Back in the early 2000s I was commissioned to write a performance piece for Signposts, Sheffield’s one-time Literature Development Agency. I created a sequence of poems for two voices entitled ‘Beyond the City’. One character is a widower who is marking the anniversary of the death of his wife by returning to favoured Peak District haunts; the other speaker is a young woman (Jenny) who, after coming to terms with a failed relationship, is about to leave Sheffield to teach English abroad. The parallel narratives take place over a twenty-four hour period: we follow the two individuals as they negotiate the city and its outer edges on foot, by car, bus and aeroplane. The poem ends with Jenny peering out of an aircraft’s window as the city disappears from view.
On reflection, I can see that my current project, Little Piece of Harm, draws on a number of tropes from ‘Beyond the City’, giving the current project impetus, structure and focus. How far I repeat myself as a writer is something that preoccupies me, not wanting to live in a creative cul-de-sac – but I understand I have a ‘trove’ of themes that I knowingly keep dipping into. In the short term, this clustering of motifs acts as a positive organising principle: after all, poetry books hang together better if they are threaded through with recurring or overlapping ideas and images. The worry for any poet is if you keep writing the same kind of poem, or repeat the same mannerisms and verbal tics in work over and over again.
Little Piece of Harm takes place over the course of an afternoon, evening and into the morning of the next day. In the first half of the sequence, Pete, the narrator, traipses along roads and over fields partly in reaction to the town centre being in lockdown. He then gets a taxi back toward the industrial, eastern quarter of Sheffield. Consequently, Pete walks back into the city centre and catches a bus home just after dawn. All along, our narrator meets people who have things to say about the pivotal event of the day: the shooting of a policeman. In between talking to these citizens, he has time to reflect on the fact his wife has moved back home to Toronto taking Finn, their son, with her.
I have often written about men who are troubled by their circumstances, usually because they have lost or forfeited loving relationships. In ‘Beyond the City’ Joseph is mourning the loss of his wife. In the prison poems I wrote after spending a year as a writer-in-residence at HMP Nottingham, men often reflect on the absence of women or consider ways they can connect with partners who are ‘over the wall’. In another narrative-driven poem, ‘Every Time We Met’, the main character, Ed, reestablishes contact with Greg, an old associate, so he can see Leigh again (Greg’s wife) who he had a longstanding affair with. This lack of companionship is a theme that undeniably percolates through my work. I attribute this focus to putting different kinds of masculinity under pressure, exploring its vulnerabilities, and I think I use the absence of a partner as a wider interrogation of the idea of ‘home’ too. I’ve focused for many years on notions of what constitutes the idea of home for a wide range of people. In Little Piece of Harm this equation is further complicated by the fact that Pete is missing his wife and son. One of the things I ask myself in this sequence, which I haven’t done before at length in a fictional form, is what it means to be a parent, or perhaps more fundamentally, what it means to be a good parent and citizen.
Sheffield is a central character in both ‘Beyond the City’ and Little Piece of Harm. I know this is something I keep returning to, the city’s environs. It is a creative itch that I’ve been scratching for over twenty years now. I was asked recently about Little Piece of Harm leaning on particular Sheffield references (place names in particular) and the role of the local/parochial in poetry. Part of my reply focused on the concept of believability and that I needed some level of specificity to help me conjure the world I was writing about. I also said how much I admired the work of the Yorkshire poet Stanley Cook, who explored less fashionable areas of Sheffield (and South Yorkshire) in a range of his poems from the second half of the twentieth century.
I was particularly pleased that, although they are not mentioned by name, I stitch two rivers into the fabric of this new sequence: the Rivelin, and the Don. The Rivelin rolls into Sheffield from the west of the city; the Don flows southwards toward the centre of town, then bends eastwards toward the flatlands of East Yorkshire. Pete and Niamh cross the Rivelin when they pass over ‘Hollins Bridge’ in the poem ‘Someone Else’s Child’. Pete follows the Don (via the Five Weirs Walk) back into the city when he gets dropped off by the taxi driver near Meadowhall shopping centre later on in the work. For what it’s worth, I could trace Pete’s entire journey over the afternoon and evening of the narrative if you gave me an OS map of the city. That kind of specificity helped me write the pieces. More importantly, one of the reasons why I return to and focus on particular locales in Sheffield is that the majority of the characters are tied or bound to the city by deeply ingrained memories. The sequence oscillates between the here and now (about eighteen hours of time in present tense) and memories that tail back years. The city is a palimpsest that provides texture and depth to individuals’ comprehension of place, and to the overall narrative of their lives. My characters’ ‘views’ are configured, metaphorically speaking, by the patterns of house lights across the hillside, and the street lamps that thread the midnight plain.
I’ve written extensively about the Don before in the sequence ‘At the End of the Road, a River’ (2005). I said I would never write about prison again after writing a long poem called ‘Sentences’ about a poet and his relationship with a drug dealer on remand, but in ‘The Window’s Dam’ George talks about his experiences of teaching a particularly infamous con painting when he was just out of college. I think, in practical terms, I drew on whatever I could to write this extended sequence – narratives I had considered before in other contexts and settings, and new material, new preoccupations. If I was to trawl the deep waters of influence, thinking about what shaped my choices and designs here, I would have to say that the image of the lone figure criss-crossing the city must derive, in part, from a very old fixation on Philip Marlowe, Raymond Chandler’s perpetual motion machine. Mixed in with this must be the impact that Paul Muldoon’s poem ‘Immram’ had on me when I first read it as a teenage boy: his piece employs the vocabulary and motifs of hard-boiled detective fiction to depict a quest narrative. This was one of the first poems I read that made me consider how contemporary poetry could be playful with form, diction and narrative.
As much as I would like to show you my clean ‘workings out’, the various answers to questions about influence and causation are scrunched up on my desk or crumpled in the waste-paper basket. I suppose what I hope for is that in revisiting themes and ideas I can tap into creative variations rather than circle toward blunt repetition. ‘Beyond the City’ is in so many ways a different creature from Little Piece of Harm, but it is also a trial run for my latest sequence of poems, with just a seventeen-year gap in between. Now that this project has been put to bed, I’m going to move on and write something completely fresh, contrasting, brand new – or, perhaps more realistically, something new and familiar to me at the same time.
Images by Emma Bolland.
When I settled on the opening line of ‘Blue Abandoned Van’, the piece that kicks off Little Piece of Harm (‘Rhyme all the ways a city battens down…’), I already had an inkling that I wanted to write a sequence that incorporated a range of poetic forms. As part of my preparations for the project, I decided that each piece would be written around the ‘scaffolding’ of rhyming structures. I have always been taken by rhyme and form: my earliest ‘proper’ poem was a sonnet; my first published poems (when I was a teenager) were rhyming quatrains. It’s something I’ve been doing for over thirty years, though it’s worth reflecting why I decided to adopt different stanzaic forms as a way of conveying the stories in this narrative.
In general terms, I do think that the properties of rhyme help drive along the story I want to tell. The third poem in my sequence, ‘Someone Else’s Child’, is written in terza rima, triplets of rhymes that figuratively hold hands from stanza to stanza. One of the reasons I chose to adopt this design for this particular story is because I was influenced by a Seamus Heaney poem (‘I had come to the edge of the water’) from his sequence ‘Station Island’. His piece recounts the death of a friend who was gunned down by terrorists after opening up his chemist shop in the middle of the night. Heaney’s (longish) poem zips by in the telling: partly because the rhymes cascade from one stanza to the next, those end words acting as a puttering motor that power the narrative along. The rhymes also have an element of finality about them or closure, pushing the work toward its inescapable climax. I wanted to replicate that sense of edginess and agency in my poem where a woman needs to go into school to confront her son about his potentially dangerous actions. I think the formal design of terza rima, how it makes you run on the lines and in doing so harness a persistent iambic beat, also enacts the rhythm of walking too. The two characters in the piece, Pete and Niamh, are walking down into the valley then uphill again as they converse: the formal pattern of the verse captures this embodiment of movement.
I also wanted to employ different formal structures because I hoped it would widen the tonal range of the sequence, make me explore the nuances of characters’ idiolects from poem to poem. I thought a distinctive patterned approach for each piece would mean that I would have to find new voices, new ways of articulating these significant happenings: most of the poems involve Pete, the narrator, meeting someone new on his journey around Sheffield and engaging with this bystander, this witness. For what it’s worth, pragmatically, I drew up a list of forms that I could employ – rhyming couplets, sonnet, ottava rima, rhyme royal, the Spenserian stanza, triplets and so on. When I came to begin a poem I rummaged through the forms I hadn’t used already and also reflected: how will this poem sound if I use this rhyming pattern, that prosodic template?
Without wanting to turn this into a trainspotter’s guide to English Literary Forms, the process of using these designs did make me think about antecedents I could draw on for help (or just for sustenance) as I was writing my poems. It was interesting that I kept returning to Romantic models of versifying as I went along: so, for instance, when I came to rhyme royal (stanza structure: pentameters adopting ABABBCC rhymes) I looked at Wordsworth’s peripatetic poem ‘Resolution and Independence’ for guidance. It’s also no coincidence (in terms of the thematic focus of the poem) that Pete comes upon an outlier, a woman who has turned her back on the city, in much the same way as Wordsworth’s narrator comes upon a leech gatherer out on the moors in his own heuristic encounter. When I was wrestling with the Spenserian stanza (stanza structure: pentameters adopting ABABBCBCC rhymes) I stood admiringly in the foothills of John Keats’s ‘The Eve of Saint Agnes’ – gazing up at its lofty heights. Though it’s not a lover who appears from out of the night when I riff on Keats’s cinematic poem, but a tetchy, exhausted policewoman. By the by, I thought it would be fitting for my narrator in the poem ‘A Wintering Bird’ to come on – by surprise – a taxi in the middle of the night (in the middle of nowhere) using the blueprint of Keats’s ode (stanza structure: pentameters adopting ABABCDECDE rhymes) to steer me through this chance meeting.
How successful I was in terms of modulating the tonal range of these dialogues I’ll leave up to my readership. On a compositional level, attempting all these different forms did help me persevere and work through the task at hand. At its most extreme, writing in a range of forms did actually change the way I drafted my work. The Spenserian stanza was certainly the hardest rhyme form I took on – just in terms of the abundance of rhymes I had to find from verse to verse. Usually, I pick out my rhymes as I go along – I look no more than two or three lines in front of where I am ‘standing’, to negotiate what I am going to write next (a torch-beam approach to advancement) – but with the Spenserian stanza I worked out all the end rhymes for each nine-line stanza first (on the right hand side of the page) and then in-filled the lines with ‘interstitial’ detail. Basically, you have to map out what you are going to say in each stanza before you begin the journey – it’s a ‘belt and braces’ approach I may well attempt again in the future.
On reflection, another reason why I formulated this catholic approach to design is because I enjoyed testing myself within these formal structures: the writing process was engaging, perhaps you could even say fun. I may be looking back now more dewy-eyed than the reality of it all, but I can say, hand on heart, that having this variety of forms did help me build an extended, multi-vocal narrative. The process took more years than I would care to mention – partly due to not having a clear idea what I was writing about at the beginning of the project. But one of the key things that helped me through this endeavour was enjoying the drafting process; perversely, the more difficult it got to create sense and structure, the more pleasure I had in finding new lines of progression. You have to extract gratification from the process of composition, however stuck the needle, or else there is no point in doing the writing.
I should also highlight here that not all of the poems in the sequence rhyme. One of the most pleasing aspects of developing Little Piece of Harm was finding a ‘compartmentalised’ but flexible way in which Pete could correspond with his estranged wife on the other side of the planet. I ended up devising these ‘renga’ texting pieces (after the classical Japanese form) where Pete and Kate make contact intermittently with each other via their cell-phones. I’ve also included a prose poem, and the final extended piece in the sequence is a ‘blank verse’ letter written by Pete to his son, Finn. I suppose the notion of the letter (or email) highlights how we all use forms/formats to frame those tangled, complex communications we impart to each other. Paradoxically, the formal structures I have employed here provide an open space for the utterances, speeches, conversations that spill out of the sequence, and allow for distinctive, individual voices to emerge as Pete circumnavigates this part-silenced, part-voluble city.
This is the second in a series of three blog posts reflecting on the development of Little Piece of Harm. You can read the first post here. The third post will appear on this site in the coming weeks.
Images by Emma Bolland.
Usually I come to longer poems with a good idea of where I am heading in terms of the overall design of the project. I don’t go so far as to have post-it notes pinned to the wall detailing actions scene by scene, or graphs that outline the trajectory of a character’s situation, her mood and feelings. Because these longer pieces have been discrete or manageable enough to carry around in my head, I have always worked toward designated points in each sequence where key incidents occur. These markers act as narrative hinges on which I hang the rest of the story. For most of my projects, when I begin shaping the poems into some sort of order, I do have an end point, a definitive climax in mind.
With Little Piece of Harm I didn’t have this ‘safety net’ nailed in place. There were themes or ideas that I knew I wanted to incorporate in a longer sequence of poems. I did carry around this notion I wanted to write a ‘novel’ in verse. I have a lot of admiration for Vikram Seth’s The Golden Gate – a scrupulously plotted, engaging narrative written in ‘Pushkin’ style sonnets. A couple of years ago I read Ben Borak’s verse-novel Donjong Heights and was impressed by its coupling of bespoke rhyming and narrative drive over the course of one hundred and fifty pages. I knew from early on in the planning of my project I wanted my story to take place over a continuous twenty-four-hour period of time. In terms of setting, I planned to write a sequence that explored the geographical reach of Sheffield, how its urban settings (main artery roads, shops, factories) rub up against what you might describe as rural landmarks (rivers, woods, fields) and vice versa. I have considered this kind of cross-pollination before in my sequence ‘At the End of the Road, a River’ where I tracked the route of the River Don as it flows through various terrains, though predominantly along the streets and factories of northern and eastern Sheffield. In this new work, I wanted to explore the city’s western outlook of hillsides, woods, ridges and reservoirs.
The plotting of Little Piece of Harm is a much more haphazard or partial blueprint to reconstruct. Early on, I established that I wanted to kick-start the storytelling by focusing on an event that would literally stop a city: after some deliberation, I decided on the shooting of a policeman as the ‘inciting incident’ for the sequence. How much this was going to be a central concern I didn’t know. Was this a terrorist incident? How much of the aftermath of the killing, the police search, the movements of the gunman, was I going to elaborate on? Essentially, I knew I wanted this act of violence to be a catalyst where the characters we meet in the story reflect on moments of crisis, departure or resolution in their own lives. Most of us come upon episodes of violence, premeditated or not, through the medium of social media or via our television screens. When I am confronted with these extraordinary situations, wherever they happen in the world (but particularly – perhaps more myopically – in Britain), I often think about how I would react if placed in the vicinity of an attack. At the same time, I reflect on what is important to me – my family, the relationships I have with a wider community of friends – as a way of coming to terms in my own mind with such terrible, life-changing acts.
Running parallel with this ‘major’ news story in the poem, I wanted to conjure up this narrator who is looking outward at what is happening to his city but is also preoccupied with personal issues of his own making. We see Pete – who acts as the chronicler for the majority of the sequence – walking out from familiar suburban streets into countryside, meeting people along the way, and talking to them, unbidden or not, about pivotal moments in their lives. Pete’s own story is addressed obliquely to begin with. I must admit I was working through the details of his own backstory as I was developing the sequence: it took me a number of years before the full nature of his own failings and disappointments came into focus. The structural issues that I had to keep returning to though were tying together the two dominant narrative designs: the shooting of the policeman (and how people reacted to this brutality), and Pete coming to terms with the fact that his wife and young son have left him to return to Canada.
How I came to some understanding whereby I found a way of tying together the ‘macro’ events with Pete’s own personal discomfort is perhaps best relayed through the original ideas I had for poems at the start of the project. The first two poems I had a tangible grasp of – that I knew I wanted to include in the sequence – involve a woman who attempts to intervene when she realises her son has taken a knife into school, and in the other piece, a man who talks about the labours and sacrifices of supporting a son as he grows up and finds his own way in the world. Looking back now I can see that both ‘Someone Else’s Child’ and ‘The Speed of Light’ are united by underlying themes that play out through the rest of the sequence. Both characters talk to Pete about what it means to be a parent – what they have invested in their children and how their lives have been shaped by these familial responsibilities. Not every poem repeats this same pattern (‘A Wintering Bird’ for instance looks at the relationship from the child’s point of view, thinking about a parent’s alienation) but the care and time and patience of looking after another individual is a significant thread that holds Little Piece of Harm together. I have to say this realisation didn’t come to me straightaway – that what I was writing about, really writing about, was not so much the big concerns of potential terrorist incidents and public trauma, but more private considerations associated with home life and family histories. When I came to understand this was the fundamental principle that governed the design of the story, it meant I could address all aspects of the sequence with more certainty, imagination and clarity.
When I look back at my original plans for the poem, I feel that one or two of those initial aims – like writing a novel in verse – haven’t been met (it’s a novella at best). But that doesn’t really matter. Some of the issues I considered substantial at the beginning of the project are not as important to me now: I have become increasingly circumspect about the shooting being defined as a terrorist incident, for example. All of the characters have their own opinions about the shooting and its aftermath, and this is the message I have carried with me through the writing process: we all create our own interpretations of events as a means of supporting core narratives that underpin and illuminate our own lives. When I came to terms with – and understood – the key themes that I was addressing, Pete’s predicament and journey made much more sense to me: I could find a way of ‘filling in the gaps’ in his story, writing those final poems that brought the public news of a killing with his own private shame together.
This is the first in a series of three blog posts reflecting on the development of Little Piece of Harm. The second and third posts will appear on this site in the coming weeks.
Images by Emma Bolland.
One of the things that I came to appreciate as I started to read poetry in my early teens was how much poems were in conversation with other poems, and as a kind of variation of this theme, it dawned on me that poets were going about their business by ‘talking’ to each other. Never mind that the poet being responded to had been dead for three years or three centuries: this reflection on and negotiation with previous practice – whether it be through assimilating long-established poetic forms (e.g. the sonnet) or mining a well-used trope through the echo of allusion, or perhaps even through adopting creative plagiarisms – this was all part of a grand tradition of writing. It’s one of the fundamental, underpinning (and unwritten) tenets of poetry that makes it so difficult for students and casual readers coming to the genre to make sense of the sometimes rarefied, often codified language placed in front of them. It’s still one of the main stumbling blocks that makes it difficult for me to read, absorb and unravel poems.
To show how this long-standing ‘dialogue’ develops and mutates over time, I’ll use my own poem ‘An Invitation’ as a starting point for discussion. The piece is a fictionalised response to a meeting I had with the poet Thom Gunn back in the mid-1990s in Haight-Ashbury, San Francisco. It was my rather clumsy attempt to interview a very fine and inspirational writer about his career (he was in his mid-60s at the time of my calling). I had just written a thesis on Gunn and wanted to put a full stop at the end of the project by meeting my subject, the great man, himself. I decided, eventually, to write the poem that reflected on our afternoon together (after a sixteen year gap or so) in iambic tetrameter rhyming couplets. One of the reasons why I wanted to write in rhyming couplets (which could be viewed as quite an anachronistic form of address) was that this poetic form gave a strong nod in the direction of one of Gunn’s own formally idiosyncratic pieces: ‘An Invitation: from San Francisco to my brother‘. Whereas I use the term ‘invitation’ in a more generalised sense of already being invited somewhere, turning up, and going away again, Gunn is channelling a more classical sense of the term and seeing his own poem as a kind of epistolary call to his brother halfway across the world: it’s proleptic in its concerns – brother, if you come to visit we can do this, and this, and this. Gunn’s own rhyming couplets (he mixes up pentameter and tetrameter lines throughout) are themselves floating on a pool of allusions: he has based the structure and tone of his work on Ben Jonson’s poem ‘Inviting a Friend to Supper’. Because Gunn was so widely read, a catholic consumer of poetry, he realised one ‘template’ he could use when writing his own piece of bidding was to imitate (this being a favourite theme of Gunn’s) and adapt a previous model fashioned by this Elizabethan/Jacobean poet. Jonson’s form de jour here is the heroic couplet (rhyming iambic pentameter lines): he is sending out a ‘formal’ invitation to his patron, William Herbert, the Earl of Pembroke, to come to a seemingly elaborate feast in the private space of the poet’s house.
We can go even further back than this. Jonson wrote ‘Inviting a Friend to Supper’ as part of a series of epigrams: concise, witty, often satirical pieces that commented on (and often mocked) social airs and conventions. Jonson was schooled in the languages of Latin and Greek. He would have written this piece knowing that a good number of his audience could pick up on the Classical antecedents that the work is drawing on. In particular, Jonson is echoing some of thematic strategies of the Roman poet Martial. See, for instance, Martial’s poem that begins: ‘You will dine nicely, Julius Cerialis, at my house’ (11.52) or poem 5.78: ‘If you are troubled by the prospect of a cheerless dinner at home, Toranius, you may fare modestly with me.’
We need not necessarily go this far back as time-travellers to trace a ‘family tree’ of models, connections, allusions. Indeed, we could put to one side this notion of poets responding to each other and adopt a much more standard (and prevalent) critical paradigm where a reader focuses on analysing how a poet’s own oeuvre develops from book to book, in essence testing how his or her work matures by charting the central arguments, tensions, debates that the poet has engaged in over the span of a career. This approach is particularly illuminating when we examine the interconnected schemata/motifs prevalent in the work of the Irish poet Michael Longley. His poems are so much in conversation with themselves that I regard these (often) short, discrete pieces like the fractals that contribute to a larger patterned picture, or like petals that make up a huge vibrant flowerhead. Something of this idea of movement/progression and recapitulation can be found in Longley’s own maxim: ‘If prose is a river, poetry is a fountain.’
I can show how this self-sustaining debate has evolved in Longley’s work by quoting from a recent poem, ‘Marigolds, 1960’, published in The Stairwell (2014). Here Longley is remembering one of his last meetings with his father. The poet is about to return to university in Dublin to continue his studies after the summer break. He has just had his first poem published which his father thinks is ‘[n]ot worth the paper it’s printed on.’ This rather pat critique is followed by a little contextualising statement and fragment of speech:
You are dying. ‘They’ve cut out my
Wheest – I have to sit down
To wheest – like a woman.’
Longtime readers of Longley’s work will know that his father reappears as a key witness of historical trauma, having fought in the First World War with the Ulster Division. The father is both a central character in Longley’s focus on autobiography, contingency and personal tragedy and also a kind of Everyman soldier, a put-upon Tommy who could equally be pictured outside the gates of Troy with Odysseus as he might be charging across the blasted fields of the Somme. The emasculating consequences of war that come to literal effect in ‘Marigolds, 1960’ have already been foregrounded in Longley’s earlier work. In a poem from Longley’s first collection (No Continuing City, 1969) we first learn of his father’s debilitating wounds:
Between the corpses and the soup canteens
You swooned away, watching your future spill.
But, as it was, your proper funeral urn
Had mercifully smashed into smithereens,
To shrapnel shards that sliced your testicle.
That instant, I your most unlikely son,
In No Man’s Land was surely left for dead,
Blotted out from your far horizon.
You can see that Longley is still working toward a mature voice here. He has a rather mannered way of phrasing his lines. ‘[Y]our proper funeral urn / Had mercifully smashed into smithereens’ seems to focus on rather ornate poeticisms for the fragments of the shell that went off in the vicinity of his father. He will go on to refine this balancing act so that his full-blown style is based on making poems out of rather poised and elegant long sentences. He jettisons the full end-rhymes we see here soon after publishing his first collection, cultivating a robust and supple free verse style. But it is this image of the shrapnel shards slicing the testicle, the enervation of the soldier’s strength from that palpable sense of castration, that he returns to in his poetry. Here’s a later poem, ‘The Choughs’, from the collection The Weather in Japan (2000) that shows how his stylistic approach has changed:
The choughs’ red claws recall my father
Telling me how the raw recruits would clutch
Their ‘courting tackle’ under heavy fire:
Choughs at play are the souls of young soldiers
Lifting their testicles into the sky.
Longley is making surreal connections between watching birds ‘rolling and soaring’ about the cliffs on the West Coast of Ireland and this mediated memory of his father’s that returns to focusing on the male sexual organs as a signifier of vulnerability and mortality. His father’s delicate euphemism (‘courting tackle’) seems at odds with the apparent violence of the situation he found himself in, but is in keeping with his own sense of decorum elsewhere (see his use of the word ‘wheest’ in ‘Marigolds, 1960’, for instance). Longley is almost trying to reclaim the shocking earthiness of his father’s plight by pushing this defamiliarising metaphor of the dead soldiers ‘lifting their testicles into the sky.’
It’s worth noting that in the poem ‘The Butchers’ (from Gorse Fires, 1991), one of Longley’s many translations of Homer that he uses as a way to reflect on contemporary violence (in this case sectarian killings), one of the acts that Odysseus perpetrates on his rival Melanthios’s ‘corpse’ is to ‘cut off his nose and ears and cock and balls.’
In ‘Marigolds, 1960’, Longley is coming full circle when he writes after his own father’s cock and balls. You feel that Longley is making that connection between potency and writing here. After all, the father is denied his penis just as the son begins to find success publishing his work. Perhaps more tellingly, Longley is offering us one way of reading this ongoing dialogue he has cultivated across his books with his dead father. Rather than dwelling on his father’s opprobrium (with poems that are ‘Not worth the paper [they are] printed on’), he writes, and continues to write because he wants his shade-of-a-father’s respect and understanding. Here’s another poem printed in The Weather in Japan:
12 January, 1996
He would have been a hundred today, my father,
So I write to him in the trenches and describe
How he lifts with tongs from the brazier an ember
And in its glow reads my words and sets them aside.
Sometimes, once in a while, I read a poem that makes me see another piece in a whole new light. It’s as if the succeeding poem works as a skeleton key that can open a secret compartment in the other text’s structure, revealing a whole new layer of meaning. Usually, this involves the poet creatively re-interpreting another poet’s work through his or her own understanding of the text. They usually do this through allusion or reconfiguring a particular word or phrase found in the original poem. When I read Michael Longley’s collection The Stairwell, I noticed that Longley uses as his epigraph for the first part of the book a quotation from the poet W S Graham: ‘Hap the blanket round me / And tuck in a flower.’ I knew I had read this extract before in a Graham poem and flicked through my copy of the Scot’s Selected Poems (1996) to see if I could find where this petitioning couplet had been taken from. My homing instincts were right – pretty soon I had found the late Graham poem ‘To My Wife At Midnight’ as the source for this perhaps emboldening, perhaps plaintive request. This piece rounds off the Selected Poems – it is a rather fragile, beautiful sequence that contemplates love, companionship and old age as Graham and his wife (Nessie) prepare to ‘say goodnight… / sleeping alone together.’
While I was reading through the Graham poem again it dawned on me that Longley was echoing and subtly playing with the Scottish poet’s trove of language, teasing apart and ‘redressing’ a particular word that is shared in both books. Here’s the final section of ‘To My Wife At Midnight’ in full:
Nessie Dunsmuir, I say
Wheest, wheest to myself
To help me now to go
Under into somewhere
In the redcoat rain.
Buckle me for the war.
Are you to say goodnight
And kiss me and fasten
My drowsy armour tight?
My dear camp-follower,
Hap the blanket round me
And tuck in a flower.
Maybe from my sleep
In the stoure at Culloden
I’ll see you here asleep
In your lonely place.
I always thought the narrator of this poem is talking to himself for solace, a spell to calm his unsettled mind down. If we read the notes at the back of Graham’s New Collected Poems (edited by Matthew Francis and published in 2004), we find that ‘wheest’ is a Scots dialect word for ‘hush’. There are various examples of the use of this dialect word in poems that explore the Scots vernacular. Given the tone and direction of the poem – towards sleep and separation – this self-administration of comfort seems like the obvious route to take through the sequence. However, if we read the text through the prism of Longley’s ‘Marigolds, 1960′, we find another poem floating just beneath the surface. Certainly, if we take on board Graham’s own sense of artistic contingency – as he articulates in his manifesto-driven ‘Proem’ (‘It is now left just as an object by me / to be encountered by somebody else’) – we might go back to the beginning of the poem and take a different path through its architectural planes.
So, rather than the narrator in ‘To My Wife At Midnight’ saying ‘hush, hush’ to himself, perhaps, like Longley’s father, he understands that the word ‘wheest’ carries another load within it. Graham perhaps is saying ‘cock, cock’ to himself, to ‘help [himself] now to go / Under into somewhere / in the redcoat rain.’ Actually, thinking about this emphasis more and more I don’t see it as a great leap of the imagination to read the culmination of the piece to be addressing obliquely the intimacies of sex. After all, the poem begins: ‘Are you to say goodnight / And turn away under / The blanket of your delight?’ The alternative to that ‘turn[ing] away’ is surely the act of love. There are wide open spaces between the lines of this poem for physical union to take place.
I’m sure Longley is aware of this alternative reading he’s providing room for through nailing on the quotation from ‘To My Wife At Midnight’ at the beginning of The Stairwell and then echoing Graham’s usage of ‘wheest’ in his poem ‘Marigolds, 1960’. Perhaps too there is a double bind in this quoted epigraph, ‘Hap the blanket round me / And tuck in a flower’ – that of attentive, love-worn survivors, old man and wife (Longley was celebrating his marriage of fifty years in his last poetry collection, Angel Hill) – while also evoking the old soldier who has survived the war, who has returned, and who Longley wants to give flowers, marigolds perhaps, and hopes they are not rejected this time around.
Chris Jones’s second full-length collection Skin is out now from Longbarrow Press, and includes the poem ‘An Invitation’. Visit the Skin microsite for more details about the book, or click on the relevant PayPal option below to order:
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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:
As a teacher, from time to time I hand out one of my own poems to students with all notes and drafts included alongside the final version. My intention has always been to show how much work and time I have put into finding the right words to put on the page. I’ve never found the process easy – I can’t say I’ve ever been that fluent as a writer – so the drafts attempt in some way to address and illuminate the issues of style, language, form, voice, the choices bound up in telling a story, that I’ve been wrangling with for the past thirty years or so.
On one occasion when I handed out a poem and workings-out to the assembled writers on a residential weekend, I was encouraged to hear a student say that reading the drafts, the multiple versions of the lines I was testing out, was like being shown around the rooms of someone’s house. I say encouraged because I’m never quite sure how students will react to being offered a trail of words. Such an offering might be considered rather inward-looking, possibly self-aggrandising on my part, a superfluous gift: a student might ask what these jottings have got to do with him or her? I was also cheered by such a creative response because the house-viewing analogy resonated with me at a fundamental level. It still does. I like the notion that we present the front of the house for everybody to view (and judge), but then there are also those more intimate spaces we inhabit, dwell in, dream through. The private areas, where we cultivate our own tastes, work through our obsessions, where we experiment, make ‘mistakes’, play: these places are viewed by invitation only, and our guests have to step over the threshold to enter. And even if a reader happens to encounter the Muse on a Sunday afternoon dressed in shorts, an old t-shirt, feet up on the sofa, swigging a can of lager – it’s a chance worth taking.
I once accidentally sent a poem with all the drafts attached to my friend Mark Goodwin. I meant to just send him the finished piece, but I forgot to edit the document and he got all the stuff I had slowly been working through. This is the work as I presented it to him:
Up at five, blackbirds
chirr, shrill, quaver; tuning in
through all that crackle.
Up at five, blackbirds
chirr, shrill, chatter; tuning in
through all that crackle.
Up at five, blackbirds
whistle, chirr, chatter; tune in
through all that crackle.
Up at five, blackbirds
whistle, chirr, chatter; tuning
in through that crackle.
Up at six, blackbirds
chirr, shrill, whistle; tuning in
through all that crackle.
Up at six, blackbirds
whistle, chirr, chatter; tune in
through all that crackle.
Up at six to catch
blackbirds chatter, tuning in
through all that crackle.
Up at five, blackbirds
whistle, shrill, chatter; tune in
through all that crackle.
Up at six, blackbirds
whistle, chirr, chatter; tune in
through all that crackle.
A blackbird broadcasts
A blackbird tunes in
A blackbird whistles
low frequencies, tuning out
through all that crackle.
A blackbird whistles
out its frequencies, tuning
in garden crackle.
A blackbird whistles
out its frequencies, tunes in
through hiss and crackle.
This blackbird whistles
out its frequencies, tuning
in hiss and crackle.
A blackbird’s whistle
through its frequencies,
A blackbird tuning
through garden crackle,
A blackbird whistles,
A blackbird tunes
its bands of ,
radio [ ]
finds its frequency
turning through its frequencies.
Tunes / an old radio
Through garden static crackle hum
A blackbird whistling
through its frequencies,
A blackbird [whistles],
[ ][ ], tuning its dial/broadcasting/broadcasts
Through garden crackle.
A blackbird tunes through
garden crackle, broadcasts [ ]
[ ] [ ].
A blackbird tuning
through garden crackle,
A blackbird tunes through
garden crackle, its bands of ,
finds its frequency
turning through its frequencies.
Tunes / an old radio
Through garden static crackle hum
I’ll supply a few explanatory notes on the composition of the text. The published (final) version of the haiku is: ‘Up at five, blackbirds / chirr, shrill, chatter; tuning in / through all that crackle’. This is not the first poem you actually read at the top of the page, but the second haiku in the sequence. I don’t why I sent the document like this. All I can tell you is that my curiosity to work through the multitude of options available to me led me to try out one further variation (‘blackbirds / chirr, shrill, quaver’) before I went back to the word-order I was happiest with in that second poem.
With regards to chronology: if you want to follow the archeology of my work from starting line to finished piece you should read this poem from the bottom upwards (the first line I committed to the screen was ‘Through garden static crackle hum’). The words I type out, mull over for a while, then discard are placed in an ascending pile from the foot of the document. Think stalagmite rather than stalactite when it comes to the process of accretion. As a pointer toward general strategies of composition, I write one, possibly two lines at a time. I work through all the combinations that interest me – changing words and phrases as I see fit, then settle on one or two versions that have potential before I move on to the next line. Working on a three-line poem is the same as working on, say, a thirty-line poem in that each line has to chime or be ‘in conversation’ with the lines around it: aural correspondences (for instance: birds/chirr, shrill/all, black/crack) are key to the health of the piece. So why choose ‘five’ instead of ‘six’? This is mostly to do with the fact that blackbirds are the first to sing in the morning: ‘five’ is a more dreamy, more liminal time than ‘six’.
So I inadvertently let Mark into my house. And because Mark is a creative poet who is deeply committed to the play of language, to the plasticity of words, to experiments in form, he saw my drafts as an integral part of the poem. And, to an extent, Mark made the house his own by fashioning an audio poem from the text, picking up on the blackbird’s song, the interference and ‘crackle’. My creative ‘mistake’ of handing him all the unused material led to an act of collaboration, a new work in itself. I came back to my own work as a reader, surprised by the new architecture occupying the ‘footprint’ of the finished piece. You can listen to the poem below. Headphones are recommended for the full ambient effect.
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:
There’s a poem, ‘Street Life’, by Alan Jenkins, that has niggled away at me for the last fifteen years or so. In it the narrator discusses his relationship with a prostitute who lives in the flat above him. The speaker explores various aspects of knowing in his encounters with this unnamed woman. The first meeting of minds revolves around self-recognition: ‘We are alike, we share / the same sad, comical fear of being caught / together on our corner’. Their second understanding is negotiated through care and deception, the way she ‘makes something up when I ask her how she got the bruise / that cascades down her cheek’. The third encounter (a memory) plays on different interpretations of that idea of knowing: put bluntly, the time he ‘paid her twenty quid and pushed it up her, dry and tight’.
You could read this trajectory in the poem as a critique of masculinity, laying bare the fragile binary between protection and exploitation. On a more mechanical level, the poem ‘works’ (is memorable) through that description of perfunctory sex as the final line (the punchline) of the work. In a way, Jenkins is turning a trick here too. Illuminating the subtext of such a technique has the writer whispering to the reader: ‘Yes, my speaker screwed this woman one time but I am screwing with your expectations too, the way in which you expect this poem to progress.’ Whether you admire or not this kind of narratorial gambit is up to you.
Perhaps this poet’s approach might be put in perspective if we compare his poem to another work that dwells on hypocrisy, lust and self-deception: Thom Gunn’s poem ‘Sweet Things’. Like Jenkins, Gunn uses ‘mirroring’ perspectives to draw out his narrator’s concerns. The poem initially focuses on the speaker’s relationship with Don, a young man with Down’s syndrome, who habitually befriends him on the street for money so he can ‘buy sweet things, one after another’. The narrator reflects on why he has never given Don a cent:
I wonder why not, and as I
walk on alone I realise
it’s because his unripened mind
never recognizes me, me
for myself, he only says hi
for what he can get [.]
Someway down the street, our protagonist meets ‘John, no Chuck / …a scrubbed cowboy, Tom Sawyer / grown up.’ They begin talking: ‘“It’s a long time / since we got together,” says John. / Chuck, that is.’ The invitation is immediately taken up: ‘“How about now?” I say / knowing the answer. My boy / I could eat you whole.’ Through juxtaposition, Gunn provides an artful balance between the spurned Don and this narrator’s own desire for ‘sweet things’. Our casual shopper is just the same as Don: self-centred, pleasure-seeking, entirely looking after himself.
I’ve always admired this moral calibration in Gunn’s writing, that he (or his persona) never puts himself above the people he writes about. Those marginalised or troublesome individuals, the street life he encounters, are always treated with respect, understood, listened to. Because he advocates this open door policy, he can directly or by extension assimilate varieties of ‘otherness’ into his worldview. Thus power relationships are never quite straightforward in Gunn’s poetic universe.
I spent most of my early twenties writing about Thom Gunn. I eventually met him in San Francisco, an experience I write about in my new collection, Skin (see my poem ‘An Invitation’). For a writer who professed to like ‘loud music, bars, and boisterous men’, it was quite an eye-opener for a straight, Catholic boy from Quorn, Leicestershire. But I am grateful that I spent such a long time in Gunn’s company. From early on I was preoccupied with the idea of writing about ‘difficult men’, an orbit that eventually led me to work with prisoners as a writer-in-residence in a high security prison. Over the past twenty years I have returned to consider the binds of masculinity through various wider thematic perspectives. Three of the main poems or sequences in this collection hinge on the idea of two men talking, debating, and/or arguing with each other. In ‘Sentences’ my narrator is a teacher working in prison who befriends a drug-dealing poet on the Remand Wing. There are times in the poem where they both need each other, but for very different reasons. The hierarchies embedded in prison culture and its tough moral currency leave both men feeling pressurised by their marginal status. What is the right thing to say and do in such extreme circumstances? In ‘Death and the Gallant’ the two men, Brown and an old man, use the biblical paintings and religious objects that they have set out to destroy to conduct a guarded, then more overt, theological debate. In the final long poem of the collection, ‘Every Time We Met’, Gregory (the writer) and Ed (the academic) joust with each other about success, rivalries, legacy. But underneath the brittle social patter lies a more insidious version of oneupmanship.
As a corrective to, or as a means of arguing against these particular models of controlling masculinity, I also wanted to consider nurturing, loving behaviour in Skin. In two of the main sequences of poems, ‘Miniatures’ and ‘Jigs and Reels’, I reflect on family connections and my own experiences of becoming a father. Philip Larkin says that one of the reasons that he wrote was to ‘preserve’ experiences so that his readership could ‘feel what [he] felt.’ There is certainly a sense of capturing significant moments in the pieces that engage with my young children. In one poem I wrote about how my oldest son’s ears came to ‘unfold’ (a kink in the cartilage of each ear straightened out when he was about six months old): I’m sure I would have forgotten this detail if I hadn’t written it down. I have in my hands, when I read Skin, a trove of memories, tangible, potent, ever-present, that are also moving away from me at the speed of light.
‘Jigs and Reels’, by the way it couples poems, and in its emphasis on a storytelling and lyric drive, sends a strong nod in the direction of folk songs that get twinned together to form ‘sets’ of tunes. That’s something I think writers can miss out on – the collaborative nature of making art. Musicians sitting in a circle improvising and/or playing learnt melodies doesn’t have its own corresponding experience in bookish culture. I have been fortunate over the past ten years to work with a number of writers and artists on public art, commissions and projects in galleries. Some of my most ambitious work has come from cooperative practice and I wanted to give a flavour of this in the collection. Thus I have included haiku, tanka and a couple of longer works that emerged directly from creative relationships.
In a book that returns to representing different aspects of the arts (through writers, painters, musicians) and often concentrates on homosocial power relationships, it seems appropriate that one of the last voices you hear in the book is that of Leigh in ‘Every Time We Met’, an artist, who contextualises her own work in terms of building and making objects of aesthetic beauty, moving away from the more destructive impulses that dominated the early part of her career. It is important that Leigh is allowed the space and time to give her own point of view here. The counter or contrary voice is something I have always tried to find room for. Increasingly, narrative (through debate and dialogue) holds my attention as a writer. If Skin has taught me anything, it is to think in terms of listening to a variety of voices rather than just voicing a steadfast opinion: that there is much to made from polyphony as a way of exploring the world we inhabit and try to make sense of.
Skin is out now from Longbarrow Press. Click here for further details of the book, and to read and listen to poems from the collection.
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):
‘I don’t entirely understand why reviews of anthologies frequently focus so heavily on the editors’ introductions or forewords. When I buy an anthology, first and foremost I’m looking to be introduced to new poets and new poems that I wouldn’t otherwise come across. If I like them, I’ll go out and find more of their work. If I don’t, well, no matter, there’ll be something I do like along in a minute.’
Matt Merritt reviewing Dear World & Everyone In It: New Poetry in the UK edited by Nathan Hamilton in Under the Radar, Issue Twelve, December 2013.
There was a point in a recent radio programme when two of the guests were asked when they first came across Thom Gunn’s poetry. I was surprised to hear that both of the speakers, Paul Farley and Fiona Sampson, picked out the Forward Prize winning 1994 collection The Man with Night Sweats as their first encounter with Gunn’s work. I was surprised because I thought they must have come across A Alvarez’s groundbreaking anthology The New Poetry, first published in 1962, then revised and reprinted in 1966. Gunn’s work is one of the highlights of Alvarez’s survey of British and American post-war poetry. I first came across Alvarez’s compendium as a fourteen or fifteen year old in the early 1980s: I still have my battered thirty year old copy, with its funky but misleading Jackson Pollock cover (abstract expressionism is not the first thing that comes to mind when I think of post-war mainstream British poetry). For me, reading the anthology was a revelation – partly because I hadn’t read much contemporary poetry before, partly because it included an American contingent of Confessional poets, and partly because there was a generous focus on the work of Thom Gunn (he features more than any other poet in the collection, apart from Ted Hughes). His poems stood out: they were different, quirkier, more energetic and passionate than a lot of the rather dry, ironic Movement and post-Movement poetry that filled the book’s pages.
Because I digested a good selection of Gunn’s oeuvre in The New Poetry (including the iconic pieces ‘The Wound’ and ‘On the Move’), I went on to buy Gunn’s Selected Poems. From there I bought individual collections, and started taking an interest in literary criticism of Gunn’s work. I went on to spend four years writing a PhD thesis on Gunn’s poetry and reviews, and subsequently met and interviewed the great man himself in San Francisco in 1995. This, I suppose, is the power of the anthology in action. But thinking again about Farley and Sampson: why should they have read Alvarez’s book? I mean, all anthologies have a shelf life, a contemporary relevance – why should something published over fifty years ago still be current or used as a way into understanding or contextualising a rather grey and restrained period of British poetry?
My feeling is that The New Poetry is a key text in terms of how we understand how mainstream representative anthologies have developed over the past fifty years. The book is a template, a touchstone volume, in terms of its structures and preoccupations, of how we think about what an anthology should be doing to earn its keep. But it’s not the content – the roll-call of poets – that has driven the debate on the necessity and efficacy of the anthology over the last half-century, but Alvarez’s introduction to the work itself. His essay, ‘The New Poetry, or Beyond the Gentility Principle’, has focused people’s minds on what anthologies are for: what is each anthology’s brief and purpose? Anthologists return again and again to its arguments, assimilating and reacting against its abiding concerns, and from it create new narratives of contemporary literature.
The interesting thing for me is what Alvarez’s introduction is setting out to do and not to do. What really galvanises Alvarez’s attention is the state of post-war British poetry. He talks about current preoccupations in terms of negative feedbacks, that the poetry of the 1950s and early 1960s is reacting against historic literary forces to create signatory poems that represent the age. Briefly, these negative feedbacks are: 1: a reaction against modernist and experimental verse forms; 2: a reaction against Dylan Thomas and his acolytes (what Alvarez calls ‘a blockage against intelligence’); 3: (and I quote directly) ‘an attempt to show that the poet is not a strange creature inspired; on the contrary, he is just like the man next door, in fact, he probably is the man next door.’ All of this has led to what Alvarez terms ‘gentility’ – a kind of mundane, provincially intelligent everyman epitomised by the narrators in Philip Larkin’s poetry. Alvarez’s contention is that this kind of poetic persona cannot last in the modern world. The modern urban dweller is realising he is part of a wider world of global danger and evil forces beyond his control. ‘What poetry needs’, Alvarez suggests, ‘is a new seriousness’ to reflect this precarious age.
But what Alvarez isn’t interested in is explaining his choice of poets. There’s no sense to why some poets are in and some poets are out. Oddly, he does include poets he is critical of in his introduction; Movement poets like Larkin and John Wain and Kingsley Amis. But he doesn’t feel like explaining why there aren’t any British women poets in his selection. There’s no Elizabeth Jennings, for instance, who did appear in one of the first main post-war anthologies, Robert Conquest’s New Lines in 1956. Jennings was not some marginal figure – her Collected Poems, published by Carcanet Press in the 1980s, far outsold most of the works of poets represented in The New Poetry (this was helped no doubt by her work being put on the ‘A’ Level syllabus). There’s no Rosemary Tonks either, whose work could have been included in the second edition (Notes on Cafes and Bedrooms comes out in 1963) – but Tonks does appear in the first edition of British Poetry Since 1945 edited by Edward Lucie-Smith (published in 1970). The choices made by Alvarez are therefore – we presume – self-evident (they do not require justification). Alvarez seems more interested in articulating the threat of the bomb in his introduction rather than defining his own curatorial role.
The enduring appeal of The New Poetry, the content that critics and anthologists keep returning to is not the poetry – the meat and drink of the book – but Alvarez’s introduction. Everything that follows on from The New Poetry and reflects on it or uses it as a starting point concentrates on his essay. It’s odd to think an analysis of the volume should be mediated through the prose content rather than the poems themselves. Probably the book that is indebted most to the Alvarez anthology is The Penguin Book of British Contemporary Poetry (1982), edited by Blake Morrison and Andrew Motion. This anthology explicitly converses with Alvarez, his argument, and his system of negative feedbacks. You can see this interaction throughout the script. Here are two prime examples:
[Writers] have exchanged the received idea of the poet as the-person-next-door, or knowing insider, for the attitude of the anthologist or alien invader or remembering exile (p. 12).
There is another reason why recent British poetry has taken forms quite other than those promoted by Alvarez: the emergence and example of Seamus Heaney. The most important new poet of the last fifteen years, and the one we very deliberately put first in the anthology. Heaney is someone Alvarez could not foresee at the time and someone he has attacked since (p. 13).
The Motion and Morrison book is deeply problematic because of this. It’s a pity that they focus so openly on the Alvarez volume as a kind of starting point for all their pontificating. They want to argue with Alvarez, and, by doing so, take their ‘eye off the ball’: they spend too much time on their predecessor’s assertions rather than on the poetry that is spread out in front of them. Their own arguments for ‘newness’ are weakened by circumstance and historical context. This idea, for instance, that poets are now ‘alien invaders’ is returned to later in their essay when they come to consider, at some length, ‘Martianism’. The problem with this kind of snapshot judgement, that Craig Raine’s ‘A Martian Sends a Postcard Home’ contains within it the DNA of future British poetry generations, is suspect when we come to think of ‘Martianism’ not so much as a pivotal movement of the last thirty years, but an experiment dabbled in by a couple of young poets that had some limited impact at the time but was soon superseded by other interests and concerns.
My other quotation – the flagging up of Seamus Heaney as the key British poet to emerge over the past twenty years – has its own chastening narrative. In a way, this is what The Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry is remembered for more than anything else. It had the effect of outing Seamus Heaney not as a British but as an Irish poet. The poem that dominates or overshadows this anthology is one that is not included within its pages; Heaney’s ‘An Open Letter’ (published in 1983), offered as a rebuke to Motion’s and Morrison’s assertions:
Don’t be surprised if I demur, for, be advised
My passport’s green.
No glass of ours was ever raised
To toast The Queen.
Motion and Morrison make their vociferous claims only for the stitching of their assertions to come apart in their hands. You could say they were unlucky in their dealings with Heaney (he could have asked to have his work removed from the anthology) but there is an overriding sense of a lack of forethought or keen sense of prognostication in their calls. When they say in the concluding paragraph of the introduction: ‘the poets here do represent a departure, one which may be said to exhibit something of the spirit of postmodernism’ (p. 20), you have to wonder what ‘the spirit of postmodernism’ actually means. They seem to be hedging their bets: it feels half-arsed and peculiarly shaped by the academic preoccupations of the time. It tries to define a generation’s practice, but lacks intellectual rigor: it has to affect the way we look at the choice of poets as a whole. If the anthologists’ notions of important trends like ‘Martianism’ and ideas of ‘Britishness’ are contestable, then surely we will question the wider narrative they wish to impose on the contemporary poetry scene.
I do wonder why Motion and Morrison didn’t include Peter Reading in their survey. He had been writing for over ten years at the point of the anthology’s publication. He emerges as one of the most interesting, imaginative, cussedly inventive poets of the 1980s in collections like Diplopic, Ukulele Music and C. Perhaps our curators found his work difficult to anthologise (which is deserving of an essay in itself – poets whose work cannot be easily assimilated into anthologies). Perhaps they didn’t rate him. Perhaps his work doesn’t fit into the wider narratives they try to establish in their introduction. We don’t know.
Interestingly, The New Poetry, edited by Michael Hulse, David Kennedy and David Morley (Bloodaxe, 1993), does include a selection of Peter Reading’s poems. The first represented poet they highlight in their lengthy ‘Introduction’ is Peter Reading. Peter Reading, for them, is ‘Now and in England’. Perhaps one of the reasons why they have put Reading at the forefront of their evaluation is because he is absent from the Penguin anthology. Rather than pondering ‘the spirit of postmodernism’, they consider postmodern practice in contemporary poetry at some length, Reading being for them ‘a true postmodern’ (p. 22). Obviously, their title – without the editors ever stating it – is both a salute to Alvarez’s anthology and also a way of taking over the territory that Alvarez wants to control. The Bloodaxe anthology sets out to dismantle the view of British literature that is recorded in and perpetuated by the Alvarez book: that of a white, male, middle class group of writers. How can poets ‘escape the negative inheritance of British poetry’, they ask: ‘its ironies, its understatements, its dissipated energies’ (p. 22)? For the new The New Poetry the answer lies in polyphony: ‘plurality has flourished’ (p. 15). The editors state in their concluding remarks: ‘It would be absurdly presumptuous of us to claim The New Poetry is in any way definitive, but it is, we hope, “defining”. Where others perceive pluralism as hectic and serving special interests, we would argue that this signifies health as opposed to further decline and that such highlighting is long overdue in a culture which persistently ignores or marginalises the voices and achievements of a significant number of people’ (p. 27). The essay returns again and again to this attack on political, geographical, educational and social centralisation. Here are a few examples: ‘Jackie Kay’s personal circumstances as a black Briton adopted and raised by a white Scottish family may be taken as an extreme example of what Terry Eagleton, surveying the 1980s for Poetry Review, termed ‘the marginal becoming central’ (p. 18); ‘A need to find alternatives to the real or imagined English centre vigorously informs the current resilience of Scottish writing’ (p. 19); ‘A willingness to challenge the centre, to write poetry recognisably as social discourse, is a hallmark of many northern English poets’ (p.20). They are very thorough in their approach, we are left in no doubt where the editors are coming from; because of this it is an introduction that is well worth reading. It comprises a selection of poems that are well worth reading too, lest we forget what anthologies are really there for.
I suppose I have used these quotations as a set-up to briefly discuss one of the most recent anthologies to reflect on Alvarez’s example: Voice Recognition: 21 Poets for the 21st Century, edited by James Byrne and Clare Pollard (Bloodaxe, 2009). It’s interesting to see how the editors evaluate the power structures around the centre and the margins in their introduction: ‘A particular hub of this [new poetic] activity appears to be London, where many of the poets in this anthology are based – after years of other regions being prominent, there seems to be a real shift back to the capital, which is becoming a magnet for poets all over the country’. The editors, by demarcating the new boundaries of what they think is good and worthwhile, are saying all that new poetry is now the old poetry. They must have the Hulse, Kennedy and Morley book in mind when they state the ‘devolution to the regions’ model has been superseded by this Metropolitan focus of up-and-coming poets.
In their introduction Byrne and Pollard also write: ‘Among previous anthologies that had sought to define newness, we were influenced by The New Poetry, edited by Alvarez and first published by Penguin in 1962. It was a landmark anthology that scrutinised the island-bound fustiness of the Movement and championed key American poets, especially when Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath were added to the updated 1966 edition. In Alvarez’s excellent introduction… he extends Pound’s dictum by declaring that “the great moderns experimented not just to make it new formally, but to open poetry up to new areas of experience”’ (p.13). There are several layers here, but of most concern to me is this notion that The New Poetry ‘scrutinised the island-bound fustiness of the Movement’. I would say yes, Alvarez’s introduction does do that, but the anthology itself is replete with Movement poets. Although he criticises Movement principles in the Introduction, he goes on to include their work alongside a wider range of voices. His anthology is at once critiquing/criticising and promoting the Movement canon. He hopes for a revolutionary future but actually offers us, in the end, a conventional mainstream anthology. What interests me here is that it is Alvarez’s text rather than the compendium of poems that grips the anthologists’ attention (apart from Sexton’s and Plath’s inclusion, of course); they make their assumptions about the collection from the introduction, rather than the poems themselves.
Perhaps what survives of the ‘landmark’ anthologies is not the poetry but the introduction. What gives your book longevity, if it is to survive at all beyond the original print run, is not a raft of poets giving their all but the editor’s or editors’ opinions on the state of play in British Poetry. What is mainly remembered of The Oxford Book of Modern Verse, 1892-1935 is W. B. Yeats explaining why he didn’t include Wilfred Owen in the anthology (‘passive suffering is not a theme for poetry’, he said). When Staying Alive came out, many critics discussed at length Neil Astley’s introduction and contextualising commentaries rather than the selection of poems themselves. Alvarez’s The New Poetry is remembered, discussed and revisited not because of Arthur Boyars and Ted Walker or (sadly) Thom Gunn but because of Alvarez’s own commentary.
This is a revised and extended version of a paper presented at the Midsummer Poetry Festival Symposium on Anthologies and Anthologising in Contemporary Poetry, Bank Street Arts, Sheffield, Friday 20 June 2014. Thanks to Ágnes Lehóczky and Angelina Ayers for organising the symposium. Chris Jones‘s sequence ‘Death and the Gallant’ appears in The Footing, an anthology of new walking-themed poems published by Longbarrow Press. His pamphlet Jigs and Reels recently appeared from Shoestring Press. Click here to visit his website.
There are, as far as I am aware, two printed versions of Kathleen Jamie’s poem ‘The Wishing Tree’. The first is published here; the text of the poem accompanying an audio recording that Jamie made for the Poetry Archive foundation circa 2002. A second account of ‘The Wishing Tree’ can be found in Jamie’s collection The Tree House (Picador, 2004), and online here.
It’s not altogether rare to find modified versions of the same poem in print. You occasionally find young and emerging poets making changes between the poem published in a magazine (or anthology) and the piece that finally materializes in the book-length collection. Then there are the inveterate tinkerers who spend their whole careers revisiting poems to change a word, a line or entire stanzas: W. H. Auden and Derek Mahon spring to mind as architects of this kind of ‘rebuilding’. But Jamie falls into neither of these categories. She had been publishing work for twenty years by the time The Tree House came along. She is not known for revisiting previous work to make wholesale changes (no matter how strange or alien she finds earlier incarnations of her poetic self).
That there are two versions of ‘The Wishing Tree’ in the public domain actually gives us a rare glimpse of the processes of redrafting by this most accomplished of poets. Not only this, I would contend, but the palimpsest of changes that can be traced from one text to the other reveals a poet who is in the process of developing a new style of writing, a shift in the textures and shapes of language that highlight Jamie’s ‘mature’ voice in her two most recent collections.
The poem plays a pivotal role in The Tree House, as it is the first piece we come upon in the collection. Opening poems have a key job to perform because they function as ‘thresholds’, introducing the reader to the main styles and preoccupations explored in the work that follows. They are doors through which we enter the house. If we see Jizzen (Picador, 1999), the book that precedes The Tree House, as a transitional collection, the poet beginning to shake off the earlier styles found in the more urban, issue-based ‘social realist’ Bloodaxe oeuvre (see Mr and Mrs Scotland are Dead: Poems 1980-1994 (Bloodaxe, 2002)), then The Tree House is the first volume that shows Jamie off in her bold maturity, focusing on the ‘birds, beasts and flowers’ themes that have garnered so much praise from critics in recent years. That we can see ‘The Wishing Tree’ with double vision perhaps allows us a better view of Jamie as she repositions herself, shaking off previous orthodoxies to form a new contract with her writer-self.
Before I go any further, it would be useful here to highlight the differences between the two versions of ‘The Wishing Tree’ on offer. For reasons of clarity and pithiness, I will refer to the Poetry Archive piece as Text A and the poem that appears in The Tree House as Text B.
In terms of word alterations, there are a number of differences between the two texts. In Text A we read of ‘each secret visitation’ whereas in Text B we have ‘each secret assignation’. In Text A the coins are ‘gently / beaten into me’. In Text B the coins are ‘daily beaten into me’. In Text A we have: ‘Beyond, the land reaches’, and in Text B it has been changed to: ‘Behind me, the land reaches’. In Text A there is the couplet: ‘because I bear / the common currency’, whereas in Text B we read: ‘because I hoard / the common currency’. I’ll come back to this final example of reworking in more detail later on.
Perhaps more difficult to track here, but no less significant in terms of its effect on the way we read the poem, is the way in which Jamie goes from a conventionally punctuated poem in Text A to one in Text B where she removes most of the commas at the end of lines and goes on to banish all of the three semi-colons that appeared in the original version (one of these semi-colons metamorphoses into a dash [ – ] in Text B). Jamie continues to use commas mid-line as caesuras (for example ‘My limbs lift, scabbed’) but relies more on the phrasing of words as units of sound in themselves to cultivate natural pauses at the end of lines. To this end, Jamie removes examples of enjambment from Text B, reworking the line-endings so lines naturally conclude on the end of a thought or completed arc of expression. The full stops remain in the same positions in both versions.
That Jamie replaces ‘visitation’ with ‘assignation’ could be interpreted on a number of levels. Firstly, ‘visitation’ has distinctly religious overtones to it: yes, this is a poem about miracles, of granting wishes, but the source is distinctly secular, pagan even (this is not an up-to-date version of ‘The Dream of the Rood’ for sure). ‘Assignation’ suggests intimacy on another level, a much more human one rooted in mortal frailties and desires. ‘Assignation’ also has much stronger aural support in terms of the vowels and consonants around it, particularly in terms of the ‘s’ (sibilant) and ‘a’ sounds clustered around those lines: ‘each’ and ‘wish’ leads to ‘ass-‘ which then links onto ‘scabbed’. The second change, from ‘gently / beats’ to ‘daily beats’, also has an impact that ripples through the textures of this poem. ‘Daily’ implies something that is habitual, incessant, a need that the tree literally finds hard to accommodate. ‘Gently’, although it exposes the tensions between care in the wishing and the damage being done to the tree, doesn’t bend with the wider associations and significances that I believe are attached to this poem. This is not a gentle piece of art. On a most straightforward level, the tree is being poisoned by the actions of the humans who trust in its projected symbolic value. But this is also a Scottish tree (it says ‘smirr of rain’) with an interest in delineated boundaries (‘I stand in… / the fold / of a green hill / the tilt from one parish / into another’ (Text B)), whose allegiances are with the west of the British Isles (‘Behind me, the land / reaches toward the Atlantic’ (Text B)). I think that this poem does touch on Scottish nationalist concerns, perhaps not that forcibly, but it does provide images of occupation through the iconography of empire (‘I draw into my slow wood / fleur-de-lys, the enthroned Britannia’ (Text B)). The processes of colonization and forced assimilation could hardly be considered gentle in the ways that they are executed.
As I highlighted earlier, there is a much more traditional approach to punctuation in Text A than in Text B. Text A has a more conventional underpinning, using commas, semi-colons and colons to control the pace and rhythm of the work. Text B eschews end-line punctuation at the beginning of the poem in three changes from the original version (two commas and a semi-colon are removed) but keeps the original comma in the concluding sentence of the piece, the comma now having migrated to the end of the line (‘of human hope, / daily beaten into me’). This is the only instance of the use of an end-line comma in the whole work. It is irregular practice and difficult to square with previous choices made in the poem. This may seem a fussy reading on my part, but small changes enacted on the text often have a large impact on the ways in which a poem can be interpreted. What we hope for is a consistency of style, something that this poem rejects. My own belief is that Jamie is signalling a move away from her previous, more orthodox word-designs. The first poem in this ‘breakthrough’ volume highlights a more devil-may-care attitude, a new freedom from the rules that have shaped her formative practice. Jamie has always sought to experiment with the reach of her poetry. Look at her willingness to collaborate with other artists in her published work: with poet Andrew Greig in The Flame in your Heart (Bloodaxe, 1986), and in The Autonomous Region (Bloodaxe, 1993) with photographer Sean Smith. She is not a ‘precious’ poet in this respect. Yet the seemingly minor decisions she makes around this use or rejection of punctuation in ‘The Wishing Tree’ actually offer a new manifesto of sorts: ‘this is the material I really want to write about and this is how I want to do it. I no longer want to be restrained by more ‘conservative’ approaches in the ways I engage with these subjects.’ This is a poem that features a talking tree, after all.
Jamie shows great control in the way she harnesses internal rhymes, assonance and consonance in her poetry. Her free verse is tight, robust and it sings. One has only to look at the first six lines of this poem to see how interwoven the aural correspondences are:
I stand neither in the wilderness
but in the fold
of a green hill
the tilt from one parish
There is the standout internal rhyme of ‘stand’ and ‘fairyland’, obviously (and the echo of this in ‘fold’). After that see how ‘wishing’ has its own association: ‘wishing’/‘parish’, and ‘Tree’ has cascading associations too: ‘tree’, ‘neither’, ‘green’. There are other patterns at work here: ‘neither’, ‘wilder-‘, ‘another’, and ‘wild-‘, ‘hill’, and ‘tilt’. Look at the repetition that helps to balance the first six lines (and helps alleviate the necessity to adopt punctuation in this opening sentence): ‘in’, ‘in’, ‘into’.
All of this I use by way of introduction to discuss the final decisions made around the earlier poem’s reshaping. Just as introductory poems are important in terms of the focus and direction of the collection as a whole, the first lines of poems will often introduce the palette of sounds that will be carried through the rest of the piece as variations on the chosen ‘theme’. If we consider the first line of ‘The Wishing Tree’, it is the verb ‘stand’ that becomes a ‘tuning fork’ word for what is to follow. Apart from the full rhyme (‘fairyland’) that has already been mentioned, think of all the ‘–d’ words positioned at the end of lines that emerge from and ‘chime’ in some way with ‘stand’ in Text B: ‘fold’, ‘blood’, ‘hoard’, ‘scabbed’, ‘wood’, ‘land’, ‘poisoned’, ‘bud’.
This continuity of sounds is not so apparent in the originally published poem. Firstly, as I have already mentioned, the Text A version has ‘because I bear / the common currency’, which is, within the aural context of the piece, a lot weaker as a ‘marker-point’ (‘bear’ also over-dramatises the ongoing process too: this is a hardy tree). Jamie realises this and chooses the word ‘hoard’ because it sits much more closely in line with the governing sound-patterns that stitch together the updated draft. ‘Hoard’ also dovetails in much more closely with a ‘common currency’ or treasury, the idea that this ‘being’ carries a wider tribal significance for the people who draw on its powers to bless, to help facilitate change.
Perhaps more intriguingly, in the original piece we have this imagining:
into my slow wood, fleur
-de-lys, the enthroned Britannia.
‘[W]ood’ here has been buried within the line and because of this ‘demotion’ it doesn’t carry the weight it would have if the word was positioned next to the wide open space of white. This effect is further emphasised by the use of enjambment so that we think about the division into two lines of ‘fleur/-de-lys’ for some reason. It’s almost as if Jamie can’t see the wood for the trees here. By the time she comes to rewrite the poem she realises the incantatory, essential quality of the word ‘wood’ and places it at the end of the line: ‘I draw into my slow wood / fleur-de-lys, the enthroned Britannia.’ This subtle shift is one of the reasons why the work is such a finely crafted poem by the time of its final redrafting. ‘Wood’ is one of the three pivotal ‘end-rhymes’ that hold the poem together: they are ‘blood’, ‘wood’ and ‘bud’. The poem is encapsulated here in this trinity of words. The ‘blood’ represents the humans who come to knock coins into the trunk and who wish for better lives; ‘wood’ is the tree, of course, which understands that it plays a symbolic role but also that being awarded this privileged state may also lead to its demise. The battle for supremacy between what the ‘blood’ wants and what the ‘wood’ needs is played out in those final lines. The tree could be ‘poisoned’ beyond repair (could end up dead), but no, look, the tree is ‘still alive – / in fact, in bud.’ The final word of the poem tips the balance away from ‘blood’ toward ‘wood’: ‘bud’ wins through as the climactic and emphatic rhyme in the work. It steers the piece toward light and life. Indeed, the poem has been working toward ‘bud’ from the first consonants and vowels of that opening line, through the interstices of ‘rhymes’ that have been clarified and consolidated through this most revealing of drafting processes.
‘The Wishing Tree’ appears in Kathleen Jamie’s collection The Tree House (Picador, 2004).
But the wash of lime blanking out the old world was a thin layer. Scratch away at the surface and the old ways are still visible.
Jonathan Bate, The Soul of the Age: The Life, Mind and World of William Shakespeare
No matter how many layers of white paint are applied, the image always finds a way of coming back to haunt the British imagination.
Andrew Graham-Dixon, A History of British Art
One of the questions that pushed me to write the sequence Death and the Gallant was: what would Britain (and specifically England) be like if it had remained loyal to the Catholic Church? The focus behind this question is not political or religious, as such, but cultural: would our view of art be any different if the Reformation, with its inherent mistrust of the image, had not dominated the country’s affairs in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries?
Pre-Reformation communities would have found art available in their everyday lives. Specifically, the act of worship on the Sabbath would have revolved around ‘reading’ pictures: the majority of medieval churchgoers would have known and understood the teachings of the Bible through the wall paintings that decorated in elaborate detail their local church or chapel. The role of the artist, in this respect, would have been central in each parish.
I decided to write a series of poems that looked backwards to the old systems of faith as represented by a wide range of church art, and at the same time presaged a new kind of thinking about the role of creative ‘making’ in civil society.
The titles of the poems in Death and the Gallant themselves refer to particular figures, thematic concepts, or stories from Biblical teaching that would have been familiar narratives to our Pre-Reformation congregation. So in ‘The Adoration of the Magi’, for instance, I pick up on the oldest of the three kings who come to worship the infant Christ in a Bethlehem stable: Casper (or Jasper) brings gold for the child. The kings themselves – the young Melchior, the middle-aged Balthazar, and the elderly Casper would have been seen to symbolize the cycle or journey of life. St. James the Great is the central figure in the fifth poem of the sequence. He was not only a Patron Saint of Pilgrims but also the pin-up boy for the armies of the Crusades. St. James was known, after all, as the ‘Moor slayer’ – or, as I name him in the piece, ‘Matamoros’. One final detail concerning titles: I highlight the Tree of Jesse in a subsequent poem. The tree delineates the generations of royal figures and prophets from Jesse, the father of King David, through to Christ himself at the pinnacle of the tree, showing an unbroken lineage of wisdom and holiness. It would have literally been painted as a tree with incumbent figures on the wall of the church. You can still find versions of the Tree of Jesse on Creationist websites as pictorial evidence of Biblical ‘fact’.
These church paintings, along with other ‘Popish’ artifacts, were destroyed or effaced over a hundred year period of English history. The process began with the dissolution of the Monasteries as ordered by Henry the Eighth. The last surviving English church wall art was obliterated or painted over during the English Civil War. If you read the journal of William Dowsing, who operated his own brand of iconoclasm in the 1640s, for any believers who still carried a light for the old religion, it must have felt like the Taliban had come to town.
The old man, the narrator of the poem, I see as a kind of double agent who is essentially a custodian of the old values. As with any ‘Year Zero’ policy, artifacts, ideas and beliefs would have survived the initial purges. Some of this church art would have been concealed, or ‘superficially’ damaged, or the owners were rich enough to pay off those who were sent round to do the damage. The old man in the act of destroying seeks to catalogue what he finds. He also attempts to do his job badly enough so that some art-objects slip through the iconoclast Brown’s net. For all his work as a conservationist, I think he realizes, as his work moves on, that this is truly the end of the old life, and prepares as best he can for the practices of a Protestant nation: a new England. His treatment of Brown’s body (and soul) under Catholic auspices is a last act of defiance within the bounds of the poem.
Death and the Gallant appears in The Footing, an anthology of new walking-themed poems published by Longbarrow Press. Click here to order the book and to read and listen to essays, poems and recordings. The accompanying image is one of ten paintings by the artist Paul Evans created in response to the poems. Listen to Chris Jones reading the first poem in the sequence below:
I’ve never been to Walsingham. I’ve got to within about six miles of the village: an old white signpost with black lettering pointed the way. If I ever journeyed that way I would probably end up disappointed. For all its status as that most rare of things – a Catholic shrine, a place of holy pilgrimage in England – my feeling is I’d find it wholly underwhelming – that shot at chintzy religiosity, that sense of a miracle-ground somehow not quite believing in itself as special under those dull Norfolk skies. I literally like the sound of ‘Walsingham’ – the name itself has a mythic quality to it, a sense of England of old, an England that never really existed. More pertinently, I think I’m drawn to the idea of Walsingham as it is represented in the piece of literature that first drew my attention to its existence – Robert Lowell’s poem ‘A Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket.’ Alongside those rather far-off, alien descriptions of whaling around Cape Cod, Massachusetts, Lowell – all of a sudden – goes on an imaginative pilgrimage to England: ‘the world shall come to Walsingham’.
I do have an interest in places that are name-checked in literature – in poems, in particular, though I don’t go on expeditions to find these locations out. Better by far to come on East Coker by accident. I certainly don’t think of Larkin every time I step on the platform at Sheffield station (‘Dockery and Son’) though my head did turn once on a road out of Galway when I saw a sign for a village flagged up in Paul Muldoon’s ‘The Sonogram’: ‘on the road to Spiddal, a woman hitching a ride’. For ‘Spiddal’, Muldoon informs us, read ‘hospital’ (c.f. Spittle Hill in Sheffield; Spitalfields in London). Some of my most vivid memories – in this regard – are of coming on Irish place names with a literary connection. During a car ride from Belfast to Donegal I realised we were heading into territory mapped out by Seamus Heaney when we drove past Toome (see the poems ‘Toome’, ‘The Toome Road’, ‘At Toomebridge’). Perhaps more spectacularly for me – because it was so unexpected – I drove through Oughterard on a grey autumn afternoon back in the 1990s. Michael Furey, Gretta’s long deceased lover in James Joyce’s story ‘The Dead’, came from Oughterard. As I drove through the town, I thought then and there that Michael wouldn’t be worrying himself over women like Gretta any more – he would be playing golf.
Occasionally I come on places that clarify or add texture to the readings of poems in which they are mentioned. The best example of this I can give relates to a work by W S Graham: ‘The Thermal Stair’. The poem begins:
I called today, Peter, and you were away.
I look out over Botallack and over Ding
Dong and Levant and over the jasper sea.
That ‘Ding / Dong’ used to throw me. Was Graham talking about a church and its bells or was he being whimsical, a manner he cultivates now and then in his writing? Nearing our destination on a long drive down to Zennor, Cornwall (Graham country) we stopped at the crossroads of some leafy lane and there, to my right, was a peeling sign pointing the way to Ding Dong. It had never occurred to me Ding Dong was an actual, constructed space, that it had the same kind of veracity and tenor as say Frome, Swindon, or Quorn. Go on, look it up, Ding Dong moor.
For all my interest in place names and poetry I don’t often pin my pieces explicitly to a locale, a parish, a street. I did write a sequence of poems about the River Don and named various districts of Sheffield as part of the process of tracking its journey through the city, but most of the time I don’t push towards this kind of poetry vérité. When I wrote the extended poem ‘Death and the Gallant’, a work concerned with pre-Reformation wall art and its destruction, I wondered about providing the action with a precise geographical ‘fix’. I ruminated on the idea of a hidden or remote valley somewhere but in the end decided against naming names in this broadest sense. A real location would have meant me knuckling down to do a lot more research about the environment, the lie of the land: I just wanted to get on and write the poem. For all this regional vagueness, there are two churches named in ‘Death and the Gallant’ in the hope that it embeds a line of authenticity into the narrative. I spent ages poring over possible saints and in the end came up with Saint Botolph’s (church one) because it’s a strange and wonderful name and Botolph was the patron saint of travellers, and Saint Anne’s (church two) because I wanted a saint with a monosyllabic name to accommodate the opening line of that particular section I was thinking about (‘Saint Anne’s. The Passion on a southern wall’). From thereon in, specificity only really occurs in other aspects of the poetry: the description of wall art decorating various (unnamed) churches, and what these images signified to people in seventeenth century England.
‘Death and the Gallant’ will appear in the forthcoming Longbarrow Press anthology The Footing. Click here to read one of the poems in the sequence; to listen to Chris Jones reading two poems from ‘Death and the Gallant’, click here and here.
Listen to W S Graham reading ‘The Thermal Stair’ here.
I recently watched Howl, the 2010 film presentation of Allen Ginsberg’s era-defining poem. It was a text on one of the modules I was teaching with second year creative writing students. If it wasn’t on the teaching list I probably wouldn’t have got round to watching it. I tend to stay clear of any representation of poets on the big (or small) screen.
The film actually comprises a number of discrete but connected sections. There’s an animated version of the poem that comes in and out of view as the movie proceeds. There are sequences where the young Ginsberg – played by James Franco – reads from ‘Howl’ (quite possibly for the first time) in some underground venue in San Francisco. There are (verbatim) courtroom scenes that document the obscenity trial that came about when Laurence Ferlinghetti published Howl and other Poems (1956) through his City Lights imprint. On top of this, you see Ginsberg being interviewed while the trial is ongoing, discussing what prompted him to write the poem in the first place: again these episodes are all taken from recorded transcripts. His musings are given dramatic credence via scenes showing (a far too good-looking) Ginsberg moving from one youthful adventure to another.
The poem, as I have said, is presented mostly in fits and starts, constructed in fragments through the animated phantasmagoria and the ‘bar room’ reading. The trajectory of the poem is mainly chronological though there are gaps/chunks of text missing, and sometimes sections of the text are echoed back and forth in the two parallel versions. One could argue that this particular treatment of ‘Howl’ highlights a structural weakness of the work itself: sections of the text can be excised, particularly in part one, without a ‘briefed’ reader realising that he or she is listening to a depleted version.
And yet by making these editorial decisions the writers and directors, Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, are actually interrogating different ideas of reading, authenticity and exegesis through the material they have assembled and shaped.
Ginsberg’s is obviously the voice of the movie. We are presented mainly with Ginsberg’s ‘excavation’ of the poem (though notably there are other interpretations of ‘Howl’ given in the courtroom scenes by ‘expert’ witnesses). In particular, Ginsberg returns continually to the idea of who inspired him to write this autobiographical coming-of-age opus. In the recorded interview Ginsberg tells the off-screen interviewer he wrote the poem ‘for Jack [Kerouac]’ – the first man/writer Ginsberg felt a close bond with, inspiring him to write in a more liberated fashion. In the poem itself Ginsberg highlights one ‘best mind’ ‘who went out whoring through Colorado in myriad stolen night-cars, N.C., / secret hero of these poems’. N.C. refers to Neil Cassidy, Ginsberg’s former lover. ‘Howl’ is actually dedicated to another man Ginsberg spent time with in his twenties – Carl Solomon – who was incarcerated with him in a mental institution. Ginsberg writes directly about Solomon’s treatment in part three of the poem. Ginsberg also goes on to acknowledge the importance of Peter Orlovsky in the poem’s making: apart from the shared drug-taking (we see them in one scene howling at a skyscraper), it is only when Ginsberg has settled down with Peter does he feel he can tackle such a transgressive work of art.
I think Epstein and Friedman are presenting Ginsberg as both a ‘needy’ and ‘promiscuous’ writer – needy in the sense that he is rubbing up to all of his mates in the poem, courting favour, telling all of them at once that each one is his main source and inspiration, and ‘look, please love me too’; promiscuous in the sense that he is being indiscriminate in his focus and is quite happy to leave the text ‘open’ to numerous readings that emphasise quite different relationships (I have not even mentioned the role of Ginsberg’s parents in the making of the poem). This, in a sense, is the nub of the movie. Ginsberg, after all, was courting another figure in the design of ‘Howl’: the shade of Walt Whitman. Whitman’s declaration of openness (‘Do I contradict myself? / Very well, then, I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes’)) could equally be levelled at Ginsberg and his adopted strategies here.
As I have already briefly mentioned, the courtroom scenes are all played around this main focus of interpretation: what does the poem mean? Is the language used in the work obscene? Each witness provides his or her own reading of the poem. Ironically, those who feel they have pinned the piece down most securely are shown to be the most censorious of judges. Near the end of the movie, Ginsberg is given time and space to declare what he thinks the poem is really about, though whether we buy the author’s shtick unreservedly is a moot point. Ginsberg was great at the self-mythologizing stuff. One story has the first draft of ‘Howl’ purportedly written while Ginsberg was under the influence of a whole whack of drugs: a great surge of electricity. Reflecting on Ginsberg’s role as interpreter in this film, it’s no coincidence that Epstein and Friedman have decided to play over the end credits the Dylan song ‘This Wheel’s on Fire’ which has the rather pointed refrain: ‘If your memory serves you well.’ It took a while for the penny to drop, but I think I got the joke in the end.
Howl and other Poems by Allen Ginsberg (City Lights Books: reissued edition 1986)
Howl (dir. by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman: 2010)