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Yesterday I kicked off the lunchtime poetry reading at Maryport’s The Settlement, as part of a weekend celebrating the meeting there of Norman Nicholson and Percy Kelly in 1959.

I came home with the same question in my mind as had been there when I set off (and for a long time before!). That question is ‘what makes you – the writer – think it’s a poem?’

It’s not simply a matter of techniques, like rime, and rhythm, and alliteration, for all those techniques can be used in what is clearly prose. It’s not simply a matter of profundity or any other quality of content. Both poetry and prose can be deep, still and unfathomable; both can be shallow, fast flowing and limpid. Both, to push the metaphor, can be pools or streams.

It’s not simply a matter of the line breaks either……is it? Yet the line breaks are the one obvious marker of the poem.

Perhaps it’s not simply a matter at all, but rather subtly and complexly one; a matter even, perhaps of intention, of what we’re thinking when we decide to put in the first line break, and what we’re thinking in the aftermath of that decision.

The word ‘purity’ springs to mind, with implications, for me, of deep insight, and tight focus, and tighter structure. But I could say the same of prose, where I’d probably add, clarity, and revelation, but also, contradictorily, ambiguity and suggestion. Not helpful is the fact that we can have ‘poetic prose’, and think that an enhanced variety; we can have prosaic poetry – but will probably think that diminished.

Yet, the fact remains, though I have reached no conclusions, that I still, and often ask that question. The late (and great) Geoffrey Holloway once demanded in a poem, that we ‘ask the right question’, which here might be instead, ‘what makes me – the listener, or reader – think it’s poetry?’ But we still might have to put with not knowing the answer!  

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Overheard in a Carlisle Travel Agents yesterday: The Virgins come in cheapest…..

The issue of form and content comes up over and over again in writing, and thinking about writing. What is the relative importance of one versus the other? Does one serve the other? Should one dominate, or both be equal?

It’s an obvious subject for discussion in such genres as poetry, where the form can often be on display, but it’s there also in prose fiction where style and story arcs come under scrutiny. The essay, too, though more obviously concerned with content is a structured piece of writing. Thesis, anti-thesis, synthesis is a rule of thumb I remember from schooldays.

Less obvious, perhaps, is the possibility that the issue might be raised at the micro-level of the sentence itself. Looking to work on a first draft recently, I was trying to frame a question that would help me bring some dispassion and analysis to the re-drafting process. What, I asked myself, could I ask myself about what I’d written, with a view to making it more readable, and more worth reading? And there it was: form versus content again.

Look at each sentence I answered myself, and ask if it makes sense, and ask if the sense it makes is worth having made. The basics, I guess, never change, they just look different from different perspectives.

Did you have the pleasure of watching, as I did, a little of the recent World Cup? On a day England was playing I was going to a party later, and felt I should take a look, so that I’d know whether it was likely to be a House Of Gloom, or otherwise.

I happened to switch on the TV as the second half started, and I stood watching for about twenty minutes. It looked a good game, but then the BBC commentator remarked that ‘anyone reading a book this afternoon should get a life’. I’ll repeat that, because yes, that was, as far as I can recall, his exact words:

 

‘anyone reading a book this afternoon should get a life’.

 

The word ‘jerk’ among others sprang to mind. The TV, by a whisker, survived. I went and got a book. The party, by the way, was in a House of Joy, though not solely because of a football result.

Writing can be an alarmingly fragile activity.  It’s all I ever really wanted to do, and even I was blocked for a decade and more. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to write. It wasn’t that I had nothing to say. It was something to do with confidence. i was like a horse refusing a jump (apart from the four legs, of course).

So one of the issues I’m aware of when working with other writers is how easy it is to put people off, by saying the wrong thing, or too much, or not enough. I don’t always get it right! Everyone will have something to say, even if they don’t realise it, and anyone with any sort of language has a tool for saying it, however crudely.

The issue came to mind recently. I’d been recalling a meeting with the poet R.S.Thomas (I recalled him as gaunt, grey and fierce), and that brought to mind my old friend and poetry mentor, Geoffrey Holloway, who died back in 1997. I wrote an article about Geoff, comparing him and Norman Nicholson: two poets writing in Cumbria when I was a young man, and who seemed a generation apart though they were only four years different in age. The essay is in Steve Matthews anthology Nicholson at 100 (Bookcase, Carlisle, 2014).

It was Geoff who saved me from that ‘block’. Shortly before he died I attended a celebration of his life and work, re-connecting after a gap of several years. He’d heard from mutual friends about my situation, and not quite metaphorically had me up against a wall. He talked about ‘back then’, and in the collection I bought that night, wrote ‘for Mike, and the old days in the vat bar’.

The ‘vat bar’, at Kendal’s Brewery Arts centre had, and may still for all I know, round tables and seats in each of two or three old beer vats. That was where our tiny audience had sat to hear R.S.Thomas read! That was where ‘the Brewery Poets’ met, to share their work. Your stuff, he told me, had been among the best.

You could interpret that, but I took at as I’m sure it was meant. It was the right time. Other prompts, life threatening, and life expanding, were already pushing me towards breaking the block.

Sometimes it doesn’t take much to discourage, but equally a little encouragement goes a long way. (and having written this, I find myself reading that old collection once again. – And Why Not?, Flambard 1997)

Well, here it is, officially… the short play, Telling by Me and Marilyn Messenger was one of 3 winning plays and will be performed at the Theatre By The Lake, Keswick, on October 20th.  Did you spot the link? It’s there, and here, if you see what I mean….Perhaps I’ll see you there!

Ah! A beer in Vetters Bar in Heidelberg, just off the Haupt Strasse at the Cathedral end. Bliss.

BHD has a couple of Flash Fictions in #5 of the Black Market re-View. You can access it here

– a mathematics teacher: ‘Remember you are the cream, you are the top two percent.’ ‘those of us who are not built for speed can support those who are’. It never crossed his mind (sic) to suggest that those not built for Art (of any stripe) should support those who were. This bully had a neat head swipe, delivered from a standing position, facing his, always shorter, victim. It was fast, painful and caught the back the skull – a nice strike against an unresisting target. I would love to have seen him try it on a black belt karate, or even Judo Master, but sadly, never did.

– a geography teacher: ‘never be an urchin’ (frequently delivered from a virtually supine position, slumped to chin on his desk – klosetedeckelhorizont springs to mind). In conversation once he intimated that he had not heard of plate tectonics – which was not on the syllabus. He called me a liar once, because he could.

– a Latin Master: ‘A little unfairness goes a long way.’ ‘You’re not here to think.’ The latter summed up the ethos of the entire school at that time I think, except for the English Department. He boasted that he could tell you which lesson he had delivered – from Ridout (?) The Latin Way, for every week of his teaching career at the school.  Rule of Thumb saying at Charlotte Mason College of Education during my time there: Where there has been NO LEARNING there has been NO TEACHING. The saving, human grace was his childlike enthusiasm for passing airliners, which he would run from one side of the classroom to the other to watch. I like to think that he dreamed of an escape from what must have been as unpleasant an experience for him as it was for us – well, certainly for me!

Staff generally: BGS was a football school. The football in question was ellipsoidal. This led to conversations in which any knowledge of a team called, for example, Manchester United, would be denied, until a revelatory exclamation of ‘oh! You mean soccer!’ could be deployed.

‘Tug’ – I never asked what he tugged. ‘I don’t want to know your christian name. This isn’t a girl’s school!’

My shame is that I didn’t resist more vigorously. Never Forget. And also remember, you have no authority to forgive. £50 million?

 

One of Me’s poems is Guesting on the Acumen poetry website at the moment. Why not take a look! Here.

 

 

On the other hand, you could click on the Just Giving page and donate for his 15 mile hike in aid of The British Heart Foundation…in the vicinity of Hadrian’s Wall, on May 20th. Here.

 

 

You could do both, I suppose!

This seems to be simmering along nicely……

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