Certainty and style

That nothing is certain and everything changes are so self-evident there’s no need to be equivocal when writing.

  1. All statements of certainty should be judged with a critical eye (including this one).
  2. A good reader brings disbelief to the text.
  3. A good writer does not supply what the reader brings.
  4. The writer is certain when nothing is certain.
  5. Certainty becomes shorthand for uncertainty.

 

How do you know when a poem is finished?

When Jackson Pollock was asked, of painting, “How do you know when you’ve finished?” He replied, “How do you know when you’ve finished making love?”

I’m about to try The Rialto with some poems, having worked on these particular pieces for around two years on and off. At various times I thought they were ‘nearly there’ but after a cooling off period I would dive back in. There were tendons to be stretched, forests to manicure, buried machinery to be unearthed. At a recent work in progress meet up with some friends, I announced that a poem was ‘basically done’ only to spend the next two weeks making one small adjustment after another.

But what does it mean for writing to be ‘finished’? Digitally published texts can be edited at any time and even traditional books are frequently revised between editions and printings. There are three versions of Wordsworth’s The Prelude, or Growth of a Poet’s Mind: 1799, 1805 and 1850 (published posthumously). Paul Valery claimed that “A poem is never finished, only abandoned”. Auden agreed with Valery. He also believed the most painful type of poem for the poet to be “the good ideas which his incompetence or impatience prevented from coming to much”. He revisited some of his published pieces many times over his career. I’ve carried the Valery quote around for a long time but I don’t necessarily agree. There is a point at which the forces in a poem pull the rubble into a whole, like a planet pulling itself into a sphere.

How much landscaping should you do once this has happened? A good rule of thumb might be if you can read your poem without wanting to make a single change. Put it aside for an hour. A night. Show it to someone without having to explain or apologise for it. Work on something else for a few weeks. Inspiration is ongoing: it can grow steadily or quickly, like grass. Your subconscious mind holds on to things long after you’ve put them down. Writing goes deeper and is more mysterious than we think.

The ideal would be to combine the spontaneity of your first thought with patience and clarity. After all, what you have on the page may only be a framework for what you really intend to say. Emanuel Lasker, the great chess master said, “If you find a good move, look for a better one”. You may have a good line, but is there something better? You should be prepared to ask that question for a long time. This means living with the work. Waiting. A poem is a journey. You will cover unexpected distance before it is done. A good amount of that distance is time. Seasons change. A new landscape takes shape.

Am I sure that these poems are finished now? Yes. Maybe. I’ve been celebrating a friend’s birthday with a few ales so my judgement might be impaired. I’ll sleep on it one more night.

You have to throw the book against the wall

I’ve just finished reading Margaret Craven’s I Heard the Owl Call My Name. For a novel that’s 133 pages it took me a long time to read. It’s about an Anglican priest who is unaware that he has only three years to live. The bishop is told this by the priest’s doctor and sends the young ordinand to Kingcome, British Columbia to live with First Nations Indians.

The book is resonant and so poetic that it reminds me of Cornel West in the film Examined Life saying that reading Ruskin, Twain or Melville:

“You almost have to throw the book against the wall because you are so intensely alive that you need a break.”

The following passage is Jim, one of the major characters, describing the lifecycle of salmon.

“Both the males and the females die. On the way up the river the swimmer will pass the fingerlings of his kind coming down to the sea. They want to go and are afraid to go. They still swim upstream, but gently, letting the river carry them downstream tail first, and the birds and the larger fish prey upon them to devour them, and pretty soon they turn to face their dangers.”

The richness of the work is too much, although intellectually absorbed it takes time to settle at the back of the mind and deeper in the heart. So I put the book down and go back to mundane things.

Crow, performed by Handspring

Until I saw Crow performed at The Borough Hall tonight, I don’t think I’d realised how well dance and poetry complement each other. They are physical in different ways. Poetry is a language we read with the body and the senses. Dance struggles between freedom and the corporeality of the body. Like poets, dancers can contort the language of the everyday and ‘make it new’. They are naturally symbolic arts and share a vicarious attraction.

Ted Hughes’ trickster was inventively staged thanks to Handspring’s beautifully incomplete puppetry. We saw Crow literally animated from a spitball of black lace, metal and ink to something eerily human and then something still more mysterious.

The expectation of surprise

I sent a batch of poems to Poetry London yesterday. Sending to magazines is a great excuse to catch up on any issues you haven’t read in a while. They give you a sense of what’s happening in poetry. It’s refreshing to see emerging themes and styles. How far this is because of the editorial vision or the movements of a collective muse is difficult to know. If it were obvious the magazine would probably feel laboured and didactic.

But even when you are familiar with a magazine, it’s not really possible to second guess what the editor wants to read because, in all likelihood, the editor wants to be surprised. All we can say is that the poem has to be one of the silver bullets:  self-contained enough to survive when separated from the body of your work. Perhaps all poems should be.