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.

I’m still reading – incredibly slowly – Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus. Slowly because I’m really not getting on with them all that well – much of it is just too abstract and opaque for me. But persevering because my tutor last term said I’d like them, and I hate not finishing books, so I sort of feel duty-bound to keep slogging away at it.

But every once in a while a poem will stand out for me, and today I was struck by these two, from the second part of the collection:


O this is the creature that does not exist.
They did not know that and in any case
– its motion, and its bearing, and its neck,
even to the light of its still gaze – they loved it.

Indeed it never was. Yet because they loved it,
a pure creature happened. They always allowed room.
And in that room, clear and left open,
it easily raised its head and scarcely needed

to be. They fed it with no grain, but ever
with the possibility that it might be.
And this gave the creature such strength

it grew a horn out of its brow. One horn.
To a virgin it came hither white –
and was in the silver-mirror and in her.

I love that one phrase: they always allowed room. Somehow it really resonated with me today.

I loved the next one even more. It reminds me of Alice Oswald’s ‘Sonnet’, which begins ‘towards winter flowers, forms of ecstatic water, / chalk lies dry with all its throats open.’


Flower-muscle, that opens the anemone’s
meadow-morning bit by bit,
until into her lap the polyphonic
light of the loud skies pours down,

muscle of infinite reception
tensed in the still star of the blossom,
sometimes so overmanned with abundance
that the sunset’s beckoning to rest

is scarcely able to give back to you
the wide-sprung petal-edges:
you, resolve and strength of how many worlds!

We, with our violence, are longer-lasting.
But when, in which one of all lives,
are we at last open and receivers?

That sense of openness chimed with what I read today in The Artist’s Way, which I’ve started working through again after about four months off (though I do still write my morning pages pretty much every day). I don’t know why I stopped reading it, but it’s good to have started again. This week is about recovering a sense of possibility – of being open to abundance, wherever it comes from.

This post brought to you by bank-holiday lie-ins, M.D. Herter Norton’s translations of Rilke and a head full of metrics.

creativity = solitude

29 May, 2010

Two quotes about the need for solitude in the pursuit of creativity:

You need not leave your room. Remain sitting at your table and listen. You need not even listen, simply wait, just learn to become quiet, and still, and solitary. The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked. It has no choice; it will roll in ecstasy at your feet. – Franz Kafka

Without great solitude no serious work is possible. – Pablo Picasso

From this article.

Without great solitude no serious work is possible

two books

28 May, 2010

Not much to report at the end of the week, other than that I’ve been following my supervisor’s prescription to get out, see people, have fun, and read. I’ve been really enjoying one of the books she suggested, despite its truly hideous cover (Routledge, sort it out!):

It’s a really good primer and I’d recommend it to anyone interested in finding out more about poetry and how and why it works. Its opening chapter is called ‘Because there is language there is poetry’, and Wainright’s main argument is that all language resonates between the two poles of semantics (ie what it means) and sensuousness (ie our enjoyment of it). Poetry is just one part of the everyday language we all use; it’s not a specially demarcated zone for aesthetes or those in the know, and as such its enjoyment (and its meaning) is potentially open to everyone.

But then in the next chapter, ‘Deliberate space’, he goes on to talk about how poetry is a particularly heightened form of language. I particularly like this quote, drawing the analogy between poetry and prayer that I’ve written a little about before:

A poem is a part of the functioning and the gesturing of the words we use every day, but it is also set aside. Just as a prayer mat is made of fabric found everywhere but, once laid out, marks off a space from the surrounding daily world, so does the shape of the poem organise language into a space for pause and for different attention.

I’m also reading this fascinating book:

which I picked up while looking for something else. David Bohm was a quantum physicist and this book is a collection of essays on the relationship between creativity and science and the arts. It’s the kind of book that is utterly mesmerising on reading but that I’d struggle to write coherently about without going back and making copious notes. And it’s very challenging: I put it down after the first essay (‘Creativity’) asking myself the question, how do I move from the mechanical way I have of thinking/being/writing into a more creative state? Joining up the dots between scientific and artistic endeavour, Bohm defines creativity as ‘a perception of a new basic order that is potentially significant in a broad and rich field’, and goes on to say that

quite generally, in a creative act of perception, one first becomes aware (generally non-verbally) of a new set of relevant differences, and one begins to feel out or otherwise to note a new set of similarities, which do not come merely from past knowledge, either in the same field or in a different field. This leads to a new order, which then gives rise to a hierarchy of new orders, that constitutes a set of new kinds of structure. The whole process tends to form harmonious and unified totalities, felt to be beautiful, as well as capable of moving those who understand them in a profoundly stirring way.

I was thinking about differences and similarities (Bohm explains their importance to discovery earlier on in the chapter) and wondering how they connect up to poetry; perhaps metaphor is at the heart of this, highlighting in more or less obvious ways the difference as well as the similarity between the two things it brings together. And as we established in our Poetics seminar in the first term, poetry basically is metaphor.

Still no writing, though of course now I’m not supposed to be writing. But I’m feeling connections forming. And hopefully it’s all going on at a non-verbal level somewhere…

This post brought to you by the patience of friends, hilarious children, good books and lazy mornings.

I had my second dissertation supervision today. I’m afraid I went to it with nothing to show for myself, and feeling quite dejected at my seeming inability to write at the moment. Happily my supervisor knows what she’s doing and was both encouraging and very helpful.

The first thing she suggested was that I take a holiday of sorts. In fact she pretty much instructed me not to try to write any poetry for the next week, and instead of looking inwards (trying to write), look outwards. So: read. Read things that are old or foreign (she suggested an Italian poet, Valerio Magrelli, who’s apparently much like Paul Muldoon). Read poets’ letters and prose (especially Elizabeth Bishop). Read only for pleasure. Read obliquely. And get out and enjoy myself, doing the things I love most – walking, running, going to the cinema, to galleries, seeing people. I suppose in a way it’s that idea of stocking the pond that The Artist’s Way talks about, and which I haven’t been doing much/enough of recently. I left her office with a prescription of sorts – a list of books to consider reading, and this strict instruction not to write.

The idea is that after quite an intense process of writing continually for workshops, I’m now returning to a time where you have to allow the poetry to keep on happening in the back of your head while you get on with other stuff. The poems will emerge if I ‘trust my mind’ to keep on working at things subconsciously (Sean, you’re endorsed!).

We also talked about what exactly is so hard when you sit down to start writing – what it is that’s so distasteful. Aside from the (well-established on this blog, sorry) fact that writing just is hard, what I most struggle with is that initial stage of writing (poetry – with fiction it’s just not the same) when the first things you put down on the page are clumsy, ungainly, cringeworthy… They’re so horrible and flat and prosy and lumpen and cliched that it’s almost unbearable to get on and do it. But you have to learn to live with that messy stage, just so that you can get to the next one – sifting. I’m afraid I came up with the rather unlovely image of sticking your fingers down your throat in order to make yourself sick. Hmm, that analogy’s a bit problematic when you think about it too hard – let’s leave it there… But I found just talking about that uncomfortable and unpromising jumping-off point very helpful. I suppose in a sense it’s a part of letting go of perfectionism and learning how to play, instead. But it’s good to know that excellent poets (like my supervisor) feel similarly about it.

We talked briefly about lineation, too, and how I’m still struggling with how to end and begin lines with words that can carry the weight of their position on the page. It still confuses me but my supervisor suggested this book to give me a few ideas. (I read the first couple of chapters in the park in the sun, with an ice cream – taking the holiday idea to heart…)

And then finally we talked about turning up the emotional volume, which was perhaps the most intriguing thing of all. The conversation about lineation led on to my supervisor’s perception that I’m still somewhat afraid of letting the music come out in my writing (though I know I have a musical ear). I tend to shy away from too much volume and colour and lighting, which is somewhat ironic given that in person I’m a bit too much of a heart-on-sleeve type at times. Perhaps that’s exactly why my writing is somewhat understated emotionally and can be a bit too cool and cerebral? (This is what I mean by intriguing – when these discussions end up taking you right to the heart of who you are as a person, or at least how you perceive yourself). To some degree I think I am scared of saying too much, of being too messy on the page.

And this is where form comes in. I tend to use form a lot and actually it’s when you’re writing in a controlled/formal way that you can get away with saying quite dark and dangerous things. My villanelle from last term is a case in point: the incredibly tight form allowed me to put a lot of feeling into it, and my supervisor saw it as one of the biggest achievements of the pieces I handed in; that and a piece of terza rima, which of course is also highly structured.

So the final instruction from my supervisor was to do some shouting: to bring, next time I see her, four new drafts of pieces where I’m quite deliberately turning the volume up – expressing some of those messy emotions, like excitement and anticipation as well as anger and sadness. Apparently now is the time to start allowing the full force of myself to come through in my writing. To be honest this scares me a little; I wonder if it’s partly to do with being a woman (and a fairly emotional one, at that), and wanting to be taken seriously? But the point is not to gush out some confessional/emotional torrent; instead, as Coleridge said, it’s to write with ‘a more than usual state of emotion with more than usual order’. You take the feeling, and you apply control to it in the poem. Essentially it’s the poem you’re keeping control of, not the emotion (which is just repression and leads to boring, muted poems).

So. Exciting. And terrifying, in pretty much equal measure. I shall keep you posted.

This post brought to you by Telemann’s Double Concerto for Recorder and Bassoon and repeat listenings of Wiley’s Never Be Your Woman. Dinner courtesy of Hodder & Stoughton, conversation by my hero Dallas Willard

This week we got the marks back for our third piece of coursework (the second poetry workshop module). I was determined to hand in a collection I felt more confident in this time around, but it didn’t quite work like that – although I do feel that my work has changed hugely since the first batch I handed in, I really didn’t give myself enough time for editing (although again I do feel I have a much better grasp on that side of things), and it was a risky move handing in three pieces that hadn’t been workshopped, though I didn’t really have any choice in that…

So given the above caveats I can’t really say that an improvement of one solitary mark was disappointing, exactly, but it was hardly thrilling, either. Just one mark off a first is one way of looking at it. Although the comments from both tutors are the really valuable thing, I guess, and once again they both wrote some really helpful and encouraging notes. The main criticisms appear to be 1: weak lineation – which is something I’ve been attending to but clearly still need to work on – and 2: occasional surrendering to easy resolution/romance/cliche. Damn.

Interestingly two of the poems that hadn’t been workshopped, and which I felt were pretty out there, got some of the most positive comments. So that’s encouraging. I was aware as I was writing them that I was doing something a bit different, so that’s clearly something to pursue.

The question of distance that I wrote about in my last post came up, too, with one tutor writing ‘You are allowing a lot more immediacy in while keeping the poem focused. The next step would be to pursue image rather than memory and to free yourself from the constraints of narrative prose – as you do in the final fishing image.’ So once again I feel a certain sense of direction – the steps I need to take, the things I need to pay attention to – is emerging.

And once again I’m afraid I’m going to indulge in sharing my favourite comments from each of my tutors:

There is a good coherence in this body of work and some fine poems [which have] a combination of formal control and a certain freedom in the consciousness they articulate… Passages in all the poems show a keen, refined ear and a sense of experience genuinely pressing at the skin of language.

The most exciting poem here is ‘In reverse’ which has all your strengths – urgency, imperative (that word again), light and dextrous use of form, intelligence, subtlety and the coherence that comes of sustained interrogation. It promises much good to come.

This post brought to you by Shirley Ellis’s The Name Game, hotpants and heels, much fun with friends, and stimulating and hilarious comment from the Magpie Lane workshop gang (thanks Julia). Music courtesy of Dusk and Blackdown via Sean, and of course the delicious Marky‘s badly packed kebab. Bisous a tous

So, we’re now well into the dissertation period: a couple of weeks ago we had a meeting to discuss how to get on with it, what’s expected of us, how our supervisions will work and so on; yesterday I had my first supervision. Which was very helpful, though I don’t feel I brought much to the party. Somehow I still don’t feel quite in the zone. I suppose partly because my fiction coursework dragged on (thanks to laptop poorliness, though it’s just today been restored to me, all data intact), but I’m not sure why else. Certainly I don’t feel remotely excited by any of the random notes and ideas that I usually mine from when I’m starting something new.

Still, my supervisor has told me not to worry. You can’t regulate writing. And things will come when they’re ready. In the mean time I’ve been enjoying mulling over various things that various people have said over the last few weeks. The main theme it seems to me – or maybe the idea that I most need to pay attention to at the moment – is that of distance. Writing lyric poetry is obviously a rather personal affair, and the majority of what I write/have written has been borne to some degree or another directly from my own life and experience (though not much of it is what you’d call confessional). But one of the fascinating things that my supervisor said in a talk about her own work a few weeks ago is the need to use your life to talk about something, rather than writing out of your own life. It’s an important distinction and one that resonates deeply with me for all sorts of reasons. (It’s not about me…) And it reminds me of the connections between poetry and prayer that I wrote about in my last post… perhaps it’s about moving away from the ego to some degree? Anyway it’s something I’ve been learning over the course of this, er, course – that you don’t need to be constrained to tell the truth of a certain situation just because you’re writing a piece that has come out of something that’s actually happened to you. We’re creating art (or endeavouring to), not autobiography. Perhaps that’s part of maturing as a writer? Certainly I subscribe to the view that sometimes you need to ‘lie’ in order to tell a deeper truth. And I’m definitely beginning to appreciate that it is in fact easier to write about things from a distance. I suppose it’s part of being surprised by the direction a poem takes: you may start off thinking you’re writing about this particular desk from your childhood, but actually it ends up being about something entirely different.

In a talk he gave today another of our tutors spoke about a poem he wrote that he said changed everything, because for the first time he was no longer talking about the way he felt, but about a situation: he’d learned objective distance. Distance from the poem; self-control; no longer needing the poem to be a photo-realistic portrait of something. All things I need to learn. While remembering that, as Don Paterson said, people like reading poems that move them…

Another important distance that this particular tutor mentioned is the one you create when you put your drafts away for two or three weeks. Hopefully by then there’s less of a visceral connection, which is what enables you to edit them. The analogy he used was how when your children are first born the desire to protect them is intense… but after a while you need to let them go; ‘let the little lyrical cripples walk on their own two feet. And if you don’t like their feet, change them’…

Of course the poems I need to be working on are still hidden somewhere inside. And I’m rather worried they’re less lyrical cripples than stone babies by now…

This post brought to you by a newly resurrected laptop, the sadness of dandelion clocks, party vibes by Uncle Ron, and that last disturbing image courtesy of Robin Robertson’s stunning The Wrecking Light

on things being hard

11 May, 2010

Argh, I’m getting behind with everything (again), and aware that I’ve missed my last three posting days. Bank holiday Monday, a broken laptop and general busyness put paid to last week, but I have no excuse for missing yesterday really.

Following my last post about how hard it is to look big problems in the eye I’ve been thinking quite a bit about things being hard, and how they are hard, and why. The weekend before last I went to a very interesting talk with Archbishop Rowan Williams (himself a poet and literary critic) and the poet Ruth Padel, on the relationship between poetry and prayer. Both Padel and Williams kept returning to the thought that language is not easy, and that in fact it gets continually harder the further you go both in poetry and in prayer. Padel talked about the need to discipline yourself to ‘resist the easy’, and Williams elaborated on this in talking about how the Welsh medieval poets deliberately made things incredibly hard for themselves. (I remember my tutor in the first term here saying something similar to me: that I needed to set myself firm limits that I could attack intelligently; if in doubt, impose a demanding regime on yourself. Certainly I found writing last term’s villanelle, as tortuous as it was, incredibly fruitful.)

The point of making things hard for yourself, according to Williams, is that in doing so you find out the things you didn’t know you already knew. There’s something about forcing yourself into a very strict mode that allows truth to surface. It all sounds ridiculously paradoxical and I probably would have scoffed a year or so ago, but I’m now definitely with whoever it was who said ‘I don’t know what I want to say until I’ve said it’. Again and again both in writing and in workshops it’s been the mysterious, hidden things that have slowly emerged from all the sifting and shaping that have most life – never what you thought you were sitting down to write. And as with poetry, so with prayer: you can’t come to it with a fixed agenda. Instead you need to learn to be quiet, to listen, so that the connections can come through.

(And this is all chiming with what the fantastic Robin Robertson said in his q&a with us the other month – about how all creativity is essentially an act of curiosity, of wanting to find out. I’ve just realised that’s something else I’ve never posted about; he was brilliant. Go and read The Wrecking Light.)

So, in poetry, and in prayer, the suggestion is: make things difficult for yourself. Shut up. And listen. It’s about learning to live in expectancy, to have the capacity to sit still and not have everything resolved straight away – Keats’s theory of negative capability. I guess this is one of the most important things that poetry has to offer.

And that too, according to Williams, is part of the difficulty of poetry in an image-based culture; we’re so used to understanding something instantly and then moving on. But poetry resists that: it teaches us the hardness of having to wait. There are things that it just takes time to understand. (And this in turn reminds me of what Don Paterson said about poetry being essentially about the art of re-reading.) The Bible, for example: it isn’t something you can ever say you’ve read for the last time.

Ultimately it is the hardness of things that gives them their value, and this is connected with the necessity of approaching things side-on. We can’t look at them (as we can’t look at God) directly. We have to tiptoe around them, using paradox and metaphor as we circle closer. But there always is this circling closer – a simultaneous struggling and yearning towards that terrible beauty. And this gets right to the heart of it, for me. I resist poetry, as I do prayer, because they are just so hard. But they are hard precisely because they are important, precisely because they are so beautiful. And terrible. And exacting.

I’m not sure I’m making sense any more, so I’ll move swiftly on, to a talk that one of our tutors gave last week. She too had a lot to say about the difficulty of writing, echoing Padel in talking about the need to resist the things that charm you, and Williams in describing a poetic process that takes a long time to find out what is actually trying to be said. Best of all (for me) was when she said this: ‘I feel terrible when I’m not writing and I mainly feel terrible when I’m writing too, because I’m struggling with something.’

So I’m going to let go of this worry that I’m too preoccupied with writing being so annoyingly hard. It just is, and that’s sort of the point.

Apologies for a bit of a long and rambly post. Normal service will be resumed later on this week.

This post brought to you by a large helping of frustration, disappointment with the political situation, a loaned laptop courtesy of my wonderful dad, an enormous sleep-debt and a large g&t. Cheers.

big problems

30 April, 2010

Don’t worry, nothing bad’s happened. I’ve just been thinking a lot about procrastination this week, as that’s (mostly) what I’ve been doing. Actually to be fair to myself I’ve got some stuff done, and anyway everything feels a bit in between stages at the moment: I’m not yet ready to embark on the dissertation before we have our meeting about it next week, and can’t put the fiction to bed until I’ve handed in my coursework.

During a long procrastinatory online chat a quantum physicist friend (yes, really) suggested a few different ways of thinking about the art of putting things off. Is it possible, for example, that in some sense I might be working while I think  I’m procrastinating – letting my subconscious have a good go at whatever it is I’m currently writing while I’m messing about doing something else? Maybe. Definitely I find that things need time to mull and develop. Though as Sean himself said there’s every possibility one’s subconscious could just be thinking about football (though probably not specifically football in my case).

Anyway he sent me a couple of really interesting links about procrastination. This one, which is from a computer geek, suggests that the key to successful procrastination is to make sure you’re putting off the boring stuff no one wants to do (ie errands) in order to do other, more important stuff. So, finishing my book and writing poetry rather than tidying my room (all things I’m equally happy to put off for days on end). Easier said than done, of course, but good to think about.

And then we come to the big problems. I’ve copied out these questions and stuck them to the wall above my desk:

1.  What are the most important problems in your field?
2. Are you working on one of them?
3. Why not?

What’s the best thing you could be working on, and why aren’t you?

Obviously these are phrased for someone working in research, rather than creative writing, but to go beyond ‘important problems’ = ‘important stuff’ (ie the poetry, the book), it got me thinking a bit wider, about how I might be more ambitious in my writing itself. What are the most important ‘problems’ in poetry, right now? This feels sort of pertinent with the dissertation just about to kick off – the chance to explore something in detail, to really push at it with my writing. What should I be aiming for over the next couple of months? And if I were to do a creative-critical PhD (something I realised I haven’t yet posted about, but have been thinking about since February), what would my research element be?

Of course big problems are even harder to get down to than annoying errands. I love how he writes about them. This is pretty much exactly how I feel about writing poetry 90% of the time:

Big problems are terrifying. There’s an almost physical pain in facing them. It’s like having a vacuum cleaner hooked up to your imagination. All your initial ideas get sucked out immediately, and you don’t have any more, and yet the vacuum cleaner is still sucking.

And I love his advice, too:

You can’t look a big problem too directly in the eye. You have to approach it somewhat obliquely. But you have to adjust the angle just right: you have to be facing the big problem directly enough that you catch some of the excitement radiating from it, but not so much that it paralyzes you. You can tighten the angle once you get going, just as a sailboat can sail closer to the wind once it gets underway.

Now all I need to do is work out how that might look when I’m writing…

This post brought to you by the sound of the Bam Bam sound’s election special, home-made burgers, very long and very silly conversations with Sean, and the worrying realisation that most of this blog consists of me whining about writing. Poems (still) by Rilke.