The Lure | Chris Jones

Flying Fish, watercolour on paper, Paul Evans, from ‘The Spirit is a Bone’, 2013

One of the hardest things we ask creative writing students to do is comment on their own poetry or prose in a ‘critical’ reflective commentary. Students are asked to explain a work’s genesis by outlining the process of drafting, by showing how they have used various writing techniques, and by illuminating those literary (or wider) influences shaping the text. I liken this project to wrestling with an octopus because of the multiple strands that have to be negotiated and pinned down in order for the author to speak clearly about the process of composition.

One of the issues underlining such an action is that most writers, however accomplished they are as stylists, struggle to write about process in a clear, rigorous, example-specific way. You will find many books out there that give writers a platform to write about their own art, but they often do this in the most generalised, tentative, jokey or obscurantist fashion. Here are three quotations, picked at random from a collection of mini-essays grouped together as Don’t Ask me What I Mean: Poets in their own Words (edited by Clare Brown and Don Paterson):

When I look back on my earlier collections of poems, I can see now certain obsessions, preoccupations, experiments and styles. My poetry has changed, I think, but the change has been almost wholly unconscious (Elizabeth Jennings).

It’s embarrassing to discuss your own poems in print. You come across as either an awestruck fan of your own genius or a tedious explainer of jokes (Michael Donaghy).

The opening poem, entitled ‘The Shore’, describes an epiphanic experience of the ‘Void’, or Emptiness, which occurred to me while carrying out archaeological fieldwork one freezing day on the Humber foreshore (Peter Didsbury).

These kind of approaches are not at all uncommon: you read lots of (1) vague reflections on poetic development (Jennings, by the way, does not elaborate in any further detail on this statement regarding her growth as a writer. I know she talks about ‘unconscious’ processes, but surely we have some cognitive understanding of what we are doing as writers); (2) deliberate attempts not to discuss individual poems in a holistic or critical fashion; or (3) explanations of poems that rely on the most basic of glosses – interpretations that tell you what the poems are about (I can try to work that out for myself) rather than offering insights into the craft of writing itself. Admittedly, the poets are not being asked to be that clinical in regards to examining their own work: they have only 500-1000 words to discuss their prize-winning collections. The poets don’t have to provide an instruction manual on how their work was made, but at the same time you will discover very little about individual technique (‘how and why I write like this’) in the book. Indeed, one of the ironies of writers reflecting on their own practices is how limited the analysis of craft is, of finding words to externalise this inward-looking game. You may argue that this kind of ‘autopsy’ isn’t really the job of a writer, but significantly, from a viewpoint of reflecting on the skills of writing, there’s little relevant guidance for my students here.

‘The Spirit is a Bone’ (installation view with bureau), Derby Museum and Art Gallery, May 2013 (Paul Evans)

A few years ago I was invited by the artist Paul Evans to collaborate on a project for Derby Museum and Art Gallery. The project took the form of a ‘creative intervention’ in the 1001 Objects Gallery. Paul fashioned the paintings and drawings for a bespoke desk-bureau that reflected on some of the artefacts in the space. I wrote poems to accompany the pictures framed in the artist’s desk and also produced pieces that were stencilled on glass cases around the gallery.

Because there was so much visual data in the gallery, I decided to write concise, discrete works – the poems were small objects in themselves like many of the things on display. Also, I wanted the audience to puzzle over the connections between a poem and an object: the two weren’t always aligned in the gallery space. To help me think about the tone or voice of the work, I had in mind Anglo-Saxon riddle poems (particularly where an object speaks for itself) when devising a number of the pieces.

One of the items we decided to ‘narrate’ (paint/write about) was a large seashell lure used by Polynesian fisherman. The finished poem comprises this couplet:

A clam scooped out by morning sun:
a charm to draw a fish out of the ocean.

You can see from the early drafts I’m feeling toward a way of both representing and defamiliarising the shell:

A tine to snag a fish from out the sea
A tooth to snap a fish from out of ocean
A tooth to bite a fish out of the sea

Originally, this was to be the first line of the poem, but I soon realised I would have to create a more direct statement that named the shell in the first line followed by a more playful, teasing image in that concluding line. The reader needed a clearer pathway into the poem than a metaphor-embellished line could offer.

I then moved on to shaping the couplet. This was my first complete draft:

A clam that’s full of morning sun:
this charm to draw a fish out of the ocean.

You can see the problem with that first line is that the sun’s action on the clam is passive: it’s ‘full of morning sun’ like a glass or vessel filled with water. The final version adopts the more active verb: ‘scooped out’, which befits a workaday object being harnessed to catch fish. The second line is nearly there: I’ve introduced ‘charm’ here because it plays on the notion of something that lures, is charming, charms. Going back to those earliest drafts, I can see now that one of the reasons why ‘tine’ and ‘tooth’ had to be jettisoned if the poem was going to develop was that both words don’t offer any aural connections (in terms of vowels and consonants) with the word ‘clam’. The logical step for a clam that is a lure is for it to be associated with ‘charm’. I wrote a brief guide to each of the poems in a catalogue co-written with Paul that picked up on this idea:

I think in this poem [‘Lure’] I tried to present different ideas of symmetry and reflection. So firstly you have two lines ‘mirroring’ each other on the page. You also have echoes in ‘a clam’ and ‘a charm’, ‘scooped out’ and ‘fish out’, and in that final rhyme of ‘sun’ and ‘ocean’. The closeness of the two lines visually and aurally was important as it added to the ‘allure’ of the poem.

‘The Spirit is a Bone’ bureau (painting: P Evans; poem: C Jones), Derby Museum and Art Gallery, 2013 (Paul Evans)

I could have added that further near-rhyme of ‘morn[ing]’ and ‘draw’ to extend that notion of conjoined words over the two lines. When using potentially attention-seeking end-rhymes, I have this paradoxical urge to hide them or, perhaps more accurately, I try to make them seamless within the fabric of the poem. There’s nothing more off-putting than obtrusive end-rhymes (unless you are actively trying to achieve this effect); the reader is too busy listening out for those rhymes or trying to second-guess what they might be, rather than holding the whole of the poem, the full palette of its word-music, in their ear. One of the ways you can shoe-in end-rhymes is by banking up the near-rhymes and internal rhymes around them in the couplet. So ‘clam/charm’ and ‘morn/draw’ are introducing your ear to the possibilities of correspondence: ‘sun’ and ‘ocean’ heighten and extend this awareness in that final beat of each line. That the ‘sun’ is carried and echoed in ‘ocean’ is a bonus that you would take anytime that it comes up.

Listen to Paul Evans and Chris Jones discuss their collaboration on ‘The Spirit is a Bone’ at Derby Museum and Art Gallery, 25 May 2013: 

This is the second in a series of essays by Chris Jones reflecting on the craft of writing; click here to read the first in the series. Further essays will be posted on the Longbarrow Blog throughout 2017.

Artist Paul Evans has collaborated with a number of Longbarrow Press poets in recent years; click here to view the paintings, drawings and poems for the Seven Wonders project. His main website can be found here.

Chris Jones’s second full-length collection Skin is out now from Longbarrow Press. Visit the Skin microsite for more details about the book, or click on the relevant PayPal option below to order:

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10 Comments on “The Lure | Chris Jones”

  1. matt says:

    Chris, this is terrific, and I’ll certainly use it with my students. I also felt a little disappointed with the Don’t Ask Me What I Mean book, and your summary of the sidestepping approaches encountered there resonates with me. For years, I’ve been trying to find a succinct example of a writer reflecting on their process that might hold to a candle to Thom Gunn’s honest and exploitative piece ‘Writing a Poem’, which I first discovered in the Strong Words book, edited by Herbert & Hollis.

  2. Matthew Clegg says:

    For exploitative read exploratory. What a strange typo!

    • Chris Jones says:

      Thanks for this, Matt. I appreciate it. In the next piece I’ve written (for this sequence) I mention a very good work of reflective writing by Vicki Feaver – which is very honest about her own vulnerabilities, insecurities as a poet. This makes it work all the better, an ‘exemplary’ text – for students, for any writer really. At some point I want to write about poems that have ‘failed’ or not functioned as I would have wished – a bit like Gunn at the beginning of his ‘Writing a Poem’ essay. I’ve always felt it’s important to talk about process because it involves our emotional relationship with the pieces we write – the invested energy in making the words work or in making them surprise us, make us re-think the experience we are writing about. Happy to publish and share/read my work but in the end it’s the process of crafting the words that sustains me as a writer.

  3. Hi Chris, thanks for the post, lots to ponder.

    You write, “I know she talks about ‘unconscious’ processes, but surely we have some cognitive understanding of what we are doing as writers)” For me the most interesting word in this sentence is “some”. How much? Most? A tiny part? Something in between? And how reliable is that cognitive understanding? As someone with no experience of teaching CW, I would be interested to know if there is some kind of evidence, even if only anecdotal or subjective, that written reflection on ones own writing process improves it in all cases – that may seem like a fundamental critique of the whole shebang but it’s meant as a genuine question.

    There are poets I know and admire who’ve reflected in writing on their own process. There are also poets I know and admire who don’t do this. So as a minimum I guess you can say (and this is hardly earth-shattering) that some poets may benefit from written reflection on their own writing, others not. Or else that reflection – and calling into question your own process – may take various forms – I know I learnt a great deal when I had a fairly intensive period of reviewing (other people’s work) a few years back. I was looking through some old pamphlets of mine t’ other day and thinking blimey that’s a bit shit. Perhaps I should hone that in writing. But perhaps the realization was indicative of reflection – and one would hope improvement in poetry skills – that had taken place non-verbally or at least not in writing.

    Reflectively, aL

    • Chris Jones says:

      You and Seamus Heaney perhaps, Alistair. He wrote: ‘it is dangerous for a writer to become too self-conscious about his own processes: to name them too definitely may have the effect of confining them to what is named. A poem always has elements of accident about it…’ actually I’ll leave it there as I want to write about this in detail in a future commentary. I’m still trying to formulate my response to Heaney’s subconscious/accidental processes. Your thoughts are pertinent since in the next piece I’m going to look at these thoughts on reflective practice from another perspective – through the prism of the metaphor that what writers are doing is performing ‘magic’. I come down on the side of trying to explain the ‘trick’ as much as possible – because if we can explain the trick the next time we come to do it we’ll be able to do it with more self-knowledge. You’re right to highlight the different ways reflection can occur here – and I’ll bear this in mind when I write through into the final pieces that I’m contemplating at the moment.

  4. Matthew Clegg says:

    I strikes me that we all have a lot to gain from reading artists reflect honestly & rigorously about their experience, and when Heaney says it is dangerous to become too self-conscious I’m grateful that he’s shared that thought. I feel sympathetic, too, with Gunn’s notion that there is a kind of magic about creative discovery, a going into the unknown and bringing something back. Absorbing that idea from Gunn has enriched my view. It strikes me that one of the problems here is the challenge of finding an apposite vocabulary and philosophical framework. The conventional academic vocab & framework feels constricting & inhibiting to me. I expect many of my students wrestle with this too, and often without knowing it. Hughes’ dream of the burnt fox springs to mind; the message from his unconscious saying, ‘stop this!’. Gunn is exemplary is his ability to adopt a flexible framework – something that allows for knowing and unknowing, conscious and unconscious process, creative and critical thought, subjective and objective perspective – even the necessary humour that dissolves the brittle ego.

    • For the purposes of analysis I think the term “unconscious” will get us farther than “magic” because if I get Chris’s intention right here he’s out to demystify what can be demystified. I guess the unconscious now has a bit of history of mystification too, but it’s less than the baggage that “magic” has. There’s a difference between difficult to know and absolutely knowable. Pedantic of Berlin.

      • Matthew Clegg says:

        By ‘us’ do you mean ‘you’? Where is ‘here’? Here’s Gunn: ‘It is a reaching out into the unexplained areas of the mind, in which the air is too thickly primitive or too fine for us to live continually. From that reaching I bring back loot, and I don’t always know at first what that loot is, except that I hope that it is of value as an understanding or as a talisman, or more likely as a combination of the two, or both rational power, and irrational…’ Unexplained… thickly primitive… talisman… Irrational… I think I see where he’s coming from with ‘magic’, and I admire his guts in choosing the word. I admit, I’d expect it more from Hughes than Gunn, but surely a writer as scrupulous as Gunn wouldn’t choose that word without a good reason, and, oddly, it doesn’t feel exactly like mystification to me, or not JUST mystification, because maybe Gunn is admitting that he IS partly mystified, even as he’s thinking analytically about idea and induction! So he’s choosing his own vocabulary, employing words from different frameworks, hinting at something more comprehensive. He’s a creative writer and he’s speaking for himself, so he’s free to choose his baggage, I suppose.

  5. I mean “unknowable” of course.

  6. Chris Jones says:

    Enjoyed reading this conversation. The main argument I have with writers is that they don’t talk enough about technique – something that is very knowable and explainable if the poet/novelist sat down and thought about it. I actually think writers like to promote the notion of magic, dream-worlds, the unconscious etc. for a variety of reasons – one reason being (and certainly not the only one) that it removes the discourse from a rational plane of understanding process. Coleridge is inspired by the dream of Kubla Khan but is stymied by the man from Porlock. But the man from Porlock, I would argue, could serve a useful function if Coleridge thought more reflectively about this interruption. I write at night mostly because my mind is more unhinged from the rational, work-impinging day world and the sponge of my head begins to leak out all that it has absorbed in daylight, and I’m more likely to make ‘mistakes’ in my thinking (I’m thinking less in terms of straight lines at night) but even with all this contingency I can still explain what I’m doing from line to line, stanza to stanza. Where some words, phrases, ideas come from are perhaps ‘unknowable’ but a lot of what I do is analysable from the point of view of what I am doing with the language.

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