Just before the Christmas break, I was pleased to be asked by Kathleen McPhilemy to contribute to the January 2023 edition of her on-going series of podcasts, Poetry Worth Hearing.
Kathleen’s own introductory remarks about what the podcast includes are as follows:
Jessica Mookherjee reading from two recent collections, Tigress and Notes from a Shipwreck (both published by Nine Arches Press), and Martyn Crucefix talking about the poetry he thinks worth reading. We also have new poems from Beth Davyson, Stephen Paul Wren, Pat Winslow, Suzannah Houston and Chris Beckett. To learn more about the poets and the publications mentioned as well as to see the texts of new poems, go to https://www.poetryworthhearing.biz.
I was especially pleased to hear Pat Winslow’s poem ‘As for the owl’ which carries a dedication to the late, much-missed Helen Kidd. By a strange coincidence, Helen was one of the members of the Old Fire Station Poetry Workshop (led by Tom Rawling by in the 1980s) ) about which I talk in my piece.
I also talk about growing up in rural Wiltshire in a house with few books. My years spent pursuing science – beginning to study medicine at Guys Hospital in London – then my drastic shift to studying Philosophy and English at Lancaster University, where I worked with the Scottish poet, David Craig, on one of the first Creative Writing courses in the UK. At Worcester College, Oxford, in the 1980s I was writing a DPhil thesis on the poet Shelley while also attending poetry workshops with WN Herbert, Peter Forbes, Pauline Stainer, Keith Jebb, Anne Born (and Tom and Helen).
Kathleen also asked me to say something about the poets I go back to and I talk a little (and read from) Walt Whitman, Robert Frost and WS Merwin. Trying to pick contemporary poets to highlight is an impossible task but, on this occasion at least, I speak about Marvin Thompson, Nancy Campbell and John McCullough.
With my new collection just out from Seren Books, I’m happy to have a number of promotional events and readings coming up over the next couple of months. I love the business of giving a reading, but there’s often a moment that arises that makes me uneasy as to how to how to respond. It’s the question of influence; the hand going up to ask: what other poets do you consider to have been an influence on your own poems?
It’s my problem I’m sure, but I’ve always had two ludicrously extreme responses spring to mind on hearing the question. Firstly, to list pretty much every single poet I’ve read in the last 40 years because the truth is every single one has added a grain, a pebble (for better or worse) to the path I walk to write a poem. Alternatively, since I can’t think of one, or even two, clear contenders for powerful influence when I sit down at a blank page or screen, it must be that I have emerged ex nihilo, a peculiar original. The first would be a lengthy reply of little use or interest; the second would seem positively dripping with arrogance (and equally of little use or interest).
Actually, I can think of a third answer: it’s not for the poet to identify influences; it’s a job for a reader. But I wanted to use the next two posts to kick the idea of influence around, to sort out my own ideas and to answer it in two ways. Early in a writing career, the revelation of, or encounter with, a new voice, style, or even subject area can lead to great lurching changes of direction in a poet’s own work. The lurch or swerve becomes progressively less marked the older a poet gets. Put that down to a more confident self belief perhaps, or to a growing inertia, or a more sophisticated process of absorption of such novelty, or sheer bloody mindedness . . .
For me, I started in the business convinced that I was composing song lyrics because poetry as such was not a familiar thing – except in occasional English classes at school and I dropped that subject at the age of 16. As I’ve said elsewhere, science was what I did through most of my teens. With too much time on my hands and too little joy to be found elsewhere, in the mid 1970s I began to turn to other sorts of books. From Foyle’s in London, I stole a copy of Everyman’s Selected Poems of Wordsworth. They seemed a bit dull and plodding but reminded me of rural Wiltshire where I grew up. For a few months I copied Wordsworth. Perhaps a year later, after a good dose of Sartre, I was finding my way back to the academic study of literature. It was the poetry (and drama) of T S Eliot that I fell in love with (not Dylan Thomas – the other poet on the curriculum). I still have those early Eliotesque poems somewhere, mostly Prufrock period style, though also a horrifyingly pretentious sequence of poems like a clumsy, anaphora-laden Waste Land.
Re-starting my Higher Education took me to Lancaster University, studying Literature and Philosophy (and a few sessions of Creative Writing with poet, David Craig) and Hughes and Larkin were served up and readily ingested. At first, I swerved to the latter’s urban details and personal gloom; later it was the Hughes of Gaudete (recently published, 1977) that I copied, writing a long, quasi-mythic, magic-real, psychodrama about sex and power that I eventually self-published in Oxford. As a post-graduate among the dreaming spires, it was Percy Byshe Shelley who I was working on for several years and, though not a model for poems as such, his ideas about the role of the Imagination and poetry as an “Orphic language” have been important to me ever since.
Among contemporary poets, I’d discovered Heaney (not the rural Ireland stuff so much as his wrestling with private and public responsibilities – Station Island, for example), Peter Redgrove’s fluid take on mind’s encounter with the natural world (The Apple Broadcast) and Ken Smith’s urban-political Americana (oh how I wanted to have written Fox Running). I wrote individual poems modelled on all these writers while absorbing much more deeply the work of the Romantic period – only now did I really find Keats, his poems and letters, Wordsworth still, Coleridge’s Conversation poems especially. What might have been expected – Hardy, Auden, Yeats, Frost, Stevens, Lowell, Bishop, Plath, Dickinson – were all missing or they missed me.
A decade of writing, reading, plus some reviewing too. A couple of my own books published and I’d stumbled my way to Rilke’s New Poems, Elegies and Sonnets, the second and third of which I began to translate and (whether visible on the surface or not) were a great influence on me – the Duino Elegies for their thoughtful drive from existential mourning to praise, the Sonnets to Orpheus for that same thought (more of the praise) and their use of form. From Whitman I found my way to W S Merwin’s marvellous fluidity (something I was comparing to Paul Eluard’s work too) and from Rilke it seemed a logical (not the right word at all) step towards the 81 texts of the Daodejing which again I felt I had to try to English because it both rhymed with what I already knew and I knew it would develop further what I needed to know.
A few years back, an article in PN Review sent me to the work of Yves Bonnefoy. A heart-rate raising sense of another writer who had fought the two-faced dragon of language and seen enough to conclude that at the bottom of its filthy lair gleamed the concept and the concept promises a “strange immortality” but only if we can “forget brutal reality”. One reason (I’m now quoting an earlier blog post on a 1953 essay by Bonnefoy) we do this is that there are “general truths in conceptual thinking and a particular kind of power derived from it. It ‘allows thinking’ of a certain kind; it is linked with ‘the vast power of words’. But any gain is predicated on a significant loss, the abandonment of the actually existing ‘world of things’. Conceptual thinking is ‘systematized’, generalizing, categorizing; it’s in this that its ‘flight’ from the real is found. The only sort of thing that can be held up to counter the concept are specific particularities of human experience: Bonnefoy asks ‘Is there a concept for footsteps in the night, for a cry, for a stone rolling in the brushwood? For the feeling evoked by an empty house? No [. . . ]’”
Reading Bonnefoy did not send me lurching to right or left but rather nudged, re-calibrated, re-assured me that my own direction of travel was not a wholly isolated one. I don’t write like Bonnefoy – there can be a dull abstraction to his poems which seems to me to contradict his ideas about real presence expressed as specific particularities – but I know what thought underlies my own work has close parallels to his (as far as I understand him). That’s influence, I’d say.
In my next blog, I’ll look at the question of influence from a different angle – what ghosts of other writers can be seen in more recent work?
With its proximity to some of the processes of politics, what has come to be the traditional form of the poetry workshop is perhaps easily derided. Billy Collins does this (in his book, The Art of Drowning, 1995) and we all recognise both the speaker and the likely recipient of the speech:
I might as well begin by saying how much I like the title.
It gets me right away because I’m in a workshop now
so immediately the poem has my attention,
like the Ancient Mariner grabbing me by the sleeve.
And I like the first couple of stanzas,
the way they establish this mode of self-pointing
that runs through the whole poem
As both leader and participant, I’ve suffered and witnessed suffering at the hands of egomaniacs, bullies and tyrants – those who come to workshops with no intention of listening to the proffered advice. What they are after is some exertion of personal power over a captive audience and, up to a point, workshop members are exactly that since the basic democratic premise is that we sit and listen with an open mind – a very open mind.
But what I’m not sure about is the voice,
which sounds in places very casual, very blue jeans,
but other times seems standoffish,
professorial in the worst sense of the word
like the poem is blowing pipe smoke in my face.
But maybe that’s just what it wants to do.
Others will know the history better than I do but the poetry workshop seems to have been organised first by Philip Hobsbaum in the 1950s. Hobsbaum was born in London to orthodox Jewish parents who moved north in 1937, sensing the threat of war and fearing the anti-semitic currents of the time. In Bradford, Hobsbaum attended Belle Vue grammar school, then Cambridge, where he studied under F R Leavis at Downing College (“the greatest man I ever met – an amazing teacher”).
He also encountered Thom Gunn, just graduated, who introduced him to the early work of Larkin, and, as editor of the student literary magazine Delta, he printed work by Ted Hughes and Peter Redgrove. Most significantly, with these budding poets, he organised regular meetings. Hobsbaum possessed some training as an actor and the original idea (of what was to become ‘The Group’) was to encourage verse-speaking. But these meetings soon turned into exercises of Leavisite close analysis, or Practical Criticism in the style of I A Richards, plus a good deal of mutual support for the growing network of poets.
Maybe it’s just me,
but the next stanza is where I start to have a problem.
I mean how can the evening bump into the stars?
And what’s an obbligato of snow?
Also, I roam the decaffeinated streets.
At that point I’m lost. I need help.
The Group style of workshop spread as Hobsbaum himself moved to a variety of jobs from Cambridge, to London, Belfast and Glasgow in turn. Although there was some overlap in personnel with The Movement, the various incarnations of the Group had a more practical focus as there was no imposed programme or style. In Belfast (1962–1966), Hobsbaum organised what became known as The Belfast Group, including emerging authors Seamus Heaney, Edna and Michael Longley, Derek Mahon, Stewart Parker and Bernard MacLaverty. Heaney described the process in 1963: “members of the Group listen to a fellow member read a number of his poems which have been previously circulated on cyclostyled sheets. They then discuss the verse very thoroughly, frankly, informally – and the poet is there to counteract, resent, and/or benefit from the criticism”.
Personally, I first experienced the process at Lancaster University in the late 1970s, taking a ‘free ninth’ optional course in Creative Writing as part of a more traditional English degree. The meetings were led in Lonsdale College by David Craig and Heaney’s “previously circulated . . . cyclostyled sheets” have a very familiar ring to them. The format was somewhat different in the 4 years or so I spent attending two workshops in Oxford – copies of individual poems were handed round only on the day and discussion was spontaneous indeed (see my earlier blog ).
The other thing that throws me off,
and maybe this is just me,
is the way the scene keeps shifting around.
First, we’re in this big aerodrome
and the speaker is inspecting a row of dirigibles,
which makes me think this could be a dream.
Then he takes us into his garden,
the part with the dahlias and the coiling hose,
though that’s nice, the coiling hose,
but then I’m not sure where we’re supposed to be.
I currently attend 3 workshop groups. In none of these is work circulated beforehand. In one, the poet reads once only, the other members have photocopies and discussion ensues with the writer sworn to silence (this prevents self-defensive manoeuvres and conflict). In the second group, the same process is followed except that after the reading of the poem aloud by the poet, the members have about 10 minutes to WRITE their thoughts on the poem itself. Discussion then follows (the up-side of this is that all poets go home with annotated copies of their own work; the down side is it’s very hard work and discussion often follows the annotations, a little less fluidly).
There’s something about death going on here.
In fact, I start to wonder if what we have here
is really two poems, or three, or four,
or possibly none.
But then there’s that last stanza, my favourite.
The third group plays the game of anonymity. Sufficient copies are put into an envelope, no identifying marks. Each member then picks out a poem (not their own) to read aloud. On first reading the members cannot see the text. Only on second reading can they follow the text on the page. There then follows the discussion. This produces the fascinating experience for the poet of hearing another person read the poem – and the reader’s later comments about how easy or otherwise the poem was to read are always interesting to those of us who think poetry is primarily an oral art.
This is where the poem wins me back,
especially the lines spoken in the voice of the mouse [. . . ]
I start thinking about how hard the mouse had to work
night after night collecting all these things
while the people in the house were fast asleep,
and that gives me a very strong feeling,
a very powerful sense of something.
But I don’t know if anyone else was feeling that.
Maybe that was just me.
Maybe that’s just the way I read it.
Easy to mock; easy to de-rail from their true purpose, but in creating his workshops (once more following Leavis) Hobsbaum believed a vital part of a student’s course was the rigorous discussion of text. To him, criticism was a fiercely rational, evaluative process, and any other use of language – “political propaganda, newspapers, advertisements, film, conceptual prose of all kinds” – had to be liable to the same level of scrutiny. In Essentials of Literary Criticism (1983), he maintained that “the training of a critic is also the training of a citizen”. This is surely right as the skills and sensitivities of the workshop, the class, the informal discussion of poetry anywhere, anytime, are exercises, in part, to develop the insight, the healthy scepticism, the ability to read and interpret whatever those vying for power, those possessed of power, want to say to us. Alan Brownjohn wrote in Hobsbaum’s obituary: “In a postmodernist, relativist age of education for entrepreneurship, Hobsbaum’s analytical and discriminatory approach might appear to be losing out, though reports of its death are an exaggeration.”
I’m sure Brownjohn is right and – as the UK General Election machine winds itself up ever higher – I’ll quote David Constantine’s important conclusion to his third Newcastle / Bloodaxe lecture in 2003: “We are, when we read poetry, during the reading of the poem and lingeringly for some while after, more wakeful, alert and various in our humanity than in our practical lives we are mostly allowed to be. Achieving that, in vital cooperation with the reader, a poet has done the most he or she is qualified to do. Any further stage, any conversion of this alerted present state into action, into behaviour, is the responsibility of the citizen. And the poet, like the reader, is always a citizen”.