Sunday, 29 May 2011

Groundhog day

– I mean in the sense derived from the film with Bill Murray, a day going through an experience again and again until you find a way through, over or under it. Yesterday was one such: the blog post below, written yesterday afternoon, about not having written a poem for a decade; then in the evening three people, in separate conversations, all quoting to me lines from poems that I’d forgotten having written; then discovering that, also yesterday, George Szirtes happened to have picked up (for £1, in a Cambridge second-hand bookshop) and read a poetry collection I published in 1993.

George says some generous things. So did the three people (all far younger than me; I’m not sure why this is relevant, but it feels so) I spoke with in the evening. Uncomfortable encounters. I felt I was being complimented on something I’d done by accident, for which the responsibility was not mine. It was a long time ago (‘but that was in another country; and besides, the wench is dead’). I can see what’s being done in those poems, I can even see that on occasion it’s being done quite well, but whoever is doing those things is not someone I’m now especially fond of.

The account I gave below of stopping writing is a simplification; there were other factors, among them a certain person for whom my poetry-writing was largely an irrelevance and from whom I learned to like the non-poet more than the poet. But even if I stick to what’s on the page, one of the things George says as praise – ‘Your endings allow you to slip out of the poem so perfectly I can only envy them’ – is for me, now, something that utterly damns them: there’s a tactical evasion going on that allows some nice effects but which prevents the poems from ever being more than, well, decent page-fillers. More: the evasion is so built in to the whole way of writing that to write something more than page-fillers it was necessary to start writing in a completely different way. No wonder I stopped.

And here I am up to the same tricks again (‘something I’d done by accident’). Publishing other work under pen names (Jennie Walker, Jack Robinson, for those arriving late) is clearly also connected: they were liberating precisely because they enabled me to sidestep the Charles Boyle I felt a need to distance myself from. Which of course suggests that evasion may be what all the work is about, in which case . . . We’ll see.


George S said...

I intended that as praise, Charles. One of my mantras to students about poetry is: Enter firmly: step off lightly. Evasion may be too big a term in any case...

I do think - as I said - that the poems are beautiful. I feel there is something Schubertian about them. They are poems about intense personal states; the consciousness is what holds the space, the lyric breath and the awareness of how it holds itself in space. It seems to me a post-Romantic form of Romanticism which is hard to maintain, possibly because the consciousness grows tired of its own presence. Of its own gift too perhaps.

But there is much else out there to write about: there are subjects beyond subjects beyond the condition of the consciousness, and you have the most precise of instruments at your disposal. CB Editions is a great thing, and it faces outward. The man does, so the poet can.

Forgive the plethora of 'I think' , 'I don't think', and 'I feel'. There is a fine poem by John Heath-Stubbs, 'Use of Personal Pronouns' (you will know it I imagine), the third line of which is a complaint in inverted commas: '"You begin every sentence with I" - the rebuke was well taken: / But how on earth else am I to begin them?'

I begin that way because the poems strike me that way. There is no reason you should take my comments seriously, and it feels a little presumptuous even making them. Nor would I have made them if I hadn't picked up your book for £1. But then it was so good, I couldn't resist.

It is awkward talking on a blog comment like this where it is semi-public. Drop me an email at if you want. The Very Man is a real book to me.

Ms Baroque said...

I feel like I'm eavesdropping very hard. Wonderful ruminations on both sides.

elise said...

I like this idea of evasion. Is it a cousin of sublimation? And empathy? Are your Jennies and Jacks not created, creative characters? Perhaps evasion is needed to make all imaginative writing.

charles said...

It's a complicated family: half cousins, second cousins once removed ... They get on, on the whole. CB can be moody, needs taking out of himself, JW does the trick. JR is reliable but lazy.

Chris Hamilton-Emery said...

Charles, in my limited experience, I think that very much poetry is about evasion (of the self); even when it's a rather jejune ego-surging piece from a debutante it's an evasion — perhaps an excavation of kinds of absence. And every poem on completion evades its author in ways one can't expect or understand. We all ultimately avoid ourselves (even at the points of greatest attendance).

I think the great gift of middle-age is a profound boredom with any notions of self discovery and self revelation — and then we have the last great eternal evasion to look forward to. I'd very much like to see you writing poetry again. There are many of us out here who would want more from you. But that rarely provides a pressure to poetry.

I like to think that poems have vicarious lives and their own biographies and trajectories — like little head births (as Grass might have it) — they go on beside us, take a different door, the second left, the third exit, and leave us. And sometimes there are those collisions when we meet past works again and perhaps don't enjoy the company as much as we remembered. But that's life, the poems after all, might equally be disenchanted with the choices we made, and move off, muttering, someplace else.

charles said...

Chris, thank you. Eliot looms, of course: 'Poetry is ... not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality.' Which brings in another problematic term. I think you are right - and your words about excavation, and poems evading their own authors, are surely spot on - and I am right too: the poems I'm thinking of settled for less than they might have. Settled too soon. Were safety-first. One of the reasons I can't write poems now is the self-defeating effort I put in to push them further. With prose I'm more relaxed; prose is leading me astray, which is as it should be.