a poem is not a story…

25 January, 2010

… and it’s not an atmosphere.

So said our tutor in last week’s workshop, and I’ve been mulling it over since then. It’s not enough just to recount an anecdote. And it’s not enough just to evoke a certain feeling.

All of which leaves me a bit stuck for the piece of writing I’m now working on: a sestina, which is a really demanding form, and one I haven’t written before. I can’t work out if the fact that my endwords have already been chosen for me* makes it harder or easier. Both, probably. Easier because I don’t have to worry about choosing words that I’ll be able to repeat six times. Harder because, well, I have to hang a poem on those six words and I have no other cue no feeling for what I want the poem to do, other than work.

I’ve written a first stanza, just to force myself to start playing with the words, but it hasn’t really led me anywhere. Hopefully reading some exemplary sestinas will nudge me along; otherwise, I’ll just have to hope that, with time, some ideas will start to percolate… Wish me luck.

*It was one of those late-night, rather tipsy conversations, and Paul decided that I should write a sestina, and picked my six endwords for me by making me give him random numbers, which then pinpointed specific words in Keats’s collected letters. They are: thread, one, heavenward, have, world, surprised. Very Keatsian, I’m sure you’ll agree.

psychic creative territory

22 January, 2010

Apologies for missing the last two scheduled posts. No excuse, really, aside from the battle to get into good working/writing/studying rhythms. (And, er, meeting with mixed success.)

Speaking of which, one of the many fascinating things about my optional module this term the theory and practice of fiction is hearing about other peoples’ writing habits. As the name would suggest it’s a very practical course, and we began last week with the real nitty gritty of discussions around exactly how and when we write, for how long all that kind of stuff. And it was very encouraging to hear the range of responses, with some people clocking on religiously to write four hours a day, others working in bursts, and some writing to deadlines. Profoundly reassuring that there’s no one regimented way to do things.

The first thing we were encouraged to think about and share with the class was our own ‘psychic creative territory’: that bit of you that creates the impulse to write; the things you’re interested in. Our tutor suggested that that’s one of the things that can’t be taught, but has to be discovered for yourself, and that it’s good to keep a hold on it recognising too that it can and does change over time. I think that perhaps that’s quite a prose/fiction-based question, and I find it difficult to answer in terms of the poetry I write, although if I were forced to say something I’d probably say something about the beauty of things fitting together. Or perhaps the relationship between beauty and loneliness. But from the little fiction that I’ve been working on for the last few years, the answer is immediate: ideas of escape and of finding home, and the relationship between those two impulses. Perhaps that applies to my poetry too, to some extent, but I’m not sure. Hmm. I’ll continue to ponder.

Next week will be my first turn to be workshopped this term, and with a new group and a new tutor it’s bound to be quite different from last term. I’m looking forward to it. I’m just about to send round three poems: my Plough Monday piece, a short piece called ‘Cam Ceiliog‘ and a sonnet about the Broderers’ Guild at Norwich Cathedral. It feels good to be writing again, after the sweat of finishing off last term’s work to submit as coursework. Although it feels just as agonising…

I’ll leave you with something that this term’s tutor mentioned in our workshop this week, which could be a possible answer to the question of my emotional terrain in poetry: all art is about sex, death or the making of art. And once you realise that, you can get over yourself a little bit.

plough Monday

11 January, 2010

Towards the end of last year a sermon got me thinking about ploughing as a metaphor for various things… I can’t quite remember the order now but when I found out about Plough Monday marking the beginning of the agricultural year I decided it could be a nice conceit for an Advent poem though it’s more of a new year poem, really. Today is Plough Monday it’s always the first Monday after Epiphany and appropriately enough it’s the first day of term, too. So here it is:

Plough Monday

and celebration’s set aside again,
gives way to steady, head-down stamp and sigh
of turning up the earth, the year’s field
curving to meet a blank page of sky.

The broken soil clogs, then numbs, cold like steel.
But remember this as you walk the loam:
you’re hitched to an older beast, who knows his work; yield
to his pace as he pulls the plough to its mark – home.

It hasn’t been workshopped yet so no doubt this is an early draft and I’ll make some changes. But it kind of does what I wanted it to. It went out with my Christmas cards (what few I sent) – and hopefully people liked it.

So – new term, new year, new decade. I wish I felt more excited about all of the above, but to be honest I feel rather flat. Not particularly down, just not particularly up either; not especially engaged or full of enthusiasm (hah – in writing my poetics essay I’ve only just discovered the derivation of the word ‘enthusiasm’, which is to be possessed by a god, and so linked with ideas of inspiration). Hopefully that’ll change this week: my coursework’s nearly due and after that I can get stuck into this term’s workshop, and this term’s optional module, which I’m doing on fiction.

various portents

6 January, 2010

Happy new year! I’m slugging away at my Poetics essay (on ideas of inspiration in Alice Oswald’s work), and as it’s Epiphany today, I thought this poem by Oswald, ‘Various Portents’, would be an appropriate post:

Various stars. Various kings.
Various sunsets, signs, cursory insights.

Many minute attentions, many knowledgeable watchers,
Much cold, much overbearing darkness.

Various long midwinter Glooms.
Various Solitary and Terrible stars.
Many Frosty Nights, many previously Unseen Sky-flowers.
Many people setting out (some of them kings) all clutching at stars.

More than one North star, more than one South star.
Several billion elliptical galaxies, bubble nebulae, binary systems.
Various dust lanes, various routes through varying thickness of Dark,
Many tunnels into deep space, minds going back and forth.

Many visions, many digitally enhanced heavens,
All kinds of glistenings being gathered into telescopes:
Fireworks, gasworks, white-streaked works of Dusk,
Works of wonder and or water, snowflakes, stars of frost …

Various dazed astronomers dilating their eyes,
Various astronauts setting out into laughterless earthlessness,
Various 5,000-year-old moon maps,
Various blindmen feeling across the heavens in Braille.

Various gods making beautiful works in bronze,
Brooches, crowns, triangles, cups and chains,
Various crucifixes, all sorts of nightsky necklaces.
Many Wise Men remarking the irregular weather.

Many exile energies, many low-voiced followers,
Watchers of whisps of various glowing spindles,
Soothsayers, hunters in the High Country of the Zodiac,
Seafarers tossing, tied to a star…

Various people coming home (some of them kings). Various headlights.

Two or three children standing or sitting on the low wall.
Various winds, the Sea Wind, the sound-laden Winds of Evening
Blowing the stars towards them, bringing snow.