Lost Words

A while before Christmas, I was with a dear friend in my local bookshop The Suffolk Anthology and we were looking at books by Robert McFarlane such as Landmarks and Holloway. I mentioned that I loved The Lost Words, the book he made with artist Jackie Morris. My friend remembered, and at Christmas-time she surprised me with it. What a gift for me; and what a gift the book is to the world.

As is well known, a few years ago there was a furore when a new edition of a dictionary for younger children dropped words like acorn, adder, bramble, and fern, and replaced them with words to do with computers and the internet. The editors said something, I believe, to the effect that a dictionary is descriptive, and records the language actually in use. And so Robert McFarlane begins The Lost Words thus:

Once upon a time, words began to vanish from the language of children. They disappeared so quietly that at first almost no one noticed — fading away like water on stone. The words were those that children used to name the natural world around them: acorn, adder, bluebell, bramble, conker — gone! Fern, heather, kingfisher, otter, raven, willow, wren…all of them gone! The words were becoming lost: no longer vivid in children’s voices, no longer alive in their stories.

He calls the book “a spellbook for conjuring back these lost words” and hopes that it will be read aloud, and “unfold dreams and songs, and summon lost words back into the mouth and the mind’s eye.” Jackie Morris’s beautiful illustrations of birds and plants complement the “spells.” Their combined magic evokes what happens when we really look at the natural things around us.

The bluebell picture is especially lovely, and exactly captures the delicate native bluebell with its drooping curve, “arched down like a cutwater drawing itself back from the line of the keel,” as Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote in his notebooks. He loved bluebells, gazed intently at them: The bluebells in your hand baffle you with their inscape…He experienced them with all his senses: drawing his fingers through, so they struggle with a shock of wet heads; smelling the faint honey smell; and tasting the sweet gum when you bite them.

But this is easy, he says; it is the eye they baffle. They give one a fancy of panpipes…..He seeks to describe that curve like a shepherd’s crook, and notes how the flower holds itself differently when you put it in water from the way it looks when growing. Over and over he tries to capture that arch of the bluebell: what with these overhung necks and what with the crisped ruffled bells dropping mostly on one side and the gloss they have at their footstalks they have an air of the knights at chess.

It’s still January, a while off bluebell season, but The Lost Words has conjured it. The book reminds me to look closely at the ordinary but infinitely precious bluebell, bramble, conker, fern. But while adults have praised the book, it is made to give children the words. I wonder if they are reading it, or having it read to them? Will these spells do even more powerful magic than evoking the natural world, will they send the children outside so they can see and touch these things for themselves, and learn their names?

Bluebell by Jackie Morris from  Lost Words  by Robert McFarlane and Jackie Morris (Hamish Hamilton, Penguin Books)

Bluebell by Jackie Morris from Lost Words by Robert McFarlane and Jackie Morris (Hamish Hamilton, Penguin Books)




Bright Abyss

I’m sitting in my morning chair, on a glassed-in balcony giving a wide view of the sky—intensely blue today, with only a few cloud-wisps. The sun, which earlier I saw rising, gradually strengthening its light, has started to melt the bloom of frost on the rooftops.

Beside me, a book I am reading in small doses, because it is so intense I have to keep stopping: My Bright Abyss by Christian Wiman.  This American poet was editor of Poetry for ten years; he now teaches at Yale Divinity School, and has written other books of poetry and prose. My Bright Abyss (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013) is, he says, “a mosaic,” made over seven years, as the cancer he’d been diagnosed with at thirty-nine “waxed and waned.” He didn’t intend to mention his illness, but realised that not including it would be dishonest as the book happened “in that shadow."

The book is subtitled “Meditation of a Modern Believer” but, as with all the best books, it can’t easily be summed up. It’s about being, or failing to be, or wondering what it means to be, “a believer,” and it's also about the deepest aspects of living, about creativity. Reviewers have praised its lyrical prose and the new way it approaches age-old questions; Casey N. Cep said "here is a poet wrestling with words the way that Jacob wrestled the angel...;" Marilynne Robinson called it "very lucid and not at all simple;" Jamie Quatro said the book "unlocked the universe for me;" and David Skeel says if Gerard Manley Hopkins "were transported to early-twenty-first century America, this is the kind of memoir he might have written..." 

Wiman does mention Hopkins (whose writing I love), and also evokes him implicitly, as in the word "thingness" in this passage:

“Some poets—surprisingly few—have a very particular gift for making a thing at once shine forth in its “thingness”  and ramify beyond its own dimensions. Norman MacCaig: “Straws like tame lightnings lie about the grass/And hang zigzag on hedges.”......[another example follows].

What happens here is not “the extraordinary discovered within the ordinary,” a cliché of poetic perception. What happens is some mysterious resonance between thing and language, mind and matter, that reveals—and it does feel like revelation—a reality beyond the one we ordinarily see.

Contemporary physicists talk about something called “quantum weirdness,” which refers to the fact that an observed particle behaves very differently from one that is unobserved. An observed particle passed through a screen will always go through one hole. A particle that is unobserved but mechanically monitored will pass through multiple holes at the same time. What this suggests is that what we call reality is conditioned by the limitations of our senses, and there is some other reality much larger and more complex than we are able to perceive. The effect I get from MacCaig’s metaphorical explosiveness, or from that of poets such as Seamus Heaney, Sylvia Plath, or Ted Hughes, is not of some mystical world, but of multiple dimensions within a single perception. They are not discovering the extraordinary within the ordinary. They are, for the briefest of instants, perceiving something of reality as it truly is.”

The “mysterious resonance between thing and language…that reveals a reality beyond the one we ordinarily see;” the way poetry seems to glimpse “something of reality as it truly is;” such hints and intuitions speak to us profoundly. Wiman gives us clarity at the edge of the ungraspable. 

The sun is passing now behind the three tall trees, so its brightness is less direct, but the sky is still a most lovely blue. And speaking of blue, Blue Planet II is currently on television. This jaw-dropping series, a work of art, an experience, takes us into that other blueness, the ocean. In the second episode, we penetrated fathoms down, where all the blue is gone; there is no sunlight at all, so enormous is the mass of water above. And in the seabed there are ravines, deeper still. Yet in that underwater darkness there is more light, and life, than was ever thought possible: squids with luminous ink, eels sparkling like strings of Christmas lights; a fish with a transparent head, bulbous eyes buried inside it, gazing through the clear jelly.

We saw the sponge coral called Venus’s Flower Basket, a delicate white cup of openwork, with the complexity of lace. Inside its chamber, shrimp are living; as tiny larvae, they were swept in through the gaps, and they have grown there, safe from predators. They are now imprisoned, too big to get out again. However, their young escape through the weave, and so a new generation is dispersed.

This hidden world has been invisible to us until now, miles deep, below the waves. A reality we could not see, until the submersibles, with cameras and lights, penetrated the abyss, and revealed a hitherto unknown and yet real dimension. 

Ring Out, Wild Bells!

Actually I'm using this quotation from Tennyson's In Memoriam (section CV) a little ahead of season. It's about the bells that ring out the old year and ring in the new.  We aren't quite there yet; there will be Christmas bells first. But his lovely lyric illustrates the emotional power of church-bells.

Last Sunday afternoon I was in Gloucester, on a crisp, sunny day; the cathedral tower was bathed in light and the blue sky burned through the fretwork of its turrets. From that tower cascaded peal after peal of bells, rung by the bell-ringers, as every Sunday from one-thirty to three pm. I stood there with the glorious sound washing over me, and was grateful for the bells, for the ringers, for this ancient sound that has been part of our landscape for so many long centuries.

The imminent closing of Whitechapel Bell Foundry, the birthplace of Big Ben, the Philadelphia Liberty Bell, and other bells all across the world, prompted a brilliant piece by writer Jane Shilling HERE. She starts with "Ding dong merrily" and ends up quoting "the great Nigel Molesworth's" version of Donne's "It tolls for thee;" in between, she shows the importance of bells in our culture.  Will our grandchildren, she asks, hear as many bells as we do? Ancient villages are being swallowed by sprawl, church congregations age and decline;  "the knowledge of how to ring the bells may vanish along with the skills of casting them."

Yes, there are still many campanology-lovers and bell-ringing groups, thank goodness, and they are finding new recruits. I recently met an American writer who now lives in Scotland, and, with her Scottish husband, rings bells there.  There are some bell-towers in the States, and active bell-ringing groups, but the ringing of church bells isn't a part of the national soundscape there, as it is, or was, in Britain. My American husband, one day at Stow-on-the-Wold just after a wedding, was sceptical when I said the peals were made by real people pulling on bell-ropes at that very moment. But it was so.  (And the ring of eight bells we were hearing is actually the heaviest in  Gloucestershire. Its oldest bells date from the 1600s).

Change-ringing began in Britain. Christopher Howse, in a brilliant piece  HERE  prompted by the simultaneous ringing of all the country's bells for the 2012 London Olympics, writes, "Change ringing sets bells free; paradoxically by a strict arithmetic formula, like a complicated knitting pattern."  I read thIs essay while living out of England, and found my eyes welling with hapless nostalgia. By a lovely serendipity, on the same very day (reading about the mid-nineteenth-century for my new novel), I learnt that Gabriele Rossetti, Dante Gabriel's Italian father, marvelled that in his newly-adopted city of London, "The very bells play tunes!" (The Rossettis in Wonderland by Dinah Roe.) 

Howse quotes "Church-bells beyond the stars heard," from George Herbert's extraordinary poem "Prayer." And in a 2009 piece about bells HERE he cites another marvellous poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins. Two of my most beloved poets *; their poetry, the bells, the landscape....all this is inextricably mixed in our heritage, interconnected, like that complicated knitting pattern. 

Howse's 2009 essay was a lament on the closure of "the other British bell foundry", Taylors. So now, if Whitechapel Foundry is closing too, does it mean there will be nowhere left in Britain where bells are cast?  

That would be cause to ring the mourning-bell.

*(in fact, ahem, that church-bells phrase is an epigraph to my poem "Fabric," in my collection appearing with Oversteps Books next year. End of shameless plug).

 

 

 

Distractions and the Tightrope

First, an update on the new planner....I have been using it, off and on. It's not quite incorporated into my routine yet, partly because I went away and the book was a bit too big to take with me; but when I have used it, it has really helped, and I can see that using it consistently could hugely improve my self-organization. The key part is (of course) the part I find hardest: writing the goals I set for the week into an actual time slot on an actual day! But I do like the way it encourages thought about the shape of a day, a week, and even year ahead, and reflection on where one has been and where one is going.

Part of the problem with productivity is avoiding the lure of the internet. This is harder when there is some Seriously Good Stuff to be found. The last couple of days have been a feast of thought-provoking pieces. First, the wonderful Maria Popova of Brain Pickings has some inspirational excerpts from Herman Hesse about books, starting with this:

"Among the many worlds that man did not receive as a gift from nature but created out of his own mind, the world of books is the greatest… Without the word, without the writing of books, there is no history, there is no concept of humanity. And if anyone wants to try to enclose in a small space, in a single house or a single room, the history of the human spirit and to make it his own, he can only do this in the form of a collection of books."                                                     From his 1930 essay "The Magic of the Book." 

Then a facebook friend posted an excellent essay on Rose Kelleher's website Rambling Rose by poet A. E. Stallings debunking some of the common misconceptions about formal poetry. Some of these ideas (formal poetry is anti-feminist, formal poetry is elitist) seem to me ridiculous, but it appears some people do have them; Stallings disposes of them brilliantly. 

And then, just when I have been thinking a lot, again, about Gerard Manley Hopkins, I come across a recent piece about him and his dark sonnets in Commonweal by Matthew Boudway. It's complex and thought-provoking and I need to re-read it before I know whether I am on board with everything it says, but anyway it brings eloquently before me once more this brilliant poet and his struggles, so hard to relate to today for those of us in secular society. Hopkins died on June 8th 1889, just shy of 45, after some very miserable months, even years; so it is some comfort to know his last words were apparently "I am so happy. I am so happy. I loved my life."

At least essays like these feed into my writing mind. So much on the internet doesn't, and is distracting or (as with recent news from Orlando) deeply upsetting. Some discipline is required, some filtering, some dedicated time-keeping, and I am (with the planner's help) trying to start working on that....just as soon as I've looked up that reference and checked my Twitter feed....Enough of this "I am an addict" stuff—especially galling as I thought it would never happen to me. (Can I just point out that at least I don't, usually, go online on my phone?) In other news....

Since I last posted here, I've had an exciting experience with my novel Inscription: it was long-listed for the VCU Cabell First Novelist Award, one of twelve semi-finalist titles chosen out of over 150. Although it wasn't a finalist, this vote of confidence in the book has given me great delight.

It's also a spur to beginning my new book, which is an amorphous blob at the moment, but gradually begins to take shape. (I think. Or am I mad to be saying even this much?)  I know, or I trust, that once I have a better idea of where it is trying to go, I will be caught up in it and dedicated to it, as I was when writing Inscription. Though I will still need to make time for working on my poetry and gathering my first collection....

Good luck to all of us handling that slippery medium, language, and walking the tightrope of the writing life!

 

"What is all this juice and all this joy?"

"Nothing is so beautiful as Spring..."  says Gerard Manley Hopkins, opening the poem I quote in my title. I agree; spring is definitely my favourite season, and always has been. An American friend of mine experiencing her first English spring said the other day that it was "magical."  In Pennsylvania Spring can be wonderful too, especially after the brutal winter; but there it changes so quickly into summer. There isn't (it seemed to me) the same tentativeness, the same delicacy, the same limpid light that is outside right this moment, as the morning's showers clear—perhaps only for a while—and the sunshine breaks through. And then comes the song of the blackbird, which I used to miss so much....

Every spring as a child, and then as a teenager and college student, I felt the same delicious frisson, a shiver of promise, and I still do. As intensely as when I was young? Perhaps not quite. But I feel it, a sensation that can't be described—not that this has stopped people, including myself, from trying. The challenge is to try and say something fresh about spring's very freshness, and it seems impossible. (I have been lucky, a couple of my spring poem attempts have been published; perhaps I'll post them on the Poetry page).

It's always and miraculously true that the season brings renewal to the green and growing things, and I find myself seeking renewal too. Wanting a fresh start in writing, in relationships, in my (currently dormant) spiritual life.  There ensues the usual struggle between this desire and my simple human laziness. 

This year something very simple and—apparently—unspiritual is helping with a tentative rebirth of creativity; how much, only time will tell. It's a new planner. Just as the mundane chore of cleaning and organising one's desk can make space for fresh ideas to blow in, so finding a planner that seems to allow room for creative projects as well as daily chores can help one (or help me—best drop this pretence that everyone's as hopeless as I am) manage time a trifle better.

 I carry no brief for this company, with which I have no connections whatsoever, but I am liking my new "Passion Planner." My sister discovered this American enterprise, and when I was last in the States I ordered and brought back two planners, on sale because we're almost half-way through the year. The company was originally and successfully crowd-sourced as so many people responded to the idea of the young founder, Angelia Trinidad.

Her planner notebook allows space for mind maps, prompts you to write down good things that happened as well as things "to do," helps you to formulate clear goals for both work and personal life, gives you space to write your hopes at the start of each month and a reflection at the end, and provides nice big sections named "Space of Infinite Possibility." There are also inspiring quotes scattered throughout: this week's is from Abraham Lincoln: "You cannot escape the responsibility of tomorrow by evading today."  There are helpful tips which you may or may not like, but can ignore if you want, such as "Avoid the unnecessary stress that comes with procrastination" followed by an idea of how to use the planner to actually do this.  In short, it's an unusual mix of the guided and the open-ended. A combination journal, agenda, and sketchbook. As Trinidad says on the introductory page, "I wanted to create the planner I wish someone had give me when I was feeling lost, so I decided to make it myself." 

I'm currently enthusiastic, though of course, like so many new starts, it may fizzle out. But perhaps the breezy energy of spring will buoy me towards a new phase...

"Birds build — but not I build," said Gerard Manley Hopkins, in another, very different, poem.  That's how I've been feeling for a while, but now I hope there's a change in the air, for me and for anyone who longs to build or to make something this spring.

Here's wishing everyone creative juice and joy.

 

 

 

 

 

The sun!

It does make a difference. The sun is out, the sky is blue; and although it was frosty this morning and is still chilly outside, the clarity of the day is invigorating after all that rain and cloud. Not that I mind the rain and cloud so much, as long as the temperatures don't drop to the insane cold I knew in Pennsylvania. When I lived there full-time, winter dragged on remorselessly through February, March, and often into April, with nothing green visible; just cold and ice and unmelted heaps of grimy snow. But here the daffodils are already up and in bud, and in parks and gardens there have been flowers of some sort without interruption since autumn.

There are some long-tailed tits frisking around and chirruping busily in a tree outside my window. Although it isn't nest-making time yet, I think of Gerard Manley Hopkins and his anguished spring sonnet. "Birds build, but not I build..." I've been between projects for a while, and I'm uncertain of where to move next. This is scary: I am afraid full-fledged spring will arrive and I'll be echoing Hopkins, watching the creation all around and not making anything myself.

Paul Muldoon, at the Cheltenham Literary Festival last year, spoke about pattern, shape, and structure in his poetry. He said—admitting it's a truism, but it bears repeating—how the traditional patterns of form can allow for more emotional openness in a poem. Some people call poetic forms "artificial," but they are not: as he said, there are patterns everywhere in nature—in the structure of DNA, of crystals, of snowflakes.  

He also spoke about putting together a collection of poems. He doesn't start out with a theme, but over the four to five years of writing it, he said, "your obsessions are of a piece; themes appear."  He is interested in the sequence we read poems in, and how the experience changes accordingly. This concern with shape and structure is natural: "It's the urge to construct, to build things."

I know this urge. But sometimes it's so hard to begin. I plan to make a collection of my poetry, but far from representing Muldoon's "four to five years," it represents over two decades. (I'm a slow writer!) Where to start, and how to shape it? At the same time, I have a new prose book in mind, but my ideas, like Meg's jelly in Little Women, are reluctant to gel. 

It's hard to combine patience with gentle self-prodding; to keep the playfulness of writing, while not neglecting it. Long ago, aged about fifteen, on just such a bright day as this, I wrote a short poem about branches against a blue winter sky so intense it seemed it could spark the tree into spring life. I belonged to an arts centre for young adults, run by an amazing woman, Elizabeth Webster. She encouraged self-expression, while also inspiring us to work at the craft. We read our poems for the public, and she printed some—including my midwinter spring one—in a magazine. She is dead now, but I will never forget her.

Today I'd like to recover her special balance of encouragement and inspiration; and even—is it possible?—the same fresh excitement I had at fifteen about making something, building it, giving it a shape.