I have come to think of an empty page as open space with no dimension and over which human time has no claim. Everything is endlessly possible. Anything can grow in that space. Anybody, real or imaginary, can travel there, stay put, thrive, die, be resurrected.
I have also come to believe there is no constraint to artistic creation so long as the scope of imagination is matched by technical skill gained through reading and writing.
I am thinking here on the conditions necessary for negative capability, to listen again to John Keats: ‘… several things dovetailed in my mind and at once it struck me, what quality went to form…Achievement especially in Literature & which Shakespeare possessed so enormously – I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason – …’.
Skill and imagination work with each other with an ease (sometimes it is more of a vying) that is as merciless as it is natural. Once the words come ‘as naturally as the leaves to a tree’ then we could shape a whole world into that space, or even fit several worlds, their latitudes and longitudes, their parallel universes.
This is how I see my longer poems, or how I see and hear them before I write them. It is also how I see and hear whole books since each book I have written is conceived as one poem, and all the books are one longer poem. I write poems in which several languages speak alongside or to each other, and in which different times in history take place simultaneously.
The books conceive themselves. My sense for forms and patterning assists this process: they provide the shapes and sounds of their sense.
But, with every book, something escapes the singing mesh of poetic sense. A wordless, unruly, babbling poetry that breaks free from pattern and design – not Keats’ ‘palpable design’ – and is the first step into the dark of another stage of development.
This process is a plummet into darkness: you follow the laughing child over the edge. The poems in my next book are a consequence of such a blind, slown, heightened feeling towards a sense of a poem.
Writing new poems is like falling off a cliff and knitting yourself a helicopter before you hit the ground.
Sometimes I wish there was a plan. Yet even when I was a research scientist having a plan restrained you from intuitive experiment: seeing the answer before any question has been uttered, let alone understood.
When I am writing I think it is important to have some control at the same time as having no control at all: to be both lion and lion tamer. Charlie Chaplin runs into a lion’s cage in The Circus and pretends to be lion-like about the danger (he’s showing off to a girl.) Chaplin was actually in the cage: this scene is no illusion. Unscripted, the lion rears and roars at him.
I do not plan poems or books: I see and hear them rear and roar long before they become an act of writing. I do not understand these visual and auditory hallucinations at first. Words arrive gradually to fit the noise and shape of the hallucinations.
And sometimes their nudged utterance is so tiny, so under-heard, it’s like an unscripted mew. New poems can sound so much like a cub’s call I might laugh myself free from their craft. Cub and cub tamer.
One word on one page can be all the noise ten thousand words might make, declared in their dark: enough of them to show a presence of life, of the life also of language, where a thought might grow.
If we can think of the page as an open space, even as a space in which to play, we will understand that it is also Space itself. That space can also be a performance space.
By choosing to act, by writing on that page, we are creating another version of time; we are playing out a new version of existence, of life even.
We are creating an entirely fresh piece of space-time, and another version of yourself.
I am repelled and drawn, equally, to the mirror of that thought – not least because it comes as close to a lie by being an image of a lie.
Poetry is a lie. A supreme fiction. Poems are Fiction. Some of my family do not accept or believe this. I mention this private matter in passing but it is a source of sorrow.
Not least because this sorrow is sourced in turn from truth: my father was psychopathically violent. By the age of seven he’d beaten into me such a stammer I could not speak without shame. I still cannot say my name. Two-thirds of my name is my father’s name. It lives on as they say.
A stammer has been called ‘a wound to the heart’.
My stammer has proven a merciless Muse since orality is at the heart of my poetry. I have never spoken without at once being aware of the impossibility – the embarrassment – of speech. My teenager’s mind developed into a thesaurus of tensioned, alert possibility: tens of thousands of synonyms and antonyms that would allow me to find the path of least resistance through a sentence.
My speech grew more and more florid, broken and strange and, at the same time, rhythmical, precise and economical. I sometimes replaced broken speech with silence hoping silence might be eloquent. Yet this silence shamed me. It shamed me into not speaking when I should have spoken.
Wordfulness is wordlessness. It is a gift of a child’s fright. It is my poetry’s mirror: ‘Darkling, I listen.’
I am who I am.
A coincidence no less unthinkable
than any other.
A punch thrown by a father in the dusk of a living room; a fist of carving knives held at the throats of his family; being whipped to welts with a belt-buckle for no reason; being pulled bodily upwards from your bed by your father hauling you high by your penis; a sharp garden spade tossed hard into your bare back; the skin from the back of your hand burnt off for a morning’s fun. These are the causes of my first poetics.
Poetry was a way of standing by my stammer because no one was standing by me other than my ability with words.
Those were true images from early childhood. Images are no truer, but they are truer by being fictive in their form and purpose, by being transformed through craft.
Images are how we seek, or what seek us in the night of our wordlessness. Mysteries. Doubts. Mirrors.
‘When it comes to atoms, language can be used only as in poetry. The poet, too, is not nearly so concerned with describing facts as with creating images’ —Neils Bohr.
Well, Bohr would nod to friend Einstein that space-time is a four-dimensional space used to represent the Universe in the theory of relativity, with three dimensions corresponding to ordinary space and the fourth as time.
I mean the same when writing (when fumbling to write, when endlessly rewriting) poetry: the poem catalyzing a four-dimensional fabric that is the result when space and time become one. When everything is poetry.
The fabric: language, form, music. Time: meter, caesura, indentation, line-break, ellipsis. Time and Space spoken as breath, speech and even as silence.
I committed to poetry for life knowing that not knowing what I might know was always the event for negative capability. It was better than terror. It was occasion for forgivable error. It created a second chance, a second life.
‘Whatever inspiration is, it’s born from a continuous “I don’t know.”…That is why I value that little phrase “I don’t know” so highly. It’s small, but it flies on mighty wings. It expands our lives to include spaces within us as well as the outer expanses in which our tiny Earth hangs suspended…Poets, if they’re genuine, must always keep repeating “I don’t know.” —Wisława Szymborska.
I love the lines of Szymborska when she laughs ‘I prefer the absurdity of writing poems / to the absurdity of not writing poems.’
How absurd – how devastating – to embrace a life that has little test to it or opportunity towards creativity. It is why, I now see, I chose teaching. But first I chose science.
I researched the impact of acid rain on Chironimid midges in tarns in The Lake District. I made two key findings and discovered six new sub-species of insect. Chironomids are ‘non-biting midges’ and I chose to make them my co-authors. The methods I developed for their study were humane and non-invasive. I worked around the midges while the midges fluttered around me, studying my skin blithely. I learned intensely about nature, precision and alertness during my fieldwork and wrote my first poetry book: ‘I found the poems in the fields / And only wrote them down’ —John Clare.
And yet I knew absolutely nothing about science or poetry. I was just getting started when Margaret Thatcher shut down my laboratory to give tax breaks to the rich and win another general election. It’s safe to assume that she had no notion that her fellow scientist might survive such a setback through a useless craft called poetry.
I once made a statement of poetics twenty years ago in which I claimed my poems were scientific papers. It is my greatest regret that I could not continue in ecological research. I have never forgiven the politicians who wasted that future or the futures of millions of others.
I was told by my science supervisor that if I could not explain my research to an eight-year old child then it was not worth doing that research. I took him at his word and have now worked with children from more than three-hundred schools. I feel the same thing about poetry. I know I want to write for people who might not like poetry; and I want to show children poetry’s energy and delight. ‘The poem is at last between two persons instead of two pages’ —Frank O’Hara. ‘Energy is eternal delight’ —William Blake. I have discovered I can speak my poems as spoken word pieces and that when I inhabit the poems and invoke their music, my stammer eases.
I am a naturalist and a poet and a teacher. I am also a father, a conceptual artist and a climber. All of these things are testing in their way. Sadly and gladly, children grow up, concepts grow away, and mountains remain apparently benign.
I am writing a lot of poems about my children: my children are my best poetry. We walk on hills and mountains and I write poems about what we do and my love for them. I have Type 1 Diabetes and it is no fictive truth that I am working to its deadline.
Type 1 Diabetes is another merciless Muse. I test my blood glucose every two hours a day by striking a needle into my fingertips. I study the result and inject myself with insulin. Sometimes the procedure works; sometimes it doesn’t. One of my sons, Gabriel, saved my life when he was seven years old by pulling me out of hypoglycemia when I was unconscious. Imagine. Poetry’s no reparation for absence.
Farewell, thou child of my right hand, and joy;
My sinne was too much hope of thee, lov’d boy
Seven yeeres thou wert lent to me, and I thee pay,
Exacted by thy fate, on the just day.
O, could I loose all father, now. For why
Will man lament the state he should envie?
To have so soone scap’d worlds, and fleshes rage,
And, if no other miserie, yet age
Rest in soft peace, and, ask’d, say here doth lye
Ben Jonson his best piece of poetrie.
For whose sake, hence-forth, all his vowes be such,
As what he loves may never like too much.
As what he loves may never like too much. Poetry is sometimes like taking a terrible and joyous test every day and never really knowing the result. ‘We know ourselves only as far as we’ve been tested.’ That’s Szymborska again. Speaking from the dead, still living through her words, alive to our world.