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 email@example.com 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.