Categories
Poetry Writing

Is John Keats a natural poet?

‘If poetry comes not as naturally as the leaves to a tree, it had better not come at all.’ John Keats, Hampstead Feb 27th 1818, Letter to John Taylor.

Keats wrote this ‘axiom’ in a letter to his friend John Taylor when he was 22. Are we to read this as a notion of genius — that great artists simply and effortlessly derive their work from the muses, while the rest of us lumpen, non-geniuses labour? Of course by the age of 22 Keats had already published and written sublime and lasting work. But read through his poetry and you can see the craft evolve at an extraordinary rate — accelerated by his deep study of Shakespeare.

Most texts, especially poetry, are worked at long and hard. Many writers, but I would suggest especially poets because of the nature of the form, will be familiar with the sensation of a poem arriving fully realised. The first poem I had printed (in Other Poetry, back in the early eighties) was written this way. I remember sitting down to write, after a visit to Kenilworth Castle,  and an effortless eight-line poem about the Castle simply popping out. It was a weird feeling.  Since then a few of my poems have emerged this way and when it happens, you must avoid noticing that it is happening, just go with the flow.

Keats’s Ode To Autumn, was published in 1820. While the first page of the MS here has crossings-out (I selected this image from Google because it seemed quite worked on) even this MS demonstrates that the poem arrived almost fully formed, and it was composed in one day — 19th September 1819. For one of the most famous poems in the English language, that’s not bad going. Here’s the first page of the MS version.

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It is a moot point if anyone else can tell that a something written in one fell swoop or not, and if this matters?

T.E. Eliot’s The Waste Land, took years to write, and there is MS with not only Eliot’s workings but Ezra Pound, the il miglior fabbro (the better maker) of the poem’s dedication. Between them, they shrunk the poem by almost half with their edits and revisions. Here is the start of the poem as we know it, but notice the pagination, the first page of the poem in MS had been completely cut, with a light pencil line, by Eliot himself.

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Naturally the methods of Keats and Eliot are entirely different. Modernism, as expressed in The Waste Land, is in part a literary collage, a piecing together to make something new. This is time consuming. The Romantic idea of genius, and a spirit suddenly possessing one is persistent.  It is a single-minded outpouring, rather than an assemblage. You may have read lots, but your poem must pour out of you in an inspired torrent.

Keats was an extraordinary person. If we were all to wait for poetry to emerge like leaves from a tree, poems would be few and far between. But perhaps there is a case to be argued that a Romantic poem being tinkered with endlessly somehow kills it. Wordsworth’s endless revisions of his own work may be an example of this.

Today, traces of Romantic thinking still exist in the caricatured expectations culture has for the way artists are supposed to behave. The image of the otherworldly poet inspired by a muse is a hard one to shake off.

Categories
Fiction Poetry

Is your writing true to yourself?

1432719578_Karl Ove Knausgård
Karl Ove Knausgaard

Reading A Man in Love, volume two of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle, I’m struck by how his fidelity to describing life’s minutiae lends credibility to his descriptions of more important things. If he can be so reliable in his description of doing the washing up, then we instinctively trust his truth telling about more important events. Knausgaard’s candour is magnificent. He seems to remember everything, and retells it unflinchingly, however bad it makes him seem, or how humiliating it is for the people close to him.

He does have a consistent tone. The tone is truthful. Obviously ‘truth’ is word guaranteed to start arguments, but having such an identifiable tone is an advantage, but it seems to me to presuppose a stable identity from which that voice emerges.

Rightly or wrongly, I tend to think of people as a cluster of sub-personalities. So to me having a tone which is sustained for as long as Knausgaard sustains it, seems remarkable. It is a fictional device however, and a tension exists between the consistency of this device and the idea that Knausgaard is relentlessly truth telling.  I find the truthfulness in Knausgaard challenging in all the right ways.  He manages to convey a  searing emotional reality, that is strangely able to remain grounded in the concrete world.

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Sylvia Plath

Confessional writers appear to grant you permission to access to private thoughts. Sylvia Plath electrified this approach. Take Daddy written on October 1962.

Although the ‘I’ is addressing a ‘you’, I don’t really have any sense of  a dialogue here, rather of eavesdropping on one of those repetitive interior monologues.

If I’ve killed one man, I’ve killed two –
The vampire who said he was you
And drank my blood for a year,
Seven years, if you want to know.
Daddy you can lie back now.

There’s a stake in your fat black heart
And the villagers never liked you.
They are dancing and stamping on you.
They always knew it was you.
Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through.

(Daddy)

This sounds like a confession, but who is she confessing to? Us as readers I suppose.

Elsewhere in the poem she employs holocaust imagery to describe her Daddy, such as: ‘A man in black with a Meinkampf look’. Her father was a German-born academic who wrote a book about bumblebees, and arrived in the US at the age of 5 in 1900. Plath is clearly describing an emotional reality rather than a empirical one. But in the arena of her supercharged interior monologue, emotional and symbolic truths exist with mesmerising force.

As someone who likes plays, a fictionalised I, such as in a Shakespearian dramatic monologue, seems entirely normal. In English poetry Robert Browning was well known for his poems which were essentially dramatic monologues. While Y.B. Yeats had what he called ‘masks’ through which his various personae spoke. There is nothing new about toying with identity. The Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa for example, published poems under several identities. When I visited his house in Lisbon, there were the horoscopes he’d drawn up for these different identities on the exterior walls of the house. Wikipedia lists 81 different heteronyms.

What Knausgaard makes me think about how we manage self-disclosure and present our truth in writing. When you can make your writing seem like unalloyed truth, the fripperies of fiction can seem artificial. I’m hoping that by gulping down another dose of  Knausgaard, my awareness of inauthenticity in my own work will be heightened.

For me the idea of who is this person who is writing your work, is quite an intriguing one.  I think I tend to give vent to different kinds of truth in my plays than I do in my poems. I like the idea of different media conveying different sub-personalities. But there must be some centre to it all somewhere, some bedrock of personality. Perhaps this is why I am enjoying Knausgaard so much. Perhaps we can infer from his work that there is a bedrock, and we find this reassuring.

Categories
A Glass of Nothing a writer's life Brighton Blonde Productions Poetry Telltale Press Theatre

Precious time

I’ve spent the last couple of months with little time. I’ve been commuting to London to work in an advertising agency every day (a four hour round trip). The Gods of Freelance then added in more work for me to do on the train, and in the evenings and weekends and through holidays. By chance this coincided with one of my worst-ever bouts of depression. I rarely get depressed. Glum, sure, but that’s usually over in a few days. But being down for weeks on end was unusual for me, and my respect for people who keep on keeping on, despite dealing with repeated depression, is more acute now.

Now, having thawed from that glacier, I feel myself again. Being depressed for me means having myself at the centre of all my thoughts. And you can take it from me, it is a tedious place. Now I can laugh about myself again,  I can’t wait to get stuck into being creative on my own projects. The enforced ‘downtime’ has given me unexpected benefits. I am suddenly much clearer about two of my projects. Time is often the best editor. I could have done without pouring tea into my laptop the other day, however, but that’s a different story.

* * *

I attended the recent Telltale Press reading in Lewes, which featured Siegfried Baber, mining his love of Americana to enormous effect, Marion Tracey whose poems have an Apollonian dreamlike clarity.  Sarah Barnsley read particularly well I thought. One of her poems, called The Fugitive, I loved. It reminded me of C.P. Cavafy’s wonderful concreteness. I think Sarah’s work is fantastic. Sarah introduced her friend Katrina Naomi who also read excellently, despite being interrupted by the Telltale Stand collapsing dramatically as if some poltergeist had given it a good shake. Katrina’s work seems effortless, both accessible and deep. Everyone lapped up her reading.

I snapped two rather poor photos on the night. One of Sarah Barnsley, and the other of Katrina Naomi. The room was packed, although it doesn’t look like it.

* * *

Meanwhile two of my poetry chums are on the cusp of new publications, and I’m delighted for both of them.

By old pal Richard Fleming is just about to publish Stone Witness, a new collection with the Guernsey-oriented Blue Ormer Publishing. Richard’s box of books has just arrived and his blog captures the moment. It is going to be launched during the Guernsey Literary Festival, and I am really looking to seeing him soon, and owning a copy.

Meanwhile Robin Houghton has had a pamphlet accepted by Cinnamon, called All The Relevant Gods, to be published next year. Robin has an inspiring blog post about the journey to acceptance here. For all kinds of reasons, even for an exceptional poet like Robin, making progress can be tough. But it means getting the breakthrough is even sweeter.

* * *

Beth Symons and I are beginning to sort out our Edinburgh Fringe run. We all have somewhere to stay, which is a start. We are just about to start auditioning for a male actor (preferably Brighton based, or within striking distance) to join the ensemble. So if you happen to be male, in your twenties, and an actor with comedy chops, then please get in touch with me through this site.

My play, A Glass of Nothing, which is directed by and stars Beth Symons, and features Kitty Underhill will be on at  The Space @ Surgeon’s Hall, Theatre 2, 9.10pm on 5/8/17, (free preview) 7th, 8th, 9th, 10th August 17 (4-night run).  Naturally I hope to be blah-blahing about this more ere long.

Categories
Poetry Readings Telltale Press

Make 28th April a date for poetry in Lewes

There will be one of Telltale’s splendid reading in Lewes at the end of the month. Super talented Telltale pals Sarah Barnsley and Siegfried Baber, plus Sussex-based Marion Tracy, whose book Dreaming of Our Better Selves, I find distinctive and unusual. I’m looking forward to hearing more of Katrina Naomi’s work too. We have a great time at the Telltale events in The Lewes Arms, so please come along if you can make it.

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Categories
A Guernsey Double Blowing my own trumpet Poetry

Guernsey is my Touchstone

Hideously busy lately but there’s always time for a quick toot on the self promotion trumpet. Another one of my endless love letters to Guernsey cropped up in the ever-interesting The Frogmore Papers last week. I am very grateful to its editor Jeremy Page. Other love letters to the island were collected in A Guernsey Double a few years ago.

Touchstone by Peter Kenny

Categories
A Glass of Nothing a writer's life Brighton Blonde Productions Painters, Poetry Theatre Writing

A mixed bag

I have been working hard on my children’s story The Second Kind of Darkness in the last two months. The end is in sight. Putting the story aside for a few years has really helped. Time is a great editor.

I’ve also been filling in gaps in my reading of good children’s books, including Noughts & Crosses by Malorie Blackman, and a book that is going down brilliantly with under 11s at the moment, Wonder by R.J. Palacio. I even went as far back as Peter and Wendy, by J.M.Barrie, which I found to be fresher than I expected, and genuinely strange in parts.

Having run earlier drafts of my story past schoolchildren in schools, I have two teacher friends, specialists in the age group I am writing for and in English, lined up to read it, not to mention my wife, who is a headteacher. Bracing myself for feedback soon

***

Dates have now firmed up for my play A Glass of Nothing which will have a preview in the Surgeon’s Hall Theatre 2 in Edinburgh on 5th August, and then a short run Monday-Thursday 7th, 8th, 9th and 10th of the following week. As before, it will be a Brighton Blonde Productions performance, and star Beth Symons in the central role.

***

Two deaths in the last few weeks. One in the family, which I won’t write about here, the other of Andy Wilson, a former art director of mine.

I flew down to the funeral in Cornwall, with two other fellow advertising writers Pat and Barney who knew him well too. You get to know your partner inside out when you are working in a creative team, although Andy and I were partners only for about a year and a half, I knew him as a truly gentle soul, who was one of the most original and creative people I have ever met in any walk of life. Sadly his last few years were blighted by demons of addiction. This, as Andy’s death serves to remind me yet again, is a terrible illness that people pretend is a flaw of character.

One memory. When Andy and I were working late, Andy told me out of the blue that to make a party a success (I was thinking of having a party that weekend) I had to get a bucket. He emptied one of the metal bins under the desk, and laughed hollowly into it in a crazy Jack Nicholson style. He invited me to follow suit, and we passed the bucket back and forth until we were crying with laughter at nothing.

***

I once met the Nobel Prize winning Derek Walcott,  who died on 17th March. I admired him as a poet greatly, as I am especially interested in poets from islands (in his case St. Lucia).

With a group of other young poets, I attended a seminar with him back in the 80s in the South Bank.  I found myself standing next to him, and when we were all settling in and in confusion about chairs, I made some joke about sitting on his lap. He looked at me very stonily, clearly deciding I was an idiot from that moment. We were all asked to chuck a poem into the middle. And Derek picked one out at random. The whole session was taken up with his close reading and commenting on this first poem, leaving me at least feeling a bit short changed. At least I got him to sign my copy of The Fortunate Traveller.

***

Got around to reading Jacob Polley’s Jackself eventually. I think it is a worthy winner of the T.S.Eliot award this year. The poems feel very solid and realised, there is a meaty, chewable quality about the language. I want to reread it already. There is an excellent review here from the guardian.

***

Been haunting the National Gallery in London lately. This picture by Joseph Wright of Derby , which I had never looked at before, has begun to obsess me. It is An experiment on a bird in an Air Pump, a picture which becomes stranger the more I look at it. A white cockatoo, presumably the family pet judging by the cage in the corner, is being suffocated to demonstrate the nature of a vacuum. The two girls are naturally appalled, while the scientist with his wild hair and red clothes looks out at us as if to ask us if the air should be allowed back in to revive the poor creature.

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Categories
Blowing my own trumpet Poetry

The Basil O’Flaherty

I’m enjoying the intriguingly-named U.S. literary arts website, The Basil O’Flaherty. It is edited by J.K. Shawhan, and I am grateful to her for publishing four of my short poems here.

Categories
Poetry Travel

Yeats’s Tower and Coole Park

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So having carried Yeats’s words about in my head for 40 years, it was amazing to finally get to look at Thoor Ballylee, a one time home of the poet, and a place which had an enormously powerful symbolic presence in his mind and his poetry.

I went there with Lorraine, my wife, and our friends John and Sue Lahiff. John comes from a family firmly rooted in this area. Finally arriving was an emotional moment for me, arriving out of season, when the tower is not open to visitors, was great. We were the only people there for some of the time. And it was exactly how I had pictured it (having seen photos and so on over the years). And still unchanged from Yeats’s description of it in the second section of the long poem Meditations in a time of civil war.

An ancient bridge, and a more ancient tower,
A farm house that is sheltered by its wall,
An acre of stony ground,
Where the symbolic rose can break in flower,
Old ragged elms, old thorns innumerable,
The sound of the rain or sound
Of every wind that blows;
The stilted water-hen
Crossing stream again
Scared by the splashing of a dozen cows;
A winding stair, a chamber arched with stone,
A grey stone fireplace with an open hearth,
A candle and a written page.

Nearby was Coole Park, where Yeats’s patron Augusta Gregory lived. We had to drive past Kiltartan to get there, mentioned in An Irish Airman Foresees His Death. Coole Park is now a nature reserve, and there is a lovely walled garden, where there was a quote from Yeats suggesting their shadows were still there in the gravel, with an Autograph Tree featuring the carved signatures of Lady Gregory, Yeats, Singe, Jack B Yeats, and many others. The house itself, according to Wikipedia, was actively demolished by the state in the 1940s.

A very misguided act in my opinion. For the house was very tied up with the Irish Literary Renaissance in which Augusta Gregory was a leading figure, as a folklorist, playwright and speaker of the gaelic tongue – but also as a mentor to younger writers. Evocative to find stone stairs leading up to a lost grand house.

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Categories
Poetry Travel

Rattling locked doors

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A page with pictures of gyres, from my copy of A Vision by W.B. Yeats, still with strangely neat annotations by my 21-year-old student self.

I’m having a bit of a fanboy moment. I am off next weekend to Eire, and I hope to have a look at Thoor Ballylee where my all time poetic hero, W.B.Yeats, once lived. Although it is out of season and The Tower is not open to the public I hope at least to be able to mooch about and take some photos.

I love poetry that rattles locked doors. One thing I love about Yeats was his engagement with the esoteric and the occult. He continually thought about what was hidden, and regularly wove symbolism he had derived from his esoteric investigations into his poetry to give it an electrifying charge. One such example is the famous poem The Second Coming.

Lines in the poem, ‘The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity’ seem particularly apposite whenever I think about politics right now. (Along with W.H. Auden’s phrase from Lullaby ‘fashionable madmen raise/Their boring pedantic cry’.)

The Second Coming has many roots, some are in Blake’s poem The Mental Traveller, others in his ideas about the cycles of history and how each cycle is the reverse of the previous one. So we are given an image of the anti-Christ, with Yeats’s theories of a repeating but inverted 2000 year cycle of history.

That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

I love the ambition here, the image is so crazily charged that it brands your memory. I love the fact that it has followed such strange pathways to become such an iconic piece of literature.

How I pored over Yeats’s A Vision, which is a book based on his young wife Georgie’s automatic writing conducted while on honeymoon. It is a system grounded on an adapted astrological model (or that was how I argued it in a dissertation once) of supernaturally inspired images and metaphors. I came out exhausted and thinking that Yeats was half charlatan, half genius. But that seemed to be his essential nature, a highly complex character with all kinds of interests.

As in architecture, an engagement with the occult is all over the place in poetry. The Birthday Letters by Ted Hughes is just one example.

Anyway I am looking forward to jetting off next weekend for a few days. I’ll be taking my collected W.B. Yeats with me, that’s for sure.

Below, a few years ago in another fanboy moment at the great poet’s grave at Drumcliffe.

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Categories
a writer's life Novels Poetry Prose Theatre

Stick or bust?

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Skelton Yawngrave, by Margaret Hamlin

When is it sensible to give up? Persistence we are told is a characteristic of success. Against this idea, I always think about sunk costs. An agency pal once explained to me there’s no sense pouring money into a project because you’ve already poured lots of money into it. Likewise, there comes a moment to cut your losses on an artistic project, and not pour any more time into it.

I have been writing a novel aimed at a 10-12 year old readership for almost ten years. Having set it aside for four years, I recently had a moment of clarity about how I could fix the problems that had previously stumped me. While I have felt that this story contains my best writing, it also didn’t all hang together. But at the beginning of the year, I bought myself some time and have decided to try again. Because I believe in the project, there can only be one answer – once more unto the breach it is then.

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Grace Brown, by Margaret Hamlin

This time, at least, I’ve a new weapon: the writing software Scrivener. My friend Catherine Pope told me about its ages ago, and I finally got around to buying it. It has been a revelation.  And thanks to Scrivener, moving blocks of text, reordering chapters, keeping tabs on the story flow, characters and so on, in a 60k text is all far, far easier. Something that would have taken me hours to sort out, can now be done in seconds. And the new (eighth) draft of the novel (now called The second kind of darkness) is becoming streamlined into something that seems to me to be much improved.

When I first started working on this, almost ten years ago now, I asked my mother Margaret Hamlin to quickly visualise some of the characters I’d created. One of them, Skelton Yawngrave, is above, and the girl is Grace Brown, the story’s heroine, is the smaller image. It’s nice to be back in their company.

* * *

Since attending the T.S.Eliot awards I sent off for several shortlisted books. The first one I received was Rachael Boast’s Void Studies and I have enjoyed dipping into her delicate, dreamlike work. Often the poem’s meanings are tantalisingly out of reach, but like dreams, convey a strange significance.  Coincidentally, while reading landscape-1448893172-trumpsleep Void Studies I’ve been going through one of those phases where I remember my dreams on waking. I’ve noticed again how dreams touch on things I’ve tried to sweep under the carpet. Reading Void Studies during the unfolding catastrophe of Donald Trump’s presidency, makes me think about Donald Trump’s dreamlife. Is all that gold compensating for slate grey dreams? What monsters must live there.

What is the relevance of a book like Void Studies in Trump world? None. But that is the exactly the point. A subtle and delicate work like Void Studies is an example of a culture that must be protected from the jackboot of ignorance that figures like Trump represent.

* * *

And while I’m on the subconscious, having decided to relentlessly focus on prose I found myself writing a series of 13 short poems this week. On Thursday morning I wrote eight eight-line poems in an hour. I have never written eight poems in a week before, let alone eight in an hour. It seems there’s nothing like deciding that under no circumstances will you think about something to make the opposite happen.

* * *

All being well, my play A Glass of Nothing will be having a five-night run in the Surgeons Hall during the Edinburgh Festival, in August. More about that later in the year.