from BARDO

The stars are in our belly; the Milky Way our umbilicus.

Is it a consolation that the stuff of which we’re made

is star-stuff too?

– That wherever you go you can never fully disappear –

dispersal only: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen.

Tree, rain, coal, glow-worm, horse, gnat, rock.

Roselle Angwin

Sunday, 27 February 2011

fungus and dereliction

Nothing like a sparrowhawk arriving on the roof of the birdtable to clear 50-odd small birds from the courtyard and kitchen garden in the flick of a wing... I know they have to eat too, but please not snacking on my little familiars, sentimental and hypocritical though that might be.

I've been collecting the tangy leaves of sheep sorrel from the hedges here all winter; a welcome hit of fresh greenery in salads and soups. On Friday I gathered the first batch of wild garlic, and made leek and lentil soup and grated-carrot-and-beetroot salad to add it to. Spring!

Yesterday I drove up onto Dartmoor to lead a poetry workshop. I love the tiny twisting lanes with their rounded mossy granite boulder banks, and the wide flanks of the moor stretching to each side. The birch, trees of the uplands (and a 'threshold' tree in the Celtic shamanic tradition) start here; they're just beginning to sport their springtime magenta tips. (I love the phrase for the fat about-to-burst budding tips of trees: 'apical helispheres'. My friend Pat tells me that they are also called 'meristems'.)

Buckland-in-the-Moor is one of those almost painfully pretty moorland villages: rushy streams, wooded valleys with their rosettes of primroses, thatched stone cottages – and the little lemon-and-gold wild daffs in full flower, further advanced than ours here in the supposedly softer South Hams. I saw the first blackthorn of the year dressed in its froth of white blossom, and a garden magnolia was just opening out its goblets. A butterfly. A bumble bee. The tiny church is part C12th, part C15th (stupendously intricate rood screen), and the church clock, presumably from the sentimentality of the Victorian age, displays, instead of numerals, the words 'MY DEAR MOTHER' around its dial.

I have been thinking a lot lately about the balance of the abstract, or conceptual, in ratio to the concrete, in a poem. Yesterday, although this wasn't my original intention, we spent a lot of time talking about this (more in a minute).

Another difficult balance is that of the personal/subjective with that of the universal/objective. I kicked off the day with a phrase from poet and farmer Wendell Berry, about which I also think a lot. Berry says that 'so much of the poetry I read has the speaker present and the world absent, or the world present and the speaker absent'.

These two subjects are interlinked in some ways. It's easier perhaps to start with Berry's words. One way of looking at this is through examples of two common kinds of poems.

One is the 'confessional', perhaps the 'broken heart' poem, where the poet's focus is entirely on the small emotionally-focused world of the ego, with no reference to the bigger picture, no attempt to situate the poem in a wider, universal context. This closes the poem down for a reader, and can come across as narcissistic, as its remit is the self-referential. (This is not to say in any way that one shouldn't write about one's broken heart; it's just that it's more effective if not bedded entirely in one's emotional reactions.)

The opposite is the poem where the focus is overly general, overly abstract or intellectualised, so that the content is largely cerebral/conceptual. When any expression of feeling response or the particular is absent, the poem will have a strangely detached quality.

In both cases, what is missing is that crucial bridge between the personal and the universal which the strongest poems contain. (Through skilful expression of personal perceptions and responses, a universal truth might be glimpsed, in other words.)

The abstract/concrete dyad, considering how simple it is in theory, seems to present a lot of problems to beginning poets, both conceptually and actually (I mean as in how to do it).

In the spirit of poetry being a lifelong apprenticeship, and 'beginner's mind' always being relevant, we explored this further yesterday, practiced and novice poets together. An abstract sentence, I said, in simplistic terms is one in which no sensory detail appears. We could describe it as a statement that consists of a concept, eg: 'Obsolescence is inherent in everything and everything must pass', offers my sister today (sitting beside me, also blogging, on a rare touchdown between here and Scotland) as an example of an abstract sentence. We then discuss this: but, says R, there's that word 'everything'. And if you write a sentence that contains a subject, since a subject implies the existence of an object, you are surely then speaking of the external and concrete world? No, I say; what about grief? There's nothing concrete about grief, no matter how deeply you feel it. It's an abstract noun. And 'everything' is far too vague and general a word to conjure any concrete object into one's imaginal world.

What we remember  from a poem will be the images. OK, it may also be the feelings and thoughts it conjures in us, the moments when it touches our own experience; but those feelings and thoughts, I think it's true to say, will have been planted and then anchored in our imaginations through the images: the sensory detail that the poet has used to convey/stand in for/represent those abstractions. You can't touch, taste, smell, hear or see grief (though you may be able to hear, see, touch a grieving other, and you'll perceive their grief through their sensorily-expressed responses, as well as through your imaginative/empathic powers). But a well-observed detail about the decaying ribs, for instance, of an old wooden boat might serve to symbolise grief.

So, I say to the poets, trust the concrete world to do the work for you. Show the reader the scene and let them have the experience. Populate your poems with acutely-observed objects and resist the desire to unpack them, to tell the reader what you're thinking and feeling. So we go out into the little moorland churchyard and note the way soggy fungus blackens along the broken ash branch, the way the wind bends the daffodils horizontal, the tidelines of lichen on the tombstones, the offkey peal of bells from the church tower, and consider what aspects of human experience these concrete objects might be co-opted to symbolise.

I ask them, for a warm-up, to note concrete nouns in one column, possible abstract correlates in another, and a strong related verb in a third (eg black fungus/dereliction/deliquescing; catkins/optimism/proclaiming; spiky-leafed dandelion/obliviousness/selfing). If you want to convey a mood of dereliction, or desolation, I say, what a reader will remember is the rotting wet fungus, not the word dereliction, probably. Don't tell us you set out for a walk feeling optimistic; give us the image of catkins and allow us our response to the catkins.

'Oh, I get it,' says Phil. 'I was on a public speaking course, and the leader said that the audience will remember the story better than they'll remember your words about the story.' 'Exactly,' I say.

And yet, and yet. 'A poem just about nature isn't enough either,' I add. 'If it's simply a descriptive poem, no matter how well-observed, you may still evoke the "so what?" reaction in your audience. It needs to add something of what it is to be human – by which I mean I guess an abstract and/or personal note – to that descriptive picture. That's what might invite the head/heart/gut response that allows me to recognise a good poem.' 'Like what percentage of concrete to abstract?' asks Phil. I make a stab at it. 'Well, maybe one or two well-chosen lines in a 10- or 12-line poem? Depends on the poem, of course.'

We look at James Wright, who's hard to beat in getting the balance exactly right. So 'Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy's Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota': 12 lines of specific and detailed sensory observations (in which I include the less concrete 'Into the distances of the afternoon'), and then that simple last line: 'I have wasted my life' – a blow to the solar plexus that sends you back up to the beginning. Perfect; and if the poem had not included that last line it would have been (just) another pleasing nature poem. And if the poem had consisted only of concepts, like that last line, it would have had little impact; there would have been no hooks, no anchors to the physical world to which we might attach our own felt experience of being human.

And, what's more, 'the world' is clearly present in his careful attention to the natural surroundings; and so is he as speaker. And because of the way he puts together the poem, and the clarity with which I can picture William Duffy's farm, and the simple unadorned and unsentimental statement from the heart at the end, I as reader am in there too, pondering his experience of wasting his life, and inevitably considering my own relationship to that statement.

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