A year ago, I was sitting in the audience of a poetry reading at the Ted Hughes Poetry Festival (Mexborough). The gifted poet Raymond Antrobus had just described ‘Deaf School’ by Ted Hughes as ‘an assault on the deaf community’. I listened carefully for an explanation, but I don’t recall Antrobus offering one that day. In the interval I wanted to talk to someone about this episode, but it didn’t feel right, and an opening didn’t occur. I was disappointed: discussion might have been interesting. I later discovered that Antrobus had published a redacted version of ‘Deaf School’ in his collection The Perseverance. This version has power as an act of raw deconstruction, but the poem that follows it (‘After Reading ‘Deaf School’ by the Mississippi River’) is a considerably more nuanced and imaginative riposte to Hughes. In a review of The Perseverance, Martyn Crucefix states that he once refused to teach Hughes’ ‘Deaf School’ (when asked), endorsing the view that it is ‘patronising and presumptuous’ (Antrobus actually implies that Hughes is not ‘wise’). I can imagine that Hughes’ bulletin from the 70s felt perfectly acceptable back then, but our own times demand different codes – especially in relation to marginalised groups. I’ve since gone back to Hughes’ lesser-known poem in search of evidence of an assault on a community. ‘Deaf School’ is a weird poem, and it is actually quite hard to pin Hughes’ position down. If the poem has any value (and I think it has some), perhaps it rests in certain undercurrents, operating on a less immediate level.
One thing is certain: I can’t know what it feels like to be someone from the deaf community reading Hughes’ poem, and I shouldn’t presume to. Many years ago, I was asked to facilitate a collaboration between deaf and hearing storytellers, and had visited the Royal School for the Deaf (Derby) in order to raise my awareness. The woman I spoke with offered me a great deal of practical and ethical advice, but didn’t stop there. Sensing my naivety, she leaned over and emphasised something important. The deaf community is a proud community, and many individuals in that community see themselves as belonging to something more civilised and humane than (the often discriminatory) mainstream society. Under no circumstances should I appear to patronise. I got the impression that she was warning me for my own good, not for the protection of deaf storytellers. Things have moved on since 1979, when ‘Deaf School’ was published in the ‘Earth-Numb’ section of Hughes’ transitional volume, Moortown. I have no wish to invalidate other perspectives on this poem – but I do want to engage with them.
Possibly, one of the hardest things to swallow about the poem is its position of highly detached observation, and the way in which this (privileged?) poet could be seen to be colonising a subject he has no right to wade into. Furthermore, the movement and facial expression of the deaf children is compared to that of animals. They are ‘monkey-nimble’, and ‘fish-tremulous’. Their faces are ‘small night lemurs caught in the flash-light’. This is highly vivid description, fairly typical of Hughes in his revelatory, observational mode. In some contexts, comparing (aspects of) a child to an animal might not seem respectful – except Hughes belongs to a line of poets (Blake, Whitman, Hopkins, Lawrence) who often venerate animals above humans. He frequently employs them as symbols of a more intense and authentic mode of being. If he describes the deaf children as ‘alert and simple’, simplicity is not necessarily an undesirable quality in the Hughes universe. Cerebral intellectuals were more likely to feel the lash of his contempt (see ‘Egg-Head’). In ‘Starlings’, it is the ‘distracting devils’ of human complexity that get in the way of writing poems. His poetry aspires to the simple, pure alertness of the bird. For Hughes, language itself is a kind of animal. The poem is a sort of creature.
Is ‘Deaf School’ callous because it arrogantly describes the children as ‘lacking a dimension’ (i.e. response to sound), defective in comparison with the superior fullness of the hearing? Is Hughes ‘othering’ deafness, or presenting it as less than human? Again, I don’t find an answer easy to formulate. It strikes me that Hughes’ account of what it feels like to have hearing is no less strange than his account of what it looks like to be deaf:
Their selves were not woven into a voice
Which was woven into a face
Hearing itself, its own public and audience,
An apparition in camouflage…
According to Hughes, to hear oneself speak is to embark on a process that leads to artifice, self-consciousness, narcissism, concealment and possibly deceit. The poem does seem to tie in with Hughes’ 1970s obsession with the inadequacy of language to fully express the self. His apprehension of deaf children is deployed in the service of a wider argument. They become a symbol of humanity in general – the essence is beneath the skin, beneath language.
Perhaps Hughes is guilty of marking the deaf children as defective, but there is still something else nagging me. If Hughes has objectified the deaf children by comparing them to lemurs, has he not also made the ‘apparition’ that hears his own voice equally strange. Is that ‘apparition’ a subliminal figuring of himself? The normalcy of ‘hearing’ feels equally scrutinised here. It reminds me of a science fiction story one of my MA students submitted. She presented a culture where speech was viewed as Satanic deceit. The people of this culture preferred the purity and authenticity of body language.
Unfortunately, Hughes’ evocation of the physical process of signing does not quite fit into a purity / authenticity thesis. In fact, his awkward evocation of this mode of communication is even more unnerving and contentious. The deaf children speak with a ‘machine’ that is external to their ‘hidden’ selves. The space this machine extends into is ‘alien’. Their hands (like their bodies) are ‘like the hammers of a piano’. Here Hughes seems to flounder, as analogy after analogy doesn’t quite capture the complexity of this mode of being: ‘a puppet agility’ with the ‘blankness of a hieroglyph’, ‘a stylised lettering / spelling out approximate signals’. This certainly ties in with the notion of a wider argument. If sign is portrayed as a machine that falls short, the language of Hughes’ poetry is also an unwieldly apparatus that fails to quite capture the essence of deafness and sign. Whatever Hughes’ daylight argument on deafness is, his poem is leading him (and us) into complex terrain. But the question still remains: does Hughes have the right to use the deaf children to explore this wider obsession with language?
The deaf children’s faces are described as ‘simple lenses of alertness’. In truth, it is Hughes who is most often a watcher – a wolf-watcher who wishes he could do better, and step into the skin of the wolf, taking ‘us’ with him. ‘Deaf School’ reaches such a pitch of hyper-watchfulness that poetry forgets to listen to its own voice (and diplomatically censor itself, perhaps). It free-associates analogies and images like an octopus grappling with a bar of soap. (‘Second Glance at a Jaguar’ does something similar.) The poem is as hyper-visual (and externalised) as Hughes’ vision of sign. The phrasing of the last stanza is perhaps unfortunate. Hughes tell us that the face of deafness is in ‘darkness’, ‘concealed and separate’. Maybe it is. I’m in no position to say. What the poem actually seems to enact, however, is that the face of deafness is concealed from the observational mode of writing Hughes is employing here.
Ironically, Hughes (the private man) was someone who often chose to keep his self / psyche ‘concealed’ and ‘separate’ for most of his literary career. One price he paid for this was what hostile parties projected onto his ‘apparition in camouflage’. Was the man arrogant, or was he emotionally wounded? (Ok, a person can be both.) Hughes does not seem (to me) to be consciously assaulting deafness in ‘Deaf School’, but he might be taking liberties with it as a subject. In his defence, he seems to muster all the watchfulness and mental energy he can in order to push through neat and superficial modes of expression. In fact, I detect a latent affiliation with the ‘separate’ or ‘concealed’. If his poem falls short in an attempt to cross a (perceived) gulf between the deaf and the hearing (or the children and the man), it succeeds at reminding us how potentially strange both modes of being are. It is not exactly a heroic failure, but it doesn’t seem hopelessly callous either. A journey into strangeness is exactly what I’d expect from the writer of Gaudete and Crow. On balance, I think ‘Deaf School’ deserves both criticism and a degree of open-minded re-reading. It’s a flawed poem, yes, but it could yield an interesting discussion.
Photograph by Warren Draper.
rise and taste
‘Mexborough, Water-Fronted Properties Released’, Matthew Clegg, The Navigators (Longbarrow Press, 2015)
Back in 2013, Ruth and I had moved to Mexborough in South Yorkshire. We were both working part-time – meaning, we wanted to earn enough money to pay our way, but we also wanted enough free time to maintain our creative projects. Someone had told us that rents in Mexborough were the lowest in the country. It took us completely by surprise when we discovered that Mexborough also had a budding poetry festival, organised under the umbrella of the Ted Hughes Project. I was enough of a Hughesian to know that the poet had once lived in a newsagent’s shop at 75 Main Street – roughly from the age of 8 to 18. I was also aware that he’d attended Mexborough Grammar School, where his poetic talents had been nurtured by Pauline Mayne and John Fisher. This is something of a hidden chapter of the Hughes biography – less mythologised by the man himself, and often completely omitted from high-profile documentaries about the poet. Perhaps Mexborough lacks the Brontean glamour of the Pennines; the mystique of Cambridge; or the pagan magic of Devon. It’s the poor relation in this family of places, and possibly the location claiming least credit for the role it played in making Hughes the kind of poet he went on to become. Ted Hughes’s South Yorkshire by Steve Ely tells the tale.
The first Mexborough event that caught my eye was ‘Ted Hughes School Days’ (2016). It featured a discussion panel made up of men and women who attended Mexborough Grammar School when Hughes was a pupil. Memories shared were good-humoured and humorous, and the event was warm and surprisingly hospitable. Perhaps this South Yorkshire community feel was what affected me most. Back then, the prominent organisers were Steve Ely and Dominic Somers. Steve brought a scholar’s knowledge of Hughes in Mexborough, and a poet’s feel for the anarchic energies of the place. Dominic had a free-spirited approach to community engagement – and plenty of creative flair. If Steve brought deep respect for the Hughes legacy, Dominic added just enough irreverence to prevent literary rigor mortis from setting in. I decided to join the ranks. One year later I would volunteer at several festival events: some were conventional readings, some not.
the fly doesn’t care
Stanford M. Forrester, Haiku in English (W.W. Norton & Company, 2013)
I’d like to focus on one of the least conventional. Democracy of Words (or DOW) began as a participatory spoken word event in Mexborough High Street, on the Saturday of the Festival. Dominic Somers and Ray Hearne are the creative engines behind this, and Ray describes it as a ‘pop-up open-mic-cum-stand-up stunt in the open air. The idea is to move beyond familiar gestures of tokenism, and form an alliance of kindred minds, spirits and attitudes to devise some practical ways of inviting those with a commitment to the area, residents, partisans or passers-through, to dip their toes for an hour or two in the lapping waters of poetry, in all its choppiness.’ In short, the event offers a platform for poets and bystanders to perform in the street and to the street. Democracy of Words has opened its arms to page poets, spoken-word poets, singers, and the occasional beatboxer. It has welcomed performers not quite in their teens, and performers well past retirement.
Ray Hearne takes on the task of emceeing, and it’s hard to do justice to the skill and spirit he brings to the role. Ray is a poet and songwriter who cut his teeth as a floor singer in folk clubs. He has wit, warmth and the gift of the gab. Ray will usually begin by broadcasting the ethos of DOW to the street, before breaking the ice with the first performance. Volunteers will keep the momentum going, and this will build throughout the early afternoon. There is also a corolla of other activities: haiku are drawn on the pavement in chalk, volunteers will ascend to the carpark above Poundland and recite stanzas of poems through a megaphone to the startled street below. I have seen respected poets like Vahni Capildeo and Yvonne Reddick recruited to do this, and it has been interesting to witness fragments of Crow being floated from above, arresting the attention of grocers and Jehovah’s Witnesses alike.
One year, a worker on her break strolled out of B&M and told the world that she didn’t understand poetry. Immediately, Ray responded, coaxing an impromptu poem from her words. A further challenge was laid down for anyone to improvise poems about objects on sale. For Ray, Democracy of Words ‘offers a ground-level stage on which to perform, in permanent expectation of heckles or the possibility of passing abuse or brickbats – so the incentive is to be unpretentious though never patronising or supercilious.’ Ray manages this without strain or awkwardness. Poetry climbs down from its pedestal. Parts of the street step into poetry. Happenstance keeps everyone alert. The open interaction is an artform in itself.
The tall chimney
is cool now; the workshops
fill with art.
In October 2019 Democracy of Words took flight from Mexborough and migrated to three new locations: Elsecar Heritage Centre, Doncaster Market, and outside Rotherham Market Hall. Elsecar was a softer environment in which to pilot this new phase of the project. The space was semi-enclosed: cradled between bars, craft shops, art studios and industrial heritage. The weather was good and the atmosphere easy-going. A steady stream of poets and writers came along to support the event. As Ray says, ‘if poetry is robust enough to look after itself, human beings are not; all good teachers know that confidence is all, and any willing individual can be coaxed, nurtured and developed from the lowest of bases towards an appreciation of their own potential agency as a crafter or turner or manipulator of words. DOWists are amongst those trying to model by example.’ I talked to Tracey Dawson, who, in mid-life, had found her way into poetry through Ian Parks’ long-running Read to Write initiative in Mexborough. Ian had encouraged her to write and memorise poetry, and this led to one of the most unforgettable moments of the day: 25 lines from Beowulf, recited from memory – and in the original Old English. This from someone not involved in poetry for much longer than two years. It was stirring to hear those eerie vowels from the roots of our culture filling the space between stone buildings, under a clear October sky with Autumn changes threatening. Drinkers sat and listened outside the Maison Du Biere, smiling and perplexed. Later in the day I was chalking a haiku on the pavement slabs. It was by the Japanese poet Issa. An elderly bloke walked up to me: ‘In my day, you’d’ve been caned for doing that…’ The humorous old haiku master would have smiled. I composed a reply:
In Issa’s day
he’d be doing this
By the time we pitched up outside Doncaster Market, the sky was turning. But Saturday is still Saturday, whatever the season. Here the liveliness was turned up a notch. We were competing against the hurly-burly of weekend trade. There were busy ranks of market stalls, and simply more people scrumming around and passing through. The great thing about where we were pitched was the broad acreage of pavement. This meant plenty of space for chalking haiku, couplets, aphorisms and lines of poems. I’d just mangled a couplet from Tony Harrison’s ‘A Kumquat for John Keats’ on the slabs:
‘[Life’s] one part sweet and one part tart:
say where the sweetness or the sourness start.’
A couple of guys in their twenties bounced over and one of them asked me what the lines said. I assumed I was in the way, and stood back so he could see them better. ‘No, mate, I can’t read!’ He seemed unabashed, so I recited the couplet for him. He gave me the thumbs up and walked off, smiling. If I had Tony Harrison’s email, I’d write to him. It was like a scene out of a gentler, better-humoured ‘V’. Later in the afternoon a pensioner walked up to me to chat. He said, ‘my wife has a beautiful reading voice. She can recite the whole of ‘The Owl and the Pussycat’ from memory’. Ray tried calling her over to perform, but she was too shy, or distracted. Her husband told me, ‘her talents are wasted on this life…’ I wrote the phrase down, and watched them stroll away, wishing them a world ‘where the Bong-Tree grows.’
A busker blows tunes
for the rain to fall through.
The puddles applaud.
Rotherham was where we earned our Red Badge of Commitment. The trains were scuppered by floods. It rained flat-out all day. We pitched our stall by the entrance of the indoor market, trying to take a little shelter from the deluge. Water dripped from the concrete above and slid down the back of my neck, giving me the shivers Emily Dickinson claimed were the sign of true poetry. Eventually, the market manager came out and told us we were creating a hazard, so could we please move. I wanted to test the authenticity of this charge, so I walked around to another entrance, where I discovered ten large men huddling around the doorway, smoking old-fashioned cigarettes. Three DOWists were a hazard, ten large men sucking on fags were not. We took it in our stride and moved a little further out into the rain. We battled on, reading against the rain, incorporating the rain into our poems, breathing and thinking pure rain, spitting out rain. The market manager returned. ‘I’m sorry’, he said, ‘but you have no right to be here. You have to move on.’ Ray had clearly been in this situation before. He was calm but firm: ‘We’ve got permission from the council. We’re being paid to be here. Here’s the gaffer’s number. You can ring her if you want.’ It was half comical, half edgy, a real cowboy standoff – poetry against health and safety, verse versus commerce. Less committed artists than Ray would have surrendered. Dominic intervened, taking Ray out of the firing line, or the market manager out of Ray’s. He bargained with the bloke for twenty minutes, and achieved a compromise. A gazebo was erected for us to stand under. People slowly joined us under there. They read protest poems from the 1980s. They read surrealist poems. They read nonsense poems. They read survivor poems. They read poems of unknown categories. The afternoon ended with Dominic’s young daughters reading Ted Hughes in their clear Yorkshire voices. We had the full hawk, pike and otter banquet. Poetry held its line against the rain. The day was won.
In last week’s press, X
reviewed Y: One of the best
poets now writing.
In this week’s press, Y
reviews X: One of the best
poets writing now.
‘Nips’, Peter Reading, Collected Poems: 1 (Bloodaxe Books, 1995)
There are many reasons to feel excited about the contemporary poetry scene. There are also reasons why a person might become jaded. Poets often feel marginalised, or ignored. Not everyone can find a way into the cliques and factions, or feel at home in them once they have. It can be hard to keep up with trends. There are also the sensitive matters of standing and prestige to be processed, and many poets have a tale about feeling snubbed or patronised. I’ve been practising the art for 30 years, and there are still moments when I feel I am standing outside looking in, like Larkin ambivalently watching the dancers in ‘Reasons for Attendance’. Working alongside Ray and Dominic has been a re-fresh experience. There is nothing precious about Democracy of Words; but plenty to be valued. There is the pleasure of working with a supportive, non-judgemental group. There is the buzz of being in the street, watching happenstance splash against the day’s canvas. There are the moments of genuine interaction, when you encounter unlikely people with a private passion for poems. There is an energy that comes from other performers when they overcome their nerves or inhibitions, and share something authentic. Some of us need to return to street level, and test the power of language in the most direct and immediate fashion – where ego or elitism cannot shield us. As Ray puts it, Democracy of Words provides an opportunity ‘where some of those who purport to live by the word might test their resolve, read, perform, or offer some utterance to the passing world’. That passing world is as impartial a jury as you will find. There are few spoken word venues more inclusive.
After Elsecar, Ray and me sat outside the Maison Du Biere. I wanted to learn more about how Ray found the path he walks now. I heard a rumour that he’d abandoned a PhD in the 80s, so he could devote his energies to community art. He may not have those three letters after his name, but he does have a presence and a reputation in South Yorkshire that should carry as much weight. There won’t be a Ted Hughes Festival in 2020. Instead, the project will return to grassroots events. We have a new creative producer – Dan Ryder – and a refreshed desire to take the power of words outside the usual factions and structures, and back into the topsoil. An anthology of football poetry is forthcoming by our associate publishers (Wild West Press), and readings are planned in sporting venues across South Yorkshire. I’m hoping we can broaden the remit, and celebrate bowling greens, cricket pitches, and all the other grassy spaces where people escape their stresses and strains. As Ray reminds us: ‘the DOWist is always a guest on somebody else’s turf and is there to share pleasantries even when artfully provocative. The DOWist approach might be viewed by some as a kind of aesthetic rewilding, but it is simply reintroducing poetry back to its natural environment…’ I’m rolling that phrase up in my kit bag when I next leave the house. Thanks, Ray!
Matthew Clegg’s collections – West North East, The Navigators, and Cazique – are available now from Longbarrow Press. Click on the links embedded in the titles above for extracts, essays and audio recordings.
Photo credits: 1 & 3 by Dominic Somers; 2 courtesy of the Rotherham Reader.
Not long ago, I stumbled into a website that sported an article titled ‘What Marketing Can Learn from Conmen.’ [i] There was something brazen about it that carried the stink of our times – this stage of capitalism that some people refer to as ‘late’. I was working on a poetry sequence about the confessions and self-justifications of a small-time conman, and had been looking for examples of how the psychology of manipulation is hard-wired into our culture. As I once heard someone remark: we all work in sales, now. Only the other day, I spotted an article published on The Guardian’s Academics Anonymous website that touched on the kind of false premises some universities can employ to lure students into postgraduate study. When far more people are graduating from PhD programs than the academy will ever employ, is an institution speaking in bad faith when it implies the qualification is ‘vocational’? Presumably, one lesson that marketing can learn from conmen is about the relationship between deception and self-deception. Find out what someone wants to believe. Find out how they are inclined to deceive themselves, and that’s where you will have leverage. It’s a simple and powerful principle. Even intelligent people can deceive themselves. Coleridge said: ‘men’s intellectual errors consist chiefly in denying.’ [ii] He knew.
The state of happiness we call a fool’s paradise is based on a person’s not knowing or denying the existence of potential trouble. It’s possible to view our deregulated global economy as one of the most spectacular fool’s paradises ever staged. In 2005 I remember sitting in a pub with an intelligent friend who was telling me how the new economics had defeated the cycle of boom and bust. Three years later, proliferating interest-only mortgages had collapsed the global markets, and Gordon Brown was bailing out the banks with public money. In The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine, Michael Lewis ascribes this to a combination of stupidity and something verging on institutional fraud: stupidity because investors fooled themselves into believing the winning streak could never end, and fraud because institutions did not accurately or transparently price the risk of their financial innovations. We are often reminded how important it is for society to be built on hope, but it seems we must also be reminded that ‘hope [can] be hope for the wrong thing’. [iii] In Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, Gordon Gecko defines insanity as the repeated pursuit of a goal that you know is doomed to fail. In the face of this, scepticism is clearly called for. Joseph Conrad called it ‘the tonic of minds, the tonic of life, the agent of truth – the way of art and salvation.’ [iv] Are we still not getting enough?
My interest in conmen is partly personal. When I was 16 or 17 my mother met a man who lured her into marriage with the promise of a better life. After investing her divorce settlement and her savings into his property development business, she was eventually left responsible for his debts when he absconded. Just before the end, she had glimpsed his mental instability, and intuited his darker intentions. She had tried to warn the bank against loaning him any more money, but they proceeded anyway. She tried to warn his business partner against further investment too, but he had already gone too far to contemplate turning back. This was the first conspiracy of denial I’d witnessed up close. My mother was declared bankrupt, evicted from her home, and thinking she had nowhere left to go, resorted to desperate measures. A year before these events, and on the brink of their separation, I remember sitting in the passenger seat of his Jaguar Saloon as he told me he would always look after my mother’s interests, and that everything would be OK. I wanted to believe him, so I did. Afterwards, I felt like I’d followed my mother up the Congo. Nostromo, Conrad’s epic of the corrupting power of material interests, became my favourite novel.
2016 was a fruitful year for anyone combing world events for material to create a cast of Shakespearean villains. Certainly, the news presented us with a gallery of public grotesques that art would struggle to rival. It was a good year for the ‘crooks and tarts’ of political manipulation. Just before Trump’s election, and our own Brexit Circus, I had been reading about the 19th century conman, Gregor MacGregor, a man Roger Cook refers to as the greatest conman of all time. As The Guardian reported in October 1823:
‘Some months ago Sir Gregor MacGregor, a person of whom we do not choose to say all that we think, induced a number of persons, chiefly Scotch, to emigrate to a settlement which he gave them to understand was formed, and in a flourishing condition, on the Mosquito Coast of Honduras. The most deceptive statements were published respecting the country for which these poor people were thus induced to relinquish their homes: it was described as a land flowing with milk and honey, abounding with all the good things of life to such a degree that a man was sure to make his fortune in a very short time.’
MacGregor was a military veteran and adventurer – a stylish and glamorous figure, wishing himself to be known as ‘His Highness, the Cazique of Poyais’. Once exposed in Britain, he claimed to have been the victim of fraud and embezzlement himself. He travelled to France and attempted to repeat the scam – very nearly succeeding in sending another ship of colonists to ‘Poyais’.
The ‘Cazique’ of my own sequence is a much smaller figure – if not always in his own mind. He is somewhere between American Hustle’s Irving Rosenfeld, and my mother’s second husband. The latter, if he is to be believed, was also the damaged survivor of a deprived childhood. His mother suffered mental illness, and his father absconded, never to re-appear. He even claimed to have been abused in a military prison, after he went AWOL from the Royal Navy. When I first met him, I thought his eyes had a sad, mesmeric quality, and I was impressed by how carefully he appeared to choose his words. He passed onto me his love of rock music’s transformer artists – especially David Bowie in his Ziggy Stardust pomp, and Lou Reed in the early 70s. The character I’ve tried to create also shares this love, and I’ve added to it a fascination with Milton’s Satan, and Shakespeare’s Iago and Edmund the Bastard. My ‘Cazique’ is part anti-hero, part trickster, and part fallen angel. A genie of deception and self-deception, he recognises how our own world is in thrall to ideals of truth, but still unable to live entirely by its strictures. He speaks honestly about deception, and sometimes spins deceit out of his truth. He appeals to be saved or reformed, but cannot entirely overcome his addiction to seductive facades, or quite abandon the pleasures of the chase. What else does he have?
Some years ago I found a documentary about the great Australian comedian Barry Humphries. It focused on his relationship with one of his own character creations: Sir Les Patterson. This particular grotesque had origins both inside and outside the mind of Humphries. On the one hand, Patterson is a composite of various Australian political figures – vain, chauvinistic and crass – and on the other, he is a cutting taken from Humphries’ own psyche: everything that his creator tries to suppress in himself – the smoking, the drinking, the shameless promiscuity. Creative practice proceeds from both the outside in, and from the inside out. I confess that when my creating writing students assert that their character creations are entirely separate and external to themselves, I worry that they are speaking like those who fear social rejection, should their psyches be exposed in any way to judgement. If so, perhaps they are wise. We live in a period of growing political polarization. In Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion [v], the psychologist Jonathan Haidt has pointed out how this threatens to descend into dysfunctional tribalism. He warns us against our tendency to use our reason more in the manner of a lawyer trying to prosecute or defend a case, and less like someone impartially seeking understanding. In this kind of climate, we can be too quick to judge. My ‘Cazique’ is certainly a composite of external figures, but he also taps into the devils that sit in conference inside my own mind – waiting for when I am weak or desperate enough to listen. Since I have been infected with Joseph Conrad’s tonic scepticism, I find it hard to believe that any writer is not occasionally tempted by demons of seduction or manipulation. I’m with Baudelaire: there’s a whole menagerie inside our skulls!
I thought long and hard about the spirit in which I should approach this sequence. I’ve studied two masters: Peter Reading’s career-long panoply of found voices – voices ‘observed’ and pasted from our flawed social fabric; and Fernando Pessoa’s heteronyms, created from mutilations of his own personality – alter egos generated by the cracked prism of his hidden psyche. Reading is the clinical observer of social phenomena, and Pessoa is the occult medium conversing with the internal world. The Taoist in me wishes to walk a path between the lure of both – just as I wish to walk a path between scepticism and compassion. I am moved by Albert Camus’ ‘Create Dangerously’ [vi], a speech urging the modern writer to proceed in the spirit of understanding: ‘Instead of being a judge, he is a justifier. He is the perpetual advocate of the living creature, because he is alive.’ No doubt this is the spirit that Camus employed to present his anti-hero in The Outsider. In trying to understand the psyche of my ‘Cazique’ – his gamut from victimhood to villainy, riches to regret – I’ve also tried to find a means to structure and dramatize the life of a living creature – not just another straw man for the judgement bonfire.
Logos: Speeches for Two Occasions
That’s the f*ckin’ art of becoming somebody who people can pin their beliefs and their dreams on.
– Irving, American Hustle
Are the games we play really so different?
What would you do in the name of survival?
Dress above budget to make an impression?
Amp up the grades of those exams you bungled?
File off the burr of your whatever accent?
Doctor your interests, the place of your schooling?
Miss out the fact that you dropped out of uni?
Claim as your glory the work of a colleague?
Inflate your status by name-dropping others?
It seems to me, now, we serve the same mistress –
and this is the code we have to adhere to:
you need to get creative if you want to level the field.
You can’t make a sum unless you invest one.
If your bait is too big, no-one will trust it.
It has to be small enough to believe in,
but just ripe and round to make the mouth water.
Whatever it is, you have to present it,
and make sure it doesn’t blow up or spiral.
Ideally don’t play with more than one target;
take your time choosing, and learn to spot someone
who needs you to help them push for promotion
to a league just above their natural level.
If you follow these rules, things will run smoothly:
the more cautionary noises you sham, the more they’ll want to play.
[i] This has since been taken down.
[ii] S.T. Coleridge, Anima Poetae, 1895
[iii] T.S. Eliot, ‘East Coker III’, from Four Quartets, 1943
[iv] Letter to John Galsworthy, 1901
[v] Penguin, 2013
[vi] Create Dangerously, Penguin Modern: 17, 2018
Cazique is the third full-length poetry collection by Matthew Clegg. A beautifully produced 96-page hardback, it is available from Longbarrow Press for £12.99 (+ P&P). You can order the book securely by clicking on the relevant PayPal button below.
Cazique: £12.99 (hardback)
Early on a bitterly cold, January morning, I walked through Derby city centre, on my way to work. On St Peter’s Street, in the recessed doorway of Lloyds Bank, a homeless couple were bedded down together in a nest made out of dirty blankets and two zipped together sleeping bags. They were obviously huddling for warmth. A few days later, making that same journey, the scene had changed. The recessed doorway had been hosed and soaped down. You could still see the suds, draining into the gutter. On lampposts opposite were two offerings of flowers, in cellophane. I don’t know if these details were in any way connected, but it’s hard not to think so. It reminded me of a spate of articles I’d read over Christmas: articles presenting data gleaned from interviews with homeless people. This data revealed alarming figures about the number who had been attacked or verbally abused by individuals from the general populace. Many homeless people felt like they needed to stick together – not just for warmth, but for safety. It also made me think of the anti-homeless benches and anti-homeless spikes installed in cities now.
A few years ago, I read Paul Farley’s poem ‘Tramp in Flames’, the title piece of his third collection. On one level it appears to be an elegy for a dead or dying ‘tramp’ – a man cruelly doused in petrol and ignited. On another level it’s a clever series of tropes, each one mediating reality differently. The poem bears witness to a tramp in flames through various lenses. You can imagine the incident first being mediated through CCTV footage, and then through simile, metaphor, surrealism, and memory association – the slightly distancing devices of the poet. Is the poem adequate to the awful event it describes? Does it succeed in redeeming the ‘personhood’ of the dying tramp from the series of tropes? Is this one of the moral obligations of poetry? Farley’s poem offers no comfortable answer, and it isn’t affecting in the classic sense, but it does make me question the freedoms and responsibilities of art.
Peter Reading’s 1989 volume Perduta Gente also focuses on the plight of the homeless. Like Farley, Reading had a background in Fine Art. Perduta Gente employs various presentation techniques, including cut-up, montage, found material, classical lyric, and diary extracts. The book offers a continuous thread of alternating modes and perspectives. Reading’s ‘One day a lone hag gippo arrived…’ begins in the first person plural. Where Farley’s lyric ‘we’ attempts to create accord with the hypothetical reader, Reading references a real community: a group of childhood school friends. The poem dramatizes their callousness towards this woman. The first level of this is revealed by the names they use to describe her: ‘hag’ and ‘gippo’. Throughout Perduta Gente Reading deliberately employs dismissive nouns commonly applied to vagrants: ‘winos’, ‘losers’, ‘alcos’, ‘dossers’. These names keep their subject’s humanity at bay and imply all blame for their predicament rests with them.
Is Reading implicating his childhood self in this process, or is the episode dramatic monologue? The unease is deepened as the poem narrates their remorseless campaign of cruelty. When the first person singular is used in stanza two, it is only to reveal that the speaker is ‘horribly startled’ by what he sees when he pries into the gypsy’s caravan. She provokes his disgust, not his compassion. His account reduces her to a glaring eye, ‘matted hair’, a ‘withered leg’ and a stink of ‘excreta’. There is an ambiguity about the last stanza that I find poignant. Although the poem seems to be relating how a vagrant has been chased off once again, a stain is left behind marking the spot where she has been, ‘etiolated and crushed’. The adjective ‘etiolated’ is curious. What is the ‘light’ this woman lacked, or was deprived of? Does Reading mean the light of humane society? There is a degree of poetic justice that her stain ‘blighted that place, and remained.’ The speaker is not moral, but the poem implicitly holds him to account. In order not to feel complicit with the lack of humanity on the surface level of this poem, the reader’s compassion is drawn upon to fill the vacuum.
In ‘Tramp in Flames’ Farley’s subject doesn’t speak, whereas Perduta Gente is peppered with instances where the lost people articulate. ‘missiz an me inda warm inda Euston…’ is a fine example of Reading’s ‘dosser-speak’. Here we encounter a lingo that fuses drunken slur and London vernacular. These bursts from the ‘dossers’ fuse elements of both the Devils and the lost souls in Dante’s Inferno. In ‘Outside Victoria station…’ the ‘dosser’ kicking his wife and bellowing ‘fugg-bag, / fuggbagging fugg-bag’ could be one of Dante’s tormenting demons. In ‘missiz and me…’ the effect is more imploring: ‘savvy dis noosepaper see? / sonly bed we gotter nigh…’ The pun on ‘noosepaper’ is acute. It is the London property pages that this homeless couple will be wrapped in when night falls.
The vernacular passages take us deeper into homelessness: here even language is brutal and brutalised. Yet this idiom is perhaps the only one adequate to that predicament. Reading it we are sucked deeper into that world and reminded just how cruelly different it is. The painstaking lengths to which Reading goes to render this vernacular implies respect for his subjects. It also deepens the reader’s sense of encounter with another stratum. Reading’s approach is immediate and sociological. These people are in our midst, imploring us to listen. They are also on the other side of a social gulf the minute they open their mouths.
‘Tramp in Flames’ references popular culture, surrealism, history and personal memory association. The poem’s opening declares that the tropes employed are ‘heat shields for re-entry / to reality’, which invites us to believe the poem will bring us there eventually – once the heat cools. Reading also leans heavily on reference and allusion. Like ‘Tramp in Flames’, ‘Now we arrive at the front of the ruin…’ employs shifting lenses. Dante-like images invite comparison between Mucky Preece’s ‘derelict L Barn’ and a structure from the Inferno. This sense is deepened when the poem shifts its reference again, quoting directly from newspaper property pages:
Money no object to buyer of L-shaped
picturesque old barn
seeking the quiet country life
This is biting irony, offering scathing economic context. Juxtapositions of this kind are common in Reading’s work. They are a recurrent jolt to the reader’s expectations. Reading has seduced us through his command of classical reference only to offer rude awakening through found material. His command of classical metres is equally seductive. This is nowhere more apparent than in ‘Often at dusk in the birch woods beyond…’ By and large the metre is Reading’s adaptation of the Latin elegiac distich. It usually involves breaking the long line into combinations of longer and shorter lines. Enjambment often occurs on unstressed syllables, except when closing a motion of thought. In this poem stressed line endings include ‘gloom’, ‘loss’, ‘gone’ (twice) and ‘ash’ – affecting words. The metre is plangent, melancholy and mournful. It carries the burden of loss with something like dignity whilst still facing up to ugliness. I believe Blake Morrison is right to point out that ‘for all its mix of registers, [Reading’s] art aspires to the condition of music’. Whilst his use of found material and demotic language jolts and challenges the reader, his music has the affective power to open us up emotionally. When he fuses the two the effect is unforgettable.
Reading was often dismissed as somehow marginal in British poetry – a curmudgeonly maverick, beating the distich of doom. His work was even labelled as Thatcherite by some. I find this difficult to accept – as he is so often critical of heartlessness, and, certainly, I cannot find any poems that portray the invisible hand of the free market looking after society. His city isn’t an ideological separation of the worthy from the unworthy. One thread of Reading’s work was a sustained engagement with individual suffering within a sharply observed socio-economic reality. He doesn’t offer solutions, but he can witness and give voice. Most importantly, he can make us question our desire to insulate ourselves against affect. ‘Don’t think it couldn’t be you…’ is a refrain repeated throughout Perduta Gente. Reading’s work possesses urgency and a necessity that brings it close to what Joseph Conrad called ‘the destructive element’ – an element we would be foolish to think we can escape or distance ourselves from. How will contemporary poets respond to the current social and economic climate? In many ways, we live in strange and grotesque times. Five years after his death, Reading might deserve a re-appraisal. Perduta Gente will be with me as I walk through the streets between the private bubble of home, and the corporate bubble of work. Let the last words here be from Reading’s 1997 collection, Work in Regress:
From the Chinese
I donate money to a beggar;
it is not much, but he has half my wealth.
I am reminded of the sage’s words:
If the mendicant gets drunk tonight,
then I am happy also.
Perduta Gente appears in the second volume of Peter Reading’s Collected Poems (Bloodaxe Books, 1996). An earlier blog post by Brian Lewis, ‘The Sandpit’, also reflects on Perduta Gente and themes of homelessness, precarity and shelter.
Matthew Clegg’s second full-length collection, The Navigators, is available now from Longbarrow Press; click here for extracts, essays and audio recordings. You can also order the hardback via PayPal below:
The Navigators: £12.99
In making an application for a fellowship of the Higher Education Academy, I was invited to reflect on the philosophy behind my teaching practice. As I teach creative writing in a university, and am a working poet, you would expect there to be a strong relationship between my teaching and my creative practice. I had some rewarding conversations with a colleague about the education philosophy of Ivan Illich, and his work Deschooling Society (1971). If you’re not familiar with Illich, he believed there are roughly two types of education: one based on the notion of syllabus, legitimised by authority, and designed to serve its agendas; and one based on the notion of conviviality, whereby people come together to learn what they want to learn – that is, what is convivial to them. If the former is disseminated through conventional institutions, the latter could be organised through what Illich described as ‘learning webs’ – or informal networks.
My colleague and I agreed that conviviality is central to creative practice – and that if we were to explore this principal more freely, we would need to set something up outside the conventional syllabus, and the orthodox classroom. This is why we created the Co-Conspirators salon in Derby, a space for students, ex-students and creative practitioners to come together and exchange passions, interests and ideas in the spirit of convivial learning. The group has been meeting for over a year. It’s both a supplement to the creative writing degree, and an open forum.
Going back to my earlier question – about the link between my teaching philosophy and my creative practice – I realise that both are tied up with notions I have about the value of being self-taught, of being an autodidact. My own writer’s apprenticeship followed this path – as many have in the past. I first recognised the value of poetry whilst I was undertaking low-paid, low-status jobs, in my twenties, not when I was in conventional education. Whilst working as an ice-cream man, someone gave me an anthology of poems, because I looked bored. A poem called ‘Roe Deer’, by Ted Hughes, switched on my whole nervous system, and from then on I was curious. Later, I was employed by Argos as a Christmas temp, working in the basement – filtering out a soundtrack of Led Zeppelin’s In Through the Out Door. I carried a copy of Ted Hughes in one pocket, and a copy of T. S. Eliot in the other. I inhabited these books, and began making my own incantations out of words.
One thing I worry about, now I teach creative writing in a university, is that I’m serving two phenomena I’m uncomfortable with: a cultural addiction to syllabus, and a possible institutionalising of creative practice, through affiliation with the orthodoxies of academe. Let me take care: I’m not questioning the value of the best work undertaken by my colleagues and myself in higher education. You will certainly find a healthy spirit of imagination and integrity disseminated by creative writing staff at Derby University. Artists need to balance integration and differentiation in their creative lives, and there is value in learning how to integrate with cultural institutions. Equally, the differentiation that occurs along the autodidact’s less orthodox path is of value too. Illich wrote eloquently about how the position of the autodidact has been discredited in modern society, and how this has perpetuated the interests and economy of syllabus and power. Become too integrated, and you risk being institutionalised, addicted to validation; but become too differentiated and you risk being nowhere.
Perhaps some students sense this, and this is why they feel they must chase grades rather than pursue passions, or get lost in a subject. Of course, as an ex-student of mine told me recently, it is possible to do both – that the differentiated passions can lead to the grades.
Let me write briefly about the first autodidact I knew: my grandfather. He began his working life as a butcher’s boy, in London, eventually becoming a butcher’s driver. During the blitz he was a fire-warden, and the story goes that this offered him an experience that changed his life. After an air raid, he gained entry into an exclusive London hotel and restaurant. He was incensed by the luxury he witnessed there. At a time where the London poor were struggling with rationing, the wealthy were dining extravagantly. After the war, he left London, and travelled north, where he taught himself to be a joiner and interior decorator, and where he helped build houses, churches and schools for ordinary people. He taught himself the basics of car mechanics too, and, when he retired, taught himself to build boats. He made a cabin cruiser out of plywood and fibreglass – a boat I’ve written about in the poem ‘Jasmine’, from The Navigators.
When we were children, my sister and I received many home-made toys and presents from him: bikes, sledges, go-carts, model yachts, doll’s houses, a see-saw that also span around like a merry-go-round. Our house was filled with his handiwork: chairs, tables, cabinets, chests, a sliding partition. This was a man without a single formal qualification – and yet he embodied craft, skill and creativity. I have been in danger of idealising him and his generation, perhaps in proportion to all the ways in which our society of syllabus, qualification and legitimised practice has made his kind a thing of the past. In my imagination, he is something akin to Yeats’ fisherman – ‘a man who does not exist, / a man who is but a dream’ – more symbol than flawed flesh and blood. Nevertheless, I think about him more as I get older, and I’d like to work out a way to infect my students with something of his independence and convivial ingenuity.
His son – my uncle Bill – was certainly as independent and ingenious as his father, but I think he understood all the ways in which his father’s path would be harder to follow in the modern world. He did become a qualified engineer – through the army – but he also saw how legitimisation ran even deeper than qualifications. My mother says he became embittered – acutely sensitive to class orthodoxies and discriminations. He disappeared into the kind of voluntary nowhere where the too-differentiated often go to escape the painful and frustrating jostle for place. A talented engineer became an odd job man in a private marina – living on a lifeboat he’d converted into a home. He died of cancer of the spine, in his early 50s. I didn’t get the chance to know him. I wish I had.
I certainly haven’t walked a conventional path through academe. I haven’t served much of an apprenticeship as an orthodox scholar. My research abilities are no doubt adequate to the kind of poems I write, but they are no more than that. If you measure the worth of a poet by their scholarship, or their more pedantic tendencies, then you are likely to pass over mine. Many of my students will go on to become better academics than I will ever be. I find it extremely hard to write anything as pure research – without the filter of experience, or near-experience – or without a creative objective. According to some orthodoxies, my work is likely to appear insufficiently impersonal – and I’m ill-at-ease with the jargon vocabulary of academe, or its enlightenment sense of knowledge, or what counts as original research. But I persevere. I am interested in creative practice, however, and in how each practitioner will need to both integrate and differentiate themselves, if they are to continue on their own with a life of convivial, creative growth.
The Co-Conspirators currently meet on the second Tuesday of each month, in Derby. If you’re interested in coming along, please email Matthew Clegg at firstname.lastname@example.org for the time and location, and any other details.
Matthew Clegg’s second full-length collection, The Navigators, is available now from Longbarrow Press; click here for more information about the book.
Images: Bark, Endcliffe Park, Sheffield, 28 May 2016 (photographs by Brian Lewis)
Clock-tick, birdsong, cars.
My palate wakes from last night:
whisky, woodsmoke, stars.
This is how I remember it. It was the first autumn of the new millennium. I was poet in residence at The Wordsworth Trust, living yards from Dove Cottage – Wordsworth’s home for nine of his most creative years. My girlfriend, Chloe, was away in Spain: on holiday with two of her friends. I’d received a postcard from her saying they weren’t getting on as well as she hoped. I got it into my head to write her a sequence of wonder poems, detailing the passage of the Lakeland autumn – a record of the season she was missing. It was a period when I was discovering the Japanese haiku masters (Bashō, Buson and Issa), and I was reading about connections between Wordsworth’s thought and Eastern religion. I’d also been collaborating with Angela Hughes – an energetic visual artist from the north-east – and had been influenced by her process of working outside, or in situ. Inspired by this combination, I’d decided to make my poems for Chloe a sequence of linked haiku – or renku. I would wander through the Vale of Grasmere every day she was absent, writing poems on the hoof. I called my sequence ‘Trig Points’. I saw it as an act of creative mapping: a triangle of the inner, domestic and outer worlds. There was one further layer of influence operating on the sequence: the influence of musical forms and process. I was living under the spell of three musical works: Bach’s ‘Goldberg Variations’, Steve Reich’s ‘Electric Counterpoint’, and Nick Drake’s album, Five Leaves Left. These compositions nourished my creative process, and led me towards a further collaboration with Simon Heywood, in his guise as a composer and folk guitarist.
1. Fugue: Bach’s ‘Goldberg Variations’
Chloe and I shared a love of Glenn Gould’s performances of Bach’s ‘Goldberg Variations’. I have a vivid memory of her arriving at my house one afternoon, and dancing as the first variation leaps away from the theme. The story goes that a Russian Ambassador, Count Kaiserling, commissioned Bach to compose them as a balm for insomnia brought on by poor health. Goldberg was the dutiful musician who had to play the variations to the Count, from an antechamber. Both the therapeutic and the formal aspects of the work appealed to me. As in fugue, a theme is introduced, then developed through 30 variations, before it is recapitulated at the end – implying some evolutionary growth. ‘Trig Points’ was the first poetry sequence where I experimented with the form of fugue variation. The sequence opens with the poet waking to a morning in early autumn: the taste of smoke, whisky and starlight still on his palate. It plays out 25 haiku variations before returning to a differently nuanced reference to smoke and light: this time in late autumn. It is implied that the next morning will be the first of winter. The whisky has been drunk. The new season will wake up colder and darker: more smoke, less light. The sequence is precious to me as a record of my last full autumn in Grasmere. The following October I returned to Leeds: in the wake of 9/11, I resumed an urban life of alleyways, terraces and a view of the Crossgates gasometer from my attic window. Chloe had moved to Clapham, to work in reader development. Our idyll in Grasmere was over. My memories would lose definition: chimney smoke blurring into that November dusk.
2. Shimmer and Pulse: Steve Reich’s ‘Electric Counterpoint’
I’d fallen under the spell of Steve Reich’s ‘Electric Counterpoint’. Its feeling of intense trance made it a piece I could close my eyes and listen to with complete absorption. Stripped of all but the clean patterns of plucked strings, it had a cleansing effect on my mind. Then there was the sense of dazzle – of shimmering light reflections bouncing off rippled water. Most appealing of all, perhaps, is the strength and steadiness of rhythm – of pulse. This pulse has such physical presence and purposeful momentum. Although its rhythms change, they never falter. The piece is aerobically robust. I wanted my haiku sequence to possess these qualities of trance, shimmer and pulse. There is no doubt that trance is a quality that links renku and Wordsworthian blank verse. On some days, autumn in the Vale of Grasmere was like being inside a globe of changing light – light off the lakes and rivers, and off the changing colours of the fell-sides. Pulse was the daily health and pleasure I took from it. Shortly after I composed ‘Trig Points’, I developed panic attack syndrome, and my pulse went wayward – often haywire. I would return to the poetic sequence years later – often when struggling to recover a healthy heart rate. My later sequence, ‘Edgelands’, could be seen as ‘Trig Points’ mark two: Eden, post fall from wonder into anxiety.
3. Fuse: Nick Drake’s Five Leaves Left
In his ‘Notes Towards a Supreme Fiction’ [i], Wallace Stevens says: ‘Music falls upon the silence like a sense, / a passion that we feel, not understand.’ When we hear or feel music, we are the music. We inhabit it, and it inhabits us. We are fused with it. In the late 80s I was living on the ground floor of a dive in Wolverhampton. I had holes in my floorboards. I’d gone to sleep, and was dreaming about a rat crawling up from the cellar. Then my housemates must have disturbed me. They’d come back from a club and put on Nick Drake’s Five Leaves Left in the room next door. It was like waking into another, better dream. The track I woke to was ‘Three Hours’. It sounds like a fusion of folk-roots, jazz and Indian raga. ‘Raga’ derives from the Sanskrit, meaning ‘colouring’, or dying, or, more figuratively, ‘something which colours our emotions.’ ‘Three Hours’ is somehow intense, melancholy and full of longing. I was a 20 year old who had grown up in the 70s and 80s, on the urban edge of East Leeds. This music became the music that expressed my own nostalgia for something I’d not properly experienced – an English pastoral inflected with a trance of Eastern mysticism. It was a cobweb, floating from 1969 – the year of its composition, and my birth. Of course, my two years in Grasmere brought me a little closer to that pastoral. I wasn’t looking to fuse with raga, but with haiku. Both share an emphasis on mood, and on seasonal references. I wanted to take some of the domestic qualities of western poetry – aphorism and proverb – and marry them to the Zen epiphanies of Japan. The delicacy I heard in Nick Drake’s guitar playing was something that helped me prime my attention for lyric. Much of the poetry I’d written before then had been more narrative in mode. I wanted to exchange storytelling for something closer to music – to the Japanese koto, or the Anglo-Saxon lyre. I wanted to learn how to pluck mood notes with language, and let those notes resonate and flow. Sometimes, I would go to sleep listening to the ebb and flow of Five Leaves Left. I would get up the next day, and walk out into autumn, where haiku notes would ebb and flow in turn. Only three times in my life have I felt this sense of walking inside a music that I was listening to, and composing, all at the same time. ‘Trig Points’ was the first time, ‘Edgelands’ was the second, and ‘Moving with Thought’, from Chinese Lanterns, was the third.
During my last summer in the Lakes, Simon Heywood and myself walked from Grasmere to Lorton Vale, where his parents have a caravan. The journey was some 30 miles, over the fells. We talked a lot. Simon’s connections with the Lake District run deeper than mine, so it seemed natural, later, that we would collaborate on a piece that fused my haiku and his music. I talked about Basil Bunting’s experiments with the sonata form, when composing poetry. Simon spoke about the challenge of feeding the economy of haiku, and the flow of renku into the composition of music. In the end we adapted something like the four-part structure of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony: calm, thanksgiving, storm, and calm after storm. Drawing from musical sources and collaborating with a musician was a necessary stage in my transformation from a predominantly narrative artist into one who has fallen under the spell of pattern, pulse and coloured emotion. I shouldn’t be so surprised. Long before I wrote a poem, I’d been a drummer in a Crossgates marching band. I couldn’t play or read music, but I could immerse myself in it and keep time. Inhabiting or keeping time to music – heard or implied – has helped me shape my thoughts and feelings, and refresh my writing process. It has even helped me keep writing when my creative pulse has faltered. Music is nothing if not transformation and momentum combined.
Listen to the 2007 arrangement of the haiku sequence ‘Trig Points’ performed by Clegg and guitarist Simon Heywood (thanks to Robin Vaughan-Williams for recording and broadcasting this version on his Spoken Word Antics Radio Show):
‘Trig Points’ appears in Matthew Clegg’s second full-length collection, The Navigators (Longbarrow Press, 2015); click here for more information about the book. ‘Not Daffodils’, an earlier blog post reflecting on the Grasmere residency, appears here.
[i] Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens, New York, Knopf, 1954
In The Faraway Nearby, Rebecca Solnit writes: ‘The self is a patchwork of the felt and unfelt, of presences and absences, of navigable channels around the walled-off numbness’. The same might be said of a book of poems. Some years ago my writing journey had run aground on an island of my own making. I was living in a mouldy flat. I’d resigned from a job that had made me ill. A very important relationship had broken down. I was still struggling with my health, fighting a numbness brought on by absences of my own. One Sunday I tuned into a radio programme called ‘Homer’s Landscapes’, written and presented by Adam Nicolson. In it, Nicolson examined the journey Odysseus made to Hades, where he must feed blood, honey and wine to the ghost of Tiresias, in order to restore to him the gift of speech. Only Tiresias can offer Odysseus the directions he needs to complete his homeward journey. According to Nicolson, it is as if the Greeks believed that the body and taste of these things were essential not only to life, but to language too. This is a metaphor for poetry itself – for any attempt to make absences or abstractions concrete. The ghosts need their blood and honey, otherwise they’ll remain silent shadows.
This is why I’ve chosen to start my new collection, The Navigators, with a version of this episode of The Odyssey. It acts as a kind of prologue to a book that is full of reconstructions: crowded with personal, historical and mythical ghosts. Marooned on my own journey, I needed to consult with them in order to restore my sense of direction. Some of the poems in this new book predate poems in West North East (Longbarrow Press, 2013), and some of them were written immediately after. One thing that distinguishes them from the poems in my first volume is a broadening of the canvas of time and place. Another is a greater fascination with the flowing element of water, as it moves through both. The collection starts with rain falling in Cumbria. It flows to the South Yorkshire waterways, before arriving at the sea and another scene in another navigational myth from Ancient Greece.
Section 1: Trig Points
The collection begins with poems born out of a writing residency at Wordsworth’s Dove Cottage. The first drafts were written some 13 years ago. They’ve been re-drafted many times since – the form just eluding me, until I started experimenting with free and open forms in 2014. I’ve taken a long time to discover what many poets start with. This sequence chiefly maps my relationship with the landscape, with creatures, and with my companion of that time, C. Cumbria was the glue that held C and me together, and our relationship struggled after we left. It was as if we couldn’t agree on a landscape we wanted to share – and so we retreated separately to places closer to our origins. The poems in Trig Points also triangulate mental journeys between past, present and projected future. C and I lacked a shared vison of the future, but this doesn’t stop the heart wanting to look back at a loved person and a loved place, trying to find embers to carry forward. Time is a cold landscape without these embers. The frame of this section of the book is also haunted by myth and history. There is a recent adaptation of passages from Aristophanes’ The Birds, and a sequence that touches on events in Kosovo. Many Kosovan refugees settled in Cumbria, and if I go beyond my right to speak of such subjects, I do so in order to remind myself that no idyll is unvisited by voices from worlds outside it. I thought this each time a military jet passed over the Cumbrian sky.
Section 2: The Navigators
In 2009 I received a commission to write poems about the history of the South Yorkshire waterways. I’m no stranger to canals. My grandfather had built a canal boat after he retired, and many holidays in my childhood were spent on his cabin-cruiser, navigating the Leeds-Liverpool canal. The commission resulted in some historical monologues in the voices of navvies and boatmen, as well as personal reminiscences of time on my grandfather’s boat. In 2013 I moved to Mexborough, in South Yorkshire, and found myself 5 minutes from the canal. There, I navigated the waterways as they are now. On one stretch of the canal, a number of houses back onto the water. From the street, they look like ordinary semis or terraces, but from the canal bank they appear more exotic – the domestic waterfronts decorated with bunting, statues of herons, and with little huts and fishing platforms. Some homes even have boats. There is something exciting, for me, about having a boat at the bottom of the garden. I suppose it is possible to look at the motorcar as Everyman’s Argo, parked in the driveway or the street outside every home. But it doesn’t work for me. There’s something special about a boat – about stepping off land and onto a craft that navigates another element. Any waterway has a mystery that a road can’t achieve. When I think of my time on my grandfather’s boat, I realise my experiences were a growth. It’s more poignant now because I understand how important that new adventure was at the end of my grandparents’ lives. Parts of my coming of age and their retirement coincided on the waterways. The canals will always lead back to my history, and to theirs. And they lead back to history with a capital H (or even a dropped one).
Section 3: Cave Time and Sea Changes
In ‘Reference Back’, Philip Larkin said that ‘though our element is time, / We are not suited to the long perspectives / Open at each instant of our lives.’ All through my life, long perspectives have opened in coastal landscapes. I’ve returned to the sea for reflection and regeneration, and the poems I’ve set there are epiphanies that hatch on literal and metaphorical thresholds. This final section explores key moments in three romantic relationships. I’ve questioned whether there might be something insensitive about placing love poems for three women in such proximity. However, I am interested in the drama of the human heart in time. This is supposed to be one of the things the compass of poetry helps us navigate – look at poems from Gilgamesh to Hardy’s Poems of 1912-13 to Hughes’ Birthday Letters. In this final section I try to construct my own compass. The denouement is a sequence that explores Proustian memories of Flamborough Head, where I attempt to fuse mythical, personal and historical threads in one fugue-like movement. It culminates with a glimpse of the Greek god of sea-changes, Proteus. This is channelled through a photo taken by my partner, Ruth. I use it as a talisman to return me to a present that is never-ending, and always in the wind. The marooned sailor uses it to find a way home, if home is the seat of our affections, or the starting point for all new expeditions.
The book doesn’t quite end there. I’ve chosen to exit with another mythical scene. This time it’s a night before Jason and his Argonauts embark on their journey. Jason is losing his nerve. Two of the crew have fallen into bitter dispute. It’s almost come to blows, when Orpheus enchants everyone with a song about our elemental origins. The Argonauts carry the song in their hearts long after the music stops, and even into their sleep and dreams. This seemed like the perfect note upon which to suspend my poetic navigations. It’s often said that time is problematic in the human mind. We displace the present into the past, or project it into the future. DH Lawrence wrote about his desire to pioneer a poetry of the present – something that eluded even Orpheus in the end, perhaps. Events later in his life led Orpheus to regret the backward look. In another version of his myth, after his dismemberment by the Maenads, his decapitated head is left to float on the river Hebrus – still singing – until it reaches the Mediterranean shore. As Ezra Pound says in ‘Exile’s Letter’, ‘there is no end of things in the heart.’ This book places my stones on the cairn of that idea.
The Navigators is published by Longbarrow Press on 13 May. Click here for further details of the book, and to read and listen to poems from the collection. Matthew Clegg and songwriter Ray Hearne will lead a walk along the Mexborough Canal on Sunday 24 May; click here for more information (and to reserve places). The Navigators launch takes place at The Shakespeare, Sheffield, on Thursday 25 June; further details appear on the Events page of the Longbarrow Press website.
The title of this blog post (‘Feeding the dead is necessary’) is taken from W.S. Graham’s long poem ‘Implements in Their Places’ (available in his New Collected Poems, Faber, 2004).
Philip Levine died on 14 February this year. Born in Detroit in 1928, the son of Russian-Jewish immigrants, he has been described by Neil Astley as ‘the authentic voice of America’s urban poor’[i]. He began writing poetry as a teenager before the end of the Second World War, and published his most recent collection in 2010 at the age of 82. He had lived through important chapters of American history, notably the Great Depression, the Vietnam War, the assassination of J.F. Kennedy, the Ronald Reagan administration and 9/11. One recurring theme in his work is the idea of knowledge, or the sense of truth. This is born out in poems with titles like: ‘What Work Is’, ‘Facts’, ‘The Simple Truth’ and ‘The Great Truth’[ii]. A resonant tension in his later poetry is that between experience and hope – if experience is often a synonym for disappointment, especially in the arena of politics. Levine was a master of showing us how much in life is political – from the hazardous world of factory work to the potatoes on his table.
One of my favourite Levine poems is ‘The Great Truth’ (2004), which seems to consolidate many of Levine’s themes and techniques. It inhabits past, present and future in ways that recall ‘The Escape’ – his personal myth of Midwestern love and suffering. Like ‘What Work Is’, it is preoccupied with masculinity and what a life of hard labour can do to a man. Like ‘The Mercy’, a poem about his mother’s arrival in America, it offers a journey from innocence to experience that builds towards revelation. Its title makes it an obvious partner to ‘The Simple Truth’, a poem that famously links the ordinary and the ineffable.
I’d like to focus on linked but contrasting moments in ‘The Great Truth’. They reveal the structural symmetry of the poem – moment 1 taking place at the end of stanza 1, and moment 2 at the close of the second and final stanza. In stanza 1 the 11-year-old Levine accompanies the household lodger on a walk in a public park. This man is ‘back from prison, penniless / and working murderous night job in the forge room / at Cadillac.’ At this age Levine believes there are ‘answers’: that one day this man will communicate to him something about manhood; that he (Levine) will experience a revelation that will raise and transform his understanding and experience of the world. We are to infer he was disappointed.
Stanza 2 shifts time. The adult Levine encounters this man in a bar ‘on Linwood / with a woman anxious to leave.’ The man is unable to recognise Levine, and after being prompted is only able to ‘put his head down on the bar, [close] his eyes, and [say], ‘oh my God, oh my God’, and nothing more.’ Ironically, this man’s failure to find language expresses more about life and time than words can easily convey.
Moment 2 shifts time again. Levine is revisiting the park. It is raining. He walks on alone and stands under some trees:
Up ahead what little I could see of sky
lightened as though urging me towards something
waiting for me more than half a century, some
great truth to live by now that it was too late
to live in the world other than I do.
The power of these lines depends on their relationship to the boy’s first inkling of revelation under the sky. What failed to materialise then, now threatens to materialise ‘too late’. The sense that there is a greater truth to live by remains, but whatever Levine has experienced in the half century between moments has created the man he must resign himself to be. This grounds revelation in a sobering relationship to the passage of time. Whilst we wait for our vision of truth, quotidian experience shapes us beyond our capacity to change.
This makes ‘The Great Truth’ something of an anti-revelation: an old man’s re-evaluation of romantic vision. Levine’s sense of history, of narrative, refuses to let him privilege the so-called timeless lyric moment. Could there be a political subtext here too? Lines 38-40 relate Levine’s old house sitting ‘waiting for JFK / to come back from Dallas and declare a new / New Frontier…’ Arguably, America has not recovered from the loss of innocence that was Kennedy’s assassination. ‘The Great Truth’ was published in 2004, in Breath; Levine’s first collection after 9/11, and 3 years into the Bush administration. Could Levine be implying that America, too, might have passed beyond the capacity for change, and into a destructive cycle of repetition? It leaves us haunted by the doubt that history and disappointment might teach us, whilst affirming our appetite and need for hope. Perhaps we are really always poised between the two.
‘The Great Truth’ is a visionary poem that scrutinises the epiphany and the visionary paradigm. Levine revealed himself to be one of America’s most retrospective poets: obsessively winding and unwinding the threads of time. He validates experience, transforms it, re-evaluates and interrogates it, and he reminds us how long it can take us to come to emotional terms with our own lives. As a poet reaching the height of his powers in later life, he showed us how, with age, we come to inhabit past, present and future differently – how the layering of years and memories create the ‘knowledge’ we live by. That is a vision I feel grateful for, and one I have tried to absorb into my own work. Philip Levine was a poet I navigated by.
[i] From In Person: 30 Poets, Bloodaxe Books, 2008
[ii] All the poems referred to here can be found in Stranger to Nothing: Selected Poems, Bloodaxe Books, 2006
This blog post reworks passages from an essay originally published on the Bank Street Poetry Café website. Matthew Clegg’s West North East is available now from Longbarrow Press: click here for more information about the book. His new collection The Navigators will appear from Longbarrow Press in late May 2015; further details will be posted on the Longbarrow Press website in the next few weeks.
Conventionally, we use the term ‘vernacular’ to describe dialect ‘spoken by ordinary people in a particular country or region’ (Oxford English Dictionary); or ‘language spoken in one’s mother tongue, not learned or imposed as a second language’ (O.E.D.). This second definition is instructive: it reminds us that a great deal of what we call correct or Standard English, and its sister, Received Pronunciation, was a system imposed on some speakers after they had left the first world of home and embarked on formal schooling. Many books on dialect ask us to discriminate between merely slipshod or slovenly English and genuine dialect, but I think it’s fair to say that formal schooling has had a part to play in the fade-out of vernacular language in this country, especially in mainstream poetry [i]. A linguist might chastise me for speaking the obvious in bold strokes, but I’m no linguist. My interest in the vernacular is imaginative. I’m concerned with the life lived and the language that expresses that life. I’m interested in how language expresses sensibility – and by sensibility I mean our ‘ability to appreciate and respond to complex emotional or aesthetic influences’ (O.E.D.). A question occurs to me: is there something that could be referred to as a ‘vernacular sensibility’?
I find another definition of vernacular useful. It refers to architecture that is ‘concerned with domestic and functional rather than monumental buildings’ (O.E.D.). Apply this to language and what you might have is the notion of a language ‘lived’ or ‘lived in’, rather than one dressed up, or groomed for display. Some years ago I was commissioned to write a series of poems and songs that celebrated the lives of those who lived and worked on the South Yorkshire waterways [ii]. They ranged from the navvies who built them, to the boatmen who plied them on keels, barges and narrowboats. It seemed natural to me to accept that if I wanted to reconstruct the lives of these workers, I’d have to partially reconstruct their language too. But how? The canals belong to the leisure industry now, to holiday barges and the cabin cruisers of weekend boatmen, not a workforce hauling coal, grain or sugar in all weathers. It’s not as if I could stroll down to a canal-side boozer and listen to the banter or shop-talk of boatmen. I had a hard time collecting source material – particularly material on how boatmen spoke, what they might have talked about, or how they might have felt about it.
After I’d exhausted the internet and the public libraries, my breakthrough came closer to home. My grandfather on my mother’s side had a private passion for the waterways. He’d built his own cabin cruiser in retirement, and many of our holidays took place on his boat, ‘Jasmine’. He’d handed this passion on to my mother and in her own retirement she’d taken a practical course in riverboat navigation at Goole. What’s more, she possessed a small library of out-of-print books on the history of the waterways. One of these, Memories of the Sheffield and South Yorkshire Navigation by Mike Taylor (Yorkshire Waterways Publications, 1988) contained many first-hand accounts of real boatmen talking real boats. Two of my poems were based on incidents recounted in this book. At the same time, it was clear that the memories in Taylor’s book had been smoothed into Standard English. Something of the idiom and speech inflection remained but, equally, the unique sound and texture of vernacular had been sanded away. As well as crafting these memories into appropriate verse-forms, I wanted to try and restore something of that texture.
There were two pitfalls I wanted to avoid. Firstly, I’m aware that Yorkshire-isms are often played for laughs and, more to the point, audiences often expect them to be played for laughs. The cod Yorkshireman of popular myth is a farcical creature – a combination of forthright opinion and obdurate, ‘muck and brass’ nous. Think of the Monty Python sketches, or the send-ups of Geoffrey Boycott on the Test Match Special blog-sites. Even Arnold Kellet’s Dalesman anthology, Yorkshire Dialect Classics, slips into this. David Battye’s Sheffield Dialect and Folklore since the Second World War: A Dying Tradition has a cover that almost makes it look like a collection of seaside postcards. You could take this further than Yorkshire, of course. The cod Geordie, Scouser, Brummie and Cockney are also figures of fun in popular mythology. It’s not easy to find examples of poetry in those dialects that are expressive of something more complex – inclusive of sensitivity, intelligence, or even dignity. (I said ‘hard to find’, not that they don’t exist.) One of the most beautiful and complex poems of the 20th Century to my mind is Derek Walcott’s ‘The Schooner Flight’ – a poem written in an intelligible hybrid of Caribbean patois and literary standard. I think it’s revealing that there is virtually no equivalent of this poem in 20th Century English vernacular, or at least not beyond the somehow ‘fringe’ lyric. Eliot employs a Cockney vernacular in ‘The Waste Land’, but argument rages as to how sympathetic this is. Even Peter Reading’s virtuoso performances up and down the English registers have a tendency towards grotesque when he uses vernacular. In the language of English poetry, the divisive gene is stubborn.
The second pitfall I wanted to avoid was creating something in language that had the feel of a local museum piece – full of inkhorn-isms. I took out several books on Yorkshire and South Yorkshire dialect and combed them for words to put back into the mouths of my reconstructed boatmen. My choices were economical. I took a couple of pieces along to a poetry workshop and was sobered to discover that a participant from the south struggled to make sense even of dropped aitches and ‘the’ abbreviated to ‘t’. At the other end of the spectrum, I’ve heard Ian McMillan make the (valid) point that dropped aitches can be the stuff that northern stereotypes are built on. Neither view has deterred me altogether. As for the doubt raised by my southern friend – if readers can be expected to look up allusions, or go out of their way to bone up on the hard science or other specialisms that are more the standard of contemporary poetry, surely they can be expected to show a bit of dialect the same respect. On the other hand, I’m aware that there’s something stultifying about having to look up every other word in a poem. There’s something counter-productive about that too, especially if you’re aiming for the effect of a spoken rather than bookish language. Ironically, the reader’s experience can feel more like a dictionary exercise – and who goes to poetry for that? In the end, I chose only the odd word – ones that I felt conveyed a physicality or texture, even if the reader didn’t know what the word meant. ‘Nithered’ for example, meaning ‘cold’; and ‘radged’, meaning ‘angry’. These aren’t words I use in speech, but I get some shiver of recognition when I say them aloud. I tell myself I can intuit the raw energies they contain.
I’ll return again to the imaginative. I am doing little more than claiming certain sounds make me feel certain things. However, part of the job of the imaginative writer is surely to explore the relationship between language and felt experience – even communal experience across generations. A vernacular contains an unconscious and cultural DNA for a social group – held together by that group, independently of formal institutions or legislation. I suppose there are different ways of approaching this link to identity. There is the approach I associate with a writer like Hugh McDiarmid. ‘Lallans’, his synthesis of vernacular Scots and more literary language, was a project you might associate with a modern idea: if you reform language you can reform individual or cultural consciousness. On the other hand, there is the idea you might extract from the metaphor in Ted Hughes’ ‘Thistles’: that the vernacular is a resilient strain that persists and erupts from beneath the more cultivated ground. These possibilities might represent progressive and conservative tendencies, respectively. To adapt a phrase from Philip Larkin, ‘it’s hard to lose either / When you have both…’ [iii] Perhaps I try to walk a fine line between the two, sometimes tinkering, sometimes leaving be. I feel the same about form.
So what might I mean by a ‘vernacular sensibility’? My sense of it is something like this: precise, but not clinical; tested, but not over-refined; astute, but not intellectually rarefied. Something not smoothed of its rough edges but certainly trimmed of its fat. Crucially, an immersive sensibility based on living in, coping with, and sometimes relishing the everyday world as it is. Unlike mindsets that are more genteel, or politically correct, it’s seldom about projecting a brittle vision of how the world ought to be. And yet, it yields a clay that can be moulded into beautiful and robust shapes – a clay inflected with quartz and crystals that gleam in oblique light. This, above all, is its enduring value to me.
[i] I am aware of (and have enjoyed) recent volumes that counter this tendency – volumes like Liz Berry’s Black Country, and the Punjabi-English ‘Punglish’ of her one-time mentor Daljit Nagra.
[ii] These poems will be published in my next volume from Longbarrow Press, The Navigators. They will also feature in an upcoming collaborative performance between myself and songwriter Ray Hearne. Details of both will be posted on the Longbarrow Press website in the near future.
[iii] From ‘Toads’, The Less Deceived (The Marvell Press, 1955)
Matthew Clegg’s West North East is available now from Longbarrow Press. Click here for more information about the book. Matthew Clegg and Ray Hearne will lead a walk along Mexborough Canal (reading and performing poems and songs) as part of the South Yorkshire Poetry Festival on Sunday 24 May; click here for more information (and to reserve places). Listen to Matthew Clegg introducing and reading his poem ‘Attercliffe’ (from the forthcoming collection The Navigators) on the towpath of the Sheffield and Tinsley Canal:
I’m a white male who grew up on the edge of a housing estate in East Leeds. At the start of the 1990s I struggled to get work and found myself moving between employment training schemes and voluntary placements. I was a young man of vague aspirations and low self-esteem. To shield myself from the feeling I was going nowhere, I read insatiably. I began as a free-range reader. I discovered my own pathways without a guide, and without knowledge of prestige, reputations or fashion. I was especially attracted to writers who offered two things: I wanted to broaden my horizons, but I also sought parallels with my own world and predicament. I wanted ‘here’ and ‘elsewhere’, ‘home’ and ‘away’. I experienced more parallels reading Derek Walcott’s poetry than when reading nearly everything produced for the shelves of my own country at that time.
It was during this period that I first became aware of the endless prizes and selective promotions that characterise the British poetry scene. Even then, I suspected they were not targeting the likes of me as a prospective reader. The centre of what people call ‘culture’ seemed a long way away from Foxwood Training Base or Crossgates Library. I felt like I was leading an island life and Walcott’s Caribbean felt closer to home.
I’d take Omeros out into my community. I’d study it in the reading room of my local library, amongst the long term unemployed, within earshot of pensioners. I’d read it in parks, outside tennis courts, and often, at weekends, I’d take it with me on walks between cricket pitches. The book always made more sense to me when read in these locations. One afternoon I sat on the edge of an empty cricket field in Crossgates – my Dad’s club, and where I’d climbed trees and run amok all through my childhood. Crossgates CC had never been rich. The ground was leased. It didn’t have a club house or a bar. The field itself wasn’t even properly flat. It had a homespun, ramshackle quality to it; but through all the ebbs and flows of membership and money it was a focus of health and joy and it survived. It also had its catalogue of modest heroics, on and off the field.
It was here that a vital aspect of Omeros started to make sense. This had something to do with the relationship of the ordinary to the heroic. I find it hard to put this into ideas that don’t sound like clichés. Or those ideas can feel like clichés when you are far away from the source of what gives them social necessity and value. Omeros identifies heroic qualities in men and women who live in shacks, fish from canoes, drive taxis or tend rum shops. It’s a heroism of integrity or loyalty under pressure, of ordinary (and extraordinary) decency in the face of poverty, corruption and economic expedience. It connects a small island community to routes through layers of a larger history. It felt local and universal. It was classical in scope and reference, and yet it was pioneering in terms of the territory it rendered into poetry.
I came to Collected Poems 1948-1984 and The Bounty after my encounter with Omeros. I took the books with me on walks from Crossgates to the grounds of Temple Newsam House, a one-time stately home now open to the public. There you can find parks and walled gardens – and a glasshouse containing tropical flowers. I’d sit amongst foaming buddleia, or within sight of the purples, reds and yellows of exotic-seeming plants, and read. It was here that I made a connection with a spirit that seems to blossom through much of Walcott’s poetry. It has something to do with what appears to be a marriage between the Methodism of his mother, and the climate, flora and fauna of the Caribbean. In his poetry, nature is both wealth and God – pleasure and blessing fused into one. It’s richer than the bought pleasures of Western materialism; and it’s a material blessing that has nothing to do with the hierarchies, dogmas and institutions of the church. Walcott made bays and forests his galleries and cathedrals. The poet was something between a lay priest and a drunk Vincent. This bowled me over.
In Another Life I recognised a role for the artist. As I read about Walcott’s quest to render a culture, climate and ecology into art, I began to think about all the acres of my own locale that seemed outside the written stanzas of English poetry. In a time that often declares itself as democratic, plural and inclusive, it seemed to me then – and it still does – that many people go about their business in places and predicaments unexplored by poets. Adrian Mitchell once said ‘most people ignore poetry because most poetry ignores most people.’ This still feels like bracing critique.
I grow uncomfortable with how poets have been professionalised. They seem lured away from a community that might provide readers, and into a network of cliques and academies that offer prestige and finance. In this artificial limelight, poets make funding bids, apply for commissions and posts, and slowly find themselves with obligations to sponsors, funding bodies and institutions that interfere with their ability to speak truth to power, or to achieve fellow-feeling with those outside elite spaces. I’ve often asked myself: can institutions remove poets from the source of one spirit of poetry? Inside the competitive, intellectual hothouse, it’s possible for us to lose common feeling and common touch.
Back in 1992 I signed up for an access course at Leeds University. This was by far the most positive experience of education I’ve had. I studied alongside a nurse, an office worker, an Asian businessman, a hospital porter, a mother of Afro-Caribbean background, and a woman who worked for a company operating phone-sex. The head of the course was a sociologist from a Yorkshire mining family, and the woman who taught me English literature was about to embark on another career as a drama therapist. It was a culture that deserved to be called a melting pot in a way that many expensive universities conceptualise better than they embody.
One evening, halfway through this course, I was listening to the radio. I was browsing the stations when I stumbled upon a dramatization of ‘The Schooner Flight’. I’d not yet read this piece in Walcott’s Collected Poems. In the cramped dark of my box-room I listened, riveted, and when the final ‘chapter’ closed on its stoical prayer to work and craft, I knew I’d discovered a new heroic figure in Shabine. He was sailor and poet; rooted and wayward; man of action and man of art; black and white; African and European; neither and both. He melted categories like Rimbaud, and embodied Patrick Kavanagh’s belief that the universe always starts from where you stand. His Caribbean felt as particular and universal as Joyce’s Dublin.
Shabine was the man who tried to sail away from his troubled home, but who could never get beyond the tides of his island sea. I’ve had very few such encounters with a poem that so coalesced with my own emerging sense of poetry and the world, and no poem that could have been further away from my own parish. I taped a copy of that dramatization, and when I left the access course I gave it to the woman who taught me English Literature. Now I teach an adult education course about to be closed down – as the course I studied at Leeds was eventually closed. Melting pots coalesce and disappear all the time, subject to the fickle expedience of economics. The torch is carried in the human imagination.
I read somewhere that a true university shouldn’t be thought of as a building or an institution. It’s a spirit or a happening. I’ve encountered so much of the spirit of meeting and melting-pot in Walcott’s poetry. It’s the embodiment of how cultures melt and merge to create something vital and fresh. I’ve bought my copy of The Poetry of Derek Walcott: 1948-2013. It had been my intention to write a critique of this new selection, but I’m no more capable of reviewing it than I’m capable of reviewing myself. I’ve been reading and drawing from Walcott’s poems for so long, they’ve been stirred into the soup of my life. Better, perhaps, to offer a letter of thanks, or to carry on the spirit of meeting and melting that I find so abundant in his poetry. It is bounty indeed, and I’ll be returning to it often.
The Poetry of Derek Walcott: 1948-2013 (selected by Glyn Maxwell) is published by Faber & Faber. Matthew Clegg’s West North East is available now from Longbarrow Press. Click here for more information about the book.
Sylvia Plath’s ‘Ariel’ and ‘Wodwo’ by Ted Hughes are key poems in each poet’s oeuvre, and poems that rank amongst my own favourites. I’m tempted to read them as fulfilling a role somewhere between poet’s talisman and credo. If ‘Ariel’ presides over Plath’s legacy more visibly than ‘Wodwo’ presides over Hughes’, that’s possibly something to do with the very different shapes of their literary careers. Let’s imagine Plath’s literary career trajectory as a climb followed by an explosion (and ‘Ariel’ was part of that explosion), and Hughes’ as a fall, followed by a slow recovery. ‘Ariel’ and ‘Wodwo’ seem related: if not directly conversant, then bound up with each other; indirectly corrective of each other’s poetics. It puts me in mind of John Carey’s notion, in What Good are the Arts, that ‘literature is a field of comparisons and contrasts, spreading indefinitely outwards, so that whatever we read constantly modifies, adapts, questions or abrogates whatever we have read before’. If ‘Ariel’ generates the energies Plath needed to break free from Hughes’ literary shadow, I’m tempted to read ‘Wodwo’ as a poem wherein Hughes indirectly questions both Plath and himself, before correcting his own trajectory.
So what do we know about ‘Ariel’, the title poem of Sylvia Plath’s final volume? We know Ariel is a character, or entity, from Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Ariel was a spirit imprisoned in a tree by the witch Sycorax, and released from that tree by the wizard Prospero. Ariel is a magical air elemental, capable of affecting the weather, and creating illusions, and ‘he’ cooperates with Prospero partly because Prospero has agreed to free him from service after a number of tasks. All that is in the public realm; in Shakespeare’s well-known play. What, then, might we not know about Plath’s ‘Ariel’? Well, unless we’ve read ‘Sam’, in Hughes’ Birthday Letters, we might not know about Plath’s near-fatal ride on a runaway horse, and not knowing this could make it hard to access key levels of ‘Ariel’. The poem ‘Ariel’ is no doubt about Plath’s relationship to creativity itself: lyric poetry as a ride on a runaway horse. Her conclusion is as exciting as it is dangerous; the ride is a kamikaze ‘flight’ into the sun. The voice of the poem declares that she is ‘at one with the drive / Into the red / Eye, the cauldron of morning.’ At one with ‘the drive’, then, not the ‘red eye’. The only way of being at one with the ‘red eye’, presumably, is to be incinerated. Plath’s version of lyric, here and elsewhere in her volume, is a kind of magnesium flare: intense, brilliant, but quickly burnt out. Each strike of the match is as unique and unrepeatable as it is unsustainable.
Ted Hughes published ‘Wodwo‘ (the poem) in 1961, before the trauma of Plath’s suicide, and before he was called upon to edit Ariel. Wodwo (the volume) wasn’t published until 1967, and the title poem is published last in the volume, giving the impression that it was written after his ‘fall’. It is interesting, then, that this title poem is also the name of a ‘mythical’ being. A wodwo is a forest creature, a wild man or troll, alluded to, if only in passing, in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. This creature and its name has passed out of common language, and it only really exists (until Hughes) within the twilight world of the great Middle English poem. It occurs to me, though, that a wodwo seems to share characteristics with another character from The Tempest: with Caliban, the bestial offspring of the witch Sycorax. The symbolic architecture of the play depends on a certain symmetry existing between Ariel and Caliban. Both are ‘enslaved’ to Prospero – one willingly, and the other resentfully. One is of air, the other of earth. One is refined, the other base. They are high and low personified: one creates magic, and the other is enchanted, even duped by it. In Gawain, of course, we have a symmetry existing between the civilised world of castle and court, and the green and feral world that exists outside and beyond it. The ‘magic’ of the Green Knight taps into the ‘otherness’ of that feral world. It tests Gawain, and, arguably, regenerates him. It seems to exist on a different moral and metaphysical ‘level’ to Prospero’s – one more challenging to us, perhaps, as moderns. The two kinds of magic, and the two creatures, are yin and yang; and ‘Ariel’ and ‘Wodwo’ might symbolize a yin and yang of poetics.
What are we to make of ‘Wodwo’, then? Hughes’s technique in presenting him is different to Plath’s in ‘Ariel’. Where Plath is intense, Hughes is prosaic. Where Plath uses the lyric ‘I’, Hughes adopts a dramatic stream-of-consciousness. This is not the stream-of-consciousness we find in Woolf or Joyce. Wodwo is too primitive. He is emerging self-consciousness before self-knowledge. He doesn’t know his own name, or what shape he is, and many of his assumptions are errors. Although he is immersed in his element, he is also aware that he is separate: there are ‘walls’ between him and it. His ‘freedom’ is a violent inspection. He cannot enter water, even, without ‘split[ting] its grain’. What are his virtues, then, if he has any? Well, his busy curiosity ‘go[es] on looking.’ This earth elemental is a creature of the provisional. He comes to the wrong conclusions, and some of these conclusions are destructive, but because he can go on looking, he can correct and revise them. He is a creature of absorption, not conclusion. Wodwo’s ‘looking’ is less brilliant than the runaway ride on Ariel, but it is a sustainable process.
Both poems seem to exist as signposts, even prophesies, unlocking the modus operandi of their respective poets. It’s as crass as it is tempting to claim Plath’s fate was predicted by ‘Ariel’; but ‘Wodwo’ certainly points to the way Hughes went on ‘picking bits of bark’. After a lifetime of absorbing if uneven sequences, he died feeling there was still work left to be done. For me, it is ‘Wodwo’ that reveals the enduring poetics of his literary ‘recovery’.
‘Wodwo’ appears in the collection of the same name (Faber, 1967) and in Ted Hughes’ Collected Poems (Faber, 2003). You can read the poem here. ‘Ariel’ appears in Ariel (Faber, 1965) and in Sylvia Plath’s Collected Poems (Faber, 1981). You can read the poem here and listen to Plath reading ‘Ariel’ and other poems here.
Matthew Clegg’s West North East is available now from Longbarrow Press. Click here for more information about the book. A new West North East podcast (recorded in Crossgates, East Leeds, on 2 May 2014) appears below (click on the orange ‘Play’ button to listen):
‘I was reared / In the great city…’
Coleridge, ‘Frost at Midnight’
In 1998 I’d abandoned a part time and self-funded English Literature degree at Leeds University because I’d run out of cash. I was working in telesales for Sky TV, living in Kirkstall with P, a close friend who’d been fighting schizophrenia and losing ground. An intelligent man, he suspected that the side effects to his medication were in some ways more undesirable than the condition itself. He was experimenting with not taking the pills and his daily behaviour was getting simultaneously more brilliant and more worrying. We had been walking in the grounds of Kirkstall Abbey. P had been talking about sexual selection – the subject of his PHD – and then he had broken down. ‘We’re all just barking dogs’, he was telling me, and I was struggling to offer an angle that might ground or release him. My morale was at its lowest, and then a day or two later I got a phone call from Robert Woof, Director of the Wordsworth Trust. He’d been thinking about setting up a modest residency at Dove Cottage and would I be interested.
‘Of youthful Poets, who among these hills
Will be my second self when I am gone…’
I’d met Robert at a Centenary Conference marking the publication of the Lyrical Ballads. The idea was to celebrate that landmark of Wordsworth and Coleridge as well as reflect on where poetry was now, and what it might owe to the Romantics. I was part of a small writers’ collective at that time. We’d had an anthology published with some money from Yorkshire Arts. Steve Dearden – then a Literature Officer at Yorkshire Arts – had alerted us to some bursaries that could pay for places for us at the conference, and we were lucky enough to get the money. We ended up lodging in a holiday cottage owned by some local magnate that Robert had wangled for selected conference attendees who might be strapped for cash. After meeting Robert at the conference he offered us a reading the following summer. Out of that reading, and subsequent correspondence, Robert got the idea of offering me the residence. When interrogated, I was never very good at justifying the opportunity. It had just happened to me.
‘…Within the bounds of this huge Concave; here
Should be my home, this Valley be my world…’
Wordsworth, ‘Home at Grasmere’
I arrived in Grasmere in the New Year of 1999. After checking in I was shown to an 18th Century Cottage in Town End, just off the coffin path that connects Rhydale and Grasmere. I remember going into the front room and being struck that the carpet was speckled by dozens of tiny black dots, in a peacock-fan spray around the fireplace. There must have been a hailstorm, and as the hail passed down the chimney it picked up soot. As the ice melted onto the carpet, it left the soot behind as a signature. This seemed entirely appropriate for a place built around such a strong sense of history. The only other thing in the room was a bucket of coal with a welcome note attached. I had brought no furniture and there was none in the house. Only a king-size bed upstairs. For the first few days the only room I inhabited was that bedroom, before a sofa and chair and assorted bits and pieces were found for me from various donors. I liked the idea that everything in the house was cobbled together from people in the immediate community. It generated a strange sense of hospitality even before I got to know anyone.
‘…O Lakes, Lakes!
O Sentiment upon the rocks!’
Geoffrey Hill, ‘Elegiac Stanzas’
It was raining on the day I arrived. I think it may have rained through the whole first month. The world I entered felt like it had been under water for the whole winter. The moss that cushioned the walls on either side of the coffin path was luminous green like some exotic seaweed. The coal dust in the leaky coal shed was a greasy paste. On my first night I walked into the centre of Grasmere to find a call box. There was one on the edge of a car park on the approach to the village. The car park was flooded and the call box was surrounded by water. I waded into it and stood watching the rain pound down around me as the cold soaked into my feet. I looked up at the dark bulk of Loughrigg and Silver How. The rain was more intense and more violent than any I could remember. It even seemed to be beating down the smoke that rose out of the chimneys of Town End.
‘…it is hard to explain how he could have
climbed to that height in the dark and wet night
without falling to his death…’
Goethe, The Sorrows of Young Werther
It was midwinter. I had been to see the Jacqueline du Pré biopic, Hilary and Jackie, with Sean and Jane Borodale at Zeffirelli’s in Ambleside. When the movie was over we took off in Sean’s Land Rover for a late night drive. After twisting down A-roads, up and down inclines, skirting lakes and surprising many stray sheep in the headlights, we ended up climbing a steep road that might have been at the end of the Elterwater Valley. I’m not sure because, as a passenger, I just went with it, excited by not knowing or not being in control of where I was. When we got to somewhere near the top we stopped and paused for a second or two to take in the scale of the landscape dropping away beneath us. Steam from our breath filled the Land Rover. I opened the door and jumped down onto the road and instantly fell flat on my back. The road surface was a rhino-hide sheet of black ice. We looked at each other in amazement at how we had made it up that road. Then panic set in about how we were going to get down again.
‘The Mind is its own place…’
John Milton, Paradise Lost
P had come up to visit me for a weekend whilst on his way to visit his new girlfriend in Liverpool. He had again been experimenting with not taking his medication, probably out of a fear that it would make him impotent. He came in the summer of my first year in Grasmere. He was lucky. He landed smack in the middle of one of those breathtaking stretches of summer weather that can persuade you that Cumbria really is heaven on earth. We went out walking, choosing to climb up past White Moss Tarn and up and across to Heron Pike. We paused halfway up to eat some lunch and look out across Grasmere towards the green of the landscape beyond – the sky a vacuum swept and immaculate blue. P’s psychosis was taking hold and he was gradually persuading himself that he had in fact died and this was the afterlife. He struggled with this feeling for the rest of the weekend. He told me he was having real trouble not walking out into passing cars or stepping off ledges as he had all but convinced himself that it would do him no harm as he was already dead. My role was to make and maintain an argument to convince him otherwise. This consisted mainly of pointing out details that could not possibly be found in nirvana. Pepsi cans by the edge of the tarn. The never-ending coach parties. The low-flying fighter jets scalping the trig points.
‘…beauty is nothing / but the beginning of terror…’
Rilke, The First Elegy, Duino Elegies
It was the middle of the Wordsworth Winter School during my final winter. I had been getting uptight about this business of being a Poet in Residence. This would typically kick in during the schools and conferences in the presence of the various academics and validated connoisseurs. How was I to negotiate the value system of that world and play the role of poet in public? I had acute status anxiety. I’d asked a friend to get me something to smoke that would relax me in the evenings. He did. I wasn’t a self-sufficient user of any form of recreational drug, but late one afternoon I rolled myself a spliff and put some vegetables in the oven.
I’m guessing the skunk I was given was probably very strong and spiked with something else, most likely speed. The sense of euphoria that first came upon me just kept pushing up the ante until suddenly it was my heart turning into a bullet train. I tried to calm myself by lying on the cold stone floor and breathing deeply but it had no effect. I couldn’t believe my heart was going to be able to stand up to this punishment. Quite by coincidence another friend called round to say goodbye before he went away for the weekend and he was able to explain what I was experiencing. I was having a whitey. He didn’t seem too worried – just said I should lie down and it would pass. I did and it didn’t. Normal social interaction had become almost impossible to me. I couldn’t form sentences.
‘..men’s intellectual errors consist
chiefly in denying…’
Coleridge, Anima Poetae
I learned a lot about myself during the hours that followed. I was entirely possessed by fear. I was afraid of the dark, of strong light, of stillness, of anything that moved, of company, of being alone, of every change or lack or change in my body rhythm. And all this despite knowing there was nothing tangible to be afraid of. For a very long time the only thing that seemed to remotely stabilise me was to walk backwards and forwards along the snow-covered road by the woods and lake. 100 yards one way, then 100 yards the other. I did this for what must have been hours. I’d persuaded myself that I had to keep moving. If I stopped, the contrast between the speed of my heart and the inactivity of the rest of my body felt too extreme. Also, cold was better than warmth somehow. Surely, it would slow my heart down. Something primal had woken up and it wasn’t going to go back in its kennel. All my senses had sprung awake. I imagine this is what happens to animals in times of extreme danger. During those hours, the starch-white of the snow on the roads and fields represented a kind of total oblivion and so did the dark in the woods. It was only by constantly changing my focus from one to the other that I managed to stop myself from feeling overwhelmed. De Quincey writes of how ‘space swelled and was amplified to an extent of unutterable infinity’ under the influence of opium. When I looked out over the snowy fields I had the same feeling. But when I looked into the dark of the woods, I had an equally powerful feeling of claustrophobia, as I did when I considered returning to Town End or my cottage. Internal and external were equally terrifying and normal rational thought was little defence. It reminded me of something P had told me about psychosis: ‘when I’m mad I know in my rational mind that what I’m thinking is madness but still, my rational mind has no power over those thoughts.’ I’d experienced what that meant, at least.
This piece reworks a memoir that first appeared in Staple magazine (Spring 2006). Matthew Clegg’s West North East is available now from Longbarrow Press. Click here for more information about the book.
In The Modern Poetic Sequence, M.L. Rosenthall and Sally M Gall identify the sequence as being the form most able to go ‘many-sidedly into who and where we are subjectively’. In their view, the sequence springs from the same pressures on sensibility that provoked poetic experiments with shorter forms – a response to possibilities of language opened up by the pressures of cultural and psychological crisis. ‘More successfully than individual short lyrics, however, [the sequence] fulfils the need for encompassment of disparate and powerfully opposed tonalities and energies…’
I’ve read this book as a way of developing my understanding of the possible structural dynamics of the poetic sequence. My sense of the text is that it has illuminated the great 20th Century modernist sequences more than it has those that follow – especially those falling under the wide umbrella of post-modernism. Published in 1983, it’s unable to address the oeuvre of a poet like Peter Reading – whose practice seems to absorb techniques learned from both traditions, whilst not fitting neatly into either. For me, Reading is a benchmark poet, offering a trinity of classical line, modernist juxtaposition and a post-modern flair for ventriloquism and pastiche. His intertextual sequences Last Poems and Chinoiserie are part of the inspiration for ‘Chinese Lanterns’ in my collection West North East. The other chief influence has been the Ezra Pound of ‘Cathay’, ‘Homage to Sextus Propertius’, and the Chinese cantos. It strikes me that both Reading and Pound developed a finer range of tones through their versions of classical Chinese verse.
I view ‘Chinese Lanterns’ as a post-crisis sequence. Though it aims to encompass disparate and opposed tones and energies, it does so in a playful way. Nevertheless, I’ve taken great care arranging modulations of tone and voice. Similar principles to those applied in ‘Fugue’ (the first of West North East‘s three sections) were explored. A difficulty was that of mapping and visualisation. How could I hold all the tonal streams and nodes of such a large sequence in my head at once? One solution was the construction of various tables. I’d map a potential order using a table, and then construct a makeshift pamphlet that would help me assess the sequence as a reading experience.
The first and last poems of the sequence always seemed clear to me: ‘Li Po’s Note to Self’ introduces the main speaker and the concept of the sequence; ‘Marcel Theroux stops me…’ provides an exit and a form of Afterword. I felt convinced that the two walking poems, ‘Moving with Thought’ and ‘A Trance-Walk with Musõ Soseki’ (each a sequence within the larger sequence), should be situated fairly centrally. They combine the calm of trance with physical movement, and hence provide a stable hub or axis.
Through reading and re-reading mock-ups, it also occurred to me that some groupings worked well together, whilst others didn’t. The Hillsborough street poems feel more substantial when read consecutively, whilst the verse-letters offer tangents that need to be dispersed more equably throughout the sequence – mimicking, perhaps, the intermittent correspondence in an individual life.
Care was taken in managing the various disparities. None should be allowed to congeal and clot the flow. Scatty jumps and juxtapositions maintain variation. Displacement must be balanced with readjustment: readjustment challenged by new displacements. The sequence must fidget between drunken intoxication and clear-eyed sobriety; between Taoist and Confucian; between the local and the exotic.
Serious and pastiche reference to various other sages and poets (Tu Fu, Rumi, Socrates, Wallace Stevens, Issa and Musõ Soseki) develops the sequence’s intertextual dimension: its reference to other eras and cultures, hopefully layering and deepening the sequence’s imaginative and self-critical scope. Li Po is displaced in time, as well as space. The ordering has been constructed to reflect a strengthening of confidence in this mode, ‘Honeysuckle Blooming in the Wildwood Air’ and ‘Li Po’s Letter to Rumi’ being more demanding of the reader’s credulity than the observational poems that open the sequence. Having said all this, I still feel an impulse to throw the whole thing down the stairs and let chance surprise me into seeing new possibilities. Were the sequence a slide show, I’d programme subtle and random variations into each loop – something not afforded by the spine binding of a book.
Matthew Clegg’s West North East is available now from Longbarrow Press. Click here for more information about the book (and to order copies). Clegg discusses tone, idiom and displacement in ‘Chinese Lanterns’ in his recent interview with Elaine Aldred; click here to read the full interview. Audio recordings of Peter Reading’s collected works, including the sequences Last Poems and Chinoiserie, are now available to hear on the Lannan Foundation site: click here for the full index.
Listen to Matthew Clegg reading an extract from ‘Chinese Lanterns’ below:
It’s the annual Christmas dinner at my old place of work. I’ve eaten a slimy, peppery shellfish stew, plus a gluey portion of Christmas pudding, and I’ve a bad case of acid reflux. The ‘Secret Santa’ ritual has commenced and there are 30 members of staff to get through before we’re free of its sluggish rhythm. I rummage in my jacket pocket for a Gaviscon. This combination of eating in public, of anticipating being suddenly conspicuous, often triggers it. Or the feeling of being captive, but not in sync, not sharing the spirit. The muscles in my chest tighten like overloaded suspension cables. My heartbeat starts to accelerate, and an impossible sensation is shooting down my left arm into my fist. I know this isn’t a heart attack. I’ve been through all that before. It’s panic attack syndrome. Other people’s words, faces and body language are becoming increasingly grotesque. They are all eyes, teeth and sharp elbows. The noise in the room rises and I feel like my head has been sealed inside an amped up woofer playing drum and bass. Without saying a word, I leave my seat, and my colleagues, and walk out into Nottingham. I take random turns, hoping to end up in some quiet nook, or deserted alley. There aren’t any left in the Yuletide crush. I keep walking through the crowds until the first wave has passed. I’m already starting to worry about the 40 minute train journey home. I’ll be boxed in all the way.
Several of the poems in the ‘Fugue’ section of West North East were ‘inspired’ by my experience of panic attacks. I’m uncomfortable about that word ‘inspired’, but have chosen to use it anyway. Having lived through 7 years of attacks, I very much wanted to retrieve something to compensate for the damage they did to my personal and professional life. All the things that happen to sufferers happened to me. I quit my job. My relationships broke down. I went into retreat – allowed my life to shrink as the fear of fear became my bird cage. I can’t count the number of sudden exits I made from social occasions: from pubs, cinemas, readings and dinners. I see myself walking, hard-pressed through the city, my right hand clutched over my heart, and streetlamps burning into my retina. I went through several GPs before I found one that didn’t just offer me pills.
Les Murray refers to the ‘A-bomb’ of adrenaline in his poem ‘Corniche’. I retrieved a strange consolation from reading that. It’s amazing to think that the human body can malfunction and cook up a drug of its own that can leave you in a state as heightened and extreme as any bad skunk or speed trip. It’s not an experience of the mind, but of the whole body. While it’s happening, you wonder that your heart can endure it. It was an experience that I fed into poems like ‘The Death Shift’ and ‘The Python’. Aside from Les Murray, the closest equivalent I’ve encountered in literature is Rimbaud’s ‘rational disordering of the senses’, except that panic attacks burn the rational mind like napalm dropped on forest canopy. I’ve never experienced anything that left me so unable to communicate or to explain my sudden flights.
I read one of these poems at a reading in Sheffield. A few days later I received a postcard at work from someone who heard it. She was a fellow sufferer who’d connected with the sharp pulse of the words. The postcard had an image of a lemur leaping from a high branch. A shiver went through me to have made this connection, and I mounted the card on my work station. It encouraged me to keep trying to channel these traumatic experiences into poems, and it gave me more courage to speak about them openly. This would lead to future connections with a surprisingly large number of fellow sufferers or recovered sufferers. I wrote down many of the stories and anecdotes I heard. It proved easier for me to transform this material into poetry than anything directly from my own life. The care worker in ‘The Death Shift’ and the mother in ‘The Python’ are composites of myself and of people I’ve talked with. The combination method proved the most productive and creative way into voice and character for me. It’s this method that allows the writer to reach into his own psyche in order to make connections with people and predicaments beyond his own birdcage: a way in and out of self at the same time.
All this helped me break free. In a sense, the poetry of panic, of adrenaline, is a poetry of being overly awake. It isn’t emotion recollected in tranquillity, but trauma translated into respite. A sublime experience is said to be that of being in the presence of something that could annihilate you – followed by the relief on finding that you are not dead. The poetry of panic recognises that you carry that potential annihilation in your own body. Each time I’ve managed to channel it through voice, rhythm and image, I’ve felt like I’ve crawled out from under an avalanche and taken my first gulp of air. Now that I’m all but cured of the syndrome, I feel like I’ve actually lost an interesting signal.
After I’d finished writing ‘The Power-line’ (in West North East), it occurred to me that this was a poem where I’d staged a version of my own death. The man who flies his kite into the power cable is that part of me I’ve lost through recovery and healing. The poem is unconsciously drawn to images of conductivity: nerves, dreams, a kite string, fishing lines, and the terrible power cable that conducts its overload across the landscape. I’ve had my moment of sparking that cable – and certain blue-lit, high-definition poems fed back. Now, I feel like I’m living, and working, in the aftermath of that. It’s as if my voice and sensibility has shifted from the stricken kite-flier, to the woman who surveys the scene and has to watch the ‘gulls and ravens parting ways’. I don’t know what I think about that. It feels like I have to start all over again with something missing. That’s an unnerving way to think about health.
Matthew Clegg’s West North East is available now from Longbarrow Press. Click here for more information about the book (and to order copies). Listen to Angelina Ayers and Matthew Clegg reading the poems ‘The Python’ and ‘The Death Shift’ below:
The speaker in ‘Sirens’ has a real life counterpart. He was a friend to someone close to me. I’ll call her ‘Rosie’ and him ‘Tim’. Rosie had survived bankruptcy, divorce and eviction and had moved into a tiny bedsit above Remo’s café on Fulwood Road in Sheffield. Cockroaches scuttled under the cooker and Rosie’s insomnia played out to a soundtrack of students pouring in and out of Broomhill pubs. It was the time of Blairite New Labour; of Brit Art and Cool Britannia. It was a boom time for some, but it’s never a boom for everyone.
Tim lived in the flat above Rosie. He was a friendly face during a lonely time. He invited her up to share tea and jokes. He had a bulletproof sense of humour and a refreshing, brazen honesty. Over the years they confided more and more, but didn’t become lovers. If I told you all the things Tim confessed to Rosie, you’d think I was exaggerating. But as Dickens says: ‘What is exaggeration to one class of minds and perceptions, is plain truth to another…’ Peter Reading quotes this in his Ukulele Music, the kind of poem I wish I could write.
Like the speaker in ‘Sirens’, Tim had been an architect. He‘d dropped out of that to pursue painting and photography. And he did take a paternal and seedy interest in very young prostitutes with drug problems and eating disorders. This placed a strain on Rosie and Tim’s friendship – and soon Rosie moved away. Years passed. She tried to get in touch with Tim, but he’d left no trace.
One night some years ago I was making my way to the Kelham Island Tavern to meet a friend. Kelham Island was, as it remains now, a liminal space where gentrification overlapped with industrial decrepitude and a residue of prostitution. On my way I passed the prostitute who features in the poem. In life, she was even more distraught, and my poem doesn’t do enough to capture her coarsened vulnerability.
My friend was nearly an hour late. I’d plenty of time to think about that woman, as well as the tameness of my response to her appeal. I spent a long time thinking about Tim, and tried to imagine when he decided to take the path he chose. Morally dubious he might have been; but he wasn’t tame. If his motives were seedy, they weren’t squeamish. I was developing an ambivalent admiration for him. Here was a man whose vices were close to the surface. I could hear his voice interrogating me for hiding mine behind a safe and rational front.
The speaker in ‘Sirens’ is a composite of Tim and several other men. They include a photographer featured on a documentary film; my mother’s second husband; a predatory college lecturer. There are more. These are the kind of men who are intelligent, flawed and in possession of what the poet-paediatrician William Carlos Williams called ‘ground sense’. I mean the sense that comes up through the feet from walking a terrain – literally, or figuratively. It seemed to me these men could inhabit a world, however extreme, and absorb it until it became a powerful insider knowledge. We might call them ‘outsiders’, but it’s often us who are outsiders when we enter the sphere of their insight. ‘Sirens’ may well fall into the convention of the unreliable narrator. I’m sceptical of its flawed speaker. But I confess to an equally flawed and dubious admiration for his ground sense.
I‘ve heard the phrase ‘dull and worthy social realism’ used within the creative writing enclosure of academe. Is this a postmodern rejection of exhausted realism, or an insulated reluctance to engage with worlds outside the enclosure? If ‘Sirens’ is dull, then I’ve failed to capture Tim’s voice as it interrogated me in The Kelham Island Tavern – a voice that sounded like one out of Dante or Browning. It wasn’t preachy, or polemical; not a worthy appeal to liberal conscience. It belonged to someone who’d been places I hadn’t, seen things I couldn’t, and recognised in me that impulse to know, but only to a point – the impulse of the moral tourist who can’t stomach too much information.
Tim wouldn’t have told me what he told Rosie. The irony is, he wouldn’t have trusted me.
‘Sirens’ appears in Matthew Clegg’s debut full-length collection West North East. Click here for further details about West North East and to order copies of the book (£11 inc UK P&P).
The first section of my first full-length collection of poems, West North East, was initially in two parts: a sequence of sonnets, followed by a selection of miscellaneous poems. The new ordering is an experiment with the idea of syncopation and fugue: a means of integrating the sonnets and the miscellany. An exposition is provided by the first two sonnets (‘Because I Was Nobody’ and ‘Fishing by the Trunk Road’).
Here a subject is introduced: a complex involving ideas of crisis, journey and imaginative crossing. This complex is modulated and developed through a sequence that alternates sonnets and longer poems, before some kind of recapitulation in the two longer poems that close the first section.
I’m attracted to the idea of fugue in both its musical and psychological context, especially with loss (or transformation) of identity and flight from one’s usual environment. In keeping with the unstable, volatile nature of the complex, the development stage has been constructed to avoid too logical or schematic a progression. There are contrasts and contradictions; convincing and unconvincing responses to each crisis. There are relapses and unsustainable crossings; mundane and more sublime pressures. I’ve taken care not to signpost this too crassly. The exposition offers two contrasting positions: youth and adulthood; and an instinctive attraction to heat in one, and cool/calm in the other.
The recapitulation offers further contrasts. Both poems follow an instinct to travel away from the centre (geographically, socially and psychologically). ‘Out Far and In Deep’ pursues a death impulse, whilst ‘The Walking Cure’ offers ambiguous regeneration. I wanted to achieve an opening that captures the urgency and pressure of in medias res, and I hope the development is sufficiently modulated and complex to offer the reader pleasure and challenge – as well as a glimpse of what Roland Barthes calls ‘bliss’. This is effectively summed up by Natasha Saje in Dynamic Design: The Structure of Books and Poems: ‘Experienced readers want poems that make them work harder; the text of bliss is the text that imposes a state of loss, the text that discomforts, that unsettles the reader’s historical, cultural, psychological assumptions and brings to a crisis his relation with language.’ I’ve taken care to end ‘Fugue’ with poems that build to notes of projection and speculation. I hope these offer contrasting tones and ambiguities, and leave enough for further sections of the book to re-examine. Although ‘Fugue’ was not written as a sequence in the proper sense, I wanted this new arrangement to offer some equivalent of its structural dynamics.
West North East is published by Longbarrow Press on Thursday 12 September 2013. Join Matthew Clegg and guest readers (including Angelina Ayers, Helen Mort, Fay Musselwhite and Karl Riordan) for the West North East launch at the Shakespeare, Gibraltar Street, Sheffield, Thursday 19 September 2013 (8pm prompt start). Further publication and launch details appear on the West North East microsite. Click on the orange ‘Play’ button below to listen to Clegg reading several poems from ‘Fugue’ (the first of West North East‘s three sections): ‘This Place is Part of Me’, ‘Fishing by the Trunk Road’, ‘The Convalescent’ and ‘The Vantage’.
On Saturday 8th June I read (and listened) at the Sheffield Poetry Festival. This stimulated many thoughts, mainly on the venues employed to host poetry, and on the manner in which poets are introduced. These thoughts recur with each public encounter I have with poetry, and I’ve been reading and attending since the 1990s. What makes a good poetry venue? What does an audience need to be told about a poet before they perform?
The pragmatic answer to the first question is worth mentioning: the venue that’s available. We’re not spoilt for choice, so let’s make the best compromise. But to pursue a more utopian line of thought – what does poetry need most from a space in order to resonate? I think it’s probably more than just passable acoustics and good lines of sight.
In The Poetics of Space, Gaston Bachelard states that one of the important functions of a home is to shelter daydreaming: ‘The house protects the dreamer, the house allows one to dream in peace…’ Wallace Stevens referred to the imaginative world of the poem as its ‘Mundo’; Yeats called it the ‘phantasmagoria’ (a choice between the cryptic or the grandiose, perhaps). Whatever word we use, we’re surely talking about the poem’s dream life, or its imaginative ‘trance’ – something intimate and strange; something concentrated.
One problem poetry faces is that it doesn’t have a house of its own. It borrows spaces employed by other mediums: the pub function, the lecture, the music gig, even the conference. I can imagine the venue I read in on Saturday really coming into its own when a band is amped up loud and the crowd is buzzing. This isn’t a dig at the organisers. Obviously, they’ve been experimenting – feeling towards a compromise that fits. They’d had to work hard, just to make events happen at all. The venue experiment is ongoing.
I feel there’s a structural challenge with festivals too. With four or five readings taking place within the same space throughout one day, what antidotes can be employed against that intimacy killer – the conveyor belt? How can we support each poet in making their event feel intimate and unique, rather than ‘standard’?
A lot seems to rest on how a poet is introduced. Or does it? To repeat the earlier question: what does an audience need to be told about a poet before he or she reads? Well, at a rock concert all you need to be told is that the artist is about to climb the stage. At a poetry event, it’s more likely that the host will recite a list of the poet’s publications or prizes: in short, their ‘credentials’. This is the language of status and prestige creeping into the potential dream house. I find it distracting and intrusive – even when the credentials are my own. So, if we leave the CV out of the question – what does it leave us with?
I need to make a fine distinction. One of my problems with the CV litany is that it scrambles my ‘peace to dream’ with its racket – as well as encroaching on my right to make up my own mind about the poems I’m about to hear. I don’t want the voices of Prize judges in my ears; or the values of the machine that supports commercial publishing. I want something that illuminates the world of the poems. On the other hand, what I do enjoy from a host is a feeling for why they’ve invited the poet. If they can project why they care about the work, then I feel I’m being invited to share something valuable. The advocacy feels human, not institutional.
I’m not complaining about how I was introduced on Saturday. My ‘MC’ had performed in the previous set. Having just climbed out of the spotlight himself, he was clearly anxious not to embarrass those about to step into it. But drawing on years attending poetry events, I’ve noticed that many overlong, overassertive introductions tend towards the institutional in tone and content. Not only do they intrude on dream space and kill intimacy, but they drain the battery of the listener’s concentration.
I’m interested to hear what poets and poetry listeners think about these questions. What’s the worst or best introduction you’ve heard or received? Which venues have ‘sheltered’ poetry best for you? I was fascinated by one experiment at this year’s festival: the Hex Poets’ decision to project a colour palette into their performance space. What other kinds of experiment could build a dream house for poetry?
Matthew Clegg‘s debut collection, West North East, is published by Longbarrow Press this summer. Listen to Matthew Clegg reading from ‘A Letter From Tu Fu’ (from West North East) below.
2001 was a year of deaths. It began with a foot-and-mouth outbreak across our island on an unprecedented scale. There was government bungling and mass culls of livestock and whole bloodlines were lost. Then came 9/11 and the bombing of Afghanistan. This brought the countless deaths of men, women and children. Once again the human individual was buried under a torrent of statistics. In a magazine article that appeared shortly after the publication of her second book, the poet Josephine Dickinson told the tale of how she redeemed a period of drug addiction through a relationship with a much older man. That this man happened to be a Cumbrian sheep farmer, and she deaf since childhood, makes the story even more compelling. This backdrop produced the remarkable farming poems of her first book, Scarberry Hill, published in the same year as foot-and-mouth and 9/11. Her second book, The Voice (2004), is dominated, almost overwhelmed, by the impact of those mass killings.
Of the first, she offers a powerful insight into how foot-and-mouth left a community and a landscape bereft of its morale and its animal life. How slaughter represented a clinical and muddled attempt to control what could not, and perhaps cannot, be controlled. Of the second, the event, and the community, were global, and the parallel is hard to avoid: namely, that the war on terror was, and is, an equally futile attempt to control. In the poem ‘Colours are Different Now’, a mother of 7 children killed in the October bombing of Kabul cries out, ‘look at their savageness… The whole world is responsible…’ It is an incredible collage of detail, voices, statistics and scenes, as is ‘On the Wind’, her long poem-diary of foot-and-mouth.
If Scarberry Hill portrayed life on the farm as a newfound land, all rain-fresh and soil-redolent, then The Voice deals with events that are likely to scar the mind and the landscape for years to come. The life and death experiences in Scarberry Hill feel like ‘innocence’ compared to those of the second book. If one book offers the timeless story of ‘living in the living seasons’, then the second reverberates with the shock waves of our modernity. But there is also affirmation. Perhaps one of the most remarkable accomplishments in Dickinson’s second book is ‘Your Way’, a poem of understanding and appreciation offered to her (late) sheep-farmer companion. It comprises a cleverly crafted, intimately voiced celebration of the man and his whole mode of being in the world.
“You often say ‘You go on’,
but often I say ‘No’. I like to walk slowly
with you, your way, more slowly than the elephant,
as a galaxy at the frozen end of time.”
Elsewhere, the book has given us a voice of anguish, conscience, and witness. Here the voice is one of wonder and love. Both modes are necessary and compelling.
Read more about Josephine Dickinson here.
Derek Mahon and Sean O’Brien have already given us rewarding ‘versions’ of Rimbaud’s ‘The Drunken Boat’. Perhaps this poem captures Rimbaud at his most accomplished – according to more traditional approaches to form. It seems fitting, then, that a writer like John Ashbery should give us a ‘version’ of Rimbaud’s (second?) volume of prose poems. This form is a departure from what we normally expect from poetry, and it seems fitting that a writer as slippery as Ashbery should be the man to transfer something of its spirit from French to English. Both Rimbaud and Ashbery seem to have achieved both canonical and iconoclastic status, and perhaps Illuminations is a canonical iconoclastic poem. Please excuse the glaring contradiction, but everything about this book seems to lead to a glaring contradiction. This can be irritating, exasperating and often, well, illuminating. I can quite honestly say that on different occasions the same prose poem can come across as all three.
Ashbery’s introduction is short, but it does open doors into this difficult volume. He talks about modern works that act as a ‘fertile destabilization’. “Somewhere at the root of this, the crystalline jumble of Rimbaud’s Illuminations, like a disordered collection of magic lantern slides, each an ‘intense and rapid dream’, is still emitting pulses.” That phrase ‘crystalline jumble’ carries the same level of complexity you find in Rimbaud’s own interpretation of his creative practice – his ‘rational disordering of the senses’. ‘Rational disordering’ seems like another contradiction to me, but it is suited to the particular task this poet set himself. Reason and disorder were both, perhaps, equally threatening to stifling bourgeois values and traditional religion. The first couple of times I read through this volume I felt confused – and then (with the aid of a half bottle of wine) I started to feel its narcotic effect – something like a heightening of the senses and a loosening of associations in the mind.
When we discussed this volume at a Sheffield reading group, it was suggested that the ‘poems’ left little impression behind after reading. Perhaps this is a fair point in terms of whole pieces. But lines, images and fragments from the volume have lodged shards and splinters in my memory. From ‘After the Flood’ alone I find myself pondering and pondering the hare that ‘paused amid the gorse and trembling bellflowers and said its prayer to the rainbow through the spider’s web.’ How much of what is contradictory and complex about this world is compressed into that line? We have the delicate bellflowers and the virulent gorse, the hare of wonder and the spider’s web of Darwinism. Similarly, I can’t shake ‘the Moon has heard jackals cheeping in thyme deserts’, or the child who ‘waved his arms, understood by vanes and weathercocks everywhere, in the dazzling shower.’ Mother might well shout him inside out of that rain, but he’s become a weathercock in his own right, free and immersed in the dazzle. Is Rimbaud figuring himself here, or a version of his own project? I want to think so.
I walk away from reading this volume with a sense of the young Rimbaud travelling from place to place – London, Paris, rural France – writing down dreams, musings and impressions at great pace and with great emotional intensity. A reader looking to find conservative values bedded down in accomplished, polished writing will certainly be disappointed. What, you might ask, does this piece have to offer us today? Well, I’ve read a lot of poetry over the last 15 or so years and this book has offered me a reading experience quite unlike any other. As someone who once suffered from regular bouts of panic attack syndrome, I’ve often attempted to write down the extraordinary heightening of the senses that occurs during ‘fight or flight’. Aside from this being utterly traumatic, this heightening bordered on the visionary. It had a power to disturb me into raw and fresh impressions. Once I saw a spider’s web lit up in sunlight from at least 30 metres. It seemed to bungee in the wind. Of course, this was a result of too much adrenalin in the blood. Illuminations can offer something of the same effect but with considerably less trauma.
John Ashbery’s translation of Rimbaud’s Illuminations is published by Carcanet.