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August 29, 2007

How to be Bad and How to Be Good

Part of all of us does not like writing, or rather does not like effort. We displace that dislike on to our circumstances or on to other people in an effort to throw responsibility elsewhere. Some writers make this a lifestyle, but it is hell for those around them, and their teachers. There are other choices, and effort becomes a lot easier and routine with practice. It ceases to feel like effort, and this allows you to go beyond yourself as a writer. You escape the banal traps of personality, and write beyond your intelligence.


How to be Good

Being good simply comes down to having routine and little rituals, and getting on with believing in your work. Begin by finding the place that best suits your writing, and make this your territory: ‘a room of your own’. It could be a garage, café, library, outhouse or the traditional study if you can afford such luxury. Work in that space, and reward yourself in doing so, in small ways. After a while, the mere act of going to that place will begin to trigger the routine of writing.

Find the times of day that best suit your writing process, but bear in mind that you will find this time changes as you get older: young night owls end up as middle-aged nine-to-fivers. Stick to this time, though, while it works. Again, find some small way of rewarding yourself for beginning work, and for putting in the time at the end. Practise this daily, until it becomes ingrained, and you miss it when you do not follow it.

Having worked in your space for a fixed amount of time it will be tempting to start taking breaks—ten-minute vacations from concentration (smokers are especially culpable)—but such breaks disturb and corrupt creative momentum. The novelist Ron Carlson puts it strikingly, ‘If you want to be a writer, stay in the room!’ I take it that you want a life, as well as a life as a writer. If you are not a Stay-in-the-Room-Writer, then your work will take very much longer, and you then have less time for life. One old trick of politicians and businesspeople is to snap the working day into two sections, separated by lunch and a catnap, allowing one to continue the second session with as heightened a concentration as the first. It yields two days from one. The enforced discipline (rather than a self-enforced one) is a strong attraction of creative writing courses in universities. They offer you a strict timetable for reading, writing and re-writing; weekly support and criticism; and they force you to stay in the metaphorical “room” of the course. You then take these enforcements into your own life.

Being good can mean simply reaching a word-count chosen beforehand. It is not the amount of time, but the kind of time and how you use it. Journalists pick up this habit as part of their job. Both Joseph Conrad and Graham Greene allowed themselves a relatively low daily word limit of writing. It is a pattern to imitate; it frees the rest of the day for experience and incubation. Many novelists and nonfiction writers set themselves targets. Writing The Origin of Species, Charles Darwin suffered a lack of discipline, so he set up stones in a small cairn on the sandwalk outside his study. Each stone represented a point Darwin wanted to make within a daily quota of writing. Each time he made a point, he knocked a stone from the cairn. Some writers find easy composition unnatural, but still force themselves forward. For the Irish poet W.B. Yeats, two lines of poetry a day represented a good effort. Gustave Flaubert often wrote thirty-five words. Given this constant daily accretion, you will find that books make themselves slowly and surely, like cairns, before your eyes.

Being good also means completing your task for the day, which you set the day before. Within your working day, try to complete a section of a novel or a piece of creative nonfiction, or take a poem through to its pre-final draft. Do not ask too much of yourself, but make practical targets and stick with them, and quit while you are ahead. Do not leave something uncompleted; it will call for you psychologically, goading you to finish. It is a good tip to complete some aspect of work, then think about what you aim to achieve the following day, even beginning the first lines or sentences of that new work. Go no further into it than as if you were unlocking the cage around it, but leaving the door still closed. You may now leave the next day’s work to escape by itself; and it will do so unconsciously. You will find it waiting at the end of your fingertips the next morning, having nudged the cage-door open. Writers often find it useful to warm up their minds at the beginning of a writing session by revising and rewriting the work they have completed the day previously. This form of self-reading reminds you of what you were doing, and where you might want to get to next.

Your regime need not be puritanical and punishing for this would have the opposite effect in the end. As you get more experienced, you should increase your word-count, and include a substantial amount of re-writing time to begin your working day. You should build in time for reading, for daydreaming, and for creating moments of receptive idleness. Dorothea Brande believed that reading immediately before writing was a bad idea, and that you should build in time for what she called ‘wordless recreation’. She does not mean that you stop reading as a writer. She means you should stop prevaricating, and leave yourself open for your own language to emerge.

How to be Bad

Being good requires a certain degree of ruthlessness, but the ruthlessness is directed at your own character, not at others. The error made by some writers is to exact silence and servility from those around them in order to affect routine and order. What they create may prove in the end to be good writing, but no writing is good enough to require other people to suffer for its creation. Also, any conniving of circumstances to bring about your downfall is your own creation, a kind of anti-creation and self-destructiveness.

Do not whine about self-inflicted wounds in your time and work. Write about them, if you must. The corollaries of any inertia on your part are that no writing will get finished, and what writing there is will suffer in quality because it has received insufficient time and attention. Without a routine, the times when writing seems “given” will decrease or become erratic as your fluency stutters from lack of practice, and submerged guilt.

As any such creative moment arrives, should your discipline have been lax, anxiety can lead to panic. Literary panic is an estranging emotion. Like literary envy, it has physiological effects on the body and mind, leading sometimes to immediate action or, more often, to a disabled sense of skill, hopelessness and helplessness. The self-made wound becomes septic. Leave it and it will fester, and bring disappointment down on you, as you grow older, blaming everybody else except yourself for your lack of progress (or even success).

This is what psychologists term a kind of “learned helplessness”, and it needs to be confronted and understood as an insidious self-enemy, as you would if it were an addiction (for in some ways, for some writers, failure, like acclaim, is addictive). You must fight yourself by staying in practice, and knowing that you have only yourself to blame if you do not succeed. At least you and those around you will know how hard you tried. At least you might write from that experience.

August 03, 2007

Poetry Chronicle 11: Geoffrey Holloway

Siobhan and Gabriel

Double Vision: Spring

The cat among the grasses nodding as it sniffs —
like a new-bathed infant shaping for a kiss.
The swans opulent, their bulrush-furry throats
ringed, rippling, with filamented light.
Shadows that are swallow-blue, yet brittle-clear,
that match the trespass of chrysanthemums released
by lancing heels of divers whanged from trees —
and all along the towpath the spun rod,
the dainty float cavorting in the sun.
To have eyes. To see.

The stagnant salmon like a crippled submarine
leprous in the shallows by the dripping arch —
a bone-white mouth insensitively working,
a quiet stammer, hung with sentences of death.
What was colour, kick and phallic exultation,
that shook the stream with the torpedoes of a myth,
laid-up like David for a chit of useless warmth,
like sunken David (that prodigious king)
for a stone tribute, a buck’s delinquent sling.
To have eyes. To see.

Geoffrey Holloway was born in Birmingham in 1918. His early years were spent between Liverpool and Shrewsbury. Before the war he worked in the Shropshire County Library, then in 1939 he went into the Royal Army Medical Corps, serving in a field ambulance, a general hospital and, later, in 225 Para Field Ambulance, dropping on D Day and over the Rhine. After the war he went to Southampton University, emerging with a qualification in Social Science. He then worked in a mental hospital, as a Prisoner’s Aid Society agent, and from 1953 to his retirement in 1983 as a mental health worker for Westmoreland then Cumbria County Council, where he lived in the same village, Staveley, for over forty years. He was one of the leading spirits of the group called the New Lakes Poets that included – among others – Norman Nicholson, Dorothy Nimmo, Jacob Polley, Peter Rafferty, David Scott, Christopher Pilling, Neil Curry, Patricia Pogson, William Scammell, M.R. Peacocke and, for three years, myself.

However, Holloway was not some local poetic hero. He began to publish poems nationally as early as 1946, contributing to the Times Literary Supplement, The Listener, Encounter, London Magazine, Yorkshire Post, PN Review, Poetry Review and countless other small magazines and anthologies. He was also an intensely active and visible figure in the small press scene for many decades. In some ways you could say that he embodied that scene – moving between the mainstream and avant-garde with dexterity; developing a mastery of formal and free verse, of demotic as well as a classical syntax; and oscillating between the sublime and realism in subject and theme.

What was always consistently right in his work was tone. This was all his own, and his integrity of feeling and response was the heart of it. His many subjects included the memory of war, the consolation and difficulty of love, and his alert responses to the natural world. With W.S. Graham, his exact contemporary, he was one of the most distinctive voices in twentieth century British poetry, with a genuinely gifted ear for the music and the movement of language.

Readers recognised and responded to his gifts. Between 1972 and 1997 Holloway published twelve collections of poetry, including the book that established his reputation, Rhine Jump, a Poetry Book Society Choice in 1974. Rhine Jump is an astonishing book which still yields a huge energy and alertness in its language. Subject-wise, it feels like a massive gamble made by a poet who did not wish to speak much about his war experience, but could no longer resist the ghosts trying to speak through him. The honesty and humility in its tone makes the book very distinctive and necessary within our own time. It is still one of the best places to start reading him.

Geoffrey Holloway died in October 1997. He was mourned by his many friends and admirers, by fellow poets and dedicated readers – his books were cherished by those who possessed them. Holloway’s reputation as a poet quietly increased as more and more readers and writers began to realise not only how much they missed his presence, but how much they missed the poems that made a small magazine worth reading because it had Geoff’s poems in it. After his death, Holloway’s poetry also became important to some poet-critics. He occupied a similar critical position to W.S. Graham. That is, his excellence was in danger of oblivion through simple neglect. Like Graham, Holloway needed critical champions. Not only that, but many readers also voiced the necessity for a Collected Poems, for Holloway’s work to be offered to generations of new readers.

Therefore, when Geoffrey Holloway’s widow, the poet Patricia Pogson, contacted me with a view to editing his work, I could not have been more honoured. Geoff had been exceptionally kind to me when I was making my way as a young poet and scientist, looking at my early poems and suggesting reading. To my mind, he was, and remains, a poetic exemplar. What I then set myself to do is read, digitise, and then check every poem from every volume published by the poet during his lifetime. These included more easily available volumes such as All I Can Say from Anvil Press (1978), but also cyclostyled and stapled pamphlets with short print-runs such as Percepts Without Deference – Holloway’s bold attempt to write contemporary English-language poetry within strict Welsh verse forms – from the fugitive press Aquila (1987). Patricia also photocopied poems that had appeared in magazines but were unpublished in volume form, and sent these along to me for consideration and scanning. She forwarded other poems she considered substantial – including the delightful ‘Migrant’ dedicated to his friend the poet Gerda Meyer which features as the final poem in this book (see my main blog for this poem).

In some ways, the easiest part of the project was over once the book was edited – for publishing a Collected Poems is itself a greater feat these days than putting the poems together. Before his death, Holloway had complained to me about the problems and pitfalls of poetry publishing in the United Kingdom. The haphazard nature of the enterprise had caused him to migrate from press to press. He knew also that, although that poetry publishing had its difficulties, when you made that leap into publication, getting the British poetry world to give notice to the output of any small, independent press was nigh-impossible. Faber, Chatto, Secker and Oxford University Press were the sleekly visible part of a small but skewed market in the 1970s and 1980s, and there was worse to come.

By the mid to late 1990s, if poetry were a species, it would have entered the red list. Bigger publishers dropped their poetry lists or shrank them to a trickle of slim, overpriced volumes. Prominent poets, once published by the big houses, were forced to seek out new habitats within powerful specialist presses such as Carcanet and Bloodaxe. However, one of the unpredicted and unpredictable results of this cultural shockwave was the subsequent rise of independent small publishers, and an increasing sophistication in their publishing and marketing methods – not least through the use of websites and print-on-demand technology. New presses such as Arrowhead Press, Salt and Heaventree began to occupy some of the ground left by mainstream operators, and show them not only how to do the job better but how to keep their stable of poets in print. I suspect that Geoffrey Holloway would have been wryly amused to know that his Collected Poems is now published entirely within a renewed – if still penniless – independent sector, and again by a specialist press in the North of England.

When I was scanning his poems into my computer, a letter to me from Geoff fell out of one of the books. In that letter he voiced his desire for more pleasure and challenge in contemporary poetry. As he put it he wanted ‘to hear poems by folk who speak personally, directly, lyrically if you like. One to one.’ We no longer have the pleasure of Geoff’s company, or the delight of any new poems, but we do now have the pleasure of this book which contains all of the pieces he published. Personally, directly and lyrically, this book returns him to us, one to one.

_The Collected Poems of Geoffrey Holloway _edited and introduced by David Morley are published by Arrowhead this Autumn.


That month the weather launched into brilliance,
a sun-blitz, ridiculous.
Our Field Ambulance was stood by
when they started to leak down the road,
a bizarre May Day Procession:
kids on scooters, tethered goats,
carts so jerrybuilt with chattels they lurched.
I remember girls in furs gnawing lumps of spud
and a woman with a white handkerchief
whose eye was red jelly.
Two cloaked poilus sat a Renault roof.
And nuns passed (maybe paratroops disguised).

Stukas had been their closest neighbours:
a machine-gunning yowling sound-track
sealing off the impossible past.
Now all they could do was move;
anywhere, so it was further off.
But quite a few spoke, some good English,
some pidgin — like the whores we’d known in Lille.
And more than one wished us luck.

Later, in an empty house,
we found a blackbird, caged.
Left as a talisman perhaps, to say
this wasn’t really happening?
Or, with the backhanded cruelty of the victimized,
lust left?

And we, did we let it go,
to fly with shrapnel, sing for worms?

Dead questions. Soon buried.
Like Belgium, France.

Words of Thanks

Patricia Pogson – now writing as Patricia Holloway – was central to the making of this book. Neil Curry prompted the project, read the pre-final manuscript and made helpful comments. Roger Collett and Joanna Boulter at Arrowhead Press bravely took on this book for Arrowhead Press. My thanks are also due to all the individuals and organisations who have helped, especially colleagues in the Warwick Writing Programme and the Department of English and Comparative Literary Studies at the University of Warwick; to my wife Dr Siobhan Keenan with whom I discussed the poems and the various drafts of the book; and to Michael Schmidt for his encouragement with the project at a time when I thought it might not succeed. Finally, I acknowledge all Geoff’s publishers for their generosity in allowing us to print these poems. Their names make for a roll call of great independent publishing. Anvil Press. Aquila Pamphlet Poetry. Arc Publications (on behalf of Littlewood Press). Crabflower Pamphlets. Enitharmon Press (on behalf of London Magazine Editions). Flambard Press. Free Man’s Press. Grand Piano Editions. National Poetry Foundation. Redbeck Press. To those saints of the small press, thank you.

July 18, 2007

Poetry Chronicle 10: John Burnside

BurnsideJohn Burnside was born in 1955, and now lives in Fife. There is a marked divergence in theme and tone between his poetry and his prose work. He allows poetry sequences to emerge organically in his imagination, without much conscious intervention. The Hoop (1988) was followed by Common Knowledge (1991), Feast Days (1992, winner of the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize), The Myth of the Twin (1994), Swimming in the Flood (1995), A Normal Skin (1999), and The Asylum Dance (2000). Elvis Presley, an iconic figure to the young John Burnside, gives his name to the title of the short story collection Burning Elvis (2000). His novels, in contrast to his poetry, are the result of a controlled process and they are altogether darker. The Dumb House (1997) is a sinister tale of children being used in a crazy experiment on language. Questions concerning the nature of masculinity have inspired The Mercy Boys (1999), centring on the hard-drinking Scottish male, and The Locust Room (2001), an unnerving but ultimately tender take on male sexuality. The Asylum Dance won the 2001 Whitbread Poetry Award.

Gift Songs by John Burnside (Jonathan Cape, 2007) is his latest collection. This piece recently appeared in Poetry Review to whom I am thankful as always.

‘No one invents an absence’ writes John Burnside. For Burnside, presence is everything: presence is invention, presence is perception. Some natural thing – a capercaillie, a meadowlark – can ‘centre and stake the imagination’ (in Seamus Heaney’s phrase); but Burnside also knows that natural selection yields unstable versions as well as subversions of life – much as a poet drafts multiple metaphors for one aspect of reality, and why most poems that are ever written must ultimately fail in time.

The presences of nature have traditionally offered Burnside subject, theme, and even modus operandi. In this new book, those presences now also present him with adaptive forms, perceptions and language. For example, some of the sequential poetic forms and patternings in this book are like nothing you will have read before; while Burnside’s poetic sentences fleer over line after line with an astonishing lope of syntax and skid of reference.

Unpredictability and unreliability are in fact the most natural of characteristics, in matter as well as nature, and Burnside shows as much in the conditional philosophy of many of these poems:

Everything maps this world
and what world there is
is the current sum
of all our navigation:
networks of panic and longing,
road maps in gorse,
the river at twilight
vanishing into the sway
of cattle and bees.

There is a world’s weight of being in that line break of ‘…is / is…’ from the second to third lines. The critic Jonathan Bate argued in the fine ecopoetic text The Song of the Earth that, ‘poets let being be by speaking it’ (echoing Archibald MacLeish’s assertion that a poem should not mean but be); and Bate went on to say, ‘our world, our home, is not earth but language’. What might we find by looking and listening to that language? What is the nature of a dwelling made of those particles called words? It can be argued that poetry is one of the crucibles, along with research science, in which language crackles and transmutes, and Burnside’s work certainly crackles. The fastest evolving species is language—poetry sets temporary dwellings on that shifting edge. I believe the main aim of Gift Songs is to attempt get to the heart of this relentlessly fertile reality, and find consolation in its caprice. In another life, Burnside should have been a particle physicist at CERN (the mind’s destination of choice for many poets). Like particles on their trajectory from their particle-ghosts, these poems often show the ‘I’ travelling out from the self, or as he puts it: from the dark
self or not-self)

— something that comes

but something between the two
like the shimmering line
where one form defines another
yet fails to end…

Burnside is also one of the best artists of the process of human memory I have read. His perceptual world is one where we know ‘…what it is we are losing, moment by moment, / in how the names perpetuate the myth / of all they have replaced…’; and that we can do nothing about it but to watch and learn, and make language that, perhaps, collapses less easily than apparent fact and perceptible reality. John Burnside never lies to us about any of this necessarily tattery business. It is why we trust him as a poet, and why his reliability shines as a virtue.

Accretive and adaptable, poetry is as natural an art form as memory; and Burnside is now one of our most natural and adaptable poets – accretive too for this is his tenth book, but quite his most ambitious. Previously, his poetry appeared to evolve scrupulously, yet you could identify the species of his poetry by its scrutiny of the numinous, hear it by the searching and usually calm and calming voice. Burnside’s reliability as a poet could be “comforting” in some ways: never doctrinaire, never working with a palpable design on his readers; his close perceptions beguiled. Gift Songs alters any general critical perception of Burnside; it signals a dramatic change in the ecology of his poetry, maybe some quality we could liken to what he calls in one poem a ‘scavenger warmth / emerging from the cold’. Ecopoetics could have been developed with John Burnside in mind; and the poet continues to supply wonderfully provisional answers within the ecology of his poems – provisional because his poems never pretend to an exact science; wonderful because neither is nature exact, nor for that matter is language.

July 16, 2007

Sandpipers and Turnstones Season


This Teaching Blog will resume activity in September. I am off to look at sandpipers and turnstones off the coast of Brittany.

March 12, 2007

Calling All Poets


I have received a most unusual request.

There is to be a conference on Values-Based Medicine at Warwick next month. The organisers have asked me to find two student poets who would be willing to offer a poetry reading as part of an after-dinner celebration for this event.

The date of the dinner is Monday the 23rd April and it would probably be around 9 pm/ish that the student poets would be required.

What would you have to do? Each student would read/perform a mixture of their own work as well as poems they like (& which perhaps but not necessarily touch on a medical/health theme!) for 8-10 minutes. The poets will be then followed in the programme by an orchestra…

What would you get in return? You would get a free sumptuous dinner; free wine; you would get good practice at reading to an audience; and you would be paid £25 each for – at most – ten minutes of work.

You would also have to be available to do this on that date. The dinner begins at 8.00 pm.

If you are interested e-mail me this week please. First come, first served (in this case the serving will actually be real food).

March 11, 2007

A Student–Led Festival of New Writing and Writers


Thank you to all those of you who e-mailed me about their interest in this idea of a Student-Led Festival of New Writing, either as readers or promoters or both.

I now confirm that the festival will take place over the weekend of May 12-13 May, and I think we should load our contributions on to Saturday 12th May.

That said, there are some great things being planned – RSC actors, workshops, writers. All of this is going to be a free festival. It will take place in the Capital Centre. Our stuff will launch The Writers Room. There is a budget!

It is time to show us how to do it…

I shall be contacting some of you individually soon, but this is my final ‘general call’. Anybody who is interested; or has an idea; or wants to invite somebody we (or you) can realistically get to Warwick(especially if they are NEW writers) then come to an informal meeting at my office H521 at 1.30 p.m. on Wednesday 14th March,

All good wishes,


March 10, 2007

Writers at Warwick


The Warwick Writing Programme welcomes the novelist Will Self next week. His reading will take place at the Arts Centre Conference Room at 8.00 p.m. (note later time than usual) on Wednesday 14th March.

Will Self is the author of many works including three novels, “My Idea of Fun”, “Great Apes” and “How the Dead Live” (shortlisted for the Whitbread Novel of the Year 2000). He has written for a plethora of publications over the years and is a regular broadcaster on television and radio.

He will be at Warwick to read from his new book entitled “The Book of Dave” which is based around the rants of Dave Roth, a disgruntled East End taxi driver, who writes his woes down and buries them only to have them discovered 500 years later and used as the sacred text for a religion that has taken hold in the flooded remnants of London. Please contact Warwick Arts Centre Box Office for tickets.

May I take this end-of-term opportunity to say thank you to those who have made suggestions for writers for our programme. As you will see we have been able to invite some of those writers. Please feel free to make recommendations any time you wish. Next term sees readings by – among others – John Burnside, Ali Smith, Wole Soyinka, Lionel Shriver and A.L. Kennedy. A.L.Kennedy will also be in residence in the English Department for a period in April. We will also be promoting South Asian Writing, and hosting a student-led literary festival to celebrate the opening of The Writers Room in the CAPITAL centre on Saturday May 12th. We are very grateful to our sponsors for their support.

March 09, 2007

Poetry Chronicle 9: David Scott

scoitt iron

Many poets are natural priests, especially the godless ones. At worst they develop into gurus or shamans; at best they preach their cause as teachers, and practice what they teach. Their pose arises from an artificial conception that poetry is an hieratic art. But the tradition of the poet as an actual priest, doing the parish rounds and minding his flock, is far thornier and much more remarkable. The church is a sharp vocation.

Poetry and the priesthood are callings which sit all too shakily on the scales of responsibility and guilt. Does one finally outweigh the other as with Gerard Manley Hopkins? Do they circle each other like opposing magnets as with R.S. Thomas? Or are they matched in weight, informing and balancing each other, as in the poetry of George Herbert?

David Scott manages a quite brilliant balance between the two, and his poetry and life are a consilience of those vocations. Scott is Rector of St Lawrence and St Swithun in Winchester, and Warden of the Diocesan School of Spirituality. Previously he had served for eleven years as a parish priest in North Cumbria, smack on the margins and facesaltmarshes of Solway and Scotland, a zone of stripped fells and bare beauty, where the chief companion is the weather. While he was there he not only ministered with fidelity to his parishioners, but wrote his first books of poetry. Scott was one of the leading spirits of the group called the New Lakes Poets that included, among others, Geoffrey Holloway, Christopher Pilling and William Scammell, and which has recently nurtured the talent of Jacob Polley. There is a fine poem about William Scammell’s funeral in this book, at which Scott presided: ‘It was in your will / for me to have the final word’.

David Scott is not by anyone’s description a career poet (an oxymoron anyway), but what he has published has always been weighted very well and chosen carefully in order to advantage the poems, if not the poet’s profile on the poetry circuit. A five year wait between A Quiet Gathering (1984) and Playing for England (1989); another eleven years until a flowering of new work in Selected Poems (1998); a further seven years’ slow harvest until Piecing Together. His patience is plain. This is not a poet in a dash, nor does he need to be. Nor is he in any need of special effects of poetics or language:

Some poems I write in ink
and they get written with a lot
of furrowing of the brow, and often miss
but some I write in juice of a lemon
quickly in my heart
and hope that one day someone’s
warmth will iron the secrets into poems
with effortless art.

‘Written in Juice of Lemon’

The lingering wait between collections is always worth it. David Scott writes poems as plain as pleasure: a pleasure in perception of the world, a pleasure in being human. Even when that perception sees right through people he remains patient, but he stays watchful, is never complacent. His God is a much firmer, a far wilder thing: a God of the world, a God of the weather: ‘I would look for signs of weather / at the edges of your clothes … I would glance to notice shifts of sun and shadow / of the alternating poetry and prose in you.’ (‘Meeting St John of the Cross’). For the morality of Scott’s perception is conditional, and his morality more elemental than the usual Sunday morning understanding of faith. In one poem (‘Eyes’), David Scott asks, ‘God of the one strand of hair, are you also / God of the one look, of the glance, of the glimpse?’

Faith is seen in glimpses; faith is a startled and startleable thing. But there is an assuredness also, not only the knowledge of a place in the world, but also a trust that, ‘… one day all will be known / in the deepest bank of the world’s meaning / and on that day our eyes will feast’. The ways Scott sees, and sees beyond, has a great deal in common with the dawn deer in his poem ‘First Thing’ (and notice how skilfully the deer’s movement awakes the commas and full-stops with their footfalls):

One young deer
on the path to the wood
then following
three more together.
How it stopped me
even inside the house
my shirt in my hands
every bit of my body
wired up for watching
every bit of theirs radar
for the merest blink.
Air rigid between us,
they moved first,
nobly, silently,
sensuous as waking.

Wired up for watching, Scott’s naturalness of perception is strength, and his apparently effortless poems ‘written in lemon juice’ already have plenty of implicit fire to come alive on the page. But the clear art of David Scott’s poetry is wider than a waiting for small perceptions and miniature epiphanies. His first two books were praised for their humility, for reticence, for underplaying, as though these were virtues that came with the ground of an English parsonage. Such praise stereotypes him, locks his work indoors, and tames it. David Scott’s mental parsonage isn’t the homely living of Mr Collins of Pride and Prejudice, but the open-air curacy of a Patrick Brontë:

‘Yes’ was the shape of the farmhouse.
‘Yes’ were the trunks of the trees.
‘Yes’ was the gate on its hinges.
‘Yes’ brought the world to its knees.

‘A David Jones Annunciation’

There is a progression from his last book. Piecing Together has starker aims, which are scarier and riskier. The fine elegy for William Scammell concludes with conditions, self-questioning, rather than conventional consolations: ‘… we gathered round in groups to weep or cry, and hug, / and wonder how or why, to reminisce, / awkwardly, or not, or maybe, without you.’ An encounter with a ‘healer’ leaves him with ‘the indent of a wing along my side’. Again and again, it is the elemental and conditional voice of faith that can find its voices in the movement of wind on a meadow, or the recurring call of a song-thrush: falling off the end of the gospel,
afraid. This year I may learn to fall
and not fear, and find myself lifted
to watch the face of forgiveness rise
with such silence and uncanny grace,
that with the thrush, high in the holly tree,
I will sing, unique… unique… unique.

… I am with the women,

There is one poem in this fine collection that really lets all the weather in, the epic and panoptic ‘Skelling Michael: A Pilgrimage’, in which the poet voyages ‘on the top of an illuminated wave’ to the West Irish island ‘where we have to imagine the monks / watching the sky with nothing / between themselves and heaven… when the elements took leave of God’s control / and became something other’. In this poem the terrors of faith are made real and electric but, importantly, they are made human. The monks’ homesickness and despair and their ‘crazy love of Christ’ are honoured and balanced in language, where language is the rock, where language is the space in which meditation and prayer hazard illumination.

Scott end

I am grateful to “P.N. Review” in which a version of this piece recently appeared.

March 07, 2007

Poetry Chronicle 8: Jane Draycott

Thaw 1

Poetry persuades by the precision of its language, and this necessary exactness is carefully and coldly won over years of drafting and redrafting. Jane Draycott’s first collection, Prince Rupert’s Drop, was well-received and rightly so. Her work had a patient intelligence of practice, and concision of address, not only in every poem in that book but in the very philosophy of perception informing her poetics. Her collection set a lofty point from which to advance. Happily for her growing number of readers The Night Tree goes even further in its elegance and imaginative force.

She succeeds because, in the end, it’s completely down to her confidence: of a writerly coolness coupled with a sense of a workable, completely engaged aesthetic. The price of precision can be perfectionism, an attitude that can result in freezing before the Janeheadlights of your own expectations. At this point in a poet’s vocation, the resilience of the personality has a great say in whether artistic progress is made or not. In short, you either freeze or thaw. Everything experienced so far, everything written and read decides that outcome. It is a learned process, building up to the moment, and the consequence is ultimately decisive and life-changing. It can precipitate artistic crisis: poetic careers can fall apart, the language becoming clinical or unravelled and worn-out. All their tricks show, and show the poet up. Thaw 2

Not so for Jane Draycott. _The Night Tree _is a calculated, amazing thaw, made up from icy, prickly detail. Her attention to detail has paid off hugely; and she knows the price of it. One example, from the sequence ‘Tideway’ (a series of meditations on the Thames) is the short poem ‘It begins as with razors’, the lift-off point for which is that lightermen on the river once bought their pipes pre-packed, then threw them overboard. Here it is in full:

It begins as with razors or lighters,
its sharpness or fire akin to a ship
that is passing, a fragment or sample
of something much bigger and further away
such as fathomless caverns of silver,
whole acres of indigo, saffron or hemp
or hillside on hillside of spices or tea
laid out like a rug to lie down on or sleep.
By capping the bowl like the door
to a furnace some made it last longer,
run cooler for breathing in deeper
its skyfuls of clouds, so that burdens
grown lighter could rise in the water
like palaces turning to smoke,
for a pipe once alight is a dream
which is now or is never and ends
like a pile of disposable bones
washed up on the foreshore
where in the same place the body
of a river ran just hours before.

What Draycott manages in two sentences contains a world. It isn’t just the concise audacity of the imagery created here that is persuasive (‘sharpness of fire akin to a ship that is passing’; ‘capping the bowl like the door to a furnace‘), it’s also her adroit control of language within the determined rhythmic clarity of what’s almost a sea-shanty form (‘a pipe once alight is a dream / which is now or is never and ends / like a pile of disposable bones‘). It is very hard to write this simply, nor is it simple to set so many internal rhymes in place, their gears interlocking almost soundlessly, without making the poem clank as wildly as a cartoon grandfather clock. Draycott’s confidence secures the registers and makes a fine, clear lyric. Moreover she makes significance out of insignificance. Say it out loud; you’ll want to sing it in time. Time’s the theme.

Like the best poets at peak of confidence, Draycott can also be playful. By this stage she’s earned your trust to be so. The way she plays however is by making strange, such as in the poem ‘How he knew he was turning to glass’, an artful examination of the proofs of that transformation:

By the playing like wind in his hair of exhalations
from the distant leper colony.
By the images of himself repeated in the candelabras
of his erections . . .

Or she can play on expectations by taking something familiar, setting it in another unrelated familiar, and seeing what emerges from that forced marriage. I enjoy any ceremony in which literature proposes to science. The children of such a coupling usually lack any dread of reason (while some poets fly the room at the smell of it). Jane Draycott plainly enjoys this observance too, especially in a cunning poem in which Sherlock Holmes receives a Fellowship from the Royal Society of Chemistry:

He appears for a moment to fade, lost
in the fog which encircles his head.
The microphone leans towards him
like a question shouted into the wind
Who are you waiting for on such
a freezing night? Areas of his brain
are needles of fire, clear signals across
open ground. The carpet rolls its red road
out across centuries of snow.
And what is it you fear so greatly?
Disembodied mind swirls in free-fall
beyond the window pane, frost calculates
its way across the floor. As you value
your reason, keep away from the moor.

As you value your reason, then you probably value good poetry. I’ve waited some time to read something this intelligent, this sensuous and this crystalline. In fact The Night Tree is the finest collection I’ve read this year. What are you waiting for?

Thanks to the Guardian where a version of this entry appeared.

March 04, 2007

Poetry Chronicle 7: Iain Bamforth


Some writers might slit their wrists rather than have their work commandeered for the Pseud’s Corner of “Private Eye” (some secretly recommend the work of their rivals for that dishonour). I think it a badge of honour; wear the brand proudly (I have better reasons to do myself in: I am forlornly obtuse).

For the cause was a good one: the work of the neglected Scottish poet Iain Bamforth, and the whole episode about the ‘bucket’ below even got itself illustrated as a cartoon in the “Eye”. I acknowledge the “Guardian” again for this piece, and dedicate it to whoever fed it to anti-pseuds at “Private Eye”. With hindsight, it was deserved.

Say it Bucket, Say It!

Poets, as a genus, tend to band into clusters, and these clusters often centre on common ideas and a common locale. But some of the best poetry arises when such clusters splinter into individuated careers, powered still by those ideas and place. So it was in the early 1990s with one such group, The Informationists, a loose assembly of Scots poets whose guides and angels were Edwin Morgan, Liz Lochhead and Alasdair Gray. The work of these new Scots poets had an internationalist outlook; sheer craft and linguistic initiative lent their poetry considerable panache. Their ambition harmonised with a similar surge of energy in Scottish fiction. Some of the roots shared the same trellis, a symbiosis as it were.

Of that impressive generation, the Scots poet Iain Bamforth bamhas probably been one of the most eclectic and international in practice. He has inhabited several incarnations: as general practitioner, outback doctor, lecturer, journalist and translator. He has published a literary history of medicine, The Body in the Library, and has lived in Strasbourg for nearly a decade striving, but finally not succeeding, to be a good European through the offices of medicine, the Council of Europe providing some of his patient base.

His career is unprofessionally professional, as any fine poet’s should be, with poetry as the resilient denominator, recording and synthesising the world whatever the quotidian incarnation of the time. As such, his poetry has an extensive range of subject and reference, from the Scottish Parliament thistto the islands of Samoa and Tonga, from the interior life of a beehive to a minutely detailed metaphysical examination of a bucket. A Place in the World is Bamforth’s fourth collection of poems. It is a copious, fastidious, and highly rewarding book containing several years of writing.

‘Bucket’ in fact shows Bamforth heterogeneous perception in extremis. I have debated its manifold effects for at least a week with several entranced readers. It is one of the most painstakingly observed and linguistically taut poems in the book. It needs to be listened to aloud, as well as read in silence:

A bucket stands collecting rain.
Blunt container, it collects
essence of only ocean
above some dun African savannah.
Capsizer of your head
should you try to plumb it.

It irons a puddle; no wider
wetness than its expanding sense:
matter as a meaning
steadily, irreversibly filling
something (say it bucket, say it)
at the bottom of its need.

All night, a lake lies shocked
above a bucket’s tegument. Rain
spites its face. This red morning
foliage brightens the rim,
and hope is such a terrible violence
you, rider, hedge your bets.

Who is talking to whom, and riding where? What is memory and intelligence but a system of stop-start conversations with our own perception? Bamforth’s poetic effects can be as interpenetrating and involuted as a rose’s genetic design. His language works hard with the eye and the ear to the degree that it mirrors patterns of synapse development, in which particular and even disparate stimuli trigger novel and complex neural networks. As a result such work is rich in perceptual acquaintance, making it not only intelligent but also extremely sensual. To read them makes the patterns of our minds richer too – as when we read Hopkins or Wallace Stevens. The fact that these poems are readily accessible and inevitable is a small miracle of composition.

Such range has many charms and challenges – Bamforth is a extremely civil and generous poet – and his polyvalence neither intimidates or displays. He observes his former Strasburgian patients, many from the civil service, with precision and shrewdness:

Some of them like double-agents cultivate
a sense for the nod
and hardly perceptible wink.

Some are amorists of the ice shelves,
adulterers of is and ought.
They climb to slaughter in their dreams.

Others admit it, but not in public.
They know how to cross the threshold
in any of several languages —

those major character actors of our time.

All are sardonic masters of protocol,
the art of making sure syntax
stops the eye seeing what the hand does —

lovers of the people, which can’t love itself.

‘Life of the Civil Servants’

Bamforth writes from a Scots tradition: the bracing, embracing version of it. This is a vagrant Scottish tradition that extends Scots culture outside its borders, where Robert Louis Stevenson walked it. He is a quite the synthesist, drawing poem after poem into an looping arc of argument, the bottom line of which is to probe how Anglophone writing might expand imaginatively towards the cultural and linguistic variety of the European continent in a way that is neither appropriative or colonial.

From his level space, Bamforth surveys the circles of European culture, searching for ethics and civil society within its changing order. This provides some wide-awake writing:

Deserted esplanade swept by Boreas,
cathedral spire with its cardinal’s hat of scaffolding,
tiles ripped off and Latin trees knocked down
that formed a palisade to German forest,
guard to the counterscarps and bastions of Europe,
the solid vegetable peace of post-war.
No place for the ass of Arcady . . .

Perhaps not,
but it’s coming, with the soft patience of all donkeys,
out of that prayer on the road to paradise
(now a tourist subtract of eternity),
from a Cevennes of deserted whitewashed churches —
Modestine sold for a burton in St Jean-du-Gard —
to the concrete bridge across the Rhine.
Admire it standing beside me steaming in the rain
getting what it expects: its just deserts,
the wrong use of the rope. Lord Hamlet’s quagga,
Fourier’s zebra-minus-stripes, Buridan’s ass —
it’s a writing mule, obedient and still;
upon its uncomplaining back the burden of my thoughts,
a ribambelle of nostrums for the saddlesore.

‘Travels with a Donkey to the Bridge of Europe’

A Place in the World is a ‘total book’ rather than the common and garden portfolio book of poems, in the spirit of say Elizabeth Bishop’s Geography III. It is almost impossible to offer a quote from a poem without unfolding a longer example, or risk falsifying the poem entirely by isolating single components. This marks it out among a number of new collections that offer the reader far greater range and scale than they might be used to. It could be part of a new cluster in fact, one that celebrates patience and precision.

It is a symptom of Dr. Bamforth’s generosity that he, too, has waited and has worked this material so long. His translation of Fernando Pessoa’s manifesto poem ‘Isto’ (‘This’) could be a policy declaration for the book’s variety, honesty and concision:

They say I fake or lie
With the written word. Not a bit.
It’s simply that I
Feel with a kind of wit.
Heart doesn’t come into it.

All I put up with or embrace —
Hurts and harms, life’s only end —
Is like a level space
Hiding the space beyond.
Some enchanted place!

And this is why I write
As if I’d taken flight
From suffering and the real,
Serious about what isn’t.
Feel? — Let the reader feel.

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