Alan Buckley’s reflections on writing a poem for The Charnel House)
I – Waiting to be Mugged
It’s like this. You’re in the playground, and one of the cool kids starts to gather people together to play a game, maybe rounders, or pirates, or some kind of tag. He’s getting quite a crowd together, and it includes a number of your friends. You really, really want to be invited to join in – it would be gutting to be left standing on the edge of the playground – but at the same time you’re incredibly nervous. You’re pretty confident in your abilities to play (say) rounders, but the potential for a dose of very public embarrassment is somewhere near maximum, and your mind fills up with visions of pitching the ball three yards wide, or fumbling a dolly of a catch, or flailing ineffectually with the bat when it’s your turn to go on strike.
That’s what being asked to take part in this kind of project is like. And of course your ego, however wobbly it may feel, says yes, I’d love to take part. When do you need it by? while the part of you that will have to write the damn thing is going fuck fuck shit fuck how am I going to pull this one off? Any kind of commission – please write something about / in response to X – immediately leads to a form of creative paralysis, because my usual practice doesn’t involve consciously setting out to write a poem. What I’m used to is a poem mugging me, coming in unexpectedly out of left field when I’m doing something else. For example: I’m cycling down Cowley Road, a little late for a lunch appointment (my friends will confirm that I’m always a little late), when I glimpse a tableau out of the corner of my eye, a woman with her baby riding a bicycle and a bus right behind them, and in a split-second all the elements gestalt into a unified whole. I’m yards past them already as the first words come into my head:
A dozing baby
snug in a sling
and I know I’ve got something here, because the words are spontaneously presenting themselves with their own particular music. “Dozing” is just right, it’s a light form of sleep that could easily be disrupted; and “snug in a sling” has a lovely chiming of consonants, a hint of nursery rhyme to it. Yet the word “snug” also carries connotations of guns, partly (I suspect) through it being that word spelt backwards, but also because of the familiar image of a gun being snug in its holster, and that sense of threat is entirely appropriate to the poem. Of course, these may be the only words in the poem that present themselves like this, but that’s enough. If I have a line or two given in this way I know I can fashion the rest to match, in time, even if they start off rather clunkily:
on the breast of its mother
as she rides her bike
up Cowley Road.
Ugh. Never mind, I can work on those (in later drafts they end up as: on its mother’s breast / as she pedals along, and the location goes into the title). A few more (pretty rubbish) lines get mulled over as I press on up High Street. I arrive for my lunch date, apologise for being late, then apologise again for needing to scribble something down. My friend is an artist, so she gets this, thankfully; though I’m not writing the first draft because I’m worried I’ll forget it, but more to put it on hold, so that it’s not still buzzing around at the front of my mind while I’m trying to engage in lunch and conversation. In fact, as the years go by, I become ever more resistant to getting the poem down on paper. I let it live and grow inside me for as long as possible, speaking lines to myself as I walk into town or plough up and down Hinksey Pool, testing its ability to be re-membered, to be summoned back into a whole body, to be an embodied whole. If I can’t remember the poem myself, what’s the point in writing it out and hoping that a reader will remember it? Because that’s what I want to do, to create something that the reader is almost obliged to take into themselves. The poet and short story writer David Constantine has recently written powerfully about the value of poetry – which encourages us to be – in a culture that encourages us to have, and have more and more, as a supposed route to fulfilment. ‘We can’t own (possess) a poem. But we can make a poem “our own” by ingesting it, changingly, into how we live’ ( Poetry, OUP 2013). Normally it’s only once I’ve tested the poem’s possible survivability that I let it face the silent ocean of the blank page. Will it flounder, gasping for air? Or will it start to kick its limbs, and fashion some rudimentary kind of stroke?
II – A Lightbulb Moment
So having said all that, the commissioned poem – and the ekphrastic poem in particular – presents certain problems. The stimulus for the poem is already there in plain sight; it can’t leap out and take one by surprise. The poem has to be an event in itself, not merely a description of one; any achieved painting is very much already an event, and it certainly doesn’t need a poem blathering away just outside the frame like some kind of Greek chorus. The poem has to respond to the painting, yet be something self-contained, able to exist in its own right, without the reader necessarily having the painting to hand. This last point – and the associated anxiety about the poem’s ability to stand alone – leads many ekphrastic poems into the trap of describing the picture, which is both tedious and utterly redundant, though needless to say my first full draft of ‘Illumination’ did just that, before I got out my big poetry scissors.
A tip: there’s really no substitute for seeing the painting at first hand, if at all possible. The images on Tom’s website were very helpful in getting a feel for the overall project, but seeing them, both in his studio and exhibited at the Breeze Little gallery, was a whole different ball game (ah – the rounders analogy once more…). I say seeing but experiencing would be a better word for the way that a painting can start speaking to you once you’re up close and personal with it. And hey, I got lucky: I got mugged by the poem fairly early on. Not words, more a sense of the poem I was going to write. I had (please excuse the punning here) a lightbulb moment. One of the features of Tom’s work is that even when the setting appears to be an exterior, there is never (I stand to be corrected) a representation of either the sun or the moon. A repeated motif, however, is the naked lightbulb, and something about this – that the light shone on the scenes depicted is man-made, and can be turned on and off at will – settled inside me and started to germinate. The painting ‘Hung’ was undoubtedly the painting featuring a lightbulb that spoke to me most strongly, so that became confirmed as the piece my poem would respond to.
III – Black Marks on a White Page
I felt smug. I’ve got the poem inside me I told Tom every time I saw him, confident that all I needed to do was let it cook a little longer, then… bingo! But time went on, the deadline drew near, and I still hadn’t actually written anything yet. I finally wrote a first draft – more like notes towards a draft, really – on 11th December. Some key words and phrases that would survive into the final version were there – ‘witness’, ‘the farcical dog’, ‘slaver’, ‘let there be light’ – but the only sustained writing was the opening, which began like this:
Some compare me – unfavourably –
to that distant, dying fireball,
and granted, my life’s measured
in thousands of hours, not millennia.
Ugh. Not great; in particular that reference to ’thousands of hours’ drew too much attention to another poem that sits somewhere behind ‘Illumination’, namely Paul Farley’s ‘A Thousand Hours’ from his first collection, which is in the voice – yes – of a talking lightbulb. And the tone felt loftier and more pompous than I’d intended. Not great at all. But at least I had some words on paper, and could say with all honesty, when I asked Tom for an extension, that it was work in progress. The second draft, as mentioned above, featured a load of unnecessary description. Once I’d cut that out, the start became
For me, to exist
is to bear forced
witness to atrocity
and I knew I was getting somewhere; the music was there in the words, and there was that little jolt as ‘bear forced witness’ played off the phrase ‘bear false witness’. The poem was beginning to generate its own momentum. And the tone was right – more weary, embittered even. After a few drafts I had a kind of movement through to ‘let there be light’; I knew that was the last line, I just needed to make sure that the poem landed there properly. All this time the title was still ‘A Naked Bulb’, which I sensed was only a holding title. ‘Illumination’ only came quite late in the day. I toyed with ‘Illuminatus’, meaning ‘(one who is) enlightened’, but I felt that was too arch, too tricksy, and that it pulled in connotations around the illuminati that were unhelpful.
IV – Top of the Form
Around this point I put the poem into couplets. They’re not my favourite form by any means, but they seemed to work with the short lines, and create breaks and tensioning that served rather than interrupted the flow of the poem. However, there then began a period of intense faffing. I tried very short lines:
To exist is
to bear forced
Then I tried five-syllable lines. Then seven-syllable lines. I could write reams about the challenges of using syllabics, and the kind of rhythms / tonality they create, but suffice it to say that if you want to see it done really, really well, go to http://www.poetryarchive.org/poem/considering-snail . This helped with redrafting – I’m one of those who sees the restriction of form as actually a great freedom, in that it pushes you into writing the words you didn’t know you were going to write. (I don’t include sestinas in this, by the way, as they seem to push most poets into using very dull words over and over again. And don’t get me started on villanelles.) However, syllabics is a tricky form; in particular, the line breaks have to have a sense of rightness independent of the fact that you’d run out of syllables. Despite lots of tinkering I couldn’t get all the line breaks to work satisfactorily without destroying some of the music, so although each couplet still has 14 syllables, and there are 7 couplets in the finished version, which makes it all nice and sonnet-y, the purity of the regular syllabic lines had to go. The final few redrafts had input from my most hard-working critical reader (Helen Mort); then, after I’d sent the first ‘final’ version through, Andy Ching (who was doing some editorial work on my manuscript) made some further suggestions. I finally let it go at the beginning of May, prompted by an email from Tom about getting the files together. Phew.
So – I’ve just written over 2,000 words on the writing of a poem that’s less than 80 words long: crazy, yes? Well, I remember Tom posting a time-lapse video on Facebook last year of him working on one of his recent pieces (http://vimeo.com/84342354 ). We joked at the time that an equivalent video of a poet writing a new poem wouldn’t have quite the same visual impact. This, then, is my attempt to show the amount of work and time that can be involved in writing a poem. Though answering the question of why I might feel the need to write a poem in the first place will have to wait for another time…
Alan Buckley, July 2014