Close, 4

(The previous post involved me testing out and adapting one of Geddes’s ‘thinking machines’ – a little bit of neural coding, if you like. It helped me recognise that my tendencies to withdrawal, incrementalism, slapstickery, and to what I identified from a fascinating article by Charlotte Higgins on Phyllida Barlow as the ‘expedient’, do pretty much govern how I go about my given roles.

Whether as pater, Makar, Professor, or poet, I tend to take the back seat, the low road, the long game, the one take – and to seek out and admire the work of those who do so too.

I’ve mentioned Phyllida Barlow, but I’m about to head off to Oxford to the funeral of an old 80s friend, Helen Kidd, and I’ve been thinking of her work, how she balanced writing and teaching, in the light of one more sad loss, this time to Dundee poetry, Jim Stewart. In all three cases, these were artists who appeared to put their secondary vocation, as teachers, if not first, then in the stronger or yang position in relation to the yin of their art.

In an unsubtle world that would seem a foolish thing to do. But my instinct is that, in an unstrategised way, they got something profoundly right, as Phyllida Barlow’s example shows. I just wish Jim and Helen had also had that late period flowering to explore the consequences of their decision, if clear-cut decision it was.

This closing post of Close, then, is an attempt to look through the lens of Geddes’s machine at the types of continuity possible if one remains true to such tendencies. An alternative name might therefore be ‘Punkademia, The Secondary, and Bartleby Syndrome: My Years of Heroic Struggle’. Or perhaps that’s just what it’s called.)

I was just discussing with co-editor Richard Price elsewhere on social media how we’ve not yet got round to digitising Gairfish, the magazine we co-edited from 1989-94, when Jim Benstead requested permission to do exactly that to an old article of mine on MacDiarmid for Chapman. Way back then, we remarked, it was normal for there to be so many litmags, now it looks almost countercultural, a manifestation of what some have called Punkademia.

Perhaps because the article was written so far back, I had no memory of its contents, and Jim had to send me a copy. I then found to my embarrassment that, in full-on MacDiarmidean mode, I’d used the article as a way to sneak in a couple of unpublished poems, which I had to request to be redacted from the article itself, (Though as the Scots poem was never collected, I’ve reproduced it separately on Tumblr). – An interesting case of rapid transition from far too far away to the closeness of over-sharing.

But the circumstances prompted reflection. If we were, with our librarian’s and archivist’s hat(s) on (and what hats exactly do those professions favour?), to digitise these publications, Richard and I were in agreement that it should be a matter of genealogies not archaeologies, pluralities not provinces, polystylism not perfectionism, contexts not prize-winners. In other words, a further editorial and, therefore, polemical act.

Regrettably, of course – and this goes to the heart of why our early 90s endeavours may seem, firstly, ‘radical’ (because they fell outside the frame of activities subsidised and hence legitimised by arts bureaucracies and/or our universities), and, secondly, so very long ago – this would occur in a literary environment where we would routinely expect such acts not to be noticed, one where such work attracted no-sales not features, hatchet jobs not laudations, youthism not depth perception, retreads not identified traditions.

In mid-career, ‘secondary’ writers and their editorial activities pass through the waist of the critical hourglass: journalism is focussed on youth, academia on the dead. In that formulation, youth ‘equals’ now, and the dead include primary living writers who have proven themselves to be ‘safe’ subjects.

In order to be ‘safe’, publishers, the media, the bureaucrats, and in some cases the academy, require any author who is not already part of a functioning mainstream network to possess a single or dominant identifying characteristic of class, circumstance of origin, race, or sexuality. Their work should either reflect that identity, or at least be monothematic. Work which disturbs this direct mapping cannot, it is assumed, appeal to a broad enough readership to be of primary significance, and is therefore consigned to an unspoken category of far-offness: the Secondary.

At this point in the discussion another friend (from Oxford in the 80s/90s), Keith Jebb, compared the relative importance of writers currently regarded as primary or secondary, and, naming no names (apart from that of Tom Raworth), we noted that while writing which is set aside as Secondary may well complicate the model set out above, it is also useful in casting light on all such acts of framing (as well as sometimes – as in the case of Tom Raworth – being very good at complicating things, as well as very good).

One could indeed argue that it’s only by focussing on the Secondary that a meaningful critical perspective can be reached on the quick or the dead, the complicating or the simplified…but as someone aspiring to be a Secondary Writer, of course, I would say that, wouldn’t I? – and therefore one couldn’t.

Could we nonetheless set up a Punkademic U, Keith wondered, not entirely flippantly, and I thought, not for the first time, that in such exchanges we sort of already have. I was reflecting on how I have come to use this and its brother and sister blogs in preference to conventional publication, whether in literary or academic journals, where I endeavour to continue to publish conventional work – reviews and those poems which ‘really will’ go into the next book.

Here, however, it’s not simply or, rather, primarily a matter of freedom from editorial checks (and rejections), it’s more about a more exploratory approach, essayistic in the original sense of that term, in terms of both critical and creative writing. It’s about a closeness equally to the materials, in the sense of early stage drafting, to the means of production, i.e. ‘expediency’, and to a potential readership, i.e. you.

Yes, there’s a big dash of what I’ve come to regard as The Bartleby Syndrome in that – a reluctance to engage with the PoeBiz of festivals, competitions, and commissions, the pecking orders and latest thing-ness, that many of my colleagues will recognise, although it pursues us even unto the fastnesses of Facebook, etc. We would prefer not to be doing something because it ticks someone else’s box, because somebody whose values we don’t necessarily rate thinks it will be popular.

Sometimes, of course, the clearest manifestation of such commodifying, the commission, can be genuinely inspiring or liberating, and the strategy of using a commission to drive the development of a difficult new direction is part of any writer’s palette of creative strategies. This impulse isn’t really about rejecting the Biz, but about establishing a necessary distance from it, and therefore a closeness to, an intimacy with, one’s deeper processes.

Of course this differs from ‘proper’ publishing, particularly proper academic publishing, in a number of obvious ways to do with rigour and accountability – with, in essence, that deeply problematic idea, seriousness. (When I was exchanging tweets on this matter with Keith, a comment of his prompted the couplet, ‘The joke’s the thing/wherein we’ll catch the conscience of the discipling’).

Fundamentally, a blog embraces and seeks to better define that subjectivity both lecturers and students worry about when it comes to the marking, but wish to encourage when approaching the ideation. Part of embracing one’s Secondariness is getting down off those high distant horses, of doing something that may prove only to be playful or plain introverted – ‘hermless’, in the words of the song – of sharing rather than dominating.

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Close, 3

(I was struck while reading this review of Murakami’s latest book of short stories by the parallel between his ‘dialled down’ male protagonists, and the ‘hermless’ aspect of Dundee’s male population during the heyday of the jute industry, the ‘kettle-bilers’ who signed up for teetotalism and quietly worked their gairdens. These recurred in the otaku and hikikomori figures I identified with from the doldrum years of the 80s onwards, the redundant, the unemployed, the under-deployed loafers, weirdos and losers. (See also herbivore males.)

As I find myself writing new Doldrums which appear to be about the internalisation of this state, and while I attempt to reclaim a set of pathologising phrases as creatively meaningful (procrastination, nostalgia, whimsy, secondariness), I am in a way trying to position this egosyntonic tendency in the social dynamic or lack of it from which I emerged. Thus the third part of this set of posts turns to Wedderburn and Geddes as a way of looking at civic roles.)

I’m finding it very helpful, as a Dundonian poet, to contemplate the social structure set out in what is usually agreed to be a sixteenth century Dundee text, The Complaynt of Scotlande (1549), that rallying cry against the imposition of English political will, in the form of the Rough Wooing, onto the Scottish polity. (What, parallels with now? Surely not!)

The Complaynt explores a subtly different configuration of that polity to that set out in Sir David Lindsay’s Satire of the Three Estates. Instead of the nobility, the clergy, and the burghers, Wedderburn follows Alain Chartier’s model in the Quadrilogue invectif (1422), and has Dame Scotia round rebarbatively on lords, priests and commoners (those ‘callit lauberaris’).

These three remind me of the categories of the close, the land, and the lobby, and how these units fit into the larger frame of my city (Dame Dundee). It doesn’t seem too large a leap to say it was the priests’ role to establish our closeness or distance from virtue (God), while the nobles owned the land, and the commoners had only that last limen of their labour, in which their bodies and that of their families were, precariously, their own.

But crucially, he also introduces at the outset (in the ‘monolog recreativ’ – where the echoing of Chartier’s title cannot be accidental) the mediating figure of the ‘actor’ or author, who plays a significant role in establishing the grounds for the complaint itself. In a sense, the author introduces, then acts out each part of the four way discussion.

Perhaps then a helpful model for the poet of the polis might be to pick that configuration up, and one way of doing so would be to follow Patrick Geddes’s favourite division of the city, and therefore of society, into conceptual quarters: the lanes and closes and lands and lobbies our thought inhabits.

As Volker Welter puts it in biopolis, like Wedderburn from Chartier, Geddes borrows from the French philosopher and social theorist Auguste Comte the idea that a city can be divided into four ‘social types’ which have (or have not) either temporal or spiritual power: ‘Comte divides the temporal powers…into “people” and “chiefs”, and the spiritual powers into “intellectuals” and “emotionals”…’

When Geddes applies this to the medieval city, ‘he identifies as “people” two distinctive groups of the population: peasants in the country and burghers in towns. The chiefs are the barons or nobility. The regular clergy in abbey and monastery are intellectuals, and the secular clergy in the cathedral church represent emotionals.’ We can see this as a sort of composite echo of the divisions in Wedderburn and Lindsay.

Being of a morphological bent, Geddes can then apply these categories to any other type of city, including the modern industrial city, where we find the people identified with business, the chiefs with politics, intellectuals with education, and the emotionals with religion. As Welter warns, ‘The four social types cannot be seriously considered as well-defined sociological categories…This model is not so much an analytical as a moral one…’

If we treat it as such, then, but add in the understanding that all such structures have not only inevitably evolved, but will equally inevitably contain their own internal power division, ie that each quadrant contains both ordinary members and bosses, in the way that an Edinburgh close housed both masters and servants, then that might give:

1. the commons of the workplace representing the ‘people’ (both franchised and disenfranchised), its bosses therefore including those of industry and its cognate field, the criminal;
2. the council being the ‘chiefs’ (municipal and governing), its bosses being the political class at local and, especially, national levels;
3. the colleges as ‘intellectuals’ (now including both centres of learning and, frankly, the remains of religion as it is administered and delivered) its bosses therefore being vice chancellors and archbishops;
4. the clerics as ‘emotionals’ (media and artists), its bosses being press barons and bureaucratic mandarins.

Each of us has a role or more than one role in relation to these four categories. and it is in the interactions between the roles, and between the roles and the power structures they contain that we begin to glimpse our individual social responsibilities, our closeness to or distance from power.

Thus, in the first of these quadrants, like many writers, I am a worker and, like some, a parent (particularly, a ’pater familias’).

In the second, I’m a voter and tax-payer, who can be called upon to be a juror, and, as a poet in a localised public sense of the term, a ‘Makar’.

In the third I’m a professor (equally lecturer, practice-based researcher, and administrator), and, typologically, a ‘creative’.

In the fourth I’m an author (therefore understood to be employable as a reviewer or broadcaster), though, as pointed out above, actually in the problematic category of ‘poet’.

So if we observe how the major/minor, empowered/disempowered division operates in each quarter, I’d say that in some of these cases I may find myself switching between major and minor positions, but, in several, like most poets, I occupy the less powerful bracket.

Thus a worker is not a boss, but a father can be, wittingly or otherwise, an agent of patriarchy; a voter is not a councillor, but a Makar has a (sort of) public voice; any professor has a considerable amount of status, but a creative one may be seen as unorthodox, not quite academic enough; and while an author may well be an opinion-maker, a poet may be perceived as shouting in a bucket.

To the extent that each writer divides their roles between such categories, we can plot out our areas of relative strengths and weaknesses, our closeness to the communities we are part of, and, crucially, our distance from those who would control and administer them, and thus, to the extent to which a writer can plan anything, we might just be able to determine where our energies could be best spent.

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Close, 2

(A short disquisition on how sideboards do furnish a room, in which I’m thinking about types of closeness: how close we get to – or should approach – those lives we thought we might lead. How distant the writer might be, or want to be, from those he or she writes about. 

The element of retreat in this reminds me of the suki no tonseisha, those writerly monks who retreated to their temporary huts to contemplate transience in medieval Japan – Bunting’s ‘Chomei at Toyama‘ being one reconsideration of this motive, simultaneously ascetic and aesthetic, with just a dash of Bartlebyism in the mix. Similarly, I suggest, Hugh MacDiarmid wanted to get away from the couthiness of the close, to become uncouth. 

My feelings on the matter are, perhaps, more conflicted.)

I find myself fantasising (in the sense that nothing I do quite amounts to planning) about augmenting the inherited furniture of my rented tenement flat, given that it is a mirror image of my grandmother’s flat, with my grandmother’s sideboard – which was itself the ‘virtual sideboard’ of a lost novella, written on holiday in the 90s in the darkness of a Tenerife holiday bungalow while my partner and infant daughter slumbered in the bedroom, my ‘inspiration’ fuelled by half bottles of three year old whisky with names unheard of in these parts – Auld Perth, The Highlander’s Delight, Prince Stewart’s Own Blend. 

The novella, as far as I can remember anything about its plotless meanderings, simply located all my memories and fantasies about my childhood and Dundee somewhere in the recesses of the sideboard, and so too folded away the past itself like a tablecloth, or the vast thick table mat that was brought out every time my great-aunts and-uncles foregathered to play cards (always ‘Horsie’, or Newmarket), which could be accessed by crawling into it a la Narnia or a Tardis. It sounds and presumably was terrible.

The actual sideboard currently languishes in Asbestos Garage, AKA my mother’s unused garage, itself an echo of our identical old unused garage from Kennoway Place, the bungalow where we lived for the best part of thirty years, alongside the damp boxes of papers which may or may not contain the manuscript of Virtual Sideboard, which themselves are only like my archive, in that they are completely unsorted. (They are in fact more like a forgettory.)

This gesture would then reflect and reinforce the way that my current stay in Broughty Ferry is itself a simulacrum of my lost ‘Life in Dundee’ in my thirties and forties when I was in fact earning a living for my family in Newcastle (ie being a grown up), but somehow ‘should’ have lived here.

That mirror imaging is the key to the sideboard/garage/archive/forgettory: I’m in a simulacrum of my twenties: following a life like a life I ‘want’ to lead, just not enough to actually do so. Thus the weekly visits to my mother in Monifieth reverse the polarity of my treks up the Perth Road in the eighties (via Groucho’s and various vanished second-hand bookshops) to Gran’s flat. Thus my constitutional walk of a Sunday is not past the Castle and along the sandy beach, but in the opposite direction, to the yacht club and the Stannergate. 

The trope of reversal, like the McGonagall supper in which the courses are eaten in reverse order, or the manner in which the Three Estates in Sir David Lindsay’s Satire are led onstage ‘Gangan backwart’ by their respective Vices, points me to the figure of the shaman who lives life backwards, tricksily, or contrariwise, the Heyoka of the Lakota: for instance, the ‘Straighten-Outer’ is described as ‘always running around with a hammer trying to flatten round and curvy things (soup bowls, eggs, wagon wheels, etc.), thus making them straight.’

Thus the whole practice becomes a bad shamanism, trying to make something straight and simple which happened to follow its own kinks and arabesques. Thus the weekly breakfast at Visocchi’s; the stimulating diet of pies or bridies from Goodfellow’s; the diurnal purchase of the Evening Telegraph; the hour of devotions to that Tullie or staring at the Tay in one of the set quartet of public houses, The Ship, The Fisherman’s, The Phoenix, Mennie’s; the purchasing of Braithwaite’s coffee despite misgivings about this being some sort of proto-hipster gesture; the visiting of the DCA where once it would have been the Steps Cinema – these are all attempts to imitate a life, and are indeed an imitation of life.

But there are virtues to be glimpsed among the errors I have led myself into. My fascination with the contrary writers of nineteenth century Dundee – whether the working class figures associated with the kailyard, the genuine innovators, or that peculiarly Flarf-like strain of deliberately bad writing that led to Dundee’s yurodivy, the Holy Fool McGonagall – folk like James Easson, ‘Poute’ (Alexander Burgess), and James Young Geddes – has led me to reconsider those Dundonian values Michael Marra characterised as ‘hermless’ in a manner that would have appalled that great dismisser of all poetics but his own, Hugh MacDiarmid.

His dislike of poems which were in his opinion ‘like a dog when it loves you’ manifested itself in a marked rejection of closeness in the sense under discussion here. MacDiarmid wished to flee the sentiment and nostalgia of such nineteenth-century poetry – symbolised for him by the Burns Cult, and, metonymically, by the use of the Burns stanza, with its tightly-packed rhymes and dimeter and trimeter lines – precisely because it was so proximate to him. 

He wished to escape from the closeness of the toun, that place where he actually lived – be it Langholm, Montrose, Whalsay (the toun as island as whale), or the ironic homophone of Biggar – into the conceptual space of international Modernism: the continental, the cosmopolitan, the urbane. In short, the eternal city, the city of the world’s desire, the city of God, the city that never sleeps – anything but the Scottish city with its transferral of the horizontally parochial to the vertical of the close.

MacDiarmid’s mode was always to foreignise, to make strange and other and separate what it is that the (Scottish) poet does and is – though in doing so he conformed to a rather conventional Romantic notion of the distance between the genius and his (always his) genealogy. 

Because his politics would not allow him to retreat to the ivory tower, he favoured a more extreme vertical still, the Tower of Abstruse New Song, in particular the upper floors of that brutalist structure, the long poem, ‘The kind of poetry I want/Is poems de longue haleine – far too long/To be practicable for any existing medium’ – in the words of the Chinese poet Yang Lian, he wished to ‘begin from what is impossible’.

I’d like to try instead to think of a summation of the poet’s role as far too possible – a polyphony of possibilities, or an irreducibly plural series of roles that have to be assessed, categorised, and assigned priorities – the multi-tasking of a close-dweller, or citizen of the polis, a participant, however inept and/or reluctant.

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Close, 1

(When I went off to Crete for 10 days over Paskha, I had a cunning plan. Knowing that I had large projects of scary creative work to do in the realms of both poetry and prose, I set myself two ‘safe’ tasks – things I thought I knew how to manage in each field – so that I could sneak up on the hard stuff while getting fighting fit. Naturally, it didn’t work out that way. 

I actually found it easier to get on with the difficult writing – editing and ordering poems for my next still untitled collection, and fine-tuning the synopsis of, while pushing on into the writing of, my McGonagall novel. The displacement activities – lineating and beginning a commentary on the great sixteenth century Scots prose work, The Complaynt of Scotlande (or rather one chapter from it, the magnificent if somewhat ‘prolixt’ Monolog Recreativ), and working on a blog posting about living in a close – turned out to be larger and stranger than I had anticipated.

I’ll monologue more about the Monolog elsewhere, but suffice to say the matter of the Scottish tenement led into a more complicated discussion of the social role of the writer than I’d initially supposed. This, then, is the first of three drafted posts, with at least one other sketched out. More on this breaking story tomorrow.)

While my decision in 2013 to come and live half the week in Dundee for six months wasn’t exactly a Gauguin-like escape to the South Seas to bide with Robert Louis Stevenson and Fanny in absolute creative freedom with hints of amoral concupiscence, it did cause more serious ructions in my family than I had anticipated. 

Especially as I took up the Dundee Makarship at the end of that period, and entered into a longer term stay of long weekends and occasional weeks and fortnights which may well last till 2018.

The cost of the flat had to be debated with my parents – the money being a dummy for the actual issue of why couldn’t I just come and stay with them? And my partner and daughter had to reassure themselves that this was like Debbie’s trips to Crete to write, and that it certainly did not mean that I cared any the less about my family – there was a particularly painful after-breakfast walk in Tayport one Saturday where the delight of seeing wild dolphins close to shore, which we did, was overshadowed by our discussion of the possibility that I might need to spend time with my father that I should otherwise have spent with my daughter. 

It was already becoming evident within that initial six months that my father’s health was beginning to fail, and, while we had no sense he would die as suddenly as he did – in March 2014, less than a year in – there was a dawning need to articulate that my proximity might be a good thing.

Much of this turned like a newel in a stairwell around the differing opinions in the family about my flat. As soon as I saw the ‘For Rent’ sign in the bay window of a first floor flat looking out on the Tay from Beach Crescent, I’d been in no doubt I wanted it. But this conviction had to ride roughshod over my father’s teeth-sucking over the amount, Debbie’s shudders at the decor, and both my mother’s and Izzie’s dislike of the stairwell – who was going to repair that crack? Were those stairs concrete or granite?

Whereas, for me, the symbology of the close harked back to childhood – to the first close I could remember in Peddie Street, and the one I counted as home from home, indeed the one which implanted in me the concept that home could be plural: my grandparents’ (latterly my gran’s) in Corso Street. Street Street. 

Where everyone saw difficulty, then, I saw DNA in the warm awkward spiral of the wooden banister rail, and catching up the dust from its untouched turns on the palm of my hand was for me a dichting and renewing of the covenant of the close: that we live together, that we are close. 

That closeness, ironically, I could only enact by establishing a certain distance from each part of the quartet of my close family. Into the gaps thus opened up, a further definition of ‘us’ could then be admitted: as doubled communities and cities – Dundee and Newcastle, Broughty Ferry and North Shields; and as complementary regions: the North-Easts.

A close, any close, be it grand or grimy, consists of three parts, each negotiating the matter of proximity, in which our understanding of contiguity and cohabitation can confront or accommodate our awareness of personal space and relative privacy. So there is the close itself, the land (or landing), and the lobby. 

These three features of tenement living each carries a symbolic resonance: the close as a vernacular architecture of intimacy; the land, with its pairing and sometimes more of doors, almost becomes a synecdoche for the land, each one a separate country in the composite state of the close; while the lobby, continuing the land up to the privacy of our rooms, extends the notion of the liminal. 

The close, then, is almost as close to us as our bodies: the stairwell newel like a gyring of nervous messages around a spine, each land like our hips, stacked as though on a totem pole of the living, and each lobby like as many ribs. The close was once open as a stoma to the street or shared or claimed or assigned garden, but each is now sealed off with a door like the plate on a whulk, and, sometimes, individualising (atomising) buzzers.

When I went to Brasenose College, I stayed on a mazy stairwell outrageously, with that lazy unconsidered symbolism of Oxford, called the Arab Quarter, as though we were somehow in the Old City in Jerusalem.

As with those moments learning Anglo-Saxon and Middle English, where I understood my Scots was closer to this supposedly dead and studied thing than my fellow students’ invariably properer English, so this ‘Quarter’ connected oddly with my original tenement on Peddie Street via a five year old’s impressionistic memories of two room flats, a pulley for washing glimpsed out of a back window, gaslights on the stairs, and the outside loos between the lands. 

These were echoed in college in an arrangement whereby my narrow bedroom was on the top floor, while my ridiculously spacious study downstairs looked out on the High (all such windowsills acting as coolers for milk and butter during the winter in those fridgeless times), and the basement held rows of baths and toilets.

This linkage of working class tenement and upper class college rooms in turn suggested the closeness of the classes in the historic Edinburgh tenements and stairs of the Royal Mile. 

Closeness in the close is evinced through sound as much as encounter: the alarm in another flat that wakes you; next door’s music coming through the fireplace like Magritte’s miniature puffing train; the small hours pop that’s actually a forgotten bottle of stout bursting in your own freezer. 

The synecdoche of the land is suggested by childhood’s miniatures and models: my remembered games of toy soldiers with Michael Hammill on a demolished top land in Annfield Row; or by how, in my grandmother’s close, the Sturrocks (a tipsy divorcee and her spinster sister) lived on the top floor, while the relentlessly labouring Jacks were occasionally at home on the first, and the urbane-seeming Eric and fur-wearing Chrissie Fleming resided on the ground – together seeming somehow to represent the world or at least a worldview in some Geddesian sense, as though every close was a take on his Outlook Tower.

(Of course this ignored two entire flats, whose inhabitants were either more temporary or, in some other way, other enough not to be within my grandparents’ purview – the close of course also kept its others close across political and religious divides.)

The liminality of the lobby was hinted at in the sangs and rhymes of the close – the bairn rhymes and merry muses’ cramboclink that only needed to be alluded to, and rarely or never completed: ‘There’s a boabby in yir loabby, Mary Ann…’ hinted at some transgression requiring the presence of the police that would presumably already be known to those informing Mary Ann about what was happening inside her own home, possibly something along the lines of Aunty Mary’s never-revealed motivation for having a canary ‘up the leg o her draaers’

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Waukendremes, 2

The opposite of falling asleep while reading must be, exactly, waking up while writing. I’ve had, as most writers have, the experience of waking with a phrase or an entire poem in my head; or of remembering at the point of waking the poem one was drafting in that same head as one fell asleep. 

In several instances, I was discovering or writing in what I supposed to be an actual form, only to discover it was nothing of the sort – either a complete invention, or dependent on a trick of dream logic which rendered it unfeasible in the waking world. These instances might correspond to the medieval – or at least pre-industrial – experience of the dorveille. This word – its French mirroring the Scots of ‘wakendreme’ to such an extent one wonders if the Scots borrowed it, or if it just passed through some Cocteau-esque mirror of the Auld Alliance – describes that common phenomenon of the medieval or pastoral night, whereby people would sleep for four or so hours, wake for one or two, then sleep for another four. 

Undistorted by artificial light or the demands of the factory system, which invented eight hours sleep much as it invented regulated, centralised time (fixed time, like regular distance, was another commodity delivered by the railways), there was a space which belonged neither to the owl nor to the lark, which was not pathologised as insomnia, in which people prayed, made love, and meditated in the small dark hours – and, no doubt, composed.

Our nearest echo of it, then, is the disturbed night, and the rituals we invent to send us back into the dream; and our nearest understanding of it as a state of consciousness might be the lucid dream. That condition, of knowing while asleep that you are dreaming, has always seemed to me to correspond closely to the creative act, of making something up while believing that the thing you’re inventing has some prior rights to existence: the poem-before-the-poem, as it were.

My usual trigger to alert me that I’m dreaming lucidly rather than waking bewilderedly is when I find myself levitating. (It’s interesting that we have parallel forms for the passive conditions of being asleep and being awake, but the very active verb ‘dream’ has no exact antonym. ‘Waking” is a single act, not a continuous one, and, although we think of this state as reality, ‘realising’ won’t quite do.)

There are a number of techniques that enable levitation, but my favourite is the Imaginary Pedal: here, while walking briskly, you place one foot on the pedal of an invisible bicycle, then just forget to return it entirely to the ground – the non-existent pedal turns slightly, offers you the necessary resistance, and you’re off. Quixote taught me that, probably.

When flight becomes a matter of willpower, it’s a sign you’re beginning to wake up. At a similar point in the dream of writing, I realise I must find some way of preserving the dream text into the waking realm. Many dreams end with me trying to write a poem down on a piece of dream paper I expect to find on waking up through the magic trick of tucking it under my pillow. 

The focus on writing at these points as a willed action is illustrative of the nature of the parallel between these worlds: letters won’t stay put, words resist being fixed things. It’s like the experience one has in a thunderstorm at night: of seeing something momentarily illuminated, but without the colours it would possess in daylight – as though you are seeing the naked thing.

A couple of recent examples of such phrases: ‘Where is the sentence with the Moon-Bison which has two full stops?’ ‘The illuminated flumen is flown in’. 

One is clearly already losing the text it wishes to preserve to paradox, the other has that characteristic dream imbalance to it, whereby the music of language has slewed it away from a literal meaning: it is suggestive without it being possible to settle its sphere of reference. I was reminded of Beefheart’s naming of his band members, particularly Winged Eel Fingerling, and thought again about how lyricists like Beefheart and Barrett were in pursuit of a sliding, angled language which distilled the altered states they’d experienced.

‘The winged Elvis is of course an ancient Aztec symbol inscribed on the sunglasses of the emperors,’ I noted to myself in passing, before recalling that, earlier in the dream, I had been working on an abecedary form in which successive letters began key words in each half of the line. Now that might work. This gift, a derivation of the alliterative poem, was filed away for future use

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Exceptionals and the Rules

FullSizeRenderI was very struck by The Guardian‘s editorial this Monday reflecting on the deaths of Chuck Berry and Derek Walcott, and thinking of poetry as something which encompassed and is lessened by the loss of both. Not only did this pick up the issue of Dylan’s Nobel in an intelligent way, it was a rare chance to see how a major cultural institution – one of the four ‘estates’ of modern society – views poetry.

The recent springing upon us of ‘World Poetry Day’, and this morning’s sad news of the death of Roy Fisher (hard on the heels of another significant loss – that of Tom Raworth – and accompanied by that of another fine critic, poet, and editor, David Kennedy), provokes reflection on the insights thus revealed.

It set forth the tenets of a generous orthodoxy, one where memorability and melody are equally at stake, where the underlying issue is: what is resonant – sonically, emotionally, historically? As such it made me think again about two areas I’ve been concerned with over the years, and test my assumptions.

The first is the relation between the poem and austerity: ‘There should be no spare words in a poem any more than there should be any missing.’

On the surface this is self-evident, or at least self-evident about everyone else’s poetry – one’s own always has to resist its own special dispensation, based on a more, um, nuanced understanding of ‘spare’.

But why should there be no spare words in a poem, no excess? Why should all poetry be tied to a fashion or cult of minimalism, or, worse case scenario, be considered a safe place for some sort of obsessive perfectionism? Why not be as messy and flawed, or ordered and economic, as the subject, tone, or approach requires? Is that principle of appropriate variance not how we get from the epic of Omeros to the lyric concision of ‘Johnny B. Goode’?

Could this be more a constraint upon the constraints rather than a virtue ascribed to them? It seems to suit those who wish to control and position poetry – editors, journalists, bureaucrats – rather than practitioners or readers. If, as the editorial goes on to say, ninety per cent of poetry is lost in time, let it be so. But it may not be because, as the article implies, they failed to be economic. It may just be an uncomfortable fact that, initially, most, and, eventually, all things must pass.

The second is a touch more contentious: ‘Poetry, music and religion must all once have been indistinguishable, but they separated millennia ago in the west.’

What, then, we might ask, are hymns? What if this were never the case, or only the case in certain cultures, or, as with hymns and psalmody, at certain but nonetheless sustained points in certain cultures? Might this apparently mythical union of poem, song and religion be better identified as a way of reading?

What if it’s perfectly alright for there to be three separate but cognate modes of handling patterned, performative, ritualistic language? David Kennedy as well as Derek Walcott had much to say about the various types and purposes of ritual. What if these poetic, melodic and spiritual modes simply formed part of a spectrum, including patterned, performative, and ritualistic prose, including legal, political, and indeed literary and journalistic discourse?

Fundamentally, if, as World Poetry Day purports to do, you cram everything you think of as poetry into a day, must we spend the rest of the year in what you suppose is prose? What if there wasn’t a single monolithic block called ‘Prose’ which encompassed all speech and all writing, and a minuscule series of ‘Exceptions’, where the supposed privilege associated with these, like that fabled former unity, was in fact a mode of marginalisation?

I am reminded by all this of a quote from Roy Fisher, who summed up his writing by suggesting, ‘Anything I have seen, I’ve only seen by…looking at what was out of the corner of the picture, what was outside the frame.’

This principle of the epiphenomenon, the peripheral, and the secondary, as a resistance to all the grand old narratives, with their focalising and their teleologies, their categorising and orthodoxies, seems to me the one exemplified by both Berry and Walcott, as well as the other writers we have recently lost. There are stories about poetry as about poets, and it is the job of poems and even poetics, not to deny the narrative as a mode, but to offer that which is contrary to those stories which, in their neatness and need for satisfactory conclusions, memorialise poetry to the margins.

As Walcott’s St Lucia, Berry’s Cadillac, and Roy Fisher’s Slakki (‘Not much of a valley’) demonstrate, as David Kennedy’s New Poetry anthology argued (‘Province Plenty, London Nil’ as Peter Porter’s review was headlined), everywhere not in the centre is yet another centre, but to be eccentric in this sense is to be alive to both locations in a manner the purported centre always struggles to see and hear, and indeed regularly requires the perspective of those peripheries to achieve.

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Waukendremes, 1

An interesting blog post from Richard Gwyn about the not uncommon experience of falling asleep while reading reminds me I’ve been exploring a few angles of this phenomenon over the years.

That odd-to-and-fro relationship of reader to writer, and of writer-as-reader to the text struck me particularly when I dropped off before a reading in Galway, and woke up with the idea for Omnesia, a book partly about just this sort of doubling, about the books you have in your head, your own as much as other people’s.

The condition is, I think, well-described by the Scots word ‘waukendreme’: you don’t quite know where the reality, if you can call it that, begins.

I’d just been noting that I was doubling my library – buying copies of Don Quixote and that already-doubled book, Confessions of a Justified Sinner, for the flat I’m maintaining in Dundee while I’m Makar, and while I’m writing/trying to write my McGonagall novel.

And I’d been looking, of the purposes of writing a blog entry, for a note about the phenomenon of doubling or echoing previous houses, modes of life, habitudes, when I’d spotted a couple of instances of nap-related (or more generally slewed-) thinking which echo Richard’s point.

(The Slew is something else again which I’m trying to write about in terms of compositional strategies, so perhaps this’ll encourage me to shift my conceptual arse. Certainly it looks like there are two or three potential posts gathering around these ideas.)

Here’s the first note. It was written in July last year on our writing holiday in Crete, when we were in the habit of having a siesta:

I was dropping off to sleep this afternoon when Debbie woke me by closing a shutter, and I realised I’d been “watching” a programme in which three people dressed up as their favourite characters from a book and answered questions about that book or its author.

The format was a not unfamiliar cross between say Mastermind and cosplay, but the interesting element was that in the few seconds I’d actually been asleep, this quiz had become a long-running ‘classic’. 

(One of the contestants was Sancho Panza, in that sense that, somewhere in every dream, a part of Don Quixote continues to unfold.)

The readiness of the sleeper to accept the dream, as well as the rapidity of the invention, is what particularly  fascinates me. On the one hand, there is that first, purest suspension of disbelief, that one is not asleep, which includes suspending disbelief in the coherence or otherwise of the elements of the dream, and perceiving it as, somehow, narrative.

On the other, I’m always amazed by how limitless the capacities of the creative impulse are once our limiting sense of the self is set aside. As Nietzsche observed, there are vast spaces between what appear to be our most reasoned or reasonable ideas.

– I’ll dig out that Nietzsche quote and update this when in the office tomorrow. For the moment, here is the second instance, which is a sort of love prose-poem – (there’s half a temptation to call it ‘Visions of Deborah’):

Waking from a mid-afternoon nap, I’m looking down on the vegetable garden from our balcony in Emprosneros, and I see Debbie moving among the dreels of peppers and aubergines, and tomatoes, her red hair catching the early evening light. 

My attention must drift for a moment in the cooling breeze coming up the valley because the next thing I know she’s on the path just below me, some cucumbers in the red colander. 

For a further bizarre second it seems to me she is in both places at the same time, like those hagiographic paintings in which the same bright figure reappears at several points in a landscape, performing its sequence of miraculous duties. 

Thus the eye tricks the mind into learning something about what the heart must be feeling.

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