That’s a big claim when there are probably more people writing poetry now than at any other time in human history. I am not talking about quality – I do not have the data to assess whether there is proportionally more bad poetry than there used to be – but about scope, subject, ambition.
Maybe it is fairer for me to say that I have let poetry down. How so? By making it too small, by accepting it is only ever going to be a personal thing about me any feelings, by not expecting it to make a difference to myself or anyone else, by making it about capturing the minutiae of one life with little reference to anything else. So, could my poetry do more than just chronicle my young adult whinings about women? (If you go to The Vault you can read some of those terrible poems in Poems Volume Minus Two.)
Yes, I think it can. And I have an example. It’s called The Republic of Bees.
I have been coming back to the works of Sir Thomas Browne, a seventeenth century doctor and writer, for many years. I finally decided I was ready to engage him in a conversation through reflections on his writings. I also wanted to write a poem about insects that live in colonies, bees, wasps, termites, ants; I didn’t really mind. Reading Browne’s Garden of Cyrus – a fantasia on the quincunx (the shape you get when you plant four apple trees in a square with a fifth in the middle) – I came upon this:
… much there is not of wonder in the confused Houses of Pismires [ants], though much in their busie life and actions, more in the eidificial Palaces of Bees and Monarchical spirits; who make their combs six-cornered
Bees, I thought. Why not bees. Then, with a little more poking about, I learned that the paramount bee of the hive had only been identified as female in the early years of the seventeenth century: Charles Butler published his book The Feminine Monarchie in 1609. Even during Browne’s lifetime there were those who still defended the views of ancient writers such as Aristotle, that the chief bee was a king, not a queen, and using that view to defend the divine right of kings. There was the subject of my poem.
I began to write, weighing up the human and apian monarchies. The human monarchs came out of the comparison quite badly. I remember that when I started writing the poem I would have classified myself as a lukewarm monarchist: we have monarchs, but they don’t do too much harm now. But by the time I had finished the poem (which took a few months), I realised I had moved to a position of at least theoretical republicanism: there is no justification for monarchy and we would be better off without them. I still hold the position: probably more strongly.
The change came through the process of writing the poem. It was a big subject, worthy of poetry. We need big poetry. So as someone who writes poetry, I think I have an obligation to go bigger. There are plenty of subjects to address, the monarchy being only one of them.
The Republic of Bees will appear in Minor Monuments, a collection of poetry that I am publishing in the next week or so. In the meantime, here are the first two verses.
The hive sits snug along the orchard’s bounds;
wall-sheltered from the North wind, it receives
the gaze of the austral sun which drives off damp
and lifts the spirits of its folk in spring.
The wooden walls define a waxen realm,
ruled by a monarch absolute and firm,
who bids the deft, obedient subjects range
the airy streets, and in their gathering play
procurer to the vegetable lusts
of plum and apple, cherry, quince and sloe.
Their city gate in form’s a busy quay
where all the goods of industry and trade
are garnered for the service of the hive,
as in the constant fluxing of the tide
each homing vessel, ready to discharge
its dusty cargo, rides the counter-wake
of other barques with course American.
The tribute of their Indies and Levant
is celled to form the winter sustenance
of all their ruler chooses to preserve.
So. A last (for now) comment starting from Stephen Sondheim. I was reading his book Finishing the Hat when I come across a line which includes an herb. Well now, that brings me up short. Sondheim’s pretty hot on grammar, so I know it’s not a mistake. A few moments of reflection and I remember that in American English herb has a silent h. Nonetheless, it’s disquieting, in the same way as hearing Paul Simon on Rhythm of the Saints sing about drinking an erbal brew, rather than a herbal brew.
(I think at one point Sondheim rhymes scone with throne. I’m going to presume that is the standard American English pronunciation. Personally, I would rhyme scone with gone, but poking at that would get us into discussions of language and class in the UK. I really don’t want to start that now.)
Now, don’t hear what I am not saying. I am not saying erbal brew or an herb are wrong. They are normal for American English. That’s fine. It’s just that I notice them because they are not normal in British English (at least my RP version of it).
But then I’m left wondering why the h is silent. Is it one of these things where pre-modern English had a silent h and the British have started pronouncing it, while the Thirteen Colonies (and the successor states) have stuck with the original? (The same sort of process which makes the American English use of gotten seem quaint and archaic to British ears) Or is it because of the Italian influence on American English (what are zucchini?) with the silent h of Italian slipping into the pronunciation?
I don’t know. But it reminds me once again that whenever you come to a new language you have to leave behind the sounds of your language which you have come to associate with some of the shapes of the alphabet. It’s not that the Italians pronounce z as ts. Rather, there is a letter shape which English associates with the sound z, but Italian associates with the sound ts. (I know, even in writing that, I have ended up using the English associations to reflect the Italian ones – without using the international phonetic alphabet I can’t think of another way of expressing it.)
I suspect this is something which those brought-up with two languages (which includes me) understand better than monoglots. Letters are woozy signposts at best. Any attempt to make them more than that is delusion.
So. I have been thinking about visual art, mainly as a result of a blog post by a friend who is a conceptual artist. He was thinking about the apparent chasm of understanding between conceptual art and what we may, for lack of a better term, call ‘the public’. His thoughts prodded me into thinking about the root of the problem which goes much further back than conceptual art. It seems to me, as a non-visual-arts-practitioner, that part of this issue with the visual arts stems from the origins of the discipline in representation. Now, I am not saying that representation is the core of visual art, but for many centuries the practice of visual art has been based around representation. Broadly, people have judged visual art on whether it looks like what it is meant to be, so when works of visual art cease to be about ‘looking like something’ people turn away from them as they are unable to engage.
Of course, visual art has always been about more than ‘looking like something’: much renaissance art is based around allegory and symbols, which viewers at the time would have recognised, but which most of us, now, do not recognise. ‘Reading’ such a painting is more than seeing what it looks like. Unfortunately, recognition of the need for ‘reading’ among the broader audience has been weak, so when we get into the late nineteenth century and into the twentieth century the gap between practitioners and audience gets broader. Until we get to the stage we are now, with a divide between popular art which ‘looks like something’ (e.g. Jack Vettriano) and unpopular art which does not.
That was as far as I had got until a recent trip to Paris which took in the Musée de l’Orangerie and the Musée d’Orsay, both of which have collections of late 19th and early 20th century paintings and sculpture. Looking at those collections it was clear that the ‘problem’, or better, the ‘divergence’ really kicks in with the Impressionists who have a different approach to ‘what it looks like’, resulting in works thst would have had them laughed out of the eighteenth-century academy. Not that they couldn’t have produced works of academy style and standard, but they chose a different way of looking (and, not that the academicians thought they were only dealing ‘what it looks like’).
Once that different way has started there’s no going back: ‘looking like what it looks like’ in the academy way is no longer the path: that get us to post-impressionism, cubism and all the rest. And that’s fine. There is no requirement for works of visual art to resemble anything: but there are, I suggest, requirements of competence and good faith.
Good faith: that’s a bit of a strange one, isn’t it? Maybe, but it came to me as I was looking at the Matisses in the Orangerie and comparing them to the Derains on the opposite wall. The heads of Matisse’s people looked wrong. Not grotesquely wrong, or ‘I-can’t-do-any-better wrong’ (which is what we excuse in Rousseau), but very deliberately not quite right. He chose to do that, even though he could have painted them ‘right’. That faux naïf approach from a man who clearly could draw annoyed me, like a good musician deliberately playing out of tune.
Of course, he had a reason for doing that (at least, I hope he did), a reason which overrode the need to ‘look like’. Unfortunately, I’m not able to get past the naiveté to connect with that reason.
But opposite that was Derain’s Table de cuisine (Kitchen Table) a painting that ‘looks like’ something, a lot of things, but also does more than that. I find it difficult to describe exactly what that ‘more’ is, but I think it lies in the arrangement of the items and their emphasised edges. We have more than just an image of a kitchen table and some kitchen objects. Derain has given us the table and some.
I don’t have a snappy conclusion to these thoughts: I am still thinking and happy to listen to the views of the better informed.
So. Recently, I have spent a lot of time down a number of deep dark holes. On occasion, they have been wonderful, packed with shiny, interesting things, with little gems and nuggets there for the taking. And once down one of the holes I often find side passages that lead off into other caverns and caves, all with their surfaces glistening, all offering attractive trinkets. I can spend all day down there: which means the work of the day doesn’t get done.
I have, of course, been doing research.
Research is a respectable word for loafing around on google trying to find stuff out for my latest writing project. Fortune’s Favourite is set in the mid-eighteenth century: a period I know a fair bit about, but not quite enough. That means, when I want to refer to a stretch of the Thames by the appropriate name, I need to go hunting for it.
That afternoon I read a lot about navigation on the Thames, I learned something about working the slack, which may come in useful later, but I also now have vestigial memories of having briefly known something about rules for coxes and the dead key which coaches must always use (if they fall out of the launch the key will be pulled out and the launch engine will cut out, preventing accidents). Just to be clear, I don’t know that, I only remember that I read it.
I also read a lot about the building of Westminster Bridge – the original one – with all its subsidence problems. (That, later on, made me doubt an episode of Dr Who, because the Thames wouldn’t have been deep enough to hide the size of monster they put in it.) Unfortunately, none of that helped with the original question. I spent a good hour down a dark hole full of shiny things and wrote nothing.
Another hole is the 1749 map of London that I have on CD (that’s the image at the top of this post). It is absolutely fascinating and has helped me work out the route the main character took on his arrival in London, but it is so easy to vanish into it, looking for places I don’t need to know about, or zooming in on an alley with an interesting name. Research is a curse for this sort of project: there is so much that I could do with knowing, but I still need to do the actual writing, particularly as I am still hacking together a first draft (a very good first draft, but still a first).
However, I am pleased to announce I have come up with a plan which will keep me out of the research mines when I should be writing, but will also let me log all my queries so I can come back to answer them, if I find I need to. The system works in Scrivener, which is where I have written for nearly ten years now, so some parts are Scrivener specific, but I am sure it would be possible to do something similar in W*rd.
I have never used Scrivener’s Status metadata, preferring to colour code labels for progress, so I have set one status as text query. When I come across something I think I need to know (it might be a query about make-up, or whether there still were Jacobite heads on pikes on Temple Bar in 1750 (yes, is the answer)) I highlight the words or phrase in a bold burgundy, then set the status for that document from N/A to text query. If needs be I can make a short note in the document note field.
I then keep writing.
Later, I can identify those documents with queries in the Outline view and easily see what needs to be resolved. Even later, I could save a search as a collection to pull them all into one place.
I haven’t got to that stage yet, as I’m still enjoying the novelty of staying in the sunlight and writing, instead of disappearing down the research mines. I’m going to run with this for a while: I may let you now how I get on.
One day a badger decided to dig a new sett. She walked through the wood until she found a sloping bank sheltered from the wind but open to the afternoon sun. It would be a good place to bring up her cubs.
She dug, clawing soil away and flinging it far behind her. Soon her snout disappeared into the ground, then her shoulders. By lunchtime, all that could be seen were occasional clumps and spurts of earth spattering out of the mouth of the sett.
She dug for days, cutting and shaping the sett until it was just as she had imagined it. At last, it was finished. The badger came out, blinking into the evening light, just as a fox strolled past.
‘Good evening, neighbour,’ said the fox.
‘Good evening, neighbour,’ said the badger.
‘A new sett is it?’
The badger suddenly felt shy. ‘Well, it’s something I threw together in my spare time. I’m not exactly sure it’s all right, but for the moment. You know.’
The fox tilted its head. ‘A new sett is always interesting. Why don’t you tell me about it?’
The badger scratched at the ground with a forepaw. ‘Well, the soil is dry, loamy, but with a hint of iron. About six inches down there’s a big tree root, that took a bit of getting through, but it makes a lovely feature on the side of the passage. A sort of pale disc, that glows when the light hits it. When you get about a foot and a half down the soil changes to a silty clay. I wonder if there was an old stream bed through here. The taste is gritty…’
The fox yawned. ‘Just tell me how many bedrooms there are.’
‘There aren’t any bedrooms as such. There are places for sleeping in, but the way they open off the main chamber means they aren’t really rooms.’
The fox looked passed the badger. ‘Will you excuse me, I’ve just seen a vole which hasn’t seen me.’
The fox bounded off.
The badger watched him go. ‘It is a very snug sett,’ she whispered.
I am like the badger (and not just because my beard has white streak down the middle). I have just finished the first draft of a story. Now I have to tell people of it, but I hesitate, partly out of shyness and partly because I know they will ask ‘what is the story about?’ That, as the badger found, is a difficult question. Not because the story isn’t about anything – far from it, there are forty-one thousand wonderful words I have been immersed in for months – but rather because identifying the essence of the story those words form is tricky.
When my partner asks ‘what’s it about?’ I mutter and murmur, going either too long (‘we’re in eighteenth century central Europe, do you remember when we went to Czechoslovakia to česki Krumolv and česki Budjeovice, well, its a bit like that …’) or too short (‘it’s about knowing your place in the world’). Both of those are true, but neither of them is the right answer: the scale is wrong.
So yesterday, I called out to the internet ‘help me sort out a summary for this story’ (which is called Gilbert the Liar). The internet sent me Graeme Shimmin, or at least, his web site, and particularly this page on the elevator pitch. I worked through the methodology for the log line, finally getting:
In eighteenth-century Europe, a duke’s son flees the ancestral castle to avoid marrying the bride chosen for him. An unplanned meeting with an unreliable baker gives him the chance of a life with the girl he has fallen for, if only he can overcome his strong sense of family duty.
And the Hollywood style pitch:
Trading places meets Cyrano de Bergerac.
Does that sound even a little bit interesting? If it does, you can read a few chapters here. I’m going to let it rest for a week or two and then come back to groan over it. Because that’s what I do.
So. This post doesn’t so much contain spoilers, but is a spoiler. If you don’t want to know the ending or major events of Tess of the d’Urbervilles look away now.
I have a complicated history with Tess of the d’Urbervilles, which started before I read it, because Thomas Hardy wrote it and I had to wade through Under the Greenwood Tree and The Mayor of Castorbridge at school. I saw the film (no, Normandy does not look like Wessex) and read bits of it. Many years later one of my children was in a musical adaptation. (They didn’t use the title of this post as a chorus to one of their songs: but they should have, as it summarises the whole book.) Now, another of the children is studying the book for A level.
Tonight after tea, the discussion turned to Angel, and is he a baddie or not (it was a more nuanced discussion than it sounds). Soon we found ourselves asking in what week of the apprentice would the various characters in the novel have been fired: a most interesting question.
Alex should be first to go, given that raping Tess is one of the worst things that happens to her, but we reckoned he would actually last quite a few weeks, perhaps even getting to the semi-final and the interviews, mainly because he would be clever enough to present a pleasant appearance, until Margaret would tear apart his CV.
Tess’s father would go in an early week, seeing as how he was a lazy, boastful drunk, but we agreed it would be her mother who would be fired in the first week for being too keen to push Tess towards the d’Urbervilles and for failing to warn her anything about men.
The final would be Tess and Angel going head to head. Tess with her business plan for a dairy and Angel with his internet travel company specialising in South American tours. Which one would Lord Sugar (I am in the UK) choose as his business partner?
This post is a little like Ikea, if you want to skip past the kitchen displays and the bedrooms just get to the marketplace and checkouts then just jump here.
And I can only assume that if you are still reading you are ready for a little meander.
I have been writing for years (I tried to write an encyclopaedia when I was about ten: was this ambition?), but have only been writing on computers thirty years. This has been a good thing as my handwriting is both abominable and abominably slow: since I have using computers people have been able to read my words – for good or ill. The downside was being tethered to a computer keyboard. First a mainframe terminal, linked to a computer running MTS (Michigan Terminal System in case anyone’s interested), then an Amstrad PCW 8256 and a little later a PC (a 386 from a manufacturer which folded a few weeks after I bought the machine).
Any time I wanted to write I had to be at the desk, which was really annoying. I had all manner of attempts at working around, including a dictaphone (for which I made a little foot pedal – screwing a switch to a piece of plywood and doing a spot of soldering). If I was away from the machine I would write – on paper, with a pen – then type it up. I wrote a couple of unpublished (unpublishable) manuscripts (let’s not call them books) using that method. It was so frustrating – particularly (did I mention) given my handwriting was slow and bad: in the worst case I can only read my own writing within five minutes of writing it.
Then, towards the end of the 1990s (so long ago) there were Palm Pilots, the first laptops, the Apple Newton. Hints towards writing on the move. Finally, in 2000, I bought a Handspring: a green plastic block with a blocky screen. No keyboard, but a stylus for making almost writing shapes. Wonderful. I could write where I was then upload the words to my PC and drag them into a Word document. Even better when I got a folding keyboard to go with it and I could touch type to the small green plastic block. The scary thing with the Handspring was changing the batteries: thirty seconds to do it or everything vanished.
The Handspring was a game changer, but the whole Palm/Handspring landscape that seemed so solid, so well developed, has vanished like the missing part of a Norwegian valley – ground away under the weight of a glacier. Three years later I upgraded to a Palm Tungsten, which slid up and down on itself and had a folding keyboard. I wrote some good stuff on that. But, of course, a but, there was still the need to transfer the text to a proper computer and fiddle with it. And editing a document of any length was painful.
The split of little device and tethered computer disappeared when I got my first laptop, a G4 iBook. It wasn’t one of the orange or blue clam cases (I still love that design, even though I never had one). The iBook was a breakthrough, the words in the right format, wherever I was. It was good, and got even better when I tried out Scrivener: astonishing software which just fitted with the way I write. I mean, how often do you start at the beginning and keep hammering on to the end until you’ve finished? Or do you write bits and pieces in different files and on little pieces of paper that have to be connected with letters in big circles and squares to link it together. I am definitely in that second category, so Scrivener was almost a miracle.
I have written so much in Scrivener: plays, brochures, stories, technical books. The only thing I don’t start in Scrivener is poetry: for some reason that still starts on the page with a fountain pen.
But lap tops weren’t that small, still a couple of kilos to carry around. Not exactly stick in the pocket stuff. So when the iPads came out I got one: with a bluetooth keyboard it was a nice writing machine (I still can’t cope with the on-screen keyboard, touch typing doesn’t work on an immobile screen). But I was back in the dark valley of syncing and formatting. Until July 2016, which is when Scrivener for iOS was released.
[And a welcome back to those who have cut through and missed the wardrobes and kitchens.]
Scrivener for iOS is as astonishing as Scrivener on the Mac. The whole paradigm of writing in pieces, not writing in one long stream. The binder, the synopsis, the metadata, the document notes (because a document is not simply a piece of text, but an embedded part of a network of thought and words), all there on the iPad.
And all synchronising back and forward before the iPad and the Mac, happening solidly through Dropbox. The same words, the same formatting, here, there, on the bigger screen, on the smaller screen. Even (thank you aeroplane mode) thirty thousand feet above the ground). Somehow this brings together the mobility, the decent keyboard and the proper formatting.
Scrivener of iOS is not the be all and end all: it still doesn’t make the coffee, and I still have to hammer the words out from my head. But it is a wonderful piece of software. So thank you Keith (not Kevin).
So. I started writing a poem about waiting. And in one of those curious moments of decision I went for rhyme royal, a seven-line stanza with an ababbcc rhyme scheme (supposedly ‘royal’ because James I of Scotland used it for his poem The Kingis Quair, but possibly more prosaically named for the French chant royal: less exciting and therefore probably right: thank you as ever, Wikipedia).
The first stanza turned out to be about penguins, the way the male emperor penguins look after the eggs through the winter, clustering together to keep off the worst of the weather.
But then the other verse started to arrive. And they didn’t have anything to do with penguins. In fact the penguins were starting to stand out. Four verses in they were standing, staring at me.
I don’t like being stared at. So they had to go. But as I don’t like making penguins homeless I have re-housed them here.
So. Recently, I ran a workshop on techniques to start creative projects. I have run it a few times now (and I have written about the techniques elsewhere), but not so often that I am on autopilot. Almost every time I find out something interesting for me. This time was no different.
We started the session doing some free writing starting from the phrase ‘a garden is …’. Everyone got their heads down and wrote, all in handwriting tidier than mine. Then we went round to see what people had found in their writing. As you’d expect, even with that starting point there was a huge variation in the approach, subject and style of the writing. But what I hadn’t expected was that one person became quite emotional as they finished going through their text.
It came as a surprise, but, on reflection, really shouldn’t have. We aren’t doing therapy, but any workshop which involves people accessing the things inside them, has the possibility that some of those things will be disturbing or distressing. We are always hoping for wonders, but there is no rule that the things which emerge will be beautiful and uplifting.
No life is entirely free of pain, and for many people life is grim. If we invite them to an act of self-exposure – which is what writing is – we should expect evidence of those experiences in what they create.
In fact, given that we are dealing with human experience I’m surprised that so little of what comes out is negative. On this occasion, we gave the person a moment, then moved gently on to the next exercise.
And I was reminded, once again, of the power of this writing stuff, which I sometimes treat too glibly.