Colin Mallett, Sculptor
The poets I go back to
This article first appeared in the North magazine, in November 2007.
In February 2006 I was diagnosed with cancer.
One of the things you find when this happens is that friends start lending or giving you books, imagining the great swathes of time you now have at your disposal. In my case, even though they know I mostly prefer to read poetry, I was given novels: Ian McEwen’s Saturday, among others. The problem was, the last thing I felt like doing was sitting down with the Booker Prize shortlist for a jolly good read. Not only did I not have the inclination, I found I could no longer concentrate. On anything. This included poetry. Two friends did give me lovely new editions of the Selected Poems of certain Senior British Poets, knowing I liked their work; but I found I could manage barely a poem without losing the thread or interest altogether.
For months all I could manage were the sports pages.
This completely floored me.
One poet I do – and did try to – go back to during this time was Jaan Kaplinski. All I found one day was this:
Death does not come from outside. Death is within.
Makes with us our first sexual contacts.
Marries, bears children, quarrels, makes up.
Separates, or perhaps not, with us.
Goes to work, goes to the doctor, goes camping,
To the convalescent home and the sanatorium.
(from Through the Forest)
I found it oddly reassuring. It reminded me that in a period when so little of anything tries to deal with the final questions I could still rely on poetry to tell it like it is.
This new and unhappy existence of insomnia and daytime telly was one, I soon realised, where the only going back I would be doing for a while would be inside my head, from memory.
There was a problem with this as well: I have very few whole poems by heart, but many lines and fragments. One complete poem, from a book given to me as a child, did bob to the surface, a limerick by Spike Milligan:
A man called Percival Lee
Got up one night for a pee.
When he got to the loo
It was quarter-to-two,
And when he got back it was three.
It seemed to sum up my new situation with an eerie prescience, as the side-effects of chemotherapy took hold.
The unreliability of my memory raised an uncomfortable question for me. Why was the art-form I had spent more than twenty years engaging with – studying, reading, writing and writing about – suddenly so inaccessible to me? Was it my fault? A lack of dedication, perhaps, or just sheer laziness? Perhaps I had been taking the wrong approach in my reading all this time: as we are often reminded, a poem is only as good as its reader. Surely it couldn’t be the poems’ fault, or of the poets themselves?
I put it down to the drugs.
It took me a while to notice it, but in the months while I shuffled around feeling dreadful I realised I was doing a lot of going back to poets, ones I hadn’t expected to re-visit, the ones I thought I’d forgotten. These included jokes my grandfather would tell at Sunday tea (consistently terrible); snatches of hymns (‘the humble fed, the hungry lifted high’); and remnants of psalms:
Even though I walk
Through the valley of the shadow of
I will fear no evil,
For you are with me,
Your rod and your staff,
They comfort me.
In amongst these fragments were the lyrics of songs: everything from Simon and Garfunkel and The Beatles and Motown, the first music I loved, to Nick Drake, The Blue Nile and The Smiths, picked up at university. Some of these, unlike the psalms, were deeply unconsoling:
A black-eyed dog
He called at my door
A black-eyed dog
He called for more
A black-eyed dog
He knew my name
A black-eyed dog
He knew my name
I’m growing old and I wanna go home
I’m growing old and I don’t wanna know
Gradually, I began to recall lines and fragments from ‘book’ poets and poems which I had committed to memory while not paying attention, or rather, paying attention to other things. I enjoyed going back to these poets very much. I noticed that these lines would flash into view, miraculously, it seemed, when I most needed them, as if called into speech by the pressure of the moment I found myself in. I’ve long believed in poetry being ‘useful’ in this way, that each of us carries around a private word-hoard we rely on to know and describe the world, but it took the crisis of having cancer to fully live it. Once a line came to me, I would hear myself repeating it over and again, simply relishing its sounds and textures, grateful to its author for putting it so well.
Here, at random, are a few of the lines that arrived, unannounced, during this time: ‘No worst, there is none’ (Hopkins); ‘And all was a jumble’ (Martin Stannard); ‘I want you and you are not here’ (Carol Ann Duffy); ‘The rain it raineth’ (Shakespeare); ‘The cool flash of what serious is’ (Mark Halliday); ‘In our different ways alive’ (Ann Sansom); ‘Night’s a dozen eggs’ (Ian Mcmillan); ‘You’ve got to eat’ (Michael Laskey). I was especially fond of the last two, as, fuelled by steroid-induced hunger, I raided the fridge. (Myth: not all cancer patients lose weight.)
In amongst these was Sharon Olds’s line ‘I want to live.’ I must have said that to myself every day. Still do, in fact.
Midway through my chemotherapy treatment a poetry magazine arrived on the doormat. (I can’t remember which one and it doesn’t matter.) In the five minutes I managed to concentrate on it I realised that another part of going back to poets, for me at any rate, is intimately connected with friendship. In practice this means you scan the contents pages of journals and poetry magazines for people you know, like, have met or read with, and go for their work first. I think of these people as my team, the ones I want on my side when the bowling is a bit useful. I’m pretty sure all of us must do this. As Jean Sprackland once said to me: ‘I tend to like the poetry of poets I get on with.’ The thing is, it isn’t really the same as going back. It’s more a kind of going forward, an investment in their future, hoping and believing that they are still up to scratch. In the words of Anne Lamott, I am militantly on their side; I am actively interested in having my breath taken away. Part of the pleasure of doing this is being able to send off an email the next morning with the words ‘nice poem’ in the subject line. I think of this kind of activity – with or without cancer – as being part of what keeps me sane. What do you mean, you don’t do this too?
As the days grew lighter, and as the first part of my treatment came to an end, I was able to look again at my bookshelves with a little more purpose. I wondered if the poets I think of as the ones I go back to were still of interest to me. I found that the poets who for one reason or another I have looked at most frequently over the last four years or so, before I was ill, were as alive and necessary to me as ever. I’ve already mentioned Jaan Kaplinski, so I’ll start with him.
What I value about Jaan Kaplinksi’s work , more than anything else, is the sense you get of a whole life being lived out, in another place, right in front of you. It is an amazingly gracious poetry, sometimes teasing in its apparent simplicity, and completely unpretentious in the sense that he does not claim to hold views or explore positions which are not true to him. In this way I find reading him refreshing. His world is not my world, but it is one I am interested in and find as believable, in its way, as those of Frank O’Hara, say, or Norman MacCaig:
In the morning I was presented to President Mitterand,
in the evening I weeded-out nettles under the currant bushes.
A lot happened in between…
(from Evening Brings Everything Back)
I do not write, do not make poetry, about summer, about autumn,
about winter or about spring, about nature or about people,
I write about writing, about making poetry itself.
(from Through the Forest)
Under the table are a small knife, three pencils and a lorry.
(from Through the Forest)
Another facet of Kaplinski’s writing I very much admire is his ability to be both inside the events he describes and outside them at the same time. He is a master at not giving easy answers, tacitly implying that it is not in poetry’s gift to say, as Frost would have it, that a solution will now take place:
This morning was cold, but it warmed about mid-day.
Blue clouds piled up in the north.
I came from a meeting – a discussion of
the teaching of classical languages –
and I was sitting by the river with a friend
who wanted to tell me his troubles.
The water was still high. Two boys
Were throwing pebbles from the bank into the river.
I had no counsel to offer…
(from The Wandering Border)
This gift for tact is even more to the fore in poems which juxtapose apparently domestic events with sudden moments of unease or violence. Occasionally, as in the poem ‘There was winter’s cold and moisture’, these moments take on a dreamlike clarity; the reader is left to decide which is real and which is the dream. Sometimes, however, there appears to be at work an almost forensic sensibility, peeling away the layers of domestic or civilized life and revealing how adjacent our lives are to tragedy:
The children are asleep. On the stairs,
A long row of shoes and rubber boots.
It happened near Viljandi: an imbecile boy
poured gasoline on the neighbour’s three-year-old son
and set him on fire. I ran for milk.
You could see the yellow maple from far off
between the birches and the spruce. The evening star
was shining above the storehouse. The boy survived,
probably maimed for life. The night will bring frost.
(from The Wandering Border)
I like the resistance to making judgements in this, and the allowing of natural symbols to do their own work at the end of the poem. They are what we might call small or low-level moments of risk in a poem. Kaplinski’s work is full of them and they glitter, jewel-like, beneath the plain-speaking surface of everything he writes.
I most often read Kaplinski, as I do a lot of poetry, just before going to sleep. I find the dreamlike simplicity of his work makes this particularly apposite. Perhaps for similar reasons, another frequent visitor to the Wilson pillow is Thomas Transtromer.
I think I must have come across Transtromer’s work first in the Heaney and Hughes anthology The Rattlebag. (I’m tempted at this point to go off on a long diversion in defence of the anthology. Perhaps another time…) I clearly remember encountering the poem ‘Breathing Space July’ there, and being interested in how the palpable world was being looked at and presented extremely clearly and at the same time made a little strange:
The man lying on his back under the high trees
is up there too. He rills out in thousands of twigs,
sways to and fro,
sits in an ejector seat that releases in slow motion.
As the (very useful) introduction to the Bloodaxe New Collected Poems puts it: the poems try ‘to come to terms with the powerful elements of our lives which we cannot consciously control or even satisfactorily define…[they] end by returning us, perhaps abruptly, to an active world, but they leave us with the feeling that a strangeness has crossed our path.’ As summaries go, this is unbeatable I think. (It strikes me that it could equally apply to Kaplinski, though he is a very different kind of poet.)
Again in common with Kaplinski, Transtromer is explicitly interested in crossing the borders between reality and dream. Sleep, in fact, is referred to regularly: as the poem ‘Nocturne’ puts it, it as though the events witnessed there are more fully ‘clothe[d]… in Life’: ‘I see strange pictures and signs/ scribbling themselves behind my eyelids.’ One could speculate that these dreamlike territories give him permission to explore the unconscious with greater freedom. Thus the poems move from simple description (‘I grow sleepy during the car journey and I drive in under the trees at the side of the road’)to feelings of unnamed terror (‘Where am I? WHO am I? I am something that wakes in a back seat, twists about in a panic like a cat in a sack. Who?’) with alarming, and believable, rapidity (‘The Name’).
My favourite of all his poems also describes a car journey in which death is faced, briefly, head-on. It starts with a line which you can imagine has become somewhat totemic to me:
One evening in February I came near to dying here.
The car skidded sideways on the ice, out
on the wrong side of the road. The approaching cars –
their lights – closed in.
My name, my girls, my job
broke free and were left silently behind
further and further away. I was anonymous
like a boy in a playground surrounded by enemies.
Everything about this rings true to me; the fear is palpable. The lines’ slow-motion depiction of action and thought breathe space and consciousness into an event lasting a matter of seconds. It culminates in the unforced image of the trapped schoolboy, which is simultaneously odd and exactly right. What I prize about this kind of writing is that it begins with things I know about (cars, children, work) but is quickly transformed into a meditation on forces much harder to name (death, identity, solitude) while remaining resolutely planted in the so-called real world.
The way I read Transtromer, as with Kaplinski, is not at all programmatic. I find a poem I like and read away from it, in different directions, through the book. I admire and look out for the way he sees clearly into ordinary situations to reveal what lies beneath: ‘We are at a party that doesn’t love us’ begins one prose poem (‘Below Zero’); midway through another we read: ‘Sometimes an abyss opens between Tuesday and Wednesday but twenty-six years may be passed in a moment’ (‘Answers to Letters’). Often I merely enjoy being in his company, looking and thinking, before sleep:
Outside the lamps the September night is totally dark.
When the eyes adjust, there is faint light
over the ground where large snails glide out
and the mushrooms are as numerous as the stars.
(‘On the Outskirts of Work’)
Finally I’d like to talk about Raymond Carver. The book of his I turn to most often – in no small part out of nostalgia: it was the first book of his I bought – is Fires, in the old Picador paperback edition. (As I write this I’m suddenly conscious that I go back to him differently from how I revisit the other poets I’ve mentioned. Kaplinski and Transtromer I absorb through osmosis; I read Carver, as with other poets I feel I need to catch up with –
Frost, or Milosz or Hopkins – on a whim and more by total immersion; I might have a whole week, say, or two, of reading nothing else. Of these, Carver is the one I go back to most often.) Fires is important to me because it is not just a collection of poems: it also contains essays and stories.
I re-read his essays on writing as diligently as any advice about the craft I have come across (this is perhaps worthy of an essay on its own); and it is now commonplace to note that his stories, built with simple sounding language, have their own poetic aspect: ‘He could hear her ragged breathing over the sound of the air that rushed by outside. He turned off the radio and was glad for privacy’ (‘The Pheasant’). I can still remember barely being able to breathe when I finished the story ‘So Much Water So Close To Home’ for the first time: nothing I’d read before had given me such an intensely physical reaction.
I feel very much the same about his poems, and it is these I go back to most often. I find myself turning to poems like ‘Morning, Thinking of Empire’, with its flat relation of events, offhand use of metaphor and deadpan humour:
Our future lies deep in the afternoon.
It is a narrow street with a cart and driver,
a driver who looks at us and hesitates,
then shakes his head. Meanwhile,
I coolly crack the egg of a fine leghorn chicken.
The first time I read that line about the chicken I nearly burst out laughing, so surprising was it and rendered with such relish. The egg is not just cracked but cracked ‘coolly’; and it is not any old egg but one from a specific breed, which also happens to be ‘fine’.
The way the poem ends, however, took my head off completely:
Even the flies are still.
I crack the other egg.
Surely we have diminished one another.
I admire, and now love, the way these lines move from natural symbol, to simple action, to emotional discovery (a nice example of showing, showing and then telling). It is like watching a film of an ordinary domestic scene which begins in hope-masked anxiety (‘we press our lips to the enameled rims of the cups’) but ends with a distinct atmosphere of foreboding. Somehow the two cracked eggs are crucial to this atmosphere being created. We may never know how he achieved this.
Other poems I make sure I re-read on my visits to Carver country include ‘Luck’, ‘Looking for Work’, ‘Your Dog Dies’, ‘Photograph of my Father in his Twenty-Second Year’ (my candidate for the least corny photograph-poem ever) and ‘At Night the Salmon Move’.
Perhaps my favourite of all, including poems from his later books, is ‘Prosser’, his moving elegy to his father:
Everything goes, but Prosser.
Those nights driving back through miles of wheat fields –
headlamps raking the fields on the curves –
Prosser – that town, shining as we break over hills,
heater rattling, tired through to bone,
the smell of gunpowder on our fingers still:
I can barely see him, my father, squinting
through the windshield of that cab, saying, Prosser.
I like the apparent artlessness of this and the emotion of it, the way it captures that preverbal monosyllabic state of utter exhaustion when driving late at night. (Can you see a pattern emerging here?) I have always liked real names in poetry; the name of Prosser here is imbued with startling power, I think. Partly this is through repetition. Also, this happens in a figurative sense because it becomes a symbol of what is memorable, both spoken and not, between father and son.
Finally it is to do with the craft of the poem, in particular the poet’s handling of sounds to create mood and atmosphere. The stanza above is dominated by ‘i’, ‘e’ (‘wheat’, ‘fields’, ‘windshield’), ‘l’ and ‘t’ sounds. In the first line ‘nights’ chimes with ‘driving’ which chimes with ‘miles’; these are picked up in ‘shining’ and ‘tired’. The hard ‘t’s’ of ‘that’, ‘town’, ‘heater’, ‘rattling’, ‘still’ and ‘squinting’ enact the material, the relentlessness of the journey and the need to stay awake. Part of this music is set up with rhyming or chiming pairs of words: ‘hills’/’still’; ‘smell’/’barely’; ‘smell’/’still’; ‘gunpowder’/ ‘fingers’; ‘see him’/ ‘squinting’. ‘Prosser’, with its eiderdown ‘o’ ,‘s’ and ‘r’ sounds works in opposition to all of these and is placed deliberately at the end of the poem, calling attention to its difference in terms of sound, but also to itself as goal or destination. It is not impossible that the ‘difference’ between the two men, symbolised in a small-town name, is integral to the poem’s meaning.
Quoting an Isaac Babel short story in one of his essays on writing, Carver says ‘No iron can pierce the heart with such force as a period put just at the right place.’ That’s the way I felt about ‘Prosser’ when I first read it, and the way I still feel about it now: pierced. I sensed, as Seamus Heaney says of Robert Lowell, ‘a whole meaning simultaneously clicking shut and breaking open, a momentous illusion that the fulfilments in the ear spelled out meanings and fulfilments available in the world.’ (This is also another piece of poetry worth going back to.)
I began this piece by saying that, because of my treatment for cancer, my normal poetry reading routines (or should that be re-reading routines?) were utterly disrupted. (As I pass through an end-of-treatment-phase into what I hope is remission I’m no longer sure what ‘normal’ is.) For the record, though I haven’t looked at them for a while, two books I make sure I look at least once every couple of years are Seamus Heaney’s North and Ted Hughes’s Moortown. This piece could easily have been about these alone. In the same way I have wanted, but not been able, just yet, to revisit some important books I’ve encountered in the last couple of years or so. I’d like to think that these will be among those I’ll be going back to for years, if I get the time: Julia Darling’s Sudden Collapses in Public Places; James Schuyler’s Collected Poems; Kenneth Koch’s New Addresses; Jean Sprackland’s Hard Water; Derryn Rees Jones’s Signs Around a Dead Body; Michael Laskey’s Permission to Breathe; Michael Symmons Roberts’s Corpus; Mark Halliday’s Jab; Ann Sansom’s In Praise of Men and Other People; Peter Carpenter’s Catch. Each of these, to paraphrase Raymond Carver, return me to the business of living with fresh eyes, fresh hopes and with new and exciting phrases to chew on and memorise without knowing it.
What Carver says about returning to life is important, I think. In my own context that has both a figurative and a literal meaning. So in a sense, having cancer has reminded me of why I read poetry and what got me hooked on it in the first place. Of course over the years I have learned to appreciate formal devices, techniques, approaches and schools plus, I hope, a wide range of voices. But ultimately it is for truth that I keep coming back. The idea that I can be sitting in a room in Exeter or the Borders reading about Tintern Abbey or the Bogside or Heptonstall or Luskentyre or Corminboeuf or Iowa or Michael Laskey on his bike and be simultaneously in both places is one that continues to amaze and delight me. If it didn’t, what would be the point?