Key Ping Ba(p)la(n)ce | Mark Goodwin

Clogwyn y Ddysgl

Clogwyn y Ddysgl & the Clogwyn y Person Arête, with Crib Goch’s pinnacles in the background (photo by Nikki Clayton)

I was sitting on a ledge high up on a crag called Clogwyn y Ddysgl.  Below me the small watery letterbox-slot of Llyn Bach invited me to post silly messages … not exactly in the same way Plath’s Wuthering Heights’ sheep did with their black slots. This slot glittered, and I was elated, so obviously the invitation to post was also one to celebrate … in that moment I felt – being that absurdly over-the-top personhood known as poet – that I could sing a psalm to Earth’s centre, to praise the weak but very beautiful force of gravity.  Fortunately, I quickly came back to the matter, the rock, in hand and focused again on the practicalities of climbing.  My climbing partner – a tough, pragmatic yet gentle woman – was much relieved, to say the least.  And to say ‘the least’ is very hard for a poet to do.

The sheep know where they are,
Browsing in their dirty wool-clouds,
Grey as the weather.
The black slots of their pupils take me in.
It is like being mailed into space,
A thin, silly message.

I was once told by a sheep, as I balanced along the knife-edge crest of a boulder, only nine feet high mind, but nevertheless, I was told by a sheep that poets are absurd, dangerously absurd.  High minded approaches to the stuff of stone and the weak but cunning force of gravity quickly go awry. And even the most rational of people can find themselves being told off by the utterly resilient woollen beings that wander much of Britain’s uplands, if such persons approach the zone with high minds.  Of course finding one’s self is far easier than losing it.  As voters know too well!  As for poets, well … being balanced on-&-along a line, knowing when to end it, the line that is, counts for much.  Each step has to be counted, and counted on.  One step at a time, and soon, you have a whole collection of steps.

Mark Entranced by Llyn Bach

Mark fixed by the spectacle of Llyn Bach’s glinting invitation, just before his climbing partner, Nikki Clayton, snaps him out of it! (photo by Nikki Clayton)

Friction, momentum, gravity.  If the poet engages with these three through impeccable tenacity, as well as gentle negotiation, then the poet can fling off ‘the’ and become ‘a’. To be ‘a’ teetering on an edge shows how very fragile and maskly ‘the’ really is.  I, or an I, marvels at what an I has learned about gravity and how bundled attentions of flesh called muscles-&-ligaments-&-tendons – held on a stone frame we call bones – can become an aerial.  When we sing we sway, and sway is dance.  So, there I am on this ledge staring down at a dark yet glistening slot of water, and I am listening to gravity sing.  And do you know what, I very nearly thought of spreading my wings, but was put off by how pointless climbing would become if I had in a reality done so.  I mean if I’d really flown, rather than just really thought about it.  Often climbers can be very arrogant, it goes with(out) the territory: the vertical expanse that maps forget.  However, the arrogance of poets completely outstrips that of climbers … to believe that the vibration made in one’s throat can really keep a being in place on a line between abyss & existence is absurd self-indulgence second only to that of the gods’.

However, give me a break, or a gap, or a crevasse or caesura       can you not read how I’m making some effort at humility?  My title has wilfully refused ‘my’, because the notion of ‘keeping’ balance is daft enough without adding to it the notion that I, me, a selfhood, might ‘own’ balance.

Mark Amongst Angels

Mark, big booted on Tryfan, taking (but not for keepsakes) steps amongst those who have chosen to fly (Nikki Clayton)

It was when A raven at the top of Tryfan’s South Summit said to me, “Watch Your Step” … it was just then-right-now that I knew Offkilter was Is’s swooping.  And I was literally covered in flying ants.  Still, I stayed in balance, momentarily at home in a house of balance, and came down from the mountain … not mad … but not a poet either.  I came down as a person who had been touched by gravity.


Mark Goodwin’s long poem ‘From
From a St Juliot to Beyond a Beeny’ appears in The Footing, an anthology of new walking-themed poems published by Longbarrow Press.  A new collection, Steps, is due to appear from Longbarrow Press in late 2014.

Sylvia Plath’s ‘Wuthering Heights’ appears in her posthumous collection Crossing the Water.


Meeting and Melting: On Discovering Derek Walcott | Matthew Clegg

WalcottI’m a white male who grew up on the edge of a housing estate in East Leeds.  At the start of the 1990s I struggled to get work and found myself moving between employment training schemes and voluntary placements.  I was a young man of vague aspirations and low self-esteem.  To shield myself from the feeling I was going nowhere, I read insatiably.  I began as a free-range reader.  I discovered my own pathways without a guide, and without knowledge of prestige, reputations or fashion.  I was especially attracted to writers who offered two things: I wanted to broaden my horizons, but I also sought parallels with my own world and predicament.  I wanted ‘here’ and ‘elsewhere’, ‘home’ and ‘away’.  I experienced more parallels reading Derek Walcott’s poetry than when reading nearly everything produced for the shelves of my own country at that time.

It was during this period that I first became aware of the endless prizes and selective promotions that characterise the British poetry scene.  Even then, I suspected they were not targeting the likes of me as a prospective reader.  The centre of what people call ‘culture’ seemed a long way away from Foxwood Training Base or Crossgates Library.  I felt like I was leading an island life and Walcott’s Caribbean felt closer to home.

I’d take Omeros out into my community.  I’d study it in the reading room of my local library, amongst the long term unemployed, within earshot of pensioners.  I’d read it in parks, outside tennis courts, and often, at weekends, I’d take it with me on walks between cricket pitches.  The book always made more sense to me when read in these locations.  One afternoon I sat on the edge of an empty cricket field in Crossgates – my Dad’s club, and where I’d climbed trees and run amok all through my childhood.  Crossgates CC had never been rich.  The ground was leased.  It didn’t have a club house or a bar.  The field itself wasn’t even properly flat.  It had a homespun, ramshackle quality to it; but through all the ebbs and flows of membership and money it was a focus of health and joy and it survived.  It also had its catalogue of modest heroics, on and off the field.

It was here that a vital aspect of Omeros started to make sense.  This had something to do with the relationship of the ordinary to the heroic.  I find it hard to put this into ideas that don’t sound like clichés.  Or those ideas can feel like clichés when you are far away from the source of what gives them social necessity and value.  Omeros identifies heroic qualities in men and women who live in shacks, fish from canoes, drive taxis or tend rum shops.  It’s a heroism of integrity or loyalty under pressure, of ordinary (and extraordinary) decency in the face of poverty, corruption and economic expedience.  It connects a small island community to routes through layers of a larger history.  It felt local and universal.  It was classical in scope and reference, and yet it was pioneering in terms of the territory it rendered into poetry.

I came to Collected Poems 1948-1984 and The Bounty after my encounter with Omeros.  I took the books with me on walks from Crossgates to the grounds of Temple Newsam House, a one-time stately home now open to the public.  There you can find parks and walled gardens – and a glasshouse containing tropical flowers.  I’d sit amongst foaming buddleia, or within sight of the purples, reds and yellows of exotic-seeming plants, and read.  It was here that I made a connection with a spirit that seems to blossom through much of Walcott’s poetry.  It has something to do with what appears to be a marriage between the Methodism of his mother, and the climate, flora and fauna of the Caribbean.  In his poetry, nature is both wealth and God – pleasure and blessing fused into one.  It’s richer than the bought pleasures of Western materialism; and it’s a material blessing that has nothing to do with the hierarchies, dogmas and institutions of the church.  Walcott made bays and forests his galleries and cathedrals.  The poet was something between a lay priest and a drunk Vincent.  This bowled me over.

In Another Life I recognised a role for the artist.  As I read about Walcott’s quest to render a culture, climate and ecology into art, I began to think about all the acres of my own locale that seemed outside the written stanzas of English poetry.  In a time that often declares itself as democratic, plural and inclusive, it seemed to me then – and it still does – that many people go about their business in places and predicaments unexplored by poets.  Adrian Mitchell once said ‘most people ignore poetry because most poetry ignores most people.’  This still feels like bracing critique.

I grow uncomfortable with how poets have been professionalised.  They seem lured away from a community that might provide readers, and into a network of cliques and academies that offer prestige and finance.  In this artificial limelight, poets make funding bids, apply for commissions and posts, and slowly find themselves with obligations to sponsors, funding bodies and institutions that interfere with their ability to speak truth to power, or to achieve fellow-feeling with those outside elite spaces.  I’ve often asked myself: can institutions remove poets from the source of one spirit of poetry?  Inside the competitive, intellectual hothouse, it’s possible for us to lose common feeling and common touch.

Back in 1992 I signed up for an access course at Leeds University.  This was by far the most positive experience of education I’ve had.  I studied alongside a nurse, an office worker, an Asian businessman, a hospital porter, a mother of Afro-Caribbean background, and a woman who worked for a company operating phone-sex.  The head of the course was a sociologist from a Yorkshire mining family, and the woman who taught me English literature was about to embark on another career as a drama therapist.  It was a culture that deserved to be called a melting pot in a way that many expensive universities conceptualise better than they embody.

Omeros

Omeros (oil on canvas), Derek Walcott

One evening, halfway through this course, I was listening to the radio.  I was browsing the stations when I stumbled upon a dramatization of ‘The Schooner Flight’.  I’d not yet read this piece in Walcott’s Collected Poems.  In the cramped dark of my box-room I listened, riveted, and when the final ‘chapter’ closed on its stoical prayer to work and craft, I knew I’d discovered a new heroic figure in Shabine.  He was sailor and poet; rooted and wayward; man of action and man of art; black and white; African and European; neither and both.  He melted categories like Rimbaud, and embodied Patrick Kavanagh’s belief that the universe always starts from where you stand. His Caribbean felt as particular and universal as Joyce’s Dublin.

Shabine was the man who tried to sail away from his troubled home, but who could never get beyond the tides of his island sea.  I’ve had very few such encounters with a poem that so coalesced with my own emerging sense of poetry and the world, and no poem that could have been further away from my own parish.  I taped a copy of that dramatization, and when I left the access course I gave it to the woman who taught me English Literature.  Now I teach an adult education course about to be closed down – as the course I studied at Leeds was eventually closed.  Melting pots coalesce and disappear all the time, subject to the fickle expedience of economics. The torch is carried in the human imagination.

I read somewhere that a true university shouldn’t be thought of as a building or an institution.  It’s a spirit or a happening.  I’ve encountered so much of the spirit of meeting and melting-pot in Walcott’s poetry.  It’s the embodiment of how cultures melt and merge to create something vital and fresh. I’ve bought my copy of The Poetry of Derek Walcott: 1948-2013.  It had been my intention to write a critique of this new selection, but I’m no more capable of reviewing it than I’m capable of reviewing myself.  I’ve been reading and drawing from Walcott’s poems for so long, they’ve been stirred into the soup of my life.  Better, perhaps, to offer a letter of thanks, or to carry on the spirit of meeting and melting that I find so abundant in his poetry.  It is bounty indeed, and I’ll be returning to it often.

The Poetry of Derek Walcott: 1948-2013 (selected by Glyn Maxwell) is published by Faber & Faber. Matthew Clegg’s West North East is available now from Longbarrow Press. Click here for more information about the book.


The New, New, New Poetry: A Consumer’s Guide | Chris Jones

‘I don’t entirely understand why reviews of anthologies frequently focus so heavily on the editors’ introductions or forewords.  When I buy an anthology, first and foremost I’m looking to be introduced to new poets and new poems that I wouldn’t otherwise come across.  If I like them, I’ll go out and find more of their work.  If I don’t, well, no matter, there’ll be something I do like along in a minute.’

Matt Merritt reviewing Dear World & Everyone In It: New Poetry in the UK edited by Nathan Hamilton in Under the Radar, Issue Twelve, December 2013.

TheNewPoetryThere was a point in a recent radio programme when two of the guests were asked when they first came across Thom Gunn’s poetry.  I was surprised to hear that both of the speakers, Paul Farley and Fiona Sampson, picked out the Forward Prize winning 1994 collection The Man with Night Sweats as their first encounter with Gunn’s work.  I was surprised because I thought they must have come across A Alvarez’s groundbreaking anthology The New Poetry, first published in 1962, then revised and reprinted in 1966.  Gunn’s work is one of the highlights of Alvarez’s survey of British and American post-war poetry.  I first came across Alvarez’s compendium as a fourteen or fifteen year old in the early 1980s: I still have my battered thirty year old copy, with its funky but misleading Jackson Pollock cover (abstract expressionism is not the first thing that comes to mind when I think of post-war mainstream British poetry).  For me, reading the anthology was a revelation – partly because I hadn’t read much contemporary poetry before, partly because it included an American contingent of Confessional poets, and partly because there was a generous focus on the work of Thom Gunn (he features more than any other poet in the collection, apart from Ted Hughes).  His poems stood out: they were different, quirkier, more energetic and passionate than a lot of the rather dry, ironic Movement and post-Movement poetry that filled the book’s pages.

Because I digested a good selection of Gunn’s oeuvre in The New Poetry (including the iconic pieces ‘The Wound’ and ‘On the Move’), I went on to buy Gunn’s Selected Poems.  From there I bought individual collections, and started taking an interest in literary criticism of Gunn’s work.  I went on to spend four years writing a PhD thesis on Gunn’s poetry and reviews, and subsequently met and interviewed the great man himself in San Francisco in 1995.  This, I suppose, is the power of the anthology in action.  But thinking again about Farley and Sampson: why should they have read Alvarez’s book?  I mean, all anthologies have a shelf life, a contemporary relevance – why should something published over fifty years ago still be current or used as a way into understanding or contextualising a rather grey and restrained period of British poetry?

My feeling is that The New Poetry is a key text in terms of how we understand how mainstream representative anthologies have developed over the past fifty years.  The book is a template, a touchstone volume, in terms of its structures and preoccupations, of how we think about what an anthology should be doing to earn its keep.  But it’s not the content – the roll-call of poets – that has driven the debate on the necessity and efficacy of the anthology over the last half-century, but Alvarez’s introduction to the work itself.  His essay, ‘The New Poetry, or Beyond the Gentility Principle’, has focused people’s minds on what anthologies are for: what is each anthology’s brief and purpose?  Anthologists return again and again to its arguments, assimilating and reacting against its abiding concerns, and from it create new narratives of contemporary literature.

The interesting thing for me is what Alvarez’s introduction is setting out to do and not to do.  What really galvanises Alvarez’s attention is the state of post-war British poetry.  He talks about current preoccupations in terms of negative feedbacks, that the poetry of the 1950s and early 1960s is reacting against historic literary forces to create signatory poems that represent the age.  Briefly, these negative feedbacks are: 1: a reaction against modernist and experimental verse forms; 2: a reaction against Dylan Thomas and his acolytes (what Alvarez calls ‘a blockage against intelligence’); 3: (and I quote directly) ‘an attempt to show that the poet is not a strange creature inspired; on the contrary, he is just like the man next door, in fact, he probably is the man next door.’  All of this has led to what Alvarez terms ‘gentility’ – a kind of mundane, provincially intelligent everyman epitomised by the narrators in Philip Larkin’s poetry.  Alvarez’s contention is that this kind of poetic persona cannot last in the modern world.  The modern urban dweller is realising he is part of a wider world of global danger and evil forces beyond his control.  ‘What poetry needs’, Alvarez suggests, ‘is a new seriousness’ to reflect this precarious age.

But what Alvarez isn’t interested in is explaining his choice of poets.  There’s no sense to why some poets are in and some poets are out.  Oddly, he does include poets he is critical of in his introduction; Movement poets like Larkin and John Wain and Kingsley Amis.  But he doesn’t feel like explaining why there aren’t any British women poets in his selection.  There’s no Elizabeth Jennings, for instance, who did appear in one of the first main post-war anthologies, Robert Conquest’s New Lines in 1956.  Jennings was not some marginal figure – her Collected Poems, published by Carcanet Press in the 1980s, far outsold most of the works of poets represented in The New Poetry (this was helped no doubt by her work being put on the ‘A’ Level syllabus).  There’s no Rosemary Tonks either, whose work could have been included in the second edition (Notes on Cafes and Bedrooms comes out in 1963) – but Tonks does appear in the first edition of British Poetry Since 1945 edited by Edward Lucie-Smith (published in 1970).  The choices made by Alvarez are therefore – we presume – self-evident (they do not require justification).  Alvarez seems more interested in articulating the threat of the bomb in his introduction rather than defining his own curatorial role.

The enduring appeal of The New Poetry, the content that critics and anthologists keep returning to is not the poetry – the meat and drink of the book – but Alvarez’s introduction.  Everything that follows on from The New Poetry and reflects on it or uses it as a starting point concentrates on his essay. It’s odd to think an analysis of the volume should be mediated through the prose content rather than the poems themselves.  Probably the book that is indebted most to the Alvarez anthology is The Penguin Book of British Contemporary Poetry (1982), edited by Blake Morrison and Andrew Motion. This anthology explicitly converses with Alvarez, his argument, and his system of negative feedbacks.  You can see this interaction throughout the script.  Here are two prime examples:

[Writers] have exchanged the received idea of the poet as the-person-next-door, or knowing insider, for the attitude of the anthologist or alien invader or remembering exile (p. 12).

There is another reason why recent British poetry has taken forms quite other than those promoted by Alvarez: the emergence and example of Seamus Heaney.  The most important new poet of the last fifteen years, and the one we very deliberately put first in the anthology.  Heaney is someone Alvarez could not foresee at the time and someone he has attacked since (p. 13).

The Motion and Morrison book is deeply problematic because of this.  It’s a pity that they focus so openly on the Alvarez volume as a kind of starting point for all their pontificating.  They want to argue with Alvarez, and, by doing so, take their ‘eye off the ball’: they spend too much time on their predecessor’s assertions rather than on the poetry that is spread out in front of them.  Their own arguments for ‘newness’ are weakened by circumstance and historical context.  This idea, for instance, that poets are now ‘alien invaders’ is returned to later in their essay when they come to consider, at some length, ‘Martianism’.  The problem with this kind of snapshot judgement, that Craig Raine’s ‘A Martian Sends a Postcard Home’ contains within it the DNA of future British poetry generations, is suspect when we come to think of ‘Martianism’ not so much as a pivotal movement of the last thirty years, but an experiment dabbled in by a couple of young poets that had some limited impact at the time but was soon superseded by other interests and concerns.

My other quotation – the flagging up of Seamus Heaney as the key British poet to emerge over the past twenty years – has its own chastening narrative.  In a way, this is what The Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry is remembered for more than anything else.  It had the effect of outing Seamus Heaney not as a British but as an Irish poet.  The poem that dominates or overshadows this anthology is one that is not included within its pages; Heaney’s ‘An Open Letter’ (published in 1983), offered as a rebuke to Motion’s and Morrison’s assertions:

Don’t be surprised if I demur, for, be advised
My passport’s green.
No glass of ours was ever raised
To toast The Queen.

Motion and Morrison make their vociferous claims only for the stitching of their assertions to come apart in their hands.  You could say they were unlucky in their dealings with Heaney (he could have asked to have his work removed from the anthology) but there is an overriding sense of a lack of forethought or keen sense of prognostication in their calls.  When they say in the concluding paragraph of the introduction: ‘the poets here do represent a departure, one which may be said to exhibit something of the spirit of postmodernism’ (p. 20), you have to wonder what ‘the spirit of postmodernism’ actually means.  They seem to be hedging their bets: it feels half-arsed and peculiarly shaped by the academic preoccupations of the time.  It tries to define a generation’s practice, but lacks intellectual rigor: it has to affect the way we look at the choice of poets as a whole.  If the anthologists’ notions of important trends like ‘Martianism’ and ideas of ‘Britishness’ are contestable, then surely we will question the wider narrative they wish to impose on the contemporary poetry scene.

I do wonder why Motion and Morrison didn’t include Peter Reading in their survey.  He had been writing for over ten years at the point of the anthology’s publication.  He emerges as one of the most interesting, imaginative, cussedly inventive poets of the 1980s in collections like Diplopic, Ukulele Music and C.  Perhaps our curators found his work difficult to anthologise (which is deserving of an essay in itself – poets whose work cannot be easily assimilated into anthologies).  Perhaps they didn’t rate him.  Perhaps his work doesn’t fit into the wider narratives they try to establish in their introduction.  We don’t know.

The New Poetry (2)Interestingly, The New Poetry, edited by Michael Hulse, David Kennedy and David Morley (Bloodaxe, 1993), does include a selection of Peter Reading’s poems.  The first represented poet they highlight in their lengthy ‘Introduction’ is Peter Reading.  Peter Reading, for them, is ‘Now and in England’.  Perhaps one of the reasons why they have put Reading at the forefront of their evaluation is because he is absent from the Penguin anthology.  Rather than pondering ‘the spirit of postmodernism’, they consider postmodern practice in contemporary poetry at some length, Reading being for them ‘a true postmodern’ (p. 22).  Obviously, their title – without the editors ever stating it – is both a salute to Alvarez’s anthology and also a way of taking over the territory that Alvarez wants to control.  The Bloodaxe anthology sets out to dismantle the view of British literature that is recorded in and perpetuated by the Alvarez book: that of a white, male, middle class group of writers.  How can poets ‘escape the negative inheritance of British poetry’, they ask: ‘its ironies, its understatements, its dissipated energies’ (p. 22)?  For the new The New Poetry the answer lies in polyphony: ‘plurality has flourished’ (p. 15).  The editors state in their concluding remarks: ‘It would be absurdly presumptuous of us to claim The New Poetry is in any way definitive, but it is, we hope, “defining”.  Where others perceive pluralism as hectic and serving special interests, we would argue that this signifies health as opposed to further decline and that such highlighting is long overdue in a culture which persistently ignores or marginalises the voices and achievements of a significant number of people’ (p. 27).  The essay returns again and again to this attack on political, geographical, educational and social centralisation.  Here are a few examples: ‘Jackie Kay’s personal circumstances as a black Briton adopted and raised by a white Scottish family may be taken as an extreme example of what Terry Eagleton, surveying the 1980s for Poetry Review, termed ‘the marginal becoming central’ (p. 18); ‘A need to find alternatives to the real or imagined English centre vigorously informs the current resilience of Scottish writing’ (p. 19); ‘A willingness to challenge the centre, to write poetry recognisably as social discourse, is a hallmark of many northern English poets’ (p.20).  They are very thorough in their approach, we are left in no doubt where the editors are coming from; because of this it is an introduction that is well worth reading.  It comprises a selection of poems that are well worth reading too, lest we forget what anthologies are really there for.

Voice RecognitionI suppose I have used these quotations as a set-up to briefly discuss one of the most recent anthologies to reflect on Alvarez’s example: Voice Recognition: 21 Poets for the 21st Century, edited by James Byrne and Clare Pollard (Bloodaxe, 2009).  It’s interesting to see how the editors evaluate the power structures around the centre and the margins in their introduction: ‘A particular hub of this [new poetic] activity appears to be London, where many of the poets in this anthology are based – after years of other regions being prominent, there seems to be a real shift back to the capital, which is becoming a magnet for poets all over the country’.  The editors, by demarcating the new boundaries of what they think is good and worthwhile, are saying all that new poetry is now the old poetry.  They must have the Hulse, Kennedy and Morley book in mind when they state the ‘devolution to the regions’ model has been superseded by this Metropolitan focus of up-and-coming poets.

In their introduction Byrne and Pollard also write: ‘Among previous anthologies that had sought to define newness, we were influenced by The New Poetry, edited by Alvarez and first published by Penguin in 1962.  It was a landmark anthology that scrutinised the island-bound fustiness of the Movement and championed key American poets, especially when Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath were added to the updated 1966 edition.  In Alvarez’s excellent introduction… he extends Pound’s dictum by declaring that “the great moderns experimented not just to make it new formally, but to open poetry up to new areas of experience”’ (p.13).  There are several layers here, but of most concern to me is this notion that The New Poetry ‘scrutinised the island-bound fustiness of the Movement’.  I would say yes, Alvarez’s introduction does do that, but the anthology itself is replete with Movement poets.  Although he criticises Movement principles in the Introduction, he goes on to include their work alongside a wider range of voices.  His anthology is at once critiquing/criticising and promoting the Movement canon.  He hopes for a revolutionary future but actually offers us, in the end, a conventional mainstream anthology.  What interests me here is that it is Alvarez’s text rather than the compendium of poems that grips the anthologists’ attention (apart from Sexton’s and Plath’s inclusion, of course); they make their assumptions about the collection from the introduction, rather than the poems themselves.

Perhaps what survives of the ‘landmark’ anthologies is not the poetry but the introduction.  What gives your book longevity, if it is to survive at all beyond the original print run, is not a raft of poets giving their all but the editor’s or editors’ opinions on the state of play in British Poetry.  What is mainly remembered of The Oxford Book of Modern Verse, 1892-1935 is W. B. Yeats explaining why he didn’t include Wilfred Owen in the anthology (‘passive suffering is not a theme for poetry’, he said).  When Staying Alive came out, many critics discussed at length Neil Astley’s introduction and contextualising commentaries rather than the selection of poems themselves.  Alvarez’s The New Poetry is remembered, discussed and revisited not because of Arthur Boyars and Ted Walker or (sadly) Thom Gunn but because of Alvarez’s own commentary.

This is a revised and extended version of a paper presented at the Midsummer Poetry Festival Symposium on Anthologies and Anthologising in Contemporary Poetry, Bank Street Arts, Sheffield, Friday 20 June 2014.  Thanks to Ágnes Lehóczky and Angelina Ayers for organising the symposium.  Chris Jones‘s sequence ‘Death and the Gallant’ appears in The Footing, an anthology of new walking-themed poems published by Longbarrow Press.  His pamphlet Jigs and Reels recently appeared from Shoestring Press.  Click here to visit his website.


The pace of ‘The Footing’ | Brian Lewis

Make my impediment mean no ill
But be itself a way.

‘Malcolm Mooney’s Land’, W S Graham

'Edgelands' matchbox (photo by Emma Bolland)

‘Edgelands’ matchbox (photo by Emma Bolland)

Early in the summer of 2008, Longbarrow Press published two sequences that would set its course for the next five years.  The first of these was James Caruth’s Dark Peak, a poem in the form of a Catholic Mass, presented as a tall, slender pamphlet.  The second was Matthew Clegg’s Edgelands, a series of between 30 and 56 ‘mongrel tanka’, which appeared in several different handmade, limited editions, including a pamphlet, a CD, a set of postcards, and a concertinaed strip measuring two inches by six feet, compressed into a bespoke matchbox.  The tall pamphlet and the small matchbox seemed, at first, to suggest two distinct modes or practices, on the part of the poets and the publisher. As the objects came into use, however, it became clear that each format had been chosen for its respective sequence with the same aim in mind; that of slowing down the experience of reading, of recovering space for the poem.  The volume of space around and between the ten sections of Dark Peak is necessitated by their variable line length and line count (from 7 lines to 27 lines).  The regular lineation of the Edgelands poems invited a different approach; the discrete space of the individual tanka and the rhythm of the extended sequence are both enabled by the simple folds that mark each poem from the one that follows.  In this way, the space of the poem also measures its pace.

The idea of pace was, undoubtedly, informed by the fact that Dark Peak and Edgelands are ‘walking poems’.  Although the act of walking is not foregrounded in either sequence, it can be inferred from the speed at which the poems move through their respective landscapes.  These landscapes – drawn from Sheffield’s western and northern edges – seemed to speak to each other, and the two works were eventually programmed side by side at Line Break, an evening of poetry, painting and performance at Sheffield’s Site Gallery in November 2008.  A few days after the event, I invited a handful of poets to contribute new walking-themed poems and sequences to a full-length Longbarrow anthology, provisionally titled The Footing.  The only guidelines offered to the poets were that the poems and sequences should take the idea or practice of walking as a starting point; interpretation, form and length were left to the writer’s discretion.  Most of the poems were completed within 18 months; however, it would be almost five years before the book made it into print.

During this five-year period, Longbarrow Press continued to publish pamphlets and curate events, but The Footing slipped further and further back in the schedule.  Summer 2010.  Summer 2011. Summer 2012.  I’d been running Longbarrow since 2005, in the evenings and weekends off from my job with a financial services provider in Swindon, travelling to Sheffield every few weeks to discuss scripts, host events and record poets.  My circumstances had enabled me to acquire (or borrow) the resources to edit, design and produce short runs of handmade pamphlets, a process that was often part accident, part refinement (the watery blurs of the cover design for the Edgelands pamphlet resulting from a printer breakdown, for example).  The technical limitations and temporal constraints quickened the creative development of the press, but the path to full-length book production (which was, clearly, beyond the scope of slow craft) was distant, unclear.  For all the talk, I couldn’t make a start: on developing the skills needed to master industry-standard publishing software; on discussions with commercial printers; on visualising the production of 1000 hardback books from which I would be physically absent.  I couldn’t let go of the process I’d pieced together from photocopied scraps and toner spills.  I was blocked; the route to the anthology was blocked.

The Footing would almost certainly have remained blocked had it not been for two things.  The most important factor was the commitment of the poets involved in the project.  No contracts were exchanged in the years prior to publication; the poets were free to take their scripts elsewhere, but they chose not to.  I’d like to think that this was something other, or more, than loyalty to me, or even to Longbarrow: a belief that the idea of the book was still alive, perhaps.  The other thing that helped to clear the impasse was the vitality and invention of the poems themselves.

This was evident both on the page, and – crucially, for the continued life of the project – in the exploration of alternatives to the page, alternatives to the book: the field-based events, recording projects and collaborations with visual artists that began in 2006 (with our first publications) and which continue to this day.  It’s likely that many of the creative reinterpretations of the work in The Footing would not have happened without the blockage that imperilled the anthology, or the slow path to clearing it; perhaps the poems on the page would be outwardly unchanged by the absence of these public and collaborative processes and outcomes, but the life of the poems, and the shape of the book, would, I think, be markedly different.

Rob Hindle’s contribution to the anthology is a series of five long poems and sequences collectively titled Flights and Traverses, based on several walks in and around Sheffield taken by Hindle between 2008 and 2010, each responding to the idea of a one-way journey made by people at different points in history.  Two of these walks focus on Hindle’s ancestors, travelling the short distance from the country to the city in 1782, and the even shorter distance from Hillsborough to the South Yorkshire Asylum in 1931; the other three revisit episodes from Sheffield’s public history.  The last of these, and the last sequence in The Footing, is a walk in the traces of the Sheffield Blitz, following the imagined route of the Luftwaffe from Dore Moor on the city’s southwestern outskirts to the Marples hotel near the Cathedral, both of which were targeted by the bombers.  Rob had walked the route one cloudless night early in March 2010 and, having written the sequence over the following months, suggested that we re-walk it, with an audience, on 12 December 2010: the 70th anniversary of the first night of the Sheffield Blitz.  A small group set off from Dore Moor at 2pm that Sunday, the light and stillness of the snow-flecked moorland shading into the darkness, noise and flow of the city, where our journey reached its end shortly after 8pm.  Rob had revisited the research undertaken for the initial walk and the writing of the sequence; extracts from eyewitness accounts of the bombing were stitched into his own commentary, prefacing his readings from the sequence, and jostling for space with other histories.

This wasn’t the first poetry walk that Longbarrow Press had presented – the launch of Matthew Clegg’s Edgelands in June 2008 was marked by a walk through the hills of North Sheffield, followed by a series of city walks in 2008-2009 – but it was the longest.  Arguably, the small group size, the sense of historical occasion, the ritual pacing, and the crossing of boundaries – country to city, light to darkness – focused the relationships between the poems, the historical narratives and the terrain. It also renewed and deepened my connection to Rob’s project, and strengthened my conviction that the anthology should strive to ‘remake’ itself through these events – before and after publication.  As the group was preparing to disperse at the end of the Blitz walk, I handed everyone a package comprising a short essay by Rob (reflecting on the making of the sequence) and a mini CD featuring a recording of the sequence that Rob and I had made along the route a few weeks previously; a short film documenting the walk appeared a few years later.

Over the next few years, further work from The Footing would be introduced to audiences in this way.  Rob led a shorter walk through the Wicker in early 2011, retracing the steps taken by Sheffield gang members on a particularly bloody night in April 1925; as with the Blitz walk, a package comprising an essay and a field recording of the poem was given to the audience.  Last year’s Flights and Traverses walk found Rob recomposing fragments of these and other sequences into a new map of the city – a map that foregrounds the boundaries of the old city, the residues of its former entrances and exits.

Death and the Gallant (by Paul Evans)

Death and the Gallant (by Paul Evans)

Other poems commissioned for The Footing were adapted for a range of visual media.  Chris Jones’ Reformation-era sequence Death and the Gallant, which follows the progress of two journeymen as they move from church to church destroying the remnants of Catholic wall art, was the subject of a striking interpretation by the artist Paul Evans in an exhibition at Sheffield’s Bank Street Arts in 2011; the 10 paintings were ‘decomposed’ (or partially erased) by Evans’ application of a belt sander to their surfaces.  Another poem by Rob Hindle, ‘Attercliffe to the General Cemetery’, was reworked as a short animated film by the artist Hondartza Fraga; the film, Cortege, has been exhibited at a number of film festivals over the last few years.  James Caruth has worked with a local photographer on a series of images for his sequence Tithes, in which the echoes of recent and historical conflicts sound the byways of the North Sheffield village of Stannington.  The four years between the completion of the first poems and the publication of the anthology were also measured by a programme of recordings in and around Sheffield, often returning to the locations that appear in the poems: the English Pewter Company, the Quaker graves of Bowcroft Cemetery, the banks of the River Rivelin, the banks of the River Don.

It might be argued that ‘multimedia’ activity on this scale, and over this period of time, threatens to pre-empt, or outpace, the anthology; that the poems, when encountered on the page, might appear overfamiliar, adrift from a collaborative context, or eroded by its pressures.  It might also be argued that the programme of events and collaborative activities preparatory to The Footing was an acute, extended form of displacement activity; a distraction from the unmade book.  I would suggest that the anthology has been enriched by these inventive presentations and explorations of other media. In all cases, they have engaged audiences who, by their own admission, are bored or alienated by conventional modes of poetry presentation, and have helped to create a genuine appetite for the anthology among these audiences.  The development of The Footing via alternatives to print media has, arguably, ‘validated’, or tested, the work by a different route: we have not sought to produce a work that is pre-validated by way of including prize-winning poems, retrospective selections, or the jacket endorsements that even ‘radical’ poets seem obliged to seek.

2013.  I’d resettled in Sheffield (having quit my job with the financial services provider) and, over five laborious days, had acquired a practical understanding of InDesign, Photoshop and the other applications with which I needed to be familiar before creating PDFs to send to the printer.  I was, in fact, working on two books: The Footing and Matthew Clegg’s debut collection, West North East. The making of West North East (discussed in an earlier blog piece) had been attended by similar delays and uncertainties, for similar reasons.  Clegg had decided to withdraw the script of The Power-line, a collection that had existed in various forms (and which had sat with various publishers) since 2005, and had structured a new arrangement of poems exploring different ideas of ‘crisis, journey and imaginative crossing.’  West North East was to be a book in three parts, and Edgelands, a sequence due to be republished in The Footing, was to form its central section.  I couldn’t make a case for taking Edgelands out of West North East; the sequence is essential to the book’s texture, development and dynamics.  This did, however, present a problem for The Footing.  The two books were likely to appear within weeks of each other; publishing the same sequence in both books made little sense, and would probably make even less sense to the prospective reader.

Since returning to Sheffield, I’d developed working relationships with the poets Angelina Ayers and Fay Musselwhite, resulting in a series of newly commissioned poems and recordings for two projects (Call & Response and The Seven Wonders) in the summer and autumn of 2012, as well as a series of performances and events.  Sheffield’s rivers ran through a number of their poems; the urban Don emerging as an embodiment of both stillness and flow in Angelina’s work, with the ‘post-traumatic’ Rivelin disturbing the outwardly ‘settled’ landscapes of Peak-facing west Sheffield in Fay’s poems.  The rhythms, tones and images were fresh and unexpected; they expanded the territory that The Footing had been operating in.  I wanted these poems in the anthology.  The only way to make space for them was to remove Edgelands.  I contacted Matt, who felt that this was the best outcome for both books; I then contacted Angelina and Fay, who were happy to see their work included.

Footingcover4The Footing finally saw publication in October 2013.  I wanted the book to reflect the curatorial values that had shaped its gradual making; these values had to be present in every aspect of its structure and production.  They also had to be worn lightly.  The arrangement of the sequences and long poems should be suggestive of relationships between the constituent parts, and of a development throughout the book, without precluding other readings or associations.  A pattern, not a collage.  The typesetting had to be sympathetic to the poems; they must not be cramped into page-sharing with other poems, but should, like the earlier pamphlets, be arranged as discrete units for the reader to encounter.  This last point meant that the introduction could only run to two pages.  Fine.  I had no desire to see the anthology burdened with commentary or critical apparatus likely to be redundant in a few years’ time.  The introduction offers a few paragraphs of context for the book’s ethos, development and settings: a way in, not a way through.

The launch of The Footing in November 2013 presented us with a further opportunity to remake, or reroute, the book.  The poets devised their own approaches to presentation; some opted for reflective commentaries, others for short readings, others for performance.  Projected media and pre-recorded audio were carefully integrated throughout.  These principles were also brought to bear on Pilgrimage, a recent event at Bank Street Arts in which all seven poets performed a new arrangement of work from the anthology: a continuous performance with the accent on memory and memorial.

IMG_0657

Fay Musselwhite (by Emma Bolland)

Further projects will extend – or outpace – the work that began several years ago: a CD of location-based recordings, presenting yet another arrangement of the poems, is in the pipeline, as are further walks and collaborations.  The most recent walk, Fay Musselwhite’s Contra Flow, led the audience west through Sheffield’s tree-lined Rivelin Valley, moving against the river’s course.  It’s interesting to note that Fay presented more poems about the Rivelin Valley on the walk than appear in the anthology. In this context, The Footing was merely a starting point.  As Rob Hindle notes in his essay ‘Cartography, Flights and Traverses’:

We are at the moment between getting lost and finding a way forward – between the original itinerary and a new route, made at that moment and not until then. I find this moment entirely creative, and settling, and inspiring. We might be on a track thousands of years deep, but in passing along it, we are itinerant: we are at a point between the journey recorded and the journey anticipated.

This is a revised and extended version of a paper presented at the Midsummer Poetry Festival Symposium on Anthologies and Anthologising in Contemporary Poetry, Bank Street Arts, Sheffield, Friday 20 June 2014.  Thanks to Ágnes Lehóczky and Angelina Ayers for organising the symposium. Click here to visit The Footing microsite.


‘Ariel’ and ‘Wodwo’: A Yin and Yang of Poetics | Matthew Clegg

Sylvia Plath’s ‘Ariel’ and ‘Wodwo’ by Ted Hughes are key poems in each poet’s oeuvre, and poems that rank amongst my own favourites.  I’m tempted to read them as fulfilling a role somewhere between poet’s talisman and credo.  If ‘Ariel’ presides over Plath’s legacy more visibly than ‘Wodwo’ presides over Hughes’, that’s possibly something to do with the very different shapes of their literary careers.  Let’s imagine Plath’s literary career trajectory as a climb followed by an explosion (and ‘Ariel’ was part of that explosion), and Hughes’ as a fall, followed by a slow recovery. ‘Ariel’ and ‘Wodwo’ seem related: if not directly conversant, then bound up with each other; indirectly corrective of each other’s poetics.  It puts me in mind of John Carey’s notion, in What Good are the Arts, that ‘literature is a field of comparisons and contrasts, spreading indefinitely outwards, so that whatever we read constantly modifies, adapts, questions or abrogates whatever we have read before’.  If ‘Ariel’ generates the energies Plath needed to break free from Hughes’ literary shadow, I’m tempted to read ‘Wodwo’ as a poem wherein Hughes indirectly questions both Plath and himself, before correcting his own trajectory.

ArielPlathSo what do we know about ‘Ariel’, the title poem of Sylvia Plath’s final volume?  We know Ariel is a character, or entity, from Shakespeare’s The Tempest.  Ariel was a spirit imprisoned in a tree by the witch Sycorax, and released from that tree by the wizard Prospero.  Ariel is a magical air elemental, capable of affecting the weather, and creating illusions, and ‘he’ cooperates with Prospero partly because Prospero has agreed to free him from service after a number of tasks.  All that is in the public realm; in Shakespeare’s well-known play.  What, then, might we not know about Plath’s ‘Ariel’?  Well, unless we’ve read ‘Sam’, in Hughes’ Birthday Letters, we might not know about Plath’s near-fatal ride on a runaway horse, and not knowing this could make it hard to access key levels of ‘Ariel’.  The poem ‘Ariel’ is no doubt about Plath’s relationship to creativity itself: lyric poetry as a ride on a runaway horse.  Her conclusion is as exciting as it is dangerous; the ride is a kamikaze ‘flight’ into the sun.  The voice of the poem declares that she is ‘at one with the drive / Into the red / Eye, the cauldron of morning.’  At one with ‘the drive’, then, not the ‘red eye’.  The only way of being at one with the ‘red eye’, presumably, is to be incinerated.  Plath’s version of lyric, here and elsewhere in her volume, is a kind of magnesium flare: intense, brilliant, but quickly burnt out.  Each strike of the match is as unique and unrepeatable as it is unsustainable.

WodwoTed Hughes published ‘Wodwo‘ (the poem) in 1961, before the trauma of Plath’s suicide, and before he was called upon to edit Ariel.  Wodwo (the volume) wasn’t published until 1967, and the title poem is published last in the volume, giving the impression that it was written after his ‘fall’.  It is interesting, then, that this title poem is also the name of a ‘mythical’ being. A wodwo is a forest creature, a wild man or troll, alluded to, if only in passing, in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.  This creature and its name has passed out of common language, and it only really exists (until Hughes) within the twilight world of the great Middle English poem.  It occurs to me, though, that a wodwo seems to share characteristics with another character from The Tempest: with Caliban, the bestial offspring of the witch Sycorax.  The symbolic architecture of the play depends on a certain symmetry existing between Ariel and Caliban.  Both are ‘enslaved’ to Prospero – one willingly, and the other resentfully.  One is of air, the other of earth. One is refined, the other base.  They are high and low personified: one creates magic, and the other is enchanted, even duped by it.  In Gawain, of course, we have a symmetry existing between the civilised world of castle and court, and the green and feral world that exists outside and beyond it. The ‘magic’ of the Green Knight taps into the ‘otherness’ of that feral world.  It tests Gawain, and, arguably, regenerates him.  It seems to exist on a different moral and metaphysical ‘level’ to Prospero’s – one more challenging to us, perhaps, as moderns.  The two kinds of magic, and the two creatures, are yin and yang; and ‘Ariel’ and ‘Wodwo’ might symbolize a yin and yang of poetics.

What are we to make of ‘Wodwo’, then?  Hughes’s technique in presenting him is different to Plath’s in ‘Ariel’.  Where Plath is intense, Hughes is prosaic.  Where Plath uses the lyric ‘I’, Hughes adopts a dramatic stream-of-consciousness.  This is not the stream-of-consciousness we find in Woolf or Joyce.  Wodwo is too primitive.  He is emerging self-consciousness before self-knowledge.  He doesn’t know his own name, or what shape he is, and many of his assumptions are errors.  Although he is immersed in his element, he is also aware that he is separate: there are ‘walls’ between him and it.  His ‘freedom’ is a violent inspection.  He cannot enter water, even, without ‘split[ting] its grain’.  What are his virtues, then, if he has any?  Well, his busy curiosity ‘go[es] on looking.’  This earth elemental is a creature of the provisional.  He comes to the wrong conclusions, and some of these conclusions are destructive, but because he can go on looking, he can correct and revise them.  He is a creature of absorption, not conclusion.  Wodwo’s ‘looking’ is less brilliant than the runaway ride on Ariel, but it is a sustainable process.

Both poems seem to exist as signposts, even prophesies, unlocking the modus operandi of their respective poets.  It’s as crass as it is tempting to claim Plath’s fate was predicted by ‘Ariel’; but ‘Wodwo’ certainly points to the way Hughes went on ‘picking bits of bark’.  After a lifetime of absorbing if uneven sequences, he died feeling there was still work left to be done.  For me, it is ‘Wodwo’ that reveals the enduring poetics of his literary ‘recovery’.

‘Wodwo’ appears in the collection of the same name (Faber, 1967) and in Ted Hughes’ Collected Poems (Faber, 2003). You can read the poem here. ‘Ariel’ appears in Ariel (Faber, 1965) and in Sylvia Plath’s Collected Poems (Faber, 1981). You can read the poem here and listen to Plath reading ‘Ariel’ and other poems here.

Matthew Clegg’s West North East is available now from Longbarrow Press. Click here for more information about the book. A new West North East podcast (recorded in Crossgates, East Leeds, on 2 May 2014) appears below (click on the orange ‘Play’ button to listen):


Two Worlds, One Field: Kathleen Jamie’s ‘The Wishing Tree’ | Chris Jones

Work of Days

From ‘Work of Days’ (by Karl Hurst)

There are, as far as I am aware, two printed versions of Kathleen Jamie’s poem ‘The Wishing Tree’.  The first is published here; the text of the poem accompanying an audio recording that Jamie made for the Poetry Archive foundation circa 2002.  A second account of ‘The Wishing Tree’ can be found in Jamie’s collection The Tree House (Picador, 2004), and online here.

It’s not altogether rare to find modified versions of the same poem in print.  You occasionally find young and emerging poets making changes between the poem published in a magazine (or anthology) and the piece that finally materializes in the book-length collection.  Then there are the inveterate tinkerers who spend their whole careers revisiting poems to change a word, a line or entire stanzas: W. H. Auden and Derek Mahon spring to mind as architects of this kind of ‘rebuilding’.  But Jamie falls into neither of these categories.  She had been publishing work for twenty years by the time The Tree House came along.  She is not known for revisiting previous work to make wholesale changes (no matter how strange or alien she finds earlier incarnations of her poetic self).

That there are two versions of ‘The Wishing Tree’ in the public domain actually gives us a rare glimpse of the processes of redrafting by this most accomplished of poets.  Not only this, I would contend, but the palimpsest of changes that can be traced from one text to the other reveals a poet who is in the process of developing a new style of writing, a shift in the textures and shapes of language that highlight Jamie’s ‘mature’ voice in her two most recent collections.

The poem plays a pivotal role in The Tree House, as it is the first piece we come upon in the collection.  Opening poems have a key job to perform because they function as ‘thresholds’, introducing the reader to the main styles and preoccupations explored in the work that follows.  They are doors through which we enter the house.  If we see Jizzen (Picador, 1999), the book that precedes The Tree House, as a transitional collection, the poet beginning to shake off the earlier styles found in the more urban, issue-based ‘social realist’ Bloodaxe oeuvre (see Mr and Mrs Scotland are Dead: Poems 1980-1994 (Bloodaxe, 2002)), then The Tree House is the first volume that shows Jamie off in her bold maturity, focusing on the ‘birds, beasts and flowers’ themes that have garnered so much praise from critics in recent years.  That we can see ‘The Wishing Tree’ with double vision perhaps allows us a better view of Jamie as she repositions herself, shaking off previous orthodoxies to form a new contract with her writer-self.

Before I go any further, it would be useful here to highlight the differences between the two versions of ‘The Wishing Tree’ on offer.  For reasons of clarity and pithiness, I will refer to the Poetry Archive piece as Text A and the poem that appears in The Tree House as Text B.

In terms of word alterations, there are a number of differences between the two texts.  In Text A we read of ‘each secret visitation’ whereas in Text B we have ‘each secret assignation’.  In Text A the coins are ‘gently / beaten into me’.  In Text B the coins are ‘daily beaten into me’.  In Text A we have: ‘Beyond, the land reaches’, and in Text B it has been changed to: ‘Behind me, the land reaches’.  In Text A there is the couplet: ‘because I bear / the common currency’, whereas in Text B we read: ‘because I hoard / the common currency’.  I’ll come back to this final example of reworking in more detail later on.

Perhaps more difficult to track here, but no less significant in terms of its effect on the way we read the poem, is the way in which Jamie goes from a conventionally punctuated poem in Text A to one in Text B where she removes most of the commas at the end of lines and goes on to banish all of the three semi-colons that appeared in the original version (one of these semi-colons metamorphoses into a dash [ – ] in Text B).  Jamie continues to use commas mid-line as caesuras (for example ‘My limbs lift, scabbed’) but relies more on the phrasing of words as units of sound in themselves to cultivate natural pauses at the end of lines.  To this end, Jamie removes examples of enjambment from Text B, reworking the line-endings so lines naturally conclude on the end of a thought or completed arc of expression.  The full stops remain in the same positions in both versions.

That Jamie replaces ‘visitation’ with ‘assignation’ could be interpreted on a number of levels. Firstly, ‘visitation’ has distinctly religious overtones to it: yes, this is a poem about miracles, of granting wishes, but the source is distinctly secular, pagan even (this is not an up-to-date version of ‘The Dream of the Rood’ for sure).  ‘Assignation’ suggests intimacy on another level, a much more human one rooted in mortal frailties and desires.  ‘Assignation’ also has much stronger aural support in terms of the vowels and consonants around it, particularly in terms of the ‘s’ (sibilant) and ‘a’ sounds clustered around those lines: ‘each’ and ‘wish’ leads to ‘ass-‘ which then links onto ‘scabbed’.  The second change, from ‘gently / beats’ to ‘daily beats’, also has an impact that ripples through the textures of this poem.  ‘Daily’ implies something that is habitual, incessant, a need that the tree literally finds hard to accommodate.  ‘Gently’, although it exposes the tensions between care in the wishing and the damage being done to the tree, doesn’t bend with the wider associations and significances that I believe are attached to this poem.  This is not a gentle piece of art.  On a most straightforward level, the tree is being poisoned by the actions of the humans who trust in its projected symbolic value.  But this is also a Scottish tree (it says ‘smirr of rain’) with an interest in delineated boundaries (‘I stand in… / the fold / of a green hill / the tilt from one parish / into another’ (Text B)), whose allegiances are with the west of the British Isles (‘Behind me, the land / reaches toward the Atlantic’ (Text B)).  I think that this poem does touch on Scottish nationalist concerns, perhaps not that forcibly, but it does provide images of occupation through the iconography of empire (‘I draw into my slow wood / fleur-de-lys, the enthroned Britannia’ (Text B)). The processes of colonization and forced assimilation could hardly be considered gentle in the ways that they are executed.

From 'Work of Days' (by Karl Hurst)

From ‘Work of Days’ (by Karl Hurst)

As I highlighted earlier, there is a much more traditional approach to punctuation in Text A than in Text B.  Text A has a more conventional underpinning, using commas, semi-colons and colons to control the pace and rhythm of the work.  Text B eschews end-line punctuation at the beginning of the poem in three changes from the original version (two commas and a semi-colon are removed) but keeps the original comma in the concluding sentence of the piece, the comma now having migrated to the end of the line (‘of human hope, / daily beaten into me’).  This is the only instance of the use of an end-line comma in the whole work.  It is irregular practice and difficult to square with previous choices made in the poem.  This may seem a fussy reading on my part, but small changes enacted on the text often have a large impact on the ways in which a poem can be interpreted.  What we hope for is a consistency of style, something that this poem rejects. My own belief is that Jamie is signalling a move away from her previous, more orthodox word-designs.  The first poem in this ‘breakthrough’ volume highlights a more devil-may-care attitude, a new freedom from the rules that have shaped her formative practice.  Jamie has always sought to experiment with the reach of her poetry.  Look at her willingness to collaborate with other artists in her published work: with poet Andrew Greig in The Flame in your Heart (Bloodaxe, 1986), and in The Autonomous Region (Bloodaxe, 1993) with photographer Sean Smith.  She is not a ‘precious’ poet in this respect.  Yet the seemingly minor decisions she makes around this use or rejection of punctuation in ‘The Wishing Tree’ actually offer a new manifesto of sorts: ‘this is the material I really want to write about and this is how I want to do it. I no longer want to be restrained by more ‘conservative’ approaches in the ways I engage with these subjects.’  This is a poem that features a talking tree, after all.

Jamie shows great control in the way she harnesses internal rhymes, assonance and consonance in her poetry.  Her free verse is tight, robust and it sings.  One has only to look at the first six lines of this poem to see how interwoven the aural correspondences are:

I stand neither in the wilderness
nor fairyland

but in the fold
of a green hill

the tilt from one parish
into another.

There is the standout internal rhyme of ‘stand’ and ‘fairyland’, obviously (and the echo of this in ‘fold’).  After that see how ‘wishing’ has its own association: ‘wishing’/‘parish’, and ‘Tree’ has cascading associations too: ‘tree’, ‘neither’, ‘green’.  There are other patterns at work here: ‘neither’, ‘wilder-‘, ‘another’, and ‘wild-‘, ‘hill’, and ‘tilt’.  Look at the repetition that helps to balance the first six lines (and helps alleviate the necessity to adopt punctuation in this opening sentence): ‘in’, ‘in’, ‘into’.

All of this I use by way of introduction to discuss the final decisions made around the earlier poem’s reshaping.  Just as introductory poems are important in terms of the focus and direction of the collection as a whole, the first lines of poems will often introduce the palette of sounds that will be carried through the rest of the piece as variations on the chosen ‘theme’.  If we consider the first line of ‘The Wishing Tree’, it is the verb ‘stand’ that becomes a ‘tuning fork’ word for what is to follow. Apart from the full rhyme (‘fairyland’) that has already been mentioned, think of all the ‘–d’ words positioned at the end of lines that emerge from and ‘chime’ in some way with ‘stand’ in Text B: ‘fold’, ‘blood’, ‘hoard’, ‘scabbed’, ‘wood’, ‘land’, ‘poisoned’, ‘bud’.

This continuity of sounds is not so apparent in the originally published poem.  Firstly, as I have already mentioned, the Text A version has ‘because I bear / the common currency’, which is, within the aural context of the piece, a lot weaker as a ‘marker-point’ (‘bear’ also over-dramatises the ongoing process too: this is a hardy tree).  Jamie realises this and chooses the word ‘hoard’ because it sits much more closely in line with the governing sound-patterns that stitch together the updated draft.  ‘Hoard’ also dovetails in much more closely with a ‘common currency’ or treasury, the idea that this ‘being’ carries a wider tribal significance for the people who draw on its powers to bless, to help facilitate change.

Perhaps more intriguingly, in the original piece we have this imagining:

I draw

into my slow wood, fleur
-de-lys, the enthroned Britannia.

‘[W]ood’ here has been buried within the line and because of this ‘demotion’ it doesn’t carry the weight it would have if the word was positioned next to the wide open space of white.  This effect is further emphasised by the use of enjambment so that we think about the division into two lines of ‘fleur/-de-lys’ for some reason.  It’s almost as if Jamie can’t see the wood for the trees here.  By the time she comes to rewrite the poem she realises the incantatory, essential quality of the word ‘wood’ and places it at the end of the line: ‘I draw into my slow wood / fleur-de-lys, the enthroned Britannia.’  This subtle shift is one of the reasons why the work is such a finely crafted poem by the time of its final redrafting.  ‘Wood’ is one of the three pivotal ‘end-rhymes’ that hold the poem together: they are ‘blood’, ‘wood’ and ‘bud’.  The poem is encapsulated here in this trinity of words. The ‘blood’ represents the humans who come to knock coins into the trunk and who wish for better lives; ‘wood’ is the tree, of course, which understands that it plays a symbolic role but also that being awarded this privileged state may also lead to its demise.  The battle for supremacy between what the ‘blood’ wants and what the ‘wood’ needs is played out in those final lines.  The tree could be ‘poisoned’ beyond repair (could end up dead), but no, look, the tree is ‘still alive – / in fact, in bud.’  The final word of the poem tips the balance away from ‘blood’ toward ‘wood’: ‘bud’ wins through as the climactic and emphatic rhyme in the work.  It steers the piece toward light and life. Indeed, the poem has been working toward ‘bud’ from the first consonants and vowels of that opening line, through the interstices of ‘rhymes’ that have been clarified and consolidated through this most revealing of drafting processes.

‘The Wishing Tree’ appears in Kathleen Jamie’s collection The Tree House (Picador, 2004). Chris Jones‘s sequence ‘Death and the Gallant’ appears in The Footing, an anthology of new walking-themed poems published by Longbarrow Press. His pamphlet Jigs and Reels recently appeared from Shoestring Press.


Not Daffodils: Beauty, Fear and Poetry ‘in residence’ | Matthew Clegg

It Isn't Up To You

‘It isn’t up to you’ by Karl Hurst (from ‘Born Under a Bad Sign’)

‘I was reared / In the great city…’
Coleridge, ‘Frost at Midnight’

In 1998 I’d abandoned a part time and self-funded English Literature degree at Leeds University because I’d run out of cash. I was working in telesales for Sky TV, living in Kirkstall with P, a close friend who’d been fighting schizophrenia and losing ground. An intelligent man, he suspected that the side effects to his medication were in some ways more undesirable than the condition itself. He was experimenting with not taking the pills and his daily behaviour was getting simultaneously more brilliant and more worrying. We had been walking in the grounds of Kirkstall Abbey. P had been talking about sexual selection – the subject of his PHD – and then he had broken down. ‘We’re all just barking dogs’, he was telling me, and I was struggling to offer an angle that might ground or release him. My morale was at its lowest, and then a day or two later I got a phone call from Robert Woof, Director of the Wordsworth Trust. He’d been thinking about setting up a modest residency at Dove Cottage and would I be interested.

‘Of youthful Poets, who among these hills
Will be my second self when I am gone…’
Wordsworth, ‘Michael’

I’d met Robert at a Centenary Conference marking the publication of the Lyrical Ballads. The idea was to celebrate that landmark of Wordsworth and Coleridge as well as reflect on where poetry was now, and what it might owe to the Romantics. I was part of a small writers’ collective at that time. We’d had an anthology published with some money from Yorkshire Arts. Steve Dearden – then a Literature Officer at Yorkshire Arts – had alerted us to some bursaries that could pay for places for us at the conference, and we were lucky enough to get the money. We ended up lodging in a holiday cottage owned by some local magnate that Robert had wangled for selected conference attendees who might be strapped for cash. After meeting Robert at the conference he offered us a reading the following summer. Out of that reading, and subsequent correspondence, Robert got the idea of offering me the residence. When interrogated, I was never very good at justifying the opportunity. It had just happened to me.

‘…Within the bounds of this huge Concave; here
Should be my home, this Valley be my world…’
Wordsworth, ‘Home at Grasmere’

I arrived in Grasmere in the New Year of 1999. After checking in I was shown to an 18th Century Cottage in Town End, just off the coffin path that connects Rhydale and Grasmere. I remember going into the front room and being struck that the carpet was speckled by dozens of tiny black dots, in a peacock-fan spray around the fireplace. There must have been a hailstorm, and as the hail passed down the chimney it picked up soot. As the ice melted onto the carpet, it left the soot behind as a signature. This seemed entirely appropriate for a place built around such a strong sense of history. The only other thing in the room was a bucket of coal with a welcome note attached. I had brought no furniture and there was none in the house. Only a king-size bed upstairs. For the first few days the only room I inhabited was that bedroom, before a sofa and chair and assorted bits and pieces were found for me from various donors. I liked the idea that everything in the house was cobbled together from people in the immediate community. It generated a strange sense of hospitality even before I got to know anyone.

‘…O Lakes, Lakes!
O Sentiment upon the rocks!’
Geoffrey Hill, ‘Elegiac Stanzas’

It was raining on the day I arrived. I think it may have rained through the whole first month. The world I entered felt like it had been under water for the whole winter. The moss that cushioned the walls on either side of the coffin path was luminous green like some exotic seaweed. The coal dust in the leaky coal shed was a greasy paste. On my first night I walked into the centre of Grasmere to find a call box. There was one on the edge of a car park on the approach to the village. The car park was flooded and the call box was surrounded by water. I waded into it and stood watching the rain pound down around me as the cold soaked into my feet. I looked up at the dark bulk of Loughrigg and Silver How. The rain was more intense and more violent than any I could remember. It even seemed to be beating down the smoke that rose out of the chimneys of Town End.

‘…it is hard to explain how he could have
climbed to that height in the dark and wet night
without falling to his death…’
Goethe, The Sorrows of Young Werther

It was midwinter. I had been to see the Jacqueline du Pré biopic, Hilary and Jackie, with Sean and Jane Borodale at Zeffirelli’s in Ambleside. When the movie was over we took off in Sean’s Land Rover for a late night drive. After twisting down A-roads, up and down inclines, skirting lakes and surprising many stray sheep in the headlights, we ended up climbing a steep road that might have been at the end of the Elterwater Valley. I’m not sure because, as a passenger, I just went with it, excited by not knowing or not being in control of where I was. When we got to somewhere near the top we stopped and paused for a second or two to take in the scale of the landscape dropping away beneath us. Steam from our breath filled the Land Rover. I opened the door and jumped down onto the road and instantly fell flat on my back. The road surface was a rhino-hide sheet of black ice. We looked at each other in amazement at how we had made it up that road. Then panic set in about how we were going to get down again.

‘The Mind is its own place…’
John Milton, Paradise Lost

P had come up to visit me for a weekend whilst on his way to visit his new girlfriend in Liverpool. He had again been experimenting with not taking his medication, probably out of a fear that it would make him impotent. He came in the summer of my first year in Grasmere. He was lucky. He landed smack in the middle of one of those breathtaking stretches of summer weather that can persuade you that Cumbria really is heaven on earth. We went out walking, choosing to climb up past White Moss Tarn and up and across to Heron Pike. We paused halfway up to eat some lunch and look out across Grasmere towards the green of the landscape beyond – the sky a vacuum swept and immaculate blue. P’s psychosis was taking hold and he was gradually persuading himself that he had in fact died and this was the afterlife. He struggled with this feeling for the rest of the weekend. He told me he was having real trouble not walking out into passing cars or stepping off ledges as he had all but convinced himself that it would do him no harm as he was already dead. My role was to make and maintain an argument to convince him otherwise. This consisted mainly of pointing out details that could not possibly be found in nirvana. Pepsi cans by the edge of the tarn. The never-ending coach parties. The low-flying fighter jets scalping the trig points.

‘…beauty is nothing / but the beginning of terror…’
Rilke, The First Elegy, Duino Elegies

It was the middle of the Wordsworth Winter School during my final winter. I had been getting uptight about this business of being a Poet in Residence. This would typically kick in during the schools and conferences in the presence of the various academics and validated connoisseurs. How was I to negotiate the value system of that world and play the role of poet in public? I had acute status anxiety. I’d asked a friend to get me something to smoke that would relax me in the evenings. He did. I wasn’t a self-sufficient user of any form of recreational drug, but late one afternoon I rolled myself a spliff and put some vegetables in the oven.

I’m guessing the skunk I was given was probably very strong and spiked with something else, most likely speed. The sense of euphoria that first came upon me just kept pushing up the ante until suddenly it was my heart turning into a bullet train. I tried to calm myself by lying on the cold stone floor and breathing deeply but it had no effect. I couldn’t believe my heart was going to be able to stand up to this punishment. Quite by coincidence another friend called round to say goodbye before he went away for the weekend and he was able to explain what I was experiencing. I was having a whitey. He didn’t seem too worried – just said I should lie down and it would pass. I did and it didn’t. Normal social interaction had become almost impossible to me. I couldn’t form sentences.

‘..men’s intellectual errors consist
chiefly in denying…’
Coleridge, Anima Poetae

I learned a lot about myself during the hours that followed. I was entirely possessed by fear. I was afraid of the dark, of strong light, of stillness, of anything that moved, of company, of being alone, of every change or lack or change in my body rhythm. And all this despite knowing there was nothing tangible to be afraid of. For a very long time the only thing that seemed to remotely stabilise me was to walk backwards and forwards along the snow-covered road by the woods and lake. 100 yards one way, then 100 yards the other. I did this for what must have been hours. I’d persuaded myself that I had to keep moving. If I stopped, the contrast between the speed of my heart and the inactivity of the rest of my body felt too extreme. Also, cold was better than warmth somehow. Surely, it would slow my heart down. Something primal had woken up and it wasn’t going to go back in its kennel. All my senses had sprung awake. I imagine this is what happens to animals in times of extreme danger. During those hours, the starch-white of the snow on the roads and fields represented a kind of total oblivion and so did the dark in the woods. It was only by constantly changing my focus from one to the other that I managed to stop myself from feeling overwhelmed. De Quincey writes of how ‘space swelled and was amplified to an extent of unutterable infinity’ under the influence of opium. When I looked out over the snowy fields I had the same feeling. But when I looked into the dark of the woods, I had an equally powerful feeling of claustrophobia, as I did when I considered returning to Town End or my cottage. Internal and external were equally terrifying and normal rational thought was little defence. It reminded me of something P had told me about psychosis: ‘when I’m mad I know in my rational mind that what I’m thinking is madness but still, my rational mind has no power over those thoughts.’ I’d experienced what that meant, at least.

This piece reworks a memoir that first appeared in Staple magazine (Spring 2006). Matthew Clegg’s West North East is available now from Longbarrow Press. Click here for more information about the book.


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