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)
This ‘conversation’ is under re-construction. The next response will follow soon.