Ignored by the larger mainstream anthologists of America, Charles Bukowski is the ultimate proletarian anti-poet, an American hero their establishment would rather not possess on account of the fact he is by far their best, or rather truest poet. His style was refreshingly honest, a Tu Fu of the Beats, inspired by the twentieth century ‘Poetic Revolution‘ when poetry had, in Bukowski’s words, ‘turned from a diffuse and careful voice of formula and studied ineffectiveness to a voice of clarity and burnt toast and spilled loaves and me and you and the spider in the corner.’
Among Bukowski’s massive, almost industrial, output I have found a poem of his which is, in relation to the convetional poetic spheres, just so brilliantly curveball. It is found in a collection entitled ‘Love Is A Dog From Hell,’ a whirlwind of poems dated 1974-77. The book is midway between the publication of our poet’s first collection, ‘Flower, Fist & Bestial Wail’ (1960) & his death in 1994; & may be seen as the highwater-mark of his career. In this period Bukowski’s star was very much on the ascendency; success in Europe, breakthrough interviews with Rolling Stone Magazine & an acceptance into the American poetical elite as a notorious enfant terrible. On 25th November 1974, Bukowski read in Santa Cruz alongside Gary Snyder & Allen Ginsburg, an event memorialized by Ric Reynolds, who described Bukowski as; ‘a man of genius, the first poet to cut through light and consciousness for two thousand years & these bastards dont even appreciate it.’
The mid-seventies also saw Bukowski engaged in a string of affairs with women; including Linda Lee Beighle, Pamela Miller – who becomes Nina in his short story, Workout – & Jane Manahattan – the Iris Hall of his Women. Of her time with Bukowski, Jane commented, ‘he was funny all day every day. A great love of life, & an enjoyment – always to be seeing the funny thing, & making a comment. he was a comedian.
The poems within ‘Love Is A Dog From Hell’ are both sexually visceral & brutally protagonistic, with an incredibly poised ‘cogito, ergo sum.‘ Here we have the American sonnet sequence to Laura, but of course fashion’d via fabulously free ‘verse libre’ & the even freer love of the sex-addl’d seventies. In one of the poems, ‘how to be a great writer,’ he declares at its opening the creative & spiritual ordination of the entire collection;
you’ve got to fuck a great many women
and write a few decent love poems.
Ever since the publication of his first poem, ‘Aftermath of a Lengthy Rejection Slip,‘ in 1944 – at the age of 24 – the German-born Bukowski & his writing was dedicated to the holy trinity of Wein, Weib & Gesang – Wine, Women & Song. Thirty years later, his dedication to those core tenets was as strong as ever, only the delivery had changed to that of an ageing & cynical amourouse.
So to the poem I have chosen, artists: (Bukowski never respected the principle of capital letters), a classic laissez-faire love-affair with a groupie. Next to his omniscient genius – Bukowski almost breaks sweat telling us so – she is a minor writer, & not even that inspirational a lover. The scene is set for a droll masterpiece that could never find its way into an establishment canon, but for pure drama & in-the-moment magic it is unsurpass’d in all the poetry I have personally read. For the purposes of this essay I shall give the poem in full, adding a little critigloss in the interludes.
she wrote me for years.
“I’m drinking wine in the kitchen.
it’s raining outside. the children
are in school.”
she was an average citizen
worried about her soul, her typewriter
underground poetry reputation
she wrote fairly well and with honesty
but only long after others had
broken the road ahead
In eleven lines Bukowski brilliantly introduces his muse. We know so much about her already; a bor’d mother who writes to differentiate herself from the hum-drum. In a damning piece of critique on both her style & the state of modern poetry, Bukowski portrays her quite ruthlessly as lagging far behind the original poets who have ‘broken the road ahead.’
she’d phone me drunk at 2 a.m.
at 3 a.m.
while her husband slept
“it’s good to hear your voice,” she’d say.
“it’s good to hear your voice too” I’d say.
what the hell, you
In this next segment, Bukowski introduces himself into the poem – he is always the star -, converging on illicit daft-o’clock phonecalls with his faraway ‘mistress.’ There is no background to these calls, but the not-knowing encourages our minds to calculate why? She is a poet of an underground scene, did they meet that way? Did they sleep together then, or are these late night calls the first sordid steps towards her infidelity. We get all of that from just five short lines, which are followed by five superbly brusque words in which Bukowski’s soul & voice are eternised. He’s up for it, why not, wouldn’t you?
she finally came down. I think it had
something to do with
The Chapparal Poets Society of California.
they had to elect officers. she phoned me
from their hotel
“I’m here,” she said, “we’re going to elect
“o.k., fine” I said, “get some good ones.”
I hung up
the phone rang again
“hey, don’t you want to see me?”
“sure,” I said, “what’s the address?”
With another piece of blasé indifference to his groupie – this time, given to his muse directly – Bukowski reaffirms all what he has been telling us about the situation. She is a poetess & she wants to see him, while he is completely indifferent to both her place in the poetry world & whether he gets to sleep with her or not. The Chaparral Society, by the way – Bukowski spelt it wrong – is the oldest and largest poetry organization in California, founded in the Los Angeles Area in 1939.
after she said goodby I jacked-off
changed my stockings
drank a half bottle of wine and
drove on out
they were all drunk and trying to
fuck each other.
I drove her back to my place.
she had on pink panties with
Here, in its most poetically pungent, is the visceral sexuality I mentioned earlier. What stands out the most, & what for me first shone a light on this poem’s architectural majesty, is the brevity & poetry contained in, ‘I drove her back to my place / she had on pink panties with ribbons.‘ This is all we are allowed to hear about their sexual union, delicately tantalising & teasing us with what the poet secretly knows, but refuses to share, with just a hint of frilly lace to set our minds racing & our libidos rising.
we drank some beer and
smoked and talked about
Ezra Pound, then we
its no longer clear to
me whether I drove her to
the airport or
In this post-coital aftermath, Bukowski sounds almost bored with the scene – going through the motions. He was in his mid-fifities at the time, & one imagines hundreds of notches on his bedpost from literary groupies. Many, many beers & many, many conversations about Ezra Pound. He then reinforces our instinctive inquiry by completely forgetting the episode’s denoument. There is no teary farewell at the airport, his muse simply dissapears into the aether.
she still writes letters
and I answer each one
hoping to make her stop
In this short stanza we get a suggestion of the interplay between Bukowski & his muse – they have a relationship, the student-teacher-lover type – & it is the only moment when Bukowski shows any real humanity in the poem. The fact that he takes the time to answer her letters proves she’s got under his skin, when other groupies were simply swatted away. There is something about this lady that was incorrigibly annoying to Bukowski, but whose spirit he could never truly shake off.
someday she may luck into
fame like Erica
Jong. (her face is not as good
but her body is better)
and I’ll think,
my God, what have I done?
I blew it.
or rather: I Didn’t blow
meanwhile I have her box number
and I’d better inform her
that my second novel will be out in September.
that ought to keep her nipples hard
while I consider the posibility of
Francine du Plessix Gray.
The last two stanzas of Bukowski’s remarkable poem differ from the mental theatre of the earlier stanza, launching the poem into the more philosophical chambers of its creator’s mind. He is free now to pronounce judgment on both the affair & the poem, & does so with a flourish of bravura. Two leading literary lionesses of the seventies are dragg’d into the picture – one hardly expects Bukowski letting them know of his decision to do so – placed on pedestals beside his muse. Erica Jong ‘s 1973 novel Fear of Flying blew female sexuality wide open, while Francine du Plessix Gray was a Pulitzer-winning grand dame of the New Yorker magazine. To Bukowski, all three are simply sexual objects who just happen to write, & the most important happenstance here is actually his second novel – Factotum. This was published in 1975, giving us a terminus ad quem for the composition of artists:.
Personally, I find the ending a little abrasive – in the same way Millenials are being offended by some of the patter & subject matter of the Friends sitcom. But the honesty of artists: is what makes this poem transcend the confines of conscious dignity into the realms of cosmic genius. The afterburner proplusion of an already unchallengable classic. In a letter to Nancy Flynn (1975) our poet attempts some kind of explantion as to his psuedo-misogynistic style.
I’m no woman-hater. They’ve give me more highs and magics than anything else. but I’m also a writer, sometimes. and there are variances in all things
To conclude this essay, I would just like to show how Nancy Flynn could well be the muse of the poem. In a letter dated April 7th 1975, Bukowski asks Nancy, ‘what’s this here shit about going to Turkey? It rains there too.’ This of course connects with the poem’s opening scene of a bored houswife writing about the rain. In another letter, dated April 21st, Bukowski mentions slipping ‘a couple of poems past the APR‘ – the American Poetry Review. The informal substance of this comment suggests Nancy is familiar with the poetic establishment. This fits easily into his muse’s connection to the poetic establishment and her links to the The Chaparral Society.
Finally, in the letter of the 21st our poet also tells Nancy; ‘finished the 2nd. novel, FACTOTUM, at last. It should be out in Sept,’ which is a clear match to the poems, ‘I‘d better inform her that my second novel will be out in September.‘ Nancy Poole is a poet, on whose website we may read, ‘I spent twenty years in Ithaca, New York, working and raising a son, before moving to western Oregon in 1998 with my husband and cats.’ She rather does look a lot like the literary photfit painted by Bukowski in his poem, & with that I rest my case.
Damian Beeson Bullen
Who is this Imogen Stirling, who is breaking over the Scottish Poetry Scene like a sudden Tsu-Na-Mi? The Mumble managed to catch her for a wee blether & find out…
Hello Imogen, so where ya from & where ya at, geographically speaking?
Imogen: I’m originally from North Berwick, a small town just outside of Edinburgh, and have since spent a long time living in Glasgow. I’ve also traveled a lot, mainly through music work, and have lived everywhere from Germany to the Canary Islands.
You have a background in musical theatre, so why the shift to spoken word?
Imogen: My roots will always be in theatre and music and I’m currently planning projects which really merge all three art forms. However, when I was solely working in musical theatre, I began to find the genre quite stifling in that you’re always performing somebody else’s material. Transitioning to playing in a band brought more creative freedom but there’s still that constant audience demand to hear cover songs. It just wasn’t me. Spoken word gives me complete autonomy over what I perform which is liberating. I find it a very exciting and malleable art form because it allows me to draw upon various genres to find a balance that feels right, so forming a show and performance that is creatively unique and very much my own.
You’re really enjoying quite a shooting star ascent into the Scottish poetical stratosphere, are you enjoying the journey?
Imogen: I certainly am! It’s been a whirlwind. I’m very driven and knew from the outset that I wanted to find success in spoken word. It’s required a lot of work on my part but has paid off as, in less than a year performing spoken word, I’ll have put on my first full length show, toured the UK, and performed at some major festivals. The effort is cushioned by being part of such a warm and supportive community. There’s a unique sense of camaraderie that motivates my work.
Which poets inspired you, both old skool & today?
Imogen: I have pretty eclectic influences, and a lot of them come from outside of poetry. I first drew inspiration from music – the lyrics of Leonard Cohen, Alex Turner, James Taylor. I’m a Kate Tempest girl through and through, her work brought me into poetry and consistently drives my performance. At university, I was taught by both Kieran Hurley and Kei Miller, between them they demonstrated the way that theatre and song can emerge through poetry and I still refer to them to hone my vision today. I’m a big fan of Jahra Rager who fuses contemporary dance with poetry to create some of the most blistering work I’ve seen. Ocean Vuong is a beautiful page writer and a useful foil to the more extroverted performance poets. I’ve found myself working alongside the most incredible talent in my current project: Piers Harrison-Reid, Zoka, Thomas Wolfe, Tamar Moshkovitz, Minty Taylor, Rob Carnie, and Billy Pilgrim with The Heartsease Kid. The diversity and sheer quality of the work they produce keeps me on my toes and encourages me to push my writing.
Everybody wants to be a hipster
I come home, different’s taken over
And I adore it
The bearded baristas
The hashtag heroes
The craft beer, the matcha
The smashed avocados
The tattoos, the typewriters
Instagram, instagram, instagram
Everybody wants to be a hipster
I come home, different’s taken over
Time for my go at breaking this mould
I dye my hair
I get the piercings
Start writing poetry
Learn how to tarot read
Know which wine is which and
Which coffee to ditch and
I think I could get used to living like this
Everybody wants to be the most hipster
I come home different’s taken over
And grown addictive
Whose beard is the longest
Whose man bun the tightest
Who’s the best read
Knows their Hamlet from Titus
Don’t know what the goal is
But we’re all chasing it
Topping the craze and the craze and the craze and it’s
It’s all a distraction
Because something is missing amidst it
We inflate the gravity of this dress up game
Engage the safe space to exercise difference
To learn to talk recite and proffer
But not to offer any real substance
Seems unconstructive, seems over indulgent
Seems underwhelming, seems empty headed
Seems where is the empathy
When we resort to trending hashtags to mitigate apathy
Seems appearance has superseded moral integrity
When do you know you have just composed a decent poem?
Imogen: To be honest, it takes a while. I’m a very harsh critic and need to have a piece well received by an unknown audience before I believe in it. A lot of what I write is political and intended to motivate a response from a crowd so it’s hard to judge its merit purely by my own opinion. That said, I’m at the stage now where I can recognise when a piece of mine is creatively strong – for me, it all comes down to flow, wording and clever rhymes. It’s quite mathematical really. But I can’t judge the overall impact of a poem until I’ve performed it live.
What is it about performing your poetry you love the most?
Imogen: How much it seems to affect people. The responses I get from folk after performing poetry are so different to that of a theatre or music audience. Perhaps it’s because poetry is so inherently personal, perhaps it generates a more emotional response in a listener. Whatever it is, it’s special to see the way words can communicate. And plus, it’s exciting. Performance poetry is so dynamic, such a show, and has the potential to be quite interactive – you can see who is responding to a piece, you can speak directly to them.
Can you tell us about Words w/ Friends?
Imogen: Words w/ Friends is a collective of poets working with producer, The Heartsease Kid, to creative innovative collaborations of lo-fi hip hop and spoken word poetry. We’ve just released an album, Words w/ Friends vol. III, which we’re touring around the UK in July. By fusing the genres, we;re aiming to heighten the accessibility of poetry through creating an art form that appeals to more diverse audiences. We want to re-establish the relevancy of poetry for a modern crowd.
What does Imogen Stirling like to do when she’s not being, well, poetic?
Imogen: I like to travel. Once the Fringe is done, I’m keen to get back to the Canary Islands, practice my surfing and my Spanish, find the sun. I’m a vegan activist and write for Vegan Connections, it’s great being involved in such a proactive and important movement. I love theatre – both performing it and watching it. Spending time with friends, drinking wine, discovering new music.
Nicolas died in Somalia
When I met him we were both staying
In Gran Canaria
I told him he reminded me of my brother
Both fiercely determined and destined to be doctors
He said is that right
Must be smart, funny and handsome too then?
I laughed and said yes
The bomb was so strong that most victims could not be identified
It took me 5 weeks to learn of his fate
Every day I saw papers detail the events of the shooting in Vegas
58 victims described and mourned
Yet just two weeks later
Over 300 Somalians ignored
I learned more news of strangers
Than the boy I’d learned to surf with
As though covering his life had not been deemed worth it
I looked at Nicolas and saw my brother
Others looked at him
And saw the third world urchins
The BBC leak through Comic Relief sob reels
We’re taught they’re used to extremities
So we could not assimilate
He was too much other
He must not have suffered
The Mumble caught you performing at Eden festival last week. Where else will your words be winging off to this Summer?
Imogen: I’ve a couple festivals still to come, V in the Park which is a new vegan festival, and then Latitude Festival in July. After that it’s all go with the Words w/ Friends tour, we’ve got 10 dates all around the UK. Finally it’ll be Fringe time where I’ll be performing #Hypocrisy alongside doing some other guest spots throughout the month.
Can you tell us more about your Fringe show?
Imogen: The show is called #Hypocrisy and is a fusion of spoken word, theatre and original music. It’s my Fringe debut and will be on at the Scottish Poetry Library from August 8-12th at 7pm. The show is a response to the bizarre world we’re living in. One where dangerous politicians prevail, where the media constantly sells us fictions masquerading as realities, where an ocean of social media sympathy can pour forth for western terror victims but backs turn on the migrant crisis. Ultimately, a world of staggering hypocrisies. It’s presented from my perspective as a young white woman. Beginning by looking into my experiences travelling as a musician through Europe (during which time I often found myself reaping the benefits of my skin colour) it opens up to explore what is evidently becoming an increasingly racist world. The show is a contemplation and an interrogation of western privilege. It’s an exposure of hypocrisy and a reminder of perspective.
What will Imogen Stirling be doing after the Fringe?
Imogen: Hopefully a brief stint in the Canary Islands to unwind a little after what’s been a very full on year. I’m planning a tour for #Hypocrisy, an album, and a new top secret music project. There’s a lot to look forward to, I’m very excited.
Continuing Damian Beeson Bullen’s retrospective adventure through the journey that made him a poet…
TUESDAY 14TH APRIL 1998
So I woke up, a little shivery, but otherwise excellent for a good ten hour sleep (a rare thing on the road), pack’d up & stepp’d out of the train. An old Italian guy gave me a funny look & a smile – to be honest, I must look a little strange to people. I appear a sort of noble scruff, my guitar being carried in a stretchy jumper, & my sleeping bag sticking out of my pack. This is even after halving it in bulk with some wire I found in Villach.
Bought some bread rolls & milk, then caught a train that would take me near to Ravenna – the place of Dante & Byron, two of my favorite poets. The ride was pleasant (easily jump’d) & went thro’ the flat Italian lowlands. These constitute acres of farms & seem quite slow. A more rural pace of life, dotted with young boys or shawl’d women tending the land. Even the stations I pass’d thro’ had chickens by the side.
I chang’d trains at Ferrara, where I bought a beer & cadg’d more fags (like I’d been doing all day) & realised the Italians don’t speak much English. The ride to Ravenna was another jump, & when I arrived I did a quick walk around the streets, saw Dante’s tomb (quite impressive but his bones are in Florence) & a glorious exhibition of metalworks in a beautiful column’d garden. Each piece was based on a section of the Paradisio, & some had come from as far as Australia. The detail was amazing, but I didn’t have time to soak it in properly as I felt fluster’d. I didn’t want to spend any money on a hostel, so decided to head to Florence instead.
Distant Riviera di Levante
My heart’s destination, mine art’s true call,
But first, the mausoleum of Dante,
To tap into a predecessor soul,
Overgrown with moss & creeping ivy,
My man, you were the wildest of us all!
Ravenna, this may be a swift sojurn,
But one day, with my wife, I shall return.
I had a couple of hours to kill, so I went searching for more bread. I found a supermarket, got a big roll & some orange juice – & lifted some sausages & fish. I know stealing is morally bad – but my poetry is all-important right now. I may be a rogue at times, but have a good heart.
I ate a hearty meal, then caught the train to Bologna, but disaster struck! I got caught (too slack!) & paid 15,000 lira (tho’ it could have been worse)! However, it cannot be too bad to pay just over a fiver for a journey around Europe. Chang’d trains again (by now its 9-30 in the evening) at Bologna. I didn’t have time to see the city, so stay’d on the station, sharing some food with a tramp & being quite impress’d by the uniforms, all shiny, of some Italian policemen.
My ‘instinct’ help’d me get pass’d the police on the intercity to Florence, which was full of slick young Italian guys, well dress’d & wearing shades – we even had a little strum together on my guitar. Then we arrived in Florence, & after dashing back on the train for my journal just in time, I entered the capital of Tuscany.
So I stash my bags in some bushes & start to look around Florence. I have an hour or so before the train to Pisa. I saw the main cathedral, which was breathtaking at first, then as I walked around the building it began to remind me of one of those cardboard cut-outs you build yourself with glue. Very surreal.
So I was just about to return to the station when I came across an Italian busker singing a Verve song (The Drugs Don’t Work) to some young Germans, accompanied by an old looking North African on harmonica. Of course I sang a song, then decided to fuck Pisa off & go get a pizza with my new mates instead. They all had sleeping bags & whatnot, so I would spend the night with them.
We had a beer & pizza in a bar, where I got offer’d some hashish off an Arab, who kept talking to me in Arabic & would not understand that I didn’t speak any Arabic. Just as I was about to buy it, the Germans decided to leave – they were mostly 14-16 year old girls (with a young 12-year-old lad & a mid-twenties German guy) as they were being hit upon. I follow’d, passing the house where Shelley had written Prometheus Unbound & Ode to the West Wind – the Palazzo Marini – & we chill’d at the station, where Louisa, a 16-year-old, began to take a rather uncomfortable shine to me.
Two more German girls then arrived, in the same situation, & wearing flares! Cool – some hippy brethren! One was half-Turk, half-Yugoslavian, & look’d like a full-on gypsy – Romany hair, beads, head-scarf & string features. Her name was Eva & I took an instant shine. The other girl was a red-headed German, quite nice & calm. She was call’d Mia, & they both spoke quite good English.
We all found a park & huddl’d up in our sleeping bags, broke out the food & had a small shindig. Me & the German guy play’d guitar, I read some poetry & so on. Eventually they all left, just leaving me & my new friends – Mia & Eva. I manag’d to sleep in the middle (I can’t wait to get a harem one day) & we went to sleep after chatting about life, magic & fairies. I told a story (Fairy Exodus), then we all had sweet dreams & morning birdsong.
WEDNESDAY 15TH APRIL 1998
Woke up feeling quite nice at about 10-30. We slowly got ourselves together, play’d a little in the park, then went for cappucinos. As I sipped mine in the street outside the cafe, I saw how Italy is so very stylish, but the people have somehow lost their sense of dignity.
Afterwards we meander’d about town, dodging the occasional rainstorm (we got gradually wetter), seeing more nice buildings & doing some shopping! We all got on very well as we carted our stuff round the streets like a mini-hippy tribe, with Florence gaining a definite sense of romantic character in the daytime. Full of Americans, but old & calm.
We bought some food – our plan was to find a place to cook some veggies – lots of fruit & veg, a huge loaf, some water & a big bottle of dry Italian white. I also bougth a new string for my guitar & tried haggling down a hat on the market, which only cost 5000 Lira. Then it started to rain so I bought it to replace the one I lost in Belgium.
Then, in a beautiful stationary store, with amazing azure blue pens & ink, I bought a bound book for my poem, The Death of Shelley. It is going to be excellent, & Mia did the front title page as we sat in the street.
We then wander’d to the other side of the river, over a bridge where jewelers shops lined the road, climbed a hill & made camp near the top. I then made a fire thanks to last year’s woodsman’s summer in Bournemouth.
Altho’ we were next to a road, only one police car pass’d by, saying ‘no fire’ & threatening us with imaginary handcuffs. I pretended to put it out, then Eva went full steam ahead with the cooking.
The view of Florence at sunset was beautiful – no highrises, a sea of red rooves – & after dark we eventually had some home-cooked vegetable soup, assisted by my very own Knorr spice cubes. We then drank the wine & I sang some songs – new string sounds good – a special moment indeed on a Florentine hillside at dusk.
We wake in arms, after cappuccinos
Wander moped streets, O sacred city
Where argent-sheen’d Arno ardently flows;
I buy a book to fill with poetry,
On the title page Maya draws a rose,
Then buy fresh foods & climb a hill where we
Build a fire, cook dinner, watching sunshine
Fade over Florence with a sweet red wine.
After, at about 11PM, we wander’d thro’ drizzle to the fabulous city square, with statues of famous Italians every where. I could sense Shelley & Byron, who must have walk’d in these very streets. Indeed, Florence seems to have hardly changed in those two centuries.
Then, a kindly Tunisian call’d Karmel found us, scored us some cannabis from dodgy North Africans in the street, & we all proceeded to get stoned. It blew us all away, & the girls began singing, the acoustics in our coloumn’d corridor being amazing. Unfortunately, as I was playing along I snapp’d my brand new string!
Karmel’s French was worse than mine, but we still had a great life, him just babbling in Italian & me giggling along stoned off mi nut. Eventually, after 3 or 4 reefers, Karmel left & the girls huddl’d into me to get to sleep. Our clothes were quite damp, but it wasn’t too bad. It rain’d all night, & we were lucky to have shelter.
I now have 100,000 Lira (10,000 a day) & £10 sterling. The tests of my virtues & willpower begin tomorrow.
THE BIRTH OF A POET
My strength is the strength
Of ten young things: I am with you:
In that first moment of delight
When you look from the page, no longer lost
In the maze of youth
Just as the Islamic world absorbed the ancient scholarship of its Greek conquests, & just as the European renaissance repeated the assimilations, so too does Poetry have a duty to regurgitate itself from time to time, when the spirit of renewal strips away the evolutions of time, leaving shiny new versions of moments of classical brilliance. It is with this as my leading inclination that I now turn to the writings of Theodore Heubner Roethke; a very fine-minded, Twentieth Century, Pulitzer-prize winning, American, post-modernist poet. Very much respected by his peers, James Dickey once opined that he did not, ‘see anyone else that has the kind of deep, gut vitality that Roethke’s got. Whitman was a great poet, but he’s no competition for Roethke.’ Dickey was surely here analysing the poetry of the poet, but what I want to study here are a curious collection of whispy musings on the art of poetry which Roethke stuff’d his notebooks with in the mid-twentieth century. In this same period he was also an English teacher, & these spontaneous philosophartistical outpourings represent some kind of cross-pollinating hybrid of human thought.
During the composition of these maxims, Roethke was too rush’d by teaching to collate his thoughts into a more conventional order. ‘I’m teaching well,’ he wrote in 1947, ‘if I can judge by the response – but haven’t done one damned thing on my own. It’s no way to live—to go from exhaustion to exhaustion.’ He seems have snatch’d at those scatter’d moments of focuss’d thought, scribbling them down in the depths of his office, to be discovered by his colleague, David Wagoner, upon the death of Roethke in 1963. Taking on the role of the Litologist (literary archaeologist) Wagoner dived into the 277 spiral notebooks full of fragmenting imagination, distilling them into a collection called Straw for the Fire (1972).
A half century later I intend to further the curation process begun by Wagoner by a secondary process of distillation. My endeavour shall be to select & reorder the most quintessentially poetic of Roethke’s maxims, in order to create some kind of spiritual map of the poetical experience entwined – with some magnitude & immediacy – with the entire universality of the poetic arts. As I do so, I hope to go against, as Roethke himself once said, ‘the academic tendency to rest: that profound impulse to sit down.’ Echoing the ‘garland’ collections of elegiac sayings espoused by the Tamils, I have named the collection’s form the ‘Tiara,’ in which are contained the choicest jewels dug up from the mines of mental ferment, which are polished & set in a smooth & solid structure.
‘The desire to express certain ideas,’ wrote John Cruikshank, ‘in as brief & memorable a form as possible is a long-standing human impulse.’ The aphorism has had many hey-days; the Kural of the Sangam age; the Roman epigrammical penchant as dictated by Tacitus & Martial; the intellectual epithetical flourishings of the seventeenth century French salon. In such brief capsules of literary exhortation, the qualities of elegance, accuracy & conciseness are held paramount. It is those maxims of Roethke which possess this triad of excellence the most which I have chosen for my materielle. Respecting Roethke’s deal love of teaching, I hope to have assembl’d the maxims in a way that will maximise the effects of the impartation of the poet’s empirical mind upon those who never had the pleasure of sharing a classroom with the man. Instead let us – & by us I mean every waking poet from now until the last gatherings of human time – listen to the everliving word-sage speak as if we were adepts gather’d at the naked feet of the wise Tamil sage; as if we were a young poet receiving Rilke’s letters of advice; as if we were one of the lucky students in the wartime poetry classes of Michigan State.
BECOMING A POET
The young artist: there is no other kind of mind but my own
Poetry is the discovery of the legend of one’s youth.
There is an academic precept which says: never listen to the young. The reverse should be true: Listen, I say, & listen close, for from them – if they are real & alive – may we hear, however, faintly & distortedly – the true whispers from the infinite, the beckonings away from the dreadful, the gray life beating itself against the pitted concrete world.
The wisdom the young make holy be their living
We’re not going to split the heart of reality: not until the third semester.
And then there is the more honest & charitable mentor who regards poetry as a kind of emotional & spiritual wild oats of the young, a phase of adolescence to be pass’d thro’ quickly – & anything said to shake him out of this emotional orgy is all to the good.
THE SPIRIT OF POETRY
The eye, of course, is not enough. But the outer eye serves the inner, that’s the point.
Basis of poetry is sensation: many poets today deny sensation, or have no sensation: the cult of the torpid.
Hearing poetry starts the psychological mechanism of prayer
The intuitive poet often begins most felicitously, but raptures are hard to sustain.
O keep me perpetual, muse, ears roaring with many things
Good poets wait for the muse, the unconscious to spring something loose, to temper & test the promptings of the intuition with the pressures of craftsmanship: they can think while they sing.
Simple & profound: how little there is
Say to yourself: I will learn & treasure every good turn of speech ever made.
The intense profound sharp longing to make a true poem.
THE ART OF POETRY
Perhaps no person can be a poet, or even can enjoy poetry, without a certain unsoundness of mind.
The nobility of my imagination is my theme: I have to let things shimmer.
The essence of poetry is to perish – that is to say be ‘understood.’
A ‘movement’ is a dead fashion.
The artist has several levels of life always available. If he falls to the ground with a theme or gets a ‘block,’ he can always return to life – a routine task.
This is the lazy man’s out often: I haven’t read it, therefore it does not exist.
Poetry is not just a mere shuffling of dead words or even a corralling of live ones.
A musical ear is a gift from nature: but like all gifts it can be develop’d
Rhythm: creates a pattern into which our mental faculties fall; this cycle of expectancy calls for surprises. The poet, at least the good poet, provides them.
My design in short poems: to create the situation, & the mood as quickly as possible: etch it in & have done; but is that enough? No. There must be symbolical force, weight, or a gravity of tone.
Play with it – The language has its cusses & fusses just like us.
Diction: one of the problems of diction, in certain kinds of poems, is to get all the words within a certain range of feeling; all elemental, all household, etc. etc. Often a very good figure from another level or range will jar.
The decasyllabic line is fine for someone who wants to meditate – or maunder. Me, I need something to jump in: hence the spins, & shifts, the songs, the rants, the howls. The shorter line can still serve us: it did when English was young, & when we were children.
To make it so good that there will be no actors will ever act it right: but none can be so bad, in any windy barn, to foul it up entirely.
It’s the damned almost-language that’s hardest to break away from: the skill’d words of the literary poet
Did I beat the poem to death? Did I worry the material like a mad dog?
We can love ourselves & literature with equal intensity – that’s our contribution
A poet is judg’d, in part, by the influences he resists
Puts his thoughts in motion – the poet
A poet: someone who is never satisfied with saying one thing at a time
The poet must have a sense not only of what words were & are, but also what they are going to be?
A poet must be a good reporter; but he must be something a good deal more.
Poet must first control, then dominate his medium
Maturity in a poet: when he no longer is concern’d with personal mortality… but whether the language dies.
There comes a time in the poet’s life when one personality, even with several sides, is not enough. Then he can go mad or become a dramatist.
There are so many ways of going to pot as a poet; so many pitfalls, so many snares & delusions.
The most bitter of intellectuals: he who was once a poet.
FORM IN POETRY
Remember: our deepest perceptions are a waste if we have no sense of form.
We must have the courage, as Kierkegaard says, to think a thought whole
Transcend that vision. What is first or early is easy to believe. But… it may enchain you.
The artist (not the would-be): you may have deep insights – but you also need the sense of form. Sometimes the possession of the first without the second may be tragic.
English poetry: mostly by ninnies, capable of fits & starts of ravishing feeling
The Victorians – they didn’t let enough go in or go out. They lived in ponds.
Some of these Limeys write as if they were falling over chairs
The ‘other’ poem in Yeats… had to set the stage for his best work. If he had not written at such length, he might not have been heard.
The lyric is almost forgotten in this time of sawing & snoring & scraping
One of the problems of the lyric poet is what to do with his spare time; & sometimes it becomes the community’s problems too. It worries people.
A bewildering bardling: no real feeling except a thin intense hatred of his contemporary superiors
A culture in which it is easier to publish a book about poetry than a book of poems
One of the subtlest tasks is the sifting from time. Some poems have that special sheen of contemporaneousness, the immediate glitter of fashion – & still survive.
One of the virtues of good poetry is the fact that it irritates the mediocre
Not the stuff, but merely the stuffing, of real poetry. An anthology of abstractions from one of the less sure metaphysicians: a nowadays nausea.
Much to be learnt from bad poems
A wrenching of rhythms, verbal snorting; tootling on the raucous tin-ear, mechanized fancies: his poems have movement, sometimes they slide away from the subject.
Embroidering a few metaphors on his pale convictions
These fancy dandlers of mild epithets, graceless wittols hanging on the coattails of their betters. I can forget what they do until they forget to steal & start being themselves.
Those dreary language-arrangers. Don’t be ashamed if you belch when you try to sing
So many writers are an immense disappointment: they’re neurotic, grubby, cozy, frighten’d, eaten by their wits.
Think with the wise, talk like the common man
When you begin to get good, you’ll arouse the haters of life
May my silences become more accurate
Live in a perpetual great astonishment
I can’t die now. There’s too much to do.
He was the master of the remark that insults everybody – including himself.
Continuing Damian Beeson Bullen’s retrospective adventure through the journey that made him a poet…
EASTER SUNDAY 12TH APRIL 1998
Woke up at 7:00 as the first drops of morning rain splash’d my weary brow. Fortunately the station was open, & I caught a dry 40 winks before getting on the move again.
The two trains to Vienna were eventful. One guard ignored me, the other let me go, & soon I was back at the (very uninteresting) Vienna Sudbahnhoff. My train to Italy wasn’t ‘til 12:55 (it was now 10:00) so I ate a little & blagg’d some coins off an Austrian to make a call.
My sister replied, ‘do you know what bloody time it is,’ as I had woken her up. She then wish’d me to be careful just as the money ran out.
Felt a little lost, so started to chat to a young Czech couple. This pass’d a little time & as they left I had a look at the departures board. I noticed (God knows how) a separate train was leaving for the Italian border in a few minutes. I quickly pack’d & made it to the train just in time – a woman kindly opening the door for me the seconds before it left.
I stach’d my stuff, hid in the toilets & quietly waited for the result of my spontaneity to settle. As it turn’d out, the jump was simple. I sat down in a seat after twenty minutes, & the guard never check’d me again, which allow’d me the privilege of the most spectacular train journey I’ve had to date – all for free, including the hot water for the tea-bags I intelligently brought along. I was sat in the comfort of a nice inter-city, complete with psychedelic patterns on the wall, & a nice Austrian chick next to me.
The Austrian Alps were beautiful; huge rocky formations bursting from the earth. The train wound its way thro’ the valleys, sometimes climbing, sometimes descending (my ears popp’d) & sometimes thro’ tunnels. The towns were so idyllic, especially in the narrower valleys, where even the football pitches were narrow.
After a while, the non-stop mountains, the pine forests (although magnificent) & the snow-capp’d misty peaks grew a little monotonous. It was perpetually green & splendid, but I was on the train til 16:00, some 350K.
Yet, each new mountain still spark’d a warm glow within – it must be the poet in me. I reckon I’ll climb one one day, & if you read this as an old man, Damian (& are still able) – & have the money, time & freedom – bag some Sherpas & go hit the mountains of Ostreich!
Just before the border a series of mountains all in a row loom’d before me, with a beautiful clear lake at their base. I had arrived at Villach. I had two hours to kill, so I stash’d my stuff beside a rail-line & had a wander around the town. It was quite dull, but the scenery was amazing, a ring of mountains!
I take the greatest train jump of my tour
From Vienna to Villach, on a sleek
Inter-City, as each Alp towers o’er
My little carriage, each volcanic peak
Thrust from the fertile, verdant valley floor
With breathtakin’ beauty – I could not speak,
Until dinnertime by a mountain stream…
Villach’s heap’d watchers echo to my scream.
I took out my bread, mustard, cheese, raisons, an orange & a tin of meat – & settl’d down to a meal. I follow’d with a quick strum on my guitar, then headed back to the station, to catch the train to Italy.
At the station, before getting on the train, I met some mad Brazilian bloke. I then found my carriage was home to a beautiful Italian girl. Roll on the wine, women & pasta!
Jumping the train was easy – there was an empty carriage at the back & I got to watch the Italian mountains disappear, & if anything, they were more beautiful than the Austrian ones; brilliant white tops illuminated by the sun & fantastic deep, azure blue skies.
Eventually the carriage emptied, & I turn’d off the light for a few moments sleep – which was lucky as a conductor came, but chose not to wake me.
How glad am I to enter Italy,
For the call of the muse grows ever strong,
Like some wild animal trapp’d inside me,
To find a form in my juvenile song;
Snowy mountains shrink into flat country,
Thro’ fields of lazy green we zoom along,
To Venice; as Italy greets my feet
I see a canal sparkling,’ where’s the street?
So I am in Italy, but no-one can prepare you for your first real look of the place as you leave Venice station. The Grand Canal is bang! right in front of you, & you immediately know the place is something special.
I follow’d my travellers instinct & found an empty carriage near the station to hide my stuff & sleep tonight, then set off out to explore the city. On the way, however, the start of perhaps the most bizarre incident of my trip began.
I bump’d into Edson, the Brazilian, & we began to walk about. He was trying to find a hotel (no luck), so we went to share a margarita pizza. He paid for most of it, then we went to meet his work-mate Kristina, who he’d just left at the station.
Now it turns out that they are here in Venice to get a visa, & then return back to Austria tomorrow. So they left their bags in a luggage depot at the station, except for a mysterious suitcase, which Kristina began to wheel about the town.
God knows what mission we were on, but my first stroll around Venice involved following Edson around at breakneck speed, asking every Italian the way to a mythical place. Apparently the Italians are an ‘uneducated bunch’ & we were sent in the wrong direction.
However Venice was beautiful! There are no roads (& no pollution) just beautiful streets & canals, still the same as in Byron’s day. The buildings were quite crumbly & decadent, but his added to the timelessness – or should I say onetimeness – of the place.
In the middle of being distracted by all things Venetian, I suddenly received the suitcase (voluntarily), & became intrigued by the whole affair. Could it contain drugs, money, gems (Edson said he was a gem-seller)? I was tempted to do a runner like in some dodgy Britflick – but of course didn’t. I am here to write poetry.
The evening ended at 2AM, after a few glasses of wine, some mad pidgeon English conversations, & my offer to share my sleeping bag with the fella. We left Kristina bobbing on one of the canal taxi berths, & settl’d down in my train carriage. It was a bit weird, sharing such a small space with a stranger, but hey! that’s life!
EASTER MONDAY 13TH APRIL
I woke up at 8:30 next to Edson who’d decided to share my carriage. We met up with Kristina (who had been in the station most of night), had coffee & rolls for breakfast, then went to get their visa. I thought I’d tag along because they were paying & it seem’d like fun.
There were more mindless meanderings a la last night. This time in the pleasant ‘new’ city of Venice on the mainland. Eventually we found the place, & all they received was a slip of paper for their troubles – no visa.
I finally managed to find out what was in the suitcase – photos of Kristina’s Jewish family, some choclates & a few documents.
So I bid adieu to my new-found friends &, at about 12:00, I found myself alone in a beautiful city, ready to explore. First I bought some bread & made up a pack’d lunch, & then set off to look for a place to eat it, strolling about quite happily until, by the docks, I look’d out to the sea & the skies were stormy & black.
This was excellent, as I need to ‘feel’ an Italian storm for my poem, The Death of Shelley. I watch’d it for a while, the occasional flash & rumble, then when the rain came hurtling down I started running thro’ the streets, seeking shelter. Passing the occasional other set of people doing the same.
I found a nice alleyway, & a nice Italian guy gave me some mineral water for free from his restaurant. When the rain had almost stopp’d I stepp’d out onto the near deserted streets & returned to my ‘den.’
I strumm’d for a while by the canal, watching the boats full of people watching me, then it began to pour again. I ate a couple of bananas, tehn got chang’d for the night’s activities. I plann’d to do some busking (to keep an eye on my money). It will be the first time since last year & I feel a little nervous. So I bought some wine for 2000 lira (75p) – some carton’d Italian white.
I also chang’d a £50 note, giving me 140,000 lira. Sounds a lot, dunnit? I aim to arrive in Shelleyland with 100,000 – this giving me 10,000 a day (for 10 days) to write my poem.
I did the big sight-seeing tour, hopping on a boat (not paid for) which took me round the edges of the city & to the Plaz de St Marco. This was a very big & beautiful place, with lots of museums. However, they were all mann’d by gruff Italians & so I couldn’t sneak in.
I did manage to have a look in the cathedral – which was glorious. I think it was from the 15th century, & was cover’d in paintings of Biblical times. These were quite faded, & I wonder’d how cool they would have been when the Church was all-powerful. The Church can be likened, I think, to an old painting.
Took a boat back thro’ the heart of the city, along the Grand Canal, just gazing at the amazing houses. I saw the Union Jack waving outside one – the consulate – hurrah!
When it grew dark, I slung my geetah over my back & wander’d thro’ the city, looking for a place to play. The best spot was took by some gondaliers, so I bought an ice-cream, then headed for St Marco Square.
I began to busk under a statue of Casanova & two bare-breasted harpies. Only once did I receive some cash, off a young Italian couple, but the real fun started when I heard some Italian bongo players who I’d met in the afternoon.
The night then proceeded at full pelt, I gradually got piss’d & had a most amazing time. It felt like Bournemouth once again. Some mad old Buddhist play’d my guitar & we all got down nice & funky.
Thro’ Venice I, the poetic rover,
Roam streets by night, guitar oer broad back slung,
Under a statue of Casanova,
Ditties composed near Chichester are sung,
Eldritch voice attracts coins for each number,
Those tuneful tayles melodiously wrung,
& after playing for an hour or so
Buzzy black bongo bangers join my flow.
Caught a river-bus back home (it was very cold) & crawled into bed. My mattress was plastic bags, my pillow my rucksack, my bedding a sleeping bag & a curtain, & it was all nice & comfy, so I went to sleep.
THE BIRTH OF A POET
Commencing Damian Beeson Bullen’s retrospective adventure through the journey that made him a poet…
It is 20 years ago this week that I returned from the Continent as a poet. I had just been deported from Switzerland for apparent vagrancy, but unbeknownst to the Swiss I was trying to get home anyway. I have always put my lucky break down to the ways of the Muses, who had recently taken me under their wing. Landing safely at Heathrow, in my possession was what I call my first proper poem, 100 stanzas of Ottava Rima upon the Death of Shelley. After two weeks of touring Europe as far as Hungary, I then headed to Italy, Shelley’s own ‘Paradise of Exiles’ where I began my composition period in Pisa on the 16th April; concluding the poem by Shelley’s tomb a month later, at the Protestant Cemetery in Rome. In between was the the great moment of validation in my life, sat on a clifftop over Portovenere, composing to the gulls & the sunset. Like a young Wordsworth over Helvellyn, I too knew I was a poet & parley to the especial feelings of universal inclusiveness which being a true poet entails.
Those six & a half weeks of travel was my very own Grand Tour. I was no aristocrat, far from it, a little half-caste drop-out from the back streets of Burnley with sudden pretensions of poethood. I should have been better off in a factory like the one in Rawtenstall I’d worked at for 3 months or so in 1996 – the shoemakers Lambert Howarths. But I was, of course, a poet, for a poet is born… & then made of course. Having realized this was my fate in early 1997, a year later I embarked for Europe where I hoped to experience for myself just a sliver of the literary domicile in Italy which Byron & Shelley had set up in exile. Just what kind of poet I would turn out to be would be heavily influenced and nourished by the experience. My only source of income, however, would be the rent money I neglected to pay in London, & whatever I could whip together in the Italian streets thro’ my guitar.
Tis the end of March & my rent is due,
But two life options lie open to me;
Break with a lover, lose friendship, split thro
Or chain myself to the servility
Of capitalism; a poet true
I yearn to be, so young, so sure, so free –
Romancing my mind with poetry’s flow,
So be it, with sure brave heart, I shall go.
“What the fuck am I doing in Hungary!?”
Think I as I search for somewhere to rest
In the dirty, bustling, car-choked, friendly
Bullet-hole-wall-lined streets of Budapest;
Architecture touched clearly by Turkey,
But laced with the consumeristic West;
I find the Mellow Mood Hostel – what luck!
For four pounds a night it’s as cheap as fuck.
My retrospective adventure begins on the 11th April 1998. I awoke in a hostel upon my last morning in Budapest, set later that day to attempt to evade fares, or trainjump, to Slovenia, from where I would head for Venice. To tell the story I shall be recreating my journal from the period day-by-day & placing this alongside any actual compositions of the Shelley poem on those corresponding days. The latter have gone through a revision process over the years, & I hope to administer them through the powers of the 41 year old poet. Pictorially, I have included a smattering of sketches from my notebook made during my time in Italy, plus a number of photographs taken in my visits to the scenes of my youthful endeavor in the two decades since. My final piece of ‘evidence’ comes from 1999, & another poem in more precise Ottava Rima concerning my trip to Europe, entitled The Grand Tour. Despite misplacing the original manuscript, this poem too has undergone several revisions & now takes pride of place at the commencement of my Silver Rose sequence.
Saturday 11th April 1998
My last day in Hungary began quite pedestrian paced, then ended in the most bizarre circumstances.
I cooked up a few eggs, mushrooms & a bit of bacon for brekky, then began to meander. I changed some money, bought a load of fags & food for my journey (I’d better watch my cash now, only got £90 left), then found some Hungarians playing chess in a square. I had a few games with a big fella who fluster’d me into losing!! I lost 400 florins altogether, but had a grand time in the sunshine.
Then I met Megan one last time & we had a few beers through the afternoon til my 5.30 train to Slovenia. After donning my electric blue sunglasses I gave an impromptu performance of songs; Hymn to Apollo, Tumbleweed & Groovy Little Sunshine – laid back in the sun at the top of an international hostel, kinda tunes – with Fools Gold as an encore.
I then packed & headed for the station. Now Geminis are known for their indecisiveness & sudden changes of plan, & as soon as I saw the ‘Orient Express’ to Paris listed, I had to get on it. That train is second only to the Trans-Siberian railway for legendary routes, & if I jumped it I would be very happy indeed. But a big conductor actually opened the toilet door, took my passport & kicked me off at Gyor (giving my passport back).
But this wasn’t too bad – I quickly got on a slower Hungarian train to the border town of Hegyeshalom. Although the toilets (& the graffiti-splattered, full of weird Hungarians carriage) were disgusting, the bay-like window was wide open & I had a wonderful, snail-paced view of the Hungarian plains, which were pretty dull, but the evenly spaced houses & churches were quite pretty.
So I arrive in the border town (its too long a word to write out every time, accurately) & lo & behold, who’s waiting but the conductor from the Orient Express. He waves his arms for a bit, gets a bit kerfuffled, so I slip the station, having two hours to wait for the next train outta Hungary.
I bought a soft drink & sat outside a mad Hungarian pub, their weird babble drifting to my ears & adding to the surreality of the situation.
Here I planned ahead! I will travel to Italy & Ravenna to see Dante’s grave, then over to Le Spazia to write poetry & chill by the beach for a couple of weeks. Then I’ll hit the Riviera, do some busking & slowly make my way up through France – walking, busking – to arrive home for my birthday (June 11th). Perhaps I can get a ferry ticket for my present!
I returned to the station, but that same conductor (& the one from the other) accosted me, demanded money & took my passport. They sat me down & waited for the Vienna train to come. Two of their cronies arrived & they began making fun of me, pretending to be soldiers & going ‘English very bad, rat-a-tat-a-tat’ Nobs! The Vienna train came & as it pulled away they all began to laugh. So I slipped on my shades, whistled Rule Britannia & high-tailed it on outta town.
I was like a soldier marching along the road to the border, my backpack heavy & my guitar like a gun. I felt so funky, tho,’ that I decided to strum by the roadside, only a few hundred metres from the border. After a while I saw a car coming & thought I might hitch outta Hungary. So I leapt to the road, stuck out my thumb, & to my surprise the car screeched to a halt & two guys in camouflage & holstered revolvers quickly leapt out. I thought at first I was gonna be mugged, but was quite relieved to be in the company of some border patrollers. They had a quick look at my passport, then bundled me into the car & drove me back to the fucking train station again.
There were about ten guards in all, proper dumb-looking & pretending to be hard, so I made the chambers feel like home. I ate, had a fag, then bought out mah geetah, & whistled & played til they gave me back my passport. I played some weird shit & spooked them – & they wouldn’t even give me a stamp as a souvenir.
I gaze on familiar boyhood star
While I walk a few K to the border,
As just by the line I thumb a police car,
They bundle me in, “Silence!” the order,
So as they check the passport my guitar
Rings out in bizarre tuning & coda,
Bemused they release me at the train station
“Gizza lift” “No!” my tour’s first frustration!
So I had to retrace my steps, & soon was making my way though the border zone. The Hungarians guards were asleep so I had to wake them! I passed some lads younger than me, wielding rifles & a big Austrian at customs. The actual area had a real sort of abandoned feel. The legacy of the Cold War – it was the East-West border – where only kids & old men inhabit. It was quite eerie walking through it into Austria.
In Austria I was manhandled by some guys who thought we were still in the war, then another guy on a bike, but all-in-all it wasnt too bad… just 7 passport checks & ten or so kilometres of hiking.
I found the station at Nicklesdorf & bedded down behind it. Luckily it was a very pleasant night & I fell asleep to birdsong…
THE BIRTH OF A POET
Hello Roger, when did you first realise you were a poet?
When I was still at school. Some sixth-formers started a magazine and asked for poems for it. I thought, “Oh, you’re allowed to write them too!” I thought all the poems had already been written, by people who were called poets. Looking back, the first poem I wrote was quite comical. On the morning of a school cross-country match I had butterflies in my stomach and started to try and describe the feeling:
The phrasing is ludicrously old-fashioned because I had yet to read any modern poetry but I had found a fast-running rhythm,
Friends are rivals
Spirit ‘gainst such
By the time I reached the changing room, the butterflies had gone and I had that rhythm in my head. I had discovered that writing a poem gave me a buzz.
I did not realise how essential it was to my equilibrium until I was in the upper sixth and studying for the Oxford entrance exam, studying so hard that the brain wouldn’t switch off and I couldn’t sleep. In my memoir, The Horseman’s Word, I tell the story of how the tension built up until
“I was shaken by tears, sudden, overwhelming, undeniable tears.
Sent to bed like a small child with the mumps or the whooping cough. I drifted in and out of half-sleep, a warm, absolved half-sleep, quite different from the tense vigil I had been keeping. And something was lulled awake, something at the back of my mind I had been saving for when I had time. Phrase by phrase, I began to try out lines for a poem.
One of the farm cats was an accomplished thief. On a Friday, when my mother was cooking fish, it would crouch by the garden shed, watching her movements through the kitchen window. If she went to the pantry, or into the hall to answer the phone, it would be in and out through the fanlight, leaving a flurry of paw marks up the windowpane as the only evidence. The idea for the poem had come when I thought of merging that cat with one I used to watch out of the corner of my eye during English lessons. Our prefab overlooked its backyard and, as Jack took us through the intricacies of ‘A Valediction forbidding mourning’,
If they be two, they are two so
As stiffe twin compasses are two,
It would be disposing itself in the sun, regal on its coal bunker.
I cannot remember much of the poem itself. Only that it opened with a colloquial flourish, a trick I had learned from e. e. cummings,
That there cat
‘s a darn nuisance
and the cat on the coal bunker came into focus later, sat upright with its tail neatly encircling its feet,
a pert, proletarian beauty.
What I remember is how the cluster of words grew each time I surfaced. I began to drift purposefully, waiting for the pull of the next phrase…
As the poem took shape, the last four days seemed to re-form around it. The insomnia, the mania, the embarrassments, they all fell away. I was intent on my compressions, on making the cat scramble through the lines so fast they rattled in their frame. It was like being given another life.”
In the poetic spheres, who were your earliest influences & who inspires you today?
It was Keats who first awoke me to the power of language and then Hopkins. As I recall in the memoir, Ted Hughes came to read in my first term at Oxford and made a big impression. Ten years later, by which time I was reviewing for London Magazine, Seamus Heaney had an impact. I see some of my work, the long poem ‘Lower Lumb Mill’, for instance, as a development from the short-lined stanza Heaney was using in Wintering Out and North. I think Seamus himself recognised an affinity because ‘Lower Lumb Mill’ was one of the poems he particularly liked in Given Ground.
Hughes and Heaney remain my reference points. There are contemporary poets whose work I admire, Jorie Graham and Michael Symmons Roberts, but I wouldn’t call them an inspiration. It’s more a case of admire and do otherwise.
When do you know you have written a good poem?
When it takes me by surprise. I don’t have the makings of a poem until I find what I call ‘a tension’, a phrase or a rhythm that takes me by surprise and has a kind of necessity. Sometimes I have to work for days until I find that. And often there’s another surprise that comes two-thirds of the way through working on a poem, when it declares its own logic and accomplishes itself more swiftly than had seemed possible.
What does Roger Garfitt like to do when he’s not being, well, poetic?
I go for long walks. I live just under a Stone Age Ridgeway, so that’s easy. I listen to jazz and Latin American music and some World music – Yasmin Levy, Souad Massi, Ali Farka Touré and Toumani Diabaté. I listen to Radio 3 when I’m cooking and buy the occasional CD of contemporary classical music – Harrison Birtwistle, Simon Holt. I go to the occasional opening in a local art gallery and get the weekly Art Newsletter from The Guardian. I watch foreign films when I can – I came of age in the great age of European cinema, watching Bergman, Truffaut, Fellini, the Russian War & Peace – but I can’t livestream, given the slow speed of rural broadband, and I’m desperately holding onto my LOVEFILM subscription.
Nothing, in other words, that would surprise my readers. My life is pretty much all of a piece.
You won the Gregory Award in 1974. Can we see one of your winning poems?
With pleasure. ‘Hares Boxing’ came from one of my lucky breaks when an old farmer who was living all alone in a big stone farmhouse rented me two rooms for two pounds a week. This enabled me to stop teaching and write full-time and his generosity is duly acknowledged in the front of my first book. I used to walk round the fields each morning before I started work and that’s when I saw the hares.
for Nigel Wells
This way and that
goes the runaway furrow.
Nose to tail
goes the tunnel
in the grass.
Now the leader
swivels, jerks up his heels.
The trick flickers
along the rope of hares:
heels over head they go, head over heels.
It’s the Saturday after Valentine:
in Florey’s Stores
the kids go
Oh! What did he put?
Go on, tell us! we promise
we won’t tell.
Did she send you one?
Over the winter nothing has changed
but the land. The hedgerows
are in heaps for burning.
The owl’s tree stands vacant
between the scars of smooth earth.
The sunlight falls on cleared spaces,
on the old lines. The hares meet
as they met before Enclosure, far out
in the drift of grasses, their fisticuffs
like tricks of the eye.
What catches the light, what the eye believes
is the rufous shoulder, the chest’s white blaze:
what it sees are up on their haunches
the blaze throw its guard up, the shoulder
slide in a punch: two pugs that duel
stripped to the waist by sunlight.
And the Fancy? They emerge
from the corners of the eye, low company
from the lie of the land, with guineas
in their stare, without visible means.
The purse is all he fancies. The generations
bunch in his arm.
Toora-li-ooral go the fifes in his blood.
As tall, as straight as a thistle,
Jack Hare squares up to Dancing Jack.
By the time the book came out, I was living in North Devon and I sent a copy to Ted Hughes. He wrote back, “Good to know where ‘Hares Boxing’ comes from. I came across it in a magazine somewhere and could never find it again. Very haunting poem.” That was all the endorsement I needed.
How has your poetic voice changed since the 1970s?
What happened towards the end of the 1970s is that the ideas started to open out and, whether I liked it or not, I found I was having to write long poems – something that came as quite a shock to someone who had always thought of the lyric as his natural medium. I had moved to North Wales to take up a writer’s fellowship at Bangor University and got to know the poet Tony Conran, the editor and translator of the Penguin Book of Welsh Verse. In Wales the communal tradition was still strong and the poet had a natural role in that. Many of Tony’s poems were written to celebrate a marriage or a christening or a life as it came to its end. When I set out to write a wedding poem for Tony himself, I came up against the fact that in the English tradition we no longer had a positive language in which to celebrate such moments, only a language of doubts and misgivings. That was the start of ‘Rites of Passage’, which appeared as work-in-progress in Given Ground and remained in suspension for another twenty-five years. Fittingly, it was a poem I wrote for another friend, the Irish harper Tristram Robson, that gave me the insight I needed to complete ‘Rites of Passage’ and Tony was able to see it in print before he died. It’s most easily found now in an anthology that came out from Bloomsbury last year, Building Jerusalem: Elegies for the Church of England.
The idea for ‘Lower Lumb Mill’ came as I was writing a report on a school course I had run at Lumb Bank, the Arvon Centre in Yorkshire, in 1979. The kids were from inner-city Manchester, a typical mixture of races and backgrounds, all brought together by the city’s history as the centre of the cotton-spinning industry in the hey-day of the British Empire. The beginnings of that history were all around them in the woods below Lumb Bank, in the mill chimneys, the dye-pits and the waggon-roads, but they were blind to it. They thought they were in the country and wrote poems about fields and cows. That blindness, that blindfold, if you like, of rural myth seemed to me very typical of English culture and I set out to strip it away and celebrate their real history, in all its persistence and difficulty. As I worked on the poem, I had to include my own history because I was coming to the end of a difficult relationship and had to decide which was the more loving course, to break off or to persist. It’s a long poem in four sections, beginning almost as a satire, an act of cultural dissidence, and ending as a love poem.
The relationship with Frances, which began in 1980, gave me, as it were, a ledge of stability from which I could look back at those earlier difficulties and Frances read the first two sections before she was diagnosed with cancer in 1982. It was 1985 before I was able to take the poem up again and I finally finished it in Bogotá in 1988.
It was while I was in Bogotá that I received the commission for the memoir, The Horseman’s Word, and for the next four years I worked on that. I did not come back to poetry again until my Colombian life ended in 1992 and I did a very free translation of a song by Atahualpa Yupanqui as a way of negotiating that loss. By then I was deep in debt and had to put the memoir to one side while I took on community writing projects. Then I had the commission for Border Songs, the first of three poetry commissions I used to subsidise the memoir, and it’s those three sequences, From the Ridge, In All My Holy Mountain and Border Songs, that form the final section of the Selected Poems. I wrote each of them in six months, From the Ridge and In All My Holy Mountain actually in the same six months, and that shows not only the advantage of having deadlines to work to but also the skills I had been forced to acquire when, to my consternation, poems insisted in turning into long poems.
Of all your collections, which contains the most of the real Roger Garfitt?
I wouldn’t want to choose between Given Ground and the Selected Poems. Fortunately, I don’t have to because almost the whole of Given Ground is in the Selected Poems. The poems in Given Ground are more personal but the Selected has the journal extracts, which are more detailed and every bit as personal.
Could you give us a sample poem?
Hard to choose. ‘The Hooded Gods’ has had the most critical response. As Sean O’Brien said, it’s clearly socialist in impulse and that’s carried through into Border Songs and In All My Holy Mountain and more recently into the political sonnets that have appeared in Stand and PN Review. ‘Skara Brae’, written as an oblique elegy for the life I shared with Frances and her son Adam, draws the most response from readers. But I’m going to choose ‘At Vanishing Point’, the first of the Colombian poems, which is more openly personal.
At Vanishing Point
para Eugenia en El Cántaro
This morning we talk again
under the bony plum,
whose fruit, like a stone
sucked in the mouth,
can outwit thirst. I sit
on the garden seat as on
the bench of the ship of souls,
lashed to my oar. Almost hear,
between the tick-birds and
the parakeets, a gull’s keen,
invoking solitude, the doom
of the Wanderer, who dreams
of a hearth and companions, and wakes
to the ice of the whale-road.
My salve for hard times
is to make them harder still.
You do that too. You will
when I leave. Lock yourself
in your painter’s attic
in Bogotá. Work to
the wry songs of Bola de Nieve.
Geni, you and I are two
of a kind. I find you
on the bench beside me.
Above us, like a daydream, like a thought
moored between two pillars of cloud,
El Cántaro, the house you built
out of stubbornness, out of shipwreck.
It is just pencilled in
against the sky. Just held
at the point of erasure.
Built of shadings, cross-hatchings,
a pencil sharpening the whiteness
of paper, constructing
a moebius strip of light,
endless galleries, rising
scales of roof, ascending
and descending stairs.
The pencil sketched, suffered
erasure, sketched again.
One by one the variants
emerged. Plumped onto the page
and sank without trace. Stepped out
on their spindleshanks
and crumpled into the pits
of erasure, the hubbub of forms
jostling for life. Then the pencil
took wing. Took from the swift’s wing
the long, honed line, that austere
primary glide. Took from the owl’s wing
the crossing of tenons, that secondary
softness of flight. Something lifted
that could fly. Now we live under its wing.
Watch the diamond lattice compose the light
and the stairs rise in counterpoint. Hear
the three-part harmony in the turn of the stair.
Geni, we came here already erased.
All that life we lived on paper,
all the ways and means we had sketched
in our letters. What precise negations,
what scar-white lines your ghost must have crossed
to find me. I was a blankness walking
on the white fires of that grid.
Now we talk. My fingers touch the blade
of your shoulder. And are fingers
on warm skin. We touch as only survivors
can touch. Butterflies like blue water
lap the air. The charcoal tree has blossomed
into featherdusters of flame. We could walk down
to the Sumapaz, the Peaceable River,
naming the white-humped cattle, the hawk
who is a call, a circling
shadowed by her young, the lizards
who are known only by their vanishing.
After the early loss of your wife, Frances Horovitz, how cathartic an experience was it to edit her Collected Poems?
I had yet to reach any possibility of catharsis. Rather, I was possessed by a fierce determination to justice to Frances’ work. I was rigorous in my editing because Frances’ reputation was by no means as secure then as it is now and I didn’t want to give any ammunition to the critics. But then Frances herself had been so exacting in what she allowed into print that there were very few poems I hesitated over and then only by the finest shades of judgement. What has been heartening in the years since is to see the respect that younger poets have for her use of space and the concentration of her language, for a free verse that is completely achieved, as durable as a border ballad.
I reprinted the dedications of each successive book in the Collected in order to acknowledge the contribution of her first husband, Michael Horovitz, who was an acute reader of her work, always able gently to point out when a poem was not quite finished, and to celebrate the inspiration of her son Adam, whose responses gave rise to a number of the poems. There’s one poem whose omission Adam regrets because it was prompted by a fairytale they read together and he remembers Frances working on it. I left it out because Frances felt it was a poem that didn’t really belong to her, that it didn’t have her voice. Adam will probably bring it back into print at the first opportunity and why not? The Collected has done its work now and there’s no reason not to move to a Complete Poems.
Where there was an element of catharsis was in seeing the design for the book come together, complete with Winifred Nicholson’s painting on the cover, and knowing that it looked just right, that Frances’ work was being sent out in the world, as it were, under her own colours.
Can you tell us about your life in Colombia?
Meeting the painter Eugenia Escobar in 1985 and spending long periods of time in Colombia was the saving of me in many ways. It didn’t just give me a new life, it gave me a new world. It was as if Frances had never died because Frances never lived there. The ground was still whole under my feet.
And in a very practical sense it saved me as a writer. In England I had to put together a living from all sorts of bits and pieces: giving readings, writing reviews, running poetry workshops in schools, judging poetry competitions. A friend once observed that the first requirement for a poet seemed to be a clean driving licence. Whereas in Colombia I could simply sit down and write. If the phone rang, it wasn’t for me. Hence I was able to finish ‘Lower Lumb Mill’ and assemble the collection that became Given Ground. And it was in order to earn my living simply from my desk that I found an agent, Jane Turnbull, who secured the commission for The Horseman’s Word.
There was an energy that came from watching Geni conceive and complete her paintings in a two-or-three-day storm. She painted a major series, El Condorpatrio, that took the Condor, the emblem of Colombia, through a series of transformations that reflected the violence the country was living through. And there was the music, the discovery of a whole continent of music that stretched from Mexico to Chile and took in Cuba and the Dominican Republic. Music and dance are so much a part of life in Colombia that, when Granta commissioned an article on the Drug War, I was careful to offset the drama with a description of El Día del Amor y la Amistad, one of the fiestas where families gather and drink rum and aguardiente and dance through till dawn:
When South Americans dance, they do not leap about, striking the ground with their feet as
Europeans and North Americans do. They dance from the ground upwards. Their feet softly
paddle and their hips begin to sway. It’s the outbreak of a communal rhythm. Children wriggle like elvers in a spring tide. The old yield to it gravely like trees to the wind. And the young dance as angels might make love, their hips close, fluent and inexhaustible, their feet hardly touching the ground.
The only problem was that The Horseman’s Word was cutting a very deep furrow and it quickly became apparent that I would never be able to finish it in the year the advance had bought. Granta published an extract from Part One, which helped, and I had a grant from the Society of Authors. But the point finally came when I couldn’t raise another air fare and Geni and I had to part good friends, which we still are, witness her painting on the cover of the Selected Poems.
You seem to enjoy having music accompany your work. What is the reasoning and origin behind this?
Music has always been important to me. The school I went to, Tiffin Boys’ School, has a strong choral tradition and I grew up listening to Byrd and Palestrina. Then I discovered Jazz. The memoir has an account of my first visit to Ronnie Scott’s Club to hear Stan Getz play with the Stan Tracey Trio and I returned whenever I could to hear Stan Tracey play. His Jazz Suite to Under Milk Wood is a masterpiece, with an astonishing solo by Bobby Wellins on ‘Starless and Bible Black’. Poetry & Jazz was in the ascendant then and Christopher Logue’s Red Bird is another masterpiece, Logue’s voice interplaying with the Tony Kinsey Quintet as if it were another instrument.
Priscilla Eckhard, to whom I was married when I wrote ‘Hares Boxing’ introduced me to the folk tradition and that was reinforced when I moved up to Bangor, which had a folk club and a folk festival for which musicians came over from Ireland. For three years I lived with a Welsh folksinger, the only problem there being that folk song sessions go on into the early hours of the morning, which isn’t the best thing if you want to get up and write the next day. When I moved up to the North East, I met another strong folk tradition and it was there that Frances and I began to work with Tristram Robson, the Irish harper, and with an Irish traditional band, Faun. The friendship with Tristram continued when we moved down to the Marches and Tristram gave the first performance of Border Songs with me in the Morden Tower.
Poetry is a very concentrated form of language and I found when I was running readings that interludes of music sharpened the audience’s attention, both for the poetry and the music. But the relationship goes much deeper than that, much further back. In an oral culture poets were singers and melody was one of the mnemonic devices they used to preserve and transmit their work, as much part of it as the other devices they used to bind their work together, whether they were rhythm and rhyme, or stress patterns, alliteration and assonance. Whatever freedoms free verse has opened up, I think rhythm is still at the heart of it. I remember Seamus Heaney once remarking of another poet, who shall remain nameless, “He doesn’t have much of beat, does he? In fact, I wonder does he know there’s a dance going on at all?”
Sometimes I fear that sense of the dance is being lost, which is why I called the CD label I’ve set up, Re-stringing the Lyre. If you are collaborating with a visual artist or a musician, you have to leave space for the other art form, which can have the effect of refining your own work. Simon Holt, who has done some striking settings of Emily Dickinson, told me that he had found it impossible to set anything by Dylan Thomas because there was no space left for him. He came to the conclusion that the poems were already set.
Border Songs began as a collaboration with the glass engraver, Janice Howe. The poems are etched into the glass of the Shropshire County Archives, into the screen that separates the Public Room, where anyone can go to consult their parish records, from the Rare Manuscript Room. It’s a security screen and we had to come with an engraving that left the glass clear. Hence the form of Border Songs, the history of the Marches distilled into twelve short lyrics, the lines themselves very short and using lots of line breaks. Janice found a classic font, so classic that it’s self-effacing, and when you first enter the Public Room, the screen does look clear. But as you walk across the room, there’s a shimmer and the poems rise up, so many ghosts on the glass.
It was that space on the glass that left room for the music in the performing version, with Sue Harris on the hammered dulcimer. Sue found a wonderful intro, a tune called ‘Under the King’s Hill’ by her son, Benjy Kirkpatrick, and created other interludes that come after every three songs: but there are places where she is actually playing under my voice and that wouldn’t have been possible without the spaces between the lines. The interplay between the voice and the dulcimer is even closer in From the Ridge, which the Poetry Society commissioned under their Poetry Places scheme. I said I wanted to write about the hard place, turning loss into a landscape and making a journey across it, a possibility I had glimpsed in the songs of Atahualpa Yupanqui and the tradition of the huella, the song you make as you ride along the path. The dulcimer becomes the audible expression of the journey, pacing it out note by note in a way that holds the audience rapt.
In All My Holy Mountain was an Arts Council commission, a celebration in Poetry & Jazz of the life and work of the Shropshire poet and novelist, Mary Webb. She was so adept at catching the changing colours of the landscape in such a rich verbal palette that I felt we would need an equally rich sound palette, in other words a full horn section with all three saxophones and a trumpet who could double, as Miles Davis did, on flugelhorn. John Williams assembled a Septet of top jazz musicians who could all double and even treble on other instruments and suggested a rising young jazz composer, Nikki Iles. But how to write In a way that would give them the space they needed?
For the opening section, ‘Westerly’, I came up with a four-line stanza, so brief that it’s virtually a four-line haiku:
It begins as a breath
a softness in the air
over the oakwoods
the first dustings of blue
There are four of those stanzas in all, following the changes of light down my own valley, which is the Clun Valley, as a westerly air system moves in. and each of them took me a week to get right. My reward came six months later when I walked into a rehearsal studio in London and heard a flute coming in over two bass clarinets whose sound deepens and broods under the next stanza:
brings a sea-change
the luminous shadow
of an Atlantic calm
close faraway light
And so it flows on, my sixteen brief lines giving rise to seven minutes of music of a richness that surpassed all my expectations.
As I always say before a live performance, the librettist is only the springboard. It’s the composer who has to do the back flips and double somersaults and Nikki Iles has done them wonderfully. Her score for In All My Holy Mountain is, in the words of John Fordham, The Guardian’s jazz critic, “an imaginative and illuminating addition to the genre” and I’m so glad that we’ve finally had the chance to bring it out on CD with Nikki herself on piano, turning it from a Septet to an Octet.
Can you tell us about your new collection & perhaps give us a sample?
It’s called The Action and it’s dedicated to my wife Margaret, who has been a warm and playful presence in my poetry ever since I was lucky enough to meet her in 1993. The Selected Poems has a sequence of ‘Valentines’, poems given to her on Valentine’s Day each year, and that flame is still burning in the new collection in poems such as ‘Vahine’ and ‘The Tap Shoes’, both of which appeared recently in Stand. But as we get older, we have to face up to darker realities and the title poem was written after we’d spent six months criss-crossing the country to visit Margaret’s brother as he was dying of cancer. That’s balanced by ‘The Calm’, which I wrote for Tristram Robson, the Irish harper, who played at Frances’ funeral and again at my wedding to Margaret. Tristram built the only copy of the Lawes Harp, an Irish double harp from the time of William Lawes, that can actually be played. It’s now in the National Harp Museum in Kilkenny. When Tristram was diagnosed with a brain tumour, he married his partner, Anne, and he set out to build another copy of the Lawes Harp because, as Anne said, the first copy was only 97% perfect.
For Tristram and Anne Robson
There is the tension of
the strings, bronze
braced against willow
until every note
and rings true,
and there is the calm
in the fingers,
time for every note
to find its feet in
the lordless dance
and be lost in the joy
of it. I remember
your calm, Tristram,
when all the joy in us
had died. You bent to
the harp as Brocard said,
‘May she rest in peace’,
and found a lament that
would lead us down to
the still waters – but not
to leave us there. One note
sprang on, as if spirit
alone could act as
a causeway. Another
leaped from it, as if the strings
were a strength in themselves.
Interval by interval, gleam
by nailed gleam, you brought us
out of the shadow,
binding the pulse back
into the body, tight
as the matador’s wraps
under his suit of lights,
setting our feet on the ground
as if they struck fire
in passing. And then the notes
lifted, not for joy
but for the possibility
of joy, and the dance stepped
through us, so defiant
that I wish you calm even
now, as the chemo silts up
the spirit, the calm
and the cunning to set
in place every string
of a double harp won back
from exile and silence.
What does the future hold for Roger Garfitt?
I’d like to bring out a CD of the work I’ve done with Sue Harris, not just on my own poems but on some of Frances’ too. We did a performance of The Woman’s Dream, a sequence of four of her poems, at the Ledbury Poetry Festival, in which Sue created a lovely flow of the dulcimer under the voice. Atahualpa Yupanqui has a long narrative song in which he rides into Monte Callado, the Silent Mountain, which I imagine is some kind of Bardo state because he talks of a friend who has died as having gone away por el silencio, ‘into the silence’. I’d like to do my own version of that, which should please Gareth Rees-Roberts, the guitarist I work with, who has really taken to Atahualpa’s music. I have one of Geni’s paintings stored in the attic, one of the Condor Heads she gave me because I thought I might be able to make a sequence from it, and I’d like to have a go at that.