Hello and welcome!
We here begin this chain of dialogue with Paul Matthews, whose sequence of poems ‘Tongues of Fire’ was published in Scintilla 16. Over the weeks and months, the baton will be passed – as you will read below – to other poets published in Scintilla, with each conversation offering a fascinating glimpse into that poet’s work, inspirations and practices. The growing conversation will speak more widely of the range of poetry published by Scintilla. If you are interested to know more about the poems discussed, please do think of purchasing a copy of Scintilla. Thank you.
Poetry Editor Scintilla 16 & 17
Paul, I’m very happy to have your sequence of poems ‘Tongues of Fire’ in Scintilla 16. You have this remarkable ability, it seems to me, of being able to balance levity with gravity; profundity is present yet conveyed with a light, deft touch. My question for you is around the practice of writing, of poem-making – can you say something about your relationship with poesis, language and imagination? These seem to be at least some of the themes you were exploring in this sequence, where ‘Life after life / we are given tongues /to sing our circumstance’ -?
Fiona, that title, ‘Tongues of Fire’, carries a Whitsun image; but if any ‘bene diction’ came it was in a form which shocked me … the tongue as blind amphibian, both servant and dictator, lurking between dark and daylight. I was reluctant at first to admit it into my writing.
Mostly I begin with something in mind to say. But then the fiery tongue of some poem-not-yet-written starts wagging at the bottom of the page, an active presence moving towards me out of the future, and I scan the field for rhymes waiting to be arrived at.
It’s not that I wish to lend my tongue to any old angel breezing by. If I have to be a wind chime let it be the one that Shelley speaks of, conscious and responsible in my craft to modulate what’s moving.
The grace of Aspen is my image for this – It flares at the slightest breath. Well, grace it may be, but not comfortable. People have been filmed attending to the spoken word, and when it’s played back slow motion the body is seen trembling in particular ways to each vowel and consonant. When the things of the world come close with their words and gestures I find myself among those quakers!
This is not mystical. It is a sense I am talking about, perceptive of the feeling tone of language, or ‘Melopoeia’ as Ezra Pound called it. He honed his apprehension of it by translating Troubadour and Anglo-Saxon poetry. Much of my poetic practice is founded on his instruction. The ‘heart’s tone’ can be caught in words, he said.
And I am not just being playful if I say that fire does occasionally break out when writing poetry. Once roused, the faculty I am trying to describe knows the power and origin of a word better than we do. It crosses some fiery threshold, and then miraculously brings back metaphors which move and mean within a rightful resonance. I would be happy to know how you and others experience this.
Paul, that is a most potent way to begin our chain of poetic thoughts. Fire has certainly broken out in my own imagination, having read this! I’d now like to invite you to choose one poem from Scintilla 16 that especially caught your eye. There are many fine poems to choose from, so I’m excusing you from worrying about leaving any good poem out. Whichever poem you choose, please say something about what you’ve seen in it and why you like it. And then: could you ask that poet a single (ish) question? Thanks to you, Paul.
Dear Fiona, yes, so many good poems to choose from. How about this one: ‘Brought to Mind’, by John Freeman. In my ‘Touchpaper’ poem I speak of metaphors clouding the simple light, but John’s poem is almost totally free of them. I like (and can learn from) its directness. Seemingly, it is without artifice – spontaneous utterance; yet I am sure that its author has practised for years this art of being artless. How can it be a poem if there’s not a metaphor in sight? Yet poem it is – it catches truly the fire, the motion of the emotion that I wrote about earlier – the line breaks, the ambiguity of the punctuation set up a tension as I read, puzzling at first, but actually (by making me unsure whether father or poet is speaking) it embodies what the poem is on about: I remember him every day / invite him to go on living through me.
Dear John, in the context of ‘poetic practice’, I want to know whether (to quote your beloved Shelley) you wrote this poem as a profuse strain of unpremeditated art, or whether you worked it over and over to get it right. Thanks, Paul.
(And if you’ve never read anything by Paul Matthews, I suggest you visit his inspiring website and list of publications here. You will also find a full-length poetic conversation between Paul and myself on my website here .)
Dear Paul, thank you for asking me to go next in this sequence; and, dear Fiona, thank you for initiating it. Paul, thank you for saying that my poem ‘catches truly the fire’, since it creates a context for your disconcerting question, as does your not doubting that ‘I have practised for years this art of being artless’. That sounds reassuring! By this stage you have me relaxed, my defences down. But then you ask, quoting Shelley, whether or not my poem is profuse, unpremeditated, ‘or whether you worked it over and over to get it right.’ Eh? I feel like the man who was asked in court, ‘have you stopped beating your wife yet?’ Or how Robert Creeley may have felt for a nano-second being asked after a reading ‘Was that a real poem or did you just make it up yourself?’ (To be fair, he then saw it would make a good title for a book about poetry.) As Fiona says, you have a gift for balancing levity with gravity, and she might have added, you sometimes adopt a mask of naivety, as exemplified by your question, from behind which you can be devilish clever. So I think you know a lot already about how I might answer you. But as we are having this exchange in public I will say some of what you know and then try to push into other territory.
As you know, Paul, Shelley’s line about ‘unpremeditated art’ occurs in an elaborately crafted poem in which every line rhymes across a complex pattern of line-lengths but which achieves an air of ardent spontaneity. Furthermore, it invokes a famous passage in Book Eight of Paradise Lost in which Milton claims that his muse, ‘celestial patroness,’ inspires ‘easy my unpremeditated verse.’ Shelley applies the unusual word not to himself but to the skylark, challenging the distinction between human art and birdsong, wishing in the poem’s concluding lines that he could learn the lark’s ‘gladness’ so that the world would listen to him as he is listening to it. Incidentally this is not just an egotistic desire to be heard on Shelley’s part, but a wish to move others to his own burning commitment to bring about a juster world. And actually the poem does convey something of that contagion from the lark’s joy, though it appears only to beg for it. Shelley like Milton believed in poetic inspiration, but just as Dr Johnson said of Milton’s epic ‘no man wished it longer,’ so few readers must have wished it was less carefully composed (consider the opening sentence, which runs for sixteen lines and in which the main verb is held back till line 6). And Wordsworth, about whom Shelley had been quite rude, said of the younger poet ‘he was one of the best artists of us all, I mean in point of style,’ an insight developed in some Victorian monographs on his verse forms. Shelley is not so much being disingenuous as aligning himself with a tradition in which spontaneity and craft coincide, and eloquence can be at its highest when the poet laments his lack of it.
But like yours mine is not a one-poet pantheon; I am attentive to the one great poem Shelley says in A Defence of Poetry all poets across the ages weave together. Pound is important to both of us, and I know we share a lasting devotion to Yeats, who wrote ‘A line will take us hours maybe;/Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought,/Our stitching and unstitching has been naught.’ Yeats also wrote: ‘the common and its befitting language are the research of a lifetime.’ Wordsworth is a pioneer of ‘the common and its befitting language’. In the last century William Carlos Williams was a powerful focus of the same tendency, and so were ‘The Objectivists,’ George Oppen, Charles Reznikoff, Carl Rakosi, Lorine Niedecker. The discovery of Williams in my late teens was a revelation for me. In my early twenties I discovered those other Americans, and, on this side of the Atlantic, I saw an answering spirit in such diverse poets as Jim Burns and John Riley. ‘Let us drop pretence of images,’ wrote John Riley. ‘Let us live barely./ In more than a pagan triumph./I have not loved you enough.’ I am getting round to your point about metaphor, Paul. In one of my earliest essays, written when you and I were young, I praised the lack of metaphor in Jim Burns’ ‘authentic common language’ with its ‘simple forceful structures:’
Given this cue, and with a trained sense of syntax and articulation, the poet can make a vigorous poetic statement using few of the much easier devices that can help stiffen up limp poems – rhyme, metaphor, symbolism and the rest.
George Oppen had written: ‘to entrust/To a poetry of statement// At close quarters// A living mind/ ‘and that one’s own’ // what then what spirit//Of the bent seas/Archangel//of the tide/brimming //in the moon-streak// comes in whose absence/ earth crumbles’.
I come back to your question, looking for its deeper meaning beyond its teasing provocativeness. I look for clues in your fine sequence, ‘Tongues of Fire,’ which is steadily concerned with the act of writing, including taking a day to resist writing. I wonder how you overcome that resistance to start writing, generally, and how you did it in this case. I guess you do not write single words with long pauses between but at least phrases, if not lines. Is there not an element of the unpremeditated, the unforeseen, in what emerges? You say you can learn from the directness of my poem, so perhaps to oblige you I should write about my own composition methods.
What I do in cases like that of ‘Brought to Mind’ is live with a subject for years, in thought and sometimes on paper, leaving forgotten drafts in old notebooks. Often, as here, this subject is a remembered incident that crystallises many intangibles. Then, one day, everything is maybe better aligned; and I certainly know my theme well by now. I have developed a habit of excluding the extraneous and getting straight to the point. A lot of the finished poem would be recognisable from this first (new) draft; but I wrestled with drafts over months and years before deciding that I could do no more with it – for now. ‘A poem is never finished, only abandoned.’ I am aware that it is a demanding poem to follow and I did the best I could to help the reader without betraying the poem. The labouring over what might seem minor alterations makes a poem sink or swim. Pound had his own pungent ways of making that point: ‘the man not intolerant of his own defects is a smear.’ But Pound is not above criticism himself. In his late poem, ‘To My Friend Ezra Pound’ Williams wrote, ‘Your English/ is not specific enough/ as a writer of poems/ you show yourself to be inept not to say/usurious’. A one-sided view, perhaps; but not without purchase, coming from the poet who had put ‘the research of a lifetime’ into finding ‘the common and its befitting language,’ working as a doctor among the poor of New Jersey. Addressing the déraciné author of the macaronic Cantos, he may have thought, as Jonson wrote of Spenser, ‘In affecting the ancients, he writ no language.’
I write verse every day, and most of what I write stays in the notebook and deserves to. Sometimes I produce something that seems worth typing, which occasionally I find time to do. Then redrafting begins, which always takes time. After all this, most of these poems reveal themselves as best left in obscurity. That Yeats poem again: ‘Better go down upon your marrow-bones/And scrub a kitchen pavement, or break stones/ Like an old pauper, in all kinds of weather; /For to articulate sweet sounds together/Is to work harder than all these, and yet/Be thought an idler by the noisy set/Of bankers, schoolmasters, and clergymen/The martyrs call the world.’
But the less successful work is no more wasted than an athlete’s hours in the gym away from the limelight. I am, in those daily sessions, keeping to a discipline of syntax, diction and rhythm which will be ready to serve me on the days when a new subject, or an old one seen in a new light, takes possession of me. And I am keeping open a link from the mass of stuff that moves in the mind to the small proportion that ever gets articulated, a channel which easily silts up from lack of use. I, too, have had my years of writer’s block.
It’s now my turn to pass the parcel, and I should like to pass it to Ruth Bidgood, if she will accept it at my hands. Ruth, I constantly reread your poem ‘From Time to Time’, always relishing the emotional and spiritual journey it takes me on. The first stanza sets the scene, with the unnamed woman sometimes seen (but never clearly) looking out from upstairs
over that huge landscape I have loved
from the moment I first stood
by the rickety porch.
I am well drawn in by now, enjoying the double perspective from upstairs and down, indoors and out, on this view I want to know more about (and I will, as the poem progresses), already seeing it in three dimensions, and knowing that it excites love in the speaker and probably in the ghost. The house itself we get just enough of a sense of – we don’t need more – ‘faded’ but ‘with something about it.’ But its glory is the view which you begin to describe, and which I feel myself expanding into like a homecoming as I read: ‘that vast quiet expanse/of hills, dips, hills again.’ But this idyllic scene is juxtaposed with a shocking revelation. Again, we know just enough about the ghostly lady’s life – a freedom she never knew’, ‘the cruel salt in her still-open wounds.’ This line takes the poem to its emotional nadir. Like the house, the lady’s tragedy is both individual and archetypal, and this is important because it allows you, the speaker, to empathise and identify with her. What life has not been touched by tragedy? And through this identification, which has begun by your imagining the gazing figure perhaps ‘tortured by beauty,’ the poem offers, along with a further vivification of the landscape description, an affirmation of the agency of the spirit or psyche to make as well as suffer its own weather. And in the speaker’s mood swings between disproportionate sadness and ‘illogical hope’ which ‘suddenly/expands the view from my heart’, you say ‘it’s then/I picture her, then I remember how it is to look out over first a gentle slope… and further, what the watcher surely seeks/ endless embracing of the craved unknown.’ I feel certain you have started with a real house and a real former inmate of it, and a real landscape. You have lived with these images a long time. Because it is real and you, like the ghost, have often contemplated the view, the landscape has without any strain become naturally symbolic, something like an objective correlative for the inner life with its vivid feelings, a landscape carried internally to sound one’s deepest experiences against. In quoting I have left out much I admire, every word contributes. At the end, there is a longing for transcendence which unites both the two gazers and the reader. I wonder about quite how to take that last line. One could see it as regretful, with the unknown frustratingly unobtainable. This would be a fitting sympathetic note, considering the ghost’s ‘tortured’ life. But it seems to me that, without gainsaying the power of circumstance to maim and destroy us, the poem affirms the autonomy of the spirit, in creative partnership with the layered landscape, to rise by stages of rich emotion to a higher state of identification with ‘the craved unknown;’ perhaps, what some would call the All, or the One. I wonder if you could tell me how you yourself intend that last line, and whether you recognise your own poem in my account of it, and anything else you might care to share about the poem’s origins or your own working methods? With best wishes, and thanks for the pleasure this poem has given me, John.
(And you can find out about John’s publications here)
Dear John, the account of your reactions to ‘From Time to Time’ pleased me very much with its considerable understanding of what I am trying to say about this ghostly woman, her house , her view and her feelings. Thank you. The poem originated in two visits I made to a North Carmarthenshire house on whose early history I eventually wrote an article for a historical journal. As an amateur local historian as well as a professional poet, I sometimes have found it intriguing to work two ways on the same subject, the factual and the imaginative. This isn’t planned- it just seems to happen occasionally. A bit like having two wildly different children. Cefn Trenfa has haunted me since my first sight of it. I was told in passing of a figure (gender unspecified) seen, none too clearly, by various people at different times standing looking out of an upstairs window. I thought of the figure as that of a woman. One of the Cefntrenfa wives was a poet, but she seems to have had a very outgoing life – I don’t associate her with any sort of imprisonment, including that of her emotions. As to the last line, I remain (as I so often do) a ‘don’t know’. I don’t rule out the ghostly woman’s ultimate attainment of some kind of identification with all she sees and longs for – but neither can I affirm that with certainty. In one of my poems I have the phrase ‘fertile uncertainty’! Working methods? A bit motley – sometimes I live with a theme or a fragment of something (seen, heard, happening to me) for a very long time; it can be years. Sometimes the poem surfaces and gets written in a day, though it’s usually tinkered with later. Sometimes the alterations are far more radical. When I start a poem I don’t know how it will end. If it’s any good it takes me there. Favourite poets include (from the past) Donne, (from the present) John Burnside. The only poet I am sure has influenced me is Edward Thomas (never cut-and-dried, tentative, opening out his subject – and haunted). Time to make the next link in the chain! To Andie Lewenstein: I find your poem ‘Leaving Iona’ a moving expression of loss and leaving. Here it’s a dead father, but any kind of loss and goodbye resonates. The movement of the verse and sound of the words, so very musical, help to lift melancholy towards promise and reconciliation. I love ‘Sometimes I carry you like air…./Now you are made of nothing/I carry you everywhere’. Do you write rapidly, or does a poem like this, with its apparently total spontaneity, go through many drafts? Are you conscious of any poets having a particular influence on your work? With all good wishes, Ruth
Dear Ruth, thank you for your response and for this invitation. I have read your poem ‘From Time to Time’ with pleasure, feeling a resonance in the notion of some strong emotion that “expands the view from my heart,” the ghostly presence and the vision of the “endless embracing of the craved unknown”. I wrote ‘Leaving Iona’ two years after the death of my father. It marked the end of a period of intense grieving, though I realise this only in retrospect. I had spent a week in Iona on a writing retreat with Roselle Angwin and Kenneth Steven. It was suggested that we each choose a stone from the island to throw into the water as we left. The poem, written shortly before I took the ferry, came quickly and more or less all of a piece and I changed very little. Though I will often draft and re-draft a poem many times, I find that poems such as this one, utterances which stem directly from some lived emotion, tend to come in this way and all I need to do is allow the words to be written, as though the work has already been done before putting pen to paper. Perhaps it helped that for long periods I was in the habit of “freewriting” in my notebook each morning. My influences: how to choose? The first thought that came to me was some lines from Robert Louis Stevenson’s ‘A Child’s Garden of Verses’. My second thought was, but I can’t say that! I was eight years old and since then I have studied literature and read many poets. But still – this is where it (consciously, at any rate) began: The Dog, and the Plough, and the Hunter, and all And the star of the sailor, and Mars, These shone in the sky, and the pail by the wall Would be half full of water and stars.
I knew that though the pail did not literally contain the stars, this was more than mere reflection and that the water’s transformation was also mine. I did not articulate this at the time, but it stands behind the lines that you particularly liked – introduced the possibility. The Russian poets Marina Tsvetayeva and Osip Mandelstam were an early influence on me. There was something direct and bold in how they encompassed strong feeling and thought within the pristine clarity of an image that was different to anything I had met in English poetry. This is from a long sequence called ‘Stone’ by Osip Mandelstam: O my prophetic sadness, O my quiet freedom, and the forever laughing crystal of the unliving firmament! Some of the poems I remember most clearly contain the exclamatory O! where something or someone is addressed or apprehended. This also perhaps stands behind how I begin the poem to my father. Of the poets that influence me now, one that I would like to name is Paul Matthews ( included in the conversations here) – his work with creative process and imagination as much as his poetry. The poet I would like to invite is Rose Flint. Rose, when reading your poem, ‘Angel With Glittering Hands’, I remember another poem from a reading you gave at Emerson College: ‘Visitation of the Swans’. In both these I felt a sense of recognition, as though the vision and story that you present are already powerfully known to me and I was just waiting for the poem to reveal them. When you write a poem like this do you begin with an image and allow it to unfold its meaning as you go along or is the story already formed in your imagination before you begin writing?
(Andie’s poems and stories have been published in various anthologies and magazines, including Poetry South East, Rockingham Press, Obsessed with Pipework and Artemis. She has taught creative writing and was a co-ordinator of the annual Poetry Otherwise conference in Sussex. She keeps a blog called ‘Reading the Signs’ here.)
Thank you Andie, for including me in this fascinating chain of poet’s thoughts. I am intrigued that you found these poems resonated so deeply with you, giving you that sense of recognition. Writing them, I was aware of something coming to me over distance, either through the unconscious, or some other inner/outer world that we sometimes glimpse. The initial image in ‘Visitation of the Swans’ came as a powerful dream, utterly whole but without meaning attached. To find that took a long time, meditating on the image I had been given, trying to find where it was in my conscious self. With ‘Angel of the Glittering Hands’, the process was different. I knew I wanted to write the subject of the poem – the death of a child – but not how to write it. It contains more than one story of personal grief, including the remembering of my own loss of a baby at two weeks old. I don’t think I even tried to write it for a long time, didn’t sketch anything out or try to find a form to express my emotional engagement. I just felt it in me as a need, a necessity.
Then I had a very strange and powerful experience. Just as I was falling asleep one night – maybe in that state called hypnogogic – I became aware of a presence close to me and in some way visible. This presence had ‘seen’ me; and was perhaps curious, I don’t know, but it came closer. I was conscious of its vastness, and otherness, but surprisingly, not afraid. It seemed to hover for a while and I felt the drum of my heart nearly break. Then it was gone.
This experience really affected me. I looked at a lot of images of angels, read bits of writing about them, until quite unexpectedly, I just wrote the whole poem in one go. It took time to edit, but essentially it was all there from the first draft. I found it impossible to change details which I had scrawled down very fast, without knowing what their reference was until much later.
I have always written with trust in the unconscious. Allowed images and stories to float up from the practice of free-writing or free-drawing, or dreams. Not all my work is based in this but my poems that I cherish most do have a sense of coming in, an element of being given. Or at least some part of the poem does. I don’t mean I wait for them, I get on with other things, but when they happen it makes me wonder just what our universe is, and what is the nature of consciousness. I think many poets who work with myth and spirit are reaching in towards what Jung called the collective unconscious, which offers the world back to us in ways we would not think of. But I also believe it is a two-way stream. I don’t see it as a storehouse for primitive and useless junk, but as an area of engagement with our imaginations which can illuminate our humanity. For the stories we tell, are making the world all the time. And if we all have access to the collective unconscious – or the soul of the world – then images and ideas that originate there will be recognised by others, who are also open to this source.
My question is for Roselle Angwin.
Roselle, your evocative and thought-provoking poem ‘Chagford Haibun’ has so many layers I seem to unfold some new meaning every time I read it, turning it round in my hands like painted origami. You are a very visual writer, how does art and poetry integrate for you … does the use of form have any relationship with your painting?
(For further information about Rose Flint’s work, please see here)
Rose, thank you so much for your choice of my poem with which to continue this poets’ conversation: I’m touched by that, and feel privileged to be in such fine company – so much inspiration, so many competent and moving poems in Scintilla 16, and such eloquence and insight from those writers before me in the conversation. And Rose I think – I hope – you know how much I like and admire your own work; some of your poems, such as a sequence from the Mabinogion, and one about a white deer (sorry to be so unspecific!), have become part of my inner world. And Nekyia I admire greatly as a collection (and also I relate to the title, its relationship to the night-sea journey, and its Jungian resonances, and therefore the sub-terrain).
You ask about the origins and relationship between my painting and my poetry, focusing on the visual. How do they integrate, you ask: and what about the use of form? Well, I’d have to say there’s a co-arising for me, I think; they emerge, both, as a kind of ecstatic response to the natural world. And also I think I’d have to say that they are both a way of expressing my profound lifelong relationship with land, sky, water, place, animals, birds, trees, plants – and also integrating it all into myself. The place of poetry, though, includes a kind of interrogation, for me, of my lived relationships to what appears to be ‘other’ than me in order to recognise myself as ‘part of’, not apart. I suppose by this I mean that while both my painting and my poetry are attempts to move beyond dualistic perceptions of self and other, the poetry, the verbal, incorporates the questions; the painting doesn’t, it simply expresses a lived response. (I think!) Perhaps I need to mention that my own spirituality resonates with your own, Rose (I probably don’t need to explain this to you, however!). I walk very much in the British Mystery Tradition, with its mythic, shamanic and bardic expressions of our relationship to the natural world and the wider cosmos. As a committed Green, like yourself, all of my practice is centred on our relationship to the planet and its beings. In addition to this, though, I’ve been deeply influenced since my late teens by Zen practice and Zen writings (this combination has been described as dharmic druidry).
Two specific threads arise here in relation to my writing and your question. One thread is that I’m always groping to move beyond my perception of self-and-other into a way of living that recognises the unified field of it all, unified – non-dual – consciousness. It’s something about resolving a kind of split. (There’s another dichotomy, that actually isn’t, but can seem like it in the Western world; and that is the dualistic split between matter and spirit that is part of our Judeo-Christian heritage.) My poetry expresses that struggle, quite often, I think. Painting, as far as I can tell, for me, doesn’t. Painting is also for me a kind of relief from the verbal, sometimes, too, and I usually find that I paint when I have exhausted, for the moment, my words. It’s true that there may be an ambiguity at times in some of my paintings, but it’s quite different from the boundaries and edges that words bring, set as they are on differentiation, clarity, focus. Having said that, and thinking out loud here, I’d also be the first to say that poetry, more than any other verbal form, does indeed vibrate on so many levels – well, a good poem does – that its opacity and ambiguity, its ability to speak laterally and to carry more than one meaning, does challenge our more usual verbal requirements, in conversation, say, to speak clearly and be understood on the rational level; obviously both poetry and art speak to the imaginal, the feeling nature, the soul, even; and to that extent, for me, my poetry and my painting elide. I said there were two specific threads.
The second thread for me is the way that poetry from the Zen tradition, and I’m also thinking here of the poetry of Gary Snyder, who was a big influence on me in my teens and early twenties, speaks of the natural world by stripping away superfluities and leaving us with the bones of ‘how it is’, right here, right now (as well as, as I alluded to above, also situating us within nature rather than ‘pitted against’ or at least separate from nature, as so much Western poetry in the canon, perhaps because of our cultural emphasis since the Enlightenment, has tended to). Zen poetry is also a record of transience; of the passing moment. I mention the Zen aspect because my Chagford Haibun is reasonably true to this tradition: Basho’s Narrow Road to the Deep North, which is an early if not the earliest example of haibun, the extended prose-poem form that includes haiku, also influenced me greatly, and still informs my writing. I love that haibun can incorporate so much within it: personal narrative, journaling, nature observation, philosophical asides, the little jewels that are specific moments captured in haiku that are not simply reprises of the prose text, and so on. All of it is centred on an expression of the spirit of the present moment, in this place, via the particular. One of the most exciting projects of my writing life was an agreement with poet Rupert Loydell that over 100 days we would write in alternation between us 100 little haibun-type prose poems of exactly 100 words each, interweaving a thread from the other’s last piece. This was published as A Hawk Into Everywhere, and although I don’t think the little ‘envois’ work as well as if we’d been true-to-spirit and embedded a proper haiku, I’m still proud of that book, and feel that the work is strong, even though we didn’t redraft any of it but let it unfold spontaneously. Before, and since then, I have often used the haibun form as a poetic discipline and also as a kind of meditation. I’m so glad you feel that the Chagford Haibun unfolds more meanings as you reread it. It should do, but I wasn’t sure that it did. I wrote it on a Zen and Poetry retreat I was leading, in which we were also using the haibun form. I was going to say that while my poetry does take form (I mean I pay some attention to shape on the page, whether it’s formal form or not), my painting doesn’t, as I’m more concerned with the relationship of colour, and a direct expression of lived experience. I see that that’s not true, though; although I’d like to be an abstract painter, in fact most of my work veers inexorably towards a more figurative expression of a landscape, a seascape. Sigh. I have an unswervingly irresistible albeit largely unconscious urge to mark a horizon, and as soon as that happens more deliberate form comes into being on the page or canvas. So that then leads me to note that I have a particular fascination for the golden ratio, golden section, golden mean, Fibonacci sequence, whatever you want to call it, and its place in art, music, architecture, natural forms, the singing of the spheres, the underpinning structure of the universe(!), and, of course, poetry. So I guess you might be righter than I first thought: what interests me is that little dimensional leap that, say, a sonnet takes with the volta, or a haiku takes between the second and third lines, or a painting might take with a horizon placed gratifyingly just so at about 5/8ths of the picture plane; the way that kind of correspondence, metaphorically, might, just might, induce in the viewer or reader or listener a corresponding subtle leap over an imaginal horizon. Well, I didn’t know I was going to go there. Thanks for giving me the opportunity to say what I didn’t know about my work!
I’d like to invite Seán Street to speak about his ‘Avebury’ sequence in Scintilla 16. Seán, I noticed your poems here immediately, and have been drawn back to reading them over and over. I admire the fact that you’ve used the sonnet form so successfully here. I also notice that you’ve been free with line lengths but fairly strict with end-rhymes. There are questions I’d like to ask you here about why you chose the sonnet, and why you worked with it as you have; there are questions I feel would also be interesting to ask you, such as – as Prof of Radio, how do you see radio as continuing an oral tradition, and what is your relationship to sound within your writing; but actually what I want to ask you, as I know that you, like me, are a ‘poet of place’ (and often similar places, as you know, such as Hebridean islands; and we both are drawn to ‘ancient’ landscapes, like the megalithic – I have a long Avebury sequence, written ‘on the hoof’ walking the serpent temple of that landscape, in my first collectionLooking For Icarus) is: how would you speak of your poetry and its relationship with place? In other words, I suppose I’m asking what is it about place/certain places that inspires you, and catalyses the response as poetry?
(Roselle Angwin is a poet, author and writing/ecopsychology retreat and course leader. Her long Dartmoor poem River Suite has just come out as a limited edition with the water photographs of Vikky Minette, and her newest novel is The Burning Ground. Her work can be seen here: www.fire-in-the-head.co.uk; thewildways.wordpress.com; roselle-angwin.blogspot.co.uk )
Thank you Roselle. I was interested in your comments, and the links between our work are as you say, strong. One of the pleasures of Scintilla is to explore unity as well as diversity in the writing, and to trace at the same time a thread of the Vaughans in it. I take this opportunity to thank the editors, past and present, for their guardianship of that principle, which has preserved the continuity of its voice so impressively, logically and apparently effortlessly, while many other journals’ attempts at doing so too often feel artificial and ‘imposed’. When Scintilla goes on the shelf, it does so not as a journal but as a book.
With the Avebury poems in Scintilla 16, I thought often of Henry Vaughan, of streams and strange hieroglyphs found in landscape; my idea in writing the sequence was to explore a place through its component parts, and Avebury, a place I’ve known from childhood, is the ideal place to do that because it is a pattern of human evidence spread not only across the land but across time. I chose a form based on the sonnet because I wanted this link between the various stages within the place, while trying to make windows of particularity focusing on individual topographical details. Roselle, you mention the apparently free line lengths; in fact, I find myself returning often to a line of nine syllables in many poems, and Avebury conforms to this.
You mention radio and sound, and I’m grateful that you do. Having worked in radio documentaries and features for more than forty years, I have come to find the links between poetry and radio as being increasingly complementary. I recently wrote about this connection, and a crucial part of that work for me was in the layers of poetic expression that broadcast media (and now downloadable audio) have the potential to unlock. Poetry was oral before it was print, and the coming of radio in the first half of the twentieth century reclaimed to a certain extent poetry from the printed text – or at least enabled a parallel oral text alongside the print. It is no coincidence that so many poets have also been radio practitioners. The microphone can capture vernacular speech at its most transcendent, at times of joy, pain, anger – passion in all its colours. Even ‘the cold poetry of information’ contained in formal radio statements like the Shipping Forecast can take us to spectacular places through the power of the imagination, in that instance made even more powerful by understatement. This is one of the key links for me: both poetry and sound offer us the raw materials to do our own imaginative making. Furthermore, there is a poetry of making in radio – when we choose to invoke it – that moves beyond the journalistic need to identify answers, and instead poses questions.
Location recording for radio is a wonderful discipline because one is interrogating a place very closely through its sound nature and specific character. It is a highly concentrated way of working, and it is not surprising that poems tend to come out of that process. A few years ago Michael Symmons Roberts and I made a number of radio programmes in which we explored the relationship between Place and the human spirit. For BBC Radio 4, we recorded two programmes with Anne Cluysenaar at Llansanffraed, examining Henry Vaughan’s presence there; we also made five programmes for BBC Radio 3 under the title Celtic Soul which sought to examine Celtic Christianity in the context of the places in which it developed: Iona, St David’s, Holy Island, Kildare and Glendalough in Ireland. Both these projects produced poems and sequences. Likewise, I’ve made a number of radio programmes in Newfoundland recently, a province of Canada that explores its past through a strong oral tradition in which radio and poetry cannot help but reflect the relationship between Place, time and mortality. Places have their own voices, be it in the unique tone of a lighthouse siren, the way a fishing boat rubs against a quay in the swell, or the sound of gulls’ cries echoing off the side of a cliff.
Places are almost always peopled, whether by a plant, a bird, (I see my poems are full of avian presences!) or a human. I happily acknowledge the importance for me of my long friendship with that quintessential poet of Place, Jeremy Hooker, and in doing so, I borrow a line from his excellent essay in Scintilla 16, ‘Reflections on Lyric “I”‘: ‘The poem must first surprise the poet, enlarging his or her sense of being.’ Here is another link with sound; I am at the moment writing about the relationship between sound and memory, and I think it is true that when we hear something we don’t understand for the first time, it lodges in memory in a particular way, and becomes a formative part of who we are. Looking along my bookshelves, I see evidence of the voice of Place in the writers I love: John Clare, Thomas Hardy, Charles Tomlinson, George Oppen, David Jones, Edward Thomas, the prose of Richard Jefferies and the writing of Jeremy Hooker himself. Indeed it’s summed up by that wonderful sentence in the introduction to The Anathemata, quoted by Jerry in his article, a statement we have discussed many times over the years: ‘One is trying to make a shape out of the very things of which one is oneself made.’
The Avebury sequence has found its way into my collection, Cello, opening the book and starting a journey through various landscapes in memory of my friend, the composer and cellist, Jonathan Harvey, a journey that ends in another sequence – hinted at in the last of the Avebury poems – where two rivers – the Thames and the Mersey – reach the open sea in their own particular ways. Always Place asks the questions, and always – always – there is a figure in the landscape.
Memory is very much a part of my sequence, as it is – inevitably – in the new collection. I’m writing about memory in prose too, and the idea of a river flowing through a landscape, always in the present tense, but always moving onwards, is one that preoccupies me a lot at the moment. So with this in mind, in handing the baton forward, I would like to ask Philip Gross to accept it. Philip, with your wonderful poems in The Water Table, and in Scintilla 16, your ‘Conversations with the Taff’, you strike me as the perfect writer to discuss the nature of flowing water and its relationship to the poetics of memory.
(Seán Street’s website is here, with details of all his publications.)
One of the things that delights me about poetry world (at its best – at its worst it is horrid) is the way the unplanned resonances happen between us, whether it’s poets reading at the same event or meeting in the pages of a magazine. Scintilla seems particularly hospitable to this kind of serendipity, maybe because of that quiet and unforced coherence you mention. It has nothing to do with a house style or a party line, just the underground stream of the Vaughan connections running through it all.
Which takes us back to your good question… though I might not answer it straight away. I was already struck by your and Roselle’s conversation about place. Or rather, Place – that moment when the capital appears intrigues me. It’s no surprise that Roselle, you and I have all written about Avebury. (A whole book, A Cast Of Stones, with artists John Eaves and F J Kennedy, came out of Avebury and Stonehenge for me back in 1996.) Avebury is blatantly a Place, in the sense that it has been filled with so many people’s responses and intuitions about it over the years. We might not agree in what each of us makes of it, but it’s really our collective pull to en-story it, en-value it, that is the fascinating thing. You could write a cultural history of Britain round the ways the charismatic emptiness of Stonehenge has drawn people to give it a story, and archaeology obliges not with answers but by turning up telling new questions just fast enough that there is always scope for more.
Equally interesting to me are all those other places that don’t have the public presence of a Place, but with attention may acquire it. Maybe every square inch deserves it, had we world enough and time. I have always been grateful to Jeremy Hooker for alerting me to Roy Fisher’s remark about Birmingham, that parts of it have never been seen. Michael Symmons Roberts and Paul Farley have made the concept of Edgelands available and attractive with their book of that name, but a loving unsentimental alertness to unrecognised places had been pioneered a while ago by Richard Mabey, who pointed out that there’s no need to go on a quest for wilderness to meet the presence of the natural world.
So your thought about people in Places may be vital – our attention, our response, creatively, provides the capital P.
Am I a ‘poet of place’? I would never have said it, until readers of The Water Table told me that I was. And yet, strip the Cornwall, Dartmoor and Estonia out of my books, and more recently Wales and the Severn estuary, and things would feel a bit threadbare. Poem after poem would have… nowhere to stand.
The near-obsession with that estuary came from crossing it day after day, and noticing that it was never the same place twice. It was hard to say what manner of place it was, a place between places, sometimes water, sometimes land, and in the way I saw it, quite substantially made of the reflections of other things, a place made of light. I felt at home with that. After a few years of living on the banks of the Taff, deep in the Valleys – certainly and historically a Place of strong character – I found myself still a visitor, and was drawn back to the edge of that ‘betweenland’ which seemed all made up of elsewheres and comings and goings. If that feels like home, it’s something to do with my father being a wartime refugee, and the way that is inherited, somewhere in the soul.
It says something about place that the collection Deep Field, my next book after The Water Table, might have not been the environmental book of place some readers wanted … except that in my mind that water, estuary widening out to the ocean, infused it. On one level, the book was about my father and his loss of language to aphasia in old age; it was about the human voice and language, which as the title of the spinal sequence said was ‘Something Like The Sea’. Those poems do much of their thinking through places, present, imagined, left behind, re-figured.
Can I connect this to memory, as you ask me? In the sense that all association, all reference, and a great deal of emotion, is some kind of memory, yes, that’s what the books are made of – staring at a present-tense thing or experience until more and more elsewheres and elsewhens are reflected in it. But what happens isn’t linear; if looking at a river ‘takes me back’ it’s as unaccountable (to my conscious mind, at least) as serendipity. Quite a lot of years ago I might have written poems that rested on the familiar likeness of a river’s course to a life, from infancy to old age, but I resist that likeness now. The Severn and the Taff were part of the reason, mainly by their habit of challenging any assumption that I knew what they were or that either of them was a single thing. Where does a river begin? To say ‘the source’ seems easy, until you consider that the source is (within its watershed), well … everywhere. In the words of a poem that arrived a little late for the book it would logically have been in:
… as if every trickle down the hillside,
from my eaves,
was not equally the river. As if every
last unasked-for whisper in the corner
of the eye or mind,
every niggle or whim disowned was not
by equal title
That might be no straight answer to your question, but is maybe a way of refreshing the ongoing stream of questions, ready to pass on. If he’s willing, I would like to involve a name already mentioned several times by several people – Jeremy Hooker. Certainly a poet and writer and thinker about place, whose thoughts many of us go back to help us to define our own, Jeremy has been clear and eloquent against poetry as confession or personal self-reference, with the risk of self-indulgence always close at hand. Yet Seán has been mentioning the necessary human figure in the landscape, the personal eye that gives the place back to itself and other people, and I never read Jeremy’s fine lucidly observant writing without sensing him there, a part of the presence. Seán has already referenced those ‘things of which one is oneself made.’ Can I ask you, Jeremy, to think out loud about what part our selves, our little arbitrary selves and the particular lives that we happen to live, can play, or should play, in the work of poetry?
(Philip Gross’s The Water Table won the T.S.Eliot Prize 2009, I Spy Pinhole Eye Wales Book of The Year 2010, and Off Road To Everywhere the CLPE Award for Children’s Poetry 2011. Deep Field (2011) deals with voice and language, seen through his father’s aphasia – an exploration into identity taken further in his new collection, Later (Bloodaxe, 2013). Caves of Making (Professional & Higher, 2013) is a poetry sequence with an exploration of its origins, set in a radical typeface by Jeremy Tankard, with artwork by Rika Newcombe. www.philipgross.co.uk )
Thank you, Philip, for drawing me into the conversation, which I’ve been following with pleasure, and which I’ve found moving and illuminating. Thank you, too, Anne and Peter, and now, Fiona and Joe. Scintilla has been and is for me a spiritual and intellectual lifeline.
Philip, you ask me ‘to think out loud about what part our selves, our little arbitrary selves and the particular lives that we happen to live, can play or should play, in the work of poetry’.
Well, it would ill befit a habitual diarist to speak dismissively of his ‘little arbitrary’ self! I may seek ‘to dare the depths’, but there’s plenty of everyday ego in what I record in my journals. For years, though, I’ve sought more, driven in part by what Edward Thomas called ‘the terror’ of self-consciousness and the need to resist solipsism. It was when in a state of acute isolation that I began to find my way back to a poetry of relationship, because I needed to, and because, with it, I recovered original impulses. From that time, poetry became for me a process of self-enlargement; a clearer and wider seeing; an awareness of life in the depths, where spirit speaks to spirit.
Years ago, in ‘Elegy for the Labouring Poor’, I wrote: ‘Nothing lasts/But the mortal nature of all that’s unique’. Those are words in which I came to see a tension that has impelled much of my poetry. A sense of mortality was virtually an atmosphere in the country in which I grew up – southern England with its barrows and hill-figures and stone circles. The times compounded it. I was born into a ruined world, with the second of two world wars in progress. After the war, people aware of living in a dying empire grew up looking back, guiltily or nostalgically. The effect of the shadow of the bomb was to cast a dazzling brightness on vulnerable lives. In Britain, the attraction of an idea of the past was almost overwhelming. Notable English post-war poets conducted a dialogue in a graveyard. The elegiac was what I inherited, and what I resisted.
At the same time, a sense of the uniqueness of being, new in every instance, held me from boyhood: this person, this particular thing, this insect or bird or tree. Henry Vaughan wrote magically that ‘life is, what none can express,/A quickness, which my God hath kist’. Recovering childhood animism, I saw that all things were quick, each with its irreplaceable life. In that sense, we were all, human and non-human, one life. I saw, too that the mystery of being was ‘what none can express’. As I grew up by an eroding shore and between bomb-cratered cities, aware of the war between human force and the power of nature, I felt words were unstable, and provisional. I experienced EXISTENCE – in Coleridge’s words – as ‘the presence of a mystery’, which ‘fixed [my] spirit in awe and wonder’. It was beyond language, yet we know it by words – words that point beyond themselves.
This is thought born of instinct. A way of seeing that expresses what I am, this particular person, with a passion for what is common, that life in the depths which all the living share. Much of my thinking, I now realise, springs from the paradox that our uniqueness is what, deep down, we have in common. Consider painted self-portraits. Rembrandt. Van Gogh. Each uniquely himself, at different stages. But also, like David Jones’s self- portrait, Human Being. Poetry too can be a channel for being – a Basho frog, a Clare bumbarrel, a Tennyson celandine … In our time, humbling the mind to creatures or things we habitually overlook may be what’s required of us. But there must be no law giving, no dogma. Each poet must find his or her way. If I sound confident, I lie. I experience every poem I write as a new beginning, a process in which conscious mind plays only a part.
Of course, ego will be an obstruction. But experiences of the ‘little arbitrary’ self matter. My quarrel with ‘confessional’ verse isn’t because it voices ‘the particular lives that [poets] happen to live’. It’s in our particular lives that we find love, and relate to others and the world around us, and sense what may be another world or worlds. In this life we meet ‘the stranger-in-oneself’. My quarrel is born of dislike of a fashion for what I regard as a kind of ‘closed’ verse, which leaves us trapped with the poet’s ego. But it springs from fear, too, lest I write a verse that stops at the self, locked in some angry or self-pitying drama. I desire an exploratory art, a poetry of relationship, like Philip’s ‘conversation with the place’, in which a new realm between self and other comes into being.
Lee Grandjean once said to me, ‘we must break our taste’. This was more than a warning against repeating oneself. It corresponded to my sense that a living person is not a finished object but a process, and consciousness an adventure. I resist ‘the sludge of nostalgia’, and resist it more because it attracts me. Born into the past, as I sometimes felt I was, in that ancient world between the New Forest and the sea, with the presence of great writers close at hand – Tennyson, Jefferies, Hardy, Edward Thomas – I sometimes felt the imaginative ground had been exhausted. But living experience contains more than we can see. A life in relationship is a continuing opening, not only to the other, but also to one’s own past, and to all that has given one life. Philip’s Deep Field is one of the great poetic ventures of our time. It contains much of his father’s life and his own, but nothing that is fixed or formulaic.
What I seek, then, is a sense of the poem as an opening, even an opening within or beyond personal memory, as in William Carlos Williams’s memory as ‘initiation, since the spaces it opens are new places’. As a young poet I formed the ambition to write in response to each phase of life, including old age, if I was lucky enough to live that long. Now I have, and while it brings with it a very particular sense of the embodied self, less able than heretofore, it also brings a question, as in the words of a recent poem, ‘Blackthorn and Celandine’:
What’s new, old man?
It’s always the same,
and you are ever in love with it,
eager for what may come.
No book of poems that I have read in recent years has been more alive than Fiona Owen and Meredith Andrea’s Screen of Brightness. Collaboration is certainly a way of fostering poetry of relationship. My collaboration with Lee Grandjean has been one of the most fruitful experiences of my life. I wonder, though, is a habitual diarist necessarily a solipsist? I would say that’s a danger, but in my experience, at best, there’s a recurrent sense of being overheard, perhaps by ‘the stranger-in-oneself’. At any rate, by a ‘presence’ that makes one seek the truth, and attempt to tell it as well as one can, though always in awareness that no one ever knows the whole truth about themselves, or anything. I think of the diary as a ‘place’ that is both one’s own and a stranger’s. This idea leads me to ask Anne Cluysenaar to reflect on her experience of using the diary as a poetic form, as in her poems in Scintilla 16.
One final observation. A phrase Anne uses in one of her ‘Diary’ poems sums up much that I have tried to say in this piece about poetry of relationship. Her words are ‘Fellow-feeling’.
(Jeremy hooker is Emeritus Professor at the The University of South Wales and has been elected a Fellow of the Learned Society of Wales (FLSW);. His books include:The Cut of the Light: Poems 1965-2005 (Enitharmon), Welsh Journal (Seren, 2001), and Imagining Wales: A View of Modern Welsh Writing in English (University of Wales Press, 2001). His features for BBC Radio 3 include A Map of David Jones, first broadcast in 1995.)
When Fiona proposed this chain of conversations, she touched I think on something essential to what Scintilla offers writers and readers, a chance to share, question and value numinous experience without toeing any lines. All the more delightful then to be drawn into this conversation by your question, Jerry, and to find you have chosen, from one of my poems in Scintilla 16, the phrase ‘fellow-feeling’. Your choice has opened perspectives for me not only into the experience of writing a two-year poem diary but also into a project which underlay Scintilla from the start.
You see, your question reminds me that I had no idea, when I wrote the first poem in what became the poem diary, that I was at the beginning of anything – least of all a diary, since I have never been able to write one in prose. When I have attempted that, the result has never been more than a few days’ exploratory scribbling, with little or no reference to facts or events and soon abandoned. What happened was just a sort of brooding, not any kind of ‘making’. Thinking this over, I realised that the first diary poem was important because it set up a short form which seemed to challenge me as a maker as well as raising, with its opening lines, the question of where ‘home’ may be, for an immigrant like myself or indeed for anyone:
‘If I had lived over there, in another language,
My fingers would find the same warmth under this mane.’
A poem about leaving home by the Polish poet Tadeusz Różewicz, which I had recently heard in English translation, triggered this response. And it was one of fellow-feeling:
Just chance, those of us here, still living,
speaking new languages, lucky, but never at home.
Of course, although a prose diary never worked for me I have quite often written poems I wanted to date because they were what ‘happened’ on that day. I remember Michael Schmidt (my editor for Double Helix) telling me off for this, suggesting it was somehow unprofessional, perhaps not suggestive enough of hard work. Several people have remarked, about these diary poems, that they seem like pages in a journal rather than entries in a diary. But I find myself inclined to be stubborn about the diary designation, Jerry! What I discovered as I wrote – or, better, what the poems discovered – was for me each day’s ‘event’. No poem of mine is deliberate, pre-planned. It develops as I follow for good or ill where the first phrase leads. And that is especially true of these poems. Their shortness (sixteen lines) favours improvisation, even a welcome kind of innocence – ‘I just happened to think this’. As I was thinking that, I happened to hear (on Desert Island Disks) that heart-lifting educationist, Ken Robinson, make the following remark: “being alive is a process of improvisation”! Indeed. And in that context, self-contradiction is no problem either. As Jimmy Burns Singer wrote, “thought is always and only thought: / The thinking’s different: Thinking’s in the blood”.
Coming back to the two poems in Scintilla 16 I am struck (as a reader, now) by how they build on layers of fellow-feeling. No fact or event about either day is certain: the nearest thing to an event may be the reading of John Burnside’s lines, but did I read them on Feb.10? And was it on Feb.10 that I recalled that walk in the Cinque Terre? What is certain, though, is the way Burnside’s lines activated within the poem my own past: made me consider the four lives present on that day long ago and lent a special significance to an arid soil capable of growing vines, whose grapes we could not taste above an undrinkable sea. ‘Something we almost found.’ The second poem, too, explores layers of fellowship – not just fellow-feeling with spring but fellow-feeling between two people bending, separately, to a flower (one perhaps thinking of the other?); of a mother eye to eye with her child ‘trying to see what you see’; and bees bringing seeds to life, one feeling her way thanks merely to the ‘faint scent’ in a wind just warm enough to be flown through ‘though, not far off, the snow is falling’. The bee’s ability to follow ‘a faint scent’ creates an echo, in my mind, of that instinct which must have led Alfred Russel Wallace’s flying frog to discover that its webbed feet could become a means of flight!
It is your choice of the phrase, Jerry, which has helped me see how fellow-feeling informs these poems, and many others in the collection, so that I also see more clearly now why I felt the title Touching Distances to be, finally, the right choice for the collection. In your essay ‘Reflections on the Lyric “I”’ you quote a passage from Czesław Miłosz’s Native Realm. In this he claims that ‘faith in the infinite layers of being that are hidden within an apple, a man or a tree’ is necessary to poetic discipline. I never feel easy about the implications of the word ‘faith’, so I would rather say that experience of such layers – an intuitive certainty of what ‘life is’- was what I at least have most needed in dark times, those times that seem to negate the live impulse of poetry. In this connection I particularly remember a day at boarding-school in Ireland. I had just learned that this planet will be consumed in the death-throes of our sun. Standing among the small kitchen gardens we girls tended I felt a despairing need to know what human life, any form of life on Earth, might mean in such a perspective. Suddenly, I seemed to hear this: ‘One may know what one can’t understand’. The moment proved unforgettable and has since come to mind whenever I have been tempted to doubt those ‘traces and sounds of a strange kind’ described by Vaughan – traces perhaps of the kind Wordsworth remembered in his ‘Lines written a few miles above Tintern Abbey’. I quote the entire title because it suggests the importance of experiences afforded us in a particular place, at a particular time, by ‘this unintelligible world’ – experiences which may be preserved and shared, or at least pointed towards, through language. As animate life evolved from inanimate on this particular planet and eventually gave rise to human consciousness, the present universe might be said to be evolving self-awareness, however imperfect. I notice that when in the diary I refer to poems I am especially fond of (such as Ruth Bidgood’s) I sense them as ‘secretly swayed / by the pull and push of something far off’, as the sea is, but coming to break, like its waves, ‘on familiar shores’ – whatever shores we happen to live on.
Philip remarked on ‘unplanned resonances’ in Scintilla, a ‘quiet and unforced coherence’ which has ‘nothing to do with a house style or party line’. A feeling for the numinous, which may help to enable this, runs deeper than belief, political affiliation or any other culturally-evolved ‘language’. I imagine it was felt by human beings in prehistory. It is to be found in the art of the caves and in that of the Ice Age. In fact I sometimes think that to leave space for such experience, not to argue ourselves out of it, may be harder for modern humanity than it was for our distant ancestors. It was after I talked with a student struggling through dark times, and learned how she was being pressured to reject life-saving perceptions, that I first thought how a journal based on the Vaughans might prove useful to both readers and writers, just as the Vaughan’s works had helped me.
Someone will need this picture of our winter.
Someone in a future time.
These lines of Seán Street’s (in Cello) move me deeply, seeming to apply not only to our own art as it may affect the future but also to how our predecessors’ art, back into prehistory, may affect us. Yes, another fellowship! We need to know about ‘winters’ faced by others but also to sense, perhaps through the evidence provided by art-making itself, that life was and is worth living. I once read about a young poet in a concentration camp who composed and, when he could, wrote down his poems even though, rightly as it turned out, he did not expect either them or himself to survive. Such an impulse surely suggests ‘the tremendous / silent language’ I seem to hear throughout Philip’s evocation, in his extraordinary Deep Field, of ‘what / the fractured continents of language float on’.
Sometimes a sense of fellowship connects us not only to other human beings but to all those lives which, like ours, have their being in whatever it is that is. One day I caught sight of a caterpillar amazingly adapted in form and behaviour to appear like a twig. I started a diary entry with the words ‘He can’t know the world, only be in it.’ But as the poem explored this thought it brought me to the realisation that he could, nevertheless, drop ‘out of sight / of the bird which, in him, deep time imagines’. Paul Matthews’ ‘Life after Life’ evokes a sense of winter and admits to the thought that ‘there must be a kingdom / sweeter than this plot / I happen to be born to’ but ends on these lines:
Life after life you tell me
we are given tongues
to sing our circumstance.
I would like to pass the baton to Christopher Meredith, if he will accept it. In his poem ‘Nothing’, a fire-damaged peat upland ‘opens the lid on nothingness’. Your novels and poems, Chris, are clear eyed about ‘winter’, both those winters no life can avoid and those which we human beings bring on ourselves and on other life. In spite or is it because of that, reading you always leaves me with an inner sense of potential rather than of helplessness – tenacity perhaps such as you saw in the salmon you evoked in ‘On Hay Bridge’: ‘a yard long, dark slate / blotched with sour milk’. Considering the role cultural evolution plays in human life, might you be willing to say how you see the purpose (you saw me coming!) of writing, and especially of writing poems – are there perhaps poems of your own, or by others, which kept you willing to swim on?
(Anne Cluysenaar’s most recent collection Migrations appeared from Cinnamon in autumn 2011. Her poem-diary Touching Distances has been available from the same publisher since spring 2014. Anne was a poetry editor for Scintilla 1-15.)
Editorial note: our very dear Anne lost her life under tragic circumstances November 2014. Her contribution here is therefore additionally precious.