As I say in my previous blog post, I owe my knowledge of ’8.06 p.m. June 10th 1970′ to the great Cliff Yates, specifically his marvellous book of teaching poetry and poetry writing Jumpstart (Poetry Society, 1999). Which means I took it seriously. He quotes the poem in full on page 6, in a section titled ‘What is Poetry?’
Cliff follows it up in the book with Ian McMillan’s ‘Sonny Boy Williamson is Trying to Cook a Rabbit in a Kettle’ and Wendy Cope’s ‘The Uncertainty of the Poet’ both of which, like Raworth’s, are playful with language, syntax and meaning. Not least among their pleasures is their explicit questioning of what a poem should do and be. (Jumpstart contains a great short piece by Raworth on his poem and the sequence it comes from which is well worth reading.)
Fool that I was and stung by Foal Failure I took in these poems to the class of nine and ten-year olds I was working with at the time. I had considered ‘Birth of the Foal’ to be a banker of a poem in the classroom. There was no way it could fail. It failed dismally. I had nothing left to lose.
The riot I expected never happened. I am not saying the lessons we did on ’8.06 p.m. June 10th 1970′, Sonny Boy Williamson and ‘The Uncertainty of the Poet’ were comfortable or easy, but I will go to my grave knowing those children engaged with them in a way that surprised and delighted me, taking us all into a place of deep discussion and debate I would not have thought possible.
The poems they wrote arising from these discussions were some of the most challenging I have read anywhere, by anybody. Overnight they transformed themselves into the most avant-garde group of writers I have worked with.
I spend a lot of my time reflecting on what we mean by ‘signs of progress’ in the creative work of young writers. I spend just as much time reflecting on what this looks like in the work of beginner teachers. One of my very tentative conclusions goes something like this: it is about risk. Now we can debate for the next ten years what we mean by this, so I am going to use a very narrow definition here to explain what I mean by risk in this instance. I take it to mean the capacity to proceed along a line of action (teaching, writing) knowing at any moment the whole thing could collapse around you but proceeding anyway in good faith with resilience and joy and tenacity. The poets I am drawn to (Jean Sprackland, Peter Carpenter, Andy Brown, Siân Hughes, Ann Gray, Deryn Rees-Jones, Christopher Southgate, Michael Laskey) do this time and again in their poems. Like the geese in Raymond Carver’s ‘Prosser’, I have the feeling they will die for it, to get to the place where they do not wholly know what they are doing.
In simple terms ’8.06 p.m. June 10th 1970′ saved my life one spring afternoon in a classroom in Exeter because it gave to me much more than I had dared hope possible. But it was more than that of course. Everything was suddenly on the line. I had nothing left to lose.
8.06 p.m. June 10th 1970
Tom Raworth (from Jumpstart, ed. Cliff Yates, Poetry Society, 1999)
I have written before that there are a wide range of reasons for including the poems I have in my Lifesaving Poems series.
Some of the poems I came across at school, and acted as a kind of gateway to the world of poetry and what it could do. Some I came across on recommendation of others, in reviews, or by word of mouth. Some of the poems remind me of friends to whom I owe a debt of gratitude for immeasurably improving my life, through their friendship and writing.
Some of the poems I came across entirely on my own.
My hunch is that the social contract we forge with each other when sharing poems, whether in person, or on email, or on blogs, is vastly underrated as a mechanism for cultural transformation, in this country at least (as a working academic I should really back up this kind of thinking with at least one reference to a recent research survey giving chapter and verse). There’s a lovely description of the kind of thing I am talking about in Seamus Heaney’s essay ‘The Impact of Translation’. In it he describes being shown a translation of a Czeslaw Milosz poem for the first time by Robert Pinsky.
There is a kind of religious, ‘conspiratorial’ hush about it, at once private and communal, and it seems to reach into spaces we all carry that are non-verbal, or pretty much that way for most of the time.
All of this came back to me last weekend as I prepared for my Poetry School course by typing out Galway Kinnell’s marvellous poem ‘St Francis and the Sow’. I was first shown it in much the way Heaney describes, by Jean Sprackland, at the Arvon Foundation’s writing centre at Totleigh Barton.
That week we had given our group a pre-course task, of bringing to the course one book of poems they felt passionate about, to share and discuss with others. Jean brought Kinnell’s Bloodaxe Selected. I had not seen it or the poem before.
My initial reaction to it was one of surprise and great fondness. I loved that it dared to hymn unlovely subject matter. I loved its complete self-absorption in the living moment of description. I loved that it did not seem to care a hoot what I thought about it.
Reading it again now, I think daring is not far from the mark. It seems to take two very distinct strains of American poetry, beginning in didacticism and ending with tender praise, and blends them without one overshadowing the other. That is both risky and skillful. Poems that do that usually fall flat on their backsides, while this one achieves liftoff and in plain sight.
But it is in more than admiration that I come to this poem. It is ‘about’ a sow, and the sowiness of sows, returning us the earthy facts of the matter with both precision and exultation. I happen to think it is just as much about teaching and suffering, and the counter-cultural energy that is released when we choose to utter praise. As one of my Poetry School group remarked last night when I shared it with them, the poem enacts its own meaning, flowering into ‘self-blessing’ like the ‘bud’ it describes, in spite of its ‘broken heart’ and ‘creased forehead’.
If that is not a miracle, I don’t know what is.
Saint Francis and the Sow
stands for all things,
even for those things that don’t flower,
for everything flowers, from within, of self-blessing;
though sometimes it is necessary
to reteach a thing its loveliness,
to put a hand on its brow
of the flower
and retell it in words and in touch
it is lovely
until it flowers again from within, of self-blessing;
as Saint Francis
put his hand on the creased forehead
of the sow, and told her in words and in touch
blessings of earth on the sow, and the sow
began remembering all down her thick length,
from the earthen snout all the way
through the fodder and slops to the spiritual curl of the tail,
from the hard spininess spiked out from the spine
down through the great broken heart
to the sheer blue milken dreaminess spurting and shuddering
from the fourteen teats into the fourteen mouths sucking and
blowing beneath them:
the long, perfect loveliness of sow.
Galway Kinnell, from Selected Poems (Bloodaxe, 2001)
Abegail’s request got me thinking. While it is nice to make lists, and sometimes even be in them, it made me realise what I really value about poetry, about reading it and writing it and talking about it and sharing it is the social aspect of it.
I don’t necessarily mean going to tons of readings and meeting lots of people, though that has its place, I’m really talking about slow meandering conversations that are intimate and full of surprises and notes made on the backs of envelopes about who to read next. (If a good pinch of gossip is thrown in, so much the better, but this is not essential).
What do you mean, you don’t do this too?
My essential poetry experiences of 2012 all centred around long unhurried conversations with friends, sitting and talking across tables, with wine, coffee and in some cases food. One was in a cafe at the end of my road and was supposed to be about a research paper. One was in a pub at the launch of a book, with the biggest glass of white wine I have ever seen (and no peanuts). One was in a Portuguese city square over fish. And one was in a supermarket, with shopping bags nestling at my feet.
I also saw Jackie Kay give a reading in a university classroom which I swear made everyone in the audience stop breathing; I took a lesson in writing my first slam poem (thanks, Joelle!); I swapped books with poets who are dear to my heart; I gave a book away when I shouldn’t have; I said goodbye to my favourite ever poetry magazine; and the most perfectly extraordinary thing of all: I read some new poems which also removed breath and brilliance from the day while illuminating those things even more splendidly.
The last of these occurrences (and therefore the one that is freshest in my mind) was coming across, at random, a poem of John Ashbery‘s, from his massive Collected Poems 1956-1987, which I had not seen before.
I’m talking about the poem ‘A Train Rising Out of the Sea’ (from As We Know). I was Christmas shopping and had taken a detour through Waterstone’s on my way to somewhere else, but could not resist a peek at the poetry shelves. (What do you mean, you don’t do this too?)
I can’t really describe the feeling the poem gave me since most of these precious fragments occur at something way below pre-verbal levels (in my case, at any rate). John Logan in his poem ‘The Picnic‘ talks about a feeling like a ‘soft caving in [the] stomach/as at the top of the highest slide’: that is what reading John Ashbery was like for me, suddenly surprised whilst surrounded by Saturday shoppers, re-calibrating everything.
When I got home I realised the poem had been there all along, in my Penguin Selected. And that was the poetry that stopped me breathing in 2012.
In the spring of 1999 I got the best education in poetry I have ever had. I was in Suffolk, a guest of the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival for two weeks as poet in residence. The requirements of the residency were straightforward. I was to visit primary schools, colleges, prisons, libraries and local writers groups giving poetry writing workshops and readings.
It was the best of times. I got to meet and read with the great Connie Bensley; I got to try out ideas for teaching poetry with local teachers and schoolchildren; and I saw first-hand the triumph of dedication, hard work, inspiration and passion that goes into creating the special (and I would argue unique) culture of enthusiasm for poetry that is to be found on that part of the Suffolk coast.
For me the most formative aspect of this joyous time was the conversations I had in the car with my hosts Michael Laskey and Naomi Jaffa. In my experience there is always good banter, gossip and speculation to be had when poets meet and compare notes: who is reading whom, who is in form (or not), which are the new names to be looked out for etc. Joseph Brodsky called this ’the shopping list’.
What took this to another level in my experience at Aldeburgh was the intense close reading and enthusiasm that Michael and Naomi clearly brought to everyone they raved about. I will talk about Naomi’s recommendations in another post, but for now want to pass on how I came to know C. K. Williams’s ‘Kin’.
Michael and I were on our way to a primary school in Sudbury. Stuck in traffic, but completely on time, we were nevertheless impatiently waiting at some lights outside a Spar shop when two young girls came out shouting at each other. Michael nudged me and said: ‘It’s just like that C. K. Williams poem, you know the one, where he says ‘the wretched history of the whole world’. You know the one. You must do. There. It’s there. In those girls. That poem.’ I looked back at him blankly. I said I had read A Dream of Mind but did not know that poem.
‘Come on, Anthony, you must. Bloody hell, what, you don’t, I can’t believe, it’s there, right there, look!’
The girls had stopped walking and were now facing each other. The younger of the two was trying to reach the bag of crisps the older one was holding and eating from, tantalisingly out of reach of her sister. ‘Do you know the poem? I can’t remember what it’s called now. Of course you do.’ He quoted from it again: ‘the wretched history of the world’.
At that the lights changed and we moved off.
As we got to the school I asked him for the name of the poem. By then of course the conversation had moved on. I had the distinct impression that there would be a sizeable chunk of homework waiting for me after the residency had finished. To paraphrase what Pound is supposed to have said to Eliot, I would have to modernise myself.
I’ll never cease being grateful for that morning, and the ones I followed it. I sensed a burgeoning and a growth in my confidence first as a human and second as a writer in and through those tutorials with Michael and Naomi in their cars in the lanes of Suffolk. It was and continues to be the best kind of education, one which pulses through me still each time I open A Dream of Mind, The Singing, and the weighty Collected Poems.
The poem seems to me more prophetically powerful than ever, reaching far beyond my encounter with it through observing two young squabbling girls in a rural town on a February morning, and who, it now strikes me, will be old enough to have children of their own.
“You make me sick!” this, with rancor, vehemence, disgust—again, “You
hear me? Sick!”
with rancor, vehemence, disgust again, with rage and bitterness, arro-
gance and fury—
from a little black girl, ten or so, one evening in a convenience market,
to her sister,
two or three years younger, who’s taking much too long picking out her
candy from the rack.
What next? Nothing next. Next the wretched history of the world. The
history of the heart.
The theory next that all we are are stories, handed down, that all we are
are parts of speech.
All that limits and defines us: our ancient natures, love and death and
terror and original sin.
And the weary breath, the weary going to and fro, the weary always
knowing what comes next.
C.K. Williams, from New and Selected Poems (Bloodaxe, 1995)
You can read my piece on Michael Laskey here
You can read my piece on Smiths Knoll here