The Rites of Paradise, my first full collection of poetry, is in print. I have considered gathering my work for a while. Initial enthusiasm from one publishing house came to nothing. Then, unexpectedly, an offer was made. Scattered poems were to be collected and preserved between covers. They were to be given a life beyond the moment of their initial publication. In isolation, a poem can be appreciated, only to be lost among the myriad claims on our attention. That is not how it ought to be. Writing is not an ephemeral activity. Poetry is written to be remembered.
Poetry, as a serious rather than an occasional activity, began for me thirteen or fourteen years ago. Teaching Writing led to helping found a poetry café. I began to write poetry again. Tentative enquiries about publication met with success. A range of print and on-line publications internationally accepted my work. Of course no agency will handle poetry so all the work falls on the poet’s shoulders.
It was not too difficult to find an outlet, except in one or two cases where what I considered my best writing, no-one else liked until I found the right place for it. Long ago, I saw that if my best wasn’t good enough, I would need to do better than my best. Rejection is always a stimulus to reflect on what may be done to strengthen one’s resources. Some rejected work is discarded. Some is reshaped. And some accepted work subsequently finds itself necessarily discarded. Not everything published deserves to be preserved in a collection.
Rarely will publishers consider a first full collection. Only a handful of first collections are published without subsidy. It requires an exceptional leap of faith for a publisher to undertake the costs of launching a work that will have a limited readership because far more people write poetry than read it. Even established poets are finding it difficult, yet the survival of poetry depends on new collections.
We collect our thoughts. Random speculations need to cohere into a systematic catalogue of reasoned arguments for or against. There are times when we need to take a step back from what is happening in order to make sense of what we see and what we feel.
We collect rare or interesting and/or beautiful objects. Collecting is for many a habit. Often it is a harmless pastime, although it can become an impulse pursued to the point of obsession. Pinning down a butterfly means taking the life out of a beautiful creature. It means destroying the very thing you admire. The fanatic always follows the treacherous allure of the single pursuit. That, of course, was the meaning behind The Collector, John Fowles’s masterpiece of exploration into the psyche of heartless obsession. Without human feeling, a collection [of anything] is a soulless, secret chamber in the house of the dead.
We collect our poems. Poems scattered here and there in magazines, anthologies and podcasts need to be gathered into one space, like animals at feeding or milking time. A poet does not feel validated or valued until those interesting and/or beautiful words are brought together into a colloquy where separate ideas and feelings are shaped into a pattern of images.
Poets have themes they return to in varying ways. I find that oceans and rivers recur in my creative imagination. An armchair seafarer, Moby Dick is high on my list of great books. I was brought up in a small port where the surrounding farmland was often flooded. So the impending changes in climate are very real to me. I walked to junior school along a causeway between water meadows. In winter they flooded. There were curious chimneys that were part of a drainage system. You could hear the water flowing beneath in one of the underground rivers. Sometimes there was water in the streets. How could I not be affected by this childhood experience?
My poems use memory to recall the poetry’s interior landscapes. Some words are inspired by actual incidents, real people and identifiable places. The acts of writing and reading are forms of reliving. We draw upon our experiences when we write. We bring something of our experience into our reception of a creative work. We filter the words through our archive of personal interest. We re-create what we experience because we need that imprint of memory to speak beyond ourselves. A poem is a carving on a rock, the symbol of an ancient lore that cannot be interpreted now though it can be understood. Listen to the poetry in an unfamiliar language. You will not be able to translate the meaning, but you will hear the poetry.
It is not music you hear but words. The language is unfamiliar, yet it wills you to translate because the sounds are so intense, so composed, so harmonious that they convey meaning [as music does not] even when the meaning itself is elusive.
It is a truth every poet discovers that words are not mere objects, symbols on a page that mean only what we agree them to mean. Words may have a life independent of their writer. A poem caused me some difficulty. I revised it more than once without resolving the difficulty of writing a satisfactory poem from the resources in my mind. I tried abandoning it for a time. Later I intended to return and complete it to my satisfaction. I found it impossible to abandon. It demanded that I continue until the process was complete. Some force compelled me to continue the task of revision. I really could not leave it alone. I could not turn to another project. The poem would not allow this. I did not in any literal sense hear a voice telling me what to do, but I felt a compulsion that I could not resist. Those words had an animate life within them. Or so it seemed. Yes, it sounds slightly weird, but there are more things in heaven and earth….
The Rites of Paradise has unintentional echoes of my novel, Heaven’s Invention. That may seem to indicate some religious conviction that is not at the forefront of my mind. Not that I don’t have beliefs. They are there sequestered. Religious belief does not encompass every waking thought, nor do I think it ought. The quest for a metaphysic is, I believe, essential to our consciousness as human beings. It is the element that distinguishes us and in the end may save us. Poetry is an expression of that quest.
Faith, in my life, is part of the background, a shaping influence rather than a map of intentions. It is not written out on the sands of destiny. We are wandering on earth at will, seeking the lost paradise we can never find because life is about process and progress rather than contentment. We are born to experiment and fail and then to try again. That is where our human fulfilment is found, in succeeding after trials. Nothing is worth having that is not earned.
It may be objected that everything worth doing requires a measure of the single pursuit. Dedication, however, is not obsession. The serious poet pursues a number of objectives by tempering imagination with reason. A serious poets knows that words are not tools or toys. Words are to be used with care. They are for speaking to others. Gaining an audience is a gradual and sometimes frustrating process. To be published is to exist as a writer. Published, the poetry is seen to be real. Of course publication is for those with something to say that is said with a degree of energy, personality and the originality that these qualities can offer. A bad poet can be fixated on the fantasy of publication and recognition. Good sense allows the bad poet to abandon poetry for something else, or to take a step back and to look hard at what is wrong with the poetry being written.
Stepping back is something a poet must do. There was a house in the distance. On fine, clear days it seemed quite close. On dull days it was far away. I remember it as being far away because in that image, I have a sense of distance. The distant prospect offers a wider canvas, although the image required is the minute detail. That detail speaks of greater things. Intuitive understanding plays a large part in evoking the metaphors of poetry. Something from the recesses of our reflections, ambitions and wishes comes forward. Something murmured in the distance becomes an intelligible, if not wholly clear, sound, an echo of a half-remembered harmony. It is a lyre in the wind that blows from Arcadia if not from Eden. The seemingly random sounds cohere into a natural melody. An unfamiliar language begins to make sense.
Perhaps it never makes complete sense. Philip Larkin’s dictum was that a poem should be intelligible at first reading without yielding everything at once. It requires a second reading, then perhaps a third. A poem is in perpetual need of revision. A poet always dies with his work incomplete. Auden liked to quote Valéry that a poem is never finished, only abandoned.
There comes a point when the abandonment is necessary, just as in maturity we must leave home to find our way in the world. Writing is both a record of ideas and a revision of ideas. Knowing what not to say is as important as knowing what to say. Everything I write is written and re-written until in some cases the end bears no relation to the beginning beyond a few phrases that work well. They are images searching for a context. In the right context they find their meaning in relation to other images. If successful a poem sounds and looks right. It is the way it must be for the words to develop their possibilities. There is no other way for it be but those words in that order. The intuitive feel is everything, yet it is not really explicable. The right words in the right order are as mysterious as our deepest responses to the world we find, though they are the fruit of the most careful cultivation.
There comes a time when they must be picked from the tree. The invitation to take and eat is open. At each bite think not only of the taste but of the blossom that fell in the wind, of the leaves that grew in the spring waking, of the hands that worked to cultivate the trees. Words must have life behind them, or they are not worth reading. The hope is for life. The hope is for writing that lives beyond the moment of its composition. So much in the world is ephemeral that we naturally seek permanence or at least some continuity.
We also seek to reach out to others. Words have to be heard or read to exist fully in the world. Sequestered in our private thoughts, writing does not live because it does not speak to others. So, naturally, we need the validity that publication can give. There are many books published, but every literary act is a record of a personal response. Such records speak not only to the reader now but to unknown readers in unknown futures. The words begin to make sense.