Tuesday, 31 May 2011

I don’t know why, but I had to start it somewhere: Pulp, poetry and the pits.

captains towerWith Bob Dylan’s 70th birthday celebrated in style last week (amongst other things, the occasion was marked by a tribute poetry anthology,The Captain’s Tower), there’s been much talk of the links between poetry and song. I think it’s hard to convincingly argue that song lyrics are ever truly poetry – writing in 2007, Sam Leith put it nicely:

“Poetry and song - as the two main rhythmic uses of language - have the same origins and much in common. But that's not to say they're the same thing. We share an ancestor with the chimpanzee, and we both like bananas, but we're not the same creature.”

That doesn’t mean that lyrics can’t be poetic though, or inspire poetry. For me, it’s not Dylan who makes me want to pick up my pen but those Sheffield lads, Pulp. One dismal day in 2010, I was listening to ‘The Last Day of the Miners’ Strike’ (on repeat, staring at the ceiling), and marvelling at the sense of timelessness it conjures up:

Kids are spitting on the Town Hall steps & frightening old ladies.
I dreamt that I was living back in the mid 1980s,
People marching, people shouting, people wearing pastel leather.
The future's ours for the taking now, if we just stick together.

I was born in Sheffield in 1985, so I knew nothing about the strike when it was happening. But growing up in north east Derbyshire, its effects were always there. One of the most interesting (and frightening) things about the strike to me is its enduring legacy, how recent it still feels. In some ways, it’s still being reinvented: a few years ago, I watched a film about the strike that blew my mind. It was set in Orgreave – where one of the most iconic and controversial clashes of the whole strike took place in 1984 - and it was a documentary. In 2001, conceptual artist Jeremy Deller staged a re-enactment of the events of that fateful June on location in Orgreave, featuring 800 people, many of whom were ex-miners or police involved in the original encounter. The documentary I saw follows the re-enactment process and makes for powerful viewing; ex-miners playing the part of police officers, Medieval battle specialists eyeing the fray nervously…

I was so fascinated, appalled and touched by the different passions the re-enactment had awoken (in the people who took part and even in me, too young to remember those horrific events) I knew I wanted to try and write about it. Listening to Jarvis Cocker singing ‘The Last Day of The Miners’ Strike’ one rainy Friday a year later, I knew one day I would.

The sequence of poems I finally produced, ‘Scab’ is at the heart of my new pamphlet, ‘Lie of the Land’, published this week by The Wordsworth Trust. ‘Lie of the Land’ features poems written since the start of my residency here in Grasmere and started off as an attempt to ‘map’ my immediate surroundings in the Lake District. Instead, I found I was drawing on memory (and fantasy at times): my body was in Cumbria, but my mind was in South Yorkshire. If you’re interested in the result of that process, you can get copies of ‘Lie of the Land’ from The Wordsworth Trust online here.

Beat_packshot200Fittingly, this week sees the release of an excellent documentary about Sheffield’s music scene, with PULP at the centre of it. ‘The Beat is the Law' – Fanfare for the Common People’ is a film by Eve Wood, which charts how Sheffield bands like Pulp and Longpigs went from Steel City to headlining at Glastonbury, reaching the dizzy heights of pop stardom. Wood’s film is as much about how the political climate of the 80s shaped the music scene in Sheffield as anything else. In short, I like to think it’s about how the world changed Sheffield and how Sheffield changed the world… It features Richard Hawley, Jarvis Cocker, Mark Brydon, Russell Senior and many others and is sure to be worth a watch.

As Dylan might have muttered, the times have been a’changing. Or to put it the way Jarvis did:

‘87 socialism gave way to socialising,
So put your hands up in the air once more, the north is rising...

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

21st Century Messengers

m-coverA lot of the time when I’m writing ‘A Pint for the Ghost’, I have my head in the clouds, looking for supernatural anecdotes, or idly searching out chilling and bizarre tales like this one.

Of course, you could say this airy-fairy tendency comes with the poet’s job description (along with our famous love of pubs, a myth which this blog works tirelessly to dispel) – poetry often seems like the realm of the liminal. In a soon-to-be-published issue of the fine Lancashire magazine CAKE, I can be found arguing (mostly with myself, it’s true) that, when I sit down to write a poem I’m intimidated by “…a desire to make sense of a world that’s just too big to fit into the poem… I think that’s why it’s sometimes easier to talk about the negative world, to things that didn’t happen, that we didn’t say or do, to the grand ‘nothing’ behind it all…”

Hanging up my other-worldly hat for the evening, I thought I’d mention a few hot-off-the-press publications that manage to do what I never can: tackle the world headfirst and make us look at things a bit differently. (NB. This isn’t intended to be a review of any kind – I only inflict those on the poor, unsuspecting readers of Poetry London – but a round up of what I’ve been reading lately that’s given me pause for thought.)

‘For The Messengers’ (Donut Press) attempts something bold and exciting – turning the news into art. Of course, there’s a well-established, strong tradition of poets commenting on global events – something that the current Poet Laureate takes in her stride – but Jude Cowan’s book does this in a way that’s entirely distinctive.

Working for Reuters news agency, Jude began writing poems in early 2008 in response to the varied daily news footage she was archiving, and continued throughout what turned out to be a turbulent year. As the project gathered momentum, Jude says she “became more aware of the recurring journalistic tropes – preparation, aftermath, conference, presser, interview, protest, funeral – and more conscious of the role played by selection and editing…”

The resulting poems are varied and often startling, whether considering economic crises, key global elections or natural disasters, sometimes from a more abstract standpoint, sometimes contextualised within the day to day work of archiving. Whether she’s writing about Japanese fertility rituals or death in Iraq, Jude Cowan manages to uncover both the humanity and horror behind the footage, and does so with gentle wit.

You can read some samples from the book here (including one of my favourites, ‘Germany: Zoo Christmas’. Highly recommended.

While I’m about it, a browse through the rest of the Donut Press catalogue reveals a wealth of other fine collections from the likes of Tim Turnbull, Tim Wells, Wayne Holloway Smith, Annie Freud, A.B. Jackson and others which all have their own distinctive worldliness… Go on, grab a Donut. You know you want to.

140x_816069_fileAlongside ‘For the Messengers’ I’ve been reading two debut collections from Mike Watts and Joe Hakim (who also perform together and host Hull’s ‘Write to Speak’). Mike’s book ‘Coming to a Street Near You’ (CreateSpace) is refreshingly in yer face; often hard-hitting, often funny, always frank. ‘The Decline of the Fishing Industry’ is a particularly beautiful poem: moving without being overly-sentimental. In it, the narrator brings his son to a place he used to fish, only to find that now he’s ‘fully-mortgaged / and hygienic’ , everything has changed here too: ‘he sank his net / Amongst bergs of polystyrene.’ Mike’s got a great eye for detail, whether describing dogs with ‘ice-pick teeth’ or eyelids ‘mussel-shut’. According to one reviewer, it’s a collection that’s ‘like the dodgem cars at Hull fair’ (having taken that out of context, I have to clarify that means it’s fast-paced and exciting, not something that makes you throw up!)

Just as Jude Cowan’s book offers a sideways look at the process of commentary, ‘Coming to a Street Near You’ has something to say about what it is to be a writer – in ‘The Slot’, Mike talks about ‘spilling your guts at the feet of strangers’ and elsewhere, mentions the guilt of wanting to turn everything into a poem.

e39ea9870324ff9501691383bb97826526076b1a-thumbJoe Hakim’s ‘No Light / Might Escape’ (Night Publishing) also engages subtly with what it means to be an author, whether of fiction, or your own life and how the two often overlap in surreal and surprising ways. Truth is always stranger than poetry.

From parodies of social networking sites (‘What’s On Your Mind?’) to encounters in a bar at the end of the world (‘Last Orders at the Apocalypse’), these are slant reflections on how bizarre our existence is – none of them heavy-handed. The theme of writers’ guilt is back again in poems like ‘Assignment’. Our obsession with the virtual world (what the writer Douglas Coupland would call ‘deselfing’) is sent up too: in ‘EPIC FAIL’, the narrator remarks of facebook:

‘Although I maintained some semblance of social interaction by posting increasingly obscure nonsensical status updates on my wall – example: REALITY IS NOTHING MORE THAN THE SPIN CYCLE ON A WASHING MACHINE – I had more or less alienated all my virtual friends along with my actual ones…I was the perfect consumer. I could share my burdens and burn-out with an audience of disinterested minor acquaintances.’

I defy any of you not to nod in recognition…

Like ‘Coming to a Street Near You’, the book’s rooted in Hull, but ‘No Light / Might Escape’ casts a line out to a parallel universe - as befits the title, a reference to the essence of a black hole. The collection mixes poems with short stories and the effect is arresting, a ‘genuine jig on the end of life’s rope’ as one review puts it. You can fit an overall narrative to the book if you’ve a mind to but, like all the truest stories, it isn’t a linear one. Incidentally, in the interests of preserving ‘A Pint for the Ghost’s’ beer credentials, I’m compelled to say that one of the prose pieces in the book contains the best description of hair of the dog I’ve come across…

Finally, I wanted to mention the intriguing prose book ‘Edgelands’ by Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts (Cape), but Robert Macfarlane goes over it at length in The Guardian here, so suffice to say I was hooked.

I’ll leave you with a far more elegant reflection on the relationship between the ‘real’ world and the poet’s world than I’m capable of. It’s from Charles Simic, writing for the New York Review of Books blog:

“As any poet can tell you, one often sees better with eyes closed than with eyes wide open. Am I claiming, you are probably asking yourself, that most things that happen in poems are not true at all? Far from it. Of course they are true. It’s just that poets have to do a lot of time-wasting to get to the truth… I strain my ears and stare at the blank page until a word or an image comes to me. Nothing genuine in a poem, or so I have learned the hard way, can be willed. That makes writing poetry an uncertain and often exasperating undertaking. In the meantime, there’s nothing to do but wait.”

Well then. I’m off. This window won’t stare out of itself…

Thursday, 14 April 2011

The Hungry Ghost

As the stalwarts amongst you may recall, ‘A Pint for the Ghost’ was first inspired by old legends that describe leaving milk on the hearthstone for ancestors or spirits. The question of how ghosts sustain themselves seems to be a vexing one: some maintain that they can’t eat solid food at all.

PrintEastern traditions, meanwhile, often celebrate the notion of the ‘hungry ghost’. In Buddhism, these are a metaphor for unfulfilled desires or emptiness – beings driven by intense emotional needs. In Tibetan Buddhism, they are described as having "mouths the size of a needle's eye and a stomach the size of a mountain". This is a metaphor for people trying (and failing) to fulfill their illusory physical needs.

On May 18th, I’m going down to London to taunt any hungry ghosts out there at an event that promises to be a feast for all the senses: ‘We Eat Poets!’ isn’t a morbid sacrificial ritual (I hope) but “an eclectic mix of poetry, excellent food and related performance and participation, surrounded by extraordinary antiques and architectural relics from London’s past.”

The venue is bonkers and beautiful LASSCo in Vauxhall, a den of curiosities which I visited in March. The room that will host the event is full of strange bits and pieces, all for sale. Walking into LASSCo is an experience in itself – you’re constantly assailed by strange and lovely things, hanging from the ceiling, inviting you to sit on them (er) or decorating the walls. It’ll be a great stage for a night of theatrics.

I’ve written some new material loosely based around the theme of ‘hunger’ to perform and will even be taking part in a quickfire poetic challenge on the night itself… If the poetry isn’t enough to tempt the Londoners / dedicated travellers amongst you, perhaps the prospect of food from Cannon & Cannon is. Either way, you can buy tickets here, before they’re all devoured (sorry, I’ll get my coat).

I’ll leave you with a short story from ‘A Pint from the Ghost’ that’s sure to put you off your dinner. It takes place on Gibbet Moor, in Derbyshire, close to Brampton and concerns a hungry visitor…

“Long, long ago – and no-one’s quite sure when – there was a tramp who wandered up from Brampton to the only cottage on the moor. A widow lived there, and he sneaked in through the door to beg for food, for he’d had none in weeks. He had a grisly face: a thin, black beard, a hat that he’d pull down so that you barely saw his bright blue eyes.

He found the widow frying bacon in her kitchen and he pleaded for a scrap. She said she had no food to give him, bid him go, she said there’d be no supper for the likes of him. That set him in a fearful rage, and the smell of the food was maddening to one who’d starved so long. He knocked the widow to the ground, then seized the frying pan and poured the scalding fat into her mouth.

They found him living in her house, the widow’s body in its twisted posture on the kitchen floor. The policemen set a gibbet up beside the cottage door. But rather than kick the stool away, and spare him with a quick death, the townsfolk strung him up to starve, or else to die at the hands of winter cold, or wind and rain. It took three dreadful weeks, and all day long the tramp would howl and scream. The sound was so piercing that it carried over the hill to Chatsworth House, disturbed the Duke himself from sleep. If you go walking over Gibbet Moor, you’ll hear his howl, and blame it on the fearful gale. Or else you’ll see that dark shape moving on the skyline, tell yourself it’s nothing but a swaying tree, tell yourself it isn’t drawing closer, following you home.”

Monday, 21 March 2011

Black Dogs

H1020013Ever since Winston Churchill famously likened his struggle with depression to a ‘black dog’, the term has entered our culture as a popular metaphor. In 1992, Ian McEwan published a brilliantly sinister short novel, ‘Black Dogs’, playing on their totemic significance. Thanks to the marvels of technology, you can read an extract here.

As Megan McKinley, writing for the intriguingly named Black Dog Institute puts it:

“In modern parlance, we let sleeping dogs lie; we go to the dogs or die like a dog; we dog someone at every turn, or compete in a dog-eat-dog environment. And when we put a name to our depression, increasingly it is that of the black dog, lurking behind us, or clinging
tenaciously to our backs.”

The term has far older supernatural connotations, of course. In British folklore, the black dog is a nocturnal apparition, often said to be associated with the Devil, and  its appearance was regarded as a portent of death. In my old stamping ground of East Anglia, some still fear the Black Shuck – a large creature with malevolent flaming eyes (or one eye, or eyes that change from red to green, depending on what takes your ghostly fancy), otherwise known as the ‘Doom Dog’.

These terrifying beings are often supposed to appear in mist or on lonely stretches of moor (as in the legend of The Hound of the Baskervilles, famously encountered by Sherlock Holmes), but almost always at night. In ‘A Pint for the Ghost’, I wrote a poem about Derbyshire sightings of Gabriel Hounds, who bring bad fortune to all who see them:

Each time I read a cloud’s dark countenance
or watch two crows stitch out a warning
in the clear blue air, I can’t forget

the Bradwell miners, bound for home
without a lamp to guide them, night as heavy
as the earth they’d toiled beneath all day.

They heard the long grass stir. They stood
dead still. A beam, sharp as a skinning knife
shone from the moon down to the hill

and carved the huge shape of a hound; a dog so quick
they’d barely taken flight before they heard it bay
and felt its harsh breath at their heels. They ran

full speed with burning lungs until the dawn,
until the daylight overtook them and they went,
grim-faced, down to the mine

to meet their certain fate. Remember them
as you lie in bed, when the empty house
has fallen still, and you stare through open curtains

at a starless sky, imagine it’s a dog’s
black flank that passes you, bound
for somewhere else tonight.

(from ‘A Pint for the Ghost’, tall-lighthouse, 2010)

Imagine my terror as I lay in bed in Grasmere the other night, listening to the silence outside – the A591 quiet at last, the lights off in all the other houses – and, through the shadows on my floor, saw the shape of a sleek black dog stalking towards me.

Luckily, the spectre leapt on to the bed and proceeded to lick my ear enthusiastically. It wasn’t a Hell Hound at all. It was Bell, my 6 year old rescue whippet. Bell comes from Animal Rescue Cumbria near Kendal, a charity supported by one of the Lake District’s most famous residents, Alfred Wainwright. She’s a real character and fast-attempting to become the most cultured pooch in the village, having attended several poetry readings with me around the country.

In fact, Bell was pretty chuffed to get her first ever poetry review after accompanying me to ‘Word Life’ in Bradford recently. She was even more chuffed to be described as ‘gorgeous’…

I can’t imagine a less sinister creature than the one who curls up next to me on the sofa, trots around on the fells or sits in on Dove Cottage poetry workshops. But, none the less, whenever there’s a full moon over Grasmere, I find myself eyeing her nervously as she pads around in the darkness… Well, actually, I don’t. But I can’t think of a suitably chilling conclusion to this blog. Perhaps I’ll let Bell have the last word. Here she is, windswept in Shetland.


Monday, 7 March 2011

It’s Nice Up North


In 2006, John Shuttleworth (alter ego of comedian Graham Fellows) went to Shetland to prove his theory that, the further north you go, the nicer people get. On a bleak day in February 2011, I found myself on Unst, the most northerly part of the Shetland Isles enjoying a blissful solitude – nice or not, there aren’t many people to be found on the islands once you’ve left Lerwick. Grasmere began to assume the status of a bustling metropolis as I thought about it, staring out to the Muckle Flugga lighthouse.

Muckle Flugga is now an automatic lighthouse, but was manned until the 1970s. What a singularly lonely existence it must have been, surrounded by sea and seabirds, operating a single beacon in the darkness every night. No job for the superstitious. In fact, it would be surprising if tales of the supernatural didn’t abound on Shetland. The isles’ Viking history, combined with their isolation, make for thriving legends and I was interested to find out more about rumoured encounters with the UK’s most northerly spirits.

On our first day, en route from Lerwick to Unst, we stopped to visit Windhoose, reputed to be the most haunted house on Shetland. The wind tried to crumple us as we left the car and set off up a balding hill (there are few trees on Shetland – the weather scours them all off). Windhoose was roofless and bare. I’ve often heard derelict houses compared to toothless mouths, but Windhoose was more like a mouth curled into a snarl. Fenced off on all sides, it stood glowering over the road below. We clambered over the barbed wire. I once read somewhere that animals are particularly sensitive to spirits and was anxiously eyeing Bell the whippet as we crept towards the house. Bell sniffed the ground. We waited, hearts in our mouths. Then she crouched down and pissed all over the grass. A collective sigh of relief was breathed, except by Bell, who was scanning the field for rabbits and yowling about the cold.

I’d expected Windhoose to be empty, but the spaces inside it that had once been rooms were crossed with planks of rotting, green timber, a detritus of stones and smaller logs carpeting the floor. It was as if what had once been the house had caved in on itself. There was something strangely still about the interior, barely protected from the weather as it was. Above the ruined front door, a worn-down coat of arms. We ducked into the main chamber and flinched to see a sheep’s spine, attached to a length of twine and hanging from a stone lintel, turning in the wind. It should almost have been a comfort – the presence of evidence that connected to the human world – but something about the way it had been arranged and hung there made us flinch. It was enough to send us hastily back down the slope, Bell lagging behind, sticking her nose into the grass.

But by far the most supernatural experience I had on Unst was the result of an entirely natural phenomenon. True to form, I failed to appreciate the beauty of what I’d seen at the time. And, true to form, I went back to the cottage and wrote a poem about it:

Aurora Borealis

How typical of us: thinking that pale green corridor
cutting across the blacked-out Baliasta road
must be a searchlight, hunting us.
We clutched each other as we never would again

then skittered towards home, imagining we were
extras in a B movie: the Shetland hills huge UFOs,
or the whole island a slumbering beast whose back
we clung to, this the beam of his mate’s eye.

We looked down from that slender radiance
to watch our steps along the track,
and missed the sky’s brief fire, the North
lighting its own touchpaper and standing back.

(Helen Mort, February 2011)

I’d like to dedicate that poem to Gordon, Penny, Hunter, Wilma, Edna and all the other remarkable people who were so kind to us during our visit to Unst. The sage John Shuttleworth was right – it really is nice up north.

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Travelling ghosts

There's a chill running down my spine as I sit down to type this... It isn't ghosts that are to blame, however, but Cumbrian snowfall and a broken boiler. Nonetheless, I've had the privilege of reading in a number of haunted places recently: a few weeks ago, I performed a selection of pieces from 'A Pint...' in the grand setting of Marlborough College, the school attended by Betjeman, Nick Drake and others. Students murmured about strange sightings in the library, a ghostly child in the grounds and other stories, but I was too busy staring at the imposing buildings to take much of it in. Besides, never mind the opulent grounds of the school, the highlight of my trip to Swindon's environs was encountering the world's weirdest roundabout.

On November 20th, myself and seven other poets arrived at sleepy Aspinall Street in Mytholmroyd to take part in an exciting project organised by Andrew McMillan. Our destination was Ted Hughes' childhood house, a black brick terrace that now has a thoroughly (and surprisingly) modern interior. The day-long event, 'Crossing Borders' saw four poets with Lancashire connections (Mike Barlow, Sarah Hymas, Clare Shaw and Steve Waling) and four with Yorkshire links (myself, Joe Hakim, Ben Wilkinson and Sally Baker) divided into pairs and challenged to produce new, collaborative poems exploring the idea of landscape and its borders. I was paired with Mike Barlow and we set out on a muddy walk with some trepidation, only to find ourselves quickly agreeing that we'd like to write something that explored the way a hill seems different depending on which side you approach it from. Our piece adopted the voices of two mountaineers, one from the east and one from the west who meet at the summit of the peak and swap routes.

The day produced a striking variety of collaborations, which Sarah Hymas has described much more articulately here. I also had high hopes of startling a ghost or two from the Aspinall Street house where some of us spent the night. After muttering about ouija boards, we went to an excellent real ale pub instead and stumbled back after last orders for a night's sleep, undisturbed by the spirits of Ted and Sylvia... Now there's a surprise.

On Sunday, I performed at Maryport literature festival and a trip to the Senhouse Roman Museum surely unsettled a centurian ghost or two: the venue was right next to the museum with its variety of relics and murals.In between visiting these ghostly locations, I've also recently been to Peterborough to perform at 'Speakeasy' in the Brewery Tap. You couldn't ask for a better organised evening of poetry, or a more responsive, friendly audience. A big thank you to Mark Grist and everyone else who made the evening such a pleasure.

Later this week, snow permitting, I'll be appearing at The Poetry Cafe in Covent Garden on Thursday as part of a tall-lighthouse event, then for the fantastic 'Wordlife' in Bradford on Friday night at the Theatre in the Mill, Sheffield Saturday night and Sheffield again on Monday.

The last month has been dominated by a bit of exciting news from Picador: myself and nine other poets (including Alan Buckley and Ben Wilkinson, also published by tall-lighthouse) have made the shortlist for the inaugural Picador Prize for a first collection. The shortlist was mentioned in The Guardian here. You can read poems by all the shortlisted entrants here.

Now, back to building a fire and trying to keep the chill at bay! If all else fails, there's always the whisky...

Sunday, 24 October 2010

The decay of lying: a pseudo-scientific blog post

IMG_0777‘In modern days, while the fashion of writing poetry has become far too common and should, if possible, be discouraged, the fashion of lying has almost fallen into disrepute.’

So claims Oscar Wilde in ‘The Decay of Lying’ (1891), a typically witty account of the ‘proper aim of art’, which he describes as ‘the telling of beautiful, untrue things.’ Recent and inevitable news of cuts to the Arts Council budget, might prompt us to question anew what art is really for, where it fits into the rest of our fragmented society. Commenting on Wednesday in response to the announcement of a 29.6% funding cut, Arts Council Chief Executive Alan Davey said: 'These cuts will inevitably have a significant impact on the cultural life of the country. There will be some tough decisions…’. But what does the term ‘cultural life’ really mean and where do art forms like poetry fit in?

(1.1 A bit of science)

In his new book ‘The Master and his Emissary’, psychiatrist and writer Ian McGilchrist looks at the segregated hemispheres of the human brain and their asymmetrical relationship. To vastly simplify one aspect of his infinitely complex argument, McGilchrist suggests that the left and right hemispheres deal with incompatible versions of the world: the left specialising in quantitative information, individual components and the right in holistic connections, intuition and metaphor – the domain of poetry. For all the left hemisphere depends on the right for its functionality, the information it deals in is highly-prized: ‘we live in a society where the indirect, the difficult, the implicit are not valued.’ (McGilchrist, October 2010)

The author relies on a rather neat metaphor himself when he says:

‘The left hemisphere, though unaware of its dependence, could be thought of as an 'emissary' of the right hemisphere, valuable for taking on a role that the right hemisphere - the 'Master' - cannot itself afford to undertake.  However it turns out that the emissary has his own will, and secretly believes himself to be superior to the Master.  And he has the means to betray him.’

In an interview for ‘Poetry’ magazine, McGilchrist outlines his ideas in relation to poetic expression. Metaphor is of key importance to society and the brain (indeed he characterises it as ‘the only way of understanding anything’) and yet it is marginalised. We live in a society that prefers instant gratification and quantifiable information (which we can constantly access through technology) over intuitive thinking and, as a result, poetry is bound to be marginalised too.

It’s an interesting theory which, in turn, provokes questions of what we mean by ‘truth’ in society and in art. It’s clear that the intuitive, deep truths of poetry are different from our social concepts of literal , informative truth: the facts, just the facts and nothing but the facts. Information versus knowledge. So how should we approach ‘truth’ within an individual poem? Is Wilde right when he argues that we should shun ‘careless habits of accuracy’ and realise instead that ‘Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life’? In early November, Jacob Polley and I will be leading a weekend workshop here at The Wordsworth Trust about poetic fictions, whether poetry can do justice to reality through the unreal, though who knows what conclusions we’ll reach!

(1.2 A bit more science)

Positivism, of course, holds that statements are senseless if they cannot be verified or falsified. However, outlining his theory of falsifiability, Karl Popper famously asserted that unfalsifiable statements are ‘unscientific’ but not without relevance (having cultural or spiritual meaning) and equally a theory cannot be guaranteed true by past corroboration, even after rigorous and repeated testing. For his part, McGilchrist suggests that the kind of attention we bring to bear on the world at a given time changes the nature of the world we attend to and there is no single way of thinking which can be proved true. All the same, science ‘purports to be uncovering such a reality. Its apparently value free descriptions are assumed to deliver the truth about the object, onto which our feelings and desires are later painted…’

A traditional approach: science first, poetry later. We’re familiar with the idea of art as embellishment, as ‘alternative’, entertainment in its truest sense. When we speak about ‘truth’ in art, we aren’t applying the exacting standards of the positivist and its assumed that we’re dealing with a far more tenuous concept. Yet McGilchrist writes that science ‘is just one particular way of looking at things, a way which privileges detachment, a lack of commitment of the viewer to the object viewed. For some purposes this can be undeniably useful. But its use in such causes does not make it truer, more real, closer to the nature of things.’

This is something I’ve been thinking about recently in relation to Richard Dawkins’ book ‘Unweaving the Rainbow’ and his remarks on the relationship between science and the arts. My article ‘Re-weaving the Rainbow’ is a review of three recent poetry collections by Jo Shapcott, Pascal Petit and Patrick McGuinness. I’m no scientist, to state the bleedin’ obvious. My selective, biased response to some of Dawkins’ points is very tentative, just as my understanding of neuroscience is limited (expect a possible blog entry from the far more qualified poet Niall O’Sullivan about McGilchrist’s book at some point!).

(1.3 A bit less science)

Nonetheless, it seems to this amateur that the questions McGilchrist raises in ‘The Master and His Emissary’ about ‘truth’ are fascinating. They strike at the heart of what the domain of metaphor and, by implication, the domain of poetry is for at a time when cuts to arts funding make is ever more paranoid and defensive about what it is we do, what poetry is ‘for’. In some ways, he argues that the issue doesn’t even need answering, such is the significance of metaphor to human life. But doesn’t poetry (and art) thrive on marginalisation? Rumours of demise are always greatly exaggerated and, like it or not, the best work usually comes unbidden and asserts itself against the odds – not an argument for increasing the odds, of course.

In the midst of this, I’ve been cheered this week to attend a series of different events that variously demonstrated to me how poetry is alive and vigorously kicking in all its forms (a sestina, I’m told, delivers a lethal karate chop). On Tuesday, I was a guest reader on Felix Dennis’ ‘Did I Mention The Free Wine’ which saw an audience of hundreds gathering outside Windermere to hear several hours of poetry and, er, neck free booze. The next evening, performing with the very talented Luke Wright, I read at Hull’s ‘Write to Speak’: a vibrant and exciting spoken word night fast making an impact with its warm atmosphere and mix of new and established voices – I definitely recommend a look at their programme for the coming months. Friday saw the gala of the second Manchester Poetry Prize at MMU, a generous award for new work won this year by Judy Brown and Michelle Kern, proving that good poems will out.

(1.4 A slapdash conclusion)

And perhaps poetry is even more tenacious than we often think. To quote McGilchrist a final time, ‘poetry engraves itself in the brain: it doesn’t just slip smoothly over the cortex as language normally does. It has all the graininess of life, as it rips into being from deep within the limbic system, the ancient seat of awareness and affective meaning.’ In other words, better get used to it - there’s no bloody chance of getting rid of us.

Below: the author, engaged in a highly scientific experiment about the optimum consumption of Budweiser (picture by Andrew Marshall)