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. Recently I have been reading a few of my early short stories (there aren’t many later ones as I gave up writing them) with a view to making some of them available in The Vault (the collection is called The Platonic Egg and Other Stories). I’m happy to put most of them up there, but there are two I have not. One because it is an embarrassing reminder of my younger self, in an exercise in wish-fulfilment no one else needs to read. The other, because it has been overtaken by events in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s.
I don’t think my story merits much more consideration, but I think there is an interesting question of how we treat stories and other works of art that sit on the far side of a gulf of events. Let me use a rather better work than mine as an example.
Back in the mid-nineteen eighties the BBC Radio 4 broadcast a dramatisation of the Saki short story The Unrest Cure. In the original story, Clovis overhears a fellow passenger on a train discussing the dullness of his life and decides to provide a stimulus, a more exciting life; the opposite of the conventional ‘rest cure’. Clovis diverts himself to the man’s house and announces that he has been sent by the local bishop to organise a massacre of all the Jews in the district. There is panic, alarm, distress, but, in the end, no massacre as Clovis vanishes as mysteriously as he arrived. Yet, in the broadcast version, the object of the massacre was changed from the local Jews to the local Irish.
Now, there is enough in history to see why the Irish were chosen as the replacement victims; centuries of colonial rule and oppression made them suitable understudies. Despite that, when I heard the broadcast something didn’t sit right, because, for all the troubles that Ireland suffered, at the time Saki was writing, there were not massacres of the Irish taking place. Yet there were pogroms against Jews in Russia and anti-semitism was widespread across Europe: a massacre of Jews had a horrible plausibility, and would not have been the first in England.
So why the change? The adapters of the story found themselves reading it across the nearly incomprehensible chasm of the Holocaust and decided that, out of respect for, and recognition of, the suffering in that terrible persecution of Jews and other groups, they could not broadcast it as it was written. (I do wonder what would have happened if they had gone ahead and broadcast it leaving Jews as the intended victims: it would have been ghastly to listen to, and our knowledge of later events might have overwhelmed the story, but we might have glimpsed something of the on-going evil that is anti-semitism.)
The change from the Jews to the Irish was understandable, but also misguided. I would have rather they had left the story unbroadcast. This is not censorship: the story is still in print and readers who want to understand something of the perception of Jews and jewishness in Edwardian England can still read it (alongside at least one other Saki story that victimises Jews). Rather, it is an acknowledgement that some fractures in history are so deep they cannot be obliterated with a coat of green paint.
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. Although this site is mainly about words and that, nature keeps creeping in. Yesterday I was cycling along the banks of the Tyne. The tide was going out, so there were mud banks showing on both sides of the river. Nearer Newcastle that exposed traffic cones flung off bridges, the ribs of old boats and water-logged tree-trunks that have become stuck in the mud. As I came round one bend with a broad stretch of mud on the outside of the curve I saw plenty of gulls and waders, a few cormorants and another couple of tree-trunks.
Expect they weren’t. They were seals. Two seals lying on the mud beside the Tyne.
I stopped to watch and photograph. I don’t have a wonder-camera, only my phone, which is why the photograph above is so grainy – maximum zoom and they still look tiny. As I watched I realised there was a third seal in the water, occasionally it would arc out of the water and splash back in.
The two on the bank busied themselves with lying there, but now and again would curl their tails or go into a stretch of head and tail that made them look like a big, brown, furry banana.
After a few minutes I cycled on, got to the mid point of my ride, crossed the river and cycled back, choosing the path that would take me along side the river all the way. As I had hoped, the seals were still there: now all three of them on the mud. The one that had been in the water was smaller than the others and was more bothered by the sea-birds that came gradually closer. When they got too close it rippled furiously towards them. I took more pictures and finally cycled on.
After the excitement of seeing them – and I was excited, pointing them out to passers-by – I wondered whether it was a good thing or a bad thing that there were seas in the Tyne. On the one hand, it could be good, because it is a sign of the improved water quality. But then it could be a sign that life for seals is so grim elsewhere that it’s worth taking a chance on the Tyne. I hope it’s the first, but I have no data.
So. Today (6th October – Gregorian Calendar) is National Poetry Day. Hurrah. Poetry is good enough to deserve a day. Unfortunately, I have not written a poem today: too busy working and thinking about heat loss and condensation.
But I did write a poem yesterday. Normally, I would post a little bit of a poem, but I am not going to post this one, because there is serious scope for being misunderstood. Not only does it include words I would not normally use – not sweary or vulgar but differently unpleasant – but it does not represent my own feelings or opinions. How so?
Because I have written the UK’s next ‘Song for Europe’ which turns out to be an unpleasant, self-satisfied, xenophobic rant.
I am torn. At one level, I think it is appropriate and very, very pointed. And at another level, I am shamed of having used some of the words in it, and I do not want anyone to be in anyway confused and to think this might be my actual real opinions. So I will not post it, or publish it, until it is being sung by the next incarnation of the Spitting Image puppets.
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. At this time on a Saturday morning, with the weekly shopping done, I would normally be writing poetry. But poetry takes a certain amount of focus, and today I do not have that. Following the referendum result, the UK and Europe face years of challenge and uncertainty. I find myself uneasy and worried.
I know there are many people who see this as a wonderful new start for the UK, free of the shackles of the European Union. I trust they will use their sudden freedom responsibly, to make the UK a peaceful, stable, generous, welcoming place.
As for me, I do not share their near-mystical faith in the British (look how I am already in a terminological mess by the third paragraph as I try to tease things out). There are many, many good things about the UK and, having lived here all my life, I know how things work and I can be comfortable here. (I prefer East Anglian beer to any other in the world, but that is, in part, because that was the beer I started drinking.)
I can admire the view across a valley, seeing the pattern of the hedgerows and fields, the woods and the single oaks in the pastures. Yet at the same time I know a large part of that landscape was formed as the result of an eighteenth century land-grab, carried out by the elite and sanctioned by their unrepresentative parliament. (And the same, or worse, can be said about the grouse moors of Scotland.)
There is a certain inevitablity in quoting Chesterton when talking about the UK (and again, the terminology: Chesterton wrote a History of England, not a History of Britain). When, during the Boer war, he was faced with maddened imperialism, he observed:
‘My country, right or wrong,’ is a thing that no patriot would think of saying. It is like saying, ‘My mother, drunk or sober.’
You love your mother because she is your mother, but do you want her to behave like that?
Britain no more has a ‘rightful place in the world’ than the USA has a ‘manifest destiny’, and the ‘British way of life’ has no more intrinsic value than any other. Such value it has comes from its alignment to universals such as justice, truth and kindness.
But we are where we are. So the question is ‘what do I do?’
Despair and resentment are not options. My answer is that I must act with justice, truth and kindness, and I must work that out in everything that I write and create.
So. I was watching Frank. An odd film, but one which addresses the question of inspiration (or may be creeps up on it then runs away).
Early on, the protagonist (I’m going to call him Bob as I can’t remember his name at the minute) is trying to write a song. Bob takes his – well, let’s call it inspiration for the moment – from the people he passes in the street, which leads to lyrical gems like this:
Lady in the red coat what you doing with that bag?
Lady in the blue coat do you know the lady in the red coat?
When he gets home he goes up to his room and attacks the keyboard, working away until a tune comes to fit those words. Then he stops as he recognises he is playing a Madness song.
So much for inspiration. Except that, later on, Frank – in his big paper mâché head – is challenged on the same question. He looks at the carpet for moment and sings a song about an upstanding tuft. Is it a great song? Not quite, but it is a step up from ‘Lady in the blue coat’.
That leaves the Bob, and the viewer, wondering what makes the difference? How does a carpet make for a better song than a person? Is it just that Frank is a better artist than Bob, that his creative juices flow thicker and richer, that he is somehow more in touch with his creative core? Some of that may be true, but it smacks of the romantics’ great artist explanation, which I am not going to buy into. My guess is that it is about observation and engagement: closer observation and deeper engagement result in better songs. Frank has studied the carpet, Bob has only glimpsed the lady in the red coat.
If I am right (and I’m utterly certain that I am) then there is hope for all of us to make better work by digging into the stimuli and sources we draw on. For some people that may mean deep internal journeys, for others it will involve rigorous looking and closer reading (I have written elsewhere about one technique for this). That will take effort, but, given the alternative is shallow or bombastic work, I for one am up for the graft.