It was the best of times. Jean Sprackland and I were tutoring a poetry course at Totleigh Barton, the Arvon Foundation‘s writing centre in Sheepwash, Devon. It was midsummer. Housemartins swooped into their nests under the thatched eaves. Heat shimmered in the fields. Best of all, we had lucked out with our participants, quickly referring to them as ‘the dream group’.
Our guest reader that week was Matthew Hollis. He gave one of those exemplary readings you hope will go on forever: rich in anecdote and explication, wry, amusing and above all, kind. He answered every single one of our questions with great care and generosity.
Prior to his arrival Jean conducted a workshop on his marvellous poem ‘Wintering’ (below). I loved its internal music straight away, all those flinty ‘i’ sounds in the first stanza (‘picture’, ‘him’, ‘flitting’, ‘splints’, ‘rib’, ‘kindle’) setting up a spine of sound that pulses through the entire poem like returning waves of grief (‘listen’, ‘kitchen’, ‘calling’, ‘him’, ‘fizz’, ‘mizzle’, ‘things’, ‘winter’).
If memory serves we spent a good deal of the workshop that day discussing that unusual word ‘mizzle’ (‘to rain in fine, mist-like droplets’ we announced). We could see that it fitted the poem musically, but did it fit tonally? In a poem of such quietness, wasn’t it drawing too much attention to itself? Wasn’t it in danger of pushing the poem towards being a bit self-consciously literary-poetic?
On the other hand, we all loved it. We loved the sudden surprise of it. We practised saying it out loud as we sat there around the table. ‘Mizzle, mizzle, mizzle,’ we chanted. ‘What’s it sound like?’ Jean asked. ‘Not what it means, what is the sound meaning where it’s used in the poem?’
It became something of an in-joke for the week, a kind of shorthand we would use to question something in another’s poem when we felt unsure if a word or phrase was working or not: ‘Isn’t that a bit of a mizzle?’. I suppose you had to be there.
I still think of it as a kind of touchstone now. I remember Jean saying quite definitely that it was fine to want to get out of our poems quickly, but to do that we had to get into them first, and this involved risk, for example using words to say things we may not have embarked on our writing with the intention of saying. I’m still learning that lesson today.
If I close my eyes I can picture him
flitting the hedgerow for splints
or a rib of wood to kindle the fire,
or reading the snow for whatever
it was that came out of the trees
and circled the house in the night;
if I listen I can hear him out
in the kitchen, scudding potatoes,
calling the cat in; if I breathe
I can smell the ghost of a fire,
a burning of leaves that would fizz
in the mizzle before snow.
There is in this house now
a stillness of cat fur and boxes,
of photographs, paperbacks, waste—
paper baskets; a lifetime
of things that I’ve come here
to winter or to burn.
There is in this world one snow fall.
Everything else is just weather.
Matthew Hollis, from Ground Water (Bloodaxe, 2004)