Critics, poets and the common reader (PartTwo)

This being the second part of my appreciation of Yvonne Reddick’s Ted Hughes: Environmentalist and Ecopoet.

Ted Hughes was a prodigious reader of just about everything, and a prodigious writer of letters (700 pages of the collected letters), of poems (1200 pages), of plays and essays and so on. He was an educator, a broadcaster, a lecturer and a performer. He was conflicted hunter, a conflicted farmer (how many other poets do a full time job like that?), a conflicted and unfaithful husband, father, lover. He grew up in the physically and historically imbricated landscapes of the upper Calder Valley, and of Mexborough. Landscapes of the kind D H Lawrence grew up in. When I read Reddick’s accounts of various critics’ condemnation of his inconsistencies when it come to ecopolitics, I get annoyed. Because, I think, why should a poet be consistent, why should a life be simplified into ‘consistency’? 

There’s a very useful and concise summary at the end of Chapter 2, which begins

Ecopoetry, then, is a poetry of habitat; it explores our relationship to the environments and ecologies that surround us, the alterations we have made to them, and our imbrication within their system. It can no longer present the supposedly untouched landscapes of earlier nature poetry.

What hooks me is that notion of our imbrication within their system. I read this through a particular refracting lens. My habitat is a landscape that I see through the lenses of what I’ve read, the images I see, the physical familiar world I move through. In turn, that becomes the lens through which I read any poet of place, any ‘topological ‘poet.

Where I grew up there was a mill at the bottom of the street and a farm at the top. A quarter of a mile up the road were acres of municipal park woodlands. Beyond that, an open-cast valley, more woodlands, brickworks, some working pits. In the valley where I live now, not far away from where I was born, is polluted river, a canal, a railway (think : The Rainbow).  There are defunct mills,a defunct marshalling yard. No one can build on the field beyond my back garden because it has pitshafts in it. There’s an even older pitshaft under my neighbour’s house. And so on. Everything formerly ‘organic’ has been managed, enclosed, changed, even the river itself. I live on the edge of a coalfield where the 19thcentury houses are on the boundary between stone and brick. My horizon is the skyline of high moorland from Holme Moss to Oxenhope. This is the lens through which I read the poems of Remains of Elmet, through which I imagine the landscape of the Wodo’s wanderings, the corroded dystopian landscape of Crow, and through which I see foxes, thrushes, pike, hawks.

And then there are the voices of other poets of place: Nicholson, McCaig, Hill, McLean, and also the poets and writers of the edgelands: Lawrence, Steve Ely. The painters of place, too: Len Tabner, Peter Hicks, Peter Lanyon, Norman Ackroyd . I sometimes wonder what kind of implied writer and implied worlds I’d ‘read’ if I’d grown up in a big industrial city..Manchester, say, or out in the flatlands of the East Riding, or the Fens.

And there, I suppose, is where literary criticism and scholarship comes in, to help us see differently, to ask us to consider looking through different lenses. Which brings me finally to Yvonne Reddick’s book, the scope and sheer knowledgeability of which makes it difficult for me to do it justice. It’s so packed I found it helpful to think of it a collectionof books, each of which could be read in their own right. 

In her introduction she is clear that the she will focus more closely on Hughes as a public figure than on his personal life. She aims to explore the environmental and ecopoetic richness of Hughes’ work, and to also pay attention to the intersection of environmental preoccupations with other themes. She argues that one of the main reasons he became an environmentalist was to restore mankind’s broken relationship with “the source”. In that Hughes sought to restore this disrupted relationship via writing as well as environmental campaigns, it is ecocriticism, ecopoetry and his idea of ‘nature, that will be explored in order to find out how he did this.

The first chapter proper (or book, if you like) Hughes, Ecocriticism and Ecopoetry is a tour d’horizon that takes the reader on a guided exploration of the thickets of the ecocriticism of Hughes’ poetry. Given the density of the terrain it’s a credit to the clarity of Reddick’s prose that it always seems like a manageable journey. Beginning with an exploration of Hughes’ developing concepts of ‘nature, and of what we may mean by the meanings and oppositions of the human, the animal and the ‘mechanical’, she goes on to curate/summarise the categories and sub-categories of the ecocriticism world. It’s a complex, imbricated world, but through a dense range of citations and references, there’s an assured voice that keeps the reader on track. Each shift to a new topic is signalled by capitalised subheadings. It’s a note-maker’s dream, and literature students, as one, will give heartfelt thanks.

Subsequently, the book follows a chronological course through Hughes’ development as an ecopoet (and subsequently, as a public ‘activist’); it was this that I found particularly helpful, having the reassurace of a quasi narrative. I know where I am with a story. The next chapter, which deals with Hughes early life in Mytholmroyd and Mexborough (drawing especially on recent work by Steve Ely), and the next two, on Hughes’ ‘green’ literary influences were the ones I found most satisfying, the ones that illuminated the work in new and intriguing ways. I don’t necessarily agree with Reddick about the relative forces of authenticity and myth, but it was good to be reminded of his working in a tradition that included Wordsworth, Blake, Yeats, Hopkins, Edward Thomas, Lawrence and Dylan Thomas, as well as the influence of his reading of Jung, and of Graves’ The white goddess. It’s particularly interesting to be shown how poets he was drawn to as an undergraduate at Cambridge influence the technical elements of his verse as well as their concerns.

Chapter 5, on ‘Animal agency, America and early environmental views’, is a welcome reminder of Hughes and Plath’s setting off for the USA in 1957, and that Hughes was anything but parochial in his reading and thinking. It also explores his fascination with native Americans, with the shaman and the animal, and his uncompromising assertion that if you are chosen ‘you must shamanize or die’. The density of this chapter defies summary, but it throws an interesting light on the genesis of The thought fox, and on the apparent preoccupation with violence in the animal poems of Lupercal. I relished the beautifully contextualized readings of Hughes’ passionate realisations of the jaguar and macaw, the otter and pike, and the hawk roostingAnd one thing that shone out, even though it’s only mentioned briefly. Lupercal , Reddick reminds us, is focussed on hunger. And she highlights something from a draft of the Birthday Letters where Hughes refers to an ‘ever-hungry childhood’. I hang on to that when I come to the later chapters exploring the conflicting moralities of farming, hunting and fishing. I’m 76, and even at this age, I was in the first generation of British children not to be hungry. Friends of mine, the same age as Hughes, were children between the wars, and remember the hunger. And I think that’s something well-fed critics need to keep in mind when then getting in a moralising stew about Hughes’ ‘inconsistent’ attitudes to hunting. This, for me , is the most engaging chapter; 40 deftly-marshalled pages of close and contextualised reading of the the early ‘animal’ poems and those in the aftermath of Sylvia Plath’s death…engaged readings of the poems for ‘what is there’ rather than for ‘what fits this or that thesis’. Amongst other things it will teach literature students a thing or two about being a reader.      

Chapter 6 places a reading of Crow in the context of the emergence of the environmental movement, via The silent spring, into environmental activism and Hughes’ growing role as a public/polemic theorist….though my interest was caught mainly by the character of the trickster Crow in his post-apocalyptic and degraded landscape, whilst Chapter 7, in its focus on Hughes the farmer, provides a context for readings of Moortown, Season Songs, and, to a lesser extent What is the truth?. Chapter 8 does a similarly efficient job with River(which I’ve never managed to properly engage with) and Hughes’ imbricated relationship with the art and ethics of fishing in the context of the pollution of rivers throughout the world.

The final three chapters explore in careful detail the poet’s increasingly public and ‘political’ involvement in green/environmental issues, in hunting, in conservation, and are evidently informed by scrupulous research of a recently released and substantial body of articles and correspondence in the British Library’s new Ted Hughes archive. Which is the point at which ‘the common reader’…me, that is…became less involved, less careful about the reading. Reading comprehension and reading purpose have to work together. All I’d say is that any student- reader engaged with the politics of environmental conservation, the human relationship with the natural and animal world, and where the artist’s notional responsibilities may lie, will almost certainlyfind this as elegantly informed as I found the readings of the poems.

I suppose that in any evaluation of any book there will be a but. For me, it’s the fact that, even within its own strictly defined terms of reference, it seem to brush over Ted Hughes’ passionate commitment to education. It was a substantial and significant part of his life. As Melvyn Bragg wrote: in seeking out the ancient ley lines of thought and feeling…Hughes found much of this in children

For a decade or more he was the champion of the The Daily Mirror’s ‘Children as writers’ annual competition (one of the offshoots of which was Jill Pirrie’s On common ground ….now, like so many good things, out of print). I hunted through the index and citations for references to Hughes’ seminal 1970’s lecture Myth and education , a text which, like Poetry in the Making, had a profound effect on my teaching. Another part of my imbricated self; how many of us young teachers (as we were, then) were taught by these texts how we should read and teach poetry? There’s a passage in the lecture which seems central to understanding his core concerns as a poet.

Our educational system differs from what Plato would have called wisdom. Our school syllabus of course is one outcome of three hundred years of rational enlightenment, which had begun by questioning superstitions and ended by prohibiting imagination itself as a reliable mental faculty, branding it more or less as a criminal in a scientific society, reducing the Bible to a bundle of old woman’s tales, finally murdering God. And what this has ended in is a completely passive attitude of apathy in face of material facts. The scientific attitude, which is the crystallization of the rational attitude, has to be passive in face of the facts if it is to record the facts accurately. The scientist has to be a mirror first. He has to be a mirror second too, because the slightest imaginative bias in his presentation of the facts invalidates his findings and reflects badly on his standing as a scientist. And such is the prestige of the scientific style of mind that this passivity in the face of the facts, this detached, inwardly inert objectivity, has become the prevailing mental attitude of our time. It is taught in schools as an ideal. The result is something resembling mental paralysis. It can be seen in every corner of our life. It shows for instance in the passion for photography. Photography is a method of making a dead accurate image of the world without any act of imagination, and the ultimate morality of that was shown in an article I saw a few years ago in an American magazine. This article consisted of a number of photographs of a tiger mauling a woman. The photographs were taken at very close range. The story was that the tiger was really a tame tiger owned by the woman. The photographer wanted to take snaps of her and her tiger. Whether it was the presence of the photographer or his camera or what, the tiger suddenly turned savage and attacked its owner. It didn’t merely attack her – it pulled her down and began to maul her seriously. Meanwhile what was that perfected product of the scientific attitude doing?

The answer is that the photographer went on taking photographs. You can argue about Hughes’ take on photography…I can’t imagine Fay Godwin taking that lying down…but you can hardly argue with his passionate defence of the imagination in the health of the psyche and in our relationship with the ambient universe. It’s a piece of polemic that made me want to learn to read the great myths, the stories that answer the question why?while the scientist answers the question how?  It was this lecture which sent me to the stories that enchant us into a powerfully privileged sense of why we are human, the blurred distinctions between the divine, the human and the animal. 

I was also intrigued as I read Ted Hughes:Environmentalist and Ecopoetto suddenly think about how relatively few people there are in the poems….think of Causley, Larkin, Fanthorpe whose poems are crammed with people, with individuals. It’s not that Hughes poetry isn’t populated. It’s full of voices and ,for a better word, characters. But how many of them are ‘mythic’? That’s worth thinking about. 

But. There’s room in the world for a book about Ted Hughes as an eco-poet teacher and educator, one which that does justice to books he wrote for children, the ones like Season songs and What is the truth? in particular, and the light they shine on the wider work. It occurs to me that I can’t think of anyone better to write it better than Yvonne Reddick.She’d bring to it the qualities she brings to this one, qualities beautifully summarised in this endorsement:

It is very thoroughly researched, lucidly written and critically acute. An important merit is that is examines each stage of Hughes’s career in historical context, thus avoiding anachronistic retrospective criticism. Perhaps the most important change it makes to our understanding of Hughes is that he emerges as a public intellectual, rather than the reclusive poet of popular perception.’ (Neil Roberts, Emeritus Professor, Sheffield University, UK)

Well, it’s taken me an unconscionably long time to write this. I’m glad I have. I’m glad it’s finished. I won’t need the book any more, so here’s the deal. I’m putting it on ebay. Any money that I get for it will go the Caris Camden project that provides night shelter for rough sleepers. 

Stop Press: It went for a tenner.

Critics, poets and the common reader (Part One)

ted 2

Ted Hughes:Environmentalist and Ecopoet: Yvonne Reddick [Palgrave Macmillan 2017. £79.99]

As you know, I’ve become resident poetry blogger for Write Out Loud. I can’t manage to write two brand new posts a week, but I know there are lovely folk who follow the great fogginzo’s cobweb, but may not have hooked on to the WOL site. So, as promised, for the time being I’ll be re-posting articles and other ramblings from WOL on the cobweb. The most recent is huge…over 4000 words…so I’m splitting into two parts. I’ve riffed on the business of academic publishing, what it means to be a reader, on poetry criticism, and on why I think Ted Hughes’ work as a champion of educating the imagination was so inspirational. I’m also be telling you why I think Yvonne Reddick’s book is really really good. So here we go.

“What do I want in a critic of poetry? I am a slow and basic reader: clarity, first of all. Everything else, the enthusiasm, the insight, even little bits of esoteric knowledge, can all come later. I need to see what is going on”. (Anthony Wilson)

Procrastination is the thief of time. More months ago than I like to remember, I was asked if I’d like to review Yvonne Reddick’s new book. 

No problem, I said Send it over…I’ll do it forthwith. 

The book arrived shortly after, and very handsome it is. Compact, satin-y hardback, high quality paper. 335 pages of complex exegesis, plus an additional densely-printed 16 pages of citations. Daunting, but it sat nicely in the hand, with a comforting heft. And I settled down to read it, immediately realising that I probably wasn’t qualified to critique it, but persuading myself that I could make a fist of saying what I made of it, and what it taught me. 

Some time…quite a long time…later, the book was bristling with post-it stickers, and my notebook was filling up with quotations, and queries and jottings, and I didn’t know where to start. Nevertheless, I started, threw away the draft, started again, put it away for a bit, thought about it, forgot it, felt guilty, started again..and so on. 

Meanwhile I missed a deadline for submitting to The North, found the next one was an Irish edition, but finally gritted my teeth, set myself down and wrote a review. I thought I’d done justice to the job, and proof-read and tidied, and then looked up the publication details because the price isn’t on the book cover. The price! I thought I’d misread. Anything from £65 to £79.99 depending on where you look. 

A bit of context: Ted Hughes in context: Terry Gifford (ed) C.U.P. 2018 is priced at an equally eye-watering £75   Why? Apparently it’s because they only sell in small quantities. Maybe the price is one reason for that? What do I know? Anyway, here’s an response from the academic and writer Kate Beswick’s blog; she’s bemoaning the pricing of texts by academic publishers, like this and hers, and the way it it arguably significantly reduces her readership.

“Every six years or so, UK academics have to submit our work to the Research Excellence Framework where its ‘quality, significance and rigour’ is graded anywhere between 1 and 4 stars. …… there are still good reasons to choose an academic publisher….. if you are hoping to submit a book to REF. Most obviously because with an academic publisher your book will be subject to a rigorous peer review by someone in your discipline, which means there is quality control and you can have some confidence the academic world thinks your work is worthwhile.”

Me? I did the only thing I could; I panicked. I couldn’t send in this review; what if everything I said was wrong or just naive? After all, here’s a book that’s self-evidently the product of extensive, meticulous scholarly research, and has most certainly been peer-reviewed within an inch of its life. What more could I possibly add that would be of the slightest interest to anyone, especially to folk who know a lot more about Ted Hughes than I ever will. And thus I missed the Spring deadline. Procrastination. 

But a promise is a promise. This won’t be a review, not properly. Like Bleak House’s Esther Summerson, ‘I have a great deal of difficulty in beginning to write my portion of these pages, for I know I am not clever.’ Let me qualify that. For ‘have’ read ‘had’, and for ‘clever’ read  ‘ill-qualified’. Think of it as the musings of a particularly common reader. Let’s start with something apparently straightforward, an extract from a poem you can find very nearly at the end of Charles Causley’s Collected poems 1951-2000 

When I asked

what the poet did, a girl said,

‘Make up true stories

of people and animals

in his head’

When I told them 

he was also a farmer,

they said they thought

farmers didn’t have time to write

stories and poems.

……………

‘Once,’ I said,’he took home

a wounded badger.

Nursed it well, then set it free.’

All the children smiled;

clapped their hands very loudly.’

(In a Junior School: to Ted Hughes)

It seems so simple to these children, the idea of a farmer-poet who once nursed a badger. I imagine they would not have been fazed to know that in his early life he’d hunted and trapped and killed animals, and throughout his life had been a fisherman. They would possibly be baffled by the fact that critics of Hughes and his poetry find it problematic. What Yvonne Reddick’s book does, with a clarity that belies its density, is to sure-footedly take the reader through the thickets of academic controversy that surround the poetry and the poet; to analyse their relationship to the burgeoning environmental  movement; to deftly unpick interpretations of art’s relationship with ecology, and equally to the alarming number of sects and subsects that occupy the fields of eco-poetics and eco-poetry.

The publisher’s blurb is a useful starting point if there’s to be an element of evaluation in what follows. 

“This book is the first book devoted entirely to Hughes as an environmental activist and writer. Drawing on the rapidly-growing interest in poetry and the environment, the book deploys insights from ecopoetics, ecocriticism and Anthropocene studies to analyse how Hughes’s poetry reflects his environmental awareness. Hughes’s understanding of environmental issues is placed within the context of twentieth-century developments in `green’ ideology and politics, challenging earlier scholars who have seen his work as apolitical. The unique strengths of this book lie in its combination of cutting-edge insights on ecocriticism with extensive work on the British Library’s new Ted Hughes archive. It will appeal to readers who enjoy Hughes’s work, as well as students and academics.”

 Let’s add to that a crucial caveat acknowledged by Reddick in her introductory chapter:

It would be foolish to suggest that reading Hughes’ work through the lens of his environmentalism is the only way of reading it.

Exactly. There’s an implied ‘as’ in the title, and the reader needs to hold on to that, to avoid saying but what about…..?. We need to go elsewhere for the ‘what about’. What are we to be concerned with? I’d say it was the meaning of being human, and of being human in relation to all other sentient creatures, and the complex eco-systems they live in, and on, and through; the challenges to human imagination and responsibility presented by the degradation of our complex environment and eco system. The argument is for all of us, and the book is is presented as being for ‘readers who enjoy Hughes’s work, as well as students and academics’.

Well, I’ve never been an academic, but I fit in the first category of ‘reader’, and I’ve never really stopped being a student, so I’ll take it from there. In the 1980s I was introduced to the sometimes baffling world of meta-narrative, and semiotics. I probably remain baffled, but one text that stuck was Wolfgang Iser’s The implied reader. I probably still don’t quite understand it, or else it’s simpler than it seems. This passage, an interpretation of Iser, was central, for me

“When an author is composing a text, they [sic]have a particular reader in mind, which is in part represented in the text. This reader is not identical to a real, flesh-and-blood reader, but is “a textual structure anticipating the presence of a recipient without necessarily defining him…the concept of the implied reader designates a network of response-inviting structures, which impel the reader to grasp the text.” Iser separates the concept of implied reader into two “interrelated aspects: the reader’s role as a textual structure, and the reader’s role as a structured act.” 

The textual structure refers to the reader’s point-of-view as found within the text. This standpoint is multifaceted, because the narrator, the characters, the plot, and the fictitious reader all offer sides of it. Further, the reader’s role as a textual structure is defined by the “vantage point by which he joins [these perspectives], and the meeting place they converge.” All, as component parts, operate together to shape the reader’s role as found within the text.”

Now, I’m pretty firm in my belief that in the first instance this doesn’t apply to poems at the moment they’re being written. I’m on the side of Ted Hughes when he wrote in Poetry in the making that the whole business is about focussing absolutely on what it is you think you’re trying to capture. I think ‘capture’ is the right word here, and it’s germane to the debate about Hughes’ imaginative and ethical engagement with animals that is reviewed in Reddick’s book. 

But it undeniably applies to a work of evaluative criticism, which attends to the imagined reader just as much these lines that I’m currently writing. If I wasn’t conflicted about my imagined audience, I’d have written this months ago. And I’m not sure that it would be possible to attend to the needs of the common reader AND the student AND the peer-academic simultaneously without going slightly mad. So who is this book intended for? Since Yvonne Reddick’s writing is beautifully poised and coherent and rational, I’m guessing that, whilst she’ll always have one eye over her shoulder, anticipating the what abouts of a specialised segment of literary academia, her primary implied reader is the student, and I’ll argue later that if this is the case she makes a stunningly good job of it.

Whenever we read anything we bring to the text all the accumulated baggage of previous reading and experience, and this becomes the lens that distorts the message the imagined writer intended for the actual reader. Several times in the book, Yvonne Reddick uses a word I’d never before encountered. Imbricated.I had to look it up, and have to say it’s a remarkably useful word. It means that something is in a complex way, layered. You could think of roof tiles, which are each distinct and separate, but simultaneously part of a single structure. I found it more useful to thing of something organic and flexible. Like the scales of a snake. In this case, applied to Hughes and his poetry, it acknowledges that they are made up of many layers, and that some of them may seem contradictory; this becomes especially relevant when it comes to the last chapter of the book…on hunting, shooting, fishing and conservation…in which the inconsistencies of Hughes’ public positions on this are described as ‘problematic’. Reddick pretty well keeps her powder dry on this…a studious objective neutrality is one of the hallmarks of the book….but I can’t.

Melvyn Bragg wrote, for the Observer,in a review of an unauthorised biography, 

There was so much of him. He lived the lives of many men called Ted Hughes. Driven, all of them, by a core of energy so bright and fierce it burned out many of those he encountered. By the time he reached manhood, he had, fully developed, an appetite, even a greed, above all a relentless questing passion for the life of passion itself which he sought and fed with poetry, sex and transformative mysticism about the earth and its meaning. Sometimes jubilant, sometimes tormented. He had a compulsion, which seemed to him to be mysterious, to confess and describe everything that claimed his concentration. And at whatever the cost.

Hughes was a prodigious reader of just about everything, and a prodigious writer of letters (700 pages of the collected letters), of poems (1200 pages), of plays and essays and so on. He was an educator, a broadcaster, a lecturer and a performer. He was conflicted hunter, a conflicted farmer (how many other poets do a full time job like that?), a conflicted and unfaithful husband, father, lover. He grew up in the physically and historically imbricated landscapes of the upper Calder Valley, and of Mexborough. Landscapes of the kind D H Lawrence grew up in. When I read Reddick’s accounts of various critics’ condemnation of his inconsistencies when it come to ecopolitics, I get annoyed. Because, I think, why should a poet be consistent, why should a life be simplified into ‘consistency’? Fortunately, she does not. She sticks to the task. And in the next week’s post I’ll try to tell you how well she does it. See you in a week. Thanks for reading xx

Keeping up with keeping up

I said in my last post on the cobweb that I’d been more than delighted to be invited to be the resident blogger for Write Out Loud. It’s a poetry site that does a wondrous job of posting every poetry gig in the land on a weekly basis, as well as updating us all about what’s what in the bustling world of poetry, and poetry events.

I also said that I wasn’t up to writing two brand new posts on a weekly basis, and that a) I would publish my post on the WOL site, and then b) repost them here, because I know I’ve got readers who aren’t hooked in to the WOL site. You might want to have a look at it anyway, and then decide to click that ‘Follow’ button: here’s the link

https://www.writeoutloud.net/public/blogentry.php?blogentryid=87199

I kicked off by using some older articles as an introduction for new readers. There’ll be three or four of them before we get back into the swing of brand new posts and stellar guests. So here’s one from a few years ago.

Whose life is it, anyway?

A couple of years ago, I was writing about the way I had found myself conflicted about learning things about my granddad’s life that that didn’t fit with poems I’d written about him; how I was feeling uneasy about the truths of documentary records, and the truths of poems and poetry. I think it bothered me particularly, because it took me a long time to put people in my poems at all…ten years ago, pretty much all my poems were like my photographs: unpopulated landscapes.

I tried deliberately to break out of the straitjacket of endlessly writing pretty/atmospheric/repetitive (inevitably) evocations of places like Skye and the Pennine Moors. I took my cue from Carol Ann Duffy’s ‘The world’s wife’, because I saw that I could try ventriloquism, learn the way of other people’s voices. I wrote monologues for all sorts of famous statues, like The Angel of the North, and for an artist who had fascinated me, and for his wife, and his model.  But never about real, living people…or, at least, about people who I knew, and might get to read the poems.

I suppose the first breakthrough of sorts came in the guilty relief and release –for both of us, I want to believe – that came when my mother died in her 90s . She spent the last fifteen years of her life in a nursing home following a  severe stroke. She fought against every moment of it. She resented and hated it. I took her ashes to the Valley of Desolation, her favourite place in Wharfedale, and soon after, wrote a poem about it as a sort of atonement or prayer for absolution. Then I felt guilty that I’d not written for my dad, so I wrote about his birdwatching, his shoe mending, his singing; and then I had to balance it up with more about my mum. It’s a strange thing, guilt, but the outcome was that over about three years I’d written a handful of poems, and more about my grandparents, and it seemed to come more easily with each one. I didn’t feel as if they were looking over my shoulder, tutting.  Or not as often, or not as loudly.

But I can pinpoint the big breakthrough to specific dates. In October 2013 I was on a writing course at Almaserra Vella in Spain, and the tutor was Jane Draycott. She gave us a quick writing exercise…first impressions, get-it-down stuff on a randomly chosen postcard, which happened to be a Penguin book cover that had images of flame on it. And I wrote about our friend Julie who we’d visited in her flat in Whitby a couple of weeks before. Julie was dying of an incurable cancer; she’d confounded the specialists by outliving their predictions by over a year.

Flames. The most tenuous of connections. But a flame burned fiercely in Julie, and in the underlit smokestacks of the Boulby mine just up the coast. Maybe that was it. I typed it up with very few changes the week after. When she died a couple of weeks later, I nerved myself up to give the poem to her brother at her funeral. I was genuinely frightened. But he liked it, shared it. Gave me a permission I realised I needed: to write honestly about and for real living people. That poem Julie won first prize in the 2013 Plough Competition. Andrew Motion had liked it! I used some of the prize money to put together and print my first two pamphlets.

Which is where it gets just a little more complicated. We’ve been going to the Isle of Skye for thirty years, renting a bungalow from Norman and Effie Macpherson in the crofting valley of Achnacloich on the Sleat peninsula. Norman was a shepherd all his working life, on Ben Lomond, on Ben Nevis, and finally, till his death eight years ago, back on his home island. Every now and then I’d try to write about them, but always felt conscious of what I imagined would be their wry, dry take on the whole sorry impertinent business. What did I know? Even so, when I put my first pamphlet together I wanted them in: a seven-poem sequence titled Crofters.

If anyone else had given me permission for that, it was MacCaig, who I read and re-read, trying to nail down just how he did it; that apparently simple thing of writing about the people and hills of Assynt that he loved and knew better than I’d ever know Skye, or Effie and Norman. Anyway, that’s the thing I was after. The way Norman would hide behind the barn to smoke, the quiet pauses of Effie’s speech. Here’s Norman

He’s laid up in the house:

joint pains, congested lungs,

bladder like a bag of knives,

and maybe sheep-dip’s to blame.

and Effie, the first year after he died, feeding the sheep that come running

like threads to a spool,

and milling like a boil of beans –

ignore the black and white dog,

the woman in the pilled grey fleece,

her hair that breezes cannot ruffle.

It was an expensive dog, that one. Norman went down to Tyndrum to buy it. A serious business, buying a working dog.

I still didn’t feel right about publishing the poems. In a diffuse sort of way, a way that says: well, they’re not going to see these poems. No-one’s going to buy them after all.  That sort of thing. And then I wrote some more, and sent some in for competitions. A poem called Norman came 2nd in a York Literature festival competition. I wrote from memory and feeling. Some things I know are factually true and some as though they ought to be.

Norman

could birth a lamb in the lee of a dike,

smit a skittish ewe in a squall,

pin down a ram and not give a jot 

for its yellow stare, the black slot of its sideways eye,

wear a two-year Herdwick like a scarf

over three miles of bog,

make good a tumbled fence with a twist of twine,

strip out an axle on a Subaru,

stand half a summer to his waist in the slop of the dip

haul a whole flock through

and still tell a tale 

over the clamouring misery of bleat.

He could walk all day 

in a pelt of rain and a sack for a coat.

To put down a runt

or one with a goitre 

or one with a sprain or a maggoty arse – 

that was beyond him quite.

The days for the slaughterman’s truck 

he was away over the moor.

He knew where the first primrose showed.

from Much Possessed (smith|doorstop 2017)

I knew all about the Subaru, but the Herdwick was there for the heft of the word. It would more likely have been one of the blackfaced sheep. I don’t know the proper name. A Cheviot? What I was after was the mix of Norman’s durability and the sentimental side he could show.

He once told me he knew a secret place in the woods beyond the headland. He’d take Effie there to show her the first primroses. They can’t be got at now, because of the deer fences. He was cross about them, because now there are no deer to keep down more competitive plants.

The man at the garage in Armadale told me that all the neighbours were pretty sure that years of exposure to organo-phosphates in the sheep dip played a part in his illness. That had to find a way in.

That’s Norman who I didn’t know all that well; but it’s the Norman I remember. I worried about whether Effie would recognize him. Or think me obtrusive. An incomer.

The business was finally settled for me when Liz Lochhead picked a poem as the winner of the 2014 Plough Competition. It pivots on something Effie happened to say when I told her about an odd meeting in the rain down in Tarskavaig. This is it.

Tinkers

Washed up on a rucked-rug  shoreline,

floats, fish-boxes, rubber gloves,

fertiliser sacks, kelp, clots of wool,

and the cockle –pickers, peat-pickled 

bog-creatures, leathery, with ruined teeth,

long, dirty nails, eyes as dark as iodine.

They tinkers. Och. says Effie. You’d do well

to look to the barns, and count the spades,

and what did they ask you for,

the leather women, old coats belted with rope,

rubber boots patched with gaffer tape,

hair like seaweed, when they tapped

on the windscreen, brown as selkies.

For a light only, the bright ember,

blue smoke blown on the wind, the spit

of rain off the sea, and thanks we’re away 

down the road and done with the day,

with turning stones, with lifting kelp,

browsing the hard shore for a knuckly net

of cockles, iron, amber,cobalt, rust.

What’s to be done with the Tarskavaig tinkers

who come up out of the peat or the sea?

And when the light goes, where do they turn?

from : Much possessed. (smith|doorstop 2017)

We’d had a laugh over that. Not ‘PC’ that ‘tinkers’. ‘But they’re tinkers just the same’, said Effie. And I cut her some cake. Well, it takes more than a slice of cake to say ‘thank you’ for putting someone out there in public, when you never said ‘please’ in the first place. I had sleepless nights over it all,  then said the serenity prayer. The bit about asking for courage to change the things we can. I made a neat parcel of my three pamphlets, and wrote a letter that took me more redrafts than most poems, all explanation, mea culpa and apology, and posted it all off to Achnacloich on the Sleat peninsula of Skye.

Then I waited. And nothing happened. I thought maybe she’d gone to visit her cousin, or gone over to Ireland for a holiday, or…….. I thought over and over, what if she’s upset, or worse. Last week I bit the bullet and telephoned. 

O, hello, she said. I was meaning to ring you…I feel guilty now, you know how things get put off, it’s been a terrible summer, och, the worst I remember, dreich days, and grass poor, we’re taking supplements up to sheep; yes I got your books. We liked them. Norma says I’ll be famous now. Och, no, of course I’m not cross.

For two days I walked on air, and that November I was able to go and see her, and all was well. Whose lives are they anyway, when we write? I have no idea. But I know we’re responsible for them, and the truth of them. Whatever that is.