Holocaust Memorial Day Reading

(This piece was written in February 2005 for the Blinking Eye website. I was judging their competition, and they asked me for something for the site. Every year for the last three years the writers associated with Newcastle University — nu writers, for short — have staged a reading for Holocaust Memorial day in association with the City Council. This year the line-up was myself, Linda France, Cynthia Fuller, Jack Mapanje, Sean O’Brien and Margaret Wilkinson, with extraordinary music from the composer Lewis Watson on solo saxes. A recording will be put together shortly [Yeah, right – Blll in 2011]. The event discussed below, the last that the late great Julia Darling took part in, was the first of this ongoing series.)

A short time ago I did a reading for Holocaust Memorial Day together with fellow writers based in the School of English at Newcastle University. The other writers were Gillian Allnutt, Julia Darling and Linda France, and music was provided by the composer Bennett Hogg. The event was organised, ordered and practically choreographed by the dramaturg Duska Radoslavjevic-Heaney, who has performed on previous occasions the unlikely feat of getting very different writers to read extremely diverse work in a manner that eschews introductions or individuals, and instead flows according to the demands of the poems. Music in these events punctuates and accompanies in its own parallel language.

I tell you this not as proud contributor or disguised reviewer, but, as ever, as a slightly bewildered commentator on the sometimes weird actions writing poetry seems to impel on its practitioners. It seemed, while we were debating the dos and don’ts of this most difficult of subjects and, again, while we were going through the particular ritual of this kind of reading, that a couple of compelling issues were floating around.

Our theme was ‘survival’ – and this divided us. Some felt it impossible to talk about such large matters as the Holocaust and withdrew, while others felt that we must say something. Some had many poems which touched on the subject. Others, like me, had few, and could think of little meaningful contribution that we could make.

Duska turned all this round in a single workshop where she asked us to think as concretely as possible about the business of surviving. When she had left the Balkans, Yugoslavia was being torn apart into new states along lines that fostered ancient hatreds, and she had only been able to bring a very few things. A make-up case with her grandmother’s short tight jacket in it, a photograph of close relatives, a plant which soon shrivelled but was nonetheless bedded in her native soil. Suddenly we were talking in specifics – about single moments in our own lives when things had changed drastically; about those objects dear to us.

And then I could articulate the problem for me about the whole event. In the aftermath of the tsunami I had encountered poem after poem about this terrible disaster, none of which worked. There is a very natural creative impulse to respond to a great matter, to feel part of the suffering world, to make the compassionate voice count for something. But it was borne in on me how very different that is from the impulse to write a poem.

When we think of the Holocaust or the tsunami or the 9-11 massacre, we are contemplating suffering on a scale so large that it numbs precisely that part of the brain we need to react to anything as poets: the part that connects specifics to specifics, in particular specific experiences to specific words. Although we feel we are taking on the suffering of individual after individual, in fact we are diluting the tragedies of individuals into those large abstract nouns: holocaust, tsunami, massacre. The abstraction becomes our subject and the personal is lost amid the crowds of the dead.

It may be that our dependence on the short lyric is partly to blame – a medium devoted largely to telling one person that you love them (or not) is hardly going to be up to the task of telling thousands of people you never met how sorry you are. Perhaps the catalogue or the list is more useful – Homer or Whitman or Dante were able to sum up the suffering of thousands by such devices. But then, each of them had the genius to place single individuals against those backdrops of thousands. That’s why we remember the moment Hector frightens his own baby son because he approaches him in armour; or the point at which the poet Statius is so overwhelmed by meeting Virgil in Purgatory he forgets they are both dead; or the faces of dead soldiers uncovered by Whitman leading to his great lament:

…a face nor child, nor old, very calm, as of beautiful yellow-white ivory;

Young man, I think I know you—I think this face of yours is the face of the Christ himself;

Dead and divine, and brother of all, and here again he lies.

At such moments we realise that writing about abstractions simply erases itself, leaving only the impulse of the writer to be heard. This may be a compassionate impulse, but compassion isn’t a good enough motive for writing a poem, because only a part of us is compassionate, and a poem has to come from the whole self. How do you do that? Well, writing is often about those particulars which make up our selves: moment after moment, encounter after encounter, object after object. And each of those moments, encounters, objects, is speaking to us. And poetry is about tuning into that speech, finding particular words for particular sensations.

We arrived at the small performance area in the Lit & Phil in coats and scarves, carrying bags or suitcases: the sorts of things people might grab up in a hurry (literally in my case, as I had forgotten, and only had my briefcase). We sat behind music stands, as though we were a quartet without instruments. And between the readings, as the music echoed Bach, Beethoven, or Balkan jazz and folksongs, we passed among us objects from the cases: a tattered wooden puppet, a toy drummer; basic things like bread, a candle, a knife.

Almost none of the poems were directly about any of those big difficult nouns, and yet many of them seemed to resonate against them, and those resonances accumulated in the way the objects piled up on the table and the notes built in the air. And while this was going on it occurred to me that how the audience was receiving all this was very different from the way I or any of us felt about it. By this I don’t mean that our intentions weren’t coming over to the audience. Quite the contrary.

Rather it seemed to me that all these objects and words and memories and notes were being separated from us and given away. That when you write a poem, this is in a sense what you are doing: you are abandoning something in the hope some one else will pick it up. And in this sense even poems which seem to be intimately about you aren’t really –  they’re about these pieces you’ve gathered together, each one of which will mean something new when you give it away.

Ultimately what we’re doing as writers is trying to find those things which can be given away, or rather those words which can be given away over and over again, every time someone reads that small gathering of particulars. Of course we have to care for them deeply to make it all worthwhile. But equally we have to get them and ourselves into a state where they’re ready to be relinquished.

A great deal of writing fails to become poetry for the reasons I’m suggesting above.

Firstly, because it’s actually about an abstraction when we thought it was about something really important. Abstractions can’t describe experiences, and good motives can’t make up for that. Our virtues don’t know how to talk about our weaknesses. Secondly it fails because when we wrote it we weren’t ready to give it away, so we kept its kernel to ourselves, we didn’t describe precisely enough, or explain the very small amount that needed explaining openly enough, and so there wasn’t enough there for the reader to pick up and make their own.

But because these moments keep crowding in on us (as do the voices from objects all around us), and because a memory can be remade in a poem into something as sturdy as an object, there is always the opportunity to recognise them in words. There’s always another chance to make something good enough to be abandoned.

About Bill Herbert

Poet and pseudo-scholar W.N. Herbert was born in Dundee in 1961, educated there and at Oxford, where he completed his DPhil thesis on Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid, and now lives and works in Newcastle. He is Professor of Poetry and Creative Writing at Newcastle University, and his books are published by, among others, northern publisher Bloodaxe Books. He is also the Dundee Makar, or city laureate.
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