Conventionally, we use the term ‘vernacular’ to describe dialect ‘spoken by ordinary people in a particular country or region’ (Oxford English Dictionary); or ‘language spoken in one’s mother tongue, not learned or imposed as a second language’ (O.E.D.). This second definition is instructive: it reminds us that a great deal of what we call correct or Standard English, and its sister, Received Pronunciation, was a system imposed on some speakers after they had left the first world of home and embarked on formal schooling. Many books on dialect ask us to discriminate between merely slipshod or slovenly English and genuine dialect, but I think it’s fair to say that formal schooling has had a part to play in the fade-out of vernacular language in this country, especially in mainstream poetry [i]. A linguist might chastise me for speaking the obvious in bold strokes, but I’m no linguist. My interest in the vernacular is imaginative. I’m concerned with the life lived and the language that expresses that life. I’m interested in how language expresses sensibility – and by sensibility I mean our ‘ability to appreciate and respond to complex emotional or aesthetic influences’ (O.E.D.). A question occurs to me: is there something that could be referred to as a ‘vernacular sensibility’?
I find another definition of vernacular useful. It refers to architecture that is ‘concerned with domestic and functional rather than monumental buildings’ (O.E.D.). Apply this to language and what you might have is the notion of a language ‘lived’ or ‘lived in’, rather than one dressed up, or groomed for display. Some years ago I was commissioned to write a series of poems and songs that celebrated the lives of those who lived and worked on the South Yorkshire waterways [ii]. They ranged from the navvies who built them, to the boatmen who plied them on keels, barges and narrowboats. It seemed natural to me to accept that if I wanted to reconstruct the lives of these workers, I’d have to partially reconstruct their language too. But how? The canals belong to the leisure industry now, to holiday barges and the cabin cruisers of weekend boatmen, not a workforce hauling coal, grain or sugar in all weathers. It’s not as if I could stroll down to a canal-side boozer and listen to the banter or shop-talk of boatmen. I had a hard time collecting source material – particularly material on how boatmen spoke, what they might have talked about, or how they might have felt about it.
After I’d exhausted the internet and the public libraries, my breakthrough came closer to home. My grandfather on my mother’s side had a private passion for the waterways. He’d built his own cabin cruiser in retirement, and many of our holidays took place on his boat, ‘Jasmine’. He’d handed this passion on to my mother and in her own retirement she’d taken a practical course in riverboat navigation at Goole. What’s more, she possessed a small library of out-of-print books on the history of the waterways. One of these, Memories of the Sheffield and South Yorkshire Navigation by Mike Taylor (Yorkshire Waterways Publications, 1988) contained many first-hand accounts of real boatmen talking real boats. Two of my poems were based on incidents recounted in this book. At the same time, it was clear that the memories in Taylor’s book had been smoothed into Standard English. Something of the idiom and speech inflection remained but, equally, the unique sound and texture of vernacular had been sanded away. As well as crafting these memories into appropriate verse-forms, I wanted to try and restore something of that texture.
There were two pitfalls I wanted to avoid. Firstly, I’m aware that Yorkshire-isms are often played for laughs and, more to the point, audiences often expect them to be played for laughs. The cod Yorkshireman of popular myth is a farcical creature – a combination of forthright opinion and obdurate, ‘muck and brass’ nous. Think of the Monty Python sketches, or the send-ups of Geoffrey Boycott on the Test Match Special blog-sites. Even Arnold Kellet’s Dalesman anthology, Yorkshire Dialect Classics, slips into this. David Battye’s Sheffield Dialect and Folklore since the Second World War: A Dying Tradition has a cover that almost makes it look like a collection of seaside postcards. You could take this further than Yorkshire, of course. The cod Geordie, Scouser, Brummie and Cockney are also figures of fun in popular mythology. It’s not easy to find examples of poetry in those dialects that are expressive of something more complex – inclusive of sensitivity, intelligence, or even dignity. (I said ‘hard to find’, not that they don’t exist.) One of the most beautiful and complex poems of the 20th Century to my mind is Derek Walcott’s ‘The Schooner Flight’ – a poem written in an intelligible hybrid of Caribbean patois and literary standard. I think it’s revealing that there is virtually no equivalent of this poem in 20th Century English vernacular, or at least not beyond the somehow ‘fringe’ lyric. Eliot employs a Cockney vernacular in ‘The Waste Land’, but argument rages as to how sympathetic this is. Even Peter Reading’s virtuoso performances up and down the English registers have a tendency towards grotesque when he uses vernacular. In the language of English poetry, the divisive gene is stubborn.
The second pitfall I wanted to avoid was creating something in language that had the feel of a local museum piece – full of inkhorn-isms. I took out several books on Yorkshire and South Yorkshire dialect and combed them for words to put back into the mouths of my reconstructed boatmen. My choices were economical. I took a couple of pieces along to a poetry workshop and was sobered to discover that a participant from the south struggled to make sense even of dropped aitches and ‘the’ abbreviated to ‘t’. At the other end of the spectrum, I’ve heard Ian McMillan make the (valid) point that dropped aitches can be the stuff that northern stereotypes are built on. Neither view has deterred me altogether. As for the doubt raised by my southern friend – if readers can be expected to look up allusions, or go out of their way to bone up on the hard science or other specialisms that are more the standard of contemporary poetry, surely they can be expected to show a bit of dialect the same respect. On the other hand, I’m aware that there’s something stultifying about having to look up every other word in a poem. There’s something counter-productive about that too, especially if you’re aiming for the effect of a spoken rather than bookish language. Ironically, the reader’s experience can feel more like a dictionary exercise – and who goes to poetry for that? In the end, I chose only the odd word – ones that I felt conveyed a physicality or texture, even if the reader didn’t know what the word meant. ‘Nithered’ for example, meaning ‘cold’; and ‘radged’, meaning ‘angry’. These aren’t words I use in speech, but I get some shiver of recognition when I say them aloud. I tell myself I can intuit the raw energies they contain.
I’ll return again to the imaginative. I am doing little more than claiming certain sounds make me feel certain things. However, part of the job of the imaginative writer is surely to explore the relationship between language and felt experience – even communal experience across generations. A vernacular contains an unconscious and cultural DNA for a social group – held together by that group, independently of formal institutions or legislation. I suppose there are different ways of approaching this link to identity. There is the approach I associate with a writer like Hugh McDiarmid. ‘Lallans’, his synthesis of vernacular Scots and more literary language, was a project you might associate with a modern idea: if you reform language you can reform individual or cultural consciousness. On the other hand, there is the idea you might extract from the metaphor in Ted Hughes’ ‘Thistles’: that the vernacular is a resilient strain that persists and erupts from beneath the more cultivated ground. These possibilities might represent progressive and conservative tendencies, respectively. To adapt a phrase from Philip Larkin, ‘it’s hard to lose either / When you have both…’ [iii] Perhaps I try to walk a fine line between the two, sometimes tinkering, sometimes leaving be. I feel the same about form.
So what might I mean by a ‘vernacular sensibility’? My sense of it is something like this: precise, but not clinical; tested, but not over-refined; astute, but not intellectually rarefied. Something not smoothed of its rough edges but certainly trimmed of its fat. Crucially, an immersive sensibility based on living in, coping with, and sometimes relishing the everyday world as it is. Unlike mindsets that are more genteel, or politically correct, it’s seldom about projecting a brittle vision of how the world ought to be. And yet, it yields a clay that can be moulded into beautiful and robust shapes – a clay inflected with quartz and crystals that gleam in oblique light. This, above all, is its enduring value to me.
[i] I am aware of (and have enjoyed) recent volumes that counter this tendency – volumes like Liz Berry’s Black Country, and the Punjabi-English ‘Punglish’ of her one-time mentor Daljit Nagra.
[ii] These poems will be published in my next volume from Longbarrow Press, The Navigators. They will also feature in an upcoming collaborative performance between myself and songwriter Ray Hearne. Details of both will be posted on the Longbarrow Press website in the near future.
[iii] From ‘Toads’, The Less Deceived (The Marvell Press, 1955)
Matthew Clegg’s West North East is available now from Longbarrow Press. Click here for more information about the book. Listen to Matthew Clegg introducing and reading his poem ‘Attercliffe’ (from the forthcoming collection The Navigators) on the towpath of the Sheffield and Tinsley Canal:
What follows is about reading … and caution in a round & about way. It is not circumnavigation, it is a warning that no matter how intent we are on aiming for certainty, the terrain will always reveal its selves in ways map -readers, -makers & poets have no control over.
fine detail printed
on paper …
Talking of over : it is the bent line of a circumflex that sits over y. This can equally be y as to x, or a crow’s spatial a as to be, or the question why? Confused? Well of(f) course that’s what a map’s for: to make us believe that the infinitely detailed, multi-directional & complicatedly angled terrain we find our selves in can be organised. We must be very careful about this powerful simplifying illusion. We map-maker-readers are prone to delusion if we do not watch out, and watch in, so as to spot how we may fool ourselves, especially when reading maps. As a practicing navigator, back in the 20th Century, I visited the Moelwyns in Snowdonia. Afterwards I wrote a poem centred around a small lake, or llyn. ‘Aim for certainty’ is prominent in that poem, and that poem was one of the steps I took towards making my book Steps … a book in which that poem appears.
four walls of mist.
Appearance through mist, and missed also, has to be attended to with great care by a navigator. That poem morphed as it passed into the new cartography of a book. That poem’s shapes changed, particularly towards its end as an open misty field form insisted words spread over page. Within the mist-swirl I discovered the lore, the legend, and the curtain or veil of the word ‘llen’ with circumflex and without. In Llyn in the Moelwyns the mountain Cnicht is suddenly revealed. Cnicht has a classic mountain shape, and sits above the rucked blanket of the Moelwyns like a circumflex over an arcane vowel. Poets try so hard to be precise, and the thought of a stray comma or accent or even partial stop can wake a poet into a landscape of sweaty sheet.
The llyn’s still sheet is revealed.
Llyn is lake, or tarn. Llŷn is peninsula. Through veils of lores’ aching mists something missed emerges. A hollow of the lake & the extended point of a peninsula – they meet on maps of landscapes we cannot contort nor bend even slightly to our wills, we can only travel through our becoming, and only accept a landscape’s becoming. Kalapous is shoemaker’s last … yet our shoes or boots are always wearing out. Calibre exists as a measure in a/the round, yet to exist through movement over ground demands that various horizons’ rims ever recede. Precise measures are never
possible ; possible is wide open. So, finally, as it turns out and turns around, events found some self, and another poem called Peninsula in The Moelwyns became.
‘Llyn in the Moelwyns’ (excerpted in grey italics throughout this piece) appears in Mark Goodwin’s new poetry collection Steps (Longbarrow Press, 2014). Click here to visit the Steps microsite.
- though sometimes I think I’m just another little bit
of river Avon driftwood well who isn’t?
‘Stacking’, John James
Seeking not to possess, tame or sentimentalise space has increasingly become a part of my practice as a photographer. Among other things, a loss of belief in a priori knowledge and a distrust of the civic as epistemological discourse has spurred me on to seek alternative relationships to the aesthetics of space. I wish to highlight space here rather than place, as my initial impulse on undertaking this series of photographs was not founded on the specifics of any particular locale. This seemingly goes against the current climate, where the social or local as personal is often feted as holding the key to any discursive practice involving spatiality. Consider here, for example, the recent resurgence of regionalised craft practices. Seemingly forgotten skills transposed into the larger digital field, registered as authentic, have become for the most part a cultural norm. I don’t mean by this to disparage inclusiveness or site-specific works, but rather to question the often faux-authentic or commercial aspects of politicising both space and object. I have chosen, wherever possible, not to name the places in these photographs as this often evokes preconceptions of local, regional or even nationalistic identity that I have sought to avoid, or even escape from.
During the early autumn of 2014, I decided to take a walk outside of the city boundaries. I’d been photographing cities since 2010 and felt that I needed a little less predictive atmosphere to perform under. After the first journey (undertaken as leisure), having walked for some 10 hour stretch, I returned home slightly dislocated from the resulting photographs. They didn’t seem to yield either any particular geological, aesthetic or subjective insights into what might constitute ‘landscape’. At first I took this lack to be a flaw on my part, a lack of inspiration, or modal adjustment or, on the part of nature itself, poor quality of lighting or perhaps not the favoured location. The city seemed much easier to photograph because its objects were more clearly defined, I knew what I was looking for and knew what I was looking at. However, undeterred, a few weeks later I undertook almost the identical journey except for one small yet vital change. This time I veered off the official track, not by far, but by enough to be almost undone by it. I had stepped, inadvertently, straight into the middle of a peat bog; also I had slipped a few gradients down simultaneously. The rest of the afternoon was a painful lesson in how to pull yourself up out of the mire. This time when I returned home I felt both grateful as well as exhilarated. A few prints turned out to be halfway decent but that wasn’t really what interested me.
It was after that journey that my relationship to my physical environment began to radically alter. It was a shock, at first, to realise that the conditions of an environment dictate any possible relationship with it and not the other way around. I say ‘shock’ because I undertook several more journeys in the ensuing weeks until I realised I was seriously under-equipped to deal with the challenges of being there. For example, what I had always assumed to be an innate directional instinct was proving to be a fallacy. Leaving without map, compass or provisions proved time and again to be foolhardy. Then, slowly but surely, I began to adopt a more adaptive, respectful approach to photographing in a very difficult environment. I had begun with a narrative of ease of access which held up on the more well-frequented trails but, veering away from these, the idea of having ‘the right to roam’ just seemed like an abstract idea, the remains of some romantic conquest narrative. Yet always my eye line was fixed onto the necessity of reaching the next safe goal, the next foothold. I guess a wet foot appreciates a dry haven. It was on these first encounters that I began to consider the idea of the title of the series, Booths.
Booths (a derivative from the Scots Bothy) are temporary shelters dotted across various outlying Northern landscapes. They are free access, generally stone dwellings and are often sited in the most inhospitable places. They usually have little or no facilities other than respite from the elements. Equivalents can be found in Wales and Ireland, though few are to be found in Southern England. They are generally not well marked on OS maps except as historical features, ruins, lodges, cabins or huts. Similar structures can also be found in many other cultures. It began to register that these booths, those safe havens between the unpredictability of the elements, were a metaphor for something much larger. It was then that I began in earnest to photograph the transitory nature of space and saw in certain formations the temporal solidity that I consider similar to outlying shelters, the skull and flesh and bones a simulacrum.
I like to think of landscape as a series of adverbs. Adverbs are like ghost objects, their double take, a way of fixing ideas onto an exterior framework. For example, light, season or the relationship between one object and the next are all perpetually modifying their constituent parts. Describing this continual shift through photography, the a priori codification of landscape quickly becomes problematic, erroneous. To describe water simply as soft or rock as hard ignores their adverbial, alluvial qualities. So rock might be hard here or rock might be hard now but the description is only ever contextual and interdependent. Often this flux appeared to me as a kind of reverie that more fixed or objective notions of landscape find difficult to take account of. As the photographs progressed, the protean aspects of spatiality gained greater prominence. I less and less looked towards the larger, coalesced views generally favoured by (often male) landscape photographers and more at its constituent parts or its breaches, butts and cloughs. With this in mind, the idea of ‘Booths’ became a central aspect of being able to access this categorical fluidity. I became interested in little islands of meaning. At the foot of a spectacular waterfall, I first noticed these swirling pools of effluence, sandstone, leaf debris and chemical residue forming and diluting as it moved downstream. A fellow photographer looked on in disbelief that I would choose not to photograph the more ‘beautiful’ part of the scene. But to me this drift then stasis, this attachment then disconnection mirrored my own relationships in attempting to negotiate space. The booths came to signify a place of rest, a temporary home between eddy and calm. Each step is a testing of new ground, of the unfamiliar; perhaps the ground you are on or over or between or under is all unstable or radically destabilised. But then all these phases themselves lose ground, need qualification, as if all of us were also adverbial. This became my walking measure.
Attempting to traverse a notion of ‘home’, of its suggested solidity, just reminds us of the precarious categorical imperative that staying still renders invalid. Here, in free access, those categories become redundant. We are able to crawl or become dissolute or bathe or get lost but it’s only ever at the behest of another element we didn’t take account of. In moments of clarity this lack becomes its presence; it is in those moments that we are most privileged, because we again begin to ascribe a very early logic onto an object we can never have enough description for. Home is a series of shelters, a restorative temporality, all the space between an impracticality, like trying to traverse mainland to island with nothing but a vague intuitive notion of swimming between.
This is the first of three new essays on photography by Karl Hurst; essays two and three will be posted on this site over the next few months. Karl Hurst’s Flickr photosets can be viewed here, including the series Booths from which all four photographs featured in this piece are drawn. Two previous essays for the Longbarrow Blog, My Island Home and Out on the End of an Event, reflect on other aspects of his photographic practice. Details of his publications with Longbarrow Press (writing as Andrew Hirst) are available here. His sequence ‘Three Night Walks’ appears in the walking-themed poetry anthology The Footing (Longbarrow Press).
I lost someone recently. He wasn’t a love or a relative, or even a friend. He wasn’t mine to lose at all. He was a pain. He was stubborn, and he had limited taste in music. I spent one week with him listening to a couple of Eminem songs over and over, maybe an Evanescence, a little Barry Manilow. But then at the end of the week, “Hotel California” came on. This was the sort of thing he’d do, drive you nuts, and then ask you to write down the word autumn, so he can carry it in his pocket. Who wouldn’t miss a man who did that?
The Eagles’ opening chords give away the whole song, like the pre-credit sequence of Columbo. Everyone (everyone!) knows “Hotel California” is a great song, even my guy (let’s call him Kevin), who whistled along to “Can’t Smile Without You”. But I like this song as a friend. I don’t love it. Nick Hornby talks about hearing a song at the right age, in the right year. I maybe heard this song in the seventies, but I suspect I was more about “The Runaway Train” than “the dark desert highway”. There are songs you shouldn’t be listening to without thinking of me. With the Eagles, it’s ok to go ahead and think of someone else, your cousin, or auntie, or Jon Tickle from Big Brother 4.
Kevin wasn’t into poetry. I read some to him – he said “thank you”. I tried to choose something culturally relevant, which is maybe a risk, like accidentally blacking up. But I do get a kick out of reading things near where they were written. I read Kafka in Prague, The Odyssey in Faliraki… The right place is probably as important as the right age, and I guess we can all agree 18-30 holidays are a good fit for Homer. One thing I did read on my trip overseas (not to Kevin) was The Poetry of Sex anthology (ed. by Sophie Hannah), and I was so in the wrong place to be reading a book with “SEX” written across the full cover – frowned upon doesn’t cover it. This is what made it the right place…
Finding time to read was hard, and when there was time, my head was so full with the chaos around me, it seemed impossible to rest my focus on the page. What did it was Lawrence’s “The Elephant is Slow to Mate” – “the huge, old beast” I can only say slowly; it steadied my breathing and my brain, so that all the frantic thinking slowed with it. It was like stretching out a cramp. I am currently away again, in the land of Kevin, reading Sagar on Lawrence’s thoughts about nature and landscape, how each locality expresses itself perfectly in its birds, beasts and flowers, its pansies and people. We are different on holiday, we dress differently (except my son, whose summer look is to wear just the one coat), dabble in the language, assume an air of sophistication when taking wine from a carafe, etc. But my Englishness is noticeable and noted wherever I go. Kevin would tell me this: Angelina, you’re so English. I am an expression of the country that raised me, and that I return to, in my turn of phrase and Yorkshire tea, and a thousand other ways I don’t see.
Someone told me that Kraftwerk were influenced by the Beach Boys, that they made music that sounded like California, so Kraftwerk went off to make music that sounded like Germany. I hear a version of California in the Eagles’ chord progressions (unfortunately, I also hear this in Jethro Tull’s “We Used to Know”). Lawrence implies place in his choice of language. I can only imagine the elephants’ “vast […] hearts” and “massive silence” in a landscape enormous enough to hold them. Imagining them dashing “in panic through the brake / of [Sherwood] Forest” won’t do. There’s loads of discussion around anthropomorphism, the conflict between Lawrence’s resolve to present the creature in its own terms and the unknowableness of the other. Its easy to see “shy hearts” as about us, but this courtship seems to keep tension between that and the elephant as an expression of its environment.
“So slowly the great hot elephant hearts / grow full of desire” invokes the heat weighted against them. They loiter along the riverbeds not only in the way that teenagers loiter after hours in Meadowhall, or snogging in gennels (I never did this), but in the hot climate. They are huge and the heat is slowing. Maybe we want to see ourselves in the poem, the heat we speak of in the urgency to touch another, the heart as the metaphorical seat of emotion? But we do feel it literally in our hearts, because adrenaline makes them beat faster. We actually give off heat. Is that mechanism so different for other animals? Being an old romantic, I do want to see myself here. The lines enact what they describe, slowly building desire until the end where “massive blood / moves as the moontides, near, more near…” It’s exciting and beautiful. I feel like that. I feel like an elephant… Wait. No…
Angelina Ayers’ sequence The Strait appears in the Longbarrow Press anthology The Footing. You can read ‘The Elephant is Slow to Mate’ by D.H. Lawrence here. Ayers discusses Sylvia Plath’s ‘Morning Song’ in ’31 Songs’ and Gerard Manley Hopkins’s ‘Pied Beauty’ here (two earlier posts in this series). Click here to access Angelina Ayers’ website.
Sited in the forecourt of Sheffield’s Upper Chapel are three statues, cast in 1985 from plaster pieces made by the English sculptor George Fullard in the late 1950s. The figures (‘Mother and Child’, 1956; ‘Running Woman’, 1957; ‘Angry Woman’, 1958) are, respectively, seated, moving and standing; fixed on the court paving, each slant to the other, they keep their distance. The forecourt is an apt setting for the statues; a stone’s throw from the Town Hall, Upper Chapel seems much further removed in place and time, sheltering otherness and quiet in the yard’s fastness. And, at the yard’s edge, three attitudes, bodied in bronze: in the city – the heart of the city – but not of it.
George Fullard was born in the Sheffield district of Darnall in 1923; at the time of his death, fifty years later, he was Head of Chelsea School of Art. The course of his life was determined in no small part by his observation of the Sheffield Blitz and its aftermath in December 1940, which inspired the drawings and sketches that supported his successful application to the Royal College of Art, and, more significantly, his participation in the Battle of Cassino four years later. Fullard’s tank was blown up; he survived, but was left with severe wounds and permanent scars. Many of his postwar sculptures and drawings focus on walking, falling and running figures, themes that, as Fullard acknowledged, allude to his wartime experiences in Sheffield and Italy.
The ghosts of the Upper Chapel statues, and the visions that inspired them, haunt Three Night Walks, Andrew Hirst’s contribution to the Longbarrow Press anthology The Footing. Hirst’s short sequence is not the only group of poems in The Footing to be shadowed by conflict and trauma (we might consider the legacies of war and exile in James Caruth’s Tithes; the destructive campaigns of Chris Jones’ Reformation-era narrative Death and the Gallant; the industrial scarring of Fay Musselwhite’s Rivelin Valley in Breach; and, most pertinently, Rob Hindle’s rewalking and reimagining of the Sheffield Blitz in ‘Dore Moor to the Marples Hotel’). However, its first poem measures a world in which the act of walking is conflicted and wounded, turning inward and against itself, the disoriented protagonist ‘scuttling’ through an urban centre made unnavigable not by bombs but by redevelopment. One of the poems in Hirst’s earlier pamphlet Frome XXIV opens with the declaration ‘The city I love so much is disappearing'; in Three Night Walks, the city has all but disappeared, persisting only in spectres and memories. There is nowhere to go, nowhere to stop, as the insistent repetition of ‘unsettled’ in each of the poem’s three stanzas makes plain (‘alone, unsettled, residual’). There is only a haunting of and by ‘the city’, and a cycle of dispossession and repossession. Night itself becomes a place, a temporary theatre, in which these meditations on damage and disappearance might find solidity and purchase.
Hirst’s spoken introduction to the poem at the Sheffield launch of The Footing (available to hear on the recording below) is suggestive of the Fullard sculptures’ strong physical (and metaphysical) presence in the early stages of the three poems’ development. In the final versions, the figures are rendered obliquely – fragmentarily, even, a glimpse of ‘blood caked feet’ and little else – and seem no more settled than the poem’s speaker. Shortly after the first drafts of these poems were completed (and a few months after the photographs accompanying this piece were taken), the statues vanished from the Upper Chapel forecourt. Cast from and against the city, it seemed that they had finally been cast out. They reappeared several months later, restored and re-sited on the other side of the yard, saying nothing of where they’d been, as defiant as before.
Listen to Andrew Hirst introduce and read the first of his Three Night Walks (recorded at The Shakespeare, Sheffield, 25 November 2014). Click here for more information about The Footing.
I feel compelled to tell others about two difficult moments I have experienced … but somehow I don’t think that I can write poetry about what I feel compelled to tell … I’m not keen on writing prose … prose fixes things too much for me, whereas poetry is open … and I often feel pompous with prose, as if I’m making statements that of course can be smashed … with poetry, all flows, bends, dissolves, re-appears … and it seems to me my ego can lay no claims to another’s – reader’s – imagination … but prose … well, I don’t trust prose … certainly not my own … or at least I have tended not to … however, of late I’ve learned that just writing how things were, or are, in prose, does not have to fix, or hold ideas down … and sometimes the stable ground of prose is the only way to proceed, the only way to say certain things, and sometimes the ‘art’ of poetry cannot say such things … one cannot begin through poetry to try to tell of certain things … it feels like … stealing … and the usual expansive feeling of creativity that begins the making of poetry is somehow unobtainable, even though there is so much vivid feeling & detail, which is usually the very stuff that starts poems … the underlying drive is there, but it is cut short by a feeling of some kind of forbiddenness … I’ve not worked out why exactly I can’t make poems from certain moments, why it feels wrong … I don’t know the right answer … but I’m not sure what would be a wrong answer either … anyway, here is what I want to tell:
Years & years ago, when I lived in The Lake District, a climber called Luke Steer told me how he had found a ewe with her eyes gone, and that he had had to kill her. He used a boulder. Luke said that it was one of the most difficult things he had ever done, certainly the most horrible. And so, for years I have feared that one day in the hills I’d encounter a sheep so ravaged and in agony that I wouldn’t be able (allowed?) to just walk away – that I would have to ‘put’ the beast ‘out of its misery’, as they say.
I’m not entirely sure it is the right thing to do; perhaps us humans make an assumption about ‘misery’ & ‘agony’, and perhaps other creatures would prefer to cling to life no matter what, for as long as possible. And so perhaps I did wrong. But, yes, this last July, on the south-eastern ridge that goes up to Moel Eilio (just before the peak Foel Gron) in Snowdonia, I found a young ewe whose belly was ridden with maggots. And one of her hooves was twisted half off. She could hardly move, her gasps were frail and slow, and her snout was red raw and crawling with flies. Nearby there was the ‘perfect’ stone: a long shaft of rock, whose weight & length made for easy momentum. She was already very sluggish … my thwacks dazed her more … but she did cry … and so did I … and her legs trembled and kicked weakly. Of course, sheep’s skulls are incredibly hard, as is evident from the way they butt each other. The swinging stone & my shaking self could not kill her … so, I took some of her own wool, that had come loose from her and was lying nearby, and I pressed it into her nostril … and I pressed her snout into the short grass … daftly I kept uttering ‘Go beast, just go.’ Eventually, her frail grasping to breathe subsided. Instantly, her cornea blurred, the gleam vanished, and the flies, with jewel-green abdomens, immediately crawled all over her eye.
I’m a farmer’s son. I’ve killed many cat-damaged birds, mice & rabbits, and other small badly broken creatures … but killing a creature so big … I don’t know why it should be so different … but the energy of such a tough beast, such a resilient hill creature … it is very very hard to come up against … and I’m not sure that I did right … accept that I think I responded honestly to a feeling we call ‘compassion’ … but I’m not sure it makes it the right thing to have done …
… another incident years ago: when my partner Nikki & I witnessed a young man jump in front of a lorry on the M1 just before junction 28 (on the hillside that falls to the River Erewash) … perhaps I need to write that again … yes, we saw a young man kill himself by facing an oncoming lorry … I stopped my car on the hard-shoulder and ran back up what seemed like such a long steep slope … I passed other motorists who had pulled over and were sitting motionless and shocked … the artic-lorry that had hit the young man stood alone beyond traffic backing up behind it … in front the motorway was still … and the young dead man lay absolutely still too … he looked so so heavy … at the time I imagined the surface of the road bending under his weight …
… and perhaps that imagining – in the moment – is all the poetry that can come of experiencing such an event … and for me, probably, I needed the company – the protection – of my familiar art in that moment, and needed to make something of what I was experiencing … but I can’t make that image go further, or rather ‘take’ that image further … and I can’t take a poem from this moment …
The lorry driver was a man called Terry. I remember his bewildered gentleness and fear as he gave evidence in a court room in Chesterfield. Terry saved my life. Nikki & I were passing the front of his lorry just at the moment the young man hit it. Had Terry swerved or hit his brakes too hard, I’m sure that Nikki & I, and quite a few other drivers & passengers would’ve been tumbled, with our vehicles crumpling round us. The judge clearly stated how well Terry had done – despite his suddenly being presented with a horrible emergency he had kept his artic-lorry in a straight line. Terry had to decide to drive straight on into that poor young man. I have no doubts that Terry, that day, did everything right …
Mark Goodwin’s new poetry collection, Steps, will be published by Longbarrow Press on 24 November 2014. Click here to visit the Steps microsite.
I trail my shadow round this Lord’s demesne –
closed cottages, forge, tavern, farm…
Death and the Gallant, Chris Jones
It’s very rare that you get to see depictions of medieval individuals going about their daily business in the flesh. You could visit a ‘high end’ art gallery, for sure, and study sombre portraits, or go online and hunt down illuminated manuscripts and books of hours that showed wealthy patrons rooted in the narratives of their good lives. Then – perhaps more humbly – there are those paintings in parish churches that offer wider perspectives on Pre-Reformation England and its culture. The art on offer is often fragmentary, worn-away, and incomplete, but the views on offer in these settings are compelling, haunting, and tantalising in equal measure.
As part of our peregrinations around Nottinghamshire and Lincolnshire, we came across paintings of three shepherds at St John’s church, Corby Glen. The shepherds, represented on the south arcade of the church, are coming in from the fields with their sheep. The two adult shepherds depicted are carrying crooks across their shoulders. Hanging from these staffs there seem to be lunch pails or baskets. An accompanying boy shepherd is playing a musical instrument, perhaps something like a bombard (in the official literature it says, more prosaically, ‘pipes’). You can see by the way the boy is pursing his lips that he is playing an instrument with a reed. The shepherds also have a sheepdog for company. Although the animal is five hundred years old you can still see the spots on its coat – the red blotchy pigment that remains is echoed in both the boy’s and the adult shepherds’ garb.
These shepherds of the nativity story are, quite naturally, medieval citizens. They straddle Biblical time and ‘contemporary’ time in a relaxed, uncomplicated manner. Yet however much this small group is stylised, however much they escape from ‘realist’ perspectives and framing devices, there is a sense in which we are looking at authentic representatives of a time and place. The men and the boy have names, they have families. They know their fields around the village.
The modern viewer might want to perceive these images in terms of continuity: the wall paintings offer evidence of an unbroken lineage of worship in Corby Glen that goes back to the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. However, the very existence of these portraits is underpinned by acts of violence and suppression. The shepherds now occupy space on the walls of the church because they were whitewashed over during the Reformation. These stylised bucolic images, however endearing and romantic our responses to them, signal the end of one dominant religious system of belief in the country, and flag up (through their concealment over the centuries) new approaches to praising God in Protestant England. The shepherds are not only messengers sent to herald the birth of the new king but revenants of the ‘old ways’. They offer interested parties, day-trippers, sightseers, perhaps even pilgrims, a glimpse of some strange and beguiling worldview of man’s place in the universe that has long since been repudiated, abandoned. The shepherds seem very old and at the same time immediate, knowable: fresh from their day’s work on the land.
What remains with me from the three churches we visited over the course of one morning and afternoon is the way in which these images come back to me, floating up through the bricks and stone. However faint or half-formed these pictures appear on the walls, they linger on the retina like strange dreams you can’t quite shake in daylight. I felt deeply humbled to spend time among these medieval paintings, created by anonymous artists who left no signature or ‘thumbprint’ in sight.
Death and the Gallant appears in the Longbarrow Press anthology The Footing. This is the third and final blog post focusing on the pre-Reformation wall art of Nottinghamshire and Lincolnshire churches (visited by Emma Bolland, Brian Lewis and Chris Jones on 19 September 2014). The first post, by Brian Lewis, appears here; the second post, by Emma Bolland, appears here. Listen to Chris Jones and Emma Bolland discuss ‘The Tree of Jesse’ and the poems in ‘Death and the Gallant’ (recorded at St John the Evangelist’s Church, Corby Glen, Lincs, 19 Sept 2014):