Monday, 14 October 2013

Poetic Champions Compose

I love the works of Yorkshire poet Simon Armitage. 
Simon Armitage was asked to give three pieces of advice to aspiring poets and he said, "Read, read and read".  It's good advice but I think the poetic impulse arises earlier. It made me think about my own history, how my love of words arose.

'The child is the father of the man' (Wordsworth) and for melancholic children there are consequences. I can still recall the first poem that made an impact on my psyche and tapped straight into a rich vein of sadness woven through my DNA. Scarecrow :

My poor old bones, I've only two,
A broom shank and a broken stave,
My ragged gloves are a disgrace,
My one peg foot is in the grave.

Dylan - understood in the heart
Recited by Mrs. Bagley in the second year of primary school it induced such an exquisite sorrow that sent my six year old self off on lone walks down the playing fields to contemplate the daisies and ponder the words that surprised, intrigued and puzzled in equal measure: 'broom shank', 'stave', 'grave'. They had resonance! I berated myself for my previous lack of empathy with these wretched creatures stuck in fields. Here was my muse, encountered in melancholy meanderings through the woods and meadows around home.

At seven I independently found my way to the church choir. Anthems, psalms and hymns ignited my imagination. "Jesus, Jesus, Lo he comes and loves and saves and freeze us" I sang. Bizarre! A little later I found out that nobody was being frozen but freed! What a disappointment! I loved the impenetrable "freeze us"; much more mystery about that. And then:

What peaceful hours I once enjoyed
How sweet their memory still
But they have left an aching void
The world can never fill.

Accessible simplicity: Wendy Cope
I understood this implicitly. I was an old man trapped in an eight year old body. I spent an inordinate number of warm summer days indoors and retreated into books. I remember my mom contrasting me with my slightly younger brother, "He's always got his nose in a book. His brother's a proper lad." The neighbours concurred - I needed to get out and climb more trees. But, I was cultivating my own aching void.

Hills of the North rejoice
River and mountain spring

The great mystery of the brooding dark North – rejoicing streams! This was my world!

Mystic - WB Yeats
Inspired by a sad documentary on the life of French chantuese Edith Piaf, I wrote a sonnet. I pored over the form (in a Shakespeare volume I found in the local library) worked out the rhyme scheme and really laboured. I loved the romance of Je ne regrette rein, that insists so much on regretting nothing that you know the narrator regrets everything! It was the first thing I wrote that ever felt accomplished. The first thing that meant more than the sum of its words. The teacher was sceptical, "Is this your own work?" Maybe Edith Piaf wasn't a fit subject for a boy of eleven? But wasn't everything up for scrutiny?

Forget indulgent prog rock, ignore frivolous glam rock and passing fashion. It was the 70s vogue for solipsistic singer-songwriters that entranced and enchanted: words again. Hejira, Joni Mitchell's gorgeously ethereal pean to the romance of road trips:

There's comfort in melancholy
When there's no need to explain
It's as natural as the weather
As this moody sky today. (Hejira)

My older sister had this penfriend. I remember seeing a photo of him dressed in an Afghan coat with greasy long hair and droopy moustache. I didn't get what she saw in him. Her romantic fantasies were squashed flat one day when she received a cassette tape.

Overlooked: Dory Previn
I stepped into an avalanche
It swallowed up my soul.
When I am not this hunchback
That you see,
I sleep beneath the golden hill. (Avalanche)

Her romance ended but my love affair with the works of Leonard Cohen continues to this day! I took to sublime misery and dark humour like a duck to water. I began a little scrapbook of writing, not so much influenced by as mimicking or plagarising what I was hearing. And then I encountered Bob Dylan.

He became an obsession. I spent hours trying to decode Blonde On Blonde but the mystery only deepened:

I just can't fit,
I believe it's time for us to quit,
When we meet again,
Introduced as friends,
Please don't let on that you knew me when,
I was hungry and it was your world. (Just Like A Woman)

Sylvia Plath
I gleaned two things from this. First that some things are understood in the heart and not the head and second the importance of hearing words - phrasing, timing, rhythm and rhyming. The way Dylan alights the word 'hungry', stretching out the phonemes, 'hungaareeee', whatever he means you know he means it. I heard Dylan was mercurial and decided I would be too and my new policy was never to give a straight or predictable answer to any question. It got me into trouble but it also sharpened the poetic use of language.

1975: Dylan's Blood On The Tracks spoke volumes on the subtle use of words:

Say for me that I'm alright
Though things get kind of slow,
If she thinks that I've forgotten her,
Don't tell her it isn't so. (If You See Her Say Hello)

Why shouldn't she be told? Vulnerability to painful to admit? Embarrassment? One carefully chosen word can encompass so many possibilities. How much better than a simple instruction to "tell her"?

Open your eyes and ears and you're influenced.

Sublime: John Keats
Pete Brittan & Evelyn Fitzmaurice, two inspirational teachers influenced and encouraged in equal measure. They introduced me to Shakespeare, the Liverpool poets, Wordsworth, Keats, Harold Pinter, Thom Gunn, Ted Hughes, William Blake, John Betjamen Eliot, Auden, Jane Austen..... a world of words and ideas. Their enthusiasm and breadth of knowledge was infectious. I just absorbed as much as I could and learned many works off by art. I can still recite most of The Wife of Bath's Tale and the Prologue to the Cantebury Tales!

Stevie Smith of pop - Morrissey
Form is a discipline that for me, aids writing. When a poem just isn't working I will often try it in a different form. Changing a sonnet to a villanelle or vice versa sometimes improves the expression of a theme.

The songwriters I loved pointed me backwards to their influences: Lorca, Pound, Woody Guthrie, Whitman, Rousseau, the Bible, Poe, Rimbaud and latterly classical Greek stuff. At different points I wanted to be all of these people – I was good at mimicking style - but the common message of all their lives seemed to be that we should all find our own voice: write what we know.

Occasionally I read my own stuff & I hear echoes of others. Indeed I revised For A Second I Forgot partly because one stanza strayed to close to a Cohen song:

I'm lazy, weak but harmless
this much I admit,
Joni Mitchell
tighten up the harness
you win and I submit. (Me – For A Second I Forgot)

You're weak and your harmless
Sitting in your harness
With the wind going wild
In the trees (Cohen – Light As A Breeze)

But sometimes I only hear the echo in retrospect. 
Take this:

The fine wines of the purple line
Leave a bitter after-taste (Me – Apolide)


The snows of the Tyrol and the clear beer of Vienna
Are not very pure or true (Sylvia Plath – Daddy)

I left this in as a kind of a homage, a nod to Plath, but I don't expect everyone will hear it and Plath's line is better anyway. Incidentally, if you have an interest in Plath's work, seek out the BBC recordings from the 1962. Her recitations of Lady Lazarus & Daddy are hugely impressive, her phrasing and stresses bring new layers of meaning. I can recite these too in Plath's voice!!

Morrissey – the Stevie Smith & e.e. cummings of pop – wrote:

If you must write prose and poems
The words you write should be your own,
Don't plagarise or take on loan.
There's always someone, somewhere
With a big nose, who knows (Morrissey - Cemetery Gates)

But Joni Mitchell wrote:

A part of you pours out of me
In these lines from time to time (Mitchell – A Case of You)

Lately I've been re-reading W. B. Yeats, poring over Simon Armitage's back catalogue, mourning the loss of Dory Previn and rediscovering her in the process... revisiting some well known Auden, thinking how much more profound later Roger McGough is, taking in some Wendy Cope whose apparent simplicity conceals depth charges. Read, read and read.

1 comment:

  1. A fine read Jonathan. Thanks.

    It inspired me to re-read one of my favourite poems, which I've copied below.

    When You Are Old

    When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
    And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
    And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
    Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;

    How many loved your moments of glad grace,
    And loved your beauty with love false or true,
    But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
    And loved the sorrows of your changing face;

    And bending down beside the glowing bars,
    Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
    And paced upon the mountains overhead
    And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.

    W B Yeats


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