I’ve just been trawling Google for ‘rag and bone shops’. Fascinatingly, nearly everything that shows up seems to be about faux-antique shops in pleasant places. Post-modern yuppie emporia for Grand Designs and interior decorator addicts. Almost certainly expensive and probably pretentious. Not what I was looking for, by a long chalk.
And why? Partly it was the realisation that the first bits of poetry that hit me in the solar plexus rather than in the intellect were Yeats’.
This is no country for old men.
An old man’s eagle mind.
“Players and painted stage took all my love
And not those things that they were emblems of.
Those masterful images because complete
Grew in pure mind but out of what began?
A mound of refuse or the sweepings of a street,
Old kettles, old bottles, and a broken can,
Old iron, old bones, old rags, that raving slut
Who keeps the till. Now that my ladder’s gone
I must lie down where all the ladders start
In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.”
The circus animals’ desertion caught me off guard, and bypassed the usual Prac. Crit. sieve that A levels and University equipped me with. I didn’t ‘understand’ it in any analytic way. It felt true and important. It still does. I hear Yeats asking ‘who was I kidding?’, telling himself he’s lost his way, needs to get back to basics. And the reality of the ‘basics’ felt shocking to me, then. I supposed then that he meant to embrace ‘realism’…which was fashionable enough in the 60s if you meant ‘kitchen sink’. Whatever that was. I knew about rag and bone men; they were familiar enough down our street in the 1940’s and 50’s. As was their cry. Ra’bones!.any kind of old rags! God knows how worn out things had to be before you’d think of throwing them away, but somehow, someone could make a living out of them. And after all, I lived in the Heavy Woollen District where things like blankets and overcoat material were spun and woven from recycled rags…which was called ‘shoddy’. My dad spun yarn from shoddy for 50 years.
I didn’t consciously think through whatever layers of meaning were implied by that ‘foul rag and bone shop’. I had a diffuse sense that he meant that truth didn’t reside in the myths of Oisin, or Cuchalain, that he’d been distracting himself from the real stuff, whatever that was. I didn’t stop to think that this stuff was worn out from life and use and carried its musty histories in its warp and weft. It’s a lot later that I came to see how the foul rag and bone shop of unconsidered memory is where poems that are (or seem to be) the real deal can come from.
I’ve been reading Julie Mellor’s poetry blog recently…she’s been reflecting on the processes of breaking out of a default way of drafting and composing by using randomising devices like cut-ups…just to see what happens. Other writers’ ways of working fascinate me. It reminds me of the pleasure to be had from watching actors, or listening to musicians in rehearsal (as opposed to in concert or performance). You can follow what she’s been doing via this link. Well worth it.
At which point I thought I might revisit poems that had seemed to come unbidden, yet seemed to be important, and to think about what was involved. At the risk of the whole business seeming a self-advertising ego trip, I thought that I’d like to have a look at poems I’ve written that have got ‘out there’ and done well for themselves, and to wonder how it happened. Today I’m going back to a poem called ‘Julie‘
It starts in a Jane Draycott workshop. Among the many tasks was one that I tend to distrust…where you’re given an image at random and invited to respond to it in one way or another. This one is from those nice boxes of Postcards from Penguin. 100 postcards using covers of vintage Penguin books.
And I have to say, I couldn’t see what could possibly be done with it. I feel that way when I look at it now. Somehow you need to bypass the rational/analytic bit of the brain, and especially the bit that worries about ‘writing poems’,here’s the notebook scrawl from 2013:
One of the reasons I keep all my workshop scribbles in bound books, and why I number the pages, is that I can revisit where things start, and remind my self what kind of trigger was involved. It’s why I write down what the workshop tutor says about the task. What did Jane say? You have to learn to search for or listen for the point of arrest. That intrigues me still, as does one of her phrases about the ignition point of a poem. I’ve come to conflate this with Clive James’ the moment that draws you in. It might be a word or a phrase, or a rhythm or a sensory memory. For me it’s almost always a visual image that may initially be diffuse and unfocussed, but it’ll be one that may snag and nag.
And then she went on to say:
the point will be be …what this is not, what this might be, where this isn’t.
It was the last bit that stuck I think. Flames. If not here, then where? I used to live between Redcar and Saltburn, and in the night there would be the flares of the ironworks up the coast, and sometimes the stacks of Wilton ICI ‘flaring off’. That’s where these flames would be. I’d recently had a reunion with Andy Blackford who I’d not seen in over 30 years. He has a house in Staithes, where the inland skyline is dominated by Boulby potash mine. It has a tall chimney. It doesn’t flare, but somehow it got conflated with those of ICI. A rag and bone shop of half-remembered stuff.
Staithes is a fishing village; the lovely fishing boats, the cobles that are descendants of Viking boats, sit tilted on the mud of the river at low tide, and suddenly I’m making a link with Whitby, where what mattered right then was my partner’s cousin Julie, mortally ill but defying the consultants by living on beyond the allotment they’d settled on. Just like that, she becomes the centre of the poem, the landscapes initially incidental, and then starting to take on a resonance that’s not just geographical. None of this has been intentional. I didn’t set out to write a poem about Julie. I didn’t set out with any purpose at all. On the other hand, it seemed essential that I saw her in her place in Whitby’s Old Town, low-ceilinged and bursting with stuff. Nutty and magical. Photos don’t do it justice, but here’s a flavour. Every single object has a complicated personal history. A wonderful ‘rag and bone shop’ if you like.
The way it fixed itself in the five minutes or so of first drafting was the house becoming a sort of theatre, or maybe an iconostasis for you perched like a wire bird/ up on your kitchen top. but I think the poem takes off in a way that was new to me when I focus on Julie rather than the anecdotal details. I’d never written a line like this
Your eyes grow bright in your dead woman’s face
Basically, I’d never written directly and honestly about someone I knew…it’s the kind of thing I avoided because there was always the terrifying possibility that the someone would read it and deny that it was true. It’s a real blocker, the fear of embarrassment, for me at least. But it’s what I think I started to learn about the rag-and-bone-shop of the heart. The shops I knew. But the heart was dangerous territory. There’s a huge release in writing a line like that, feeling it directly..if you’ve not done it before. A leap. But it puts the flames in their proper place, and at this point, the poem expands outwards into everywhere. Julie died a couple of months later and never got to read what I’d written. I know I’m glad I wrote it. Here’s the finished poem. Not a lot has changed, has it. Sometimes you’re awarded that kind of moment…but it doesn’t come out of nowhere. All the material, all the images were already hanging about, uncurated, all in a jumble, like the junk shop. What they needed was the catalyst. The nudge was the postcard, but the catalyst was ‘the heart’ , I think.
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 fridge’s crusted like a wreck, with magnets
and pictures of BobDylan, and you show me
that programme that Patti Smith had signed for you
not knowing you’d been applauding from the Underworld.
You make me laugh each time you tell the phone
it can get stuffed because it’s your mad mother
who will not believe that you’re not with us any more.
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.
It was a special poem for me in so many ways, not least that it won The Plough Poetry Competition in 2013. Andrew Motion picked it, and talked about that ‘expanding out’ of the last lines. Still, for me, it stays a poem from the rag-and-bone-shop that turns out not to be foul, after all.
Depending on the reaction, I’ll write some more posts about poems that have been significant for me, and how they came about. What I’d really like would be to share other poets’ stories. If you’re interested let me know via
Ideally, it would involve you still having the original drafts and a clear memory of the where and when and who of the process. But let’s just see, shall we.
Thanks for reading. I’m off on a writing week tomorrow, so there may be no post next Sunday. It’ll be as it’s meant to be.