spirits of chaos

February 15, 2020

I have a suitcase – one of those soft cloth ones, ethnic, stripy – which I take on some of my school visits. I stand up at the front of the classroom and I lay this suitcase gently on the desk, and I say to the kids, “I have, in this suitcase, 12 ferrets. Hands up anyone who would like them to be LIVE ferrets?” Without fail, everyone who is 4 foot and under sticks their hands in the air. I stick MY hand in the air. The teachers make little moue faces and do not join in.

Because they know what kind of commotion would ensue if I really did have a busyness of live ferrets with me. I know too. And that is why I choose the ferret to be my muse. (Though a better word might be “acknowledge”).

Ferrets are spirits of chaos. They are the gods of wild enthusiasm and ridiculous persistence (not to mention the joy of squiggling through small spaces for no other reason than just to see if you can.) They bite and they smell and they are impossible to control. They race when they want and they sleep when they will, deep, deep – they go all floppy, as if they were dead – and there is nothing you can do but wait until they decide to wake up again. They are unpredictable, delightful, and only the certifiably daft would choose to share their lives with them.

And writing’s just like that too. Just like a ferret in the brain. Chaotic, unpredictable, delightful, smelly, bitey…Okay, work with me here. When the writing’s going well, full tilt, ideas leaping about and wrestling with one other, it’s wonderful, right? But when the muse is not in the mood, is there anything more recalcitrant? More dead? And all we can do is wait for the words to come to life again.

The Ferret
Ferrets may be smelly
But there’s more to them than farts
They are bouncier than jelly
And contribute to the arts …

Joan Lennon
The Ferret


March 11, 2019

For E.T.

“Write something every day,” she said,
“even if it’s only a line,
it will protect you.”
How should this be?
Poetry opens no cell,
heals no hurt body,
brings back no lover,
altogether poetry
is as powerless as grass.
How then should it defend us?
Only by strengthening
our fierce and obstinate centres.

Elaine Feinstein

Poems arise. I can’t say I’m going to write a poem now. I always have four or five on the go, a phrase or a sentence with richness. Unlike with a novel, or a biography, where the story carries me along, in a poem you must be more passive. Anna Akhmatova talked about waiting for the Muse to come, but for me it’s not so grand. The poem just rises. I catch a few words and write them down in a little notebook when I travel, and on the computer, at home, but in the end I always write poems by hand. I can do it anywhere, in trains, or travelling.

How do I know a poem is alive and good? It’s like jazz – you always know.

Elaine Feinstein
Interview by Vivian Eden for Haaretz


‘What is the use or function of poetry nowadays?’ is a question not the less poignant for being defiantly asked by so many stupid people or apologetically answered by so many silly people. The function of poetry is religious invocation of the Muse; its use is the mixed exaltation and horror her presence excites. But ‘nowadays’? Function and use remain the same: only the application has changed. This was once a warning to man that he must keep in harmony with the family of living creatures among which he was born, by obedience to the wishes of the lady of the house; it is now a reminder that he has disregarded the warning, turned the house upside down by capricious experiments in philosophy, science and industry, and brought ruin on himself and his family. ‘Nowadays’ is a civilization in which the prime emblems of poetry are dishonoured. In which serpent, lion and eagle belong to the circus tent; ox, salmon and boar to the cannery; racehorse and greyhound to the betting ring; and the sacred grove to the saw-mill. In which the Moon is despised as a burned-out satellite of the Earth and woman reckoned as ‘auxiliary state personnel’. In which money will buy almost anything but truth, and almost anyone but the truth-possessed poet.

Robert Graves
The White Goddess