I have never had writer’s block, but I certainly have a deep fear of editing – which makes writing rather awkward. Ernest Hemingway used to smooth the previous day’s efforts off before moving forward to the new pages. Once you get to the end of something in excess of a hundred thousand words, that approach makes sense. My method is to press on, and then rewrite and edit from the beginning. By the umpteenth time around, I am dizzy.
Chief amongst my editing fears is missing the what I call the backwards on a donkey moment. This is when some word, or phrase, or sentence jars the reader up. Either by a lack of clarity, poor imagery, the wrong idiom, or sheer clumsiness of composition. When writing first drafts the backwards on a donkey moments are inevitable. It is the job of the writer to edit them all out later. I fear I will not. The fear stays my eyes, and my fingers. Nothing gets done.
There it is out.
Now it is out, I must press on.
The backwards on a donkey description for words that don’t work well came to me, when I misheard an Anne Sexton poem, read out late one night on the radio many years ago. The poem was called Flee on Your Donkey. It’s long, and confessional, as her poetry was. In it, she reflects on being in a mental institution, again.
Sexton was a Pulitzer prize winner. She committed suicide aged 45. She suffered others; others might say they suffered her, including herself.
We call it life I suppose. Here are the lines – they are the last of the poem. The ‘hotel’ is the hospital. My problem has always been one of imagery – the backwards bit – she is sitting backwards, and the donkey gallops, as they do? The first time I heard it, I did not hear the word backwards, and could not understand her description at all. Of course, now, it all makes perfect sense. I think. One word, misheard, not said, can make so much difference.
flee on your donkey,
flee this sad hotel,
ride out on some hairy beast,
gallop backward pressing
your buttocks to his withers,
sit to his clumsy gait somehow.
any old way you please!
In this place everyone talks to his own mouth.
That’s what it means to be crazy.
Those I loved best died of it—
the fool’s disease.
And now I can’t remember what it was all about. I cannot remember one line.
I have the title ‘Water’s Edge’ – not terribly inspirational now I come to think of it, although edges and what one might term liminal spaces interest me – but I do not have the foggiest of the poem’s content.
I could just look it up in my files. I could just buy the collection, The Dance is New, that it’s just been published in. I will. I will do both. In fact, I am very intrigued to read all the poems in the collection… but for now, I would just like to sit, and see if my own comes back to me. It hasn’t so far, and it’s been over a week or so now.
There is a sort of purpose to all this. It’s exploring the disconnect between the poem and the poet. I am not saying I am a poet, but I do write poetry, and my relationship to it is different from my relationship with the prose. I don’t recognise my poetry at times. The prose I do, far more often. Some of the poems I write make me feel uncomfortable. And I never, for example, feel that I am ‘murdering my darlings’ when I edit a line of poetry. Prose? All the time.
I cannot draw any conclusions from this. I can only throw around the idea, for now, that the prose comes, overall, from a more conscious part of my mind. The poetry, from somewhere on the edge of the map.
Morning, it chatters
Breath steaming up the bathroom
And I listen
For the slight click
As the microswitch
Kicks the heating pump into action
The whir of the Xbox, abandoned last night
Drowns the thermostat’s faint twitch
Orders groaning hot water
The flush sticks
A trickling waste.
And quickening drips
I put my hand on the gutter downpipe
Feeling the flow
There is so much in the news that could be blogged about, but where angels fear to tread, fools rush in…
I was once a fool; I probably still am. And one thing is certain, I will never qualify as an angel in this lifetime, but it is interesting that these phrases, that capture so well an aspect of the human condition, stick with us to resonate across the centuries.
The original quote is the other way round. It is from Alexander Pope and an Essay on Criticism in 1709 a poem written in heroic couplets, no less:
…For Fools rush in where Angels fear to tread…
It has been taken up and turned on it’s head, or not, by the likes of Thomas Hardy and Edmund Burke; not to mention E.M. Forster. I suppose the reason I am writing about This, and not fulminating about That, is because I am trying to balance both my inner fool and angel. Rushing in has been my metier in life. Even when I thought I was being circumspect. It’s an emotional thing, mainly, I think. Emotions rush in to fill spaces, unbidden consciously. The consciousness catches up later, finding narratives to fit the emotion. The longer one can hold on to the emotional side, the more chance the conscious side has of re-assuming control. It’s Plato’s chariot driver I suppose, the white and black horses of the soul. The more I read and learn and think, the more I believe that every thought has already been had by at least an ancient Greek.
Anyway, the reason I set off down this track of thought was that a friend quoted some poetic lines at me yesterday, in a tea shop, just to sum up a complicated life situation, in a well-known couplet. The people change, the lives and the situations do too, but the poetic phrases that describe them so completely remain the same.
I was busy thinking, ‘back to the drawing board’ and also tangentially wondering what a drawing board actually is, when I came across the title quote by Maya Angelou.
So then I quit wondering about the drawing board and starting thinking, ‘Which work?’
Then I realised, it doesn’t really matter, the thing is to just Get On.
Mine, you understand, not other people’s, that would just be rude.
For me trying to edit poetry is the most messy process. I start off with what I think are some respectable enough poems, that might be built upon somewhat, or improved.
I go back with fresh eyes and consider rhythm, metre and form.
I look at the words and imagery and see whether it works.
I speak aloud and see how it sounds and feels.
Then what I do is awful. After a few hours, or days, I end up with sentences pulled apart, words all over the floor, ideas stuffed into forms that don’t suit and generally get to the point where I have most certainly lost the itness of the original; that elusive essence of anything that makes us what we are, life what is and a simple poem work, or not. Don’t ask me what that essence is though, because if I knew, perhaps I wouldn’t lose it in the first place.
The whole process becomes a traumatic incident in my head. Instead of a couple of poems I end up having a whole heap of tangled thoughts and words in all the wrong places, and I have only two choices. One is to go further into the torture of the poor poem, the other is to shove the pile under the carpet and pretend it never happened. I have done the former before. Today I did the latter. It was like being a butcher.
I hung, drew and quartered, I disembowelled. I burnt whole sentences on the stake and pressed others to a slow and painful death. I dragged verbs through the street until they cried out in pain. I walled up sonnets and I stuck the heads of villanelles on stakes on the bridge. It was a bloody and brutal exercise and nothing like the one I expected which would have been something like a neat little back and sides and a bit of a trim up.
All this bloodshed and torture only goes to show me that I have probably never done the job properly before. Living and learning I suppose, for now.
Here’s someone who has done a proper job.
The cats of Greece
The cats of Greece have
eyes grey as plague.
Their voices are limpid,
As they dodge in the gutters
Their bones clack.
Dogs run from them.
In tavernas they sit
at tableside and
watch you eat.
Their moonpale cries
against your full spoon.
If you touch one gently
it goes crazy.
Its eyes turn up.
It wraps itself
around your ankle
and purrs a rusty millenium,
by Marge Piercy, from Eight Chambers of the Heart
The Cutty Sark is 100 hundred years older than me, being built in 1869 in Dumbarton, Scotland. She is a tea clipper, the fastest of her type in her day. Partly destroyed by fire in 2007, she has been restored to her former glory and looks fantastic.
I didn’t realise this until I was fiddling with this post, but she is named after her figurehead – a Scottish Witch nicknamed Cutty Sark from the poem Tam O’Shanter by Robert Burns. She is holding the tail of the horse which she caught hold of in a vain attempt to capture the poem’s eponymous hero, Tam, as he and his steed crossed the river to make their escape.
Here’s one of my favourites parts from the poem, where Burns reminds us that we cannot make time stand still and that everything is temporal…
But pleasures are like poppies spread,
You seize the flower, its bloom is shed;
Or like the snow falls in the river,
A moment white–then melts for ever;
Or like the borealis race,
That flit ere you can point their place;
Or like the rainbow’s lovely form
Evanishing amid the storm.–
Nae man can tether time or tide
From the great enigma: new collected poems
Translated by Robin Fulton
The Outpost by Tomas Tranströmer
I’m ordered out to a heap of stones
like a distinguished corpse from the Iron Age.
The others are back in the tent sleeping
stretched out like spokes in a wheel.
In the tent the stove rules: a big snake
that has swallowed a ball of fire and hisses.
But out in the spring night it is silent
among cold stones waiting for day.
Out in the cold I begin to fly
like a shaman, I fly to her body
with its white marks from her bikini –
we were out in the sun. The moss was warm.
I flit over warm moments
but can’t stop for long.
They’re whistling me back through space –
I crawl out from the stones. Here and now.
Mission: to be where I am.
Even in that ridiculous, deadly serious
role – I am the place
Where creation is working itself out.
Daybreak, the sparse tree trunks
are coloured now, the frostbitten
spring flowers form a silent search party
for someone who has vanished in the dark.
But to be where I am. And to wait.
I am anxious, stubborn, confused.
Coming events, they’re here already!
I know it. They’re outside:
a murmuring crowd outside the gate.
They can pass only one by one.
They want in. Why? They’re coming
one by one. I am the turnstile.
We are surrounded by the white noise of words these days.
As much as I hear, there is more to be heard.
As much as I read, there is more to be read.
So to stumble upon a poem that you can see, and feel, and offer an unconditional home in your soul is like finding an enduring, if challenging, friendship on life’s journey.
Stories, books, they leave only fading impressions as time passes; maybe the odd leitmotif lodges itself in your consciousness. You might re-read a book to remind yourself of the story, and of yourself.
But a poem that resonates is an instant passion. Like an arrow through your heart, or ‘an ever-fixed mark’, to quote Shakespeare. Here’s one such from the Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer who many may never have heard of before yesterday (including me) when he won the Nobel Prize for literature.
A google around finds his work described as that which ‘barrels into the void’, a phrase I find profoundly reassuring. That his poetry has this quality doesn’t seem a surprise when you learn he was a psychologist working in prisons for much of his professional life.
Whatever, he’s got my attention alright.
This, from ’20 Poems’ by Tomas Tranströmer, translated by Robert Bly, Seventies Press (1970)
After A Death
Once there was a shock
that left behind a long, shimmering comet tail.
It keeps us inside. It makes the TV pictures snowy.
It settles in cold drops on the telephone wires.
One can still go slowly on skis in the winter sun
through brush where a few leaves hang on.
They resemble pages torn from old telephone directories.
Names swallowed by the cold.
It is still beautiful to feel the heart beat
but often the shadow seems more real than the body.
The samurai looks insignificant
beside his armour of black dragon scales.