But in ways that are a bit controlled. In other words, you can learn about making poems. They’re not just emanations of a kind of unguarded moment, an intoxicated rant—though sometimes we access special places through intoxication and ranting, as well. But there’s a lot you can come to know about how to make poetry. It’s an ancient discourse in all cultures, and in all cultures it has forms and templates. You’re counting the number of lines; you’re counting the kind of rhythms. And some of the transcendent power of a well-made poem for the readers comes out of the deft application, the mastery of those techniques. You don’t appear to be employing them. And no one really notices that they’re there. You just get this thing and can’t explain why it’s so beautifully made, like a beautifully made house or a piece of clothing or something. It’s not reducible to anything. But it helps you in your own grief to get, if you can, to the poetry and let it be something that can heal you for a while. You’re forced to apply all of the disciplines that you need because you’re asking more of language. And, of course, in doing that, you’re getting distracted from the loop of self, the kind of ego loop that we get into with the constant replay of the sad-sack story that’s happening inside your head (laughs). At a certain point you just go, “Stop, make a poem. I’m going to make a sijo, a Korean form, it has some rules: 14 syllables per line. There’s your task, start it now.” And in applying yourself you can sometimes make something good. Sometimes you don’t. But you’ll be distracting yourself into something quite useful, maybe powerful.
Lyric poetry at its heart is a kind of shamanic activity and has been overtly so in a number of spiritual traditions. They wouldn’t perhaps call it shamanic, but in the Zen tradition the haiku is art second and spiritual practice first. The Sufis too made poetry as prayer. As a means of mindfulness and invocation of the absolute. All of that stuff is what poetry has been about through the course of human history as well.
So some of the healing of poetry comes from the reading as well as the making of it?
The first thing to say is: the craft you can learn from reading other poems. And so you’re already getting healed through just reading good poetry! But you might also master the craft and then you apply it in order to ask more of language (and more of yourself) when you write. And I think in the end that’s the best way to explain what it is that makes poetry distinctive and why it can be such a powerful force for self and for others.
Could you say a little more about this? How was the act of reading poetry a consolation to you in this time?
Reading, and reading poetry in particular, are right at the heart of my life. So to read is a very natural act for me. My attention span got profoundly upset through this crisis. The things that I had once loved and been drawn to doing easily became things that I almost dreaded. So suddenly there was a bit more of a barrier than there used to be even to pull a book down to read. And at that point I guess I understood the uncertainty and resistance that some people face—people for whom reading, or reading poetry in particular, aren’t as natural, it turns out, as they always have been for me. So that was an insight. I’d have to do a little bit of forcing of myself sometimes. But I would know at a certain point that in the morning when times were difficult or at night as a kind of stilling of my mind and spirit before sleeping, I’d nearly always pull a book down or pull it from the pile beside the bed. And I’d find something at random, often almost as if it was intended; I would find my way back to a familiar poem—or to a new one—and it would answer a need. So part of a good reading habit for me is knowing where to turn to.
Some of the places I turn are in my mind—lines I know. Like all I need to do is go, ‘And sometime make the time to drive out west’ and I’ve got the whole of the Seamus Heaney. It’s as though the rest of it reads itself to me.
Do you have other favourite poets?
A book I often turn to is Stephen Mitchell’s anthology. I think it’s called, The Enlightened Heart. And it’s all in English but the poems come from across the ages and places and cultures. And so there’s John Donne, there’s Rilke, there’s Emily Dickinson, there’s some Basho, there’s some things out of the Zen tradition and some things from the Hindu tradition and some very old things from the Judaic tradition. So lots of them. And none of it’s dogmatic at all. It’s poetry more than preaching. But those were reliable places to go ’cause I’d always find a short thing, and it would do the trick.
A great thing about poetry is that compared to a novel, by definition, a poem is short. It’s just the thing. I think readers not familiar with the idea of poetry probably dwell too much on the test they feel the poem will set them. They think poetry’s a test to sit. I know that many people feel it, and I feel it to some extent sometimes. And too much poetry that’s been written since the 1940s and 1950s has been too opaque. And there are reasons why that’s happened. There’s a kind of profound abstraction that became fashionable, and is interesting up to a point—but on the whole, more interesting as an idea than rewarding as a practice.
Why do you think that happened to poetry?
It was a counterpoint. It was a way of coping really with the way that popular music came up and took poetry’s place. That’s most of what happened, when you think about it. I think popular music and radio took the place in people’s homes once held by the sharing of poetry—old favourites and so on, in recitation and from memory and reading from books, and just knowing by heart. So a lot of people now in their ’60s and ’70s would still be able to recite, “Tiger, tiger, burning bright, in the forests of the night,” and a bunch of other poems. They may also have some bad memories of poetry. But nonetheless poetry was shared at school; it was shared on the voice by its nature as a spoken thing.
All of that stopped with the roll out of the radio. Popular music comes in. And if you think of the content of most pop songs, popular music, it tends to be the stuff that poetry used to do on the whole. Dealing with grief, talking about love, various forms of belonging to one another and so on. And it’s easily consumable because all you have to do is flick the switch and respond. And I love all that stuff too. But reading off a page (without a tune) asks more from you and therefore, I’d argue, gives more back. But it does ask more of you, and it’s more rewarding because there’s no actual sound. You’ve got to imagine the sound that lies in behind the words and sometimes fabricate it by saying it out loud. But the work is a beautiful kind of hard I think. Reading.
Oh that’s delightful.
Now in the essay you say that the hearth of yourself is not all your own work but the work of that constellation of belongings that you share. Talking about belonging, you describe the self as a meetinghouse. You say that in the task of coming home to the self, there is this sense of a befriending. I love this quote, “selving is the work of remembering all that you are.”
The constellation of self is a central metaphor for me, and somehow in my mind it is a depiction of a kind of hearth. The idea I have here is that who I am is all I love; and all who love me are part of who I am, and I of them. In this conception of oneself, you’re not a star, you’re a constellation.
The constellation (Capricorn, in my case) is a hearth at which somehow you sit. So you’re no longer merely this single subjectivity, this sad-sack without his children around him. You are a network of care trained on you by others, including those children; and they, and all you love, including the birds, and the books and the poems and the places, are who you are, too, and you are part of what they are.
I think I owe that metaphor to my good friend Steve Armstrong, who’s, by day, as it were, a social worker and psychologist, and by night a poet. And through all of this process I was helping Steve with his poetic craft, and he was helping me stay alive and with my self-craft. And this idea was the hearth of that self-craft he taught. He and some others. But Steve especially.
Your essay refers to the ancient book of Job found in the Hebrew Bible. Job’s story is one of raw and scraping sorrow—he’s literally covered in sores. He’s lost people dear to him, his family, his wealth and influence. And in this suffering, you say that Job lost the capacity to be a friend to himself, a father to himself, to console himself and “to remember what he belonged to”. I guess these insights are reason in themselves, but I’m curious to know—why did you choose to frame your essay, ‘The Temple of the Word’ around the ancient book of Job?
Well we were talking at the beginning about how I’d been asked for this essay and because of the trouble I was in, I just couldn’t get to writing it. I don’t know about you, but I find that I need to know my beginning before I can start. So what happened was, around this time I was driving north (to Steve’s), and I was playing an episode of “On Being.”
Yes, a favourite with many Dumbo Feather readers.
And it was an interview with Catherine Mary Bateson. Daughter of Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson.And she said so many fabulous things and I was trying to write so many of them down that I was going to run off the road if I didn’t stop. So I stopped and wrote some down. But the thing that really got me was this: she told a story about her father Gregory Bateson when he was young. Bateson’s father, if I’ve got this right, was a scientist and an atheist, but nonetheless he insisted that his children grow up with some acquaintance with the Bible—because, he said, this book ran through the culture that they were inheriting. And he knew that along with Shakespeare and Chaucer and Emily Dickinson and others, they should know this thing. So he insisted that they read the Bible as literature. And one of the books that he most loved to share was Job because he said, “You know, Alfred Lord Tennyson always said that this is one of the greatest works of English literature—Job. So you children are going to read it.”
So, my beginning says—and this is a paraphrase of what Greg Bateson’s father had said to him— “When God wanted finally to cut Job a break, he gave him a natural history lesson. And he gave it to him in poetry.” That last bit was my addition, but I thought ’cause it’s incredible poetry, and it’s very funny, you know, when God’s standing there going, “What, did you make the wild geese? Do you know where the weather comes from? What’s the matter with you? Like, you know, you think you’ve got a lot on your plate!” [Laughs]. It’s just delightful. God gets all kind of whingey and whining with this guy ’cause he won’t stop carrying on about his ill-fortune, how God has made his life a misery! [Laughs]. And it struck me: Aha! There’s my way in! I too know the books of the Bible, and I know them as literature. I don’t need to know them any more as doctrine. I wouldn’t say I have the kind of faith that many readers of the Bible would have about the afterlife or any kind of godhead, but I do like prayer a lot. And I think prayer’s not got to do with changing God, but as C S Lewis said, with changing yourself. But I thought—I know Job, and it’s a book of poetry and in it Job finds his way back from his unhearthing by remembering the world beyond himself. And I thought: there’s my way in. So I reread Job then to get my piece written. And I thought, Oh my goodness, the book could be understood as many things.A depiction of depression or midlife crisis, for one thing. It seemed to me I recognised everything in it, and everything keeps going wrong and there’s no reason for it. So, again like Church, like my Methodist Minister of a grandfather, I had a text to expand upon and to riff on. And it’s always so much more compelling to be able to quote a source, isn’t it? Like an authority other than just one’s own life. Plus, there is a risk in writing a piece out of your own spiritual crisis and depression. There’s a risk that it’s self-indulgent and that it’s just a description of your own particular state. Job was my hearth to start from.
Actually, I’ve noticed a sense in which your language feels almost liturgical at times. Like the language of prayer and worship. I have a heritage in a similar vein which alerts me to this. And I noticed for instance these words from your essay, “A poem rests our sorrows in the silence of all that passes away and all that is and was and will be again.” And I’m imagining your heritage as the grandson of a Methodist minister is one of the selves that speaks into your life and words. Do you have a sense of carrying that with you? Is that a part of your rhythmic awareness?
Yeah look, when you read those words out to me I can hear nothing but my grandfather from the pulpit—but laced a little bit with Shakespeare, who’s part of my makeup, too. But what you hear is the liturgy of small words. And here I am, writing a book called The Little Red Writing Book that insists, among other things, on the importance—the dignity—of the small word over the larger one. I’ve learned that if you insist on the dignity of the small and humble word, there will be a rhythm in your work. Just trust it. Don’t work it. It’ll be there. So in that sentence that you just read out, you can hear that rhythm, and it’s the gift of English—where the short words say most things best. You insist on the word that does justice to the very thing that’s coming to you to say. But among the words that suggest themselves to you, you don’t go with “hermeneutic,” and you don’t go with “discourse,” and you don’t go with “instantiation;” you go with the one that the 10-year-old is likely to understand, that the least among us would understand. It’s the moral or ethical code behind the aesthetic principle of trusting, as Churchill says, that short words are best, “and the old words, when they are short, are the best of all.” And so there is that. Even when I’m in the worst state of mind, or was, through all of this, it’s still intolerable to me to use a word with three syllables when a word with one syllable exists. And it always exists. William Faulkner said, “Write to please yourself but make yourself very hard to please.” [Laughs].
I speak of poetry sometimes as an architecture of utterance. A sculpture of voice. But in another sense, a poem is, if you like, a garden. It’s a garden of words; it has a shape, it invites you in. What it means is how you feel. You know, you don’t have to ask the gardenias what they’re trying to tell you; they’re just being gardenias.
[Laughs]. One of the things I love about this sense of sculpting of the voice is the visceral nature of poetry and breath through the body. Words are made of breath and they are in one sense simply shaped air. But in another sense they form this deep structure that sustains us. And in this way poetry reminds me of the force and power in which words were understood in ancient oral cultures—where the speaking of the word had an inherent spiritual power, like an incantation or a calling on of something invisible.
So in my protestant self, I would say that poetry is a practice that doesn’t need a priest. It’s a prayer that you make with yourself, with the god in yourself, just you. Just that person. It’s the kind of thing that you can see Emily Dickinson doing really through all of her writing. She’s keeping herself alive, she’s speaking herself slant, but plain. It’s a kind of devotional sense-making.
There was something on the tip of my tongue to ask you. You said something in the essay about poetry bringing together the two hemispheres of the brain, the linguistic and the musical.
Okay. Well so here’s a poet talking about neuroscience folks. So watch me fall into all kinds of error. But my understanding is that the latest science about the brain says that the centres of language lie in one hemisphere of brain and the centres that process and make music lie on the other. And all languaging has a musical dimension because we’re shaping sounds. I think it was Giuseppe Verdi who said music is noise organised by wisdom [laughs].
But that’s probably even truer for poetry—poetry in particular is the sound of speech organized musically. Poetry highlights and works with the dimensions of language that are lyric, that are to do with what music’s to do with. The lyric enterprise of poetry seems to call on both hemispheres of the brain at once; it reconciles two aspects of mind that are otherwise sundered in most of our waking lives: the making of sense and the making of music, the rational and the spiritual. Poetry reconciles two severed aspects of ourselves.
You talk about our response to poetry as well. And the need for people to actually come to it and meet it and be nourished by what it offers. You say, “The world needs as many of us as hearthed as it can manage. It needs the weary of spirit strong. It needs especially the seers—those who can apprehend and value all that is lost sight of in commercial and political and academic discourses—to feel at home in their lives and capable.”I sense a call in this to those of us who aren’t actually poets but who hunger for what poetry offers and who need to meet it in our lives. Does that make sense to you as a response?
So I guess I’m so passionate about the lyric thing because I think our lives are diminished, each life is diminished and all of our lives are diminished if there’s not a sense of valuing, if I can put it that way, that which poetry expresses.
You spent time in China recently and you say that the ancient Chinese poets understood their art as bowing into the unknown, into the holiness of things. Into “the incomprehensible coherence, a moment in the grand and unsayable scheme of things.” And I’m wondering if there’s a poem that you’d like to read to us that brings our conversation to a close after this hour we’ve had together.
Thanks Julie; it’s been a joy. Well, there’s one I wrote recently called, “Litany, An Elegy,” which I’ve dedicated to the children. Just, “for the children.” Meaning mine, but all. And the children in all of us maybe. This, I should say, was a commissioned piece. Commissioned by Red Room Poetry for a project that they have running called ‘Extinction Elegies’.They’ve asked six or eight of us to write elegiacallyon the theme of extinction; but we weren’t given a brief beyond that. And the way I got going with this one was to think of how many languages, human languages, but also how many animal voices and therefore wisdom systems, are being lost in an age of galloping extinctions. And so the poem begins with reflections on language and then begins a kind of litany—hence the title—of species being lost. So I might just pick this up in the middle.
… Our words are made of plastic
Now and end up in the sea. Where stocks of wisdom—
Overfished and toxic with cliche—dwindle and cease.
So what will there be left for us to say—by way
Of remorse; what elegy, excuse, or prayer—when the sands
Along sub-tropic shores have grown so warm that no
More male turtles hatch and make it to the sea?
And who will we be, our language atrophied a little
More, when Norfolk parakeets run out of trees
To roost and fledge?
And what will we grasp any more
Of sin when all the devils that we know have slipped
And who will teach desire grace or passion
Poise when nothing burns the forests of the night?
And when the last Savana elephant has scattered
All the bones, what will we recall of grief
When our turn comes to let our dear ones go?
Will all the plastic that will never go extinct
School the seas in sanctity, what sense will awe
Begin to make, when no blue whales swim the world
Around? And will our minds remember how to slow,
Our speeding chill, when all the whale sharks have passed?
Sea otter, snow leopard, curlew, bee: divinity
Will be burlesque, and joy will be a sham, when all
These Bodhisattvas of the floating, hungry, thrumming
World have left.
Oh, Person of the Forest, orang-
Utan—who might be any one of us who came
Down once from boughs—teach us, while there are still woods
To be, how to be the woods, not just the trees.