writing in the bath

21 June, 2010

First of all, you have to read this brilliant piece by one of my tutors, which is his answer to the question ‘what is poetry for?’, something he was asked for an article in the Guardian (also well worth reading). At the heart of his answer is the formulation that I’ve heard him use before: fiction (and other things) asks the question what next? while poetry asks the question what is this? – and so poetry is concerned with what he calls encounter. ‘Poetry seeks a few simple movements to understand whatever is at the heart of the phenomenon encountered.’ I love that; it sums it up so perfectly for me.

On a completely unrelated note, I’ve been thinking recently about how I can be a bit more friendly towards writing; or perhaps, how I can learn to think of my writing as being friendly towards me. Too often I approach it as a chore, as something dreadful and difficult and demanding; I’ve spent enough time moaning about it on this blog, using all sorts of metaphors (digging ditches, being sick) to describe how hard I find it at times.

And yes, it is hard, we’ve established that. But I wonder if I make it too hard sometimes, overcomplicate it; I can often feel like the circumstances have to be just right before I can actually sit down to write (ie starting early enough in the day; not too excited; nothing hanging over me, etc etc). I’m sure that’s common for lots of people doing any sort of creative endeavour. But is there a way I can approach it as more of a game or a puzzle, something that I have lying around so that I pick it up and simply play with it for a while? Yes, there need to be intense periods of focus and sweat, but I’m thinking that they’ll perhaps be easier to sit down to if there’s been a more playful turning things over going on in the background more of the time. I’m thinking in particular of an inspiring friend (whose advice on procrastination and creativity I’ve mentioned before) who delighted me with the statement last week that his office is his head, and that he does a lot of physics in the bath. I think that’s brilliant, and it’s the kind of attitude I’d like to develop towards my writing, rather than always seeing it as this desperately hard work that’s confined to strict hours at my desk. (Although it does slightly worry me that perhaps the fact that I don’t already feel that way about writing means I’ll never be much good at it.)

To return to poets talking about their writing: I’ve just started reading an anthology called Don’t Ask Me What I Mean, which is a collection of poets’ pieces for the Poetry Book Society over the years. They’re all short and entertaining, giving a fascinating insight into how some favourite poets view their own work. Recommended. As a counterweight to the rest of this post, here’s some typical stubbornness from Kingsley Amis:

A poet ought to feel complimented when somebody invites him to talk about his poetry, but he is more likely to behave as if he had suddenly been hauled to his feet to reply to a toast. […] What he would probably like to say, if he is honest, is that he will see his readers or anyone else damned before he will reveal his almost total ignorance of what on earth he is up to as a poet. If he did try to formulate his ideas on the question, he knows how trite and/or pretentious they will sound. He is uneasily aware – and often actually announces – that many of poems are not as good as he would like them to be, and that, since being a poet means he is almost certain to suffer from pathological laziness, some of them are not even as good as he could make them – this he announces less often.

This post brought to you by pathological laziness, cake-baking and a new obsession with the works of Philip Glass


first-class work

18 June, 2010

The big news this week is that I got my coursework marks back from the fiction module that I took last term, and the result I got was so unexpectedly good that I actually misread it as 10% lower than it was, for about five minutes, because even getting that lower mark would have been an absolute delight. It was deliriously exciting, of course, but also a bit confusing, because it was just so much higher than any of the marks that I’ve got for my poetry. I don’t want to say that writing prose is easier than writing poetry, but I can tell you that I worked a lot harder, and for a lot longer, on my poetry than I did on this particular prose extract. So. I’m not quite sure how to rearrange all that in my head.

One thing that it has done is given me a fresh sense of urgency about the time I have left. Unless I take on some more part-time work over the summer (something I’m agonising over at the moment), I have until the beginning of September to give my dissertation every ounce that I have, and this last mark I got was so good that it (perhaps) makes getting a distinction a possibility, though I don’t really know how the mark scheme works. So there’s that. But also it would be great to use these last few months to finish the novel that my fiction coursework was an extract from, so that it’s as complete as possible before I have to go back to work. I don’t know how realistic that is, but it’s something to aim for – certainly I can get the first draft finished.

Meanwhile the poetry’s coming slow. I really need to step it up a gear. Or start digging deeper and in a more focused way.

Here’s a lovely thing: I have to confess to never listening to Poetry Please, but I did send in a request for a poem at some point last year – I can’t really remember when. So imagine my surprise when, sitting on the beach last Sunday, I got a text telling me to turn on the radio. If you go to 11.45 here you’ll hear a favourite poem of mine (rather over-read to my ears), and the reason I like it.

This post brought to you trips to the seaside, big surprises and epic amounts of fun

parting shots

11 June, 2010

I had my final supervision yesterday: scary, but it went well. I took along four drafts where I’d consciously tried to ‘turn up the emotional volume’, and one bonus one that I’d written very quickly that morning (which is super-fast for me). It felt quite exposing taking in such early drafts; I felt hesitant about even calling them poems, really, but it turned out to be a very helpful exercise. Throughout the course we’ve taken pieces to the workshop knowing that we’ll spend time editing and revising them afterwards, but hoping that they do already work on some level, whereas the pieces I took to my supervision I’d allowed myself to write very freely and unselfconsciously. That in itself was a very useful thing to do – and it made me realise that I really do overcomplicate writing a lot of the time. Obviously it takes effort, but it shouldn’t be agonising. At least, not always.

So it was good to discuss what I’d written with my supervisor, and sift through the drafts in search of the poem at the heart of each. I was surprised by how positive a lot of her comments were, and also how close to being complete she judged a couple of them to be. And I was reminded, again, that really no one’s interested in the ‘occasion’ that has sparked a poem; what the reader is interested in is the deeper, or more universal, truth that you’re expressing through that particular experience. I think I’m very slowly inching towards really getting this, beginning to notice when I’ve slipped back towards memory rather than moving forwards to the nub of the poem. And of course of the five pieces I took, it was the one most closely connected with a specific experience that we decided was the weakest and perhaps worth binning rather than persevering with.

The experiment of trying to shout a bit louder in my writing was an interesting one; I actually ended up picking four emotions I feel most strongly (two negative, two positive) and tried to write through them, allowing images to arise rather than anchoring them necessarily to specific situations or experiences. I’m not sure how loud I really got, though. And I found it interesting that the only way I could write an excited poem was to write it in the voice of a dog…

I also took in the R. S. Thomas poem that was puzzling me last week, along with my version of it that put each thought on its own line, and we talked about lineation and what exactly he’s doing with it. Of course there are no rules as such but it was a helpful discussion. I’d already seen for myself how the enjambement and caesurae create the poem’s rhythm and movement, but my tutor scanned it with me and drew my attention to the pattern of the stresses, showing how it creates the poem’s tension and charge. Basically, enjambement does two things: create a sense of propulsion and forward movement; and/or push things up against each other in a surprising way.

So. That’s it. Teaching is officially over, and from now I’m on my own, just working towards that final deadline in September. I’ve got a couple of small informal workshops that I’ll be carrying on with, but in terms of the course itself, this is where it ends. I almost don’t know what to say about it; it does feel like I’ve come to the end of something, but in another way it’s only just  beginning…

Finally, Simon Armitage gave a reading on Wednesday, from his latest book Seeing Stars. I liked what he said about needing to constantly ambush yourself as a writer, so you’re not always doing the same things (though of course you’re always really saying the same things through those different things). And best of all was his distinction between prose and poetry: prose is info, poetry is innuendo. I like that.

This post brought to you by bacon and eggs, visiting Americans and brand-new babies.

by heart

8 June, 2010

Ever since my year of reading a collection by a different poet each week (chronicled here) I’ve thought I should get into the habit of memorising poetry, but aside from a few random ones learnt years ago, I’ve never quite got round to it. Last week I decided I was going to get on with it, partly just because I think it’s a valuable thing to do, and partly because I thought really getting inside poems would help me in writing them (in the same way that if you want to write excellent poems, you have to read them).

So last week I set myself the task of learning R. S. Thomas‘s ‘The Bright Field’:

I have seen the sun break through
to illuminate a small field
for a while, and gone my way
and forgotten it. But that was the pearl
of great price, the one field that had
the treasure in it. I realize now
that I must give all that I have
to possess it. Life is not hurrying

on to a receding future, nor hankering after
an imagined past. It is the turning
aside like Moses to the miracle
of the lit bush, to a brightness
that seemed as transitory as your youth
once, but is the eternity that awaits you.

It’s a poem I’ve loved for years, and I’m pleased to now have it in my head. As expected it was a rewarding thing to do, but I wasn’t anticipating quite how helpful and also puzzling it would be. Helpful because learning something by heart helps you to get under its skin, and I was surprised by how little attention I’d paid the poem’s form while mainly appreciating its imperative; but of course it’s the way the poem’s constructed that helps create that imperative. And puzzling because I noticed for the first time (along with the fact that it’s an unrhymed, free verse sonnet – I can’t believe I hadn’t taken even that on board) just how off-kilter it seems, particularly in terms of its lineation, which as I’ve mentioned is something I’m paying particular attention to at the moment. Learning something line by line, and reciting it to yourself in your head and out loud, really points up where the line breaks are; and in this poem Thomas is working with/against all the things I’m trying to learn about what makes for successful lineation. Reading it out loud and pausing (however briefly) at the ends of lines highlights the somewhat puzzling enjambement; I can see why and how the first three work, but why break the syntactic whole of ‘the one field that had / the treasure in it’ in that particular place? Is ‘had’ really a strong enough word to end the line on? Or has he done it to highlight ‘the treasure’ at the beginning of the following line? I guess at this stage I’m still trying to get my head round the ‘rules’ (such as they are), so watching someone break them is bound to be a bit puzzling. I just know that if someone had brought a line broken like that to the workshop last term it would have been pointed up as problematic. The whole thing seems counter-intuitive to some degree, as though Thomas has taken the natural shape of the lines and given them a shove to the right, so they’re all broken up and slightly wonky, with enjambement and caesurae throughout the whole thing. I can see how the gap between the octave and the sestet really enacts the poem’s imperative of not hurrying on: the temptation to rush over that line break and have the meaning of the phrase completed is huge, and that’s exactly what the poem is forcing you to pay attention to. But would I have got away with it in my workshops? Doubtful – I’m a big fan of enjambement, often breaking clauses over stanzas, but never quite so boldly.

If you were allowing each separate thought to have its own line the poem might look more like this:

I have seen the sun break through
to illuminate a small field for a while,
and gone my way and forgotten it.
But that was the pearl of great price,
the one field that had the treasure in it.
I realize now that I must give all that I have to possess it.

Life is not hurrying on to a receding future,
nor hankering after an imagined past.
It is the turning aside like Moses to the miracle of the lit bush,
to a brightness that seemed as transitory as your youth once,
but is the eternity that awaits you.

Which of course completely destroys the structure and the rhythm, and turns what was a subtle but powerful piece of observation into a very flat, almost ham-fisted series of banalities. So. Hmm. I have lots to learn. Or maybe the lesson here is that maybe I can trust my ear more than I think I can?

On a vaguely related note, a friend who’s been reading this blog but confesses to ‘not knowing much about poetry’ asked if I could recommend anything to her in terms of finding out a bit more. I suggested looking out collections written by the authors of the poems she said she liked, but also that she get stuck into a couple of anthologies. Anthologies are a great way of discovering poetry, particularly in terms of working out what you do and don’t like, because of course you can dip into a huge range of authors, themes, styles and so on. The two I recommended to her, and which I’d recommend to anyone interested in reading more poetry, are these:

By Heart, edited by Ted Hughes.  Not because I’m suggesting this particular friend (or anyone else for that matter)  necessarily starts memorising poetry as a way of getting into it, but because it’s a lovely anthology, and fairly short and unintimidating, with a wide variety of poems, all of which were favourites of Hughes’s. And of course given that musicality is part of what makes poetry memorable (its roots in the oral tradition means that a lot of poetic technique is about making verse easily memorised), all these poems are particularly beautiful to listen to/read.

Staying Alive, edited by Neil Astley. This is a much bigger anthology, and primarily contemporary, so it could be a bit intimidating, but it’s deservedly incredibly popular. Diverse, entertaining, moving, fierce – it’d definitely be a good place to start if you want to find out more about poetry that’s been written in the last three or four decades. It and its sister anthology Being Alive are thematically arranged, which gives you a good handle on the poems inside, and have useful introductions both to poetry in general and to the works themselves. I think the main thing about them both though is that all the poems are very immediate, and as such make a convincing case for the power and relevance of poetry as an art form.

I almost finished this up without mentioning that yes, I am now writing again, and I have no fewer than six brand-new pieces on the go. Wonders will clearly never cease.

This post brought to you by trips to the beach, the woods, the broads, and London. Plants and expeditions courtesy of visiting mothers; music courtesy of the Bam Bam Sound.