We could be forgiven for thinking that the implications of the remark are too often lost on what passes for poetic imagination in contemporary circles. This is all the more surprising, given the centricity of Hughes and Heaney in those circles. But if we place our emphasis on "the state of negotiation" between man and God, room is made for the entry of the ironies of academicians and journalistic poet-critics on an abundant scale. This abundance is more than enough to reduce the state of negotiation to a perpetual nullity.
With the provisos mentioned below, this is a disastrous strategy for the making of poetry in our time, a point which is laid bare in 'Shamanism and the Roots of Poetry' by Hilary Davies. In her article we see that, leaving arguments about man and God to one side, yet concentrating on man's ancient art as a technichian of the sacred, poetic imagination in its highest sense may be understood as the creative activity operating in both directions between man and the world of the spirit.
The nature of the wondrous must be part of this, because no matter how good or evil we may be, it is an absolute cause for wonder that we become what we do become in the first place.
Ducking the burden of responsibility explicit in this is the route of the easy option. Let us write a long poem, we say, which is witty, frivolous, or personal, not too much engaged with history or other indigestible or weighty material. This, as we have seen in earlier Newsletters, is a legitimate option, because the easy option is a legitimate one. It is never to be suggested, for example, that a long poem in light verse may not be delightful. But such a point of view does not confront or explore what Hilary Davies suggests is the primary purpose of poetic imagination, as this has been historically and prehistorically understood.
It is a paradox that the primary as opposed to the secondary or the tertiary purpose cannot be reduced to the comprehensible. H.L.Mencken said, "Metaphysics is almost always an attempt to prove the incredible by an appeal to the unintelligible." So be it. But this delicious example of university wit fails to take notice of the realm where the primary purpose of poetic imagination originates. It misses entirely the shamanic dimension, known to us worldwide from at least paleolithic times, which draws on that realm.
It is easy to understand poetic imagination is brought into being by the poet. What is more difficult to understand is that before it is brought into being, into "the world of time" in Hilary Davies' phrase, the poet draws it down to earth from "the world outside time."
Anybody who does not doubt the existence of poetry is therefore in a position to appreciate that the poet's conception of the primary purpose of poetic imagination is indeed linked to the world outside time. It requires the reduction of poetry to its secondary and tertiary purposes exploring wit, irony, and the quotidian, for example, to believe poetic imagination as a whole is bounded by such qualities.
So the reason we cannot reduce poetic imagination to the comprehensible is that in the last analysis we have not as yet fixed a boundary to the world outside time. If, then, we complain about unimaginative poetry, let us not forget the origins of imaginative poetry are in the life of the spirit, which has no bounds.
The poem is based upon a dream so vivid that I was able to put it down as soon as I woke, and from these notes I wrote a short story which was pretty ordinary and didn't do justice to the traumatic effect of the vision itself. But on the basis of the short story I was able to start composing and, because I knew exactly where I was going, I could take my time over it and live with it from day to day and month to month, branching off into intrspection whenever I felt like it. I call it colloquial because it has the chatty rhyming narrative of an easily understood tale, together with the deeper revelations that come with poetic composition. The poem is about menace, and the perpetual state of anxiety the western world has been in for much of its history. But it ends on a note of redemption, with the God of War, hopelessly incapacitated by his injuries, (he has no hands), playing chess with himself, though the moves have to be made for him by his selfless 'companion', the Goddess of Love.
In the writing of a poem over a long period of time -- so long as you don't depart from the main energy of the narrative -- you can allow yourself all kinds of diversions which would not be possible in the composition of a novel -- not nowadays, anyway. And the reason for this is that the same lyrical energy applies to whatever personal introspection you wish to indulge in as to the actual storytelling -- so the music and the energy of the music remains unbroken, although the 'plot' may temporarily be interrupted.
The poem is narrative rather than sequential which means that it is essentially dramatic, despite the occasional introspection, and therefore performs well either as a reading or a dramatic performance. I was working at the National Theatre at the time of its publication by the Arvon Foundation [Sotheby's International Poetry Competition: 1982 Anthology, Arvon Foundation, 1984], playing, among other things, a part in a play by Giraudoux which was being directed by Harold Pinter. My poem happened to be mentioned by Blake Morrison in The Observer, and Harold showed an interest in seeing it. After he read it he enthused about it which was very gratifying for me, but it also gave me the idea of performing it as a 'platform' presentation at the theatre. I did it twice at the Cottesloe and also at the Tron in Glasgow and it worked extremely well with not a single sound of restlessness coming from the limited but encouraging audience.
This can be done with a narrative; although it is unlikely to be succesful with sequential long poems. Despite their occasional sublimity, I don't think you could hold the interest with long performances of In Memoriam or Song of Myself -- although they are enthralling to read -- but you certainly can with The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, The Eve of St. Agnes, Don Juan, Dauber, or any of The Canterbury Tales.
It would be truly sad if the composition of suchlike works in the future should be discouraged by editors, so many grateful regards to the editors of this newsletter for their efforts to promote the composition of the longer poem.
The first issue of this newsletter stated that the object of the group, apart from consideration of technical matters, would be to encourage the modern epic and the long poem. An objective outside observer might well ask whether it is writers or readers who are to be encouraged and therefore what is the intended target audience for the contemporary long poem. The question is ultimately whether the writer of the long poem today wants to be writing only for the converted (to continue the theological analogy) or hopes to attract others from outside that relatively small circle to the reading of long poems and to all of the benefits that such reading can entail.
The concept of 'readership' as such does not even exist for much of poetry's history. As we know, the long poem was originally an oral form and often existed in that form for centuries before being written down. A long poem is now primarily written down in silence and isolation by the poet, although often in conscious or unconscious imitation of poetry that was created orally or that was itself written in differing degrees of imitation of oral poetry. Only then might the contemporary long poem be recited before others. This reversal is very striking if one considers it for a moment, and it raises important issues as to the extent to which long poems of our epoch that is dominated by the written word really are part of the one continuous tradition. This leads on to consideration of the adaptation of the form over time as society has changed and then to the perhaps uncomfortable question of the long poem's role today.
In many societies in the past, the poet was the provider of the principal communal form of entertainment as well as sometimes a religious figure and therefore the repository of religious precepts, ethics and stories. Almost inevitably given the well-known oral techniques of elaboration and invention, he was also, to at least some extent, their creator. In eras of general illiteracy, the poet was also society's reference source in relation to stories and genealogies of gods and heroes, myths, great battles and victories and the lineage of kings.
It is legitimate to ask the need for the long poem in relation to any of these matters in an age of wide literacy, readily-available and reasonably-priced printed texts in bookshops and the internet, as well as electronic memory. Many of the long poem's traditional techniques, such as rhyme and metre, came into existence to aid the memorisation by both the poet and his audience of long poems that were not written down, and it is therefore valid to question their reason for existing today. It is also legitimate to ask the need for the long poem as literary entertainment when the novel performs the same function far more accessibly in the view of most people, and when another outgrowth of the long poem, drama, is so readily available in its forms of the theatre, television and film.
It might be validly argued that the long poem can successfully treat superior subject matter to that usually appearing in those rival forms of entertainment. It is however difficult to imagine many people today writing or reading a long philosophical poem, which was once a relatively common literary form. The use of the long poem for the exposition of such material today invites the response from the same objective outside observer as before that the reader who wants to read such things can easily find books of philosophy to satisfy his taste, especially in an age of books written in a popular style for the general reader.
This perhaps leaves the spiritual realm as the most fruitful area for the resources of the long poem today. Such subject matter is that which most likely requires the resources of the long poem to access those concepts that are inaccessible to direct rational statement. It could still be asked for whom such a poem would be intended. If the answer is the poet and other like-minded people, that might be a valid aim as far as it goes, but it does not meet the question as to whether the long poem is capable of carrying its message outside the home in which it is loved and cherished.
Present, but, to the contemporary lay mind, apparently undecipherable; to many, meaningless, faded images of a primitive past where man existed in a fug of superstition before the investigative processes of science put him right.
No small irony, then, that it is precisely the painstakingly scientific methods pioneered by 20th century archaeologists, paleobotanists and zoologists, neuroscientists and pharmacologists -- to mention only a few -- which have combined with the disciplines of psychology, ethnology, comparative religion and theology to help uncover the meaning of these signs and put their creative and spiritual import back in its proper place.
That paleolithic art arises out of something beyond itself was early (a very relative term, as we shall see) recognised. The Abbé Breuil, influenced by 19th century materialism, saw in it sympathetic magic to ensure a good day's hunt and the survival of the tribe; André Leroi-Gourhan followed structuralist models to imbue certain animals with female, others with male, sexual significance. But much evidence remained obstinately recalcitrant in these interpretations -- the ubiquitous dots, spirals, grids and tectiforms; the troubling scene in the 'pit' at Lascaux, where dying man and bison confront each other in the presence of a bird on a stick. Although the earliest assays at unravelling these difficulties date from the 1950s and 60s, (notably in an essay of 1952 by Horst Kirchner and Mircea Eliade's remarkable work of 1964 'Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy'), it has not been until very recently, with the work of such men as Professor Lewis-Williams in South Africa, Jean Clottes in France and Richard Rudgley in Britain, that a consistent link between this art and its wider religious context have been identified. The paintings, engravings and symbols do not merely represent; they are the medium across which man reaches into the spirit world.
At the centre of this relationship stands the shaman: as the wall of the cave is the interface between physical and metaphysical, so the shaman faces both the seen and the unseen. More than this, he (or she, for shamans may be men or women) has the ability to enter the world of spiritual reality, and, returning, to bind it to that of everyday sensory perception. That this is no facile nor egocentric endeavour is evidenced by the elaborate rites and rituals which accompany shamanic journeys in whatever society they occur. Long and arduous, even dangerous apprenticeships are always required to learn the methods which allow access into the universe beyond material experience.
The purpose of these apprenticeships is uniform: to prepare the shaman for his encounter with the spirit world by inducing a state of altered consciousness. The universality of this need is striking, as are the recurrent ways in which it is achieved. The shaman uses, variously, isolation, fasting, rhythmic singing, drumming and dancing, meditation and breath control, the ingestion of psychotropic substances, physical ordeal, the ritual taking of animal form through dress and mask (for animals, especially birds, guide him on his journey), dreams and visions in which he may meet the spirits of the dead or be initiated sexually by his tutelary daemon; even illness or wounding may mark him out as having the power to leave his everyday self and metamorphose into a person who brings back wisdom from the spirit world.
It is, of course, no accident that many of these practices are familiar from the major world religions, since all concern themselves with man's relationship to the divine. On the contrary, what the persistence of these elements demonstrates is that man's consciousness of himself, and his consciousness of the worlds beyond his own personal existence, are coeval and indissoluble.
Which brings us back to the art. For dozens of millennia before man was a farmer, he was an artist. The antiquity of this fact is shocking. When, at Christmas 1994, the French speleologist, Jean Marie Chauvet and his two companions stepped into a great subterranean hall near Vallon Pont-d'Arc in the Ardéche, they found adorning the walls vast panoramas of rhinos, aurochs, horses and mountain lions. It was one of the most astounding finds of undisturbed paleolithic art ever made. What they did not know until carbon dating had been carried out is that these paintings pushed back the temporal horizons of man's artistic activity on this scale by almost 10,000 years -- to no less than 30,000 B.P. To put this in perspective, Jericho, one of the oldest sedentary communities known to archaeology, dates to 9,000 B.P., while fifth century B.C. Athens, to which the west fondly looks for so much of its origins, suddenly appears distinctly Johnny-come-lately.
But the discovery of the Chauvet caves brings us to an important point in our understanding of the origins of art: what modern man can reconstruct from the evidence known to him is just the tip of the iceberg. Moreover, and this is crucial, some evidence, by its very nature, is gone forever. This does not mean, however, that it cannot be inferred. Paleolithic man had a system of complex religious beliefs; he painted, drew, engraved, carved, incised, decorated, polished. He also made music, as bone pipes bored to produce different notes show, whilst central to shamanic ritual is the creation of rhythm through drumbeat and song or chant.
Song or chant: the silence is deafening. Yes, language, the vehicle at the heart of it all, is missing. No scholar denies Upper Paleolithic man language, but we can't ever get at it. We have every reason to assume, however, that man's use of it for everyday purposes of practical communication and social interaction was exactly as our own -- we have inherited his linguistic habits, after all, not the other way round. What he did when using language in a more stylised way, is of greater interest here, because this implies selected form, structure and vocabulary. Poetry, in short.
These forms were part of a religious dynamic, designed to bring about trance or ecstasy and help the shaman into the world beyond. So, at root, their purpose is spiritual, rather than aesthetic. Today this is unfamiliar territory to many, which is far from saying that exploration of this territory is a futile exercise. On the contrary, the nature of what is 'seen' or 'experienced' by the poetic imagination is a perennial theme. Is the poet a dabbler in fancies, a purveyor of delicious untruths? A social commentator and scourge of politicians? A mystic? A disappointed idealist? A transformer of the world? Though to be sure there are poetries to fit all of these categories, and more, this does not necessarily mean they all move in, or even need, the poetic imagination. That is why to look at them through the lens of the shaman is illuminating.
The words the shaman utters are not representational, they do not depict memories, though they may draw on them; they do not reflect a familiar reality; they are not intended to amuse, intrigue or even awe. They are most certainly not concerned with autobiography; they do not tell their listeners what they wish to hear, nor does the shaman have a preconceived notion of what he wants to say.
Instead they are this: they interact with their subject matter to release another reality. They make connections in the world of the psyche and enrich its relationship both to the world of time and the world outside time. They make visible paths to understanding which before could not be seen. They make no distinction between the living and the dead. They come out of a profound belief that the world which is 'imagined' is not a fiction; like breath, like psyche, like the spirit itself, it may not be externally perceivable, but lives are changed for ever by it and its effects are everywhere.
and to clear shelf-space and allow readers to complete their sets of the magazine, some back copies are still available:
Issues 1-8: any FIVE issues for £4.75, Issues 15-25: any FIVE issues for £8.00. Reent back copies at £3.50. Few only available of early issues (please state alternatives if possible).
Mushroom Lane, Christopher J.P.Smith
The Buildings, David Perman
Cracks in the Ice, Lynne Wycherley
Counting the Spots, June V.English
Seneca the Spin Doctor, Stuart Flynn
£2.25 each or all FIVE for £10, post free from the editorial addresss: 6 The Mount, Higher Furzeham, Brixham, South Devon, TQ5 8QY, UK.
By the age of 15, I was a keen walker on Dartmoor. However, a knee joint condition forced me to seek some other form of recreation. I trained in subaqua diving at nearby Fort Bovisand. Later that year, I saw a call for volunteers to help hunt -- and ultimately salvage -- the Tudor warship The Mary Rose which had sunk in the Solent in 1545. I joined the team, and spent the subsequent summers in Portsmouth as a diver. I went on to gain an HSE Pt IV commercial diving certificate, and to continue in archaeological diving both here and abroad. Three glorious seasons were spent on an Etruscan vessel which had sunk off Giglio Island (Italy) in 620 BC, and in a sunken Phoenician harbour off Sicily.
It was at this time that I started diving with a small group of salvage divers off Plymouth. Bruno was co-owner of his vessel The Arctic Tern, and had been one of the first divers in the UK. Many happy days were spent plundering the seabed for scrap.
By now, I had decided to train in medicine, and began my career at the Middlesex Hospital Medical School in London. I qualified in 1987, and went on to work in and around London, as well as in Africa. I had, however, always thought Bruno an obvious character for a book, and the plot for such a story percolated in my brain over these years.
In 1993, I began a period of research at University College, London, which necessitated a spell working in Edinburgh. I arrived there in mid-December of that year and, after a day of laboratory work, would retreat to a homely (but cold) B. & B. in the city. Finding myself with time, solitude, and a laptop computer, I decided to set about writing a short story for my Godchildren for whom I had yet to buy Christmas presents. The story, I had decided, would be told in verse and would (I thought) be completed in 4 weeks.
Three years (and 262 pages, and 34,000 words later), I had a first draft. I was working 7-day weeks in a basement laboratory but found that there were several hours (often late in the evening) when experiments were 'cooking'. I took to using these hours to write my book. The writing experience was generally a delight, and one to which I became addicted. However, there were times when I wondered who was in control. At the outset, I found a scene (which was quite irrelevant to the story) demanding to be written. To overcome this block to my writing, I set out this scene with a view to removing it later. Halfway through the book, a whole section poured out uncontrolled -- a section which totally changed the story and which redirected the book. It tied in perfectly with the first passage. I now have insight as to why muses were thought to exist.
I had drawn, for the characters, upon those with whom I lived and worked. I was, for a while, sharing a flat with a vascular surgeon and a heart surgeon. The former became 'Maddog Morgan' the pirate. and the latter Admiral Lord Hunter. Chris Edge (father of one of my Godchildren) and his family featured, as did Adrian Gardner and his son (my Godson) Jack. Latterly, when all key characters had appeared, I was forced to include friends in other ways. Clare Dollery became an ill-tempered parrot.
In 1996, then, I had a complete book. I had tried to make it suitable for children of 8 years old and on, but had also tried to include religious and philosophical allegories and 'in jokes' for adults. I felt sure that it had commercial value. I sent it to Andrew Gardner (the ITN newsreader, and father of Adrian) who loved it -- and told me to change nothing without the guidance of a professional editor. I thus sent the text to 20-or-more publishing houses and got rejections from them all. In some cases, I received detailed reviews of the strengths of my book when I hadn't even sent them a draft! Such is the cynical dismissive world of publishing.
Unperturbed (and bloody-minded), however, I decided to self-publish. I sought out an illustrator, editor, and book designer. I arranged for the book to be reviewed by children in hospitals (my girlfriend being a paediatrician with access). I rewrote according to their comments. I read everything I could about publishing, distribution, and marketing.
It became clear that I would not make money from my own sales. However, I aimed to make the book sell so well that a major house would take it on. I thus went for Folio Society standards of publication, and kept the price low (£17.99). I planned to do all the marketing and distribution myself. And in October 2000 the book was launched.
Sales were, at once, huge. I sold about 250 to friends and relatives... but word soon spread. Within 7 months I had sold almost all of the first 2000 print run. All this largely by word of mouth, too -- with only about 8 bookshops stocking it. Success came in other ways, too. The book won Poetry Book of the Year and Book of the Year awards in the David Thomas Self Publishing awards in the spring. Radio 4 expressed an interest in serialising the book and Tony Robinson has now recorded test-readings. An agent (Caroline Sheldon) took the book on and, a month ago, we received an offer from Walker Books. The book will be relaunched in the UK in May of next year, closely followed by release in the USA, New Zealand, and Australia.
The book deal is a delight -- and a relief. I had spent £40,000 on the book in total, and this deal cleared my remaining debts. I could sleep a little better, too -- as all the marketing, accounts, and distribution had to be done at nights and weekends with deliveries to shops, individuals, and post offices on my bicycle. At the same time, I now had a job leading a research group and working as a consultant in Intensive Care in London.
And now? I have plans for two more children's books (with a potential deal on the first) and am already half way through an adult medical thriller (started in 1997). The work on 'The Tern' isn't over however. I am committed to a PR campaign next year. The New Harry Potter? I do hope so!
Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Biographia Literaria chapter 14.
William Blake in a letter to Thomas Butts, 25th April 1803. The poem is "Jerusalem: The Emanation of the Giant Albion", etched 1804-1820. The original plates of the poem were on display at the Blake Exhibition in Tate Britain 9/11/2000-11/2/2001.
"So then what got the digger on the road to everywhere, inventing verse about long history?"is the question posed early on. Well, it seems to have been the finding of a "mastodon" skeleton [sic], and with it the weapon that killed it, that got his imagination working on a "human family...their faces now a million specks in thousands' years of dust". As the poet moves through history, he also tells the story of the writing of the poem and punctuates the different sections with direct addresses to the reader, some friendly:
"(you might not think this fits, but wait)"some weird:
"And he was called Deng (that's 'dung' in English to you and me)"and this camaraderie bounces us along the road towards now, communicating a real pleasure in re-inventing the past, but only glancingly interested in revolution.
The revolutionary moments where the voice emerges from the Tardis are realised in characters -- some actual, some imaginary; some the great makers of history; some dodgers of drafts and crises, just trying to get by, buy bread. This makes for a peopled history, a strong sense of it being human history (food plays a large part in these accounts), but also reduces the 'common thread' Young is looking for to a very low, and, in the end, a-historical, common denominator. The hunter-gatherer "nears the morning of his daughter's birth" with a very 21st century sensibility.
In conception, this poem is ambitious and generous. Its friendliness, while it grates at times, is disarming and unusual -- but it produces ill-disciplined, garrulous poetry. These lines follow the Deng section and introduce Ronald Reagan:
"a man rose up who despised the state and captured the imaginations everywhere. He floated from a land called California and said that he despised the state but armed it past its nose and spent more public green than anyone before -- can you imagine that?If Young were matching anti-poetry to what he thought an anti-poetic moment in history, this might past muster, but the tone and style are no different 300 years earlier:
"Things only hit a snag round 1670 when the peaceful peddling-at-all-costs group under Councillor de Witt brought the country into wealthy envied isolation..."
There are instances of order and tension, where voice, form and moment do more than glance at one another -- the peasants of 14th century England boot their pig's bladder around inside a shorter (simpler? more oppressive?) line, and there's a sonnet for Botticelli -- though even here, the intrusion of the authorial voice is bathetic and the metaphors pedestrian. And, the risk of such a baggy project, the question Why This? crops up again and again. Why Botticelli and not Giotto? Why John Ball and not Cromwell? Why either and not Jefferson, Gandhi, Ho? If the sections were more successfully linked by language, image, anything poetic at all, and not just by the personality and predilections of the poet, then a reader might be able to answer some of these Why's, but, as it is, "An Archaeology of Revolution" reads like a loose series of personal enthusiasms whose significances are too local and limited to help a reader who is not the poet himself go the distance. And this is a pity because there are few enough poems that address readers as historical beings, fewer still that see revolutionary change as a 'common thread', if not experience, in human history -- and not a single British publisher as far as I know publishing contemporary Spanish poetry in Spanish.
The Emperor of Outer Space, Harry Guest, Pig Press, 1983.
Byrne, Anthony Burgess, Hutchinson, 1995.
The Hole in the Wind (in Augatora), Sujata Batt, Carcanet, 2000.
The Voyage of the Arctic Tern, (illus. by Nick Pullis), Hugh Montgomery, Synapse GB Ltd., 2000.
A la recherche du temps perdu, Craig Raine, Picador, 2000.
Lady Anne's Quire, Joan Sheridan Smith, Poetry Monthly Press, 2001.
Elvira Madigan, Alan Marshfield, Abraxas Press, 2001.
The Ghost with Nine Fathers, Eric Ratcliffe, Four Quarters Press, 2001.
The Wire through the Heart, (contains the long poems: 'The Shadow of God' & 'The Other Shadow'), Ken Smith, Ister, Budapest, 2001.
Keep Walking, Robert Furze, Spout Publications, 2001.
Because of his appointment as Poet-in-Residence for Torbay, sponsored by South West Arts, The English Riviera Tourist Board, and the Millennium Year of the Artist scheme, William Oxley handed over this issue, like the preceding one, to his fellow editor. His residency ended 31st May 2001, and the future issues of the newsletter will be jointly edited.
This newletter is produced by Acumen Publications, 6 The Mount, Higher Furzeham, Brixham, South Devon TQ5 8QY, UK.