Poetic form is, by definition, a kind of music – something that translates our inner measures, our private incantations, into language. As a poet my concern lies with harnessing this inner music, but more directly and perhaps, most importantly, how my writing is influenced by the external music of the wild. Robert Graves stated that poets do not have an audience, that we’re ‘talking to a single person all the time’, and this is true. Yet something crucial happens when this single tone is affected, or even altered by the presence of a second force, one outside of our control.
I often visit the moors in West Yorkshire, habiting a mile or so from Haworth. Yew trees surround the cabins there, and the continual slant of the wind has forced them into an unusually decrepit angle. Every time I see these trees I am reminded of the poetic voice – how its spirit can be contorted, stretched, tested by the inflections of the wild. For me, these trees are a symbol, a visual embodiment of the process. They are organisms already alive and with strength, given soulful direction, eroded to the point of collapse, but in this accessing a sacred source of manna – a wound revealed in the erosion of the bark. The trees are almost dead, but they are also with their twists, their deeply cut edges, their stark bleeding outlines – more acutely alive.
Poetry that defines itself as music of both the self and of the land is, to my ear, of the most poetic kind. It must have ‘something in it that is barbaric, vast and wild,’ as Diderot claimed. One is not simply writing about nature or the civilised self as single subjects. Rather, one is engaging in a unique dialogue, exploring the encounter between ‘the elemental thing and the living.’(Poetry in the Making, 1967.) Poets whose works are shaped by this dialogue are exploring their creative directions through the music of inner and outer of worlds – and already this seems more diverse. Music, in whatever form is at its best universal and world speaking, at its worst perhaps inwardly erupted, too self involved, personal, and therefore utterly discordant with the harmonies of others.
A great deal of modern poetry centres on pithy domestic experience, utterly confined within this space, both in language and in content, and therefore incredibly limited. Poetry that reaches into a broader literary landscape of sounds and images, to the ear alone, offers a diverse score, enriched with language both of the vast uninhabited plane, and of the individual, seemingly artless, unforced, locked in a still, effortless meditation of sound. And in the process too, one is engaging with something deeper – submitting to an almost shamanic process, listening to the contentions, the spiritual voices of the wind, the rain – of the deep silence. Humans will always write about the ‘self’, but writing on this subject in a way that is both open and personal, both elemental and human, makes the music of the poetry more powerful – more universal altogether.
I often think of writers of this kind as wearing the primeval ‘mask’ – telling their stories with fire, and heat. Almost daily I run writing courses or workshops, and most of them (if not all) use landscape in some way, either as a scenic backdrop or as a direct focus for the work. The aim of these workshops is often the same – to encourage a people – place dialogue, harnessing that personal line of communication between the elemental thing and the living. As humans we have a natural fascination with landscape – vast, wild landscapes in particular. They remind us of what the world was once like all over, transporting us to the home of our ancestors. Being in the presence of these uninhabitable, primitive places awakens an important memory in us. And ultimately in the writing too, something is stirred, a presence that is both old and new. Even if for a moment, we are brought face to face with that archaic soul of the earth. And in this meeting, brought face to face with a familiar shadow – the lost archaic part ourselves.
Poetry is as much a form of pure music as it is the language of human feeling, and it seems almost logical to render our feelings, to explore our private laments in relation to where we are. Place – as vast, untamed and secluded as it can be – allows us to listen, to feel, to identify that source of incantation. The need is inborn, almost like the need to pray, and the music generated from this is of a uniquely soulful and mythical kind.
Any form of spoken word invokes something of this sort – but a poem shaped by this ‘two-tone’ dialogue is uniquely different. What approaches us in these settings, as Ted Hughes claimed, is human spirit – though more deeply conjured, enriched, and distilled in a voice lost and found again in the weather.
To step back a moment, the term ‘soulful’ or ’soul’ is one hard to define, and as a subject demands a series of essays. But the idea around it is the same – and that is abandonment. Abandonment of civilised constraints, of social structure, of work, of relationship problems, financial stresses. Returning to places of uncivilised nature allows one to return to the native self, one separate to materialistic needs, domestic chores, social demands or constraints. Like the yew trees, one is stripped to her rawest, recalcitrant element – returned, almost by way of force to those celestial eddies. Her shape is more defined against the skyline, her roots deeper, her bones stronger – bending towards that vast expansive sheet of moor and feeling, at the immortal brink, a sense of being – of actual living.
There is a passage by Edward Thomas about the sea. In it he describes a ‘small flitting bird’, offering up its music against the ‘slow, colourless dawn, dark, cold and immense.’ (Collected Poems, 1967.) To me landscape poetry is just that – if nothing else, an offering. As much as it is a dialogue, it is an act of giving something back, returning a sacred part of oneself to the great ‘unknown’. Landscape poetry (if one should call it that) is always more than just poetry about the land, and the term itself doesn’t quite do it justice. It is an actual physical process, one that demands something exhaustive of the person and, one might concede, of the elements too. Whatever magical happening takes place there is certainly an exchange, a vocal and visual reincarnation of those archaic human shadows – the storyteller, the wise mother, the hunter, the naked child. Those ancient people who crawled for miles and miles into the bellies of caves to transfer their stories onto the walls, to capture that same, fleeting sense of awe that we continue to feel of the world. I think George Seferis puts it best, in his poem from Mythistormia:
‘And a soul/is to know itself/if it must look/into its own soul’.
I’ve been talking about inner and outer worlds, and insomuch as they are separate physically (the human body and the physical earth) they are two different things. But one can concede that the music generated from these two forms are in fact, part of the same symphony, or at least, sounding from the same source. Both derive from places of solace, of abandonment – humans too, like the sea, the moors, the valleys and the hills, inhabit the earth. It is only the distinct paths of our evolution that have led us to an existence quite outside of the realm of the wild and therefore perhaps, the reason we have come to see ourselves as distinctly separate to it. The incantations of the wild mirror the wild – and that includes everything that could possibly be connected with this term. Humans are of the wild, still. That part of us to some degree continues to exist. The music of the outer world is our music also – split, heavy, almost ‘fatal’. It is deeply familiar to us, and we are defined by our connections with it, both in our collective histories and in our immediate consciousness. Our lives are embedded in the earth and land – we grow our crops on it, build on it, tend to it, are buried in it – our memories are encased in it, our identities moulded within its borders.
There is, to quote R.S. Thomas, ‘the flower of the people’. But there is also the flower of the land. Both are as intrinsically separate as they can be the same, and this is the crucial point. Each exists outside of one another, in entirely different worlds. But they can also to some extent come together – blend, reflect, merge in a way that is almost like a religious experience, placing one within a sacred building where, looking out, one can see the common light changed, reflected both inwardly and outwardly in its glassy icons. (Winter Pollen, 1994.) This idea is vital I think to not only maintaining a balance in the human condition in general, but in terms of creativity and the poetics, thinking of this sort has lead to some of the most sublime passages in literature – the most enriching to the ear and eye and it seems, the most enduring. One only has to glimpse a segment of Eliot’s Prufrock, Oswald’s Dart, Joyce’s Ulysses, or Hopkins’s Inversnaid to see the possibilities here – how enriched, how vital language can become in the afterglow of such a collision.
Poetry that somehow unifies the music of the land and of the human is, to my ear, of the deepest and richest kind. Not least because it reunites these estranged worlds – moulds them into a single speaking work that ultimately, brings us closer to what we are, immersing us in a familiar stretch of water, a slope of field or mountainside. Looking into that ‘soul’ that Seferis speaks of is to look in, but it is also to look out: to reach into that same external wilderness that reflects in our eyes. Both are brightly refractive, deeply divided mapped inner regions whose depths are focused right there at the surface. The more houses we own the more cars, the more roads and bridges we build the more necessary it seems to revisit these landscapes. To nurture them, protect them and, as writers, continually refresh that responsive line of communication. Continually stretch our boundaries, broaden our horizons, literally, open our eyes and ears to the varying inflections and pulses of the wilderness – to hear, taste, touch, feel the possibilities of language and its vast rays of musical incantations. Those of which are no doubt endless, should we look for them.
For information on Helen Calcutt and Paul Henry’s upcoming workshops connecting poetry to landscape click here