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.
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
I met the shadows he bred
and did not complain
when he followed me to my bed.
Outside, frost had edged the world
The city foxes were howling,
cracking their teeth on the ice.
The sharp scent of January
His big hands
cast wolves on the walls.
Fear made me knot myself
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
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.