In The Faraway Nearby, Rebecca Solnit writes: ‘The self is a patchwork of the felt and unfelt, of presences and absences, of navigable channels around the walled-off numbness’. The same might be said of a book of poems. Some years ago my writing journey had run aground on an island of my own making. I was living in a mouldy flat. I’d resigned from a job that had made me ill. A very important relationship had broken down. I was still struggling with my health, fighting a numbness brought on by absences of my own. One Sunday I tuned into a radio programme called ‘Homer’s Landscapes’, written and presented by Adam Nicolson. In it, Nicolson examined the journey Odysseus made to Hades, where he must feed blood, honey and wine to the ghost of Tiresias, in order to restore to him the gift of speech. Only Tiresias can offer Odysseus the directions he needs to complete his homeward journey. According to Nicolson, it is as if the Greeks believed that the body and taste of these things were essential not only to life, but to language too. This is a metaphor for poetry itself – for any attempt to make absences or abstractions concrete. The ghosts need their blood and honey, otherwise they’ll remain silent shadows.
This is why I’ve chosen to start my new collection, The Navigators, with a version of this episode of The Odyssey. It acts as a kind of prologue to a book that is full of reconstructions: crowded with personal, historical and mythical ghosts. Marooned on my own journey, I needed to consult with them in order to restore my sense of direction. Some of the poems in this new book predate poems in West North East (Longbarrow Press, 2013), and some of them were written immediately after. One thing that distinguishes them from the poems in my first volume is a broadening of the canvas of time and place. Another is a greater fascination with the flowing element of water, as it moves through both. The collection starts with rain falling in Cumbria. It flows to the South Yorkshire waterways, before arriving at the sea and another scene in another navigational myth from Ancient Greece.
Section 1: Trig Points
The collection begins with poems born out of a writing residency at Wordsworth’s Dove Cottage. The first drafts were written some 13 years ago. They’ve been re-drafted many times since – the form just eluding me, until I started experimenting with free and open forms in 2014. I’ve taken a long time to discover what many poets start with. This sequence chiefly maps my relationship with the landscape, with creatures, and with my companion of that time, C. Cumbria was the glue that held C and me together, and our relationship struggled after we left. It was as if we couldn’t agree on a landscape we wanted to share – and so we retreated separately to places closer to our origins. The poems in Trig Points also triangulate mental journeys between past, present and projected future. C and I lacked a shared vison of the future, but this doesn’t stop the heart wanting to look back at a loved person and a loved place, trying to find embers to carry forward. Time is a cold landscape without these embers. The frame of this section of the book is also haunted by myth and history. There is a recent adaptation of passages from Aristophanes’ The Birds, and a sequence that touches on events in Kosovo. Many Kosovan refugees settled in Cumbria, and if I go beyond my right to speak of such subjects, I do so in order to remind myself that no idyll is unvisited by voices from worlds outside it. I thought this each time a military jet passed over the Cumbrian sky.
Section 2: The Navigators
In 2009 I received a commission to write poems about the history of the South Yorkshire waterways. I’m no stranger to canals. My grandfather had built a canal boat after he retired, and many holidays in my childhood were spent on his cabin-cruiser, navigating the Leeds-Liverpool canal. The commission resulted in some historical monologues in the voices of navvies and boatmen, as well as personal reminiscences of time on my grandfather’s boat. In 2013 I moved to Mexborough, in South Yorkshire, and found myself 5 minutes from the canal. There, I navigated the waterways as they are now. On one stretch of the canal, a number of houses back onto the water. From the street, they look like ordinary semis or terraces, but from the canal bank they appear more exotic – the domestic waterfronts decorated with bunting, statues of herons, and with little huts and fishing platforms. Some homes even have boats. There is something exciting, for me, about having a boat at the bottom of the garden. I suppose it is possible to look at the motorcar as Everyman’s Argo, parked in the driveway or the street outside every home. But it doesn’t work for me. There’s something special about a boat – about stepping off land and onto a craft that navigates another element. Any waterway has a mystery that a road can’t achieve. When I think of my time on my grandfather’s boat, I realise my experiences were a growth. It’s more poignant now because I understand how important that new adventure was at the end of my grandparents’ lives. Parts of my coming of age and their retirement coincided on the waterways. The canals will always lead back to my history, and to theirs. And they lead back to history with a capital H (or even a dropped one).
Section 3: Cave Time and Sea Changes
In ‘Reference Back’, Philip Larkin said that ‘though our element is time, / We are not suited to the long perspectives / Open at each instant of our lives.’ All through my life, long perspectives have opened in coastal landscapes. I’ve returned to the sea for reflection and regeneration, and the poems I’ve set there are epiphanies that hatch on literal and metaphorical thresholds. This final section explores key moments in three romantic relationships. I’ve questioned whether there might be something insensitive about placing love poems for three women in such proximity. However, I am interested in the drama of the human heart in time. This is supposed to be one of the things the compass of poetry helps us navigate – look at poems from Gilgamesh to Hardy’s Poems of 1912-13 to Hughes’ Birthday Letters. In this final section I try to construct my own compass. The denouement is a sequence that explores Proustian memories of Flamborough Head, where I attempt to fuse mythical, personal and historical threads in one fugue-like movement. It culminates with a glimpse of the Greek god of sea-changes, Proteus. This is channelled through a photo taken by my partner, Ruth. I use it as a talisman to return me to a present that is never-ending, and always in the wind. The marooned sailor uses it to find a way home, if home is the seat of our affections, or the starting point for all new expeditions.
The book doesn’t quite end there. I’ve chosen to exit with another mythical scene. This time it’s a night before Jason and his Argonauts embark on their journey. Jason is losing his nerve. Two of the crew have fallen into bitter dispute. It’s almost come to blows, when Orpheus enchants everyone with a song about our elemental origins. The Argonauts carry the song in their hearts long after the music stops, and even into their sleep and dreams. This seemed like the perfect note upon which to suspend my poetic navigations. It’s often said that time is problematic in the human mind. We displace the present into the past, or project it into the future. DH Lawrence wrote about his desire to pioneer a poetry of the present – something that eluded even Orpheus in the end, perhaps. Events later in his life led Orpheus to regret the backward look. In another version of his myth, after his dismemberment by the Maenads, his decapitated head is left to float on the river Hebrus – still singing – until it reaches the Mediterranean shore. As Ezra Pound says in ‘Exile’s Letter’, ‘there is no end of things in the heart.’ This book places my stones on the cairn of that idea.
The Navigators is published by Longbarrow Press on 13 May. Click here for further details of the book, and to read and listen to poems from the collection. Matthew Clegg and songwriter Ray Hearne will lead a walk along the Mexborough Canal on Sunday 24 May; click here for more information (and to reserve places). The Navigators launch takes place at The Shakespeare, Sheffield, on Thursday 25 June; further details appear on the Events page of the Longbarrow Press website.
The title of this blog post (‘Feeding the dead is necessary’) is taken from W.S. Graham’s long poem ‘Implements in Their Places’ (available in his New Collected Poems, Faber, 2004).
There’s healing power in music. Sometimes it’s the right lyric, or the drumbeat, but it’s usually a combination of the two that does it. In 31 Songs, Nick Hornby mentions his mum’s derision at the T. Rex lyric, “Get it on / bang a gong”, touching on the lyrics v. poetry debate. I mostly think it’s daft; whichever angle you’re coming from, there often seems an unconscious (or conscious) elevation of poetry woven into the parameters of the comparison. Are those lyrics poetry? Who cares? And while we’re here, “More than a woman” is not a man! I couldn’t write a decent lyric if PJ Harvey stood over me with a feathered whip. Glyn Maxwell suggests that music is to lyrics what white space is to poetry. If some lyrics retain their power when you lose the music, does that make them poetry? Does that make them better lyrics? Or worse? We don’t measure the value of a poem by taking away the line breaks and seeing if it holds up. Even so, if I were going to buy into this, and some days I do, I’d offer Leonard Cohen’s lyrics (not his poetry?!) –
Dance me to the children who are asking to be born
Dance me through the curtains that our kisses have outworn
Raise a tent of shelter now, though every thread is torn
Dance me to the end of love
The words hold their own beauty. Does this make them poetry? Maybe. I might listen to them walking Burbage Edge, or sitting on the Cholera Monument behind the house I grew up in, looking out on the city shrunk to a more manageable size. It will gently get you through most days.
But if you really need to feel better, sooner or later you have to get up and dance around like a curiosity. Carly Simon has a song, “Attitude Dancing”: “And it don’t really matter / what steps you choose to do / only one thing matters / that’s your attitude.” This was the power of the Leadmill nightclub. Lyrics still mattered. Look up the words to “99 Red Balloons” or “Baggy Trousers”. They say stuff. But they’d say it to a beat I could throw myself into, and although I’d be barged by all the other vodka-mixer-for-60-pence-fuelled youth of the day, the gratification was in being fiercely yourself, and to hell with everyone else. Listen to the Stone Roses’ “I Am the Resurrection” – that opening drumbeat’s filling your chest with the screw you factor, isn’t it? Then add, “Don’t waste your words, I don’t need anything from you / I don’t care where you’ve been or what you plan to do.” Arms up and singing to the delayed refrain of “I am the resurrection” is about as much pure joy as you can get in life.
The whole being yourself thing is a struggle. Other people aren’t merely mirrors, but we do see ourselves reflected in them. We build relationships with the people in who we see ourselves most clearly. Maybe they show my best side. Or you might choose those who confirm your flaws. But sometimes you spend so long looking at the reflection, you forget that’s all it is. This is when you need the song.
“Silentium”, by Fyodor Tyutchev (trans. Chandler), describes this act of self-reclamation:
Be silent, hide away and let
your thoughts and longings rise and set
in the deep places of your heart.
Let dreams move silently as stars,
in wonder more than you can tell.
Let them fulfill you – and be still.
It ends: “Hear your own singing – and be still.” The poem might work differently to the song, have its own sense of musicality, but it’s an experience as physical as any bass vibrating through you. Here, stillness is made visceral. The simplicity of the language and rhythm, the weight of the rhymes, slow me down and send me into myself. The imperative to step out of the world lends nerve to the poem’s assumption that I am enough. I am. To be still, here, is an act comparable with dancing irreverently. I’m memorising it. It’s wonderful. But Rosemary Tonks’s “Addiction to an Old Mattress” enacts the struggle I’m thinking of:
No, this is not my life, thank God …
… worn out like this, and crippled by brain-fag;
obsessed first by one person, and then
(almost at once) most horribly besotted by another
“This is not my life” suggests it’s someone else’s, and thank God she doesn’t have to live it, with its crippling “brain-fag”. Brain-fag! But she is living someone else’s life, and it hardly matters whose. This randomness of who she might fall for is what defines obsession; it’s not them as people that takes her over – it’s dispossession itself. Rebecca Solnit, in The Faraway Nearby, describes us as stories, telling and being told, as threads woven into the fabric of the world. That balance between connection and autonomy is essential to our sense of self, I think. When we lose control of our story, we become dispossessed, but also if our thread winds loose from the pattern. This makes stepping out of the world sound less desirable, though we all want to run away from it sometimes. Maybe it works for a while, as a way to relearn your story, to narrate a new one. At some point, though, we need it to be heard.
Anyone can become dispossessed of self, by society, abuse, love. Solnit says that your suffering doesn’t mark you as special, “though your response to it might”. You might react by being still. I might sing the Stone Roses in my kitchen (but I am special …). For the speaker here, without herself, her personhood, her own story to tell, what else is there but the other, any other. Even the month belongs to them and not to her:
These Februaries, full of draughts and cracks,
they belong to the people in the streets, the others
out there – haberdashers, writers of menus.
potatoes, dentists, people I hardly know, it’s unforgivable
for this is not my life
but theirs, that I am living.
And I wolf, bolt, gulp it down, day after day.
I’m excited by how feisty the lines are. The fight in them gives me hope for the speaker. The middle stanza opens, “Salt breezes! Bolsters from Istanbul!” and with its fractured rhythm and exclamations (the line break, the white space), it sounds as full of contempt as the “Barometers […] controlling moody isobars”. Even the “lemonades and matinees” are scorned alongside the “sumptuous tittle-tattle” of the summer crowd they feed. The sheer attitude of the poem makes me want to write, but it’s so strong, so ironically full of identity, I end up writing someone else’s voice: this is not my life …
The violence in the lines confronts the heteronomic forces being imposed on her. She can take it: “… I live on … powerful, disobedient”. I love her for this. But how can she be powerful, when she seemed so overwhelmed by her obsessions? This is the struggle I mean. Her power, I think, is in her disobedience and comes back to notions of dispossession, and being outside societal norms. We think we’re more in control, more separate, than we are. We’re moved by those around us. We want to belong, to be recognised, and this makes us vulnerable, so we toe the line. If you’re isolated, rejected, unseen, it becomes possible (necessary?) to reject, and perhaps there’s strength to be found in that – if you can’t relate to the haberdashers and their climate, screw them!
There’s such violence in the last line, too: “And I wolf, bolt, gulp it down …”, but here her anger seems directed inwards: this is what I do, and what I do is unforgivable. There’s much conflict in the poem: between the self and the other, yes – in one reading the other dominates. In another, the speaker is powerful, more autonomous (or disobedient) for her social death. She’s not merely consumed by the other. In the end, she actively consumes it. But the poem’s perspective is the speaker’s, and I think the real struggle is going on internally. Perhaps her strength is only an act. Or perhaps you have to act as though you’re strong, as though you’re enough, do some “attitude dancing”, before you can feel it, before you can retell the edges of yourself; is she consumed, consuming or rejecting? Is she giving the world the finger or looking for forgiveness? And if forgiveness, then from who? You? No … to hell with you …
Angelina Ayers’ sequence The Strait appears in the Longbarrow Press anthology The Footing. Ayers discusses Sylvia Plath’s ‘Morning Song’ in ’31 Songs’, Gerard Manley Hopkins’s ‘Pied Beauty’ here, and D.H. Lawrence’s ‘The Elephant is Slow to Mate’ in ‘Hotel California’ (three earlier posts in this series). Rosemary Tonks’s “Addiction to an Old Mattress” appears in Bedouin of the London Evening: Collected Poems (Bloodaxe Books, 2014). Click here to access Angelina Ayers’ website. Her debut collection will appear from Longbarrow Press in Spring 2016.
Philip Levine died on 14 February this year. Born in Detroit in 1928, the son of Russian-Jewish immigrants, he has been described by Neil Astley as ‘the authentic voice of America’s urban poor’[i]. He began writing poetry as a teenager before the end of the Second World War, and published his most recent collection in 2010 at the age of 82. He had lived through important chapters of American history, notably the Great Depression, the Vietnam War, the assassination of J.F. Kennedy, the Ronald Reagan administration and 9/11. One recurring theme in his work is the idea of knowledge, or the sense of truth. This is born out in poems with titles like: ‘What Work Is’, ‘Facts’, ‘The Simple Truth’ and ‘The Great Truth’[ii]. A resonant tension in his later poetry is that between experience and hope – if experience is often a synonym for disappointment, especially in the arena of politics. Levine was a master of showing us how much in life is political – from the hazardous world of factory work to the potatoes on his table.
One of my favourite Levine poems is ‘The Great Truth’ (2004), which seems to consolidate many of Levine’s themes and techniques. It inhabits past, present and future in ways that recall ‘The Escape’ – his personal myth of Midwestern love and suffering. Like ‘What Work Is’, it is preoccupied with masculinity and what a life of hard labour can do to a man. Like ‘The Mercy’, a poem about his mother’s arrival in America, it offers a journey from innocence to experience that builds towards revelation. Its title makes it an obvious partner to ‘The Simple Truth’, a poem that famously links the ordinary and the ineffable.
I’d like to focus on linked but contrasting moments in ‘The Great Truth’. They reveal the structural symmetry of the poem – moment 1 taking place at the end of stanza 1, and moment 2 at the close of the second and final stanza. In stanza 1 the 11-year-old Levine accompanies the household lodger on a walk in a public park. This man is ‘back from prison, penniless / and working murderous night job in the forge room / at Cadillac.’ At this age Levine believes there are ‘answers’: that one day this man will communicate to him something about manhood; that he (Levine) will experience a revelation that will raise and transform his understanding and experience of the world. We are to infer he was disappointed.
Stanza 2 shifts time. The adult Levine encounters this man in a bar ‘on Linwood / with a woman anxious to leave.’ The man is unable to recognise Levine, and after being prompted is only able to ‘put his head down on the bar, [close] his eyes, and [say], ‘oh my God, oh my God’, and nothing more.’ Ironically, this man’s failure to find language expresses more about life and time than words can easily convey.
Moment 2 shifts time again. Levine is revisiting the park. It is raining. He walks on alone and stands under some trees:
Up ahead what little I could see of sky
lightened as though urging me towards something
waiting for me more than half a century, some
great truth to live by now that it was too late
to live in the world other than I do.
The power of these lines depends on their relationship to the boy’s first inkling of revelation under the sky. What failed to materialise then, now threatens to materialise ‘too late’. The sense that there is a greater truth to live by remains, but whatever Levine has experienced in the half century between moments has created the man he must resign himself to be. This grounds revelation in a sobering relationship to the passage of time. Whilst we wait for our vision of truth, quotidian experience shapes us beyond our capacity to change.
This makes ‘The Great Truth’ something of an anti-revelation: an old man’s re-evaluation of romantic vision. Levine’s sense of history, of narrative, refuses to let him privilege the so-called timeless lyric moment. Could there be a political subtext here too? Lines 38-40 relate Levine’s old house sitting ‘waiting for JFK / to come back from Dallas and declare a new / New Frontier…’ Arguably, America has not recovered from the loss of innocence that was Kennedy’s assassination. ‘The Great Truth’ was published in 2004, in Breath; Levine’s first collection after 9/11, and 3 years into the Bush administration. Could Levine be implying that America, too, might have passed beyond the capacity for change, and into a destructive cycle of repetition? It leaves us haunted by the doubt that history and disappointment might teach us, whilst affirming our appetite and need for hope. Perhaps we are really always poised between the two.
‘The Great Truth’ is a visionary poem that scrutinises the epiphany and the visionary paradigm. Levine revealed himself to be one of America’s most retrospective poets: obsessively winding and unwinding the threads of time. He validates experience, transforms it, re-evaluates and interrogates it, and he reminds us how long it can take us to come to emotional terms with our own lives. As a poet reaching the height of his powers in later life, he showed us how, with age, we come to inhabit past, present and future differently – how the layering of years and memories create the ‘knowledge’ we live by. That is a vision I feel grateful for, and one I have tried to absorb into my own work. Philip Levine was a poet I navigated by.
[i] From In Person: 30 Poets, Bloodaxe Books, 2008
[ii] All the poems referred to here can be found in Stranger to Nothing: Selected Poems, Bloodaxe Books, 2006
This blog post reworks passages from an essay originally published on the Bank Street Poetry Café website. Matthew Clegg’s West North East is available now from Longbarrow Press: click here for more information about the book. His new collection The Navigators will appear from Longbarrow Press in late May 2015; further details will be posted on the Longbarrow Press website in the next few weeks.
The date and purpose of the construction and ramparts at Carl Wark is uncertain, it has been described as being “unlike any other [structure] found in Northern England.” It is widely postulated to be of Iron Age origin, perhaps dating from the 8th to the 5th centuries BC. There is no evidence of settlement within the enclosure so it is unlikely that the site was used for a continuously occupied fort; it may have been used as a place of refuge for a population living in the surrounding area or it may have had some ceremonial purpose. (from the Wikipedia entry on Carl Wark).
The need to signpost and signal our movement in landscape is a basic impulse. Brought on through the fear of being lost, we look for easily discernible features that we can turn to as touchstones or way markers. When reaching a cairn or trig point, it is generally accompanied with a sense of relief or excitement; others have been here before us and, in marking the way, have left us a refuge point (similar to booths and bothies). Along with this antecedent fear is the need to create marks or markers ourselves, either as a method of demarcation for our stake in naming a place or as a way to gesture a route for others who follow. Before going into detail about signal and sign in landscape, I want to recount my first journey to Carl Wark, as it bears relevance to further discussion.
Many before me have attempted to project a meaning onto Carl Wark, but with little or no supporting evidence any theories of its origins and purpose remain highly speculative and subjective. My purpose and approach here is somewhat different to that of the archaeologist or historian. I do not wish to speculate on the purpose and place of monuments as sites of interest in themselves, but rather on the events of objects through time and space. I had seen Carl Wark on an OS map before I visited it, but had not seen any photographs, and knew very little of its background. Its name conjured a great longing for ancestors and the desire to instinctually feel my way toward it felt more compelling than to saturate myself with any preconceptions and expectations. Trusting to the idea that I would know it when I saw it, I set out with no more than a vague sense of where it lay relationally to other features in the landscape. This first tryst failed as I couldn’t spot it amongst all the other ridges and peaks. What I didn’t know was that my approach had been all wrong; I was destined not to spent time that day on Carl Wark. I still had a few photographs from the journey so it wasn’t a disaster. However, as I returned home my obsession with Carl Wark deepened. As I traced where I had been on the OS map against where I should have gone, the need for marking space became apparent. Loaded with new knowledge, I set out again from a different angle and this time hit it plumb on, as I was able to visually retrace my previous attempt across the horizon line. I had learnt that the sense of difficulty with non-relational, random travelling is that it is impossible to feel yourself in a landscape in anything other than a purely physical way.
Carl Wark has some very unique features. From all but a few angles it is innocuous, invisible. It lies lower on the horizon line than any of the surrounding ridges and tors, so it hardly dominates nor imposes itself. If you are looking for the monumental drama of Stonehenge you will not find it here. Yet if approached from the almost flat moorland below it is possible to sense its qualities as a construct. If it was ever used as a fort in anything other than name then it is strategically very ill-placed. If it is a subsidiary, a garrison for its larger neighbour Higger Tor, then no evidence has ever been found to support this either. It is also difficult, unlike stone circles or barrows, for example, to work out which of its features are natural and which constructed. It seems as though a natural remainder from past tectonic traumas has been adorned, added to, one might even say aestheticised. This desire to shift debris into meaningful shapes can be still witnessed today in the ever-evolving art of cairn building.
Cairns are worldwide trans-historic phenomena. Along with cuts and daubs in stone, cairns are part of the most ancient form of communication. In a sense, they sociologically pre-date the more organised, static ceremonial aspects of the henge or barrow. They are continually being added to or reduced, almost like the attempt through millennia to maintain an equilibrium between environment and usage. This can be seen today in both the peak and lake districts where rangers continually remove new-formed cairns as a way of landscape management. The cairn takes many shapes and forms and can be seen as an early type of land art. It is art that is anonymous, proletarian, shape-shifting, both practical and aesthetically timeless. Art as having a practical use, of being multi-functional, is something the gallery system has long since eradicated. Yet here functionality and sensibility are one and the same.
I would argue that it is possible to see Carl Wark in a similar way. I do not think that features in landscape necessarily serve a single function, but that they might change over time and from user to user. I realised this when discussing cairns with a fellow walker. He argued that they are an intrusion on the natural scene, whereas I suggested that I found them less intrusive than a modern day information point. Then we discussed at some length if we would add a stone to a cairn as reaffirmation or remove one as keepsake. We parted without agreement, happily sharing the difference. The balance is always a fine one, as can often be seen in cairns themselves where a huge stone sits on top of a much smaller one, or in a cairn that is so high and thin you wonder why the wind hasn’t simply pushed it over.
My feelings on Carl Wark are very similar to this. If it is possible to think of landscape as pertaining to civility (rather than to the more legislative ‘civic’) then the sense of belonging without evoking community or tribe becomes possible. This is not to suggest a desire to tame nor enclose wilderness but to navigate a relationship with it. To seek a wilderness and origin that is unimpeded by humankind is often a regressive and predominantly male pursuit. On Carl Wark it is possible to not yearn for some perceived loss of archaic communality but to place oneself directly in it, free both of denominational anxiety or the need for occupation. The simple pleasure of passing over important historical sites as part of a larger journey has become central to how I like to photograph an emotional response to landscape, rather than an objective one. When traversing one point to another each trajectory counts, each step is a fresh perspective and treating landscape simply as a series of stunning views or important archaeological sites seems to miss the point. Since failing to find Carl Wark that first time I have returned as often as possible to be with it, walk over it, around it. I have been on both its bright and shaded sides, sometimes I have admired it like a great sculpture, sometimes it seems as small and comforting as a terrace house. Yet still each time some new perspective emerges and its mystery again engulfs my meaning. It is this continual shifting that fuels my sense and desire to return over and again.
This is the second of three new essays on photography by Karl Hurst; the first essay (‘Reflections on Impracticality’) appears here. Karl Hurst’s Flickr photosets can be viewed here, including the series Booths from which all five 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).
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. Matthew Clegg and Ray Hearne will lead a walk along Mexborough Canal (reading and performing poems and songs) as part of the South Yorkshire Poetry Festival on Sunday 24 May; click here for more information (and to reserve places). 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).