What makes writing hard? It’s interruption, the person from Porlock. It’s doubt. It’s happiness — we don’t want to write when we’re elated: we’d rather sing or drink — or crow about the cause of our elation. It’s forgetfulness. It’s the long cord that connects us to the pram in the hall. It’s the pull between opposing thoughts: the mental chaos that makes it difficult to know where to start.
This month I’m inviting poems that take on chaos and its causes directly. Respond to any or all of the prompts below. Send your poems pasted inside the body of an email headed SLiP July poetry workshop to SLiP Project Manager firstname.lastname@example.org by no later than Monday July 9 2012. Please give your poem a title. I’ll respond with general comments about all the entries, and select a few of the best for publication here.
1. Write a poem, funny or serious, about what it is that makes it hard for you to write. By way of inspiration, consider Cyril Connolly’s often quoted words: “There is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hall’. And in ‘A Room of One’s Own’, Virginia Woolf’s assertion:
to write a work of genius is almost always a feat of prodigious difficulty. … Generally material circumstances are against it. Dogs will bark; people will interrupt; money must be made; health will break down. Further, accentuating all these difficulties and making them harder to bear is the world’s notorious indifference. It does not ask people to write poems and novels and histories; it does not need them.
2. Write a poem about a person, an animal, a thing or thought that interrupted your writing.
3. Read WH Auden’s ‘The Unknown Citizen’, Whitman’s ‘When I read the Book’ and Hardy’s ‘Afterwards’ before writing your own poetic response to the theme of biography or autobiography.
4. Write a poem from the perspective of your younger self in a moment of unequalled personal happiness. You might like to think about Othello’s words when he is for one sweet moment successful in both career and love:
….If it were now to die,
‘Twere now to be most happy; for, I fear,
My soul hath her content so absolute
That not another comfort like to this
Succeeds in unknown fate.
5. Write a poem that gives the words you’d like to say on your deathbed.
6. Write about your own fears and failures. You’ll be in good company. Walt Whitman once wrote this despairing note to himself:
Everything I have done seems to me blank and suspicious. — I doubt whether my greatest thoughts, as I supposed them, are not shallow — and people will most likely laugh at me. — My pride is impotent, my love gets no response. — The complacency of nature is hateful — I am filled with restlessness. — I am incomplete.
7. Write a poem that reflects the tension between our propensity for chaos and our resistance to it. DH Lawrence believed that the poet’s function is to “show the desire for chaos, and the fear of chaos.” He mocked: “The ideal self! Oh, but I have a strange and fugitive self shut out and howling like a wolf or a coyote under the ideal windows. See his red eyes in the dark? This is the self who is coming into his own.” Lawrence concludes “That I am I. That my soul is a dark forest. That my known self will never be more than a little clearing in the forest.”
8. In his “General Introduction for My Work” (1937) Yeats wrote that “A poet writes always of his personal life, in his finest work out of its tragedy”; but “he never speaks directly as to someone at the breakfast table, there is always a phantasmagoria”. Write a poem in which your technique either contradicts or illustrates Yeats’ theory.
9. Write a poem about a moment of excitement, bearing in mind Graham Greene’s tips:
Excitement is simple: excitement is a situation, a single event. It mustn’t be wrapped up in thoughts, similes, metaphors. A simile thoughts, similes, metaphors. A simile is a form of reflection, but excitement is of the moment when there is no time to reflect. Action can only be expressed by a subject, a verb and an object, perhaps a rhythm — little else. Even an adjective slows the pace or tranquilizes the nerve.
10. Write a poem about sheep.
11. Write any poem on any subject.
R390 – Steynsburg to Gariep Dam
Fences lope the hills,
Racing the talking wires.
A windmill listens.
A casual corpse.
Dark stain on tar.
The dam, a sheet of gleaming paint, burnt umber, reaching into blue hills.
A bird looms from the verge, lifting a perfect circle.
I am astonished.
A bicycle tire?
The eagle lands.
On a fence pole.
Its burden writhes, forked tongue searching freedom.
Eve’s friend, damned by a book, coiled in heraldic claws.
The raptor, wings spread, head cocked, considers lunch.
It is etched there, full Spielberg frame, filling the sky,
And then I’m gone.
The chariot, 2.4 TDI, powered by Ahura Mazda, created in the month of Nissan, crosses the dam wall.
I survey The Two Lands:
This riven, hieratic, loving landscape,
And the inscape.
Ambassador to Kush and Great Zimbabwe, emissary of Ra, Consul of Nubia, Ally of Ur and Babylon, friend, cousin, brother, uncle, husband, bewildered father,
Reading the signs carefully,
I glide onto the N1 and race the charging neurons home.
walking to school,
I saw about 5 embryos
of birds, it was a windy day
in a week and the
car that was too slow
was not the strangler
while I continued over
a small field with its path
balding across grass, grey
pebbles, glass, puddles, insects and weeds
and no accidents occurred as
I crossed the 2 roads
although I almost fell
over the loose sole flapping
of the scuffed black shoe
or the day that Francois
Vreylinck`s brother sped pass
and spat in my face
and or but no accidents later
as I passed
black sky, silver clouds
just after the men walking fast
with their tools or those long yellow
spirit levels with the day-glow green
trapped in a bubble,
bouncing from a backpack,
morning sounds, a station far-off
almost at the spiked gate
where you could not lift the dog over
anymore, like a front door
with its way out
and I saw a grey woman stoop
to kiss a small boy goodbye,
a plastic bag blew past
and I knew from Monday
things would change.
A Portrait of The Artist as a Lawn Chair
Pristine and white in the falling dusk,
ignorant of dirt and rust,
untroubled by itself or others,
a perfect likeness of its brothers,
it never lies, it never swears,
it never hurts the other chairs.
Year in, year out, it stands its ground,
without the urge to make a sound,
among its family of five,
emotionless and not alive.
A lawn chair is a thing of worth:
of all the creatures on God’s earth,
if I could have a lawn chair’s luck…!
I’d never sigh or mutter ‘fuck’.
A lawn chair wouldn’t cry a tear
of sadness, anger, or of fear.
A lawn chair neither loves nor hates
– chairs certainly don’t go on dates.
A lawn chair’s gender doesn’t matter
(a Frenchman might dispute the latter).
Who ever heard of lawn chairs’ lib
or orphaned lawn chairs in a crib?
Yes, if a lawn chair had to write,
this page would stay forever white,
but now I’m stuck a human being:
undignified, distasteful thing.
I cannot block my eyes and ears
and write like lawn chairs were my peers.
You say my words cause you distress
– the garden might offend you less.
I had just got to the part
where I was comparing the faded leather sofa
to the creases on her brow, when
the cat dropped a mouse at my feet,
a tiny squirming ball of terror
with a heart-rate approaching terminal velocity.
The cat purred proudly, and,
like a well-oiled tractor on a field of soft earth,
churned up the carpet, digging for reward,
which, in that moment of interrupted writing,
was not foremost on my mind.
Still, I did manage to avoid an impulse to dowse
both cat and mouse with a cup of cold coffee
and resolved instead
to put them into this poem where the mouse
quickly found refuge beneath the old sofa,
the cat curled up on the woman’s lap
and I sat back, wondering about the next line.
Tonight I will write a poem
before going to sleep.
Sitting in the dark half-illumination of a blackberry screen
I will rest in the silence of the moment,
take a deep breath, and begin.
It will be a new breed of poem,
transcending our silly diversifying,
moving into space and time as a spontaneous entity
reflecting sadly yet with a brave smile
on the busy flow of our lives.
Painstakingly thumbed out on my little machine
that calculates, communicates, transmits, FBs, tweets
this will speak to the human heart of the 21st and even 22nd century,
a true missive into the
Bugger battery beeping
Anyone got a BB charger?
Back in a second
Whatever you do don’t cl
To the One About to Disturb Me
When you see me sitting, pen in hand,
staring out of the window I am not:
I am also not eager to hear:
about your day
your best move would be:
to stop talking
to back away slowly
to remember this advice
the next time
you see me sitting, pen in hand,
staring out of the window.
For years I’ve earned my bread with words.
Thousands and thousands of them
on glossy paper caught
between the covers
with their bland smiling girls.
Month after month these dutiful words
have click clicked across the page
(dieting, dating, dread diseases).
But all the while, hidden in clandestine cells,
subversive words plotted and schemed
until one day they did their “free at last” thing
and surged onto an unsuspecting page
written in pen.
Importance is not important, truth is. JL Austin
He said I hadn’t read enough, and widely,
(me, a girl writer only seventeen)
he urged Kafka, Joyce and Catcher in the Rye. I
ponder the importance of importance:
the arctic seal’s mad flounder
the lone floe-bear
the coral unreddening
and the sea,
To the House Dust Mite
O House Dust Mite, House Dust Mite, how your name does delight.
Like the amphibrach and comic dactyl,
your name’s rhythm charms my heart still.
So don’t let them hoover you into extinction,
the carpets are waiting, move all your troops in.
The Sheep and the Goats
Viewing houses for a move down the line,
Like obedient sheep we traipse through polite sitting rooms,
A wolflike agent predating hungrily on our confusion.
Facades exhausted, smiles stretched, we emerge
From yet another inane session of masticating grass
When she appears from nowhere,
A mountain goat, bags in tow,
radiating a beautiful nonconformance.
Assaulting the agent with a dramatic ‘Hemel se donner’
she is seventy-odd, beyond respectability,
uncaring, theatrically pitch perfect,
but recognising an appreciative audience she gives us
a five minute recital of the woes of life in Basil road,
expletives randomly but superbly inserted
to gasps of teenage delight and house-agent’s horror.
It is a tour-de-force, highly entertaining,
totally inappropriate, refreshingly so.
True street theatre.
As she leaps from ledge to ledge,
we sheep hypnotically drink in the performance,
going from shock to astonishment
to admiration to acknowledgement
(I confess I actually applaud towards the climax),
and with a wrinkled, sparkling grin
she rounds off with a wink at me,
and a graphic, bleating ‘Welcome to Baa-sil Road’.
We didn’t buy in Basil Road
and sheep herding was abandoned for the afternoon,
much to my satisfaction
and the estate agent’s chagrin.
In my experience,
and it has to be said that I’m no leather-skinned
there are only two kinds of sheep worth mentioning –
those that can stare down a wolf and those that can’t.
The first, I’d prefer to avoid.
Their eyes pierce like, well, piercings, as they fearlessly
stand their ground.
It took no less a warrior than Jason (and his Argonauts)
to relieve one of their crabby rams of its golden fleece.
But the second, are as meek as lambs;
jaunty and jovial, they happily roll over to be tickled
by the trusted wool shearer,
and when the Sunday roast wafts across the threshold
you’ll know that they’re the tenderest of companions.
How is it possible
to use so many words
and examples and explanations
and figures and facts
and so many abstracts
and so much waffle
and go round and round in endless circles
using so many clichés
repeating ‘basically’ and ‘in terms of’
so many times
over and over again
- to say absolutely nothing?
How is it permissible
to hold so many people captive
mesmerized by the interminable
droning of one’s own monotonous voice
ignoring the yawning and sighing
and shifting and shuffling and fidgeting
and blank unblinking stares
of an audience bored to distraction
and forced to listen to so much
unmemorable, fruitless, futile discussion
and carry on and on ad nauseam
and on and on and on and on
until yet another hour is gone
- to achieve absolutely nothing?
I want to scream, I want to cry
I’ll be entombed in this hell until I die!
How is it not punishable
to keep innocent people imprisoned
in this diabolic way
by these unmerciful, unflinching, unutterable bores
with their carping, harping brain-dead jaws
who never stop talking
with nothing to say
- to get absolutely nowhere?
As these thieves rob me of my time today
I feel my life slowly being stripped away.
Watching you, now, over a cup of milky breakfast tea
and a dry muffin that would be the better for
a little more butter,
I hang back from speaking because
as we all know real men don’t weep especially those
who are the strong silent type but underneath tender
and other clichés useful for poetry and speeches.
But when will I find a way to say thank you in a coherent way
for holding my hand on the darkest day of my life
when reality did a two-step to the left and took my mind
I never said thank you and you’ve never mentioned it
(God this poem hurts) and you eighty five now and
my adolescence far gone and all forgotten and, and, and
it would be sad to go into the long afterwards no comebacks
without putting this projection into words.
But now it is time to pack away and wash up and sweep
the crumbs and talk about the weather and go home waving
cheerfully with nothing but an empty church building
and the sensation of cooling calm hands to see me through.
James Whyle’s intensely observed poem ‘R390 — Steynsburg to Gariep Dam’ was my favourite this month. Telegraphic lines flash glimpses of passing Karoo scenery at us, capturing not only the stillness and beauty, but also the ugliness and monotony of the long South African road trip. Then we encounter the main event in all its heraldic significance: an eagle with a snake in its beak. The scene is read and transformed by the poetic imagination. The car becomes a chariot, the poet becomes the eagle, powering forward with his vision of ‘this riven, hieratic, loving landscape’.
I was similarly engaged by Klooster’s poem ‘walking to school,’. I loved the way an apparently ordinary event is transformed into an adventure, fraught with ominous possibilities, beauty, amazement and adventure. The poem’s constant syntactic interruptions (unfinished clauses, unconnected sub-clauses, uncertain conjunctions) keep the reader alert, nervously on guard as befits travel over dangerous terrain.
Another poem that caught me by surprise was Sandra Visser’s ‘A Portrait of the Artist as a Lawn Chair’. Its witty, rollicking, rhyming lines pursue a wonderfully surreal thought, ultimately throwing up (as all good absurd thoughts do) a profound question about art and the offence it gives.
As might be expected, the poems on interrupted inspiration were witty and self-deprecating. Graham Dukas’s ‘Interrupted Writing’ has some of the comic timing (and the stars) of a Tom and Jerry cartoon — fast, inventive, hilarious.
The speaker in Ross Fleming’s ‘Tonight’ makes a clever pun on the ‘diversifying’ of our BlackBerry lives, so antithetical to quiet composition, while simultaneously trying to versify on just such a device. The last line is inspired.
I liked the way Pam Newham’s mirrored opening and closing lines in ‘To the One About to Disturb Me’ spin the Person from Porlock neatly back in time, undoing the harm. I liked ‘Uprising’ too, especially the description of the journalist’s lot: ‘Month after month these dutiful words/ have click clicked across the page/ (dieting, dating dread diseases)’, but wanted something even more revolutionary at the end.
Keith Edwards’ economical poem ‘Importance’, with its beautiful transition from the lightly anecdotal to a series of serious images of environmental depredation, is intriguing. It speaks deeply without preaching. His ode ‘To the House Dust Mite’, with its rhythmical games, is great fun too.
The two poems in response to ‘write a poem about sheep’ were comic. Had I expected otherwise? I’m still waiting for a true livestock farmer’s response. But to compensate, Graham Dukas’s ‘Sheep’ is economical and wears its erudition lightly. Ross Fleming’s ‘The Sheep and the goats’ tells a delightful story about a hircine character who subverts a show house (‘As she leaps from ledge to ledge’ was a favourite line). I like the sheep-goat metaphor, but the diction draws a little too much on the conventions of conversational wit: no noun left unadorned with an adjective, no adjective without its intensifying adverb. Not sheep, but ‘obedient sheep’; not ‘entertaining’ but ‘highly entertaining’; not ‘inappropriate’ but ‘totally inappropriate’. The ending trails off a little. This would be worth revisiting, because I like that goat.
I felt that a similar conversational prolixity had invaded Charlotte Caine’s amusing take on ‘Meetings’. We respond to the speaker’s exasperation; we know this boredom and frustration; we too hate clichés. But the poem goes on and on almost as interminably as a meeting itself, and it too ends nowhere. Towards the end, one feels that the desire to rhyme is the only energy propelling the speaker forward. Satirical poems are harder to write than one might think: I think there must be more caricature, more burlesque.
Finally, I think Ross Fleming’s ‘your hands’ is an interesting and important poem since poetry is above all the place where we can safely put things that cannot or will not be said elsewhere. I liked very much the gentle scene setting, and the poem’s understated close, as well as its subtle midpoint reference to mental illness. The bits about real men not crying etc would be best left hinted at, I feel. Readers understand these kinds of things and don’t always need prompting. Somewhere in that hesitant white space between the thing the poet doesn’t venture to say in so many (overused) words and the thing the reader in his or her generosity intuits, lies the poem.
Thank you to all who submitted poems in July.