Nice to start Sunday night with a Smokey Robinson lyric. And a picture. I made a promise, and I’ll keep it, but I’ve been struggling to find a way in to writing about imagination, about memory, and about how you find what your poems grow from. I think this may be a way it….I live with a painter, and former art teacher, who taught me that we can teach children to draw. Provided that we rethink that idea. Provided that we realise that we can teach children (and adults, too) how to look, attentively, to learn to really see what’s there. And not just look, but hold and touch and use all our senses. At the same time, we also need to teach what different media do, different mark-makers, different papers and surfaces. And what’s this to do with poetry and imagination and all the rest of the big words?
Well, I’m not art trained (not since A level, centuries ago) but with my partner Flo’s direction, I spent one morning a week for half a term with a class of 5 and 6 year olds, a lot of stuffed birds and animals, oil pastels, charcoal, all sorts of pencils of different colours and softnesses, and lots of textures of paper. They did a lot of structured play with materials, to find what they did and how they handled. And then they chose birds and animals and drew them. And drew them again. And again. They concentrated, and they looked and they looked again. My job was to keep them confident and to prompt. To say things like: are you happy with that? do you think you’ve finished? just have a look at the bird’s/squirrel’s/badger’s head. Look at your drawing. Is there anything you haven’t seen yet? That sort of thing. Some saw it all in one. Some took three or four goes. No one was asked: Is this a good drawing? The point was that the images were more stunning than they believed they could make. They all said they couldn’t draw. But they could all look. And, as it happened, draw.
Then we did the same thing, but with words. I asked questions and did the scribing. The questions always started with ‘what can you tell me about the head?’ Now, all my slides of the drawings vanished somewhere in the maw of Leeds University, or I’d share a couple. But I do have a poem, a collaboration between me and five 5 and 6 year olds. I asked the questions, they said what they said and I wrote it down. And edited it, but didn’t change any words or syntax or sequence. here it is.
HEAD It’s got its beak open. His tongue’s out like a piece of meat.
It’s turned round
Its eyes are slightly orange and black in the middle
Its eyes are round
The top of the head is black
The throat is a toffee colour
The beak is black at the point and at the top quite yellow
BODY It starts black at the top and then striped dark brown and light brown
There are four different browns
The spines are brown like someone who’s been on holiday
The feathers shine…..the quills do
The tail’s like the span of your hand…….or a lady’s fan
The underneath is gingery
It’s like a thrush or a speckled hen
The feathers on the breast aren’t as big
The wing feathers feel stiff
The head feels like stroking a cat
The breast is as soft as a mattress on a bed.
FEET They’re black. The claws can cling so it doesn’t drop anything
In woods. In the evening
In the treetops. A wild kind of a place
Light an springy
He leans forward and tucks his feet back
He swoops down like a kingfisher quite steep
drops his feet forward to catch a mouse kill it and gobble it up
IF YOU COULD SEE THRIOUGH HIS EYES
You’d see the night, you’d see the moon, rats, mice
If it was gliding it would see the sunset
In his nest, in a hollow, high in a tree
If he were lower the fox might come
he might be afraid of the tawny owl…..or weasels
They have the sharpest teeth of all these creatures
HE’S BEST AT
Swooping, gliding, hovering
It must come out at night
It’s eyes are like an owl’s
Orange and yellow eyes are night eyes
Well, Bethan and Victoria and Clare and Matthew and Gareth will all be 25+ now, but I’ll never forget what they taught me as I frantically tried to keep pace with all the talk that I was taping. I think it was something about how truly attending to something will generate a need to make a language to realise what it is. It may be visual language or it may be words, and if it’s words they may become something I recognise as poetry. And how it can all be lost if we don’t pay attention to memory. And that if we don’t pay attention to memory we can’t become imaginative.
When I was training teachers, I was taxed by the requirements that children read and write ‘imaginative’ work. What did that mean? I suppose we’d say that Bethan and the others use language imaginatively. But how do we know? What do we mean? They certainly don’t start ‘imaginatively’. The early responses are, for the most part, ‘literal’. What changes and why? And what does it have to do with you and me, us writers of poetry? I’m going to leave that hanging, and head off at a tangent. With luck, it’ll all make sense. Hopefully I’ll find my way back to why I think a 6 year old might suddenly create a memorable line: ‘Orange and yellow eyes are night eyes’.
I need to go back to an earlier post and the idea of a little girl who goes for a walk on a path. Let’s say, once again, that the path is in a wood. Think of the wood. Maybe it’s an English wood of of oak and hazel. It’s early autumn, and there’s a hazy, slanting amber sun. There are drifts of leaf, veined with lemon and aubergine and cornelian. Or it’s a gothic forest of crowding dark pines, and she’s walking on thick matt of needles, brown as an old dog. Go with that. The little girl comes into a clearing, and there’s a house. Is it made of clean grey ashlar stone, or mossy green random ones, or silvery weathered boards? Or crisp sugary biscuits? Let’s take the middle one. There’s a door. Is it brightly painted, red as cherries, blue as a flower. Is it splintery wood, or rusty iron, or stout oak, all studs and great hinges? What you choose probably depends on what you think the little girl is doing out in this dark forest. Is she going home? is she lost? has she been sent on an errand?
But put that aside for a second. What we’ve been doing is visualising a little girl, a forest, a house, a door. Or imagining them. How? It’s simple, isn’t it…it’s all about memory. You can’t remember what you don’t know, and I think that the opposite is also true. You can’t know what you can’t remember. The wood and the path and the house are all made out of visual memory. Let’s take it a bit further. The little girl knocks on the door. How? With her knuckles, timidly……with the flat of her hand,confidently….with the side of her fist, angrily. (it all depends on why we think she’s there, and who she is). But as it happens, there’s a heavy iron knocker on this iron-bound thick oak door, and she can only just lift it and let it fall back. No taps or slaps or thumps, but a dull dunt that echoes. Now, it happens that I’m struggling here. I can riff happily on colour and shape, and I seem to have grown a wordhoard that can say my visual memory. But words for sound? I’d soon be pushed into analogies. I have no ready-mades. I’ll be needing drums and wells and caves to say the sound (like my 5 and 6 year olds, and the brown that’s like someone who’s been on holiday). The door opens. Maybe the hinges are oiled, and it opens with a sigh, or rusted so they scrape, or screech, or squeal or groan. What did you hear that she heard? What auditory memory told you that?
You see where all this is going. But don’t leave me yet. If the little girl were wearing clogs and the floor was hollow, or stone-flagged, there would be more, new sounds. But she isn’t. She has no shoes. The floor is stone. It will be cold, or cool, or warm; it will be dry or wet or damp, or clammy, or slimy; it will be rough or smooth or gritty or slick or powdery with dust. Whichever one it is we’ll need to rummage through our tactile memories. I should have said the little girl has no business being there. She’s not lost, and it’s not her house. She won’t be banging about. She’ll be cautious and stealthy. We’ll be needing to use some kinaesthetic memory to imagine that (which is what 5 year-old Matthew was doing, tucking his feet like a kingfisher…and he was, physically acting it out, trying to get a feel of it) and it maybe that we’re even less equipped for that than I am with sound. And certainly I run out of language faster than I run out of memory when I think of the sour mustiness of this damp, cold, ston-flagged house in the forest.
Just one more thing. The little girl has no business being in this house. So she’s excited, tense, wired, apprehensive, cautious, what? How does she feel in her own body, with its sweat and its heart and its skin and its breathing? A different kind of memory which is about empathy…Keats’ imaginative pecking in the dust with the sparrows outside his window. It’s the imaginative memory that I think drama teaches.
I think : being as true to memory as my groups of children were, to what they could see and touch, is what ultimately forces us into making true language. Of course, we have to get the words from somewhere. Most of the time, poets don’t invent words, do they, and there are only so many jabberwockys we can take. Poets push the limits of sound and syntax to get at the uniqueness of complex memories that are theirs, but which they feel driven to share. That’s what I think anyway. Imagination is the creative use of memory.
So what’s your memory good at? Your inner life? Turns of speech? Places? Sounds? Mind you, it’s more difficult and complicated than that, isn’t it? It’s all those words you want for the memory you worked so hard for. Hamlet and Tony Harrison know what comes between, and builds bridges between, you and your unique truth and your ideolect. Books, books, books. lexicons. Wordlists. And the music, the syntax, the rhythm. And where will you find the surprise, the moment that Jane Draycott says is crucial. The detonation.
To finish. A couple of weeks ago I took my eye on a walk round Relleu, a small town of high, narrow streets, full of odd angles and intersections. Every day when I took that walk, a blind man would appear, from different directions, and each day, in a different hat. What was his village? Not the one I was seeing and storing up, that’s for sure. So I had a go at finding it. I don’t know if I did, but here it is.
This is what I have learned
in the streets of my town which is made of stone.
There are thirty-seven steps. At the foot,
in a cold iron pot, are flowers. They tell me: these are blue.
They are soft and velvet as the inside of my cat’s ear.
They say: the sky is blue, the last house of the street
is blue, and so is Mary the mother of God of the miracles.
My cat’s soft velvet ear is blue. The sky is soft,
also the last house, and the mother of God.
The church is built of brick, which is rough-edged,
straight-lined, sharp-angled. And this is yellow.
Yellow is the shape of bricks.
Birds clap form the towere where the bell is hung.
They sound like wet cloths on a line in a gust.
Laundry looks like birds. A line of washing
chatters and fratches. Sparrow laundry.
The small square is paved with hexagons,
each one just bigger than my foot.
They say: these are grey and blue.
Grey and blue is a jigsaw to be trodden.
Pale grey is a roughness on my fingertips.
Green whispers and smells of rain.
On days like this warm day
the sky is a cat’s ear
and is listening me.
Next week we’re having a special guest, so, clean shirts and blouses, and sharpen your pencils. Oh, and I think you’ve all been especially good this week. You listened really hard. Six house points for everyone. Off you go. Lots of fun tomorrow.