Where all the ladders start (2)

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Just back from five days at a writing retreat at Garsdale Head, about eight miles up the valley from Hawes.

It felt strange, last Monday, to be driving past the Ribblehead viaduct, all the moors streaked with snow that lies longer in the lea of the gritstone walls that march straight up big hills, for no purpose other than enclosure, the marking of boundary and ownership. Deeper drifted snow in hollows and ghylls; curling snow cornices on the edges of landslip. I drove past the turn to Dentdale, and realised with a kind of lurch that years ago, on my first hiking holiday, I’d walked from Dent youth hostel straight over the moor top to Oughtershaw and Langstrothdale, down into Buckden and then to Kettlewell. The lurch came from seeing how big the moors are, how far. I didn’t know better then. I just did it without thinking. Last Monday, I knew I’d never do anything like it again. I’d be too timid, too anxious, and in any case my legs wouldn’t let me. It’s an uncomfortable feeling, that sense of inability, and if you let it in, it makes you feel as though there are lots of other things you can’t do any more. Like writing anything you’d want to read again.

I think that diffuse draining of confidence leaked into the workshop tasks, which all seemed to become reflective, introspective, all about ‘I’ and ‘me’. You lug a lot of baggage into workshops. Or at least I do. Often it’s useful baggage, stuff you’ve just read or done, that lets you come at the moment obliquely. A simple example would be the way you can approach your own inner life via the narratives of myth or folk tale, via ventriloquism, hiding inside another imagined self or persona. This last week has been about finding no hiding place, and being unsure of the way language can let you speak truly about the unadorned experience. I think that’s at least part of what Yeats meant about the foul rag and bone shop of the heart. I firmly believe that it was just what I needed. Whether I liked it or not was neither here nor there. When I’m asked what I expect from a writing workshop I say, blithely, that I want to be shifted out of my comfort zone. I wasn’t disappointed. Thank you, Kim Moore.

I wanted to say all that before sharing one of those poems that seem to come without worry or effort, because sometimes I forget to say thanks for their turning up. Of course, they don’t come out of nowhere. It’s nice to acknowledge a debt to those who make a place to start. Here’s a task that came at the very end of a Poetry Business writing day. Task 7. One of Ann Sansom’s six line specials, with four or five minutes and no more to finish your morning on a high.

for true naming

How does it work? The instruction is to write a succession of lines, and each of the lines must contain one of the prompt words or ideas. A hero, a time word, some sort of headgear, something to do with a church, a free choice line and the name of a county. Any of those could be a trigger, but it happened that I’d been reading, and rereading Robert Macfarlane’s Landmarks. I’d earmarked several things. One was his writing about the Finnish Kalavela, and the hero Vainamoinen who the legend credits with winning the gift of fire for mankind. The other wonderful core idea is that of the naming of places, and of landscapes, that the world is en-chanted into being by knowing and saying its True Names.

What else comes along, what baggage? For me, the quest of Ged in Ursula le Guin’s Wizard of Earthsea. The end of Ged’s quest is to understand that he can only know his true self by naming it with his true name. Names are the core of magic. The journeys of the innocent heroes and heroines of folk tale are important too….journeys through dark forest, over mountain passes, on the edges of dark seas. Elemental places, much like the snow-streaked dark moors or the coast of Northumbria; Dunstanburgh and the Farnes where the mythic is just about to break in like hail. And there it is, a workshop prompt that lights a fuse for a fire you’ve been building without really thinking why. Without Macfarlane, that line ‘for the true naming of the world’ wouldn’t have jumped on the page to introduce a list of everything you might need. I should write a praise-song for lists and listing, and their seductive forward-pushing rhythms. Here’s the finished version.

For the true naming of the world

 

For the true naming of the world

you need one who will recognise a fish

that has swallowed a star

that fell through the vaults of the air;

one who wears a helmet or bears a sword

forged in the heart of mountains,

from metals whose names no man ever knew,

to bear a name that can not be forgot,

a name to fit in a verse to be sung at a feast;

 

you need one to be sent on a quest

through silent forests, stony wastes,

to a bony church and a hillside that opens

to a way that he’ll walk through all the ages,

to come dumb and dazzled to the seashore

under huge lucid skies, into the wind,

to build monasteries, to illuminate gospels;

to speak to otters, spear the sea like a gannet,

to be one with wind and with seals.

 

Then stones and flowers might come

to know themselves. Day’s-eye, comfrey,

coltsfoot, mallow, vetch, stonecrop, feverfew.

Hornblende, granite, wolfram, flint and gneiss;

valleys might come know their depths,

and becks and burns to know the purposes of rain,

and the ways of the clough and the gorge

under blood moons, hare moons, the moon

when horns are broken. Then.

 

Almost everything in this is borrowed. I’m pretty sure the ‘hillside that opens’ is from William Mayne’s Earthfasts, set in Arkengathdale. I imagined the kind of hillside that loomed over the house I stayed in last week. This oneIMG_2612

the lucid skies are the astonishing skies of the Northumberland coast; the founder of monasteries is Cuthbert, the gospels are from Lindisfarne; Cuthbert spoke with otters and seals, but the imagining of it is from Robert Westall’s The Wind Eye. The naming of flowers is from Macfarlane, and the Native American names for the moons of different seasons are from Dee Brown.

Sometimes it’s even less complicated. Sometimes you seem to be given something that comes pretty well fully-formed. In this case a sort of retelling of a parable from Bede. More Northumbria, but in my mind, it happens in Whitby. It seemed to have its own urgent rhythm.In the meantime

and the finished version, which just seemed to know its own linebreaks

In the meantime

 

because that’s how it is, the sparrow

flying into the meadhall, bewildered

by smoke-reek, gusts of beer-breath,

out of the wild dark and into the half-

light of embers, sweat, the steam

of fermenting rushes, and maybe

a harp and an epic that means nothing

in a language it doesn’t know, this sparrow,

frantic to be out there, and maybe

it perches on a tarry roof beam, catches

a wingtip, comes up against thatch

like a moth on a curtain, and it beats

its wings, it beats its wings, it tastes

a wind with the scent of rain, the thin

smell of snow, of stars, and somehow

it’s out into the turbulence of everywhere,

and who knows what happens next.

 

So there we are. Every time you think you have nothing to say, or it all seems too hard and miserable, say a little prayer for the ones you were given free, like a blessing.

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[Both poems come from Much possessed .  smith|doorstop 2016.

Available  via The Poetry Business, or from me direct. See  My books  at the top of the page]

Please, Miss, I don’t know what to write.

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I suppose that begs the question: why write at all? It’s a question that I spent a lot of time on, in the 1980s, when I was writing a book about the teaching of writing, or working as a consultant on the emerging National Curriculum, or when I was putting together a series for GCSE. It’s easy to sidestep, by concentrating on the categories of writing that children and students need (we believe) to get to grips with. Lists, explanations, reports, summaries, persuasive and analytic pieces.

For most of the time in schools it’s so we can assess how well children write, and also to assess what they’ve understood or what they know. About history, geography, science, economics….whatever. In English lessons, we ask them to write in response to poetry or novels or plays. But why do we ask them to write stories or poems or scripts? I’m not sure it’s a question that enough teachers of English bother about sufficiently. It’s sort of a given. It’s what ‘English’ is.

I know when I was at school I’d be asked, or told, to write a story; and when I was a young and not especially reflective teacher, I’d be the one to do the asking or telling. There was always the one or two or three who would very reasonably say: I don’t know what to write about, Sir / Miss. I guess they were written off in school reports: ‘Lacks imagination’. I was OK at school, because although I knew very little, I read a lot and I’d figured out the tricks of writing a story. Poems, not so much. But we were rarely asked to write a poem, so that was OK.

And then, many years later (in my case) you find yourself, for reasons you can’t fathom, writing, or trying to write, poems; meeting other bewildered and enthusiastic folk in the same pickle. And every now and again hearing (or reading on Facebook) the complaint that someone is ‘blocked’ or ‘stuck’ or has ‘hit a blank period’. It’s the voice from childhood, all over again. Please, Miss. I don’t know what to write. I’ll stick my neck out. Here’s the answer. It’s because, for one reason or another, you have nothing to say. Not for ever. But just now. It’s because nothing is exciting or puzzling you.

You can make a list of what ought to intrigue you: your childhood, relationships, friends, school….the whole autobiographical shtick. But if it doesn’t excite or puzzle you, why should it interest anyone else? Places, landscapes, other lives? Ditto. Stuff you know you know about? History, science, cars, philately? Ditto.

So I’m going to stick my neck out again and say it’s the stuff that takes you by surprise, that’s exciting but something you don’t understand, something you want to understand…that’s what you wait for or go hunting for.

I was talking to the poet Helen Mort a week or so ago and she said something that caught my attention (she said a lot of things that did that) and I had to write it down. She said that when she went to Cambridge she was thrown by the way so many students took the place for granted, as though they didn’t actually ‘see’ it. Whereas she, as an outsider, an incomer, was gobsmacked and excited and baffled and all that…And I was immediately transported back to the interview I had in Cambridge, aged 17. I felt like an alien. Which meant, I suppose, that I was differently observant. It was like trying to learn a four-dimensional foreign language. And then Helen said:

                             Ideally, writers are on the outside, looking in

They are ideally, I suppose, the dark watchers I wrote about last week . They are writing to discover, because that’s the medium they make their discoveries in.Helen said:

I can make poems to be written, and they might be OK, but that’s all

By which I understood: if you’re not puzzled by what you’re writing about then you won’t be writing the poems that need to be written. I’m really glad I was there to hear that. To record it. And then to get on with this bit of cobwebspinning. I’m going to reflect on the business of finding out what it is you need to be finding out for the poems that need to be written.(  I’ll leave that tortured bit of syntax as it is. It’s symbolic).

 

You have to start, somewhere. Maybe you start here.

 

He is the sparrow, the Friday lord.

I hoped to be the watcher on the rooftop,

but He was first. I’m flake of his fire,

leaf-tip on His world-tree”

[ From: Tyndale in Darkness .

U.A.Fanthorpe: Selected Poems, ed R.V.Bailey. Enitharmon Press 2013 ]

I have no idea why I downloaded U A Fanthorpe’s ‘Selected poems’ to my Kindle, round about midnight on a too-hot night in Spain a couple of months ago. Perhaps I’d looked her up on Google and realised that here was another poet, like Causley and Vernon Scannell, whose work was now to be sought via Abe Books. Whatever. On the verge of sleep, I stumbled into her sequence of poems where she voices William Tyndale, and I read these lines, and the hairs at the back of my neck stood up. That feeling that I’d never read anything like this, that it was amazing that it could have been written with such simple assurance. Later on I recognized the echoes of Gerard Manley Hopkins, and of George Herbert too, I guess,  but that hardly matters. I felt I’d learned something new-minted and important.

In a moment she will take you from the ‘dear preoccupied people’ of 16thC Gloucester, to Gethsemane,

‘and they weren’t used to late nights, his disciples

…………….why did He ask them to stay awake

when he knew they couldn’t? Because He always does.’

 

and back to Gloucestershire, and Tyndale remembering that

 

I heard the ploughboy whistling under Coombe Hill,

and I thought, I could do that. Give him God’s word.

I mean, in his own workaday words. And I did.

 

I think this astonishing and lovely, the way the translator of the Bible into English walks into my life. It’s done with such apparent ease..the ease of imaginative familiarity that only comes with total involvement, absorption in a life that’s loved and troubling.

By the time you come to the fifth poem in the sequence-the Passion, two voices have come together in a single voice that’s simultaneously Fanthorpe’s and Tyndale’s. The voice of the poet’s living faith, and that of Tyndale imagining his imminent execution at the stake.

The powerlessness. This is the day He dies,

Jesus the Friday sparrow, the watcher on the cross

who forgives those who put Him there. He’s dying now,

and His world is dying too. I made this world twice

after God. I translated Genesis.

All I could think was: how does she do this, how does she move me so much? I’m an atheist, aren’t I? How did she make me care, make me believe this was important? How could she do it so ‘easily’? Well, here’s the thing I want to concentrate on: she knows what she’s writing about. ‘Knows’. Not ‘knows about’. This is felt knowledge. But at first it could only be facts, history. It had to be read and learned. And here’s the other thing: it couldn’t be understood, truly known like this until it was written like this. She didn’t know what she knew till she said it.

So what I’m saying is, there’s an answer built into the implied question of my title: I don’t know what to write . The answer being a hard one: well, go away till you know something enough to be intrigued and excited by it.Not sure that you undersatnd it but feeling as though you should. Which will involve you in reading, watching television, watching films, knocking around with mates, walking around cities or up hillsides in rain, or digging, or playing football, or cooking or looking after ageing parent, or after young children, or falling in love, or having an affair, or going into hospital, or having an interview. Getting to know stuff. Finding out. Living it. Which is not the answer people on poetry courses and so on are likely to be comfortable with. But let’s leave that hanging. Let’s go back to Tyndale.

Because from here on, I’m going to be riffing around the business of research, and the way it can be a strange and reflexive business. Sometimes the poem comes first, as it did with Tyndale in darkness. and then sends you off to find the world of the poem, which in my case turned out to be the history of a book, and a biography, too, and a work of detection. It’s subtitled : ‘William Tyndale, Thomas More, and the bloody birth of the English Bible’. The book is Brian Moynahan’s Book of Fire [Abacus 2002]. I mentioned to my mate Keith Hutson (a guest poet on the Cobweb in February 2015) that I’d read Fanthorpe’s  poem, and Keith immediately lent me Moynahan’s book. Which is now bristling with post-it notelets, and waiting for me to transcribe all sorts of quotations and snippets from it….although I haven’t got round to that, because I’m skimming through Hilary Mantel again, finding out what she wrote about Thomas More, and (she’s sure)Thomas Cromwell’s enthusiasm for a vernacular Bible. And at some point I’ll be back with Fanthorpe’s poem, marvelling at the way  she lets you know that what you’re reading is the essence and the truth of a hugely complex and contested tale. I know it will be provisional and I will change, and maybe one day the poem will seem less true. But I hope not. What I do know is that I now know a lot of stuff I didn’t know before I read about the Friday sparrow, and I now I’m writing about it. Not poems that need to be written. But later, maybe. They’ll say if and when they’re ready.

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Or maybe you start here…not with a poem, but with the glimmering of an idea. Maybe something you didn’t know you’d noticed at the time, but which comes back and surprises you. I’ve written before how I need workshops to generate that kind of surprise; I know I can’t consciously sit down to find stuff out to make into poems. I know, because I wasted months trying to do that with a 19thC painter. But here’s an illustration of what I mean. I wrote a poem recently from a workshop draft. Here’s just a bit of it: I wondered of the Celtic saints of the Outer Islands

if they knew that gulls and fulmars

would nest in the cloister of their ribs.

I had an idea where that had come from, because it certainly wasn’t mine. I tracked it down to Macfarlane’s The old ways and his journey to Sula Sgeir in a small boat. Something I have never done, will never do. I know that Macfarlane had taken me back to Adam Nicholson’s Sea Room, where I’d been led by reading Kathleen Jamie, who also took me to books about St Kilda and the Greater Blaskett…and so on. Sea-girt mountain tops, puffins, gannets, bird migration, white-tailed eagles, nests in the ribcage of a saint. He’ll do that for me, Macfarlane. I don’t know if it’s plagiarism…I know that some of his phrasing lodges in my word-hoard and sort of roots itself there. Like this from another poem about a burial cairn on Bheinn na Caillich on Skye

because their oceans were swanspaths, whaleroads.

because they wrote their maps in the wind,

the whole idea is lifted from Macfarlane. I know, because I knew I hadn’t invented it, so I tracked it down. I didn’t take his words. But I had to write my words to understand what he meant, so I could tell you how the idea excited me. Does that make sense?

sula

 

Before I started this bit of the cobweb, I scribbled a list of the stuff that was hanging about waiting to be read, or re-read. The stuff with post-it notelets stuck in it. William Tyndale, British mining disasters, a journey through the English moorlands, A sky full of birds by Matt Merritt, Antarctica (including the remastered films: South (Shackleton) and Scott of the Antarctic, David Wilson’s new pamphlet: Slope [smith/doorstop 2016]. Tectonic plates. Coal measures and the Jurassic. The building of the Himalaya.

I know that at least a bit of that comes from a poetry reading at the Red Shed months ago when the Agbrigg Poets performed a sequence about the Lofthouse Colliery disaster …which was only a couple of miles from where I live, but might as well have been on the moon. And I know that as a result of that, I’ve been finding out about Onibasha. And I can’t make myself write about any of it. It needs to settle into my thinking, become something I don’t know that I know, and wait for it to be surprised into a shape I can share.

Now, I need to make it clear that I don’t think that ‘research’ is the answer to everything. I confess that I’m drawn to poems that announce themselves as knowledgeable rather than (just) elegantly lyrical. Writers like Steve Ely, Ian Duhig, Christy Ducker, Pascal Petit, Julie Mellor. I’m looking forward to the postman bringing me Helen Mort’s new collection which grows out of her research into pioneering women rockclimbers and mountaineers. But I also think that for myself I’m particularly taken by the way ‘research’ can throw a bright, unnerving, illuminating light on what you thought you knew. Childhood, parenting, a parent’s death, or the death of a relationship.

I’ll remind my self of what Helen Mort said:

Ideally, writers are on the outside, looking in

I think you have to become an outsider looking in on your own life. You think you know it, but you don’t, because it’s too near to see.

I know that it was only by reading and re-reading versions of the Greek myths that I became able to write about the death of a son in a way that didn’t exclude other readers. I’ll stick my neck out, and guess that it wasn’t until she’d been absorbed into the ‘Metamorphoses’ of Ovid that Kim Moore became able to write the poems about domestic abuse and violence in the way that stops me in my tracks. I’m biased…I think these poems are the powerful heart of ‘ The art of falling’. Like I say, I’m sticking my neck out. Tell me if you disagree. I really would like to know.

I was going to go on to write about the way the process can go wrong, and how you can find yourself writing what are essentially lies. But I realise I’ve rambled, and there’s enough in that for whole post of its own.

But just a cautionary note. If you have a project that excites you, be careful who you share your enthusiasm with. Maybe you’ll want to keep it to yourself. Because a poet I love shared her project with someone who went off with it, and used it, and reaped great reward thereby. For me, if you want to write about tectonic plates or Shackleton, go ahead. I don’t know enough about them. Yet.

 

 

As a matter of fact: a polished gem (7) Julie Mellor

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As a matter of fact, I couldn’t resist this image of a Pennine poet among the display cases of the Tolson Museum in Huddersfield. The reason should become clear as we go along, but I warn you in advance that this is the third post I’ve written in the last two days (the other two for other cobweb spinners and weavers who’ve asked me to guest on their sites; I’m not sure when they’ll be posted, but I couldn’t be happier to be asked.)….however, all three involve a bit of reflection on the writing process as I know it, and the thing is, I fear they may start to bleed into each other, or run like watercolours, and I’ll lose the thread. Fingers crossed.

I’ve just noticed I’ve managed to stack three metaphors into three consecutive clauses in one sentence. Sorry about that.

I’ve been thinking about that question that writers of all kinds get asked: ‘Where do you get your ideas from?’ I’m not thinking of the business of what prompts you to recover them from the dusty, badly-curated bits of your memory and unconscious. That’s what writing workshops do for me. No, I’m thinking of the question of where it all comes from in the first place. What if you’ve had a pretty uneventful life? What if you’re not widely travelled. And why do we improvise on these first hand memories and on vicarious experience? James Britton memorably said it was because we never cease to long for more lives than we can actually live. So we read, we read, we watch films and television, we go to art galleries, we wander around cities, we walk through landscapes. We might even go into museums. I’m reminded that when I was doing a lacklustre MA in a lacklustre way for lacklustre reasons I had to write an essay about the ‘Writer as researcher’ and to reflect on the nature of the research I undertook in order to write poems. Where do I get my poems from? What are they about?

The more I look back, the more I see how one idea or notion will lead to another in ways that take me by surprise, and I accidentally stumble on information and images that find their way into poems….or become poems. And to be fair, how some of the books I read bleed into my writing. Here’s a confession. Every now and then I realise that I’ve hijacked another writer’s turn of phrase, or even come close to incorporating whole phrases and clauses into my writing. Not consciously. It’s as though they’ve morphed into ‘my’ thinking. John Prebble is one such. Wanting to make sense of crofters and Clearances inevitably took me to Prebble, and I find I’ve lifted a phrase about ghosts from ‘Glencoe’ that turns up, not much changed, in a poem called Boreraig, and another called A kind of history. And these are the ones I know about. It’s an odd thing, this ‘research’.

I’ve stumbled on stuff in Prebble, say, about Portugeses mercenaries fighting an awful rearguard on the slopes of Glen Shiel…why does it bother me? Why do I want to write about it, re-imagine it? Reading about the painter, John Waterhouse took me down sideroads of myth and legend, to Ovid, and then to Ted Hughes, and by another road to statues and sculptures, and thence to Queen Victoria’s journals, and the building of Nelson’s Column, and thence to his ships and his battles and his wounds. Vikings, the Spanish Civil War, crucifixion (did you know the sloping wooden ‘step’ on a cross is a suppadaneum?), Albert Pierrepoint, railway navvies, Mayhew’s street people………of late it’s been the history of maps, and, especially, Robert Macfarlane who has taken me back to the Vikings, to Everest, the geology of the Cairngorm. And people ask: where do you get your ideas from? As though that was problematic. The problem for me is knowing when to stop, to concentrate.

And so we come, by some indirection, to my guest for today, who writes about men who can hold ice, trains that fall from viaducts, fossilised trees, the folklore of fruit, the fears of geese,  Pennine graveyards, Sicilian breakfasts and volcanoes…in short a poet who never fails to engage and delight me: Julie Mellor

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While I was rereading her Poetry Business Pamphlet Competition winner Breathing through our bones (chosen by Carol Ann Duffy! Yes, it’s that good.) I realised what it was I liked so much about Julie’s writing…it’s that every poem is a surprise, that each one is unexpectedly different from the last, and at the same time the voice is reliably the same. And the other realisation is that there’s not a shred of ego, or self-consciousness. Just a genuinely curious delight in the unaccountable richness and diversity of things. But I’m forgetting my manners. If you’ve not met Julie Mellor before, then let me introduce you.

Julie was born in Penistone, (which, as you’ll notice, has a viaduct…always a commendable thing, and is also one of these towns where everyone is someone’s cousin twice removed) where she lives with her partner and her most treasured possession: her dog. After doing various jobs, including working in a shoe shop on London’s Oxford Street, and as an au pair in Sicily, she gained a degree in English at the University of Huddersfield. She went on to do an MA in Writing at Sheffield Hallam, followed by a PhD, which she completed in 2003. Her poems have appeared in magazines and anthologies including Ambit, Mslexia, The North and The Rialto. Breathing Through Our Bones was published in 2012,  ‘Poems with a real ability to own their subject – whether spontaneous combustion or the collective thought of geese – and which remain to intrigue long after reading’ – says Carol Ann Duffy. I’m not about to argue with that.

I’ve known her for a few years as a regular at the Poetry Business writing days, which is where I’ve seen many of the poems in her pamphlet appear for their first airing in public. And thing is, they ‘stick’. They’re always memorable.  Not just the subjects, but the turn of phrase, the exactness of images. Here’s a few examples, just so you tune in.

You’ll encounter The roots of lycopsid trees , the Bishop of Tours, St Martin who chose to live with geese, Joseph Prigg, aged thirteen, who died of injuries at work, four days before Christmas, 1869. Because here’s a poet who spends time (like Simon Armitage) in the Tolson Museum in Huddersfield, who is interested in churchyards and gravestones, and brings the dead to life and breathes through their bones. Anyone can be quirky and eccentric with their choice of subjects. Making them connect with our lives is another thing altogether, and that’s what her poetry does for me. It grabs my attention, too, with images that are surprising and true. I truly hate canal towpath walking, and this is why.

Each bridge is a bleak stone rainbow
and when the water is calm,
it mirrors the arch

to a circle, a giant gun barrel
we are propelled through, side by side.

There it is, the rainbow with no gold at the end, that endless perspective, the speed of its narrowing, and for me, the no-progress of walking, looking at it endlessly receding. Or, how about this: a kitchen whisk  Like the winding gear at Dodworth pit. Or this:  ice melt running through my fingers / as if I was squeezing it dry. I really like the paradox of that. Neat, concise, exact. Or this, about a beck in spate. Listen. I’m running late;  / see the jolt in me……  ‘see’ where you’d expect ‘feel’; ‘see’ when you’ve just been told to ‘listen’. And so it goes. OK. I’ve made you wait. Time for complete poems. The first  I’ve always liked for the swagger of taking on Heaney on his chosen ground (though, to be fair, I can’t imagine anyone less given to swaggering than Julie Mellor.)

Blackberries

We have darkened like the end of the year,
the knuckled hulls at our core
white as a maggot or a baby’s first tooth.

Clusters of sorcery, we store the sun.
The juice of us is a blue flame.
Even the wary fall for our frumenty smell.

Between children’s fingers we bleed black,
store our vengeance until Michaelmas,
when the devil unleashes himself in spit

and piss, and we rot like the underside
of hide buried in lime, lose ourselves
in softness, sink back into what we are,

almost fruit, almost tar, resist the creeping nights,
the toll of winter curfew, wait
in our thinned clusters like the eyes of the blind,

until eel worms eat at our ingangs,
hang on to the last, juice thick as oak bark liquor,
seasoned, vile,

then shrivel back to seed,
like the mole on the back of the neck
that marks you for hanging.

Isn’t this a witchy poem and isn’t it textured? Just read it aloud and relish the consonants, and the creepy resonance of maggots, eels, the mole that marks you for hanging. Poetry as enchantment ( thanks for that, Dana Gioia). The next one is more tender, and I like it because it illustrates the surprise you can look forward to as you turn a page in the pamphlet. This one was published in The North.  (I can’t find which issue. Mea culpa)

 

Great Aunt Lucy

When I say I was hungry,
I’d already eaten the tiled hearth,
swallowed the coals in the scuttle
one by one, chewed the armchairs,
the cushions, all that wadding.

When I ate the television,
I felt the tube explode inside me.
My head swam. I was walking
on stilts, my slippers miles away,
small pink embellishments
at the end of my varicosed legs.

Eating the curtains took
the best part of a week.
I started with the nets; soft with dust
they went down the way
a christening shawl passes
through a wedding ring.

The curtains themselves I unpicked
like a moth, worked in from the corners,
followed the thread, like Ariadne
unwinding her ball of string.

When I’d done, the room
was full of grey light
and I saw myself properly
for the first time in years,
in an empty room, without my hat.

Gaia Holmes, another poet I like a lot,  will do this kind of thing. A sort of surrealism that works because it stays deadpan, even as it piles the improbable on the implausible, and then turns round on itself in the ambiguities of a room full of grey light, and something that’s wistful, and bleak and comic, all at once. Lovely. Now, just one more. This one has been published in Ambit 219. I think it’s one of the few of Julie Mellor’s poems that are explicitly personal.

Propolis

I’m aware it’s the stuff of bee spit and wax,
that it turns soft when the sun warms the hive,

and the bees, busy with their work of sealing the gaps,
are animate and fondling in their movement.

In truth, it’s not propolis I’m talking about,
but those unwanted spaces where words land and rest.

Think of old windows, how the putty has hardened
under layers of paint so the glass rattles loose in the frame.

When I say it’s turning cold, remind you
to shut the door to stop the draft,

what I’m really saying is, here is my heart,
raw as lambs’ liver, leaking on a white plate.

It shouldn’t be so exposed. There shouldn’t be
all this quiet air around it.

What grabs me is that line..what I’m really saying is, here is my heart.  It’s simple, or it seems simple.But it isn’t at all. And you can’t ignore it, plain and unadorned amongst all the analogies that dramatise that business of trying to find the right words when the plain words were the right ones after all. So there you are.

Julie Mellor asks a question in one of her poems Autobiography

How do I know about the price
of porter, about fleas in the mattress,

the pawning of ulsters –?

The answer is that she spends a lot of time in museums and churchyards and books and other people’s poems and lives and landscapes; because she has endless curiosity. That’s what research is like. And we could do a lot worse than follow the advice in the closing lines of Drawing the line

Look at these graves,
how they hold their names ready for us,
how we stoop to read with surprise
what, for centuries, has been lying at our feet.

Right; you’ve been quiet and attentive and I’m really pleased with you all. Off you go, and make sure you buy a copy of Breathing through our bones (Smith/Doorstop Books. 2012. £5.00). You can do it simply by following the link on this wordpress site.    https://juliemellorpoetsite.wordpress.com/

I hope that’s right. In any case, Google her. We’re having another guest next week. As a matter of fact, another Yorkshire poet, and a man who knows the finer points of a whippet. Don’t be late. And remember: More haste, less speed.

train crash penistone

Only a story

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Perhaps it’s all the years of teaching, but I’m feeling end-of-termish. We’ve done all the hard work and revision and tests. We’ve had the concerts and the trips to Flamingo Park. We’ve tidied the stock cupboards and taken down the displays, and we’ve read our reports and we all got gold stars and smiley faces. Everyone’s thinking of poetry and poetry festivals, like Chaucer’s pilgrims. It’s time for a story before we all go home.

I’ve been looking back at what we’ve done and who we’ve met, and  because Kim Moore chose one of his poems from ‘Talking to the dead’ for her Sunday Poem last week, I looked again at one post about my friend Gordon Hodgeon. Bright star.  I was writing some months ago about my circling obsession with myths and with tyrannical gods. Recently, for reasons I cannot fathom, I’ve been writing translations and adaptions of myths. Maybe ‘plundering’ is a better word. I’ve even been inventing myths about owls, and about why there are no clouds of starlings on the twilight roofs and ledges of our great industrial cities. I’ve been re-telling Prometheus and Jesus to myself. A couple of weeks ago I was at a Stanza workshop in York (thanks for the invite, Carole Bromley) and one of the poets read from a new retelling of Finnish epic poem, The Kalevala. Recently, too, I was reading Robert Macfarlane’s Landmarks. and rediscovering a memory of Vainamoienen, the epic’s hero. There’s an extract from the tale in Penelope Farmer’s Beginnings [Creation Myths of the World]. It tells of how man was given the gift of fire. If we have fire at all, I would rather it was won for us by Prometheus. I love Prometheus as much as I hate most of the Greek pantheon (Apollo, particularly). However, the extract snagged my attention, since it pivots on the notion that fire is spilled from the sky by a Virgin of the Air in a moment of careless inattention. Not even ‘transgression’, like Pandora or Eve. Just clumsiness. I had to deal with it somehow, and though I don’t write much prose, I batted it out. And who ironed out its creases for me? Gordon Hodgeon. He probably won’t remember. But I won’t forget.

So, here we are. End of term. Sit back. Close your eyes. Let’s have a story.

How the Finns got the gift of fire

This is how it was.
Once, a sun shone on the Finns every day, and a moon every night, and each day and each night there was a new sun and a new moon in place of the ones that burned away. Louhi stole Sun and Moon; she stole fire, and she hid them in the far Northlands.
The Finns could not dry the flesh of the fish they caught nor the flesh of the deer they hunted, and they ate their food raw. They shivered in their birch cabins, and listened to the snow as it slid from the pines in the black forests; they listened to the howling of wolves in the endless night. Only the wolves loved this land of the Finns.
Ukko, lord of the skies , master of the flaming sword, maker of stars looked down and saw how the Finns tholed their darkness and cold. It puzzled him. As stars burn out and blackness takes their place he breathes a long breath into the heart of his furnaces until they roar in the forge of the sky. He thrusts the great blade of his sword into the fire’s blue heart so it blazes silver and gold and crimson. His eyes burn with reflected fire, his thoughts all flame and sword and anvil and stars, stars, stars. He swings the white-hot blade in great circles, faster and faster and the sky is a halo of strange and beautiful light.
At these times of starmaking the Finns would stare at the trembling bands of light and tell each other: Ukko is making new stars. Sometimes they would wonder: Ukko is making new stars; why does he not make new suns and moons? But he never did. he was the Star Maker.
He clashed the flaming sword on the anvil of the sky and sparks flew like dangerous gems; before they could fall to earth, sky-maidens caught them and put them in their right places in the endless dark. It was a fine fierce thing. Faster and faster the sword spun and circled and clashed on the anvil, the jewel sparks flew and flashed, and the sky-maidens laughed with delight, and caught them, and put them in the sky, and in their hair, and around their arms like bracelets, and they shone. Over and over the sword went to the furnace, and swung and clashed until the forge of the sky was a brilliant mist of stars, and the sky-maidens laughed, and caught them, every one, and locked them fast in the vault of heaven.
But when the new stars were made, and shone in their places, when the furnace cooled and grew dim, and the sword of Ukko was cold and blue as old stars, then he would look down on the world and wonder at the life of the Finns. Who could bear so much dark? Why did they not fill that darkness with the light of their own stars? He could not understand it. It was none of his business, though. He was the Star Maker. There was nothing he could do for them. They were too far away and below.
And sometimes the starmaidens looked down to where he looked; they were curious, too, but not for long. They were the starmaidens, virgins of the air, and they served Ukko the Starmaker. It was nothing to do with them.
But one was different. She loved the dance, the pure starfire she dressed herself in. She could not bear the thought of darkness. Neither could she drive it from her mind. She did not want to look down at the land of the Finns. But its darkness was always there at the edge of her mind.

This is what she thought:
We fill the dark space of the sky with stars. To light the long night of the world would be a small thing. The smallest spark from the forge would serve.
She thought: Star fire is beautiful but soon it grows cold.
She thought: We give the fire of our dance to an empty sky.
And so her delight in the brilliant dancing of stars grew less, and her thoughts filled with the cold darkness of the land of the Finns, and the starmaking could not warm them.
She said: We give our fire to the sky.
Ukko looked up. Whether his eyes burned red from long staring into the furnaces of his forge, or whether they smouldered in anger she could not tell. But she was afraid.
–Tell me what you said.
— Nothing. I said nothing.
— No. It was not ‘nothing’. Say it to me.
She was truly afraid. She said:
–We give our fire to the sky.
The furnace flared and Ukko was standing, black and huge, a great shadow.
—I am the Starmaker. I give nothing. I make stars.
–Then what am I?
–You? You make nothing; you give nothing. You put stars in the vaults of the sky. You dance. That is enough.

It is not enough, she thought, but she was afraid and she said nothing.
The fires sank and Ukko brooded over them, dark.
The skymaiden sat alone. Far below her, the land of the Finns lay cold and bleak. It filled her mind with a cold darkness as big as the sky. And then came a thought. Something small and bright in a big darkness.
It is not enough just to dance. It is not enough catch a fire I cannot make.
Ukko’s huge shadow hulked against the fireglow; she was afraid, but her thought burned in her mind and in her heart like a star. It was her own star. Then she knew she was a starmaker, and, being a maker, she had something to give, and she knew it was her right to give it.
–I am a star maker.
She whispered it softly.

Ukko sat before the red fire; he was black against it, and his shadow lay across the night. She sat alone in his shadow, but she was lit by the star she had made herself.
Time passed. Stars flashed cold and blue and shivered and winked out, and darknesses grew in the sky. Ukko stirred. It was time for the making, furnace heat, the dancing light of the forge, the dangerous sweep of the sword and the wild joy of the dance. It was what he lived for. A fierceness took him and shook him, and his breath made the furnace roar, blue and brilliant, and he thrust the great blade into its hot heart.

The dance began. Gravely and slowly it began, the slow pattern as the starmaidens circled the forge and the Star Maker. The sword glowed red, orange, gold, silver; the furnace light streamed past Ukko’s haloed dancing shadow, and dance grew faster, wilder. Ukko laughed a great laugh, and the skymaidens laughed too, and lost themselves in the dance.
Only, one did not. Though she danced with others, she was herself and not the dancing as the others were.
They were nothing but dancing, and Ukko was nothing but fire and forging, but she saw one bright star that shone in her mind with a different light. She spun and whirled and laughed with the rest, but was not lost with them. She knew herself different, and she knew what she must do. It made her afraid, but her fear was a strange excitement that was more than the excitement of the star dance.
With a great shout, Ukko drew the flaming sword from the fire and swept it in great arcs, and the dance was a dance of light, a great dome of beautiful light.
Far below, the Finns looked up from their darkness. Look! they said. Ukko is making stars! How far above them it all was. It brought them no warmth, only wonder.
Ukko brought the hot blade hissing down on the anvil. It clashed and rang. His eyes were full of stars. The flew from the beaten sword, and the sky maidens caught them, and laughed and danced and shone. It was brilliant.
Far below, in their cold dark world, the Finns thought: Ukko is making stars. And some thought: Why does he not make stars to warm and light us? But he never had done.
The dance grew wilder and breathless. The sword went again and again to the furnace, and rang and, splashed fire. The starmaidens put stars in the vaults of the air, and dressed themselves and shone.
Only, one, though she danced, was not of the dance. A star shone in her mind and she held one star clenched in her hand. Though she moved in the dance she was more than a dancer. It was time.
–I am a starmaker. I am a giver of stars.
It was a shout of joy. It was her shout.
The dance faltered; the sword stopped at the highest point of its arc, flaming and dangerous. Ukko was shadow; she could see nothing but his darkness and the great sword poised.
–I am a star giver, she said.
She was all alone in Ukko’s darkness. With a great cry he brought down the sword, and with a great cry she leapt from the sky, and it was one cry.
She fell from the skies, out of Ukko’s darkness and shadow, down and down through the the nine vaults of the air. The star shone in her hand and the giving of it shone in her mind, and it was one shining.
The Finns looked, spellbound, as the one star fell out of the night, brilliant and wonderful.
The hero Vainamoienen caught it and made it safe and made fire from it, and so the Finns had fire and warmth in their long night.
–Ukko the Starmaker has given us fire, they said.
And they worshipped him.

artist-representation-

Enjoy your holidays; enjoy your pilgrimages.   I’ve got to start thinking about a new term. Here’s your holiday reading. There’ll be tests when we all start again. Think on.

Jane Clark:  The River  Bloodaxe Books  £9.95

Jonathan Davidson Humfrey Coningsby Valley Press poetry £6.95

Christy Ducker Skipper  SmithI doorstop  £9.95

Gordon Hodgeon Talking to the dead Smokestack Books £4.95

Gordon Hodgeon Old workings Mudfog £8.95

Kim Moore The art of falling Seren Books £9.99

Bright star: remembering Gordon Hodgeon

Yesterday I heard that my friend Gordon Hodgeon had died in the early hours. He was one of the loveliest people I ever met. I wrote this appreciation of  him (and his poetry) over a year ago.

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In 1982 I was invited to be a visiting tutor on a weekend residential  course, in Goathland, for Teesside teachers of English. Talented teachers working in their own time, because they were excited by the possibilities of what children could learn and do. It happened quite a lot in those days. One of my newly-acquired enthusiasms then was for developing writing through the retelling of myth and fable. The books that inspired me were Betty Rosen’s And none of it was nonsense, Alan Garner’s The stone book, and a remarkable piece of work by Penelope Farmer:  Beginnings. Spare prose outlines of creation myths from around the world.

On one of the evenings, I got to read my own retelling of a Finnish fire myth. In the original, fire falls to earth through the inattention of one of the anonymous star maidens at the making of stars by the god, Ukko. The spark is finally captured by the hero Vainemoinen; he’s the one who gets the credit. But you never know where a retelling will take you. In my version, though I never intended it, the gift of fire becomes an act of rebellion by the star maiden, who pities the creatures of the earth in their blood-chilling winters. She becomes Promethean, a bright star, and the god Ukko just another divine and appalling tyrant.

I’d forgotten all about it till , the other morning, when I was waiting for a man to change two rear car tyres for ones that wouldn’t readily blow out on a motorway, and I was reading Robert Macfarlane’s ‘Landmarks’. There’s a chapter marvellously called The tunnel of stones and axes, and, just like that, I was reunited with Vainemoinen, and the Finnish Kalevala epic. The hero has been set to find the Lost-Words. For want of the names he cannot build his ship right. Without the thousand Lost-Words he cannot name the world to make it real.

‘Synonyms are of no use,’ writes Macfarlane. ‘ The power of each name is specific to its form.’

To understand this is to understand enchantment; we grow accustomed to the story of the enchanted castle, spellstruck, sleepstruck, drowning in thorn and briar, and to its cold, enchanted sarcophagus princess, white as marble. Macfarlane urges a truer meaning. To en-chant. To call into being. To summon by chanting, when only the true Lost-Words will do.

I thought of Ursula K. Le Guin’s The wizard of Earthsea and the hero Ged’s quest for true naming, and I thought of Gordon Hodgeon who was the driving force behind those Teesside English teachers’ courses

Somedays you simply have to accept that there’s a synergy in things, and life delights in it. Last week I opened an e.mail from a George Hodgeon inviting me to the launch of a new poetry collection by a man who I’ve known and admired for years and years. I supposed that George must be his brother. Anyway, this is it:

I wrote back to George Hodgeon, explaining that I wouldn’t be able to be at Gordon’s book launch….and then launched into a fulsome paean of praise, about how much I and so many others owe to Gordon, what a lovely man he is, and so on and so on. And I have to say it did feel a bit too much like a eulogy for comfort. The following day I got an email that reassured me that Gordon was more than capable of speaking for himself, and that it was, indeed, Gordon who had sent the email, and that it was Gordon who was writing this one. By way of explanation for the ‘George’ he attached this poem.

For George, Paternal Grandfather

You never reached your seventy third birthday,
I am struggling to reach mine, so let’s
get a few things straight. Through all my adult life
you’ve been a pain, kept slipping out
the shades, sliding your name into my affairs.
I have been George on conference lists and sticky labels,
on business letters, on hotel bills, once even on a poem.

Sometimes, so weary, I went with the flow,
so folk could go to the grave
thinking I bear your name. No chance of that.
Your only son, our father, wanted it grander,
landed me with that general’s name,
my brother with Lord Clive’s.
Not sure why. Dad read the News Chronicle.

But last Tuesday the ultimate put-down.
I was in hospital and gave my name and d.o.b.
to about fifteen nurses and my carer answered
the same questions to half a dozen doctors.
Then I got moved to my place for the night.
In comes a new nurse, greets me warmly:
“Hello George, I am Amanda, I’ll be looking after you
tonight.” How do you manage it?
Have you nothing better to spend your time on?

Given the state I’m in, quite soon
we might meet up. I warn you now,
just one more trick, I’ll alter every entry
in the eternal register, make sure that
all the angels and devils call you my name,
Gordon, your deserved reward.

But I’ll still love you, Grandad,
love how you have walked with me
all the way, more than sixty years
from Leigh Market to just now
when I stopped walking, stopped
being able to carry your basket.

You fed the children from that grid of streets
when their dads were on strike or had no work;
you lent money, thinking it would not come back,
it didn’t. You ran the Sunday School, you
made a gift to me of well-thumbed books,
Sir Walter Scott, Dickens, George Eliot.
You let me learn your sense of serious fun.
How you tormented the old ladies
reading their teacups, winking at me.

I am just as bad, laugh at my own jokes.
I never was as good at giving, never
as well-behaved, never as upright.
I should have been your namesake,
and now I see why you’ve been nudging,
dropping hints, not about names at all.
I let you down, still you raise me up,
George, Gordon, share this bittersweet,
this lifelong lovefeast cup.

First reading, you might skate over that matter-of-fact opening; it’s one of the things we say, not thinking. But what if you knew it were true. What if you were quadraplegic, breathing only with the aid of a ventilator; what if you struggled to speak and then, finally could not speak aloud; what if all your communication became a digital code of blinks at a Dynavox computer screen. Could you write that with the same wry stoicism, that wit? I’m pretty sure I couldn’t. Read this poem aloud, over and over. Its pace, its rhythm never lets you down. It’s totally without sentimentality, and brims with generosity of spirit. I love the ending, and how it en-chants heartsease.

I’ve always enjoyed Gordon Hodgeon’s poetry;  the first collections I had were ‘Behind the lines’ (which I’ve since lost; mea culpa, mate) and November photographs. Both  are full of the landscapes and townscapes of Cleveland where for many years he was, first,  LEA English Advisor, and later the Senior Advisor. These poems of the late 70s and early 80’s often occupy the same thematic and linguistic territory as the Ted Hughes of Remains of Elmet. Like these lines from ‘In the West Riding’

‘There is no fervency now,

nothing burning on the bought land,

God’s-yard, or in the dark house

pieced on the looms.

but there’s wordplay, too, in a poem like Nursery War. There are carefully crafted poems of artful rhyme schemes. Riches everywhere. I’ve always liked  one called Old woman, Skinningrove.

A strange place, Skinningrove  in the 60s; it always came as a surprise, as you came over the steep brow of  the main clifftop coast road from Middlesbrough to Whitby…there it was, that ironworks in the middle of nowhere, deep in a clough in the shaly coast, where the beck ran out into the North Sea. It was dying on its feet, that place. Gordon turns a more than documentary eye on the ‘old woman’. It’s a poem that Don McCullin might have photographed.

Old woman, Skinningrove

This was her wedding window.

Now the laced glass is gone

with salt wind, dirt in smoke,

turns round the sun.

Here she minded and mended

in one ironworks street

by a cold stained sea. A moth

in the folded blanket.

Don’t take my picture, lad,

I’m too far gone for that.

She sees the end of it all,

knowing what was, is not.

Her man and babies gone,

the days that drove her tough

leave stones for air to finger,

fray the fineries off.

I love the spareness of this, its stripped down precision, its unobtrusive rhymed formalities, and, above all, its tenderness. Uz can be loving as well as funny. And the later poems grow ever more layered, complex, challenging, without ever losing that tender clarity. If irreverence is more your thing, you’ll not be disappointed. Try Accomodation from Winter Breaks (2006). You get to an age where visits to the Crem. become uncomfortably regular, but not all of us handle it with such aplomb as in the extract from:

Accomodation

Now I am envying (you as well?) the sod

who’s made it to the safety of the casket

and wishing it was me in there instead,

the Roller, silk sheets, chicken in the basket.

No Vacancies and not Abide with me

the tapes’s repeating on the life machine.

Don’t hang about, piss off, and get your tea,

you’re at death’s door, though, keep your knickers clean.

I sometimes forget how often he’s made me laugh. Especially now. Some of the poems from  ‘Still Life’ (2012) are close to heartbreaking; poems like ‘Leaving: for Julia’ which records his situation when he and his wife were wheelchair-bound, in separate nursing ‘homes’, having sold the family home, visiting each other, tended by nurses, hoisted into minibuses, hardly knowing what to say:

Leaving   (for Julia)

………………………

And now there are new owners,

making the house their own.

Peter from next door telling me this,

first project, a room for their one-year old.

I think they will clear the garden

for the child’s first steps,

for balls to roll and bounce.

Under the grass, weak as worm castings,

our weary archaeology, the bones of buried animals,

one pheasant hit on the Sunday morning run

to the swimming pool; one rabbit banned from your school,

which would not dig its way out again.

Also, the procession of cats stalking through childhoods.

So next your turn to visit me,

our daughter driving, your carer by your side.

We did some talking this time, but dear me,

your anxious mind began its litany

of questions: is it time to go now?

And repetitions, till we set you free

to make your safe way home,

yet it was not your home.

Here, in the early hours

I often wake, hear the comfort,

your regular breath beside me.

But this is a single bed

and the breath I hear is the ventilator

filling and emptying my lungs.

And, ah, the resonances of that one word: home. The archaeology of a family house, overlain by new and other lives. I would find that unbearable. But Gordon writes it, en-chants it, unwaveringly, just as he contemplates the end of things, conflating and eliding the dark sonnets of Gerard Manley Hopkins with adverts for , say, a DFS sofa sale. This is ‘Closing down’….or, at least, parts of it, the prayer of an ardent atheist.

Closing down

The world is full of half-price sofas,

the universe getting that way, Cliffs of fall,

each hue of leather, fabric of your choice.

Between these mindless mountains, little me

in my wheelchair, doing my little wheelies,

reverse and forward, left and right,

thick pile carpet snags me.

……………..

I know, I know,

at the closing down of the sun, everything must go.

All of us caught, packed into bags, boxes,

white fish, cheap fireworks, shipped to another planet,

sprayed out like crummy birds-eyes, fingers,

squirting like Catherine wheels,

slithering like mice-droppings,

like the souls of our most loyal customers

through ever colder galaxies.

But not yet I pray you,

my land of lost contents, my lifetime bargains,

hide me in the shadow of your wings,

the detachable dry-clean shrouds, let me be,

my pale skin, my scored face, my limp limbs, my cracked wheels,

let me have one more turn of the sun, one last chance,

never to be repeated.

That’s the universe I’ll vote for. No entropy in the world of Gordon Hodgeon’s poetry. I remember the lesson learned by Ged in A wizard of Earthsea. That magic is the business of true-naming, and that until you can say your own true-name, you cannot say yourself. You en-chant yourself and the world into being. If that’s not the business of poetry then I don’t know what is. All his working life, Gordon championed the cause of creativity in Education, and the cause of a richer living through poetry, through his work as a teacher and advisor, through NATE, through publishing with Smokestack Books, and Mudfog Books. Five years ago a series of unsuccessful operations left him confined to bed and wheelchair, unable to move his arms and legs, unable to breathe without the help of a ventilator, unable to pick up a pen, and finally unable to speak except through a sequence of blinks at a machine.

Last year I sent him a pamphlet I’d produced…poems about my parents and grandparents. Shortly after, he wrote back. There were too many adjectives, he said; he wanted to know more about my grandma. There you go. Firm but fair. Thirty years ago he cast an eye over a poem I’d written: ‘Our David’s Pictures’ He suggested one simple reversal, and Bingo! The poem worked. For years, at critical moments, he’s unobtrusively put me right professionally and personally. I owe him a lot. There are other people who knew him so much better than I who will tell you about his life. I know I’ll  not come close to doing justice to the variety and range and textures of his writing, and I’ll leave it to one of his short poems (I think it’s from that lost copy of Behind the Lines …. which means I’m relying on memory)…….anyway, to this poem which sums up all the inexhaustibilities he’s written about for over 50 years.

Jack Robinson,

Jack Robinson; he’s the one;

before you can say him, the poem’s done.

Thank you, Gordon/George Hodgeon: Bright Star.

‘Still life’ (£7.95) can be ordered direct from Smokestack Books, and so can

Talking to the Dead’ (£4.95)…find them on  info@smokestack-books.co.uk

If you like everything under one cover, then you can get close to it by buying the handsome, chunky Selected Poems. ‘Old workings’ [mudfog 2013.] £8.95 .

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Pastoral

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To begin, an apology. I promised you a guest this Sunday, but the boiler needed replacing, and a proper man was booked to paint the kitchen, and with one thing and another, we’re all a-fluster, and we’re in no state for a guest. But here you are, and as my mother would say with a perfect grasp of grammar: Well, we can’t not give them something. If you were expecting a full Sunday dinner with trimmings, then sorry. I can do you a pot of tea and a biscuit.

As it happens, a couple of things have coincided; not unhappily. As my mother would never have said.

First up. I wrote a cobweb strand on Oct. 26…’A way with words’. It was about the language of maps and landscape. It took me ages. Last week I bought the wonderful Robert Macfarlane’s new book: Landmarks. Within the first four pages he had elegantly articulated everything I was trying to say in October. And the rest of it too. The stuff that I wanted to say but couldn’t find the words for. The words that fit. The words without which there wouldn’t be the idea.

Second, I went last week on a three day writing course at Rydal Mount near Ambleside. I hate to say this, but I’m not a fan of the Lake District. Or, more strictly, of the National Trust, biscuit tin, jigsaw puzzle Lake District. It puts me too powerfully in mind of something Raymond Williams said of the novels of Jane Austen….that the majority of the people (who make the houses and the villages and farms and estates and landscapes possible) are, simply, invisible. The Lakes are a working landscape of thin and difficult steep land and tough little Herdwicks, and small farms, but you wouldn’t know it driving up by Windermere, and through Ambleside and up to Keswick.

As we drove from Kendal, though, the land was lovely. There were comb-overs of late snow on the ridges of the far hills. The fields were that clean grey-green of the end of winter. There was a lilac haze at the tips of the hawthorn and rowan and sycamore. There were early lambs out in the fields. Everything was there to be seen as it isn’t when everything’s in leaf. All the work was visible. The work of drystone walls, of baled hay, of cleared out ditches and newly gravelled field tracks. It’s a landscape that doesn’t dissemble. It declares how it’s been made by hard graft and skill out of natural materials, out of what comes to hand.

And then we arrived at Rydal Mount. It’s truly a handsome place, and it’s gardens are landscaped. I normally bridle at 18th and 19th C. landscaping. It’s what my socialist uncle used to call theft on a grand scale. But in the rain, and in this tight little steep sided valley it looked perfect, and I relented. Melted, in fact. There were three sheep in the middle ground just below a knoll crowned with three well-disposed conifers. They looked as though they had been trained to stand there, never to move. You could sit in a huge sitting room, out of the rain, and enjoy the Picturesque, the well-wrought urn. And somewhere, out of sight, someone would be ironing, washing, chopping, cooking, scrubbing, smithying, drywalling, painting, hewing…………….and you would need never be troubled.

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I remembered Raymond Williams in a BBC adaptation of his brilliant work ‘The country and the city’. He had one of the books of the landscape gardener, Humphrey Repton, and he turned the huge pages as he held it up in front of the sweeping landscaped grounds of Tatton Hall. A work of beauty, those books. Large double spread watercolours of the land as it originally was, and then pages that folded over and folded in to hide and reveal successive changes and additions. Like The Hungry Caterpillar for the  unimaginably rich. It always stuck with me, that image, partly because of Pope’s scathing attack on what he regarded as the vulgarity and bad taste of the craze for redecorating the land, and partly because of the strange vanity of it. You could look at the paintings and drawings of what your estate would ideally look like. Eventually. It struck me that you’d never see what you were paying for. I mean, how long does it take for a stately beech to grow big enough not to look insignificant in a deer park? Well, I found out later that what happened was astonishing. Huge mature trees were dug up and transported, dragged on waggons drawn by teams of oxen, and planted in prepared holes and watered in. It turns out that you didn’t have to wait. But by then I’d already written a poem. It’s in The Garden: words that will grow on you. And it’s also here:

 

Grand designs

The grass is wet, Ma’am; take care. Allow me. So.
Perhaps your man can hold the book? Yes.
You see this colour wash and pencil shows
the way the land’s disposed just now. These barns
and cottages will have to go. Now, if we fold
these papers, let me show you our design.
Thus: a shallow valley where we redirect
the stream, and, in the middle ground, a lake,
this balustraded bridge in Portland stone;
here, we plant our stands of chestnut; here, of elm
and beech. We need the play of dappling light.
A raised knoll here — with Pantheon —some sheep
precisely placed, a scattering of deer.
The Pictureseque, you see. This vantage point
will need a temple. Something simple, Doric.
Madam, you approve the scheme? The which
to undertake will be a privilege.
We could begin within the month….upon my word.
And as to finishing? The work to be complete,
within a twelvemonth; Ma’am, my word on that.
The achieved effect? Ah. Shall we say, two hundred years.

 

Right. Another cup of tea? A biscuit?…..sorry we only had plain. No? You must be off? Listen, we’ll do it properly next week…all the trimmings. It’s a date.

 

(For the record, you really must buy:      Robert Macfarlane Landmarks [Hamish Hamilton 2015. £20.00]

While you’re at it, treat yourself to       The garden  [Otley Word Feast Press 2014.  £8.00] …..they do PayPal.)

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