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

 

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