Wearing purple



I’ve always been attracted by the notion of embracing irresponsiblity and eccentricity, but fight shy of their corollaries of physical and emotional and spiritual risk. But in last week’s post I think I was nailing my colours to the mast of those who take those kinds of risks in poetry, of declaring a preference for poems and poets that are courageous and unflinching.

For various reasons, I’m advised against eating processed meats, so sausages are out, and I’ve never been keen on wearing purple or rattling sticks along railings. Extravert behaviour has always come fairly easily, but  real risk-taking is something I’ve basically tried to keep at arms’ length, and without that, I see no way towards achieving the edge that I respond to so readily in other people’s poems.

I’m going to see if I can articulate better what I was trying to get at this time last week. It may be that I have to come at it obliquely and crabwise. Fingers crossed, then. First of all, let’s declare that when I rock up at various writers’ workshops I invariably react negatively to exercises in ‘form’. My writing mind responds well to pressure and strictures about time, and cues about, say, how many lines I’m allowed, and even about the imposition of keywords to plant in each line. But that’s about it. What I can’t do is sit down and plan to squeeze an idea or a feeling into a terza rima, or a sestina or a sonnet. I can’t see the point of it. I’m not saying there isn’t one, but I find it quite hard enough to find out what I think I’m thinking or feeling, and what it might mean, without things being edited out by form or rhyme.

What I need to think with is rhythm. All my first and early drafts are in flat-out prose that attaches to a particular rhythm…which will in turn attach to the feel of a line length that I can fine tune later. In fact, while I’m having a ‘wearing purple’ day, I want poems where the form follows the drive of meaning and feeling. I like the playfulness, the wit, the rhetoric, the memorisabilty of rhyme in other people’s poems, but much of the time, they get in the way of what I want to say or feel. I’m always pleased to add to the bag of tricks and techniques, but almost always they’re the ones that help me to cut out what’s inessential, that make what’s left feel surprising and inevitable. I want holding forms, but there are beautifully crafted poems out there full of beautifully crafted observations and reflections and images that seem to sit there just to be admired. Like Faberge eggs. Exquisite and pointless bits of showing off. Don’t ask me for examples. I have few enough friends as it is. I’m just inviting you to see where I am before I go on about where I want to be.

Another ‘wearing purple’ thought. My Facebook pages are full of poetry and things about poetry. And there are so many people posting about how many collections have been bought and devoured. There are so many of you out there, reading so many poems. And here’s the thing. I don’t. I can go for days and weeks with one or two poems that affect me. Poems like the ones I quoted last week , and the one I’m going to talk about later on. Art galleries have the same effect. I can take in maybe four images (if it’s a good show) and then I want no more. After that the rest will simply blur into unmeaning. Two or three examples. There was a Stanley Spencer retrospective at the Tate Liverpool some years ago. Wonderful images everywhere. But it was as much as I could do to sit in front of ‘The resurrection at Cookham’. Enough there to fill my mind for years. Same with Peter Blake. Fantastic canvasses, but just one of his Ruralist self-portraits had enough ideas to last the week.



The Alte Pinakothek in Munich has a Rubens room that’s like walking through a celestial butchers’ cold room, but, tucked in a corner of a 19thC room, is a little Lautrec chalk sketch. It’s on a piece of torn card. It’s of a bone-tired,  redhaired prostitute. The intensity of his imaginative engagement and unflinching raw honesty and tenderness is worth a room full of  gilt-framed blowsy renaissance treasures. That picture is like the poems I want to write. Ones like the poems I quoted from last week. But trying to say what I mean is turning out to be like trying to describe vertigo. If you’ve ever frozen up at the top of a ladder, or on a rockface, or on seacliff path you know exactly what I mean. And if you haven’t, you don’t. Ah well. By the way, let’s be clear. I’m not for a second suggesting that there’s too much poetry around. Just that there’s too much for me to take in, and quite enough that moves me and excites me to be troubled about the rest.

There’s another thing I must say before I forget (that’s what happens when someone rings you up just when you’re getting in the swing. Persons from Porlock). What CAN’T workshops and exercises and boxes of tricks do  (well, for me, at least)? They may make you you more inventive, but they won’t make you more awake to what’s going on around you. If I’m not feeling, imagining the world, minute by minute, whatever will I be writing about? How do I grow more curious about, and more involved in, living and all its complexities. I know there’s a reflexiveness about being absorbed in creative works and being able to be absorbed in living, and being honest about it. But. Kim Moore gave me the keyword to hang on to. Value judgements about poetry are neither here nor there. ‘Good’ is irrelavent. What matters is whether it’s true or not. Don’t ask me to explain that. It’s like vertigo. But you know viscerally as well as intellectually when things are true or not. Don’t you? I don’t want to wear purple. I want to take the risks in engaging with the world ‘out there’  that end up with ‘true’.

And another thing (there’s no shape to this any more. Sorry). Curiosity. That ability to ask. What if? Why? About anything and everything. That would free me up, get the kinks and stiffness out of the way I write, I think. Couple of examples. I was at a workshop at the Orangery in Wakefield about 15 months ago, and strugglingling to concentrate, because I’d given up going to see Batley Bulldogs play Featherstone in a Championship play-off in order to go to the workshop. That’s commitment, that is. But two things made me sit up, and stuck like burrs. Kim Moore said both of them. The first thing was about an exercise in which we’d been invited to concentrate on a painting we knew, and to work with it. Kim said : have you ever wondered what it would be like to follow the painting round the edges to where it carries on. Something like that. The other was when she mused about geese being herded to market. Why would they walk when they can fly? she asked. Something like that. Both ideas still bother me. But I love and envy the idea of being able to think outside the frame, outside the obvious logic. The other example was yesterday in an email from Gaia Holmes. She said that maybe if you named all the bones in the body you’d call something up.  Wow! Just let that reverberate in your mind. Wonderful. I must learn to be free like that.

And I realise I’ve just managed a segue. Because what comes next is one of Gaia’s poems. I asked her for it specially, because it says far more about what I’ve been trying to say than all the stuff you’ve just waded through. It has two titles. The first time I saw it, it was called Shadow play. The copy she sent me yesterday is called The light-bearer. That’s the only change, but I’m intrigued by the different light and shade each throws on the poem. I’ll run with the latest title. See what you think.

The light-bearer

He came in winter

when the house was always dark,

brought red Christmas cacti

firecracking from their pots

and a suitcase full of candles,

thickened my gloomy rooms

with light.


I met the shadows he bred

without caution

and did not complain

when he followed me to my bed.


Outside, frost had edged the world

with spite.

The city foxes were howling,

cracking their teeth on the ice.

The sharp scent of January

scared me.

His big hands

cast wolves on the walls.

Fear made me knot myself

around him.


He had a bristled chin

and smelt of fathers.

‘Tell me a story’, I said

and he told me how lust

could turn an angel

inside out.


This takes me,for one, into darker places than Carol Ann Duffy’s Little Red-cap, but it seem to occupy the same universe of complicities, and the raw absolutes of the folk tale. It’s unflinching. It works because of its craft that just about contains dangerous energies. It unnerves and surprises. You couldn’t expect that ‘spite’ , that ‘firecrackering’, that ‘scent of January’. Certainly not that : He had a bristled chin/and smelt of fathers’ . It’s totally courageous, I think. It will stick. I’ll just leave it work, like yeast.

So, where are we. I think I’ll stop after a couple more short thoughts. My Facebook pages are full of other writers’  resolutions to write for an hour a day. Thank you for the post that seemed to set it off       http://josephinecorcoran.wordpress.com/      …it’s struck chords around the web, has that. But there’s a corollary. What will we use the other twenty three for? Because that’s where the work will come from. Say you take your photograph of the wing of a bird on shingly beach, and the wind blowing in from the Outer Islands. What does it mean to you? What do you mean to it? What does it mean? Why does it matter? Because if doesn’t, why did you take a photograph?

Here’s my new year’s wish for you. That things will matter more. And here’s one for me. For the awful daring of a moment’s surrender. Preferably, lots of them.

Next week: definitely less angsty and self-obsessed. An (un)discovered gem, and an absolute gem of a poem. Don’t miss it.



15 thoughts on “Wearing purple

  1. Beautiful cobweb, John.

    I find, now, after years of writing and years of resolutions to sit down and write every day, that actually my brain is trained to do the writing in between those times. You can’t force it, is what I’m saying, I think, or rather like you say, it is experience of the small stuff, a connective tissue between what we think about and what happens behind that thought, the workings inside that .. That’s where the poetry is. And yes, truth, the blood jet, you can’t have a poem without that thing in it that says THIS is what it is, what it’s like. And the reader says ‘ah, yes, yes, yes.’

    Stunning poem x


    1. Isn’t it a cracker, Wendy! And thankyou for the feedback. It’s a huge relief to have these last two posts out of the way. Self-imposed torment. I find I have a backlog of first drafts. Scared to read them now. xxxxI do like the idea of inbeween times where your brain does its own thing


  2. Hi John – I really enjoyed reading this and in a slightly creepy way am just about to go and write my blog and talk about YOU – or at least your poem anyway. And your blog has given me something to write about -which I won’t write about here, otherwise I shall be blog-less, as it were. However, I would like to say that Gaia’s poem is stunning. The title ‘The light-bearer’ is perfect for it. I love those lines ‘I met the shadows he bred/without caution’ and the ending is superb…


  3. The point is, in the end we forge our own paths. You have. Literally and in every other way. The assembling of the fox is proof of that. That’s your flame, or one of them. I have been half writing another blog post about a place I revisit. I amy finish it, more likely not. I think poets are blogging about similar concerns at the moment – being true to oneself and to words is central to that. Anything burning, flickering, wavering, on a cold night in early January is fen by me.


    1. We take any help we can, don’t we. This is what keeps us going, the sense that people we care about understand what we’re on about. Capricorns. On the edge but not as cocky as we make out. That’s what I’m told xx


  4. I love wat you are saying here, but though I wear a lot of purple, John, i don’t think enough of it gets into my poems. I feel as if i am flat-lining right now, skirting atound the edges, but far away from the core, that i am repeating myself, and the truth is getting further and further away. Maybe it’s the time of year, what the Germans call ‘Fruehjahr’s Muedikeit’ — sorry- can’t manage umlauts on my pad — but you’ll get the gist. I don’t write a blog because this stuff goes on in my heard all the time, and putting it down on the screen takes me nowhere. Gaia’s shimmering poem — the burning and flickering In the dark dullness of January outside the window this morning — is wonderful in its edginess, its sexiness, but it also makes me all too aware of where i would like to be in my practice and how far away i am from it x


  5. You weren’t flatlining with that Havant poem. That was the real deal. I think this is a flatline time of year. Too much stuff going on. Too much dark. You’ll br back! But I’ll tell Gaia what you wrote. She says shes been flatlining of late xxx


  6. Another great blog as always John and really makes you think. I’m very much a social constructionist and believe that we all construct the world in which we live in some way. It’s where those boundaries end and the shape they take that matter. Are they straight lines and full stop or are they jagged warning us of danger or are they blurred asking you to explore a bit more and expand your mind, knowledge and life? I’m forever thinking that I should read more and write more and feel like I’m letting myself down when I don’t. Maybe I need to change my thinking. On a final note Gaia’s poem is as mesmerising and thoughtful as ever and it has given me the inspiration to read a poem I wrote over the Christmas break at the Puzzle Hall tonight.


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