for years and years I didn’t write poetry. I taught it, and was fixated by the unacknowledged belief that poems have their existence on the page, that they are written artefacts. I nearly moved away from this notion when I realised that ‘The Waste Land’ made perfect sense when it was performed (thanks to an LP of Robert Speight reading T S Eliot that I found in dusty stock-cupboard), but still persisted in keeping poetry visual, on the page.

Later (much too late) when I moved into working in Primary Schools, and particularly with and for Key Stage One I was forced into the understanding that, at its root, poetry is oral. On the principle of ‘promises to keep’ I’ll dedicate a post to this in about 6 weeks time. Order your copy now. But while I was hooked on ‘the page’ there were always go-to poems to trigger/coerce children’s writing. Keith Douglas: ‘Vergissmeinicht’ (the dust upon the paper eye), Ted Hughes’ ‘Season songs’ (The chestnut splits its padded cell/it opens an African eye)…for the sharply focussed visual image; William Stafford ‘Incident on a journey’ …for the ‘do you remember?’ exercise; and always in school anthologies, Norman MacCaig: ‘I took my mind a walk’. And always and always, the aim was to have children write poems, when what they needed was to read them aloud and learn them by heart and show off with them. Ah well.

Here’s where we get back to the promise I made to talk about myths and why they have found their way into my writing, and what they have made me confront or discover, or admit. And MacCaig. A bit roundabout this, but I became more and more aware in poetry workshops (ah, The Poetry Business!) that I was falling into a default line and rhythm (mainly iambic blank-ish verse) and a default narrative way of writing. It was nice when someone told me I had a recognisable ‘voice’ , but you don’t want to be playing the same tune for the rest of your life. Well, I don’t. So I went to MacCaig to try in his company to learn something about ways of telling with short lines, varied lines, shorter poems. I read two MacCaig poems every morning for months. Aloud. Working my way through the house-brick of his ‘Collected Poems’, I think I began to hear his thinking, the way each line did its job; and I fell into his comfortable familiarity with the characters of Greek and Roman myth, the way they were companions to his thought, to his watching and listening. This sent me back to ‘The God beneath the Sea’ and its brilliant conceit of the Greek myths as a chronological narrative, told to Hephaestus by the nymph Euronyme who catches him when his mother, Hera, hurls him, newborn, from heaven for being malformed. Cared for by Thetis and Euronyme in the grotto under the sea, they tell him the story of where he came from when his nightmares of falling trouble his sleep. The why of the why of the why… I love it.

It’s interesting to tackle the business of translation, the retelling of stories, and since it would make no sense to invent a myth, it’s also very tempting. There’s a visceral gusto in Ted Hughes’ muscular, sexy, sensual, tactile translations of Ovid, and you can feel just how much he relished those long lines, all those hexameters. Ovid was where I went next. It’s all about the company you keep. In a chance email converstaion (does that make sense…as though you stumble into an email conversation? something not quite right there. ) Kim Moore happened to mention that she was getting all excited about reading The Metamorphoses (in a plain prose translation) and that it was opening up all sorts of ideas and feelings about the sequence she’s talked about in her own blog, and in her current role as Virtual Poet-in- Residence with the Poetry School Campus. If you’ve not signed up yet, then you should. For her it made connections with the morally and emotionally difficult business of physical and mental abuse. I wanted to see how. Nosey bugger. As it happened, different things happened as I read, and unexpected ones. One was that I conceived a passionate loathing for the Olympic Pantheon which revived the memory of Tony Harrison’s ‘Trackers’ and the flaying of Marsyas the Satyr because of Apollo’s arrogant abrogation of music to himself.  Which resulted in the poem I opened with .

And then there’s a twist. It happens that I’m sitting next to Kim at Poetry business day in Sheffield. There’s a task about finding yourself in a new place. Kim is on a beach under a huge sky full of seabirds whose cries are like memories that cannot stop hurting. I’m at the foot of a dark staircase understanding that the breaking of marriage is a stair into the dark that has to be climbed, in a house you never wanted. I thought of Orpheus. I thought I knew the story, and found it knew me. I still haven’t really got that poem nailed down. But there were others, as though windows had opened and there was a different sort of light. I’ll finish with one of them.Hephaestus. Maybe I should say that for 65 years I walked with something of a rolling limp. Not now. I have titanium hips. I like the Titans as much as I hate Zeus and Hera and Ares.

Hepaestus

ugly and lame, whose mother threw

all down the sky, you know how falling feels,

the pluck of the wind a tearing of thorns,

the spheres of heaven turning cobalt, indigo;

tumbled in cumulus, stripped by cirrus,

deaf and dumb with gravity you hurtle

from sleep, wrung out with falling.

 

You. The shining one,

who they mocked with a name,

with a gift from the sea in a dazzle of foam

and sea-fret lace, trailing a tang of salt,

her eyes remote as a gull’s for you all crooked,

crumpled and cracked like kindling

and soot-smeared from the smithy.

 

You fashion a filigree girdle, dress it with pearls,

you yearn for a gentle look, and she hammers

broken stars into your eyes.

You forge yourself blackened and burned

and what have you crafted..a cuckold’s horns.

You watched the whole world sink into her lovely loins.

 

Moony wanderer, Euronyme,

catch me as I fall, lay my head by the soft blue

pulse in the crook of your white arm.

Tell me a silvery story. Sing me to sleep.

 

 

Thanks for your company. You’ve put all the chairs straight, the board’s clean, the pens have all been counted. You can go early. Don’t run.

ps. next week I shall be at a writing workshop in Alicante. No teacherly stuff, then. Just a poem.

I said: No Running

 

And promises to keep

Being congenitally lazy, allied to a fear of starting a job, and to habits of procrastination, I discovered a long time ago that I need to make public promises that X or Y will be done. Add in a deadline, and the fear of breaking a pledge, and I will sit down at the last minute, and somehow get it done. Driven by guilt. Of course, this means that a piece like this will rarely be as orderly as the elegantly rhetorical pieces that come so clearly in the mind a nanosecond before you wake up.

So what have I promised? That I will share a poem by Gaia Holmes, and that somehow I will talk about myth and poetry. So, Gaia first. I love both her collections: Dr James Graham’s Celestial bed (2006) and Lifting the piano with one hand (2013) …both published by Comma Press. I tried to explain to myself what it was that I recognised as Gaia’s distinctive voice. Jane Draycott talks about the point where the poem detonates. I find that incredibly helpful when I’m trying to see why this or that poem isn’t working, isn’t taking off. With Gaia’s stuff, I’m put in mind of Chemistry lessons in the blissfully pre-Health and Safety 1950’s, when to demonstrate the meaning of the word crepitation a teacher would toss a slack handful of crystals (potassium?) into a sinkful of water and stand well back. Gaia’s poems do that, in line after line. Multiple detonations like dangerous Rice Krispies. And because many of her poems are about separation and loss of love or lovers, sometimes tender and sometimes vengeful,sometimes wistful and sometimes heartbreaking, they take me into dark woods and lose me. Folk tales. No getting away. Here’s her poem that I said, last week, that I wanted to change (slightly).

Road salt

Snow falls plumply, prettily,

whites out the dog-eared leavings

of Christmas,

dolls-up the ragged end of January,

mutes the road between us

with its whispering glamour

and we’re stuck –

you in the East and me in the West

with miles too thick and deep to cross

 

and, once again,

without you, I fall asleep

listening to the frost

patterning the insides of my windows,

laquering the edges of my bed.

 

If I could

I would send you

seal-skin boots and brandy.

I would send a sledge

and a savvy husky to guide you

across the blinded miles,

 

but instead I go out

into the bright, dumb darkness

with my pockets full of road salt,

toss it to the night

like chicken feed,

try to melt myself

a path to you.

 

I hope you’re like me, snagged and reeled in by listening to frost, thinking of its laquering, and being out in the bright, dumb dark. But I did want to change that ‘chicken feed’ to something like ‘breadcrumbs’. Because I bring my own luggage to a poem, and I’m in a folktale world of snow and lost girls, and chickens make me think of Baba Yaga and her  house on hen’s legs. And chicken feed takes me in a different direction from the one that I’m pulling towards like a demanding child.                            Anyway, that’s a promise kept. Thank you for letting me share your poem, Gaia.                                                                                                                                                                   Now I have to somehow get from folktales to myth and thence to goodness knows where. It was all clear when I started. Or just before I woke up.

When I was a lecturer in Primary English at Bretton Hall I had to make sure my students could go out there and ‘deliver’ (yes, that’s the kind of language that’s used in the world of Mr Gove and his ilk) the Literacy Hour, which requires, inter alia, that young children are taught about folktales, legends and myths. I think that comes in one term, and then they move on to greater things. So my students had to understand it first. I relied heavily on a transcript of a lecture given in Leeds by Marina Warner (I hope I’ve got that right) in which she essentially defines Myth as the stories of the gods, Legends as the stories of heroes, and Folktales as the subversive stories of the people. My take on this was to see that myths are about why the world is at is, about creation, about mortality, about the amazing gift of fire, about the archetypal flood. How was the world created? Why do we have to die? Why do we have language? Why, of all creatures, can we manage fire? These stories are the oldest, and they are oral stories. When the Greeks wrote them down they turned them white and silent. Legends are aristocratic, naturalistic and courtly; they have plots (though I guess Robin Hood lives in the edgelands of legend and folktale); they are, I think, irreversibly literary. The folktale world is ,I think, that of a plucky underclass of giantkillers and orphans. At all events, its winners start off poor.

Something just popped into my head, or tugged at my sleeve. Tons of great films have been made retelling legends. Jason and the Argonauts, Robin Hood, William Tell, King Arthur. And the Western made its own legends. They make great movies, legends do. But whoever made a great film about a myth? Or of a myth? I bet this new movie about Noah will make my point for me. Films of folk tales? There are some great animations, I think, and I’ll have to think about Angela Carter. Not now, though. There have been some horrible films of late that riff on folktales, but always seem to make them into jokes or CGI nasties. Pan’s Labyrinth ? Or does that take us off into the realm of fairy tales and fantasy and horror films? Tell me what you think. Fairy tales make good films, no question. But I’m just trying to reflect on why it’s myth and folk-tale that find their way into my poems, but not legends. Mm.

When in a hole, stop digging. Myth…that’s what I said I’d do. In 1970 Ted Hughes gave a lecture at the Exeter Children’s literature in education conference. It was called ‘Myth and Education‘. He reflects on the fact that while Plato couldn’t be doing with poets in his Republic, he thought it essential that young children, before they were old enough for a formal education, should know the great myths. Hughes argues that this is because without an education in imagination we can never be fully human. I’d like Mr Gove to be forced to learn the whole transcript by heart. And then to be sacked. If we want to understand what it is to be human we need myth. We need to hear it. We need storytellers. We need to constantly dream the world or it will die as we sleepwalk into the limbo of getting and spending.

Which myths dream me? Because of that wonderful book The god beneath the sea [Garfield and Blishen..illustrated by Charles keeping] ….and unforgiveably, out of print…. I find myself in the stories of Hephaestus, Promethues, Daedalus and Icarus, Orpheus, Demeter and Persephone, Pandora …those, especially. So here’s another promise. I’ll post a poem next week where I found one of these stories telling me what a significant moment in my life meant. And maybe why the squabbling bullies of Olympus make me so angry. But to finish this week, here’s a poem that came out of a 5 minute workshop task at the Poetry Business in Sheffield on Saturday, and without any thought on my part, it ended with something I threw into a ramble about folktales last week.

The uses of Literacy

(for Richard Hoggart)

‘The Daily Herald’. That went, long ago,

like ‘The Batley Reporter’ –

(both left-leaning, doomed) –

them and the outside lavatory

we shared with the three Armitage sisters,

all tiny and pinafore-d like Beatrix Potter mice.

 

In winter, the wooden toilet seat,

scrubbed all-year-round with non-conformist zeal,

and never dry, would wink

like diamante ballroom frocks.

Newspaper to sit on, or you frosted fast.

 

The tang of Dettol, coal-smoke;

damp newsprint that smelled like parsnips.

A little Kelly lamp against the cistern’s freezing up;

a library of squares of paper on a nail.

The sisters took ‘The news of the World’.

Tantalising. Scandalous.

 

…..shapely red-haired Walsall

housewife, Moira kershaw (43)

broke down in tears when

recounting her terrible ord….

 

Breathing grey, I learned to read between the lines

to fill in gaps, imagine worlds

that could have been ordained or ordinary,

and came to understand that sentences have full stops.

And stories don’t.

 

Thank you for your forbearance (oh, just one thing. There were 30 pencils on my desk when we started. No-one leaves till they’re all counted back in)

Telling the tale

Think of this: a girl repeatedly lies and dissembles in order to win the hand and the bed of a rich, handsome, powerful man. She can only succeed in this with the help of a benefactor to whom she promises a share in her success. When push comes to shove, she breaks her promise, and as a result, brings about the death of the one she’s indebted to. She lives happily ever after. Now, would you want to tell this story to young children? Well, would you? But I’m happy to wager you have. And that it’s been force fed to six and seven year olds (and maybe even younger ones) in Literacy hours up and down the country. Because, of course, it’s the story of Rumpelstiltskin.

I realise I’m going all teacherly, but that’s what I did for a living for 40 years, as a teacher, a teacher-trainer, an English Adviser, and, god help us, a qualified (but not practising) OFSTED inspector. I’m glad to be out of it, but miss what was great about it..like being a circus performer, and being a drop-of-the-hat-storyteller in schools where I’d gone to do things more official. What this is leading up to is a set of musings about where poems come from, and why lots of mine are some kind of narrative or other.

Are you sitting comfortably? I blame that Kim Moore and her random remark about reading Ovid (but I’ll be rambling about myth and legend next week). I blame Carol Ann Duffy for writing ‘Little RedCap’.

I blame Garrison Keillor for another quiet week in Lake Woebegon; in this week’s story, Kenny is telling his chilfdren the story of Hansel and Gretel. He’s wondering what new twist to throw in…..as the narrator says: you can’t disappoint them, but you’ve got to surprise them. And you’ve got to be careful. The surprise of last the last telling must be there again in the next telling. Because, now, it’s now expected. Stories are real, says Keillor. Oh yes.

And I blame the wonderful Harold Rosen, Emeritus Professor son of East End Jewish communists, who wrote and said a great many wise things, but these are the ones I remember:

Any story presupposes the existence of other stories     

and

We have to invent – yes invent – beginnings and endings, for out there there are no such things   

and

Sentences end with full stops. Stories do not.      

and

There are always stories crying to be let out and meanings crying to be let in.

Now if this was a proper piece of writing, I suppose I’d have to unravel some sort of thesis. But it isn’t. I’m leaving Harold’s words to circle around in your head as they did in mine till they start to make some sort of meaning. And yours will be different from mine.

And before I forget, there’s one more thing I have to blame and that’s ‘Old Peter’s Russian tales’ that I was bought when I was 8, and which I still have. Retellings by Arthur Ransome when he was hobnobbing with Bolsheviks (including, I think, Trotsky..corrct me if it’s wrong) in 1915.

Wise fools, simpletons, little tailors, poor shoemakers, kitchensluts, the youngest child, poor peasants, and the clear of heart. These are the survivors and victors in the world of  folktales, those wonderful subversive stories, whose morality runs deeper than the social mores of the romance and the novel. (Why does Rumpelstiltskin die so horribly and why do we feel, somehow, that it’s right?).

They’ve shaped the way I think about stories and about why stories matter, and they’ve shaped the way I see and remember and imagine the world. They bleed into my poems in unaccountable ways. For instance, if it’s woodlands I’m writing about, somewhere at the back of my mind are dark forests and lost children. Also, I’m a stepfather. I’m not sure I like the label. And so on. I was reading a poem that Gaia Holmes sent me in December (I shall ask her if she’ll let me use it in a post)….I wanted to put bread crumbs in it. If she lets me use it you’ll see why.

Myths and legends draw me in, too. I retell them and they retell me. But I’ll write about them and that next week. For this week, here’s a sequence I’ve loosely entitled Narratology. Poem as essay. Thanks for your time. I’ll count the scissors before you leave. If that’s all right.

What stories tell aboutmothers and fathers

that there was, once upon a time:

a farmer/a poor widow/a fisherman/

a woodcutter/ a merchant/

a man who took a new wife for himself;

 

that they wanted, or needed,

each one of them,

to get their children off their hands,

and send them off into the world

of woods and wishes,

gifts and crossroads,

choices, trials.

 

That’s how it starts,

and for the twice-married man,

the merchant, the woodcutter,

fisherman, poor widow, and the farmer

that’s where it stops.

 

And on the story goes

without them, and never says

if they find out  what happens next

or how it ends.

 

What stories tell about children

that once upon a time

(because there has to be a when)

there was a poor peasant

(because there has to be a who)

(and a why)

who had three daughters

(because there has to be a choice)

and he sent them out into the world

(because there has to be a story)

 

Of the older ones we hear no more

after they ignore the old woman

at the crossroads in the forest

(because the story doesn’t need them any more)

 

Best be the youngest of three.

 

What stories tell themselves

A little girl goes for a walk on a path.

The story knows that you know:

the colour of her hair

the time of day

that the path is by the seashore

is through an English wood

is deep in dark pine forests, silent,

carpeted and soft with needles

that

the sun is shining

it’s coming on to rain

the day is young

the dusk is coming fast

 

She must be going somewhere,

and for some reason

the little girl

whose hair is silvery

or dark as chimney flues

or long and straight

or short and rough

who’s wearing red

or rags, or good plain wool

shod in supple shoes

or barefoot and all sore.

 

Well. There is a wood

and in the wood a clearing

and in the clearing there’s a house.

 

Or. There is a wood

and in the wood a crossroads

and someone sits there waiting.

 

What will he, or she, say, this someone

to this long-haired rough-cropped

warm shivering well-fed

hungry little girl?

 

If you listen hard

you know at every turn

the story knows

more surely

where it

ends.

 

See you all next week xx