My wife has got me watching a comedy series on the BBC iplayer about metal detectorists. I regard this as a splendid find, despite its unlikely subject matter. It's a gentle comedy, and on a first glance you might feel inclined to switch it off, and forget it.
I would encourage you to stay with it, because despite this unprepossessing subject it is a gem worthy of Samuel Beckett. In fact, he is the writer who comes immediately to my mind. The situation our metal detectorist heroes are in was ably summed up by one of the characters, who, musing on a glitch in the smooth running of their pointless existences, said (and I may be paraphrasing slightly here) “We were quite happy finding rubbish, and talking bollocks.”
A self-awareness one can applaud, because what else are we doing caught in the inscrutable stare of the great puzzle of existence? As I might have said before, given that there is nothing on the planet that has a meaning other than the one we have given it, and that the evidence for a super-being who might have meaning tucked up his all-powerful sleeve is, to say the least, non-existent, a meaning of life is the last thing we are ever likely to find.
The detectorists have a sort open day in one episode. They have a variety of artefacts on display, one being a table full of ring-pulls. Needless to say this is a stunningly unsuccessful event about which even the emptiness of the hall looks a bit embarrassed.
But heroically they refuse to give in. There they are the next day, waving their detectors over ground that is unlikely to oblige with a coin-hoard of staggering proportions or beautiful object lost sometime in antiquity. There will, of course, be ring-pulls. Even better ones perhaps, for their next open day. There is the allure that one day they will find something that brings them fame and fortune, and in between there are the usual complications of love and betrayal, and life going about it's daily business in a sometimes interestingly absurd way.
I don't expect detectorists spend all that much time thinking about fame and fortune, certainly poets don't, it's hard enough just keeping things rolling forward in a more or less convincing way. The odd publication here or there, an occasional reading, and a sense that you are doing something that rises, albeit in meagre fashion, above the dead weight of existence.
These days I think of life as a process, something you can ignore, but to be really alive you must participate in, and in some way direct. I think of poetry as a way of expressing the process, taking the world apart and reassembling it so that it says something you hope means something, and hopefully leaves people with the feeling they have shared the experience with you. It certainly demands effort and awareness, and it might even entail a certain amount of progress, and, of course, the occasional ring pull. I expect this is the delusion of hope, but it's enough isn't it.
I understand the old people that went before me who, when they bought a new jacket, or a pair of shoes, would often say “This should see me out”. The same thought occurs to me now, although I manage not to say it out loud.
I don't wish this to sound mournful, I don't think of it that way, it's just that a poet should not dodge unpleasant facts of life. Everything must be included, nothing left out. It gets harder to dodge these things as you get older anyway. Friends you have known most of your life start to disappear.
I think of three relatively recently, who all knew they were about to die, but in their own different ways faced it resolutely, with grace and courage, and without any last minute belief in a life ever after . They did not expect to be caught as Rilke put it, by “One whose gently-holding hands this universal falling can't fall through.”
I only hope I can face it as well as they did. It's a moment in our lives we can't avoid, and as Larkin said “Death is no different whined at than withstood” but he was carefully not recommending one course over the other, perhaps hedging his bets, unsure as to which camp he might end up in.
It is a severe test of whatever it is in our private minds represents civilization to us. But civilization, whatever depth it might aspire to, only sits on top of a world beyond its ministrations, and can never eradicate the arbitrary force beneath it.
We invent gods and call them merciful, but there is little mercy in reality, unless, like the religious, you chose to accept good things as emanating from god, but call bad things something else, as Rowan Williams did when asked about Stephen Fry's recent remarks about the deaths of children. Williams called it “mysterious”. It is sad to hear an intelligent, decent man and poet, reduced to uttering such tosh.
So, from my point of view at least, the vast world that exists just beyond our minimal civilization, has no concern for rules or morals, and when push comes to shove as it often does in our affairs, we are at the mercy of circumstances that don't care.
On the face of it this is not ideal. We will die and be no more, and our living is potentially at risk from circumstances we have no control over. What's good about that? The answer of course is not much. Although, if we had a more certain existence would life feel as precious as it does? If we had all the time we could ever need, would we feel as pressed to do something with it? If there was endless something, and no nothing, would the something we have be quite as extraordinary, or would we get too used to it? Perhaps there would be no light and shade without the nihilism of life beyond civilization.
All we can do is the best we possibly can, and be engaged as we can with being alive, and expressing it. As Mary Oliver put it in the last line of her poem When Death Comes “I don't want to end up simply having visited this world.”
Now the election is mercifully over, I thought I might venture an apolitical political observation. I suppose it comes from a feeling, and surely I can't be the only person who thinks this, that the present batch of politicians (batch: an appropriate word, it feels as if they were made in the same mass-produced process), are distinctly colourless.
It was agony watching them all trying not to make a mistake wasn't it? And the newspapers waiting to guillotine the first of them to make even the slightest foray beyond some pre-ordained (by whom one wonders) notion of what is acceptable if they want to be elected.
Actually, perhaps Farrage, beyond his jumble sale of nasty, threadbare tat, may have something the others might do well to take notice of. He is, whatever you think of his politics, recognisably human, replete with faults and idiosyncrasies. He has, and perhaps he would not appreciate this, a little colour. It may even be that people were not voting for his party because of it's policies, but because, no matter how lamentable, it has a personality. Boris Johnson's appeal is much the same. It doesn't mean that either of them will ever become prime-minister, but at least they are not an unrelentingly drab bunch of jobs worth's.
OK, OK, I will get on and make my point, as trailed in the heading of this piece. The point is, that the use these politicians make of words is as ill-judged as their concern to be that impossible being, the person who is all things to everyone. Someone, presumably an individual who has been delegated to take notes at focus groups, has told them certain key-phrases they should use that will ingratiate them with that non-existent entity, the electorate. Hence the risible over reliance on the phrase “hard working people.” This is what I mean by words matter, use them sparingly.” The more you say it the less sincere it sounds. I suppose it would be pointless to suggest to them that there might not be any point in their efforts to be considered acceptable, that the so-called electorate might actually give them marks for saying something they didn't want to hear, on the basis that they were at least being honest.
Now we have the desperate spectacle of the Labour Party electing a new leader. The word that matters in this arena, in case you haven't already noticed, is “aspirational” it looks to be the one word they will all try to get into every speech as often as they can. I wonder if it will make them any more believable? Perhaps the needless repetition will actually make them sound just a bit boring. Perhaps someone should point out to them that aspiration rhymes with desperation.
There is an adage used in the poetry world that says “show not tell” perhaps that would be a more useful bit of advice to proffer them. But I doubt they would believe a poet would have anything worthwhile to say to them, or could even be considered part of the mythical electorate. Far too untypical, or are they?
I went to a talk given by the philosopher Julian Baggini the other day, on the subject of free will. I like to think I went of my own accord.
At the start of his talk he referenced a well known piece of research in which the subjects were wired up to an apparatus that recorded brain activity. They were then asked to press a button at any time they liked. The apparatus always detected when they were about to press the button, seconds before they became consciously aware of their intention.
This, it seems, has led some people to believe that the conscious mind is controlled by our subconscious. Baggini, if I understood him correctly, thought not, and so do I.
It is easy for someone to imagine that they understand their actions and impulses, when in fact they don't, and as Baggini demonstrated, humans are prone to imagining things without good reason. But I like to think that as a poet I have a good relationship with the submerged part of my mind. I like to think I can make it work for me.
After the talk I had an interesting conversation with the person sitting next to me. During the conversation I remembered the reason why I am convinced that our subconscious, whatever else it might do, works for our conscious mind.
Years ago, during my working life, I had to create a database. I had never done so before, and it was at a time when there were relatively few other people with experience I could turn to for advice, so I worked away at it by reading help files, and a lot of trial and error.
Usually, by the end of the day, I had come across something that stumped me, and for which the help files seemed enigmatic. At that point I usually gave up and did something else for the rest of the day. The strange thing was, when I went home and took the dog for a walk, thinking of nothing else but keeping an eye on the dog, and enjoying my natural surroundings, often the answer to my problem suddenly appeared in my thoughts, fully solved.
A lot of people I have spoken to seem somewhat doubtful as to the existence of the subconscious mind. But from where else did the answer to my problem come. I was certainly unaware of thinking about it consciously, so it can only have come from the subconscious, given that I long ago stopped believing in divine entities working on our behalf.
The other point about this is that my subconscious must have been working away on behalf of my conscious mind, as the problem was part of my conscious experience of every day life.
The question that comes to mind is can artists, poets, and other people engaged in matters that require a certain amount of original thought, have an extra degree of control over their hidden mind. I believe they can and do. Like it did in the previous example, intractable problems that have resisted my conscious effort, often appear magically from the somewhere else of my thinking process.
I have come to think that I am able to help invoke this process, but of course, I cannot easily prove this. To this end, when I need a bit of help I make a plain, clear statement to myself of what my problem is, then cease to think any more about it, because it seems to me the conscious mind can only get in the way of the mysterious work of the subconscious.
I would like to understand how this is true, but for the moment accept that it works for me, and leave it at that. Perhaps one day it will occur to me subconsciously, who knows?
A happy new year to everyone who is, or more likely, is not, reading my blog. The following may seem as if it has no relation to poetry, perhaps it hasn't, but it is there behind much of what I write.
Note: I am sure all that follows has been expressed better by numerous people who have better minds than mine, but for what, it's worth, this is my take on things. This could apply to anything I have ever written.
When, many years ago, I decided that there was no good reason to believe in the existence of a god, I started to look for an alternative source for a set of rules by which to live my life. I am not any kind of mathematician. I am indeed profoundly bad at the subject, but it felt as if I was seeking some kind of zero, an absolute starting point that I fondly imagined would provide a state of equilibrium. I stupidly thought that this something could be used as the foundation for a new set of rules. No such thing exists, of course.
As Jean Paul Sartre mentions in his essay Existentialism is Humanism “existence comes before essence – or, if you will, that we must begin from the subjective.” Having determined, to my satisfaction at least, that there was no absolute on which to found a new (but not necessarily absolutely different) set of rules, I set myself to thinking about human nature and what there was in it that might be a source of order in a world that is in a continuous state of flux.
The origin of rules, by the way, seems to me to be at least as important as the rules themselves, as origin provides the basis of their meaning, meaning being something we give to things, not something intrinsic to them. There is no meaning of life, only the meaning we arbitrarily give to it. A god's meaning would be just as arbitrary as ours. The one thing a supposed god would share with humans, if he existed, is that he had could no more help being a god than humans can help being human. Being god is not therefore something a god would especially deserve, just something they unavoidably are.
I envy those philosophers who seem able to dissect things with such clear-eyed precision. It seemed to me that a rough and ready rule was needed to deal with the subjective situation. I came to the same starting point that has occurred to many other people over a long time, that rules should be in the interest of the greatest good of the largest number of people possible. This idea is close relation to the meaning of what is known as the golden rule. Although Christians like to associate the rule with their religion, it has been in existence for much longer, and something like it has been a cornerstone of a number of religions and philosophies. It appears in Hinduism, Judaism, Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, and Confucianism, and was around for thousands of years before it appeared in the bible.
Despite having come to the same conclusion as everyone else, I have never been able to embrace the idea without acknowledging that life in the the original raw was naturally nihilistic. Kill or be killed. I can't help but think that the golden rule came into its own as the evolution of the species brought humans to the point where they came to the conclusion that cooperation was better for the individual than unfettered competition (capitalists please note). You might call it enlightened self-interest, whatever you like, but at the same time I will never be able to entirely put to one side nature's viciousness, neither it seems to me can humanity, no matter how superior it imagines itself to be.
The reason I like to keep nature's viciousness in mind is that it seems to me to be both true, and a better means of concentrating the mind on behaving well, than any injunction handed down by a god we cannot see, and have no real evidence for. Although Christianity wraps the golden rule idea up in a panoply of ritual it means no more or less than that original human insight, and religion has, with its theology of excuses for contradictions in the mind of god, the effect of making observance of the rule less obvious and meaningful. They do, of course, make the whole business more romantic, but perhaps we can do with less romanticism, and a bit more clear-cut urgency if we are to survive as a species. There must be no excuse to do harm to other people on the basis that they are heretics.
It seems to me that to write poetry you have to have an opinion about the things you perceive. You have to have a strong opinion, which is something people don't always like. But it is not necessary that your opinions are correct. However, what you write has to have an intellectual or emotional force, so that it appears at least, to be true to you. These opinions don't have to be right or wrong, but affirmative of their subject and the poems apparent meaning. It is better if things are true, but you are never going to convince everyone.
Without either intellectual or emotional force, preferably both, there is minimal hope of convincing a reader of what you say. In fact, you have to be opinionated, a word that is much used these days as a term of disapproval, or, more often than not by someone who doesn't agree with what someone else says but has no better answer than to call them opinionated. Its a sign of failure to call people opinionated.
My religious education teacher at school called me opinionated because I wouldn't agree with her opinion about religion, but she would not have considered that the religion she espoused, which was then enforced in the curriculum by the 1944 education act, was acting in an opinionated way by forcing their opinion on everyone else (completely without the benefit of evidence), whether or not they agreed to this indoctrination. I was quite happy to be called opinionated in this circumstance.
The other word people use in a disapproving sense is judgemental, which according to the Oxford Concise means 1 of or concerning the use of judgement. 2 having an excessively critical point of view. Neither of these statements seem particularly objectionable to me, as to the second of them, there more often than not seems to be a lack of critical thinking rather than an excess of it. I think I would like to add judgemental to the attributes required when writing poetry. Without making a judgement, or having an opinion of some kind, poetry would seem pretty insipid to me.
Once again I am sitting at my desk working. Trying to resurrect a promising poem I wrote years ago but was never able to complete satisfactorily. The first job was to rediscover exactly what it was I was trying to say; and now, after the passage of many years, it seems obvious that I was trying to say something I don't believe. Probably that was not clear to me at the time.
The poem has a lot of the intangible about it, what some might call a spiritual dimension, although that is a word I don't have much confidence in, as it seems to me a rag-bag word into which all kinds of notions are dumped, many of them permanently indistinct or barely formed. I am inclined to think the word is used most when humanity is taking itself too seriously. The best and most believable description I have ever come across is in John Burnside's poem Appleseed in his 2005 collection The Good Neighbour. In it he refers to “the wider rootedness that, as a kind of shorthand, we will sometimes call the soul and sometimes spirit...” So perhaps my poem is about an apprehension of that wider rootedness.
It was not too difficult to change the direction of the poem. Most of what I had written can be reused but nudged in a different direction. I am almost convinced that I have found a new life for it that I can believe in, and it's now down to small edits, but I have been struggling with it for almost a week.
A friend who is an excellent poet, although relatively new to the art, was complaining the other day that it seemed to keep getting harder to write. Everyone turned to look at her with a “didn't you know that” look on their faces, because they all took that for granted. There doesn't seem to be any point at which the things you learn in the process of writing and receiving criticism of your work, make the task easier. Some poems are easier to complete than others, but each poem is its own unique struggle with meaning and the means of expressing it. In the case of the poem I have been working on it has taken a matter of years to complete.
The one comfort I now allow myself is to ignore that feeling that I will never write another poem, that I am written out, that there is no more where that came from. Experience has shown that is not the case. Although, you never know for certain do you? Perhaps. No, I wont allow myself to go down that route again.
Musing, just musing. You can make what you want of it.
As a child I had a crystal set, it was broken, and never worked. All the same I had been told how it would have worked had it not been damaged, and was fascinated by it. For younger people, who may not have heard of crystal sets, it was a simple receiver popular in the early days of radio. The thing that intrigued me about it was that it needed no batteries or mains connection, the only power necessary was received from radio waves via a long wire antenna. The radios requirement for us to use our imaginations still appeals to me more than television does.
I loved the idea that this form of radio was so economical, it appeared to work off next to nothing as far as the user was concerned. You are probably wondering where poetry fits into this. Well, one of the things that first appealed to me about poetry was that it too was an economical means of self-expression. Unlike say painting, you did not need expensive paints, canvas, and other hardware in order to be able practise this art. In its minimal form it was only necessary to have a brain, imagination, and some feeling for words. Pencil and paper were the only physical requirements if you wanted to record the poem. If you had a good memory (I haven't) it didn't even need these accoutrements.
This economical aspect of poetry appealed to me because we were a working class family and not well-off, so pastimes that didn't need expensive paraphernalia were a good idea. Later still I gained a perception that poetry (as with other arts) was in some way not quite respectable. It's participants often had a reputation for looking at things differently, sometimes very differently. They upset apple-carts, spoke up for unpopular notions, poked fun at things. Sometimes these pursuits were indulged in rather gleefully, and, being young, that appealed to me enormously.
Later still I came to understand that these aspects of the arts were not essential to the production of good art, but what remained with me, and still does, is the notion that poetry was an art that could operate with the bare minimum of physical resources, and be a spur to new ways of thinking. Most poetry magazines say they want to provide a platform for new as well as established poets, and from my experience I think they mostly do a good job of this, while at the same time maintaining high standards. How the magazines manage to stay afloat during dire economic times is a miracle as far as I can tell. In fact, how they manage to do it at all is a wonder, but they do, and I and a good many poets who have been published in their pages, notwithstanding the inevitable rejections, are I hope truly grateful.
I am edging towards my vague thoughts on the Poetry Society. First, let me say that I think poetry needs all the advocacy it can get, so I am in no particular mood to suggest disbandment, and a look at their website suggests it's thriving and an active advocate. But the part of me that came to poetry partly because I thought it could operate with the minimum of financial or material underpinning, and was a haven for the expression of controversial or unpopular ideas, and fresh way of seeing―in fact, anti-establishment―worries that a poetry society can easily become the establishment. This was not helped by the little controversy that hit the headlines a while back, and was probably misreported, but I for one never quite managed to make proper sense of.
Membership is certainly not inexpensive, and purchasing its magazine is not an investment many people will be able to consider without serious thought. I look into the pages of Poetry Review from time to time in my local bookshop, and saw once that it too says it aims to publish well known poets alongside lesser known ones, but seriously wonder whether it does this as well as many of the small magazines do, there are not lots of names that you don't yet recognise. I don't want to be unfair to people who are undoubtedly working hard for the good of the cause, but still have this creeping feeling that in this corporate age poetry should be decidedly un-corporate. Even a bit ramshackle. That having a poetry society at all might be a mistake. Or at least something less swish, and more affordable, and whose magazine has less of an air of the establishment about it. Just a thought.
Why I Write (2)
In my last posting I examined the subject of why I write, but left something crucial out. It seemed to me it deserved to be a separate item because although essential it is harder to fit in alongside external influences.
In addition to those things external to my poets mind, I think there are internal forces at work that determined my course towards a poetic life. Many of them probably so integral a part of my personalty they are effectively invisible to me.
Notwithstanding the difficulty of ascribing particular peculiarities of mind, and traits of character or thinking, as influences, in my own case there is one thing that I feel justified in giving a separate place in my description of what made me write poetry―I am a depression sufferer.
I now realise this as a lifelong affliction, but I seem always to have had effective coping mechanisms. After a while I recognised that these bouts were artificial to my usual way of looking at things (though I do tend to the gloomy). When they happened I told myself that this was something that would go away, and any feelings associated with it should be treated with caution. I cultivated a way of looking at it as if it was a separate person and not part of me. At this stage I must add, as I did in my previous post, that it is not easy to be sure about these things, we provide ourselves with narratives that make sense of what we are experiencing, but cannot so easily be sure they are the plain truth.
It seems to me that I have always understood the necessity of using the dead weight of depression rather than just letting it sit on me. I think of this as mental judo. As mentioned, I try to think of depression as a person separate from my own identity. The aim of mental judo is to use the weight of this other person against them. In effect to turn it into the energy that writes a poem. How to explain that? I'm not sure I can, mental judo is the only way I have found to describe it, and at times it can be impossible to achieve. At such times I have other methods (for example viewing myself, and my daily progress as if I were seeing myself from another persons standpoint, and assessing how I feel about myself from an objective rather than a subjective point of view), but there is nothing better than turning negative feelings into something that gives you hope, and belief in your own coherence and viability, like a poem.
I remember reading George Orwell's essay Why I Write and wondering how many people discovered that his reasons were very like their own.
For me though, surprisingly for someone who became a convinced atheist early in life, it began with the bible. In hindsight it was the layout of the words on the page that made me think this was a different use for words. Impossible to tell exactly when my early curiosity turned to disbelief.
The next occasion the shape of words on the page affected me it was poetry. At school, a poetry book (probably Palgrave's) was to be given as a prize to the person who was best at reciting a poem. I'm not sure now whether we had freedom of choice, but Browning's Home Thoughts From Abroad is associated in my mind with this event. I was hopeless at reciting poetry, clueless, but I really wanted that book. The prize eluded me.
I can't remember poetry featuring in my thoughts again until I was in my teens, and I don't know where it came from then. I was not a happy child, but unsocial, and rather serious. My school career, if you can call it that, was not successful. I remember being bored by school most of the time, and generally, with a few notable exceptions, I disliked teachers. A stubborn streak in me refused to engage with lessons, but I did a lot of reading on my own behalf, and beyond a preference for Sax Rohmer's Fu Manchu books, and Sherlock Holmes, began to seek more serious reading.
Like so many people, as a teenager I found myself writing poetry to express angst. Very bad poetry as you might expect. I fell for the idea of being a poet. I thought it had a dash of romance about it, and probably it served in part as an excuse for my morose attitude. I have always been attracted to the gloomy side of things.
Then, of course, there were girls, and I thought that given my naturally sombre nature the guise of poet (guise it was) might be my best chance of success in that direction.
But I think poetry began to work its true magic on me. Now I had enough money to buy books of my own, and I still have a lot of the books I bought then, along with a lifetime of book purchases that my wife wishes I wouldn't keep adding to.
I continued to write poems, but now I had examples of the work of real poets to temper my ideas about my own work. I was writing poetry because I thought that being a poet would impress people, especially young women, but with each poem I wrote, without realising it, gained greater insights into the art, and took more care with my work.
It was a frustrating experience because I could see that there was an apparently unbridgeable gap between what I was doing and poetry that would be taken seriously. I'm not sure what kept me plugging away at it, probably it was simply that, given my personality, I felt I had no choice.
Now I see poetry as the redemption that religion could never be. Poem by poem I learned something of how to do it, and at the same time the ignominious motives that I began with dropped away, and I was writing because I had to, and genuinely wanted to.
It was not good work, but living in Oxford has advantages, and I was lucky enough to meet people who could write, and who, for some reason, thought that what I was doing had promise. I mention, in particular, my friend Roger Green to whom I am very grateful for encouragement over the years. And Myfanwy, who will probably never read this, but if she does—thank you.
Then I must mention everyone at Back Room Poets whose friendship and advice has been invaluable, even if they have so often told me to get rid of favourite lines on the flimsy ground that they belong in another poem, not the one I had put them in. Without them I would probably not have started to submit poems to magazines, let alone get any published.
I can't be sure that what I have told you are the actual reasons I became someone who hopes they are justified in calling themselves a poet. The mind makes narratives for us out of remnants of memory, and it may have been other things I am not consciously aware of that took me in the direction of poetry.
Recently I have been thinking about meaning, and it has occurred to me forcefully that meaning is not something that resides in things, but something we invest things with. I realise now that writing poetry is a way of understanding, of finding meaning that makes sense. The process continues, and I hope it will until the last of my life drains away.