Whatever else you do, don’t give up on work you’ve started. Never throw anything away if you’ve written it legibly. Leave it alone for long enough, and one day you’ll find it and won’t recognise it as something you wrote. You may well think: Mmmm…that might have legs.
This handwritten sheet with the quotation from the Daily Sketch, for instance. I found that in a notebook I bought when I was doing a sabbatical year at Bretton Hall. In 1981! The sort-of-sonnet was probably written in 1984. I wasn’t really serious about writing poems, evidently. But I went back to it, and eventually, about 30 years later, it turned into Camera Obscura, which ended up in a Forward Poetry Anthology. There you go. Don’t give up. You simply never know.
Computers mean, of course, that you accumulate documents faster than you can remember. So, two days agoI was having a stock take of my files and stumbled on something I thought was long gone…it was an essay I had to write as part of my ill-judged MA course a dozen years ago. I started to read it with a kind of embarrassed fascination. Because what I’d done was to spell out a set of aims or ambitions. Embarrassing, because I did nothing about them for years. Fascinating, because after long delays, and years when I did nothing at all, I finally did do everything I said I would. I thought I’d share this, just to say: whatever you do, don’t give up. My essay (which is very essay-ish) started with a question:
“Why write? James Britton [196?] suggested part of the answer when he asked the question:
‘Why do [we] constantly improvise upon representations of reality?…because we never cease to long for more lives than we can actually live.’
Britton is actually speculating here about why we are impelled to read, and, particularly, to read stories. What I can take from his formulation is the concept of ‘improvising  representations of reality’. I like this because it embraces the representations of music and of plastic art as well as verbal composition. The second part of his answer may satisfy writers of fiction, creators of imagined worlds and narratives. It doesn’t answer for me; I have no aspiration to be that kind of writer, possibly because, as David Lodge  has one his characters say, how could I voluntarily spend:
‘long ,solitary hours….staring at a blank page…trying to create something out of nothing, to will creatures with no previous existence into being, to give them names, parents, education…God, the tedium of it! And then the grinding, ball-breaking effort of forcing it into words.’? [‘Home truths]
I actually do quite relish the business of words, of crafting, the texture and resonance of language, but it goes beyond that. It’s not so much the longing for more lives as not losing the life (or lives) I have actually lived. Maybe the answer to that opening question, for me, is implicit in Eliot’s poignant line:
‘We had the experience but missed the meaning’
What impels me to write is a felt need to find the ‘meaning’ in experiences which snag my memory, my attention. I don’t seem to have a conscious choice about the process; I’m keenly aware that something seems to edit out the powerfully personal—the experience of a broken marriage, the death of a father, of a son, the remorseless and protracted mental and physical decline of my mother—and I suspect that sooner or later this will have to be dealt with.
[Twelve years later, I can look at the pamphlets I produced in 2014, and say: Yes. It was later, rather than sooner, but, yes. I did it. I did}
But I had to begin with the poetry of observed and remembered landscape. This is what I wrote, twelve years ago:
The problem as I see it is that of pinning down a moment as it is, and, simultaneously to catch the felt experience—and not to let it be distorted by the history, the clutter, that language carries around with itself, willy nilly; the way’, I mean, that it splinters and refracts, or blurs and distorts, or softens and sentimentalises like a Vaseline-smeared lens. Constantly I stumble up against Hughes, or Heaney, or R.S.Thomas, all in thrall to the bleak, the elemental, resistant indifference of things.
[I’ve written in other posts about how I tried to confront this in my poem Achnacloich, precisely because of the way in which the seen landscape of Sleat was constantly refracted through the lens of Hughes’ poetry and the seductive tug of its textures and cadences. I had to sift his writing, particularly Moortown and Remains of Elmet ,to pin down the intrusive—and illuminating– phrases, particularly the one that seemed to unlock the right door:
your ‘words joined with earth
and engraved in rock
were under my feet’ (a nice ambiguity in that last line!),
as well as the rhythms and consonantal toughness of ‘the bareblown hill’, ‘the blueprint bones‘’, the’gulleys gouged in the cold hills’ before I could work from my notebooks. In the essay I go back to one of my notebooks to try to clear up what I think I meant. Like this:]
‘… on this hill with no shorthand. Everything very sharply in focus and out of meaning. Tiny white starry flowers, one here, one there. One brown furry caterpillar straddling two bleached plantain stems. Dry flower heads brittle pink. One plump crimson/blush/rose cushion of spaghnum, complex jewelly florets, bright with water drops scattered….Deer slots, random, occasionally, a single one sharp in a cupful of peaty mud….Amber, yellow grasses like blades, flexing.’
There are pages and pages like this; oddly, all sorts of things are edited out of the record, like my anxiety, teetering on a too-steep slope, unsure of up or down; my vertigo that I cope with by focussing hard on what’s close and directly in front. And every so often there’s an unacknowledged sense of Hughes’ presence:
‘Flat dry outcrops, pale and clean—they feel high, but there’s always another top, another tumbled outcrop beyond, and getting to the very highest top, the land falls away and away and away and far beyond the edge is the sea.’
Echoing faintly behind this, it seems to me, are Hughes’ ringing horizons, his image of immanence and ultimate unreachability.
There are times when I think that this ‘observed poetry’ is enough, that the meaning for the observer is implicit both in the choice of what is ‘seen’ and the choice of language which struggles to be a correlative for what is seen, and its emotional resonance for the reader. It doesn’t need rhetoric or commentary such as Hughes’ authorial glosses—
‘the suffering of water’, ‘a stage for the performance of heaven’.
I’m intrigued by the notion that that some poetry is analogous to the work of landscape painters like Len Tabner who is based near Staithes, but has painted around the world…down deep mines, inside the Arctic Circle, from small boats out in the Atlantic.. I choose him because his response is to the kind of landscape I am drawn to, and quality of his vision. Fred Inglis  talks about:
‘Tabner’s deep-rootedness in that blurred, dramatic ,difficult country…river and sea surging endlessly; the big changeful sky, heavy with cloud, now touching land and water…’
How does Tabner achieve this? By a constant physical absorption in the place itself, whether working fast on the 20 foot Atlantic swell off Fingal’s Cave, absorbed in the cold, the spray; or lying in frozen grass up above Boulby Cliff, pricked by sleet flurries, relentlessy ‘catching’ the nervous geometries of a February hawthorne. There’s no need for commentary or explanation; the shivering cold and the tug of the wind is ‘there’ for what it is. There’s no need for an explanation of what the Black Cuillin ‘means’ for the artist—what it means is there in the drama of the brilliance of light, the dark weight of rock and the saturated air. It’s a meaning that comes from the choice of materials and the speed with which they’re used that simply can’t be done by photography; my photo of a sunset may say something about my choice of frame, my selection of an image, but nothing about the shimmer and fragility of light and moving air that’s Tabner’s statement about the winter sea off Hummersea cliffs
‘(the) deep preoccupation with the moment of deliquescence in all natural life… the moment at which seaspray turns to light….the much-painted hawthorn…to thin lines of eked-out colour against the grey, ochre, and umber streaks of winter sky’
Tabner himself says ‘I want that sense of being in the landscape, not looking at it’
And that sums up the struggle for absorption in the landscapes I ‘research’ by recurrent walking, listening, looking and recording. Like Tabner, I ‘am trying to express the whole feeling of being present in a place, as well as the presence of the place itself.’
This begs a question about the mastery of the medium (or media, in his case), and the patient exercise of words and grammars (or paint, or clay, or stone…) which makes the vision possible. It seems obvious that part of the writer/researcher’s job involves an absorption in vocabularies and syntax, and forging of a written idiolect, a distinctive voice that is he essential meaning of the realised text.
I come across the impulse in a note book, stuff I’d written sitting in a car up on Holme moss, looking back down to the Holme valley.
‘Sky lines recede, one by one, under a slough of driven cloud. Layers and layers.The near fellside acid sour and bracken brown, tired of cloud, of weight, of wet, ofwaiting. A hiddle of oaks in the lee of the ribbon road; black-brittle, acid-burned’
and then I find a shift into something that’s beyond ‘observation’. For some reason I remembered going to my uncle’s wedding in Todmorden some time in the 1950s, the darkness of the valleys, the pall of smog that hung over milltowns in the West Riding.
‘ a place of artful and raw complexities. These chapels are scoured clean back to their golden sandstone start. Where’s the black mourning of the mills? Gone with the chimneys, the cloying stink of lanolin, the mindless loom-clatter, and the dark pall over the valley. Gone with the buses, the black Humbers ,Morrisses, Fords, Austins and grumbling, struggling Albions’
Here’s a history, a change that invites investigating since it’s my history, from childhood till now, the remembered darkness of the mill valleys now filled with art galleries and summer wine tourists. I feel the same impulse to deal with the narratives of my observed Scottish landscapes, the stories of the Clearances. Of Culloden and Glencoe, and for the first time to find myself consciously planning research, needing to ‘know’.
[At this point I announced that I wanted:]
to populate my landscapes, to understand these histories. What sort of research might this involve? I need, for instance, to go beyond the physical scale and drama of Glencoe and the way it shrinks and absorbs, in seconds, parties of scramblers and climbers. How can it possibly be considered or contained?
Part of the answer may lie in my fascination with maps; two things in particular: those close-packed contour lines, as complex as the whorls of fingerprints, and the way every burn, fall, corrie, ridge, and bealach is named. The fingerprinting contours give the illusion that we can grasp this huge and complex land. The scratchy Gaelic names say: we owned this; we understood it, controlled it; they are jabbed into the contours of the text like dirks, like pitons, snagging the eye with their cluttered consonants…. Sgurr na Fonnadh, Bheinn a Creachin, Achtriachtan, Aonach Eagach. I need a Gaelic dictionary before I can hear them, and there they are transformed to breathy complex vowels and soft glottals, and there’s music and poetry in their translation: the Notched Ridge, the Corrie of Capture, the Valley of Slate and Churn.
It’s this verbal landscape that frames the massacre of Glencoe (in which 10% of the clan died; literally, decimated…not the prevailing sense of 90%). When men, and women and children fled into the snow in that cold dawn, ‘half-dressed, unshod’, they were wrapped in the plaids they habitually wore, and disappeared into the high corries where they herded their rustled cattle, and everywhere they hid they knew and had named.
[and then I set out a kind of project. I would write about Clearances, about Glencoe, about the crofters of Achnacloich. If you’ve been following the great fogginzo’s cobweb for some time you’ll notice that, eventually I did all of that. Ten, eleven years later. Nothing’s wasted. Then I went on to write this:]
Inventing characters seems to be beyond me, but I think that I can maybe try to inhabit characters who already exist historically or fictionally. I want to work on engaging with different ways of thinking and feeling from my own, and to start from the image, the figure, I see every morning when I wake—-John Waterhouse’s Belle Dame sans Merci; she crouches in a dark copse, heart on sleeve, ensnaring her looming, armoured knight with her living hair, fey and yearning and vulnerable. The face, and the submissive/seductive pose is disturbing, bothering, and repeated again and again in Waterhouse’s work. She may be a mermaid, Ophelia, a nymph (unnervingly cloned into seven of eight others, imploring Hylas to joins them in the embrace of the water); Pandora, Flora, Mariana, Juliet, a siren, a nymph finding the head of Orpheus or wakening Adonis, a naiad, a hamadryad…..
Whatever the role there is the same pale, translucent tenderness of flesh, the same submissive, desiring gaze that Waterhouse catches in his charcoal and pencil sketches. He, himself, is a constant unseen presence in all these drawings and paintings but for me he’s obsessed, haunted, helplessly in love. We know a lot about his public life; bourgeouis, comfortable, successful (an academician), and married. We know he had two children who died in early infancy. We have portraits of his wife, and of his sisters and sister-in-law who modelled for him. But we know little of his private life; and who was the nymph who haunted him?
The evidence is slim; one charcoal sketch of her head has the pencilled title The head of Miss Muriel Foster. Almost everything else is conjectural; the only source of information I have found is a website that is now unavailable, but just one sentence has snagged my attention in the way that the landscapes and iconic stories of the Highlands and islands have done:
‘Little is known about Muriel’s life. She apparently studied nursing during the years she posed for Waterhouse, and eventually found her place in that field in the Oaklands nursing home in St Leonard’s on Sea. It was there that she died in 1969 at the age of 91’
The sub-text of this is as irresistible to me as her face was to Waterhouse. She must have been about 15 when she first modelled for him in 1893. How did that come about? Waterhouse habitually painted his models nude, for preliminary studies, even though they may be clothed in the finished version. How was that managed? How did they meet? What did they feel about and for each other during that apparently symbiotic relationship that continued for 24 years until his death ( with a gap between 1906-9) and during which her painted image stays as fresh as it did at the beginning.’
Well I kept revisiting this, in a desultory way, just as I kept revisiting the notion of giving a voice to what I imagined were the imprisoned souls that inhabited some of the great sculptures that fascinated me….Michaelangelo’s David, Gormley’s Angel of the North, Henry Moore’s King and Queen, for instance. And twelve years later, one way and another, they’ve been ‘dealt with’, written into poems…enough, in fact for a pamphlet, which I’m utterly delighted to say will be out and available any time now.
So there we are. Not what I promised I’d be writing. But a nice reminder that if you don’t throw away your notebooks and you don’t despair, one of these days, you can get to write what you thought you’d never see on a page.
I’m making no promises for next week. I may not be able to keep them.