Ghost Estate: Some thoughts on the writing of a book of poems
Thursday 24 March 2011 10:26
After all this time, the writing of poetry is still the most mysterious thing to me. Prose has its magical moments when the language jives with the plot or character, but a novel is substantially nuts and bolts, a plot hammered into shape, a struggle to control the characters which are forever trying to escape, and there is a daily duty that begins at seven o’clock no matter what the season that’s almost as banal and bourgeois as the banal moments in any other job. But how the lines of a poem fall together and take the shape that I think of as a poem is serendipity to me. Plato had something to say on the subject and he took a dim view of it. The poets cannot account for their inspiration, he said, yet they claim to be sayers of truth. I don’t know about that, not being very convinced of the existence of truth in any shape or form. But I do agree that our words don’t spring from reason but from some other faculty and, as Plato himself charged, it feeds and waters the passions rather than drying them up. Plato, of course, also took a dim view of the passions, but that’s his business and none of mine.
It’s been seven years now since Fahrenheit Says Nothing To Me came out. It’s a long time between collections of poetry. But I tend to accumulate poems slowly, and, in addition, this collection, at almost 150 pages, contains a lot of poems. I thought, since I didn’t have a blog (sic) last time round, I might write something here – the thoughts that come to me while I’m waiting for the actual book. It’s a happy time, but it’s also a time when I wake up at four o’clock in the morning worrying.
The tools of the trade
Over the years my writing has adapted to circumstances – a growing difficulty with hand-writing (see this tongue-in-cheek piece and this Irish Times article), the arrival of laptops, writing novels and short fiction, the arrival of online publishing etc. My habit is to open a document on my laptop and call it something like New Poems 2005. Each new year I copy that document and update the year. So I’m working, at any given time, on perhaps twenty or thirty poems and scraps of poems and phrases and ideas that may or may not turn into something that I would regard as a poem. At the same time I’m working prose fiction.
I’ve tried other tools – one sequence ‘A white bird over Ischia’, was written on the notepad software on an iPod. Several parts of it were literally written on a ferry to Procida in the Bay of Naples. The peculiarly awkward process of typing on the tiny screen of an iPod is reflected in the structure of the poem, a series of short observations in numbered sections. I think the iPod would be the perfect instrument for composing haiku.
Then, over the years, each document gradually accrues near-finished poems, as well as all the other material that has gone into or been taken out of them. When I regard a poem as more or less arrived, I move it out into a separate document which usually has a provisional title for the next collection. For many years Ghost Estate had the working title Black Ice (after the Stan Brakhage film). I continue to work on those poems until I am as happy as I ever am - usually the finishing touches occur just before I send the collection to a publisher. At the same time I’m working on a novel or short stories as well as what I laughingly call my ‘blog’ (what you’re reading now) and anything else that comes along.
The effect of all this heterogenous activity is that there is, from my point of view, a fluidity between poems and also between the poems and my fiction. Some ideas and even lines occur in both the fiction and the poetry. The poem ‘Naples, Island Ferry’, for example, is closely based on the opening of one of my stories, and both are based on a real event, a real day stepping off the ferry to Procida. The dedication in the poem is to a friend who lives there, the man who met me that day. Briefly the poem was also the opening of a chapter in a novel I was working on that came to nothing. The poem ‘Child’ is from an unfinished novel where it was a short paragraph – with a little tinkering prose becomes a poem – perhaps it always was. Other lines have migrated in one direction or another. They turn up as refugees in stories, or refugees from stories to poems or novels. Wherever they emerge they are welcome. As far as my writing is concerned, the borders are open.
A brief digression to the pissoir
I’ve often worried about the intensity of poetry and why it’s not often found in prose. What makes a poem a poem? I’m reminded of Duchamp’s Fountain, a pissoir (except made and found in the USA), and which can be accepted as art only on the basis that Duchamp pointed to it and said it was art. Or perhaps he was saying this object proves there is no art, or art is not special, etc. Much the same can be said of poetry. The location of the pissoir or poem (in a gallery, in a book) the orientation and setting (short lines, for example, in the case of poem, or upside down in the case of the pissoir) demand that the piece be considered in a certain way, as art or poem, even if the viewer/reader is unwilling to think of it as such and even if the classification is rejected, or even intended to be rejected. This tension between the reader’s expectations and the reality of the object lends it a special intensity. So, in a sense, shifting poems between poetry collections and novels or stories, and vice verse, demands that we reconsider the value of the setting. Is poetry no longer poetry if it is a paragraph in a novel?
I began, many years ago now, to force myself to do without punctation. I thought of it as a discipline, a way of simplifying the language and the lines. With my first books I put the punctuation back in, though there was less of it in the second than the first, because I was convinced no publisher would accept it. In Ghost Estate there is punctuation only in the final sequence of prose poems ‘Travel in an Italy of the mind’. I tried to do without it there too but it ended up making no sense. Even José Saramago, whose prose style I revere, occasionally inserts a full-stop if only out of a sense of joie-de-vivre.
This lack of punctuation forces a certain kind of line on me. Typically it’s short, variable in length and a unit of sense in it’s own right (at least to me). Exceptions tend to be deliberate and usually designed to unsettle the reader in some way. I only very occasionally depart from that practice, usually because a line contains a list, or because I want to get a rhyme or half-rhyme in. There are no laws, unless the gentle laws of my own making.
One of the consequences of not punctuating a poem is that there are, from time to time, lines that could belong with the sentence above or the sentence below. I call them ‘rocking lines’ – in that they can be tipped backwards or forwards into either sentence as the reader wishes. I like this kind of ambiguity. In my universe ambiguity is potential, a thought that occasions me a great deal of humility. There are always vastly more meanings than there are writers.
I’m lazy as regards publishing my poems. For many years now I have almost exclusively sent them to The SHOp, a wonderful poetry magazine, published from a hillside in West Cork but travelling all over the world. The publishers are John and Hilary Wakeman, who have become good friends over the years. They never scruple to reject a poem, but most of my poems that have appeared in print, were published there. I detest the long waiting times associated with submitting poems, and in the end of the day, the book is the thing.
I like online publishing a lot. For many years I sent poems to a site published by the Italian writer and academic Luca Paci. As far as I know it is now defunct. Irish Left Review has published some of the more political poems, especially the title poem, which first appeared there and also in the Irish Times. The advantage of outlets like ILR and the Irish Times is that they reach readers who do not normally buy or even read poetry.
When I look back to the early working documents, MS Word files that are dated 2004 and 2005, I realise that the poems that make up ‘Eight observations about hope’ were the earliest drafts I was working on. Even then I could sense the hollowness of what was happening in Ireland. I claim no particular prescience in that. The dogs in the street, famously knowing in Ireland, were talking about the crazy price of houses. My mother-in-law, then almost 90, used to say, ‘Who’s going to live in all them?’ (nobody, as we now know). Everybody was talking about the clientelism and the corruption and the dodgy politics and the crazy lending the banks were doing. There was a terrible despair at the eternal return of Fianna Fáil. There were even opinion polls ten years ago that showed that a majority of people saw the lunacy of what was happening. Of course we didn’t know about derivatives, and sub-prime lending, and senior bondholders, but we didn’t need to. Quite simply, anybody with a brain in his head knew it couldn’t last. Only the extent of the crash took us by surprise. It overturned everything we believed about our lords and masters – we simply and grossly underestimated their stupidity.
So it’s not surprising that a sequence of eight cynical observations on the futility of hope should be among my earliest scribblings. It was the zeitgeist.
Another poem I was working on back in 2004, was one dedicated to my friend David Marcus. At the time he was ill and his health was deteriorating and I began by writing down two shared memories. The first was the funeral of his uncle Gerald Goldberg in the old Jewish graveyard at Curraghkippane. I didn’t know that I’d be attending David’s own funeral before long. But here’s that first memory in its final form:
Jewish graveyard,wintry light
down in the valley
they are lighting fires
the smoke follows
the lie of the land
everything is slightly uncertain
in a certain light
who listens to eulogies
though they may be well done
& occasionally necessary
we are asked to remember the dead
by every stone in the road
The funny thing is that David, a brilliant editor where fiction was concerned, and a fine writer himself, simply didn’t think poetry could be poetry unless it rhymed! He’d have appreciated the thought that I should dedicate a poem to him, but privately he’d have shaken his head over what he liked to call ‘modern poetry’.
Now that I retype that poem here, I realise, with considerable surprise, that uncertainty is something of a motif in the book - particularly in a poem like ‘On formally undecidable propositions’, which is not surprising since that’s the full title of a mathematical theorem colloquially known as The Uncertainty Priniciple, but the word ‘uncertain’ occurs specifically in four poems, and various other formulations recur throughout such as these lines from ‘Earthquake 2’
In too many senses I know
& do not know
And when Salmon sent me the beautiful cover image it revealed another recurring motif that I hadn’t been aware of – locks, keys, doors, gates. Another surprise. I usually make these discoveries in reviews. In many ways, once the final proofs have been returned and the book is essentially on its way to the printer, it becomes a different thing. It is a child who has emigrated. When it comes back in its new clothes I will have to try to understand it all over again. I will be no more relevant to the book than any other reader. As Roland Barthes wrote, the writer is always the past of the book.