When people ask ‘Why do you write?’ if the answer isn’t ‘Because I’ve got things to say and this is the way I do it…rather than music or painting or sculpture or essays or journalism or graffiti’ then something’s not quite right. If you’re having to make yourself write, then what’s all that about? I think that’s what Keats was getting at with this business of poetry needing come as birds to the tree. Poetry. Not poems or a poem, note. That’s usually going to be difficult, because words don’t just line up and snap to attention. We’re going to draft and redraft and get second opinions, and polish and refine, and we’ll never quite get it right, because if we did, there’d be no point in carrying on. We need to say what’s on our minds. We have to have something to write about, if you like. Ideally we need to be full as an egg and brimming and bursting with things to say. Hence the metaphorical reservoir. That was the pantano of Relleu; that is how it was meant to be. This is how it is now. Silted up, dried out.
I used to tell students that if someone needs to use metaphor then there’s something wrong with the argument; bear with me, regardless. People ask: why write? Less often, I think, they might say: Why stop? I don’t think I’m talking about writer’s block. I’m not sure I understand that, since I think that’s about forcing yourself, for whatever reason, to write, rather than stopping. Why can you dry up? Well, maybe you find something else to do with your time, or other things take it over. Or you’ve said as much as you can or want about this and that, and there’s no point in going over the same old ground. Or you lose confidence. You look at what you’ve written, and you look at what other people have written, and suddenly you can’t see why anyone would want or need to read your stuff. An analogy for me would be my realisation that some hill routes were beyond me and my rickety legs, and that if I couldn’t do them I wouldn’t be settling for less, because all the time I’d thinking of where I wasn’t and not enjoying where I was. Something like that. I’ve been wondering how I can introduce this week’s guest, Martin Reed, and it turns out that the answer is : Obliquely. So let me go at it head on.
A brief biographical note: Martin Reed was brought up in Somerset and now lives in Worcestershire. He worked for several years as an English lecturer and later became a partner in a communication and media company, writing scripts and directing video on a wide range of subjects from Thomas Hardy to becoming a foster-parent. He has had work published in many magazines (Agenda, Anon, London Magazine, Magma, Prole, The Spectator, Encounter, Envoi, The Interpreter’s House, Stand, Owl, Frogmore Papers, Other Poetry, Iota, Poetry Wales, The World and I, Poetry Review etc.) He has read his poetry on Radio 3 .
In 1988, Reed won the National Poetry Competition. It was a watershed in many ways, followed by a hiatus. However, in the seventies he had the good fortune to meet the late Vernon Scannell, who became a close friend (Reed is now Scannell’s literary executor).
Vernon Scannell recommended Reed’s work to Helena Nelson of HappenStance. She, like Scannell, liked his instinct for form and his love of melodic line and phrase. The publication of The Two-Coat Man in 2008 proved another turning point. And, says the HappenStance blurb, he continues to write poems.
Just think about that,. Especially that sentence: He….won the national Poetry Prize in 1988. Nearly 30 years ago. And then that list of magazines and journals. And the insouciant ‘etc’. What could be left? Jaw-dropping, especially for someone like me who’s been published in very few places, and never read my stuff on Radio 3, and never been a literary executor. But for some reason he had a hiatus; he sort of dropped out of the poetry world, or lost confidence, or didn’t have the time, or……except that he didn’t give up, but went on looking for new kickstarts.
Which is how I came to share a flat with him on a writing residential, and how I came to watch him working every night in an avalanche of typescript, and how we shared our interest in rugby, and music, and how we both ended up singing songs with last week’s guest Jane Clarke. (who, I think, is either tolerant or tone-deaf, because she’s the only person I’ve ever met who asked me to sing a second song).
The upshot of all this is that I asked him to share some of his poems, and also my delight that sometimes it may feel as though we’ve dried up, but that it’s not permanent.
I like this first one because of the way it reminds me how a revisited place can present you with two versions of yourself in an unnerving way. How suddenly the passage of time is a physical fact.
Strange, sitting in the front row
(coming early for our favourite seats)
listening to a Haydn string quartet,
to think we stood in this very space, bobbing
our immortal heads those years ago.
In place of Thin Lizzy’s electric wall,
Phil Lynott’s heartbeat bass massaging our chests,
a measured discipline of mellow strings.
Staying in one place can scare you to death all right.
I don’t want to jet off down to Adelaide,
or Jo’burg, nor yet Phuket –
from five-star hotel to private beach,
like Lucan on the run, quaffing down
new places. But they do pursue us,
make us think of escape, the dear dead ones
– Phil Lynott, Josef Haydn –
persistent ghosts in their long dark coats.
Those two phrases: the dear dead ones and their long dark coats have lodged themselves in my mind like some of Norman MacCaig’s (the cart on the shore road, the one coming with the sack in his hand); they surprise, they ambush. As does this next poem that, almost, disguises itself as a piece of reportage:
Gardens cracked Columbus sheets,
setting sail on damp, slap-sheeted washday,
for a sky as grey as the suds on our draining-board.
Rash-red arms pulled a sodden corpse from the tub.
The laundry hummed. I knew to stay away
from the wringer that mangled my mother’s thumb.
I spread my model farm with leaden cows
in clothes-peg hedges, grazing lino fields.
Later there was brisket, dumplings squeezed
like sponges, rinsing my mouth in gravy. Irish stew
on Monday. You knew where you stood. Except
that one time, over the way, when Mrs D,
whose husband carried on with a girl in his office,
turned on her oven to gas herself in a kitchen
the same as ours. The ambulance and policemen
brought her home to the life she didn’t want.
Our steamy neighbours whispered at the door.
No charges this time. Suicides, I learned,
were criminals who went to jail and I asked
about death as the farmer surveyed his static herd.
It never lets you settle, never quite gives you a secure point of view, although each image is beautifully cinematic. Or else a set of stills with documentary quality. Or a set of impressions. Poetry like Don McCullin photographs are poetry. Is that a corpse pulled from the sopping tub, or a bundle of grey, wet clothes? I like the way the poem pivots around that line:
You knew where you stood. Except
The line break is exact and exactly right. People gas themselves in kitchens exactly like ours. It’s a plain artful poem, and I love it. And because I met Martin at a writing residential, it reminds me that we all know where we get our ideas from…..from where we are and where we’ve been and who we met. And that includes books and films and music…all those amazing representations of reality that we endlessly improvise on (to borrow a notion from Harold Rosen). And how do we find out what our ideas are when we think we’ve dried up, and where may we find an art and a craft to shape them? Invariably for me the answer is at workshops. Doesn’t work for everyone, but I need other people to get me moving and tell me it’s all right. No prohibitions, but regular miracles. I had the impression that it worked for Martin, too. I hope so. I want to read more Martin Reed poems.
STOP PRESS!!!!! 02/08/2015
Martin mailed this morning to tell me he’s just had two poems accepted by Envoi ….and that ‘hiatus’ means publishers and magazines and journals kept turning him down, and that he’s never stopped ‘scribbling’. There we are, Record set straight. This is increasingly important, as nexr week’s post will explain.
Next week will be a 100 year anniversary and we’ll be looking at the relationship between factual truth and poetry. It could be complicated.