The Trick | Chris Jones

Unused still from Lectolalia (2015), Emma Bolland

One of the most common metaphors poets and novelists use to describe their own art draws on the idea of performing magic: writers are magicians, they weave spells (see Margaret Atwood’s poem ‘Spelling’), they have extrasensory powers: Stephen King, for example, tells us that writing is ‘telepathy’. It’s not an altogether original idea they are espousing: Shakespeare was making this connection between books and sorcery in The Tempest, after all. But if we are looking for a dominant narrative in contemporary poetics that looks to explain the process of writing, of mesmerising the reader, we should look no further than this parallel that authors like to draw between themselves and illusionists. Here’s an extract from a recent article by the novelist Toby Litt that typifies what I’m talking about:

At worst, on a creative writing course, the tutor will be able to show you how to do some magic tricks; at best, they will teach you how to be a good magician; beyond that, though, is doing magic – and that you will have to learn for yourself. For what a tutor can’t show you is how to do things you shouldn’t be able to do.

‘What Makes Bad Writing Bad?’  The Guardian, 20 May 2016

Let’s start again from the top. Writers compare themselves to magicians. Magicians are tricksters, manipulators, deceivers, con artists. They are sworn to secrecy when it comes to the possibility of illuminating their craft: a mentalist who divulges his or her own strategies won’t last long as a member of the Magic Circle. A performer might argue that showing how the trick is executed ruins the spectacle inherent in such a performance: conjurers rely on the fact we, the audience, want to be left wondering. We actively choose to suspend our disbelief.

One writer who played up to this allure of secrecy was the poet Michael Donaghy. I used a quotation of his in a previous blog piece (‘The Lure’) where he offhandedly remarks that there’s no gain in explaining your own work: ‘You come across as either an awestruck fan of your own genius or a tedious explainer of jokes.’ Donaghy was being asked to write an introduction to his collection Conjure for the Poetry Book Society which – not to labour the title of the collection – flags up his own fascination with the craft and magic of materialising poems from thin air. ‘The poetry readings I attend are sometimes like in-house performances at the Magic Circle,’ he writes: ‘An audience of fellow professionals sits back taking notes or wondering where the performer bought his rabbit.’ Rather than ‘explain’ his poetry, what Donaghy does in the few words given to him is to unpack all the etymologies of the word ‘conjure’. ‘Conjuring’ is incantation – reading/writing poems for an attentive audience; ‘conjure derives from the Latin conjurare, to swear together’; it also means to ‘raise a spirit’; and finally he reflects on the ‘master conjurer’, his four year old son. It is a rather brilliant rhetorical trick in itself, distracting the reader’s focus away from the fact he doesn’t want to reveal any of his hard-won secrets, doesn’t really want to discuss his poems in print.

Unused still from Lectolalia (2015), Emma Bolland

I don’t know whether Donaghy ever read Vicki Feaver’s attempts to speak to the abiding spirits that inhabit her own poetry in her reflective commentary ‘The Handless Maiden’. Where Donaghy is all sleight-of-hand, Feaver shows us something of the bare anatomy of her technique. Feaver published the piece in How Poets Work, a now out-of-print Seren compendium of essays. An abridged version of the work was reprinted in Creative Writing: A Workbook with Readings (ed. Linda Anderson) so it’s still available to a wide audience. Feaver’s is one of the most illuminating, in-depth commentaries exploring the process of making poems I have read. Her approach is open, scrupulous, sincere. She writes of the pressures on women to conform to certain societal models of behaviour and, by extension, how it affects poets who want to write directly of their own experience. ‘I was also worried about the idea that art should come easily,’ she writes. ‘Keats said it, too, even more categorically: “If poetry comes not as naturally as leaves to a tree it had better not come at all.” Because I’ve always had such a battle with poems, his words have struck in my mind, internalised as a rebuke that on the one hand makes me want to give up writing, and on the other to rage against them. After all, giving birth is natural – and how many babies are born easily?’ In one section of the essay, Feaver prints the initial rough jottings/list from her notebook for the poem ‘Ironing’ and explains, line by line, why the phrases (and their sentiments) aren’t the right ‘fit’ for the piece, falling by the wayside in subsequent drafts. Feaver reveals how her stagecraft is created through this focus on stripping away unnecessary or ill-defined details.

As much as I admire Donaghy’s schtick of smoke and mirrors, it’s Feaver’s example of explaining how she does the trick that I value more. This is partly due to her reflections on the difficulty, the ‘struggle’ of writing well, something I am all too aware of. In that strange, deja vu moment of reviewing old drafts (usually collated in an individual document for each poem), I’m still gently surprised by the variations, the re-writes I’ve gone through to nail down a line, a stanza, an entire piece of work. Perhaps I shouldn’t find this such an eye-opener: retrospection allows for the most far-seeing views of the landscapes we traverse, populate. In the most quotidian, un-magical terms I can think of, what usually ends up on display in the final draft of a poem is about 5% of the words I’ve sifted through during the process of composition. So on average a 200 word poem, the best room of the house, will abut a grand (but slightly derelict) pile of about 4000 more. Sure, there’s an element of repetition, of reiteration, that bumps the number count up, but this blueprint seems to hold true for me: 10000 words in = 500 words out.

Unused still from Lectolalia (2015), Emma Bolland

I think one of the ways I’ve come to terms with these slow deliberations is not so much to see the process as a struggle but actually consider it as the fundamental action of being a writer. Put it one way: writing involves necessary failure. Put it another: writing involves experimentation – that propensity to play, have fun. I’ve also learnt to be more patient as I’ve gotten older: I know I draft more now than I did twenty years ago. It’s not a sign of increasing cack-handedness on my part but reveals, I think, an opposite bent: I take the trick apart, studying its mechanisms, its weight and shine, from multiple angles, learning fifteen variant ways of doing the puzzle as opposed to two or three.

If anyone is interested in writing about the act of writing I would direct them toward Feaver’s Ars Poetica. Apart from it being necessary reading for anyone interested in poetics, if we believe in taking the job of reflection seriously, her self-critique flags up a clear-headed approach we can utilise as writers. Indeed, it is my contention that this ability to self-analyse, to be able to ‘unpack’ the trick, to show ourselves as much as the audience how the pieces fit together, means that the next trick we attempt will be more negotiable, adaptable, comprehended. If we eliminate some of the enigmas surrounding composition (even to ourselves), we can learn the complexities of the performance and attempt to improve on it the next time around. If that makes the role of the writer sound a bit like the work of a mechanic dismantling and reassembling a car engine, I’m okay with that, up to a point. Better this than believing in the notion of the sorcerer poets who attach to their practice all manner of bullshit mysteries. That is just an act, after all.

This is the third 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.

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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4 Comments on “The Trick | Chris Jones”

  1. Matt says:

    Chris, do you think Thom Gunn’s use of ‘magic’ as an analogy for a certain aspect of poetic discovery is just ‘bullshit mystery’? Do you think any two creative actions can be the same – and hence mechanically reproducible? Can all process be translated into explicable knowledge? I take your point that writers have lots to gain from examining & appraising their process, but surely there is a threshold where the ‘enigmas’ just don’t yield wholly to analysis – where very different resources are kicking in – where ‘negative capability’ becomes desirable, or even necessary. It seems to me that Gunn and Donaghy have next to nothing in common when they draw on ‘magic’ as metaphor, as one seems to be using it as a way of talking about unconscious processes, and the other as a way of approaching artful slight of hand.

    • I remember seeing The Bullshit Mysteries support Psychic TV circa 1985. Happy days.

    • says:

      I take your point, Matt. You’re right to highlight the different weight Gunn ascribes to magic and Donaghy. I agree that all process can’t be translated into explicable knowledge – and I’m happy with that (even if we start looking at psychology and neuroscience). I think I’m going to write about this distinction in a future posting (between what we know and what we don’t know about process). Once the writing is on the page I can talk quite freely about the process – the design of the poem, the decisions I’ve made around editing the piece, the technique of writing: I think that’s my point. I don’t understand why writers can’t do this more clearly and in more depth. But I can also see why writers are interested in the magic of process in the same way our dreams preoccupy us. What you’ve highlighted is really useful to me in terms of thinking ahead – and I’ll try to address these comments (and some of Alistair’s too) in a future piece.

  2. mark goodwin . gone ground says:

    ‘if poeTRY comes

    not as

    naturally as leaves to a
    tree it had better

    not come at all’

    are not

    born easily

    even though trees

    bear leaves

    for the bud-push is
    always harsh

    April hurts

    even poems that

    strong & fast have

    ancient roots

    in struggle
    and struggle


    natural as
    poetry & leaves

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