Monday, 28 December 2009

Four Quarters

I have begun a collaborative venture, Four Quarters, with three friends. Our aim is to document the seasons throughout the solar year, by spending four days in a wood in our village, spread across the two solstices and equinoxes.

Last Monday's winter solstice was our first day together. We met before dawn and parted around midnight, and spent much time either putting on layers of clothing to go out and greet the cold, or removing some of those layers, now soggy with snow, sleet or rain, in order to warm up and re-fuel again. I'm not sure how many miles we walked, but I was very glad of the numbing effects of the mulled wine we drank before leaving for the last hike home.

Our next meeting will be on 20th March, for the spring equinox. In the meantime, I have many wintry notes and much work to do.

Sunday, 27 December 2009

A Thought for Gawain

From Simon Armitage's 2007 translation.

Now night passes and New Year draws near,
drawing off darkness as our deity decrees.
But wild-looking weather was about in the world:
clouds decanted their cold rain earthwards;
the nithering north needled man's very nature;
creatures were scattered by the stinging sleet.
Then a whip-cracking wind comes whistling between hills
driving snow into deepening drifts in the dales.
Alert and listening, Gawain lies in his bed;
his lids are lowered but he sleeps very little
as each crow of the cock brings his destiny closer.
Before day had dawned he was up and dressed
for the room was livened by the light of a lamp.
To suit him in his metal and to saddle his mount
he called for a servant, who came quickly,
bounded from his bedsheets, bringing his garments.
He swathes Sir Gawain in glorious style,
first fastening clothes to fend off the frost,
then his armour, looked after all the while by the household:
the buffed and burnished stomach and breastplates,
and the rings of chain-mail, raked free of rust,
all gleaming good as new, for which he is grateful
With every polished piece
no man shone more,
from here to ancient Greece.
He sent then for his steed.

Sunday, 20 December 2009

Cixous Says

Outside, the snow lies thick enough to keep me at home. I am reading Helene Cixous, again. I keep returning to her Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing. Every time I think I've escaped the book, something happens to take me back to it. A friend told me recently that it was the kind of book that could kill you. I can see what she meant. I also think it's the kind of book that could save your life.

Snow forces us to change our plans, Cixous encourages us to change our writing:

How can we keep our mixture of innocence and crime sufficiently alive and open to live and write? How can we proceed to the burning point, reach that last hour, when we'll be able to write or say everything we have never dared say out of love and cowardice?

In my last post, I touched upon my sense of holding so much back here and I wonder whether I want to use this space to say what I dare not say. Perhaps I feel the urge to say something strong or shocking, secure in a certain anonymity, although I also suspect that saying what I dare not say would take me into the realm of the confessional blog. I don't much like confessional blogs, their overt exhibitionism makes me feel uncomfortable.

I don't think I will use this space to write to the burning point, that can happen elsewhere. However, by way of taking a small step towards it, I would like to say a few things that I haven't said before. They aren't particularly important things, they may not even be interesting, but I will say them nonetheless.

I am writing in a room with pale yellow walls. There is wallpaper beneath the paint and in places I can see where the paint ends and the old colour still shows. The wallpaper is textured, wrinkled above the radiator and where one piece joins the next. There are many cobwebs and candle smudges.

There is a Christmas tree in the window. Sunlight catches on the baubles and is reflected on the walls and ceiling. There are small dashes of sunlight all over the room.

I can smell either diesel, rolled down the hill from the main road in the very still, snow-bound air, or marzipan from my airing-before-I-ice Christmas cake.

My feet are cold.

My husband is sitting beside me, working on his laptop. He is breathing loudly and there are clicks from his computer. I don't think he has touched the cup of tea I made a while ago. I look towards him and he asks in our domestic language, 'Urda?' It translates roughly as, 'Why are you looking at me? Are you alright? What are you thinking about? Why are you disturbing me?' I look away and he returns to his work.

There, that's it. A very long way from the burning point, but for the moment, it's enough.

Saturday, 12 December 2009

Call and Return

A new poem was born this week. It's already, rather guiltily, a favourite. I pick it up often and carry it around the house, singing to it. I am neglecting my older work.

The new poem is a piece of free verse that weaves together a number of voices and languages, Anglo-Saxon, Latin, Middle English, hymns, prayers, the voice of the soil. I was surprised at how much I enjoyed playing with Anglo-Saxon verse ,within the free verse frame, and it seems my recent wanderings in traditional verse form have had some sort of influence upon my work. I was certainly pleased with the resulting poem and enjoyed using so many voices. I loved fitting them together in a meaningful and tuneful way; so that each voice spoke with the next, even though many of them had never met before.

What is more, it occurs to me now that I speak in this voice, this particular voice, on the subject of a polyphonic poem, and that the voiceI am currently writing in carries a lantern, illuminating what it can, what it wants to, while the glare from its light throws other things into greater shadow. Iam aware of using this space to reveal only a little, to uncover and to conceal. Like all communication, this is an exercise in control, as much as it is a reaching out. More on this subject later.

Saturday, 5 December 2009

Voices Raised

I want to return to the matter of voice and to Eavan Boland's comments on her use of traditional poetic form. Boland says that her poetic maturity enables her to begin to, 'dissolve all the borrowed voices of [her] apprenticeship.' I am very curious to know how these borrowed voices dissolve into the authentic voice. What happens to our earlier voices while we're waiting for the borrowed ones to dissolve? Do our new ones sit on top somehow, while our older voices lurk beneath, muttering in the gloom?

I rather like this idea and it chimes with an experience I had recently, when I used the word, 'chuck' in a poem. I was exhilarated by it, it felt irreverent, almost as if I was also chucking the poem away. Writing the word made me feel lighter, younger, more vital, and I was glad to let it escape from me.

Apprentice writers are all in search of our authentic voices. It seems to be a case of moving back and forwards at once. We write as much as possible, in order to free ourselves and let something natural come through, but we also read and consume other writing, trying on other voices, hoping to learn from them, and we listen to conversations to learn the way people speak. All these voices we try to assimilate, and at the same time, there's still our own voice to find, to keep to.

I am still an apprentice poet. There's so much I don't know and I have spent so many years hiding from traditional form that I now have a lot of catching up to do. For the moment, I've set my Prologue aside and will look at it again in a few days, once I've gained some distance from it. I did begin to absorb its iambic pentameter though, and found that a few lines came already formed. Perhaps I am slowly adding a new iambic stratum to my voices.

Friday, 4 December 2009

A Note from the Forge

Work continues on the Prologue I mentioned in my last post. I have spent the past couple of days hammering and bending it to a new shape and it's now in iambic pentameter, more or less, for that hint of of something Classical.

I wonder how good it is. Have I hammered the beauty out of it, or have I not gone far enough? Am I working against nature?

The first stanza's still cooling, but it goes something like this:

Come clattering on Sindy's plastic horse.
Come trotting to my door. I've covered
all the clocks and photographs with winding sheets.
I've shut the sun out. Come, my little too scared,
launch your Lego rocket, land it here.

Am I achieving what Eavan Boland describes as, 'pushing the music of dailyness against the customary shapes of the centuries', or am I producing something grotesque? I guess I'll have to keep bashing away at it and see what happens.

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Fear of Form

I have been advised to use this site to explore my creative process; so here goes....

I am currently working on a long narrative poem, a polyphonic piece, featuring the voices of buildings, people and ghosts. So far, the voices have come to me in different ways: some I have simply recorded and edited with the minimum of effort. For example, last week I made a Gossips' Chorus, the first stanza of which reads,

There's something wrong
with Simon Wright:
he swears at the girls
and shouts, SEA-GU-LLS.
You should hear what he says to his dog.

The entire first stanza came ready-spoken. I recorded it and then followed the same metrical pattern with each succeding stanza, and the poem was born, quickly, easily and with the usual number of fingers and toes.

Other parts have been trickier. Yesterday, I began work on a prologue, an invocation of my child self, rather like an invocation of the muses. I chose an iambic metre, in the hope that I might collect a flavour of something Classical as I went along. I didn't want to press the piece into too strict a form, such as absolute pentametre, as I've spent most of my writing life form-phobic.

The piece is progressing, but I'm finding it tough and I feel very unsure of my footing, both metaphorically and metrically. I am wondering how strictly I should stick to my iambic promise. I've already wandered off the metre a number of times and I'm not sure whether to keep what I've written.

Last night, I read the following in Eavan Boland's introduction to The Making of a Poem:
I have come upon one of the shaping formal energies: the relation of the voice to the line. That simple discovery begins to dissolve all the borrowed voices of my apprecenticeship. I begin to see how it would be to be able to work with the line by working against it, pushing the music of dailyness against the customary shapes of the centuries. Suddenly I see how these contrary forces make language plastic. And how exciting it is to find that a poetic language will liberate and not constrain.
Boland seems to be saying what I've heard elsewhere: do it enough times and it'll become natural, so that you'll feel your way through tradition and modernity, merging the borrowed and authentic voices** into one instinctive poem. I love the idea of, 'pushing the music of dailyness against the customary shapes of the centuries.' However, I am also worried that I may slog away, writing dreadful sonnets for years to come, wasting valuable time which I might otherwise have given to creating muscular free verse. All writers have only limited time to write, even those of us for whom paid work is the kind of guest who does embroidery, coughs quietly before she enters a room and goes for lots of long, solitary walks. Why spend precious hours battling with Sapphic stanzas?

I must admit, though, that wrestling with form is great fun and I'm thoroughly enjoying writing at the moment. In fact, the decision to face my fear of traditional forms has been a very valuable one and my work has certainly improved as a result. Perhaps I should stop worrying and get back to my prologue.

* The Seagulls is the sobriquet of Brighton and Hove Albion football club.
** The difference between borrowed and authentic voices seems a huge subject and one I'd like to return to in the future.