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

Saturday, 23 April 2016

the words on words post

...Or Friday. Or even Saturday. Just as another 12 people, newcomers to this course on Iona, are going to join me for a week's writing and depth exploration (and to the two of you who can't come, if you're reading this, I hope you can join us next year).

It's been – well, rhapsodic; and hard to be indoors.

But I'd said I'd write about writing, so – tearing myself away from more azure epiphanies – I shall do that. Mostly, I'm going, in a fairly random way (being off, if not with the fairies – though those too in this thin place – in my imagination with the puffins and ringed plovers still) to quote other writers.

First, I need to declare that, despite being a romantic, unlike every woman writer in the media at the moment, it seems, I'm not a huge fan of Jane Eyre. I know Charlotte Brontë, whose bicentary we are celebrating currently, achieved something huge, and as a woman as well as a writer I'm glad of that. But I think Mr Rochester (along with Heathcliff) has a lot to answer for in terms of young women's expectations of men. So this is not about the Brontës.

I'm unravelling some ideas about creative writing in general, first; fiction next, then poetry after. (Novelists, take heart from Mantel's words.)


Coaxing wild animals
A friend left me a novel to read – light relief from all the worthy non-fiction that weighs my luggage down – and at the end of Anna Raverat's Signs of Life (exquisitely written and full of recognisable moments for lots of women, I suspect, about, really, a doomed relationship with one of those Rochester/Heathcliff damaged men) I found this little paragraph:

'All I have is my feeling for the story; a feeling about what belongs and what goes where. Writing starts with a feeling. This feeling lives in the ruins at the back of my head, along with other wild creatures. I have to coax it out, invite it to show itself. It is necessary to be quiet and open, to listen as I try to bring it forward. As it comes, it changes. There is something in its mouth. The creature comes almost into view, drops whatever it was carrying and leaps back into the dark.'


Hilary Mantel on writing fiction (The Guardian Review, Saturday 16 April 2016)
'... fiction makes me the servant of a process that has no clear beginning or end or method of measuring achievement. I don't write in sequence, I may have a dozen versions of a single scene. I might spend a week threading an image through a story, but moving the narrative not an inch. A book grows according to a subtle and deep-laid plan. At the end, I see what the plan was.'


Mary Oliver and me on Body, Energy, Purpose: making a poem
Mary Oliver, in a little essay on a poem of hers ('The Swan', in Wild Geese), says that she sets herself three rules in the writing of a poem: 'It must have a genuine body, it must have sincere energy, and it must have a spiritual purpose.'

Here, working with a group of experienced poets last week, we looked at what those ideas might mean. My relationship to Oliver's three requirements goes like this:

A poem needs to be rooted in the rich imagery of the concrete sensory world.We remember, for instance, visual details more than we remember abstract ideas, and such imagery makes for deeper entry into a poem. In addition, the poem needs to be a 'thing', somehow; a whole and complete body occupying its own space in the world, even as it partakes of – well, everything.

'Sincere energy'? – I understand this to mean that, if it works, it will have and convey a sense of authenticity that will drive the poem forward even if, crucially, the poem is a 'fiction'. A reader needs the sense that the writer is drawing from a depth of their own experience, from the well of their own knowledge. Given that, the poem permits a reader to do the same thing.

'[It] must have a spiritual purpose' is quite hard, incomprehensible, even off-putting for many readers in our secular post-postmodern materialist culture, and this idea is worth examining.

What it does not mean, in my view, is 'a religious message'.

My own take on this – and I'd agree with her on the necessity for it – is that the poem has as a subtext, or gestures towards, the human need for meaning and the existence of subtle levels of being and experience that might inhabit but lie behind the material. Consciousness, in other words. What I really admire in a poem is vivid attentive recollection and portrayal of physical details of the world in and of itself, but always with the sense that there is more vibrating behind these details, and the physical life of the poem.

So a poem is and needs to be more than a description, no matter how deftly and sensitively the latter is conveyed. And a good poem will demonstrate an awareness of the large and universal in its own small and particular story.

Perhaps Oliver means something like that, or perhaps not; for myself, this is what I take away from her suggestions.



  1. I love Hilary Mantel's comment. I'm just re-working a novel and I find that approach so very helpful. As for Mary Oliver, I think you discover that process, as Hilary Mantel says about prose, when you've finished. I can consciously describe sensory details, but the rest, in my experience, is there (with luck) when the poem is finished. Often the spiritual bit, may be lacking, but sometimes it isn't! Enjoy the next group. love Marg x

  2. Yes, Marg, I agree. Her ideas remain a kind of yardstick.

    Good luck with this novel.

    LOVELY second group, too – all bar one newcomers to The Iona Experience. Much laughter, some crying, a great deal of often unexpected and frequently very beautiful and moving writing.

    Love, R x


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