Farewell, my web-footed friends

F1000028So. 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.

The hundred-miling molecules of wind

hand out, in passing, slaps of air and snow;

their greetings for the penguin backs they find,

black barnacled in drear paternal row.

Their futures, feather-lodged, and set to grow,

Maintain their seasons, won’t be hastened on.

The wind observes, and just as quick, is gone.

The morning after the morning after

HPIM0173.JPG

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.

It is time to write poetry again.

Watching Frank

 

IMG_2192So. 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.

Remember your local librarian

IMG_2163So. I suspect I was like many people in that I first heard of Umberto Eco because of The Name of the Rose, his palimpsestic mediaeval whodunit. I read and enjoyed that, and later Foucault’s Pendulum. Finally, last year, I read his brilliant little study guide How to Write a Thesis.

Now, it is many years since I wrote my own thesis (which was subsequently published and is available in a pirated PDF in less savoury parts of the inter webs – maybe one day I will digitise it myself), but Eco’s book reminded me of the workings of research in the 1980s. Back then there was no world wide web, email was something only the permanent academic staff had. To get a book you went to the library, filled out an interlibrary loan form (which was in duplicate and possibly triplicate), paid thirty pence and waited.

And waited.

And waited.

Eventually, weeks later, the book or article would arrive and you would find out if it was actually relevant to your studies. My experience may be slightly atypical, in that I needed journal articles from the-then-Jugoslavija, but still, for the arts student the library was vital in a way it is probably not today.

How to Write a Thesis shows Eco as an appreciator of libraries, and also librarians. I have nothing to add to his words:

You must overcome any shyness and have a conversation with the librarian, because he can offer you reliable advice that will save you much time. You must consider that the librarian (if not overworked or neurotic) is happy when he can demonstrate two things: the quality of his memory and erudition and the richness of his library, especially if it is small. The more isolated and disregarded the library, the more the librarian is consumed with sorrow for its underestimation. A person who asks for help makes the librarian happy. (How to write a thesis. pp56-7).

On abstaining

Far to the north of the Arctic Circle,

too far perhaps to fit into the world,

is a mountain,

several miles high and many leagues in circumference.

At the foot of the mountain lives a colony of crows.

Once in every tenth generation, a crow

flies to the summit of the mountain

and sharpens its beak on the rock,

wearing away a near-invisible fragment of stone.

When the crows have worn the mountain into the sea

the first day of Lent will have passed.

A Christmas Garland Redux

Garland

So. Last Christmas I wrote a twelve sonnet cycle, on the theme of Christmas, and posted them on Living Lantern, a day at a time. I was contemplating another Christmas project for this season, but a Christmas deadline on another project put an end to that, so I’m having a rest.

In the meantime, to make the original cycle easier to read, I have compiled it into an ebook. You can download that here:

A Christmas Garland – mobi format for kindle

A Christmas Garland – epub format for all manner of other readers.

The ebooks are free, but if you feel that you want to pay something for it, you can also buy it on Amazon (that link is to amazon.co.uk, but it’s also available on amazon.com).

Approach

approach
Approach – ©Andrew Barker 2012, reproduced with permission

So. Last night I was at the Holy Biscuit for their fifth birthday party and the launch of Now and Not Yet, a publication for advent (visit their site to find out more and to order a copy). The book has twenty-five entries – one for each day of December up to and including Christmas Day – most of which have a photograph and an accompanying piece of text which responds to or reflect on the image.

The entry for the first of December features Approach by Andrew Barker and this poem, which I was asked to write in response to the image.

Approach

I had not noticed the shadows before,
where there is no light there are no shadows.
Without the light. I had not realised
it was dark, that such a thing as light could be

I was surprised. To find I had a shape,
have edges. Definition. Shoulders.
And now, I see the rest, out there, is dark.
The light makes ‘there’ and splits it off from ‘here’.

I like the light. I do. I like the light.
I will stay here. Close, but not too close.
This shape I have. I’m not exactly proud.
I would rather have a different shape.

You could step closer, nearer to the light.
Be bolder, clearer: let yourself be bright.

 

The speed of sound in lyrics

IMG_1816So. Sam Smith has written the theme song to the new James Bond film, Spectre. A Guardian article about the piece includes his claim that he wrote the lyrics in about 20 minutes.

That’s not long. So what are we to understand by that claim? I have a few options.

First, it is a boast as to the supreme efficiency of his muse, that a splendid song comes ‘just like that’. (Not that I know it is splendid, the splendour comes as part of the claim.) Mr Smith was inspired and, like Coleridge waking from his dream to write Kublai Khan, dashed down the lyrics as fast as the muse dictated.

Secondly, it could mean the lyrics are unimportant bosh which Mr Smith bodged together on the back of an envelope when he needed something to go with the tune (rumty, tumty something love, rumty, tumty blah blah glove).

Thirdly, it could be that, as someone who primarily writes poetry, I don’t understand the song writing process, and maybe twenty minutes is a really long time to spend on lyrics.

I’m not sure I’m competent to judge on which of those is true, but I tend towards the first, as I don’t think he is implying ‘I just put any old crap down on the page’.

In the end, speed of composition should be an irrelevance to appreciating the work; of no more value than knowing a favourite author wrote in green ink (Paulo Neruda), or on recycled envelopes (Dickinson), or naked (allegedly Victor Hugo), or standing up (Kierkegaard, Woolf). Our desire to know that, and all the other features are part of the cargo cult of creativity: if I do it how she did then I can get the same results. And that really is bosh.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a book to write (Scrivener, standing up and clothed). So far it’s taken about 400 hours. Unfortunately, that is no guarantee of its quality.

99% perspiration

So. Here I am in a field (fortunately in a tent as well), reflecting on today’s writing workshop at Catalyst Festival. I wanted to do something on the necessary disciplines of editing and revising: we are still too tied to the romantic and spiritual ideal of inspiration. We spend a lot of time thinking about how the initial process of creation happens, when we push back against the void, whether white page or blank screen, to make something, but we spend less time thinking about what happens next, when that formless, unshaped thing needs to be licked into shape. (And licking into shape is a very appropriate image: remember that a bear cub, newborn, has no form until its mother, by repeated application of her tongue, creates limbs, torso and head.)

I wanted to give experience of critiquing, to start to build those editorial instincts that can be used to turn the ‘all right’ into the extra-ordinary. What better way to begin than by offering one of my own poems for study?

I chose a recent piece which is still in its early stages, here it is:

Acacia Baileyana
or Under it all a seed

Disorder is reduced
To a more rational register
Noise flares
Shift to silence
Branches burst
The marks and symptoms of disease
are disinfected as they run
Tongues of satisfaction
offer the warmed sky simplified matter
then subside to harder contènt
After bitter resistance
unruly colour
settles down to grey

What would they make of it?

First, the basic question of ‘what is it about?’ A surprise for me there: turns out I must have had my obscurity dial set to high when I gave this a title, as only one out of the nine people round the table said ‘fire’. Acacia Baileyana is an Australian tree, the seed of which only germinates after it has been heated by a forest fire. It turns out not many people know that.

Once I gave the hints they started to make sense of it a little more, and I received useful comments: the first two lines might fit better at the end, the marks and symptoms of disease need to be clarified, the pairing of long and short lines could be tightened. All good stuff, which I will ponder.

But the best thing is that those nine people have spent time analysing someone else’s work, and are beginning to develop some of the skills needed to analyse their own.

Three minutes’ thought

Phrenology diagramSo. One of the offspring is complaining about A-level physics being hard. Which it is. Unsympathetically, I was reminded of A E Housman’s jibe at some nineteenth century classical scholars:

Three minutes’ thought would suffice to find this out, but thought is irksome and three minutes is a long time.

But for all Housman was having a go at someone, there is a truth in there: thought is irksome. Elsewhere in the house someone is struggling at an assignment in their MBA. And I have spent two hours writing poetry and have got maybe twelve lines, at least half of which I will change and the other half I may discard. That was irksome.

I wasted ten minutes on the internet researching bee pollination (researching, that makes it sound impressive: I typed bee pollination into google and got a wikipedia page with a table) because thought is irksome and poetry takes thought.

In fact, thought is so irksome I am going to pot up my tomato seedlings rather than do it any longer.