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

Thursday, 21 July 2016

Poetry: that tension between the ordinary & the glorious...

I'm delighted to say that the narrative non-fiction book about the enchanted forest that I came to Brittany to begin a year ago is now just about finished. There's a great deal of work still to do, though, in redrafting, tidying up, confirming factual details, as well as in stitching together what is really 100+ fragments.

Speaking of things that are 100, today Stride magazine online has put up a short sequence of prose poems of 100 words each that I wrote in spring on the Isle of Iona (how privileged I am to work in thin-veil places). The 100-word prose form is something I love to use as practice. Should you wish a minute's distraction, you can read the sequence here (July 21):

And meantime, as light relief, I wrote a poem this morning (I can't easily run poetry and prose together), and then spent some time thinking about (note not 'working on'!) the second part of my new online 'introduction to poetry' course (the one I teach currently is an advanced course). 

Afterwards, I thought about how a 'good' poem involves a tension between the daily stuff of our lives and the poet finding in it something that catches fire, and therefore also lights the imagination of a reader. It's about levels, and about letting the world of matter conjure something more subtle. 

I remembered how, as a beginning poet, I tried to find high-flown language to write about abstract concepts; and how that simply doesn't cut it.

What we remember from a poem is primarily the imagery – the life of the senses brought to life by our being able to picture the scene described – and our feeling response to that. There also is a sense that we are taken into an arena much bigger than just a few words should be able to conjure. (Of course I'm oversimplifying, but that'll do for now.)

If we can pay such attention to the minutiae of our small lives – arguably the poet's job – as to convey the huge issues of our time, to speak through the personal to the universal, we're halfway there. 

But I don't really mean the 'domestic poem'. It needs to be more than that; it needs to lift clear of such constraints somehow. I mean the poem that is made so that it transcends the personal and domestic even as it is rooted in such apparently small and mundane detail; what my friend Ken Steven would call 'quotidiennité'.

It works better if you can draw on your own life experience, so that even when you're writing about someone else, or an event at or situation in which you weren't present, you are writing from what you know as well as what you can imagine.

Better, too, if you can find surprising and original ways of using and combining everyday language that is true to who you are and what you want to express, rather than striving to use heightened and therefore too often contrived diction.

I like what Eavan Boland has to say in the book she co-authored with Mark Strand, The Making of a Poem: '...if I get up from the table, walk out of my room, I can hear the breathing and stirring of my small children. All day I will have been with them: lifting them, talking to them, drying their tears, setting their clothes aside at the end of each day. Through all these talks and pleasures I have begun to hear my voice. It is the entirely natural, sometimes exasperated and always human voice of someone living in the middle of their life, from task to task, full of love and intense perceptions.

'Is that all?... Yes it is, but strangely... it is enough. That voice I hear every day, which is my own voice, which is emerging from the deepest origins of my self – which is never practised, rehearsed, or made artificial by self-consciousness – has begun to invade my lyric sense of the poem.

'Now when I sit down to write a poem I am determined that this voice will be integral to it. That I will hear it in the poem, just as I have heard it an hour earlier as I lifted a bicycle and said goodnight to a neighbour. Just as I heard it when I opened the window of a child's room and put out the large brown moth that was fluttering behind the curtain.'

An excellent example of what I'm trying to speak of, and one of my very favourite poems, comes to mind here: James Wright's 'Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy's Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota'. This is one of those tiny-huge poems that I want to read over and over (and over).

If you don't know it and you'd like to read it, and maybe consider why it's so effective, you can see it here.


  1. All good, thank you. And for Wright's poem. All lives are wasted. And yet not.

    1. Hello! Yes, and no. Glad you liked the poem.

  2. Great post, which I've shared with some other poet friends around the world. And you've sold one copy of your new book already - anything to do with the mythology of enchanted forests and I'm hooked! Really looking forward to reading it.

    1. Oh thank you Mo! And you've no idea what a boost it was to read your comment on my new book. Thank you. Rx


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