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)
All of the speakers in my part of the series were asked to speak on the subject of ‘How to…’ (let go/feel beautiful/kill a chicken etc).
I was asked to speak about writing poems.
The result is now live on the Greenbelt site.
You can watch the video of the talk here.
You can download the script of the talk here: How to Write a Poem.
Last week I read Antony Dunn‘s marvellous essay about his poetics, ‘To Tell You the Truth’ (from In Their Own Words: Contemporary Poets on Their Poetry: Salt, 2012). There is a terrific line in the essay about having the ambition to write lines as good as those written by poets who inspired him to write in the first place. I like this. I think the social dimension of why we write poems, what Robert Pinksy calls a ‘need to answer’, seems to interest our culture less than those readily digestible aspects of poets’ autobiographies such as their marriages and employment histories.
I am talking about what Raymond Carver calls real influence: that friendship or teacher or connection that sets your reading and interest off in a whole new direction because of a chance comment or recommendation. As Thomas Lux says in his digest of creativity theory, the great ‘An Horatian Notion‘: ‘You make the thing because you love the thing/and you love the thing because someone else loved it/enough to make you love it’.
As I have said before, we make some of these connections completely on our own, by reading the maze of influences we detect or read or hear about in writers we like. Others are thrust upon us as it were, with little choice in the matter, as when Rupert Loydell used to bollock me for not knowing about Mark Strand.
Rupert also had a hand in my first encounter with Deryn Rees-Jones‘s ‘What It’s Like to Be Alive’ (from Signs Around a Dead Body: Salt, 1998). He was editing the reviews page of Orbis at the time. I was mostly doing what I laughlingly called freelance work, that is, earning not much money whilst looking after my children and doing the odd school gig or training with teachers. I’ll come clean: to deepen what little social contract I had with poetry at the time, I kept my eyes on the free books Rupert would pass to me.
One of the most enjoyable of all the books I reviewed in this period was Signs Around a Dead Body. I still think it is a fantastic piece of work.
As when you first see or hear or read something you connect with but do not fully understand, part of my response to this book was ‘How on earth did she do that?’, quickly followed by ‘I want to have a go!’ If you do not possess a copy, you really need to get your hands on one right this second.
Mixed in with this awareness was the question, for me, of how far I would be prepared to ditch most of what I had thought was acceptable in a poem up to that point. I am not talking about the subject matter of the poem here so much as its terms of direct address and urgent recall, its stark and repetitive vocabulary a child could understand. If I wanted to have a go at this, I thought, I am going to have to stop holding onto the same assumptions. It was as exciting as it was troubling.
Looking at the poem now I greatly admire how it is not ambitious for anything other than remaining within the cry of its eternal present moment. I comprises three sentences. One is long and multi-claused. The other two are short and declarative. When I first read them I thought of them as decoration, but increasingly I think they create a space in which their unambiguous finality not only lives and breathes but increases in mystery.
It is as though the speaker’s linguistic synapses have been held in suspended animation for a moment of daydream and self-forgetfulness. They provide a vital pause, unglamorous in themselves but nevertheless taking the poem into a realm that is part grief and part elation. The sudden dip in temperature that they create is not unlike burying your hand below the surface of icy water. It is a most curious phenomenon, to read lines of such certainty sounding like the least certain utterances ever made.
What It’s Like To Be Alive
after Django Bates
I remember the nights, and the sounds of the nights,
and the moon and the clouds, then the clear sky
and the stars and the angels on the rye,
and I remember the way we knelt on the bed, how the bedclothes
were a tide, and the sunlight was a tide, and how everything pulled,
and I remember the trains, leaving and arriving,
and I remember the tears, your tears, and my tears
and how we were children, not lovers,
how the angels cried,
and I remember your face and you coming in my hands,
and the clouds, and the stars, and how, for a moment,
with our eyes tight closed how the planet lurched
and the angels smiled,
and I remember how I did not know if this was grief or love,
this hot pool,
and the sounds,
and then nothing.
A watermark held up to the light.
A boat rowed off the edge of the world.
Deryn Rees-Jones, from Signs Round a Dead Body (Seren, 1998)
With thanks to Deryn Rees-Jones
I began writing the Lifesaving Poems series of blog posts in May 2010. The idea was to celebrate the poems that I had spent the previous year copying by hand into a notebook. This is a personal anthology of arbitrary tastes and rules: to include a poem I had to be able to remember where I was when I first read or heard it; and I only allowed myself one poem per poet.
Here are the next ten:
Derek Mahon: Everything is Going to Be All right
While I am inside what John Gardner calls the dream of its narrative I am once again prepared to believe and live it a little stronger.
Elizabeth Jennings: A Letter to Peter Levi
A masterful exercise in delayed gratification.
All that happens is a man helping his wife into her coat in a coffee shop. It is completely harrowing.
Patrick Kavanagh: Wet Evening in April
I broke the habit of a lifetime and discussed money with my wife.
Moniza Alvi: I Would Like to be a Dot in a Painting by Miro
‘But it’s fine where I am’.
Sharon Olds: Looking at Them Asleep
When you need poetry to breathe and make sense of who you are as much as you do food and a roof over your head.
Stephen Berg: Eating Outside
An almost Chekhovian sensibility, with its cataloguing of ‘beautiful women’, ‘talk about work and love’ and overt symbolism of the moon.
Naomi Jaffa: Some of the Usual
A kind of force-field of rapt inclusivity.
Raymond Carver: Prosser
The lines move from natural symbol, to simple action, to emotional discovery.
Hugo Williams: Tides; Douglas Dunn: Roofs of Terry Street
We were sitting on the balcony with coffee and the papers, having got up late one Saturday morning, when I began glancing through this little book of poems…