Ways with words (with a nod to Mr Ely)


A couple of days ago I was sure I had a recollection of someone talking/writing about the way no-one knows the Bible any more. Turns out to have been one of those false memories; I’d actually saved an extract from an interview with Steve Ely in which he talks about what the Bible did, or didn’t, do for his writing.
I strongly suspect that this will be a bit disorganised. I’ve had five days in Whitby with sixteen  poets, under the kindly gaze of Ann and Peter Sansom. We were given twenty-seven writing tasks in four of those days. We were given no more than ten minutes to write a first draft in response to each of them.
We ate unfeasible amounts of custard. Custard is Sneaton Castle’s signature dish. There is also a lot of date and walnut cake. And scones. Every night we read poems to each other.
I know, because I’ve been there before, that after a suitable period of fasting, my mind will be clear again, and I will have a shape to my thoughts. But not right now. On the other hand, I’ve made promises, and one of them has been to stick to my routine, and write a cobweb post every Sunday. Here goes…but don’t expect coherence.
I’ve just popped into the local Nisa shop to get my Sunday paper. Three of the red-tops gave their complete front pages to an attempted burglary chez Simon Cowell. I realise I actually sort of know who he is. I know he’s famous. I think he managed the Spice Girls. I sort of knew about them at one time. One paper headlined ‘Machete terror on the Underground!!!’. Another told me NHS patients are being betrayed by the EU. I can’t get my head round that. One gave pride of place to a hypothetical witch-hunt of anti-Corbyn Labour MPs. Mine told me that I needn’t worry quite so much about greenhouse gases.
It makes you pause. It makes you think that the world is fragmented by language. All sorts of conversations in workplaces all over Britain will be shaped tomorrow by words printed on the front pages of newspapers. All sorts of words will become evidence, fact, reality. We will all talk ourselves into separate and exclusive worlds.
And this has what to do with poetry? I can hear you thinking. I can. It’s going to be tenuous, I suspect. But I’ll do my best. There are three or four disparate ideas jostling for attention in my head.
One is a memory of a writer who told me my chapbook, ‘Larach‘ was a ‘surprise’. It didn’t, apparently, sound like ‘me’. It turned out that he expected me to sound Northern and ancdotal, and to write about cobbled streets and rationing. Apparently that was ‘my voice’. The surprise was poems full of myth and legend.
Another, more famous, poet said that ‘of course’ I had this surprisingly rich and wide ranging vocabulary. She hastened to tell me that this wasn’t exactly a disadvantage, but she still managed to imply that it was, and to make me feel like an idiot savant.
Somewhere, or somewhen, recently, someone told me that Biblical language and reference would make something I’d written ‘inaccessible’.

Here’s where I went wrong and misremembered. Nothing like that at all. Much more coherent stuff from the wonderful Mr. Ely (of whom more later). This is part of what he said:

Although there is a long history of engagement with Biblical texts in English poetry (think Milton, Smart and Hopkins for example), and many contemporary poets occasionally adopt Biblical subject matter and forms (Andrew McMillan has written about Jacob’s wrestling match with ‘the angel’ at Penuel, the rhythms and phrasing of Kim Moore’s ‘In That Day’ have a distinct, if generic, Old Testament feel and Michael Symmons Roberts’ Drysalter is modelled on the Psalms), it nevertheless seems to me that many contemporary poets implicitly share the casual received opinion that ……… the Bible is manifestly and primarily an outdated, discredited and frequently offensive Handbook of Truth, [and] it can now be properly consigned to the dustbin of history

and also this, which resonates with me. It truly does.
I wanted to be a poet. And I had decided to study the Bible for a reason that seems so perverse and hubristic that almost thirty years later, I’m still a little nervous about sharing it. I wanted the Bible (Biblical literature, history and ‘mythology’) to become for me what classical Greek & Roman literature, history and mythology had hitherto been for ‘English poetry’, particularly Yeats, Eliot, Pound and Graves.
but, he adds, ruefully (?) : in fact, it wasn’t until 2006 [20 years later] that the Bible began to seep into, inform and influence my poetry.
Key words for me, those: seep. inform. influence
I recognise what’s going on there; last week, in response to a prompt to write, very quickly, something with a bird or animal in it, I wrote a poem about a wren.
I know very little about wrens, though I do watch the wrens in my garden with a sort of interest. When I read what I’d written, I realised that I hadn’t written it. I was somehow borrowing half-remembered stuff from Ted Hughes’ ‘What is the truth’. My poem starts: ‘when God made the Wren’ and it goes on to channel bits of stuff from folk-lore that I must have picked up in folk clubs. They weren’t my words or rhythms. That is, I hadn’t invented them, though I thought I ‘knew’ them as true in the way readers of The Sun think they know Simon Cowell, or readers of  ‘The Daily Mail’ know that Jeremy Corbyn is a jihadist sympathiser.  Somehow, something had seeped, informed, influenced. Magic.We are what we read.
What I think I’m working round to is a question. We recognise the ‘voice’ of the poets we love, or we think we do. It will have something to do with what they write about, but fundamentally it comes down to words, syntax and rhythm. We each make our ideolect, but we don’t make it out of nothing. So how do you recognise what is your voice? How do you know when it’s authentic and when you’re faking it? How much does knowing a lot of words help or hinder what  you’re after, which is, after all, the truth. because if it isn’t, why are you writing?
Here’s a thought. It’s a truth universally acknowledged (though not necessarily factually true) that Anglo-Saxon poetry has almost no words for colour. It’s world is one of shades of light and dark rather than one of hues. An austere hard world. I was much taken by something I came across while I was rummaging for hooks to hang this cobweb on. I can’t remeber the sourse..I just copied and pasted it.
Many surviving color words from Old English — dun, wan, sallow, bleak, dusky, swarthy, bright, murky, dark — refer to colors which are not hues. These words have more to do with chroma (reflectivity, brightness, quality of light) than with hue (wavelength). We tend to think of color only as hue. Out of all this you can get an insight into that world. Look around you and subtract all the artificial, man-made pigments from your world. Then look at what is left, and you may see why glitter and dark mattered more than pink and purple in naming what you see. Northern Europe through most of the seasons is a landscape of brown, gray, and dull green. The eruptions of color in spring and fall must have been brief and amazing, with an almost hallucinogenic intensity.
 There you go. That’s what I was after, or what I though I meant. If we write about churches and cathedrals or Greek temples now, they’ll be white or grey, plain, austere, too. But they were painted, weren’t they? As full of colour as medieval heraldry. Medieval poetry is rich with colour words. It’s a lusher, more exotic world, like that of Renaissance paintings, when colours were painstakingly ground from amazingly expensive pigments; it must have been like painting with jewels, or money. And all these rich hues have names. Write them down and you colour the world, and you make dreams and songs.
Think about that the next time you’re browsing a Farrow and Ball, or a Dulux, paint chart, and you are charmed by Goosefeather or Savannah or Tuscany or Mallard or Rose Dawn. Metaphors every one. I know there are a lot of colour words in my writing, and I know it’s because I spend a lot of time with paintings, and because I have a predominantly visual memory. I should also say there’s a lot of stone and ash and grey and dark, because I write a lot about mountains and cold places and weather. But MacCaig spent a lot more time than I have in those landscapes and his are full of variegated colour. And he knows a lot about birds.
Where do our voices come from? From what we hear and from what we read.
Why do we use this or that particular element of all our reading and listening and chance hearing?
Because of who we are and who we were and where we’ve been and what we’ve done.
Because we want to say what some of it means.
But what I’m inclined to think is that so much of the discussion and analysis and talk about poetry is about poems and how they sound and how they’re put together and how they work. Whereas, as I think I may have implied in a earlier post, I suspect what matters to me is the voice. By which I mean the shadowy imagined writer. What matters to me is whether I think I want to spend my time in their company.
Let me try to ilustrate what I mean by talking briefly about three poets who could not be more different, superficially. In a couple of weeks I’m going to celebrate a Cobweb Milestone by featuring Kim Moore as my Polished Gem. Some poets (and I’m one) try to make you see the world by reconstructing it in words. There’s a lot of vocabulary. Kim’s poems don’t do that. You’re hardly conscious of ‘words’ at all. They’re more like clear windows you see straight through to what she’s looking at. Like this:
[from Barrow to Sheffield ]
‘        still I love the train……………….
      ……………. and the way the track
stretches its limb across the estuary
as the sheep eat greedily at the salty grass,
and thinking that if the sheep aren’t rounded upwill they stand and let the tide come in, because
that’s what sheep do, they don’t save themselves.
It’s the way the poem shares an immediate, unschooled-in-the-ways-of-sheep wonder. ‘because / that’s what sheep do, they don’t save themselves. I suspect I’d have been off researching the ways of estuary sheep and trying to explain why this should be, and otherwise sharing a new-found knowledgeablity. It’s not adjectival, it’s not complicated, the verbs are everyday verbs, it’s as simple and layered as folktale. It’s the result of a lot of hard work. It seem artless. That’s one way with words.
Here’s another. Gaia Holmes this time:
[from The allure of frost]
 I want to spit
and weep and slap the corpse where she lies in her coffin
all done-up with hair grips and lipstick,
her sunken cheeks plumped out with wads of cotton wool
and the rictus of sin softened
by the crust of Rimmel Natural Beige powdering her face
and it’s so hot in here
that the cheese is sweating
Much more ‘vocabulary’ in this; so much frustration at wanting to ‘spit and weep and slap’ but being claustrophobically constrained. So much surface. So much texture. So much heat. There’s a feeling in a lot of Gaia’s poetry that the world is uncontrollable and overmuch, and the voice is like that of Alice in Wonderland. I keep waiting for that ‘nothing but a pack of cards’ moment.
And, finally, Steve Ely:
[from Winter nightwalk]
bearing baskets on balks and byways, cottars
picking sticks in the gorsey assart; vardos
circled on the wood- smoke common,
colliers in mufflers, ploughmen harrowing
tilth: generations have trod these humdrum
acres, lives written and erased in the
palimpsest of earth; but in the snow-stilled
quiet of a winter’s night, in mind, in fancy,
or on the plasm direct, you can hear the
cacophonous landscape calling: a fair field
full of folk
It couldn’t be more different, on the surface, from Kim Moore, could it? Jam-packed and alliterative, with dialect words, medieval words, odd words like palimpsest, slant refences to Gerard Manley Hopkins, explicit lifts from Piers Plowman, contextually anachronistic words like plasm. Not a landscape seen through a train window without assumptions or detailed knowledge, but a rough south Yorkshire common buzzingly alive with its own history and the unrecorded people who made it. Poetry bursting with absorbed verse and texts.
And you know you’re in the company of someone who wants so much to wlak you through his landscape, persuade you of our common cause and heritage, and to make you want to hug your language to you, and also to wave it like a banner. What all three have is a way with words that is quite authentically their own, so that I would know them anywhere.
I’m intrigued about the business of where young poets get their words from these days, because, wherever it is, I suspect it is absorbed unconsciously rather than concertedly or intentionally. I was thinking of what I remember someone saying about Milton. This must have been 30 years ago, so I can’t remember the who or the where. But the argument was basically that it wouldn’t be long before no-one would be able to read Milton because no-one was being taught Latin and no-one knew the Bible. I suspect that it’ll be even fewer now. But I’m not sure that means we can’t read Milton. Who was it a couple of weeks ago saying that you can’t understand Shakespeare if you’ve not been to university? Not a shred of irony. I’m pretty sure we can use words we don’t completely ‘understand’. We can use words like ‘gravity’ and ‘atom’ and ‘electricity’ quite unselfconsciously. I doubt most of us can actually explain them. I grew up with the language of the Bible, and the language of hymns. It’s what happened every day at school. I was maybe 5 when I learned to ask God to ‘forgive us us trespassers’. Why God was concerned that we might be playing in Stubley’s mill yard would trouble me briefly. The rhythms of hymns and psalms leached into my language. They’ll still be there, vestigially. We are what we regularly hear and regularly read. The start of the school days was shared with jehovah, ineffable, satanic, almighty, holiness and wrathfulness, the dance of three and four-syllabled words. We sang lyrics by Milton, Bunyan, George Herbert, Wesley. We didn’t have a clue. Maybe it gave me a taste for unfamiliar lexis; maybe Shakespeare filled me with iambics so I can never lose them. It’s what I have to filter the world through, or what I have to recreate it. You can have a way with words. They’ll have their way with you.
[I’ve just reread this. It’s exactly as I feared. If you have made any sense of it, then congratulations. On the other hand, I’ve spent several hours wrestling with it, and I’m disinclined to press DELETE. I’ll leave it as it is, promise you something very uncomplicated next week, and chuck in a poem as an apology. Of sorts]


Even with coal fires and the fume of mills
the sky at night was clearer then
and there were far too many stars
to match the star-maps’ neatly labelled
white-on-black geometries; the join-the-dots
stick drawings never matched the lovely names –
Aldebaran, Andromeda, the Pleiades,
Orion, Aquarius, the Plough;
like the language of the hymns and psalms
that hung like sunlit dust in childhood chapels,
right on the edge of understanding:
bread of heaven, paths of righteousness,
ancient of days; I shall lift up mine eyes
to the hills, to the firmament
lost in the fraying weft and warp
of vapour trails, unravelling
saltires; faltering vectors
whose destinations can’t be guessed.
In the hazy underglow of crowding towns
the stars are slowly fading in the skies;
in light inaccessible, hid from our eyes.

(from my pamphlet, Backtracks)
FINALLY: should you want to pursue the business of biblical (and other fabulous) languages in your poetry, then follow this link to Steve Ely’s online Poetry School course, and you will store up riches in heaven.

4 thoughts on “Ways with words (with a nod to Mr Ely)

  1. Interesting to consider ‘voice’ – it’s a mysterious thing. Might share this with the students next time we think about voice and what it means. Hope you’re well, Mxx


  2. It intrigues me, Maria. I wish I could have nailed it more clearly and succinctly. I’ll email you something that one of my chums sent me. xxx and thanks for being a persistent reader


  3. Thanks John. You’ve covered a lot of ground and chosen great examples to demonstrate variations in voice. Fascinated to learn about (‘universally acknowledged though not necessarily factually true- love the way you put that in- )’ lack of colour words and theory on that. I can’t put my finger on anything specific, but I think I may have got some of the words (and maybe rhythms) that make up my ‘voice’ from listening to music from the stuff my parents played (Nat King Cole, Ella Fizgerald ) and pop music on the radio (1960’s, 1970’s) and then from Dylan and the Beatles, Stones , Doors (I was generally back-wards looking as a teenager) – who had of course got their voices from Blues, Country, folk, musicals and who knows, maybe Mozart. I think I’m rambling a bit now. Cheers.


  4. that’s going to send me riffling through ‘The sun bathers’ again! Looking for song-inflected rhythms and allusions. Mind you, there’s a lot of open air in there, and a gentler sort of countryside than mine, too. And maybe a sort of suburban landscape. Ray Davies. Thanks for following the waffle x


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