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).
Snow falls plumply, prettily,
whites out the dog-eared leavings
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’.
…..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)