Minimalism

I’ve been reading quite a lot about literary minimalism as I embark on another draft of the novel.  It’s been interesting to re-read early Hemingway, for example Fiesta, which is a good example.  Minimalism was an art movement formed after the Second World War, mostly in the visual arts, in part as a reaction against Abstract Expressionism. It’s a style associated with two giants of American literature, Raymond Carver and Ernest Hemingway.

What is it?  It’s a style of writing most associated with an economy of words and a focus on surface description. It is said that, as a style, it encourages readers to take an active role in creating the story, by filling in the internal lives of the characters rather than being spoon fed by the author.

Fiesta, by Hemingway, is a fantastic example of this.  It takes a very close reading to realise that we are being set up in the first book with the barest hints of what I take to be the central tragedy of the novel – that Jake, the narrator, has suffered such a horrific injury in the war that he can never consummate his relationship with Brett Ashley, despite both of them, at the beginning at least, being in love. But these are hints only, we are never told. Just as we are never given any real closure on one of the central themes, which is whether Jake then lives vicariously by ‘pimping’ Lady Ashley out to his various acquaintances, or whether he is so in love he is just following her every whim. Is it bitterness or love that drives him? Or both. We never really find out what Hemingway truly thinks. But perhaps that’s even better.

What it does do, and what I love, is that it does allow the characters to ‘breathe’ inside the reader’s mind. Who are the villains, the heroes. Hemingway won’t tell us.  But he hints just enough for the reader to understand that there’s a choice in play, which the reader is invited to make.

The concept of leaving enough room for ideas to breathe is also absolutely part of poetry. If it’s too ‘on the nose’, to borrow a theatrical phrase, we lose interest. But too little context and we’re lost.

I’m sure Philip Larkin would have abhorred being referred to as a ‘minimalist’.  He was reluctant enough to be associated with the poetic group known as The Movement, a loose grouping of post-war English poets who saw themselves as collectively trying to avoid ‘excess’ in theme and style in their poetry. But The Movement has some similarities with Minimalism, and as I read Larkin and Hemingway I’m struck by the same feeling as a reader, in particularly a desire to be understood clearly on the surface of the work, to use simple language and directness, and to focus the reader through a very concise grammar and sentence construction.  With both Larkin and Hemingway, the effect is very powerful. And I like that both had an artistic worldview that made them consciously write like this. It really does pull the reader into an active engagement with the work.

What are the equivalent literary movements now? Elliptical poetry could be said to be one. I’m less sure in modern fiction. And do we need them, or is modern fiction too fragmented a landscape to have an overall aesthetic?  I plan to find out, but am also planning to keep going back to minimalism as a way of letting fiction breathe, even if my own style is quite different.

From Outline to Novel

Over the last twelve months for nearly every waking moment I can spare when not working, I have been writing feverishly, first a feature-length screenplay as the last component of my Master’s course, and then the novel (see my previous blog).

The reason for the rush has been the need to finish before I time-out of my university:  I need to graduate within five years or I can’t collect my degree.   That time limit expires this summer.   Poetry has fallen to one side, at least in terms of finished poems. The exception was a nice shout-out from the Bridport Prize, which shortlisted one of the few poems I have written this year for their 2018 poetry prize.

Right now I’m working with my mentor, the fantastic Canadian novelist Wayne Grady, on a second full draft of the novel.  It’s changed completely in the last twelve months, requiring a near-complete fresh start last June, when it became clear that the overly complicated structure I had naively chosen wasn’t working.  Quite simply, the ‘voice’ of the novel didn’t sound right.  Nor did the time-line.

What did I learn? Mostly I learned by failure.  There are many hundreds of novel-writing blogs out there, but in the hope that someone reading this might save themselves some time when attempting a novel, I thought I might write up a couple of the things I learned along the way, over the last three years since the idea of the novel itself was first formed, to the final, ludicrously busy dash of the last eight months to get it across the finish line.

1.      Keep it simple

One of the major mistakes I made was trying to use a fancy structure, that started in the middle of the action and then went forward and backwards simultaneously.  It worked just well enough to bind me into it for a ruinously long time. Then, when I came back to it after several weeks with fresh eyes, it was clear it no longer worked.  It was truly terrible to start again, but I fooled myself with the promise that I would just work in the old material to save time.  As it happened, it didn’t fit.  But going back to the outline and telling the story sequentially, in the simplest way I could, immediately changed the writing for the better.  After that, it began to write itself straight from the outline.

2.      Plotting pays dividends

I don’t think I would have been able to start again were it not for the outline.  I’d plotted the novel in a detailed way, scene-by-scene, in the similar way to a treatment for a screenplay. The outline was fifteen pages, small font.  When I went back to the beginning, the principle problem other than the structure was the addition of  several non-western points of view for much of the action in Pakistan’s tribal areas and Afghanistan itself.  That required a huge amount of research, which I only managed thanks to UBC’s library, and the comfort of having spent a bit of time in both countries.  But what it did was widen out the story, and create series of sub-plots, that I think really drive the mid-section of the novel. So it was worth it.  In the end, the outline is now just that – the actual novel goes far beyond it.  But it was essential to have the form of the novel, even when straying from it as I wrote.

3.      You need research, but only so much

I could still be doing research for the novel. The countries in which it is set are so rich, and their cultures so fascinating, I could have spent years. But I didn’t have years.  In the end, I found the best way was to read a bit, and then write until I reached a block, and then read again. This at least kept me going forward.  I’ve also found a reader from Afghanistan to help me really get the cultural and linguistic detail right – the former New York Times journalist and writer Habib Zahori. His input, and constructive challenge, has been invaluable. I’m deeply grateful.

4.      No man (or woman) is an island

Writing a novel is a lonely but beautiful process. Being networked in to a group of writers and interested friends has been invaluable. The novel has been written all over the place – Vancouver, Sarajevo, Venice, Vicenza and last but not least home, Colchester, where I snuck into the University of Essex library to finish over the summer. Wherever I have been, having that network has really sustained me.  I wouldn’t have finished without it.  Thank you – you all know who you are.

The relief when Wayne told me that the first draft was working OK was so much I wore a smile for days. Now…onwards towards spring!

Writing from Memory

I’m sitting here by candlelight, on a hot summer’s evening in Sarajevo.  It’s been a hot day, well up in the thirties, and the night has drifted by.  Now, just after midnight, it’s dark, and quiet on the street outside, and I’m here, staring at my usual spot on the wall, just below a framed portrait of the New Yorker. It’s my usual routine when writing.  Writing-wise, it’s been a good few months: some new poetry coming out shortly in the Canadian literary journal, The Antigonish Review, and the glimmer of an idea for a new collection. I’ve also made some good progress on the novel. I have a hundred and fifty pages now, which is great, but not enough to rest on one’s laurels.   So, like many other nights this Spring and Summer, I’m sitting here at midnight staring at the wall.

It’s not as mad as you might think.  The wall is real, not metaphorical.  It may be metaphorical, but it’s also reassuringly solid.  There’s a photo, here:

My Wall

This particular wall is in my basement, where one can go on hot nights, to escape and to write.

And I’m sitting here, running through my fast-fading collection of mental impressions of two places: the sparse, muddy fields of northern Afghanistan, and the wide open beaches of St. Ives, England.  The novel I’m writing is set in both places, and follows a separated couple, one still working in Afghanistan, one returning, wounded, to England.  For them, both places are alive. And that’s the problem, because for me they are not. They are indistinct, half-caught, a photograph of a moving target that the passage of time itself has further blurred.

Carbis Bay, Cornwall, April 2017

One of these impressions, of Carbis Bay in Cornwall, is much fresher than the other.  That helps with the beach scenes in the novel, where the sea needs to hiss in off the page.  But Afghanistan is more difficult.   I visited only a handful of times, way back in 2003-4.   The memories of that time are fading. It’s more difficult to conjure them onto the page, to remember – even with the help of photos, or someone else’s recollections – how it felt, smelled, how it was to be there.

Sar-e Pol Province, Afghanistan, 2004

Writing from memory is an interesting challenge.  It can be supplemented by so many things, by so many other peoples’ recollections, whether in pictures they’ve taken, stories they’ve written, or tales that they’ve told. My girlfriend spent two years in Kabul, and can conjure scenes, impressions, heart-stopping stories, at the drop of a hat.  Some details, even of the impressions of others, are so vivid that as a writer one becomes almost a curator, a custodian of sense-impressions carefully arranged to provoke, or conjure, something for the reader.  Only the writer knows which are his, and which are borrowed.  But the interesting thing is that the rabbit pulled from a half-real and half-imaginary hat has to seem completely real, both for the characters to interact convincingly in it, and to transport the reader into the period in question.  This is obvious to say, but very hard to do. Which comes back to the wall point.

I’m just back from Vancouver, where I locked myself away for the two weeks of the MFA summer residency, sweating until the early hours, pushing on.  The walls were different but they were all the same.  At least in Vancouver there was at least the gorgeous Pacific coast waiting. I sat in the library and could smell the ocean as soon as I came through the doors.   Some of those sense-impressions may themselves have crept into the draft, might have mingled with, or overlaid, the impressions I have of the Atlantic in early April.  Does this matter? For some writers it might.  Those writers would have to hear, or see, everything that they intend to portray.  Personally, I think it’s that messy, beautiful space in which an engaged mind in the present (the reader) connects with an engaged mind in the past (the writer), that matters most. The time travel inherent in anyone being absorbed by a novel does strange things to detail, and authenticity becomes as much about voice as an actual record.   So that’s where I’m trying to get to, page by page, sentence by sentence.   And the wall? It’s something I rest against, from time to time.

Wreck Beach, British Columbia, last week

 

Jim Jarmush & Drafting

Last night I sat in a semi-deserted cinema in Sarajevo watching ‘Paterson’. It’s a film by Jim Jarmush about a poet who drives a bus in suburban New Jersey.  It’s very Jarmush: off-beat, slow, full of staged wondering.  It’s also very beautiful.  What I particularly liked about it was how it showcased, in a cinematic way, the process of writing poetry, in a way that seemed very honest.  The words came stumbling out across the screen, as the poet sat writing a first draft.  Some of the words were clumsy, some sentences didn’t scan, some images didn’t hit their target.

By the time of the second draft, things had been tightened. The viewer was privy to the notebook with its jottings and crossings-out.  The cadence of the sentences had improved. There was a strong opening and a strong final image.  And so the poet goes on, trimming, adjusting, re-writing.  Until at some stage he or she decides it’s done.  Which is possibly the hardest part of all.

I find it incredibly difficult to know when a poem is finished.  Some poems I’m revising for years. Some you can just feel that they haven’t quite hit the target you want, and they sit in draft, way down the list, waiting for that final touch, or a complete re-write.  The film portrayed that very well.  And also – without giving too much away – the utter despair you feel when your work is lost, or the idea just won’t fly.

I’ve spent a lot of time over the last few months working on prose rather than poetry.  But poetry is always there, it finds you at unexpected moments: 4am while wide awake, in the shower, in the back of a cab as you round a corner into a street you haven’t seen before.  A few months back, I sat with the windows open as a big rainstorm blew up the long valley. From the veranda I could see out over the city as the storm hit, as the rain came down very suddenly, the pause between the whipcrack of lightning, and the long rolling thunder. And equally suddenly it was over – just like that.   So I sat there and wrote something, and – like it does sometimes – it just came straight out.  It was one of the very few poems that didn’t need a second draft.  I’m very pleased to say that The London Magazine picked it up, and it will feature in their April/May issue, out soon.

With all the rest of the poetry that I’ve written in the last few months though, it has been a question of writing and re-writing.  Perhaps that struggle is normal.  Having seen Jarmush’s film last night, I comfort myself that it is.  But it is still rather wonderful when something appears complete, and flows off the pen as if it were already composed. Without all that drafting and re-drafting.  Makes you wonder where creativity comes from, and how quickly ideas come and go. Rather like that thunderstorm. Or a man sitting writing on a bus, as the credits roll.

Why the MFA?

I’ve spent the last two weeks in Vancouver, at the University of British Columbia, on the UBC summer writers’ residency. UBC is a huge university, with a beautiful campus. It’s situated in a perfect location steps from the famous, or notorious, Wreck Beach, with its glorious sunsets over the Pacific. All in all, a great place to spend two weeks focussing on writing, and learning about the craft of writing.

People keep asking me why I’m doing an MA in Creative Writing. Everyone can write, right? Of course they can. But everyone can also hammer five pieces of wood together, and call it a chair. I guess it depends whether on not you want something functional or polished.

The arguments for are well encapsulated in a great book I read recently, New York vs. MFA. In North America, in order to make any sort of living out of being a writer, you pretty much have to get an MFA these days. Why? Because it shows you’re serious about craft, not just words on a page. And because you learn how to write work that will get read. Because you can learn where the money is, for example how to adapt your own novel into a screenplay. And because standards of writing are now so high that you need to learn the basics. Then you get a university job, as a writer. And then you get to teach creative writing courses, which, theoretically at least, then ‘free you up’ to write. In the US, that certainly gives you access to healthcare, a little bit of job security, and a sense of profession, as well as vocation.

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The arguments against are basically that this is all superfluous. Academia is no place for writers. Teaching writers standardises writers, and will kill natural expression. Did Orwell do a creative writing MFA? No, he washed dishes. Did Jonathan Franzen? No, he dropped out of college. Perhaps, as some of the essays in the book suggest, they just leave you drained, and with nothing to write about, other than ‘the writing life’, whatever that is. What you really need to to, say the critics, is get a life. Move to New York, live in a garret. Work nights in a seedy dive. See life first-hand. And write about it.

In the UK we don’t really have the same emphasis put on the profession of writing as in the US. Most writers had never heard of an MA in Creative Writing, when they started (though to be fair they have now). And I think if I had gone straight from university to a creative writing programme in my early 20s, trying to make it as a ‘professional’ writer, I would literally have nothing to write about.

But what the course has done, over the last couple of years, is make me rather awestruck, in a good way, about the level of craft a writer can bring to writing. Yes, you can just go and write. But will you write well? Perhaps. But most of us need to practice at lot, and get it wrong a lot. Or produce stuff that isn’t worth reading. And then to have it looked at, sympathetically and critically, by a group of other people trying to do the same. And to be told what works and what doesn’t.
A good example of this is what I produced on this summer’s residency. A short story – twenty pages – about a meeting between the Cambridge philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein and an unknown postdoc, claiming to have produced something new. I still think it’s a great idea. But it didn’t grip anyone in the workshop. In fact, it was so densely packed as to be confusing. In the end, I have concluded, I got it wrong. On one level, it feels as if I’ve wasted the ten days in Vancouver. That’s my focussed writing time for the next twelve months. On another level, getting it wrong has shown me something important – that writing is only as good as a reader thinks it is. And if people are confused, your job is not yet finished. So it’s back to the drawing board on this one.

On the other hand, the first chapter of my novel received lots of great feedback in the workshop. So there’s plenty of good stuff to work on. If I wasn’t doing this course, I’d probably think everything I produce is finished. Or that it’s good enough to go out. Now I know that finishing is only the start, and that, thanks to the careful, critical reading of a group of people I trust, I might rework it into something even better. Something good enough to be read. Something that carries weight. Something that is not, to return to where I started in this blog, just five pieces of wood knocked together.

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Storytelling in Quebec City

The ImagiNation Festival in Quebec City was great fun. It was cold for Spring, even by Quebec standards, a chilly -9 C at times. But, despite the cold, it was still exciting to wander the streets of the old town, and stand by the citadel, in the shadow of the statue to the great explorer Samuel de Champlain, looking out over the giant St. Laurence river and four hundred years of exploration and history. Gazing out over the implacable river, impersonal, almost inhuman in its immensity, it’s impossible not to daydream a little about the lives played out on the river, running the frequent, and hazardous, month-long voyages from the old world to the new, trading furs for guns and liquor. It was, in its time, the wild East – the frontier. It’s still my favourite word in the English language, and – like Canada’s modern history – starts with the French.

Quebec, or ‘Kebek’ in Huron, on the other hand, starts with the First Nations. It means ‘where the river narrows’. It was a beautiful, evocative setting for a literature festival, which brought together a range of writers, from Governor-General award nominee Clifford Jackman, whose dark, nihilistic Western novel has already been bought up by Hollywood, to one of Canada’s best known publishers Douglas Gibson, whose anecdote-filled memoir about publishing some of the world’s most famous authors was one of the best attended events.

My own gig, in the old library at the Morrin Centre – I think Canada’s oldest library – was exciting, not least to be reading in the same room as Dickens once read on one of his North American tours. I was the only poet to be invited to the festival, which was a real privilege. A copy of Beetle is now part of the library’s collection, in keeping with the tradition of the festival. I find that quietly thrilling. Perhaps one day my grandchildren will visit, following their own path up the St. Laurence, and find it there. Perhaps seeing the dedication – to my daughter Katja, who I love so much – will help explain my life to her, or to her children. Perhaps that will narrow the distance between us in some way, and make up for the fact that I can’t always be there as she grows up. I hope so. Any relationship – especially that of a father and his children – needs to be defined by something more than absence. We need to meet in that place where the river narrows.

Doug and I were invited to have dinner with one of the festival directors, who also happens to be one of Canada’s best novelists, Neil Bissoondath. We had a great night, and I asked a lot of questions about writing and publishing a novel. Neil, who came to the reading, mischeviously pointed out that Beetle sounds like a novel-in-waiting. Maybe he’s right. Poetry certainly helps with prose. And I think that’s where I’m heading next, over the summer: a novel about Afghanistan, or more specifically about the relationship between a female intelligence officer and the agent that she’s running, a flamboyant Pakistani arms dealer. It’s based on a short story I wrote this year, and tentatively entitled ‘Leviathan’. Meanwhile, a new collection of poetry is slowly taking shape. Very slowly. But that’s the nature of writing – form follows content, or at least it should. And right now, I’m interested in character, and the telling of stories. We’ll see where it goes over the summer.

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IMAGINATION 2016, QUEBEC CITY – READING

As trailed in my previous blog, I’ll be reading in Quebec City on Saturday 10th March, as a guest of Quebec City’s ImagiNation 2016 Literary Festival. There’s a fantastic line-up of first class authors over the five days of the festival, in a beautiful city. It’s going to be great to be a part of it. Do come if you can. Full details below:

www.morrin.org/en/events/imagination-2016/

and on Facebook (www.facebook.com/morrin.centre/events).

Writing, and Reading

How much of the meaning a poem or piece of fiction, is provided by the writer? And how much by the reader? And does it matter whether it’s read, or heard?

On a night flight out of Toronto, heading for Munich, I find myself thinking about these questions. I’ve been writing a lot of fiction recently, and – for the first time in a while – have switched back to poetry. There’s a blank screen in front of me, glowing in the dim light of the cabin. I’m finding it hard to jump between the two. Poetry helps with fiction, no doubt about that. But I’m beginning to wonder whether fiction actually inhibits poetry.

Fiction concerns itself primarily with character – good literature being an exploration, and celebration of, human dignity. Regardless of whether a character is a prince or a pauper, a good writer will draw render them complete, as subjects in their own right. Poetry on the other hand is primarily concerned with emotional truth, with conveying emotion through time. As such, as someone very clever in a poetry workshop I was once part of once said, poetry only requires the ‘corner of an idea’. In fiction, you need not just the corner, but the entire canvas.

Why does this matter? It matters artistically because as a writer one is trying to find the optimum balance between writer and reader. Even if a writer has only the corner of an idea – an impression – when starting out, you still want as a reader to get more than that from reading something. A writer needs to give just enough to allow the reader’s imagination to take flight. But too much, and you end up clipping the reader’s wings. Too little, and the reader loses interest. But the balance is very different in different genres, and so moving between them isn’t particularly easy.

I’m guessing that in fiction, about sixty percent of the work is done by the writer. You’re giving a reader a complete picture of a world, and the characters within it, and leaving them to ‘dream’ (if that’s the right word) that world into life. There’s still a lot for an active reader to do. But there’s more to hold on to. More of a handrail, for want of a better term.

In poetry, I reckon it’s closer to twenty-eighty: the poet gives the reader twenty percent of the meaning of a poem, with the reader providing eighty percent of it through their own imagination, their own experience, their own reference points etc. But that twenty percent has to be so good, so immediate, so arresting, that it conveys everything the reader needs to assemble that impression for themselves.

Does this change if the poetry is read or spoken? And should that influence the writer when writing it? It certainly used to: in previous centuries poetry was primarily spoken, rather than read. The fourteen line sonnet form, which really came into its own in thirteenth century Italy, made for a convenient structure to commit to memory. It had the added advantage of not being too long, so as not to bore anyone listening. And it was written to be spoken: iambic pentameter pretty much matches the length of time a speaker can comfortably speak a line before taking a breath.

Nowadays a lot of poetry tends to be longer, and more discursive. It frequently doesn’t have a strict form or metre, superficially at least. One would think it would be more difficult to hold an audience’s attention for so long, not least as there’s no possiblity for an audience to re-read the poem. But readings and festivals seem to have never been more popular, and there’s work out there, like Allan Ginsburg’s Howl, or Atsuro Riley’s Romey’s Order, which is not only as good when heard, but possibly better. I think that’s pretty exciting. Perhaps, if one believes that the poem is the most completely portable of all art forms – one that can be carried in the mind and reproduced perfectly at will, simply by speaking it aloud – then there’s something important about poetry that works at least as well when spoken, as when read on the page. Perhaps the best poetry should aim at both.

All of this is on my mind as I’ve been invited to return to Canada in a month, to read at the ImagiNation Writers’ Festival in Quebec City. It’s a great festival, and a long reading slot. Ideally, I’d like to try out some new stuff. Which is why I’m sitting here, at four in the morning, somewhere over the Atlantic, trying to write…
Saturday 9th April 2016, 14hrs. The ImagiNation Writers’ Festival 2016, Quebec City.

(www.morrin.org/en/events/imagination-2016-matthew-henley)

Poetry & Time

December 1819 was an unhappy month for the poet John Keats.  His beloved younger brother, Tom, had died of tuberculosis on 1 December, while Keats nursed him in their dank, two-bed apartment on Well Walk in Hampstead.  Keats himself had a persistent sore throat, itself a symptom of the tuberculosis that he had caught while nursing his brother, that would eventually prove to be his own ‘death warrant’, as he called it.  He had little money, and only a single collection of poetry to his name.  Worse still, in amidst all this pain and confusion, he’d fallen hopelessly in love with the neighbour of his best friend, but he knew that her mother would never approve of the match. Who, after all, could approve of such a flaky career choice as a poet?

I go back to Keats often whenever life gets, or seems to get, tough. Because the next year of Keats’ life was not one of despair or depression, though he had moments of both.  It was a year in which he took all the forces that life was subjecting him to – the hopelessness of his love and the certainty of his pain – and forged from it something wonderful, and ground-breaking. Beset by troubles, with only his love for Fanny Brawne to cling onto,  he wrote some of his best work. Keats used what he called Negative Capability – the ability to hold two continuous states of emotion without judging between them or favouring one over the other – accepting that love and pain were, for him, intertwined and inextricable.  It was this complexity of emotion, and the technical craft that allowed him to do it, that you can still feel nearly two hundred years later, whenever you read his poetry.  And it was the acceptance of suffering as an equal part of life as love or joy that left Keats able to write it.

What Keats’ poetry shows, I think, is that poetry is the most effective means of communicating emotion through time.  Other art does this too of course.  Mark Rothko’s paintings- sometimes luminously beautiful, sometimes melancholy or even menacing – are an example of how well visual art can do this.  But what poetry can do that no other art form can do is combine the immediacy of , say, a Rothko painting with the contextual background of why it is so, why that emotion, be it joy or heartbreak, is what the poet is feeling.  It’s this sense of location within a given emotion, of empathy if you like,  that makes poetry work so well in helping us feel, rather than merely understand. Good poetry is therefore a immediate shortcut into the soul, into the truth of what it is to be alive, no matter whether the poem is written yesterday, or two hundred years ago.  And what Keats – like Rothko – does is give us a sense of that in all its human complexity: love, fear, hope and pain can all exist, can all co-exist, within the moment of feeling the poet is describing. They are different shades in the palette of the artist.

Fast forward nineteen months, and we find Keats sitting cross-legged on the bow of a twin-masted brigantine, the Maria Crowther, off the coast of Teignmouth in Devon. Keats knows he is dying of tuberculosis. It’s a warm clear night, and he can almost certainly see the stars, and hear the water lapping around the hull of the boat. It’s been two weeks since leaving his lover – now his fiancee – in Hampstead. Now he is leaving England, bound for Naples on doctor’s orders, to escape the damp English air.  He knows it is the last time he will ever see England, or his lover.  He will be dead within months.

His friend, Joseph Severn, finds Keats writing out a sonnet,  ‘Bright Star’. It is a howl of rage, a poem of unbearable, shattering sadness, of longing and profound love.   Keats makes no attempt to hide anything or to soften any of it.  He knows, as he listens to the sound of the water lapping against the boat, that time has undone him. And so he cheats time, by writing something that is as raw and moving now, as it must have been when Fanny Brawne received a copy in the mail from Naples, several weeks later.  It says more than Keats ever could in a letter, or more than most poetry ever has managed since,  of the unspeakable pain of love and loss, and how both fused in Keats at that moment.  It’s not his greatest poem – it’s too raw for that – but it is perhaps his most effective in doing what he set out to do: to defy time, and so appear to his lover as real as if he had been there himself.

Perhaps above all, Keats knew that  – in order to carry itself through time – that what he wrote had to be as authentic as what he felt. Poetry, particularly poetry about love or loss, doesn’t come to order.   Thomas Hardy, another great poet of love and loss, also understood this, producing his greatest work for the woman he loved only after she had died, and, ironically, he had remarried.  Keats wrote only for one woman, Fanny Brawne. So did Hardy.  Perhaps once you have given that gift, you can’t give it again.  I think so.   I also think Keats knew this when he wrote ‘Bright Star’. He had nothing to lose but hope itself.  And for that reason, he kept fighting.

I think that’s what I most admire about Keats.  He took risks in taking his writing as close as he could to pure feeling, in order to escape the constant tragedy of his own life. In doing so, he forged great beauty out of great pain, but in a way that was cathartic and uplifting, rather than dark or depressing.  To the end he believed that art had the power to heal, and inspire, that a poem was a kind of secular prayer. Whether it does or not, there’s something very beautiful, and very noble about that.  Merry Christmas.

Paying my respects at Verdun

It’s been a while since my last blog. That’s mostly because I have been incredibly busy setting up in a new city. No matter how many times I move – and I seemed to have moved pretty much ever two years for the last ten – it never gets easier.

The last stage was picking up my car from a Pickford’s warehouse in West London, and driving it across France, Germany, Austria, Slovenia, Croatia and then down into northern Bosnia and to Sarajevo. I was under pressure from work to get back, so took only three days. If anyone fancies doing this, I can attest to the shortest route being via Metz and Stuttgart, Ljubljana and Zagreb! But I’d recommend taking more than three days!

En route I decided to veer off to quickly pay my respects at the site of one of the major battles of the First World War, Verdun, which is just outside the French city of Metz. Verdun was the longest, and most costly in terms of lives, of all of the battles of the First World War. Like a lot of British kids, my first experience of poetry was of Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, and the poetry of the First World War. ‘Beetle’ includes a poem in sonnet form about the First World War, and – since I wasn’t far from Verdun – I wanted to pay my respects. As it happened, I arrived just as the sun was setting.

It was a moving experience looking across the battlefield and walking amongst the graves. Just like sites of great violence in Bosnia – like Srebrenica, say, or the infamous mine complex in Prijedor – there is a presence, a sadness. Perhaps its there, or perhaps we bring it with us – we overlay our own vulnerability and sadness onto the memory of others. I have been thinking about loss a great deal in recent days, and poetry is by far the best vehicle for giving voice to it. So here’s one of my favourite poems from Beetle, ‘A Poppy Field’, as a testament to how it felt to be there, alone, at sunset:

verdun1 verdun2

A Poppy Field

After John McCrae

Upon these fields we learned the weight

of this day’s given span;

our circuit round the shadowed grey

from which even suns descend.

Each field, afire for a certain time,

lit with the fury of our passing,

the reddening dusk of each lost hour.

 

We loved this lowly span of years,

the dazzling thread of light between

the dark, the shallow flight of love

from which even suns descend.

Will you consent to carry on our names?

To remember us, upon these fields,

To call the day ours, however brief the claim.