The company of poets: why listening and learning provides that buzz
I came back to Ted Hughes’ Season songs today, as I do on a day like this, with
the earth invalid, dropsied, bruised, wheeled
out into the sun,
after the frightful operation
leans back, eyes closed, exhausted, smiling
into the sun. Perhaps dozing a little.
While we sit, and smile, and wait, and know
she is not going to die
(‘March morning unlike others’)
One of those days when you feel the buzz under everything, the buzz at the tip of every stem, the spurts of daffodils, a day when:
with arms swinging, a tremendous skater
on the flimsy ice of space,
the earth leans into its curve
One of those days when you come awake and bestirred. How things suddenly shift, like an old log in a river bed that twists into a release and a rush. Two days ago I wrote a poem to take to a Poetry Business writing day; a poem I’ve been trying to write for two years or more, an old log of a poem, and everything pent up behind.
I put it down to how the company of other poets matters, how listening to them tells you “it can be done”. There may be writers who can make poetry out of solitude but I can’t imagine how it is to be like that. I love the urging and weight of stuff. And deadlines, pressure. When the company and the pressure come together I can feel blessed and released.
I guess this starts last Monday when I went to reading at the Square Chapel in Halifax; a wonderful space stitched into the fabric of the renovated Piece Hall, an amazing North Italian piazza that seems to have landed from space in a steep-sided gritstone valley. You can hear the footfall of 18th century Russian cloth merchants. It is astonishing.
There were three readers: DA Prince, a Happenstance poet who I hadn’t known, and who read from a collection that is inspired by the bookmarks she collects or finds in second-hand books. She tells the story of them, these tickets, programmes, bits of card. And you think: Wow! why did no one think of that before? There was Yvonne Reddick (see the review of her book in earlier posts) who reads with an articulate conviction memorable poems about her father, a man who died in a mountaineering accident; an oil industry worker across the world.in Kuwait, on the North Sea rigs. She read poems that bring storm-blown birds into a world of glistening steel; poems about the enormous fragility of the world. Passionate and political poems that make you say yes: poems matter; writing matters. And then there was the prodigiously accomplished David Constantine who appears to be able to do absolutely anything with language and make it appear simple and inevitable. I came away buzzing, having been given permission to believe I can go on writing. Some writers can do that.
Which brings me neatly to today’s guest poet (which is the reason I started writing a poetry blog in the first place … to share my enthusiasm for poets that you probably knew already, but who I’d just discovered). I met Greta Stoddart, pictured left, in December where she was a tutor on a writing residential weekend. You never know what to expect from writers’ workshops, but hers was everything I like. Structured, focused, purposed. It was about the work of the line and of line endings. It was full of the variety of the things a line break can be persuaded to do. It taught me more in two hours than four years of puzzling over what Dana Gioia had done. (If you’ve not come across it, Gioia wrote one of those amazingly wise-looking things about ‘the line’ and its function. There’s nothing you’d argue against, but putting it into practice is quite another can of worms. You can find the article here. See what you think.) Greta offered me one trick with a two-stanza poem that might just solve an apparently intractable problem. So this post is by way of a thank-you.
Greta was born in 1966 in Oxfordshire. She spent her childhood in Oxford and Belgium, studied mime in Paris and worked as a performer before becoming a full-time poet. She now teaches at the Poetry School in Exeter and Bridport.
Her first collection of poetry, At Home in the Dark, was published in 2001, was shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best First Collection and won the 2002 Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize. Her second collection, Salvation Jane, was published in 2009 and shortlisted for the 2008 Costa award. Her third collection, Alive Alive O, published in 2015, focuses on life, death and mortality, and was shortlisted for the Roehampton Poetry Prize 2016.Her latest work, a radio poem called ‘Who’s there?’ broadcast on BBC Radio 4 was shortlisted for the 2017 Ted Hughes award.
It was the business of mortality (which I wrote about in last week’s post) that made a couple of the poems on her own webpage jump off the page, and I’m delighted that she’s let me share them with you. I love their combination of precision and passionate engagement.
Perhaps you know that story where people step
out of this world and into another
through a split in the air – they feel for it
as you would your way across a stage curtain
after your one act, plucking at the pleats,
trying for the folded-in opening through which
you shiver and shoulder yourself
without so much as a glance up
to the gods, so keen are you to get back
to where you were before your entrance:
those dim familiar wings, you invisible,
bumping into things you half-remember
blinded as you’d been out there
in the onslaught of lights, yes, blinded
but wholly attended to in your blindness.
Imagine our dying being like that,
a kind of humble, eager, sorrowless return
to a place we’d long, and not till now, known.
No tears then. Just one of us to hold
aside the curtain – here we are, there you go –
before letting it slump majestically back
to that oddly satisfying inch above the boards
in which we glimpse a shadowy shuffling dark.
And when the lights come on and we turn to each other
who’s to say they won’t already be
in their dressing room, peeling off the layers,
wiping away that face we have loved,
unbecoming themselves to step out
into the pull and stream of the night crowds.
It’s one of those poems, full of momemts that pull you in, full of lines that seem to be memorising themselves as you say them, as you hear them:
plucking at the pleats,
trying for the folded-in opening
Imagine our dying being like that,
a kind of humble, eager, sorrowless return
It’s full of the accurate truth that I’d been striving for when I was writing about this particular subject, and falling short. I love the way the conceit of the theatrical exit that ought to feel like a cliche, and doesn’t, is so beautifully sustained. I love the way it begins with an apparently tentative “perhaps”, its tact, and the way it’s followed by the sense that there’s no ‘perhaps’ about it. This is the way it is. Ben Wilkinson put it better than I can when he wrote about “the economy and deceptive simplicity” of her writing, and “a cool-headed emotional restraint”. Yes.
I met the next two for the first time at a Poetry Business writing day; I can’t remember what the exercise was that they illuminated, but the poems stuck. Metaphorically and literally, since they’re pasted into my workshop notebook.
The Street Lamp
Maybe it’s this orange light
that has me up
in the middle of the night
when sleep ought to have
taken hold and placed us
god knows where
with whom and how and why
or was that the baby’s cry
turning into something else
and rising that has me rising
not to him but to look
down at the street and see
in a pool of light – what is that –
a stain, his small coat?
Body seems to know
but mind, sleep-filled
and slow with notions,
ups and follows
(whatever it is it has that
self-possessed and desolate look
of a thing left behind);
and heart that knows
starts to knock and will not
take comfort from the street lamp
who stands over our house
like a guardian angel,
head inclined but with no arms
or wings to gather whosoever in.
I came back to this after last December’s workshop, now noticing as I should have done, the work that’s done by the way the first two stanzas are a single unpunctuated sentence, and the way the next two are more reflective and ‘rational’, even if they’re interrupted by that parenthesis. Lovely. And I like that slightly startling use of the not-quite-abstract body, mind, heart. It’s something I’ve started to notice in Kim Moore’s poems, too. I need to think about it.
One more poem. This speaks straight to my other enthusiasm, for physical craft and craftsmanship...the precision and neatness I can never manage whatever tools I invest in. Just relish the way that first line absolutely nails what lies at the core of the poem.
It has to be a dying art,
this man leaning in with hammer and chisel,
intent on the angle, cut and concision;
all morning on a single word, a name.
His commissioners – each time the same
exacting band of passionate mourners –
want only the best; for this one stone page
to stand for less and more than all their tears.
And as the dates sharpen, the prayer clears
so it all blurs for him; in the end he leaves
what it means to those who already know
just as he leaves the heart of the stone alone
knowing there’s nothing there, that deep down
his work is with the surface of things;
the opposite of archaeology
where nothing’s found and all is to be made.
It’s a poem that has to be read aloud, so you taste the consonants, and feel the point where the poem pivots on that moment when “it all blurs for him”. A beautifully crafted piece of work about art and transience. There’s that buzz under everything today. Thank you Greta Stoddart, for making it sing.