I have invited my friend, poet Paul Matthews, to share a conversation with me here. His books are favourites of mine and his teaching style is unique. I am glad of his voice in the world. Here we go …
Because we are doing this, Paul, I have returned (yet again) to your book Sing Me the Creation. It has been a constant companion since I bought it in the mid-1990s (you signed it in November 1996 when you first came up to run a workshop at Ucheldre Centre, Holyhead!). I have drawn on it over the years, using it in my own teaching work and also during round-the-table writing sessions with friends, as well as it being a rich resource for my own writing. In the Foreword, Dr. Robert Sardello writes that your work ‘provides an effective guide into the imagination of the word’ and that ‘the word’ is ‘a gateway into an imagination of the soul of the world’. To start then, what for you is the link between words and the life of the imagination, and how do these relate to ‘the world’?
This throws us right into the heart of the matter! Perhaps your reference to my book (with Blake’s picture of Adam Naming the Beasts on the cover) gives me a way in.
It is not for nothing that Adam stands listening under an Oak tree, letting the rustling of its leaves set his own tongue aquiver. That already is one image of a link between word and world. Another is that the beasts he is naming stream through his larynx as though uttering their true names through him, or that the gesture unique to each calls forth in Adam a corresponding articulation. It is a deep (perhaps foolish) longing of mine that words should not just refer to the world, stuck onto it, but be somehow of it, partaking of its substance. For a long time my question was: how close up to the world can we get with our words? More recently I begin to ask: how close up to us can the world get with its words? We live in a speaking world. Children know that, but we have forgotten it and stumble among wordless things. It is the conscious exercise of imagination and poetry which helps us unlearn what Thomas Traherne called the ‘dirty devices of this world’ and become as a little child again in our perceptions. Thank you for asking such a pertinent question!
I love that image on the book cover – it represents a deeply listening Adam and the animals seem to parade behind him in their variety – ‘ stream through his larynx’, as you say. Are the acorns pictured on the great oak significant, would you say? Probably, given that it is Blake. And the serpent that coils round Adam’s arm, head at his heart centre – how do you read that? These are also clues to your own work – perhaps? I say this because your teaching and writing seem involved in ‘growth’ (acorn to oak) and potential human wholeness (holiness?) without outlawing ‘the serpent’ aspects of life – would that be an accurate thing to say?
What did Blake write?: ‘Hear the voice of the Bard / Who present, past and future sees / Whose ears have heard the Holy Word / That walked among the ancient trees’. Later I discovered his other painting of Eve Naming the Birds, but she is already present in the Adam picture – even as he lifts his finger skywards she, in the guise of that snake, is spiralling out of the earth and into his heart… above and below reconciled in the act of naming. Another creative reconciliation of contraries is the way that Adam looks both outwards and inwards at the same time, with a listening gaze. This, for me, is basic imaginative practice, and a theme which keeps recurring in my poetry. In my recent Slippery Characters book I write: ‘and there without a word / the bluebells spread and I said / look at me you pure inquisitors’. And, more explicitly: ‘then I decided… I wouldn’t keep putting the world in its place with my busy eyesight. Thy will be done. I would let the mountain do the looking and have its way with me’.
In your introduction to Sing Me the Creation, you say: ‘the laws of grammar are an outward manifestation of the laws at work in the human soul, and that the same ‘Logos’ is involved in the shaping of the world around us’. This seems to link with your longing for words to be experienced as deeply participative. If everything has a kind of language/voice – if everything is uttering forth as part of the ‘speaking world’ – then is part of our human potential the learning (or re-learning) of how to hear – ‘how close up to us can the world get with its words?’ This needs the qualities of attention and receptivity. Are these qualities part of what the practice of the imagination and poetry grant us?
The ancient alchemy of the Four Elements can help us with this question of how the Logos manifests. Outwardly we meet them – earth, water, air, fire – as states of matter; but they are gestures also, utterances of nature, revealed, for instance, in the difference between oak’s sturdiness and weeping willow. Inwardly they are the temperaments or humours that Chaucer still knew about. And in the space between outer and inner worlds they appear as the four hallows of grammar – statement, question, exclamation, command – which provide the structure for my Sing Me the Creation book on the creative process. These elements then, standing at the ‘gateway’ (as Dr. Sardello calls it) between sense and soul, mark the beginning of a conscious path of imaginative participation.
I notice now that Adam’s curls take on the curves of the oak leaves above his head. This is occult doctrine – that the mind meets itself in the ‘Vegetable Glass of Nature’ (I’m quoting Blake again). I don’t know about the acorn, though. What do you think?
Well, I doubt the acorns represented by Blake are accidental and certainly they are suggestive of the power and maybe even direction inherent in ‘the seed’ – maybe? I very much like the way you evince a radical shift of awareness here in that you invite the world towards you rather than go after it and bend it to your will. I recognize the importance of this from my own experience, though it does run counter to the spirit of our times – though maybe the work of ‘reconciliation’ has always been the human journey, no matter what period -? As Blake (again!) says: ‘Without contraries is no progression’. To help save us from experiencing the world as separate-from-self, you often advocate learning how to play with words. As you said about your recent ‘Tiger’ poem: ‘It is strange how deep things emerge sometimes out of play’. I totally agree! What is the role of playfulness then in creativity, writing, life?
My Tigers poem? Here it is:
We English don’t have them. Except in cages. But if Tigers were gone we would have to take on their shadowy habitats and do their raging for them. Don’t extinguish the Tiger. God-If-There-Was-One would be dimmed still further, grieving the loss of this best articulation of his Wildness.
This playfulness emerges a-plenty in your poetry, for instance (another example) in one of your ‘letter’ poems ‘Dear Sir’ in Slippery Characters: ‘I have recently discovered an Angel lodged in my ear, and this (as you might imagine) has somewhat distracted me from my worldly business.//I have reason to believe that the one I am referring to has been secretly transferring savings from my account into some other currency …’
I very much like the balance you achieve in your poetry between shadow and light, movement and stillness, gravity and levity and so on.
Isn’t it a signature of British consciousness that Comedy and Tragedy are close sisters? – the gravediggers joking as they ready the stage for Hamlet and Laertes to be fighting over the body of the drowned Ophelia.
My first poetry was charged with Shelley’s grand notion of poet as ‘unacknowledged legislator of the world’; yet since someone told me that all my poems are totally hilarious my high-browed attempt to not be caught smiling in photographs has seemed a needless blocking of my energies. My faith in the high office of the Poet remains unshaken but is happy now to live alongside Poet as Clown, the lawless character who is forever twinkling his eyes in my writing and my teaching. The Zen master who teaches the profundities of one hand clapping would be a model for that. I think also of Schiller (very serious poet indeed) who said only when we play are we truly free. In his view the ‘play principle’ is the source of artistic beauty. It is unfashionable of me, but I take it as given that an intelligent, playful, beauty-making Creator stands behind whatever bosons are deemed nowadays to steer this mysterious universe. What gives me confidence in this? – my own experience of the gravely playful process of making poetry.
Ah yes, I recognise that ‘twinkling’ behind the act of C/creation and the ‘gravely-playful’ approach you mention.
I have, with my friend Vivian Gladwell of ‘Nose to Nose’, been offering a poetry and clowning workshop called ‘Of Silliness and Soulfulness’ – two words sprung from the same root. How could our souls find a voice if we are not willing to be fools and blush a little?
The balance between gravity and levity that you say I achieve might have something to do with the gymnastics that have accompanied my work in poetry. More likely it is rooted earlier in my biography. My mother (who read Kierkegard on the beach during our summer holidays and had Tolkien for her Anglo-Saxon tutor) poured the great fairytales and myths into my ears. Through my father, on the other hand, my childhood was steeped in the language of Winnie-the Pooh. And in the dark humour of Saki’s stories, so that now if ever my high poetic notions overreach themselves I hear ‘Bertha’s’ medal for obedience clinking against those for punctuality and good conduct to show the wolf where she is hiding – laughter and tears again uncomfortably mingled.
In ‘The Aleph’, one of your ‘poetics’ pieces in Slippery Characters, you speak of language as more akin to a ‘spell’ than a mere ‘information technology’ or a ‘domestic arrangement’ – can you say something about the tension that exists between ‘the magical and the rational’?
Well, Winnie-the-Pooh has an answer to that. In one of his hums composed in the Ashdown Forest (where, by the way, I happen to live) he says: ‘But whatever his weight in pounds, shillings and ounces, / He always seems bigger because of his bounces’. When Piglet objects to the shillings being there Pooh explains: ‘They wanted to come in after the pounds… so I let them. It is the best way to write poetry, letting things come’. ‘Oh, I didn’t know,’ said Piglet.
Piglet was too much of a literalist to know. But you as a poet must have experienced starting off with something sensible to tell the world, then finding that the ear takes over, tuning in to the balances and resonances of words, and how they start insisting on other, even contrary, meanings, arrived at out of the play of sound, sounder and wiser than anything we originally intended.
Yes – exactly! And the best poems are the ones of surprise, the ones that open new ground …
Or very old ground?
Oh yes – true! Very old ground, recovered, maybe – arrived at as if for the first time, to paraphrase Eliot.
Words come to us from thousands of years back, rife with puns and fibs and spells, echoes and origins that our rational minds know nothing about, but somehow our ears know it. Sometimes my ears wake me in the middle of the night to spin a rhyme or reason more fitting than the one I was so proud of when writing in the daylight. I call that magical.
I remember at one of your Emerson College ‘Poetry Otherwise’ events back in the 1990s, poet Peter Abbs taking about one of the poet’s tasks being ‘to shake the hidden pollen and seeds’ that lie within language ‘to allow for a new and quite unexpected fertilization. An endless linguistic resurrection! Not to work the deep geology of language is to fail the medium’ (Peter Abbs, ‘Towards a Convivial Poetics’, lecture for ‘Poetry Otherwise’).
I am convinced of the need to shift to the ear more and thank you for reminding me of Pooh. For me, too, Pooh has particular resonance. My dad read the Pooh stories to me as a child and I was his ‘Little Pooh’ all the way through (the ‘H’ is quite important in this!). I think even in late age, he called me this … Pooh-wisdom seems to be something to do with trust, play, song, enjoyment. Pooh reminds me of a ‘holy fool’ character, like the clown you’ve mentioned. Bringing out the clown or fool in ourselves is a great antidote to the controlling, mechanising, literalising impulses of ‘the ego’ – maybe? The Holy Fool or Clown is someone who inhabits the world as Mystery in all its ordinary ways, ‘admitting’ it -?
‘Rabbit has brains’, said Pooh. ‘That’s why he doesn’t understand anything’.
Don’t you see any role, then, for the ‘brains’ part, the analytic faculty, given that it seems to be part of the human ‘equipment’? In my academic teaching work, analysis is very much part of what students are taught to do and this can be very valuable. The intellect can cut through and penetrate deep into a text, an idea, a history and change/open minds about things. It doesn’t have to be reductive in a negative sense, does it?
I would not have survived one moment as a teacher in any orthodox academy! But I do admire how you (and Peter Abbs) have, while not compromising yourselves, employed that sharp instrument in your good work with students. Intellect has a role, most certainly. I appreciate that very immediately in the way your questions deeply penetrate my texts. They cut to the quick, waking me to things I had not noticed. Our present culture is defined by the achievement of this faculty. But it has two edges.
Yes, you are right. It is all about what purpose the ‘cutting’ and ‘penetrating’ instrument is put to, perhaps, and what it ultimately serves -? In Words in Place, you use the Joseph Wright of Derby painting An Experiment with a Bird in the Air Pump where a ‘white cockatoo has been placed in a vacuum flask’. A group of assorted figures watch the ’experiment’, with various responses depicted, from purely abstract and detached observing (the male figures) to emotional flinching (the girl-children). The air is in the process of being pumped out and the bird is shown flopped, one wing stretched out, in the glass flask as, presumably, it dies. On this page, you mention that the children portrayed in this image ‘see meanings rather than things. The world they inhabit is sym-bolic (meaning ‘thrown together’)’. You contrast that with a more adult ‘dia-bolic’ (‘thrown-apart’) experience of world, and this so usefully – exactly – describes a kind of dualism which can have (does have!) potentially terrible implications. I have long been quietly grateful to you for opening out these two words!
I am glad we share this love of etymologies! To open up the metaphorical origins of seemingly abstract words is already a step towards redeeming our ‘thrown apart’ way of viewing the world. My great teacher in this is Owen Barfield who suggests that if we delve among the roots of words we discover a kind of fossil record of how human consciousness has evolved – a shift towards our modern observing mode from the participating mind that mothered us. The word ‘consider’ is my favourite example of this. Once upon a time, me-thinks, the stars (sidera) twinkled in our thinking; now it takes place inside our own private noodles.
Adam in the painting we have been exploring invites the stars into his considerations, though Blake was painfully aware that the act of naming was being usurped in his time by ‘Urizen’ (your reason/horizon) who names things dia-bolically. And now you are asking about this other painting which, for similar reasons, has concerned me – Joseph Wright’s Experiment with the Air Pump.
Are you able to say something about the other figure depicted in Joseph Wright’s image? He makes me think that the artist was not wholly behind experiments of this kind -? And what about the kind of scientific impulse you mention that can include ‘compassion and participation’ in its experiments?
Joseph Wright (of Derby – I used to live in Derby) clearly foresaw the ‘terrible implications’ of Urizen’s ‘mind-forged manacles’. Countless crucifixion scenes in the art galleries loom behind this group of men and women gathered around the vacuum flask. Yet the pondering figure that you are wondering about does not entirely reject it, but looks beyond the death of this white bird to some future resurrection. In my book, Words in Place, I quote Ralph Waldo Emerson who was waiting for a ‘faithful thinker’ to ‘kindle science with the fire of the holiest affections’. Are there any signs of that? These are huge things you are asking!
Much of my working life was at Emerson College where we actively pursued such questions. Goethe (scientist as well as poet), and Rudolf Steiner who developed his work, provide some clues here. Goethe’s observational method (based on a progress through the four elemental modes that I spoke of) is radically different from the one shown in the air pump picture, and has served as a link for me between truth and beauty. When Goethe says, ‘One should not seek anything behind the phenomena: they themselves are the theory’, how close he comes to the Imagist doctrine of ‘no ideas but in things’ that was so important for my own early poetry. But he takes it further – his holistic science of plant metamorphosis, for example, indicating a path of conscious imagination.
As adults, of course, we can also see the world ‘sym-bolically’ – but perhaps we first have to yield in order to see and experience in this way -? This makes me think of your poem ‘In Yielding’, where the word ‘yield’ ‘is a gift/with seeds in it/for future flowering’. Would you say that our journey from innocence to experience (and back again) is one of (potentially) integration, then? I always think of that process described in Zen: ‘First there was a mountain, then there was no mountain, then there was’ and also this by Dōgen:
To study the Way is to study the self.
To study the self is to forget the self.
To forget the self is to be enlightened
by the ten thousand things.
I say this because you mention in Words in Place the urgent need for a change in consciousness – what might or can help this happen?
That Zen anecdote has been important for me, too. It is not my aim, though, to do away with self. It’s true that the ‘controlling, mechanising, literalising impulses of the ego’ bring disaster, yet the human ‘I’ which we have won so painfully has potential to turn compassionate, don’t you think? – free, and creative.
Yes, I fully agree.
The women watching the white bird dying are wise to that in their hearts, I think. The second mountain is different from the first one, surely.
You include Gerard de Nerval’s wonderful poem ‘Golden Lines’ in Words in Place translated by Robert Duncan. Can you say something about this poem and also (moving the discussion back onto your poetry) something about Robert Duncan – his influence, say – given that he writes the ‘Pre Preface for Paul Matthews’ in The Ground that Love Seeks?
Nerval’s poem? Yes, Nerval does acknowledge that through the dia-bolic way of seeing the world we have gained the possibility to be ‘free thinkers’, then qualifies that by saying: ‘In all your councils the Universe is absent’. He calls for a path towards a modern ‘sym-bolic’ thinking.
As for Robert Duncan, I met him first in Brighton in 1968 but was too shy to speak to him. Five years later, after he read at the London Polytechnic (an event organized by my Welsh poet friend, Paul Evans) I did pluck up courage to ask him: ‘Do you believe in a spiritual world?’ He graciously answered my naivety by writing the ‘Pre-Preface’ which I later included at the beginning of my book, telling me that even as we reach beyond ourselves so the world that I question his belief of is also reaching beyond itself – not a static world of platonic archetypes, but a dynamic to be engaged with, beyond belief. A further honour was that he invited me and my wife (who is Californian) to stay with him in San Francisco. As you can see, he was my hero!
Why was he so important to you?
As a young poet newly coming into my work I was so grateful to have such a person recognise and call upon a potential in me. He showed me that even in our literal age it is possible to be a Romantic poet, to hold confidence in the creative human spirit.
Romanticism isn’t exactly the flavour of the month, the year, the decade or the Millennium is it, though it has its advocates, certainly. It is critiqued for being subjective, indulgent, essentialist, escapist, and … well, I’m sure you are aware of the arguments. Can the Romantic vision really still serve us in the 21st century?
In many ways it’s a true critique. That’s why the Romantic spirit lost its way when faced with the No Man’s Land between the war time trenches. Vague feelings for ‘the truth of the imagination’ could not hold. But Owen Barfield speaks of Romanticism ‘coming of age’ …
yes, I like that
… insisting that imagination can be honed as a cognitive faculty and prove useful in science as well as poetry. More than that – the future depends on it. In my teaching of writing I try to work out the consequences of his insistence. Robert Duncan was another companion for me in this.
Some find it difficult – and this is reflected in modern scholarship – that Romanticism tended to elevate ‘the author’ (who was traditionally male!), as a kind of ‘heroic genius’ -?
Well, I won’t apologise for my youthful admiration. Hear the voice of the Bard! We all need someone to inspire us. Actually Duncan came to see himself more as a derivative poet than one striving for original genius. So in translating Nerval’s poetry he takes its spirit into his own, standing with him in that stream of living language which I referred to – the ‘truth and life of myth’ that is ever active in our evolving human story.
It was Robert Duncan who called me to the ‘office’ of being a Poet. A priestly office? Not quite. A deep tending to the life of words is what he meant by it. He was a man of intellect, yet in the act of writing he threw all his wisdoms into the fire and play of the moment and created his poetry out of not knowing.
Perhaps I had no need to be instructed in this. In my first poem ever, dedicated to the ‘feminine’, I wrote with more than a touch of adolescent arrogance:
Come Goddess, to me alone you sing your song For these poor fools prefer to slumber on.
More recently, though, the contemplation of some end beckoning has tempered my words a little:
Beautiful Lady of Death, I'm numbered among the fools you croon to.
Well, mention of death and, a bit earlier, the Joseph Wright painting as crucifixion scene and, earlier again, our talk of clowns and fools brings us nicely to the poem ‘Christ as Alphabet’ in your latest collection, Slippery Characters. I would sound a trumpet for this poem, loudly, only I’d make you blush. It comes in the ‘Word on Word’ opening part of the book, so can you say something about both this part of the book – its chief themes and concerns, say – and this poem itself? Also, is the last poem ‘Playing Judas’ a companion poem to this?
First just to confess, it was my Judas poem which elicited the comment about how ‘hilarious’ my writing is. As for ‘Christ as Alphabet’ – the worry it calls up in me probably means it has some truth to tell me. I hardly understand it, though; or it needs several pages of explanation! Are you asking for such a footnote? Why not (considering that I have a ‘friend’ who says he prefers my explanations to my poetry)?
Briefly, then … in that part of the book writing is what I write about, ‘Word on Word’, gathering momentum into this strangely titled poem, ‘Christ as Alphabet’. The Christ I write about is more Clown than preacher, forgiving his enemies, writing on the ground, the divine ‘I Am’ getting his hands dirty – ‘Three alphabets were crucified with him’. In the last lines I risk the writing of: ‘It’s only through such a death / that you can rise in our human breath’… I am getting out of my depth here! You are right to see my ‘Playing Judas’ poem as a companion to ‘Christ as Alphabet’; I wrote them (serious poems!) to be spoken at an Easter festival. Nonetheless, there is a hint that my poet’s slippery play with words and metaphors betrays some fear of standing fully in the truth of them.
Thank you for being prepared to go this deep, Paul! We are ‘turning with’ big things here and feeling our way – and isn’t that what con-vers-ations can do? It was you by the way who opened up that word for me also.
I think we’ve mentioned above that for something new to creatively come, something in us has to give – as in yield, as in open, as in rend -? Maybe to be able to forgive enemies needs this too.
That sounds good to me. You are picking up on my use of the double meaning of ‘yield’ – to give way in order to give away. But maybe you are adding to that – to rend in order to render. I like that.
In both The Ground that Love Seeks and Slippery Characters, there is in the language a preference, I have noticed, for Anglo-Saxon-derived words rather than a more abstract Latinate lexis. Was that a conscious choice? I have a strong feeling that this is why the poems speak so directly and feel so ‘earthed’ -? I would be very pleased to hear about your interest also in Meister Eckhart, whose voice is present in The Ground that Love Seeks , where ‘ground’, of course, is a repeated theme and where everything, even the stones, ‘have a love/a love that seeks the ground’.
Those Saxon words are the ground that my love of language seeks. I live in East Sussex, you know, not so far from where Harold, last of the Saxon kings got shot in the eye by the invading Normans. That was another story told by my father – how Taillefer, chanting the Song of Roland in Norman French, was the first of them to be killed at the battle of Hastings. I have always kind of regretted the Norman Conquest (just as you in Wales are perhaps to this day troubled by the incursion of English into your culture). Another thing is that my early outpourings ran up against the strictures of Ezra Pound who prescribed Saxon and Chinese poetry as antidote for the ‘emotional slither’ of decadent Romanticism. Yes, the Saxon syllable does stand closer up to a thing, and our names for ‘natural objects’ which Pound said are always the ‘adequate symbol’, often turn out to be of Saxon origin.
My most recent poems, however, yield more readily to the lure of Latin – ‘conflagration’, ‘coincidence’, ‘benediction’, ‘ominous’, ‘circumstance’, ‘habitat’ – because, in moderation, such words do render an inwardness and thoughtfulness and subtlety of feeling which the blunt Saxon words don’t always carry. And if the French had never shot Harold how could Eleanor of Aquitaine and her troubadours and others after them have softened up our consonants (the third necessary ingredient of Ezra Pound’s prescription) to make English singable?
The Ground that Love Seeks ends with a poem about St Eadfrith of Lindisfarne and Eadfrith returns early in Slippery Characters in ‘Word and World’, which lends a nice sense of connection and continuity to the two collections. The ‘illuminated’ nature of the oh-so-beautiful Lindisfarne Gospels seem echoed in both books, but perhaps especially in Slippery Characters , through both the poems and the very lovely illustrations, making the collection a very beautiful object.
So: two questions – can you speak about Nature’s role in all this, the natural world as fully eloquent? And secondly, the book as object of beauty. How important do you feel this is in our techno digital online mass-produced culture?
Glenn Storhaug who runs Five Seasons Press in Hereford (on the Celtic Saxon marches) is a master maker of fine books. The first book of mine that he made, The Ground That Love Seeks, has an oak leaf on its cover. Everywhere in my poems you will find book as tree, tree as book, leaves trembling at the edge of speaking, wind turning the pages, leaves catching light being the true scriptures. How sad I would be if our technologies cut off the possibility of glimpsing, touching, sniffing, flicking through pages, lending books, stealing them, inscribing them, climbing ladders to reach the top shelves of libraries, but especially to remember that ‘Book’ and ‘Beech’ spring from the same root, the one wind blowing through them.
Ah yes, I invited Glenn to the Ucheldre Centre in 1998. His books are beautiful, without doubt, and he writes in his essay ‘On Printing Poetry Aloud’, doesn’t he, that sensitive and attentive printing and layout, with ‘only leaping words against enough white to cut out everything else’ helps to create a reading event. ‘The successful page’ he says ‘releases the text to meet the reader [so that] words stand like branches against the sky or images in stained glass: light shines through rather than onto the poem so each word is given a three-dimensional presence’. I so like that! Glenn also uses beautiful Five Seasons recycled paper and the all-in-all result is a Book Worth Having.
And worth chopping down trees for? That’s a theme I suffer in my poem, ‘Axe and Pen’ (in Slippery Characters).
That’s certainly important! I think many of us share your concern about the survival of the book in our digitised, technologised, ephemeral online world. I for one cannot envisage a world without books, even though I fully partake in the online world and see advantages there too (like us being able to do this). I hope it never needs to be either/or. It is the book, though, that can offer something to posterity, being physically passable to others, down the generations, by hand. Fascinating about that ‘Book’ and ‘Beech’ link, by the way!
Life circumstances arranged that the Lindisfarne Gospel manuscript should serve as my model of what a book might be. My second cousin once removed has a farm on the mainland just across from the island where Eadrith made it. You have made Eadfrith into a saint, I see, and I am glad of that (let Glenn Storhaug be another one!). Lindisfarne is another place where Saxon and Celtic meet – the Celtic lending Eadfrith’s pen a particular ungraspable magic.
The second book that Glenn made for me, Slippery Characters, has as you mention, a lugworm cast on its front cover, and you quote my scurrilous suggestion that the characters inscribed by Eadfrith in his manuscript were prefigured by that slippery character on the island beaches. It is my same theme over and over! In those Gospel characters, in the signs reflected back to us by Nature’s glass, word and world are wound together. ‘To the matter itself a spoken word is inbound’, says Nerval – everywhere an eloquence – but how to hear it? Having an angel lodged in your ear might help a bit!
I borrow Eadfrith’s bird-filled vowels to mark the sections of that book – A, E, I, O, U, and culminating in UM, which is a section all its own, its title being the only content. The other emblems interspersed are of objects and inscriptions dug up out of the ground. I, as you do, love to scrabble in dictionaries for lost origins. It seems I like archaeologies too, where stories bedded in sediment two thousand years are brought to light. Above my fireplace I have a plaster replica of the Paistos Disc. No one has yet managed to decipher its spiral message though many have tried to – the secret of the universe, a forgery, an early attempt at a ‘Monopoly’ board; or it could be a shopping list.
I don’t know very much about Meister Eckhart. Let’s talk about snails instead. I know you are fond of snails. What do I need to know about them?
Well, what I notice about ‘The Night I Heard Something Knocking at My Window’, say, which begins
Is it you, little snail? – dragging your spiral house across the stars
is the way you have portrayed this small creature against ‘the empty roar’ of the night beyond the window. The snail, ‘such a lowly one’, reminds me, I suppose, of our ultimate fragility, yet there is something noble there too. I like that you describe the snail as living ‘so earnestly’ and again we are returned in the poem to the act of listening – you have the snail (despite the sense of great, vast night) close to and making ‘a sound so intimate’.
Then there’s that other snail poem of yours, ‘Paths of Silver’ in The Ground That Love Seeks, which I used some years ago, if you remember, to conclude a paper I wrote for Scintilla called ‘This Even Frailer Flesh’, which is mostly about snail poems – such a fan am I of this oh so slow, low little creature! So what is it about snails that mean they write their way into your poems?
In ‘Paths of Silver’, you mention Basho, the Zen haiku master. How important is ‘the image’ to your writing? And can you say something about what you call ‘poetic consciousness’ and tell us how it can be cultivated?
I do, indeed, remember your snail piece. We humans are so exposed. Snails too, I suppose … but they never leave their homes; they have a spiral staircase to the galaxy. Imagination is the stairway that we humans have – ‘poetic consciousness’- given in childhood, but then we lose it, and start gnashing our teeth in ‘outer darkness’. And then … it is what you are asking … how can the inner light again be quickened? Probably in this context you as a Quaker and something of a Buddhist (are you?) cultivate a meditative practice. I do so in my own haphazard way, partly to find quietness, but mostly (like Shelley’s poet ‘hidden in the light of thought’) to activate a source of knowing beyond the statistical research which nowadays is considered the only legitimate way of knowing anything.
Yes, both the Quaker tradition that I’m part of and the Buddhist tradition I am also something of use ‘inner light’ as a central symbol, understood through experience but impossible to pin down – quite rightly too! The ‘inner light’ is for Quakers another way of saying ‘that of God’. Buddhists talk about ‘enlightenment’ – which is another slippery word! But yes, I do find I need ways to ‘keep close to the ground’ which is to say ‘to the Ground’ which is to say ‘to the inner light’ which is to say … to be quickened by omni-arising L/life and to remain ‘tuned’ to it so that I, as a kind of ‘instrument’, can ‘sing true’. If that makes sense!?
Sense beyond sense – just moving the mind through that sentence might be the quickest way to pass through the Gateless Gate!
My experience has shown me that I need a daily practice of some kind to still me enough to be able to ‘hear’ and ‘retune’, as it were, just like an instrumentalist has to retune her/his musical instrument regularly because a stringed instrument, say, is always drifting out of tune due to environmental pressures and because its body is organic. But my practice is often haphazard, too, despite best intentions!
Some practices that serve me are: to give ear to things (we concur on that); to attend to the unique gesture of flower and tree and tiger as if they were body talk; to look sidelong into the space between – on the tide line between sea and sand, between sleep and awake. Yes, being attentive at that threshold where dreams arise. Such interludes, as I like to call them, brim with the images which also, as you observe, fill my poetry. Surely you with your work with ‘Rhwng: The Point Between’ carry this close to your heart. Soul speaks through pictures. Most satisfying for me is when in my writing groups a simple permission of language allows a shift into ‘some other currency’ of consciousness. In the play between you and me, out of deep attention to the other, the forgotten stairway of the fairy tales suddenly opens.
Poetic consciousness: sometimes the only way is to suffer it in the form of ‘madness’ (Nerval was probably one who did so). Or it comes as grace. For me rain brings it, especially at night, ‘oil and balm’, smoothing the too sharp edges of the things which bruise us. And after the rain the snails creep out to mind the gap between wet and dryness. One night, inwardly annihilated by how vast the cosmos is, I heard the small scraping noise of their shells across my window, and the thought of them inhabiting their tiny lives restored my boundaries. Just the other day I found one on the latch of my garden gate, and then two pretty ones on my father’s gravestone. Messages everywhere. It’s exhausting being a poet! If only the mountain would settle down as mountain for a while and be no more than that!
One feature of your writing is that you draw on particulars of your own life and transmute them into poetry – yes?
This actually troubles me; but what to do about it? Either we shy altogether from the use of ‘I’, or we plunge into it, hoping to glimpse the ‘Fable’ which (says Edwin Muir) dips down occasionally into the stream of what is merely happening. So if in writing about a family visit to the temple of Artemis I touch the Rhwng, the Interlude where Eternity and moment meet then the account of its particulars might be more than personal. And anyway, says Rudolf Steiner, the times have changed. The stars which spoke to us once lean down to hear what we have to tell about the snails and lugworms that we encounter. Why are we talking so much about animals, do you think?
Maybe because in the word ‘animal’ lives the word ‘anima’ or ‘soul’? And we all live as creatures, created beings-? I have always felt close to animals, loving them easily and abundantly, with a full heart. I nurse this question: ‘What would happen if we raised the status of the word ‘animal’ so that it was used as a compliment?’ We have separated humans (us) from animals (them) and use animal words as insults: she’s a pig, he’s a dirty dog, they’re behaving like animals. I have learnt through long experience though that we ‘animals’ (souls) are basically more alike than different. I learn so much from my animal encounters and companions – mostly about love.
Just occasionally we do use mouse and kitten in our love talk.
We do – true. I quite like to think of us all as part of a ‘kin-dom’ – that’s one way, anyway, of putting it. That’s not to collapse obvious differences into each other or simplify complexity, of course.
A difference we started with is that the animals don’t name themselves. It’s in the close up human word that nature becomes conscious of itself and (hopefully) cared for in the ways you speak of.
Your poetry is fully creatured, I’ve noted. We’ve touched on snails, but there are plenty of other animals cooing and buzzing and snuffling through your pages, including pigs, whose ‘tails/are curled as a question mark’ (‘The Pig (for Plato)’ in The Ground That Love Seeks).
One question I have for you is about how Rudolf Steiner has influenced your work.
If my question about the ‘spiritual world’ had been addressed to him he would have said most certainly. Not as a mystic, though. He recognized what a vacuum flask the brain can be yet, ‘spiritual scientist’ that he was, he kept faith in thinking, seeking ways to warm it up, make it ‘luminous, penetrating deeply into the phenomena of the world’. ‘Into’ is the potent word here. When scientists keep probing into things with their instruments I can’t help wondering whether the particles they come by are just smaller outwardnesses. For Steiner imagination was the instrument, his insights proving fruitful in the development of holistic methods of agriculture, medicine, education and the arts, and (may I say so) in the Biographical Counselling through which my wife and colleagues help people find an inside to their lives, to be the shaper of their story not the victim of it. This must be why in mapping the patterns of my own biography (including its significant seven year phases) my poems often include news of how old I am. Call it the myth I live by if you think this crazy.
Oh no – not crazy at all. ‘Much madness is divinest sense’ anyway, as Emily Dickinson famously said!
You have been rather caring of me throughout this dialogue, but I can imagine that others reading it would dismiss it right away as mystic mumblings!
Oh well – let’s continue our mumblings anyway! And, if you like, I can play the ‘dia-bolic’ hand here and say that many in our postmodern culture would be sceptical of your ‘universal’ explanations and ‘meta-narratives’, preferring to regard all truths as relative, provisional and fallible, with ‘realities’ being social or cultural ‘constructs’.
Chameleon poet that I am, I could easily turn that colour, except that I would call them ‘compositions’ not ‘constructs’. If all the world’s a stage then anything false or fixed in the narratives we play will necessarily be tested. Emerson College where I studied and then worked was a crucible for that.
Could you say something about your teaching there? I’m so glad I came down to Emerson for the ‘Poetry Otherwise’ weeks you ran for – how many years was it? I came at least twice or three times and always longed to come back. Those weeks proved truly memorable and formative in many ways – I have very fond memories of the Emerson experience.
Some generous destiny led me to this ‘community of works’ where imagination was viewed as vital for those preparing to be teachers, farmers, environmentalists, counsellors, sculptors, nurses, social workers, besides the poets and storytellers who would naturally expect it. This was the acorn from which my Sing Me the Creation grew – my students coaxed it out of me; and when teachers tell me now that their work with children has been enlivened by it I feel just maybe I have done something useful.
Yes. It is a wonderful ‘sourcebook’, as you call it, in all senses.
Those summer gatherings which you contributed to were also highlights of my time at the College. Devoted though they were to the crafting of poetry, the care given to language in the work place and in human relationships allowed a further something to arise – a sense of communion I would call it.
Yes – I agree.
In the full course of a year this often included the task of finding words whereby the many-cultured Emerson community could participate freely in the festivals that we celebrated. These are the things I am most grateful for. Emerson College in its heyday carried a vision of ‘Love, the Human Form Divine’ (Blake’s words) which allowed personal search and creativity to go hand in hand with professional training. My book, Words in Place, written as I was stepping back from my full time work, is an attempt to gather an essence of what I found there.
I’ve noticed that towards the end of Slippery Characters, in ‘What Poetry Serves’, you say that ‘poetry is one way of loving language’ and you also share what you discovered from your Japanese friends about the larynx being ‘shaped like the Buddha, and that Buddha-Throat is actually their name for it’. Amazing! I have long felt a kind of inner demand, urge or call to ‘Right Speech’, one of the Buddha’s advised practices, as part of the Noble Eightfold Path. So is this what poetry can also serve – are the two linked?
These last questions of yours are calling me back from play into my ‘legislator’s’ office! Somewhere I do remark that poetry is an obedience as well as a wild pleasure, and in the piece you refer to I enlarge on that. The Buddha tells us that whoever steps out on a ‘path of right speech’ is sure to meet four shadows: hurtful talk, trivia, slander and untruthfulness. Why four? This links me again to the human ideals and responsibilities that statement, question, exclamation and command declare to us, four powers of grammar which guard and guide the path I offer in my writing groups:
Whose word could be truthful enough for the Stone to accept it? Who could have beauty enough to speak for the Rose? Who could be innocent enough to utter what’s at the heart of a Wolf or a Goldfish? Whose word could be grounded in love enough to sound what is most deeply Human?
Innocent as a wolf? It smiles to hear my holy medals clinking.
Well, this returns us, perhaps, to Sing Me The Creation – to naming, to imagination and to the poetic impulse which moves us to ‘give voice’. In that book, you tell the story of 7th century Caedmon, the first known English poet (Northumbrian) – and carer of animals – who was visited by an angel in a dream and asked to ‘sing something’. He didn’t feel he was able to sing anything. He felt without any gift of voice, song or word. He said ‘What shall I sing?’ and the angel said ‘Sing me the Creation’.
And you say:
‘It is a marvellous, two-fold commission, and central to the work of any poet –
to praise the glory of the created world
to care for the sources of creativity and Imagination’.
I am always moved and inspired when I return to this, Paul. When I remember it, I am ‘re-membered’.
I have one final question for you: is there a poem of yours we can post up here to sing the creation?
Here is another of my animal poems. You can post that if you want to:
It’s me. Minikin Mouse. Can I help you, Lord? I wonder sometimes whether my squeak is heard among your spiral galaxies. If you have need, though, for a whiskered thing to nibble the nebulae ask me; I’m ready.
Thank you so much, Paul – it’s been a real pleasure turning over this ground with you.
Often we don’t know what we know until we are asked. Thank you for asking.
This conversation is also posted on the Tears in the Fence website, with many thanks to editor David Caddy.