hidden, hodden, held

I was told a good Polish proverb the other day: ‘Work loves stupid people’ (I’ll have to check the original which I vaguely remember now as ‘rabota lyuby gloopy loody’ which sounds simultaneously marvellously onomatopoeic and a little too Russian). Pinned to schedules as the abdomen of one of Nabokov’s butterflies is pinned to a card, wings too large and flabby to flap, I feel exactly that dumb.

On the left, ‘past’ wing, much marking and judging takes the place of any nice patterns; on the right, ‘future’ wing, external examining, pedagogic manuscript prep, and assessment for an academic body. The result is dingy, moth-like mottlings, lots of things written by other people, while my own writing clusters on the disconsolate underside.

On one of the few recent occasions when I’ve discussed what I was doing creatively, a novelists group we’re trying to set up for what is now known as the Creative Section of the School of English, I found myself typically reluctant to share what exactly it was I was failing to do in the fiction line. Part of that is a natural reticence about projects still in conception, a protectiveness most writers would recognise — what will eventually, theoretically, be shared with anyone requires its earlier stages to be shrouded in privacy. But I realise in my case it tends to go beyond that into quasi-hermetic reclusiveness, and that this is part of the more general difficulty I have with engaging with and indeed wanting to experience other people, other contexts.

I have a long-cherished, lovingly-fantasised-over and conspicuously under-achieved bookcase of desired projects which I very slowly advance through, well out of synch with what is fashionable and often only progressed in a panic when I realise someone else is having what appears to be a similar idea and sometimes not even then. Many of these ghost books are ectoplasmically nourished by equally unarticulated influences, also subject to discovery by others. Which for some reason I still find startling.  Such are the perils, of course, but one result of living so much in the head space is lots of blank-faced double-taking when the world shows up like an angry tax inspector on the doorstep.

I did mean to write a little last year about being shortlisted for the TS Eliot prize, but it is a symptom of this xenochronicitous angle to events that I preferred not to. This year I was judging for it, so can’t talk about that process at all — which suits me only too well. According to Luke, Christ was pretty down on poetry competitions — ‘Judge not lest you be judged’ — which seems fairly sensible advice. But the thing I wanted to post at the time, and have only now got round to, was the note I made in a journal of the experience of waiting for the train to take me down south.

I have a particular fondness for the very ends of railway platforms, where the spotters used to stand, right out there where it almost feels like the end of a jetty (and indeed the covered jetty just down the hill from here, at the Fish Quay in Shields, looks a little like a diesel train waiting to board a ship), and on this occasion (January 14th, 2006) I wandered out there and observed the following:

‘Platform 4 narrows as it emerges from the canopy of Newcastle Station and, as I walked towards the end, I watched the supporting pillars start to cluster and the light hit the platform as though it were the prow of a boat. I felt something shift: it was close enough to coming back from Dundee after New Year for me to feel an analogy. I was looking out at a ‘home’ in just the way that, when there, I’d be looking up at the Queen’s Hotel, or seeing how much of the curve to the railbridge was visible. I was inhabiting the landscape as much as witnessing it.

There was a frisson of that in the glare at the end of the platform, looking up at the ridge of Whickham, thinking of the little bust on the main street there with the enigmatic inscription ‘English’, and over to the buildings which fall away from the station to the river, remembering that amongst them lay Bloodaxe’s old offices.(1)

As I thought this, I saw a man walking parallel to me, down to the end of Platform 6, carrying a coffee carton-cup and wearing the reflective waistcoat of a railway employee. He glanced at me, turned to his left, and with the little normal look we would give for traffic, crossed the tracks on a yellow metal path. I realised he was the driver of the maroon EWS engine parked there, then realised as he approached the door that its lock would have to be positioned very low for him to be able to reach it — just as he did exactly that.

The empty bus-train for Carlisle left the station between us as he was placing his cup on the cabin floor before climbing up, and I looked at both engines, thinking how he had probably supposed I was a spotter, and how out here I could indeed see something of the beauty of trains again, that empty beauty of the dirty efficient machine I’d felt at the junction at Prantik when Debanjan and I were wondering about hiring bikes to go into Santiniketan, and he was looking for a phone place when the great line of rusted goods carriages trundled by in the warm mid-afternoon sun.

I thought about how I’d just sounded snippy instead of witty when being interviewed on Radio Scotland earlier that morning, and I’d answered a slightly too vague question about the award and where I was ‘at’ in my writing by saying I was just looking forward to the next day’s event — and I was ‘at’ the studio. This is typical: a half-thought-through statement of something essential and important to me — that an experience should not be displaced by its various symbolic overtones, most of which are being dictated to you by others — coming out all wrong. I hadn’t been able to contextualise my response in relation to that larger picture I always assume I’ll arrive at by sticking to details of the question.

Here I was watching the engine start as I glanced back and saw the clumps of passengers begin to move as my own train pulled in, and this was the perspective I am always hoping for.’

If only I felt able now to ‘contextualise my response’. Lots of writers appear to be nouns, providing definitions, even abstractions. Their writing achieves a static clarity that it is easier to both perceive and acknowledge. I admire that but, despite envy, it seems that I must do otherwise. Others, including many of those writers I value most (and perhaps, hopefully, myself), would appear to be verbs. The ‘larger picture’ is always in the act of being painted or is the landscape one is passing through, the momentary perspective that opens up because you are, or everything you perceive is, in motion.

The difficulty, of course, is when the verb cannot choose its subject, and is not in charge of its object, which is what happens when the ‘other work’ mounts up. There is always the danger that, if you hide too much of your creative process, people can’t see how large a role it’s playing in and behind the things they expect of you, the very things that some of them value from you.

I like the word ‘hodden’, that coarse grey cloth that symbolises homeliness and lack of pretention. I like the idea of being hodden, not thrusting opinions, tantrums or snobberies onto others. I like the idea that a poet can hold down a job, support a family, even drive a car and do the accounts, without being any less a poet. We think of Stevens in this way, in the insurance company; Eliot, at the bank; even Morgan at Glasgow University.  This isn’t a role that will capture anyone’s imagination in itself, so the temptation is always to treat it as a disguise, for the ‘real’ poet to be underneath it in all his or her infantile splendour, hidden in the hodden.

The point, however, is to find a way in which the poetic imagination can fundamentally alter the profession, in just the way the poem alters the reader. I suppose I’m trying to use ‘poetic imagination’ in a non-individual sense here, meaning not just my awkward eccentricities of thought, my problems with hidden-ness, but the whole apparatus that critiques as well as constructs symbolic meanings, that imagines forms instead of accepting systems, that plays with language and treats it as a living substance.

Naturally, I’m going to resent responsibility, be ground down by administrative labours, hide my creative processes, and keep on surrendering to a larger process I’ve never fully understood, which could be genuinely creative or just pathological passivity. It still feels like twisting on a pin, but one advantage of thinking in metaphor is you can always conjecture what would happen if you could get one flap out of those stupid wings.

(1)   The bust is actually of ‘Lang Jack’, a nineteenth century local figure. As the official site states: ‘the stonemason, John English, known as ‘Lang Jack’ due to his great height…came to the area to work on the construction of the Chain Bridge, and became known locally for his feats of strength, including carrying the materials for his house great distances from quarries. When out ‘on the spree’ at public houses he would leap in the air, making holes in the ceiling with his head.’ Now that’s worth statuefaction!



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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