One of my personal, private highlights of last year’s Aldeburgh Poetry Festival was a Sunday morning breakfast hosted by The Poetry Trust for board members, funders and friends to meet with poets Ron Egatz and his mentor and friend, Thomas Lux.
A few words of context. Outside it was hosing. Real, proper, November-Dickensian downpour. And inside it was warm. Toast and eggs were munched. There were pleas for more coffee. A big table, not quite round, with everyone able to see each other.
I thought of other writing tables I had sat at: Totleigh Barton, Lumb Bank; tables in prisons, tables in schools…Everyone equal, everyone hungry, everyone listening.
I thought: this could be good.
The topic under discussion was ‘Can poetry writing be taught?’ I have blogged elsewhere about the major epiphany of this meeting, Lisa Gershon’s still stunning analogy between teaching poetry and tennis coaching: too much focus on winning and not enough on playing can be detrimental to real progress.
What I didn’t say in my post is that Naomi Jaffa asked Thomas Lux to close the meeting with his wonderful poem-meditation on creativity and art-making ‘An Horatian Notion’. I came to Aldeburgh secretly hoping to hear only two poems, and this was one of them. Now I can die happy.
Remember the context: rain outside, coffee and toast inside; an early Sunday morning; tired bodies and sore heads; a final day of the festival ahead of us; the sense that it was all running away from us too quickly. In other words, the perfect conditions to hear a poem.
Listening to the poem being read mere feet away from where I was sitting, I was struck again by the effort required to read it out aloud, its deliberately chunky syntax as it were working against the narrative description while simultaneously propelling it along:
The thing gets made, gets built, and you’re the slave
who rolls the log beneath the block, then another,
then pushes the block, then pulls a log
from the rear back to the front
again and then again it goes beneath the block,
and so on.
My reaction to the poem’s opening is always one of cognitive dissonance. I almost never feel that I am in ‘the right place’ to get some writing done; but I know at the same time that the sense of struggle conveyed by the poem appeals to me. I know that unless I show up, nothing will get done. The poem also says: you are not alone; we all go through this.
Sitting there that morning, I was also struck by the poem’s ‘thingyness’: ‘the thing gets made’ to the point where
the thing becomes a wedge
that splits a stone and between the halves
the wedge then grows, i.e., the thing
is solid but with a soul,
a life of its own.
It was good to be reminded of the challenge we face as poets: that what we make has to be made, but it also needs to appear inevitable, to use Yeats’s word. Or, as Stephen Dunn has said: ‘We try to make it seem as if we danced all the way home.’ I want that. I really do. But first I need to work.