Ways of working

This was originally posted during my Causley Trust writing residency on 7th December 2016 at:

http://causleytrust.org/waysofworking/

There are so many sides to procrastination. I have explored most of them. Eating. Not eating. Bad relationships. Good relationships. Going to the pub. Sleeping. Watching very important things on the internet which then turn into hours of drivel in what I call internet vortexes — leaving nothing finished and a great ache of not feeling like things are underway. But it took a writing residency at the Charles Causley Trust to induce some serious putting-off.

The one time in my life where I have time and space in this wonderful place in Cornwall, and six weeks of the twelve weeks to spend here have whistled by. Things are underway now. Thank Christ [or whatever godless substitute exclamation I should insert there]. I’ve written some poems. Done some drawings in my capacity as illustrator for some of Charles Causley’s poems — and now I’m writing this, my second blog post.

I suppose there must be better ways of working. Most writers I’ve met have a very strict structure to their day — starting at 4 or 5 am, working till 9, breaking for a snooze, then back on till 3pm. Then go to a meeting or to a pub. And repeat. Forever. Since I’ve been better, that’s been pretty much the shape to my day. In terms of writing, I suppose, I have a preference for form for the same reason. I feel you can get more done there. I’ve also just been asked to do some workshops on ‘Form’ with university students. Argh. Where to begin?

Charles Causley’s work is so linked with form in the popular memory (whatever that is) it’s difficult to escape a discussion of his work without mentioning it. Before being here at Cyprus Well, I kept going to poetry events and hearing writers talk about how they compose in free verse, how they aren’t constrained by these neo-conservative notions of what poetry is — as if form is a confinement. And, by contrast, the unspoken acknowledgement also exists that full rhymes alone are indicative of work being a poem. That that doesn’t have a very final, closing or chiming effect on a line. That end-rhymes signify great mastery of sound. At some point someone seems to have decided form is representative of something other than the language a poet wants to use to best speak their poem. When did this begin?

TE Hulme launched a fairly devastating attack on form for form’s sake in his essay on Romanticism and Classicism. The thoughts of this very brilliant critic who was killed in WWI at Nieuport in 1917 are rightly part of many poetry modules on university courses. He talks of how certain poets’ use of language has the effect of ‘pouring treacle all over the dinner table’ — we get tangled in the difficulty of reaching for the actual thing being said. Nothing is expanded by the use of the unnecessary or inappropriate, nothing evoked or amplified by putting it where it doesn’t fit. Hulme’s assertion is that poetry should consist of ‘accurate, precise and definite description’ and admits the challenge of such writing:

It is no mere matter of carefulness; you have to use language, and language is by its nature a very communal thing; that is, it expresses never the exact thing but a compromise.

By the same token, one could argue supposedly ‘free’ verse leaves us with not much to grasp — how often do we read [especially mid to end-of-the-century American] poets and wonder if this is really a poem or just a beautiful thought? One might say the one implies the other, but I disagree.

Form, to me ( and let’s face it, quite a few others), is anything that sounds like a real person — the way that person would speak, their breath, their rush to the next thing, their pause. They are always someone ‘other’ to me though. The self might be there, but it’s doing something. It’s not just sitting around expecting you to hear it. It’s speaking to you in a certain way. Making you listen in the best way it knows how. Not just telling you this happened then this happened and this is what you should think about it because I think it. That’s just shouting. That isn’t persuasion, it’s dictatorship.

The recent resurgence of interest in poets like Causley and his poem ‘Eden Rock’ (or shall we say ‘heightened awareness’ ? — One wouldn’t like to take chunks from his snowballing importance), and the late Michael Donaghy, as well as Donaghy’s other [originally]1990s Faber Poets contemporaries such as Don Paterson and Glyn Maxwell, Carol Ann Duffy and Simon Armitage – make for arresting evidence of putting contemporary ‘memorable speech’ into old poetic forms. Newer voices like Adam Foulds, Maitreyabandhu and Zaffar Kunial show us too that form is alive and well.

Derek Walcott however, has had to defend his use of stricter forms culturally, responding to accusations of forgetting his origins. He has defended use of the pentameter saying he believed it the most natural part of speech, the one he knew Shakespeare used to great effect — and not to emulate dead old dead white men’s literature, rather, to speak at that pitch in a culture that was creating itself — in the West Indies, far from its peoples’ historical origins. To create a ‘now’ of poetic literature in which to speak to a people of that part of the world, and beyond it. A multicultural, displaced region of many peoples, all jostling to find its way towards self-representation earlier in his life, not rejecting, but glorifying its embrace of all that is ‘original, spare, strange’. And with tongue firmly in cheek, Walcott successfully cocks a snook at the derisive colonials whilst peeling back the layers of a changing, challenging and beautifully imaged sea-bound life on the island of St Lucia.

Glyn Maxwell’s book On Poetry recently bust publishing records for writing of its genre. If there is one. It certainly reeks of knowledge and experience. It’s a surprisingly quick-to-read argument in favour of those things we long for in a good poem which often seem missing these days. As Maxwell says, ‘You master form, you master time.’ But what does that mean?

Poets and poetry students love a good ambiguous abstraction, and Maxwell’s the master of this at the very least. The sense he is always saying slightly more than we could think leaves one with the sense we will never get to the bottom of it. In essence, comes the warning, poetry is NOT an exact science. And who would want it to be? Like those bots which have started churning out ‘hit songs’ that you see featuring in Huff Post articles, formulaic poetry is as easy to spot as pre-mixed Yorkshire puddings.

Then again, On Elizabeth Bishop, Colm Toibin’s recent book, completely blows my theory about form out of the water — then again, maybe it doesn’t. Elizabeth Bishop, she of ‘At The Fishhouses’ ( https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/52192) and other fantastic virtually surreal extemporisations on what seem to be going on in some corner of her brain as she sips gin in Key West – is the subject of a book of essays by the novelist.

Toibin talks of her seeming to be ‘mere description. Description was a desperate way of avoiding self-description; looking at the world was a way of looking out from the self. The self in Bishop’s poems was too fragile to be violated by much mentioning.’ In ‘The Moose,’ when the animal in the title of the poem emerges on a road through a forest:

—Suddenly the bus driver
stops with a jolt,
turns off his lights.
A moose has come out of
the impenetrable wood
and stands there, looms, rather,
in the middle of the road.

Bishop corrects herself in the voice of the poem. She is believable, reaching for the words to reflect the reflection of the headlights, the blaze  – of moose….

Charlotte Mew, a little talked-of poet, was a very formal poet of the kind Charles Causley seems to know well. Often left out of ‘Women Poets’ modules on university courses for some inexplicable reason, she absolutely nailed forms for the tragedy of a woman’s life as ‘The Farmer’s Bride’:

Three summers since I chose a maid,
     Too young maybe—but more’s to do
     At harvest-time than bide and woo.
              When us was wed she turned afraid
     Of love and me and all things human;
     Like the shut of a winter’s day
     Her smile went out, and ’twadn’t a woman—
            More like a little frightened fay.
                    One night, in the Fall, she runned away.

Aside from the implied horror of this woman’s life, the powerful form of this poem is established in the voice of her husband-dementor who can’t understand her abject terror. Except for two breaks with the established form, which actually establish it further. The husband’s concern with himself and his own needs. Finally:

’Tis but a stair
     Betwixt us. Oh! my God! the down,
     The soft young down of her, the brown,
The brown of her—her eyes, her hair, her hair!

This ecstatic sleaze can’t get near to the bride’s ‘soft young down,’ and is left so cleverly out by Mew. Her forms are sorcery — but the good kind. And perhaps so strong is her writing and lived intensity that after the loss of her own sister to cancer (after a life of other terrible tragedies) she couldn’t live with it and killed herself. We need to know more of her. She so readily gets written out of history as someone who went mad, without any real acknowledgement of the extreme sadness of simply existing as a woman at that time. Reading her, you begin to feel it is a seam running through her work.

Form is a tremendously useful way then of avoiding the very difficult self. We write far more comfortably about something other than ourselves — and can still write about the self but step lightly to the side of it. Form is freedom then, a dance:
Shy as a leveret, swift as he,
     Straight and slight as a young larch tree,
     Sweet as the first wild violets, she,
     To her wild self.

You let the sounds that other people make or hear in, in order to make a sound everyone — or at least most people — can recognise. Other than that, it’s a question of, as Larkin might put it, being ‘at once true and kind/ And not untrue, and not unkind.’ In poems we must seek to create an intimate space. In poems we must seek to be so persuasive we go to bed with the World.

The winter’s tale

Whilst shaping up the individual illustrations for the picture book version of Charles Causley’s poem, ‘My Mother Saw A Dancing Bear’, I’m constantly baffled during my research by the need for anthropomorphism. Perhaps because it absolutely doesn’t fit with the narrative I’m working with – I feel like Causley’s bear must be factual – obviously wild and in need of release, not ‘tamed’ (read ‘tortured’) into ‘human’ (read ‘horrifically undignified’) performances. I say that as possibly one of The biggest fans of Winnie The Pooh and Paddington (especially EH Shephard’s and Peggy Fortnum’s drawings for each).

This Causley poem just isn’t that sort of territory. It makes me ever so serious when I don’t want to be. It only takes a little research online watching contemporary and historical footage of anything from bear cubs to giant grizzlies to show the extent and the diversity of methods by which we bash bears up in the name of making them do utterly unnatural things. Among the techniques is using hot plates to make the bear ‘dance’  to raise their feet and thereby respond to cues for food. Stolen from their mothers as cubs, they are ‘imprinted’ or bred in captivity, and respond to their torturers/trainers as they would parents, entirely dependent, not having had the chance to develop any scavenging or hunting skills.

What preceded this? Performing bears go way back. The most famous stage-direction in Shakespeare, which in ‘The Winter’s Tale’ foretells the death of Antigonus, still fires speculation  today about whether ‘The Bard’ (as Uncle Monty would say) used a real live bear, borrowed from a travelling circus which happened to be visiting Southwark when he put it on. It’s argued Shakespeare, ever the canny businessman, knew ursine action would get bums on seats.

Whatever we think about that very distinguished bear and his or her delivery, making animals out to be like humans brings with it the expectation that bears are so like humans they are just pretending to bears. Rather like those who think people who don’t speak English are just being awkward. Somehow, bears are expected to ‘behave’ – despite years of torture, and what basically looks like Stockholm syndrome – right up until they maul their owners for forgetting to feed them for three days.

The anthropomorphism phenomenon is a cultural precursor which damns the safety of bears, and many other animals. In seeking to idealise our relationship with Nature we romanticise it, and that means we shrug responsibility for treating it with respect as well as affection. I’m hoping to capture some of that wildness in my ‘bruin’ as Causley calls it – a word from the Dutch, which means I must make it a European Brown Bear (Ursus arctos arctos). In the meantime, here’s a different sort I drew earlier:

american-black-bear

December

 

Sometimes, sitting in Charles Causley’s study in Launceston, looking out over the valley, it sounds as though I might be in an aviary. I used to work in one, so I know. The intense noise can be maddening. Here however, it is not. Today, there is a fast, fine drizzle hatching the light and sometimes dense fog which sits in the valley. I’m not used to this quietness, this serenity. I have been living in various dirty noisy cities for years.

Here is Charles’ lovely old dark wood drop leaf desk, the red curtains, and through a large, clear-eyed white window there is a new red brick house at the bottom, and a conifer hedge above it, lining the road which crosses the horizon behind it. All along the slant down the valley are trees. Mornings, the garden table in front of the window has a visit from a robin, several times, and every hour after that a blackbird comes to say something, I’m not sure what.

Here is always warm. The radiator beneath the desk makes writing time cosy time. I never normally sit at a desk to write, but here I can’t resist. I’m quite tall and most chairs are not the suitable height. I hunch. I’ve had a terrible back for the last week. I walk round, comma-shaped, looking for things, or trying to bend, getting a sense of what it must be to be 96.

I have no car and cannot drive. I have resigned myself to not using public transport in Cornwall as it is a disaster, and I am a disaster on it. But Launceston is enough. It is a small town, a grey granite town, with a castle keep that overlooks it as if Norman ghosts somewhere are pacing a battlement, watching. They must be tired.

I suspect there are many ghosts in Launceston. I don’t believe in them, but they are definitely here. Nowhere more so than this house where I’m staying, Cyprus Well. It is about as comfortable as it could be. Rugs and reading chairs and space.The experience of living here is one of realising how protective Causley was of his space, his pace, his writing time. Every door in the house can be locked or eases shut of its own accord. I feel he was a man who needed that, particularly when he lived here with his mother. Not because he wanted to shut her out, but because they need to live together, but separately.

It moves me that he came here to help his mother when she was ill. It troubles me how Causley’s generation had so much to deal with: watching the wounded come back from WWI then having to go themselves in WWII. My generation and later ones cannot even imagine that precise fear. And that his mother married relatively late, and seven years into Charles’ life her husband was dead. She took cleaning jobs, but still managed make time to bake communion bread.

Was there, perhaps, a sense in Charles he had to do well academically and in life to prove to his mother all the hardship was worth it? He was always making himself useful. Straight out of the Navy after the war, Causley went to train as a primary school teacher. Later, when had he had relative success and his mother was finally ill, he went to visit her in hospital and their shared recollections became the origins of many new poems.

When Causley himself shuffled off he left a lot of his estate to the local churches. This is because of something, I, a townie, had forgotten. In small places, churches are instant communities, whatever your beliefs. He knew that local people did small things to make huge difference to anyone undergoing hardship or who wanted a place to be.

Whatever you think about churches or religion there is no getting around the fact that Causley knew exactly where the heart of his town was and he knew exactly what conditions he needed for things to work. I can’t help but admire that balance, self-knowledge and generosity, and I know I shall be very sad to leave this, his very lovely home.

The golden section

Two thirds in at Charles Causley’s house in Launceston, Cornwall on my residency. I’ve been here since the end of September, and I go just before Christmas Eve. This has been a turning point. Every day I have to make the choice to make something, be it stabs at poems or stabs at drawings. Or full-on drawing or writing sessions way into the morning. But I can do that. I’m only on the the clock of the Charles Causley Trust. Incredible freedom.

Like the bears I keep drawing to illustrate one of Causley’s poems, I suppose in January I will feel as if I’ve been dragged out of a very pleasant hibernation in a lovely warm cave into a terribly cold place.

fullsizeoutput_1341

Everything seems underway but nothing finished, nothing polished. I guess I always feel like that, but I have also entered the final phase of growing new stuff all in one new place, and have to go small before I go back to big… I found some Japanese paper a friend brought back from Tokyo a few years ago and started turning random shapes into bears (above, still slightly wet).

It takes the anguish out of drawing if you just throw yourself into it. I was having a bad day with watercolours and it helped bring back a fluidity of line and a feeling of the awesomeness of getting to draw such creatures from life, and sometimes (and in this case) memory.

I recently went to Dartmoor Zoo, and though the European Brown Bear, Hayley, was a bit reticent as it [sensibly] was going into semi-hibernation, the Syrian bear, Fudge, helped enormously  – with bear facial expressions.

Many bears are older in UK zoos and this gives them precisely the sort of world-weary look I needed for the poem ‘My mother saw a dancing bear’. I don’t like looking at dancing bear videos online for too long as it gets depressing, so this got round the problem, knowing that thought the bears were old they were still well cared for.

Reading up on dancing bears gets to be also a bit horrifying, but there are several organisations trying to stamp it out:

WWF: http://www.savethebears.co.uk/brown-bear.shtml

WSPA: http://www.savethebears.co.uk/wspa.shtml

Wildlife SOS India: http://wildlifesos.org/dancing-bears-in-india-final-curtain/

Whilst searching online I was also struck by the number of businesses who think ‘Dancing Bear’ is a really cute, olde world name to call themselves. Perhaps they are even referencing Native American Indian chiefs too….

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Aside from bears, I’ve also been writing about grief and loss. I’m writing a long elegy/poetry collection to my late brother, which takes the form of a story about him, or someone like him, in a house which seems to be being flooded…

Swifts feature. They:

  • are the fastest-flying bird on the planet
  • sleep on the wing
  • are related to the humming bird

 

Their appearance also, often, signifies a storm about to break. There is a feeling with death  that though that person was very significant to you and everyone in your family and beyond, their lives slip away without anyone noticing. People leave us all the time without anyone noticing, but this isn’t enough. I’ve put my brother in a story as I hope gives it some power to all this powerlessness, something of that quality poems have to be both story and voices and films.

Ann Stevenson’s poem ‘Swifts’ helped trigger it:

We have swifts, though in reality, not parables but
Bolts in the world’s need:
Swifts, not in punishment, not in ecstasy, simply

Sleepers over oceans in the mill of the world’s breathing.
The grace to say they live in another firmament.
A way to say the miracle will not occur,
And watch the miracle.

We kept hoping for a miracle to happen which never came. But really, the miracle was my brother’s bravery. His intractable sense of himself and his humour in the face of horrific pain, and ultimately, his loss of life. Swifts became our sense of him  – cutting the air with a soul, and to we godless creatures, a sense of him alive – somewhere in the World.