After years of working towards getting a collection of poems published, I've finally made it, and I am very pleased with the result, both in terms of the poems I chose for it, and the excellent job the publishers, Oversteps Books, have made of the book. It looks beautiful to my eyes, and I hope it will find readers who will like it too.
So I am pleased with myself, sitting back on my laurels, taking pleasure in having arrived at my destination, revelling in a moment's relaxation. But with just a fraction of my mind, wondering how long I can get away with living in this state, knowing that in some dark mental corner lurks the question--what next?
I don't like using words like 'inspiration' in connection with writing, because in too many minds this word has an almost magical significance, and I don't believe in magic. As the artist Edward Atkinson Hornel said 'The real mood of inspiration comes oftener through work than by waiting'. This quote has often been responsible for getting me back to work.
It's better to write something, even if it falls short of what you wanted, than to sit around waiting for an unspecified magic to produce 'would be' perfect words. There are, of course, those subconscious promptings, which may be what people mean by inspiration, but they don't come without the hard work of thinking about what you are seeing and doing. That is where the words really come from. If you don't do that, the unseen part of your mind doesn't supply the prompts that I could--but won't--call inspiration.
In the same way that I try not to use words like inspiration, I prefer using utilitarian words where possible. Our species frequently likes to imagine itself superior to other forms of life, happy to ignore our rather obvious failings, while casually demoting the significance of other living things, both sentient and insentient. We don't need much encouraging to use words that confer a special status to our existence, so I try not to make things worse. Meanwhile, it's unlikely that the universe notices, or cares about, our tiny specks crawling all over just one small planet in a cast of billions.
My word for life is the functional word 'process'. I see life as a process that continues on its way whether we take an interest in it or not. My idea of being alive is to engage with that process, to interact with it as best I can, rather than to passively accept, without comment, what happens around me. The significance of an art is that it takes the raw material of the world, whether its physical reality, or the imagining of it, and reassembles existence in a personal realisation of its significance, that at its best may have some universal value. I would argue that this is far better than living life 'off the peg', as consumers not creators.
As I suggested at the beginning of this piece, the question 'what next' lurks momentarily unacknowledged in my mind, but in actual fact I am already halfway through a collection provisionally entitled Consciousness. I'm sure I won't be able to say anything especially new about the subject, but I might be able to supply a personal insight into what it feels like to be conscious, and I am willing to try. Failure is a distinct possibility, but it wouldn't be so worth trying if failure wasn't a real risk. What was actually loitering in my thoughts was what do when that is finished, which, at my age, is the nearest I come to optimism.
In Praise of Elitism?
Having read of it in the newspapers, and seen other people's commentaries, I was at first inclined to think that Rebecca Watts was unwise to write her controversial piece for PN Review.
Indeed, I'm inclined to think that there is room for all kinds of approach to poetry, and her piece did seem to me to be telling us something that is not new, and will always be the case in some form or another. Yes, people do often want something that is easy to assimilate, don't always care about craft, depth, or the quality of ideas, and there will always be publishers that are willing to take on less than scintillating work that nevertheless has a popular following, and sells books. But given that poetry is not widely read, or popular, I have always thought it admirable that publishers are willing to publish it, and booksellers to stock it, let alone in the quantities they do. There are always new poetry books on the shelves, and a lot of it is very good indeed. If selling a few popular books keeps this economically viable, then so be it.
But I don't feel like pouring scorn on Rebecca Watts article. Having just sat down and read it, I was impressed by its passion, its seriousness of approach, and the examples she provides to back up her points; above all by its genuineness, and if you like its authenticity. She is right, popularism in all fields is easy to go along with, but rarely contributes much to the debate it appears to want to address, and has a tendency to wallow in the blindingly obvious. We may sometimes need to be reminded of the obvious, but if we want to advance understanding, more effort is required to deal with the complexities of reality, even if the effort puts a lot of people off. Punk rock might have bludgeoned its way into people's consciousnesses, but its urgency and raw passion undoubtedly spoke of an anger and immediacy that cut its way through the dross of much popular music, but did it provide the depths of feeling and imagination of, say, Beethoven, and will it still be something to be reckoned with years hence, I doubt it.
President Trump has plenty of sound and fury, and pitches his populist politics as being an attack on elites, and the draining of alleged swamps, but if you believe he gives a damn about the everyday people of America I think you are badly wrong. I'm not saying that popular poetry of the kind that Ms Watts is anxious about is in any way Trumpian, but you have to ask yourself whether it is really likely to enhance or progress the art of poetry, or anything else for that matter.
In Praise of Irrelevance
Many people, perhaps some poets themselves, consider poetry, what it has to say, and the way it says it, to be irrelevant. Poets are sometimes chided, more often than not from within their own community, for not tackling say, big political issues of the day.
But I think that poetry has its sights on long term relevance. Whereas in the banking community the blind pursuit of short-term profit outweighed everything else, which eventually led to the 2008 financial collapse, huge PPI fines, the Libor rate fixing débâcle and its like, and the subsequent dire (collateral damage) consequences for the wider world, poets look to the long-term, and different values altogether.
When I woke the other morning the first things I heard about were the brutal eviction from a plane of a man who had a valid ticket, but had to be ejected because of the incompetence and greed of the airline, the same airline that spends a large amount of money in advertising trying to convince people that the said airline really cares about them.
Where do I start to express the various items of news about the American president who, for example, appears to be about to ensure American companies who have been hiding large amounts of money from the tax man by keeping it overseas, will be able to repatriate it at a lower than expected rate of tax. This from the man who was supposed to be a champion of the little man against elites.
Uber, the taxi company, were in the news again because yet another of it's executives has resigned, and although she wouldn't give a reason why, it is not hard to suspect that she may be another executive who finds Uber's behaviour so objectionable she can't stomach it any more.
The airline is getting its comeuppance, as is Uber who appear to be in all sorts of trouble, and President Trump has failed so far to do most of the things he said he would do, so he is not proving very successful. That is all well and good, and perhaps reason for some optimism.
But what is really needed is something more than prevention, and punishment of ills when they happen. Which is where poetry comes in. We need alternatives. Poetry has two great strengths to my mind:
1/ It is done for the love of language and the truth that can be expressed using language, without any expectation of personal gain. No greed is involved. Getting rich writing poetry is as near to impossibility as it is possible to get
2/ It can be beautiful, can benefit its readers with a moment of loveliness and worthwhile thought in a frequently ugly and thoughtless world (as described above).
I therefore offer poetry as a revolutionary beacon of beauty and truth in an ugly world, and that, among other things, is desperately needed. It won't change things on its own, of course, but if people stop making things for the reasons I have just given, expressing as far as is possible, higher thoughts and feelings, we will be in even more trouble than we are already.
One of the things that poetry does well is to join up dots in a way that is unexpected. Some poet somewhere might spot the relevance for example, of the apparent irrelevance of Easter Island to Donald Trump's environmental policies. Although there were various reasons for the demise of the civilization that created the huge stone images on the island, a significant factor was the deforestation (much of it due to the resources used to erect the stone images) that made it impossible to sustain previous population levels. If one squinted slightly, I wonder whether one of the overblown stone faces might bear a resemblance to President Trump. I couldn't say, but perhaps there is a poem in it.
Then there is the humble bee, with industrious habits you would have thought might appeal to the president. I can't say precisely what effect his environmental policies will have on bees, but the current problems these hard-working insects face is well known, and their decline may be a result of man's environmental mismanagement, so it would seem to be a good time to invest more in environmental matters, not less. Not to mention climate-change of course. However, I am sure the president may feel he has so many more pressing matters, that bees are irrelevant, what possible relevance can the efficient pollination of crops have anyway.
Then there is education, there are many people advocating strict relevance in that field, relevance that is to producing graduates who might say, be useful to the needs of the economy. Perhaps some of them might even be bankers. Goodness knows, we need them to continue the good work the last lot started. It would of course be relevant to produce graduates with a working knowledge of the Chinese language, to help promote our trade with the Chinese in the post-brexit world, but entirely irrelevant to produce people well-versed in ancient Chinese thought. What earthly use would it be to have people versed in Chuang Tzu's response to Hui Tzu's alleged comment that “Your teachings are of no practical use”, to which it is said Chuang Tzu responded “Only those who already know the value of the useless can be talked to about the useful. This earth we walk upon is of vast extent, yet in order to walk a man uses no more of it than the soles of his two feet will cover. But suppose one cut away the ground around his feet till one reached the Yellow Springs,1 would his patches of ground still be of any use to him for walking? Hui Tzu said, “They would be of no use.” Chuang Tzu said, “So then the usefulness of the useless is evident.”
Think about it if you are listening Donald old chap, and anyone else that thinks they know what is relevant and what is not.
1. Yellow Springs = The world of the dead.
A Poetic Walk
At the weekend our walk was not in our usual Chiltern Hills, but nearer to hand, in the countryside around Boars Hill, with its splendid views of Oxford, augmented at the moment by the tall cranes associated with the building of the new Westgate shopping centre. We hadn't done this walk for some while, and it has never been a regular route for us, but it is pleasant enough. I had completely forgotten its poetic associations.
Once the bulk of the walk had been completed we wandered around the privileged environs of Boars Hill itself, impressed by the large houses, extensive leafy gardens, and atmosphere that I can only describe as of absent-minded opulence. Eventually we came to the entrance of The Elizabeth Daryush memorial Garden, and went in. When we stopped at this garden on an earlier walk, the name Daryush had caused a distant echo in my mind, but was not instantly familiar to me. I tracked my slight recognition down to a sonnet in Don Paterson's book 101 Sonnets, published by Faber. There I found this lovely poem:
Through the open french window the warm sun
lights up the polished breakfast-table, laid
round a bowl of crimson roses, for one -
a service of Worcester porcelain, arrayed
near it a melon, peaches, figs, small hot
rolls in a napkin, fairy rack of toast,
butter in ice, high silver coffee pot,
and, heaped on a salver, the mornings post.
She comes over the lawn, the young heiress,
from her early walk in her garden-wood
feeling that life's a table set to bless
her delicate desires with all that's good,
that even the unopened future lies
like a love-letter, full of sweet surprise.
How perfectly this poem fits Boars Hill, even now. Paterson in his notes says “It's hard to know exactly where the poet stands on all this, but we can perhaps sense her disapproval in the pampered insularity of the scene. I hope.” The house Daryush lived in is next door to the memorial garden, hidden by trees, but from what you can see it looks as large and luxurious as all the other Boars Hill houses. I found myself wondering what her breakfast table looked like? Was she describing it in the poem?
We sat by the pond in the memorial garden soaking up what felt like the warmest sun of the year so far, and listening to expensive Boars Hill birdsong.
Moving on we passed through what is known as Matthew Arnold's field. It was his poem Thyrsis that contained the famous lines about Oxford "And that sweet city with her dreaming spires,/ She needs not June for beauty's heightening". I mischievously wondered whether the lines would have been different had the shopping centre cranes been there in his day.
I enjoyed our mooch around the sumptuous acres of Boars Hill, wondering what it would be like to live in such extravagent houses, but felt that my wife and I would be a little lost in such outsize accommodation, and although I'm not by nature a very gregarious person, I do like having other people close by. Boars Hill folk have such large gardens that the neighbours necessarily live at some distance from them, for the most part out of sight and hearing. I don't envy them their homes and surroundings. It would be too isolated for me, nice to wander around on a visit from a less exalted Oxfordshire village, but to adapt Don Paterson's thought on Elizabeth Daryush's poem I couldn't help feeling a little disapproval at the pampered insularity, and perhaps a bit sorry for them being so separate from everyone else.
A Writer's Engine
I have wanted to write about the relationship between depression and creativity for a long while. Although I have a neatly assembled story about the sequence of circumstances that set me off on a lifetime of writing poetry, I'm aware of how the mind likes to make a narrative out of disparate material, and although it would make a good metaphor, it might not be literally true, who knows. I feel more certain of the link between depression and my writing.
I've always had ways of dealing with depression. It feels as if they were built into me. In the first instance I was unaware of them, or indeed that I was suffering from depression. I suppose I thought that everyone must have, and need, similar coping mechanisms in their lives, that it was a commonplace. I slowly came to realise that might not be so.
Once I became aware that I suffered from depression, and that I had ways with which to deal with it, I started to think consciously about what I was doing, in order to define and refine them. Mostly I do without anti-depressants. Just occasionally it gets the better of me and I have to visit the doctor for chemical help. It was during one of these visits, when my own GP was unavailable, and I had to see a different doctor, that I told her of my usually reliable method of coping, and she explained that it was, in essence, a known technique called cognitive therapy. It seemed I had invented something that already existed.
My way of dealing with things starts with being aware that I am depressed. Depression is by its nature a very subjective state so I try to bypass feelings of worthlessness, and that life is pointless, by telling myself that it has happened before, that I know what it is, that its message was not true then, and won't be true now
Knowing this I try to stand outside of myself, and look at things from a broader perspective to get an objective view. For me at least it is no more complicated than that.
Then I try to think of depression as a separate person who has somehow managed to become entangled with me, but is not me. It can be a tussle sometimes, but it is surprising how effective this approach can be. Oddly I have never read the booklet the doctor gave me. This is typically stubborn. I just prefer finding things out for myself, and making my own individual way. I have been told I am an awkward person, which is probably true.
The thing that has taken me beyond merely dealing with depression as a problem, and has given life meaning that it did not have before, is poetry. My way of thinking about how poetry works for me is to consider it as a form of mental judo. Of taking my opponents weight and strength and using it against them. The opponent being that separate person I had identified depression as.
People who are struggling with a bout of depression will probably not find this a helpful observation, and I can understand that. Depression is a dead weight, and very hard to get a purchase on, but by describing it as separate from you it removes it from that close proximity where you thought it was you.
The following metaphor works for me, but I'm not sure it will mean much for someone who hasn't experienced depression (are there such people?) or who are currently in the grip of it, but there is in judo something called a sacrifice throw, which is a throw where someone allows themselves to fall in order to topple their opponent. What this means to me is that you have to be agile, think according to the circumstances, and be open to unusual approaches to the problem. Sometimes a certain amount of improvisation is required. Not easy, I agree, when you are suffering, but if you are able to stand clear of yourself, and see depression as separate from you, that makes it a lot easier.
This won't work for everyone, I'm sure, but it does for me. Most of the time.
The other thing that I find helps is doing things with your life, to too many people life is something that happens to them rather than something they take an active part in. Poetry to me has been an engine that drives me to use the negative feeling of depression to a positive end. It has also been something (especially when I am published) that provides a sense of achievement, something I can fall back on when depression starts to make life difficult.
The Success of Failure
For a while now I have been revisiting poems I had abandoned years ago because they weren't successful, and I hadn't been able to get them right. I have been surprised, by my standards at least, how good many of them are, and it hasn't been difficult to put them right where needed, to give them new life. To the extent that some of them have been accepted by good magazines. In fact, one of them is due out in next month's issue of Acumen.
This has made me wonder why I had abandoned them in the first place, and has reminded me what a subjective business writing and evaluating what you have written is. When you are in the heat of it it is not always easy to see what is of value. I suppose also, that the passing of time makes it easier to spot what was needed to put them right, and hopefully one's skills in identifying what works and what doesn't, improve as you continue to write.
The thing about this process of revisiting and revising is that I am now horrified by the thought that I might never have gone back to earlier poems to do it, and a lot of poems, and the effort that went into creating them in the first place, would have been wasted. Whatever else, I'm sure that at the end of this project, and there are hundreds of poems to look through, my poetic output will have increased, and I like to think that its overall quality will have gained significantly.
So, the point of this is, never destroy past failures until you are absolutely certain that they are beyond redemption. It may be that what you were struggling to say then is now much easier to accomplish. It may also be that some of the imagery that you had been unable to master was in fact powerful, and of a level of originality that you did not know what to do with straight off. It wasn't possible to understand precisely what you were saying, and how best to say it. That didn't mean it was a mistake, or not worth saying. I think that is true of some of the poems I have revised.
Perhaps there is no such thing as failure, and failures are only staging posts to a success that is not immediately obvious.
Boris and Michael's Good Big Idea
Nothing to do with poetry this. I try hard not to be fanciful, or self-deluded, or indulge in wishful thinking, but sometimes things just get the better of you don't they?
For some reason, ever since staying awake all last night to listen to the results of the referendum come in (I fell asleep in the bath this afternoon), I have been having a recurring thought that there is some lost and lonely individual out there who has woken to the light of day today, and found it relentless and unforgiving, and they have ever since been thinking over and over to themselves “Why did I believe that Boris and Michael could have a good idea between them? Why did I do it? I must have been mad, what came over me? What have I done?"
Some Flaws in the Godly Argument
Most of my blog has had some connection with writing, and particularly poetry. What follows is from the sceptic side of my nature.
I cannot think of anything, other than religion, for which such astonishing claims are made without evidence of their veracity. The religious are often easily offended, what offends me about religion is its lack of sense.
In this piece I want to concentrate on two aspects of god that seem to me to get insufficient critical attention. Firstly the nature of a supposed god, in particular an aspect of god that, if he existed, he would share with us lower life-forms. It seems to me that the thing we ordinary mortals, and a god, have in common, is that neither of us are able to help being who we are. Just as we cannot help not having the kind of powers that a god would take for granted, a god must be unable to help being a god, replete with those powers.
At first sight this probably wouldn't seem all that important to believers, but in a real sense it does cut the idea of god down to size. There is something he has no more power over than we do, and, I would suggest, deserves no credit for.
God deserves no credit for being god, unless that is he worked his way up from being the powerless humble equivalent of a shelf-stacker in the great supermarket of heaven, to being the CEO of Heaven Corp. I find that a notion it's difficult to entertain, and I have never heard of anybody who has suggested such a thing. And yet, this god supposedly rules over us, ready to punish us for human frailties that are something he has never had to bother himself with. Doesn't seem quite right does it? Humans often admire people who have achieved something by sheer effort, but to have greater power merely by virtue of who you are by chance, seems less admirable.
The other thing that has been bothering me more and more, and never seems to be questioned sufficiently, is the idea that this all-powerful, all-loving, super-being, chose to sacrifice his own son to in order to save the human race. Why on earth would a divine entity use such a crude, and cruel means to communicate with people? Why would it be necessary, given supreme powers? Admittedly he had old-testament form in this matter, in the shape of Abraham and Isaac, but in that case he relented, and didn't see things through to their grisly conclusion, but aren't we supposed to see the new testament god as a kinder, gentler being? Why isn't this universally recognised for the unpleasant nonsense that it is?
When they get to the stage of sending work off to magazines, a substantial, but outwardly invisible part of a poet's life, is waiting for the moment of acceptance or rejection. It's a tension unseen by friends and family (but experienced perhaps via the mood of the poet), that follows them around all day every day for as long as it takes.
The afflicted poet can develop an obsessional interest in the arrival of the postman, or the checking of their email inbox.
It's worse for poets just starting off on this uncertain journey. The mix of hope and despair is a potent one, enhanced by the time it takes to get a reply, which, depending on the journal, can be considerable. It helps if they have a submission window, and publication dates, but it can still be a lengthy interval.
If you already have publications under your belt, you can to some extent rest on your laurels, knowing that you have, at least, achieved publication in the past. But it can be addictive, this desire to see yourself in print, proof that an editor has deemed your work of sufficient value to chose it for their magazine. You want more of it. Waiting gets easier, but never quite loses that sharp edge, the pang of an unfulfilled desire.
I am a great believer in computers. They have made the life of any kind of writer a great deal easier, especially perhaps the poet, who can more easily see their work laid out on the page in order to determine its optimal form. And when it comes to making a new print, your original conception is waiting there to reappear effortlessly, just as you originally intended it. Furthermore, it positively encourages you to make changes you might have hesitated to make if you had already spent time typing out a first final draft, and didn't fancy having to repeat the process all over again.
The arrival of the internet has made it easier to research which magazines you might want to send your work to, and provides editors with a means of telling poets what is expected of them, and how to contact them to best advantage.
However, as far as waiting is concerned, technology has done little to improve things. True, email has provided a means of getting the eventual response to you, be it favourable or otherwise, as quickly as possible, but in reality it is only a small difference.
The latest technological advance is the internet portal known as Submittable. This provides a website that enables poets to send their work to magazines and competitions that subscribe to it. It has advantages, and once you get used to it, can make the process easier. It does nothing whatsoever to mitigate the pain of waiting. In fact, if anything, it makes it worse, adding a new twist to the exquisite pain. To your close examination of the postman, and the checking of your email inbox, you can now add the ability to check your Submittable account, and in my experience the temptation is as irresistible as it is futile.
Once you become a poet who submits their work for publication the need to endure a testing wait for the verdict on your work, becomes unavoidable. If you haven't experienced it yet, but are about to, welcome to the ranks. And remember, as Milton didn't quite put it – they also serve who only sit and wait.
There has been a lot of fuss recently about the national anthem. About certain people's patriotism, or supposed lack of it. Those who espouse the flying of flags, the singing of anthems, and patriotism, invest these things with such importance you would think that there is only one way of belonging in the country.
Quite apart from an indisputable lack of a singing voice, and sufficient responsibility towards my fellow citizens not to want to inflict my singing upon them, I don't, and will never, sing the national anthem. It represents too many things I dislike.
Is it only me who finds the frequent reference by some Americans to America being the greatest country on earth, irksome. It recalls the kind of arrogance that had G. W. Bush saying that we were either for America or against it over Iraq, and that other less than successful war, in Afghanistan. As if there were only one view to be had of the need for those armed interventions, America's, or more precisely, that of G. W Bush and his cronies. Thus it is with the flag wavers and the Anthem singers.
My first personal objection to the national anthem is that people from all over the world feel a special bond with the place they live. I feel I belong in the country I live in, and perhaps even more so in the town I live near. But I don't want to eulogise country or town. That to me would be making an unnecessary claim for them being exceptional. I can't help feeling that those Americans who make such a din over the alleged wonders of their country sound as if they are trying too hard.
The second objection I have is to the royal family. While I have no personal animosity towards them, I think of them as the rather lack-lustre descendants of a bunch of warlords. We seem, as a country, to admire people who get ahead on their merits, but want the nation to have as a figurehead someone who has the job by accident of birth. What kind of qualification is it in the twenty first century to have tenure of a high profile job because of an accident of birth. This seems at odds to what we might be expected to admire, and they really are dull and unexceptional. Through no fault of their own, I'm sure, that is what the job they have had the misfortune to be born into, demands of them.
Finally, there is the matter of religion. Not only do I feel no no urgent desire to “save the queen” I feel no need to ask a being whose existence seems to me, on the available evidence, to be mythical, to save her either. The thought of Charles acceding to the throne with, by then, a whole hive of crazed bees in his bonnet, is not appealing either.
It has been suggested to me that the royal family represent the grand sweep of English history. But despite the parlous state of our democracy, I think we are better off voting for our leaders, than having them foisted upon us. History is not only something we look back at, but something we must make. So let us deserve the British reputation for being understated, and not irritate other nations with claims of being exceptional. Perhaps, one day, the world will be sufficiently united we can appreciate the places our fellow human beings live in, without having to make overblown claims for our own, as anthems by their nature do.