Wednesday, 7 September 2011

On wooing the poem. A beginner's guide.

Yesterday, I wrote a piece called Black Mountain River. You can read it here, but you might want to wait a moment (or not.) This post isn't another piece of poetry, nor of prose fiction. It's just about the writing of Black Mountain River.

I could feel that there was a piece of writing gnawing at me. For several days, it had tried to make itself known. I'm acquainted enough with this particular dance that it doesn't dismay me over-much, but it's still an uncomfortable place to be - perhaps you know it yourself. I tried my best to make myself available without over-doing it. There were a few pleasantries exchanged and a certain amount of avoiding-eye-contact, but nothing too intimate. We tried a few steps of some easy polkas, then returned to our seats.

Black Mountain River... Where the hell does a poem with that kind of title go to sit down? At the root of the mountain, that's where. In the saddle of the sea.

I didn't know its name back then, of course. If you look at a poem full in the face too quickly, there's an evaporation, a scream, a few moments of stolen pleasure and then the Poem-Mother bearing down on your soul with her rolling pin. It's a violation, for sure. If there were Poetry Police, that's what they should be knocking on your door about. If you don't woo a poem properly, you're not welcome in this town. There's vagabonds and then there's just The Bad.

At the same time, you don't want to take it too far. You don't send the poem bunches of flowers or love letters. You stalk it, sure enough, but you don't try and ingratiate yourself with its Mother (she isn't too impressed by that kind of shit anyhow. c.f. Baba Yaga.) You nod in passing, as if you just happened to be there, but you don't follow it down the street quoting Byron or Bukowski or Beowulf, trying to win it over with your extreme cleverness. The poem is a wilder thing, with archaic manners and ancient sensibilities. If you can lift a boulder with one hand whilst playing the goat-pipes of Bulgaria, well, that may just impress the poem a little. Better still, open one hand as you pass it in the road and show one of the hazelnuts of wisdom, or a sprig of alder from Bran's shield. Say nothing. Wink. Move on. Later, let the poem chance upon you wrestling an angel or the wind or the moon. Keep it intrigued. Sooner or later, your orbits will begin to overlap. You'll see it in your favourite bar, drinking Absinthe with a clown. Or playing dare with a Minotaur. Don't get jealous. Don't get jealous. Buy drinks for the clown. Congratulate the Minotaur on its bow-tie. There are books of etiquette for such occasions (c.f. Czesław Miłosz or Pablo Neruda.) In passing, slip the poem a scrap of paper with a phone number on it. Your phone number? NO! Not your phone number, numbskull. A tattoo parlour for gazelles; a museum of impossible things; a Transylvanian undertaker; the Ritz. Anyone but you.

Sit back. Read a book. Open a magazine. Begin to watch that film you downloaded (illegally) and then forgot to watch. Make your plans for that business you never started. Relax.

Don't get uptight.
It'll find you.
Trust me.

So, I didn't know its name. All I knew was that there was writing about.
This is how I found myself sitting, yesterday afternoon, in an armchair by the fire, reading Martin Shaw's excellent book A Branch from the Lightning Tree. Astute readers will be aware that one of the central folktales explored in the book is none other than Ivashko Medvedko - Little Ivan, Bear Child. None other than the tale that Rima and myself told at Uncivilisation just a few weeks ago. I wasn't aware of this. This kind of synchronicity can be a postcard from the poem, a 'wish you were here' from the depths of the Wyrd. 

And where isn't the Depths of the Wyrd, in the end, eh?

 Then again, sometimes it isn't. Sometimes it's just chance. Sometimes it's the initiatory gods coming to take you through the eye of the needle. Sometimes it's just a psychotic breakdown. It's almost like you can't rely on anything these days... 

Only joking.

But, I was sitting reading the book and staring out of the window and not doing the countless Important Things To Be Done (some of which are actually Quite Pressing) and feeling that unique discomfort of the psyche and I'd been exploring particular wounds in myself and the creatures that live in them, gently, allowing a few days of not-doing in a busy time, letting that yin be a salve to the over-exerted yangness of it all

And there it was.

I hadn't known that it was that very thing that was trying to be written. I had thought I had something completely different to say  - which shows just how in touch with my inner world I am... But, in touch or not, I was waiting. I was attentive. Maintaining that particular alchemy of nonchalance and acute anxiety.  I had made the bed, polished my shoes, cleaned away the worst of the evidence of my general degenerate and appalling nature. The room smelled, if not of roses, then at least not of cabbage-farts and crack.

When the poem arrives at your door, begin to dance immediately. Don't hesitate; don't offer a cup of tea; don't ask how the journey was. That's for prose. Take the poem in your arms and dance to the music that only you can hear.

 This is the amazing thing:

The poem knows the steps.

Truth be told, the poem knows the whole deal far, far better than you do. But what the poem appreciates more than anything is the style of your wooing. Go for it. Really go for it.

What are you waiting for? You want to write a hundred mediocre poems like a litany of adequate love-affairs? Or would you be happy to write one incandescent monument to your life's singular expression on this great and terrible Earth?
Dance, then!

Sitting in the chair by the fire, I danced the best I could. You'll be the judge of how well I danced. Actually, no one will be the judge, because the challenge isn't about that - if there is one, it's about more subtle and vital entities and substances, such as:

Did you feel the lightning in your blood while you wrote?
Were you as honest as you could be?
Did something mysterious happen while you wrote?
Did your gods nod to you?

I didn't have my notebook to hand, nor any blank sheet of paper. I did have a pen - we're cunning enough to litter the house with working pens. Or we're very messy. Pick a narrative that works for you. What I did have was a stack of magazines. I chose one that looked as though it wasn't a collector's item or one with Rima's work in, then prayed for some white space, found it and wrote.

This is what it looked like:

That one's inside the back cover of issue 194 of PN Review. I buy it once in a blue moon when I think that perhaps it'd be rewarding on some soul or financial level to be part of The Poetry World. I'm sorry to admit that I rarely read it all and most of what I do read leaves me baffled. But I'm glad it's there, genuinely. 

This, apparently, is page 59. I chose it for the half-page of white. Sorry, Carola Luther (although it has had the unexpected side-effect of me reading and enjoying most of Travelling With Chickens (2) right now for the first time.)

This is what I mean.
When the poem arrives, just dance. Poems love dancing. How could they not? They're made of the same thing. Next time you're lost in ecstatic dancing, whether it's tango or podium or tea-dance, think of poetry. No, don't. Just dance. But remember, somewhere in that amazing being that you are, that the two are connected by a kinship as deep as waterfall and stream or a shooting star and the moon.

You will never keep the poem any more than you will keep the dance. It will flow through you and will then be gone. Ink is your only memory. No one will know how well you danced except for the old cackling woman in the corner with her basket of poets' heads and lovers' glances. If you meet the same poem in the street, it may not even know you. How wonderful! Whisper the secret name of the lapwing as you pass - if you are lucky, the poem may be intrigued enough to deign to dance with you again. Don't rely on old tricks. Be bold. And dashing. And broken, too. You know how it goes.

If you'd like to read the poem, it's here.
Why it's different from what I wrote in the covers of PN Review is another story. Fill my glass and I'll tell you how that one goes.

Lapwing by Bridget Woodford
Leaping lurcher print by Samuel Howitt (1756-1822)


  1. You are ever-brilliant and I'm ever-proud..
    And you didn't know that whilst you wrote all that I was over there making a drawing for a painting that will be about How-I-make-Paintings.
    Another kind of the same kind of magic.
    But also somehow about Love and The Work, which is what you are saying here too.
    Dog, Roebuck and Lapwing are friends of yours, I think.. and I'm glad to be too ;)

  2. Amazing! I love your handwriting, Tom. Also, this, the closest description I have read for how poetry stalks me, has served as a reminder that I have been living in prose-world for too long now. Straddling the change of seasons over the last five days, I've been feeling something else moving beneath the leaf-litter...

  3. Brilliant read! Found myself both laughing aloud and stern-faced nodding, too :)

  4. Hi Tom,

    this ..just...really true! That's all I can say. And it made me laugh. Wonderful.


  5. Thank you, all.

    Rima: so very glad to be your friend too!
    Cheeba: the leaf-litter's a wonderful place to find the flickering tongues of poems.
    Daniela and Zen Forest: Truth and laughter. Excellent!

    “If you want to tell people the truth, make them laugh, otherwise they’ll kill you.”

    Oscar Wilde.

    I'll live another day at least, then, for the dancing.

  6. I always feel it's like trying to catch a cloud of butterflies. They're floating just out of reach, moving constantly so I can't quite see them properly. If I go at them with a net, they scatter in all directions and I might catch one poor ragged thing, but the WHOLE is gone. If I wait, move slowly going about my business, make no attempt to corner them...and I am very, very lucky...they will land all around me, and hold still for just long enough...or at least, almost long enough.

    Your words are beautiful and soul nourishing!

  7. hi again Tom

    yes am completely with you on all this! And it reminds me that a bit of me has gone tamer under stress the last year or two. Back to wild dancing! And I'd picked up the connections with Lightning Tree and Martin Shaw too. I wonder if you know Jason Kirkey's work (in the States)? His journal Written Rivers, eco-writings and poetry, you might enjoy. There aren't many in the UK with wild soul. Do you know Kevan Manwaring's press Awen? Thinking about your falcon novel...

  8. Am happy to bring mead so we can hear the story of this poem's evolution.
    It's good to be reminded how useful that not-writing time before the actual inky bit is.
    And very good to know you too are baffled by poetry from The Poetry World. I avoid it unless I'm feeling particularly robust and immune to feelings of inadequacy and despair.
    Write on, Coyopa!
    PS The verification words is pikeyes. Sometimes she stalks us!

  9. @Mermaid - thank you :) good luck with the butterflies. I've heard that the bottom of a mead-bottle makes an excellent net ;)

    @Roselle - I don't know of Jason Kirkey, and am only passingly acquainted with Kevan Manwaring - I will explore! Thanks for the tips... Get dancing. Soon the autumn leaves will all be doing it, too!

    @Lunar - there's some Poetry out there in the Established World that is like an arrow or a fire or a deep lake, and it's worth going into that world just to find those ones that do make such magic shapes with your soul. And some of them take time and re-readings. The trouble with big collections is that the poetry becomes like an overdose of wallpaper. One a day is more than sufficient! And this 'Poetry' thing is a broad church - most of my 'poem's are just gremlins pissing in the pews or grotesques learing from the stonework, which is fine by me. I'll leave the choir-singing to them as want to do it and they'll do it well...

  10. Mmmmm...mead! No, I'd probably just fall asleep ;-) !

  11. Ah, what a perfect moving portrait of the poetry muse! She is a tricksy dance mistress, indeed. I just tangoed with her myself and I think she tried to trip me up. I am still splitting hairs with her latest offering, though you'd think I know better by now.

    Your "Black Mountain River" captures the coming of Autumn wonderfully ~ thanks for the good read! I'm glad to have found your blog and look forward to reading more. *adds virtual coin to your glass-filling fund*

  12. Bonjour Tom, C'est en lisant Rima que je découvre votre blog, avec grande satisfaction et le plaisir de n'évader en rêvant. Merci et bonne continuation.

  13. Oh, I'm really excited about your new blog.. and this is the first entry I've read as Rima led me to you on her recent post. Truly "soul nourishing" as mermaid says.

    My experience with catching songs is much the same... though its a bit harder to capture them when they come as I only have one mini-recorder and it isn't always where I need it. At least pens write lyrics.

    Capturing stories that want to be told is more slippery for me. Stories come and demand attention and they almost always change A LOT each time I re-tell them - like there's a squirm of life in them that cannot be captured, always finding its way through the netting....

  14. Greetings

    Yep, you got it. Hereby receive from an anonymous stranger your official recognition as a true poet. Not for the result (it may or may not touch the soul of the reader, that's a matter of luck) but for your exquisite exposition of the wooing. Glad to have stumbled across you on the weird wired ways of the world wide web, and I look forward to reading you in DM3.

    Until we meet (again?)

  15. Perfect description of the romance between poet and poetry. You have me entranced and at the same time nodding with recognition - which is what poetry seems like to me, the familiar strange, or the strangely familiar.


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