Prior warning: early parts of this cobweb strand may come across as tetchy. If so, it’s not intended. I worry that someone might think it’s personally directed. It isn’t. Anyway. Here’s John Keats, listening to, or for, nightingales on Hampstead Heath. Now, that’s what a Poet looks like. Or it’s what one painter thought a Poet should look like. I suspect that poor Keats was more likely to be found in straitened circumstances somewhere unfashionable in London. But you get the picture. I’m not sure at what point you get have a capital ‘P’ for your status…probably you need to be dead for a good long time, by which time you’ll be known for writing Great Literature. In any case, it’s not something we should worry about for ourselves. My worry, if worry it be, is a small one; it itches and irks, and I want shot of it.
It’s this: I get uncomfortable with folk I don’t know, except via a few poems and Facebook posts, or bit of Twitter,calling themselves ‘poets’. I more than suspect that they shouldn’t. That it’s for other people to use that label for you. I get distinctly uncomfortable when someone calls me a poet. I usually say..no; I’m someone who writes poems. I believe there’s a real distinction to be made. I’m an ex-teacher who writes poems. On the other hand, it would never cross anyone’s mind, would it, to describe Larkin as a librarian who also wrote poems. ‘Poet’ is the word that comes to mind. It’s got me thinking about what it is when someone becomes a ‘poet’…because he or she has decidedly got something that I know full well I haven’t.
I was kicking it over in my mind on a two hour drive back from a birthday party in Whitby last night. I suppose it may have had something to do with the fact that the birthday girl is the daughter of someone I wrote a poem about. The poem won a prize and it made me believe I could go on writing poems, because someone might read them. Here’s a couple of stanzas from the poem that did it.
According to the specialists you died six months ago
and I like sitting with you, proving there’s an afterlife
as we roll cigarettes, you perched like a wire bird
up on your kitchen top beside the angel
that I made for you before I knew you weren’t alive.
Your eyes grow bright in your dead woman’s face,
then sink, then glow like cigarettes, like the ironworks
up the coast, or the small lights on the cobles
tied up and tilted on the mud; like the strange flares
from the stack high up on Boulby Cliff, where the shaft
goes down a whole dark mile of ammonites, and heads off
far away beneath the weight of oil rigs, and sunken ships,
and shoals of cod, and all the grey North Sea.
Let’s be clear. I didn’t decide to write a poem. I just wanted to say something about someone who meant a lot to me, and I wanted to find out what it was. It’s one of those gifts, those insights you’re sometimes granted, and you feel duly grateful. It didn’t make me feel remotely like any of the things I’ve trawled from the internet this morning. Like these:
“When one does something, one must do it wholly and well. Those bastard existences where you sell suet all day and write poetry at night are made for mediocre minds – like those horses that are equally good for saddle and carriage, the worst kind, that can neither jump a ditch nor pull a plow.”― Gustave Flaubert
Well, I’m sorry, Gustave, but I’m not ready to give up the day job. Nor can I get on board with Sylvia Plath, who wrote “Oh what a poet I will flay myself into.” Though I sometimes bump into those who seem equally desperate to be ‘poets’. Anyway, flaying isn’t on my agenda or in my bucket-list.
I got a quiet smile from the self deprecation of someone called Mary Karr who wrote :“I’d spent way more years worrying about how to look like a poet — buying black clothes, smearing on scarlet lipstick, languidly draping myself over thrift-store furniture — than I had learning how to assemble words in some discernible order.” I say this despite the fact that my partner Flo is wont to say as I head off in my collarless shirt and waistcoat to some reading or other: “hey up, Fogs, you’ve got your poet set on again ”
I’ll run a mile from the orotundites of one Greg Bear (who he?) who says without apparent irony: “Once, poets were magicians. Poets were strong, stronger than warriors or kings — stronger than old hapless gods. And they will be strong once again”, or Wallace Stevens: ‘The poet is the priest of the invisible.’ You can see how easy it is to be completely uncomfortable with the idea of calling yourself a poet. Bob Dylan is easier company, for once: I think a poet is anybody who wouldn’t call himself a poet.
I could go on. And yet. There are those who I can only think of as poets, albeit some may have been priests or librarians, or hospital receptionists or teachers. It seems they were always poets first and the other things were incidental. Men and women with astonishing imaginative/empathic reach allied to the (apparently effortless) control of words, of the capabilities of language, syntax, rhythm, form. Men and women who are artists with verbal language in the way that, say, Hockney, lays down a mark, or Picasso makes a pure line. They seem to have been born that way, regardless of the phenomenal effort they put into assembling their craft.
What I think distinguishes them from someone like me is the feeling that they simply can’t help themselves. I’m going to struggle to articulate this, but it’s what I feel when I read Gerard Manly Hopkins (especially him), and R S Thomas with his hardscrabble neighbours on poor farmland. Sometimes, it’s as though they’d rather not be carrying the burden of this impossible urge. Think of the two poets who defined poetry for my generation. Ted Hughes. He was 27 when ‘Hawk in the Rain’ was published. Heaney, only 4 years older than me, was also 27 when Death of a naturalist appeared. What they each had was a visceral engagement with the world out there and the way it spoke to and through them; one that was fed by an absorption in the physical world of farms and foxes as unanswerable as, say, Slvia Plath’s engagement with the inner world of the psyche. The thing is, it went on and on, poem after poem. The landscapes might change, but the charged connections, rarely if ever.
I think, if I’m lucky, that might happen to me once or twice before I die, but I can see the same quality of ‘not being able to help yourself’ flare up in the contemporary poems that have excited me..ones by Christy Ducker, by Fiona Benson, by Pascale Petit, Kim Moore, Steve Ely. Ones who do it often enough for me to think of them as poets rather than people who write poems. Forget the hierarchies, the rankings, the ‘who’s better than who’ nonsense. Some have done more than others, and some have had more success in terms of public recognition than others, but whatever it is, they have it, and they are poets. They are passionately moved by what they see and feel around then..it’s a quiet passion, but passion it undoubtedly is.
Which brings me, if you’re still reading, to today’s guest, Carola Luther. Two quotations will help me make the link with what I’ve written so far. Kim Moore, first, from a Sunday Poem post of 2012, writing about a poem from Walking with the animals:
– it was hard trying to pick a favourite. I narrowed it down to eight across the two books, but decided to go for ‘Mourning’ . I think this was maybe the poem that gave me the open door into Carola’s work – it is like a like a prayer or a benediction
And then this from Carcanet publicity for another of Carola’s collections: Arguing with Malarchy which, the writer, says is:
full of voices: tender, sinister or angry, the glimpsed depths of their stories, the distances they have travelled. Carola Luther’s poems are alert to the ways a life can be briefly snared in the turn of a phrase – or in the moment when language fails. She explores silence, absences, the unspoken communication between animals and human beings, the pauses and boundaries between what is remembered, forgotten or invented, the living and the dead.
Both of these pick out what I think is a numinous quality in Carola’s work…’a prayer or a benediction’; ‘the glimpsed depths’; the way they are alert to ‘the moment when language fails’…and thereby rescues it through language. It’s this quality of being alive to the moment that makes me think of Carola Luther as something more than ‘someone who writes poems’. Let’s meet her.
She’s characteristaically brief about herself; she sends me this:
“Carola Luther’s first poetry collection, Walking the Animals was published by Carcanet Press in 2004 and shortlisted that year for the Forward Prize for First Collection.
Her second collection Arguing with Malarchy was published by Carcanet Press in 2011.
Carola was Poet in Residence at the Wordsworth Trust in 2012. Herd, a pamphlet of poems written in that year, was published in by The Wordsworth Trust (2012).
She has also written texts for theatre and mixed media performances. The most recent of these was the libretto for Lilith, (composer, Dimitar Bodurov) a piece commissioned and conceived by soprano Claron McFadden. Other composers Carola has worked with are Jenni Molloy (UK) and Byron Au Yong (Seattle).”
I’ll let all that speak for itself. I know Carola through the Albert poets, both as a guest reader and generous host, and even more as a member of the critiquing workshops I go to on Monday evenings in Huddersfield. I’ve come to rely on her sharp ear and keen editorial eye, and especially the way she responds to the work, and what it says. She has that quality of quiet engagement in a workshop that I like so much in her poems. She’s sent me three to share with you. They’re quite long, and packed. It’s a treat.
The first is one I wanted for the way it illuminates Kim Moore’s sense of a prayer or benediction. Carola provides an explanation of the use of what might feel like an arcane bit of lexis. ‘The word Selah appears in the Psalms. Its exact meaning is not clear. It is thought to mean ‘pause’; or be an end (similar to amen); or be a musical direction indicating a breathing space. It is also apparently similar to the Hebrew words for lift up and praise.’ The poem recreates one of those moments that can be too-easily missed.
Driving north towards the first snows
I see the moon’s blue hare
balance on its ears.
Except for a ridge of cloud
the sky is clear
waiting for its morning
Nnnn the sky half-belonging
to the night Nnnn the sky on tiptoe
reaching for its day
everything today explained by sky
its bank of deep blue becoming
pink without a threshold
strip of violet. Should there
not be violet ?
Radio alert. Soon a gale
will blow from Russia
and the tight contours of a front
make mountain maps of storm
though now it’s bone-china
dawn give thanks
Give thanks the trees are still as cakes
whole canopies dipped in sugar in the night
and in the light
Each sheep motionless
in its cumulus
and I too
bring my car
to a stop.
I see the outline of the moon
fading in the early light.
It could break through
at anytime twisting
upright from its caul
and haunch away
before the onslaught
of the storm
Or if it proves too late selah for that
might it fall unseen to earth
defrost in its plastic bag
a knuckle knurl selah
till night ?
You should read it aloud, following its length down the page, listening for its rhythm, hearing the stage directions of those line breaks. Then you can go back and relish the precision of the moments: each sheep motionless in its cumulus, trees ‘still as cakes’, the zip – breast/ black anorak/ of wings. And become aware of the counterpointing of rounded and spiky textured sound, the images that are as precise as the ones in dreams. It’s lovely.
The next one is one that stopped me in my tracks at a Monday night workshop, and it’s a special request from me. Carola lives in Sowerby Bridge, and I suspect the narrative of this flood has special resonance for everyone from the upper Calder valley. (Whatever WordPress has done or will do, this poem should be in quatrains)
The roof of the distant house is still attached,
lashed down with tarp and rope
by the woman who floated past
on a section of road.
Now fieldlakes are sea. I watch wavelets
lap at tip-toey hooves of sheep and goats
on archipelagos. Tail to tail
they stand stock-still and stare
at this tree, at the house, at the ridge
in the distance that hides the farm.
Only when hocks go down do they bleat.
The bleating goes on.
The man who thought he was alone in my tree
croons a song of comfort. A tenor.
He sings to the beasts in a tongue I don’t know
but it could be Hebrew. Perhaps he’s a cantor.
He reminds me of my mother so I join in quietly
in Levantine Arabic, her home language.
I’m godless and tone-deaf but harmonise
as well as I can.
He looks up at my branch, shock in his eyes,
raises arms in the rain. I think he weeps.
We both sing louder. From the visible
tip of the hill, a bark. Vixen.
Two dogs howl from the house.
The woman leans from an attic window
dog either side and a chicken. She’s waving.
I think she’s a Christian. She sings
of waters that stood above mountains,
covers of the deep flung out like garments,
and a God who came to rebuke
the waters, and the waters fled, they fled.
A bellowing stag on a knoll to the east.
I hear scream of hare and keckering
badger. Moles and beetles join in
with squeak of weasel, squirrel, rat,
even dumb worms open their mouths
to mouth at capsizing frogs
and otters that mew from a channel.
Then the sounding of cattle.
It is ox-horn and shofar calling
to the planet’s diaspora, and I see herds
in silhouette from the milkfarm amass on the hill.
A lion from the zoo on the moor
roars his answer, and there is sweetness
in the sound of cow and lion lowing together.
I think of my lover and I miss her.
And just as noise reaches crescendo, birds
rise up like bodhisattvas, and all things with wings
strain skyward as one to lift the world.
Crows, bees, peregrines, pulling
skyward with bats and swans,
and on the backs of hawks, the little things
singing and singing, mayfly, crane-fly, wren;
and high up, a harrier, and there a dove,
I’m certain I’m looking at a collared dove,
and I turn to ask the man who chants kaddish
when I realize that he and the sheep
have gone quiet, the goats are swimming
in silent circles, and water pulls at my hips.
The forward momentum of this poem is as irresistible as floods. There’s an en-chantment in the naming of creatures, and of the consolations of song and of religion and of gods, which means that I found the last line shocking. You think you know where you are in this poem until it takes your feet out from under you with an alarming shift of perspective; twice.
The man who thought he was alone in my tree
croons a song of comfort
In the way of a dream, you have no time to reflect on the oddity of it; it is what is, with all the inevitability of a dream. I just have to go back and reread this poem, aloud, letting the voice sink in.
Finally, a poem full as an egg with richness: (an apology…this poems is constructed in couplets. WordPress has a habit of closing stanza breaks. If it has done it again after two re-edits, I’m mortified)
The first blossoms are caught in the slow-motion act of bursting
their scabbards. The timid will survive, not these flamboyances
blowing out innards, shaking out pleats from their whites too early
not to be nipped in frost or unfrocked by the forecast snow.
Today has been full of such sorrows, regrets felt as motes of perfection
breaking, something important breaking, a pod, a contract,
contraction of the heart. If I let myself be flamboyantly open, I feel them
these minuscule mistakes, as well as my own betrayal of the trees,
the birds, the animals. For example, what does it mean to walk in, again
and again, on that young heron? I say walking in, as if the bird is human,
as if its long pond floating with weed and the single-track road laid down
like carpet before it, were the boudoir, the bedroom, the madre
chambre of a tender king in which only the beloved is allowed. A mallard
sieves green with its beak. Everything else is quiet in the aftermath,
outbreathing relief, it is easter holidays, dusk, and at last the people
go home. Trees wait. Blossoms hold tight. Breath. Beat. All clear.
The woodpecker grinds open its gate and the evening rituals begin:
the deer lips the earth, the mallard dips, birds call and chunter
as if before doorways of shops, squirrels running along branches
doing chores like the branches are streets, and the breeze shaking
brand-new canopies, their signs of new leaves, buds, little white flowers.
And then here I am. Each evening this week I have come, walking into fright
and the scattering of animals interrupted while doing their thing, disturbing
the sheep, disturbing everything, especially the young heron who feeds here,
drinks, looks at himself, looks at, and into himself with a concentration
that could be creating. Yesterday when I came, he turned to stone
to wait it out. But with the evening pull of hunger and disappearing
light, he risked it, dropped his head to puncture water, sup, sip,
try to concentrate, to ignore me, get the depth back. It didn’t work.
He opened wide his resignation. Flew. Immediately I missed
the grey-white body, his ponytail, his tribal, inner-city Manchu queue,
I missed the pharaoh eye out-lined in kohl, his neck-tube, narrow, vulnerable,
and down the throat-front, the long punk zip, as if in the past his throat
had been slit lengthways, then stitched back together in hurry and remorse, suture
upon suture in thick black thread. On the heron’s chest two dreadlocks
of sorrow, the hunter’s own hair I imagined, sewn as a sign, a message
to sisters and brothers to leave this bird alone, he has died once
for no reason, and should not die again. I did not shoot or even throw a stone,
but here I was nonetheless, staring at wounds, demanding as my right, ownership
of looking, and only now asking, do creatures and trees not need
what I need, to be left alone, to be unseen, sometimes, in order to be
themselves, and what I write becomes a question to myself, about privacy,
when have I had my allotment of looking, when is it enough? And I realise
of course, I am talking of theft. I am talking of the snake at the water trough.
It’s so crammed and so particular, I look for analogies in painting. It has the strangely disconcerting quality of a Richard Dadd, and the lush sensory qualiry of a Rousseau. I love the way it says thankyou to D H Lawrence, one poet to another. I like the cheeky insousciance of the title. I hope you do too. Thank you Carola Luther for finally being a cobweb guest. The pleasure was all ours.
Acknowledgements: Versions of two of the poems in todays cobweb have been previously published. Theft first appeared in Herd a pamphlet published by the Wordsworth Trust in 2012. The Rising was first published online in The Compass Poetry Journal March 2016 (ed Andrew Forster and Lindsey Holland). With thanks to The Wordsworth Trust and to Andrew Forster and Lindsey Holland.
Finally, a reminder; Carola’s collections are available from the publisher. Just go the the Carcanet site. And buy them.
Arguing with Malarchy
Published: July 2011 Carcanet Press
Walking the Animals
Published: April 2004 Carcanet Press
See you next week.