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Perhaps somebody who strives to be a writer should expect to come back from a trip to the far side of the planet with some pieces of writing in their bag. Damn right they should.

Of course, I could say I got a leg up in that department, getting wound into Inside-Out’s little competition. Here’s the piece of verse I turned out for the event. I got to read it out too, not because of its qualities, but because all the submission were put in a bag and five were pulled out blind for reading.

 

 

 

 

 

Gleam

 

The sweet flicker of wisdom    runs like water

through this galaxy     but there is a void

divides us            dry beyond droughts

sure beyond doubts     holds steady

to our certainties.

 

Let’s not make any claims for it, but that doesn’t mean there are points worth noting, at least from my perspective as the writer.

To begin with, I was pleased to see that it had form, and I spent some time after the event, writing it out in different ways…moving the line breaks (which I keep coming back to, as being one of the hallmarks of poetry – coming back reluctantly I might add, and have).

The writing above was this morning’s attempt, and seems the best so far. I like the split line layout. It’s in my use of language – the way I speak – and it’s in a fair sprinkling of earlier poems of mine, several of which have been published (and one of which won a prize of sorts!). The not quite balanced phrasing pleases me, but there’s also that fracture that it gives, on the printed page, which often does, and often has to run through the otherwise solid unity of any attempt at meaning.

There are other elements of form I like. There are a couple of rhyming lines, which echo also in their metre and ‘tunes’.

There’s a meaning to it as well which I’m not unhappy with. What I’m not happy with, at all, is the title, but it’ll do for now!

The five words that we were all given, and which had to be got in, were galaxy water sweet flicker and wisdom, listed in that order. Getting three of them out of the way in the first five words was a break through, and using up the other two before the middle of the second line took the pressure off.

I’m really not a fan of this sort of exercise, but to have refused would have been churlish, and I know from my own experience, that when you don’t know what to say, and somebody puts you on the spot to say something….you’ll dredge up something you’ve been meaning to say (in social situations this usually turns out to be something crass, vulgar and embarrassing – well, it does in my case). I suppose it’s only a version of Hemingway’s write drunk/edit sober concept.

While we’re on tossed off poems (no pun intended), here’s one that crossed my mind while on the 26+ hour flight to New Zealand. We were on the longer leg between Dubai and Auckland at the time:

 

Flying at thirty thousand feet

Above the Indian Ocean

When seated in the cubicle

You really feel the motion.

 

Other long haul victims will perhaps know that feeling! You might be relieved to know that I got some other stuff in the notebook too, which I’m still working on.

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On the long flight home from New Zealand I pondered the writing of poetry.

I was thinking about the memorability of poems. Someone wrote that ‘the first duty of poetry is to be memorable’. I think it might have been James Fenton, but perhaps not. If you recognise the quote and can source, please let me know. Though, of course, it doesn’t matter who said it. The validity of ideas doesn’t depend on who came up with them. Rather the opposite in fact. The value of the speaker is recognised in the wisdom of the spoken.

And poems often are memorable, far more so than prose, I suspect. As memorable, perhaps, as songs, to which poems are related. Learning songs, and by extension poems, is recognised as being much easier than learning equivalent amounts of prose. Songs I learned decades ago, and fragments of poetry, still lodge in the mind.

And I’m inclined to the belief that it’s not the meaning of the songs, or the poems which makes them memorable. The memorability lies in the physical attributes of the words. Their rhythms, alliterations, harmonies and dissonances, their echoes, which we call rime, their hard edges and soft centres, the tunes their phrases play. These are the qualities that make words stick: the way they lodge in the ear when we hear them; the feel of them in our mouths as we speak them. Meaning isn’t in it at all, as far as I can see. That’s why something as meaningless as Jabberwocky remains so memorable. It’s nothing more than a series of meaningless sounds into which we pour our own meanings, generation after generation, because we can remember it. The printed word has weakened that memory, perhaps, rather than strengthened it.

I would argue that poetry, like song, uses that quality of words as a vehicle to carry meanings, or the spaces into which meanings can be fitted, into the future. The meanings, even in poems like Jabberwocky, are what the writers want to pass on, but it’s the sound and the feel of the words that carries those meanings over the years.

So when we’re writing, it’s not simply that we have to struggle with what it is we have to say, but that we have to say it in words that will be memorable. It’s almost as if the meaning is not inherent in the words themselves, at least not to the extent that we have no choice, when it comes to choosing memorable ones.

Prose writing can supply evidence of the truth of this. A favourite exercise of mine with short story writers, is to give them the ending of a sentence (or even to suggest they ‘find’ one at random) and make it the ending of a story they will write. A roomful of people will take the same seemingly least meaningful fragment, and use their story to imbue it with power, with depth of meaning  Each one will bequeath a different meaning to the fragment, a meaning that grows out of the context provided by the rest of the story.

The memorable poem, presumably, can do something similar. And I realise I’m back to the ongoing exploration of the roles of form and content, of the relationship between them, and of the functions of each.

This will probably be the last blog post I write before going to New Zealand to visit my daughter… so it may be some time before the next one pops up.

It’s easier, I suspect, to write about what you find in what you’ve read, than to write about what you think you’ve put into what you write. And rare, in my experience, to get a written response from a reader that clarifies what you think you might have found in what you wrote, if you had been a reader of it!

A few months before he died, the much missed Nick Pemberton, got hold of a copy of my sequence of poems, Martin? Extinct?, and read it in what I realise now might be the ‘proper’ way (at a sitting). He took the trouble to tell me what he found. I have been thinking of sending the collection for review, but after reading Nick’s comments, I wondered if I needed to!

‘This is deep and mysterious work. Full of pithy wisdom, raw ache, love, loss, the mystery of – as so often in a poem – who is talking to who(m). Thanks old pal, a true tonic.’

 

            I’ll take that!

Working my way through Ladies in Lavender man, William J. Locke’s short story collection, Far Away Stories, I came to the two last tales: The Heart at Twenty is a simple story, and opens with a girl waiting on a French pier for, as it turns out, her long lost English lover. You might wonder. I certainly did!

The other story is The “Scourge”, a sentimental and melodramatic story of atonement and redemption. Sir Hildebrand Oates, the protagonist, is an upright, uptight martinet, who rules his roost – mostly his wife and children – with the least display of emotion or care that he can manage. A stickler for just about everything, not a glimmer of human feeling ever passes from him. He is proper, and I suppose, these days, we’d think him ‘right wing’. He doesn’t do charity, affection, or forgiveness, and imposes the sort of control that would now verge into the illegal.

When his wife dies, her will stuns him into reassessing how he has behaved, with its single, unexpected bequest: I will and bequeath to my husband, Sir Hildebrand Oates, Knight, the sum of fifteen shillings to buy himself a scourge to do penance for the arrogance, uncharitableness and cruelty with which he has treated myself and my beloved children for the last thirty years.

He is, of course, reduced to penury, for his wife’s fortune is what has kept the family afloat. Shocked, at first by her action, but then by the accusation itself, he withdraws to an unfashionable quarter of Venice, where he examines, in minute almost forensic detail, the minutiae of their past lives together, and writes a report, a judgement on himself.

Bit by bit, he meets lower-class people whom previously he would have dismissed without thinking , their children, the poor and the destitute, and living among them learns to be human. It is dreadfully sentimental, yet, has an undoubted power. In fact, I would go so far as to say that it is the most powerful story in the collection. Unrealistic, but unarguably a close look at the little ways in which we can, and perhaps ought, to behave towards each other.

As one might imagine in this sort of story – late nineteenth/early twentieth century – with all the sugary sweetness of a Hollywood movie, his estranged children track him down, find him dying, and read his manuscript, in which he finds, I am of the opinion that my wife had ample justification for the terms she employed…

            In true Hollywood (and Edwardian) style, he is, of course, rescued and allowed to live out his life redeemed and rehabilitated.

The story is not of the gritty Cinema Verite type, yet it carries the truth, and holds the mirror for us, that if we looked into our own lives we might be sorry for what we found there. Like Scrooge half a century before him, Sir Hildebrand offers us a chance to rehabilitate ourselves. You can’t knock that.

The hardest thing to write, I sometimes think, is a story with a happy ending, which is a good reason to have a go. Here’s one I wrote earlier, brilliantly performed by Mushtaq, at Liars League Hong Kong’s September 2018 bash….

49 stories,flash fictions and monologues by BHD

I suffer from what I think of as a Groucho Marx syndrome. He famously asserted that he wouldn’t want to be a member of a club that would accept him as a member! I have only a small touch of the malady, tempered with a dollop of common sense. (laughter off). But publications that regularly accept my writing lead to me wondering if it they who are ‘bad’ rather me who is ‘good’!

Two things mitigate the symptom. The first is, that it isn’t (I’m sure) simply a matter of being good or bad, but rather one of editors either valuing or otherwise, the writing I have sent them.

The other, of course, is that when I get into that way of feeling, it’s usually not long before a rejection slip arrives, to restore my faith in them, and shake it in me!

Curiously, and not wholly irrelevantly, whenever I get really down about my writing, an acceptance, like the Seventh Cavalry, rides over my literarily aspirational horizon to bring rescue.

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

The Reading As A Writer course moved up a notch, from individual words to sentences, at the last session.

A seventies’ English Grammar split the language into two basic forms: Messages and Labels. It’s an interesting, and useful approach.

‘Shit-hot businessman’ is a label. ‘He was a shit-hot businessman’ is a message. It’s the verb that makes the difference. You can find examples of both everywhere – even in Dickens. In fact, the ‘montage’ that Dickens bequeathed to D.W.Griffiths and the modern film can be found all over the place. A sequence of Labels inserted among the Messages of all sorts of prose. In fact, that faux sentence you just read, was one of them – a label, I mean, whereas this one – you’re reading now – is a message, or as we might more conventionally say, a sentence.

There are two types of sentence too. There are those that add to what we know, and those that add to what we don’t know, having to wait for a key piece of information to unlock the meaning, and significance of all the previous components. Some sentences are both at once, changing from the first to the second type or vice versa, and even back again.

In narrative fiction the first type, which I think of as ‘open’, adds speed and clarity, but risks becoming a rather tedious list. The other type, which I call ‘closed’, adds the tension of our not quite understanding, and the drama of the eventual reveal. It risks the problem of losing the reader, who must cling on to phrase and clause after clause and phrase of what doesn’t quite make sense, until that key element is reached. That element, as you might have guessed, will be the verb that turns the labels of those other components into a message, perhaps a multiple one.

A banal example might make it clear:

‘Leaving the shop, turning left down the street, and passing over the bridge, beneath which the dark waters swirled, John vanished from her life.’

‘John vanished from her life, leaving the shop, turning left down the street, and passing over the bridge, beneath which the dark waters swirled.’

Each segment of that second, open version of the sentence could form its ending and the thought would be complete, but in the first, closed version, none of it means anything, even though we can clearly visualise each segment, until that final piece completes the jigsaw.

Mix ‘em up as you like, you’ll find that everything you write is made up of these two types of message, along, of course, with those incomplete fragments, the labels. Curiously, that movie connection I cited can be applied more widely. The messages, with their ‘main’ verbs, drive strings of words like a moving picture, whereas the labels, with incomplete verbs at best, are like a series of still shots inserted into the movie.

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!  

I’ve running a course at Carlisle’s Phil & Lit, on how we might read as writers, in order to get some insights into how we might write! It’s not so much a matter of stealing techniques, as of noticing them as we read; of paying more attention than we might if we were reading for fun, and not really paying attention.

Most of what you might say on such a course is a matter of common sense: read carefully, but notice your own reactions to what is being read…and as k the question, why did that particular group of words have that particular effect?

An exercise I’ve used several times is to give students a paragraph or two of writing, and get them to score the individual words: for what they think is the emotional impact of them. Some words have none = 0. Some have a small emotional charge = 1 Some have a big one =2.

It’s a rough and ready exercise, too ragged perhaps to be called a system, but it throws up, nevertheless all sort of interesting facets of the way a piece of writing has been written, and read.

For example, you tend to get clusters of scoring words. They aren’t evenly distributed throughout the piece. Often they cluster at particular places, like drunks on street corners, with highly charged words, and a bunch of lowly charged hangers on at paragraph beginnings and endings. Sometimes it works the other way, with groups gathering in the centre of paragraphs, and leaving the change points bereft.

If you carry out the exercise far enough into a piece of writing, you might start to notice that you’re scoring the same words differently, and perhaps an explanation for that might be that the words surrounding them are enhancing, or diminishing their powers. There’s also the reminder that words, quite simply, don’t carry the same weight for all of us: the strength of their meaning is not set by the dictionary definition, but by the circumstances in which we have encountered, and used them. This is one element of language that the nascent AI might struggle with, and, presumably, might erode or even destroy.

The exercise is one that a writer can carry out on their own writing, of course, and who knows, it might give some useful insights into how they think it will work…..

 

Or should that be, Reading as Writers? While not the opposite ends of a telescope there’s little doubt that writing can help you to become a better reader and reading, to be a better writer.

Mike Smith is running a six week course, starting on September 11th (7.00pm-9.00pm) at Darren Harper’s Carlisle Philosophical and Literary Society (Room 8, Fisher Street Galleries, Carlisle, UK), called Reading As A Writer. Using extracts from published texts, we’ll look at ‘close reading’ and what we mean by it, and examine how single words, sentences, paragraph breaks and chapters in longer works do their jobs, and what those jobs might be. We’ll also consider how the passage of time in fiction tries to re-create in words the experience of time passing in real life – and how different storytelling forms differ in their handling of time.

Course Fees:

£54 full

£43 over 60

£27 students/benefits

Booking via info@philandlit.org