I’m aiming for a short post today. We’ll see.
I’m 75 tomorrow. This comes as something of a shock. Or, alternatively, as just a number. I prefer the alternative. However, I’ve come to acknowledge in the last couple of years that there are things I could do that I can’t do any more, or as well, or for as long. Physical things. As my joints grow more crumbly I can’t do hill walks that I could do five years ago. For a time, this made me very resentful and cross and bad-tempered and sorry for myself.
When that happens, you need to stand back and take stock. Like Ivan Denisovitch, with his own brand of practical Epicureanism; an audit of the things you have that could be taken away. Counting your blessings, I suppose. What happens is that I remind myself that though I can’t do what I did five years ago, physically I can do twenty times more than I could do fifteen years ago. Because ten years ago, I had new hips fitted.
Ten years ago, I didn’t write many poems, and the ones I wrote were not worth anyone’s attention. Five years ago I put my mind to it and determined to do something about it. Don’t ask me why, because I’m not precisely sure, but the thing is that essentially, I followed the exhortation of that Nike advert. Just do it. Whatever it is, do it, as well as you can. Don’t put it off, don’t make excuses, don’t talk yourself out of it. Just do it. And then keep on doing it. It’s really that simple. So why don’t we? Metaphor time.
If you’ve never done any rock climbing, this will look amazing, and remote and mad. And in any case, your senses may have been blunted by CGI images, and it won’t seem that remarkable. On the other hand, we all understand the business of height and of falling, and conclude that it’s all very well but not for the likes of us.
If you’ve just started rock climbing and got the bug, you might just dream of doing something like this amazing woman does with apparent ease. You can come to dream of it, you start to read about climbs and routes and lines, you start pushing your limits. And you hit a point when you know that’s it. You’ve hit your technical or physical limits. With me it was a combination of those and vertigo.
What do you do? You can keep pushing till you do something disastrous. Or you can be unhappy and resentful because you realise you’re not going to get better, and you’ll never do what the superstars do so (apparently) easily. You know you can’t do it. ‘It’ being defined what you can’t do.
Or you serenely face up to the fact that you never could have done ‘it’, but you certainly can do some of it. You know what it feels like, the pull of gravity, the cold of stone, the moments when you felt invulnerable, standing on a big safe ledge high up, above the world. I tried to catch that in a poem : Seen from above
“……that time, belayed high up on Gimmer Crag
we watched a tiny Mini puttering up the Langdale road.
It missed the sharp left turn, and, with a tinkling of stone,
ran slap into the boundary wall. There was a little plume of steam.
We smiled. Above us in the quiet, a kestrel hovered;
sheep coughed, and cropped.
Distance takes away all difficulty.”
It was that feeling of godlike irresponsible superiority that I could feel on even an ‘easy’ climb…this one being Holly Tree Traverse, which probably only counts as a scramble these days. Or, in Scotland, a walk. Still, I chanced my arm with a metaphor [climbing/writing] so I’ll push on. I can remember beginning.
I can remember the clumsiness with dealing with the gear, the ropes, the slings. All that. And eventually the clumsiness grew less. You get better if you practise. You remind yourself how far you’ve come, and if you want to stay sane, you stop worrying about the superstars, and you do what you can. You just do it. And who, knows, you might just get better.
The thing is, you won’t get better if you keep mediocre company. You learn from the company you keep. The fact that I can’t climb up vertical ice walls doesn’t stop me from enjoying the company of ,say, Joe Simpson. When it comes to poetry, I’ve set myself an annual task/routine. I choose a poet who I like via a handful of poems. It has to be a poet who’s kept on writing and writing. Enough to have a big fat Collected Poems. And then I read X poems every day for a year till I get to the end. So far Ive read Charles Causley, Norman McCaig, and U A Fanthorpe like this, and on January 1st this year I started on David Constantine. 374 big fat pages.
To my dismay, very briefly, I felt the poetry equivalent of what I’ve felt about my physical limitations. It didn’t last long, but I think it came down to seeing that he’s a year younger than me, and his first collection A brightness to cast shadows was published in 1980. In the way of things, I estimate that he was 33 when he had enough material from which to select a collection, and then to interest a publisher. And there certainly weren’t remotely as many poetry publishers around then as there are now.And I was jealous. Which is, of course, not only a waste of time, but a waste of the emotional energy you’d be better off spending on things that matter. Let me share some the lines that put me in mind of that woman free climbing that terrifying blank face in Yosemite.
the clock pecks everything to the bone.
[from As our bloods separate]
I see the damned are like this:
loquacious to no effect……….
incapable of nakedness
they rasp their hands on one another
[from The damned ]
the dead lamb picketed a ewe.
She cropped round, bleating
and chewing in that machinal way of sheep
[from Lamb ]
I’m not a stone, I’m dirty snow that in
her sunlight melts. It has no choice but to
[from Suddenly she is radiant again ]
How soon, I wonder, after how many Novembers
did the years begin to seem not paces
interminably around a pit nor steps deserting
a place, but slow degrees by which she came
over the curve of the world into that hemisphere
his face rose in?
[from In memoriam 8571 Private J W Gleave ]
Like shrapnel in the lucky ones
she carried fragments in her speech
remarkable to her grandchildren
but to herself accustomed
[from In memoriam 8571 Private J W Gleave ]
But with a history of ECT
and separation Milburn Margaret Mrs
did not attain the obliterating sea
she got no further than the DHSS
and on a Friday in the public view
lodged on the weir as logs do
[From But with a history of ECT ]
…the morning’s broken glass
and brightening air could not pick up his breath
[From Boy finds tramp dead ]
you were working slowly on a smoke
and, tilting your indoor trilby, would appear
through clouds soon and would broach
your silence waiting like an untouched beer
for a man back from the gents
[Fron Elegy ]
The summer moon was terrible. It beamed
like Christ on Lazarus
[From Spring tide ]
It’s the company you keep. One who’s not afraid to learn from R S Thomas or Geoffrey Hill, or Tony Harrison or from Heaney or Hughes or MacCaig. Not afraid of ellipsis, awkward syntax, abstractions, rhyme or rhetoric. I shall enjoy my year with David Constantine, marvelling at what can be done with words. I was tempted to go off on one about the poetry equivalent of the X Factor, the world where all must have prizes, but I’m going to avoid the vexatious. Most of the folk I know in the tiny world of poetry and and those who write it are honest with themselves. They support each other. They don’t put on airs. They want to get better at what they do. As a rule, it seems to me that the more talented they are the more self-doubt they’re likely to have.
I’ll finish with an anecdote. Someone who I taught in my very first class in my very first week as full-time qualified teacher wrote to me a couple of days ago. For years he was a tour /stage manager for some of the biggest names in popular music.
“Speaking of booze and drugs, I also had a front row seat for Queen’s most successful times, from Live Aid to the death of Freddie, curtesy of the years I spent working for Elton’s manager, John Reid, who for a while managed both. Elton at least is still there, or was when I last looked.
I am very aware that all the music history I shared, no matter how remotely, through truly golden years, is not really relevant to anyone any longer (except old farts like us) and an echo of the transitory grandeur of these events only reverberates briefly through history upon the death of a protagonist.
The most surprising person who truly got that, was George Harrison, who I chatted with backstage during soundcheck at the Albert Hall, before he went on to join in a set with Eric Clapton at a charity event for Pamela Stevenson, that again, I stage managed.
At the time, George had not played live for 100 years or so and before he went on he said to me, ”Dunno why he wants me. Nobody will know who the **** I am….”
Keep that in mind. Then believe in yourself. What you’ve done is done. It doesn’t matter if it was good bad or indifferent. You can get better. Just do it.
David Constantine : Collected Poems [Bloodaxe 2004]. £12