Sunday, 16 March 2008

Poetry Enigmas

Writing poetry is simple enough. All one needs is a notebook, a pen, and preferable a place where one likes to be, say a busy cafe or a lonely countryside, although it can come out of anywhere ... the trenches of the First World War (Wilfred Owen) or on a forced march without even a notebook or pen (Mandelstahm).

When it is a matter of anyone taking notice, it is all enigmas. Apparently no-one cares for the art, and one should be as content as Van Gogh to pursue artistic activity for its own sake. The Poetry Society has estimated that an average sale for a new book of poems is seventy copies. One the other hand, since around the time that Martin Amis signalled a change by satirising the contemporary poet indulging first-class transatlantic travel (with Seamus Heaney in mind, possibly?) a new - financial - glamour has been attached. Or a Byronic one revived. Perhaps it began with Ted Hughes's million pound plus estate ... as far as I know, the first poor boy to become a millionaire solely from the proceeds of poetry.

Small-scale publishers ever lament their difficulties, and with good reason. Yet, recently I read in Byron Rogers' biography of R.S.Thomas that, when exasperated by his major publisher (Macmillan's) edition of a mere 500 copies for hs latest book, his Selected Poems was offered to the small - and, note, provincial - publisher, Bloodaxe, who sold "an astonishing 20,000 copies" ... who then brought out five more collections, which sold "an average 9,000 copies".

And, while I have almost (though not quite) resigned myself to being a natural poet of the garret,
in the last few weeks I have not been able to stir in the newsagents' or the supermarket without poetry booklets screaming at me from above the headline news; by its positioning seeming more important than child abductions, global warming, or the peace-giving missions of the President of the World. The Guardian and The Independent (any other broadsheets that I don't know of?) have at the same moment discovered that poetry is a good way to increase circulation and give their newspapers distinction! The Indy is offering 14 of the Classics, and the Guardian, 7 of the Moderns. Isn't that truly amazing? This popular uplift, at almost no cost to themselves.

Yet not so many years ago these newspapers could not be persuaded to include a few lines of verse anywhere .... the assumption being perhaps that if they did, their readers would flee in droves. In the days when I was welcomed in Farringdon Road because I had been awarded the Guardian Fiction Prize, I tried to persuade the then literary editor to include verse, to no avail. I recall his smile of condescension.

Then it began. First of all - if I remember rightly - with a modesty akin to its quaint Country Diary column that has lingered since that paper was the Manchester Guardian. Then came a full-page shocker by publishing Tony Harrison, and now with a fanfare of booklets.

What a delight if there is a stampede of broadsheets competing to produce ever- more tasty poetry collections! A commercial 5th-column for poets!

Wednesday, 12 March 2008


I have not enjoyed many “mystical experiences” (as they are usually called) but, throughout life, there have been some. The Yorkshire auto-didact, auto-biographer, traveller (on a horse) and novelist, William Holt, who died twenty years ago, said to me, “I am not dis-satisfied with life, but I am un-satisfied. Unsatisfied means that you like what is on the menu, but you don’t have enough of it on your plate.” That is how I feel about those occasions when time evaporated, the moment was detached, eternal - and, no, it wasn’t in a dentist’s chair or an operation, but from absorption in beauty, or perhaps art.

The first was when I was eight years of age. My Dad was teaching me to ride a bicycle. He did this by walking besides me, holding the saddle as I cycled the Cheshire lanes, and sometimes, on a flat stretch where there was no traffic (there was little traffic anywhere, of course) letting me free to balance myself.

A couple of miles of this and, naturally, Dad needed to call at a public house. A favourite was The Vine” in Dunham, which had a garden planted with orchard trees. He left me outside with a lemonade. One day he tried me with cider. I was abandoned for some time - I think Dad had a liking for the barmaid. He came out with another cider; his face was fiery with smiles. It was late Spring, sunny and still. Bees fussed over the flower beds. Sparrows and bright chaffinches hopped and flitted after insects, they foraged dropped crisps and sandwiches. I was the only one there, sat underneath a blossoming, old pear tree through which the sunlight filtered; a light more pink than normal because the blossom was at its perfection, dense, yet half-transparent. Growing drowsy, I tipped into seeming weightless, from peace and happiness. Time vanished - Dad could have stayed in there for a few minutes or for half the day, I would not have known. Time was replaced by absorption in an elevated sense of beauty. Probably my first sense of it, certainly that I can recall. Although it was also my first experience of being tipsy, that is not what has remained potent in memory. I had no language for this experience then, and it seems to me that I have come across little sufficient to it since.

Yet, through the several repeats, it is at the heart of why I write or paint at all. It has only rarely been reached through inebriation. It has sometimes arrived through a commonplace task, building, repairing, cooking, gardening, and when walking, in the slow rambling disorganised non-strenuous fashion that is mine, staring about me; or through shared friendship, or love, or through a discovery of the intellect. Sometimes through listening to and feeling the harmonies of the Universe, (the music of the spheres?) in the wind, under clear stars, in the sun by the sea. It can come from glimpsing the swing of a bird. It has never arrived when bidden. It is always a surprise. In that (and for other reasons) it is different to a sense of beauty, which may be sought, in the countryside, a person, a book, an art gallery. This is a visitation, that comes when it will.

The most recent occurred a few months ago, sitting in the Church at Bolton Abbey, which is on the bank of the River Wharfe, near Ilkley in Yorkshire. It isn’t the most beautiful church I know, yet despite some restoration and the Pugin windows, it holds the old atmosphere in a way often lacked by many better preserved churches. Cistercian chant was being played from a cd behind the altar screen. (The Ensemble Organum dir. by Marcel Peres, produced by harmoni mundi - I learned later when I bought a copy). This seems a little naff, doesn’t it, but the sound reproduction was so good that one might be convinced that the monks themselves were beyond the screen. I know little about the meaning of the Mass, so it was abstract music to me, yet I sat and didn't move a muscle for a long time.

This wasn't difficult - in fact I couldn’t move. Later, I thought that perhaps I had been meditating without realising it. I was carried on a sense of dissolving into eternity. Much of the time, I stared at a candle flame that was nearby. I felt out of time and space, so that a child crying or shouting, a mother showing her child the windows, people passing by - there were a number of strays in the church - a bird or shouts outside, did not interrupt my feeling, even though I heard them. It occurs to me that perhaps I enjoyed an inkling of what Buddhists feel when they can set fire to themselves, or of what the early Christian martyrs understood. A spiritual anaesthetic, -to be modern and banal about - though I am so very far from that state of spiritual beatitude. And I suppose that is what the mystics have been telling us for centuries, everywhere, yet we don't listen to them. The Church at Bolton Abbey possesses an uninterrupted list of the Priors, followed by the Vicars, back to the 12th century, and I envied them then, because I hope that they felt all of this to a much greater degree than I. Perhaps they had perceptions that are no longer sufficiently recognised, but that we need. I hope death will feel this way, I thought after leaving Bolton Abbey: it will do very well for me, if it is. The world and my loved ones can go on with their affairs, and I am at peace with that.

I believe that most people have this same experience at some times in their lives - it is not a prerogative of theologians, philosophers or the educated; perhaps it is actually more difficult for them. It is possible that one does not recognise it, thinking simply, “No matter what, life is good, I am happy". It certainly has much to do with happiness - of a kind opposed to the “happiness” that, (against the evidence), we usually persist in believing is part of our more and more sophisticated materialism. We also know that happiness is in escaping as well as in fulfilling ourselves. (Some of us more in need of one than the other, and some needing both. More times than I care to recall, I have felt the need to escape myself.) But I am not writing merely of that kind of subjective happiness - which is its component, or perhaps its symptom. Ecstasy is a better word, and ecstasy of this kind is a good kind of fulfilment or escape … more fruitful than suicide, which is the other way of escaping, i.e. of killing the disliked part of oneself. (Visionary ecstasy - and mortal suicide - are they the opposites of one another; two sides of a coin?)
But it is not the whole. This ecstasy is a congregation of forces: spirituality, past experience, hopes, memories, preparedness - some, or all of these - coming together to defy our “rational” model of the Universe. It inspires in us our sense of timelessness, which, even scientists often believe, is the true reality. We do indeed exist in a continuum of time and space, without beginning or end, where substance is infinitely transmuted.

And perhaps some do not recognise it when it comes, or at any rate do not share it with others. For this crucial human experience, we have so little language. Considering its importance, there is relatively little articulation in poetry and art. It is curious how quickly its verbal expressions come to look fusty. Despite their brilliant subject-matter, they are often furred-over with melancholy, Mathew Arnold-ish. Too many have been the desperate writings of faded spirits. (I hope I am not now joining their company.) The modern poet R.S. Thomas looked vividly but oh, so sadly, beyond himself. The American poet Gary Snyder gave it expression with a refreshed language and a love of physical activity combined with Buddhism. Wordsworth expressed it lucidly. William Blake made the most vital run at it, perhaps because of the energy of his rebellion against Materialism and the “prison of the senses five” that led him “To see a World in a grain of a sand …. And Eternity in an hour.” It is now too out of fashion to be much attempted; words such as “eternity” appear too simplistic for the modern sensibility; we are easier with simple, entertaining matters, that fit with simple, entertaining words; and one has to appreciate it as the most important subjective experience one will have, to wish to express it.

Saturday, 1 March 2008


Letters of Ted Hughes selected and edited by Christopher Reid. Faber and Faber. 756 pp £30.00

Ted Hughes is thought of as the presiding genius of the Calder Valley in Yorkshire, where I live. Until very recently, one would not have thought he had such grand status, when one is actually here. It is only a few years ago that his birthplace in a street in Mytholmroyd was recognised, following one or two complaints by visitors looking for it. He spent only a short time living here, when he was a child (before moving to Mexborough in South Yorkshire) - even though the place, that of his maternal ancestors, so powerfully haunted all of his work - and he never took much part in local affairs, indeed keeping his several return visits later in life as secret as he could. (They were almost entirely concerned with his Arvon Foundation in Heptonstall, in any case.) The atttitude changed - rather slowly - after he became Poet Laureate, and interest accelerated after his death. There is a Ted Hughes Festival taking place this year, and a Ted Hughes Centre is under way. On entering Mytholmroyd today, you are met with a boulder holding a plaque to remind you that "Ted Hughes Poet Laureate" was born here. There is a street of new housing called "Laureat Place" (sic). Whether Ted would have welcomed this interest is questionable. But it is great to see a poet honoured.

His relationship to my own work is another matter.

There, from the start, I have never been able to shake him off, and would not want to. It began long before I came to live here (although it was not in any way connected with my reasons for living here.) I fell upon his work in the 1960s, thirsting for my sense of poetry in contemporary verse, and found it in Alvarez's The New Poetry especially in the poems of Ted Hughes. (Also R.S.Thomas and Robert Lowell.) Soon I was teaching in Halifax (also in the Calder Valley), where I think I was probably the only person in the town to order many poetry books from the local shop. One day when I called in to collect my order, the proprietor came from a back room with a fountain pen in his hand and asked, "Are you Mr Hughes the poet?" I wasn't going to say "No", although I had then hardly published a verse anywhere. Whereupon he produced his own copy of Lupercal for me to sign, which I did, with my own name. People rarely check the signature of the books one signs, as I was later to discover. Ted chuckled over this anecdote years later, when we became friends.

It is more irksome that I am too little reviewed without reference being made to Ted Hughes's connection with the district about which I often write, or in which I set my set my subjects. It is generally a knee-jerk response merely to the place, not to anything else we might have in common. I expect it to continue, and try to totally disregard it, at least while I am working. For instance, I have illustrated my recent book Two Marriages with several drawings of crows as a central, iconic idea, and I can't imagine it will be reviewed without reference to Ted Hughes's "Crow" - although the link is every bit as arbitrary as the fact that the deceased poet and I share the same surname.

Now come Ted's Letters. "All I’ve ever been interested in is simplifying my existence so I could write…." he wrote to his brother, Gerald, in 1963, shortly after Sylvia Plath’s suicide. Well, you could have fooled many, especially the millions who nurse received opinions without having read him. Two partners who lived on the brink of death, followed by mistresses some of whom showed a disturbing eagerness to spill the beans, are not the choices that those who know themselves would make for a simplified existence. However, he finishes the sentence, "all I‘ve ever done is so involve myself with other people that now I can’t move without horrible consequences of all kinds."

So there it is in a nutshell. On the one hand, not merely a pillar of the literary Establishment, he was the pillar: subject of innumerable theses, books, invitations, school lessons, gossip and frisson, perhaps more so than any poet except his beloved Shakespeare. On the other hand, scorning literary business and most of twentieth century poetry, ("The real poverty of 20th Century English writing has been masked by the presence of Eliot, Joyce and Yeats" he wrote in 1982), seeing it mostly as a trap, genuinely seeking after quiet and anonymity. By June 1988, in the wake of his pursuit by the maenads out to avenge his supposed responsibility for the martyrdom of Sylvia Plath -the intruders at his public readings, the defacers of his wife’s grave in the Calder Valley - he found "the literary life, especially the U.S. territories, enemy country. Too bad my own verses have to creep about out there." (To the American poet, W.S.Merwin.)

Now that the immediate, ecstatic responses that greeted this book have died down, is there much left to say? Well, yes, for most of them concerned themselves more with Sylvia Plath (and to a lesser extent, with Assia Wevill) than with what Ted Hughes had to tell us about so many other matters. Even Tom Paulin in The London Review of Books, (who and where they should know better), wrote most of his long review as if all that matters is that particular marriage. Plath confessed in her diary to her dependence on her husband; since her death it is Ted’s life that has been remorselessly dependent on hers, by being related to it in every aspect. This book might be a best-seller because it is hoisted onto Sylvia Plath’s shoulders - with the usual offence against Ted Hughes’s ghost.

Plath occupied only seven years of his life, even though the legacy haunted him, and only a small part of these 700 plus pages are actually concerned with her. The later, and to my mind greater part, of his letters were very much about Shakespeare, building up to and contained within Hughes’s mammoth work, "Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being". Self-knowledge, healing, introspection, are a few other aspects. On the whole it is a great throbbing heart of a book, bleeding and also ecstatic, thrillingly wise and occasionally foolish, and inescapably an autobiography too … in the best sense, giving little away to the prurient (a little does escape). It seemed to me to take flight into Ted Hughes’s true, rich nature quite suddenly at around page 120 (in 1958), while the end part contains some sycophancy about the royal family that some might find hard to stomach. ("Who can write in an amiable way to any member of the royal family without it looking like flattery? Can’t be done." was his excuse in 1986 - which seems to me to imply one very good reason for abolishing that absurd, sugared pill for destroying poets and poetry, the Laureateship.) But the final result of the Letters is to reveal the depth and fullness of a poet’s, a spirit-guide’s, life.

All of Ted is here. The man with the rock-star good looks, (until hubris in the shape of cancer caught up with him), the businessman with schemes ranging through mink farming and student lets, the fisherman and the farmer, the mystical monarchist, the environmentalist, the astrologer, the sociable loner, the stoical bearer of his tragedies, the father protecting his children from the cruel hawks of the Press, the pathos of one whose life from another point of view was a yearning to recover the spell of the Yorkshire moors with his elder brother (some of the most open letters are to his brother Gerald, essentially wishing to woo him back from Australia), the very good friend, the supporter of anyone/anything he believed in, the secretive man trying to save himself by sliding out of sight, and of course the seer and poet. I finished reading feeling that I knew of nothing else from English poets like it, and if Shakespeare had lived through our time and left a testament, it might be very like this.

There are also some strange lapses. The only composer I recall being mentioned in his whole life span is Beethoven, to whom there are 7 widely scattered references in the index. Bach, Mahler, Shostokovitch, et al do not rate a mention. The only artists he refers to are Paul Klee, and Ted’s friend Baskin. He candidly admits that most novelists other than Lawrence, Tolstoy and Bashevis Singer do not much interest him. The editor, Christopher Reid, declares that Ted wrote enough letters for four volumes - I hope they will appear, so maybe little significance is to be attached as yet to these puzzling gaps, but I do not recall Ted Hughes as a person making references to other types of artist; he talked exclusively of poets and playwrights. Take that as a single-mindedness of a particularly fruitful kind.

For years, I have contemplated the relationship between Ted Hughes’s career and the place in which he was born. Even when letters are not being written from there or to there, or are not concerned with his many writings about it, the spirit of the Calder Valley runs through this as through all his work. I can hardly escape my own consciousness of this - it is where I have lived the greater part of my own life by now, have written about, and exchanged letters with Ted concerning it. He himself said (elsewhere) that wherever he was, "one prong of the tuning fork is always in the Calder Valley", among the Yorkshire Pennines. (The other prong being, of course, in Devon.)

If anywhere in Britain has the quality that the Spanish call "duende", this has: briefly put, life’s expression in art can only exist in awareness and proximity to death. The Spanish poet Lorca wrote an essay about it, especially concerning flamenco …. without duende, it is barren, as all art forms are barren without it. Can a place be infused with duende? I think it can. Places are also human expressions. The Calder and nearby valleys are dark, with sooted rock and the remains of mills where the life has died; where much life died or was malformed, the spirit with it, (yet with its own, persistent bravery) even when they were in their full magnificence. Ted thought that the whole place was stuck in mourning for the First World War. (Its transformation into commuter belt is recent, and the spirit of twenty years ago is still there.) Yet around and high above it are square miles of unpeopled moor - the exciting theatres of light, wind and rain. The stormy edge between this life, that death ("edge" is a common name for places around here) is exactly where Ted Hughes’s poetry, and his letters, are, metaphorically, placed.

Reading the Letters is for me a little uncanny. He describes going, in delight or gloom, or at times of crises, and often to recite poetry aloud, to places he hardly names yet I can pinpoint them because I have walked there usually several times per week for thirty five years. The collected letters in this context has its own peculiar character. Because I cannot claim to have seen him frequently, and yet each meeting seems to have had the sense of a full friendship, the letters seem weirdly more brimming with life than those actual meetings - which is a tribute to the sheer evocative intensity of them. It is not merely that they fill in the gaps of what was piecemeal. It is as if the book had been composed as one great novel: each letter, each paragraph, seems to relate to every other. They fill each other out, like the rivets and bolts of a ship, their tensions mutually supporting one another, in a journey across an ocean, through storms. I have never before had the experience of finding letters to me in the context of a posthumous publication, so perhaps this is a common experience, but I think it is more a sign of the wholeness of this book, as if it was designed with an eye on completeness although of course it wasn’t.

Thousands, or is it millions, of books are published each year. A bookshop scan will show that most are intended or at least destined for a brief entertainment. So few books are sacred … sacred in the sense that the earliest books were, to form, inform, perhaps change, a life. This makes this collection of letters a sacred book.

What does it change? On the first level, it should change anyone’s (including, in my experience, most poets') sense of what the poet’s vocation is. The effect upon me is to throw my received notions of poetry and art up into the air, to fall into place in a different pattern. Beyond that, when read in depth the volume leads one to question one’s defences against what might alter one’s inner, that is most essential, life. (This, the function of true, healing poetry.) If all of Ted Hughes' work were to be simplified into a phrase, it would be that he opened Enlish poetry wide to a bigger world. He eschewed so remarkably the "well wrought poem" - the kind that safely explores no more than the concerns of the regular newspaper opinion-pieces, and never progresses far before making a neat bow to the professors.

Ted used to speak of a few books as "real" books. It is a local phrase … I’ve not anywhere else heard some person, experience, or place, (as well as say food and drink) spoken of as "real", as the highest praise.

This is a real book.

A version of the above is due in the current issue of "North" (The Poetry Business) (Issue 41)