Family affairs and other stories. With Laura Potts, and a Polished Gem: Rebecca Gethin

Putting together a post some weeks ago about ‘Sequences’ (thank you, Pascale Petit, Keith Hutson and Steve Ely) I said something on the lines that we could all write sequences about our own families, and that many of us do. I discover photos that were stuck in envelopes among my grandma’s effects in a desk I inherited. I know that her dad was a coachman, that she started work in a mill before she was 8, that her husband John had been a travelling asphalter ( among other things). I look  at these photos, and wonder if John is one of the gang of lads working on that pier, wherever it might be, or if my great-grandfather is in this group on the steps of what seems to be a grand house. We  tap in to the natural curiosity that drives TV programmes like ‘Who do you think you are?’ in which folk with varying degrees of celebrity discover, with what sometimes feels like theatrical distress, that folk they never knew were criminals, or were incarcerated in asylums, or were bigamists, or…well, you know the kind of thing. Programmes like this have no time for quotidian lives, ordinary lives, not liking to face up the the truth that there’s no such thing as ‘ordinary’, or recognising the truth of what Norman MacCaig spelled out

“how ordinary

extraordinary things are or

how extraordinary ordinary

things are, like the nature of the mind

and the process of observing.”

An ordinary day [1964]

 

We’ve got two guests today who demonstrate exactly what he was getting at. Laura Potts, first. I went to a reading at The Beehive Inn in Bradford a few months ago, when Laura, in introduction to one of her poems, said something about an unnerving discovery she made while exploring her NE roots. I asked her to write about it for the cobweb. And I’m delighted to say that she did.

Newcastle in the 1800's (10)

” I come from an unknown people.

Grandparents gone, siblingless parents, and none of my own. No cousins or uncles to speak of. That old, lost and probably long-dead aunt in the highlands or even entirely off this island ceased to be named years ago. It is a stranded existence to live in a city without ties at all. We were dropped here and everyone fled.

Stranded, maybe, but free too. I have never been bound by the figures and facts of family, or a history which is true and absolute. Doubt and endless hope have been the impetus behind my work. The sheer not knowing, and the search to find a past in which truth will always elude me, have formed the stimuli to write. That past can take a thousand forms and speak in countless tongues. Few photographs exist. It is a vacuum which promises endless creation, and I know nothing else that burns so brightly.

So how does the becoming begin? In this void, without the touchstone of truth (if such a thing even exists), from where does the narrative come? The process is threefold: observation, instinct and artefact.

Living between the same two people for my twenty-one years, I have come to see them as the only living gateways to my past. They think therefore they are much more than single sets of DNA, and for the last few years my end has been to study them intensely: from simple physicalities to interacting with the world around them, my parents are the opposite of ‘whole’ or ‘structured’ bodies. In sudden mood switches and changes of heart, in moments of pain or startling danger, and in their convergence/divergence from the different dogmas which move around them I find the fragments of many people. Even in the slightest idiosyncrasies and facial quirks I see the sparks of bygone lives. They may now embody two very different forms, but they live nonetheless.

Some may call this ‘people-watching’, and it is a process I find even more difficult to apply to myself. ‘Instinct’ is the rough word I give to self-appraisal and contemplation. Simply, this is the process of asking yourself how you might react in a given situation. When I have written of the past – of a dockland prostitute, of a grieving mother, of a cheated wife – I have taken long days to let the scene clot and grow in the subconscious mind before writing. Usually, this is a protracted period of pain and a series of feelings I have rarely felt before. I usually also find that this is where the structure of a piece might evolve: painful contemplation often produces a fragmented structure without regular rhyme or meter, for example. Often this is a time of pleasure-pain: as an intensely private person, long and lonely contemplation is more cathartic than anything else, but can also give the ‘thousand shocks’ of sadness.

And finally, much of writing is reading and I will always believe that the best writers are the best readers. Where else to find the life of art than in the living, breathing world outside? This is the ‘artefact’: the hours of reading and headached research that goes into each poem I write. This is never just art for art’s sake: my work has always been a historicist endeavour. Contemporaneous and secondary sources, from paintings and poems to historical and legal documents, are always at hand if you look long enough. True, I have few family photographs of my own. But that does not mean I cannot find those out there that do. There are endless resources right at your fingers: The British Library, The Oxford English Dictionary, The Carlyle Letters Online, Literary Manuscripts at The Brotherton Library (Leeds University), Vogue Archive, Project MUSE, The Times Digital Archive, Victorian Popular Culture, 19th Century British Newspapers… I could go on. But if (as unfortunate as the thought may be) I am going to take my place in Eliot’s ‘Great Tradition’, then I am going to do it knowing exactly what that Tradition is. And where I would like to be.

This should see me right.”

 

And so it should. It caught me off-balance, that flatly stated fact of felt dispossession. It caught my breath because I come from a big extended family full of cousins and aunts, who all, it seemed, told stories about the family. There were gaps and mistellings, and downright untruths. But, a lot of stories that somehow I belonged with. I had to read this more than once:

Grandparents gone, siblingless parents, and none of my own. No cousins or uncles to speak of. That old, lost and probably long-dead aunt in the highlands or even entirely off this island ceased to be named years ago. It is a stranded existence to live in a city without ties at all. We were dropped here and everyone fled.”

At the same time, I’m excited by Laura’s manifesto:

“But if (as unfortunate as the thought may be) I am going to take my place in Eliot’s ‘Great Tradition’, then I am going to do it knowing exactly what that Tradition is. And where I would like to be.”

What it’s made me think of is that argument thread on Facebook recently….the one about ‘writing what you know’. Laura reminds me that the best poetry comes out of writing from what you know into the unknown, the stuff you want to know, the stuff that helps you define your identity, the stuff that you don’t ‘know’ until you find what it is by writing it.

Which brings us to our guest poet for today. I’d ‘discovered’ Rebecca Gethin via Kim Moore’s wonderful blog The Sunday Poem’ and then finally met her this summer at the Lewes Poetry Festival, where she read from a new collection of poems All the Time in the World based on her discovery of a bundle of her mother’s letters, and from that, via her poems, the discovery of a mother she didn’t have enough time to know.  Rebecca Gethin’s mother died of cancer at the tragically early age of thirty-two, leaving two very young children. These poems are the poet’s response to the letters that her mother wrote when she was dying, which have only recently come to light. And here’s Rebecca to tell us about the process of that discovery.

All the Time in the World was written in one month while I was on a retreat at Hawthornden Castle.  If I hadn’t had that concentrated amount of time on my own to think and reflect and with no domesticities to do I’d never had written it.  I needed to enter into and stay attentive to that space in my head and heart.  The ordinary interruptions of life would have made this impossible.

Only two years before, I’d been given a small envelope of frail and flimsy letters written by my mother to her sister and her mother as she lay dying in hospital (60 years before).  A cousin found them in an attic. Before that I had never seen her handwriting so seeing her script gave me a massive shock in my heart.  It was as if her handwriting conveyed her voice to me.  The few scraps of letters answered a few questions and provoked more unanswerable questions.  I had actually put them away because it was all too much to take in.  But something made me pack them when I was leaving to go to Hawthornden as I did feel I wanted to write a poem or two about them and I was worried about running out of subject matter while I was there and this was to be my emergency fall-back kit.

As soon as I got there I read the letters many times and began to know them off by heart. I’d use her own phrases to start me off on a line of thinking which I’d write about.  There was no date order so I couldn’t be sure of chronology and I guessed that.  I deliberately cut out too much poetic technique as I wanted to stay as close to the experience as possible and not be distanced by metaphor, simile, rhyme.  One or two poems turned into a short sequence which morphed into more and yet more.  I wasn’t sure if any of them were any good and as I was determined to write at least one good one, I just kept going.  They were short on the whole, little flames of thought and feeling that came in response to her words. I wanted to bring her back to life for myself and leave out myself right out of it.  Over a period of time I began to think she was with me and, in fact, had been so all my life but I hadn’t noticed.  (I have no faith although she had bucketloads. )  I walked every afternoon and she came with me, just a comfortable presence. I remember wondering if I became her!

Along the way, I made discoveries, things like her doctor sister must have been asked to give her the bad news that she had a cancer which was terminal.  And I realised I remembered an incident she mentioned: my last visit to her in hospital although I didn’t know it was the last (so 2 year olds do remember things). They kept things from children in those days and I hadn’t a clue what was going on.  Strangely, I also remembered a perfectly ordinary bathtime and I wondered why. So that is also in the booklet but not strictly speaking part of the letters (okay, so I do sneak in now and then).

With growing excitement, I discovered I might have enough for a whole pamphlet so started shuffling papers around even though some of the poems seemed so incredibly small.  My confidence often left me however.  Even so, I decided on the order while I was in my bubble at Hawthornden where there was plenty of space to lay the poems out and I read them over and over again and found an inner logic. I thought that if I were writing a narrative I might well move the sections around to create suspense or mystery so I used what I had learned from novel writing. The title came from a phrase in a letter.

When I returned home I tried to edit them but found that having left the bubble I couldn’t fiddle with any of them apart from a little punctuation here and there: it felt like sacrilege. I tried to check on my ordering but it was fixed already and wouldn’t be altered. Helena Nelson read them and gave me a huge amount of encouragement for which I am very grateful.  But the title suddenly didn’t seem usable as there were at least two other books with that title and it was, I thought, a bit of a cliché.  But nothing else fitted half so well….

I never submitted any of the poems to magazines as I felt it was all one long poem and they stood or fell on their own.  And I also knew they weren’t to be a section in a collection. All together and separate or nothing.

all the time in the world

So there they are. I was astonished when Cinnamon Press published them and with the title ‘All the Time in the World’ (none of the other books of that title were poetry) and have been even more so when people say how touched they have been by something about my mother. It’s almost as if I am not there. ”

You can read a fine review of All the time in the world by following this link. https://thebelatedwriter.wordpress.com/2017/05/01/all-the-time-in-the-world-by-rebecca-gethin/#comment-232

And then you can buy it. In the meantime, you can ponder on the notion of a writer wanting to leave herself ‘right out of it’. The more I think on that, the more I want to emulate it. But it’s time for poems.

Frugality   

 

She likes to be of use, so in her hospital bed,

my mother is darning socks with fine wool.

With the needle she draws the yarn over

and under her warp thread without causing

a pucker, checking the tension to mesh a flat disc

across the hole. Smooth as an obol.

By the time each is done, she’ll have touched

the yarn all along its length as it moved through her hand,

felt its spring and bounce.   But before she finishes

her supply (there’s still two ounces left)

she asks her mother to bring in more wool

of the same colour so she can keep mending

enough socks to last.

 

Just like her –

 

She could read a book

do crosswords

or paint her nails

but she prefers to work.

So, on the subject of mending socks,

she writes I’ve all the time in the world.

 

I wonder if we have to wait to reach an age age where we can really imagine our parents. I think this is even more poignant because the actual memories stop when this poet is two years old, and what she brings to the ‘invented’ memory is an actual tactile, spatial, kinetic memory of the deft handling of yarns and needles. You really can’t write what you don’t know. Not well, that is.  What I love is the way the first poem turns on a phrase that’s right and surprising simultaneously:  Smooth as an obol. It carries the weight of practised ritual and ceremony, and anchors the apparently simple detail of what it is to darn a sock. I love that reflection that

By the time each is done, she’ll have touched

the yarn all along its length as it moved through her hand,

so that the wool keeps a memory of the hand, and the hand of the wool, the loving connection that underlies the understatement of having enough socks to last. To last for whom? we need to be asking. What will remain of us is love. That’s what outlasts the socks, the wool, the woman in the bed. This, it seems to me, is what gives the second poem its heft as a coda, and makes its last line so moving, so resonant. It lives in the same world as Eliot’s ‘these fragments I have shored against my ruins’ but makes them more real.

a-sprig-of-rowan

Two more poems now, the first from A sprig of rowan.

 

Apparition 

 

A wraith of the darkness drifted

down the twist of path ahead and hardly

was there time to believe it,

when it re-appeared

in a fluster of wings, tumbling

from between the trees and out

into the sunshine of open field –

nacreous, tinted with gold –

as if haunting the day

to hunt for the dusk it had lost.

 

It’s such a delicate-seeming poem, this, that if you only read it with your eyes, you might miss, at first, the the sheer frantic baffled energy of it, this bird, this owl (I suppose. It’s an apparition. It’s not named or identified),that belies it’s ‘wraith’ness, that twists and tumbles, flusters, haunts and hunts. I like the way the verbs get elided in the poem’s breathless moment, this thing that happens to fast and puzzlingly. And I like the way that the surprising word ‘nacreous’ sits naturally as does the ‘obol’ of the darning poem. I like the craft of it that doesn’t announce itself. But read it aloud, and try to figure out how fast or slow it needs to be. I like that. I like poems that make me look again at things… like birds that I imagine I know because they come into my garden, and because my dad was a birdwatcher. The thing that matters though is ‘this’ bird. ‘This’ moment. It’s in the same tradition as Hopkins’ Windhover. It’s what this last poem does

Blue

 

The colour of sky and sunlight

he acrobats

among the tree tops,

 

or with head on one side

he sometimes considers

the abracadabra

 

of the high twigs

where he splits open a seed

or spin-twizzles

 

a caterpillar

like a strand of spaghetti

and as he skitters

 

out of sight, you wonder

how his goblin wings

grew from the yolk of an egg.

 

 (published in The Broadsheet, 2016)

So that’s where we’ll leave you. Wondering. Thank you so much, Rebecca Gethin and thank you Laura Potts. I’ve had a great time writing this, this afternoon. I don’t invariably feel like that. I’ll leave more details about both at the end of the post, and then go and make something that’ll be good to eat at the end of a proper cold November Sunday. I’m not sure about the timetable for the next few weeks, but I’m pretty sure I can promise you a proper Advent sequence and also the celebration of a significant number. Thanks for your company.

 

Rebecca Gethin  won the Cinnamon Press Novel Writing Award with her first novel, Liar Dice, which was published in 2011. Her first poetry collection, River is the Plural of Rain, was published by Oversteps Books in 2009 and was followed by a second collection, A Handful of Water, with Cinnamon Press in 2013. What the Horses Heard is her latest novel and was published in May 2014. Her two latest collections are A Sprig of Rowan  [Three Drops Press], and All the time in the world  [ published in Feb 2017 :Cinnamon Press]

 

 

Wakefield-based Laura Potts was recently chosen from thousands of applicants to become one of the BBC’s Verb New Voices for 2017. The award, which includes a £2,000 bursary, expert mentoring and development support, will enable her to create a collection of poems Sweet The Mourning Dew. The poems will explore the nature of grief and examine the experiences of ordinary people living with loss as a result of war.

She was twice named a Foyle Young Poet of the Year and in 2013 became an Arts Council Northern Voices poet and Lieder Poet at the University of Leeds.

She appeared at Wakefield Literature Festival with Linton Kwesi Johnson and on  BBC’s Contains Strong Language Festival in Hull in September  and at Ilkley Literature Festival, in October

She is currently interviewing people in the north of England as part of her research. She will then be selecting around six stories to work from and is looking forward to getting started on the new poems which will be broadcast on Radio 3. “Writing is what keeps me going,” she says. “It is the reason I wake up in the morning.”

And she’s 22. Think on that.

 

 

 

 

as the leaves to the trees, and first line nerves

John_Keats_by_William_Hilton

What is it about portraitists  and poets ….that default pose of prophetic pensiveness? Less so with photographers, I suppose, but painters just can’t help themselves. I think that they think that they’re immortalising visionaries, all tremblingly open to the arrival of the Muse in a whisper of flame and plumage. What I see is the blank-eyed terror of the creature in the headlights. It’s very layered, isn’t it, that apparently youthfully-dismissive line of Keats? ”If poetry doesn’t come as naturally as the leaves to the tree then it had better not come at all.” Something like that. Think on, though. You can’t force a poem to be, can you? And meanwhile, there’s that screen or that sheet of blank accusing paper.

The empty page. I got the germ of this post from a recent post from Josephine Corcoran…it was about her trusty fountain pen, and boy, did it attract some responses! It struck me just how fussy I am about getting myself in the way of writing anything. I’m a pen and paper person. I don’t compose on a screen usually (though I seem quite happy to be writing this straight on to the screen; maybe that’s because it’s a sort of rambling essay, and I can go with the flow) and I certainly don’t write the first drafts of poems on a screen. Or in pencil..maybe, because that seems just too provisional and uncommitted. There’s nothing provisional about ink. Oh, and the pen and the paper have to get on well together. For years and years I would only write on unlined A4 paper, with a stainless steel Parker fountain pen. And only EVER in black ink. Don’t you agree: A5 and blue ink/biro make you think, inexorably, of Basildon Bond?…you couldn’t be writing poems on that. But then I dropped the pen and bust the nib (fine point, by the way…more friction, cleaner line, more fluency for less effort) and replacements wouldn’t wear into the smoothness of line I loved. Then I discovered Stabilo fine point felt-tip pens, and have stuck with them ever since. They are beautiful. Recently I have stopped writing only in black, and gone all frivolous with dark greens and browns and port-wine reds. I make my own notebooks…A4…and for some reason, I switched to lined paper. Maybe it was because I could buy stocks of ready-folded, lined A3 and it was easier to measure up the spaces for the kettlestitching. That’s where we are at the moment. A4 lined notebooks, fine-point Stabilo pens and a range of subdued colour. Sad innit? It’s like footballers and their lucky underpants/socks/bobble hat. But I swear I can’t settle to writing poems without the right gear.

So, here we are. Sitting at desk. Radio 2 (I can’t think in silence or in noise that’s interesting).Coffee. Notebook(s). The right kind of pen. Workshop notes in another lot of notebooks…draft poems have to have their own notebook. And a blank page. And………………

I hear the whisper of the dying Kurtz . The horror……the horror……..And tell me, all you poets, why should that be? Perhaps for you it isn’t. But it is for me. Why not just start writing, anything, anything at all, no matter what?

(At this point I wander off, downstairs, into the garden.)

(And, after some unspecified time, I wander back)

Right. Where was I? Shouldn’t go deadheading geraniums in the middle of a cobweb ramble. But it is all soft and golden and Keatsian outside. Ah, yes. I know where I was. Before I even read Josephine Corcoran’s cobweb post, someone else had planted an idea firmly in the front of my mind, and it won’t go away. Thank you, Mimi Khalvati. This is roughly what she said:

The first line of the poem contains the DNA of that poem.Home_dna2

It deserves its attention-demanding space, does that. She had said a lot of other incisive things in her workshops, about line  and stanza breaks, and the tricks they play, but this is the one that shouldered its way to the front of the queue. It made me think of the first sentences of novels. Bleak House, for instance:

‘ London.’

That’s the sentence. That’s where we are, and as sure as eggs is eggs, that’s where we’ll spend a good deal of time. Why write it, otherwise? Then, first sentence of paragraph two:

‘Fog everywhere’.

Well, we’re not going to be in a world of moral or topographic certainty, now are we? Dickens is committed, and so are we. An even more disturbing first sentence,I think, is in D.H.Lawrence : The Rainbow. Here it is:

‘The Brangwens had lived for generations on the Marsh Farm’.

If that doesn’t make you shiver involuntarily, then you’re not listening; because they’re not going to live unchanged and comfortable for very much longer are they? Changes are coming, and they are hardly likely to be comfortable ones, otherwise the novel will very soon end.

‘The Brangwens had lived for generations on the Marsh Farm, and because they had the hang of it and were quite happy, they went on living like that.’

That’s not got legs, has it? But just try to think your self into David Herbert’s head, looking at the blank sheet, and dreading writing that first sentence, because he knows that once he’s done it, his feet are set on the track, and he’s handed over all sorts of freedom and choice, for thousands and thousands of words. Who’d be a novelist, eh?

And then I started to think: but it’s even more critical in a poem, isn’t it, because there’s nowhere to hide. You’ve got maybe 10 – 20 lines, and you’ve got to grab your reader, and you’ve got to surprise and intrigue, and you daren’t give the game away too soon, and anyway, you don’t know what the game is till it’s over and you’ve lost or won. And then I began to think: it’s not even the first line. It’s worse than that. It’s actually the first word. Unusually, I started to make notes, scribble ideas, knock together a list…all very speculative, but it’s what I’m going to share if you can spare me the time. Comfortable? Here we go. What I’m going to do is work through the word classes (I know that they used to be called ‘parts of speech’ but actually they’re not…they’re parts of sentences. Of course, if you’re 10 years old, or a Primary teacher, then you are a graduate of the Literacy Hour, and you already knew that). Let’s see where we get to.

 

 

You will notice there’s just been an empty space. It is significant and symbolic. There’s been a two day gap, while I tried to make up my mind whether it was worth carrying on. Not existentially..just carrying on with this cobweb post. Thinking too precisely on the event. Prevaricating. That sort of thing. Is it going to work? have you thought this through? who wants to know, and why would they and hasn’t it all been said before and isn’t it all just a bit prententious? That sort of thing. Sod it. Here goes.

It’s all about syntax. English is all about word order, and poetry loves to play around with that to see what happens. So what’s the first bit of word language we handle? What’s the bit you learn first in a foreign language. Nouns. (And ‘that one’). As we say to the children: a noun tells you what the sentence is about. So how often is a noun the first word in any of your poems? What I did at this point was open Norman MacCaig’s Collected Poems at random (in a sequence from the late 1970’s as it happens) and copy the first lines of 30 consecutive poems. How many start with a noun? Four. That’s more than I expected:

Travelling’s fine – the stars tell me that

Everywhere place names          

Petitions pour into the Big House            

Reality isn’t what it used to be

Now, what strikes me is that they’e actually interesting nouns BUT the lines all sound more like titles than first lines…or that they’d make great titles. It’s what nouns do. And what comes along with nouns? Determiners, that’s what. (At this point I can hear the hot breath of former pupil and university lecturer in Linguistics, Anthea Fraser Gupta, on my neck…but I’ll press on and damn the consequences). You might not call them that, but they are all those useful/necessary little words…..a/the/those/this/my/her/many/ three(or any number word) and the rest. Now, how often is one of these the first word? MacCaig again:

The last word this one spoke                

That sun ray has raced to us            

That cold man with bad poems            

That green alone                                                                                                                                

The dunnock in the hedge                 

The countless generations                     

A cubic inch of some stars  

It gets me thinking. It seems that MacCaig is likelier to say ‘that’ than ‘this’ (but don’t hold me to that!) ; he’s certainly drawn to the assertive ‘that’, and ‘that’ carries more baggage than ‘the’ doesn’t it?  ‘The‘ is uncompromising too, of course. It knows where it is . The Brangwens. The pig lay on the barrow dead. ‘A‘ is always going to sound more tentative, more abstract, less assertive.. But whichever you choose will be followed by a noun or a noun phrase. English syntax makes sure of that. You’re going to play your hand early in the poem with a noun, determiners or not. Is that what you want? Mind you, we were wise enough to invent words that would do instead of nouns, and save us a lot of repetition. Pronouns, clever little workhorses. he/she/I/they/them/you/me….they can’t all be the first word in a poem, unless you’re being really subversive, but which do you favour? MacCaig at random, again.

They sit at their long tables                

You have to be stubborn             

You have more nicknames than legs         

I think of Lycidas, drowned     

I feel miserable, acting                                                            

I see an adder    

I like the almost perceptibles         

I thought they needed no Women’s Lib             

I don’t want to shuffle in a Greek theatre

This list surprised me. All those ‘I‘s’. You have to feel pretty sure of yourelf to get away with that,don’t you? Or have been steadily published for 30 years like MacCaig was then. Whatever, you have to be reflective, in some way or another, and I’m sort of suspicious of a poem starting with ‘I‘. Maybe it’s an English thing. ‘You’ is more interesting, because of the ambiguity..maybe it’s a way of avoiding ‘I’…a quick way of pretending objectivity. He/she/they are good because they are, however minutely, suspenseful; the reader is forced to read at least a bit more to find what they refer to. They don’t give the game away.

What about verbs, which tell you what’s happening in the sentence. How often is the first word of a poem a verb (not nouns like running, thinking, singing)? Odds on it’ll be a directive, an an instruction. MacCaig:       Stop looking like a purse.    That’s the only one, and it’s from my favourite toad poem. I just had second thoughts. It doesn’t have to be  a directive, does it. It could be a question, a request. Can (I)? May (I)? Might….? Or it could be sort of tentative: Let (me/us). Need to think about that. About the only one I found in my own stuff was      Listen.  Why should that be? I don’t know. If you have thoughts on this, then please share them.  Similarly, adjectives. Only one instance in my random MacCaig survey. Heartless, musical Ariel. Hard to manage an adjective as a first word.

Now then, the next bit’s slightly more complicated, so I’m going to bundle up a number of things together, and think about adverbials and adjectivals. Single words, and chunks…..phrases, clauses. I’ll be thinking about connectives at the same time. I’ve noticed that more and more of late, one of these three words will be the first in a first draft, and, often, in the nonstop of a workshop exercise I’ll start with  and   /    but   /    so. Really handy for cracking on , but also dangerously addictive. They give me a false sense of security and a spurious air of cocky self-confidence; they seem to say: ‘no need to introduce myself. I know you’ll be interested, because here I am in the middle of this fascinating stream of consciousness, and how could you not want to join me?’ As in

So I’m thinking of Ted Hughes’ gritstone house/ that tunnel of a yard, its slippery flags

which implies: ‘ you should be thinking: why’s he thinking of that? gosh, I simply have to find out’. Bingo. Am I seeing it more often in other people’s poetry? I’m not sure..but it’s catching. I’m certainly seeing lots more list poems these days and, as a consequence, lots more lines beginning with ‘and’. I sometimes wonder if everyone has done at least one workshop exercise based on Walt Whitman’s ‘Prayer for those who…..’ Oops….. I see I’m starting to go off-piste. Sure sign I should be stopping soon. OK. Adverbials, which tell us more about the verb. The where and the when and the how and the why…the warp and weft of narrative. Last bits of MacCaig, then:

Where the small burn /runs into the sea          

From its distance         

Though I’m in sunlight          

Under the broad flat stone        

When her life broke into smithereens                  

Everywhere places/ jut up  ( I know we’ve had this before, but the nice thing about words is that they do more than one kind of job. All grammars leak, said Edward Sapir, the linguist)

 

 

Where/From/Though/Under/When/Because/However/If

You could make a longer list, but the point is that they all start  longer, more complex sentences or trains of thought or lists. I think I’m always more comfortable writing any of these as a first word because it will be telling me that I have an idea in mind, and at least for a couple of lines I know where I’m going. It’ll let me know I’m going to write a story, or create a landscape, or explain someting, or have an argument. And that, I think, is what I’ve understood of Mimi Khalvati’s numinous phrase. The first line of a poem contains the DNA of that poem. If it doesn’t, it shouldn’t be the first line.

Now, none of this is of any use when you’re doing a first draft (and in any case you might be better off just writing unpunctuated prose and leaving all the fiddly stuff for later). I think what Mimi Khalvati has done for me is give me new tools in the tool bag. Redrafting tools. Reading tools. Evaluating tools. None of them stop the empty page looking any less daunting, and none of them will give you anything to say. Neither will staring at an empty page. What we all need first is to get out and do stuff and read stuff. Which is what I shall now do. I have a big piece of kit which turns the branches of pruned trees and bushes into little bits. I shall make mulch.

Who knows. I might even follow my own advice and a have a cobweb break for a week or two. Go and read stuff. Go and do stuff.

Just thought. I never mentioned ‘Maybe’  Of late, I’ve found myself starting first lines with ‘maybe’. Forget the gardening and write a new poem? Maybe.

Thanks for your time and company. See you later.

 

 

 

 

the company you keep

True stories

Violent and vulgar as the Krays comes Zeus,

a white bull, miasmic with testosterone,

or in a shower of gold or a flurryof wings

and swansdown.

The whole pale mortal world

just asking for it.

A bit of blood and bruising.

No harm done.

 

Roman Ovid knew blood clogs scabbards,

stiffens  nets,

knew the blue-white shine of bone,

the gristly wet noise of a boy

spitted on a hunting spear.

 

Years and reverence

bleached greek myths white and silent,

censored severed hands and torn-out tongue,

the loud incontinent reek of death.

 

As if hyacinths, pale anenomes,

the liquid silver song of nightingales

would atone, somehow.

Birds and flowers and cold, bright stars –

archers, hunters, bear and plough.

 

Simpler, and more godlike,

to prick holes in the fabric of night,

let bits of heaven shine through.

 

 

Writers are always being asked: ‘where do get your ideas from?’ . I think that’s a harder question than: ‘why do you write poems?’ My answer to that comes in two parts. One is pragmatic: because poems are short. The other is that I can’t write stories. Novelists invent. Particularly, they invent characters; once they’ve invented the who of a story, the what and the when and the why have to follow from that. There’s something godlike about great novelists. And I can’t do it. This is winging it, but which poets do  you know who invent charcters in the way that novelists do? Dramatic monologues come to mind, but they live in the edgelands between poetry and drama. I think.

When I think about where poems come from, then it’s almost invariably from other poets. Certainly from ‘books’. They may be about what I know, what I’ve lived, but to become ideas they have to be turned into words, and most of mine come from books. We learn from the company we keep. Now, for years and years I didn’t write poetry. I taught it, and was fixated by the unacknowledged belief that poems have their existence on the page, that they are written artefacts. I nearly moved away from this notion when I realised that ‘The Waste Land’ made perfect sense when it was performed (thanks to an LP of Robert Speight reading T S Eliot that I found in dusty stock-cupboard), but still persisted in keeping poetry visual, on the page.

Later (much too late) when I moved into working in Primary Schools, and particularly with and for Key Stage One I was forced into the understanding that, at its root, poetry is oral. On the principle of ‘promises to keep’ I’ll dedicate a post to this in about 6 weeks time. Order your copy now. But while I was hooked on ‘the page’ there were always go-to poems to trigger/coerce children’s writing. Keith Douglas: ‘Vergissmeinicht’ (the dust upon the paper eye), Ted Hughes’ ‘Season songs’ (The chestnut splits its padded cell/it opens an African eye)…for the sharply focussed visual image; William Stafford ‘Incident on a journey’ …for the ‘do you remember?’ exercise; and always in school anthologies, Norman MacCaig: ‘I took my mind a walk’. And always and always, the aim was to have children write poems, when what they needed was to read them aloud and learn them by heart and show off with them. Ah well.

Here’s where we get back to the promise I made to talk about myths and why they have found their way into my writing, and what they have made me confront or discover, or admit. And MacCaig. A bit roundabout this, but I became more and more aware in poetry workshops (ah, The Poetry Business!) that I was falling into a default line and rhythm (mainly iambic blank-ish verse) and a default narrative way of writing. It was nice when someone told me I had a recognisable ‘voice’ , but you don’t want to be playing the same tune for the rest of your life. Well, I don’t. So I went to MacCaig to try in his company to learn something about ways of telling with short lines, varied lines, shorter poems. I read two MacCaig poems every morning for months. Aloud. Working my way through the house-brick of his ‘Collected Poems’, I think I began to hear his thinking, the way each line did its job; and I fell into his comfortable familiarity with the characters of Greek and Roman myth, the way they were companions to his thought, to his watching and listening. This sent me back to ‘The God beneath the Sea’ and its brilliant conceit of the Greek myths as a chronological narrative, told to Hephaestus by the nymph Euronyme who catches him when his mother, Hera, hurls him, newborn, from heaven for being malformed. Cared for by Thetis and Euronyme in the grotto under the sea, they tell him the story of where he came from when his nightmares of falling trouble his sleep. The why of the why of the why… I love it.

It’s interesting to tackle the business of translation, the retelling of stories, and since it would make no sense to invent a myth, it’s also very tempting. There’s a visceral gusto in Ted Hughes’ muscular, sexy, sensual, tactile translations of Ovid, and you can feel just how much he relished those long lines, all those hexameters. Ovid was where I went next. It’s all about the company you keep. In a chance email converstaion (does that make sense…as though you stumble into an email conversation? something not quite right there. ) Kim Moore happened to mention that she was getting all excited about reading The Metamorphoses (in a plain prose translation) and that it was opening up all sorts of ideas and feelings about the sequence she’s talked about in her own blog, and in her current role as Virtual Poet-in- Residence with the Poetry School Campus. If you’ve not signed up yet, then you should. For her it made connections with the morally and emotionally difficult business of physical and mental abuse. I wanted to see how. Nosey bugger. As it happened, different things happened as I read, and unexpected ones. One was that I conceived a passionate loathing for the Olympic Pantheon which revived the memory of Tony Harrison’s ‘Trackers’ and the flaying of Marsyas the Satyr because of Apollo’s arrogant abrogation of music to himself.  Which resulted in the poem I opened with .

And then there’s a twist. It happens that I’m sitting next to Kim at Poetry business day in Sheffield. There’s a task about finding yourself in a new place. Kim is on a beach under a huge sky full of seabirds whose cries are like memories that cannot stop hurting. I’m at the foot of a dark staircase understanding that the breaking of marriage is a stair into the dark that has to be climbed, in a house you never wanted. I thought of Orpheus. I thought I knew the story, and found it knew me. I still haven’t really got that poem nailed down. But there were others, as though windows had opened and there was a different sort of light. I’ll finish with one of them.Hephaestus. Maybe I should say that for 65 years I walked with something of a rolling limp. Not now. I have titanium hips. I like the Titans as much as I hate Zeus and Hera and Ares.

Hepaestus

ugly and lame, whose mother threw

all down the sky, you know how falling feels,

the pluck of the wind a tearing of thorns,

the spheres of heaven turning cobalt, indigo;

tumbled in cumulus, stripped by cirrus,

deaf and dumb with gravity you hurtle

from sleep, wrung out with falling.

 

You. The shining one,

who they mocked with a name,

with a gift from the sea in a dazzle of foam

and sea-fret lace, trailing a tang of salt,

her eyes remote as a gull’s for you all crooked,

crumpled and cracked like kindling

and soot-smeared from the smithy.

 

You fashion a filigree girdle, dress it with pearls,

you yearn for a gentle look, and she hammers

broken stars into your eyes.

You forge yourself blackened and burned

and what have you crafted..a cuckold’s horns.

You watched the whole world sink into her lovely loins.

 

Moony wanderer, Euronyme,

catch me as I fall, lay my head by the soft blue

pulse in the crook of your white arm.

Tell me a silvery story. Sing me to sleep.

 

 

Thanks for your company. You’ve put all the chairs straight, the board’s clean, the pens have all been counted. You can go early. Don’t run.

ps. next week I shall be at a writing workshop in Alicante. No teacherly stuff, then. Just a poem.

I said: No Running