Poems can sometimes seem opportunistic, triggered by some experience or other that’s come your way. I say ‘seem’ because it don’t think it happens randomly: the experiences that affect us, that lodge something in our hearts, are those which speak to our deeper preoccupations.
These may change over time of course: when I was thinking about family history, a few historical characters had a second life in a poem; when I was coming to terms with giving up offshore sailing, I wrote about the sea. Much more important are the constants: no matter what else I’m pre-occupied with, I write poems from rural life – poems which will value soil, locale, belonging, tradition, manual work; poems in which a way of attempting to think about and value the land in its own terms is voiced. I’ve not used the word ‘ecopoetry’ – although this would sound more fashionable – because I want to say I’ve grown into this preoccupation of mine practically, not theoretically.
Although I’ve not included poems here about manual work on the land, the first two poems, ‘What changes’ and ‘3am’*, could only be written from many years experience of the land where I live.
Most of us also write about art at some stage. If I do, these poems are also about land: land art – here, one of Chris Drury’s cloud chambers.
My second constant is the sound of a poem. Usually a poem starts in my head, and I carry the first line or so with me until it settles into its rhythms and sounds and cadences. (That usually sets the line length, too.) There seems to be a just-right moment for writing it down – too soon and I force it, too late and it slips away. I have to catch the moment when the sound has established the feel of the poem, but while there’s still plenty to discover in the process of writing. That’s where the pleasure of writing lies, in that sense of discovery.
Sometimes a deeper preoccupation can surface this way too, giving the poem what I think of as a ‘right–angle bend’: the Cairn Holy poem turned out, in its final stanza, not to be about either archaeology or swallows after all.
By way of a tribute, I’ve included an atypical poem I wrote for Elizabeth Burns (Compass’s first ‘featured poet’) shortly before she died. I must have carried a small gesture of hers at the back of my mind not wanting to think about it as ‘the last time’ she would visit, because when I started to write the poem I just kept going, no idea where it would lead nor how it would end – with another right-angled bend – a strange experience, almost as if it were being dictated. But Elizabeth liked it.
* ‘3am’ was commissioned by Magdalene College Cambridge for a reading at the ‘Festival of Sound and Place’ earlier this year.