I live, at all times, for imaginative fiction; for ambivalence, not instruction. When language serves dogma, then literature is lost. I live also, and only, for excellence. My care is not for the cult of egalitarian mediocrity that is sweeping the world today, wherein even the critics are no longer qualified to differentiate, but for literature, which you may notice I have not defined. I would say that, because of its essential ambivalence, ‘literature’ is: words that provoke a response; that invite the reader or listener to partake of the creative act. There can be no one meaning for a text. Even that of the writer is a but an option.

Literature exists at every level of experience. It is inclusive, not exclusive. It embraces; it does not reduce, however simply it is expressed. The purpose of the storyteller is to relate the truth in a manner that is simple: to integrate without reduction; for it is rarely possible to declare the truth as it is, because the universe presents itself as a Mystery. We have to find parables; we have to tell stories to unriddle the world.

It is a paradox: yet one so important I must restate it. The job of a storyteller is to speak the truth; but what we feel most deeply cannot be spoken in words. At this level only images connect. And so story becomes symbol; and symbol is myth.

It is one of the main errors of historical and rational analysis to suppose that the ‘original form’ of myth can be separated from its miraculous elements. ‘Wonder is only the first glimpse of the start of philosophy,’ says Plato. Aristotle is more explicit: ‘The lover of myths, which are a compound of wonders, is, by his being in that very state, a lover of wisdom.’ Myth encapsulates the nearest approach to absolute that words can speak.

Alan Garner
Aback of Beyond

A Defence of Poetry

July 8, 2020

Every undamaged human being has two minds and a body. One mind is that of waking consciousness, the other is the occult mind of dreams, which we live in fully during sleep but which is also present as reverie when we’re awake. Neither mind is superior to the other outright; each rules in its own mode of consciousness. It is an echo of the European imperial era to think we have to translate the terms of our dream-life into the ‘rational’ terms of daylight thinking, with its two aspects of language and non-verbal design that are said to reflect the two hemispheres of the forebrain. All other mental faculties, imagination, conscience, intuition, the unconscious mind, are theoretical and inferred, and may be differently divided up in different cultures, but all can agree that we dream, and wake, and have a body. We can sense the body’s needs, its weight, its strength and balance, its health and rhythms and pain; most would agree, too, that our emotions at least start from there. All will agree that each of the three major states of our life can exist or seem to exist pretty independently. Sunbathing on the beach in a pure languor, we can be nearly oblivious of anything beyond the body’s pleasure; dreaming deeply, we can be lost to any memory of daylight consciousness; ever since Plato, we can ascribe an overweening superiority to our cerebration, and despise our dreams and our bodily limitations. None of these extremes is bad in itself, though pure thought is apt to be over-praised in some circles and awarded a primacy we are coming to see as illusory. None of our separated states is very creative, nor can a healthy human live too exclusively in any one of them. To try is illusion anyway: the others are working, perhaps only in a dimmed way, even when we leave them out of account. And they may be working quite powerfully. The sportsman soaring over a high bar may be quite inarticulate then and afterwards, but he isn’t pure body: thought and dream are there, planning, helping him to concentrate, helping his limbs to be elastic, to volatilise his belief in gravity and dream himself up and over his body’s experience of limits.

Looking inside myself, I detect that when I write a poem, I do so in a kind of trance which integrates my two minds with each other and with their master-servant my body. The impulse to write the poem may come from any of the three, and each makes its contribution to the trance of composing. Waking consciousness supplies words, most ideas and probably much of the poem’s design. Dream lends it its aspect of timelessness, and its aura of mystery and the supernal; I suspect that many of the more daring flights and connections of any poem, the ones the mind might resist were it not charmed to silence, are carried on the flying carpet of our dream-life! The body, in turn, supplies feeling and rhythm, the free-and-bound dance of the words and images and it also supplies the laws of breath which shall obtain in the work. A man with a deep barrel chest will, at least sometimes, write very long lines because he has the puff for it. All of these contributions fuse in a dazzling simultaneity, if one has come to the poem at the proper moment in its growth within oneself. Start writing it too early in its gestation, and it is liable to be a mess, confused and uncooked; too late and it may emerge overly cut-and-dried, like a programme.

Les Murray
A Defence of Poetry

Poetry really came to me. Maybe that sounds too mystical, but what’s wrong with mysticism? I remember hearing poems in what I now know is iambic pentameter in my head in those minutes between sleeping and waking when I was a small child. I didn’t know what that language was, but I found it comforting and physically pleasurable. In elementary school I was by no means a shining star, but when asked to write a verse for the inside of a Mothers’ Day card, the rhyme and meter was effortless to me.

Poetry really arrived after my dad died when I was seven. It was no longer an instinct; it had become a necessity. It rose up to meet my need. That isn’t to say I began writing poems at seven, but that I had begun to see and hear and think like a poet. Even at the funeral, my noticing had become charged. The ant on the rose. The sharp corners of the flag folded into a triangle. The sound of the wind flapping the sides of the tent over his coffin. The creak of the mechanism that lowered him into the ground. This noticing wasn’t garish, really, but held a kind of objectivity.

I didn’t start writing actual poems until I was in early high school. Luckily, girls were required to take typing class (ah, the luck of our subordination…) and typing became the key to getting the lines I’d begun to hear in my head onto the page. It allowed me to begin to see the poem as having a presence on the page. As my own body came into uncomfortable blooming, so did the body of the poem.

Back then, in my rural high school, there was no “creative writing.” Poetry was an unknown entity. I didn’t really know that what I was writing were poems. I believe my ignorance was fortunate. It ushered in invention. There was no one to imitate, no pressure to conform to a standard.

[….]

Most of my education in poetry has been self-teaching. Therefore what I know is like an inland lake — shallow in places, unexpectedly deep in others. Teaching in both undergraduate and MFA programs has extended my education. I learn what I need to teach. I’m a hodgepodge.

There are limitations in that scenario, but it has allowed me to maintain some of my early ignorance. At times, my ignorance has begotten innovation, playfulness, improvisation — an aesthetic that is all mine.

[….]

I’m interested in the rural, but I approach it via degrees of formal experimentation. I think of my work as punk-rural, in that my it emerges from rural spaces, but looks for the toughness, the strangeness, the absurdity, the taut stringiness, the rage and pain of it all as opposed to the homespun. The rural is no less punk than the urban. Roadkill. That’s my aesthetic. Naked dancing on the water tower. Cheez Doodles and a Coke. Cigar-smoking ghosts on the riverbank. I love what I call “freaking form”—learning traditional forms so that they can be usurped, upended, repurposed, like a bathtub that can be made into a shrine to the Virgin Mary. I’m sort of an anti-intellectual intellectual, a geek about the literature and visual art of the past but I like to bring it down, downtown, here where I live, with the earthworms and gravediggers.

I am guided by instinct, the unconscious, and help from the dead in my poems, which Kevin Young, describes as, “a poetry that speaks from the mouths of those gone that aren’t really gone, a poetry of ghosts and haunts. Of haints: not ain’ts.” For this reason, I’ve always thought my poems are wiser than I am. I don’t know how we can read poetry, or teach it, or write it, without a finger on the pulse of the mystical as well as bringing our intellectual heft to the party. To talk about a writer’s poem in workshop, or a collection of poems, is at best a full-body act. We encounter the body of a poem with our bodies before we even read the words. At best, a workshop can be a circle of human beings who each brings their subjectivity, memories, blind spots, fears, ghosts, dreams, ideas, insights, and imaginations to the room. We build a collective, a zone, and from that zone, poetry becomes possible.

Diane Seuss
Interviewed by Frances Donovan, 4th December 2019

when the fairy sang

July 5, 2020

It may be laid down as a general rule that if a man begins to sing, no one will take any notice of his song except his fellow human beings. This is true even if his song is surpassingly beautiful. Other men may be raptures at his skill, but the rest of creation is, by and large, unmoved. Perhaps a cat or a dog may look at him; his horse, if it is an exceptionally intelligent beast, may pause in cropping the grass, but that is the extent of it. But when the fairy sang, the whole world listened to him. Stephen felt clouds pause in their passing; he felt sleeping hills shift and murmur; he felt cold mists dance. He understood for the first time that the world is not dumb at all, but merely waiting for someone to speak to it in a language it understands. In the fairy’s song the earth recognized the names by which it called itself.

Susanna Clarke
Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell

Metaphor isn’t just decorative language. If it were, it wouldn’t scare us so much. . . . Colourful language threatens some people, who associate it, I think, with a kind of eroticism (playing with language in public = playing with yourself), and with extra expense (having to sense or feel more). I don’t share that opinion. Why reduce life to a monotone? Is that truer to the experience of being alive? I don’t think so. It robs us of life’s many textures. Language provides an abundance of words to keep us company on our travels. But we’re losing words at a reckless pace, the national vocabulary is shrinking. Most Americans use only several hundred words or so. Frugality has its place, but not in the larder of language. We rely on words to help us detail how we feel, what we once felt, what we can feel. When the blood drains out of language, one’s experience of life weakens and grows pale. It’s not simply a dumbing down, but a numbing.

Diane Ackerman
An Alchemy of Mind: The Marvel and Mystery of the Brain

Poetry is ordinary language raised to the Nth power. Poetry is boned with ideas, nerved and blooded with emotions, all held together by the delicate, tough skin of words.

Paul Engle
Poetry Is Ordinary Language Raised to the Nth Power
New York Times – February 17th 1957

linguistic expression

June 16, 2020

Poetry is the most versatile, ambidextrous and omnipotent of all type of speech or writing, yet, paradoxically, it is the only one which is unified by a single exclusive feature, that which enables us to identify it and which separates it from every other kind of linguistic expression. This element is the keystone of my definition of poetry and it is called ‘the double pattern’…. One half of the double pattern is made up of devices, effects, habits and frames of reference that poetry shares with all other linguistic discourses….The other half of the pattern pulls against this, it announces the text as a poem by marshalling aspects of language into patterns that serve no purpose elsewhere in language yet which play a role in the way the poem is structured and, most significantly, in how it discharges meaning.

Richard Bradford

Poetry: The Ultimate Guide

Poets and language

June 13, 2020

Contemporary poets do not aspire to ‘greatness’; the role they are meant to fulfil is the role of the earthworm. The soil of the earthworm is language.

Wojciech Bonowicz
Modern Poetry in Translation

like London

June 4, 2020

The English language is like London: proudly barbaric yet deeply civilised, too, common yet royal, vulgar yet processional, sacred yet profane. Each sentence we produce, whether we know it or not, is a mongrel mouthful of Chaucerian, Shakespearean, Miltonic, Johnsonian, Dickensian and American. Military, naval, legal, corporate, criminal, jazz, rap and ghetto discourses are mingled at every turn. The French language, like Paris, has attempted, through its Academy, to retain its purity, to fight the advancing tides of Franglais and international prefabrication. English, by comparison, is a shameless whore.

Stephen Fry
The Ode Less Travelled: Unlocking the Poet Within

Concentration

May 12, 2020

Every good poem begins in language awake to its own connections — language that hears itself and what is around it, sees itself and what is around it, looks back at those who look into its gaze and knows more perhaps even than we do about who are, what we are. It begins, that is, in the mind and body of concentration.

By concentration, I mean a particular state of awareness: penetrating, unified, and focused, yet also permeable and open. This quality of consciousness, though not easily put into words, is instantly recognizable. Aldous Huxley described it as the moment the doors of perception open; James Joyce called it epiphany. The experience of concentration may be quietly physical — a simple, unexpected sense of deep accord between yourself and everything. It may come as the harvest of long looking and leave us, as it did Wordsworth, a mind thought “too deep for tears.” Within action, it is felt as a grace state: time slows and extends, and a person’s every movement and decision seem to partake of perfection. Concentration can also be placed into things — it radiates undimmed from Vermeer’s paintings, from the small marble figure of a lyre-player from ancient Greece, from a Chinese three-footed bowl — and into musical notes, words, ideas. In the wholeheartedness of concentration, world and self begin to cohere. With that state comes an enlarging: of what may be known, what may be felt, what may be done.

Jane Hirshfield
Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry