In the last post I was writing about poets who inspired me, who gave me the aspiration to write. Poets who taught me what I needed to be writing about, and sometimes how.
There are other kinds of inspiration ... those epiphanic moments that come back fresh and sharp, new-minted memories. Images. Two newly dead mackerel on an asphalt path below a train station. A goldcrest that killed itself, flying into a pane of glass. The smell of cordite on a day when men and boys were shooting grey squirrel for bounty. The man who regularly brought last night’s chip shop parcel into work and ate the cold grim fish for breakfast. Wordsworth’s Hebridean girl, or the theft of a boat. But of those I can give no account. There are what they are and there is no legislating for them.
This week I’m concerned with writers of non-fiction who shape the way you think in ways you couldn’t anticipate. I found this in a post from four years ago:
Best books I’ve read that fed my writing in 2015
Clive James’ Poetry Notebook: 2006-2014
Don Paterson on Shakespeare’s Sonnets
Ovid The Metamorphoses
Robert Macfarlane Landmarks, Mountains of the Mind, and The Old Ways
Hilary Mantel Bring Up the Bodies
Simon Schama Landscape and Memory
Dominick Tyler Uncommon Ground
(Oh, and rediscovering Bronowski The Ascent of Man)
I meant to write about just one of them today, but Clive James died a week ago. I knew he’d profoundly shifted the way I thought about writing poetry, and particularly about the way I read it. But I didn’t realise how often I referred to him until I did a trawl through several years of blogposts, and found there’s scarcely one where his name doesn’t crop up. I think about him in the company of the art critic Robert Hughes; of Germaine Greer, and of, I suppose, Barry Humphries. Laconic, irreverent of the establishment, erudite, articulate, educated people who did everything with wit and swagger. It says a lot for my general unawareness of the world of poetry, that it was James’ announcement of his diagnosis of leukaemia that simultaneously let me know that he was a poet as well as a TV personality. It was his remission, at the time that I was diagnosed with prostate cancer, nine years ago, that gave me hope, and his continued insistence that he’s been given extra time as a gift to be used that told me how I should live.
And then I read (and reread) Poetry Notebook: 2006-2014 and learned more about poetry in that year than I’d learned in the previous 72. Some of the things he wrote with that trademark confidence have taken the status of fundamental, self-evident truths, like Euclid’s axioms, or Asimov’s laws of robotics. Everything follows from them.
“Declaring itself to be a poem is one of the main things a poem does”
“You hear the force of real poetry at first glance”
There you are, in a nutshell! Poetry is about its shape on the page, and the sound the shape makes.
“A real poem?” A real poem is “well separated’ .
and the “well-separated poem” makes it “almost impossible to memorise what you can never quite forget”
James writes about the ubiquity of bad poetry: “At a time when almost everyone writes poetry, but scarcely anyone can write a poem … there are…..Slim volumes by the thousand….full of poetry…but few … with even a single real poem in them”.
It’s hard to explain the huge sense of relief and release that gave me, or the sense of validation when he wrote about “poets who want to keep technique out of it, because they don’t have any”, and set this side by side with “the spectacular expression that outruns its substance”. What an important idea that is … just that one word “substance”. How good it was to be assured that a poem has to be about something real and concrete, because “everything depended, and still depends, on the quality of the moment … whatever kind of poem it is, it’s the moment that gets you in”.
He wrote in the conclusion to the introduction that he believed [Poetry Notebook ] “is a book guaranteed not to treat poetry as anything but the occupation of a lifetime; except that, for those attuned by their nature to poetry’s great mystery, the lifetime can begin very early on, with the first enthralled realisation that a single sentence, or even less, is like nothing else they have ever heard”.
I came to it all late on. But Clive James welcomed me in as though I had every right to be there, in the company of the blessed. What a gift. Thank you.
And so to a second inspiration, a writer of non-fiction who was the catalyst for so many unexpected things. Robert Macfarlane, who told me to read Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain. But I’m mainly interested just now about the way a writer, who you’ve chosen because he writes about things you’re already interested in, gives you, as Clive James did, phrases - nuggets that memorise themselves and let other ideas coalesce and crystallise around them until you almost think you invented them yourself.
Or maybe you start with the glimmering of an idea. Maybe something you didn’t know you’d noticed at the time, but which comes back and surprises you. I’ve written before how I need workshops to generate that kind of surprise; I know I can’t consciously sit down to find stuff out to make into poems. I know, because I wasted months trying to do that with research about a 19th century painter. But here’s an illustration of what I mean. I wrote a poem a couple of years ago from a workshop draft. Here’s just a bit of it: I wondered of the Celtic saints of the Outer Islands
if they knew that gulls and fulmars
would nest in the cloister of their ribs.
I had an idea where that had come from, because it certainly wasn’t mine. I tracked it down to Macfarlane’s The Old Ways and his journey to Sula Sgeir in a small boat. Something I have never done, will never do. I know that Macfarlane had taken me back to Adam Nicholson’s Sea Room, where I’d been led by reading Kathleen Jamie, who also took me to books about St Kilda and Great Blasket islands … and so on. Sea-girt mountain tops, puffins, gannets, bird migration, white-tailed eagles, nests in the ribcage of a saint. He’ll do that for me, Macfarlane. I don’t know if it’s plagiarism … know that some of his phrasing lodges in my word hoard and sort of roots itself there. Like this from another poem about a burial cairn on Bheinn na Caillich on Skye:
because their oceans were swanspaths, whaleroads.
because they wrote their maps in the wind,
The whole idea is lifted from Macfarlane. I know, because I knew I hadn’t invented it, so I tracked it down. I didn’t take his words. But I had to write my words to understand what he meant, so I could tell you how the idea excited me.
Concentrated writing exercises will do nothing if they don’t somehow tap into ideas that you don’t consciously know you have. So thank you, Robert Macfarlane for writing The Old Ways, which planted in my head and heart the idea of the sea as a highway on which we leave no marks.
The next book I read of his was Mountains of the Mind and its exploration of the shifting imagery of our relationship with high places. It does for mountains and the folk who are drawn to them what Raymond Williams’ The country and the City did for the opposition of ideas of urban and rural in art and literature. What Macfarlane did was to take me finally to Mallory and above all to his self-destructive love affair with Everest. He wrote: “Eventually, and terribly, Mallory’s yearning for mountains would prove stronger than his love for his wife and his family. Three centuries earlier he would have been cast into Bedlam for his obsession with Everest.”
I used to be an indifferent rock climber, and a downright poor hill walker. But I still can’t see a big hill without wondering how I to get up it. I love books about mountaineering, Joe Simpson’s Touching the Void especially. But what Macfarlane put in my mind was the idea of obsession. Recovering alcoholics understand this perfectly, and this not especially memorable sentence was the catalyst for coming to terms with unresolved amorphous feelings about addiction and equally about the suicide of one of my sons who fell from a high building.
There’s another sentence in the book that’s utterly and instantly memorable: "The world’s tallest mountain was once a sea floor." I’ll come back to this in a later post when I consider his latest book. Heights and deep time. There’s something hard to get out of your head once it’s in. Obsession. There are other incidental observations. Like the fact that the immense bulk of Everest exerts a gravitational pull on the surface of icemelt puddles. That found its way into the start of the poem I wrote for my son
there’s sometimes a loss you can’t imagine;
the lives never lived by your children, or
by the one who simply stopped
in the time it takes
to fall to the ground
from the top of a tower block.
They say gravity is a weak force.
I say the moon will tug a trillion tons
of salt sea from its shore.
I say a mountain range will pull a snowmelt
puddle out of shape.
I say gravity can draw a boy
through a window
and into the air.
I suppose that also fed into my growing anger as I read the last chapters. Mallory went to Everest three times, twice after promising his wife he would never go again. In this he was exactly like Scott and Shackleton. We addicts do this. We make promises and we betray them and the trust of those we make them to. And this fed into a response to the account of the discovery of Mallory’s body in 1999.
Above all: Mallory on Everest
How did we get here, starved of air
in a skitter of blown ice,
in the dazzle, in a rare thin sky?
If I could, I’d kneel, I’d want
to touch the wind-cured vellum
of your shoulder, to trace
the tent of your ribs,
the sharp jut of your jaw,
your dry empty eyes.
I’d want to gather up
your scattered threads,
parched wallet, buttons,
a nd I’d like to tell you
that I can’t forgive you;
not for the way you chose
cold and altitude,
for the way you would love
this death more than children, wife.
When I think of this I cannot think
however I might come down.
I wish it was a better poem. But I wouldn’t have written it without Macfarlane, who also wrote Landmarks, which had me in its grip from the first page. It begins with this sentence.
This is a book about the power of language - strong style, single words - to shape our sense of place.
I don’t seem to write poems that have urban settings. The nearest I seem to get to towns are their edgelands. When it comes to writing (and poetry) that concerns itself with the natural world - I’ll strenuously avoid that capitalised cliche Nature - I guess my first big eye-opener was Raymond Williams’ The country and the City, which was my introduction to the idea that words like that are culturally constructed, and go on being deconstructed and reconstructed. Very little of the poetry we were given at school concerned itself with the city and the urban. It was pastoral, nostalgic and often sentimental. Poems like ‘The Deserted Village’ by Oliver Goldsmith. Poems like ‘I Wanderd Lonely as a Cloud’, otherwise known as ‘Daffodils’. It took me a long time to work out why I distrusted ‘Daffodils’ but the clue’s in the first, title line: I wandered lonely as a cloud.
The first word; I. It’s not about daffodils, is it? It’s about the poet and what the daffodils can do for him as he wanders (ie purposelessly) and lonely (ie in self-elected solitariness) as a cloud (ie diffuse and without responsibility). I knew a long time ago that what I was really interested in was place, and ways of celebrating its particularities. And this is what Macfarlane does in Landmarks. One word in particular was the catalyst for so many things. En-chantment. This is the ignition point for me and also the clue to the importance of poems. Words are magical; they enchant the world into being. I know people who resist the fantastic, the magical; Macfarlane addresses this scientific/rational resistance to ‘magic’ when he writes, in Landmarks, about the provenance of a language he calls Childish:
“To young children … nature is full of doors … what we bloodlessly call place is to young children … dream, spell and substance: place is somewhere they are always in, never on … the best children’s literature understands this different order of affordance.”
The wonderful core idea is that of the naming of places, and of landscapes, that the world is en-chanted into being by knowing and saying its True Names.
I think this is what fed into a poem I wrote about ‘true naming’ which started in a workshop. Somehow, I’d unconsciously assimilated whole phrases from Landmarks as well as general ideas. I guess I’m comfortable/at home on the shores of the north-east coast, and with the way in places like Whitby, or Dunstanburgh the perceived barriers between the past and the present grow thin.
you need one to be sent on a quest / through silent forests, stony wastes,
to a bony church and a hillside that opens
to a way that he’ll walk through all the ages, / to come dumb and dazzled to the seashore
A long time ago I wrote a retelling of a Finnish fire myth, from the Kalevala. In the original, at the making of stars by the god Ukko, fire falls to earth through the inattention of one of the anonymous star maidens.The spark is finally captured by the hero Vainemoinen; he’s the one who gets the credit. But you never know where a retelling will take you. In my version, though I never intended it, the gift of fire becomes an act of rebellion by the star maiden, who pities the creatures of the earth in their blood-chilling winters. She becomes Promethean, a bright star, and the god Ukko just another divine and appalling tyrant.
I’d forgotten all about it till one morning, when I was waiting for a man to change two rear car tyres for ones that wouldn’t readily blow out on a motorway, and I was reading Robert Macfarlane’s Landmarks. There’s a chapter marvellously called The tunnel of stones and axes. Just like that, I was reunited with Vainemoinen. The hero has been set to find the Lost-Words. For want of the names he cannot build his ship right. Without the thousand Lost-Words he cannot name the world to make it real. “Synonyms are of no use,” writes Macfarlane. “The power of each name is specific to its form.” And shortly afterwards I went to a writing day in Sheffield and wrote ‘For the true naming of the world’.
To understand this is to understand enchantment; we grow accustomed to the story of the enchanted castle, spellstruck, sleepstruck, drowning in thorn and briar, and to its cold, enchanted sarcophagus princess, white as marble. To be enchanted is to be made helpless and probably immobile. Macfarlane urges a truer meaning. To en-chant. To call into being. To summon by chanting, when only the true Lost-Words will do.
So here we are. Enchantment. The power of truly chosen words to conjure, to tell truly.
It’s the moment that gets you in.