I suppose that begs the question: why write at all? It’s a question that I spent a lot of time on, in the 1980s, when I was writing a book about the teaching of writing, or working as a consultant on the emerging National Curriculum, or when I was putting together a series for GCSE. It’s easy to sidestep, by concentrating on the categories of writing that children and students need (we believe) to get to grips with. Lists, explanations, reports, summaries, persuasive and analytic pieces.
For most of the time in schools it’s so we can assess how well children write, and also to assess what they’ve understood or what they know. About history, geography, science, economics….whatever. In English lessons, we ask them to write in response to poetry or novels or plays. But why do we ask them to write stories or poems or scripts? I’m not sure it’s a question that enough teachers of English bother about sufficiently. It’s sort of a given. It’s what ‘English’ is.
I know when I was at school I’d be asked, or told, to write a story; and when I was a young and not especially reflective teacher, I’d be the one to do the asking or telling. There was always the one or two or three who would very reasonably say: I don’t know what to write about, Sir / Miss. I guess they were written off in school reports: ‘Lacks imagination’. I was OK at school, because although I knew very little, I read a lot and I’d figured out the tricks of writing a story. Poems, not so much. But we were rarely asked to write a poem, so that was OK.
And then, many years later (in my case) you find yourself, for reasons you can’t fathom, writing, or trying to write, poems; meeting other bewildered and enthusiastic folk in the same pickle. And every now and again hearing (or reading on Facebook) the complaint that someone is ‘blocked’ or ‘stuck’ or has ‘hit a blank period’. It’s the voice from childhood, all over again. Please, Miss. I don’t know what to write. I’ll stick my neck out. Here’s the answer. It’s because, for one reason or another, you have nothing to say. Not for ever. But just now. It’s because nothing is exciting or puzzling you.
You can make a list of what ought to intrigue you: your childhood, relationships, friends, school….the whole autobiographical shtick. But if it doesn’t excite or puzzle you, why should it interest anyone else? Places, landscapes, other lives? Ditto. Stuff you know you know about? History, science, cars, philately? Ditto.
So I’m going to stick my neck out again and say it’s the stuff that takes you by surprise, that’s exciting but something you don’t understand, something you want to understand…that’s what you wait for or go hunting for.
I was talking to the poet Helen Mort a week or so ago and she said something that caught my attention (she said a lot of things that did that) and I had to write it down. She said that when she went to Cambridge she was thrown by the way so many students took the place for granted, as though they didn’t actually ‘see’ it. Whereas she, as an outsider, an incomer, was gobsmacked and excited and baffled and all that…And I was immediately transported back to the interview I had in Cambridge, aged 17. I felt like an alien. Which meant, I suppose, that I was differently observant. It was like trying to learn a four-dimensional foreign language. And then Helen said:
Ideally, writers are on the outside, looking in
They are ideally, I suppose, the dark watchers I wrote about last week . They are writing to discover, because that’s the medium they make their discoveries in.Helen said:
I can make poems to be written, and they might be OK, but that’s all
By which I understood: if you’re not puzzled by what you’re writing about then you won’t be writing the poems that need to be written. I’m really glad I was there to hear that. To record it. And then to get on with this bit of cobwebspinning. I’m going to reflect on the business of finding out what it is you need to be finding out for the poems that need to be written.( I’ll leave that tortured bit of syntax as it is. It’s symbolic).
You have to start, somewhere. Maybe you start here.
“He is the sparrow, the Friday lord.
I hoped to be the watcher on the rooftop,
but He was first. I’m flake of his fire,
leaf-tip on His world-tree”
[ From: Tyndale in Darkness .
U.A.Fanthorpe: Selected Poems, ed R.V.Bailey. Enitharmon Press 2013 ]
I have no idea why I downloaded U A Fanthorpe’s ‘Selected poems’ to my Kindle, round about midnight on a too-hot night in Spain a couple of months ago. Perhaps I’d looked her up on Google and realised that here was another poet, like Causley and Vernon Scannell, whose work was now to be sought via Abe Books. Whatever. On the verge of sleep, I stumbled into her sequence of poems where she voices William Tyndale, and I read these lines, and the hairs at the back of my neck stood up. That feeling that I’d never read anything like this, that it was amazing that it could have been written with such simple assurance. Later on I recognized the echoes of Gerard Manley Hopkins, and of George Herbert too, I guess, but that hardly matters. I felt I’d learned something new-minted and important.
In a moment she will take you from the ‘dear preoccupied people’ of 16thC Gloucester, to Gethsemane,
‘and they weren’t used to late nights, his disciples
…………….why did He ask them to stay awake
when he knew they couldn’t? Because He always does.’
and back to Gloucestershire, and Tyndale remembering that
I heard the ploughboy whistling under Coombe Hill,
and I thought, I could do that. Give him God’s word.
I mean, in his own workaday words. And I did.
I think this astonishing and lovely, the way the translator of the Bible into English walks into my life. It’s done with such apparent ease..the ease of imaginative familiarity that only comes with total involvement, absorption in a life that’s loved and troubling.
By the time you come to the fifth poem in the sequence-the Passion, two voices have come together in a single voice that’s simultaneously Fanthorpe’s and Tyndale’s. The voice of the poet’s living faith, and that of Tyndale imagining his imminent execution at the stake.
The powerlessness. This is the day He dies,
Jesus the Friday sparrow, the watcher on the cross
who forgives those who put Him there. He’s dying now,
and His world is dying too. I made this world twice
after God. I translated Genesis.
All I could think was: how does she do this, how does she move me so much? I’m an atheist, aren’t I? How did she make me care, make me believe this was important? How could she do it so ‘easily’? Well, here’s the thing I want to concentrate on: she knows what she’s writing about. ‘Knows’. Not ‘knows about’. This is felt knowledge. But at first it could only be facts, history. It had to be read and learned. And here’s the other thing: it couldn’t be understood, truly known like this until it was written like this. She didn’t know what she knew till she said it.
So what I’m saying is, there’s an answer built into the implied question of my title: I don’t know what to write . The answer being a hard one: well, go away till you know something enough to be intrigued and excited by it.Not sure that you undersatnd it but feeling as though you should. Which will involve you in reading, watching television, watching films, knocking around with mates, walking around cities or up hillsides in rain, or digging, or playing football, or cooking or looking after ageing parent, or after young children, or falling in love, or having an affair, or going into hospital, or having an interview. Getting to know stuff. Finding out. Living it. Which is not the answer people on poetry courses and so on are likely to be comfortable with. But let’s leave that hanging. Let’s go back to Tyndale.
Because from here on, I’m going to be riffing around the business of research, and the way it can be a strange and reflexive business. Sometimes the poem comes first, as it did with Tyndale in darkness. and then sends you off to find the world of the poem, which in my case turned out to be the history of a book, and a biography, too, and a work of detection. It’s subtitled : ‘William Tyndale, Thomas More, and the bloody birth of the English Bible’. The book is Brian Moynahan’s Book of Fire [Abacus 2002]. I mentioned to my mate Keith Hutson (a guest poet on the Cobweb in February 2015) that I’d read Fanthorpe’s poem, and Keith immediately lent me Moynahan’s book. Which is now bristling with post-it notelets, and waiting for me to transcribe all sorts of quotations and snippets from it….although I haven’t got round to that, because I’m skimming through Hilary Mantel again, finding out what she wrote about Thomas More, and (she’s sure)Thomas Cromwell’s enthusiasm for a vernacular Bible. And at some point I’ll be back with Fanthorpe’s poem, marvelling at the way she lets you know that what you’re reading is the essence and the truth of a hugely complex and contested tale. I know it will be provisional and I will change, and maybe one day the poem will seem less true. But I hope not. What I do know is that I now know a lot of stuff I didn’t know before I read about the Friday sparrow, and I now I’m writing about it. Not poems that need to be written. But later, maybe. They’ll say if and when they’re ready.
Or maybe you start here…not with a poem, but with the glimmering of an idea. Maybe something you didn’t know you’d noticed at the time, but which comes back and surprises you. I’ve written before how I need workshops to generate that kind of surprise; I know I can’t consciously sit down to find stuff out to make into poems. I know, because I wasted months trying to do that with a 19thC painter. But here’s an illustration of what I mean. I wrote a poem recently from a workshop draft. Here’s just a bit of it: I wondered of the Celtic saints of the Outer Islands
if they knew that gulls and fulmars
would nest in the cloister of their ribs.
I had an idea where that had come from, because it certainly wasn’t mine. I tracked it down to Macfarlane’s The old ways and his journey to Sula Sgeir in a small boat. Something I have never done, will never do. I know that Macfarlane had taken me back to Adam Nicholson’s Sea Room, where I’d been led by reading Kathleen Jamie, who also took me to books about St Kilda and the Greater Blaskett…and so on. Sea-girt mountain tops, puffins, gannets, bird migration, white-tailed eagles, nests in the ribcage of a saint. He’ll do that for me, Macfarlane. I don’t know if it’s plagiarism…I know that some of his phrasing lodges in my word-hoard and sort of roots itself there. Like this from another poem about a burial cairn on Bheinn na Caillich on Skye
because their oceans were swanspaths, whaleroads.
because they wrote their maps in the wind,
the whole idea is lifted from Macfarlane. I know, because I knew I hadn’t invented it, so I tracked it down. I didn’t take his words. But I had to write my words to understand what he meant, so I could tell you how the idea excited me. Does that make sense?
Before I started this bit of the cobweb, I scribbled a list of the stuff that was hanging about waiting to be read, or re-read. The stuff with post-it notelets stuck in it. William Tyndale, British mining disasters, a journey through the English moorlands, A sky full of birds by Matt Merritt, Antarctica (including the remastered films: South (Shackleton) and Scott of the Antarctic, David Wilson’s new pamphlet: Slope [smith/doorstop 2016]. Tectonic plates. Coal measures and the Jurassic. The building of the Himalaya.
I know that at least a bit of that comes from a poetry reading at the Red Shed months ago when the Agbrigg Poets performed a sequence about the Lofthouse Colliery disaster …which was only a couple of miles from where I live, but might as well have been on the moon. And I know that as a result of that, I’ve been finding out about Onibasha. And I can’t make myself write about any of it. It needs to settle into my thinking, become something I don’t know that I know, and wait for it to be surprised into a shape I can share.
Now, I need to make it clear that I don’t think that ‘research’ is the answer to everything. I confess that I’m drawn to poems that announce themselves as knowledgeable rather than (just) elegantly lyrical. Writers like Steve Ely, Ian Duhig, Christy Ducker, Pascal Petit, Julie Mellor. I’m looking forward to the postman bringing me Helen Mort’s new collection which grows out of her research into pioneering women rockclimbers and mountaineers. But I also think that for myself I’m particularly taken by the way ‘research’ can throw a bright, unnerving, illuminating light on what you thought you knew. Childhood, parenting, a parent’s death, or the death of a relationship.
I’ll remind my self of what Helen Mort said:
Ideally, writers are on the outside, looking in
I think you have to become an outsider looking in on your own life. You think you know it, but you don’t, because it’s too near to see.
I know that it was only by reading and re-reading versions of the Greek myths that I became able to write about the death of a son in a way that didn’t exclude other readers. I’ll stick my neck out, and guess that it wasn’t until she’d been absorbed into the ‘Metamorphoses’ of Ovid that Kim Moore became able to write the poems about domestic abuse and violence in the way that stops me in my tracks. I’m biased…I think these poems are the powerful heart of ‘ The art of falling’. Like I say, I’m sticking my neck out. Tell me if you disagree. I really would like to know.
I was going to go on to write about the way the process can go wrong, and how you can find yourself writing what are essentially lies. But I realise I’ve rambled, and there’s enough in that for whole post of its own.
But just a cautionary note. If you have a project that excites you, be careful who you share your enthusiasm with. Maybe you’ll want to keep it to yourself. Because a poet I love shared her project with someone who went off with it, and used it, and reaped great reward thereby. For me, if you want to write about tectonic plates or Shackleton, go ahead. I don’t know enough about them. Yet.
13 thoughts on “Please, Miss, I don’t know what to write.”
Interested post John, thanks. I would add that research into new areas enables you to learn new words and ways of language.
It’s the business of assimilation/accommodation that’s at the heart of it. It’s the accommodation I’m after
I am totally moved and convinced by this.
Blimey…you read that quickly. I’m glad you did, though xxxx
I know you are right, John. Nothing has excited me much for a long time, and it is hard to ‘bother’ when that happens. Also i spend too much time comparing my efforts with those of other poets, which is why I MUST avoid generative workshops. I have a few scribbles, snd what happens to me and my scribbles in the silence of my office or pushing my two and a half week old grandson in his pram around Lindfield Common remains to be sern…
That bit about comparing yourself with other poets hits a bullseye. Much of the time reading other poets gets in the way…..for me. I get cluttered up. Unlike Fanthorpe.
What an absorbing read! You articulate processes and emotions involved in writing that I recognise but haven’t been able to describe. Really enjoyed the U.A quotes too. Can’t write anymore- arthritis . xxx
OOOuuch. I’m pleased the post made sense for you…but I’m more concerned now about the arthritis. May the nati-inflammatories be with you xxx
Spot-on, John. All that whale road stuff does nothing for me – I live with someone who loves it and I delegate that side of life – but the pure innocent nosiness that puzzles the mind is definitely where poetry comes from. Also, I agree that it can be paralysing to compare oneself with other poets. It can destroy you as a reader, much less a writer. Nice to appreciate other people’s poems, though.
the whale road came from writing about Norse navigators and the way the sea is marked with ‘seaways’ and ‘passages’ and yet sea-travellers leave no marks to be followed. Kennings it had to be. It’s the way they wrote it and imagined it. Though you can see I was much more moved by U A Fanthorpe than by Beowulf or the Battle of Brunnaburgh. The Wanderer is closer to what I’m interested in. I guess if you set yourself against other poets, you’re dead in the water. Listening to them is a different matter. I know who I want to listen to. Like MacCaig. Causley.Fanthorpe. Heaney. I’m interested that of contemporary poets who excite me, most are women, or so it seems. xxxxx
What a great post. And just to say that you will be blown away by Helen’s new collection – it’s fantastic. She really is an inspiration.
I’m just wondering if she got my letter…sent her a cheque some days ago. I don’t do deferred gratification. Not well, that is. I’m glad you liked the post, cos I struggled with it, which I thought was probably because the thesis was wrong. Now it seems OK. Yay!!!!