I’m not thinking of inspiration as a eureka moment…like this Frank Dicksee painting of La belle dame sans merci, My best friend Nick destroyed that one for all time by sending me a postcard of it and a speech bubble pasted in. The knight’s saying. ‘For gods sake, Sharon..get the WD40’. What I am thinking of is how difficult it is to describe—- I think that real inspiration is a slow-burning business that you only grasp in retrospect. Sometimes a long, long retrospect. I think it involves two key elements…encouragement (and the hope and self-belief that engenders) and (crucially) example. Kim Moore and Gaia Holmes tick both boxes for me. I’ve talked before about their encouragement ( and to save them embarassment, I think I’ll try to stop writing about it) but not about their example. They are both incredibly hardworking, they practice their art and craft, they are absurdly modest, they are both great readers of their own work, they are always looking for the next step, they are self-critical, they seem to absorb everything….. that kind of example. So this week’s post may be a bit shorter, but if I’m not careful it could go on indefinitely. Here we go. My inspirations, in chronological order.
Tony Harrison. Here’s the reason that I ever thought I might write poems (if not poetry). This comes with stories. In 1971 I moved to Newcastle to be a lecturer in a College of Education. When I took my children to school of a morning, there were very few men doing the same, and one of them was a striking figure..lean and handsome in an RAF greatcoat, very Dostoevskian. Eventually, I asked our Julie (5 yrs old) ‘who’s that bloke?’. ‘That’s Max Harrison’s daddy.’ ‘What’s he do, then?’ ”He doesn’t do anything. he’s a poet.’ I’ve dined out on that story, but the point is that though contemporary poetry meant absolutely nothing to me, then, I mentioned this to a colleague, who invited Harrison to come and read to our 3rd Year B.Ed English students, and so it was that I went to my first ever poetry reading.
Only about 8 students turned up that evening, so we used the staff common room, sitting in a circle of comfortable chairs, and Harrison (trademark greatcoat and all) sat on a sofa, and read. He read along with his trademark lengthy introductions to many poems. He read with a compelling intensity, flattened Leeds vowels, and exact consonants. He read from ‘Loiners’ ...(the collection that his mother had thrown on the fire and then snatched back, realising it was a library book); he read Thomas Campey and the Copernican system..the poem about the crippled bookseller in Leeds Kirkgate Market from whom a young Harrison would buy all sorts of esoteric (to me) stuff: Mommsen, Spengler, Gibbon. He read The nuptial torches and the hairs on my neck prickled as he made the flames of the auto da fe crackle in a hushed staffroom. Above all he read National Trust, which then was still a handwritten draft in his notebook, and he told the backstory of the Edale gentry lowering a prisoner from the local lock up down the shaft of a cave to find out how deep it was. It was only later I learned the craft of it, this immaculate blend of demotic English, linguistics and scholarship, and the elegance of its complex rhyme scheme..this 16 line sonnet that became another Harrison trademark. And I have never ever forgotten the last lines:
mes den hep tavas a-gollas y dyr / (Cornish) ‘the tongueless man gets his land took’
What Tony Harrison did that night was a revelation. Poetry could be angry, political; it could give back a voice to the tongueless, it could be passionate, it could use rhyme and structure and scholarship as a natural part of its rhetoric. It could be funny and sexy. So I was hooked. I still am. I’ve been to readings of his in big auditoria…I’ve even introduced him at one…I’ve seen him on film and on television. But nothing ever comes close to that first reading, the one that made me want to write crafted poems about, say, the struggle of 19th C industrial workers, or about a suffragette (like the one about Emily Wilding Davidson) and ultimately, because of Them and uz about MY parents, MY childhood. My signed copy of The school of eloquence is arguably my most treasured possession (family not included). So. Thank you Tony Harrison. And, of course, you have no idea.
That’s thing, isn’t it? Some years ago the Guardian Education had a regular column called My Inspiration. It’s editor then was Emily Moore. Emily, I owe you a thankyou. Invited famous folk would nominate a teacher from their past as their ‘inspiration’. Jill Dawson nominated me. What struck me then, and still does, is how different her and my perception of that time are. I genuinely had no clear ideas about what I was doing with this first-ever A level group at an almost brand-new school. I wasn’t short of ideas. They just weren’t clear. But Jill Dawson says that I made The waste land make sense. If that’s true, we must have discovered it at more or less the same time…and it was simple enough. If you treat it like music and hear it aloud and perform it, then it makes beautiful emotional sense. But in truth, I wasn’t all that aware of Jill except as a particularly,absorbedly, perceptive, quiet, rather private student. A dark watcher. Yes. But apparently I made some kind of process possible. Just as Harrison did for me. By accident. Anyway, it’s payback time.
I was writing in an earlier post about how hard it can be to find a way of imagining people…not inventing them (that’s for novelists) but realising their otherness. Jill Dawson sent me copies of all her books, each one signed with a different message. They are my most treasured possession, too. I was trying to write sequences about 19thC painters, and about soliloquising statues. And in came one book especially. Fred and Edie. One reviewer wrote: Flaubert would have loved this story. I certainly did. Jill takes the story of the (then) notorious murder of the husband of Edith Thompson by her younger lover, Frederick Bywaters. Both were hanged in 1922. She takes the story of this folie a deux, which interweaves the imagined voice of Edie in her prison cell, with real and imagined letters sent to her ‘Darlint’ Fred. What captured me was Jill’s ability to inhabit the voice of Edie, with all her cultural and social aspirations and self-consciousness and vanities, the way she caught Edie’s linguistic tics and small pretentions: How much more interesting life is when one has occasion to write about it, says Edie. That one stuck. And still does. It’s impossible to do justice to the delicacy of what’s achieved in this novel. You’ll have to read it (There’ll be a full bibliography at the end; reach for the PayPal button now). But I can’t not point out that one of the introductory epigraphs (is that right? it doesn’t sound right) for the story is from The Waste Land, and one of my favourite bits too: ‘You gave me hyacinths first a year ago; they called me the hyacinth girl’. I think I might have gone on a bit about that, to my 6th form group. And one more thing about inspiration. I suspect there’s a thread of envy in there, too. Why can’t I do this? Why don’t I do this? Well, I will. So, thankyou, Jill Dawson; ventriloqual novelist par excellence. My inspiration.
Now, two inspirations who I’ve never met and who don’t know me, and almost certainly never will. First up is A S Byatt. Actually that’s not accurate…the inspiration is that one novel: Possession, the one novel I’d cling to in any wreckage; a great baroque treasure house of a novel that I never tire of. There’s so much I could say about it, but two things in particular. One is the sheer sensuousnes of it all. I’ve never read anything with so much colour and texture..it’s incredibly rich and visual and tactile, but always in the service of understanding the characters and their intense, sometimes heartbreaking relationships. It’s one of the few novels that can have me in tears.. What about the garden full of roses, swarthy damask, thick ivory, floating pink….fantastic spotted lilies, curling bronze and gold, bold and hot and rich’ ? This told me what I might be after with my pre-Raphaelite painters, as does her description of a photograph of Randolph Ash. ‘..thickenings and glimmerings in the black…..the beard, a riverful of silvers and creams, whites and blue-greys, channels and forks..’. I know an English teacher who was so persuaded of Ash’s historical reality that she asked for his work at the University in Leeds. But more important was the impact the book had, about the same time as Jill Dawson’s Fred and Edie. When Jill Dawson taught me to listen carefully for the tics and nuances of speech and the way you might capture them in writing, what Possession did was to show me the importance of absorbing, really absorbing, how texts work, how they’re put together. Think about what Byatt does in this novel..she creates persona after persona. She writes their letters; more than that, she writes their correspondence. She writes their journals and diaries. She does pastiches of academic criticism. She invents autobiographies written by other people. She writes her character’s invented tales and poetry, Christabel’s fairy stories, her mini-epics, Ash’s ventriloqual dramatic monologues, Christabel’s lyric poems-like Emily Dickinson-and she can do all that because, as she says, she has immersed herself from childhood in Victorian poetry (as well as everything else..she’s got a frightening range of reference as well as an acute ear and a painter’s eye). And what she taught me is that you have to work, you have to read and read and read. And listen to poetry, its complex syntax and lexis. You learn from the company you keep. Thank you A S Byatt.
Last, but not least: Carol Ann Duffy and ‘The world’s wife’. For the most part, though she’s not ventriloqual (although The Kray Sisters goes brilliantly if you give it the delivery of Michael Caine at his most deadpan, Elvis’ twin sister relies on a perfunctory ‘y’all’ to set the southern lilt going) she still gets under the skin of her characters, and takes her own voice in there with her. ‘Girls,I was dead and down in the underworld’ ; Eurydice gets an urban edge. Which is why I chose the particular photo you see above. She’s looking right at you as she sounds in the poetry. The inspirational example I took from this collection, though, was to see how a sequence of poems could be crafted from borrowed identities through which you could discover how you thought about the world, and, perhaps, how the world saw you. If I could only have one poem from the collection it would be Little Red Cap. And if you want to know why, then sit and copy it out by hand, several times, and be delighted by the discoveries you keep making about the craft of writing. Like I say, I’ve never met Carol Ann Duffy, though I know she’s read some of my poems because I’ve put them in for competitions she’s judged. But I don’t hold it against her. Thank you, anyway, Carol Ann.
There you are then. Four inspirations and a labour of love. Four people who teach me in so many ways that nothing is real till it’s named, and that’s what poetry is for. As Christabel la Motte (who is, after all, a poet made completely of words) writes in a poem that is, after all, only imagined:
The first men named this place and named the world;
They made the words for it; garden and tree,
Dragon or snake, and woman, grass and gold
And apples. They made names and poetry
I think I should set homework. What and who are your inspirations? Answers in the Comments box at the end of the page, please. Thanks for your time. Who knows what next week will bring?
Jill Dawson: Novels: all published by Sceptre: Trick of the light ; Magpie; Fred and Edie ; Watch me disappear ; The great lover ; The tell-tale heart 
As Editor: all published by Virago: How do I look ; The Virago book of wicked verse ; The Virago book of love letters 
Poetry: White fish with painted nails [Slow Dancer Press]