Poetry and Personal History

One of the first poems I wrote that I liked and I kept, ‘Naming It’ was written, or rather made up, partly in a flat above a chip shop on Broughton Street in Edinburgh, where I was sleeping on the couch, and partly the following night – at about four or five in the morning – in a car, going to the airport to Newcastle-on-Tyne, to pick up a friend.  It went like this:

Five years out of school and preachy
with booklearning, it is good to be discovered
as a marauding child.
To think the gloomiest most baffled
misadventures, might lead so suddenly
to a clearing — as when a friend,
taking me to her well-stocked fridge
says: look
this is an avocado and this
is an aubergine.

The event it describes had, in fact, taken place. My friend’s flatmate had explained that the vegetable I was referring to as an avocado was actually an aubergine – and this, in turn, made sense of an event about six months previously, when I’d been sent to buy an aubergine for the Indian restaurant where I worked, causing great amusement when I returned. Afterwards I thought of the poem as my poem-of-intent. ‘Naming’ in the sense of Adam naming the animals: putting a name on something. It was my lucky poem. Whatever I think about it now, a number of things seem to have persuaded me that this was how I wanted to keep on writing. For one thing, I had written something directly about my life — and had got it out relatively quickly, rather than agonising over it, as I’d been doing since I was 18.  For another, the something I’d written wasn’t from books, or from thinking like a reader of poems, or from thinking too much at all.  Furthermore, the real-life event it described wasn’t particularly ‘poetic’ or grand.  It wasn’t discursive or meaningful – I liked the fact that it didn’t draw conclusions.  I liked the fact that it was a bit silly.

One of the other reasons that convinced me to keep at it was that ‘Naming It’ was published.  London Magazine accepted it along with two other poems – poems that I wrote, intently, over the next year in the same kind of vein: immediate, recording things that happened, inconsequential. I think now that part of the reason I was writing like this was because, although I was supposed to be at university at the time, I’d more or less given up on my M.Sc. Subsequently, I had a semi-detached eye on my life, half observing what I was up to. I was also having fun, which was important. In a way, I wanted the poems that I wrote at this time to be like diary-entries, and when they were published in the book These Days last year I said that their order correlated to the order in which I wrote them.  This is partly true.  For instance, in the winter after I wrote the poem about being able to distinguish between vegetables I caught a flu in Belfast and let it develop into a chest infection, and then had an asthma attack on Boxing Day, which is my birthday.  I wrote Acts of Faith just afterwards, so it appears early on in the book:

On my 24th birthday
My lungs close over, tight as a baby’s fist
Round its first rattle…

So too, the earliest poems I wrote in Edinburgh had one eye back to Belfast, where I’d lived for the previous four years. I was writing about old friends, and things that had happened there. ‘For Stuart who Accidentally Obtained a Job in the Civil Service’, is one, (getting a job in the civil service felt like more of a tragedy when I was 24) and ‘Festival Time’, about the contrast between leaving Belfast in July of 1998, with the heightened atmosphere of the Marching Season, and going to work in the Fringe Festival in Edinburgh. Another of the early poems, ‘Without Me’, was, more or less, about my boyfriend at the time, who still lived in Belfast.  After this, I wrote four more all called ‘Without Me’, all supposed, I think, to give the impression of the different states of mind you go through when breaking up with someone – disbelief, anger, and, with the last one, resignation. This includes the fourth ‘Without me’, which one reviewer said was an example of what shouldn’t be in the book (I didn’t read the reviews. He told me to my face.  Things like that happen when you publish a book of poems), which I wrote when I was really pretty unwell.

Nevertheless, if this sounds like I’m explaining writing as a straightforward expression of my 24-year-old reality (one of my aunts clearly believed this: ‘I don’t know how you can expose yourself like that?’ she complimented me at my launch), then I should say that I chose to call this talk ‘Poetry and Personal History’, rather than ‘Poetry and Confession’ or ‘Poetry and Autobiography’, because, frankly, a lot of what’s in my poems is made up. For instance, there is a poem called ‘My Dream Mentor’, when no such person existed in real life.  Nor do the emotions in the poems necessarily correspond to my state of mind when I made them up.  Indeed, the last (and title) poem, ‘These Days’, was my attempt to come up with a happy ending for the book, while I was not very happy in ‘real life’. Also, the poems were hardly unmediated: after ‘Naming it’, everything I wrote –30 or so poems, which I later sent away as a manuscript –was ten lines long.  This was just the limit I decided on.  It is probably not what Yeats had in mind when he admonished Irish Poets to ‘sing whatever is well-made’ (and I say this as my single, obligatory Yeats reference), but it felt like one way of doing things. Actually I thought of it at the time as a kind of decimalization, and some of the longer poems in the book are therefore much older. The poem ‘26’, for instance, was written when I was still trying to write more formal poems; indeed the effort to write a sestina might have sent me running, screaming, towards the ten-line limit, and the take-it-or-leave-it experiment.

Whether it’s called ‘personal history’ or ‘autobiography’, though, I suppose it’s fair to ask why, at 24, I had decided to take myself as the subject of my attempts to write. I had studied Irish poetry, I had loved Philip Larkin, but at the time I was reading Raymond Carver’s Collected Poems, which someone had bought me as a present. I liked the simplicity and lucidity of the language, and was fascinated that he was writing about dying while he was dying – or, rather, living moment-to-moment.  I appreciated the sense of an immediate sphere of experience.  This might not be High Art but, as I was starting to write properly, it was the only thing that I could be confident of even beginning to know. Much later I read and loved  the poems of Hugo Williams – poems such as those in Billy’s Rain, a collection which appears to record the end of an affair in (as it were) ‘real time’. So too, I discovered Sharon Olds’ incredible, frank-seeming poems about marriage and sex – and also, I must come clean, I even liked Ted Hughes’ autobiographical Birthday Letters rather a lot (academics say this is wrong).  Poets like this seem to contravene T.S. Eliot’s observation that ‘the more perfect the artist, the more completely separate in him will be the man who suffers and the mind which creates; the more perfectly will the mind digest and transmute the passions which are its material’.  However, in the case of poets who write well, I think it’s true to say that the blurring of boundaries is more apparent than real.  Some confessional poets have a read-hot quality which – while still made into art, as in the case of Sylvia Plath – can take the form of urgency, rather than intimacy.  But I tend to think that on the whole the impression of confidentiality still depends on skillful construction: tone and idiom creating the sense of a plausible, intimate, speaker. Also, though some critics complain that contemporary poetry does little more than try to create a likeable persona to whom everyone can relate, the construction of a voice speaking simply and honestly also pre-dates contemporary poetry (I always loved Shakespeare’s sonnets for this sense of implicit narrative, of the speaker losing control of the material).

At the time, then, I wanted my poems to be the equivalent of travel writing, reporting home about life, writing a personal history that I made up as I was going along. This is a process which retrospective history in some ways falsifies, especially as it looks back on youth. And if I liked poetry which didn’t seem interested in transcending the moment, I was also interested in a certain non-literariness. It was for this reason that I always liked how the title poem of the book came to be written.  After writing the poem, with its ‘these days this …  ‘these days that’ structure, I realized that I had unconsciously copied the repetition, as well as the actual title, from a song I had been listening to at the time.  (Nico, singing Jackson Brown). In the poetry I read, I always wanted to come across evidence of life as I recognised it, and responded strongly to such evidence when I found it, particularly in the poems of Paul Muldoon. So I wanted poems to feature songs and computers (by which I am mysteriously obsessed) and bad T.V.  I also liked that the second-hand title meant not just ‘this series of particular days’, but implied a certain attitude to the contemporary moment — though of course, as I’ve noted, that isn’t as simple as it sounds.

The last thing that I’m going to say about personal history concerns not the history of the poems composition, but the history in them.  I have always been obsessed with the past, and was nostalgic all the time even when I was very young.  I have also always had a strong sense that certain things inescapably repeat, or that certain events are cyclical. Some of this was tied up with my feelings about Belfast, to which I returned about halfway through writing These Days.  This was not something I felt brilliant about (I’ve always had a very persuasive love/hate relationship with Belfast), and I felt much worse about going back to Queen’s University to begin a Ph.D. after my taste of creative freedom. Some of this made its way into These Days too, more negatively.  My father was increasingly returning to childhood in his mind, and I wrote about that, while in the poem ‘By my Skin’ I tried, in a rather convoluted way, to suggest the cycle of recurring eczyma as a metaphor for the cyclical inertia and depression with which it is for me anyway, actually tied up.  Belfast wasn’t resolving its problems at this time either – and by sleight of hand I hoped that one of these cycles might imply the other.

I find that element less convincing now; sometimes writing about ‘these days’ can get bogged down by the days themselves.  But I am grateful that the book is published and that it has done well. Originally I wanted to entitle the collection Juvenilia, to imply that it was merely a ‘prologue’. Thankfully, I was very quickly alerted to the fact that this was an awful idea.  Nevertheless, now that it’s over, I hope that life will imitate the happy, projected-into-the-future ending of the collection, the optimistic leap into the future —  and maybe I can get on with writing something new. Perhaps it will be something serious and ‘consequential’. Perhaps it will be poetic with a capital ‘P’, and less to do with personal, than with public history.