Is there anyone in the English speaking world – teacher or student – who hasn’t come across Norman MacCaig’s An ordinary day? Who hasn’t enthused about it, or been invited to be enthused
I took my mind a walk
or my mind took me a walk –
whatever was the the truth of it
I met it first in one of Geoffrey Summerfield’s ‘Voices’ anthologies and insisted that several generations of my secondary school students took their minds a walk. We could all sign up for a recognisably post-romantic idea of poetry. It was about ‘observing’ and being surprised. I don’t think I ever stopped to consciously acknowledge that what MacCaig observed was light on water, gulls, cormorants, small flowers, bees, various ducks, a cow, weeds in clear water. Or at least, I never stopped to see the disconnect between MacCaig’s familiar, known place..the West Highland coast, I suppose… and what my students were familiar with. Urban or suburban landscapes. Edgeland places. I never stopped to think too hard about why they didn’t ‘get’ what MacCaig was up to. Or that they might not really want to take their minds a walk round a council estate in Leeds, or down Marton Road in Middlesbrough. Or if they did, it might have been better to start from poems with people and conversations …or bits of conversations .. in them. Water under the bridge. What’s at the back of my mind is the business of the poems we ‘get’ as opposed to the ones we don’t ‘get’.
As ever, I fall back on analogies with paintings. My partner is a painter. She’s taken me to look at Rothkos. She clearly ‘gets’ Rothko. And I don’t. I try; I listen to explanations of what it is I’m missing, but nothing clicks. There’s something missing in me that Rothko tries to talk to. It’s still a foreign language in which other people are fluent. My bad, as one of my granddaughters might say. I think that for all of us (some of us?) the same is true of poetry. There are poets we (I?) don’t get. I don’t ‘get’ a good deal of contemporary American voices. I don’t get minimalists, and concrete poets. I don’t get poets who write abstractly. I found myself thinking this reading some of Anthony Wilson’s recent posts. Poetry like this:
When poets discover
that their words refer only
to other words and not to reality
which must be described
as faithfully as possible,
This is probably one cause
for modern poetry’s sombre tone.
Anthony ‘gets’ it and it clearly speaks to him and moves him. It says something important. But not to me, who can’t get past the feeling that it’s a part of an essay with line breaks, and that I’m not engaged with the argument anyway, because it doesn’t seem urgent to me.That’s one kind of thing I mean. That Rothko thing.
I don’t mean the poets who take us out of a comfort zone but to whom we still, at some deep level, respond. Those are the ones who don’t readily fall into a category. Basil Bunting. Geoffrey Hill. Those excite me, in the way that some painters puzzle and excite me, because I can’t put them in any sort of category, and I’m not quite sure what’s going on, but at some level I’m engaged and moved and bothered. And I think it comes down to the business of a particular voice. I fall back on Clive James to articulate what I can’t myself. I keep re-typing these assertions in these cobweb posts. This must be at least the third time. They’ve stuck:
“You hear the force of real poetry at first glance”
“Everything depended, and still depends, on the quality of the moment…..it’s the moment that gets you in”
and never forget the adage about the ‘well-separated poem’ that makes it ‘almost impossible to memorise what you can never quite forget’
Which is a very articulate way of saying something that can’t quite be articulated. I just have to say I know what he means, and you have to take my word for that, just as I know that my partner knows what Rothko means, and that she can’t be doing with this image that either says nothing much to her, or just gives her the creeps, and which fascinates me.
Richard Dadd. The fairy feller’s masterstroke. Painted in a mental asylum. Obsessively realistic and accurately rendered and packed with small frightening or disturbing or saddening images and narratives. You can’t categorize it. It either speaks to you or it doesn’t and I can’t explain it. It’s like nothing else that I’m used to liking.
Which is, as ever, a very roundabout way of coming to our special guest for this week. Mark Hinchcliffe. I’ve known him for two or three years since I met him first at a Monday night poetry workshop at The Albert in Huddersfield. He brought a poem to work on that totally threw me, because I had no handle on it, I didn’t know what it was for, because it seemed strange and arbitrary. D H Lawrence was in there. And a fox. It was odd. And I couldn’t forget it even though I couldn’t quite remember why it was stuck in my mind. I’ve got to know him and his poems better since then, but he’s never brought one that didn’t disturb/surprise without ever being self-announcing. If I had to think of one word for their immediate quality , it would be ‘diffident’. Only to say the next impression is ‘not diffident at all’. Very Richard Dadd. And very magical, like Chagall…or, at least this phase of Chagall.
I think it’s an easy transition from this image to one of Mark’s poems.
A fox slowly swayed
down the middle of Cowlersley Lane,
eyes glassy and dazed.
People ran out of their houses
and you brought a bowl of milk.
Dressed in a pink tutu and purple glittery wig,
you knelt beside it as it lay down
in the gateway to a garden.
The people peered into
the darkness of its eyes
as if they looked into a stable
or a volcano slowly burning out,
holding up their hands
to catch the sparks
from its glowing tail.
I can’t explain why I think it works. I want to say…but that’s not my sort of poem, not my sort at all. And it ignores me and goes on memorising itself.While you’re thinking about that, you should meet the poet. He’ll introduce himself. I’ve italicised a couple of passages. It will be obvious why.
“My first taste of poetry was an ‘A’ level set text in 1976 (when I was 16), the anthology of Gunn and Hughes. Our English teacher played a record of Ted Hughes, one of his radio broadcasts-Capturing animals, where he read his poems and talked about writing. I never forgot his voice, and sought out his poetry, and then found out he was born in Mytholmroyd, and made a pilgrimage there. Over the next few years I found and read his poems, essays, stories, book reviews, all I could lay my hands on. I also started writing poems of my own just after hearing the record.
I have always seen poetry as a healing energy, and when my father died ( I was 17) I wrote about my feelings, I wrote another poem about him the other week.
I went to Birmingham University to read English, kept writing, and published poems in the University magazine. I also started to correspond with Ted Hughes, and later he asked me to send my poems to him, and he commented on them. My last card from him was a few weeks before he died.
I worked for 25years as a psychiatric nurse and used to write as a way of honouring the people I tried to help, and to help me make sense of the chaos that flourished within psychiatry.
I started going to The Albert Pub in Huddersfield, and read there for the first time in 1998. Later I was an organiser for the readings. I still love being involved with the Albert, and going to the workshops- they generate most of my poems.
I recently had a collection published by Calder Valley Press, edited by Bob Horne, and this has meant a great deal.
I love to see myself in a circle of poets, past and present, William Blake, Keats, Wordsworth, Dylan Thomas, T.S. Eliot, Yeats, Ted Hughes, Seamus Heaney, Gary Snyder, Allen Ginsberg, Kathleen Jamie, Frances Horovitz, Carola Luther, Adrian Mitchell, Thom Gunn amongst others.
For me there is no experience that comes close to how I feel when I have written a poem, to see those words on the paper which I have charmed into being.
In recent years, I have been followed by a gang of spirits, clamouring to be written about, they are like musical themes, they are cats , hares, The Green Man, mermaids and foxes. They slip in through cracks in my mind. An old man, an archaeologist killed by fundamentalists is always behind me, tapping on my shoulder, and a boy who looks for aeroplanes on the moors is much in my mind.”
There’s a matter-of-factness about the way Mark says most things, so you almost miss them. The raven and the laughing head is his first pamphlet; this is not only someone who sent his poems to Ted Hughes, but corresponded with him over the years. There’s a special endorsement on the back cover of the pamphlet (this first pamphlet)
“There’s a lovely lyrical completeness about your poems. So natural and full – they just float out. Something perfect about them. So wholehearted and affectionate. (So rare!)”
Ted Hughes [Letters of Ted Hughes. ed Reid. (Faber and Faber 2007. p734)]
Whatever it is that makes you read Mark Hinchcliffe’s poems more than once, and which lodges them in your mind, be assured that Ted Hughes got there first. And, whatever you do, keep in mind the gang of spirits that slip in through the cracks. The boy who looks for aeroplanes on the moors keeps turning up on Monday nights in Huddersfield and bothers me as much as he does Mark.
At which point I shall say: here are two more poems. When you’ve read them, read them again and then close your eyes. Don’t analyse. Either you’ll get them or you won’t. It’s something that ultimately we can’t help.
When you stood up
from your chair
your skin peeled away,
raw red strips,
the flesh stuck,
and you took the wolverine skin,
laid it on your neck,
placed the otter skin on your shoulder,
the jaguar on your chest,
and the leopard on your back.
His spots pricked into your skin
The wild boar covered your legs,
the wolf lay around your ankles.
And you ran,
you sprang through the window
into the garden,
the apple trees shook their heads,
the blossom danced,
and under the grass
your bull stirred, bellowed,
his ring shimmering like the moon,
like a buried hoard.
(actually, I want to say….’that ring, shimmering, that round moonlike glimmering ring’..I can’t keep quiet about it. Let’s see if I can be more disciplined about the next one)
Billy the Kid plays croquet
with his gang.
Frank and Jesse James
play tennis doubles
against the Earp brothers.
John Wesley Harding races cars.
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
blow peas through a hole in the wall.
Guests from abroad,
Ned Kelly plays blind man’s buff,
Robin Hood climbs trees, and
Little John plays basketball.
But the Oglala Sioux
led by Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, Black Elk, and Red Cloud
take all the gold medals
back to Dakota.
They keep the sun in the sky
for seven weeks,
they talk to the eagles,
they dance on the earth,
green shoots spring up.
This is what another of the Albert Poets, Carola Luther, wrote about Mark’s work. She puts it better than I can.
“Mark Hinchcliffe writes love poems, praise poems and poems of lamentation and devotion…these are not ironic poems. They weave myth into both the dark and the everyday with a seriousness and attention that could be prayer”
The phrase that really nails it for me is these are not ironic poems. Nor are they naive or innocent or playful, though they might be any or all of these things. I said at the start there are things I just don’t ‘get’ and I should end by saying there things I think I ‘get’ but can’t explain. I just know that I keep re-reading these poems because they keep puzzling me.
So thank you, Mark Hinchcliffe for being our guest on this sunshiny Bank Holiday Monday.
Just two things before we go. Next week will be a sort of complicated explanation about misinformed research, and how poems go wrong. It wasn’t scheduled, which means that a Poetic Gem Revisited : Roy Cockcroft will be a week later than planned, as will every poet who comes after him.
Second thing. Go and buy Mark’s pamphlet. It’s available from Calder Valley Poetry via the following link. https://caldervalleypoetry.com/about/
Thank you for coming. It was lovely to see you all.