John lives in Ossett, West Yorkshire. He has been a teacher, lecturer and LEA Adviser for Drama and English.
he has an MA in Creative Writing from the University of Leeds, but learns much more from The Poetry Business and all the poets he has met there.
His poems have appeared in 'The North', 'The New Writer',and 'The Interpreter's House', among others.
He was First Prize winner in the Lumen/Camden Poetry Competition (2014) and of The Plough Prize (2013 and 2014). These were followed by others, including The McLellan (2015) and the Poetry Business International Pamphlet Prize (2016). His poems have been picked as prize winners by three posts laureate: Andrew Motion, Lizlochhead and Billy Collins. His first collection of poems , a pamphlet: 'Running out of Space' was published in April 2014, a second one, 'Backtracks' in JULY 2014, and his chapbook, 'Larach' was published by WardWood in November 2014. A pamphlet, 'Outlaws and fallen angels' was published by Calder Valley Poets in 2016. His first full collection 'Much Possessed' was published by smith|doorstop in 2016, and a second collection,'Gap Year', jointly authored with Andy Blackford was published by SPM Publications in 2017. He has ten grandchildren, all of whom are amazingly talented; he has supported Batley Bulldogs RL team for over 60 years, and would live on the Isle of Skye if they had a rugby league team.
At some point I discovered that, after she died, I’d written far more poems about my mum than seemed feasible.
Mending, making do. These women, perched
on bedroom window-sills, their feet inside the house,
who weekly made their stiff sash-windows bright;
sluiced their flags, and donkey-stoned the steps
before the next-door neighbour got hers done;
hung out wet sheets and overalls, the day not light;
who riddled ashes from the grate, laid kindling,
black-leaded the cast-iron kitchen range,
stared out at gardens on the backs of terraces
where nothing grew but privet, docks and mint.
No wonder that my mother hoarded rainbow silks,
embroidered bluebell woods and lavender,
fields of poppies, satiny lush roses
Bought blue–and–white ceramic jars of ginger,
ate it syrup-rich with ice-cream, double cream
and grated Cadbury’s dark chocolate on top.
Indulgences. Mother of mine, I’ve just about
Indulgences. Mother of mine, I’ve just about
exhausted you. You occupied my growing up
until I wonder if I ever did. You set me going.
Make what you will of this. It’ll have to do.
I told Ann Sansom of the Poetry Business that I’d probably written everything I had to say. She said she doubted it. As usual, she was right. I’d written this as part of the eulogy all my family helped to write fro her funeral:For some of us, if there’s life after death it’s in the memories of the living and in the stories they make of them. For those of you who believe differently, then there is a heaven, and my Mum’s has high hills and huge skies; the central heating will be switched off. Regardless of the weather, doors will be open. Somewhere there will be a dish of stem ginger, with Cornish ice-cream, clotted cream and grated Bournville chocolate. A lot of it. There will be a lot of fresh air. And fettling
And, because because today it’s a day when she’d have loved to have been up the Dales somewhere…Simon’s Seat, Valley of Desolation, Grass Woods…. here’s some more poems for her. And pictures. Oh, and because life’s like that, I see that WordPress has once again ignored all the stanza breaks. Try to imagine them.
The parents you never met
I knew one had filleted a python,
and also launched a stuffed crocodile
on a Norfolk mere one summer’s night.
These are the stories we go on telling,
that gather detail, year on year.
Not in the same world as the ones
in which my mother learned
to drive a car,
my father gambled.
I can’t imagine them at all,
or, if I did, I’d get them wrong.
My mother young
and long before me, with a chap
whose name I never knew;
white shoes, maybe,
a Morris with a running board;
my mother who learned
to double de-clutch,
to manage sparks and chokes,
to rattle with insousiance
down country lanes
in a velours hat that never once
blew off, laughing with a man
I cannot picture.
They were glamorous,
and I never knew them at all.
She was so many contradictory and complex and awkward things, my mum. A compendium of mothers. My Dad took hundreds of photos of her on holidays, and somehow never caught her, and I wondered who I would like to have paid to paint her portrait, to capture her.
A gallery for my mother
For her at ten, fetch Joan Eardley from Catterline.
Just one more, for her, I’d say. Pie-faced slum children,
wonky prams. Those sweetie-wrapper colours.
Make my mother for me, her sisters, her brother
and her mother—never had two pence
to rub together; coals in the grate, pegged-rug
reds and blues dabbed in the shine of a black-lead range.
For her at twenty, Picasso or Matisse.
Call it ‘Bather’. That one-piece belted costume,
white shoes. Her thick spectacles. Plain girl
posing in Torquay. Who was that man?
For her wedding photo, Peter Blake.
The cut-out, pasted look.
Degas for my childhood. For the washing,
for the steam, for the set of her shoulder,
for her hand on the iron.
Mary Cassatt for her sewing. Or Vuillard –
all those silks, those ravelled rainbows,
white satin, small bright scissors,
lips pursed on a thread.
Or Hockney. Spoiled for choice.
For my wedding, Beryl Cook.
She’d do that hat, that fabric rose,
those shoes, the look she gave
That shrivelling look.
For her dying,
Frans Hals and the monochrome
of charity, the greyscale of death.
Or Dürer, who could draw a hare
that could leap into life
at the snib of a latch.
She had a touch for pastry.
A gift. She hung on to it
as fiercely as she hung on
to life, as fiercely as she hated
being unfree to do
as she wanted with it.
Never passed it on to me
who watched her pinching
pastry: butter, sugar, flour;
how it fell from her fingers,
how it fell through the air.
She tried. She did. But grew impatient
with the way the mix would clump
and stick. O, give it here she’d say.
The pastry would flake, and fall.
You need cold hands she’d say.
Yours are too warm. She’d not let go
of life. Could not, would not
pass it on. Until her hands
grew cold enough to let it fall,
and leave them clean.
A happy mothers’ day to mothers everywhere, and all their lovers, and all their children and children’s children.
[a slightly adapted version of the post I did for Write out Loud. I shall keep doing this for some time, for followers of the Cobweb who aren’t tuned in to the other webpage.. Why “wise sisters”? I dedicated my first collection to’my three wise sisters: Kim Moore, Hilary Elfick and Gaia Holmes’ . I just want to keep saying thank you to all the others. There will be two more in the next three weeks, and doubtless more in the coming months.]
I came back to Ted Hughes’ Season songstoday, as I do on a day like this, with
“the earth invalid, dropsied, bruised,wheeled
out into the sun,
after the frightful operation
leans back, eyes closed, exhausted, smiling
into the sun. Perhaps dozing a little.
While we sit,and smile, and wait, and know
she is not going to die”
[March morning unlike others]
One of those days when you feel the buzz under everything, the buzz at the tip of every stem, the spurts of daffodils, a day when:
“with arms swinging, a tremendous skater
on the flimsy ice of space,
the earth leans into its curve”
One of those days when you come awake and bestirred. How things suddenly shift, like an old log in a river bed that twists into a release and a rush. Two days ago I wrote a poem to take to a Poetry Business Writing Day; a poem I’ve been trying to write for two years or more, an old log of a poem, and everything pent up behind.
I put it down to how the company of other poets matters, how listening to them tells you ‘it can be done’. There may be writers who can make poetry out of solitude but I can’t imagine how it is to be like that. I love the urging and weight of stuff. And deadlines, pressure. When the company and the pressure come together I can feel blessed and released.
I guess this starts last Monday when I went to reading at The Square Chapel in Halifax; a wonderful space stitched into the fabric of the renovated Piece Hall, an amazing North Italian piazza that seems to have landed from space in a steep-sided gritstone valley. You can hear the footfall of 18thC Russian cloth merchants. It is astonishing.
The were three readers: D A Prince, a Happenstance poet who I hadn’t known, and who read from a collection that is inpired by the bookmarks she collects or finds in second-hand books. She tells the story of them, these tickets, programmes, bits of card. And you think: Wow! why did no one think of that before? There was Yvonne Reddick (see the review of her book in earlier posts on Feb 19 and 25) who reads with an articulate conviction..memorable poems about her father, a man who died in a mountaineering accident; an oil industry worker across the world..in Kuwait, on the Norh Sea rigs. She read poems that bring stormblown birds into a world of glistening steel; poems about the enormous fragility of the world. Passionate and political poems that make you say yes: poems matter; writing matters. And then there was the prodigiously accomplished David Constantine who appears to be able to do absolutely anything with language and make it appear simple and inevitable. I came away buzzing, having been given permission to believe I can go on writing. Some writers can do that.
Which brings me neatly to today’s guest poet (which was the reason I started writing a poetry blog in the first place..to share my enthusiasm for poets that you probably knew already, but who I’d just discovered). I met Greta Stoddart in December where she was a tutor on a Writing Residential weekend. You never know what to expect from writers’ workshops, but hers was everything I like. Structured, focussed, purposed. It was about the work of the line and of line endings. It was full of the variety of the things a line break can be persuaded to do. It taught me more in two hours than four years of puzzling over Dana Giaio had done, and it offered me one trick with a two stanza poem that might just solve an apparently intractable problem. So this post is by way of a thankyou.
Greta was born in 1966 in Oxfordshire. She spent her childhood in Oxford and Belgium. She studied mime in Paris and worked as a performer before becoming a full-time poet. She now teaches at the Poetry School in Exeter and Bridport.
Stoddart’s first collection of poetry, At Home in the Dark was published in 2001, was shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best First Collection and won the 2002 Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize.
Her second collection, Salvation Jane was published in 2009 and shortlisted for the 2008 Costa Book Award.
Her third collection, Alive Alive O, was published in 2015 which focuses on life, death and mortality, was shortlisted for the Roehampton Poetry Prize 2016.
Her latest work, a radio poem called ‘Who’s there?’ broadcast on BBC Radio 4 was shortlisted for the 2017 Ted Hughes Award.
She lives in Devon and teaches for the Poetry School and the Arvon Foundation.
It was the business of mortality (which I wrote about in last week’s post) that made a couple of the poems in her own webpage [http://www.gretastoddart.co.uk] jump off the page, and I’m delighted that she’s let me share them with you. I love their combination of precision and passionate engagement.
Perhaps you know that story where people step
out of this world and into another
through a split in the air – they feel for it
as you would your way across a stage curtain
after your one act, plucking at the pleats,
trying for the folded-in opening through which
you shiver and shoulder yourself
without so much as a glance up
to the gods, so keen are you to get back
to where you were before your entrance:
those dim familiar wings, you invisible,
bumping into things you half-remember
blinded as you’d been out there
in the onslaught of lights, yes, blinded
but wholly attended to in your blindness.
Imagine our dying being like that,
a kind of humble, eager, sorrowless return
to a place we’d long, and not till now, known.
No tears then. Just one of us to hold
aside the curtain – here we are, there you go –
before letting it slump majestically back
to that oddly satisfying inch above the boards
in which we glimpse a shadowy shuffling dark.
And when the lights come on and we turn to each other
who’s to say they won’t already be
in their dressing room, peeling off the layers,
wiping away that face we have loved,
unbecoming themselves to step out
into the pull and stream of the night crowds.
It’s one of those poems, full of momemts that pull you in, full of lines that seem to be memorising themselves as you say them, as you hear them:
plucking at the pleats,
trying for the folded-in opening
Imagine our dying being like that,
a kind of humble, eager, sorrowless return
and, this remarkable phrase that sees the dead as actors, already
It’s full of the accurate truth that I’d been striving for when I was writing about this particular subject, and falling short . I love the way the conceit of the theatrical exit which ought to feel like a cliche, and doesn’t, is so beautifully sustained. I love the way it begins with an apparently tentative ‘perhaps’, its tact, and the way it’s followed by the sense that there’s no ‘perhaps’ about it. This is the way it is. Ben Wilkinson put it better than I can when he wrote about the economy and deceptive simplicity of her writing, and a cool-headed emotional restraint. Yes.
I met the next two poems for the first time in a Poetry Business writing day; I can’t remember what the exercise was that they illuminated, but the poems stuck. Metaphorically and literally, since they’re pasted into my workshop notebook.
The Street Lamp
Maybe it’s this orange light
that has me up
in the middle of the night
when sleep ought to have
taken hold and placed us
god knows where
with whom and how and why
or was that the baby’s cry
turning into something else
and rising that has me rising
not to him but to look
down at the street and see
in a pool of light – what is that –
a stain, his small coat?
Body seems to know
but mind, sleep-filled
and slow with notions,
ups and follows
(whatever it is it has that
self-possessed and desolate look
of a thing left behind);
and heart that knows
starts to knock and will not
take comfort from the street lamp
who stands over our house
like a guardian angel,
head inclined but with no arms
or wings to gather whosoever in.
I came back to this poem after last December’s workshop, now noticing as I should have done, the work that’s done by the way the first two stanzas are a single unpunctuated sentence, and the way the next two are more reflective and ‘rational’, even if they’re interrupted by that parenthesis. Lovely. And I like that slightly startling use of the not-quite-abstract body, mind, heart. It’s something I’ve started to notice in Kim Moore’s poems, too. I need to think about it.
One more poem. This speaks straight to my other enthusiasm, for physical craft and craftsmanship…the precision and neatness I can never manage whatever tools I invest in. Just relish the way that first line abosolutely nails what lies at the core of the poem.
It has to be a dying art,
this man leaning in with hammer and chisel,
intent on the angle, cut and concision;
all morning on a single word, a name.
His commissioners – each time the same
exacting band of passionate mourners –
want only the best; for this one stone page
to stand for less and more than all their tears.
And as the dates sharpen, the prayer clears
so it all blurs for him; in the end he leaves
what it means to those who already know
just as he leaves the heart of the stone alone
knowing there’s nothing there, that deep down
his work is with the surface of things;
the opposite of archaeology
where nothing’s found and all is to be made.
It’s a poem that has to be read aloud, so you taste the consonants, and feel the the point where the poem pivots on that moment when it all blurs for him. A beautifully crafted piece of work about art and transience. There’s that buzz under everything today. Thank you, Greta Stoddart for making it sing.
There’s a sequence in one of Eddie Izzard’s shows where he’s riffing on supermarket shopping. At some point he remarks that if an old lady bumps you with her shopping trolley (which, by the way, will contain only hairnets and dog food) she’ll tell you, for no apparent reason:
I’m eighty- two.
She’ll probably say it quite loudly.
I’m eighty- two. Old ladies do this all the time. Old men never do this.
He lets this hang a nanosecond.
Old men never do this, because they’re all dead.
There’s a minute silence. A sort of shock before the audience laugh. I’ve always thought it’s the kind of laugh you get from a baby when you go BOO!!! Its face crumples momentarily, and then comes the laughter of release. It was just a trick. Phew.
We don’t care to be reminded of our mortality. In this we are radically different from the Victorians, who (in public, anyway) edited the fact of sex out of their literature, but were happily graphic and sentimental when it came to deathbeds. I’m thinking of Dickens, of Jo the Crossing Sweeper, of Smike, and all the rest. Since the sixties, it seems we’ve become quite the opposite.
Where’s all this leading? Lately there been a voice in my head, a little chap with a shopping trolley who will stop me as I go about my business, and announce: I’m seventy -six.I pointedly ignore him for much of the time, essentially because I feel no different from when I was 16. I’m just as conflicted, baffled, puzzled, excited by the day to day as I ever was. But at the same time, I have to acknowledge, like Mr Casaubon in Middlemarch, an uncomfortable truth. As George Eliot points out, it’s one thing to say ‘we will all die’ and quite another to say ‘I am going to die’. (and in Casaubon’s case with an additional phrase: and quite soon ).
Before you start looking at the clock, and wondering how soon you can decently get away, let me reassure you that this isn’t going to be a miserable read. But it is going to be about poetry, about reading it, about writing it, and why it just might be important. I was going to call this post, tongue in cheek, I hope I die before I get oldand play around with the double-edged meaning in The Who’s lyric. But the title of Neil Astley’s anthology is more to the point. I think of it alongside Anthony Wilson’s poetry blog subsequent anthology Lifesaving Poems. There’s clearly a big readership out there for books that offer us hope…or, at least the reassurance of our common humanity; most of them, though, seem to be full of fluff, like literary comfort blankets. The best, like Astley’s and Wilson’s are grown-up books full of grown-up poems that get to grips with uncomfortable truths, and show how they can be acknowledged and how this makes our lives richer.
At 76, I’ve lived longer than anyone on the male side of my Dad’s family (and all his sisters, too). Sometimes I’ll do the maths, and think something like, “well, with a following wind I could probably have five or six or seven years left. Four would be good. Every day’s a bonus. You’re a lucky man.” It’s not for a moment depressing, but it’s made me notice that I’m reading poems I might not have taken much notice of before. Life enhancing poems that didn’t seem that relevant or interesting at one time. Your stories will be similar, I imagine. When I was in my 30s and my Dad was dying I found myself reading and re-reading Tony Harrison’s sequence of sonnets from The school of eloquence… Book ends(especially), Continuous, Marked with D.They gave me a vocabulary, a language to shape my grief. In the break-up of my first marriage, and in finding a new love, it was A kumquat for John Keats, that midlife thankyou for coming through, for love, for survival. I remember him reading it when it had just come out, the relish with which he read the lines
I burst the whole fruit chilled by morning dew
against my palate. Fine, for 42
I loved the way it came after:
Then it’s the kumquat fruit expresses best
how days have darkness round them like a rind,
life has a skin of death that keeps its zest.
I saw him reading last summer, still going strong at 80. And I wondered how those lines sound to him now. I think he might give them a wry smile. It’s the same kind of wry smile I reserve for young men’;s poems about their imagined end. Rupert Brooke, for instance
If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England……….
a pulse in the eternal mind, no less
I don’t imagine for a moment that he had any intention of ending up like that; he just thought he did. Since he never got to the Front he never got to rethink it, unlike Sassoon, or Rosenberg, or Owen and the rest. But I’m pretty sure it spoke to me differently when I was 16, when I believed sincerely (because of the H Bomb) that I’d not see 21. We read who and where we are. We change and the poems change with us.
I’d been chewing over writing this post, or something like it, but what finally gave me a shove was Kim Moore’s sharing a Derek Walcott poem: Sea Canes, and the first stanza particularly:
Half my friends are dead. I will make you new ones, said earth. No, give me them back, as they were, instead, with faults and all, I cried
Four of my best friends have died in the last four years…three of them in the last two. That stanza gave me a jolt, but it also sent me back to something that has snagged my attention and sort-of-bothered me for some time. A couple of years ago I decided to read the Collected Poems of Norman MacCaig. The idea was to read from beginning to end, several poems, aloud, every morning till I’d read them all. The idea was that somehow that would show me ‘how he did it’ whatever the ‘it’ was. It was an ‘it’ I wanted to be able to ‘do’… the business of being rich and plain at the same time. Obviously, I still can’t do ‘it’, but along the way in the year I spent with him I became aware that something was bothering him, and that the something was death, and dying. I began to notice moments, images (as in Clive James’ phrase:the moment that draws you in). A black sail out at sea. The scyther in the hayfield, the cart on the shore road, the horse, the blind horizon.
I sort of left it there, but when I went back to MacCaig last year, I paid more attention. These images and the concerns that surround them turn up more and more in the poems of the 1980s and into the 1990s. Why? It’s actually obvious when you remember he was born in 1910. These are the poems he wrote in his 70s and through to his death in 1996. For whatever reason it started to bother him a lot earlier than it need have done. But, there again, what he couldn’t have was hindsight. What he had was the here and now, which contains all our yesterdays, and which is all anyone has. It’s his love for the gifts of the here and now that make him the great poet that he is.
As I was reading and researching for this post I cut and pasted scores of lines and stanzas from the poems of his last 16 years; I can’t decently share them all…only give you flavour. There are the ones in which he’s caught up in the business of wondering if he can say what he wants before it’s too late (which clearly wasn’t bothering Harrison at 42, for all the rind of death that keeps us zesty). The thing about MacCaig was that he kept his zest, even when he was writing:
I’m a crofter in the landscape of time
repairing a tumbling wall
If only I could say
a new thing, a thing
I’ve never said before
Of the rest of space
I can say nothing
nor of the rest of time, the future
that dies the moment it happens
I love that last one, because it seems to contain the credo that the moment, the now, is what we have and what we should celebrate. He sustains it even as he writes again and again about the sense of approaching the end of a journey
In the harbour a boat
sets its white sail.
Its anchor crawls aboard.
Those who are left behind
will look out to sea,
their eyes bright with hope –
not knowing when it returns
they’ll see approaching
a black sail on the bright water
The days pick me up and carry me off,
on their journey that I’ll share
for a while
[Between mountain and sea]
Three men are pulling
at the starboard oar,
the man I am and was
and the man I’ll be.
The boat sails
to a blind horizon
Pull as we may
we’re kept from turning
to port or starboard by that
And ahead, the blessed islands
are a mirage over it.
We forge on towards them.
They keep their holy distance.
[Fore and aft]
When he writes, in the 1990s, after the death of his wife of 40 years:
It’s night now.
I’ve no fear of going to sleep
I’ve no fear of waking in the morning.
For peace will say, Today
is like yesterday
and I’ll be here for the long length of it
[In the croft house called The Glen]
it’s not Stoicism that sustains him, but the kind of Epicureanism that Solzhenitsyn found a parable for in One day in the life of Ivan Denisovitch. The salvation of the apparently small things, their significance. Because alongside all these clear-eyed poems are the ones I suppose we think of when we think of MacCaig. The sheltie with the filmstar eyelashes, the road hemsitched to the rim of the mountain, all the birds and beasts, the man with the bottle-shaped bulge in his pocket, the fiddlers, the music,the weather. All the bright moments, all neatly packaged in one stanza of the 1990s
This girlish morning
comes straight out of old stories
where girls wore sprig muslin
and spent their entire time
When I think of life-saving poems, it’s Norman MacCaig that I think of. I wrote him a thank you poem.
A pibroch for (MacCaig)
[ ‘History frightens me…/ If only I come to be a word with brackets round it / a word drowned in a footnote / a word’ Norman MacCaig : ‘Backward look’ 1984 ]
It sounds right, pibroch –
plaintive and Scots.
He’d not be doing with that;
what did he write about death?
‘the one that smiles ruefully
thinking how little he is understood.’
MacCaig, punctilious as a dipper,
pertinent and spry as a robin
on the precise tips of his verse.
What a look he’d give me,
laconic, spare and handsome,
holding his cigarette like a matinee idol.
It’s just that I come to him late
and he bothers me with death:
that cart on the shore road,
the one coming with the sack in his hand,
the scyther in the hayfield,
those blind horizons, black sails.
I keep wondering: why;
in this land of birds, weather,
the big skies of Assynt,
why these shadows, this shadow?
I should pay more attention.
He’s writing this the age I am now.
I want to say: you don’t die for years.
He can’t hear me, any more than Socrates.
I picture him casting, casting
into some high lochan
and a shadow on the opposite bank;
the delicate arcs of two mirrored lines,
the finicky business of flies,
and the two of them, still as chessmen
each bent with all his art
on reeling the other in.
Parentheses bother me, too;
(enter a life, stage left; exit right),
as though there were beginnings
and endings. No such things.
The salmon go back into the water.
No brackets for you, MacCaig.
Still learning me your language.
[* Pibroch: a tune played by a single piper. A call to a gathering, a salute, a lament, characterised by the complexity of its grace notes]
Thanks for staying with me. I promised you it wouldn’t be depressing, and I don’t think that is. Self-indulgent, maybe, but that’s how it is at 76. Next week we’re having a guest. Come along. It’ll be great.
And never forget what MacCaig wrote in An ordinary day
And my mind observed to me, Or I to it, how ordinary Extraordinary things are or
How extraordinary ordinary Things are, like the nature of the mind And the process of observing.
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 roosting. And 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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
I was watching BBC2 last night. Anthony Gormley on How art began. I got the buzz and the jolt I remember from when I first saw Bronowski’s Ascent of man, or John Berger’s Ways of seeing. It was quiet, it was thoughtful, it was utterly gripping.
There was none of the nonsense that attends the contemporary culture-tourist programme, usually hosted by some breathless ex-Blue Peter presenter, or D-list ‘celebrity’ who no-one has ever heard of. The nonsense that begins ‘I’m going on a journey to discover…’ The last time I heard that one was on a programme about St Kilda, where the excitable ‘discoverer’ appeared to think she was the first to tell a story that that the BBC had documented, using contemporary film records, and broadcast about 20 years before she was born. I got ridiculously cross. It does me no good.
But last night was the real deal, how things should be, delivered by a man who knows exactly what he’s talking about, and why; a man genuinely awestruck by images made 40,000 years ago. Not the the prints of hands, but the images of the absence of hands that became dust 40,000 years ago. If you haven’t seen it, I’ll not spoil it for you….just make sure not to miss it.
One thing I just had to write down…..there was so much, but this especially….was his response to what he described as a tender piece of art, an animal drinking, so it seemed, from a pool. He called it (I think)
an art of interdependency…. a pre-narcissistic art
There you had it. Art is essential to our selfhood, our sanity and our spiritual health. But great art is somehow ego-free. Gormley said something startling. He said ‘I don’t like Picasso. He was a predator.’ You get your money’s worth with Gormley, much as you do with Hockney. Television for grown ups. What Gormley explored, among other things, was art as a responsive connection to the multifarious world and the place of the people and the individual within it.
Which brings me to the business of ‘green thoughts’. Not the languorous state I read in Marvell’s ‘annihilating everything that’s made/to a green thought in a green shade’ but the business of art’s response to and redefining of the ‘natural’ world…which is a concept I find problematic, but I’ll not pursue that now. I’m thinking of the whole complicated continuum from Pastoral poetry to the current imbroglio of ‘eco/environmental poetry’. I’ve been wrestling with this ever since I read Yvonne Reddick’s tour de force of exegesis in Ted Hughes: environmentalists and eco poet. I think I lost my way in the second chapter in which she summarises the sects and subsects of ecopoetry criticism: the topological, the tropological, the entropological and the ethnological. There are probably more by now, but they didn’t help me to entangle what I think of as ‘nature’, living as we do in a land where every metre has been named, walked, farmed, exploited, fenced, walled, built on, abandoned and reclaimed. All I know is that is if we continue degrade the ecological balances of the world it will die. The earth will get over that. It doesn’t care. It’s already gone through four major extinctions, not least being the one caused by the emergence of oxygen in the free atmosphere. It doesn’t care for us. But it seems obvious that we need to care for it if we care anything for ourselves.
When it comes to poetry that concerns itself with the natural world (and I’ll strenuously avoid that capitalised cliche Nature) I guess my first big eye-opener was Raymond Williams’ The country and the city which was my introduction to the idea that words like that are culturally constructed, and go on being deconstructed and reconstructed. Very little of the poetry we were given at school concerned itself with the city and the urban. It was pastoral, nostalgic and often sentimental . Poems like ‘The deserted village’. Poems like ‘Daffodils’. It took me a long time to work out why I distrusted ‘Daffodils’ but the clue’s in the first line:
I wandered lonely as a cloud
The first word; I. It’s not about daffodils, is it? It’s about the poet and what the daffodils can do for him as he wanders (ie purposelessly) and lonely (ie in self-elected solitariness) as a cloud (ie diffuse and without responsibility). It’s what I thought of when I heard Gormley’s phrase ‘ a pre-narcissistic art’. He did a revolutionary thing, Wordsworth. It’s a shame this poem is what he’s chiefly remembered for by folk who aren’t that interested in poetry. He opened our eyes to a power and loveliness beyond the bounds of a predominantly urban and urbane culture. I’ll hang on to that as I come to introduce today’s guest. I’ve taken far too long to share my enthusiasm for her work.
Alison Lock is a poet and writer of short fiction whose work has appeared in anthologies and journals in the UK and internationally. She is the author of three poetry collections, two short story collections, and a fantasy novella. Her latest collection of poetry, Revealing the Odour of Earth, Calder Valley Poetry (2017), is an observation of life as seen through the natural environment: ‘landscape made language’ (Bob Horne). She finds inspiration in the moorlands and the natural environment of the South Pennines, which is often reflected in her writing, but she is also influenced by her childhood home of the West Country. More about her writing can be found at http://www.alisonlock.com
I really like that phrase of Bob Horne’s…‘landscape made language’. It chimes with Macfarlane’s ‘landmarks’. Unconsciously, I hyphenate it. landscape-made-language. And also language-made-landscape. So much of Alison’s poetry is a poetry of place. A topological poetry if you like. I hope these poems will explain what I mean. (yet again, apologies for my having to use screenshots of the poems. It keeps the shape but loses a bit of clarity)
The Wordsworthian note is there right enough…the I that wants to emboss its prints on the new snow. But it’s a shared experience, a shared place. I especially like its physical presence, its textures, its solidity… ‘the ribcage of stone’ and the texture of the ice, its ‘milky slipcovers’. The paths are set with traps. I like the sound of the landscape, too, the susurrations, the chitterlings, the whisperings, its nervousness in a world that will shortly unleash a madness, or enchant us all into a sleep of reason.
It seems apposite, just now, to write about walls, and differences between good fences and boundaries between peoples.
First published – Anapest: Issue One
It’s a poem of exact true observation, that gives each stone its heft and surface, and it’s given that extra jolt that makes you see a work of hands in a new light in the turn of one line:
How she imagines each unique rock
A stone wall as an imaginative act which is about the suppression of ‘self’, imagination in the way that Michaelangelo thought he could feel the shape inside the stone, the way he could release it. Lovely. Robert Frost would have liked it, I think.
One more poem (which absolutely had to be done with a screenshot!)
Landscape that speaks our lives, and which requires us to speak for it in turn. Alison, thank you for being our guest today. Thank you for the poems. Please come again.
Changes are afoot with the cobweb. I’m delighted and unnerved to be asked to be a resident blogger for Write Out Loud. I can’t resist the thought of a considerably larger readership. We’re not entirely sure how this will work out BUT I know I haven’t the stamina, the imagination or the bottle to write two separate regular posts a week. I’m barely keeping up with one. The plan is that I’ll write for Write Out Loud, and then repost to the cobweb a week later. I need to keep the cobweb going for loyal followers in the States, for instance, who won’t be likely to pick up WOL. Anyway. We’ll see how it goes. I’ll be writing to future guests to make sure they’re happy with the plan. If not, I’ll give them posts exclusively on the cobweb. In the meantime, thank you for following. Don’t go away.