The premise of the book is that the old industrial model of working and living (you go to school, get qualifications, then do a job like millions of others) is over. In its place is the ‘connection economy’ where, thanks to advances in technology, individuals now have an unrivalled opportunity to connect with each other across the globe. The shorthand he uses for this is ‘being an artist’ and ‘making art’.
The book is called The Icarus Deception because the part of the Icarus myth we forget is that he was also warned by his father not to fly too low.
I have just got to the bit where he talks about the mindset necessary to make art that connects with people: resilience, detachment, passion, commitment and vulnerability. And somehow this got me thinking about one of my first poetic heroes, Gerard Manley Hopkins. I studied Hopkins at A level and then at university, in a kind of rapt but puzzled delight.
We learned on day one that his poems were radically different from what others were publishing at the time; most were not accepted for publication during his lifetime. We learned that he was a Jesuit priest and loved to find God in nature. We also learned that he had one friend, Robert Bridges, famous in his lifetime but whose chief claim to fame now rests on his promotion of Hopkins’s poetry after his death.
His religious faith seemed to cause him anxiety as much as it did delight. Were he alive now we would probably say he was bipolar.
It seems inconceivable to me that any poet starting out now in contemporary Britain would opt for the conditions Hopkins lived under, namely: solitude verging on loneliness; periods of intense depression; and, worst of all, complete lack of recognition for his art.
Think of all the things we take for granted in the connection economy, the prizes, the mentoring schemes, the festivals, the networking on Facebook and Twitter, the blogs (!), and now think of a life without any of that save one man you occasionally dare to send your poems to, your champion and curator of your reputation, which in any case you will not live to see. It is insane, isn’t it?
If anyone obeyed the instructions spoken at the end of Seamus Heaney’s ‘North’, it was Hopkins:
Compose in darkness.
Expect aurora borealis
in the long foray
but no cascade of light. (North, 1975)
I am a great believer in the ‘power of the group’ theory of creativity, which says that creative artefacts, including those in the fields of science, politics and sport, are usually made by individuals who are connected to others with similar passions and concerns. Yes, I know in order to get my work done as a poet I need to sit alone and walk and mutter and face down that proverbial empty notebook, but I also know that to get it out there and start connecting and evaluating what I have made, what Godin calls shipping, I need to have a group of like-minded people around me, even if they are far away.
The evidence seems to show that Hopkins lived most of his artistic life without that kind of connection. The amateur psychologist in me (you know you do this too) wants to say that ‘No worst there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief’ is the inevitable product of living in deep isolation. The realist in me wants to say Hopkins would have written it anyway, whatever anyone thought.
You can read ‘No worst there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief’ at the Poetry Foundation website
You can find links to other poems in the Lifesaving Poems series here.
I came across Michael Symmons Roberts‘s ‘Ultramarine’ during a stint as poetry editor for Third Way magazine. Like nearly everything I have enjoyed in my life, I did not know what I was doing, and for the large part felt as though a) I was making it up as I went along and b) at any moment the quality police would bash my door down and tell me to stop or be shot.
Opening the email from Michael which contained ‘Ultramarine’ was one of the very few moments where I knew instantly (and briefly) that I was the right person in the right place at the right time.
As well as choosing a poem each month the editorial policy at the time dictated that I write a tiny twenty-word blurb to go with each poem. I used to lose sleep over this, partly in fear of getting it wrong and upsetting the poets whose work I had used and partly because I never really felt I did any of the poems justice.
Again, opening up Michael’s email I knew exactly what I wanted to say about the poem and how to frame it almost instantly. Which is not to say that ‘Ultramarine’ is particularly reducible, but more that it was one of those rare moments (you get them in bookshops or libraries or when a new edition of The North falls onto your doormat) when the place you are in at that time seems to chime chemically with a given poem’s content and way of saying.
This is rare for me. I learnt to read early and easily, but I still think of myself as a very nonlinear reader, needing to pause and notate and gaze out of the window and argue and go back to the text in rumination. If anything, and for these reasons, reading poems seems to appeal to me more than everything else. As I keep telling my book group, I am not lazy, just slow.
But I got ‘Ultramarine’ straightaway. I love its music, its deft handling of rhyme. I love its savouring of language, mirrored in Solomon’s scouring search for ‘the perfect blue’. There is nothing that should not be there.
It is about foolishness. Of Solomon, of yours and of mine. Why do we need poems, temples and ‘utter blue’, the poem seems to ask. Even if we find or make these things, when and how can we ever know our journey is complete?
At the time I wrote under the poem that it is ‘part of a sequence of poems whose concerns include the ‘wisdom’, in defiance of the passage of time, of the artistic enterprise’. I still hold to that. I’d go even further now and say the poem both enacts its questioning into art-making while providing, albeit tentatively, its own answer.
Poems such as ‘Ultramarine’ are rare, like gifts. They make you realise what is possible, and, if you are me, like giving up altogether. You can find the sequence the poem comes from in Raising Sparks (Cape, 1999), which, like all of Michael’s poetry, is essential reading.
for Philip Archer
Looking for the perfect blue,
water to swim in, not through,
to fill his sea, his massive bowl
of hand-thick bronze which should hold
more than light (its dozen
compass-pointing bearer oxen
braced in constant expectation)
Solomon scoured every nation
for a colour that was right.
Now and then he would catch sight
of utter blue as he bent down
in some remote spice-scented town
to wash a day’s heat from his face,
but when he moved the dish – no trace.
If water needed autumn’s slant,
the market traders’ daylong chant
a smell of orange, sandalwood
elusive as the blue in blood
then he would reproduce it all –
and this was wisdom. Some would call
it waste, a bad example;
some will never build a temple.
Michael Symmons Roberts (with thanks to Michael for permission to use this poem)
I want to live – Sharon Olds
The most intense reading group I ever belonged to wasn’t really a reading group. It was a listening group.
I was working at the time for a community arts co-operative in North London. Each person in the group had a specialism (drawing, dance, percussion, comedy, creative writing, acting, singing etc.) which they designed and led workshops in, training the non-specialists in-house. We worked with a wide range of clients in the area, ranging from primary schools to day centres for mental health patients to reminiscence groups.
It was not glamorous. Sometimes clients would not turn up for the workshops; sometimes the workshops would finish five minutes after they had started. We met in a church hall behind Euston Station.
Towards the end of my stint at the co-operative I elected to work with a group of clients at a hospice. The premise was simple. We would meet with the clients for an hour or so each week in one of the hospice sitting rooms, and we would read poems and stories to them. I think it changed my life.
We would start the sessions by reading one or two poems from anthologies, after which clients would make requests. Two of the most frequently chosen poems were ‘Birches‘ by Robert Frost and ‘To Autumn‘ by John Keats. The group was not an exercise in literary criticism. Once a poem had been read out loud clients were entitled to say as much or as little about the poem as they wanted.
Chiefly I remember the poems provoking two kinds of response in particular: complete silence and deep personal reminiscence. Mostly there was silence.
One of the clients, a man I shall call Andrew, loved to listen to the poems with his eyes closed. He rarely said anything about them, except to occasionally repeat a favourite line. I can’t read ‘Birches’ now without seeing him in his recliner, head tilted back, eyes closed tight, repeatedly murmuring ’One could do worse than be a swinger of birches’ and smiling to himself.
A woman whom I shall call Daphne practically told us her life story over the three sessions we had with her, entirely in response to ‘To Autumn‘. We learned about her semi-rural childhood in the post-war period, the long walks into the countryside that she would take with her siblings. Even now I can remember her description of the complete absence of traffic.
One subject remained not so much out of bounds but ignored, the imminent death of the group’s participants. As the group lost members and gained others it was a fact which did not need drawing attention to. It was, to use a phrase of Ted Hughes, ‘inscribed in the egg’ of their being there.
That the clients reacted to the poems we read them in the way they did argues for poetry’s ability to cut through the norms of social interaction and place the listener/reader simultaneously and intensely in the moment of hearing the poem and the experience of the poem itself. Had we been sharing memories of novels or films I wonder if I would still remember these responses in the same way, some twenty-seven years later? These are some of the people I thought of when I called this series Lifesaving Poems.
Not for one second do I think this the fault of the poem.
My first encounter with it was through Neil Astley‘s anthology Poetry With an Edge, published in 1988. As I have written before, this book came into my life at a time when reading and writing poems seemed as important as breathing. This was mixed with the giddiness of sleepless nights in the early stages of childcare, a heady cocktail, and not always conducive to optimal concentration.
This isn’t special pleading, this is just how it was.
Still in that phase of trying to find and create art in the cracks between working and late night feeding, I found The Way We Live (Bloodaxe, 1987) in a secondhand bookshop in Teignmouth in the autumn of 1995. We were living in London at the time, and, though we did not know it, had begun to feel the pull of the west country, where we now live.
If I am honest, ‘The Way We Live’ passed me by; I was more taken with the poems in the book’s first section, especially ‘November’.
‘The Way We Live’ finally came into my life in October, 1998, at the Arvon Foundation‘s Lumb Bank writing centre. With Siân Hughes, I had been asked to fill the ‘in loco parentis’ role for prizewinning young poets who were being tutored by Jo Shapcott and Roger McGough, for the first ever Foyle Young Poets Award (then called the Simon Elvin Young Poets Award).
As I remember it Jo led a workshop on writing poems of praise and curses. I will always be grateful to Jo that one of the models we worked from was ‘The Way We Live’.
I loved its energy and fusing together of disparate elements to make a coherent whole:
Of chicken tandoori and reggae, loud, from tenements,
commitment, driving fast and unswerving
That seems witty to me, both deeply felt and light. What a masterstroke of control to place the notion of ‘unswerving’ after ‘driving fast’, and linking it, over the cliff fall of a line break, to ‘friendship’.
Book-ended with instructions to ‘pass the tambourine’, I don’t think it is overstating it to say the poem is Psalm-like in its intense cataloguing of experience. Creativity-theorists call this kind of openness ‘over-inclusivity’. The poem thus records and is a record of the necessary and sometimes extreme receptivity required to get a piece of work or project completed.
I suspect its lack of judgementalism played a key role in appealing to those young writers that day. The poem presents and accumulates details in a continuous present tense; it does not commentate. In this way I suspect it spoke to them of who they were at that time, as it were holding up a mirror to their lives: here is a poem by a young person: you can do this too! Watching them love it, I loved it.
You can read ‘The Way We Live’ here
You can find ‘The Way We Live’ in Mr and Mrs Scotland Are Dead: Poems 1980-1994
Read more Lifesaving Poems series of blogposts here