Just back from five days at a writing retreat at Garsdale Head, about eight miles up the valley from Hawes.
It felt strange, last Monday, to be driving past the Ribblehead viaduct, all the moors streaked with snow that lies longer in the lea of the gritstone walls that march straight up big hills, for no purpose other than enclosure, the marking of boundary and ownership. Deeper drifted snow in hollows and ghylls; curling snow cornices on the edges of landslip. I drove past the turn to Dentdale, and realised with a kind of lurch that years ago, on my first hiking holiday, I’d walked from Dent youth hostel straight over the moor top to Oughtershaw and Langstrothdale, down into Buckden and then to Kettlewell. The lurch came from seeing how big the moors are, how far. I didn’t know better then. I just did it without thinking. Last Monday, I knew I’d never do anything like it again. I’d be too timid, too anxious, and in any case my legs wouldn’t let me. It’s an uncomfortable feeling, that sense of inability, and if you let it in, it makes you feel as though there are lots of other things you can’t do any more. Like writing anything you’d want to read again.
I think that diffuse draining of confidence leaked into the workshop tasks, which all seemed to become reflective, introspective, all about ‘I’ and ‘me’. You lug a lot of baggage into workshops. Or at least I do. Often it’s useful baggage, stuff you’ve just read or done, that lets you come at the moment obliquely. A simple example would be the way you can approach your own inner life via the narratives of myth or folk tale, via ventriloquism, hiding inside another imagined self or persona. This last week has been about finding no hiding place, and being unsure of the way language can let you speak truly about the unadorned experience. I think that’s at least part of what Yeats meant about the foul rag and bone shop of the heart. I firmly believe that it was just what I needed. Whether I liked it or not was neither here nor there. When I’m asked what I expect from a writing workshop I say, blithely, that I want to be shifted out of my comfort zone. I wasn’t disappointed. Thank you, Kim Moore.
I wanted to say all that before sharing one of those poems that seem to come without worry or effort, because sometimes I forget to say thanks for their turning up. Of course, they don’t come out of nowhere. It’s nice to acknowledge a debt to those who make a place to start. Here’s a task that came at the very end of a Poetry Business writing day. Task 7. One of Ann Sansom’s six line specials, with four or five minutes and no more to finish your morning on a high.
How does it work? The instruction is to write a succession of lines, and each of the lines must contain one of the prompt words or ideas. A hero, a time word, some sort of headgear, something to do with a church, a free choice line and the name of a county. Any of those could be a trigger, but it happened that I’d been reading, and rereading Robert Macfarlane’s Landmarks. I’d earmarked several things. One was his writing about the Finnish Kalavela, and the hero Vainamoinen who the legend credits with winning the gift of fire for mankind. The other wonderful core idea is that of the naming of places, and of landscapes, that the world is en-chanted into being by knowing and saying its True Names.
What else comes along, what baggage? For me, the quest of Ged in Ursula le Guin’s Wizard of Earthsea. The end of Ged’s quest is to understand that he can only know his true self by naming it with his true name. Names are the core of magic. The journeys of the innocent heroes and heroines of folk tale are important too….journeys through dark forest, over mountain passes, on the edges of dark seas. Elemental places, much like the snow-streaked dark moors or the coast of Northumbria; Dunstanburgh and the Farnes where the mythic is just about to break in like hail. And there it is, a workshop prompt that lights a fuse for a fire you’ve been building without really thinking why. Without Macfarlane, that line ‘for the true naming of the world’ wouldn’t have jumped on the page to introduce a list of everything you might need. I should write a praise-song for lists and listing, and their seductive forward-pushing rhythms. Here’s the finished version.
For the true naming of the world
For the true naming of the world
you need one who will recognise a fish
that has swallowed a star
that fell through the vaults of the air;
one who wears a helmet or bears a sword
forged in the heart of mountains,
from metals whose names no man ever knew,
to bear a name that can not be forgot,
a name to fit in a verse to be sung at a feast;
you need one to be sent on a quest
through silent forests, stony wastes,
to a bony church and a hillside that opens
to a way that he’ll walk through all the ages,
to come dumb and dazzled to the seashore
under huge lucid skies, into the wind,
to build monasteries, to illuminate gospels;
to speak to otters, spear the sea like a gannet,
to be one with wind and with seals.
Then stones and flowers might come
to know themselves. Day’s-eye, comfrey,
coltsfoot, mallow, vetch, stonecrop, feverfew.
Hornblende, granite, wolfram, flint and gneiss;
valleys might come know their depths,
and becks and burns to know the purposes of rain,
and the ways of the clough and the gorge
under blood moons, hare moons, the moon
when horns are broken. Then.
Almost everything in this is borrowed. I’m pretty sure the ‘hillside that opens’ is from William Mayne’s Earthfasts, set in Arkengathdale. I imagined the kind of hillside that loomed over the house I stayed in last week. This one
the lucid skies are the astonishing skies of the Northumberland coast; the founder of monasteries is Cuthbert, the gospels are from Lindisfarne; Cuthbert spoke with otters and seals, but the imagining of it is from Robert Westall’s The Wind Eye. The naming of flowers is from Macfarlane, and the Native American names for the moons of different seasons are from Dee Brown.
Sometimes it’s even less complicated. Sometimes you seem to be given something that comes pretty well fully-formed. In this case a sort of retelling of a parable from Bede. More Northumbria, but in my mind, it happens in Whitby. It seemed to have its own urgent rhythm.
and the finished version, which just seemed to know its own linebreaks
In the meantime
because that’s how it is, the sparrow
flying into the meadhall, bewildered
by smoke-reek, gusts of beer-breath,
out of the wild dark and into the half-
light of embers, sweat, the steam
of fermenting rushes, and maybe
a harp and an epic that means nothing
in a language it doesn’t know, this sparrow,
frantic to be out there, and maybe
it perches on a tarry roof beam, catches
a wingtip, comes up against thatch
like a moth on a curtain, and it beats
its wings, it beats its wings, it tastes
a wind with the scent of rain, the thin
smell of snow, of stars, and somehow
it’s out into the turbulence of everywhere,
and who knows what happens next.
So there we are. Every time you think you have nothing to say, or it all seems too hard and miserable, say a little prayer for the ones you were given free, like a blessing.
[Both poems come from Much possessed . smith|doorstop 2016.
Available via The Poetry Business, or from me direct. See My books at the top of the page]